B/R NBA Power Rankings: Who Owns No. 1 Spot Entering 2022?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistDecember 31, 2021

B/R NBA Power Rankings: Who Owns No. 1 Spot Entering 2022?

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    The NBA's health and safety protocols wreaked havoc on teams all over the league in December.

    Policies were changed, replacement players were signed, and several games were postponed. And the chaos all over both conferences has made it difficult to get a handle on most teams in the middle.

    A handful of contenders have managed to rise above the fray, though. The Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz remain the standard in the West, while the Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks look like the class of the East.

    A handful of tankers have separated themselves on the other end of the standings, but other than that, there's a slog. Below, you'll find an effort to sort through it.

30. Detroit Pistons

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 30

    Record: 5-28

    Net Rating: -9.7

    The Detroit Pistons churned out another winless week, and the absence of Cade Cunningham and Killian Hayes has made it difficult to draw many takeaways from those performances.

    A little surge from Saddiq Bey is worth noting, though. In his first 26 games of the season, Bey averaged 11.9 points and shot 34.5 percent from the field and 29.6 percent from three.

    After going for 32 in Wednesday's loss to the New York Knicks, he's put up 24.3 points on 45.1 percent shooting in his last seven games.

29. Orlando Magic

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    Scott Audette/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 29

    Record: 7-29

    Net Rating: -9.9

    Franz Wagner had 38 points and was plus-four in a 17-point loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday. Over his last five, he's averaging 23.2 and is now this rookie class' leading scorer.

    While losses keep piling up for his Orlando Magic, bright spots like Wagner, Cole Anthony and Wendell Carter Jr. are worth keeping an eye on.

    The Magic are plus-2.0 points per 100 possessions when all three are on the floor. As they develop, and Orlando assembles a helpful supporting cast around them, this is a core that can eventually compete for a playoff spot.

28. Houston Rockets

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    Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 28

    Record: 10-25

    Net Rating: -7.5

    The Houston Rockets made the Los Angeles Lakers sweat for most of the second half Tuesday, but they eventually served as the backstop for the Lakers' five-game losing streak.

    Offensively, they didn't have any problems against L.A. Seven of the eight Rockets who played reached double figures, and Christian Wood, Kevin Porter Jr. and Jalen Green all put up at least 22.

    That's the second time Green has cleared 20 in as many appearances since he returned from injury. In a season like this, positive signs from Green mean more than losses.

27. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 27

    Record: 12-22

    Net Rating: -7.9

    The Oklahoma City Thunder of the last few years could be a case study in tanking. This season's squad features just two players (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Mike Muscala) with at least 100 minutes and an above-average box plus/minus.

    They've only shared the floor for 423 possessions, but OKC is a stout plus-11.9 points per 100 possessions (96th percentile) in those situations.

    Instead of leaning into a combo with a young, dynamic playmaker and a floor-spacing big that seems to work, the Thunder are committing to losing lineups that will improve their lottery odds.

26. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 24

    Record: 13-21

    Net Rating: -4.0

    Thanks in large part to a parity-packed middle (and back) of the Western Conference, the play-in tournament is still well within the Portland Trail Blazers' reach, but they're undeniably closer to the tankers than they are to the contenders.

    Following Wednesday's double-digit loss to the Utah Jazz, Portland's net rating ranks 25th. Only the New Orleans Pelicans, Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic and Detroit Pistons are worse.

    And while Damian Lillard has looked better since returning from an abdominal injury (he's averaging 31.0 points, 6.1 assists and 4.5 threes in those eight games), Portland is still getting beaten handily when he's on the floor. The Blazers are minus-50 in Lillard's minutes over his last two games.

25. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 26

    Record: 13-22

    Net Rating: -4.1

    The New Orleans Pelicans have quietly won five of six. And while some of the victories have come against others near the bottom of the standings, there are some quality victories too.

    Early in the run, they survived a 40-point outburst from Jrue Holiday. Then, on Tuesday, they beat a red-hot Cleveland Cavaliers team that got a combined 49 from Evan Mobley and Ricky Rubio.

    Of course, health and safety protocols had their say in the run too. Giannis Antetokounmpo missed the aforementioned Bucks game. Darius Garland was out Tuesday.

