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NBA Power Rankings: Brooklyn moves to top as LeBron, Lakers slide

Kurt Helin and Corey Robinson look at where DeMarcus Cousins could end up after being waived by the Rockets.

We have a new No. 1 atop the NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings — the Brooklyn Nets went on the road and took apart the top of the West to earn that spot. Utah is still No. 2, and the Lakers have slid, but not that far.

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1. Nets (21-12, Last Week No. 4). Brooklyn is striking fear into the league, going 5-0 on a West Coast road trip (four of those wins without Kevin Durant) and scoring 123.8 points a game while shooting 45.3% from three as a team in that stretch. However, what makes them dangerous is the other end of the court, where the Nets defense is improving — the activity, the communication on switches, the energy and effort are much better. Over the past seven games, the Nets defense has been about league average (14th in defensive rating), and with their offense that is enough to beat anyone.

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2. Jazz (25-6, LW 1). While the West is deep with talent, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert were locks to make the All-Star team as reserves. Mike Conley is deserving as well, but he just missed the cut. Again. The loss to the full-strength Clippers Friday highlighted what the Jazz need to work on for the postseason: L.A. attacked Derrick Favors and Bojan Bogdanovic in isolations, and the Clipper defense stymied the Jazz ball movement that gets them so many points. The offense cannot stall like that.

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3. Suns (20-10 LW 5). Devin Booker and Chris Paul were both deserving of being an All-Star, but CP3 got the nod from the coaches, which left Booker the odd man out (don’t be surprised if he gets Anthony Davis’ spot). Booker is averaging 27.1 points a game over his last 10. Monty Williams has settled on a rotation, starting Frank Kaminsky and playing him the first six minutes of the half, then leaning on Jae Crowder, Dario Saric, and others for the remaining 18 minutes of the half. It’s working.

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4. Clippers (23-10, LW 3). The Clippers are healthy and finally have their starting five — Patrick Beverley, Paul George, Nicolas Batum, Kawhi Leonard, and Serge Ibaka — playing together. That was enough to get them a quality win against Utah, but it was not enough against Brooklyn. Of note, Ibaka starts games but Tyronn Lue closes with Marcus Morris at the five (with the other four starters), not just because Morris can shoot but because the Clippers can switch 1-5 in key situations.

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5. Lakers (22-10, LW 2). Three losses in a row have come without Anthony Davis and Dennis Schroder, which means they are not a major concern. However, the Laker offense was sputtering before that. The Brooklyn Nets, not exactly a defensive powerhouse, held the Lakers to under 100 points (the Heat did as well, but they have played good defense of late). Over the last seven games, the Lakers’ offense is 27th in the NBA and 5.3 points per 100 possessions off the team’s season average. Can’t rest LeBron James right now; the Lakers need to pick up some wins.

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6. 76ers (21-11 LW 6). A lot of Joel Embiid’s MVP case comes down not to the 30.3 points or 11.3 rebounds a game, nor his elite rim protection, but rather this stat: Philadelphia is 18.3 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court (LeBron is +11.6). When Embiid is off the court, the Sixers get outscored by 7.2 points per 100 possessions. It was good to see Philly bounce back and beat Toronto after a concerning loss to them in the first half of the two-game set — the Sixers offense just stalled out in that loss. They cannot afford for that to happen against good teams.

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7. Bucks (19-13, LW 8). Wins against struggling teams helped stop the bleeding for now, but the Bucks are still 4-5 since Jrue Holiday went down, showing his value to the team. The issue is on the defensive end of the floor, where D.J. Augustin/Bryn Forbes replacing Holiday means opposing teams are getting into the paint more, and the result is a Bucks’ defense that is 18th in the league over the past seven games. Big showdown against the Clippers on Sunday.

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8. Nuggets (17-14 LW 9). Denver set a modern NBA record on Tuesday night against Portland with just one turnover all game (they turned the ball over on 1.1% of their possessions, for comparison the league median is 12.4% and the Spurs have the lowest average at 9.9%). For the record, Jamal Murray had the one. The Nuggets offense is top five in the league, but they need to tighten up their defense, which has been league average the past couple of weeks. Getting Paul Millsap and Gary Harris back healthy would be a big help on that end.

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9. Trail Blazers (18-13, LW 7). Damian Lillard’s impact on Portland can be measured a lot of ways, but here is an interesting one: Portland is the third “luckiest” team in the NBA, outperforming their net rating by a considerable amount. Portland should be 15-16 (a -0.1 net rating, by Cleaning the Glass), but because Lillard is the best clutch player in the NBA the Trail Blazers have dominated close games and keep racking up wins. Portland has gone 10-7 without CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, holding on to the West’s sixth seed. When those two stars return at some point after the All-Star break, Portland can solidify its playoff position (and avoid the play-in games).

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10. Spurs (16-11, LW 10). San Antonio has moved into the top 10 of this ranking thanks to its defense, fourth best in the NBA for the season, and they didn’t miss a beat on that end coming out of their COVID quarantine. The lynchpin has been center Jakob Poeltl: The Spurs are 5-1 since he moved back into the starting lineup, and the team defense is 16.8 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the floor. With him, the Spurs starters hang with opposing starters, then in comes that elite Spurs bench and they start to pull away. Gregg Popovich deserves some Coach of the Year talk. As always.

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11. Warriors (17-15, LW 11). Stephen Curry and Draymond Green will get all the accolades, but the Warriors role players are stepping up more of late. Kent Bazemore is back in the rotation and the Warriors defense gets 8.2 points per 100 better when he is on the floor (and the offense gets a bump, too). Kelly Oubre Jr. struggled to start the season, but he has found a comfort level in the Warriors’ offense in recent weeks. Golden State closes out the first half of the season with 7-of-8 on the road, and they are 1-2 in those games so far (with the win being a quality one at Madison Square Garden).

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12. Raptors (16-16, LW 14). Toronto is starting to find its groove, having won 4-of-5 and beating the Bucks twice, and earning a split of two games with the 76ers in that run, all of which has them up to fifth in the Eastern Conference. There can be some legitimate complaints that Fred VanVleet did not make the All-Star team this year, although in an East where Trae Young and Jimmy Butler also didn’t make the cut, it’s not really a shock FVV will be staying home for a few days rather than traveling to Atlanta.

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13. Pacers (15-14, LW 13). Indiana sits as the four seed in the East and Domantas Sabonis is averaging 21.5 points and 11.6 rebounds a game — he has a very legitimate beef he did not make the All-Star Game. Sabonis should be there. Myles Turner is having a season that deserves Defensive Player of the Year consideration, but when Turner and Sabonis are on the court together the Pacers are -2.3 per 100, and that pairing has not been as strong on the glass as one would think. Just something to watch going forward.

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14. Mavericks (15-15, LW 17).Interesting note from the Zach Lowe podcast this week (with Kevin Arnovitz): the defensive strategy of choice against Luka Doncic is for teams to use the Jordan/Nash system on him — get Doncic in isolation, let him shoot (contested), just don’t let him start getting teammates involved. Make him a scorer. Dallas seems to be adjusting to that, and when Boston made Doncic a scorer at the end of the game Tuesday, they paid the price.

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15. Knicks (15-17, LW 15). Julius Randle got his wish and is an All-Star in the East, and it’s a deserved honor considering his 23.3 points and 10.9 rebounds a game. The Knicks continue to be a reflection of Tom Thibodeau — they play hard, they play smart, they’re gritty not flashy, but they get the job done thanks to the league’s third-best defense. New York’s bottom-10 offense leans heavily on Randle to get it done, which seemed to sway coaches when it came time for the All-Star reserves vote.

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16. Celtics (15-16, LW 12). Boston has to close games better — they have a -7.8 net rating in the fourth quarter (second worst in the NBA), and it gets worse in clutch minutes, a -33.2 net rating. Kemba Walker’s season would look a lot better if Trae Young guarded him every night — he looked sharp in his return against the Hawks, but then a couple of nights later struggled mightily against the Pelicans and better defenders at the point. If the Celtics are going to make a run, getting Walker right has to be a big part of what changes and improves.

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17. Bulls (14-16, LW 20). The very public campaign for Zach LaVine to make the All-Star team paid off; he got his first nod as a reserve thanks to the coaches’ vote. The Bulls have won 4-of-5 and the key reason is not LaVine but the fact the defense has improved over the past couple of weeks, 13th best in the NBA over the last seven games and a net rating 2.7 better than the league average over that stretch (stats via Cleaning the Glass). Tough tests for that defense coming up against the Suns, Raptors, and Nuggets.

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18. Grizzlies (13-14 LW 28). Justise Winslow finally made his debut as a member of the Grizzlies, almost a year after the trade that brought him from Miami, and while he’s looked understandably rusty in his two games back, it is a good start. Get Winslow healthy, get Jaren Jackson Jr. back after the All-Star Break and we can finally see what this young team looks like. Ja Morant was always a longshot to make the All-Star team, his numbers are good enough but he has missed too much time for a guy on the borderline.

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19. Heat (14-17 LW 19). For me, Bam Adebayo was one of the biggest snubs for the All-Star game, he got punished for the Heat’s rough start to the season despite the fact he has been fantastic and none of this is on him. Miami is starting to look more like the team from the bubble of late, with the sixth-best defense in the NBA over the past couple of weeks and a 7-5 record with a positive net rating since Jimmy Butler’s return. Ask teams at the top of the East which team scares them from the play-in and below teams, and they all point to the Heat, who are a threat if and when it all comes together again.

