Russell Westbrook, Chris Duhon, Earl Clark

NBA Power Rankings: Thunder on top, Nuggets climbing ranks


Each of the top five teams in last week’s ranking suffered losses, some pretty ugly losses. So, who bounced back and looked best after that? Oklahoma City, so they maintain the top spot.

1. Thunder (28-8, Last week ranked No. 1). Kevin Durant is a better playmaker than last year. Russell Westbrook a better floor general. Serge Ibaka is just better. The bottom line is the Thunder are better than last year even without James Harden. And despite all that they lost to the Wizards (but bounced back well)

source:  2. Clippers (28-9, LW 2). They didn’t wake up for an early start at home against Orlando and that cost them a 13-game home winning streak. Grant Hill is back, although where his minutes come from is a tough question. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are lock starters for the All-Star game when that becomes official Thursday.

source:  3. Spurs (28-11, LW 3). Losses to the Grizzlies and Hornets. Even though he doesn’t want it, I expect Tim Duncan makes the All-Star team again as a reserve. Maybe Tony Parker will make the cut, too, but he is on the bubble among West guards.

source:  4. Heat (24-11, LW 4). They have lost three of four, and while there is rightfully some concern about rebounding this is mostly just them not playing with focus and energy. Miami is on the road this week against Utah, Golden State then the Los Angeles Lakers on the second night of a back-to-back.

source:  5. Nuggets (22-16, LW 8). Still in the middle of a long stretch mostly at home, and they picked up a win against the Warriors Sunday where Denver looked like the aggressive, running team we expected. Tough week ahead with two games against the Thunder (one away) plus the Trail Blazers.

6. Grizzlies (24-11, LW 9). Big question for the next month: How will the Rudy Gay trade rumors impact them on the court? Because the rumors will keep coming. Good win against the Spurs last week, they’ve got them again (and the Clippers) this week.

source:  7. Knicks (24-13, LW 5). They had three straight losses then Mike Woodson tweaked the lineup and started Chris Copeland at the three and returned Carmelo Anthony to the four, and shockingly that produced a Knicks win. The return of Iman Shumpert Thursday in London will help on defense, but they miss Raymond Felton at both ends.

source:  8. Pacers (23-15, LW 10). It’s not pretty, but the Pacers keep winning (four in a row before Sunday’s loss) with the NBA’s best defense. As’s John Schuhmann tweeted this week Indy allows the lowest opponent shooting percentage from both the corner three and in the restricted area. That is one heck of a combo.

source:  9. Nets (22-15, LW 13). Winners of six in a row and in that run their offense has been ridiculously good — 113 points per 100 possessions in their last five games, best in the NBA in that stretch. But their defense has been top five as well. We know they can play well for a stretch, but can they sustain it?

10. Bulls (20-15, LW 7). A loss to the Suns shows where this team is without Derrick Rose — they beat the Heat a couple weeks ago when focused but when they don’t bring the defensive focus they can lose to anyone. They are not winning any games just on raw talent. Their worst games seem to come at home.

11. Warriors (23-13, LW 6). Losses to the Clippers, Grizzlies and Nuggets are reminders that while they are good they are still in the second or third tier in the West. The loss to the Nuggets showed Golden State needs more consistent defense. Stephen Curry should make the All-Star Team as a reserve.

source:  12. Trail Blazers (20-17, LW 14). Tough week with losses to the Warriors and Thunder, but they picked up a win over the Heat in there too. They are currently the eight seed in the West, but with Houston just half a game ahead of them and Utah one game behind.

source:  13. Celtics (19-17, LW 17). Winners of five straight and their defense is looking a lot better since the return of Avery Bradley. That has GM Danny Ainge wisely saying he will likely sit tight and make one more title run with this group.

14. Rockets (21-17, LW 12). Houston has lost three straight, play the Clippers Tuesday then head out for six of their next eight on the road. They are going to have to turn it on to hold on to their current seven seed playoff spot in the West, they are only 1.5 games up on nine-seed Utah.

source:  15. Bucks (19-17, LW 15). Jim Boylan is 3-1 since taking over the team, and not shockingly their offense has been much better and faster pace released from the Scott Skiles shackles.

