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NBA Power Rankings Week 15: The Wizards are climbing fast, and they are legit

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The very top of the rankings remains stable, but the Wizards are climbing fast — and this isn’t a hot streak, they are healthy and legit. Also rising fast is Miami, where Eric Spoelstra could put himself in the mix for magician, er, coach of the second half of the season.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (41-7, Last Week No. 1). They are 14-2 in the last 16 games and still have the No. 1 ranked offense and defense in the NBA. Stephen Curry has stepped back onto center stage, averaging 28.6 points, 6.6 assists per game in the last five. The next big question for Steve Kerr? If he deploys his four All-Stars in one lineup as promised — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green — then who is the fifth player? And will Green try to recruit him?

 
Spurs small icon 2. Spurs (36-11, LW 2). San Antonio when focused is very good, see the win over Toronto this week (and Cleveland last week) as examples, but then they drop two in a row to the Pelicans and Mavericks (the Spurs have lost two in a row just four times in the past two seasons). The losses are not going to drop them in these rankings (in part because the best teams behind them have stumbled as well), but they are 4.5 games back of the Warriors now and will not catch them.

 
Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (35-16, LW 3). James Harden is just ridiculous, scoring 51 points against the Sixers Friday to notch his second 50-point triple double of the season, the first player ever to that. They have gone 4-5 in their last nine, but now have 8 of 10 at home and seven of those games are against teams below .500, look for them to get right.

 
Cavaliers small icon 4. Cavaliers (32-14, LW 4). I feel like I should hashtag every story lately about Cleveland with #eliteteamproblems. Could they use another playmaker/backup point guard to match up with the Warriors? Sure. It also will help when J.R. Smith returns. Did they have a mid-season swoon? Yes, but so what? This team is still the clear class of the East and is on a path to return to the Finals. However, in the short term five of their next six are on the road.

 
Wizards small icon 5. Wizards (27-20, LW 10). This team is for real. They are 8-2 with the second-best net rating in the NBA over their last 10 games (Golden State) — and that includes knocking off Boston last week. More than that they are doing it over time, the Wizards are 21-9 since Dec. 1. They maybe the five seed, but they are just two games back of the two-seed Celtics and in that mix. Expect the wins to keep coming with the Knicks, Lakers, and Pelicans at home this week.

 
Celtics small icon 6. Celtics (29-18, LW 8). While Celtics fans — and Danny Ainge — are on the hunt for the next big trade, this team has slid into second place in the Eastern Conference. They can cement that standing by beating the Raptors Wednesday night at the Garden in an interesting showdown — lose that game and the Raptors have the tiebreaker between the teams. Boston has four at home this week before spending most of the rest of the month on the road.

 
Jazz small icon 7. Jazz (30-19, LW 8). They faced three West playoff teams last week (as of today) — Thunder, Grizzlies, Nuggets — and lost all of them. Utah has dropped five in a row against West playoff teams. That said, as the Clippers stumble without Chris Paul the Jazz are primed to grab the four seed and hold it (Utah is just half a game back), giving them home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

 
Hawks small icon 8. Hawks (28-20 LW 6). The Hawks don’t win the easy way, they had the dramatic comeback win against the Bulls and the 4OT game against the Knicks last week. However, they also had ugly losses to the Clippers (without CP3 or Griffin) and falling by 26 to the Wizards. Atlanta has the net rating of a .500 team and to me it feels like the Hawks are performing over their heads, meaning the likely regress to the mean at some point.

 
Thunder small icon 9. Thunder (28-20, LW 11). We will see if they can sustain this ranking without Enes Kanter, he was playing well for them off the bench before taking his frustrations out on a chair and fracturing his arm. Look for more run for Joffrey Lauvergne. OKC has gone 7-7 through a rough January schedule (with one game left in the month, vs. San Antonio) and then the schedule eases a little. Westbrook has 24 triple-doubles this season but his efficiency has slipped — he’s shooting 38.7 percent overall and 29.2 percent in his last 10 games.

 
Raptors small icon 10. Raptors (29-19, LW 7). Finally snapped their five-game losing streak by beating the Bucks, then turned around and lost to Magic on Sunday. If your a Raptors fan looking for bright spots at least DeMar DeRozan seemed to snap out of his slump on Sunday. Key game against Boston this week, win and they secure the tiebreaker with that team. Also, Kyle Lowry on the jumbotron was one of the best moments of the last week.

