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.

Rumor: Cavaliers, Pacers, and Nuggets discussed 3-way deal with Paul George, Kevin Love

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Don’t count the Cleveland Cavaliers out of the Paul George sweepstakes just yet.

According to ESPN’s Marc Stein and Chris Haynes, the Cavaliers are still working on a way to get George with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in Ohio.

The latest rumor involves a three way deal being discussed between the Cavaliers, Indiana Pacers, and Denver Nuggets. According to Hayes, the deal would send George and Kenenth Faried to Cleveland and Kevin Love to Denver.

Presumably, Indiana would end up with good picks and a few young assets.

Via Twitter:

There is a lot to think about here given the potential for this trade. The first is how the Cavaliers would be able to complete a deal without a general manager in place. Owner Dan Gilbert fired David Griffin just last week. The Cavaliers are still talking to former NBA player Chauncey Billups about a chance to run the front office, but nothing has been decided just yet.

As good as George is, with the way that Kevin Love played in the 2017 NBA playoffs, it’s a wonder that the Cavaliers would want to let him go. The Golden State Warriors ate up Tristan Thompson in several of their Finals games, and Love was often the best player outside of LeBron on the floor for Cleveland.

Rumors also have George as being adamant that he is a one year rental only. His preferred landing place is still Los Angeles with the Lakers.

How a one year rental would work in exchange for one of Cleveland’s best players is sort of confusing. Even if the Cavaliers landed George and Faried, they would need to add yet another piece in order to get over the hump as the Eastern Conference strengthens and as they try to face off against the Warriors yet again.

This NBA off-season has been particularly crazy, and I don’t expected to calm down anytime soon.

Watch Isiah Thomas work out Lakers No. 2 overall pick Lonzo Ball (VIDEO)

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Lonzo Ball Is finally a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. Magic Johnson & Co. took him with the second overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft on Thursday.

Despite a few issues with his draft workouts with the Lakers, Ball was still the top choice for Los Angeles when they came to select after Markelle Fultz was off the board. The Lakers have already given Ball more control of the team after trading D'Angelo Russell to the Brooklyn Nets last week.

Before the draft, Ball took some time out to work in his back yard and on his home court with NBA legend Isiah Thomas.

Check out the interaction between the two and see where Ball grew up learning to shoot his oddly-formed but highly-accurate jumper.

Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki to Harrison Barnes: “You need major skill to get to 20 years”

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Harrison Barnes is set to be a foundational piece for the Dallas Mavericks for years to come. He is trying to learn all he can from one of the greatest Mavericks of all time in Dirk Nowitzki.

So what has Barnes learned under Nowitzki’s tutelage?

Well, for one thing, he’s going to need to learn an elite-level skill if he wants to lead when Nowitzki is gone.

Speaking with the Dallas News, Barnes said that Nowitzki sarcastic but tough when it comes to gym habits and player development.

Via Dallas News:

“Honestly, I’ve just been trying to work as hard as I can and spend as much time as I can with him in the gym. I remember one day at practice we’re standing on the sidelines on the gym and said, ‘Oh man, Dirk, you’re about to get to 20 years. That’s impressive. Do you think I can get to 20 years?’ He’s like, ‘No way man. You need major skill to get to 20 years.’ So that’s kind of the nature of our relationship. I just want to try to become the best basketball player that I can and follow the mold that he’s set here in Dallas for years and years of just constantly getting better every single year.”

Knowing Dirk’s personality, there is a fair bit of tongue-in-cheek happening here but he’s not entirely wrong.Barnes was a jack of all trades for the Golden State Warriors before he signed his contract with the Mavericks. Nowitzki is one of the greatest scores in NBA history, and he obviously has more than one major skill under his belt.

Even still, it’s good advice for Barnes moving forward.

It’s time for No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz to turn 76ers into winners

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) Markelle Fultz already has his first turnover as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers.

It came in an Instagram post sponsored by a watch company. “Excited to head to (City) and join the (team name). (at)Tissot.us is helping me get started with my (team name) watch,” Fultz posted, not bothering to actually fill in the blanks.

