NBA Power Rankings: Nuggets, Trail Blazers early season surprises in Top 5

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The Warriors being on top is not a surprise, but the Nuggets, Trail Blazers, and Bucks all being in the top five? That is not what we expected coming in. The Cavaliers remain in dead last in these rankings, but the Suns are pushing hard for that spot.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (10-1, last week No 1). It is far, far too early to talk about the MVP race… but if one did, one would say Stephen Curry has been fastest out of the gate in that race. Curry, hunting his own shot like it’s 2015 again, has averaged 31.3 points per game while shooting 50.8% from three, with a PER of 30. He just changes the game when he’s on the court and it’s been a joy to watch this season. Fun showdown Thursday night against the red-hot Bucks.

Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (10-1, LW. 3). Kyle Lowry has found a comfort level as a playmaker in Nick Nurse’s system — he is averaging 11.5 assists a game and is assisting on 45.6 percent of his teammates buckets when he is on the floor this season, both career highs by a country mile. Lowry and teammates beat the Lakers and Jazz on the road, back-to-back, without Kawhi Leonard (foot injury, hopefully he and the team can stay on the same page about treatment). That speaks to the depth of this roster. Toronto is top six in both offense and defense.

Nuggets small icon 3. Nuggets (9-1, LW 4).. Jamal Murray dropping 48 on Boston was a statement — both for him and for the Nuggets, a one-loss team that has now beaten both the Warriors and the Celtics this season. Note to Kyrie Irving, if you want to stop Murray from going for 50 points with a meaningless shot at the end of the game, do something about the first 48. Interesting early tests coming up against the Bucks (Sunday) and a Rockets team finding itself again (Tuesday).

Blazers small icon 4. Trail Blazers (8-3, LW 5). While the Portland starting five — Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Al-Farouq Aminu, Jake Layman, Jusuf Nurkic — is outscoring teams by 8.4 points per 100 possessions so far this season, it has been the team’s strong bench play led by Zach Collins and Evan Turner that has keyed the team’s fast start. When that bench struggles, as it did against the Lakers, the Blazers fall (also they just couldn’t buy a three against Los Angeles). McCollum dropped 40 on the Bucks and make a statement, now the Clippers and Celtics are up next.

Bucks small icon 5. Bucks (8-2, LW 2). The Celtics and their hot three-point shooting knocked the Bucks from the ranks of the unbeaten, but we’re more interested in seeing how Milwaukee fairs on a tough four-game West Coast swing that started with a loss in Portland Tuesday where they had no answer for McCollum. Next up are the Warriors. Also, we need to revisit the Greek-on-Greek crime of this Gianni Antetokounmpo’s dunk of the year entry over Kosta Kufos.

Pacers small icon 6. Pacers (7-4, LW 9). Just a friendly reminder that back in 2013 the Cavaliers picked Anthony Bennett No. 1 in the draft over Victor Oladipo (most teams did not have Bennett near that high). Ouch. The Pacers are now built around Oladipo, who has averaged 23 points and 7.2 rebounds a game this season, but maybe more importantly has been a force of nature in the clutch (8-of-11 shooting this season) and is doing things like this to the Celtics.

Spurs small icon 7. Spurs (6-3, LW 12). The offense, with DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge knocking it down from the midrange, has always been fine, but the recent four-game winning streak was sparked more by a defense that has moved from last in the league to middle of the pack during those games. Well, the D was at least until it regressed at home against Orlando. Now things get tougher with 9-of-11 coming up on the road (and the first home game in that stretch is a Rockets team now finding itself).

Celtics small icon 8. Celtics (6-4, LW 6). The Celtics have played the toughest schedule in the NBA so far this season. Their offense has been improving, but it’s not yet intimidating — 27th in the NBA for the season but 15th over the last three games. Late in games, Brad Stevens has trusted Marcus Morris over Gordon Hayward, and that’s the right play because Hayward is still struggling to start the season (as we should expect, remember that a year ago his leg was literally shattered).

