NBA Power Rankings: Western Conference dominates top spots

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We enter 2013 off a week where the two best teams in the East — Miami and New York — looked sloppy while the teams at the top of the Western Conference looked strong and took over the top spots in the weekly rankings.

source:  1. Clippers (25-6, Last week ranked No. 1). The win streak is at 17 in a row and if you’re asking me when it will end my guess is Wednesday, the second night of a back-to-back when the Clippers have to face a good Golden State team. They have the Warriors twice plus the Lakers on deck.

 

source:  2. Thunder (23-6, LW 2). The Christmas Day loss to Miami shows the Thunder where they need to get, but don’t read too much into a December game. Soft part of the schedule ahead with five straight very winnable games coming up for OKC.

 

source:  3. Spurs (24-8, LW 5). I don’t think people realize just how well Tiago Splitter is playing right now, he seems to have figured out how to play next to Tim Duncan. So Gregg Popovich is trusting him. He’s very efficient, with a PER of 20.2.

 

source:  4. Heat (20-8, LW 3). Sloppy lost weekend where they fell to Detroit (after leading by 17) and the Bucks. We’re going to see that this year from the defending champions, stretches where they take a mental vacation. It doesn’t mean much big picture.

 

source:  5. Warriors (21-10, LW 7). They are 11-2 against the Eastern Conference with wins over Miami and Atlanta, but both the losses are to Orlando. Golden State is in rest mode with two games in nine days, but both against the streaking Clippers.

 

source:  6. Knicks (21-9, LW 4). The next month is going to be a real test for New York — no Raymond Felton at the point and they soon will try to integrate Amare Stoudemire back into the rotation. They can come out of this stronger, but the best tests are not easy.

 

source:  7. Hawks (19-9, LW 8). Winners of four in a row, including quality wins over the Bulls and Pacers in that stretch. Their offense is going well with Lou Williams starting, taking over the Joe Johnson role. (Think Hawks fans are enjoying watching the Nets fall apart?)

 

source:  8. Grizzlies (19-8, LW 6). They are struggling of late because their offense is a mess — 29th in the NBA in the last 10 games (ranked in points by possession at NBA.com). Their defense is still strong but in their win over Denver Saturday they scored just 82 points.

 

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9. Bulls (16-12, LW 9). Derrick Rose is back practicing with the team but not doing anything involving contact. Target for his return is still after the All-Star break. Who the Bulls did get back is Richard Hamilton and Rip is good for their defense.

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10. Nuggets (17-15, LW 10). Want to place a bet on the team with the best record in January? Bet Denver, which after a lot of road games to start the season is home for 15 of their next 18.

 

source:  11. Pacers (17-13, LW 11). Third worst offense in the NBA, second best defense. That is enough to win more games than you lose, but they need Danny Granger back and Roy Hibbert to come out of his funk.

 

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12. Bucks (16-13, LW 12). Picked up a quality win over the Heat but then turned around a lost to the Pistons and Cavaliers. Another good defense, weak offense team but the Bucks are just more up and down than the Pacers.

 

source:  13. Lakers (15-15, LW 16). Winners of six of their last seven, and the only loss in there was the second night of a back-to-back in Denver. Still, Dwight Howard’s play looks a step slow. Give Pau Gasol credit for trying to do what Mike D’Antoni wants and being more of a stretch four.

 

source:  14. Rockets (16-14, LW 17). They lost a couple in a row at the end of the week but still look like a team starting to figure out who they are and how they can win games with this roster. James Harden should be an All-Star. Not so much with Jeremy Lin (although he has played better of late).

 

source:  15. Nets (16-14, LW 13). The Nets are 2-0 under P.J. Carlesimo, although that really has a lot more to playing the Bobcats and Cavaliers than it does the coaching. Carlisimo wants the job and knows winning a lot of games is the only chance he has.

 

source:  16. Timberwolves (14-13, LW 14). They have won six of their last 10 and I keep waiting for them to go on a little tear, but with six of their next eight on the road and no gimmies in the lot (don’t sell the Hornets at home short) I may be waiting a little longer. They have not found their groove.

