NBA Power Rankings: Sorry, Lakers, the League Has a New Alpha

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist IJanuary 25, 2021

NBA Power Rankings: Sorry, Lakers, the League Has a New Alpha

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    There is a new leader at the top of the NBA power rankings. The Los Angeles Lakers took their foot off the gas for a moment, and it cost them. A couple of teams are in the midst of a freefall and are struggling to find wins. Others are beginning to shake off slow starts and are getting back to playing at the level everyone has come to expect. 

    It was a fun week around the league: Two games went to double overtime, and there was an unlikely game-winner in another. Some heavyweights collided and provided thrilling finishes. 

    The criteria has remained largely the same: Who beat who and how? A team’s body of work for the season, as well as how it played last week, was taken into account. Some teams kept their spots or did not drop much because squads below them did not do enough to justify a climb. 

30. Detroit Pistons

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rank: 29th

    Detroit was mocked when it brought in Jerami Grant to be its top option. The Pistons have played just 16 of 72 games, but he has looked the part. Grant is averaging 24.3 points per game while connecting on 38.2 percent of his deep balls. 

    The bigger issue for the Pistons is that Grant's play has not led to wins. Detroit has played plenty of teams tough, including ending the week with a tough loss against the Philadelphia 76ers. 

    The Pistons have played nine games that have had a three-point differential within the final three minutes and have only won twice. They’re good enough to keep games close but have not learned how to close them yet.

29. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rank: 30th

    This was not the season the Wolves had in mind. Minnesota has only gotten four games from Karl-Anthony Towns, who has missed action with a wrist injury and due to COVID-19 protocols. D’Angelo Russell has played well as of late, but the team is not winning. 

    Anthony Edwards has shown flashes but needs to refine his game. He is shooting 27.2 percent from three, but half those attempts are on pull-ups, which are dragging his percentage down. Edwards is connecting on 35 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes, compared to 15.8 percent on pull-ups. 

    The Wolves do get to move up a spot after ending their four-game losing streak with a win over the New Orleans Pelicans. Wins are going to be tough to come by, so fans should celebrate whenever they get one.

28. Washington Wizards

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rank: 27th

    Due to COVID-19 protocols, the Wizards played their first game Sunday since they beat up on the Phoenix Suns on Jan. 11. In Washington’s return, it got Russell Westbrook back from his quad injury but was still without five rotation players. 

    Since the Wizards had not played in so long, now is a good time to look at what they have done over their 12 games. They are third in the league in scoring but give up the most points per game. That is clearly not a recipe for wins. 

    It seems like it’s only a matter of time before Bradley Beal requests a trade. Washington swung for the fences with Westbrook, and it only has three wins to show for it a dozen games into the campaign. 

    The clock is ticking toward the inevitable.

27. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rank: 25th

    In their last 10 games, the Pelicans have gone 2-8. That includes dropping a game to the Utah Jazz despite leading by as much as 16 points. On paper, New Orleans has a ton of talent but has not been able to put it all together. 

    Pairing Lonzo Ball and Eric Bledsoe has not worked out well so far. The duo has a minus-6.2 net rating together. It might be time to consider splitting up the two. The Pelicans have a minus-7.4 net rating with Bledsoe on the court and are minus-0.1 when he is off. They also have a negative net rating with Ball on the court but get worse when he’s off. 

    Head coach Stan Van Gundy can look to move Bledsoe to the bench for JJ Redick. Even though Redick has struggled, teams will always respect his shooting ability, which will open the floor for both Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram. 

    Whether or not that’s the move, one thing is clear: Something has to change for the Pelicans.

26. Chicago Bulls

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rank: 28th

    Despite ending the week with a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Bulls had a good run. They picked up two wins against the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks, as well as a third against the Charlotte Hornets. 

    Zach LaVine has made a leap as a playmaker. He is averaging a career high in assists at 5.4 dimes per night, and he has posted 6.2 assists per game since the start of 2021. 

    Lauri Markkanen is looking more like himself this season compared to the step back he took last year. He is mixing in a good amount of drives, pick-and-pops and pick-and-rolls offensively. He’s back to averaging 18.6 points, shooting 47.5 percent from the field and grabbing 6.6 rebounds per game. 

    Chicago may not win a lot of games, but head coach Billy Donovan has some good things brewing with the youngsters.

25. Sacramento Kings

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rank: 17th

    The Kings were able to stop the bleeding of a four-game losing streak with Friday’s win over the New York Knicks. They played only two games last week and are heading out to an East Coast swing next week. The road has not been kind to them; they are 1-4 away from home, so this will be a tough test. 

    Sacramento has the worst defensive rating in the NBA by a large margin. It gives up a league-worst 52.5 points per game in the paint. The team has no chance if it doesn’t get serious about defending. 

    The only player on the Kings roster who plays significant minutes and has a positive net rating is Richaun Holmes. They have a 0.3 net rating with him on the floor, and they have negative marks with Buddy Hield (minus-8.6), De’Aaron Fox (minus-6.7), Harrison Barnes (minus-5.5) and Tyrese Haliburton (minus-8.8). 

    The Kings are just not playing well, and head coach Luke Walton’s seat has to be heating up. 

24. Houston Rockets

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rank: 24th 

    As great as John Wall has looked in his return, it is always going to be worrisome when he loses games to a sore knee. He sat out five games to rest his knee but made his return against the Dallas Mavericks to end the week. The problem is that Victor Oladipo sat out for load management, so the Rockets have yet to see how the two look together.

    It is still easy to see the philosophical change in Houston. 

    The Rockets are averaging just 37.5 three-point attempts, down from the league-leading 45.3 per game last season. But while their long-range attempts are down, their paint points are up. Houston is bringing a more balanced approach on offense as it begins its post-Harden life. 

    For the second week in a row, the Rockets were involved in a trade. Houston acquired Kevin Porter Jr. from the Cleveland Cavaliers for a future second-round pick. He showed some flashes last season while averaging 10 points as a rookie, and the Rockets might have gotten a piece for cheap if they can maximize his on-court ability.

23. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rank: 21st

    The fun Thunder run might be coming to an end. 

    Oklahoma City ended the week on a three-game losing streak. It still holds the worst offense in the NBA. The Thunder do not force a lot of turnovers, so they cannot get out in transition to get easy baskets. They get just 10.7 fast-break points per game. 

    The good news for the Thunder is that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is evolving as a playmaker. In his first season with the keys completely handed to him, he is giving out 6.4 assists on a nightly basis, up from 3.3 per game last year. Luguentz Dort is also continuing to shoot it well from three at 40.5 percent. 

22. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rank: 26th

    On any given night, the Cleveland Cavaliers can beat anyone. Especially, as the Brooklyn Nets learned, when they get 42 points from Collin Sexton. 

    It was a big week for the Cavs, who came up with two wins against the Nets but ended flat with a blowout loss to the Boston Celtics.

    The offense has struggled from time to time, but the one constant for Cleveland has been its defense. It has a top-10 defensive rating and forces the most turnovers while scoring 21.1 points per game off them. Larry Nance Jr. has done a great job using his length to get in passing lanes, coming up with 2.3 steals per game. 

    Even with a bad loss, the Cavaliers are a surprising 8-8, and a lot of the credit starts with head coach J.B. Bickerstaff’s defense. 

21. Toronto Raptors

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rank: 23rd

    How bad was the Raptors’ start to the season? Toronto went on a small three-game win streak and was still 5-9 once the streak ended. They are trying to claw their way out of a hole and the schedule last week was not helpful. 

    Toronto split their miniseries with the Heat before scoring a nice win over the Pacers to end the week. The Raptors pulled off the win without Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, who both missed the game. 

    The good news was OG Anunoby was on a heater last week. He shot 64 percent from three, which led to a 20.5 scoring average during the stretch along with 7.5 boards. The Raptors need Anunoby to take the leap this season and this could be the starting point of the leap. 

    Toronto needs to keep finding wins before this hole gets any deeper. If the slide continues, the Raptors might be sellers come trade deadline time.

20. Orlando Magic

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rank: 13th

    The Magic would be on a nine-game losing streak if not for a Cole Anthony prayer at the buzzer to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves. Orlando was 6-2 before this bad run and is now sitting on a 7-10 record. That explains the massive drop in the rankings. 

    In years past, the defense has made up for the lack of offensive firepower, but that is not the case right now. Orlando’s defensive rating is 18th, and its offensive rating is 26th. There's only so much Nikola Vucevic can do. 

    If the offense is going to be this bad, the defense will have to be much better. Until then, the freefall will continue. 

19. Charlotte Hornets

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rank: 19th

    Charlotte was sidelined for most of the week with a few games postponed. Upon returning to the court, it dropped a game against the Chicago Bulls. Then the Hornets came back against the Orlando Magic to win off a Gordon Hayward game-winning drive. 

    Speaking of Hayward, he has been the most consistent Hornet this season. His free-throw percentage is keeping him from the 50/40/90 club, but he’s leading the team in scoring with 24.1 points per night. He carried the team as it broke its four-game losing streak with a 39-point effort against Orlando. 

