DimeMag

NBA Power Rankings Week 3: Against All Odds, The Thunder Can’t Stop Winning

On the way to an unexpected 44-28 record and a slot in the 2020 NBA Playoffs, the Oklahoma City Thunder earned a great deal of respect. The Thunder were widely seen as a potentially solid team in advance of the 2019-20 season but, with a rebuild looming and key cogs with injury history like Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari, overall expectations were tempered and Oklahoma City greatly exceeded them. Fast-forward to the 2020-21 season and, before tip-off in late December, projections were even more skeptical of the Thunder.

After losing Paul, Gallinari, Steven Adams, head coach Billy Donovan and more, the Thunder had the lowest over/under win total in the entire NBA for the 2020-21 campaign. Given the team’s operational pivot to rebuilding, that seemed reasonable, especially with the expectation that the Thunder would give developmental reps to rookies in Aleksej Pokusevski and Theo Maledon. On cue, the Thunder opened the season 1-3 with three home losses, and the stage was set.

Then, something funny happened, and the Thunder rattled off a 4-1 record during a five-game January road trip. It has to be said that there are many strange results thus far, and Oklahoma City shouldn’t be expected to maintain this pace. Still, the Thunder have allowed just 1.06 points per possession defensively during the five-game run, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is carrying the offense.

Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 22.2 points, 6.8 assists and 5.4 rebounds over the course of the road trip, posting 49/38/82 shooting splits along the way. Hamidou Diallo added 15.6 points per contest while shooting 64 percent from the floor, and steady hands like George Hill and Al Horford provided defense, acumen and just enough on the offensive end.

The 2020-21 season is, unquestionably, about molding the organization for the future, and that means accentuating Gilgeous-Alexander, Darius Bazley, Luguentz Dort (who has been fantastic this season), Maledon, Pokusevski and others. From there, the cupboard is overflowing with draft capital, giving Sam Presti the flexibility to not worry too much about the 2021 draft if the Thunder happen to stay hot for a while.

It remains to be seen as to how good the Thunder actually are this season and, from a roster standpoint, regression seems to be in the offing. With that said, Oklahoma City has been fun to watch, and they seem to be playing hard, inspired basketball.

Where do the Thunder stand in this week’s DIME power rankings? Let’s explore the space.

1. Los Angeles Lakers (8-3, Last week — 1st)

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As noted last week, it’s not particularly close right now between the Lakers and everyone else, especially when accounting for the prior of Los Angeles winning the 2020 title. The Lakers went 3-1 this week, and the only loss involved the Spurs shooting 16-of-35 from three-point range.

2. Milwaukee Bucks (7-4, Last week — 4th)

It is the Bucks, not the Lakers, that leads the NBA in net rating (+11.1) and it isn’t particularly close right now. Milwaukee has won five of the last six games, and the Utah Jazz needed a record-setting performance with 25 three-pointers to knock off the Bucks in the only loss. Let’s just say that any regular season questions have dissipated for this Bucks team, provided reasonable health.

3. Boston Celtics (7-3, Last week — 8th)

Health and safety protocols have been at the forefront of almost every NBA discussion this week, and the Celtics are in the middle of it. Boston has endured back-to-back postponements, so they haven’t played in a while. With that said, the Celtics are tied for the longest winning streak (four) in the NBA, and Kemba Walker is coming back in short order.

4. L.A. Clippers (7-4, Last week — 3rd)

The insane loss to Dallas is still making the numbers look odd for the Clippers overall, but they’re in fine shape. Some priors are still in the mix, at least for me, in evaluating the early part of the season, and L.A. looks the part of a top-five team. They’re going to have to play better defense, however, so that is something to monitor.

5. Philadelphia 76ers (7-4, Last week — 2nd)

Nuance is going to be key this season. If you just saw the scores of Philadelphia’s games against Denver and Atlanta, you would be baffled by this ranking. The 76ers were without half of their roster in both games, so I’m going to lean on the previous sample and priors, at least for now.

6. Portland Trail Blazers (6-4, Last week — 10th)

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The run didn’t come against the most elite competition, but the Blazers are on a three-game winning streak. CJ McCollum capped things with a beautiful game-winner on Monday evening, and Portland is scoring almost 1.14 points per possession on the season. There are things to work out defensively, but improvement is coming on that end, and the Blazers are suddenly rounding into form.

