clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The First Month NBA Power Rankings

Which teams have surprised or disappointed out of the gate? From the woeful Wizards to the surging Suns, we re-rank all 30 teams’ chances of claiming the championship.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

What a season it’s been so far. It feels like we’re at a transitional point in the NBA, with young stars like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Anthony Edwards, and Tyrese Haliburton emerging and old-guard stars like LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant all still dominating.

Through the first five weeks of the season, we’ve seen high-quality games on a nightly basis, and there’s been a ton of parity. The Minnesota Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder are leading the West! In the East, the Boston Celtics are still on top, but the Orlando Magic are right behind. Rule changes that incentivize suiting up are undoubtedly a factor in all this early-season competitiveness. Even Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are playing every night! And best of all, the inaugural in-season tournament has already been a major win, and we haven’t even gotten to the most exciting stage of all, the knockout games. The elimination games should feature heightened intensity, perhaps with tightened rotations and playoff-like effort. Players and coaches want the financial reward, and franchises want to be the first winner of the tournament in league history.

The tournament could also serve as a strong barometer for where these teams currently sit in the ultimate race for a championship, which is what these power rankings focus on. We’re at the one-fifth mark of the season, so this is an early look at how I’d rank every team’s odds of winning it all. Let’s start at the bottom and work our way to the top.

The Not-So-Fantastic Four

This foursome has no shot at the playoffs because, for them, this season is all about player development and figuring out who the keepers are for the future.

30. Washington Wizards

2-14 record, minus-9.2 net rating
Preseason ranking: no. 30

The Wizards are the NBA’s biggest eyesore, and Jordan Poole is arguably the biggest contributor to the monstrosity. Poole’s on-court blunders are hard to ignore: a frivolous backboard lob during a blowout, zoning out in a crucial timeout huddle, and a baffling ignorance of basic shot-clock rules. Sure, Poole sports a ring from his time with the Warriors, but his stint with the Wizards is exposing him as anything but a player of championship caliber. Maybe by year’s end he’ll learn how to lead. But even if we put his antics aside, he quite simply hasn’t produced in his new opportunity, averaging 18.3 points on a dismal 49.3 percent shooting from 2 and 27.9 percent from 3. Ironically, an underwhelming performance might just be what Washington needs: a good tank job, with Poole unwittingly playing the role of the ideal tank commander.

29. Detroit Pistons

2-14 record, minus-7.2 net rating
Preseason ranking: no. 28

The Pistons are in dire need of a roster reshuffle. There are just too many non-shooters and too many redundant ball handlers. They used lottery picks to select four guys who can handle the ball in consecutive drafts: Killian Hayes, Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey, and Ausar Thompson. With Ivey’s well-deserved elevation to the starting lineup and Thompson’s rapid establishment as a defensive powerhouse, Hayes seems the likely candidate for a move. However, the bigger question mark looms over Cunningham. Of course, the Pistons are playing with suboptimal spacing, ranking no. 19 in 3-point percentage and last in 3-point attempts. But Cunningham is part of the problem, not just a victim of his circumstances. His shooting inefficiency is glaring—he’s had zero nights shooting over 50 percent from the field this season—and it’s coupled with a worrying average of 4.8 turnovers per game. Sure, there aren’t any open driving lanes. But wouldn’t it be nice if he could shoot efficiently from the perimeter? Once the team is past these so-called roadblocks, it may prove only that Cunningham’s deficiencies were the primary factor holding back the Pistons all along.

28. San Antonio Spurs

3-13 record, minus-12.7 net rating
Preseason ranking: no. 26

San Antonio Spurs v Golden State Warriors Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

With the 28th-ranked offense and 27th-ranked defense, the Spurs are a lot worse than anticipated. Amid this chaos, Jeremy Sochan, the team’s experimental point guard, has become a lightning rod for criticism. While it’s been ugly for the raw 20-year-old at times, I remain in favor of giving him the reps, at least through the deadline. As I argued earlier this month, the Spurs need to find out whether Sochan can improve to know what they have in him. Yes, Tre Jones could get Victor Wembanyama more shots at the rim, but starting a 6-foot-1 point guard who is a target on defense and can’t shoot gets you only so far. San Antonio’s talented lottery pick deserves an extended run. The debate over Sochan also ignores the fact that Wembanyama needs to progress regardless of who’s running point. Wemby is making 75.4 percent of his shots in the restricted area, but only 37.1 percent in the paint, 33.3 percent from midrange, and 26.7 percent from behind the arc. He needs to finish post chances, pull-ups, and spot-up jumpers regardless of the surrounding dynamics.