    But all the Pelicans can do is compete against who's in front of them, and they've done so just enough to get within striking distance of the play-in tournament.

24. Sacramento Kings

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    Matt Kelley/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 25

    Record: 15-21

    Net Rating: -3.8

    Tyrese Haliburton has understandably gotten most of the positive attention headed the Sacramento Kings' way of late. He's averaging 21.1 points, 10.3 assists and 2.7 made threes, while shooting 47.5 percent from three, in his last seven games.

    But here, we'll spotlight a couple of forwards who seem to be making a positive impact too.

    Chimezie Metu, who hit the game-winning, buzzer-beating three over the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday, is averaging double figures over the same seven-game stretch outlined above. And Marvin Bagley III started both contests during Sacramento's mini two-game winning streak and nearly averaged a double-double.

23. New York Knicks

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 23

    Record: 17-18

    Net Rating: -0.7

    The New York Knicks had a good week. Nevermind the fact that all three wins came against below-.500 teams, including the health-and-safety-protocol-ravaged Minnesota Timberwolves and the cellar-dwelling Detroit Pistons.

    It's still 3-0. And for a team scratching and clawing to get back to the playoffs, there's no use getting picky about wins.

    It's fair to focus on areas for improvement, though. And considering this trend has been in place since the start of last season, coach Tom Thibodeau has to figure out what's wrong with his starting lineup.

    In Wednesday's win over Detroit, the average plus-minus of a Knicks starter was minus-23.2. And games like that aren't unusual. Demoting Kemba Walker wasn't the fix. Could something more drastic be next? Julius Randle has been a negative in the plus-minus column in 23 of his 35 appearances.

22. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 18

    Record: 17-19

    Net Rating: -2.1

    The Los Angeles Lakers are 1-6 in their past seven games. And during that stretch, LeBron James is averaging 32.4 points, 10.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 3.0 made threes, 1.6 blocks and 1.6 steals. He's shooting 55.4 percent from the field and 39.6 percent from three.

    It's like Playoff LeBron has been activated in December, and it's still not enough for this roster to win. In fact, it's not even close to enough. In this run, L.A. is minus-10.3 points per 100 possessions.

    And for the entire season, the Lakers are plus-1.6 with LeBron on the floor. That's not enough of a buffer for a group that has been terrible without the superstar (the team is minus-7.3 when Russell Westbrook plays without James).

21. San Antonio Spurs

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    Darren Abate/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 21

    Record: 14-19

    Net Rating: +1.9

    It's probably time to take the San Antonio Spurs' play-in chances seriously. They're a handful of games below .500 and in 10th place in the West, but their point differential is 10th in the entire NBA.

    Blowouts over the banged-up Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers and Detroit Pistons certainly boosted that number, but San Antonio appears to have the kind of deep, versatile roster that can compete on most nights.

    If you look at production per 75 possessions, the Spurs have 10 players putting up at least 15 points, eight handing out 3.0 assists and eight hitting at least 1.5 threes (minimum 100 minutes).

20. Indiana Pacers

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 20

    Record: 14-21

    Net Rating: +0.1

    For much of this season, I've banged the point-differential drum for the Indiana Pacers. And after an 0-2 week, they're somehow still on the positive side of that ledger.

    At a certain point, though, we have to acknowledge that the Orlando Magic and Detroit Pistons are the only Eastern Conference teams behind them in the standings.

    While there's a lot of talent on this team, it's clearly not coalescing in big moments. The New Orleans Pelicans are the only team with a worse plus-minus in the clutch (the last five minutes of games within five points).

19. Boston Celtics

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    Jon Durr/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 13

    Record: 16-19

    Net Rating: +0.3

    The Boston Celtics have lost three straight (and five of their last seven). Though it's fair to point out the absence of Jayson Tatum, a couple of those losses came against teams that were even more hampered.

    On Monday, they lost to a Minnesota Timberwolves squad that was missing Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, D'Angelo Russell and Jarred Vanderbilt. Greg Monroe (yes, that Greg Monroe) powered Minnesota to victory as a hardship signing.

    Then, on Wednesday, the C's lost to a Los Angeles Clippers team without Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

    This is a funky stretch of the season for almost every team in the NBA, but something feels off for Boston.

