NBA Power Rankings: Clippers back on top, showdown with Thunder Tuesday

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No change in the top four teams, but really it feels like right now there is a top three teams with the Heat capable of being that good but not really choosing to all the time.

source:  1. Clippers (32-9, last week ranked No. 2). Chris Paul sits out three games, Eric Bledsoe steps in and Los Angeles just keeps on winning. That is why despite a lot of teams calling about trading for Bledsoe the Clippers are hesitant — until they lock CP3 up to a long-term deal this summer (which is likely) Bledsoe is too valuable to them to trade.

 

source:  2. Spurs (32-11, LW 3). Leading a team with a top five offense and defense (in points allowed per possession) it’s going to be hard for the coaches to overlook Tim Duncan as an All-Star reserve. As much as he would like them to.

 

source:  3. Thunder (32-8-8, LW 1). They had won six in a row, four of them on the road, until they stumbled Sunday against Denver. This week we have a possible Western Conference finals showdown with Los Angeles (of course we’re talking Clippers, not that other team).

 

source:  4. Heat (26-12, LW 4). Miami still seems to be coasting through the season but when they crank up the defensive pressure — like against Golden State or the end of the Lakers game — you are reminded they can be dominant when they want.

 

source:  5. Knicks (25-13, LW 7). The win they got in London over the Pistons was nice, but what essentially turned out to be a bye week with just one game is a bigger boost to the older, banged up New York team.

 

source:  6. Pacers (25-16, LW 8). Their second worst in the NBA offense will get a boost when Danny Granger comes back in a couple weeks. Then the question is will they trade Granger (my guess is no but there seems to be a buzz).

 

source:  7. Grizzlies (26-13, LW 6). With tougher competition recently (Clippers, Spurs and Bulls) the Grizzlies offense regressed a lot (nearly nine points per 100 possessions). It makes one wonder what kind of playoff run they can make.

 

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8. Nets (24-16, LW 9). They are 8-2 in their last 10 games and it’s all about their offense jumping to a best in the NBA 109.4 points per 100 possessions in that time. They are pushing for Brook Lopez to make the All-Star team, but I would take the other starting center in the New York area.

 

source:  9. Nuggets (25-18, LW 5). After winning six straight including a quality overtime game against the Trail Blazers, they split a couple games with Oklahoma City, with a Wizards loss sandwiched in between. Still a hot and cold team.

 

source:  10. Bulls (23-16, LW 10). If Joakim Noah didn’t enjoy being benched for the fourth quarter Sunday then on Monday he can commiserate with Pau Gasol when the Bulls play the Lakers (Gasol got the same treatment a couple of times this season). Expect Noah to get his first nod as an All-Star reserve on Thursday.

 

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11. Warriors (24-15, LW 11). Andrew Bogut has been cleared for some one-on-one as he works back from ankle surgery. If you are wondering just how good the Warriors are, games against the Clippers and Thunder this week are good measuring sticks.

 

source:  12. Celtics (20-19, LW 13). The hot streak of six straight wins came to a crashing halt with losses to New Orleans then the Bulls in overtime. The good news is Avery Bradley only missed one game (the Chicago loss).

 

source:  13. Bucks (21-18, LW 15). The Bucks are 5-2 under interim coach Jim Boylan, but that’s not going to be enough to get Brandon Jennings into the All-Star Game.

 

source:  14. Jazz (22-19, LW 16). Winners of three in a row and you just get the impression with their solid front line they are a playoff lock in the West. Even with likely changes to the roster at the trade deadline when Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap gets moved.

 

source:  15. Hawks (22-18, LW 17). The loss of Lou Williams for the season is bad news. Most of all for Williams, but also because it means more Jeff Teague responsibility, and that doesn’t go well over the long haul.

 

source:  16. Trail Blazers (20-20, LW 12). They have lost five games in a row, and playing .500 ball and being the current eight seed they keep the playoff hopes of Lakers and Mavericks fans alive. What has come unglued is their offense — they are shooting just 40.6 percent as a team the last five games. That won’t get it done.

 

source:  17. Rockets (21-21, LW 14). They have lost seven in a row, are a mess at both ends of the floor and are playing at a slower tempo than they did when they were having success. If they could just start winning they could take hold of a playoff spot.

