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NBA Power Rankings Week 22: Golden State climbs back on top, Lakers take over bottom rung

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While you were watching Villanova and Duke screw up your NCAA bracket (I had Villanova in the title game), the Golden State Warriors found their footing and three-point touch again and move back to the top of the rankings. The Lakers have been so bad we even put Brooklyn ahead of them now.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (55-14, Last Week No. 3). All they needed to get right was some time at home (three games at Oracle) against softer competition. Stephen Curry was back to draining threes (6-of-8 Saturday vs. Milwaukee) and they played much better defense. The competition picks up this week (at Oklahoma City Monday, Memphis later in the week) but the Warriors seem to have their footing back. Also, Kevin Durant is shooting jumpers again, working his way back.

 
Cavaliers small icon 2. Cavaliers (46-23, LW 5). They went 7-6 without Kevin Love, got him back, and won both games he played (Clippers game obviously excluded). Notice, by the way, that the day after LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Love rested they combined to score 101 (granted, against the Lakers). Coach Tyronn Lue said he plans to keep starting Iman Shumpert and bringing J.R. Smith off the bench until Kyle Korver returns (possibly this week) because he likes what Smith brings with the second unit.

 
Spurs small icon 3. Spurs (53-16, LW 1). Great news that LaMarcus Aldridge’s heart issue was not that serious, plus Kawhi Leonard is now back from his concussion, and Tony Parker’s back is strong enough that he shot 8-of-10 Sunday night. However, they got Aldridge back and quickly dropped two straight games, which is not like them and has them a couple games out of the No. 1 seed (and with a slightly tougher schedule than the Warriors the rest of the way).

 
Rockets small icon 4. Rockets (48-22, LW 2). James Harden is the frontrunner among the media for MVP (the media votes on the award), and he is strengthening his case with four straight triple-doubles. There’s an MVP showdown Sunday when the Rockets play the Thunder. Houston beat Denver on the second night of a back-to-back Saturday, they are now 13-1 this season on the second night of those. That’s damn impressive.

 
Thunder small icon 5. Thunder (40-29, LW 10). OKC is just half a game back of the Clippers for the five seed in the West (and a much easier first round matchup in Utah, compared to Houston). However, Los Angeles has a much softer schedule the rest of the way. Russell Westbrook won our fan poll for MVP; however a media poll done last week had Harden well in front — a showdown on Sunday with the Rockets could be a chance for Westbrook (but the Thunder need to win, no matter what numbers Westbrook puts up). Also, Westbrook had the assist of the year last week.

 
Jazz small icon 6. Jazz (43-27, LW 6). They solidified home court in the first round by beating the Clippers last Monday, the Jazz seem locked in as the four seed. Coach Quin Snyder has some interesting lineup options when it gets to the postseason — with Derrick Favors out, Utah has started Joe Johnson at the four going small, and that lineup has shown some promise, particularly on offense. Favors probably starts in a playoff matchup with the Clippers for defense, but Snyder knows he has Johnson as an option.

 
Celtics small icon 7. Celtics (44-26, LW 7). If you’re a Celtics fan holding fast to your dreams of catching the Cavaliers for the No. 1 seed (Boston is 2.5 games back), here is the good news: Boston has one of the easiest schedules in the East the rest of the way, Cleveland one of the toughest. That said, dropping games like Sunday against Philly is not helping the cause. Big showdown with the Wizards Monday in the battle for the 2/3 seed.

 
Wizards small icon 8. Wizards (42-27, LW 4). They have lost three of four and need to get it together Monday when they play the Celtics in Boston, that is if the Wizards have dreams of the No. 2 seed in the East. They need that win. Seven of their next 10 are on the road, and to hold on to the three seed (with Toronto lurking) spot the Wizards need to play better defense — they have given up 112 points per 100 possession in their last 10 games, 27th in the NBA.

 
Clippers small icon 9. Clippers (41-29, LW 8). Los Angeles lost three in a row, but caught a break when Cleveland decided to rest their stars for a night on Saturday. The good news for Clippers fans is they have a soft schedule the rest of the way, which should help them hold off sixth-seeded OKC. The Clippers are two games back of the Jazz for the four seed and would need to beat them Saturday night in Los Angeles to have a shot at catching them and getting home court in the first round.

