Shawn Marion,  Tim Duncan

NBA Power Rankings, the mid-season report edition

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Our weekly NBA Power Rankings, with a focus on the first half of the season and what to look forward to. So for you Cavs fans, we should start talking draft.

1. Spurs (35-6). Well, that first half couldn’t have gone much better. We knew the Spurs would be good, they always are, but one of the biggest surprises in the league is just how good. They have let Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili take over the offense, everyone has stayed healthy for the most part, and the role players have looked fantastic. They should have the Lakers attention now.

2. Celtics (30-9). After last season when the Celtics treated the end of the regular season like a relaxing resort vacation, we weren’t sure what to expect. But Shaq has given them quality minutes on the front line, Kevin Garnett was moving as well as he has in years (or was before the calf injury) and Rajon Rondo has played the best ball of his career. This team knows the window is closing soon and is focused.

3. Lakers (30-12). Pretty much what you expect out of the Lakers in the regular season — very up and down. Streaky. Like the seven straight wins before they dropped one to the Clippers on Sunday. The Lakers schedule starts to get a lot tougher this week — Oklahoma City, Dallas — and stays that way for more than a month, so we’ll get some real tests to judge this team on. As much as you can judge them in the regular season. I don’t think they catch the Spurs for the top seed in the West (5.5 games back now).

4. Heat (30-12). Three straight losses, time to reach for the panic… no, it’s not. Injuries to LeBron and now Chris Bosh, running into a hot Clippers team, these things happen. The Heat took a little while to figure it out this season, but now that they have they are a regular season powerhouse (when healthy). The real questions for them don’t start until the second round of the playoffs.

5. Thunder (27-13). Monday night they get their first shot at the Lakers since Los Angeles eliminated them from the playoffs last year. Think they may be a little hyped for that one? The Thunder got off to a slow start but they have played well of late.

6. Magic (26-14). They looked pretty good after the big trades, until the defensive stinker against the Thunder last week anyway. This is a team where the front office gets credit for realizing they were not going to win a title with what they had and making a bold move to give them a chance. Whether that roster can get them there remains to be seen, but kudos for taking the shot.

7. Bulls (27-13). Someday they’ll all be healthy for a while and we can judge just how good the Bulls really are (having to play a game or two this week without Boozer and Noah will be tough). The question about the Bulls coming into the season was could Tom Thibodeau get a team of questionable individual defenders to buy into his team defensive system. The answer is yes.

8. Jazz (27-13). This team lost Carlos Boozer and brought in Al Jefferson and it hasn’t missed a beat. The Jazz are solid, with one of the best point guards in the game. They’re a team that will be a tough out come the playoffs, just like every year under Jerry Sloan.

9. Hornets (25-16). One of the bigger surprises this season, for two reasons. First, Chris Paul is healthy and we seemed to forget he is simply phenomenal (he should be in the MVP discussions). Secondly, this is a good defensive team (fourth in the league in defensive efficiency). Monty Williams gets a lot of credit for coaching up that defense.

10. Hawks (26-15). They are exactly what we thought they were. Same thing they were last season. This is a good team with quality athletes, they play hard and are entertaining. They are the fifth best team in the East and may still go home in the first round.

11. Mavericks (26-13). Yes, they have lost five in a row and are 2-8 in their last 10 (hence the fall down the rankings), but team management is right to wait and see what this team looks like with Dirk Nowitizki back before they pull the trigger on any moves. However the injury to Caron Butler really hurts them.

12. Knicks (22-17). They are not elite, but they are good and they are fun. Amar’e Stoudemire is a beast and Raymond Felton has figured out how to work this offense. They are going to make the playoffs this season and that is a huge step forward. Accept that Knicks fans and don’t get greedy.

13. Nuggets (23-17). The sword of the Carmelo Anthony trade still hangs over this team, but they seem to have figured out how to deal with the pressure better going 3-1 last week and 6-4 in their last 10. As for the future of this team, who knows?

14. Blazers (21-20). No Greg Oden, which was not unexpected. No Brandon Roy, that was the shocker. Without them the Blazers have become one of those scrappy teams that is never easy to beat, which is a good base to have while the management looks for a star or figures out what to do next.

15. Grizzlies (19-21). The owner keeps talking about keeping this core together, but nobody totally buys that. Will they trade O.J. Mayo before the deadline? Will they be able to sign Zach Randolph to a new deal (after whenever the lockout ends)? The team is starting to find it footing this season and is just 1.5 games out of a playoff spot, but the long-term future is murky.

16. Clippers (14-25). Big wins this week over the Lakers and the Heat. Since their 1-13 start they are 13-12. They would be a playoff team if it hadn’t been for that start, but now it’s too big a hole to climb out of. Still, maybe the best show in the NBA right now.

17. Sixers (16-23). While you weren’t looking, Elton Brand returned to good. He is averaging 15 points per game on 51.8 percent shooting, and is grabbing 8.6 rebounds a game. He’s not the force he was back with the Clippers, but he and Jrue Holiday have been the two best players on the team. Doug Collins has done a good job, but this team needs a roster shakeup.

18. Suns (17-21). This is not a very good team, particularly away from home. Bad news Suns fans, the team kicks off a five-game road trip this week.

19. Bobcats (15-23). They are 6-4 in their last 10 games and Paul Silas has made this team good again by letting them get out and run a little. But they have 8 of their next 10 on the road and that will be a better test of where they stand.

20. Rockets (18-23). Picked up wins in Boston and Atlanta this week, this is a team that can do that — on a hot shooting night they can beat anybody. But defense is what makes a team consistent and the Rockets don’t do a lot of defense.

21. Bucks (14-23). Through the first 35 games, the Bucks were the most injured team in the NBA and played the toughest schedule in the league. The pendulum is swinging the other way on both those, and so might the Bucks fortunes. But they still aren’t winning a lot yet and are not close to the team we thought could push the Bulls in the Central Division.

22. Warriors (16-23). Like the Clippers, they may not win a lot but they put on a good show. Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry can light up the scoreboard any given night. This team still plays no defense, and that costs them.

23. Pacers (16-21). Not a very good offensive team, and somebody there needs to start drawing fouls. They play good defense but you still need to score to win.

24. Pistons (14-26). This sitting Rip Hamilton and saying it’s a coaching decision when it’s really about the Carmelo Anthony trade is just wrong. Admit what is going on. As for the Pistons, the sale of the team to Tom Gores is a good sign that maybe things can start to turn around from the top down.

25. Raptors (13-27). The mid-season report on the Raptors: They are pretty much what you expected. Which is not good.

26. Wizards (11-27). The future is John Wall, but that kid needs a few games off to get healthy first. Right now he just doesn’t have the legs to be quick and explosive, and that’s his game.

27. Kings (9-29). If this franchise moves out of Sacramento it would be a travesty. That has been a very good and loyal fan base when given any reason to show up and cheer. Right now, DeMarcus Cousins is a good reason.

28. Timberwolves (10-31). Kevin Love has been great, but in a battle with Blake Griffin for a potential All-Star slot you have to notice that the Clippers have been winning of late and the Wolves… not so much.

29. Nets (10-30). Trade rumors weigh heavily on young teams. Getting Carmelo Anthony would be a coup, but with the older Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton in the deal there would still be a lot of moves to be made to make the team a contender.

30. Cavaliers (8-32). They lost their three games last week by a combined 105 points (granted, the Lakers alone were more than half of that). This team has just crumbled. It’s sad.

NBA’s new Larry Bird highlight video will blow your mind

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Larry Bird’s birthday was yesterday, and we celebrated with a couple highlight videos.

Then, the NBA released this video today – and it’s to good not to share.

It’s one thing to know Bird’s numbers. It’s another to see how spectacular of a scorer, passer and trash-talker he was.

Carmelo Anthony doesn’t want to talk about Phil Jackson’s ball-hogging critique (video)

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Phil Jackson bothered Carmelo Anthony with his use of the word “posse” last month.

How is the Knicks president agitating the Knicks’ biggest star this month?

Publicly criticizing Anthony’s playing style.

Jackson on CBS Sports Network’s We Need To Talk, via James Herbert of CBSSports.com:

“He can play that role that Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant played,” Jackson said. “That’s a perfect spot for him, to be in that isolated position on the weak side. Because it’s an overload offense and there’s a weak-side man that always has an advantage if the ball is swung.

Carmelo, a lot of times, wants to hold the ball longer than — we have a rule, if you hold a pass two seconds, you benefit the defense. So he has a little bit of a tendency to hold the ball for three, four, five seconds, then everybody comes to a stop. That is one of the things we work with. But he has adjusted to it, he knows what it can do and he’s willing to see its success.”

