DimeMag

NBA Power Rankings Week 7: Miami Is Quietly Threatening The East’s Top Tier

After a summer headlined by the addition of Jimmy Butler, the Miami Heat faced real expectations for the 2019-20 season. However, the Heat are exceeding them in a significant way to this point in the calendar and, with more than one-quarter of the campaign in the rear view mirror, Miami doesn’t appear to be operating with smoke and mirrors.

The Heat won 39 games a year ago and, even after adding Butler to the fold, the consensus projection for Miami (both in Las Vegas and otherwise) was for Erik Spoelstra’s team to land somewhere in the mid-40’s in terms of wins. That would have represented great progress but, after a 17-6 start, it would take a significant cooling period for those preseason outlooks to be accurate. At present, the Heat have won 11 of the last 14 games and, perhaps more impressively, Miami hasn’t suffered a single questionable loss this season.

There is something to be said for “taking care of business” and, in short, the Heat are doing that. Miami’s schedule lands in the middle of the pack but the Heat do have a handful of quality wins, and they have been lights-out at home, posting an unblemished record. It helps to have an intriguing core of players in place but Miami has only received 10 games of production from Justise Winslow due to injury, and Goran Dragic has been in and out of the lineup. Some of that projected output has been replaced by strong early-season performances from rookies Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro.

While there is plenty of credit to assign for Miami’s tremendous start (including a nod to a breakout campaign from Bam Adebayo), Butler’s presence is perhaps the most important domino. The veteran wing is operating at a superstar level, averaging 20.6 points, 6.8 assists and 6.3 rebounds per game, and the Heat have performed at an elite level (+9.7 net rating) whenever Butler is on the court. It isn’t a surprise to see him playing that way but, to put it plainly, there is no substitute for a top-tier player.

There are still justifiable questions about Miami’s ability to challenge the likes of Milwaukee, or even Philadelphia, for Eastern Conference supremacy. Aside from the Bucks, though, the Heat could lay claim to playing some of the best basketball in the conference and, with a pair of home games on the horizon, Miami has the opportunity to build on its progress.

Where does Miami land in this week’s DIME power rankings? Let’s examine.

1. Milwaukee Bucks (21-3, Last week — 1st)

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Can you quibble with Milwaukee as the title favorite? Sure. Can you make an argument that any other team has performed better than the Bucks so far? Absolutely not. That’s the nature of 15 straight wins and a league-leading +12.7 net rating.

2. Los Angeles Lakers (21-3, Last week — 3rd)

The Bucks have (easily) the NBA’s longest winning streak but, to be fair, the Lakers have the exact same win-loss record. Milwaukee has the more impressive statistical profile but Los Angeles just wrapped up a full month with exactly one loss. That’s not too bad.

3. LA Clippers (18-7, Last week — 4th)

Doc Rivers and company have one home loss and it came against the Bucks. The Clippers have multiple losses against only one team and it is… the Bucks. This is a squad that has won 11 of 13 games and has a No. 1 overall kind of resume in some seasons. Everything’s fine.

4. Boston Celtics (17-5, Last week — 9th)

Boston’s riding a four-game winning streak and, at home this season, the Celtics have been perfect. Perhaps the most surprising turn is Boston’s elite-level defensive metrics and Brad Stevens should be credited for building a strong defensive unit despite uncertainty at center.

5. Philadelphia 76ers (17-7, Last week — 7th)

If you watched Sixers-Wizards this week, you’d wonder how Philly was this high. Aside from that game, though, the Sixers look to be kicking into high gear, winning six of the last seven games. Their defense is established and the offense is starting to look a bit more coherent.

6. Miami Heat (17-6, Last week — 10th)

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The Heat are 8th in the NBA in net rating with top-12 units on both offense and defense. This isn’t a fluke.

7. Dallas Mavericks (16-7, Last week — 5th)

If not for Sunday’s home loss to the Kings, Dallas would be a few spots higher. More than anything, that is just bad timing for when our power rankings arrive but, alas, the logistics matter. The Mavericks have been lights-out over the last 12 games, posting a +15.9 net rating and playing high-end basketball. They are quite good.

8. Houston Rockets (15-8, Last week — 8th)

The Rockets are good at basketball but they can’t seem to avoid controversy. Houston’s protest was denied this week and their loss to San Antonio will count as just that, a loss. It was a bad one, too.

9. Toronto Raptors (16-7, Last week — 2nd)

As soon as we bestowed praise on the Raptors, they lost three in a row. Granted, the losses came to Miami, Houston and Philadelphia, but that is the air they are trying to compete in right now.

10. Denver Nuggets (14-7, Last week — 6th)

The Nuggets have been weird. After a six-game winning streak that inspired confidence, Denver inexplicably lost four out of five. Their defense has carried the water so far, but when is the offense going to join the party? The sledding doesn’t get any easier on the road against the Sixers on Tuesday.

11. Indiana Pacers (15-9, Last week — 11th)

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After 24 games, the Pacers have (still) faced the easiest schedule in the league. It is important to balance that against the credit Indiana also deserves for holding serve without Victor Oladipo. It’s a bit of a mixed bag.

