B/R NBA Power Rankings: A Surprise Team Unseats Warriors from Top Spot

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistDecember 17, 2021

B/R NBA Power Rankings: A Surprise Team Unseats Warriors from Top Spot

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    The 2021-22 NBA season is turning into a war of attrition.

    This month alone, around 10 percent of the players who've suited up during this campaign have entered the league's health and safety protocols. Some of the high-profile players who've gone in recently include Russell Westbrook, LaMelo Ball, DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine.

    Perhaps more than ever before, depth is crucial for regular-season survival. The Charlotte Hornets, for example, made it through the absences of Ball and other rotation players, thanks to the strong play of Miles Bridges and Gordon Hayward.

    Teams like the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns haven't really been hit with COVID-19-related absences yet, but they're benches should serve them well if that moment comes.

    Hopefully, the current issues are just that. Current. The best possible second half of the season is one in which the most possible players are available. But this stretch is showing how difficult it will be to navigate this campaign.

    Some are handling obstacles better than others. That part isn't unique to 2021-22. And you'll find them at the top of this week's power rankings. The bottom, meanwhile, has some fierce tankers. And the middle, as has been the case all season, is packed.

30. Detroit Pistons

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 30

    Record: 4-23

    Net Rating: -9.7

    The Detroit Pistons' losing streak stretched to a whopping 13 games on Thursday when the Indiana Pacers beat them 122-113.

    With Jerami Grant and Kelly Olynyk (the team's top two in wins over replacement player) both out, that result was hardly a surprise.

    It's not all doom and gloom for the Pistons, though. Over his last seven games, Cade Cunningham is averaging 22.1 points, 4.0 assists and 3.3 threes while shooting 48.0 percent from the field and 50.0 percent from three.

29. Orlando Magic

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 29

    Record: 5-24

    Net Rating: -10.5

    Evan Mobley has the inside track on Rookie of the Year, but Franz Wagner, who looks like one of the best shooters in the class, is one of the few contenders within striking distance.

    Even after an 0-of-3 performance from deep on Wednesday, Wagner is averaging 14.1 points and 1.4 threes while shooting 38.0 percent from three. And he's shown some playmaking chops, too, with an average of 2.8 assists.

    Orlando will lose plenty more games this season, but there are certainly bright spots in Wagner, Wendell Carter Jr. and Cole Anthony.

28. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 28

    Record: 8-19

    Net Rating: -9.4

    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is carrying one of the heaviest individual burdens in the league. He has 1.4 wins over replacement player (value over replacement player times 2.7), while the rest of the Oklahoma City Thunder have minus-4.6.

    There are intriguing talents around him who might eventually shoulder some of that responsibility. Josh Giddey, a 6'8" rookie playmaker, is averaging 5.9 assists. Luguentz Dort is averaging 17.0 points and playing solid defense. But consistency is a significant problem for both.

    That's understandable for players of their age and experience, though. These are the kinds of growing pains everyone expected for OKC this season. It'll just take some serious patience from SGA to make it to the other side of this rebuild.

27. Houston Rockets

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 26

    Record: 9-20

    Net Rating: -6.7

    The Houston Rockets have fallen back to earth a bit after a seemingly out-of-nowhere seven-game winning streak in late November and early December. Following a 35-point thumping at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday and another double-digit loss on Thursday, Houston has now lost four of its last five.

    The level of winning from the streak was never going to be sustainable, but some of the contributions the Rockets have gotten from veterans may be. And for a team in the middle of a rebuild, that could mean good things for this trade season.

    Take Eric Gordon, for example. He didn't play in Wednesday's loss, but he's averaged 19.0 points and 2.6 threes while shooting 43.3 percent from three in his last five appearances.

    He's almost certainly in for a regression, at some point, but there may be a contender out there paying attention and wondering if he can provide some floor spacing for its second unit.

26. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 27

    Record: 9-21

    Net Rating: -5.5

    Rather than focus on the fact that it took a miracle for the New Orleans Pelicans to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday, let's just zero in on the miracle itself.

    In a 110-110 game and just 1.4 seconds left on the clock, New Orleans guard Devonte' Graham hoisted a three-quarter-court heave that drilled glass before finding its way through the rim.

    In a season with as many letdowns as the Pelicans have experienced this season, it's fine to relish silver linings like this. If you're a fan, dwell on Brandon Ingram's 23.4 points, Jonas Valanciunas' 46.5 three-point percentage, nights like Wednesday and solid lottery odds.

25. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 25

    Record: 11-18

    Net Rating: -3.5

    The Portland Trail Blazers are an early candidate for imaginary "most tumultuous season in the NBA" honors. After an offseason filled with rumors, Damian Lillard has missed time with an abdominal injury. CJ McCollum is now out with a collapsed lung. And general manager Neil Olshey was fired earlier this month.    

    Now, on top of all that, Portland has lost seven straight and isn’t even in the play-in picture anymore.

    If Lillard continues to play the way he has all season, their chances of solidifying a spot in the top 10 aren’t great. After a 6-of-21 performance in Wednesday’s loss, Lillard is now shooting 38.4 percent from the field.

    It feels like something has to give. And now that we’re into the league’s unofficial trade season, it can.

24. Sacramento Kings

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 24

    Record: 12-17

    Net Rating: -2.6

    The Sacramento Kings are .500 since Alvin Gentry took over, which has been just good enough to stay in the play-in hunt. And if they remain in that 7-10 range, they might have enough firepower to play spoiler.   

    Over his last 10 games, De’Aaron Fox is averaging 23.8 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists while shooting 50.6 percent from the field. During the same stretch, Tyrese Haliburton is averaging 11.2 points and 6.7 assists with a 44.2 three-point percentage.

    With playmaking more or less reassigned to Haliburton, and Fox more keyed in on scoring, Sacramento’s offense appears to be taking shape.

23. San Antonio Spurs

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 22

    Record: 10-17

    Net Rating: -0.4

    There is a lot of good-but-not-great talent on the San Antonio Spurs roster.

    Derrick White, Thaddeus Young, Jakob Poeltl, Keldon Johnson and Doug McDermott are all solid players. Devin Vassell has some upside, and Dejounte Murray might even be a borderline star, but it's hard to identify a bona fide cornerstone talent. And San Antonio's record reflects that.

    The Spurs weren't listed among Ben Simmons' suitors in The Athletic's Shams Charania's latest report, but they've been linked to him in the past. Moving two or three of the interesting young talents and some picks for Simmons still makes sense.

    Though it might take a couple of years to tailor a roster to Simmons' skills, such an acquisition would at least give them a direction.

22. New York Knicks

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    Noah K. Murray/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 17

    Record: 13-16

    Net Rating: -1.9

    Generally speaking, the New York Knicks' defense-for-offense gamble this offseason hasn't quite paid off. Last season, they could at least survive minutes without Derrick Rose. They were plus-0.1 points per 100 possessions when he was out. This season, they've plummeted to minus-9.1 in the non-Rose minutes.

    New point guard Kemba Walker isn't even in the rotation anymore. Evan Fournier, meanwhile, is something of a bellwether. New York is 8-5 when he hits at least three threes, as he did in Thursday's win. The problem is that he's fallen short of that threshold in more games than he's hit it (and the Knicks are 5-11 in those games).

    It's not fair to lay all the blame at the newcomers' feet, though. Julius Randle's efficiency has fallen off a cliff. And unless he can maintain a recent trend (he's shooting 41.7 percent from three in his last six games), New York will likely struggle on offense.

21. Washington Wizards

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 11

    Record: 15-15

    Net Rating: -2.8

    The Washington Wizards are in a full-fledged tailspin. After Thursday's 20-point loss to the Phoenix Suns, they're now 24th in the league in net rating. They've lost seven of their last eight, and Bradley Beal still can't find anything resembling his old self.

    Beal has been a bit better of late, but he's shooting just 27.9 percent from three on the season. And the rest of the roster isn't much better. Washington shot 6-of-21 from three against Phoenix, dropping its three-point percentage to a 27th-ranked 32.3.

    The key might be Spencer Dinwiddie. He didn't play Thursday, but the Wizards are 8-2 when Dinwiddie hits at least 40 percent of his attempts from deep. They're 7-13 in all other games.

20. Denver Nuggets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 23

    Record: 14-14

    Net Rating: -0.7

    Nikola Jokic is posting the best single-season box plus/minus in NBA history (BPM is "...a basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player's contribution to the team when that player is on the court," according to Basketball Reference).

