NBA Power Rankings: Streaking Heat, Spurs land on top

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Miami has looked dominant the last week, while Tony Parker may be the best player in basketball the last two weeks so the Spurs climb. At the bottom, things look familiar.

1. Heat (24-7, last week ranked 1). They became the third team in the NBA to sweep a back-to-back-to-back (Bulls, Thunder), but they did it absolutely dominating their opponents — six wins in a row, all by double digits. Bill Clinton came to them on Sunday, but keep playing like this and they will be going to the president. Heat play the Knicks Thursday, that should be fun.

2. Spurs (22-9, LW 5). Winners of 10 in a row. This is the opposite of you’re father’s Spurs — they are winning with offense. We all marveled at Jeremy Lin dropping the game winner on Toronto, but Jose Calderon pushed Lin around most of that game — Tony Parker came in the next night and put up 34 points and 14 assists on Calderon. Can they keep it up with Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter out?

4. Thunder (24-7, LW 4). What a display by Kevin Durant (51) and Russell Westbrook (40) on Sunday. They are 7-3 in their last 10, outscoring opponents by an average of 6.6 per game. Should be fun Thursday night when they take on the Lakers.

4. Bulls (25-8, LW 2). They are treading water without Derrick Rose and Rip Hamilton, which is about all you can ask. Chicago almost fell further after that ugly effort against the Nets.

5. Mavericks (20-12, LW 7). Brutal schedule last week and they came out looking good with wins over the 76ers, Clippers and Nuggets (the lone loss was to Linsanity on Sunday). When Dirk Nowitzki is clicking this whole offense comes together.

6. Clippers (19-10 LW 3). You will not see Chris Paul make mistakes at the end of games often, like he did against Dallas. But you wonder if in the playoffs when all the games are tight how much they will  miss Chauncey Billups.

7. Magic (20-12, LW 11). They keep on winning mostly, but the Sunday loss to Miami shows how far this team is from elite. As the Dwight Howard rumors ramp up heading into the All-Star Weekend, will it start to weigh on this team?

8. 76ers (20-12, LW 6). They have lost five of seven as the schedule has turned hard and their guard play has struggled.

9. Lakers (18-13, LW 12). Veteran teams are supposed to be able to ignore and play through trade rumors, but the Lakers struggle with it (especially on the road). The drop off on this team after their three stars is dramatic.

10. Pacers (19-12, LW 8). Five losses in a row, but that turned around thanks to the patsies that are the Nets and Bobcats. With the Hornets and the Bobcats left before the break, they could find their footing after the All-Star Game.

11. Knicks (16-16, LW 15). Jeremy Lin bounced back from his off game and had spearheaded a quality win over the Mavs Sunday. With J.R. Smith and Carmelo Anthony they have the talent to be the third best team in the East, but can they bring it all together and keep playing good defense?

12. Grizzlies (18-14, LW 19). Four straight wins, including over the Nuggets and Rockets. They have played well without Zach Randolph and will be a lower seed to be feared come the playoffs. Just like last year (ask the Spurs).

13. Rockets (18-14, LW 13). Good wins over Oklahoma City and Utah, but fell to Memphis and Minnesota last week, been that kind of up and down your for the Rockets. They are a playoff team and Kevin McHale deserves a lot of credit for that.

14. Hawks (19-12, LW 9). They are doing better than expected without Al Horford thanks to great play from All-Star snub Josh Smith. But will they make a move at the trade deadline to improve their playoff chances? History says no.

15. Nuggets (17-15, LW 10). They have lost seven of their last 10 and fallen out of the playoffs in the West. Their defense has gone missing. That said, the return of Wilson Chandler would be a big boost (he is meeting with them Monday).

16. Blazers (17-15, LW 16). Getting LaMarcus Aldridge back should help, and it should help open things up for the unhappy Raymond Felton. But the Blazers are fighting it right now.

17. Celtics (15-15, LW 14). They are a .500 team defined by an inconsistent offense. Doc Rivers is desperately searching for the right combination, but the only answer may be a time machine.

18. Timberwolves (16-16, LW 18). Nikola Pekovic has been a beast of late — 18.8 points per game on 63.1 percent shooting, plus 10.4 rebounds per game. Paired with Love that is a powerful front line.

19. Jazz (15-15, LW 17). This team is rivaling the Lakers (and the couple teams at the bottom of this ranking) for worst point guard play in the league. Devin Harris and Earl Watson are not getting it done. Al Jefferson is.

20. Suns (13-19, LW 20). The trade rumors are going to start ramping up again around Steve Nash for the first three weeks. Could he and Jeremy Lin co-exist in New York?

21. Cavaliers (12-17, LW 21). A couple nice wins last week over Indiana and Sacramento, showing there is some young promise in Cleveland. And can we stop talking about LeBron coming back now? Thanks.

22. Pistons (11-22, LW 25). Don’t look now, but they are 7-3 in their last 10 and getting good play from Greg Monroe and Rodney Stuckey. It’s a process, but there are signs of hope.

23. Bucks (13-18, LW 21). They need to get Stephen Jackson off the roster, the tension around the team is palpable, but nobody wants to take on the $10 million he is owed next year and give up anything of value.

24. Warriors (11-17, LW 24). There is no team in the bottom 10 here that is more fun to watch or more dangerous on any given night because Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry can just win games when hot.

25. Kings (10-21, LW 23). DeMarcus Cousins’ made two great plays against the Cavaliers down the stretch Sunday to give his team a chance, but he balanced it out with a dumb foul that gave the Cavaliers a chance. Story of his career so far. But it wasn’t as bad as Tyreke Evans’ reach in that cost them the game. Isaiah Thomas has been a find.

26. Nets (9-24, LW 27). Brook Lopez is back and that should help the Nets defense a little. It’s not going to help the rebounding, however.

27. Hornets (7-23, LW 29). A three game winning streak, including handing Jeremy Lin his only loss. Pardon us if we are not on the bandwagon yet.

28. Raptors (9-23 LW 26). They lost to the Bobcats. With that, they should consider this ranking generous. What happened to their defense that was at one point this season respectable?

29. Wizards (7-24, LW 28). Washington is statistically the worst defensive rebounding team in the league. That with a very long front line. Just sayin’.

30. Bobcats (4-26, LW 30).
The losing streak is over at 16! But the way they played Sunday against the Pacers shows you why they remain on the bottom.

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.