NBA Power Rankings: Top spot now Thunderstruck

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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.

Magic’s Aaron Afflalo suspended two games for swing at Nemanja Bjelica

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This wasn’t two guys yelling into a locker room after a game, this was an actual fight. With an actual haymaker punch being thrown — and missing.

Aaron Afflalo and Nemanja Bjelica had been going back-and-forth all game Tuesday night, then it bubbled over when Jamal Crawford missed a jumper, Bjelica charged right at Afflalo while going for an offensive board, Afflalo blocked him like an offensive lineman, and then it got out of control.

The league announced Thursday that Afflalo has been suspended two games for throwing a haymaker. Both men were ejected from that game, but there is no further punishment for Bjelica (which is fair, Afflalo was the instigator here, Bjelica ended it with a headlock).

Glad to see this suspension was more than one game — if Trevor Ariza and Gerald Green get two games for an incident where there wasn’t a punch thrown, this had to be at least equal to that.

LeBron James says this season has been “most challenging” one

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Kyrie Irving is gone. His replacement, Isaiah Thomas, missed the first couple months of the season and is still trying to get into game shape and find his groove on the court with a new team. Other players have missed games, Kevin Love has moved to center, and the Cavaliers have looked older and slower — particularly on defense — and with that the cloud of LeBron James potentially leaving the team this summer gets darker and darker.

Throw in that LeBron — in his 15th NBA season — is eighth in the entire league in total minutes played, and his usage rate is 10th in the league when he is on the floor, and you can feel the burden on him.

LeBron has responded with an MVP-level season, but as the Cavaliers have struggled going 2-8 in their last 10 games, he admitted to Dave McMenamin of ESPN that this season has been very hard.

“It’s been very challenging,” James said after practice Wednesday. “Just from the simple fact of how many guys have been in and out. This is a difficult year for our team. Seems like I say that every year, but this one has been even more challenging.

“With everybody who has been out and coming back in, and the rotations, and things of that nature, it’s been very challenging on our team. But we have to figure it out. At the end of the day, we have a game every other day or every two days just like everybody else in the NBA. We have to go out and play.”

The roster shakeup of losing Irving — and with Thomas still trying to find his spots with this team after missing so much time — along with the other injuries is hard to underestimate. This goes beyond the usual mid-season Cavaliers malaise, with this roster they don’t have the offense to cover up the glaring defensive issues that have plagued them since last season (they were 29th in the NBA in defense after the All-Star break last season).

Also, LeBron’s comment seems to be part of the Cavaliers coming to the realization that they are not good enough to win a title with this team as constructed. In past years they believed if they got it together they could compete with anyone, after Monday’s loss to the Warriors they seem to realize that is not the case. Maybe that attitude changes come the playoffs — get out of the East, which they still have to be favorites to do, and they get a shot — but reality seems to have hit this roster.

Kings will shut down veterans for some games, rookie Harry Giles for rest of season

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The Kings foolishly strayed from rebuilding last summer by signing George Hill, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter to relatively expensive contracts. Those additions came despite Sacramento already having veterans Garrett Temple and Kosta Koufos.

The plan has predictably failed. The Kings have the NBA’s worst offense and worst defense and are 13-31.

That’s bad, but not quite bad enough. Not in the last year Sacramento has its own first-round pick before conveying its selection as a result of a ridiculous salary dump a few years ago.

So, in a transparent bid to break a tie with the Hawks and Magic for the NBA’s worst record and tank to the top seed in the lottery/develop young players already on the roster, the Kings are sitting those veterans on a rotating basis.

Sacramento is also shutting down No. 20 pick Harry Giles, who hasn’t played this season.

James Ham of NBC Sports California:

Both management and the coaching staff is on the same page with the decision, NBC Sports California has confirmed. Two or three players will sit each night as they team explores what they have in youngsters.

“Going forward, what I’m going to do is, we’re going to play a rotation where two of our five veterans are going to be out every night. It might be some times there’ll be three. It’s an opportunity for some other guys to get some minutes as we go throughout the course of the season. I’ve got it laid out…I’ve got about five or six games laid out, and every week I’ll go out again because you want to communicate with those guys when they’re not going to play. Other guys, they’ve got to be ready. If you’re in the first three years of your contract, you can expect to play a little, or a lot, or none, but you should be ready to play,” Joerger told the media after the Kings’ loss to the Thunder on Monday night.

This is smart, though it’s also an opportunity it would have been smarter not to sign Hill, Randolph and Carter in the first place. Though those veterans might not be thrilled with the direction of the franchise, at least they’re getting paid. And they should know their rest days far enough in advance to enjoy the reduced workloads.

Younger Kings – including De'Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Willie Cauley-Stein, Buddy Hield and Skal Labissiere – should have a chance to spread their wings and grow. That could help down the road, when Sacramento has a chance to win meaningfully. This year, the difference between the fully operational Kings and tanking Kings is minimal on the court, but could make a huge difference in draft position.

As for Harry Giles, it’s strange how the Kings are touting him as fully healthy while shutting him down for the rest of the season. The best way to keep him his healthy is never play him. At some point, they must test him on the court. Perhaps, giving him even more time to strengthen his knee is the right approach. But if he needs this long, can really accurately be described as entirely healthy?

Report: LeBron James wins overall All-Star fan vote

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For the first time in a dozen years, a player has won the All-Star fan vote for consecutive years.

LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry, Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett have all taken turns as leader since Yao Ming claimed the vote lead in 2005 and 2006. Apparently, LeBron will retain the top spot he held last year.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

The fan vote means less than ever, with media and players also playing a role in who starts the All-Star game and a draft assigning players to teams. But the leading fan-vote-getter in each conference still matters, as those will be the captains for the draft.

LeBron will be one. Warriors Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry were neck-and-neck for the other captaincy.

Last I heard, the NBA was leaning toward giving the top overall fan-vote-getter the first pick in the All-Star draft, but that hadn’t been formally decided. So, it’ll probably be on LeBron to select his top choice among the other eight starters, who will be announced tonight. (All starters must be drafted first, so each team still has five starters.)

One more time: Let LeBron make that pick on television. He doesn’t mind.