18. Denver Nuggets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 22

    Record: 17-16

    Net Rating: -0.5

    A seemingly never-ending wave of injuries and trips to the health and safety protocols finally caught up to the Denver Nuggets on Thursday, when they were unable to get to eight healthy players for Thursday's rematch against the Golden State Warriors. The league postponed that matchup, giving Nikola Jokic and the hobbling Nuggets an undefeated week.

    On Sunday, it took 26 points, 22 rebounds, eight assists, two steals and two blocks from Jokic to squeak by a Los Angeles Clippers team without Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. Then, on Tuesday, he needed 22 points, 19 boards, five assists, four steals and a game-sealing block to beat Stephen Curry, Andrew Wiggins and the Warriors.

    With Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Monte Morris and P.J. Dozier out, this might just be how Denver has to play. Jokic does as much as humanly possible, while the Nuggets just pray for enough contributions from the rest of the roster to survive a grinder.

17. Washington Wizards

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    Stephen Gosling/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 19

    Record: 18-17

    Net Rating: -2.3

    Between their 10-3 start and Thursday's blowout win over a Cleveland Cavaliers team without Darius Garland and the recently injured Ricky Rubio, the Washington Wizards were 7-14 and had the third-worst net rating in the NBA.

    The tanking Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic were the only teams with worse point differentials in that stretch.

    There have been moments when Washington looked like the team that shot out of the gates, though. Earlier this month, the Wizards won on the road against the Western Conference power Utah Jazz. On Thursday, they beat the Cavs by 17.

    And the common theme in those two victories was Bradley Beal looking like his previous self. His season-long average of 23.5 points is well shy of last season's 31.3, but performances like Thursday's (his 11th game with a 50-plus field-goal percentage) suggest the old Beal is still in there.

16. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Jordan Johnson/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 16

    Record: 16-18

    Net Rating: -0.5

    As of their game Tuesday, the Minnesota Timberwolves still have D'Angelo Russell, Karl-Anthony Towns and Jarred Vanderbilt stuck in health and safety protocols. Anthony Edwards has been sprung, but he still hasn't returned to the lineup.

    So it probably shouldn't be too surprising that the T-Wolves came up short against a mostly whole New York Knicks squad that should be feeling a bit of desperation.

    On the bright side, Minnesota didn't go winless during this protocol-ravaged stretch, thanks in large part to Greg Monroe showing up and turning back the clock.

    In Minnesota's 108-103 win over the Boston Celtics, the recently signed Monroe went for 11 points, nine rebounds, six assists, two steals and a block in 25 minutes off the bench.

15. Dallas Mavericks

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 17

    Record: 16-18

    Net Rating: +0.2

    The Dallas Mavericks are minus-5.3 points per 100 possessions with Luka Doncic on the floor and plus-4.0 with him off. Among players with at least as many minutes as Luka, that minus-9.3-point swing is the 10th worst in the league.

    Not having him at all certainly isn't the answer, though. Doncic is in the health and safety protocols and has missed the Mavs' last nine games. And following Wednesday's loss at the buzzer to the Sacramento Kings, Dallas is 4-9 when Luka doesn't play.

    Jalen Brunson is averaging 20.8 points and 7.3 assists during the latest string of Doncic absences, which is encouraging, but he needs someone to come along with him.

    Kristaps Porzingis seems like a prime candidate, and 22.6 points over this stretch suggests he's willing, but his shooting efficiency remains atrocious. Over the Mavs' last nine games, Porzingis is shooting 41.5 percent from the field and 21.1 percent from three, dropping his season-long marks to 44.4 and 27.5.

14. Toronto Raptors

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 11

    Record: 14-17

    Net Rating: -0.4

    The Toronto Raptors were headed in the right direction before health and safety protocols completely stifled their momentum.

    Beyond having three of four games postponed earlier this month, Toronto had to face two Eastern Conference playoff teams with rotations that looked nothing like their full squad.

    In a 45-point loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday, Yuta Watanabe, D.J. Wilson and Svi Mykhailiuk were the top three in minutes played. Gary Trent Jr. and Pascal Siakam came back and helped Toronto push the Philadelphia 76ers to the brink Tuesday, but ultimately, they fell to 0-2 for the week.

