PBT’s weekly NBA Power Rankings: Santa brings Warriors top spot, lump of coal for Knicks

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Welcome to the Christmas edition of ProBasketballTalk’s NBA Power Rankings. The Warriors, Trail Blazers and Grizzlies have been on the nice list and have the top three spots in the rankings this week. However of late the Knicks have racked up more lumps of coal than even the Sixers, and that is reflected.

 
source:  1. Warriors (22-3, Last Week No. 1). The good news: Steve Kerr said David Lee looked great in practice and should return soon (will he accept coming off the bench is the question). The bad news: Andrew Bogut is out for a spell after getting PRP treatment on his troublesome knee. They need him come the playoffs — they are good team without him, they are a title contender with him. Which means you rest him all you need to right now.

 
source:  2. Trail Blazers (22-6. LW 4). They passed their test last week beating the Spurs twice — once thanks to 43 points from Damian Lillard — plus beat solid Pelicans and Bucks teams. They have won five in a row. It doesn’t get easier with the Rockets and Thunder up this week, but they are one of a handful of teams that currently have a top 10 offense and defense (based on points per possession), one of the signs of a true contender.

 
source:  3. Grizzlies (21-6, LW 3) Back-to-back wins over the Warriors and Spurs were impressive, then they turned around and dropped games to the Bulls and Cavaliers. I keep getting asked in radio interviews, “Can Memphis can keep this up into the playoffs?” Of course, they’re already playing playoff-style basketball. They don’t have to change a thing.

 
source:  4. Mavericks (20-8, LW 7). You can’t read much into just one game in Dallas for Rajon Rondo — although Monta Ellis sure seemed comfortable with another ball handler on the floor — however there is a new confidence around a team that had struggled against the other top seven in the West. Good test coming Sunday against Thunder.

 
source:  5. Clippers (19-8, LW 6). Doc Rivers would love to make a move to add help from guys who come available like Corey Brewer and Josh Smith, but after giving Spencer Hawes the MLE the hard cap kicks in, making it difficult to get quality. LA stumbled going 3-3 in the last six games of the soft part of the schedule, now things get serious: At San Antonio, at hot Atlanta, Golden State on Christmas Day, then Toronto.

 
source:  6. Raptors (22-6, LW 9). Give the Raptors credit, there were questions about what would happen when DeMar DeRozan went down but Toronto has gone 9-3 without him. We’ll see how they do this week on the road against the Bulls, Clippers and Nuggets.

 
source:  7. Hawks (19-7, LW 12). We wanted to see quality wins from them, so they went out last week and beat Cleveland, Houston and Chicago. Al Horford was a beast, averaging 18.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.7 blocks a game in those three. He remains the most underrated star player in the NBA.

 
source:  8. Rockets (19-7, LW 2). Back-to-back losses to Pelicans and Hawks at home and now things get serious: Blazers, Grizzlies, Spurs up this week, then Wizards to start next week. They’ve got James Harden still playing well but the Rockets have been a turnover machine of late.

 
source:  9. Spurs (17-11, LW 5). After two triple-overtime games in one week, you can expect Gregg Popovich to give Tim Duncan January off to rest. The Spurs lost both those 3OT games and now have dropped four in a row, then when you add in the news Kawhi Leonard has a hand injury, well, it’s been a really rough week in San Antonio.

 
source:  10. Bulls (17-9, LW 10). That was a quality road win in Memphis last week, with rookie Nikola Mirotic going off for 27 points. The Bulls have 12 road wins already. They will play on the Christmas Day stage at home against the Lakers. I don’t think the NBA booked this game thinking about a Carlos Boozer returns to Chicago storyline.

 
source:  11. Cavaliers (16-10 LW 8). Still hard to get a read on this team because of the inconsistent play — are they the team that easily handled Memphis last week or the one that was just throttled by Atlanta? Mike Miller is in the starting lineup for now at the two spot.

 
source:  12. Suns (15-14, LW 17).

 
source:  13. Wizards (19-7, LW 11). They had won six in a row until they ran into Phoenix and John Wall got completely outplayed by the Suns backcourt. Still, the Wizards are 6-2 against the West, which is impressive considering the conference as a whole has a 35.6 percent winning percentage against the West.

 
source:  14. Pelicans (14-13, LW 14). They hang on to the eight seed in the West by beating Oklahoma City (the team that will eventually track them down and pass them) and Houston. They are doing it behind Anthony Davis, who is putting up MVP level numbers in his third season in the league.

 
source:  15. Thunder (13-15, LW 13). Kevin Durant has been out again with a sprained ankle but this time it really showed as the Thunder were passive against a soft Laker defense, then they lost to the Pelicans thanks to an unimpressive defense. Good news is Durant’s injury is minor.

 
source:  16. Bucks (14-14, LW 14). While the team has played well in his absence, the loss of Jabari Parker for the season to an ACL injury is just a loss for basketball fans everywhere. He was playing well. This is a setback for his development.

 
source:  17. Nuggets (12-15, LW 18). They are going to be without Danilo Gallinari for at least three weeks for another knee surgery. While this one is relatively minor, it’s not a good sign. Meanwhile the Nuggets keep slogging along.

 
source:  18. Heat (13-15, LW 20). Chris Bosh is still out and Dwyane Wade is in and out of the lineup, which is why the Heat are 1-3 on their current home stand. The bigger question is just how loud the boos will be — or should be — when LeBron James returns to Miami on Christmas Day.

 
source:  19. Kings (11-15, LW 16). They snapped a five-game losing streak against the hapless Lakers. In that game Lakers radio broadcaster (and former No. 1 pick) Mychal Thompson compared DeMarcus Cousins with Moses Malone — that’s some high praise. But Cousins has earned it this season.

 
source:  20. Celtics (10-15, LW 23). I know a lot of Celtics fans don’t think they got enough, but fans tend to overvalue their own assets — there just wasn’t that much trade demand for Rajon Rondo and what they got for Dallas was likely about as good as it gets. I bet Boston asked for all the restrictions on that first round pick, hoping to stagger their picks out and move it to next season.

 
source:  21. Nets (11-15, LW 19). The rumors of the Deron Williams to Sacramento trade sum things up well — the Kings only will take on Williams and his contract if they can get the coveted Mason Plumlee as well. Not much demand for the Nets stars out there.

 
source:  22. Hornets (8-19, LW 25). Hey, don’t know if you heard, Lance Stephenson is available in a trade. The problem with moving him is evidenced in the report the Pacers players were polled about the idea of bringing him back and they shot the idea down.

 
source:  23. Magic (10-20, LW 21). There are moments you see the potential, you can see how Victor Oladipo is developing into a quality player. Then they go lose to the Sixers.

 
source:  24. Pacers (9-19, LW 24). They had lost eight in a row but have split their last four. Even with the second worst offense in the NBA and the need to add shot creation, their players rejected the idea of bringing back Lance Stephenson.

 
source:  25. Lakers (8-18, LW 22). After Kobe is 11-of-45 (24.4 percent) shooting over his last two games and 33-of-113 (29.2 percent) in his last five games. He’s clearly exhausted. Yet after going 3-of-14 against the Thunder, the Lakers needed a game-winning shot so coach Byron Scott called up an isolation play for Bryant. It shows who really has the power in that organization.

 
source:  26. Jazz (8-20, LW 27). Derrick Favors talking to PBT: ““I spent a lot of time this off-season working on my jump shot and my whole offensive game. When Quin (Snyder) got hired we talked, he told me how he was going to use me in the offense, the things he wanted me to work on, the things to keep improving on and so far it seems to be paying off.” Check back to PBT Tuesday for more.

 
source:  27. Pistons (5-23, LW 28). It was a bold stroke by Stan Van Gundy to cut Josh Smith loose, that signing was Joe Dumars desperately grasping at straws to save his job. The most amazing part of this is SVG not only had the balls to suggest to owners Tom Gores to eat $27 million after this season, he was able to get the owner to sign off on it.

 
source:  28. 76ers (3-23, LW 30). Through all the losses and occasional skirmishes on the bench, there are signs of development in Philadelphia. Count me in the group that thinks one or two veterans on this team — just role paying real pros — could help speed that development along by modeling professionalism, but there is development.

source:  27. Timberwolves (5-21, LW 26). Losers of five in a row and they have shipped Corey Brewer out of town, likely not the last veteran moved off this roster before the deadline. Maybe Troy Daniels can find a home and his shooting stroke in Minny, that guy was lights out in the D-League from beyond the arc.

 
source:  29. Knicks (5-25, LW 29). They have lost five in a row and are just hard to watch right now (and that’s with Carmelo Anthony in the lineup). The temptation is to say Phil Jackson inherited this roster, but he chose to re-sign Carmelo, went out and got guys like Jose Calderon and Samuel Dalembert, plus much of the bench were his guys. He didn’t put together much of a triangle team.

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.

Adam Silver: NBA could eventually reseed in conference finals

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NBA commissioner Adam Silver has three major talking points on 1-16 playoff seeding (rather than the current system of 1-8 seeding by conference):

1. He likes the idea of it.

2. He doesn’t feel bound by the tradition of an East vs. West format.

3. Travel is a big impediment. Not only would there be more playoff series between teams farther away, the regular-season schedule would have to be balanced and therefore include more games between teams currently in opposite conferences.

(An important point I think Silver doesn’t raise nearly enough publicly in regard to a balanced schedule: That’d mean more away games that start at 10 p.m. for Eastern Conference fans and more away games that start at 4 p.m. for Western Conference fans. That can’t be good for TV ratings.)

The NBA commissioner added another consideration in the debate.

Silver on ESPN:

The other thing you could potentially do is reseed at the conference finals. And that deals with if your two best teams are in the same conference. So, there are some other approaches to deal with. You want the two best teams to meet in the Finals.

A balanced schedule wouldn’t be necessary with this setup. The semifinals would either be fairer and produce a better NBA Finals or have the same matchup we’d get in the current system.

Even more importantly, this could pass.

As fun as it is to debate the optimal postseason format, there’s no way enough Eastern Conference owners (at least five, necessary to create a two-thirds majority) approve. They want to protect their eight playoff spots and guaranteed Finals spot.

But what if Eastern Conference teams were still guaranteed eight playoff spots and two semifinals spots? That be enough. The Rockets and Warriors – two Western Conference teams – are the NBA’s best this season. In coming years, it could be the 76ers and Celtics – two Eastern Conference teams. That’s far more variable than which conference is stronger throughout.

If teams in championship contention feel the very top of their conference will be weaker than the other conference, they could resist. But that still leaves contenders that don’t feel that way and non-contenders that want the additional shared revenue a better NBA Finals would generate.

That’s a plausible path to 20 yes votes and something we should take seriously.

Knicks owner James Dolan: Jeff Hornacek ‘way behind’ in dealing with modern players

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The Knicks fired Jeff Hornacek as soon as they returned to New York following their season-ending win in Cleveland.

Then, they really unloaded on the coach.

Knicks owner James Dolan, via Larry Brooks of the New York Post:

“I think Hornacek had the same kind of issue that Phil did in that he didn’t grasp how different the players are now in the way they think and deal with management and the coaches,” Dolan said. “I think he was way behind on that.

“But I think Jeff is a good coach and he’ll do well when he’s hired by another team.”

“The old-style coaching doesn’t work,” Dolan said. “A coach who tries to do everything himself isn’t going to be successful.

Knicks president Steve Mills, via Marc Berman of the New York Post:

“I think just as we observed the team, there were a lot of things that we just thought would be better at, from attention to detail to player accountability, and Jeff did a good job in some areas. In some areas he could have done a bit of a better job.

Knicks general manager Scott Perry, via Berman:

“The evaluation of Jeff for 82 games, we evaluated everything — practices to games to ability to connect with guys. I think we need to be better in that area and with adjustments. It’s something we could be better at with the expectations we have for our next coach.”