 
Grizzlies small icon 11. Grizzlies (28-21, LW 12). This team continues to just kind of float along down the river, going 5-5 in their last 10 with two wins over the Jazz and one against the Raptors, but falling to the Trail Blazers and Bulls in there. This team can beat anybody or lose to anybody on any given night. The Grizzlies are two games into a six-game road trip but the good news is that as that ends the schedule softens up for them for a while.

 
Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (25-22, LW 14).. C.J. Miles has been put in the starting lineup and the Pacers have rattled off three wins in a row (including over Houston), making them look mildly more secure in the playoff chase (four games up on the nine-seed Pistons). The other reason for the hot streak? All-Star Paul George has played phenomenally, he carries this team.

 
Clippers small icon 13. Clippers (30-18, LW 9). As noted by NBA.com’s John Schuhmann on twitter, the surprising thing is that with Chris Paul out the Clippers get dramatically worse on defense — in the dozen games he missed this season they have allowed 115.2 points per 100 possessions. It’s a bigger issue than the offense. Oh, and trading for Carmelo Anthony is not going to help their defense. The Clippers have six of their next seven on the road, and the one home game is Golden State on Thursday night.

 
Nuggets small icon 14. Nuggets (21-25, LW 17). They have the best offense in the NBA over their last 10 games, scoring 116.9 points per 100 possessions. That has propelled them to a 7-3 record in that stretch and has them holding on to the eight seed (by 1.5 games over Portland so far). That offense gets tested this week by the Spurs and Grizzlies. Nikola Jokic wasn’t going to make the cut as an All-Star this season, but next year could be a different story — other teams are starting to have to game plan for him.

 
Bulls small icon 15. Bulls (24-25, LW 15). Did Sunday’s win over Philadelphia mean Chicago has put all the ugliness of internal squabbling — Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler calling out their younger teammates’ effort, Rajon Rondo calling out Wade and Butler’s leadership, and a team meeting — behind them? We will find out as the Bulls head out on a tough six-game road trip that this week has them in Houston and Oklahoma City.

 
Blazers small icon 16. Trail Blazers (21-28, LW 20).. Evan Turner is in the starting lineup and Portland has played well with him paired alongside Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Not that it was enough to beat a shorthanded Warriors team on Sunday. Portland needs wins, three games back of the eight seed Nuggets in the loss column. Also, Lillard reached and impressive milestone last week.

 
Hornets small icon 17. Hornets (23-21, LW 13). They are 4-10 in January and have lost four in a row. Worse yet, they have lost seven in a row on the road and now head out on a tough three-game road trip (Blazers, Warriors, Jazz). Kemba Walker is a deserving All-Star, but the man needs some help if this team is to hold on to (or improve on) the eighth seed, and he’s not getting it.

 
Sixers small icon 18. 76ers (17-29, LW 18). Joel Embiid, we miss you, get back on the court quickly please (I think he’ll be the first replacement in the East if injury forced someone to drop out of the All-Star game). Sixers fans see the recent run of success, their team only five games out of the playoffs, and have started to dream… sorry, but I think that dream is dead. Although not to the point of it being impossible, which alone is a credit to how far this team has come.

 
Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (21-26, LW 16). This team has come apart on the defensive end of the floor, which is why they are on the outside looking in at the playoffs. That starts with Andre Drummond, who should be a better rim protector than he has been this season. We know Reggie Jackson is not being traded for Ricky Rubio, the question is will he be traded for anyone else (probably not at the deadline, but you never know).

 
Heat small icon 20. Heat (18-30, LW 27). Winners of seven in a row, and that includes knocking off the Warriors and Rockets. Eric Spoelstra is doing it with smoke and mirrors, starting with getting this team to play great defense. Plus the coach is getting some strong backcourt play from Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters.

 
Knicks small icon 21. Knicks (21-28 LW 21). The Knicks have had more drama the past week than a Real Housewives episode, all of it starting because Phil Jackson has come to the realization most Knicks fans did last summer that Kristaps Porzingis is the future, and they should try to move Carmelo Anthony. That said, Anthony has played well of late and doesn’t deserve to be booed (save that for the rest of the roster around him). My guess is that Anthony is not moved at the deadline, unless Jackson is willing to take back a ridiculously poor deal. This summer might be a different story.

 
Pelicans small icon 22. Pelicans (19-29, LW 22). They beat the Cavaliers and Spurs last week, which helps keep their playoff dreams afloat somewhat (they are 3.5 games back of the eight seed). It helps that nobody in the West seems to want the eight seed, but the Pelicans need to start racking up wins. Which will be difficult heading out on road to Toronto, Detroit, and Washington this week.

 
Mavericks small icon 23. Mavericks (17-30, LW 24). Dallas needed shooting in the lineup, they started Seth Curry and have gone 6-3 since then — Curry has averaged 15.1 points per game and is shooting 50 percent from three in his recent starts. With a good draft pick this year, Wesley Matthews staying healthy (he’s played well of late) and Harrison Barnes continuing to grow in his new role, you can see a path back to the playoffs for this team next year. Especially if they can land a couple quality free agents this summer.

 
Kings small icon 24. Kings (19-28, LW 25). They picked up three road wins last week, but with this streaky team it’s difficult to read much into that. The guy to start watching in Sacramento is Malachi Richardson, the rookie out of Syracuse, who has started to look like a solid NBA wing — the guy the kings hoped Ben McLemore would be. Richardson has bumped McLemore from the rotation.

 
Bucks small icon 25. Bucks (21-26, LW 19). They have lost eight of nine. A large part of that is Giannis Antetokounmpo — a deserving All-Star starter — but it’s also that this team’s defense isn’t great, particularly out at the arc, and so they never pull away and games tend to be close and dramatic. They sit 1.5 games out of the playoffs but strike me as the team most likely to climb back into the mix once they get Kris Middleton back in February.

 
timberwolves small icon 26. Timberwolves (18-29, LW 23). They have won eight of their last 10, and with seven of their next nine games at home you can’t count them out of the playoff chase quite yet (they are 3.5 games back of eight seed Denver). Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns have played well, but it is an improved and now solid defense that has them at least still in the playoffs conversation.

 
Magic small icon 27. Magic (19-30 LW 28). This team’s odd-fitting roster looks even worse with shooters like Evan Fournier and Jodie Meeks out injured. Also, Bismack Biyombo got a homecoming win in Toronto last week. The most interesting news around the team is all the trade interest in Nikola Vucevic, who seems destined to be out the door before the Feb. 23 trade deadline, although don’t we think that every year? Maybe this year it happens, it would help unclog the front court in Orlando.

 
Suns small icon 28. Suns (15-32, LW 26). The backcourt of Eric Bledsoe and Devin Harris is really clicking for the Suns, and Bledsoe was a legitimate candidate to be an All-Star reserve (he was done in by how bad the team has been). Of course, all the nice offensive play is moot when you can’t get a stop, and the Suns are 27th in the NBA in January (and 25th for the season) on the defensive end of the court.

 
Lakers small icon 29. Lakers (16-34, LW 29). Intending to or not, the Lakers are making a push to keep their pick this season (it is top three protected, otherwise it goes to the Sixers). Thanks to recent runs by Dallas and Philly, the Lakers have the third-worst record in the NBA. The progress seen from the team’s young stars earlier in the season has faded over the team’s recent stretch, for example Brandon Ingram is shooting 8.7 percent over the team’s last three games. The real offseason question in Los Angeles: Does Jim Buss keep his job?

 
Nets small icon 30. Nets (9-38, LW 30). Teams have scored at least 100 points against them in 23 straight games. Granted, they play at the fastest pace in the league (104 possessions per game) so that has a lot to do with it, but still 23 straight. You want something positive? Um… Caris LeVert might develop into a rotation player. That’s all I got.

David Stern: We thought we could re-work Chris Paul-to-Lakers trade until Mitch Kupchak ‘panicked’

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NBA commissioner David Stern – acting as New Orleans’ owner representative, he says – infamously vetoed a potential Chris Paul-to-Lakers trade in 2011.

But that didn’t close the possibility of Paul going to the Lakers.