27. Portland Trail Blazers

4-12 record, minus-8.4 net rating
Preseason ranking: no. 27

It’s been an ugly start to the season for rookie point guard Scoot Henderson, but his multi-week absence could end up being a blessing in disguise. For one, he returned with sporting goggles to protect his newly acquired contact lenses. Maybe now he’ll have better vision on the floor to help mitigate his iffy shooting range and sloppy turnovers, two issues that have plagued him dating back to his time in the G League. But Henderson’s absence also opened the door for Malcolm Brogdon to start. The rookie now has the chance to cut his teeth against less daunting bench units, alleviating the pressure on him early in his career. While it’s far too early to panic about Henderson, hopefully he’ll have a big game soon to remind everyone why he’s been a highly touted prospect since high school.

Blow It Up!

So far, only one team belongs in this self-explanatory category.

26. Chicago Bulls

5-13 record, minus-5.9 net rating
Preseason ranking: no. 24

Billy Donovan’s attempt to avoid a rebuild in Oklahoma City has backfired spectacularly in Chicago. It wouldn’t be surprising if he’s the first coaching casualty of the season. The real question is whether the front office might be next in line behind him. Arturas Karnisovas’s track record is marred by missed opportunities in the draft and lopsided losses in trades. There is not a team in a worse position than the Bulls, but that could change if they press reset. By trading established veterans like Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic, they could start to carve out a new direction. Until then, the franchise remains adrift.

Bad Records, Promising Players

These two young squads have some intriguing youngsters despite iffy starts to the season.

25. Charlotte Hornets

5-10 record, minus-7.9 net rating
Preseason ranking: no. 29

The Hornets are starting to resemble an actual basketball team: They have a strong supporting cast around LaMelo Ball, who is averaging a career-high number of touches per game (although he had to be helped off the court Sunday with an ankle strain). Charlotte head coach Steve Clifford is leaning heavily on his 22-year-old point guard in the pick-and-roll, with Ball running 24.4 per game, which is leading the NBA, according to Synergy. Over his first two seasons, LaMelo excelled in James Borrego’s freelancing, movement-based offense, but now he’s reaching a new level in a system that allows him a little more control. After a slow start to the season, he’s looking like an All-NBA-caliber talent again.

24. Utah Jazz

5-11 record, minus-6.5 net rating
Preseason ranking: no. 20

I honestly expected the Jazz to be better. Here’s what I wrote in my preseason power rankings:

Lauri Markkanen emerged as an All-Star, Walker Kessler was one of the NBA’s best rim protectors as a rookie, and Will Hardy looked like a premier head coach. And this offseason, John Collins was acquired on top of an impressive draft haul, including Taylor Hendricks, Keyonte George, and Brice Sensabaugh. Don’t be surprised if the Jazz rise up these rankings quickly.

Instead, the team has gone through stretches of playing such selfish basketball that Hardy felt forced to say this last week: “If you’re gonna wear a Utah Jazz jersey, you have to give a shit about the Utah Jazz.” Harsh but honest. On Saturday, the Jazz were without Markkanen and Jordan Clarkson. Surprisingly, things ran a lot more smoothly. Everyone in the rotation competed on defense. It’s no fault of Markkanen’s, but Clarkson’s time with this team might be up due to his score-first, pass-last style. Trading him would be a step in the right direction, while also empowering rookie point guard George to run the team alongside Markkanen and their other promising pieces. And then maybe they’ll rise quickly up these rankings?

What Do We Do Next?

These teams kinda feel stuck in the middle, for one reason or another.

23. Memphis Grizzlies

3-13 record, minus-8.3 net rating
Preseason ranking: no. 7

This just isn’t the year for the Grizzlies. Once Ja Morant returns in a few weeks, it’ll be tough for them to dig out of the deep hole they’ve created. Odds are, they’ll end up in the lottery or, at best, the play-in. But even the latter would require a Herculean effort from Ja. Maybe things would be different if Steven Adams hadn’t gotten hurt, or if Desmond Bane or Jaren Jackson Jr. had taken offensive leaps this year. But they haven’t been able to lift Memphis higher than 29th in offensive rating. Will Morant really be able to solve everything? It seems unlikely.


