NBA Power Rankings: No concern over Rockets, Thunder after rough starts as context remains key

We're less than a full month into the NBA regular season, which is a.) too early to start drawing firm conclusions about teams, but also b.) late enough that we certainly have some indications about where teams are heading.

The key is context.

Compare, say, the Sacramento Kings, with one of the most surprising records in the league at 6-4, and the Charlotte Hornets, sitting at 5-5. It's huge for Sacramento to bust out its best start in four seasons. But how real is that record? Consider that the Kings' five-game winning streak didn't exactly come against a murderer's row: Memphis, Washington, Miami, Orlando, Atlanta. I can't imagine we'll be talking about the Kings as an above-.500 team in, say, a few weeks. Eight of their next 10 games come against teams that were in the playoffs last season -- plus the Lakers and the above-.500 Grizzlies.

The Hornets, however, may be a team that proves to be better than their record. Consider that the Hornets' plus-7.5 net rating ranks fifth in the NBA, ahead of the Pacers, Celtics, Trail Blazers and Jazz. Four of their five losses have been by four points or less. A few bounces here or there and the Hornets would be right up there with one of the top records in the NBA.

Context is especially important when looking at three teams with high hopes coming into the season but stumbled out of the gate: the Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder and Washington Wizards.

If you're a fan of the Rockets or the Thunder, you should feel a little bit happier when you're looking at the context of those rough starts. For the Rockets, James Harden and Chris Paul have only been on the court together in three games so far; the Rockets are 2-1 in those games. I am not concerned about the Rockets; come April, they will be a top-four seed in the West. Nor am I particularly concerned about the Thunder. Their four-game losing streak to start the season comes with the context that Russell Westbrook not only didn't play in those first two losses -- he wasn't able to play during training camp due to recovery from his knee surgery. The surreal shooting woes will correct themselves in time.

As far as the Wizards? Yikes. Their five-game losing streak ended Sunday when the schedule-makers mercifully gave them the Knicks, but the Wizards lost those five games by an average of 18.6 points. They have one of the worst defenses in the NBA, and the locker room is already publicly sniping at each other for selfishness.

Context matters.

