NBA Power Rankings: Can Anyone Catch Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistNovember 19, 2021

NBA Power Rankings: Can Anyone Catch Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors?

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    After a two-year hiatus from the playoffs, Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors suddenly look like a juggernaut again. And, as has been pointed out many times, they're still awaiting the return of Klay Thompson.

    Once that happens, NBA fans could be in for a nostalgia overload. As most teams, even the good ones, are losing plenty of random games here and there, the Warriors are pulling further and further from the field. It feels like 2014-15 and 2015-16 all over again.

    There are a few teams still within shouting distance, including the Phoenix Suns, Brooklyn Nets, Miami Heat and Utah Jazz. Any of them eventually leapfrogging Golden State wouldn't be shocking, but it's getting harder and harder to see the Warriors as anything other than a title favorite.

    While plenty of teams behind them are shuffling all over the power rankings, Golden State is bringing some stability to the top spot.

30. Houston Rockets

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 29

    Record: 1-14

    Net Rating: -10.7

    The Houston Rockets are on pace for the worst winning percentage in NBA history. Right now, that mark is held by the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats, who went 7-59 (.106). Houston’s current .067 mark has them heading toward five wins in an 82-game season.

    Such futility is almost unimaginable, though. There will almost certainly be a random stretch here or there in which Houston snags some unexpected wins. Finishing with double-digit wins is more likely than breaking the Bobcats’ record, but this team is bad.

    A minus-2.0 box plus/minus is considered replacement level. "To give a sense of the scale," Basketball Reference suggests those below that mark are “end-of-bench players.” Right now, Houston has seven players with 100-plus minutes and a BPM south of minus-2.0.

    Title Odds: +25000

29. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 30

    Record: 2-14

    Net Rating: -9.2

    Until Zion Williamson returns from offseason foot surgery, whatever morsels of information we get on his recovery will likely be the week’s biggest New Orleans Pelicans story.

    "There is still some work to do in front of him,” coach Willie Green told the media regarding Zion being cleared for contact drills. “But it’s definitely light at the end of the tunnel.”

    The question, of course, is how far gone will the Pelicans be by the time Zion finds the end of that tunnel? Even with the playoffs effectively extended to 10 teams in each conference thanks to the play-in tournament, New Orleans may be in too deep a hole to dig out of, even with Zion’s help.

    To avoid that, Brandon Ingram, who's shot 40.7 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from three since returning from an injury, will have to play like a superstar.

    Title Odds: +24000

28. Detroit Pistons

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 28

    Record: 4-10

    Net Rating: -9.2

    The last week and change finally gave us a glimpse of the upside that made Cade Cunningham the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft.

    Over his past five games, he’s averaging 16.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.6 threes. There’s a level-headed approach with which he plays that few others rookies seem to possess. He rarely looks sped up, and the more Detroit trusts him to create, the better off it’ll be (in the short and long term).

    In other good news, Killian Hayes’ shot creation continues to be encouraging. His average of 5.3 assists per 75 possessions leads the Pistons. Despite his horrifically bad scoring efficiency, the combination of size and playmaking in a Cunningham-Hayes backcourt is intriguing.

    Title Odds: +25000

27. Orlando Magic

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    Jessie Alcheh/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 27

    Record: 4-11

    Net Rating: -8.9

    The Orlando Magic may unintentionally be in a race with four other teams for the worst point differential in the NBA, but they’ve proven to have enough talent and fight to randomly surprise competitive teams.

    Such was the case on Wednesday, when the Magic overcame a six-point deficit with about six minutes left against the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden.

    While veteran Terrence Ross contributed to that victory, what’s exciting for Orlando fans is that the bulk of their production is coming from a young core that has shown plenty of potential this season. Cole Anthony, Wendell Carter Jr., Mo Bamba and Franz Wagner, who seems intent on leading the rookie class in poster dunks, make up the team's top four in wins over replacement player.

    Title Odds: +25000

26. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Kyle Phillips/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 26

    Record: 6-8

    Net Rating: -7.0

    It might be safe to assume that the current bottom five in net rating—the Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic, New Orleans Pelicans, Detroit Pistons and Houston Rockets—will be pretty close to the same five teams at the end of the season. And while there are reasons for optimism for all of the above (Zion Williamson’s return, Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, etc.), OKC might be in the best shape.

    The Thunder already have a player with legitimate star talent in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. If rookie playmaker Josh Giddey develops a reliable jumper, he could be an almost ideal pairing with SGA. Highlights like this Nikola Jokic-esque lefty dime from Giddey make it difficult to avoid excitement over his playmaking upside. 

    Title Odds: +25000

25. San Antonio Spurs

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 22

    Record: 4-11

    Net Rating: -2.1

    Regardless of whether Gregg Popovich endorses it, the San Antonio Spurs are among the teams racing to the bottom of the standings (intentionally or not). There may be no way to catch the likes of the Houston Rockets, New Orleans Pelicans or Detroit Pistons, but the lack of star talent on San Antonio’s roster is going to lead to plenty of losses.

    Right now, the Spurs seem loaded with solid sixth or seventh men. A couple, like Jakob Poeltl and Dejounte Murray, might even be fourth or fifth starters on good teams.

    But the result of an entire squad of such players is one that can generally compete from night to night, but simply doesn’t have the juice to win frequently.

    Title Odds: +49000

24. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    David Sherman/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 25

    Record: 6-9

    Net Rating: -1.4

    After scoring just eight points in a 27-point loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday, Karl-Anthony Towns has looked revitalized in his last three games.

    Since the stinker, the Minnesota Timberwolves center is averaging 27.3 points while shooting 59.6 percent from the field and 52.9 percent from three.

    Over the entire season, though, he’s still well behind Anthony Edwards in total shot attempts. And he’s third on the team in usage percentage, behind Edwards and D’Angelo Russell. That has to call priorities into question. Towns is an all-time great offensive talent who could stand to receive a few more possessions every game.

    Title Odds: +13000

23. Indiana Pacers

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 20

    Record: 6-10

    Net Rating: -0.9

    The Indiana Pacers should be better. Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner and Malcolm Brogdon are all having solid individual seasons. Chris Duarte’s been better than expected. And Caris LeVert leads a bunch of role players who should be a fine supporting cast.

    But a roster filled with players you can describe with words like “solid,” “fine” and “better than expected” has led to a team prone to wild swings.

    On one night, they can come together to beat a contender like the Utah Jazz in their building. On others, they can lose to the Detroit Pistons or the Denver Nuggets without Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.

    Title Odds: +13000

22. Sacramento Kings

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 23

    Record: 6-9

    Net Rating: +0.6

    De'Aaron Fox is starting to look a bit more like the player he was last season. After averaging 18.1 points on 39.0 percent shooting (including 18.8 percent from three) in his first 10 games, he's put up 24.8 points on 46.9 percent shooting (including 36.4 percent from three) over his past five.

    Unfortunately, Fox’s resurgence has coincided with a bit of a cooldown from Harrison Barnes. Over Sacramento's first 11 games, Barnes put up 22.5 points and shot 43.5 percent from three. During the past four, though, he's at 14.5 points with a 36.4 three-point percentage (marks that are closer to his career norms).

    As simple as it sounds, Sacramento staying in the hunt for a spot in the play-in tournament might depend on those two getting hot at the same time.

    Title Odds: +24000

21. Toronto Raptors

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 13

    Record: 7-9

    Net Rating: -0.5

    The slide is on for the Toronto Raptors, who've dropped six of their last seven following a 119-103 loss to the Utah Jazz on Thursday. And it's tough to ignore that this seven-game run coincided almost perfectly with Pascal Siakam's return to the lineup.

    After going 2-of-14 from the field for four points against Utah, Siakam is now averaging 14.4 points on 41.9 percent shooting. And after posting a well-below-average 49.3 effective field-goal percentage last season, it's fair to wonder about the former All-Star's efficiency.

    Title Odds: +13000

20. Atlanta Hawks

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 24

    Record: 7-9

    Net Rating: -0.6

    The Atlanta Hawks may finally be turning things around. After starting 4-9, they’re now on a three-game winning streak. While Trae Young understandably remains the face of the franchise, John Collins deserves some credit for the success, too.

    He leads the team in FiveThirtyEight’s catch-all metric, RAPTOR rating, and is averaging 19.7 points, 9.4 rebounds, 1.2 threes and 1.1 blocks per 75 possessions, with a 38.6 three-point percentage.

