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NBA Power Rankings: Nuggets stay on top, 76ers climb up to second

In this edition of Kurt's Korner, Kurt Helin offers his take on the NBA's new All-Star format -- with captains picking teams live on the court -- and whether it can make the game truly compelling to fans.

Everyone at the top of the board stumbled a little this week (except for Philadelphia), but we’re forgiving Denver for a loss without their MVP, so they stay on top of this week’s NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings.

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1. Nuggets (34-14, Last week No. 1). Nikola Jokic again has ridiculous on/off numbers — the Nuggets are 20.8 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court — what’s been good news for Denver of late is they have been winning the non-Jokić minutes. That includes recent a recent win over the Pacers. If Denver is going to contend, winning those minutes is something they have to do. It helps that Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. have started to look more and more comfortable in recent weeks, not just healthy but more like their old selves. Tough road trip the Nuggets are on, they have the Bucks on the second night of a back-to-back Wednesday then travel to face Joel Embiid and the 76ers.

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2. 76ers (30-16, LW 4). Their five-game win streak came on the road with every game against the West — including a 21-point comeback on the Kings in a game Joel Embiid and James Harden sat out. Part of what has worked during this win streak is starting De’Anthony Melton, who brings needed defense next to James Harden and boosts the second unit by pushing Tyrese Maxey there (if Maxey comes off the bench consistently the rest of the season, he could get in the mix for a wide-open Sixth Man of the Year race). Two good tests for the hot 76ers coming up, The Nets Wednesday night and the Nuggets on Saturday.

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3. Celtics (35-14, LW 2). Injuries caught up with Boston on Tuesday night: No Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Malcolm Brogdon or Al Horford — and Jayson Tatum is playing through a sore wrist (all that against a good Heat team used to playing without Jimmy Butler). Those absences have meant two consecutive losses for the Celtics, enough to knock them down one peg in these rankings despite the nine-game winning streak before that. During that streak you can see what this team is capable of when healthy — especially defensively when they gave up less than a point per possession when Horford and Robert Williams were on the court together. Boston now has 7-of-8 at home and should get another winning streak going.

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4. Grizzlies (31-16, LW 3). Memphis has stumbled of late, losing three in a row on the road — they are now 11-13 away from the FedEx Forum. “Got to look ourselves in the mirror. We gotta want to be better if we got to want change,” Tyus Jones said about the team’s road struggles after a come-from-ahead loss to the Lakers Friday night. “You know, and if we don’t, it’ll be a long road trip for us.” It’s been a long trip (with two more games to go, against the Warriors and Timberwolves). The one bright spot: That loss to the Lakers bothered the Grizzlies — they stewed in it in the locker room, not racing to get out on the town in Los Angeles as many players might — but that also didn’t translate to wins the next couple of nights.

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5. Bucks (30-17, LW 6). Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton were both back in the lineup on Monday night (Middleton off the bench), maybe the Bucks are finally getting healthy and can start to get their offense clicking again (bottom 10 in the league for the season, but eighth in the league over the last seven games, according to Cleaning the Glass). Interesting test against the Nuggets Wednesday, but then a string of winnable games for the Bucks to get their feet under them.

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6. Nets (29-17, LW 7). The silver lining to the expected news that Kevin Durant remains out and will not be back for at least a couple more weeks is recent road wins against Golden State and Utah that keeps Brooklyn afloat. The Nets could use more out of Ben Simmons, as coach Jacque Vaughn said recently: We need him to be productive, and that is without the fouls. That is helping us rebound the basketball. That is playing with poise and composure. That is pushing the pace for us.” The Nets have a cross-town showdown with the Knicks on Saturday night.

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7. Kings (27-19, LW 8). Domantas Sabonis should be a lock to be an All-Star, but there are two questions about the Kings and the All-Star Game next month. First, should Sabonis start over Zion Williamson or Anthony Davis (it looks like it will be those three for the final starting frontcourt spot in the West)? Second, should De’Aaron Fox also make the team in a West filled with good guards? The Kings keep winning with offense, they have the best offense in the NBA in January by 4.5 points per 100 (125.6 offensive rating). All that scoring continues to cover up a bottom-10 defense for the month. This formula works well in the regular season, but Mike Brown and company will need stops come the playoffs. On Saturday, the Kings head out on the road for seven in a row.

