NBA Power Rankings, Week 1: The Thunder Are Rolling

After months of talk and debate about who got better and who got worse over the summer, the first week of the NBA season is always a treat as we finally get to see these teams play basketball again. There are always early disappointments and pleasant surprises, and one of my favorite things is when a young team everyone’s excited about verifies that hype with a strong start.

This year, that team is the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have gotten off to a 3-1 start with their lone loss being a blowout at the hands of the defending champion Denver Nuggets. That result showed what OKC still needs to do to reach that upper echelon of the NBA’s elite — particularly building out their frontcourt — but what they’ve done in their other three games is a testament to how far they’ve come and the foundation they’ve built.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has picked up where he left off a year ago, averaging 26.5 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 6.3 assists per game on 48.2/35.7/95.0 shooting splits over the first four games — and that includes one of his worst career performances against Denver. What’s maybe most impressive about how SGA has been dominating is that he’s not getting to the free throw line anywhere close to the same rate as last year, and yet he’s remained highly efficient and highly impactful. He isn’t drawing fouls at the rate he did last year, with his free throw attempts cut nearly in half so far, but he’s been undeterred from using his off-beat rhythm to knife his way through opposing defenses, get to his spots, and create strong looks for his teammates.

More important to OKC being a more consistent team this year is the support around Shai. Josh Giddey and Jalen Williams are providing high-level secondary ball-handling and creation, while Lu Dort has continued his development as a strong spot-up shooter to go along with his defensive prowess. The biggest addition the Thunder made this offseason was simply getting Chet Holmgren on the floor, and his presence has provided some welcome balance in terms of frontcourt scoring, averaging 15 points per game on 60.6/62.5/75.8 shooting splits. Holmgren might still need to get fatter, in the words of Nikola Jokic, to handle the West’s top bigs defensively, but it’s clear the upside he brings to this team.

We often hear about young teams “learning to win” in the NBA, and it’s clear last year’s run to the Play-In taught the Thunder a lot of valuable lessons they’ve been able to carry over to this season. From the top down, they have an impressive resolve and collective calm in key moments that seems to be an extension of their coach, Mark Daigneault, and their star, SGA. They’ve bought in on both ends of the floor, and while there will be games like Sunday’s against Denver where they’re reminded of the work still left to do, OKC has arrived as a playoff contender in the West.

Where do they land in this week’s DIME Power Rankings? Let’s find out.

1. Denver Nuggets (4-0, Last week — 1)

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The Nuggets are an absolute buzzsaw right now. Their starting lineup is still the best in the NBA by a healthy margin and because of their continuity with that group, it’s just really hard for other teams to reach their level this early in the season. Their only real question this year is the bench unit, and they should be encouraged by what they’ve seen, especially from Peyton Watson who has had a great first week in the full rotation as the eighth man.

2. Boston Celtics (3-0, Last week — 2)

The Celtics have, likewise, taken care of business out of the gates, and of the contenders that made big additions this summer, they’re the one that looks to be the most comfortable in the early going. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown haven’t missed a beat and Kristaps Porzingis looks very comfortable playing off of those two so far.

3. Dallas Mavericks (3-0, Last week — 16)

The most surprising of the undefeateds through the first week is Dallas, which hasn’t faced the toughest schedule but has still been impressive. Luka Doncic looks incredible, averaging 39 points, 11.7 rebounds, and 9.7 assists in the first week, and he’s getting support from the role players in a way that was missing last year. I doubt they shoot 40 percent as a team from three all year, but the offense looking this good with Kyrie Irving ice cold bodes well. If the defense can remain passable, they figure to be a factor in the West playoff race.

4. Golden State Warriors (3-1, Last week — 6)

After stumbling on opening night against Phoenix, the Warriors have ripped off three straight wins including a very impressive showing against the Pelicans on a road back-to-back on Monday. Steph’s doing Steph stuff (33.5 ppg on 71.4 eFG%), the defense has looked good even with just two games of Draymond, and they’ve even got positive contribution from the kids (Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody) off the bench. Chris Paul is off to a rough shooting start, but it’s already clear what he can bring the non-Steph minutes in terms of running a competent offense.

