NBA Power Rankings: Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors Battling for Top Spot

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistDecember 3, 2021

NBA Power Rankings: Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors Battling for Top Spot

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    After nearly a month with the Golden State Warriors holding the top spot like it was 2015-16, the Phoenix Suns are charging for No. 1.

    And while those two and a handful of Eastern Conference teams have seemingly separated themselves from the field, the rest of the league appears deadlocked in a kind of parity that's unusual for the NBA.

    There are 13 teams with winning percentages between .450 and .550. And that massive logjam in the middle of the league means everyone, with the possible exception of a few full-fledged tankers, is still in the hunt—at least for a play-in berth.

    For years, the NBA was dominated by superteams. Championships almost felt like foregone conclusions. Now, it feels like we're in the middle of an era with more talent than ever, and with more talent shared among the entire league than we've seen in years.

30. Detroit Pistons

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    Previous Rank: 28

    Record: 4-18

    Net Rating: -9.7

    The Detroit Pistons continue to look like one of the worst teams in the NBA, but glimpses of what made Cade Cunningham the No. 1 overall pick are happening with more regularity.

    Over his last three games, Cunningham is averaging 20.0 points while shooting 54.5 percent from the field. And while the assist numbers haven't really taken off with his scoring, Cunningham is showing a steady command of offensive possessions that's similar to what he had with Oklahoma State.

    Contrary to how most rookie creators play, Cunningham understands the importance of pace, playing slow when necessary and manipulating defenses, rather than just trying to blow by them.

    If he and Killian Hayes continue to develop, Detroit could have one of the league's bigger and more unselfish backcourts.

29. Orlando Magic

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    Previous Rank: 29

    Record: 5-18

    Net Rating: -10.1

    The Orlando Magic have the worst net rating in the league, but they have just enough talent to randomly surprise teams like they did against the Utah Jazz on November 7 and the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday.

    The common ingredient in both of those wins, and really most solid stretches for this team, is dynamic scoring and playmaking from Cole Anthony.

    After scoring 24 Wednesday, Anthony is up to 19.9 points, 5.9 assists and 2.7 threes on the season. While his team-best minus-0.6 net rating is still negative, it's darn-near banner-worthy compared to the minus-19.3 Orlando is putting up without him.

28. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Previous Rank: 25

    Record: 6-16

    Net Rating: -10.1

    With Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey both out on Thursday, the Oklahoma City Thunder made some dubious history against the Memphis Grizzlies.

    With their 152-79 loss, OKC is now on the wrong end of the worst single-game scoring margin in NBA history.

    The individual plus-minuses of each of Thursday's starters are astonishing:

    • Darius Bazley: -32
    • Ty Jerome: -44
    • Tre Mann: -47
    • Luguentz Dort: -53
    • Jeremiah Robinson-Earl: -56 

    The team gets a bit of a pass because it was missing its two best playmakers, but Thursday was still an organizational embarrassment.

27. Houston Rockets

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    Previous Rank: 30

    Record: 5-16

    Net Rating: -7.5

    The Houston Rockets are suddenly on a four-game winning streak. And, as SiriusXM NBA's Justin Termine pointed out, that's a longer run than the Los Angeles Lakers have had all season.

    The streak started when coach Stephen Silas ditched the two-big lineup and let Christian Wood hold down the interior on his own.

    During the first three wins, Wood averaged 24.3 points, 15.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.3 blocks and 2.3 threes per game. But even after a sprained ankle limited him to nine minutes in the fourth, Houston rode the hot hand of Jae'Sean Tate (32 points on 11-of-15 shooting) to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder.

    This team will almost certainly end the season near the bottom of the league. In the long run, that'll help. But this stretch is proving there's enough talent to be competitive.

26. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Previous Rank: 27

    Record: 6-18

    Net Rating: -7.1

    Jonas Valanciunas had the game of his life this week, when he went 7-of-8 from three (including 7-of-7 in the first half), scored 39 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in a blowout road win over the Los Angeles Clippers.

    On the year, Valanciunas is averaging 18.8 points and 12.1 rebounds while shooting a league-leading 48.4 percent from three.

    Most important, though, is that win capped off a 4-3 stretch for a New Orleans Pelicans squad that could finally get Zion Williamson back soon.

    A 6-18 start is obviously far from ideal, but they're 5.5 games back of 10th with nearly three quarters of the season to go. The play-in tournament is still within reach.