22. Toronto Raptors

8-9 record, minus-0.5 net rating
Preseason ranking: no. 23

The Raptors are such a strange team. The most important thing for them is that Scottie Barnes looks like he’s on the path to stardom. But it’s hard to watch this team without thinking about whether Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby are about to follow in the footsteps of Fred VanVleet. Toronto chose not to deal VanVleet before last year’s trade deadline, then he walked away for nothing in free agency. If I’m Toronto, I’d pay Anunoby because his complementary style of offense and lockdown defense make him a perfect fit next to Barnes. As for Siakam, he will turn 30 in April, and there’s a bit more overlap with his skill set and Barnes’s. If the Raptors could flip him for draft picks or a valuable young player, they should do it. And if there’s one thing Siakam has proved this year, it’s that he can still grind on defense when he’s not asked to shoulder the entire offensive load. Many contenders should have interest, and the Raptors should be listening when that time comes because there’s no question: Barnes is worth optimizing.

21. Brooklyn Nets

8-8 record, plus-0.4 net rating
Preseason ranking: no. 19

The Nets are a solid, competitive team. But they aren’t really going anywhere until they make some moves. One of the reasons is that Mikal Bridges has plateaued as a scorer. Bridges is still extremely good in his role, and remains an excellent defender. But after progressing into a player who can create his own shot, he hasn’t yet become a player who can do it at an elite level. Bridges is shooting only 35.3 percent out of isolations this season, and with more on-ball reps, it means he’s getting fewer chances to do what he does best: cut to the rim, attack closeouts off the catch, and shoot spot-up 3s. Cam Thomas and Ben Simmons missing games has put too much on his plate, but their return—and eventual roster-clarifying moves—will hopefully lead to Bridges playing a role more suited for him, one that maximizes all of his impressive capabilities.

How Do We Take the Next Step?

This big group isn’t quite as proven as other squads, making it difficult to rank any of the teams in it higher despite early-season success.

20. Atlanta Hawks

8-8 record, plus-2.3 net rating
Preseason ranking: no. 16

It’s going to be a painful month for the Hawks without Jalen Johnson, who has become an irreplaceable two-way player as a multi-positional defender, athletic rebounder, and versatile offensive weapon. Johnson’s absence was felt in Atlanta’s loss to the Celtics on Sunday, and no one else on the roster can really do what he offers across so many different areas of the game. Trae Young and Dejounte Murray finding some level of consistency would help; they just can’t seem to have a great performance on the same night. Perhaps this isn’t a coincidence and is merely a symptom of their clunky fit. Neither of them is a particularly active cutter, and as shooters off the catch, Murray is below average and Young is prone to avoiding them altogether. Offense isn’t exactly the issue for this team, though, and unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like there’s an easy fix for Atlanta’s, loaded with undersized targets. The only cure is more scoring.

19. Indiana Pacers

9-6 record, plus-3.6 net rating
Preseason ranking: no. 21

Odds are if you’re reading these words right now, you’re a Pacers fan. So you already know how thrilling it is to have an offensive tour de force like Tyrese Haliburton, who demands double-teams, brings joy to the court with his style, and gives the Pacers a long-term future to be excited about. His synergy with the team’s array of lob threats, savvy cutters, and sharpshooters has catapulted the Pacers to historic levels on offense. However, there’s a glaring Achilles’ heel: Their defense is absolutely abysmal, tied for 29th in the league. I’m not here to rain on your parade. It’s just a statement of fact, and I’d hope that at some point this season these issues will be addressed. There are just too many unaware off-ball rotations and too many instances in which the point-of-attack defenders can’t contain penetration, Haliburton included. Once Myles Turner steps away from the rim, the team’s interior defense becomes alarmingly vulnerable. They won’t correct this imbalance overnight, but with a talent as special as Haliburton, the Pacers need to make it happen sooner rather than later.

