Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook

NBA Power Rankings: Oh-oh Thunder road, oh Thunder road

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A lot of the preseason talk in the West focused on the Lakers… and it still does. And too often it ends with “and the Thunder are still contenders, too.” No, the Thunder are the defending Western Conference champs, the team to beat in that conference and they look pretty good right now. Thank you very much.

source:  1. Thunder (16-4, Last week ranked No. 2). Winners of eight in a row after Monday night including some quality victories last week against the Nets and Lakers. Are the Lakers still considered a quality win? Well it was the Pacers win that impressed me — putting up an offensive rating of 115.3 (points per 100 possessions) against what had been the best defense in the NBA. The Thunder are rolling.

 

source:  2. Spurs (17-4, LW 3). For the past few years, the Spurs have evolved into an offensive team that played enough defense to win games (a lot of games). But this season the Spurs are back to their old ways with the sixth best defense in the NBA (98.2 points per 100 possessions).

 

source:  3. Knicks (15-5, LW 5). Going 2-1 this week without Carmelo Anthony (until Sunday), including a big win over Miami in Miami was impressive. New York is going to ride the train of threes as long as they keep falling. Trail Blazers fans had to watch Raymond Felton in that Heat game and throw things at the television, he didn’t give them games like that last season.

 

source:  4. Clippers (13-6, LW 6). They are the winners of six in a row — and for the last three games the starters have not set foot on the floor in the fourth quarter. The Clippers remain the best and still by far least talked about team in Los Angeles.

 

source:  5. Grizzlies (14-4, LW 4). Not their best week, needing overtime to beat the Suns and losing to the Hawks (who are playing well, to be fair). The Grizzlies remain an elite defensive team and that is keeping them in games, and they are beating the teams they are supposed to beat (they don’t have bad losses) so we’re not worried.

 

source:  6. Heat (13-5, LW 1). Last week I said they might be finding their defensive footing. I would like to officially take that back. Their defense was bad in losses to the Knicks and Wizards, and they really were just a hot shooting team in their one win last week. They get a rematch with the Wizards Saturday.

 

source:  7. Hawks (12-5, LW 8). Quality wins this week over the Grizzlies and Nuggets, with the Heat on tap for Monday. While you weren’t looking they have been a strong defensive team this season behind Josh Smith and Al Horford.

 

source:  8. Warriors (13-7, LW 11). Here’s a shocker — if you put a bunch of guys who can shoot together on a team they are going to score points. For the season their point differential suggests they should be a .500 team but in the past five games their offense has found a groove. They have started a seven-game road trip 3-0.

 

source:  9. Celtics (11-9, LW 10). Shhh, don’t tell anyone, but they have started to play really good defense in Boston the past couple weeks. That’s the first building block. And Doc Rivers is not building for February, he’s looking at May and beyond.

 

source:  10. 76ers (11-9, LW 9). They did well, getting an Evan Turner game winner and splitting a home-and-home with Boston, but they get some tests this week with the Bulls, Pacers and Lakers. And with the Laker game, expect a plethora of Bynum stories. There still is no timeline for his return.

 

source:  11. Bulls (11-8, LW 13). Don’t put too much into the rumors of Rose’s recovery, he’s doing well but he is still more than a month away from playing in games, probably longer. But they are doing okay without him. Winners of three straight, they have a tough stretch ahead — Clippers, 76ers, Nets, Grizzlies, Celtics and Knicks are the next six.

 

source:  12. Bucks (9-9, LW 12). One of the many inconsistent teams in the middle of the pack in the NBA — they lost to the Hornets (in an ugly fashion) then beat the Nets later in the week. It’s like that every week with the Bucks, it feels.

 

source:  13. Nets (11-8, LW 7). Losers of four straight and, dare we say it, their defense is terrible without Brook Lopez in the lineup? It’s true, which suggests maybe the Mayans were right and we should all be stacking up on canned goods for the shelter. Rematch with the Knicks this week.

 

source:  14. Jazz (12-10, LW 15). They split with the Los Angeles teams this week, losing to the good one and beating the struggling one. The Jazz are what we thought they are — a good, hard working, balanced team. One that faces the Spurs and Grizzlies this week, so good luck.

