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Power Rankings

No Surprise: Heat and Thunder Start Strong

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Jan 2 2012 11:33AM

We're 65 games into the 2011-12 season, and yes, it's off to an ugly start. As a whole, the league is scoring just 99.8 points per 100 possessions, a dip of 2.7 points per 100 possessions from a similar marker last year (nine days, 64 games).

That number is comparable to the 2.8 points-per-100-possessions drop that the league suffered in the 1998-99 season, following a longer lockout. Further, pace is down more than two possessions per team per 48 minutes from this time last season. So while we're not seeing the ugliness that we saw in '99, we are seeing a similar drop-off from the previous season's numbers.

Of course, it's still very early and the league has plenty of time to recover. And there are several teams that are doing just fine.

Before the season, most of us saw the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder as the favorites in their respective conferences. So while it's crazy to see the Celtics lose their first three games and the Mavs start 1-4, it's no real surprise that the Heat and Thunder are our only undefeated teams after eight days.

Those teams top the first Power Rankings of the 2011-12 season and should remain near the top throughout the year.

• Preseason rankings: After preseason, Heat are on top

• This time last year: Quality wins put Spurs back on top - The Heat had won 17 of their last 18, Caron Butler blew out his knee, the Jazz had the same record as the Lakers, the Wolves won three out of four, and Tyreke Evans did this.

Hero Team of the Week: Chicago (4-1) - The Bulls looked weak on the second night of a back-to-back in Oakland, but still had a strong trip and came home to spank the Grizzlies.
Zero Team of the Week: New Jersey (1-4) - Only a comeback in Washington on opening night kept the Nets from starting the season 0-5.

Plus-minus Stud: Luol Deng (CHI) is a plus-67 through five games.
Plus-minus Dud: Shawn Marion (DAL) is a minus-78 through five games.

High jumps of the week: Atlanta (+7), Portland (+7), Denver (+6)
Free falls of the week: Dallas (-17), Memphis (-13), New Jersey (-8)

East vs. West: The East is 11-9 (.550) against the West in inter-conference games this season.

1 Miami (5-0)
Pace: 102.6 (1), Off: 107.4 (1), Def: 94.5 (6)
It's both strange and scary to see the Heat hitting game-winners and leading the league in pace and fast-break points (almost 25 per 100 possessions) after ranking 21st and 12th in those categories last season. The No. 1 offense faces two (early) top five defenses (Atlanta and Indiana) in their next three games.
Previous: 1

2 Oklahoma City (5-0)
Pace: 96.8 (9), Off: 105.9 (5), Def: 99.4 (15)
The Thunder offense ranks fourth overall and Kevin Durant is the league's third-leading scorer, but as a group, the OKC starters are scoring less than 90 points per 100 possessions. Though James Harden is shooting just 42 percent, the team has been much better offensively when he's been on the floor.
Previous: 3

3 Chicago (4-1)
Pace: 93.9 (17), Off: 106.4 (4), Def: 96.7 (10)
After a couple of ugly games against the Lakers and Warriors (salvaged by Derrick Rose's game-winner in L.A.), the Bulls' offense flipped the switch and scored almost 115 points per 100 possessions against the Kings, Clippers and Grizzlies, with Rose winning his entertaining duel against Chris Paul.
Previous: 4

4 San Antonio (3-1)
Pace: 94.8 (13), Off: 102.6 (12), Def: 99.0 (14)
Manu Ginobili is shooting 60 percent, DeJuan Blair has been beastly, and the Spurs have looked great overall. But they got spanked in Houston on the second night of their first back-to-back. They have two back-to-backs this week, and the second games are against Dallas (at home) and Oklahoma City (away).
Previous: 5

5 Portland (3-1)
Pace: 100.2 (4), Off: 102.5 (13), Def: 93.3 (3)
Jamal Crawford hasn't been shy about getting his shots off the bench (he ranks 12th in usage rate), but the Blazers will have one of the most balanced offense in the league. Already, five different Blazers have had a game of at least 20 points. And scoring depth should be a real advantage in a condensed season.
Previous: 12

6 Orlando (4-1)
Pace: 92.0 (27), Off: 105.2 (7), Def: 97.8 (13)
Ryan Anderson is taking advantage of his new starting gig alongside Dwight Howard, hoisting 45 threes in five games. That puts him on pace to eclipse Baron Davis' record of 8.7 3-point attempts per game in 2003-04. It helps that Anderson has hit 21 of the 45. Davis shot 32 percent from downtown that year.
Previous: 11

7 Denver (3-2)
Pace: 101.6 (2), Off: 104.0 (9), Def: 94.5 (5)
After his blown lay-up on Saturday and go-ahead lay-up on Sunday, it's clear that Danilo Gallinari is the cherry-pickingest player in the league. But when you're 3-for-23 from 3-point range, you need those layups when you can get 'em. The Nuggets play six of their next eight games at home against mostly bad teams.
Previous: 13

