It’s week four of Rowan’s Rankings, looking at the top 20 teams in The Association. We are now an eighth of the way through the season, and while sample size is still small, we can begin to identify trends with teams and players. It’s still important to factor in all that’s come before, but we can begin to look at the way things are and why they may be different now. With that in mind, let’s dive into this week’s rankings.
- Cleveland Cavaliers last week (1)
Speaking of trends, the Cavaliers seem to be following a pattern similar to last season. In most instances, the team gives as little effort as needed in order to get past an opponent. We’ve seen first halves with very little defense, followed by a buzzsaw when the team needed it. The differences between this year and last year are mostly due to their new offense, getting far more out of Love, as well as utilizing Frye as a stretch five over Mozgov last season. The Cavs got caught slacking against the Hawks and were unable to recover, but for the most part the team is humming right along.
- L.A. Clippers last week (2)
If you’re like me, you’ve been waiting for a season like this from the Clippers for some time. Continuity is typically key to early success in the NBA season, and the Clippers look like a team that has been together for a long time and possesses two MVP-calibre players. While their small forward position remains a glaring hole, the team has added depth at every other position, and has as fearsome a top four as any team in the league. It looks as though we may finally get the Clippers vs. Warriors showdown that had always felt inevitable in the past. As long as they can stay healthy.
- Golden State Warriors last week (5)
It was only a matter of time before the Warriors started making their way back up towards the top of the list. All things considered, the team is probably further ahead than you could realistically hope for at this point of the season when you factor in the roster turnover. There will be the typical drama surrounding them, like any team with this much star power, but the Warriors are already at the top of the league in offensive efficiency and still haven’t unlocked their potential.
- Atlanta Hawks last week (6)
Pulling off a road win against the Cavaliers highlighted another strong week for the Hawks. The Dennis Schroder experiment has been paying off early, especially when you look the struggles of Jeff Teague in Indiana. Plus the rebounding woes of the past have disappeared with Dwight Howard. The Hawks have enough tools to allow coach Budenholzer to be a threat to every team on a nightly basis.
- Toronto Raptors last week (7)
The DeMar DeRozan experience is in full effect. The Raptors franchise player is leading the NBA in scoring and is doing it the same way as in the past, but better. He’s taking and making tough jump shots, shooting 58.2 percent with a defender between 2-4 feet away from him. While that number will likely decline over the season, the Raptors guard is clearly playing with more composure and awareness on the court.
- Charlotte Hornets last week (4)
The Hornets slipping in these rankings is more about the teams around them rather than who they are. Concerns over Kemba Walker regressing from last season are being put to rest for now, as the Hornets guard is positioning himself for his first ever All-Star appearance. Those that doubted the Hornets coming into this season failed to account for what good coaching and an elite defense can do for a team in the regular season. The Hornets are well-prepared and coached on a night-to-night basis.
- San Antonio Spurs last week (3)
While the Spurs managed to get back on track after losing three of four games, there’s reasons to be concerned about the team moving forward. After years of people analyzing the issues of the team, only to be proven wrong by Spurs magic, it may be time that “yeah, but it’s the Spurs” is finally running out. LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol simply do not seem to fit together and Tony Parker is running on fumes. There is only so much that Popovich and Leonard can do.
- Utah Jazz last week (11)
Another riser in the rankings, the Jazz have shown signs of being a very good team, whenever they are healthy. George Hill hasn’t seen the court since being named Western Conference Player of the Week and Rudy Gobert was out during the Jazz’s loss to the Grizzlies. Injuries were the story of last season for Utah, and while they now have enough depth to see their way into the playoffs regardless, their seeding will be dictated by their players’ ability to stay on the court.
- Portland Trail Blazers last week (9)
The Blazers have been doing exactly what they need to do this season: beat the teams they are supposed to beat. It seems like a simple task, but it often is what ends up separating teams in the year end standings. While they are a clear tier below being a contender, or even on the verge of contending, their talented collection of wings and exceptional coaching should leave them in position for a fair amount of regular season success.
- Houston Rockets last week (14)
A strong road win over the Spurs is a good sign for a Rockets team that seems to be finding their groove. While their defense will likely never approach good, this offense should be borderline transcendent with James Harden surrounded by shooters under the guidance of Mike D’Antoni. Harden’s status in the league seemed to be tarnished by the volatility of last season (to be fair, he had a hand in the dysfunction), but he is once again establishing himself as a legitimate MVP-calibre player and a top five talent in the league.
- Detroit Pistons last week (10)
The Pistons are still holding steady without Reggie Jackson. They lost two games they likely would have lost with Jackson against the Spurs and Clippers, and suffered a bad loss against the Suns. However the team responded well with a road win against the Nuggets as well as a dismantling of the struggling Thunder. Until we see this team at full strength it will be tough to evaluate them, but they are showing a lot of resilience so far this season.
- Oklahoma City Thunder last week (9)
Things are looking not too great for the Thunder, losers of four straight games despite dominant play from Russell Westbrook. Steven Adams has been a disappointment so far this season compared to expectations and you have to wonder about what the ceiling of this team is. Especially when you factor in the money they have shelled out to lock up this roster.
- Boston Celtics last week (12)
Yes the Celtics have been without Horford and Crowder. But the issues with this team go beyond anything that they will fix. The defense will surely improve, but the team is incapable of rebounding the basketball and despite a great offensive system, it still feels like it would fall apart against the higher-end competition in the league.
- Chicago Bulls last week (18)
The Bulls flirted with the seemingly inevitable regression, losing four of five games, only to turn things around with two wins against the Heat and Wizards. The Bulls now head out on their six game “circus” road trip, which should test what this team is really made of.
- Milwaukee Bucks last week (13)
The Bucks are still hanging around, but losses to the lowly Mavericks and Pelicans don’t inspire much confidence. Antetokounmpo and Parker deserve more credit than they are currently receiving for carrying a flawed and shallow roster. Both appear to be taking the next step into stardom. We’ll see if that’s enough for the Bucks this season.
- Los Angeles Lakers last week (15)
The Lakers may just be a darkhorse playoff team. They currently sit in the eighth seed and when you look below them, you can realistically see things not turning around for everybody else. The biggest question will be consistency, as the veteran Grizzlies will surely try and make a run for playoff position. Walton’s ability to keep a young team focused and prepared will be a fascinating storyline throughout the season.
- Memphis Grizzlies last week (19)
It’s been a rough start for the Grizzlies this season. They have yet to record a quality win, mostly defeating the have-nots of each conference. You expect this team to take care of business against lesser, inexperienced teams. Yet they already have accumulated a few uncharacteristic bad losses. Chandler Parsons has only played in four games this season, again pointing to the health storyline that will hang over this team all year.
- Indiana Pacers last week (17)
Paul George is awesome. The Pacers are not. Jeff Teague has been a big disappointment early on and the team is struggling on defense. They have the tools to turn things around and be a threat come playoffs, but dreams of home court advantage feel overly optimistic for this team.
- Minnesota Timberwolves last week (not ranked)
Andrew Wiggins poured in a career high 47 points and still doesn’t look like the best player on his team. Needless to say, the future is bright for the Timberwolves. Zach LaVine is currently dealing with a sore knee, but the Wolves appear to be learning from their early season mistakes. The Wolves have lead in almost all of their games, only to eventually fail to close the game out. If they stop finding ways to clutch defeat from the jaws of victory, they may be poised to make some noise ahead of their development schedule.
- Sacramento Kings last week (20)
The Kings beat the Pelicans, then lost to the Lakers and Blazers. The Blazers loss is expected, as it came to a team that is clearly superior to them. But if the Lakers, Wolves, and Nuggets all appear to be ahead of the Kings in terms of development, it may finally be time for the Kings to explore a new direction and shop DeMarcus Cousins.