NBA Power Rankings: Timberwolves Hit Rock Bottom, Nets Rise to the Top

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist IFebruary 22, 2021

NBA Power Rankings: Timberwolves Hit Rock Bottom, Nets Rise to the Top

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    In the last week, the NBA saw the end of Utah's winning streak and the rise of the Nets despite the fact that they had guys in and out of the lineup. The Clippers are beginning to get healthy and have put an end to a few streaks. The Suns continue to shine brightly, and the Blazers are rolling behind Damian Lillard.

    Jamal Murray and Joel Embiid both had 50-point performances, and on the same night. Rookie Anthony Edwards probably had the best dunk of the season.

    It was not a great week for everyone in the NBA, as a few teams are riding long losing streaks. The Lakers are struggling to find their footing without Anthony Davis. The Bucks are still trying to find a consistent rhythm. The Wolves fired their young coach.

    The All-Star starters and the coaching staffs were announced for the upcoming game in Atlanta. It was also the last week for players hoping to make the squad as a reserve to leave an impression on coaches. It led to some standout performances from a few players who are on the bubble.

    The power rankings criteria remain the same: how a team played this week, the body of work for the season, who they beat and strength of schedule.

30. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 30th

    Minnesota got bad news when it was announced D'Angelo Russell will be out four to six weeks after getting arthroscopic knee surgery. In his absence, Ricky Rubio has stepped up his play for the Wolves. In the seven games since Russell has been out, Rubio has led the team in assists with 7.9 dimes a night while also shooting 41.9 percent from three. 

    Karl-Anthony Towns is still working his way back from COVID-19. There have been flashes of him coming back to normal, though, like his 30-point, 10-rebound game against the Pacers. He still has a ways to go, but Towns is working back into shape.

    Unfortunately, none of this has helped Minnesota find its way out of the NBA basement, and that led to team president Gersson Rosas making a change. After their loss to the Knicks, the Wolves fired head coach Ryan Saunders. 

    Minnesota plans on hiring Toronto Raptors assistant coach Chris Finch to a multiyear deal to take over as head coach, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.

29. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 29th

    It is getting in ugly in Cleveland. The Cavs are on a 10-game losing streak and decided to sit Andre Drummond while they look for a trade partner. 

    During this losing streak, only one game was a loss by single digits. Just one game in 10. Cleveland's point differential has been minus-19.1 during this streak. The Cavs hold the league's worst defensive rating over the last 10 games at 125.6

    Even trading Drummond is not guaranteed to bring in a big haul. He is in the last year of his deal, and teams are not looking to give up a lot of assets for a player who can leave in free agency. 

    After being a fun story early in the season, it has been all downhill for the Cavs with no end in sight. 

28. Houston Rockets

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 24th

    The weather in Houston cut the Rockets' week short with just two games played, and the free fall continued. They are still riddled with injuries. Victor Oladipo has been out the last three games, and P.J. Tucker missed the last two. They joined Christian Wood, who has missed the last seven. 

    Houston's losing streak extended to seven with setbacks against Washington and Philadelphia. There is just not enough firepower for the Rockets to take off. John Wall and Eric Gordon are playing well, but no one is shooting better than 34.9 percent from three during this streak.

    When healthy, the Rockets have looked good, but the problem is that they just have not been healthy for a long while.

27. Detroit Pistons

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    Joe Skipper/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 26th

    Last week was the start of a five-game road trip for the Pistons. So far this season, Detroit has only two wins on the road, so it is not a surprise that it went winless last week in its three games. But that was not the biggest news for the Pistons.

    The week started with Detroit announcing plans to sit Blake Griffin until it can find a trade partner or negotiate a buyout for the six-time All-Star. It has been a tough season for Griffin, who is averaging 12.3 points a game on 36.5 percent shooting. His injury history has robbed him of his athleticism. Griffin has not dunked since December 12, 2019

    The Pistons are in a transition year. They have traded Derrick Rose and are parting ways with Griffin as general manager Troy Weaver looks to rebuild the team in his vision.

