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.

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.

Austin Rivers: Maybe I got a chance because Doc is my dad, but I know my swagger keeps me from succumbing to negativity

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Austin Rivers was the No. 10 pick out of Duke in 2012, and he struggled mightily his first few years in the NBA. His gaffes are so jolting, his teammates mock them. Yet, Rivers still carries himself as if he’s a star.

Chris Paul reportedly despised Doc Rivers over the Clippers coach’s favoritism toward his son. Former Clipper Glen Davis said Austin got paid because of his dad. Jamal Crawford reportedly chafed at the Clippers’ initial offer to him a couple years ago because it was lower than Austin’s.

These are issues Austin has been hearing about and handling for years.

Monday’s Clippers-Rockets game – Paul’s return to L.A. – was a breaking point, though.

An injured Austin stood on the sidelines talking trashing during the game, sparking a confrontation that got Trevor Ariza and Blake Griffin ejected. After the game, Austin reportedly continued jawing with Ariza as the Houston forward charged toward the Clippers’ locker room (drawing a two-game suspension).

Again in the crosshairs, Austin is opening up.

Rivers, via Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

“People can say whatever they want about me and my father [LA Clippers coach Doc Rivers],” the guard told ESPN during a lengthy interview Wednesday night. “I get it. I can even put my ego aside and understand why people don’t like the situation. When I was growing up and I’d see the coach’s son, you’d be like, ‘He sucks. He’s only on the team because of his dad.’ So I get it.”

“People are like, ‘Well, his dad gave him his chance.’ Is that true or not? I don’t know. It might be,” Rivers said. “[But] could it be that my pops knew how good I could be because he’s my pops?

“I know what the narrative is on me,” Rivers said. “It’s because I come from money and I have a swagger and confidence about me.

“[But] if I didn’t have this confidence or swagger in myself, I wouldn’t be built to handle the negativity that I’ve gotten. I would’ve already broken down years ago because I’ve gotten this since high school. I’ve turned it into a fuel and it’s helped me. I go into each away arena and it’s rough, because of the s— I hear. This chip on my shoulder, this swagger and confidence, it helps me. If I didn’t have it, I would not be in the NBA.”

“I’m not saying poor me. There’s people that have real problems,” Rivers said. “So don’t feel bad for me. I don’t need anybody’s sympathy. I’m having my best year yet. I’m trying to get back and healthy so I can help our team.

This is more relatable than Austin has ever sounded, and I applaud him for sharing a more authentic point of view rather than maintaining the facade of an aloof superstar. He deserves better treatment from the public than he has gotten, though he’s responsible for the much-maligned persona he has displayed.

Austin hasn’t received nearly enough credit for how much he has improved. Part of that is due to just how bad he was when he entered the NBA, but he has gotten steadily better. That shows how hard he works.

Some of the criticism of Austin and Doc is fair. Some is not. They probably should have better-anticipated what Doc trading for then re-signing Austin would be perceived, inside and outside the Clippers. But it’s too late to undo those deals, so they’re trying to manage the situation the best they can.

Austin’s interview here is a good step.

Reunited with Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza embracing role as Rockets’ glue guy

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Chris Paul and Trevor Ariza went out for dinner together Dec. 8, 2011. They were back in Paul’s condo when the star point guard was thrown headfirst into one of the NBA’s biggest controversies.

New Orleans agreed to trade Paul to the Lakers, but the league – which was operating the New Orleans franchise while it was for sale – vetoed the deal.

“It was crazy,” Paul said.

Paul and Ariza, then New Orleans teammates, have reunited with the Rockets. This time, Ariza might have more than a front-row seat to Paul’s saga. Ariza could be a central character in the story.

Of course, Paul came to Houston to escape the Clippers, team up with James Harden and try to win a championship. But Paul also said his friendship with Ariza “had a whole lot to do with it.”

Three Rockets starters – Paul, Ariza and Clint Capela – will be free agents next summer. Paul is the obvious priority, and general manager Daryl Morey said Clint Capela, who will be restricted, “couldn’t price himself out” of Houston.

The Rockets already have nearly $76 million in 2018-19 and more than $85 million in 2019-20 committed to just five players (Harden, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Nene). New owner Tilman Fertitta has expressed limitations on paying the luxury tax.

So, where does that leave Ariza? And perhaps more importantly, how would whether or not Houston re-signs Ariza affect Paul?

