PBT NBA Power Rankings: San Antonio slides into top slot

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Another season, another year of the Spurs just making teams pay with their execution. Portland is flying up the rankings, on the other end Utah continues to anchor the bottom.

 
source:  1. Spurs (9-1, Last Week No. 2). The winners of seven in a row, they move into the top spot as they appear the machine-like Spurs we’ve come to know and love. However, there is one thing of concern out there — Tim Duncan is averaging 12 points a game on 39.4 percent shooting.

 
source:  2. Pacers (9-1, LW 1). The hot start this season — the Bulls ended their undefeated run Saturday night — will be put to the test as 8 of their next 11 games are on the road. Plus, when the calendar turns to Dec. 1 things get very difficult.

 
source:  3. Heat (7-3, LW 6). LeBron James is shooting 62 percent from three this season. Because he wasn’t already a nearly impossible cover. Miami has won three in a row and have a pretty easy week (Atlanta then a home-and-home with Orlando) so if they are focused they could extend that streak. But that’s a big “if” with this team right now.

 
source:  4. Trail Blazers (8-2, LW 9). Winners of six in a row, they are doing it with the third best offense in the NBA — they are hitting their shots and being a force on the offensive glass. But they may be leaning a little too heavily on their starters right now.

 
source:  5. Warriors (7-3, LW 5). There are no statement games in November, but you had to like the way Golden State played Oklahoma City last week — with Andre Iguodala they have a guy who can make life more difficult for Kevin Durant (5-of-13 in that game). Interesting tests this week against Memphis and Portland, but both are at home where Golden State is 5-0.

 
source:  6. Clippers (7-3, LW 7). The defense is showing signs of improvement — in their last five games they have allowed 103.8 points per 100 possessions (its 106.1 on the season). Chris Paul has been a stud with double-digit points and assists in every game — think he likes having shooter

 
source:  7. Thunder (6-3, LW 3). As we said with the GSW, there are no statement games in November, but losses last week to the Clippers and Warriors are a reminder this team has some work to do if it plans on winning the West. They get the Clippers at home this Thursday night, we’ll see if the Clippers size is an issue again.

 
source:  8. Timberwolves (7-4, LW 4). Minnesota’s defense and Kevin Love rightfully are getting a lot of credit early, but Kevin Martin has been key — 24.4 points per game, creates his own shot and is hitting 47.4 percent from three to space the floor. Minny came back to earth a little with a .500 week (2-2) but this is still a great start.

 
source:  9. Rockets (7-4, LW 10). With Greg Smith out for at least this week — which is fortunate, when his sprained knee happened it looked worse — the Rockets need Asik to be a professional, suck it up and play hard off the bench. That helps his trade value, too.

 
source:  10. Bulls (5-3, LW 14). Here is a hopeful sign for Chicago — they are +13.3 points per 100 possessions in their last five games. That’s a good indicator that both the defense is clicking and the offense is starting to figure itself out. Friday night Damian Lillard faces the Derrick Rose for the first time, that should be fun.

 
source:  11. Mavericks (6-4, LW 11). Odds Mark Cuban keeps his mouth shut and doesn’t take a backhanded dig at Dwight Howard before the Rockets come to town Friday? I’d say about 1 in 10.

 
source:  12. Hawks (6-4, LW 16). They got Lou Williams back last week, which should bring some scoring spark to what was already the seventh best offense in the NBA. He and Jeff Teague (averaging 19 and 9 this season) form a good point guard duo.

 
source:  13. Grizzlies (5-5, LW 13). They have won a couple in a row over the Lakers and Kings, looking like a team that got its defense back and was finding a groove. We’ll see. Big tests this week against the Clippers, Warriors and Spurs.

 
source:  14. Suns (5-4, LW 8). They keep playing close games — every one of their games has been within five points in the final five minutes. That’s fun to watch, and while that’s not how you win sustainably it’s better than we expected from them preseason.

 
source:  15. Bobcats (5-5, LW 17). Steve Clifford has them playing solid defense — if they could keep Al Jefferson in the lineup for more than a couple games without an injury they could win a few more. Another team that has issues but is better than expected and can sustain solid play.

