NBA Power Rankings: 5 Teams Separating Themselves from the Pack

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistDecember 10, 2021

NBA Power Rankings: 5 Teams Separating Themselves from the Pack

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    As we creep closer to Christmas and the opening of the NBA's unofficial trade season (restrictions on a number of potential trade candidates will lapse on December 15), five teams have seemingly separated from the field.

    The Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors, Utah Jazz, Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets look like bona fide title contenders (with the Eastern Conference teams maybe a little closer to the second tier than those out West), while much of the rest of the league remains crammed into a massive logjam around .500.

    Somewhere in between those two groups, you'll find the Chicago Bulls.

    And any of the above could either solidify their current spot or move closer to the next tier up with an impact trade over the next several weeks.

    This is a fun point in the season, when hope and possibility still abound. And below you'll find where everyone currently sits as we brace for a potential storm of player movement.

30. Detroit Pistons

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 30

    Record: 4-20

    Net Rating: -9.6

    The Detroit Pistons have a heck of a "worst team in the league" argument. The record and net rating are bad enough, but giving up an 18-point lead to a team coming off a 73-point loss and losing by double digits was a "chef's kiss" tanking moment.

    In a season like this, though, it's all about finding rays of hope. And No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham is starting to provide some.

    Over his last 12 games, Cunningham is averaging 17.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 2.6 threes, with a 34.4 three-point percentage. Shorten the sample to five games, and Cunningham shoots up to 21.8 points with a 50.0 three-point percentage.

    His season-long numbers will probably fall a bit shy of those marks, but runs like this should be relished.

29. Orlando Magic

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 29

    Record: 5-21

    Net Rating: -10.7

    They don't have many wins to show for it, but there's plenty of upside on the Orlando Magic's roster. And that starts with 21-year-old point guard Cole Anthony.

    After going for 33 and eight in Wednesday's loss to the Sacramento Kings, Anthony is up to 20.3 points, 5.9 assists and 2.8 threes on the season. He's also far from the only bright spot on the roster.

    Wendell Carter Jr. is starting to look like the floor-spacing big who can provide a little playmaking that he was forecast to be before he was drafted. Mo Bamba is developing into a real three-and-D rim protector. And rookie Franz Wagner is fourth in this class in wins over replacement player.

28. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 28

    Record: 8-16

    Net Rating: -8.7

    The Oklahoma City Thunder have rebounded about as well as anyone could've expected after suffering a 73-point loss, the worst margin of defeat in league history, on December 2.

    Both of their opponents this week, the Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors, are far from 2021-22 juggernauts, but back-to-back wins after such a dramatic embarrassment is a plus.

    There's also cause for encouragement whenever Shai Gilgeous-Alexander plays too. He missed the historic loss but played and scored at least 26 in each of the last two. OKC is now 6-6 when SGA puts up 20-plus.

27. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 26

    Record: 7-20

    Net Rating: -6.2

    After a horrendous 1-12 start, the New Orleans Pelicans have hovered around .500. And thanks to the struggles of teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves, Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings, New Orleans may still be within striking distance of 10th place when Zion Williamson returns.

    The pressure he puts on the paint should do wonders for Brandon Ingram and Jonas Valanciunas, both of whom have looked solid in his absence.

    Over his last eight games, Ingram is averaging 24.3 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists. And over the entire season, Valanciunas is at 18.9 points, 12.0 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.1 threes in just 31.4 minutes. And the real kicker is that he's shooting 46.3 percent from three.

    Again, with Zion's drives and cuts pulling defenders toward the rim, both of those scorers should get better looks and catches outside.

26. Houston Rockets

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 27

    Record: 8-16

    Net Rating: -5.7

    The Houston Rockets have really screwed up this whole tanking thing since Jalen Green left the rotation with a hamstring injury.

    On Wednesday, they beat the Brooklyn Nets to stretch their win streak to seven games, six of which have been played without Green.

    With the veterans forced to play more and Christian Wood looking like one of the game's most dynamic big men, Houston is suddenly a night-to-night headache for opponents.

    And Green's replacement in the lineup, Garrison Mathews, has been a legitimate game-changer. While playing on an Exhibit 10 contract, Mathews is averaging 12.5 points and shooting 40.0 percent from three. Over the course of the whole season, Houston is plus-10.4 points per 100 possessions with Mathews on the floor and minus-10.9 when he's not.

25. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Soobum Im/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 22

    Record: 11-15

    Net Rating: -3.2

    Things have seemingly gone from bad to worse for the Portland Trail Blazers lately.

    Even when Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum were healthy, Portland was lingering around .500 and Lillard simply couldn't hit shots.

    Now, McCollum is out with a collapsed lung, Lillard is out with an abdominal injury, trade rumors are swirling furiously and Portland has lost four straight, all by double digits.

    At this point, even if Lillard and McCollum are able to make relatively speedy returns, it's hard to imagine the Blazers rising much higher than play-in contention.

    The idea is years old, but it might finally be time to split this duo up.

24. Sacramento Kings

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 25

    Record: 11-14

    Net Rating: -2.0

    The Sacramento Kings may be quietly turning things in the right direction. They're 5-3 since Luke Walton was fired (and 5-2 in their last seven), and De'Aaron Fox is starting to look more like his old self.

    Over his last seven games, Fox is averaging 22.6 points and 4.6 assists while shooting 37.0 percent from three. The team is minus-20 with him on the floor in that stretch, but this is undoubtedly a good sign.

    If Fox can consistently convert his three-point attempts at around an average rate, defenses will have to start honoring his range. That will, in turn, make blow-bys to the paint easier to come by.

    And if Fox can keep trending toward the way he looked last season, the play-in tournament is still within reach.

23. Denver Nuggets

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 23

    Record: 12-13

    Net Rating: -0.8

    It might be time to start worrying about the Denver Nuggets' playoff chances. Without their second- and third-best players, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., there simply isn't enough talent for night-to-night consistency.

    Even with Nikola Jokic posting what would be the highest single-season box plus/minus in NBA history, the Nuggets are still, even on good nights, just scraping by.

    It took a monster 39-point, 11-assist, 11-rebound triple-double from Jokic to beat the West's last-place New Orleans Pelicans in overtime this week. The next night, Jokic registered his third straight triple-double, but Denver still lost to the San Antonio Spurs.

    There is talent on this team, but every player but Jokic has been bumped a couple of spots up the pecking order, and the losses are piling up.

22. San Antonio Spurs

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 24

    Record: 9-15

    Net Rating: +0.1

    Apparently, it wasn't enough that over half the league was already within four games of .500. Loads of parity this season called for unexpected runs from bottom-of-the-standings teams like the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs, too.

    After cruising to a victory over the short-handed Denver Nuggets on Thursday, the Spurs have now won five of their last seven. And their starting backcourt of Dejounte Murray and Derrick White has looked dynamic on both ends during this stretch.

    Over the last seven games, Murray is averaging 20.1 points, 9.1 assists and 8.7 rebounds while shooting 39.4 percent from three, while White is at 19.9 points and 5.0 assists.

21. Toronto Raptors

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 20

    Record: 11-14

    Net Rating: -0.2

    Fred VanVleet was just 6-of-20 from the field in Wednesday's one-point loss, but he also dished out nine assists and was a plus-two when the final buzzer rang.

    On the season, Toronto is now plus-58 when VanVleet is on the floor and minus-67 when he's off. Without his steady hand at the wheel, the Raptors are a mess.

    Granted, injuries have kept Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby each out for at least 10 games. That means Toronto's top three players have only shared the floor for 70 minutes. If everyone can get healthy at the same time, there are plenty of games left to get back into the play-in hunt.

20. Indiana Pacers

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 21

    Record: 11-16

    Net Rating: +1.2

    In their first game after a report from The Athletic said they were open to trading Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner and Caris LeVert, the Indiana Pacers demolished the New York Knicks by 20. The blowout drove an already positive net rating up to a borderline top-10 mark of plus-1.2.

    That's what's tricky about this team. The record suggests a bad team that probably should be open to a rebuild, but the point differential and names on the roster suggest a surefire playoff team.

    The decision the front office ultimately makes might be dictated by the kinds of offers it gets.

19. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 18

    Record: 13-13

    Net Rating: -1.6

    The longer the Los Angeles Lakers play like a mediocre team, the more it seems like they might just be a mediocre team.

    Even with LeBron James on the floor, L.A. is barely in the black in net points per 100 possessions. And that number falls off a cliff when LeBron isn't in the game.

    That's not unusual for LeBron-led teams, but the difference with this one is that it may not be good enough to build the kind of buffer necessary to survive the bench minutes.

