Sorting the NBA's contenders from pretenders

Yes, it's early in the season, but the Bucks look legit, the Raptors are loaded, the Wizards are a trainwreck and the Timberwolves are a hot mess.

NBA teams have played as many as 12 games, and while the season doesn’t really start until Christmas, it’s never too early to start making wild projections off small sample sizes. So, let’s try to figure out who’s in and who’s out of the playoffs based on what little we’ve learned so far this year.

Toronto Raptors (11-1)
Milwaukee Bucks (9-2)
Boston Celtics (7-4)
Philadelphia 76ers (7-5)

It may not be the order we predicted, but at the one-eighth mark of the season, the four teams everyone figured for home playoff seeds in the East have given us no reason to believe otherwise. As predictable as the big picture has been, the Raptors, Bucks and Celtics have all offered surprises.

Toronto has been a juggernaut, even as Kawhi Leonard has missed four games for precautionary health reasons. Their depth is remarkable, with six players averaging in double figures, and they legitimately go 11 deep with plus players. Leonard has looked like an MVP candidate when he’s been on the floor, which is more encouraging than his absences have been concerning. Even when he’s not available, the Raptors have enough talent to be one of the East’s four best teams, and as the resurgent Serge Ibaka said recently, “I just can’t wait to see him at 100 percent. It’s going to be scary.”

Meanwhile, Milwaukee has realized every imagination we’ve had for them in recent years. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s evolution makes him an MVP favorite this season, and yet new coach Mike Budenholzer might be the Bucks’ most important piece. The Bucks are the only East team to rank in the league’s top five in both offensive and defensive rating. Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova have opened up space, and they’re not only taking more 3-pointers than any other team in the conference (after ranking bottom 10 in that category a year ago), they’re making them at an East-best rate of 40 percent. Thursday’s blowout win over the two-time defending champs is Exhibit A of their transformation.

The Celtics look like it could be half a season before they take their rightful spot as the conference’s most dangerous team. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are still working their way back from season-ending injuries. The guys who rose to prominence in their absence during their conference finals run this past spring — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier — are all trying to force too much into more limited roles with diminishing returns. But there’s too much talent on this roster not to win games while they’re figuring it out, and there’s no doubt coach Brad Stevens will figure it out.

The 76ers are less surprising. The losses of Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli have predictably emphasized the shooting woes of Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons. But Simmons is still averaging damn near a triple-double, Joel Embiid is the most dominant center in the conference, and J.J. Redick can mask a lot of shooting woes. The Sixers may not be as good as they think they are, but they’re still really good.

The Pacers nearly made real playoff noise last season, and this time LeBron James isn’t standing in their way. In a league that’s playing faster than ever, they’re grinding games, relying on Victor Oladipo to out-execute teams in the half-court. And he’s straight-up executing them. They’ve got good-but-not-great talent well into their bench, and they all play hard — a credit to coach Nate McMillan— and enough on their own to win most nights in the East, especially with Oladipo holding the reins.

None of these teams is exactly a thrill a minute, but somebody’s got to fill the final three seeds in the East, and these three well-coached clubs can make better arguments than anyone else at this point.

The Pistons have cooled off after a hot start, and while it’s still apparent that a team paying Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson a combined $74 million to be its Big Three has a standard ceiling height, there’s talent there, and new coach Dwane Casey is capable of maximizing it.

Contract Year Kemba Walker is one heck of a Kemba Walker, and that version of the now two-time All-Star point guard is averaging 28.1 points on 61.5 percent true shooting in the early going. Second-year sidekick Malik Monk is showing signs of tapping his potential, Tony Parker is doing Tony Parker things in a 36-year-old way, and the rest of the same-old Hornets — the ones who seem to play above their means every other year — are on an uptick this season. They can win games, and that’s good enough.

The Heat are still star-searching, but they’re always going to be competitive under coach Erik Spoelstra, and a trade for Jimmy Butler could catapult this team into the same tier as Indiana.

Frisky for the time being

Brooklyn Nets (5-6)
Orlando Magic (4-7)

It’s unclear whether the Magic are just the same team that started strong last season, only to fade back to the reality that’s been their last six seasons, and the Nets continue to climb out of The Pit that Billy King dug them, but there’s still a long way to go. Coaches Kenny Atkinson and Steve Clifford will squeeze every ounce of effort out of these teams (we see you Caris Lavert and Contract Year Nikola Vucevic), but the talent gap is too wide for that to make a meaningful difference this season.

Hard to believe they won’t be in the mix

Washington Wizards (2-8)

Yikes. The Wizards tried to pour Dwight Howard, Jeff Green and Austin Rivers into an already explosive chemistry mixture headlined by not-best-friends John Wall and Bradley Beal, and the results have been as expected. It took them a handful of games for them to start calling each other out through the media again, and somehow Washington remains convinced coach Scott Brooks can figure this out.

They should figure this out. They have too much talent to miss the playoffs in the East, and yet, if you’ve watched this team for more than five minute this season, they look ready for an early vacation.

Lottery-bound

New York Knicks (4-8)
Atlanta Hawks (3-8)

Chicago Bulls (3-9)
Cleveland Cavaliers (1-10)

The return of Kristaps Porzingis will come too late, if at all, for the Knicks this season, and it’s really hard to win when Enes Kanter might be your best player. The Hawks have more interest in developing Trae Young than winning. Zach LaVine is good, which is not a thing I expected to say, and the Bulls are bad, which is something I definitely expected to say. And the Cavaliers are a dumpster full of gasoline that Dan Gilbert continues lobbing lit matches into from high atop his Quicken Loans Arena perch.

Other than that, these teams are fine.

Stephen Curry is shooting the lights out in Golden State, even better than usual. (Getty Images)

WESTERN CONFERENCE

1. The champs are here

Golden State Warriors (10-2)

We by no means wish this upon the Warriors, but they could suffer an injury to the second-best player in the world and still be the best team in basketball, notwithstanding Thursday’s loss to the Bucks.

Stephen Curry is that good. Here’s hoping his adductor strain against Milwaukee is nothing serious. There are few things more fun in basketball than when the Chef cooks for a full season. His 31.3 points per game lead the league on 52.5/50.8/92.3 splits — all well above his marks in the only unanimous MVP campaign in history. Warriors coach Steve Kerr is the only player in NBA history to shoot 50/50/90 over a full season, and Curry’s usage rate is three times higher than his mentor’s in 1995-96.

Did we mention that DeMarcus Cousins is on his way back? Golden State is a cheat code. The only question we have for the Warriors is whether they can win 74 games and blow a 3-0 Finals lead. (I kid.)

2-3. Home seed-ward bound

Denver Nuggets (9-2)
Portland Trail Blazers (9-3)

We keep lowering our expectations for the Blazers, and they keep maintaining theirs, even if theirs seem too lofty. They are a team that knows how to play together, and every year Terry Stotts incorporates new faces into the mix. Zach Collins is improving as a rim runner/protector with range, and they’ve added two shooters — Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas — who are giving them a few extra triples per game. The Blazers are still the Blazers, and that was good for the third seed last season.

The Nuggets are a team that has learned to play together. Their defense hasn’t just caught up to the offense, it’s surpassed it, as Denver ranks second in the league on that end. If the Nuggets hold anywhere close to that, the Nuggets should fairly easily hold on to a home seed. Nikola Jokic is a wizard offensively, Jamal Murray broke out in a big way, Gary Harris is bound to start shooting more efficiently, there are weapons up and down the roster, and Will Barton and Isaiah Thomas are coming.

4-5. They’ll still be there in the end

Houston Rockets (5-6)
Utah Jazz (4-6)

The Rockets looked really bad — again, in a loss to the Russell Westbrook-less Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday. In a cruel twist, just as their defense has begun to climb from the league’s bottom 10, their offense has dropped into the lowest five. Chris Paul struggled to shake defenders on multiple possessions against OKC, and it’s not a good sign that he’s entered into some sort of washed-up competition with Carmelo Anthony. Still, a 65-win team falling out of the playoffs, just because they lost a couple rotational players, would be unprecedented. So, this has to turn around, right?

The Jazz haven’t fallen quite so far, but they had us believing their surge late last season would propel them into a top seed out West. Their shooting numbers have dipped across the board, but their middling defense after leading the league on that end a season ago is more surprising. The guess here is that the Jazz eventually strike the right chord between physicality and the new rules discouraging it. They’re still a player away from contention, but they’re good and deep nonetheless. This team is fine.

6-8. Looking a lot like playoff teams

San Antonio Spurs (6-4)
Los Angeles Clippers (6-5)
Oklahoma City Thunder (7-4)

The Spurs continue to be the Spurs, and DeMar DeRozan’s fundamental relentlessness seamlessly fits with a coach in Gregg Popovich who demands the same from everybody. It’s been more than two decades since San Antonio last missed the playoffs, and there’s still no reason to doubt them now.

The Clippers, like the Heat, are searching for stars, and they may find them this summer, but right now they have a lot of above-average players who play hard and well and expect a lot from themselves. And Shai Gilgeous-Alexander may prove to be the steal of the 2018 draft. This team just makes sense.

The Thunder breathed a sigh of relief when Westbrook’s ankle injury was better than the absolute worst, and then they dominated Houston without him. Their defense remains one of the league’s best, and so long as they don’t lose Westbrook or Paul George for any significant stretch, OKC should find itself settling into the low playoff seed they’ve become accustomed to in Kevin Durant’s absence.

Facing an uphill battle

New Orleans Pelicans (5-6)
Los Angeles Lakers (5-6)

In similar boats, Anthony Davis and LeBron James are both trying to keep afloat less-than-ideally constructed teams. They may be the two best players in the league (when LeBron is trying), and we imagine they can carry the Lance Stephensons and Solomon Hills of the world to the playoffs, but the West’s depth is a harsh reality. If anyone can dig their teams out of early holes, it’s these two, but they can’t do it alone. So, the agent they now share is probably concocting ways they can do it together .

Playoff sleeper

Memphis Grizzlies (6-4)

With Mike Conley back alongside Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies are still gritting and grinding. Rookie Jaren Jackson is going to be really good, they have capable contributors throughout the roster, and Memphis is finally making its threes. My guess is their best four shooters won’t continue to make six 3-pointers a game at a rate of 47 percent, and when their shooting falls back to earth, so too could their win-loss record. Still, they could be elite defensively, and it’s tough to count out a healthy Conley and Gasol.

Not quite dead in the water

Sacramento Kings (6-5)
Dallas Mavericks (3-8)

The Kings are wildly exceeding expectations with contributions from all over a young and talented roster. Logic says it’s only a matter of time before a team that perennially picks high in the lottery finds its head above water. Is this the crack in the dam for Sacramento? The Kings play fast and fun, and they’re forging in the right direction, but at some point their negative point differential will yield the expected results. This isn’t going to be their year, but at least now you can see it on the horizon.

The Mavericks just need to turn it over to Luka Doncic already. They look dangerous when the offense runs through him, and they have solid veterans around the most dynamic young talent we’ve seen in Dallas since one of those vets was a young lad, but it doesn’t appear some of the older guard has realized its Doncic’s time now. Rick Carlisle will figure this out, and the Mavs will be capable of giving anybody a good run on a given night, but probably not enough nights to make it out of the lottery.

The hottest of messes

Minnesota Timberwolves (4-8)

I refuse to believe a team whose best player is sitting out games and sabotaging the organization from within until the front office meets his trade demand can contend for a playoff spot, no matter what kind of time machine Derrick Rose has discovered. So long as Jimmy Butler is actively joining the opposing team’s fans in waving his Timberwolves off the court, Minnesota is going nowhere fast.

Lottery-bound

Phoenix Suns (2-9)

Following a 22-point blowout loss to the Nets, young Suns Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton criticized their own team’s chemistry and demanded a more unified effort against the Celtics on Thursday night, when the Suns proceeded to blow a 22-point lead in a devastating defeat. The team with the league’s worst offense and fourth-worst defense probably isn’t going to solve all of its issues over their next 71 games, no matter how often its young stars wish that transformation would happen overnight.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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