NBA Power Rankings: Nuggets, Celtics, Grizzlies Separating from the Pack

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 20, 2023

NBA Power Rankings: Nuggets, Celtics, Grizzlies Separating from the Pack

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    Andrew Wiggins and Jaylen Brown
    Andrew Wiggins and Jaylen BrownBrian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

    With another week of parity-packed NBA action complete, it's time to take another stab at the power rankings.

    The Denver Nuggets, Boston Celtics and Memphis Grizzlies are making the top of the list easier, but the middle of the standings in both conferences are bringing unexpected results on an almost nightly basis.

    That makes this exercise uniquely challenging, but with the same set of criteria we've used all year (championship chances, recent play, numbers and plenty of subjectivity), it's a surmountable one.

    To see how all 30 teams stack up, as well as the stat of the week and this season's most underrated player, scroll below.

30. Houston Rockets (10-35)

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    Alperen Şengün
    Alperen ŞengünLogan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 30
    Net Rating: -8.0

    The Houston Rockets are starting to accept the fact that Alperen Şengün is their best player (and possibly their best prospect).

    The 20-year-old big man certainly isn't Nikola Jokić or Domantas Sabonis, but you can see hints of their point center games in the young Turk.

    Jackson Gatlin @JTGatlin

    Sengun &gt; Sabonis &gt; Jokic <a href="https://t.co/Z3xFOZWLKb">pic.twitter.com/Z3xFOZWLKb</a>

    In his last nine games, Şengün is averaging 18.1 points, 9.2 rebounds and 5.6 assists.

    And while Houston is minus-6.2 points per 100 possessions with Şengün on the floor during this stretch, that doesn't sound too bad when compared to the minus-26.9 net rating it has without him.

29. Detroit Pistons (12-36)

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    Killian Hayes and Alex Caruso
    Killian Hayes and Alex CarusoANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 29
    Net Rating: -7.4

    Killian Hayes caught some flak on Twitter after a rough outing in something of a homecoming game for him in Paris on Thursday (because it's Twitter, of course), but he continues to show signs that he may be able to avoid the bust label.

    After serving a three-game suspension for a push in the back of Moritz Wagner in late December, Hayes averaged 14.6 points, 8.0 assists and 1.9 threes while shooting 38.2 percent from deep over seven games immediately preceding the trip to Europe.

    He may not be a long-term starting point guard, but with his size (6'5" with a 6'8" wingspan), passing and willingness to defend, he could be a nice complementary playmaker alongside Cade Cunningham next season.

28. San Antonio Spurs (14-31)

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    Jeremy Sochan
    Jeremy SochanPhotos by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 28
    Net Rating: -8.7

    The San Antonio Spurs closed out their week by ending a five-game losing streak with a win over the Brooklyn Nets (who were without Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving).

    Rookie Jeremy Sochan had a lot to do with the victory and is showing some signs of progress recently.

    This week, he averaged 11.7 points and 6.7 rebounds. And if he maintains that kind of production while continuing to provide solid-for-his-years ability and willingness on defense, Sochan has a chance to be a longtime role player.

27. Charlotte Hornets (12-34)

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    HOUSTON, TX - JANUARY 18:  Terry Rozier #3 of the Charlotte Hornets dribbles the ball against the Houston Rockets on January 18, 2023 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 NBAE (Photo by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 27
    Net Rating: -6.6

    With the trade deadline rapidly approaching, every solid performance from a Charlotte Hornets veteran feels like an audition for the rest of the league's teams. And at least two of those players should be able bring a decent return (assuming the Hornets want to more aggressively pursue the top pick in the 2023 draft).

    After dropping 26 in Wednesday's win over the Houston Rockets, Terry Rozier is up to 21.0 points and 5.3 assists on the season. His shooting percentages aren't what they've been for most of his Hornets run, but a team in need of a heat-check scorer off the bench might be interested.

    The other player who could draw some attention on the open market is Mason Plumlee, who's averaging a well-rounded 11.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists in 28.3 minutes.

26. Orlando Magic (16-28)

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    Paolo Banchero
    Paolo BancheroGarrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 26
    Net Rating: -3.6

    Paolo Banchero running away with Rookie of the Year may be limiting the exposure of the race for the award, and by extension, Banchero himself.