Ian Begley of ESPN:

Anthony, who is normally affable with the media, maintained a smile but began to walk away from reporters when asked about Jackson’s comments before stopping and continuing with questions. He then responded to a query about the timing of the Knicks president’s remarks and whether they were productive.

“I don’t even know what was said, to be honest with you. I just don’t even want to talk about that, what he’s talking about exactly. I want to stay away from that at this point,” Anthony said. “My focus is my teammates and winning. We’ve been playing great basketball, and that’s the only thing I’m focused on. Whatever Phil said, he said it. I have nothing to say about that.”

Maybe Anthony was ruffled for a different reason. New York had just got beaten and embarrassed by the Cavaliers, after all. But it sure seems Jackson’s comments played a part.

Jackson should have known about Anthony before re-signing him to a huge contract two years ago. This is Anthony’s style and long has been. He’s a scorer who sometimes limits ball movement (to far better effect than most ball-stoppers).

As Jackson noted, Anthony has somewhat changed under the Knicks’ triangle offense. Anthony is even deferring more often to Kristaps Porzingis.

Could Anthony go further? Of course.

I’m just not sure public criticism is the way to increase Anthony’s progress.

Jackson has motivated players through the media for years, and sometimes it works. But given Jackson’s previous lack of direct communication with Anthony, this probably wasn’t the ideal method to use here.

Anthony deserves a team president who does more than hold triangle seminars, entertain coaching only home games and critique Anthony in the media.

Jimmy Butler’s ascent continues into superstardom

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 31:  Jimmy Butler #21 of the Chicago Bulls signals to his teammates against the Brooklyn Nets during the first half at Barclays Center on October 31, 2016 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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Jimmy Butler was in Milwaukee and hundreds of miles from his home of Tomball, Texas. He was trying to fit in with his new Marquette teammates, most of whom he had never met before. He had to change his playing style as he transitioned up a level.

And then it snowed.

“Unbelievable to me,” Butler said. “I don’t know if I was happy or pissed off that it was snowing. I had never seen snow before. I was incredibly cold.

“That was the biggest culture shock of everything. It was hard. But we got through it. We always do.”

He always does.

The Bulls wing called going from junior college to the Big East the most difficult step in his basketball journey. What he’s doing this year, it’s not easy. But Butler has overcome numerous other challenges.

A rough childhood, getting overlooked in recruiting, rising from junior college to top-shelf college basketball, climbing draft boards as a relatively unheralded prospect, carving out a role in the NBA, working his way into stardom.

Now, Butler – the NBA’s Most Improved Player in 2015 – is pushing himself into the NBA’s elite. He’s averaging 26.0 points, 6.7 rebounds an 4.1 assists per game. He ranks third in real plus-minus, sixth in PER and fourth in win shares.

MVP? Another MIP?

Butler dismisses the “individual s—” with a grimace, but he’s taking to his elevated stature.

“I figured, ‘Why can’t I be up there with the best of them?'” Butler said. “And I continue to think that way.”

Butler didn’t always carry such confidence, and he doesn’t have to think far back to remember the days he lacked it. Jerel McNeal, Wesley Mathews, Lazar Hayward, Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder overshadowed him at Marquette. Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer once dwarfed his presence on the Bulls.

“I wasn’t always a really good player,” Butler said. “I just worked harder than everybody. I just played harder than everybody.”

Butler developed his skills. He gained fame and fortune.

He just never lost his work ethic.

As he continue to practice and study, he learned how far that could take him. Butler has made the last two All-Star games and last three All-Defensive second teams. Now, he’s recognizing his own potential.

“Your confidence comes from your work,” Butler said.

That confidence is spreading.

Say whatever you want about how he has handled his rise into stardom, Butler continues to rise. He deserves more credit for his jump from star to superstar, maybe one of the most difficult leaps in sports. But his continued evolution has warped expectations.

Bulls teammate Dwyane Wade first noticed Butler at Marquette, their shared alma mater. Could Wade envision then Butler turning into an NBA player?

“That was hard to see,” Wade said.

What about once Butler got into the league? Did his star potential show?

“No, didn’t see that,” Wade said.

Then Butler’s leap to superstardom surely must have also caught Wade off guard, right?

