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.

US men’s basketball enters a new world – without its stars

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The jerseys say USA, though that’s about all that will be recognizable.

When the U.S. men’s basketball team returns to action later this month, fans might be left wondering, “the red, white and who?”

The Americans are cautiously entering a whole new basketball world, one in which not only are the best U.S. players not available, but neither are any in the NBA. LeBron James, Kevin Durant and the stars might show up in a few years for the Basketball World Cup and Olympics, but only if a group of minor leaguers can get them there.

It’s all part of FIBA’s new qualifying format and the road starts at the AmeriCup 2017. It’s a tournament the Americans don’t need to win – and aren’t sure they can – but one they have to play to make themselves eligible for the events that will matter.

“It’s going to be really interesting,” USA Basketball men’s national team director Sean Ford said. “We don’t know. We’re flying blind a little bit.”

Even the Americans’ best-known commodity is a bit of an unknown now.

Jeff Van Gundy coached in the NBA Finals and is analyst for them every year on ABC, but he’s leading the U.S. team as an international basketball rookie. He is busy brushing up on the nuances of a game that can be played and officiated completely differently than in the U.S.

He begins Thursday in Houston for training camp, where he will seek the 12 players who will travel to Uruguay and possibly Argentina for the AmeriCup and the potentially better-prepared opponents who wait.

“What we have to do is match and exceed their passion, how hard we play, how together we are as a group,” Van Gundy said, “because when the U.S. has not succeeded in international competitions, it’s because there wasn’t as much maybe sacrifice as you need, or maybe you were deficient in one skill that was important.”

It’s the Americans’ first appearance in the former FIBA Americas tournament since 2007. Their starting lineup in that romp to gold – James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Jason Kidd and Dwight Howard – was one of the strongest the U.S. has ever assembled.

The 17 players in camp with Van Gundy include Kendall Marshall, Reggie Williams, Darius Morris and Marshall Plumlee, players good enough to play in the NBA but not stick.

The Americans haven’t needed to play in their zone championship since because they’ve won every Olympic and world title, exempting them from qualifying. But FIBA has revamped its qualification system to look more like soccer’s, where national teams will play home-and-away games against teams in their pool.

But some of the windows are during the NBA season – the opening games are scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend – and players under NBA contract won’t be permitted to play. So the Americans plan to primarily use players from the NBA G League, with perhaps some who have been playing overseas.

“Look, no one’s going to feel sorry for us. But we know that this is different and we’re going to have to figure out how to be successful in a different model,” Ford said. “There’s always unknowns, but there’s probably more unknowns because No. 1, we don’t know how good we need to be. We don’t know how good we can be.”

Ford considers the prospective players a notch below the NBA, calling them “survivors, grinders, competitors.” That’s far from the level that suited up for Mike Krzyzewski for a decade or would play for Gregg Popovich in 2019 and 2020, but Van Gundy is eager to work with them in his first coaching assignment – not counting his daughter’s youth league – since he was fired by the Rockets in 2007.

“There’s very few LeBron James of the world – obviously one – or great players who have it easy. These guys’ careers have not been easy and so I really admire their persistence, their grit and their determination,” Van Gundy said. “To get to work with them and coach them, that was part of the pull for me.”

With limited time and options, the Americans know the AmeriCup could be a challenge. Ford said they hope to reach the semifinals in Argentina and see what happens from there.

They will need to start winning come November, when they open their first-round pool that includes Puerto Rico, Mexico and Cuba.

The U.S. has to finish in the top three there, playing their other windows of games in February and June-July, to advance to another pool that will include three teams among Argentina, Panama, Paraguay and Uruguay, from Sept. 2018 to Feb. 2019.

Another top-three finish then would clinch their spot in China in 2019.

They will have a deeper field of candidates later who will be in shape from playing with their G League teams. But, they also could lose a player they like if he plays well enough for them in August to get a contract in the NBA or overseas.

There are many uncertainties, though Ford said there is one constant.

“From a USA Basketball standpoint,” he said, “if we’re going to put a team together, we’re going to try to put the best team together that we can and go out and try to win.”

Former Lakers forward Tommy Hawkins dies

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Tommy Hawkins, the first black athlete to earn All-America honors in basketball at Notre Dame and who played for the Los Angeles Lakers during a 10-year NBA career, has died. He was 80.

Hawkins died Wednesday in Malibu, according to the Los Angeles Dodgers, for whom he once worked as director of communications.

He graduated from Notre Dame in 1959. Hawkins was inducted into the school’s Ring of Honor and his 1,318 career rebounds remain the oldest record on the books in Fighting Irish basketball history.

Hawkins was selected by the Minneapolis Lakers in the first round of the 1959 NBA draft. He played for them as well as the Cincinnati Royals, and notched 6,672 career points and 4,607 rebounds.

Nuggets hire assistant coach, assistant general manager

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DENVER (AP) — The Denver Nuggets have hired veteran NBA coach Bob Weiss as an assistant on Michael Malone’s staff and announced the hiring of Calvin Booth as an assistant general manager.

Weiss has coached 31 seasons in the NBA, including the last four as an assistant with the Charlotte Hornets. He’s been a head coach with four teams, compiling a 223-299 career record with the Spurs, Hawks, Clippers and SuperSonics.

Prior to coaching, Weiss played a dozen seasons in the NBA.

Also Wednesday, the Nuggets made official their hiring of Booth, 41, who spent the previous four seasons in the Minnesota Timberwolves front office, serving as director of pro personnel last season.

Booth has quietly emerged as a respected evaluator of talent. He was one of the holdovers in the front office when Tom Thibodeau was hired to take over last summer as president of basketball operations and coach.

After one season working under Thibodeau and GM Scott Layden, Booth left for a promotion with the Nuggets, taking a position that will give him more responsibility and a greater say in the direction of another young team on the rise in the Western Conference.

Booth joins a Nuggets front office that includes Tim Connelly, who was promoted earlier this summer to president of basketball operations, a move that allowed Denver to hold on to promising executive Arturas Karnisovas as the team’s general manager.

Booth spent 10 years as a player in the league. Four of those seasons were with the Washington Wizards while Connelly was working there. The two also worked together in New Orleans in 2012-13, when Connelly was the assistant GM and Booth was a scout.

 

Rasheed Wallace says Zach Randolph isn’t a drug dealer: ‘The bigger the paycheck, the bigger the party’

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Kings big man Zach Randolph is charged with possessing marijuana with intent to sell, a felony – not because law enforcement has evidence Randolph planned to sell the drug, but because of the amount of the drug found.

Randolph’s agent/attorney denied the allegations.

Also sticking up for Randolph? Rasheed Wallace, who played with Randolph on the Trail Blazers.

Wallace, via TMZ:

“It seems to be — no matter who you are — the bigger the paycheck, the bigger the party,” Sheed says.

“I know for a fact he ain’t no dope dealer.”

Charging someone for intending to distributing drugs without any proof he intends to distribute drugs is hazardously lazy. Randolph – who has earned about $175 million in his career and is on a two-year, $24 million contract with Sacramento – can afford more marijuana than most. That doesn’t mean he plans to sell it.

The stakes are high for Randolph. If he’s convicted of “a felony involving the distribution of marijuana,” per the Collective Bargaining Agreement, he’d be banned from the NBA for at least two years.