B/R NBA Power Rankings: Can Anyone Catch Devin Booker and the Phoenix Suns?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJanuary 14, 2022

B/R NBA Power Rankings: Can Anyone Catch Devin Booker and the Phoenix Suns?

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    Darryl Webb/Associated Press

    As the Golden State Warriors, Utah Jazz and Brooklyn Nets have all entered mini-slides down the standings, the Phoenix Suns have seized the league's best record with steady, balanced performances on seemingly every night.

    But even the Suns' ascension to the top of the West didn't make them an easy call for the top spot here. The Warriors and Jazz still have better point differentials, and the up-and-coming Memphis Grizzlies have been hotter than anyone over the last several weeks.

    As we enter the heart of the 2021-22 campaign, those teams and others have separated themselves from the pack. Now, they're measuring themselves against each other. And over the last couple weeks, Phoenix is measuring up as well as anyone.

30. Orlando Magic

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 29

    Record: 7-35

    Net Rating: -9.3

    The Orlando Magic remain in a battle with the Detroit Pistons for the distinction of worst team in the league, but there are plenty of good signs up and down this roster.

    Beyond the obvious, like solid contributions from Cole Anthony, Wendell Carter Jr. and Franz Wagner, one of the few veterans on the roster may be playing his way into some trade value.

    He had an off night in Wednesday's loss to the Washington Wizards, but Gary Harris had averaged 16.9 points and 2.7 threes, while shooting 43.5 percent from three over his previous 15 appearances.

    Any teams in need of an experienced wing who can space the floor may have him on their trade deadline big board.

29. Detroit Pistons

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 30

    Record: 9-31

    Net Rating: -9.9

    The Detroit Pistons are in the middle of their best stretch of basketball this season. They've won four of their past seven, and Cade Cunningham is showing very real signs of top-pick upside during this run.

    Over his past six appearances (he missed the first game of this sample), Cunningham has averaged 16.0 points, 6.0 assists and 2.7 threes, with his showcase performance coming against the Western Conference powerhouse Utah Jazz.    

    In a game Rudy Gobert missed thanks to health and safety protocols, Cunningham helped the Pistons erase a 22-point deficit with 29 points on 10-of-17 shooting, out-dueling Donovan Mitchell in the second half of the comeback.

28. Houston Rockets

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    Michael Gonzales/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 28

    Record: 12-31

    Net Rating: -8.4

    Eric Gordon may be playing his way off the tanking Houston Rockets.

    In a 128-124 win over the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday, Gordon went for 31 points on 9-of-10 shooting (not a typo). That's the most points anyone has scored on 10 or fewer shots in a game this season, and it brings his season-long numbers up to 14.8 points and 2.4 threes with a 45.2 three-point percentage.

    Any team in need of a little punch from the wing would be wise to consider Gordon, who's also shown some defensive upside in the past.

    For a player of his age (33) and inconsistency over the previous two seasons, $40.5 million over two seasons after this one might be tough to justify taking on, but organizations that reasonably believe they're one piece away might talk themselves into it.

27. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Amanda Loman/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 26

    Record: 16-25

    Net Rating: -4.8

    On Wednesday, the Portland Trail Blazers broke significant news on the team's website, writing, "Damian Lillard underwent surgery this morning to repair a core injury causing chronic abdominal pain."

    With Lillard now out for at least the next six weeks, the possibility of tanking has to be taken seriously. After Thursday's blowout loss to the Denver Nuggets, they're closer to last place in the West than they are to sixth (how high they'd have to get to avoid the play-in tournament).

    Without Lillard, it seems likely that they'll continue to slide down the standings. And by the end of these six weeks, reevaluation might have as much to do with Portland's potential draft position as it does with Lillard's ability to play at peak levels.

26. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 27

    Record: 14-27

    Net Rating: -7.0

    Ineptitude of other teams in their range of the standings has helped the Oklahoma City Thunder stay within striking distance of the play-in tournament. And the star upside of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander may be enough to eventually push them to 10th.

    In Thursday's blowout win over the Brooklyn Nets (who were without Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving), SGA went for 33 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists, two threes and two blocks.

