The first week of NBA action is in the books, which means it’s time for the first edition of my regular-season power rankings. I’m pumped and jacked to be doing these. Every three weeks this season, I’ll publish my latest rankings based on how I view a team’s chances of winning the championship, along with one thought, observation, or idea about each franchise. On with the thoughts and power rankings:
1. Los Angeles Lakers | Preseason Rank: 1
Dennis Schröder, a spark plug and a spell
For the Lakers, adding Schröder is like having Playoff Rondo for the entire season. He’s averaging 14.3 points and six assists while generating offense in a variety of ways.
There were so many times last season when the Los Angeles offense became stagnant, especially when LeBron James was off the floor. Schröder can take pressure off of LeBron, and already we’re seeing the King average fewer assists and touches, and less possession time per game.
On nights when James needs a rest or Anthony Davis is out—like he was on Sunday, because of a calf contusion—Schröder can take on a heavier scoring load.
Having a player like Schröder is all the more important for the Lakers considering how short the offseason was following their championship run. Head coach Frank Vogel is going 11 deep into his rotation to find playing time for Talen Horton-Tucker, and he’s limiting minutes for veterans while experimenting with lineups. These first few games feel like an extended preseason for the Lakers, but having a player like Schröder helps them win games even as they try things out.
2. Los Angeles Clippers | PR: 2
The roster reshuffle
Although the Clippers didn’t make any dramatic changes to their core, they did reshape their rotation. Montrezl Harrell, JaMychal Green, and Landry Shamet were effectively swapped out for Serge Ibaka, Nicolas Batum, and Luke Kennard. Ibaka’s spacing has opened driving lanes for scorers, Batum looks healthy for the first time in years, and Kennard’s playmaking is useful.
So far, this new mix is working—at least when Kawhi Leonard is active. The Clippers got smacked by the Mavericks without Leonard on Sunday, and Kennard’s limitations started to show. The newly extended guard still looks out of sorts at times, which could be because he hadn’t played in an NBA game since December 21, 2019, one year before the start of this season. More worrisome, though, was that the Clippers’ overall effort felt familiar to last season.
Following their blown 3-1 lead to Denver, executives around the league wondered whether the Clippers might panic and do something rash, such as trade for Russell Westbrook. Instead, they’ve made minor tweaks to the roster and coaching staff, replacing Doc Rivers with his assistant, Ty Lue. These new faces might not be any better on paper, but the blend could work better on the court. It’ll take more time to find out.
3. Brooklyn Nets | PR: 4
Leadership by example
Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are posting bonkers scoring numbers, but their defense has also been noteworthy. They’re fighting on the ball and flying around off the ball, displaying the type of effort they’d normally save for the playoffs—especially Irving. Watch Kyrie get into his stance and harass Payton Pritchard:
Yes, in this instance, Irving is matching up against a rookie guard, but that’s precisely the point: Irving hasn’t taken many plays off for the Nets, even when he’s defending an unproven player. That’s huge for team chemistry. When you have star players giving this level of effort, it makes buy-in easier for everyone else on the roster.
“It was maybe the first thing that struck me from the first practice: his talent defensively,” Steve Nash said about Irving last week. “This is a league that’s starting to just pick on little guys but he battles, and he’s smart. As we come together as a team, I think our defense will be more cohesive as well.” The Nets seem to be all in on their roles and responsibilities, with Spencer Dinwiddie taking a backseat to Kyrie and KD, Caris LeVert accepting a sixth man role, and Jarrett Allen coming off the bench. Much of this comes from the example set by the best players. So far, Brooklyn isn’t much of a circus; it’s just dominant.