8 L.A. Lakers (3-3)
Pace: 93.4 (22), Off: 98.5 (18), Def: 94.8 (7)
Mike Brown had the Laker defense playing well even before Andrew Bynum returned from suspension. And his new starting lineup was dominant (plus-19 in 24 minutes) in its first two games. But the offense is as Kobe-centric as ever, with Bryant leading the league in usage rate by a wide margin.
Previous: 6

9 New York (2-2)
Pace: 94.0 (16), Off: 101.6 (14), Def: 102.4 (20)
Carmelo Anthony's role as point-forward hasn't prevented him from getting to the line (a Dwight Howard-esque) 47 times in four games. Injuries have already forced four guys in the Knicks' rotation to miss time, but they play their next five games against the Raptors, Bobcats (twice), Wizards and Pistons.
Previous: 8

10 Boston (2-3)
Pace: 92.8 (24), Off: 104.4 (8), Def: 104.2 (22)
Paul Pierce is back and all is right in Boston. Pierce is thought of as the Celtics' best offensive player, but his return (sending Sasha Pavlovic back to the end of the bench) really stabilized the C's defense more than anything. Boston's four All-Stars were a plus-16 in 31 minutes together over the last two games.
Previous: 9

11 Atlanta (3-1)
Pace: 92.1 (26), Off: 107.2 (2), Def: 94.3 (4)
The Hawks won the Atlanta-Jersey-Washington round robin to start the season, but got outplayed in Houston when the Rockets were playing the third night of a back-to-back-to-back. Jeff Teague is making an impact in the starting lineup, shooting 57 percent, with 22 of his 37 shots coming from inside of five feet.
Previous: 18

12 Indiana (3-1)
Pace: 95.0 (12), Off: 94.6 (24), Def: 89.7 (1)
The Pacers actually fell off defensively when Frank Vogel took over for Jim O'Brien last season. They've got the No. 1 defense through eight days this year, but their first four opponents have a cumulative record of 5-12. After they visit the Nets on Monday, they've got trips to Miami and Boston to test that improved D.
Previous: 14

13 L.A. Clippers (2-2)
Pace: 93.6 (21), Off: 103.8 (10), Def: 107.8 (30)
Does the league's worst defense really reside in Lob City? Yes and No. The Clippers' D got absolutely scorched (123 points per 100 possessions) in their losses to the Spurs and Bulls, but allowed just 93 points per 100 in their wins over the Warriors and Blazers. They play just two games in the next eight days.
Previous: 10

14 Houston (2-2)
Pace: 93.6 (20), Off: 105.4 (6), Def: 101.4 (19)
The Rockets' top three lineups are a plus-37 in 83 minutes together, playing ridiculously efficient offense with Kyle Lowry leading the league in assists per game. But it looks like their bench will again be their Achilles heal. They've got a tough week ahead, with two games in L.A. and a home-and-home with OKC.
Previous: 16

15 Philadelphia (2-2)
Pace: 96.4 (11), Off: 106.5 (3), Def: 96.4 (9)
The Sixers should have beat the Jazz on Friday, but they have a chance (with a win in New Orleans on Wednesday) to take a 3-2 record into their home opener. That's a good start, considering that they lost 10 of their first 11 road games last season. Their starters are allowing less than 80 points per 100 possessions.
Previous: 15

16 Golden State (2-2)
Pace: 93.9 (18), Off: 95.7 (21), Def: 100.5 (17)
The Warriors were missing Stephen Curry for one game and Monta Ellis for another, but still managed to pick up two quality wins last week. It's early, but strange to see GSW playing slow. They've ranked in the top 10 in pace in 29 of the last 30 years. Maybe Mark Jackson is bringing the official end to Nellie-ball.
Previous: 19

17 Milwaukee (2-1)
Pace: 97.6 (6), Off: 101.4 (16), Def: 92.4 (2)
Shooting 30 percent, Stephen Jackson hasn't exactly given the Bucks' offense a lift. But Brandon Jennings is off to an efficient start thanks to an increased free throw rate. The Bucks' defense has been great, but the Bobcats, Wolves and Wizards haven't provided much of a test. One will come in Denver on Monday.
Previous: 17

18 Minnesota (1-3)
Pace: 100.3 (3), Off: 98.6 (17), Def: 96.3 (8)
Ricky Rubio has brought a lot more than slick passing to the NBA. The Wolves are scoring 103 points per 100 possessions with Rubio on the floor, and just 93 with him on the bench. They're just 1-3, but it's clear they're going to be more competitive than they've been since trading Kevin Garnett.
Previous: 22

19 Dallas (1-4)
Pace: 97.9 (5), Off: 95.3 (23), Def: 104.9 (24)
That the Mavs are a different team is not a surprise. That they're 1-4 and allowing opponents to shoot a league-high 49 percent certainly is. Their schedule has been tough and eases up a little bit now, but they still face the Thunder (at home on Monday), Spurs and Celtics in the next 10 days.
Previous: 2

20 Memphis (1-3)
Pace: 97.1 (8), Off: 90.9 (28), Def: 100.8 (18)
Zach Randolph's fall in Chicago on Sunday was the scariest moment of the first eight days, so it's good to hear that Z-Bo only suffered a bruise. But after Dallas, the Grizzlies are the most disappointing team in the league thus far. games against the Kings, Wolves and Jazz could help them get on track this week.
Previous: 7

21 Sacramento (2-3)
Pace: 94.6 (14), Off: 98.0 (19), Def: 104.7 (23)
The Kings went from the high of Gavin Maloof pounding his chest near the end of a win over the Lakers to the low of Paul Westphal releasing a statement about how DeMarcus Cousins is "unwilling/unable to embrace traveling in the same direction as his team." Actually, maybe the Maloof thing wasn't so great.
Previous: 26

22 New Orleans (2-2)
Pace: 90.5 (29), Off: 93.5 (26), Def: 97.4 (12)
The Hornets are the best rebounding team in the league thus far. That's a good thing, because there are a lot of rebounds to be had when you can't make a shot. Eric Gordon can help with the shooting issues, but he's missed the last three games and is expected to miss Monday's game in Utah too.
Previous: 23

23 Phoenix (1-3)
Pace: 92.9 (23), Off: 96.2 (20), Def: 100.2 (16)
The first eight days have produced some strange numbers around the league. Among them, Channing Frye's career-high 16 rebounds in the Suns' win in New Orleans on Friday. The Suns were still outboarded by 10 in that game and are a bottom-five rebounding team once again. Frye, meanwhile, is shooting 6-for-31.
Previous: 21

24 Cleveland (2-2)
Pace: 93.7 (19), Off: 101.4 (15), Def: 96.9 (11)
After allowing the Raptors to shoot 53 percent, the Cavs held their next three opponents to just 90 points per 100 possessions. And they shot 23-for-38 from 3-point range in their two wins. Kyrie Irving is the future, but their bench backcourt of Ramon Sessions and Daniel Gibson was a plus-35 for the week.
Previous: 29

25 Toronto (1-3)
Pace: 90.7 (28), Off: 103.0 (11), Def: 105.9 (26)
The Raptors' defense hasn't looked all that improved just yet, and they've dropped three straight. But they hung tight with the Pacers, led the Mavs late in the third quarter, and led the Magic by 11 in the fourth. Jose Calderon has been ridiculously efficient offensively, shooting better than 50 percent.
Previous: 28

26 Utah (1-3)
Pace: 96.5 (10), Off: 94.5 (25), Def: 106.9 (27)
The Mehmet Okur trade made it clear that this season in Utah is about player development. So we'll often use this space to evaluate the progress of Gordon Hayward, who hit a big shot against Philly, and Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, who both rank in top six in the league in defensive rebounding percentage.
Previous: 27

27 Detroit (1-3)
Pace: 90.1 (30), Off: 95.5 (22), Def: 106.9 (28)
There's not a coach around who deserved a win more this weekend than Lawrence Frank, who's 20-game losing streak came to an end with the Pistons' victory over the Pacers on Saturday. That one was big, because Detroit's next six games are against the Magic, Bulls (twice), Sixers, Knicks and Mavs.
Previous: 24

28 New Jersey (1-4)
Pace: 92.6 (25), Off: 90.5 (29), Def: 105.0 (25)
After 20 games in Turkey, Deron Williams should have been relatively sharp to start the season. Instead, he's shooting 35 percent with almost as many turnovers (24) as assists (28). It doesn't help that Williams' supporting cast is pretty awful without Brook Lopez and that the Nets' schedule is toughest early.
Previous: 20

29 Charlotte (1-3)
Pace: 97.4 (7), Off: 92.4 (27), Def: 107.8 (29)
The Bobcats played two games against the Heat last week. One was a heartbreaker, the other a blowout. Either way, they're probably happy that they don't see Miami again until April 13. Not that their upcoming schedule is easy. Sunday's loss in began a stretch where they play 15 of 22 on the road.
Previous: 30

30 Washington (0-4)
Pace: 94.4 (15), Off: 87.4 (30), Def: 103.7 (21)
The Wizards probably wish they could have back their opener against New Jersey. They blew that one (twice) and are the only winless team remaining after eight days. Worse, their next three games are at Boston, at Orlando, and home against New York. After that, they get the Wolves and Raptors at home.
Previous: 25

* * *

Pace:
Possessions per 48 minutes (League Rank)
Off: Points scored per 100 possessions (League Rank)
Def: Points allowed per 100 possessions (League Rank)
The league is averaging 95.1 possessions (per team) per 48 minutes and 99.8 points scored per 100 possessions.

NBA.com's Power Rankings are just one man's opinion and are released every Monday during the season. If you've got an issue with the rankings, or have a question or comment for John Schuhmann, send him an e-mail. You can also follow him on twitter.

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