25. Sacramento Kings

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    Previous Rank: 24

    Record: 9-14

    Net Rating: -2.9

    The Sacramento Kings are 3-3 since they moved on from Luke Walton and made Alvin Gentry their interim head coach. And while that seems like the obvious call for why they're playing a bit better, it probably has more to do with De'Aaron Fox returning to form.

    Under Walton, Fox had a 48.9 true shooting percentage and a 12.6 average game score. In the six games since then, those numbers are up to 58.9 and 15.1.

    Since the start of last season, the Kings are 23-23 when Fox puts up a game score of at least 15. They're 17-32 in all other games.

24. San Antonio Spurs

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    Previous Rank: 26

    Record: 7-13

    Net Rating: +0.1

    The San Antonio Spurs hadn't had a winning streak all season. Now, following a 114-83 blowout of the Damian Lillard-less Portland Trail Blazers, they've suddenly won three straight.

    And the catalyst, Dejounte Murray, has been fantastic all season. In plenty of other markets, his numbers would be generating far more buzz.

    He's averaging 18.9 points, 8.4 rebounds, 8.3 assists and 2.0 steals. An uptick in scoring efficiency certainly wouldn't hurt, but he's moving the needle even with a sub-50.0 true shooting percentage.

    On the season, San Antonio's net rating is plus-4.1 with Murray on the floor and minus-9.8 with him off.

23. Denver Nuggets

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    Previous Rank: 22

    Record: 10-11

    Net Rating: -0.8

    Nikola Jokic's return from a wrist injury gave the Denver Nuggets a little shot in the arm, but he proved mortal in a 108-103 loss to the Orlando Magic on Wednesday.

    With Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. out, Jokic has to play like an all-timer for Denver to compete. And for most of this season, he has. But Wednesday, he scored 18 points on 19 shots, committed five turnovers and looked disinterested on defense.

    That was bad enough to generate a loss against one of the league's bona fide tankers.

    No one can play perfectly all the time, and the Nuggets will be prone to lose any time Jokic doesn't.

22. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 13

    Record: 11-12

    Net Rating: -1.4

    Damian Lillard certainly wasn't playing up to his usual standards this season. Through 20 games, he was putting up 21.5 points while shooting 39.7 percent from the field and 30.2 percent from three.

    But even that version of Lillard—the one hampered by an abdominal injury that will now keep him out for over a week—was able to help the Portland Trail Blazers tread water.

    He's now missed three games. One was a win over the Detroit Pistons. In the other two, Portland is a whopping minus-60.

21. Indiana Pacers

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    Previous Rank: 21

    Record: 9-15

    Net Rating: +0.7

    The Indiana Pacers' starters are playing fine. Maybe not great, but fine. Their point differential per 100 possessions ranks 11th, and Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner and Malcolm Brogdon are all posting decent individual lines.

    That's not enough to make up for a bench that ranks 23rd in net rating and an overall three-point percentage that ranks 24th.

    Last season, the Pacers had at least a little shooting to bring off the bench with Doug McDermott. And though one reserve certainly wouldn't fix this team's problems, a little more floor spacing should be the target if Indiana starts perusing the trade market.

20. Toronto Raptors

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    Previous Rank: 19

    Record: 10-13

    Net Rating: -0.8

    Giannis Antetokounmpo was missing for the Toronto Raptors' Thursday win over the Milwaukee Bucks, but they'll likely take a win however they can get it right now.

    The Raptors had lost three straight before Thursday, and Pascal Siakam had failed to shoot 50 percent from the field in five straight games.

    He barely hit that mark against Milwaukee, and six turnovers might be another cause for concern, but progress is progress. And someone else has to join Fred VanVleet in producing at or near All-Star level for the Raptors to make the play-in tournament.

19. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Previous Rank: 20

    Record: 12-10

    Net Rating: -1.1

    After their record-setting 73-point victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday, the Memphis Grizzlies' net rating went from minus-4.6 to minus-1.1

    Ja Morant's weirdly negative net-rating swing just got a lot more dramatic too. After this massive win, the Grizzlies are now 3-0 without Morant. And over the course of the entire season, Memphis is plus-6.6 with Morant off the floor and minus-7.3 with him on.

    Of course, Thursday's outlier margin of victory is contributing a lot to that. And two years of plus play are probably more reliable than one quarter of a season on the other side of zero. But Memphis' defense and more equal-opportunity offense without Morant might inspire some Ewing Theory takes soon.

18. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Previous Rank: 17

    Record: 12-11

    Net Rating: -1.7

    LeBron James had only been back from an abdominal injury for just over a week when reports of a new absence broke.

    "LeBron James has entered the league's health and safety protocols," ESPN's Dave McMenamin wrote. "It is expected that James will miss several games."

    This, of course, was cause for concern for a team that is scraping by with LeBron on the floor (plus-0.2 points per 100 possessions) and minus-5.2 when he's off, but news broke Thursday that he returned enough negative COVID tests to be back in the lineup for Friday's game.

    Now, L.A. will need to figure how LeBron and Russell Westbrook can coexist. The latter seems to be turning a corner. Over his last 10 games, he's averaging 22.4 points and 8.7 assists, with a 56.1 true shooting percentage and six positive plus-minus games.

17. Dallas Mavericks

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    Previous Rank: 15

    Record: 11-9

    Net Rating: -0.8

    The Dallas Mavericks scored a 32-point win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday that helped their net rating and papered over a number of flaws that have plagued them all season.

    Most importantly, Dallas simply isn't defending when Luka Doncic is on the floor. They're giving up 113.9 points per 100 possessions and being outscored by 4.9 when he's in the game. When he's out, that defensive rating drops to 104.7, and the net rating shoots up to plus-4.8.

    It's not fair to put all the blame on Luka for those numbers. Lineups include five players, and Luka is spending plenty of time against starters. But this is now a four-year trend (the Mavs have defended better without Doncic every year he's been in the league). That's more than enough of a sample for concern.

    Another problem is shooting, which is a lot easier to wrap your head around. The Mavericks rank in the bottom half of the league in three-point percentage. Luka and Tim Hardaway Jr. are right at league average from deep, while Kristaps Porzingis is 97th among the 112 players with at least as many attempts in three-point percentage.

16. New York Knicks

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    Previous Rank: 14

    Record: 11-11

    Net Rating: -0.6

    The big New York Knicks news of the week was the removal of Kemba Walker from the rotation altogether. The numbers make it difficult to argue a demotion (New York's net rating is a whopping 26.0 points worse when Walker plays), but going from starting to not playing at all was a surprise.

    Early returns on the move are mixed. New York is 1-2 since the move, but his replacement, Alec Burks, has been good. In his three starts, Burks is averaging 21.3 points and was a plus-minus positive twice.

    The next move might need to be returning Derrick Rose to the role of a starter. This season, New York is plus-8.7 points per 100 possessions when Rose and Burks share the floor.

15. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Previous Rank: 8

    Record: 11-11

    Net Rating: +0.8

    Paul George rested through the Los Angeles Clippers' Wednesday loss to the Sacramento Kings, and his previous 10 games suggested he needed it.

    After averaging 26.7 points and shooting 45.6 percent from the field and 36.1 percent from three in his first 11 games, those numbers dropped to 25.0 points with a 40.3 field-goal percentage and a 29.9 three-point percentage over his past 10.

    The two-stars-and-depth model of team-building has its advantages, but when one of those stars goes out with an injury that could cost him an entire season, the depth really gets tested.

    George is carrying a heavy burden, and L.A. losing seven of its past 10 suggests it might be too much.

14. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Previous Rank: 23

    Record: 12-10

    Net Rating: +2.5

    Evan Mobley looks like the early leader for Rookie of the Year. Darius Garland's development from Year 1 to now is remarkable. And Jarrett Allen might be averaging the most underappreciated 16 and 11 I can remember for some time.

    Those three make up a young core that should have the Cleveland Cavaliers competing for playoff berths for the foreseeable future, but veteran point guard Ricky Rubio is the connector that really has the team humming this season.

    In Wednesday's blowout win over the Miami Heat (who were missing both Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler), Rubio was plus-38 in just 26 minutes. On the year, Rubio's plus-7.8 net rating leads the Cavs, who are minus-5.9 points per 100 possessions when he sits.

    That 13.7-point swing would be a career high for Rubio, who's never had a season in the red for that number.

13. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Previous Rank: 16

    Record: 11-11

    Net Rating: +1.2

    A loss Wednesday cooled them off a bit, but the Minnesota Timberwolves look very much like a team that will be in the playoff hunt all season.

    They've won seven of their last nine games, and they're rolling with their three best players on the floor. When Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and D'Angelo Russell are in the game, Minnesota is plus-10.1 points per 100 possessions.

    Russell's playmaking, Towns' ability to space the floor and Edwards' ferocious drives are coalescing nicely, but it might actually be the defense that deserves more credit for Minnesota's success. And, as far as long-term prospects go, playing well on that end of the floor probably means even more than a lights-out offense.

