NBA Power Rankings: Rockets Are Rolling After James Harden Trade

Despite the early-season drama, the Rockets have been getting it done on the defensive end.
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Aside from the dominance of the two Los Angeles teams, the 2020–21 season hasn’t exactly gone as predicted through the first 20 games. The Mavericks are sliding as the Rockets surge without James Harden in the Western Conference, while in the East, the Heat and Raptors sit outside even the play-in tournament. Memphis is the No. 4 seed out West. The Hawks and Cavaliers are projected postseason teams. Save the spiel regarding small sample size for another time. For now, the playoff race remains wide open, with a slate of surprise teams crashing the party.

So who is rising and who is falling as we roll through February? Check out The Crossover’s latest power rankings below.

30. Detroit Pistons

Let’s take a minute for a dose of optimism in Detroit amid another lost season. Veteran wing Wayne Ellington is in the midst of a career year with his ninth team, averaging 12.5 points per game on over 50% from three. And perhaps more impressive than Ellington’s hot shooting is his demeanor and leadership. Ellington is a professional by all accounts, and he made a point to back up teammate Rodney McGruder on Saturday after a scuffle with the Warriors. It’s not an easy situation by any stretch in the Motor City at the moment. Good on Ellington for his impact both on and off the floor.

29. Minnesota Timberwolves

Naz Reid isn’t earning All-NBA honors anytime soon, but the second-year center is carving out a role in the league that should serve him well for years to come. Reid is averaging 12.1 points per game on 53% shooting, providing legitimate stretch from beyond the arc. The LSU product is still a work-in-progress defensively. He doesn’t exactly play above the rim. But his varied skill-set could make for a formidable twin-towers look alongside Karl-Anthony Towns. Even if things don’t quite work out in Minnesota, expect Reid to be a contributor on NBA rosters throughout much of the 2020s

28. Washington Wizards

It’s been a miserable year for Russell Westbrook in Washington, though perhaps his heroics vs. Brooklyn on Sunday night can help turn the tide. And it wasn’t just Westbrook’s game-winner that provided reason for optimism. Washington’s point guard finished Sunday’s victory with 41 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists, and perhaps most importantly, he flashed his signature burst to the rim. Westbrook has been hampered by an injured quad throughout 2020–21. We should see something closer to classic Westbrook in the coming weeks as his quad continues to heal.

27. Oklahoma City Thunder

It’s unlikely we see this Thunder team continue near a .500 pace throughout 2020–21, and frankly, tumbling down the Western Conference standings isn’t the worst thing in the world. The 2021 draft class appears stocked with potential impact pieces, and pairing Cade Cunningham with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander could create a dangerous backcourt for years to come. It only takes one lottery pick to change a franchise. Oklahoma City will have plenty of opportunity on that front in the coming years, though perhaps this rebuild could get kickstarted sooner than expected.

26. New Orleans Pelicans

The Pelicans now sit 7–12 following Monday’s loss to the Kings, and their defensive rating is sinking as they allow the most threes of any team in the NBA. New Orleans’ profile is almost just as ugly on the offensive end. Zion Williamson and Co. rank No. 27 in made threes per game. They sport the league’s fifth worst turnover rate. Williamson’s proclivity for getting to the rim is keeping New Orleans’ free-throw rate afloat, but by and large, the shot chart is pretty ugly on a given night. We could see a roster reshuffling from David Griffin sooner than later as the Pelicans continue to struggle.

25. Orlando Magic

The Magic have been ravaged by injury this season, with Aaron Gordon now set to join Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac on the injured list. The combination of injuries and a listless offense has cast even Orlando’s play-in tournament hopes in doubt, with another lottery appearance potentially on the way. Landing Cunningham in the lottery would certainly be worth the pain, but otherwise, this appears to be another lost year for the Magic.

24. Sacramento Kings

Sacramento continues to sit on the outside-looking-in of the playoff picture, though that’s no fault of its young point guard. De’Aaron Fox entered Monday’s win over the Pelicans averaging 26.5 points per game in his last seven contests, and he then blitzed New Orleans with a 38-point, 12-assist effort. Fox is an absolute blur with the ball in his hands. He’s becoming a more respectable outside shooter. Perhaps Fox isn’t on the top tier of point guards across the league, but for a market like Sacramento, betting on continued growth is the only path to success. With Fox signed long-term, perhaps Kings can take a sustainable route back to the postseason.

