The Los Angeles Lakers began the 2020-21 season as the favorites in the NBA. That often comes with the territory after a championship-winning season but, rather than stand pat in the offseason, the Lakers made a few notable moves. Los Angeles added Dennis Schröder and Montrezl Harrell to juice the team’s offense, and the Lakers found a bargain in acquiring Marc Gasol to step into the void created by the defections of Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee. Crucially, the Lakers also bring back two of the best players in the NBA in LeBron James and Anthony Davis and, to put it plainly, that duo provides a sky-high floor and a lofty ceiling on its own.
Still, it is worth mentioning that the Lakers didn’t carry quite the favorite status of other past champions, in part because the bubble provided an odd circumstance and Los Angeles wasn’t necessarily seen as a no-doubt No. 1 team entering the 2020 NBA Playoffs. On cue, the Lakers stumbled out of the gate in a loss to the Clippers but, essentially since the end of the first quarter on Dec. 22, Los Angeles has been the best team in the league by a healthy margin.
The Lakers trailed 39-19 after 12 minutes on the night they received their championship rings and, while they didn’t complete the comeback, Los Angeles lost by single digits. Since then, the Lakers are 5-1 with three consecutive road wins to finish last week, and Los Angeles is No. 1 in adjusted net rating for the season, via Cleaning The Glass. That includes top-tier marks in offense (115.7 points per 100 possessions) and defense (104.5 points per 100), with 56.9 percent effective field goal shooting and a 59.8 percent true shooting mark. None of those numbers are shocking for a previously dominant team, but Los Angeles is simply taking care of business.
Neither James nor Davis is averaging more than 33 minutes per game but, when the two mega-stars are on the floor, it is curtains for the opposition. In 122 minutes with both James and Davis on the court, the Lakers have a ridiculous +20.3 net rating, and that includes a scoring clip of 1.25 points per possession. Everything is a small sample size in the early going, but the Lakers are letting their stars dominate, playing them fairly often together, and allowing their new acquisitions to steer the ship on the second unit.
To be fair, the Lakers are set up as a team that may not want and/or need to keep the pedal to the floor throughout the regular season. They know what they have and, given the age of James in particular, Los Angeles has incentive to take it easy after a (very) long and strenuous 2019-20 title run. At the same time, the Lakers might be able to cruise to the No. 1 seed, in even in a loaded West, and if they can do that and grab homecourt through the playoffs, a repeat bid becomes just a little bit easier.
There is no doubt which teams sits at the top of this week’s DIME power rankings, but the rest of the list is here.
1. Los Angeles Lakers (5-2, Last week — 1st)
The rankings really start at No. 2 right now.
2. Philadelphia 76ers (6-1, Last week — 5th)
Philly’s schedule has not been a murderer’s row, with wins over Charlotte (twice), Washington, New York, Orlando and a struggling Toronto team. In the same breath, the Sixers have the best record in the league and, over the last week, Doc Rivers’ team posted a 96.1 defensive rating while dominating the competition. You can only beat the teams that are in front of you and Philly is doing so handily.
3. L.A. Clippers (5-2, Last week — 3rd)
Aside from the hilarious 51-point loss to the Mavs, the Clippers… have been exactly what they should be. They still have a top-10 net rating even when including the outlier, and L.A. has quality wins over the Lakers, Nuggets, Blazers and Suns. It may not seem like it on the internet, but they’ve played well overall.
4. Milwaukee Bucks (4-3, Last week — 14th)
This is kind of wild. The Bucks lead the NBA in net rating (+12.7) and that is tough to do with a 4-3 record. From there, Milwaukee has two double-digit losses (!), but the Bucks have wins by 39, 47 and 30 points. What a weird start. Fortunately, we know they’re pretty good.
5. Utah Jazz (4-2, Last week — 4th)
It’s been a solid, balanced start for Utah. They are a top-12 team on both ends, and the Jazz picked up a win over the Clippers this week. Considering Donovan Mitchell is still shooting just 37 percent from the floor, I think Utah would gleefully accept this overall start.
6. Phoenix Suns (5-2, Last week — 7th)
The Suns are very good. They lost a close game to the Clippers to end the week, but Phoenix already has road wins over the Nuggets and Jazz. From there, they are playing lights-out defense (103.4 points allowed per 100) and they have seven players averaging 10 points or more. That sounds like a solid recipe to me.
7. Indiana Pacers (5-2, Last week — 9th)
The loss of TJ Warren for a while definitely stings Indiana, as he isn’t a player that is easy to replace. The Pacers are playing well, though, and that includes a victory that had to be seen to be believed on Monday in New Orleans. Victor Oladipo is playing well, Domantas Sabonis is soaring, Malcolm Brogdon continues to be a steady hand, and Myles Turner is playing to his full potential on both ends.
8. Boston Celtics (5-3, Last week — 13th)
Boston isn’t firing on all cylinders and, in comparison to previous editions of this roster, the early returns aren’t terribly enticing. The Celtics do have Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, which helps, and they’ve won four of the last five after a shaky start.
9. Brooklyn Nets (3-4, Last week — 2nd)
The Nets are 1-4 in the last five games and Kevin Durant is going to miss a few tilts. That certainly isn’t what you want for a team trying to find its sea legs, but Brooklyn has flashed enough upside to eliminate at least some of the concern. This still may be a team that requires context moving forward, and we’ll aim to apply it.
10. Portland Trail Blazers (3-3, Last week — 6th)
The most recent result for the Blazers featured Steph Curry scoring 62 points on them and putting on quite a show. In the previous game, Portland smacked Golden State by 25 points. Good luck trying to figure that sequence out, but we do know that Portland’s defense has been problematically poor to this point, and that is a real concern.
11. Golden State Warriors (4-3, Last week — 28th)
After earning a flurry of jokes with poor play at the outset, the Warriors have won four of five. Steph Curry is firing away, Draymond Green is back and they at least have some semblance of cohesion on display. Golden State is still tough to pin down, but the recent results are worthy of exploration.
12. Denver Nuggets (2-4, Last week — 10th)
Based on only the sample from the 2020-21 season, this is a preposterous ranking for Denver. We have to trust that the Nuggets are still good (because they are), but the defense has been atrocious, giving up 115.8 points per 100 possessions. They do have a home date with Minnesota on Tuesday that should be helpful in myriad ways.
13. Orlando Magic (5-2, Last week — 11th)
Orlando is a top-10 team in net rating and win-loss record. They’d be higher on this list if not for a bad home loss to OKC, but the Magic are well on their way to overachieving yet again under Steve Clifford. That includes the No. 6 defense in the NBA through two weeks of action.
14. Atlanta Hawks (4-3, Last week — 8th)
Atlanta remains sixth in net rating and third in offensive rating. Why did they fall this far? Well, the Hawks just lost to the Cavs and Knicks at home. Granted, the loss to Cleveland was on the second night of a back-to-back, but the Hawks blew 15-point leads in both games and there wasn’t a rest disadvantage to explain Monday’s loss to New York.
15. Dallas Mavericks (3-4, Last week — 15th)
The Mavs’ loss to the Bulls this week came without Luka Doncic, which is important context. Doncic found his footing a bit in a win over Houston, but Dallas hasn’t quite been the same on offense with him struggling and Kristaps Porzingis on the shelf. It’s best to effectively punt on their evaluation, for now, but they need to find a way to pile up some wins to keep pace in the West til their second star is back.
16. Miami Heat (3-3, Last week — 12th)
The reigning East champs have alternated wins and losses each game so far, and they are basically a .500 team statistically. The interesting part is that Miami’s offense has been dreadful (bottom-five) and their defense has been strong (top-eight). The Heat and Celtics play a nationally televised clash on Wednesday that could be instructive on both sides.
17. New Orleans Pelicans (4-3, Last week — 16th)
As noted above in the Pacers section, the Pelicans let one get away on Monday, and that keeps them from a big jump in the rankings. Still, there are positive signs in how good the Pelicans have been with Steven Adams on the floor and how much improvement they’ve shown defensively under Stan Van Gundy. On the flip side, New Orleans falls apart when Adams sits, and they have work to do on offense.
18. Houston Rockets (2-3, Last week — 20th)
We know the Rockets can beat the Kings and they’ve done so twice. Otherwise, Houston is shrouded in mystery, including a negative net rating and an offense that hasn’t quite been its elite self this season. Houston’s sample size is still the smallest in the league, so more information is welcome.