 

source:  17. Trail Blazers (15-14, LW 19). The Damian Lillard show is about to go out on the road the next week with stops in New York, Memphis and Minnesota — all tough wins. But if the Blazers are serious about the playoffs those are the kinds of wins they need to be picked up.

 

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18. Jazz (15-17, LW 17). The home and home against the Clippers emphasized the home-road difference with this team — they could have won that at home with a couple breaks or a couple calls, but they couldn’t stay that close on the road. They are 9-4 in Salt Lake City, 6-13 outside it.

 

source:  19. Celtics (14-16, LW 15). Doc Rivers made an interesting point — previous Celtics teams played good defense all the time and didn’t let a stretch of bad offense hurt the other end of the floor. This team falls apart on defense when it has a bad offensive stretch.

 

source:  20. 76ers (13-15, LW 20). They are 1-3 on their road trip with a nice win in Memphis but little else to show. This week it gets tougher with the Lakers, Thunder and Spurs all on the road.

 

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21. Raptors (11-20, LW 23). They are 7-3 in their last 10 games because they have exploded on offense — 5.4 points per 100 possessions better than their season average the last 10 games and 8.8 better over their last five. DeMar DeRozan has put up points but it’s been the bench with guys like Alan Anderson and lately Kyle Lowry that have been key.

 

source:  22. Pistons (11-22, LW 25). Nice wins last week over the Heat and Bucks have them climbing up the rankings. You can credit Will Bynum with the Heat win as he was huge, but it was more of a team effort over the Bucks.

 

source:  23. Magic (12-18, LW 21). They have lost five in a row since Glen Davis went down with a shoulder injury. That’s no coincidence, they miss what Big Baby did on both ends, but particularly on the defensive side.

 

source:  24. Kings (11-19, LW 26). The owner Maloof brothers overruled their own front office and put DeMarcus Cousins back on the active roster. If you think those same owners will roll over and sign off to trade Cousins you will be sorely disappointed.

 

source:  25. Mavericks (12-19, LW 24). Getting Dirk Nowitzki back was not the answer, they have lost five in a row. Coach Rick Carlisle is so frustrated he’s threatening to suspend players, but it’s not like he’s got a deep roster of good replacements.

 

source:  26. Suns (11-20, LW 22). They are the losers of five in a row and the reason is they play no defense. They might outscore you now and again if someone gets hot, but they can’t stop anyone. They have the Thunder, Jazz and Grizzlies on the schedule this week.

 

source:  27. Hornets (7-23, LW 28). They looked so much better, so much more creative when Eric Gordon got back on the floor — through all the injuries and free agency fanfare people forgot this guy can flat out play. He and Anthony Davis will form a very good pick-and-roll duo by next season.

 

source:  28. Cavaliers (7-25, LW 27). They have certainly looked a lot better since Kyrie Irving’s return, but certainly not like a playoff team. Look for them to be sellers at the trade deadline with Anderson Varejao and C.J. Miles.

 

source:  29. Wizards (4-24, LW 29). The Wizards have turned to Shelvin Mack at the point… what more can I say.

 

source:  30. Bobcats (7-23, LW 30). The losing streak is up to 18 games with no clear end in sight. In case you’re curious I looked it up and the NBA’s longest losing streak ever is 26 (Cavaliers just two years ago, how could you forget?).

Three questions the Boston Celtics must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season:
53-29, lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals.

I know what you did last summer: Sent Avery Bradley to the Detroit Pistons, a move they could potentially regret after dealing Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving. The Celtics also signed big time free agent Gordon Hayward away from the Utah Jazz. Finally, Boston took Jayson Tatum in the 2017 NBA Draft.

THREE QUESTIONS THE CELTICS MUST ANSWER:

1) Can Irving lead without diminishing the role of other starters? I think it’s a complete misnomer to think that Irving is solely a one-on-one, isolation type player. However, fans do like to get in a very black-and-white mode when analyzing players, and bias can show strongly here.

Irving has said that he wants to be more of a team player when it comes to the Celtics, which is good news for Brad Stevens and company. Irving is an excellent offensive player, and his talents should not be wasted, but there is some concern that he might dominate too much of the ball and won’t give a guy like Hayward and enough room to operate. That might’ve worked okay last season when Thomas was the engine that made the Celtics go, but Boston arguably has a better starting five this season than last.

I think there is real issues here when it comes to fit moving forward, and it is going to center around whether Irving can play team defense and handle the leeway he will be given on offense. Remember, the other thing here that hasn’t been talked about much is the extra operating space that Irving will be granted now that he is out of LeBron James‘s shadow. It might be very tantalizing to take advantage of that situation, but for Boston’s success he will need to find a happy place in between.

2) What kind of bench depth can the young players produce? Boston didn’t want to trade Avery Bradley away, but they also didn’t want to pay him. That issue becomes doubly as important now that they used Jae Crowder, the successor that wing spot, to deal for Irving.

The Celtics are a top-heavy team this season even if they did get better. They will rely more and more on guys like Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and the rookie Tatum.

Marcus Morris will be a huge part of their rotation as will Aron Banes with Kelly Olynyk in Miami. Danny Ainge is playing the long term look here, so it won’t necessarily matter if the team isn’t on par next season to him. However, a championship style run for this season will depend on immediate production from the three young wing players.

3) Are they good enough to get past the Cavaliers this time around? This is the big question that everyone in Boston wants to answer. The Cavaliers are their longtime rivals in the Eastern Conference, and now that they have swapped roster pieces it will be more than just basketball on the floor. It will be a social curiosity.

Whether or not the Celtics will be good enough to get past LeBron James will really depend on the answers to questions one and two above. The only way that Boston can replicate their production from last season will be to jell together quickly. That means getting a real rhythm on offense between Hayward, Horford, and Irving.

It also means finding a way to play defense with Irving at the point guard position. It’s all well and good to say that both Thomas and Irving have been liabilities on defense, but now teams have game tape on what Stevens did with his squad on that end of the floor come playoff time. This team will need to stiffen and do some things to mix it up to make sure they aren’t beat by their own game film next spring.

Bill Russell takes a knee while wearing his Presidential Medal of Freedom

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When we talk of Bill Russell, it’s often the on-the-court accomplishments — an 11-time NBA champion and five-time MVP who anchored the Boston Celtics through the greatest dynasty in NBA history, one of the best defensive players ever to set foot on the court. He’s more than simply a Hall of Famer, he is one of the game’s all-time greatest players.

With that, we often overlook Russell the activist, who took part in the Civil Rights movement. A man who faced plenty of racism as a player — being jeered by white students in college while he played, not being allowed to stay in the same hotel as white players in North Carolina during an All-Star tour in 1958, and much more — he was public in his refusal to tolerate any of it. It was his efforts on that front as much as basketball that led then President Barack Obama to award Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Russell tweeted out this photo of himself wearing that medal and supporting the NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem.

Russell is not going to be silenced. Not now, not ever. He remains a strong voice that the NBA should heed.

Following in the footsteps of Colin Kaepernick’s protests against violence and social injustice last season by taking a knee during the national anthem, more players were doing so this season. When President Donald Trump called on NFL owners to “fire” the players taking a knee during the anthem, it led to a backlash among players and a much more widespread adopting of players taking a knee this past weekend. Even backers of the president — Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, both of whom donated to Trump last election — called Trump out for his comments.

It will be interesting to see how NBA teams handle anthem protests this season. Last season teams linked arms in a show of solidarity (the NBA has a rule that players must stand during the anthem) but you can be sure the league and players union are already discussing this. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was among the multitude of voices calling out Trump for what he said, let along high-ranking union members such as Chris Paul and LeBron Jamesthe latter of whom called the president a “bum.” Those slams of the president continued on media day Monday.

Report: T.J. Warren agrees to $50 million extension to stay in Phoenix

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T.J. Warren has potential — he’s an athletic wing who averaged 14.4 points per game last season, who loves to play in transition and can finish when he gets to the rim, plus he can defend multiple positions. Part of the motivation for the Suns in trading P.J. Tucker was to open up more time for Warren. However, injuries have held that potential back, he played in just 66 games last season and that is the most in his young career (he suffered a broken foot that required surgery the season before and it delayed his entry into last season).

The Suns bet on that potential Monday, agreeing to a four-year, $50 million rookie contract extension, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Phoenix Suns forward TJ Warren has agreed to a four-year, $50 million contract extension, league sources told ESPN…

Warren has shown tremendous potential as a versatile wing with significant scoring potential. He had his best — and healthiest — pro season in 2016-17, averaging 14.4 points and 5.1 rebounds while starting 59 of his 66 games played.

That $12.5 million average salary — basically fourth/fifth starter money — is higher than the market for Warren likely would have been, to put it kindly. That the Suns were willing to pay it speaks to how high they see his potential. If he can develop a more dangerous jumper he becomes is worth that money, but he has yet to show real shooting range. A lot of people saw the drafting of Josh Jackson last summer by Phoenix as a sign they were not sold on Warren, but GM Ryan McDonough clearly isn’t one of those people

The Suns have an athletic young core on the wings that they like with Warren, Jackson, and second-year players Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender. This is a team with a couple of veterans such as Jared Dudley and Eric Bledsoe (the latter of whom is available via trade) to help guide that young core. The Suns were less sure about how big man Alex Len fits into that mix, and he just signed a $4.2 million qualifying offer and will be a free agent next season.

The Suns were less sure about how big man Alex Len fits into that mix, and he just signed a $4.2 million qualifying offer and will be a free agent next season.

Lakers are happy with the hype surrounding rookie Lonzo Ball

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) He has a Facebook reality show and a family shoe brand. His dad talks big on ESPN. He was the No. 2 overall draft pick and expects to transform one of the NBA’s glamor franchises.

Other than that, Lonzo Ball is an ordinary teenager.

The 19-year-old guard comes with otherworldly expectations, with the Los Angeles Lakers having fallen on hard times. They hope the local product can help them rejoin the NBA’s elite.

Ball’s journey officially begins Tuesday when the Lakers open training camp, but he appears to have already won over his new teammates during summer workouts.

“When you play with a pure point guard like that, it just makes it easier for everyone,” center Brook Lopez said. “He elevates players to a whole other level.

“I know it’s going to be great for me, just being on the receiving end of his passes. He’s going to gift-wrap baskets for me. He’s so good at turning other players into impact, amazing players. He’s going to be a transcendent talent.”

That has been the plan all along, particularly from his outspoken father LaVar Ball, who almost seemed to will his son’s journey from Chino Hills High School to UCLA to the Lakers.

If Lonzo Ball seems to arrive with the trappings of circus, he appears the calm in the center of the storm.

“Honestly, Zo is relaxed,” forward Julius Randle said. “Zo is chill. He’s one of the guys. For as much as he has going around him, you would never know.”

Ball doesn’t say a lot himself, and what he does say comes out in rapid-fire fashion. Reporters circled around some eight deep Monday at the team’s media day, but Ball appeared to take it in stride.

“I’ve been kinda like this my whole life, so I really don’t feel anything to be honest,” he said. “It’s just playing a game, the game I love.”

That approach has hardly gone unnoticed by legendary point guard Magic Johnson, now the Lakers’ president of basketball operations.

“I told him, he’s just like me,” Johnson said. “When I came here there were a lot of expectations put on my shoulders and the Lakers as an organization. Now I’m his boss, but I’m also his big brother.”

When those comments were relayed to Ball, the rookie responded: “More like an uncle. He looks older than my brother.”

It was a rare glimpse of the sense of humor that teammates say is not uncommon when the cameras are off.

As for those lofty expectations? Like most everything else, Ball just shrugs and flashes a hint of his confidence.

“I think I’ll be fine,” he said. “I’ve been playing basketball my whole life and I’m pretty good at it.”

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