Tim Duncan, Tony Parker

NBA Power Rankings: Spurs still riding along in top slot


Not a lot of changes at the very top, although we see the Knicks and Nuggets making climbs with winning streaks. At the bottom the Magic have lost 9 in a row, lost Big Baby for the season and are about to trade their best shooter in the next couple of weeks. Do they ever get out of the cellar?

source:  1. Spurs (38-11, last week ranked No. 1). They are the winners of 10 in a row overall and 18 in a row at home (the San Antonio record for consecutive home wins is 22, set two seasons ago). That was enough to make Gregg Popovich an All-Star Game coach. Hopefully the sprains to Tim Duncan’s left knee and right ankle are not severe. Also, the league needs to #LetBonnerShoot.

source:  2. Thunder (35-12, LW 2). They had seven of their last eight on the road and went an unimpressive 3-4 in those games. Throw in a Russell Westbrook tantrum and you have what passes for a tough stretch for this team. Not sure it really matters much to them. Fun game this Wednesday against Golden State (hope everyone is healthy for GSW).

source:  3. Heat (29-14, LW 3). The Heat have coasted through this season and still have the best record in the East, so Erik Spoelstra gets to coach the All-Star Game. Things get interesting starting Friday with both Los Angeles teams coming to Miami, leading up to a Valentines night trip to OKC.

source:  4. Clippers (34-15 LW 4). They are out on their Grammy road trip and have opened it 1-2. Which is less than ideal because real tests start to come later this week with the Heat and Knicks. You are starting to see how much they are missing Chris Paul at the point.

source:  5. Knicks (30-15, LW 7). They have won four in a row and now four of their next five games are against teams playing under .500 (although Toronto and Detroit are no pushovers of late). Maybe they can make a run and get Mike Woodson to coach the All-Star… oh, too late. Sorry.

6. Nuggets (30-18, LW 8). They have won six in a row, but we told you to watch as they climbed up the rankings with a string of home games. That ends Saturday in Cleveland and they will be on the road up to the All-Star break.

source:  7. Warriors (30-17, LW 10). They have won four in a row and with Andrew Bogut back they have a much better defensive presence in the paint. They need Stephen Curry and Harrison Barnes healthy because the schedule this week consists of Houston, Oklahoma City, Memphis and Dallas and all of those on the road.

8. Nets (28-19, LW 6). They remain in a tough stretch of the schedule. While the next three teams (Lakers, Pistons, Wizards) are all under .500 all have played better of late, then it’s the Spurs, Pacers and Nuggets. Do you watch the Nets against these top teams and think, “That team is a contender.” Neither do I.

source:  9. Bulls (29-18, LW 5). They’ve started their road trip 2-1, with wins over the Bucks and Hawks (the loss is to the Nets). What’s more they have done it without Joakim Noah, and for part of it Carlos Boozer. Tom Thibodeau gets his guys to play.

source:  10. Grizzlies (30-16, LW 9). Rudy Gay is gone and some in the media reacted like Jerry Krause just broke up the ‘90s Bulls. I don’t think the Grizzlies were serious contenders (fourth best in their own conference) and I also don’t think they took a step back with this deal. I think people who don’t watch him a lot overvalue Gay.

source:  11. Pacers (28-19, LW 11). Every few games there is one where Roy Hibbert shows up and plays well, and when he does you think “there is the team that pushed the Heat last playoffs.” He remains the key to them doing anything like that again.

source:  12. Hawks (26-20, LW 12). If you’re thinking the Hawks will move Josh Smith at the deadline, you might want to reconsider. They want cap space this summer and if they trade his expiring deal they will have to take $13 million in salary back. That said, the Hawks have a lot of other expiring deals on the roster (Devin Harris, Kyle Korver, Anthony Morrow and more).

source:  13. Bucks (25-21, LW 13). Losses to the Bulls and Knicks last week show the Bucks to be what they are — a playoff team but a team on the third tier at best in the East. Tough games against Denver and Utah on the road this week.

source:  14. Rockets (26-23, LW 15). The Rockets are in that last playoff spot in the West, one game up on Utah and 3.5 up on the Lakers. They get a big test this week with the Warriors, at the Heat, then the Blazers on Friday.

source:  15. Jazz (26-22, LW 14). The Jazz are the seven seed in the West, 1.5 games ahead of nine-seed Portland and four up on the 10 seed Lakers. They have a stretch of home games this week where they need to rack up some wins and build a cushion in case a team does make a charge.

source:  16. Trail Blazers (24-23, LW 16). They are just a game out of the playoffs in the West but with a key seven of their next eight are on the road — the Blazers can’t fall back now, especially with the Lakers seeming to make a charge from below.

source:  17. Celtics (24-23, LW 17). They won four in a row last week – and their offense looked great against the Clippers — but the loss of Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger for the season still stings. They can hold on to that last playoff spot if they can keep playing like this, keep moving the ball and getting key shots from Paul Pierce.

source:  18. Lakers (22-26, LW 19). They have opened the Grammy road trip 2-1, but the bigger concern is Dwight Howard’s shoulder. Lakers say they want to strengthen the area to reduce chance of future injury there… can you make Dwight Howard’s shoulders stronger?

19. 76ers (20-26, LW 20). It’s fun to say the Sixers can make a run at the Celtics for the 8th playoff spot in the east once Andrew Bynum returns, but the reality is they have 3.5 games to make up and as Boston has shown this week they are not coming back to the pack. Can Philly get that hot?

source:  20. Mavericks (20-27, LW 18). Two gut-shot close losses last week. You look at games like those, and how Dallas is five games out of a playoff spot with team above them surging, and you think this is going to be the end of their 12-year playoff streak. And that’s a little sad.

source:  21. Pistons (18-30, LW 21). They went 1-2 at home last week and now this week have to face the Knicks, Nets, Spurs and Bucks. Not an easy landing spot for Jose Calderon but I think he helps them if they move Brandon Knight to the two spot for him.

source:  22. Raptors (17-31, LW 22). They have gone 1-1 since the arrival of Rudy Gay, with a win over the Clippers and a close loss to the Heat. Good signs. Still, while I get he makes them more athletic and Gay is their best player, I’m still not sure Toronto what kind of team Toronto is building.

source:  23. Cavaliers (14-34, LW 25). I’ve been saying that after all their trades Memphis upgraded sending Marreese Speights to Cleveland and replacing him with Ed Davis off the bench. But since getting to Cleveland Speights has averaged 15.4 points and 6.8 rebounds a game. He has played well.

source:  24. Timberwolves (18-26, LW 26). They snapped their six-game losing streak against the Hornets in a game where Ricky Rubio found space to operate and looked a little like his old self. We missed that Rubio.

source:  25. Hornets (15-33, LW 23). The Super Bowl kicked them out of town for a while and they went 1-4 on the road trip because as it has all season their defense seems to fall apart on the road. Which means this isn’t good news for the future Pelicans —three of their five before the All-Star break on the road.

source:  26. Wizards (11-36, LW 24). Another winless week where their pathetic offense could not help out some solid defensive efforts. That was quite a scare when John Wall went down in the second quarter Friday; big sighs of relief throughout the District when he returned for the second half. That was scary.

source:  27. Kings (17-32, LW 27). With a lame-duck GM and an ownership in flux, don’t expect any deadline trades. Nor is Keith Smart going to get fired if he keeps asking DeMarcus Cousins to act like an adult. All eyes in Sacramento will be on New Orleans All-Star weekend to see what the leanings of David Stern and the owners are about the sale and proposed move to Seattle.

source:  28. Suns (16-32, LW 28). They got a quality come-from-behind win over the Lakers when Dwight Howard went out and the Lakers defense opened up a toll-free highway to the basket on drives. But Beasley is Beasley, the next night he was 2-of-13.

source:  29. Bobcats (11-35, LW 29). Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s jumpshot may need more work than the Superdome circuit breakers, but the kid brings real energy, defense and effort every night. Hate to see him down with a concussion.

source:  30. Magic (14-33, LW 39). They have lost nine in a row and this week had the painful loss of Glen Davis (likely for the season), he was having his best season as a pro. Be ready for the J.J. Redick trade rumors to really catch fire in the coming weeks (and he will get moved).

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.