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!

Magic Johnson: “The only player that we… would probably not move is Brandon Ingram”

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The Lakers’ Brandon Ingram had flashes, but he largely struggled through his rookie season. He averaged 9.4 points per game, shot 40 percent from the floor, he had a true shooting percentage of 47.4 and a PER of 8.5, and he finished with the fifth worst “value over replacement player” number in the NBA. Watch him play, and he looked better than those numbers — he did better with the “eye test” — showing some tenacity, and his offense improved toward the end of the season. Still, his rookie season tempered expectations somewhat.

Except amongst the Lakers’ front office.

They have been high on him all the way through, higher than D'Angelo Russell, and that’s what Lakers president Magic Johnson said on ESPN Radio in Los Angeles.

“I would say probably the only player that we would say, hey, we would probably not move is Brandon Ingram,” Johnson, the Lakers president of basketball operations said Thursday in a radio interview with ESPN Los Angeles. “I think that we’re excited about Brandon, his length, his size, his agility, his athleticism. And then when you think about, you know, he was a baby coming in, in his first year last season and we see that he really has a high ceiling and we’re excited about what he can possibly turn into.”

First off, no this doesn’t mean if the Lakers draft Lonzo Ball No. 2 (as expected) they will look to trade Russell. Expect them to see if those two can play together. It means the Lakers think just one of the guys on the roster is a potential key piece of a contender. Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and on down the line may fit into the rotation, but they are not seen as cornerstone pieces that can’t be moved.

Is Ingram really a cornerstone? The jury is still out, but does anyone feel as confident he will be a star as they did a season ago when he was drafted?

Ingram certainly needs to get stronger, something the team and he have worked on (and will focus on this summer). He also was young coming into the league, and with his style of game it was going to take him a little time to find how he fit in the NBA. He wasn’t going to come in and just overwhelm opponents with athleticism, it was going to be a process for him. Like nearly every rookie, his shooting needs to be more consistent.

The questions are how high is his ceiling, and can the Lakers develop him?

This summer and into next season those will come into focus more, but the early returns don’t have some of us as optimistic as Magic.

Josh McRoberts opting into final year of Heat contract

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Heat power forward Josh McRoberts has missed 165 games over the last three years due to injury.

So, the 30-year-old sure isn’t turning down a guaranteed $6,021,175 salary.

Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald:

Any long shot chance of Josh McRoberts voiding his Heat contract was eliminated Tuesday when agent Mike Conley told The Miami Herald that McRoberts will exercise his opt-in and return to the Heat for $6.021 million next season.

Miami will have major cap space this summer with Chris Bosh coming off the books. At this point, McRoberts’ salary is just an impediment to even more room to add an impact player.

The Heat could again try trading McRoberts, but they’ll likely have to attach a positive asset just to dump him. They could also waive and stretch him.

But if his salary doesn’t come between Miami and a big-time free agent this summer, perhaps McRoberts returns for one last chance at helping the Heat on the floor with his passing and outside shooting.

Mike Brown thinks it’s “cute” Tyronn Lue thinks Celtics’ sets harder to defend than Warriors

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Celtics’ coach Brad Steven is already one of the best in the NBA. His out of time out plays are brilliant, and his Boston team’s flow of ball and player movement is among the best in the league.

It’s those things that were giving the Cavaliers trouble in the first half of Game 4 Tuesday, and ultimately prompted this comment from Tyronn Lue.

“We’re just focused on Boston. The stuff they’re running, it’s harder to defend than Golden State’s [offense] for me.”

Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle asked Mike Brown about that.

You can certainly make the case that the Celtics have a wider variety in their offense, and that with Isaiah Thomas out the rather balanced, anyone can score nature of the Celtics is challenging to defend for a team with inconsistent help defense like the Cavaliers.

But Boston is running these sets with Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown and Kelly Olynyk. Golden State will use ball and player movement to create space for Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. Which is to say, Golden State is tougher to defend because the space they need to make you pay is much smaller. And even if you do everything right the Warriors may just score anyway.

I get what Lue was trying to say, but don’t give the Warriors more motivation.

Magic sending Raptors draft pick as compensation for hiring Jeff Weltman

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The Raptors promoted Jeff Weltman, still working under Masai Ujiri, to general manager last year.

That paid off for Toronto when the Magic hired Weltman as their new president.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

The Magic have their own and the Lakers’ second-round picks next year. Even the lower of those two selections could be somewhat valuable.

In other words, Weltman’s already-difficult job is getting even harder simply by Orlando hiring him.