“Trev, like I said, is a good friend of mine. We talk about any and everything,” Paul said. “But, when that decision comes, I’m sure we both will make the best decision that’s best for my family and best for his family.”

If the Rockets discard Ariza to to sign another of Paul’s friends, LeBron James, it probably wouldn’t be a problem. Really, worldly veterans like Paul and Ariza would likely understand if Houston lets Ariza walk even without replacing him with LeBron.

But how much risk do the Rockets want to take? Would they chance losing their big acquisition after only one season? Remember, they were reportedly reluctant to deal Ariza in a package for a third star last summer because of his Paul connection.

That bond is already showing this season.

When Paul’s new teammates questioned Ariza after the trade about Paul’s’ personality, Ariza assured them Paul, though extremely competitive, is a “real nice dude.” Houston is outscoring opponents by 7.7 points per 100 possessions when Paul and Ariza share the court. And in Paul’s highly charged return to L.A., no Rocket answered the emotion of the night more than Ariza, who got ejected then reportedly led a post-game charge into the Clippers locker room, drawing a two-game suspension.

His point guard might be (re)new(ed), but Ariza still has the same overall job description – steady, unheralded contributor.

“I’ve been doing the same thing for a long time,” Ariza said.

His production is in line with Ryan Anderson’s and Eric Gordon’s. But Anderson’s salary nearly triples Ariza’s, and Gordon – who also earns more money – gets the plaudits of being reigning Sixth Man of the Year because he comes off the bench.

Ariza’s modest windfall: comfort. In his fourth straight year with the Rockets, this stint in Houston has been his longest anywhere.

A second-round pick in 2004, Ariza shuffled between the Knicks, Magic and Lakers. He excelled in the 2009 playoffs, helping the Lakers win the title in a contract year. But the Lakers let him walk to sign Ron Artest (who later changed his name to Metta World Peace) – a particular disappointment for Ariza, who grew up in Los Angeles. So, Ariza agreed to terms with the Rockets for nearly $34 million over five years. But in his only season with an above-average usage, Ariza underwhelmed, and Houston traded him to New Orleans, where he teamed with Paul. In cost-cutting mode after Paul, New Orleans sent Ariza to the Wizards. He parlayed a career year in Washington into a four-year, $32 million contract with the Rockets in 2014.

Along the way, Ariza developed a 3-point shot that wasn’t at all on his résumé his first few seasons. He picked up tricks of the trade defensively. And he displayed professionalism and a strong work ethic.

He isn’t an elite outside shooter, but he shoots well enough to provide clearly efficient scoring and floor-spacing. He isn’t an elite defender, but he can credibly guard all five positions. Important and perhaps the most overlooked aspect of his game, he maintains his two-way effectiveness over long stretches.

Only Ariza, Jimmy Butler, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Paul George, Jrue Holiday and Ben Simmons rate as above average both offensively and defensively by ESPN’s real plus-minus while playing 35 minutes per game.

The 32-year-old Ariza is easily the oldest of that group. He keeps in excellent shape, playing 36.2 minutes per game, an age-playing time combination matched by only LeBron James, whose workload has been deeply dissected.

While Luc Mbah a Moute was injured and before Houston signed Gerald Green, Ariza played more than 41 minutes in six straight games last month.

“I’m real aware that we’re playing him too many minutes,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “But he says, ‘Coach, I’m fine. It doesn’t bother me.’ During the game, he’s never winded.'”

Ariza’s steadiness is historic considering how he entered the league. Since the NBA instituted a two-round draft in 1989, he ranks eighth among second-rounders in career games:

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Ariza says he has always focused competing against the man in front of him, not caring about where he was drafted or contract status.

That approach has taken Ariza a long way in his 14-year career. He has earned a healthy living playing basketball and respect from teammates and coaches – but not job security.

He’s key to the Rockets’ present and future, but with his contract expiring, that can mean a number of outcomes.

“It’s there. You know it’s there,” Ariza said. “But you that’s not what I put all my focus into.

“I’m just going to go out and play my game and do my job, and whatever happens happens.”

Bulls’ Kris Dunn breaks teeth on dunk landing (video)

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Kris Dunn struggled in the first three quarters of the Bulls’ 119-112 loss to the Warriors last night. Then, he and Chicago played better in the fourth quarter.

Yet, that was the worst period for Dunn – because this happened.

Bulls:

Ouch.