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NBA Power Rankings: Suns, Heat remain on top as other elite teams stumble

The Suns are on yet another lengthy winning streak, and Corey Robinson and Kurt Helin think that Phoenix's depth and identity have them looking awfully tough to beat come playoff time.

The Phoenix Suns have pulled away as the best team in the NBA, and that has them on top of these latest NBA Power Rankings. Miami tops the East and is second, but many of the teams that dominated the top of this list earlier this season are stumbling and tumbling.

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1. Suns (37-9, Last Week No. 1). Winners of seven in a row and the best team in basketball right now, in large part because of their depth and versatility. GM James Jones realized he needed more depth at the five when Dario Saric tore his ACL last playoffs, so he got JaVale McGee, who played fantastically for them. Then they added Bismack Biyombo on a 10-day and realized they needed to keep him because he’s playing so well — now there is quality depth behind Deandre Ayton at the five. Those kinds of smart moves are why Jones deserved that contract extension.

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2. Heat (30-17, LW 3). Notice the top two teams in this NBA Power Rankings have a lot in common: Depth, versatility, and a basketball cultural identity that extends from the GM/president down through the kids who mop the sweat off the floor between plays. The Heat are on top of the East thanks to big minutes and plays from Gabe Vincent, Caleb Martin and Max Strus. The Heat’s three stars — Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Kyle Lowry — have played just 14 games together, leaving a lot of room for growing chemistry and improvement (and the Heat are already +4.4 per 100 possessions when those three share the court). Count the Heat among the contenders; they have earned that spot.

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3. Warriors (35-13, LW 4). Draymond Green remains out and the Warriors are 5-4 in the nine games he’s missed with his back/calf issue, Klay Thompson is still finding his shot (although he looked better against Dallas Tuesday, going 3-of-5 from 3), and Stephen Curry remains in his shooting slump, hitting 29.1% from 3 and 36.5% overall in January. The role players who have played such a big role for the Warriors — Jordan Poole, Gary Payton II, Otto Porter Jr. — have helped Golden State keep its head above water. And, when he needed to, Curry was able to still step up and get the Warriors a win.

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4. Bucks (30-19, LW 7). Jrue Holiday returned the Bucks went from mini-slump to winners of three straight. That’s not a coincidence. His name doesn’t get mentioned in the conversation much, but he should be a reserve for the All-Star Game this season. Holiday averages 18.2 points and 6.4 assists per game, and the Bucks are +13.6 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court. Milwaukee has the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA. Sunday the Bucks host the Nuggets in a showdown of two MVP frontrunners, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic.

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5. Grizzlies (32-17, LW 2). Ja Morant appears poised to make the leap up to NBA All-Star starter. He’s second in the latest round of fan voting, and it’s unlikely the player/media votes to come will knock him out of that position. The absences of Desmond Bane and Tyus Jones have cost Memphis some wins lately, but on the bright side the team has the easiest remaining schedule of any team — the Grizzlies should be able to hold on and host a first-round playoff series. This team has made an amazing leap this year.

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6. Jazz (30-18, LW 5). Utah has lost 8-of-10 and its defense has been the problem, being bottom 10 in the league in that window. Rudy Gobert missing half of those games and Donovan Mitchell missing some as well has been the root of the problem. While there is time to turn things around, the Jazz are 1-6 against the next top eight teams in the league, and they have the fourth toughest schedule the rest of the way (including three more games against the Suns, and two more each against the Grizzlies and Warriors out West. There is a lot of work to do.

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7. Cavaliers (29-19, LW 8). Things I never thought I would type but here we are: The Cavaliers are going to miss Lauri Markkanen while he is out with a sprained ankle (no timeline for his return). The Finnish big man has fit in well as part of the Cavaliers three 7-footers front line (Jarett Allen and rookie Evan Mobley) — the Cavaliers have a +7.1 net rating when all three are on the court. Markkanen averaged 13.6 points a game and has shot 34.8% from 3 this season. Kevin Love stepped up in Markkanen’s first game out and scored 20, he continues to make his push for Sixth Man of the Year (he is in the conversation).

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8. 76ers (28-19, LW 6). It didn’t seem possible, but if anything Joel Embiid has gotten hotter: In his last five games he is averaging 40.4 points a game, shooting 47.1% on 3s (3.4 attempts a game), plus pulling down 11.8 rebounds and getting 1.8 blocks a game. Insane numbers, and he has vaulted himself into the MVP conversation. He’s going to have to keep playing at this level because it looks more and more likely that Daryl Morey and company will not trade Ben Simmons before the Feb. 10 deadline, waiting until the summer as he continues to search for a blockbuster move (James Harden is the dream, but that is a complex deal to pull off no matter how it’s put together.

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9. Mavericks (27-21, LW 9). Jalen Brunson has thrived this season as the secondary playmaker Dallas needed next to Luka Doncic — and other teams have noticed. Brunson trade rumors are flying around the league as other teams call the Mavericks to kick the tires on a deal for the floor general averaging 15.7 points a game this season. Brunson is a free agent this offseason looking for a starter-level payday (five years, $80 million range) and if Dallas doesn’t want to pay that they should consider a deal. Detroit is interested, he could be part of a Jerami Grant package, but other teams are also calling, such as the Knicks.

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10. Nets (29-18, LW 10). James Harden reportedly is frustrated with a lot of things: Life in Brooklyn, Kyrie Irving being in and out of the lineup, not being the center of everything (on and off the court) like he was in Houston, but the biggest thing short term may be fouls — Harden continues to say the officials are inconsistent with the whistles and the new enforcement of the rules. Harden has gotten to the line 7.4 times a game in his last 10 games, which are good numbers for most but below peak Harden. He still seems to be adjusting to the new rule enforcement around the league, defenders can be more physical now.

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11. Nuggets (25-21, LW 12). Serious Nuggets watchers have their eyes on the pregame warm-up workouts (and post-practice workouts) of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. If, when, and how well those players return will swing Denver’s season, because otherwise it follows a predictable formula: Denver is a strong team when Nikola Jokic is on the floor (+9.7 per 100 possessions) and look like they are tanking when he is not(-13.1). Jokic recently had his streak of triple-doubles snapped at four games. His play continues to have him in the MVP conversation with a bunch of other centers and Stephen Curry (this season Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James count as centers, too).

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12. Bulls (29-17, LW 11). Even before losing Lonzo Ball (knee scope) and Alex Caruso (fractured wrist courtesy Grayson Allen) the Bulls’ defense was an issue. The team has a 115.3 net rating in their last 10 games, 24th in the league, and the team is 3-7 in those games (for comparison, the Bulls had a 107.6 defensive rating in November). Kevin Pelton noted at ESPN that the Bulls are 10.7 points per 100 possessions worse on defense with Caruso out. The good news is that Zach LaVine returned Monday from his knee issue, because in the coming weeks Chicago is going to need him, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic to outscore their opponents and rack up wins.

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13. Hornets (26-22, LW 13). Miles Bridges has unquestionably been critical to the leap Charlotte has made this season. He is averaging 20.1 points per game (way up from 12.7 last season) and when he is on the court the Hornets are 6.9 points better per 100 possessions. Some end-of-season voters will look at that and think “Most Improved Player” candidate. Others will notice the increased minutes and role (starter now, getting more run and more shots) and point to the decline in his efficiency and say it’s not so much improvement compared to how he was used. Bridges will be in the end-of-season MIP conversation, but it’d be a surprise if he wins it.

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14. Celtics (25-24, LW 14). Jayson Tatum broke out of his shooting slump in a dynamic way against the Wizards, then a couple of nights later the Celtics put a 53-point beatdown on the hapless Kings. The Celtics are playing a more aggressive, attacking offensive style the past few games, with Tatum and others going downhill to the rim more, and it’s worked – the offense has been top 10 in the league over the last five games. Boston needs to keep it up, the offense has been holding them back all season (the defense has been strong much of the campaign).

