NBA Power Rankings: Lakers Make Up Ground, and a New No. 1 Emerges

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist IFebruary 8, 2021

NBA Power Rankings: Lakers Make Up Ground, and a New No. 1 Emerges

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    A lot happened in the NBA this week.

    The league and the NBPA agreed to an All-Star Game in Atlanta, and a few stars, including LeBron James, were less than enthusiastic. COVID-19 protocols pulled Kevin Durant off the court, leading to a few #Free7 tweets from the Brooklyn Nets superstar.

    On the court, the NBA put forth some fun games. Stephen Curry went for 57, and Nikola Jokic put up a career-high 50 points, both of which came in losing efforts. A battle between the Los Angeles Clippers and Boston Celtics went down to the wire. The Detroit Pistons nearly shocked the Los Angeles Lakers in a double-overtime thriller.

    Speaking of the Pistons, they made a move to free up time for the youngsters while the New York Knicks aimed for the playoffs in Year 1 of the new regime. Expect even more trade rumors to begin floating around soon. Almost every team has hit the 20-game mark and has a feel for what it needs.

30. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings30th

    It has been a tough year for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who have only gotten four games from Karl-Anthony Towns. A team missing its best player is not going to have much of a chance.

    Even though Towns is not known as a defensive stopper, the Wolves miss him patrolling the paint. They give up the third-most paint points per game in the league.

    The Wolves also hold the second-worst offensive rating so far. They are in the bottom three for three-point percentage and free-throw attempts per game, and they take 40.1 percent of their shots against tight coverage. Their offense just does not create a lot of open looks.

    Without Towns, the Wolves offense is entirely dependent on perimeter scoring, which has not worked so far this season.

29. Washington Wizards

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 29th

    Bradley Beal is turning into the NBA's version of Sisyphus. Though he leads the NBA in scoring by 3.7 points per game, the Washington Wizards have only been able to win five games. There isn't much more he can do, but he remains loyal to the team. He has reiterated he has no desire to be traded.

    Washington's offense has been potent, but its defense is the main issue. It gives up the most points per game and has not been able to defend without fouling. The Wizards cede the second-most free throws per contest.

    After upsetting the Brooklyn Nets last Sunday, Washington went 1-3 for the week to continue its losing ways.

28. Detroit Pistons

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 28th

    The Detroit Pistons traveled West at the end of January for a four-game trip. It was supposed to be a five-game swing, but one of the contests was postponed. Detroit lost every outing along the way, and all but one came by double digits. On the last night of the trip, it took the defending champions to double overtime and nearly swept the season series.

    In the end, the Pistons just did not have enough to pull off the upset.

    Though Jerami Grant is rightfully drawing all the attention, they are also getting a strong season from Josh Jackson. He was a reclamation project, and it's been paying off as he is averaging 12.3 points and had a monster 28-point game against the Los Angeles Lakers.

    On Sunday, the Pistons also made a trade that sent Derrick Rose to the New York Knicks for Dennis Smith Jr. and a 2021 second-round pick from the Charlotte Hornets. The move is less about winning and more about opening up minutes for the young players they are trying to develop.

27. Orlando Magic

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 27th

    The injuries are piling up for the Orlando Magic. They lost Jonathan Isaac in the bubble to a knee injury that will keep him out for the entirety of this season. Then Markelle Fultz tore his ACL, ending his campaign. Now Aaron Gordon will be out four-to-six weeks with a severe ankle sprain.

    On the bright side, Nikola Vucevic has been playing at an All-Star level. He leads the Magic in scoring and rebounding while shooting 42.3 percent from three. However, he is a longshot to make the cut given how bad his team has been as a whole.

    Orlando is 3-7 in its last 10 games, and the road gets more challenging as it heads West for a four-game trip.

26. Chicago Bulls

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 26th

    It was miniseries week for the Chicago Bulls with consecutive games against the New York Knicks and Orlando Magic.

    Chicago has its offense figured out, but the defense has kept it from climbing. The Bulls are No. 4 in points per game but 27th in points allowed and 24th in defensive rating.

    Thaddeus Young has been the Bulls’ best defender. The team has a 109.0 defensive rating when he is on and 113.2 when he is off. Zach LaVine has the worst defensive rating swing (18.9 points per 100 possessions), and that is not good enough.

    If Chicago is ever going to be more than just a fun team to watch, the process has to start on the defensive end.

25. Dallas Mavericks

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 20th

    It was easy to blame a lot of the Dallas Mavericks' losses on COVID-19 protocols, but they went just 2-2 last week and have lost seven of their last nine games.

