NBA Power Rankings: How All 30 Teams Stack Up in Early Part of 2013-14
It's tantalizing for any NBA diehard to draw sweeping conclusions about the season after, say, a week-and-a-half of flipping frantically through the nightly smorgasbord of games on League Pass. I understand; I've been there before and have often found myself stepping into that same trap through the early days of the 2013-14 season.
How could you not? Some people (like yours truly) just can't help getting excited about even the smallest samples of pro hoops after months with only the occasional facsimile to quench their collective thirst.
In time, the thrill of watching revamped teams with new faces—like the Phoenix Suns and the New Orleans Pelicans—go toe-to-toe will give way to the imminent realization that most of these fast starts are merely mirages from the remnants of the basketball wasteland known to most as "summer."
This makes trying to accurately rank all 30 teams such a difficult task at this embryonic juncture. So, too, does the general lack of time that teams have spent playing meaningful basketball on camera. Four to six games aren't enough to judge a team's strengths and weaknesses in anything more than a cursory manner.
That needn't stop us from putting together power rankings of some sort, though. Just keep in mind that these rankings will be rather fluid for the first few weeks (when compared to previous editions) until teams have settled more comfortably into their respective niches within the Association's eventual hierarchy.
30. Utah Jazz
The youthful optimist in me is still hesitant to write off the Utah Jazz entirely.
They're getting great production out of their core four of Gordon Hayward (19 points, 6.6 boards, 4.8 assists), Derrick Favors (11.4 points, 10.2 rebounds), Enes Kanter (18.6 points, 9.2 rebounds, .549 from the field) and Alec Burks (15 points). Hayward has been particularly helpful to Utah's cause as the team weathers the storm at point guard without rookie Trey Burke.
Let's be real, though: As encouraging as close calls against the Russell Westbrook-less Oklahoma City Thunder and the Phoenix Suns may have looked, the Jazz's last three losses—all by double digits—are probably more indicative of what this team actually is.
This team didn't take on the onerous contracts of Richard Jefferson, Andris Biedrins and Brandon Rush because they wanted to do something nice for the Golden State Warriors; they did it because they want to rebuild through the draft.
That means stinking now to boost their own odds of landing a prime pick in a loaded 2014 draft and snagging a couple of more picks from the Warriors for good measure.
At least the hoops heads in Salt Lake City will have some talented youngsters to track through the avalanche of misery that's to come...right?
29. Denver Nuggets
You're right: Dropping the Denver Nuggets this low is probably a bad move. After all, two of their losses were by single digits, and they just picked up their first win of the season, courtesy of the Atlanta Hawks.
But after seeing this team struggle to find its identity on the court and sift through rotational controversy off it, I've sensed a sort of uneasiness about the Nuggets.
Their wings have been abysmal, their defense is eminently torchable, and Kenneth Faried, the team's heart and soul under George Karl, seems demoralized by the lack of confidence (and playing time) that new head coach Brian Shaw has invested in him thus far.
On the bright side, Ty Lawson (21 points, 7.5 assists, 4.8 rebounds, .421 from three) is playing some fairly phenomenal basketball. Too bad it's been lost on a team in transition, rather than used to fuel one that gets out and runs.
28. Philadelphia 76ers
I was tempted to put the Philadelphia 76ers significantly higher than this in the power rankings. After all, they'd managed to score wins over the Miami Heat and the Chicago Bulls within their first three games.
Then, I remembered that Miami was without Dwyane Wade and that the Bulls were still in the incubation stage of Derrick Rose's return. More importantly, blowout losses to the Golden State Warriors and the Washington Wizards solidified just how bad the Sixers are supposed to be.
Not that there isn't some talent worth watching on this roster.
Michael Carter-Williams is the early favorite for Rookie of the Year after snagging Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors in his very first attempt as a pro. Evan Turner (22.2 points, .551 from the floor) is finally scoring like a guy who was picked No. 2 behind John Wall in 2010.
Spencer Hawes is averaging a double-double, Thaddeus Young has been pleasantly productive (per usual) and Tony Wroten hasn't been a complete disaster off the bench.
Other than that, the Sixers are bound to stink for Brett Brown, however noble the cause may be.
27. Boston Celtics
Perhaps the Boston Celtics would be better equipped to pull some more of these close games out in the end if Gerald Wallace weren't running his yap about what's wrong with the team after every game...
