NBA Power Rankings: Blazers climb, Heat on top of mountain

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Lots of big moves up and down as the rankings start to shake themselves out a little. In college football they should hold off doing polls through those early weeks because said polls impact the postseason, but as the NBA has a playoff to determine who is best let’s dive in.

1. Heat (5-0, last week ranked No. 1). They have yet to lose but it took two last-second shots by Dwyane Wade to secure wins this week against teams Miami should crush. The bar is set high for this team. But at least LeBron James is engaged now.

2. Thunder (5-0, LW 3). It’s never really too early to start a “James Harden for Sixth Man of the Year” campaign. Like the Heat, they needed a ridiculous game winner — theirs from Kevin Durant — to stay undefeated this week.

3. Bulls (4-1, LW 2). They started the season on a tough West Coast road swing and had one off night. Good start for a team with room to improve still. Rip Hamilton is starting to find a groove and his hamstring injury doesn’t appear to be serious.

4. Spurs (3-1, LW 10). Big jump because, like last year, they look strong in the regular season. Manu Ginobili is playing like a beast. All their wins have been by at least 13 points.

5. Blazers (3-1, LW 11). Another climber as they have been impressive, especially on defense, at least until they ran into the Clippers Sunday. They are deep and that will help a lot in this condensed season.

6. Magic (4-1, LW 15). The pattern follows — they lost to OKC opening day because they have someone who can single cover Dwight Howard in the post. They consistently beat lesser teams that can’t do that. They are a good offensive squad.

7. Hawks (3-1, LW 14). They move way up as they are got off to a fast start against the Nets (twice) and Wizards, but now reality hits as they have two games each upcoming against the Heat and Bulls.

8. Pacers (3-1, LW 17). Sort of the same as the Hawks, they’re beating bad teams but soon they start to run into better squads (Heat and Celtics this week). However, the Pacers are better than people think and they are going to be a tough out in the playoffs.

9. Lakers (3-3, LW 6). They went .500 in four games without Andrew Bynum, which included a back-to-back-to-back. That’s not bad. But somebody besides Kobe Bryant has to pick up the offensive load.

10. Nuggets (3-2, LW 12). If not for a missed layup they could have swept the Lakers, but still a sweep not all bad. Al Harrington is playing well with 15.4 points per game.

11. Knicks (2-2, LW 4). If you’re going to hire Mike D’Antoni as coach, knowing his system, shouldn’t you try to build a team that fits it? Not in New York, apparently. The good news is they got their West Coast trip out of the way early.

12. Celtics (2-3, LW 7). After an 0-3 start they have gotten healthy on a couple struggling teams (and have the Wizards again Monday night). And they got Paul Pierce back, which helps.

13. Clippers (2-2, LW 5). Great offense (that rarely turns the ball over) but until they played Portland Sunday they had not been good at all on defense. If they can start to defend consistently they will be scary.

14. Bucks (2-1, LW 18). Good start will be tested on five-game road trip out West (including a back-to-back against the Lakers and Clippers).

15. 76ers (2-2, LW 13). Their two wins were blowouts, their two losses close ones. Small sample size but this is a team to watch as they may be better than their .500 record indicates.

16. Rockets (2-2, LW 16). Kyle Lowry is playing like an All-Star. Tough week with Lakers, Clippers and OKC on the schedule.

17. Warriors (2-2, LW 21). Inconsistent — beat the Bulls, get blown out by 28 by the Sixers — and they have had Stephen Curry injured and Monta Ellis out for personal reasons. Still can’t get a read on this team other than they play hard for Mark Jackson.

18. Hornets (2-2, LW 27). Impressive win over Boston but they got smacked by a not very good Suns team. Credit Monty Williams for getting them to play over their heads.

19. Grizzlies (1-3, LW 9). They had a tough schedule to start the season and have had to navigate it without Mike Conley. But this brings back to reality the contender talk — this team isn’t the Thunder or other elite teams in the West. Not consistently, not yet.

20. Mavericks (1-4, LW 8). Dirk Nowitzki on the Mavs start, “One win over Toronto doesn’t really make the world great.” Yup. There are a lot of issues, including Lamar Odom admitting he is out of shape.

