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.

David Stern: ‘Shame on the Brooklyn Nets’

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Brooklyn rested Brook Lopez, Jeremy Lin and Trevor Booker for its final game this season, which had huge playoff implications. Not for the Nets, of course. They were long eliminated from postseason contention.

But the Bulls beat Brooklyn to reach the playoffs over the Heat, who also won that night.

Miami fans were obviously ticked, and they have company in former NBA commissioner David Stern.

Stern, via Sam Amick of USA Today:

“I have no idea what was in the mind of the executives of the Brooklyn Nets — none — when they rested their starting players,” Stern, who still holds the title of Commissioner Emeritus, told USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday on the NBA A to Z podcast. “If you’re playing in a game of consequence, that has an impact, which is as good as it gets (you should play your players). Here we are, the Brooklyn Nets are out of the running. They have the lowest record in the sport. But they have an opportunity to weigh in on the final game with respect to Chicago. And they sit their starters? Really? It’s inexcusable in my view. I don’t think the Commissioner maybe can, or even should, do anything about it. But shame on the Brooklyn Nets. They broke the (pact with fans).”

The resting dilemma takes slightly different forms when it involves a team like Brooklyn rather than a certain playoff team, but the underlying conflict remains the same:

The team is better off resting its players.

The NBA is worse off, at least in the short term.

The league was robbed of an important competitive game that could’ve drawn higher ratings. The Nets had just beaten Chicago a days prior, but that was with major contributions from Lopez and Lin. Without them, Brooklyn had little chance and lost by 39.

The Nets weren’t playing for anything, not even a higher draft pick. They owe their first-rounder to the Celtics and already clinched the worst record anyway. Brooklyn was better off resting those veterans at the end of a long regular season.

There’s no easy answer. If the NBA bans resting, teams will sit players and assign to minor or made-up injuries. If the league shortens the season, it will lose revenue.

The best solution is to improve at the margins – provide more rest days (which the league will do next season) and schedule nationally televised games outside of grueling stretches of the schedule. That’s obviously no silver bullet, though. Bulls-Nets wasn’t nationally televised, and Brooklyn had the day off before and the entire offseason off after.

Another potential solution: Shaming teams into playing their top players. Stern is giving that one a go.

NBA looking into Rockets’ owner interacting with referee during game

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Like every Rockets fan — and, let’s be honest, every fan of every team — Leslie Alexander is convinced the referees were screwing over his Rockets.

Except that Alexander is the owner of the Rockets.

And he approached a referee during game play.

The NBA is understandably investigating this, as reported by the Houston Chronicle.

The NBA said an investigation “is underway” into Rockets’ owner Leslie Alexander’s getting up from his courtside seat to have a few words with official Bill Kennedy in the first half.

Alexander appeared to say something to Kennedy during a Thunder possession before returning to his seat. Alexander declined to give any detail beyond he was “upset … really upset.” Rockets guard James Harden said he didn’t see his owner get up. “He did that?” a surprised Harden said after the game. “He’s the coolest guy. I would have helped him.”

The NBA doesn’t let players or coaches cross a line when talking to officials, but they are at least allowed to interact and discuss calls with a ref during a game. It’s something else entirely for an owner to get in the ear of an official during game play.

I’d expect Alexander will see a fine for this.

Whatever he thought of the officiating, the Rockets won to advance on to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs.

Steve Kerr to see Stanford specialists about back issues, is optimistic about return to bench

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If he were not coaching a perennial contender and a team where he genuinely has a deep bond with the players, the GM, and his fellow coaches, Steve Kerr might have walked away from basketball for a while. The pain from spinal fluid leakage from a couple of back surgeries he had two summers ago (the ones that led to Luke Walton coaching the first half of the season in Golden State) would have been too much.

But he tolerated and managed the pain as best he could, until a few days ago when it became too much. Kerr did not coach the final two games of the Warriors sweep of the Trail Blazers and said he would not return to the bench until healthy enough to do so.

Kerr’s next step is to talk to specialists at Stanford University’s medical program, and Kerr is optimistic about the long-term prognosis, he told Monty Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area.

He revealed to NBCSportsBayArea.com that in recent days he has spoken to several people who have experienced the debilitating effects of a cerebrospinal fluid leak and been able to overcome it. He says that because his symptoms have intensified over the past week, in an odd twist, that may make it easier for specialists to trace the precise source.

“That’s what the next few days are all about,” Kerr said, standing down the hallway from the visitor’s locker room. “They’re trying to find it. If they can find it, they can fix it.”

He’ll begin in the coming days by consulting with specialists at Stanford Medical Center, which has some of the more respected surgeons in the world.

Kerr said his spirits have been lifted by other people who went through this, people who told him doctors found the leak and it changed their lives, that they bounced back to 100 percent. He said that the first back surgeries did their job in relieving his lower back pain, but it has led to spinal fluid leakage that is worse than the symptoms the first surgery solved.

Whether a fix can happen to get him back on the bench these playoffs is immaterial, we all hope it happens just so Kerr the person can go back to enjoying his life without chronic pain. He’ll be around the team as much as he can through the playoffs, but there are far more important things going on with him than basketball right now.

 

Thunder’s offseason moves start here: Offer Russell Westbrook $220 million contract

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The narrative of Oklahoma City’s first-round playoff loss to Houston — and frankly its entire season — was about how little help Russell Westbrook was given. Game 5 was the perfect example: The Thunder were +12 when Westbrook was on the court, but he rested for 6:07 and OKC was -18 in those minutes. The Thunder’s role players are young and many — for example, Enes Kanter — are very one dimensional, but that’s because their role was supposed to be much more narrow and defined. Then Kevin Durant left and players were asked to do things outside their comfort zones, or grow up fast, and it didn’t go that well.

Thunder GM Sam Presti has some work to do this summer to tweak that roster, make it more versatile, and design it to fit better around Westbrook (not to mention take some of the load off him).

But the first thing Presti has to do is keep Westbrook — and that means offering him a five-year, roughly $220 million extension. Royce Young if ESPN has the details on how that works.

After signing an extension last summer in the wake of Durant’s departure, Westbrook can sign another in the ballpark of $220 million over five years this summer. Westbrook is signed through the 2017-18 season, with a player option on the following year, but the Thunder would obviously like to have a longer commitment from their franchise player.

The expectation is that they will make the offer, but should Westbrook decline, all that talk of stabilizing the franchise would get a little more wobbly, and with only a year guaranteed, talk of trading him could spark again. It will certainly be alarming for the front office, especially after what it went through with Durant.

It’s hard to imagine Westbrook walking away from that money — it’s about $75 million more guaranteed and one more year than any other team can offer. That’s a lot of cash to leave on the table, I don’t care how much you make in endorsements. (If Westbrook left, signed a max deal elsewhere for four years, then signed a max deal for that fifth year later, he still would get roughly $35 million less than signing with the Thunder now.) Once Westbrook is locked into place, Presti can start looking to reshape the Thunder roster.

But if Westbrook pauses and doesn’t sign, the NBA rumor mill will be moving at the speed of Westbrook in transition. The Thunder wouldn’t want to lose Durant and Westbrook for nothing, it would set their rebuilding process way back, so Presti would have to consider trades. However, because Westbrook is a free agent in 2018, he would almost have a no-trade clause — no team is going to give up much to get him without an under-the-table understanding he would re-sign in that city.

Expect Westbrook to agree to the extension in OKC. Because he likes the team — remember, he signed that extension last summer (which got him a healthy pay raise) — and because it would make him the highest-paid player in the NBA, and that would feed his ego (and pocketbook).

Once he does, Presti’s real work begins.