NBA Power Rankings: Who forgot to tell Spurs they are old?

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Can you picture a San Antonio vs. Miami finals? It’s not that hard, if you try.

1. Spurs (40-14, last week ranked number 2). Eleven wins in a row and they are percentage points ahead of the Thunder (and one ahead of them in the loss column). Are they title contenders? They have four rings with this core, have the best coach in the league and are a matchup problem for the Thunder. I still wonder about them against the big front lines of the Lakers or Grizzlies, but with a healthy Manu Ginobili it’s close. The Spurs need everything to go perfectly, but that’s what we said about the Mavericks last year.

2. Heat (40-15, LW 4). They redeemed themselves with a quality win against the Thunder, then right after came out and laid an egg against Memphis. As he has all season, LeBron keeps putting up big numbers when Dwyane Wade sits. Big tests this week with the Celtics, Bulls and Knicks on the docket.

3. Bulls (43-14, LW 3). They got Derrick Rose back with a few weeks to work off the rust before the playoffs start. Perfect. Their only question is who they want to see in the first round more: Sixers, Bucks or Knicks?

4. Thunder (40-15, LW 1). Tough week of games last week and the Thunder drop three straight. Sometimes they still look like a young team learning how to win.

5. Celtics (32-24, LW 7). The Celtics defense has been stifling, and they are getting enough offense to get the wins. A player of Ray Allen’s stature coming off the bench would be a problem in some locker rooms, but not this one.

6. Grizzlies (32-23, LW 10). This is the team nobody in the West wants to face in the first round — and they are still not fully hitting their stride (Zach Randolph could play better). Huge showdown with the Spurs Thursday, that will be fun.

7. Lakers (35-22, LW 5). They won the game they needed to win against the Clippers, but if Kobe Bryant is in a walking boot too long they might give those gains back. That said, no doubt some rest for Kobe is a good idea at this point, whether it’s forced by an injury or not.

8. Clippers (34-22 LW 6). If the playoffs started today, they would get Memphis in the first round. Blake Griffin vs. the Memphis front line — that would be fun to watch. Griffin is creating some bad blood wherever he goes (which made that game against the Lakers fun).

9. Pacers (34-22, LW 12). Nice wins against the Thunder and Hawks last week… then they get smoked by Boston. In the wins their offense seems to be clicking, they are going to need that if they have plans of advancing in the playoffs.

10. Hawks (34-23, LW 11). They continue to beat the teams they should, we’ll see how they do with Boston and Orlando on the docket this week.

11. Knicks (29-27, LW 13). They keep finding ways to win for Mike Woodson — Tyson Chandler keeping balls alive and tipping them out to Carmelo Anthony for key threes. But they remain just a game ahead of the nine seed Bucks — big showdown Wednesday with Milwaukee.

12. Mavericks (31-26, LW 8). Lamar Odom is gone and that’s the smart move by the organization, but he was not the root of all they offensive and defensive problems. This is not the title contender they were last year, a deal Cuban made before the season to get cap space.

13. Rockets (31-25, LW 16). If the playoffs started today the Rockets would face the Lakers — and Los Angeles has a recent history of struggling to contain quick point guards. Like Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic. Plus Courtney Lee is balling of late.

14. Magic (33-23, LW 9). Combine the public “Dwightmare” with Dwight Howard’s ongoing back issues (he is out Monday night) and this has become the team everybody in the East wants to see in the first round of the playoffs. Didn’t think that would be the case back in early February.

15. Suns (29-27, LW 18). Michael Redd, who everyone had pretty much written off, is back and contributing. If the Suns’ warlocks, er, training staff can keep Steve Nash’s back healthy they may just make the playoffs.

16. Nuggets (30-26, LW 15). If they are going to hold on to their playoff spot the five-game stretch starting Friday will determine it — Lakers, home-and-home with the Rockets, Clippers, then Suns.

17. Jazz (29-27, LW 17). They are barely holding on to their playoff hopes, and they have the Spurs, Rockets and Grizzlies this week. They need some big wins to keep those playoff hopes alive.