21. Suns (1-3, LW 19). Steve Nash is playing through some bruised ribs, which is slowing his game. Signing Michael Redd was a shot in the dark, but this squad might as well take those shots right now.

22. Timberwolves (1-3, LW 25). They beat Dallas and their three losses are to the Heat, Thunder and an underrated Bucks team. They are better than their record shows. Rick Adelman is going to have this team paying pretty well by the end of the season, just watch.

23. Cavaliers (2-2, LW 29). If the playoffs started today, the Cavaliers would be the eighth seed in the West (we put that in here because it might be the last week we get to write that). Anderson Varejao is looking healthy and playing well — so expect the trade rumors to ramp up soon.

24. Jazz (1-3, LW 20). They are back for games in the friendly confines of Salt Lake City this week, where they are still tough to beat.

25. Raptors (1-3, LW 28). Tough loss to Orlando Sunday, they let that one get away. Same old Raptors this season, pretty good offense but their defense is terrible.

26. Bobcats (1-3, LW 30). That second game against the Heat — a blowout loss — was more indicative or reality in Charlotte. Kemba Walker scoring 11.5 point per game will inject himself into the Rookie of the Year talk.

27. Kings (1-3, LW 22). What a mess of a franchise right now. The problem for management is what to do with Paul Westphal — cut him now or at the end of the season? If you fire him now you let the players win that power struggle and that might come back to haunt you.

28. Pistons (1-3, LW 24). They are the Pacers lone loss, and they are getting solid play from Greg Monroe and Jonas Jerbko. But the stylings of Ben Gordon still drive this offense.

29. Nets (1-4, LW 26). Looking for a positive… Mashon Brooks has had some nice games and is averaging 12.2 per contest. That’s about it for a team shooting 38 percent for the season.

30. Wizards (0-4, LW 23). Flip Saunders is on the hot seat and can’t fill out a lineup card. The Wizard’s offense is a disaster — this team should run every chance it gets yet the pace is 13th in the league. I expected a breakout year from John Wall and again he looks average this season.

Gregg Popovich says he was ‘guilty of over-coaching’ LaMarcus Aldridge

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LaMarcus Aldridge has been much better for the San Antonio Spurs this season. This comes after a tumultuous offseason in which it became clear that Aldridge was unhappy with his time in Texas.

That information came to light over the summer, and indeed both Aldridge and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sat down to have a discussion to work out their differences in preparation for the upcoming season.

The results have been stupendous, with Aldridge playing better than ever in San Antonio despite the team lacking star Kawhi Leonard. Aldridge is averaging career highs in points per-100 possessions, which makes sense given his career-high 119 offensive rating.

Apparently part of Popovich’s change in dealing with Aldridge was how he coached him. Popovich told NBA.com recently that he made the mistake of over coaching Aldridge, saying that the veteran didn’t need as much guidance as young star players did when they came to him in the past.

Via NBA.com:

“We broke bread a few times, talked about it, laughed about it, discussed what we thought needed to happen, and frankly 95 percent of it fell on me because I made an error in trying to change him too much. That might sound odd, but he’d been in the league nine years and there’s one way he plays on the offensive end and feels comfortable with. I tried to turn him into Jack Sikma, told him I was going to teach you how to play on the elbow, go on the wing, face up. It was confusing for him. It really didn’t fit his style of play. I was guilty of over coaching in a sense.

“We came to an agreement on what had to happen. Well, on defense, I told him ‘I’m going to get on you like I do everyone else. But on offense, I don’t even want to talk to you. When they double you, kick it. Other than that, you be LaMarcus Aldridge.’ You see the result right now. He’s happy, confident and kicking everybody’s butt.”

Now that everything is sorted for the Spurs, we just have to watch out for them as they gain momentum heading into 2018. Leonard made his debut for the season on Tuesday night against the Dallas Mavericks, and as a publication time he had nine points in 10 minutes.

God help us if Gregg Popovich has finally found a way to make the mercurial LaMarcus Aldridge happy and pair him with a fully healthy Leonard.

Raptors’ Jonas Valanciunas offers advice to Ball brothers on Lithuania

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Lithuania is a hoops-mad country.

The Baltic nation has fewer people in it than the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area, yet it has three players in the NBA right now — Jonas Valanciunas, Donatas Motiejunas, and Mindaugas Kuzminskas — and has put 11 players in the league total (such as Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Arvydas Sabonis, and Sarunas Marciulionis). The country has won three bronze medals in the Olympics ( 1992, 1996, and 2000). It’s Lithuanian league also has been the launching pad for Celtics’ Aron Baynes to make the NBA.

Now the Ball brothers LiAngelo and LaMelo are headed there on professional contracts.

One of those players — the Raptors’ Valanciunas, had advice for the Ball brothers, speaking to ESPN.

“They’re getting themselves into a great opportunity. Lithuania is beautiful country… We have great basketball history. We’re such a small country, but we have many, many great players. Our basketball school is good., so they chose a really good school. They just gotta work hard — it’s all about working. You can be as good as you can be by working. Talent is one thing, but work you put in, that’s gonna show up.

“If they have any problems, let me know. I can help them out.”

Good luck finding anyone around the NBA who thinks this ends well, especially those who know the Ball family. They are sending a college freshman and a high school junior to a small city in a former Soviet bloc country with a very different culture, that will be a major adjustment. The coach doesn’t speak English and his former American players have not spoken highly of him. The Lithuanian league itself has men — far more physically developed than the Ball brothers — and is known for a physical style of play. It’s also known as a league where the players have a reasonably high hoops IQ and don’t like undisciplined players.

But if LiAngelo and LaMelo have any problems, they can call Valanciunas.

Paul George on return to Indiana Wednesday: “For whatever reason, I’ll be booed”

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This week is the Oklahoma City Thunder’s “you can’t go home again” week of the schedule. On Saturday night, Carmelo Anthony will return to New York where Knicks fans should welcome him with cheers and open arms — he meant a lot to that franchise in recent years — but may very well not.

First up, however, Paul George returns to Indiana in a Thunder uniform Wednesday night.

There’s little doubt how he will be greeted by Indiana fans, who felt betrayed by a man they stuck by through recovery from a severe injury. George knows what is coming,

Here are the key lines from PG13:

“Boos. I honestly wouldn’t think it would be any other way. The Pacers fans outweigh the Paul George fans. That’s what I’m looking forward to. For whatever reason, I’ll be booed, but I’m gonna embrace that. I’m gonna thrive on that.”

For whatever reason? You asked to be traded and fans take that personally. There is no loyalty in sports — I have no problem with players asking out because teams show no hesitancy in dumping players they no longer have a use for (and fans are almost always good with that) — but he had to know how this would be taken in Indiana.

What George might want to worry about is stopping the red-hot Victor Oladipo (he averaged 35.7 points per game last week), because he and the Pacers are playing better than the Thunder right now.

Kawhi Leonard returns Tuesday on minutes restriction

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The Spurs have been the Spurs this season, going 19-8 with an elite defense and offense that’s good enough to get them wins, thanks to LaMarcus Aldridge playing at an All-Star level.

Starting Tuesday, they add Kawhi Leonard back to the mix.

He will return to the lineup against Dallas, but will be on a minutes restriction, coach Gregg Popovich said on Tuesday. He would not say how many minutes, although around 20 seems a logical starting spot.

Leonard is one of the five best players in the NBA (and that may be selling him short). He averaged a career-high 25.5 points a game last season, he’s arguably the best perimeter defender in the NBA, and he finished third in the MVP voting last season.

However, there are going to be adjustments. LaMarcus Aldridge has been the focal point of the offense, but he could see fewer touches, particularly in crunch time. Kyle Anderson could see fewer minutes, and Rudy Gay may as well because Popovich liked some small-ball lineups last season with Leonard at the four. A lot of players will see their rotations change.

That said, it’s the Spurs. Do we really expect them to be anything but an incredibly good regular season team? One that is about to get better?