For weeks, NBA observers were captivated by ongoing trade discussions involving James Harden. While only a handful of teams seemed to have a real chance to land the prolific guard, Harden is one of the best players in the league and, by extension, it is big news when he is on the move. Eventually, the deal transpired in mid-January, with the Houston Rockets sending Harden to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for a massive haul of assets. Immediately, the focus shifted to Brooklyn and how Harden would be integrated with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, while only die-hards and Rockets fans centered on the shift transpiring in Houston.
Since the trade, however, the Rockets are on the upswing, and that is especially true in the more recent past. When the Harden trade happened, the Rockets were 3-6 and, with a bit of uncertainty in the immediate aftermath, Houston woke up on the morning of Jan. 21 with a 4-9 record and an uphill battle to come. Fast-forward to Monday evening, and Houston scored 48 (!) points in the first quarter, knocking down 11 three-pointers in the opening period and blowing the doors off the Oklahoma City Thunder. That is just one game, of course, but the Rockets now hold the NBA’s second-longest winning streak of six games.
During the stretch since the trade, the Rockets lead the NBA in defensive rating, allowing only 102.6 points per 100 possessions. Houston is deploying an athletic, flexible defense and, while there is some regression from opponent shooting in the offing, the Rockets aren’t a fluke defensively. All told, Houston is eighth in the NBA in net rating this season while sporting a 10-9 record, and the team’s defense is No. 3 in the NBA.
It would be fair to suggest that the Rockets can’t keep up their torrid recent pace but, at the same time, Houston’s roster does have considerable talent. Christian Wood is perhaps the front-runner for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, averaging 23.3 points and 10.7 rebounds per game while shooting 56 percent from the floor and 39 percent from three-point distance. Victor Oladipo is performing at a high level, averaging more than 20 points per game in his new home, and John Wall has recaptured some pre-injury magic, averaging 17.8 points and 5.8 assists per game. Finally, Eric Gordon seems to be revitalized, putting up 20.4 points per game and shooting 41.4 percent from three-point range since the trade.
Houston is an interesting case study in many ways, including just how much of a “bump” they are benefitting from simply because Harden isn’t there and the team is galvanized as a result. The long run will be more telling but, for now, Stephen Silas is doing tremendous work and the Rockets feel like an actual contender to make the postseason, even without their long-term centerpiece.
Where does Houston fall in our DIME power rankings this week? Let’s take a glance.
1. Los Angeles Lakers (16-6, Last week — 1st)
The Lakers just completed a grueling, seven-game road trip with a 5-2 record, capped by a win over the Atlanta Hawks on Monday. Most of the drama in that particular game centered on a bizarre fan interaction, but the Lakers took care of business on the court. That is more than enough to keep them in the top spot, even if the No. 2 team technically has a better record.
2. L.A. Clippers (16-5, Last week — 2nd)
As discussed in depth last week in this space, the Clippers are absolutely rolling. Their current run includes 10 wins in 11 games, with an elite offense, an improving defense and plenty of star power.
3. Philadelphia 76ers (15-6, Last week — 6th)
Philly is 6-1 in the last seven games, including a 3-0 mark in the last week. Their point differential isn’t quite as dominant as their 15-6 mark indicates, but once again, the 76ers are just dominating at home with a 10-1 record. In a season in which homecourt advantage doesn’t mean as much, you would have a hard time convincing Philadelphia.
4. Milwaukee Bucks (12-8, Last week — 4th)
Milwaukee suffered two losses in two days this week, landing on the wrong end of a back-to-back on the road. Did that keep the Bucks from rising up the board this week? Perhaps. Does that scare me too much? Nope. Milwaukee still leads the NBA in offensive rating and net rating. Until the underlying metrics wobble, there isn’t much to fear.
5. Denver Nuggets (12-8, Last week — 8th)
The slow start seems to be a thing of the past in Denver, with the Nuggets winning six of the last seven games. Nikola Jokic might be the MVP of the league right now, keying a top-five offense, and the Nuggets picked up a very impressive home win over Utah in their last outing.
6. Utah Jazz (15-5, Last week — 3rd)
Speaking of Utah, the Jazz are still playing at a high level, but the Nuggets prevailed in the head-to-head battle. Still, Utah just won 11 straight games and they are 4th in the NBA in net rating through 20 games. If anything, this might be a little bit low.
7. Brooklyn Nets (13-9, Last week — 5th)
The Nets have allowed 123 points or more in seven of the last eight games. In that eight-game run, Brooklyn is yielding nearly 1.19 points per possession to the opposition and, well, that isn’t going to work. Everyone knows how good the Nets already are on the offensive end, but they have to improve at least a little bit on defense, or nothing matters.
8. Memphis Grizzlies (9-6, Last week — 9th)
Memphis may never lose again. The Grizzlies won five in a row, then had five straight postponements, only to come back and win their first two games. Both wins were on the road against a competent Spurs team, which is also impressive. Memphis likely isn’t a top-10 team in the grand scheme, but they haven’t suffered a loss since Jan. 7. I mean, come on.
9. Houston Rockets (10-9, Last week — 17th)
It will be interesting to see if Houston can keep it rolling. The Rockets have four of the next five on the road, but the schedule is also relatively friendly in terms of opponents.
10. Phoenix Suns (11-8, Last week — 11th)
Phoenix just swept Dallas in a two-game set on the road after soundly beating Golden State at home. That’s a nice three-game run, even when acknowledging the Mavericks’ recent struggles.