4. Milwaukee Bucks | PR: 3
Milwaukee’s downgraded depth
We know what we’ll get from the best players on Milwaukee’s roster, but I still worry about their role-player replacements. Bobby Portis has taken over for Robin Lopez at backup center, but he’s a far inferior defender, and a much smaller one at that, which makes him a particularly poor fit for the Bucks’ drop defensive scheme. D.J. Augustin, Bryn Forbes, and Pat Connaughton are not the same caliber of defenders as the veterans from last season, George Hill and Wes Matthews. With 90 seconds left in Milwaukee’s one-point season-opening loss to Boston, Connaughton spent a possession defending Jayson Tatum. Connaughton shouldn’t even be on the floor in those moments, let alone matched up against the Celtics’ best scorer. When head coach Mike Budenholzer and general manager Jon Horst look at the film from Sunday, they’ll see Connaughton also got shredded by the Knicks. Maybe then they’ll seek an upgrade.
Milwaukee will be tested this week when it faces Miami for back-to-back games on Tuesday and Wednesday. How will the Bucks deal with Miami months after the Heat knocked them out of the playoffs? Can they stop Goran Dragic? Who will race around the floor with Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson? Will Miami hunt mismatches with Jimmy Butler? As great as the top of this Bucks’ roster is following the addition of Jrue Holiday, their depth took a massive hit this offseason.
5. Miami Heat | PR: 5
Is Precious Achiuwa the next Bam Adebayo?
The Heat got another good one in Precious Achiuwa. Take a look at these possessions versus the Pelicans:
Achiuwa, in the second game of his rookie season, was harassing Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram. At 6-foot-9 and 225 pounds, Achiuwa has the body to defend players both thick and lean. The fact that Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra already trusts a rookie in these matchups says a lot about how well Achiuwa has performed in practices. Could Miami repeat history by taking a mid-first-round pick and turning him into a star? It happened with Bam Adebayo, and Achiuwa certainly has the upside to do it too. A big test is imminent: Miami will face Milwaukee twice this week, so we’ll get to see how a potential Rookie of the Year candidate does against a two-time MVP.
6. Dallas Mavericks | PR: 6
Dallas is different now
Considering it’s fantasy football championship weekend, I wouldn’t blame ya if you didn’t watch Mavericks-Clippers on NBA TV. What you missed was the Mavs showing how special they are when they’re clicking on all cylinders. Dallas was up 77-27 at halftime, which is the biggest halftime lead in the shot-clock era (since 1954-55, 44 years before Luka Doncic was born). The Clippers didn’t have Kawhi, and they played like they drank mimosas for brunch. But the Mavericks still don’t have Kristaps Porzingis, and they deserve credit for straight-up outhustling their opponent from the jump. Dallas was all over the place defensively with crisp rotations and intense man-to-man play. Offensively, they played with the chemistry of a team that’s been together for many years.
These aren’t the same Mavs we saw last season. Josh Richardson was an important addition to bolster their defense and add a secondary scoring presence. Dwight Powell and Jalen Brunson are back healthy. The team added other helpful veterans, too, like James Johnson. Doncic could be even better than last season. Dallas is just 1-2 after a close loss to the Suns and a blowout against the Lakers, but Sunday’s game was a reminder that this team is capable of making a deep playoff run if Porzingis is healthy.
7. Philadelphia 76ers | PR: 9
What a glorious time for Sixers fans. Daryl Morey, the man with the calculator, has brought spacing to Philadelphia. Here is the proof:
Oh, baby. I love it. Seth Curry’s shooting potency forces the Knicks to respect his jumper, which opens up a cutting lane for Ben Simmons to get into the paint. Help rotates to Simmons, which sets the stage for the pretty ball movement and wide-open corner 3 from Danny Green. Gorgeous stuff, and all it took was a few adjustments to the roster.
The only thing stopping the Sixers from being really good is the health of Joel Embiid, who missed Sunday’s game with back tightness. At 100 percent, Embiid could have a career-best season with his new teammates.
8. Phoenix Suns | PR: 10
Mikal Bridges, turning up the scoring
The internal development of young guys like Deandre Ayton, Cam Johnson, and Bridges can take the Suns from a fun playoff team to a serious contender. The latter is playing the best basketball of his career. He’s still defending with ferocity and Gumby length, just as he did all of last season. But he’s also looking slick off the dribble, showing more advanced elements to his game.
