NBA Power Rankings, Week 3: The Sixers Are Thriving After Some Addition By Subtraction

The Philadelphia 76ers dropped a heartbreaker on the road in the opening game of the season to the Milwaukee Bucks and have not lost since.

At 8-1, they hold the NBA’s best record and have the most dominant tandem of the early season in Tyrese Maxey and Joel Embiid, who combined are averaging 61 points, 17.1 rebounds, 12.9 assists, 3.1 blocks, and 1.7 steals per game. Embiid’s performance comes as little surprise, as he’s picked up where he left off from an MVP campaign a year ago. Maxey, however, has taken a leap into superstardom while taking on an entirely new role as the leading man in the Sixers backcourt with the departure of James Harden.

The biggest concern for the Sixers with Harden’s departure was how the offense would run without him pulling the strings at point guard. There wasn’t an obvious answer on the roster to replace his playmaking, but they’ve managed to do that by way of Maxey’s improvement and a new scheme. Maxey’s uptick in scoring hasn’t come as a huge surprise, as he’s always shown an ability to get buckets, but the way he’s orchestrating the offense and keeping the Sixers flowing has been wildly impressive. Rarely does a young offensive player with his scoring ability also possess the understanding of how to keep the rest of the team involved and strike a balance between being aggressive looking for one’s own shot while also knowing when to move it along.

A change in offensive approach under Nick Nurse has also helped open things up as the Sixers have gone away from a pick-and-roll heavy offense to more motion, which helps keep the creative burden from landing solely on Maxey’s shoulders. While Embiid isn’t an elite passing big man, they leverage the attention he commands by using him more in handoff actions to create space for shooters. With more flow and a quicker pace, the Sixers are also able to attack defenses that are in rotation and not set, which allows Embiid to get more one-on-one opportunities without facing a wall of defenders between he and the rim.

While the Clippers struggle to adjust to the James Harden system in L.A., the Sixers are thriving without him. Maxey is the biggest reason for that, but so is an offensive approach that has picked up the pace (14th at 100.0 compared to 26th at 96.7 a year ago) and better leverages the skills of the full roster rather than just highlighting a two-man game between the stars.

Where do the Sixers land in this week’s DIME Power Rankings? Let’s find out…

1. Minnesota Timberwolves (7-2, Last week: 1)

The Wolves just keep winning and keep looking impressive. Anthony Edwards is a superstar, Karl-Anthony Towns is starting to wake up, and the defense is the best in the league. A 6-game winning streak will keep them in the top spot, and they just seem to be building confidence with every W.

2. Philadelphia 76ers (8-1, Last week: 4)

I wouldn’t argue with the Sixers in the top spot, as an 8-game winning streak is as good as it gets and Maxey and Embiid are the NBA’s best tandem right now. They’ve got some big games this week and we’ll see if they can keep it rolling.

3. Boston Celtics (8-2, Last week: 3)

Boston’s only loss this week came in a tight one against the Sixers and otherwise they are bludgeoning teams. Their defense has been terrific and the offense is absolutely rolling right now, with Jayson Tatum operating on an unbelievably high level. If he keeps this pace up, he’ll be firmly in the MVP race.

4. Denver Nuggets (8-2, Last week: 2)

It was a light week for Denver, as they split a pair of 3-point games against Golden State and Houston, but they’re going to face some challenges with Jamal Murray sidelined with a hammy. The bench unit was already thin and the burden shifts even further to Nikola Jokic, with Michael Porter Jr. stepping into the spotlight a bit more as well. Still, they’re in it every night thanks to the two-time MVP and if they can tread water for a few weeks til Murray gets back, they’ll be just fine.

5. Dallas Mavericks (8-2, Last week: 5)

Speaking of MVP candidates, Luka Doncic is off to a blistering start to the season averaging 32.6/8.6/8.5 on crazy efficiency and the Mavs offense is just about unstoppable. The defense can be a bit leaky, but they are just decent enough on that end to put the pressure on opponents to try and keep up in shootouts. So far, not many have proven capable.

6. Houston Rockets (6-3, Last week: 11)

Break up the Rockets! They’ve won six straight and look legitimately terrific. They most recently took down Denver in a tight one and they’re showing some very impressive poise in late game situations. Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks are off to great starts as veteran leaders, while Alperen Sengun and Jalen Green have taken steps forward, as the Rockets are starting to turn potential into actual results.

7. Miami Heat (6-4, Last week: 15)

The Heat are on a nice winning streak themselves thanks to one of the best stretches of play of Bam Adebayo’s career. He has become a more consistent presence on the offensive end to start this season, while still providing Miami with elite defense. That’s allowed them to keep winning even with Tyler Herro sidelined with an ankle injury, with some help from Jimmy Butler starting to find his rhythm as well.

8. Oklahoma City Thunder (6-4, Last week: 8)

The young Thunder are impressively competitive, with three of their four losses coming by single digits. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander continues to play spectacularly, Jalen Williams has taken steps forward, and Chet Holmgren has been an immediate positive impact player on both ends in his first 10 games as a pro. They are solid on both ends of the floor and certainly look the part of a team that will be a factor in the West playoff race all the way through the end of the season.

9. Indiana Pacers (6-4, Last week: 12)

The Pacers keep picking up wins behind a lethal offensive attack. The defense is an adventure and every game is a shootout, but they have the best offense in the league and can get away with it most nights. Tyrese Haliburton has become one of the best facilitators in the league and continues to shoot it at a high rate, as he trends towards another All-Star nod in the East.

10. Sacramento Kings (5-4, Last week: 28)

The Kings bounced back from their losing streak in a big way this week by winning all three of their games to leap back up the rankings. De’Aaron Fox’s return in a win over the Cavs was a welcome sight and if they can just crack the lid on the basket from three (33.4 percent on the year as a team), they will be a threat again in the West playoff race.

11. Milwaukee Bucks (6-4, Last week: 7)

There’s just nothing easy for the Bucks right now. It’s a credit to their talent level that they keep gutting out wins despite playing as sloppily as they have, but it’s also a bit concerning how hard everything looks for them. The defense has gotten better since going back to drop coverage with Brook Lopez but still has issues, and offensively they’re not bad but it just looks far more difficult for them to consistently create good looks than it should for a team with Dame and Giannis.

12. Atlanta Hawks (5-4, Last week: 9)

The Hawks split their two games this week against division foes and as such mostly hold pat in the rankings. The good news is Trae Young is starting to shake free of his early season rut, but the defense has some holes that need to be shored up. The next task for Atlanta is to figure out how to be more consistent, because the highs are high, but the lows are unfortunately too low.

13. Orlando Magic (5-4, Last week: 13)

The Magic will feel like they let one slip away with a loss to the Hawks in Mexico City, but they bounced back impressively to thump the Bucks back in Orlando. Their defense is legit, they just need a little bit more consistency in terms of offensive output to match it.

14. Los Angeles Lakers (5-5, Last week: 16)

The Lakers are now managing nagging injuries to LeBron and Anthony Davis, which is always concerning given how early it is in the season, but they’re getting very good play from D’Angelo Russell as a playmaker and have been able to tread water despite their stars being banged up. The question will be whether they can find their footing from three, as they are 29th in the NBA at 30.4 percent from deep so far this season.

15. New York Knicks (5-5, Last week: 17)

The Knicks were rolling up until Monday night when they got thumped by the Celtics. There’s no real shame in that, but it was a reminder of where they stand in the East’s hierarchy. If Julius Randle can get it figured out, this team would be an awful lot more dynamic, as the backcourt led by Jalen Brunson and R.J. Barrett are off to a good start but aren’t getting the requisite help. Mitchell Robinson also is doing yeoman’s work, averaging more offensive (5.8) than defensive (5.6) rebounds this season, which has helped keep their offense afloat despite a league-worst field goal percentage as a group.

16. Toronto Raptors (5-5, Last week: 22)

The Raptors likewise have been playing well aside from a lopsided loss to Boston. Scottie Barnes has been excellent this season, finally building on the two-way promise of his Rookie of the Year campaign, and overall the Raptors have shown some signs of life recently on offense after a woeful start to the year. There are still nights they can’t get out of first gear, but there’s a bit of optimism that they’re starting to take to Darko Rajakovic’s system. They don’t need to be wildly dynamic on that end if they keep it up defensively, but finding a bit more consistency and efficiency would be helpful.

17. Brooklyn Nets (5-5, Last week: 19)

Cam Thomas’ injury is a bummer as he was one of the best stories of the first couple of weeks, but Brooklyn has held steady in his (and Ben Simmons) absence. Brooklyn is doing a very good job of beating teams in the middle and bottom of the league, which is how you stay in the mix even when you’re overmatched when playing against the top teams.

18. Cleveland Cavaliers (4-6, Last week: 18)

Darius Garland is back, which hopefully can get the Cavs offense back on track after being stuck in the mud for much of the young season. They have been the definition of mid to start the year, with a 19th ranked offense and a 20th ranked defense despite a roster that should be better at both ends.

19. Golden State Warriors (6-5, Last week: 6)

The Warriors have lost three straight but all three have come by single digits. Still, the offense beyond Stephen Curry is a concern as he is the only Warrior with a 20-point game this season, which seems impossible but is somehow true. Andrew Wiggins has been dreadful to start the year and Klay Thompson has been pedestrian at best, and it goes without saying that if Golden State is going to be a contender, those two have to be much better.

