James Harden got what we wanted. The Nets’ newest star stressed his wish to play for a title contender throughout his final months in Houston, and through two games with Brooklyn, it appears as though his wish has been granted. The Nets are 2–0 with Harden on the floor, including a thrilling 125-123 win over the Bucks on Monday night. Harden has been masterful early on, thriving with his former teammate Kevin Durant. This appears to be the Eastern Conference’s most electric offense, even with Kyrie Irving out of the lineup. If Brooklyn's mercurial point guard is also on the floor come playoff time, a Finals trip is very much in play.
So where do the Nets sit in the league hierarchy after two games with Harden? Find out below as we sift through this week’s power rankings.
30. Detroit Pistons
Detroit snagged three first rounders in the 2020 NBA Draft as it looked to kickstart a new era, pairing French point guard Killian Hayes with frontcourt players Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey. Their final first-round pick has made the greatest impact early on. Bey is averaging significant rotation minutes early in his NBA career, sporting a smooth three-point stroke and notable versatility. Hayes struggled to finish at the rim before a hip injury derailed his rookie campaign. Stewart’s defensive shortcomings have limited his impact. After just two seasons at Villanova, Bey’s polish as a prospect stands out. He’s emerged as a rare bright spot amid a difficult year in Detroit.
29. Minnesota Timberwolves
We’ll save our analysis on another difficult season in Minnesota for another week. Get well soon, KAT.
28. Washington Wizards
Brooklyn’s acquisition of Harden marked the biggest blockbuster of the NBA season, though it may not be the only deal that makes a major impact on the title chase. Enter Bradley Beal. The nine-year veteran continues to light up the scoreboard in 2020–21, leading the league in points per game as he toils away with a non-competitive Wizards team. Beal will be a free agent after 2021–22. He’s been a good soldier in Washington despite considerable organizational tumult. A trade demand would certainly be warranted, potentially kicking off another league-wide sweepstakes. Perhaps a Beal-for-Ben-Simmons swap could be in play after Philadelphia missed out on acquiring Harden.
27. Sacramento Kings
Sacramento fell to 5–9 on the season after a 128-123 loss to the Pelicans on Sunday, continuing a truly dismal defensive start for Luke Walton’s squad. The Kings have allowed 120-plus points in eight straight games. They sit last in defensive rating and No. 29 in opponent paint points. Only three teams force turnovers at a lower rate. Opposing teams are feasting both in transition and in the half-court, taking advantage of Sacramento’s uninspiring on-ball defense. The Kings’ defensive woes are largely personnel driven, though if they continue to struggle, it’s unclear just how long Luke Walton will survive as the team’s head coach.
26. Chicago Bulls
Lauri Markkanen has been the subject of significant frustration in Chicago in recent years, and rightly so. The former No. 7 pick is an impressive talent, though his production in 2019–20 waned as he struggled to find his role in the Bulls’ offense. Perhaps Sunday will mark a turning point. Markkanen led the Bulls with 29 points in a blowout win over the Mavericks, showing off his offensive versatility in the process. Markkanen is more than just a stationary shooter. The Finnish big man is a quality pick-and-roll threat, and he’s more adept off the bounce than many assume. Markkanen can’t afford to be tepid. In a crowded Chicago attack, initiating his own offense is likely the most effective path toward fulfilling his potential.
25. Charlotte Hornets
I’d like to see Charlotte hunt for a big man on the trade market as it competes for a playoff spot in LaMelo Ball’s rookie season. Neither P.J. Washington (too small) nor Bismack Biyombo (hands of stone) are suitable bigs with Cody Zeller out of the lineup, and even when Zeller returns, he’s more of an expiring contract than a member of the future core. Perhaps Charlotte can poach John Collins from Atlanta as he and Clint Capela battle for paint touches. Andre Drummond is another expiring contract, but the Hornets do have the cap space to potentially retain him in free agency. Myles Turner would be a dream addition, though his trade price is likely steeper than the two aforementioned bigs. The Hornets have options as they seek another pick-and-roll partner for Ball. Let’s hope they strike before March’s trade deadline.
24. Oklahoma City Thunder
Luguentz Dort briefly emerged on the national stage in the NBA bubble as he hounded Harden throughout the first round of the playoffs, and the Arizona State product continues to shine in his second season. Dort’s three-point percentage has jumped to 43.1 percent in 2020–21 on a considerable leap in attempts, and he remains one of the most gifted defensive wings in the game. The Thunder will likely fade from the playoff picture at some point, but this isn’t the bottom feeder that many expected entering the season. Even after Chris Paul’s departure, Oklahoma City continues to exceed expectations.
23. New York Knicks
Just how concerned should we be about R.J. Barrett? The 2019 lottery pick continues to struggle offensively in his second season, shooting 38.7 percent from the field and 22.6 percent from three after Monday’s win over the Magic. Barrett’s jumper leaves a lot to be desired, and while his size and strength allows for plenty of looks near the rim, he doesn’t exactly blow by people off the dribble. The Duke product often looks like a wing version of Julius Randle. That’s not necessarily a compliment. The Knicks are taking a prudent path as they build through the draft, though if their lottery selections don’t shine, it’s hard to see a true return to relevance. Let’s hope to see a varied offensive skill set from Barrett in the coming months as he looks to turn the corner in his short NBA career.
22. Cleveland Cavaliers
Cleveland general manager Koby Altman continues to make shrewd moves as the Cavaliers eye their first non-LeBron playoff appearance since 1998. Cleveland snagged center Jarrett Allen in the Harden mega-deal on Jan. 13, creating an intriguing Twin Towers of the future with Allen and Larry Nance Jr. The Cavaliers now have a pair of franchise pillars at both guard and center. Rookie wing Isaac Okoro could be a future All-Defense candidate. Additional young assets (or draft capital) could arrive in March if Drummond is dealt before the trade deadline. Question the ceiling of this group if you wish, but there’s little use doubting Altman’s process. The Cavaliers’ future appears now bright for the first time in the post-LeBron era.
21. Houston Rockets
So what should we make of Houston’s trade haul? Perhaps you can quibble with the decision to go with Brooklyn’s offer, citing the All-NBA potential already flashed by Simmons in Philadelphia. Any one of Houston’s incoming draft picks may not match Simmons’ skill-set in the coming years, but viewing the Rockets’ choices in such terms obscures the actual debate. Houston received considerable flexibility in last week’s deal, restocking their pick stash while adding Victor Oladipo in the process. Did general manager Rafael Stone make the right call? Time will tell. But the thought process in Houston is sound. The Rockets can now move forward with a new nucleus and a world of possibilities as they look to regain relevance in the Western Conference.
20. New Orleans Pelicans
New Orleans’ roster is imperfect, and there are real spacing concerns considering the personnel currently on hand. But let’s save our kvetching for another day. Instead, enjoy Zion Williams pulverizing the Kings, which is a phrase we (outside of Sacramento) hope to hear for years to come.
19. Memphis Grizzlies
Memphis is now winners of five straight after beating the Suns on Monday, climbing back into the Western Conference playoff picture despite considerable injury woes. So what’s behind the Grizzlies’ resurgence? An impressive defense is to thank. Memphis sports the NBA’s No. 5 defensive rating under head coach Taylor Jenkins, allowing the fewest second-chance points of any team in the league. The Grizzlies lack scoring punch as it battles a slate of absences. They aren’t rising to the top of anyone’s League Pass rankings. But Jenkins has instilled an palpable tenacity and discipline in his first two seasons. Memphis has the right coach to lead its young roster into a new era.
18. Orlando Magic
Aaron Gordon remains one of the more frustrating talents in the league on a night-to-night basis. This isn’t to say he isn’t talented. The issue is quite contrary. Gordon at his best is a fringe All-Star with a dynamic offensive skill-set, able to light up the scoreboard with a blend of eye-popping athleticism and a quality handle. But Gordon’s game is often less than the sum of his talents. He’s not the most efficient shooter, and he’s known to over-dribble for long stretches. Gordon’s usage in Orlando’s offense often outpaces his production.
The full Gordon experience was on display against the Knicks on Monday. Gordon tallied 18 points, 17 rebounds and nine assists, sporting a confident three-point stroke and strong defense down the stretch. But with the game on the line, the wheels fell off. Gordon committed a turnover on an attempted jump pass, sealing a New York win in the final minute. Gordon can still be a valuable member of a contender. But the possibility of him being a leading piece in Orlando’s next era is fading by the month.
17. Toronto Raptors
Toronto’s early-season struggles have yet to subside, though there has been one reason for optimism amid a shaky start. Third-year center Chris Boucher continues to emerge as a dynamic piece for Nick Nurse and Co. thriving as an offensive weapon in a depleted frontcourt. Boucher is averaging 1.60 points per pick-and-roll possession. He’s shooting 47.7 percent from three on a non-trivial number of attempts. The Oregon product sports a mammoth wingspan and impressive leaping ability, and each week brings further refinement on both ends of the floor. Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka are now in Los Angeles. This could be the last year of the Kyle Lowry era. As Toronto begins to turn the page to a new generation, Boucher is emerging as a potential franchise cornerstone.
16. Atlanta Hawks
Atlanta’s draft-night decisions in recent years deserve some semblance of scrutiny, but their decisions in the 2019 draft appear to be paying dividends. The Hawks traded up to the No. 4 pick in order to snag Virginia product De’Andre Hunter, and they selected fellow wing Cam Reddish out of Duke with the No. 10 pick. Both Hunter and Reddish are now in the midst of strong second seasons. Reddish’s size and defensive acumen have made him a fixture in Lloyd Pierce’s rotation, while Hunter continues to grow as a complementary scorer. As Trae Young struggles early, Atlanta’s young wings have helped keep the team afloat.
15. Miami Heat
Tyler Herro has struggled with his three-point stroke early in 2020–21, yet he continues to impress as he rounds out his game in other areas. Herro is increasingly flashing his skill as a lead playmaker, improving his efficiency both near the rim and in the mid-range. The Kentucky product has a sneaky floater and a crafty layup package. He reads defenses well off the pick-and-roll, able to find shooters in either corner. As Jimmy Butler ages out of his prime, Herro’s development is paramount. He’s passed all the necessary check marks thus far after Miami’s run to the Finals in the bubble.
14. Portland Trail Blazers
Portland’s defense was already porous before Jusuf Nurkic’s wrist injury, ranking No. 26 in defensive rating and No. 18 in opponent paint points. And the reinforcements behind Nurkic aren’t exactly promising. Harry Giles is an athletic project with little polish. Enes Kanter is a 7’0” turnstyle. We noted Charlotte above as a potential center landing spot. Portland fits a similar mold. With Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum’s both in their respective primes, finding an impact big man is currently priority No. 1 for Neil Olshey and Co.
13. San Antonio Spurs
Don’t look now, but San Antonio could very well start a new playoff streak in 2020–21 after winning six of its last eight. DeMar DeRozan continues to tally assists at a career-best rate after tossing 11 dimes in a victory over Portland on Monday, and the Spurs’ defensive profile points to sustainable success. Just one team allows fewer three-point attempts per game. Just four allow fewer free throws. The Spurs are long in the backcourt and on the wing, and their young core continues to show signs of progress after a shaky start. This isn’t the prettiest Spurs team offensively, but they have just enough firepower to survive. 2020–21 could mark another satisfying chapter in Gregg Popovich’s Hall-of-Fame career.
12. Golden State Warriors
Steve Kerr and the Warriors have a clear intentionality with the development of Andrew Wiggins, and their plan is working smoothly thus far. Wiggins has been miscast as a potential leading man on the wing for much of his career, sporting shaky shooting percentages and a frustrating inefficiency. Things have been simplified in Golden State. Wiggins is a spacer and slasher on the wing, and the Warriors are increasingly relying on his athleticism on the defensive end. If Wiggins can contend for an All-Defense spot, everything else is effectively gravy. After a troubling start, it appears as though Golden State is settling into a rhythm.
11. Dallas Mavericks
The roster shortcomings in Dallas will likely prevent Luka Doncic from truly chasing the MVP award, though it’s still worthwhile to marvel at the Slovenian sensation’s statistical profile thus far. Doncic notched his 29th career triple-double on Sunday in a loss to the Bulls, tallying 36 points, 16 rebounds and 15 assists as he passed Michael Jordan on the all-time triple-doubles list. Sunday’s performance was anything but an aberration. It was (to some degree) the norm. Doncic will likely flirt with a triple-double average once again in his third season, and with a hot streak from his teammates, he could very well join Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook in the season-long triple-double club. We’ll save the conversation on Dallas’s long-term ceiling for another day, but make no mistake: championship or not, Doncic could very well retire with one of the most dominant statistical resumes in league history.
10. Denver Nuggets
Nikola Jokic remains brilliant as he puts up numbers unseen since Oscar Robertson, yet the Nuggets currently sit 11th in the Western Conference. What’s behind Denver’s current woes? Its defensive struggles are the central culprit. The Nuggets boast the NBA’s No. 25 defensive rating, sitting in the bottom-10 in both defensive rebounding and opponent paint points. Denver’s frontcourt personnel isn’t exactly imposing. Opponents get to the rim far too easily off the dribble, and the defensive miscommunications continue to a frustrating degree. Perhaps Michael Malone can scheme Denver toward league average on the defensive end, but a roster upgrade may be necessary for the Nuggets to even sniff the conference finals in 2021.
9. Phoenix Suns
Cam Johnson entered the starting lineup in Monday’s loss to the Grizzlies, and the change from head coach Monty Williams could become permanent in the coming weeks. Johnson provides significant stretch from beyond the arc, and he’s emerged as a quality defensive piece in his second season. Six of Phoenix’s top seven two-man pairings feature Johnson. He’s been effective when paired with both Chris Paul and Devin Booker. The Suns’ starting lineup has (strangely) been shredded to start the season. Perhaps replacing Jae Crowder with Johnson will help turn the tide.