The Suns will go only as far as Devin Booker and Chris Paul take them. But their ceiling could be even higher if Bridges routinely has games in which he’s dropping more than 20 points, like he did on Sunday.
9. Boston Celtics | PR: 8
Payton Pritchard, a rookie with veteran savvy
Pritchard has been Boston’s best rookie so far. The Celtics took the four-year senior out of Oregon 26th, and he’s come in right away and contributed. Pritchard is draining 3s and stabilizing the offense with his advanced feel for the game. During Sunday’s loss to Indiana, Pritchard came in off the bench and injected the energy Boston was lacking. These are the qualities teams look for in a backup point guard.
Prospects like Pritchard are so tough to rank in the predraft process. I had him 33rd on my board, but if you asked me to rank the players based solely on who has the best chance to have a 10-year career, then Pritchard would have ranked highly. The 6-foot-2, 22-year-old rookie guard may not have All-Star upside, but he’s already looking like an important rotation player for the Celtics, who lost Gordon Hayward and are without Kemba Walker because of a knee problem. Sometimes drafting for need is the way to go, though the 1-2 Celtics need more help from the rest of their roster to rack up wins.
10. Denver Nuggets | PR: 7
Denver needs to patch its holes, quickly
These aren’t the same Nuggets we just saw make a run to the West finals. They need to solve some major issues to find their way back there. It’s now the third season of wondering whether Gary Harris will ever find his scoring stroke again. (The answer appears to be no.) But that’s not the only question on this roster. Who will step up at forward? Michael Porter Jr. is an unreliable defender, Paul Millsap is old, and JaMychal Green is hurt. What’s the point of having both Monte Morris and Facundo Campazzo when they have such similar games? Can Jamal Murray find some consistency?
The Nuggets can be really, really good. But they feel like a team with a ton of depth and not enough top-end talent. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst previously reported that the Nuggets have had discussions with the Rockets about trading for James Harden. If Denver continues to underwhelm, I can’t help but wonder if it’ll become a more serious suitor.
11. Houston Rockets | PR: 14
Put Christian Wood on your All-Star radar
Houston remains in disarray, with Harden’s rocky return and multiple other players caught up in COVID-19 protocols. I can’t help feeling, though, that the masses are sorely underrating what the Rockets can be if they keep Harden and he finds a way to be happy again. One big reason is Wood, who I said was the steal of free agency and is my prediction to win Most Improved Player of the Year.
Wood was dominant in his Rockets debut, logging 31 points with 13 rebounds, three assists, and one block. He looked like an All-Star, just like he did in preseason and the latter half of last season. This play summarizes his night in Portland on Saturday:
Christian Wood is mean. pic.twitter.com/jOlif9jv6i— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) December 27, 2020
It could also foreshadow his entire season. Respondents to my tweet compared the coast-to-coast bucket to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis, which is fair since there aren’t many tall dudes who can move and explode the way Wood did. Others were fans who wished their favorite teams had signed him (or didn’t let him go, as is the case for fans of his many ex-teams). And then there were Rockets fans, who see the most talented big man Harden ever played with. They wonder, much like I do: Why wouldn’t Harden want to stay to build something with this group?
12. Utah Jazz | PR: 12
Bojan Bogdanovic’s one annoying flaw
I like Bogdanovic. He can score from all over the floor. He plays competent defense. There’s a lot to admire. What I can’t stand is his lack of playmaking instincts. That was frustratingly apparent in Utah’s loss to Minnesota on Saturday, when his tunnel vision caused him to miss Rudy Gobert open on multiple dives to the rim and spot-up shooters for open 3s. Bogdanovic will have better nights, but a couple of missed passes here and there can lead to a few extra losses in the loaded West.
Only six teams from each conference are guaranteed a playoff spot this season. Teams that finish seventh and eighth have to battle to keep their spots in the play-in tournament. The Jazz need Bogdanovic to improve at weaponizing his scoring by looking for the pass to maximize their chances of getting a higher seed.
13. Toronto Raptors | PR: 13
Chris Boucher, another Raptors steal?
Here’s a good trivia question to ask your friends: Who are the five players in NBA history to have a game with at least 22 points, 10 rebounds, and seven blocks in under 30 minutes? The first four are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kevin McHale, Ralph Sampson, and David Robinson, per Stathead. The fifth? It’s Chris Boucher, who did it on Saturday.
Boucher is already 27 years old, but he still feels like a baby in basketball development years after entering the league as an undrafted rookie in 2017. He won back-to-back championships as a two-way player in 2018 with Golden State and in 2019 with Toronto, and was awarded G League MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in 2019. But he’s shown only flashes in the NBA. Right now, it’s all starting to click.
It’s just one game, but excellent two-way performances like this one seem like a natural step in his progression after a few years of hinting at what he can do with his shooting ability, explosiveness, and length. Toronto may have something special in Boucher.
14. Golden State Warriors | PR: 11
James Wiseman is thriving
Reports out of Warriors camp said Wiseman was impressing coaches with his play, namely his ballhandling. So far this season, he’s backing them up with moments like this:
I like James Wiseman's decisiveness, quick first step, and touch on the extension layup here. It's a routine play driving off a fake handoff but reports out of Warriors camp have hyped up a tighter handle so it's good to see it. He should thrive off these. pic.twitter.com/0OJKty15yb— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) December 23, 2020
Tight, low, and explosive. Very nice, Wiseman. The Warriors have underwhelmed so far this season with Draymond Green sidelined, but Wiseman is a huge bright spot. I retain hope that this team can make the playoffs in the West if their role players start hitting shots at their normal percentages, Green stays healthy, and Wiseman keeps doing what he’s been doing early on.
15. Indiana Pacers | PR: 15
Domantas Sabonis is going beast mode
Sabonis was named an All-Star last season and has been even better through three games for the Pacers. He’s averaging 24.3 points, 11 rebounds, and seven assists while playing stout defense. Against Boston, he hit the go-ahead layup and flexed his muscles:
Domantas Sabonis has been a killer this season for the pacers. Through 3 games:— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) December 28, 2020
32-13-5 vs. Knicks
22-10-11 vs. Bulls
19-10-5 vs. Celtics
Clearly building on his All-Star '19-20 season, and playing energetic defense. Came up clutch today too with the go-ahead layup and a flex. pic.twitter.com/iwhNP4Tu4I
Think back to watching Sabonis as a rookie with the Thunder. You never saw him roar or flex like that. He played like a deer in headlights in OKC. But now in his fifth season, Sabonis is a blossoming star. Only Nikola Jokic is a better big-man offensive hub, but Sabonis is a good playmaker in his own right and brings a different dynamic with his versatile scoring and defense.
Sabonis missed every game in the bubble, and the Pacers got swept in the first round by the Heat. But Indiana’s playoff hopes will be far higher if Sabonis can stay healthy this season and keep dominating.
16. New Orleans Pelicans | PR: 16
Is Brandon Ingram taking another leap?
Anyone who follows my content knows I love Ingram. He’s made progress every year of his career. This season, he looks better than ever. We’ve already seen him effortlessly drain 3-pointers off the dribble with a hand in his face, which is critical because the more potent he is as a shooter, the more he’ll be able to drive.
Incredible take and layup here by Brandon Ingram. Look at the varying length of his strides to slice through the help defense then the finish itself against contact is just so skilled. (Also a great example of this close-up camera view having its benefits—so close to the action!) pic.twitter.com/RYREjKOYwH— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) December 25, 2020
Ingram blew me away on this play, swinging the ball through the defense, then switching hands to score. It’s a blend of beauty and pure fundamentals. He’s averaging 26.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 6.7 assists through three games, and he’s playing better defense than last season. If this keeps up, and if the Pelicans get their team defense on track, Ingram will be in All-NBA consideration.
17. Portland Trail Blazers | PR: 17
Where’s the defense?
Blazers fans got angry with me last week because I tweeted that their team was “comically overrated.” My reasoning is that their defense, which ranked 27th last season, didn’t improve enough.
The Blazers are comically overrated. Nurkic still isn’t near his pre-injury self. He can’t move the way he used to. Covington is getting way too much hype. He has elite off-ball D but only solid on-ball D. Blazers are a likely play-in tournament team. And that’s about it. Sorry. https://t.co/X9jhVIkKFg— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) December 23, 2020
To add on to the points in that tweet, Enes “Can’t Play” Kanter, 36-year-old Carmelo Anthony, and Rodney Hood coming back from a torn Achilles are all playing nightly rotation minutes. Zach Collins is an unproven backup, and it’s unfair to expect Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to defend with high intensity all season long, considering their offensive workloads. The Blazers can score with anyone, but they’ll have nights when they hemorrhage points, just like they already have by allowing 120 points to Utah, and going to overtime against a Rockets team missing John Wall, Eric Gordon, and DeMarcus Cousins. The Blazers are allowing 119 points per 100 possessions, good for worst in the NBA through Sunday’s games. How confident can Blazers fans be that they’ll really get that much better?
18. Memphis Grizzlies | PR: 18
What happened to Brandon Clarke?
Clarke has had issues with his shooting mechanics since he was a teenager playing at San Jose State. He worked hard to iron out a hitch and make a repeatable jumper, and as a rookie shot 40.4 percent from 3 before the hiatus. The problem is he arrived at the bubble with far worse shooting mechanics, with his right elbow dipped down at an awkward angle, and an apparent hitch on his release. In Orlando, he hit two of his 12 triples. This season, his form is still ugly.
The photo on the left is from this season; the one on the right is from October 2019. Notice the positioning of his elbow just as his feet are leaving the ground? Before, he had a square shot with a nice 90 degree angle as he elevated. Now, his right arm is crunched up and the ball is in front of his face.
I’m not sure how to feel, frankly. The fan in me is disappointed. The reporter in me plans to investigate to find out what happened here. Clarke himself has either fallen into bad habits, or some coach or trainer tried to make more tweaks to his form. Either way, someone has some explaining to do because Clarke’s pretty jumper has been ruined.
19. Atlanta Hawks | PR: 20
An undrafted knight in shining armor
After Atlanta’s win over Memphis this weekend, Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce said, “I’m only here to talk about Nathan Knight. If you don’t have a question about Nathan Knight, I don’t have time for you.”
I’m also only here to talk about Nathan Knight. Wait, who’s Nathan Knight? He’s an undrafted free agent on a two-way contract with the Hawks. He stands at 6-foot-10 and 253 pounds, and was more of a post presence while averaging 20 and 10 as a senior at William & Mary. But now, he’s draining spot-up 3s, slashing, and throwing down lobs.
Small sample sizes be damned, Knight looks like a contributor with his diverse offensive skill set.
20. Minnesota Timberwolves | PR: 21
The Timberwolves know how to play defense!
I bring good news and bad news. First, the good: Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell are playing quality defense. Here’s one play that stood out to me for both of them:
Nothing great is happening here, but Russell did a good job of recognizing the switch and then slipping through the screen to stay in front of Bojan Bogdanovic. Meanwhile, KAT pressured Bogdanovic as Russell got back into the play, then battled hard for the rebound. The Timberwolves don’t need either of these guys to be lockdown defenders, but it’s critical that they keep putting in the effort like they have so far to stay in the Western Conference playoff conversation.
The bad news, as Wolves fans know: Towns is out indefinitely with a left wrist dislocation. It won’t require surgery, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported, but losing Towns for any stretch of time significantly diminishes Minnesota’s odds of grabbing a spot in the play-in tournament considering the strength of the West. The Wolves got pounded by the Lakers on Sunday after winning their first two games; they’ll need KAT to win many more.
