Taj Gibson, Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah,

NBA Power Rankings: Bulls grab top spot by the horns

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The top three are pretty much set, it’s just a matter of who is playing the best among them at this moment. Right now it’s Chicago. The bottom three are pretty much locked in, too, but the Bobcats have really grabbed hold of the last spot and made it their own.

1. Bulls (31-8, last week ranked number 3). Four games, four wins since the All-Star break — and that is with Rip Hamilton not really finding his footing yet since his return. Everybody already looking forward to a week from Wednesday when the Bulls face the Heat again.

2. Thunder (29-8, LW 2). They continue to close out games well despite pretty stagnant late game play calling. Why? They play great defense at the end of games (read Zach Lowe at SI). Their Achilles heel is turnovers, that’s what cost them against the Hawks in their one loss since the All-Star break.

3. Heat (28-9, LW 1). Back-to-back losses to the Lakers and Jazz — both teams with strong front lines playing the Heat without Chris Bosh. He matters a lot more to the Heat then people realize, and the drop-off after him is steep. As for LeBron James, he’s the one guy in the league who gets criticized for passing to an open teammate.

4. Clippers (22-13 LW 6). Hard-fought overtime win Sunday against a Rockets team that is tougher than everyone realizes. Expect a lot more games like that in the coming weeks — their March schedule is brutal. They are on the road this week and have a tough one Friday at San Antonio.

5. Lakers (23-14, LW 8). The Lakers got a signature win over the Heat on Sunday, a game where they really used their assets to exploit Miami inside. Kobe Bryant is shooting 54 percent since Dwyane Wade broke his nose — he says he’s not going to wear the mask any longer than he has to, but the way he is shooting he may want to consider going Rip Hamilton.

6. Spurs (25-12, LW 4). Tough losses to good teams in Chicago and Denver this week. Another test coming Friday against the Clippers. For a while it looked like this team could beat anyone, but do you really buy that when the playoffs get here.

7. Magic (24-14, LW 7). Lost to the Thunder last week… really, does anybody care about their games the next two weeks? Until the deadline the league is on Dwight watch.

8. Pacers (23-12, LW 9). Six wins in a row, but they continue to beat the league’s weak teams. This week the schedule is Bulls, Hawks, Heat and Magic. If you want to say you are upper echelon, talk to us after that gauntlet.

9. Grizzlies (22-15, LW 12). Won 10-12, but most of that at home. When they get Zach Randolph back and integrated, watch out. Who wants this team in the first round of the playoffs? (If the playoffs started today it would be a Lakers/Grizzlies first round, which would be a fascinating battle of bigs.)

10. Mavericks (22-16, LW 5). They had a five-game losing streak before Dirk Nowitzki went off for 40 and stopped it Saturday. Lamar Odom is back and says he is sorry for how things are gone, but the Mavs need actions to speak louder than words.

11. Hawks (22-15, LW 14). Impressive win over the Thunder last week. They have three games in four nights this week, and that is the kind of situation where a lack of mental focus can hurt a team. So, bad news for the Hawks.

12. Nuggets (21-17, LW 16). Nice wins over Portland, San Antonio and Houston last week. They are in the same boat as Houston — one of the last playoff spots in the west with Minnesota just two games back — but with a soft schedule this week they can start to create some distance.

13. Rockets (21-17, LW 11). Lost to Utah, Denver and the Clippers last week and now seven of their next eight are on the road. Right now they are the seven seed in the West but Minnesota is lurking two games back.

14. 76ers (22-16, LW 10). Flying under the trade deadline radar is Andres Nocioni — don’t be shocked if he gets moved.

15. Celtics (19-17, LW 18). Four wins in a row last week out of the All-Star break — this team is dangerous when rested. Some teams struggle when trade rumors swirl, but this veteran group should be able to play through it.

16. Timberwolves (19-19, LW 17). They are in the playoff mix (just two games out) but are going to have to fight to keep that spot — Clippers, Lakers and Blazers this week, then they head out on a lengthy road trip.

17. Knicks (18-19, LW 13). They are the eighth seed in the East, but Milwaukee is four games back so they likely can hold on to a playoff spot baring a total collapse. However, they are three games back of Atlanta at the six seed, and you really don’t want the Heat or Bulls in the first round.

18. Jazz (17-19, LW 19).
They are showcasing Devin Harris for a potential trade — and he’s looked pretty good, including the game winner over the Heat on Friday.

19. Suns (17-20, LW 20). Three straight games where the Suns have rallied from more than 20 points back to win. We’re all watching for Steve Nash trade rumors, but right now it looks like they keep him.

20. Blazers (18-19, LW 15). Jamal Crawford trade rumors are going to engulf this team for the next two weeks, we’ll see how they deal with it. Right now they are not dealing well with much of anything well.

21. Warriors (14-19, LW 22). Their offense is just wildly inconsistent, which makes them a team that can beat anyone or lose to anyone on any given night. But they are entertaining while they do it.

22. Pistons (12-26, LW 23). They have dropped four of five and have looked pretty terrible doing it.

23. Bucks (14-23, LW 24).
If they are going to make a playoff run they need to get very hot right now. That’s not going to happen, by the way.

24. Nets (12-26, LW 26).
They have won three of five since Brook Lopez came back, with two of those wins over Dallas and New York. Of course, Lopez rolled his ankle and may miss a few games, so it will be back to the same old Nets for a while.

25. Raptors (12-25, LW 27).
Here is how Raptors fans need to look at the season — next year they get Jonas Valanciunas and whoever they draft this year to come in to camp. It’s like two lottery picks in one.