    The upcoming week is going to be a gauge for how good the Hornets actually are as they host the Indiana Pacers twice and the Milwaukee Bucks once after finishing their miniseries with the Magic.

18. New York Knicks

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    Steve Dykes/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rank: 22nd

    The Knicks defense has been a revelation. The 2015-16 season was the last time they had a defensive rating below 107, but they’re in the top five of the league at 106.9 this year. The Tom Thibodeau effect has been real. He is doing this with normally negative defensive players. 

    The defense has not been the only surprise, though. Julius Randle has turned some heads with his play. He is averaging a double-double with 6.1 assists per game on the side. 

    This team does not quit. Down as much as 25 points to the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday, it easily could have quit but instead battled back to cut the lead down to three points in the fourth quarter. Immanuel Quickley had a career-high 31 points to spearhead the comeback before his team lost. 

    This is a Knicks team the city of New York can get behind.

17. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rank: 20th

    Due to COVID-19 protocols, the Grizzlies played just one contest last week. They were riding a nice five-game win streak before the pause in play.

    The Grizzlies survived the absence of Ja Morant to keep their playoff hopes alive. At 7-6, they are right in play-in range 13 games into the season, and they’re doing this while Jaren Jackson Jr., their-second-best player, has yet to play. There is no timetable for his return to the court from a knee injury. 

    The future is bright in Memphis, but remaining competitive through the injuries is a credit to both head coach Taylor Jenkins and the front office. Memphis has received contributions from rookies Desmond Bane and Xaiver Tillman Sr. during its streak.  

16. Miami Heat

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Last Week Rank: 14th

    Miami has had a rough start to the season. It has shuffled players in and out of the lineup due to injuries or COVID-19 protocols. Out of the Heat’s 15 total games, Jimmy Butler has played only six times, and the last time he took the court was Jan. 9.

    It is a surprise they are just 6-9, but only two players—Duncan Robinson and Precious Achiuwa—have played every game so far. 

    With all these issues, it is hard to get a true gauge on this group. Miami’s whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The team is not dependent on one player, but instead its system. With so many games missed from key players, that system is bound to struggle. 

    The good news is that Kendrick Nunn stepped up his play last week, averaging 21.5 points and shooting 44.4 percent from three.

15. Atlanta Hawks

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    Stacy Bengs/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rank: 18th

    Just when it seemed like the Hawks might have righted the ship with a three-game win streak, Trae Young went down with a back injury. It was a big blow as Young had broken out of his slump, averaging 33.7 points and shooting 59.1 percent from three last week. He had also been sharing the ball, handing out 9.3 assists per game. Young joins key players Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari on the injury report for Atlanta. 

    The Hawks did get a monster triple-double game from Clint Capela headlined by 10 blocks against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He also averaged 20 rebounds per game over the last week before sitting out Sunday against the Milwaukee Bucks with a hand injury.

    Without Young and Capela, Atlanta was overpowered by the Bucks. The Hawks had a nice 3-1 week, but the next stretch will be challenging if Young can’t get back on the floor.

14. Golden State Warriors

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 16th

    The week started with a big win for the Warriors thanks to their comeback victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. It was a vintage Stephen Curry and Draymond Green performance. The former had 19 points in the second half with the latter quarterbacking the team on both ends of the court. 

    Then the week ended with a thumping at the hands of the Utah Jazz.

    Andrew Wiggins has had a great season so far. He’s shooting a career high from three at 40.7 percent. His pick-and-roll game has also grown. According to Synergy Sports, his points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, including passes, have gone up from 0.88 last season to 0.99 this year.

    The one caveat to Wiggins’ rise: A similar trend emerged last season. He started well for the Wolves but then regressed. It will be important to see if this growth is real or just another one of the flashes of potential to which everyone has become accustomed.

13. Dallas Mavericks

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rank: 8th

    Kristaps Porzingis is rounding into form for the Mavericks. Last week, he put up 23.7 points, 10.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game while shooting 62.8 percent from the field before sitting out of the loss to the Houston Rockets. But it’s even more interesting to look at where on the court he’s doing his damage. 

    Last season, Porzingis was criticized for not playing well in the post. He has been working from there much more this season, averaging 6.0 post-ups versus 3.4 in 2019-20. Head coach Rick Carlisle even acknowledged the change after the Mavericks’ Jan. 22 win over the San Antonio Spurs.

