Sports

NBA Power Rankings: Where James Harden’s impressive start sends the Sixers

What happens when you pair a former NBA MVP with the current favorite to win this season’s award? Well, you get the latest version of the Philadelphia 76ers, who have looked unguardable since James Harden‘s debut alongside Joel Embiid on Friday night.

In two games — on the road against the Minnesota Timberwolves and New York Knicks — the duo combined for 127 points and 59 free throw attempts, including 27 foul shots by Embiid on Sunday, the most in a single game in nearly three years.

As for the other side of the 2021-22 campaign’s biggest blockbuster, the Brooklyn Nets are still waiting for the debut of Ben Simmons as well as the return of Kevin Durant from a knee injury, but Kyrie Irving sparked a huge comeback win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night. In his first action since the All-Star break, Irving poured in a season-high 38 points. Brooklyn has won three of its past five games following an 11-game losing streak.

Where do the East contenders and the rest of the league check in this week?

Note: Throughout the regular season, our panel (Tim Bontemps, Jamal Collier, Nick Friedell, Andrew Lopez, Tim MacMahon, Dave McMenamin and Ohm Youngmisuk) is ranking all 30 teams from top to bottom, taking stock of which teams are playing the best basketball now and which teams are looking most like title contenders.

1. Phoenix Suns
2021-22 record: 49-12
Previous ranking: 1

For only the third time all season, the Suns dropped consecutive games, with losses to the Pelicans and Jazz. Of course, both of those defeats came without point guard Chris Paul, who is out with an avulsion fracture in his right thumb. With Paul sidelined, Suns guard Devin Booker has gotten back to his playmaking ways, averaging eight assists since the All-Star break, including 12 against Oklahoma City on Thursday. Those were the most Booker has had in a game since Paul joined the Suns last season. — Lopez


2. Memphis Grizzlies
2021-22 record: 42-20
Previous ranking: 2

Ja Morant broke the Grizzlies’ regular-season scoring record with his 46 points in Saturday’s win over the Bulls. It was his fifth 40-point performance of the season; no other player in Grizzlies history had notched more than one in a season. It was the 19th time this season that Morant scored at least 20 points in the paint. Only five players have exceeded that in a season over the past 25 years, according to ESPN Stats & Information research: Shaquille O’Neal, Amar’e Stoudemire, Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Zion Williamson. — MacMahon


3. Golden State Warriors
2021-22 record: 43-18
Previous ranking: 3

The Warriors blew a 21-point lead against the Mavericks on Sunday night, and they play five of their next six games on the road. Their title chase is contingent upon Draymond Green coming back from a disk issue. Green has started doing drills in practice again, but it remains to be seen when he’ll play in games. The Warriors need to continue to tread water as they wait for him to return. — Friedell


4. Miami Heat
2021-22 record: 40-21
Previous ranking: 4

Miami has won three straight and eight of its past nine. Bam Adebayo continues to put up huge numbers this month, averaging 22.7 points and 11.3 rebounds. The Heat are rounding into form as they head down the stretch atop the Eastern Conference. A win in Monday night’s game against the No. 2 Bulls would clinch the tiebreaker for the season. — Friedell


5. Philadelphia 76ers
2021-22 record: 37-23
Previous ranking: 7

It’s been a dream start for James Harden and Joel Embiid. Yes, the 76ers have had a couple of good opponents to start off with in Minnesota and New York. But that doesn’t diminish how smoothly the two superstars have fit — as Embiid expects, after saying so several times. One thing seems certain: With two of the league’s best foul-drawers on the same team, 76ers games are going to be long. — Bontemps


6. Chicago Bulls
2021-22 record: 39-22
Previous ranking: 5

The Bulls own the fifth-best record in the NBA, but they are winless (0-7) against the four teams — the Suns, Warriors, Grizzlies and Heat — ahead of them, including a loss to Memphis in their most recent game. The schedule is about to provide another test in Chicago’s next four tilts, starting with Monday’s game against the Heat in Miami and followed by matchups with the Hawks, Bucks and Sixers. — Collier


7. Utah Jazz
2021-22 record: 38-22
Previous ranking: 10

The Jazz have won eight of nine — including victories over the Mavericks and Suns coming out of the All-Star break — to give themselves some breathing room for home-court advantage in the first round. Donovan Mitchell has averaged 27.9 points and 5.4 assists with .497/.469/.848 shooting splits in eight games since returning from a two-week absence due to a concussion. — MacMahon


8. Milwaukee Bucks
2021-22 record: 36-25
Previous ranking: 6

The Bucks have dropped four of their past five games, including losses to the Suns, Sixers and Nets, as their defense has continued to slip without Brook Lopez. Milwaukee has the second-worst defensive rating in the NBA during that span, ahead of only the Rockets. It faces the Heat and Bulls this week before a Finals rematch with the Suns on Sunday. — Collier


9. Dallas Mavericks
2021-22 record: 36-25
Previous ranking: 8

The Mavs’ primary motivation for their trade-deadline deal was to move on from Kristaps Porzingis and his max contract, but Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans have been significant contributors off the bench since arriving from Washington. Dinwiddie has averaged 14 points on 63.9% shooting from the floor, highlighted by his 24-point performance in Sunday’s comeback win over the Warriors. Bertans has averaged 9.8 points and is shooting 39.3% from 3-point range. — MacMahon


10. Boston Celtics
2021-22 record: 36-27
Previous ranking: 12

The Celtics were due for a dud like they had against the Pacers on Sunday. But after largely feasting on bad or injury-depleted teams during their recent ascent in the standings, the Celtics’ upcoming stretch of games — at home against Atlanta, Memphis and Brooklyn — should begin to provide a better look into just how high this team’s ceiling has risen with its improved play of late. — Bontemps


11. Cleveland Cavaliers
2021-22 record: 36-24
Previous ranking: 9

With Darius Garland (back) and Caris LeVert (foot) sidelined, Cleveland fell to the Pistons on Thursday in its first game out of the All-Star break and lost Rajon Rondo (toe) for the next couple of weeks in the process. Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley combined for 32 points and 25 rebounds against the Wizards on Saturday, however, to help the Cavs to a bounce-back win. — McMenamin


12. Denver Nuggets
2021-22 record: 35-25
Previous ranking: 11

It’s time to give Michael Malone his flowers. He won his 300th game last week in Sacramento — where he was fired as head coach during the 2014-15 season — and he continues to get the best out of the injury-plagued Nuggets. Denver beat Portland on Sunday for its sixth straight victory. And Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray could potentially be back in the next month. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Sunday that Porter is progressing toward being cleared for on-court contact within the next week. Malone’s team is only going to be that much more dangerous come playoff time if Nikola Jokic can get reinforcements by then. — Youngmisuk


13. Brooklyn Nets
2021-22 record: 32-29
Previous ranking: 14

Things are looking up for the Nets, a team with title aspirations that is currently headed for the play-in tournament. Kyrie Irving dropped 38 points and led Brooklyn to a surprising — and much-needed — win over the Bucks on Saturday. Kevin Durant is expected back this week as he continues to recover from a sprained left MCL. The Nets continue to say that Ben Simmons is in a good mental place as he reacclimates to the NBA. And the New York City vaccination mandate could be lifted in the coming weeks, allowing Irving to play in home games. — Friedell


14. Toronto Raptors
2021-22 record: 32-27
Previous ranking: 13

It’s now losses in four of five games for Toronto after a terrific stretch of play before that. If Toronto has designs on breaking into the top six in the East, it will need to turn things around quickly; the Raptors sit 2.5 games out of sixth with 23 games to go. — Bontemps


15. Minnesota Timberwolves
2021-22 record: 32-29
Previous ranking: 15

Anthony Edwards has fallen into an uncharacteristic slump over his past four games, averaging 8.8 points on 21.4% shooting with 3.5 assists and 3.5 rebounds. He has made just two of his 23 3-point attempts (8.7%) and is shooting 55.6% from the free throw line. Edwards had been battling nagging injuries in his ankle and knee recently, but he maintains that he is healthy and simply in a shooting slump. — Collier


16. LA Clippers
2021-22 record: 32-31
Previous ranking: 16

Despite finding out that Paul George will need more time to rehab the torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, the Clippers keep grinding away at a playoff spot. They have won four of their past five games and are taking care of business during a softer portion of their schedule. They beat Houston for the second time in three games and edged the Lakers yet again to win the season series against their rivals. With another game at Houston on Tuesday, followed by a rematch against the Lakers on Thursday, Ty Lue’s team stands to not only create even more separation from the Lakers for the eighth seed but also gain more ground on seventh-place Minnesota.— Youngmisuk


17. Atlanta Hawks
2021-22 record: 29-31
Previous ranking: 17

Trae Young finished with 41 points and 11 assists on 17-of-24 shooting in Saturday’s win over the Raptors. He became the first player this season to have a game with at least 40 points and 10 assists while shooting over 70% from the field. According to ESPN Stats and Information data, it also was Young’s third 40-10 game this year when he shot at least 60% from the field. Only Nate Archibald in 1972-73 has had more such games in a season (five). — Lopez


18. Charlotte Hornets
2021-22 record: 30-32
Previous ranking: 19

Sunday’s overtime loss to the Pistons was Charlotte’s 10th defeat in its past 12 outings. What had been a promising season has suddenly sputtered to a halt. Now Charlotte heads to Milwaukee for the second half of a back-to-back on Monday, and with games against Cleveland, Brooklyn and Boston on tap in the coming days, turning this thing around anytime soon will be no easy feat. — Bontemps


19. Los Angeles Lakers
2021-22 record: 27-33
Previous ranking: 18

The Lakers have lost nine out of their past 12 games and only have a 2.5-game cushion stopping them from missing the play-in tournament completely. “It’s real easy to give up, throw in the towel and say negative things,” center Dwight Howard said Sunday after the Lakers’ loss to the Pelicans. “So, really at a loss for words. But we got to stay positive. We can’t sulk in defeat, and we can’t quit on each other.” — McMenamin


20. Washington Wizards
2021-22 record: 27-33
Previous ranking: 20

Kyle Kuzma is playing the best basketball of his career, respectively scoring 36 and 34 points in his past two games. But the Wizards lost both, dropping a tough double-overtime contest to San Antonio 157-153 before losing 92-86 to a depleted Cavaliers team. Kristaps Porzingis has yet to make his Wizards debut, and Washington continues to sink in the standings, losing 12 of its past 16. — Youngmisuk


21. New Orleans Pelicans
2021-22 record: 25-36
Previous ranking: 23

A dinner with coach Willie Green in Phoenix prior to the Pelicans’ 15-point win over the Suns on Friday might have gotten Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum on the right page. After going 1-4 in McCollum’s first five games, the pair have settled into a groove. They combined for 60 points against the Suns on 57.1% shooting and followed that up with a combined 41 points, 16 assists, 10 rebounds and 5 steals in a 28-point win over the Lakers. — Lopez


22. Portland Trail Blazers
2021-22 record: 25-36
Previous ranking: 21

After winning four straight, the days following the All-Star break have not been kind to the Blazers. They lost center Jusuf Nurkic for at least four weeks due to plantar fasciitis, and they have now lost two straight without their big man. Anfernee Simons and Josh Hart will have to carry a serious load to try to keep Portland in the 10th spot in the West. — Youngmisuk


23. San Antonio Spurs
2021-22 record: 24-37
Previous ranking: 22

Friday’s win over the Wizards put Gregg Popovich one victory shy of tying Don Nelson for the most wins all time by a coach. The Spurs did so by scoring the most they ever have in a game under Popovich, putting up 157 points in the double-overtime victory. The only other time the Spurs scored at least 150 for Popovich was on Jan. 10, 2019, when they hit 154 in another double-overtime victory, that one over Oklahoma City. — Lopez


24. New York Knicks
2021-22 record: 25-36
Previous ranking: 24

A season that was already depressing for Knicks fans took another hit on Friday, when rookie Quentin Grimes suffered a subluxation of his right patella in Friday’s loss to the Heat. Having now lost five games in a row, it’s looking more and more unlikely that a late playoff push is in the cards in Gotham after last year’s run to the 4-seed inspired so much optimism. — Bontemps


25. Sacramento Kings
2021-22 record: 22-40
Previous ranking: 25

Donte DiVincenzo‘s introduction to the Kings has been rough. He scored one point in 18 minutes in a loss to the Nuggets on Saturday, bringing his averages since joining the franchise to 7.4 points on 28.9% shooting from the field and 23.1% from 3. Sacramento has gone 1-4 since he joined the team. — McMenamin


26. Indiana Pacers
2021-22 record: 21-41
Previous ranking: 26

After missing 15 straight games with an Achilles tendon injury, guard Malcolm Brogdon returned to the starting lineup on Friday with 15 points and four assists, although he was shut down on a minutes restriction and kept out of the fourth quarter and overtime in a loss to the Thunder. Still, it was Brogdon’s first chance to play alongside Tyrese Haliburton — who added 14 points and 11 assists — in Indiana’s initial look at their new backcourt pair. — Collier


27. Oklahoma City Thunder
2021-22 record: 19-41
Previous ranking: 27

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has come back strong from the ankle sprain that sidelined him for 10 games, averaging 34 points, five rebounds and five assists in the Thunder’s first two games following the All-Star break. Gilgeous-Alexander will play off the ball more often to allow rookie Josh Giddey to be the primary playmaker.

“It’s still not my Plan A, but it’s something that you have to sacrifice to be a really good team,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I know that.” — MacMahon


28. Detroit Pistons
2021-22 record: 15-46
Previous ranking: 28

Cade Cunningham scored 25 points against the Celtics over the weekend, the eighth time this season he has scored at least that many points. It’s the second-most 25-point games by a Pistons player before his 21st birthday, trailing only Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas (13), according to research from ESPN Stats & Information. — Collier


29. Houston Rockets
2021-22 record: 15-45
Previous ranking: 29

Guard Eric Gordon, the subject of much discussion before the trade deadline, has struggled since the Rockets opted to keep him for at least the rest of the season. Gordon, who dealt with a case of plantar fasciitis, has shot only 39.0% from the floor in five games since returning. Houston has been outscored by 63 points with Gordon on the floor during that span. — MacMahon


30. Orlando Magic
2021-22 record: 14-47
Previous ranking: 30

Markelle Fultz is scheduled to make his long-awaited return from a torn left ACL on Monday. For a team that is in desperate need of some good news, Fultz’s return will be a welcome sight in a season that has been filled with losses and disappointment. Young forward Wendell Carter Jr. continues to show signs of growth, averaging 18.2 points and 10.6 rebounds this month. — Friedell

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