NBA Power Rankings: Utah takes over top spot as Nets, Lakers stumble

Denver Nuggets v Utah Jazz
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There are three undefeated teams left in the NBA, two of them are in the top three on this week’s NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings, but the Bulls still have something to prove — which they can do this week.

 
Jazz small icon 1. Jazz (3-0, Last Week No. 4). Undefeated and with a top-five offense and defense, and the best net rating in the NBA so far at +16.4 (that’s once you filter out garbage time, as Cleaning the Glass does). The Jazz are poised to be a regular season force, even if we all will judge them on what happens in the playoffs. Rudy Gobert has been a beast on the glass, with a career-high 14.3 rebounds a game (30.6 rebounding rate, also a career high), and he’s pulling down 4.7 offensive boards a game. Is this a trend that will continue all season?

 
Heat small icon 2. Heat (2-1, LW 6). Miami’s opening game beatdown of the Bucks was a sign of how good the Heat can be when everything clicks (even if the Bucks sat a handful of key players that night). Tyler Herro is looking like the bubble version of himself, averaging 23.3 points per game, something the Heat need. Miami has been fantastic on defense but struggled on the other end floor so far despite Herro and Jimmy Butler; it is something to watch. There isn’t a lot of depth showing on this team right now, with Duncan Robinson shooting 32% from 3 and Markieff Moris at 25%.

 
Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (4-0, LW 12). Stephen Curry is playing like he wants your MVP vote — his 45/10/10 against the Clippers was ridiculous — but the depth the Warriors built up the past couple of seasons has been the real key to the fast start. Jordan Poole has picked up some of the scoring load averaging 15.3 a game, Damion Lee is bringing 14.3 points a night off the bench, and they are getting solid minutes from guys like Kevon Looney and Juan Toscano-Anderson. The Warriors have their next eight games at home and are poised for a very fast start to the season.

 
Bucks small icon 4. Bucks (3-1, LW 1). The Bucks are treating the regular season as champions do: Winning, but playing like a team looking past these games and thinking about May and June. We’ll forgive their one blowout loss to the Heat because they rested five rotation players, but their defense has been bottom 10 statistically to start the season, and while we don’t expect that to last it’s a sign of their focus. Interesting showdown with the Jazz on Sunday, but it is the second night of a back-to-back for the Bucks.

 
Hawks small icon 5. Hawks (2-1 LW 8). Atlanta is a hard team to read after three games. The opening night destruction of Dallas — with De'Andre Hunter holding Luka Doncic in check — felt like peak Hawks (although Dallas’ play early takes a little shine off that win). Then they turn around and lose to a Cavaliers team that is surprisingly feisty but not talented enough to beat a team with championship aspirations (Atlanta also knocked off Detroit). The Hawks look improved with Hunter starting and Cam Reddish putting up numbers off the bench (both of them missed most of the playoffs last season), so we lean to the optimistic side with this team.

 
Knicks small icon 6. Knicks (3-1, LW 14). Tom Thibodeau has his team launching threes at a historic rate to start the season, 46 attempts a game, second most in the league (Boston at 47). Just having Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier as a threat to launch a 3 coming off the pick-and-roll opens up the offense (New York was 16-of-37 from beyond the arc Tuesday, which gives them 70 3-pointers through four games). Interesting test against the undefeated Bulls on Thursday.

 
Nets small icon 7. Nets (2-2, LW 2). Do not go hitting — or even looking for — the panic button in Brooklyn, this is just a team looking disinterested in the regular season. James Harden has only gotten to the line 12 times in four games, leading to a lot of talk about the new free throw rules (which have been great for the game), but his issues are bigger than that as he is coming off last season’s hamstring issues and doesn’t seem to trust it yet. Steve Nash is tinkering with lineups to see who fits together, especially with no Kyrie Irving, and he has yet to settle on the combos he likes. The Nets are a work in progress, but they also are looking at May and June, not October.

