SportsPulse: Trysta Krick breaks down this week in the never-ending soap opera that is the NBA.
USA TODAY Sports
On the surface, the Boston Celtics’ league-leading 12-game winning streak is impressive.
Beneath the surface, it’s historic.
The Celtics are the first team in NBA history to reel off a dozen consecutive wins after starting a season with back-to-back losses, and, per the Elias Sports Bureau, are the first team to go on a winning streak of at least 10 games with six rookies appearing in at least one game during that stretch.
Did we mention that, in addition to losing Gordon Hayward for the season on opening night, Kyrie Irving and Al Horford have both missed time as well, and that the Celtics boast the NBA’s best defense, allowing just 95.4 points per 100 possessions?
With four weeks down, here’s how we view the league’s current power structure. Voters, listed at the bottom of this page, include NBA reporters from across the USA TODAY Network.
1. Boston Celtics (12-2) | Last week: 1
This should come as no surprise. The Celtics, who are already 5 1/2 games ahead of Cleveland, are the real deal.
2. Golden State Warriors (10-3) | Last week: 2
The defending champs have won six consecutive games by a combined 129 points — a 21.5-point average margin of victory.
3. Houston Rockets (11-3) | Last week: 3
As far as early-season MVPs go, James Harden, who’s averaging 35.8 points on 49.2% shooting, 11.5 assists and five rebounds during Houston’s six-game winning streak, sits comfortably at the top.
4. Detroit Pistons (10-3) | Last week: 5
Winners of five in a row and eight of their last nine, it’s time to start taking these Pistons seriously. Tobias Harris is playing like an All-Star, Andre Drummond is leading the league in rebounds (15.6 per game) and Avery Bradley has “changed” Detroit’s demeanor, says coach Stan Van Gundy.
5. San Antonio Spurs (8-5) | Last week: 8
Kawhi Leonard, who has been sidelined since before the preseason with right quadriceps tendinopathy, is “coming along more slowly” than injured teammate Tony Parker, according to coach Gregg Popovich.
“It’s just been more difficult for him to get through the rehab routine,” Popovich said.
6. Denver Nuggets (8-5) | Last week: 21
Nikola Jokic has stolen all the headlines, but the Nuggets have to be ecstatic about Emmanuel Mudiay’s hot start. The third-year point guard, who has struggled with his shot early on in his career, is shooting 42.3% from the field and 46.9% from beyond the arc — significant improvements over his first two seasons.
7. Toronto Raptors (7-5) | Last week: 10
Could Kyle Lowry, who has scored 17 or more points on 52.7% shooting in his last three games after an uncharacteristically cold start to the season, be headed back to his All-Star ways?
8. Washington Wizards (7-5) | Last week: 9
Otto Porter Jr. — one of just two NBA players (Aaron Gordon) averaging at least 16 points on 55% shooting from the field and 50% from three — is proving to be worth every bit of that four-year, $106.5-million contract he signed over the summer.
9. Memphis Grizzlies (7-5) | Last week: 7
Mike Conley, who’s dealing with a sore left Achilles, has the lowest shooting percentages (39.7% from the field, 31.4% from three) of his 11-year career, but coach David Fizdale is confident that the star point guard will “get his legs underneath him and will get rolling.”
10. Minnesota Timberwolves (7-5) | Last week: 4
Just when things started looking up for the T’Wolves, they dropped two consecutive games, the second of which came on Saturday against a Phoenix team that entered the night on a five-game losing streak.
11. Orlando Magic (8-5) | Last week: 11
The Magic have come back down to earth a bit, losing three of their last five, but have nonetheless been one of the league’s biggest surprises throughout the early portion of the season, ranking in the top 10 in both offensive and net rating, three-pointers made and three-point percentage.
12. New Orleans Pelicans (7-6) | Last week: 15
The Pelicans are on the right track — they’ve won four of their last five and Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins are dominating — but they need more consistency out of Jrue Holiday. The $126-million man followed up Thursday’s 34-point, 11-assist outing with six points and seven turnovers on Saturday.
13. Portland Trail Blazers (6-6) | Last week: 6
Portland has lost all six games this season by an average of 5.3 points, the lowest in the league. Two of those losses (Memphis, Los Angeles Clippers) were decided by one point.
14. Oklahoma City Thunder (6-7) | Last week: 12
Tumultuous as the beginning of the season has been for the Thunder, the recent play of Paul George — he has a combined 79 points on 25-of-44 shooting, 17 rebounds, 12 assists and five steals in Oklahoma City’s past two games — has given fans a much-needed sigh of relief.
15. New York Knicks (7-5) | Last week: 16
You have to admire how the Knicks took exception to LeBron James’ comments that the team should have drafted Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. with the No. 8 overall pick instead of Frank Ntilikina.
