B/R NBA Power Rankings: Warriors, Suns and Jazz Separating from the Field

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistDecember 24, 2021

B/R NBA Power Rankings: Warriors, Suns and Jazz Separating from the Field

0 of 30

    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    The NBA's health and safety protocols have ravaged rosters around the NBA, contributing even more parity to a season packed with teams playing .500 (or near-.500) basketball.

    This week alone, we've seen replacement minutes logged by the likes of Joe Johnson, Lance Stephenson and Brandon Knight, just to name a few. The Dallas Mavericks are essentially playing an entirely different rotation.

    And while most of the league is struggling to merely come up with enough bodies to play their games, three Western Conference powers have pushed into their own tier atop the league.

    The Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors and Utah Jazz look like bona fide title contenders. When healthy, the Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets and Chicago Bulls might be able to join them.

    But after that, the standings are a slog. And sorting through them for the power rankings takes an awful lot of subjectivity. With how close everyone is, a good (or bad) two or three games could make a world of difference.

30. Detroit Pistons

1 of 30

    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 30

    Record: 5-26

    Net Rating: -9.0

    It might seem like there isn't much to learn about the Detroit Pistons while Cade Cunningham, Killian Hayes and Isaiah Stewart are stuck in health and safety protocols, but a recent surge from Saddiq Bey suggests otherwise.

    After going for 23 in Thursday's loss to the Miami Heat, Bey is now averaging 23.0 points over his last five games. With playmakers like Cunningham and Hayes operating in the middle of the floor, having reliable kickout options at forward is valuable.

    Of course, Jerami Grant qualifies as one of those too, but he's much further down the developmental timeline than Cunningham, Hayes, Bey and Stewart. Over the next several weeks, he figures to be one of the hottest names on the trade market.

29. Orlando Magic

2 of 30

    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 29

    Record: 7-26

    Net Rating: -9.4

    In some ways, the Orlando Magic are having an ideal rebuilding season. Young members of the core are having strong individual performances, but the losses just keep piling up.

    On Thursday, Cole Anthony had 22 points and 11 assists. Franz Wagner had his seventh 20-point game of the season. And Wendell Carter Jr. had a well-rounded 17 points, 12 rebounds, three assists and three blocks.

    On the year, Orlando is a league-worst minus-308, but it is plus-20 when those three are all on the floor.

28. Houston Rockets

3 of 30

    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 27

    Record: 10-23

    Net Rating: -7.1

    Rookie Jalen Green had an encouraging return from injury on Thursday when he scored 20 points and shot 6-of-9 from three, but the Houston Rockets fell to 2-17 when he's in the lineup.

    As is the case with Orlando, though, that's sort of the ideal for their current situation. If Green looks decent and the lottery odds are improving, that's a win-win.

    The latter indicator could get a little boost this trade season too. Christian Wood is averaging 17.2 points, 10.9 rebounds and 1.6 threes. Eric Gordon is averaging 14.6 points and shooting 44.1 percent from three. Surely some contenders around the league have discussed the addition of either one.

27. Oklahoma City Thunder

4 of 30

    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 28

    Record: 11-20

    Net Rating: -8.0

    The Oklahoma City Thunder are, at the very least, plucky. And though they wrapped up this week with a loss to the West-leading Phoenix Suns, they'd won three straight before that.

    During those four games, rookie Josh Giddey averaged 14.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists, and he's increasingly looking like an ideal fit alongside Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

    Having two playmakers with size like SGA (6'6") and Giddey (6'8") creates potential mismatches for opponents fielding smaller backcourts.

26. New Orleans Pelicans

5 of 30

    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 26

    Record: 12-21

    Net Rating: -4.3

    The New Orleans Pelicans are on a mini-surge into contention for the play-in tournament. Following a 110-104 win over the Orlando Magic on Thursday, they've now won four straight and are within two games of 10th place.

    Much of the credit for improved play of late has understandably gone to Brandon Ingram and Jonas Valanciunas, but Josh Hart deserves a little love too.

    During the streak, Hart is averaging 16.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 5.8 assists while shooting 59.5 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from three. He's also plus-56 in those four games.