12. Brooklyn Nets (13-10, Last week — 14th)

Brooklyn is 4-7 with Kyrie Irving in the lineup and 9-3 without him. If nothing else, that is bizarre. Spencer Dinwiddie has been fantastic but I don’t think anyone saw this kind of performance coming from the team once Irving was sidelined.

13. Oklahoma City Thunder (11-12, Last week — 15th)

A stretch of five wins in six games pushes the Thunder up a few spots and with good reason. Oklahoma City is still under .500 for the season, but they’ve outscored opponents. The Thunder are backing up the trendy prediction that they would be very competent until trade season arrives.

14. Utah Jazz (13-11, Last week — 12th)

Utah is a supremely interesting team right now, for all the wrong reasons. The Jazz have lost six of eight games and they have a middling net rating to boot. Context is important in that five of those losses came in challenging situations but, with Utah flopping at home against OKC on Monday, the noise will undoubtedly get louder about what has been a wildly disappointing start.

15. Detroit Pistons (10-14, Last week — 19th)

Since Blake Griffin returned, the Pistons are the team they are supposed to be. Detroit is 6-6 when Griffin plays and they appear to be the only team capable of chasing down the Magic and/or Nets to make the playoffs in the East.

16. Orlando Magic (11-12, Last week — 17th)

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On the bright side, Orlando won four straight before dropping a nine-point decision in Milwaukee. If you want to be pessimistic, the winning streak came against shaky competition and the Magic have quietly regressed a bit defensively as their offense has improved.

17. Sacramento Kings (10-13, Last week — 21st)

Raise your hand if you predicted the Kings would go into Dallas and Houston and win both games this week? Anyone? Me neither.

18. Phoenix Suns (11-12, Last week — 18th)

Most national observers still aren’t paying attention to the Suns, and it’s understandable. Still, Phoenix has a positive net rating for the season and they have been generally competitive. For good measure, Deandre Ayton is eligible to return from suspension in just one week.

19. San Antonio Spurs (9-14, Last week — 22nd)

The Spurs looked awful for a long, long time. Since then, San Antonio is 4-3 with wins over the Clippers, Kings and Rockets. Progress? Maybe?

20. Portland Trail Blazers (9-15, Last week — 13th)

After the Blazers elicited some buy-in with improved performance, regression came. Portland lost by 20-plus points to both L.A. teams and, perhaps more damningly lost to Oklahoma City by 12 at home.

21. Minnesota Timberwolves (10-13, Last week — 16th)

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The Wolves have dropped five in a row. It is worth noting that the last four losses came on a single road trip but the losing streak still matters. Minnesota lost by double figures to both Phoenix and Oklahoma City this week.

22. Washington Wizards (7-15, Last week — 24th)

Washington’s defense is impossibly bad. It’s the worst in the league (an accomplishment when pitted against teams like Cleveland and Atlanta) and not even a top-five offense can save them. Be prepared for plenty of statistical analysis about just how unlikely it is for a team to be this bad with an offense that is actually good.

23. Memphis Grizzlies (7-16, Last week — 25th)

ROY favorite Ja Morant missed four games with a back injury but, when he returned on Monday, the talented point guard helped the Grizzlies stop a losing skid. This is still an exceptionally young basketball team with a penchant for ugly performances, but the highs are intriguing.

24. Chicago Bulls (8-17, Last week — 20th)

The Bulls garnered a bit of respect last week. They responded to it with three straight losses, including a home loss to Golden State. Your guess is as good as mine.

25. Atlanta Hawks (6-17, Last week — 29th)

After picking up a much-needed win over the Warriors to end last week, it was a quiet seven-day period (at least on the court) for the Hawks. Atlanta wasn’t great against Brooklyn but they took care of business with a solid win in Charlotte. More importantly, Kevin Huerter is back and John Collins will return in less than two weeks to give Trae Young some of the help he apparently craves.

26. Charlotte Hornets (9-16, Last week — 23rd)

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Since starting 4-3, the Hornets have been what we thought they were. Things reached a bit of a crescendo with a lopsided home loss to the Hawks on Sunday, but it’s not going well at the moment.

27. New Orleans Pelicans (6-18, Last week — 26th)

The Pelicans aren’t very good. Some of that can be tied to the absence of Zion Williamson but, even after that injury-related loss, expectations were (much) higher than this. New Orleans has lost nine in a row and they feel buried.

28. Cleveland Cavaliers (5-18, Last week — 27th)

On top of having the NBA’s worst net rating, there is apparent drama behind the scenes in Cleveland. In short, the early-season optimism feels like a lifetime ago and the Cavs just can’t get stops with any level of consistency.

29. Golden State Warriors (5-20, Last week — 30th)

Golden State hasn’t beaten a decent basketball team since Nov. 4 and, over the last few weeks, the Warriors haven’t toppled any team other than Chicago. Recent double-digit losses to Atlanta and Charlotte told the story and things weren’t any better at home against Memphis on Monday.

30. New York Knicks (4-19, Last week — 28th)

The Knicks actually don’t have the worst net rating in the NBA but New York does have the worst record and the longest active losing streak. This was never going to work but, if anything, the firing of David Fizdale is a good reminder that the Knicks are even worse than expected.

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