Nah, the Celtics' problems are much bigger than that, albeit by design. A team can only expect so much when it's asking Avery Bradley to play the point and Jeff Green to carry the scoring load.
So far, the C's have made the best of a bad situation. Their stripped-down roster has played hard for Brad Stevens, for the most part, with most of Boston's efforts undone by a lack of competent playmaking in crunch time.
That'll change once Rajon Rondo comes back, assuming the locker room doesn't decay into a swamp of disgruntled mediocrity before then.
26. Sacramento Kings
The Sacramento Kings have hung surprisingly tough with three playoff-caliber squads (i.e. the Los Angeles Clippers, the Golden State Warriors and the Atlanta Hawks) since their opening-night win over the Denver Nuggets.
What's more surprising, Isaiah Thomas is leading the Kings in scoring (20.8), even though he's yet to start a game at point guard. That could change soon, depending on how head coach Mike Malone feels about the waterbug of a floor general giving up so much size on the defensive end.
The bigger task at hand, though, is keeping DeMarcus Cousins on track.
Boogie looked dominant in Game 1 (30 points, 14 rebounds, two blocks, two steals, one assist) and Game 2 (24 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, three steals, two blocks), but he could only combine for 19 points, 13 rebounds, three steals, two assists and a block over his most recent two contests.
Perhaps that "wake-up call" from Hawks rookie Dennis Schroder will prove to have been just what the doctor ordered.
25. Washington Wizards
A win over the Philadelphia 76ers can only stop the bleeding for so long for the Washington Wizards. They'd gone 0-3, with an "L" against the Sixers mixed in, before exacting their revenge in Philly.
But the sledding doesn't get any easier for the Wizards from here on out. Their next seven games feature matchups with the Brooklyn Nets, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Dallas Mavericks, the San Antonio Spurs, the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Cleveland Cavaliers (twice).
That's a tough schedule for any team, much less one featuring an exciting, young backcourt—in John Wall and Bradley Beal—that has yet to find its footing this season.
Whether or not those two get their combined act together over the next few weeks may well determine if/when the ax finally falls on head coach Randy Wittman.
24. Toronto Raptors
Say this much for the Toronto Raptors: They're keeping things close in the early going. Not one of their five games has been decided by a double-digit margin, though they did lose to the Miami Heat (sans Chris Bosh) by nine.
Perhaps the Raps would have another win or two if Rudy Gay and his procedurally improved eyes could successfully convert from the field more than 33.7 percent of the time or the team as a whole made a more concerted effort to get the ball to Jonas Valanciunas.
In any case, it's tough to imagine Masai Ujiri not blowing up this roster at some point this season—not without some more substantial signs of life, anyway. He'll have every temptation telling him to do so, what with Toronto native Andrew Wiggins potentially stationed atop the draft board in June and all.
23. Charlotte Bobcats
As you'll soon see, there's at least one thread that ties together most (if not all) of the early surprises that were (and still are) expected to tank: defense.
That's certainly the case for the Charlotte Bobcats, who've yet to allow an opponent to hit triple digits in the scoring column. Head coach Steve Clifford has his guys competing on that end of the floor, which is a massive step up from where the 'Cats had found themselves in the years following Larry Brown's departure from the bench.
To that end, Al Jefferson's early injuries may well have aided Charlotte's defensive fortunes. Big Al has long been regarded as one of the league's worst defensive bigs, and his absence has afforded the long, athletic Bismack Biyombo ample opportunity to patrol the paint.
At some point, though, the 'Cats will need to score if they're to make Michael Jordan a proud owner. To that end, a healthy Jefferson would be a sight for sore eyes.
22. Phoenix Suns
The Phoenix Suns' surprisingly strong start, with three wins and narrow losses to the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs, has everyone taking a closer look at Eric Bledsoe, and rightfully so.
The former Los Angeles Clippers spark plug is leading this team in points (21) and assists (7.2), with five rebounds and 1.8 steals to boot. Moreover, according to NBA.com, Bledsoe's aggressive style of play has helped him to score the fourth-most points on drives of any player, with a number of those points coming in crunch time.
But if there's any reason to be flabbergasted by Phoenix's fun performance in the early going, it's the team's defense. The Suns have allowed just one of their five opponents (OKC) to top the 100-point plateau while limiting them collectively to the fourth-lowest effective field-goal percentage in the league.
