PBT Power Rankings: Tell me again how the Spurs are too old….

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With a number of top teams stumbling — Oklahoma City, Miami, Indiana — it is the Spurs who have gotten healthy and looked good going 6-0 since the end of the rodeo trip. The West now dominates the top of the rankings, the Sixers are looking to set records at the bottom.

source:  1. Spurs (46-16, Last week No. 3). They get fully healthy and have rattled off six wins in a row since the end of the rodeo road tip, including a signature win over Miami. In their last five games San Antonio’s offense is 4 points per 100 possessions better than their season average, their defense 2 points per 100 better. Bottom line, they look like the contender Spurs again and the only question is whether they can continue to defend this well.

source:  2. Clippers (44-20, LW 5). Which team has the highest net efficiency rating (differential between points scored and points allowed per 100 possessions)? The Clippers and Thunder are tied at +7.7 per 100. That stat is also a very good indicator of who wins in the playoffs, although the Clippers inflated that number with some blowouts. They have won seven in a row, but the differential number suggests they are at least knocking on that door of contender status.

source:  3. Rockets (44-19, LW 6). We said the Rockets would get tested this week. Well, they beat the Heat, Pacers and Trail Blazers. That’s pretty much acing your test. More to come with the Thunder, Bulls and Heat on the road this week, but the fact is Houston has looked like a legit contender the past week. James Harden averaged 30.3 ppg in those three big wins last week. He’s pretty good.

source:  4. Heat (43-17, LW No. 1). LeBron James had tough shooting nights against the Spurs and Bulls, and that has a lot less to do with what jersey he was wearing and a lot more to do with Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard being in his jersey. He got some help from Wade but Heat need more help, and more LeBron attacking and not settling for jumpers.

source:  5. Thunder (46-17, LW 4).. Two losses this week to the Lakers and Suns, two teams that try to beat you with their guard play and tempo. It’s not an accident both of those Thunder losses came with Thabo Sefalosha sidelined, they need him back and they need generally improved perimeter defense. Good test Tuesday against a hot Rockets team.

source:  6. Pacers (46-17, LW 2). Why the slump? In their last 5 games they have allowed 111.6 points per 100 possessions — 16 more than their season average. This team does not have the offense to cover its defense taking a night off. Despite slump they officially clinched a playoff berth last week.

source:  7. Bulls (35-28, LW 9). Bulls fans want Joakim Noah to get some MVP votes, and while he’s not getting one of the top two spots on the ballot, his play leading the Bulls this season has to merit consideration for the fourth or fifth slot on the ballot. The Bulls showed against the Heat Sunday why nobody wants to play them in the postseason.

source:  8. Warriors (40-24, LW 10). Of the four teams fighting for one of the final playoff spots in the West they are in the best position — the softest schedule and the most home games. When their jumpers fall they can beat anyone, as they did with the Pacers (10-of-20 from three), when they don’t they can fall to anyone.

source:  9. Grizzlies (36-26, LW 8).  As we broke down last week, it really comes down to the Grizzlies needing to get past the Suns in the West — and they have, the two teams are tied now with 20 games to go. To get the playoff spot Memphis needs some big wins on the road — after Portland Tuesday 4-of-5 and 10-of-14 are away from the good barbecue or Memphis.

source:  10. Mavericks (37-26, LW 11). They are just one game ahead of the Grizzlies and Suns, which is why that wins over Portland and Indiana mattered (and the loss to Denver hurt). They have a heavy home schedule the rest of the way, which bodes well for them making the playoffs.

source:  11. Suns (36-26, LW 12). They lost to the Clippers and Warriors but picked up a big win over the Thunder. They are tied with Memphis and have a tough schedule ahead — 3-of-4 on the road this week including at the Clippers — and they need to find a way to get wins because the Grizzlies are hot.

source:  12. Trail Blazers (42-20, LW 7). The road losses to Dallas and Houston were tough last week, but you can explain those… that loss at home to the Lakers? Not a good sign. Tough road stretch this week at the Grizzlies and Spurs.

