NBA Power Rankings: Rockets Rising Behind James Harden’s Brilliance

Any worries about the Rockets have been completely silenced in the past seven games. While the Lakers and Celtics continued their dominance in their respective conferences.
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Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden’s brick fest to begin the season raised a modicum of concern throughout the NBA, but any worries have been completely silenced in the past seven games. The two-time scoring champ has poured in 43 points per game since Nov. 4, scoring the most points through 13 contests since Wilt Chamberlain in 1962. Houston’s superstar is firing on all cylinders entering Monday night. He’s burying 30-foot step-backs on a quarterly basis, and his floater improves by the season. Harden has seen every coverage–no gimmick fools him. He is the league’s most unguardable force, critics be damned. Harden’s scoring tear has vaulted the Rockets to 10–3. The No. 1 seed is within reach. A second MVP could be in his near future.

With just over 10 games now in the books, let’s dive into this week’s power rankings with notes on all 30 teams.

30. Warriors – Point Draymond has been instituted in Golden State due to a slate of injuries, but the experiment should go fairly smoothly. Green is an elite outlet passer, and his decision-making rolling downhill as a screener has always been superb. Those attributes will hold up even in an adjusted role.

29. Knicks – The state of the franchise remains, well, as low as can be, but Madison Square Garden was downright electric for Kristaps Porzingis’ return on Nov. 14. Imagine if the Knicks could produce a merely respectable roster rather than The Ghosts of Power Forwards Past? David Fizdale’s eventual scapegoating remains shameful.

28. Pelicans – Jaxson Hayes only plays 15 minutes per night, but the outline of a starting center are there. The Texas product is perhaps the best leaper in his class. He’s a mobile pick-and-roll defender. It’s questionable whether he can play next to Zion Williamson, though New Orleans should feel optimistic about their selection at No. 8.

27. Wizards – Rui Hachimura has shown significant promise as a rookie. He’s going to have to generate more chances at the free-throw line to become a true offensive force. Of the 130 players to attempt 100 shots this season, Hachimura ranks 128th in free throw rate, sandwiched between three-point specialists Buddy Hield and Doug McDermott. The Gonzaga product would be well served burrowing an extra step toward the tin on drives from the perimeter.

26. Pistons – Andre Drummond’s counting stats are impressive, yet it may be more valued if Detroit, well, stopped anyone. The Pistons rank No. 27 in defensive rating, and only three teams allow more shots at the rim per game. Drummond’s rebounding numbers mask his rotational shortcomings.

25. Cavs – John Beilein should be commended for his job thus far with the lottery-bound Cavs. The Cavs’ defense has jumped from last to No. 15, and Cleveland is allowing the least free throws, seventh-least threes and fifth-least offensive rebounds in basketball. That’s certainly a formula to remaining respectable.

24. Kings – De’Aaron Fox’s injury timeline is murky, so the more Buddy Hield long-balls the better until Sacramento’s point guard returns. Hield has dipped below 40% from three this year, but the volume is more important than the efficiency. Sunday’s 35-point explosion against Boston is certainly an encouraging step.

23. Bulls – Lauri Markkanen’s struggles to start the season should be of concern to Chicago fans. He’s shooting just 28.2% from three, and more importantly, he’s been less aggressive on the glass and near the tin than in 2018-19. Markkanen’s smooth stroke makes him consistently appealing as a stretch five. But some bully ball is in order for the Finnish big.

22. Grizzlies – Ja Morant likely has the deepest collection of finishes at the tin, and he’s just 20. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything like this finish against Utah. The heir to Mike Conley is off to a roaring start.

21. Hawks – Trae Young is embracing his ball-dominance to a striking degree in year two, seizing the reigns with a 34.5% usage rate in his second year. No player holds the ball longer per touch (6.39 seconds per NBA.com) and his 6.04 dribbles per touch trails only DJ Augustin among qualified players. Atlanta is deep at the wing and severely lacking behind Young at point guard. Expect the early-season trend to hold up

20. Hornets – Devonte’ Graham or James Harden? Check out the two clips below, featuring a running start and a very high screen for the two guards. James Borrego may have been sneaking in some Mike D’Antoni film over the last week.