    In the nine games since he returned to the lineup from a wrist injury, he's averaging 26.9 points, 13.7 rebounds and 9.2 assists while shooting 58.2 percent from the field. And after Wednesday's loss, the Nuggets are an even 14-14.

    It's becoming more and more clear that as long as Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. are out, middle of the pack is the ceiling for Denver. Jokic is playing as well as anyone in the NBA ever has, but even that isn't enough to generate serious momentum in the win column.

19. Indiana Pacers

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    AJ MAST/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 20

    Record: 13-18

    Net Rating: +1.1

    Ever since The Athletic reported that the Indiana Pacers were open to moving Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner and Caris LeVert and pivoting to a rebuild, all three seem intent on bolstering their trade value.

    Since then, LeVert has averaged 21.4 points and shot 43.5 percent from three. Sabonis is going for 20.6 points while shooting 68.4 percent from the field. And Turner is putting up 14.8 points and 3.2 blocks.

    If Indiana opts to blow things up the way the Orlando Magic did last season, some teams will get players who really can move the needle.

18. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Craig Lassig/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 18

    Record: 13-15

    Net Rating: -0.5

    After a disappointing five-game losing streak, the Minnesota Timberwolves strung together back-to-back wins and looked particularly impressive against the injury-hammered Denver Nuggets.

    On Wednesday, Minnesota cruised to a 124-107 win in Denver while shooting 23-of-48 from three. That total is tied for the second most in a single game in franchise history.

    That night, Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns combined for 70 points on 39 field-goal attempts. And while they won't shoot like this every game, Minnesota looks like an awfully dynamic team when they're clicking.

17. Toronto Raptors

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 21

    Record: 13-15

    Net Rating: +0.7

    The Toronto Raptors lost a close one to the health-and-safety-protocol-decimated Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday, but they're generally trending in the right direction.

    They're now 4-2 in their last six, thanks in part to a balanced scoring attack featuring Pascal Siakam (21.3 points in this stretch), Fred VanVleet (19.7), Gary Trent Jr. (16.2) and Scottie Barnes (15.5).

    And that last name probably offers the most encouragement. Barnes has also averaged 8.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.8 blocks, 1.5 threes and 1.0 steals in his last six games. And if he can maintain that kind of production, Cleveland Cavaliers forward Evan Mobley might feel a little pressure in the Rookie of the Year race, after all.

16. Dallas Mavericks

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 16

    Record: 14-14

    Net Rating: -0.2

    As long as the Dallas Mavericks continue to shoot as poorly as they have, mediocre is about as good as they can possibly be.

    Dallas is taking 38.1 threes per game, the fifth-highest average in the league, but they're making just 32.8 percent of those looks. And there isn't just one culprit.

    Maxi Kleber, Frank Ntilikina, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jalen Brunson are all posting below-average three-point percentages. Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis and Reggie Bullock, three of their top five in total three-point attempts, are way below average.

    High volume and terrible efficiency are a bad combo. And it's predictably led to a lot of losses for the Mavs.

15. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 19

    Record: 16-13

    Net Rating: -0.2

    The Los Angeles Lakers are on a three-game winning streak, but those victories came against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic and a Dallas Mavericks squad playing without Luka Doncic.

    Wins are wins, though. And for a team that has struggled as much as L.A. has to live up to expectations, you take them when you can get them.

    What may be more encouraging than those results against subpar teams is the recent play of LeBron James. Over his last nine games, LeBron has averaged 29.1 points and 7.7 assists while shooting 51.6 percent from the field and 36.0 percent from three.

    He may not be quite as impactful as he was in his prime, but as long as he's playing like this, the Lakers are a night-to-night threat to beat anyone.

14. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 15

    Record: 16-13

    Net Rating: +1.0

    They suffered a 21-point beatdown at the hands of the Utah Jazz on Wednesday, but the Los Angeles Clippers have acquitted themselves quite well without Paul George.     

    They’d won four straight without him prior to Wednesday, and a mini-breakout from Luke Kennard could pay dividends down the road.

    During his last eight games, Kennard has averaged 16.1 points and shot 55.6 percent from three. He won’t shoot like that all year, but a career 42.0 three-point percentage shows he’s a proven floor-spacer. When George comes back, his ability to draw defenders outside should open up wider driving lanes.

13. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 10

    Record: 15-15

    Net Rating: -0.9

    Joel Embiid hasn't quite been the savior some may have anticipated him to be when he emerged from health and safety protocols.

    Following a loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday, the Philadelphia 76ers are 5-6 since Embiid returned. Individually, he's been great. In this stretch, he's averaging 26.8 points, 12.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists. The Sixers are plus-1.4 per game when he's on the floor.

    But this mediocre run has highlighted the lack of help down the rest of the roster. There are plenty of talented role players, but as it turns out, having a maxed-out point guard sitting at home is difficult to overcome.

12. Boston Celtics

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 14

    Record: 14-14

    Net Rating: +0.8

    The absence of Jaylen Brown for exactly half of the Boston Celtics' games gives them a pretty good excuse, but this team is the picture of mediocrity right now.

    If you look at their rankings in the traditional four factors (shooting, turnovers, offensive rebounds and free-throw rate for themselves and opponents), just about everything is hovering around the middle of the league.

    Now that Brown is back, though—he had 19 points in 30 minutes on Monday—Boston should be a bit better, at least on offense.

    When he's out, there's an unmanageable amount of pressure on Jayson Tatum to carry the bulk of the scoring responsibility. And right now, he doesn't look like that kind of Luka Doncic-esque heliocentric player.

    Beyond just adding raw talent, Brown's presence brings some balance to the lineup.

11. Charlotte Hornets

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 12

    Record: 16-14

    Net Rating: -0.4

    The Charlotte Hornets seem to have survived a health and safety protocol-induced storm about as well as they could've been expected to. LaMelo Ball is officially ready to return, and Charlotte went a respectable 3-3 without him.

    The exclamation point came on Wednesday, when the Hornets beat the San Antonio Spurs, 131-115, and Gordon Hayward dropped 41.

    Hayward was averaging 17.6 to that point in the season, and that kind of confidence-boosting performance could coincide perfectly with Ball's return. With an aggressive Hayward putting pressure on the defense, Ball's drive-draw-and-kick game could be even more productive as he faces scrambling rotations.

10. Atlanta Hawks

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 8

    Record: 14-14

    Net Rating: +2.4

    Every time it looks like the Atlanta Hawks are going to consistently play like the team that made the Eastern Conference Finals last season, they seem to take their collective foot off the gas.

    Before Wednesday's win over the Orlando Magic, the Hawks had lost four of five and fallen below .500. The defense was the problem over that stretch, surrendering a whopping 117.1 points per 100 possessions.

    With Trae Young, John Collins, Danilo Gallinari and Kevin Huerter, there's plenty of firepower on the other end of the floor. However, the Hawks won't get anywhere near last season's heights without more commitment on defense.

9. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 13

    Record: 18-11

    Net Rating: +1.8

    It’s going to be very hard to avoid hot takes if Ja Morant returns to the Memphis Grizzlies and they start losing.    

    After Wednesday’s 113-103 road win over the Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis is now 9-1 since Ja Morant left the lineup with a knee injury. And the defense is miles better without him.

    With Morant on the floor, Memphis is surrendering 117.9 points per 100 possessions, compared to 104.1 with him off. The pessimist might worry about Morant’s lack of size and inability to bother opposing guards as a defender, but a more optimistic interpretation of that number is that the Grizzlies have enough defensive talent to cover his weaknesses.

    If it can find a way to make his dynamic offense meld with the defense that plays like the one we’ve seen the last few weeks, Memphis could be a major headache in a first-round playoff matchup.

8. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 9

    Record: 18-12

    Net Rating: +5.3

    The Cleveland Cavaliers are on fire and cruising toward the franchise's first playoff appearance without LeBron James since 1998. Yes, 1998. That team's three leading scorers were Shawn Kemp, Wesley Person and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

    Over two decades later, Cleveland is 9-2 in its last 11 games. They're currently on pace for home-court advantage in the first round. And there are two legitimate All-Star candidates on the roster.

    In last week's power rankings, we looked at Jarrett Allen. This time, we'll shine a bit more light on Darius Garland.

    After dropping 21 points in 25 minutes in Wednesday's blowout over the Rockets, Garland is averaging 19 points and 7.4 assists while shooting 38.9 percent from three. Trae Young and LaMelo Ball are the only players who match or exceed all three marks this season.

7. Miami Heat

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    Marta Lavandier/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 7

    Record: 17-12

    Net Rating: +3.1

    With a road win over Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday, the Miami Heat improved to 6-5 in games Jimmy Butler has been out.

    If you told fans of the team prior to the season that they'd be above .500 when Butler has sat, they'd almost certainly take it. And new acquisition Kyle Lowry deserves a lot of credit for Miami's survival in those games.

    When Butler is out of the lineup, Lowry averages 17.4 points, 8.3 assists and 2.9 threes while shooting 38.1 percent from three.

6. Chicago Bulls

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    Marta Lavandier/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 6

    Record: 17-10

    Net Rating: +2.8

    With a whopping 10 players in health and safety protocols, most of the Chicago Bulls' slate of games was literally wiped out this week.

    On Monday, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that both Tuesday and Thursday's Bulls games were postponed.

    And at this point, those postponements were probably a relief. It may make the schedule a bit more crammed down the road, but trying to power through the Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors with emergency replacements likely would've resulted in losses.

5. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 4

    Record: 19-11

    Net Rating: +4.0

    All the MVP chatter this season has understandably revolved around Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. But in terms of individual production, Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only player anywhere near Nikola Jokic's orbit.

    He missed Wednesday's win over the Indiana Pacers in health and safety protocols, but Giannis is averaging 27.0 points, 11.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists. It's the fourth straight season he's put up at least 27, 11 and five.

    No one else in NBA history has met that criteria in more than two seasons. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (twice), Wilt Chamberlain (twice), Elgin Baylor and Oscar Robertson are the only other players on that list.

4. Brooklyn Nets

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 5

    Record: 21-8

    Net Rating: +3.8

    James Harden is the other superstar, but the two-man net rating of he and Kevin Durant falls well shy of the mark shared by Durant and Patty Mills.

    KD and Mills combined for 48 points and shot 6-of-11 from three in Thursday's win over Philadelphia. The Nets are now plus-13.8 points per 100 possessions when both are on the floor. They're plus-3.6 when Durant and Harden are on the floor.

    This certainly isn't a suggestion that Mills is better than Harden, but there may be something to giving more on-ball responsibility to Durant while he's surrounded by good shooting.

3. Phoenix Suns

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 2

    Record: 23-5

    Net Rating: +6.3

    Devin Booker has now missed seven games with a hamstring injury, but the Phoenix Suns just keep-on-a-chugging along without him.    

    Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton have understandably received much of the credit for Phoenix being 5-2 in this stretch, but veteran big JaVale McGee deserves a little shine.

    The Suns are plus-11.6 points per 100 possessions with McGee on the floor and plus-4.3 with him off. He's also second on the team in points per possession and first in rebounds per possession.

    Nailing signings on the margins like that is what makes a title contender.

2. Golden State Warriors

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 1

    Record: 23-5

    Net Rating: +11.6

    Stephen Curry made history this week when he passed Ray Allen for the all-time lead in career threes made on Tuesday in Madison Square Garden.

    And now that the record is behind him, perhaps Curry can settle back into the kind of rhythm he's had as a shooter for most of his career.

    Lost in the hoopla of Curry's pursuit is the fact that he's shot just 31.7 percent from three over his last four games. That's dropped his season-long mark to 39.9.

    And while that number is fine for most shooters, it's unusual for Curry. His lowest three-point percentage for a full season (he only played 139 minutes in 2019-20) is the 41.1 he posted in 2016-17.  

1. Utah Jazz

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 3

    Record: 20-7

    Net Rating: +11.6

    After dominating the Los Angeles Clippers 124-103, the Utah Jazz have pulled into a tie with the Golden State Warriors for the league’s best net rating (net points per 100 possessions). And that mark is driven by a historically great offense.    

    Utah is scoring 8.7 more points per 100 possessions than the league-average mark. The 2003-04 Dallas Mavericks—the team that added Antawn Jamison and Antoine Walker to Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Michael Finley—is the only one in league history with a better relative offensive rating.

    After breaking the record for threes per game last season, the Jazz are on pace to snag the No. 3 spot on that list this year.