Sooner or later, the Suns will flame out, just as many of their tank-worthy brethren figure to do as the season rolls along. But if Jeff Hornacek can get his young, athletic squad to clamp down from night to night as it has so far, it'll at least put a scare into its opponents before eventually rolling over in defeat.
21. Los Angeles Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers have little choice but to live and die by the three this season.
Kobe Bryant isn't around to dot Kirk Goldsberry's shot charts with mid-range jumpers, and Pau Gasol and Chris Kaman haven't exactly been taking teams to task on the interior. Hence, the Lakers have found themselves leaning heavily on chuckers like Jodie Meeks, Steve Blake, Nick Young, Wesley Johnson, Shawne Williams and Xavier Henry to carry them through.
Thus far, that strategy hasn't been half-bad...or maybe it has been, since the Lakers are 3-3. Either way, L.A. has already racked up big wins against the rival Los Angeles Clippers and on the road at the expense of Dwight Howard's Houston Rockets.
Thanks in no small part to Mike D'Antoni's somewhat underrated ability to squeeze productivity out of fringe players, the Lakers' scrapheap squad hasn't scored a ton (just 96.2 points per 100 possessions) but has managed to stay afloat with (you guessed it!) a barrage of long-range jumpers.
According to NBA.com, only the Washington Wizards have taken more threes per game and scored a higher share of their points from beyond the arc than have the Lakers. Granted, 1-3 Washington doesn't make for the best categorical company, but if it means the Lakers will be able to compete until Kobe comes back, they'll just have to take it.
20. Milwaukee Bucks
Uh oh. Looks like the Milwaukee Bucks could be in big trouble.
They won their first game against the Cleveland Cavaliers without Larry Sanders after the newly extended center was involved in a champagne-filled brawl. Fortunately for the Bucks, Sanders won't be charged for his involvement, via Eric Freeman of Yahoo! Sports.
But Sanders, who came into this season as a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate, hadn't exactly been lighting up the league prior to his brawl. Sanders had averaged just 2.7 points and 3.7 rebounds in 17.3 minutes through his first three games of the season.
Not surprisingly, the wily big man is already smarting on the lack of playing time afforded by new head coach Larry Drew. As Sanders recently told NBA.com's Steve Aschburner:
I feel like I’m capable of being in the game at the end and helping my team win, coming up with blocks and rebounds. I haven’t been able to get my rhythm out there. I understand foul trouble situations, but tonight I wasn’t in foul trouble.
Last year I finished so many games. I feel like that’s when I lock in the most. But I haven’t been able to get in the game to finish. That carries over to the next game. When you sit the last three quarters of each game, I can’t have no carryover. And it’s hard for me. I’m still a young player. It’s only my eighth year playing basketball.
The Bucks can only hope Sanders gets his act together on all fronts, lest they watch their season submarined by the very player who was tapped to be their savior.
19. Orlando Magic
Orlando, Orlando, I love you, Orlandoooooo!
But actually, I'm a big fan of what the Orlando Magic are doing right now. Their hodgepodge of wily veterans (Jameer Nelson, Arron Afflalo, Jason Maxiell) and intriguing youngsters (Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless, Tobias Harris, rookie Victor Oladipo) plays hard every night.
On the defensive end, the Magic have allowed the third-fewest points per 100 possessions.
They're a plucky bunch, to say the least, with plenty of energy to play the aggressive, attacking style that Jacque Vaughn has roped them into. Orlando should be an even tougher out once Glen Davis and Harris are healthy enough to take the floor again.
Chances are, this fun start will turn out to be fool's gold. Remember, the Magic started last season with a record of 11-12 before winding up with the worst record in the NBA, and GM Rob Hennigan would probably prefer that this team tumble into the cellar again over a ninth- or 10th-place finish in the East.
For the time being, though, the good folks of Orlando will have a team worth cheering for, with flashes of the better days that lay ahead.
18. New Orleans Pelicans
You can see the potential for greatness in the New Orleans Pelicans whenever they take the floor. They've got Eric Gordon slashing and shooting from the wing, Jrue Holiday dishing at the point, their fare share of ball-handlers (Tyreke Evans) and marksmen (Anthony Morrow) off the bench, and, of course, Anthony Davis (21.2 points, 11.4 rebounds, four blocks, 2.2 steals) doing work every which way.
Those pieces all came together nicely for the Pellies against the Memphis Grizzlies, whom New Orleans stomped 99-84 thanks to its length and athleticism more than anything.
Realistically, though, this team needs more time to jell before anyone starts salivating over watching The 'Brow in the playoffs. It's still incredibly young and inexperienced as a unit—deficiencies that have thus far shown through most glaringly on the defensive end.
But the talent is there, and GM Dell Demps could have another major move left in him if/when Ryan Anderson struts his stuff upon return.
And...well, Anthony Davis, because this guy's already a beast.
17. New York Knicks
The New York Knicks look pretty silly for choosing agency loyalty and team nepotism (by retaining Chris Smith, brother of J.R. Smith) over practicality right about now, don't they?
The Knicks could've used their last roster spot to keep around a young big like Jeremy Tyler. Instead, they'll have to forge ahead with Andrea Bargnani at center and Kenyon Martin and Amar'e Stoudemire playing more minutes than they should now that Tyson Chandler's out four to six weeks with a non-displaced fracture in his right fibula.
The sky isn't falling on Madison Square Garden just yet, though. J.R. Smith will be back from suspension soon, and with him should come a significant uptick in the Knicks' offensive productivity.
And if there's any silver lining that surrounds the black cloud of Chandler's injury, it's the possibility that Mike Woodson will go back to playing the sort of small ball—with Carmelo Anthony at the 4 and a second point guard (hi, Pablo Prigioni!) in the starting lineup—that allowed New York to storm its way to 54 wins last season.
16. Cleveland Cavaliers
It only took Anthony Bennett 17 attempts over the course of more than 17 quarters, but by golly, he finally hit a shot! The Cleveland Cavaliers can only hope that their No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft will start to knock them down at a slightly more efficient rate going forward.
All kidding aside, the Cavs have reason to be pleased, even if their current record is a losing one. Andrew Bynum may not be pleased with where he is physically, per ESPN's Brian Windhorst, but at least he's giving it a go. Anderson Varejao (10.2 points, seven boards) has been his usual, frenetic self up front after missing most of last season due to a blood clot in his lung.
In the backcourt, C.J. Miles (14.6 points, .509 from the field) has performed well enough to send Dion Waiters to the bench, while Kyrie Irving appears to be getting his roll going again in the wake of a 29-point, eight-assist masterpiece at the expense of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Most encouraging of all, Mike Brown has this squad playing some honest-to-goodness defense. So far, the Cavs have held the opposition to 95.9 points per 100 possessions (fifth-best in the NBA) and an effective field-goal percentage of .472 (seventh-best).
A bit more of that, and Cleveland should be able to host at least a pair of playoff games in April for the first time since LeBron James left town.
15. Portland Trail Blazers
I think it's time we retire any and all LaMarcus Aldridge trade talk.
For the time being, anyway. After all, why would Aldridge, who's off to a scintillating start (24.5 points on 52.4 percent shooting) want to leave the Portland Trail Blazers now that they've surrounded him with some superb talent?
Damian Lillard (24.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists, .485 from three) is off and running after enjoying Rookie of the Year unanimity. Wesley Matthews (17.3 points, .500 from three) is absolutely torching the twine from deep. Nicolas Batum already has one triple-double to his name, albeit one that he, evidently, would rather give back, per Joe Freeman of The Oregonian.
Most of all, the Blazers bench doesn't totally stink anymore! It certainly helps to have competent professionals like Mo Williams and Dorell Wright in the mix among the reserves.
Now comes the hard part: winning enough games to qualify for the postseason in the crowded Western Conference. If PDX falls short of that mark, then and only then should the buzz about Aldridge leaving Rip City begin anew.
14. Atlanta Hawks
As expected, the Atlanta Hawks are once again hanging around the playoff pack in the Eastern Conference.
They haven't played (or beaten) anyone of note, though their offense, under rookie head coach Mike Budenholzer, has been pleasantly productive. According to NBA.com, the Hawks have thus far scored 104.2 points per 100 possessions—the seventh most in the league.
It's easy to see why, too. Atlanta has four of its five starters averaging double-figures in scoring.
The Hawks have found a gem in Cartier Martin, yes, that Cartier Martin. The one who signed with the Hawks halfway through training camp. The same one whose pro career has taken him to four NBA teams, three foreign leagues (Turkey, Italy, China) and the D-League since 2007.
If only the Hawks could shave a few points off the 104.4 per 100 possessions that they're currently surrendering.
13. Detroit Pistons
You can already see the makings of a competitive club with the 2013-14 Detroit Pistons.
The massive front line of Josh Smith (17.3 points, 6.8 rebounds), Greg Monroe (17.3 points, 11 rebounds) and Andre Drummond (11.3 points, 11.3 rebounds) has, rather predictably, anchored a top-10 defensive unit and wiped the glass clean on both ends of the floor.
Now comes the hard work of building an offense that can score effectively and efficiently against teams that pack the paint on defense.
The introduction of Brandon Jennings should help, assuming he's able to convert at a clip better than the one of 34.4 percent at which he has through his first two games. So, too, should the sturdy shooting of Rodney Stuckey (40 percent from three), Will Bynum (42.9 percent from three) and rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (40 percent from three).
All of that bodes well for the return of playoff basketball to the Motor City for the first time since 2009.
12. Chicago Bulls
If there's any team in the NBA on which people shouldn't sleep after a slow start, it's the Chicago Bulls. Tom Thibodeau's squad has every reason to believe that its circumstances will improve considerably, even after suffering through two blowouts and a fall-from-ahead loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Derrick Rose is still searching for his groove (15 points, 3.8 assists, .313 from the field) after a year-and-a-half off but has shown flashes of his former self in attacking the rack.
Joakim Noah clearly isn't operating at full capacity, after spending the entire preseason hobbled by a groin injury. Jimmy Butler, everyone's pick to be one of the NBA's breakout stars this season, is adjusting to his newly expanded role as a scorer and secondary ball-handler on the wing.
Perhaps it was a bit naive for folks to predict that this team, with all of its moving parts and congealing challenges, would finish with the best record in the NBA. But there's still plenty of time for Thibs to turn this thing around and more than enough upside on the whole to expect that the Bulls will be right there once the calendar turns to April.
11. Memphis Grizzlies
I know what you're thinking—the Memphis Grizzlies offense is still below average and the defense is the NBA's fifth-most lenient?! This can't be good.
To be sure, it isn't. This team is struggling to find its groove on both ends of the floor under new head coach Dave Joerger (pronounced like the "jager" in "Jagermeister," by the way).
Zach Randolph's touches are way down (to 9.4 shots per game), and the team as a whole has been patently average on the boards, despite its considerable bulk up front.
Still, I'm not ready to abandon the Grit and Grind, even if the team's only wins have come against the Detroit Pistons (in overtime) and the tank-tastic Boston Celtics.
Sooner or later, the Grizz are going to realize that this roster is essentially the same one that participated in the franchise's first Western Conference Finals and start performing accordingly.
10. Dallas Mavericks
Don't act like you're not impressed.
By what Monta Ellis has brought to the Dallas Mavericks, that is. A more focused role—as a slasher, distributor and pick-and-roll partner for Dirk Nowitzki—within a winning culture has done wonders for Ellis' heretofore-inefficient approach and, in turn, his reputation as a "gunner."
As a result, Ellis is scoring more (24 points per game) than he has at any time since 2010-11 and is shooting (.519 from the field) as well as he has since 2007-08, when he converted 53.1 percent of his field-goal attempts.
The Mavs have plenty of lingering issues to work out, particularly on the defensive end. But so long as Ellis is terrorizing his opponents off the bounce, Dallas should have little trouble scoring enough to hang around the playoff picture out West—and then some.
9. Los Angeles Clippers
YOU CAN'T STOP NIKOLA VUCEVIC! YOU CAN ONLY HOPE TO CONTAIN HIM!
At least, that's probably how the Los Angeles Clippers felt after the Montenegrin big man piled up 30 points and 21 rebounds at their expense in a 98-90 loss to the upstart Orlando Magic. The Clippers acquitted themselves better on both ends of the floor against the Miami Heat, albeit in another defeat.
A 3-3 record isn't cause enough to sound any alarms, though sporting the league's least resistant defense (108.2 points allowed per 100 possessions) when Doc Rivers is your coach is.
The Clips' new coach can thank the team's thin front line—which he failed to stock properly—for that. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are both phenomenal athletes, but neither brings to the table the sort of discipline and spatial understanding that's required of bigs on the defensive end.
L.A.'s backups (Ryan Hollins, Byron Mullens, Antawn Jamison) certainly don't, either. Good thing the offense (tops in efficiency) has been better than advertised so far.
Otherwise, the Clips would be due for a precipitous slip down the rankings right about now.
8. Houston Rockets
Speaking of beefed-up Western Conference contenders already struggling on the defensive end, how 'bout them Houston Rockets?
They surrendered an astounding awful 64 points on 50 percent shooting (11-of-14 from three) to the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half of play between Dwight Howard and his newest nemeses. The Rockets stepped up their efforts considerably over the final 24 minutes of play, holding L.A. to 12-of-44 from the field.
But the damage had already been done. Once again, the Rockets couldn't quite overcome their own porous perimeter defense, even less so with Hack-a-Dwight working to perfection in the Lakers' favor.
These issues figure to haunt Houston throughout the season. In the meantime, the Rockets' best bet for improving their immediate prospects for success is to limit the minutes that Howard and Omer Asik share.
According to nbawowy.com, the Rockets have scored just 92.9 points per 100 possessions and given up 99.1 with those two lane-cloggers on the court together.
7. Brooklyn Nets
Like so many presumptive title contenders, the Brooklyn Nets can best be described as a work-in-progress right now.
On the one hand, billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov should be encouraged by Brook Lopez's scoring efforts (20.5 points on 58.5 percent shooting), Paul Pierce's productivity (15.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists) and the team's statement win over the Miami Heat in its home opener. Altogether, the pieces still look good on paper.
But as complete as this squad should be, it's still rife with red flags—perhaps more so than anyone anticipated.
Deron Williams (8.5 points on 41.9 percent shooting) has looked hobbled by a preseason ankle injury and, thus, like anything but the team-leading superstar he's supposed to be. Kevin Garnett and Joe Johnson have both looked old and stiff in the early going.
Of greatest concern, though, are the Nets' efforts on the boards. There's no way that a 7-footer like Lopez should successfully pull down rebounds less than half the time, per NBA.com, or that a team with as much size at every position as Brooklyn does should be third-worst in total rebounding percentage.
That incongruity speaks to an overall lack of effort in the early going. But fear not, Brooklynites (and BrooklyKnight): The Nets figure to improve dramatically in these categories once D-Will and Andrei Kirilenko round into proper playing shape and Jason Kidd determines how best to integrate last year's holdovers with this year's glitzy newcomers.
6. Minnesota Timberwolves
Behold, the power of Kevin! The Minnesota Timberwolves certainly have so far.
Kevin Love temporarily lost his claim to the title of "Best Power Forward on Planet Earth" amid an injury-riddled 2012-13 campaign but has had little trouble retaking that throne.
He currently ranks second in the league in both points (26.2) and rebounds (14.6), thereby making him a prime candidate to become the first player to lead the NBA in both categories since Wilt Chamberlain in 1965-66.
Don't sleep on Kevin Martin, though. The former OKC sixth man is pouring in 21.6 points on a scorching 56 percent from three as the sweet-shooting 2-guard that Minny has long sought.
According to nbawowy.com, the T-Wolves have racked up 108.6 points per 100 possessions and limited the opposition to just 94.5 per 100 possessions whenever those two are on the court. Take those out of the mix, and (surprise!) the situation flips in a big way.
The T-Wolves have scored just 59.1 points per 100 possessions and surrendered 105.4 points per 100 possessions without either of the two Kevins on the floor.
In other words, T-Wolves coach Rick Adelman would do well to stagger minutes between those two, if not play them together as much as he possibly can, lest he watch his team's effectiveness crater on both ends of the court.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder
It'll be some time before the Oklahoma City Thunder are up and running at the level they were prior to Russell Westbrook's knee injury.
That should have the rest of the West shaking in its collective boots. Save for a blowout road loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Thunder have held all of their opponents under 100 points, with a defense that currently ranks fourth in the league in efficiency and first in opponent turnover percentage.
The offense should catch up in due course.
Kevin Durant will get better and easier shots now that Westbrook is back, and Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson should, as a tandem, be able to provide the sort of bench production to which OKC has become accustomed over the last four years.
