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

Pro Basketball Talk's Kurt Helin joins Michael Smith and Michael Holley to discuss the current standings in the West, specifically the job Monty Williams has done with the Suns despite a myriad of off-court distractions.

The Warriors and Suns have reasons to be thankful for their fast starts to the season and they remain in the top two spots of our NBA Power Rankings. After that, for all the drama, the Brooklyn Nets are playing well.

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1. Warriors (15-2, Last Week No. 1). Rookie Jonathan Kuminga has been getting more run of late, and the No. 7 pick is showing flashes of the crazy athleticism and potential he brings to the court. Steve Kerr used a young Kawhi Leonard as his comp: Insane athlete, raw, but on a team deep with talented veterans so he just has to play a role and make simple plays. So far, Kuminga has done that well and helped the Warriors, but it’s a long road from here to being Kawhi. The Warriors have won four in a row and 11-of-12, with a good showdown next Tuesday against the Suns.

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2. Suns (14-3, LW 2). If you called the Suns’ Finals run last season a fluke, make sure to have a second helping of crow pie for Thanksgiving. The Suns are legit and are showing it both with a 14-game win streak (beating a few good teams of late) and being in the top 10 in the league in both offense and defense. The Suns’ win streak likely ends this weekend with a road back-to-back against the Knicks then Nets (if the feisty Cavaliers don’t beat them Wednesday). That doesn’t change the fact the Suns have found their groove again.

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3. Nets (13-5, LW 5). The midrange shot is not dead in the NBA, at least not whenever Kevin Durant is on the court. KD is taking 59% of his shots this season from the midrange and hitting a ridiculous 57% of them (for comparison, the Bulls’ DeRozan is considered a great midrange shooter and he is hitting 48% this season). Durant is obviously a threat from 3 and can finish at the rim, so when his midrangers are falling he becomes truly unstoppable. The Nets have won 11-of-13 and now face a few interesting challenges, including the Suns this weekend.

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4. Heat (12-6, LW 7). Miami has a Sixth Man of the Year candidate in Tyler Herro, who dropped 31 on Detroit, his second 30+ point game off the bench this season. Herro is averaging 22.1 points a game, shooting 40.2% from 3, and the Heat are outscoring opponents by 8.4 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court this season. Interesting early season test Saturday when the Heat face the Bulls.

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5. Jazz (11-6, LW 8). It’s weird to write this, but the Jazz are the best offense in the NBA, with a 116.6 offensive rating (using Cleaning the Glass and its garbage time filters). That’s jumped to 119.2 the past 7 games against weaker defenses, but their defense has been average in that stretch, and they’ve been a bit unlucky just to go 4-3. Rudy Gay returned to the lineup last week and from the first minute was knocking down 3s (3-of-3 from deep in his first shift of the season), finishing with 20 points against the Raptors. He’s come back to earth the past couple of games, but he provides more depth and versatility (I want to see him as a small-ball five against five-out lineups).

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6. Bulls (12-6, LW 3). The Bulls don’t run a lot — 18th in the league in pace, 13th in the league in number of possessions that start in transition — but when they do they are very efficient: a 136.6 offensive rating in transition, best in the league. Lonzo Ball deserves some credit, but he’s surrounded by athletic finishers like Zach LaVine, plus shooters. Chicago has gone 6-3 in their last nine since the schedule turned tough, with wins over the Nuggets, Nets, and both LA teams — The Bulls Are Back and for real. Fun matchup with Miami on Saturday.

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7. Celtics (10-8, LW 13). The Celtics offense is 16th in the league, but it’s looked a little better in the last week as Jaylen Brown returned to the lineup and Jayson Tatum appears to have broken out of his early-season shooting funk (he takes a lot of isolation, contested shots and they weren’t falling). Tatum had 33+ points and good shooting nights against the Hawks, Lakers, and Thunder recently, but came back to earth Monday against Houston. Brian Scalabrine is right on the NBC Sports Boston broadcasts, this team needs to pass and move the ball more.

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8. Bucks (10-8, LW 17). Khris Middleton returned to the lineup and the Bucks rattled off four straight wins — that is not a coincidence. More good news on the injury front, Brook Lopez — who has been out since the first week of the season — said his back is feeling better and he is ramping up towards a return. Giannis Antetokounmpo dropped 47 on the Lakers, is getting downhill and attacking like himself again, and just discovered that Oreos go better with milk.

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9. Clippers (10-8, LW 9). Nicolas Batum has been a glue guy for the Clippers this season, averaging 9.8 points and 5.5 rebounds a game, playing good defense and just being solid in his role. Which is why they will miss him so much while he is out for at least 10 days due to health and safety protocols. In 2013, Paul George had the most famous dunk of his career over The Birdman in a playoff game against Miami. George recreated that dunk Sunday, with the Mavs’ Dwight Powell in the Birdman’s shoes (but with fewer tattoos).

