Breaking down the top five teams
5-on-5 Roundtable: Let's debate which have been the best teams in the league so far
Marc Stein gave his take on the top teams in the association so far this season. Now our 5-on-5 crew gives its thoughts on the Power Rankings through three weeks.
1. Which team is currently the fifth-best in the NBA?
Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: Philadelphia Sixers.
It feels weird even saying it. But with the NBA's third-youngest team, and five straight road games to open, they have just killed teams with one blowout win after another. I don't expect them to be on this list forever, but they belong here now.
Chad Ford, ESPN.com: Philadelphia Sixers.
Doug Collins continues to works miracles in Philly. They have the best defense in the NBA right now, are getting great play from all of their starters, a breakout performance in the middle from Spencer Hawes. There's a good chance they might take the Atlantic this year.
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN.com: Philadelphia Sixers.
They might be the most impressive team in the NBA right now, considering they've absolutely crushed their opponents thus far. Even accounting for the schedule, the plus-107 point differential still makes me weak in the knees.
David Thorpe, Scouts Inc.: There are a few candidates here, but I like how the San Antonio Spurs have started the season, even with the injury to Manu.
DeJuan Blair is back to being the nastiest beast in the league and is still shocking people with his ability to finish. That is helping them become a very difficult team to defend.
Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com.: Philadelphia Sixers.
The Sixers' start is remarkable not just because it took them two weeks to get a home game but because they are blowing the competition off the floor. Other than the home/road issue, it hasn't been a super tough schedule so far, but who cares if you're slaughtering the opposition? The defensive numbers are strong, and the team is eight deep. Plus, could anyone have seen this start coming for Spencer Hawes? The guy is an All-Star candidate right now.
2. Which team is currently the fourth-best in the NBA?
Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: Oklahoma City Thunder.
The offense is humming, even if the defense needs work. But the Heat are the only other team with eight wins, and the Thunder have earned those wins despite a dense early schedule.
Maybe it's not such a bad thing when a team loses its superstar. The Nuggets look to be even stronger without Carmelo in the lineup. They are the scoring the second-most points of any team in the league (behind the Heat) while playing respectable defense on the other end. There's no superstar here, but I think George Karl likes it that way.
I think they'll end up at No. 2 by season's end but have to dock them for double-digit losses to Dallas and Portland. The Eric Maynor loss will hurt, too. The late-game heroics from Kevin Durant just aren't sustainable, as much as I love watching the shots -- and hitting the rewind button 100 times over.
They are not in the top three, yet, because they are emerging from one identity to another, and that takes time. No longer the young upstarts who fight and defend, they are the heavy favorites most nights, and I have not seen the same fire. Like the Spurs, they can be very dangerous if their defensive intensity picks up.
Along with Denver and Philadelphia, one of the most pleasant surprises of the early going. Take a look at the teams the Blazers have beaten so far; they have several quality wins already. This team has no fewer than six players averaging 10 or more points, the sort of depth that should serve them well in this type of season.
3. Which team is currently the third-best in the NBA?
Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: Denver Nuggets.
No matter what Danny Nowell says, it's a good thing people are starting to notice how incredibly efficient this team is now that George Karl has the kind of "run through walls" players he has long craved.
Chad Ford, ESPN.com: Oklahoma City Thunder.
Despite all of the early-season drama (thanks, Russell Westbrook) and a major injury (Eric Maynor's ACL tear), the Thunder are still rolling behind a huge start for Kevin Durant and the inspired play of James Harden. It's early, but the Thunder look as good as advertised.
These guys are pretty great, and they haven't even touched their ceiling yet. Consider this: Sharpshooters Danilo Gallinari, Arron Afflalo, Ty Lawson and Rudy Fernandez are collectively shooting 26.2 percent from downtown so far, and they're 6-3. When -- not if -- they get going, blowout city.
I think maybe the Nuggets didn't "get killed" when they traded Melo, as Masai Ujiri said at the post-trade presser. Their speed is trumped only by their willingness to play "we ball" instead of "me ball," so they feature different heroes every night. Top-seven in offense and defense against a monster schedule.
Is it me, or does it seem as if the Thunder play every night? No one has had more games to start the season than the Thunder, and, predictably, their young roster has handled it well, as OKC has just torn through a back-to-back-to-back. Kevin Durant's scoring is down and the team is still winning; that is a good thing.
4. Which team is currently the second-best in the NBA?
Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: Chicago Bulls.
The offense is better than ever, and the defense is rounding into form. Wins have generally been big, and against quality opponents like the Magic, Hawks, Lakers, Clippers and Grizzlies.
That loss to the Hawks was ugly, but every team is going to have a couple of those with this compacted schedule. Otherwise, the Bulls look for real. Derrick Rose is starting to find his groove. Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng are all doing their things. And Taj Gibson might be the most underrated defender in the league.
With C.J. Watson and Rip Hamilton hurting, this team will struggle to score easily, but with the way the defense is playing, that might not matter. The Bulls will need more out of Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose, but that will come eventually.
The Bulls are now a team running on every cylinder but one (Carlos Boozer still trying to fit in). They know who they are, and they trust their coach at all times. That alone is a powerful combination. Mix in D-Rose and soon-to-be-named All-Star Luol Deng and they have the talent to make big plays when their "system" puts them in position to win.
The Chicago defense is just so impressive, and the Bulls have gotten off to such a great start with a challenging schedule. Seven of their first nine games were on the road. This is with Rip Hamilton hurt. This team and the Heat are posed to have quite a battle for the top seed in the East.
5. Which team is currently the best in the NBA?
Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: Miami Heat.
Here's one reason: The Pacers almost made my top five, and the Heat killed them, as they have almost everybody.
Chad Ford, ESPN.com: Miami Heat.
What can I really say? This is the team we thought they'd be last year.
Check out their eye-popping point differential (it's more than those of the Clippers, Lakers and Thunder combined), then remember they've played more than half their total minutes without the third-best player in the NBA -- Dwyane Wade -- on the floor. Yikes.
David Thorpe, Scouts Inc.: Miami Heat.
First it was said that Wade and LeBron couldn't play together. I just snickered. Then it was "It's just the 'Big Two.'" On behalf of Mr. Bosh, I was offended. Now they are proving, as they did through much of spring 2011, that all three guys can anchor a terrific team. And finally, they traded old and busted for young and energetic and talented. This team, with those young pieces and the injuries to Wade and Bron, can get so much better over time. Yep, much better.
The Heat are 5-0 on the road and have withstood injuries to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade early. They have the best offense in the league, posting huge jumps from a year ago despite the leaguewide reduction in scoring. So far, they have executed the plan they put in place in training camp.