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NBA Power Rankings week 17: Will deadline trades change the Cavs/Warriors collision course?

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We’re more than halfway through the season, and the power dynamic of the NBA is set: Golden State in the West, Cleveland in the East. Will teams make trades trying to get into that mix, or is everyone going to sit back, hope for the best, and make their moves this summer? Probably more of the latter, but you never know when a team will get desperate.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (46-8, Last Week No. 1). Sure Kevin Durant treats the games against the Thunder like every other game, that’s why he’s averaging 37.7 points on 65.6 percent shooting in those three games, plus grabbing 9.3 rebounds. The Warriors remain on a 70-win pace this season, although that could drop off that number a little near the end of the season when Steve Kerr will get more serious about resting players.

 
Cavaliers small icon 2. Cavaliers (37-16, LW 3). How is Kevin Love finding a way to fit in better with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving? By going to the corners more. Love is averaging 2.6 corner threes a game, 120 total on the season, and is hitting 39.2 percent of them. Last season took 131 total. While rumors continue to swirl, don’t be surprised if the Cavaliers sit out the trade deadline and wait to see who gets waived just after, they will be anyone’s first choice and have their pick of the guys other teams jettison.

 
Spurs small icon 3. Spurs (41-13, LW 2). They are 2-2 to start off the annual rodeo road trip after a surprising loss to the Knicks Sunday. Tony Parker failed to score against the Knicks, a team that doesn’t exactly have a great defensive backcourt, which is why San Antonio is and should be concerned about what Parker brings in the playoffs. That said, Kawhi Leonard is playing like an MVP and the team is on pace for 62 wins.

 
Rockets small icon 4. Rockets (40-17, LW 6). Winners of four in a row, and that’s thanks to the James Harden show in Houston (an MVP-level show). He has nine 40-point games this season, he leads the league in total minutes played, and the only question is will he physically start to wear down from the load. While his raw shooting percentage numbers have fallen, he’s only shooting 40 percent, his efficiency remains high because he gets to the free throw line, plus the 11.3 assists per game.

 
Wizards small icon 5. Wizards (32-21, LW 4). They have won nine of 10 and the only loss was to the Cavaliers to overtime (and it would have been a Washington win without a ridiculous shot from LeBron to force OT). The Wizards are 16-5 since the calendar turned to 2017, the second best record in the NBA (Warriors), and while the starters carry the heavy load the once terrible bench has been solid of late. Something to watch Monday night: John Wall vs. Russell Westbrook.

 
Celtics small icon 6. Celtics (35-19, LW 5). It’s been said a lot but it can’t be said enough: Isaiah Thomas is a fourth quarter killer. He’s averaging 10.7 points per game in fourth quarters this season, far and away the best in the league. Boston is of the teams to watch heading into the trade deadline, it has a lot of assets and picks to move if there is a player that intrigues, but Danny Ainge is a patient man. Still, don’t be surprised if they make a move.

 
Jazz small icon 7. Jazz (34-21, LW 7). No offense to Dallas, but how does a Jazz team with this defense blow a 21-point lead? They have a couple losses in a row and a tough week ahead hosting the Clippers and Trail Blazers. Then at the end of the week Gordon Hayward becomes the first Jazz player in the All-Star Game since Deron Williams back in 2011.

 
Grizzlies small icon 8. Grizzlies (33-23, LW 11). They earned a split on a brutal week, beating the Spurs (it was not a pretty game, just the way the Grizzlies like it) then getting thumped by the Warriors. The good news for Marc Gasol and company is the schedule lightens up for the next few weeks — starting with Brooklyn and New Orleans this week — giving them a chance to focus on playoff seeding. This is a team nobody wants to face in the first round.

 
Hawks small icon 9. Hawks (31-23 LW 8). Losses to the Jazz and Kings last week showed how much this team’s defense has slipped with Thabo Sefolosha out (he’s missed seven in a row with a groin injury), but the offense still has this team playing over its head. As it has all season. Don’t expect to see them move Paul Millsap at the trade deadline, but as Sean Deveney and I discussed in the latest PBT Podcast they probably should.

 
Pacers small icon 10. Pacers (29-25, LW 9).. Losers of three in a row as they move through a tough part of the schedule, which continues this week with the Spurs, Cavaliers, and Wizards. The Pacers need the Jeff Teague who was lighting teams up during a recent seven-game win streak to return, the one who averaged 17.3 points and 8.9 assists per game, plus was knocking down his threes.