8. Indiana Pacers
I’d like to see Indiana add one backcourt playmaker before the postseason arrives. Malcolm Brogdon is more than capable of running the show in the starting lineup, but look past the Virginia product, and the potential distributors don’t exactly stand out. Aaron Holiday provides more scoring punch than playmaking. T.J. McConnell is playable only in limited spurts. This is a rotation flush with frontcourt scoring, and Brogdon is a true floor general in the backcourt. Add a quality backup point guard, and this could be a sneaky contender for the Eastern Conference crown.
7. Philadelphia 76ers
There’s no real reason to hit the panic button in Philadelphia amid a 9–5 start, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the 76ers won’t regret pulling the trigger on a potential Harden trade. There are still legitimate spacing concerns in the fourth year of the Simmons era, and there’s no clear avenue to improvement in that respect barring a massive progression in Simmons’ jumper. Perhaps the asking price simply got out of control, but to get a player of Harden’s caliber, an overpay is often necessary. We’ll see if Daryl Morey can lure another star to Philadelphia (hello, Beal) before a pivotal postseason.
6. Utah Jazz
Mike Conley continues to turn back the clock in his first full season with Utah. The former Grizzlies stalwart has been an anchor for Utah as it ranks in the top-10 of both offensive and defensive rating, seeing a marked boost in his scoring and assist totals compared to 2019–20. Conley isn’t an athletic marvel by any stretch, and he’s among the league’s more diminutive point guards. But what Conley lacks in stature, he more than makes up for in guile. Few point guards are better at keeping an opponent on their hip, knowing exactly when to hit the brakes or burst forward to the tin. We waited three years for Donovan Mitchell to have a true partner in the backcourt. Conley has filled the role with relative aplomb.
5. Boston Celtics
The Celtics are relatively fortunate to sit second in the East at 8–4 entering Tuesday night, managing to keep pace in the Eastern Conference despite Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum’s extended absences. And things should improve in the coming weeks. Walker made his season debut in a loss to the Knicks on Sunday. Tatum should return from the COVID-19 list at some point in the coming weeks. Perhaps you can call the Celtics’ depth into question. They could certainly use another wing behind Tatum and Jaylen Brown. But when fully healthy, this remains a contender for the Eastern Conference crown. Boston’s title window is still wide open despite an improving East.
4. Milwaukee Bucks
We saw the Nets sag off Giannis Antetokounmpo to a jarring degree on Monday night, continuing a pattern we saw in the 2020 playoff. Defenses will continue to dare Antetokounmpo to win with his jump shot throughout the season, and barring a major shooting leap in the coming months, such a strategy could derail Milwaukee’s playoff hopes. But perhaps a wrinkle or two from Mike Budenholzer can help free the Greek Freak. One potential avenue for success is to use Antetokounmpo as a screener, which we saw happen down the stretch on Monday in numerous two-man actions with Khris Middleton. No plan is fool-proof, but Milwaukee can’t afford to let its season slip away amid a stream of failed Antetokounmpo isolations. Let’s hope to see more creativity from Budenholzer throughout 2020–21 as Milwaukee looks to finally break through to the Finals.
3. Brooklyn Nets
The whole “there’s only one ball” conversation in Brooklyn has quickly proven to be absurd through the first two games of the Durant-Harden era. Perhaps those parroting such discourse weren’t paying attention in recent years, but Harden is one of the most brilliant passers of his era. He’s a pinpoint lob passer with creative vision in the pick-and-roll, even winning the assist title in 2016–17. Even when Irving returns, don’t expect a tug-of-war to ensue. Brooklyn’s offense should continue to cruise throughout the season, potentially carrying the Nets to the Finals in a competitive Eastern Conference.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers offense is humming of late, and Paul George continues to shine after a troubling 2020 playoffs. George is averaging 24.8 points per game in 2020–21, sporting 51-51-92 splits as Los Angeles holds onto the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. George’s efficiency is all-but-guaranteed to dip in the coming weeks, though even a few poor shooting nights won’t necessarily dampen his effectiveness. George and the Clippers are generating open threes at an astounding rate. They’re pinging the ball around the perimeter with a newfound urgency. This is the lone true threat to the Lakers out West, and given a hot stretch, we could very well see the Clippers reach the Finals this summer.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
The counting stats may not be particularly gaudy for LeBron James, though we could see him mount a potential MVP run in the coming months. James and the Lakers continue to roll through the Western Conference with six straight wins prior to Monday’s loss vs. Golden State, and Anthony Davis has been the superstar with his foot off the gas for much of the season thus far. No candidate has established themselves as true MVP favorites early on. Jokic and Doncic’s teams aren’t good enough. Durant now shares the spotlight with Harden, and it’s hard to count on a healthy 70 games from Embiid. Even if it’s more of a lifetime achievement award than anything, I wouldn’t object to handing King James his fifth MVP in 2020–21.