    But make no mistake, he's having a monster first season.

    Banchero is averaging 21.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.4 threes. Luka Dončić is the only other rookie in league history who put up at least 20 points, six boards, three assists and one three per game.

25. Washington Wizards (19-26)

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    Bradley Beal
    Bradley BealNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 24
    Net Rating: -1.3

    After missing five games (and six of nine), Bradley Beal returned to the Washington Wizards lineup on Wednesday. He had a smooth 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting and was plus-11 in an 11-point win over the New York Knicks.

    Kyle Kuzma and Kristaps Porziņģis both eclipsed 20 points in the victory, and having all three scorers available served as a reminder of this team's peskiness (when healthy).

    When Beal, Porziņģis and Kuzma are on the floor, the Wizards are plus-4.8 points per 100 possessions.

24. Los Angeles Lakers (20-25)

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    De'Aaron Fox and LeBron James
    De'Aaron Fox and LeBron JamesAndrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 23
    Net Rating: -0.8

    After losing four of their last five, the Los Angeles Lakers are two games worse than the 2021-22 team was at this point of the season.

    And offseason acquisitions Patrick Beverley, Damian Jones, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Max Christie and Troy Brown Jr. have added a combined minus-1.1 estimated wins (the cumulative version of Dunks and Threes' catch-all metric estimated plus-minus). Throw in Kendrick Nunn, who missed all of 2021-22, and that number drops to minus-1.6.

    The middle of the Western Conference being down has given the Lakers a potential lifeline to the play-in tournament, but it's becoming increasingly clear that this season is mostly about LeBron James' pursuit of the scoring title, and he's coming for that crown with a fury.

    Over his last 17 games, LeBron is putting up 34.1 points, 8.0 rebounds and 7.7 assists. He's producing in a way we've simply never seen from a 38-year-old in the NBA.

    Andy Bailey @AndrewDBailey

    Game score is "...a rough measure of a player's productivity for a single game."<br><br>Avg GmSc after 38th birthday.<br><br>1. LeBron James (30.9)<br>2. Karl Malone (15.5)<br>3. Michael Jordan (14.1)<br>4. John Stockton (12.9)<br>5. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (12.3)<br>6. Tim Duncan (11.5)<br>7. Steve Nash (11.0) <a href="https://t.co/xQWc63N1HX">https://t.co/xQWc63N1HX</a>

23. Portland Trail Blazers (21-24)

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    PORTLAND, OR - JANUARY 19: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers shoots a three point basket during the game against the Philadelphia 76ers on January 19, 2023 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 NBAE (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 19
    Net Rating: +0.2

    Is it time for the Portland Trail Blazers to finally entertain a full-scale rebuild?

    After closing out this week with back-to-back losses to the Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers, Portland has now dropped seven of its last nine. It's 4-11 over its last 15 games.

    And while the middle of the West being down means the Blazers could probably scratch and claw to get into the play-in tournament, the front office has to be asking itself: to what end?

    This upcoming draft class is loaded and headlined by a potential franchise-altering talent in Victor Wembanyama. If Portland isn't in the lottery, its first-round pick goes to the Chicago Bulls.

    Shutting Damian Lillard down (or, *gasp*, trading him), moving veterans like Jerami Grant or Jusuf Nurkić, giving more time to young players or some combination of some or all of the above would solidify the Blazers' chance of keeping that pick.

22. Toronto Raptors (20-26)

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    Scottie Barnes
    Scottie BarnesDavid Berding/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 17
    Net Rating: +0.2

    The Toronto Raptors continue to underwhelm in the standings (they've lost three of their last four and six of their last 10), but a number of individual players are either shoring up their trade value or reassuring us about their ceiling.

    During their last 10 games, Pascal Siakam, Gary Trent Jr., Fred VanVleet and Scottie Barnes are all averaging between 21.6 and 19.5 points.

    If the losses keep piling up, teams may come calling for backcourt scoring help in the form of VanVleet or Trent. He's not listed above, but O.G. Anunoby's perimeter defense must be enticing to a number of potential suitors. If things really go awry, Toronto might even consider some offers for Siakam.

    But the most important player of any of the above is probably the one least likely to be moved. After plenty of hand-wringing over the lack of a perceived leap for Barnes, the Raptors' 21-year-old sophomore, he's tacking on tacking on 7.9 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.2 blocks to his 19.5 points over the last 10 games.

    His struggles as an outside shooter remain a real concern, but Barnes suddenly looks like a dynamic point forward (maybe even point guard) who can defend at least four positions on the other end.

21. Chicago Bulls (21-24)

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    Zach LaVine
    Zach LaVineChris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 21
    Net Rating: -0.2

    The Chicago Bulls have some solid wins this season, including one over the healthy Golden State Warriors earlier this week, but stringing a decent number together has been a problem.

    The two straight victories they're working on give them a streak that's just one shy of their season high of three.

    Still, the last month has been significantly better than Chicago's 11-18 start. Since then, the Bulls are 10-6 and getting balanced contributions from their three best players.

    Over this stretch, Zach LaVine is averaging 27.7 points, 4.6 assists and 3.3 threes while shooting 41.4 percent from deep. DeMar DeRozan is adding 26.5 points and 5.4 assists. And perhaps most importantly, because he's often been the biggest question mark, Nikola Vučević is pitching in with 19.6 points, 12.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.9 threes while shooting 38.5 percent from deep.

20. Atlanta Hawks (23-22)

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    Trae Young
    Trae YoungKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 25
    Net Rating: -0.9

    Trae Young and Luka Dončić being traded for each other on draft night means their matchups will garner plenty of hype for at least as long as they're on the Atlanta Hawks and Dallas Mavericks, respectively.

    Wednesday, in Dallas, Young got the better of his rival and led the Hawks to their fourth straight win (and sixth victory in their last eight games).

    And while Young's 32.9 three-point percentage and Atlanta's middling record have led to plenty of hand-wringing, his offense is starting to come to life.

    During this eight-game stretch, Young is averaging 25.7 points, 9.0 assists and 2.4 threes, while shooting 44.7 percent from deep.

19. Minnesota Timberwolves (23-24)

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    D'Angelo Russell
    D'Angelo RussellDavid Berding/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 20
    Net Rating: -0.2

    The Minnesota Timberwolves ended their week with a competitive road loss to the Denver Nuggets and a tight win over the Toronto Raptors, but being below .500 over halfway through the season couldn't have been how the new front office imagined 2022-23 playing out.

    And now, their starting point guard is showing up in trade rumors. In a recent report for Yahoo Sports, Jake Fischer mentioned the possibility of D'Angelo Russell winding up on the Miami Heat.

    If he's truly available and continues to play like he has recently, Minnesota may get even more potential suitors. Over his last 10 appearances, Russell is putting up 18.5 points, 5.2 assists and 2.7 threes while shooting 45.0 percent from deep.

18. Phoenix Suns (22-24)

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    Cameron Johnson
    Cameron JohnsonChris Coduto/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 16
    Net Rating: +0.8

    Good fortune came in a couple forms for the Phoenix Suns on Thursday night, when Cameron Johnson returned for his first game since Nov. 4 and they got to play the Kevin Durant-less Brooklyn Nets.

    Phoenix, who'd lost three straight and 12 of 14, desperately needed a win. And they finally got one against the Nets.

    With Johnson back and Chris Paul's return seemingly around the corner, if Phoenix can just hover around .500 till Devin Booker reenters the lineup (which may be a few more weeks away), there's still a chance the Suns can escape the play-in range of the standings.

17. Indiana Pacers (23-23)

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    Tyrese Haliburton
    Tyrese HaliburtonDylan Buell/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 13
    Net Rating: -1.4

    Right when it looked like the Indiana Pacers might be ready to make some moves up the power rankings, they lost five straight games, four of which were without Tyrese Haliburton, who's nursing a sprained elbow and mild knee bruise.

    If he's out much longer (initial reporting had his reevaluation date set for about a week from now), Indiana might want to think about steering into a rebuild. Be exceedingly cautious with Haliburton's return date. Play rookies Bennedict Mathurin and Andrew Nembhard a bunch of minutes. And gauge the trade value of veterans Myles Turner and Buddy Hield.

    The Pacers have been one of the most entertaining surprises of the season, but they're not a title contender, and there's nothing wrong with capitalizing on the value of Turner and Hield, increasing your odds at a top pick in this summer's draft and generally loading up for a future run.

16. Los Angeles Clippers (23-24)

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    Kawhi Leonard
    Kawhi LeonardAdam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 14
    Net Rating: -1.4

    It's time to sound some kind of an alarm for the Los Angeles Clippers.

    After ending its week with back-to-back losses to the Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz, L.A. has dropped nine of its last 11 games. The Clippers have fallen all the way to 25th in net rating. And the complete lack of a sense of urgency about the regular season is finally catching up to them.

    After both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George sat out Wednesday's loss to the Jazz, the Clippers are up to 927 minutes of game time without their two stars, and they're minus-7.8 points per 100 possessions in those minutes.

    The middle of the West being down this year could be their lifeline, but they're trending toward the play-in tournament. And even if the stars are available for that, the unpredictability of a one-and-done setting should scare L.A.

15. Golden State Warriors (22-23)

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    Stephen Curry
    Stephen CurryBrian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 15
    Net Rating: -0.5

    With a 6-5 record, the Golden State Warriors did a good job of treading water during Stephen Curry's injury-induced 11-game absence. Upon his return, it felt like the team was ready to take off up the standings.

    But after an overtime loss to the Boston Celtics on Thursday, Golden State is 2-3, with losses to the sub-.500 Phoenix Suns and Chicago Bulls.

    Now that we're more than halfway through the Warriors' campaign, it might just be time to accept that the lack of size (or effective size) and depth means this version of Golden State might just be a mediocre regular-season team.

    The starters are still dominant. And if they make the playoffs, coach Steve Kerr may tighten the rotation like he did in Boston on Thursday (when only eight players played). That'd make it tough to pick against the defending champion in a series, but the Warriors feel like a much more dangerous bet than they were last postseason.

14. Oklahoma City Thunder (22-23)

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    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey
    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh GiddeyMitchell Leff/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 22
    Net Rating: +1.1

    What in the world is happening with the Oklahoma City Thunder?

    Their preseason over/under was 23.5, per Basketball Reference. On that front, only the San Antonio Spurs were expected to be worse. But after winning four straight and seven of its last nine, OKC is very much in the mix for a playoff spot and might (or probably will) clear that over/under before the All-Star break.

    The obvious answer to the question above is that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has made the leap to superstar, as evidenced by his 25 30-point games (which trail only Luka Dončić), but it's more than that.

    During this 7-2 stretch that started with an eye-opening 150-117 win over the Boston Celtics on January 3, second-year playmaker Josh Giddey is putting up 19.8 points, 7.4 assists and 7.2 rebounds. Luguentz Dort is at 15.8 points with a 45.1 three-point percentage during the same stretch, and Jalen Williams is suddenly breaking out with 12.6 points and 4.0 assists.

    This team is young, athletic and clearly competitive. And even if it sits out the trade deadline, it appears to have enough talent to at least stay in range of the play-in tournament.

13. Utah Jazz (24-24)

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    Lauri Markkanen
    Lauri MarkkanenAlex Goodlett/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 18
    Net Rating: +1.4

    The Utah Jazz dropped to three games below .500 after a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on January 8. It looked like the much anticipated return-to-earth moment was upon this surprising team, but Utah is 4-1 since then and is in sixth place (just above the play-in tournament).

    And after some hemming and hawing over the potential All-Star status of Lauri Markkanen earlier this season, his play and Utah's insistence on staying in the playoff race all but assures it now.

    Over his last 14 games, Markkanen is averaging 30.1 points, 9.4 rebounds and 3.6 threes while shooting 50.8 percent from the field and 42.7 percent from deep.

12. Dallas Mavericks (24-22)

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    Luka Dončić
    Luka DončićGlenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 7
    Net Rating: -0.1

    It has to sound like a broken record at this point, but the Dallas Mavericks desperately need to add some help for Luka Dončić.