16. Jazz (20-19, LW 16). I’d say if they keep this roster together they are very likely to get the seven or eight seed in the West, but it’s more likely Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap get dealt in the next month. Going to be an interesting time in Utah.

source:  17. Hawks (21-15, LW 11). They lost by double digits to the Wizards and Cavaliers in one week, they are lucky to only fall six spots.

source:  18. Timberwolves (16-18, LW 18). Kevin Love may only be able to get back for a late playoff push after hand surgery, but there may not be much of a push to get back for (they are 3 games out of the playoffs right now). The team defense has been a mess of late and that isn’t how you stay in the playoff hunt

source:  19. Mavericks (15-23, LW 24). Nice OT win over the Grizzlies (a tired Grizzlies team, but still) and it gives a shred of hope to a team that really hasn’t had any yet. Still, they will probably have to go 30-14 to have any shot at the playoffs this season.

source:  20. 76ers (16-22, LW 19). They are 3-7 in their last 10 and fading from the playoffs, but they have 12 of their next 14 games at home. This is the time to make a run.

21. Raptors (14-23, LW 23). They are technically 5.5 games out of the last playoff spot in the East, ground that could be made up by a hot team. Just not sure the Raptors can do that, especially after blowing 20-point lead to Bucks Sunday.

22. Lakers (16-21, LW 20). Blake Griffin denied it on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Kevin Durant denied it after the Thunder beat up the Lakers, but you can see it in team’s eyes — they love kicking the Lakers when they are down. Big game against Heat on national television Thursday.

source:  23. Pistons (14-24, LW 22). Tough couple close losses last week, but they are still 7-3 in their last 10 games. They are 0-0 in London in franchise history but that will change Thursday when they travel to face the Knicks.

source:  24. Kings (13-24, LW 21). They have lost four games in a row but that should change with the Cavaliers, Wizards and Bobcats all on the schedule this week.

source:  25. Hornets (11-25, LW 27). Don’t look now but they had won four in a row before a Sunday loss to the Knicks. Eric Gordon makes a difference. But more than that, the defense is coming around as is top pick Anthony Davis.

source:  26. Magic (13-23, LW 25). Broke their losing streak in a big way with an upset of the Clippers on the road. Congrats to Jameer Nelson becoming the franchise leader in assists, passing Scott Skiles (who had a rough week).

source:  27. Suns (13-26, LW 26). Michael Beasley was key to the win in Chicago — 20 points on 10-of-14 shooting. If you could count on that every night that guy would be a star, but alas…

source:  28. Cavaliers (9-29, LW 28). They miss Anderson Varejao because the drop off from him to rookie Tyler Zeller is really steep. Basically they only way the Cavaliers win is for Kyrie Irving to be superhuman.

source:  29. Wizards (6-28, LW 30). Washington is 2-2 against the Heat and Thunder and 4-26 vs. everyone else. But they have John Wall back and a two-game winning streak, so things are looking up. A little.

source:  30. Bobcats (9-27, LW 29). Charlotte has they worst team net rating in the NBA by a full point — they give up 9.2 points per 100 possessions more than they score. Second worst is Washington at 8.1. The Wizards could catch and pass Charlotte in the standings.

51 Questions: Is Mike Malone the key to bringing Denver back?

Michael Malone
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PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

Is Mike Malone the key to bringing Denver back?

One incident sums up how bad things had gotten in Denver under the Brian Shaw regime — breaking a fourth-quarter huddle in the final game of February, Nuggets players chanted “1-2-3-six weeks!”

The players didn’t like the coach, some of them didn’t like each other, and with six weeks and 24 games left in the season they had checked out. The young players (and some of the veterans) partied so much Shaw canceled shootarounds because guys couldn’t roll in for them in the morning. Shaw had lost the team long before when he’d tried to fit square pegs into the triangle holes of his offense, and it spiraled out of control from there. The culture in Denver was broken.

Mike Malone was brought in to repair that culture.

The Jeff Van Gundy disciple has shown he can do that before. Malone was starting to build something in Sacramento (they started last season 9-6 before DeMarcus Cousins got sick), where he was asked to repair a franchise culture that by the end of the Maloof era was something akin to the Lord of the Flies. Malone also turned out to be the one coach who had gotten through to Cousins. Even with his defensive mindset and Cousins in the paint, Malone had the Kings playing at the eighth-fastest pace in the league in pace, but the Kings’ owner wanted to play faster (and maybe didn’t want to miss out on the chance to hire George Karl), so Malone got sacked.

