Three weeks and around 10 games into the season, we are starting to figure out what is real and what is not — and how injuries are going to blow all that up. A lot of key players around the league are out now, but go ahead and blame Kawhi Leonard for sitting out and trying to avoid getting injured.
1. Celtics (8-1, Last week No. 6). Winners of eight in a row, making the timing of Gordon Hayward’s fractured hand feels like a punch to the gut. He was looking close to his vintage, All-Star self again averaging 18.9 points per game, shooting 43.3 percent from three, pulling down 7.1 rebounds and dishing out 4.1 assists. Hayward is in three of the Celtics’ four most-used lineups, and when paired with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown the Celtics are +27.2 points per 100 possessions. The silver lining is he is only out six weeks (at a point in the season it doesn’t crush them).
2. Lakers (8-2, LW 1). Did anyone really say LeBron James was washed? No doubt his game took a step back last season — his groin injury playing a big role in that — but washed? He was third-team All-NBA. LeBron apparently talked himself into using a straw man argument for motivation — and it worked. He is playing at an MVP level so far this season. He seems much more comfortable pushing the ball in transition this season and attacking the rim. When asked how he has held off Father Time, LeBron had a great answer: “Wine. It ages well.”
3. Bucks (7-3, LW 4). He may not have taken a step forward this season as hoped, but Khris Middleton was playing like his All-Star self of a season ago — 18.5 points per game, shooting 39.3 percent from three, finishing well at the rim, and the Bucks offense was 3.3 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court. Now they are without him for 3-4 weeks with a thigh bruise. The Bucks have won 4-of-6 in a road heavy portion of the schedule, and after being at home against the Bulls on Thursday it’s back out on the road for three more.
4. Clippers (7-3, LW 3). When Kawhi Leonard is on the court this season, Los Angeles is +24.3 points per 100 possessions better. That is exactly why he is getting load management nights now — to prevent and avoid injuries down the line, so he can be on the court in the games that matter. Starting Thursday he will be joined by Paul George, who is expected to make his debut on the road in New Orleans. Then we get to witness the fire power of this fully armed and operational Death Star.
5. Heat (7-3, LW 7). Rookie Kendrick Nunn has come back to earth a little after his hot start, defenses started focusing on him and blitzing him a lot more. Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find a guy happier with his situation: “Everything is good — Miami, the organization, the culture, where I live… It’s a lot warmer (than where he grew up in Chicago), I don’t like the cold.” Nunn, however, likely will be back in Chicago in February — All-Star weekend, for the Rising Stars Game on Friday night with teams of rookies and second-year guys. “I’m looking forward to that for sure, just for a couple days though,” Nunn told NBC Sports.
6. Raptors (7-3, LW 8). Nick Nurse didn’t lean much on his bench until injuries to Kyle Lowry (thumb) and Serge Ibaka (ankle) forced him to, but he has been rewarded. Chris Boucher has been a defensive force, blocking shots by LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was hitting critical shots against the Lakers. The Raptors have started 2-1 on a five-game road trip, with the only loss being on the second night of a back-to-back against the Clippers (who had a rested Kawhi Leonard).
7. Jazz (8-3, LW 9). Utah’s offense has looked better the past couple of weeks (up 2.1 points per 100 possessions over their season average, via Cleaning the Glass), but it is still the Utah defense that has them winning games. Last week they won two big ones, at home against the best of the East in Philadelphia and them Milwaukee. Bojan Bogdanovic’s game-winner against the Bucks that will be one of the big shots of the season for the Jazz.
8. 76ers (7-3, LW 2). The Sixers are all about the close games. Four of Philadelphia’s seven wins have been by eight points or less. The Sixers struggled on a recent road trip going 1-3 — with all three losses by a combined 10 points — but came home and fattened up on Charlotte and Cleveland, before going back out on the road for three more. Those three losses, particularly the one in Denver, brought up the question we asked heading into the season: Who is the closer on this team? Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris combined for one bucket in the fourth quarter against Denver. They have to do better.
9. Rockets (7-3, LW 14). The Rockets have used the combination of a soft schedule (second easiest in the league so far this season) and a historically-hot James Harden to jump out to a fast start. While the Rockets defense has struggled, that has come from the bench, their preferred starting five — Russell Westbrook, Harden, Danuel House, P.J. Tucker, and Clint Capela — is allowing less than a point per possession when on the court together. Caplet’s off-season shoulder injury (suffered while playing for the Swiss national team) has slowed his offense.
10. Nuggets (7-3, LW 11). Mike Malone is leaning on his starters — the combination of Paul Millsap, Will Barton, Gary Harris, Nikola Jokic, and in Jamal Murray has played the most minutes of any five-man lineup in the NBA so far this young season. Denver’s record looks better than their advanced stats because Jokic has quietly become as good a clutch shooter as we have in the league right now, and he hit two game-winners over the weekend to save the Nuggets.
11. Suns (6-4, LW 5). It’s the question a lot of people keep asking: Are the Suns for real? It sure feels like they are (they played the Lakers tough until the end Tuesday night). For one thing, this is a top 10 offense and the defense is respectable (middle of the pack). Then there are games like Sunday, coming off a loss to Miami, where the Suns bounced back and trounced the Nets. Or, when Devin Booker scored 11 in a row in the fourth quarter recently to help beat Philly. The combination of Monty Williams as coach and Ricky Rubio at the point has Phoenix playing smart ball, the kind that is sustainable.
12. Pacers (7-4, LW 18). Malcolm Brogdon has the Pacers off to a quality start to the season, but they should be racking up wins now — all 11 of their games have been against teams currently below .500. That’s about to change with the Rockets and Bucks the next two teams up on the schedule. The Pacers sent Victor Oladipo down to the G-League for a day to get in practice, he’s still a ways away but it’s a good sign he’s getting in the work.
13. Mavericks (6-4, LW 10). The boos are about to rain down on Kristaps Porzingis as he returns to Madison Square Garden Thursday to take on the Knicks (even though, when you look at the Knicks right now, do you blame him for wanting out?). Dallas lost to the New York at home last week despite another Luka Doncic triple-double. Porzingis has not played up to the level of his pre-injury self yet, but after nearly 20 months away from an NBA court that is to be expected. This was always going to take time.
14. Timberwolves (6-4, LW 13). It’s time to acknowledge this: Andrew Wiggins is playing the best basketball of his career. It’s not all puppy dogs and rainbows — he’s not defending all that well, he’s certainly not living up to his contract — but it’s better than we have seen him play. It remains a tail of halves: In the first half he shoots 30.3% from three and doesn’t really impact the game on either end; then in the second half he shoots 37.9% from three (50% in the fourth), he’s more engaged and attacks the rim, and he impacts games late. We’ll see if it keeps up, but so far his 21.1 PER is lightyears ahead of any other season he’s had and a sign of just how well he is going.
15. Spurs (5-5, LW 12). The San Antonio Spurs are averaging 25.2 free throw attempts per game, 11th most in the NBA. That doesn’t seem remarkable until you compare it to their history, the Spurs are not a team that draws fouls — they have been in the bottom 10 in the league in free throw attempts four of the past five years (and never were above 22 a game). San Antonio is attacking a little more, and just finding ways to win.
16. Nets (4-6, LW 17). When Jarrett Allen is on the court, Brooklyn outscores opponents by 8.8 points per 100 possessions. When DeAndre Jordan is on the court, the Nets get outscored by 12.8. Allen is averaging 25.5 points per game, Jordan 22.4. Jordan is making $9.9 million a season in the first-year of a four-year contract. The lesson here? It’s good to have Kyrie and KD as your friends.
17. Trail Blazers (4-7, LW 19). Tuesday night’s loss sloppy loss to a Sacramento team without D’Aaron Fox set off even more alarm bells in Portland — this team is not right. The defense is struggling and the offense isn’t bailing them out Damian Lillard is carrying this team — he dropped 60 on Brooklyn and Portland still lost the game. CJ McCollum is struggling with his shot, Hassan Whiteside is Hassan Whiteside, and guys that might help such as Rodney Hood, Zach Collins, and Jusuf Nurkic are out injured. It all just puts more pressure on GM Neil Olshay to make a trade at the deadline.
18. Thunder (4-7, LW 15). While the record isn’t what OKC had hoped, this is a very competitive team that has four losses by five points or less. Filter out garbage time (as Ben Falk does at Cleaning the Glass) and the Thunder have a net rating of -0.7 — just a little under a .500 team. Catch a couple of bounces and this team has another win or two. That said, it’s going to be tough to rack up wins in the next four games against the 76ers, Clippers, and a home-and-home against the Lakers.
19. Bulls (4-7, LW 24). There are still a lot of things wrong in Chicago, but for a night rookie Coby White was able to cover them up by making seven three pointers in the fourth quarter to lead a win over the Knicks. Pulling away in the fourth is a nice change of pace for Bulls’ fans, who have had to watch their team blow four double-digit leads that became losses already this season.
20. Cavaliers (4-6, LW 25). Ten games into the season, we can now say: The Cleveland Cavaliers are not that bad. Which is a whole lot better than most of us expected (including Cavs fans). Take garbage time out of the equation (as stats at Cleaning the Glass do) and their net rating is -0.2, which is basically a .500 team. Collin Sexton and Darius Garland are showing some chemistry, veterans such as Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson are playing well (and upping their trade value), and the Cleveland offense has looked pretty good the past couple of weeks.
21. Hawks (4-6, LW 16). Trae Young has made the leap in his second season — he is playing like an All-Star. Young is making history right now — he is the first Hawks player ever to have three straight games with at least 30 points and 10 assists. Tuesday night he had 42 points, shot 8-of-11 from three (with some Stephen Curry-ranged makes), dished out 11 assists, and willed the Hawks to an impressive 125-121 win on the road in Denver.
22. Hornets (4-6, LW 20). Statistically, the Hornets may be 4-6 but they are playing over their head, with a -7.3 net rating that would suggest another loss or two. Or, look at it this way: Charlotte has trailed by at lest 10 points in every one of its games. The one bright spot has been Devonte' Graham, who is averaging 17.9 points per game and absolutely should be starting in place of Terry Rozier right now.
23. Magic (3-7, LW 23). The rumors that Orlando is interested in DeMar DeRozan make sense: Orlando’s problem is on offense where they average less than a point per possession this season (second worst in the league), and DeRozan is a “just add water and instant offense” kind of player. Orlando has dropped 5-of-6 and on Wednesday night the 76ers come to town for what could be the Markelle Fultz revenge game.
24. Kings (4-6, LW 27). The Kings feel snakebit. First Marvin Bagley III goes down injured. Then on Monday, De’Aaron Fox rolled his ankle near the end of the Kings’ practice and he will be out 3-4 weeks with what has been described as a grade 3 sprain. Fox was putting up 18.2 points and dishing out 7 assists a game this season as the focal point of the Kings’ offense. Look for more Cory Joseph and Yogi Farrell.
25. Pistons (4-8, LW 22). Blake Griffin has returned to the lineup and looked pretty good in his debut with 19 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists. Derrick Rose could return to the lineup this week as well from his strained hamstring, and the Pistons could use his playmaking skills off the bench as they are on the road for 3-of-4.
26. Wizards (2-6, LW 21). The good news is that with Bradley Beal and impressive rookie Rui Hachimura the Wizards have been getting buckets — they have the 11th ranked offense in the league. The bad news is with those two on the floor the Wizards give up more than 122 points per 100 possessions — Washington’s defense is a mess. Thomas Bryant is not a rim-protecting backstop, and the insertion of Isaiah Thomas into the starting lineup is not a boost on that end of the court. Thomas is averaging 10 points a game with a dreadful 47.1 true shooting percentage as a starter.
27. Pelicans (2-8, LW 28). Brandon Ingram is averaging a career high 25.9 points per game. but how he’s getting those buckets has evolved since previous seasons. Ingram is getting to the rim less (just 21% of his shots, down fro 34% a season ago) but he’s not taking 30% of his shot attempts from beyond the arc and is hitting 46.9% of them. That shooting percentage is going to come down to earth some, but Ingram’s improved jumper speaks to the overall improvement in his game.
28. Grizzlies (3-7, LW 29). Ja Morant continues to put up numbers and look like a Rookie of the Year candidate, but what the Grizzlies really need is him and Jaren Jackson Jr. to find some chemistry, and that has yet to happen. When those two are on the court this season the Grizzlies score less than a point per possession and have a net rating of -11.8. Morant has 47 assists this season but only four have been to Jackson. It’s early, but the Grizzlies need this pairing to grow and work better.
29. Warriors (2-9, LW 26). Golden State rookie Eric Paschall is getting just about all he can eat in terms of touches on the shorthanded Warriors, and the result is him scoring 15.6 points per game. What’s most impressive is he is getting to the rim, with 43.5% of his shots coming in the restricted area, and he’s finishing a very good 66% of them. He’s one ray of hope for Warriors fans this season.
30. Knicks (2-9, LW 30). The Knicks signed Julius Randle this summer to bring his bully ball style in the paint to Madison Square Garden this season, but with other teams able to clog the paint because of a lack of shooting, Randle is shooting just 42.4% this season. His three-point percentage also is way off, down to 21.1% (he hit 34.4% a season ago). Things are so bad with the Knicks team president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry were forced to address the media (you know James Dolan demanded it), and it feels like David Fizdale may be the scapegoat. He’s no blameless, but you can resurrect John Wooden from the dead and he couldn’t get this roster to win, it’s unbalanced and never was going to fit well.