November 19, 2017

Welcome to this season’s first Bballbreakdown power rankings! You didn’t think we could avoid one of the NBA’s greatest traditions, did you?

Since this is the first edition of our power rankings, let’s run down how they’re going to go. First, these rankings will be occurring bi-weekly. Weekly power rankings are stupid; they’re either repetitive, or ripe with overreactions.

Second, we’re bucking the trend and going in reverse order. Is this partially to get you to read the whole damn article? Yes, of course. But mostly, countdowns are just more fun than countups. Countups isn’t even a word, that’s how boring they are.

Third, we’re not doing tiers or individual rankings. We’re doing both. Because it’s important to know what teams are in similar brackets, but also important to have clear winners; this isn’t T-Ball, after all.

Fourth and finally, these will be long. “Breakdown” is in our name for a reason. We’re going to have some actual breakdowns and analysis here, sometimes about the teams, sometimes about the players.

Okay, I’ll shut up. Let’s get started.

All stats through Thursday morning.

Kings, Sacramento Kings

Tier 9: These Teams are Bad; Really, Really Bad

  1. Chicago Bulls (2-7)

Offensive rating: 30th (94.2)

Defensive rating: 15th (103.0)

Net rating: 28th (-8.7)

 Things have been a mess in Chicago since the moment their playoff run ended in the spring. They traded a young superstar for a box of Cracker Jack’s. They doubled-down on the wholly uninspiring Fred Hoiberg. Their practices turned into an HBO Pay Per View boxing match.

Emerging from the ashes of a disastrous offseason has been a team whose best offensive players have been Justin, the lesser of the Holidays, and a rookie. Not a recipe for success. Still, that rookie, Lauri Markkanen, has exceeded expectations. His offensive game is fluent beyond what was known (his jumper), and his defense looks surprisingly promising, despite his twig-like frame.

There are some (okay, fine, just the one) bright spots in Chicago. But, for the foreseeable future, they are not good, at all.

  1. Sacramento Kings (2-8)

Offensive rating: 29th (95.2)

Defensive rating: 21st (106.7)

Net rating: 30th (-11.5)

Sacramento’s biggest issue isn’t that they’re failing to score, or that they’re failing to stop their opponents from scoring (though both of those things are occurring). It’s that they’re playing 36-year old Zach Randolph over Skal Labissiere, and 31-year old Garrett Temple over Buddy Hield. For a team with only the future to play for, the Kings brass has a bizarre infatuation with giving minutes to aimless veterans.

Still, rookie De’Aaron Fox’s defense looks as good as advertised, and his offense is already ahead of what was anticipated. He’s not scoring efficiently, but he’s showing an ability to get to his spot, read defenses, and manipulate defenders. He has more than a little John Wall in his game, and if his shot ever develops, the Kings have their franchise point guard.

  1. Dallas Mavericks (2-10)

Offensive rating: 26th (99.9)

Defensive rating: 27th (109.1)

Net rating: 29th (-9.2)

The Mavericks have the worst record in basketball, and for the most part have looked like the worst team in basketball. But their two wins have come against the Grizzlies and the Wizards (by a combined 23 points, no less), which lets them climb the stairs out of the basement. There are signs in Dallas, but generally, it’s complete and utter disarray.

As much as it hurts to say, the Mavs have a serious Dirk Nowitzki problem. There’s enough goodwill that Dallas insists on starting Dirk, but it’s clearly not working. They fluctuate between starting him at power forward, where he immediately becomes one of the league’s worst defensive players, and starting him at center, where he forces Nerlens Noel to the bench.

Speaking of Noel, Dallas’ potential franchise center still hasn’t earned Rick Carlisle’s trust, and is averaging just 17.2 minutes per game – fewer than Devin Harris. J.J. Barea, and Yogi Ferrell. Dallas is not making the playoffs this year, or ever again in the Dirk era; until they realize that, they’ll keep handicapping their future.

  1. Phoenix Suns (4-8)

Offensive rating: 25th (100.5)

Defensive rating: 28th (109.2)

Net rating: 27th (-8.7)

The Suns have looked surprisingly full of life since firing Earl Watson, but the new-coach boost is both common, and lacking stamina. Phoenix has issues left and right, namely that they don’t have any above average players. Devin Booker’s improvements have been encouraging, as he’s putting in 24.4 points per game while scoring with above average efficiency (.564 true-shooting percentage) for the first time in his career, but on the whole, the Suns simply lack talent.

