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!

Spurs on precipice after losing Kawhi Leonard

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Magic Johnson won NBA Finals MVP in his age-22 season, and the Lakers contended for championships for the next decade.

Tim Duncan won NBA Finals MVP in his age-22 season, and the Spurs contended for championships for the next decade and a half.

Kawhi Leonard won NBA Finals MVP in his age-22 season, and… only four years later, San Antonio is just trying to sneak into the playoffs with an old roster.

Leonard did his part, until last season at least. He grew into a perennial MVP candidate, the NBA’s best defender and an elite offensive player.

But that all came crashing down over the last year. Leonard got hurt, and a distrust between him and San Antonio grew. It’d be difficult to determine how much blame to assign each side even if we knew everything, and we certainly don’t know everything.

What’s clear: The Spurs are bearing the brunt of the breakdown.

Their trade of Leonard to the Raptors – for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a top-20 first-rounder – was a devastating sell-low. That probably wasn’t the Spurs’ best offer in a vacuum, but they were reportedly limited by their own parameters – preferring to send Leonard to the East and valuing immediate contributors.

That’s the effect of a 69-year-old coach running the front office.

Gregg Popovich is an all-time great coach, and if he wants to avoid rebuilding until retirement, he has more than earned the right. Embracing youth and accepting losing probably doesn’t appeal to him at this point.

Popovich has proven masterful at getting players to understand their responsibilities and executing them, and that’s why his teams have been so consistently good in the regular season. He’ll need another supreme coaching performance to get this squad into the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference.

The most common oversimplification of the summer is that the Spurs are basically just adding DeRozan to a team that won 47 games last season because Leonard barely played anyway. San Antonio also lost important cogs Kyle Anderson (signed unmatched offer sheet with Grizzlies), Danny Green (traded to Toronto) and Manu Ginobili (retired). Tony Parker left for the Hornets, too.

At least San Antonio got Popovich a few players familiar with his system, re-signing Rudy Gay (one year, $10,087,200), Davis Bertans (two years, $14 million) and Bryn Forbes (two years, $6 million) and signing former Spur Marco Belinelli (two years, $12 million). None of those players came cheap.

Newly signed veterans Dante Cunningham and Quincy Pondexter could help, too.

The Spurs aren’t completely punting the future. They drafted Lonnie Walker No. 18 and Chimezie Metu No. 49. Belinelli’s and Forbes’ salaries decline in the their second seasons. Bertans’ is flat.

Teams run into trouble when they prioritize the present regardless of greater circumstance, and the Spurs did that to some degree. But they also have Popovich and LaMarcus Aldridge, both of whom will make it easier for San Antonio to win next season. Popovich doesn’t need much, and Aldridge’s interior style can prop up lesser supporting casts.

That said, I’m still not sure the Spurs have enough.

They’ve been headed for trouble for a while, as their relationship with Leonard deteriorated. That didn’t all happen this offseason, though that’s when the dam broke.

Offseason grade: D-

While league goes small, Grizzlies focus on style where ‘size, physicality, toughness prevails’

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There’s something to be said for zigging when the league zags, to not following every trend. Everyone talks about playing more like the Warriors, but unless you have Stephen Curry to set the offensive tone and the insane versatility of Draymond Green on defense, it doesn’t work quite the same way. Coaches need to play to the talent on the roster.

Enter the Memphis Grizzlies.

One of the league’s worst three-point shooting teams and built on an old-school style, they pushed coach David Fizdale out the door and this summer doubled-down on a variation of the “grit n’ grind” era. Here is what coach J.B. Bickerstaff told Mark Giannotto of the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

“We’ve been preaching playing a unique style of basketball. Obviously, not reinventing the wheel but playing a game where size, physicality and toughness prevails. I think we’re fortunate that we have some big guys, some long guys, that are very skilled as well, so that they can do both. You can be physical. You can defend. You can protect the paint. You can challenge shots.”

The Grizzlies’ owner Robert Pera thinks this could be a 50-win team, which nobody else sees, but they can be a potential playoff team if everything breaks their way. That means staying healthy, for one, so that their added depth — Kyle Anderson, Garrett Temple, just drafted Jaren Jackson — can play smaller roles to their strengths rather than having to stretch out. Bickerstaff sees the team’s other big strength is a lot of smart veterans on the roster who play a high IQ game.

“We got a bunch of guys that know how to think the game and if you can think the game, you can make up for some of the things that we lack,” Bickerstaff added. “If you look at our team, and I hope this doesn’t offend any of our guys, we’re not the fastest of teams. But we have to be able to use our brains to put us in spots so that we can defend well and score the ball because we’re always one or two steps ahead of our opponent.”

