NBA Power Rankings: Where Every Team Stands Ahead of 2021 Trade Deadline

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist IMarch 22, 2021

NBA Power Rankings: Where Every Team Stands Ahead of 2021 Trade Deadline

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    Bob Levey/Associated Press

    The NBA trade season arrived last week with a few teams making moves. The Milwaukee Bucks and the Miami Heat brought in players they hope can help take them over the top. With the trade deadline coming on March 25, these could be the first dominoes to fall.

    There will probably be a few more trades, but the likelihood of a major deal going down is relatively low. Several teams are looking to buy, but there are not many sellers. The standings are crowded in both conferences and the play-in tournament in reach, and teams seem more reluctant to trade rotation players. 

    A few teams have settled in and played very well since the All-Star break, and they rose in this week’s rankings. The criteria are based on how teams played last week, who they beat and where their season is heading after the week. For this week’s power rankings, only the games from Tuesday to Sunday were considered.

30. Houston Rockets

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    Troy Taormina/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 30th

    It’s hard to find good news for the Rockets during a 20-game losing streak, but Christian Wood’s return to the lineup qualifies as such. In his first game back, he scored 21 points and pulled in nine boards in another losing effort against the Warriors. 

    In other news, Houston found a trade for P.J. Tucker. They sent him to the Milwaukee Bucks for D.J. Wilson, D.J. Augustin, a 2023 unprotected first-round pick as well as swap rights for Milwaukee's 2021 first-round pick (protected 1-9) with their 2021 second-round pick. Besides Tucker, Houston sent back Milwaukee’s 2022 first-round pick as well as Rodions Kurucs.

    With Tucker out of Houston, keep an eye on Victor Oladipo’s name as the trade deadline approaches.

29. Orlando Magic

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 29th

    The Magic had a few days off early in the week before having to play three games in four days. Orlando scored a big win over Brooklyn behind an explosive game from Aaron Gordon, who dropped 38 points, including seven made threes. 

    That could be just the type of showcase performance other teams needed to see before attempting to trade for Gordon. He is just 25 years old and on a reasonably priced contract that expires after the 2021-22 season. Several teams should be looking to acquire him to see if they can unlock the potential that has always been there for Gordon.

    That is not the only player that could be on the move for the Magic. Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross could be if the right offer comes their way.

28. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 28th

    It is a small sample size, but the Wolves offense has exploded since the All-Star break. Before the break, Minnesota’s offensive rating was 105.0, and since it has jumped to 117.4 over six games. That also includes a jump in field-goal and three-point percentage. The Wolves are in an offensive groove and have picked up three wins since the break. 

    As said last week, Anthony Edwards has been on a tear, but he is not the only player who is playing well under Chris Finch. Ricky Rubio’s assists have climbed up to 8.3 per game since the break. 

    The offense has been great and is at least giving Minnesota a fighting chance in games.

27. Detroit Pistons

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    Troy Taormina/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 27th

    The Pistons put an end to their four-game losing streak with a couple of wins last week. Detroit outlasted Toronto and then handled Houston before dropping its final game of the week against Chicago.

    In their two wins, the Pistons got some big games from rookie Saddiq Bey. He gave them 28 points and 12 rebounds against the Raptors. Then he followed it up with a 20-point, six-rebound night. Bey did not end the week well, though, going 1-of-9 and scoring just three points against the Bulls.

    Despite that game, Troy Weaver has to be pleased with the growth he has seen from Bey under Dwane Casey for the season. 

26. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 26th

    Cleveland’s four-game losing streak came to an end with a win over the Celtics that led to a 2-1 finish to the week. Collin Sexton, Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen showed off what they can bring as core players for Cleveland.

    Sexton averaged 28.8 points for the week and capped it off with a 36-point performance against the Raptors. Garland averaged 20.0 points but more importantly led the team in assists, handing out 5.8 for the week. Jarrett Allen contributed with a double-double, averaging 11.8 points and 10.8 rebounds as well as 1.5 blocks. 

    More importantly, the Cavs picked up two wins before they head out for a four-game road trip on Wednesday. They are just 5-15 on the road. 

25. Washington Wizards

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 24th

    The Wizards put an end to their five-game losing streak with a big win over the Jazz. They tend to put their best foot forward against some of the top teams in the NBA. Of the Wizards’ 15 wins, 10 have come against teams that are over .500. They have wins against the Nets, Jazz, Clippers and Lakers. It has been the "bad" teams they have struggled with, going 5-12 against teams that are below .500.