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15. Timberwolves (24-23, LW 17). With their win Monday night, the Timberwolves passed last season’s win total — and did it well before the All-Star game. The team’s three stars — Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell — are each averaging over 20 points a game in the team’s last 10, and in that stretch the Timberwolves have the best offense in the league (a 117.9 offensive rating). How good are the Timberwolves? We will find out this week with games against the Warriors, Suns, and Jazz.

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16. Raptors (23-22, LW 15). The year the Raptors won the NBA title, Pascal Siakam took 40.3% of his shots at the rim, and another 22.6% from 3 (that’s 62.9% of his attempts from efficient spots on the floor). This season, it’s 21.2% at the rim and 15.3% from 3 (36.5%). Siakam has had to take on a lot more of the offense and create more chances for himself and others, but those shots have come from the midrange, he’s not getting to his efficient spots anymore. Siakam will not be voted an All-Star or selected as a reserve by the coaches, but he’s gotten enough fan votes that Adam Silver may choose him as an injury replacement (Silver usually follows the fan voting).

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17. Lakers (24-24, LW 18). Anthony Davis returned and the Lakers just look better with him at center, especially defensively where he had four blocks in his debut against the Nets. The Lakers’ big three of LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Davis have played just 11 games together this season (with a +5.1 net rating in the minutes they are all on the court), so Davis’s return is a reason for optimism. But Avery Bradley put it best, the Lakers have growing to do: “We are not learning from our mistakes and as a veteran team as a team that is looking to go far in the postseason, I feel like we have to correct our mistakes and learn from those. We just have to play better.”

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18. Hawks (21-25 LW 22). Trae Young is red hot, averaging 30.8 points per game and shooting 44.4% from 3 over that stretch while adding 8.2 assists a game. He has fueled the Hawks’ four-game winning streak — which included wins over the Bucks and Heat — that has been all about the offense, Atlanta has a 120.4 offensive rating in those games. Atlanta still sits as the 12th seed in the East, but just a game out of the play-in now (the best they can hope for at this point) and with five straight games coming up at home. This is Atlanta’s chance to make a run.

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19. Knicks (23-25, LW 19). Here’s a troubling stat for those holding out hope these Knicks can do what last season’s Knicks did with a second-half run up the standings: New York has the second-toughest remaining schedule in the league. That plays out this week with New York hitting the road to face the Heat and Bucks. If New York is going to start winning and make the play-in they need to find some offense — their 108.4 offensive rating the last 10 games (which is 24th in the league) is almost exactly in line with their season averages (108.2). A deadline trade for an offensive spark plug would help, but what player is available who can bring that?

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20. Clippers (24-25, LW 20). He’s not going to win Coach of the Year, but Tyronn Lue has done an impressive job this season. His team is gritty and feisty, and they do not quit — as evidenced by the insane 35-point comeback win over the Wizards on Tuesday. Lue’s Clippers have gone 7-10 since Paul George went out and have played solid defense in that stretch (a 111.6 defensive rating, which is middle of the pack in the league over that period). This team can still shock an opponent when they can find a spark of offense — like in the second half against the Wizards.

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21. Wizards (23-25, LW 16). Blowing a 35-point lead to the Clippers was not just a low point of the season for Washington, it was a low point of recent memory. Long-time D.C. journalist David Aldridge called it “The most pathetic performance I’ve seen in almost 40 years of being around and covering this basketball team.” A bright spot in Washington has been rookie Corey Kispert, who showed real promise when forced to play during the rash of COVID/injury absences, and now that guys are getting healthy he is still a regular part of the rotation. There’s a long way to go, but he has potential as a valuable rotation player for the Wizards long term.

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22. Trail Blazers (20-27, LW 21). It’s strange to type, but it’s true: This ranking may be too low for a team missing Damian Lillard. The Trail Blazers have won 6-of-9 and hung on to the final play-in spot in the West thanks to Anfernee Simons, who in his last 10 games has averaged 22.4 points a night, shot 44.1% from 3, and dished out 7.2 assists a game. Neil Olshey’s unwavering faith in him is paying off. Since his return from the collapsed lung, CJ McCollum is averaging 19.6 points per game, shooting 45.9% from 3, and the Blazers are +5 per 48 when he is on the court.