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20. Hornets (14-16, LW 16). Terry Rozier had a run of four straight 30+ point games where he carried he Hornets and that included the 10-points on three possessions at the end against the Warriors, with the dramatic game-winner. Rozier’s hot streak came to a halt against the elite Jazz defense, and that loss was the start of six games on the road to end the first half for Charlotte. The Hornets are 5-8 on the road so far and need some wins on this trip to stay in touch with the East playoff teams.

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21. Pelicans (13-17, LW 21). Zion Williamson got his first All-Star invite, and not because of the fan popularity contest but because the coaches around the league have watched him play and voted him in. What has held New Orleans back is the 28th ranked defense in the NBA, and that’s not getting any better — the Pelicans’ defensive rating is 9.5 per 100 worse over their last seven games (and dead last in the league). Any playoff dreams in the Big Easy will revolve around getting a few stops.

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22. Wizards (11-18 LW 26). Washington went on a 5-0 win streak when Moe Wagner was inserted into the starting lineup (a win streak that ended against the Clippers Tuesday). The real key to their run was improved defense, especially when Robin Lopez came in off the bench (and he has been getting heavy minutes of late). Those wins have the Wizards within two games of the 10th seed and a spot in the play-in tournament — the Wizards went into this season thinking playoffs, which remains the goal. They will target the postseason; any big changes will not come until the offseason. If at all.

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23. Hawks (13-18 LW 25). Danilo Gallinari has finally been healthy enough to get back in the rotation in February, playing in 11 games this month, but he still does not look right. In February Gallinari is scoring 11.2 points a game but is shooting 31.7% overall (34.5% from three), with a well below average 51.5 true shooting percentage. He shot a combined 5-of-27 in the two-game set against Boston, then on Tuesday was late on a rotation that allowed Cleveland the game-winning dunk. Trae Young is deserving of being an All-Star, but in a deep East he is on the bubble and apparently, the coaches held the Hawks’ struggles against him.

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24. Magic (13-19 LW 28). Nikola Vucevic earned his return to the All-Star Game averaging 23.9 points and 11.7 rebounds a game, the biggest bright spot this season for the Magic. Despite some buzz from outside Orlando, inside the city there is no talk of trading Vucevic at the deadline, they like what he brings with the young players, and his scoring. Orlando has played much better defense of late, which has sparked the run of four wins in six games.

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25. Thunder (12-19, LW 23). Oklahoma City got Shai Gilgeous-Alexander back in the lineup after a knee sprain and, not surprisingly, the offense looked much better in a win over Cleveland. That said, the Tunuder have lost 7-of-9 and head into a rough stretch of the schedule to end the first half of the season, including two games against the Spurs and one against the Nuggets.

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26. Rockets (11-18 LW 22). Houston has yet to win a game (0-8) since Christian Wood severely sprained his ankle and started to miss time. Both sides of the ball have been impacted, but the much bigger problem is on the defensive end, which is down more than 10 points per 100 possessions since Woods’ injury. This has led to a coming split with DeMarcus Cousins — he just doesn’t have the lateral mobility to defend at the NBA level now. Rockets look better going small.

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27. Pistons (9-22 LW 27). Detroit has gone 1-3 on its five-game road swing, with the win coming Tuesday as they earned a split with the Magic (the road trip ends Wednesday in New Orleans). The buzz around the league on a potential Blake Griffin trade is that there is no buzz, teams are interested in him off a buyout, but teams look at that $39 million player option for next season and say walk away from trade talks. In a different year, Jerami Grant might have had a chance to make the All-Star team, but the deep East and the Pistons struggles did him in.

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28. Kings (12-19, LW 24). Sacramento got Richaun Holmes back starting at center but it wasn’t enough against Milwaukee and the Kings losing streak reached seven games. Holmes is critical to Sacramento’s success, the team is 10.5 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court, he solidifies their defense in the paint in a way Marvin Bagley III and Hassan Whiteside simply do not. With Ryan Saunders out in Minnesota, all eyes are on Luke Walton as the coach on the league’s hottest seat.

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29. Cavaliers (11-21, LW 30). The Cavaliers needed a win and they got one in the most dramatic fashion — a game winning dunk (although I watch that clip and can only think about the Hawks terrible defense). The Cavaliers losing streak is not because of the offense (it’s been terrible all season, despite some bright moments form Collin Sexton) but because the defense is 11.9 points per 100 possessions worse in the last seven games. That’s the end of the court the Cavaliers need to fix.

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30. Timberwolves (7-24, LW 25). Ryan Saunders is out and Chris Finch is in as the new coach. Nobody around the league blinked at Saunders being out, had he not been such a good story and a favorite of the owner, it would have happened long ago. However, the process that brought in Finch (who is white) from another team while not giving highly regarded David Vanterpool (who is Black) a chance as the interim coach did not sit well with the league. Finch has a reputation as an offensive guru, but Minnesota has been terrible on both ends of the court. He has a rough road ahead.

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