We’re a quarter way through the NBA season and tiers of teams are becoming clearer. Where do the San Antonio Spurs rank in the league?
The 2019-20 NBA season has been full of surprises. From Luka Doncic‘s ascension into the MVP conversation, Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s improvement on his stellar campaign last year, Carmelo Anthony‘s return, and the San Antonio Spurs eye-popping struggles, the first quarter of the season has been full of headline-grabbing storylines.
Distinguishable tiers of teams have become clearer as we’ve paced through the season. Lead by their world-destroying MVP candidate Milwaukee Bucks unsurprisingly lead the Eastern Conference. The Western Conference is a bit murkier.
Several teams could make a convincing argument for the top spot out West. The Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers are obvious contenders. The Lakers stand atop the conference but may not even be the best team in their city.
They’ve beaten lesser teams but failed to take care of the Clippers on opening night and that was before Paul George returned to the team. We will have to wait until Christmas day to see the two teams face off at full strength.
James Harden has the Houston Rockets playing some of the best offensive basketball we have ever seen and deserves some consideration for the top spot. Similarly, Luka Doncic is doing historic things with the Dallas Mavericks. Here are our full NBA power rankings after the first quarter of the season.
Next: The Top 10
The Top 10
After leading the NBA in regular-season wins last year the Bucks have maintained their winnings ways through the first quarter of the season. They’ve endured a Khris Middleton injury and integrating off-season additions without missing a beat. With one of the weakest remaining schedules and the league favorite for MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo, it’s tough to see anyone knocking the Bucks out of this spot but themselves should things go very wrong.
Despite losing what was a winnable game against the San Antonio Spurs on Friday night the LA Clippers come in second in this first edition of power rankings. They’re one of the best offensive teams in the league, ranking 5th in points per game and offensive rating. They still have work to do on the defensive end of the floor but that will come as Kawhi Leonard and Paul George get increasingly accustomed to playing with one another.
The Los Angeles Lakers lost one game in the entire month of November and that was a hard-fought game against the Toronto Raptors. However, that stretch also included less impressive wins over teams they should be beating such as the Atlanta Hawks, Memphis Grizzlies, and Golden State Warriors. They’re taking care of business but have yet to beat their roommates in the Staples Center. Until they do that it’s hard to put them ahead of the Clippers.
Boston is playing like the team everyone had hoped they would be last season. Kemba Walker is having fun winning with his new teammates, even when he has an off night. He spoke to Tom Westerholm of MassLive.com after a recent off night about what this season has been like.
“For me to not have a great shooting night and still get a win?” Walker said. “That hasn’t happened much over the course of my career. So I’m excited about it.”
Hard not to be excited about this start to the season, Kemba.
Last year the Denver Nuggets dominated the regular season through the MVP caliber performance of Nikola Jokic and a cohort of exciting guards. They’ve changed the recipe for success this year but the end product is equally impressive. Denver has the stingiest defense in the league. They’re putting opposing offenses in a stranglehold on a nightly basis, limiting them to just under 102 points per game. They’ll need to maintain that level of play to hold off the teams below them in these rankings.
Similar to the Nuggets, the Toronto Raptors are winning games with their defense. They’re holding opponents to the 4th fewest points per game and have the 2nd best defensive rating in the league. They just recently held Joel Embiid to a whopping 0 points. Not even a free throw. That’s special. Their dominance on defense is almost as impressive as Pascal Siakam‘s ascendance from role player to bona fide superstar. The guy was averaging 7.3 points per game two years ago and now he’s pulling up from three regularly on his way to 25.6 points a night.
Personally, not a fan of watching James Harden play basketball. But there is no denying his absolute wizardry with the ball. Putting up 60 points on 24 shots as Harden recently did to the Atlanta Hawks should not be possible. Russell Westbrook and Clint Capela are playing at All-Star levels as well. Now if they could just play better on defense they’d rise in these rankings. Although when you’re scoring 120.3 on an average night you can get away with being a little generous on the other end of the floor.
Just like their Eastern Conference rival Raptors, the Philadelphia 76ers have made their way into the top-ten of these rankings on the back of a truly disruptive defense. Between Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, there are two legitimate Defensive Player of the Year contenders. Simmons leads the league in steals per game and Embiid is blocking shots at an elite level. The one worry around this group is unsurprisingly their three-point shooting. They’re near the bottom of the league in three-pointers made and 19th in shooting percentage from behind the arc.
We’re going to look back on the 2018 NBA Draft in a few years and ask ourselves how anyone could have passed on Luka Doncic with the number one pick. With respect to Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley, they’re not even close to where Luka is right now. He’s in total command of the offense, is making defenders look silly, and is going to be a menace for years to come. If Kristaps Porzingis can get back to his pre-injury level of play the Mavs could make some serious noise in the West.
A slightly spicy end to the top-ten but the Timberwolves have been impressive this year, especially when they’ve played the Spurs. Karl-Anthony Towns is a unicorn among men. He’s second in the league in three-pointers made per game and is embarrassing opponents on a nightly basis. That, along with a career year for Andrew Wiggins, has the Wolves in the playoff hunt. Ryan Saunders sure knows how to get the most out of his guys.
Next: The middle of the pack
The middle of the pack
The Miami Heat are among the top-five teams in the NBA in terms of winning percentage but are much lower in these rankings largely due to how they got there. Their only impressive win was a 131-126 OT win over the Milwaukee Bucks in the early parts of the season. Other than that they have fallen short whenever they’ve come up against strong competition. They still seem like a prime candidate to make a splashy move at the trade deadline. Chris Paul would certainly wear those flashy new uniforms well.
They aren’t the flashiest team but the Pacers have been playing good basketball all season long. Malcolm Brogdon is looking like a legitimate All-Star with his new team. They’re working Victor Oladipo back to full strength in the G-League and should be adding him back to the rotation soon enough. When that happens we will have a much better understanding of this team’s full potential.
It’s been a bumpy start to the season for the Utah Jazz but there is far too much talent on this team to be seriously worried about their season-long prospects. They’ll get better as they continue to integrate their off-season additions. In the meantime, Donovan Mitchell wants everyone to keep counting the Jazz out. Speaking as a fan of a fellow Western Conference team, please don’t. The last thing the rest of the West needs is for Mitchell to be even more motivated than he typically is.
Brooklyn has weathered the shoulder injury to Kyrie Irving better than expected. Tip of the cap to Spencer Dinwiddie, he’s played very well since Kyrie went out with a shoulder injury midway through November. The Nets still do not have a firm timetable for his return, according to Ben Weinrib with Yahoo Sports. Frankly, the Nets are playing with house money this season. They won the jackpot this summer when they signed KD and Kyrie. Everything up that happens until those two take the court together is relatively meaningless by comparison.
After a slow start to the season, the Portland Trail Blazers season may be saved by *checks notes* Carmelo Anthony? That’s right. The NBA legend joined the Blazers on a non-guaranteed deal and has proceeded to light NBA Twitter on fire with his performance. Is his performance sustainable? Maybe not. Will we enjoy it while it lasts? You bet. As Melo himself said, this isn’t a farewell tour. If he keeps playing at this rate he may not have to wait so long to land with a team when his contract is up.
The Phoenix Suns started the year as one of the darlings of the NBA but have plummeted back to earth as the season has gone along. They did snap a three-game losing streak with a win over the Charlotte Hornets last night but that’s not necessarily the kind of victory you celebrate. They desperately need Deandre Ayton back.
Steve Clifford has the Orlando Magic playing elite-level defense but they’re struggling to make baskets. They’re 2nd in opponents points per game, holding teams down to just under 102 a night. But they’re dead last in both offensive rating and points per game. They need scoring help if they want to improve on last season’s performance. Dear Orlando, can I interest you in one DeMar DeRozan? He’s an offensive dynamo and the Magic have the defenders to help cover for his inefficiencies at the other end. As the San Antonio Spurs continue to struggle, expect the DeRozan to Orlando rumors to grow.
After undergoing a total roster overhaul the Oklahoma City Thunder have played about as well as expected. Just a hair under .500 basketball, beating teams they should but lacking any truly impressive wins through the first quarter of the season. The biggest question over the next quarter will be what OKC decides to do with Chris Paul. He’s a prime trade target for a contending team looking to get over the hump. With the emergence of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, there’s no reason for him to remain on this roster past the trade deadline.
Sacramento was a fringe playoff contender before the season started. Or at least that’s what moves made over the summer by their front office indicate that’s what they thought they were. Injuries to both Marvin Bagely and De’Aaron Fox derailed that plan and forced first-year head coach, Luke Walton, to adjust on the fly. Sacramento played at one of the fastest paces in the league last year but have slowed down to a crawl (29th in the league in pace) with the absence of their lightning bolt of a point guard. How they reintegrate Fox and Bagely will largely determine the rest of their season.
Much like the Kings, the Detroit Pistons have endured injuries to key players and round out the top two-thirds of the league. Blake Griffin missed much of the first quarter but is slowly working his way back to form. As he goes, this team goes. If he can get back to the level he was playing at last year then he, along with an emerging Luke Kennard, should be enough to help the Pistons contend for a playoff spot in a soft Eastern Conference.
Next: The bottom third
The bottom third
It hurts to rank the San Antonio Spurs this low but it’s true, they’ve stunk for large parts of the first quarter of the season. Despite a mid-range heavy offense and shooting the fewest three-pointers in the league, San Antonio has maintained a league-average offense. Their problems are on the defensive end. They’ve played some of the worst defense that has ever been seen in the AT&T Center over the first quarter. As a fanbase, Spurs fans have been incredibly blessed over the past two decades. But hearing the same tired line of some version of “we just need to play harder and figure it out” will only further stoke the calls for a major trade.
After signing Terry Rozier to a hefty deal this summer, the Charlotte Hornets may have found their point guard of the future in Devonte’ Graham. After hardly making an impact in his rookie year, Graham has been one of the most impressive players on the Hornets this year. He and PJ Washington at least give this much-tortured fanbase something to be excited about. They’re a very young team so you worry about their ability to sustain this level of play across a full season but at least the future is looking brighter than it has in years past.
Washington has been lighting teams up on a nightly basis. Avert your eyes San Antonio Spurs fans, Davis Bertans is having an amazing year with his new team. He’s having the best season of his young career and is canning 45.6 percent of his three-point attempts. His presence cannot be missed more in San Antonio right now. Now if Washington could just play some defense they might be able to make some noise in the East. But as long as they continue to give up the most points in the NBA that seems unlikely to happen.
We all expected a different start to the season for the New Orleans Pelicans. I mean, we thought Zion Williamson would be playing. In his absence, Brandon Ingram and Jrue Holiday have had to carry the load for New Orleans. They’ve done well. Ingram looks like a legitimate number one option and Holiday as consistent as ever. Their playoff aspirations may be dwindling with every passing day Zion is out but they’ve still set themselves up for a very successful future. Williamson’s eventual return will be one of the most exciting events in the NBA this season.
Zion Williamson’s absence has left the Rookie of the Year race wide open. Memphis Grizzlies rookie point guard, Ja Morant has made his claim to the award. Morant has been electric through the first quarter of the season. Despite his slight frame, he’s continually trying to dunk on everyone, he’s setting up his teammates well, and he’s hitting game-winners. What more can you ask of your rookie?
It will be interesting to see how the backcourt of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland evolves as the two continue to play with one another. They’ve got a -8.2 overall net rating when they share the floor but they’re both very young and very talented, they should be able to turn that around. Kevin Love is far too talented to be wasting away on a team this low in the power rankings. Someone please help him out and get him to a contender sooner rather than later.
Despite a record-setting performance by Zach Lavine in which he hit 13 three-pointers, all is not well in the Windy City. I’m not a behavioral analyst but having your three young stars react like this to your head coach does not seem like a good sign. The silver lining, at least Coby White is exciting albeit unpredictable. Will he score 27 points, or will he score 2? Your guess is as good as anyone’s!
Holy cow Trae Young. He’s been a monster all year. The sustainability of his blazing hot start to the season was questioned early on but he’s silenced almost all doubters. His averages of 28.2 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 8.3 assists are special. Checking in on the Hawks from time to time just to see how he’s doing is well worth your time. He is the only reason that Atlanta has won a game. He desperately needs his running mate John Collins back. When those two reunite we will finally get to see what this Hawks team can do.
The New York Knicks are exactly who we thought they were. They overpaid for a collection of power forwards that struggle to put together anything resembling a proper offense. How will they respond? By firing their head coach, calling another impromptu press conference? Stay tuned to find out!
The Golden State Warriors are pulling off one of the greatest heist jobs in the history of the NBA. Sure they’re struggling now, but Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson aren’t going anywhere. They’ll be right back in title contention next year and they could be adding a top-five pick. They’re going to take a one year break from league dominance, add James Wiseman or someone like him, and go right back to terrifying the NBA. It might feel good to beat up on them now but they’ll be back.
The NBA landscape can change rapidly. We saw what the San Antonio Spurs were able to do with a dominant month of December last year, will they be able to pull off a similar resurgence this year? Check back in mid-January for the second edition of our power rankings.