    He's now had seven games with at least nine dimes this season, and OKC is 6-1 in those games. The team has understandably turned over much of the playmaking responsibility to rookie playmaker Josh Giddey, but Gilgeous-Alexander's ability to distribute may be the key to scraping together a few more wins.

25. Sacramento Kings

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 24

    Record: 17-27

    Net Rating: -4.2

    The Sacramento Kings got a much-needed win on Wednesday, snapping a five-game losing streak against the Los Angeles Lakers.

    And what may be even more encouraging than the tally in the win column was the way that De'Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton played together. Both were on the right side of the plus-minus ledger and had game scores over 16.0, per Basketball Reference.

    Fox and Haliburton have now combined for 32 total games with a 16.0-plus game score, but they've only done it in the same contest six times. The Kings are 4-2 in those games.

24. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 25

    Record: 16-26

    Net Rating: -3.8

    The New Orleans Pelicans continue to do just enough to stay in the hunt for the play-in tournament. Every losing streak seems punctuated by a run like the one New Orleans is on now. After blowing out the Los Angeles Clippers, 113-89, on Thursday, they've now won three of their last four.

    And during this little stretch, Brandon Ingram is starting to play like an All-Star again. Over his last four games, Ingram has averaged 27.8 points and 6.3 assists while shooting 54.2 percent from the field.

    We still haven't heard any encouraging news on the Zion Williamson injury front, but if Ingram can maintain this level of play, he, Jonas Valanciunas and Devonte' Graham may drag the Pelicans to the play-in without him.

23. Indiana Pacers

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 23

    Record: 15-27

    Net Rating: -0.6

    Things just keep getting worse for the Indiana Pacers, who are 2-9 in their past 11 games after getting blown out at home by the Boston Celtics.

    As usual, the individual numbers of their big-name players, including Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner, were fine, but the Pacers just can't stop anyone.

    During the 2-9 stretch, Indiana's 115.3 points allowed per 100 possessions ranks 27th.

22. San Antonio Spurs

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 21

    Record: 15-26

    Net Rating: -0.4

    Assuming they're aiming for the playoffs, the San Antonio Spurs are fortunate that no team in the West seems to want that 10th-place finish.

    Despite winning just one of their past nine games, the Spurs are just two games back of the 10th-place Portland Trail Blazers in the loss column.

    If they eventually force their way into the play-in, Dejounte Murray surely deserves a lion's share of the credit. After going for 32 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds and three steals in Wednesday's loss to the Houston Rockets, his averages are up to 18.8, 8.9, 8.2 and 2.1.

21. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 17

    Record: 21-22

    Net Rating: -1.1

    The Los Angeles Clippers pulled off a borderline miraculous comeback win over the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday.

    They managed just 28 points in the first half of that contest and eventually fell to a deficit of 25 points in the second before roaring back for the win.

    Two days later, the same squad was run off the floor in a 24-point loss to the sub-.500 New Orleans Pelicans.

    Such inconsistency is likely to be the plight of a team without its two best players for the foreseeable future. There are plenty of third- or fourth-option-level talents, but without Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, they're facing a different kind of defensive attention.

20. Atlanta Hawks

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 16

    Record: 17-23

    Net Rating: -1.0

    It might be time to push the panic button for the Atlanta Hawks.

    After getting blasted by 24 points by a Miami Heat team without Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo on Wednesday, the Hawks have now lost nine of their past 12 games. And they've surrendered at least 130 points in five of those contests.

    With all of that as a backdrop, it's probably not much of a surprise to suddenly see Atlanta included in trade rumors all over the internet. And that includes the latest rumblings on Ben Simmons.

    According to The Athletic's Shams Charania, "The Hawks are an emerging potential landing spot for Simmons..."

19. New York Knicks

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 22

    Record: 21-21

    Net Rating: -0.7

    The New York Knicks have undergone a week and a half of course correction, winning four of their past five after smashing the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday.

    The highlight of this latest run has been the play of RJ Barrett, who's averaging 25.4 points and 3.0 threes, while shooting 51.7 percent from three in his past five outings.