 

source:  18. Mavericks (18-24, LW 19). Funky stat of the week — Dallas is 1-8 in overtime games this season. If they were just 4-5 in OT they would be a .500 team that had won four of its last 5 and we’d be talking playoffs right now.

 

source:  19. Timberwolves (17-20, LW 18). Snapped their five-game losing streak on Saturday (thank you slumping Rockets) but any time you think they have something good going someone else gets injured.

 

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20. 76ers (17-23, LW 20). They were 2-1 at the start of a nice stretch at home last week, but this week the home games are the Spurs, Knicks and then to start next week the Grizzlies. Throw in a road trip for one game in Milwaukee and it’s not pretty.

 

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21. Raptors (15-26, LW 21). Toronto has been playing better of late and got a nice win carving up what passes for the Lakers defense Sunday, but if you are thinking playoffs making up 5.5 games and catching the Celtics or Bucks is not going to happen.

 

source:  22. Kings (16-25, LW 24). They beat the Wizards. Bobcats and Cavaliers last week… and right now I don’t think Kings fans care at all. Can’t blame them.

 

source:  23. Lakers (17-23, LW 22). The next couple weeks make of break the Lakers season — we keep saying they have to turn it around now but 9 of their next 12 are on the road (including at Chicago and Memphis this week). The Lakers are 5-13 on the road this season. If they don’t get hot on the road they will watch the playoffs from home.

 

source:  24. Pistons (14-25, LW 23). Sunday Jason Maxiell played 23 minutes scoring 6 points and grabbing 5 rebounds. Rookie Andre Drummond comes in off the bench for 20 minutes, scores 16 points (but has one rebound). The Pistons aren’t going anywhere, explain to me again why Drummond isn’t starting and getting big minutes?

 

source:  25. Hornets (13-27, LW 25). They’ve won six of their last eight and if they are on the schedule you better not chalk them up as an automatic win anymore. A key reason is a great run of play in recent weeks by Greivis Vasquez.

 

source:  26. Wizards (8-30, LW 29). I watched them first hand against the Clippers Saturday night and let me say: They are not bad. With everyone healthy and John Wall back running the offense this is a team you can’t overlook. They played the Clippers tough.

 

source:  27. Cavaliers (10-32, LW 28). Kyrie Irving is talented enough to be on the All-Star team, the question is will the injury to start the season and bad team around him keep him off it.

 

source:  28. Magic (14-25, LW 26). They lost to the Wizards and Bobcats last week. They are capable of being that bad.

 

source:  29. Suns (13-28, LW 27). Alvin Gentry wasn’t let go because he couldn’t win with that roster — no coach could win with that roster. The issue was how much burn the youngsters got, even if it meant losses. Gentry was on the wrong end of that argument for ownership.

 

source:  30. Bobcats (10-30, LW 30). You looking for a bright spot? Not the 5-16 home record. How about they are 3-1 in overtime.

Kawhi Leonard injury an all-time "what if?"

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
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Eight days ago, we didn’t know whether Kawhi Leonard – who injured his ankle when Zaza Pachulia slid under his jumper – would play again this postseason.

But as a frustrated Gregg Popovich ranted about Pachulia’s dirtiness, I suspect the Spurs coach knew. I think Popovich knew, after years of anticipating a playoff matchup with the high-octane Warriors, Leonard’s injury had robbed San Antonio of a competitive conference finals – and maybe a championship.

The Spurs led Game 1 by 23 when Leonard got hurt. He never returned, and San Antonio blew its opening-game lead then lost Games 2-4 by 36, 12 and 14. None of the final three games were competitive down the stretch.

In all, the Spurs outscored Golden State by 21 in Leonard’s 23 minutes and got outscored by 85 otherwise.

The Warriors advance to their third straight NBA Finals. San Antonio is left wondering, what if?

Popovich’s Spurs have beaten nearly every highly touted team to come along during his reign as coach – the Chris Webber/Vlade Divac/Mike Bibby/Peja Stojakovic Kings, Shaquille O’Neal/Kobe Bryant Lakers, Goin’ To Work Pistons, Steve Nash/Mike D’Antoni Suns, LeBron James Cavaliers, Dirk Nowitzki Mavericks, Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook Thunder, LeBron/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh Heat.