    And a possible decline for LeBron could be partly to blame. He's posting his lowest box plus/minus and rebounding percentage since his rookie season, as well as his lowest free-throw-attempt rate ever.

18. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Craig Lassig/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 13

    Record: 11-14

    Net Rating: -0.8

    Plenty of teams have been up and down this season, but the Minnesota Timberwolves' waves may be the most dramatic.

    After starting 3-1, Minnesota then rattled off six straight losses. Then, they won six of their next eight. And now, following a fourth straight loss Wednesday, they've lost five of their last seven.

    Inconsistency should probably be expected from a team with a second-year scorer like Anthony Edwards and two other stars who haven't done a ton of winning in Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell.

    There isn't a lot of pressure behind Minnesota in the standings, but a little more stability would be nice for a fanbase that has only witnessed one playoff appearance since 2004.

17. New York Knicks

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    Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 16

    Record: 12-13

    Net Rating: -1.5

    Turns out, Kemba Walker may not have been the only problem. The New York Knicks are now 2-4 since he left the rotation, and the new starting lineup is still struggling to play positive minutes.

    The bigger cause for concern may be Julius Randle. After finishing Wednesday's loss with a minus-22, the Knicks are now minus-6.0 points per 100 possessions when Randle is on the floor and plus-11.9 when he isn't.

    Pulling him from the lineup is nowhere near as feasible as it was with Walker. Randle is the team's highest-paid player, and he's coming off an All-NBA campaign. But if he isn't closer to last season's version of himself soon, the Knicks are in danger of missing the play-in tournament.

    On the bright side, RJ Barrett took his three-point percentage from 31.0 to 35.7 in his last two games.

16. Dallas Mavericks

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 17

    Record: 12-12

    Net Rating: -1.3

    Early-season stories about Luka Doncic's conditioning have become something of an annual tradition, but this year, we got some specifics.

    "Sources told ESPN that Doncic reported to training camp weighing more than 260 pounds for the second consecutive year," ESPN's Tim MacMahon wrote. "His listed weight is 230 pounds."

    With Doncic seemingly using the first couple of weeks of the season to get into shape, it maybe shouldn't be surprising to see the team's point differential under water.

    But the last few weeks suggest he's turning a corner. In his first 13 games, Luka averaged 24.9 points, 7.9 assists and 2.5 threes while shooting 30.8 percent from three. Over his last seven, he's averaging 26.7 points, 9.4 assists and 3.4 threes while shooting 38.1 percent from three.

15. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 15

    Record: 14-12

    Net Rating: +1.1

    Early All-NBA and MVP chatter for Paul George has been completely put to bed over the last few weeks. After averaging 28.9 points and shooting 42.2 percent from three in his first seven games, George has put up just 23.4 points while shooting 38.8 percent from the field and 27.0 percent from three in every game since.

    The Clippers' record has predictably plummeted right along with George's efficiency, but Wednesday offered a silver lining.

    Rookie second-round pick Brandon Boston Jr. scored 27 in a 114-111 win over the Boston Celtics. Over his last five, he's putting up 12.2 points and shooting 52.9 percent from three.

14. Boston Celtics

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 10

    Record: 13-13

    Net Rating: +1.0

    As long as Jaylen Brown is out, the Boston Celtics are going to struggle for much better than mediocrity. They're a respectable plus-4.9 points per 100 possessions (74th percentile) when both Brown and Jayson Tatum are on the floor, but Tatum hasn't been good enough to carry them on his own.

    Tatum's box plus/minus and true shooting percentage have both fallen off a cliff this season, and without his superstar-level scoring, Boston has struggled to maintain an average offense.

    The previous two seasons are probably enough of a sample to expect Tatum to eventually turn things around, but if he doesn't, the Celtics might struggle to even make the postseason.

13. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 19

    Record: 15-11

    Net Rating: +0.1

    The Dallas Mavericks ended their five-game winning streak Wednesday, but the Memphis Grizzlies got back on track with a Thursday win over the Los Angeles Lakers. And during this 6-1 run, they've showed some defensive upside that should serve them well when Ja Morant returns.

    During the streak, Memphis allowed a league-best 90.9 points per 100 possessions. And while that has a lot to do with the level of opponents the Grizzlies played, they also have plenty of defensive talent that seemed to be playing below its potential until now.