    After dropping 32 on the Mavericks, New York is now 5-0 when he goes for at least 30.

18. Boston Celtics

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    Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 20

    Record: 21-21

    Net Rating: +1.7

    For much of this season, the chatter around the Boston Celtics has been on their need for a more traditional point guard to deploy alongside Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

    With those two, there's plenty of scoring talent on the wing, but neither is much of a table-setter. Dennis Schroeder isn't either, but he can at least take some pressure off the stars when he plays well.

    Schroeder had his 13th 20-point game of the season in a win over the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday, and Boston is 8-5 in those games.

17. Washington Wizards

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 18

    Record: 22-20

    Net Rating: -1.8

    The 2021-22 campaign has been a roller coaster for the Washington Wizards, who are working on one of their high points right now.

    After going 5-9 and posting the 25th-ranked net rating in December, Washington has now won three straight after beating the Orlando Magic on Wednesday. And the recent contributions of Kyle Kuzma might be even more encouraging than the wins.

    In his past 10 games, Kuzma is putting up 24.4 points, 11.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists, while shooting 53.1 percent from the field.

16. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 14

    Record: 21-21

    Net Rating: -0.8

    Russell Westbrook gave his detractors more ammunition on Wednesday night, when he went 2-of-14 from the field in a nine-point loss to the sub-.500 Sacramento Kings. In the final three minutes of that one, he launched and missed two momentum-snuffing three-point attempts.

    And that wasn't the first time his late-game decision-making has led to some head-scratching this season. In several games, and particularly in high-leverage possessions, his game vividly clashes with that of LeBron James.

    Both have spent their entire careers as ball-dominant playmakers, and LeBron has typically been surrounded by shooting. Relegating Russ to that role never made sense, and this season's results have confirmed that.

    On the bright side, another offseason acquisition helped the Lakers win five of six just before this current two-game losing streak. In his nine games since springing from the league's health and safety protocols, Malik Monk has averaged 20.2 points and 3.8 threes, while shooting 50.0 percent from three.

15. Denver Nuggets

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    Nate Billings/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 19

    Record: 21-19

    Net Rating: +0.4

    The Denver Nuggets had perhaps their worst loss of this injury-plagued season on Tuesday. After holding the Los Angeles Clippers to 28 points in the first half and eventually building a 25-point lead in the third quarter, they completely collapsed.

    And the 87-85 loss to L.A. was emblematic of a problem that has haunted the Nuggets all season. Denver's plus-8.4 net rating in first halves ranks third in the league. In second halves, though, they're minus-9.7, a mark that ranks dead last.

    One source of the late-game meltdowns may be lack of ball control. The Nuggets have turned it over on 16.0 percent of their second half possessions.

    Still, Denver has won three of its last four (and six of its last nine) and is led by the statistical leader in the clubhouse for "best player in the world" honors. Throughout this season, when you sort players by the average of their ranks in notable catch-all metrics from around the internet, Jokic has come in first.

14. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 15

    Record: 20-22

    Net Rating: +0.7

    It may come as a bit of a surprise, considering the Minnesota Timberwolves' record, but their starting five has the best total plus-minus of any lineup in the NBA.

    In the 152 minutes in which Patrick Beverley, D'Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, Jarred Vanderbilt and Karl-Anthony Towns are on the floor, Minnesota is plus-134.

    And the unsung hero of that bunch may be Vanderbilt. He averages only 6.6 points, but he's tied for 12th in the NBA in total deflections, 10th in offensive rebounding percentage and fifth in steal percentage.

    When he's on the floor, the Wolves are plus-8.5 points per 100 possessions, compared to minus-4.7 without him.

13. Toronto Raptors

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 12

    Record: 20-18

    Net Rating: +1.2

    The Toronto Raptors' six-game win streak came to an end against the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, but not before the league had to take notice of their resurgence.

    Since December 31 (when the streak started), Fred VanVleet is averaging a Stephen Curry-like 29.7 points, 6.4 assists and 5.6 threes, while shooting 43.8 percent from three. Pascal Siakam looks like an All-Star again, with 23.4 points, 10.4 rebounds and 6.3 assists. OG Anunoby is pitching in 19.3 points.

    Just having those three available is probably the key for sustained success. After dealing with injuries and health and safety protocols for much of the 2021 portion of the schedule, that trio has played fewer than 500 possessions together. And it's plus-7.1 points per 100 possessions in that limited sample.

12. Dallas Mavericks

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    Tim Heitman/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 11

    Record: 22-19

    Net Rating: +2.0

    The Dallas Mavericks' six-game winning streak came to a screeching halt on Wednesday, when the New York Knicks blew them out, 108-85. That shouldn't erase all the good vibes of the streak, though.

    Despite some horrifying shooting numbers (37.5 percent from the field and 22.9 percent from three), Luka Doncic has averaged 10.4 assists and been a plus player (plus-5.0 per game, to be exact) since December 31 when the run started. Prior to that date, Luka's average plus-minus was minus-4.0.

    Perhaps even more important, coach Jason Kidd has instilled more of a defensive mentality in this team that has often leaned on its offense to win games. Since December 1, Dallas has the league's fifth-best defense.

11. Charlotte Hornets

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 13

    Record: 23-19

    Net Rating: -0.2

    Just saying the Charlotte Hornets are on a four-game winning streak doesn't really do this run justice. It opened with a blowout over the Detroit Pistons, but the last three wins came against the Milwaukee Bucks (twice) and Philadelphia 76ers.

    With Joel Embiid playing like an MVP recently, that's three wins over Eastern Conference contenders for a Hornets squad that finally has all its guys healthy and available.

    During the streak, Terry Rozier, Miles Bridges, Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball are all averaging between 23.3 and 16.8 points. Hayward, Rozier and Ball are all averaging at least four assists. That kind of offensive balance is going to be tough for anyone to keep up with.

10. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 10

    Record: 23-17

    Net Rating: +2.0

    The Philadelphia 76ers suffered a loss at the hands of the Charlotte Hornets Wednesday, but they were starting to look like borderline title contenders during the seven-game winning streak that preceded it.

    Since Christmas, Joel Embiid is averaging 32.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 threes and 1.0 steals. And as long as he's at that level and surrounded by a decent amount of shooting, Philadelphia is going to be tough to beat.

    The closer the Sixers get to the top tier, though, the more it feels like Daryl Morey may have to relent and trade Ben Simmons. Even if he's not able to secure the kind of deal he's after now, one or two quality players does more for Embiid's title window than a max contract that won't set foot on the floor.

9. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Amanda Loman/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 9

    Record: 24-18

    Net Rating: +5.3

    The Cleveland Cavaliers crushed a Utah Jazz team without Rudy Gobert and Hassan Whiteside on Wednesday. The 20-point win was their seventh of the season, a mark that trails only the Phoenix Suns and the Jazz.

    In that game, Darius Garland couldn't find his range as a shooter, but he finished with 15 assists, 11 points and 10 rebounds. It was the first triple-double of his career and added to a growing All-Star case.

    His toughest competition on that front may be teammate Jarrett Allen, but Garland is now averaging 19.1 points and 7.6 assists for a team that's in the top five in net rating.

8. Miami Heat

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    Amanda Loman/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 8

    Record: 26-15

    Net Rating: +4.8

    Regardless of who's available, the Miami Heat seem to be competitive just about every night.

    On Wednesday, with Jimmy Butler missing his 18th game and Bam Adebayo missing his 23rd, the Heat annihilated an Atlanta Hawks squad that had both Trae Young and John Collins on the floor.

    There have plenty of unexpected game-changing performances from unheralded players like Max Strus, Omer Yurtseven, Caleb Martin and others, but the steadiest contributor might be Sixth Man of the Year contender Tyler Herro.

    He trails only Kyle Lowry among Miami players in total minutes played, and his 20.7 points leads all NBA reserves in scoring.

7. Utah Jazz

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 3

    Record: 28-14

    Net Rating: +7.6

    Plenty of fans seem to have a hard time understanding the impact Rudy Gobert has had on the Utah Jazz throughout his career. The team is plus-7.5 points per 100 possessions when he plays, compared to minus-1.3 when he doesn't.

