Los Angeles Clippers' Blake Griffin and Chris Paul run off the bench to celebrate a basket against the Toronto Raptors during their NBA basketball game in Los Angeles

NBA Power Rankings: Right now, Clippers are second best in West

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What we see in December is not always a great predictor of what we see in the playoffs, but the Clippers look very good lately. Better than their more talked about roommate in Los Angeles.

source:  1. Thunder (19-4, Last week ranked No. 1). They are the winners of 10 in a row. I still think they lost some playmaking they will miss with the James Harden trade, but that is balanced out with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant coming back this season better players than they were. Durant is shooting 54 percent during the Thunder winning streak. Looking forward to the Christmas Day rematch with Miami.

 

source:  2. Clippers (17-6, LW 4). Winners of nine in a row and playing as well as anyone in the land right now — over their last 10 games the Clippers have the second best defense and seventh best offense in the NBA. Also, Lamar Odom is playing well as he rounds into shape. Soft schedule this week (Pistons, Hornets, Kings, Suns).

 

source:  3. Knicks (18-5, LW 3). Winners of four in a row (including against the Nets, who they see again this week) and they have the best offense in the land. But the Knicks defense isn’t what it was last season — 17th in league overall (in points per possession allowed) and they have struggled with the pick and roll as well as guys in isolation. Need to clean that up as the season wears on. Stoudemire may return to practice this week.

 

source:  4. Heat (15-6, LW 6). They are 11-2 at home (with a home heavy early schedule) and three of their next four are at home, ending with a Christmas Day finals rematch with the Thunder. Then they head out on the road where they are a .500 team.

 

source:  5. Spurs (19-6, LW 2). While their defense has been good this season, they have struggled to contain speedy point guards in the pick and roll (doesn’t everyone?) and their rotations to shooters have been a step slow (shot up shooters hitting 43.7 percent overall 39.8 percent from three, that is bottom 10 in the league for San Antonio). You expect the Spurs will clean that up.

 

source:  6. Warriors (16-8, LW 8). They went 6-1 on a seven game road trip beating the Heat and Hawks — they have made their “look at me” statement. And don’t forget, this is a team that gets Andrew Bogut back and if he is near his old self that gives them a very good defensive center to add to the mix.

 

source:  7. Grizzlies (15-6, LW 5). They are returning to earth as their offense slipped recently — in their last five games they are shooting 40 percent as a team. Not sure John Hollinger can help that — there are serious questions about his lateral quickness — but he is still a fantastic front office hire.

 

source:  8. Hawks (14-7, LW 7). They lost to the Heat and Warriors last week, following their pattern of struggling against better teams. Thunder, Sixers and Bulls on the schedule this week to provide some tests.

 

source:  9. Bulls (13-9, LW 11). Quality wins last week over the Knicks, Nets and 76ers (only loss was to the Clippers). They have four straight road wins. Tom Thibodeau has this team playing hard, defending, but at some point he does need to worry about Luol Deng and Joakim Noah each playing more than 40 minutes a game (they are 1-2 in the league in minutes per game).

 

source:  10. Celtics (12-11, LW 9). Avery Bradley returned to practice Monday, which is good news. However, he is not going to help their offense, which has really been the weak link in recent weeks and the end of the court they need to get going. Start by cutting down the turnovers.

 

source:  11. Bucks (12-10, LW 12). They had an ugly loss to the Clippers, but that happens when your starting backcourt shoots 7-of-27. That remains the key in Milwaukee — when just one of Brandon Jennings or Monta Ellis gets going they can win games, but if both are off they flounder.

 

source:  12. Nets (13-10, LW 13). They are 1-1 with the Knicks now, with another game ahead this week. In the PBT podcast speaking with New York local and Nets legend Kenny Anderson he said that he thinks New York is now and for a long time will be a Knicks town where the Nets can carve out a niche.

 

source:  13. Nuggets (13-12, LW 17). They were 3-1 last week and I’d like to think they are starting to play good defense, get out and run and they are going to find their groove. One reason to be bullish on their future — they have played 14 road games and 7 at home.