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8. Cavaliers (29-20, LW 5). While the trade talk has been about the Cavaliers looking for a three they can trust, Isaac Okoro may be developing into that guy. In his last 10 games he’s not taking a lot of shots (8.8 points per game) but he’s making the ones he takes, shooting 55.6% from 3. Another positive sign for the future of this team was Evan Mobley looking comfortable and dropping 38 against the Bucks. Cleveland is finding the going difficult through a tough part of the schedule — losing the Grizzlies and Warriors but beating the Antetokounmpo-less Bucks. Now they have a couple more on the road.

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9. Heat (27-22, LW 12). Could the Miami Heat have two All-Stars? Should they? That question will fall to the coaches (who vote in the All-Star Game reserves). Jimmy Butler has the stats (21.6 points and 6.1 rebounds a game) but he has missed time. Are 34 games enough? Bam Adebayo has been putting up numbers of late (he had 30 against Boston Tuesday) but he’s also an elite defender and is fundamentally sound, the kind of players coaches love. They both could get in, but where does that leave guys like DeMar DeRozan or Julius Randle? The Heat have won 6-of-8 and are finally getting healthy, they have jumped up to the No.6 seed and see this as the time they can start to lock down a place not in the play-in.

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10. Knicks (26-23, LW 9). The Knicks’ defense is not the same without Mitchell Robinson on the court, which is part of what led to a four-game losing streak before a much-needed win against the Cavaliers on Tuesday. When Mitchell is off the court — as he will be for the coming weeks following a thumb injury — the Knicks have a 115.5 defensive rating, which would be 25th in the league throughout the season. This is particularly bad timing for a Knicks team whose next six games are at the Celtics, at the 76ers, (the finally healthy) Lakers, Heat, Clippers, 76ers. The Knicks need to score their way to some wins in that stretch.

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11. Jazz (25-25, LW 15). They stumbled right after Christmas, but the Jazz appear to have found their footing again having won 5-of-7. It helps to have a run of home games during this stretch, but it helps more than Lauri Markkanen has scored 20+ points and grabbed 10+ rebounds in his last five games — he should be an All-Star lock as a reserve. More than that, should Markkanen be in the 3-point contest? When Markkanen had to miss a little time, Jordan Clarkson stepped up with a couple of huge games to get wins as well.

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12. Mavericks (25-24, LW 11). Dallas has lost 7-of-9 and while the obvious place to point fingers is on the defensive side of the ball — the Mavericks are 27th in the league over those nine games — that’s not the end that is slipping (they are 25th defensively for the season). Rather, the top-five offense led by MVP candidate Luka Doncic has been closer to the league average over those nine games (18th in the NBA) and that is no longer covering up their defensive woes. They miss what Christian Wood brings (broken thumb), but it is more than that. Dallas is reportedly looking for more shot creation at the trade deadline, but in a seller’s market there may not be a deal that helps them. Dallas is on the road in Phoenix and Utah this week, the kind of games they need to win to stay in the top six and avoid the play-in rounds in a tightly compacted West.

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13. Pelicans (26-22, LW 10). The wheels have been coming off in the Big Easy — can the return of Brandon Ingram put them back on? New Orleans is 3-9 in January as being without Zion Williamson and Ingram caught up with them, plus opponents are knocking down shots they just missed earlier in the season. Things are not getting easier for the Pelicans, who have winnable but not easy games coming up at home against the Timberwolves and Wizards, then they head out on a brutal road trip against the Bucks, Nuggets and Mavericks. Their rough January could start to flip into a rough February as they slip down the standings in a tight West.

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14. Warriors (23-24, LW 13). Getting a good read on these Warriors remains impossible. There are moments, like for three quarters against the Celtics (or for much of Sunday’s game against the Nets) where you see what they can be... and then they blew the leads and lost both games. Then they go to Cleveland, sit all their stars, and get a win. Kerr changed up the starting lineup going small — that’s not the sign of a team in a good place. Until this team strings together a series of wins and starts to flash the good defensive habits that won them a ring, it’s hard to buy in. If you’re looking for a silver lining, Draymond Green may not be an All-Star this year but he is having the kind of season that should get him Defensive Player of the Year votes (likely not enough to win the award, but he’s impressed on that end).

