I’m not a big believer in the so-called “eye test” because my eyes have been known to deceive me, particularly when it comes to putting together NBA power rankings.
No, I trust numbers. Numbers are cold, impersonal, unbiased, unflappable and incontrovertible. And they never, ever lie to you.
That’s not to say that numbers haven’t been known to exaggerate a thing or two here and there. Fortunately, this isn’t college football, so these rankings—at the end of the day—won’t mean a thing. That won’t prevent the usual howls of “you hate my team because you ranked them one spot lower than I would have” or the ubiquitous “your stupid” or “your a moron” (complete with incorrect usage of words).
Early-season results, as I continue to caution, can be very volatile. We’re at a point where the last place team in the Southwest Division has a better record than the first place club in the Atlantic. That can’t continue, can it?
In any event, here’s where the NBA is after three weeks:
1. San Antonio Spurs (10-1—last week 2-0, previously No. 2)
The Spurs just keep doing their thing. There is a perception that San Antonio is boring, monotonous, methodical and utterly uninteresting. But there’s a beauty to be able to continue rolling out winner after winner year after year. Every preseason, there is a contingent ready to give up on the Spurs. Then they do crazy stuff like start 10-1.
2. Indiana Pacers (10-1—last week 2-1, previously No. 1)
For what it’s worth, the dividing line between the Pacers and Spurs is much smaller than the separation these two teams have from the rest of the pack at this point. Roy Hibbert is averaging 4.36 blocks per game this year, which would be the highest figure for a season since Dikembe Mutombo erased an average of 4.49 shots in 1995-96 for the Nuggets. But it’s still quite a bit off the all-time record of 5.56 blocks per game set in 1984-85 by Mark Eaton of the Jazz. Then again, Hibbert may be reinventing himself as a very large Stephen Curry:
3. Miami Heat (9-3—last week 4-0, previously No. 5)
The Heat just keep crushing teams—their six-point win over Dallas on Friday night was the nail-biter of the week for Miami. They beat Charlotte by 16, Atlanta by 16 and Orlando by 28. How good are the Heat? They’re getting a 23.2 player efficiency rating from Michael Beasley and Chris Bosh is shooting 50 percent from 3-point range. These are things that are happening.
4. Portland Trail Blazers (10-2—last week 4-0, previously No. 3)
Our Chris Reichert will not be a fan of a team winning eight straight, going 4-0 for a week … and dropping a spot. I’ll just say one edge Miami has over the Blazers is shooting. Like at a ridiculous level. It’ll even out. The big edge though is that Portland beats teams. Miami is obliterating them and, well, it’s the one place where style points enter into the formula—margin of victory matters.
5. Golden State Warriors (8-4—last week 3-1, previously No. 9)
The Warriors are now 0-2 without Stephen Curry after Wednesday night’s overtime loss to the Dubs’ own version of Kryptonite, dressed in the blue and other blue of the Memphis Grizzlies. Still, is there a more versatile player in the league—outside of the LeBron James category and just considering actual humans—than Andre Iguodala?
6. Los Angeles Clippers (8-4—last week 2-1, previously No. 4)
The Clippers are getting ridiculous rebounding from DeAndre Jordan—to the tune of 13.3 a game, second in the league behind Dwight Howard. But Jordan is limited. He hasn’t attempted a shot from outside of nine feet in 12 games. That 45.8 percent free throw shooting isn’t an anomaly. He’s really that bad at shooting the basketball.
7. Oklahoma City Thunder (7-3—last week 2-1, previously No. 8)
They were an Andre Iguodala jumper away from a perfect week and Kevin Durant is on pace to shoot 1,050 free throws this season. That would be the most all-time in the non-Wilt Chamberlain category, fourth all-time overall. Considering Chamberlain made 50.1 percent lifetime, though, Jerry West’s 977 attempts in 1965-66 that he made 86 percent of is probably the greatest volume free throw shooting performance in history.
8. Chicago Bulls (6-3—last week 3-0, previously No. 17)
The Bulls hammered the Pacers behind 23 points from Luol Deng, becoming the first—and still only—team this season to hang 100 or more on Indiana. The Bulls also had an impressive win at Toronto and held off pesky Charlotte Monday night.
