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.

PBT Podcast: Buy or Sell, does Carmelo helps Blazers? Luka Doncic MVP?

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Buy or Sell: Carmelo Anthony will make the Portland Trail Blazers better.

Buy or Sell: The Boston Celtics are contenders in the East.

Buy or Sell: Luka Doncic is an MVP candidate.

Buy or Sell: LeBron James will lead the league in assists.

Early this NBA season there are a lot of surprises, but are they for real? Will we look back at these starts come March and just shrug? Dan Feldman of NBC Sports joins me and we either buy or sell them in this edition of the NBC Sports ProBasketballTalk podcast.

Other topics on the table for discussion include if James Harden can average 40 points a game, if the Suns are a playoff team, and is Karl-Anthony Towns the best center in the NBA.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Three Things to Know: Luka Doncic is destroying the NBA, setting records — and he’s still 20

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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) Luka Doncic is destroying the NBA, setting records — and he’s still 20. I, for one, welcome our new Luka Doncic overlord.

LeBron James is right, Doncic is a “bad m***** f*****.” Doncic is destroying the Association and he’s not yet old enough to legally buy a drink. Monday night against the Spurs he had arguably his best game yet: a career-high 42-points, plus 11 rebounds and 12 assists.

It’s hard to get a grasp on just how historic a start to the season Doncic is having, but to help here’s the full list of players who have had 40+ point triple-doubles at or before age 20:

LeBron James
Luka Doncic

That’s it. Expand that to age 21 and you can add Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, and Isiah Thomas. That’s some Hall of Fame company Doncic is running with at a young age.

Doncic has six triple-doubles this season, which leads the league. On the season he is averaging 29.5 points, 10.7 rebounds and 9.3 assists per game, all with a ridiculously efficient 61.2 percent true shooting. Those rebounds are the real difference maker, by the way.

It’s far too early to have a serious MVP conversation, but if you do, Doncic has to be a part of it. He’s been that good this season.

Did I mention he’s only 20?

2) Also making history: James Harden. The Beard put up 36 points in 33:06 minutes on the court against Portland, which is actually slightly below his per game average (39.2) but is still its own bit of history.

Russell Westbrook is right about how we view Harden sometimes, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“I think that a lot of people like to normalize greatness when you see it over and over again, but it’s not normal because there’s nobody else that can do it. If it was normal, everybody would do it.”

Westbrook, by the way, had his own big night with a triple-double of 28 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists.

The Rockets have won eight in a row and are one of the NBA’s hottest teams right now.

3) Paul George sticks a dagger in his former team, Clippers beat Thunder. It looked like the night former Clippers would get revenge on their team: First Danilo Gallinari hit a three to tie the game at 86-86, then Chris Paul made two free throws for an 88-86 Thunder lead.

Then Paul George happened.

Gallinari had a shot at a three to win but it missed, George hit a free throw after being fouled, and the Clippers get out 90-88 with a win. The real Los Angeles star for the night was Montrezl Harrell, who had 28 points and 12 rebounds off the bench.

George saw his minutes jump to 29 in just his third game back from shoulder surgeries (plural, as in both of them) but did not score north of 30 like his first two games as the Thunder defense had more of a focus on him.

Kawhi Leonard missed his third straight game with a bruised knee suffered against the Rockets.

Report: Rockets waiving Ryan Anderson

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To facilitate a trade from the Rockets to the Suns last summer, Ryan Anderson reduced the guarantee of his 2019-20 salary by $5,620,885. Anderson barely played in Phoenix, got traded to the Heat, barely played in Miami and got waived. He again signed with the Rockets this summer.

Now, after barely playing in Houston, Anderson will continue his odyssey elsewhere.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Anderson was guaranteed $500,000 on his minimum-salary contract this season. By the time he clears waivers, he will have earned $434,704. So, assuming Anderson goes unclaimed, Houston will be on the hook for the remaining $65,296.

This might end the career of the 31-year-old Anderson. Once a premier stretch four, he no longer stands out in a league where 3-point shooting has become a common skill for power forwards. He’s also a major defensive liability.

Report: Doubts linger around Rockets about Tilman Fertitta-Daryl Morey fit

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Before Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet sparked an international geopolitical firestorm, it created a fissure in Houston. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta quickly tweeted that Morey didn’t speak for the organization. It was a harsh public rebuke that led to major questions about Morey’s future in Houston.

Especially because there was already concern about the Fertitta-Morey relationship.

Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN:

Though a couple of NBA executives speculated Morey might have greater difficulty attracting marquee free agents to Houston, few said that his ability to perform his job would be affected beyond having to placate Fertitta, a shotgun marriage that sources close to the Rockets have considered a tenuous fit since Fertitta bought the team in 2017.

Morey has been operating like someone who doesn’t believe he’ll be in Houston long-term. Morey traded the Rockets’ last four first-round picks. He traded multiple distant-future first-round picks and took on significant future salary to upgrade from Chris Paul to Russell Westbrook. Morey also gave a three-year-guaranteed contract extension to a 30-year-old Eric Gordon.

To be fair, Morey has also been operating like someone whose team’s championship window is closing. That could also explain repeatedly mortgaging Houston’s future. It’s difficult to parse the difference.

But the costs incurred to contend now have veered toward paying later than paying now.

Morey has kept the Rockets out of the luxury tax – a detriment to their on-court ability, but a boon to Fertitta’s wallet. There’s no reason for Morey to operate this way if not directed by the owner. Yet, Fertitta has claimed the luxury tax didn’t influence roster decisions. That’s totally unbelieve, but if taken at face value, Fertitta was throwing Morey under the bus for downgrading Houston’s roster.

It’s easy to read between the lines and see a disconnect between Fertitta and Morey. This is only corroboration, and considering Arnovitz describes his sources as “close to the Rockets,” it’s particularly persuasive.

But Fertitta signed Morey to a five-year extension earlier this year. Fertitta also stood by Morey during the China-Hong Kong controversy, calling Morey the NBA’s best general manager. Whatever problems between the two, Fertitta continues empower Morey in significant ways.