Biggest Movers
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6 Pistons
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1 Warriors Another perfect week for the Warriors. Their only blemish on the season was a last-second loss at Denver. Klay Thompson remembered how to shoot again. They still have a rehabbing Boogie Cousins in their back pocket. The only context to know about this team is that this year should mark the Warriors' fifth championship in a row instead of fourth in five years (if only Draymond had kept his feet to himself in 2016). --20-10
2 Raptors The Raptors have been extra cautious with Kawhi Leonard. He sat out Sunday night against the Lakers with a sore left foot, meaning he has sat for three of his first 10 games as a Raptor. It didn't matter; the Raptors blew out the Lakers on the Lakers' home court. The Raptors' starting unit has been absolutely dynamite all season long. --23-8
3 Bucks The Bucks have the NBA's best net rating. Giannis and Co. have been 14.6 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents through their first nine games, better than even the Warriors. They're the NBA's most statistically balanced team, ranking third in offensive rating and second in defensive rating. We'll find out how sustainable this actually is this week, as the Bucks head on a brutal four-game road test to face Portland, Golden State, Los Angeles Clippers and Denver (as the second night of a back-to-back). If the Bucks can go 3-1 this week, we might need to consider the possibility that they are in the top tier of the Eastern Conference to stay. 119-9
4 Nuggets There are two teams in the NBA with an average roster age lower than the Nuggets' 24.7 years, per RealGM: the Knicks and the Bulls. Ten players on this roster are 24 or younger. We don't have a clue what Michael Porter Jr. can mean for this team when he's healthy. The Nuggets could be building the next Western Conference power. Let's hold off on anointing them after this small sample size, though. The win over the Pelicans came without Anthony Davis on the floor, and the win over the Jazz came with a hobbled Donovan Mitchell. Monday night's game against the Celtics will be a big test. 319-9
5 Celtics A Victor Oladipo transition three away from a perfect week for the Celtics. The offense is showing signs of getting back on track, namely from Kyrie Irving, who scored 31 points and then 28 in back-to-back games. Like last season, the Celtics have the best defensive rating in the NBA. 218-11
6 Pacers So far, the Pacers have been one of the best shooting teams in the NBA. Four rotation players are shooting 43 percent or higher from three. They're not following the fast-paced trend of this NBA season -- the Pacers rank dead-last in pace -- but they're just so consistent. 319-10
7 Trail Blazers The Blazers' schedule the first month of the season has been -- and will continue to be for another week -- unforgiving. And yet they've weathered it incredibly well. The impact of Zach Collins on this team cannot be overstated. This might be the best version of the Blazers since LaMarcus Aldridge left. 316-13
8 Rockets Like I told you last week, the Rockets' miserable start comes with a giant piece of context. Namely, this: The Rockets have played three games so far with both Chris Paul and James Harden in the lineup ... and have won two of those three. The defense is worrisome (22nd in the NBA in defensive efficiency). Less worrisome is Carmelo Anthony's adapting to coming off the bench. He dropped 28 points off the bench against Brooklyn last week. The Rockets are exactly what we expected them to be coming into the season: Not quite the team they were last year, but certainly in that second non-Warriors tier of the West. 214-14
9 Jazz Three losses in a row plus a Donovan Mitchell twisted ankle spells concern for the Jazz. A three-game home stretch this week -- all against teams that are on the second night of a back-to-back -- could be the perfect tonic ... assuming Mitchell gets right. The Jazz collapsed in the fourth quarter Saturday against Denver, getting outscored 35-15 after leading by five with 12 minutes to play. But it was the Jazz's fifth game in third games in four days (and second night of a back-to-back). That's context. 414-16
10 76ers Hard to not feel slightly let down by the 76ers so far. Joel Embiid has been electric. Ben Simmons has been inconsistent (and the 11-turnover game against the Raptors last week was brutal). And Markelle Fultz has been ... better than last year, I guess? The Sixers still don't have a road win. Big prove-it test coming up Wednesday on the road against the Pacers. 119-11
11 Pelicans Five losses in a row for the Pelicans. All the context you need to know about the Pelicans: Anthony Davis has missed three games so far this season, and the Pelicans haven't won a single one of them. 315-15
12 Spurs Four wins in a row for the Spurs until they lost Sunday to the Magic. A week ago I noted that the Spurs were last in defensive rating; now they're sitting at 17th. Offensively, this is one of the most conservative teams in the NBA. The Spurs have the top assist-to-turnover ratio in the league, and rank 27th in pace. No team shoots even close to as many mid-range shots as the Spurs. No team turns it over less. 115-15
13 Thunder Four wins in a row, including the beatdown of the Wizards that had the Washington crowd booing the home team in the first half. The Thunder were never going to be a great shooting team -- but they were never going to be the pathetic team they were out of the block, shooting less than 25 percent from three. 418-10
