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?

Report: Rockets becoming “increasingly serious threat” to sign Chris Paul

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The Houston Rockets are one of only a handful of teams in the NBA with a legitimate ability to add a couple of key pieces and try to make a run at the Golden State Warriors.

Chris Paul would be that kind of piece, and the Rockets are ramping up efforts to land him.

From Marc Stein of ESPN.

The Houston Rockets have emerged as an increasingly serious threat in the chase for soon-to-be free agent Chris Paul, according to league sources.

The Rockets still have work to do in terms of clearing sufficient salary-cap space to make a representative offer for Paul, but sources told ESPN that Houston star James Harden has been advocating hard in favor of the Paul pursuit and has made his interest in teaming with the Los Angeles Clippers’ point guard known directly to Paul.

Sources say Houston also remains at the heart of the trade hunt to acquire Paul George from the Indiana Pacers, despite the fact George is only under contract through next season and is known to be angling to sign with his hometown Los Angeles Lakers in July 2018.

The challenge in all of this is the Rockets have just about $10 million in cap space this summer, which is about a third of what it will take to land Chris Paul. That means they need to trade Ryan Anderson and his $19.6 million owed next season and take no salary back, and while there are a few teams in a position to be able to take on that salary — Philadephia, Brooklyn, Sacramento and others — they are going to want a young player or first-round pick as a sweetener. The Rockets also are considering moving Lou Williams and his $7 million salary, or Patrick Beverley and his $5.5 million. However, even moving both of the later two is not getting near the salary Paul will demand.

Chris Paul met with the Clippers front office on Tuesday to talk about the future, but he’s expected to meet with a number of teams in free agency, with the Rockets and Spurs being key suitors. The question is, will any of these teams bring him closer to toppling the Golden State Warriors, and is it worth it to take less money for that chance? Especially after he got the CBA changed so that as of July 1 the “over 36” rule becomes the “over 38 rule” so the Clippers can give him one more five-year max contract.

How much will Dion Waiters earn as a free agent?

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Dion Waiters had the best season of his career last year at age 25 in Miami. The Heat pushed Waiters to get in the best shape of his life (just check out his Instagram), and combine that with the fact that Justise Winslow went down Waiters got the ball in his hands more with a chance to create for himself, and you had a little rush of scoring. He’s still not the most efficient player ever (to be kind), but he’s close to average.

Waiters opted out of his $3.2 million he is owed next season, and he is now a free agent. How much is he will he get now on the open market? Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald wrote this:

One scout said he would be surprised if the bidding for Waiters soars much above $10 million, if that, because of his small sample size of high-level play this past season. One prominent agent who does not represent Waiters predicted he would get $8 million to $10 million annually.

That number seems about right, if it’s a two-year deal (or a team option on the third year). The league average salary will be around $8.5 million, and that’s where Waiters should fall next year.

Whether Miami has that money to spend comes down to whether they land a big free agent such as Gordon Hayward or Blake Griffin (both max guys). If so, the Heat will not have the money, and what they do have would be more focused on keeping James Johnson. However, if the Heat strike out then Waiters could be back in Miami.

One way or another Waiters is going to get a raise. That doesn’t mean teams are not still leery.

Report: Knicks have “legitimate” interest in re-signing Derrick Rose

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Were they watching the games last year?

Derrick Rose put up decent numbers last year — 18 points per game, PER of 17, true shooting percentage of 53 — but was a mess defensively and does not fit in the triangle offense. He’s a decent point guard now, a replacement level player who can help in the right system.

Since the Knicks point guard rotation right now consists of rookie Frank Ntilikina plus whoever the team signs this summer, turns out Rose is not out of the picture, reports Ian Begley of ESPN.

The New York Knicks have “legitimate” interest in re-signing Derrick Rose, league sources familiar with the matter said….

The Knicks’ interest in the point guard is dependent on several factors, including his health and his asking price. When asked last week about New York potentially re-signing Rose, team president Phil Jackson said “we’re listening.”

Money will be the key — it’s not going to be anywhere near the $21.3 million Rose made last season. No team is going to offer that.

Can the Knicks get him for less than $10 million? Will another team come in and offer $12 million or more for him? The market for point guards this summer is going to be interesting because after the big name on the free-agent market — Chris Paul (we’re not counting Stephen Curry, he’s not leaving) — there are some quality players out there that can help teams such as Kyle Lowry, Jrue Holiday, George Hill, Patty Mills, Jeff Teague and Shaun Livingston. There aren’t that many teams with money to really spend on free agent point guards, so while a couple (Holiday, maybe Lowry) re-sign with their old teams there are a number of guys who may find the market softer than they expected. Rose is among them.

And that’s where the Knicks come in. Rose is far from a perfect fit, but if the soft market drives his price down closer to the midlevel ($8.4 million) or just above, that may be worth it for the Knicks for a year while they try to develop the rookie.

Report: Russell Westbrook may sign “designated player” extension with Thunder on July 1

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Russell Westbrook is your NBA MVP, coming off a historic season where he averaged a triple-double.

Westbrook also could see a massive pay raise this summer. Yes, you remember correctly that Westbrook signed one last summer after Kevin Durant left, but the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that kicks in July 1 grandfathered him (and James Harden, who also signed an extension last summer) in to get the “designated veteran” max contract. That would start at about $34.7 million (if the cap is at $99 million as expected) and go up from there.

Thunder management’s first call at midnight July 1 will be to Westbrook to offer the deal, and he may well take it reports Royce Young of ESPN.

Those close to Westbrook fully expect him to take the Thunder’s offer, quite possibly at 12:01 a.m., and stabilize the franchise and present a clear road map. Westbrook signed an extension last summer and invoked the word “loyalty” for a reason. He wanted to make a statement — a public declaration — and take on the burden of leading the franchise forward.

He likes the existing roster and has a close relationship and confidence in Presti and Weaver. He has built a strong bond with head coach Billy Donovan. He knew what he signed for and, with the Thunder coming off a successful first post-Durant season and with pieces in place to improve the team, there are a lot of reasons to commit again.

If Westbrook signs this, the Thunder can get on with the business of improving this roster — which will be next to impossible. The Thunder are capped out and have to re-sign restricted free agent Andre Roberson. Sam Presti is a smart man, but his hands are mostly tied due to some of the big contracts on the roster (ones that would have been no issue if Kevin Durant had stayed). The Thunder will make moves around the edges, but it’s going to take time to do anything substantial.

If Westbrook doesn’t sign this, more than just red flags will go up in OKC — this will be sirens and flashing red lights. The Thunder will be forced to think about trading Westbrook, or finding a way to keep him happy and in house. They will basically be right back to where they were last summer.

If Westbrook signs it — and he likely will, that’s a lot of money to leave on the table — it at least gives the Thunder a clear direction. Which is about all they can hope for this summer.