NBA Power Rankings: Spurs advancing, Heat still on top

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I’m beginning to wonder: Will the Eastern Conference Finals be the real NBA finals this year? Feels that way some days.

1. Heat (21-7, last week ranked 1)
The Magic and Knicks combined to shoot 85 threes against the Heat in two nights. The Heat’s defensive energy does that to teams, makes them settle (although those two squads don’t need much encouragement to launch bombs all night). Miami gets Milwaukee again this week, they are 0-2 against them this season.

2. Bulls (23-7, LW 2). They looked good on a nine-game road trip, except for Derrick Rose’s back. Tom Thibodeau has an old-school “if you’re well enough to play you can play a lot” mentality that does not mesh well with a condensed schedule and a deep playoff run.

3. Clippers (17-8, LW 3). Quality wins at Orlando and Philly last week as they are 4-1 on the Grammy road trip (with at Dallas Monday being the final game of it), but this team’s defense without Chauncey Billups will be their Achilese heel.

4. Thunder (21-6, LW 4). They won some thrilling games on the road this week — at Golden State and Portland — but the more I see their end of game execution, the more I wonder if they can do better in the playoffs.

5. Spurs (19-9, LW 7). Winners of seven in a row (including in Philly) and they get Manu Ginobili back on their rodeo road trip. They are looking like a team that can make a run in the playoffs, but they looked like that last year so we’re hesitant.

6. 76ers (19-9, LW 5).
Beat the Lakers thanks to Lou Williams (who can be their late game go-to guy), but fell to the Clippers and Spurs — in a stretch against seven quality teams over two weeks they go 4-3. They are legit, but a notch below elite.

7. Mavericks (17-11, LW 14). They have been playing well of late (three wins in a row) but let’s see how they do against this week’s gauntlet of Clippers, Nuggets, Sixers and Knicks.

8. Pacers (17-10, LW 6).
They have lost four of five as the completion has gotten tougher. This week it’s a back-to-back-to-back that starts with the Heat but has winnable games against the Cavs and Nets to follow.

9. Hawks (18-10, LW 9). They are 5-9 against teams over .500. 13-1 against the teams under .500. This is why nobody buys into the Hawks as serious contenders in the East. That said, Josh Smith has All-Star numbers.

10. Nuggets (16-12, LW 8). They have struggled in recent weeks, losing seven of nine, but did get a nice win against the Pacers over the weekend. They miss Danilo Gallinari.

11. Magic (17-11, LW 10).
Nice win against the Miami Heat as the three ball fell, but nobody thinks that is a viable long-term strategy come the playoffs. All-Star Weekend in Orlando is going to be interesting, Dwight Howard better prepare a whole new line of answers for dodging trade questions.

12. Lakers (16-12, LW 11). The Lakers go 3-3 on their Grammy road trip, but the unimpressive losses in New York and Philadelphia (and having to get Kobe Bryant heroics in Toronto to pull out a win) leaves a lot of questions. The main one: How can a veteran, championship team look so disorganized at the ends of games? The answer to that question is not Gilbert Arenas, however.

13. Rockets (16-12, LW 17). Kevin Martin is tearing it up and they get quality wins last week against Denver and Portland. The question is this: How do the Rockets get from being a good team without a star to an elite contender? No easy answer there.

14. Celtics (15-12, LW 12). Tough loss to the Lakers highlights the weakness of this team against real size inside (insert Kendrick Perkins lament here). Their wins behind great play from Rajon Rondo show what they can be.

15. Knicks (13-15, LW 21). Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Baron Davis who? Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Oh, and they get Carmelo Anthomy and Amare Stoudemire back this week. Jeremy Lin.

16. Blazers (15-13, LW 13). Two losses at home last week, they had had just one all season before that. They keep losing a lot of close games, and you expect that scale to balance out at some point.

17. Jazz (14-12, LW 15). Al Jefferson had a great game against the Grizzlies on Sunday night (21 points, 15 rebounds), he may be slightly undersized at the five but his ability to get his shot off against a bigger defender is impressive.

18. Timberwolves (13-15, LW 16). The Kevin Love suspension really hurt this team, their offense drops off the map when he is out. That said, they are just 2 games out of the eighth playoff spot in the West. Ricky Rubio did a good job on Jeremy Lin this week, he is a clever defender as well.

19. Grizzlies (14-14, LW 18). For the love of all things holy, don’t ever wear those Tams uniforms again. Please. My retinas are begging you.