14 Clippers The Clippers have a top-six defense in the NBA, and a net rating that's better than the Celtics, Spurs, Jazz and Thunder. Do not be surprised when this team is still in the playoff hunt with a few weeks left in the regular season. 217-12
15 Hornets Maybe the Hornets are ... kinda good? As noted earlier, this team has a +7.5 net rating, fifth in the NBA. How about Malik Monk? After struggling as a rookie, Monk is coming off the bench and ranks second on the Hornets in scoring, averaging 13.4 points per game. 314-15
16 Lakers The Lakers got in a 41-10 hole in the first quarter Sunday night: At home, to a Kawhi-less Raptors, giving up 20 first-quarter points to, (triple-checks box score), Serge Ibaka. So there's that. And last week, when I asked LeBron about when he'll lose his patience with this team after a road loss to the Timberwolves, his answer was salty. ("You probably don't want to be around when my patience runs out.") The excuses will run out soon for what's been a sloppy basketball team so far. Pressure is on. 418-11
17 Timberwolves If you got a bead on this team, please let me know. They can seem awesomely competitive two games in a row (beating the Lakers and then the Jazz) and then like they barely care two games in a row (losing to the Warriors and Trail Blazers). At their best, this team is very, very good, capable of hosting a home playoff series. But unless Jimmy Butler and the Timberwolves suddenly fall in love all over again, this team will not be at its best. 313-16
18 Grizzlies Not that anyone was getting carried away with the Grizzlies after winning five of six -- including two impressive wins over the Jazz -- but Sunday's loss to the Phoenix Suns should remind you that this is not a playoff team. But this does feel like a return to the Grit and Grind days, with a Grizz team that's fourth in the NBA in defensive rating and second in steals. 516-13
19 Kings OK, so the "Are the Kings a legit middle-of-the-road team?" questions when they had won five in a row were a bit overheated. Those five wins came against not exactly the best competition -- Grizzlies, Wizards, Heat, Magic, Hawks -- and then they got smashed by the Bucks on Sunday. Still: You gotta beat the bad teams, and so far, the Kings have. Willie Cauley-Stein has the seventh-highest net rating in the NBA, which is a sentence I never expected to write. Only the Lakers and the Warriors get more fast-break points per game than the Kings. 615-13
20 Pistons Four losses in a row for a Pistons team that's really struggling to make shots. The Pistons are next-to-last in the NBA in effective field-goal percentage. 614-13
21 Heat Three losses in a row for the Heat. Miami's 109.2 defensive rating ranks 15th in the NBA, which would be the worst defense for an Erik Spoelstra-coached team. Time to make that Jimmy Butler trade happen. 612-16
22 Nets Hey! The Nets blew out the Sixers! Joe Harris has quietly become one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA; he's shooting 58.7 percent from three on 5.1 attempts per game. --12-18
23 Hawks If you haven't caught Trae Young fever, I got nothing for you. The NBA's fastest-paced team shoots more threes than all but three teams in the NBA. Is it ugly at times? Sure! But Travis Schlenk knows what he's doing in trying to replicate what the Warriors did in the Bay. 56-22
24 Wizards There's no context that makes the Wizards' poor start look any better. But there's plenty of time to correct this awful start by a team with this much talent. The sniping between teammates about selfishness and not caring about defense does not bode well -- not at all. Maybe Dwight Howard's return from injury can help the locker room chemistry? 511-18
25 Mavericks Here's a bad piece of context for the Mavs' six-game losing streak: They lost, at home, to the Knicks. Luka Doncic is the early frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, though, so that's really all that matters. 415-12
26 Bulls Four losses in a row for the injury-plagued Bulls. Would you think it's a good thing or a bad thing if I told you Zach LaVine has the second-highest usage rate in the NBA? 27-23
27 Magic The NBA's least-efficient offense and worst shooting team. There's plenty to like about this team defensively. A big win on Sunday nearly turned into an awful loss, as the Magic nearly blew a 26-point lead with nine minutes remaining. --14-15
28 Knicks Remember, Knicks fans: Every time you go out and beat the Mavericks or the Nets, that gives you a little bit of a smaller chance of getting the No. 1 overall pick. 19-21
29 Suns The Suns broke their seven-game losing streak on Sunday. This is not a team that will make any noise this season, but there are good signs. Namely: This is an unselfish team, with the third-highest assist percentage in the NBA (they ranked 27th last year). Deandre Ayton is as advertised, at least offensively. TJ Warren is making outside shots. Devin Booker is expanding his game. If only Josh Jackson could show some progress. He has the highest turnover percentage in the NBA. 36-24
30 Cavaliers Kevin Love's toe surgery means he'll be out approximately six weeks. At least this season's disaster means the Cavaliers will get to keep the top-10-protected pick they owe the Hawks. --7-22
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