With the Eric Bledsoe fiasco finally in the rear-view mirror, Phoenix can finally move on and put their full focus on building around their young pieces. It just remains to be seen whether those young pieces are worth building around.

  1. Atlanta Hawks (2-9)

Offensive rating: 24th (100.9)

Defensive rating: 23rd (107.1)
Net rating: 26th (-6.2)

Atlanta’s record stands to improve quite a bit. With a terrific coach in Mike Budenholzer, and a collection of strong defensive players, their defense will likely rise a number of spots. They’ve played teams tough, including a recent back-to-back where they beat Cleveland and nearly upset Boston. What seems less likely to improve is their offense. Dennis Schroder is much improved scoring the ball, but Atlanta lacks scorers and playmakers everywhere else.

The brightest spot for Atlanta is that 19th pick John Collins looks like a steal already. He’s patient on offense, rolling to the basket with exceptional timing, and showing uncanny restraint with his freakish athleticism. There’s work to be done on his defense, but he shows great promise in the pick and roll, even when switched onto the perimeter.

Knicks, Kristaps Porzingis

Tier 8: Bad teams with signs of life

 

  1. Brooklyn Nets (4-7)

Offensive rating: 21st (102.0)

Defensive rating: 22nd (106.8)

Net rating: 25th (-4.8)

After a surprisingly hot start to the season, despite the season-ending injury to Jeremy Lin, the Nets have come back to earth. 25th seems like a place they could call home all season. As most young teams do, the Nets have struggled to move the ball. When they do, their athleticism, hustle, and heart are enough to make them a tough out for any team.

No one represents the yin and yang of Brooklyn quite like their new star, D’Angelo Russell. In Brooklyn’s three wins, Russell has moved the ball to the tune of 8.0 assists per game, while sporting a reasonably efficient .561 true-shooting percentage. In their losses, Russell’s assists plummet to 4.6 per game, and his shooting drops to .521, as he jacks a higher number of shots.

Brooklyn has the potential to surprise teams. However, it seems unlikely that they will.

  1. Los Angeles Lakers (5-6)

Offensive rating: 28th (99.1)

Defensive rating: 5th (100.9)

Net rating: 18th (-1.7)

The Lonzo effect may very well be real, but it certainly hasn’t arrived at Staples Center. Through the first 11 games of his career, the eldest Ball brother has struggled mightily with his shot, hitting 29.5% of his attempts, 23.1% of his threes, and 53.8% of his free throws. The result is a highly disappointing 8.8 points per game on a ghastly .352 true-shooting percentage. Still, Ball is showing the elite court vision that earned him such high pre-draft praise, and his defense is surprisingly strong, both on and off the ball.

It’s the defense as a whole that’s shocking for LA. No one expected them to be just 28th offensively, but no one expected them to be 5th defensively, either. Somehow, a team starting a rookie point guard, a second-year defensively-inept small forward, and a center who has never shown any interest in defense has been one of the stingiest teams in the Association. They’ve done so with active hands, quick rotations, and most importantly, a strong interest in actually playing D.

  1. Miami Heat (5-6)

Offensive rating: 23rd (101.5)

Defensive rating: 17th (103.9)

Net rating: 22nd (-2.4)

If there’s a team that will almost surely emerge from this pack, it’s Miami. But until they make that happen, they’re down here with a few teams that they’ll likely outpace in the coming weeks and months.

After finishing 2016-17 with the second-best net rating for the second half of the season, the Heat have struggled to find their footing in the early going. But their struggles are at times encouraging. The Heat are 12th in the league in true-shooting percentage, but their high turnover rate and low offensive rebounding rate have given them a porous offensive rating. Some of those issues are real, but some are just early season effort and chemistry problems that will likely get sorted out.

  1. New York Knicks (6-5)

Offensive rating: 12th (105.3)

Defensive rating: 25th (107.7)
Net rating: 20th (-2.4)

Unicorn season came earlier than anyone anticipated. As soon as the ball-dominant ways of Carmelo Anthony were packed in a box and shipped to the Midwest, the 7’3” Kristaps Porzingis unleashed a flurry of moves on the league. Porzingis is shooting 38% from deep en route to a beautiful .607 true-shooting percentage. He’s second in the league with 30.0 points per game, while adding 7.5 rebounds and 2.3 block per contest. It’s been clear that superstardom was in his future; but that future came quickly.