5. Oklahoma City Thunder (3-1, Last week — 17)

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a full-on superstar now, Chet Holmgren has impressed in his first four games, and their depth on the wing and in the backcourt continues to shine. Last year’s foray into competitiveness seems to have paid dividends this year, as they know what it takes to win games and have an impressive sense of calm in big moments, thanks in large part to SGA.

6. Philadelphia 76ers (2-1, Last week — 9)

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The Sixers narrowly lost the opener to the Bucks but have looked very solid since. Tyrese Maxey has fully embraced being the lead guard (30.3 points, 6.3 assists, 6.7 rebounds per game) and Joel Embiid looks like, well, Joel Embiid (31.0 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 7.0 assists per game). Maxey’s hot start was enough to get Philly to go ahead and send Harden to L.A. and give Tyrese the keys to the offense. While their stats probably won’t remain quite that gaudy once the sample size increases, it’s a very good sign for Philly’s long-term prospects that the offense is humming with Maxey at the helm and Embiid embracing some of the facilitating role himself.

7. Phoenix Suns (2-1, Last week — 5)

I don’t think anyone’s outlook on Phoenix has changed much in the first week. They look great when they have their guys on the floor, but without Booker and Beal in L.A., they stumbled against the Lakers. Health of their main guys is the question looming over this Suns team, but KD’s looked great and Booker was terrific in the opener before sitting the last two with a toe injury.

8. Sacramento Kings (2-1, Last week — 14)

The Kings look a lot like last year’s Kings, with a highly explosive offense and a defense that can be a bit shaky. Their most recent win over the Lakers was quite impressive, as they closed L.A. out in overtime without Fox (injured) or Sabonis (fouled out). That’s a confidence builder early in the season and particularly important as they’ll need to navigate some time without their star guard as he deals with an ankle sprain.

9. Indiana Pacers (2-1, Last week — 20)

The Pacers got off to a hot start before a somewhat disappointing loss to the Bulls on Monday, but they’ve already shown how fun they can be on offense when they get rolling. Tyrese Haliburton is pulling all the right strings (20 ppg/12.3 apg) and when shots are falling, they’re a nightmare to deal with. While we knew the offense would be good, they’ve been solid defensively (16th in the NBA in DRtg) out of the gates and keeping in that league average range would be huge for their chances to hang around in the East playoff race.

10. LA Clippers (2-1, Last week — 12)

The Clippers mowed down two bad teams at home in the form of the Blazers and Spurs and dropped a tight one in Utah. While we haven’t learned a lot about L.A. and taking care of business against the bottom of the league isn’t wildly impressive, it is vital to do if you want to get a playoff berth. Now we’ll get to see how they fare with James Harden joining the roster, as they get to almost start all over again this week.

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

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Zion Williamson being back to doing Zion things is very fun. However, this New Orleans offense has been stuck in the mud overall and that’s a bit concerning despite a 2-1 start to the year. They really miss Trey Murphy III’s floor spacing, as evidenced by a 31.7 percent shooting start from three as a team. The good news is the defense has been better than anticipated, Steph Curry catching fire aside, and the question for New Orleans is, if/when they can get healthy, can they strike the right balance between offense and defense.

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

The Bucks right now are a good example of how basketball isn’t played on paper. They’re 2-1, yes, but it’s been a bit of a struggle getting the Damian Lillard-Giannis Antetokounmpo pairing off the ground. While it’s clear how they can complement each other, it’s also clear it’s going to require some time for those two to build the needed trust and chemistry to tap into that full potential. I do believe they’ll get there, but in the meantime it’s going to be a bit frustrating in Milwaukee, especially because the defense clearly isn’t what it used to be. Still, 2-1 with a sloppy start is pretty good and I’m probably being a touch harsh here, grading on a curve of what I feel they should be.

13. LA Lakers (2-2, Last week — 12)

It seems less than ideal that the “LeBron is only gonna play 30 minutes per game” thing lasted just one game. This was supposed to be a deeper Lakers team this year, but they have been extremely dependent on LeBron and Anthony Davis to be great each night to win. The good news is, those two are capable of that on a lot of nights. The bad news is, having to lean on them this much this early in the season wasn’t the plan. We’ll see if the “others” can wake up after a sluggish start and get them back on plan.

14. Orlando Magic (2-1, Last week — 23)

Orlando blitzed the Rockets in the opener and then beat the Blazers before dropping a tight one to the Lakers on the road. That all feels about right for this Magic team. They need Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner to find a rhythm offensively, but if this early defensive showing is for real, the Magic are going to be frisky once their stars get settled in.

15. Atlanta Hawks (2-2, Last week — 15)

The Hawks got off to a dreadful start but have rattled off two straight impressive wins over the Bucks and Timberwolves. Will we be in for another Jekyll/Hyde season from the Hawks where they just can’t ever get away from the .500 mark? They certainly hope not, and it’ll come down to Dejounte Murray and Trae Young finding a bit more consistency in their impact. The highs have been great, it’s just a matter of raising the floor for the lows with this team.

16. Detroit Pistons (2-2, Last week — 28)

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The Pistons have been legitimately impressive to start the season. Cade Cunningham looks terrific and Jalen Duren appears to be an emerging star in the frontcourt. The defense has improved dramatically under Monty Williams, and if they can get some consistent offensive production between Cunningham and Duren, this Pistons team might just be able to stick around in the Play-In race in the East.

17. Chicago Bulls (2-2, Last week — 19)

The Bulls had a team meeting after the first game of the season and they lost a game by double-digits in which Zach LaVine scored 51 (to the aforementioned Pistons). They did nab a couple wins over the Raptors and Pacers, the latter of which being their most impressive result yet, but this is still a team that feels a bit combustible. Maybe they can right the ship, but this start hasn’t alleviated concerns in Chicago that this is a team that’s run its course.

18. Minnesota Timberwolves (1-2, Last week — 11)

The Timberwolves scored 79 points in the first half to take a 19-point lead against the Hawks and then proceeded to give up a 60-20 run in the second half to lose by 14. That’s hard to do and the Wolves need to really figure out how to be more consistent offensively. It’s clear there’s a good team in there somewhere, but it’s not certain they are capable of bringing that out on a nightly basis.

19. New York Knicks (1-2, Last week — 8)

The backcourt has been great for the Knicks to start the season as RJ Barrett and Jalen Brunson have both looked very good – with some flashes from Immanuel Quickley off the bench. However, it’s been tough sledding from the frontcourt, as Julius Randle’s started his season off ice cold and they just haven’t gotten much from the bigs in the first week. The Knicks have been in each game so far and dropped a heartbreaker in the opener in Boston, but they need their All-Star forward to find his form again if they’re going to make a climb.

20. Cleveland Cavaliers (1-2, Last week — 7)

It’s only a week into the season and the Cavs already have three of their top four battling injuries. Max Strus’ huge opener keeps them from being winless right now, but with their star backcourt duo both battling hamstring issues and Jarrett Allen out with an ankle, it’s not an ideal situation for the Cavs coming out of the gate.

21. Brooklyn Nets (1-2, Last week — 21)

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After a couple of tough, close losses to start the season, the Nets could finally open things up on the Hornets on Monday to get their first win. It’s a bit of an adventure defensively in Brooklyn, but the offense is humming along. Cam Thomas is having his annual bucket-getting extravaganzas, Ben Simmons is in his comfortable role as a facilitator again, and Mikal Bridges steadily rolling along. Nic Claxton is the one guy on the roster they can’t really replace, so naturally he’s already battling an ankle issue which has contributed heavily to their defensive woes.