“We could have been a little bit better in situational basketball,” Perry said. “We understand the roster as much as anybody. In terms of consistency, we fell a little bit short in that area.”

This is atypical candor about a fired coach. Most teams just thank him and move on.

But I appreciate it. Don’t we all want to know more of what NBA teams are thinking internally? This is revelatory.

That said, I don’t blindly trust the Dolan/Mills/Perry triumvirate. The Knicks have misevaluated too many people for too long. This more about knowing how they viewed things than knowing this is how things are.

Frank Isola of the New York Daily News:

According to a source, Dolan last season sent an email to Hornacek saying he was disappointed in him for not buying fully into the triangle offense. This took place sometime around the All Star break. So we know that as recently as last season Dolan, who loves to tell you he’s not involved, was actually pushing Phil Jackson’s offense down Hornacek’s throat in a not-so-subtle way.

Dolan had Phil’s back. And then on Wednesday, Dolan trashed Jackson for being out of touch. Man, life comes at you fast.

To be fair, Suns general manager Ryan McDonough also cited Hornacek’s lack of connection with his players when firing him. This will be something Hornacek must answer for if he pursues future head-coaching jobs. Hornacek feuded with Marcus Morris in Phoenix and Joakim Noah, Kyle O'Quinn and reportedly Kristaps Porzingis in New York.

Not that the Knicks set up Hornacek to succeed. They didn’t.

Now, they must find a coach who will perform better in all the areas they just criticized Hornacek for. That’ll be more difficult than criticizing him on the way out the door.

76ers in their feelings about garbage-time shots (video)

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In the Heat’s Game 2 win over the 76ers, Philadelphia rushed a 3-pointer to cut Miami’s lead to eight with 6.2 seconds left. Heat point guard Goran Dragic took the ensuing inbound, dribbled past a pressing Ben Simmons, avoided a swipe attempt by Robert Covington and drove in for an uncontested layup:

Covington, via Anthony Chiang of The Palm Beach Post:

“It definitely matters because you can just dribble it out, everything,” Philadelphia forward Robert Covington said. “But you know, we don’t understand why he did it. But overall, we just said, OK, that gives us anticipation because obviously he didn’t care about the simple fact of the score of the game. They were already winning.”

Dragic, via Chiang:

“I don’t care,” Dragic said when asked about the Sixers’ reaction to the play. “The first game we were down 30 and they were still running [inbounds plays after timeouts] with seven seconds left in the game. It’s the playoffs. I’m doing everything it takes.”

Dragic’s play was perfectly fine. If the 76ers didn’t like it, they should have stopped it. Beyond that, why risk allowing a miracle comeback? It was the right, safe play.

Philadelphia tried to return the favor in its alreadyfeisty Game 3 win last night.

His 76ers up 19 with the shot clock off, Ben Simmons pushed the ball ahead and passed to a streaking Dario Saric, who attempted a layup. Kelly Olynyk blocked Saric’s attempt. Then, Miami guard Wayne Ellington fouled Covington with 1.7 seconds left, prolonging the game with free throws:

Philadelphia center Joel Embiid, via Ian Begley of ESPN:

“I wish I was there in that Game 2, because I was kind of pissed about it. … I was on the sideline, really mad,” Embiid, who missed the first two games of the series due to an orbital fracture and concussion.

Embiid said he told his teammates to look to score if they encountered the same scenario late in Game 3.

“It’s always good to blow a team out,” he said. “I think we were up 18 or 20 and if you could get that lead up to 22, I think it’s good. I love blowing teams out. I like the fact that we did that. We’re not here to make friends. We’re here to win a series.”

Heat forward Winslow, via Begley:

“I think they felt disrespected by Goran’s [layup], and we weren’t just going to let them do that,” Miami’s Justise Winslow said.

This is all so silly.

Last month, Saric scored late on the (pressing) Cavaliers in a game that looked decided. (Cleveland guard Jordan Clarkson then threw the ball at Saric and got ejected.) But the 76ers are going to be aggrieved now?

To their credit, the Heat fulfilled the don’t-it?, stop-it philosophy with Olynyk’s block.