    Early struggles notwithstanding, Atlanta having both Young and Collins locked into long-term deals suggests the Hawks will be a perennial playoff contender.

    Title Odds: +4600

19. Boston Celtics

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 21

    Record: 7-8

    Net Rating: -0.2

    The longer the Boston Celtics hang around .500, the more it feels like this might just be a .500 team. That may not be fair, given the absence of Jaylen Brown, but the supporting cast after him and Jayson Tatum just doesn’t appear ready to contend.

    Even Tatum seems to have hit something of a plateau. He had 34 points on 22 shots in Wednesday’s loss to the Hawks, but that brought his season-long effective field-goal percentage up to just 45.8.

    If the Celtics are going to turn a corner, Tatum probably needs to turn one first.

    Title Odds: +8000

18. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 14

    Record: 9-8

    Net Rating: +0.6

    A series of bummers have hit the upstart Cleveland Cavaliers. A week-and-a-half ago, news broke that Collin Sexton had suffered a torn meniscus. And on Tuesday, the team announced that Rookie of the Year candidate Evan Mobley would miss 2-4 weeks with an elbow injury.

    Staying above .500 now will largely rest on the shoulders of Darius Garland, who’s averaging 17.8 points and 6.5 assists while shooting 38.0 percent from three.

    Veterans like Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love can certainly help, but this is Garland’s chance to showcase alpha potential (even if it’s far from ideal that all the absences have created this chance).

    Title Odds: +24000

17. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 16

    Record: 8-7

    Net Rating: -3.0

    For much of this season, the Memphis Grizzlies felt almost unsustainably reliant on Ja Morant. When he leaves the floor, the team’s offensive numbers plummet.

    But the recent return of Dillon Brooks from injury should help. Over his four appearances, Brooks is averaging 19.3 points and shooting 44.4 percent from three. He’s also soared up to second on the team in raw plus-minus at plus-31.

    Title Odds: +8000   

16. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 15

    Record: 8-8

    Net Rating: -2.8

    Help may be on the way for the flailing Los Angeles Lakers, who could get LeBron James back from an abdominal strain as early as Friday, according to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin. And though we’re early in the season, evidence suggests any future injuries from him could be crippling.

    The Lakers, who seemingly acquired Russell Westbrook to help survive prolonged absences from James (an occurrence more common for him in L.A. than in Cleveland or Miami), are getting walloped without him.

    After Wednesday’s loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, the Lakers are now minus-9.5 points per 100 possessions when Westbrook plays without LeBron. 

    Title Odds: +700

15. Dallas Mavericks

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 19

    Record: 9-5

    Net Rating: -1.2

    The Dallas Mavericks’ point differential has lagged behind their record all season, and an ankle injury for Luka Doncic is far from ideal. For the first time since his rookie season, though, the Mavs are actually playing better without Luka, and that includes on offense.

    So far, Dallas has scored 106.5 points per 100 possessions with Doncic on the floor and 112.3 with him off. Sample sizes are small enough that a few good performances could swing that the other way, and more minutes against starters contributes to the poor performance, but it’s fair to be mildly concerned about Luka’s performance under the new rules.

    He’ll adjust, but a free-throw-attempt rate over 10 points lower than his career mark prior to this season has shown how much of a boost those freebies provided to his overall efficiency.

    Title Odds: +4200   

14. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 18

    Record: 8-8

    Net Rating: 0.0

    The Portland Trail Blazers are even in terms of both record and point differential despite Damian Lillard not playing anywhere near typical levels. That should be encouraging.

    After going 6-of-18 from the field during Wednesday’s win over the Chicago Bulls, Lillard is now shooting 38.4 percent from the field and 28.3 percent from three. He’s played in 15 games, and his 45.2 effective field-goal percentage is the lowest he’s ever posted through that many appearances. Ditto for his minus-1.6 BPM.

    What all this could mean is Lillard is due for a ferocious regression back to normal levels, and if that happens, the Blazers could suddenly be a problem.

    Title Odds: +8000

13. New York Knicks

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    Jessie Alcheh/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 12

    Record: 8-7

    Net Rating: +0.3

    On balance, the Tom Thibodeau era has been a smashing success for the New York Knicks, but some trepidation may be surfacing for fans after a 3-6 stretch that’s bumped them to the middle of the Eastern Conference standings.