source:  13. Wizards (33-29, LW 13). Don’t look now, but the Wizards have played good defense since the All-Star Break. Combine that with nights of hot shooting — hello Trevor Ariza — and a soft schedule and you get wins. More interesting tests this week against the Heat and Nets.

source:  14. Raptors (34-26, LW 14). While we talk about how well the Wizards, Nets and Bulls are playing they are all looking up at a Raptors team that is 8-2 in their last 10 and has the easiest schedule the rest of the way out. Hard to see the Nets making up four games and taking the Atlantic from them, but the Bulls are one game back for the three seed. Nets, Grizzlies and Suns on the docket this week, which should be a good test.

source:  15. Nets (31-30, LW 16). Kevin Garnett is barely playing right now — the Nets are down to two of the six All-Stars they had before the season — yet they keep on winning. If they have any dreams of an Atlantic Division crown they need to beat Toronto this week, then a couple big games against Heat and Wizards on the road will be tests.

source:  16 . Timberwolves (31-31, LW 15). When the Timberwolves get their starting five on the court — Ricky Rubio, Corey Brewer, Kevin Martin, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic — they are +11.7 per 48 minutes. Get into their bench and it’s a mess. That’s not good enough to make the playoffs in the West, and Minnesota is all but mathematically out of that race.

source:  17. Bobcats (29-34, LW 17). They probably can’t do it, but the goal in Charlotte has to be to make up the three games on the Nets and get out of the seven seed in the first round to avoid Miami/Indiana. That said, the way Charlotte defends they will make one of the big two work for the first round playoff win.

source:  18. Nuggets (27-35, LW 22). Ty Lawson is back and not so coincidentally the Nuggets are playing much better ball — they are playing at a much faster pace and are scoring 18 points per 100 possessions better. Basically they are an offensive team that tries to outscore you and just might, which makes them fun to watch if nothing else.

source:  19. Kings (22-40, LW 23). After their last game coach Mike Malone ripped his team for “selfish play” and DeMarcus Cousins (28 and 20 in that contest) agreed. This is a team of guys mostly playing for their next contract and it’s not is Sacramento. Still, on any give night this team is very dangerous.

source:  20. Knicks (24-40, LW 26). Winners of three in a row… no, the playoffs are not happening (they are not making up the 3.5 games back they are now). Phil Jackson, that looks like it’s happening and for all the potential pitfalls if he can just provide the franchise some direction it helps. Until Dolan jumps in to “help” again.

source:  21. Lakers (22-42, LW 21). Let me echo what @jonesonNBA was saying on twitter after the Lakers beat the Thunder Sunday — go ahead and slam Mike D’Antoni if you want, but look around the league at how much his coaching system has influenced other teams. If you don’t think you can win a title that way, I suggest you go back and watch the Heat again.

source:  22. Pelicans (26-37, LW 25). Anthony Davis just continues to put up monster numbers — 32 and 17 against the Nuggets. You know what we media types actually root for? Teams to be good in cities where we like to visit and spend time. Along those lines I am looking forward to the Pelicans taking big leaps forward in the coming years.

source:  23. Cavaliers (24-40, LW 18). Losers of four in a row and now the schedule gets tough — Phoenix, Golden State and the Clippers start a run of 10 against the NBA’s top 10. This stretch always made a late playoff push by the Cavaliers unlikely. Sorry Dan, it was the truth before the Luol Deng trade.

source:  24. Hawks (26-35, LW 19). Losers of six in a row, if the Pistons weren’t terrible the Hawks would be out of the playoffs by now. Yet the worst news of the week was the end of Kyle Korver’s streak of games with a made three, dead at an NBA record 127.

source:  25. Pistons (24-39, LW 20). They have lost three in a row and just looked terrible doing it. NBA Irony of the week: Brandon Jennings says the rest of the Pistons do not hold themselves accountable.

