NBA Power Rankings: Top spot now Thunderstruck

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The top three teams remain the same, just trading places, because they are the three best teams in the league right now. But all three also have long road trips coming up, which should test them.

1. Thunder (16-3, last week ranked No. 3). They are “only” fifth in point-per-possession differential in the league, but yet they just keep on winning. That said it gets tough now with a series of road games coming up, starting with a fun one against the Clippers Monday night. Wednesday we’ll see if Dirk Nowitzki is scared of the Thunder after he plays them.

2. Heat (15-5, LW 4). They got Dwyane Wade back and they got a quality win over the Bulls on Sunday. Lots of road games against lesser teams coming up, do the Heat lose focus and drop a couple?

3. Bulls (17-5, LW 1). Close loss to the Heat and they were without Luol Deng. Their next two weeks are on the road, so expect some challenges (and if this season is any indication, an ugly loss or two, everybody gets them now).

4. 76ers (14-6, LW 5). So far this season they have played the weakest schedule (opponents have a 43.6 winning percentage) but this week sees the Magic, Bulls and Heat lined up. Now we find out how good the 76ers really are. But they will miss Spencer Hawes.

5. Clippers (11-6, LW 9). They fell to the Lakers, showing they still have issues with end-game execution. Like all young teams learning to win. But they got a good win in Denver Sunday. And so far this season they have played the toughest schedule in the league, things get easier. Well, after Monday when they play the Thunder.

6. Nuggets (14-6, LW 2). Kind of unfair to move them down four spots in a week where they continued a six-game winning streak until their loss Sunday to the Clippers. Life and rankings are harsh like that — they simply are not better than the teams above them.

7. Hawks (15-6, LW 8). They just keep winning, even if it takes a miracle play by Joe Johnson at the buzzer to top the Pistons. Interesting game against the 76ers this week, but getting Philly on the second night of a back-to-back after Miami bodes well for Atlanta.

8. Pacers (13-6, LW 6). The schedule got tough and while they got a nice win against the Bulls they fell to Boston and split with Orlando. Which sounds about right, capable of very good nights but mostly a 4-5-6 seed in the East.

9. Mavericks (13-8, LW 16). They got a good win over the Spurs and now they have Dirk Nowitzki back (even though he shot 5-14 Sunday). This team has found its footing and is good. But Nowitzki should be scared of the Thunder, who they face this week.

10. Spurs (12-9, LW 10). They need to rack up some wins this week (Saturday against the Thunder?) because next week looms the start of the rodeo road trip.

11. Rockets (12-8, LW 14). They have a depth of good role players and in this condensed season that wins them a lot of games. It may not be a system as suited to the playoffs, but they are at least on pace to make it in.

12. Magic (12-8, LW 7). Two ugly losses to the Celtics, scoring 56 one game and blowing a 27 point lead in the other. Then an ugly loss to the Pacers Sunday. You can say Dwight Howard should lead them out of this, but will the other players follow a guy with one foot out the door?

13. Blazers (12-8, LW 15). Fantastic at home (9-1) but pretty weak on the road. Good news is they have a string of games at home starting later in the week.

14. Lakers (12-9, LW 13). They are 2-8 on the road this season, which is bad news for them as the Grammys force them out of Staples Center the next couple of weeks. Their defense carried them early but it has been unimpressive the last few games, which you know is driving Mike Brown crazy.

15. Jazz (11-7, LW 11). If the playoffs started today, the Jazz would be in as the five seed. Sure, two games separate the three seed from the 10 seed in the West, but did anyone expect the Jazz to be in this position before the season?

16. Grizzlies (10-9, LW 12). We should drop them just for those horrid TAMS throwback uniforms, but we do it more for the three straight losses. Their offense is starting to show how much they miss Zach Randolph.

17. Celtics (9-10, LW 20). Won four in a row before running into the Cavs on Sunday, all with Rondo out and Paul Pierce playing the role of point guard and play maker. Apparently the Fountain of Youth was not located in Florida but rather outside the Union Oyster House in Faneuil Hall.

18. Timberwolves (9-11, LW 18). Good wins against the Spurs and Mavericks last week, but they are going to need much more of that to climb back into the Western Conference playoff race (they are currently 2.5 games out of the last spot).

