PBT NBA Power Rankings: Even without Westbrook Thunder take top spot

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It’s legitimate to question how well Oklahoma City will fair in the roughly 27 games they will play without Russell Westbrook, but so far so good and that slides the to the top of the last power rankings of 2013.

source:  1. Thunder (25-5, Last Week No. 2). They won all their games last week, but that’s not the story. With Russell Westbrook out until around the All-Star break Kevin Durant will be trying to keep the Thunder near the top of the standings. The good news is 15 of the estimated 27 games Westbrook will miss are against teams below .500. However, if they slip from a top seed to three or four (a real possibility) they make their playoff run that much more difficult.

 
source:  2. Pacers (24-5, LW 4). They lead the NBA in net point difference — they outscore their opponents by 9.6 points per 100 possessions. The reason remains a defense that is 4.1 points per 100 better than anyone in the league. Plus Lance Stephenson is playing well creating shots for others.

 
source:  3. Heat (23-7, LW 3). They have lost seven games this season, six of them to teams below .500. I think that says plenty about their focus night-to-night, or lack thereof. The one team above .500 to defeat them? Indiana.

 
source:  4. Trail Blazers (24-6, LW 1). They continue to win games with the best offense in the NBA — like the comeback win over the Clippers, another dramatic victory that makes this team entertaining to watch. But in their last 10 games they have given up 107.2 points per 100 possessions on defense, 26th in the NBA in that span. They will not win when it matters without better defense.

 
source:  5. Spurs (24-7, LW No. 6). Look for the Spurs to go on a little run. Why? Nine of their next 11 games are at home, and six of those are against teams with records below. 500. Also, while you weren’t paying attention to the Spurs, Manu Ginobili has played well.

 
source:  6. Warriors (18-13, LW 9). Here’s why I think Golden State could be more dangerous in the playoffs than Portland — since the return of Andre Iguodala they have played the second best defense in the NBA. You know they will score, if they defend they are dangerous.

 
source:  7. Clippers (21-12, LW 5). Don’t be shocked if they go after Andrew Bynum. The Clippers biggest need is depth up front and even with all his issues if the Clips could get Bynum to play 15 minutes a night off the bench he’s an upgrade over Ryan Hollins.

 
source:  8. Rockets (21-12, LW 8). They just completed a brutal stretch of the schedule — 7 games in 10 days. It showed in the loss to OKC Sunday night. Houston looked tired and slow. They have just three games in the next 11 and no team over .500.

 
source:  9. Suns (18-11, LW 7). Maybe the best showdown of the week is on their schedule — Eric Bledsoe takes on the Clippers. The Suns have won 9 of their last 11 and are fully capable of beating the Clippers behind Bledsoe.

 
source:  10. Mavericks (17-13, LW 12). Dallas is an entertaining team, one with a strong offense behind Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis, which usually is enough to make up for their defense. If they can improve the D just a little they would look more secure as a playoff team.

 
source:  11. Hawks (17-14, LW 11). Huge blow with the loss of Al Horford for maybe the rest of the regular season. Last time this happened to him (on the other side) he was out four months, which would have him back about when the playoffs start.

 
source:  12. Timberwolves (15-15, LW 13). Still keep waiting for this team to make a run and for their record to catch up with their point differential (+2.2 per 100 possessions, which suggests a 19-11 record). Win over Dallas Monday would help there against a team also in the bottom of the West playoff mix.

 
source:  13. Wizards (13-14, LW 14). My favorite stat of the week, courtesy my man Dan Feldman: Bradley Beal shoots 45 percent overall when Marcin Gortat is on the floor with him, 31 percent when Gortat sits. Beal’s three-point percentage jumps 9 percent also. Good screens matter.

 
source:  14. Raptors (13-15, LW 18). Your Atlantic Division leaders helped secure that position with a home-and-home sweep of the Knicks. Toronto is now 7-3 following the trade and you can argue they are the third best team in the East following the Horford injury.

 
source:  15. Pelicans (13-15, LW 19). I’m not sure Jason Smith is the long-term answer, but this team looks better with him next to Anthony Davis. Also, Tyreke Evans has averaged more than 20 points a game this past week.

 
source:  16. Nuggets (14-15, LW 10). They have lost six in a row and fallen out of the playoff picture in the West, but look for them to bounce back with six of their next seven at home. They need to make a little run here as the deep West is unforgiving to losing streaks.

 
source:  17. Bobcats (14-17, LW 16). Their defense has carried them this far and when it lapses even a little coach Steve Clifford is calling them out on it. Tough West Coast road swing that includes Clippers and Trail Blazers on tap this week.

 
source:  18. Lakers (13-18, LW 15). They have lost five in a row and Pau Gasol can’t shake an upper respiratory infection to get back on the court — and he looks like he’s giving 75 percent when he does. He is not helping his next contract get any bigger right now.

 
source:  19. Pistons (14-18, LW 17). That Mo Cheeks is calling out Josh Smith and benching him is a sign to me he has reached the “let’s try some gimmicks” stage of getting this to work. Pistons remain -6.6 per 100 possessions when Smith, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe share the court and the defense with all of them is terrible.

 
source:  20. Grizzlies (13-16, LW 20). Marc Gasol is getting close to returning and as he does Memphis has to make up 3.5 games and jump four teams just to get into the playoffs in the West. Doable, but far from easy.

 
source:  21. Celtics (13-17, LW 21). They are getting solid play from guys all around — Jared Sullinger and Jordan Crawford (even after he came back to earth) had strong Decembers. Still wonder what this roster will look like Feb. 21 (day after trade deadline).

 
source:  22. Bulls (11-17, LW 25). Luol Deng is close to returning, it could even be Monday night for Chicago. What Christmas Day showed is that unlike other teams beset by injuries and slow starts, the Bulls will still play hard.

 
source:  23. Nets (10-20, LW 23). Jason Kidd is calling them out and that seemed to help the effort a little. Kidd’s issues still fall to management — they put a first-time, no experience head coach in charge of a team with a very short window to be competitive.

 
source:  24. Kings (9-20, LW 26). They beat the Miami Heat, and while that is partially on the Heat (read their ranking above) it shows that there really is potential in this core group. They have four of their next six against the dregs of the East, it’s a chance to string some wins together.

 
source:  25. Cavaliers (10-20, LW 22). They have lost four in a row and now will have the Andrew Bynum rumors and distraction front and center for the next week as they try to trade him, and failing have to decide whether to waive him or just pay him $6 million to be a trade chip this summer.

 
source:  26. Knicks (9-21, LW 24). That sweep of a home-and-home over the weekend at the hands of the Raptors was a punch to the gut. James Dolan said there were no trades or coaching changes coming, we’ll take him at his word. Even if you do fire Woodson, getting a quality replacement into that zoo will not be easy.

 
source:  27. Magic (9-20, LW 28). Arron Afflalo has scored 20 straight points in six straight games, and while that is not is not going to get him into the All-Star Game (sorry Arron) is should up his trade value at the deadline. A lot of teams could use him.

 
source:
28. Jazz (9-24, LW 27). Trey Burke is looking good as he finds his way in the NBA. He’s not the most explosive athlete, but he has the Damian Lillard style ability to get off his shot or find the right guy. Utah has something here.

 
source:  29. 76ers (9-21, LW 29). Sunday night’s win over the Lakers snapped a 13-game road losing streak, so we’ll forgive Evan Turner for the exclamation point dunk when he should have dribbled it out. They stay on the road against the West this season.

 
source:  30. Bucks (6-24, LW 30). Just as we were starting to see the Larry Sanders, John Henson combo would do together the Bucks have lost Henson for two weeks with an ankle injury. That’s just not fair.

Report: Knicks to discuss coaching vacancy with Hawks’ Mike Budenholzer

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Mike Budenholzer is restless in Atlanta, seeing a rebuild coming and looking at other jobs (something Hawks management is fine with). He went down the road a ways with the Suns before pulling out of that process, but he’s still looking around.

The Knicks are casting a wide net in their search, talking to virtually everyone looking for coaching jobs.

So, this seemed inevitable, right? Budenholzer and the Knicks are going to talk, according to Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

This will be very preliminary. The Knicks have already had some level of conversation with Mark Jackson, David Fizdale, Jerry Stackhouse, David Blatt, Mike Woodson, and TNT analyst Kenny Smith (Jackson and Fizdale are the rumored early leaders). Budenholzer has established a style and culture in Atlanta, giving the franchise a path forward. New York could certainly use that.

However, the Knicks job comes with real challenges, too. That starts with James Dolan as owner and the erratic, at times paranoid culture he has created there. Also, expectations in New York are always high, but the team will be without Kristaps Porzigis for at least half (maybe all) of the upcoming season as he recovers from an ACL injury, and that puts a ceiling on the team in the short term. Is all that worth leaving Atlanta for?

 

Stephen Curry to begin “modified” practices with Warriors

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Golden State has flipped the switch in the first round, going up 3-0 on overmatched San Antonio. The Warriors have been outscoring the Spurs by 20.2 points per 100 possessions in the series, allowing less than a point per possession on defense and scoring when and where they want. Kevin Durant is averaging 27.3 points per game, Klay Thompson is shooting 63.3 percent from three and scoring 25.7 points per game, and the Warriors are clicking.

But they are not yet whole — they need Stephen Curry back. Not for this round, but before the Western Conference Finals for sure.

Curry was re-evaluated Friday and will begin practicing with the team in a limited — or “modified” to use the team’s term — way.

The target has always been a return somewhere during the second round, and that still seems to be on track. That is also a little faster than traditional for a Grade 2 MCL sprain, which can take up to two months to heal (not the 4-6 weeks of the Warriors timeline), but the Warriors are being cautious here for now.

Eventually, the Warriors will need him back — their offense is built around Curry and his ball movement and movement off the ball. Curry’s gravity to draw defenders, even when he doesn’t have the ball, opens up the floor for others. Put simply, if he’s 28 feet from the bucket on the weak side defenders still have to watch and be near him, and help defenders need to be aware, which pulls the defense to wherever he is. Without Curry and the Warriors take more midrange jumpers, it’s just in the first round series against the Spurs they are hitting them.

 

Kenyon Martin: I once played high

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Former NBA commissioner David Stern said the league began testing for marijuana because players complained of other players playing high. Chauncey Billups said he knew teammates who played better high.

But Stephen Jackson is the rare former NBA player who admitted to playing high.

Now, he has company.

Kenyon Martin – who played for the Nets, Nuggets, Clippers, Knicks and Bucks in a 15-year career – via Bleacher Report:

We were playing in Indiana one day. I wasn’t feeling well. I had a hamstring, a hip or something. So, I smoked. I wasn’t going to play originally. So, we got to the arena, and I’m like, “I feel good.” I went and told the trainer, “I’m going to go today.” I went out there and had a great game.

If you want to guess which game this was, here are the possibilities.

This was part of a great feature on marijuana in the NBA and NFL. Matt Barnes, Al Harrington and Gary Paton also participate. I highly recommend (pun intended) watching it in full.

Nuggets president Tim Connelly: Next season playoffs or bust

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The Nuggets have steadily improved over the last four years – 30-52 to 33-49 to 40-42 to 46-36.

But even 46 wins weren’t enough to get Denver into the playoff this season, extending the postseason drought to five years.

Nuggets president Connelly, via Gina Mizell of The Denver Post:

On if next season is “playoffs or bust”:

“I think we’re there. How many times can you be the bridesmaid? Our young core, three of our best players are 23 (Gary Harris), 22 (Jokic) and 21 (Jamal Murray), and they’ve proven they’re capable of doing it at the highest level. I think all of us are, quite frankly, sick of this time of the year having a press conference.”

There’s certainly something to be said for injecting urgency. The Nuggets are already good enough to make the playoffs. They just happened to play in a historically deep Western Conference. But that doesn’t mean they can’t take more responsibility.

Denver lost to the Hawks (twice), Grizzlies (twice without Mikey Conley), Mavericks, Kings and Nets this season. Flip any of those games, and the Nuggets would have made the playoffs.

But I’m not sure what “or bust” means.

Connelly said Michael Malone would return as coach next season. If Denver misses the playoffs, would he get fired? Would Connelly come on the hot seat? What if the Nuggets again produce a record that typically qualifies for the postseason?

Even if Denver misses the playoffs next year, the 2019-20 team would have a 22-year-old Jamal Murray, 25-year-old Gary Harris and probably a 24-year-old Nikola Jokic under contract. That’s still a pretty good place to be.

Because of Jokic’s rapid ascent, the Nuggets are trying to accelerate the timeline. They most notably signed Paul Millsap last summer. (Injury cost him most of the season and contributed to Denver falling short.) They could also emphasize the present by re-signing Will Barton this offseason.

But playoffs or not next year, the Nuggets have a bright future. Connelly just doesn’t want them leaning on that excuse, though following through on his edict could create complications if Denver again narrowly misses the postseason with a good record.