- The emergence of the Lakers as the NBA's new fun young team was just one development from a week focused on the Western Conference.
We’re going to take a quick West Coast tour in this week's Power Rankings. The Warriors, Lakers and Kings are all of high interest as Thanksgiving has come and gone, and we’re now a month into what’s been a relatively unpredictable start. Beyond the teams we knew would be extremely successful and those mired in the basement, the variance in performance has been legitimately entertaining, and there’s been plenty of movement in the rankings.
This week is no different, and DeMarcus Cousins, Nick Young and the new Death Lineup demand your attention.
30. Dallas Mavericks (3–13)
Last Week: 29
Net Rating: -7.4
Dallas snapped an eight-game losing streak on Sunday. They’ll face minimal travel the next two weeks, hope to get Dirk healthy, and pray rock bottom is over.
29. Brooklyn Nets (4–12)
Last Week: 24
Net Rating: -8.2
I went to the Barclays Center yesterday and can confirm that the Nets are… back to being the Nets. That’s seven losses in a row.
28. Philadelphia 76ers (4–13)
Last Week: 30
Net Rating: -9.4
Joel Embiid, a couple of wins, a double overtime loss against Memphis and a pretty close game against Cleveland pull Philly out of the basement this week.
27. Phoenix Suns (5–13)
Last Week: 27
Net Rating: -4.7
It’s one thing to take losses to playoff-caliber teams, but Phoenix’s last four losses have come to the Nuggets, Wolves, Wizards and Sixers. It’s probably going to get worse.
26. Washington Wizards (5–10)
Last Week: 28
Net Rating: -3.6
Bradley Beal is beginning to heat up, and the Wizards have won three of five. It’s a start.
25. Miami Heat (5–11)
Last Week: 25
Net Rating: -2.2
The early-going makes you wonder a little bit about how promising this young nucleus actually is. Color me skeptical.
24. Minnesota Timberwolves (5–11)
Last Week: 21
Net Rating: -0.3
Well, they’re good at dunking.
23. Orlando Magic (6–11)
Last Week: 20
Net Rating: -6.9
This has been one of the league’s most unpredictable teams so far, with three losing streaks of three or more games, one three-game win streak, and little to show for it.
22. New Orleans Pelicans (6–12)
Last Week: 26
Net Rating: -2.0
New Orleans is 4–2 with Jrue Holiday back from leave, including wins over Portland, Charlotte and Atlanta. Maybe we cried wolf a little early, or maybe Anthony Davis is just this ridiculous.
21. Sacramento Kings (7–10)
Last Week: 22
Net Rating: -3.5
As was briefly mentioned above, I soaked in the Kings’ win over Nets in Brooklyn on Sunday evening. And so, after watching DeMarcus Cousins amble around for a couple of hours, I have some thoughts on the Kings, who have won three of four games, including wins over the Thunder (who played a road back to back) and Raptors (thanks to some quite dubious late-game officiating). Against Brooklyn, Cousins went for 37 and 11, Rudy Gay almost messed around and got a triple double, Ty Lawson didn’t look washed, Matt Barnes was ejected for a flagrant foul, and legitimately six technicals were called.
The consistently unstable Kings are the butt of a lot of jokes, some of which are probably deserved. You look at Cousins, and you look at a colorful swatch of veterans, and want to think, “Hey, this team should be better,” but the truth is that, no, it probably shouldn’t. You saw them draft entirely on upside over the summer (all three of those guys are in the D-League, can you name them?), and then sign a ton of vets to band-aid contracts. It would be fine to play for three years from now if there was anything on the roster that you could honestly bank on being effective three years from now, but there really isn’t. Cousins hits free agency in 2018.
I left the arena having determined that as dysfunctional as the whole operation seems to be, Cousins is completely inextricable from Sacramento’s struggles. His half-ass screens, his slow jogs to halfcourt on fast breaks, and his insistence on hovering at the top of the arc to shoot threes stick out just as much as his agility, range of offensive skills and ability to plow through and around defenders anywhere inside 15 feet to get a bucket. When you spend most of a game just focusing on his actual basketball-related actions (which even excludes griping to refs), he’s downright frustrating, because you wonder what could happen if he tried hard, like, even 80% of the time. Basically, it’s hard to feel sorry for Boogie in Sacramento anymore, if only because we’ve seen guys like Kevin Garnett toil in tough situations for a decade at maximum effort.