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10. Wizards (11-6, LW 4). Washington has come back to earth a little after their hot start, going 4-3 in their last seven with a -1.9 net rating. The defense has slipped a little in that stretch, but the offense is off 2.4 points per 100 possessions over the past couple of weeks. The Wizards defense isn’t built on elite shot blocking or aggressively forcing turnovers, they are just a team that plays its system and challenges everything, but that has not worked as well in recent weeks as opponents have knocked down the shots anyway. We’ve said it before but it bears repeating: Wes Unseld Jr. was an inspired hire as coach. He’s been fantastic.

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11. 76ers (10-8, LW 14). Philadelphia has gone 2-6 with Joel Embiid out due to health and safety protocols, and in that stretch Tobias Harris, Seth Curry and others have missed time as well (the Sixers beat the Kings despite having zero of their projected preseason starting five available). Embiid could return after Thanksgiving. This season, the bright spot for Philadelphia remains Tyrese Maxey, who is averaging 18.7 points and 4.6 assists a game — a lot of teams were asking for him in any Ben Simmons trade, but it’s going to take a lot for Philly to give him up now.

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12. Hornets (11-8, LW 19). If Hornets fans have something to be thankful for this November, it is LaMelo Ball — he has continued making big strides toward superstardom. Ball’s scoring and assists are up as he is taking on more of the offense, but the real telling stat is this: When he is on the court the Hornets outscore their opponents by 4.5 points per 100 possessions, and when he sits they get outscored by 11.5 per 100. Plus, Ball continues to be a highlight reel night after night.

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13. Trail Blazers (10-8, LW 16). Portland has won four straight, and more importantly Damian Lillard looks like he has found his shooting stroke. In his last two games (Philly and Denver, not pushovers), he has 64 points and hit 10-of-21 from 3 (and he got to the free throw like 14 times in those games). Those four wins came at home, where the Trail Blazers are 9-1, but they are 1-7 on the road scoring 13.5 points per game fewer away from home. It’s a concern as the Blazers are on the road for their next three, including at Golden State and Utah.

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14. Knicks (10-8, LW 12). A frustrated Tom Thibodeau has kept his starting five intact — Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, and Nerlens Noel — but closes games with mostly a bench unit and any one of those five who are hot. For example, against the Bulls Randle and Barrett closed the game (a loss) but with three bench guards in Derrick Rose, Alec Burks, and Immanuel Quickley. The Knicks starting five has played more minutes than any other five-man lineup in the league, but has a -16.1 net rating — every night the Knicks bench is digging them out of a hole.

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15. Nuggets (9-9, LW 6). The nerve issue in the back of Michael Porter Jr. is scary. He remains out and could be undergoing his third back surgery at age 23. His absence plus no Jamal Murray (he could return later this season) has put more on the plate of Nikola Jokic — and he has been up to it. Jokic has played at an MVP-level to start the season: 26.4 points and 13.6 rebounds a game, a ridiculous 66.8 true shooting percentage (including 41% on 3-pointers), plus he leads the league in nearly every meaningful advanced stat such as win share, boxscore +/-, VORP and PER. Put simply, Jokic is playing at a higher, more efficient level this season than last season when he won MVP. He just needs more help.

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16. Hawks (9-9 LW 23). After dropping four in a row on the road (Atlanta is 1-8 away from the State Farm Arena), Trae Young and company have thrived on home cooking and won five in a row in Atlanta. The Hawks starting five — Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kevin Heurter, John Collins, Clint Capela — has a +27.8 net rating, with an impressive 128 offensive rating. Throw in strong play from Cam Reddish off the bench, and the Hawks appear to have found their groove, but the test will be on how they do on the road, where Atlanta plays three of its next four.

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17. Mavericks (10-7, LW 11). Luka Doncic returned to the lineup on Tuesday after missing three with knee and ankle issues (Dallas dropped all three). Doncic drew doubles, the Mavericks’ offense opened up, and they beat the Clippers. “Honestly, it’s easy. It’s just easy opportunities because of Luka,” Kristaps Porzingis said. “When he’s out there, he just makes the game so much easier for everybody else. They have to double-team him, and we just make the next play.”

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18. Timberwolves (8-9, LW 26). The Timberwolves have won four in a row, and it doesn’t matter that it came against a soft stretch of the schedule. The Timberwolves need the wins. Minnesota has a top-10 defense in the league this season because they are aggressive and try to force turnovers — the Timberwolves lead the NBA in forcing turnovers at 18.1 per game. That leads to transition buckets where Anthony Edwards thrives.

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19. Cavaliers (9-9, LW 10). Cleveland dropped four in a row as the injuries piled up — Collin Sexton having knee surgery, Evan Mobley missing weeks with an elbow sprain — and the schedule getting tougher (two of their last four games were against the Nets). It is the Cavaliers offense that has tumbled in the face of all the injuries, with the Cavaliers scoring less than a point per possession over their last eight games.

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20. Grizzlies (9-8, LW 15). Memphis is capable of beating anyone (Utah this week) or losing to anyone (New Orleans last week), with the wild swings due to a league-worst defense. Great note from Kirk Goldsberry at ESPN: Ja Morant is the NBA’s leading scorer in the paint this season. All 6’3” of him. The threat of Morant scoring in the paint collapsed the Utah defense in crunch time and led to Jaren Jackson Jr. knocking down a clean-look game-winning 3.

