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: Dennis Smith Jr., Aaron Gordon, Victor Oladipo and Larry Nance Jr. to compete in dunk contest

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Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. already looked like he was competing in the dunk contest.

Apparently, he’ll put those skills to use in the real thing.

And so will Aaron Gordon (Magic), Victor Oladipo (Pacers) and Larry Nance Jr. (Lakers).

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

Oliver Maroney of Uproxx:

The number of contestants in the dunk contest has varied, but it’s been four the last few years. So, this might be the entire field – and it’d be a strong one.

Gordon narrowly lost to Zach LaVine in an epic dunk contest a couple years ago. Oladipo brings star power, as he’ll probably play in the actual All-Star game. Nance has the pedigree, and I bet he involves his dad – who won the NBA’s first dunk contest in 1984 – in a dunk. Smith is the young up-and-comer with the first platform to prove himself nationally.

I can’t wait.

Nuggets struck gold by drafting Nikola Jokic in second round. Now what?

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DETROIT – Asked whether he’s becoming a leader on the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic shook his head then turned to Gary Harris in the adjoining locker.

“Do you think I’m a leader?” Jokic asked.

“Who?” Harris responded.

“Me,” Jokic said.

“No,” Harris said.

“See,” Jokic said, turning back to me. “That’s what I’m talking about.”

It’s not entirely clear whether Jokic is serious or showing the self-deprecating humor of someone nicknamed The Joker.

Denver is trying to be patient with Jokic – a 22-year-old former second-round pick – but his production and contract status demand his ascent be expedited.

Jokic has arguably been the Nuggets’ best player every season of his three-year career. He definitely is now.

And that has caused Denver to adjust its plan on the fly – all for a player drafted No. 41 in 2014 and who entered the NBA in 2015.

Jusuf Nurkic was coming off a promising All-Rookie second-team season when the Nuggets signed Jokic. It was quickly clear there’d be complications with the two centers coexisting, but Nurkic’s injuries and second-year slump delayed adjudication. Finally, the Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Trail Blazers. Once Jokic became a starter in mid-December, Denver led the NBA in points per possession the rest of last season.

“His rapid development last year kind of changed how we view our organizational development,” Nuggets president Tim Connelly said. “His unique skill set is something we think we can build around.”

Jokic is a generationally good passer for a center, and he works in so many offensive sets. He posts up, screens on pick-and-rolls, spots up and cuts. He finishes well at the rim, and his range extends through the mid-range to beyond the arc, though he’s not quite a knockdown 3-point shooter. He’s a good rebounder on both ends of the floor.

But he’s not much a rim protector. His slow foot speed, especially laterally, hampers him in space defensively.

Power forwards who complement Jokic on both sides of the court are rare, but Denver found one in Paul Millsap, who can space the floor and cut strongly offensively and safeguard the interior and switch on the perimeter defensively. The Nuggets signed the 32-year-old to a contract worth $61 million over the first two years and with a $30.5 million team option for the third season – a clear win-now response to Jokic’s readiness to win.

On the other hand, Jokic’s youth presents a long window for success. Before the season, Denver also waived Jameer Nelson, a veteran point guard whom Nuggets coach Michael Malone often leaned on as a crutch when younger options were undependable. That forced Denver to rely on 20-year-old Jamal Murray and 21-year-old Emmanuel Mudiay at point guard. Murray has grown in his starting role and looks like a foundational piece with Jokic. Mudiay couldn’t hack it in the rotation and was replaced by Will Barton, who also plays wing. After all, the Nuggets (24-23, eighth in the Western Conference) are trying to win this season.

It’s a tough balancing act, and the next big question comes with Jokic’s team option next summer.

Jokic is due the minimum salary ($1,600,520) in 2018-19, and that’s obviously a huge bargain. But if Denver exercises the option, he’d become an unrestricted free agent in 2019. By declining Jokic’s option, the Nuggets could make him a restricted free agent this year.

As a restricted free agent, Jokic could probably draw a max offer sheet – which projects to be worth about $109 million over four years (about $27 million annually) – that Denver would surely match. In a direct offer, the Nuggets’ max projects to be about $146 million over five years (about $29 million annually).

Jokic is worth the investment at either price. There’s value in securing him for an extra season during his prime.

But the Nuggets hold leverage. They could condition declining his option on him pledging to accept a sub-max, but still large, contract. After all, that’d still be his quickest ticket to a life-altering payday. That route would require trust, but – Carlos Boozer and the Cavaliers potentially excepted – everyone usually follows through on those informal agreements.

