B/R NBA Power Rankings: No. 1 Phoenix Suns Chasing Franchise Record

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJanuary 21, 2022

B/R NBA Power Rankings: No. 1 Phoenix Suns Chasing Franchise Record

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    Over the last few weeks, we've seen obvious signs of mortality from a number of contenders in both conferences.

    Little slides from the Golden State Warriors, Utah Jazz, Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks make the title-contending tier feel wide open. They've also allowed the Phoenix Suns to separate from the pack.

    For much of the season, they've been neck-and-neck with the Warriors for the league's best record while their point differential lagged behind those of Golden State and Utah. Even that isn't available for criticism anymore, as they now lead the league.

    But while Phoenix has provided some stability at the top of the power rankings in recent weeks, there's plenty of movement in the middle, as you'll see below.

30. Orlando Magic

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    David Dow/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 30

    Record: 8-38

    Net Rating: -9.2

    The tank rolls on for the Orlando Magic, who continue to provide flashes of high-end potential while adding to the loss column and improving their lottery odds.

    On Wednesday, the flashes came from Mo Bamba. In a 123-110 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, he dropped a career-high 32 points on 12-of-15 shooting (including 7-of-8 from three).

    Over the course of the entire season, he hasn't shown quite as much as Wendell Carter Jr., Franz Wagner or Cole Anthony, but that's the kind of performance that makes you think he can join them as a core piece.

29. Detroit Pistons

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 29

    Record: 11-33

    Net Rating: -9.6

    His season-long numbers remain underwhelming thanks to a 34.5 field-goal percentage and a 29.6 three-point percentage over his first 26 games, but Saddiq Bey is looking more like an ideal fit alongside Cade Cunningham every week.

    In his 18 games since that cold start, Bey is averaging 20.1 points and 3.2 threes while shooting 37.4 percent from three. On Wednesday, he went off for 30 in a two-point road win over the Sacramento Kings.

    With Bey's ability to pull bigger defenders away from the paint, driving lanes for Cunningham should feel a little less crowded.

28. Houston Rockets

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 28

    Record: 14-32

    Net Rating: -7.8

    The Houston Rockets may be this season's 2020-21 Orlando Magic. They're clearly headed to good odds in the draft lottery, but there is plenty of veteran talent on the roster for other teams to target at the trade deadline.

    Any team in need of a scoring and outside shooting boost on the wing would be wise to go after Eric Gordon or Garrison Mathews. Christian Wood can provide a similar punch as a big.

    Over his last eight games, Wood is averaging 20.4 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.3 threes while shooting 42.9 percent from three.

27. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Nate Billings/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 26

    Record: 14-30

    Net Rating: -7.2

    They're still within shouting distance of the play-in tournament, but an 0-3 week has gotten the tank back on track without providing many reasons to sour on the young core.

    On Monday, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander went for 34 points, six boards, five assists and two steals. He continues to look like a star on a fairly consistent basis. He just needs a steadier supporting cast.

    Halfway through his rookie season, Josh Giddey looks like he will be a part of that cast long term. He's on pace to be the first teenager in NBA history to average at least 13 points, eight rebounds and seven assists per 75 possessions.

26. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 27

    Record: 18-26

    Net Rating: -4.5

    The Portland Trail Blazers have won four of their last six, and getting CJ McCollum back after an 18-game absence with a collapsed lung could help them maintain that momentum.

    In his two games since returning, McCollum has 40 points on 17-of-33 shooting. Combining his steady scoring with the recent explosion in production from Anfernee Simons (who's averaging 26.3 points and 7.9 assists in eight games since Jan. 1) could help them survive an extended absence from Damian Lillard.

    The recent warm stretch from this team has it back in 10th place, and even attempting to tank might be difficult given the struggles of teams behind the Blazers in the standings.

25. Sacramento Kings

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 25

    Record: 18-29

    Net Rating: -3.8

    The Sacramento Kings had another losing week, but they can take some solace in De'Aaron Fox's recent return to form.

    In his last nine games, Fox is averaging 23.7 points and 5.2 assists. His three-point shooting is still a problem, but Fox has looked more aggressive in getting to the rim, and that helps to create open looks for better shooters on the roster.