11. Boston Celtics (10-8, Last week — 7th)
Since a stretch of three postponements earlier in January, the Celtics are just 3-5. Amusingly, Boston actually has a +3.7 net rating in those eight games, with close losses and blowout wins. It’s tough to really figure out what’s going on with the Celtics, though, and they need Marcus Smart healthy.
12. Indiana Pacers (11-9, Last week — 10th)
Maybe some trouble brewing? Indiana’s defense is allowing almost 1.15 points per possession in the last eight contests. They have some roster availability questions, but the Pacers can’t thrive while deploying a bottom-tier defense.
13. Atlanta Hawks (10-10, Last week — 14th)
The Hawks are just pretty solid. Atlanta is 5-3 in the last eight games, and the three losses came to Milwaukee, Brooklyn and the Lakers. To be fair, the wins came against very favorable competition, so the takeaway might be that Trae Young and company just did what they were supposed to do the last two weeks.
14. Toronto Raptors (8-12, Last week — 15th)
Within the confines of this week, the Raptors were 1-2 with two home losses. That isn’t ideal but, in zooming out, Toronto is 6-4 in the last ten games with a top-10 net rating. That qualifies as “baby steps” on the way back to a solid overall baseline, but the Raptors quite obviously aren’t as bad as they were to begin the season.
15. Golden State Warriors (11-9, Last week — 13th)
The positive takeaway is that Golden State is 3-1 in the last four games. The more skeptical takeaway is that the three wins came at home against the Wolves and Pistons. The actual takeaway? Business as usual.
16. San Antonio Spurs (11-10, Last week — 12th)
There is no great shame in losing to Memphis at home, even when it comes on both ends of a two-game set. San Antonio was throttled in both match-ups, though, and that hurts a little bit.
17. Portland Trail Blazers (10-9, Last week — 16th)
We can (and should) discuss the fact that Portland isn’t very good right now, even if explainable due to injuries. Today, though, it is worth mentioning that 2019 lottery pick Nassir Little had the best game of his career on Monday, scoring 30 points in a loss to Milwaukee. It would be helpful if the former North Carolina forward could emerge.
18. Charlotte Hornets (10-11, Last week — 23rd)
Charlotte is riding a three-game winning streak, and that explains the uptick in this space. However, LaMelo Ball is the big story, punctuated by a 27-point, nine-assist, five-rebound explosion in a win over Milwaukee on Saturday. He’s the best prospect in the rookie class.
19. Cleveland Cavaliers (10-11, Last week — 20th)
This is more of a nod to their ability to hang around at 10-11. Metrically, Cleveland is worse than this (24th in net rating) and they’ve lost four of the last six. Hey, at least they’re competitive.
20. Sacramento Kings (9-11, Last week — 27th)
It would be silly to ignore the season-long disaster that is Sacramento’s defense. With that out of the way, the Kings are 4-1 in the last five games and they are only allowing about 1.1 points per possession. That is a huge step up and, at that level, they can survive and potentially even thrive.
21. Chicago Bulls (8-11, Last week — 22nd)
The Bulls are pretty much hovering in the range that most expected. However, Lauri Markkanen just scored 30 or more points in back-to-back games, and that is something to closely monitor. They need him to be aggressive and good.
22. Miami Heat (7-13, Last week — 19th)
Jimmy Butler is back, and that should help. Miami is still 3-9 in the last 12 games, though, and they are not playing at nearly the level they found in the Orlando bubble. Some of that can be explained by roster woes… but not all of it.
23. New Orleans Pelicans (7-12, Last week — 29th)
The Pels stabilized with two home wins to begin the week, only to give it back with home losses to Houston and Sacramento. Fortunately, the Rockets and Kings are just playing better basketball right now, but New Orleans is still underachieving. The trade winds are blowing and the roster just doesn’t work the way it should right now.
24. New York Knicks (9-13, Last week — 21st)
New York is still eighth in defense right now, but the slippage has set in. The Knicks weren’t going to be able to maintain a top-five defense without some very good fortune and, on the other end, New York is 25th in offense. They are still pretty competitive on the whole, which is better than many expected.
25. Washington Wizards (4-12, Last week — 26th)
Things are pretty hideous from this point forward. Washington did out-dual Brooklyn in their last outing, but they needed 149 points to get a three-point victory. That says a lot about the Nets defensively, but it was also a victory that kept the Wizards out of the bottom five this week. Make no mistake, they’re still struggling.
26. Oklahoma City Thunder (8-11, Last week — 24th)
After an encouraging start, reality is setting in for Oklahoma City. They are 3-7 in the last ten games, with a ghastly defensive rating of 117.9 over that span. They did beat Portland Phoenix on the road last week, but followed it up with two (very) lopsided defeats in a row.
27. Orlando Magic (8-13, Last week — 25th)
Orlando has been the worst team in the league over the last 13 games. The Magic are 2-11 in that stretch and, more damningly, Orlando has been outscored by 13.1 points per 100 possessions. The team’s 6-2 start is still making the season-long numbers appear more respectable, but yikes.
28. Dallas Mavericks (8-13, Last week — 18th)
No, Dallas isn’t actually this bad. The Mavericks do have the longest losing streak (six games) in the NBA, though, and they are struggling in a mighty way. It’s been really ugly.
29. Detroit Pistons (5-15, Last week — 28th)
Granted, Anthony Davis didn’t play in the game, but the Pistons beat the Lakers by 15 points this week. That actually happened, and there has never been a bigger endorsement for the weirdest season imaginable.
30. Minnesota Timberwolves (5-15, Last week — 30th)
The Wolves are 3-15 in the last 18 games. That kind of says it all, but the theory of Minnesota’s potential sleeper status this season centered on a high-powered offense. At this moment, the Wolves are dead-last in offensive efficiency.