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NBA Power Rankings: Warriors reclaim top spot after Christmas win

As Corey Robinson and Kurt Helin reflect on the biggest NBA moments from 2021, they can't help but reflect on what was so special about Giannis Antetokounmpo winning the 2021 NBA Finals with the Bucks.

The Christmas Day slate of games shook up these NBA Power Rankings, starting at the top with the Warriors moving back to No. 1. It’s also one of the harder power rankings I have ever done because of the uncertainty caused by this COVID wave.

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1. Warriors (27-7, Last Week No. 2). The little adjustments to their attack that the Warriors were able to make on Christmas Day to beat the Suns — and the fact they could do that without Jordan Poole or Andrew Wiggins (not to mention Klay Thompson) — is why the Warriors are in the pole position in the chase for a title. And on top of this ranking. The Warriors looked flat coming out of that emotional game and lost to the Nuggets, but they are hopefully back to themselves for a New Year’s Day matchup with the Jazz.

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2. Jazz (24-9, LW 3). Utah has the best offense in the NBA, but a lot of people miss just how great it’s been. The Jazz’s 116.6 offensive rating is 3.8 points per 100 better than the second-place Hornets; step another 3.8 back from Charlotte and you encompass 15 teams. Utah’s offense is lapping the field. I get the “they need to show it in the playoffs” viewpoint after the way the Kawhi-less Clippers took the Jazz out a year ago, but the Jazz have a chance to put a dent in that argument with a showdown against the Warriors on New Year’s Day. Donovan Mitchell may not get enough fan votes to be the second starting guard in the West (with Curry), but he’s probably going to get my vote.

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3. Suns (26-7, LW 1). Phoenix has been the best clutch team in the NBA this season (they had won 12 straight games within five points in the final five minutes), but a couple of tough clutch losses at home this week put a dent in that. Sort of. To be honest, Stephen Curry doing Curry things and Ja Morant doing his acrobatics in the closing seconds are not bad losses. Now Phoenix heads out on the road with targets on their backs — starting Friday in Boston, the Suns have 8-of-10 away from the warmth of the Valley of the Sun.

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4. Nets (23-9, LW 5). The Nets swept through both Los Angeles teams and now get Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge back from COVID protocols (Kyrie Irving is cleared as well, but Steve Nash said it will be a little while still before he is on the court). Even with all that star power, the Nets just look better with Nicolas Claxton on the court. He brings defensively switchability, however, his athleticism really shows on offense where the team is +6.5 per 100 better with him on the court. Plus Claxton can do this to LeBron.

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5. Bucks (23-13, LW 6). injuries and COVID have hit the Bucks as hard as anyone, but sees through the haze — it gives Milwaukee a 25% chance of repeating as NBA champions, a higher percentage shot at the title than any other team (including the Warriors). Their Christmas win over the Celtics felt like the season in Milwaukee — a bit sloppy and disjointed at times, but they hung around, and when it mattered Giannis Antetokounmpo was playing like an MVP, and the Bucks were getting stops. Milwaukee has a three-game winning streak and a soft part of the schedule coming up for the next week.

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6. Heat (22-13, LW 7). No team has shown the strength of culture more over the past few weeks than the Heat. Injuries hit them hard first — Jimmy Butler was out (and is out again Wednesday) and Bam Adebayo still is sidelined — then just as that ended P.J. Tucker injured his knee, and Kyle Lowry went into protocols, and yet Miami has won 7-of-9 with a +8.5 net rating in that stretch. Guys like Max Strus and Gabe Vincent are stepping up and making plays (but both just entered protocols). Starting Wednesday in San Antonio the Heat are on the road for seven straight.

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7. Bulls (21-10, LW 8). You have to hunt for flaws in this Bulls’ season, but one area of concern is they are 29th in the league in bench scoring. That may well have them active at the trade deadline. Still, you would have thought the scoring depth would be exposed during the recent run of COVID and injuries. Nope. They have won 8-of-9, and nothing mattered once DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine returned and started lighting teams up. Like the 65 they combined for against the shorthanded Hawks.

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8. Cavaliers (20-14, LW 4). Evan Mobley returning from protocols gives me a chance to mention my favorite unexpected stat of the season: The Cavaliers have a +10.6 net rating when they roll out three 7-footers in Mobley, Jarrett Allen, and Lauri Markkanen. Due to COVID Markkanen had a chance to step up recently but didn’t, and now the Cavaliers will need someone to step up with Darius Garland entering protocols, and now with Ricky Rubio expected to miss an extended period following a knee injury (the Cavaliers already lost Collin Sexton for the season as well).

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9. Grizzlies (21-14, LW 9). When thinking ahead to the Most Improved Player award, Desmond Bane is going to get a lot of love. The second-year wing out of TCU has doubled the number of shots a game he is taking this season without losing any efficiency, is scoring 17.2 points a game, shooting 42.6% from 3, and is a key defensive cog for the surprising Grizzlies. Ja Morant is back from protocols and in his second game he hit an acrobatic game-winner against the Suns that showed why he is must watch.