The New Orleans Hornets (now the Pelicans and not be confused with the current Charlotte Hornets), Lakers and Rockets tried to rework the three-team trade that would’ve sent Paul to the Lakers, Pau Gasol to Houston and Lamar Odom, Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Goran Dragic and a first-round pick to New Orleans. But talks fell apart around the time the Lakers dealt Odom to the Mavericks.

Stern on Nunyo & Company (hat tip: Harrison Feigen of Silver Screen & Roll):

In fact, in the course of the weekend, we thought we could re-do the deal. We really thought that Houston would be ready to part with Kevin Lowry, and we had a trade lined up for Odom that would have gotten us a good first-round draft pick – not we, but my basketball folks. But Mitch Kupchak at the time panicked and moved Odom to Dallas. So the piece wasn’t even there for us to play with at the time. So that was it — just about what was good for the then-New Orleans Hornets.

Remember, Stern – roundly criticized for his handling of this episode* – has blamed the Lakers and Rockets for the lingering perception. This could just be him again trying to shift responsibility.

*Somewhat fairly, somewhat not. Owners veto general manager-approved trades often enough, and Stern was acting as New Orleans’ owner after George Shinn sold the franchise back to the league. But Stern had an agenda as commissioner. He never should have assumed such a large conflict of interest. What he did with the Paul trade was reasonable for an acting owner, but because Stern was also commissioner, it’s fair to question how much New Orleans’ interests and how much the league’s interests factored into the decision-making.

But let’s take Stern at his word – that he and the Hornets thought they could re-do the trade and send Paul to the Lakers. That doesn’t mean they were right. Maybe the Lakers and Rockets (who had Kyle Lowry, not the “Kevin Lowry” Stern named) were never going to part with enough to get Stern’s approval.

And maybe New Orleans didn’t properly convey its interest in still completing a deal. Perhaps, Kupchak acted reasonably by trading Odom to Dallas – for a first-round pick, a deal Mark Cuban would ultimately regret – rather than wait around for the Hornets, who eventually sent Paul to the Clippers.

It’s easy to blame Kupchak, but he might tell a different story.

Isaiah Thomas makes it clear he wants to stay in Boston

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It’s been a long time since there was so much discussion about whether a team needs to trade or just let go of an All-NBA and All-Star player at his peak who is clear and away a fan favorite.

Yet that’s where the Boston Celtics and Isaiah Thomas find themselves. After landing the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft — where they will almost certainly take point guard Markelle Fultz — and with the Celtics looking a full couple steps behind the Cavaliers in the playoffs, the question about whether Thomas is part of the future in Boston has come up. He is a free agent in 2018 and are the Celtics willing to pay the big money it will take to keep him?

Know this, Thomas wants to remain a Celtic and win a Celtic. You can listen to his full comments above, but Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe has the money quote:

Outside of chasing Gordon Hayward, this summer the Celtics are going to focus on getter some frontcourt help, someone to help with rebounding and rim protection. They will look to get better, but Danny Ainge isn’t going to push all his chips into the middle of the table to make a gambit on immediate massive improvement. He will remain patient, building this team so that in three years and five years they will be a force in the East.

And the Thomas discussion likely gets put on hold for a year (unless there is a change of course and contract extension talks come up, but that’s only if Boston misses on Hayward and any other big targets).

Stephen Curry says talk of lack of competitive balance “disrespectful” to Warriors, Cavaliers

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This year’s NBA playoffs have been horribly lopsided and they lacked drama because we all knew where it was headed: Golden State vs. Cleveland. They were so dominant that between them they lost one playoff game so far. This has brought up discussions of competitive balance — we have seen the same Finals three years in a row, and we will almost certainly head into next season expecting a fourth. Then maybe a fifth.

Not surprisingly, Stephen Curry isn’t a fan of the lack of competition argument, saying it disrespects the Warriors and the Cavaliers.

“That almost is kind of disrespectful, because it’s not like it’s easy for us to get here. It wasn’t that at all. Us and Cleveland worked our butts off all year to put ourselves in a position to be playing for a championship. The league is as strong talent-wise across the board as it’s ever been. Every night we get challenged. Obviously, we had that one stat I guess, point differential, all year. We had a pretty solid showing in that respect. But, every night was hard. Every night was challenging. You can’t just sleepwalk through a season and sleep walk through the playoffs and expect to be here. You got to do something. You got to come out every night and prove yourself. Granted, anybody who was betting on who was gonna be in the Finals probably picked those two. It’s easy for them to say that and just wake up in June and see it happen. We had to put that work in all year long to make it happen.”

Curry is right in that nobody should question the work the Warriors and Cavaliers put in to get to this point, and that the other teams did not just roll over for them. Also, both teams did get a little lucky with injuries.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that right now there is a dominant team in each conference, and that sucks the drama out of the postseason. (Maybe a healthy San Antonio team could have pushed the Warriors, we didn’t get to find out.) Golden State has four of the top 15-20 players in the NBA, and that makes them a juggernaut — again, regardless of the work put in. Other teams don’t have much of a chance if the Warriors are healthy and focused, not in a seven game series. The fact that it was flukey circumstances that put a dominant team in each conference — there isn’t another LeBron James returning home, and out West it took a one-time salary cap spike to add Kevin Durant to a 73-win team — doesn’t change the fact this season has felt like a foregone conclusion from the start.

Right now we’ve got what we wanted and expected, the trilogy between the Warriors and Cavaliers. But if we head into next season expecting (and maybe getting) round four of this matchup in the Finals, is that good for the league? Why watch the movie if you know how it ends before it starts?

Bill Laimbeer on LeBron vs. Jordan comparisons: “I’ll take LeBron James, absolutely”

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LeBron James is headed to his seventh straight NBA Finals. He just passed Michael Jordan to take over the top spot on the NBA’s all-time playoff scoring list. Fourteen years into his NBA career, he has put together a resume that few in the game’s history can match — and he’s not done.

You don’t have to think that LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan, however, if you don’t think it’s a valid discussion, you’re blinded by bias.

Former NBA All-Star, champion, and WNBA coach Bill Laimbeer of the “bad boy” Detroit Pistons was asked about the LeBron/Jordan comparison on “The Rematch” podcast, and he said we’ve never seen anyone like LeBron (hat tip the USA Today).

“I’ll take Lebron James, absolutely,” Laimbeer said to host Etan Thomas… “He’s 6-8, 285 (James is listed at 250 pounds). Runs like the wind, jumps out of the gym. Phenomenal leader since he’s been 12 years old. Understood when he came into the league how to involve his teammates from the start. And you can’t guard him. You can’t double-team, he’s too big, he powers through everything. Michael was a guard. Yeah, he was 6-6, but he wasn’t a real thick and strong guard. It took him a lot of years to learn how to involve his teammates in order to win championships. Don’t fault him for that, it’s a learning experience. But we’ve never seen anybody like LeBron James physically. He just bullies you.

It was Laimbeer and the Pistons who taught Jordan to win — they beat the Bulls year after year in the playoffs, until Jordan broadened his game (and got better teammates) and the Pistons started to fade. People point to MJ’s unblemished Finals record, but he was seen for years as a guy who couldn’t get a team to the Finals because of those Pistons (LeBron learned his lessons on a different stage, taking some early Cavs teams that had no business in the Finals to that stage anyway, only to get crushed).

LeBron has a more versatile game than Jordan, which better suits this era: When Jordan was a force in the ’80s and ’90s there was no zone defense, which led to a lot of clear-out sets where eight guys watched a one-on-one battle from the other side of the key, and if the double-team came it was obvious from where. Jordan’s skill as a guy who could get his shot, kill it from the midrange or get to the rim, his ability to physically play through contact, and the legendary killer instinct made him great. But he was aided by timing — the booming popularity of the sport in the 1990s, the rise of Nike as a marketing giant, and the fact he didn’t have a true rival, a Bird to his Magic, that could best him.

LeBron has reached the point in his career that the legacy talk and where he ranks all-time is the only real discussion left — and Jordan sits as the bar to clear. Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Bill Russell, and a few others should be on that tier as well, part of the discussion, but the point is LeBron has moved on to that level of discussion. He’s earned it. The fact some people on Twitter/sports talk radio feel the need to rip him for everything doesn’t change that — if Jordan played the social media era he would have heard the same things from the same people.