NBA Power Rankings: Spurs still sitting pretty, Heat slip

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Our weekly NBA Power Rankings, every team seemed to have a nice win and an ugly loss, balancing the karmic scales.

1. Spurs (45-9, Last Week #1). They are 5-2 on the rodeo road trip so far (still to come the Nets and Bulls). Their one loss this week was just one of those game where nothing falls (sorry Sixers, wasn’t all your defense).

2. Celtics (39-14, LW #2). Losses to the Bobcats and Lakers, a rash of injuries piled up, and then they go out Sunday and remind the Heat they are still the team to beat in the East. Injuries or no, don’t expect the Celtics to rush guys back, they are thinking about June not February.

3. Mavericks (38-16, LW #4). One loss in the last 13 and that by one point. Peja Stojakovic has shot 40 percent overall and 29 percent from three since joining the Mavs, but did drop 22 on Houston so maybe he is figuring it out. The real question, how much better does this team become when Roddy Beaubois returns soon?

4. Lakers (38-17, LW #6). What was more telling, the win over Boston, or the loss to Orlando? Still, they are 4-1 so far on the Grammy road trip with the Nets and Cavaliers left on the tour.

5. Heat (39-15, LW #3). After Sunday’s loss you would think Pat Riley would be looking for some help along the front line to combat the Celtics, but does he really have any trade options?

6. Bulls (36-16, LW #5). If he wasn’t already in your “best point guard in the game” conversation, Derrick Rose outplayed Deron Williams and Chris Paul last week. They have the Spurs this Thursday and the Heat the following Thursday, which will start to give us a real grasp of how good this team really is.

7. Magic (35-21, LW #8). They have not wowed in recent weeks with losses to elite teams, but the win Sunday over the Lakers gives some hope. Still, we need to see this over a stretch of ground to be convinced.

8. Thunder (34-19, LW #7). Some sloppy losses to the Grizzlies and Warriors this week, which would have dropped them if every team below them didn’t have some sloppy losses, too. The defense isn’t good enough for the offense to have an off night.

9. Hawks (33-20, LW #9). Two ugly losses for the Hawks last week. Not likely any late trade activity, not a lot of parts they can move, but if this is the team that goes to the playoffs it’s a repeat of last season. At best.

10. Hornets (33-23, LW #10). They are not right without Emeka Okafor in the paint (2-5 without him). Got a nice win over Orlando this week, though.

11. Blazers (30-24, LW #13). Nice wins this week, including over the Bulls, in part because LaMarcus Aldridge is on a tear. And please, rest Brandon Roy longer, for the sake of his knees. For the sake of basketball fans everywhere who want to see him right.

12. Grizzlies (30-26, LW #14). They are 8-2 in their last 10 and that includes wins over Orlando, Oklahoma City and Denver. They are currently the 9 seed in the West, one game back of the Blazers and one-and-a-half behind the Jazz and Nuggets. One of those teams is going stumble and Memphis will catch them.

13. Nuggets (31-24, LW #11). At least we know in the next 10 days the ‘Melodrama will end. One way or another.

14. Jazz (31-24, LW #12). Teams often get a little boost from a mid-season coaching change. And we’re rooting for Tyrone Corbin, but he can’t make Al Jefferson into Carlos Boozer, or make Mehmet Okur healthy. Which is what the Jazz really need.

15. Sixers (26-28, LW #16). Big wins over the Spurs and Hawks this week. Remember this team started this season 3-13, they are 20-14 since.

16. Pacers (24-28, LW #19). They are playing faster since Frank Vogel took over, but they are rebounding better two. And they re 7-1 for Vogel.

17. Knicks (27-26, LW #15). They really are a Mike D’Antoni team — if they can’t outscore you in spite of their defense they can’t beat you.

18. Suns (26-26, LW #17). Unlike the Knicks they are trying to play some defense. But they are three games out of the last playoff spot in the West and it’s going to be tough to make that ground up unless they become more consistent fast.

19. Warriors (24-29, LW #18). There was a David Lee sighting Sunday. While Monta Ellis is carrying the load the Warriors need Lee for balance.

