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NBA Power Rankings: Can Angry Russ And OKC Keep This Up?

Russell Westbrook and the Thunder shoot up the rankings after another strong week, but their play may not be sustainable. Meanwhile, the winless Pelicans approach rock bottom.

It’s been almost two weeks of basketball, the Warriors already lost a game, the Cavs are undefeated, and in the meantime, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. Kevin Garnett is on TNT. ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE. But also, it’s Monday, which means it’s time for our first Power Rankings of the regular season. We skipped last week due to sample size, but now that everyone’s played at least five games, we're diving in.

This week’s theme, in one neat, vapid reference, is How to Train Your Superstar, with the Pelicans, Bucks and Thunder each leaning heavily on a generational talent, to palpably contrasting results. These are three small market teams, definitely in different phases, but with a through-line in their star investments and player development (or struggles therein). It’s an imperfect science, but as rebuilds unfold across the league (and everyone waits out the Warriors and Cavs), it’s especially pertinent. Let’s get into it.

(Records and stats below through Nov. 6)

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30. Philadelphia 76ers (0–5)

Last Week: 29
Net Rating: -13.0

Well, this feels familiar.

29. New Orleans Pelicans (0–6)

Last Week: 24
Net Rating -5.9

The Anthony Davis experiment is not a totally mangled one, but at this point—a definite low for the franchise—it’s never been clearer to see where things went wrong. Davis is averaging 30 points, 11.7 rebounds, two assists, two steals and three blocks, and yep, you guessed it—no player has ever done that before for an entire season (thanks, Basketball Reference). And yet the Pelicans are winless through six games.

For this to happen, "historically good" generally has to meet "historically bad." Though New Orleans has hit awful luck with Jrue Holiday away from the team and Tyreke Evans hurt, there’s no ignoring how close a stronger Pelicans team could be to competing, thanks to Davis showing up fully-formed. And so, predictably, this is what superstar limbo feels like. Tim Frazier has been a nice find. There’s little else to supplement, with OmerAsik and Alexis Ajinca plodding around the paint again and key off-season signing Solomon Hill struggling to contribute at all.

So, tough sailing is ahead. You can point to bad contracts and poor drafts and Davis’s frustrating bill of health, but the fact remains that the Pelicans still aren’t anywhere near competing, and they’re still paying for their mistakes—trading Robin Lopez, a competent starting center for the possession–eating Evans, dealing a first for Holiday, and cluttering the backcourt. More contracts come off the books next season, sure, but there’s little infrastructure built to convince a free agent of substance to sign on.

Patience is a virtue, but New Orleans rushed its evolution with Davis, and now it will have to wait. They tried to buy the house, not build it. Davis, in the meantime, would like to remind you who the best young big man in basketball is. C’mon, Dell Demps.

28. Dallas Mavericks (1–5) 

Last Week: 17
Net Rating: -2.7

Will Dallas bounce back? Probably. But would a blue-chip draft pick be the worst thing for this franchise? Not at all.

27. Phoenix Suns (2–5)

Last Week: 27
Net Rating: -5.4

We knew about Devin Booker, but keep an eye on T.J. Warren’s early breakout, too. The third-year forward is leading the team in scoring and contributing in the steals department. The Suns have definite bright spots.

26. Brooklyn Nets (2–4)

Last Week: 30
Net Rating: -2.9

Brook Lopez is taking threes, the Nets are finding ways to score, and this isn’t anywhere near as bad as we thought it would be. Not yet.

25. Washington Wizards (1–4)

Last Week: 21
Net Rating: -7.6

You know when you sometimes just have a bad feeling about a team’s direction? Enter the Wizards.

24. Sacramento Kings (3–5)

Last Week: 26
Net Rating: -6.3

The Kings have faced three back-to-backs already and split all three, and Rudy Gay has been helping his trade value. This could be worse.

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23. Miami Heat (2–3)

Last Week: 23
Net Rating: -2.7

Miami’s getting a strong contribution from Tyler Johnson, and Hassan Whiteside continues to earn his money. None of this is especially pretty to watch, though.

