This early season has exposed a rare trend, as competitive balance within the Eastern Conference emerged.
When people talk about conference parity in the NBA, the focus often centers on the league’s best teams. Those discussions almost always then gravitate toward the West. And that’s more than fair. With six of the last 10 title winners and wildly superior competitive depth, the Western Conference has largely dominated the past decade. All-Star games? The West has also won four of the last five. Perception and reality are in the same corner here.
Another way to think about balance is to look at the strength of the middle class. A below-.500 squad has made it into the Eastern Conference playoffs in nine of the past 10 seasons. The only exception was lockout-shortened 2010–11, when the Sixers (remember them?) were the eight-seed at 35–31. In that time span, it hasn’t happened in the West. There have been multiple seasons when the Western Conference playoffs featured eight 50-plus win teams. Throwing out the best and worst teams and looking at the center might be a better indication of equality, anyway: every sample has outliers on both ends, even if the Warriors and Lakers weren’t the subject of your high school stats class.
Based off the first two weeks of the season, it looks as if the East's middle class has taken a major step forward. This is highly unscientific: the games have simply been competitive. Teams are moving the “fun” needle. Not to get too far ahead of ourselves—it’s only two weeks in, though the East is currently 14–12 against the West—but let’s enjoy this little thing we call competitive balance while we have it. Little brother is catching up, or at least it will appear that way until Golden State slices a burning swath across the kingdom.
With all things considered, here’s this week's edition of the NBA Power Rankings.
(All stats and records through Nov. 9)
Are they coasting? Maybe. Does it matter? Not yet. The Cavs trailed at halftime to the Knicks and the Sixers (twice) this week, pulling out much closer wins than necessary, although LeBron’s doing just fine and Kevin Love has returned to his Minnesota form. All signs remain positive for the East’s reigning champions.
It’s almost unfair to keep chalking their success up to the system. The Hawks have won seven straight and field more talent than they get credit for, with quick guards, skilled bigs and the threat of Kyle Korver darting around the perimeter. And much like their philosophical predecessors in San Antonio, we should respect what Atlanta has built. Kent Bazemore has slotted nicely into the starting five and is coming off a career-high 25 points in a blowout of the Wizards.
The Thunder dropped three straight to playoff-quality teams, which is not a total sin, but also not what you’d hope from a team this talented. Russell Westbrook (26.3 points, 10.9 assists) and Kevin Durant (30.1 points on 50% shooting) have settled back in together just fine, so I’d venture a guess it’s mostly an aberration.
It’s wholly unsurprising that the Rockets got back on track when James Harden did, with wins over the Thunder and Clippers helping erase an 0–3 start. The Beard shot 46% and averaged 38 points per game in Houston’s four wins after making an atrocious 12 field goals total in the season’s first week. Carry on.
Dwyane Wade has struggled from the field the past couple of games, but a quality bench has coalesced in South Beach led by the surprising Tyler Johnson and 19-year-old rookie Justise Winslow. Winslow’s crash course has been fascinating to watch: he’s already matched up defensively with LeBron James, James Harden and Paul George and still rates top-20 in the league in plus-minus rating. Auspicious, indeed.
After winning five games in style, the Raptors hit their first snag of the season, falling to both Florida teams to end a four-game road trip. Though DeMarre Carroll is battling foot problems, he should be afforded some rest, as their four opponents this week have won a combined four games—and three of those wins belong to the Knicks.
The Bulls have beaten Cleveland and Oklahoma City, and lost to Charlotte and Minnesota. Last season’s inconsistencies have lingered into the Holberg tenure, with frustrated players discussing collective effort and team identity. With just two games this week, perhaps some soul-searching will do them some good.
Utah boasts the NBA’s most tight-fisted defense, allowing just 85 points per game. A four-game road trip to the East should be an appropriate test, beginning with Cleveland on Tuesday. With the West in unexpected flux early on, this popular playoff sleeper looks to be right on course.
You should know all about Andre Drummond by now, but Reggie Jackson has been living up to his big contract and helping propel Detroit into serious relevance. He led a massive comeback against Portland with 26 of his career-high 40 points in the fourth quarter. If you haven’t tuned in yet, Detroit gets Golden State in the second game of a road back-to-back Monday night.
