NBA Power Rankings: DeMarcus Cousins and the Warriors Bulldozing the League

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 1, 2019

NBA Power Rankings: DeMarcus Cousins and the Warriors Bulldozing the League

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    The last set of pre-trade deadline power rankings is here, and you probably shouldn't get used to the order this week. If the action we've seen already is any indication, things could get mighty jumbled up between now and Feb. 7.

    Of course, it's unlikely we'll see anything drastic in the upper reaches of our rankings. The Golden State Warriors, currently wreaking havoc on the league in a way that makes it seem like June's already here, aren't going anywhere. Neither are the steadily dominant Milwaukee Bucks or, for that matter, almost everyone else in the top 10.

    Shout out to the constantly underappreciated Portland Trail Blazers for finally busting their way into that upper echelon, by the way. They'd been denied for too long.

    As always, these rankings consider record, advanced metrics such as net rating, schedule, injuries and anything else that helps clarify a hierarchy in the league. Full-season performance matters, but we have to weigh it against recent performance to get a more accurate picture of each team's current strength.


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    Last week's ranking in parentheses.


    30. New York Knicks (29)

    New York is 3-24 since Dec. 1 and isn't using this throwaway season to establish the kind of strategic tenets it'll need when games start to matter again (someday). At 10-40, the Knicks have tied their worst 50-game start in franchise history.

    Don't worry, though, because they've also traded Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks as part of a salary-shedding effort that'll open up two full max slots for 2019 free agency. Marc Stein of the New York Times had the first report, and ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski filled in the particulars: Wesley Matthews, Dennis Smith Jr. and DeAndre Jordan will go to New York, with Courtney Lee and Tim Hardaway Jr. joining KP in Dallas.

    If DJ and Matthews secure buyouts, a 10-40 mark may not represent rock bottom.


    29. Chicago Bulls (28)

    It's hard to lose an NBA game in wire-to-wire fashion, but the Bulls find ways to do it more often than anyone else. They've dropped six games in which they never led, which feels appropriate for a team that seems to be in the midst of a joyless, hope-deprived season.

    At least Bobby Portis scored a season-high 26 points to beat the Heat in Miami on Wednesday and end a four-game losing streak.


    28. Cleveland Cavaliers (30)

    Break up the Cavs!

    Winners of two straight for just the second time this year (Cleveland inexplicably beat Philly and Houston on back-to-back nights in November), the Cavs vault out of the cellar. Two three-point wins over Chicago and Washington don't erase Cleveland's 11-41 record or league-worst net rating, but with our criteria prizing recent play, they were enough to move up a tad.


    27. Phoenix Suns (27)

    Gregg Popovich was focused on his Spurs when he ripped them apart for getting outplayed, out-coached, out-everything-ed in Tuesday's 126-124 win over the Suns. But it's hard to ignore the implications for Phoenix: A team that basically did everything it could to give a game away, according to its coach, still won when Rudy Gay's game-winner fell.

    In other words, the Suns, losers of nine straight, are that bad. Apparently, that closed-door meeting in the locker room after Friday's 132-95 loss in Denver didn't magically imbue Phoenix with more talent.


    26. Memphis Grizzlies (26)

    Memphis ended an eight-game skid by beating the Pacers on Saturday, kindling hope that perhaps the distractions associated with trade talk and the impending end of an era wouldn't lead to a team-wide checkout. Of course, the Grizzlies subsequently lost to the Nuggets on Monday after blowing a 70-45 third-quarter lead and then dropped a gut-punch loss to Minnesota on Wednesday, courtesy of a Karl-Anthony Towns buzzer-beater.

    The Grizz may not have to work very hard to keep their 2019 first-rounder, which goes to Boston if it's outside the top eight. Something tells me the losses will pile up organically.

    Marc Gasol planted one on Mike Conley, though, so this week wasn't a total waste.


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    25. Orlando Magic (25)

    The Magic cannot be trusted.

    Following fall-from-ahead losses to Houston and OKC this week, Orlando has now lost a league-high 12 games in which it led by double figures. Some of that is unreliable offense, and some of it is the lack of competent point guard play behind D.J. Augustin.

    Orlando's postseason hopes are fading, even in the diluted lower reaches of the East playoff bracket. If there's a deal to be made for Nikola Vucevic, now's the time. The Magic need to start looking to 2019-20.


    24. New Orleans Pelicans (14)

    This is a preemptive rankings slide for the Pels, and if you have to ask why, you've been unconscious since Monday.

