Congratulations, we’ve made it through the first month of the season. And after sifting through four sets of rankings and looking at the trends, one specific spot has resulted in way more trouble than any other: number four.
There’s been a different team sitting fourth each week: the Spurs began there before proving worthy of a top-three place alongside the Warriors and Cavaliers. All have cruised in the early-going and made life really, really easy—these are the first three teams I comfortably pencil in every week, followed by the Sixers in last (gotta win one first, guys).
But the Hawks, Heat and Bulls have rotated in that place since, in some cases more by performance-based default than any clear vibes that they are the fourth-best team in the NBA. They were also all less than convincing in the week that followed their new rank, and like drummers, tupperware and professional Power Rankers, they were replaceable. In honor of Kobe Bryant’s retirement, I was planning to break it down poetically until the Thunder spared me what would have surely been a delightful haiku.
In short, Kevin Durant came back healthy, Oklahoma City looked the part, and a six-spot leap felt justified. When net-destroying Durant and inimitably aloof person-sized tornado Russell Westbrook weren’t busy giving Reggie Jackson zero-star reviews on Yelp this week, they were leading a team many pegged as a Finals contender to three convincing wins. I'm buying, now and long-term. Welcome back, Thunder.
With that decided, here are this week’s Power Rankings, which are not in the form of a poem.
(All records and stats through Nov. 29)
1. Golden State Warriors
RECORD: 18-0 (3-0)
The Warriors are still winning in style and it’s still objectively dope, but Harrison Barnes missing time is the first setback in what’s been a dreamlike season. Their next seven games come on the road, but who really wants to doubt them?
2. San Antonio Spurs
RECORD: 14-3 (4-0)
Who thought adding LaMarcus Aldridge would improve the defense? The Spurs’ offensive output is only incrementally down from where it was a month into last season, and they’re allowing just under three fewer points per game. The incredible progress of Kawhi Leonard, the league’s most stifling defender, may have something to do with it.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers
RECORD: 13-4 (3-1)
LeBron and Co. have been taking care of business, but even with their success, it feels like they have yet to kick into high gear. Still, given all their early injuries, there’s no reason to worry. Is it too early to call a Kyrie Irving return for the Cavs’ Christmas Day showdown with the Warriors?
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
RECORD: 11-6 (3-0)
Kevin Durant returned from his hamstring injury, and that was all it took to shoot the Thunder back into the top five. Well, that plus 101 points and three wins in his first three games back.
5. Indiana Pacers
RECORD: 11-5 (3-0)
Somewhat lost in the Paul George hot sauce? Indiana has shot a blistering 40.5% from three this season, second-best behind Golden State. Though it’s impressive, it also raises sustainability questions, with main options George (45.5%), C.J. Miles (42.9%) and George Hill (42.2%) all firing well above their career-bests from downtown.
6. Miami Heat
RECORD: 10-5 (2-1)
Anchoring the East’s top defense, Hassan Whiteside leads the league in blocks and averages more swats per game (4.8) than 14 teams. If he keeps it up, he could ascend from D-Leaguer to All-Star in less than two years, with a major off-season payday in order regardless.
7. Toronto Raptors
RECORD: 11-7 (2-1)
It feels like we don’t really talk about it, but Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are the East’s best backcourt. It’s thanks to them that Toronto hasn’t missed a beat without the injured Jonas Valanciunas: see Lowry’s 27 points, six assists, four steals and no turnovers in a win over Cleveland, and DeRozan’s four straight 20-point games.
8. Chicago Bulls
RECORD: 9-5 (1-1)
After finishing .500 on the annual circus trip, Chicago gets nine of its next 10 games at home with just one back-to-back sprinkled in. With the Cavs and Pacers out in front and the conference much-improved, it’s a critical stretch for a win-now group that’s maintained an extremely sporadic offensive efficiency.
9. Dallas Mavericks
RECORD: 10-7 (1-2)
An 0-3 road trip took some of the shine off Dallas’s first month, but they should bounce back just fine with their next five games against sub-.500 teams. Another positive: Chandler Parsons is progressing nicely from his knee injury and easing into increased minutes.
10. Atlanta Hawks
RECORD: 11-8 (2-2)
Atlanta hit the brakes after a scalding first two weeks and has been polarizing since, blowing out Boston and getting smacked by 30 against San Antonio. They’ve been a little banged up, but last season’s consistency has been an afterthought. Home tilts against OKC and Toronto make for a decent litmus test this week.
11. Utah Jazz
RECORD: 8-7 (2-1)
The defensive-minded Jazz have been plodding along and have yet to win more than two games in a row, but the league’s slowest-paced team knows its identity and sits in good position going forward. Their execution of that philosophy will be tested against Golden State and Indiana this week.
12. Los Angeles Clippers
RECORD: 9-8 (3-1)
Give the Clippers credit for reversing course, putting away three opponents they needed to beat, and backing up their talk of urgency. The roster remains flawed, with too many ball-needy guards and not enough perimeter shooting, but for now, the positive results will do.
13. Charlotte Hornets
RECORD: 10-7 (3-1)
Check these guys out! Or don’t, as the on-court formula’s not spectacular to watch. But do appreciate the Hornets’ success, credit the job Steve Clifford has done, and take notice of the rebirth of Nicolas Batum, a worthy early candidate for comeback player of the year.