12. Charlotte Hornets

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    Previous Rank: 12

    Record: 13-11

    Net Rating: -0.2

    It's often said that basketball is a game of runs. Well, it's been a season of runs for the Charlotte Hornets. They started 4-1, lost six of their next seven, then won eight of their next nine. And now, they're on a three-game losing streak.

    On the bright side, LaMelo Ball has been cooking of late. After going for 36 points, nine dimes and eight triples in Wednesday's loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, Ball is averaging 21.2 points, 9.7 assists and 3.3 threes, while shooting 40.7 percent from three in his past 10 games.

    When the Hornets drafted Ball in 2020, even those who appreciated his upside couldn't have seen him playing this well this early. A quarter of the way into his second season, a handful of catch-all metrics already see him as a top-10 player in 2021-22.

11. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Previous Rank: 10

    Record: 11-11

    Net Rating: +1.4

    Joel Embiid was 12-of-23 for 42 points in a one-point loss in his first game back after returning from health and safety protocols, but he's been sort of a mess since then.

    Over his last two games, Embiid is 7-of-33 for 29 points. He's a minus-eight in those contests.

    But while it looks like there may be a bit of a warming-up period for Embiid, it hasn't been all bad. He's averaging 4.7 assists per game since he came back, and that kind of playmaking from the 5 would be a welcome boost for a team missing its max-contract point guard.

10. Boston Celtics

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    Previous Rank: 18

    Record: 12-10

    Net Rating: +1.1

    Jayson Tatum will always garner more attention, but Al Horford is neck-and-neck with him in terms of impact, and his resurgence for the Boston Celtics deserves a spotlight.

    After a five-block performance Wednesday, Horford's season-long averages are at 12.4 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.8 blocks.

    Pau Gasol, who pulled it off in 2015-16, is the only player in league history to match or exceed all of those marks in an age-35 (or older) season.

9. Atlanta Hawks

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    Previous Rank: 11

    Record: 12-10

    Net Rating: +2.8

    Because of their similar roles and proximity to each other on draft night, Luka Doncic and Trae Young are the new Chris Paul and Deron Williams.

    And while it seemed fairly clear that Luka was the CP3 in that analogy over the first three seasons of their careers, there's a pretty strong argument that Young has been the better player in 2021-22.

    On Wednesday, Young went for 33 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds and two steals in a 114-111 win over the Indiana Pacers (the Atlanta Hawks' eighth in their last nine games), bringing his season averages up to 26.3, 9.1 and 3.8.

    Those hardly tell the whole story, though. Young's 58.7 true shooting percentage is nearly five points higher than Luka's. And Atlanta's net rating is 6.3 points better when Trae is on the floor. Dallas, meanwhile, is 18.0 points better when Doncic is off the floor.

8. Washington Wizards

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    Previous Rank: 9

    Record: 14-8

    Net Rating: +0.5

    The Washington Wizards' star-for-depth trade that sent Russell Westbrook to the Los Angeles Lakers has paid off in a number of ways, but the biggest may be the addition of Montrezl Harrell and his dynamic chemistry with Bradley Beal.

    When the team's two leading scorers are on the floor, Washington is outscoring opponents by 9.0 points per 100 possessions. And the defensive attention commanded by both is helping their efficiency.

    When Harrell plays without Beal, he has a still-stellar 67.6 true shooting percentage. It jumps up to a truly absurd 73.2 when Beal is on the floor. For Beal, the boost isn't quite as dramatic, but he's still more efficient when Harrell is in the game.

7. Miami Heat

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    Previous Rank: 5

    Record: 13-9

    Net Rating: +3.9

    They look like full-fledged contenders when everyone's healthy, but injuries are starting to take a toll on the Miami Heat.

    Jimmy Butler has missed their last two games with a tailbone contusion. And now, Bam Adebayo is expected to miss four-to-six weeks following thumb surgery.

    In the Eastern Conference, they probably have enough of a cushion to survive this stretch, but Wednesday, when Cleveland smashed the Heat by 26 points, offered a glimpse of what life might be like without Miami's top two players.

6. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Previous Rank: 6

    Record: 14-9

    Net Rating: +3.2

    The Milwaukee Bucks survived their terrible injury luck at the start of this season. Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton are back, and the team is now 10-0 in games in which those two play with Giannis Antetokounmpo.