20. Bobcats (23-31, LW #20). Few things make us smile like seeing Shaun Livingston doing well. With D.J. Augustin nursing a sore wrist he may get more run (and against the Lakers he could destroy Derek Fisher).

21. Rockets (25-30, LW #22). They want to move Aaron Brooks, and to pick up the scoring slack there is… Chuck Hayes? He’s been a scoring machine lately.

22. Bucks (20-33, LW #21). Brandon Jennings’ return has pumped no life into the moribund Bucks offense, mostly because he is shooting 33 percent since coming back.

23. Pistons (20-35, LW #23). Rodney Stuckey is back to starting, but that has not made Jon Kuester happy. Although, is there anything that makes him happy?

24. Nets (17-38, LW #25). Two wins this week, and we’ll even count the one against Cleveland.

25. Wizards (15-38, LW #27). They got a road win (over Cleveland), which prompted John Wall to say, “We’re a great team. We just got a lot to learn.” John, I think you and I have different definitions of “great.”

26. Clippers (20-34, LW #24). Losses to the Cavaliers and the Raptors in one week — that is impressively bad. Who said this team would make the playoffs again?

27. Timberwolves (13-41, LW #29). Kevin Love has 40 consecutive double-doubles, just four shy of the NBA record.

28. Raptors (15-40, LW #28). Rookie Ed Davis seems to be figuring some things out, like how to rebound at the NBA level.

29. Kings (13-38, LW #26). Long term this franchise needs to figure out how to get DeMarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans to coexist as one unit, or make a drastic move.

30. Cavaliers (9-46, LW #30). They broke the streak. Then they came out the next game with no effort whatsoever and lost to the Wizards. Model of the inconsistent effort: J.J. Hickson.

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.

Report: Cavaliers interested in George Hill trade with Kings

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When the Sacramento Kings made the much-maligned move to sign three veterans this summer to healthy contracts — George Hill, Zach Randolph, and Vince Carter — there were three reasons for it. Two the Kings were very public about: They wanted mentors for the 10 young players on their roster, and they had to get up to the salary floor anyway.

The third, less discussed reason is those guys might make decent trade chips. Especially as the Kings move toward playing their youth more (as they should).

Enter the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are stumbling through the East right now and have reached out to the Kings about a potential trade for Hill, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

In an effort to bolster their backcourt situation, the Cleveland Cavaliers are expressing interest in a trade for Sacramento Kings guard George Hill, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Cleveland has emerged as an interested suitor, with the Cavaliers pursuing Hill to potentially slide into a dual-guard role, starting at either backcourt position or playing as a reserve, league sources said.

The Cavaliers are starting Isaiah Thomas at the point, with the assumption that he will find his groove as his conditioning improves and he gets used to playing next to LeBron James, however, they have had issues at the two spot. J.R. Smith starts there now with Dwyane Wade and Kyle Korver (both really more threes) behind him, but with Iman Shumpert out due to a foot injury the Cavaliers could use backcourt depth.

George Hill appears to have taken a step back this season, but he is still a solid guard who can shoot the three (45 percent this season) and be a good floor general. He could be a better backup point guard than Derrick Rose. Hill is not a season changer for Cleveland, but he would give them some solid depth and versatility.

The problem is money — Hill signed a three-year, $57 million deal with the Kings. The Kings might be open to a Hill for Tristan Thompson and a second rounder deal (no way Hill earns a first, even a Cavs late one).

The Cavaliers are also pursuing DeAndre Jordan of the Clippers, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

Pulling off both would be nearly impossible. The Clippers will ask for the Brooklyn Nets pick, something the Cavaliers reportedly would not throw into this deal (they would throw in their own first, in the 20s), but even if they work that out it would require Tristan Thompson and his salary to make it work, and then it’s hard to  make the salaries match for Hill.

Consider it something to watch. The Cavaliers know have to get better at the trade deadline, although they have no plans to move the Brooklyn Nets pick. The Kings are open to the idea of a trade. It’s a first step.