 
Raptors small icon 10. Raptors (41-29, LW 9). Winners of three of their last four, and with a soft schedule coming up the Raptors have their eye on the No. 3 seed belonging to Washington (it’s the race to avoid Cleveland in the second round, and the Raptors are just 1.5 games back of the Wizards now). Toronto has played great defense since acquiring Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, it’s easy to see how this becomes a dangerous playoff team once Kyle Lowry returns.

 
Grizzlies small icon 11. Grizzlies (40-30, LW 16). Chandler Parsons was lost for the season to injury, and Memphis rattled off four consecutive wins. Coincidence? Memphis now heads out on the road for four straight games, and that includes facing Golden State and San Antonio. The seven-seed Grizzlies are just half a game back of the six seed Thunder and one back of the fifth seed Clippers, but Memphis has a considerably tougher schedule the rest of the way than either of them.

 
Heat small icon 12. Heat (34-36, LW 13). One of the more interesting stories on the NBA this week came from Mike Prada at SB Nation about the value Erik Spoelstra and the Heat put on conditioning — part of the reason for their surge the second half of the season is they are in better shape. That said, talent still matters, and the loss of Dion Waiters for a stretch due to an ankle injury means Goran Dragic needs to play better than he did Sunday night in a loss. Dragic and Hassan Whiteside needs to carry this team for a while.

 
Hawks small icon 13. Hawks (37-32 LW 11). Losers of three in a row, and now Paul Millsap is going to miss at least two more games (knee) and Kent Bazemore at least four (also a knee). Atlanta isn’t climbing into a top four seed, and they need to worry about blowing their two-game cushion over sixth-seed Indiana and falling further down the standings.

 
Bucks small icon 14. Bucks (34-35, LW 12). Milwaukee is 9-2 when Kris Middleton starts, and he is averaging 18 points per game shooting 52% when he does start. The Bucks are 2-2 through a tough six-game road trip then return home later this week to face the Hawks and Bulls. They need wins, fivethirtyeight.com still has them with just a 62% chance of making the playoffs.

 
Blazers small icon 15. Trail Blazers (32-37, LW 18). A little desperation — and the addition of Jusuf Nurkic — has the Blazers as winners of eight of their last 10 games. They’ve done it all with offense — such as Damian Lillard’s 49 points Sunday — as their defense is still 23rd in the NBA in that stretch. Portland has a much softer schedule than Denver the rest of the way and fivethirtyeight.com has them at a 71 percent chance to make the postseason.

 
Nuggets small icon 16. Nuggets (33-36, LW 17). Denver maintains a one-game lead over Portland for the eighth seed, in large part thanks to Nikola Jokic — the Nuggets are 5-0 this season when he has a triple double. The bad news in the Rockies is Denver has the toughest schedule in the West the rest of the way, while Portland has one of the easiest. This week’s games include the Rockets and the Cavaliers.

 
Pacers small icon 17. Pacers (35-34, LW 14).. Maybe the toughest playoff landing spot to predict: Indiana is just two-games back of a banged-up Hawks team for the five seed, but also just 1.5 games out of falling out of the playoffs entirely. Paul George is doing his part this month averaging 27.5 points on 51 percent shooting, 8.1 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game.

Pistons small icon 18. Pistons (34-36, LW 15). . Detroit’s next five games could well determine if they make the postseason. First there are four games on the road, but against weak teams (Nets, Bulls, Magic, Knicks). Then they come home to take on Miami next week. To get wins they are going to need a lot more consistency out of their guard play, particularly the up-and-down Reggie Jackson.

 
Mavericks small icon 19. Mavericks (30-39, LW 19). When you get blown out by Philadelphia, your playoff dreams take a hit — Dallas is three games out of the eighth seed in the West and fivethirtyeight.com has them at a one percent chance of making the playoffs. So yes, I’m saying there’s a chance. But Dallas has a brutal four-game homestand — Warriors, Clippers, Raptors and Thunder — followed by six-of-seven on the road.