But these Warriors escaped San Antonio. The Spurs beat Golden State in the 2013 second round, but that wasn’t the same team. Those Warriors hadn’t started Draymond Green, signed Andre Iguodala or hired Steve Kerr – three people integral to Golden State’s identity. And of course, the Warriors hadn’t signed Kevin Durant, who turned this year’s squad into possible the greatest super team of all time.

At the same time, San Antonio was loading up. The Spurs were the second-best regular-season team over the last three years behind Golden State, but the teams didn’t meet in the playoffs.

Despite having the NBA’s third-best net rating, San Antonio had to face the Clippers (NBA’s second-best net rating) in the 2015 first round thanks to conference imbalance and a since-changed seeding system for division winners. The Clippers won a hard-fought seven-game series.

In 2016, the Spurs had an even higher net rating than Golden State, which went 73-9. But they ran into the Thunder, whose athleticism buzz-sawed them and nearly toppled the Warriors.

This year was San Antonio’s chance.

The Spurs showed an ability to adjust to spread attacks while topping the Rockets in the second round. In its next-level challenge, San Antonio – behind Leonard’s 26 points on 13 shots, eight rebounds and three assists – dominated early.

But as soon as Leonard went down, the entire series turned.

The Spurs outscored Golden State by 42 points per 48 minutes with Leonard and got outscored by 24 points per 48 minutes without him – one of the greatest disparities in a playoff series this era.

Here are all the series where a team performed at least 60 points better per 48 minutes with a certain player on the court rather than off since 2001, which is as far back as Basketball-Reference records go (requiring more than 10 minutes played, as to eliminate extreme garbage-time examples):

  • Left: Point difference per 48 minutes with player off
  • Right: Left: Point difference per 48 minutes with player on
  • Center: Difference

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Raw totals:

Player On Off
Chauncey Billups (2002 MIN 0, DAL 3) 0 in 134 min. -32 in 10 min.
Draymond Green (2015 GSW 4, NOP 0) +77 in 166 min. -45 in 31 min.
Gilbert Arenas (2005 WAS 4, CHI 2) +31 in 276 min. -20 in 12 min.
Pascal Siakam (2017 TOR 0, CLE 4) +14 in 10 min. -75 in 182 min.
Kobe Bryant (2001 LAL 3, POR 0) +66 in 119 min. -22 in 26 min.
Kevin Garnett (2004 MIN 4, DEN 1) +58 in 206 min. -38 in 34 min.
Luke Jackson (2007 TOR 2, BRK 4) +14 in 11 min. -46 in 277 min.
LeBron James (2007 CLE 4, WAS 0) +47 in 182 min. -12 in 11 min.
Allen Iverson (2001 PHI 1, LAL 4) -25 in 239 min. -9 in 6 min.
Kawhi Leonard (2017 SAS 0, GSW 4) +21 in 24 min. -85 in 168 min.
Shawn Marion (2003 PHO 2, SAS 4) -17 in 283 min. -15 in 10 min.
Tariq Abdul-Wahad (2003 DAL 2, SAS 4) +19 in 16 min. -49 in 272 min.
Russell Westbrook (2017 OKC 1, HOU 4) +15 in 195 min. -58 in 46 min.
Shaquille O’Neal (2001 LAL 3, POR 0) +55 in 131 min. -11 in 13 min.
Chris Webber (2001 SAC 3, PHO 1) +59 in 169 min. -21 in 23 min.
Tim Duncan (2001 SAS 4, DAL 1) +89 in 202 min. -31 in 38 min.
Kirk Hinrich (2016 ATL 0, CLE 4) +11 in 12 min. -61 in 180 min.
Thomas Gardner (2009 ATL 0, CLE 4) +12 in 16 min. -84 in 177 min.

This list is essentially divided into three groups:

  • Bench-warmers who played a few good minutes while their team got torched throughout the series. Pascal Siakam, Luke Jackson, Tariq Abdul-Wahad, Kirk Hinrich and Thomas Gardner fit this category.
  • Stars who dominated while on the court and saw their teams torched when they sat. For example, in the massive leader in this stat, the Timberwolves played the Mavericks even in the 2002 first round with Chauncey Billups on the court. But Minnesota got outscored by 32 in the 10 minutes Billups sat the entire series and got swept. (Billups was starting for an injured Terrell Brandon, so Robert Pack got pressed into duty behind Billups.)
  • Kawhi Leonard. Every other star played a high majority of his teams’ minutes, essentially as much as he could handle. Then, his team just hoped to hang on in the star’s brief breathers. Leonard was stuck on the bench nearly the entire series, watching the the Spurs look helpless after he led them to a commanding advantage.