Clippers small icon 9. Clippers (6-4, LW 11). The Clippers are better than their record would indicate (and their record is better than many expected). This is a top 10 team in offense and defense, and they are outscoring teams by 6 points per 100 possessions (meaning they should be 7-3 at least). Tough next four: At the Blazers, then home to the Bucks, Warriors, and Spurs.

Thunder small icon 10. Thunder (5-4, LW 22).. Oklahoma City catches a break with Russell Westbrook’s sprained ankle not being as bad as it looked, so he will not miss much time. The Thunder, winners of five in a row, also catch a break this happened as they hit a soft spot in the schedule: Cleveland, Dallas, Phoenix twice, and Sacramento are six of next seven. The Thunder should keep on winning and making up for the slow start.

Hornets small icon 11. Hornets (6-5, LW 14). Charlotte has been the least lucky team in the NBA — they are one game over .500 but with a +8.9, that of an 8-3 team. This is not a new problem, last season the Hornets struggled to close out close games, too, and it was one reason they missed the playoffs. Interestingly, the Hornets are +15.2 per 100 when Tony Parker runs the point and Kemba Walker is at the two, that may be a way James Borego tries closing games.

Grizzlies small icon 12. Grizzlies (5-4, LW 13). The Grizzlies continue to defend well but their offense — especially with Kyle Anderson and Jaren Jackson Jr. in the starting lineup — is struggling mightily. Mike Conley has not found consistency with his jumper, and that is part of the offensive issues, too. Memphis needs to figure out how to get buckets quickly because they have lost two in a row and the next four games — Denver, Philadelphia, Utah, and Milwaukee — are against quality teams.

Kings small icon 13. Kings (6-4, LW 16). Why are the Kings playing so well? They found an identity in pace — last season the Kings averaged 95.6 possessions a game, dead last in the league, this season they are at 108.1. That’s 12.5 possessions a game faster, a ridiculous leap. Synergy has them getting 21.9 percent of their offense in transition and scoring 128 per 100 on those chances. The real test of their new identity comes this month with a brutal schedule.

Sixers small icon 14. 76ers (6-5, LW 15). With all the focus on how Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons can’t play together (to his credit, Brett Brown is playing them as a tandem less and less), it’s been overlooked by some that Joel Embiid has been an absolute beast carrying this team. He is averaging 28.4 points and 12.6 assists per game, and he even has time to build condos in Andre Drummond’s head. Right now, the Sixers go as Embiid goes, but that is not going to get them where they want this season.

Rockets small icon 15. Rockets (4-5, LW 23). Winners of three in a row, the last two of those with James Harden back from injury. The Rockets are looking much better. Carmelo Anthony’s offense is coming around as well, but it’s not making up for his defense — the Rockets are 10.3 points per 100 possessions worse defensively when he is on the court. Great news that Jeff Bzdelik is returning, a sign the Rockets are going to focus on defense again, but his switching style is still going to run into a personnel problem when Anthony is on the court.

Heat small icon 16. Heat (4-5, LW 17). Josh Richardson is the rare case of a player forced to take on more offensive responsibility — his usage rate has jumped from using 18.2 percent of the team’s possessions when he is on the court to 24.1 percent, however, his true shooting percentage also is up to 57.1 (from 55.1), his PER is up to 17.4, and he is now scoring 21.4 points per game (up from 12.9 last season). He dropped 31 on Miami, 32 on Atlanta, and 27 points on Detroit. However, he can’t get the team wins unless they clean up the defense, which has been bottom 10 the last five games, in a very un-Heat kind of way.

Jazz small icon 17. Jazz (4-6, LW 7). No team has had a harder time adjusting to the “freedom of movement” rules on defense than the Jazz. Utah is giving up 109.3 points per 100 possessions, 17th in the league this season and 6.4 per 100 worse than last season. The Jazz like to be physical on defense, slowing guys off picks with a bump and grab, but that draws a whistle this season, and the Utah defenders have not mastered getting their feet in the right place and making the play that way. They need to if this team is going to reach its goal of being home for the first round of the playoffs.

