NBA Power Rankings: Lakers move to top spot with fast-charging Rockets right behind

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The Lakers hot start to the season continues (especially against a soft part of the schedule the rest of the month), but nobody is hotter than Harden’s Houston Rockets, who have raced up the standings to the No. 2 spot.

Lakers small icon 1. Lakers (12-2, Last week No. 2). In something we didn’t see coming, Los Angeles has the top-ranked defense in the NBA. Coach Frank Vogel gave JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard a big chunk of credit for that: “One of the pleasant surprises has been the mobility of our bigs. I knew we knew we were going to have great length at the basket and rim protection, but we’ve really been able to have those guys play up in pick-and-rolls and on pin downs and [dribble hand offs] and challenge three-point shots.” The Lakers have won five in a row against a soft stretch of the schedule, which continues through the end of the month. December will be a much, much stiffer test.

Rockets small icon 2. Rockets (11-3, LW 9). Winners of eight in a row and that doesn’t happen because of just one man, no matter how great The Beard is playing. For example, Russell Westbrook had a triple-double Monday night, and Houston’s defense has been respectable. That said, James Harden is putting up ridonkulous numbers. He’s averaging 39.2 points, 7.6 assists, and 5.6 rebounds a game, with an insane 61.8 true shooting percentage. The faster pace of play from the Rockets this season is giving him more opportunities, and it has led to Harden taking 71 more three point attempts than anyone else in the NBA. And he’s making history.

Celtics small icon 3. Celtics (11-2, LW 1). It was the question around Boston coming into the season: How are the Celtics going to replace Al Horford and Aron Baynes on defense? Turns out, with a rotation of different bigs — Daniel Theis and Robert Williams in particular — and steps forward from Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. The Celtics have the sixth-best defense in the NBA this season, to go with the fourth-best offense. Many didn’t see the Celtics as contenders entering the season, but having a top 10 offense and defense is the definition of a contender.

Bucks small icon 4. Bucks (10-3, LW 3).
Giannis Antetokounmpo is cranking it up in the second half of games, averaging 18.2 points a night on 61.9% shooting, and getting to the lines seven times on average in that half. For comparison, he averages 12 points on 53.6% in the first half (not bad but not otherworldly like after halftime). Antetokounmpo has eight 30 point games this season and two where he scored 29. The Bucks are 5-1 in a run of recent road games (with one more on Wednesday in Atlanta) before 6-of-8 at home.

Nuggets small icon 5. Nuggets (9-3, LW 10). Winners of 6-of-7, and one of the keys has been fourth quarter defense, when the Nuggets have a defensive rating of 101, sixth best in the NBA (and a couple of points better than the rest of the game). That defense will get put to the test this week against three of the best offenses in the league: Houston, Boston, and Phoenix (all three games are in Denver).

Raptors small icon 6. Raptors (9-4, LW 6). Pascal Siakam’s improvement this season has him being talked about as a possible back-to-back winner of the Most Improved Player award (although it’s early), but that has overshadowed the leap made by OG Anunoby this season. He’s averaging 12.4 points a game (up from 7) and 5.5 rebounds a night (up from 2.9), and that’s not just a minutes thing, his true shooting percentage has jumped from 54.4 (around league average) to 70, which is insanely efficient (and probably unsustainable at that level). After a 3-2 road trip the Raptors have a home-heavy schedule for the rest of 2019.

Heat small icon 7. Heat (9-3, LW 5). Winners of three in a row and 4-of-5, it leads to the questions “is this sustainable?” Look at the shot quality data on Second Spectrum (the NBA’s tracking data) and the answer is probably not — they have been fortunate teams are just missing shots against them. That likely balances out. Miami’s three-game win streak is against a soft part of the schedule, and that continues until Philly on Saturday night (in the second half of a back-to-back). Houston on the road in a week will be even a bigger test.

Clippers small icon 8. Clippers (9-5, LW 4). Paul George is back and put up a ridiculous 70 points in his first 44 minutes on the court. What was impressive was how fluid his game looked after the time off, George looked like the guy from the first half of last season, the one in the mix for the MVP trophy (he ultimately finished third after fading). George credits the offseason surgery, saying he feels like he has two new shoulders. We have yet to see George and Kawhi Leonard paired with George because Leonard has missed three games with a bruised knee. This week we should finally see the duo together.