19. Spurs – The Spurs have lost eight of their last nine, and they could be one of the trade deadline’s most intriguing teams. DeMar DeRozan’s market is puzzling, though don’t be surprised if San Antonio pulls the trigger before his deal expires in July. If a team (likely a fringe Eastern Conference contender) offers up a first-round pick, R.C. Buford and Co. should jump at the asset rather than riding out the DeRozan era.

18. Magic – Orlando made a prudent move signing Nikola Vucevic to a four-year deal this summer, and his $22 million salary in 2022-23 could look like a bargain. But the 29-year-old will need to re-establish his jumper to be a true fulcrum for Steve Clifford after a shaky start to the season. Perhaps Sunday’s 30-point, 17-rebound effort in a win over Washington will return Vucevic to his 2018-19 form.

17. Thunder – The Thunder thrived on the offensive glass in the Russell Westbrook era, leading the league last season with Westbrook, Paul George and Steven Adams punishing teams on the board despite shaky percentages from three. This year’s squad is more conventional with the league’s No. 27 offensive rebounding rate, understandably so given the roster’s current athletic limitations. Oklahoma City’s stylistic transformation is among the league’s most jarring.

16. Nets – There hasn’t been a vocal discontent in Brooklyn, though Kyrie Irving’s presence appears to have taken a toll on Spencer Dinwiddie, as well as Caris LeVert prior to his thumb injury. You can feel Dinwiddie itching to get up shots when he enters without Irving, knowing he will fade to the background when the two share the floor. Irving is in the midst of perhaps the best statistical campaign of his career. His signing remains a coup for the Nets. Yet it’s not unfair to consider the potential negative impact his signing had on Brooklyn’s young core.

15. Blazers – Can Carmelo Anthony swing Portland’s wayward season? Probably not, but it’s a worthwhile gamble nonetheless. The Blazers desperately lack frontcourt scoring. They rely far too heavily on Mario Hezonja. Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless have not been sufficiently replaced, and Damian Lillard’s dominance hasn’t resulted in a lot of wins. Why not take a shot on the 10-time All-Star?

14. Pacers – The Pacers lead the league in assists per game, and Nate McMillan’s offense is pleasing to the eye with a deep bag of intricate sets and consistent cutters. One problem: the movement rarely results in easy looks. Indiana lacks downhill creators, and its most dominant weapon at the moment is a Domantas Sabonis post-up. Victor Oladipo’s athleticism is dearly missed.

13. Timberwolves – The Andrew Wigginsance is in full bloom through 13 games with the former No. 1 pick sporting career highs in points, three-point percentage and effective field goal percentage. Wiggins’ athleticism has never been in doubt; his aggressiveness has. He’s attacking the rim with abandon this season, and finally creeping up the free-throw leaderboard. The more easy buckets the better.

12. Suns – The Suns have been one of the nicer surprises of the year, and their defensive turnaround has been astounding. No team has allowed fewer made threes, and Phoenix has allowed an NBA-best 98 offensive rebounds in 11 games. Monty Williams is the leader in the clubhouse for Coach of the Year. 

11. Mavericks – Luke Doncic’s hot start has been the leading storyline of Dallas’ season, but their rotation has been solid nearly throughout the roster. Rick Carlisle goes 10 deep most nights, with the likes of Seth Curry, Delon Wright and Maxi Kleber all providing quality contributions. The Mavericks landed their star. They’ve already built a solid foundation around him.

10. 76ers – A win to close the week against the Cavs was a welcome sign. Five straight road losses entering Sunday is concerning. The spacing concerns remain glaring. Let’s not get fooled by Ben Simmons workout videos ever again.

9. Heat – The Heat have adopted some Sixers-like lineups since the addition of Jimmy Butler, riding units that are long, mobile and switchable. Butler is their perimeter catalyst, but Miami’s most valuable defender is Bam Adebayo. The third-year center has made a major leap as a rim protector, showing increased awareness in the team concept. What was formerly a weak-side swatter has become a feared anchor.

8. Jazz – Utah’s additions of Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic were supposed to ease the playmaking load for Donavan Mitchell, yet Utah’s star is still posting a usage rate over 30 for the second straight season. Perhaps Joe Ingles can help alleviate the load. The versatile swingman has seen a statistical dip across the board to start the season, shooting a career-worst from three and a downright concerning 34.6% from the field. He’s taken the brunt of Utah’s rotation adjustment, but a quick rebound could vault the Jazz to the top of the West.

7. Raptors – The Raptors lost Kawhi Leonard in free agency and replaced him with...Kawhi Leonard? Well, not exactly, but Pascal Siakam has posted nearly identical numbers to Leonard’s 2018-19 north of the border, Siakam is averaging 26.2 points per game compared to Leonard’s 26.6, and he’s averaging more rebounds and more assists. His field goal percentage has remained steady with the increased workload, and Toronto is creeping closer toward the Finals discussion by the week. Siakam is in line for back-to-back Most Improved Player awards.

6. Nuggets – Nikola Jokic doesn’t need to be even a league-average shooter from three for Denver to be effective, yet his current 24.1% mark is proving problematic for Mike Malone and the Nuggets. Defenses are sagging with abandon, mucking up passing lanes and daring Jokic to pull the trigger. A potential antidote: feed Jokic below the foul line. His post-ups haven’t been terribly efficient this season–just 0.85 points per possession–though added volume could get the Serbian star back on track.

5. Clippers – Montrezl Harrell is posting a career-best 18.2 points per game, and it’s not hard to see why: there are few more effective roll men in basketball. Harrell is averaging 1.32 points per roll possession, the third-best mark among the 29 players with at least 30 roll possessions. Just three players have a better field goal percentage as a roller, and Aron Baynes and Bam Adebayo are the only players who score at a higher rate as a roll man. Not a bad rate for a 6’7” center.

4. Rockets – Let’s dive into Harden’s historic scoring stretch to start 2019-20. Only Chamberlain has as many 40-point games (seven) in his first 13 contests to begin a season. No non-Wilt player has a higher single-season scoring average than Harden’s current 39.5 points per game, and no player has ever averaged as many free throws per game (13.1). Harden is in the midst of the greatest scoring season in the modern era. His brilliance shouldn’t be taken for granted.

3. Bucks – Harden’s scoring streak is nearly unprecedented, though Giannis Antetokounmpo is matching The Beard by his own statistical metrics. The Greek Freak is averaging 30.1 points, 14.3 rebounds and 6.5 assists through 12 games, posting a career-high 61.6 effective field goal percentage. Just one player in the three-point era has ever averaged even 30-10-5 in the three-point era, Russell Westbrook in 2016-17. Westbrook posted a middling 47.6 eFG% in his MVP season. Antetokounmpo is on track to post similar volume with historic efficiency.

2. Celtics – Boston’s 10-game win streak ended in Sacramento on Sunday, but don’t assume the dominant streak was a mirage. The Celtics sport the NBA’s best offensive rating, and no team has a lower turnover rate. Boston is playing in Brad Stevens’ image after indulging a slate of Irving isolations in 2018-19.

1. Lakers – Los Angeles is cruising with the West’s best record following Sunday’s win over the Hawks, and the Lakers’ hot start to the year has been despite a middling offensive effort. LeBron James and Co.’s shot profile has been ugly–No. 25 in free-throw rate and No. 28 in three-point rate–and Danny Green is the only qualified player shooting over 33% from three. The Lakers should sprint to West’s best record if they improve their offensive efficiency.