Even if it seems like a lifetime ago, the NBA’s Orlando Bubble convened in late July and, on arrival, the Phoenix Suns were just 26-39 during the 2019-20 season. The Suns put together a highly impressive run at Walt Disney World, winning all eight games, but Phoenix fell just short of the playoffs, allowing the team to leave Orlando on a winning note. From there, James Jones and Phoenix’s front office were quite busy during the league’s condensed offseason, pulling off a high-profile trade for Chris Paul and remaking the roster in the image of a rising contender. Through the first 26 games, those efforts seem prescient.
The Suns are 17-9 after a stretch in which they picked up nine wins in ten games and, as of Monday, Feb. 15, Phoenix has an active six-game winning streak. Unsurprisingly, the team’s advanced statistics are very strong during that 10-game push, with a 115.4 offensive rating and a 108.7 defensive rating, and Phoenix is scoring 1.19 points per possession during the team’s six-game winning run. Using that impetus, the Suns are an above-average offensive team for the season, scoring 111.8 points per 100 possessions, but Phoenix’s real gains have come on the defensive end.
It is at least possible that Phoenix has benefitted from some noise defensively, if only because the team’s defensive personnel doesn’t quite match its results. In the same breath, the Suns have a top-five defensive rating (108.4) and the uptick isn’t too fluky, especially when considering the steady influence of Paul, the ongoing breakout of Mikal Bridges as an elite defensive wing, and the absence of real weaknesses for the opposition to target.
Devin Booker remains the face of the franchise and, even if he is an offense-first player, he is playing at an improved level on the other end. From there, Booker is scoring 27.4 points per game in his last eight appearances, shooting 53 percent from the floor and 41 percent from three with big-time value. He is a legitimate star creator and, with his backcourt partner in crime playing at a high level, Phoenix’s results are even less surprising.
Paul certainly appeared to ease into the season and, off the court, he’s been quite busy as the president of the NBPA. Still, his production has skyrocketed as the Suns began their winning binge, with Paul averaging 19.9 points and 7.3 assists per game while putting up a 53/45/96 shooting line for good measure. He isn’t the same level of game-changing defender that he was in his youth, but Paul remains an above-average point guard defender, and his influence on Phoenix can be felt in myriad ways.
After a Valentine’s Day win over the Orlando Magic, the Suns jumped firmly into the top four of the Western Conference standings. At this relatively early juncture, there is fluidity on a nightly basis but, in short, Phoenix appears to be a team that belongs in the mix and no one should be surprised if they stay in the mix for home court in the first round.
Where do the Suns fall in the NBA’s overall pecking order? Let’s explore in this week’s DIME power rankings.
1. Utah Jazz (23-5, Last week — 2nd)
It had to happen. The Jazz have been too good. Would I pick Utah over the healthy Lakers in a playoff series? Absolutely not, but the Jazz have the league’s longest winning streak (eight) and they have won 19 of the last 20 games. Read that sentence again. A 23-5 record is crazy enough, but it’s even crazier after a 4-4 start.
2. Los Angeles Lakers (21-7, Last week — 1st)
It’s weird to have the Lakers anywhere but No. 1. I could maybe argue for a longer drop, but this feels like the landing spot since they just won seven in a row before losing in Denver. The bigger concern is the expected absence of Anthony Davis for a few weeks, but the Lakers have every reason to be cautious. The regular season isn’t the focus here, but this may be just the beginning of their slide before a rebound in the second half of the season.
3. L.A. Clippers (21-8, Last week — 4th)
No one would suggest that the Clippers would be No. 3 on this list if we knew they didn’t have Paul George and Kawhi Leonard long-term. L.A. just won two games in a row without their stars, though, and that is encouraging, even in a one-off scenario. The Clippers are No. 2 in offense, No. 3 in net rating and rolling right along.
4. Phoenix Suns (17-9, Last week — 6th)
We’ve discussed the Suns quite a bit but, as a point of transition, Phoenix faces Brooklyn in a national TV game on Tuesday that will be telling of their stance among the NBA’s elite, even with KD sitting.
5. Brooklyn Nets (17-12, Last week — 7th)
Hey, speaking of the Nets, Brooklyn set a new franchise record with 27 three-pointers on Monday (without KD), once again showcasing the team’s obscene offensive ceiling. The defense is (quite) bad, but the Nets have won three in a row and their best is pretty impressive.
