More than five games into the 2019-20 NBA season for every team, which franchises are emerging as the very best and worst?
The Western Conference features the Los Angeles Lakers at the top of the standings, followed by a cluster of strong contenders. Things look about the same in the East, with the Boston Celtics at No. 1.
Which contender has the advantage right now in each conference? Which team appears most likely to end up at the top of the lottery?
Our NBA experts weigh in.
1. The best team in the Eastern Conference is …
Tim Bontemps: The Philadelphia 76ers. Yes, they lost to the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns this week, but their defense looks just as imposing as expected, and Joel Embiid has played like an MVP candidate (when he isn’t fighting Karl-Anthony Towns). There are still things to sort out — notably, the lack of shooting — but this team is the cream of the crop in the East.
Kirk Goldsberry: The Milwaukee Bucks, a true two-way machine. They’re 6-2 and lead the NBA in net rating. In the past five games, they’ve paired the No. 1 offense in the NBA with the No. 10 defense. Although the Sixers’ defense is strong, their offensive numbers can’t compete with Milwaukee’s. Check this out: The Bucks rank first in the NBA in effective field goal percentage and second in turnover rate. Philly ranks 16th and 27th in those key indicators. Milwaukee is a more complete team right now.
Andrew Lopez: The Bucks. Although they dropped a game to the one-loss Celtics, I’m giving Milwaukee the edge. The Bucks have four wins by double digits, and three of those were by at least 17 points. On Wednesday, they held off a tough LA Clippers team, though that was without Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
Kevin Pelton: The 76ers. When we account for the effects of the Embiid-Towns fight, the Sixers have played the best so far this season. The fallout obviously affected Philadelphia, which went 1-1 during Embiid’s suspension, thanks to Furkan Korkmaz‘s game-winning 3 in Portland. But it also helped the Bucks, who boat raced the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday with Towns sitting out.
Jorge Sedano: The 76ers. Their size is unmatched, and they make you pay for it. Philly is great on the offensive glass and has averaged 15.3 second-chance points per game. The Sixers’ length also helps them generate points off turnovers: They average the second-most points per game off turnovers, and they’re seventh in defensive rating. They have the most talent in the East, and it’s showing.
2. The best team in the Western Conference is …
Goldsberry: The Los Angeles Lakers. After their opening loss to their in-arena rivals, they’ve won six straight. In his postgame interview Tuesday, LeBron James said the team’s goal is to have the best defense in the NBA. So far the Lakers’ defense looks great behind a resurgent Dwight Howard and a fleet of versatile defenders such as Danny Green, Anthony Davis and James himself. Defense wins championships, and as this group becomes more comfortable with one another, they’ll only get better on that end.
Lopez: The Clippers, with Kawhi Leonard. When Leonard plays, the Clippers are 5-1, with the only loss coming to Phoenix. Without Leonard, they dropped a 14-point game to Utah and lost a close one to the Bucks at home.
Pelton: The Lakers. With Howard providing exactly the kind of defense and finishing that the Lakers needed alongside stars Davis and James, the Lakers boast the league’s second-best defensive rating. Although that might not continue, the Lakers have plenty of room for improvement on offense if somebody besides Green ever makes a 3-pointer.
Sedano: The Lakers. James looks like he has shaken off the rust he talked about after the opener, and this pairing of two top-five players has certainly paid dividends. Davis is averaging a career-high 11.6 shot attempts within 10 feet of the basket — and it’s by design: Frank Vogel has not been shy about posting up his dynamic superstar. Speaking of Vogel, he deserves a lot of credit for instilling a defensive mindset for his team.
Bontemps: The Clippers. They might not have the best record, but they remain the best team, especially considering that Paul George hasn’t played a game yet. As with the Sixers, there are some concerns here. One is a lack of creators offensively, though having Leonard, Lou Williams and eventually George isn’t exactly a bad thing.
3. The worst team in the Eastern Conference is …
Lopez: Poor New York Knicks fans. The Knicks are one of two teams averaging fewer than 100 points per game, and they have a league-worst minus-10.5 net rating. Head coach David Fizdale is still trying to figure out what lineups work, and it figures to be another long season for New York. But RJ Barrett might average 40.0 minutes a game, so there at least will be plenty of time to watch the rookie work.
Pelton: The Knicks. Predictably, the Knicks’ excess of power forwards has led to trouble spacing the floor when they play defensive-minded center Mitchell Robinson and trouble stopping anyone when Bobby Portis replaces Robinson in the middle. To their credit, the Knicks have kept playing hard after falling behind early, and Elfrid Payton‘s return will help their offense. But this team is ill-constructed to win games.
Sedano: The Knicks. This one was easy. Although the Knicks hung tough in a few games early, their inexperienced and mismatched roster has reared its ugly head. New York is ranked 29th on offense, 24th on defense and tied for 27th in pace.
Bontemps: The Knicks. Things have gone just as expected at Madison Square Garden, with only one late comeback against the Chicago Bulls keeping the Knicks from being winless thus far. All of the concerns about the way the roster was put together have been realized, as have the doubts that this team could be competitive. While RJ Barrett has played well — and his development, in the end, is the most important thing to come out of this season — it certainly seems like the Knicks are headed for yet another awful season.
Goldsberry: The Knicks, whose 1-7 record includes losses to other cellar-dwellers such as the Orlando Magic and Sacramento Kings. As a group, New York can neither score nor defend, but the big bright spot is rookie Barrett, who is off to a strong start despite being thrown out of the nest. He’s leading the team in minutes, points and usage. Unfortunately, he isn’t surrounded by much help.
4. The worst team in the Western Conference is …
Pelton: The Golden State Warriors. The Memphis Grizzlies played their way out of this spot by dropping 137 points on the Timberwolves on Wednesday. The Warriors will surely end up with a better record once they get D’Angelo Russell, Draymond Green and eventually Stephen Curry back. But right now, if you had to play any West team, you’d pick the one that won the conference each of the past four seasons.
Sedano: The Grizzlies. Had the Warriors not won a game recently, I would have considered them for this spot. Same for the New Orleans Pelicans, had they not dealt with injuries. Although the Grizzlies’ defense has been solid, their offense has been another story (excluding their hot shooting against Minnesota on Wednesday). Also, they seem to have training wheels on their two young stars, though some of Jaren Jackson Jr.‘s time on the bench has been self-inflicted due to foul trouble.
Bontemps: The Warriors. It’s hard to believe how much things have changed in a short period of time. Of course, a healthy version of Golden State would never be in this conversation, but here we are: Curry (broken hand) is out for months, and Klay Thompson (ACL) is likely out for the season. That this could be a repeat of what happened to the Spurs 20-plus years ago is another matter; in the short term, that doesn’t change what the Warriors face in the present.
Goldsberry: Not the Warriors. Some might indulge in that temptingly hot take, but it’s the Grizzlies. Like the Knicks, the Grizzlies have thrown their rookie phenom out of the nest, and like Barrett, Ja Morant looks great. The problem is everything else. The supporting cast couldn’t score before Wednesday night’s outburst, and they have the worst true shooting percentage in the conference.
Lopez: The Kings. Although this easily could have been the Pelicans and their struggling defense, I’ll give them a pass for missing Zion Williamson and dealing with early injuries. Things haven’t been as smooth for the Kings, who are the second-worst scoring team in the West and have the second-worst net rating. Sacramento is also bottom-five in points, rebounds and assists per game.
5. The best team in the NBA is …
Sedano: The Lakers. Sure, some of the defensive success is randomness due to opponent 3-point shooting. What isn’t random is their effort and size playing a huge role in how good they’ve been on that end of the court. Ultimately, the Lakers boast something no other team can: two top-five talents. Generally, talent still wins in this league.
Bontemps: The Clippers, I guess. I look forward to seeing the Clippers and Sixers face off because I think they’re the best two teams in the league. But there are several teams — including the Lakers, Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks, Bucks, Celtics and Toronto Raptors — that are off to strong starts. This season has so far proved to be as wide-open and fun as promised.
Goldsberry: The Lakers. Not only do they have the most talented superstar duo in the league, they’ve surrounded it with a competent supporting cast that can shoot and play defense. We weren’t saying either of those things about the pre-AD Lakers. If the early returns on defense hold steady and they can stay healthy, this team is built to win it all.
Lopez: The Lakers. LeBron James is engaged and trying to prove to everyone that he isn’t washed. Anthony Davis is producing at an Anthony Davis-like level once again. With those two producing while leading the way defensively, the Lakers are the team to beat in the early going.
Pelton: The Clippers. When we factor in Paul George’s absence, nobody has started better than the Clippers, who have stayed afloat against a difficult schedule without their second-best player. Slow starts by other West contenders besides the Lakers have made it all the more likely that the Clippers can earn a top-two seed, despite managing Kawhi Leonard’s regular-season minutes.