Ah, yes, the National Basketball Association, the most predictable of professional sports leagues, the league in which, more than a quarter into the regular season, the Los Angeles Clippers are one of the hottest teams in the league and at the top of the West, the Detroit Pistons have won five in a row and have a better record than the Boston Celtics, and the Sacramento Kings have the same record as the Houston Rockets. Are you kidding me?
Utterly and completely predictable.
When anybody points to the Golden State Warriors' string of dominance as a reason why the NBA is too predictable, point to the first two months of the 2018-19 season. The Warriors themselves might be the best example of how nothing is given in the NBA. They've lost six road games in a row, they're in fourth place in the West, and two core players -- Draymond Green and Kevin Durant -- had a very public spat that could mean very bad things for the Warriors' dynasty going forward. (This is the moment to point out that Vegas still has the Warriors as favorites over the field, but it feels like a much closer call than it was in the preseason. Plus, they just got Steph Curry back from injury, Green is due back soon, followed thereafter by DeMarcus Cousins. So the Warriors are still the greatest, et cetera, ad nauseum.)
And while I was higher on the Toronto Raptors than most during the preseason -- I picked them to win the East by a hair over the Celtics -- I never could have predicted just how quickly they became this good. At 20-4, the Raptors are exactly on pace for where the Warriors were in 2016-17, their first season with Durant, when they started 20-4 en route to a 67-win season in which they lost one game the entire playoffs. The way these guys have jelled this quickly -- with a first-year head coach in Nick Nurse and two new starters in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green -- is one of the more unpredictable things of the first quarter of this NBA season.
After the Raptors, back in action on Monday against the Nuggets (7:30 p.m. ET -- watch on fuboTV with the NBA League Pass extension), beat the Warriors in overtime last week in their first meeting of the season, I finally elevated the Raptors -- perhaps belatedly -- to the No. 1 spot in this week's Power Rankings.
Yes, the game was in Toronto, and the Warriors were minus two starters, and Durant nearly willed the Warriors back after being down 17 midway through the third quarter, and the Warriors at full strength are a better team than the Raptors at full strength. All these things are true. But another truth is that records matter, and the Raptors have been the better team through the first quarter of this season. So these power rankings have their first official change at the top.
Our theme this week: The hottest players and hottest teams in the NBA.
|Is 24-year-old Pascal Siakam an actual star in the making? Two and a half years ago he was picked 27th out of New Mexico State before spending a solid chunk of his rookie season in the developmental league. Now Siakam is starting for the NBA's top team, averaging 14.8 points and 6.4 rebounds and ranking third in the NBA in true shooting percentage. He scored a career-high 26 points in the Raptors playoff-atmosphere win last week over the Warriors. Kyle Lowry is this team's heart and soul, and Kawhi Leonard is this team's best player, but Siakam is the guy whose future I'm most excited about.||1||11-9|
|Over the past few weeks, as Steph Curry and Draymond Green have been out with injuries, we've been reminded what a team looks like when Kevin Durant is the clear-cut No. 1 option (and at times the No. 2, 3, 4 and 5 option as well). While Curry was out for 11 games, Durant averaged 33.7 points and a monstrous 23.5 field-goal attempts per game. But the Warriors were only 5-6 during that stretch, a reminder that Curry has always been and will always be more important to this team's success than Durant. His one-man effort was ridiculous in three games last week, when he scored 44, 49 and 51 points in consecutive games.||1||11-10|
|The 76ers have won eight of their last nine (with an utterly weird loss to the Cavaliers being their only blemish). The only valid criticism of the Jimmy Butler trade was that the Sixers, a team badly in need of floor spacing, traded away two great three-point shooters. But Landry Shamet, who has shot nearly 40 percent from three this season, has helped make up the difference. In the Sixers' 10 games since the trade, Shamet had made 50 percent of his threes.||2||12-9|
