By Nick Sligh
Fates are far from settled as the first month of NBA action comes to a close, but we are beginning to get a better idea of what this season may shape up to be. Here are the biggest risers and fallers from weeks three and four.
Biggest risers: Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets
After losing to the Philadelphia 76ers in their season opener, the Boston Celtics have now won 10 of their last 11 games, giving them the second best record in the entire league and the best record in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics’ trajectory was uncertain coming into this season, given the departures of Kyrie Irving — who was at the center of locker-room troubles — and Al Horford. With the addition of Kemba Walker and the development of their young core, the Celtics are looking to return as one of the primary contenders in not only the Eastern Conference, but the entire NBA. Walker has been fantastic, averaging 25 points a game on 43% shooting from three. Now in their second and third seasons, respectively, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are providing practically identical stat lines (20 PPG, 7 RPG, 2.5 APG). Gordon Hayward was off to a great start this season (18 PPG on 43% from three), until he caught another bad break with injuries and broke his left hand last week. However, the team will only be without Hayward for around six weeks and looks to continue building momentum while awaiting his return.
The Rockets just keep winning. Following a 3-3 start, the Rockets are now sitting with the second-best record in the Western Conference following a seven-game winning streak. James Harden has been off to a scorching start (in terms of volume, at least), averaging a ridiculous 39 points a game through his first 13 games. Harden isn’t playing flawlessly, however, as he averages nearly six turnovers a game and shoots just 33% from beyond the arc. Russell Westbrook has been incredibly inefficient, averaging a historically bad 22% from three to start the season. Given that these two are the only players on the team averaging over 15 points a game, it is shocking that the Rockets have the league’s second-highest scoring offense and the most made three-pointers. In the end, what matters is that they keep winning games. If the Rockets clean up some of their play and begin to shoot the ball more efficiently, this team will be a legitimate contender.
Biggest fallers: Philadelphia 76ers and San Antonio Spurs
My No. 2 ranked team from my initial power rankings is now one of my biggest fallers over the past two weeks. Over their past eight games, the Sixers are 3-5 with their only wins coming over the Charlotte Hornets and the Cleveland Cavaliers (twice). Philadelphia is in the bottom half of the league in both points per game and three-point percentage. They have not had much production from their bench, and have simply struggled to play consistently and win games in this most recent stretch. Despite the bench woes, Joel Embiid has been great this season, averaging 24 points and 12 rebounds a game with an impressive 41% three-point percentage. None of the starters for the 76ers are playing particularly poorly, as all five of them are averaging at least 14 points a game. Because of this, I am not losing faith in this very talented group, but they certainly appear less formidable than they did when they opened the season on a five-game winning streak.
Following a 4-1 start, the Spurs have lost five straight and are 1-7 in their last eight games. Their 5-8 record puts them into the bottom tier of Western Conference. Given a solid roster and one of the greatest coaches of all time, the Spurs should be a middling team in the Western Conference, at worst. Prior to a few games ago, the Spurs hadn’t held a losing record since they opened the 2015-16 season 0-1. This is an organization that is not used to losing, so given their issues with consistency and the incredible depth of the Western Conference, it might prove to be tough for the Spurs to rebound soon.
Four weeks into the season, here are my top 10 teams in the league.
No. 1: Los Angeles Lakers (11-2) (Previous: 3) — The Lakers currently sit with the best record in the NBA. The combination of Lebron James and Anthony Davis has been amazing through the first four weeks. The Lakers are playing incredibly efficient offense, with the second-highest field goal percentage in the league at 47.8%. More surprisingly, the Lakers are playing incredibly effective defense, leading the entire league in defensive rating. With the duo of Lebron and AD, it is hard to see many teams being more of a threat than the Lakers are at the moment.
No. 2: Milwaukee Bucks (9-3) (Previous: 4) — Giannis Antetokounmpo is playing at an MVP level again, averaging 30 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists per game — all on 58% shooting from the field. The Bucks have the highest scoring offense and the third best defensive rating in the NBA. Given the continued development and dominance of Giannis, the Bucks are currently the frontrunner in the Eastern Conference.
No. 3: Boston Celtics (10-2) (Previous: 7) — Boston was riding a 10-game win streak until that was snapped in a one-point road loss to the Kings. Regardless, this team is on a fantastic roll at the moment and seems to be playing very effective team basketball. With a new offensive centerpiece in Kemba Walker, this team should only continue to build chemistry and momentum as the season goes on.
No. 4: Los Angeles Clippers (8-5) (Previous: 1) — The Clippers are a team that I still have a ton of faith in. Due to minor injuries, we still haven’t seen Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on the court at the same time. Once this team is fully healthy and the full roster is able to start building chemistry together, this is a team that will be able to compete with anybody. The star power and depth of the Clippers is enough to let them hover around the top of the league at all times.
No. 5: Houston Rockets (10-3) (Previous: 8) — A seven-game win streak despite very inefficient play from their superstar duo is impressive (and also a bit surprising/confusing). This team has the explosiveness and potential to be even more dangerous as the season progresses. Harden and Westbrook will continue to solidify their groove in their return to playing together after not playing together in seven years.
No. 6: Utah Jazz (8-4) (Previous: 6) — The Jazz prove to be a legitimate team, solidifying themselves in the second tier of the Western Conference. Donovan Mitchell is off to a great start (25 PPG), Rudy Gobert has been very effective on both ends of the court (14 PPG, 14 RPG), and Bojan Bogdanovic is providing very efficient offense (20 PPG on 44% shooting from three). Mike Conley’s start in Utah has been underwhelming, but I expect him to become more comfortable in his role as the season goes on. The offense — ranked 24th in efficiency — is a slight concern. However, their second-ranked defensive efficiency and their talented starting five will allow the Jazz to compete with most teams in the league.
No. 7: Denver Nuggets (9-3) (Previous: 5) — The Nuggets haven’t necessarily done anything to warrant a drop, and have actually played pretty well as of recent, winning six of their last seven games. Nikola Jokic hasn’t quite lived up to the MVP-level expectations that were put out for him prior to the year. Jamal Murray is playing well, averaging 19 PPG, but there isn’t much consistent offensive play coming from elsewhere on the Nuggets. Despite average team offense to start the season, the Nuggets are winning games with consistent defense. Denver is another team that looks to be solidified in the second tier of the Western Conference.
No. 8: Toronto Raptors (8-4) (Previous: 9) — Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry are leading the way for a Raptors team that is showing that they can remain competitive without Kawhi Leonard. The incredible progression of Pascal Siakam (averaging 26 PPG) combined with the backcourt effectiveness of Fred VanVleet and Lowry puts the Raptors in a good position in the Eastern Conference.
No. 9: Philadelphia 76ers (8-5) (Previous: 2) — The 76ers are one of my biggest fallers over the past couple of weeks for reasons previously mentioned. Consistency has been an issue with Philadelphia over the past eight games following their 5-0 start to the year. Still, this starting five has the potential to be one of the most dominant in the league.
No. 10: Miami Heat (9-3) (Previous: NR) — The Heat keep proving that they could be a legitimate force in the Eastern Conference this season. Miami is benefitting from consistent scoring and solid play from multiple players, with six that are averaging at least 13 points per game. The addition of Jimmy Butler is already paying off, as the Heat have the fourth-best defense in the whole NBA through their first 12 games.