    Perhaps most concerning is the play of their new starting point guard, Kemba Walker. A 42.1 three-point percentage and an above-average offensive BPM suggest things are fine, but New York is getting blasted in his minutes.

    On the season, the Knicks are surrendering 119.1 points per 100 possessions and being outscored by 14.2 when Walker plays. They’re plus-17.2 points per 100 possessions and allowing 98.8 when Walker is off the floor.

    Title Odds: +8000

12. Charlotte Hornets

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 17

    Record: 9-7

    Net Rating: -0.8

    The early portion of the 2021-22 campaign has been a wild ride for the Charlotte Hornets. After starting 4-1, they lost six of their next seven. Now, following Wednesday’s win over the East-leading Washington Wizards, they’ve won four straight.

    What’s more important than any streak—good or bad—are the signs Charlotte’s most important core pieces are showing. When LaMelo Ball and Miles Bridges are on the floor, the Hornets are plus-7.3 points per 100 possessions. The chemistry between the two flies through the TV screen (almost as explosively as Bridges on his way to a dunk).

    Title Odds: +12000   

11. Denver Nuggets

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 5

    Record: 9-6

    Net Rating: +3.2

    It took a little longer than expected, but we're really starting to see how limited the Denver Nuggets are without their second- and third-best players. Jamal Murray will likely miss most of the season as he recovers from a torn ACL, and there's been little to no information on Michael Porter Jr.'s back pain.

    That puts an incredible amount of pressure on the reigning MVP, Nikola Jokic. And though a 30-point, 10-rebound, seven-assist performance in Thursday's loss kept Jokic's individual numbers steady, it's starting to look like that kind of production might not be enough.

    Will Barton has his moments, but he's better suited for the fourth- or fifth-option role he's in when everyone's healthy. And the rest of the roster after him really struggles to score if Jokic isn't creating wide-open gimmes for them. 

    Title Odds: +2100

10. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Chris Elise/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 11

    Record: 9-6

    Net Rating: +4.3

    After winning seven straight, the Los Angeles Clippers have now dropped two of their last three.

    In moments like these, the absence of Kawhi Leonard feels painfully evident on offense, but L.A.’s ability to play positionless basketball has made it one of the league’s most versatile defensive teams.

    Players like Paul George, Terance Mann and Nicolas Batum can easily switch all over the floor. That and timely three-point shooting can be a recipe for success.

    Title Odds: +2000   

9. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 8

    Record: 7-8

    Net Rating: -1.3

    Few teams have been rocked harder by injuries (or other absences) than the defending-champion Milwaukee Bucks. Fifteen games into the season, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, Brook Lopez and Donte DiVincenzo (four of last season's five starters) have missed a combined 43 appearances. Lopez and DiVincenzo have one appearance between the two of them.

    That, of course, has put a ton of responsibility on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s shoulders (and he’s delivered, with 28.0 points, 11.1 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.6 blocks and 1.1 steals), but there’s only so much he can do with that many absences.

    On the bright side, Middleton and Holiday are back now, and the void created by all that missed time has allowed a breakout from Grayson Allen, who’s averaging 15.3 points and 3.6 threes, with a 42.9 three-point percentage.

    Title Odds: +700

8. Philadelphia 76ers

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 9

    Record: 9-7

    Net Rating: +2.8

    The Philadelphia 76ers had lost five straight with star Joel Embiid out due to the health and safety protocols, but they stopped the bleeding with a road win over the Denver Nuggets and reigning MVP Nikola Jokic on Thursday.

    Gritty defense, 11 threes and Tyrese Maxey were the key ingredients, and the point guard's breakout could open plenty of possibilities for Philly.

    During this stretch without Embiid, Maxey is averaging 23.7 points and 2.5 threes while shooting 51.7 percent from three. He'd now add more value to any potential Ben Simmons trade, but the Sixers might also be seeing exactly what they want out of a potential playmaker to pair with Embiid.

    Title Odds: +1800

7. Washington Wizards

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 10

    Record: 10-5

    Net Rating: +2.6

    A second straight loss for the Washington Wizards on Thursday cost the team its hold on first place in the Eastern Conference, but it’s hard not to be optimistic about this team.