 

source:  14. Timberwolves (12-9, LW 18). Three straight wins and when they got Ricky Rubio back they looked like a different team Saturday. I’d say this is where they start to go on a winning streak but this week’s schedule includes the Heat, Thunder and Knicks.

 

source:  15. Jazz (13-12, LW 14). They beat the Spurs but lost to the Grizzlies last week, which isn’t bad. The ugly loss to the Suns, that is bad. They remain a bottom 10 defensive team in the league so inconsistency is what you get.

 

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16. Lakers (11-14, LW 16). The Lakers have two wins in a row on the road, which this season actually passes for something they should celebrate. What they really should celebrate is the return of Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, both of which could come this week.

 

source:  17. Pacers (13-11, LW 19). They have a three game winning streak as Paul George seems to be finding his footing as the offensive leader of this team. If he can keep playing like this when Danny Granger returns we may have something.

 

source:  18. 76ers (12-12, LW 10). Three losses last week to the Bulls, Pacers and Lakers, but the bigger loss was Jrue Holiday to a foot injury — without him and Andrew Bynum they are lost on offense. Immediate concern is 10 of their next 11 are on the road.

 

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19. Rockets (11-11, LW 20). They have lost seven straight on the road as they head into Madison Square Garden Monday night. One thing that became clear after Jeremy Lin’s 38-point outburst against the Spurs with James Harden out — Lin still can’t find his place in the offense working off the ball a little when Harden is in the game.

 

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20. Trail Blazers (11-12, LW 21). They continue to get nights of individual brilliance from guys — Nicolas Batum with the 5×5 on Sunday, some huge nights from Damian Lillard as he tries to lock up Rookie of the Year in December. Sometimes that translates to wins. Sometimes not.

 

source:  21. Mavericks (11-13, LW 15). They have lost three straight games and a peak at the schedule suggests that may continue — they play the Spurs twice, Heat, Grizzlies, Thunder and Nuggets to close out 2012. Thanks for that, schedule makers.

 

source:  22. Magic (10-13, LW 22). Don’t tell anyone, but coach Jacque Vaughn has them playing really good defense lately. That’s how they beat the Warriors this week when the Heat couldn’t.

 

source:  23. Suns (9-15, LW 26). They beat the Jazz and Grizzlies last week — they are not going to just roll over after a seven-game losing streak. Phoenix is 7-5 at home and four of their next five are there.

 

source:  24. Pistons (7-19, LW 23). They have a four-game losing streak. What can I say Piston fans but try to find hope in the flashes of good play from Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight. There is the start of a better future there.

 

source:  25. Raptors (6-19, LW 27). Raptors fans are angry and Bryan Colangelo seems to be the target. Which makes sense, do you see a plan with how they are building? That said, a couple come-from behind wins at home last week should pump the fans up a little.

source:  26. Kings (7-15, LW 24). They got tested on the road last week and went 0-3. And they were all pretty ugly, blowout losses. Throw in the DeMarcus Cousins suspension and they are lucky to be this high in the rankings.

 

source:  27. Cavaliers (5-20, LW 29). Everything changes with Kyrie Irving back in the lineup — his performances don’t always mean wins but it means the Cavs will be competitive most nights. Which is a change from when he was out.

 

source:  28. Hornets (5-17, LW 28). Getting Anthony Davis back isn’t the answer, they have lost six in a row. What’s troublesome is their usually porous defense was better the last couple games and they still lost because the offense collapsed.

 

source:  29. Wizards (3-18, LW 30). Passing up James Harden? Really? John Wall can start “ramping up” his workouts, but in the mean time they keep finding a way to win a game a week, which is better than the…

 

source:  30. Bobcats (7-16, LW 25). They have lost 11 games in a row and now head out on a West Coast road trip that includes the Lakers, Nuggets and red-hot Warriors. Not good at all. Their defense is just dreadful.

