NBA Power Rankings, where the Heat has finally risen to the top

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Our weekly NBA Power Rankings, where the effect of LeBron James’ decision is the difference between No. 1 and No. 30.

1. Heat (30-9). Nine wins in a row and 21 of the last 22. We said before the season this team should be a regular season powerhouse and they are proving to be. They are winning the close, ugly games now, which is what good teams do.

2. Magic (25-12). Nine consecutive wins. What the trade has done is made them a much more balanced offensive team, and Hedo Turkoglu is back to being effective.

3. Spurs (31-6). In the Spurs last 10 games Gary Neal has outscored Tim Duncan, 12.4 points per game to 12.1. Neal is taking 60 percent of his shots from three (shooting 41.1 percent) and has been a key part of the Spurs attack. They find these guys who can fill roles and put them in good positions like no other franchise.

4. Celtics (28-8). In his five games back, Rajon Rondo is averaging 8.8 points and 12.2 assists per game — that passing makes the Celtics offense so much smoother. Celtics start a six-game home stand Monday, and KG is expected back this week.

5. Lakers (27-11). Four wins in a row and six of their last seven. Go ahead and say it’s against soft competition — it is. However, against a resurgent Knicks Sunday the Lakers showed signs of being their big, bad selves.

6. Bulls (24-12). Quality win against the Celtics — not a statement win, Boston didn’t have KG and the Bulls didn’t have Noah, and there are no statements in January. But still a good win. They get the Heat Saturday and that won’t be as easy.

7. Thunder (25-13). Kevin Durant is looking like an MVP candidate again, averaging 30.2 points a game on 53 percent shooting in the last 10 for the Thunder. Big test for them Thursday against the streaking Magic.

8. Jazz (25-13). Utah’s front office has to get a little nervous watching the Carmelo Anthony disaster and realizing they could be in the same spot with Deron Williams next year at this time. Good news, Mehmet Okur is back practicing with the team.

9. Hornets (22-16). In the last 10 Hornets games, no player has taken more threes than Trevor Ariza — and he has hit 25.6 percent of them. He’d be better off leaving those to Marco Belinelli, who is hitting 46 percent over the same period. Just a suggestion.

10. Mavericks (26-10). They have dropped down the rankings due to seven games without Dirk Nowitzki (2-5 in those). Until they get Nowitzki back for a while it’s hard to fully judge how much losing Caron Butler hurts.

11. Hawks (22-14). They have yet to lose in 2011 and they’re 8-2 in their last 10. Outside of Utah, however, they have yet to beat anyone in the last couple weeks that impresses.

12. Knicks (21-15). They got their season signature win over the Spurs last Tuesday, then Amar’e Stoudemire got a good homecoming with a win in Phoenix. After those two, we’ll try to ignore how the Lakers game reminded all of us of this team’s weaknesses.

13. Blazers (20-18). They get credit for two moral victories this week, playing the Heat and Mavericks tough. Like Houston, this team just makes you work for everything.

14. Nuggets (20-16). Three straight losses and it’s hard to see them getting a win so long as the ‘Melo trade rumors hang over their head. He said again Monday he doesn’t think it gets done this week.

15. Grizzlies (17-20). Last year the Grizzlies made a big mid-season run — they have a lot of road games coming up against the bottom half of the East. Can they do it again?

16. Sixers (15-22). After some tough road trips lately the Sixers are home for a little while, where they are a much better team.

17. Bucks (14-21). The good news is that John Salmons seems to have found his touch again, scoring 17 points a game in the last 10. The bad news is the team’s second leading scorer over that stretch is Earl Boykins.

18. Suns (15-20). They barely beat the Cavaliers the other day, which counts as a win but doesn’t inspire confidence. No matter now many times they deny it will happen, the Steve Nash trade rumors will not die.

19. Clippers (12-24). Don’t look now, the Clippers are 7-3 in their last 10 and playing some good ball. Actually, do look. They are worth watching.

20. Rockets (16-21). They have lost five in a row, and this week the schedule is Boston, Oklahoma City, then New Orleans and Atlanta back-to-back. Rough.

21. Bobcats (13-21). They are 4-2 in the Paul Silas era. And they are playing watchable basketball again.

22. Warriors (15-22). The Warriors are loaded with home games in January and are 4.5 games out of the last playoff spot in the West. If it’s going to happen it’s going to happen now.

23. Pacers (14-20). Indiana’s final two possessions against the Spurs in a close game Friday night had Roy Hibbert isolated in the post against Tim Duncan. Really? No Granger there, but rather Hibbert on a very good defender? The Pacers are 1-6 in last seven.

24. Raptors (13-24). Remember at the start of the season we said they were playing good defense? We take that back.

25. Pistons (12-24). Tom Gores could turn out to be the kind of rich, big-spending owner the Pistons need. But really, right now any kind of owner to point them in a direction is needed.

26. Kings (8-26). They got a win over Denver this week, which any other week would be considered a quality win. Right now, well, still counts as a win. DeMarcus Cousins is beasting lately.

27. Wizards (9-26). Nick Young is making USC proud (and Gilbert Arenas, too), averaging 17.2 points per game in the Wizards last 10. Sure, he’s shooting just 47.5 percent (eFG%, which accounts for his made threes), but at least he’s scoring. Somebody needs to.

28. Timberwolves (9-29). They get moral victories this week for playing the Celtics and the Spurs close. Sure, moral victories shouldn’t count, but look where we are in the rankings, it’s not like there are a lot of actual victories to count.

29. Nets (10-27). You get the feeling watching them the last week that all the trade rumors are bothering the young Nets, which shouldn’t be a surprise.

30. Cavaliers (8-29). What Cleveland might be able to get in an Anderson Varejao trade was the one interesting thing left for Cavs fans this season. Now…..

Report: Seattle hosting Kings-Warriors preseason game

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Kevin Durant spent his rookie season in Seattle, before the SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder. He has said Seattle fans deserved to see him grow up in the NBA after supporting his promising start.

They’ll get their chance.

Ailene Voisin of The Sacramento Bee:

The Kings and Golden State Warriors have scheduled a preseason game next season in Seattle, according to multiple league sources.

The Oct. 6 meeting between Northern California teams will be the first NBA game in the Key Arena since the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City after the 2007-08 season and became the Thunder.

This game will be loaded with storylines. Not only Durant, but the Kings considered moving to Seattle a few years ago. And of course, the return of NBA basketball to Seattle.

At some point, Seattle will get its own team again. For now, this preseason game creates intrigue there.

Report: Kawhi Leonard cleared medically, seeking second opinion

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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said he’d be surprised if Kawhi Leonard played again this season, a stark reversal from just a month ago. Back then, even while announcing Leonard was out indefinitely with a quad injury, the San Antonio coach said Leonard wouldn’t miss the rest of the season.

What’s going on?

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

After spending 10 days before the All-Star break in New York consulting with a specialist to gather a second opinion on his right quad injury, All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard bears the burden of determining when he’s prepared to play again, sources told ESPN.

Leonard has been medically cleared to return from the right quad tendinopathy injury, but since shutting down a nine-game return to the Spurs that ended Jan. 13, he has elected against returning to the active roster, sources said.

The uncertainty surrounding this season — and Leonard’s future which could include free agency in the summer of 2019 — has inspired a palpable stress around the organization, league sources said.

At first glance, this sounds like Derrick Rose five years ago. Even after he was cleared to play following a torn ACL, the then-Bulls star remained mysterious about when he’d suit up. His confidence in his physical abilities seemed to be a major issue, and he was never the same player since (suffering more leg injuries).

But the Spurs famously favor resting players to preserve long-term health. They seem unlikely to rush back Leonard. They might even sit players who want to play more often. And Leonard isn’t Rose.

Still, it’s clear something is amiss in San Antonio. Maybe not amiss enough to end Leonard’s tenure there, but the longer this lingers, the more time for tension to percolate.

Report: Dennis Smith Jr. planned to have J. Cole dunk in dunk-contest routine

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Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. seemed pretty steamed about getting eliminated in the first round of the dunk contest:

The dunk-contest scoring system – five judges ranking dunks on a scale of 6-10 – is plenty flawed. There should have been a larger difference between the Smith and Victor Oladipo dunks the Dallas point guard mentioned. But Oladipo didn’t advance, either. Personally, I thought the right two players – eventual-winner Donovan Mitchell and runner-up Larry Nance Jr. – advanced.

Maybe Smith was more upset about the missed opportunity – dunks (plural!) involving rapper J. Cole.

Amin El-Hassan of ESPN on Black Opinions Matter:

If Dennis had made it to the finals, Cole was going to throw him the alley-oop. But then the plan was, he was going to throw him the oop, Dennis would dunk it, and then Cole would catch the ball, and then he’d dunk it too. That was going to be the ill, craziest dunk-contest use of a prop or a person ever. But we never got to saw it, because they were holding out until the final round. They didn’t want to bring it out in the first round.

This certainly would have been unprecedented and cool. But unless Smith had something amazing planned for the alley-oop, the best element would have been Cole dunking. That would have upstaged Smith, who’s presumably the one being judged.

For what it’s worth, Cole can dunk. We’ve seen it in the celebrity game:

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich says he’d be surprised if Kawhi Leonard returns this season

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When announcing last month Kawhi Leonard was out indefinitely due to a lingering quad injury, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich dismissed the idea his star forward would miss the rest of the season:

Apparently, Popovich’s expectation has changed.

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

The Spurs (35-24) are third in the West despite Leonard playing just nine games. Popovich has done a great job (maybe Coach of the Year-worthy). LaMarcus Aldridge is having a bounce-back season in a leading role. Pau Gasol leads a supporting cast of players good in their roles.

But San Antonio’s ceiling is so much lower without Leonard.

He’s an elite defender who shuts down opposing scorers on the perimeter and can comfortably switch inside. He can isolate offensively to score efficiently, and he spaces the floor off the ball with strong 3-point shooting. Those are all skills that translate to the playoffs.

Without him, the Spurs rely too heavily on older, slower defenders. That’s ripe to be exploited in the postseason.

Teams might even jockey to match up with San Antonio – the most vulnerable-appearing Western Conference team in line to get home-court advantage in the first round.

Of course, this doesn’t eliminate the possibility of Leonard returning. Popovich could just be trying to shut down speculation. He clearly doesn’t like discussing this issue.

But the Spurs are the most cautious team on injuries. If Leonard risks further injury, they’ll keep him sidelined.

This injury has already caused tension. This won’t help.