“I won’t say surprise,” Wade said. “He’s playing with the talent he has.

“He’s not doing nothing overcomplicated. He’s not crossing people, making them fall. He’s not jumping over tall people. He’s playing his game. He’s getting to the basket, hitting the mid-range pullup, doing things like that.”

Unfortunately for Butler’s MVP chances, he’s doing it in a year so many other players are posting unworldly numbers. His combination of 26.0 points, 6.7 rebounds an 4.1 assists per game have been matched over a full season just 56 times in the NBA’s 70-year history. Do that in the right year – especially with Butler’s efficiency: shooting 47.2% from the field, 35.1% on 3-pointers and 88.9% on free throws – and Butler walks away with MVP.

But this season, four players – Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Durant and Butler – are on pace to hit that combination scoring/rebounding/passing combination, which would be a record. To win MVP, Butler must fend off those other three and Chris Paul and Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James and…

Still, Butler has a more realistic chance of making history given his humble entry into the NBA. The No. 30 pick in the 2011 draft, he could o become the highest finisher in MVP voting in his lifetime who was drafted so low. The current bar is seventh in MVP voting, done by both No. 35 pick Draymond Green and undrafted Ben Wallace.

Butler could also break records with his sustained improvement.

Several Most Improved Players – Ryan Anderson, Kevin Love, Monta Ellis,* Bobby Simmons, Zach Randolph, Gilbert Arenas, Jermaine O’Neal, Tracy McGrady and Rony Seikaly – received votes for the award after winning it. But none seriously contended for a repeat. The closest was 1990 winner Seikaly, who finished 12th in 1997 – with a single vote.

*Ellis received is the only player to receive MIP votes in multiple seasons after winning it. He won the award in 2007 and then made his way onto the ballot in 2008 and 2010.

Giannis Antetokounmpo has emerged as a strong frontrunner for 2017 Most Improved player, but Butler belongs in the mix.

To cherry-pick one measure among the many that showcases Butler’s improvement, his PER has risen from 21.3 each of the last two season to 27.8 this year. Only Terry Rozier and Giannis Antetokounmpo have made bigger jumps from their previous career-high PER to a new career high this season (minimum: 200 minutes each season):

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Butler’s ascension has invited greater leadership responsibilities, an area that drew immense scrutiny last season.

Chicago traded Rose and watched Noah walk over the summer. Newcomers Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo declared the Bulls to be Butler’s team.

The pressure was on, and Butler appears to be delivering.

Chicago coach Fred Hoiberg, who drew public criticism from Butler last year, called him a “great leader.” Butler again asked Hoiberg to coach him harder before this season, and his teammates have noticed.

“Is he hard on himself? Is he hard on guys when they’re not doing what they’re supposed to? Yes. He’s supposed to be hard on them,” Wade said. “But I think he’s as advertised.”

That’s because Butler continues to show his genuineness.

“He has a little different personality,” Wade said. “You come in, and everybody talk about it. He’s in the locker room singing country music and all these songs that most people ain’t used to listening to.”

That’s Butler from Tomball, Texas.

He’s now on an effectively max contract, in commercials and headed toward an even higher level of stardom on the court.

Yet, he remains relentless in his approach.

“I’m about right now,” Butler said. “Every single day, what can I do right now to get better for tomorrow – and that’s not even promised. What can I do right now to finish out the day right?”

Did Draymond Green hit Blake Griffin in the nuts? (video)

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Stephen Curry nutmegged DeAndre Jordan in the Warriors’ win over the Clippers last night.

Did Draymond Green do something similar to Blake Griffin – except with his hand rather than the ball and connecting rather than going between Griffin’s legs?

At first glance, that swipe at the ball didn’t look so sinister.

But then you watch Griffin’s reaction.

And you read about Griffin’s response. Dan Woike of The Orange County Register:

And you consider Green’s reputation.

Really, that’s why we’re addressing this. With another player, it probably gets glossed over. But Green long ago lost the benefit of the doubt.

Whatever happened on that play, Green frustrated Griffin all night. Green had 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting with five rebounds, four assists and two steals and helped hold Griffin to 12 points on 5-of-20 shooting with seven turnovers and four fouls.

Griffin had this nice dunk over Green, featuring some hands to the face:

Otherwise, Griffin was left with a loss and Green’s parting shot.