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15. Thunder (23-24, LW 21). This ranking may be too low — the Thunder have won 8-of-11 with a +9.7 net rating over that time (third best in the NBA). A team we thought would be in the tank, especially after the Chet Holmgren injury, has itself in the battle for a postseason berth. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is leading the way and should be a lock All-Star — if it wasn’t for Doncic and Stephen Curry, he should be starting the game in Salt Lake City. With their next win — Wednesday against Atlanta, or in the following days against Cleveland or Golden State — the Thunder will match their win total from last season already. They have improved that much.

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16. Suns (25-24, LW 17). Phoenix has won four in a row and it’s not a coincidence that happened as they got healthy — Cameron Johnson came back from knee surgery four games ago and stepped back into the starting five, then Chris Paul got healthy as well (Devin Booker remains out at least another week and maybe longer with a groin strain). Booker has become one of the interesting All-Star cases in the West, he unquestionably has put up enough numbers to make it but he’s missed enough time could someone such as De’Aaron Fox snag his spot as a reserve? That’s up to the league’s coaches.

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17. Clippers (26-24, LW 14). The Clippers have won three in a row, including taking a big early lead, giving it up, then finishing off their hall mates at Arena. It feels like a tease until we see Los Angeles keep its stars on the floor and win something like 10-of-12 or so — they need to keep everyone healthy and on the court, start building good habits and prove to us this is for real. No team may be more active at the trade deadline than the Clippers, who are looking high and low — and right at Mike Conley in Utah — for help at the point guard spot (but they won’t give up Terance Mann to do it).

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18. Timberwolves (24-25, LW 19). The Timberwolves are 8-4 since the calendar flipped to January, with a +2.9 net rating for the month and a top-10 offense. All of that comes without Karl-Anthony Towns, but it’s something for the team to build on. Leading the way for that offense is Anthony Edwards, who has been on a hot streak and can still throw it down with the best of them.

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19. Hawks (24-24, LW 22). Is Trae Young a lock All-Star? It’s hard to say no to a guy averaging 27 points and 9.9 assists a game, but the efficiency numbers are way down with Young this season — 31.4% from 3 and a true shooting percentage a little below the league average — who has not played well with others and lifted his team up this season. He’s not getting voted in as a starter, which means the coaches have to pick him, making him a bubble guy in the East. It looked like Young and Dejounte Murray (and the rest of the Hawks) were starting to figure it out during a recent five-game win streak, then they turned around and dropped back-to-back games. They are a .500 team that does not feel dangerous, and they have six of their next seven on the road.

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20. Pacers (24-25, LW 16). Tyrese Haliburton has made his All-Star (and maybe All-NBA) case by being injured: The Pacers are 1-6 since he went down with knee and elbow injuries, and they have the 29th-ranked offense in the league over that stretch. Now, on top of that, we’ll see how the Pacers deal with trade rumors that will swirl around this team until Feb. 9. The string of losses has seen the Pacers slide to ninth in the East and things do not get easier starting this weekend when they face the Bucks, at the Grizzlies, then host the healthy Lakers and hot Kings.

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21. Bulls (22-25, LW 18). Zach LaVine is not going to make the cut as an All-Star in the East this season, but DeMar DeRozan is going to be on the bugle as the coaches pick the reserves — he’s got the numbers but it’s a crowded field and the Bulls have struggled. The Bulls might struggle less if they played more games in Paris, where Chicago dominated Detroit getting a wire-to-wire win. Chicago has been streaky this season, this is their last 14 games: W-W-L-L-W-W-W-L-L-L-W-W-W-L (that last loss to a Pacers team that had lost nine in a row before the game).

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22. Raptors (21-27, LW 23). For all the trade buzz engulfing this team as we crawl toward the Feb. 9 trade deadline, it seems likely (maybe highly likely) that Gary Trent Jr. ends up the only player on the move out of Canada. Masai Ujiri may make bold moves, but they are more likely to come in June and July than under February pressure. Fred VanVleet’s play of late — 25.6 points and 6.4 assists per game shooting 44.4% from 3 — will only increase the number of teams calling to see if he is available via trade (or teams trying to poach him this summer).

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23. Lakers 22-26, LW 24). If the Lakers are going to find any groove this season, now is when it needs to happen. Anthony Davis returns after missing 20 games with a stress reaction in his foot — the Lakers went 10-10 thanks to the heroics of LeBron James — and the Lakers will add the just-acquired Rui Hachimura to the rotation. Hachimura brings shooting and some size to the table that the Lakers need — he’s a solid rotation player overall and an upgrade for Darvin Ham’s rotation — but the return of Davis and his defensive presence is needed more. That’s something the Clippers exposed on Tuesday night. On the bright side, LeBron keeps putting up numbers and will pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the NBA’s all-time scoring record in the first 10 days of February.

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24. Wizards (21-26, LW 25). Trading Hachimura was a signal to Kyle Kuzma that the Wizards intend to re-sign him this summer, and Kuzma played his role and said he loves Washington and his teammates is open to staying there. Unsaid but clear in all this: Washington is not getting a discount. This is Kuzma’s big kick at the can, free agency after a career year, and money will win the day — Washington may ultimately have to overpay to keep him. The bigger short-term concern for the Wizards is Kristaps Porzingis missing a couple of weeks with a sprained ankle. Washington already sits outside the play-in out East, and they have 5-of-6 on the road. The Wizards need to find a way to keep their heads above water, as they did in Dallas.

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25. Trail Blazers (22-25, LW 20). Portland went into this season knowing it had an undersized roster but counting on Jusuf Nurkic and more athleticism on the wings to cover up that fact. It hasn’t. Recent losses to the Nuggets, 76ers and Lakers — where Thomas Bryant scored a career-high 31 — have highlighted that fact. Nurkic has not been the center they needed this season and it is especially evident on defense. A blowout Monday over the Spurs was needed for a Portland team that had lost 8-of-10 coming in. Portland is one of the more active potential buyers at the trade deadline, they are all in with this roster and are looking for help.

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26. Magic 18-29, LW 26). It is a great story of perseverance to see Jonathan Isaac back on the court for Orlando. It’s the kind of story that makes sports great. Isaac is no longer the face of the franchise in Orlando — that’s Paolo Banchero — but you don’t have to squint to see how a strong defensive big who can knock down some 3-pointers — he was 2-of-3 in his first game back — and finish at the rim could fit with a playmaker like the No.1 pick. Orlando picked up a couple of nice wins last week over New Orleans and Boston, this week the Pacers, Heat, Bulls and 76ers are on the docket.

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27. Hornets (13-36, LW 29). Charlotte is all in on the Wembanyama sweepstakes and they will be sellers at the trade deadline with Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward and Kelly Oubre Jr. all available. Good luck finding anyone to take on Hayward’s contract, but Rozier has a lot of fans in the front offices of NBA playoff teams, and Oubre Jr. could bring wing depth somewhere as well. Expect to see deals get done. The Hornets have the Bulls and Heat at home this week.

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28. Pistons (12-37, LW 27). The question everyone is asking the Pistons is not “how much did you enjoy Paris?” (Probably a lot... except for the game where the Bulls blew them out.) Rather, it’s “How much longer will Bojan Bogdanovic be a member of the Detroit Pistons?” The sharpshooting wing remains a top target for a number of teams, and the Pistons continue to say the price is a first-round pick (unprotected, although teams are waiting for that price to come down). Expect this to drag out until closer to the Feb. 9 trade deadline.

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29. Rockets (11-36, LW 30). While Jalen Green grabs the highlights with his dunks and athleticism, watch Alperen Sengun closely and you see a guy who can be a cornerstone part of what the Rockets are building. He has a soft touch on his shots around the basket, impressive footwork, is a great passer and, most importantly, is someone the Rockets can run their offense through for stretches. The Rockets snapped their 13-game losing streak with a nice win over the Timberwolves, and face the Wizards, Cavaliers and Pistons this week.

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30. Spurs (14-33, LW 28). Spurs fans, do yourself a favor: Rather than watch your team struggle through this season, head to YouTube and watch “The Ring of the Rowel: San Antonio Spurs Docuseries.” This is a recommendation from NBC’s own Corey Robinson (who has seen some Spurs history up close) as he has nothing but praise for the series and how it chronicles the legendary history of one of the great NBA franchises. It’s worth your time.

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