    Jaren Jackson Jr., Steven Adams, Tyus Jones, Desmond Bane, De'Anthony Melton and John Konchar all look like plus defenders. And they'll probably all have to be to cover for Ja going forward. So far, Memphis is giving up a whopping 117.9 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor.

12. Charlotte Hornets

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 12

    Record: 14-13

    Net Rating: -0.3

    The Charlotte Hornets are one of a few teams that have recently been rocked by health and safety protocols. LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier, Mason Plumlee, Ish Smith and Jalen McDaniels are all out, and the absences are an obvious factor in a little two-game losing streak.

    Those who are still available deserve credit for keeping things respectable, though. Both losses have come at the hands of Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers, but they've been by a total of just seven points.

    When everyone's able to go, the Hornets are one of the more dynamic teams in the league. They score 114.9 points per 100 possessions (87th percentile) and are plus-5.0 when Ball and Miles Bridges are on the floor.

11. Washington Wizards

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    Luis M. Alvarez/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 8

    Record: 15-11

    Net Rating: -0.6

    The Washington Wizards have cooled off quite a bit after a 10-3 start in which they had the fourth-best defense in the league. They're 5-8 since then, with a bottom-five defense.

    So, which version of the Wizards is the real one? Bradley Beal's recent history suggests it might be the latter.

    This season, Washington's defense is above average with Beal on the floor, but it ranked no higher than the 26th percentile across the three years leading up to this one.

    With Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma now with the Wizards, there's a bit more wing defense than Beal played with on those previous squads but probably not enough to keep Washington near the top of the league on that end.

10. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 11

    Record: 14-12

    Net Rating: +0.7

    Before they ran into a buzzsaw in the form of the Utah Jazz on Thursday, Joel Embiid was giving Philadelphia 76ers fans some hope in a season packed with drama and lack of availability.

    In his first six games after being sprung from health and safety protocols, Embiid averaged 29.0 points, 13.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.5 blocks, 1.2 threes and 1.0 steals.

    That's obviously MVP-caliber production, but Thursday may have been something of a warning. On the second night of a back-to-back for both teams, the Jazz had their foot on the gas for the entire game. And Embiid was huffing, puffing and walking up and down the floor by the third quarter.

    In the crucible that is the playoffs, a team might be able to wear Embiid down by playing a high-octane style.

9. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Luis M. Alvarez/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 14

    Record: 14-12

    Net Rating: +3.2

    Nearly a third of the way into the season, it's safe to say the Cleveland Cavaliers' jumbo lineup is working, at least on the defensive end.

    When Lauri Markkanen, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen are all in the game, Cleveland is allowing just 100.2 points per 100 possessions (96th percentile) and is outscoring opponents by 2.3.

    And while the rookie in that trio, Mobley, is understandably generating the most buzz, it might be time to start thinking about Allen's All-Star candidacy.

    The Cavs are in the play-in mix, and he's averaging 17.1 points, 11.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks while shooting 70.4 percent from the field.

    The engine of this whole thing, Darius Garland, might enter that conversation too. He's up to 19.5 points and 7.2 assists, with a 39.2 three-point percentage.

8. Atlanta Hawks

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    Craig Lassig/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 9

    Record: 13-12

    Net Rating: +2.7

    Despite losing three of their last five games, the Atlanta Hawks remain one of the league's hottest teams. Since November 14, they are 9-3 with a plus-10.8 net rating that trails only the Utah Jazz and Golden State Warriors.

    Over the same stretch, Trae Young has averaged an absurd 28.3 points, 9.7 assists and 3.4 threes in 33.8 minutes per game. He also shot 42.7 percent from three.

    He looks very much like the Stephen Curry-Steve Nash hybrid he was forecast by many to be. And this season alone, he's arguably outperforming Luka Doncic, who he'll likely always be connected to, thanks to the 2018 draft-night trade in which they were both involved.

    Young isn't single-handedly leading this charge, though. The team's second- and third-leading scorers during the run, John Collins (17.7) and Kevin Huerter (13.2), also shot over 40 percent from three.

7. Miami Heat

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 7

    Record: 15-11

    Net Rating: +2.6

    Jimmy Butler's absence is far from ideal, but it's given Caleb Martin a chance to shine. And the confidence and experience he's picking up now should make him a more reliable reserve in the long run.

