Chicago Bulls' Deng goes to the basket against the Miami Heat during second half of their NBA basketball game in Chicago

NBA Power Rankings: Rose or no Rose, Bulls back on top

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In our penultimate power rankings, the Bulls grab the top spot. They have been the best team in the league in the regular season, but there remain questions about them in the playoffs.

1. Bulls (45-14, last week ranked number 1). Huge win over the Heat last week — a little for the standings but a lot for their psyche. They benched the rusty Derrick Rose in OT and beat a Heat team that really wanted it. Nice boost of confidence for the Bulls, but they meet the Heat again Thursday and that story could be different. And by the time these teams meet in the Eastern Conference finals they will be different again.

2. Thunder (44-16, LW 4). This was the season we expected the Thunder to take strides forward to be contenders and at times they look like that. Then there are other times they look like they still have a lot of lessons to learn (see their loss to the Clippers). We will find out come the playoffs.

3. Spurs (42-16, LW 1). They remain one game back of the Thunder for the top seed in the West, but while the Thunder need that spot the Spurs couldn’t care less. With a back-to-back-to-back this week (Lakers are middle game Tuesday) expect some Spurs stars to sit.

4. Heat (41-17, LW 2). The Heat’s big three knocked down shots in a win over the Knicks. That’s nice. They need to get some of the role players knocking down outside looks or the lane is going to clog up for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in the playoffs, and that will spell trouble.

5. Celtics (35-25, LW 5). Big game Friday in Atlanta, winning could determine home court in the first round. In a big game, how much more do you trust the Celtics more than the Hawks? Exactly.

6. Pacers (38-22, LW 9). We keep talking about how everyone wants to avoid the 7/8 seeds in the East because they don’t want the Heat or Bulls in the first round. But anyone who thinks the Pacers are a pushover at the 3 seed is mistaken — this is a good team who was won 8 of their last 9. Frank Vogel needs some coach of the year votes.

7. Lakers (39-22, LW 7). These wins with Kobe Bryant sitting (they are 4-1) could benefit the Lakers come the playoffs — they are being forced to use their size and skill advantage up front to win, not rely on hero ball. If they integrate Kobe into this they are a better team, if they revert to their old selves they will be out in the second round.

8. Clippers (37-23 LW 8). Blake Griffin told me last week the Clippers run of great play has been based on them playing better defense, which they then convert to some easy transition points that gets them going. Yes, that and Chris Paul killing it in the fourth.

9. Grizzlies (35-25, LW 6). They may have lost to the Spurs this week, but they remain the team nobody wants to face in the first round — the Clippers and Lakers are fighting to win the Pacific and avoid them. Really soft schedule the rest of the way for Memphis.

10. Hawks (35-24, LW 10). They laid an egg Sunday and lost to Toronto, now they need to beat the Celtics Friday to have a shot at home court in the first round against those same Celtics.

11. Mavericks (34-26, LW 12). They have played well the last week… do you want Nowitzki and the defending champs in first round. They may be beatable but they will not be an easy out.

12. Knicks (31-29, LW 11). They got their key win over the Bucks in Milwaukee — they are not going to fall out of the playoffs now. The question is, can they make up three games on a Magic team in free fall? If so, they get the red hot Pacers instead of the more athletic and deeper Heat in the first round.

13. Nuggets (33-27, LW 16). They won the first game of a home-and-home against Houston, which was key to them holding a playoff spot. Win the second game of that set and they will get a lovely gift basket from the Suns.

14. Rockets (32-28, LW 13). Monday night game against Denver is huge — win and they have the tiebreaker over Denver, lose and they are in a real dogfight with Phoenix the final week.

15. 76ers (31-28, LW 18). Where they land in the playoffs could well be set up by the back-to-back-to-back they have that starts Monday in Orlando. Win that game and they can dream of the six seed.

16. Suns (31-29, LW 15). Scrappy team that will just not go away… kind of like that point guard of theirs. One game back of the Rockets (with five to play) but the Suns have the tiebreaker.

17. Jazz (31-30, LW 17). Soft schedule to finish out the season — four of five at home — but they are going to need some help to make up the two games and catch the Rockets now.

18. Magic (34-25, LW 14). This is the team everyone wants to play in the first round now. Even if Dwight Howard comes back (and I don’t expect it) he and the Magic will not be 100 percent. They have six games left and are going to lose a lot of them but will not fall out of the playoffs.

19. Bucks (29-31, LW 19). They had their chance, at home with the lead against the Knicks, and they missed their final five shots while J.R. Smith knocked down his. They have to make up 2.5 games in less than two weeks, it’s not likely.

20. Blazers (28-32, LW 20). Wes Mathews has played well with more minutes. So, there’s that for a bright side.

21. Pistons (22-37, LW 22). They had a real chance to beat the Bulls Sunday, which could have dramatically lowered their lottery odds. Tough to be a fan of these teams where you know losing might be best long term but you can’t just root for it.

22. Raptors (22-39, LW 24). They beat Boston and Atlanta over the weekend. Dwane Casey is not going to get any Coach of the Year votes, but he’s done a fantastic job considering the roster and injuries.

23. Timberwolves (25-36, LW 21). They are falling apart at the end of the season, with all their best players sidelined with injuries. So, another spring has come to Minnesota.

24. Nets (22-39, LW 25). Of course Gerald Wallace is out injured, he’s a Net now.

25. Hornets (18-42, LW 27). Finally, good stable ownership that will not move the team. And the best news is Dell Demps and Monty Williams will get to keep their jobs. Oh, and they have a three game winning streak now.

26. Warriors (22-37, LW 23). With David Lee shut down for the season they are in full tank mode — if they get to one of the seven worst records in the game they get to keep their pick this draft. (They are 9th worst right now.)

27. Kings (20-41, LW 26). The fans of Sacramento deserve better than this. Better than this team, better than this ownership, better than their team moving.

28. Cavaliers (20-38, LW 28). They got blown out by a Magic team about to start pulling guys out of the stands to fill out the roster. Well done.

29. Wizards (14-46, LW 29). Kevin Seraphin needs to be part of the future. Whatever that future is.

30. Bobcats (7-51, LW 30). They have lost 16 in a row and that may not describe how bad they are. The Bobcats still need one more win this season to avoid the worst winning percentage in NBA history.

Kings GM Vlade Divac: Keeping George Karl right move ‘for now’

Sacramento Kings head coach George Karl reacts in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Memphis Grizzlies, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
AP Photo/Brandon Dill
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The Kings reportedly planned to fire George Karl in the coming days.

Then, Sacramento general manager Vlade Divac met with Karl and changed course.

So, Karl must feel secure, right?

Divac on The Grant Napear Show, as transcribed by Sactown Royalty:

“For now.”

Oh boy.

If there’s a power struggle between Karl and DeMarcus Cousinsand there’s evidence of one – why would Cousins (or any players against Karl) let up now? Perhaps, Divac is more committed to Karl than that sounds, but by saying “for now” he opens the door to more campaigning for Karl’s ouster.

This is the worst vote of confidence I’ve ever seen.

As it has for months, Karl’s firing still feels inevitable before his contract expires.

Report: Hawks having ‘serious internal discussions’ about trading Al Horford, Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver

New York Knicks small forward Metta World Peace (51) shoots after drawing a foul as Atlanta Hawks shooting guard Kyle Korver (26), center Al Horford (15), and point guard Jeff Teague stand near during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
AP Photo/John Minchillo
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In the seven years between 2008 and 2014, 10 teams  made the playoffs at least five times:

  1. Spurs
  2. Hawks
  3. Celtics
  4. Bulls
  5. Mavericks
  6. Nuggets
  7. Lakers
  8. Heat
  9. Thunder
  10. Magic

Atlanta – which joins San Antonio as the only ones to reach the postseason all seven years – is the only team on the list not to reach even the conference finals in that span.

The Hawks: Often good, never great.

Until last year.

Atlanta won a franchise-record 60 games and reached the conference finals for the first time. (Its last comparable playoff advancement came in 1970, when it reached the division finals, before the league split into conferences.) The Hawks had four All-Stars: Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver – all of whom returned for this season.

But Atlanta has fallen back into the heap of good, not great, teams in the East. The Hawks are 30-24 and fifth in the conference, 1.5 games from both third and seventh.

Where do they go from here?

Kevin Arnovitz and Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

The Atlanta Hawks are engaged in serious internal discussions ahead of the Feb. 18 trade deadline about the future direction of their team and their core players, including three All-Stars from their historic 2014-15 team: Al Horford, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver.

Sources close to the organization emphasize that if the Hawks become active in the next week, it will not be to “blow it up,” but rather an attempt to exchange their existing players for commensurate, if younger, talent.

Those sources also said head coach/president of basketball operations Mike Budenholzer isn’t inclined to dismantle a team less than nine months removed from a conference finals appearance.

So, Atlanta wants to trade it players for equally talented replacements who are younger (and, therefore, probably cheaper)? Good luck with that.

It’s instructive that the Hawks are thinking about a shakeup, and this article contains plenty of detail worth exploring. But it seems unlikely their line of thinking actually leads to a major move.

The most pressing concern is Horford, who becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer. Already linked to the Pistons, he will likely draw multiple max offers – projected to be worth more than $145 million over five years from the Hawks and $108 million over four years from other teams.

Arnovitz and Windhorst:

Sources say that while ownership has pledged to both spend and to entrust the Hawks’ basketball minds to make basketball decisions, that figure, along with the overall tab — which would be one of the richest contracts in the NBA — has the Hawks’ brass a bit skittish.

It’s reasonable to be concerned. Horford turns 30 this summer, and while he also has a high basketball IQ, athleticism influences his on-court excellence. This is a tricky time to have a star up for a big contract.

The Hawks could face a question many teams in this position must answer: Would you rather “overpay” him or not have him at all?

I’d lean toward biting the bullet and paying Horford. The cap is skyrocketing, and with many players locked into old-money contracts, teams will have plenty to spend on free agents the next couple years. Horford, a borderline All-Star annually, is a huge part of Atlanta’s success. It’d be too difficult to replace him.

Plus, teams too often overthink committing big money to single player based on financial hesitation (though it has been less of a problem lately). The Hawks will probably spend a similar overall amount the next five years, anyway. Who cares whether Horford receives a huge share of that expenditure or it’s split equally among multiple lesser players based on overal spending? You can put just five players on the court. Generally, I’d rather sink more assets into fewer players.

But it all depends what the Hawks do with the rest of their roster. If they trade Korver and/or Teague to take a short-term step back, Horford could leave. Losing Horford for nothing is the worst-case scenario.

Atlanta’s best bet for getting a significant return in a Horford trade is working with him and his agent to find a team where he’d want to re-sign. The NBA prohibits any under-the-table agreements, but they happen. If Horford pledges to re-sign with a team, it will – justifiably – offer the Hawks more in a trade.

Short of that, I doubt they’ll get enough to justify dealing him. It’s just not worth it for other teams to offer Atlanta much now when they can try signing him outright in the summer.

A Teague trade seems most likely, because the Hawks already have his younger replacement on the roster – Dennis Schröder, who has made his desire to become a starting point guard well known.

Arnovitz and Windhorst:

Sources say the Indiana Pacers have made inquiries and have dangled guard George Hill as a possible swap. The Magic are also potential suitors for Teague, sources confirmed.

I’m not sure what Hill – who’s older than Teague – accomplishes for Atlanta. Both players make $8 million this year and next. Hill is a better defender and capable of playing shooting guard, but neither fact trumps the age difference. The Pacers would have to offer more.

Teague would improve the Magic’s backcourt shooting, which they desperately need. More importantly, this could signal Orlando isn’t completely sold on Elfrid Payton as its point guard of the future.

The Knicks are also reportedly interested in Teague, but they’re linked to any available point guard – and lack assets to get one now.

Finally, there’s Korver, who’s sneakily old – 35 next month. With him shooting nearly a career-low 38.3% on 3-pointers – great for almost everyone else – this seems like a bad time to trade him. But if a team wants help winning right now and values Korver highly, the Hawks should listen.

The downside of dealing Korver for younger players and/or draft picks is sending a signal that causes Horford to leave in free agency. So, if the Hawks trade Korver, they should consider trading Horford. And if they deal Horford, why not get more of the roster on the same timeline and also trade Teague?

One of the Hawks’ best on-court attributes is their cohesion, and building their roster is similarly related. If one domino falls, others could follow. The more Atlanta disrupts this roster, the more additional moves could make sense.

But given Budenholzer’s attitude and the team’s newfound connection with fans – especially important with a new owner – my guess is the Hawks try to keep their core in tact.

Good, not great, isn’t so bad.

NBA to teams: No Hack-a-Shaq on inbounds passer

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NEW YORK (AP) — NBA teams need to keep Hack-a-Shaq on the court, not the sideline.

The league sent a memo to teams and referees Tuesday clarifying that intentionally fouling a player inbounding the ball will be a delay of game violation – and possibly a technical foul.

The memo, sent from league executives Kiki Vandeweghe and Mike Bantom and obtained by The Associated Press, comes in response to questions after San Antonio’s Danny Green fouled Houston’s Clint Capela as Capela was attempting to inbound the ball in a Jan. 28 game.

Citing a specific rule in the rulebook, the memo says that if a defender crosses the sideline before the ball has been thrown, a delay of game will be assessed. If it comes in the last 2 minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, a technical foul will be called.

A technical will also be called if referees determine there was “unsportsmanlike contact” on the inbounder, and officials could also rule it a flagrant foul.

Grizzlies’ Marc Gasol breaks foot, out indefinitely

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Just when the Grizzlies are making a move – they’re fifth the West despite dropping two straight games in overtime after winning 9-of-10 – they lose their best player, Marc Gasol.

Grizzlies release:

The Memphis Grizzlies released today the following statement on behalf of Grizzlies General Manager Chris Wallace regarding Marc Gasol:

“This morning at Campbell Clinic, Marc underwent a thorough evaluation by team physicians. During the course of this evaluation, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) revealed a fracture in his right foot.

“Marc is a cornerstone of our franchise, and we are focused on getting him healthy. Marc will be out indefinitely and a further update will be provided after the All-Star Break.”

Gasol (7-1, 255) is averaging 16.6 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.35 blocks in 34.4 minutes in 52 games (all starts) this season.

Not only is Gasol the Grizzlies’ best player, he also plays their thinnest position.

Backup center Brandan Wright is injured, and Memphis has played parts of the season without a third center. The Grizzlies have been so desperate, they’ve signed Ryan Hollins multiple times – and that was with Gasol healthy.

Now, Memphis is in dire straights.

Here’s how the Grizzlies’ ratings change when Gasol is on the court to off:

  • Offensive: 102.8 to 99.5
  • Defensive: 102.9 to 103.3
  • Net: -0.1 to -3.8

And that undersells his impact. Gasol is the only Memphis player to start every game this season, so he has played with a variety of teammates – not just the team’s other top players. The Grizzlies’ dozen most-used lineups all include Gasol.

In other words, Gasol’s positive boost has also come with floormates who are typically backups. He’s not just along for the ride as his best teammates do the heavy lifting.

This injury obviously hurt Gasol, but it will also put several Memphis players in uncomfortable positions. The team’s next eight most-used players have all played a majority of their minutes with Gasol:

Gasol is an active and communicative defender and a good passer and screener. He’s easy to play with.

That’s a luxury his teammates will lose for a while.

Randolph will likely play more center and could even return to the starting lineup. He’s a nice individual defender, but needing him move quickly through rotations as the last line of defense is asking a lot. At least his low-post offense could work a little better with increased spacing if Memphis starts three wings between Conley and Randolph.

Another silver lining: This injury occurred before the trade deadline.

The Grizzlies could consider selling, but they owe the Nuggets a protected first-round pick. It’s protected top-five and 15-30 this year, top-five in 2017 and 2018 and unprotected in 2019. Memphis surely doesn’t want to convey the pick this year, which would guarantee a lottery selection. The ideal outcome is making the playoffs, guaranteeing the Grizzlies keep the pick this year, then remaining good next season and conveying a pick in the 20s.

It’s also unlikely they’d fall from they playoffs, though hardly impossible. They have a 4.5-game cushion over the ninth-place Trail Blazers

Plus, with Mike Conley entering unrestricted free agency this summer, Memphis surely doesn’t want to end the season with a poor taste in his mouth. It’ll be that much harder to secure a decent playoff seed and avoid the Warriors or Spurs – or even Thunder – in the first round. Heck, there’s no guarantee the Grizzlies have Gasol for the postseason.

Making a small trade for a serviceable probably makes most sense. Memphis will still rely on Gasol, once he gets healthy, for quite a while. He’s in the first season of a five-year max contract.

But the Grizzlies sure could use a little help as they enter this very difficult stretch.