9. Houston Rockets (8-5—last week 3-1, previously No. 10)
The Rockets turn the ball over too much. Like, more than any team not named the Utah Jazz. But they rebound the heck out of the thing and they shoot. Everything except free throws by Dwight Howard, that is.
10. Dallas Mavericks (8-4—last week 3-1, previously No. 7)
Dirk Nowitzki moved into the top 15 on the NBA’s scoring list against the Rockets on Wednesday night, the second-highest scoring international player of all-time behind Hakeem Olajuwon (Dominique Wilkins was born in France, but raised in the U.S., so he doesn’t really count). And it appears his new running mate, Monta Ellis, is the real deal. Thought the Mavs would be better, but top-10 better?
11. Atlanta Hawks (7-5—last week 3-1, previously No. 12)
The Hawks beat the teams they’re supposed to beat—although the 20-point beatdown of the Knicks at Madison Square Garden was unexpected—and lose to the teams they’re supposed to, like Miami on Tuesday night. But can we trust a team that is giving Kyle Korver 34 minutes a night?
12. Minnesota Timberwolves (7-6—last week 1-3, previously No. 6)
Some cracks are starting to show in Minnesota’s foundation. The Timberwolves are looking like last year’s Portland Trail Blazers—really good starting five, really scary after that. And Kevin Love’s 3-point shooting is cooling off; he’s down to 34.9 percent and is 9-for-28 (32.1 percent) in his last five games.
13. Memphis Grizzlies (7-5—last week 4-0, previously No. 22)
OK, so I make fun of the Grizz last week and they do this—a 4-0 West Coast trip with wins over the Los Angelesezezez (I looked it up, this is the proper plural form), Sacramento and Golden State. Zach Randolph was particularly beastly on the trip, scoring 97 points in four games.
14. New Orleans Pelicans (5-6—last week 2-0, previously No. 21)
OK, I’m convinced. The Southwest Division is really freaking good. This is their last place team and the Pelicans are in the top half of the rankings. Ryan Anderson returned from injury and put up 26 points in 27 minutes against the 76ers and Anthony Davis … can we just save time and hassle and give him the Most Improved Player trophy now?
15. Phoenix Suns (5-6—last week 0-3, previously No. 11)
Back-to-back losses on back-to-back nights to the Sacramento Kings. The. Sacramento. Kings. Goran Dragic was incredible in the fourth quarter Wednesday night—18 points—as the Suns tried to come back at home, but it wasn’t to be. The unenviable combination of too many turnovers and not enough rebounds is starting to come home to roost in the desert. But Gerald Green did do this:
16. Toronto Raptors (5-7—last week 1-2, previously No. 14)
Come on, everybody. Sing it with me! The first-place Toronto Raptors. Of course, it’s the lead in a division where the five teams combined to go 2-17 last week. On the upside for the Raptors, half of the division’s wins belonged to them. But as long as they have the ever-efficient Rudy Gay on their side … well, yeah. Gay had 68 points in three games last week and only took 58 shots to do it. Baby steps, people. Baby steps.
17. Denver Nuggets (4-6—last week 1-2, previously No. 15)
The Nuggets gave Oklahoma City everything it wanted on Monday night before dropping a two-point decision and Ty Lawson had 28 points and 17 assists in a loss at Houston. Lawson’s averaging 22 and 8.6, respectively, with a PER of 23.7. On the other hand, Randy Foye has started every game, is averaging 27.5 minutes and has a PER of 9.0. Ick.
18. Charlotte Bobcats (6-6—last week 2-2, previously No. 18)
When they win, they win ugly. When they lose, they lose even uglier. This team can’t shoot—their 48.1 true shooting percentage is the NBA’s worst—they can’t score and they don’t seem to do much of anything well—except hold onto the ball (Charlotte’s 14.2 percent turnover rate is fourth-best in the NBA). And they’ve done it with just three games with Al Jefferson. Intriguing.
19. Los Angeles Lakers (5-7—last week 1-1, previously No. 24)
Kobe Bryant won’t be back this weekend. But he’s there … lurking. If Jordan Hill’s recent performance isn’t a mirage, the Lakers might just make things interesting this season. But I do admit to a certain level of morbid curiosity about the prospect of seeing Kobe and Nick Young on the floor for the same team at the same time. Might we see a return of this face?
