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NBA Power Rankings: It’s still Utah’s world, but the Lakers are lurking

Pro Basketball Talk's Kurt Helin and Corey Robinson discuss where LaMelo Ball ranks in this season's Rookie of the Year conversation.

Utah remains red hot, and while some may question how deep a playoff run the Jazz can make, they are unquestionably the best team in the NBA right now, which keeps them on top of the Power Rankings — and just in front of the Lakers and 76ers.

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1. Jazz (20-5 Last Week No. 1). Utah winning 16-of-17 and vaulting to the top of the standings has created a new goal for the Jazz: Finish with the top seed in the West. This is not about bragging rights, it’s about putting the Lakers and Clippers (the likely 2-3 seeds in this scenario) on the other side of the bracket, making it more likely the Jazz can reach the Western Conference Finals (if they can beat Denver). Tuesday’s win against Boston starts a couple of tough weeks of games for the Jazz including the Bucks, 76ers, and Clippers.

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2. Lakers (19-6, LW 4). Consistency has been the Lakers’ calling card this season. While other elite teams have seen wild swings — looking like a title threat one game, then a play-in team two nights later — the Lakers are the only team that has not had multiple double-digit losses this season (the only one was to Detroit, 107-92 on Jan. 28). The reason for that is LeBron James, who in his 18th season at age 36 (having played more NBA minutes than Michael Jordan), is the leading MVP candidate. And he’s rolling out triple-doubles whenever he wants.

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3. 76ers (18-7 LW 3). Can the 76ers come out of the East? Here is the reason to be optimistic: Philadelphia’s starting lineup — Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid — is +18.9 per 100 possessions and the team is 13-0 in games that lineup has started. If the team can get more consistency out of its bench — and stay healthy — they have a chance. Embiid’s face-up game is stronger this season, something he will need in the playoffs when it’s harder get the ball on the block to a big man.

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4. Bucks (16-8, LW 7). Despite a four-game win streak, take a quick glance at the stats and you’ll see a Bucks team that does not appear as dominant as the past couple of regular seasons. However, watch the games and you see why — it’s what Mike Budenholzer should have been doing for years. The Bucks are experimenting. They are switching more on defense, and that’s not always smooth as they learn more. Giannis Antetokounmpo is setting picks (especially for Jrue Holiday) and playing more off the ball. The Bucks need those kinds of adjustments, that versatility come the playoffs to avoid the wall they have run into the past couple of years. Also, the Bucks starting five has a +8.9 net rating this year. That’s who they will lean on when it matters.

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5. Clippers (17-8, LW 2). Watching the Clippers live and in person against Boston this weekend, four things stood out: 1) Damn, Kawhi Leonard is good and playing at a high level; 2) They miss Patrick Beverley’s defense out top against players like Kemba Walker (or Kyrie Irving in the loss to Brooklyn before that); 3) They miss everything about Paul George’s game (and he is not with the team on the two-game road trip that starts Wednesday); 4) The Clippers need a traditional, floor general point guard to help them get more easy buckets and organize the offense, particularly at the end of games.

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6. Suns (14-9 LW 8). Easy buckets matter in winning consistently, and Phoenix makes it hard on itself: Second slowest pace in the league and only 13.6% of their possessions starting in transition. Plus, the Suns have the third lowest percentage of shots at the rim (20.4%) and the second lowest free throw rate in the league. Phoenix is grinding it out in the half court and has a middle of the pack offense. Sentences I didn’t think I would type this season: Frank Kaminsky has found a nice little groove coming off the bench in Phoenix. He is averaging 10.3 points a night, playing about 18 minutes.

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7. Nets (14-12, LW 6). When the James Harden trade happened, the question was which one of them would make a big sacrifice to make the offense work. It turns out it was Harden. The Nets have a 122.2 offensive rating when Harden, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving are on the floor because Harden accepted a facilitator role — he is taking seven fewer shots a game in Brooklyn than he did last season, but is dishing out four more assists. In the 13 games since the Harden trade, the Nets have a -0.2 net rating and are 7-6 (but the big three have only played in six games together).

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8. Nuggets (12-11 LW 5). Nikola Jokic putting up MVP-like numbers — including scoring a career-high 50 against the Kings — has obscured the fact that Denver’s defense is terrible this season. The Nuggets have a 1134.4 defensive rating that is bottom 10 in the league, and in the past six games (where Denver has gone 2-4) it is 3.8 per 100 worse. Dreams of a return to the Western Conference Finals will be dashed by that defense unless it improves.

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9. Warriors (13-12, LW 12). Forced to play small because of injuries to every big man on the roster, the Warriors offense has performed better (147 points against Dallas) as players who are better able to take advantage of the space Stephen Curry creates have gotten more run. If the Warriors could string together some wins and move up in the standings in the West, Curry would move into the MVP conversation, especially when he’s making plays like this.

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10. Spurs (14-11, LW 13). LaMarcus Aldridge has missed time with a hip issue (he got a shot in it Tuesday and will be re-evaluated over the weekend), but without him the Spurs have looked more like the dangerous and uptempo team from the bubble. The San Antonio defense has struggled when Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan have shared the court this season, this injury gives Gregg Popovich the chance to experiment with Jakob Poeltl (who played well against the Warriors recently) and other lineups, looking for something that brings the production of the starters closer to that of their fantastic bench. San Antonio starts its annual rodeo road trip on Friday.

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11. Celtics (12-11, LW 9). Boston has lost 5-of-7, but it’s not a situation where you can say “if this one thing were different” because the Celtics have been a little below average on both ends of the floor through those seven games. Jaylen Brown is back in the rotation but now Marcus Smart is out with a calf strain — Boston just cannot get healthy and everyone in the rotation at once. Kemba Walker keeps working his way back from injury, but ultimately the Celtics are going to need a lot more from him to thrive late in the season and into the playoffs.

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12. Trail Blazers (13-10, LW 15). Portland continues to keep its head above water despite injuries to two of their three best players — and its best win last week came without all three stars, a surprise victory over Philadelphia. Portland has done it with a top-10 offense (over the last 7 games) led by Damian Lillard and surprise contributions from guys like Gary Trent Jr., and they have won in spite of a bottom 10 defense in that stretch.

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13. Rockets (11-11 LW 14). The Rockets have lost three in row — the last two by a combined 54 points — since Christian Wood went down with a sprained ankle and DeMarcus Cousins was inserted into the starting lineup. It’s a real concern considering Wood will miss a chunk of time with a nasty ankle sprain. The bright spot in Houston is Eric Gordon, who is averaging 23.2 points a game in February, plus he has been a strong perimeter defender for them all season.

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14. Pacers (12-12, LW 10). Losers of 5-of-6, with their offense having taken a small step back in that time but the defense falling off more sharply. The defensive issues are a combination of mental mistakes — pressuring non-shooters out high and having said players blow past the defender into the lane — and not taking care of the defensive rebound. Still, this team is not whole, they’ve struggled in close games and you have to wonder how different they would look with T.J. Warren and Carris LeVert in the lineup.

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15. Kings (12-12, LW 22). Sacramento has son 7-of-9, thanks to a top-10 offense over their last seven games. Of course, De’Aaron Fox is the head of the snake and is averaging 27 points and 8 assists a game during the stretch, and it helps he’s hitting an improved 36.1% from three. But what is really carrying the offense is the efficient 22 points a game from Harrison Barnes and 13 a night and smart play from rookie Tyrese Haliburton off the bench. The Kings defense also has been close to league average during the streak, a big improvement from the start of the season.

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16. Hornets (12-13, LW 19). The Hornets are 3-2 since LaMelo Ball was inserted into the starting lineup, and he has averaged 22 points a game. One concern with LaMelo before the draft was about his commitment to defense and getting better, but in a conversation with Bismack Biyombo, he said Ball is a great listener and someone who asks questions and wants to get better. The other big concern was defense, but Ball has been better on that end than expected and is putting in the effort. Ball is the Rookie of the Year frontrunner for a reason.

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17. Raptors (11-13, LW 18). For all the hand-wringing over the Raptors slow start to the season, they are still the eighth seed in the East and just half-a-game out of the six seed and avoiding the play-in series in the East. Internal talk in Toronto about whether they should trade franchise icon Kyle Lowry is at its core a discussion of whether to trade for a big (Andre Drummond?) and go after that playoff slot, or throw in the towel and jumpstart the rebuild. Toronto’s recent history is to go all in and chase the postseason wins, but we will see if that has changed.

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18. Hawks (11-12 LW 16). The Hawks have a +1.4 net rating for the season, but they are outscoring teams by 14.6 points per 100 when Trae Young is on the court. Atlanta’s preferred starting lineup (which we will not see for a while after De’Andre Hunter’s knee surgery) is +15.5 per 100. The issue is depth and the bench play in Atlanta — veterans Danilo Gallinari and Rajon Rondo were supposed to help with that, but injuries have slowed the pair and limited their time on the court. Lloyd Pierce needs to find a way to get Gallinari going in particular.

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19. Pelicans (12-12, LW 24). Stan Van Gundy is leaning heavily on his starting five — Eric Bledsoe, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, and Steven Adams — and with good reason, the Pels are +9.4 per 100 when they are on the court. Bring in the bench and things get shaky. We seem to always focus on Zion’s dunks — he has 39 in 20 games – but maybe more impressive is his body control and touch on layups. Everyone knows he’s going to the rim, but nobody can stop him.

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20. Heat (10-14 LW 25). Winners of three in a row since Tyler Herro was moved into a sixth man role (Goran Dragic started at first, and when he got hurt Kendrick Nunn was back as a starter. Herro has handled the move like a veteran, his numbers and impact have been about the same (and he’s shot the three ball better the last three games). Now Heat head out on a seven-game road trip that will test them and includes a swing through the West coast and some tough games.

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21. Mavericks (11-14, LW 23). Luka Doncic’s constant complaining to referees became a topic last week — he absolutely does do it. But if I were him, I’d be frustrated too, Doncic has turned his play around after a slow start but the Mavs as a whole are still pedestrian on offense and flat out bad on defense. Kristaps Porzingis does not look like a No. 2 player on a title team. Dallas has won two in a row on this homestand and have four more in the arena that will definitely play the national anthem now; it’s a chance for the Mavs to gain momentum and turn their season around.

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22. Knicks (11-15, LW 20). Trading for Derrick Rose is a win for a New York team thinking play-in/playoffs. They gave up a player not in the rotation (Dennis Smith Jr.) and a middle-of-the-second-round pick to get another shot creator and ball-handler, one Tom Thibodeau can trust late in games. Immanuel Quickley can play off the ball, not just the point, and it was good to see Thibs run him and Rose together in their first game Tuesday (the bottom line is Quickley’s minutes can’t decrease because of this trade). It should also not be a surprise that a Thibodeau team is playing at the slowest pace in the league.

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23. Grizzlies (9-10, LW 11). A serious drop in the rankings because their seven-game win streak has been followed by a four-game losing streak, with their once-strong defense giving up at least 115 points in each of those losses. Ja Morant struggled in the losses, but when I watch this team I still keep thinking about how much better they will look when Jaren Jackson Jr. returns to the lineup.

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24. Cavaliers (10-15, LW 17). There are not a lot of sellers on the trade market heading into the deadline, and while Cleveland rightfully sees itself within striking distance of a play-in game, it has to consider the value of trading some of its veterans in a sellers’ market. Kevin Love will not get a serious trade offer until he plays some games. Andre Drummond is the biggest name and probably best player after Love, but his $28.7 million will be tough to move. Larry Nance Jr. is the kind of versatile defender a lot of teams could use, but he is out 4-6 weeks with a hand fracture. JaVale McGee will draw interest. It’s all just something to watch.

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25. Bulls (9-14, LW 21). Injuries to Wendell Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen have pushed Billy Donovan to give rookie Patrick Williams more run — more than 30 minutes in each of the last four games — but the rookie has shown flashes, scoring in double digits each game and shooting 51.1% in that stretch. His defense and recognition need time on the court to improve — his game is still fairly raw — but the potential is there and hard to miss. In a few years the Bulls may have one of the steals of the draft in Williams.

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26. Thunder (10-13, LW 27). Oklahoma City continues to be one of the luckiest teams in the league, they have the point differential of a 7-16 team, but instead, they remain within one game of the play-in games in the West. One of the things that have helped the Thunder lately is Al Horford’s return to the rotation, who has not been his vintage self but gives the Thunder a little more depth and scoring (although he struggled against Anthony Davis and the Lakers). Tough stretch of games coming up including one more against the Lakers, plus the Nuggets and Bucks, plus 5-of-7 on the road.

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27. Magic (9-16 LW 26). Injuries have decimated the Orlando roster — Jonathan Isaac, Markelle Fultz, Aaron Gordon — and about the only time the Magic pick up a win is when Nikola Vucevic goes off. For example, a career-high 43 points with 19 boards Friday against the Bulls. Vucevic has played at an All-Star level, but there isn’t much around him. The Magic’s loss to the Trail Blazers Tuesday was the start of a four-game swing through the West, so things are not getting easier.

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28. Pistons (6-18 LW 28). The Derrick Rose trade made sense for the Pistons, they were not going to re-sign Rose and they got back a second-round pick likely in the early-to-mid 40s, plus they get to see if Dennis Smith Jr. can be a reclamation project (if not, they let him walk at the end of the season). Maybe they could have gotten their own second-round pick back, but still not a bad trade. The Pistons have won six games all season, but all six of those came against strong teams: Celtics, Suns, Heat (who are struggling), 76ers, Lakers, and Nets.

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29. Timberwolves (6-18, LW 30). Karl-Anthony Towns is set to return Wednesday night from COVID-19, which is both good news for him and great news for the Timberwolves as a whole. Minnesota is a bottom six team on both offense and defense, but Towns is as good an offensive center as their is in the league, and, while he’s no lock-down defender, just his size in the paint can help slow the parade to the rim against the Timberwolves. Another bright spot for the Timberwolves, Jaden McDaniels has shown some promise.

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30. Wizards (5-18 LW 29). Bradley Beal is not pushing his way out the door via trade (maybe he moves this offseason, maybe, but not at the deadline). Do not confuse that with him being happy. Here is his quote from this week after another loss: “We’ve gotta have some pride, man, some dog. We’ve got no dog. We just kind of let teams just walk all over us… It’s tough because we’re all adults. I can’t do it for guys. I can only do it for myself. All we can do is encourage the next man to be ready to go and accept the challenge. I can’t do that for someone else. I can’t do your guys’ job and you can’t do my job.”

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