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21. Lakers (9-10, LW 18). LeBron James getting the first suspension of his career grabs the headline and distracts from the fact that the Lakers were losing to the rebuilding Pistons when he hit Isaiah Stewart and started the dust-up. Things are still not right with these Lakers, who have the 23rd ranked offense in the league with a 105.7 net rating (using Cleaning the Glass), but that ship will right itself with LeBron James back in the lineup (when not suspended). The bigger problem is the 23rd-ranked defense because no players are arriving that will change the issues on that end. Yes, the Lakers do get a 36-year-old Trevor Ariza back from injury eventually, but he’s not a stopper at this point in his career. Frank Vogel is a strong defensive coach but he can only do so much after the Lakers traded away or let walk most of their perimeter defensive talent.

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22. Pacers (8-11, LW 22). Rick Carlisle is trying to shake things up in Indy, making changes to the starting lineup — rookie Chris Duarte is out, Justin Holiday is in — and benching his starters for the fourth quarter Saturday in Charlotte as the reserves almost pulled off the comeback. The results have been mixed, the Pacers are 4-4 in their last eight. Indiana continues to be the least lucky team in the NBA, they have the net rating of an 11-8 team but can’t seem to catch a break.

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23. Raptors (8-10, LW 21). Maybe no team has defied expectations this season quite like Toronto. This was supposed to be a strong defensive team struggling to score, but instead Nick Nurse’s team is top 10 in offense but botton 10 in defense. That defense has been even worse the past seven games, worst in the NBA over that stretch (and the offense has stumbled some as well). The Raptors have gone 2-4 in a road-heavy stretch of the schedule, with two more away from home (Memphis and Indiana) before returning home for 10-of-11.

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24. Spurs (4-12, LW 24). The last time San Antonio got off to this slow a start to the season was 1996, and management response was to fire Bob Hill as coach and turn the team over to Gregg Popovich. That worked out pretty well. There will be no coaching changes this time around, but the Spurs could get healthy with a heavy home stretch of games (8-of-11). Get on a hot streak at home and San Antonio could close the 3.5 game gap between themselves and the final play-in spot in the West.

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25. Thunder (6-11, LW 25). Josh Giddey has a long way to go in his development process (his 25.4% from 3 needs to improve, as does his defense), but he has a court vision you can’t teach and his passes are impressive (5.7 assists a game, to lead all rookies). The other thing you see with the young Thunder is a willingness to play hard every night and grow from their mistakes. This team looks a little better each time you watch them, a good sign in the long run.

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26. Kings (6-12, LW 20). Luke Walton is out as coach, Alvin Gentry is in, but the core problems remain unchanged. In the short term, those problems start with De’Aaron Fox stumbling to start the season and regressing rather than looking like the All-Star they need him (and are paying him) to be. The other short-term issue is an unbalanced roster that doesn’t fit well together — Fox wants to run, Tyrese Haliburton is more of a half-court pick-and-roll guy, and Harrison Barnes is an isolation player. The longer-term problem is a meddling, impatient ownership that has gone through six coaches and four GMs in the nine years Vivek Ranadive and partners have owned the team.

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27. Pistons (4-13, LW 27). It’s unfortunate that a lot of fans now only know Isaiah Stewart as the guy who went ballistic trying to get to LeBron James and earned a two-game suspension, because he’s been the kind of player you want on your team through his rookie season and into this one — he made the All-Rookie Second Team last season (and I had voted him on the first-team). He is physical, plays hard every time he’s on the court, defends, rebounds (7.1 a game), and is relentless. Stewart is a quality player that could be a part of what Detroit is building for a long time.

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28. Pelicans (3-16, LW 28). Very telling stat from Brian Windhorst of ESPN: The Pelicans have more updates on the status of Zion Williamson (4) than they do wins (3). In an effort to bend over backward for a player who wants privacy, New Orleans has made a PR disaster of his return and frustrated the fan base. Winning would cure a lot of those ills, but not only are the Pelicans continuing to lose, they are also doing it in painful ways. For example, they are the worst second-half team in the NBA (-14.1 net rating) and that has led to a series of blown double-digit leads, including to Miami a week ago.

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29. Magic (4-14, LW 29). Orlando has dropped 6-of-7 and is bottom five in the league in both offense and defense, but injuries play a big part in that. Two starters, Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac are both out with knee issues and neither has a timeline to return. Now Cole Anthony, who has taken a huge step forward this season, is missing time with a sprained ankle. Things are not getting easier for the Magic after Thanksgiving, they play Chicago Friday then head out on the road for 7-of-8.

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30. Rockets (1-16, LW 30). Is it time for the Rockets, losers of 15 in a row, to bring John Wall into the lineup? The Rockets and Wall agreed before the season he would sit out while the team looked for a trade, but it was obvious the Rockets were not going to find a deal with Wall owed $44.3 million this season and $47.4 million next season. Wall’s not taking a Kemba-style haircut on a buyout to get out of his deal. So instead he travels with the team, doesn’t suit up or play, and what is the point of that? Let the man play, or send him away from the team, but this middle ground is ridiculous.

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