19. Cavaliers (8-11, LW 22). Kyrie Irving is a stud. Make no mistake. But this team is young and can beat the Celtics one game and lose to the Wizards in another.

20. Bucks (8-11, LW 19). The Andrew Bogut injury is a setback for this team. They were in the mix for one of the last playoff spots in the East, but hoard to see them holding on to that now. That said, they went 2-2 against a brutal schedule last week.

21. Suns (7-12, LW 17). Surprisingly, it’s their offense that has been terrible, not just their defense.

22. Raptors (7-14, LW 29). They found a way to win without Andrea Bargnani — go small. It worked against the Nets Sunday, although that is the Nets so lets see what happens this week.

23. Nets (7-14, LW 25). They went 4-2 for a stretch, largely because Deron Williams has awoken his inner beast and took over. He almost beat the 76ers by himself Wednesday.

24. Knicks (7-13, LW 21). New York is 1-9 in its last 10 and that win came against the lowly Bobcats. No Baron Davis expected this week. Even when he comes back, asking him to turn this offense back together is asking too much.

25. Warriors (6-12, LW 24). With Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis they have a shooter’s chance every night to outscore opponents and get the win, but their defense is awful. Hence the record.

26. Kings (6-14, LW 23). You know things are rough for this team when Jimmer Fredette airballs a three in Utah with the game on the line.

27. Wizards (4-16, LW 28). They’re not good, but they are better than the Bobcats (beat them twice last week).

28. Hornets (4-16, LW 30). I don’t think the Chris Kaman trade talk is going to hurt this team one-tenth as much as just not having Eric Gordon in the lineup does.

29. Pistons (4-17, LW 26). A Lawrence Frank team that is terrible at defense (only the Nets give up more points per possession). You know that is eating a hole in his stomach. Soft schedule the next couple weeks, so maybe they can move up.

30. Bobcats (3-18, LW 27). Losers of eight in a row, they played and lost to the Wizards last week. Twice. And what might be worse is the Wizards were clear and away the better, more talented team in those contests. On the bright side, I like Kemba Walker’s play. But that’s the only bright side.

Kristaps Porzingis: “Players know” he’s All-Star starter

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When picking the East All-Star starters, two of the three frontcourt choices were obvious: LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

For the third slot there were a few players who could make a case. The fans chose Joel Embiid third, Kristaps Porzingis fourth, and Kevin Love fifth. The media also had Embiid third and Porzingis fourth, but Al Horford fifth. That was enough to earn Embiid the starting nod.

The players voted Porzingis third, Embiid fourth, and Andre Drummond fifth. Needless to say, Porzingis thinks the players got it right, as he told Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

“Players know,” he said. “That’s all I’m going to say.”

If one were cynical, one would note the players also voted for Tyler Cavanaugh and Tyler Zeller, so how much do we trust their vote? Fortunately, we’re above such crass things.

Porzingis is a lock to make his first All-Star Game this year as a reserve (picked by the coaches).

What separated the two? Embiid has been a little more efficient this season, he’s stronger on the boards and had been a bigger defensive presence. Also, the Sixers have a better record than the Knicks, who have stumbled of late. Or, maybe the fans just like Embiid’s big personality more — he’s blowing off Rihanna.

Both of these guys should have a lot of All-Star starts in their future. This year it goes to Embiid.

 

Lakers make 14% of their free throws, win

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Jordan Clarkson‘s free throw rattled around the rim before falling out late in the first quarter. The Los Angeles crowd groaned. The Lakers missed their first five free throws, and the visiting Pacers led by seven.

It appeared to be one of those nights.

And it was. The Lakers shot just 2-for-14 (14%) on free throws Friday. But they still won, 99-86.

That’s the worst free-throw percentage with at least eight attempts by any team and the worst free-throw percentage regardless of attempts by a winning team in the Basketball-Reference database, which dates back to 1963-64.

Here’s the “leaderboard,” winners in purple and losers in gold:

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The Lakers are shooting an NBA-worst 69% on free throws, but last night took the cake. The offenders:

Knicks’ Jeff Hornacek brushes off concerns about job security

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We saw this pattern earlier this season with the Lakers. Young team gets off to a better-than-expected start, shows real promise, but as things move toward the middle of the season they take a step back. As happens with young, developing teams, they are up and down. However, major market media and an impatient fan base wants to blame someone, so the coach is suddenly discussed as having “lost the locker room” and that his job was in jeopardy (a coach not hired by the current GM). Even though in Luke Walton’s case, it wasn’t (and isn’t).

Now that same pattern has come to New York and the Knicks with Jeff Hornacek. The Knicks started 17-14 and had fans prematurely thinking playoffs thanks to a home-heavy schedule. Reality has hit them the past month.

Hornacek tried to brush off questions about his job security in New York, speaking to Stefan Bondy of the New York Post.

Hornacek also believes he has the backing of GM Scott Perry and president Steve Mills, despite being inherited by them as Phil Jackson’s hire.

“We were talking about rebuilding and we got off to a good start because we had a lot of home games,” Hornacek said. “Scott and Steve, everybody’s still on the same page of trying to get our young guys opportunities. We’re still trying to win games. We still want to establish an identity where defensively we’re going to get after it all the time and we’re building toward that. It’s great to have their support…

“I think the expectations come from the players where all of a sudden you hear them talking about, ‘Oh we can make the playoffs.’ We never said that,” Hornacek said. “We said we want to get better and we want to grow. Part of our talk was you can’t worry about the results. You just got to go out there and if you do your best and try to improve the results will come. When you start thinking about win or lose all of a sudden your mentality becomes different. We got to get back to that.”

Is Hornacek the long-term answer in New York? I don’t know. However, finally unchained from the pseudo-triangle disaster Phil Jackson imposed, he has done a solid job this season, putting Kristaps Porzingis in better spots to lead this roster. The Knicks are projected to win around 38 games at this point (according to Cleaning the Glass), and they have about a 14 percent chance of making the playoffs still (according to fivethiryeight.com). Heading into the season, that would have been about anyone’s best-case scenario for this team.

Not that it matters when you’re coach of the Knicks — job security speculation comes with every paycheck. It just isn’t deserved in this case.

Steve Kerr has “regrets” over time as Suns GM with Mike D’Antoni as coach

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Saturday night, Steve Kerr and Mike D’Antoni will square off as the coaches of the two best teams in the NBA this season (the Warriors and Rockets), teams loaded with offensive talent that play fast — Kerr and D’Antoni have some of the same basic philosophies about the game. Right now they have a mutual admiration society going.

But remember when Kerr took over as the general manager of the “seven seconds or less” Suns? Then traded for Shaq, which was the first step in D’Antono going out the door to New York.

Kerr opened up about his regrets from that era to Mark Medina of the San Jose Mercury News.

“I have some regrets,” Kerr said. “I think we had a few differences that I probably didn’t handle very well as a GM that I could’ve probably handled better, especially given that we really like each other and have a lot of similar viewpoints on the game.”

The Suns were a contender, but not one that could get over the hump of the peak San Antonio Spurs of the mid-2000s (it was more than just the year Robert Horry hip-checked Steve Nash into the boards and A’mare Stoudemire got nailed for leaving the bench). Kerr felt the need to do something, so he traded Shawn Marion for an over-the-hill Shaquille O’Neal who did not at all fit the Suns’ style. That move ended an era, and the next summer D’Antoni signed in New York (with a front office that never gave him the pieces for his style of play).

“I should have let Mike know, ‘It’s okay, keep kicking [butt] and keep going, and we’ll make some moves that aren’t so radical that fit more with who we are as an organization,” Kerr said. “We swung for the fences, and it was not the right move to make as an organization. I didn’t envision that as GM. I didn’t have the macro view of what we needed to do….

“I needed to tell Mike, ‘It’s okay if we don’t win the championship,’” Kerr said. “We were so desperate to win. But not everybody can win. But what you can do is keep putting yourself in a position to get there. Then maybe the breaks fall your way.”

Kerr said he’s matured in the way he views the game and team building since then. That is evident in the way the Warriors have been built, with a big-picture view of everything that gets done — they win not only because they are loaded with talent but how that talent fits together. However, they are really an extension of the changes D’Antoni brought to the NBA in Phoenix, just with better defense and some ridiculous shooters.

After stints in New York and Los Angeles with rosters that were ill-suited for his style, D’Antoni is winning big again in Houston because James Harden was really a point guard and GM Daryl Morey has put the right pieces around him to play D’Antoni’s style.

But once again D’Antoni seems just short of a ring because a legendary team — and Steve Kerr — is in the way.