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NBA Power Rankings: Warriors remain on top but Bulls climbing fast

Kurt Helin breaks down what Kyrie Irving can bring to the Brooklyn Nets as he is set to return to the team Wednesday when they take on the Indiana Pacers.

The Warriors are beating all comers and with that remain on top of this week’s NBA Power Rankings. The most surprising thing compared to preseason expectations is the Bulls have climbed up to fourth and are the highest-ranked team from the East.

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1. Warriors (29-7, Last Week No. 1). Klay Thompson is likely to return to action this weekend for the Warriors, jumping right back into his starting role (although with a minutes limit). That is unquestionably good news — even 90% of All-NBA Klay makes the Warriors even more dangerous — but it presents a challenge for Steve Kerr with his rotation. How does he keep up the minutes and opportunities for Jordan Poole, Gary Payton II and other players who have carried the Warriors to start the season? Kerr has gotten a lot out of his role players in big games, including Andre Iguodala’s 3 to seal the win against Jazz (although Stephen Curry’s reaction is the best part of this video).

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2. Jazz (27-10, LW 2). Even without a gifted passer in Draymond Green, the Warriors tore apart the Jazz defense in the halfcourt sets Saturday in a way that is mildly concerning when thinking way down the road toward the playoffs. With switches and the gravity of Curry pulling Rudy Gobert out higher, Utah’s backside rotations got exposed by the motion of the Warriors’ offense. It’s something they need to work on before the playoffs start and other teams try to follow that blueprint. One part of that improvement could be adding a strong perimeter defender at the trade deadline.

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3. Suns (29-8, LW 3). DeAndre Ayton has played well this season — as in he’s going to get that max contract next summer anyway good — but has missed the last five games due to health and safety protocols. JaVale McGee stepped in and played well, but he has missed the last three for the same reason. Enter Bismack Biyombo — who has looked amazing. He has averaged 13.5 points a game through two games and shot an insane 84.6% from the floor. The Suns may not have room on the roster once everyone is healthy, but some team should pick up Biyombo, who can still play a role and is a great locker room mentor.

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4. Bulls (25-10, LW 7). DeMar DeRozan had a week — not one but two buzzer-beating game-winners on back-to-back days. DeRozan has been a late-game force all season, only Jayson Tatum has scored more fourth quarter points, and DeRozan is splitting playmaking duties with Zach LaVine. In writing about who should start in the All-Star Game I put DeRozan in as a starter, but I had to cheat to do it — I put him in as a backcourt player (because the frontcourt is locked up in the East), but DeRozan has only played forward this season (with LaVine as the shooting guard). Still, I’m willing to cheat a little to get the best players, the ones who have earned it, on the floor for the exhibition, and DeRozan has earned it.

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5. Bucks (25-14, LW 5). Milwaukee had won six in a row before taking a mental vacation day against Detroit on Monday. Over the last seven games it has been the offense doing the heavy lifting — they have the best offense in the NBA over that stretch, a 120.1 offensive rating. The Bucks have had the easiest schedule in the league by some measures (such as Dunks and Threes), but that will start to change starting Friday night with a test against the Nets (in Brooklyn, so no Kyrie).

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6. Grizzlies (25-14, LW 9).No Desmond Bane, Ja Morant is not the best point guard in the NBA. Not yet, anyway. But he’s been impressive of late and drawing praise from LeBron James and Kevin Durant, not to mention taking over at the end of games (six points in the final :30 seconds to seal the win against the Cavaliers). Morant absolutely deserves to be an All-Star (as a reserve), he may even be All-NBA by the time the season ends, but he’s not the best in the business. Yet. Challenging stretch coming up, back-to-back against the two Los Angeles teams, followed by the Golden State Warriors next Tuesday.

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7. 76ers (20-16, LW 10). Four straight wins with a +14.2 net rating in those game has surged the 76ers up to fifth in the East, giving them a little breathing room. Philadelphia is facing one familiar problem: Matisse Thybulle is a lock-down perimeter defender that is critical to what the 76ers do, butbut his 27.5% shooting on 3-pointers has defenses sagging off him and clogging the lane, while daring him to shoot. He’s attacking the rim a little more, but it’s all very reminiscent of that guy not mentally ready to play, awaiting a trade.

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8. Nets (23-12, LW 4). Kyrie Irving returns tonight and it’s a needed boost for a Nets team that has lost three in a row and had a pedestrian offense this season despite Kevin Durant playing like an MVP and James Harden racking up three 30-point triple-double in his last five games. Last season, in a small sample size, the Nets had a +11.5 net rating and a 123.4 offensive rating when Durant, Harden, and Irving were on the court together. We think of Irving as an elite isolation player with amazing handles, but last season he shot 43.4 % on catch-and-shoot 3s, working well off the ball while Harden was the playmaker. There are questions about how the part-time player thing will work, especially come the playoffs, but for now the Nets need the boost.

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9. Heat (23-15, LW 6). Jimmy Butler was back — he scored 37 against the Rockets last Friday — but is now out again with a sprained ankle. Miami has been resilient this season, with Steve Kerr praising their team culture and ability to keep winning despite the rash of injuries and COVID cases. They have players like hardship signee Kyle Guy putting up 17 points in his debut. After a five-game win streak to close out 2021, the Heat are 0-2 in 2022, have a string of games coming up against playoff teams from last season, and that culture will be put to the test. Especially until Butler and Bam Adebayo return.

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10. Cavaliers (21-17, LW 8). Cleveland has dropped 5-of-7, although they still have a positive net rating through those games (+1.3). The Cavaliers officially brought in Rajon Rondo to help fill the role of Ricky Rubio (torn ACL), but at this point in his career Rondo he will do little more than fill in some backup minutes. More is going to fall on the shoulders of Darius Garland, who had 27 points going toe-to-toe with Ja Morant on Tuesday (but in a Cavaliers loss).

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11. Mavericks (19-18, LW 13). Dallas went 5-5 without Luka Doncic, and it was due to the play of Jalen Brunson in that stretch — 21 points and 7.4 assists a game in that stretch. Brunson played well enough that even when Doncic returned Brunson has stayed in the starting lineup. Brunson is an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and if nothing else his play is going to earn him a big payday (starter-level money) this summer. Good test for the Warriors coming up Wednesday with the Warriors.

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12. Nuggets (18-17, LW 11). Nikola Jokic averaged 24 points and 17.3 rebounds a game during the Nuggets recent three-game win streak (which was snapped by Dallas Monday). He continues to play at an MVP level, and he continues to need more help (fortunately, Jamal Murray looks good dunking in an empty gym, meaning he is getting closer to his return). Still, just when you think things are going well you find out reserve big man Vlatko Cancar suffers a right foot fracture, and he will be out for a while. When it rains it pours.

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13. Clippers (19-19, LW 12). Tyronn Lue’s squad has grit. Not a lot of name talent still standing, but grit. that is how they picked up recent road wins in Boston and Brooklyn, but those games were surrounded by losses. The Clippers are still eighth in the West because of how hard they play, and if they can hold that position through a run of upcoming road games, we can start asking about if Paul George (elbow) or Kawhi Leonard (ACL) can return to make a playoff push.

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14. Celtics (18-19, LW 16). Jaylen Brown put up a 50-spot this week, a reminder that despite all the rumors and speculation you will hear in the coming weeks, the Celtics don’t plan to trade either Brown or Jayson Tatum (bariog some godfather deal falling in their laps). The goal remains building something around those two star wings. At least, that’s the official position. A word of advice to the gamblers out there: Stay away from this team. The Celtics are a roller coaster, a team that beat Phoenix but lost to Minnesota recently.

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15. Hornets (19-19, LW 14). Charlotte continues to rise and fall with its defense. When the Hornets recently played three solid defense games in a row, they won three straight. Then, they gave up 133 to the Suns and 124 to the Wizards, both losses. The Hornets are one of the worst transition defenses in the league and teams are running on them nightly — off makes and misses — and it’s not because Charlotte is a good offensive rebounding team crashing the glass. LaMelo Ball will be on the bubble for an All-Star berth, but a few more wins would boost his cause.

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16. Lakers (20-19, LW 19). As much as it seems to get mentioned with every game and every highlight, it is still a marvel just how well LeBron James is playing right now. In December, LeBron averaged 30.7 points a game and became the oldest player in league history to average 30+ a night (stat via @jkubatko). He also added 9.3 rebounds, 6.5 assists, and shot 40.4% from 3. LeBron at center lineups have supercharged those numbers as well, and they are also the reason the Lakers have won 4-of-5 (LA is 4-5 since Anthony Davis went out with a sprained knee).

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17. Wizards (19-18, LW 21). After a 10-3 start to the season that had everyone giving them flowers for winning the Westbrook trade, the Wizards a 9-15. Two areas where they continue to shine: They are the best clutch team in the NBA: 12-2 in games within three points in the final three minutes (and they were almost 13-1 after a Kyle Kuzma 3-pointer against the Bulls, but DeMar DeRozan had just enough time to flip that script). The other area: Montrezl Harrell may be the frontrunner for Sixth Man of the Year as he continues to put up numbers (14.5 points, 7.3 rebounds a game). His main early competition for the award, Jalen Brunson, has started too many games in Dallas (for good reason) and it’s taking him out of the running.

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18. Raptors (17-17, LW 23). Fred VanVleet is on fire — he had his third straight 30+ point game Tuesday dropping 33 on the Spurs. Not so coincidentally, that’s three straight wins for the Raptors. VanVleet is putting up numbers that will get him in consideration for an All-Star reserve guard spot in the East (although whether he makes the cut in a conference deep with quality guards remains to be seen).

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19. Timberwolves (17-20, LW 15). Minnesota has dropped 5-of-7, but most of that can be blamed on COVID ripping through the roster and messing with lineups. Despite that, because the West is the new “leastern conference,” the Timberwolves sit in the nine seed and are just two games out of the sixth seed (and avoiding the play-in all together). This week is Minnesota’s chance to make a push up the West ladder, with two games against OKC, plus Houston and New Orleans on the docket. Get Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell healthy, make a run and maybe things turn around.

