NBA Power Rankings: Heat slip, Bulls charge into top spot

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Miami tripped up out West and the Bulls ran over them on the way to the top of PBT’s weekly power rankings. Meanwhile, jump on the Sixers bandwagon while you can.

1. Bulls (12-2, last week ranked No. 2). Five wins in a row and their next five games are against teams under .500, so the streak will keep going… well, if Derrick Rose and Rip Hamilton get healthy.

2. Thunder (11-2, LW 4). They keep winning — six in a row now — but there should be concerns about their defense. They are 24th in the league in defensive efficiency, giving up 102.2 points per 100 possessions (the league average is 100). It was better against the Knicks Saturday. Monday night Kendrick Perkins returns to the Gah-den for the first time since the trade.

3. 76ers (9-3, LW 9). Beat the Pacers and while they lost to the Knicks at the Garden that was the third night of a back-to-back-to-back. They still have the best point differential (per 100 possessions) in the league. They look legit but have played the softest schedule in the NBA so far. If you’re not sold, well, we will learn more about Philly this week with the Nuggets, Hawks and Heat on the schedule.

4. Spurs (9-4, LW 7). Manu who? They are 9-0 at home and 0-4 on the road, which means the Miami/Orlando back-to-back road games this week may not work out for them.

5. Pacers (9-3, LW 5). Lost a key game to Philadelphia Monday but turned around with wins over Atlanta and Boston. Still questions about if they can consistently beat quality teams, but for now they are beating the teams on the schedule, which is all you can ask. Eventually (like starting next Sunday) the schedule gets tough.

6. Clippers (6-3, LW 10). The question has always been “how well will they defend?” At home right now, pretty well. Just ask the Heat and Lakers. They have played fewer games than any NBA team, a very old-schedule start to the season, but that is about to change.

7. Nuggets (8-5, LW 8). Beat Miami handily and came back on the Knicks in the Garden —they looked legit in those games, then Paul Millsap abused the Nuggets front line late on Sunday and we wonder.

8. Heat (8-4, LW 1). Three straight losses on a West Coast swing is shrugged off for most teams but a sudden crises for the Heat. Well, maybe not in the locker room. Little first hand note: after loosing to the Clippers last Wednesday the Heat’s locker room was surprisingly unconcerned — they thought they played aggressive but the shots just didn’t fall. Next five games are at home.

9. Hawks (9-4, LW 6). The Al Horford injury is devastating for this team (although they earned a couple nice wins this week without him), and they have a lot of road game coming up the second half of the month. Bad combo.

10. Lakers (9-5, LW 11). Winners of five straight until they lost to the Clippers Saturday. The Lakers have won these games with great defense and average offense, despite Kobe scoring 40+ in four straight (Lakers fans, go look at the numbers before you curse my name). Brutal schedule this week: Dallas, Miami and Orlando back-to-back, then the upstarts in Indiana.

11. Magic (8-3, LW 12). Went 3-0 on a West Coast swing — and may we never have to see a full game of hack-a-Howard again — but they haven’t played the toughest schedule yet (save Portland). That changes this week with the Knicks, Lakers and Spurs on the schedule.

12. Blazers (7-5, LW 3). They beat the Clippers Tuesday but went 1-3 on the week against a tough schedule — the Blazers statistically have had the second toughest schedule in the league so far, only Houston is worse. That schedule masks how good this team is.

13. Jazz (8-4, LW 16). Went 2-1 last week and the only loss was to the Lakers in OT. They are playing well and look like a team that could hold on to a playoff spot in the West, but there is not a lot of margin for error.

14. Mavericks (8-5, LW 15). Beat Boston on Wednesday and blew out some bad teams. The Mavericks are starting to get it together but that will be tested on the road this week. By the way, Jason Kidd hit his first two-point basket of the season in the Mavs 13th game.

15. Knicks (6-6, LW 14). They beat Philly on Wednesday but here’s what should concern Knicks fans — this team is .500 against the second softest schedule in the NBA (via ESPN’s strength of schedule tracker). Things are going to get tougher.

16. Cavaliers (6-6, LW 18). Kyrie Irving is playing well and that is why this team is .500. They have got a piece to build with in him. Tough stretch coming up with Chicago, Atlanta and Miami.

17. Celtics (4-7, LW 13). Things are bleak — they went 0-3 against Dallas, Chicago and Indiana. Good teams all, but a good Celtics team would win at least one of those. The Celtics wins are against the Nets, Pistons and Wizards (twice). Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce have been average.

18. Grizzlies (5-6, LW 19). Credit them for showing some grit without Zach Randolph and getting some wins. Not sure they can keep it up, but they deserve the props.

19. Rockets (5-7, LW 22). Another team that may be a little better than their record indicates, and they went 3-1 last week including a nice win in Portland. If Samuel Dalembert can give them more on defense the playoffs are not out of the question.

