Houston Rockets v Portland Trail Blazers

PBT’s NBA Power Rankings: Stability at the top, trades could shake up bottom

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There is no movement at the top of the standings as the top five teams went 15-1 last week (and that one loss was to another top 5 team). However, get past that five and you get into teams like the Rockets, Suns and others where trades could really change rankings as we move toward the deadline.

source:  1. Trail Blazers (21-4, Last Week No. 1). They keep winning and the offense keeps clicking — on the season they are scoring 110.3 points per 100 possessions (best in the NBA by 2 points) but in their last 10 games that is up to 114.7. (That covers up the 24th ranked defense the last 10 games.)

 
source:  2. Thunder (19-4, LW 2). Reggie Jackson in particular and Jeremy Lamb to a lesser degree have started to play really well off the bench for the Thunder. Depth was always the big question there (well, that and why Kendrick Perkins still starts) and OKC may be finding an answer to the big question.

 
source:  3. Pacers (20-3, LW 3). Don’t read too much into their victory over the Heat last week — there are no statement games in December. That said, watch that game and you see why Roy Hibbert is the key to Indiana beating Miami in a playoff series.

 
source:  4. Spurs (19-4, LW No. 4). San Antonio has gotten off to a fast start this season in spite of a struggling Tim Duncan — but that is starting to change. He is scoring 15.8 points a game on 52 percent shooting and is grabbing 11 rebounds a game in his last 5.

 
source:  5. Heat (17-6, LW 5). They get a rematch against the Pacers at home this Wednesday and we’ll see how focused and intense they are. Dwyane Wade has missed six games and just looks slowed — still good, but slowed.

 
source:  6. Clippers (16-9, LW 9). L.A. went a “meh” 4-3 on an East Coast road swing, although they finished it up by winning three of the last four. The loss to the Nets seemed to sum up their issues: The starting five built up a double-digit lead but once you get into their bench they struggle, then they could never regain their early form.

 
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7. Suns (14-9, LW 11). You can stop calling them a fluke now — winners of five in a row they are a playoff team in the West and not going anywhere. As our own D.J. Foster noted, turns out the Eric Bledsoe/Goran Dragic backcourt works well, thank you very much.

 
source:  8. Rockets (16-9, LW 6). Omer Asik will be traded by Thursday night, the question now is where he lands and what the Rockets get. They are angling for a first-round pick but if they could get a stretch four or defensive help on the perimeter that would be good.

 
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9. Nuggets (14-9, LW 7). Brian Shaw has tried changing the diet and everything else he can think of to get this team to stop stinking it up in the first quarter. Time for a rotation change?

 
source:  10. Warriors (13-12, LW 10). Golden State’s recent dramatic come-from-behind wins covered up a string of games with poor defense, too many turnovers and lackluster effort from key guys. They can’t afford that. How unforgiving is the West? The Warriors are the 9 seed, out of the playoffs (BEFORE SUNDAY) as of right now.

 
source:  11. Mavericks (14-10, LW 8). As we noted earlier today, Brandan Wright is in and Samuel Dalembert is out of the Mavericks’ rotations. Dallas needs to find some rim protection somewhere.

 
source:  12. Timberwolves (12-12, LW 13). Their run through the rough part of the schedule continues this three of their next four on the road, with opponents including Portland and both Los Angeles teams. Right now Kevin Love is carrying them — will voters give him a bump past Blake Griffin into the final West starting front court slot in the All-Star Game?

 
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13. Hawks (12-12, LW 12). After a strong start to the season Jeff Teague has hit a slump — he is averaging 10.4 points a game on 37.3 percent shooting and his assists are down over his last five games. Atlanta needs him if they want to be the three seed in the East.

 
source:  14. Pelicans (11-11, LW 17). Stop assuming the Pelicans are eager to move Ryan Anderson, they are not. First, he makes a very reasonable $17 million total for two more seasons. Second, the Pelicans are +12.2 per 48 minutes when Anderson and Anthony Davis are paired.

 
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15. Lakers (11-12, LW 14). The Lakers are now 1-2 with Kobe Bryant back in the lineup, but the real challenge is the injuries at point guard (Steve Blake, Steve Nash and Jordan Farmar are out, although Farmar is getting close to a return). The injuries force Kobe to play facilitator, and worse yet guard guys like Russell Westbrook. He’s not that defender anymore.

 
source:  16. Pistons (11-14, LW 15). Detroit has beaten the teams you’d expect them to beat (the teams struggling in the East) but struggled against the top three in the East (Atlanta is the third) and the West. This week is a test of that with the good Pacers and Rockets, but also the beatable Bobcats and Celtics.

 
source:  17. Wizards (9-13, LW 16). They get Bradley Beal back on Monday and they could use his scoring. However, that’s not going to help Marcin Gortat get the touches in the paint he says he wants more of.

 
source:  18. Grizzlies (10-13, LW 18). Remember the defensive-powerhouse Grizzlies? In their last five games (four of them losses) they have allowed 113.4 points per 100 possessions, which is the worst in the NBA over the that stretch. That’s more than just missing Marc Gasol.

 
source:  19. Celtics (11-14, LW 19). Rajon Rondo has been cleared to practice but word from around the team is not to expect him until the calendar flips to 2014. The Celtics are somehow still the leaders of the Atlantic and the four seed as of right now.

 
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20. Raptors (9-13, LW 22). Since Rudy Gay left their offensive ball movement has been much improved and the team has looked better. That’s not the plan in Toronto so expect a Kyle Lowry trade sooner rather than later.

 
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21. Nets (8-15, LW 27). Deron Williams is back and suddenly the Nets offense looks vastly improved. Shocking what a good point guard can do. With games against the Sixers (twice) and Washington this week, they could put together a little run.

 
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22. Cavaliers (9-14, LW 22). The have won four of their last six but seem to be looking for ways to get Dion Waiters and Kyrie Irving into rotations without the other one. They are not the backcourt of the future.

 
source:  23. Knicks (7-16, LW 23). Kyle Lowry’s penetration and defense would be big boosts to New York’s dream of salvaging this season, but what would you really be sacrificing the future more to get?

 
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24. Bulls (9-13, LW 20). Last season the Chicago front office had prepared for Derrick Rose to miss a large chunk of time, having guys like Nate Robinson on the roster who could score. This season they were not and it shows.

 
source:  25. Kings (7-15, LW 28). Rudy Gay has been efficient his first couple games with the Kings — 10-of-20 with 26 points in the win over Houston Sunday. We’ll see if this continues, but for a couple of tames he has looked good.

 
source:  26. Bobcats (10-14, LW 21). They play hard on defense — even their losses (and there are plenty of them) are hard-fought ones. That’s all you can ask out of Steve Clifford and his staff considering the roster.

 
source:  27. Magic (7-17, LW 25). The good news is Tobias Harris is back in the lineup. Expect to see more and more Orlando players show up in trade rumors — Jameer Nelson, Glen Davis and Arron Afflalo are all available at the right price.

 
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28. Jazz (6-20, LW 29). Trey Burke has been a boost to the Jazz offense — he’s only shooting 38.5 percent and is turning the ball over too much, but that’s to be expected with a rookie point guard. The bottom line is their ball movement and offense are better with him.

 
source:  29. 76ers (7-18, LW 24). These are the Sixers we expected before the season tipped off, it just took a while for them to show up. When Michael Carter-Williams doesn’t play they are almost unwatchable.

 
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30. Bucks (5-19, LW 30). The good news is the Bucks are giving us a lot more Giannis Antetokounmpo lately — if you are going to lose, at least let the exciting rookies learn on the job.

‘It’s eating me alive:’ DeMarcus Cousins again leading Kings’ longshot playoff push

Sacramento Kings forward DeMarcus Cousins, right, drives against Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
AP Photo/Brandon Dill
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When the Kings drafted DeMarcus Cousins, he named his rookie goals: “Get to the playoffs, go for the championship.” But the NBA humbled the young player, as Sacramento went just 24-58 and missed the postseason for the fifth straight year. Cousins emerged for his second season resolute on a more-modest goal: “Playoffs. We’ve got to make the playoffs this year. It’s not even a goal. It’s basically in our contract, I believe. So, we’ve got to make the playoffs this year.”

Five seasons later, Cousins is still chasing that elusive postseason trip.

“It’s eating me alive,” Cousins said. “Every loss or every time another team wins in battling for the eighth spot, it’s eating me alive. Our only goal is to be in the playoffs this season.”

A depressing chase for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, where every team in the race is at least seven games under .500, has opened the door for the 17-27 Kings. They’re 1.5 games and three teams out of playoff position – a more daunting challenge than often realized. Not only must they play better, they must hope a couple teams ahead of them don’t also heat up. 538 gives Sacramento just a 5% chance of reaching the postseason, and ESPN is even more pessimistic at 3.8%.

Beginning his career with seven straight lottery trips would be another crushing blow to Cousins, who has built a credible case as the NBA’s best center. Greg Monroe is the only current player with more win shares who hasn’t reached the playoffs:

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Nobody nears Cousins besides Monroe, and the next-closest player, Jazz center Rudy Gobert, likely makes the playoffs this year. Monroe leads in win shares, because he entered the league more polished than Cousins and built a head start (and because this stat probably inflates’ Monroe’s contributions relative to Cousins’.) Monroe has never neared Cousins’ peak, and Monroe is now a backup for the Bucks. The only thing second-team about Cousins is his two All-NBA appearances.

Kevin Love is the only other player since the NBA-ABA merger to make multiple All-NBA teams before his first playoff season. He, of course, left the Timberwolves for the Cavaliers to escape lists like these.

On the other hand, there have been indications from both sides Cousins will soon sign a veteran-designated-player contract extension projected to be worth more than $219 million over five years. Staying in Sacramento and playing for owner Vivek Ranadive seems like the surest bet to keep Cousins’ postseason drought active.

Cousins already ranks in the top 25 all-time in win shares before a player’s first playoff season (which doesn’t count this season, because playoff teams aren’t yet determined):

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Cousins has 5.2 win shares this season and counting. Missing the playoffs again would launch him into the top 10 of this dubious list – and he could keep climbing.

Not only do the Kings face daunting odds to reach the postseason this year, it’s difficult to project them into the playoffs for the foreseeable future. Years of roster mismanagement have taken a toll.

Since drafting Cousins, Sacramento has held top-10 picks every year. Those have netted on draft night: Jimmer Fredette, John Salmons, Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore, Nik Stauskas, Willie Cauley-Stein, Georgios Papagiannis, Skal Labissiere and Bogdan Bogdanovic – who’ve combined for a measly 2.2 win shares this season. And most of those win shares come from Stauskas and Robinson, who no longer play for the Kings.

In fact, Stauskas was sent out in a disastrous trade that gives the 76ers swap rights on Sacramento’s 2017 first-rounder* and Sacramento’s unprotected 2019 first-rounder.

*The Kings’ first-round pick must fall in the top to be swap-eligible. Otherwise, it goes to the Bulls, the result of another botched trade.

Sacramento has also recently struck out on major free agents and then settled for Arron Afflalo, Kosta Koufos, Anthony Tolliver, Garrett Temple, Matt Barnes and Ty Lawson. That adds up to one mediocre supporting cast.

Meanwhile, Cousins is better than ever. He has taken a larger offensive burden, including as a distributor and suddenly dangerous 3-point shooter, while cutting down his turnover rate. Defenders are often overmatched, and they foul him more than anyone in the league. And while Cousins’ defense comes and goes, it can be quite impressive while he’s locked in.

The result is a team that plays at a 41-win pace with Cousins on the floor and a 17-win pace when he sits, continuing a disparity seen over the last few years. Hera are the Kings win paces over 82 games with Cousins on (purple) and off (black):

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Obviously, teams generally play better with their stars and starters on the court, and Cousins is a star who usually shares the court with other starters. But this gap is particularly egregious, and Cousins’ fellow starters have underwhelmed.

So, more and more falls on Cousins’ shoulders.

Playing for his sixth head coach and third general manager in seven seasons, Cousins sets the tone for the Kings, for better or worse. He plays with a unique rage, sneering resentfully at anyone who gets in his way on the court – like players trying to defend him or referees, gasp, calling a foul on him. He leads the league with 12 technical fouls and is on pace to get (at least) 16 and an automatic suspension, which he also triggered last year.

His highs are incredibly high and his lows are unnecessarily low.

That moodiness has frustrated coaches and teammates, but it also sometimes works himself and his teammates into a productive frenzy. Sacramento usually plays passionately, which is both to its credit and a sign of a talent scarcity considering the team still loses so frequently.

“I’m still confident,” Cousins said, “and I still believe we’re going to make that push for the playoffs.”

For the last few years, Cousins has looked unstoppable while the Kings have been quite easily stoppable. He’s trying to drag the franchise up with him, but optimism and desire might not be enough. At a certain point we must ask: What more can Cousins do?

Russell Westbrook keeps trying to show up Rudy Gobert

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) goes to the basket as Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) defends in the second quarter during a NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 23, 2017, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
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Jazz center Rudy Gobert is having an awesome season, credibly putting himself in the mix with Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Marc Gasol as the NBA’s best big men.

But that doesn’t mean Russell Westbrook respects him.

Before the Thunder’s win over Utah yesterday, Westbrook was asked how Oklahoma City would contain Gobert. Westbrook just laughed and walked off.

Fred Katz of The Norman Transcript:

Then, in the game, Westbrook tried to jump right over the 7-foot-1 Gobert and dunk on him:

I would say Gobert proved his ability by successfully protecting the paint, but I’m just too astounded by Westbrook’s leap.

Zaza Pachulia, running up court, turns back to smack Luke Babbitt in face (video)

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Is Zaza Pachulia a dirty player?

That debate can be rekindled after the Warriors center earned this flagrant foul for smacking Heat forward Luke Babbitt.

Just don’t forget: Pachulia is more than an unskilled enforcer. He brings plenty to the table as Golden State’s fifth starter, and his ability was on display earlier in the game:

Three Hawks lose uncontested rebound out of bounds (video)

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How did Mike Scott, Mike Dunleavy and Malcolm Delaney fail to secure this rebound?

No wonder the Hawks lost to a Clippers team playing without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.