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NBA Power Rankings Week 2: A Strong Start In Portland

Approximately two weeks of the 2022-23 NBA season are in the books and the Portland Trail Blazers sit atop the Western Conference standings. While the Blazers did make offseason moves aimed clearly at short-term improvement, preseason expectations were relatively modest for Portland, with most of the focus on whether Damian Lillard and company could threaten for inclusion in the 2023 playoffs. Though it is still quite early, Portland has impressed, posting a 5-1 record that includes a comfortable, 14-point win without Lillard on the floor on Friday, and optimism is bubbling around the organization.

Lillard’s status was one of the great intrigue coming into the year, simply because he appeared in only 29 games before season-ending surgery a year ago. Immediately, Lillard reminded observers of his brilliance, scoring 31 points or more in three of the first four games, and he is shooting 39.2 percent from three-point range and generating 8.4 free throw attempts per game in the early going. Unfortunately, Lillard will be sidelined for a bit with a calf strain but, provided that injury heals in accordance with the public timetable, he’ll be back soon and spearheading a dynamic offense.

At the end of October, the Blazers ranked in the top ten of the NBA in both offensive and defensive efficiency, out-scoring opponents by nearly five points per 100 possessions. Portland’s defense may be a bit weaker in time, but the offense has a 59.5% true shooting mark and plenty of firepower. That includes Anfernee Simons, who will step into the No. 1 creation role as long as Lillard is out, and the $100 million man is averaging 20.5 points per game in his follow-up to a 2021-22 breakout. Jerami Grant brings two-way appeal and, even in a small sample, lottery pick Shaedon Sharpe has shown highly intriguing flashes.

As with any early-season success story, the Blazers will need to prove it over a larger sample. Portland hasn’t faced the most difficult schedule to this point, with four games at home and two road games against scuffling opponents in Sacramento and Los Angeles. Still, the Blazers have shown enough to create some excitement, and the team’s next contest is a nationally televised showcase spot against Memphis on Wednesday, with Portland entering on three days rest.

Where do the Blazers stack up in this week’s DIME power rankings? Let’s explore the week two space.

1. Milwaukee Bucks (6-0, Last week — 1st)

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One NBA team remains unbeaten, making this an easy choice. Milwaukee has the best defensive rating (103.7) in the NBA to go along with Giannis and a proven group. The Bucks could certainly use Khris Middleton on offense and the schedule has been soft, but they’ve taken care of business.

2. Phoenix Suns (5-1, Last week — 3rd)

Phoenix is on a four-game winning streak, and the Suns have quality wins this season. The Suns have toppled the Pelicans, Warriors, Clippers, and Mavericks, with the team’s only loss coming by a single possession in a road game against Portland. Deandre Ayton is banged-up, but the Suns are still operating as a high-quality regular season entity.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers (5-1, Last week — 10th)

After a season-opening road loss in Toronto, Cleveland is on a five-game winning streak. The crown jewel is a road win over Boston, but Cleveland also beat up the Knicks over the weekend and blasted the Bulls earlier in the month. Donovan Mitchell is averaging 32.2 points per game in his new home, and Cleveland is scoring almost 1.17 points per possession as a team despite the absence of Darius Garland.

4. Boston Celtics (4-2, Last week — 4th)

Based on this season alone, the Celtics wouldn’t be this high. Boston looks fine, especially on offense, but the defense isn’t quite in high gear just yet (which isn’t a shock given the absence of Robert Williams). That led to a 132-point allowance to the Cavs (that pushed Cleveland above Boston on this list) and another loss to Chicago. No one should be worried, but that’s at least worth noting.

5. Portland Trail Blazers (5-1, Last week — 6th)

As noted above, the Blazers have a nice test on Wednesday against Memphis. After that comes road games in Phoenix (twice) and Miami, so we’ll learn a lot about Portland in the next week or so.

6. New Orleans Pelicans (4-2, Last week — 8th)

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Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson have appeared for three and four games respectively, and the Pelicans are 4-2. New Orleans has real depth (hello, Trey Murphy), and the Pelicans have a sparkling 117.5 offensive rating in the early going. There are steps to take to reincorporate Zion, but he looks good, and there is a ton of optimism in New Orleans.