 
Bulls small icon 20. Bulls (33-37, LW 21). Dwyane Wade is now out the season and the Bulls are 3-7 in their last 10, yet their playoff dreams are not dead for a couple of reasons. First, the Bulls have been 3.4 points per 100 possessions better when Wade is out this season. Second, Chicago has a much easier schedule than Miami or Detroit the rest of the way, and the Bulls are just a game back of those two (tied for the eighth seed). Fivethirtyeight.com gives Chicago a 48% chance of making the playoffs still.

 
Pelicans small icon 21. Pelicans (29-41, LW 23). Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins are still playing next to each other not with each other, and the Pelicans have been better with one of them off the court, but they are starting to figure things out and have won four-of-five (including wins over Portland and Houston). Still, no way New Orleans will catch both Denver and Portland for the eighth seed, which makes you wonder what coaching/front office shakeups we could see this summer.

 
timberwolves small icon 22. Timberwolves (28-41, LW 20). Since the All-Star break, Ricky Rubio is averaging 16.1 points, 10.8 assists, he’s taking jumpers, hitting 48% of them, and just being aggressive. Maybe Tom Thibodeau finally got through to him, and if so they may not want to trade him this summer. That said, the Timberwolves dropped three games last week because their defense went AWOL after being strong for a few weeks.

 
Hornets small icon 23. Hornets (30-39, LW 22). It’s Kemba Walker vs. the world on offense for the Hornets, and while he’s been impressive — 24.2 points per game and shooting 41.9 percent from three since the All-Star break — it’s not enough. Rich Cho and the front office in Charlotte needs to find some playmakers this summer, someone to help take the load off Walker

 
Sixers small icon 24. 76ers (26-43, LW 26). Dario Saric continues to come on strong — 23 points against Boston Sunday — and he may now be the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year because he is averaging 19.5 points and 7.3 rebounds a game in March. And because voters are looking for ways not to cast their ballot for Joel Embiid and his 31 games played. Quietly, the Sixers have won three of four.

 
Knicks small icon 25. Knicks (27-42 LW 25). How bad are the Knicks right now? They have lost twice to the Nets in a five-day span. The offense they are playing looks more like a rhombus than anything Phil Jackson wants, and everyone seems to be waiting to see if they can move Knicks can find a deal to trade Carmelo Anthony this summer.

 
Kings small icon 26. Kings (27-43, LW 28). Skal Labissiere is showing real promise, including a breakout 32-point, 11-rebound performance against Phoenix. There were plenty of positive signs before that, though — he had four blocks against the Magic on Monday. I don’t know that Labissiere, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Buddy Hield are the answer, but this team is far more entertaining than it was to watch before the trade.

 
Suns small icon 27. Suns (22-48, LW 24). Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight are both shut down for the season as Phoenix goes into full on tank mode to run out the string. That means a lot of Devin Booker, although to his credit T.J. Warren has stepped up of late and put up some numbers (he thrives when the game gets less structured).

 
Magic small icon 28. Magic (25-45 LW 27). Five years ago the Orlando Magic traded away Dwight Howard, and they have not made the playoffs since. There is a sense around the league that GM Rob Hennigan is going to pay the price for that (it won’t be just-signed coach Frank Vogel). That said, don’t buy into the rumors of Doc Rivers making a return to save the day in Orlando.

 
Nets small icon 29. Nets (13-56, LW 30). They beat the Knicks twice in five days, they are getting outscored by just two points per 100 possessions in their last 10 games (which is a huge improvement over the entire season) and that is enough to get them out of the cellar in these rankings for a week. Brook Lopez has been a beast of late, but Jeremy Lin rolled his ankle again and will miss time, which could kill Brooklyn’s momentum.

 
Lakers small icon 30. Lakers (20-50, LW 29). After the backcourt combo of Jordan Clarkson and D’Angelo Russell showed some promise on Sunday against the Cavaliers — Russell had 40 points, and the pair showed some chemistry — coach Luke Walton said he would stick with it to see if there is something real to it. There hasn’t been much of the season — the Lakers have been outscored by 22 points per 100 possessions when those two are on the court together this season, and they were -14 as a pair against Cleveland. The questions for them are on the defensive end, Russell has to be able to cover two guards to make it work, and right now he can’t.