Jazz small icon 9. Jazz (8-5, LW 7). Utah’s offense still has not found a consistent rhythm — they are 24th in the NBA over the past two weeks, via Cleaning the Glass — but the problem is the defense has slipped a little in recent weeks, too. Part of that is how much they miss backup center Ed Davis. The Jazz don’t want to play Rudy Gobert heavy minutes this early in the season (but Gobert has been impressive on both ends when he is on the court), which has forced Tony Bradley into heavy minutes, and their offense drop to well below a point per possession when he is on the court. Davis is expected to be out a couple more weeks.

Mavericks small icon 10. Mavericks (8-5, LW 13). It feels like all we do with Dallas is praise Luka Doncic… but have you seen him play this year? LeBron James is right, Luka is a bad man (not his exact words, but this is a family power rankings). Doncic joined LeBron as the only two players in NBA history with a 40+ point triple-double before age 21. Doncic is averaging 29.5 points, 10.7 rebounds and 9.3 assists per game, all with a ridiculously efficient 61.2 percent true shooting. He has pushed himself into the early-season MVP conversation — and he’s in just his second year in the league.

Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (8-6, LW 12). That Indiana looks like a lock playoff team in the East, has a top 10 defense, and is above .500 without Victor Oladipo is impressive and a good sign for the team moving forward. The Pacers have won 5-of-7 and the two losses in there were to the Rockets and Bucks on a back-to-back. Oladipo has been getting in some work with the Pacers’ G-League team, a sign that he could be back a little before the Christmas date that quietly always seemed to be the target.

Sixers small icon 12. 76ers (8-5, LW 8). It was expected that Philadelphia’s offense would take some time to find a groove this season, with Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick gone and more now on Ben Simmons plate, but the defense was going to carry the Sixers to start the season. Except it hasn’t, it’s been just okay. On the season, the Sixers are not even a top 10 defense, and in the last eight games (when Philly is 3-5), the defense is a middle-of-the-NBA pack team giving up 106.2 points per 100. All that length is not keeping teams from shooting well against them, and that is even true in the half court when the defense should be set. It’s early, but the Sixers need to clean this up.

13. Timberwolves (8-6, LW 14). Andrew Wiggins playing well — not “I have earned that max contract well, but well — has been one of the biggest surprises of the season. A few things are helping that, such as the five-out offense Minnesota can play (Karl-Anthony Towns has to be respected at the arc), which has opened up driving lanes. His assists are up, his shooting percentages are up, but a lot of it ties back to his handles — Wiggins has been much better with his ball control. He’s more comfortable running the pick-and-roll, he doesn’t feel rushed and surveys the court now, making better decisions, and it all ties back to being more comfortable and confident with his handles.

Suns small icon 14. Suns (7-6, LW 11). Phoenix has lost 3-of-4, and while the offense has dipped slightly during that time, the bigger issue is the defense has struggled to get stops. Devin Booker and the Suns have not been a team in the national spotlight much in recent years, which is why them being the late TNT game on Thursday night — against a Zion-less Pelicans — feels like such an important game. New Orleans is a feisty team that plays hard, and if the Suns defend like they did giving up 120 to Sacramento on Tuesday they will be in trouble in front of a national audience.

Magic small icon 15. Magic (6-7, LW 23). I keep hearing the same whisper from different sources around the league (something Shams Charania reported already as well): Teams are interested in trading for Aaron Gordon. Officially the Orlando front office wants no part of this and shoots the idea down, but around the league a lot of teams think the Magic brass will change their minds on this. Just something to watch. In the short term, the Magic have won 4-of-5 and the reason is they have the third best offense in the NBA over the past two weeks.

Kings small icon 16. Kings (6-7, LW 24). Sacramento has gone 3-1 without De’Aaron Fox so far, and what has fueled that is the team playing top-10 defense during that stretch. In fact, so far November has been good to Sacramento despite all the injuries, they are 6-2. However, now they head out on an East Coast road swing and have 8-of-10 away from home.

Nets small icon 17. Nets (5-8, LW 16). Kyrie Irving has missed time with a shoulder impingement (and could miss more), Caris LeVert is out a few more weeks with a broken thumb, Wilson Chandler remains suspended (PEDs) and all the puts more on the shoulders of Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie — and when those two share the court this season the Nets are -5.1 per 100 possessions. Brooklyn hits a soft stretch of the schedule this week, a chance to right the ship (before a home-and-home with Boston).