18. 76ers (29-27, LW 14). Is anybody falling faster and harder than these guys? Early in the season they were the model of team play and defense, now they are close to falling out of the playoffs. A soft schedule this week could be a boost.

19. Bucks (28-28, LW 19). This week will tell the tale with Milwaukee — they have a Wednesday showdown with the Knicks, although they are more likely to catch plummeting Philly or Orlando.

20. Blazers (27-30, LW 21). Got a fantastic home win over Dallas last week — this is the kind of team that can rise up and beat anybody. They can be your spoiler.

21. Timberwolves (25-32, LW 20). Michael Beasley is back. That should fix everything. (To be fair, he was good in his one game back. Still.)

22. Pistons (21-35, LW 22). With Brandon Knight and Greg Monroe you’d like to think they have a base to build on for the future, but this is a roster that still needs a lot of work to move forward.

23. Warriors (22-33, LW 25). They are 4-12 since the trade of Monta Ellis, but remember they only get to keep their lottery pick if it is one of the top three.

24. Raptors (20-36, LW 26). Andrea Bargnani was back… and then out again with the same calf the second half of last game. With him they have a decent offense and you can see glimmers of hope. Without him, it’s the DeMar DeRozan show.

25. Nets (20-37, LW 23). They have had some nice little wins of late, and in the East where teams need wins this is not a pushover — Deron Williams can change any game.

26. Kings (19-37, LW 24). As bad as things have been on the court, if this city loses the team at the Board of Governors this week it will be a true disaster. Can the other owners really reward the Maloofs for their behavior in this stadium situation?

27. Hornets (15-41, LW 28). Eric Gordon is back, Jarrett Jack is out. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.

28. Cavaliers (18-35, LW 27). With Kyrie Irving out this team may have a top 4 pick in the draft to pair with their young point guard next season. But don’t say they are tanking.

29. Wizards (12-44, LW 29). This team wasn’t good with Nene in the lineup, they are painful without him.

30. Bobcats (7-47, LW 30). If they get one more win before the season ends they will avoid having the worst winning percentage in the history of the league. That’s quite a lofty goal but one they can reach.

Michele Roberts: Cap smoothing was ‘disgraceful request’ by NBA

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In 2016, new national TV contracts pushed the NBA’s salary cap from $70 million to $94.143 million – a larger jump than over the entire previous decade. Free agents cashed in majorly that summer.

But now, the cap is leveling off. It went up to just $99.093 million last year and is projected to reach only $101 million this year and $108 million next year. With so many lucrative long-term 2016 contracts still on the books, free agents the following few years haven’t gotten and won’t get comparable compensation.

The problem was predictable, and the NBA proposed a solution at the time – cap smoothing.

Players get 49%-51% of Basketball Related Income (BRI) each year, the precise amount determined by formula. The salary cap is set so teams’ payrolls collectively reach that range. (There are procedures if teams fall short or pay too much.)

With cap smoothing, the NBA would have set an artificially lower cap for 2016-17. Players would have gotten less than 49%-51% of BRI in salary, but presumably, the league would have distributed the difference to players after-the-fact. That way, all players – not just 2016 free agents – would cash in.

But the players union rejected the plan.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has looked back longingly, wishing the union approved. National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts, um, has not.

Roberts, in a Q&A with Paul Flannery of SB Nation:

When the salary explosion happened and you rejected the smoothing idea that the NBA proposed, has anything that has happened in the last few years caused you to reconsider that stance?

No, in fact it’s completely confirmed the correctness of that position. I delight and the players delight in reading about some of these contracts because they know they absolutely deserve it.

There was going to be no smoothing of the owners’ profits at all. They were going to enjoy real money that reflected where we were financially as a game. Why in the world would players pretend that the game was not making as much money and therefore have smaller contracts?

It was an absurd suggestion, I thought personally. But what we did to make sure it wasn’t just Michele’s instinct was hire two separate economists to tell us whether this was something that was going to be of value to our players in the long run.

