NBA Power Rankings: Antonio McDyess’ tip keeps Spurs on top

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Our weekly NBA Power Rankings, where the Heat and Mavericks are hot, but are they really better than the Spurs and Celtics

1. Spurs (42-8, Last Week #1). They are on the annual rodeo road trip (a rodeo kicks them out of their arena for a couple weeks) and early on they got a quality win over the Lakers because Antonio McDyess wanted a rebound more than Lamar Odom. They are starting to get more out of Tiago Splitter, which is good for Tim Duncan.

2. Celtics (38-12, LW #2). They are 1-1 so far in tests against the best last week. They beat Orlando Sunday but lost to Dallas two nights before. This week the Lakers and Heat are on the schedule. Our thoughts are still with Marquis Daniels.

3. Heat (37-14, LW #3). Six wins in a row including one nice one against Orlando. This week is revenge week, taking on teams that beat them before, and that started with a win over the Clippers Sunday. Indiana and Boston fit the bill this week.

4. Mavericks (35-15, LW #7). Eight wins in a row and they get Peja Stojakovic back Monday night. (How much a guy who couldn’t get off the bench in New Orleans and Toronto really helps them remains to be seen.) The Mavs, when healthy, have played very well against the league’s elite, including a win this week against Boston.

5. Bulls (34-15, LW #4). They slip one spot because the Mavericks are winners of 8 in a row, but the Bulls are still 8-2 in their last 10 and playing well. People are not mentioning them among the contenders in the East, it might be time.

6. Lakers (35-16, LW #6). The Lakers are out on their annual Grammys road trip (preparations for the Grammys kicks them out of their arena for a couple weeks). They started it with a win in New Orleans and this trip could mold them into contenders, especially if Pau Gasol is more aggressive.

7. Thunder (33-17, LW #9). They knocked off the Hornets, Suns and Jazz last week, a sign that they are knocking on the door of the elite teams in the West again. Do they play enough defense to walk through that door?

8. Magic (32-20, LW #5). It’s too early to panic, but they are 5-5 in their last 10 games. For all the moves and potential of this roster, are they really there with the Celtics Heat and Bulls?

9. Hawks (33-18, LW #10). They are 9-11 this season against teams over .500, and 10 of their next 15 are against those teams.

10. Hornets (32-20, LW #8). With Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza out the Hornets defense will suffer. Just more pressure on Chris Paul to carry the team.

11. Nuggets (30-21, LW #11). We tried to say this for months — if Josh Kronke and Masai Ujiri waiting too long they would lose leverage in the Carmelo Anthony sweepstakes. We’re at that point now.

12. Jazz (30-22, LW #12). Deron Williams is back but Raja Bell hit the nail on the head saying they are just not a good pick-and-roll defensive team.

13. Blazers (27-24, LW #13). This week pretty much summed up the Blazers this season – they beat the Spurs (behind a huge night from LaMarcus Aldridge) but then lost to Indiana and Denver. They almost gave Cleveland a win. You never know what this team will do on a given night.

14. Grizzlies (27-25, LW #15). Zach Randolph should have been an All-Star, but I see little chance of David Stern adding him as the extra player he can add on.

15. Knicks (26-24, LW #14). They gave Timofey Mozgov the start Sunday and he is back in the rotation, but this team is still not the same inside on defense without Ronny Turiaf. A big who can protect the rim has to be an offseason priority.

16. Sixers (23-27, LW #16). How much would you pay to keep Thaddeus Young with the team this summer? He’s a restricted free agent that should draw some interest.

17. Suns (23-25, LW #17). Two Steve Nash questions. Is he the guy David Stern adds to the West All-Stars? (He’s the smart bet.) Shouldn’t the Suns be listening to offers for him?

18. Warriors (22-27, LW #22). Um, they are actually playing some defense in the Bay Area lately. Don’t tell anyone.

19. Pacers (21-27, LW #25). They have won four in a row and interim coach Frank Vogel has them playing loose and aggressive. They are attacking. But the Raptors, Cavs and Nets were three of those wins, games they should have won anyway. They had a nice win against Portland, but games at Miami and at Milwaukee this week are better tests.

20. Bobcats (21-29, LW #18). Brutal stretch for a team trying to stay in the East playoff hunt (they are currently one game out of the 8 seed) — Celtics, Hawks, Lakers and Bulls on the schedule in the next week and a half.