 
Bulls small icon 8. Bulls (4-0, LW 15). There’s plenty of reason for optimism in Chicago after the best start since the Jordan era, but the Bulls 4-0 start is made up of two wins over the Cade-less Pistons, one against the Zion-less Pelicans and the Siakam-less Raptors (combined those teams are 2-9). The Bulls have defended well. That starts with Lonzo Ball, who has looked fantastic on both ends, his passing has other players cutting hard off the ball to get rewarded. Alex Caruso has looked strong closing games (because of his defense. However, the next three weeks we find out how good the Bulls really are: Chicago’s next six games are New York, Utah, Boston, Philadelphia (twice) and Brooklyn.

 
Sixers small icon 9. 76ers (2-2, LW 9). Ben Simmons came in second in Defensive Player of the Year voting a season ago, and without him this season the 76ers are 3.2 points per 100 possessions worse defensively than they were last season. Or, look at it this way: Philly is 25th in the NBA in defense so far this season. The offense has been good, with Tyrese Maxey playing fairly well as Ben Simmons understudy, and six players averaging double figures a night (led by Tobias Harris with 20). How good are the 76ers? They blew a fourth quarter lead against the Nets and were handled by the Knicks, and their wins are against weaker teams (New Orleans and Oklahoma City). We don’t know about this team, yet.

 
Lakers small icon 10. Lakers (2-2, LW 5). The good signs: Los Angeles played by far its best game in the win against the Grizzlies, with better pace, players attacking the rim and not settling, and Russell Westbrook setting screens for LeBron James. Then against the Spurs, Anthony Davis continued to play like an MVP and Westbrook broke out with 33 points. The concerning signs: Their wins are against expected borderline playoff teams and required big minutes and games from their stars, and L.A.’s offense and defense remain middle of the pack. The sore leg for LeBron and the tweaked ankle Davis played through are minor, but health will always be the big concern with LA.

 
Nuggets small icon 11. Nuggets (2-2, LW 11). The good news is Nikola Jokic‘s knee injury doesn’t appear to be serious and it doesn’t look like he will miss significant time. This is huge for Denver, which is not the same without him: In 118 minutes with Jokic on the court the Nuggets are +37, in the 74 minutes he is out they are -43. The important thing is the Nuggets defense has been top 10 to start the season, because while the offense has stumbled we know that will come around. Once Jokic returns to the lineup.

 
Suns small icon 12. Suns (1-2, LW 3). We’d say Deandre Ayton looks unfocused to start the season — four fewer points and 2.5 fewer rebounds a game, and he is shooting 50%, down from 62.6% a season ago — but the entire Suns team seems unfocused. Phoenix has a bottom-five defense to start the season and are getting destroyed from the arc, and the offense hasn’t been near good enough to make up for it. Maybe it’s just a hangover from the Finals run, maybe they’re distracted by the Ayton contract and/or the Sarver story reported to drop, maybe a lot of things, but Chris Paul and Monty Williams have some work to do to get the team focused again.

 
Celtics small icon 13. Celtics (2-2, LW 10). Boston is a tough team to read to start the season, but they don’t look threatening unless Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Green both go off (as they did against Charlotte going off for 71 in an overtime win). The Celtics are middle of the pack on offense and defense, and new coach Ime Udoka’s team has yet to establish any kind of identity. Injuries have played a role, but the bench has been a mess — Boston is generally outplaying teams with its starters on the floor, but things change once the bench enters the game.

 
Hornets small icon 14. Hornets (3-1, LW 19). Charlotte is all about the offense, top three in the league so far. Miles Bridges has taken a step forward from his strong play at the end of last season, proving he is more than a walking dunk highlight (although he still looks to end people every time he attacks the rim). Bridges is averaging 25 points a game this season, with 79% of his shots coming at the rim or from 3. LaMelo Ball is playing with a real swagger in his second season, averaging 22.8 points and 6.8 assists a game. You know he’s feeling confident because he pulled this outfit off after the season opener.