 

source:  15. Mavericks (10-10, LW 17). O.J. Mayo was a 36.4 percent three-point shooter the past two seasons, but this year he is knocking down 52.3 percent of his looks from deep. And he is taking 5.6 threes a game. I keep expecting this bubble to burst but we are 20 games in now.

 

source:  16. Lakers (9-12, LW 14). What the slow start almost ensures is that the Lakers will have no home court advantage come the playoffs. The Thunder, Spurs and Grizzlies are out of their reach, and they are 5.5 games back of a good Clippers team in the Pacific. The Lakers are back out on the road for four more this week and they may or may not get Pau Gasol and Steve Nash to help them at some point.

 

source:  17. Nuggets (10-11, LW 18). They have faced a tough schedule (although the Clippers and Hornets have had it worse) but that does not excuse the bad turnovers late in a couple games last week by Ty Lawson. This is another middle of the pack NBA team we keep expecting to get it and go on a run.

 

source:  18. Timberwolves (9-9, LW 19). They expect to get Ricky Rubio back this week, which will be a huge boost to a struggling offense. Once they start putting up points again look for them to shoot up the rankings and the standings.

 

source:  19. Pacers (10-11, LW 21). The drop off with this team when the bench enters the game is just hard to watch. They continue to play good defense as a team (save the Oklahoma City game) but the offense is passable at best with the starters then nosedives with the bench play.

 

source:  20. Rockets (9-10, LW 16). We are just happy to see Kevin McHale back on the sidelines with this squad. Hopefully he can help even out another up and down team, one that beat the Lakers and the Jazz then lost to Spurs and Mavericks in their last four.

 

source:  21. Trail Blazers (8-12, LW 22). If you’re a Trail Blazers fan and you watch the play of Raymond Felton in New York or Jamal Crawford in Los Angeles this season, you just have to be pissed.

 

source:  22. Magic (8-12, LW 25). The gutted Magic have gone 3-2 on their road trip and are playing hard for Jacque Vaughn. They are the eighth best defensive team in the NBA without what’s his name in the paint blocking shots.

 

source:  23. Pistons (7-15, LW 24). Detroit’s offense is 12.7 points better per 100 possessions at home compared to on the road. Which is good news for the Sixers and Nets as the Pistons travel there this week.

 

source:  24. Kings (7-12, LW 29). The Kings are on a three game winning streak, but that will get tested on the road this week at Dallas, Milwaukee and Oklahoma City.

 

source:  25. Bobcats (7-12, LW 20). They are the losers of seven in a row, and the reason is they can’t defend. In their last five games they have given up 116.1 points per 100 possessions, the worst team in the NBA during that stretch (using the NBA’s own stats page).

 

source:  26. Suns (7-15, LW 23). They also have lost seven in a row, including one to the Magic on Sunday night they though was winnable. The two games this week are Memphis and Utah, although they are at home (and Utah can struggle on the road).

 

source:  27. Raptors (4-17, LW 26). They are a terrible road team and this West Coast swing has them losing and looking for answers. I look at the roster and still don’t see a grand plan from GM Bryan Colangelo.

 

source:  28. Hornets (5-14, LW 27). I want to cut them some slack — they have been without Anthony Davis for a long stretch and have played the toughest schedule in the NBA so far. But their problems go well beyond that.

 

source:  29. Cavaliers (4-17, LW 28). Losers of five straight but they get Kyrie Irving back Tuesday night. And they bring him back against a Lakers team that has terrible defense at the point guard position.\

 

source:  3 30. Wizards (2-15, LW 30). Sorry, even a win over the Heat can’t get them out of the cellar… although if not for a Festus Ezeli block they would have beat the Warriors and moved up. They are close to getting out of this jail. Oh, and still no John Wall timeline.

Damian Lillard added to Team USA Olympic roster pool

Damian Lillard
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If you’re looking for a point guard who can flat-out score the rock, you’ll be hard-pressed to find many better than Damian Lillard. The Trail Blazers’ guard is averaging 24.2 points and 7.3 assists per game, with an above-average true shooting percentage of 54.6 percent, and a very high usage rate of 30.9.

He’s the kind of guy who might have a place on the Team USA Roster.