26. Cavaliers (13-22, LW 21). They lost to the Wizards this week. They are lucky to be this high.

27. Kings (12-25, LW 25). Hey, they got a new arena deal. We’re just going to keep talking about that (and that they plan to bring back coach Keith Smart next season).

28. Hornets (9-28, LW 28). They are showcasing Chris Kaman for a trade and he is looking good — 16.5 points and nearly 10 rebounds a game since his return. Like the kind of player the Hornets should have been playing earlier.

29. Wizards (8-28, LW 29). Randy Wittman is trying to put his foot down and instill some discipline (like by benching JaVale McGee). Good luck with that.

30. Bobcats (4-30, LW 30). Nice decision not to double Deron Williams off the pick-and-roll on Sunday. How did that work out for you?

NBA suspends Hassan Whiteside for elbowing Boban Marjanovic’s head

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Hassan Whiteside lost his cool and elbowed Boban Marjanovic in the head Tuesday.

The Heat center received a flagrant 2 and an ejection, and now he’s getting the rest of his punishment.

NBA release:

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside has been suspended one game without pay for throwing an elbow and making contact with the head of San Antonio Spurs center Boban Marjanovic, it was announced today by Kiki VanDeWeghe, Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations.

The incident, for which Whiteside was assessed a Flagrant 2 and ejected, occurred with 9:35 remaining in the fourth quarter of the Spurs’ 119-101 win over the Heat at AmericanAirlines Arena on Feb. 9.

Whiteside will serve his suspension when Miami plays the Atlanta Hawks on Feb. 19 at Philips Arena.

The suspension will cost Whiteside $8,921. As a result, the Heat – in line to become the first team in NBA history to pay the repeater luxury-tax rate – trim their impending tax bill by $24,534.

More importantly for Whiteside, this will be a strike against him for teams considering offering him a big contract in free agency this summer.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist tears labrum

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
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October:

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist‘s shoulder injury?

It’s bad.

Now:

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist‘s shoulder injury?

It’s bad.

Hornets:

Kidd-Gilchrist tore his labrum in the preseason, and the injury was expected to sideline him for the year. But he returned a couple weeks ago and helped Charlotte go 5-2.

Now, another setback. This is just awful news for Kidd-Gilchrist and the Hornets. He had worked so hard to get back.

Hopefully, this injury isn’t as severe and Kidd-Gilchrist can play again this season.

Report: Rockets working with Dwight Howard’s agent on trade

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - JANUARY 29: Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets leaves the game after he was ejected during the third quarter of a NBA game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at the Chesapeake Energy Arena on January 29, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
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The Rockets have a lot of problems.

One of them is Dwight Howard.

Howard plans to opt out this summer, and he could command a max contract. Does Houston want to pay the 30-year-old center that much?

That question has become increasingly essential as Houston – losers of three straight and six of eight – has sunk out of playoff position. If Howard can’t help the Rockets achieve anything of note this season, determining his place past this season takes priority.

On that note…

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

The Houston Rockets have started contacting teams about trading eight-time All-Star Dwight Howard, league sources told The Vertical.

The Rockets are working with Howard’s agent, Dan Fegan, on possible destinations, league executives told The Vertical.

Working with Fegan is imperative. Because Howard can become an unrestricted free agent, teams will fear him walking in free agency and propose trades to the Rockets accordingly. That could sink Howard’s value below the threshold where Houston would trade him.

But Howard and Fegan can assure certain teams Howard would re-sign, which would make Howard more valuable to them – and boost their trade offers. The NBA forbids under-the-table agreements, but these discussions happen.

Teams could also look at Howard as a rest-of-season rental, but it’s tough to find win-now teams that need a center. And again, it’s less likely a team would value Howard as a rental enough to appease the Rockets’ trade demands.

For Howard, this could be a chance to secure a larger contract. His max projects to be about $170 million over five years if he re-signs or $128 million over four years elsewhere. Ideally for him, he’ll finish the season with a team he wants to re-sign with.

Is that Houston? He’s reportedly unhappy taking a backseat to James Harden, though he denies it. The Rockets’ dismal record certainly doesn’t engender confidence from anyone.

The Celtics and Rockets reportedly talked Howard trade, and the notion Houston won’t trade Howard looks outdated.

It’ll still take multiple sides to make a deal happen – the Rockets, a trade partner and, depending on the details, probably Howard. Those are a lot of hurdles.

But it seems Houston is ready to try clearing them.

Report: Patrick Beverley to drop from All-Star Saturday Skills Challenge title

Patrick Beverley
Associated Press
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Last season, the Rockets’ Patrick Beverley won the NBA All-Star Saturday skills challenge because of his jump shot. In head-to-head battles with the Hawks’ Jeff Teague and the Bucks (now a Sun) Brandon Knight, Beverley fell behind on the passing part of the competition but made up the ground by knocking down his jump shot at the end.

He was set to come to Toronto to defend his skills title but has been forced to back out due to injury, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

After tweaking his ankle Wednesday night in a loss to Portland, Houston Rockets guard Patrick Beverley will not travel to Toronto to defend his skills competition title at All-Star Weekend, league sources told The Vertical.

Beverley wants to rest the ankle over the All-Star break for the Rockets’ final push to make the Western Conference playoffs.

This has yet to be confirmed by the NBA, nor has a replacement been named, but no doubt Woj is accurate on this. No player would risk further injury for a skills competition.

The Rockets have lost six-of-eight, and with the loss to the Blazers Wednesday night have fallen out of the playoffs in the Western Conference. They will need all their players healthy, including Beverley, but they will also need a lot more than that to climb back in the race — they need to start playing defense, they need to stop becoming disinterested for large stretches of the game, and they need someone in that locker room to step up and be a serious leader of men.