    After going for 28 points on 9-of-12 shooting, grabbing eight rebounds and handing out three assists in Wednesday's win over the Milwaukee Bucks, Martin is averaging 14.7 points and shooting 52.2 percent from three in his last six games.

    When everyone is healthy, and the Heat have a second unit featuring Martin, Tyler Herro and Dewayne Dedmon, they'll be a nightmare to deal with.

6. Chicago Bulls

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    Matt Marton/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 5

    Record: 17-9

    Net Rating: +3.9

    Health and safety protocols have decimated the Chicago Bulls rotation, as DeMar DeRozan, Matt Thomas, Javonte Green and Coby White all entered this week. A hamstring injury to Alex Caruso made things even worse.

    The Bulls survived their first test without DeRozan against what is perhaps an even more hampered Denver Nuggets squad (who are without their second- and third-best players, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.), but a 115-92 shellacking at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers could be a sign of trouble.

    With Zach LaVine, Lonzo Ball and Nikola Vucevic still available, there's plenty of talent in the Bulls' starting five, but depth becomes a major concern with this many rotation players out.

5. Brooklyn Nets

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 4

    Record: 17-8

    Net Rating: +3.0

    The Brooklyn Nets played without the league's leading scorer, Kevin Durant, on Wednesday, and the results were predictable.

    The Houston Rockets don't look like the tankers they were at the start of the season, but they're a team that a title contender should probably still beat even without Durant. James Harden has been one of the game's most dynamic offensive engines for a decade, and Brooklyn is still plus-2.7 points per 100 possessions when he plays without KD.

    But nights like Wednesday call the Nets' depth into question. When compared to others at the top of the league, like the Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns or even the healthy Milwaukee Bucks, that issue could become a glaring one.

4. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 6

    Record: 16-10

    Net Rating: +3.6

    On Wednesday, the Milwaukee Bucks lost their first game in which Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday all played. They're now 11-1 when all three appear, so there probably shouldn't be much concern that the one loss came against a Miami Heat team without Jimmy Butler.

    Generally speaking, when the Bucks have been moderately healthy, they look like a powerhouse. And if they can stay moderately healthy, Giannis may push for a third MVP trophy.

    He's on pace for his third double-digit box plus/minus campaign. Michael Jordan (seven) and LeBron James (five) are the only other players in league history with more than two.

3. Utah Jazz

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 3

    Record: 18-7

    Net Rating: +10.8

    The Utah Jazz look very much like the regular-season juggernaut they were last season during their current six-game winning streak.

    On Thursday, they destroyed the 76ers in Philadelphia, and Rudy Gobert dominated his individual matchup against Joel Embiid with 21 rebounds, 17 points and two blocks. He was plus-17, while Embiid was minus-3.

    He and Donovan Mitchell, who'd scored at least 30 in four straight prior to the win over Philly, will rightfully get most of the attention for this team's success, but depth is what could really set it apart from other contenders.

    Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles finished first and second in Sixth Man of the Year voting last season, and new additions Rudy Gay and Hassan Whiteside seem to fit perfectly alongside the holdovers. The former is shooting 48.1 percent from the field, and the latter allows the Jazz to play 48 minutes with potentially dominant shot-blocking.

2. Phoenix Suns

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 1

    Record: 20-4

    Net Rating: +6.1

    It doesn't look like Devin Booker's hamstring injury will cost him too much time, but these past three games without him have offered a look into how important the Phoenix Suns' depth is.

    Since Booker left the lineup, Deandre Ayton has averaged 18.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.0 blocks. Chris Paul has put up 15.0 points and 10.0 assists in the same stretch.

    And the developing dynamic between those two is important. Paul has dominated possessions throughout his career by engineering wide-open pick-and-roll looks for bigs like Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin.

    The 6'11", 250-pound Ayton's size and athleticism make similar contributions possible. And maximizing his abilities will be crucial if Phoenix is going to recreate the success of last season's Finals run.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 2

    Record: 21-4

    Net Rating: +12.9

    Stephen Curry seemed to have the all-time three-point record on his mind Wednesday when he hoisted up 17 three-point attempts in a 104-94 win over the Portland Trail Blazers.

    He only made six, which now puts him just nine away from Ray Allen's mark. He'll almost certainly break it during this upcoming five-game road trip.

    The Hollywood producer would probably peg the third one for the record-breaking night, when Curry will face the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden.