NBA Power Rankings: 3 Weeks In

This is the first in-season NBA power rankings for Around the Block. We are about an 8th of the way through the season, with every team playing between 9-11 games so far. The season has gotten off to a great start, with rookies making their mark, former dynasties looking revamped and a wide-open race to the finals. There have been surprises all over the league, good and bad. Here is the first look at where all 30 teams stack up thus far.

nba power rankings
Credit: The Guardian

1) Golden State Warriors

Record: 9-1

Before the season I wrote about my favorite over-under bets for the NBA season. My number one pick was the Warriors to go over, and so far that looks like a fantastic bet. The Warriors have jumped out to hot start, with the best record in the league at 8-1. The Warriors have the league’s best defensive rating, along with the current MVP front runner in Stephen Curry. They are doing all this without last year’s 2nd overall pick James Wiseman and the imminent return of Klay Thompson. This team should only get better. I expect them to be near the top of these rankings all season long.

2) Philadelphia 76ers

Record: 8-3

Without patting myself on the back too much, I also had the 76ers beating their projected win total. Even with the ongoing Ben Simmons drama, and missing some of their key players due to Covid. The Sixers have picked up where they left off last regular season, dominating the east. Joel Embiid has produced at the same level we have seen the past four seasons. The emergence of Seth Curry has been one of the bright spots for this team. Curry currently is 3rd in true shooting percentage league-wide. A stat historically dominated by bigs who take the majority of their shots within 5 feet of the basket. While the shooting numbers are unsustainable, the Sixers will be able to keep pace once they get some key players back and sort out of the Simmons situation.

Update: This was written prior to the news of Joel Embiid being put into health and safety protocol for a minimum of 10 days

3) Brooklyn Nets

Record: 7-4

Another team with a lot of drama surrounding, the Nets took a couple games to return to form; specifically James Harden. The Nets can compete with any team in the league when Harden is playing as he did in Toronto. The Nets are getting valuable minutes from their veterans, they are one of the best in the league and they are doing this all without one of the top 20 players in the league. The Kyrie situation currently doesn’t have any end in sight, but there are rumors New York could change its vaccine stance which would allow Irving to rejoin the team without major repercussions. The Nets will continue to win games as long as they have two of their three stars in action, and a supporting cast that perfectly suits the big 3.

4) Miami Heat

Record: 7-3

The Heat were on top of many power rankings before to their brutal loss to the Celtics. Miami has come out guns blazing and the way the game is being officiated has given an advantage to physical defense, Miami’s specialty. One of my favorite parts of the early season is members of the media talking about Kyle Lowry’s defense, shooting, and play-making. Essentially admitting they didn’t watch any of Kyle in Toronto, as he continues to be the same All-Star caliber player. Combined with the re-emergence of Tyler Herro’s scoring ability, the Heat are built for a playoff run.

5) Utah Jazz

Record: 7-3

The Jazz continue to dominate in the regular season, where Rudy Gobert shines as the front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year once again. Two of the three Jazz losses have come without Mike Conley, a great sign for the Conley-Mitchell backcourt. The Jazz have a deep rotation with the ability to cover any injury setbacks. The real issues start in the playoffs where teams go small to pull Gobert away from the basket. For the time being the Jazz are one of the best in the west, especially when Conley is at full health.

6) Milwaukee Bucks

Record: 4-6

The Bucks currently sit in the final spot for the eastern play-in game, of course, it is only 10 games in but things have broken wrong for Milwaukee. Jrue Holiday missed 5 games, Brook Lopez hasn’t played since opening night and Khris Middleton continues to be in health and safety protocol due to Covid. The defending champs are off to their worst start since the 2017-2018 season, but this roster when fully healthy is a top 5 team in the league. Giannis Antetokounmpo has played his butt off to keep the Bucks ready to make a run and push back into the top of the east.

7) Dallas Mavericks

Record: 7-3

Luka Doncic added another career highlight when he sunk the Celtics with a 3 point buzzer-beater. Doncic continues to break the brain of every NBA fan, hitting shots that no 6’7 human should hit. With the game-winner Saturday, Luka tied Dirk Nowitzki for the most game-winning buzzer beaters in Dallas history. The Mavs go as Luka does, and so far this season that is good for the third-best record in the west. The rest of the roster could use some upgrades, another wing or ball handler would be ideal for this team. Jalen Brunson has been a much-needed boost off the bench and has shown he can provide valuable minutes in crunch time. His performance against San Antonio was easily one of his best.

