Week two of the NBC Sports power rankings, and with so few games — but plenty of blowouts, eight 30+ point games so far — there is a lot of movement up and down the board. That said, the top feels like it could stay this way for a while.
1. Lakers (6-2 Last Week No. 3). LeBron James‘ minutes are down (but still enough that he had his first triple-double of the season against the Spurs), coach Frank Vogel is experimenting with different lineups (closing a game with Montrezl Harrell during a loss to Portland), and all the new Lakers’ faces are still getting used to each other. Doesn’t matter. Los Angeles has a top-five offense and defense this season so far. The Lakers have taken advantage of a soft part of their schedule, with the toughest games coming up a set of two in Houston to start next week.
2. 76ers (6-1 LW 5). Joel Embiid is looking like an early MVP candidate — 23.2 points and 12.3 rebounds a game while anchoring the league’s best defense. Philly is the only team allowing less than a point per possession so far this young season (99.8 defensive rating, via basketball-reference), and that defense has carried them as the offense still has kinks to work out (15th in the league). Philly has gotten off to a fast start against a soft schedule, that changes starting Thursday in Brooklyn, followed by Denver, Atlanta, and two against Miami.
3. Bucks (4-3, LW 6). It says everything you need to know about how good Giannis Antetokounmpo is that he is averaging 26.3 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 5.6 assists a game so far this season and it feels like he has not found his form or taken a real step forward yet. Milwaukee has finally crawled above .500, but with the best offense in the league right now (second best if you remove garbage time, like Cleaning the Glass) it suggests this team should have another win or two.
4. Suns (5-2 LW 8). Off to a bubble-like fast start, Phoenix has all the pieces: an elite backcourt in Chris Paul and Devin Booker, and a rim-running big finding his lane in Deandre Ayton. However, maybe the biggest surprise in the Suns’ hot start is its defense — fifth-best in the NBA so far this young season, and better than teams like the Clippers and Heat. The Suns are getting stops, and it helps that defensive specialist Mikal Bridges is scoring 14.1 points per game. Other role players such as Cameron Johnson, Jae Crowder, and Cameron Payne are playing very well also, all good signs for the Suns.
5. Pacers (5-2, LW 11). They are going to miss going to miss TJ Warren and his 15.5 points per game (out with foot surgery), Aaron Holiday does not provide the same pop. Warren thrived in transition — 17.4% of Pacers possessions start in transition, fourth most in the league (stat via Cleaning the Glass) — but the Pacers have not been super efficient converting those chances, and losing Warren hurts more on that end. Indiana stole a win in New Orleans Monday night thanks to Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner.
Myles Turner forces OT! 😱 pic.twitter.com/nKg5YDYwfq
— NBA TV (@NBATV) January 5, 2021
6. Clippers (5-3, LW 2). Los Angeles is a jump-shooting team — just 18.7% of their shot attempts have come inside the restricted area, third lowest in the NBA. That works, however, when a team has Paul George (out in the loss to Memphis Tuesday with a sprained ankle) and Kawhi Leonard (cold with the mask on but a reliable shooter normally), plus starters Patrick Beverley, Serge Ibaka, and a rejuvenated Nicolas Batum all shooting better than 40% from three so far this season. It will be interesting to see how the Clippers handle Stephen Curry is a set-of-two games coming up starting tonight (Wednesday).
7. Hawks (4-3 LW 4). Trae Young has looked elite running the pick-and-roll with John Collins or Clint Capela this season, drawing more fouls (even if Steve Nash doesn’t like how) and hurting teams from three if they give him any space. That said, the league is putting together a book on the new-look Hawks, who have dropped 3-of-4 and have some health issues: Rajon Rondo and Danilo Gallinari have played in just two games each (Gallinari will be out a couple of weeks with a sprained ankle, Rondo’s recovery will cost him at least three more games), plus Kris Dunn hasn’t even touched the court yet.
8. Celtics (5-3, LW 10). While Jayson Tatum was getting all the preseason “he’s going to be All-NBA” love, Jaylen Brown was in the gym taking his game to the next level. Brown has been the best Celtic this season, averaging a team-high 26.9 points a game, shooting 42.9% from three, has a 65.4 true shooting percentage, is hitting key shots late, and is Boston’s second-best perimeter defender (behind Marcus Smart). There could be a couple of All-NBA Celtics this season. Two games against Miami this week are an interesting test.
9. Magic (5-2 LW 7). Orlando’s defense has powered their fast start (they were the last unbeaten team in the NBA), and it’s limiting transition opportunities for opponents that has been key. Orlando is bottom 10 in the league in both three pointers attempted per game and three-point shooting percentage, that will catch up with them, but the Magic’s league-best 12.3 offensive rebounds a game is keeping the offense afloat.
10. Nets (4-4, LW 1). Kevin Durant is out for three more games due to COVID-19 tracing and protocols, which is trouble for the Nets’ because their offense is 10.8 points per 100 possessions worse when he is off the court (although it didn’t matter with the way Kyrie Irving played in a win against Utah Tuesday). The bigger issue is the Nets defense will not save them most nights. In Brooklyn’s five games coming into Utah, it had a defensive rating of 113.2 (points per 100 possessions), ranking 26th in the league. In addition, Brooklyn has been soft on the glass, allowing more offensive rebounds by opponents than any team in the league. Despite all the buzz about a James Harden trade, what the Nets may really need to do is trade for a quality defender or two.
11. Jazz (4-3 LW 12). Mike Conley has been the best player in Utah so far this season — a huge bounce back from his injury-filled and disappointing 2020 campaign. Conley is averaging 18.6 points per game and is shooting 45.3% from three (although he’s not taking many). His efficiency has made up for a slow start from Donovan Mitchell, who may be starting to find his groove. Rudy Gobert has played at his usual All-NBA level early, but Derrick Favors‘ return has given the Jazz needed depth and consistency along the front line.
12. Cavaliers (4-3, LW 13). Cleveland’s defense may have some staying power — it remains second best in the league — but the Collin Sexton-led offense remains flat, despite his run of six 20+ point games (and a big night against the Hawks recently). Dante Exum, who was giving the Cavaliers 19 minutes a night off the bench, is out for 1-2 months with a calf strain — not good, but far less serious than it looked when it happened.
13. Mavericks (3-4, LW 15). Dallas finally had a good game from beyond the arc but is shooting 32.2% as a team from three, bottom five in the league so far. That likely changes with time, especially when Porzingis returns. Part of the issue is Luka Doncic is not living up to the preseason MVP hype — or even playing as well as last season He is averaging 25.8 points per game but the bigger issue is Doncic’s efficiency — he is shooting 19.5% from three (31.2% a year ago). Doncic’s assist percentage has dropped. What gives? Former Dallas guard J.J. Barea said during an appearance on J.J. Redick’s podcast that a young Doncic doesn’t focus on his conditioning like a veteran and that is part issue.
14. Pelicans (4-3, LW 17). Stan Van Gundy came in and prioritized defense, stealing a page from Milwaukee’s book of protecting the rim at all costs while allowing more above-the-break threes. It’s worked so far, the Pelicans have the fourth best defense in the league (although that falls to 10th when you apply Cleaning the Glass’ garbage time filter). The Pelicans’ offense is still a work in progress despite all the talent. Zion Williamson‘s second jump is just a thing of beauty.
Goin' hard in the paint these past few minutes 👨🎨@Zionwilliamson
— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) January 5, 2021
15. Knicks (4-3, LW 20). Julius Randle is playing at an All-Star — maybe All-NBA — level to open the season; he looks lighter and more explosive. He’s averaging 22.1 points and 11.4 rebounds a game, but it’s the 7.4 assists a night that are the biggest surprise — Randle is assisting on 32.8% of teammates’ buckets when he is on the floor. He has become a real playmaker. The Knicks’ fast start to the season is turning heads — and they’ve done it against the toughest schedule in the league so far, but things don’t get easier with Utah, Denver, and Brooklyn all ahead in the next week.
16. Heat (3-3 LW 16). When looking at why Miami’s offense is 26th in the NBA to start the season, it has to start with turnovers — 18.9% of Heat possessions have ended in a turnover this season, the highest rate in the league. It’s weird to watch a Miami team be so undisciplined, but to start the season the Heat have not been dialed in like they were in the bubble. Also, despite all the shooters on the roster, the Heat are 19th in three-point attempts taken per game.
17. Warriors (4-3, LW 19). It was just pure basketball joy to watch Stephen Curry go off for 62 — we missed watching that kind of unstoppable explosion from him. What should give Golden State fans hope for a playoff berth (or, more likely, play-in games) is Draymond Green‘s return organizing the defense and doing a little shot creation. Golden State’s bottom 10 defense is the biggest issue and Green alone — as special as he has played the last couple of games on that end — may not be enough to fix it.
18. Nuggets (3-4 LW 23). A couple of wins against weak teams has Denver at least trending in the right direction, but this is still a team with the second-worst defense in the NBA so far, although their third-best offense has bailed them out more lately. Nikola Jokic continues to play at an MVP level early in the season, but when he sits teams are able to get shots at the rim and Denver is -20.2 per 100 possessions in those minutes. The Nuggets have to find a way to be better when the Joker gets some rest.
19. Spurs (3-4, LW 18). It feels odd to talk about the most stable franchise in the NBA, the team that had a 22-year playoff streak just end, and call them “frisky” and underdog upstarts. Yet the youth movement in San Antonio is working — Dejounte Murray dropped 21 on the Clippers in a win that snapped a four-game losing streak (but two against the Lakers, so grain of salt). Bringing Patty Mills and Rudy Gay off the bench seems to work for the Spurs, giving Keldon Johnson and Lonnie Walker IV more run to find their games. Derrick White, who averaged 19 points a game in the bubble, is now out indefinitely after fracturing the same toe he had surgery on during the offseason.
20. Trail Blazers (3-4, LW 9). CJ McCollum came into this season with a focus on taking more threes — 10.8 on average a game now (up from 7.3 last season), and he’s hitting 43.1% of them. That — along with Damian Lillard and the passing of Jusuf Nurkic — has ignited a Portland offense that is sixth in the league when you take garbage time out of the equation (Cleaning the Glass stats). The defense remains a mess, however. Congratulations to Lillard for reaching 15,000 career points this past week, the only Blazer ever to score more is Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler).
21. Rockets (2-3 LW 25). This ranking might be too low for a team starting to find its footing. Christian Wood has been a fantastic fit on offense at the five averaging 23.6 points and 10 rebounds a game (he needs to give them better paint protection, however), and John Wall is giving Houston a quality 21.3 points a night. James Harden, whether he wants to be there or not, is going to get buckets (33 points a game this season). If the Rockets can improve their bottom-10 defense they will climb the standings and these rankings fast.
22. Bulls (4-4, LW 27). Chicago picked up some wins, but it was hard to read too much into sweeping the lowly Wizards and beating a Dallas team without Doncic. Then came the win in Portland, coming back from 20-points down on the road to beat an established playoff team — Chicago showed the kind of grit and maturity we haven’t seen from them. Zach LaVine was asked after the game if they could have won this game a year ago under Jim Boylen and his answer was simply, “no.”
23. Kings (3-4, LW 14). The Kings have cooled off after a hot start, dropping a couple of games to Houston, and it’s still frustrating this team is playing at just an average pace (14th in the league in percentage of offensive possession that starts in transition). With De'Aaron Fox this team should be running all the time. Of course, none of that is what anyone is talking about, thanks to Marvin Bagley III’s father — and Fox’s father back at him — casting a shadow over everything. It’s all just so very Kings.
24. Hornets (2-5, LW 22). It’s not translating to good offense (still bottom 10 in the league), but the ball movement in Charlotte is impressive. This is a selfless team and leads the league averaging 29 assists a game. Lonzo Ball draws all the headlines and highlights, but Miles Bridges has taken a big step forward this season and forms a strong bench combination with Ball. Malik Monk expressed frustration with his lack of minutes, but better players in front of him right now.
25. Wizards (2-5 LW 29). Russell Westbrook is attempting just 16.8% of his shot attempts at the rim this season, by far the lowest percentage of his career, as he is settling for more long twos (which he’s hitting 51% of so far, but that’s not sustainable) and more threes (22.7% this season). The Wizards are about to enter a brutal stretch of the schedule where wins will be hard to come by, and Scott Brooks’ seat might start to get a lot hotter if the losses pile up.
26. Thunder (2-4, LW 24). Oklahoma City has the worst offense in the NBA so far this young season, and part of that is the Thunder do not generate easy buckets — they have the lowest percentage of plays that start in transition in the league. Al Horford is showing he has something left in the tank when healthy, averaging 9 points and 7.2 rebounds a game this season — not up to his old standards, but solid. Sam Presti might be able to leverage that into a trade (for more draft picks), but with Horford owed $53.5 million for two seasons after this one, it will not be easy.
27. Grizzlies (2-5, LW 26). The Grizzlies are 1-3 without Ja Morant (out another few weeks at least with a sprained ankle), although a frisky performance against the Lakers Tuesday can provide a little hope. Add to Morant’s absence the fact Jaren Jackson Jr. (left knee surgery) and Justise Winslow (hip) are out and it’s not just that it will be hard for this team to win games, it’s slowing down the development of Memphis’ young core.
28. Raptors (1-5, LW 28). Toronto launched a lot of threes the past couple of seasons (42.1% of their total shots last season, 37.9% in the title season), but this season that has jumped up to half their shots (49.9%) and it’s not working (even though they are shooting a strong 36.6% on them). The Raptors have the second-worst offense in the NBA and the biggest issue is in the half court, where they have been dreadful. Pascal Siakam continues to struggle to be an offensive centerpiece this season, hurting them in the halfcourt and putting more on Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry.
29. Pistons (1-6 LW 30). Blake Griffin = three-point marksman. As pointed out by ESPN’s Bobby Marks, Griffin has taken 64.7% of his shots from three this season, and while he has knocked down 39.4% of them he is not getting to the rim the same way anymore. Last season in Detroit it was 38.7% of his shot attempts coming from three, and his last year with the Clippers it was under 6% of his shots. Credit Griffin for making them, but he simply cannot blow by guys and get to the rim the same way anymore.
30. Timberwolves (2-5, LW 21). This team desperately misses Karl-Anthony Towns. Minnesota is 0-6 since Towns went out with a wrist injury, but Tuesday’s loss to Denver provided a glimmer of hope because it was the first one by fewer than 15 points (seven). Watch a Timberwolves game and it looks even worse than that. D'Angelo Russell put it well: “I don’t think we’re ready to win yet. We’re still figuring out how to lose. Sounds crazy, but the way you lose says a lot about the team. Today, how we lost, was a good way to lose.” Towns will be re-evaluated over the weekend.