20. Suns (4-8, LW 17). On a four-game losing streak and they are out on the road for four this week. Steve Nash is good but these are the same old Suns who need jumpers to fall to win, and that will always be inconsistent.

21. Timberwolves (4-8, LW 20). I want to rank them higher. I do. They are fun to watch and they have the point differential of a .500 team. But they keep losing (1-3 last week). I’m not moving a team up because of style or stats, you still got to win games.

22. Bucks (4-7, LW 21). They are 4-0 at home, 0-7 on the road. I suppose the good news is they have more home games coming up, but if they are serious about the playoffs they have to start winning away from the Bradley Center.

23. Warriors (3-7, LW 24). In the middle of a stretch of games against the East, but they did get a quality win against the Heat. That shows the potential, and they have gotten good play from Monta Ellis and David Lee. But the defense still stinks.

24. Hornets (3-9, LW 26). Nice win against Denver this week, but the Hornets started 2-0 and have been a mess ever since.

25. Kings (4-9, LW 25). Their point differential should have them in the bottom five, but they beat the Raptors this week so they get to hold their spot. That 60-point game against Dallas was UGLY.

26. Raptors (4-9, LW 23). They gave the Wizards their only win, which leads to a fall down the rankings in these parts. Give coach Dwane Casey credit for turning the Raptors into an average defensive team — that’s an accomplishment with the roster he was given.

27. Pistons (3-9, LW 28). There is a bright spot in Detroit (and not just the sweet new locker room) — Greg Monroe is playing well at center. For a rebuilding team finding a guy in the middle is a huge boost.

28. Nets (3-10, LW 29). Deron Williams is playing better and MarShon Brooks has provided some nice scoring (14.2 per game). That’s about it for bright spots here. If they can’t get Dwight Howard in a trade then it really gets ugly.

29 Bobcats (2-10, LW 27). Kemba Walker got a start and is at least a little spark, but right now this team needs big games from Byron Mullens to win. Enough said.

30. Wizards (1-11, LW 30). It’s never too early to start dreaming about what Anthony Davis looks like in place of Andray Blatche in the starting lineup for the Wizards next year.

CJ McCollum on Carmelo, Kanter trade: “Stay woke, it’s a business”

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The most insane NBA offseason in recent memory got weirder this week when Carmelo Anthony was traded from the New York Knicks to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and a first round draft pick.

The trade has made many of us wonder just what the on the court play will look like in Oklahoma City this season with a high usage set of players in Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and now Carmelo.

Meanwhile, Kanter had made comments earlier in the week about expressing his appreciation for the fans in Oklahoma City. Having been traded just a few days later, that apparently didn’t sit right for some people. Or at the very least, it appeared to be a teaching moment.

Via Twitter:

There’s no doubt about this fact, and it is hard to try to refute McCollum here. This is the nature of the league and there is no such thing as complete loyalty — at least in the sense of how most people understand it interpersonally — between employers and their employees in the NBA.

Teams are going to trade players to make sure they can win the most games and maximize their profits. Likewise, players should take the biggest contract they can get if they feel that is in their best interest.

In any case, we are all excited to see what kind of shenanigans happen in Oklahoma City next year.

Paul George on Thunder: “This feels like a championship team”

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They have an MVP, top-five NBA player. They have another All-NBA player who is a strong wing defender. They now have an aging all-star who still can get buckets with the best of them. There is a strong collection of role players who can help form a solid defense.

On paper, there’s a lot to like with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Paul George realizes that, as he said to Sam Amick of the USA Today.

“This feels like a championship team,” George told USA TODAY Sports. “I’m in a good place. I know Russ (Westbrook) is in a good place. Melo is motivated more than ever…You put us three together, who all have something to prove still, (and) we’re going to be a special team. We have a young group, a lot of talent here, an unbelievable coach (in Billy Donovan), (and) as you see, a front office that’s willing to do whatever it takes to improve the team. It just has all the makeups to be a great organization and a chance to put championships together.”

Championships? Plural? That implies the team would stay together, and sorry Thunder fans, but that is far from a sure thing. First, financially there is no realistic way Oklahoma City can afford to sign Russell Westbrook and Paul George max deals (which they both will get) and keep Anthony if he opts into the final year of his contract for just shy of $28 million.

OKC is a small market team that simply would lose a lot of money to keep the band together, and this ownership group traded James Harden out of fear of a massive luxury tax bill. (They will pay a tax bill of about $24 million for this season if the roster stays as is.)

Also, George’s camp made it very clear during the run-up to his trade he plans to test free agency and has a strong lean to the Lakers next season. He may be more likely to stay in OKC now after the trade, but how much more?

However, George is right, this team does look like a roster that could contend for a title most years — and maybe be in the mix this year. We will put aside the Warriors challenge for a moment (they are still the clear favorites if they stay healthy) and get to the big question for the Thunder:

Will their big three learn to sacrifice, learn to mesh, learn to play together as a team as a championship team does fast enough? The 2008 Celtics did, but that team of veterans has been the exception. It took LeBron’s Miami Heat two seasons to learn how to win, and the same when he came back to Cleveland. OKC doesn’t have two seasons, they have to do it fast. It’s possible, but not easy.

George is right, this is an excellent Oklahoma City team. The Thunder are now right in the middle of that second tier in the West with Houston (another team that has to learn to mesh and sacrifice) and the Spurs. That’s a great place to be.

Is it a place George wants to stay? That question will hang over the Thunder all season.

 

Mark Cuban: Trump has “got to be able to take the blowback” from comments

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President Donald Trump used the bully pulpit of his office to, well, bully — he fired shots at the NFL over its concussion protocols and players kneeling during the national anthem. Then he rescinded his invite to the White House to the Warriors after Stephen Curry said he would vote not to go.

Sports stars fired back. LeBron James called Trump a bum, Chris Paul asked if he didn’t have better things to worry about, and the Warriors said as a team they would use their time in Washington this season to “celebrate equality, diversity and inclusion — the values that we embrace as an organization.” Even supporters of the President, such as Patriots owner Robert Craft, rebuked the president for his comments.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told NBC News in an exclusive interview for Meet the Press Trump has to be a big enough man to handle people standing up to him.

“If the president’s going to say something condemning a person, an industry, a sport, then he’s got to be able to take the blowback that’s going to come back,” Cuban told NBC News in an exclusive interview for “Meet the Press.”

“So LeBron [James] and Steph and any athlete, any owner, it’s an open door now, and so they have every right for the same reasons to be able to say whatever’s on their mind,” he said. “Now we’ll be able to see if he can take it.”

Unlike previous presidents of both parties, Trump is not good at letting criticism of him and his administration roll off his back to stay focused on his agenda. It’s more personal with him, and that is something Warriors coach Steve Kerr said is a problem for him, and the nation.

Bottom line, NBA players are not going to back off — their base isn’t going to push back against them for their comments. Most are going to nod their heads in agreement. The NBA fan demographic is not the NFL’s. This storyline is far from over.

Three questions the Indiana Pacers must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season: 42-40, swept in the first round

I know what you did last summer: Larry Bird resigned then the Pacers traded Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, a horrible deal that got the summer off on the wrong track. Indiana also swapped Jeff Teague, C.J. Miles and Monta Ellis for Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison and Cory Joseph in order to prevent bottoming out. The Pacers picked T.J. Leaf (No. 18), Ike Anigbogu (No. 47) and Edmond Sumner (No. 52) in the draft.

THREE QUESTIONS THE PACERS MUST ANSWER:

1) Will Indiana escape its unsatisfying track? The Pacers are headed toward winning 30-something games, missing the playoffs and picking in the bottom of the lottery. It’s a miserable place to be.

Be just a little better, and they could make the playoffs in the lowly Eastern Conference. Be just a little worse, and they could land a premier draft pick.

Either direction is preferable to the apparent status quo.

The Pacers clearly don’t want to tank. Hence, their offseason strategy. But if the season goes south quickly, they could embrace losing by trading veterans and/or giving more minutes to young players.

Competing for the playoffs is a little trickier, but Indiana has enough veterans where that could take care of itself. The odds are against it, but this team is capable of sneaking in with the right breaks.

2) Can Victor Oladipo handle the expectations thrust upon him? Oladipo didn’t choose to return to the basketball-crazed state where he starred in college. He didn’t ask to be the Pacers’ main return for Paul George.

But here he is.

Oladipo is a solid player, and at 25, he might still be improving. He’ll have to in order to justify the George trade (and maybe even his four-year, $84 million contract extension that kicks in this season).

No longer playing with Russell Westbrook should help. Oladipo regressed while trying to play a spot-up role next to the Oklahoma City superstar last season. Indiana needs Oladipo to be more aggressive with the ball, a role that better suits him. Whether he’s good enough to handle those responsibilities on a good team is another question entirely, though.

3) Will Myles Turner break out? With George gone, Turner is now the Pacers’ franchise player (ignoring how the team might market Oladipo, who returns after starring with the Hoosiers).

Turner has all the potential to be a modern rim-protecting, 3-point-shooting center. He can get more comfortable beyond the arc. He must fine-tune his defense. But all the future looks bright for the 21-year-old.

He was intriguing as a rookie then even better last year. How steeply Turner continues to ascend will play a major role in whether Indiana exceeds expectations this season – and how its rebuild looks beyond.