21. Bucks (19-30, LW #19). They have lost four in a row. They are looking a little demoralized and mixing in some bad defensive games to go with the usually horrific offensive production.

22. Rockets (24-28, LW #21). Kevin Martin is putting up a lot of points, but he’s shooting just 40.1 percent in the last 10. The best player on this team of late has been Luis Scola.

23. Pistons (19-32, LW #23). Our “Free Rip Hamilton” campaign got him active for one game. But that entire situation is still just screwed up.

24. Clippers (19-31, LW #20). They are out on their Grammy trip (like the Lakers) and the road has not been kind to the Clips (six losses in a row away from Staples). The good news is they get to come back to Staples for two games in February. The bad news: Those two games are the Lakers and Celtics.

25. Nets (15-37, LW #26). Anthony Morrow and Devin Harris make a nice back court.

26. Kings (12-35, LW #24). The Kings are in the middle of a tough stretch of games, but even in the losses they are playing teams hard.

27. Wizards (13-37, LW #27). John Wall got into the All-Star Rookie Challenge… hey, we’re looking for positives and that is one.

28. Raptors (14-37, LW #29). They ended their 13-game losing streak against the Timberwolves, so guess who they jump in the rankings?

29. Timberwolves (11-39, LW #28). Kevin Love is a deserving All-Star, despite this team’s record. As for those three-way Carmelo Anthony trade rumors with the Wolves, not even Kahn would make that bad a trade for Minny.

30. Cavaliers (8-43, LW #30). They will set the record for futility tonight in Dallas, it will be 25 losses in a row. Mark you calendars now — they host the winless-on-the-road Wizards Sunday in a game we will watch, just like we gawk at car accidents.

Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins: All-Star nods bode well for Pelicans pairing

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METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins figure they’ve proved they can co-exist to spectacular and prolific effect.

Both big men have been named All-Star starters, giving them hope they’ll be paired together beyond this season, which is Cousins’ last under contract.

“First time I’ve ever been in an All-Star game with a teammate,” the 6-foot-11 Cousins noted after practice on Friday, one day after All-Star starters were announced. “This is big for the entire city, the organization and just our team moving forward. It kind of shows what this combo has the potential to have.”

The 6-10 Davis, who was the Pelicans’ lone All-Star last season, sounded equally pleased by the results a decision by New Orleans to counter the trend of guard-heavy “small ball” by pairing dynamic big men who can dominate inside, handle the ball and shoot with range.

“The biggest question was, was it going to work? I think we just proved that it is and it can work,” Davis said. “We feel like we complement each other.”

The 24-year old Davis is averaging 26.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. Cousins, 27, has averaged 25.3 points, 12.7 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.6 blocks. Their exploits have filled highlight reels, sometimes on plays involving one setting up the other – above the rim or otherwise.

“I’m mostly happy for DeMarcus,” Davis said. “To be a starter, that’s huge – huge for him. He’s having a hell of a season. It’s well deserved.”

The comparable production from both Davis and Cousins shows that “both of those guys are willing to sacrifice for the betterment of the team,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “Both of those guys are willing to leave a little bit of their game off the floor so the other guy can be good.”

There’s just one problem.

New Orleans hasn’t won enough to be firmly on a path toward postseason play.

At 23-21, the Pelicans entered Friday night’s action tied with the Los Angeles Clippers for seventh in the eight-team Western Conference playoff picture.

The Pelicans’ past two results were a microcosm of their season. On Tuesday night, New Orleans beat Eastern Conference-leading Boston. The following night, they lost at Atlanta, which entered the game with the worst record in the NBA.

“We’ve had flashes throughout the year,” Cousins said. “We’re still trying to find that consistency. There’s still a lot of things we need to work.”

Cousins acknowledged the Pelicans have yet to master “being the team we want to be at all times … no matter if we’re playing Golden State or the Atlanta Hawks.”

The Pelicans have yet to string more than three consecutive victories together this season and had developed a habit of losing to teams with losing records well before their Atlanta collapse. New Orleans has dropped home dates with Orlando, Sacramento, Dallas and New York. They’ve lost twice at Memphis.

If that trend continues, it could sour Cousins on the prospect of re-signing with New Orleans.