21. Washington Wizards | PR: 19
Russell Westbrook isn’t saving the Wizards
There’s a lot wrong here. Head coach Scott Brooks doesn’t appear to have a handle on his rotations just yet, which was clear in Sunday’s game when the Wizards blew a 17-point fourth-quarter lead to the Magic. Brooks is throwing out random lineups and making substitutions at inopportune times, and it seems like the team can’t develop any rhythm. They’re 0-3, and it’s not like they’re playing well but losing close games. Defensive communication is nonexistent. It’s embarrassing, truly.
The whole team needs to be better defensively, and the stars especially. Bradley Beal hasn’t brought consistent effort or intensity, and Russell Westbrook hasn’t changed his old habits. Westbrook plays defense with the focus of a kid attending school on Zoom from home. And on the other end of the floor, he’s done nothing to improve his shot selection or his shooting mechanics. Westbrook needs to be better overall, and Beal needs to step up on defense, or else the Wizards will miss the playoffs once again.
22. San Antonio Spurs | PR: 22
Keldon Johnson is for real
Few things have given me more joy so far this season than watching Spurs second-year wing Keldon Johnson hurl his body into the paint. Sometimes he scores. Sometimes he gets swatted. Sometimes the referees should have blown the whistle. But every time, it’s entertaining. See for yourself:
These new-look Spurs are fun. Johnson, Lonnie Walker IV, and Devin Vassell make up an exciting trio of young wings. We’ve got DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge jacking 3s now, too. The Spurs are adapting to the times and developing their kids, all while competing.
23. Orlando Magic | PR: 26
Markelle Fultz is alive
It brings me great joy to watch Fultz play competitive basketball. Fultz still isn’t shooting jumpers at the same level he did in high school and college, but he has made progress. Fultz led a 17-point comeback on Sunday, scoring 10 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter while looking the part of the player who was a worthy no. 1 pick.
It’s understandable if you aren’t a believer in his jumper, but his free throw shooting is encouraging: He’s made 83 percent of his 23 attempts from the stripe, including preseason, which could bode well for the success of his shot off the dribble. Perhaps more importantly, the rest of his game is back, which means energetic defense, slick playmaking, and hard downhill drives.
We’re coming up on the two-year anniversary of the Sixers dumping Fultz for Jonathon Simmons, a 2019 second-round pick (Carsen Edwards), and a 2020 first (Tyrese Maxey). Depending on how Maxey develops, the deal could work out for both sides. But Fultz is still only 22, and just signed a three-year, $50 million extension, so remain patient with his shot and enjoy the rest of his game. As is, he’s pretty good.
24. Sacramento Kings | PR: 23
Sacramento’s rookie is excelling beyond the box score
The Rookie of the Year is often awarded to the player with the best box score numbers, but I hope my fellow media voters give Tyrese Haliburton heavy consideration if he continues performing the way he has through three games. Haliburton is just steady, man. He has 15 assists and only one turnover, and he’s playing excellent defense with timely rotations, and putting in extra effort. Haliburton’s production won’t always be reflected in his numbers, but it’s hard to believe he’s a rookie playing his first week in the NBA.
Sacramento’s success or failure this season will be tied to its production from De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, and various veterans. But Haliburton’s development is more important from a big-picture perspective, and so far he’s looking like one of the steals of the 2020 draft.
25. Charlotte Hornets | PR: 24
LaMelo Ball’s limited minutes
Through three games, LaMelo has played 16, 15, and 20 minutes. It’s been an up-and-down experience so far, with a handful of flashy moments, and some bad ones too. To set a baseline for his season, it’s worth looking at a couple of the negatives:
The first one is a pull-up 3-pointer with 20 seconds left on the shot clock. It’s cool for a knockdown shooter to take these, but is LaMelo even an average shooter? We’ll find out over the course of the season, but it’s premature for this to qualify as a quality shot.
The second play—a floater from the free throw line with 18 seconds left on the shot clock—is undeniably unwarranted. Miles Bridges, who was wide open from 3, also seemed to be hoping for a pass from LaMelo:
Moments like this are why I’m careful to say Ball is an elite passer, but not an elite playmaker. The game’s best playmakers consistently make great decisions on the floor and find open teammates. Ball still takes too many shots that he shouldn’t be taking. By the end of the season, hopefully he has all of them out of his system, because his positive moments are exhilarating.