Pistons small icon 18. Pistons (4-5, 10). Detroit has played the fourth easiest schedule in the NBA so far, and as it has gotten tougher the team has dropped five in a row. The problem in the losing streak has been the offense, which is scoring less than a point per possession in those five games. Teams have started to adjust to Blake Griffin having the ball in his hands as a playmaker, and Detroit has yet to counter.

Lakers small icon 19. Lakers (4-6, LW 21). Magic gave Luke Walton a stern talking to about the offensive system and defense, but at the same time he should be taking a look in the mirror — what did he expect with this roster. When you add LeBron James, he is the system. Also, the pace the Lakers are playing at is a system. Los Angeles picked up Tyson Chandler to help on defense, but it’s fair to ask if he still has that in him at age 36. Either way, it’s a low-risk move for Los Angeles.

Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (4-6, LW 8). Won their first four, but then dropped their next six, all against quality teams in the West (and five of those losses are on the road). During the losing streak New Orleans has had a bottom-10 offense, but the real problem is on the defensive end where they surrendered 116.7 per 100. Games against the Bulls and Suns next give them a chance to right the ship.

Nets small icon 21. Nets (5-6, LW 24). The most up-and-down team in the NBA — they got blown out by the Knicks, but turn around and blow out the Sixers. That said, the inconsistency has still been good enough — if the playoffs started today the Nets would be the seven seed. Tuesday’s win in Phoenix is the start of 7-of-9 on the road, with some rough stops against the West at the start of the trip.

22. Timberwolves (4-7, LW 18). Jimmy Butler is missing time for “precautionary rest” and “general soreness” which everyone around the league sees as pressure to force a trade, no matter what Butler and the team try to sell. There are times it looks like the Timberwolves are close to figuring it out (Lakers) and other times they look close to imploding. At least Derrick Rose dropping 50 was a great distraction and one of the best stories of the season.

Magic small icon 23. Magic (4-6, LW 26). They have won two in a row and it’s not a coincidence it happened when Jonathan Isaac had to sit (ankle), so Aaron Gordon could move back to his more natural spot at the four and the offense could start to flow. Coach Steve Clifford may have to stick with this rotation for a while. Orlando has 6-of-8 coming up at home — if they are going to make a push up into the East playoff discussion, it has to start during this homestand.

Knicks small icon 24. Knicks (3-8, LW 23). There have been stretches this season where the Knicks have started to show some spark and have looked competent — and then they lose to the hapless Wizards, and then drop a punch-to-the-guy double OT game to the Bulls. It’s fun to watch Mitchell Robinson play, there are reasons to tune in some nights, but with 6-of-8 coming up on the road it feels like the losses could start piling up even faster.

Mavericks small icon 25. Mavericks (3-7, LW 20). Dallas has played the second easiest schedule in the NBA so far, so their slow start should be even more concerning. So is the fact there seems to be tension between Luka Doncic — who keeps putting up good numbers — and some of the veterans on the team. It’s not just DeAndre Jordan going over Doncic’s back to get a rebound, just watching their interaction gives one the sense some veterans aren’t sure Doncic has yet earned his status. On the bright side, Dirk Nowitzki should be back in about three weeks.

Hawks small icon 26. Hawks (3-7, LW 25). Atlanta has played the easiest schedule in the NBA to date, just to put the early record in perspective. That said there are things to like (besides the up-and-down play showing the potential of Trae Young), for one moving Omari Spellman into the starting lineup. That worked well against Miami. Also, Dewayne Dedmon is back and averaging 8.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks a night — he is going to generate trade interest from contenders as we get closer to the deadline.

Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (3-8, LW 27).. Zach LaVine continues to prove his doubters wrong, the latest example the 41 points — including the game-winning free throw — Monday against the Knicks. That was a deserved win for the Bulls, they had been competitive but lost three home games to good teams (Denver, Indiana, Houston), Monday the basketball gods smiled on them. There are winnable games coming up at home against Cleveland and Dallas.

