NBA Power Rankings: Heat on top, Clippers climbing

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Miami moves back into the top spot — but the Clippers have now cracked the top three, which had been the domain of the Heat, Bulls and Thunder for a while. Oh, and the Bobcats still suck.

1. Heat (18-6, last week ranked No. 2). They’ve had a few uninspired wins (like Sunday against the Raptors) but they keep winning. Also, they beat the Sixers Friday with a burst that reminded us just how good they can be converting defense to offense, and how hard they will be to beat in the playoffs. Unless they get the Bucks in the first round. Six game road trip starts Wednesday.

2. Bulls (20-6, LW 3). Luol Deng is back and they missed him — so Tom Thibodeau welcomed him back with 41 minutes. Chicago is out of the friendly confines of the United Center for a nine-game trip.

3. Clippers (14-7, LW 5). Beat the Thunder convincingly Monday, and while that may have been an off night for OKC the Clippers are starting to look like a threat to come out of the West. Especially with Kenyon Martin in the fold providing needed depth up front (sorry Brian Cook). Still a lot of questions come the playoffs, but right now they are hot.

4. Thunder (18-5, LW 1). They may still be the team to beat in the West, but here is some cause for concern — Chris Paul and Tony Parker abused their perimeter defense last week. We’ve got questions, other teams think the Thunder can be beat.

5. 76ers (17-7, LW 4). Lost to the Heat, but beat the Magic, Bulls and Hawks — they are getting tested and passing. More tests on the way this week with the Lakers, Clippers and Spurs all coming to town.

6. Pacers (16-7, LW 8). Paul George is emerging as a young star to watch, and not just for the dunks. Lots of quality wins for this team — road wins against the Lakers, Bulls, Mavericks and more. Tough games this week on the road at Atlanta and Memphis

7. Spurs (16-9, LW 10). Tony Parker has been tearing it up the last week and they expect to get Manu Ginobili back during the Rodeo road trip (which is underway).

8. Nuggets (15-9, LW 6). Beat the Clippers, lost to the Lakers and fell to the Trail Blazers on the third night of a back-to-back-to-back. Still one of the most fun teams to watch in the league.

9. Hawks (16-8, LW 7). The Hawks are crushing the teams they should beat (13-0 against teams below .500) and getting good defense from Josh Smith. Still, tough games ahead against teams over .500, so we reserve judgment.

10. Magic (15-9, LW 12). Split games against the two good teams on the schedule last week (lost to Philly, beat Indy). How they do the next month is about how good they are at ignoring the Dwight Howard rumors, as they will only get louder.

11. Lakers (14-10, LW 14). Split a tough back-to-back (Denver then Utah) to start the Grammy road trip that has them on the road for a couple weeks. Big games this week — at Philly, Boston and New York. Are the Lakers big three of Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol enough (because after that the drop off is steep)?

12. Celtics (13-10, LW 17). They have won eight of their last nine and now have gotten Rajon Rondo back. Suddenly they look like one of those teams the elite want to avoid in the East.

13. Blazers (14-10, LW 13). Beat Utah at home, lost to the Kings on the road. This is just a Jekyll and Hyde team inside or outside the Rose Garden — 11-1 at home, 3-9 on the road.

14. Mavericks (14-11, LW 9). Dirk Nowitzki may finally be finding his footing with a couple good games near the end of the week. Still, this is a hot and cold team that could beat or lose to anyone on any given night. Not consistent like last season.

15. Jazz (13-9, LW 15). Quality win against the Lakers Saturday night (even if the old legs of LA were on a back-to-back). Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson have made a formidable front line. They are on the road a lot leading up to the All-Star Game, we’ll see how they do with that test.

16. Timberwolves (12-12, LW 18). They are only 1.5 games out of the last playoff spot in the West, and they are playing well. But they will have to get by two games this week without Kevin Love, who used Luis Scola as a doormat.

17. Rockets (13-11, LW 11). A lot of road games against the teams ahead of them in the West between now and the All-Star game. This would be a good time to make a push and secure one of those spots, but instead they are slumping.

18. Grizzlies (12-12, LW 16). Held their own last week in a tough stretch of games. If they can just hold close to a playoff spot (1.5 games out) until Zach Randolph gets back they have a shot.

19. Bucks (10-13, LW 20). What they are hoping for is to grab the 7 or 8 seed and get the Heat in the first round (they beat Miami twice in recent weeks). Stephen Jackson was supposed to carry the offense, but they are +7.2 per 48 minutes when he sits. So he’s been sitting a lot.

20. Cavaliers (9-13, LW 19). Kyrie Irving is the story, but Anderson Varejao has been fantastic the past couple weeks. The phone will start ringing with trade offers for the Brazilian, but will the Cavs be listening? Maybe not.