    The Mavs are still without several key players who are in COVID-19 protocols, and winning gets tougher when Porzingis rests, as he did against Houston. But Dallas has stayed afloat even with so many players out of the lineup.

12. San Antonio Spurs

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    Darren Abate/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rank: 11th

    Not many teams have as much balanced scoring as the Spurs. They have seven players in double figures, led by DeMar DeRozan and his 20.1 points per game. Patty Mills may be a dark-horse candidate for Sixth Man of the Year if his 42.5 percent shooting from three holds up. 

    San Antonio ended the week going 2-2 and took advantage of a depleted Washington Wizards team. The Spurs are continuing to get out in transition and had 20 fast-break points against Washington. 

    Every year, people predict this will be the end of the Spurs era, and they continue to chug along. Seventeen games into the season, they are right in the thick of the West with their young talent and veteran presences.

11. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Steve Dykes/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rank: 10th

    It just seems the Blazers can never stay healthy for more than a month. After losing Jusuf Nurkic for several weeks with a broken wrist, they lost the red-hot CJ McCollum to a stress fracture that will see him miss extended time. 

    After they got blown out by the San Antonio Spurs to start the week, their miniseries with the Memphis Grizzlies was canceled, leaving them with time to regroup. That time in between games did pay off as they beat the New York Knicks behind Damian Lillard’s 39 points.

    There is no way to replace McCollum’s production. Anfernee Simons, Gary Trent Jr. and Nassir Little must contribute in big ways. The Blazers got those contributions against New York, but that must continue as they get ready to start a long six-game road trip next week.

10. Phoenix Suns

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rank: 9th

    It is surprising for a team with Chris Paul and Devin Booker to have a mediocre pick-and-roll offense. According to Synergy Sports, the Phoenix Suns are averaging just 0.96 points per possession on pick-and-rolls, including passes. That is 20th in the NBA. 

    The other worry is that Booker has not hit his groove yet. His average number of points, field-goal attempts, free-throw attempts and assists are all down from last season. At times, it seems like he is trying to do less thinking, but the Suns need Booker to be Booker. He looked like his old self against the Denver Nuggets when he exploded for 31 points before exiting that Jan. 22 game with a hamstring injury in overtime.

    After their hot start, the Suns are beginning to crater a bit, and they will need their stars to play like stars if they want to shoot back up the rankings.

9. Indiana Pacers

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rank: 7th

    Some good news for the Pacers this week: Myles Turner missed only two games with an avulsion fracture in his hand. He returned in their win over the Orlando Magic with a masterful 22-point, nine-rebound, three-block game. He is leading the league in blocks by a large margin, averaging 4.2 rejections per night. 

    A lot of attention has gone to Domantas Sabonis’ play this season, but Malcolm Brogdon is also having a great year. He’s holding down the fort in the backcourt, scoring 21.9 points and handing out 7.1 assists per night.

    The big concern is that all the injuries have put a lot of mileage on both Brogdon and Sabonis, who are each averaging more than 36 minutes per game. Those minutes finally caught up to them as they went 6-of-32 from the field in the loss to the Toronto Raptors that closed out their week.

8. Denver Nuggets

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rank: 15th

    Nikola Jokic has been playing at an MVP level, but the Nuggets’ record might hold him back. Last week was a good sign as Denver started to turn things around and climb the rankings as it beat the Oklahoma City Thunder and swept the miniseries against the Phoenix Suns in thrilling fashion.

    The latter was a true battle. The first game went to overtime, and the second went to double overtime. In the end, the Nuggets came up with just enough stops to steal both. Jokic averaged 30 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists, while Murray came up with big shots to force overtime.

    The Nuggets’ improved play has started on the defensive end. Their defensive rating for the week was 104.3, down from 110.8 on the season. If Denver is going to continue its rise in the standings, that trend must continue.

    The Nuggets did receive some good news on the injury front with Michael Porter Jr. returning from his long COVID-19-related absence. His return means Denver gets back its third-best scoring option.

7. Boston Celtics

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rank: 6th

    The Celtics’ miniseries against the Philadelphia 76ers showed Boston may still have the same problem as last year: They might be too small at center spot. 

    Boston just could not stop Joel Embiid. It had a defensive rating of 127.8 with Tristan Thompson on the floor against Philly. In the East, the Celtics must figure out a scheme to slow down bigs like Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Bam Adebayo.

    The good news for the Celtics is that Kemba Walker has looked good in his return, and they should get Jayson Tatum back from COVID-19 protocols soon. Unfortunately, rookie Payton Pritchard, who has played well, will be out a few weeks with an MCL strain. Boston was thin as it is, so losing any rotation player will hurt. 

    Even though the Celtics bounced back at the end of the week with a rout of the Cleveland Cavaliers, they dropped in the rankings after getting swept by the Sixers.

6. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rank: 2nd

    Milwaukee had two big tests this week, and it failed both of them. 

    The Bucks lost a nailbiter to the Brooklyn Nets and then lost a showdown against the Los Angeles Lakers. Their three-point shooting let them down in those games as they shot just 30.3 percent from deep. Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez both shot below 30 percent from beyond the arc in those games.

    The contest against Brooklyn left Milwaukee with a few questions about how to operate in the clutch. In the final few minutes, Middleton took the bulk of the team’s shots, scoring six points with a usage rate of 62.5 percent. He was the primary option that game, not Giannis Antetokounmpo.

    In Milwaukee’s four clutch games this season (final three minutes with a margin of no more than three points), Antetokounmpo has averaged 0.8 points and just one field-goal attempt. Head coach Mike Budenholzer will have to find a way to maximize his skills when things are close down the stretch. 

    The Bucks will not go far if their Ferrari turns into a Camry in the final minutes of close games.

5. Brooklyn Nets

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rank: 5th

    The world got its first look at the Big Three of Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Kevin Durant. It has been just two games, but in their 63 minutes on the floor together, Brooklyn has a net rating of 5.0

    The integration process is going to take time, and there will be ups and downs as they go through it, but a few things are clear. 

    As of now, the defense is as bad as expected, and the team lacks depth. Brooklyn signed center Norvel Pelle to help at the center position, but he will have to clear COVID-19 protocols before joining the team. 

    The Pelle signing is still not going to fix the stress the Nets are putting on their Big Three. In the last week, Harden averaged 41.7 minutes, Durant 40.9 and Irving 38.5. 

    The Nets had a big win against the Bucks, but getting swept by the Cavs in their miniseries will drop any team in the rankings.

4. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Last Week Rank: 3rd

    Philadelphia came up with two big wins over its division rivals Boston. Joel Embiid turned in an MVP-caliber performance, averaging 40.0 points and 10.5 rebounds while getting to the line 18 times. He thoroughly dominated his matchup. Ben Simmons sealed the second game with an 11-point, three-assist, two-rebound fourth quarter. He followed that performance up with an aggressive 20-point, nine-rebound, seven-assist game in Philadelphia’s win over Detroit. 

    One player who has gone slightly unnoticed is Tobias Harris. Reunited with Doc Rivers, Harris has found his scoring touch, averaging 19.4 points, and is a member of the 50/40/90 club. 

    The Sixers ran the table last week but dropped a spot in the rankings because the three teams above them are playing at another level.

3. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rank: 1st

    Lakers fans will be upset that they dropped in the rankings, but giving up a 19-point lead to the Warriors will cause a team drop. Los Angeles could have fallen further, but it responded well with a comfortable win over the Bucks and then destroyed the Bulls.

    When the Lakers are locked in and not playing with their food, they are a very tough team to beat. They are the only team with a top-10 offensive rating and top-three defensive rating. That proficiency is why they have the best net rating in the NBA.

    The biggest difference from this season to last has been their shooting from three. The Lakers are shooting 39.3 percent this year after connecting on just 34.9 percent last year.

2. Utah Jazz

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rank: 10th

    The Jazz are the hottest team in the NBA right now. They are riding an eight-game winning streak with victories against Milwaukee and Denver. They are fourth in point differential and are just playing great basketball. They ended the week with an easy 19-point win over the Warriors. 

    Although Shaq might disagree, Donovan Mitchell is playing at an elite level and carrying the Jazz. During the winning streak, he is averaging 27.3 points while shooting 50 percent from three. 

    This is the Jazz team everyone was expecting last season. Everyone looks much more comfortable in their roles this season, and it is paying off in a big way.

1. LA Clippers

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rank: 4th

    With a seven-game winning streak in hand, the Clippers take the top spot in the rankings. They have been dominant during this streak with a 17.1-point differential. Their defense, which was off to a slow start, was outstanding last week with a defensive rating of 100.7

    Even in the Clippers’ subpar offensive performance against the Thunder, their defense held OKC to just 100 points to keep their streak alive. 

    There is no discussing the Clippers without talking about how good Paul George has been. He has been lighting it up all season and is flirting with the 50/50/90 club while averaging 23.9 points. It appears George has put the troubles from the bubble behind him, as he is playing the best basketball of his career.

    The Clippers are rolling right now. They will be taking their show on the road with a six-game road trip that starts Tuesday.