8) Phoenix Suns

Record: 6-3

Last season’s western champions bring back an almost identical roster. The Suns know the formula to a winning season, they just need to shake off the rust of a shorter than average offseason. Chris Paul moved into 3rd place on the All-time assist leaderboard, jumping Mark Jackson and Steve Nash in the process. He had a season-high 18 assists on Tuesday. The Suns will be competitive all season long as they are among the West’s elite, but most of their play has been overshadowed by the tragic reports about owner Robert Sarver and his inexcusable behavior.

9) Denver Nuggets

Record: 5-4

The Nuggets are a one-man show for the time being. Nikola Jokic leads the team in every statistical category. He is playing even better than his MVP season and carrying the Nuggets to a 5-4 record. Jokic’s biggest improvement this season has come on the defensive side of the ball, he is 2nd in the league in individual defensive rating, behind reigning DPOY Rudy Gobert and ahead of former DPOY Draymond Green. Jokic has made strides on that side of the ball using technique and IQ to keep pace with faster and more athletic players. The Nuggets have the potential to finish higher on this list if Michael Porter Jr. can get out of his slump. Coming off a major 172 million dollar extension, he has been one of the most disappointing players in the league this season.

10) Chicago Bulls

Record: 7-3

The Bulls are off to their best start since the Derrick Rose days, their offseason additions have made the biggest impact league-wide. While many were skeptical of the DeMar DeRozan – Zach Lavine fit, the two have meshed very well. DeRozan has shown he can be a key contributor on a winning team again. Free-agent signee Alex Caruso has exceeded expectations to help the Bulls thus far, but no player has had a bigger impact on the Bulls than Lonzo Ball. Ball is the perfect piece to tie this unit together, his play-making and defensive impact have been crucial in every Bulls win this season. The Bulls will continue to be an offensive powerhouse as they have 3 players who can score at will, the team’s issue will come on the defensive front. The Bulls best defensive player Patrick Williams was on the verge of a breakout, but after breaking his wrist the Bulls won’t see him again until next season.

11) Memphis Grizzlies

Record: 6-4

The Grizz have been of the league’s early-season darlings. Ja Morant is a bonafide star, leading the NBA in points in the post. Ja is 6’3, his layup package so far this season is unmatched. The Grizz are getting healthier and have a young team with a lot of talent, Jaren Jackson Jr. started off slow but has picked up his play over the past couple of games. With Dillon Brooks on his way back from injury, Memphis should be competitive all season long.

12) Washington Wizards

Record: 7-3

When the Wizards traded Russell Westbrook to the Lakers, many people wrote the team off. Westbrook was not a fantastic fit beside Beal but the team was trending in the wrong direction. 10 games into the season and the Wizards sit ahead of the Lakers in the power rankings (not by much, but we’ll get there). Washington is experiencing what Bill Simmons calls the Ewing effect, in short – the Ewing effect represents an uptick in play from a team when they lose a “star”. The Wizards look completely different this season, they are getting the most out of new additions. Montrezl Harrell is one of the front-runners for Sixth Man of the Year, Kyle Kuzma has carved out a nice role as a starter and Spencer Dinwiddie is finding his legs after missing the majority of last season. The Wizards are the surprise team of the league thus far.

13) Los Angeles Lakers

Record: 6-5

This spot feels low for the Lakers, but also high? I’m not sure what to make of this year’s Lakers. They still have LeBron, who is currently out with an abdominal strain that was initially expected to keep him out for just a week. There are now rumors it could keep him out much longer. The roster construction of the Lakers is a mess, Anthony Davis is one of the league’s best but the Russell Westbrook experience has had mixed results. The Lakers could have had Buddy Hield (a career 40% three-point shooter) while having more cap to resign free agents like Alex Caruso. The Lakers are a talented team, but they need to figure out a better rotation and hope LeBron can stay healthy after a rough 8 months.

14) New York Knicks

Record: 7-4

BING BONG! The new catchphrase of the Knicks can be heard and seen across NBA arenas league-wide. It has captivated basketball in New York and the Knicks are looking to build off of last season. RJ Barrett has been the Knicks’ best player so far, showing flashes of a future all-star. The Knicks started hot but have dropped three of their last four, as they look to build chemistry with new offseason additions. While the offense has been fine, the Knicks defense will need to get back on track to keep them in the playoff race, and out of the play-in game.