Detroit Pistons v Indiana Pacers Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

18. Houston Rockets

8-6 record, plus-5.1 net rating
Preseason ranking: no. 25

Alperen Sengun’s remarkable progress, Jabari Smith’s solid progress, and the thriving new additions of Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks have transformed the Rockets into a team to be reckoned with. Now, the team’s biggest X factor is Jalen Green. In his third season, Green’s performance still oscillates between brilliant and lackluster. After being benched in the entire fourth quarter against the Warriors, he has since followed up with 34 points on 26 shots and 25 points on 18 shots, while playing some of the most competitive defense of his life. Was the benching from Ime Udoka a wake-up call? I’d hope so. The Rockets don’t have Finals expectations this season, but Green developing chemistry with his teammates while ascending would raise their ceiling immediately.

17. Cleveland Cavaliers

9-8 record, minus-2.0 net rating
Preseason ranking: no. 14

Acquiring Donovan Mitchell was supposed to take the Cavaliers to the next level. But instead it looks like it’ll go down as the move that’ll keep them in the middle. Mitchell is a high-caliber scorer, but his tunnel vision on his rim assaults leads to him blatantly ignoring teammates in favor of reckless, forced shots. Add in the fact that he’s a small defender sharing a backcourt with another small guard in Darius Garland, and it feels like Cleveland has too much overlap. The Cavaliers would be wise to see what kind of haul they could receive for Mitchell ahead of the deadline, but moving him wouldn’t solve all of their problems. Evan Mobley isn’t even shooting midrange jumpers at this point, let alone taking 3s. The Cavs have two bigs that can’t space the floor in Mobley and Jarrett Allen. The roster is brimming with talent, but the puzzle pieces don’t quite fit.


16. New York Knicks

9-7 record, plus-4.2 net rating
Preseason ranking: no. 11

There are far too many streaky players on the Knicks to take them seriously as a contender. RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley flash from great to invisible too often, and Julius Randle stars on the All-Frustrating Team. Come deadline time, I’d hope the Knicks look into cashing in their pile of first-round picks for some players to help reshape the team. And if Randle can be moved, it would probably be for the best. He too often has games like the one he played on Sunday, when he was missing in the first half and playing hard in the second; if he could just give consistent effort, the Knicks would probably win more games. The Knicks have an elite defense and a solid offense, but a few tweaks are necessary to take the next step.

15. New Orleans Pelicans

9-8 record, plus-0.4 net rating
Preseason ranking: no. 12

The way rookie Jordan Hawkins is flourishing next to Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram gets me excited for the eventual return of Trey Murphy, a 6-foot-8 forward who shoots flames from 3. With bench guys like Matt Ryan and Naji Marshall shooting the lights out, the formula for success in New Orleans is clearly to surround Zion and Ingram with shooters. But there is one concern to keep an eye on: Despite New Orleans having better spacing than ever during the Zion era, Williamson is shooting a career-worst percentage at the rim. Zion doesn’t seem quite as explosive horizontally or vertically, and he’s even taking a larger share of shots in the paint outside the restricted area than he has in the past. Maybe he’s still getting his legs underneath him, but it’s a trend to monitor.

14. Orlando Magic

12-5 record, plus-5.6 net rating
Preseason ranking: no. 22

Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner are powering the Magic as a 6-foot-10 tandem capable of filling any responsibility asked of them, and behind them is a roster filled with talented players who star in their roles. One of the biggest contributors so far is Jalen Suggs, who has slid into a starting spot following the rocky first two seasons of his career. Orlando has been one of the first month’s biggest surprises, and one of the defining moments of its season came last week, just two minutes into an in-season tournament game against Toronto, when Suggs battled hard in the post against the much larger Pascal Siakam. An entry pass came in, and Suggs fought through Siakam’s frame to poke the ball away. The Magic picked it up, pushed the ball down the court, and soon hit a 3. But that wasn’t the moment. The moment came as the 3 swooshed through the net, when the camera panned to Suggs wildly pumping his fists, screaming at the crowd and to himself, going wild as if it were the closing moments of Game 7. It’s only November, but Suggs’s intensity is exactly what his young team needs. Good teams need tone setters, and yes, the Magic are good.

In the Hunt

These five teams lurk here out of respect to their upper-echelon talent, but their rosters may not have enough depth or experience to truly contend this season.