 
Thunder small icon 11. Thunder (31-24, LW 10). Russell Westbrook and crew picked up an impressive win over the Cavaliers last week. The bad news is the Thunder need to be more concerned with the Warriors and Spurs in the West if they have playoff dreams that last beyond a quick stay, OKC has yet to beat either of the West’s best. Also of note, they are 3-5 since Enes Kanter went out with his arm injury, they miss his offense.

 
Raptors small icon 12. Raptors (32-22, LW 12). They have lost four of six, and while the offense has stumbled some of late the real problem is a defense that was fourth in the NBA in December and 18th in February. Now Kyle Lowry is saying the team needs something, and it feels as if there is pressure building on Masai Ujiri to make a trade and bring in some depth at the four. Serge Ibaka is the big name, but there is Danilo Gallinari and other options.

 
Clippers small icon 13. Clippers (33-21, LW 14). With Chris Paul sidelined, Jamal Crawford has stepped up his game scoring 20 points a game and shooting 51.4 percent from three in his last five games. Crawford and Blake Griffin are carrying the Clippers offense of late. The Clippers have gone 4-6 on a tough stretch of road games, but it doesn’t end now with the Jazz and Warriors on the road this week.

 
Heat small icon 14. Heat (24-31, LW 13). Their 13-game win streak ended at the hands of a Sixers team playing without Joel Embiid or Jahlil Okafor. It happens, but the Heat are just two games out of the playoffs in the East now and have a real shot. It will help to get Dion Waiters back from his sprained ankle — he has thrived in the spotlight — but also expect the Heat to be buyers, not sellers, at the trade deadline.

 
Bulls small icon 15. Bulls (26-28, LW 15). Can the Bulls hang on to a playoff spot in the East? They are currently just 1.5 games ahead of ninth-seeded Charlotte and the time off around the All-Star Game couldn’t come at a better time as Jimmy Buttler has missed time with a heel injury and Dwyane Wade with his wrist. Also, the Bulls schedule gets tough the next few weeks, starting with Toronto and Boston this week. Chicago is entering a make-or-break part of the season.

 
Nuggets small icon 16. Nuggets (24-30, LW 17). Nikola Jokic put on a show in Madison Square Garden Friday night, just another step in him announcing himself as a future star in this league. That star didn’t pair well with Jusuf Nurkic hence the trade of him for Mason Plumlee, a move the Nuggets thing will help this team get the eight seed in the West. I’m not sold Plumlee and Jokic are going to pair a whole lot better, with the issue being on defense (Denver is already dead last in that category in the league), but if you platoon them, you can bolster the second unit.

Pistons small icon 17. Pistons (26-29, LW 16). With an impressive comeback win on Sunday night (the Raptors did their share to help) the Pistons improved to 5-2 in February — and it’s not a coincidence that Stan Van Gundy has started to lean heavily on Ish Smith and not Reggie Jackson at the same time. The Pistons have games this week against the Bucks and Mavericks — the kinds of games they need to win if they are a playoff team.

 
Mavericks small icon 18. Mavericks (22-32, LW 18). Dallas tread water in the chase for the eight seed in the West last week with losses to the Nuggets and Trail Blazers, but a win over Utah. Dallas remains two games out of the playoffs and will try to pick up some wins with what be a suddenly deep backcourt — Yogi Farrell has been fantastic, Deron Williams returned to the rotation on Saturday, and J.J. Barea is expected back in the lineup not long after the All-Star break.

 
Blazers small icon 19. Trail Blazers (23-31, LW 19).. The trade to bring in Jusuf Nurkic seems like a move for the future, not one designed to help them catch the Nuggets for the eight seed this season, because Plumlee’s versatility and skill as a secondary playmaker was a better fit for the Portland offense than back-to-the-basket Nurkic. Also the Trail Blazers now have three first round picks in this coming draft, which is to say don’t think they are done dealing. Either at the trade deadline or draft night.

 
Kings small icon 20. Kings (22-32, LW 23). DeMarcus Cousins has already been suspended one game for reaching 16 technicals in one season and now gets another missed game every second technical he picks up — and he got one Sunday night (he made incidental contact to the face of Donatas Motiejunas, it was a fair call he did catch the guy in the face). The Kings need him on the court to have a shot at the playoffs, and the owner wants them in it — which could lead to a short-term thinking move at the trade deadline. Don’t be shocked.

 
Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (24-30, LW 20). Kemba Walker is a deserving All-Star for the Hornets this coming weekend, the first Hornet All-Star since Gerald Wallace in 2010. The Hornets, however, have gone 1-2 on a homestand before they head out on a brutal seven game road trip (starting Wednesday in Toronto). They are only 1.5 games out of the playoffs but those postseason chances could get buried if they struggled on their road trip. They got Cody Zeller back for a night, they need a lot more of him.

 
Bucks small icon 22. Bucks (23-30, LW 24). The Bucks got Kris Middleton back and things were looking up, and then came the devastating ACL injury to Jabari Parker. The Bucks are back to playing their aggressive defense — in February they are averaging eight blocks and 9.8 steals per game, can that plus some added offense from Mirza Teletovic get them back into the playoffs? Hard to see it.

 
Pelicans small icon 23. Pelicans (21-33, LW 25). It is going to be a wild weekend in New Orleans, with the NBA All-Star Game and Anthony Davis is rightfully going to be at the heart of it all. Of course, the question is when the Pelicans will get some All-Star level talent to go around Davis? I’m good with the idea of taking a flyer on Jahlil Okafor via trade, maybe he pairs well with Davis, but what this roster really needs is some shooting out on the wings.

 
timberwolves small icon 24. Timberwolves (20-34, LW 26). Zach LaVine is gone for the season, but Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns have stepped up on the offensive end in his absence. The problem is without LaVine the defense seems to be suffering. Things are not going to get any easier this week with the Cavaliers and the improving Nuggets on the schedule, but we’re looking forward to a Towns vs. Jokic matchup.

 
Knicks small icon 25. Knicks (23-33 LW 21). Carmelo Anthony vs. Phil Jackson, and the utter foolishness of James Dolan, were drawing all the headlines in New York, but something else key for this team happened Sunday — Kristaps Porzingis looked confident and back in his groove again. He had 27 points on 10-of-19 shooting against the Spurs. Don’t expect a New York trade before the deadline (unless Jackson is willing to take back pennies on the dollar) but I still expect to see Anthony get dealt this summer.

 
Sixers small icon 26. 76ers (18-32, LW 22). A Sixers friend asked me a question I couldn’t answer the other day: How many more games does Joel Embiid need to play to win Rookie of the Year? He’s played 31, and Patrick Ewing once won just playing 50, but Embiid might not make that number. If he plays 45 is that enough? 40? With a weak class it might be. With Embiid out the last seven in a row the Sixers have gone 1-6.

 
Lakers small icon 27. Lakers (19-37, LW 29). The Lakers are staring and giving their young core some run together, and while Brandon Ingram has been improving it really all comes down to D’Angelo Russell — the Lakers are 13 points per 100 possessions better on offense in their last 10 when he is on the court, and 5.2 better on defense. Are the Lakers sold on Russell, or if they get to keep their pick (meaning it’s in the top three) do they take another point guard if Ball or Fultz are on the board?

 
Magic small icon 28. Magic (20-36 LW 27). The Magic have the worst net rating in the NBA over their last 10 games, but they are worth watching on the trade market as everyone not named Aaron Gordon is available. There’s a lot of interest from teams — Miami and Toronto in particular — in renting Serge Ibaka, but so far Orlando’s price is too high. Ibaka is not going to re-sign in Orlando unless they dramatically overpay, so they may be smart to get something now while they can.

 
Suns small icon 29. Suns (17-38, LW 28). Devin Booker’s 27-point quarter against the Bucks was a nice distraction from the rest of the week — Alex Len getting suspended for a fight, and Dragan Bender needing ankle surgery that will sideline him at last a month. The Suns are looking to find Brandon Knight a new home at the trade deadline, it’s something to watch.

 
Nets small icon 30. Nets (9-45, LW 30). Losers of a dozen in a row and 22-of-23, and it’s a sign of where this team is in the New York market that nobody is really talking about it, they’d rather rip James Dolan. Which to be fair, is a lot more fun than watching a Nets game. Don’t expect a Brook Lopez trade by the deadline unless another team becomes desperate and meets Brooklyn’s demands — he’s their best asset and GM Sean Marks isn’t giving him away.

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.