Ah, it’s a process. Or rather, The Process. And the Sixers have plenty of blanks to fill in on their roster before becoming a playoff contender.

The No. 1 overall pick in this NBA draft has become an instant fan favorite before signing his rookie contract. The 6-foot-4 guard out of Washington has gone on late-night TV and boasted of his love of Philly cheesesteaks, made a social media connection with franchise player Joel Embiid and dazzled on draft night with a pair of orange sneakers made of the same leather used to make NBA game balls.

If that wasn’t enough, Philly fans found an open love letter from Fultz to the city on The Players’ Tribune.

“What’s up, Philly? You good? I’m pretty good,” Fultz wrote . “Today is a good day. Today we take The Process to another level.”

Long the league laughingstock, it’s the Sixers’ turn to clap back, with Embiid and Ben Simmons poking fun on Twitter at Lonzo Ball and his father, LaVar.

Moments after LaVar Ball went on TV and declared of his son, “From the words of Zeus, Jesus, everybody said he gonna be a Laker,” Simmons simply tweeted, “Crazy pills .” Embiid quickly chimed in with, “Please dunk on him so hard that his daddy runs on the court to save him.”

But the Sixers aren’t counting on the Fultz-Simmons-Embiid core to simply entertain in 140-character bursts. They expect the trio to help lead the franchise to their first playoff appearance since 2012 and first championship since 1983.

“It’s been a while,” team president Bryan Colangelo said, pointing toward championship banners hanging in the team’s New Jersey complex.

Here’s a look at how they might get to 35-50 wins over the next two seasons:

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STEP ON THE GAS

First, Simmons and Embiid need to be healthy.

Embiid, who missed his first two seasons with foot injuries, was placed on minutes restrictions in 2016-17 and was banned from playing both games of back-to-back contests. Despite the precautionary steps, Embiid played in only 31 games and needed surgery on his left knee in March.

Simmons missed his rookie season with a broken right foot.

“I think both Ben and Joel are on course for recovery,” Colangelo said Friday. “We anticipate a full, healthy roster.”

Colangelo said Embiid would have no minutes’ restrictions this season, provided he stays healthy.

“He plays with reckless abandon and some of that has got to be controlled,” Colangelo said.

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IT TAKES TWO

Coach Brett Brown had said all year that Simmons would open next season as the point guard. Simmons seemed excited at his shot to run the show until a confluence of events and a trade with Boston for the No. 1 pick that netted Fultz.

No worries, for now. Brown said Simmons and Fultz, who will play in the summer league, could work well together in the backcourt, no matter which player is the ballhandler.

“It’s a really exciting challenge to have where you try to grow those two players and let them coexist and learn more about each other,” Brown said. “The start of the season and training camp and the month of September are really going to be important for us to allow those guys to feel each other and the coaching staff to be able to truly see it on the court.”

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TOUCH OF GREY

So who shall lead the talented trio of Embiid-Fultz-Simmons, a trifecta of first- and second-year players. The Sixers have long needed a veteran both in the locker room and to help lead on the court.

“Those young guys need nurturing and they need veteran leadership. To think that you’re going to go into a season with a 19-year-old, a 20-year-old and Joel Embiid, as much as we love him and see how special he is, the reality is those three players have played a cumulative 31 NBA games,” Brown said. “And holding a locker room, growing those guys, helping them navigate NBA life and NBA games is a very powerful message when it comes from a player. And trying to identify veterans that have the ability to nurture and help those three, especially, is one of the main priorities.”

WAITING IS THE HARDEST PART

Sixers fans have been very patient, and they may have stay that way.

They waited two years for Dario Saric to come from his overseas commitments. They waited two years for Embiid to recover from injuries.

They may have to wait two more years for Latvian center, and first-round pick, Anzejs Pasecniks. Pasecniks, who most recently played with Gran Canaria, a Spanish basketball club, has two more years left on his deal and may not immediately join the Sixers. Second-round picks Jonah Bolden and power forward Mathias Lessort out of France also won’t join the team next season.

But when they do, they could be the final pieces for a contender.

“Everything is designed with a championship in mind,” Colangelo said.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball