NBA Power Rankings: Thunder on top, but it’s close

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To be honest, you could have ranked the top three in this week’s PBT NBA Power Rankings and been fine. I’m giving the top spot to the Thunder this week because I think they’d beat the Clippers or Spurs in a seven game series right now. But not easily.

source:  1. Thunder (26-7, Last week ranked No. 2). They move up despite a sloppy loss to the Nets midweek. Their defense has been a little better of late which keeps them winning most nights. OKC has 10 of their next 12 on the road including an interesting game Friday night when they travel to L.A. to face Lakers.

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2. Clippers (27-8, LW 1). The win streak ended, but a back-to-back set of wins over the Lakers and Warriors show they aren’t going anywhere. If Chris Paul is not in your MVP conversations you are doing it wrong.

 

source:  3. Spurs (27-9, LW 3). Their offense has improved the last few weeks and that helps them continue to just rack up wins (except against the Knicks). Interesting games against the Lakers and Grizzlies this week, two dangerous but struggling teams who should be a little desperate against the Spurs.

 

source:  4. Heat (23-9, LW 4). They are on the road for their next six, but it is the end of the trip next week that gets interesting: Utah, Golden State then the Los Angeles Lakers on the second night of a back-to-back on national television.

 

source:  5. Knicks (23-10, LW 6). As Howard Beck of the New York Times said on the PBT Podcast, we’ve all stopped talking about how old the Knicks bench is but the next month — especially with Raymond Felton out — is when those old legs will get tested.

 

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6. Warriors (22-11, LW 5). Teams are no longer looking past the Warriors — notice how pissed the Clippers were after losing to them. Of course, the Clippers then took it out on them in a return match on Saturday. Not an easy week ahead with the Grizzlies, Blazers and Nuggets on the docket.

 

source:  7. Bulls (18-13, LW 9). We’re going to forgive them the ugly loss to the Bobcats, especially after the win over Miami on Friday. Note to a lot of teams: Notice how you can stay in games and win despite an inconsistent offense when you defend hard every night.

 

source:  8. Nuggets (20-16, LW 10). Still have 12 of next 14 at home and this week the only game they shouldn’t run away with is Golden State. Look for the Nuggets to make a push up the rankings in the coming weeks.

 

source:  9. Grizzlies (21-10, LW 8). Like the Bulls they continue to defend, but their offense has become so bad the last 10 games it hasn’t been enough some nights. They are scoring 96.6 points per 100 possessions the last 10 games, 29th in the NBA.

 

source:  10. Pacers (20-14, LW 11). Indiana went 3-1 last week and they are starting to figure out how to win without Danny Granger. It’s not pretty but they are figuring it out. If they get a healthy Granger back and some semblance of the good Roy Hibbert (who has gone missing), they become a dangerous team again.

 

source:  11. Hawks (20-12, LW 7). Some ugly losses last week — by one point to Detroit, by a lot more to Boston — and you have to wonder is this a glitch in a strong season, or a team with a hot start coming back to earth.

 

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12. Rockets (20-14, LW 14). They are on a hot streak — Jeremy Lin and James Harden are figuring out how to play together and the offense is off and running. Houston is going to be tested by a series of road games this month (10 of next 14) but they look like a playoff team.

 

source:  13. Nets (19-15, LW 15). P.J. Carlisimo is almost certain to be the coach the rest of this season — as Howard Beck of the New York Times said in the PBT Podcast, even if you bring in Phil Jackson you don’t install the triangle mid season. Carlisimo has the offense clicking again — sixth best in the NBA over the last five games — but their defense still stinks.

 

source:  14. Trail Blazers (18-15, LW 17). They beat the Knicks, Grizzlies and Timberwolves last week — that’s the kind of week playoff teams have. And Portland looks like it could be one, but they can’t have many slip ups in a deep, deep West.

 

source:  15. Bucks (16-16, LW 12). They were 0-3 last week and with five of their next seven on the road. Look for the Bucks to come back to the pack a little.

 

source:  16. Jazz (17-18, LW 18). They are an unimpressive 4-6 in their last 10 games and the reason is the offense, which has dipped four points per 100 possessions in that span from their season average.

 

source:  17. Celtics (16-17, LW 19). Stop talking about DeMarcus Cousins. Stop talking about DeMarcus Cousins. Stop talking about DeMarcus Cousins. Talk about Avery Bradley being back, winning a couple games and a five-game home stand coming up. Stop talking about DeMarcus Cousins. Stop talking about DeMarcus Cousins.

 

source:  18. Timberwolves (15-15, LW 16). The basketball gods are taking out their vengeance on Kevin Love and Minnesota — Love will be out another month plus with a broken finger in his shooting hand. If they make the playoffs after all this Rick Adelman should get coach of the year talk.

 

source:  19. 76ers (15-20, LW 20). They got a road win against the Lakers (doesn’t count as a quality win anymore). Jrue Holiday needs to have a strong couple of weeks if he wants to impress voters and make the All-Star Game (he could).

 

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20. Lakers (15-18, LW 13). They have lost three in a row and we have chronicled how bad their defense is. We’ve also written about how they need wins to stay in the playoff hunt, but the schedule for them this week is at Houston, at San Antonio and then hosting Oklahoma City. Rough patch.

 

source:  21. Kings (13-21, LW 24). Their offense has been a force for the past few weeks and that is winning them games — four of their last six. Now they get Tyreke Evans back and they have a five-game home stand. It’s a chance to build on that. Also, everyone please stop with the DeMarcus Cousins trade rumors. He’s not going anywhere.

 

source:  22. Pistons (13-23, LW 22). Andre Drummond is not going to win rookie of the year. But four years from now he may well be the second best player out of this draft class (still think Anthony Davis is No. 1) and some GMs are going to have to answer questions about passing on him.

 

source:  23. Raptors (12-21, LW 21). Coach Dwane Casey said that Ed Davis may well keep his starting job even after Andrea Bargnani returns — that’s the right move. The easy run of the schedule is over but good on the Raptors for playing better in that stretch.

 

source:  24. Mavericks (13-21, LW 25). Dirk Nowitzki is frustrated. He should be, look at that record. I still think Mark Cuban will eventually land a big star via free agency, but if he can do that during Dirk’s title window is another question.

 

source:  25. Magic (12-21, LW 23). They have yet to win a game since Glen Davis went down, 0-8. That says less about Davis and more about the drop off to the people behind him.

 

source:  26. Suns (12-23, LW 26). Suns fans need to read our own Brett Pollakoff talking to the Suns players about what a mess their offense has become.

 

source:  27. Hornets (8-25, LW 27). Eric Gordon has given this team a little spark, but remember that this is rebuilding process. Anthony Davis is up and down and it’s going to take him time to learn to defend on this level.

 

source:  28. Cavaliers (8-27, LW 28). Kyrie Irving had a 30-point game plus a game winner last week. Tristan Thompson has been solid with Anderson Varejao out. There, that’s it. That’s all the positive Cavs news I can think of.

 

source:  29. Bobcats (8-24, LW 30). They finally snapped the losing streak at 18, in fact they won two games last week. Both on the road. They are not going to finish with the worst record in the NBA this year, and that’s a start.

 

source:  30. Wizards (4-27, LW 29). They may get John Wall back in the next couple of weeks, that will help their anemic offense. However, even that may not stop Wizards fans from watching college basketball now, scouting Cody Zeller and Shabazz Muhammad.

Russell Westbrook set to learn if his historic season was an MVP one

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A year ago, uncertainty surrounded Russell Westbrook.

Kevin Durant stunned the league by leaving Oklahoma City for rival Golden State in free agency. The four-time scoring champion and former MVP had been the central piece in making the Thunder one of the league’s elite teams since the franchise’s move to Oklahoma City in 2008.

Westbrook had played his entire NBA career alongside Durant, so questions about how Westbrook would respond immediately cropped up.

He defiantly answered them with memorable performances.

Westbrook became the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double for a season and won his second scoring title. He broke Robertson’s single-season record with 42 triple-doubles and led the Thunder to the playoffs. Now, he will join Houston’s James Harden and San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard as finalists for the league’s MVP award. The winner will be announced Monday at the inaugural NBA Awards show.

Westbrook gained satisfaction from the team’s success, which largely was fueled by his personal dominance.

“With everything happening last summer, people counted us out,” he said the day after Oklahoma City’s season ended. “They weren’t sure how many games we were going to win or how far we were going to go or whatever, but I think the group of guys, we never let that sink in our building. We stuck together, and that’s the thing I’m most proud about.”

Westbrook wasn’t just stat stuffing, either. The Thunder went 33-9 when he had a triple-double and 14-26 when he didn’t. He seemingly gained energy as the season progressed and was statistically better after the All-Star break than before. As for those late-game situations, he led the league with 10 points per game in the fourth quarter and was one of the most dynamic closers in the league.

Westbrook topped Robertson’s single-season, triple-double record on April 9 in Denver. His 36-foot game-winning dagger put the final touch on a 50-point, 16-rebound, 10-assist performance that eliminated the Nuggets from playoff contention.

Robertson himself showed up to the Thunder’s regular-season finale and endorsed Westbrook for the MVP award.

“What he has done has been historic in nature,” Robertson told the crowd that night. “He’s played with passion and pride and ability. It’s just outstanding what he has done and the way he did it.”

Durant might be the least surprised player in the league. Westbrook was dominant while Durant was out with a foot injury during the 2014-15 season and claimed his first scoring title, but it wasn’t clear if he could do it all – score, dominate the boards, consistently feed his teammates and come through in big moments – for an entire season.

Turns out, he could.

In the second game of the season, he had 51 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in a victory over Phoenix, the first 50-point triple-double since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it in 1975. On March 27, he had 13 points in a 3-minute barrage to rally the Thunder past Dallas. Two days later in Orlando, he scored 57 points and posted the most points ever in a triple-double. He hit a deep 3-pointer to force overtime, and eventually helped the Thunder win. In one of his most memorable games, he scored 47 points in a loss to Durant’s Warriors.

Harden and Leonard also had MVP-caliber seasons:

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JAMES HARDEN, HOUSTON

As stunning as Westbrook’s triple-double binge was this season, Harden’s was impressive, too.

He posted 22 triple-doubles and helped the Rockets finish with the league’s third-best record. Harden, known primarily as a scorer throughout his career, shifted from shooting guard to point guard and was nearly unstoppable in coach Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced offense.

Harden led the league with 11.2 assists per game and finished second with 29.1 points per contest. In perhaps his best performance, he had 53 points, 16 rebounds and 17 assists against the New York Knicks on New Year’s Eve.

KAWHI LEONARD, SAN ANTONIO

Leonard is the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and he’s up for the honor again.

Yet, it was the 6-foot-7 forward’s offensive improvement that put him in the mix for the MVP award. He averaged 25.5 points this season after averaging 21.2 the previous year.

Leonard helped the Spurs finish with the league’s second-best record. He seemed to play as the stage got bigger.

He opened the season with a career-high 35 points in a blowout win over the Warriors. Leonard upped that career high with 41 points in a win over Cleveland on Jan. 21, and he dropped 39 points in a victory over Houston on March 6.

 

New Jordan brand ad asks: Could Kawhi score on Kawhi?

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Kawhi Leonard is the NBA’s best perimeter defender right now.

Kawhi Leonard is the cornerstone of the seventh best offense in the NBA last season, averaging 25.5 points per game.

He’s a dominant force on both ends, which leads to the question from this fantastic new ad from the Jordan brand:

Could Kawhi score on Kawhi?

Report: Minnesota “intent” on trading Ricky Rubio to get more shooting

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It’s easy to look at the trio of Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Andrew Wiggins in Minnesota now and think “that team will make the playoffs next season and be a contender in a few years.” They have set themselves up for that potential run.