The question becomes, is Malone alone going to turn things around in Denver and bring them back to relevance?

Not alone, and not just in one season, but he will get them on the right track.

The first step to show management was behind Malone was the trading of Ty Lawson. No doubt when focused Lawson is a quality point guard (as Houston likely benefits from this season), but he was part of the problem in the end in Denver, to the point of picking up two DUIs in six months (he checked into a rehab facility after the second one). He had mentally checked out and his example was an issue the Nuggets needed to change.

That turns the keys for the offense over to rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, who impressed a lot of people at Summer League after bailing on SMU to play in China last season. But he’s still a rookie with a long way to go — as the 15 turnovers in his first two preseason games attest. Things that worked in China and Summer League don’t fly against an NBA defense.

With Mudiay at the point and a team that plays half its games at high altitude, Monroe wants to take advantage of that and get out and run. Expect the Nuggets to get back to their traditional up-tempo games, but with some things Malone loves to run (such as the Rick Adelman corner action).

But for Malone, all things — including good transition basketball — starts with defense. You have to get stops and steals to run well, and the Nuggets were 26th in the league in defensive rating last season (105.5 points allowed per 100 possessions). In the first two Nuggets preseason games, that was the Nuggets focus (with mixed results).

Malone’s challenge starts with getting Kenneth Faried to buy in and play as hard on defense as he does on offense — something Faried has never done. Faried has been a defensive minus since he entered the NBA and that becomes one of Malone’s first major projects (even if it’s just to boost Faried’s trade value). Faried, who clashed with Shaw over his role, has said he’s felt energized under Malone, now the coach just has to steer that energy to the defensive end of the court.

Malone will be searching for the right center to put next to Faried, and I expect that will mean a lot of Jusuf Nurkic (who is young and shows it at times). But also expect to see some small-ball lineups with Faried at the five. Something like Mudiay, Randy Foye, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, and Faried. A lineup with some athleticism and shooting that could put up points, but would they get any stops? If Gary Harris slots in for Foye, does that help the defense (Harris is guy Nuggets fans may see more and more of as the season goes on).

The roster is a work in progress, and if you were to bet on the Nuggets doing one thing this season, it should be making trades. Things are going to change.

There are nice pieces on the Nuggets, but not enough of them and with some real questions about how it all fits together. This is not a playoff team this season, not in the West.

But it’s a team that Malone could have playing a lot better late in the season than at the beginning, once some of those questions start to be answered, and the young players gain experience. That should be the goal in Denver. Begin to change the culture, get buy-in on the system, get guys playing hard again rather than dreaming of Cancun vacations by February. Change can be incremental, but Malone will start the change.

Then in a couple of years, you’ve got the team you want.

Well, so long as the Nuggets ownership doesn’t get impatient and decide it needs to change directions again.

Another Pelicans center down: Omer Asik out three weeks

Omer Asik, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver
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The Pelicans will have to play Anthony Davis at center now.

With backup center Alexis Ajinca already sidelined, starting center Omer Asik suffered his own injury.

Pelicans release:

The New Orleans Pelicans announced today that center Omer Asik is expected to miss the next three weeks with a right calf strain. The injury occurred during Wednesday’s practice.

If that three-week timeline is firm, Asik would miss two regular season games – at Warriors and at Trail Blazers.

Davis figured to be the most natural fit at center in Alvin Gentry’s up-tempo scheme. What happens if the Pelicans excel with him there and then stumble once Asik and Ajinca return? Because New Orleans had Bird Rights for Asik and Ajinca, re-signing them made some sense. And once they’re re-signed, Gentry must find a role for them. But that could get harder if it becomes obvious the team is best with Davis at center.

As long as Asik and Ajinca are out, Kendrick Perkins probably moves into the rotation. Jeff Adrien could also see minutes at center. Suddenly, Adrien, on an unguaranteed contract, has a much better chance of making the regular-season roster. Ryan Anderson probably plays more at power forward, too, with Davis logging more time at center.