NBA Power Rankings Week 20: Are The Rockets Back As The West’s Top Challenger?

Getty Image

It’s been a weird season for the Houston Rockets.

James Harden and company racked up 65 victories during the 2017-18 campaign and, even with injury caveats on both sides, the Rockets took the Golden State Warriors to the brink in the Western Conference Finals. Though it was clear that Houston didn’t improve its roster in the off-season (presumably as a result of luxury tax concerns for a new owner), expectations remained lofty as the 2018-19 season arrived, in part due to the incredible success of the team during its previous run.

On cue, the campaign did not begin in glorious fashion, as the Rockets opened with a dismal performance on the way to a record of 11-14 through 25 games. At the time, many think-pieces were authored on the state of the roster and, in short, no one in Houston could be happy with the way things went. Fast-forward three months, however, and the ship has been righted in grand fashion.

The Rockets are 27-11 since dipping to 11-14 early in the campaign and, during that three-month stretch, only the Warriors and Utah Jazz have better net ratings in the Western Conference. In fact, Houston owns a top-five mark in the entire NBA and, of course, Harden has been in the middle of everything.

The reigning MVP appeared in 37 of the 38 games for the Rockets and his numbers (40.6 points, 7.2 assists, 7.2 rebounds per game) were flatly preposterous. Harden’s effort is the biggest reason for Houston’s turnaround but, just in time, he has been joined by partner-in-crime Chris Paul during the team’s recent uptick.

The Rockets are currently riding a five-game winning streak and, in recent days, Paul looks to be his old self or, at the very least, something resembling the future Hall of Fame player that he is. Paul is averaging 18.0 points and 9.1 assists per game in the last 12 contests and, perhaps more importantly, his efficiency and shot-making are back. As such, the Rockets are arguably playing their best basketball of the season, and that has been on full display in recent wins over the Warriors (without Harden) and Celtics.

Houston will put their winning streak to the test in a must-see battle against the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday but the overarching question as we approach the postseason centers on whether the Rockets are actually back. Is this the same team that rattled off 65 victories and took Golden State to the edge of defeat? Maybe not, but it would be difficult to find a team more capable of upending the Warriors in the West and that makes Houston a supremely dangerous entity as the playoffs near.

At some point, Harden’s super-human routine may slow to some degree but, for now, the Rockets appear to be rounding into form at an opportune time and the rest of the league should be on notice. Where does Houston fall this week in our DIME power rankings? Let’s explore.
1. Golden State Warriors (44-19, Last week — 1st)

Getty Image

This should’ve been the week that the Warriors fell out of the top spot. Golden State is 2-3 in the last five games and losses to the Magic and Heat (even with caveats) aren’t great. Still, no one rose up to knock off the champs and, well, here we are.

2. Toronto Raptors (46-18, Last week — 3rd)

If you want the narrow viewpoint, the Raptors are 2-2 in their last four games. If you expand the calculus, Toronto has won 9 of 11. In the end, this is a very good basketball team, even with recent defeats at the hands of the Pistons and Magic.

3. Milwaukee Bucks (48-16, Last week — 1st)

If the Bucks beat the Suns on Monday evening, they would’ve been No. 1 in this space. After all, Milwaukee has the best regular season profile in the league this season. In the end, the Bucks lost that game and got swept by the Suns for the season. That can’t go unpunished, even if it came at the end of a road trip.

4. Houston Rockets (38-25, Last week — 9th)

The Rockets hold the NBA’s longest winning streak and that’s good enough for a five-spot jump in this space from last week.

5. Portland Trail Blazers (39-24, Last week — 5th)

Portland has been rock solid for the entire season. This latest stretch includes six wins in the last seven games and the team’s only defeat came on the road to the Raptors by two points. There’s nothing sexy about the Blazers but that doesn’t mean that it is wise to overlook them.
6. Philadelphia 76ers (40-23, Last week — 6th)

Getty Image

The Sixers are a complicated team in some respects but one thing you can say about Philly is that they don’t lose to bad teams. Joel Embiid and his crew haven’t lost to a non-playoff team since early January and simply being consistent is enough to hold steady here.

7. Denver Nuggets (42-21, Last week — 4th)

We jinxed the Nuggets. There is no way around it. Denver just put up an 0-3 week after a five-game winning streak and it’s fair to just throw up your hands and plead ignorance at this point.

8. Oklahoma City Thunder (39-24, Last week — 8th)

The Thunder lost four in a row before righting the ship with a home win over Memphis. That isn’t ideal under any circumstances but, to be positive, OKC’s quartet of defeats came exclusively against playoff-caliber opponents.

9. Indiana Pacers (41-23, Last week — 7th)

The reckoning might be here for the Pacers. After clearly overachieving for a while after the Victor Oladipo injury, Indiana has lost three of four and those defeats came at the hands of the Pistons, Mavs and Magic. That’s not great but we’ll wait a week before drawing more sweeping conclusions.

10. LA Clippers (37-29, Last week — 12th)

In the face of a clear incentive to lose in pursuit of keeping their own draft pick, the Clippers keep winning. They won the battle of L.A. on Monday and that was the third consecutive victory for Doc Rivers’ club. Honestly, it’s been impressive to see how they’ve played, particularly in the post-Tobias Harris era.
11. San Antonio Spurs (36-29, Last week — 18th)

Getty Image

The Spurs have been hot and cold throughout the year and they’re now in a hot stretch. San Antonio just swept through a homestand with wins over the Thunder and Nuggets and we’ll treat them accordingly.

