NBA Power Rankings: It’s Miami then everyone else

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Not much change at the top of the rankings this week, the Heat can’t seem to lose (the only real shift was the Clippers jumping the Pacers after beating them). The interesting question going forward is how far will the Spurs tumble without Tony Parker for a month. And if they tumble here, do they give back 3 games to the Thunder in the race for the top seed out West?

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1. Heat (43-14, last week ranked No. 1). LeBron was ridiculous in February and this becomes the problem trying to stop the Heat in the playoffs — if you fully commit to taking him out of the game Dwyane Wade (playing very well) or Chris Bosh will beat you. Are you better off with the “Jordan rules” idea of letting LeBron get his and shutting everyone else down?

 
source:  2. Spurs (47-14, LW 2). Let the record reflect the Spurs had a 3 game lead over the second-seed Thunder and 3.5 over the Clippers when Tony Parker went down for a month with a sprained ankle. The Spurs have a way of still winning despite injuries, (they are 4-1 without Parker this season) but it is going to be tough to not slide back in the standings this time.

 
source:  3. Thunder (43-16, LW 3). If you are the Thunder, are you not thinking you need to use Sunday’s win over the Clippers as a springboard to chase down the Spurs for the top seed in the West. And maybe the best overall record. That is one loud home court the Thunder have and it would be handy in the playoffs.

 
source:  4. Clippers (43-19 LW 5). They won four in a row — including a quality win last week in Indiana — then fought back to make it a close game before losing to the Thunder on Sunday. Still, it’s becoming clear they are a step back of the Spurs and Thunder out West.

 
source:  5. Pacers (38-22, LW 4). David West was the reason the Pacers beat the Bulls Sunday, he’s the reason the Pacers beat a lot of teams this year. He is an unrestricted free agent this summer and the Pacers have to pay the man. They need him. Indy’s Roy Hibbert also starting to find his groove.

 
source:  6. Nuggets (38-22, LW 7). Winners of four in a row, including a quality one over the Thunder last Friday. They could have a first-round matchup with the Grizzlies in the playoffs, which would be a fascinating contrast of styles.

 
source:  7. Grizzlies (39-19, LW 6). They have won nine of 10 and their loss in that stretch is to the Heat. They have played much better after the Rudy Gay trade, but that could slow now with Zach Randolph banged up a little. Ed Davis, opportunity is knocking.

 
source:  8. Knicks (35-21, LW 8). The Knicks are about to enter a brutally tough month of their schedule, including the second night of a back-to-back, fourth game in five days Thursday at Oklahoma City. It’s going to be tough to retake the two seed against this schedule.

 
source:  9. Rockets (33-28, LW 9). I love that coach Kevin McHale is still experimenting with his roster, taking lightly-used rookie Donatas Motiejunas and starting him to give better floor spacing. And it works. The Rockets are a team in progress but they are making progress.

 
source:  10. Bulls (34-26, LW 10). The Bulls are 4-6 in their last 10 and that is all about the lack of offensive spark — they traded their depth away last summer and that comes at a price. We all just continue to wait patiently for Derrick Rose to feel ready to go.

 
source:  11. Nets (34-26, LW 11). The Nets are not a bad team — not a contender, not top three in the East even, but good. We say that so you don’t get fooled by the next three weeks when the Nets feast on a schedule heavy with lottery teams and they start to look better than they are.

 
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12. Lakers (30-30, LW 14). They are a .500 team again and as of Monday morning just 2.5 games out of the playoffs after winning 13-of-17. The playoffs are within reach, but they have to keep winning at least two thirds of their games to make it work. Tough start to week at Oklahoma City.

 
source:  13. Jazz (32-27, LW 12). If the Lakers are going to catch the Jazz it could happen in the next three weeks — Utah’s schedule gets road heavy (six of eight) and playoff team heavy (eight of next 10). How they play in that stretch may determine where they are in late April (Oklahoma City of golfing).

 
source:  14. Celtics (31-27, LW 16). Really good tests coming up for the Celtics — at Indiana, home to Atlanta then back out on the road at Oklahoma City. It’s going to be interesting to see who Boston faces in the first round of the playoffs, they will be a tough out.

 
source:  15. Hawks (33-24, LW 15). Every time I watch this team in a late-game situation against a good team — take the Lakers on Sunday night for example — I’m left to wonder, “Does this team even get out of the first round?”

