NBA Power Rankings: Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks Are Legitimate Title Contenders

The Milwaukee Bucks look like the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. While the Knicks reach a new low after a blowout loss to the Cavaliers.
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Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

The first weeks of the season are ripe for overreaction, with pseudo-contenders crowned and title favorites overly dissected. The latter certainly applied to Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks prior to the past week. Malcolm Brogdon’s departure caused a near-panic, as did a pair of middling performances from Khris Middleton. Don’t fall into the trap. Nearly any team with Giannis will finish near the top of the East, and Milwaukee’s rotation remains as deep as any in the conference. After five wins in the last six games, all appears right in the Cream City. 50-plus wins remains the expectation. The Finals are, too.

With three weeks now in the books, let’s dive into this week’s power rankings with notes on all 30 teams.

30. Knicks – A double-digit loss to the Cavs on Sunday marked New York’s early-season low, but the Knicks’ record pile of losses is irrelevant compared to R.J. Barrett’s development. The Duke product’s play has been nothing but encouraging thus far. He has an advanced feel off the bounce, and the physical tools are readily apparent. He’ll be an All-Star in coming years if he continues to shoot a respectable mark from beyond the arc.

29. Warriors – How long will Golden State hold on to D’Angelo Russell? Not only are the Warriors diving headfirst into the tankathon, it remains a question just how much of a fit Russell is with a healthy Warriors squad. His heavy pick-and-roll diet is anathema to Steve Kerr’s system. Russell would be far better served milking a two-man game with a quality big. Are Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves a match?

28. Grizzlies – Jaren Jackson Jr.’s regression has thus far been more than a simple shooting slump. He’s averaging 2.5 turnovers per game, the eighth-most of any player averaging less than 30 minutes per game. Jackson has the most turnovers of any non-point guard in the group. Ja Morant is assumed to rack up the turnovers given his usage and role in Memphis. Jackson can’t be so careless.

27. Pelicans – The good news? Brandon Ingram is one of three players to score at least 25 points per game in 2019-20 while posting an eFG% above 60%. The bad news? New Orleans can’t defend anyone, and they’re atrocious on the glass. Only the 2018-19 Suns posted a worse rebounding percentage in the last five seasons.

26. Bulls – Jim Boylen would be well served to use Wendell Carter as a ball handler on a greater share of possessions. Carter is explosive off the bounce for his size, and he’s an increasingly intelligent passer. Chicago’s frontcourt duo has promise despite Lauri Markkanen’s slow start.

25. Cavs – Tristan Thompson, playmaker! Cleveland’s center jumped from a 4.3% assist percentage in 2017-18 to 11.2% last season, evolving from a simple rolling finisher to a quality passer in three-on-two situations. Thompson has been even better this year. He’s up to a 13.7% assist percentage, and he’s downright shifty in the post. His market in 2020 free agency could be better than originally assumed.

24. Wizards – Washington is friskier than many thought, and they’re frankly one of the more likeable Eastern Conference squads. Isaiah Thomas can take a share of the credit. IT has revived his career after an uneven last two seasons, raising his effective field goal percentage above 50% for the first time since his outstanding 2016-17 in Boston. Thomas will likely never reach his playoff highs again. This season is a nice consolation.

23. Kings – For all the Kings’ collection of forwards and centers, they’re not exactly good at defending the rim. Opponents are making 64.7% of field goals within five feet, the fourth-worst mark in the league. The metric is worse from five to nine feet, where the Kings sit dead last at 50.6%. Marvin Bagley is unlikely to reverse the trend when he returns from a thumb injury.

22. Magic – The Magic may be the ugliest watch in basketball. They’re one of two teams with an offensive rating under 100 (congrats, Knicks!) and no team has a worse eFG%. D.J. Augustine has fallen back to earth and the log jam of forwards is problematic. Perhaps an increased pace (currently No. 29) could provide a spark, especially with Markelle Fultz as a starter.

21. Hornets – Pair Charlotte with Washington in the surprisingly pleasant column. The Hornets are destined for a bottom five finish in the East, though the Devonte’ Graham, Miles Bridges, P.J. Washington trio provides legitimate hope for the future. We’re still waiting for the Malik Monk leap. The former Kentucky star is shooting a putrid 26.7% mark from three in 2019-20 after a middling second season.

20. Nets – Jarrett Allen should consume an increasing share of the center minutes moving forward. DeAndre Jordan has been an abject disaster. He entered Sunday night with a 115.2 defensive rating (minus-13.4 net), and he then logged 24 minutes in Brooklyn’s 138-112 loss in Phoenix. Any idea of a career revival is fading fast.

19. Hawks – Jabari Parker may have found a new home with the Hawks after toiling in Chicago and Washington. He’s shooting a career-high 57%, in large part due to Trae Young’s passing mastery. Parker is still a strong isolation player. He’s beginning to be a better fit in a team framework.

18. Pistons – It’s tough for a non-Detroiter to tune into the Pistons on a given night. Too much dribbling, too much Derrick Rose and not enough marquee talent to warrant a League Pass pop-in. Maybe Andre Drummond 20-20 watch can change the calculus. He has four 20-point, 20-rebound games in 10 starts, on pace to surpass Moses Malone for the most in a single-season since 1980. It’s a hard sell, but maybe the quick channel change is worth your time.