    When all three are in the game, the Bucks are scoring 122.7 points per 100 possessions and outscoring opponents by 23.0.

    It shouldn't be all that surprising, but those are juggernaut numbers. With much of the rest of the league hovering around .500, there's still plenty of time for the reigning champs to pull away from most of the Eastern Conference.

5. Chicago Bulls

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    Previous Rank: 7

    Record: 15-8

    Net Rating: +4.7

    During the early portion of the Chicago Bulls' hot start, most of the attention understandably went to DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Lonzo Ball.

    Even Alex Caruso seemed to be getting more love than multi-time All-Star Nikola Vucevic, who averaged 13.6 points and shot 39.5 percent from the field before entering health and safety protocols. After missing seven games, Vuc is back and dominating.

    After dropping 27 in Thursday's win over the New York Knicks, Vucevic is now averaging 18.8 points, 11.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2.8 threes while shooting 50.7 percent from the field and 51.9 percent from three over the five games since his return.

    If he continues to produce like an All-Star, and the guards and wings maintain their level of play, the Bulls are a legitimate contender.

4. Brooklyn Nets

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    Previous Rank: 4

    Record: 15-6

    Net Rating: +4.0

    James Harden's individual numbers are starting to look a bit more like the ones he put up with the Houston Rockets, but a ridiculous turnover rate may be contributing to a negative overall impact.

    On the season, the Brooklyn Nets are scoring 110.5 points per 100 possessions and outscoring opponents by 3.0 with Harden on the floor. They're putting up 116.3 and are plus-10.5 when Harden is off.

    The team's turnover rate also decreases when Harden leaves the floor, thanks in large part to his 22.2 turnover percentage heading to the bench.

    This has long been part of the equation with Harden, though it's never seemed to impact the bottom line like this. Coach Steve Nash almost certainly wouldn't want to stymie Harden's freedom and creativity as a playmaker, but a little more off-ball action might not hurt (assuming you can sell Harden on that).

3. Utah Jazz

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    Previous Rank: 3

    Record: 14-7

    Net Rating: +9.8

    The Utah Jazz have had a number of bad outings this season, including home losses to the New Orleans Pelicans, Memphis Grizzlies and Indiana Pacers, as well as a road loss to the Orlando Magic.

    Their most recent response, however, to one of those losses should alleviate some concern about the regular-season prowess of this team.

    After dropping a one-point clunker to New Orleans this week, the Jazz turned around and beat that same team by 22 the next night. Then they capped off the week by dominating the Portland Trail Blazers and holding Damian Lillard to 11 points on 4-of-12 shooting.

    For all the understandable consternation following uncharacteristic performances, this team is still second in the league in net rating and outscoring opponents by 13.4 points per 100 possessions when Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are both on the floor.

2. Golden State Warriors

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    Previous Rank: 1

    Record: 18-3

    Net Rating: +12.6

    The Golden State Warriors still have a substantial lead over everyone else in net rating, but Tuesday's loss to the Phoenix Suns, who were without Devin Booker for most of the game, exposed some potential problems.

    There aren't many players who check all these boxes, but Mikal Bridges showed that defenders with length and a commitment to staying with Curry as he moves without the ball can be effective. Curry had 12 points on 4-of-21 shooting. And if that blueprint is followed by anyone else, it'd be nice if the Warriors had a bit more creation beyond Curry.

    Klay Thompson's return should help, but he has never been much an on-ball creator. Draymond Green is, but his lack of scoring ability allows defenses to play the pass. Jordan Poole is sort of the inverse of Green.

    The answer may be a little more Gary Payton II. Granted, the majority of his impact this season has come from defense, but Payton had a career average of 3.8 assists per 75 possessions prior to this season. And when he's sharing the floor with Curry, Golden State is plus-39.0 points per 100 possessions.

    That mark is tied for the second-best two-man net rating in the NBA with...Payton and Andrew Wiggins.

1. Phoenix Suns

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    Previous Rank: 2

    Record: 19-3

    Net Rating: +7.4

    Power rankings can be fickle. NBA seasons are packed with ebbs and flows, but the Golden State Warriors managed to hold down the No. 1 spot for three weeks.

    Then, the Phoenix Suns and their 16-game winning streak (at the time) came along. Even with Devin Booker going down with an injury, Phoenix beat the Warriors with stellar on-ball defense by Mikal Bridges and balanced offense engineered by Chris Paul.

    All of the above have been ingredients in the Suns' recipe for success throughout a franchise-best winning streak that now stands at 18 games.