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20. Knicks (18-20, LW 20). The “defense+Julius Randle” identity that got the Knicks to the playoffs a season ago has been non-existent this season, and as of now New York has fallen out of even the play-in slots in the East. This team should be better than that, but losses last week to the Thunder (the Knicks offense sputtered) and Raptors (Knicks defense got shredded) show the challenges Tom Thibodeau faces. The time to turn it around is now: The Knicks play eight of their next 10 at home after Sunday, that has to become a turnaround or Knicks fans can focus their attention on college games featuring future lottery picks.

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21. Hawks (16-20 LW 17). Is Trae Young an All-Star Game starter? He is in my book, he’ll have my vote for one of the two Eastern Conference guard spots. That’s a good story in the ATL, but Hawks GM Travis Schlenk going on Atlanta radio, ripping his team’s defensive effort, and saying “maybe I need to lower my expectations for this team” and “maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to bring everybody back” and “we have a few weeks here at the trade deadline and that’s what I need to figure out” is closer to reality. Atlanta is out of even the play-in in the East right now and unless their 28th ranked defense improves they are not going to leapfrog teams and get in.

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22. Spurs (14-22, LW 18). Losers of four straight, but that is because Dejounte Murray is out and without him the offense is sputtering, barely scoring a point per possession (they are 29th in the league in offense over those four games). The schedule is not easing up on San Antonio, which Tuesday night in Toronto started a stretch of eight games in 12 days. It’s also not going to be the same without Becky Hammon on the bench next season, but she made the move that was likely best for her career (she was rumored not to be next in line when Popovich steps down at some point).

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23. Kings (16-23, LW 26). Sacramento went 3-3 on its longest homestand of the season, and picked up a couple of those wins in dramatic fashion. Against Miami, De’Aaron Fox drove the lane, put a spin move on Tyler Herro, and drew the foul to set up the game-winning free throws. With the wins the Kings sit in the 10 seed, the final play-in spot, but the buzz around the league is Sacramento will be very aggressive at the trade deadline looking to upgrade and end the team’s playoff drought that goes back to 2006.

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24. Pelicans (13-25, LW 22). The latest Zion Williamson update is that he will continue is rehab away from the team, but under the medical direction of the team. Reports say he is doing his rehab work in Portland, which is not a big deal so long as he is following a doctor’s advice and is putting in the work. If he doesn’t return this season, will the Pelicans still offer him the max contract extension he is eligible for this summer?

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25. Pacers (14-24, LW 24). Of Indiana’s 24 losses, 17 have come in games within five points in the final five minutes — this team has been a combination of unlucky and just unable to close out games. It feels like a roster in need of a shakeup, which is why all eyes are on them heading toward the trade deadline. Myles Turner wants a trade, but the offers may be better for Domantas Sabonis and Caris LeVert. Whoever moves on, it’s time for the Pacers to retool the roster. It’s become obvious this season.

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26. Trail Blazers (14-22, LW 25). Damian Lillard is out for another few games as he rests and rehabs the abdominal issue that has plagued him all season (and heading back to the Olympics in Tokyo). It’s been a frustrating season in Portland and heading toward the trade deadline there are questions for Portland: how much authority does interim GM Joe Cronin have to make changes? Are we talking CJ McCollum level changes, or just tinkering around the edges? Monday’s win over the Hawks started five in a row at home for the Blazers.

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27. Thunder (13-23, LW 27). Josh Giddey became the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double last week, which speaks both to his talent (the rookie is coming along nicely) and the fact Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort were out of the lineup, meaning Giddy had the ball in his hands all night. Despite having the fourth-worst net rating in the league, the Thunder have been a little lucky in games and are just 1.5 games back of the last play-in slot in the West. A push to make the play-in is not out of the question.

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28. Pistons (7-28, LW 30). With all due respect to DeMar DeRozan, Saddiq Bey had the game-winner of the week. Detroit was shorthanded with with Cade Cunningham and Killian Hayes both in protocols, but 10-day contract guard Derrick Walton Jr. drove the lane, drew the defense, threw a bounce-pass through the legs of Jakob Poeltl to the corner, Bey was waiting. The same Sadiq Bey who was 1-of-11 from 3 in the game so far and had the 7'1" Poeltl in his face. What a shot.

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29. Magic 7-31, LW 28). Franz Wagner is absolutely in the mix for Rookie of the Year, which is not a sentence I ever thought I would type, but here we are in 2022. In December he averaged 19.5 points a game and shot 40% from 3. It makes you wonder what this team could look like if it could just get Wagner, Cole Anthony, Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac all healthy at the same time. There is some potential there. Orlando has lost six in a row and 13-of-15.

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30. Rockets (10-28, LW 29). Just when you think things can’t get worse for a team that plays five rookies at the same time at points, both Kevin Porter Jr. and Christian Wood get in disciplinary trouble. Jalen Green is back on the court and in his last five games the No. 2 pick is averaging 20.2 points a game and hitting 47.4% from 3 on 7.6 attempts a game. He continues to struggle some inside the arc, but the potential is there and he’s starting to grow.

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