23. New York Knicks

Immanuel Quickley continues to impress in his rookie season, earning plaudits from Paul George and Kawhi Leonard after a 25-point performance against the Clippers on Sunday. Quickley continues to shine as an instant offense piece off the bench for the Knicks, often flashing his signature floater en route to 11.6 points per game in limited minutes. New York remains a fringe playoff team in the Eastern Conference. A Finals appearance is more than a universe away. But this isn’t the same old Knicks of previous seasons. Tom Thibodeau’s squad is more than respectable on a night-to-night basis, and Quickley is a major reason why.

22. Chicago Bulls

What should we make of Coby White as he continues his second season in the NBA? The No. 7 pick in the 2019 draft has put up solid scoring totals in 2020–21, though both his turnover numbers and shooting efficiency (especially near the rim) are at least mildly concerning. White is almost guaranteed to have an extended career as a microwave scorer of sorts. But will he ever emerge as a bankable starting point guard? The answer remains unclear. Considering the Bulls’ lottery investment, they better hope White evolves into the latter either this season or in 2021–22.

21. Cleveland Cavaliers

Cleveland has lost four of its last six despite a narrow win against the Timberwolves on Monday, though I continue to enjoy the construction of this roster. The Cavaliers have a pair of building blocks in the backcourt, a trio of talented bigs (though Andre Drummond may be gone by March) and a growing crop of intriguing wings. Taurean Prince is the most recent addition to make his mark. The Baylor product is a reliable rotation piece on both ends, bringing significant size and length along with a solid jumper. Additions like Prince aren’t the sexiest acquisitions to any degree. But they’re necessary in order to build a winner. If Cleveland continues to make the right moves on the margins, this could be a playoff team sooner than later.

20. Toronto Raptors

Let’s use this space to highlight one of the league’s lesser-known players. Raptors forward Yuta Watanabe was buried in Memphis’s rotation for much of 2019–20, and he didn’t see a major bump in playing time early in his Toronto tenure. But Watanabe has emerged as a valuable glue guy for Toronto of late, tallying back-to-back nights of over 20 minutes and 10 points. Watanabe isn’t moving the needle in the championship chase by any stretch, though it’s always nice to see a player break through and earn legitimate minutes. If the Japanese forward plays his cards right, he could be a fixture in The Six for years to come.

19. Dallas Mavericks

Dallas continues to slide down the Western Conference standings, dropping six straight after a Devin Booker game-winner in the final seconds on Monday. It’s hard to target the exact problem for the Mavericks at the moment. They’re getting killed in first quarters, they’re shooting a dismal 32.8% from three and there’s a palpable lack of scoring punch outside of Luka Doncic. Dallas entered 2020–21 as potentially the best Western Conference team outside Los Angeles. But through 21 games, this looks more like a lottery team than any sort of contender.

18. Miami Heat

Welcome back, Jimmy Butler. Miami’s leading man returned to the floor on Saturday night after missing 10 games due the league’s COVID-19 protocol, and Butler came back in prime form for a scuffling Heat squad. Butler tallied 30 points and eight assists in a narrow victory over Sacramento, ending a five-game losing streak for Erik Spoelstra and Co. We’ve yet to see Miami play anywhere close to its best basketball this season. Butler’s absence only exacerbated its issues. With one of the game’s premier two-way players now back on the floor, perhaps we’ll see Miami regain its bubble form sooner than later.

17. Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets may fall short of the play-in tournament in 2021, but on the bright side, they’re rapidly climbing up the League Pass watchability rankings. James Borrego’s team plays a delightful brand of basketball led by LaMelo Ball, and young forward Miles Bridges loves to play above the rim. Add in the occasional Cody Zeller poster (over Giannis nonetheless!) and a Gordon Hayward resurgence, and there are few teams in the league more fun to watch on a night-to-night basis.

16. San Antonio Spurs

Keldon Johnson should continue to be a fan favorite in San Antonio for years to come. The second-year wing plays with a distinct fervor and aggression, attacking the rim with notable ferocity any chance he gets. Johnson’s scoring has jumped to 14.5 points per game in 2020–21, even as he struggles to find his form from beyond the arc. The Spurs are stockpiling young talent at an impressive clip. Perhaps this young core can grow together to start the next great era of San Antonio basketball.

