DimeMag

NBA Power Rankings Week 1: The Cavs Are Off To A Scorching Start

The 2020 offseason was one-of-a-kind in NBA circles, with a full-blown sprint through the transaction cycle in advance of a late December start. For eight teams, however, the offseason was seemingly endless, as the organizations not invited to the Orlando bubble didn’t participate in fully sanctioned regular season games for more than nine months. As such, there is special attention to be paid to how those teams, all of which struggled (by definition) last season, perform in 2020-21, but the early returns are positive for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Cleveland finished the 2019-20 season with the NBA’s second-worst record, winning only 29.2 percent of their games. From there, the Cavs were one of the quieter teams in the offseason from a transaction perspective, instead relying on internal development and keeping their powder dry for the future. To that end, expectations were (very) modest for the team as the 2020-21 season arrived, but Cleveland has been one of the early surprises by winning the first three games.

Granted, the Cavaliers have not played the most difficult schedule, prevailing over the Hornets, Pistons and Joel Embiid-less Sixers to begin the campaign. Still, last season’s Cleveland bunch may not have been able to take care of business in this manner, especially on the defensive end of the floor. The schedule is worth noting, but the Cavs are holding opponents to just 1.003 points per possession so far this season and, after finishing dead-last in defensive rating last season, that is a notable improvement.

The team’s current personnel isn’t conducive to that kind of defensive leap, but Andre Drummond is making an impact, Larry Nance Jr. is a stabilizing piece and rookie lottery pick Isaac Okoro projects to be a positive on that end of the floor. Offensively, Cleveland is also playing quite well, led by its pair of young guards in Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. Sexton is averaging 27.0 points per game and shooting 59.3 percent from the floor, while Garland is adding 19.0 points and 8.3 assists per game and shooting 54.8 percent from the floor in his own right. Both will cool off from an efficiency perspective, but the internal development of young players is key for Cleveland, both in the present and the future.

Even with three wins in the bank, it would be too aggressive to start talking about the playoffs for the Cavs. After all, they are coming from an exceptionally modest baseline with only a few things to point to in terms of tangible growth from the 2019-20 season. With all of that said, it is unquestionably encouraging to see Cleveland come out of the gate in a positive manner and, if Drummond and Nance continue to anchor an improved defense with Sexton and Garland taking the next step, there is no reason the Cavs need to stay in the league’s basement as preseason over/under projections suggested.

What does a 3-0 start do for the Cavaliers in our DIME power rankings? Let’s find out.

1. Los Angeles Lakers (2-2, Last week — 1st)

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It’s a little weird to leave the Lakers here after two losses, but it’s still early. This is a team that hasn’t even ventured away from STAPLES Center yet and, perhaps more importantly, no other squad did enough to take the top spot when considering priors.

2. Brooklyn Nets (2-2, Last week — 7th)

Wait, another 2-2 team? Well, the Lakers still have a +10.7 net rating so far and the Nets…. have a +10.6 net rating. Also, Brooklyn’s second loss came without both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, with thoroughly dominant play in a couple of contests. It will be interesting to see what happens without Spencer Dinwiddie, but Brooklyn still impressed early.

3. L.A. Clippers (2-1, Last week — 2nd)

So, the Clippers trailed by 50 points at the half on Sunday. That happened. I also don’t care much about it. Quite obviously, L.A. wasn’t dialed in against Dallas in that matchup, but they started the season with a win over the Lakers and a road win over the Nuggets. I’m inclined to trust that sample more, especially when taking the roster into account.

4. Utah Jazz (2-1, Last week — 9th)

This entire tier is a mess, mostly because there are so few results. Utah has performed well (+5.6 net rating) and they’re doing so with Donovan Mitchell shooting 32 percent from the floor. They have an interesting showdown looming on New Year’s Eve with the Suns that will reveal more information on both sides.

5. Philadelphia 76ers (2-1, Last week — 8th)

The Sixers haven’t played a top-tier opponent yet, and their one loss came without Joel Embiid. We’re all going to need to see more to make sweeping conclusions.

6. Portland Trail Blazers (2-1, Last week — 13th)

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After a blowout home loss to Utah in the opener, Portland stabilized with wins over the Rockets and Lakers. The Blazers actually went into STAPLES Center and got the best of the champs (with both LeBron and AD playing) on Monday, which is one of the better wins any team has this season.

7. Phoenix Suns (2-1, Last week — 12th)

Phoenix hasn’t quite found the groove on offense, scoring 1.06 points per possession, but their defense been stout to this point. Oh, and if Mikal Bridges is going to make threes again, good luck to everyone trying to go against him.

8. Atlanta Hawks (3-0, Last week — 16th)

The Hawks are real offensively. That wasn’t a secret after they invested a ton of money in veterans to add more scoring pop during the offseason, but the Hawks are scoring 1.2 points per possession through three games. Trae Young is out of his mind and, even with the caveat of a pretty easy schedule so far, Atlanta looks good. They’ll face a big test this week with two games in Brooklyn.

9. Indiana Pacers (3-0, Last week — 17th)

Of course the Pacers are 3-0. Why wouldn’t they be? The best early development for Indiana is probably the play of Victor Oladipo, but Domantas Sabonis looks to be in line for another leap from an already stout baseline in 2019-20.

10. Denver Nuggets (1-2, Last week — 5th)

This is some respect for Denver, because they haven’t played like a top-10 team yet. Nikola Jokic was brilliant on Monday, however, producing 19 points, 18 assists and 12 rebounds in the team’s first win.

11. Orlando Magic (3-0, Last week — 21st)

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The Magic are undefeated in the almighty Southeast Division. Orlando did knock off Miami, which explains the ranking of the next team on this list, but in all seriousness, it’s a good start for an undermanned team. Steve Clifford is a wizard.

