NBA Power Rankings: Western teams jockey for position behind Heat.

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It’s Miami and then everyone else right now — but notice the next six teams in our weekly power rankings are from the West. That’s because the play of the second tier teams in the East has fallen off (Indiana, New York, Brooklyn)

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1. Heat (51-14, last week ranked No. 1). What kind of concerns can we come up with? They are peaking too early? They will need to sacrifice the streak to get guys rest before the playoffs? Do those things really concern you at all?

 
source:  2. Spurs (51-16, LW 3). Tony Parker or no Tony Parker (and he may be back sooner than projected) they thumped the Thunder on Monday. I’ve moved from the camp that thought the Spurs were a regular season team that would bounce early in the playoffs again to seeing their defense and thinking they are legit contenders.

 
source:  3. Thunder (50-17, LW 2). At what point are the Thunder really going to miss James Harden? Well, did you see them lose to the Spurs Monday and their bench get outplayed? Overall the Thunder are better this year than last, but that punch off the bench is going to matter deep in the playoffs.

 
source:  4. Nuggets (45-22, LW 4). Winners of 11 in a row, including beating the Grizzlies last week. This is a team that has sold the future to its fans for a few years, they need to deliver on that now at least some and get to the second round of the playoffs. They face the Thunder this week, we’ll see if the streak survives that.

 
source:  5. Grizzlies (44-21, LW 5). They beat the Clippers and lost to the Nuggets in a close one this week. Yes, their 14-1 streak was against softer competition, but don’t sleep on this team being real. This week they get the Thunder.

 
source:  6. Clippers (46-21, LW 6). Was in the building to watch them against the Knicks Sunday, and they coasted to a win against a shorthanded team. That’s fine earlier in the season but this does not feel like a team gearing up for the playoffs.

 
source:  7. Lakers (36-32, LW 9). This ranking feels high for a team without Kobe Bryant, but they catch a break in the schedule with just a couple games against softies Phoenix and Washington. Kobe can rest and the Lakers are not going to fall back.

 
source:  8. Pacers (40-26, LW 8). They may get Danny Granger back next week — and they need him. They have lost four of six and their offense takes vacations for stretches each game. But the bigger issue of late is their defense has gone from lockdown to pretty good (allowing 101.8 points per 100 possessions in the last five games, 12th best in the NBA).

 
source:  9. Celtics (36-29, LW 11). Boston is a legitimate threat to the Heat streak — the Celtics have won 11 in a row at home and they catch Miami on a back-to-back. But if Kevin Garnett is out, that mountain suddenly looks a whole lot more steep.

 
source:  10. Nets (38-28, LW 10). They are the four seed but are 1.5 games away from being the seven seed as they embark on an eight game road trip, forced out of their new home by a circus. Which means brace for the fall about to come. They are at the Mavericks and Clippers this week.

 
source:  11. Rockets (36-31, LW 12). They have a lot of home games left but the Rockets are not pulling away in the standings, going 5-5 in their last 10. Big game against the Jazz Wednesday. Hopefully they shoot better than they did against the Warriors Sunday.

 
source:  12. Knicks (38-26, LW 7). They lost four in a row and with injuries to Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Amare Stoudemire they just cannot create offense. J.R. Smith tries but he’s streaky. Raymond Felton needs a pick-and-roll partner. The Knicks are now 20-21 since their hot start.

 
source:  13. Hawks (37-29, LW 15). When you watch Al Horford and Josh Smith play off each other like they did against the Nets on Sunday, you wonder why it can’t be like that all the time in Atlanta?

 
source:  14. Bulls (36-29, LW 13). They are an up-and-down team right now that needs to get Joakim Noah and Luol Deng some rest down the stretch. And sure, Derrick Rose back if he wants to. Tough games against the Nuggets and Pacers this week.

 
source:  15. Warriors (38-30, LW 16). That was a key win over the Rockets Sunday — gives them a little cushion because the Rockets and Lakers are eyeing that six seed and avoiding OKC and San Antonio in the first round. We’ll see how much Andrew Bogut helps their defense in the coming weeks.

 
source:  16. Bucks (33-32, LW 14). They lost three straight and looked terrible doing it, and only salvaged a win against Orlando because Monta Ellis went nova for a quarter. They look more and more like the sure thing eight seed out East, which means the Heat in the first round. Have fun with that.

 
source:  17. Jazz (34-32, LW 17). They got a quality win over Memphis Sunday and they are going to need a few more of those. They are not out of it — the last 10 games of the Lakers schedule is not easy — but they need wins. It won’t be easy this week against the Rockets, Spurs and Mavericks all on the road.

 
source:  18. Mavericks (31-35, LW 18). They tread water last week (2-2, although in the losses they played the Spurs and Thunder well) and you have to think at this point just getting to .500 on the season is the goal. And it won’t be an easy one with eight of their next nine against playoff teams.

 
source:  19. Trail Blazers (31-34, LW 19). Going small with Damian Lillard and Eric Maynor in the backcourt together has Portland playing some fantastic offensive ball. Five road games this week, tough schedule that includes stops in Chicago, Atlanta and Oklahoma City.

 
source:  20. Wizards (23-42, LW 22). Don’t tell anyone, but John Wall’s jumper looked pretty good last week and he was scoring 24 points a game and earning player of the week honors from the league. Washington swings through the West Coast for some road games this week.

 
source:  21. Raptors (26-41, LW 20). They played the Heat hard on Sunday. So that’s something. It and Amir Johnson’s play on the glass is really all the positives we can come up with.

 
source:  22. Cavaliers (22-44, LW 21). What would be the point of bringing Kyrie Irving back this season? Can’t think of one. Let the man’s body rest.

 
source:  23. Timberwolves (23-41, LW 25). Minnesota has to decide if they want to talk contract extension with Nikola Pekovic this summer or play the restricted free agent game in 2014. The bigger question may be is it David Kahn or Flip Saunders who will be making that call?

 
source:  24. Suns (22-45, LW 23). They have lost four in a row and it feels like the rest of the season is a countdown to big changes in the front office and everywhere this summer.

 
source:  25. Kings (23-44, LW 26). I can’t wait until the ownership situation gets settled there, so we don’t see things like the Thomas Robinson trade again.

 
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26. 76ers (25-40, LW 29). There is still some fight in this team — they almost beat the Heat last week. They have beaten Golden State and Indiana recently.

 
source:  27. Hornets (22-45, LW 28). Anthony Davis has started to consistently put up nice numbers again, and we’ve seen a couple nice games from Eric Gordon. I still want to believe that could be two key cornerstone guys for the franchise, but if seems like that ship has sailed.

 
source:  28. Pistons (23-45, LW 24). They have lost eight in a row but could at least get Andre Drummond back soon, which makes them infinitely more watchable.

 
source:  29. Magic (18-49, LW 27). Hey Milwaukee, why weren’t you playing Tobias Harris again? He looks pretty good down in Orlando.

 
source:  30. Bobcats (14-52, LW 30). They have been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, the first team in the NBA to do so. Congratulations.

Pacers’ Lance Stephenson will get his chance, but coming off the bench

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Indiana is Myles Turner‘s team now. Gone from last season are Paul George, Monta Ellis, Jeff Teague, Aaron Brooks and more. More than just Turner, everyone on the Pacers’ roster is going to get a chance to shine.

That includes Lance Stephenson.

But he will do that coming off the bench, coach Nate McMillan told the Pacers’ website.

Coach Nate McMillan said he has a starting lineup in mind heading into training camp, but wouldn’t reveal it. He did acknowledge, however, that Lance Stephenson likely will start the season as the sixth man…

“I hope he can establish (that role),” McMillan said. “A sixth man is like a starter, and he can be a guy who can do a lot of things with that second group with his ability to handle the ball, score the ball. He’s an unselfish player.”

Stephenson was only with the Pacers for a few games at the end of last season, but he was their second best player in the postseason brought an energy and toughness the team lacked. He hit threes (62 percent for the Pacers), played hard, and looked more like the guy Indiana had years ago than the guy who has bounced around the league since. But that was a very small sample size, it’s something else to do this over the course of a season.

Indiana is rebuilding but they did not bottom out and tank, they brought in guys who can handle the ball such as Victor Oladipo (the George trade), Darren Collison, and Cory Joseph. Stephenson is going to have to accept and find a role behind and with those guys. But he’s going to get a chance, and he has played his best ball in a Pacers’ uniform.

Suns’ center Alex Len expected to sign qualifying offer, head to camp

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In the free-spending summer of 2016, Bismack Biyambo got a $72 million contract. Timofey Mozgov got $64 million.

Those kinds of contracts — and there were plenty more of them — had a lot of NBA big men (and players in general) heading into this summer thinking they were going to get PAID. Instead, teams learned the lessons from their drunken spending binge and the market got tight. Especially for centers.

Which leads us to the news Suns big man Alex Len is going to bet on himself and sign his qualifying offer before coming to camp, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Barring an unforeseen change of events, Phoenix Suns center Alex Len is planning to sign the team’s $4.2 million qualifying offer before training camp, clearing the way to become an unrestricted free agent in 2018, league sources told ESPN….

Phoenix wants to study’s Len’s progress in the 2017-18 season before committing to a long-term, lucrative contract extension to him. Len has started 80 games over the past two seasons, including 34 in 2016-17 when he averaged eight points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.3 blocks a game.

Phoenix wants to leave its options open. Len is mobile, can protect the rim, and has some skills that would help him fit in a modern NBA style offense — he could play with Devin Booker and Josh Jackson — plus last season he improved his shooting around the rim and in the paint. However, he’s not consistent on either end of the court. He shows his potential in flashes, but the Suns need to see more.

Len will now be an unrestricted free agent next summer — he is playing for his next payday. If that can’t motivate him, nothing will.

Report: Lottery reform will really help teams in middle of lottery

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Tanking in the NBA is a problem more of perception than reality — Adam Silver and the league office doesn’t like that there are portions of team’s fan bases rooting for their team to lose. It doesn’t like that tanking is openly discussed on radio shows and online. Combine that with the resting of star players on the road, and in nationally televised games, and the league sees sports talk radio talking points as real problems for the league’s image.

Spreading out the NBA’s schedule is done, and with that the resting of players’ in those high-profile games will decrease (of course, if teams want to sit LeBron James or Stephen Curry or Kawhi Leonard in a nationally televised game, they will just say he has a sore back/ankle/shoulder that needs rest).

Lottery reform looks like it will pass as well, even though it’s putting a band-aid on a broken leg. The league’s new rules will decrease and flatten out the odds at the top of the lottery, and it will reward the teams more in the middle, according to a new report from Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

 The worst three teams’ odds would now have an equal chance at the No. 1 overall pick: 14 percent. Presently, the teams with the three worst records have descending chances of 25 percent, 19.9 percent and 15.6 percent. Also, the worst record can drop as far as No. 5 in the new lottery proposal, down from No. 4….

Teams in the Nos. 7-10 range will have a stronger chance to move up into the top three picks, ESPN has learned, with No. 7’s chances improving from 15 percent to 23, No. 8 from 10 percent to 19 percent, No. 9 from six percent to 15 percent and No. 10 from four percent to 10 percent.

He adds that the odds for the three teams at the top of the lottery — picks 11, 12, and 13 — increase only a couple of percentage points, which the league believes means teams will not try to tank their way out of the playoffs and into the lottery. There is extra money in terms of ticket sales and revenue — at least $5 million for a couple home games — for teams that get into the postseason, and that money can matter to teams.

That said, teams are still going to tank for picks. The league seems to be chasing the ghost of Sam Hinkie with this proposal, trying to make it less likely teams go on a multiple year deep dive, but that was never really a problem anyway — few owners would have the stomach for that, and the one that did (Joshua Harris in Philly) eventually bowed to the pressure from the league and others and canned Hinkie as GM. No GM is trying to put his job at risk with a rebuilding plan.

Tanking will continue because teams need one of the game’s franchise changing stars — of which there are maybe 10 in the league at any one given time — to compete at the highest levels, and for 24 or so markets the only way to get that player is via the draft. What’s more, land that player and thanks to the CBA, teams control that player for four years at a very affordable salary, then thanks to extensions/restricted free agency the team can keep that player for another four or five years. They have this great talent locked in for at least eight or nine years (for example, Kevin Durant spent nine years in Seattle/Oklahoma City before moving on, same with LeBron the first time he left Cleveland, and that list goes on). Now with the “designated player” designation — call it the Kevin Durant rule — teams are more likely to keep that star for another four or five years beyond that.

If you really want to end tanking, make rookie contracts two years then they become unrestricted free agents. Now the motivation to tank for a pick goes away, but of course, small and mid-market teams would rightfully complain about that because then they will have a very hard time keeping talent around.

Bottom line, if you have a truly elite player you win more basketball games, and for most teams the only way to get that player is the draft — so tanking will continue. It’s a smart strategy to rebuild.

The new lottery odds will pass, and they are not a bad thing, but it is far more about perception than reality. And you can be sure there will be unintended consequences.

Jeopardy uses “crying Jordan” meme for question

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You know a meme has jumped the shark when it appears on Jeopardy. (Also, the phrase “jump the shark” has jumped the shark.)

The “crying Jordan” meme reached that level this week when Alex Trebek asked a question about it.

This in no way means we should stop using the crying Jordan meme — even if it bothers MJ himself, and it does — because it’s still funny.