26. Orlando Magic

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 28th

    Despite all of the injuries, the Magic have endured this season. They are still playing hard. Their three wins last week is evidence of that. If Nikola Vucevic were on a better team, he would be an All-Star lock. Vucevic has put the team on his back, averaging 24.1 points and 11.7 rebounds while shooting 40.5 percent from three and is on the bubble for an All-Star spot this year.

    The Magic's offense took a jump last week with an offensive rating of 109.4, up from their 105.8 rating for the season. In particular, they shot lights-out from three as a team, connecting on 40.2 percent. In addition to Vucevic, the Magic got a big week from Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross.

    Fournier averaged 25.3 points and 5.3 assists for the week while Ross caught fire from three, shooting 60 percent from deep on his way to averaging 23.7 points. If they can keep playing at this level, Orlando might be able to hold onto hope until help arrives.

25. Washington Wizards

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    Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 27th

    The Wizards made a change to their starting lineup and are on a four-game winning streak. Garrison Mathews and Moritz Wagner were inserted, and it is getting results.  

    The lineup of Matthews and Wagner with Russell Westbrook, Bradley Beal and Rui Hachimura has a net rating of 13.9. It is a relatively small sample size, but it has been one of the few positives the Wizards can hang their hat on this season.  

    The Wizards' game against the Blazers was the start of a four-game West Coast swing with games against the Lakers, Clippers and Nuggets. If the lineup can hold up during this trip, it will be a great sign for Washington. 

24. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 22nd

    The offense has been a struggle all season for the Thunder. Oklahoma City is among the league's worst in offensive rating with a 104.3 rating. The Thunder were able to snap their three-game losing streak to a team that plays worse offense than them, the Cavs. 

    They got Shai Gilgeous-Alexander back last week from a knee sprain. He exploded for 31 points and nine assists in their return to the win column. 

    In the long run, the Thunder are still looking to rebuild, but a win here and there will be good for their youngs as they continue to develop.

23. Sacramento Kings

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 14th

    All of the good feelings the Kings had during their four-game winning streak in early February are gone after falling into a seven-game losing streak. Last week marked the beginning of a five-game Eastern Conference road swing for Sacramento.

    The losing streak is the reason for the big drop for the Kings. Sacramento's offense is simply not good enough to overcome its poor defense. In particular, De'Aaron Fox has to be better on that end of the court. During this losing streak, the Kings have a defensive rating of 125.3 when he is on the court.

    Sacramento has to get better play on the defensive end from its young stars to break its playoff drought.

22. Atlanta Hawks

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 21st

    The Hawks ended their four-game skid with a nice win in Boston in the first game of their miniseries before dropping the second one. Then they had a big win over the Nuggets to cap off the week. 

    Atlanta has struggled finding a consistent flow this season with all the injuries, but the same problems are plaguing them. Just like last season, when Trae Young steps off the court, the Hawks offense sputters. Atlanta's offense drops 13.6 points with him off the court. Some of that has to do with the injuries, but some of that is the new guys not producing the way the Hawks thought they would. 

    If they are going to build off this win against the Nuggets, they will need everyone to step up, especially when Young goes to the bench to rest. 

21. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 23rd

    The Pelicans offense is beginning to soar. New Orleans has the highest offensive rating in the month of February at 123.9. A big reason has been the unleashing of Zion Williamson as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. Stan Van Gundy has given Williamson more opportunities in this play type, and it is proving extremely difficult to defend. 

    Williamson has the best points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler for the team at 1.14. Besides being in the ball-screen actions, Williamson has just been an offensive force for the Pelicans. The team has an offensive rating of 115.7 when he is on the floor and 107.9 when is off. 

    If the Pelicans get the defensive effort they got in the comeback win against the Celtics in most of their games, they will be in great position to fly up the rankings and standings. 

20. Chicago Bulls

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 25th

    It was a good week for the Bulls, and it started with their defense. Chicago's defensive rating was 107.1 as it went 3-1. That is a massive improvement from its 113.1 defensive rating before the last week. 

    In more good news for Chicago, Wendell Carter Jr. returned to the lineup. He immediately provided an impact as he averaged 12.8 points on 58.3 percent shooting from the field.  

    Zach LaVine put on a show last week to make the case he belongs in the All-Star Game. He put up 33.8 points and shot 41.9 percent from three. It may not be enough to make the team as a reserve, but this type of play can help push the Bulls into the postseason.

19. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 20th

    Memphis got some good news at the end of the week with the return of Justise Winslow. The Grizzlies are still waiting for Jaren Jackson Jr. to make his debut this season, but Winslow can help to take some playmaking pressure off Ja Morant once he gets into the flow of things.

    Morant has been great for Memphis, averaging 18.9 points and 7.8 assists for the season, but it may not be enough for the Grizzlies if they cannot get healthy. Their loss to the Suns on Saturday was essentially a scheduled loss, as Memphis held out several players to get rest. It was the team's fourth game in five days, but every game is going to matter if it wants to sneak into the playoffs.

    The Grizzlies are in the mix for the play-in tournament, but their margin of error is very slim.

18. Miami Heat

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 18th

    It has been a tough trip West for the Heat. With one more stop left on the seven-game trip, Miami is 3-3 but could easily be 5-1. Despite not being fully healthy, the Heat took two bad losses last week. 

    First they lost to the Clippers, who were without Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and then they blew a 14-point lead with 6:30 left to the Warriors. They bounced back with wins over the Kings and in their Finals rematch against the Lakers.

    The big issue for the Heat is that they are still not healthy. Goran Dragic has been out since February 7 and Avery Bradley has been out since February 4. Miami is trying to claw back into the thick of things in the East, and getting healthy would go a long way.

17. Dallas Mavericks

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 17th

    The weather in Texas forced the Mavs to postpone all their games last week. Despite their loss to the Blazers in their last game on Feb. 14, they are playing better. It has not looked great at times, but Dallas' offense is beginning to come together. 

    How far the Mavericks go this year depends on how much they can improve defensively. Dallas' defensive rating is 27th, and it will be near impossible to reach the top 10. The goal should be to lift it out of the 20s by the end of the season.

16. Charlotte Hornets

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 16th

    The Hornets had only one game last week due to COVID postponements. So let's take a look at their season as a whole. 

    The massive contract Charlotte gave to Gordon Hayward has paid off in its first year. He has been doing a little bit of everything for the Hornets, averaging 21.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists and shooting 43.2 percent from three while providing a veteran presence. 

    It has not just been Hayward. Terry Rozier is having a great season too, putting up 21.1 points with 46.0 percent shooting from beyond the arc.

15. New York Knicks

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    Sarah Stier/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 15th

    There are only seven Eastern Conference reserve spots available, so Julius Randle may not get into the All-Star Game, but he is certainly worth consideration. A week ago, he dropped 44 points in the win against the Hawks. Randle making the team would be a nice feather in New York's cap this season. 

    The Knicks have won four of their last five games, and besides Randle they are getting great play from second-year guard RJ Barrett. In their win against the Wolves, he dropped 21 points and showed patience in his attack. 

    New York did not move up this week because of the loss to the Magic. It is unprecedented territory we are all in, but this season, there are games these Knicks are expected to win, and that was one of them.

14. Golden State Warriors

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 13th

    It has been no secret that Stephen Curry has been phenomenal, but the Warriors have been getting some key contributions from a few role players like Kent Bazemore. His return to Golden State has given them a much-needed boost. The team has a net rating of 10.7 when he is on the court. Bazemore's 26-point, eight-rebound night was a big reason the Warriors were able to come back against the Heat. 

    In addition to Bazemore, Kelly Oubre Jr. has rebounded from his horrific start over the last 10 games. He's been Golden State's second-leading scorer at 21.2 points and shooting 47.0 percent from three. Steve Kerr's decision to stick with him is beginning to provide dividends. 

    The Warriors would have moved up in the rankings if they did not lose to the Magic, a game in which they led by 13 points with 8:30 left in the fourth quarter. A win in Orlando would have been Golden State's first three-game winning streak, but instead, it is another bad loss.

13. Boston Celtics

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 12th

    Another .500 week for the Celtics. They followed up their win against the Nuggets with a loss to the Hawks. Kemba Walker sat out that game against Atlanta, but Boston picked up the win with him back in the lineup for the second game of the miniseries. Then the C's ended the week on a sour note, blowing a 24-point second-half lead to the Pelicans.