Thunder small icon 18. Thunder (5-9, LW 18). Watch the Thunder play in person and the word that comes to mind is scrappy. They are not the most talented team in the league, but they are tough to play against. One change this season is they are no longer an elite offensive rebounding team — at 21.8% they are worst in the league. Coach Billy Donovan says there are a couple of reasons for that. One, strong rebounders for their positions in Russell Westbrook and Paul George are playing elsewhere. Second, they are pulling Steven Adams out farther from the basket this season to use his versatility, but that takes him off the glass more.

Blazers small icon 19. Trail Blazers (5-10, LW 17). Portland turned to Carmelo Anthony to help fill their frontcourt void — and it’s a smart, low-risk gamble. Watching his first game (small sample size alert), he’s not going to hurt the Trail Blazers because they are so desperately in need of help at the four. Does he make them better? Not sure he does. The 4-of-14 shooting first game with 5 turnovers certainly was in part due to rust. However, the bigger issue is the other side of the ball, Anthony looked lost at points, and things are only going to get tougher because teams will target him. We need more games to really judge this, but so far the reaction to his play is “meh.” Portland is 1-2 to start their six-game road swing.

Spurs small icon 20. Spurs (5-9, LW 15). Losers of six in a row and the problem is on the defensive end where they are second worst in the NBA in that stretch. The problem starts right when the game tips off — San Antonio’s starting unit has a minus-33.3 net rating in 71 minutes of first quarter action, something Tom Osborne of the Express-News pointed out. Dallas recently put up a 36 spot on the Spurs in the first quarter, and that was pretty much ballgame.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (6-8, LW 22). They remain one of the NBA’s luckiest teams, they have the net rating of a 4-10 team, but Charlotte’s ability to fall behind by double digits and come back has them flirting with the idea of a playoff spot early. Devonte Graham in the starting lineup now helps with those comebacks, as does Malik Monk hitting game winners.

Pistons small icon 22. Pistons (4-9, LW 25). Detroit has the best offense in the NBA the past couple of weeks, thanks in part to the return of Blake Griffin, but the team still can’t get stops and that’s why they have lost four in a row. The Pistons’ defense has been bottom five in the league the past four games and for the entire season, there is no way a return trip to the playoffs is happening if the Pistons don’t clean up that end of the court.

Pelicans small icon 23. Pelicans (5-9, LW 27). Despite a training room starting to resemble a television drama ER, the Pelicans have won 4-of-6 behind some strong play from Jrue Holiday (22.4 points and 8.2 assists per game in his last five) and J.J. Redick (21.8 points per game in his last five). Things get tough coming up with 4-of-5 on the road, and the one home game is the red-hot Lakers.

Bulls small icon 24. Bulls (4-10, LW 19). Lauri Markenneen has looked lost and is not taking the step forward everyone expected of him in his third season. He is shooting 36.2% overall and 26.8% from three, both career lows. It’s not just the three ball, Markenneen is taking more shots than ever before at the rim but his hitting just 51.2 percent on those. The Bulls have lost 4-of-5 and look nothing like the playoff team they hoped to be this season.

Cavaliers small icon 25. Cavaliers (4-9, LW 20). When you have a young team — particularly a young backcourt such as Collin Sexton and Darius Garland — consistency is not in the cards. The Cavaliers can destroy the Knicks and look good in a one-point loss to Philly, then turn around a week later and get blown out by those same two teams (with an ugly loss to the Heat in between). It can be rough to watch sometimes, but it’s about getting them reps so in a couple of years we see a polished product that is consistent (and wins more).

Knicks small icon 26. Knicks (4-10, LW 30). New York has the third-worst offense in the league this season in part because they have had the worst half court offense in the league and they play at the 27th slowest pace in the league, so they spend more time in the half court. That and they can’t seem to buy a make in the paint. Despite that, the Knicks have won 2-of-3 and their one loss was a close game to the Hornets (and of their four wins this season, two are against Dallas, it must be a Kristaps Porzingis revenge thing). The bad news: Starting tonight in Philadelphia the schedule is brutal for the next few weeks.

Grizzlies small icon 27. Grizzlies (5-9, LW 29). When we talk Grizzlies youth movement we talk Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. — and those two have shown a lot more chemistry the past week or so — but don’t sleep on Brandon Clarke being part of what is built in Memphis. The first-round pick out of Gonzaga has proven to be a solid role player averaging 12.7 points and 6.1 rebounds a game, plus shooting 44% from three. The Grizzlies aren’t winning much, but they remain a team worth watching.

Wizards small icon 28. Wizards (3-8, LW 26). The Washington Wizards have the third-best offense in the NBA this season (overall and even when you filter out garbage time like Cleaning the Glass does). Bradley Beal averaging 30.1 points per game and playing like an All-Star is at the heart of that, but Thomas Bryant, Isaiah Thomas, and Rui Hachimura are all pitching in points and balancing the offense as well. If Scott Brooks could just coax a few stops out of this team, well, at least they’d move up these rankings.

Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (4-9, LW 21). This really shouldn’t be a surprise, but we’ll detail it anyway: When Trae Young is on the court, the Hawks offense scores 108.4 points per 100 possessions, which would have them a little above average in the NBA this season. However, when he sit the Hawks cannot get buckets, averaging a dreadful 89.6 per 100. This team desperately misses John Collins (out with a PED suspension).

Warriors small icon 30. Warriors (3-12, LW 29). What a world we live in, where a year ago we weren’t sure the Warriors would ever give up the top spot in these rankings, and now their fall to the bottom is complete. The one bright note remains rookie Eric Paschall, who is proving to be surprisingly efficient in isolation sets for the Warriors.

Three Things to Know: Markelle Fultz is making plays, getting buckets for Orlando

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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) Don’t look now, but Markelle Fultz is making plays, getting buckets for Orlando. The Washington Wizards were going to dare Markelle Fultz to use that long-broken jumper.

Midway through the first quarter, Nikola Vucevic brought the ball out to the left wing above the arc, handed the ball to Fultz and set a pick, but Washington defender Isaiah Thomas instantly backed a couple of steps off. Fultz set his feet and drained a three. One minute later, almost the exact same scenario played out in an early shot clock opportunity. After that, Wizards’ defenders started to come out and contest Fultz from beyond the arc, and that opened lanes for what Fultz really wants to do, drive to the rim. He was in attack mode for the rest of the night.

Fultz had his best NBA game Sunday — scoring a career-high 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting — capped off by this steal and slam to seal the win.

Fultz is playing solid, respectable ball for Orlando — and he’s improving seemingly game to game. On the season he is averaging 10.5 points a night on 48.6 percent shooting (21.4 percent from three), plus 3.1 assists and 2.2 rebounds.

Not All-Star numbers, not the numbers teams hope for from No. 1 overall picks. However, for Fultz this is a marked improvement from the player with a combination of an injury and a clear mental block — call it a case of the yips if you want — we saw the first two seasons. Fultz was the top pick of the 76ers back in 2017 (they traded with Boston to move up to get him), but by the start of training camp had seemingly just lost the ability to shoot the basketball. He played only 14 games that season. During his second season he was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome (a pinching of the blood vessels and/or nerves around the collarbone), and the Sixers threw in the towel and traded Fultz to Orlando. Fultz never got on the court the second half of last season.

This season, out of the spotlight and pressure of being on a contender in a major market, Fultz has started to find his game again. He talked about it after his play on Sunday.

“I never lost confidence. I’m just feeling better. I took the time this summer to rehab and get everything right physically. Each game out there, I’m feeling more and more better. It’s showing in my play and I’m just going to keep going.”

Fultz’s jumper still has a lower release and he pushes it more than you’d like, it’s not a form dad’s would have their children mimic. But, it’s going in more and more. Fultz is looking comfortable when he drives, and his comfort level seems to be growing every time he steps on the court. The Magic like what they see (they should, considering they picked up is $12.4 million option for next season) and Fultz has moved into the starting lineup.
It’s all good signs for someone who a lot of people in the media and around the league are rooting for — and that includes fellow Washington alumnus Thomas, who watched the improved Fultz first-hand on Sunday.

2) Boston’s 10-game win streak rolls off the rim with Marcus Smart’s attempted game-winner. This looked every bit the game-winning shot by Marcus Smart. Until it wasn’t.

That shot ended Boston’s 10-game win streak on a night they just were not as sharp as they had been. Boston had six players in double digits led by Jaylen Brown’s 18, but this was a game where they missed Gordon Hayward’s playmaking and scoring. With the game on the line, it was Smart — who was 2-of-15 shooting up to that point — forced to drive and take the shot.

Also, Sacramento had Buddy Hield and he seemingly could not miss — he had 35 points, including seven three-pointers.

Don’t look now, but after an ugly start to the season the Kings are 5-2 in November, and the two losses were to the Raptors and Lakers by a combined 6 points. Luke Walton’s team is figuring it out.