    This season's offense pales in comparison to last season's historic unit. To make matters worse, the Mavs have the league's worst defensive rating (118.9). They got completely destroyed by the Golden State Warriors in the first game of their miniseries, giving up 147 points.

    Dallas got the win it desperately needed against Golden State two nights later behind a 42-point, 11-assist night from Luka Doncic. It had six players in double figures that game.

    Sitting four games below .500, Dallas will have to get its act together on both ends of the floor to climb in the standings.

24. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 18th

    The Cleveland Cavaliers ended last week with a three-game losing streak. As much as their defense has improved, their offense is struggling. It ranks dead last in offensive rating and three-point attempts.

    It is understandable that the Cavaliers are last in three-point attempts because they are so good at scoring in the paint. The issue, though, is that teams are shooting 39.4 percent from three against them. So while they are getting two on one end, they are giving up three on the other. The math slowly works against them.

    As if the losing streak was not enough, the week ended on an even more sour note as news broke that Larry Nance Jr. will be out four-to-six weeks with a broken finger on his left hand.

    The Cavs were a fun story near the start of the season, but they will drop even further in the rankings if their offense continues to struggle.

23. Toronto Raptors

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    Todd Kirkland/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 25th

    The Toronto Raptors had a three-game win streak going that included a nice victory over the Brooklyn Nets. However, it did end with a loss to the Atlanta Hawks. Toronto has not been able to sustain a win streak longer than three games this season.

    During their streak, they were able to get some big performances from their top players. Fred VanVleet was on fire, dropping a new franchise record with 54 points against the Orlando Magic in Tuesday's win. Pascal Siakam dominated Brooklyn in Friday's victory, putting up 33 points.

    The Raptors are in the middle of a six-game road trip, but they need to find a way to go on a run longer than just three games if they are going to get back in the thick of things out East.

22. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Derick Hingle/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 24th

    Head coach Stan Van Gundy called the New Orleans Pelicans' win over the Phoenix Suns the blueprint going forward. They exploded offensively and were stout defensively in their 123-101 win, and they followed that blueprint with two more wins to finish the week 3-1.

    Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson have been an awesome duo while combining for 47.6 points per contest. The problem is that as the game goes on, their scoring output declines. The fourth quarter is the lowest-scoring period for both players.

    Trade rumors must have woken up Lonzo Ball, who had his best week of the season. He averaged 17.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists while shooting 55.6 percent from deep. As a team, the Pelicans also began to find their range outside the arc, connecting on 42.1 percent of their threes last week.

    The Pelicans have looked much better on both ends and need to sustain that energy to be the team everyone was hoping they would be this season.

21. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 21st

    For a team that is supposed to be rebuilding, the Oklahoma City Thunder do win quite a few games. They've even beaten good teams like the Houston Rockets and Phoenix Suns.

    Luguentz Dort has surprised everyone with how well he is shooting the ball. He has upped his three-point percentage from 29.7 to 36.5 while nearly doubling his attempts per game. Kevin O'Connor of The Ringer highlighted how Dort has become more than just a defensive presence.

    Al Horford was looking like his old self last week, as well. In three games, he averaged 18.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists while shooting 53.8 percent from three. If he can maintain that type of play, his trade value will go up.

    This week will be a true test for the Thunder as they go on the road for a miniseries against the Los Angeles Lakers, face the Denver Nuggets away from home and then host the Milwaukee Bucks. Those four games will be a true litmus test.

20. Houston Rockets

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    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 22nd

    The Houston Rockets possess the NBA's best defensive rating since the James Harden trade. They quietly went on a six-game win streak and are getting key contributions across the board.

    Eric Gordon is bouncing back after a down year last season. He's shooting 36.3 percent from three, up from 31.7 percent last year. Victor Oladipo is averaging 19.4 points and 5.1 assists, while John Wall continues his amazing comeback.

    The real prize for the Rockets has been Christian Wood, who leads the team in scoring and provides the pick-and-pop threat they have not had since Ryan Anderson. The bad news is he severely rolled his ankle in a win over the Memphis Grizzlies, which will force him to miss some time.

19. Miami Heat

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    Mike Stobe/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 19th

    The Miami Heat made a big change to their rotation toward the end of last week. Erik Spoelstra inserted Goran Dragic into the starting lineup and brought Tyler Herro off the bench in their second game against the Washington Wizards. It paid off in a big way as they scored 40 first-quarter points.

    Coming off the bench is a good role for Herro, who dropped 17 points and added four assists in that game. The move helps their defense since it is hard to start with Duncan Robinson and Herro in the backcourt.

    Butler is still working his way back to form after spending time in the COVID-19 protocols. But in his first five games back, he's averaged 21.0 points, 8.4 rebounds and 8.0 assists to help Miami get back on track.

    The good news for the Heat is the Eastern Conference is still so bunched up they are only a few games out of the playoff race.

18. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Derick Hingle/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 15th

    Last week saw the Memphis Grizzlies' seven-game win streak end and turn into a three-game losing streak. Ja Morant struggled, averaging just 13.5 points and shooting 37.5 percent from the field.

    Memphis needs its star to get back to playing like a star.

    The Grizzlies defense also fell off a cliff last week. Their defensive rating was 117.0, a big jump from their normal 108.8. A flash point was the second-chance buckets they gave up, which rose more than five points per game from 12.1 to 17.3.

    The return of Jonas Valanciunas should help. But in the long view of the season, Memphis is going to need Jaren Jackson Jr to return soon.

17. Charlotte Hornets

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 17th

    Out of necessity, the Charlotte Hornets had to insert LaMelo Ball into the starting lineup, and it will be very difficult to get him out now. In the four games he has started, the rookie has trailed only Gordon Hayward in scoring and is shooting 48.0 percent from three while dropping 5.8 dimes per night.

    Just as Terry Rozier returned, Charlotte lost Devonte' Graham to a strained groin. That injury will test the Hornets' depth but open the door of opportunity for Malik Monk, who has started getting some minutes. Over the last seven games, he is averaging 13.9 points on 50.0 percent shooting from three.

    If Charlotte can continue to get this type of play out of Ball and Monk, the backcourt rotation will be solidified once Graham returns.

16. New York Knicks

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    Brad Penner/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 16th

    The New York Knicks just keep on winning. 

    Team president Leon Rose and head coach Tom Thibodeau have built a blue-collar team. Their backbone is their defense, which is ranked in the top 10. The offense is behind the curve, but the defense will always keep them in games.

    Also aiding the Knicks is the All-Star-type season they are getting from Julius Randle. Regardless of whether he makes the team, he is playing at that level, averaging 22.7 points, 11.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists while shooting 39.8 percent from three. But it is not just his offense; New York has a 107.4 defensive rating when he is on the court.

    With the 2020-21 season going better than expected, the Knicks are going for it. They are bringing Derrick Rose back to New York as they make their push, and the point guard has now been a part of all three Thibodeau coaching stops.

    It has been a long time since Knicks fans had some hope. They have had some false hope before, but it feels like it might be the real thing this time.

15. Atlanta Hawks

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    Todd Kirkland/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 14th

    The Atlanta Hawks ended their three-game losing streak with a win over the Toronto Raptors. Despite all their injuries, they have stayed solid and have not lost ground in the standings.

    One big concern for Atlanta is how infrequently Danilo Gallinari has been involved in the offense. He missed a large chunk of time due to injuries, but he has averaged 17.3 minutes and just 6.6 shots per game. Gallinari was one of the Hawks' prized offseason acquisitions, but it seems they have not found a way to incorporate him into their offense.

    Head coach Lloyd Pierce needs to find a way to get Gallinari going, especially if Trae Young is going to miss any time.

14. Sacramento Kings

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 23rd

    The Sacramento Kings can build upon last week's performance. They went 4-0 with nice wins over the New Orleans Pelicans, Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers. That is a great way to jump up in the power rankings.

    The Kings are getting contributions from every angle, but it starts with De'Aaron Fox, who averaged 31.0 points and 8.8 assists, including a 38-point night against the Pelicans. Tyrese Haliburton also continued his Rookie of the Year campaign with steady play while shooting 54.2 percent from deep.

    Harrison Barnes has quietly had a great season, punctuated by 28 points against the Nuggets. Richuan Holmes provided a ton of help on the glass, averaging 9.3 rebounds and 2.8 blocks last week.

    Even Buddy Hield, who struggled with his shot, found other ways to help with 7.8 rebounds and 3.0 assists per contest. Despite going 1-of-11 against Denver, he handed out seven dimes and grabbed four boards.

    If the Kings can continue to get this type of play up and down their roster, then they should be alright.

13. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 13th

    The Portland Trail Blazers ended their six-game road trip with a loss to the New York Knicks and a 3-3 record. The stretch was highlighted by a gutty blowout win over the Philadelphia 76ers despite Damian Lillard sitting out with an abdominal strain.

    Lillard came back to play against the Knicks. But even though he finished the game with 29 points and nine assists, he looked limited in his movement, and it hurt the Blazers defense.

    The Blazers have been able to stay afloat since the loss of CJ McCollum, going 4-5 in their last nine games. But if Lillard is going to play hurt, rough waters might be ahead.

12. Golden State Warriors

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 12th

    The Golden State Warriors got big scoring outbursts from two different players last week. One came from an expected source capable of going off consistently, and the other provided hope that a slump might be busted. 

    In the first game of Golden State's miniseries with the Dallas Mavericks, Kelly Oubre Jr. broke loose, dropping 40 points on seven made threes in a 147-116 win. In the second game, Stephen Curry exploded for 57 points and 11 made threes. The Warriors ended up losing, but Curry's explosion kept them in striking distance.

    Despite the impressive offensive performances, the Warriors went just 1-2 last week. They would have fallen in the rankings, but the teams behind them did not do enough to jump over them.

11. Indiana Pacers

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 9th

    Losers in five of their last six games, the Indiana Pacers have hit a bit of a skid.

    The issue has been their defense. Over those six games, their defensive rating has risen to 115.0 from their normal 110.6. Opponents are shooting 40.0 percent on three-pointers against them, which is one of the 10 worst marks in the league.

    The Pacers offense has kept them in games, and it is heavily dependent on Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon. With Caris LeVert and T.J. Warren out, Indiana needs Myles Turner to emerge as a third scoring option.

    The Pacers need more than the 13.7 points per game they are getting from Turner right now.

10. Denver Nuggets

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 6th

    It was not a good week for the Denver Nuggets, who have now lost three of their last four games.

    Their loss to the Sacramento Kings was not all that unexpected. They were without four key players, and Jamal Murray’s absence, in particular, made that game even more challenging. Still, Nikola Jokic was outstanding. He dropped a career-high 50 points to go along with 12 assists and eight rebounds, though it wasn’t enough for Denver.

    The more troubling loss was the rout against the Los Angeles Lakers. That was a measuring-stick game, and the Nuggets failed. L.A. outscored Denver 68-35 in the second half.

    Any road to the NBA Finals would likely go through the Lakers, and the Nuggets learned they have a long way to go to get to their level.

9. San Antonio Spurs

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 11th

    The San Antonio Spurs just never go away.

    They haven't averaged more fast-break points since the 2010-11 season. Getting out in transition has turned into a critical part of their offense, allowing them to take advantage of the youth they have in Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson, Lonnie Walker IV and Devin Vassell.

    The most surprising thing is that their top two rebounders are Murray and Johnson, both of whom are averaging more than seven boards per night. Getting rebounds from the guard and wing positions helps the Spurs get out in transition much quicker.

    San Antonio never goes away; it just evolves, and this is a prime example as the team transitions from the veterans to the youth movement it has cooking.

8. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 3rd

    Last week featured two big games for the Los Angeles Clippers, and both resulted in losses.

    They faced off with the Brooklyn Nets and battled hard. But without Patrick Beverley, they had no answer for Kyrie Irving, who had his way with them.

    After a win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Clippers dropped another contest against the Boston Celtics. They were without Paul George, but Kawhi Leonard forced a Jayson Tatum turnover and had the game in his hands before losing possession, which led to a Kemba Walker go-ahead bucket.

    Then L.A. closed out the week with a loss to the Sacramento Kings, giving the team its first two-game losing streak of the season and a 1-3 record for the week.

    Those losses highlighted the Clippers' biggest weakness: the lack of a true point guard. Especially against the Nets, they struggled to get easy looks and were constantly settling for tougher shots.

    Fittingly, the Clippers were one of the teams rumored as a potential new home for Derrick Rose before he headed to the New York Knicks.

7. Boston Celtics

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    Ralph Freso/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 7th

    The Boston Celtics headed out West last week, and each game came down to the final few possessions.

    The trip started with a win over the Golden State Warriors before Boston dropped a close one to the Sacramento Kings. Then it took a Kemba Walker mid-range pull-up to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat against the Los Angeles Clippers before a matinee loss against the Phoenix Suns.

    Seeing that shot go in had to feel good for Walker, who had missed a similar one to win a game against the Los Angeles Lakers not too long ago. The point guard has only played nine games so far and is still working his way back into a rhythm, shooting just 30.9 percent from three.

    Jaylen Brown joined Marcus Smart on the injured list, forcing head coach Brad Stevens to have to dig deep into his rotation. The Celtics have yet to play a game fully healthy and are still finding their identity.

    But whichever identity they land on, they will need a much better Walker.

6. Phoenix Suns

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 10th

    With Chris Paul and Devin Booker on the roster, one would think the Phoenix Suns would be extremely difficult to beat in close games. But that has not been the case.

    In 13 clutch games (three-point differential with three minutes left), the Suns are 6-7, and they are 0-3 in overtime, as well. Phoenix needs more of the magic it got against the Dallas Mavericks on this Booker game-winner.

    The Suns nearly let their poor play in clutch situations cost them against the Boston Celtics. They were up eight with less than two minutes left and let Boston cut the lead to three before closing it out.

    They came away with the win, but Sunday’s game should not have been as close as it was down the stretch. That said, the Suns went 3-1 last week and deserve to move up a few spots in the rankings.

5. Brooklyn Nets

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 5th

    It was truly a weird week for the Brooklyn Nets, who stepped up to the challenge against the Los Angeles Clippers to start the slate. The offense was humming with 39 points from Kyrie Irving, 28 points from Kevin Durant and a 23-point, 14-assist, 12-rebound James Harden triple-double.

    Then Friday happened, and the strangeness began.

    Durant was questionable against the Toronto Raptors, and then he was allowed to play before he was pulled in the third quarter due to COVID-19 protocols. The Nets would go on to lose that game, as well as the following one against the Philadelphia 76ers, in which Harden was the lone member of the Big Three playing.

    Durant will be eligible to return Friday, but this team needs as much time as possible together to build the requisite chemistry for a title.

4. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 8th

    The Milwaukee Bucks’ average margin of victory last week was 22.8 points as they went 4-0. It may not have been against the stiffest of competition, but they were dominant nonetheless.

    The run moves them into the top five of these rankings.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo had a strong week, averaging 24.0 points, 10.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists while stuffing 1.5 shots per game on the defensive end. The Bucks as a team shot 44.5 percent from three during the four-game sprint. Besides getting normal contributions from Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton, Bryn Forbes and Bobby Portis added some bite last week.

    It looks as if the Bucks are beginning to settle in, which is a concern for the rest of the Eastern Conference. Their miniseries against the Cleveland Cavaliers was the start of a six-game road trip that will have them face off against some of the best in the West this week.

3. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 1st

    The Philadelphia 76ers fell from the top spot because of their loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, who were without Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. You cannot lose that game, with or without Ben Simmons, and maintain the throne. Even their win against the Brooklyn Nets came with a caveat as both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving missed the game.

    One interesting stat of note: Philadelphia is 13-0 when its ideal starting five of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Danny Green and Seth Curry plays.

    Embiid is having an MVP-type season. He is fourth in scoring at 29.3 points per game and leads the league in free-throw attempts. Head coach Doc Rivers has the Sixers playing through him in the post, and it is paying off.

    They have the best record in the East, and it still feels like they have another gear to hit.

2. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 4th

    The Los Angeles Lakers climb this week behind a dominant second half over the Denver Nuggets. Their other two wins were less impressive as they were pushed by the Atlanta Hawks at the end of their long road trip and needed double overtime to put away the Detroit Pistons, who shouldn't have given them as much trouble without Derrick Rose or Blake Griffin.

    The real opponent the Lakers will be fighting all season is complacency. Alex Caruso even admitted as much after the Detroit victory by saying, "We can't get bored with the game."

    L.A. has been a flip-the-switch team this season, barely playing a full 48-minute game.

    The Lakers have more than enough talent, headlined by LeBron James and Anthony Davis, to get them back in games, but they are going to let a few slip away without more of a concerted effort.

1. Utah Jazz

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 2nd

    The Utah Jazz have been playing on another level.

    Winners in 15 of their last 16 games, they are putting together a formidable run in the West. They have been lights-out from deep over those 16 games, shooting 42.0 percent from three while leading the league in deep attempts.

    For the season, the Jazz have a top-five offensive and defensive rating. They are allowing the third-fewest points per game and lead the league in rebounding. Jordan Clarkson is positioning himself as the front-runner for Sixth Man of the Year, dropping 17.5 points per game as the Jazz’s super-sub.

    The Jazz earned the top spot by going 4-0 in a span of six days, including an early start without Mike Conley for their final game.

    The next week will provide some big tests as Utah has a homestand against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Boston Celtics and a desperate Miami Heat team.

                       

    All stats, unless otherwise indicated, courtesy of NBA.com.

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