4. San Antonio Spurs
DJ Khaled must be a fan of the San Antonio Spurs because all they do is win.
That's been the case so far this season. The Spurs are 4-1, and though they haven't blown anyone out yet, they've been able to pull out the W's anyway.
As always, they've done it as a team. Their defense is functioning at a top-10 clip, with four players pulling down at least 4.6 rebounds a night.
San Antonio's offense isn't ripping people to shreds just yet, but having five guys averaging double figures bodes well for this team's ability to produce points within Gregg Popovich's offense over the long haul.
Barring some catastrophic turn of events, let's just pencil this team in for 50-plus wins and a top-four seed in the West.
3. Miami Heat
Slow starts seem to be a theme for the Miami Heat. They were 9-8 through their first 17 games with the Big Three in 2010, put themselves behind the eight ball in eight of their 12 playoff series together and have stumbled out of the gate on multiple occasions already this season.
They fell behind big from the get-go against the Philadelphia 76ers (sans Dwyane Wade) and the Brooklyn Nets, but they did well to battle back in both of those games.
Other than that, the Heat have looked about as good as you'd expect a two-time defending champ trying to survive another grueling season to look. LeBron James is still stuffing the stat sheet, Wade is playing like his old self in spurts (ex. 29 points versus the Los Angeles Clippers), and Ray Allen is producing off the bench like he wants to go out as the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year.
The defense (21st in points allowed per 100 possessions) has a ways to go before it's in title-winning tune, but that's to be expected, considering how physically taxing it is to trap and attack from night to night.
For the Heat, all that matters is that they're healthy and playing well in April, May and June. That being the case, expect Miami to have its fair share of "going through the motions" moments along the way.
2. Golden State Warriors
FYI, the Golden State Warriors are no longer the flimsy, chuckerrific Cinderellas that were ousted from the second round of the 2013 playoffs by the San Antonio Spurs. If the early returns are any indication, Mark Jackson could have a budding juggernaut on his hands.
To be sure, this team sports all of the strengths of last year's squad. The Warriors rank second in the NBA in three-point percentage (.459), thanks to stellar starts from Stephen Curry (.462) and Klay Thompson (.559). In fact, those two combined average more three-point makes per game (7.4) than do 16 other teams in the league.
Don't be fooled, though; these Dubs are anything but one-dimensional. They can score down low, with David Lee (20.2 points) leading the charge. They can slash off the wing, thanks to the addition of Andre Iguodala (15.6 points, 5.8 assists, .478 from three) and the return of Harrison Barnes (14 points in his season debut).
But a top-tier offense (fifth in the league in points per 100 possessions) is nothing new for Golden State. What is (mostly) new, though, is the Warriors' elite defense—which ranks second in points allowed per 100 possessions (91.1) and effective field-goal defense (.428), behind only that of the Indiana Pacers.
Long term, the usual caveats about health apply, especially with Curry's ankle once again proving fickle. But if the Warriors are fit once the postseason rolls around, they'll be as good a bet as any to emerge from the crowded Western Conference.
1. Indiana Pacers
Defense wins championships, and if the first five games of the 2013-14 season are any indication, the Indiana Pacers are the here-and-now favorites to take home the Larry O'Brien Trophy in June.
So far, Indy has defended to a degree that the NBA has hardly (if ever) seen. The Pacers have held all of their opponents under 40 percent shooting from the field. Their opponents' effective field-goal percentage (which accounts for the added value of three-point shots) of .407 is not only the lowest in the league but also the lowest recorded since the institution of the long ball, per Basketball Reference.
Likewise, no NBA team has ever held its foes under 90 points per 100 possessions. If the Pacers continue to defend at this rate, they'll be the first to break that barrier.
Of course, none of this would be possible without the shot-blocking brilliance of Roy Hibbert (5.2 blocks per game), the pesky perimeter play of Paul George (8.8 rebounds, 1.8 steals) and Lance Stephenson (6.2 boards), or the organizational efforts of Frank Vogel (my early pick for Coach of the Year).
But individuals, even collections of great ones, don't win championships; teams do. And at this point, the Pacers—even with George Hill out and Danny Granger yet to play—would appear to be the team best equipped to unseat the Miami Heat this coming spring.
I know you've got your qualms with my power rankings. Feel free to shout them at me on Twitter!
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