Much of the time, it just looks like he actually hates basketball, and that’s okay—we all hate our jobs sometimes. Maybe Cousins is the modern Rasheed Wallace, and maybe we’re just waiting for him to find his Pistons, but even Sheed was able to get some fairly weird Blazers teams to the playoffs. Keep hoping for a trade, because everyone deserves to know what both he and the Kings will look like as separate entities. But the point is, it’ll be hard to feel confident in any Cousins landing spot until we can feel confident in Cousins. And right now, when you look real hard, those gaudy numbers lose a little shine. Let’s hope he finds his muse.
20. Denver Nuggets (7–10)
Last Week: 23
Net Rating: -3.1
Do the Nuggets have too many prospects to feed? Because rookie Jamal Murray has found his stroke, with three 20-point showings in his last four games.
19. Milwaukee Bucks (7–8)
Last Week: 19
Net Rating: -0.8
Giannis now leads the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, field goal percentage and turnovers. You know, in case you were wondering how that point guard experiment is going.
18. Detroit Pistons (8–10)
Last Week: 17
Net Rating: -0.9
Is Reggie Jackson that critical to this team, or are the Pistons just a well-coached, overachieving group? The answer might be yes to both.
17. Indiana Pacers (9–9)
Last Week: 16
Net Rating: -1.9
I didn’t think the Pacers would be struggling quite this much to score the basketball, but they’ve cracked 100 in regulation just six times this season. That said, they’ve won two in a row, but now draw the Blazers, Clippers and Warriors to open a five-game road swing.
16. Portland Trailblazers (9–10)
Last Week: 12
Net Rating: -3.9
The Blazers are really struggling to recapture last season’s magic, having beaten just two teams currently over the .500 mark. You can point to a serious lack of stops: their putrid defensive rating of 110.5 is the league’s worst, by far.
15. New York Knicks (8–8)
Last Week: 18
Net Rating: -3.6
New York’s offense has begun to come together, as have its players, it appears. Five wins in seven games has the arrow pointing upward, finally.
14. Los Angeles Lakers (9–9)
Last Week: 15
Net Rating: -2.6
Nick Young intercepting a pass intended for Lou Williams, blatantly traveling and then nailing the game-winning shot was far and away the best moment of the first month of the season. It’s also the neat epitome of why you should love the Lakers right now. There’s not a ton of rhyme or reason, they aren’t really guarding anyone and it’s fairly unclear who’s actually leading this team on the floor, but don’t question Luke Walton’s SoCal cult of personality. Just inhale.
This team is fun. This team may not be good, but when it’s midnight on the East Coast and you’re weighing whether or not to stay up and watch basketball, the Lakers’ answer has more often than not been a yes. We’re in so deep that there are already new rumors about Phil Jackson coming back to L.A., and they should actually scare Lakers fans (and send Byron Scott’s ghost cackling around the Staples Center). Because the Lakers are an attractive property again, and that’s with D’Angelo Russell injured and Brandon Ingram still in chrysalis and Timofey Mozgov starting at center.
It’s going this well.
So well, in fact, that I don’t think anyone has asked the husk of Kobe Bryant how he feels about it. Four guards are leading the team in scoring, they’ve got the fourth-worst scoring defense in the league, and yet nine wins feels like 40 compared to the last few seasons of Lakers basketball. With the Timberwolves still treading water, here’s this season’s Fun Young Squad. Dreaming of a first round series against the Clippers, yours truly, Jeremy.
13. Utah Jazz (9–8)
Last Week: 14
Net Rating: +5.3
Back-to-back blowout wins have skewed Utah’s point differentials way upward, but at least the losing streak is over in the form of results. The Jazz now draw eight of the next 10 games at home.