12. Utah Jazz (36-27, Last week — 11th)

We were ready to bump the Jazz up a few spots… and then they lost at home to the Pelicans on Monday. That isn’t too damning of a result but it stopped a four-game winning streak and quelled optimism to some degree.

13. Boston Celtics (38-26, Last week — 10th)

The Celtics should weirdly be thankful for the Lakers, if only because their cross-country rival is taking some of the oxygen away from Boston’s own struggles. Regardless, a stretch of five losses in six games is tough to avoid from a discussion standpoint and it’s a full-blown mess in Boston.

14. Detroit Pistons (31-31, Last week — 13th)

Most of this has to do with the Celtics, but there was real temptation to put Detroit ahead of Boston this week. The Pistons have won 9 of 11 and Blake Griffin’s renaissance this season has been wildly under-reported. He’s been masterful.

15. Orlando Magic (30-35, Last week — 14th)

Every time I get excited about the Magic, they lose a game they shouldn’t lose. This week, it was Orlando beating the Warriors and Pacers before losing to the Cavaliers by 14 points. Your guess is as good as mine.16. Sacramento Kings (32-31, Last week — 17th)

Getty Image

Unfortunately, the Kings have slipped and now only have a six percent chance to make the playoffs, per FiveThirtyEight. On the bright side, that is a (much) higher percentage than the Lakers have.

17. Brooklyn Nets (33-33, Last week — 15th)

It hasn’t been perfect for the Nets lately but they took care of business with a blowout over Dallas on Monday. That helps their standing and, in the grand scheme, Brooklyn is more likely than not to make the playoffs. If you take a step back, that’s a fantastic position for this franchise.

18. New Orleans Pelicans (30-36, Last week — 19th)

The Anthony Davis situation remains exceedingly weird but it was a good week of results for the Pelicans. Three straight wins speak for themselves and the last two came on the road over the Nuggets and Jazz. Not too shabby.

19. Minnesota Timberwolves (29-34, Last week — 16th)

Does anyone else wish the Wolves were in the Eastern Conference? Just me? Okay.

20. Charlotte Hornets (29-34, Last week — 20th)

It’s been rough for Charlotte lately. The Hornets are 3-8 in their last 11 games and, as a result, Kemba Walker’s squad might be on the outside looking in at the playoffs after appearing safe for a long, long time.
21. Miami Heat (29-34, Last week — 26th)

Getty Image

Miami’s bump in this space almost didn’t happen. The Heat beat the Hawks by only one point on Monday and, considering Atlanta arrived without John Collins and Taurean Prince, that would’ve been a bad loss. With that said, Miami’s won 3 of 4 and that allows for the leap.

22. Washington Wizards (26-37, Last week — 25th)

Amazingly, the Wizards aren’t dead in the playoff race. Ok, they’re probably dead but the math won’t let us close the door just yet.

23. Memphis Grizzlies (25-40, Last week — 22nd)

Memphis isn’t very much fun but they have quietly been competitive in recent days. That’s more than the Lakers (scroll down!) can say and, of course, the Grizzlies recently beat LeBron and company.

24. Los Angeles Lakers (30-34, Last week — 23rd)

What a disaster. The Lakers lost their third straight game on Monday and they did so in a virtual must-win situation against the Clippers. Granted, that result wasn’t as bad as losing to Phoenix earlier in the week but let’s just agree that nothing is going well in Los Angeles.

25. Chicago Bulls (18-46, Last week — 21st)

If you want to see the bright side, the Bulls have won five of seven and they are clearly playing better basketball than at any point this season. If you want to see the uglier side, Chicago’s last result was a home loss to Atlanta in a game that didn’t include John Collins and only featured Trae Young for 18 minutes.
26. Atlanta Hawks (22-43, Last week — 27th)

Getty Image

It was a busy week for Trae Young. The rookie guard exploded for 49 points and 16 assists to make a bit of NBA history and he was also ejected for a stare-down of Kris Dunn. The end result was a 2-2 stretch for the Hawks but, if nothing else, Young’s high-end potential provides optimism in Atlanta.

27. Dallas Mavericks (27-36, Last week — 24th)

Don’t look now but the Mavs are genuinely awful. Dallas has dropped seven of eight games overall and, to make things uglier, Luka Doncic and company just lost to the Grizzlies and Nets by a combined 69 points over a 48-hour period. Everyone knew Dallas would struggle, at least to some degree, after the trade deadline but this is worse than expected.

28. Cleveland Cavaliers (16-48, Last week — 28th)

It’s a pretty small sample but the Cavs are 5-6 in games involving Kevin Love this season. That probably overstates how good Cleveland actually is at (relatively) full strength but they clearly aren’t as bad as they were without him, even with a historically bad defense in an overall sense.

29. Phoenix Suns (14-51, Last week — 30th)

Remember when the Suns lost 17 games in a row? Since then, Phoenix is 3-1 with wins over the Heat, Lakers and Bucks. This is still a (very) bad basketball team but signs of life are always welcome.

30. New York Knicks (13-51, Last week — 29th)

The Knicks haven’t been quite so bad lately, with a 3-4 record in the last seven games. Phoenix’s ascent pushes New York to the basement, though, and they’ve still earned it with their season-long play.