13. Dallas Mavericks

10-6 record, plus-0.8 net rating
Preseason ranking: no. 17

The main reason the Mavericks rank so high here is Luka Doncic. Any time you have a player this special, you have a chance to make a run. But the Mavericks defense is so bad that it’s fair to wonder whether they have a legitimate shot. The supporting cast is better than it’s been before. But this team has so many weak links. If rookie center Dereck Lively isn’t in the game, things get particularly ugly. Luka competes on defense, and Grant Williams and Derrick Jones are both solid, but none of them are stoppers. Kyrie Irving can be attacked, and he often falls out of position. Coming off the bench, Dwight Powell and Tim Hardaway Jr. are total revolving doors; lineups with both of them on the floor are allowing 124.3 points per 100 possessions, which ranks worse than 96.4 percent of all 860 other two-man lineup combinations to play at least 100 minutes. It’s easy to point to rotations or schemes as the reason for these defensive troubles, but it’s a personnel problem that’s on the front office to resolve.

12. Los Angeles Clippers

7-8 record, plus-3.6 net rating
Preseason ranking: no. 8

Dallas Mavericks v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

James Harden is averaging a career-low rate of shots attempted at the rim. He’s taking his fewest free throws per game since his second season. And he’s making his second-worst percentage of 3s. Harden said earlier this month that he needs time to work himself into “James Harden shape,” but we’re now 10 games into his Clippers tenure and he still lacks burst on drives and explosiveness at the rim. It’s a troubling start exacerbated by P.J. Tucker’s underwhelming play and Russell Westbrook’s deterioration and move to the bench. Harden keeps the ball moving to his teammates while competing harder on defense than he has in years. But the Clippers are teetering on the brink of mediocrity, and unless he rediscovers last season’s form, they’re just another team in the mix, not the championship threat they want to be.

11. Golden State Warriors

8-9 record, plus-0.1 net rating
Preseason ranking: no. 6

The Warriors are struggling to cement a rotation around Stephen Curry. Andrew Wiggins and Klay Thompson have severely underwhelmed, while Steve Kerr’s lineups seem muddled, underusing talents like Moses Moody, who has shown promise in his limited time. The absence of Draymond Green, who’s set to return against Sacramento after a five-game suspension for choking Rudy Gobert, has only compounded their issues. Unless Green stomps on Domantas Sabonis again to earn another suspension, his return against the Kings will mark the start of an important stretch for the Warriors that’ll be followed by games against the Clippers and Suns. This period will be telling: Either the Warriors will rediscover their championship-caliber form, or it will become evident that significant changes are necessary if they hope to remain contenders.

10. Sacramento Kings

9-6 record, plus-0.2 net rating
Preseason ranking: no. 13

For the Kings to make a playoff run, they’ll need internal development to occur. Domantas Sabonis needs to be a little better on defense, Keegan Murray needs to be a bit more potent in creating his own shots, and new additions like Sasha Vezenkov need to make an impact. What’d help most would be if the progress from their best player proves to be real. De’Aaron Fox, who is averaging a career-high 29.9 points, is taking four more shots per game than he did last season, with the most notable difference coming behind the arc. Fox has cut out deep midrange jumpers in favor of taking more 3s: Last season, he attempted six pull-up 2s and only 2.7 pull-up 3s per game. This season, he’s taking 4.8 pull-up 2s and five pull-up 3s. We’re still dealing with small samples here, but his percentages are up, and clearly Fox intends to go from an All-NBA guard to a potential MVP candidate by raising his scoring efficiency and volume.

9. Oklahoma City Thunder

11-5 record, plus-8.3 net rating
Preseason ranking: no. 15

Sam Presti spoke for nearly two hours during media day last month and was asked about when he should cash in his mountain of draft picks for a star. “You can’t buy the paint for your house that you actually haven’t bought yet,” said Presti. “We don’t really know what we have.” It was a true and honest response at the time, but Oklahoma City’s foundation is starting to set. The Thunder have an All-NBA talent at point guard in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and even as a rookie, Chet Holmgren should be in the All-Star conversation. Then there are lockdown defenders like Lu Dort and Cason Wallace, shooters like Isaiah Joe, and scorers like Jalen Williams. So what’s missing? A big who brings more girth than Chet or a more developed version of their younger role players. Maybe one of those three will turn into what the Thunder need next to SGA and Holmgren. But there’s no reason to rush things here. And, frankly, Presti is likely just waiting for the right paint to go on sale to make a deal. As soon as that moment comes, the Thunder will be ready to take the leap.

Finals Contenders

As currently structured, these teams have the goods to make a run, but do they have enough to win it all? Some moves might be necessary.

8. Miami Heat

10-7 record, plus-2.1 net rating
Preseason ranking: no. 9

It’s becoming easier to see why the Heat were unwilling to include Jaime Jaquez Jr. in their proposed trade package for Damian Lillard. At just 22, Jaquez is already a force to be reckoned with, showcasing defensive prowess, rebounding strength, and a keen eye for smart passes—the very attributes that cemented his legendary status during his four-year stint at UCLA. And his polished interior game and deft footwork are translating. The Heat have already reaped the benefits, scoring 35 points from Jaquez’s 25 post-up plays, per Synergy. And his scoring has continued to ascend on the same upward trajectory he experienced in college. Jaquez is nailing 40.0 percent of his 3-point attempts, indicating that his college proficiency in off-the-dribble shooting is now effectively translating to off-the-catch scenarios in the NBA. With a multifaceted skill set, he’s proving to be a critical piece for Miami’s hopes of taking a big step.

7. Minnesota Timberwolves

12-4 record, plus-6.4 net rating
Preseason ranking: no. 18

Ahhh, so this is what the Timberwolves envisioned when they traded for Rudy Gobert, who is currently the early-season favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year. Gobert looks as springy as ever. But the biggest difference this year is that Karl-Anthony Towns is playing the best defense of his life. I previously said on The Mismatch that the Timberwolves would probably need to trade KAT to become championship contenders, but I’m not so sure that’s true anymore. Towns is a 50-40-90 guy on offense and playing strong defense on the other end. The Wolves have KAT helping on the inside like a guy his size usually does, but he’s also doing a solid job of fighting over screens and switching. Because Minnesota has so much size, a perimeter player can afford to steer an opponent into help. And so far, the Wolves are tied for the best defensive rating in the NBA. So why aren’t they ranked higher here? It’s still early. But they are rising fast.

6. Philadelphia 76ers

11-5 record, plus-6.5 net rating
Preseason ranking: no. 10

Ever since the James Harden deal, I’ve been watching the Sixers try to get a feel for what’s still missing. Moving Harden brought in three veterans, Nicolas Batum, Robert Covington, and Marcus Morris. So far, Batum’s connective passing has fit like a glove with Philadelphia’s movement offense, while Covington has added reliable defense off the bench. But Morris looks like a poor fit. Fortunately, with a $17 million expiring salary, he’s very tradable. With just his salary alone, the Sixers could chase an upgrade over De’Anthony Melton, such as Alex Caruso. Or perhaps a better version of BBall Paul Reed, such as PJ Washington. The Sixers are a ways from needing to make that decision, but they haven’t lost a step since moving on from Harden. With the ball in Joel Embiid’s and Tyrese Maxey’s hands more often, they might have even gained one.

5. Milwaukee Bucks

12-5 record, plus-2.8 net rating
Preseason ranking: no. 3

The Adrian Griffin hire is on track to go down as the biggest mistake any team has made this offseason. After a highly aggressive defensive scheme was installed during training camp, Bucks players have already asked to revert to last season’s drop-coverage scheme. So Griffin put center Brook Lopez back into a drop to keep him closer to the rim. But the Bucks are still putting pressure on the ball 40 feet from the basket, no matter who is defending, from Bobby Portis to Malik Beasley. There doesn’t seem to be too much logic behind it. Griffin is simply running a scheme that resembles what he orchestrated with the Raptors, and not adapting to the talents of his new team. As a result of that decision and Jrue Holiday’s departure, the Bucks rank 20th in defensive rating. Point-of-attack defense is clearly an issue, so why is a subpar defender like Beasley starting? At some point, should rookie Andre Jackson Jr. get a chance? Jackson is an energetic defender who could become an on-ball stopper, and offensively, he could add some flair with his cutting, screening, and playmaking. But Griffin hasn’t quite shown an ability to maximize the team’s talent on that end, either. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard run only a handful of dribble handoffs per game, and they aren’t pounding pick-and-rolls like you would expect them to. There is a ton of time for Griffin to figure out the best mix for this group. But so far, the only solution has been letting Giannis or Dame take over games. Even at 12-5, it feels like the Bucks are leaving a lot of meat on the bone due to their rookie coach.