 
Grizzlies small icon 15. Grizzlies (2-1, LW 17). Ja Morant is shooting 44.4% on six 3-point attempts a game — that should scare the rest of the NBA. He shot 27.3% from 3 last season, but he showed against the Lakers he is already comfortable shooting from beyond the arc off the bounce. Morant is averaging 35 points a game — it’s going to be tough for the coaches to keep him off the West All-Stars this season. Thanks to Morant, the Grizzlies have the best offense in the NBA so far, but their 30th ranked defense will catch up with them.

 
Mavericks small icon 16. Mavericks (2-1, LW 7). Dallas is struggling to find its way, particularly on offense in the new Jason Kidd era (24th in the league so far). They’ve had their most offensive success when the pace slowed down and they have run a lot of Luka Doncic pick-and-rolls, but Kidd understands the Mavericks ultimately need to be more than that. One thing that hasn’t looked great statistically is Doncic paired with Kristaps Porzingis, but it’s early. A respectable defense has kept the Mavericks in games and above. 500.

 
Wizards small icon 17. Wizards (2-1, LW 20). Spencer Dinwiddie has looked sharp to start the season, averaging 19 points a game and shooting 53.5% from 3, leading Washington to a one win without Bradley Beal (hip). Most impressively for new coach Wes Unseld Jr., he has the Wizards playing top 10 defense through three games (the offense will come around as the season wears on). Highlight of the week: Montrezl Harrell picks up a technical for trash-talking Drake (which is a foul in Toronto, apparently).

 
18. Timberwolves (2-1, LW 22). The 2-1 start is positive, as is the strong defense to open the season, but with those games being against the Rockets and Pelicans (twice), we’re all still trying to figure how good this team really is. We do know Karl-Anthony Towns has been brilliant scoring 29 points a game and shooting 50% on the 6.7 3-pointers he’s taking a game. The offense thrives when he is on the court, but drops off pretty fast when he sits. The schedule gets tougher in the coming weeks, starting with the Bucks and Nuggets this week, giving us a sense of how good Minnesota is.

 
Clippers small icon19. Clippers (1-2, LW 13). Paul George has been brilliant trying to carry the offensive load three games into the season, averaging 28 points a game with an impressive 63 true shooting percentage, plus he averages seven rebounds and four steals a game. Will he get enough help has been the question and the answer so far is… meh. Eric Bledsoe has played fairly well (13.7 points a game), Reggie Jackson has had his moments, but there has been nothing for Ty Lue to lean on. Los Angeles has a top-10 defense to start the season, maybe that’s where Lue focuses his attention.

 
Cavaliers small icon 20. Cavaliers (2-2, LW 26). Watch this feisty Cavaliers team and the potential of Evan Mobley leaps out — he’s averaging 14.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, and a couple of blocks per game. His quick leaping ability around the rim, and his ability to switch onto guards on the perimeter — he did a respectable job against Trae Young last weekend — are reasons for real optimism. Jarrett Allen is averaging 17 points and 9.5 rebounds a game so far this season for the Cavaliers.

 
Pacers small icon 21. Pacers (1-3, LW 21). It’s just four games, but the Chris Duarte experience is real. The rookie out of Oregon is averaging 19.8 points per game and shooting 44.8% on 3-pointers — he was one of the most NBA-ready rookies in the draft and it shows. The Pacers are better than their record, two of those losses were in overtime plus one was to the Bucks. Wins are coming, especially with Myles Turner breaking out as a pick-and-pop big and who can cut to the rim and make plays (plus block shots). He looked great against Wizards dropping 40.

 
Raptors small icon 22. Raptors (1-3, LW 18). Scottie Barnes is showing off his potential to start the season, relentlessly attacking the rim — 66% of his shots come within 10 feet of the basket, but he’s finishing more than two thirds of those and is averaging 16.8 points a game (and adding 8.5 rebounds). The defense is top-10 in the league and keeping them in games, but the bottom-10 offense might not improve much until Pascal Siakam returns and gets his legs back under him.

 
Blazers small icon 23. Trail Blazers (1-2, LW 16). Stop with the “it’s a slow start, Damian Lillard is going to ask out” line of thinking — Lillard wants to make this work and has said again and again he is going to give new coach Chauncey Billups a chance. CJ McCollum has been a house on fire to start the season: 27.3 points per game and shooting 48.5% from 3 on 11 attempts per game. Challenging games at home this week against the feisty Grizzlies and Clippers, then the Blazers head east for three games.

 
Spurs small icon 24. Spurs (1-3, LW 25). If they had just hit their free throws — 12-of-22, with four critical misses late in regulation — the Spurs would be .500 for the season, but they opened the door for the Lakers and took a rough loss at home Tuesday. Jakob Poeltl continues to be a quiet force, averaging 16 points and 10.8 rebounds a game, and against the Lakers he had 27 and 14, plus did this to Anthony Davis.

 
Kings small icon 25. Kings (1-2, LW 23). The Kings would be higher up this ranking (and have more wins) if they didn’t wilt in the fourth quarter (albeit to good teams in the Jazz and Warriors). Sacramento has impressive guard play with DeAaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Tyrese Haliburton, and already lockdown defender rookie Davion Mitchell, plus at the four Harrison Barnes has looked good. However, the front court is not inspiring and is an issue. On the bright side, look what Davion Mitchell did to Donovan Mitchell.

 https://twitter.com/thekingsherald/status/1451742774877769732

 
Rockets small icon 26. Rockets (1-3, LW 28). Jalen Green scored 30 points and drained a franchise rookie record eight 3-pointers against Dallas, a sign of what this team hopes to see in the future. That said, they got their win because the veterans Christian Wood (31 points) and Eric Gordon 22 points) went off against OKC. Kevin Porter Jr. is still finding his way at point guard, but you see flashes that remind you why the Rockets want to stick with this for a while.

 
Pelicans small icon 27. Pelicans (1-3, LW 24). The latest on Zion Williamson is that he is “progressing” but he is not running at full speed yet, so it’s still going to be a while. Without him, the Pelicans are scoring less than a point per possession and are 28th in the league on offense. Brandon Ingram is living in the midrange, taking 43.4% of his shots between 10 feet and the arc, but is hitting them and scoring 27 points a game.

 
Magic small icon 28. Magic (1-3, LW 27). Orlando is leaning heavily into Mo Bamba to start the season, and so far he has responded: 13.5 points per game with a 64 true shooting percentage, plus eight rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game. It’s far too early in the season to say Bamba has turned a corner, but he has played better than expected. There’s not much else to be positive about in Orlando — outside of Cole Anthony‘s 29-point game against the Knicks — as the Magic have a bottom seven offense and defense. Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac remain out with no timeline for a return.

Pistons small icon 29. Pistons (0-3, LW 29). Detroit has quietly been playing solid defense to start the season (and considering they are going up against a loaded Bulls offense that’s a very good sign). With No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham still out and Jeramie Grant missing a game (and maybe more) with an elbow issue, it’s been hard for the Pistons to come by points. Cunningham could make his return in the coming week, which would give everyone a reason to tune into the Pistons.

 
Thunder small icon 30. Thunder (0-4, LW 30). Looking for the bright side, rookie Josh Giddey has shown potential as a playmaker, scoring 9 points a game but adding 4.5 assists. There’s a long way to go but you can see the possibilities with Giddey, and he’s certainly going to get plenty of run this season. The biggest problem, among many, in OKC is shooting: Their four players who started every game (Giddey, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort and Darius Bazley) are a combined 15-of-70 on 3-pointers this season (21.4%).

Report: Udoka used ‘crude language’ with female subordinate prior to improper relationship

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The Boston Celtics handled the Ime Udoka investigation and suspension by the corporate handbook: They kept the woman’s name out of the news, kept details confidential (not even telling the players much for legal reasons), and acted swiftly and decisively.

But as the team on the court starts defending its Eastern Conference title, there has been a concern that details leaking out about the investigations — and responses to those leaks — could turn this into a season-long drama and distraction for the team. That first started on Friday when Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported this:

The independent law firm probe into Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka found that he used crude language in his dialogue with a female subordinate prior to the start of an improper workplace relationship with the woman, an element that significantly factored into the severity of his one-year suspension, sources told ESPN.

Those investigative findings — which described verbiage on Udoka’s part that was deemed especially concerning coming from a workplace superior — contribute to what is likely a difficult pathway back to his reinstatement as Celtics coach in 2023, sources told ESPN.

A few thoughts here.

• “Crude language” is just part of a more detailed and damning report, league sources have told NBC Sports. There is much more uncovered by the independent investigation, including about the power dynamic in play. It was enough that the Celtics thought the best move was to suspend for an entire season a coach loved by players who led the team to the NBA Finals (it’s not something the Celtics organization did lightly).

• As Wojnarowski and others have noted, it’s increasingly unlikely Udoka returns to coach the Celtics next season, even if that is not yet official.

• While some pundits and people around the league have said Udoka is “done,” the NBA has seen unexpected turnarounds before. Never say never in this league.

• About the only sure thing is that this story is not over.

Lillard poised to pass Drexler as Trail Blazers all-time leading scorer

2022-23 Portland Trail Blazers Media Day
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images
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Damian Lillard could have done what a lot of NBA stars have done — what a lot of them told him to do while recruiting him — and has chosen to stay in Portland. He wants to be remembered as the greatest Trail Blazer ever.

One good way to do that: Become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Sometime around Thanksgiving or a little after, Lillard will do just that, passing Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler and his 18,040 points (Lillard is 531 back).

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports spoke to Lillard about when he knew the record was within reach, during Trail Blazers training camp in Santa Barbara, California (go Gauchos!). It was when Lillard got to 10,000 points.

“I was like, ‘Damn, I got 10,000 already?’ ” Lillard told Yahoo Sports he recalled at the time. “It was my sixth season in the league. That’s when I started thinking, if I could be consistent, I could score into the high 20,000-point range. As a scorer, 20,000 points is always looked at as a special mark. From that moment, I knew it was possible, but it’s also when I first researched Clyde Drexler’s [scoring] record with the team.”

Drexler is good with being passed by Lillard.

“You and I know records are made to be broken, but I can’t think of a better player or person to break the record than Dame,” Drexler told Yahoo Sports. “He exemplifies being a team player and going about his business in a professional way. I have nothing but admiration and respect for him. When he comes close to getting the record, and if our schedules align, I would love to be there to help out in any way I can. That’s a nice milestone to achieve. I am looking forward to him accomplishing that.”

Lillard is on a lot of front office people’s watch list this season, as in “how long before he is unhappy and asks for a trade?” The thing is, Lillard has been on that list for years and he keeps choosing Portland — he isn’t looking to leave. Of course, the $120 million extension and a retooling of the roster around him helped with that decision, but Lillard always had other options if he wanted them (and at times it felt like he would take them).

The Trail Blazers brought in Jerami Grant, re-signed Anfrenee Simons, and will put them with a solid core of others such as (a finally healthy) Jusuf Nurkic, Josh Hart, Gary Payton II and others. It’s a good roster, the question is how good in a deep West?

There are a lot of questions about how this season shakes out in Portland, but the one seeming sure thing is Lillard becoming the Trail Blazers’ all-time leading scorer. And that seems fitting.

Suns update: Ayton blames Sarver for contract, Crowder conflict, Johnson to start

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Phoenix went to the NBA Finals two seasons ago and had the most wins in the NBA last season, yet dark clouds seem to be blocking out the Suns heading into this NBA season.

Here’s the latest on three situations with the Suns: Deandre Ayton‘s contract frustration, why Jae Crowder is asking out, and who starts at the four now.

• Ayton ended up signing a four-year, $132.9 max contract and will be back with the Suns to start this season, but the road to get there was rocky. The Suns would not offer Ayton a max five-year contract extension, his name kept coming up in Kevin Durant trade rumors, so Ayton went out and got a four-year max offer from the Pacers — which the Suns instantly matched. Phoenix saved $40 million and a guaranteed year, but the process left Ayton a little bitter.

Ayton blames outgoing owner Robert Sarver — a notorious penny pincher as an owner (among other, much worse things) — Marc Spears and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN discussed on NBA Today (hat tip Real GM).

“That is certainly something that caused the ire of him,” said Marc J. Spears. “I was told that it was Robert Sarver who didn’t want to give him that fifth year, who wanted to save the money.”

“My understanding from talking to people close to Deandre is that he thinks this was Robert Sarver’s decision as well. And Robert Sarver’s not going to be the owner anymore. So there is some healing that can happen there. But I know there were some hurt feelings over that contract and how that played out.

“If they were going to instantly match an offer sheet that he signed, why not just give him the max contract? Yes, it saved them a year and $40 million but as somebody close to Deandre told me ‘There’s a karma to this. Why do that to your No. 1 overall pick?'”

Shelburne hit the nail on the head — the NBA is a business, but it’s a business of relationships. Not only did the Suns sour theirs with Ayton, but you can also be sure every other agent around the league noticed how that was handled. It doesn’t help when recruiting players. The eventual new owner, whoever it ends up being, has a lot of work to change the franchise’s perception.

• Jae Crowder remains away from the Suns during training camp awaiting a trade (which reportedly will not be to Dallas). Crowder started 109 games for the Suns during the past two seasons and was a key part of their run to the NBA Finals, so how did things deteriorate so quickly? Marc Stein lays it out in his latest Substack newsletter.

Entering the final season of his current contract at $10.2 million, Jae Crowder let the Suns know that he was seeking a contract extension. League sources say that the Suns’ messaging, in response, was to let Crowder know that, at 32, he was no longer assured of starting or finishing games ahead of Cam Johnson. That gulf between the parties led Crowder to seek an exit from the desert that has landed him on indefinite mutual leave from the team until Phoenix can find a trade for him.

While Miami gets mentioned as a suitor a lot, it’s next to impossible to put together a trade that works for both sides right now (at the trade deadline, maybe, but Crowder isn’t going to be with the Suns that long). Cleveland is currently the hot name in league circles when talking Crowder trades, and Stein also mentions the Milwaukee Bucks, who have been looking for a P.J. Tucker-like replacement for P.J Tucker. But, do any of these teams want to extend Crowder at age 32?

• Suns coach Monty Williams confirmed what Crowder heard — Cameron Johnson will start at the four for the Suns this season.

Johnson brings better shooting to the table — 42.5% last season on 3-pointers — and is more athletic at this point, but Crowder brings better defense, toughness, and veteran savvy that can be trusted in the playoffs. The Suns may miss that when it matters, but Johnson will get the chance to prove us all wrong.

Blake Griffin agrees to join Boston Celtics on one-year deal

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Blake Griffin has agreed to join the Boston Celtics on a one-year contract which will be fully guaranteed.

The Celtics were desperate for frontcourt depth following injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Robert Williams, as Luke Kornet was even getting some run with the starting group at training camp.

You do have to wonder just how much the 33-year-old Griffin has left in the tank though. Last season with the Brooklyn Nets, Griffin only managed to play 17.1 minutes per game and his 3-point percentage dropped like a stone to 26%. He was also a major liability on defense, and the Celtics surely know that after Jaylen Brown drove by him with ease time and time again during the postseason.

Griffin was still an effective playmaker and that may make him a good fit with the second unit alongside the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White and Grant Williams with all of these capable of handling the ball. Injuries and Father Time have zapped Griffin’s athleticism, but if anyone can squeeze the last bit of value out of him, I’d bet on Brad Stevens and the Celtics.