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.

James Harden on recruiting Chris Paul from LA: “He didn’t seem happy”

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One of the most interesting storylines of the first month of this upcoming NBA season will be the Houston Rockets.

The team has paired MVP candidate James Harden with one of the greatest point guards of all time in Chris Paul, but it remains to be seen whether the two will be able to work together with the kind of efficiency that Mike D’Antoni’s team had in 2016-17.

Harden has been the subject of some chatter already this offseason after a photo of him surfaced on Instagram. In it, Harden looked to have added a significant portion of muscle this summer, which may help him as he moves back to a more off-ball style of play with Paul in the fold.

Harden was also the subject of significant scrutiny at the end of last season, where he failed in the playoffs in spectacular fashion against the San Antonio Spurs.

In a recent interview with Sam Amick of USA Today, Harden said his newfound weight gain has been part of his plan to combat late-season fatigue. Harden has also introduced yoga and pilates into his workout routine.

Perhaps more interesting information from Harden’s interview with Amick revealed just how much impact he had recruiting Chris Paul in the trade from Los Angeles Clippers, and Paul’s attitude at the end of the season toward his former team.

Via USA Today:

Harden, who signed a four-year extension this summer and will earn a combined $228 million by the end of the 2022-23 season, had everything to do with the move.

“I just knew that in the summertime obviously (Paul) was a free agent, and I wanted to see where his head was,” Harden said of Paul, who will now be a free agent next summer. “He didn’t seem happy, so after that we just took it from there.

“Obviously Golden State has been in the Finals and won two out of three, so that’s what everybody is trying to build up against. But we’re right there. We’re right there. Obviously, we have a lot of work to do, but it definitely puts us in a better chance.”

It certainly makes sense that after years of perpetual playoff failure by the Clippers that Paul would want to move on. Harden and CP3 seem to enjoy each other at the moment, and a pairing does seem to make sense on paper. We will see how that plays out over the course of next season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo announces he will not play for Greece in Eurobasket

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Giannis Antetokounmpo said had big plans to play for the Greek national team this summer, taking his country back to the top of the European ladder at EuroBasket (they had won the tournament a dozen years ago).

Instead, a sore knee will keep the Greek Freak out of EuroBasket. He made the announcement on his Facebook page.

Antetokounmpo had missed all but one of Greece’s early EuroBasket tune-ups due to a sore knee. That, understandably, concerned the Bucks, especially with his four-year, $100 million contract extension about to kick in next season.

Antetokounmpo is in China promoting shoes, but said he on Facebook he took a physical while there and was not able to complete the exercises due to pain.

“It is by far the biggest disappointment in my career. I must deal with the problem,” Antetokounmpo said in the Facebook post (written in Greek).

Within hours of the post going up, the Greek basketball federation released a statement slamming the Bucks and Antetokounmpo, saying they had done an MRI of his knee and found no damage.

“The simultaneous report by the Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo himself, by phone and social media from faraway China, and not by the appropriate official manner, of his inability to join the national men’s team saddens us … but is not surprising… A series of indications … had convinced us of the existence of an organized and well-staged plan by (the Bucks), with the full knowledge if not encouragement of the NBA that put the athlete on the spot and forced him to announce today that he is no longer part of the men’s national team.”

Great, just what the world needs, another conspiracy theory.

While NBA teams generally are not huge fans of their stars playing in national team tournaments (due to the injury risk), teams cannot stop a healthy player from playing. Antetokounmpo said this was his decision because he is in pain and has to think about the upcoming NBA season.

Whatever the Greek Federation believes internally, slamming the player and his team publicly like this is one good way to make sure he will not want to play for them in the future. He’s got knee pain, they are saying “you’re fine, walk it off, ” and that must have Antetokounmpo and the people around him wondering if the Greek Federation has his best interests — or theirs — at heart.

Akron store already selling “Stay Home 23” shirts, hats as LeBron decision looms

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We’ve seen this movie before.

There is all sorts of buzz around the league that LeBron James has one foot out the door in Cleveland. While people around LeBron denied he the rumor he is “100 percent” leaving, good luck finding any league source who thinks he is staying put next summer. Nothing is set in stone, his options — including staying — remain open, but we’ve all been down this road before.

The hometown fans are going to do their part to urge LeBron to stay.

Fan sentiment has some pull with LeBron (he came back to win the city a title). However, what matters more is a sense of a plan to keep the Cavaliers as title contenders for the coming years — and that is more than just Dan Gilbert paying the tax. The Cavs did nothing this summer that got them closer to beating Golden State, and while they swung for the fences with Paul George, what they really needed was wing defenders and athletes, and they didn’t get those either. Luc Mbah a Moute signed a one-year deal for the minimum somewhere else. Instead, Cleveland overpaid Kyle Korver.

Despite all that, the Cavs remain the team to beat in the East. If Cleveland gets to the Finals — LeBron’s eighth in a row — and they win or make it close, he may see staying as his best option. A season can be a lifetime in the NBA in terms of shifting attitudes. Still, I wouldn’t bet the rent on it.

Marshall Plumlee gets camp invite, partially guaranteed contract from Clippers

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The Los Angeles Clippers have 14 fully guaranteed contracts on their roster, plus a partial guarantee for DeAndre Liggins (who likely is on the roster opening day). They also are pretty much set at center with DeAndre Jordan and Willie Reed (plus when they go small they can play Blake Griffin there, something I wish they’d do a little more).

That said, Doc Rivers — just a coach now — needs bodies for camp, so in comes former Duke star and Knick Marshall Plumlee, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Plumlee played in 21 games for the Knicks last season, logging a total of 190 minutes. He bounced between New York and the D-League Westchester Knicks, when down he averaged 12.3 points and 9.8 rebounds a game.

He’s not making the Clippers’ squad (barring injury), but he could show well and get noticed by other teams. Over the course of a season, there will be a need for bigs as guys go down injured, Plumlee is getting a chance to show how his game has developed. And he makes some money in the process.