26. Cleveland Cavaliers | PR: 28
Collin Sexton is changing speeds
Collin Sexton is averaging 27 points through three games and it appears he’s building on his stellar finish to last season. Sexton is a fearless scorer, but as a younger player he had trouble reining in his intensity. He’d move too fast, often barreling into multiple defenders and making careless turnovers. Now, he’s changing speeds.
With a chance to tie the game, Sexton scooped the ball off the court and started a fast break. In his younger days, I guarantee he’d have put the pedal to the metal and driven straight into the paint. Nowadays? He slams the brakes, looks both ways, and then attacks an opening. It’s a sign of maturity, one that certainly bodes well for Cleveland’s future. These Cavs are feisty!
27. Detroit Pistons | PR: 25
What’s the plan in Detroit?
Wait a minute here. I thought the Pistons were supposed to be focused on player development this season? Yet Blake Griffin and his papier-mâché knees logged 35 and 44 minutes in Detroit’s two opening games. And Delon Wright and Derrick Rose are playing far more than Detroit’s young guards and wings, Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey, and Svi Mykhailiuk. Even Sekou Doumbouya can barely get any time on the floor.
Dwane Casey, like many head coaches, must feel pressure to win games now. On paper, it’s not like the Pistons are awful. But you’d think your first-round picks from the past two drafts would learn more from actually playing in games rather than watching leads get blown from the bench.
28. Chicago Bulls | PR: 27
Who is the real Wendell Carter Jr.?
Carter looked like an absolute mess entering Sunday’s game:
He looked scared every time he touched the ball. What happened to this dude? He was a confident playmaking big and a defensive enforcer in high school and college. Many scouts, executives, and analysts (including me) thought Carter was a safe bet to be a good pro. Three years of porous play, evaporated confidence, and injuries show how much of an inexact science the draft really is.
But then you watch him play on Sunday against Golden State—when he scored 22 points on nine shots with 13 rebounds and four assists—and you’re reminded of the prospect you once loved. Bulls head coach Billy Donovan challenged his team before their loss to the Warriors to do a better job of handling adversity, and Carter stepped up. That’s a good thing. But until Carter starts excelling with some consistency, I won’t be confident even a change of scenery will be enough to fix him.
29. Oklahoma City Thunder | PR: 29
Is OKC exceeding expectations again?
Al Horford and George Hill played like two veterans who could net the Thunder a couple of future first-round picks in their opening game against the Hornets. Horford played great defense, rebounded, and made some gorgeous passes:
Hill did much of the same, while also draining jumpers. It’s obviously early, but Horford and Hill clearly still have gas left in the tank. This means two things for OKC: (1) The Thunder will be more competitive than many expected ahead of this season—maybe they won’t win many games, but their veterans will have the opportunities to show they have value; and (2) Sam Presti will have teams trying to get Horford and Hill, meaning he could add to his stockpile of draft picks.
30. New York Knicks | PR: 30
New York is the tanking capital of the NBA
Watching the Knicks can get ugly. Julius Randle, Dennis Smith Jr., and Elfrid Payton all handle the ball more often than most New York fans would like, but there can still be some good moments. Randle and Payton may be frustrating at times, but watching them collectively total 56 points, 17 rebounds, and 14 assists in Sunday’s win over the Bucks was something else to witness.
These Knicks aren’t the Process Sixers. It’s not as if these players straight-up stink. And they’re still focusing on development, too. RJ Barrett has been up-and-down, but he appears to have taken a step forward from his rookie season. Mitchell Robinson, Kevin Knox, and Frank Ntilikina are all still getting minutes too. They won’t win many games this season, but it’s a good thing to have higher lottery odds. Knicks fans will have to deal with the inevitable lows of this season and enjoy the highs whenever they occur.