    It has been a tough season for Walker. Just when it looks like he is going to turn the corner and get into a flow, he puts up a stinker. After a nice 28-point outburst against Atlanta, Walker put up a terrible 14-point performance, including going 1-of-12 from three, in their loss to New Orleans.

    Ravaged by injuries, the Celtics need Walker to find his game to help Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, especially with the news that Marcus Smart will not return until after the All-Star break. Boston has been thin all season, and this is just prolonging its pain. 

12. Indiana Pacers

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 11th

    Last week was cut short for the Pacers, who played just two games before postponements got in the way. Indiana went 1-1 in those two games, but it is worth highlighting the play of Jeremy Lamb with the second unit.

    Lamb averaged 15 points in those two games and has given the Pacers a little more firepower off the bench. He's shooting 50 percent from three for the season. He is not consistent enough to be Indiana's third option, but the unfortunate luck of trading for Caris LeVert, who is out indefinitely, has put them in this position.

    Domantas Sabonis ended the week with a bang. He helped push the Pacers past the Wolves with a 36-point, 16-rebound, 10-assist triple-double to make the case he belongs as an NBA All-Star reserve.

11. Denver Nuggets

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 9th

    It was not a good week for Denver, who went 1-3 with losses to Boston, Washington and Atlanta. The Nuggets have now slipped to seventh in the West after their four-game jaunt East. The good news for the Nuggets has been the play of Jamal Murray, though. 

    Murray had a historic 50-point performance against Cleveland. What made it historic was the fact it was the first time a player scored 50 points without attempting a free throw. He is beginning to look more like the Murray everyone saw in the bubble. Over the last week, he averaged 35 points on 62.8 percent shooting from the field including 55.6 percent from three. 

    As great of a sign it is to see Murray get going, the Nuggets will need everyone so they can stop sliding in the standings and rankings.

10. Toronto Raptors

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 19th

    It has been a bit of a week for the Raptors. First, off the court: Shams Charania of The Athletic reported that Toronto has inquired about Andre Drummond of the Cavs. A deal seems rather complex and would probably require another team to help make it happen. More than anything, it shows that Toronto is looking to be buyers at the trade deadline. 

    On the court, the Raptors have decided to start games small, moving Aron Baynes to the bench and Norman Powell to the starting lineup. Even when they lost Kyle Lowry, Nick Nurse still stayed small, opting to move DeAndre' Bembry into the starting spot. 

    It paid off for the Raptors, as they picked up two wins over the Bucks (and another over the Timberwolves). The true test of the lineup came against the Sixers and Joel Embiid. It was able to hold up, and they got a monster game from Chris Boucher, who had 17 points and five rebounds off the bench.  

    Going undefeated last week and against two of the three best teams in the East warrants a big jump in the rankings.

9. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 8th

    The Bucks' five-game losing streak is why they have fallen in the rankings. Milwaukee did pick up wins over the Thunder and Kings to stabilize things. Jrue Holiday still remains out because of the COVID protocols, and that has hurt the Bucks. 

    The bigger issue was the drop in Khris Middleton's play in their three games before he busted out against the Kings. He shot 18.2 percent from three and 41.0 percent from the field for just 14.7 points. Middleton found his groove against Sacramento when he put up 32 points and six assists. 

    It is critical for Milwaukee to get consistent play from him not just as a scorer but also as a playmaker.

8. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 10th

    Damian Lillard has loudly made a case that he belongs in the MVP conversation. Bolstered by a recent six-game winning streak, the Blazers are 18-11 and fifth in the West with several key players out. 

    The biggest piece to Lillard's MVP case has been his play in clutch situations. In games with a three-point differential with three minutes left, he is shooting 66.7 percent from the field and has scored a total of 40 points. It has truly been Dame Time for the Blazers with a 9-3 record in those games. 

    The winning streak and doing it without CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins is why the Blazers are climbers in this week's power rankings.

7. San Antonio Spurs

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 7th

    Four Spurs players tested positive for COVID, which forced the NBA to postpone all of their games last week. San Antonio is 7-3 in its last 10 games and is surprising everyone being 16-11 this season. It will be interesting to see how the stoppage of play affects them.

