The NBA schedule has slowed down this week to allow the In-Season Tournament to take center stage. Monday and Tuesday night saw the Pacers, Bucks, Pelicans, and Lakers all punch their tickets to Las Vegas with wins in standalone national TV spots, with Pacers-Celtics and Lakers-Suns delivering high-intensity thrillers.
While the semis and finals are still to come on Thursday and Saturday in Vegas, the tournament has already proven to be a success. Sure, there are some tweaks that could make it even better, but given how many fans and players weren’t high on the idea when it was announced, it’s been pretty incredible to see the difference in energy of the tournament games so far. That has turned many of the In-Season Tournament’s skeptics into believers, with Kevin Durant being among the most prominent, as the Suns star noted he wasn’t a huge fan of the idea but is now very excited about the tournament — and “pissed off” the Suns won’t be in Vegas with a chance to win the first NBA Cup.
Giving players a little something extra to play for in November and December has given the Tournament games an added focus and intensity. For some players, it’s all about making a little extra cash, while others see a chance to win a trophy (and maybe more importantly, lose out on one) and lock in a bit more. This year’s semifinals are also a perfect mix for the league of two young, up-and-coming teams in the Pacers and Pelicans and a pair of recent champions in the Bucks and Lakers. Everyone expected the young teams to see this as an opportunity to grab the spotlight, with Tyrese Haliburton making no mistake he was very excited for his first ever game playing on TNT on Monday night. He took advantage of that and without question raised his star profile with a dominant performance to close out the Celtics in the fourth quarter.
The question was whether the grizzled veterans of the league would care enough to add a sprint to the middle of their regular season marathon pace. That has been answered pretty emphatically by LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Damian Lillard, who have stepped their games up to punch a ticket to Las Vegas for a chance at the Cup. All told, the NBA would be hard pressed to come up with a better first year for the Tournament, with a mix of young and old, showing every team around the league what the possibilities are.
Beyond giving those eight teams a standalone primetime game, slowing the schedule down has provided the opportunity for teams to take a brief break from the regular season grind, get some rare real practice time in, and evaluate what they’ve done over the first quarter of the season. Here, we get to do the same in our Week 6 version of DIME Power Rankings, headlined by the same (somewhat surprising) team that’s been in the top spot for weeks…
1. Minnesota Timberwolves (15-4, Last week: 1)
The Wolves just keep winning and now hold the NBA’s best record. The defense is still the best in the league, Karl-Anthony Towns is playing some of the best ball of his career, and they’re about to get Jaden McDaniels back.
2. Boston Celtics (15-5, Last week: 3)
The Celtics got knocked out of the In-Season Tournament by the Pacers in the quarterfinals, largely due to their offense stalling out down the stretch. While they’ve managed to keep above water with Kristaps Porzingis out with a calf injury, it was pretty clear how much they missed the big fella against the Pacers. His return is expected soon, but I do wish we’d gotten to see the playoff simulation dry run of the IST with a fully healthy Celtics team to see if those problems from last year would persist or not with Kristaps playing.
3. Orlando Magic (14-6, Last week: 2)
The Magic got popped by the Nets to end their winning streak, but on the whole they continue to impress. Paolo Banchero has figured out how to score efficiently, Franz Wagner has been great in crunch time, and their guard play has been better than expected. This next month will tell us a lot about this Orlando team, as they face a lot of the expected contenders in the East with the Cavs (x2), Celtics (x2), Heat, Bucks, Pacers, Sixers, and Knicks all on the December schedule.
4. Milwaukee Bucks (15-6, Last week: 4)
The Bucks had a dominant offensive outing on Tuesday night against the Knicks and have now scored 130+ points in four of their last six games. The defense is still a major question mark in Milwaukee, but the offense has the ceiling of being the best in the league and when they have it going from three, they’re basically unstoppable.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder (13-6, Last week: 6)
OKC keeps rolling right along with some of the best balance in the NBA. They’re top-6 in ORtg and DRtg and are first in three-point percentage as a team (40.2 percent). Their role players are thriving around their budding core of Chet Holmgren, Jalen Williams, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the latter of whom is a legit MVP candidate.
6. Denver Nuggets (14-7, Last week: 8)
Speaking of MVP candidates, Nikola Jokic continues to be the NBA’s most consistent dominant force, as he’s averaging a hysterical 29.0 points, 12.8 rebounds, and 9.8 assists per game, even with a career-worst 30.1 three-point percentage. If the threes start to fall, good luck, and he’s been able to keep this team afloat while Jamal Murray takes his time getting healthy. Maybe most importantly is that the Denver role players have popped the last couple weeks, headlined by Reggie Jackson who has been tremendous filling in for Murray. Given their bench concerns, if he can carry that quality play over to the second unit once Murray is back, that’d be huge for the Nuggets.