4. Los Angeles Lakers

10-7 record, plus-0.5 net rating
Preseason ranking: no. 5

Austin Reaves has been put in more of a pass-first role coming off the bench in recent weeks, averaging more than six minutes of possession time and more than six assists per game. Reaves is effectively a 15-6-6 guy right now, but I wonder whether the Lakers could be getting more out of him by ramping up his usage even more. Reaves allows the Lakers to use LeBron James as a screener in different ways—on top of his unfathomable on-ball dominance at 38 years old—which has led to some cutting opportunities in what’s becoming a juicy chemistry. And Reaves is also finding Anthony Davis in his spots, using his own gravity as an offensive threat to deliver the ball to AD. Following a slow start to the year, Reaves is becoming the third star the Lakers need. And soon, injured players will return to the lineup. Things are trending up.

Houston Rockets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

3. Phoenix Suns

11-6 record, plus-4.1 net rating
Preseason ranking: no. 4

Devin Booker is averaging 29.4 points to go along with 8.9 assists and only 3.1 turnovers, looking the part of one of the five best players in the league. Here’s an amazing stat that details his progress: This season, his assists are generating 24.2 points per game for his teammates, per NBA Advanced Stats. His previous career high was 17.2, which came during the 2019-20 season. But this season’s mark is double what he averaged during the Chris Paul era. It’s been a lot of fun to watch him fully realize his potential. Booker ran eight pick-and-rolls total as a Kentucky freshman, and now he’s nearly leading the NBA in pick-and-rolls per game. The Suns are rolling with him, even in games when Kevin Durant is absent. But the whole plan was to have three stars in Phoenix, not just one or two. Will Bradley Beal get healthy? Can KD stay on the floor? I’m not as worried about Phoenix’s depth as some people. It’s the questions about the stars’ durability that hold me back from ranking the Suns even higher.

The Favorites

These teams aren’t locks to make it to the Finals, but they are the clear leaders in their conferences.

2. Boston Celtics

13-4 record, plus-8.6 net rating
Preseason ranking: no. 2

There are a lot of things about this Celtics team to praise, but I want to use this space to give love to Al Horford, who at age 37 is now primarily coming off the bench but remains an excellent defensive player. Horford is still one of the heaviest switch defenders in the NBA, managing to corral scoring wings like Anthony Edwards and Khris Middleton and speedy guards like Cam Thomas and Trae Young. Late in the fourth quarter Sunday, Horford switched onto Trae Young and then swatted his shot into the first row, right into the hands of his own son. At this point, Horford is primarily a ball mover and spot-up shooter on offense. But as a big who can play alongside anyone because of his perimeter skills or slide into the starting lineup when Kristaps Porzingis is absent, he remains a critical piece for the Celtics. Boston’s Finals odds will come down to the levels Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown reach against elite defenses that are game-planning to stop them, but with role players like Horford, the Celtics have everything else a team needs.

1. Denver Nuggets

11-6 record, plus-4.4 net rating
Preseason ranking: no. 1

The Nuggets maintain their top-tier status, but not without some noticeable hiccups, especially with Jamal Murray out of action. Following the loss of Bruce Brown and Jeff Green, one of the big story lines entering Denver’s season was the quality of the refurbished bench. The youth experiment hasn’t been great, as the team seems to have lost some of the nastiness that defined its championship run. Nuggets head coach Michael Malone hasn’t minced words about the bench’s lackluster performance, labeling their contributions as “empty minutes” and hinting at imminent lineup shuffles. This could mean we’ll see more DeAndre Jordan than Zeke Nnaji, or more Justin Holiday than Julian Strawther, or more Hunter Tyson than Peyton Watson. No matter what Malone decides, it’s a critical phase for testing and tweaking the team dynamics to iron out the rotation and figure out whether the front office needs to pull the trigger on any roster changes ahead of the impending playoff battles.

Off Guard With Austin Rivers

Jayson Tatum’s Odds to Become Face of the League and Final All-Star Game Fixes

The Mismatch

The Six Most Interesting Teams Down the NBA’s Final Stretch

In My Feelings With Big Wos

Don’t Doubt Victor Wembanyama

View all stories in NBA