 
source:  16. Bucks (29-28, LW 17). Right now there is a fun little competition as Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings and J.J. Redick try not to be the guy on the bench at the end of the game. The Bucks are a playoff team but head out on a tough West Coast road swing this week.

 
source:  17. Warriors (33-27, LW 13). Losers of four in a row and seven of their last 10, the Warriors have picked a tough time to slump. They are the six seed in the West now and 3.5 games up on the 9 seed Lakers.

 
source:  18. Mavericks (26-33, LW 18). Two losses last week where they had leads and gave them up — those are the kind of games they had to start winning and just haven’t. So they are looking up at the playoffs. We’ll see if they can keep the Rockets under 130 on Wednesday in a rematch.

 
source:  19. Cavaliers (20-39, LW 19). I’ll admit I was concerned Dion Waiters was just going to develop into a gunner in this league, but with Kyrie Irving sidelined he’s been dishing out assists and looking the part of playmaker. He is going to be better than I thought draft night.

 
source:  20. Trail Blazers (27-31, LW 24). As their focus goes from making the playoffs to the summer, the question I wonder about is if LaMarcus Aldridge can be the recruiter the Blazers can use to go with that cap space they have

 
source:  21. Wizards (19-39, LW 23). In his last five games, Bradley Beal is averaging 20 points a game and is taking better than half his shots from three, where he is hitting 45.5 percent in that stretch. Plus, I could swear in crunch time Sunday I saw John Wall knock down some key jumpers.

 
source:  22. Raptors (23-37, LW 20). Toronto has lost four in a row. Rudy Gay is scoring 20.5 points a game but is shooting just 38.7 percent as a Raptor — Toronto’s fans, that is who Rudy Gay is. He gets you points, but don’t expect any level of consistent efficiency.

 
source:  23. 76ers (23-34, LW 21). If Andrew Bynum doesn’t play this season — and do you really think he will? — the question is how much does he get offered this summer? My guess, at least two years at $13 million per with team options for future years. Big men are at a premium.

 
source:  24. Pistons (23-39, LW 22). They have lost five of their last six and with Andre Drummond out they aren’t nearly as much fun to watch. The question is do they want to keep Jose Calderon after this season and if so how much are they willing to pay to do so.

 
source:  25. Suns (21-39, LW 28). They have won three in a row including a stunning win last week over the Spurs. Not so coincidentally, Jermaine O’Neal has played well the past couple weeks.

 
source:  26. Hornets (21-39, LW 26). Jason Smith is out for the season with a shoulder injury. Anthony Davis has a bone bruise in his shoulder area and is out a while. So, good time to see New Orleans and their weak defense on your schedule.

 
source:  27. Timberwolves (20-36, LW 25). Losers of five in a row and now both Nikola Pekovic and Andrei Kirilenko are battling injuries that could have them sidelined a while. On the bright side, more Ping-Pong balls for the lottery.

 
source:  28. Kings (20-40, LW 27). You have to say this much for Sacramento — their city management has put together a good offer that will challenge the league’s other owners to make a tough decision on where this team plays next season. We’ll see if that’s enough.

 
source:  29. Magic (16-44, LW 30). Each of their last three opponents have shot at least 53 percent for the game. The plan all along was to get worse to get better, so, congratulations on fulfilling the plan.

 
source:  30. Bobcats (13-46, LW 29). They lost to the Clippers last week and it was expected. They lost big to the Jazz, who were without Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap. But they are back on the bottom because they got just crushed by the Kings. It was an ugly week in Charlotte.

Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant betting odds favorites to win MVP

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Unlike the early projections for the NBA title next season, the MVP race seems wide open.

Russell Westbrook put up ridiculous numbers on his way to the award last season, but now he is going to share the rock with Paul George. James Harden made a legitimate case and would have won most seasons, but now he will have the ball in his hands less with Chris Paul running the show.

Who is going to win? Westbrook and Golden State’s Kevin Durant are the early betting line favorites, with these odds courtesy of online gaming site Bovada.

Russell Westbrook (OKC) 7/2
Kevin Durant (GS) 9/2
Kawhi Leonard (SAN) 13/2
LeBron James (CLE) 15/2
James Harden (HOU) 8/1
Giannis Antetokounmpo (MIL) 17/2
Steph Curry (GS) 11/1
Anthony Davis (NOP) 16/1
Paul George (OKC) 25/1
Chris Paul (HOU) 25/1
Isaiah Thomas (BOS) 25/1
DeMarcus Cousins (NOP) 33/1
Karl-Anthony Towns (MIN) 33/1
John Wall (WAS) 33/1
Blake Griffin (LAC) 40/1
Nikola Jokic (DEN) 40/1
DeMar DeRozan (TOR) 50/1
Joel Embiid (PHI) 50/1
Kyrie Irving (CLE) 50/1
Damian Lillard (POR) 50/1
Draymond Green (GS) 60/1
Ben Simmons (PHI) 66/1
Gordon Hayward (BOS) 70/1
Carmelo Anthony (NYK) 75/1
Jimmy Butler (MIN) 75/1
Andrew Wiggins (MIN) 75/1
Kevin Love (CLE) 100/1
Kyle Lowry (TOR) 100/1
Kristaps Porzingis (NYK) 100/1

Yes, it is far too early to discuss this. As a voter, I don’t even start to make a list of serious candidates until midway through the season (then that list evolves as the season wears on). But it’s fun to speculate about.

To me, the smartest bet on the board seems to be Kawhi Leonard — he could have won last year, and if anything the Spurs are going to ask more of him this season. I think Harden has a chance to win it this season even with CP3, same with Westbrook, but it feels less likely. It’s hard to imagine one Warrior being picked above the others for the award. If Giannis Antetokounmpo finds his jumper it could happen, but that feels more like something a couple seasons away. Same with Karl-Anthony Towns being in consideration.

If you’re going to bet on Kevin Love, just donate that money to charity where it will do some good.

If Jeff Hornacek doesn’t work out with Knicks, is David Blatt next in line?

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It’s not fair to judge Jeff Hornacek of his first season as coach of the New York Knicks. Phil Jackson made some poor roster decisions — don’t hire a coach that likes to play fast then go sign Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah — and then there was the on again, off again, on again triangle offense looming over everything.

This season Hornacek will sink or swim on his own terms, and his ability to develop Kristaps Porzingis into a true franchise cornerstone and put Tim Hardaway Jr. and other young players in good positions around them.

If not, is former Cavaliers coach David Blatt lurking? Frank Isola of the New York Daily News says it’s something to watch.

Blatt, who has enjoyed tremendous success abroad, owns an impressive resume. No question about it. But you know the old saying, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. And Blatt has connections with people in high places inside the Knicks front office, namely team president Steve Mills and newly hired front office executive Craig Robinson…

Mills is going to give Hornacek every opportunity to succeed in New York but Mills, who is said to have strong opinions about how the team should be coached, also wants to see results. That begins with Hornacek repairing his relationship with Kristaps Porzingis, who did not connect with the head coach last season and ultimately skipped his exit meeting with Jackson, Hornacek and Mills in April.

Repairing that relationship with Porzingis is crucial. We’ll see if Hornacek can do that and get this team moving in the right direction.

Blatt wants to return to the NBA, but his he the guy to connect with Porzingis? Blatt’s problems in Cleveland had far less to do with Xs and Os than it did relationships with players — Blatt was saying he wanted to team to play faster long before Tyronn Lue said that when he took over, but Lue could get players to buy in and listen. Blatt couldn’t. Blatt came in expecting to be handed respect, touting his European resume (that NBA players shrugged at), and demanding deference rather than building partnerships with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Blatt came off as needing to be the smartest guy in the room, always. Basically, Blatt could not handle the player/power dynamic in the NBA (coming out of Europe, where coaches have absolute power, like an American college coach). Has he learned how to deal with it?

Before we get to that question, Hornaced gets his shot. The real test for the Knicks comes after Christmas, when they spend most of a couple of weeks on the road (due to the Grammys coming to Madison Square Garden), it’s a tough couple of weeks, and the team could struggle in that stretch and not recover. Hornacek has to have the team playing well enough, and buying in enough by then, to survive that trip. Do that and he will stick around. If not, the sharks are circling.

Hawks commit more earnestly to rebuild, but enough?

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Hawks were pretty good without a clear path forward.

Now, they’re pretty bad without a clear path forward.

Luckily for them – and despite their best efforts – they might be bad enough.

Atlanta continued its descent from its 60-win peak two years ago by losing its two best players. The Hawks let Paul Millsap leave for the Nuggets and traded Dwight Howard to the Hornets in what could be described as a salary rearrangement more than a salary dump.

