Russell Westbrook and the Rockets aren’t close to panicking after losing four of their last five, but concerns are certainly evident in Houston. The Rockets have a negative net-rating since Jan. 1. Their defensive effort has waned over the last week, and their three-point shooting has taken a serious dip. The slide has knocked Houston to No. 6 in the Western Conference, entering Monday at 26–15. The Finals are still in play, though not at the team’s current pace. With a rough schedule looming before the All-Star break, the Rockets could limp into the trade deadline seeking major upgrades. It’s unclear whether they can overcome their roster’s shortcomings in a stacked Western Conference. Houston’s pair of MVPs will certainly have to play like it in the second half of 2019-20.
As we cross the season’s midway point, let’s dive into The Crossover’s power rankings with notes on all 30 teams.
30. Hawks – Trae Young received some help last week as Jeff Teague returned to Atlanta, though Teague’s arrival may not be the assistance Young was looking for. The Hawks are dreadful defensively, and they have a glaring weakness in the frontcourt. Teague is a familiar face and a fan favorite. He won’t help stabilize the Hawks anytime soon.
29. Warriors – More power to Steph Curry if he wants to return to the floor in March, though he may be inclined to sit out late in the year as the lottery odds finalize. A top-five pick could land Golden State a quality youngster, but more importantly, it may be the key to bringing another established star to the Bay. Poaching All-Star talent is a lot easier with a top-three pick rather than perhaps pick No. 7. Curry’s return may complicate the process.
28. Knicks – The Knicks crunch-time woes emerged in a major way at MSG on Saturday, giving up a three to Tobias Harris before Julius Randle fumbled the ball out of bounds with 7.4 seconds remaining. New York has avoided embarrassment in Mike Miller’s short stint as head coach, but harder times may be on the way after the trade deadline. As quality bodies are shipped, the tankathon will ensue. Not exactly a winning environment for R.J. Barrett.
27. Cavaliers – No Cleveland rotation player has a positive net-rating, though Cedi Osman would likely be a winning player in a more stable situation. The 6’7” forward is a solid shooter and sneaky off the bounce, and he plays with the requisite effort for a playoff team. Perhaps this version of Osman could have helped LeBron James in his final years in Cleveland. Let’s hope Osman finds a winning team at some point in his career.
26. Hornets – The Hornets are scuffling this season after Kemba Walker’s departure, but their guards have continued Charlotte’s predilection for clutch performances. Devonte’ Graham and Terry Rozier both rank in the top 10 in the NBA in clutch points, with the duo combining to make a solid 21-48 threes in clutch situations. Charlotte’s exciting backcourt has kept the franchise relevant despite a 34-win pace.
25. Wizards – Washington’s Davis Bertans conundrum will be interesting in the coming weeks. The former Spurs forward is in the final year of his contract, and he’s canning 42.8% of triples on 8.7 attempts per game. Perhaps Washington will look to pay up this summer, but in a weak free-agency class, keeping Bertans may be increasingly difficult. Bertans could quickly be shipped if a team coughs up a first rounder.
24. Timberwolves – The Timberwolves are, of course, better with Karl-Anthony Towns on the floor, but one stat from his time off is jarring. Minnesota ranked No. 2 in defensive rating in Towns’ 15-game absence. It then gave up 116 and 122 points in Towns’ first two games back. The small sample size is of course miniscule, but it continues a trend that’s plagued Minnesota for the last half decade. Towns’ defensive deficiencies are a major impediment to winning. Without a crop of plus defenders around him, it’s hard to see Towns winning playoff games anytime soon.
23. Kings – The Kings pulled off a trade with the Blazers on Saturday, though it didn’t totally qualify as a Woj Bomb. Sacramento added Anthony Tolliver and Kent Bazemore from Portland in exchange for Trevor Ariza, Wenyen Gabriel and Caleb Swannigan. The Kings got the best player in the deal (Bazemore) but will it really move the needle in a crowded Western Conference? I remain unconvinced.
22. Bulls – You take the good and the bad with Zach LaVine, and Saturday’s win over Cleveland showed just how impressive the UCLA product can be. LaVine poured in 41 points on 19-31 shooting, sealing the victory with this impressive reverse. Talent isn't LaVine’s problem. Inconsistency and effort has plagued his career thus far.
21. Pistons – The Pistons are, by most accounts, depressing, but Sekou Doumbouya certainly isn’t. Detroit’s rookie continues to show promise as a scorer, shimmying his way to 24 points in a win over the Celtics on Jan. 15. Doumbouya is a raw talent. His shot can be shaky on the wrong night. But Detroit appears to have found a keeper with the No. 15 pick in the 2019 draft. For a team outside the free-agency picture and unwilling to tank, hitting on players like Doumbouya is largely the only way to escape NBA purgatory.
20. Pelicans – Where was this Brandon Ingram in Los Angeles? The fourth-year forward is shooting a career-high from three and making over five free throws per game, altering his game from inefficient gunner to reliable top option. Credit Pelicans shooting coach Fred Vinson for Ingram’s evolution. New Orleans is enjoying a completely different player than the one they received in June.
19. Trail Blazers – Carmelo Anthony certainly delivered in his revenge game against the Rockets on Wednesday. Anthony dusted off his vintage self at the Toyota Center, burying seven of 10 shots en route to 18 points. Anthony remains steady as Portland climbs back into the playoff race. His year-long absence from the NBA is shocking in retrospect.
18. Nets – What’s new in this week’s edition of The Kyrie Chronicles? Nothing much. Irving combined for 31 points on 35 shots in his last two games, and he called for roster help after Brooklyn’s loss to the 76ers on Wednesday. Irving is a brilliant talent and a proven clutch performer. If only he can keep to himself, or at least avoid criticism of his teammates. Didn’t he learn from last year’s disaster in Boston?
17. Magic – The Markelle Fultz career revival tour is now in full force. The former No. 1 pick is averaging 16.7 points per game in his last seven contests, including a 21-point triple double against the Lakers on Wednesday. It’s only a matter of time before Fultz is offered a contract extension at his current production clip.
16. Spurs – DeMar DeRozan is likely to just short of an All-Star appearance, but he’s been brilliant of late. DeRozan scored 20-plus points in 13 straight games from Dec. 21 to Jan. 17, shooting 50% or better in all 13 games. DeRozan’s three-phobia is frustrating, but he’s still turning in quite the impressive 2019-20.
15. Suns – Devin Booker scored 70 points against the Celtics in 2017, but Saturday’s victory may be his most impressive career performance vs. Boston. Booker scored 39 points on 12-20 shooting in Phoenix’s road victory, adding 10 rebounds and nine assists. The Suns have won four of five, and they’re just 1.5 games back of the Grizzlies for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. Booker has been a catalyst in the franchise’s first relevant season since 2014-15.
14. Grizzlies – That’s five straight wins for the Grizzlies, including a home blowout against the Rockets on Tuesday. Ja Morant shouted “tell that motherf---er about me” after draining a triple over James Harden in Memhpis’ victory, taunting the two-time scoring champion as Harden dared him to shoot. Harden certainly knows about Morant now.
13. Thunder – Only three players since 2010 have posted a 20-5-3 statline before turning 22. Luka Doncic, Blake Griffin and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Doncic and Griffin were athletic specimens. SGA is a wiry guard. His knack for the ball is supernatural, and few players are smoother gliding to the tin. The jewel of the Paul George trade continues to shine in his first year with the Thunder.
12. Pacers – Domantas Sabonis’ efficiency over the last 15 games is startling. He’s averaging 18 points per game on 58% shooting, bullying the Timberwolves in a 29-point effort on Wednesday. Sabonis is in line for an All-Star appearance. He’s been critical in keeping the Pacers in the Eastern Conference playoffs as Victor Oladipo prepares for his return. His $77 million extension is already looking like a bargain.
11. 76ers – Nice week for Furkan Korkmaz, who is in the midst of a relative breakout in his third season. Korkmaz has 56 points in his last three games, and he buried six threes in a win over the Bulls on Friday. For a team desperate for shooting help, Korkmaz’ emergence has been critical.
10. Rockets – James Harden has struggled mightily from the field in Houston’s recent slide. The two-time scoring champion is shooting just 33.6% since Jan. 8, and he’s made just 27% of threes. Perhaps fatigue is to blame. The constant diet of traps sent at Harden can’t help. Houston needs its superstar to get back on track in order to climb above the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference.
9. Mavericks – Poor Sacramento. Luka Doncic turned in an absolutely dominant performance in a 127-123 Mavericks’ victory on Wednesday, torching the team who passed on him in the 2019 NBA draft. Doncic finished the night with 25 points, 15 rebounds and 17 assists, notching his 20th career triple-double. The legend of Doncic grows by the week. There’s no player under 25 with a brighter future
8. Raptors – Welcome back, Fred VanVleet. The 2019 Finals hero missed the last five games due to a hamstring injury, then poured in 29 points on 7-8 from three in a win over the Timberwolves on Saturday. The Raptors are on a 55-win pace. They’re returning to full health. It’s hard to see Masai Ujiri breaking up this core before the Feb. 6 trade deadline.
7. Heat – Justise Winslow’s injury woes are a true shame. The Duke product entered 2019-20 as one of the league’s most impressive swiss army knives, thriving as a point forward in Erik Spoelstra’s attack. Winslow hasn’t been able to show off his unique skill set this season. The fifth-year player has played just 11 games this season, and Spoelstra announced on Jan. 11 that Winslow will miss at least the next two weeks due to a back injury. Get well soon, Justise.
6. Jazz – We shouldn’t see any tears from Rudy Gobert after this year’s All-Star ballot. Gobert has been Utah’s best player this season, and he’s been dominant over the last month. Gobert is averaging 16.6 points and 15.4 rebounds per game since Dec. 19, making 68% of field goal attempts. Add in his usual All-NBA defense, and it would be a (relative) tragedy if Gobert is kept off the All-Star team.
5. Celtics – If given 200 attempts to guess who hit 11 threes in a game on Saturday night, I don’t think I’d name Marcus Smart. Welcome to basketball in 2020. Smart shot 28.3% from three in 2016-17. He was granted 22 attempts on Saturday night. Nearly every non-center can shoot with impunity beyond the arc, Smart included. He’s improved from three in recent seasons, but it’s hard to imagine Smart receiving the same offensive freedom even a half-decade ago.
4. Clippers – Kawhi Leonard slow plays the regular season, so it’s always a minor surprise to see him unleash a performance like he did in New Orleans on Saturday. Leonard poured in 39 points along with six rebounds and six assists, dominating the Pelicans even without Paul George in the lineup. June feels like three years ago, but don’t forget Leonard’s dominance on the game’s biggest stage. Is there anyone else you’d want for a playoff series in 2020?
3. Nuggets – The MPJ hype is reaching a fever pitch, and rightfully so. Michael Porter Jr. is averaging 16.7 points in just 25.3 minutes per game in his last three contests, displaying the offensive arsenal fitting of a young phenom. The stalled start to Porter’s career appears to have ended. Continued growth will go a long way to helping Denver’s Finals chances.
2. Lakers – The Lakers are absolutely cruising with 10 wins in its last 11 games, and Saturday’s win over Houston was perhaps their most impressive victory of late. Los Angeles bullied James Harden and the Rockets en route to a 24-4 advantage in second-chance points, and James walked off the floor to a flood of “MVP” chants. James remains near the peak of his powers. Doubting the King has proved foolish in 2019-20.
1. Bucks – Forgive the public if there isn’t more buzz surrounding a 71-win team. The Bucks have won four of their last five by double digits. Giannis Antetokounmpo is cruising to his second straight MVP at just 30.6 minutes per game. There isn’t much drama in the fourth quarter of late. It’s a shame the Bucks’ regular-season dominance will likely be considered moot without a Finals appearance. Milwaukee could close 2019-20 as one of the century’s great teams.