22. Denver Nuggets (3–3)

Last Week: 25
Net Rating: -2.2

Looks like JusufNurkic (15.2 points, 10.6 rebounds) is alive and well!

21. Los Angeles Lakers (4–3)

Last Week: 28
Net Rating: +1.7

I’m not ready to elevate the Lakers to mid-tier status, but they’ve won three in a row, including victories over the Hawks and Warriors. Four would be a feat they haven’t accomplished since 2013. This is kind of fun.

20. New York Knicks (2–4)

Last Week: 19
Net Rating: -6.9

It’s not broken, but there’s a lot to fix: the constant state of the Knicks.

19. Orlando Magic (3–3)

Last Week: 20
Net Rating: -6.0
Drop three, win three, and poof, back to .500. As constituted, this team is going to struggle to score.

18. Minnesota Timberwolves (1–4)

Last Week: 14
Net Rating: +4.4

The Wolves are the only team with a losing record and a positive net rating, combining three close L’s with a blowout win over Memphis and rough one at OKC. Better days are coming, but this isn’t a readymade Thibs vehicle.

17. Indiana Pacers (3–3)

Last Week: 12
Net Rating: -3.0

Jumped the gun on these guys, who have seriously struggled to defend, but they’ve got enough talent and experience to make this work. I’m staying patient.


16. Milwaukee Bucks (4–3)

Last Week: 22
Net Rating: +1.5

I was talking to a friend about the Bucks this week, and arrived at a strangely positive conclusion I didn’t necessarily expect. Yes, this roster is a bit messy and no, not everything fits together. But the only real way to think about the Bucks and/or evaluate their success is through the lens of GiannisAntetokounmpo’s overwhelmingly large baby steps toward superstardom. 

The Bucks' playoff series against the Bulls two years ago was a death knell for reasonable expectations. Even now, with almost all of the core parts having changed, people still expect a high defensive press and Zaza flopping and JerrydBayless sneering. Larry Sanders walked away from basketball a really long time ago, so please, just drop your highbrow Bucks complaints. Giannis is one of the league’s most special athletes at age 21. The malleable, talented Jabari Parker—also 21—continues to blossom quietly. And so, I’m here to argue this: the Bucks don’t even know what they want to be yet, and that’s okay, because nobody really knows what Giannis will be in two years, and that evolution is all that matters.

Who cares if Greg Monroe plods around and eats up cap space? The Bucks’ past and present has been about determining what works with Giannis, the rim-and-smoothie-devouring gazelle who’s carried them to four wins already. The Bucks could win 25 games or 40 this year, with or without a healthy Khris Middleton, and it wouldn’t really matter. All that matters is Giannis learning what he’s capable of, and Jabari finding out how to get his buckets on the side. Talent can hang around a long time, but teams and players can certainly screw it up—take a look across the locker room at Michael Beasley. With Antetokounmpo under a long-term contract, Milwaukee hasn’t even opened up the drapes on its competitive window.

When you think about it in contrast to New Orleans, who determined Anthony Davis was great ands then made a half-hearted effort at being competitive, the Bucks should feel pretty great about where they’re going. Antetokounmpo is a unicorn, as popular hoop vernacular would suggest, and he’s growing up before our eyes. There’s no ball-dominant, shot-chucking guard or long-term contract baggage to worry about. The Bucks just have to let it happen. Enjoy the formative stages before the pressure mounts for real. 

15. Houston Rockets (3–3)

Last Week: 15
Net Rating: -1.3

Crazy James Harden stats? Check. So-so record? Check. But to be fair, Houston drew the league’s most insanely road-heavy schedule early on.

14. Memphis Grizzlies (3–4)

Last Week: 10
Net Rating: -6.8

Memphis has shifted to shooting threes while trying to preserve its longtime defensive emphasis, so far to heavily mixed results.

13. Chicago Bulls (3–3)

Last Week: 18
Net Rating: 2.0

Are the Bulls actually good? Three straight wins and three straight losses are a relevant sign of what’s to come, one thinks.

