NBA Power Rankings: Rockets Rising Behind James Harden’s Brilliance – Sports Illustrated

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Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden’s brick fest to begin the season raised a modicum of concern throughout the NBA, but any worries have been completely silenced in the past seven games. The two-time scoring champ has poured in 43 points per game since Nov. 4, scoring the most points through 13 contests since Wilt Chamberlain in 1962. Houston’s superstar is firing on all cylinders entering Monday night. He’s burying 30-foot step-backs on a quarterly basis, and his floater improves by the season. Harden has seen every coverage–no gimmick fools him. He is the league’s most unguardable force, critics be damned. Harden’s scoring tear has vaulted the Rockets to 10–3. The No. 1 seed is within reach. A second MVP could be in his near future.

With just over 10 games now in the books, let’s dive into this week’s power rankings with notes on all 30 teams.

30. Warriors – Point Draymond has been instituted in Golden State due to a slate of injuries, but the experiment should go fairly smoothly. Green is an elite outlet passer, and his decision-making rolling downhill as a screener has always been superb. Those attributes will hold up even in an adjusted role.

29. Knicks – The state of the franchise remains, well, as low as can be, but Madison Square Garden was downright electric for Kristaps Porzingis’ return on Nov. 14. Imagine if the Knicks could produce a merely respectable roster rather than The Ghosts of Power Forwards Past? David Fizdale’s eventual scapegoating remains shameful.

28. Pelicans – Jaxson Hayes only plays 15 minutes per night, but the outline of a starting center are there. The Texas product is perhaps the best leaper in his class. He’s a mobile pick-and-roll defender. It’s questionable whether he can play next to Zion Williamson, though New Orleans should feel optimistic about their selection at No. 8.

27. Wizards – Rui Hachimura has shown significant promise as a rookie. He’s going to have to generate more chances at the free-throw line to become a true offensive force. Of the 130 players to attempt 100 shots this season, Hachimura ranks 128th in free throw rate, sandwiched between three-point specialists Buddy Hield and Doug McDermott. The Gonzaga product would be well served burrowing an extra step toward the tin on drives from the perimeter.

26. Pistons – Andre Drummond’s counting stats are impressive, yet it may be more valued if Detroit, well, stopped anyone. The Pistons rank No. 27 in defensive rating, and only three teams allow more shots at the rim per game. Drummond’s rebounding numbers mask his rotational shortcomings.

25. Cavs – John Beilein should be commended for his job thus far with the lottery-bound Cavs. The Cavs’ defense has jumped from last to No. 15, and Cleveland is allowing the least free throws, seventh-least threes and fifth-least offensive rebounds in basketball. That’s certainly a formula to remaining respectable.

24. Kings – De’Aaron Fox’s injury timeline is murky, so the more Buddy Hield long-balls the better until Sacramento’s point guard returns. Hield has dipped below 40% from three this year, but the volume is more important than the efficiency. Sunday’s 35-point explosion against Boston is certainly an encouraging step.

23. Bulls – Lauri Markkanen’s struggles to start the season should be of concern to Chicago fans. He’s shooting just 28.2% from three, and more importantly, he’s been less aggressive on the glass and near the tin than in 2018-19. Markkanen’s smooth stroke makes him consistently appealing as a stretch five. But some bully ball is in order for the Finnish big.

22. Grizzlies – Ja Morant likely has the deepest collection of finishes at the tin, and he’s just 20. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything like this finish against Utah. The heir to Mike Conley is off to a roaring start.

21. Hawks – Trae Young is embracing his ball-dominance to a striking degree in year two, seizing the reigns with a 34.5% usage rate in his second year. No player holds the ball longer per touch (6.39 seconds per NBA.com) and his 6.04 dribbles per touch trails only DJ Augustin among qualified players. Atlanta is deep at the wing and severely lacking behind Young at point guard. Expect the early-season trend to hold up

20. Hornets – Devonte’ Graham or James Harden? Check out the two clips below, featuring a running start and a very high screen for the two guards.

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