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Power Rankings: Rockets, Spurs making leaps in the West

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DeRozan 'didn't want to put too much pressure' on Raptors game (0:53)

DeMar DeRozan says he wanted to "go out there and have fun" playing against his old team for the first time. (0:53)

Behind James Harden's historic scoring spree, the Houston Rockets have won 11 of their past 13 games. After a brutal start to the season that saw them drop as low as 15th in the Western Conference, how high has The Beard taken Houston?

Throughout the regular season, our panel (ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz, Tim MacMahon and Andre' Snellings, The Undefeated's Marc J. Spears and FiveThirtyEight's Chris Herring) is ranking all 30 teams from top to bottom, taking stock of which teams are playing the best basketball now and which are looking most like title contenders.

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1. Milwaukee Bucks
Record: 27-11

Milwaukee came out on the losing end against the Raptors on Saturday night -- a game that marked the Bucks' first home loss to an Eastern Conference opponent. One player they'll desperately need to come up with an answer for if the clubs meet in a playoff series: Pascal Siakam. The highly versatile forward has averaged 23 points on 14 shots per game against Milwaukee in three outings this season. He had 30 points on Saturday. -- Herring


2. Golden State Warriors
Record: 26-14

The Warriors are not expected to have interest in their former guard Patrick McCaw after Cleveland waived him Sunday, a source said. The Cavs signed McCaw to an offer sheet recently that the Warriors declined to match because it would have been an $11 million luxury tax hit. After losing center Damian Jones to injury for the season, the Warriors are more interested in signing over the waiver wire a big man who can protect the rim and block shots, sources said. -- Spears


3. Toronto Raptors
Record: 30-12

The Raptors recovered from Kawhi Leonard's unceremonious and ugly return to San Antonio with a pair of convincing back-to-back victories over two of their top Eastern Conference opponents -- Milwaukee and Indiana -- both of whom rolled into the matchups with momentum. Sunday's win over the Pacers, in which Leonard sat, also marked the return of Kyle Lowry. The Raps can look to fatten up over the next couple of weeks, with five of the next seven at home against sub-.500 teams. -- Arnovitz


4. Denver Nuggets
Record: 26-11

The Nuggets are getting healthy, with Paul Millsap and Gary Harris having returned to the fold after long injury layoffs and Will Barton expected back as soon as this week. Meanwhile, the team just keeps winning, with wins in five straight and nine of the past 11 to maintain its spot on top of the Western Conference as we near the halfway point in the season. -- Snellings


5. Indiana Pacers
Record: 26-13

One clear common denominator for the Pacers and the other contenders in the East: They all have great records against teams with sub-.500 records. Indiana, 18-4 against those clubs, needed a 28-foot bank shot from Victor Oladipo in overtime to beat the Bulls on Friday, but wins over weaker competition are basically must-haves when trying to lock up a top-three seed. -- Herring


6. Houston Rockets
Record: 22-16

James Harden earned the hype with historic production as the Rockets roared to 11 wins in 12 games before Sunday's loss in Portland. However, Clint Capela's contributions to Houston's success since Chris Paul got hurt in Miami deserve recognition as well. Capela averaged 18.3 points and 18.1 rebounds during the 6-1 stretch. While Harden loudly campaigns to repeat as MVP, Capela has quietly made a case for his first All-Star appearance. -- MacMahon


7. Oklahoma City Thunder
Record: 25-14

Much has been made of Russell Westbrook's extended shooting slump (37.8 percent shooting, 26.0 percent from 3-point territory in his past 12 games), but the Thunder won eight of those games with an average net rating of plus-5.6 in that stretch. The Thunder win with their defense first, and Westbrook's ability to drive the offense is largely robust in the face of his lack of scoring efficiency. -- Snellings


8. Philadelphia 76ers
Record: 26-14

The Sixers enjoyed an undefeated week amid chatter that Jimmy Butler is less than satisfied with his role in the team's offense. Whatever misgivings Butler might have about the system, the quality of his shot attempts in Philadelphia (52.1 quantified shot quality, according to Second Spectrum) is a considerable improvement over what he saw during his season-plus tenure in Minnesota (49.5). Since Butler's arrival, the Sixers rank eighth overall in offensive efficiency and fifth in true shooting percentage. -- Arnovitz


9. Boston Celtics
Record: 23-15

The Celtics' plus-6.2 point differential this season is one factor that suggests their record is likely to improve in the second half of the season. Another factor in their favor is that Gordon Hayward is healthy and playing at a high level right now. In his past two games, Hayward has averaged 25.5 PPG, 6.5 APG and 6.0 RPG in 31 minutes off the bench to help pick up the slack in Kyrie Irving's absence. -- Snellings


10. San Antonio Spurs
Record: 23-17

Guess who has the West's best record the past 15 games? Yep, the Spurs at 12-3. There is life in San Antonio after Kawhi Leonard. DeMar DeRozan, who made his first game against his former team memorable by recording his first career triple-double in the win over the Raptors, is a legitimate All-Star candidate. Jakob Poeltl, the 23-year-old big man acquired in the deal, has played so well (plus-19.5 net rating in past 15 games) that Pau Gasol is having a hard time getting back in the Spurs' rotation. -- MacMahon


11. LA Clippers
Record: 23-16

It has been touch and go for the Clippers for a while now -- bad home losses sprinkled with some high-energy, workmanlike victories. But here they are sitting at the No. 4 seed in the West, with a fair number of home games ahead over the next couple of weeks. Wily vets Patrick Beverley and Marcin Gortat have come on strong for the Clips on both ends of the floor, and the defense, which had been scuttling, has stabilized both on the ball and against the pick-and-roll. -- Arnovitz


12. Portland Trail Blazers
Record: 23-17

The Blazers appear to have a third scorer behind Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum whom they can depend on in center Jusuf Nurkic. Nurkic has scored at least 20 points in five of the past six games, including 27 points against Golden State on Dec. 27. The 7-foot, 275-pounder also has already logged 20 double-doubles in 40 games. -- Spears


13. Utah Jazz
Record: 20-20

Coach Quin Snyder pulled Donovan Mitchell from the game after an ugly stretch (missed jumper, two turnovers) early in the second half Sunday. "I just felt like he needed just to step back, sit for a second and watch," Snyder told reporters. "That gives you a little more clarity, and that can kind of strengthen your resolve." Mitchell's response: He scored 24 of his 26 points and didn't turn the ball over the rest of the night as the Jazz rallied for a win in Detroit. -- MacMahon


14. Los Angeles Lakers
Record: 21-19

Now without Kyle Kuzma in addition to LeBron James, the Lakers have been consigned to the dregs of the West, biding their time until their prolific scorers get a clean bill of health. Problem is: They're now just a game up on Utah for the No. 8 seed. Looking for a silver lining? While going winless, the Lakers ranked second in defensive efficiency last week and were tops in opponents' effective field goal percentage. -- Arnovitz


15. Miami Heat
Record: 19-19

The Heat have won eight of their past 11 games, and they continue to do so as an example of throwback NBA basketball with strong interior defense and inside-out basketball. One of the fuels behind their strong play of late has been Justise Winslow, who has moved to starting point guard and has played very well, to the tune of 16.1 PPG, 5.6 APG, 5.4 RPG and 1.9 SPG in his past seven games. -- Snellings


16. Sacramento Kings
Record: 19-20

The Kings are coming back to earth with four straight losses and have dropped eight of their past 12 contests after a surprising 15-12 start. The Kings play seven of their next 11 games on the road (they're 9-10 on the road this season). Sacramento entered Sunday allowing a Western Conference-worst 117 points per game. -- Spears


17. Brooklyn Nets
Record: 20-21

Three consecutive wins last week for the scorching Nets, and three consecutive games in which they posted a true shooting percentage better than 60. In the stretch, D'Angelo Russell has averaged 24.3 points, 9.3 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game. The 22-year-old point guard was a crafty "secondary draft" acquisition for the Nets in 2017, by which they took a flier on a struggling, young player on the cheap. Is Russell now playing his way into the Nets' long-term future? -- Arnovitz


18. Charlotte Hornets
Record: 19-20

Kemba Walker had a performance that probably brought back memories for Hornets owner Michael Jordan by scoring 18 of his 29 points in the final 4:30 of a win Sunday at Phoenix. A red-hot Walker even nailed a half-court shot when he merely was trying to run out the clock. Walker, who is averaging 25.3 points, is the Hornets' lone hope to have a representative at the 2019 NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte. -- Spears


19. Memphis Grizzlies
Record: 18-21

Chandler Parsons' time in Memphis appears to be over, though the Grizzlies still owe him $38 million. Memphis has many other problems. Only the Knicks have a worse record than the Grizzlies (3-12) in the past 15 games. Only the Bulls average fewer points than Memphis (96.3) in that span. The Grizzlies rank dead last in 3-point percentage (31.1) during their extended downturn. -- MacMahon


20. Dallas Mavericks
Record: 18-21

The recent struggles for Dallas, the NBA's worst road team (3-18), were predictable. The Mavs just finished a stretch in which nine of 11 games were on the road, going 3-8 and mixing in a blowout win in Charlotte. Good news for the Mavs: Seven of their next 10 games are at the American Airlines Center. But Dallas' home dominance (15-3) will be tested with the Warriors, Spurs, Clippers and Raptors among the upcoming visitors. -- MacMahon


21. Detroit Pistons
Record: 17-20

Detroit carried an 18-point advantage into the second quarter Saturday against Utah but still managed to lose to the Jazz, marking the Pistons' 13th defeat in 17 tries. The pitfall in this contest: Detroit had incredibly balanced scoring among its starting five, but the Pistons' reserves produced just 13 of the team's 105 points. -- Herring


22. New Orleans Pelicans
Record: 18-22

Can Elfrid Payton rescue the Pelicans? New Orleans is 7-2 with its starting point guard, who has been sidelined for long stretches by a sprained ankle and broken finger. After losing six of the past seven games he missed, the Pelicans are 2-1 since Payton's return -- and he did all he could to give them a chance to beat Brooklyn, as he had 25 points and seven assists and was plus-18 in the loss. -- MacMahon


23. Orlando Magic
Record: 17-22

Orlando's ability to win on a nightly basis is tied almost entirely to its defensive level. The Magic went 5-7 in their past 12 games. In the five wins, their defense allowed 91.6 points per game, and in the seven losses, their points allowed ballooned to 115.3 points per game. This defensive inconsistency is largely what has anchored them to the middle of the pack in the winnable Southeast Division. -- Snellings


24. Minnesota Timberwolves
Record: 19-21

After firing head coach and president Tom Thibodeau on Sunday following a 22-point win over the Lakers, the franchise will turn to interim coach Ryan Saunders, son of late coaching great Flip Saunders. Ryan was an assistant coach with the Wizards before becoming one with the Wolves in 2014. The former University of Minnesota walk-on is only 32 years old. -- Spears


25. Washington Wizards
Record: 16-24

With John Wall out for the season, it will be worth watching how much teams load up on Bradley Beal as Washington's clear-cut No. 1 option. So far this season, he has taken a career-high 27 percent share of his shot attempts from inside 3 feet while connecting on a personal-best 70 percent from that range. -- Herring


26. Atlanta Hawks
Record: 12-27

After picking up their third win of the season over Miami on Sunday, the Hawks have petitioned the league for an additional 14 games against the Heat. Rookies traditionally struggle to adapt to NBA defenses, but Trae Young's defensive real plus-minus rating is the stuff of the googly-eyes emoji. He ranks dead last out of 472 players, several lengths behind No. 471 (Collin Sexton). -- Arnovitz


27. New York Knicks
Record: 10-29

The Knicks finally broke their eight-game losing streak with a solid win in Los Angeles against the LeBron-less Lakers, but they remain one of the NBA's coldest teams with only two wins in their past 15 games. That said, Luke Kornet has been another young player producing of late for the rebuilding Knicks, averaging 15.5 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 4.0 3s and 3.0 APG in four straight starts over veteran Enes Kanter. -- Snellings


28. Phoenix Suns
Record: 9-32

The day after Christmas was the last time the Suns won a game, as Phoenix has lost six straight by an average of 6.8 points. Despite the losses, Suns newcomer Kelly Oubre Jr. told The Undefeated that he is very happy in Phoenix and believes the young talent has promise. -- Spears


29. Chicago Bulls
Record: 10-30

With the trade of veteran forward Justin Holiday this past week, rookie wing Chandler Hutchison is already seeing considerably more playing time. The next step could very well be finding a trade destination for Robin Lopez, which would open up even more minutes for first-year big man Wendell Carter Jr. -- Herring


30. Cleveland Cavaliers
Record: 8-32

After their 35-point loss at home to New Orleans, the Cavaliers have lost a league-high nine games in a row, including five straight home defeats by 20 or more points. Yes, Cleveland has had more than its fair share of luck when it comes to draft lotteries lately, and no, Kevin Love hasn't been in the lineup. But this stretch has been ugly to say the least. -- Herring