12. Oklahoma City Thunder (10–8)
Last Week: 11
Net Rating: +0.3
Seven losses in the last 11 games has been tough to swallow for a team that’s understandably a bit incomplete. But god, Russell Westbrook is great.
11. Atlanta Hawks (10–7)
Last week: 7
Net Rating: 3.5
Kris Humphies tearing down a rim at a high school gym during a road practice makes for a decent metaphor for the current state of the Hawks. At least, I think so.
10. Boston Celtics (9–7)
Last Week: 13
Net Rating: +1.8
Look who’s pulled it together. The Celtics have won six of the last nine (four of those on the road), losing to the Warriors and Spurs (acceptable) and dropping a one-point game to the Pelicans (meh). The defense is tightening up, and Boston’s right where it needs to be.
9. Charlotte Hornets (9–7)
Last Week: 6
Net Rating: +3.0
The Hornets have come back to earth a bit, but that isn’t why Michael Jordan cried this week.
8. Houston Rockets (11–6)
Last Week: 9
Net Rating: +3.9
This is working. Is this really working? This is working.
7. Memphis Grizzlies (11–6)
Last Week: 10
Net Rating: -0.2
Eleven different players have made starts for the Grizzlies already, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter aren’t even among them, and Memphis keeps getting results anyway.
6. Chicago Bulls (10–6)
Last Week: 8
Net Rating: +4.9
For all the incessant talk about alphas, Jimmy Butler is officially that. If he stays on track, 25.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 49% shooting and 42.6% from three will put him squarely in All-NBA territory.
5. Toronto Raptors (10–6)
Last Week: 5
Net Rating: +4.5
DeMar DeRozan has grabbed headlines, but tip of the cap to Masai Ujiri and the Raptors’ scouting and development: unheralded guys like Norman Powell and Pascal Siakam are making contributions, too. It goes a long way toward sustaining success.
4. San Antonio Spurs (14–3)
Last week: 4
Net Rating: +7.2
Did you know Kawhi Leonard has more steals than fouls over the course of his career? Yep.
3. LA Clippers (14–4)
Last week: 1
Net Rating: +10.4
Well, that week atop the Power Rankings was short-lived, and road losses to the Pistons and Pacers are a bit out of character, but… don’t panic.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers (13–2)
Last Week: 2
Net Rating: +8.3
The Cavs are coming up on a critical back to back, with the Clippers at home Thursday and a more-rested Chicago team on the road Friday. There’s no question they’re the best team in the East, but Cleveland can really put the boot down and make a statement.
1. Golden State Warriors (15–2)
Last Week: 3
Net Rating: +13.5
It’s been a little hard to gauge exactly how well the Warriors have been performing, because entering the season, their perceived ceiling was fantastically abstract. Nobody knew quite what the Golden State demolition crew would look like, even after we saw it so many times over a two-year period, because Kevin Durant’s presence shook up the expectations so much. The first month of the Warriors’ season has been less about chasing 73 wins and more about just how sexy they could look while doing that. Well, this week, we basically found out.
Yes, the Dubs are back to browbeating opponents, and even with Draymond Green dinged up over the weekend, they’ve begun to scratch at Herculean ideals. Eleven wins in a row have yielded a net rating of +19.6, and they’re scoring nearly 120 points per 100 possessions with a top 10 defensive rating. More importantly, the Warriors have assisted on an insane 74.1% of made baskets in that span. For a point of comparison, during last season’s 24 game win streak, the Warriors were scoring about six fewer points per possession with a 67.8% assist rate. And, critically, the difference in total pace of play in those two spans is just .05, with this season’s run yielding ever so slightly more possessions.
The English version: this year’s Warriors might have a couple noticeable issues on the bench and on the interior, but at their current peak, they’re playing even better than last year’s highest-profile stretch. They’re moving the ball even better and playing unselfishly, even with Kevin Durant eating up touches and possession time. They’re sustaining three 20-point scorers, even with Klay Thompson’s early shooting slump. Are there legitimate reasons to nitpick? Sure. Are the Clippers looking particularly serious in the West? Yes. But bottom line, any talk about some Warriors regression has only minor basis. Be afraid, or just enjoy this for a while.