7. Golden State Warriors (3-4, Last week — 2nd)

The Warriors are higher on this list than a typical team would be with this seven-game profile. Golden State is 3-4 after losing three games this week, Klay Thompson is struggling badly, and the Warriors are No. 23 in defense. Does this matter? We’ll see, but I lean to “no.”

8. Utah Jazz (6-2, Last week — 15th)

We covered the Jazz in depth a week ago and Utah went out and won three of the next four games. That included a mini-sweep of the Grizzlies and, against all odds, this group has a top-10 defensive rating. That is the end of the floor where the results are far less believable in the long term, but the Jazz are just playing well.

9. San Antonio Spurs (5-2, Last week — 16th)

The Josh Primo situation drew the headlines around the Spurs this week, and nothing about that is good. On the floor, the Spurs have won five of six, and they are the inverse of Golden State in that the profile might even be better than this ranking. To be fair, San Antonio has been out-scored for the season despite a 5-2 record, but it’s been an intriguing start.

10. Philadelphia 76ers (4-4, Last week — 20th)

It’s not as if the Sixers are suddenly firing on all cylinders, but they’ve won four of the last five. That was needed after an 0-3 start, and the Sixers are in the top eight of the NBA in offensive rating. Philadelphia’s defensive rating was 111.2 over the five-game uptick, and the panic has subsided at the very least.

11. Toronto Raptors (4-3, Last week — 17th)

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There was a 22-point loss in the middle, but the Raptors just beat the Heat, Sixers, and Hawks over an eight-day span. That run was punctuated by an absolute blasting of Atlanta on Monday, and Toronto’s roster weirdness was on full display. In a game without Fred VanVleet, the Raptors flooded the zone with 6’8 guys and forced Trae Young into 10 turnovers while torching Atlanta’s defense for 48 minutes.

12. Memphis Grizzlies (4-3, Last week — 7th)

Memphis dips after back-to-back losses to Utah. Given where the Jazz are on this list, those defeats aren’t as ugly as you may think, but the Grizzlies currently rank dead-last (!) in the NBA in defense. That isn’t going to continue, but they are getting lit up in the paint on defense and that needs to change.

13. Dallas Mavericks (3-3, Last week — 11th)

The underlying data is positive on Dallas despite a 3-3 record. The Mavericks have alternated losses and wins in every game, but the defeats came by two points, two points, and six points (in overtime). Luka Doncic has a usage rate of approximately 40 percent, which is wild, but it’s working for the most part.

14. Denver Nuggets (4-3, Last week — 12th)

It’s not a full-fledged concern yet, but the Nuggets are giving up almost 1.16 points per possession on defense. The offense remains good, and Nikola Jokic is an alien, but Denver has two losses of 20-plus points and it’s been a roller coaster to start.

15. Minnesota Timberwolves (4-3, Last week — 18th)

You would need 1,000 words to break down the start of Minnesota. The Wolves have played the Spurs three times already this season, and Minnesota also has two games against OKC, one against Utah, and one against the Lakers. Minnesota is 4-3, which is nice, but the offense is still rough and the defense craters anytime Rudy Gobert sits. They need time.

16. Atlanta Hawks (4-3, Last week — 9th)

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The Hawks ran into a Toronto buzzsaw on Monday, but that’s a one-off that shouldn’t inspire too much panic. Atlanta competed all the way to the end against Milwaukee on the road on a back-to-back and held serve against a soft early schedule. November brings more challenges for the Hawks, but the issue might be that the defense, particularly at the point of attack, hasn’t been fixed by Dejounte Murray’s arrival.

17. L.A. Clippers (3-4, Last week — 5th)

After four straight losses, the Clippers narrowly beat the lowly Rockets on Monday. Kawhi Leonard has played in four games and won’t be on a two-game trip this week. Encouragingly, the defense has been excellent, but the Clippers haven’t been able to score and, uh, they need Kawhi to play.

18. New York Knicks (3-3, Last week — 14th)

There is amusing synergy for the Knicks right now. New York is 3-0 at Madison Square Garden and 0-3 on the road. The Knicks also beat three bad teams in the Pistons, Magic, and Hornets, while losing to three good teams in the Grizzlies, Bucks, and Cavaliers. The next five games could be revealing, with New York facing Atlanta, Philadelphia, Boston, Minnesota, and Brooklyn in succession.

19. Chicago Bulls (3-4, Last week — 23rd)

Chicago travels to Brooklyn for a TNT battle on Tuesday that should be… interesting. The Bulls have been largely uninspiring through seven games, suffering losses to the Wizards and Spurs in addition to a throttling at home against Cleveland. DeMar DeRozan is doing his best to keep the offense afloat, but Zach LaVine has played in only four games and any hope of a Patrick Williams breakout may already be gone.

20. Oklahoma City Thunder (3-3, Last week — 29th)

The Thunder played legitimately impressive defense last season, at least until they shut everyone down. That might be happening again after a three-game winning streak in which OKC allowed only 101.3 points per 100 possessions. The Thunder are No. 7 in the league in defensive rating and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is generating 31.0 points and 7.0 assists per game. That’s not the worst baseline recipe.

21. Washington Wizards (3-4, Last week — 13th)

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Washington has lost four of five, and it might be time to worry. Bradley Beal had a rough season in 2021-22, and his usage rate is down. The Wizards’ bench is an adventure, especially with Delon Wright now injured, and Anthony Gill got a start at the end of the week. With Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Memphis on the schedule for the next three games, Washington might continue to slip.

22. Sacramento Kings (2-4, Last week — 21st)

After an 0-4 start, the Kings won back-to-back games over the Heat and Hornets. That explains the positioning on this list, and the duo of De’Aaron Fox and Kevin Huerter has it going on offense. Sacramento is going to need more from Domantas Sabonis on both ends, but all four losses came to quality teams, and the Kings might just be fine.

23. Charlotte Hornets (3-4, Last week — 13th)

It was a weird week for Charlotte. The Hornets went 1-3 with losses to Orlando (by 20 points) and Sacramento. The Hornets also beat the Warriors, so it wasn’t void of upside, but the highs are high and the lows are low.

24. Miami Heat (2-5, Last week — 22nd)

It’s early, but should there be some worry about the Heat? Miami’s record is one thing, but the Heat are below-average in both offensive and defensive rating, all while Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo have played in every game. There isn’t a single loss that is staggeringly bad, but the latest was a defeat in Sacramento, and only a good road win in Portland keeps the Heat from dropping further.

25. Brooklyn Nets (2-5, Last week — 19th)

Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are each averaging more than 30 points per game. That isn’t close to enough. Even if you look past the ongoing absurdity of Irving off the floor, the Nets can’t get stops and Brooklyn has to be a top-tier offense to have the success that is possible for this team. Through Monday, the Nets are No. 16 in offensive rating.

26. Indiana Pacers (3-5, Last week — 24th)

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Myles Turner went on a podcast with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and effectively made the case for the Lakers to trade for him. That is easy to make fun of, but it’s also a stark reminder of where the Pacers are right now. Turner promptly struggled in a loss to Brooklyn, and the Pacers are a bottom-five defensive team at the moment.

27. Los Angeles Lakers (1-5, Last week — 25th)

Hey, the Lakers won a game this week. Honestly, Los Angeles looked good in the win over Denver, hitting 13 three-pointers, and Russell Westbrook has been better since moving to the bench. The Lakers are probably (?) better than this, but they still maintain the worst offensive rating (100.3) in the NBA.

28. Detroit Pistons (2-6, Last week — 27th)

Detroit is talented and spunky. Detroit is also quite bad on defense, giving up almost 1.19 points per possession. All of that is fine and, particularly in the case of Jaden Ivey, the future is brighter than the present. The Pistons are getting the breakout from Cade Cunningham, though, with the second-year standout averaging 23.1 points, 6.8 assists, and 6.1 rebounds per contest through eight games.

29. Orlando Magic (1-6, Last week — 30th)

The Magic did blast the Hornets this week but 1-6 is 1-6. One encouraging sign is that Orlando hasn’t been blown out yet this season, and Paolo Banchero is cooking with gas. The rookie forward has led the team in scoring in five of the first seven games.

30. Houston Rockets (1-7, Last week — 28th)

Houston pushed the Clippers on Monday evening but ultimately succumbed to a fourth consecutive loss. Houston has the league’s worst record and net rating, with bottom-tier marks on both ends of the floor. Jabari Smith is scuffling a bit and, with the exception of offensive rebounding and individual work from Jalen Green, the Rockets aren’t impressing on offense.