After multiple half-measures toward rebuilding – refusing to offer Al Horford the max, trading Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver for first-round picks – Atlanta finally committed.

Kind of.

The Hawks hedged against full-on tanking by signing Dewayne Dedmon and Ersan Ilyasova. Those two big men – Dedmon in his prime, Ilyasova close enough to it – supply enough hustle and basketball intelligence to sabotage a proper tank. Coach Mike Budenholzer, whose teams tend to exceed the sum of their parts, won’t help Atlanta bottom out.

I can see breaking up a team with a playoff chance to torpedo high into the lottery. The Hawks aren’t doing that – not purposefully, at least. It appears they’re trying to remain credibly competitive, which could only undermine their rebuild.

Atlanta is rebuilding around Dennis Schroder, John Collins, Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry. The Hawks also have all their own first-rounders plus protected first-rounders from the Rockets, Timberwolves, and Cavaliers. But the Houston pick is the only one of those extras that can ever land in the top 10, and that’s just top-three protected this season, a season in which the Rockets project to pick in the low 20s.

Simply, this is not an encouraging asset pool to begin a rebuild with. Atlanta would benefit greatly from a high 2018 pick.

The Hawks just don’t seem interested enough in securing one.

They also lost Tim Hardaway Jr. and Thabo Sefolosha in free agency. Like the 32-year-old Millsap, the 33-year-old Sefolosha had no place on a team mostly rebuilding. The 25-year-old Hardaway could have fit into the next era or even as a trade chip, but not on the four-year, $71 million offer sheet the Knicks signed him to. Though Atlanta wisely passed on matching, it’s a shame to lose an asset for nothing.

That’s really the story of the Hawks’ descent. Millsap, Horford, Sefolosha and DeMarre Carroll all walked in free agency. Atlanta was always reluctant to trade those players for value while it could.

I’m trying to grade only this offseason, not prior decisions. General manager Travis Schlenk took over this offseason, and he has the runway for a patient rebuild.

The Hawks wisely got a first-rounder for taking and buying out Jamal Crawford. Could they have found similar deals rather than signing Dedmon and Ilyasova? Could they have signed younger players instead?

The Hawks might hope they can trade Dedmon (two years, $12.3 million) and Ilyasova (one-year, $6 million) for even greater value, but that comes with complications. Dedmon has a $6.3 million player option for next season, so if his deal goes south, Atlanta is on the hook for another year. (If it goes well, Dedmon will become an unrestricted free agent and – fitting the theme – could just leave.) As a returning player on a one-year contract, Ilyasova can veto any trade.

If the Hawks had re-signed Millsap (and maybe Sefolosha, too), they could have made a decent case to return to the playoffs in the lowly Eastern Conference. Atlanta has the NBA’s second-longest active playoff streak, 10 seasons. That isn’t nothing, and continuing it would have been fine.

If the Hawks tried to return to the playoffs and failed, they would have ended up in a similar position to where they are now – somewhere in the lottery, but not necessarily high in it. They could have even traded Millsap – whose Denver deal guarantees him just $61 million over two years – for value.

If the future is murky either way, I’d rather be better in the interim.

Perhaps, Atlanta just tired of losing in the first or second round (though ownership and management has recently changed). That would have been the team’s likely ceiling if it re-signed Millsap.

But I just don’t see winning about 30 games as more pleasurable than reaching the playoffs, even with an early-round exit. A 30-win season doesn’t bring enough value in the draft to offset the difference.

Here’s the good news: The Hawks’ hedging probably didn’t go far enough. They might be downright terrible, anyway – positioning them to draft the elite young talent they badly need to galvanize their rebuild.

This was a D+ effort that stumbled into a slightly more favorable position – i.e., a team that struggles more than it expects.

Offseason grade: C-

Dunker Max Pearce throws down another impressive one (VIDEO)

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These are the kinds of dunks that make me ask, should the NBA allow pro dunkers in the All-Star Saturday Dunk Contest. Some years you get the great Zach LaVine shows, but other years it’s down. NBA players need to focus on their game, not highlight dunks.

Guys like Max Pearce on the other hand…

Here is his latest.

But head to his Instagram page and you get to see a lot of dunks like this.

Stay creative 👍🏽 #Flynance 🏆

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