 
source:  16. 76ers (5-6, LW 12). They have lost six of eight and are fading back to the pack — except there is nobody in the Atlantic playing well enough to catch them, so they are still in first. The bigger concern being Michael Carter Williams having missed three games with a foot injury.

 
source:  17. Pelicans (4-6, LW 15). Ryan Anderson returned from his toe injury Saturday night and put up a quick 26 points. It’s easy to see why Rockets fans covet him but this outing showed why New Orleans needs him to space the floor, too.

 
source:  18. Lakers (5-7, LW 26). Yes, yes, Kobe Bryant is back practicing with the team. We heard. The more surprising news is that the Lakers defense has been average (17th in NBA in points per possession), which is better than expected.

 
source:  19. Nuggets (4-5, LW 29). After a slow start to the season they went 3-1 last week — coincidence it happened with JaVale McGee sidelined? Tough week ahead with Oklahoma City then a Chicago/Dallas back-to-back.

 
source:  20. Nets (3-6, LW 18). We said before the season injuries would matter a lot to this team, so the fact that Deron Williams, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez were all out against the Clippers Saturday is not a good sign. This team needs time on the court with its stars to figure out some chemistry issues.

 
source:  21. Magic (4-6, LW 20). Arron Afflalo is off to a fast start this season is averaging 21.7 points per game and hitting 50 percent of his threes — which in Orlando means he is trade bait. Tough home-and-home with Miami this week.

 
source:  22. Pistons (3-6, LW 19). After seeing them in person Sunday night, it’s really stunning just how bad the Josh Smith/Andre Drummond/Greg Monroe combo is on defense. Our man DJ Foster broke it down well. As teams go small and space the floor around the league, how long will Detroit go with this big experiment if it doesn’t work?

 
source:  23. Cavaliers (4-7, LW 21). Lots of drama with a team meeting last week and some questions about how sick Dion Waiters really is, the only thing that got them a win was Kyrie Irving going off against Washington. This team feels like it could spiral down from here.

 
source:  24. Celtics (4-7, LW 22). With no Rajon Rondo to stabilize things this is what you get — four losses in a row, then four wins, then three losses. Very inconsistent. Like Jeff Green. They also are giving up a league high 17.3 points a game on opponent second chance points.

 
source:  25. Knicks (3-6, LW 13). Normally you’d say a team that is about to play five of their next six on the road is facing a challenge, but as the Knicks are 1-5 at Madison Square Garden maybe what this squad needs is a road trip. Words can’t express how much they miss Tyson Chandler.

 
source:  26. Raptors (1-3, LW 24). Rudy Gay missed 26 shots in a game last week and is still shooting 38 percent on the season. However, if you’re thinking, “they should trade him” realize they replace him with DeMar DeRozan, who is shooting just 40 percent on the year.

 
source:  27. Wizards (2-7, LW 25). They have lost four in a row and the offense is struggling, which is why Randy Wittman watch is still going on. That said, they have faced one of the toughest schedules in the NBA this season, which doesn’t help.

 
source:  28. Kings (2-7, LW 28). The Kings’ starters have been so bad that Sunday coach Mike Malone benched the lot of them 4:22 into the third quarter and went with his bench the rest of the way against Portland — and it almost worked. Lots of big issues to solve here.

 
source:  29. Bucks (2-7, LW 27). They have lost five in a row, but to be fair Milwaukee has been injury ravaged — four of their five starters are banged up right now, leaving O.J. Mayo to carry the load.

 
source:  30. Jazz (1-10, LW 30). Hey, they got a win last week with a nice comeback against New Orleans. Derrick Favors had 18 rebounds in a game. So there’s that. The Jazz have the worst offense and the 26th ranked defense in the NBA so far this season.

Russell Westbrook set to learn if his historic season was an MVP one

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A year ago, uncertainty surrounded Russell Westbrook.

Kevin Durant stunned the league by leaving Oklahoma City for rival Golden State in free agency. The four-time scoring champion and former MVP had been the central piece in making the Thunder one of the league’s elite teams since the franchise’s move to Oklahoma City in 2008.