|I was all ready to elevate these Bucks above the Warriors -- then they went out and lost on the road to the lowly New York Knicks a week after losing at home to the Phoenix Suns, which I'm still trying to understand. (Common denominator in both of those games: The three-point-reliant Bucks got way outshot from three.) But the Bucks have still been absolutely remarkable. Malcolm Brogdon has been on fire the past couple weeks. In his past eight games Brogdon has averaged 18 points per game and is shooting 61.8 percent from three. On the season he's fourth in the NBA in three-point shooting at just shy of 50 percent.||1||14-5|
|The Denver Nuggets: Third in the NBA in defensive rating. Absolutely incredible. It's well beyond fluke time now. This team ranked 23rd in the league last season.||1||13-7|
|Over the past six games, the Lakers have been 4-2, and posted the best defensive rating in the NBA. On the season they have posted the ninth-best defense in the league. Quite a difference from the beginning of the season.||4||7-12|
|A surprising stat: Paul George has averaged more points per game than Russell Westbrook this season (23.5 to 23.2). It's the fewest points per game Westbrook has averaged since the 2013-14 season, and yet the Thunder seem better off for it. The Thunder are still last in the NBA in three-point percentage, but their elite defense -- tops in the NBA -- makes certain that that doesn't matter.||--||8-13|
|If you're looking for a single key why the Clippers have been one of the hottest teams in the NBA, it's Montrezl Harrell. He's been an absolute beast, averaging 16.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. I like him off the bench, but at what point will Doc Rivers start him and play him more than 26 minutes per game?||1||12-9|
|Why hello, Gordon Hayward. It's only one game, but it was a joy to see Hayward produce like his pre-injury self on Saturday night in Minnesota: 30 points (on 4 of 5 three-point shooting), nine rebounds and eight assists. More importantly, he looked spry, and he was getting to the rim. The Celtics offense has been moribund all season, but during this most recent three-game winning streak, Brad Stevens' team has had a 124.6 offensive rating, tops in the NBA in that span. Perhaps Hayward's return to form marks the Celtics beginning to turn into what many expected to be one of the few true threats to the Warriors.||4||17-4|
|The Blazers started the season as hot as anyone, but have lost five of six, albeit against a tough schedule. Simply put, they need another dude to get buckets. CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard have been awesome; Jusuf Nirkic is the only guy on the team averaging more than nine points per game. But the defense has been the bigger issue. During that six-game stretch, the Blazers have the lowest-rated defense in the NBA.||4||11-9|
|Mike Conley may be having his best season in his comeback year from the Achilles and heel injuries. Conley is averaging a career-high 21.1 points and 6.7 assists in his age 31 season, with a career-high usage rate as well. His 37 points against Brooklyn last week was his highest-scoring game in nearly two years.||3||12-8|
|There are plenty of reasons why the Rockets are not as good as last year: Injuries, defense, depth, the loss of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. One of the reasons is not Clint Capela. He's been ever better than last year's breakout season, averaging nearly seven minutes per game more while becoming an even more efficient player.||1||5-15|
|After beating the Warriors, the Pistons have won five in a row, and nine of their past 11. Remember: This team was 14-6 at the beginning of last season as well. But this is a different team. Blake Griffin has reinvented himself, and Andre Drummond is having the best statistical season of his career.||5||5-17|
|The Pacers are fourth in the NBA in third-point shooting percentage. A big reason has been Bojan Bogdanovic, the NBA's current top three-point shooter at 51.5 percent. Victor Oladipo's injury hasn't been a death knell for this team; they are 3-4 in his absence.||2||12-8|
|I was so ready to say that Donovan Mitchell had righted the ship (and therefore the Utah Jazz had righted the ship) after the Jazz won two road games in a row and Mitchell scored an efficient 29 points in one and an efficient 30 points in the other. Then the Jazz dropped a game to the Miami Heat Sunday while Mitchell scored 18 points on 24 shots. I'm still a Jazz believer; I still think that once their schedule gets easier after Christmas, this team will be just fine. But losses like that, and the two blowouts to the Pacers, make me doubt myself.||1||12-11|
|This team really could use one more outside shooter. While they lead they NBA in points in the paint, the Pelicans rank 24th in three-point attempts and 22nd in three-point percentage. That, plus better defense when Anthony Davis isn't on the floor, would send the Pelicans up a tier.||1||12-8|