12. Miami Heat (1-1, Last week — 4th)

Miami split their first two games in relatively anonymous fashion. Everyone is looking toward a back-to-back against Milwaukee that begins on Tuesday, which should inform opinions on both teams.

13. Boston Celtics (1-2, Last week — 6th)

The Celtics… have not played well. They’re getting torched defensively (116.9 points per 100 possessions) and their offense hasn’t been up to its usual baseline either. Small sample size caveats apply, but there is some actual concern right now after that opening night win over Milwaukee. Speaking off…

14. Milwaukee Bucks (1-2, Last week — 3rd)

Boston beat Milwaukee this week, and the Celtics hop ahead of the Bucks as a result. None of that actually matters, but Milwaukee had two weird results after the opener. The Bucks absolutely annihilated the Warriors on the Christmas stage… only to go on the road and lose by 20… to the Knicks? Best of luck trying to decipher that but, as noted above, a back-to-back against Miami should answer questions about where both teams are right now.

15. Dallas Mavericks (1-2, Last week — 10th)

I have no idea what to do with the Mavs. They looked pretty bad in a blowout loss to the Lakers, then beat the Clippers by approximately one hundred points. It’s early, folks.

16. New Orleans Pelicans (2-1, Last week — 18th)

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Because they were outmatched by the Heat on Christmas, the buzz isn’t necessarily there for New Orleans right now. The Pelicans are playing well, though, and their defense (!) has been the better unit through three games. That won’t continue in all likelihood, but it’s noteworthy.

17. Cleveland Cavaliers (3-0, Last week — 27th)

The Cavs! Without any priors, they would be even higher, but the ten-spot jump tells the story.

18. San Antonio Spurs (2-1, Last week — 20th)

Derrick White hasn’t played yet and the Spurs are 2-1 with wins over the Grizzlies and Raptors. San Antonio is also reasonably fun to watch, with some interesting lineup combinations and young players. It wouldn’t be wise to ignore them.

19. Sacramento Kings (2-1, Last week — 23rd)

Sacramento went on the road and beat Denver before splitting a pair of games against Phoenix. It’s only three games, but that is a very nice start for a team with modest expectations. They’ll get another test on Tuesday evening against Denver because, as usual, the Western Conference is unrelenting.

20. Houston Rockets (0-2, Last week — 14th)

The Rockets have been in the news! On the court, Houston is 0-2, but both losses came on the road to good teams, so that isn’t too alarming. James Harden and Christian Wood are putting up video game numbers and, eventually, the Rockets will play some games they are favored to win once they get more than nine players on the active roster.

21. Toronto Raptors (0-2, Last week — 11th)

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Toronto is better than this, but they haven’t played well on either end of the floor. In conjunction with an offseason that saw the roster get worse and the bizarre circumstances of their operation in Tampa, it wasn’t a perfect start for Nick Nurse’s team. They’ll be fine.

22. Minnesota Timberwolves (2-1, Last week — 25th)

It was a mixed bag for Minnesota this week. No. 1 pick Anthony Edwards looked good and the Wolves started with two wins in three games. On the flip side, Karl-Anthony Towns is battling a wrist issue that could sideline him for a bit, and that isn’t ideal.

23. Memphis Grizzlies (1-2, Last week — 22nd)

The Grizzlies’ win over the Nets looks more impressive than it actually is, as Brooklyn was without Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie in the game. Before that, Memphis was pretty shaky in home losses to Atlanta and San Antonio, and they need to get healthy in a hurry, particularly with Jaren Jackson Jr. still on the shelf and Ja Morant suffering a nasty looking ankle injury in that win in Brooklyn.

24. Oklahoma City Thunder (1-1, Last week — 30th)

It’s hard to figure out the Thunder, simply because they are not constructed to win now. Still, they have enough competent pieces like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Al Horford to be competitive on a nightly basis for a while, and that is already on display through two games.

25. Charlotte Hornets (1-2, Last week — 26th)

The Hornets are probably better than the Thunder, but Charlotte lost to OKC at home this week. That explains the disparity, but the Hornets did knock off the full-strength Nets in a very solid performance to end the week.

26. New York Knicks (1-2, Last week — 29th)

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After two lopsided defeats, the Knicks beat the Bucks by 20 on Sunday, and Milwaukee had its core pieces on the floor. That is quite a bizarre result, but it bumps New York up a few spots because all of the games count.

27. Washington Wizards (0-3, Last week — 19th)

To be fair to Washington, the 0-3 start includes losses to the Magic (twice) and 76ers. They also weren’t blown out in any game. The Wizards still gave up almost 1.14 points per possession defensively, and it would be tough to argue that this is the start Scott Brooks envisioned in a season that actually has some expectations.

28. Golden State Warriors (1-2, Last week — 15th)

I don’t actually think the Warriors are a bottom-three team if Stephen Curry is playing, but the first week was not encouraging. Golden State has the worst net rating in the league (-18.4) and that includes a very narrow win over the Bulls. Granted, the Warriors got bludgeoned by two very good teams in Milwaukee and Brooklyn, but they are essentially non-competitive in those games. There is a lot of work to do, and they need Draymond Green.

29. Detroit Pistons (0-3, Last week — 28th)

Detroit actually battled impressively without both Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose on Monday evening. That’s the kindest thing that should be said after an 0-3 start with losses to the Hawks, Wolves and Cavs.

30. Chicago Bulls (0-3, Last week — 24th)

It’s been ugly for Chicago. The Bulls opened with three straight home losses, giving up more than 1.15 points per possession, and lost to a pair of non-playoff teams from last season in the process. Chicago shouldn’t be this bad overall, but they earned the bottom spot this week.

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