6. Denver Nuggets (15-11, Last week — 11th)
Denver’s three-game winning streak pushes them up to this slot in the rankings. The Nuggets should beat the Thunder and Cavs at home, as they did this week, but knocking off the Lakers by a lopsided margin is worth noting, even in a game in which Anthony Davis was sidelined for a half. If anything, the Nuggets’ record doesn’t match its top-five net rating, and I’m inclined to trust the point differential.
7. Milwaukee Bucks (16-11, Last week — 3rd)
There is no shame in losing on the road to the Suns and Jazz. Those are arguably the hottest teams in the NBA right now. Milwaukee drops this week because they followed up those defeats with a road loss in OKC. It was a narrow margin and, yes, Jrue Holiday has been out of the lineup. That matters, but it’s weird that the Bucks are only 16-11 right now with a +8.3 net rating.
8. Portland Trail Blazers (16-10, Last week — 16th)
Portland is barely above water in point differential (+0.2 per 100 possessions) and they are still 16-10. The biggest reason for that is that Damian Lillard is ridiculous. The Blazers have also won four in a row, including a home win over Philadelphia and a road win over Dallas. None of this seems sustainable given their injury situation, but that’s been said plenty of times about the Blazers in the past, and they often defy the odds.
9. Philadelphia 76ers (18-10, Last week — 5th)
There has to be a penalty for losing three straight games, even if they come on the road against playoff-caliber teams. That is what happened to the Sixers this week. Fear not, Philadelphia is still pretty good, but they continue to have hilariously large home/road splits.
10. San Antonio Spurs (16-11, Last week — 8th)
San Antonio’s next three games have been postponed due to an outbreak of four positive COVID tests on the Spurs roster, which is unfortunate and hopefully everyone is alright. The Spurs won their previous two games, including a drubbing of Atlanta in which they led by 42 points, to improve on a split against Golden State at home. Not only are the Spurs playing well, they are also pretty fun to consume on a nightly basis and hopefully they can contain this thing and not miss too much more than a week of action.
11. Golden State Warriors (15-13, Last week — 15th)
Stephen Curry had 36 points in three quarters on Monday. Granted, the Cavaliers were on the other side, but Curry has truly been preposterous this season. Is that MVP-worthy on a team that is 15-13? We’ll see, but we can all acknowledge that it’s fun to have Curry operating at this level on a nightly basis.
12. New York Knicks (14-15, Last week — 23rd)
The Knicks aren’t exactly known for their perimeter-based offensive attack. In fact, that is probably the worst part about the team. Naturally, New York hit a season-high 17 threes in a road win over Atlanta on Monday, and Julius Randle continues to play at an All-Star level. The Knicks have won three in a row and they remain firmly in the playoff mix.
13. Indiana Pacers (14-14, Last week — 17th)
Indiana rises in the rankings this week but, quite honestly, it isn’t because they are playing very well. The Pacers got two wins this week, toppling the struggling Hawks and Pistons, then lost at home to the Bulls. Overall, Indiana is 2-5 in the last seven, and it is wild that a .500 team with that recent track record is No. 13. It’s been a weird season.
14. Toronto Raptors (12-15, Last week — 14th)
I’m trusting the Raptors and leaving them here despite a home loss to Minnesota in their last outing. Like Indiana above them, that is really because no other team did enough to jump, but that’s a bad result for a team trying to climb out of an early hole.
15. Dallas Mavericks (13-15, Last week — 19th)
Dallas couldn’t quite keep their winning streak alive, losing a home tilt to Portland by three points on Sunday. Still, the Mavericks are playing (much) better basketball, winning five of the last seven after a shaky spell. In those seven games, Dallas is scoring almost 1.25 points per possession, and if that offensive onslaught continues, wins will follow.
16. Charlotte Hornets (13-15, Last week — 12th)
Charlotte’s home loss to San Antonio to end the week comes with an asterisk, as the Hornets were without Gordon Hayward, PJ Washington and others. Overall, the Hornets are playing reasonably well and… did you know Charlotte is leading the Southeast Division by 1.5 games?
17. Boston Celtics (13-13, Last week — 9th)
Boston is 5-10 in the last 15 games. That seems troublesome. The Celtics are without Marcus Smart, and he will help them immensely upon return, but Boston should be better than this even without him. There are warning signs, but at least the Celtics have the privilege of hosting the scuffling Hawks on both Wednesday and Friday.
18. Memphis Grizzlies (11-11, Last week — 22nd)
It was a status quo week for the Grizzlies. They beat the Hornets and struggling Kings. They lost to the Lakers by ten. Status quo just happened to be good enough to rise in the rankings.
19. Chicago Bulls (11-15, Last week — 26th)
A word of appreciation for Zach Lavine. Despite his shortcomings, LaVine now seems to be underrated. He is averaging 28.2 points per game on elite efficiency (51/43/85 shooting), and the Bulls are better than they probably should be offensively as a result. There is still noise in the on-off splits, but he’s been so good this season and, like Randle in New York, is a worthy All-Star selection in the East.
20. Miami Heat (11-16, Last week — 20th)
Miami recently won four in a row, dissuading some fears by beating some inferior opponents. The Heat lost the last two, though, including a troubling loss to the Kawhi-less, PG-less Clippers on Monday. Miami isn’t as bad as the 11-16 record suggests, but I’m not sure how good they are, either.
21. Washington Wizards (8-17, Last week — 25th)
This might be too high for the Wizards, and there is some mystery to solve with Washington. They just beat Boston and Houston at home, though, and Bradley Beal continues to lead the NBA in scoring. It’s almost as if the Wizards have given up on defense completely after a recent lineup change, but that might be their best path to respectability. Bombs away.
22. Oklahoma City Thunder (11-15, Last week — 24th)
In the last two weeks, the Thunder are 3-4. That isn’t wildly impressive, obviously, but Oklahoma City’s losses came by three, seven, one and two points. Two of the defeats arrived in overtime. It’s not as if the Thunder are good, but they are competitive. Oh, and they just beat the Bucks.
23. Sacramento Kings (12-15, Last week — 10th)
Of course the Kings lost four in a row, all at home, after we lauded them last week. That was inevitable. I’ll take the blame.
24. New Orleans Pelicans (11-15, Last week — 18th)
To say the Pelicans have been streaky is an understatement. Starting on Jan. 19, the Pelicans lost three in a row, then won two in a row, then lost two in a row. Not to be outdone, New Orleans then won four in a row before losing the last three. Good luck trying to figure that out.
25. Atlanta Hawks (11-16, Last week — 13th)
The Hawks do have key injuries, operating without four rotation players on the perimeter for a little while now. Still, Atlanta simply can’t win games down the stretch, posting the worst fourth quarter net rating (-8.8) in the NBA. The Hawks are better than 25th in the NBA, but they are 1-7 in the last eight games, including yet another disappointing loss to the Knicks on Monday.
26. Houston Rockets (11-16, Last week — 21st)
Houston’s post-trade run was really impressive, but the magic is officially gone. The Rockets just lost six games in a row and, while they’ve been dealing with absences and injuries, during that stretch they didn’t lose to a single top-10 team. They were also thrashed by 16 points per 100 possessions across 288 minutes. Yikes.
27. Detroit Pistons (8-19, Last week — 29th)
The Pistons have won three of the last four. Also, Detroit’s net rating (-3.7) is far better than their 8-19 record suggests. That isn’t to say that Detroit is good, because they’re not, but they are feisty at times. All eyes are also on Blake Griffin as he and the team look for “a resolution on his playing future,” but this is a team finally starting to see some positive results.
28. Orlando Magic (10-18, Last week — 28th)
Orlando has the worst record in the league over the last 20 games, going just 4-16. One of those wins did come this week but, in those 20 games, the Magic have been rather awful on both ends, scoring 1.04 points per possession and allowing 1.15 points per possession. It’s bad.
29. Minnesota Timberwolves (7-20, Last week — 30th)
It’s possible the Wolves will be (much) higher than this soon, simply because Karl-Anthony Towns is playing. Minnesota is 3-4 with Towns in the lineup, and the Wolves just won on the road against Toronto. It’s hard to look past 7-20 (and 5-20 in the last 25), but they’re probably better than that with their centerpiece involved.
30. Cleveland Cavaliers (10-19, Last week — 27th)
Remember when the Cavs were playing well defensively? It wasn’t that long ago. Well, Cleveland is on an eight-game losing streak and, during that downturn, the Cavs are allowing 126.2 points per 100 possessions. That is breathtakingly bad over that large of a sample, and they are now 24th in defense as a result. No team is playing worse than Cleveland, and they land in the basement despite 10 wins in the bank.