Through games of October 31, six NBA teams stand at 5-1. The Knicks, Wizards, Bulls, and Heat have recorded that mark in the East. In the West, the Jazz and Warriors hold the honors.
The big question becomes one of which of those six teams, if any, has put up the statistical profile to suggest they’ll be able to sustain a winning clip through 82 games—an .833 winning percentage works out to 68-14 in an 82-game season. I wouldn’t bet on any of them winning 68 games, but high 50s/low 60s and the top seed? That’s the kind of goal a 5-1 start goes a decent way toward fulfilling.
Let’s look at each team in the order Basketball Reference has them listed on their front page—that is, the order they appear in the lead paragraph on this story—and break down what they do well and what might hurt them down the stretch.
New York Knicks
The Knicks have the league’s third-best offense, with a 114.9 Offensive Rating. They have combined this with a middle-of-the-road defense (107.9 Defensive Rating, good for 19th overall) for the league’s sixth-best Net Rating at 7.0.
What the Knicks do best is, quite simply, make shots. They’re second in the league in eFG% at .557. This has been largely due to a fantastic offensive design executed well. They’re fifth in the league in 3PAR and second in 3PT%.
In addition, the Knicks, as they did last year, force bad shots out of their opponents. The Knicks’ opposing eFG% of .500 is ninth in the NBA.
That’s not to say they don’t have glaring weaknesses.
For one, that 19th-ranked defense overall is a concern. Great offenses with terrible defenses have a nasty habit of self-destructing in the playoffs. The good news for coach Tom Thibodeau is that the Knicks’ defensive flaw is both coachable and prone to bad luck.
That is to say, Knicks opponents have shot 83.7 percent from the line against them while shooting the sixth-most attempts per game of any team’s opponents so far.
Defend without fouling and trust the law of averages, Knicks. Get that down and keep making shots and this could be a fantastic season.
The Wizards are the weakest 5-1 team so far. Not only are they ninth in Net Rating, but they haven’t really beaten anyone. Their five wins have come against Toronto, Indiana, Boston (twice), and Atlanta—that’s a combined opponents’ record of 12-20. Their loss was a 14-point mauling at the hands of the Brooklyn Nets.
The Wizards’ main strength has been fighting their way to the free throw line. They’re second in FTR and hitting them at an 80.1 percent clip, seventh in the league. Which is just as well, because this team’s mediocre at putting the ball in the basket when they don’t get a whistle. They’re 16th in 3-point percentage and 19th in 2-point percentage, leaving them with a rotten .498 eFG% that’s the ninth-worst in the league.
All those free throws plus the fourth-best turnover ratio does mean the Wiz are 12th in Offensive Rating, but even with the eighth-best defense, that’s still just a 4.0 Net Rating more consistent with a 50-win team and second-round out than a Finals contender.
Then again, the Wizards’ best record since coach Wes Unseld retired as a player is 49-33, in 2017. 50 wins would be the most since 1979. And if they sneak into the conference finals, it will also be the first time they’ve done that well since losing to Seattle in the 1979 NBA Finals.
When the bar’s low enough that a potato could clear it, even a flukey 5-1 start is room for optimism.
On paper, it’s hard to take seriously a team that hasn’t been good since 2015, but Chicago has not only started 5-1 but handed the Utah Jazz their first loss Saturday night. The Bulls’ lone loss was a one-point defeat at the hands of the 5-1 Knicks.
Sure, they smacked the Pistons around a couple of times for a couple of easy Ws early, and the Pelicans are hot garbage (1-6) again this year, but you play the teams on the schedule, and a one-point loss and eight-point win against the genuinely good teams on that sked acquit the Bulls well.
Chicago’s 7.9 Net Rating is good for fourth overall, powered by the 10th-best offense and fifth-best defense in the Association.
Coach Billy Donovan has the Bulls running a scheme that could charitably be called conservative or physical or any of the other words used to describe a team that is allergic to 3-point shooting, but at least the Bulls are hitting 38.2 percent of those long balls. They’re just dead last in 3PAR.
This mires the Bulls in the middle of the eFG% pack at 15th. Their point differential so far this season has come from a combination of a solid shooting defense (seventh in opposing eFG%) and winning the turnover battle. Chicago commits the third-fewest turnovers per 100 possessions while taking away the fourth-most at the other end.
If you’re a Bulls fan, you’re going to gnash your teeth a bit at the lack of 3-point attempts, but Chicago is building a grit-and-grind identity for better or worse and so far, their lone loss is by a single point to a fellow 5-1 team. They’re doing something right.
Now this is a team on crazy pills. Not just because they’ve got a brain-exploding 16.7 Net Rating in just six games, but because the one game they lost was the only game the 1-6 Pacers have won all season.
Saturday, the Heat utterly murdered the Memphis Grizzlies 129-103, and they did it on the road on the second game of a back-to-back.
Miami has the fourth-best offense, the best defense, by a mile the best rebounders on the floor, the tenth-highest eFG% on offense, and the fourth-best clip from the free throw line. Plus they have the second-best opposing eFG% in the league at .464—only the Jazz, at .450, are better.
Of the four 5-1 teams in the East, the Heat look like the Finals team. They’re in prime position to make their second trip to the championship round in the past three years, and unlike the 2020 squad, which got hot in the COVID bubble, these guys look more like a legit powerhouse and a 1 seed waiting to happen.
If you think you’re going to shoot the ball well against Utah’s defense, think again. As mentioned a couple of paragraphs up, Utah’s got the best shooting defense in the league. The only thing their defense doesn’t do well is grab turnovers, but that’s just not in coach Quin Snyder’s defensive design.
The Jazz will never leave you an opening after gambling for a steal the way some other teams—with notably worse Defensive Ratings—will. You’re going to get a bad shot. If you attack the rim, Rudy Gobert will send you off balance if he doesn’t send your shot flying. If you try to find an opening on the perimeter, it’s not happening—teams shoot just 24.9 percent from 3 against Utah.
This is the Jazz’s bread and butter, and it’s why they had the NBA’s best Net Rating a year ago and the second-best behind Miami this year.
On paper, it’s a Heat-Jazz Finals. On the actual basketball court? Well, Utah hasn’t translated that regular-season success in the playoffs yet. But that’s not to say they can’t.
Golden State Warriors
The biggest question in the preseason was whether Andrew Wiggins was going to get his COVID vaccine or whether he’d miss at least 41 games thanks to San Francisco’s vaccine mandate for indoor events plus road games in New York City against the Knicks and Nets and possibly a couple of games in Denver as well due to Colorado’s rules that take effect November 10.
For a guy making $31.6 million this year, that’s kind of a big miss.
Wiggins did ultimately decide to get the Johnson&Johnson version of the jab, so he’s good to go with one dose. The Warriors have been good to go in six doses of basketball so far, their lone loss a 104-101 defeat at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies.
The interesting thing about that loss was coach Steve Kerr‘s commitment to keeping Stephen Curry on a minutes restriction so Curry doesn’t end up busted up come playoff time. The Warriors went 73-9 in 2016, but there’s plenty of 20/20 hindsight speculation about whether they ran their stars into the ground chasing that regular-season record. By Game 7 of the playoffs, Curry and Klay Thompson looked straight-up gassed in the fourth quarter and didn’t hit the shots they’d hit all season. It’s not just that Cleveland won that game, it’s that the Warriors only scored 89 points.
But back to 2021, this Golden State team looks solid. They’re fourth defensively and fifth in Net Rating, but they’ve got some industrial-sized question marks regarding their strength of schedule.
They’ve beaten 1-5 Oklahoma City twice. They lost to a Grizzlies team that is 3-3 but with a minus-4.8 Net Rating that is the seventh-worst in the league. And the other 3-3 team they beat (including Memphis in a rematch) was Sacramento, another team with a .500 record and a negative point differential.
The one good team Golden State beat, the 2021 conference finalist Clippers, are off to a terrible start at 1-4. Golden State has yet to even play a team that is currently above .500.
But playoff teams beat bad teams. They may lose to contenders, but the first sign of a team ready for the postseason is handling their business and taking out the trash. Golden State has done that so far this season. Whether it holds up—or whether Curry’s load management gives away too many regular-season games—remains to be seen.
The Power Rankings
In order, and this is a bit subjective, I’d say these teams are, in order from “genuine Finals contender” to “flukey start that’s just begging for a regression”…
And what’s more, there’s a meaningful split between the top three and the bottom three, with the Bulls a bit of a wild card in terms of whether they’re actually as good as their record. It would seem so, but they don’t blast their opponents to smithereens like Miami or Utah or control the shooting percentage battle like the Knicks.
But still, it’s just six games out of 82 in the first month of the season. And it’s not like the Bucks and Suns, despite starting 3-4 and 2-3 respectively, are out of it in terms of defending their NBA and Western Conference titles.
It’s a long season. Should be fun to watch the top six navigate it.