25. Sacramento Kings

6 of 30

    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 24

    Record: 13-20

    Net Rating: -3.6

    A loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday dropped the Sacramento Kings to 1-3 for the week, but new reason for optimism has emerged in the form of Tyrese Haliburton.

    After a relatively quiet first 27 games of the season, in which he averaged 11.5 points and 5.7 assists, Haliburton moved to the lead playmaker role as De'Aaron Fox entered health and safety protocols. He then proceeded to go for at least 20 points and 10 assists in each of his four games in that role, making him the first King to do so since 1982.

    If Haliburton can maintain production anywhere near that level, while also keeping up the 40-plus-percent three-point shooting he's provided since he was drafted, Sacramento might have to entertain the trade market for Fox.

24. Portland Trail Blazers

7 of 30

    Soobum Im/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 25

    Record: 13-19

    Net Rating: -3.3

    The Portland Trail Blazers followed up a seven-game losing streak by winning two of three this week. And in this little stretch, Damian Lillard has looked very much like his old self.

    Over his last three games, Lillard has averaged 38.0 points, 6.7 assists and 5.0 threes while shooting 48.4 percent from three.

    Regardless of who else is available (CJ McCollum remains out with a right lung pneumothorax), if Lillard is playing at or near that level, Portland will be competitive. And because of the parity in the middle of the Western Conference this season, the Blazers are still in the hunt for a play-in spot.

23. New York Knicks

8 of 30

    Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 22

    Record: 14-18

    Net Rating: -1.7

    It's officially time to worry about the New York Knicks' shot at a 2022 playoff berth. Since the start of last season, they're minus-2.3 points per 100 possessions with Derrick Rose off the floor and plus-9.0 with him on. And now, an ankle surgery will have him out for 6-8 weeks.

    Kemba Walker turned back the clock in the first game after that report, scoring 44 points against the Washington Wizards, but it came in a losing effort.

    And with well over a season of evidence suggesting New York can't play positive basketball without Rose, failing to secure a win on a night when Kemba drops 44 only adds to the discouragement.

22. Denver Nuggets

9 of 30

    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 20

    Record: 15-16

    Net Rating: -0.8

    With Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. out, the Denver Nuggets have a horribly over-extended supporting cast around Nikola Jokic. And results like Thursday's have been the norm all season.

    Jokic had 29 points, 21 rebounds and five assists. He was a plus-two in the plus-minus column. And Denver lost by eight at home to the Charlotte Hornets. Every other Nugget was a minus.

    To be fair, Aaron Gordon was out of this one, as well (hamstring soreness), but it's getting increasingly difficult to see this team as anything resembling a contender.

21. San Antonio Spurs

10 of 30

    Kim Raff/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 23

    Record: 13-18

    Net Rating: +1.1

    Just when it seemed like we could write off the San Antonio Spurs, who started the season 4-13, they rattled off a 9-5 stretch in which they secured victories over the Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz and both Los Angeles squads.

    Their most recent win, a blowout of LeBron James and the Lakers in L.A., should be a sign that this team figures to remain in the hunt for the play-in tournament throughout the season.

    The Spurs don't really have any stars (with the possible exception of Dejounte Murray), but they're big on the perimeter and have several guards and wings who'd make solid sixth or seventh guys on most other rosters.

    In a vacuum, that might not sound like much. But with the way they're playing together recently, this is very much a "whole is greater than the sum of its parts" situation.

20. Indiana Pacers

11 of 30

    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 19

    Record: 14-19

    Net Rating: +0.6

    Fresh off reports that they'd be open to moving Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis and Caris LeVert, the Indiana Pacers lost three of four from Dec. 13 to 21 and looked destined for blow-it-up trades.

    Thursday may have just delayed the inevitable, but it did feel like a good time for a matchup with the rebuilding Houston Rockets.

    At the very least, a 32-point, 10-rebound performance for Myles Turner may have warmed up his trade value a bit.

19. Washington Wizards

12 of 30

    Isaac Hale/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 21

    Record: 17-15

    Net Rating: -2.1

    After starting the season 10-3, the Washington Wizards found themselves in a virtual free-fall all the way to 15-15. But back-to-back wins this week could spare the panic button.

    On Saturday, Bradley Beal went for 37 in a road win over the Utah Jazz. Then, after he entered health and safety protocols, a team effort helped them survive a 44-point outburst from Kemba Walker on Thursday.

    Deni Avdija, Montrezl Harrell, Aaron Holiday, Kyle Kuzma, Corey Kispert and Spencer Dinwiddie all scored between 14 and 21 points in New York, showing off the depth they bolstered by trading Russell Westbrook this offseason.

    If Beal continues to look more like his old self while that supporting cast provides some consistent shooting around him, Washington should keep itself comfortably in the playoff mix.

18. Los Angeles Lakers

13 of 30

    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 15

    Record: 16-17

    Net Rating: -2.2

    The Los Angeles Lakers deserve a little bit of slack for the number of injuries and health-and-safety-protocol absences they've had to deal with, but their situation is far from unique.

    This season has unleashed availability hell on most of the league, and the Lakers were struggling to play winning basketball without LeBron James on the floor before they were hit with a wave of COVID-related absences.

    Since he returned from injury, James has turned back the clock with six 30-plus-point performances, but he is in dire need of some help.

17. Dallas Mavericks

14 of 30

    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 16

    Record: 15-16

    Net Rating: -0.2

    Injuries and the health and safety protocols have absolutely decimated the Dallas Mavericks.

    In Thursday's loss to the Bucks, Jalen Brunson, Dorian Finney-Smith, Frank Ntilikina and Sterling Brown all started and played at least 37 minutes. And, brace yourself for this, they brought Carlik Jones, Theo Pinson, Brandon Knight, Marquese Chriss and George King off the bench. All five were signed to play this month.

    With most of Dallas' regular rotation potentially out for another three or four more games (depending on the league's updated COVID policies), the Mavericks could slide into the danger zone.

16. Minnesota Timberwolves

15 of 30

    David Sherman/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 18

    Record: 15-17

    Net Rating: -0.4

    The Minnesota Timberwolves were recently hit by a wave of positive COVID tests. Several key pieces, including Karl-Anthony Towns, Jarred Vanderbilt, Patrick Beverley and Anthony Edwards, are now in health and safety protocols. And that means plenty of shots for D'Angelo Russell for the next little bit.

    In Thursday's loss, he had 19 points on 7-of-20 shooting. That dropped his season-long field-goal percentage to 38.3, but the inefficiency hasn't outweighed his positive contributions as a playmaker and steady hand at the wheel.

    On the season, Minnesota is plus-8.3 points per 100 possessions with Russell on the floor and minus-10.8 with him off.

15. Charlotte Hornets

16 of 30

    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 11

    Record: 17-17

    Net Rating: -1.5

    After dealing with a slew of health-and-safety-protocol absences, the Charlotte Hornets are mostly whole again, but they're struggling to string wins together.

    During their most recent three-game losing streak, they surrendered 124.7 points per game, which helped push their season-long defensive rating to the very bottom of the league.

    Thursday offered a ray of hope, though. With a unit of mostly reserves, Charlotte outscored the Denver Nuggets 38-13 in the fourth quarter of a 115-107 win.

    The defense is more than a concern, but there is firepower all over this roster. And on any given night, the Hornets can win a shootout with anyone.

14. Philadelphia 76ers

17 of 30

    Matt Kelley/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 13

    Record: 16-16

    Net Rating: -0.7

    Losing to the Atlanta Hawks while Trae Young is in health and safety protocols is far from ideal, but it's the kind of result you can almost count on when Joel Embiid is off his game.

    The Philadelphia 76ers are 10-4 when Embiid shoots 40 percent or better from the field, but they're 6-12 in all other games. In Thursday's loss, he was 6-of-17.

    The absence of Ben Simmons is more than fair to bring up, but fellow max-contract player Tobias Harris should be able to pick up some of the slack when Embiid struggles too. After going 0-of-6 from deep against Atlanta, Harris is shooting just 30.2 percent from three.

13. Boston Celtics

18 of 30

    Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 12

    Record: 16-16

    Net Rating: +0.8

    The Boston Celtics comfortably beat a banged-up Cleveland Cavaliers squad Wednesday. While the lack of players available to Cleveland is more than fair to bring up, the game did offer some signs of life for a team that has been treading water around .500 all season.

    Jayson Tatum struggled from the field, as he has in many games in 2021-22, but he and Jaylen Brown combined for 52 points. Robert Williams operated as an offensive hub in the middle of the floor on the way to seven assists.

    Going forward, more trust in Williams' passing ability could relieve some of the offensive pressure on Tatum and Brown, freeing them up for more off-ball work and higher-efficiency looks.

12. Los Angeles Clippers

19 of 30

    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 14

    Record: 17-15

    Net Rating: +0.7

    Paul George is back in the lineup, and his supporting cast should be gaining some confidence, as it went 3-2 during his five-game string of absences.

    During that stretch, Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard and Marcus Morris all averaged between 18.4 and 17.5 points. And if they can maintain that kind of balance and volume around a healthy George, L.A. will be a tough out on most nights.

    That's especially true until George rediscovers his shooting form. During his first seven games of the season, he shot 50.7 percent from the field and 42.2 percent from three. Since then (19 games), he's at 38.9 percent from the field and 28.1 percent from three.

11. Toronto Raptors

20 of 30

    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 17

    Record: 14-15

    Net Rating: +1.4

    The Toronto Raptors have had three of their last four games postponed, but it looked like they were starting to gain a little momentum before then. The Raptors have won five of their last seven, and the balance they've shown in those games is encouraging.

    During that stretch, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Scottie Barnes and Gary Trent Jr. are all averaging at least 15.3 points and 3.0 assists.

    While some on the team are recently playing better, VanVleet has been at an All-Star level all season. He's 12th in the league in Dunks and Threes' estimated plus-minus and is averaging 20.1 points, 6.7 assists and 3.4 threes while shooting 39.7 percent from three.

10. Atlanta Hawks

21 of 30

    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 10

    Record: 15-16

    Net Rating: +1.4

    For the third straight season, the Atlanta Hawks are much better when Trae Young is on the floor, so picking up a win while he's in the league's health and safety protocols feels even more meaningful.

    Add Cam Reddish being the team's leading scorer in the last two contests (he had 34 against Orlando on Wednesday) and you have a little more reason for optimism.

    Still, being below .500 at this point in the season has to be seen as a disappointment for a team that was in the Eastern Conference Finals a few months ago. And players like Reddish, John Collins and Clint Capela will have to do more defensively to get back to the ceiling the Hawks reached in 2020-21.

9. Memphis Grizzlies

22 of 30

    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 9

    Record: 19-14

    Net Rating: +1.6

    It's not fair to blame Ja Morant for the Memphis Grizzlies' last two losses, certainly not to the degree fans did in Memphis. But after losing to the Golden State Warriors on Thursday, the Grizzlies are now 9-12 when Morant plays and 10-2 when he doesn't.

    At the very least, that should draw some head scratching.

    The most obvious issue Memphis has with Morant on the floor is its inability to slow anyone down defensively. The Grizzlies are allowing 117.3 points per 100 possessions with Morant on the floor and 103.8 with him off.

8. Miami Heat

23 of 30

    Marta Lavandier/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 7

    Record: 20-13

    Net Rating: +3.7

    The Miami Heat surviving an onslaught of injuries and health-and-safety-protocol-induced absences feels very #HeatCulture. Regardless of who's available, the team somehow remains competitive.

    The latest surprise contributor is Max Strus. After going for 26 in Miami's win over the Pistons on Thursday, he's averaging 25.0 points and shooting 46.7 percent from three over the last four games.

    When everybody's back in the rotation, Strus obviously won't be called upon to do quite as much, but a stretch like this should instill confidence in both him and a coaching staff that might need to turn to him in a big moment later.

7. Cleveland Cavaliers

24 of 30

    Craig Lassig/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 8

    Record: 19-13

    Net Rating: +5.5

    On Wednesday, the Cleveland Cavaliers suffered their first double-digit loss since Nov. 18, falling to the Celtics in Boston, 111-101.

    But I think we can forgive them over the letdown, as Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley were both in health and safety protocols.

    When those two are on the floor, Cleveland allows a paltry 97.9 points per 100 possessions (99th percentile) and is plus-8.2.

    The Cavs are a borderline juggernaut on defense, and Darius Garland, who had 28 in Wednesday's loss, generates just enough offense to make them a clear plus on the year. Hopefully, this bout with the protocols won't derail everything Cleveland has built to this point.