Independent of each other and not knowing what either of us felt, they both came almost saying, “Are you kidding? Why would you do this?”

I don’t have any regrets at all. I don’t think a single player does either.

Not a single owner came up to me and suggested that they thought we should do this. The league did. But I didn’t see any chorus of support from any of the owners. I thought it was a disgraceful request.

It’s impossible to evaluate whether Roberts was right without knowing the particulars of the NBA’s smoothing plan. That has not leaked.

She implies the league proposed artificially lowering the cap (which, again, is determined by formula based on revenue) for the first year or two of the new national TV deals without offering the players something in return. I find that hard to believe. At minimum, it seems likely the NBA would have distributed the rest of the 49%-51% of BRI to players not earned in traditional salary.

Not that that would have been enough for the players to favor cap smoothing.

Players’ salaries are sometimes based on their previous salaries under cap rules. If only a portion of players’ NBA-provided income was considered official salary, that could have debilitating long-term effects.

Perhaps, the NBA could have accounted for that. But it seems there was little negotiating here. The league made a proposal, and the union rejected it.

I’m not sure which side benefited, and evaluating that becomes even more difficult when dividing the sides into competing interests.

For argument’s sake, let’s say rejecting cap smoothing led to more money for players. That largely went to 2016 free agents. What about all the players still under contract that summer? They didn’t get to reap the rewards.

What’s a better measure – the amount of money players collectively gained by rejecting cap smoothing or the percentage of players who earned more money by rejecting cap smoothing? There’s no easy answer.

And there’s more than just money at stake. Most significantly, a lack of cap smoothing allowed the Warriors to sign Kevin Durant. How many players prefer that never would have been possible?

I’m just not as convinced as Roberts rejecting cap smoothing was the right call. At minimum, negotiating a cap-smoothing compromise could have worked.

Many players already under contract in the summer of 2016 have been waiting their turn for a huge payday. But wait until many of them find out their windfall wasn’t just delayed. It’s not coming. Then, some of Roberts’ constituents might question her insistence that rejecting cap smoothing was correct.

Paul George says he wants to sign with team for long haul

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Paul George is enjoying his time with the Thunder. He also likes the idea of playing near his hometown in Los Angeles.

How will George pick between the two in free agency?

One idea: Sign a short-term contract with Oklahoma City.

He’ll be eligible for a higher max-salary tier in two years (35% of the cap, up from 30%). He’d also get to play more with a prime Russell Westbrook while still having an out if the 29-year-old point guard drops off. George would likely remain with Carmelo Anthony next season, too, as Anthony likely opts in. That’d give the Thunder more time to jell and show what they can do.

It’d also give the Lakers’ young core time to develop. If a prolonged test run in Oklahoma City fizzles, the Lakers would probably look even more appealing in a couple years (provided they keep open or can create cap space).

But George doesn’t sound interested in such a plan.

George, via Fred Katz of The Norman Transcript:

“I’m not looking to bounce around and play for multiple teams throughout my career. The decision I make will ultimately be to build something,” he said. “The only way it’s going to be done. So, this next decision, whatever it is, is to make sure I’m there for a duration.”

George can always change his mind, and he isn’t bound to follow his public statements. But he’s quite open about revealing his thought process. I respect that.

This statement doesn’t hint at any particular team. He could sign long-term anywhere.

But it speaks to the stakes of his upcoming free agency. Any team that wants George better sign him this summer. He probably won’t be available again.

Clippers executive Jerry West raves about Warriors’ Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green

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A former great player who’s now an executive for a Los Angeles NBA team praised an opposing player.

The last time this happened, Lakers president Magic Johnson got fined for tampering with the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo.

How will Jerry West fare with these comments about Warriors stars Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green?

West, via the TK Show:

Kevin Durant, I don’t know. Obviously, he’s one of my favorite players I’ve ever watched play. His size, the efficiency that he plays the game is scary. And then you have Steph over there, your little, your next-door-neighbor kid. Let’s go play with him. And then you get out there, and then you find out, oh my god, this guy’s a killer. But pretty unique with that. And the complementary players, in their own right, they’re great. There’s Klay Thompson. He just goes and plays and never seeks any credit. He just plays and really competitive. Draymond, the guy that drives the horse. They’ve got some really unique players up there, and it’s still fun for me to watch. I watch them play. I root for them, because I know some of the players.

As a reminder, here’s what Johnson said about Antetokounmpo. Nick Friedell of ESPN:

As Johnson watches from afar, he can’t help but see and enjoy the parallels between his game and that of the Bucks big man.

“Oh yeah,” Johnson told ESPN recently. “With his ball-handling skills and his passing ability. He plays above the rim I never could do that. But in his understanding of the game, his basketball IQ, his creativity of shots for his teammates. That’s where we [have the] same thing. Can bring it down, make a pass, make a play. I’m just happy he’s starting in the All-Star game because he deserves that. And he’s going to be like an MVP, a champion, this dude he’s going to put Milwaukee on the map. And I think he’s going to bring them a championship one day.”

Two key differences between West and Johnson:

West didn’t help get his team fined for tampering last summer. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said there’s no clear line for tampering, but that the Lakers face a higher bar due their previous violations.

Johnson didn’t previously work for Milwaukee. West worked in Golden State’s front office while those players were there and knows them personally.

But Silver also provided a rough outline of when tampering will be enforced when addressing Johnson’s latest fine:

“It’s one thing when you’re asking a coach a question about an opposing team right after a game. It’s another issue when a general manager or president of basketball sort of gratuitously issues a statement that is complimentary of a star player on another team.

“In essence, what we’ve said to him, and it’s a clear message to other team executives, is that stop talking about star players on other teams. There are plenty of other issues they can address. And there is sensitivity around it throughout the league.”

Given that line, I don’t know how West avoid a fine – which is a shame.

What he said is harmless. No player is going to join another team due to benign compliments from an opposing executive.

It’s also a disservice to fans and West himself if he’s discouraged from speaking publicly about current players. The all-time great has valuable perspective, and he shouldn’t be silenced just because he works for an NBA team. His entire interview with Tim Kawakami of The Athletic is interesting. Everybody would lose if West turns down interviews in fear of a fine.

Meanwhile, more meaningful tampering – making plans on future contracts – is rampant. But that’s difficult to curb. So, the NBA enforces silly stuff like this.

The NBA never should have fined Johnson for the Antetokounmpo comments. It just opens too many cans of worms in a fight not worth fighting. Seriously, what’s the point?

If I were the Lakers, I’d be bothered if West skates free on this. But if I were West, I’d also resent a fine.

The league has backed itself into a dumb corner.

C.J. McCollum on how Portland’s defense, and his, became respectable

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LOS ANGELES — Portland’s much-maligned defense has been one of quieter turn-around stories of this NBA season.  It went from bottom 10 the past two seasons — and the reason the team has stalled out in the playoffs — to being 11th in the league this season, 2.8 per 100 possessions better than the season before.

Change doesn’t just happen. It started with work last June and July in the gym and has continued into the film room during the season. 

And it started with Portland’s leaders C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard.

The two elite guards were tired of hearing about their sub-par defense, so they prioritized defensive drills every off-season workout to get better on that end. They focused on their film study to how to get more stops. They made defense a priority and started to better use their experience in the league on that end.

“We work a lot with our strength and conditioning staff, we work with our assistant coaches on breaking down film, figuring out ways to find better angles, figuring out ways to move through screens better,” McCollum told NBC Sports of his improved defense. “But I think defensively understanding offenses a little better helps you be in better positions, understanding schemes, tendencies for certain players allows you to become a better defender. A lot of it is this is the NBA, guys are good and they’re going to score, you just have to make it as difficult as possible. Any advantages you can have make it a little bit easier.”

McCollum has been better this year. While all the defensive analytics metrics are flawed, McCollum’s defensive rating is 2.2 per 100 better than last season. Opponents are shooting 41.2 percent against him this season, down from last season by more than a percentage point. McCollum has become a solid defender, which is a step up, and with Jusuf Nurkic more of his mistakes can be erased.