Unfortunately for Porzingis, his Knicks teammates would struggle to defend a college team. The Carmelo trade netted the Knicks with one of the league’s worst defensive centers, Enes Kanter, and coach Jeff Hornacek refuses to give Willy Hernangomez any of Kanter’s minutes. On the flip side, rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina is forcing Hornacek’s hand, and starting to earn minutes (while looking very deserving of his lottery selection). If that continues, New York’s defense could see some much-needed improvements, but they’ll still be limited as long as Kanter is the de facto center.

.Dante Exum, Jazz

 

 

Tier 7: Are they good? Are they bad? Who really knows

 

  1. Utah Jazz (5-6)
    Offensive rating: 27th (99.2)

Defensive rating: 6th (101.0)

Net rating: 19th (-1.8)

The Jazz are essentially who we thought they would be when they lost Gordon Hayward and George Hill, and gained Ricky Rubio. They’re ruthless on defense, and lifeless on offense. The Jazz lull their opponents into a molasses offense, then hound the ball, rotate on the perimeter, and swat away everything at the rim. Their defense is methodical in its precision.

While their offense will never be great, it should improve. Rookie Donovan Mitchell is inexplicably leading the team in shot attempts, yet currently couldn’t throw a golf ball into a swimming pool. Ricky Rubio has the highest efficiency of his career, but hasn’t yet found the chemistry and rhythm with his new teammates and system, and is averaging juts 6.0 assists per game.

Utah needs time to figure things out. They likely will, but until then, they remain in hardwood purgatory.

  1. Indiana Pacers (5-7)

Offensive rating: 7th (107.1)
Defensive rating: 24th (107.1)

Net rating: 16th (0.0)

The Pacers have done something no one saw coming this year: made a few MVP voters question putting Russell Westbrook on their ballots. In Oklahoma City, Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis were endlessly tagged with the “Russ has no help” label. No longer reduced to being trash teammates, both young players have shined in Indiana. Somantas is averaging a double-double, and Oladipo is splashing in 22.8 points on very nice efficiency. The result is team offensive production that no one saw coming.

The defense is struggling, but young potential stalwart Myles Turner has only played five games. Indiana has issues rebounding, which makes the margin for error paper thin for such a young team. Shore up a few of these issues, and the Pacers could make a run for the playoffs in their first year without Paul George.

  1. Charlotte Hornets (5-6)

Offensive rating: 16th (104.2)
Defensive rating: 16th (103.8)

Net rating: 13th (0.4)

This tier asks whether or not these teams are good. It seems pretty likely that Charlotte is. Their net rating is in the top half of the league, and we have every reason to expect them to be a playoff team. And yet . . . Charlotte has a losing record. Before you scream about how it’s only 11 games, it’s worth pointing to last year as a cautionary tale: in 2016-17, the Hornets were 12th in the league by net rating, but finished 10 games below .500.

Normally net rating is more predictive than record, but sometimes the two never sync up. Some teams employ a style that struggles in close games, or they blow out bad teams but cannot beat good ones. For Charlotte, it’s likely been their difficult competition. Of their 11 games, only three have come against teams below .500, and two of those three were the Bucks, who are likely a pretty good team.

Kemba Walker has been on fire to start the year, and he and Dwight Howard have formed a formidable 1-2 punch. Jeremy Lamb and rookie Dwayne Bacon have done an admirable job filling in for the injured Nicholas Batum, and they’ve stayed afloat despite just five games from Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. It seems likely that Charlotte will turn things around in a big way, but after last year’s inexplicable failures, they haven’t earned the benefit of the doubt.

Cavaliers, LeBron James

Tier 6: The most confusing team in the NBA

 

  1. Cleveland Cavaliers (5-6)

Offensive rating: 2nd (108.9)

Defensive rating: 30th (112.4)

Net rating: 24th (-3.5)

No one knows what to make of the Cavs. What do you do with a team that’s been the best non-Warriors team offensively, but the worst team in the league defensively? The good news for the Cavs is that there’s a higher likelihood of their defense improving than of their offense regressing. The bad news is, there’s not too much room for that improvement.

The Cavs’ defensive woes are not driven by variance, or effort. They’re driven by a fundamental inability to play good defense. Dwyane Wade and Derrick rose look as interested as their legs look capable of guarding opponents. JR Smith has fallen off a cliff defensively, and LeBron James and Jae Crowder have regressed a little further. But worst of all, their defensive principles are head-scratching: Cleveland looks completely bewildered defending the pick and roll, with the involved defenders rarely in sync. Their help defense comes from one pass away far too regularly, resulting in easy shots, and stagnant rotations. The entire machine is a mess.

But hey, they sure can score!

DeAndre Jordan, Clippers

Tier 5: Good teams that aren’t really playing like it

  1. Milwaukee Bucks (4-6)

Offensive rating: 8th (107.1)

Defensive rating: 29th (109.5)

Net rating: 21st (-2.4)

After trading for Eric Bledsoe, the Bucks are poised to jump up this list by a pretty significant margin. But until we start seeing that, they’re stuck in the middle. Despite having above-average defenders in Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Malcolm Brogdon, the Bucks have struggled to stop anyone from scoring. Bledsoe’s addition (as well as Greg Monroe’s departure) should help that, but if they don’t start executing better defensively, they’ll be stuck in the mud.

Milwaukee has the tools to compete on both ends of the floor, but coach Jason Kidd seems a little bit lost. He’s struggling to take advantage of Antetokounmpo’s diverse defensive talents (might I suggest watching how Golden State uses Draymond Green, coach), and the offense is still too stagnant. The Bucks should climb towards the top of the Eastern Conference, but there’s work to be done.

  1. Denver Nuggets (6-5)

Offensive rating: 15th (104.6)

Defensive rating: 18th (104.7)

Net rating: 17th (-0.1)

Last year, the Nuggets took the same trajectory that Cleveland is pursuing this year. Once Nikola Jokic was named starter, and Gary Harris returned to the lineup, Denver sported the best offensive rating in the league – even better than Golden State. But Denver finished 29th in the league defensively, which kept them out of the playoffs.

So, it’s a little shocking that the Nuggets find themselves in the middle of the pack offensively this year. This is a team that should be dominating with the ball, yet they’ve been slow out of the gates. Much of this is due to the struggles of new point guard Jamal Murray, who is making just 23.9% of his threes. Free agent All-Star Paul Millsap has at times struggled to find his place next to offensive wunderkind Jokic, but, like Murray’s hiccups, that figures to change.

The defensive improvement is encouraging, and looks sustainable, thanks to Millap’s presence, and the team’s stronger rotations. If and when the offense comes around, this team will be a force.

  1. Washington Wizards (5-5)
    Offensive rating: 6th (107.2)

Defensive rating: 20th (106.1)

Net rating: 11th (1.1)

On the one hand, Washington’s five wins have featured triumphs over the Raptors, Sixers, and Pistons, as well as narrow road loss to the Warriors. On the other hand, their five losses have featured defeats to the Suns, Lakers, and Mavericks. Through ten games it’s abundantly clear that the Wizards can beat anyone, and lose to anyone.

The biggest development for Washington has been the offensive birth of Otto Porter Jr., who is making the most of his huge contract. Porter is averaging 17.7 points per game on just 12.2 shots, while continuing to play strong defense. Unfortunately, Washington ended last season with an invisible bench, and decided to do nothing about it. The big leads the starters earn quickly evaporate when Scott Brooks goes to the pine: they have the seventh-best starting net rating, and the 25th-best bench net rating. That seems unlikely to change, which should put a ceiling on an otherwise brilliant team.

  1. New Orleans Pelicans (6-5)

Offensive rating: 18th (103.0)

Defensive rating: 12th (102.4)

Net rating: 12th (0.6)

 The writing is on the wall for the Pelicans. There’s only so far two superstars and one quality starter can take you when you have almost literally nothing else. DeMarcus Cousins look dramatically rejuvenated, and he and Anthony Davis have been the second-most fearful duo in the league: they’ve combined for an unthinkable 57.3 points, 26.4 rebounds, 8.4 assists, and 4.0 blocks per game. And yet, despite that, the Pelicans are only treading water.

Alvin Gentry has had to rely on his bigs dramatically just to get to this point: Boogie is playing 38.3 minutes, and Davis 36.8. Eventually, they’ll wear down, and it’s painfully clear that Jrue Holiday, E’Twaun Moore, and Ian Clark can’t shoulder the load. Cousins and Davis work better together than most imagined, but there’s only so much they can do.

  1. Los Angeles Clippers (5-5)

Offensive rating: 3rd (108.4)

Defensive rating: 19th (104.8)

Net rating: 10th (3.6)

In their first year without Chris Paul, the Clippers offense looks surprisingly strong. They’ve been one of the league’s elite scoring the ball, as running the offense through Blake Griffin has proved successful thus far. The spacing provided by the Clippers’ host of shooters has allowed the multiple-big men offense to thrive, and Griffin’s abilities as both a playmaker and shooter have been shown off.

Unfortunately, the defense has struggled. Despite replacing Paul with the ball-hounding Patrick Beverley, Los Angeles looks lost defensively. Blake Griffin’s slow footwork on the perimeter has been exposed by the rapidly downsizing power forward position, and Danilo Gallinari and Austin Rivers getting beat off the dribble or back door has become a reliable nightly occurrence. The help rotations are solid, but the talent isn’t.

The net rating is very strong, but also propped up by a 42-point shellacking of a dysfunctional Phoenix team. LA still has a lot to prove.

Ben Simmons, 76ers

Tier 4: Volatility

  1. Philadelphia 76ers (6-4)

Offensive rating: 20th (102.2)

Defensive rating: 8th (101.9)

Net rating: 15th (0.2)

We knew it wouldn’t be easy for Philly. They were relying on two rookies in Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz, a second-year player in Dario Saric, and a half-rookie with 31 career games in Joel Embiid. Yet go down their first 10 games, and you can already see the framework for how exceptional of a team The Process may net. Philly has wins over the Rockets and Pistons, as well as the Pacers and Jazz. They have last-second losses to the Rockets and Wizards, and they’ve been without Embiid for two games.

While Ben Simmons’ rookie dominance (17.8 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 8.0 assists per game) has been the headline, Philly has been winning on defense. Much of this is due to their impressive switchability: their current starting five features the 7’0” Embiid, 6’11” Simmons, 6’10” Saric, and 6’9” Covington. All four of these players are strong enough and tall enough to defend in the post, and athletic enough to defend the perimeter, so they’re able to switch everything.

The young Sixer are putting it together, and quickly. And they’re must-see TV right now, even without Fultz.

  1. Oklahoma City Thunder (4-6)

Offensive rating: 22nd (102.0)

Defensive rating: 2nd (96.9)

Net rating: 6th (5.1)

On the one hand, the Thunder have one of the best net ratings in the league; on the other hand, they have a losing record. Dig deeper, and it’s just as confusing: they’d be 6-4 were it not for two nail-biting losses to the Timberwolves, both of which could easily have gone OKC’s way. Yet they only have one win against a team with a winning record, and that was the Knicks. They’re 0-5 against the West, and they haven’t even faced Golden State, Houston, or San Antonio yet. In other words, the Thunder are confusing.

What’s not confusing is how dominant their defense is. OKC is picking up right where they left off, and everyone looks engaged and active defensively. Carmelo Anthony is surprisingly competent and willing defending 4s, and Andre Roberson, Steven Adams, and Patrick Patterson have been as good as one would expect. Offensively, however, the new trio is struggling to find rhythm. The Thunder have been overly reliant on isolation. Each of the three All-Stars are averaging 20.1 points per game, but each is requiring more than 17 shots to get there. The offensive fit is bizarre, and the early returns are not good.

  1. Orlando Magic (7-4)

Offensive rating: 11th (106.2)

Defensive rating: 7th (101.1)

Net rating: 5th (5.1) 

The Magic have been one of the best stories to start the season. But we’re going to need more than an 11-game sample size before we concede that they’re way better than anyone thought. So far, everything checks out: the ball is hopping around the perimeter, and they’ve turned a mid-range reliance into a flurry of 3s, with Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic looking very comfortable beyond the arc. Defensively, their frontcourt looks much improved, and their backcourt has been trapping and rotating with aplomb, despite Elfrid Payton missing a lot of games.

Orlando’s wins haven’t been flukes: they’ve beaten the Spurs, Cavs, and Grizzlies. But they’ve also lost to the Bulls and Nets. An upcoming four-game road trip that features stops in Denver, Oakland, and Portland should tell us a lot more about the progression of this impressive young team.

Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers

Tier 3: Good, but not great

  1. San Antonio Spurs (7-4)

Offensive rating: 19th (102.9)

Defensive rating: 13th (102.6)

Net rating: 14th (0.4)

There’s not much interest in how the Spurs are playing. They’re as methodical and reliable as ever. The point of interest is Kawhi Leonard, and when he’ll finally return to the floor. When he does, San Antonio will likely rocket to the top-five of these rankings. Until then, they fluctuate between being really good, and looking like a team that’s missing their best player.

While there’s concern about Leonard, there’s also excitement about LaMarcus Aldridge. After his sit-down with Gregg Popovich, and surprising contract extension, Aldridge has looked like a new player. Popovich has crafted the offense around Aldridge’s desires to hold the ball in the post, so instead of stagnating, the San Antonio offense now features endless amounts of cuts when Aldridge posts up. The increase in touches and responsibilities has clearly paid off, as Aldridge is having the best defensive year of his career, hustling down the court, adjusting brilliantly in the pick and roll, and playing strong post defense. If this continues when Leonard returns, the Spurs will find themselves near the very top of the league.

  1. Detroit Pistons (8-3)

Offensive rating: 9th (106.3)

Defensive rating: 9th (102.0)

Net rating: 9th (4.3)

Detroit’s net rating doesn’t quite match their record, but they’ve been highly impressive regardless. They’ve notched a handful of noteworthy wins, including a road back-to-back against the Clippers and Warriors. The big story early has been Andre Drummond, who appears on the up after a disappointing 2016-17.

Drummond started the year looking like Steph Curry from the free throw line. Historically one of the league’s most dismal shooters from the charity stripe, Drummond looked smooth and confident, and the results were there. After going 0-7 on Wednesday, though, his numbers are starting to falter. In the past, Drummond’s free throw woes have led to his offensive inactivity, which has sunk the team. If his numbers keep dropping, Drummond will start playing hot potato, and Detroit will quickly regress. But if they stabilize at a half-decent clip, Drummond’s rejuvenation just may be real, and the Pistons will be a quality team.

  1. Portland Trail Blazers (6-5)

Offensive rating: 13th (105.1)

Defensive rating: 4th (100.3)

Net rating: 7th (4.8)

A team starting Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic has no right being a top-five defensive team. And yet, here we are. The Trail Blazers are crashing the boards like it’s saving them, and the result is limited opportunities for opposing offenses. Portland is allowing teams to shoot at a higher percentage than their own offense is, yet those opportunities are limited thank to the surprising rebounding totals.

On offense, the Blazers have been a little bit disappointing, as Lillard and McCollum have taken turns being hot, rather than finding a flow together. But there’s no reason to be concerned about Portland scoring the ball: that will come around. When it does, hopefully their defense will still be locking down three-point shooters, and grabbing 82.6% of defensive rebounds.

  1. Minnesota Timberwolves (7-4)

Offensive rating: 10th (106.2)

Defensive rating: 26th (108.8)

Net rating: 23rd (-2.6)

The young Wolves are the antithesis of the Thunder: strong record, very poor net rating. But we’re willing to cut them some slack for one main reason: a pair of 20+ point losses when Jimmy Butler was sidelined. Perhaps Minny shouldn’t be this high, but they’re 7-2 with a very strong differential when their best player is healthy, and that’s saying something.

Despite the additions of Butler and Taj Gibson, the Wolves still look defensively incompetent. It starts with their young center, who, in his third year, is no longer a prospect. Karl-Anthony Towns has gone from “high defensive potential” to “one of the league’s worst defensive players”. His stance is abysmal: high center of gravity, feet not spaced apart. His footwork is horrible: short steps, like a running back doing combine drills, rather than slides and glides. And his understanding of where to be when working off ball is at a High School level. If Minnesota wants to compete in the tough West, they need more from their offensively brilliant centerpiece.

  1. Memphis Grizzlies (7-4

Offensive rating: 17th (104.1)

Defensive rating: 3rd (99.7)

Net rating: 8th (4.4)

If you’re still sleeping on Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, then wake up. It’s become abundantly clear that it doesn’t matter who Memphis pairs with their dynamic duo, the Grizzlies will find a way to win. Chances are, most fans can’t name any of Memphis’ starters other than these two, yet the Grizz have coasted to a 7-4 record, with wins over the Warriors, Blazers, and Rockets (twice!).

Memphis gets it done on defense first and foremost, where Conley and Gasol remain two of the best (and most overlooked) players at their respective positions. The Grizzlies’ role players may be anonymous due to their low-scoring outputs, but they’re all defensively talented. With length, strength, and fundamentally sound rotations, Memphis has made locking down offenses and star players an art form. If you like defense, watch this team. If you don’t like defense, well . . . you might after watching the Grizz.