Wizards small icon 28. Wizards (2-8, LW 28). Washington earned a win over the Knicks and if they are going to turn things around it is now — the Wizards enter a soft part of the schedule with five more games against teams below .500. Of course, they dropped one in Dallas on Tuesday in another game where there was just a lack of effort on defense. No team has worse body language around the league than the Wizards.

Suns small icon 29. Suns (2-8, LW 29). Devin Booker’s return almost makes this team watchable again, and he had 14 fourth-quarter points in a win over the Grizzlies. He also had 20 points against Brooklyn but needed 21 shots to get there. Let the Suns be a lesson: In today’s NBA you need a decent point guard to run the show. The Suns front office remains incredibly active trying to land a decent point guard, the problem is there are not many available right now, plus everyone around the league knows how desperate the Suns are for one, which leads to teams trying to fleece them in a trade.

Cavaliers small icon 30. Cavaliers (1-9, LW 30). Cleveland finally reached a deal to turn Larry Drew from “the voice” into an actual coach of the team. That’s great, he gets a team where Kevin Love is out with foot surgery for a couple of months, J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver want to be traded, and the veterans don’t think Collin Sexton knows how to play the game. Congrats on that new gig, Drew. Have fun storming the castle!

Three Things to Know: LeBron James’ triple-double earns Lakers first significant win

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) LeBron James’ triple-double earns Lakers’ first significant win. The Lakers picked up their first win of the season in Phoenix on Wednesday, but that felt more like a “we better beat this struggling young team” relief than a giant step forward.

Thursday night against Denver was more like the way the Lakers are going to win games this season: LeBron James was brilliant as both a facilitator and aggressive scorer when needed; the ball movement found capable finishers such as Kyle Kuzma (22 points); and while the Lakers are not a great defensive team they have players who can make defensive plays at times (Lonzo Ball on Jamal Murray at times, for example). It was enough. Los Angeles came back from eight points down midway through the fourth and got its first significant win of the season while handing Denver its first loss, 121-114.

It all started with LeBron, who did anything and everything asked of him on the night with 28 points (on 17 shots), 11 rebounds, and 11 assists. It’s his first triple-double as a Laker.

There was more to it than that for Los Angeles. Lance Stephenson was a fourth-quarter spark off the bench with a couple of threes and a key look-ahead pass to LeBron for a dunk (Stephenson has played surprisingly well for L.A. this season). The Lakers once again forced the pace — 105 possessions in this game, and 24 percent of Lakers possessions started in transition (they scored at an impressive 112 points per 100 possession pace on those, via Cleaning the Glass). The Lakers may have found their best five-man lineup is Ball, Josh Hart, LeBron, Kuzma, and JaVale McGee (+11.6 per 100 possessions so far this season).

This was not peak Nuggets. Their offense was not the incredibly efficient machine it is typically, and they do miss Will Barton. Nikola Jokic had good bottom-line stats — 24 points and 11 rebounds — but in a sign of how the Nuggets’ offense didn’t flow he had three assists to six turnovers. Jamal Murray went right at Lonzo Ball early (this is one of the NBA’s more fun beefs, and will be for a decade), but Lonzo was the one getting five steals and making some key plays late. And, Denver struggled to find an answer for LeBron.

The Lakers are counting on a lot more teams struggling to do that as they move through the schedule.

2) Did Boston find its offense in a second-half comeback? It’s become a topic of conversation around the NBA: What happened to the Boston Celtics’ offense? Not that it was a force of nature last season (18th in the NBA, basically middle of the pack) but it was timely behind Kyrie Irving (until he had to sit due to injury), it involved good player and ball movement, and combined with an elite defense it got the Celtics the two seed and then to the conference finals.

This season, the Celtics were the second-worst offense in the NBA coming into Thursday night’s game (just ahead of the team they were playing, the Thunder). The problems were everywhere, but they started with the fact the Celtics just could not knock down shots — they were generating a lot of open looks but hitting them at the lowest rate in the NBA. Boston was not driving the lane or getting to the rim and drawing fouls (and Irving was a big part of that problem). Gordon Hayward has not been his vintage self and players are still adjusting to new roles. We could go on and on, but you get the idea — the Celtics offense was broken and without flow.