15. Atlanta Hawks

De’Andre Hunter is out for at least a week due to a knee injury, pausing one of the NBA’s best second-year breakouts. Hunter’s scoring has jumped nearly five points from his rookie year, and he’s shooting a blistering 60.9% on two-point shots. The Virginia product is an impact wing on both ends of the floor, serving as a more complete piece at the four than John Collins. The Hawks made a relative gamble when it traded up to the No. 4 pick to select Hunter. Their aggression on draft night is paying off.

14. Houston Rockets

"Houston Rockets, defensive juggernaut" is not exactly a phrase I expected to write at the start of the season, but Stephen Silas’s squad has been just that in recent weeks. Houston leads the league in defensive rating in its last 10 games, entering Tuesday with six straight victories. Victor Oladipo and John Wall make for a ferocious backcourt. P.J. Tucker is an elite back-line anchor. And it's not just the personnel on hand that's fueling Houston. The Rockets play with a palpable chip on their shoulder, banding together as an island of misfit toys. Wall and Oladipo were dumped by their former franchises. Christian Wood has been cut too many times to count. Silas himself is an underdog of sorts, waiting two decades to get his first head coaching gig. This isn't your Rockets of previous seasons, but a new identity could pave the way to a new era of success. Despite the early-season drama, a ninth straight playoff berth is well within reach.

13. Portland Trail Blazers

Portland faces a steep climb to avoid the play-in tournament this season, though is there any doubt Damian Lillard would carry the Blazers into the final eight in that scenario? The superstar point guard may be the NBA’s preeminent clutch scorer at the moment, sinking a game-winner to beat the Bulls on Sunday night. Portland has been ravaged by injury thus far. Even when healthy, it’s hard to see a Finals appearance or anything close. But there’s something to be said for Lillard’s sustained excellence. His ability to keep Portland afloat with varying supporting casts is one of the greater accomplishments of his era.

12. Indiana Pacers

You can feel the firepower drain in Indiana with neither T.J. Warren nor Victor Oladipo on the floor. The Pacers rank No. 18 in offense in their last 10 games, and there’s not much reliable night-to-night scoring outside of Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon. Indiana’s path to relevance has been impressive, and when fully healthy, this could be a fringe Finals contender given a break here or there. But a shaky shot profile and limited options can only take a team so far. It’s likely the Pacers are a first-round out once again in the spring given its current injury woes.

11. Memphis Grizzlies

The Grizzlies are one of the most delightful stories of the season thus far as they continue to roll through the Western Conference. Memphis is now on a seven-game winning streak, with nine players finishing in double digits in Monday’s win over the Spurs. Ja Morant looks like the best player from the 2019 draft. Rookies Xavier Tillman and Desmond Bane continue to impress. Memphis’ rotation is flush with quality contributors, and the current hot streak has come without Jaren Jackson Jr. on the floor. Memphis is building a strong core to start the decade, potentially setting itself up for another string of postseason appearances.

10. Golden State Warriors

Klay Thompson on the floor is better than Klay Thompson in the broadcast booth, but are we sure it isn’t all that close? Thompson was an absolute delight on the Warriors’ broadcast during a win over the Pistons on Saturday, capping his performance with an interview with Steph Curry. Let’s hope to see the Splash Brothers together on the court for at least the next half decade. After that, there’s a perfect follow-up gig waiting for them at the Chase Center.

9. Boston Celtics

Both of Boston’s young wings could compete for All-NBA honors this season, but the Celtics desperately need greater production from Kemba Walker to truly contend for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Walker has struggled out of the gate to start 2020–21, going 1-12 from the field in a four-point performance against the Lakers on Saturday night. Walker deserves the benefit of the doubt after returning from offseason knee surgery, though it’s worth considering whether he’ll ever regain the athleticism and burst we saw from him in Charlotte. If he can’t, the Celtics are likely a scorer short in a crowded Eastern Conference.

8. Phoenix Suns

This isn’t exactly news, but Chris Paul may very well be the game’s best closer as he rolls through his age-35 season. Paul absolutely torched the Mavericks in a road win on Saturday night, tallying 16 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter. Paul drained mid-range jumpers and dished lobs to Deandre Ayton, looking largely like the same player he was a decade ago. CP3 isn’t quite ageless, but he’s looked pretty darn close in Phoenix. Just as he was in Oklahoma City last year, Paul is the tide that lifts all boats. There’s not a single Western Conference team that wants to see the Suns in the postseason with Paul running the show.

7. Brooklyn Nets

We knew Brooklyn could struggle defensively after the James Harden trade, though the current results are downright jarring. The Nets are ahead of only the Kings in defensive rating over the last 12 games, allowing over 120 points in seven of their last eight contests. Brooklyn is downright diminutive in the backcourt and on the wing. DeAndre Jordan and Jeff Green doesn't exactly make for a sturdy center combo. There’s enough firepower on hand to compete for the Eastern Conference crown given a few midseason acquisitions, but as currently constituted, it’s hard to see Brooklyn gunning its way to a Finals appearance, even with Harden.

6. Denver Nuggets

Nikola Jokic is perhaps the best passing big man in NBA history, a designation that at this point is recognized by most fans around the league. But perhaps we’ve taken Jokic’s scoring prowess for granted. Denver’s brilliant center is averaging 26.8 points per game in 2020–21 on 57/62/83 shooting splits, torching any defense in sight. Jokic is averaging a healthy 1.00 point per post-up, and a dominant 1.23 points per roll possession. He punished the Jazz with 47 points on Sunday, completely neutralizing Rudy Gobert in the process. I’m a touch skeptical of the Nuggets’ chances to win the Western Conference, but that’s no indictment of Jokic. He remains one of the leading MVP candidates as we enter February.

5. Milwaukee Bucks

Milwaukee is scuffling as we enter February, dropping four of its last six as defensive woes continue to plague Giannis Antetokounmpo and Co. Perhaps a schematic change could make a difference. The Bucks have the personnel on the wing to pull off a scheme predicated on switching, yet they continue to get blitzed by opponents from beyond the arc as head coach Mike Budenholzer sticks with a heavy diet of drop coverage. Perhaps altering Milwaukee’s defensive scheme isn’t a magic panacea, though at this point, some variety is desperately needed. After getting torched by Miami in the bubble and struggling out of the gate in 2020–21, Budenholzer needs to start making changes sooner than later.

4. Utah Jazz

The Jazz won 11 straight games before Sunday’s loss to the Nuggets, and their dominant stretch can largely be attributed to their excellence from beyond the arc. Utah leads the NBA in threes made per game, and in its last 12 contests, only the Clippers are shooting a better percentage from beyond the arc. Quin Snyder’s squad has additionally been quite adept at limiting opponent triples, dedicating defensive resources to the perimeter with relative ease as Rudy Gobert protects the paint. Perhaps this is a bit of a simplistic way to look at things, but winning the three-point battle on both ends is a pretty healthy formula in the modern era. Utah is doing so with relative ease as it makes its case as a Western Conference contender.

3. Philadelphia 76ers

Tobias Harris was the center of consistent criticism in his first full season with Philadelphia. He’s now fully living up to expectations as a max player. Harris is averaging a career-high 20.3 points per game on an impressive 51.4% from the field in 2020–21, providing a necessary jolt of late-game scoring to Philadelphia’s often clogged attack. Harris tallied 27 points and eight rebounds in a win over the Pacers on Sunday, leading the Sixers to a comeback win without Joel Embiid. This version of Harris appearing in the spring could send the Sixers to their first Finals since 2001.

2. Los Angeles Clippers

Don’t look now, but Kawhi Leonard is beginning to build a pretty intriguing MVP case. The two-time Finals MVP is averaging nearly 26 points per game with 50/40/90 shooting splits, leading Los Angeles to 10 wins in its last 11 games. The Clippers’ bubble collapse cast doubt on their Finals chances throughout the offseason, but frankly, that narrative is less credible by the week. This is a true championship contender in every sense, armed with the firepower to potentially take down the Lakers in a potential Western Conference finals for the ages.

1. Los Angeles Lakers

Alex Caruso has evolved from a glorified meme to a quality rotation player over the last two seasons, and he illustrated his value in a narrow win over the Celtics on Saturday. Caruso prohibited a potential game-winning layup from Jaylen Brown in the final seconds after a LeBron James turnover, sprinting back on defense to stop what appeared to be a clear fast-break opportunity. Caruso is a serviceable spacer and secondary playmaker. He’s a dogged perimeter defender. As the Lakers look to win back-to-back titles, Caruso has emerged as an integral piece.