source:  26. Jazz (22-41, LW 24). They would have gone winless on a just-completed six game road trip through the East, but they lucked out with the final game of the trip in Philly. Trey Burke continues to learn hard lessons about adjusting to life in the NBA, but that’s what this season is for in Salt Lake City.

source:  27. Celtics (21-41, LW 28). Spoiler alert — Boston knocked off Brooklyn and Detroit last week, not exactly helping the playoff hopes for those teams (Nets of moving up, Pistons of just making it). This week the Pacers, Knicks and Suns are up on the Celtics spoiler list.

source:  28. Magic (19-45, LW 27). Their offense is playing decently, which is a surprise since pretty much everyone you can name and a few guys you can’t are out.

source:  29. Bucks (12-50, LW 29). All the losing is clearly wearing on the Bucks, as Ersan Ilyasova and O.J. Mayo were suspended last week for throwing punches in games. At least they are showing a little fight.

source:  30. 76ers (15-47, LW 30). They have winnable games against the Knicks and Kings to start the week, then after that things get difficult. Lose those to and an NBA record 27 consecutive losses is a real possibility.

PBT Podcast: What to watch during stretch run of season

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Are the Cleveland Cavaliers for real? And by “real” do you mean best in the East or threat to Warriors?

Who is going to make the playoffs in the West? Is Utah going in? Portland? The Los Angeles Clippers?

Is James Harden going win MVP? Is it Ben Simmons or Donovan Mitchell for Rookie of the Year?

Those are just some of the storylines as the NBA races down the stretch run of the season (most teams have around 25 games left). Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports break down all the things to watch from the end of the season, including if Detroit can climb up into the postseason, and how the top of the East is going to shake out.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Suns, Hawks say they won’t change strategy to tank

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Phoenix shut down healthy players in a transparent bid to tank last season. But Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said not to expect a repeat.

Scott Bordow of azcentral:

Wednesday, McDonough told azcentral sports that the Suns won’t approach the final 23 games of this season the same way. In other words, Phoenix isn’t tanking in order to improve its chances of landing the No. 1 pick in the May 15 draft lottery.

“We’re planning on doing what we have been doing, that’s playing our young players. For us, that’s not a change,” McDonough said. “… We want to continue to have them improve and get minutes and try to win as many games as we can.”

The Mike Budenholzer-coached Hawks also won’t sit their top players.

Michael Cunningham of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Some other teams near the bottom of the standings have publicly proclaimed they will favor youth over experience for the final four-plus weeks of the season, but Budenholzer said he will stay the course.

“I think we’ve been a mix of young and veteran guys all year,” he said Wednesday. “I think the way we progressed through the season — of course when you start the season you think it could be a little different — (but) right now but I think the way we’ve played, and the way we continue to play, won’t be that much different.”

To some degree, McDonough and Budenholzer are just trying to avoid a Mark Cuban-esque fine. The NBA discourages most talk of tanking.

But Phoenix and Atlanta don’t need to change their rotations to tank. They’re already good at losing! Both teams are a league-worst 18-41.

Some teams will get more serious about tanking down the stretch. The Suns and Hawks are already there. That doesn’t make them more virtuous than the Mavericks.

Still, this is a tight race for the top of the lottery. Four other teams have just 18 wins. Another has only 19, and one more has only 20. If the Suns and Hawks need to get worse to improve draft position, I wouldn’t put it past either team.

By the way, that headline can be read a couple different ways. That’s intentional.

Report: Kyrie Irving requested trade after ‘sloppy’ discussion by Cavaliers’ front office

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The Cavaliers reportedly explored trading Kyrie Irving in June. He requested a trade in July.

Since dealt to the Celtics, Irving has said he’ll never pinpoint his precise reason for leaving Cleveland. But he also said the Cavs “didn’t want me there.”

Did the Cavaliers push him out?

