Instead of ranking teams weekly, I’ve decided to create power rankings at the beginning of each month. Season performance accounts for the majority of the rankings, but perspective team talent plays an additional role.
30. Cavaliers (1-8): Key Stat – Opponents shooting 51.5% FG
They have not quite played with a chip on their shoulder, as Jordan Clarkson suggested prior to the start of the season. Kevin Love’s health not only causes concern in terms of winning games, but also if the team is looking to move him elsewhere.
29. Hawks (3-6): Key Stat – Trae Young averaging 18.5 points and 7 assists
Coach Lloyd Pierce has given Young the green light right from the get-go. And why not? Young spoiled Cleveland’s home opener with a stunning 35 point/11 assist performance.
28. Knicks (3-6): Key Stat – Allowing league-best 9.6 fast break points per game
New York has to find some way to compete without Kristaps Porzingis. Enes Kanter, one of the team’s better players, has been demoted to a bench role. Uncertainty characterizes this starting group – Tim Hardaway Jr. accompanied by Frank Ntilikina, Damyean Dotson, Noah Vonleh and Mitchell Robinson.
27. Suns (1-7): Key Stat – Devin Booker/Deandre Ayton are 42 years old combined
Greatness is never rushed and the time comes when it comes. The Western Conference is a well-known bloodbath. In a league where young stars are becoming more popular though, Booker and Ayton may shine sooner rather than later.
26. Bulls (2-8): Key Stat – Zach LaVine averaging 27.2 points (47% FG)
LaVine has hit the ground running to start the year after some were skeptical of Chicago matching Sacramento’s 4-year/$78 million offer sheet. The former dunk contest champion missed 93 games over the previous two seasons. Should he remain healthy, LaVine could be an All-Star candidate.
25. Wizards (1-7): Key Stat – Allow league-worst 61.1 rebounds per game
Although Washington’s rebounding problems are well-documented, that is far from the only concern. D.C.’s prolonged chemistry saga seems to only be getting worse. John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter are all signed to maximum, long-term deals. The Wiz have some work to do.
24. Magic (2-6): Key Stat – Nikola Vucevic records first career triple-double in loss @ Philly
Vucevic’s stat line (27 pts/13 reb/12 ast) in the third game of the year was mind-boggling. We have seen Vucevic evolve as a playmaking big, but never to this extreme. The 7-footer is an integral part of an Orlando team that lacks a true star.
23. Mavericks (3-6): Key Stat – Limit opponents to 8 offensive rebounds per game (2nd in league)
6’8 forward Harrison Barnes led the team in rebounds last season, averaging 6.1 per game. Big men often rotated in and out of the starting lineup. However, with the recent acquisition of veteran center DeAndre Jordan, they are now much stronger in that department.
22. Nets (3-6): Key Stat – Caris LeVert averaging about 20 PPG/4.5 RPG/4.5 APG
The playmaking guard/forward has suddenly gained clout as one of the Eastern Conference’s highly versatile players. LeVert’s days as just a contributor in the rotation didn’t last long. Brooklyn now runs much of the offense through him.
21. Heat (3-5): Key Stat – Leads league with 62 rebounds per game
Miami is typically a well-disciplined group under Coach Erik Spoelstra. Players such as Hassan Whiteside, Bam Adebayo, Kelly Olynyk and James Johnson provide adequate size, toughness and physicality on a consistent basis.
20. Hornets (5-5): Key Stat – Kemba Walker averaging 29 points (40% 3P) and 6 assists
Walker is not quite an elite guard but draws so much attention because everyone knows he has to carry his team. He is, however, a proven all-star guard who specializes in creating separation from the defense. We’ll see how long this type of play is sustainable.
19. Clippers (5-4): Key Stat – Boban Marjanovic once again a fan favorite
Boban has been a fan favorite on all three teams he’s played for (SA/DET/LAC). The crowd lobbies for him to enter the game during garbage time by chanting, “BOBAN!” He is effective at times where his lack of speed and athleticism is trumped by his overtowering paint presence.
18. Kings (6-3): Key Stat – Buddy Hield shooting over 49% from 3-point range
As mentioned in my previous two articles, Sacramento needed some life injected into the franchise. Several players (Hield, De’Aaron Fox, Marvin Bagley, Willie Cauley-Stein) are cementing themselves into key roles.
17. Pistons (4-4): Key Stat – Grab 81.1% of defensive rebounds (top in league)
Andre Drummond has established himself as a dominant force rebounding the ball over the past several years. It’s almost like he scoops up anything that comes in his relative area. Dwane Casey’s team has also been solid defending the perimeter and getting back in transition. Reliable outside shooting may still be Motor City’s downfall.
16. Grizzlies (5-2): Key Stat – Hold opponents to 80 field goal attempts per game (fewest in league)
The long-standing duo of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol serves as a perfect example of why veteran leadership means so much. Although the Grizz have seen a sharp decline in talent the past few years, they remain highly engaged on defense throughout the season.
15. Timberwolves (4-5): Key Stat – Jimmy Butler has played in 7 of 9 games
Trade rumors seem to occur every year at this time. Butler is the main event as we approach the year 2019. His desire for a change of scenery is made evident by his past comments and actions. Oh wait. I’m actually wrong. Derrick Rose turning back the clock with a 50-point performance is the new gossip.
14. Rockets (3-5): Key Stat – Average 30 defensive rebounds per game (last in league)
I’ve said this over and over: losing Trevor Ariza was a major blow for this team. Harden and company should continue to produce offense at a top-notch level. From an all-around standpoint though, the Rockets have matters to be addressed (especially if they want to contend for a championship again).
13. Pelicans (4-5): Key Stat – Score 122 points per game and give up that amount
I touched on this in my previous article: New Orleans can hang with just about anybody (not named Golden State) on offense. Anthony Davis makes a monstrous impact on a nightly basis. Yes, he’s that good. However, the Pelicans’ lack of depth and support from the wing players makes his job somewhat overwhelming.
12. Lakers (4-5): Key Stat – Lead league with 24.6 fast break points per game
It’s interesting to think about a LeBron James-led fastbreak – but now in the Western Conference, where that style of play is more prevalent. LBJ’s new teams have historically gotten off to particularly slow starts. Now though, he won’t be able to (literally or figuratively) bulldoze his way through inferior competition.
11. Thunder (4-4): Key Stat – Forces 19 turnovers per game (best in league)
Forcing turnovers is not always the best criteria when grading a team’s defense. It can mean that players actually gamble more than they should, risking more easy buckets by the opponent. Russell Westbrook has all the tools to excel defensively and sometimes he does. Much of the time, however, he seems a bit eager to make a play on the other end.
10. Jazz (4-5): Key Stat – Draws most personal fouls per play
There is no need to keep raving about Utah’s defensive legitimacy. At this point, that seems to be a given. Utah counters that with a sound offensive attack. Coach Quin Snyder has mastered the concept of controlling the tempo. The Jazz needs to stay highly alert though, as the game seems to be moving faster before our eyes.
9. Pacers (7-3): Key Stat – Defense without fouling (2nd in fouls per game & opponent points in paint)
Indiana has changed for the better ever since trading Paul George and hiring Nate McMillan as head coach. Victor Oladipo has transformed into a supremely skilled 2-way player. Domantas Sabonis, the other piece acquired for George, turned out to be a hidden gem. The Pacers let solid defense dictate their success.
8. Blazers (6-3): Key Stat – Team free throw shooting 87% (far and away #1)
Free throws are important points and can ultimately determine the outcome of games. Damian Lillard shoots a career 87.3% from the free throw line. C.J. McCollum is also capable of shooting well at the line (91.2% in 2016-17). That being said, solely free-throw shooting won’t be enough to take the team to the next level.
7. Spurs (6-2): Key Stat – Have strongest assist-turnover ratio in league
This might not be an especially relevant statistic although it does represent the way Gregg Popovich’s teams typically limit mistakes. I wouldn’t say the Spurs are quite helpless outside of DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge. However, the duo could definitely use more help.
6. Bucks (7-1): Key Stat – Allow least points in paint per game (40.2) to opponents
This shapes out favorably considering Brook Lopez is the starting center. He adds to the fuel offensively but rim protection is not his strong suit. Early indications point toward new coach Mike Budenholzer having a firm grip on this team. Additionally, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s MVP candidacy would be more meaningful on a winning team.
5. Sixers (6-4): Key Stat – Markelle Fultz averaging 9.9 PPG/4.2 RPG/4 APG
Fultz has not shown enough yet to be part of a “big 3” but I wouldn’t count out the future possibility. He is averaging a hair over 24 minutes per game. More importantly, he is settling into the team system. Ben Simmons still appears hesitant to let loose from outside the paint. Joel Embiid keeps getting better and better.
4. Nuggets (8-1): Key Stat – Top half of league in every opponent scoring stat
Denver is not expected to win games with lock down defense in crunch time. However, it sure is a pleasant sight to see the Nuggets enjoying more success in that area. Their perimeter defense is much improved. This is undoubtedly Nikola Jokic’s team but I’m curious to see what Isaiah Thomas brings to the table when he eventually returns.
3. Raptors (8-1): Key Stat – Kawhi Leonard averaging 26.1 points (44.8% 3P)
Leonard’s presence should work wonders for Toronto on a short and long-term basis (if he re-signs). He is no LBJ by any means – but he is the type of player who can take on multiple stars and keep the game close (in the playoffs). Leonard’s championship pedigree is valuable to this organization.
2. Celtics (6-3): Key Stat – Six players average 10+ PPG
Already a few times this year while watching Boston, I was thinking to myself: “they might be passing the ball too much.” Passing the ball too much does not exist. Making an unnecessary extra pass here and there – fine. Kyrie Irving has no reason to try and score like he did with Cleveland. Boston simply has too much talent.
1. Warriors (9-1): Key Stat – Shooting league-high 52% FG
The Warriors operate with flawless chemistry and manage to distribute the wealth among all their stars. Most people already know this but just to throw it out there – Golden State can win the title without DeMarcus Cousins playing a minute. With him, we could be looking at a historically great lineup.