Paul Pierce, Kobe Bryant

NBA Power Rankings: How would you feel about a Spurs/Celtics NBA finals?


Our weekly NBA Power Rankings, where we’re thinking that the finals could be Spurs and Celtics because no teams are executing anywhere near their level right now in crunch time.

1. Spurs (40-7). They are now 7.5 games ahead of the second place Lakers in the Western Conference (and 4 ahead of Boston for the best record overall). They will be the West’s top seed. Here is the real question: Can they beat the Lakers in a seven-game series? They certainly can beat the Lakers team that played Sunday.

2. Celtics (36-11). Boston looked pretty disinterested in Portland and Phoenix last week, but when they took the court against the Lakers Sunday they were ready. That win was about the team that executed better in the final six minutes, and it was all Boston.

3. Heat (33-14). They actually had everyone healthy for a game this weekend, the first time for that in a while. Some interesting rematches for them this week against the Magic and Clippers.

4. Bulls (33-14). Kurt Thomas is playing much better than I thought possible. He’s averaging 8 points and 8 rebounds a game, shooting 63 percent, over the last 10 Bulls games. Chicago is 8-2 in that stretch.

5. Magic (31-17). They are just 1-4 against teams over .500 in January. Is this team still figuring everything out with the new pieces of Gilbert Arenas and Jason Richardson, or are they just not good enough to be contenders?

6. Lakers (33-15). The schedule is about to get really tough for the Lakers — lots of road games and they have 23 games left against teams over .500 and only 11 against teams under that mark. Either their execution is going to come together against those better teams or they are going to slip. And if they slip at all against these Spurs they are not getting back to the finals.

7. Mavericks (31-15). Before the season Mark Cuban raved about the depth of the Mavericks. Last week they got wins thanks to big offensive games from Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea. Cuban was right.

8. Hornets (31-18). Chris Paul is clutch, but the Hornets lost a couple of heartbreakers last week.

9. Thunder (30-17). Their recent run has been all about Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who have averaged 58 points a game combined over the last 10. The rest of the team is scoring 56.8 per game in that same stretch.

10. Hawks (30-18). If Josh Smith wanted to make an All-Star push, his play against the Bucks was not how to go about it. He tried to take over that game late and tanked. Good news is Joe Johnson has found his groove.

11. Nuggets (28-19). They have found balance — in their last 10 games seven players have averaged double digits in scoring. They are 7-3 in the last 10.

12. Jazz (28-20). It just feels like the wheels are starting to come off. Deron Williams has missed two games with a wrist injury and they need him back fast if they are going to turn this thing around.

13. Blazers (25-22). At least the two guys who had MRI’s last week didn’t suffer major injuries. Really, when was the last time the Blazers had a couple good MRI results in a row?

14. Knicks (25-22). The win over Miami was a statement win, as much as you can really have one of those in January. More and more they look like a playoff lock — and if they don’t pick up Donnie Walsh’s contract they deserve what befalls them.

15. Grizzlies (24-24). No O.J. Mayo for 10 games is not as huge a loss as he was only giving them 9.2 points a game on 40.5 percent shooting in the last 8 he played.

16. Sixers (21-26). There is just no way this team trades Andre Iguodala as they fight for a playoff berth. The rumors will circulate but the Sixers are currently the seven seed and just one game up on the nine seed Bucks. They are not going to throw in the towel unless the offer is just too good to ignore.

17. Suns (22-24). Don’t look now but they are 7-3 in their last 10. So why did they slide down in the rankings? Because they lost to the Sixers and the Knicks snapped their losing streak and jumped them. It happens.

18. Bobcats (20-26). D.J. Augustin is like a new player under Paul Silas, and it changes who the Bobcats are in a good way.

19. Bucks (20-26). They have a three-game winning streak and have outscored their opponents 101.7 to 93.7 in that stretch.

20. Clippers (18-28). They are really going to miss Eric Gordon. Randy Foye is a nice enough replacement but it’s not the same.

21. Rockets (22-27). They are four games out of the final playoff spot in the West. The only way they are making that ground up is if Carmelo Anthony falls to them.

22. Warriors (20-27). We’d like to think Golden State turned a defensive corner against the Jazz Sunday, but that really was a lot more about how bad Utah is right now on offense.

23. Pistons (17-31). Free Rip Hamilton! (We’re just going to keep writing that every week here until it happens.)

24. Kings (12-33). Wins over the Lakers and the Hornets in the same week — and the Kings looked good doing it. They are playing their best ball of the season.

25. Pacers (17-27). Look for them to have a little bump in performance under interim coach Frank Vogel — mid-season coaching changes often do that.

27. Nets (14-34). Two wins this week moved them past last season’s win total (12) before the All-Star Game.

27. Wizards (13-33). Still no road wins (and they almost got one by knocking off the Thunder of all teams). John Wall is shooting 38.2 percent in his last 10. Maybe he should eat something other than Doritos.

28. Timberwolves (11-36). I think Kevin Love should be an All-Star reserve.

29. Raptors (13-35). The losing streak is up to 11, and that sad excuse for a zone defense is not the answer.

30. Cavaliers (8-39). No team has ever gone from the best record in the league to the worst in one season. That’s about to change. Sadly with 20 losses in a row now, teams are getting up for the Cavs because they fear being the team that loses to them and ends the streak.

