PBT NBA Power Rankings: New York teams rising but Pacers on top still

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Here are the weekly PBT power rankings, with some improving teams out of New York. For you fans in Dallas, Denver, Phoenix, Minnesota and Memphis — teams with dreams of the Western Conference playoffs — know that the pace right now is 47-48 wins just to get the 8 seed. Plan accordingly.

 
source:  1. Pacers (29-7, Last Week No. 1). They continue to win thanks to that lock-down defense, but the Pacers seem to be coasting through the middle of the season. Paul George seems off and they have an offensive rating of 95.1 (points per 100 possessions) in their last five games, six below their season average. It’s not just the Heat that drags a little.

 
source:  2. Spurs (29-8, LW No. 4). Winners of three in a row as they continue to execute like no other team in the league nightly. That said, buzz around the league is they are aggressive in the trade market, a sign management thinks they need more to really contend this season.

 
source:  3. Warriors (25-14, LW 3). If you think their run is over (9-1 in the last 10) think again — they have 14 games left before the All-Star Break and 10 are at home. Interesting test for them at Oklahoma City this week.

 
source:  4. Heat (27-10, LW 2). Miami should put together a little run through this soft part of the schedule, then they go and lose both ends of a back-to-back in the boroughs of New York. With all due respect to the improved play of those teams, this is really about a banged up (starters out) and not very focused Heat team.

 
source:  5. Trail Blazers (28-9, LW 6). In case you didn’t see his quote, reserve guard Mo Williams needs to be a Top Chef judge: “With our team, we have a makeup of individuals that do something really, really good and when we mesh together, it’s like gumbo. That’s the best example I can give you of our team. Some teams have a dish where you got your steak, potatoes and asparagus. We’re gumbo. Without one of the ingredients, the gumbo just doesn’t taste well. But when everything is in that pot, it’s just like grandma did it.”

 
source:  6. Thunder (28-9, LW 5). Oklahoma City is now 5-4 since the Westbrook injury. Kevin Durant is doing his best to hold them afloat — in those nine games he is averaging 34.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists a night — but it’s not enough. The question remains how much this hurts their seeding come the playoffs (they are currently tied with Portland for the 2/3 seed).

 
source:  7. Clippers (26-13, LW 7). They have won three in a row without Chris Paul (3-1 overall so far without him) and while those wins were all over sub .500 teams they are wins. The Clips will take it. They are home Wednesday then out for the Grammy road trip with seven in a row away from LA.

 
source:  8. Rockets (24-14, LW 8). It’s still hard to get a feel for just how good this team really is — some nights they look elite, then there are games like Friday against the Hawks. The real number that might concern me as a Rockets fan — they are just 13-11 against the West.

 
source:  9. Mavericks (22-16, LW 11). If the Dallas Mavericks — currently the eight seed in the West with a two-game cushion over Denver and Minnesota lurking — squeaks into the playoffs by a game or two, we will look back and point at the two end-of-game no calls they got (Shawn Marion fouling Kevin Love then this weekend Monta Ellis fouling Austin Rivers) and wonder.

 
source:  10. Raptors (18-17, LW 14). Apparently the Rudy Gay trade was win-win. He’s shooting lights-out since moving to Sacramento but the Raptors are now 12-5 without him. The tanking plan is off in Toronto, where they stand a legitimate shot at winning the division, hosting a playoff series and advancing to the second round.

 
source:  11. Hawks (20-18, LW 12). Just one game this week, against the Nets in London. We’ll see how they do across the pond, at home they are playing very well right now with wins over Houston and Indiana in Phillips Arena last week.

 
source:  12. Timberwolves (18-19, LW 13). Minnesota is now 0-10 in games decided by 4 or fewer points this season. Some of that is bad luck and things will even out, but some of that is late game execution issues this team needs to resolve. Fast if they have playoff dreams.

 
source:  13. Suns (21-15, LW 9). They have hit a rough patch and it’s only going to get rougher with Eric Bledsoe out for an extended period of time with a knee injury (he should be back in 4-6 weeks). They have a 2 game cushion over Denver and 3.5 over the Timberwolves.

 
source:  14. Nuggets (19-17, LW 16). Is there a streakier team in the NBA? They have won five in a row after losing eight in a row, plus there was a seven game win streak earlier in the season. With this run they are two games out of the playoffs in the West.

 
source:  15. Bulls (17-18, LW 18). No Derrick Rose, no Luol Deng, and yet the Bulls have won five in a row and they are knocking on the door of .500 again — and with nothing but below .500 teams on the docket this week they could crash through that ceiling.

 
source:  16. Grizzlies (17-19, LW 17). Marc Gasol is set to return to full practice this week — and play in games not long after that — which means the 17-19 Grizzlies could be poised to make a push for the postseason (they are currently four games out of the eight seed in the West).

 
source:  17. Nets (15-22, LW 22). They have won five in a row so is the light week — one game against the Hawks in London — a blessing or a curse? On one hand, all the older bodies on this team could use the light week of rest. On the other, they had momentum and now they will be sitting around a lot this week getting cold.

 
source:  18. Knicks (14-22, LW 23). The Knicks are 5-1 in their last six, including beating the Heat, and among the many reasons (Iman Shumpert’s improved play, better ball movement from Carmelo Anthony) we need to point out that Amar’e Stoudemire and Raymond Felton are showing some chemistry together. Stoudemire had 35 points over the weekend and he and ‘Melo have played well together, thank you very much.

 
source:  19. Wizards (14-17, LW 15). They have 10 home games between now and the All-Star break, which would be awesome except they are 7-9 at the very leaky Verizon Center. Need to turn that around, but they still look like a lock playoff team in the unimpressive East.

 
source:  20. Pelicans (15-21, LW 14). The loss of both Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson to injury has taken its toll on this team. Now we will see how they deal with trade rumors as we’re going to hear a lot of Eric Gordon stuff over the next six weeks.

 
source:  21. Pistons (16-22, LW 20). That was a quality win over the Suns (thank you Josh Smith) but games like the two they have this week — Utah and Washington — are the kind they need to win if they plan to hold their playoff spot in the East. They Pistons are the seven seed, just one game up on the 9/10 seed Bobcats and Knicks.

 
source:  22. Kings (13-22, LW 26). They are 7-8 since Rudy Gay arrived and on a three game win streak. The reason is their offense: Through the first 20 games the Kings averaged 101.8 points per 100 possessions, that has jumped to 109.7 in the last 10 games (fifth best in the NBA during that stretch).

 
source:  23. Bobcats (15-23, LW 21). Charlotte has gone 2-8 in their last 10 games, which has dropped them out of a playoff spot even in the East. The once-stout defense has been the issue, but getting Michael Carter-Gilchrist back this week should be a boost on that end.

 
source:  24. Cavaliers (13-24, LW 28). They looked improved for the first two games with Luol Deng in the lineup then they suffered the worst NBA loss of the season — 44 points — at the hands of the Kings. Making the playoffs is still the goal and they are just two games out of a spot, but I wonder if Deng will be able to make enough of a difference

 
source:  25. Lakers (14-23, LW 19). Kobe Bryant could be back Jan. 28, when the Lakers return from their Grammy road trip, Mike D’Antoni said. What would be best for the Lakers franchise at this point would be for Kobe to take a lot more time off and let this ship sink a little lower (and pick up more lottery Ping-Pong balls). But who in the organization has the stones to tell Kobe that? (They wouldn’t anyway.)

 
source:  26. 76ers (12-25, LW 25). They lost four straight games, and not exactly against powerhouse teams. Sixers fans probably got more out of watching college ball this weekend, trying to figure out Julius Randle and how he might fit in the mix.

 
source:  27. Jazz (12-26, LW 27). When they put together the end-of-season highlight video for the rebuilding Jazz, last week’s win over Oklahoma with Gordon Hayward’s 37 points will get discussed plenty. Not much else to focus on.

 
source:  28. Celtics (13-25, LW 24). The fact that Rajon Rondo could be back in the next couple weeks doesn’t take much of the sting out of the recent eight-game losing streak. Be interesting to see which veterans get shipped out at the deadline.

 
source:  29. Magic (10-23, LW 29). They lost seven straight and have struggled mightily without Nikola Vucevic, who will remain out for a bit with a concussion. On the bright side, Victor Oladipo has looked better lately.

 
source:  30. Bucks (7-26, LW 30). Larry Sanders, what are you thinking? Can’t blame Bucks fans if they have tunnel vision on Giannis Antetokounmpo right now.

Paul George on trade to Thunder: “I took it as it was a kick in the behind”

Associated Press
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Paul George and Russell Westbrook — now with Carmelo Anthony — form one of the more interesting teams in the NBA in Oklahoma City. Deep with quality role players and a defense that should be top 10 (if not top 5) in the league, if the three big names can learn to sacrifice and mesh, the Thunder will be dangerous.

Paul George sounds motivated to take it all on… which he should be the first day of training camp. Still, it’s a good sign for Thunder fans.

George opened up to Sam Amick of the USA Today in a lengthy interview at the start of camp, and among the topics he discussed was the trade to OKC (after George’s camp told Indiana he would test free agency next summer). Did getting sent to the Thunder motivate him?

“I took it as it was a kick in the behind, like, ‘Go ahead and go try to beat the Warriors. Go play alongside Russ and get your butt kicked against the Warriors.’ That’s how I looked at how that trade went down, because honestly we had no idea OKC was even interested or was in the trade until the trade actually happened. But again, I’m not here to trash Indiana. They have some of the best people I’ve ever met in their front office and in that organization. I grew up there. I could go on and on (with) the positives in Indiana, but that’s where my thought process and my – that’s where I, I guess, my opportunity to leave had opened up.”

There was some “go ahead and beat the Warriors” in that trade — it looks, from the outside, like the Pacers did not want George to land anywhere he wanted to go.

Thing is, as human beings, we by our nature try to make the best of situations. Even people who suffer genuine personal tragedies often come out the other side saying that it changed who they were for the better and they are happy with their new life. This is just basketball. George will adapt — and he’s on a very good team. If the bar is “can they beat a healthy Warriors team in a series” then the Thunder will fall short, as will every other team. But the Thunder are on that next tier in the NBA and could be a threat.

Plus, competitors like George always look at a trade as a challenge.

It’s going to be a fascinating season for the Thunder. We’ll see if all that talent is willing to make the sacrifices needed to win at the highest levels of the NBA.

When will Zach LaVine return to court for Bulls? Think Thanksgiving.

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When the Chicago Bulls traded Jimmy Butler — finally making a decision on the franchise’s direction — one of the centerpieces they got back from Minnesota was Zach LaVine. The wildly athletic two-guard had evolved into more than just a dunker, averaging 18.9 points per game and shooting 38 percent from three — he had become a legitimate scoring threat against any defense.

Then he blew out his ACL.

How that injury impacts his game remains to be seen… so when will the Bulls see him on the court? Coach Fred Hoiberg addressed that as Chicago started training camp, as reported by Vincent Goodwill of CSNChicago.

That’s just taking contact in practice. The Bulls will be cautious bringing back a guy they see as part of their future, so expect this to be closer to Thanksgiving or the end of the month before he plays. Which is the smart move to make.

Even then, ACL injuries take a long time to overcome, even for young players putting in the recovery work. It may be next season before we know if LaVine will continue on the trajectory he was on in Minnesota.

Magic Johnson shrugs off concern about Lonzo Ball realty series

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Lonzo Ball has yet to play in one NBA game, yet he has his own signature shoe line, and he — along with his father LaVar Ball and the rest of his family — have their own reality show on FaceBook. Lonzo told me he doesn’t foresee this show, nor his bombastic father, being a problem with his teammates or on the court.

Magic Johnson agrees with that. At least for now.

The head of Lakers’ basketball operations said as training camp opened that he’s not worried about the show Ball in the Family being a distraction. If it is, he’ll step in, he told Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.

“Only time I am going to concern myself with what [Lonzo] does off the court is if it is affecting his play on the court,” Johnson said at the Lakers’ media day when asked about Ball’s reality Facebook series, “Ball in the Family.”

“Right now, I think it is awesome,” Johnson said. “His family is great. They came out Saturday, we had a big Laker picnic. … His dad is wonderful with me, and I am cool with him. … I think [Lonzo] is tired of all this [hype]. He is just like me; I just want to play and I think he wants to play, and then Saturday night [for the Lakers’ preseason opener], sold out, in Anaheim, wow!”

It’s Magic’s job to put a positive spin on things.

That said, he’s right. The Lakers (and every NBA team) have dealt with overinvolved parents before and know how to create some space for the player to focus on the game. Locker rooms have a way of sorting themselves out in these kinds of situations. Plus, the Lakers have been down the reality show road before (when Lamar Odom married Khloe Kardashian), and while that had an ugly ending, it wasn’t for lack of Lakers’ players and others in the organization trying to step in and help. (Odom just wasn’t yet in a place to accept help.)

Soon LaVar will be focused on his other sons and Lonzo, who appears practiced at tuning his father out and focusing on what is in front of him, will have the grind of the NBA schedule to worry about.

Former NBA player Chuck Person named in college basketball bribery scandal

Associated Press
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The recruitment of major college athletes — and then the steering of the handful that get to go pro to shoe companies and agents — is a sleazy business. It makes HBO’s “The Duece” look like Disneyland. It’s something sports fans know but largely turn a blind eye to until it forces its way into the headlines.

It turned up in the headlines Tuesday when four college assistant coaches from major universities were charged by federal prosecutors in a bribery scandal along with a representative of Adidas and others to steer players to specific agents or a financial handler.

Former NBA Rookie of the Year Chuck Person, now an assistant coach at Auburn, was among those named in the scandal.

Person is making headlines because he’s the biggest name in the scandal. He is charged with accepting approximately $91,500 from a business manager, who has flipped and is working with prosecutors. This “business manager, offered bribes to Person to steer players toward his services, as well as another person charged in the scandal.

Person told prosecutors he gave $18,500 of the money he took to two players’ families, according to the filings.

Person was the No. 4 pick in the 1986 NBA draft and went on to win Rookie of the Year, followed by a 13-year NBA career. He made $22.9 million over the course of his career.