    The Spurs have gotten balanced scoring with eight players averaging double-digit points, and the young players have all taken a step forward in their development. They all look like great pieces, but none of them have hit the level to carry the team for the foreseeable future.

6. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 4th

    Philadelphia's losing streak was pushed to three games when it fell to Utah to end its West Coast swing. The 76ers were without Joel Embiid but got a career high in points (42) from Ben Simmons, who was aggressive throughout the game.

    Unfortunately, Simmons missed the next two games with an illness (not COVID-related), but Embiid returned to put up some big numbers. Embiid recorded a career-best 50 points against the Bulls to help the Sixers to a victory. 

    The Sixers' loss to the Raptors was the reason they dropped a spot in this week's rankings. Their offense struggled in the second half, including a five-minute field-goal drought in the fourth quarter. They simply will have to be better than that.

5. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 3rd

    With Anthony Davis out for at least four weeks, there will be some concern in Los Angeles. To make matters even more difficult, another offensive weapon is now inactive with Dennis Schroder in COVID protocols. That is going to put more on the already full plate of LeBron James.

    In particular, the Lakers offense struggles whenever James goes to the bench. In their three games last week, the offensive rating dropped 8.3 points when he was off the floor. 

    Another concern for the Lakers has been their steady decline in three-point shooting. Since the month of February, they have shot a league-worst 29.2 percent from deep.

    It will be a challenging few weeks while this team waits to get healthy, but Frank Vogel has to be careful not to overburden James during that time. 

4. LA Clippers

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 6th

    It was a big week for the Clippers. Without Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, they were able to beat the Heat but not the Jazz in their first game of the miniseries. They got back their big guns for the second game of the miniseries and put an end to Utah's winning streak but couldn't stop the Nets' run.  

    After missing seven games, Paul George averaged 24.5 points on 54.5 percent shooting from the field, six boards and six dimes in his two games back. The Clippers had to hold him out of the last three minutes of their game against the Nets because of his minutes restriction, but he has come back to the court without missing a beat. 

    The Clippers are playing the long game and still nearly pulled out the win over the Nets. Their win against the smoking-hot Jazz was enough to move them up two spots.

3. Phoenix Suns

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 2nd

    The Suns are in a great groove right now, winners of 11 of their last 13 games. The loss to the Nets last week was a bad one, though. They gave away a second-half lead despite the Nets only having one of their Big Three available. That loss dropped them in the rankings, but their red-hot run keeps them in the top five.

    Over the last 13 games, Devin Booker has been on another level. He is averaging 26.1 points, shooting 51.7 percent from the floor, including 41.7 from three. Deandre Ayton has been a double-double machine during this stretch, averaging 13.0 points and 11.9 rebounds. 

    Chris Paul passed Oscar Roberston to move to sixth on the all-time assist list to continue to add to his Hall of Fame resume.

2. Utah Jazz

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 1st

    The Jazz's second big winning streak came to an end last week at nine. Even with that loss to the Clippers, Utah still has the best record in the NBA, and it was the team's first loss of the month. 

    Utah got good news with the return of Mike Conley, who had missed the previous six games before returning in the loss to the Clippers. 

    One thing to keep an eye on is three-point shooting. The Jazz were shooting the lights out from deep over their run, but they shot just 36.1 percent in the last three games. It was their three-point shooting that made them special. If this shooting continues to slide, the Jazz are going to drop in the rankings as well.

1. Brooklyn Nets

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 5th

    After a three-game skid, the Nets have rebounded nicely to go on a six-game winning streak. Brooklyn swept its trip out West despite not having Kevin Durant for most of it and Kyrie Irving missing a game. Their play on this trip earned them the top spot in the power rankings. 

    Offensively, the Nets are operating on another level, and Joe Harris has been an important piece to the puzzle. On the trip, he shot 56.3 percent from three, making defenses pay when they left him to help. 

    Brooklyn also signed Andre Roberson to help the perimeter defense. It will be interesting to see how much he can contribute after working his way back from a knee injury. At his very best, Roberson was an All-Defensive team member for the 2016-17 season, and the Nets are hoping he can bring some of that energy to the court.