    He dropped 30 on the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday, but Dallas came up short and has now lost three straight (and five of its last six).

    The Mavs have now played 18 games in which Luka scored 30 or fewer points (or didn't play at all), and they're 3-15 in those contests.

11. New York Knicks (25-21)

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    Kyle Kuzma and RJ Barrett
    Kyle Kuzma and RJ BarrettNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 11
    Net Rating: +2.4

    The New York Knicks won seven of eight from New Year's Eve to mid-January, but they closed this week with back-to-back losses at home to a pair of sub-.500 teams in the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards.

    RJ Barrett dropped 53 points in the two defeats, but he was below 50 percent from the field in each of those appearances, and he's on track for his fourth well-below-average effective field-goal percentage in four seasons.

    With that lack of efficiency, it probably comes as no surprise that the Knicks are comfortably worse when Barrett is on the floor (for the third time in his four campaigns).

    Of course, with his age and the commitment the organization made to him this summer, it probably doesn't make sense to dramatically change his role, but Barrett has to figure out how to start making shots.

10. Brooklyn Nets (27-17)

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    Seth Curry and Ben Simmons
    Seth Curry and Ben SimmonsAP Photo/Matt York

    Previous Rank: 8
    Net Rating: +3.3

    Things are, uh, not going well for the Brooklyn Nets sans Kevin Durant.

    Just before KD left the rotation with an injury, he'd lifted Brooklyn to a 27-13 record. After falling to the Devin Booker-less Phoenix Suns on Thursday, the Nets are now 0-4 during Durant's current absence.

    And the uninspiring play of Ben Simmons is a big reason. He was never going to replace all of Durant's 29.7 points, but Brooklyn needs him to bring a little more. In the first game, he had zero points. He missed the next game, scored 10 on 10 shots in the loss against the San Antonio Spurs and then was ejected after scoring seven points on Thursday.

    On the season, the Nets are minus-3.9 points per 100 possessions when Simmons plays without KD.

9. New Orleans Pelicans (26-19)

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    Zion Williamson and Willy Hernangómez
    Zion Williamson and Willy HernangómezJason Miller/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 9
    Net Rating: +3.1

    As long as Zion Williamson was available, the New Orleans Pelicans were surviving the absence of Brandon Ingram (who's only played in 15 games this season) just fine.

    Since the start of their leading scorer's most recent absence, though, New Orleans is 3-5 and finally wobbling down the Western Conference standings.

    Still, this recent stretch could've gone worse. And the depth that New Orleans' front office assembled deserves some credit.

    The Pelicans are a not great, but also not bad, minus-1.5 points per 100 possessions when both Zion and Ingram are off the floor this season. And they've banked enough points when one or both of them play to still be comfortably in the top 10 in overall net rating.

8. Miami Heat (25-21)

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    Jimmy Butler
    Jimmy ButlerNed Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 12
    Net Rating: +0.4

    The Miami Heat (and by extension, their best player) are sort of sneaking under the radar this season.

    Starting the campaign 7-11 may have kept them from getting noticed, but they've quietly been one of the better teams in the East since then.

    In fact, since that 11th loss, Miami is 18-10, with the sixth-best net rating in the conference. And during that stretch, Jimmy Butler is averaging 22.7 points and shooting 53.4 percent from the field.

7. Sacramento Kings (25-18)

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    Keegan Murray
    Keegan MurrayRonald Martinez/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 10
    Net Rating: +2.8

    After an undefeated week, the Sacramento Kings are cruising toward home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, Domantas Sabonis is suddenly a fixture in the top 10 of Basketball Reference's MVP Tracker and De'Aaron Fox continues to make a case for an All-Star spot (he's putting up 26.3 points and 6.4 assists, while shooting 52.8 percent from the field over his last 15 games).

    Sacramento's standout duo probably wouldn't excel to this degree without its sweet-shooting supporting cast, though. Despite Fox's 33.3 percent shooting from deep, the Kings are top-10 in three-point percentage this season. Their top two in total attempts, Kevin Huerter and Keegan Murray, are both over 40 percent from beyond the arc.

    And the rookie's mark has been steadily climbing since the start of December. In those 23 games, Murray is averaging 12.6 points and 2.8 threes while shooting 47.1 percent from three.

6. Cleveland Cavaliers (28-18)

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    Darius Garland
    Darius GarlandJoe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 4
    Net Rating: +4.6

    Donovan Mitchell has understandably gotten most of the attention this season, but the Cleveland Cavaliers' other starting guard is playing like an All-Star for the second year in a row.

    After going for 24 points and 14 assists with Mitchell out in a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday, Darius Garland is averaging 21.9 points and 8.6 assists, while shooting 40.5 percent from deep over his last seven games.

    And while there should be some concern over Cleveland's net rating being worse when Garland and Mitchell are together than it is when either is alone, the fact that the Cavs have a positive point differential with every possible Garland-Mitchell combination is encouraging.

5. Milwaukee Bucks (29-16)

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    Jrue Holiday
    Jrue HolidayGary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 6
    Net Rating: +1.3

    Knee soreness kept Giannis Antetokounmpo out for the entire week (and change), but Jrue Holiday playing like a bona fide superstar still allowed the Bucks to go 2-1.

    After dropping 37 points on 16-of-26 shooting in a win over the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday, Holiday brought his averages for the week to 28.0 points and 9.3 assists, while shooting 44.0 percent from deep.

    On the year, Holiday is now putting up 25.9 points per 75 possessions when Giannis is off the floor.

4. Philadelphia 76ers (29-16)

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    Joel Embiid
    Joel EmbiidSam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 5
    Net Rating: +4.2

    Nikola Jokić may not be the only center facing MVP voter fatigue this season. After finishing second for the league's top individual honor in each of the last two seasons, Embiid has somehow flown under the radar while once again posting MVP-caliber numbers.

    After scoring 32 points in Thursday's road win over the Portland Trail Blazers, Embiid is averaging 33.6 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.7 blocks.

    And as his team continues to hang in the top four of the Eastern Conference, Embiid has cracked the top three of Basketball Reference's MVP Tracker ("based on a model built using previous voting results").

3. Memphis Grizzlies (31-13)

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    Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr.
    Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr.Justin Ford/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 3
    Net Rating: +5.7

    The Memphis Grizzlies got a big win over one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference on Wednesday when they topped the Cleveland Cavaliers, 115-114.

    And one of the themes of that game has run through most of this Grizzlies campaign. When Memphis' three-point shooting Defensive Player of the Year candidate is on the floor, it generally outscores its opponent.

    In a game in which superstar Ja Morant was minus-13, Jaren Jackson Jr. had 15 points, seven rebounds, four blocks, two steals and two threes. He was plus-nine in a one-point win.

    On the season, he's averaging a whopping 4.5 blocks and 2.0 threes per 75 possessions (which, as you might expect, would be the first season with at least four blocks and two threes per 75 possessions), and the Grizzlies' net rating is dramatically better when he's on the floor.

2. Boston Celtics (34-12)

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    Jayson Tatum
    Jayson TatumBrian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 2
    Net Rating: +6.6

    In their win over the Golden State Warriors on Thursday, the Boston Celtics' opponent's win probability peaked at 88.9 percent about halfway through the fourth quarter.

    Boston then rattled off seven straight points to put the game in "clutch time," defined by the league as the final five minutes of fourth quarters or overtimes when the game is within five points. Once there, the Celtics got massive defensive plays from Al Horford, big shots from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and the generally stout play they've had in tight moments all season.

    Boston is now 15-5 in contests that reach clutch time. The Celtics have the best overall net rating in the NBA and two of the top 12 scorers in the league in Brown and Tatum.

    I'm going to go way out on a limb and declare this team a contender.

1. Denver Nuggets (32-13)

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    Aaron Gordon and Nikola Jokić
    Aaron Gordon and Nikola JokićBart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 1
    Net Rating: +4.3

    This run the Denver Nuggets are on is getting ridiculous.

    Since December 8, they're a league-best 18-3, with the top offense and No. 8 defense in the NBA. And while the supporting cast that includes Aaron Gordon, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope deserve plenty of credit for the surge, it's impossible to look past the two-time reigning MVP.