But with those three on the floor, Minnesota needs shooters at the other two spots to provide spacing. Butler may have hit 36.7 percent of his threes last season, but he is far more dangerous as a slasher getting to the rim. Same with Wiggins (who shot 35 percent from three). Obviously, Towns operates around the basket. The defensive strategy against the Timberwolves is not hard to envision: Pack the paint and make them shoot over the top of you. Take away the inside.

Minnesota needs shooters. To get that they are dangling Ricky Rubio, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

Rubio should have value, and he makes a reasonable $14.3 million next season and $15 million the one after (a fair price for a point guard of his quality). He remains one of the best passers in the league, a guy with amazing court vision. He’s also one of the better defensive point guards in the NBA. He shot the ball well after the All-Star break last season (35.3 percent from three) and was more aggressive getting his shot, but Tom Thibodeau is clearly not sold that’s a permanent change.

Minnesota has some cap space and could chase a player like Patty Mills at the point or Kyle Korver as a free agent to give them shooting, plus try to trade Rubio. They have options, although they don’t have the money to chase the J.J. Redicks of the world.

If you hear of a shooter being available, know that Thibodeau is lurking, trying to land him.

Report: Cavaliers, Nuggets, Pacers three-way trade involving Paul George “very unlikely”

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We knew back on the night of the draft that as the Cavaliers desperately looked for a way to pry Paul George out of Indiana, they started involving third teams in the talks (because Indy had no interest in Kevin Love for Paul George straight up, not should they). Phoenix was involved, but that fizzled. So did talks involving Denver.

But those latter ones didn’t die the night of the draft, according to reports that came out over the weekend. Denver, Cleveland, and Indiana were still talking about a three-team deal that would land Love in Denver and George in Cleveland. The challenge for Cleveland was finding the combination of young players and draft picks that Indiana wants in a deal — Indy is rumored to want a lottery pick (preferably high lottery) and a young player or players.

Now that Denver three-team is “very unlikely” to happen, according to Joe Varden of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

As first reported by ESPN, the Cavs engaged the Nuggets as a possible third team to facilitate a trade for the All-Star George on draft night, but a source said the discussion was “nothing serious” and “very unlikely” to happen now…

The Nuggets had the No. 13 pick in Thursday’s draft and traded it to Utah for Trey Lyles — obviously giving up on getting Love, at least for the time being.

Indiana would have wanted the No. 13 pick, because future Dever picks are likely to be outside of the lottery as this is a team poised to make a leap into the playoffs, with Nikola Jokic leading them. As for players, Denver had shot down all requests for Jamal Murray. Indiana likely asked for Gary Harris, but if Murray was off-limits then Harris likely was as well. Emmanuel Mudiay was available but that wasn’t going to get the job done.

Denver likes its roster and what it’s building. While Love could have been an upgrade over Danilo Gallinari‘s role, it wasn’t enough to get them to break up the team to make it happen. And that ultimately has been Cleveland’s challenge in getting a deal done — Love isn’t commanding as much as they hoped on the trade market.

In the same article, Varden has an update on Cleveland’s discussions with Chauncey Billups about becoming the president of basketball operations.

The Cavs are still in discussions with Chauncey Billups to lead Cleveland’s front office after the departure of David Griffin. They’re also remaining active in the trade market, with a host of remaining front-office personnel, including Koby Altman, an assistant GM under Griffin, working the phones.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, speaking on the Lowe Post podcast with Zach Lowe, said Billups is weighing a lot of things, on and off the court, in making a complex decision. He likes living in Denver (his hometown) as does his family, and with his television schedule, he can be home a lot. On the other hand, he knows the importance and need for more African-American executives in the NBA had how important it could be for him to be in that role. There’s no easy answer for Billups.

The lesson here should be one for Dan Gilbert (and other owners): If you are going to fire a GM right before the draft and the start of free agency, you must have a replacement ready to go. Plan B has to be set. To fire a guy not having that plan, then go searching right before a critical off-season for your team, is how long-struggling teams operate.