    At this point of the year, you have to take any trade-related reports with a grain of salt, but this run from Fox coinciding with The Athletic's Shams Charania writing that the "...[Kings] are not moving star guard De'Aaron Fox" makes sense.

24. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 24

    Record: 17-28

    Net Rating: -3.9

    Zion Williamson's absence and a bunch of losses have commanded most of the attention when it comes to the New Orleans Pelicans, but they're quietly getting solid seasons out of three veterans who are keeping them in contention for the play-in tournament.

    When Jonas Valanciunas, Devonte' Graham, Josh Hart and Brandon Ingram are all on the floor, New Orleans is a whopping plus-11.6 points per 100 possessions.

    The problem is that they've only had all four together for 22 games. Such was the case on Thursday when they beat the New York Knicks by double digits on the road.

23. Indiana Pacers

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    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 23

    Record: 17-29

    Net Rating: -0.8

    With Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon and Caris LeVert all out, the Indiana Pacers had perhaps their best performance of the season in a road win over the Golden State Warriors.

    They showed the kind of fight they've often lacked in late-game situations, particularly after quickly falling down by five in overtime. Behind a ragtag bunch of role players led by rookie Chris Duarte, they answered that run and every other one the Warriors had.

    The group in action on Thursday certainly doesn't have the high-end talent Indiana usually deploys, but the players watching from the bench in street clothes could take a cue from their backups on the effort required to win.

22. San Antonio Spurs

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    Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 22

    Record: 17-28

    Net Rating: -0.1

    If the San Antonio Spurs were much higher in the standings, Dejounte Murray would have a strong All-Star case.

    After going for a 23-point, 14-assist, 10-rebound triple-double against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday, he's now averaging 19.2, 8.9 and 8.4. Had Russell Westbrook not completely desensitized us to triple-doubles, people would be gawking over those numbers.

    And if you're concerned about his below-average shooting marks, know that the Spurs' eFG% is 3.2 points better when Murray is on the floor.

21. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Chris Elise/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 21

    Record: 22-24

    Net Rating: -1.1

    The Los Angeles Clippers need to scratch and claw for every win they can get while Paul George remains out with an elbow injury. That makes results like Wednesday's particularly painful.

    Their win probability climbed to 95.2 percent when they went up 108-100 with 3:37 left in the fourth quarter. It hit 80.9 at one point in overtime. But eventually, the Clippers simply couldn't withstand any more attacks from Nikola Jokic, who finished with 49 points, 14 rebounds, 10 assists and three steals.

    Players like Reggie Jackson and Ivica Zubac, who are used to dramatically different roles, deserve plenty of credit for keeping L.A. competitive, but lack of star power could doom them. George will reportedly be out for a "few more weeks," and the Clippers have the fourth-hardest remaining strength of schedule.

20. Atlanta Hawks

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    Hakim Wright Sr./Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 20

    Record: 19-25

    Net Rating: -0.9

    Trae Young has hit some ridiculous peaks this season.

    In November, he had a 42-point, 10-assist performance in a blowout over the Milwaukee Bucks. Two weeks ago, he went for 56 and 14 in a loss. And on Wednesday, he had 37 points on 10-of-17 shooting and handed out 14 assists in a much-needed win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

    With the Atlanta Hawks owning the fourth-worst record in the NBA since December 17, their current two-game winning streak couldn't have come at a better time.

19. New York Knicks

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 19

    Record: 22-24

    Net Rating: -1.0

    The plus-minus woes of the New York Knicks' starting five seemed to be stabilizing a bit. Prior to Thursday's loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, Julius Randle was on the positive side of the ledger in six of his last eight games.

    But that group was pretty much blown off the floor against New Orleans. And it might finally be time to consider some drastic measures (as if pulling Kemba Walker from the rotation entirely wasn't enough).

    New York is minus-4.4 points per 100 possessions with Randle on the floor, compared to plus-7.9 without him. When he shares the floor with Walker, RJ Barrett and Evan Fournier, that net rating drops to minus-9.6.

    The answer probably isn't moving your leading scorer to a reserve role, but Tom Thibodeau might have to find a way to get him more minutes in the Knicks' stellar bench units.

18. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 16

    Record: 22-23

    Net Rating: -1.6

    The Los Angeles Lakers' vibes were about as good as they've been all season after Monday's 101-95 victory over the reeling Utah Jazz, but they didn't last long.

    "[Head coach Frank Vogel] was coaching for his job after he narrowly avoided being fired in the wake of the 37-point loss in Denver 48 hours earlier," The Athletic's Sam Amick and Bill Oram wrote the morning after the Jazz game. "Had a scene like that repeated itself against the Jazz, many believed it would have been Vogel's last game."

    With the proverbial axe hanging over Vogel on Wednesday, the Lakers lost to the sub-.500 Indiana Pacers in Los Angeles. Russell Westbrook was benched down the stretch. And Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes added to the saga when he reported that the "Lakers will not be making a personnel move at this juncture and Frank Vogel will travel with the team tomorrow to coach in Orlando on Friday."

    Even with LeBron James playing like a fringe MVP candidate and Anthony Davis set to return soon, it's hard to claim any situation in the league is more tumultuous.

17. Washington Wizards

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    Stephen Gosling/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 17

    Record: 23-22

    Net Rating: -1.4

    Despite Wednesday's one-point loss to the Brooklyn Nets, the Washington Wizards are in the midst of a 4-2 stretch that put them back over .500.

    A more macro perspective reveals a thoroughly mediocre team, though. And the chemistry (or lack thereof) between the starting backcourt may be the problem.

    Over the course of the season, Washington's point differential has been much better when one of Bradley Beal or Spencer Dinwiddie is off the floor.

16. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Stacy Bengs/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 14

    Record: 22-23

    Net Rating: +0.8

    The Minnesota Timberwolves are 6-3 in their last nine, and D'Angelo Russell has quietly been one of the game's steadier floor generals this season.

    Even after going for 31 points on 10-of-18 shooting Wednesday, his shooting percentages are well below average, but Russell commands attention outside and is averaging 7.8 assists per 75 possessions.

    On the season, Minnesota is plus-8.2 points per 100 possessions when Russell is on the floor and minus-5.8 when he's off.

15. Boston Celtics

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    Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 18

    Record: 23-23

    Net Rating: +1.5

    The Boston Celtics have been better of late, but Wednesday's loss to the Charlotte Hornets highlighted a problem they've had all season.

    They're 24th in the league in effective field-goal percentage (eFG%), and the NBA's leader in total field-goal attempts is a big reason why.

    Jayson Tatum had 12 points on 5-of-19 shooting Wednesday, dropping his season-long eFG% to 47.7, a mark that is nearly five points below the league average.

14. Toronto Raptors

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 13

    Record: 21-21

    Net Rating: +0.6

    Right when it looked like the Toronto Raptors might solidify a spot in the East's top six, they dropped four out of five. In a weird way, this stretch might be proving just how critical Fred VanVleet is to Toronto's success.

    VanVleet is shooting 32.3 percent from the field and 34.9 percent from three in those five games, and his struggles have naturally led to bad results.

    When he plays and shoots at least 50 percent from the field, the Raptors are 9-1. They're 12-20 in all other games.

13. Denver Nuggets

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    Bart Young/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 15

    Record: 23-20

    Net Rating: +0.8

    Despite having the league's biggest net rating swing (the difference between a team's net points per 100 possessions when a given player is on or off the floor) and the best single-season box plus/minus of all time, many still seemed hesitant to include reigning MVP Nikola Jokic in any conversations about, well, the MVP.

    Wednesday might change that. In a nationally televised game against the Los Angeles Clippers, Jokic one-man-showed his way to 49 points, 14 boards, 10 assists and three steals in a two-point overtime win. The Nuggets were plus-15 when he was in the game and minus-13 in the 12 minutes he wasn't.

    With his season averages up to 25.9 points, 13.9 rebounds and 7.4 assists in 32.9 minutes, and Denver rocking the point differential of a 63-win team when he plays, analysts won't be able to default to Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant much longer.

12. Brooklyn Nets

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    Stephen Gosling/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 5

    Record: 28-16

    Net Rating: +2.5

    It's been a tough few weeks for the Brooklyn Nets. Even after Wednesday's one-point win over the Washington Wizards, Brooklyn is just 5-7 in its last 12.

    But the bigger blow than any of those losses is the news the Nets got on Kevin Durant. On Sunday, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Durant would be out for four-to-six weeks to rehab a sprained MCL.

    That, of course, means more responsibility from James Harden and part-time player Kyrie Irving. And the latter showed an ability to step into the lead scorer role against Washington. For the first time this season, he hit the 30-point plateau.

11. Charlotte Hornets

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 11

    Record: 25-20

    Net Rating: 0.0

    Things continue to look up for the Charlotte Hornets, who have now won six of their last seven (and nine of their last 12).

    In their latest win, Terry Rozier scored 28 and LaMelo Ball had a triple-double. But the most encouraging part of this seven-game run may be the revival of early-season Miles Bridges.

    After averaging 24.1 points and shooting 37.1 percent from three in his first nine games, Bridges cooled significantly over his next 27 (when he put up 18.0 points and shot 27.9 percent from deep). Over the last seven, though, he's at 22.6 points with a 38.6 three-point percentage.

    If the Hornets consistently get this version of Bridges while the rest of the roster stays relatively healthy, they'll continue to climb the standings.

10. Utah Jazz

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    Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 7

    Record: 29-16

    Net Rating: +7.3

    The Utah Jazz's panic button can't be safe right now. After starting the season 28-10, they've now lost six of their last seven, and four of those losses came against sub-.500 teams.

    Yes, it's easy (and probably fair) to chalk up the first four games of this stretch to Rudy Gobert's absence. The Jazz are plus-14.0 points per 100 possessions with Gobert on the floor and minus-0.4 with him off. But the lack of defense down the roster is officially a problem.

    Utah is 12th in points allowed per 100 possessions, a placement that seems impossible for a Gobert-led team. If the Jazz don't start playing some championship-caliber defense by the trade deadline, the front office may enter the market for help on that end.

9. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 9

    Record: 27-19

    Net Rating: +4.9

    The Cleveland Cavaliers had a five-game winning streak snapped with a 117-104 loss to the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday, but it's probably safe to stop waiting for the other shoe to drop.

    Even after the double-digit loss, Cleveland trails only the Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz in net rating. And the further we get into this campaign, the better the young stars look.

    Since the start of the streak, Darius Garland is averaging 20.7 points and 12.5 assists. And Rookie of the Year front-runner Evan Mobley is at 16.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.5 blocks over the same stretch.

8. Dallas Mavericks

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    Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 12

    Record: 26-20

    Net Rating: +2.8

    Thursday's home loss to the Phoenix Suns may have stymied momentum a bit, but it's hard to argue that the Dallas Mavericks haven't turned a corner in recent weeks.

    Even with the recent loss, the Mavs are 10-2 in their last 12. And they are winning games with buy-in on the defensive end. Dallas is down to 106.4 points allowed per 100 possessions, a mark that ranks fourth in the league.

    If Luka Doncic can get his shooting on track (he's at 40.3 percent from the field and 20.8 percent from three over this 12-game run) while the rest of the team maintains this level of defense, Dallas will keep climbing the standings.

7. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 10

    Record: 26-18

    Net Rating: +2.2

    Joel Embiid is forcing his way into the MVP conversation. After dropping 50 points on 17-of-23 shooting Wednesday, he's now averaging 30.5 on 51.1 percent shooting over the 24 games since his return from health and safety protocols.

    It's not just the scoring that makes Embiid a legitimate candidate for the league's biggest individual honor. With Ben Simmons sitting this season out, the Philadelphia 76ers have trusted the big man with more playmaking responsibility, and he's responded with a career-high 4.2 assists per game.

    If Daryl Morey is able to turn Simmons into a little more shooting around a more heliocentric Embiid, Philly could crash the title-contender tier the same way Embiid has the MVP race.

6. Chicago Bulls

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    Jeff Haynes/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 6

    Record: 28-15

    Net Rating: +2.4

    It's been a bad week and change for the Chicago Bulls. They lost five of six before Wednesday's win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, but it's more than fair to attribute the rough patch to injuries and health and safety protocols.

    They're still plus-6.8 points per 100 possessions when the four main guys (Lonzo Ball, Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic) are on the floor, and adding Alex Caruso to that mix bumps the net rating to plus-20.6.

    The return of his hustle and defense was key in Chicago's streak-busting win Wednesday. Despite shooting 2-of-8 from the field, he was a team-high plus-18 in 23 minutes.

5. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Hakim Wright Sr./Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 4

    Record: 28-19

    Net Rating: +3.7

    The Milwaukee Bucks aren't winning at the rate they did during the three regular seasons prior to this one, but every once in a while, they put together performances that remind you they're the defending champions.

    On Wednesday, the Memphis Grizzlies were on the receiving end of one of those performances. Giannis Antetokounmpo had 33 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and two steals. Khris Middleton added 27 on 10-of-18 shooting, seven rebounds and seven assists.

    When those two are on the floor, Milwaukee is plus-10.6 points per 100 possessions. Throw in Jrue Holiday, who's missed Milwaukee's last seven games with an ankle injury, and that number climbs even higher.

4. Miami Heat

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    Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 8

    Record: 29-16

    Net Rating: +4.7

    Playing at a disadvantage seems to have entered the bloodstream of the Miami Heat. After several weeks below full strength, they finally had Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler back in the lineup together. But that was short-lived Wednesday.

    After 15 minutes against the Portland Trail Blazers, Butler was ejected after receiving two quick-trigger technical fouls for arguing with officials.

    Miami then proceeded to beat the Blazers by double digits, thanks in part to 26 points from Caleb Martin. To this point in the season, the Heat have 11 players who've eclipsed 20 points in a single game.

3. Golden State Warriors

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 2

    Record: 32-13

    Net Rating: 7.8

    It's safe to say that after two-plus seasons on the shelf, Klay Thompson has some rust to knock off his jumper.

    After shooting 6-of-17 from the field and 0-of-7 from three in Thursday's home loss to the Indiana Pacers, Thompson is now shooting 37.2 percent from the field and 30.2 percent from three in six games.

    What sometimes feels like a concerted effort to get him going may be throwing off the rhythms of other scorers like Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins too.

    The bigger problem, though, is the absence of Draymond Green due to a back injury.

    Green has, of course, been the anchor of the Warriors' defense for years, but it's his playmaking in the middle of the floor that really unlocks the Splash Brothers. When both Thompson and Stephen Curry are off the ball, defenses can get scrambled in a heartbeat.

    And right now, it looks like Green should be back before too long.

    "As far as how I'm viewing it, I'm looking at it like, each day it's getting better, and that's the good news," general manager Bob Myers told 95.7 The Game (h/t NBC's Josh Schrock). "It hasn't plateaued. And, you know, I haven't heard any doomsday scenarios from anybody at this point."

2. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 3

    Record: 31-16

    Net Rating: +3.4

    The Memphis Grizzlies are finally starting to cool off a bit. Wednesday's double-digit loss to the Milwaukee Bucks was the second game they've dropped in their last three. And Friday's loss to the Dallas Mavericks was by a whopping 27 points.

    Zoom out a bit, though, and it's hard to nitpick what the Grizzlies have done. Since November 28, Memphis is a league-best 22-6. Over the same stretch, they're ninth in offense, first in defense and first in net rating.

    And with one of the league's deepest rosters supporting a fringe MVP candidate in Ja Morant, there's no reason to think an extended letdown is on the way.

1. Phoenix Suns

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Previous Rank: 1

    Record: 35-9

    Net Rating: +7.9

    The Phoenix Suns are quietly on pace for a franchise record-setting 65 wins. The spectacle of this season's Lakers squad has prevented them from even being the most talked about team in their own division.

    But game after game, week after week, the Suns just keep on winning. After losing three of their first four games, Phoenix rattled off 18 straight wins. Now, after another 1-3 stretch in late December, the Suns have won eight of their last nine.

    And during this most recent run, Devin Booker has looked almost unstoppable. Since January 1, he's averaging 27.9 points and 2.7 threes.

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