Portland Trail Blazers v Golden State Warriors

PBT NBA Power Rankings: At the quarter pole Portland takes the lead

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The general rule of thumb is 20 games into the season you can start to really trust the stats and the trends — in which case it’s good to be a Portland Trail Blazers fan. They move into the top slot with their recent wins over Indiana and OKC.

source:  1. Trail Blazers (17-4, Last Week No. 4). They are doing it with the best offense in the NBA. It’s okay to be a jump shooting team if you hit them, and the Blazers knock them down — they are hitting 42.7 percent on corner threes as a team this season and 41.8 percent from beyond the arc overall.

source:  2. Thunder (15-4, LW 4). Kevin Durant seemed to take things personally against Paul George this weekend — a side of Durant we don’t get to see very often. I liked it. Still not reading too much into the margin of victory over a clearly tired Pacers team.

source:  3. Pacers (18-3, LW 1). Indiana would really love to thank the schedule makers for their Clipper/Blazers then Spurs/Thunder back-to-backs last week. Indy lost both back ends but I’m not faulting them much for it. Showdown Tuesday with Miami.

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4. Spurs (15-4, LW No. 5). In case you ever wondered what Tiago Splitter means to this team, I hope you watched the loss to the Pacers Saturday night: San Antonio was up 35-22 when Splitter was removed for the game (calf issues) and the Pacers went on a 84-45 run. His defense is key and he’s out at least a couple more games.

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5. Heat (16-5, LW 2). They lost a couple games last week to teams with big front lines (Detroit and Chicago) but the Heat still feels like a team just kind of coasting, waiting for what matters. And they got their revenge on Detroit Sunday.

source:  6. Rockets (15-7, LW 6). On paper the Rockets look strong — elite offense and the fourth best net rating of points per possession in the league — but then you watch them play and they don’t pass the eye test at the same level. There is a lack of consistency night to night, which led Dwight Howard expressing frustration.

source:  7. Nuggets (12-8, LW 8). A scout speaking to ESPN’s Marc Stein said something we noticed: This team became a lot better when JaVale McGee went down injured. Denver tried to play inside-out with McGee, now they are just running and it works much better.

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8. Mavericks (13-8, LW 11). Winners of three in a row including over Portland last week (where Indiana and OKC lost). The simple fact is this is a playoff team in the West and one that will be a tough matchup for whoever lands them in the first round.

source:  9. Clippers (13-8, LW 7). They fell to Atlanta and Cleveland on the road last week — how is a team this good 3-5 against the East so far? L.A. continue its East Coast swing this week but with winnable games (Philly, Boston, Brooklyn and Washington).

source:  10. Warriors (12-9, LW 9). Nice 27-point come from behind win against the Raptors last week, but the fact they were down that much points to how much their defense misses Andre Iguodala. Rough stretch of games against the West coming up.

source:  11. Suns (11-9, LW 10). Eric Bledsoe is back in the lineup, which is good news, but now this far into the season we can just say that Jeff Hornacek has to come up in any coach-of-the-year conversations. His team is playing well at both ends.

source:  12. Hawks (11-10, LW 15). This is the third best team in the East right now, which just makes me hope nobody on Miami or Indiana gets hurt because we need that Eastern Conference Finals. Congratulations to Kyle Korver for breaking the consecutive games hitting a three record at 90.

source:  13. Timberwolves (9-11, LW 12). Look for them to string together some wins now after going through a rough patch in the schedule (and going all the way to Mexico City to have a game cancelled). This team is better than its record shows (they have the point differential of a 12-8 team)

source:  14. Lakers (10-10, LW 13). Kobe is back but there is a lot of work to do to get any offensive flow going — L.A.’s starters looked hesitant with Kobe controlling the offense. They have to try and shake off Kobe’s rust against the Suns, then a Thunder/Bobcats back-to-back on the road this week.

source:  15. Pistons (10-10, LW 22). Road wins against both Miami and Chicago show just how dangerous this team can be when it hits its threes (they shot 54.3 percent from beyond the arc in those games). Also, Andre Drummond is just a beast.

source:  16. Wizards (9-10, LW 17). John Wall is playing well, but simply the deeper they have to go into their bench in any game the worse they look. Good tests this week with Denver, Atlanta and the Clippers on the docket.

source:  17. Pelicans (9-10, LW 14). Without Anthony Davis the Pelicans defense has been terrible, allowing 109 points per 100 possessions. Remember, they went out and got Greg Stiemsma to give them depth up front but he is injured as well, so it’s a lot of gunning Ryan Anderson.

source:  18. Grizzlies (9-10, LW 16). The big issue is simply health — Marc Gasol is out and Zach Randolph is hobbling. But it doesn’t help that Jerryd Bayless couldn’t throw a pea in the ocean right now (to borrow an old Chick Hearn line).

