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.

Clippers executive Jerry West raves about Warriors’ Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green

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A former great player who’s now an executive for a Los Angeles NBA team praised an opposing player.

The last time this happened, Lakers president Magic Johnson got fined for tampering with the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo.

How will Jerry West fare with these comments about Warriors stars Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green?

West, via the TK Show:

Kevin Durant, I don’t know. Obviously, he’s one of my favorite players I’ve ever watched play. His size, the efficiency that he plays the game is scary. And then you have Steph over there, your little, your next-door-neighbor kid. Let’s go play with him. And then you get out there, and then you find out, oh my god, this guy’s a killer. But pretty unique with that. And the complementary players, in their own right, they’re great. There’s Klay Thompson. He just goes and plays and never seeks any credit. He just plays and really competitive. Draymond, the guy that drives the horse. They’ve got some really unique players up there, and it’s still fun for me to watch. I watch them play. I root for them, because I know some of the players.

As a reminder, here’s what Johnson said about Antetokounmpo. Nick Friedell of ESPN:

As Johnson watches from afar, he can’t help but see and enjoy the parallels between his game and that of the Bucks big man.

“Oh yeah,” Johnson told ESPN recently. “With his ball-handling skills and his passing ability. He plays above the rim I never could do that. But in his understanding of the game, his basketball IQ, his creativity of shots for his teammates. That’s where we [have the] same thing. Can bring it down, make a pass, make a play. I’m just happy he’s starting in the All-Star game because he deserves that. And he’s going to be like an MVP, a champion, this dude he’s going to put Milwaukee on the map. And I think he’s going to bring them a championship one day.”

Two key differences between West and Johnson:

West didn’t help get his team fined for tampering last summer. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said there’s no clear line for tampering, but that the Lakers face a higher bar due their previous violations.

Johnson didn’t previously work for Milwaukee. West worked in Golden State’s front office while those players were there and knows them personally.

But Silver also provided a rough outline of when tampering will be enforced when addressing Johnson’s latest fine:

“It’s one thing when you’re asking a coach a question about an opposing team right after a game. It’s another issue when a general manager or president of basketball sort of gratuitously issues a statement that is complimentary of a star player on another team.

“In essence, what we’ve said to him, and it’s a clear message to other team executives, is that stop talking about star players on other teams. There are plenty of other issues they can address. And there is sensitivity around it throughout the league.”

Given that line, I don’t know how West avoid a fine – which is a shame.

What he said is harmless. No player is going to join another team due to benign compliments from an opposing executive.

It’s also a disservice to fans and West himself if he’s discouraged from speaking publicly about current players. The all-time great has valuable perspective, and he shouldn’t be silenced just because he works for an NBA team. His entire interview with Tim Kawakami of The Athletic is interesting. Everybody would lose if West turns down interviews in fear of a fine.

Meanwhile, more meaningful tampering – making plans on future contracts – is rampant. But that’s difficult to curb. So, the NBA enforces silly stuff like this.

The NBA never should have fined Johnson for the Antetokounmpo comments. It just opens too many cans of worms in a fight not worth fighting. Seriously, what’s the point?

If I were the Lakers, I’d be bothered if West skates free on this. But if I were West, I’d also resent a fine.

The league has backed itself into a dumb corner.

C.J. McCollum on how Portland’s defense, and his, became respectable

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LOS ANGELES — Portland’s much-maligned defense has been one of quieter turn-around stories of this NBA season.  It went from bottom 10 the past two seasons — and the reason the team has stalled out in the playoffs — to being 11th in the league this season, 2.8 per 100 possessions better than the season before.

Change doesn’t just happen. It started with work last June and July in the gym and has continued into the film room during the season. 

And it started with Portland’s leaders C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard.

The two elite guards were tired of hearing about their sub-par defense, so they prioritized defensive drills every off-season workout to get better on that end. They focused on their film study to how to get more stops. They made defense a priority and started to better use their experience in the league on that end.

“We work a lot with our strength and conditioning staff, we work with our assistant coaches on breaking down film, figuring out ways to find better angles, figuring out ways to move through screens better,” McCollum told NBC Sports of his improved defense. “But I think defensively understanding offenses a little better helps you be in better positions, understanding schemes, tendencies for certain players allows you to become a better defender. A lot of it is this is the NBA, guys are good and they’re going to score, you just have to make it as difficult as possible. Any advantages you can have make it a little bit easier.”

McCollum has been better this year. While all the defensive analytics metrics are flawed, McCollum’s defensive rating is 2.2 per 100 better than last season. Opponents are shooting 41.2 percent against him this season, down from last season by more than a percentage point. McCollum has become a solid defender, which is a step up, and with Jusuf Nurkic more of his mistakes can be erased.

For McCollum and Portland, the improvement is in part about continuity. One of the strengths of the Blazers is they have kept their core together for years and kept coach Terry Stotts on the sidelines. It leads to a familiarity both with each other and the opponents they face.

“We’ve had the same guys, same staff, the schemes have been the same, our approach has been the same, just our practices have been a little bit different in terms of concepts and what we’re trying to accomplish throughout the season,” McCollum said. “Our shell has been great, a top 10 team defensively (they are currently 11th after a rough stretch before the All-Star break). Obviously, there will be slippage at times, you’re going to give up points here or there, but we’ve been pretty consistent.”

“I just think our shell has been tighter, making them skip the ball across the court a lot of times, and picking it up if they try to hit the roll man or penetrate, making them have to work a little more in the halfcourt and prevent second-chance points.”