    Washington got huge games from Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook in its win over Utah last week. Beal put up 43 points while Westbrook had yet another triple-double with 35 points, 15 rebounds and 13 assists. 

    But the Wizards are 2-8 in their last 10 games and nearly out of the playoff picture. At best, they can play the spoiler on some nights. 

24. Toronto Raptors

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 20th

    The good news for the Raptors is they got back all of their players out of the COVID protocols. The bad news is that could not stop the losing streak from extending to eight games. This streak comes just as Toronto was getting its act together and beginning to climb in the standings. 

    The Raptors have tumbled all the way down to 11th in the standings, 2.5 games back of the 10th seed. This could change their strategy heading into the trade deadline and turn them into sellers. A lot of eyes will be on whether they move Kyle Lowry.

    On the court, the Raptors did get a big week from Norman Powell, who led them in scoring with 26.0 points and shot 51.9 percent from three. With his contract set to expire at the end of the year, he could be showcasing his talents for another team that may be calling at the deadline. 

23. Sacramento Kings

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 25th

    The Kings went 2-1 in three road games since our last installment. They got big games from De’Aaron Fox and Richaun Holmes to bring those wins home. Fox put up 28.5 points and 6.0 assists while Holmes was just a rebound away from averaging 20-10.

    Unfortunately, there might be just too much ground to cover for them to break into the play-in tournament. 

    Even though there have been rumors swirling about Harrison Barnes being on the move, it is much more likely he will be staying put. Any move Sacramento makes will most likely be around the margins, such as moving Nemanja Bjelica for a draft asset.

22. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 21st

    New Orleans went on a three-game road trip and went 1-2. Overall, the Pelicans are 6-14 on the road. To make matters worse, New Orleans blew a 17-point fourth-quarter lead to the Trail Blazers on Tuesday. With each loss, the playoffs are looking more and more like a long shot.

    Zion Williamson has been unstoppable on offense, scoring at least 20 points in 20 consecutive games. His offense has been way ahead of his defense so far in his career. New Orleans’ defensive rating experiences a 12.9-point drop when he is off the court. As great as he has been offensively, the team needs him to find a way to not give it all up on the other end.

    Though the Pelicans rebounded with a close win over the Nuggets on Sunday, they still fall in this week’s rankings, and their defensive struggles are to blame for that. 

21. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Mark Black/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 22nd

    Three games into the Thunder’s four-game road trip have not gone well. Oklahoma City suffered two blowout losses to Chicago and Atlanta. It bounced back with a win over the Rockets.

    It seems each week a new young player begins to turn heads for the Thunder. Last week it was Moses Brown’s turn to show out once he got extended minutes. Over the three games, he averaged 12.7 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in 27.1 minutes.

    Any win the Thunder pick up is just a bonus. It is getting a good look at their young players that matters most as they begin their rebuilding process. Brown looks like a keeper.

20. Chicago Bulls

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 23rd

    The Bulls’ bid to make the playoffs would go much further if they did not blow big leads like in their game against the Spurs on Wednesday. Chicago built a 23-point lead before struggling in the fourth quarter, scoring just 19 points. It was a similar case in the game against the Nuggets, as the Bulls blew a six-point lead with 45 seconds left and eventually fell in overtime.

    These struggles could come back to haunt the Bulls, who are 8-12 in clutch situations (games with a three-point differential and three minutes left) with a minus-16.0 net rating. Their inability to defend in those situations has spelled doom for them.

    Chicago finished the week going 2-2 despite its clutch struggles. The Bulls’ move up the rankings had more to do with a few other teams failing down than their overall play.

19. Charlotte Hornets

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 15th

    It has been a terrible week for the Hornets. The worst news came Sunday when it was revealed LaMelo Ball’s season likely came to an end with a fractured wrist he suffered in a fall against the Clippers. That is a massive blow to the Hornets and to just fun in general. Ball was the leading candidate for Rookie of the Year and is leading Charlotte in assists at 6.1 dimes a night to go with his 15.9 points. 

    To make matters worse, the Hornets went 0-3 to begin their five-game Western Conference road trip. Charlotte’s offense sputtered last week, averaging just 102.3 points, down from 112.8 points before the trip began. 