51 Questions: Is Mike Malone the key to bringing Denver back?

Michael Malone
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PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

Is Mike Malone the key to bringing Denver back?

One incident sums up how bad things had gotten in Denver under the Brian Shaw regime — breaking a fourth-quarter huddle in the final game of February, Nuggets players chanted “1-2-3-six weeks!”

The players didn’t like the coach, some of them didn’t like each other, and with six weeks and 24 games left in the season they had checked out. The young players (and some of the veterans) partied so much Shaw canceled shootarounds because guys couldn’t roll in for them in the morning. Shaw had lost the team long before when he’d tried to fit square pegs into the triangle holes of his offense, and it spiraled out of control from there. The culture in Denver was broken.

Mike Malone was brought in to repair that culture.

The Jeff Van Gundy disciple has shown he can do that before. Malone was starting to build something in Sacramento (they started last season 9-6 before DeMarcus Cousins got sick), where he was asked to repair a franchise culture that by the end of the Maloof era was something akin to the Lord of the Flies. Malone also turned out to be the one coach who had gotten through to Cousins. Even with his defensive mindset and Cousins in the paint, Malone had the Kings playing at the eighth-fastest pace in the league in pace, but the Kings’ owner wanted to play faster (and maybe didn’t want to miss out on the chance to hire George Karl), so Malone got sacked.

The question becomes, is Malone alone going to turn things around in Denver and bring them back to relevance?

Not alone, and not just in one season, but he will get them on the right track.

The first step to show management was behind Malone was the trading of Ty Lawson. No doubt when focused Lawson is a quality point guard (as Houston likely benefits from this season), but he was part of the problem in the end in Denver, to the point of picking up two DUIs in six months (he checked into a rehab facility after the second one). He had mentally checked out and his example was an issue the Nuggets needed to change.

That turns the keys for the offense over to rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, who impressed a lot of people at Summer League after bailing on SMU to play in China last season. But he’s still a rookie with a long way to go — as the 15 turnovers in his first two preseason games attest. Things that worked in China and Summer League don’t fly against an NBA defense.

With Mudiay at the point and a team that plays half its games at high altitude, Monroe wants to take advantage of that and get out and run. Expect the Nuggets to get back to their traditional up-tempo games, but with some things Malone loves to run (such as the Rick Adelman corner action).

But for Malone, all things — including good transition basketball — starts with defense. You have to get stops and steals to run well, and the Nuggets were 26th in the league in defensive rating last season (105.5 points allowed per 100 possessions). In the first two Nuggets preseason games, that was the Nuggets focus (with mixed results).

Malone’s challenge starts with getting Kenneth Faried to buy in and play as hard on defense as he does on offense — something Faried has never done. Faried has been a defensive minus since he entered the NBA and that becomes one of Malone’s first major projects (even if it’s just to boost Faried’s trade value). Faried, who clashed with Shaw over his role, has said he’s felt energized under Malone, now the coach just has to steer that energy to the defensive end of the court.

Malone will be searching for the right center to put next to Faried, and I expect that will mean a lot of Jusuf Nurkic (who is young and shows it at times). But also expect to see some small-ball lineups with Faried at the five. Something like Mudiay, Randy Foye, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, and Faried. A lineup with some athleticism and shooting that could put up points, but would they get any stops? If Gary Harris slots in for Foye, does that help the defense (Harris is guy Nuggets fans may see more and more of as the season goes on).

The roster is a work in progress, and if you were to bet on the Nuggets doing one thing this season, it should be making trades. Things are going to change.

There are nice pieces on the Nuggets, but not enough of them and with some real questions about how it all fits together. This is not a playoff team this season, not in the West.

But it’s a team that Malone could have playing a lot better late in the season than at the beginning, once some of those questions start to be answered, and the young players gain experience. That should be the goal in Denver. Begin to change the culture, get buy-in on the system, get guys playing hard again rather than dreaming of Cancun vacations by February. Change can be incremental, but Malone will start the change.

Then in a couple of years, you’ve got the team you want.

Well, so long as the Nuggets ownership doesn’t get impatient and decide it needs to change directions again.

Another Pelicans center down: Omer Asik out three weeks

Omer Asik, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver
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The Pelicans will have to play Anthony Davis at center now.

With backup center Alexis Ajinca already sidelined, starting center Omer Asik suffered his own injury.

Pelicans release:

The New Orleans Pelicans announced today that center Omer Asik is expected to miss the next three weeks with a right calf strain. The injury occurred during Wednesday’s practice.

If that three-week timeline is firm, Asik would miss two regular season games – at Warriors and at Trail Blazers.

Davis figured to be the most natural fit at center in Alvin Gentry’s up-tempo scheme. What happens if the Pelicans excel with him there and then stumble once Asik and Ajinca return? Because New Orleans had Bird Rights for Asik and Ajinca, re-signing them made some sense. And once they’re re-signed, Gentry must find a role for them. But that could get harder if it becomes obvious the team is best with Davis at center.

As long as Asik and Ajinca are out, Kendrick Perkins probably moves into the rotation. Jeff Adrien could also see minutes at center. Suddenly, Adrien, on an unguaranteed contract, has a much better chance of making the regular-season roster. Ryan Anderson probably plays more at power forward, too, with Davis logging more time at center.