20. Phoenix Suns (4-6, Last week: 23)

It turns out not having a point guard might be a bad thing. The Suns miss Devin Booker’s ability to create for others dearly on offense, as, even with Bradley Beal back on the court, they’re just not able to fire on all cylinders. Kevin Durant has been excellent as expected, but things just aren’t flowing particularly well for the Suns and they can’t string together wins right now.

21. New Orleans Pelicans (4-6, Last week: 10)

Things have taken a turn for the Pelicans after a strong start to the year. The offense looks disjointed without CJ McCollum, as they struggle to figure out how to keep things flowing beyond asking Zion Williamson or Brandon Ingram to create for themselves. As a team they’re not shooting the ball well, the defense isn’t very good, and everything just seems just a little off in New Orleans.

22. Chicago Bulls (4-7, Last week: 24)

The Bulls are a tough watch on offense. They’re 27th in the league in both shooting percentage and assists per game, as the ball sticks a lot and their stars have a propensity for seeking out difficult shots. None of this is particularly new for the Bulls, but so far this year they haven’t been able to pull out as many wins in close games and the result is a 4-7 record. Alex Caruso is playing incredible defense this year and that’s been the most enjoyable part of watching Bulls basketball so far this season.

23. Utah Jazz (3-7, Last week: 26)

The Jazz are a tire fire on defense. They have officially ducked below the Hornets on that end to have the league’s worst DRtg, and they do not have a good enough offense to make up for that most nights. Lauri Markkanen continues to be great and John Collins looks like the guy we saw a few years ago in Atlanta, but the backcourt is woefully inefficient and, again, they cannot stop anyone.

24. Los Angeles Clippers (3-6, Last week: 14)

The James Harden experiment is off to a very poor start in L.A., as they’ve lost 5 straight since the trade got finalized (the last four with Harden in the lineup). Lineups with Harden have a -25.8 net rating, which is hard to do, and no one seems comfortable on the floor right now. Things will get better with time, but I’m skeptical of just how much better they will get considering this is a team that’s supposed to be a title contender.

25. Charlotte Hornets (3-6, Last week: 25)

The Hornets have given up 124 or more points in six of their last seven games. That is exceedingly bad, especially for a Steve Clifford coached team, and I’m not sure where they go from here. On the bright side, Brandon Miller has shown some flashes and LaMelo Ball is still a very good offensive player. Otherwise, it’s a bit bleak in Charlotte at the moment.

26. Memphis Grizzlies (2-8, Last week: 27)

The Grizzlies won another game, beating the aimless Clippers on the road, and they’ve been close in all of their recent games, with their last three losses coming by six or fewer points. That’s maybe showing some signs of life and if they can just figure out how to go 8-7 in the next 15 games without Ja Morant they will have a chance of rebounding. That might be asking a lot, but if you’re a Grizzlies fan, that’s got to be where your hope lies.

27. Portland Trail Blazers (3-6, Last week: 21)

Portland has lost three straight, but they have been competitive in all three. That’s probably the ideal way for this season to go for the Blazers, albeit they’ll want Scoot Henderson healthy again soon. In his absence, Shaedon Sharpe is playing a comical number of minutes (39.4 per game) but is playing very well despite the heavy workload and that has to be the biggest positive for Portland so far this season.

28. San Antonio Spurs (3-7, Last week: 20)

The Spurs are the epitome of a young team learning to win. They have not had good success holding leads this season, but, like Portland, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Victor Wembanyama is very fun, even if he still clearly has lots to learn about playing in the NBA, and the Spurs are competitive more nights than not, which is a step forward for this group.

29. Washington Wizards (2-8, Last week: 30)

The funniest team in the NBA was at it again on Monday night, as they blew a big lead in Toronto and provided another funny lowlight in the form of giving up a 5-on-4 possession because Kyle Kuzma walked to the bench on the other end of the court asking for a challenge that was not given.

They did win a game this week, so they avoid the bottom spot in the rankings — I would like to petition the league to let the Wizards and Hornets play 82 games this year cause that would be far more entertaining and competitive for everyone involved. Also, Bilal Coulibaly has been terrific as a rookie, giving Wizards fans a little reason for optimism in what figures to be an otherwise rough season.

30. Detroit Pistons (2-9, Last week: 29)

The Pistons have lost eight straight after a solid first week, and they just do not seem to have enough on the offensive end right now. Cade Cunningham is being asked to do everything for this team and as a result he’s finding it tough to be efficient, both as a scorer and passer, even while showing flashes of brilliance. There’s an outline of a strong core, with Cunningham, Jalen Duren (who is currently out with an ankle injury), and Ausar Thompson, who looks like an elite defender already. Marcus Sasser is also popping from his bench spot, with some calls for him to get an expanded role. This is a team that could really use Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Harris to get healthy and provide some spacing so they can at least see what this young group really looks like with capable veterans mixed in.