15) Toronto Raptors

Record: 6-5

Coming off of a five-game win streak, the Raptors dropped two straight over the weekend, but that shouldn’t halt the buzz surrounding this team. On July 29th the Raptors shocked the world by selecting Scottie Barnes fourth overall, with cries from fans to take Jalen Suggs who went one pick later. 11 games into the season and Barnes has all the looks of a future star. After Sunday’s loss to the Nets Kevin Durant raved about the young rookie, to the delight of Raptors fans league-wide. Combined with the emergence of OG Annunoby and the return of Pascal Siakam, the Raptors are once again set up to destroy all offseason predictions regarding the team.

16) Cleveland Cavaliers

Record: 7-4

Speaking of rookies, Evan Mobley has been getting his share of praise. Mobley played the best game of his young career on Sunday at Madison Square Garden, dominating every aspect of the game. Mobley has earned the nickname “Baby KG” after the great Kevin Garnett. His defense at such a young age has been unbelievable to watch, Mobley leads the league in contested shots, not just rookies. The Cavs have been another surprise as they have gotten lots out of new additions Lauri Markknen and Ricky Rubio. As someone who had lots of questions regarding the roster construction, I can happily say. I was wrong.

17) Portland Trailblazers

Record: 5-5

The Blazers and new head coach Chauncey Billups have not gotten off to an ideal start. Damian Lillard is in the midst of the worst shooting slump of his entire NBA career. Dame is averaging just 18.5 PPG (points per game), down from 28.8 last season and 6 points lower than his career average of 24.6. It is easy to see that his shooting splits have completely cratered to start the season, I expect Lillard to find his game and the Blazers to move up in these rankings. To make matters worse the Blazers are now dealing with an in-house investigation of a toxic workplace environment caused by current GM Neil Olshey.

18) Los Angeles Clippers

Record: 5-4

The Clippers are getting healthier, with the return of Serge Ibaka after offseason surgery. Paul George has carried this team most nights, with little help from the rest of the roster. Terrence Mann has been the lone other bright spot while slowly playing more minutes and becoming a hound on the defensive end. This Clippers team definitely has its limitations but the play-in game is definitely within reach.

19) Charlotte Hornets

Record: 5-7

The league’s most fun team, the Hornets are coming off their worst loss of the season to the 9-1 Warriors. Charlotte has ways to go on the defensive side of the ball, as LaMelo Ball continues to struggle defensively. The Hornets have now lost five straight after a dominant start to the season, Miles Bridges has come out hot, and seems to be the early favorite for Most Improved.

20) Boston Celtics

Record: 4-6

Coming into the season, the Celtics were expected to be in the thick of the playoff race led by their two young Stars, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Through ten games, the Celtics have been one of the league’s most disappointing. After seemingly righting the ship with back-to-back wins in Florida, the Celtics gave up a massive fourth-quarter lead and then lost to another Luka dagger. The rumors have already started swirling as Shams Charania of The Athletic reported the Celtics have called about Sixers star Ben Simmons. The rumor suggests that any talks start with Celtics star Jaylen Brown who is in the midst of a career season statistically.

21) Atlanta Hawks

Record: 4-7

The 2021 Hawks have looked polar opposite to the team we saw in the eastern conference finals just five months ago. No player has struggled more to adjust to the new foul rules, than Trae Young. The Hawks have outright been bad, there is no sugar-coating it. This team is talented and has plenty of depth, I expect the Hawks to make a run and find their rhythm. The only positive surrounding this team is the early play of John Collins. He is shooting 59.6% from the field and 42.9% from 3, both would be career highs, all while shooting more than ever. If the rest of the Hawks can pick up their play, watch out.

22) Sacramento Kings

Record: 5-6

The Kings have had a really nice start to the season, while their best player De’Aaron Fox has struggled. Fox has been the one of league’s worst 3 point shooters, shooting just 20% so far. His PPG is also down from 25.8 to 18.9, aside from Fox the Kings have been a welcome surprise as the best of the league’s bad teams. Harrison Barnes is averaging 22.5 points and has become the de-facto late-game scorer. While I doubt the level of play is sustainable the Kings couldn’t have asked for a better start with this roster. I realize how sad that sounds with the team sitting at 5-6 but the roster is really really bad.