“I don’t know why he made those comments,” star big man Kristaps Porzingis, who has already scored 30 or more points in eight games this season, said. “But all I can say is we love Frank. We’re happy with him. He’s doing a great job. He’s playing great and he’s doing what he’s supposed to. I would not change Frank for anybody. Simple.”
16. Milwaukee Bucks (6-6) | Last week: 20
The addition of Eric Bledsoe led to a move to the bench for 2016-17 Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, which the Bucks hope will help bolster their second unit in the long run.
“Acquiring Eric really allows us to be a deeper team, to be able to bring better players off the bench, to keep coming at teams with strong guards and strong players,” Brodgon said following Saturday night’s win over the Lakers.
17. Cleveland Cavaliers (6-7) | Last week: 23
LeBron James, who turns 33 in December, is averaging a league-high 38.3 minutes per game — his highest mark since the 2010-11 season with Miami. Add in his ailing left ankle and you can’t help but wonder: Is he being run into the ground?
18. Philadelphia 76ers (6-6) | Last week: 14
Since joining the starting lineup, last season’s Rookie of the Year runner-up Dario Saric is averaging 14 points and six rebounds and the Sixers have won five of seven games.
19. Miami Heat (6-7) | Last week: 24
Dion Waiters made headlines after his dive to the floor in Friday night’s win left Utah’s Rudy Gobert with a bone bruise in his right leg. Gobert, who’s expected to miss at least four weeks with the injury, dubbed the play as dirty, to which Waiters responded, “I’ve never been a dirty player in my life. I went for the ball. Tell him to get out of his feelings.”
20. Los Angeles Clippers (5-7) | Last week: 13
The Clippers have been without Patrick Beverley for two games, Danilo Gallinari for three and Milos Teodosic since the second game of the season. But as losers of five consecutive games and seven of their last eight, this team’s issues go deeper than the injury bug.
21. Utah Jazz (6-7) | Last week: 17
It’s a small sample size, sure, but Derrick Favors shined in his first game as Utah’s starting center in Rudy Gobert’s absence, putting up 24 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks in a win over Brooklyn on Saturday. It was his highest scoring total since the 2015-16 season.
22. Indiana Pacers (6-8) | Last week: 19
Domantas Sabonis, once viewed on the wrong side of the Paul George trade, is leading the Pacers in plus-minus (plus-2.9), rebounds (9.8 per game) and field goal percentage (63%).
23. Los Angeles Lakers (5-8) | Last week: 22
Lonzo Ball’s shooting struggles (31.4% from the field, 25% from three) are amplified by the spotlight, but other aspects of his game — he’s already the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double and ranks second among rookies in assists and rebounds per game — have given fans a glimpse of his true potential.
24. Charlotte Hornets (5-7) | Last week: 18
The good news for the Hornets, who are in a four-game tailspin and face Cleveland (twice), Minnesota, San Antonio and Washington to finish the month? Starting shooting guard Nicolas Batum is on the verge of returning from the elbow injury that has kept him sidelined since early October.
25. Brooklyn Nets (5-8) | Last week: 26
Early reports indicate that D’Angelo Russell avoided a major knee injury in Saturday night’s loss to Utah — comforting news for a Nets team that lost Jeremy Lin for the season on opening night. The third-year guard has been Brooklyn’s best player thus far, averaging 20.9 points, 5.7 assists and 4.7 rebounds.
26. Phoenix Suns (5-9) | Last week: 25
Devin Booker and TJ Warren each scored 35 points in Phoenix’s win over Minnesota on Saturday, the first time two Suns teammates scored 35 or more points since Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire did so in 2008.
27. Sacramento Kings (3-9) | Last week: 30
Sacramento followed up two impressive wins — one against Oklahoma City, the other against Philadelphia — with a 27-point drubbing at the hands of the Knicks. Behold … Kings basketball.
28. Atlanta Hawks (2-11) | Last week: 27
The Hawks, who have made the playoffs in each of the past 10 seasons, have 11 losses before December for the first time since 2005.
29. Chicago Bulls (2-9) | Last week: 28
The Bulls were trounced on Saturday night by the Spurs, who were without six players and three starters. Eight San Antonio players scored in double figures, including household names like Brandon Paul, Bryn Forbes, Davis Bertans and Kyle Anderson.
30. Dallas Mavericks (2-12) | Last week: 29
Owner Mark Cuban says the Mavs won’t tank until they’re officially eliminated from playoff contention. That day may be just around the corner.
This week’s voters: USA TODAY Sports’ Sam Amick, Jeff Zillgitt, Michael Singer and AJ Neuharth-Keusch; Detroit Free Press’ Vince Ellis; Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Matt Velazquez; The Record’s Steve Popper; The Indianapolis Star’s Clifton Brown; HoopsHype’s Raul Barrigon