Of course, if Denver offers too little, Jokic could wait until 2019 free agency. There’s even a case for delaying a new contract even with a max offer this summer. If he makes an All-NBA team in 2018-19, he’d be eligible for a super-max contract the following summer. That projects to be worth about $188 million over five years (about $38 million annually) – enough to offset a smaller salary, either the team-option amount or qualifying offer, next season.

To make this even more complex, the possibility of a super-max offer in 2019 could lead the Nuggets to exercise Jokic’s option. They could leverage his low salary next season then have potentially an even larger leg up financially over other suitors in 2019.

Keeping Jokic’s salary low next season is particular important, because Denver already has $110,169,322 committed to 12 players (Millsap, Gary Harris, Kenneth Faried, Mason Plumlee, Wilson Chandler, Darrell Arthur, Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray, Trey Lyles, Juan Hernangomez, Malik Beasley and Tyler Lydon). Maxing out Jokic could push the Nuggets so far into the luxury tax that trading either Faried or Plumlee alone wouldn’t be enough to avoid paying it. Chandler ($12,800,562) and/or Arthur ($7,464,912) opting out would provide relief, but moving Plumlee (due $12,917,808 and $14,041,096 the next two seasons) and/or Faried (due $13,764,045 next season) won’t be easy.

In simple terms, Denver has two choices:

  • Keep Jokic’s salary absurdly low next season, but risk he walks in 2019 unrestricted free agency
  • Pay Jokic big money beginning next season, but lose flexibility to spend on his supporting cast

Declining Jokic’s option then leveraging restricted free agency to re-sign him long-term is the safest path.

“I can say with complete certainty that Nikola is going to be here for a long, long time,” Connelly said. “We love him. I think he loves us.”

Whenever Jokic gets his massive raise, it’ll be overdue based on his production. He’s averaging 16.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. Denver plays like a 55-win team with him on the floor and a 27-win team without him, based on points scored and allowed.

He theoretically could have signed a shorter contract initially, proven himself then hit free agency sooner. But he expected to acclimate slowly from the Adriatic League to the NBA, and he appreciated the long-term security a four-year deal afforded.

There’s less slow-playing now, though.

The Nuggets are throwing more on his plate, and that starts defensively.

“Last year, I don’t think he played much defense at all,” Malone said.

Jokic’s athletic limitations will probably prevent him from ever being an elite defender. But his size and basketball intelligence give him a chance to hold his own as a positional defender – if he puts in the effort. Jokic has dedicated himself more this season, and as a result, Denver’s defense has gone from awful to middling.

The Nuggets also want Jokic to become a more aggressive scorer. He’s such a willing passer, and he’s always looking to make what the right play would be if all players were equal. But they’re not. Denver is 10-4 when Jokic attempts at least 15 shots and 14-19 otherwise.

“He takes greater satisfaction out of making his teammates better than he does scoring himself,” Malone said. “…He needs to be a guy that’s looking to score, regardless if he’s double-teamed or not.”

These are good problems to have. Teammates love the player who’s too unselfish, and so do executives.

“As a person, he embodies everything that we’re trying to be organizationally in terms of work ethic and team-first mentality,” Connelly said.

Those are great traits for a young second-round pick as he develops. But the best player on a team is inevitably turned to for leadership.

So, back to the original question: Is Jokic ready to lead?

“He has some natural leadership ability in terms of, he’s a connector,” Connelly said. “Everyone in the locker room really likes him on and off the court. But we also don’t want to force something prematurely. He’s still a kid.

“We don’t want to put too much weight on his shoulders.

“We’re going to let him grow up on his own timeline.”

There’s no blueprint here. If named an All-Star this year, Jokic – who turns 23 the day after the game – would be the youngest-ever All-Star drafted below No. 30. Heck, even if he doesn’t become an All-Star until next year, he’d still be the youngest All-Star picked below No. 30 in what anyone would consider the modern-draft era.

There’s plenty of time to wait for Jokic to come fully into his own.

But it also might already be Jokic’s time already.

Clippers go to third-string coach after Doc Rivers and Mike Woodson ejected (video)

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Remember when Doc Rivers vowed last year to stop getting technical fouls? He actually followed through for the rest of the season.

But the pledge apparently expired with the season.

Rivers got a technical foul and ejection late in the Clippers’ loss to the Timberwolves last night. Lead assistant Mike Woodson followed suit before play even resumed.

That meant assistant coach Sam Cassell – who already got his own technical foul earlier in the game! – took over for the final 7.4 seconds.

Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. throws down 360 dunk against Wizards (video)

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The Wizards are in a rough place.

They’ve lost three of four, including a 23-point setback to the Mavericks last night, and Dennis Smith Jr. is out here practicing for a dunk contest on them.