Westbrook had played his entire NBA career alongside Durant, so questions about how Westbrook would respond immediately cropped up.

He defiantly answered them with memorable performances.

Westbrook became the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double for a season and won his second scoring title. He broke Robertson’s single-season record with 42 triple-doubles and led the Thunder to the playoffs. Now, he will join Houston’s James Harden and San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard as finalists for the league’s MVP award. The winner will be announced Monday at the inaugural NBA Awards show.

Westbrook gained satisfaction from the team’s success, which largely was fueled by his personal dominance.

“With everything happening last summer, people counted us out,” he said the day after Oklahoma City’s season ended. “They weren’t sure how many games we were going to win or how far we were going to go or whatever, but I think the group of guys, we never let that sink in our building. We stuck together, and that’s the thing I’m most proud about.”

Westbrook wasn’t just stat stuffing, either. The Thunder went 33-9 when he had a triple-double and 14-26 when he didn’t. He seemingly gained energy as the season progressed and was statistically better after the All-Star break than before. As for those late-game situations, he led the league with 10 points per game in the fourth quarter and was one of the most dynamic closers in the league.

Westbrook topped Robertson’s single-season, triple-double record on April 9 in Denver. His 36-foot game-winning dagger put the final touch on a 50-point, 16-rebound, 10-assist performance that eliminated the Nuggets from playoff contention.

Robertson himself showed up to the Thunder’s regular-season finale and endorsed Westbrook for the MVP award.

“What he has done has been historic in nature,” Robertson told the crowd that night. “He’s played with passion and pride and ability. It’s just outstanding what he has done and the way he did it.”

Durant might be the least surprised player in the league. Westbrook was dominant while Durant was out with a foot injury during the 2014-15 season and claimed his first scoring title, but it wasn’t clear if he could do it all – score, dominate the boards, consistently feed his teammates and come through in big moments – for an entire season.

Turns out, he could.

In the second game of the season, he had 51 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in a victory over Phoenix, the first 50-point triple-double since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it in 1975. On March 27, he had 13 points in a 3-minute barrage to rally the Thunder past Dallas. Two days later in Orlando, he scored 57 points and posted the most points ever in a triple-double. He hit a deep 3-pointer to force overtime, and eventually helped the Thunder win. In one of his most memorable games, he scored 47 points in a loss to Durant’s Warriors.

Harden and Leonard also had MVP-caliber seasons:

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JAMES HARDEN, HOUSTON

As stunning as Westbrook’s triple-double binge was this season, Harden’s was impressive, too.

He posted 22 triple-doubles and helped the Rockets finish with the league’s third-best record. Harden, known primarily as a scorer throughout his career, shifted from shooting guard to point guard and was nearly unstoppable in coach Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced offense.

Harden led the league with 11.2 assists per game and finished second with 29.1 points per contest. In perhaps his best performance, he had 53 points, 16 rebounds and 17 assists against the New York Knicks on New Year’s Eve.

KAWHI LEONARD, SAN ANTONIO

Leonard is the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and he’s up for the honor again.

Yet, it was the 6-foot-7 forward’s offensive improvement that put him in the mix for the MVP award. He averaged 25.5 points this season after averaging 21.2 the previous year.

Leonard helped the Spurs finish with the league’s second-best record. He seemed to play as the stage got bigger.

He opened the season with a career-high 35 points in a blowout win over the Warriors. Leonard upped that career high with 41 points in a win over Cleveland on Jan. 21, and he dropped 39 points in a victory over Houston on March 6.

 

New Jordan brand ad asks: Could Kawhi score on Kawhi?

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Kawhi Leonard is the NBA’s best perimeter defender right now.

Kawhi Leonard is the cornerstone of the seventh best offense in the NBA last season, averaging 25.5 points per game.

He’s a dominant force on both ends, which leads to the question from this fantastic new ad from the Jordan brand:

Could Kawhi score on Kawhi?

Report: Minnesota “intent” on trading Ricky Rubio to get more shooting

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It’s easy to look at the trio of Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Andrew Wiggins in Minnesota now and think “that team will make the playoffs next season and be a contender in a few years.” They have set themselves up for that potential run.

But with those three on the floor, Minnesota needs shooters at the other two spots to provide spacing. Butler may have hit 36.7 percent of his threes last season, but he is far more dangerous as a slasher getting to the rim. Same with Wiggins (who shot 35 percent from three). Obviously, Towns operates around the basket. The defensive strategy against the Timberwolves is not hard to envision: Pack the paint and make them shoot over the top of you. Take away the inside.

Minnesota needs shooters. To get that they are dangling Ricky Rubio, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

Rubio should have value, and he makes a reasonable $14.3 million next season and $15 million the one after (a fair price for a point guard of his quality). He remains one of the best passers in the league, a guy with amazing court vision. He’s also one of the better defensive point guards in the NBA. He shot the ball well after the All-Star break last season (35.3 percent from three) and was more aggressive getting his shot, but Tom Thibodeau is clearly not sold that’s a permanent change.

Minnesota has some cap space and could chase a player like Patty Mills at the point or Kyle Korver as a free agent to give them shooting, plus try to trade Rubio. They have options, although they don’t have the money to chase the J.J. Redicks of the world.

If you hear of a shooter being available, know that Thibodeau is lurking, trying to land him.

Report: Cavaliers, Nuggets, Pacers three-way trade involving Paul George “very unlikely”

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We knew back on the night of the draft that as the Cavaliers desperately looked for a way to pry Paul George out of Indiana, they started involving third teams in the talks (because Indy had no interest in Kevin Love for Paul George straight up, not should they). Phoenix was involved, but that fizzled. So did talks involving Denver.

But those latter ones didn’t die the night of the draft, according to reports that came out over the weekend. Denver, Cleveland, and Indiana were still talking about a three-team deal that would land Love in Denver and George in Cleveland. The challenge for Cleveland was finding the combination of young players and draft picks that Indiana wants in a deal — Indy is rumored to want a lottery pick (preferably high lottery) and a young player or players.

Now that Denver three-team is “very unlikely” to happen, according to Joe Varden of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

As first reported by ESPN, the Cavs engaged the Nuggets as a possible third team to facilitate a trade for the All-Star George on draft night, but a source said the discussion was “nothing serious” and “very unlikely” to happen now…

The Nuggets had the No. 13 pick in Thursday’s draft and traded it to Utah for Trey Lyles — obviously giving up on getting Love, at least for the time being.

Indiana would have wanted the No. 13 pick, because future Dever picks are likely to be outside of the lottery as this is a team poised to make a leap into the playoffs, with Nikola Jokic leading them. As for players, Denver had shot down all requests for Jamal Murray. Indiana likely asked for Gary Harris, but if Murray was off-limits then Harris likely was as well. Emmanuel Mudiay was available but that wasn’t going to get the job done.

Denver likes its roster and what it’s building. While Love could have been an upgrade over Danilo Gallinari‘s role, it wasn’t enough to get them to break up the team to make it happen. And that ultimately has been Cleveland’s challenge in getting a deal done — Love isn’t commanding as much as they hoped on the trade market.

In the same article, Varden has an update on Cleveland’s discussions with Chauncey Billups about becoming the president of basketball operations.

The Cavs are still in discussions with Chauncey Billups to lead Cleveland’s front office after the departure of David Griffin. They’re also remaining active in the trade market, with a host of remaining front-office personnel, including Koby Altman, an assistant GM under Griffin, working the phones.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, speaking on the Lowe Post podcast with Zach Lowe, said Billups is weighing a lot of things, on and off the court, in making a complex decision. He likes living in Denver (his hometown) as does his family, and with his television schedule, he can be home a lot. On the other hand, he knows the importance and need for more African-American executives in the NBA had how important it could be for him to be in that role. There’s no easy answer for Billups.

The lesson here should be one for Dan Gilbert (and other owners): If you are going to fire a GM right before the draft and the start of free agency, you must have a replacement ready to go. Plan B has to be set. To fire a guy not having that plan, then go searching right before a critical off-season for your team, is how long-struggling teams operate.