NBA Power Rankings: Top spot now Thunderstruck

2 Comments

There can’t be any question about the Thunder in the top spot after the last 8 days, but there are questions about the Heat and the Bulls in the East. And the Celtics and Spurs as spoilers.

1. Thunder (40-12, last week ranked number 2). They beat the Heat, Bulls and Lakers in the last 8 days. Any other questions? Big test again this week as they get a rematch with the Heat, but I think the questions about who is coming out of the West have been answered. Unless it is the…

2. Spurs (36-14, LW 3). Winners of seven in a row now and the question is “are they legit contenders?” I still think they struggle in the playoffs if they have to face one of the big scoring front lines (the Grizzlies and Lakers) but you can be sure the Thunder would like to avoid them.

3. Bulls (42-12, LW 1). Despite the ugly loss to the Thunder there can’t be any complaints about how this team has performed without Derrick Rose and Richard Hamilton. Miami isn’t putting any pressure on them to rush Rose back, but you still want him to return about six games or so before the playoffs to shake off all the rust and get in some game-speed action.

4. Heat (37-13, LW 4). Ugh. They are 1-7 on the road against playoff teams since the All-Star break. Is it because they are bored right now in the dog days of the season, or are they fundamentally flawed? They get a chance to redeem themselves against the Thunder this week, at home where they play well, and they also have the Grizzlies and Celtics coming up at home, too.

5. Lakers (33-20, LW 5). Getting thumped by the Thunder last week shows the gap between them and the Thunder right now, but even in their wins last week the Lakers look tired. The Lakers starters have been okay but the bench is a mess and will get tested more with Bynum out. Heading into the playoffs Mike Brown needs to get his key guys some rest. Key contest against the Clippers Wednesday.

6. Clippers (31-21 LW 10). Five straight wins has quieted the Vinny Del Negro talk — and they have looked good, especially Chris Paul of late. But all of the wins came at home. If they want to win the Pacific Division they need to beat the Lakers Wednesday, they also could use to beat Dallas Monday on the road. Good tests to see if this team is really a contender.

7. Celtics (30-22, LW 14). Impressive win against the Heat Sunday, but also had quality wins last week against Houston and Minnesota. They are going to win the Atlantic Division, which means avoiding the Heat or Bulls out of gate.

8. Mavericks (30-23, LW 8). They have had one of the toughest schedules in the league since the break — a lot of good teams and having to face them on little rest. Dirk Nowitzki has found his groove again, scoring more than 20 points consistently now.

9. Magic (32-20, LW 6). They looked pretty bad without Dwight Howard (out with back spasms) and they will continue to until he returns (day-to-day). They are built around him at both ends of the floor.

10. Grizzlies (28-22, LW 11). Right now it shapes up to be a Lakers vs. Grizzlies first round matchup — which would be epic. And the rest of the West is rooting for that because nobody wants to take on either of these front lines in the first round, let them battle it out amongst themselves.

11. Hawks (31-23, LW 7). Losses to Chicago and Philadelphia last week have you questioning this squad once the playoffs start. Pretty soft schedule from here on out is the good news for them.

12. Pacers (31-21, LW 9). They beat the Heat and lost to the Nets last week. So yes, they tend to be a bit up and down.

13. Knicks (27-26, LW 17). Without Jeremy Lin and Amare Stoudemire the focus will be on Carmelo Anthony, but the Knicks have been winning thanks to defense. Tyson Chandler is this team’s MVP.

14. 76ers (29-23, LW 12). Does anyone really think they are going to catch up to Boston for the Atlantic Division crown? No, nott since they finish this season mostly on the road. Which means they are going to draw Miami or Chicago in the first round.

15. Nuggets (28-24, LW 16). They handed the Bulls and Magic a loss last week and have gone from a team looking like they were sliding out of the playoffs to a team clutching one of the final spots. If they make the playoffs with this roster and all these injuries George Karl deserves a raise.

16. Rockets (28-25, LW 19). Houston plays Phoenix and Utah one more time each, both at home. Win those and they likely make it in. Goran Dragic hits the free agent market this summer and a lot of teams will be lined up to snatch him away.

17. Jazz (27-26, LW 13). Three tough losses last week, that could come back to haunt them. They need some quality wins, like Wednesday at Portland.

18. Suns (25-26 LW 15). No Grant Hill for a while (even though he is trying to get back) and now they head out on the road for seven of their last eight. That said, lots of games left against Denver, Houston and Utah — Phoenix’s fate is in it’s own hands.

19. Bucks (24-28, LW 18). Despite the loss in New York last week this team still has a shot at the playoffs, 2.5 games back of the Knicks. But they need to clean up on an upcoming home stand, and they need to find a way to get Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis clicking at the same time. (Good luck with that.)

20. Timberwolves (25-29, LW 20). Kevin Love is not your MVP but his effort to keep the Wolves in the playoff hunt deserves your admiration.

21. Blazers (24-28, LW 21). They started out just terribly after the All-Star Break but have turned it around some of late thanks to… J.J. Hickson? In part. He’s shooting 65 percent since coming to Portland.

22. Pistons (19-33, LW 25). They are the best of the NBA’s bad teams. That and $4 gets you a latte at Starbucks.

23. Nets (19-35, LW 26). Three wins in a row and Deron Williams is playing well. Portland fans would like to thank you for not tanking.

24. Kings (18-34, LW 23). No team has improved more statistically from before the All-Star break to after it, in part thanks to the entertaining three guard combo of Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Thornton and Tyreke Evans.

25. Warriors (20-31, LW 22). They are doing a good job of tanking without actually looking like they are tanking — they hang close in games then just find a way to lose.

26. Raptors (18-35, LW 27). Don’t tell anyone, but the Raptors are playing fairly well on offense since Andrea Bargnani is playing well.

27. Cavaliers (17-33, LW 24). There is going to be either and 8.8 percent or 6.3 percent chance that the Cavaliers win the NBA lottery again (maybe even higher, if they keep tanking like they have been going 1-10 of late). Anthony Davis next to Kyrie Irving could be a lot of fun to watch.

28. Hornets (13-40, LW 28). When are they going to announce the sale of this team as official, anyway? I’m not asking for me, Mark Cuban wants to know.

29. Wizards (12-40, LW 29). If Nene were healthy they’d be a lot better… which is actually bad for draft reasons. So it’s all going to plan.

30. Bobcats (7-43, LW 30). Some radio talk show host in your town will start to make a case about how the Bobcats should take Thomas Robinson or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or somebody else ahead of Anthony Davis. That person is full of crap. The Bobcats just hope they get stuck with that choice.

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

Getty images
Leave a comment

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)

Leave a comment

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

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Leave a comment

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):

image

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:

image

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)

Leave a comment

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

With Jaylen Brown last night, literally.