Russell Westbrook, Kris Humphries

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.

John Stockton working with Bucks point guards at training camp

SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 30:  John Stockton #12 of the Utah Jazz dribbles in Game five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Sacramento Kings during the 2003 NBA Playoffs at Arco Arena on April 30, 2003 in Sacramento, California.  The Kings won 111-91.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
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The Bucks are coached by one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, Jason Kidd. But Kidd invited another legend of the position to camp to work with his point guards. John Stockton, the NBA’s all-time leader in assists and steals, was at Bucks practice on Thursday working with Michael Carter-Williams, Matthew Dellavedova and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Not a bad person to learn from, especially since the Bucks have one of the weakest point-guard positions in the league.

Blake Griffin says he’s working on improving his three-point shot

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 21:  Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers shoots a jumper over Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during a 100-99 loss to the Thunder at Staples Center on December 21, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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2016-17 is going to be a big year for Blake Griffin. He missed much of last season with a quad injury and a broken hand stemming from a punching incident, and he has the ability to opt out of his contract next summer. When Griffin was healthy, he was his usual All-Star self for the Clippers, but he played just 35 games. He’s healthy now, at the start of training camp, and he says he wants to improve his three-point shot.

From Dan Woike of the Orange County Register:

“I want to be someone who shoots from there confidently, for sure,” Griffin said after Thursday’s practice at UC Irvine’s Bren Events Center. “A lot of us power forwards, our strength is inside or our versatility. You look at the best power forwards, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus (Aldridge), Draymond (Green) … they can all shoot but they can all put the ball on the floor and they can all score inside. I don’t necessarily think falling in love with the 3-point shot is a good idea, but shooting it confidently from there is great.”

Not only has Griffin not hit his threes in his career (his overall mark from beyond the arc is an awful 27.1 percent) but he doesn’t take very many of them. The most threes he’s ever shot in a season is 44 in 2013-14, and he hit 12 of them. Griffin is only 27, so he’s theoretically not done improving as a player, but it’s hard to imagine a dramatic jump this far along when that hasn’t been a part of his game at all to this point.

 

Steve Kerr endorses shorter preseason to limit back-to-backs

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors speaks to members of the media after being defeated by the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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There are too many preseason games. The NBA has its reasons for playing them — namely, to allow for games in non-NBA markets — and sometimes they can be valuable for teams to experiment with rotations. But most teams play seven or eight preseason games, which is unnecessary. Warriors coach Steve Kerr agrees, according to the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Connor Letourneau:

“I kind of like the idea that’s been tossed around the last couple summers to start the regular season a little earlier, maybe a week early,” Kerr said Thursday afternoon after Warriors practice. “Play five exhibition games instead of eight. I kind of like that, just so you have fewer back-to-backs in the regular season.”

The NBA has floated the idea in the past of cutting the number of preseason games in order to stretch out the regular season, thereby lessening the burden of travel and back-to-backs. The NBA has made an effort this season to cut down on back-to-backs, and this would be a logical way to do that.

Hornets’ Batum won’t let big contract affect how he plays

MIAMI, FL - APRIL 20: Nicolas Batum #5 of the Charlotte Hornets drives on Joe Johnson #2 of the Miami Heat  during game two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena on April 20, 2016 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Nicolas Batum said he isn’t planning to alter how he plays the game after signing a five-year, $120 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets.

And that’s just fine with coach Steve Clifford.

Clifford said Batum doesn’t need to put additional pressure on himself to score just because he’s now the highest-paid player in Hornets history. He told him to play how he plays.

“You don’t change the nature of how you play. I think guys get messed up with that,” Clifford said. “… I don’t think you try to reinvent yourself because the money changed. We gave him the money because he played so well. In my opinion he was an All-Star-caliber player last season when healthy.”

Batum was acquired in a trade with Portland before last season and turned out to be a gem for Charlotte, which won 48 games and tied for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. Batum averaged a career-high 14.9 points and 5.6 assists while becoming one of the team’s top three go-to options.

Batum said he’s learned from experience that it’s not worth putting pressure on himself just because he signed a big contract.

He did in that 2012 after inking a four-year, $46 million deal to remain with the Portland Trail Blazers. While he still played well, he said it was pointless.

“I was a young guy at the time and I didn’t know what to expect,” Batum said. “Now I know. I know what I have to go through right now. I know what the views of the media and the public will be. I know that, and I’m good with it.”

For Batum, pressure no longer enters the equation because the Hornets trust him and believe in him.

“It’s more relief than pressure,” Batum said.

The Hornets made re-signing him their No. 1 priority, offering the Frenchman a huge deal about an hour into the free-agency signing period. Batum also received several offers from other teams shortly after the deadline, which he called flattering.

The 6-foot-8, 200-pound Batum enters the season as Charlotte’s best all-around player and a favorite among teammates.

“Guys are so much more comfortable when he’s out there on the floor because he makes it so much easier at both ends,” forward Marvin Williams said.

Williams said there’s a naturalness to Batum’s game, and he’s incredibly unselfish – he’s always looking for the better shot option.

“He likes to make the assist, and he likes to get everyone involved,” Williams said. “I think that is why so many people like playing with him. It’s why I love playing with him.”

And why Clifford views him as irreplaceable.

When Batum went down in the second half of last season with an ankle injury, the Hornets struggled to find their rhythm.

“He’s not a numbers guy to me,” Clifford said. “People can say, `Well, he’s making this or he’s making that (much money),’ but if he plays at the level he played at last year when he was healthy, we have a chance to be a really good team.”

The Hornets continue to work on 5-on-5 scrimmages extensively during practice as Clifford gets a feel for his team.

But there were several key players missing on Thursday.

Point guard Kemba Walker (knee) and center Cody Zeller (knee) remained out of practice while rehabbing from injuries. Guard Jeremy Lamb did not practice after stepping on a basketball and twisting his ankle, while Brian Roberts was held out after injuring his hamstring when he slipped on some water on the court. Clifford said he hopes to have Lamb and Roberts back in a few days.