    But even numbers like that probably don't do it justice. Anyone hoping for a better grasp on how important his defense and rim-running are can zero in on Utah's current four-game losing streak.

    Gobert is currently sidelined in the league's health and safety protocols, and the Jazz have given up 122, 125, 126 and 111 points, respectively, in losses to the Toronto Raptors, Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers.

6. Chicago Bulls

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 4

    Record: 27-12

    Net Rating: +3.9

    The Chicago Bulls were handed a pair of potential reality checks this week, losing by double-digits to the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday and getting blasted by 26 points against the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday.

    All things considered, going 2-2 this week is probably just a blip on the radar, but one of this offseason's concerns may finally be coming to fruition.

    Over their past 12 games, Chicago has surrendered 112.5 points per 100 possessions, a mark that ranks 19th in the league during that span.

    Of course, with DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic, they're still scoring enough to have a top-10 net rating over this run, but this regression may be something to keep an eye on.

5. Brooklyn Nets

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    Jessie Alcheh/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 5

    Record: 26-15

    Net Rating: +2.4

    A blowout loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder took some of the shine off their week. And they're now 4-6 in their last 10 games. But on Wednesday, with Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving all in the lineup, the Brooklyn Nets sent a message to the league.

    In a hyped-up matchup against the first-place Chicago Bulls, the Nets annihilated DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine's team in a game that included a 42-8 run.

    Even with Kyrie only taking 10 shots, Brooklyn showed an offensive upside that no one else may be able to reach. The Nets have three players who'd be the first option on most teams across NBA history, all of whom appear willing to defer to each other.

4. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 6

    Record: 27-17

    Net Rating: +4.0

    The Milwaukee Bucks secured a statement win over the Golden State Warriors on Thursday. With Jrue Holiday still out due to an ankle injury, Giannis Antetokounmpo went for 30 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists in the 118-99 victory.

    On the year, Giannis is now averaging 28.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists in 32.4 minutes. And because he's been at that absurd level of production for nearly half a decade, people may be starting to take it for granted.

    Most of the MVP chatter this season has focused on Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry, but Basketball Reference's MVP Tracker—which is "based on a model built using previous voting results"—has Giannis as the current favorite.

3. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 7

    Record: 30-14

    Net Rating: +4.2

    The Memphis Grizzlies are the hottest team in the NBA. After beating the Minnesota Timberwolves on Thursday, they've now won 11 straight and leapfrogged the Utah Jazz for third place in the West.

    And their superstar point guard, Ja Morant, seems to be on a personal mission to validate teammate Desmond Bane's suggestion that he might be the best point guard in the NBA.

    Over his 12 games since returning from the league's health and safety protocols, Morant has averaged 25.3 points, 6.8 assists and 6.1 rebounds while shooting 49.8 percent from the field and 36.4 percent from three.

2. Golden State Warriors

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 2

    Record: 30-11

    Net Rating: +7.8

    Stephen Curry's weeks-long shooting slump is officially getting weird.

    After going 2-of-6 from three in Thursday's blowout loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, he's now shooting just 33.6 percent from deep over his last 10 games.

    The addition of Klay Thompson to the lineup hasn't really seemed to alleviate the defensive pressure Curry faces outside either. At least not yet.

    That may not happen until those two share the floor with Draymond Green, the gap-filler and playmaker who allows Curry and Thompson to get more catch-and-shoot opportunities and who's out with a calf injury.

1. Phoenix Suns

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    Cole Burston/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 1

    Record: 31-9

    Net Rating: +7.0

    While the Golden State Warriors and Utah Jazz went through mini-skids this week, the Phoenix Suns did just enough to retake the West's top seed.

    After a blowout loss to the Miami Heat on Saturday, Phoenix bounced back to beat the Toronto Raptors on the road on Tuesday.

    And while Devin Booker's complaining about the Raptors mascot got most of the attention, it was their consistency and balance that gets the spotlight here.

    After all five Suns starters hit double figures on Tuesday, they have seven players on the roster with at least 200 minutes and a scoring average of at least 10 points. And at 9.4, Jae Crowder isn't far behind.