That continued in the first half Thursday in Oklahoma City, where they put up just 34 points and went 0-of-11 from three.

Then came the second half.

Boston put up a 40-point third quarter, sparked by Al Horford knocking down three shots from beyond the arc in only 41 seconds.

Suddenly the Celtics seemed like they could not miss — Marcus Morris had 19 second-half points on six shots. The Celtics exploded for a 142 offensive rating in the second half, erased a 16-point deficit, and picked up the 101-95 win. Irving explained the transformation this way to NBC Sports Boston.

“Stop overthinking about how we’re supposed to be playing,… It’s a hard thing to hold onto of being a certain way for a certain amount of time in your career and then when you come into a situation like this where you’re playing with a lot of good players sometimes you can dim down how special you are or over think how you’re supposed to be playing. So I think for us we just all wanted to come out and just really have fun.”

Will this carry over to the Celtics’ next game Saturday versus the Pistons? By the way, about Detroit…

3) Detroit is the season’s surprise team, improving to 4-0. The Pistons have had a soft schedule to start the season — Brooklyn, Chicago, and on Thursday night Cleveland (Philadelphia is the one impressive win) — but they have executed well, Blake Griffin has been a 33.8 points a game beast, Reggie Jackson is knocking down threes (40 percent so far this season), Andre Drummond is dunking and grabbing rebounds (17.5 a game) and the Pistons just keep winning behind a top-10 offense.

Thursday night Drummond became the latest center to thrive against the Cavaliers, scoring 26 points and grabbing 22 boards, his second 20-20 game of the season. Griffin had 26 and 10. That said, this win may have been less about “damn the Pistons look good” and more “wow, the Cavaliers are terrible.” For example, nice spin move here by Griffin but look at the Cavs’ defense.

Saturday night the Pistons face the (possibly) rejuvenated Celtics. That should be a better test. The Pistons, however, have beaten the teams in front of them on the schedule, and plenty of good teams stumble in these kinds of stretches. That the Pistons are winning speaks to them looking like a playoff team early in this season.

Joel Embiid on Andre Drummond: ‘I feel like I own a lot of real estate in his head’

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Andre Drummond and Joel Embiid have a history — Embiid said before the season Drummond doesn’t play any defense and can’t shoot. Drummond fired back Embiid should work on staying healthy and playing in back-to-backs before he talks.

All of it carried over Tuesday night when the 76ers traveled to Detroit to play the Pistons.

The two were going back-and-forth during the game, with Embiid constantly talking, telling Drummond “you can’t guard me.” Which had some truth, Embiid dropped 33 points and grabbed 11 boards in the game.

Then late, Embiid flopped and the referee bought it, tossing Drummond (for a second technical).

After the game, Embiid wasn’t done talking, saying of Drummond “I feel like I own a lot of real estate in his head.”

Drummond responded in the comments on IG:

Drummond also would like to point out the scoreboard. The Pistons got the win to stay undefeated on the young season.

Three Things to Know: Blake Griffin has been NBA’s hottest player so far

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Blake Griffin remains red-hot, drops 50 on Sixers in Pistons win. On the latest edition of the PBT Podcast, guest Keith Smith pointed out Blake Griffin as one of the players who had left a big impression on him to start the season. Often overlooked in the discussion of the game’s best forwards, Griffin had 26 points and 8 rebounds, against the Nets and 33 points and 12 boards against the Bulls (torching Jabari Parker) in his first two games.

And he was just getting started.

Griffin dropped 50 points — including hitting the game-winner in overtime — on the Philadelphia 76ers Tuesday night, keeping the Pistons undefeated.