20. Suns (12-15, LW 22).
They went 3-1 last week because Steve Nash is carrying them on his 38-year-old shoulders.

21. Bucks (12-15, LW 19). I got a couple tweets asking me what is up with Stephen Jackson. That would take a lot more than 140 characters, suffice to say he’s not playing well and the Bucks are a bad fit. It’s a mess. This week the Bucks get the Heat who may be looking for revenge.

22. Cavaliers (10-16, LW 20). The Anderson Varejao injury is a blow, because I don’t think Antawn Jamison can keep playing this well over a long stretch.

23. Kings (10-17, LW 24). They have won four of their last six, including a victory over the Thunder, but now they head out for an East Coast road swing. Kings fans deserve a team and a stadium that suits them.

24. Warriors (9-14, LW 23). They are outscoring teams — their defense is still terrible but they have won five of their last eight because Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry are playing together better than they ever have.

25. Pistons (8-21, LW 27). They are actually winning games against other bad teams. That doesn’t make them a good team. And no, sorry Detroit, but Hibbert deserved the All-Star nod over Greg Monroe (who has been good, I’ll grant you that).

26. Raptors (9-20 LW 25). The biggest question over the next few months — can the strike a deal to trade Jose Calderon? You think it’s simple, until you realize he makes $10.5 million next year.

27. Nets (8-21, LW 26).
Worst. Defense. Ever. (Not really kidding.)

28. Wizards (6-22, LW 28).
There was a stretch on Sunday, for about 12 minutes over two quarters in the second half, where you saw what Wall could be (and with him the Wizards). It’s a flash, but it’s one of the few this year. So, there’s your positive note.

29. Hornets (4-23, LW 29). They have lost 23 of 25 and blew an 18 point lead to the Kings this week. And until they find an owner, that’s not even their biggest problem.

30. Bobcats (3-24, LW 30).
The losing streak is up to 14 and if we could move them lower we would. Maybe below Kentucky and Syracuse.

PBT Podcast: All-Star starters mock draft, picking reserves

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The votes are in, and LeBron James and Stephen Curry are your All-Star captains.

For the first time in NBA All-Star history, that means they are picking their own teams, playground style, first from the pool of starters, then the pool of reserves. Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports take on the roles of LeBron and Curry and pick their All-Star starters, from James Harden through Kyrie Irving.

Then the pair gets into who should be the All-Star Game reserves — and choosing among the Western Conference guards is brutal. Do they leave out Damian Lillard? Lou Williams? Klay Thompson? And that’s not even getting into Paul George being a bubble All-Star in a deep West.

Kurt and Dan break it all down, plus talk some Kemba Walker trade scenarios.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Aaron Gordon forgoes desperation attempt to win, sinks halfcourt shot instead (video)

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The Magic were in dire straights near the end of their game against the Cavaliers last night. Orlando trailed 104-103 with 0.2 seconds and a jump ball to be tossed at center court. By rule, the Magic didn’t have time to catch-and-shoot, let alone recover the jump ball then shoot. Aaron Gordon had to tip the jump ball through the hoop from halfcourt – nearly impossible, but technically possible.

Instead, Gordon grabbed the jump ball – a violation – then sank a halfcourt shot. What an ironic end.

Cleveland then harmlessly inbounded the ball to seal the win.

Can Kemba Walker save the sinking Hornets? He doesn’t want to jump the ship he’s (barely) keeping afloat

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DETROIT – Around this time last year, Kemba Walker‘s reputation peaked.

The season prior, he led Charlotte to its first playoff-game wins since the franchise reemerged as the Bobcats. The Hornets were on pace to make the playoff again, which would have been their first back-to-back postseason appearances in the second Charlotte era. And Walker made his first All-Star team.

While basking in his personal and team success, Walker found one downer: The NBA moved the All-Star game from his home arena to New Orleans due to North Carolina’s anti-gay law.

“It would have been really special if this had been in Charlotte,” Walker said.

The Hornets have gone south since.

They stumbled in the second half and missed the playoffs last season. They’re even worse this season, 18-25 and 11th in the Eastern Conference. As a result, Walker’s stock has tanked. He’s treated as a fringe All-Star candidate at best.

Yet – as trade speculation emerges – Walker has come to a conclusion similar to his a year ago: His experience would be more special in Charlotte.

“I would definitely be devastated if I was to get traded,” Walker said. “I do want to be here.”

Walker is one of the most intriguing cases as the trade deadline approaches. The 27-year-old is earning $12 million this season and is due the same salary next season before his contract expires. It’s not clear the Hornets would trade him. It’s not clear they should trade him.

