Expectations were modest for the 2021-22 Washington Wizards, particularly after the team moved on from Russell Westbrook. Down the stretch of the 2020-21 campaign, Westbrook turned on the jets in helping Washington make the postseason and, given his statistical prowess, the absence of that kind of do-it-all guard next to Bradley Beal left some wondering what was next for the Wizards. However, Washington received a solid package of quality players in exchange for Westbrook, invested in a high-ceiling guard in Spencer Dinwiddie, added a fresh perspective in new head coach Wes Unseld Jr., and generally stocked the cupboard to the point where the roster has few dire weaknesses.
As a result of that plan, the Wizards are 10-3 to begin the 2021-22 campaign, and that mark is the best for the franchise in 47 years. Famously, the Wizards haven’t enjoyed top-end success, and the 47-year distance between 10-3 starts is another reminder of that. Still, Washington is putting a quality product on the floor and, at the moment, the Wizards are riding an active five-game winning streak. The most recent performance wasn’t a flawless one in a narrow win over the Zion-less New Orleans Pelicans, but the Wizards overcame a 19-point deficit (without Bradley Beal) and won a game that good teams usually win, even when they don’t have their fastball.
For the season, Washington boasts a top-four defense, allowing just 102.7 points per 100 possessions, and that mark dips to 96.7 points allowed per 100 during this five-game winning streak. Admittedly, the level of competition has not been sterling, and that should be taken into account. Even so, the Wizards are guarding at an impressive level, with increased buy-in from Beal, a newfound commitment to the defensive end team-wide, and a general flexibility and competence.
At this stage, it is too early to declare that Washington is a no-doubt playoff team, with a few outlier statistics to wade through and a schedule that will stiffen in the near future. From an overarching standpoint, though, this has been a tremendous start for the Wizards, with Montrezl Harrell and Kyle Kuzma recapturing peak form, Dinwiddie providing much-needed shot creation and a rotating cast of characters well-deployed by Wes Unseld Jr. from the bench.
Where do the Wizards land in this week’s DIME power rankings? Let’s find out.
1. Golden State Warriors (11-2, Last week — 1st)
After seven straight wins and an 11-1 start, the Warriors did lose their last game on Sunday in Charlotte. Golden State still leads the NBA in defensive rating and net rating, though, and the top spot really isn’t up for debate at this point.
2. Phoenix Suns (10-3, Last week — 3rd)
It was a rough start for Phoenix after a run to the 2021 NBA Finals, with the Suns losing three of the first four games. Phoenix hasn’t lost since, winning nine straight games, outscoring opponents by 11.4 points per 100 possessions during that run. The schedule wasn’t exactly treacherous, but racking up wins will help a team rise in this space.
3. Washington Wizards (10-3, Last week — 10th)
This week will be interesting for Washington with four division games against Charlotte (twice) and Miami (twice). If nothing else, we’ll learn more about how real this start actually is for the Wizards.
4. Chicago Bulls (10-4, Last week — 6th)
Chicago is one of the brighter stories this season, and DeMar DeRozan is riding high. In his first season with the Bulls, DeRozan is averaging 26.9 points per game with a 60.5 percent true shooting mark, and it is hard to think anything other than this marriage between player and team started better than most imagined.
5. Brooklyn Nets (10-4, Last week — 7th)
This might be too low for the Nets, particularly after eight wins in the last nine games. The only loss came to the Bulls by a wide margin, explaining the placement, but Brooklyn has been throttling opponents. Encouragingly, James Harden looks more like himself, and the Nets are starting to fire on more cylinders on the offensive side.
6. Miami Heat (9-5, Last week — 4th)
As many teams find out, going to the West Coast early in the season can derail progress in a hurry. That looked to be happening for Miami with three straight losses to begin the trip, but the Heat bounced back to win the final two games. This is still a top-five team in net rating, and the schedule is pretty friendly over the next two weeks. As noted above, Miami does play Washington twice, though, and that could be interesting.
7. Utah Jazz (8-5, Last week — 2nd)
Utah remains No. 3 in the NBA in net rating, including the No. 2 offense, and there isn’t much reason to worry. The Jazz have lost four of the last five games, however, and the last two losses came at home.
8. Denver Nuggets (9-5, Last week — 12th)
Despite myriad injury concerns, the Nuggets have won five of six and Nikola Jokic is playing at an MVP level again. Denver did lose on Monday night, but that loss came without Will Barton, on top of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., and the biggest concern is reaching the point of no return from a roster standpoint.
9. Dallas Mavericks (9-4, Last week — 8th)
No one knows what to make of Dallas. The Mavericks have been outscored for the season, but they are also 9-4 and 5-1 in the last six games. At a certain point, winning games will cure just about anything. Kristaps Porzingis put up a 29-point, 11-rebound game on Monday that provided encouragement as well.
10. L.A. Clippers (8-5, Last week — 11th)
The Clippers suffered a loss in their last game, but it came to the red-hot Bulls. Before that, Ty Lue’s team won seven in a row, and Paul George is making a first-team All-NBA case through 13 contests. At the moment, this is also the No. 2 defense in the NBA.
11. New York Knicks (8-6, Last week — 13th)
New York rising in the rankings this week isn’t a product of strong play. The Knicks are 3-5 in the last eight and, generally, New York’s starters are struggling in a big way. They also happened to win on Monday and benefit in this space from other teams scuffling.
12. Milwaukee Bucks (6-8, Last week — 16th)
The Bucks are 3-7 in the last 10 games. This might seem quite high as a result, but Milwaukee has earned the benefit of the doubt. They’ve also been missing Brook Lopez basically all season and Khris Middleton has been out just as Jrue Holiday returned. We have to wait and see what a reasonable facsimile of Milwaukee’s team actually looks like.
13. Cleveland Cavaliers (9-6, Last week — 9th)
We touched on Cleveland extensively last week, and the Cavs continue to play solid basketball. They drop a bit after two home losses this week but, in zooming out, Cleveland is 6-2 in the last eight games and there is a lot to like.
14. Philadelphia 76ers (8-6, Last week — 5th)
Much like the Bucks above, the context surrounding the Sixers is necessary. Philly has lost four in a row, but Joel Embiid missed all of those games. When he returns, Philadelphia is a top-10 team, even without Ben Simmons on the floor.
15. Charlotte Hornets (8-7, Last week — 23rd)
It’s been a wild ride for Charlotte. The Hornets have won three in a row after losing five in a row. They bounce back in the rankings as a result, but Charlotte has still been outscored for the season. It’s tough to get a read on how good they are right now.
16. Los Angeles Lakers (8-7, Last week — 14th)
The Lakers are 4-2 with LeBron and 4-5 without him. Los Angeles hasn’t fall off completely, to their credit, but the schedule has been loaded with home games and it isn’t as if the Lakers are lighting the world on fire. Of note, Russell Westbrook has a 49.8 percent true shooting mark right now, and that’s not going to work.
17. Boston Celtics (7-7, Last week — 19th)
Jaylen Brown hasn’t played in almost two weeks and the Celtics have stayed afloat and more. Boston is 5-2 in the last seven, and Brown’s return can only help when it occurs. Boston’s profile is basically of a .500 team right now, but there isn’t great shame in that.
18. Atlanta Hawks (6-9, Last week — 22nd)
Atlanta’s schedule is at least partially responsible for the slow start. The Hawks lost six in a row early in November, but all six losses came to quality teams, and Atlanta just rebounded with two wins at home. The loss of De’Andre Hunter for eight weeks may hurt the Hawks, but they are better than their current record.
19. Portland Trail Blazers (7-8, Last week — 17th)
Portland is 6-1 at home and 1-7 on the road. The Blazers also play 18 of the next 25 games at home, so perhaps they can improve on a 7-8 overall record through 15 games.
20. Memphis Grizzlies (7-7, Last week — 15th)
Seeing Houston cures a lot of ills. The Grizzlies lost four of five but returned home and blasted the Rockets by 34 points on Monday. The record may not show it, but Memphis is 24th in net rating and really struggling on defense.
21. Toronto Raptors (7-8, Last week — 18th)
Toronto has dropped five out of six following a strong start. The Raptors have been better offensively than defensively this season, which defies their personnel, and Toronto allowed 127 points to Detroit over the weekend. That might be a warning sign.
22. Indiana Pacers (6-9, Last week — 20th)
After a 1-6 start and a bunch of narrow losses, the Pacers are 5-3. That is probably closer to the true talent level of this Indiana team, and they picked up nice wins over Utah and Philadelphia this week.
23. Sacramento Kings (6-8, Last week — 21st)
The Kings have been brutal in close games, and that was part of the reason they lost four in a row last week. Sacramento did defeat Detroit, in lopsided fashion, on Monday, and that helps the profile look better. There was also reported pressure on Luke Walton, and perhaps that effort was a coach-saving response.
24. San Antonio Spurs (4-9, Last week — 24th)
San Antonio’s four wins haven’t come against great competition. San Antonio also hasn’t suffered many (any?) blowout losses. That’s the recipe for a +0.6 net rating and a 4-9 record. It remains to be seen if the Spurs are more tied to their record or point differential.
25. Oklahoma City Thunder (5-8, Last week — 27th)
The odds of Oklahoma City winning four games in a row at any point this season seemed to be off the charts, but it happened. Granted, the Thunder are 0-2 since then, but OKC has been league-average defensively and that helps in avoiding the absolute basement of the league.
26. Minnesota Timberwolves (4-9, Last week — 25th)
Minnesota’s hot start seems far away now. The Wolves were 3-1 but are just 1-8 since then with a bottom-five offense during that nine-game swoon. It remains bizarre that the Wolves are better on defense than offense right now, but the whole package isn’t working at the highest level through 13 games.
27. Detroit Pistons (3-10, Last week — 30th)
The Pistons are 2-2 in the last four games. That was enough to force a three-spot bump. Detroit is still a bottom-three offense and the team with the worst shooting efficiency in the league, but there is a reason the Pistons weren’t supposed to be quite as bad as Houston and Orlando.
28. Orlando Magic (3-11, Last week — 26th)
Orlando has been out-scored by 10.0 points per 100 possessions. It’s not good. The Magic did score well against the Hawks on Monday, even if they couldn’t get stops, and Cole Anthony’s 29-point effort pushed him above 20 points per game for the season. That’s a bright spot, if nothing else.
29. New Orleans Pelicans (2-13, Last week — 29th)
The Pelicans (still) have the excuse that Zion is out, and the New Orleans did get a win over Memphis this weekend. In a less positive view, the Pelicans are the league’s worst defensive team, but Brandon Ingram is back and that should help the Pelicans be more competitive overall.
30. Houston Rockets (1-13, Last week — 28th)
On Oct. 22, the Rockets smashed the Thunder by a 23-point margin. Houston hasn’t won since, losing 12 straight and posting a -13.6 net rating during that skid. It’s really, really ugly right now for the Rockets, even if they still have some talent.