In an 82-game NBA season, the first handful of games likely don’t provide much of an indication of how good teams are going to be come March and April. We’ve seen teams start well only to miss the playoffs. Conversely, there have been teams with slow starts that turn it around and make a serious postseason run.
While the long season allows teams to make up for their early season struggles, the best teams (typically) are consistent throughout the entirety of the campaign, winning plenty of games early and often. Basketball, maybe more than any other sport, is a game of momentum; doing positive things allows you to do those same things for a long stretch of time.
So, for the five teams at the top of our early-season power rankings, their momentum may be a sign of the success to come. Or perhaps they will fall off the radar within the next few weeks. Regardless, here are the best of the 2015-16 season’s early days.
5. Atlanta Hawks
One year removed from a 60-win campaign that saw them own the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and make a run to the conference finals, the Atlanta Hawks are soaring once again. After dropping their first contest in a surprising fashion to the Detroit Pistons at home, some thought that Atlanta was primed for a rocky campaign. However, they have swiftly silenced that criticism, winning their past games to put their first-week record at 5-1.
The Hawks are a team that simply plays a winning brand of basketball. They currently rank third in the league in assists, with about 24 per game, showing that they value getting all of their players involved in the offense. It makes sense that Atlanta would do this, because they have several players that can score. Led by Jeff Teague and Al Horford, the Hawks have five players that are averaging 10-plus points per game this season and a sixth in Kyle Korver, who has yet to find his groove beyond the arc. When you have an active offense of players that you have to pay attention to defensively, your team is going to succeed.
Another thing we like about this team is their defensive efficiency. They are in the top five in points per game and are forcing 17 turnovers per game as well. Atlanta has the ability to be a top-five team throughout the season, especially seeing as they play in the weaker Eastern Conference. It just remains to be seen if they can get over the hump when the games really matter.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
After an offseason unlike any other we’ve seen in NBA history, the Los Angeles Clippers came out firing to begin the season. They won their first four games before falling victim to the brilliance of the defending NBA champs on the road. But that loss doesn’t create any legitimate concerns for the Clippers. This is all coming off an epic collapse in the conference semifinals last season. For some, that situation would be devastating. For others, like the Clippers, it can be a major source of motivation. With the talent on this roster, it’s scary to think about how they might play for the season’s entirety with that newfound motivation.
In the center of that crazy offseason was, of course, DeAndre Jordan. He’s already proven why the Clippers wanted to retain his services so badly, snagging 13.4 boards to go along with 4 blocks per game. Coupled with the offensive (and defensive) capabilities of Blake Griffin — who is at about 28 points per game right now — and Chris Paul, L.A. has a legitimate trio who can carry them through the season. The supporting cast of veterans, like Paul Pierce and J.J. Redick, make this an intriguing team as well.
The West is always a tough draw come playoff time, but this is the year the Clippers have to step up and make a run at winning the conference. They have the talent. For now though, they easily feel like one of the best teams in the NBA.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers
When you have LeBron James on your side, it’s a good bet that your team is going to be among the best in the league. However, this Cleveland Cavaliers team has plenty of supporting talent to help “the King” on his quest for a third title. That talent has propelled the Cavs to a 4-1 record to begin the season, overcoming a tough loss at the hands of the Chicago Bulls to open the year. What’s scary is that this team is only going to get better as the season progresses.
Of course, there’s James doing his thing with 22 points, 7 rebounds, and nearly 6 assists per game. Those stats are expected. Kevin Love looks great to start the season as well. The third member of the Cavs’ “big three” (Kyrie Irving) hasn’t even seen the court yet, but this team is still rolling with the likes of J.R. Smith and Mo Williams. Cleveland has sneaky good depth, which could propel them back to the NBA Finals and allow them to win it this time around.
60 wins and a No. 1 seed are the minimum expectations for this team. A title is also a big part of that. They’ve spent the money and acquired the talent. We’ll see if this is the year that the franchise finally sees its first championship.
2. Toronto Raptors
The most surprising team of the five, the Toronto Raptors are one of two teams in the NBA that remain without a loss after their first five games. It’s not like the Raptors haven’t been a good team in past seasons. In fact, they were the No. 4 seed just last season in the East, although they got swept out of the postseason by the Washington Wizards in the first round.
Still, to think that they’ve started the season this well is attention-grabbing to say the least. It isn’t even as if Toronto has been rolling over the annual scrubs of the league either. They just beat Oklahoma City on the road and blew out the Milwaukee Bucks a few games back. With those wins, it might be time to take the Raptors seriously.
The duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan appears to be enough to propel this team toward another high seed in the playoffs. Further, the offseason pickup of the versatile and effective DeMarre Carroll could end up being one of the more underrated signings of the year. It’s clear that this team is playoff caliber, it just remains to be seen if they can win in the postseason (the franchise hasn’t done that in a long time). If they keep playing like they have so far, this could be the year they overcome that hurdle.
1. Golden State Warriors
Just like last season, the Golden State Warriors have come out of the gates firing. Also, just like last season, this team looks like they might remain the best team throughout the season. Their combination of players just works. Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, and (of course) Stephen Curry. Sounds like a familiar crop of players, doesn’t it? That corp led the Warriors to the title last season, and with the way they’ve begun the 2015 season, no team may be able to stop them on their quest to repeat.
In all but one of their first five games, the Warriors have won by double digits. Further, they had a victory over the Memphis Grizzlies by a score of 119-69. Curry is playing out of his mind, and Golden State is clicking on all cylinders. That’s why they are the best team so far. And they could very well retain the spot for most of the weeks throughout this NBA season.