NBA Power Rankings: Zion Williamson injury drops Pelicans; Lakers still on top despite Kyle Kuzma's absence
The regular season finally gets underway this week, but the league is missing one of its brightest young stars
Not much generally changes during the last week of the preseason, with teams resting their best players as they prepare for real games to commence. The only thing that can seriously impact the regular season is an injury, and unfortunately for the Pelicans and NBA fans everywhere, Zion Williamson was the victim this time.
The knee injury isn't expected to be season-threatening, but it will still sideline the rookie sensation for at least a few weeks, which means the exciting debut of the young Pelicans core will be put on hold. Given what we saw from Williamson in the preseason, he was set to make an immediate impact and lead New Orleans into serious contention. He may still do all that, but it will have to wait. For that reason, the Pelicans were the biggest faller in this week's Power Rankings, with the season set to tip off on Tuesday.
|1||Lakers||Despite the news that Kyle Kuzma will miss the season opener, the Lakers are still the top dog in the NBA to start the year. Frank Vogel recently spoke of the tremendous chemistry, both on and off the court, between LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and also praised his veterans for establishing their roles early in camp. The Lakers appear ready to jump out of the gates hot given their star power and roster makeup.||--||10-2|
|2||Clippers||Kawhi Leonard played 22 minutes in the Clippers' preseason finale, a good sign after there was talk that he could sit out the entire preseason. He looks ready to lead a deep, talented squad that will be very difficult to beat to start the year, even without Paul George.||--||8-5|
|3||76ers||Ben Simmons missed the team's final two preseason games with back tightness, but he appears ready to go for the season opener on Wednesday against the Celtics. With Simmons out, Brett Brown got a good look at Josh Richardson at point guard, a position he'll have to play a lot this season due to the Sixers' lack of depth.||--||7-5|
|4||Bucks||We're still not sure about Eric Bledsoe's status for opening night, but Wes Matthews appears to have slotted into the starting two-guard position vacated by Malcolm Brogdon. George Hill will fill in for Bledsoe if he misses time, and the Bucks will likely thrive early in the season due to an established, well-oiled system and the dominance of Giannis Antetokounmpo.||--||9-3|
|5||Nuggets||The Nuggets enter the season fully healthy, something they haven't been able to say for quite some time. Their continuity and home-court advantage will help them early in the season as other teams get used to their new pieces. Mike Malone has plenty of lineup options, so figuring out the most effective rotations will be key.||--||8-3|
|6||Jazz||Yes it's the preseason, but there has to be at least slight concern that the Jazz had the worst defense in the league in their five exhibition games at 111.4 points allowed per 100 possessions (worse than the New Zealand Breakers). Don't expect that to continue once real games start, but it does highlight the defensive adjustment the team has to make with its new players and the departure of Derrick Favors.||--||8-4|
|7||Rockets||Mike D'Antoni is on record saying James Harden could average close to 40 points this season, and The Beard seems to have added some new tricks in the offseason -- a scary thought for defenses. It could take a while for Russell Westbrook to find his footing, but that shouldn't stop Houston from being one of the West's best to start the season.||--||10-3|
|8||Warriors||The preseason has been ugly for the five-time defending Western Conference champs, and it's not a good sign that Steve Kerr recently said he has no idea what the identity of his team is. The defense has been atrocious and Stephen Curry and Draymond Green have appeared frustrated at times, but the talent level should allow them to win games while working out their kinks. The return of Kevon Looney and eventually Willie Cauley-Stein could help shore up some of those defensive issues.||--||2-11|
|9||Celtics||Other than Jaylen Brown extension negotiations hanging over the team's head, the Celtics seem to be in a much better place chemistry-wise than they were for most of last season, which should contribute to a strong start. They allowed a ridiculously low 84.7 points per 100 possessions in the preseason, best in the league, but we'll see how the defense functions without Al Horford in games that count.||--||10-1|
|10||Spurs||The Spurs have a high floor with the steady production of DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, and the ceiling goes even higher if Dejounte Murray becomes the player the Spurs hope he is as he recovers from ACL surgery. Murray will also help a Spurs defense which was uncharacteristically poor last season.||--||5-8|
|11||Nets||Sporting an intimidating face mask, Kyrie Irving played in the Nets' preseason finale and looks healthy for the regular season. Caris LeVert picked up where he left off last postseason, and will fill in as the No. 2 option in Brooklyn's offense until Kevin Durant is ready. Despite their key offseason additions and subtractions, the Nets should be able to start the season strong under Kenny Atkinson's system.||1||5-7|
|12||Trail Blazers||Hassan Whiteside already has a banged-up ankle, which isn't great for a team looking to build chemistry early in the season. If Whiteside is limited, Zach Collins could end up starting at center, or at least getting the bulk of the minutes, which is probably how the season will wind up anyway. Kent Bazemore has fit in nicely, but this is obviously going to be the Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum show all year long.||1||5-8|
|13||Raptors||Kyle Lowry got on the floor for the team's last preseason game, so it looks like he'll be good to go for opening night. Toronto has sped up its pace considerably from last year -- which makes sense with Kawhi Leonard's iso-heavy offense now in Los Angeles. The Raptors locked up Pascal Siakam with an extension, and he'll lead the next wave for the defending champs.||1||8-4|
|14||Heat||James Johnson was banished from the team for showing up out of shape. Now Dion Waiters has been suspended for conduct detrimental to the team. Not a great start to the season for Miami, but luckily neither of those players was expected to play a major role. With Tyler Herro looking like an instant contributor, he should provide some spacing for Jimmy Butler and Justise Winslow as they operate the Heat offense.||1||9-3|