“I wasn’t really concerned about accolades. I’ve gotten accolades. I’ve done everything except win,” said Cousins, who spent his first seven seasons in Sacramento before his trade to the Pelicans following the 2017 All-Star game in New Orleans. “With the whole (trade) going down, what I thought I had a chance to do was win, and that’s why I was OK with it.”

Still, Cousins sounded confident he won’t be dealt to another club when asked if he liked the league’s decision to move up the trade deadline to Feb. 8 this season, before the All-Star break.

“I don’t really care because I don’t think I’m getting traded,” Cousins said. “Hopefully I’ve never got to deal with it again.”

If the Pelicans aren’t able to make a major addition with a trade, they could get a boost from the expected return of small forward Solomon Hill from an offseason hamstring tear. Valued by the club for his defense, Hill, a former starter, is scheduled to return for the final month or so off the regular season.

In any event, the Pelicans have 38 games to make their push, starting at home Saturday night against Memphis.

 

Thunder’s Paul George finding his role, doing a little bit of everything for new team

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Thunder coach Billy Donovan can’t pinpoint the best thing about Paul George.

Oklahoma City’s versatile forward averages just over 20 points per game, leads the league in steals and is third in 3-point goals while shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc.

“I think that’s what makes him the player he is,” Donovan said. “There’s a lot of players in the league that are great offensive players, but they’re not great defensive players. I think arguably, it would be hard to make a case either way of what end of the floor he’s better on, offense or defense, because he’s that special.”

George believes he’s having an All-Star season in first year with Oklahoma City after being traded from the Indiana Pacers. There have been challenges as he has tried to fit in with superstars Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony and it’s still unclear where he will play next season because of his upcoming free agency.

Still, he has remained focused enough to be a top-notch performer. As he has found his way, the Thunder have rallied from an 8-12 start and have gone 17-8 since heading into Saturday’s game at Cleveland.

“He can score it, attack the rim and he defends,” Lakers rookie guard Kyle Kuzma said. “Anytime you do that, you’re going to be a pretty damn good player.”

George was first team All-Defense in 2014 and second-team in 2013 and 2016, and he was a defensive stopper for Team USA when it won gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics. He says without hesitation that he wants to be Defensive Player of the Year this season and feels he should have won the award in the past.

“I think I have the makeup, I think I have the intangibles,” George told The Associated Press. “I’m physically capable of doing the things necessary. I thought 2013-14 I thought I was hands down the best perimeter defender on the league and I thought I was overlooked.”

George is averaging a career-best 2.2 steals per game. Having another top-notch perimeter defender in Andre Roberson to share some of the responsibility allows him to gamble more than in the past. He also credits carrying less of the offensive load.

“It gives me more energy, not having to create or generate offense every possession,” George said. “I can conserve energy that way. It allows me to really ramp up the defense on the other end, which is another reason why I’ve been able to accumulate so many steals. I have the energy, the endurance to keep flying around and keep being productive.”

An example of his all-around play this season was a five-steal performance against the Sacramento Kings. He made just 7 of 17 shots but was a critical factor in Oklahoma City’s win.

He hasn’t always emphasized defense, but he was forced to as a rookie for the Pacers during the 2010-11 season. Frank Vogel took over as coach at midseason and saw enough grit and improvement on that end to insert him into the starting lineup in March. He came of age during the playoff series that season against the Chicago Bulls when he faced league MVP Derrick Rose. George gave up some points, but he battled and helped the Pacers hold Rose to 37 percent shooting in the series.

“My mindset was I knew I was outmatched from a standpoint of staying in front of him,” George said. “That’s what really got me going in trying to think things through, trying to see what I can do that can disrupt the MVP. I tried to use my length. I tried to make it as hard as possible. I knew he was going to get his 20s, get his 30s, but how can I make it as hard as possible, and how can I wear this guy down? You’re not going to be able to shut down a guy like that at that stage.”

From that point, George embraced the role of defensive stopper while evolving into an all-around offensive player. He was the league’s Most Improved Player in 2013 and made the first of his four All-Star appearances. Last season, he averaged a career-best 23.7 points for the Pacers. Now, he can still create when needed and he has learned to be more of a catch-and-shoot scorer.

“He’s a beast out there,” Kings guard Buddy Hield said. “He’s great. He can score the ball from three, the mid-range and the post. He’s tough to guard so you have to pick your poison with him, and it’s hard to do.”

Three Kemba Walker trades that could work for both sides

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Kemba Walker doesn’t want to be traded.

Michael Jordan and the Charlotte front office are exploring the idea anyway.

As they should. The Hornets are stuck in the NBA’s purgatory of a middle-ground with one All-Star level player in Walker and not enough around him to make this team a threat. The Hornets are 17.3 points per 100 possessions better when Walker is on the court — when he plays they look like a borderline playoff team, when he sits they are a disaster. Because of some big contracts, that situation is not likely to change. Charlotte may finally be proactive with this — trade Walker but attach a bad contract to it, and get some pieces to jump-start a rebuild back. That’s less than ideal in a smaller market like Charlotte, but it’s the right basketball move — test the market and see if they can get an offer that works for them.

Here are three potential trades that would fit the parameters being discussed. These are not likely, but this is the kind of deals that we would see.

Kemba Walker to the New York Knicks

Charlotte gets: Frank Ntilikina, Ron Baker, and either Jarrett Jack or Lance Thomas

New York gets: Kemba Walker

The ups and downs of slowly rebuilding do not play well in New York — and right now they are in a downward spin after a fast start to the season. Still, the Knicks are just 2.5 games out of the playoffs in the East and Walker instantly puts them back in the playoff conversation. Walker gives New York another shot creator and scoring threat, someone to run pick-and-pops with Kristaps Porzingis, set up Tim Hardaway Jr., and just improve an offense that is middle of the pack. For the Hornets, they get the point guard of the future in Ntilikina, one building block as they move forward. This might be the best deal for the Hornets — if the Knicks would consider moving Ntilikina. That is far from certain.

Kemba Walker to the Detroit Pistons

Charlotte gets: Reggie Jackson, Stanley Johnson, draft picks, plus some other players to make the salaries fit such as Anthony Tolliver.

Detroit gets: Walker and Marvin Williams.

The promise of the Jackson/Andre Drummond connection in Detroit has faded, and Walker would bring the spark and scoring that the Pistons need to be a real threat come the postseason. I like this for Detroit, but less so because Jackson has two-years, $35 million left on his contract after next season, and that’s a lot of money to take on for a team trying to strip it down. That said, if the Hornets think they can develop Johnson on offense (he’s good defensively, a black hole on offense) and the picks are good, they should consider it.

Kemba Walker to the Cleveland Cavaliers

Charlotte gets: Isaiah Thomas, the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick (plus another player to make the money work such as Channing Frye

Cleveland gets: Kemba Walker, maybe another deep bench player to round out the salary.

This seems the longest shot. Cleveland wants to upgrade their backcourt, that’s why they are talking to Sacramento about George Hill. However, the talk around the league is the Cavaliers are not moving that Brooklyn pick for anything less than a total game changer who makes them a real threat to Golden State. Is that Walker? Probably not. This is also probably not a move Cleveland makes unless it thinks Thomas is not going to get back to All-Star level performance, but if they think that’s not going to happen this would be a serious upgrade. The Hornets would do this to get the Nets pick, giving them a couple of lottery picks (their own is the other) in this draft to start a rebuild.

Utah’s Rudy Gobert, Brooklyn’s D’Angelo Russell both make return from injury tonight

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Let’s try something different: How about some good injury news for a change?

Going through the roughest part of their schedule without their Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert, the Utah Jazz have fallen out of the playoff picture in the West. The good news is Gobert is back starting Friday night.

The Brooklyn Nets took on a lot of salary (hello Timofey Mozgov) to get ahold of and see if they could develop D'Angelo Russell into their point guard of the future. However, he has been out since Nov. 12 and had to get his knee scoped to solve some issues. Now he is back as of Friday against Miami, and the Nets will again be able to get a look at him (as he heads into restricted free agency).

Neither of these returns are turning these teams into playoff teams, but they do help.

Brooklyn is not about the playoffs this season, but their gritty performances this season have picked up enough wins to frustrate Cavaliers fans (the Cavs have their pick in this draft). The Jazz are not completely out of the playoffs, but they are five games back in a deep Western conference and that will be hard to make up without some help. Getting Gobert back at least gives the Jazz a chance, and it’s an opportunity for Gobert and rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell to start to develop some chemistry.