When should we start worrying? The Grizzlies have been blown out three times this season, have gone stone cold on offense and even Marc Gasol has been noticeably off. If they’re still mad about getting trolled on Twitter, they get the Clippers on Monday night. If they’re still mad about getting beat by 50, they host the Warriors on Wednesday. We’ll see which team shows up.
Bradley Beal’s game-winner over San Antonio provided a nice early-season moment. Consecutive frustrating losses to Boston and Atlanta were a reality check. The Wizards turned the ball over 49 times in those two games and have been the league’s sloppiest team with the basketball. Though John Wall remains one of the deadliest playmakers around, five giveaways per game won’t cut it.
The Bucks got back in business this week, although playing Philly, New York and Brooklyn twice isn’t the most convincing resumé. Greg Monroe has been a welcome addition, but they’re currently the league’s worst rebounding team. We’ll see if returns of Jabari Parker and John Henson help alleviate that concern.
The Mavs are a little tough to figure out right now, but Rick Carlisle’s contract extension ensures they fully intend to stay competitive, despite an aging, dinged-up roster. And, hey, the platoon of Zaza Pachulia and Dwight Powell at center hasn’t been half bad. For what it’s worth, the emerging Powell is outscoring DeAndre Jordan right now.
Boston is playing at the league’s fastest pace and convincingly outplayed the Wizards last week. Defensive standout Marcus Smart is expected back to face the Bucks, Pacers and Hawks this week, a slate of games that could help create some separation from the East’s newly-deep pack.
Paul George has started three straight games at small forward and it's paying off in the win column and for Indy's superstar. George looks all the way recovered from that broken leg, with career-high averages (23 points, 9.3 rebounds, 4.6 assists) across the board.
The Magic have been right there in every game and notched their best win of the season against Toronto, offering some legitimacy to their case as a playoff team. With four scorers averaging more than 15 points, a defense holding opponents to 41% shooting and Evan Fournier emerging as a needed perimeter threat, there’s plenty to like.
Eric Bledsoe has been outstanding, but this fast-paced team needs more from its supporting cast to seriously bid for a playoff spot. The Suns get three days off and Bledsoe gets a date with his former team when Phoenix hosts the Clippers on Thursday. A marquee win would help this team’s standing.
The Hornets took out their frustrations from a winless first week with a 25-point drubbing of the Bulls and solid win in Dallas two nights later. With Al Jefferson picking up some much-needed scoring slack and team-wide improved rebounding and three-point shooting, Charlotte can take advantage of a favorable schedule over the next two weeks.
Don’t pretend you actually saw "Kristaps Porzingis: NBA player" happening this fast. The once-maligned rookie has flashed the skill set and athleticism draft pundits hoped for, while mixing in tip slams, hustle plays and a little bit of nasty that nobody saw coming. The 20-year-old finished out a win over the Lakers and clearly belongs in New York’s top five, although that still might say more about the overall quality of the Knicks. Regardless, Porzingis remains a walking ray of sunshine for New York fans.
The Pelicans were one of my preseason sleeper teams. Whoops. There’s still Anthony Davis, and Tyreke Evans will be back, but New Orleans is allowing a league-most 114.7 points per game and rebounding at a poor rate despite having Davis around the rim. It’s only the first month, but there’s legitimate reason for concern.
Minnesota should feel good about a defense holding opponents to a league-low 39.2% shooting. It should also feel good about an overtime win against Chicago and 31-point breakout from Andrew Wiggins, who burst out of a small slump. The sailing likely won’t be this smooth all year, but it’s been an unexpectedly strong two weeks for this promising group.
They’ve lost five straight, but for all the jokes, the bottom line is it’s hard to make eight new players fit in right away, no matter who you are. They gave the Warriors a run for their money off a back-to-back and DeMarcus Cousins comes back from injury this week. Sacramento should get better. Should.
Danilo Gallinari (18.7 points, 4.8 rebounds, 36.8% 3FG) has been a constant for a team seemingly bound for a season of ups and downs. Whether we see more of the former or the latter will likely determine whether he’s still a Nugget by the time the trade deadline rolls around.
It blows my mind that Byron Scott’s being heavy-handed with D’Angelo Russell already; there should be absolutely no pressure on the rookie as he learns his craft. But when you’re taken second in a draft that might be the best in years based on early returns, that’s the hand you’re dealt.