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10. 76ers (17-16, LW 10). Philadelphia knows drama. No team has been in more clutch games this season — within five points in the final five minutes — than the 76ers with 22. Philly is 11-11 in those games, befitting a season where they have hung around .500 the whole time. The 76ers might be worse than that if not for the play of Tyrese Maxey this season, who is averaging 16.5 points a game, running the offense and dishing out 4.5 assists, and is playing quality defense. His play changes the dynamic of what the 76ers need back in a Ben Simmons trade.

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11. Nuggets (17-16, LW 11). We keep saying Nikola Jokic is playing at an MVP level, and this is the best proof of that: The Nuggets outscore opponents by 9.7 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court and get outscored by 13.9 when he sits — the Nuggets are +23.6 when he plays. That is the definition of value. Jokic’s jumper has been a little off since his wrist injury, but he keeps finding ways to impact games and get his team some wins.

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12. Clippers (17-17, LW 12). The timing could hardly be worse. Not that there was a good time for Paul George to go down with a torn ligament in his elbow — the history of others with this injury suggests he will be out at least a month, maybe more — but the Clippers are about to hit a tough part of the schedule. Tuesday’s loss to Brooklyn started 21 games in 37 days, with two-thirds of those on the road. The Clippers are 3-5 on the season in games George doesn’t play, and the team has been +2.3 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court.

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13. Mavericks (16-17, LW 15). Dallas has kept its head above water and gone 4-4 while Luka Doncic has been out (ankle injury then health and safety protocols). Kristaps Porzingis has helped with that the past couple of games, putting up big numbers since his return (27 points against Utah and 34 against Portland). The Mavericks need that kind of improvement from other players — Tim Hardaway Jr. and Reggie Bullock in particular, they have been in a slump all season — because help from the outside in the form of a trade is unlikely (Dallas doesn’t have the trade assets to make a significant move).

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14. Hornets (18-17, LW 20). Charlotte’s bottom-three defense has been marginally better of late, 18th in the NBA over the last six games, but the Hornets are 3-3 in that stretch as the offense has not been as dominant. If you’re looking for a bright spot going forward it may be that the Hornets have played the sixth toughest schedule in the league, with a heavy dose of road games, and as that balances out there is the chance to rack up wins.

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15. Timberwolves (16-18, LW 17). Greg Monroe, playing on a hardship contract himself right now, summed up Minnesota’s current state perfectly after a win over Boston: “I’m not gonna lie: Jaylen Nowell played awesome tonight. I didn’t know who he was. I think he played awesome, but that was my first time seeing him.” The Timberwolves will just try to keep their head above water the next week with Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, D’Angelo Russell, Patrick Beverley, Jarred Vanderbilt and others in health and safety protocols.

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16. Celtics (16-18, LW 16). The blown lead on Christmas Day to Milwaukee was another example of how much Boston has struggled in the clutch this season — they are 6-13 in games within five points in the final five minutes after another clutch loss Tuesday, this time to the Timberwolves. Only Indiana has as many losses in tight games. “At the end of the day, we kind of have to look in the mirror at ourselves individually and as a team. It’s something that we have to do,” Al Horford said after the latest clutch loss.

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17. Hawks (15-18 LW 14). Atlanta’s offense is third best in the NBA for the season, but it is 23rd over the last six games because of injuries and COVID sidelining key players, such as no Trae Young in Madison Square Garden on Christmas. The Hawks can’t generate enough offense without Young, they score 16.2 points more per 100 possessions when he is on the court. Losers of 8-of-11, the Hawks set out this week on a six-game road trip.

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18. Spurs (14-19, LW 18). If the play-in started today San Antonio would be in — and they would be a threat. The Spurs are 6-4 in their last 10 games with a 118.7 offensive rating that is the best in the NBA over that stretch. The Spurs have a +7.2 net rating over their last 10, and picked up road wins over the Jazz and both Los Angeles teams. With players such as Dejounte Murray developing and the team winning, it’s not crazy to mention Gregg Popovich in the Coach of the Year category — name a coach who has done more with less. Not that Pop cares if he gets another award, he’s focused and having fun teaching again.

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19. Lakers (17-18, LW 13). For most of the season, the Lakers needed LeBron James to play at an All-NBA level to win games. Of late, and without Anthony Davis, even that has not been enough. Before Tuesday night’s win in Houston, LeBron had scored 30+ in the four games and the Lakers lost all four. More than that, in the five-game losing streak before the Rockets game, Los Angeles had the worst offense in the NBA over that stretch scoring less than a point per possession. LeBron started at center against the Rockets, expect to see more of that coming up. Laker fans are looking for Russell Westbrook trades, good luck with that.