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19. Celtics (10-12, LW 23). They went 3-0 last week — Rajon Rondo who? It looks like after Christmas at best and likely after New Year’s Day before they get their All-Star point guard back. Even so, are they the favorites in the Atlantic now?

source:  20. Bulls (8-10, LW 18). 1-2, Since Derrick Rose went down the Bulls defense has simply not been good… until they faced the Heat, then they looked like the Bulls we remember. If they find that consistently they are a playoff team in the East.

source:  21. Bobcats (9-11, LW 19). That the Bobcats are beating the other struggling teams in the East and would be the 7 seed if the playoffs started today speaks to the job Steve Clifford has done. But the schedule starts to get a lot tougher the next couple weeks.

source:  22. Raptors (7-12, LW 20). Rudy Gay is gone but with him out Sunday night Toronto played at a faster pace, used a lot more pick-and-rolls and their floor spacing was better. This was not supposed to be a trade that made Toronto better, but I wonder if it might be.

source:  23. Cavaliers (7-13, LW 26). They are 6-3 at home but 1-10 on the road this season. And those road losses often have been ugly — like Kyrie Irving 0-of-9 shooting ugly. The Cavs are in the running for the most disappointing team in the league.

source:  24. 76ers (7-14, LW 25). The skin infection on Michael Carter-Williams’ knee is going to keep him out Monday for sure and likely a few more games after that. They are still playing at the fastest pace in the league (which is a bad fit with their terrible defense).

source:  25. Magic (6-14, LW 21). Orlando has lost 9-of-11 games and have had a bottom five offense and defense during that stretch. Which is not good. Obviously.

source:  26. Knicks (5-13, LW 29). We saw the Knicks we expected this season against the Nets Thursday — moving the ball, raining threes — then on Sunday they reverted to their new form. Good news that Tyson Chandler returned to practice, they need him.

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27. Nets (6-14, LW 24). No, Jason Kidd is not in immanent danger of losing his job, Nets management want to see what he can do with a healthy roster. With Paul Pierce and Deron Williams do back this week, Kidd will have to start producing some wins (and he needs to turn that defense around, which may be the hardest part).

source:  28. Kings (5-13, LW 27). I get why they made the trade for Rudy Gay — not a bad roll of the dice that didn’t cost much — but after watching him fail to consistently feed Jonas Valanciunas in the post (even on nights the big man had a mismatch to exploit) it’s hard for me to see Gay and DeMarcus Cousins working out well.

source:  29. Jazz (4-18, LW 28). Trey Burke has helped the offense. But when I watch Gordon Hayward I can’t help but wonder how good he would look as the second or third option on a quality team (he’s not a No. 1 guy).

source:  30. Bucks (4-16, LW 30). So if you combine a high lottery pick with John Henson (who has looked better lately) and Larry Sanders you have… hope?

Way too early look: Who could make up USA’s 2020 Tokyo Olympic basketball team?

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 21:  Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, DeAndre Jordan and Kyle Lowry #7 of United States stand on the podium after defeating Serbia in the Men's Gold medal game on Day 16 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 1 on August 21, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Let’s start with the obvious: This is an exercise in futility. There is no way to predict accurately what the 2020 USA men’s basketball team headed to the Tokyo Olympics will look like. There will be injuries that sideline guys. There will be contract situations where key guys decide it’s in their best interest to sit out. Plus, there could be a guy just now entering his junior year of high school who we don’t know well yet but in four years will be a clear choice for the team.

Now that we’ve gotten through the tedious disclaimer, let’s have fun:

What will the 2020 USA Basketball team look like?

First, it will have a bit of a business attitude — Gregg Popovich is coaching now. Not that Mike Krzyzewski ran a college party Team USA, far from it, but with Popovich’s demeanor and the scare put into the 2016 team (and some improving world powers, such as Canada), expect the USA to be a little more focused next time around.

For the roster, who from the 2016 gold medal team in Rio returns for more gold? At the top of the list: A 31-year-old Kevin Durant will be back for one more run (and to climb on top of the USA Olympic scoring list). He will be the unquestioned team leader. The alpha. It will be his team.

After that? Young stars who want one more go at it such as Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan, and Klay Thompson will seriously consider a return. Maybe Jimmy Butler. Those guys will have a leg up having Olympic experience and a commitment to the program.

After that, some big names that passed on Rio are going to suit up in Japan. There will be far less defection of top talent this time around — the fears around Brazil will be gone, and NBA players wanting to sell more shoes in Asia will be eager to sign up. I expect you will see Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, and maybe James Harden decide they are in for the next round. LeBron James said he felt left out and may consider a return, but he will be 35 years old with 17 NBA seasons on his body by that point, does he want to put his body through an international curtain call? Probably not.

Rounding out the roster, expect a few guys from this year’s USA Select Team — the team the Olympic squad practiced against in Las Vegas at the start of camp — to make the leap up (as Kyrie Irving and others did this year).

Who? That’s the hardest thing to predict, it depends on development. Guys to watch include Victor Olidipo, Justise Winslow, Devin Booker, Brandon Ingram, and Jabari Parker — some of them will be ready to make the leap.

One clue to the 2020 roster: Players that you see in China for the 2019 FIBA World Cup will be more likely to make the 2020 team. (Yes, the World Championships are now the year before the Olympics, welcome to more of FIBA’s wisdom, as is the fact the Cup qualifiers fall during the NBA/Euroleague seasons.) Guys from the select team now that head to China in three years and perform well in that setting will likely have the USA across their chest in Japan.

Whatever team we send will have the most talent in those games. The question is will that be enough?

Check out the Cleveland Cavaliers Top 10 plays from last season

AUBURN HILLS, MI - APRIL 24: Kyrie Irving #2 and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers prepare for tip off against the Detroit Pistons in game four of the NBA Eastern Conference quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Palace of Auburn Hills on April 24, 2016 in Auburn Hills, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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With athletes such as LeBron James and Kyrie Irving on the team, you know the Cleveland Cavaliers Top 10 plays of last season were going to have some special moments.

Yes, the block by LeBron and the stepback three by Irving that sealed the first Cleveland title in 52 years are on top of the list.

But there are some other ridiculous Irving handles and even a Timofey Mozgov dunk in there (a $64 million dunk, apparently).

Watch Spurs’ Dejounte Murray throw off-the-backboard alley-oop to himself in pickup game

Washington guard Dejounte Murray, center, dribbles the ball past Mount St. Mary's center Taylor Danaher (50) as Washington forward Marquese Chriss, right, watches duirng the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
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Just a suggestion for rookie Dejounte Murray: Don’t do this in front of Gregg Popovich. You may not like his reaction.

That said, the Spurs needed to get more athletic this off-season — landing Pau Gasol certainly didn’t help that cause — so enter first-round pick Murray, who pulled this off in a recent pickup game.

Murray is going to be brought along slowly in a backcourt where Tony Parker and Patty Mills will be splitting time at the point. Murray is more of a combo guard and is going to have to shoot a lot better than he did in college (28.8 percent from three) to get some run. But this is a situation where the Spurs can groom him, bring him along slowly, and see if they have another draft steal.

He’s certainly got the athleticism.

Corey Brewer: “James (Harden) is going to play defense this year”

HOUSTON, TX - MARCH 18:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets walks across the court during their game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Toyota Center on March 18, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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James Harden‘s defense is not as bad as its reputation.

Well, at least it wasn’t two seasons ago — his near MVP season he was in good enough shape that he could put in a respectable effort on that end and still handle his massive offensive load. There were still some mental lapses, but his focus was better and his improvement lifted the team defense. Last season, he regressed back to youtube “highlight” defense Harden — his conditioning was not where it needed to be, he didn’t expend as much effort on that end, and it showed.

Harden got a massive contract extension this summer, and Dwight Howard is Atlanta’s problem — now Harden has to lead the Rockets. By example. Corey Brewer told ESPN you’re going to see that on defense.

“I think this year he’s going to play better defense, We’re going to let the past be in the past. It’s the future of the Rockets, man. James is going to play defense this year.”

We’re all Missourians on this one: Show me.

Remember that the Rockets will be out and running — Mike D’Antoni is the coach now, and Daryl Morey is going to get the up tempo ball he wants (which Kevin McHale had them doing, but Harden didn’t like him so…). D’Antoni’s teams in Phoenix played better defense than their reputation — points per possession they were middle of the pack — but that has never been his focus.

Will Harden be able to run like he needs to on offense and still defend at a reasonable level?

If he can, it’s a big step toward the Rockets being a dangerous team in the West because if he does it others will follow. Otherwise, every Rockets game will be a shootout, which is entertaining but not going to get a team deep into the playoffs.