7. New York Knicks (12-8, Last week: 14)
The Knicks didn’t have their best in Milwaukee on Tuesday and had their three-game winning streak snapped to get knocked out of the In-Season Tournament. The biggest issue was on the defensive end, where they had been playing as one of the NBA’s best but simply didn’t have answers for Giannis and Dame. The good news is, Julius Randle continues to play well and Jalen Brunson looks like a star, but they’ll have to bounce back quickly to regain their defensive form before playing the Celtics on Friday.
8. Philadelphia 76ers (12-7, Last week: 5)
Philly dropped both of their games this week to the Pelicans and Celtics, playing without Joel Embiid in both of those contests due to illness. In shocking news, the reigning MVP is important to this team. He’ll be back this week and that should help Philly get back on track (also helping is they get to play the Wizards on Wednesday).
9. Los Angeles Lakers (13-9, Last week: 11)
The Lakers continued their undefeated In-Season Tournament run with a thrilling win over the Suns, and LeBron James seems fully locked in as he chases the NBA Cup. I am fascinated to see how they matchup with the Pelicans in the semis because teams that can get out and push the pace have been the teams that have given L.A. the most issues recently — and the same will be said if they make the Cup Finals against either the Pacers or Bucks.
10. Phoenix Suns (12-9, Last week: 7)
The Suns have come back to earth a bit after their 7-game winning streak. Kevin Durant is still playing at an outrageous level, but the three-point shooting has cooled off a touch as a team and the defense still is a work in progress, leading to a three-loss week.
11. Sacramento Kings (11-8, Last week: 9)
The Kings are both wildly exciting and wildly frustrating at the same time. The offense still has an incredibly high ceiling, but they haven’t been as consistent this year, particularly shooting the ball. Some nights they just won’t make the adjustment when shots aren’t falling and will shoot themselves out of a competitive game by forcing it up in hopes the lid on the basket will remove itself.
12. Cleveland Cavaliers (11-9, Last week: 13)
The Cavs look to be improving but still are capable of head-scratching performances, like losing to the Blazers at home. The next two weeks figure to be telling of how much they’ve actually improved, as they have the Magic, Heat, Magic, Celtics, Celtics on the schedule.
13. Indiana Pacers (11-8, Last week: 16)
The Pacers feel like the team of destiny in the In-Season Tournament, as Tyrese Haliburton is embracing the opportunity to make himself more of a household name for NBA fans outside of Indiana. They played a tremendous second half against Boston, and while the Celtics were without Kristaps Porzingis, the Pacers still have to be pleased that they closed a game out with some defensive stops and not just simply out-scoring their opponent. That task gets much trickier in Vegas when they face a red-hot Bucks offense, but they’ll be ready for a shootout against Dame and Giannis.
14. New Orleans Pelicans (12-10, Last week: 17)
Brandon Ingram had an unbelievable showing in Sacramento, willing the Pelicans to Vegas and a date with the Lakers in the IST semis. New Orleans is, statistically, the definition of “fine” as they are 14th in both offensive and defensive rating. I am a bit more bullish on their potential going forward now that Trey Murphy III is back, as he gives them a dynamic they otherwise don’t have, and Willie Green suddenly has a lot of options at his disposal and showed in Sacramento he’s willing to simply ride with the hot hand, no matter who they are — Zion Williamson was a spectator for most of the fourth quarter of that win.
15. Miami Heat (11-9, Last week: 10)
The Heat have been scuffling of late, suddenly finding themselves in high-scoring shootouts every night, which is not typically the kinds of games they want to be in — granted, the Bucks and Pacers will force just about anyone into those games right now. The biggest concern in Miami right now is that Bam Adebayo, who was off to a tremendous start, is dealing with a hip injury and isn’t sure when he’ll be back on the court.
16. Dallas Mavericks (11-8, Last week: 15)
Dallas has also cooled off substantially from their red-hot start and now look a lot like the rest of the middle class of the NBA, where there’s just not a lot of consistency night to night (even half to half) aside from Luka Doncic putting up huge numbers. This week brought an incredible example of that as they went on a 30-0 run in a game they still lost, which is very hard to do. This upcoming week should be a chance to stack wins against the Jazz, Grizzlies, and Blazers, but they also just dropped one to Memphis (without Luka, it must be noted).
17. Brooklyn Nets (10-9, Last week: 19)
The Nets have been jarringly good offensively this year, getting great contributions from their role guys like Lonnie Walker IV, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Royce O’Neale, all of whom are shooting north of 40 percent from three. The problem, as it is for so many teams in this tier, is on the defensive end where they just lack much in the way of size inside beyond Nic Claxton. Still, they’ve won four of their last five and seem to be in a pretty good groove of late on the offensive end, and will look to keep that going to pull away from the group hovering around .500 in the East.
18. Los Angeles Clippers (9-10, Last week: 22)
The Clippers thumped the Kings and split their mid-off with the Warriors to climb a bit in this week’s rankings. It’d still be nice to see this team string together like a five-game stretch of really good ball to provide any confidence they’ll be a real threat come playoff time, but for now a 2-1 week will suffice as a success.
19. Atlanta Hawks (9-10, Last week: 18)
I really thought Quin Snyder would be able to coax something decent out of this team on defense, but they’re just atrocious on that end. This is the fourth best offense in the NBA and the fifth worst defense, which will keep Atlanta right around .500 once again. They’re not that far off from being the Pacers or the Kings, but they’re just worse at winning close games right now.
20. Houston Rockets (8-9, Last week: 12)
Houston was on the road for three games this week, so you know what that means: three more losses. Houston still has not won a game on the road (0-8) this season, but are back home for three of their next four, so you can expect at least a 2-2 stretch coming up.
21. Toronto Raptors (9-11, Last week: 20)
We have reached the point where the Raptors head coach has offered to take the whole team out to dinner if they win three games in a row. That kind of promise is usually reserved for little league teams, where a trip to Golden Corral will get the boys fired up, but maybe it’ll work for the Raptors too.
22. Golden State Warriors (9-11, Last week: 21)
Steph Curry: Very, extremely good at basketball. The rest of the Warriors team: Not so much. Golden State’s two losses this week came by a combined two points, but unfortunately for them, only the In-Season Tournament cares about point differential.
23. Chicago Bulls (7-14, Last week: 26)
The Bulls won two games against good teams this week. Coby White had 54 points combined in those wins over Milwaukee and New Orleans in Zach LaVine’s absence, and maybe they’ll find a little spark. At minimum, it appears they haven’t completely quit just yet, which is good.
24. Utah Jazz (7-13, Last week: 23)
Lauri Markkanen is still sidelined with a hamstring injury, but the Jazz have stayed at least a bit frisky in his absence to not completely bottom out. This week gets tough, though, as the Mavs, Clippers, and Thunder loom on the schedule.
25. Portland Blazers (6-13, Last week: 24)
Speaking of teams that are frisky, the Blazers jumped up and nipped the Pacers and Cavs on their recent road trip. Anfernee Simons is nearing his return to the court which will only make Portland even more dangerous, and while this isn’t a particularly good team, it’s also not one you can just pencil in as a W on the schedule.
26. Memphis Grizzlies (5-14, Last week: 27)
There are some signs of life in Memphis, as they picked up wins over Dallas and Utah this week. Desmond Bane has been very good and they’re close enough now to see Ja Morant’s return on the horizon. They might have fallen too far for that to matter in the playoff race, but they might be able to salvage something if they can just find a few more wins in these next six games.
27. Charlotte Hornets (6-12, Last week: 25)
LaMelo Ball is dealing with ankle issues again, which is just a bummer given he was having another very good start to the season after missing so much time a year ago. They have what should be some winnable games against teams in the East’s Play-In race coming up, but without Ball optimism is low in Charlotte right now.
28. Washington Wizards (3-16, Last week: 28)
There’s a real separation at this point for the bottom three in the NBA standings, starting with the Wizards who lost their two games this week against Orlando. Their schedule is brutal for the next two weeks, so I wouldn’t expect much to change with their spot in these rankings.
29. San Antonio Spurs (3-16, Last week: 29)
The Spurs are probably glad the Pistons exist, or else we’d probably talk more about their 14-game losing streak. They almost ended it against Atlanta, but came up two points short in a shootout. They’re at least supposed to be really bad this year, but at some point it’d be nice for the Spurs and Victor Wembanyama to remember what a win feels like.
30. Detroit Pistons (2-18, Last week: 30)
We may be witnessing a truly special season from Detroit, as they are wading into Process Sixers and Charlotte Bobcats territory right now. They play Memphis on Wednesday in a critical game for them, because that is the most winnable game on their schedule for a few weeks and if they don’t win against the Grizz, it’s possible they go back-to-back months without a win.