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20. Knicks (16-18, LW 21). We are living in the upside-down right now so take with a grain of salt, but Kemba Walker is on fire — he is your Eastern Conference player of the week — and the Knicks have won 4-of-6. New York has a top-10 offense and defense in that short couple of weeks span and looks like a team that could bounce out of the bottom of the play-in up to a more secure position. Nothing has come easy for the Knicks, but they are entering a soft part of the schedule for a couple of weeks and it’s a chance for New York to right the ship and look more like last season’s No. 4 seed. If they can just get some consistency from their stars.

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21. Wizards (17-17, LW 23). In the long term, there is good news: Apparently spurred on by the vaccine mandate coming to Washington D.C. next month, Bradley Beal has decided to get the jab. That’s good for the Wizards, good for him, and good for those around Beal. Short term, COVID is still hitting the Wizards hard — including Beal being out — and with that the Wizards have fallen all the way back to .500. Washington has lost 8-of-11 and has the third-worst defense in the league over that stretch. Washington is home for the next 12-of-14 (they are 8-5 there this season, this is a chance for the Wizards to get back on track).

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22. Pelicans (13-22, LW 26). New Orleans has put some things together behind Brandon Ingram, and this is starting to look like a play-in team having won 6-of-8 with a +3 net rating in that time. All of that without He Who Shall Not Be Named seeing the court. When Ingram tweaked his knee and had to miss Tuesday’s game it opened the door for Herbert Jones. He scored 26 in beating the Cavaliers and has become a player the Pelicans need to focus on developing the rest of this season.

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23. Raptors (14-17, LW 19). The schedule turned tough just as the Raptors watched 11 players enter health and safety protocols, so losing 3-of-4 is not surprising. Toronto remains the ultimate “what if” team: what would their record look like if Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Scottie Barnes and OG Anunoby had played more games together (maybe with some Gary Trent Jr. mixed in)?

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24. Pacers (14-20, LW 22). Caris LeVert is on a tear, averring 23 points with 6.4 assists a game over his last four, and hitting 34% from 3. While it may not have sparked wins for the Pacers, it has sparked trade discussion as a lot of teams could use an athletic wing heading into the playoff push. (All of the trade talk around Indiana and the league has died off the past couple of weeks as front offices are just focused on signing hardship/replacement players and trying to get through this, but it will come back around.) Tough stretch of games coming up for the Pacers including the Bulls, Nets, and Jazz over the next couple of weeks.

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25. Trail Blazers (13-20, LW 24). Good news that CJ McCollum is recovering well, and if there is one silver lining to the recent postponed Blazers games it’s that he will miss fewer of them now. A lot of questions around the league Portland interim GM Joe Cornin heading into the trade deadline: He has the authority to make trades, but what about big, sweeping ones? Could he trade McCollum or Jusuf Nurkic (assuming he could find a trade he liked), or is his power more limited than that?

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26. Kings (14-21, LW 25). De’Aaron Fox being out may have crystalized a path forward for Sacramento: Tyrese Haliburton has blossomed with 20/10 games in his last six games, and he has been far more efficient running half-court pick-and-roll offense than Fox While it’s fair to ask if Haliburton is the long-term answer at the one he is more consistent and reliable than what the Kings have been getting. Sacramento reportedly will listen to an offer for Fox, something they would not do last offseason.

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27. Thunder (12-21, LW 27). Oklahoma City has won 4-of-6, play hard every night, and have some promising young talent in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort and Josh Giddey (who has just entered protocols). There will be teams calling about Gilgeous-Alexander at the trade deadline, but more teams will be calling about the Thunder being the third team in a massive trade because they are the lone team with cap space right now (up to $34 million, with a couple of moves).

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28. Magic 7-28, LW 29). Franz Wagner has inserted himself into an unsettled and unusual (because of COVID) Rookie of the Year conversation. The rash of COVID absences and injuries gave him a chance to run the offense and he has shown promise there. Wagner is averaging 15.6 points a game, playing efficiently, and had a coming out party dropping 38 on the defending champion Bucks.

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29. Rockets (10-25, LW 28). Houston has had some success on the court this season when it had to lean into its veterans such as Christian Wood and Eric Gordon, but job No. 1 this season has to be the development of Jalen Green and the other young players on the roster. It’s a fine line to walk for coach Stephen Silas because he needs to continue to show what the veterans can do for trade reasons, but the youngsters have to drive the bus. Green scoring 24 against the Lakers was a promising sign.

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30. Pistons (5-27, LW 30). If there’s one player I would bet on getting moved by the trade deadline it would be Jerami Grant of the Pistons — he is the kind of versatile player who can be a small-ball four that teams around the league want on the roster. The challenge? What will the good teams give up to get him? The teams that could most use him (think Lakers) have next to nothing to offer a rebuilding team. We’ll see what Troy Weaver eventually settles on.

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