To be fair, San Antonio wouldn’t have necessarily won with Leonard.

Golden State was better than the Spurs throughout the season, and the lopsided start was a small sample. Simple regression to the mean could have tilted the series.

Also, the Warriors are at their best with Draymond Green at center, and they used that lineup just 11 seconds before Leonard’s injury. In 59 minutes with Green at center in the series, Golden State posted offensive/defensive/net ratings of 123.9/90.3/+33.5. If they needed to lean on those lineups more to beat a Leonard-led Spurs, they could have.

Yet, I can’t stop wondering what would have happened if Leonard stayed healthy.

The question towers over the last great playoff-injury fascination – whether the Cavaliers would have won the 2015 Finals if Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were healthy.

I contend no. The Warriors were better than Cleveland overall each of the last two years, and they were a stylistic problem for the Cavs – especially Love and especially in 2015. The Cavaliers winning in 2016 adds doubt, but Stephen Curry was hobbled and Draymond Green got suspended for a game. A hungrier and more available 2015 Golden State team was more primed to win than the 2016 edition that lost to Cleveland.

Perhaps, a 2017 Finals rubber match will inform my opinion how Love’s and Irving’s injuries affected the 2015 NBA championship. For now, I’m sticking with the Warriors winning anyway.

But with Leonard’s injury in this year’s conference finals, I just don’t have a feel for whether the Spurs would have prevailed.

And that’s the most frustrating part.

Kevin Durant apologizes for telling fans ‘If you don’t like it, don’t watch it,’ reiterates stance

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Kevin Durant told fans, dismayed by the lack of competitive games and series this postseason, “If you don’t like it, don’t watch it.”

Daring customers to choose another form of entertainment might not be good business for the NBA, but it’s not as if many fans needed an invitation. I doubt anyone was on the fence about watching then made up their minds after hearing Durant’s comments.

Yet, the Warriors star offered an apology.

Durant, via Chris Haynes of ESPN:

“I mean, life can be simple, man, Durant told ESPN. “If you don’t like the way the game is going, just turn it off. If you’re enjoying it, just keep it on. Life is simple. I didn’t mean it to disrespect anybody, but if you felt disrespected, I’m sorry. But if you don’t enjoy the game, turn it off [and] turn something else on. If you do, enjoy the rest of it, man.”

This is just a softer touch on the same sentiment – and just as reasonable.

People who love the NBA will watch. People who hate the NBA won’t. And people in the middle will fluctuate depending on the quality of the product.

Anyone mad at Durant the first time was just looking for a reason to get upset. That group will probably find a source of irritation in the follow-up quote, too.

The rest of us didn’t need this (half-hearted) apology, anyway.

Marreese Speights opts out of Clippers contract

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The Clippers are unraveling.

Of course, whether they can re-sign Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are the big questions. But they also must deal with smaller matters in free agency – like Marreese Speights.

Speights will opt out, his agent tweeted:

The Clippers will hold Speights’ Non-Bird Rights (technically a form of Bird Rights), allowing them to give him a starting salary up to $2,540,346 without using cap space or the mid-level exception.

The 29-year-old Speights, a stretch five who takes charges, fits the modern NBA. He could probably get more if he seeks it.

The Clippers won’t have cap space unless they lose Paul and Griffin, and at that point, re-signing a veteran like Speights is of little use. So, it would likely require the taxpayer mid-level exception or Speights taking a discount to keep him.

Luc Mbah a Moute can and likely will also opt out, and he’ll fall in the same Non-Bird situation. The Clippers would likely prioritize their mid-level exception for him – if it’s enough for either player.

Keeping Paul and Griffin is of the utmost importance, but that’s not the Clippers’ only challenge. Even if they keep those two stars, assembling even a decent supporting cast will difficult. Possibly losing J.J. Redick is the main issue there, but handling Speights’ and Mbah a Moute’s roster spots will also be pivotal.

Warriors struggle to get Zaza Pachulia’s 2017 NBA Finals hat on his big head (video)

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Zaza Pachulia became the villain of the Western Conference finals when he injured Kawhi Leonard and torpedoed the Spurs chances of upsetting the Warriors.

But his teammates stood by him – then shared this fun moment with him after Golden State won the West.