6. Chicago Bulls

25 of 30

    Noah K. Murray/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 6

    Record: 19-10

    Net Rating: +3.3

    There is a lot to like about this Chicago Bulls team. Zach LaVine remains a prolific scorer. Lonzo Ball has been the great connector many expected him to be when he was signed. Alex Caruso is a defensive menace. But this is the year of DeMar DeRozan, who's been every bit as dynamic post-health and safety protocols.

    After missing three games, DeRozan sprung free with a 38-point performance in a win over the Los Angeles Lakers. The next day, he went for 26 points and six assists in a win over the Houston Rockets.

    On the year, DeRozan is up to 26.8 points and 4.2 assists per game. His true shooting percentage is well above average. And most importantly, Chicago is dominating in his minutes.

    In 11 of his 12 previous seasons, DeRozan's teams' point differentials were better when he was off the floor. In 2021-22, the Bulls are plus-9.3 with DeRozan on the floor and minus-7.4 with him off.

5. Milwaukee Bucks

26 of 30

    LM Otero/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 5

    Record: 21-13

    Net Rating: +3.4

    Every win without Giannis Antetokounmpo (health and safety protocols) is found money for the Milwaukee Bucks, but the last two should be particularly comforting for fans.

    On Wednesday, DeMarcus Cousins was plus-12 and went for 18 points, eight rebounds and two assists. He followed that up with 22, eight and four in a win over the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday.

    With Brook Lopez out indefinitely with back issues, this kind of production from Boogie could be a game-changer. He's not really spacing the floor like Lopez yet (though he's capable), but all the extra stuff he does, including a pinch of playmaking, adds a different element.

4. Brooklyn Nets

27 of 30

    Sarah Stier/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 4

    Record: 21-9

    Net Rating: +3.4

    Few teams have been hammered by health and safety protocols quite as hard as the Brooklyn Nets, who had three straight games postponed this week.

    In the last game they actually did play, a 100-93 loss to the Orlando Magic, Blake Griffin, Kessler Edwards, Patty Mills, Cam Thomas and David Duke Jr. all started and played at least 32 minutes. There really isn't anything to take away from the last seven days of action (or non-action).

    On the horizon, though, it looks like we'll finally see Kyrie Irving's season debut. The team has invited him back, and once he clears protocols, we'll see him play in road games.

3. Utah Jazz

28 of 30

    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 1

    Record: 22-9

    Net Rating: +10.4

    The Utah Jazz are quietly playing like a juggernaut. After Thursday's double-digit win over the Timberwolves, Utah is second in net rating. In terms of raw plus-minus, it has each of the top three and four of the top five two-man lineups in the league.

    And there are only three teams in league history whose offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) was further clear of the league average than the Jazz's current mark.

    The defense isn't where it typically has been during the Rudy Gobert era, but this is the kind of attack that can more than make up for that.

2. Phoenix Suns

29 of 30

    Michael Gonzales/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 3

    Record: 26-5

    Net Rating: +7.6

    While the Golden State Warriors and Utah Jazz have better point differentials, the old Bill Parcells line, "You are what your record says you are," applies here.

    The Phoenix Suns may not have quite as many blowouts as Golden State and Utah, but they just keep plugging along with balance, ball movement and a connected defense.

    After starting the season 1-3, the Suns are an outrageous 25-2 since then. Eight different players have led them in scoring in individual games.

    This is a well-oiled machine that is very much on track to compete for another Finals berth.

1. Golden State Warriors

30 of 30

    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 2

    Record: 26-6

    Net Rating: +10.5

    As strange as it sounds to say, Stephen Curry has been in a shooting slump for weeks. Over the six games prior to Thursday's win over the Memphis Grizzlies, he shot just 40.5 percent from the field and 32.6 percent from three.

    His season-long three-point percentage had fallen all the way to 39.6, which would be a career low for a season in which he played at least 200 minutes.

    But on Thursday, he reminded everyone how ridiculously high his offensive ceiling is. Curry was a game-high plus-15, scored 46 points, shot 8-of-14 from three and was a perfect 12-of-12 from the line.

    If this is a sign of a forthcoming hot streak, and it coincides with Klay Thompson's return to the lineup, the Warriors are going to be a nightmare for opponents.