3) Kobe Bryant shows up to Staples Center, Lakers show out and roll Hawks. The Lakers are the best team in the NBA to start the season and the stars were out Sunday night to watch them: Kevin Hart, Chance the Rapper, and…

Oh, Kobe Bryant.

He was getting a lot of love from the Lakers’ stars.

Even Dwight Howard and Kobe were all good.

Part of the draw for all those stars was Trae Young, who has been putting on a show this season and had 31 against the Lakers, plus handed out seven dimes.

But this was no contest, with the Lakers up 12 after one quarter and then 28 at the half. LeBron had 33 points, 12 assists, and continues to play at an MVP level no matter who is in the house. Kyle Kuzma had a solid 17 off the bench. Los Angeles is now 10-2 on the season and look like the force of nature Lakers nation had hoped for before the season.

Paul George’s 37 in home debut lead Clippers past Hawks 150-101 (VIDEO)

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LOS ANGELES — Paul George scored 37 points in his Clippers home debut, Lou Williams added 25, and Los Angeles led all the way in routing the Atlanta Hawks 150-101 on Saturday night.

The anticipated first game with George and Kawhi Leonard in the lineup together didn’t happen when Leonard sat out with a left knee contusion.

But the Clippers didn’t need both of their new superstars on a night when George tied his career high with six 3-pointers and made all 11 of his free throws in the team’s biggest blowout of the young season.

George was clearly having fun in the fourth when he stole the ball, dribbled down and tossed it off the glass, setting up Montrezl Harrell for a two-handed dunk that ignited the crowd and pushed the Clippers’ lead to 36 points.

George sat down for good with 9:58 remaining in the game, having done all his damage playing 20 minutes.

Two nights after scoring 33 in his debut at New Orleans, George had it going from the start. He scored 15 of the Clippers’ first 22 points in a six-minute span. They led by 17 and shot 59 percent in the opening quarter.

George is the first player in franchise history to score 30-plus points in his first two games with the team.

The Hawks scored 11 straight points to close within four early in the second quarter, the closest they would come the rest of the game. The Clippers answered with an 18-6 run, fueled by George’s nine points, to go back up by 17 again.

George had 25 points at halftime when the Clippers led 74-62, shooting 52% and making all 16 of their free throws.

Leonard also sat out on Thursday when George made his Clippers debut in a loss to the Pelicans.

George missed the season’s first 11 games while completing rehab from offseason shoulder surgery.

“I would love them to play every game and be out there,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said before the game. “We knew early on this would be a tough go.”

Trae Young had 20 points for the Hawks, who dropped their second in a row. They trailed by 52 points in the fourth.

The Clippers dominated in nearly every category, with their bench outscoring the Hawks’ reserves 81-35. Los Angeles made 17 3-pointers and hit 33 of 35 free throws.

 

DeAndre’ Bembry gets ejected for taunting Ricky Rubio, continues talking (video)

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The Hawks are rapidly changing. General manager Travis Schlenk took over just two years ago and has already turned over nearly the entire roster. Only DeAndre’ Bembry remains as an inherited player.

It’s not an easy situation for Bembry, who’s headed toward free agency next summer. He’s playing for a team with a lead executive who never chose him. Bembry can’t count on any team investing in him.

That’s the context in which Bembry got ejected from Atlanta’s loss to the Suns last night. He blocked Ricky Rubio‘s shot, taunted the Phoenix guard, got a technical foul, kept talking and got another technical foul.

The ejection seems pretty weak, but Bembry left himself vulnerable to the techs.

Hawks rookie Cameron Reddish also got ejected for multiple flagrant fouls.

Hawks’ Kevin Huerter out at least two weeks with shoulder injury

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ATLANTA — Hawks guard Kevin Huerter is expected to miss at least two weeks with a left rotator cuff strain.

Huerter also was diagnosed with a shoulder capsule strain when examined Thursday in Atlanta.

Huerter left the team’s West Coast trip after he was hurt in Tuesday night’s 125-121 victory at Denver.

The Hawks say Huerter, who is averaging 9.3 points per game, will have rehabilitation and treatment before being examined again in two weeks.

Huerter suffered the injury when fouled by Denver’s Nikola Jokic while going up for a shot. The second-year player immediately grabbed his shoulder and headed to the locker room.

The Hawks were at Phoenix on Thursday night.