This NBA season is shaping up to be another test of availability as much as ability — the latest survival of the fittest.
Each contender has had to deal with adversity due to absences. The Nets, the preseason betting favorite, have had their Big Three of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving together for only two games. The Lakers have been without Anthony Davis since mid-December. As soon as the rejuvenated Warriors got Klay Thompson back, they immediately lost Draymond Green. The defending champion Bucks haven’t been whole since opening night when center Brook Lopez hurt his back. And, of course, every team has had to shuffle its roster due to health and safety protocols.
The Suns have experienced their share of bumps, but it’s becoming clear that they’re the surest thing in a season yet again defined by uncertainty.
As the league is constantly forced to deal with unforeseen change, things simply remain the same in Phoenix, where Monty Williams’ squad keeps laser-focused on the nightly task at hand in amassing an NBA-best 34-9 record. Chris Paul, at age 36, keeps doing Point God things, leading the league with 429 assists and not missing a single game. Devin Booker, up to 13th at 24.6 points per game, is back to being his old, cold-blooded scoring self. Deandre Ayton has missed 15 games, but the Suns have gone 12-3 without him thanks to a supporting cast of Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Cameron Payne and JaVale McGee — all double-figure scorers and willing defenders.
But here’s the twist on this season’s Suns story: They’re the fifth-most impacted team in games lost due to injury or COVID-19 and have still managed to keep rolling along. The consistency of the reigning Western Conference champs has not been lost on our NBA Power Rankings panel, which unanimously voted Phoenix as this week’s No. 1 team. The Grizzlies and still-slumping Warriors round out the top three.
The Top 10 had plenty of movement but no new entrants. However, there’s a new member of the Bottom Five.
Records and statistics are through Jan. 19
The Top 10
1. Phoenix Suns (35-9, Last week: 2): The league’s best-shooting team (47.6% from the field) owns the best offensive rating (118.2 points per 100 possessions) and net rating (plus-13.6) in January.
2. Memphis Grizzlies (31-16, LW: 3): If you’ve watched Taylor Jenkins’ talented group, you know it’s not a one-man team. But there’s no denying that Ja Morant's stock is skyrocketing around the NBA.
3. Golden State Warriors (32-13, LW: 1): The dynasty and its revival have been built around Steph Curry, but don’t discount the importance of Draymond Green. The Dubs are just 2-4 since a left calf injury sidelined the former Defensive Player of the Year.
4. Miami Heat (29-16, LW: 8): We’re going to keep mentioning this: Erik Spoelstra deserves more Coach of the Year buzz.
5. Chicago Bulls (28-15, LW: 4): Just when they’ve ended a four-game losing streak, they lose Lonzo Ball to a knee injury for six to eight weeks.
6. Milwaukee Bucks (28-19, LW: 6): Guess who’s making MVP noise again.
7. Brooklyn Nets (28-16, LW: 7): With no timetable for Kevin Durant’s return from a sprained left MCL, Steve Nash must wonder if he’ll ever have his Big Three healthy for an extended period this season.
8. Philadelphia 76ers (26-18, LW: 9): If Joel Embiid wasn’t being seriously considered for MVP, he is now after needing only 23 shots and 27 minutes to drop 50 points on Orlando.
9. Utah Jazz (29-16, LW: 5): They still have the league’s top offensive rating (116.1), but they’re experiencing some serious slippage on defense. In January, they’re only 24th in defensive rating at 116.2, a big drop from their season D-rating of 108.8, which ranks 12th in the NBA.
10. Dallas Mavericks (26-19, LW: 10): They’re holding steady at 10th in the rankings, but they’ll be ascending soon if they maintain the form that’s won four straight games and 10 of their last 11. Said Luka Doncic after Wednesday’s win over Toronto: “We're playing team defense; that's where we're winning.” He’s right. Dallas’ defensive rating for January: an NBA-best 98.2.
FALLING DOWN: None.
The Bottom Five
The Pacers make their bottom-five debut despite Wednesday’s big win over the Lakers, who could be close to parting ways with Frank Vogel and making a scapegoat out of their head coach for the front office’s poorly constructed roster.
30. Orlando Magic (8-38, Last week: 30): Overshadowed by Joel Embiid’s 50 burger on Wednesday was Mo Bamba’s career-high 32 points.
29. Detroit Pistons (11-33, LW: 29): In Sacramento, veteran guard Corey Joseph called game against the Kings.
28. Houston Rockets (14-32, LW: 28): They’ve won three of their last four games, all on the road, and just beat the Jazz in Utah. Said Christian Wood of the recent signs of progress: “We're getting better each game. We're all learning. I'm still learning. … We're trying to play together."
27. Oklahoma City Thunder (14-30, LW: 27): They’ll try to end a three-game losing streak Friday against the Hornets in Charlotte.
26. Indiana Pacers (16-29, LW: Not ranked): Their severe underachieving brought about trade rumors involving Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner, and even with the victory in L.A. on Wednesday, the Pacers are just 2-10 in their last 12 games.
MOVING UP: New Orleans Pelicans (16-28, LW: 26).