23) Indiana Pacers

Record: 4-7

The Pacers’ have been playing without fringe all-star and leading scorer Malcolm Brogdon due to Covid so the record does not tell the full story. Indiana has a talented roster and solid core between Brogdon, Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner, and Caris LeVert. The team is adjusting to a new coach and a new system from Rick Carlisle. The Pacers have the pieces to be competitive and play for a spot in the play-in game. If things continue to go south the Pacers are a team to watch for a splash trade or full tear down.

24) Minnesota Timberwolves

Record: 3-6

The Wolves are on a five-game losing streak, they have a date with the Warriors on Wednesday. Things are not looking great for one of the league’s worst franchises. The Wolves are nearing a point where they should consider trading their best asset, Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns’ career has been rotting away in Minnesota and it is time to see what he can do on a good team. The Wolves have some talent around KAT in Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell but it has been the same story since KAT was drafted. Another early lottery pick and we could see a trade request from more than one guy.

25) San Antonio Spurs

Record: 3-7

Long gone are the days of the Spurs dynasty, now it is the early stages of a rebuild. Dejounte Murray has easily been the Spurs’ best player averaging a crisp 18.4 points, 8.2 assists, 8.1 assists, and 2.1 steals per game. These numbers would put him in Hall of Fame company as the third player to average that since Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. The Spurs have a plethora of young wings to coach up and reevaluate after the season to continue the rebuild.

26) Orlando Magic

Record: 3-8

The Magic have been helped by the emergence of Cole Anthony. Last year’s first-rounder has been one of the league’s most improved. He has carried a young Magic team to each of their three victories. The Magic are ways away from being a contender but they have some really nice players who could be a large part of the future. Fifth pick Jalen Suggs has not had an ideal start to his young career, while early his shooting woes have continued from college.

27) Oklahoma City Thunder

Record: 3-6

The Thunder are just letting Shai Gilgeous-Alexander just go to work, SGA is leading the NBA in isolation points per game. Shai has constantly kept this team in games and single-handedly beat the Lakers (without LeBron but still). Since the start of last season, the Thunder are 19-25 when he plays and 6-31 

28) Houston Rockets

Record: 1-9

The Rockets are the best of the one-win teams. This roster has some talent to trade away at the deadline. That is the story with the Rockets this season, keep acquiring assets and developing. This year’s second overall pick Jalen Green has shown flashes through ten games. His scoring has been on full display at times, with a high arcing shot and ferocious dunks. Green is about the only watchable part of the Rockets.

29) Detroit Pistons

Cade Cunningham, the first overall pick in this year’s draft is off to a bad start. There are plenty of statistics out there telling us he is off to the worst start for the first overall pick since Anthony Bennett. Cunningham is 20 years old, coming off an injury, and is working on changing his shot. I know it has not been encouraging to start but can we give the kid more than four games. Cunningham has struggled in just about every aspect but I would be shocked if he doesn’t turn it around.

30) New Orleans Pelicans

The Pels are a mess, missing their two best players they have been downright bad. Zion Williamson has been one of the leading news stories as he struggles to get healthy and rumors persist about his weight issues. Brandon Ingram is about to miss his fifth consecutive game, with hopes his return is imminent. The Pelicans are the laughing stock of the league until Zion can return and dominate the way he did last season. At his best, he is one of the league’s best and most efficient scorers. The hope is Zion can figure things out on his end so we can see him take his play to the next level.

Is DeAndre Ayton worth the max?

DeAndre Ayton
DeAndre Ayton, Credit: NBA

In 2018, the Phoenix Suns selected DeAndre Ayton with the first overall pick. Taking him two spots before Luka Doncic and four spots before Trae Young. Ayton had a rough start to his career, but he has blossomed into one of the league’s premier young centers. Ayton’s 2020 playoff run showed how valuable he can be to a playoff team. Ayton averaging an extremely efficient 15.8 points per game, with fantastic rebounding and mostly good defense (he struggled against Giannis in the finals, but who doesn’t). Due to this, DeAndre Ayton is looking for the max.

Come 2021, Ayton is expected to have an even bigger role for the defending western conference champions. DeAndre Ayton is eligible for the rookie max. The max comes in at 5 years, $172.5 million. With boosts and bonuses that could push it to a total of $207 million. So far Ayton’s camp will not budge on anything less than the max, his peers have received the same contract why shouldn’t he?

Reasons to not resign

The Suns have reservations about giving Ayton the max, they have seen how quickly the landscape of the league changes, especially with Bigs. Big men who can’t knock down 3’s, or run an offense have seen their value quickly deteriorate. Even the league’s best defender, Rudy Gobert has had trouble staying on the floor due to his offensive inabilities. The modern NBA big has a new role in the game, and many teams are still figuring out how they view these players.

Ayton will need to add more to his game, we have already seen his a capable mid-range shooter. Ayton shoots above league average from within 5 feet, 5-9 feet and 10-14 feet, where he struggles is anything over 15 feet where he is below league average. Adding a reliable 3 point shot to his game, would do wonders for Ayton and help keep him on the floor during the playoffs. We have seen traditional bigs add the 3 to their game, from Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge and Brook Lopez.

Reasons to resign

Ayton’s rare combination of size and athleticism combined with a consistent deep ball would make him one of the league’s best centers. His defensive IQ and footwork also need improvement. Physically Ayton has the tools to be an elite center, who disrupts the middle and shuts down other teams bigs. Thus far he has shown flashes of greatness but those have been few and far between. Ayton’s best defense performance to date, came against the Lakers in the first round of last years playoffs.

The Lakers averaged 42.6 points in the paint per 100 possessions with Ayton on the floor, with Ayton on the bench that number ballooned to 58.5. Ayton held Anthony Davis one of the league’s best to a pedestrian 40% shooting when guarded by him. Davis shoots 40% on just jump shots when guarded by the rest of the league. If Ayton can continue to take these strides on the defensive side of the ball, he could become one the league’s best two-way players.

Overall

The Suns need to be careful how they approach this situation, Phoenix does not have a great reputation for taking care of their guys. Suns owner Robert Sarver has been the center of media attention multiple times, and not for the right reasons. The longer this story goes, the worse the trust gets between the players and ownership. Ayton of courses feels as though he deserves the max.

Ayton is the second most important player for the Suns future. The combination of Devin Booker and Ayton are the keys to success. The Suns need to make sure both players continue to play for this team. Otherwise we could see the Suns short run of success doom itself very quickly. While I understand the risks that come with giving Ayton a max contract, the upside far outweighs the risk of possibly losing Ayton to a team willing to pay him the max.

Cam Payne’s Redemption

I’ve watched my fair share of Suns’ games throughout my lifetime. I’ve seen many surprises in the past year specifically. One of which being backup Point Guard Cameron Payne. When the Suns signed him before the bubble, I, like many, asked myself: “Why Payne?” “Isn’t he a scrub?”, “Bench Depth?”, and boy did he prove me wrong, and fast.

Cam was explosive during the Suns bubble run. Putting up a statline of 10.9 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 3 assists. He was a breath of fresh air and swung momentum plenty of times during those games. Hitting threes when the starters went out, especially back-to-back. We gave Cam a one-year extension in the offseason and proved that the bubble was no fluke.

Cameron Payne put up numbers that, at first glance, aren’t very eye-popping. With a respectable statline of 8.4ppg, 2.4rpg, and 3.6apg, along with some very clutch, energetic shots, to fuel the bench unit. However, Payne got exponentially better as the season went on, putting up 14 points per game in may, a worthy six-man of the 2nd seed in the Western Conference. His best games, 21 points and 6 boards and a win against the Blazers, and 24 points in a close loss against the defending champion Lakers, were both in that May. His excellence May perhaps continue.

In our game 2 loss against the Lakers. In a game where CP3 was hurt with a shoulder contusion. In a game that looked hopeless. Payne almost ignited the spark to bring this team back to an improbable win, with Chris Paulesque numbers of 19 points, 7 assists, and 2 blocks, as well as a 28 foot three to give us a slight lead. While his effort may have been in vain as we fell 109-102, I don’t have a feeling that the Murray St. guard isn’t done yet. I believe that he has a few more impossible games in front of him.

With his contact expiring this coming offseason, he may leave a place where many hold him dear. He should be a target to bring back, he clearly loved playing here and thrived doing so under Monty Williams. May I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors, bring them payne.