Russell Westbrook, Chris Duhon, Earl Clark

NBA Power Rankings: Thunder on top, Nuggets climbing ranks

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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.

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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.

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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 NBA.com’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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Report: Clippers owner Ballmer will spend “whatever it takes” to keep Blake Griffin, Chris Paul

Los Angeles Clippers' Blake Griffin, center, responds to reporters while Chris Paul, left, and DeAndre Jordan laugh during the team's NBA basketball media day, Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Playa Vista, Calif. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)
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Is this the season the Clippers break through? They have been one of the eight best teams — usually one of the top five — for several years now, but that has not been enough to get them past the second round of the playoffs. A combination of injuries and running into superior teams has gotten in their way.

This season they will start as the fourth-best team in the league according to most NBA power rankings (including ProBasketballTalk’s), but they will still be third best in the West. If things play out according to that script, it would mean another second-round exit.

The difference is next summer Chris Paul and Blake Griffin can be — and almost certainly will be — free agents (both have early termination options). If there is another second-round flame-out, can the Clippers keep them?

Owner Steve Ballmer is committed to spend whatever it takes to keep them in Clipper red, white, and blue, reports Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.

Most importantly, according to Clippers insiders, is his commitment to keeping both Griffin and Paul long term no matter what it costs.

Do both want to stay? That’s impossible to predict nine months out. But it’s hard to imagine either finding as good of a set up as they have in Los Angeles. Both have firmly planted roots in L.A., with deep ties to the business and entertainment worlds.

Take a moment to step back and realize just how much Ballmer has changed the Clippers’ culture in three years from what Donald Sterling would have done. If Sterling still owned the team we’d be asking if he would open his pocketbook to spend to keep his two big stars in the same summer, and even if he was would that be enough or would both players be looking just to get away.

Now it’s harder to make a case that either wants out — and that includes the idea that Griffin will bolt to go home to Oklahoma City and play for the Thunder next to Russell Westbrook. Few players have taken advantage of the Los Angeles lifestyle and opportunities as Griffin, who is an executive producer of one television show making a pilot and has worked on a career as a comic.

As for the inevitable Griffin/CP3 trade rumors, take them with a whole box of kosher salt.

As for the idea that they’d make a blockbuster trade, consider this: The only way the Clippers get a decent return is if Paul and/or Griffin agreed to waive their player option for next season, or guaranteed they’d re-sign long term in the city they were traded. There’s no compelling reason for either of them to do that after the infusion of television rights’ money spikes the salary cap up more than $100 million next summer.

Griffin and Paul will be free agents next summer. Whether they stay in Los Angeles or leave will depend in part on how this season goes and the prospects for them and the Clippers after this season. It’s possible they leave.

But with Ballmer willing to open up his bloated checkbook, it’s much easier to make the case they both stay put.

Matt Barnes says he’s been warned for chewing gum, using bathroom during national anthem

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - MARCH 19:  NBA players Matt Barnes and J.J. Redick attend the David Yurman in-store shopping event to celebrate the launch of Men's Faceted Metal Collection at David Yurman Boutique on March 19, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California.  (Photo by Angela Weiss/Getty Images for David Yurman)
Angela Weiss/Getty Images for David Yurman
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The NBA has long taken a hard stance on the national anthem.

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was infamously suspended for sitting during the national anthem 1996. The league has a specific rule  – which it doesn’t plan to change – that states, “Players, coaches and trainers are to stand and line up in a dignified posture along the sidelines or on the foul line during the playing of the National Anthem.”

That makes it more difficult for the NBA and union to compromise on national-anthem protests – especially because precedent has set a strict tone on the rule.

Kings forward Matt Barnes on The Vertical Podcast with JJ Redick:

They don’t want you chewing gum. They told me, take the gum out of your mouth.

I was using the bathroom. They said you can’t miss the anthem. I’m like, “Man, I had to pee.” “Next time you’ll be fined.” I said, “Ohh, OK.”

I doubt NBA commissioner Adam Silver wants to punish players for demonstrating on behalf of important social issues. But he’s also behold to the team owners and corporate sponsors, and he must enforce the league’s rules.

It’s a fine line, one that the NBA’s prior warnings on national-anthem conduction make even more difficult for Silver to walk.

Maybe the solution is raised fists? Kneeling, like Colin Kaepernick, would seem to violate the “stand” requirement. But if players are on their feet and in place, would the league really deem a raised fist an undignified posture?

Joel Embiid to start in Sixers first preseason game

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Here’s a little bit of good news for beleaguered Sixers fans:

Joel Embiid will start the Sixers first preseason game next Tuesday. Embiid was the No. 3 pick and a very highly rated prospect coming out of Kansas, but foot injuries sidelined him the entirety of his first two seasons. Now he’s healthy and going to get a start next Tuesday, according to coach Brett Brown.

This will be a process. It will be two steps up and one step back all season for Embiid, but at least he’s healthy enough to take those steps now.

Now the focus shifts to when Ben Simmons will be able to take his first steps.

Another report Donatas Motiejunas, Rockets nowhere near deal as deadline approaches

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 17:  Donatas Motiejunas #20 of the Houston Rockets is fouled as he shoots by Julius Randle #30 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half at Staples Center on December 17, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Donatas Motiejunas and his agent had given the Rockets a Saturday deadline to make a contract extension offer they liked.

But the sides aren’t even talking in a serious way.

That was reported early on Friday, and now comes another report — this was from Calvin Watkins of ESPN — that the two sides are nowhere close to a deal.

With the deadline to sign a qualifying offer approaching, restricted free-agent power forward Donatas Motiejunas and the Houston Rockets have exchanged contract proposals but remain far apart on an agreement, multiple sources told ESPN.

Motiejunas is seeking a larger financial deal from the Rockets, but the two sides haven’t had serious contract discussions in a month, the sources said.

Motiejuas, a restricted free agent, has a $4.4 million qualifying offer on the table that expires Sunday. He likely will sign it — if so he will have the ability to veto trades during the season then would be a free agent next summer.  Motiejuas could let the deal expire then sign a new one-year deal with the Rockets, but he would make less money.

Last season the Rockets agreed to trade Motiejunas to the Pistons. However, Pistons voided the deal after he failed his physical. Motiejunas hammered Detroit for how it went down. That left Motiejunas a restricted free agent this summer, but he didn’t land any offers from other squads (many thought the Rockets would just match).

That gets us to where we are today, where Motiejunas appears headed to signing the qualifying offer, then testing the market next summer as an unrestricted free agent.