7. Utah Jazz (6-4, Last week — 5th)

Home-court advantage doesn’t mean as much as it usually does right now, but teams like Utah and Denver should still benefit from the altitude this season. With that in mind, it is noteworthy that the Jazz are 1-2 at home and a blistering 5-2 on the road in the early going. Just something to note.

8. Phoenix Suns (7-4, Last week — 6th)

The Suns have alternated wins and losses in their last six games, treading water for all to see. Phoenix still has solid metrics, but losing to Washington and Detroit in the same week isn’t enough to keep their standing in this space.

9. Denver Nuggets (5-5, Last week — 12th)

No potential contender wants to be 5-5 after ten games, but the Nuggets are better than that. They’ve won four of the last five games, and Denver has the No. 2 offense in the league right now. Nikola Jokic is out of his mind and, after a brutal start, Denver’s defense is now bringing something to the table. That’s all they need to do on that end.

10. Dallas Mavericks (5-4, Last week — 15th)

Before a postponement on Monday, Dallas received some (very) good news in the form of Kristaps Porzingis being cleared to play. The Mavericks, like many teams, are dealing with health and safety protocol issues, but Dallas has won three in a row and Porzingis should help to raise their ceiling a great deal.

11. Brooklyn Nets (5-6, Last week — 9th)

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In all honesty, I wish anyone luck trying to “rank” the Nets. Brooklyn has the third-best net rating in the NBA and their highs have been quite high. They also have a 5-6 record, Spencer Dinwiddie is gone for the season and Kyrie Irving hasn’t been playing and likely won’t for the rest of this week at minimum. Let’s just split the difference for today.

12. Indiana Pacers (6-4, Last week — 7th)

Indiana isn’t as good as their top-five net rating indicates, but two losses in a row shouldn’t pour too much cold water on the proceedings. It helps that Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon are playing fantastic basketball, but Indiana operating without TJ Warren isn’t ideal. That shouldn’t be overlooked.

13. Golden State Warriors (6-4, Last week — 11th)

Since their Christmas debacle, the Warriors are 6-2 with a +4.2 net rating. It remains to be seen as to whether Golden State is that good, but Draymond Green helps tremendously and it was always going to take this group some time. Also, Kelly Oubre and Andrew Wiggins may not be elite wing options, but they were never going to shoot 12 percent (all numbers approximate) from the perimeter all season.

14. Charlotte Hornets (6-5, Last week — 27th)

No team had a better week than the Hornets. Charlotte won all four of its games, including a sweep of the Hawks, and LaMelo Ball looks the part of the guy who many had atop their big boards for the 2020 Draft. The Hornets now have a positive point differential for the season, and James Borrego has designed a quality defense despite some roster limitations.

15. Oklahoma City Thunder (5-4, Last week — 28th)

In practical terms, the Thunder aren’t the 15th-best team in the league. They had a great week, though, and earned this placement.

16. Miami Heat (4-4, Last week — 16th)

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Miami would probably love a mulligan on the start of the season. Honestly, they are better than what they’ve shown and everyone knows it, but the results haven’t been bad enough to put them too far behind the eight-ball. The Heat will likely take it as they too work through COVID-19 protocol issues.

17. Atlanta Hawks (5-5, Last week — 14th)

The Hawks badly needed a win, and the 76ers arrived in Atlanta on Monday with only nine players and very few perimeter options. Thankfully for the home team, that was enough to snap a four-game losing streak, but the Hawks now face a tough, three-game trip to the West. That should tell us a lot about Atlanta, and the Hawks are also (quite) banged-up right now.

18. Orlando Magic (6-5, Last week — 13th)

It shouldn’t surprise anyone if the Magic keep dropping on this list, simply because of their roster realities. Orlando isn’t a playoff-caliber team on paper right now, and they’ve lost three in a row. Steve Clifford’s team is above .500, but they have the 24th-best net rating in the league and that is probably more indicative of where they are at the moment.

19. Houston Rockets (3-5, Last week — 18th)

Houston, along with Miami, has the smallest sample size of any team with only eight games. As such, they’ve lost three out of the last four, and that really drags them down, but the Rockets also dropped games to Indiana, Dallas and the Lakers. That’s not the end of the world, and they get the rematch (at home) against Los Angeles on Tuesday.

20. San Antonio Spurs (5-5, Last week — 24th)

San Antonio isn’t good necessarily, but they are fun. The Spurs do fundamental things very well, headlined by the No. 1 turnover rate in the NBA offensively, but San Antonio also just has a million guys. Keldon Johnson is fun. DeMar DeRozan might have it going on any night. Patty Mills is playing great. It’s basketball nerd stuff, but the Spurs are Spurs-y.

21. New Orleans Pelicans (4-5, Last week — 17th)

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The Pelicans had a game postponed on Monday and, before that, New Orleans lost three straight games by single digits. Granted, all of those games were at home, which isn’t ideal, but New Orleans is currently the statistical embodiment of a .500 team. This might just be what they are all season.

22. Cleveland Cavaliers (5-6, Last week — 20th)

It’s really impressive that the Cavs continue to lead the league in defensive rating, and they are truly clamping down on that end of the floor. In contrast, Cleveland is dead-last in offensive rating (by a considerable margin) and it is hard to win at a high level when that happens. Both sides should regress on some level, but trying to find the baseline will be interesting, and it would be wise to keep in mind that the Cavs have been dealing with real personnel absences, particularly on the perimeter.

23. Toronto Raptors (2-8, Last week — 21st)

This is a weird one, folks. The Raptors being 2-8 is almost mind-blowing, particularly without widespread absences for their top players. Some of that is luck, with Toronto having a respectable-ish net rating (-1.4), but they haven’t been good on either end of the floor, particularly late in games. The offensive scuffles are understandable, but the Raptors really need to be awesome on defense, and they aren’t right now.

24. Memphis Grizzlies (4-6, Last week — 26th)

Memphis is unquestionably in trouble as long as they have the roster limitations they are currently facing, headlined by the absence of Ja Morant. The Grizzlies did just win two games in a row, however, and perhaps they can hold the line just long enough to remain in the peripheral mix for the playoffs.

25. Sacramento Kings (5-6, Last week — 25th)

The Kings still have the worst defensive rating (116.6) in the NBA and they have a bottom-five net rating after all. On the more favorable side, Sacramento picked up a nice win over the Indiana Pacers on Monday, breaking out of a spell in which they had lost five of the previous six.

26. Washington Wizards (3-8, Last week — 22nd)

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Washington was going to be even lower if not for a nice win over Phoenix on Monday. The Wizards have been wildly disappointing through 11 games, but it is worth noting that they are snake-bitten. Washington has a -0.8 net rating and, well, that doesn’t usually translate to a 3-8 record. The wins still need arrive at some point, but perhaps things will balance out for Scott Brooks and company.

27. New York Knicks (5-6, Last week — 19th)

Yes, the Knicks are almost .500, but they have a bottom-five net rating. Also, New York lost to Oklahoma City (at home) and Charlotte this week in fairly decisive fashion. Tom Thibodeau’s bunch can certainly play better than they have recently, but that doesn’t mean the results have been incredible.

28. Chicago Bulls (4-7, Last week — 22nd)

It’s been quite an up and down season, even in a short sample, for the Bulls. Chicago has now lost three games in a row and, within the last week, the Bulls allowed 121.1 points per 100 possessions. That didn’t help what is currently the second-worst defensive team in the NBA by the numbers.

29. Detroit Pistons (2-8, Last week — 30th)

Detroit actually has two pretty good wins, beating the Celtics and the Suns at home. Everything else has been pretty shaky, though, and the record doesn’t seem to be a fluke. The Pistons are a bottom-tier team on both ends of the floor, and it stands to reason that Jerami Grant, who is currently averaging 25.1 points per game, might cool off at some point.

30. Minnesota Timberwolves (3-7, Last week — 29th)

The Wolves don’t have the worst record in the league and they actually won their last game, sneaking past the Spurs at home. Why, then, is Minnesota dead-last this week? Well, the Wolves have the worst net rating by a comfortable margin (-9.3) and, even the win over San Antonio was mitigated by a loss to the same team in the previous game. The return of Karl-Anthony Towns should help to stabilize matters, but it’s been pretty ugly so far.

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