    During this stretch, Nikola Jokić is averaging a seemingly impossible 27.4 points, 12.0 rebounds, 11.0 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.0 threes, while posting a blistering 69.4 true shooting percentage.

    If he wasn't already the favorite for his third straight MVP trophy (Basketball Reference's MVP Tracker and at least one sports book think he is), this month and change certainly put him in the mix.

Stat of the Week

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    Nikola Jokić
    Nikola JokićGarrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

    Nikola Jokić hit a couple of milestones this week.

    First, he passed the legendary Alex English for the Denver Nuggets' franchise record for assists, something his predecessor quickly applauded.

    Alex English @AlexEnglish_2

    I knew that eventually my all time assist record would be broken.<br>I'm honored to see that it's 2 time, I mean 3 time MVP of the NBA do it. Congrats big fella. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Joker?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Joker</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NikolaJokic?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NikolaJokic</a>

    The other milestone is a more obscure (but probably more impressive) one.

    According to Basketball Reference, the catch-all metric Box Plus/Minus "...is a basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player's contribution to the team when that player is on the court."

    The box score-only nature of the number opens it to criticism, since the box score obviously doesn't measure everything that happens on an NBA floor, and other outlets (such as Dunks and Threes, FiveThirtyEight and Basketball Index) throw more into their catch-all cocktails.

    But box plus/minus remains relevant because it's easily searchable and tracked all the way back to the 1973-74 season. And after notching his sixth 30-point triple-double of the season to close out this week, Jokić made his way to first place on the career leaderboard.

    Miroslav Ćuk @MiroslavCuk

    We don't know where his number will land at the end of his career, but Nikola <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Jokic?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Jokic</a> is now the lone leader of <a href="https://twitter.com/bball_ref?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@bball_ref</a>'s career Box Plus-Minus, followed by Michael Jordan and <a href="https://twitter.com/KingJames?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@KingJames</a> <a href="https://t.co/cV1OsWbxMI">pic.twitter.com/cV1OsWbxMI</a>

    As noted in the tweet, there's probably still a late-career regression coming for Jokić. Through the same age, Michael Jordan's mark was 11.0 (compared to Jokic's 9.2). Before his Washington Wizards stint, it was still 10.2.

    The bigger point is that we're witnessing a peak from a current player that's truly an all-time great one. And it's driven by a game that's unique.

    Jokić can dominate as a scorer and rebounder, but we've seen that from other centers in the past. It's his passing that takes him to another level.

    When ESPN's Ros Gold-Onwude asked him about passing English on Denver's assist leaderboard, Jokic said, "To be honest, maybe that's the first thing I'm kind of proud of, just because hopefully my teammates love to play with me because I share the ball."

Underrated Player of the Year

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    James Harden
    James HardenBrian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    I don't have the same pull as the league office, but if the NBA is making up new end-of-year awards, so will I. And today, that award is Underrated Player of the Year.

    There's still plenty of time for this to change between now and the end of the regular season, but James Harden is the leader in the clubhouse (since underratedness is entirely subjective, and the voting bloc here consists of just one person).

    Certainly, Harden isn't putting up the kind of numbers he did as a Houston Rocket. And playing with a bona fide, perennial MVP candidate like Joel Embiid has limited the attention heading Harden's way, but he's still having a ridiculous season.

    Among players with at least 500 minutes, Harden's 11.1 assists per game leads the league (and is almost a full assist clear of second-place Tyrese Haliburton).

    And across NBA history, only six players have matched or exceeded both of Harden's current averages for points (21.7) and assists per game. You've likely heard of a few of these players: Tiny Archibald, another season from Harden, Kevin Johnson, Magic Johnson (three times), Oscar Robertson (three times) and Russell Westbrook.

    Throw in the fact that Harden's 38.2 three-point percentage is his best since 2011-12, and that the Philadelphia 76ers' net rating is 6.7 points better when he plays, and his case for this totally legitimate but totally unofficial award starts to look almost ironclad.


    Statistics via Basketball Reference, NBA.com, Dunks and Threes, PBP Stats and Cleaning the Glass unless otherwise noted.

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