|15||Magic||The Magic struggled to score in the preseason, but kept up the outstanding defense that allowed them to make the playoffs last season. Markelle Fultz hasn't looked great, but getting him on the court in game action is a positive step. They're going to rely heavily on Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon offensively to start the season.||--||5-7|
|16||Pacers||The Domantas Sabonis trade rumors threw a slight wrench into an otherwise stable organization, but it's not like nobody saw it coming. Indiana appears to have made its choice between Sabonis and Myles Turner, and now the only question is whether it will affect the team to start the season.||1||7-6|
|17||Thunder||Shai Gilgeous-Alexander dished out only five assists in four games for the Thunder this preseason, so it appears he's embracing his off-ball role next to Chris Paul. SGA averaged nearly 19 points in 26.5 minutes per game while shooting 50 percent from the field, and feasted in pick-and-roll situations with new partner Steven Adams setting massive screens. With a healthy Paul, Adams, Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari to start the year, the Thunder will be better than most people think.||1||5-7|
|18||Kings||This Buddy Hield contract situation is not what the promising young Kings were looking for to start the year. That being said, Sacramento is a fun team that now has some solid veterans surrounding their budding stars. The strength of the Kings' conference might be the only thing that keeps them out of the playoffs.||1||4-7|
|19||Pelicans||Talk about a gut punch. The Pelicans were the talk of the preseason, thanks largely to Zion's remarkable performance. Unfortunately we'll have to wait to see his NBA debut, but it could be a good thing for the development of Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram. They'll have to shoulder much more responsibility on both ends with Williamson out, which could actually benefit the Pelicans in the long run. In the short term, however, they're just not as much of a threat while Zion is out.||3||3-9|
|20||Mavericks||Kristaps fever is officially sweeping the NBA, as the 7-foot-2 unicorn has recaptured the hearts and minds of fans across the globe with an impressive preseason. Everyone's holding their breath that Porzingis can stay healthy, but he and Luka Doncic are one of the most exciting duos in the NBA. We'll just have to see how the rest of the roster performs around them.||1||7-5|
|21||Pistons||Blake Griffin entering the season with a hamstring issue? Yeesh. Detroit needed a career season (and 75 games) from Griffin last year to get into the playoffs, which is hard to expect again given his injury history. If Griffin's out, or even hampered, to start the season, the Pistons will be in big trouble.||1||4-9|
|22||Hawks||The Hawks struggled to generate points during the preseason, but we're not worried about that with Trae Young and John Collins on the court. They'll also likely get back Kevin Huerter some time in the near future, which makes a huge difference for them offensively with his spacing and playmaking. De'Andre Hunter already looks like he's fitting in nicely, and should help the Hawks on both ends.||--||4-8|
|23||Bulls||Zach LaVine looks like a potential All-Star and Coby White had no trouble scoring in the NBA during his first preseason, but questions abound for the Bulls in terms of their rotations and fit. Jim Boylen has his work cut out for him, but the talent is there to make some noise for an East playoff spot.||1||4-9|
|24||Timberwolves||Coach Ryan Saunders said taking ownership of the defensive end is the next step in Karl-Anthony Towns' development, and that goes for the entire Timberwolves roster. If they're going to make any noise in the West, or even prevent themselves from being awful, they're going to need to get stops -- something they've been unable to do in recent years.||1||7-6|
|25||Suns||Do the Suns finally have the right pieces around Devin Booker to take a step forward? Who knows, but Kelly Oubre and Dario Saric at least looked the part during the preseason, with Ricky Rubio adding some stability. The Suns have a chance to improve this season, but it seems like we say that every year.||--||7-4|
|26||Knicks||RJ Barrett looked great during the preseason, while Knicks fans got their first taste of the Julius Randle experience. It's an odd roster with a lot of positional redundancy, but as long as it doesn't hinder the development of Barrett, Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson, it doesn't really matter.||--||3-10|
|27||Wizards||Washington somehow convinced Bradley Beal to ink an extension, which eliminates all trade speculation for at least the duration of the season. That being said, it's going to be rough sledding for one of the worst rosters in the NBA. We'll see how Beal performs when he's literally the only offensive option who strikes a modicum of fear in defenses -- no offense to Thomas Bryant, who looked great in the preseason while hitting 9-of-21 3-pointers.||--||3-7|
|28||Cavaliers||With a healthy Kevin Love to start the season, the Cavs will at least have one reliable offensive option -- pretty much everything else is up in the air. The guard trio of Collin Sexton, Darius Garland and Jordan Clarkson is as "boom or bust" as any combo in the league, which could lead to some ugly nights. Ultimately Cleveland is playing for a lottery pick, and should continue to explore deals for Love as the season progresses.||--||4-7|
|29||Grizzlies||Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant will be a ton of fun, but don't expect a lot of wins from this group anytime soon. Jonas Valanciunas may not be ready for the season opener, but that could give us an extended look at Brandon Clarke, who impressed during both Summer League and the preseason.||--||5-7|
|30||Hornets||The preseason did nothing to defy the notion that the Hornets could be the worst team in the league this season. Malik Monk showed some playmaking promise, but any development by young players in Charlotte will manifest itself down the road and won't translate to immediate wins. It's going to be a long year for the Hornets and their fans.||--||6-7|
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