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NBA Power Rankings: James Harden is No. 1 in Brooklyn

In this week’s NBA Power Rankings, the West is up for grabs, the Miami Heat are trending up and James Harden is No. 1 in Brooklyn.

Our new look NBA Power Rankings are back, a non-traditional structure for a non-traditional era of professional basketball. The world is no longer just about wins and losses and teams are no longer the primary crucible of basketball power. So each week we’ll be dissecting how basketball power is presently distributed — between players, teams, friendships, diss tracks, aesthetic design choices, across leagues and whatever else has a temporary toehold in this ever-changing landscape.

Who has the power in this week’s NBA Power Rankings?

5

Detroit’s Rookie Class

The Pistons are an absolute mess with the emergence of Jerami Grant as the brightest light in an otherwise dark season. Blake Griffin is just waiting to be traded and No. 7 pick Killian Hayes has been sidelined since early January with a labral tear in his hip. But amid all this losing, the rest of the Pistons’ rookie class is showing some real positive signs. Detroit’s other three rookies — Isaiah Stewart (No. 16), Saddiq Bey (No. 19) and Saben Lee (No. 38) have all averaged more than 20 minutes per game, establishing themselves in useful roles.

Bey is a versatile defender with a solid complementary skill set on offense and he’s been a consistent part of the team’s bench rotation for most of the season. But over the past five games, he’s taken a step forward, averaging 12.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.2 steals per game, shooting 37.5 percent on 8.0 3-point attempts per game. Saben Lee, a point guard taken in the second round, his shown the ability to create off the dribble, averaging 12.6 points, 3.4 assists, 2.6 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game, shooting 60 percent from the field and hitting 4-of-5 from beyond the arc. Isaiah Stewart is an energy big, a familiar archetype, but he’s made a difference with athleticism and effort. Over this recent five-game stretch, he’s shot 66.7 percent from the field, contributing 8.2 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 1.0 steals per game.

None of this group looks like a future star but, combined with Grant’s breakout and Hayes’ potential, they have a young core they can feel good about, regardless of their record.

4

The King of Triple Doubles

For a generation, the triple-double was connected most strongly with Oscar Robertson. His 181 career triple-doubles are still the most all-time and for decades he was the only player to have averaged a triple-double for an entire season. Russell Westbrook eventually joined Robertson and then became the only player to do it more than once — he averaged a triple-double for three consecutive seasons. His 156 career triple-doubles are the second-most all-time and he certainly has an outside shot to take the top spot from Robertson.

But before long, we may come to recognize Luka Doncic as The King of the Triple-Double. His last triple-double was Feb. 10 against the Atlanta Hawks which means it’s been seven games since he last recorded a triple-double but that, in and of itself, is noteworthy. Over the past two seasons, the longest Doncic has gone without recording a triple-double is 10 games and across his career, on average, he’s averaged a triple-double every 5.2 games. At a basic level, that means he’s due.

It also means he’s on a historic pace. The list below includes the players with the most career triple-doubles as well as a few active players with high triple-double rates.

3

The dark horse contenders

The Los Angeles Lakers steamrolled their way to a title last year and then used the offseason to add depth and skill. The Clippers flamed out last year but held onto Paul George and Kawhi Leonard and made important changes with the additions of Luke Kennard and Serge Ibaka. Going into this season, they looked like the clear favorites — 538’s NBA projections estimated a 55 percent chance that one of the two L.A. teams would represent the West in the 2021 NBA Finals.

But they weren’t the only teams who got better this offseason.

The Utah Jazz got Bojan Bogdanovic back and got healthy. The Denver Nuggets got a taste of the stakes and significant momentum, they got Will Barton back and added JaMychal Green. And the Phoenix Suns added Chris Paul and Jae Crowder to solidify their young rotation. Heading into the NBA All-Star break, the odds have shifted.

The Jazz and Suns currently hold the top two seeds in the Western Conference. According to 538’s NBA Projections, the Jazz now have the best odds of any West team of making the Finals and the best odds of winning it all of any team in the league. The Nuggets may be a bit down the standings but their odds of making the Finals are tied with the Clippers and ahead of the Lakers. And the Suns aren’t far behind.

As of today, 538’s model estimates a 58 percent chance that either the Suns, Nuggets or Jazz make the NBA Finals from the Western Conference. The odds for the Lakers or Clippers are down to 39 percent. It’s still hard to be against the Lakers, especially if Anthony Davis returns, healthy for the playoffs. But something important seems to have shifted.

2

The Miami Heat defense

The Heat have slowly been getting healthy and it’s finally starting to show in the results, particularly on the defensive end. Over their last 14 games (of which they’ve won 10), the Heat have allowed just 107.0 points per 100 possessions, the second-best mark in the league over that stretch and one that would trail only the Los Angeles Lakers if stretched across the entire season.

Having Jimmy Butler back in the rotation has solidified everything, recapturing the synergy he had with Bam Adebayo last season and letting the rest of the wing rotation slide back into their ideal defensive roles. Kendrick Nunn has been surprisingly solid at this end. He was largely pushed out of the rotation during last year’s playoff run but his offense has been hugely important this year with so many other on-ball creators in and out of the lineup and he’s been holding up on defense as well. Over this 14-game stretch, Nunn has done an excellent job on creators like Derrick Rose, Trae Young, Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson.

The Heat still have a lot of work to do at the offensive end but they’re rounding into a form and a deal at the NBA Trade Deadline could push them right back towards the top of the Eastern Conference.

1

James Harden taking over

When it was announced that James Harden was headed to the Brooklyn Nets, the first and most obvious question was how their three dominant ball-handlers would co-exist. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving started this partnership, deciding to team up in Brooklyn during free agency before last season. Harden is the newest member of the trio but he seems to be the one who has sacrificed the least offensive primacy.

Both Durant and Irving are outscoring Harden since he arrived in Brooklyn but Harden is clearly the primary offensive orchestrator. His usage is comparable but he’s leading the team in assist percentage, with a mark nearly twice as high as Irving’s. His average time of possession (8.7 minutes per game) is essentially the same as Durant (3.4) and Irving (5.5) combined. His touches are longer and feature more dribbles than Durant or Irving and he’s even been the one steering the ship in clutch situations.

The Nets have only played 49 clutch minutes since Harden joined the team but he’s been on the floor for every one of them. He’s tied with Irving for the most clutch points (41, Durant has 40) but he’s also handed out 11 assists in those minutes (compared to seven, combined, for Durant and Irving).

So, I guess the answer to how the Nets would co-exist is letting things run through James Harden. Right now, it’s working.