Charlotte is bad around Walker, not because of him. The Hornets have played better with Walker on the floor (+5.2 points per 100 possessions) than the Cavaliers have with LeBron James (+0.3), Bucks with Giannis Antetokounmpo (+3.7) and Pelicans with Anthony Davis (+5.1).

Put another way, using Pythagorean win percentage, Charlotte has played like 55-win team when Walker plays and a 12-win team when he doesn’t. That 43-win-pace drop is the fourth largest league-wide (minimum: 20 games):

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The Hornets have struggled with Michael Carter-Williams at backup point guard and even more with rookie Malik Monk (a natural shooting guard) in the role while Carter-Williams was hurt. Backup point guard was a glaring weak spot last season, too, and Charlotte signed Carter-Williams to stop the bleeding.

But he was a budget choice. The Hornets’ mid-level exception sits mostly unused as they duck the luxury tax.

Using starting shooting guard Nicolas Batum as the primary playmaker when Walker sits has worked better than most alternatives. Staggering those two more often could right Charlotte.

However, even if Batum is the solution to the micro problem, he’s central to the macro problem.

The Hornets’ payroll has become bloated with prohibitive long-term deals. Several players are owed major money after this season:

With those constraints, it will be difficult to build a winner around Walker without paying the luxury tax, which Charlotte has never paid.

Walker is the Hornets’ most valuable asset, and trading him could make their second-most valuable asset – their upcoming first-round pick – even more valuable. Charlotte also use Walker as enticement to unload a bad contract, a tactic Adrian Wojnarowski reports is being explored. Still, the Hornets are in so deep, it’d be difficult to escape salary-cap purgatory, even while shedding Walker.

Because he signed his rookie-scale extension before the national TV deals carried the salary cap into the stratosphere and before he rose into stardom, Walker has a low salary for his status. That could open the door for trades not possible with other stars, especially if the Hornets want to attach an albatross.

Only Isaiah Thomas has a lower salary among reigning All-Stars:

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Of course, teams looking to upgrade at point guard for the stretch run – Pistons? Pacers? Jazz? Nuggets? Cavaliers? Spurs? – would be interested in Walker. But because he has an another season left on his contract, other teams – Knicks? Magic? Suns? – could trade for him as a head start on next year. The best analogue: The Jazz getting out ahead by trading Deron Williams to the Nets before his contract entered its final year.

A team must also prepare to pay Walker in 2019, when he’ll be 30 years old. Though the $48 million over four years he’s earning now is nothing to sneeze at, free agency will be his first opportunity to really cash in on the new TV money. In the extremely likely event he doesn’t make an All-NBA team next season, the largest extension he could sign (starting July 1) would be four years, $64,512,000. That probably won’t cut it. So, Walker’s team – unless it has cap space to renegotiate-and-extend his deal – will likely have to ride out his unrestricted free agency.

“Of course, it would be nice to get a big contract like a lot of the guys around the league are getting,” Walker said. “But, at the same time, I just try to take it one day at a time.”

All these discussions have thrown Walker for a loss. Charlotte drafted him and built around him. He’s not quite sure how to handle this.

“I’ve never really been in trade rumors like that, like I’ve been hearing lately about myself,” Walker said. “But I mean, I don’t know. I don’t even know. I don’t know.

“This is very new, and I really just don’t know.”

Walker said management hasn’t told him anything, and he won’t ask. It’s easy to read the writing on the wall: Walker is a good player on a losing team, and those players are always ripe to get dealt. On the other hand, a team owned by Michael Jordan is probably less inclined to enter rebuilding voluntarily.

“I’m here,” Walker said, “and I’m just trying to play and trying to win and trying to do what I can for this organization and try to get back in the playoff hunt. That’s the main priority.”

The Hornets have won two in a row, and head coach Steve Clifford is back. A surge into playoff contention isn’t out of the question.

If it happens, it’ll probably be on Walker’s shouldeers.

“We put so much pressure on Kemba to do so much,” said assistant coach Stephen Silas, who served as acting head coach in Clifford’s absence.

Too much pressure?

“At times, it can be,” Silas said. “But that’s what he signed up for, and that’s how we’re built.”

For now, at least.

Joel Embiid whacks Jaylen Brown in face while celebrating basket (video)

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Joel Embiid‘s antics – the Instagram victory laps, trash-talking and taunting – can rub people the wrong way.

With Jaylen Brown last night, literally.