|No doubt that this has been a different team since Jimmy Butler was finally shipped out. The difference hasn't just been the psychic weight lifted off the franchise's shoulders but the defensive presence Robert Covington has brought. Butler never fit with this team's personality; Covington does. The Wolves' defense, since the trade, has ranked third in the NBA.||4||10-11|
|Rudy Gay is shooting 51 percent from three, second in the NBA. Tell me again why he's taking fewer than three threes a game, and why Bryn Forbes (44.7 percent from three) is taking five threes a game? Gregg Popovich's three-point bias is holding the Spurs back.||2||6-15|
|As much (well-deserved) pub has gone MVP candidate Kemba Walker's way, Jeremy Lamb has been the top role player on the Hornets. Lamb is averaging a career-high 15.4 points; over his past nine games he's averaging 20 points per game.||2||6-15|
|After a brutal start, the Mavericks have been one of the hottest teams in the NBA. They've won eight of 10, including wins against good teams: the Clippers, Warriors, Celtics, Rockets, Thunder and Jazz. One reason: Harrison Barnes. After a slow start as he recovered from a hamstring injury, Barnes has come on, scoring 28 or more points in three of his past five games.||2||9-10|
|It's hard to question Dave Joerger playing Nemanja Bjelica more than Marvin Bagley, especially with Bjelica hitting 50 percent of his threes and the Kings sitting at .500. One will assume Bagley will soon supplant Bjelica in the starting lineup, because management wants to prioritize youth and because Bagley has been on a nice run, averaging 16.3 points and 10.0 rebounds in his past six games coming off the bench.||2||10-9|
|The longer in the season the Orlando Magic hover near .500, and the longer that Nikola Vucevic seems like an Eastern Conference All-Star, the more I will doubt whether I'm actually experiencing real life. He's averaging 21.0 points, 11.3 rebounds and is shooting 40.9 percent from three. I still think the Magic would be better off trading him and focusing on the youngsters who are this team's future; that said, I'm dumb.||2||5-16|
|Dwight Howard is going to be out a while for surgery, which is a bad thing for the Wizards, I think. But this team has somewhat stabilized after a left-for-dead start. John Wall has been this team's bellwether. In wins, he's averaging 24.6 points and shooting a sizzling 44.4 percent from three. In losses, he's averaging 19.4 points and shooting only 25.4 percent from three.||--||11-10|
|As disappointing as the Heat have been this season, it's worth noting the impressive numbers that Hassan Whiteside has been putting up after his 23-point, 20-rebound performance Sunday in a win against the Utah Jazz. Whiteside is second in the NBA in rebounds and first in blocks. He doesn't do much else, and he's, um, not exactly a modern NBA big man. But what he does, he does incredibly well.||1||10-11|
|So the Knicks beat the Bucks, huh? Impressive win. But remember, Knicks fans: Every win gets you a little bit further away from Zion Williamson. The Knicks won that game on three-point shooting. While Allonzo Trier, Emmanuel Mudiay and Noah Vonleh have all been great scrap-heap finds for the Knicks, it's Damyean Dotson who may be the most surprising. He's averaging 11.4 points per game on 39.4 percent three-point shooting. His season-high 21 points (on 5-of-5 from three) powered the Knicks past the Bucks.||1||9-11|
|Since Caris LeVert's injury the Nets have lost nine of 11 games. But it's worth pointing out that D'Angelo Russell has shown progress this season. The Nets nearly upset the 76ers last weekend on Russell's 38-point outburst.||2||11-11|
|Next to last in the NBA in offensive rating, but perhaps that will improve soon. Lauri Markannen made his return from injury on Saturday, and the team just moved on from Fred Hoiberg on Monday morning. The Bulls are getting an infusion of returning talent and a fresh voice. We'll see if this translates into wins.||--||9-11|
|The last thing the Suns wanted to see: Devin Booker coming up lame while chasing a loose ball in a game against the Lakers on Sunday with what appeared to be a hamstring injury. Silver lining: If Booker's hurt, the Suns will lose more games, which will put them in a better position to get Zion Williamson.||--||14-6|
|John Collins has been a blessing for the Hawks' defense -- a defense that was 26th in the NBA in defensive efficiency when Collins was injured the first month of the season has been middle of the road (17th in the NBA) since his return. All about building for the future for the Hawks; wins don't matter, except for when it comes to the 2019 draft lottery odds.||1||11-10|
|While Collin Sexton had a slow start to his rookie season -- who doesn't? -- the criticism from anonymous Cavs veterans appears off. Sexton has been stepping up his game lately, averaging 18.1 points per game and shooting 43.5 percent from three over his past 11 games.||1||13-8|