20. Orlando Magic (4-7—last week 0-2, previously No. 16)
Arron Afflalo is doing what he can do and then some. Did anyone see 22.5 points a game from Afflalo? And he’s hitting a gaudy 54.1 percent from long range, making 82 percent of his free throws. The only problem is that he’s settling for the mid-range jumper too much (63 shots from there, more than anywhere else on the floor) and making just 42.9 percent of them.
21. Detroit Pistons (4-7—last week 2-2, previously No. 23)
Josh Smith lost in his return to Atlanta Wednesday night and that 5-for-15 line indicates that maybe he wanted it too much. Brandon Jennings continues to be Brandon Jennings—lots of shots, not a lot of makes, with some assists thrown in to make the stat line look good. It’s also starting to look a bit like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope might have been a reach at No. 8 overall. Unless you like shooting guards who can’t shoot (35.3 percent overall, 25 percent from deep).
22. Washington Wizards (4-7—last week 2-1, previously No. 28)
John Wall is averaging 15.8 points and 9.7 assists, but shooting a dismal 35.7 percent. But Bradley Beal is making the leap—21.2 points a game and he was 6-for-7 from 3-point range in a win over Cleveland Wednesday night.
23. Sacramento Kings (4-7—last week 2-2, previously No. 25)
Mike Malone hasn’t been shy about shuffling the lineup—Luc Mbah a Moute, Jason Thompson and Ben McLemore are now starting in place of John Salmons, Patrick Patterson and Marcus Thornton—and the Kings got a couple of wins over the Suns. DeMarcus Cousins and Isaiah Thomas are carrying the offensive load, but the pieces don’t all seem to fit here.
24. Philadelphia 76ers (5-8—last week 0-4, previously No. 13)
Well, the feel-good start was fun. But it’s also over—the 76ers have lost four straight, including a 10-point defeat at home to the Raptors that knocked them out of first place. The general lack of talent on this club seems to be catching up with them. Since opening with three straight wins, Philadelphia is 2-8.
25. Brooklyn Nets (3-8—last week 1-3, previously No. 27)
Deron Williams was back for about 12 minutes before leaving after re-aggravating the left ankle injury that has had him sidelined in the early going. There are rumblings that Jason Kidd’s doing very little in the way of coaching, fans are getting restless and the first three weeks have pretty much gone like this:
26. Cleveland Cavaliers (4-8—last week 1-2, previously No. 29)
There were reports last week that Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters were involved in a scuffle during a players-only meeting. The Cavaliers denied it. In any event, it’s not a good sign for the Mike Brown 2.0 era in Cleveland. Some people, though, seemed genuinely shocked about the denials. Did they expect someone to come out and say this?
27. Boston Celtics (4-9—last week 0-4, previously No. 19)
Four straight losses, four straight wins, five straight losses. So the Celtics will be moving up this table next week as they start putting together their five-game winning streak, right? Buehler? Buehler?
28. New York Knicks (3-8—last week 0-4, previously No. 20)
The Knicks have lost four straight, including one on Wednesday night to Indiana that they absolutely gift-wrapped. They played the Rockets tough on Thursday to start the week and played the Pacers tough to end it. But things are getting tense in Manhattan, as well, as the Knicks’ season so far resembles …
29. Milwaukee Bucks (2-8—last week 0-3, previously No. 26)
The Bucks started Luke Ridnour at point guard on Wednesday and put rookie Nate Wolters on the bench. It helped … they only lost by nine to the Trail Blazers. In any event, it’s six straight losses for Milwaukee and the cavalry is not on the way, at least not until draft night.
30. Utah Jazz (1-12—last week 0-4, previously No. 30)
The Jazz got some good news Wednesday night in New Orleans, as rookie Trey Burke made his delayed debut, scoring 11 points in 12 minutes. But Derrick Favors decidedly lost the power forward battle to Anthony Davis, who had 22 points, nine boards and eight (!) blocked shots as the Pelicans won. So as far as good news goes for the Jazz, it’s a little bit like this: