In this week’s NBA Power Rankings, the Lakers are rolling, Nikola Jokic is bending reality and the Cavs can’t stop stealing.
Our new look NBA Power Rankings are back, a non-traditional structure for a non-traditional era of professional basketball. The world is no longer just about wins and losses and teams are no longer the primary crucible of basketball power. So each week we’ll be dissecting how basketball power is presently distributed — between players, teams, friendships, diss tracks, aesthetic design choices, across leagues and whatever else has a temporary toehold in this ever-changing landscape.
Who has the power in this week’s NBA Power Rankings?
Very little has broken in the Knicks’ favor the past few seasons but all of a sudden things are looking up. Not like “signed a transformational star” up. But the kind of small, myriad improvements rebuilding teams need to actually develop sustainably and move out of the NBA’s basement.
They’re currently 5-3 with a plus-0.1 point differential, but they already have wins over three of last year’s playoff teams — the Bucks, Pacers and Jazz. Julius Randle is still missing open shooters and spinning into triple-teams in the middle of the lane, but he’s also handing out 7.4 assists, to go along with 23.1 points and 12.0 rebounds per game. R.J. Barrett is still struggling with his jumper — an effective field goal percentage of 33.8 on all jumpshots, inside and outside the arc. But he’s finishing better around the rim, has dramatically cut his turnovers and is looking more engaged on defense. Mitchell Robinson’s blocks are way down but his improved awareness is making him more of a deterrent at the rim.
Obi Toppin has played just one game and is still recovering from a strained calf. And Immanuel Quickley is still pretty far down the depth chart, considering how exciting he’s been in his limited minutes. But veterans like Alec Burks and Austin Rivers are helping keep the team competitive and scaffolding things for the young players that have been wandering aimlessly for the past few seasons. The Knicks still have a long way to go and it could become a problem if room isn’t created for the young players to legitimately grow and blossom into larger roles. But for the first time in a long time, it feels like the Knicks are actually on the right track.
What do you think a basketball court looks like in Nikola Jokic’s head? It’s clear from the frequency and accuracy of his passes and the creative angles from which he throws them that he sees the court differently from everyone else. But is it just processing speed? Does the game slow down for him? Can he freeze and process in an instant like Robert Downey Jr.’s buffoonish Sherlock Holmes, mapping out the future 30 seconds at a time and then hitting the play button to let it unfold?
I feel like that could explain the sheer volume of his assists — a league-leading 11.9 per game, or roughly one for every three minutes he’s been on the court this year. But it doesn’t explain the creativity, it’s can’t be just that his brain gives him an opportunity to see things more quickly because he sees things that I’m convinced aren’t there, right up until the moment he makes them manifest.
Maybe he sees the court like a Möbius strip, a two-dimensional plane bending back on itself in endless and infinite loops? Maybe his brain can skip from 3- to 4-dimensional processing, bringing time into coherence with length, width and depth, only to spin that understanding off into the multiverse, seeing all possibilities at once. I suppose from there it would be fairly easy to hone in on the universe in which a halfcourt backcourt with slight sidespin could split two-defenders and leap into the hands of a streaking JaMychal Green.
They have been a top-three defense to start the season and it’s all predicated on activity and chaos. Andre Drummond, Larry Nance Jr. and Isaac Okoro are combining for 11.5 deflections per game, which is more than the Knicks, Suns or Jazz are managing as a team. They’re forcing a turnover on nearly a fifth of their opponents’ possessions, the highest mark in the league, and the difference between them and the second-place Toronto Raptors is about the same as the difference between the Raptors and the 16th-ranked Boston Celtics.
Check out this 30-second clip of Drummond and Nance jumping passing lanes and stripping ball-handlers.
I mean, Nance gets two deflections within five seconds on that last clip before coming up with the steal. It’s inspired. Obviously, Cleveland’s perimeter defenders have had a big hand in setting this aggressive ball-hawking tone and identity, but the big men make it all viable. And it’s one of the major reasons the Cavs are first in the league in points off turnovers, might legitimately be in the running for a playoff spot and one of the best League Pass teams this season.
Everyone expected the Suns to take a leap this year with Chris Paul taking over at point guard. He’s been splendid and, as expected, both Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton have benefited in different ways. But the guys around them have been incredible too.
Mikal Bridges has hit 43.5 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s. Cameron Johnson has hit 41.3 percent. Jae Crowder has hit 39.5 percent. And all three are in the top 20 in the league for made catch-and-shoot 3s so far this season. As a team, the Suns are third in catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts per game and fourth in accuracy, making 40.8 percent. The power of this team is derived from the individual talents of Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton and the orchestration of Chris Paul but the front office has built such a healthy ecosystem of shooters around them to maximize space for Plan A and make Plans B and C as efficient as possible.
This team is 6-2 with the fifth-best point differential in the league. They have the star power to make a run and they have the supporting cast to sustain it.
The Lakers steamrolled their way to the title and then went out and won the offseason as well with smart pick-ups to address weaknesses and add depth. The idea that the best team in the NBA got better was not a joke. It’s still early but they have been 1.4 points per 100 possessions better than last year on offense (relative to the league average) and stingier on defense by 1.8 points per 100 possessions.
Dennis Schroder has been everything they hoped for. Kyle Kuzma, Wes Matthews and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have hit a combined 36-of-83 (43.4 percent) from beyond the arc. Marc Gasol has been the second-unit defensive anchor and Montrezl Harrell is dunking everything in sight. Most importantly, they haven’t even needed LeBron James and Anthony Davis to mash the pedal to the floor — they’re each averaging noticeably fewer minutes than last season.
Yes, they’ve lost twice. And yes, the Bucks, with their three 30-point blowout wins, have a better point differential. But the Lakers have been the best team in the NBA so far.