    Anthony Davis is out with a finger injury and may soon be capital O-U-T of New Orleans following a trade request for which he was fined $50,000. The Pelicans are a team in extreme flux, as virtually every other piece on the roster is (or should be) available.

    The Pels managed to win at Houston on Tuesday behind Jrue Holiday's two-way play (six blocks!) and Jahlil Okafor's continued resurgence. The forgotten big man is fitter and more focused than ever, and he's averaging 20.0 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks on 69.2 percent shooting over his last six games.

    Okafor's redemption is a welcome beam of light poking through an ominous, cloud-choked sky in New Orleans.


    23. Detroit Pistons (22)

    Detroit is 6-16 in games against East teams above it in the standings. Also discouraging, the Pistons have dropped games to Sacramento, Washington and Dallas over the last two weeks. That's no way to make a playoff push.

    Beyond Blake Griffin's career season, it's hard to isolate positives for the middling Pistons. They rank third in defensive rebound rate, thanks largely to Andre Drummond once again leading the league in boards per game. So, that's something.


    22. Atlanta Hawks (24)

    This may strike some of you as surprising*, but the Hawks are not an objectively bad team—or at least they haven't been over the past several weeks. Since Dec. 18, Atlanta is 10-11 with wins over the currently playoff-bound Heat, Sixers, Thunder and Clippers.

    January was the first month in which Trae Young beat the league average (55.8 percent) with a 57.7 true shooting percentage. He's going to be fine.

    *It probably strikes the Hawks as annoying, though, as their rebuild could really use optimal draft position.


    21. Los Angeles Lakers (19)

    The diminishing likelihood that the Lakers will land Anthony Davis before the deadline doesn't hurt their ranking, but it's a blow nonetheless. It's starting to look like L.A. won't get AD before 2019-20, LeBron James' age-35 season.

    Brandon Ingram continues to perform better as a high-usage playmaker in James' absence. He put up a career-high 36 points and punctuated the effort with a driving dunk over Corey Brewer during Tuesday's loss to the Sixers. But the Lakers' net rating has been third-worst in the West since since James went out with a groin injury, ranking ahead of only Memphis and Phoenix in that span.

    With James finally back on Thursday and looking in fine form, expect the Lakers to climb back toward the top 10.


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    20. Dallas Mavericks (23)

    Another week, another Luka Doncic milestone. This time, he became the only teenager in NBA history with two triple-doubles in a season. He posted 35 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in Sunday's 123-120 loss to Toronto. This far down the rankings, a three-point loss to a team as good as Toronto practically counts as a win.

    Of course, Doncic's feat didn't generate as much buzz as Dirk Nowitzki's season-high 14 points against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday.

    Dallas heads into February with the league's No. 17 net rating but precious little hope of a playoff trip—especially after trading three starters in the Porzingis deal. We'll have a better idea of how to rank these guys once we see who winds up playing for them next week.


    19. Miami Heat (20)

    If you get Cleveland, New York and Chicago in the same week, you've got to post a sweep. Miami couldn't quite finish the drill, shooting just 38.2 percent and falling 105-89 at home to the Bulls on Wednesday to drop to an uninspiring 11-14 at home. Still, a 2-1 week is enough for a slight bump.

    Obscure stat time!

    Miami ranks 28th in points per possession following an opponent turnover, and to call the Heat deliberate in those situations is to put it mildly. Miami averages the league's longest time of possession after forcing the opponent to give up the ball. Translation: The Heat don't exactly capitalize on mistakes.


    18. Charlotte Hornets (18)

    There's no shame in a 1-2 record when the losses come at Milwaukee and at Boston, so we're not going to ding the Hornets this week.

    It would have been nice to get back to the break-even mark for the first time in a month, but Charlotte barely put up a fight against the Kyrie Irving-less Celtics on Wednesday, sleepwalking to a 126-94 defeat.

    Just because it's been a while since we fawned over Kemba Walker, let's take a second to appreciate that Charlotte's offense is 6.7 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor. The difference is basically equal to the gap between the 12th and 29th-best offenses in the league.


    17. Sacramento Kings (21)

    Willie Cauley-Stein is the least effective rim-protecting center in the game, which helps explain why Kings opponents shoot the sixth-highest point-blank percentage in the league.

    The Kings need to play the quintet of De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles III. That group includes the team's five most promising players and has a plus-25.9 net rating in the paltry dozen minutes it's been on the floor. That number won't hold, obviously, but Sacramento should be getting its best unit more reps—especially in the wake of Giles' career night on Wednesday, when he scored 20 points and grabbed seven boards in a 135-113 blowout win over Atlanta.