  1. Toronto Raptors (6-4)

Offensive rating: 5th (107.9)

Defensive rating: 14th (102.7)

Net rating: 4th (5.2)

Toronto has had a few hurdles early on. Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valunciunas have missed a combined five games, and Kyle Lowry has been stuck in the mud to start the season. Despite those setbacks, they’ve been one of the best teams in the league. Much of that is due to DeMar DeRozan, who has been a touch more selective with his shots. The early returns have been a dramatically more efficient scorer, as well as better looks for his teammates. He’s essentially taken away three of his worst shots per game, and handed them to someone in a better position. As a result, the offense is thriving.

The bench – long a weakness for Toronto – has stepped up. CJ Miles is as advertised, and Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl, and Pascal Siakam have been incredibly active on both sides of the floor. Rookie OG Anunoby looks NBA-ready, and both the defensive rotations, and the basketball have moved rapidly when the bench unit is on the floor.

If coach Dwayne Casey can begin to understand the fundamental differences between regular season and playoff basketball, Toronto could make a lot of noise in the spring.

Kyrie Irving, Celtics

Tier 2: As good as it gets (non-Warriors edition)

  1. Houston Rockets (8-3)

Offensive rating: 4th (108.4)

Defensive rating: 11th (102.3)

Net rating: 3rd (6.1)

 An early injury to prized offseason acquisition Chris Paul hasn’t slowed down the Rockets. Somehow, the trigger-happy Rockets are shooting even more threes this year: a whopping 44.5 per contest. James Harden and Eric Gordon are combining to attempt 21.6 threes per game, which is more than the entire Sacramento Kings team.

But it’s working. And part of it is due to Harden’s improved shot. After shooting just 34.7% from deep last year, Harden is splashing in 40.4% of his triples this year, and it’s opening up the floor for his teammates. It also will prove key when Paul returns, and Harden plays more off-ball. In past years, teams could sag off of Harden and cede the three when he was off-ball, but if this continues, that will no longer be the case.

Most encouraging is Houston’s defense, which is greatly improved, largely due to the additions of PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute. Once Paul returns, it’s safe to assume the Rockets will be a top-10 team in both offensive and defensive rating.

  1. Boston Celtics (10-2)

Offensive rating: 14th (104.8)

Defensive rating: 1st (95.6)

Net rating: 2nd (9.2)

There’s no good explanation for what the Celtics are doing. They turned over the bulk of their roster, lost their best player six minutes into the season, and dropped their first two games. Since then, they’ve calmly rattled off ten consecutive victories, and looked utterly dominant while doing so.

Nothing about the Celtics makes sense. They gave up Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley, yet they have the league’s best defense – and it isn’t close. They’re giving 61.4 minutes per game to rookies, plus another 31.7 to a second-year player, yet they’re playing composed, controlled, unselfish basketball.

Kyrie Irving may have stunned many by forcing his way out of Cleveland, but it’s evident now why he did. He’s having fun playing Boston basketball, and bought into Brad Stevens’ philosophies far more quickly than anyone could have expected. His scoring hasn’t quite been there, but he’s passing the ball, following the offensive sets, getting more time off-ball, and finally showing some effort on the defensive end (though he still struggles there).

There will be setbacks: the defense will likely regress, and Jayson Tatum will probably have some rookie growing pains at some point. But for now, Boston is playing the second-best basketball it the world. It may be only three weeks in, but Stevens can go ahead and start clearing a spot on his shelf for the Coach of the Year award.

Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Warriors

Tier 1: The reigning, defending, undisputed champions

  1. Golden State Warriors (9-3)

Offensive rating: 1st (116.2)

Defensive rating: 10th (102.0)

Net rating: 1st (14.2)

The Warriors are utterly terrifying. Their defense has looked lackluster and unmotivated, yet they’re still on pace to record the highest net rating in NBA history. Their offense has been sloppy, and is fifth in the league in turnover rate, yet they still have the most dominant offense of all time. Stephen Curry is struggling (by his standards) shooting the three, yet he’s still arguably the frontrunner for MVP.

In other words, Golden State is still trying to put the pieces together, yet their net rating is almost better than the second and third-best team, combined. This team is unfair.

Brady Klopfer

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