12. Detroit Pistons (4–2)

Last Week: 16
Net Rating: +5.8

Ish Smith has filled in nicely for injured Reggie Jackson, and Detroit has been perfect at home, holding opponents under 90 points in all four wins. 

11. Utah Jazz (4–3)

Last Week: 8
Net Rating: +0.6

George Hill has looked like the point guard Utah’s sorely needed, and Gordon Hayward is back from injury in time for a seven games-in-nine days road swing. A winnable East Coast trip should get them trending firmly upward.

10. Charlotte Hornets (4–1)

Last Week: 13
Net Rating: +9.0

The early slate hasn’t been especially challenging, but the Hornets’ well-honed formula of tough defense and league-best ball security will take care of those winnable games more often than not.

9. Boston Celtics (3–3)

Last Week: 6
Net Rating: 0.5

They’ve been banged up to start the year, so we can’t judge too hard yet. Early flashes from Jaylen Brown have been a nice surprise.

8. Portland Trailblazers (4–3)

Last Week: 7
Net Rating: -0.0

Picking up a few early road wins was nice, but losses to the Clippers and Warriors at home suggest there’s still a gap between the Blazers and the West’s upper crust. Portland might be a frontcourt piece away from closing that gap.

7. Atlanta Hawks (4–2)

Last week: 11
Net Rating: +10.9

The Hawks have feasted on a friendly schedule, but Dwight Howard looks rejuvenated, and that’s great news. I was unsure about his offensive fit, but his impact on Atlanta’s rebounding (long a problem here) has been palpable early.


6. Oklahoma City Thunder (5–1)

Last Week: 9
Net Rating: +1.9

Angry Russell Westbrook has been about as fun as anyone could have fever-dreamed. It’s been quite an opening act for Official Photographer Russ: 33.2 points, 9.7 assists and nine rebounds is rather rare, if unsustainable air. And so, there’s a distinct possibility this team is overachieving right now, and Kevin Durant reminded us that they’re going to have a tough time hanging with the Warriors. But then again, Golden State’s not a fair measuring stick for more than a handful of teams.

The Durant-sized elephant here is that Oklahoma City flat-out can’t shoot. There’s little scoring punch or shot creation beyond Westbrook. It necessitates his exorbitant 41.6% (!) usage rate, and it’s also led to some closer-than-necessary wins over the Sixers and Suns, worse teams by any reasonable measures. There are going to be nights like that where the well runs dry. And though Westbrook’s fully capable of shouldering the load enough to keep the Thunder competitive, wear and tear may have something to say about that as we go forward.

When it comes to investing in talent and reaping the benefits, Oklahoma City obviously comes from a different place—a world with Durant AND Westbrook, to make specialists like Andre Roberson viable and split the night-to-night workload in a deathly effective path. The rub here is the risk, even when you get everything right. The Thunder of old (include James Harden, sure) may well be the model for small-market teams around the league, but even the best of draft luck can spiral into adversity. Sam Presti did his best to make adjustments, and Westbrook will make games a sight to see, but it’s already clear, even at 5–1, he’s still going to need more help. 

5. Toronto Raptors (4–2)

Last Week: 5
Net Rating: +5.6

If's preseason ranking of DeMar DeRozan (46th overall) has anything at all to do with his early-season tear… then you’re welcome, Canada.

4. San Antonio Spurs (5–2)

Last week: 3
Net Rating: +7.5

The Spurs just keep on doing what they do, and Kawhi Leonard is a national treasure. How many players make it this much fun to watch defense?

3. LA Clippers (5–1)

Last week: 4
Net Rating: +10.7

A narrow home loss to the Thunder stands as the only blemish on a highly promising start. 

2. Golden State Warriors (4–2)

Last Week: 1
Net Rating: +2.7

It’s been a little bumpy, but expectations aren’t going anywhere. Expect the Warriors, with all their talent, to reclaim the top spot soon enough.

1. Cleveland Cavaliers (6-0)

Last Week: 2
Net Rating: +9.7

The defending champs are the league’s last undefeated team. They’ve earned their time at the top…even though the Cleveland baseball team blew a 3–1 lead in the World Series. Sorry.