Harden focused on helping Rockets improve after tough season

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 24:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets warms up before playing the Golden State Warriors in game four of the first round playoffs at Toyota Center on April 24, 2016 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by dowloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
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HOUSTON (AP) James Harden was second in the NBA with 29 points per game last season and his 7.5 rebounds were a career high.

Still, it was a disappointing year for Harden and the Houston Rockets, who were ousted in the first round of the playoffs by Golden State, and the star knew he had to adjust things to take the team farther this year.

“Last year was frustrating, numbers individually was pretty solid, but just the love and excitement wasn’t there,” he said. “So I had to look in the mirror this summer and realize that I got to change and I got to get back to how I was.”

To that end, he refocused this offseason and put an emphasis on becoming a better leader. He organized players-only training and outings in both Miami and Las Vegas in an attempt to create cohesiveness within the group before camp.

“Just getting to know somebody and hanging out … it was really good,” he said. “That’s going to carry over onto the court.”

The way his embraced his role as the undisputed leader of this team has impressed everyone in the organization, starting with owner Leslie Alexander.

“It shows that James wants to win very badly,” Alexander said. “He’s a winning player … James is one of the top three or four players we’ve ever had here and he wants to win as much as (Hakeem) Olajuwon and (Clyde) Drexler and everybody else.”

Trevor Ariza is entering his 13th NBA season, but had the excitement of a rookie on Friday as he talked about how much better things feel entering this season than they did last year. It was a season that saw coach Kevin McHale fired after just 11 games and the Rockets take a step back after reaching the Western Conference finals in 2015.

“I think just last season was frustrating for everybody because we just couldn’t figure it out together,” Ariza said. “I don’t even know how to explain. It was just a weird, weird, weird year.”

So how have things changed now?

“The vibe has just been totally different,” Ariza said. “Everybody is excited to show what they’ve worked on and excited just to be around each other.”

These positive-attitude Rockets enter the season with new coach Mike D’Antoni and without eight-time All-Star center Dwight Howard, who signed with Atlanta in the offseason. A big question for this team will be who will step in to make up for Howard’s absence.

Their top options are Clint Capela, a third-year player who saw limited action the past two seasons as Howard’s backup, and Nene, who played 53 games for Washington last year before joining Houston in the offseason.

General manager Daryl Morey raved about Capela’s improvement in his first year, but knows he’ll have to do more this season if the Rockets hope to be a force in the Western Conference.

“Clint is going to have to take a big step forward and it’s not an easy step,” Morey said. “To go from playing 15-20 minutes against often not the starting center to playing 25-plus minutes against front-line guys, that’s a big step forward. It’s more physical. It takes a big toll on your body to do that night-in and night-out.”

Along with Nene, the Rockets also added outside shooters Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon this offseason. Houston expects the addition of those two to fill a void that this team has had in recent years.

“We were able to upgrade our shooting … for the style we want to play,” Morey said. “I don’t feel like we had enough shooting (before). We do have that.”

Everyone is saying the right things and Morey believes he made the upgrades necessary for the team to succeed in D’Antoni’s system. But with all the improvements other teams made in the West, it’s hard to know what to expect from this team.

Alexander was confident, yet tempered when asked about his expectations.

“I think we’ll win more games than people anticipate,” he said. “But when the season rolls on we’ll see how well we do.”

Front desk at new Sixers practice facility made out of court from Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 23:  Ben Simmons walks on stage after being drafted first overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft at the Barclays Center on June 23, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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The Philadelphia 76ers have just opened a new, state-of-the-art practice facility, and maybe the coolest part is a unique touch that nods to one of the iconic moments in the history of Philadelphia basketball. The reception desk in the lobby of the building is made out of hardwood, but not just any hardwood — it’s a part of the court from Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game on March 2, 1962. Here’s a photo, via CSN Philly’s Jessica Camerato:

When Chamberlain scored 100 points, it was for the Philadelphia Warriors, not the 76ers, but it’s still a piece of the city’s sports history, and this is a cool, unique way to honor it.

51 Q: Will Tom Thibodeau fast-track the Timberwolves’ ascension?

OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 05:  Karl-Anthony Towns #32 of the Minnesota Timberwolves is congratulated by Ricky Rubio #9 after he made a basket against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on April 5, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The Minnesota Timberwolves won just 29 games last season, but few teams have more crowded bandwagons right now, or brighter futures. In many ways, their position isn’t too dissimilar to the Oklahoma City Thunder circa 2009 — still a lottery team, but the talent of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook was obvious. The Wolves have a similarly promising young core with the last two Rookie of the Year winners, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, the latter of whom has all the makings of a once-in-a-generation, MVP-caliber big man and an unbelievable amount of poise and polish for his age.

Young teams take time to come together, but the Timberwolves set themselves up to make a leap with their biggest offseason move, parting ways with interim head coach Sam Mitchell (who filled in admirably following the passing of Flip Saunders before last season) and hiring Tom Thibodeau. Because of this alone, the Timberwolves will win more games than they did last year. That’s what Thibodeau does — he wins games, no matter what his roster looks like. He does this by treating every game like it’s Game 7 of the Finals, and unlike the injury-riddled Bulls teams he got to overachieve, this Wolves group is young, healthy and unproven.

But even though any group with Wiggins, Towns and Thibodeau projects long-term to be in the title race, it would be unfair and unreasonable to expect contention overnight. Even Thibodeau, who expects the absolute most out of any group he coaches, is fully aware of that. Here’s what he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in July:

“We like our young core a lot,” Thibodeau said, “and I would say this: We’re also not fooling ourselves. We know we’re in a very competitive conference. We won 29 games last year.”

Short of the kind of offseason haul of superstars that transforms a roster (think the Celtics getting Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in 2007, or the Cavaliers getting LeBron James and Kevin Love in 2014), going from a bottom-tier lottery team to a contender overnight just doesn’t happen. A more realistic expectation of a best-case scenario for the Timberwolves under the first year of Thibodeau would be the 2009-10 Thunder. After winning just 23 games in 2009, Oklahoma City went 50-32 in 2009-10, grabbed the eighth seed in the Western Conference and lost to the eventual champion Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. A playoff berth and a competitive first-round loss to the Warriors or Spurs is only incremental progress, but considering what the starting point is, and the fact that the Timberwolves haven’t made the playoffs since 2004, a similar season would be a resounding success for the first year under Thibodeau.

The bottom of the Western Conference playoff race is going to be an uphill battle for the Wolves to break into. Beyond the top tier (Golden State, San Antonio and the Clippers), it seems to be a safe bet that the Jazz, Blazers, Thunder and Grizzlies will be in the playoffs. The Timberwolves will be one of the teams fighting for the final spot, but they’ll have stiff competition with the Rockets, Pelicans and Mavericks in the hunt. It’s not hard to picture the Wolves edging those teams out, but it’s far from a sure thing.

Long-term, it’s hard to think of a team with a higher ceiling than this Timberwolves group. In the here and now, though, it’s best to keep expectations in check.

Anthony Davis on New Orleans: “I never plan on leaving here”

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 04:  Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans takes a shot during the first half of a game against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Smoothie King Center on February 4, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. On media day, Anthony Davis — who signed a five-year max extension with the Pelicans last summer and cannot hit the open market until 2020 at the earliest — told reporters that he wants to play in New Orleans his entire career.

Right now, I have no doubt that Davis means what he said and wants to stay in New Orleans forever. But it’s worth keeping in mind that virtually every superstar who signed a long-term extension with the team that drafted them said something similar. Matt Moore of CBSSports.com has a few examples from Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony, all of whom eventually left their teams.

For the Pelicans, it will depend on how the next four seasons go. If they can put a title contender around Davis and not waste the bulk of his prime (a la Kevin Garnett‘s first stint in Minnesota), they have a chance to convince him to stay. But it would be unwise to hold him at his word right now in four years, especially if the next several seasons don’t go the way they want.