NBA Power Rankings, where that Lakers/Heat finals seems a long ways away

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Our weekly NBA Power Rankings. Right now the top four teams on this list are playing the best basketball, but if the playoffs started today I’d pick teams 5 and 6 to meet in the finals. However, this is November, so we’ll worry about the playoffs later.

1. Spurs (14-2). They were down 17 at half to the Hornets Sunday when Gregg Popovich went small — Richard Jefferson at the four, Duncan at the five — and the team just ran and pressured. It worked and the Spurs beat a very good team. I don’t think the Spurs or Popovich could have done this a year ago. Things are different on the Riverwalk.

2. Magic (12-4). They are playing as well as anyone in November, but apparently Orlando management is not convinced they can do the same thing in May.

3. Mavericks (12-4). Five wins in a row, plus they had the Heat bumping into each other and sent them into a team meeting. All that and they get Roddy Beaubois back in a month, instantly become much more dynamic.

4. Jazz (13-5). Also five wins in a row. And another big comeback, this one against the Lakers. Apparently LA forgot to read the scouting report.

5. Celtics (12-4). The loss of Delonte West will hurt this team as it means more of the streaky Nate Robinson. Meanwhile Shaq says this is the best team he has ever been on, and he would never say something just to needle and old team. Nope, not him. Never.

6. Lakers (13-4). Two losses this weeks sends them a few steps down. They really need Andrew Bynum back so they can win some games at the defensive end of the floor.

7. Hornets (12-4). A 1-3 week, but you knew they were coming back to earth eventually. Games this week against the Thunder and Spurs will start to give you a sense of exactly where this team stands.

8. Hawks (11-7). Three wins in a row, including looking good beating Toronto Sunday, and they creep up the standings a little. But if they don’t start beating teams with winning records (they have yet to do that) they will fall.

9. Thunder (11-6). They could have had a bigger week, but Kevin Durant missed a couple game winners. The moral of that story — this is why you want to blow teams out and not be in close games. There’s a reason the best teams win a lot of games big.

10. Nuggets (10-6). The Nuggets have won four in a row and they did it without Chauncey Billups in a couple and Carmelo Anthony in the last one. This team is pretty good.

11. Bulls (9-6). The Bulls went 4-3 on their annual circus trip, and they still have yet to get Boozer back in the fold.

12. Pacers (8-7). They beat the Lakers and Heat this week with defense. That may be sentence I least expected to type this season.

13. Heat (9-8). They have a better scoring differential than many of the teams above them, but when faced with good defense they become stagnant on offense. The questions this week about the return to Cleveland may be a welcome break from the questions about team friction with coach Erik Spoelstra.

14. Blazers (8-8). The Blazers offense is struggling with a hobbled Brandon Roy not able to create shots as well. This may become more Andre Miller’s team soon, if it hasn’t already.

15. Knicks (9-9). The record says they are average, but that feels like a big step forward. Soft schedule this week may see them climb farther up the rankings.

16. Suns (8-9). They have got to find a way to get more of a defensive presence in the paint and grab more boards.

17. Warriors (8-9). David Lee returned and the Warriors are 7-2 when he plays. They can’t keep up that pace, but with him they may be a playoff team.

18. Cavaliers (7-9). LeBron returns to Quicken Loan Arena this week, time to laugh?

19. Grizzlies (7-10). Xavier Henry starts, OJ Mayo comes off the bench and they win three in a row. We’re not sold that was the reason, but wins are wins.

20. Bucks (6-10). Look at their point differential and this looks like a .500 team, but when you have the worst offense in basketball (looking at points per possession) you lose a lot of games you should win.

21. Bobcats (6-11). What happened to the Bobcats dominating defense from last season? Did Tyson Chandler’s 51 games mean that much?

22. Raptors (6-11). Losing Reggie Evans is really going to hurt this team, it will be hard to stay up this high (which isn’t that high) in the rankings the coming weeks.

