As we round the first quarter of the NBA season, the best teams and true championship contenders are beginning to separate themselves.
We are well past the point in the season where we can begin to separate the good teams from the bad, but the best-of-the-best are increasingly creating space between themselves and the rest of the aspiring contenders.
Teams like the Grizzlies, Warriors, 76ers and Heat might improve as the season moves along, injuries heal and roster tweaks are made, eventually inserting themselves in the championship conversation. But right now we can hone in on just a handful of teams who have been most effective and appear to have the depth and versatility to make it through a variety of potential playoff matchups.
In no particular order, here are the NBA teams that appear to be separating themselves from the pack.
True contenders after the first quarter of the NBA season
The Bucks have the second-best record in the league at 15-5 and boast the best defense in the league, even though they rank just 17th in offensive efficiency. Their defense has been absolutely suffocating and dramatically better than it was in either of the last two seasons, relative to the league average. Having a healthy Brook Lopez in the middle has anchored things and he’s become the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year.
The Bucks’ offense is a concern as is a lack of depth, particularly on the wings. They were linked to a trade for Jae Crowder but that would have cost them Grayson Allen and it’s not clear how much that really would have helped. However, the Bucks do have a few aces up their sleeves — they’ve managed all of this without Khris Middleton who could make his season debut in the next few days. He’s a potential game-changer for the offense and will help address some of their depth issues. In addition, they have Joe Ingles who could return in January and make a huge difference with his combination of shooting, playmaking and defensive awareness.
Basically, the Bucks have been one of the best teams in the league through a quarter of the season and they’ve done it without two players who will likely be in the top six or seven of their rotation by the time the playoffs roll around.
The Celtics have the best record in the league and for that they can thank their historic offense. Through 22 games they’ve averaged 121.5 points per 100 possessions, five points per 100 possessions better than the next-best team, and the highest mark in NBA history. And, like the Bucks, they could be getting reinforcements as the season rolls along and Robert Williams is able to rejoin the lineup.
However, the Celtics have taken a big step back on defense, allowing 6.7 points per 100 possessions more than they did last year when a rock-solid defense helped spur their NBA Finals run. However, their defense likely has room for improvement with the potential return of Williams and reps as the season goes along. Basically, Boston could be hit be regression to the mean on offense, benefit from progression to the mean on defense and still end up as a top-five or top-10 team on both sides of the ball.
The Suns have been the best team in the Western Conference and rank in the top six in the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency. FiveThirtyEight’s Elo projection model gives them the best championship odds of any team in the crowded West, nearly double that of any other team.
And, like the Celtics and Bucks, there’s every reason to think their ceiling is much higher. Cameron Johnson and Chris Paul have played just 8 and 10 games, respectively, and both should be back in the lineup by the time the Suns are preparing for the playoffs. And then there is Jae Crowder who has yet to play this season but will eventually be traded for another rotation boost.
In the absence of those other pieces, Devin Booker has taken another leap, averaging 29.0 points, 5.8 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game on a 60.0 true shooting percentage, inserting himself into the inner circle of MVP candidates.
The Cavaliers are behind both the Celtics and Bucks in the standings but they are one of just three teams in the top-seven in the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency (along with the Suns and the next team on our list). The Cavaliers’ defense has been nearly as good as the Bucks and they have plenty of upside on that end of the floor as Evan Mobley continues to develop. Their offense should continue to improve as well as Donvan Mitchell and Darius Garland get more reps working together in the backcourt.
But the best indicator for the Cavs so far may be their performance against the league’s best. Their SRS (strength-of-schedule-adjusted point differential) is second in the league behind only the Celtics, who they have already beaten twice this season. They lost both of their games against the Bucks, handily, but have six of their last eight with victories of current playoff teams like the Hawks, 76ers and Trail Blazers.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans may seem like the odd one out here, given their relative inexperience, preseason expectations and the fact that they trail the Denver Nuggets in the standings. However, they’re the third team that currently ranks in the top seven in efficiency at both ends and their SRS of plus-5.92 is more than double that of any team in the West besides the Suns.
They may be lacking in high-end experience but they have the talent at both ends of the floor to match up with any team in the league and with useful trade bait at the bottom of their rotation — Jaxson Hayes and Devonte’ Graham — there’s a good chance they can add another key player before the NBA Trade Deadline. It feels weird to say it but right now the Pelicans might be the second-best team in the West.
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