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

On the day of the NBA draft back in June, just days after Cleveland parted ways with former GM David Griffin, a robust Cavs contingent made up of front-office personnel, coaches and team support staff members held an impromptu, “what if?” discussion about Kyrie Irving’s future, multiple team sources confirmed to ESPN.

The discussion, characterized as “small talk” by one source familiar with its content, was less a formal straw poll of what the Cavs should do with their All-Star point guard should trade opportunities present themselves, and more a thought exercise anticipating what the market could bear for a player of Irving’s caliber.

The talk got back to Irving, multiple team sources told ESPN, and that served as the tipping point that led to Irving formally requesting a trade a little more than two weeks later.

“It was sloppy,” one league source familiar with the draft-day discussion told ESPN, adding that any talk about trading a player of Irving’s ilk — however informal it might be — should be handled strictly between the GM and owner, because of the sensitive nature of its content.

While Altman was involved in the meeting, he and Mike Gansey — at that point officially the head of the Cavs’ G League team — were only keeping the ship afloat on an interim basis and had yet to be formally elevated to their current roles as GM and assistant GM, respectively.

This is one spin on the story. Yet another: Irving initially requested a trade before the draft and considered requesting one in 2016.

Both sides are trying to blame the other for the disintegration of their relationship.

It can be difficult to read how serious the draft-day discussion was. Maybe Irving interpreted ut correctly. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he just used it to justify a trade request he wanted to make anyway.

What’s more clear: Communication hasn’t been as strong between the front office and players under general manager Koby Altman as it was under Griffin. McMenamin:

While the Cavs were struggling in late December through early January, LeBron James questioned Altman’s absentee status on a long Cleveland road trip, team sources told ESPN.

Altman helped repair that relationship leading up to the trade deadline, looping LeBron in on discussions that culminated with three trades. LeBron appears more invested in the Cavaliers, just in time to keep him next summer.

But some mistakes can’t be fixed before it’s too late. Maybe those Irving trade talks in June were one of them.

Report: NBA considering play-in tournament for playoffs

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Adam Silver and LeBron James are publicly arguing about 1-16 playoff seeding.

But that’s not the only change to the NBA’s postseason potentially afoot.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

sources say there is also some behind-the-scenes momentum for the idea of a play-in tournament determining the last two seeds in each conference — to the point that two specific proposals are circulating at the highest levels within teams and the league office.

The play-in proposal that has generated the most discussion, according to several sources: two four-team tournaments featuring the seventh, eighth, ninth, and 10th seeds in each conference. The seventh seed would host the eighth seed, with the winner of that single game nabbing the seventh spot, sources say. Meanwhile, the ninth seed would host the 10th seed, with the winner of that game facing the loser of the 7-versus-8 matchup for the final playoff spot.

It is not coming next season, and it would be a shock if the NBA adopted it in time for 2020 or even 2021. It may never happen. Any such change would need approval from the competition committee, and then from a supermajority of 23 NBA teams. That process has not even started.

The NBA playoffs, with best-of-seven series, makes it more likely the better team advances. The NCAA tournament, with one game per team per round, generates excitement with increased variance and upsets.

Each format presents its own pros and cons, and I think too many NBA people seek the unpredictability of college basketball without considering the tradeoffs.

But I actually like this, because it makes the long regular season matter more. Each play-in seed faces a progressively easier route to the real playoffs:

  • No. 7 seed: Win one of up to two home games
  • No. 8 seed: Win one road or one home game
  • No. 9 seed: Win one home and one road game
  • No. 10: Win two road games

With more doors open to post-regular-season basketball, that’d theoretically curb tanking. Most tanking occurs lower in the standings, and the NBA hopes its lottery reform will address that. But this could incentivize teams otherwise be out of the playoff race to keep competing.

There are still plenty of questions to answer: How is revenue from the play-in tournament distributed? Could it work in conjunction with 1-16 seeding? How are are play-in-tournament teams treated in the lottery?

But this at least seems plausible.