Great play design by coach Dwane Casey on the game-winner (he had run that before with Jonas Valanciunas in Toronto). The key is the ball-fake to Reggie Bullock is enough of a threat to draw over Joel Embiid, but Amir Johnson isn’t in place for the switch on Blake Griffin, which leaves an open lane to the hoop. Griffin may not jump-over-cars explode like he used to but the man still knows how to attack the rim and Robert Covington wasn’t going to stop him. All night long the Pistons ran their offense through Griffin — sometimes at the elbow, sometimes bringing the ball up as a point forward — and all night long he responded. It was the kind of night that had Pistons fans chanting MVP for him.

Griffin is averaging a league-leading 36.3 points per game on 53.3 percent shooting overall and 61.1 percent from three, plus grabbing 11.3 boards and dishing out 5.7 assists a night. If he can stay healthy this season (and that’s a big ask, based on history), the Pistons are a playoff team, and Griffin is an All-Star. Long way to go, but that’s the dream in Detroit.

Also from that game, watch Joel Embiid flop and then draw a technical foul on Andre Drummond, which gets the Pistons’ center tossed (it was his second tech of the game). All night long Embiid was yelling “you can’t guard me” at Drummond on his way to 33 points and 11 rebounds. After the game Embiid said “I feel like I own a lot of real estate in his head.”.

Drummond, however, got the “W.”

2) Anthony Davis, Pelicans keep on rolling. If anyone is going to challenge Griffin for the hottest player in the league to start, it’s Davis — 30.3 points a game while shooting 59 percent, and grabbing 13 rebounds a game. And he has the led the Pelicans to an undefeated start.

That continued Tuesday night when Davis had 34 points, 13 rebounds, and five blocks to lead the Pelicans to a 116-109 win over the Clippers.

The Pelicans have scored 396 points in three games.

3) The (verbal/social media) fight after the fight: Rajon Rondo calls Chris Paul bad teammate, Daryl Morey has a perfect retort. The fight that left Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, and Brandon Ingram suspended just will not go quietly. Well, Ingram tried to do that, offering the standard “I have to know better” apology after getting a four-game suspension.

Rondo, however, was defiant. Rondo and CP3 don’t like each other and have had a running feud for a decade. (Heck Rondo’s girlfriend and Paul’s wife don’t like each other.) So when asked about the incident Rondo said first Paul is “a horrible teammate. (Fans/media) Don’t know how he treats people)” and that he didn’t spit at Paul, it’s just that with his mouthpiece in when he talks some spittle flies out. Not sure I believe him, but that’s Rondo’s case and he’s sticking to it.

Daryl Morey, the Rocket’s GM, then Tweeted.

Well played — and you’ve got to love a league where a GM Tweets this and the league loves it. Can you imagine if an NFL GM did this?

Rondo is right on one level, there are plenty of former teammates who have issues with the highly competitive, constantly critical, hard-driving style of Chris Paul (Blake Griffin had his problems with it). However, the list of teammates/coaches/executives who are no fan of Rondo and his attitude is plenty long as well, as Morey points out brilliantly.

Circle Dec. 13 on your calendar, that’s when the Rockets and Lakers face off again.

Joel Embiid flops, gets Andre Drummond ejected

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Philadelphia 76ers star big man Joel Embiid is known for his excellent sense of humor and his light-heartedness.

But could he be headed for a heel turn?

That’s the question you could ask yourself after Embiid appeared to flop on a play late in the fourth quarter against the Detroit Pistons on Tuesday that earned Andre Drummond his second technical and an ejection.

I will let you decide how you feel about this interaction.

Via Twitter:

To me that’s a pretty blatant flop by Embiid, and a bad look.

The worst version of the Sixers this year is a disappointing finish in the Eastern Conference and Embiid turning into the big man version of James Harden.

Joel, if you’re reading this: don’t do this, my dude.

It will be curious to see how the league responds tomorrow. I suspect Drummond’s technical and ejection might be rescinded, and Embiid could be sent a warning or worse for exaggeration.

Blake Griffin did just fine without Drummond in the game, scoring 50 points — a career high — and leading the Pistons to an overtime win against the Sixers.