14. Memphis Grizzlies
RECORD: 10-8 (3-1)
Don’t look now, but the Grizzlies have won seven of nine and are back on track in the standings. The defense has largely tightened up and the shooting has improved. One catch: their two best wins in that period were Dallas and a Durant-less OKC.
15. Boston Celtics
RECORD: 9-8 (2-2)
These guys have been hard to peg lately: the Celtics have destroyed the Wizards, been blown out by the Hawks and Magic, split with the Nets and nearly lost to the Sixers. Things aren’t getting easier, either: after dropping the last three road games by double digits, Boston travels for the next four before hosting Chicago and Golden State.
16. Orlando Magic
RECORD: 9-8 (3-1)
Moving Victor Oladipo to the bench helped ignite a three-game win streak. You can’t imagine the former No. 2 pick is too happy about the move, but his production is up in that span and Scott Skiles could certainly stick with what works. The Magic continue to be a nice surprise.
17. Detroit Pistons
RECORD: 8-9 (1-3)
Andre Drummond can’t do everything. The Pistons are the league’s worst-shooting team, owners of the lowest assist rate and look predictable offensively, with almost everything funneling through Reggie Jackson—who isn’t exactly conducive to improved ball movement. An astounding 51.4% of Jackson’s shot attempts come after seven or more dribbles.
18. Minnesota Timberwolves
RECORD: 8-9 (3-1)
Though talk has surrounded Kevin Garnett’s impact on Karl Towns, you have to wonder what sort of influence the passionate vet’s had on Andrew Wiggins, who’s always had the tendency to drift in and out of games. Whatever it is, something seems to be working after a stellar November in which the former No. 1 pick averaged nearly 23 points.
19. Phoenix Suns
RECORD: 8-9 (1-3)
The Suns ended a four-game losing streak with one of their best wins of the year in Toronto, and will remain on the road for five games in the next seven days. They’ll need T.J. Warren to keep producing—last year’s lottery pick followed up a career-high 28 points with a double-double in the win against the Raptors.
20. Washington Wizards
RECORD: 6-8 (0-4)
This got messy fast. Washington took a major hit last week with four losses to fellow Eastern Conference playoff hopefuls and have lost all trace of last season’s defensive prowess. Even John Wall is struggling, averaging 14.3 points of 36% shooting with a 1.6 assist/turnover ratio in his last 10 games.
21. Houston Rockets
RECORD: 7-10 (2-1)
It’s gotten to the point where Rockets fans have to try to feel good about narrow wins over the Sixers and Knicks. It shouldn’t take 50 points from James Harden to beat a winless team, but… here we are.
22. New York Knicks
RECORD: 8-10 (0-4)
Four straight losses have the Knicks pretty much back where they were, which is still a more promising place than we thought they’d be a month ago. Arron Afflalo just had his best game as a Knick and Kristaps Porzingis is the king of the city, and… oh, hey, Carmelo. Didn’t see you there.
23. Portland Trail Blazers
RECORD: 7-10 (1-1)
Their guards remain stellar and the focal points of their attack, but the Blazers have also quietly deployed an above-average rebounding team and are holding opponents to respectable shooting percentages. More win-column correction could be in order.
24. Sacramento Kings
RECORD: 6-12 (1-3)
This team’s had a lot of issues, but the fact is when DeMarcus Cousins misses eight of eighteen games, it hurts no matter who you are. Sacramento is 1-7 without its best player, currently out with a lower back strain, and a .500 team with him. The struggle continues.
25. Brooklyn Nets
RECORD: 4-13 (1-2)
The Nets are alive, and have been largely competitive since getting win No. 1 under their belt—sometimes life just gives you LeBron James buzzer beaters. They’ve gotten strong play out of Thaddeus Young and Jarrett Jack and jumped out of the bottom tier accordingly. For now, at least.
26. Milwaukee Bucks
RECORD: 6-11 (1-3)
Take what we thought we knew about Milwaukee at the end of last season and scrap it until further notice. While Greg Monroe has been nice to have on offense, the Bucks have allowed more points than anyone in the league in the past ten games and are one of the league’s worst rebounding teams. Meanwhile, Zaza Pachulia flourishes in Dallas.
27. Denver Nuggets
RECORD: 6-11 (0-3)
The Nuggets were kind of fun for a couple weeks, but after dropping six in a row, it’s pretty clear where they belong in the West’s pecking order. Emmanuel Mudiay’s turnovers are trending down, but so is his shooting percentage. There’s not much else worth watching here, unfortunately.
28. New Orleans Pelicans
RECORD: 4-13 (1-2)
Hopes of a playoff return are seriously dwindling. As a point of comparison, at the same stage last year the Thunder were 5-12, went 40-25 the rest of the way, and still just missed the eight seed. And though the watered-down West leaves room for hope, the Pelicans’ ghastly defense needs serious work to pull this off.
29. Los Angeles Lakers
RECORD: 2-14 (0-3)
A lost season takes on some new meaning as the official Kobe farewell tour begins. Get ready for ovations, tears and lots more jumpers, because, you know, as someone once said, you miss every shot you don’t take.
30. Philadelphia 76ers
RECORD: 0-18 (0-4)
The losing continues, but perhaps more concerning are the recent headlines involving Jahlil Okafor. From being around him plenty in his prep days, I get the sense that he is a mature enough kid to stay accountable, keep himself on track, and remain a huge part of Philly’s future. As for the present? The Sixers have a good chance to finally win one against the Lakers on Tuesday.