    After landing in last season’s play-in tournament, Washington looks deeper and more committed to defense than it ever was in 2020-21. And with Beal struggling out of the gate, it’s easy to see how the Wizards can still get better.

    Even after going 11-of-18 on Thursday, Beal is shooting just 42.5 percent from the field this season. That’ll likely continue to rise, and as it does, Washington should improve on offense.

    Title Odds: +13000

6. Chicago Bulls

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    Adam Pantozzi/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 2

    Record: 10-5

    Net Rating: +5.2

    Somewhat lost in DeMar DeRozan’s late-career breakout is the fact that he was prepared for this by his years with the San Antonio Spurs. His assist numbers skyrocketed there, and Gregg Popovich was the first coach to play him extended minutes at the 4.

    Now, with the Chicago Bulls, DeRozan has logged 74 percent of his minutes as a power forward and 10 percent as a center (!). Turning him into a playmaking forward has put opponents in an almost constant state of mismatches.

    HIs ability to get to the paint against bigger defenders and either hit the mid-range jumper or find an open teammate has Chicago’s offense buzzing to the tune of 112.8 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor.

    Title Odds: +3900

5. Brooklyn Nets

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 3

    Record: 11-5

    Net Rating: +3.5

    The Brooklyn Nets took a beating at the hands of Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors this week, but things are clearly headed in the right direction. After starting the season 2-3, Brooklyn is 9-2 in its past 11 games, and James Harden looks like an offensive star again.

    Over his past 11 appearances, Harden is averaging 21.9 points on just 12.9 field-goal attempts. He's handing out 9.2 assists per game and shooting 42.5 percent from three. If he keeps this up and Kevin Durant remains anywhere near his current level, this is a team that can compete for a championship—with or without Kyrie Irving.

    Title Odds: +260

4. Miami Heat

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    Kyle Phillips/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 6

    Record: 11-5

    Net Rating: +8.2

    Most of the MVP chatter has revolved around Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, but there’s a sleeper case brewing for Jimmy Butler.

    After beating the then-first-place Washington Wizards on Thursday, his Miami Heat are now at the top of the Eastern Conference. And back-to-back games with at least 31 points have driven his scoring average up to 24.8. That, 5.5 assists and Butler’s trademark defense and intensity could have him lurking for the award all season.

    Right now, FanDuel gives him the sixth-best odds, if you’re so inclined.

    Title Odds: +1200

3. Utah Jazz

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    Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 4

    Record: 10-5

    Net Rating: +9.4

    After a mild panic-inducing 1-4 stretch, the Utah Jazz appear to have righted the ship. Thursday's blowout over the Toronto Raptors gives Utah two straight victories and solidified its spot at second in net rating behind the Golden State Warriors.

    And perhaps most encouraging, Rudy Gay gave a boost to a historically solid bench unit in his season debut. Against the Raptors, Gay went for 20 points on 7-of-8 shooting (including 5-of-6 from three) and was plus-14 in just 18 minutes.

    He won't be that good every game, but he, Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles will give the Jazz one of the game's dynamic second units.

    Title Odds: +1000

2. Phoenix Suns

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    Michael Gonzales/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 7

    Record: 11-3

    Net Rating: +5.2

    The Phoenix Suns are clicking maybe more than any team in the NBA, save perhaps the Golden State Warriors. While Chris Paul and Devin Booker have rightfully gotten the bulk of the credit for Phoenix’s 10-game winning streak, surprise contributions from Frank Kaminsky deserve a little love too.

    Right knee soreness has caused him to miss a couple of games recently, but the stretch big is second on the team in BPM and averaging 18.6 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.4 blocks and 1.0 threes per 75 possessions. His three-point percentage is below the league average, but the mere threat of his jumper forces defenders to pay attention to him outside, which opens up the paint for smaller players like Paul and Booker.

    Title Odds: +1600

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Matt Kelley/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 1

    Record: 13-2

    Net Rating: +13.4

    Stephen Curry appears to be on a mission to become the ninth player in NBA history to win at least three regular-season MVP awards.

    Over his last six games, he has gone for 50, 25, 40, 24, 37 and 40 again. He’s up to a league-leading 29.5 points and is on pace for 465 threes. Yes, 465. His current record is 402.

    As several players around the league have sort of come down to earth a bit this season thanks to some rule shifts, Curry remains a cheat code.

    Title Odds: +650