Is that going to work with the rest of the league shooting threes over the top of them? If it doesn’t, will the rebuild finally begin? We’re going to learn a lot about these Grizzlies in the first couple months of the season.

Grizzlies doing fairly well for team in self-imposed holding pattern

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

As I’ve written repeatedly: The Grizzlies’ insistence in trying to win immediately with Marc Gasol and Mike Conley is likely to yield unfulfilling results in the present and leave Memphis less prepared for the future. This Western Conference is so unforgiving, the Grizzlies are are longshots just to make the playoffs, let alone advance. But they should also be good enough to miss out on a high drat pick in what appears to be a top-heavy draft. An expensive roster and unwillingness to pay the luxury tax leave little flexibility.

But in that context, Memphis added plenty of short- and long-term talent this offseason.

The Grizzlies used every mechanism available – draft, free agency and trade. The haul: Jaren Jackson Jr., Kyle Anderson, Garrett Temple, Omri Casspi, Jevon Carter.

Memphis did well to pick Jackson No. 3 despite his initial reluctance and unclear fit with Gasol. Jackson came around on the Grizzlies, and he was too talented to pass up. Though he’ll probably play center in the long run, he might begin his career at power forward due to strength concerns.

Carter provided solid value high in the second round. Unfortunately, Memphis could sign him to just a two-year deal, limiting upside on the value he’ll provide.

Anderson, signed to a mid-level offer sheet the Spurs didn’t match, is darned productive. His lack of athleticism will limit him in some matchups, but he should provide value on this deal.

Even after a lost year with the Warriors, Casspi is not far removed from productiveness. A minimum contract is worth finding out whether he can return to form.

The second-rounder surrendered to get Temple is not insignificant, but the Grizzlies cleared a roster crunch by dealing Ben McLemore and Deyonta Davis – both of whom seemed to run their course in Memphis – to the Kings. Temple should help the Grizzlies on the wing.

It wasn’t all gains for Memphis. The Grizzlies lost Tyreke Evans (to the Pacers), but that was less about this offseason and more the predictable outcome of last year’s failed trade deadline. Evans was so good in Memphis last season. He’ll be missed if this team is still trying to compete.

The Grizzlies also missed an opportunity to conduct an open coaching search, keeping interim J.B. Bickerstaff. I’m not as down on retaining him as I am the process behind it.

Ultimately, I’m just not sure where all these additions get Memphis. At least Jackson and Anderson will be around for years. They might finally provide a roadmap to a post-Gasol-Conley future while still helping in the interim.

But it’ll still be a while for that vision to come to fruition, if the Grizzlies ever execute a next step.

Offseason grade: B-

Lakers’ Josh Hart wins Summer League MVP

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The Lakers wanted to test Josh Hart this summer: What would happen if they gave him a more substantial role? He was solid as a backup point guard last season (a good showing for a rookie), averaging 7.9 points per game and shooting 39.6 percent from three, but with Lonzo Ball and Rajon Rondo in the fold point guard minutes will be hard to come by next season.

What happened if they put the ball in Hart’s hands and made him the leader of a team on and off the court?

Hart responded by winning the NBA Las Vega Summer League MVP, averaging 24.2 points a game and leading the Lakers to the championship game. He dropped 37 on the Cavaliers and Collin Sexton in the semi-finals.

The award was announced Tuesday, in advance of the title contest between Hart and his Lakers vs. the Portland Trail Blazers.

Hart is the second Laker in a row to win the award, last year Lonzo Ball won it in leading the Lakers to a Summer League crown.

It’s an honor, but don’t assume Summer League MVP means NBA success. Sure, Damian Lillard won the award, but he was co-MVP with Josh Shelby. Glen Rice III won the award. The MVP list includes Kyle Anderson and Tyus Jones and other good but not All-Star players.

Hart also made the All-NBA Summer League first team. (Both the MVP award and All-NBA Summer League teams were voted on by a select media pannel.)

Here are the Las Vegas All Summer League teams:

All-NBA Summer League First Team

Wendell Carter Jr. (Chicago)
Josh Hart (Los Angeles Lakers)
Kevin Knox (New York)
Collin Sexton (Cleveland)
Christian Wood (Milwaukee)

MGM Resorts All-NBA Summer League Second Team

Deandre Ayton (Phoenix)
Wade Baldwin IV (Portland)
Jaren Jackson Jr. (Memphis)
Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (Los Angeles Lakers)
Trae Young (Atlanta)