McCollum could have easily been an All-Star — the fifth-year guard out of Lehigh University is averaging 21.7 points per game and shooting 42.1 percent from three — but instead was in Los Angeles for the weekend with Verizon Up, the company’s reward program for its mobile customers available through the My Verizon app (of which McCollum said he’s a member). The program offers the chance to redeem points for a lot of experiences, such as being close to Justin Timberlake for a concert. At All-Star weekend members could get premium access to all of the weekend’s events, including the Verizon Up Member’s Lounge – a space to relax, eat and drink, and meet NBA players.

NBA players were looking to relax last weekend, too. McCollum said at this point in the season players (and coaches, and referees, basically everyone) needs the mental and physical break of a few days off. Portland returns to action tonight (Friday) against red-hot Utah, and the Blazers could use the win — they are the current seven seed in the West, but just 1.5 games up on missing the playoffs completely (and just two games up on the Jazz). On the other hand, Portland is just 2.5 games out of the three seed in the bunched up West.

“We go into every game thinking it’s crucial, every game we got to perform, you got to not lose at home, you got to not lose to teams under .500,” McCollum said of the team down the stretch run. “One bad week could have you at 10th, 11th place, one good week could have you at four or five.

“There comes a time (late in the season) when there’s a drop-off. Some teams are going to be a little more inconsistent down the stretch, but you just got to rise above.”

Portland leans on Lillard and McCollum not to let the team be inconsistent down the stretch. Those two have evolved into one of the most dangerous backcourts in the NBA.

“We do a good job of balancing each other out, of figuring out when to attack and when to pass off to the next guy,” McCollum said of him and Lillard. “I think it just comes with continuing to develop a relationship off the court where you have more trust, where you figure out how to communicate more effectively.

“A lot of it is non-verbal stuff on the court because it’s too loud and you can’t hear, or you just notice something and you look to see if he noticed it too then you just kind of play off of that.  A lot of times you learn on the fly. You get in a situation, you see certain things, and five games later it might be the same thing happening again and you kind of look like ‘you remember this?’ And you just kind of figure it out.”

Other team’s game plan against Portland is generally clear — get the ball out of Lillard and McCollum’s hands. Don’t let them get hot and beat us. Just good luck pulling that off, it’s not easy. Also, the improved play of Shabazz Napier has helped, giving Portland another shot creator off the bench.

“He’s been great, really shooting the ball well from the field, a good plus/minus… it helps when you have other guys out there who can handle the ball and create,” McCollum said.

But in the end, Portland’s playoff dreams will rise and fall with McCollum and Lillard, and that improved defense. McCollum and Lillard will get buckets. Will the Blazers get stops?

That’s where the offseason work, the continuity, and the experience all need to come together for Portland.

“(The improved defense) comes with experience, playing in big games, playing in certain environments where you get a better understanding of the play calling,” McCollum said. “We’ve played the Warriors like 16 times the last two years, so you start to understand certain tendencies (the Trail Blazers beat the Warriors just before the All-Star break). You know what guys like to do, certain plays they do out of timeouts, and just different options throughout the game, and as you play in the league more you play against certain players more and you get to figure out their tendencies and what they like to do in certain situations.”

Stephen Curry, Danilo Gallinari trade halfcourt buzzer-beaters (video)

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Warriors star Stephen Curry drained a halfcourt shot to end the first quarter. Not to be outdone, Clippers forward Danilo Gallinari hit a halfcourt shot to end the second quarter.

I’m just marveling how much less of a heave Curry’s shot was, even if it was slightly closer. His range is incredible.

Golden State won, 134-127, behind 44 points from Curry.

Report: Markelle Fultz, Kyle Kuzma among NBA players who received agency money while in school

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Details are emerging in the FBI’s probe into college basketball – specifically how former NBA agent Andy Miller distributed money (through college coaches) to players, i.e., potential clients.

Pat Forde and Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports:

An ASM balance sheet in the hands of federal investigators shows accounts through Dec. 31, 2015, with the subheading, “Loan to Players.” It listed several who were in high school or college as receiving four-figure and five-figure payments from ASM Sports. Among the largest listed loans:

  • Dennis Smith, who would go on to play at North Carolina State in 2016-17, received $43,500 according to the documents. Another document headed “Pina,” for ASM agent Stephen Pina, says Smith received a total of $73,500 in loans, and includes notes about “options to recoup the money” when Smith did not sign with ASM.
  • Isaiah Whitehead, at the time a freshman at Seton Hall, received $26,136 according to the documents. The “Pina” document says Whitehead received $37,657 and was “setting up payment plan.” Whitehead signed with ASM but later left the agency for Roc Nation.
  • Tim Quarterman, at the time a junior at LSU, received at least $16,000 according to the balance sheet.
  • Diamond Stone, at the time a freshman at Maryland, received $14,303 according to the documents.
  • A listing that refers to “BAM” for $12,000 is later identified in the documents as Edrice “Bam” Adebayo, who would go on to play at Kentucky in 2016-17. He did not sign with ASM. There’s a later reference to Adebayo that says he received $36,500. “Bad loan,” reads the document.
  • Markelle Fultz, who would go on to play at Washington and become the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft, received $10,000 according to the documents. He did not sign with ASM.

Former Utah star Kyle Kuzma received at least $9,500 while in school, according to the documents.

Former Wichita State player Fred VanVleet. Documents show he received at least $1,000.

Apples Jones, the mother of former Kansas player Josh Jackson, received $2,700 according to documents.

Images attached to the article also show more NBA players, dating quite far back.

My simple reaction: Good for these players. They have a marketable skill, and they deserved to be compensated by the open market for it. It’s a shame the NCAA’s cartel system prevented that.

As Kevin Pelton of ESPN put so well: