NBA Power Rankings: Bulls on top after quarter of season

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Believe it or not, we are about a quarter of the way through the condensed NBA season already. And with that, these rankings are starting to take some solid shape. Which is bad news for Celtics and Knicks fans. But it’s all good in Chicago.

1. Bulls (15-3, last week ranked No. 1). If Derrick Rose had to miss a stretch of games, this soft part of the schedule was the time. They are 4-1 without him (and he should be back Monday night). Things change at the end of this week — starting Saturday they are on a nine-game road trip.

2. Nuggets (12-5, LW 7). Winners of four in a row on an East Coast swing, highlighted by Danilo Gallinari (37 points, 11 boards) outplaying Carmelo Anthony in New York. They are doing it by getting shots at the rim — Denver takes 44.3 percent of its shots within five feet of the rim, by far the highest percentage in the league (as noted by John Schuhmann at NBA.com). The League average is around 32 percent.

3. Thunder (13-3, LW 2). They had a pretty good week, but when your one loss is to the Wizards you fall around here. They are playing well defensively of late, which is starting with Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka.

4. Heat (11-5, LW 8). They have been winning without Dwyane Wade — they beat the Spurs by 22, the Lakers by 11 and the Sixers by 21. That doesn’t mean they are better without him, it means that Miami is playing like LeBron James’ old Cavaliers teams but with better shooters. And those teams did win a lot of regular season games. Plus, the Heat are at home.

5. 76ers (11-5, LW 3). Losses this week to Denver and Miami means you can end the talk about them being elite — I don’t think they are title contenders — but you can’t question if they are good. The Sixers are home against some beatable teams this week, look for some convincing wins.

6. Pacers (11-4, LW 5). The victory over the Lakers Sunday was a signature win for a team that has been doubted by some. If not for a dreadful quarter against the Kings, they could be 3-0 on a tough West coast swing. That said, Orlando and Chicago on the docket this week, still a lot of tests for this team

7. Magic (11-4, LW 11). Beat the Knicks and Lakers (where Dwight Howard dominated Andrew Bynum) last week but lost to the Spurs. This week they have Boston twice (that used to be a scary game, lately not so much) and the Pacers.

8. Hawks (12-5, LW 9). Credit them for playing well with Al Horford down — they are 5-1 and playing surprisingly good defense. Still think it’s a mirage but so far the results are impressive.

9. Clippers (9-5, LW 6). They are 3-2 without Chris Paul, which has been respectable. The one team getting a lot of rest from the schedule makers so far this young season gets it again this week. Big rematch with the Lakers Wednesday night.

10. Spurs (10-7, LW 4). Beat Orlando on the road but some ugly losses in addition. I like the idea of giving Tim Duncan a night off, as Popovich did Saturday. Spurs have struggled on the road and four of the next five are away from the Alamo Dome.

11. Jazz (10-5, LW 13). They are 9-2 in their last 11, pushing Tyrone Corbin into the discussion for coach of the year with Doug Collins and Frank Vogel (that award always goes to the coach whose team most overachieved). The team is doing all the little things right.

12. Grizzlies (9-6, LW 18). Four straight wins (one over the Bulls) as they are figuring it out without Zach Randolph. That said, brutal next 10 games so we’ll see what they are made of.

13. Lakers (10-8, LW 10). Went 1-3 last week but the losses were all to good teams (Miami, Orlando and Indiana), which is what you get when you are still trying to figure out who you are on offense. What happened to the twin-tower offense idea? Gasol is getting pushed out.

14. Rockets (9-7, LW 19). Winners of six in a row, and you can thank Samuel Dalembert for much of that. He has been a great pickup.

15. Blazers (9-7, LW 12). They have struggled to win on the road and went 2-4 on an East Coast Swing (but are back home this week). They have a back-to-back-to-back this week, just for fun.

16. Mavericks (10-7, LW 14). Dallas is calling it a conditioning camp that will keep Dirk Nowitzki out for four games, but if his knee was fine you can bet he would be playing.

17. Suns (6-9, LW 20). Marcin Gortat has had seven straight double-doubles, and he can thank Steve Nash for some of that. Imagine what Nash could do with a real athletic big like Amare Stoudemire… oh, yea.

18. Timberwolves (7-9, LW 21). They have become everybody’s second favorite team to watch this year, they put on a show with Ricky Rubio and had a great comeback against the Clippers. Of course, this week everyone will be watching to see what happens with Kevin Love and his contract extension.

19. Bucks (6-9, LW 22). Quality win over the Miami Heat on Sunday, as they made the game ugly just like Scott Skiles likes. Brutal rest of the week schedule: Hawks, Rockets, Bulls and Lakers.

20. Celtics (6-9, LW 17). Danny Ainge said he wants to wait and see how this team responds before he thinks about breaking it up. Two games against the Magic and one against the Pacers should paint a picture. Not that Ainge is going to find a great market for his veterans. Three of this team’s six wins are over the Wizards.

21. Knicks (6-10, LW 15). Six straight losses, so finally Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire are going to sit down and talk. That seems prudent. Baron Davis is the big hope for this team, and anyone who has watched him the last few years should be nervous about that.

22. Cavaliers (6-9, LW 16). Kyrie Irving is winning me over, the guy can score and has a great left hand around the basket. That said, this team still has a long, long way to go.

23. Kings (6-11, LW 25). They have some wins — including one against the Pacers — but when this team loses (especially on the road) it really gets blown out.

24. Warriors (5-10, LW 23). If they are going to make Mark Jackson look good on his statement this team is better than last year’s, it will start this week on a six-game homestand.

25. Nets (5-12, LW 28). Teams are destroying the Nets from three point range… well, they are destroying them from everywhere. Brook Lopez would help a little, but not as much as Dwight Howard.

26. Pistons (4-13, LW 27). Rodney Stuckey is starting and they beat the Blazers this week, so that’s your bright spots.

27 Bobcats (3-14, LW 29). They are one of five teams really trying to lay claim to the coveted “worst in the league” title. They play the Wizards twice this week and have the chance to prove they suck less.

28. Wizards (2-13, LW 30). The win over the Thunder was surprising, but they followed it up with a good effort in a couple losses. That’s enough to move out of the cellar. For now.

29. Raptors (4-13, LW 26). Eight straight losses after starting 4-5. Now they head out on a West Coast swing. Not a good combo.

30. Hornets (3-13, LW 24). They have lost seven in a row and are 1-9 in their last 10, and they may lose Eric Gordon for an extended period. That will land you looking up at the rest of the league. If you want a bright spout, they have had close losses, so go ahead and feel good about that.

Kings will shut down veterans for some games, rookie Harry Giles for rest of season

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The Kings foolishly strayed from rebuilding last summer by signing George Hill, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter to relatively expensive contracts. Those additions came despite Sacramento already having veterans Garrett Temple and Kosta Koufos.

The plan has predictably failed. The Kings have the NBA’s worst offense and worst defense and are 13-31.

That’s bad, but not quite bad enough. Not in the last year Sacramento has its own first-round pick before conveying its selection as a result of a ridiculous salary dump a few years ago.

So, in a transparent bid to break a tie with the Hawks and Magic for the NBA’s worst record and tank to the top seed in the lottery/develop young players already on the roster, the Kings are sitting those veterans on a rotating basis.

Sacramento is also shutting down No. 20 pick Harry Giles, who hasn’t played this season.

James Ham of NBC Sports California:

Both management and the coaching staff is on the same page with the decision, NBC Sports California has confirmed. Two or three players will sit each night as they team explores what they have in youngsters.

“Going forward, what I’m going to do is, we’re going to play a rotation where two of our five veterans are going to be out every night. It might be some times there’ll be three. It’s an opportunity for some other guys to get some minutes as we go throughout the course of the season. I’ve got it laid out…I’ve got about five or six games laid out, and every week I’ll go out again because you want to communicate with those guys when they’re not going to play. Other guys, they’ve got to be ready. If you’re in the first three years of your contract, you can expect to play a little, or a lot, or none, but you should be ready to play,” Joerger told the media after the Kings’ loss to the Thunder on Monday night.

This is smart, though it’s also an opportunity it would have been smarter not to sign Hill, Randolph and Carter in the first place. Though those veterans might not be thrilled with the direction of the franchise, at least they’re getting paid. And they should know their rest days far enough in advance to enjoy the reduced workloads.

Younger Kings – including De'Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Willie Cauley-Stein, Buddy Hield and Skal Labissiere – should have a chance to spread their wings and grow. That could help down the road, when Sacramento has a chance to win meaningfully. This year, the difference between the fully operational Kings and tanking Kings is minimal on the court, but could make a huge difference in draft position.

As for Harry Giles, it’s strange how the Kings are touting him as fully healthy while shutting him down for the rest of the season. The best way to keep him his healthy is never play him. At some point, they must test him on the court. Perhaps, giving him even more time to strengthen his knee is the right approach. But if he needs this long, can really accurately be described as entirely healthy?

Report: LeBron James wins overall All-Star fan vote

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For the first time in a dozen years, a player has won the All-Star fan vote for consecutive years.

LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry, Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett have all taken turns as leader since Yao Ming claimed the vote lead in 2005 and 2006. Apparently, LeBron will retain the top spot he held last year.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

The fan vote means less than ever, with media and players also playing a role in who starts the All-Star game and a draft assigning players to teams. But the leading fan-vote-getter in each conference still matters, as those will be the captains for the draft.

LeBron will be one. Warriors Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry were neck-and-neck for the other captaincy.

Last I heard, the NBA was leaning toward giving the top overall fan-vote-getter the first pick in the All-Star draft, but that hadn’t been formally decided. So, it’ll probably be on LeBron to select his top choice among the other eight starters, who will be announced tonight. (All starters must be drafted first, so each team still has five starters.)

One more time: Let LeBron make that pick on television. He doesn’t mind.

Austin Rivers: Maybe I got a chance because Doc is my dad, but I know my swagger keeps me from succumbing to negativity

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Austin Rivers was the No. 10 pick out of Duke in 2012, and he struggled mightily his first few years in the NBA. His gaffes are so jolting, his teammates mock them. Yet, Rivers still carries himself as if he’s a star.

Chris Paul reportedly despised Doc Rivers over the Clippers coach’s favoritism toward his son. Former Clipper Glen Davis said Austin got paid because of his dad. Jamal Crawford reportedly chafed at the Clippers’ initial offer to him a couple years ago because it was lower than Austin’s.

These are issues Austin has been hearing about and handling for years.

Monday’s Clippers-Rockets game – Paul’s return to L.A. – was a breaking point, though.

An injured Austin stood on the sidelines talking trashing during the game, sparking a confrontation that got Trevor Ariza and Blake Griffin ejected. After the game, Austin reportedly continued jawing with Ariza as the Houston forward charged toward the Clippers’ locker room (drawing a two-game suspension).

Again in the crosshairs, Austin is opening up.

Rivers, via Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

“People can say whatever they want about me and my father [LA Clippers coach Doc Rivers],” the guard told ESPN during a lengthy interview Wednesday night. “I get it. I can even put my ego aside and understand why people don’t like the situation. When I was growing up and I’d see the coach’s son, you’d be like, ‘He sucks. He’s only on the team because of his dad.’ So I get it.”

“People are like, ‘Well, his dad gave him his chance.’ Is that true or not? I don’t know. It might be,” Rivers said. “[But] could it be that my pops knew how good I could be because he’s my pops?

“I know what the narrative is on me,” Rivers said. “It’s because I come from money and I have a swagger and confidence about me.

“[But] if I didn’t have this confidence or swagger in myself, I wouldn’t be built to handle the negativity that I’ve gotten. I would’ve already broken down years ago because I’ve gotten this since high school. I’ve turned it into a fuel and it’s helped me. I go into each away arena and it’s rough, because of the s— I hear. This chip on my shoulder, this swagger and confidence, it helps me. If I didn’t have it, I would not be in the NBA.”

“I’m not saying poor me. There’s people that have real problems,” Rivers said. “So don’t feel bad for me. I don’t need anybody’s sympathy. I’m having my best year yet. I’m trying to get back and healthy so I can help our team.

This is more relatable than Austin has ever sounded, and I applaud him for sharing a more authentic point of view rather than maintaining the facade of an aloof superstar. He deserves better treatment from the public than he has gotten, though he’s responsible for the much-maligned persona he has displayed.

Austin hasn’t received nearly enough credit for how much he has improved. Part of that is due to just how bad he was when he entered the NBA, but he has gotten steadily better. That shows how hard he works.

Some of the criticism of Austin and Doc is fair. Some is not. They probably should have better-anticipated what Doc trading for then re-signing Austin would be perceived, inside and outside the Clippers. But it’s too late to undo those deals, so they’re trying to manage the situation the best they can.

Austin’s interview here is a good step.

Reunited with Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza embracing role as Rockets’ glue guy

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Chris Paul and Trevor Ariza went out for dinner together Dec. 8, 2011. They were back in Paul’s condo when the star point guard was thrown headfirst into one of the NBA’s biggest controversies.

New Orleans agreed to trade Paul to the Lakers, but the league – which was operating the New Orleans franchise while it was for sale – vetoed the deal.

“It was crazy,” Paul said.

Paul and Ariza, then New Orleans teammates, have reunited with the Rockets. This time, Ariza might have more than a front-row seat to Paul’s saga. Ariza could be a central character in the story.

Of course, Paul came to Houston to escape the Clippers, team up with James Harden and try to win a championship. But Paul also said his friendship with Ariza “had a whole lot to do with it.”

Three Rockets starters – Paul, Ariza and Clint Capela – will be free agents next summer. Paul is the obvious priority, and general manager Daryl Morey said Capela, who will be restricted, “couldn’t price himself out” of Houston.

The Rockets already have nearly $76 million in 2018-19 and more than $85 million in 2019-20 committed to just five players (Harden, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Nene). New owner Tilman Fertitta has expressed limitations on paying the luxury tax.

So, where does that leave Ariza? And perhaps more importantly, how would whether or not Houston re-signs Ariza affect Paul?

“Trev, like I said, is a good friend of mine. We talk about any and everything,” Paul said. “But, when that decision comes, I’m sure we both will make the best decision that’s best for my family and best for his family.”

If the Rockets discard Ariza to to sign another of Paul’s friends, LeBron James, it probably wouldn’t be a problem. Really, worldly veterans like Paul and Ariza would likely understand if Houston lets Ariza walk even without replacing him with LeBron.

But how much risk do the Rockets want to take? Would they chance losing their big acquisition after only one season? Remember, they were reportedly reluctant to deal Ariza in a package for a third star last summer because of his Paul connection.

That bond is already showing this season.

When Paul’s new teammates questioned Ariza after the trade about Paul’s’ personality, Ariza assured them Paul, though extremely competitive, is a “real nice dude.” Houston is outscoring opponents by 7.7 points per 100 possessions when Paul and Ariza share the court. And in Paul’s highly charged return to L.A., no Rocket answered the emotion of the night more than Ariza, who got ejected then reportedly led a post-game charge into the Clippers locker room, drawing a two-game suspension.

His point guard might be (re)new(ed), but Ariza still has the same overall job description – steady, unheralded contributor.

“I’ve been doing the same thing for a long time,” Ariza said.

His production is in line with Ryan Anderson’s and Eric Gordon’s. But Anderson’s salary nearly triples Ariza’s, and Gordon – who also earns more money – gets the plaudits of being reigning Sixth Man of the Year because he comes off the bench.

Ariza’s modest windfall: comfort. In his fourth straight year with the Rockets, this stint in Houston has been his longest anywhere.

A second-round pick in 2004, Ariza shuffled between the Knicks, Magic and Lakers. He excelled in the 2009 playoffs, helping the Lakers win the title in a contract year. But the Lakers let him walk to sign Ron Artest (who later changed his name to Metta World Peace) – a particular disappointment for Ariza, who grew up in Los Angeles. So, Ariza agreed to terms with the Rockets for nearly $34 million over five years. But in his only season with an above-average usage, Ariza underwhelmed, and Houston traded him to New Orleans, where he teamed with Paul. In cost-cutting mode after Paul, New Orleans sent Ariza to the Wizards. He parlayed a career year in Washington into a four-year, $32 million contract with the Rockets in 2014.

Along the way, Ariza developed a 3-point shot that wasn’t at all on his résumé his first few seasons. He picked up tricks of the trade defensively. And he displayed professionalism and a strong work ethic.

He isn’t an elite outside shooter, but he shoots well enough to provide clearly efficient scoring and floor-spacing. He isn’t an elite defender, but he can credibly guard all five positions. Important and perhaps the most overlooked aspect of his game, he maintains his two-way effectiveness over long stretches.

Only Ariza, Jimmy Butler, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Paul George, Jrue Holiday and Ben Simmons rate as above average both offensively and defensively by ESPN’s real plus-minus while playing 35 minutes per game.

The 32-year-old Ariza is easily the oldest of that group. He keeps in excellent shape, playing 36.2 minutes per game, an age-playing time combination matched by only LeBron James, whose workload has been deeply dissected.

While Luc Mbah a Moute was injured and before Houston signed Gerald Green, Ariza played more than 41 minutes in six straight games last month.

“I’m real aware that we’re playing him too many minutes,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “But he says, ‘Coach, I’m fine. It doesn’t bother me.’ During the game, he’s never winded.'”

Ariza’s steadiness is historic considering how he entered the league. Since the NBA instituted a two-round draft in 1989, he ranks eighth among second-rounders in career games:

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Ariza says he has always focused competing against the man in front of him, not caring about where he was drafted or contract status.

That approach has taken Ariza a long way in his 14-year career. He has earned a healthy living playing basketball and respect from teammates and coaches – but not job security.

He’s key to the Rockets’ present and future, but with his contract expiring, that can mean a number of outcomes.

“It’s there. You know it’s there,” Ariza said. “But you that’s not what I put all my focus into.

“I’m just going to go out and play my game and do my job, and whatever happens happens.”