    All Bagley did in that one was post 17 points and 12 rebounds. Both he and Giles came off the bench...for some reason.

    The Kings went 2-1 this week and sit at 26-25 heading into February.


    16. Minnesota Timberwolves (17)

    Minnesota had to play the Jazz twice in a row this week, which feels like some kind of league-mandated punishment. The Wolves lost both games before salvaging a 1-2 week on Karl-Anthony Towns' overtime game-winner on Wednesday.

    Backing up, KAT averaged 27.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 3.0 blocks on 62.1 percent shooting against the Jazz's elite defense, continuing a run of production that basically stretched the length of January.

    The Wolves' net rating has crept back into positive territory, and they're 21-17 since Jimmy Butler bounced. Keep that pace up, and a playoff berth might be possible.


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    15. Washington Wizards (15)

    Tuesday's comatose performance against the Cavs' historically inept defense vindicated John Wall. It proved he wasn't the sole source of Washington's yearslong bout with sporadic lethargy. The Wizards, sans Wall, trailed by 25 in the fourth quarter, ultimately falling 116-113 as the starters sat while the reserves nearly completed the comeback.

    The Athletic's Fred Katz offered some perspective: "Cleveland allows more points per possession than the Warriors score. If you could take either Stephen Curry or simply the best player going against Cleveland on any given night, you'd be best off just choosing the Cavs' opponent." 

    At least the Wizards recovered from that embarrassment to bludgeon the Pacers on Wednesday behind 25 points, six rebounds and six assists from Bradley Beal. Washington went 2-2 this week.


    14. Los Angeles Clippers (16)

    Lou Williams had 31 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds off the bench to lead the way in Friday's 106-101 win against the Bulls. The triple-double was nice, but the boards were the real story. Williams hadn't grabbed 10 rebounds in a game since 2010.

    The Clippers gained a bit of ground this week, but only because some other clubs in their range hit rough patches. Big picture: L.A. should be more concerned by its 3-6 record against playoff-bound opponents since Dec. 23. Beating up on the league's softies is fine, but the Clips will have to prove they can handle real competition at some point.


    13. Indiana Pacers (9)

    Indiana is 0-3 since it lost Victor Oladipo to a leg injury, and its season-low 89-point output against Washington on Wednesday underscored its need for a consistent offensive creator. Even if his performance before injury wasn't up to last year's standards, Oladipo at least gave the Pacers a dangerous pass-shoot-drive threat to start offensive possessions.

    Much was made of Indy's 7-4 mark when Oladipo missed a stretch earlier this year, but it's starting to look like last year's 0-7 record without him was the better representation of his value.


    12. Brooklyn Nets (13)

    The Nets have already won as many games (28) as they did last season, an achievement that should help ease the pain of losing Spencer Dinwiddie for three to six weeks following thumb surgery.

    D'Angelo Russell seems fine with picking up the slack, though. He recovered from a fourth-quarter benching against Boston on Monday to post 30 points, seven assists and no turnovers in Tuesday's 122-117 win over the Bulls. Though he still never gets to the rim or draws fouls, Russell has keyed Brooklyn's surge into playoff position.

    Since Dec. 1, the Bucks are the only East team with more wins.


    11. San Antonio Spurs (12)

    DeMar DeRozan's knee sidelined him for victories against New Orleans, Washington and Phoenix this week, but LaMarcus Aldridge made sure the Spurs didn't slip against an easy slate. He averaged 29.0 points and 11.7 rebounds in those three contests, leading the team in both categories.

    All that with a left wrist that's still smarting from when he injured it against the 76ers on Jan. 23.

    San Antonio's defense has struggled lately. Since Jan. 10, it ranks in the bottom five in efficiency. Still, the Spurs retained the playoff position they gained with a scorching December by taking care of business in January; they went 7-0 against lottery-bound opponents for the month.

10. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Last Week: 11

    CJ McCollum's first career triple-double (28 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) helped the Trail Blazers ground the Hawks 120-111 on Saturday, but it was Seth Curry's 11 straight points that keyed a decisive 13-0 closing run in that one.

    Curry is shooting it better than his MVP brother from deep this year and trails only Davis Bertans for the league lead in long-range accuracy, proving yet again that when healthy, the younger Curry sibling is one of the best pure shooters in the NBA. Believe it or not, he actually has a higher career accuracy rate from deep than Steph. At 44.3 percent, Seth is in second place behind Steve Kerr in career three-point percentage (among players with 500 attempts).

    Portland went 11-4 in January with a plus-8.8 net rating, and with the Oladipo-less Pacers sliding, this team finally gets back into the top 10. No squad has been on the fringe more often this year. 

9. Utah Jazz

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    Last Week: 7

    An uncharacteristic defensive collapse in Wednesday's 132-105 loss to the Blazers didn't erase an otherwise terrific January for the Jazz. Utah went 11-4 for the month as Donovan Mitchell's slump-busting breakthrough continued.

    He averaged 27.7 points per game in January, the highest figure by a Jazz player since Karl Malone put up 32.2 per contest in April 1998. It seems like Mitchell's turn as a primary playmaker got his game back on track after a sluggish start to the year. That Utah simultaneously lost all three of its point guards to injury turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

    Don't be confused by Mitchell's scoring blitz; defense still defines these Jazz.

    Even after getting overrun by Portland's shot-making clinic Wednesday, Utah's defensive rating in January ranked third in the NBA. Since Dec. 1, the Jazz have defended better than everyone but the Bucks.

8. Houston Rockets

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    Last Week: 6

    James Harden really mailed it in this week, averaging just 37.3 points per game while leading Houston to a 2-1 mark marred only by a shocking 121-116 loss to the Pelican's skeleton crew (Skelican crew? No? OK, fine.) on Tuesday. Jrue Holiday gave him the business in that one, blocking a pair of threes and helping force Harden into an 11-of-32 night. It says a lot when 37 points on 32 shots count as "containing" a scorer.

    Harden still became the fourth player in NBA history to average over 40 points for an entire month, joining Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Kobe Bryant.

    Chris Paul is back and has looked good in limited minutes through two games. Plus, Kenneth Faried is averaging 15.2 points and 9.8 rebounds on 56.4 percent shooting in five contests since he came aboard, reaffirming that athletic bigs who can roll to the rim and gobble up offensive boards in space should do whatever they can to play in Mike D'Antoni's offense.

    Houston is healthier than it's been in a while and seems to have found something in Faried. When Clint Capela returns, the Rockets will be able to put a dangerous weapon on the floor at center for all 48 minutes.

7. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last Week: 10

    Paul George's "I'm going to make you at least think about me for MVP" run is largely responsible for Oklahoma City's six-game winning streak. He scored 36 points and grabbed 13 boards in Sunday's 118-112 win over the Bucks, which included a devastating slam on Giannis Antetokounmpo, and then he backed it up with another 37-point night Tuesday to beat the Magic on the road.

    He trails only Kevin Durant, Antetokounmpo and Stephen Curry in BBall Index's Player Impact Plus-Minus metric.

    Russell Westbrook is triple-doubling at his usual clip (four straight and counting), but his historically inaccurate shooting remains a problem. He's still on pace to post the fourth-lowest true-shooting percentage for a player with a usage rate above 30 percent.

    Still second in defensive rating on the season, OKC quietly ranked 22nd in that stat for January. Fortunately, the offense picked up the slack, ranking 11th for the month.

    Spun one way, that reads as inconsistency and unreliability. Spun another, it shows the Thunder can win games on both ends, which wasn't clear earlier this year when the offense looked stuck in mud. If Oklahoma City can channel its best self on offense and defense at the same time, watch out.

6. Denver Nuggets

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    Last Week: 8

    Denver's 35-15 start is its best mark after 50 games in franchise history. And while Nikola Jokic's typical brilliance drove a 4-0 week, Malik Beasley stood out as his top supporter. The third-year guard averaged 18.3 points on a 56.0/42.3/75.0 shooting split for the week.

    Not to be outdone, Monte Morris posted 20 points, seven rebounds and seven assists while starting for Jamal Murray in Wednesday's 105-99 win at New Orleans.

    With those two reserves providing such consistent production (and showing they can perform when thrust into bigger roles), Denver's depth looks like a greater asset than ever.

    Even better, the Nuggets led the league with a 99.2 defensive rating this past week. That's a welcome sign for a squad that had seen major slippage on that end since a stingy November start.

5. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 3

    Four games of rest served Kawhi Leonard well, as he scored 65 points on 42 shots in his first two outings back. Unfortunately for Toronto, the Raps still split those contests, losing to Houston and beating the Mavs by three Sunday.

    With so many games in the rearview, it can sometimes be a mistake to focus on a team's overall performance. That's particularly true for Toronto, which hasn't been nearly as dominant lately as its overall record suggests.

    Since Dec. 1, the Raptors aren't even in the top 10 in net rating.

    Thursday's loss to Milwaukee aligned with a two-month sample that indicates the Raps are a clear notch below the Bucks and Celtics—at least in terms of regular-season performance. Come playoff time, Toronto will profile as a title threat at least as dangerous as those two. But we just can't ignore the fact that the Raptors haven't looked like the same team that started 20-4.

4. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Last Week: 5

    The Sixers couldn't overcome the absences of Jimmy Butler (wrist) and Joel Embiid (back) in Denver, predictably falling Saturday 126-110, but Embiid returned to post 28 points, 11 rebounds and six assists in Tuesday's 121-105 win against the Lakers.

    After a January that featured Embiid's highest scoring average and true shooting percentage of any month this season, he's on pace to be the first player since Shaquille O'Neal to average (cherry-picking alert, but whatever) 27 points, 13 rebounds, three assists and 9.5 free-throw attempts per game. 

    The Sixers spoiled the Warriors' first home game after a five-game trip on Thursday, and they wrapped January with a sterling 11-4 record and a locked-in top-four seed in the East now that Indiana is in trouble without Oladipo. 

    Even more exciting, Ben Simmons shot an actual three—like, on purpose—against the Nuggets on Saturday. It was his first attempt of the season, and even if it came on a heave from just inside half court at the end of a quarter, it felt like a big deal.

    When he finally makes one, I'm pretty sure the NBA will have to cancel games for a solid week so everyone can gather with their families and meditate on the significance of the moment.

3. Boston Celtics

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    Last Week: 4

    Gordon Hayward is a liability, Kyrie Irving might not be so certain to re-sign and Anthony Davis' official availability (though not until the offseason for Boston) makes it easy to gloss over the Celtics' on-court performance.

    With a 7-1 mark to close out the second half of January, Boston is all the way up to third in net rating for the year. In a season where little has gone as well as expected, the Celtics are, by one measure, a top-three outfit.

    A hip strain kept Irving out of action against the Nets on Monday, but Boston made up for his absence with a franchise-record 16 blocked shots. Jaylen Brown led the way with 21 points in the 112-104 victory. Then, with Irving out again Wednesday, the Celtics got another 24 points and 10 rebounds from Brown in a 126-94 laugher over the Hornets.

    Boston's schedule is mighty cushy until the end of February, when it'll see Milwaukee and Toronto on a three-game road trip. Now's the time to pick up some wins and elbow into the fight for the East's top seed—if Davis-related distractions don't get into the heads of players who might be part of an offseason trade package.

2. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Last Week: 2

    The Milwaukee Bucks just keep humming along. They're still leading the league in net rating, still the only club in the top five on both ends and still dominating in shot-mix efficiency. No team gets more combined looks from three and at the rim than Milwaukee.

    Brook Lopez broke the record for consecutive games with at least one made triple by a 7-footer when he canned one in the first quarter of Milwaukee's 115-105 win over the Pistons on Tuesday. That victory, by the way, upped the Bucks' record following a loss to 13-0.

    Quietly, Giannis Antetokounmpo (who somehow didn't earn a mention until the third paragraph of this blurb; he's become so consistently dominant as to be a near afterthought, apparently) dipped his toe deeper into three-point waters in January. His 11 makes in the month topped December's six long-range connections.

    Better still, his minutes per game have trended downward in each of the last three months. That can only help him stay fresh for what Milwaukee hopes is a deep playoff run.

    The Bucks secured a 3-1 season-series victory over Toronto with Thursday's win, their eighth in their last nine games. Come seeding time, that could be big.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Last Week: 1

    After banging out a 5-0 road trip in which they won by an average of 16.2 points per game, the Warriors returned home and suffered a letdown loss to the Sixers that dropped their January record to 11-2.

    Klay Thompson was out with an illness, and the Sixers played their hearts out, so that "disappointing" result probably won't get Steve Kerr fired.

    Stephen Curry is a smidge away from being on pace to set the record for effective field-goal percentage by a player with a usage rate over 30 percent. If he gets it done, he'll top the mark he set in 2015-16, when he became the first unanimous MVP.

    Curry's not the only Warrior who's approaching peak form.

    DeMarcus Cousins is rolling, Klay Thompson's shooting slump is ancient history, Draymond Green trails only Rudy Gobert in DRPM, Kevin Durant leads the NBA in PIPM and Andre Iguodala's bounce has been a constant, rather than something he saves for games in May or later.

    "We've been searching for momentum all year, and we finally put it together," Kerr told reporters after Monday's 32-point win at Indiana.

    This isn't a "here come the Warriors" scenario. They're here, and they are terrifying.


    Stats courtesy of, Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. Accurate through games played Thursday, Jan. 31.