19. New York Knicks (4-3, Last week — 26th)
The Knicks are above .500. The Knicks have three road wins. The Knicks have a top-10 defense. Tom Thibodeau certainly has drawbacks, headlined by 40+ minute efforts for RJ Barrett and Julius Randle on a regular basis, but New York has been competitive and feisty, with Randle playing at an All-Star level to begin the season.
20. Cleveland Cavaliers (4-3, Last week — 17th)
Cleveland was always going to cool off after their 3-0 start, and that happened this week. The Cavs did pull off a nice road win in Atlanta to avoid total disaster, though, and Cleveland is No. 2 in the league in defense against all odds.
21. Toronto Raptors (1-5, Last week — 21st)
The Raptors have earned the benefit of the doubt, but they are testing it. On one hand, all five losses have come to solid-or-better teams, with three on the road. On the other, Toronto has been lifeless, with a bottom-three offensive rating in the NBA and some ugly moments. The slate doesn’t get any easier, with a road game in Phoenix on Wednesday.
22. Chicago Bulls (3-4, Last week — 30th)
As evidenced by the No. 30 ranking last week, the Bulls were absolutely brutal out of the gate. Since then, Chicago has won three out of four, including a road sweep of the Wizards and a home win over Dallas. Admittedly, the Bulls got rocked by the Bucks in the middle of those victories, but they’ve at least avoided complete disaster.
22. Washington Wizards (2-5, Last week — 27th)
Washington wasn’t going to lose every game this season, and they just won back-to-back contests. One of those wins (over Brooklyn on the road) can be filed in the “good win” category, and at least the Wizards have been above-average offensively so far.
24. San Antonio Spurs (2-4, Last week — 18th)
San Antonio just dropped four games in a row and, on Monday night, the team announced that Derrick White would miss more time just as he was coming back from an injury-related absence. All isn’t lost, though, as 2019 first round pick Keldon Johnson is shining, averaging 16.2 points and 7.5 rebounds per game with versatile defense and a 42.9 percent clip from three-point distance.
25. Sacramento Kings (3-4, Last week — 19th)
The Kings were 3-1 and all was right with the world. Then, Sacramento got swept in a mini-set by the Rockets and absolutely throttled by the Warriors, with drama surrounding Marvin Bagley’s father and deleted tweets to boot. It’s early, but Sacramento is a bottom-10 team statistically on both ends of the floor, and that won’t get you far in the West.
26. Memphis Grizzlies (2-4, Last week — 23th)
At full strength, the Grizzlies are better than this, but they aren’t at full strength right now. Memphis was already missing Jaren Jackson Jr., Justise Winslow and others, and now they’ll be without Ja Morant for a few weeks. It is just tough to see the Grizzlies sustaining even a reasonable offensive output with those guys on the shelf, but on the bright side, Desmond Bane looks the part of a draft night steal.
27. Charlotte Hornets (2-4, Last week — 25th)
It isn’t a great shame to lose to the Sixers in back-to-back games, even by double-digits in both contests. The bigger problem for Charlotte was the 15-point home loss to the Ja Morant-less Grizzlies in the previous contest. That’s not what you want.
28. Oklahoma City Thunder (2-4, Last week — 24th)
There are some lineups that are legitimately fun for OKC, but they just don’t have that many of them. The Thunder are dead-last in offense (99.2 points per 100 possessions) and, without a road win in Orlando this week, they might’ve been even lower.
29. Minnesota Timberwolves (2-4, Last week — 22nd)
The Wolves are in the midst of a four-game losing streak and, in the last week, the results have been hideous. Minnesota posted a 125.6 defensive rating in the last three games and, despite young talent, there is a lot the Wolves need to fix on that end of the floor.
30. Detroit Pistons (1-6, Last week — 29th)
Detroit is only fifth-worst in net rating (-5.6), but the worst record in the league lands the Pistons here. Detroit’s only win came against Boston and it was erased shortly thereafter by a loss to the same Celtics. Obviously, it is well known that the Pistons are in a period of transition, but the early signs for 2020-21 in particular aren’t very strong.