We are three weeks into the season, and every NBA team has played between eight and 11 games. "Small sample size theater" is still a very real consideration, but is becoming less and less of a caveat with each passing game. Pretty soon, we'll reach a tipping point.
We'll be able to know, for instance, whether or not the Chicago Bulls losing at home to the Indiana Pacers (who were missing six - SIX - players due to injury) was them stubbing their toes, or an indictment of something larger. We'll learn if the Brooklyn Nets are just tired on a West Coast trip (0-3 this week), or if they're bad enough to fall out of the Eastern Conference playoff discussion. And the Atlanta Hawks will probably reveal whether it's Dr. Jekyll (victories over the Knicks, Jazz and Heat) or Mr. Hyde (their laughable showing against the Cavaliers on Saturday night).
But for now, we mix preseason expectations with the small sample size of the season and the even smaller sample size of the past week to create our Power Rankings. The Washington Wizards, Orlando Magic and New York Knicks will be profiled below; if there's another team you'd like us to write about, let us know in the comments. Previous week's ranking in parentheses.
1. Toronto Raptors (1)
2. Cleveland Cavaliers (5)
3. Chicago Bulls (4)
4. Washington Wizards (2)
The Raptors clearly deserved to retain top billing in the vaunted Fear the Sword Power Rankings, but the next three spots were pretty difficult to figure out. Chicago went into Toronto on Thursday and outscored the Raptors 35-14 in the third quarter on their way to a 100-93 victory, only to return home Saturday and lose to the shorthanded Pacers. The Bulls are two games ahead of the Cavaliers in the win column, but Cleveland has a head-to-head victory, went 3-0 this week, and genuinely appears to have started figuring things out.
Looking exclusively at records, the 7-2 Wizards ought to be the second ranked team in the East, but take a gander at who they've beaten: Indiana (twice), Orlando (twice), New York, Milwaukee and Detroit. The combined record of those teams is 27-48. The two times Washington has faced playoff-quality teams, they've lost by double digits (in Miami and in Toronto). Their weak schedule, combined with Cleveland's quality week and Chicago's relative success fighting through injuries, caused Randy Wittman's bunch to slide.
Washington is still a mystery, and will be until they play some more quality competition. They miss Trevor Ariza, but just how much? Otto Porter has been great, shooting 55/44/77 in 24 minutes off the bench, but Paul Pierce (the starter) has been abysmal (hitting 25 percent of his threes and 34 percent of his field goals overall). The Wizards have taken the third-fewest threes in the league and make fewer than a third of the ones they do attempt, though the return of Bradley Beal (which could come as soon as Friday versus the Cavs) will help both of these figures.
Wall, Gortat and Nene have been their old reliable selves, and Garrett Temple has been an admirable fill in while Beal has been away. The bench, save for Otto Porter, have mostly been net negatives, troubling given Washington's competition. We'll learn a lot more about the bench (and the rest of the team) before the month is over, as they face the Cavs (twice), Mavericks, Hawks and Pelicans before December 1st.
5. Atlanta Hawks (6)
6. Miami Heat (3)
7. Charlotte Hornets (7)
8. Orlando Magic (14)
Fie, fie, ye basketball gods. The same night Victor Oladipo, Orlando's top pick in the 2013 class, came back from the facial fracture that kept him out for nearly a month, the Magic's top choice from the 2014 draft, Aaron Gordon, had to leave with a fracture in his left foot. Jacque Vaughn's team isn't expected to compete for a playoff spot, but most preseason outlooks pegged Orlando as a potentially fun, athletic team with a developing young core. It's tough for the core to develop when they can't play together due to injury.
So, why is Orlando eighth in these rankings? For one thing, despite the injuries to their two young studs, the Magic have as many or more wins as any team below them. For another, they've hung tough in their recent losses. Their largest margin of defeat this season was 17 in an opening night loss to the Pelicans. Since then, they've hung tough in Chicago, Brooklyn, Toronto and Washington (average margin of defeat in those four road losses: 6.25 points). This week they beat the Knicks on the road, beat the Bucks handily at home, and pushed both the Raptors and Wizards on the road. Orlando's record is 4-7, but they might be better than many people realize.
How are they doing it? For one thing, they rely heavily on their starters (Evan Fournier, Tobias Harris, Nikola Vucevic and Channing Frye), who each average north of 34 minutes per game and all of whom are shooting high percentages for their positions. Luke Ridnour has been a stabilizing force as the second unit point guard, spelling Elfrid Payton, who plays with energy on the defensive end but struggles from the field. Payton is shooting 32 percent from the field so far this season.
The Magic reserves rank 27th in the league in bench scoring and Jacque Vaughn has yet to hit a rhythm with his rotations, mostly due to injuries. Orlando's backups are an odd mishmash of unproven youngsters and veterans past their prime, but if everyone can get healthy at once, this team might be better than previously thought.
9. Milwaukee Bucks (9)
10. Indiana Pacers (12)
11. Brooklyn Nets (8)
12. Detroit Pacers (13)
13. Boston Celtics (11)
14. New York Knicks (10)
In case you didn't know, the Knicks have some of the best bloggers on the internet covering them. Seriously, if you aren't reading Seth Rosenthal at Posting and Toasting and Robert Silverman and company at Knickerblogger, what are you even doing with your life? Nothing useful, that's what. Rosenthal and Silverman game recaps are appointment reading, in part because they're very funny, and in part because between the humor and good faces they put on the anguish of covering such a downtrodden organization is a TON of basketball knowledge to be soaked up.
My hope for them is that the team one day ascends to the level of its bloggersphere. Until then, the Knicks kind of suck, but the writing doesn't. You can skip the games, but check out the game recaps. Trust me.
15. Philadelphia 76ers (15)
Tank level, EXPERT.