22. San Antonio Spurs (1-2, Last week — 27)

Victor Wembanyama is really fun, but Sunday’s 40-point loss to the Clippers was a reminder that this is still a really young team that will have high highs and really low lows. Still, being competitive in two out of every three games would be a very nice step forward for this Spurs team, and the flashes from Wemby, Devin Vassell, and others are going to make them enjoyable to watch most nights.

23. Miami Heat (1-3, Last week — 10)

The Heat haven’t been done many favors by their early season schedule, but they also just haven’t been very good. Bam Adebayo’s been the exception to that, but he is now dealing with a hip injury that kept him out of the loss in Milwaukee. Tyler Herro’s embraced his role as a leading scorer on this team, but hasn’t gotten a lot of support from his backcourt mates. The concerns at the point guard position still persist and Jimmy Butler’s gotten off to a sluggish start, which is not something this Heat roster is equipped to really handle.

24. Utah Jazz (1-3, Last week — 24)

The Jazz have had a brutal schedule to open the year, facing four playoff teams in the first four games. As such, a 1-3 record to start isn’t a surprise. The good news is Lauri Markkanen has picked up where he left off last year, averaging 25 points and 9.8 rebounds on solid efficiency. The bad news is the concerns about their backcourt have not gone away and it’s not abundantly clear what the right answers are at the guard spot for Will Hardy right now.

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

After beating Atlanta in the opener, the Hornets have dropped games by double digits to Detroit and Brooklyn. LaMelo’s shooting struggles are not optimal for a team that needs him to be the engine, and defense also has not been great. The good news is, Brandon Miller has been very good offensively and whenever your top rookie gets off to a strong start and builds confidence, that’s a good thing. They just really need Ball to find his rhythm, because this isn’t a roster built to win ugly games with their defense.

26. Washington Wizards (1-2, Last week — 30)

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We are only three games into the season and we have already learned that when it’s bad for Washington, it’s going to be really bad. They have been boat-raced twice, with a win over the Grizzlies in between. The defense is extremely flammable and the offense has not been able to keep up so far, but that’s in part due to a slow start for Jordan Poole. There will be some fun nights when he finds it and this offense takes off, but it seems the Wizards are going to be who we thought they were.

27. Portland Trail Blazers (1-3, Last week — 29)

The Blazers were destined for the bottom until they beat the Raptors in a rather fascinating (and also hideous) game. Portland’s youngsters are struggling, as you’d expect, but they do have some competent veterans and rode that group down the stretch of the fourth to a win in Toronto. Everything in Portland comes down to when the light comes on for Scoot Henderson and Shaedon Sharpe in a larger role now – especially with Anfernee Simons out for a month-plus.

28. Toronto Raptors (1-3, Last week — 22)

The Raptors are just a tough watch right now. They make scoring the basketball look like a painful venture and the same problems that have persisted for a few years in the halfcourt are, shockingly, still problems with the same guys on the roster. When you can’t do better than 91 points against the Blazers this year, that’s a real problem. To their credit, the defense is really good, but it’s just hard to win games consistently in 2023 solely off the efforts on that end.

29. Memphis Grizzlies (0-4, Last week — 13)

Memphis has been close in a few games to start the year, but just cannot put it together to get their first win. Ja Morant still has 21 games to serve on his suspension and they have yet to figure out how to replace Steven Adams. Their lack of rim pressure without Ja is noticeable, as they have a lot of guys who want to shoot jumpers who aren’t shooting them particularly well thus far. Without the ability to create easy buckets and free throw opportunities, they’ve just not been able to avoid the scoring droughts that allow their opponents to take control of the game.

30. Houston Rockets (0-3, Last week — 25)

After getting smoked in the opener in Orlando, the Rockets have at least bounced back to show they’re competitive in their last two losses. They dropped a winnable overtime game to the Spurs and then got Steph Curry’d on Sunday, and unfortunately, their upcoming schedule does them few favors. Getting a win over Charlotte on Wednesday could be very important because after that it gets brutal over their next 13 games.

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