    It's not fair to draw many takeaways from a stretch like this, but Toronto obviously isn't the only team in this situation.

13. Atlanta Hawks

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    Hakim Wright Sr./Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 10

    Record: 15-19

    Net Rating: +0.1

    The Atlanta Hawks have lost five of their last six. And while three absences from Trae Young (and two from John Collins) contributed to this slide, almost every team in the NBA is dealing with lack of availability thanks to injuries and the league's health and safety protocols.

    In theory, Atlanta should've been set up better than most to handle stretches like this. The Hawks' depth is solid on paper, but they still just can't score without Young.

    On the year, the Hawks are putting up a scorching 117.7 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor, compared to a paltry 102.4 when he's off.

12. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 12

    Record: 18-17

    Net Rating: +0.3

    With a torn ligament in his elbow, Paul George is out for the foreseeable future, and the Los Angeles Clippers are in survival mode.

    They lost their first two games after the news broke, but they had a bounce-back against the reeling Boston Celtics on Wednesday.

    That game may have offered the blueprint for L.A. going forward too. Turn games into a grind and get balanced scoring from wings Marcus Morris Sr., Terance Mann and Luke Kennard.

11. Charlotte Hornets

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    Matt Kelley/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 15

    Record: 19-17

    Net Rating: -0.6

    The Charlotte Hornets registered their NBA-leading 20th game with at least 115 points in Wednesday's win over the Indiana Pacers.

    Regardless of who's available (Miles Bridges is the latest big-name Hornet to enter health and safety protocols), this team just keeps chugging along with big offensive performances.

    And it's not just that they play fast (though that's part of it). Charlotte's combination of pace, shooting efficiency and a low turnover rate has helped them maintain the league's second-best offense for most of the season.

10. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 14

    Record: 19-16

    Net Rating: +0.4

    The Philadelphia 76ers capped off a 3-0 week with a 110-102 win over the Brooklyn Nets. And though Kyrie Irving wasn't in action (because the game was in Brooklyn), the Nets were mostly whole and got 66 points from Kevin Durant and James Harden.

    The most obvious reason for Philadelphia's improved run is Joel Embiid suddenly playing like an MVP again.

    After dropping 34 on the Nets, he's up to 33.7 over his last six. He's attempted at least 10 free throws in all of those games.

    When Embiid is playing like this, regardless of who's around him, the Sixers are a tough out.

9. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 7

    Record: 20-15

    Net Rating: +5.7

    It's been a tumultuous week for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

    On Tuesday, reserve guard Ricky Rubio left a loss to the New Orleans Pelicans with what was later diagnosed as a torn ACL. Cleveland's net rating was 3.7 points better with Rubio on the floor, and he'd become even more important in the wake of Collin Sexton's season-ending knee injury.

    Then, during Thursday's loss to the Washington Wizards, The Athletic and Stadium's Shams Charania reported that the Cavs were on the verge of acquiring Rajon Rondo.

    And all of this during a 1-3 stretch that has halted the most momentum Cleveland has had since LeBron James was there.

    Rondo may not stop the slide (he's been significantly worse than Rubio this season), but it's clear that the Cavs need some backcourt help. If he could at least give a few minutes of competence per game, Darius Garland and a stout frontcourt should still get Cleveland back to the playoffs.

8. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 9

    Record: 22-14

    Net Rating: +2.3

    The "Memphis Grizzlies are better without Ja Morant" takes lost a ton of steam this week. On the season, their point differential is still a whopping 9.0 points per 100 possessions better when he's off the floor, but he was the driving factor of their three-game winning streak.

    Morant is plus-45 in those three contests, with averages of 30.7 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 3.0 made threes and 1.3 steals. He dropped 41 in Wednesday's win over the Los Angeles Lakers.

    Once everybody's back in the lineup, if Memphis can combine Ja's dynamic offense with the gritty, connected defense it played without him, the Grizzlies will be one of the game's toughest outs.

7. Miami Heat

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    Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 8

    Record: 22-13

    Net Rating: +4.1

    Two games after Jimmy Butler's return to the lineup from an injury, the league's health and safety protocols postponed their game against the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday.

    It seems like every time there's a light at the end of the injury/COVID tunnel for this team, more bad news comes rolling in.

    Still, Miami's perseverance through this stretch is commendable. The Heat are 8-2 in their last 10 games, a mark they'd almost certainly take from any stretch in which they were mostly without Butler and Bam Adebayo.

6. Brooklyn Nets

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 4

    Record: 23-10

    Net Rating: +3.6

    With Kyrie Irving out of health and safety protocols, his season debut should be right around the corner. Their next road game will be against the Indiana Pacers on January 5. If it doesn't happen then, all eyes will be on the January 12 game against the Bulls in Chicago.

    In the meantime, Patty Mills deserves some love for holding down the fort in Irving's absence.

    He had just five points on 2-of-10 shooting in Thursday's loss to the Sixers, but he's averaged 14.1 points and hit 43.1 percent of his three-point attempts this season. And he's had more than one bailout performance like his 34-point Christmas Day.

    With Irving back, and Mills presumably returning to the bench for away games, Brooklyn will suddenly have one of the game's more dynamic reserve units.

5. Chicago Bulls

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    Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 6

    Record: 22-10

    Net Rating: +4.0

    The Chicago Bulls are starting to emerge from their bout with health and safety protocols (though Lonzo Ball is still in), and it's probably time to start including them among legitimate Eastern Conference contenders.

    DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine are back in the lineup, and when those two are on the floor, Chicago is plus-7.2 points per 100 possessions.

    They're fifth and sixth, respectively, in points per game this season, and when surrounded by strong perimeter defense like the efforts provided by Ball and Alex Caruso, the Bulls look like they can compete with anyone.

4. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 5

    Record: 24-13

    Net Rating: +4.1

    While much of the league continues to battle with health and safety protocols, the Milwaukee Bucks are finally whole (with the exception of Brook Lopez), and they are starting to look an awful lot like the team that won the title in 2021.

    Milwaukee has now won five straight. And in Thursday's win over the Orlando Magic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday combined for 80 points.

    Perhaps even more encouraging, two of the replacement players look like they could maintain roles on the team going forward. Wesley Matthews has averaged 9.2 points over his last five. And if you stretch back a little further, DeMarcus Cousins is putting up 13.4 in his last seven.

3. Phoenix Suns

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    Michael Gonzales/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 2

    Record: 27-7

    Net Rating: +7.3

    This week, the Phoenix Suns had their first losing streak since their third and fourth games of the season. Considering how Devin Booker has looked since returning from injury, though, those little bumps in the road probably won't get much more attention than they deserve.

    In his first six games after coming back from a hamstring strain, Booker is putting up 25.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 4.0 made threes while shooting 49.0 percent from three.

    If Booker can stay at or near that kind of production when Deandre Ayton emerges from health and safety protocols, the Suns will surely maintain their spot near the top of the power rankings.

2. Utah Jazz

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    Darren Carroll/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 3

    Record: 25-9

    Net Rating: +10.2

    Losses to the Orlando Magic, Indiana Pacers, New Orleans Pelicans and San Antonio Spurs have impacted the way some view this version of the Utah Jazz, but most objective indicators suggest this is a juggernaut.

    After this week, Utah leads the league in net rating. In simple rating system, which combines point differential and strength of schedule, the Jazz are second and just over a tenth of a point shy of the first-place Golden State Warriors.

    But perhaps the most striking number is the 118.3 points per 100 possessions Utah scores. The second-best offense in the league comes in at 113.7, meaning the difference between it and the Jazz is about the same as the distance between second and 20th.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 1

    Record: 27-7

    Net Rating: +10.1

    The Golden State Warriors took it to the Phoenix Suns on Christmas Day without Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins, thanks in large part to a whirlwind effort on both ends of the floor from Draymond Green, who finished with 10 assists, eight points, eight rebounds, three steals, three blocks and two made threes.

    In the next game, with Wiggins back and Draymond taking his place in health and safety protocols, the Warriors had perhaps their worst offensive performance of 2021-22, scoring a season-low 86 points in a loss to the Denver Nuggets.

    The common thread in both games is below-career-norm scoring efficiency from Stephen Curry. He shot 16-of-43 (37.2 percent) against Phoenix and Denver, dropping his season-long percentages to 43.3 from the field and 39.7 from three.

    His career lows for complete seasons are 45.1 and 41.1.