    Charlotte has to get Gordon Hayward going for the duration of the trip. He averaged just 10.3 points and shot 33.3 percent from three last week. Now with Ball out, the Hornets will need him to get back to his normal production. 

18. Indiana Pacers

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    Joel Auerbach/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 19th

    Indiana is doing a good job of winning just enough to hang in the play-in tournament range in the East. The Pacers went 2-1 last week with a big sweep of their miniseries against the Heat. 

    T.J. McConnell showed off everything he can bring to a team with his 16-point, 15-assist night in their first game against Miami. He did not disappoint in the second game either, scoring 12 points while handing out seven assists and grabbing five rebounds. McConnell has had a solid season, averaging 6.5 assists and 1.9 steals, which is second-best in the NBA. 

    One interesting note from the Pacers' overtime win in their second game against Miami last week was that Nate Bjorkgren turned to Caris LeVert to be their go-to scorer in clutch time. This could be Bjorkgren just testing out LeVert’s capabilities, or this could be a shift for Indiana. Something to keep an eye on for Pacers fans. 

17. Boston Celtics

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 13th

    It is getting pretty ugly in Boston. The Celtics have not been playing well after their five-game winning streak a few weeks back. Since then, they have gone 2-4 in their last six and are scrambling for answers. 

    After their loss to the Kings, Brad Stevens said postgame: "I think we need to be more engaged in each other. I think that teams are fragile things, guys are trying—and they’re all really good guys—trying. ... Five guys engaged does a lot. And we just haven’t had that recently."

    One area Boston should start looking at is the defensive end of the court. Since the All-Star break, the team’s defensive rating has gone up to 114.7. That is 24th in the NBA, and the offense has not climbed in that same fashion to make up for it. 

    With the biggest trade exception in NBA history, there will be a lot of eyes watching to see if Boston decides to use it now to bring in some help for the last stretch of the season. 

16. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 18th

    With a win over Miami, Memphis put an end to a three-game losing streak. The Grizzlies are battling to get into the playoffs. They are currently in the play-in tournament with a healthy cushion. 

    The Grizzlies have a top-10 defensive rating and leads the league in steals. Their 19.9 points off turnovers lead the NBA, and they are second in forcing turnovers. That suffocating defense has been triggering their transition game. 

    It is fairly remarkable considering that the Grizzlies have been without their second-best player Jaren Jackson Jr. all season. The latest report has him resuming basketball activity with a new update coming in April. Getting him back would be a big boost for Memphis’ playoff chances.

15. New York Knicks

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    Elsa/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 14th

    Offense has not been the Knicks' strong suit. Last week, they broke 100 points once in their three games. As well-chronicled as that has been, it’s the defense that has been their bedrock. They might not score, but they have done a good job most nights to make sure their opponents do not either. 

    In the last three minutes of games with a three-point differential, the Knicks have the second-best defensive rating at 82.7. The big issue is that New York does not have that go-to clutch player yet. As great as Randle has been this season, in those clutch minutes he has not been that guy. He is shooting just 31.6 percent in those situations. 

    For the Knicks to jump into the next tier of teams, they will need to find a more reliable scorer down the stretch of tight games.

14. Golden State Warriors

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 16th

    This season has been a roller coaster for the Warriors. Even when they win, they lose. 

    The week started with a win over the Rockets, but it came at a cost. Stephen Curry took a hard foul and missed the rest of the games last week with a bruised tailbone. It got even worse for the Warriors as James Wiseman, Eric Paschall and Kevon Looney all entered the NBA’s COVID protocols last week too.  

    Golden State was able to come up with the win in the first game of the Memphis miniseries behind Andrew Wiggins. He stepped up in a big way, scoring 40 points on 24 shots. Draymond Green did a masterful job orchestrating the offense, dropping 13 assists while grabbing 11 boards.

    Unfortunately, neither guy was able to replicate that performance in the second game as the Warriors lost. 

    With several players potentially unavailable, it is going to be a challenging week ahead for Golden State.

13. Atlanta Hawks

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 17th

    Atlanta is one of the hottest teams in the NBA with its eight-game winning streak. Trae Young has done an even better job as a distributor, averaging 9.1 assists during this stretch.

    Bogdan Bogdanovic has struggled in his return from injury, but the Hawks have to be encouraged by his game against the Thunder. He scored a season-high 23 points on 9-of-14 shooting, including five threes. If the Hawks get consistent play from Bogdanovic, they should have no problem cementing a playoff spot.

    Their win over the Lakers is the start of an eight-game road trip with contests against the Clippers, Nuggets and Suns along the way. Atlanta might get a boost, as De’Andre Hunter is nearing a return to the lineup.  

12. Miami Heat

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    Joel Auerbach/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 9th

    The Heat’s five-game winning streak came to an end and they followed it with a three-game losing streak. Going 1-3 last week took them out of the top 10 of the rankings. The overtime loss to the Pacers in particular hurt because they blew a five-point lead in the final frame. 

    The Heat shot 27.3 percent from three last week. That is the biggest reason for their new losing streak. Duncan Robinson shot just 31.6 percent on 9.5 attempts, and Tyler Herro connected on only 11.1 percent on his 4.5 attempts. The deep ball is a big part of Miami’s game. When the Heat are not hitting those shots, it is hard for them to get a win. 

    Off the court, Miami made a move to trade Meyers Leonard and a 2027 second-round pick to Oklahoma City for Trevor Ariza. The hope is that Ariza can fill the void that was created when Jae Crowder left for Phoenix. He gives the Heat another long wing defender who can hit a few shots. The only real question is how much does he have left considering he had not played since last March before making his season debut on Friday. 

11. San Antonio Spurs

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 11th

    The Spurs finished their five-game East Coast road trip, going 3-2 over seven days. They were without DeMar DeRozan (bereavement) for the first few games. 

    One problem for the Spurs during this road trip was their struggles from downtown. As a team, they shot 33.6 percent from three. Even though they do not attempt a lot of threes, knocking down those shots is often a big part of their wins. 

    After this five-game road trip, the Spurs' next nine games are at home, giving Gregg Popovich time to tighten up a few areas where San Antonio experienced some slippage on the road.

10. Dallas Mavericks

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    Steve Dykes/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 10th

    Dallas got an MVP-like week from Luka Doncic, who averaged 39.0 points, 7.3 assists, and 7.3 rebounds. It was against stiff competition with miniseries against both the Clippers and Blazers. The Mavericks split both series to go 2-2 for the week and have gone 7-3 in their last 10. 

    The Mavs have gotten key contributions across the board during this stretch. Kristaps Porzingis has not only been scoring but has also been back to his rim-protecting ways, averaging 1.6 blocks. Tim Hardaway Jr. is bringing some punch off the bench with 15.0 points nightly. And Jalen Brunson, Josh Richardson and Max Kleber are providing solid defense.

    Very quietly the Mavs are climbing in the standings and the rankings. If that continues to happen, expect Doncic’s name to get more love in the MVP conversation.

9. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Steve Dykes/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 12th

    It was miniseries week in Portland last week, as the Blazers played the Pelicans twice and then the Mavericks twice. The first game against the Pelicans was another "Dame Time" thriller, as they came back from 17 points down to pull off the win. Then it was their defense the next game that did the job to hold New Orleans to just 93 points. 

    In the first game of the Dallas miniseries, it was another high-scoring game. Lillard went for 31 points in their 125-119 win, but more importantly CJ McCollum got going. He dropped 32 points in his third game back from a broken foot.

    Getting McCollum back and going 3-1 in the last week is why the Blazers moved back into the top 10.

8. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 8th

    Despite being 11 games over .500 and a top-five offensive team, the Clippers have just fallen off. They are 4-6 in their last 10 games with some bad losses to Washington and New Orleans. Their scoring is down from 115.8 before their last 10 games to 111.0 during that stretch. 

    Every time it looks like the Clippers are turning things around, they drop the next game. They looked completely dominant against the Hornets, holding them to just 98 points. The question is how will they follow it up in the next week against Atlanta, San Antonio and Philadelphia?

    Expect the Clippers to be active on the trade market. Marc Stein of the New York Times reported that L.A. is looking into Lonzo Ball’s availability. It will be difficult to pull off a big trade with the limited draft pick supply the Clips hold.

7. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 5th

    The Lakers were on a four-game winning streak, and it looked as if they were about to go on a big run powered by LeBron James with Anthony Davis out. Then it all unraveled.

    James left Los Angeles’ game against Atlanta with a high ankle sprain. The Lakers would go on to lose the game and have their streak snapped. X-rays came back negative, but he will be out indefinitely.

    It will be really challenging for the Lakers to overcome both their stars out for an extended period, and it showed in their game against Phoenix. Los Angeles fought hard in its first full game without both, but it didn’t have enough offense, scoring just 94 points for the second straight game.

6. Denver Nuggets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 7th

    Denver has gone 8-2 in its last 10 games and is beginning to look more and more like the team from last year’s playoffs. Besides Nikola Jokic’s campaign for MVP, Jamal Murray looks to be back to his lethal scoring self. Michael Porter Jr. is thriving playing from the power forward position.

    One thing to watch for is the rise of Facundo Campazzo. With Gary Harris out, he has stepped up in a big way for the Nuggets as another playmaker. He is averaging 5.3 assists over the last 10 games. Campazzo is not just making a difference on the offensive end. Denver has a better defensive rating with him on the floor.

    Even though the week ended with a loss to the Pelicans, Denver moved up a spot for how good it has been over the last week. 

5. Utah Jazz

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 6th

    Utah is in the middle of a five-game road trip with most of it on the East Coast. The Jazz went 2-1 last week, dropping a game against the Wizards. Even though their defense has slipped in recent weeks, they got monster offensive performances all week.

    Donovan Mitchell put up 42 points against the Wizards and followed it up with a 31-point night against the Raptors. Joe Ingles’ contribution jumped from 11.3 points a night to 22.3 over the last week. He could not miss from three, as he shot 70.8 percent from distance on eight attempts.

    The Jazz have not been as dominant in recent weeks as they once were, but it is still too early to start ringing the alarm bells. 

4. Phoenix Suns

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 3rd

    Despite going 2-1 last week, the Suns dropped a spot because of their loss to the Wolves in the first game of their miniseries. Phoenix’s defense struggled in that loss, giving up 42 points to Anthony Edwards and 41 to Karl-Anthony Towns.

    The Suns went on to finish the week on a two-game winning streak, but beating up on the Wolves and the LeBron-less Lakers was not enough to keep them in the third spot.

    Taking a look at the bigger picture, Phoenix’s lack of free-throw attempts is a concern. The Suns are dead last in attempts at 18.4 a game. Some of that is a product of having deadly mid-range shooters in Chris Paul and Devin Booker.

    Nevertheless, getting to the free-throw line more would likely result in the Suns closing the efficiency gap with the league’s top offenses.

3. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Elsa/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 2nd

    Tobias Harris has stepped up in a big way for Philadelphia with Joel Embiid out. He is averaging 24.5 points and 7.5 rebounds while shooting 50.0 percent from three. It has helped the Sixers stay on top of the East, as they went 3-1 last week.

    If it was not enough being without Embiid, Seth Curry sprained his ankle in their game against the Bucks. Without him, Philly is missing its biggest deep threat and another secondary ball-handler.

    The 76ers are also a team to keep an eye on at the trade deadline. They need another playmaker, and Daryl Morey has been known to be active at the deadline. Unlike other contenders, they have the assets to make a move or two. Armed with their first-round draft picks, the contracts of Danny Green and Mike Scott and a prospect in Tyrese Maxey, the Sixers could find a solid contributor for their playoff run. 

2. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 4th

    It certainly was a busy week for the Bucks. They are riding a six-game winning and are 11-1 in their last 12 games. Giannis Antetokounmpo has been phenomenal during this stretch, averaging 31.4 points, 12.3 rebounds and 7.6 assists. But that was not the biggest news last week in Milwaukee.

    The Bucks acquired P.J. Tucker from the Rockets for the stretch run. With Tucker in the fold, Milwaukee will have more defensive versatility and another shooter from the corners. Tucker made his debut against the Spurs but played just 13 minutes, as the Bucks will look to ease him into the rotation.

    The big question will be if Tucker’s struggles this season had more to do with being in a bad situation and if a change of scenery will bring him back to life. 

1. Brooklyn Nets

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 1st

    Despite losing to Orlando, the Nets were able to stay atop the rankings because of their sheer dominance. They have won 15 of their last 17 games and done it without Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving missing three of those games.

    With all the attention going to James Harden and the headliners, guys like Nicolas Claxton have gone largely unnoticed. He is a vertical spacer/lob target for Harden and Irving as they drive into the paint, but his biggest contributions come on the defensive end. With him on the court, the Nets have a 99.0 defensive rating. Claxton plays perfectly into their switching scheme and helps with their paint defense.

    The Nets are always going to pose problems for opponents, but it will get even harder if they continue to find guys like Claxton to help fill in their gaps. 

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