21. Knicks (9-15, LW 24). That lost Friday against Boston hurt — New York had a healthy lead and let it get away when Boston tightened their defense in the second half. Jeremy Lin gets the start — he’s nobody’s savior but his style of play (attacking) is what New York needs at the point.

22. Suns (9-14, LW 21). Good to see Michael Redd back out on the court and playing well. That story will be overshadowed by the annual “will they trade Steve Nash” rumors that are ready to kick into high gear.

23. Warriors (8-13, LW 25). For a team with Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry this team is shockingly dull to watch.

24. Kings (8-15, LW 26). Marcus Thornton is back and playing well, and the Kings have looked relatively solid the past week. We’ll see if that holds up.

25. Raptors (8-17, LW 22). Sunday’s loss to the Heat showed how much this team misses Andrea Bargnani — they fought hard but lacked the offensive firepower to get a win.

26. Nets (8-17, LW 23). Their defense was torn apart by Jeremy Lin and Nikola Pekovic on back-to-back nights over the weekend. That should tell you everything you need to know.

27. Pistons (6-20, LW 29).
Winners of two and a row, so stand back. Still surprised to see a Lawrence Frank coached team 29th in the league in defensive efficiency.

28. Wizards (4-20, LW 27). Do they look any better than they did under Flip Saunders? And no, a couple wins over Charlotte don’t improve things.

29. Hornets (4-20, LW 28). Note to David Stern: You can drive a hard bargain when you are trading an asset like Chris Paul; Chris Kaman is another matter entirely.

30. Bobcats (3-21, LW 30). Losers of 11 straight, two of their losses last week were by more than 30. And now they enter one of their toughest weeks. Good luck!

What team does Kyrie Irving start next season with? Betting odds favor Cleveland

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Kyrie Irving may want out of Cleveland, but the Cavaliers are not obligated to trade him. They are starting to explore their options, but they would be wise to be patient and wait for good deal, one that gets them quality players in return who can help now and help build for the future.

With that in mind, check out the betting odds from online gaming site Bovada on where Irving will start next season.

Cleveland Cavaliers 1/1
New York Knicks 3/1
Phoenix Suns 5/1
Boston Celtics 7/1
Denver Nuggets 9/1
Minnesota Timberwolves 12/1
San Antonio Spurs 14/1
Miami Heat 20/1
Milwaukee Bucks 25/1
Atlanta Hawks 33/1

No way I would put money on the Celtics, like Danny Ainge wants to help the Cavaliers stay strong. The Knicks number includes people thinking there would be a Carmelo Anthony for Irving swap, but that is highly unlikely. The Suns will not put Josh Jackson in a deal, which ends that talk without a three-way deal. I could go on, but you get the point.

Bottom line is that so long as the Cavaliers keep their asking price sky high, it will be difficult for any deal to happen. Which is why the Cavs are still the smart bet.

Reports: Minnesota explores Kyrie Irving trade, but is Andrew Wiggins part of it?

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are “starting to engage in trade talks” for Kyrie Irving, whether LeBron James wants him back or not.

The problem is finding a deal. Cleveland wants a massive haul in return — a young stud talent, a player who can start and help them now, and picks. They’re not likely to get all of that, but as talks start the Cavaliers are wisely going in asking for everything but the Iron Throne and see if anyone relents.

Irving listed the Minnesota Timberwolves as a preferred destination, and the Wolves are serious about exploring that, something well-connected AP reporter Jon Krawczynski said on 1500AM ESPN Twin Cities Wednesday.

Minnesota could make this work with a trade of Andrew Wiggins, Gorgui Dieng, and maybe a pick, but the Cavaliers likely don’t want that deal as is, so it requires a third team to take on Dieng or another salary. It would be complex. If it came to be, it would send Wiggins back to the team that drafted him, then traded him for Kevin Love in the wake of LeBron James choosing to return to Cleveland.

The big question is, do the Timberwolves want to put Wiggins in the deal? Should they? That is more than a Tom Thibodeau question, that is a talk with the owner Glen Taylor decision.

Wiggins averaged 23.6 points per game last season, shot 35.6 percent from three, and has become an offensive force who can get buckets and puts defenders in posters. He likely will get a max contract extension and deserves it. However, he hasn’t been as efficient a scorer as hoped yet, his passing skills and rebounding need work, and he is not the defender he was projected to be out of college (ESPN’s defensive plus/minus is a flawed stat, but it still had Wiggins only ahead of Doug McDermott and Shabazz Muhammad as small forwards, and that’s bad company to keep).

Wiggins also is just 22 years old and entering his fourth NBA season. He should improve, as he has each year in the NBA (though mostly focused on the offensive end).

It’s a tough question Thibodeau and the Timberwolves need to ask: Is Wiggin’s ceiling better than Irving’s? Do they want to max out Wiggins with an extension, or leave that to another team? Wiggins hasn’t been a great defender, but he has potential still, and we know Irving is weak on that end. We also don’t know if Irving would fit better with Karl-Anthony Towns than Wiggins. What we do know is Irving is an elite scorer and also a very popular player who will pack the building home and road. We also know Wiggins has missed just one game in three seasons, while Irving has an injury history.

Minnesota would be exchanging risks. With Irving, Towns and Jimmy Butler, the Timberwolves move into “challenge the Warriors now” mode for the next two years, while all those guys are under contract. Is that where Minnesota wants to be, going at the Warriors hard while they are fully loaded? The risk would be one or both of Butler and Irving could walk in two seasons, leaving the team to rebuild (sort of) around KAT. If the Timberwolves keep Wiggins, and he takes steps forward — particularly defensively — they are built for the longer haul, but that has risks as well (for example, will those players develop, and will Butler stay?).

I’m not sure Minnesota puts Wiggins on the block. If they did, it’s another thing entirely to think a deal gets done. Which is to say, all of this is a longshot.

Just know the Timberwolves are serious about exploring it.

Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas will not need hip surgery, according to Danny Ainge

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With Boston watching the foundation crumble in Cleveland, the Celtics need to keep their own house in order — and healthy — to have a shot to dethrone LeBron James and reach the NBA Finals.

One step along that road, having a healthy Isaiah Thomas. Back in May, Thomas visited a specialist about his right hip injury, which he first suffered in March then aggravated in the playoffs, ending his playoffs early. Surgery was on the table as an option.

It’s off now, Celtics president Danny Ainge told the Boston Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach.

Hip surgery has been ruled out for Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said….

“Isaiah is making good progress,” Ainge said. “He’s out on the court; he’s shooting. He’s full-speed ahead on the stationary bike and working in the swimming pool. He’s progressing nicely.”

This is good news for Boston, Thomas should be ready to start the season. This is also good news for Thomas, who is heading into a contract year.

Thomas had a career year last season, averaging 28.9 points and 5.9 assists per game, while shooting 37.9 percent from three. Thomas made his first All-NBA team last season (second team), as well as being an All-Star for the second time.

Thomas’ name has popped up in trade rumors for Kyrie Irving, but that deal incredibly unlikely. First off, the Celtics would have to send Thomas, Jae Crowder, and a young player such as Jaylen Brown (or Jason Tatum) to the Cavaliers in a trade, and that price is too steep. More importantly, why would Ainge and the Celtics want to help the Cavaliers stay elite? Fans will speculate online, but no way Ainge would send out a lot of quality to help the Cavs.

Derrick Rose wanted to play where the games mattered, found Cleveland

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Derrick Rose was the point guard standing when the music stopped this summer. It seemed to catch him off guard.

There had been rumblings for a while that he didn’t understand how teams valued him — or didn’t — in a modern NBA, but this summer made it clear. Rose and his agent B.J. Armstrong tried, but the market dried up. The San Antonio Spurs decided to re-sign Patty Mills. The LA Clippers decided to stick with Patrick Beverley and Austin Rivers. The Milwaukee Bucks flirted and then passed. The Sacramento Kings signed George Hill. The Minnesota Timberwolves (and Rose’s old coach Tom Thibodeau) went and got Jeff Teague. Dallas drafted Dennis Smith Jr. The Lakers drafted Lonzo Ball. The Pelicans re-signed Jrue Holiday then picked up Rajon Rondo.

Rose looked left out in the cold. He ultimately agreed to play for Cleveland and with LeBron James… and then the Kyrie Irving trade request story broke.

Rose is about to get what he wanted — games that matter on a team that matters, so he can re-establish his value, Armstrong told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

“A one-year deal on a bad team to try and put up numbers — we did not want to entertain that way of thinking,” agent B.J. Armstrong, a three-time NBA champion with the Chicago Bulls, told ESPN on Tuesday. “Getting up every day to go to the gym to just try and put up numbers — that’s not who he is. He didn’t want to chase anything this summer other than, ‘Hey, let’s get around a group of guys who are like-minded, who are pursuing winning and be a part of that.'”

Rose is going to get a chance to prove he can still play meaningful quality minutes on a team hunting a title next season. Rose could well be the starting point guard (depending on who the Cavaliers get back in an Irving trade).

Rose put up solid numbers last season with the Knicks — 18 points and 4.4 assists per game — and on paper he looked like an average NBA point guard. He can still get to the rim. However, he also still can’t space the floor as a shooter (21.7 percent from three last season), he’s not an efficient scorer, and most importantly he’s still a defensive liability (the Knicks were 5 points per 100 possessions worse defensively last season when Rose was on the court).

How Rose looks in Cleveland will be interesting, but he is going to get his chance to prove himself on a big stage in the bright lights. Play well and you never know what the next summer will hold, although expect that to be a tighter market for everyone except the elite players (LeBron James, Paul George, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins and the other clear max guys). Rose could find next summer rough, too, but play well and it gets a little easier.