For McCollum and Portland, the improvement is in part about continuity. One of the strengths of the Blazers is they have kept their core together for years and kept coach Terry Stotts on the sidelines. It leads to a familiarity both with each other and the opponents they face.

“We’ve had the same guys, same staff, the schemes have been the same, our approach has been the same, just our practices have been a little bit different in terms of concepts and what we’re trying to accomplish throughout the season,” McCollum said. “Our shell has been great, a top 10 team defensively (they are currently 11th after a rough stretch before the All-Star break). Obviously, there will be slippage at times, you’re going to give up points here or there, but we’ve been pretty consistent.”

“I just think our shell has been tighter, making them skip the ball across the court a lot of times, and picking it up if they try to hit the roll man or penetrate, making them have to work a little more in the halfcourt and prevent second-chance points.”

McCollum could have easily been an All-Star — the fifth-year guard out of Lehigh University is averaging 21.7 points per game and shooting 42.1 percent from three — but instead was in Los Angeles for the weekend with Verizon Up, the company’s reward program for its mobile customers available through the My Verizon app (of which McCollum said he’s a member). The program offers the chance to redeem points for a lot of experiences, such as being close to Justin Timberlake for a concert. At All-Star weekend members could get premium access to all of the weekend’s events, including the Verizon Up Member’s Lounge – a space to relax, eat and drink, and meet NBA players.

NBA players were looking to relax last weekend, too. McCollum said at this point in the season players (and coaches, and referees, basically everyone) needs the mental and physical break of a few days off. Portland returns to action tonight (Friday) against red-hot Utah, and the Blazers could use the win — they are the current seven seed in the West, but just 1.5 games up on missing the playoffs completely (and just two games up on the Jazz). On the other hand, Portland is just 2.5 games out of the three seed in the bunched up West.

“We go into every game thinking it’s crucial, every game we got to perform, you got to not lose at home, you got to not lose to teams under .500,” McCollum said of the team down the stretch run. “One bad week could have you at 10th, 11th place, one good week could have you at four or five.

“There comes a time (late in the season) when there’s a drop-off. Some teams are going to be a little more inconsistent down the stretch, but you just got to rise above.”

Portland leans on Lillard and McCollum not to let the team be inconsistent down the stretch. Those two have evolved into one of the most dangerous backcourts in the NBA.

“We do a good job of balancing each other out, of figuring out when to attack and when to pass off to the next guy,” McCollum said of him and Lillard. “I think it just comes with continuing to develop a relationship off the court where you have more trust, where you figure out how to communicate more effectively.

“A lot of it is non-verbal stuff on the court because it’s too loud and you can’t hear, or you just notice something and you look to see if he noticed it too then you just kind of play off of that.  A lot of times you learn on the fly. You get in a situation, you see certain things, and five games later it might be the same thing happening again and you kind of look like ‘you remember this?’ And you just kind of figure it out.”

Other team’s game plan against Portland is generally clear — get the ball out of Lillard and McCollum’s hands. Don’t let them get hot and beat us. Just good luck pulling that off, it’s not easy. Also, the improved play of Shabazz Napier has helped, giving Portland another shot creator off the bench.

“He’s been great, really shooting the ball well from the field, a good plus/minus… it helps when you have other guys out there who can handle the ball and create,” McCollum said.

But in the end, Portland’s playoff dreams will rise and fall with McCollum and Lillard, and that improved defense. McCollum and Lillard will get buckets. Will the Blazers get stops?

That’s where the offseason work, the continuity, and the experience all need to come together for Portland.

“(The improved defense) comes with experience, playing in big games, playing in certain environments where you get a better understanding of the play calling,” McCollum said. “We’ve played the Warriors like 16 times the last two years, so you start to understand certain tendencies (the Trail Blazers beat the Warriors just before the All-Star break). You know what guys like to do, certain plays they do out of timeouts, and just different options throughout the game, and as you play in the league more you play against certain players more and you get to figure out their tendencies and what they like to do in certain situations.”