Which is why USA Basketball has added him to the pool to be considered for the Rio Olympics summer. The reason for the change is both Lillard’s level of play this season, and the fact he called USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo to ask for a spot, as reported by Marc Spears of Yahoo Sports.

Lillard deserves consideration, but there are two key reasons he likely doesn’t make the team:

1) He is still a terrible defender.

2) The list of guards for the USA Roster is ridiculous: Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Klay Thompson, John Wall, and Russell Westbrook. And now Lillard. That’s 10 guys for likely five spots. It’s hard to see Lillard making that cut.

But he deserves consideration.

Kings co-owner Shaq: Vivek Ranadivé told me George Karl would coach rest of season

Shaquille O'Neal
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Kings general manager Vlade Divac said keeping George Karl as coach was right move “for now.”

How long is “for now”?

Shaquille O’Neal, a Kings minority owner, shares insight.

Sam Amick of USA Today:

This would mean a little more if Vivek Ranadivé weren’t prone to wild swings. Remember, the Kings said Tyrone Corbin would finish last season as coach before firing him for Karl.

Divac also said in November that Karl would coach the rest of the season, and that came up for debate fewer than three months later.

Shaq’s revelation is as likely to embarrass the Kings in a few weeks as it is to signal Karl’s job security.

Chauncey Billups explains why not every player wants to go home

Dallas Mavericks v Denver Nuggets
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LeBron James did it and shook up the NBA — he returned home to Cleveland. That has led to fantasies other players want to do the same thing: Kevin Durant back to Washington D.C.; DeMar DeRozan or Russell Westbrook back to Los Angeles; Blake Griffin back to Oklahoma. And the list goes on.

Not every player wants to do it.

Chauncey Billups did. Billups is a Denver guy who returned to play for the Nuggets — he gets his number retired Wednesday night in Detroit, a much-deserved honor — but in a letter to his young self at the Players’ Tribune Wednesday he explained that going home is fraught with peril.

“But in reality, playing at home as a 23-year-old professional is going to be less blessing and more curse. (There’s perception, again, for you.) It’s as simple as this: you’re just not going to be ready for Denver to be Your City. You’re going to think you’re ready — and they are too — but, trust me, you won’t be. You’re still going to be so young. You’re still going to be hanging out with your boys, doing your old thing. There are going to be those … hometown distractions. And those distractions will add up.”

“And you have to understand, Chaunce: It’s not just that you made it. It’s that your whole neighborhoodis going to feel like they made it. All of Park Hill is going to feel like they made it. And don’t get me wrong — that’s special. But at the wrong age, it can also be tough. It can be a lot to handle. And you’re going to be at that wrong age. You’re not going to be mature enough yet, or developed enough yet, to take on that mix of environments, those responsibilities, that role.

“You’re not going to be ready to lead.”

There are plenty of guys around the NBA who understand those distractions and how those can get in the way of off-season workouts, of time spent shoring up a weakness or developing a new shot, and how during the season they can be another thing that wears the body down.

Some guys can handle it. Some can’t.

Go read the entire letter from Billups. He talks about getting traded from the Celtics his rookie season, about playing for Mike D’Antoni, about how very rarely do veterans want to mentor younger players because they are fighting for the same piece of the pie.  Billups is honest.

And it’s great that Detroit is rewarding him as they should.

Did Marcus Thornton steal free throws from Rockets teammate Clint Capela?

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Leandro Barbosa – guarding Marcus Thornton and fighting through a Clint Capela screen – was called for a foul in the first quarter of last night’s Warriors-Rockets game.

Thornton went to the line.

Should he have? Or should Capela have?

Perhaps, Thornton and Barbosa tangled, but it certainly appeared the contact primarily occurred between Barbosa and Capela. It looks like Barbosa tries to ram through Capela.

It also appears Capela thought he drew the foul. Watch him step toward the line before seeing Thornton there and taking his spot along the paint.

So, why would Thornton step in? He’s making 89% of his free throws to Capela’s 40%.

I’m honestly surprised players don’t try this maneuver more often. Refs have so much to keep track of. The worst consequence would be the refs shooing away Thornton and bringing Capela to the line.

Thornton made both free throws, but it didn’t matter. Houston was playing Golden State, which rolled to a victory.