23. Pistons (6-11). Looking for a silver lining? The Pistons only turn the ball over on 14.4 percent of their possessions, fourth lowest rate in the league.

24. Nets (6-11). They beat the struggling Blazers. They beat the Hawks. Then they turn around and loose to the Sixers. Inconsistency, my old friend.

25. Rockets (5-11). They get a nice win against the Thunder, but now get the Mavericks and Lakers. Tough road without Yao or Aaron Brooks.

26. Wizards (5-10). The Wizards need to play a lot of John Wall to get him acclimated to the NBA game, but they looked a little better when he was out for five games.

27. Sixers (4-13). This team cannot win a close game to save their season.

28. Clippers (3-15). Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon make this team watchable, but until they are consistent on defense the will not win much. They need more D like they showed against the Hornets a week ago.

29. Kings (4-11). Tyreke Evans is shooting 38.5 percent overall and 10 percent from three in the last 10 games. Not a good sign for the Kings.

30. Timberwolves (4-13). Couple of long road trips ahead for a team that shows some flashes but can’t put a well rounded game together.

Report: Rival executives still expect Paul George to leave Thunder for Lakers

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Paul George has been pretty open about his plans.

He told plenty of people – including the Pacers – he planned to leave for the Lakers in the summer of 2018. Even after the Thunder traded for him, George spoke of the lure of playing for his hometown team.

Of course, George also left the door open to re-signing with Oklahoma City. He proclaimed he’d be dumb to leave if the Thunder reached the conference finals or upset the Warriors.

So far, Oklahoma City (12-14) doesn’t even look like a playoff lock, let alone a team capable of knocking off Golden State or reaching the conference finals. So, cue the inevitable speculation.

Sam Amick of USA Today:

Rival execs still expect Paul to head for the Lakers in free agency

Do these executives have inside information into George’s thinking, or are they just speculating based on already-available information? Some executives are incentivized to drum up the Lakers threat, because they want to trade for George themselves now. If these executives insist George will leave for Los Angeles regardless, they might pry him from Oklahoma City for less.

There’s also a theory George is hyping his desire to sign with the Lakers so a team would have to trade less for him. That got him to the Thunder for what looked like a meager return (but hasn’t been). It might get him to a more favorable situation before the trade deadline without hampering his next team long-term. Of course, this theory isn’t mutually exclusive with George actually signing in Los Angeles. It could just get him better options to choose from this summer.

Surely, the Thunder are trying to parse all this noise. If their season doesn’t turn around, they should explore flipping George rather than risk losing him for nothing next summer. But they should also be wary that he’ll bolt for Los Angeles at first opportunity just because rival executives predict it.

LeBron James feels for Lonzo Ball: “The kid hasn’t said anything”

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Lonzo Ball is actually quiet and clearly isn’t comfortable talking about himself. That may not be the perception because of the swirling vortex of Kardashianesq publicity around him — drummed up by his father, whose Big Baller Brand is making money with pop-up shops and a reality series on Facebook, if not preparing his boys for a life in basketball — but Lonzo seems able to tune that out and focus on the game.

LeBron James likes that about the rookie.

Ball has called LeBron the best player in the game and the guy he looks up to, and the day before the Lakers and Cavaliers meet LeBron told Dave McMenamin of ESPN he sees some parallels between himself and Ball in terms of being drafted as a franchise savior.

“The kid hasn’t said anything,” James told ESPN when asked about the hype surrounding Ball. “It’s been everybody else. So, I love his humility. He goes out, every time someone asks him a question, he says, ‘This is not about me, man. I just want to win. I don’t care about what I did.’ I seen he had a triple-double one game and they lost. He was like, ‘I don’t care. We lost.’

“So, can I draw any parallel to my experience? I mean, of course. I guess when you’re drafted to a franchise, they want you to kind of be the savior. And it takes a while. I mean, listen, man, this guy is 20-something games into his pro career. S— doesn’t happen [that fast]. Here it goes again, it goes back to my instant oatmeal [quote]: Everybody wants it right away. Can he play ball? Absolutely. The kid can play ball. Do guys want to play with him? Absolutely, because it’s a guy who is not about him. It’s about the success of the team. And he gives the ball up, and he passes the ball, and there’s energy behind the ball.”

Ball is keeping his head down and working on his game as much as circumstances allow. He’s developing good chemistry with the potential core of Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and others. However, obviously, the basketball side is still a work in progress. Ball has shown flashes this season (as he did against the Knicks), his energy and pushing of the pace have been good for the team, but Ball still struggles with his shot, his decision making is inconsistent, and his defense needs work (but is better than predicted).  He’s improving, but it’s a process.

Basically, Ball is a rookie.

And like all rookies, how much work he puts in and how he develops, if he can get the out of his talent, will determine the course of his career. Not his dad, not the hype, not the shoes, it comes down to his game — and that remains a work in progress. Right now I’m not sure he makes the NBA All-Rookie team at the end of the season, but that doesn’t mean much because it’s about where he is in three years. Is he a future All-Star? Maybe. Is he going to be a good, not great, NBA point guard? Maybe. Could he be playing in Europe (with his brothers?) in five years? It doesn’t seem likely but it’s not off the table. There’s a lot of potential in his game, and it’s up to Luke Walton and the Lakers to bring it out.

But you have to like the way Lonzo has handled himself. LeBron recognizes that.

LaVar Ball is just lucky that the level-headed and focused Lonzo was his oldest child.

 

Thunder’s Paul George expects boos in return to Indiana tonight

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Paul George knows the crowd at Bankers Life Fieldhouse well enough to expect a rude reception when he returns for the first time.

George spent seven seasons with the Indiana Pacers, and the four-time All-Star helped them reach the Eastern Conference Finals twice. After last season, George’s camp made it clear Indiana didn’t figure into his long-term plans, so the disappointed Pacers traded him to Oklahoma City for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis rather than risk getting nothing in return for him.

Indiana fans value loyalty – the player they hold in the highest regard, Reggie Miller, stayed with the Pacers for 18 years. They had their hearts broken back in 2005-06 when Ron Artest demanded a trade, the first step in the dismantling of a nucleus the Pacers expected to compete for NBA titles for years to come.

George, also a one-time centerpiece to Indiana’s title hopes, is gone, too. He figures boos will rain down as a result.

“I honestly wouldn’t think it would be any other way,” he said. “The Pacers fans outweigh the Paul George fans, so that’s what I’m looking forward to. I’m going to embrace that. I’m going to thrive on that. It’s going to give me the energy to play better.”

Thunder forward Carmelo Anthony will be in a similar situation when the Thunder visit the New York Knicks on Saturday. Anthony was sent to Oklahoma City in the offseason after he waived a no-trade clause.

“When he gets booed, we get booed,” Anthony said. “We’re in this together. We understand the situation. I’m pretty sure he’s going to embrace that situation, and we’re going to help him embrace that situation, and as a team, we’re going to help him embrace that situation.”

George’s transition has been a bit bumpy. He is playing outstanding defense, yet still getting comfortable on offense alongside Anthony and Russell Westbrook. He’s averaging 20.6 points on 42 percent shooting overall and 41 percent shooting from 3-point range and leads the league with 2.4 steals per game. The team has struggled to a 12-14 record.

“We’re not enjoying these losses but we’re enjoying the grind,” George said. “We’re enjoying the battles, we’re enjoying the targets on our backs. We’re enjoying everything that brought this team together.”

The trade seems to be just what Oladipo needed. After Monday’s games, he ranked 10th in the league with 24.5 points per game, and the Pacers were No. 5 in the Eastern Conference with a 16-11 record.

“I think he’s just in attack mode,” George said. “He’s aggressive. He’s confident. You can tell he’s worked extremely hard over this past summer, and Indy has given him the keys. You’ve got a young team around, a fresh locker room. It’s a lot of positive energy over there. They are playing well. They are playing good basketball.”

Oladipo downplayed Wednesday’s game in his typical low-key manner. He said he still is friends with his former Thunder teammates and the game simply is about handling business.

“I look forward to every game, every game I play,” he said. “This is just another game, just another game that we’ve got to win. Obviously, you guys and the fans want to blow it up, which is fine. But we have to go out and play Pacers basketball.”

Anthony preferred to stir the pot. He believes the expected hostile environment in Indianapolis will provide an opportunity to build team unity.

“We’ve got to be ready for that because it’s us against the whole (state of) Indiana,” Anthony said. “Not just the Pacers, but the whole Indiana. I think Paul is ready for it. As a professional, as a competitor, it’s kind of bittersweet because you spent so much time and you want a different reaction from the people you put a lot of work in for, you fought for and you competed for. But then again, you want to go in there and have a good game. You want to win.”

 

Marc Gasol said he would accept trade, but are Grizzlies ready to do that?

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“We have no intention to trade Marc. We never seriously considered that at all. We never placed any calls to any teams in that regard. So that’s not happening. It’s not just Marc that this whole equation is about. It’s also Mike Conley, when he comes back. We’ve got two guys among the elite in the league at their respective positions that are still very much in their window with an awful lot of tread left on their tires.”

That was Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace, just after he fired coach David Fizdale is what the GM called an attempt to save the season. Since then the Grizzlies are 1-7, they are second to last in the Western Conference and five games out of the final playoff slot in the West, ground they are not going to make up.

The “grit ‘n grind” era is over in Memphis, and this is now a team searching for an identity and wins. They have banked heavily on an older core of guys with injury histories (Gasol, Conley, Chandler Parsons), and hoped a few younger players — JaMychal Green, Dillon Brooks, James Ennis — could pick them up. It hasn’t panned out.

Is it time to revisit the idea of a Gasol trade? Gasol himself told Zach Lowe of ESPN he’d be open to it if it was what was best for the franchise. However, he grew up in Memphis (while his older brother Pau Gasol played there) and is very loyal to the city and organization. Gasol is not asking to be traded.

“I have a responsibility to this city,” Gasol says. “I’m not gonna quit, no matter what.” What if Memphis fell 30 games under .500? Gasol shakes his head. “I would want to see how we got there — what the process is,” Gasol says. “But as long as [owner] Robert [Pera] wants me here, my teammates want me here, they think I’m part of the solution — and not part of the problem — that’s all I need.” (Gasol still denies he asked for Fizdale to be fired, though the tension between them was real, sources say.)

If the team came to him with a trade, Gasol would accept it. “If they think it is best, I would do anything for this franchise,” Gasol says.

You have to admire that loyalty, in a business where neither players nor organizations often show it (fans do, which is why they feel burned by the likes of Paul George or Kevin Durant).

That said, from the outside, it looks like the Grizzlies have reached a point where it would be better for both parties to move on.

There is one other complicating factor in here: The Grizzlies ownership situation. To make a complicated business transaction simple, two of Memphis’ minority owners — Steve Kaplan and Daniel Straus — have exercised their option to make an offer for primary owner Robert Pera’s 30 percent and controlling interest of the team. Either Pera buys out the other two, or he gets bought out, and whichever side stays runs the team.

This matters because trading Gasol and starting a rebuild is an ownership decision, not simply a call made by the GM. This is going to impact the team and revenue in a way that the owner will have the final say (the owner of a team technically has the final say on everything, how involved those owners are varies team to team, but even a more absentee owner such as Pera would have to okay starting a rebuild like this).

We’ll see, but my guess is Memphis makes its moves over the summer. This season they are going to say all the right things about winning, and probably can string together enough wins to hurt their draft position without making the playoffs.