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23. Pelicans (18-29, LW 23). While there has been some buzz about a possible Josh Hart trade, mostly things have been quiet on the rumor front around New Orleans. The team has played solid basketball (16-17) after its dreadful 1-12 start, and they have almost climbed out of the hole and are now just two games out of the final play-in spot in the West (chasing Portland). Brandon Ingram is out with a sprained ankle and Nickeil Alexander-Walker started and stepped up Tuesday with 31 points.

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24. Spurs (18-30, LW 26). The Spurs remain one of the unluckiest teams in the NBA — they have the point differential of a 23-25 team (which would have them in the play-in if it started today). Part of the reason for that is the Spurs offense comes apart in the clutch: They have an 89.5 offensive net rating in games within five points in the final five minutes (the worst clutch offense in the NBA). The defense gives up less than a point per possession those minutes, but it doesn’t matter if the Spurs can’t score. San Antonio is 6-14 in those games.

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25. Kings (18-31, LW 24). The buzz out of Sacramento has been that the franchise will make moves at the trade deadline, but that they still want to build around a De’Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton backcourt. Why? As Tom Ziller noted this week in his brilliant “Good Morning Basketball” newsletter, Fox and Haliburton have played 853 minutes together this season, and the Kings are -5 per 48 minutes in those minutes together. The Kings have negative net ratings with either one of them separate from the other — and Haliburton’s got worse in the ugly 53-point loss to the Celtics Tuesday (Fox was out for that one). It’s strange to say a team sitting 13th in the conference needs to think about being bolder, but here we are.

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26. Pacers (17-31, LW 25). Rick Carlisle on Lance Stephenson: “He’s brought attitude, humility, appreciation, he has a fearlessness and a joy with which he plays which has really connected with our fans. I’ve seen it from afar for a period of years, but you just love the fact that he decided his goal was to get back in the league and he went about it the way that he had to. Which was to get in great shape, get in the G-League and just play the right way. He was really productive, very unselfish, and he’s been a very unselfish player with us, too.”

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27. Rockets (14-34, LW 27). The play of Christian Wood and Eric Gordon on a recent five-game road trip — where Houston won three — should boost their trade value. Houston is one of the teams most mentioned as a seller on the trade market as the deadline approaches, but or all the talk and words about John Wall, it is improbable he is traded at the deadline — and no, not for Westbrook (the Lakers are not throwing in a first-round pick to make that happen, they’re not stupid). What Houston wants is simple, picks or young players they like to help with their rebuild.

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28. Pistons (11-36, LW 28). Every time I watch Cade Cunningham, he looks a little bit better. Over the weekend against a shorthanded Jazz team he had a quality game of 25 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 blocks as well. He looks a little more smooth with each passing game. It will be fun to watch him in the less structured environment of the new-look All-Star Friday Night Rookie/Sophomore game, where he can let loose, throw a few lobs, bomb a few 3s and just have fun (he will be one of the 12 rookies in that game).

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29. Magic 9-39, LW 30). Orlando is in the “acquire as much talent as you can” portion of the rebuild, and they found some young players with interesting talent this season in Cole Anthony, Jalen Suggs, Franz Wagner, and Wendell Carter Jr. (and maybe Mo Bamba as well, although reviews on him are a little more mixed around the league). It’s hard not to wonder how those players would look with a healthy Markelle Fultz at the point and Jonathan Isaac along the front lines? It will apparently be next season before we find out, and by then the Magic will add another high draft pick to the mix.

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30. Thunder (14-33, LW 29). Oklahoma City has a couple of players they see as part of the backcourt of their future with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and rookie Josh Giddey — both of whom have played well together the last few weeks — but Thunder fans can’t be blamed for watching a lot of college hoop the next few months. OKC has its own pick in the 2022 draft (technically, it goes to Atlanta if it’s out of the lottery, but that’s not happening) plus Detroit’s pick through the Alperen Sengun trade. Add two more high picks to that backcourt and we might see something really starting to build in OKC.

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