17. Thunder – Danilo Gallinari is going to be a valuable trade chip as the deadline approaches. The former No. 6 pick is averaging 19.1 points per game on a career best 46.9% field-goal percentage, and the Italian swingman is far more than a spot-up specialist. He can be a bully on the block and he’s increasingly shifty in his later age. Portland feels like a natural fit as it seeks an upgrade at the four.

16. Timberwolves – Minnesota’s defensive regression isn’t all that surprising, but it sure has been ugly. The Timberwolves allowed 134 to Milwaukee and an astounding 137 to Memphis on back-to-back nights, slogging their way to a blowout road loss. Karl-Anthony Towns can be a competent and even solid defender. The consistency has yet to be seen.

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

15. Trail Blazers – Portland’s lack of frontcourt playmaking has led to some serious isolation extremes. 58.8% of Portland’s baskets are unassisted, more than 10% more than the second-place Clippers. Damian Lillard is third in Iso possessions with 46. C.J. McCollum ranks eighth. It really is a two-man band in the pacific northwest.

14. Spurs – DeMar DeRozan tops San Antonio in scoring, though he looks more like a placeholder than a long-term leader. Dejounte Murray is a two-way menace. Derrick White is a starting caliber point guard. If there is a legitimate market for DeRozan, dealing the 2020 free agent may be worth the temporary step-back in 2019-20.

13. Pacers – Malcolm Brogdon’s hot start is no secret, but let’s place his first 10 games in proper context. Only LeBron James and Luke Doncic had more assists entering Sunday, and only eight players generated more win shares. The Virginia product is one of the East’s most stout guard defenders, and his efficiency has remained steady despite a hefty workload increase. Pencil Brogdon in for an All-Star appearance.

12. Mavericks – Friday was reserved for a Luka Doncic love fest, so let’s shine a light on the bigs alongside the Slovenian sensation. No, not Kristaps Porzingis, but rather Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber. Both centers have emerged as upper-echelon lob threats, providing vertical spacing for one of the game’s most cerebral passers. Porzingis is struggling to find his role, though it’s hard to argue either of Dallas’ other bigs deserves a diluted minutes share.

11. Suns – Monty Williams is our early favorite for Coach of the Year, and it’s not hard to see why. Phoenix’s defense has risen from 29th last season to 11th this year, receiving a major interior boost from Aron Baynes. The Australian center sports a 119.4 offensive rating, and he’s been a near-dominant pick-and-roll partner with Devin Booker. Deandre Ayton may be superfluous despite his offensive talent. Not exactly encouraging for the 2018 No. 1 pick.

10. Heat – Miami has benefited from jettisoning Hassan Whiteside in a major way. That’s not necessarily a shot at the Blazers’ center, but Whiteside’s shielding of Bam Adebayo at center was nearly criminal last year. Adebayo is shining this season with 3.4 stocks (steals + blocks) per game and a 99.2 defensive rating. Miami has its man in the middle for the next half decade.

9. Raptors – OG Anunoby has an early lead for comeback player of the year, and for good reason. He’s been a terrific three-and-D wing, shooting 54.5% from three. His flashes off the bounce are more encouraging. Toronto has another burgeoning playmaking forward alongside Pascal Siakam.

8. Jazz – Mike Conley’s struggles have earned much of the headlines, but Utah’s defense will keep the Jazz a top-five team in the West throughout 2019-20. No team allows fewer threes per game. Only the Clippers allow fewer shots within six feet. Such a profile portends 50 wins, even if the new additions take time to adjust to their surroundings.

7. Nuggets – No superstar has had a slower start than Jokic, but perhaps he was awakened by Friday’s win over Philadelphia. Jokic took control of the fourth quarter en route to a season-high 22 shots and 26 points, a welcome sign for Mike Malone and Co. Jokic needs to be more selfish for Denver to be title contenders.

6. 76ers – Philly’s sheer size can mask nearly all their problems, but the Sixers may need a serious shooting upgrade to advance to the Finals. Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson are in serious funks, and neither Al Horford nor Joel Embiid are deadeye shooters from beyond the arc. Furkan Korkmaz triples can only sustain a team for so long.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

5. Rockets – Is it 2006 for Mike D’Antoni? Houston has jumped from the No. 27 pace last season to the fastest rate in the league this year, and Russell Westbrook isn’t the only catalyst. James Harden appears to be embracing more attempts early in the shot clock, averaging a career-best 4.7 transition points per game. Houston’s defensive issues are glaring. It’s dynamic duo has had no issue on the defensive end.

4. Celtics – The Celtics are equipped to go small as any team in the league and it may be well served to take that to an extreme. Marcus Smart is a more-than-capable post defender, and Brad Stevens has seen success with the Oklahoma State product at center. Let’s get weird, Boston.

3. Clippers – Montrezl Harrell’s $6 million salary is an absolute steal, but it won’t last for long. The 2020 free agent is scoring 1.50 points per possession as a roll man this season, and he’s a ravenous offensive rebounder. He should cash in next summer, perhaps one month after the Clippers’ first title in franchise history.

2. Bucks – Giannis’ MVP narrative is a touch boring, but he’ll likely rack up the statistical heights to seize the award if Milwaukee snags a top two seed in the East. Antetokounmpo has a chance to become the first player to average 30 points and 15 rebounds per game since Bob McAdoo in 1973-74.

1. Lakers – When can we start trusting the Dwight Howard revival? He’s been outstanding thus far, entering Sunday night with a plus-17.7 net rating and a top-20 rebounding rate. Howard even looks like a delightful teammate. Maybe people really can change.