Lonzo Ball recruits LeBron James to Lakers (video)

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Lonzo Ball doesn’t play for the Lakers. LeBron James isn’t a free agent.

But they’re headed that way – and Ball is already embracing it.

The Lakers are expected to draft Ball No. 2 tonight, and rumors are heating up about LeBron leaving the Cavaliers in 2018.

Why should LeBron join Ball in Los Angeles?

Ball on ESPN:

LeBron, I like to win. I know you like to win. I think our games can help each other out a lot. Any time you want the ball, just let me know. It’s going to be there.

Ball was asked to to pitch LeBron, so it’s not as if Ball is out here talking so brashly on his own. But answering the question was a rookie mistake.

Besides, I’m not sure Lonzo Ball can undo the bad blood between LeBron and LaVar Ball.

Celtics seemingly between Josh Jackson and Jayson Tatum at No. 3 in NBA draft

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NEW YORK (AP) — Markelle Fultz is still expected to be the No. 1 pick, though the destination has changed.

Lonzo Ball wants to stay home with the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 2, and it seems surer than ever he will.

The intrigue, then, starts with the No. 3 pick in the NBA draft Thursday.

That’s where the Boston Celtics are scheduled to pick after moving down two spots in a trade with Philadelphia, giving the 76ers the right to select Fultz with their second No. 1 pick in two years.

Forwards Josh Jackson of Kansas and Jayson Tatum of Duke are two players frequently mentioned as possibilities at the No. 3 spot, and Celtics president Danny Ainge said Boston could get the player there they might have taken at No. 1.

Jackson never thought that would be him, so he said he didn’t work out for the Celtics.

“Me and my agent talked and we just didn’t feel like they had much interest in drafting me at No. 1, so we felt like it would be sort of a waste of time for me to go out and work out if they were really not considering drafting me,” Jackson said. “After they got the third pick, we tried to schedule something for me to get out there. But it was just scheduling issues and it was a little delayed for me to get out there.”

He said he had been open to working out for the Celtics and said it was possible they might draft him, anyway.

Tatum and the Celtics seem to have more familiarity, with the 6-foot-8 swingman believing he’d be a good fit on the roster of the team that had the best record in the Eastern Conference.

“I talked about that with coach Brad Stevens,” Tatum said. “He just said guys that are my size and are versatile offensively and defensively, it’s hard not to play those guys. That’s what we talked about.”

Other things to watch from Barclays Center:

IT’S GOT TO BE THE SHOES: When Fultz walks on stage to shake hands with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, he recommends you check out his feet.

“Pay attention to my footwear,” the Washington guard said. “I’m going to have some custom-made shoes that I think nobody ever had before.”

LOVING LONZO – AND LAVAR: Ball acknowledged that there might be a “target” on him entering the draft because of all his father’s comments. But if the Lakers want Lonzo – and it seems they do after trading point guard D'Angelo Russell to Brooklyn – they won’t be turned off by LaVar.

“They were just open arms,” Lonzo said of his Lakers workout. “They said they love my dad and left it at that.”

THEIR TIME TO SHINE: With so much trade speculation about All-Stars such as Paul George and Jimmy Butler, there hasn’t been as much focus as usual leading into Thursday on the players who are in the draft.

“We don’t need that attention,” Kentucky guard Malik Monk said. “We’re going to get ours tomorrow.”

FRESHMAN FUN: The record of 14 freshmen selected in the first round might last just one year. Of the 20 players expected to be in the green room, 13 were college one-and-dones.

DULL DRAFT: Neither Golden State nor Cleveland, who met in the NBA Finals, has a pick in the two-round draft. The Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies also are without a pick, while Houston, New Orleans and Washington don’t have one in the first round.

INTERNATIONAL INTRIGUE: A year after nearly half the draft – a record 27 of the 60 picks – were international players, French guard Frank Ntilikina and Finnish forward Lauri Markkanen, who played a year at Arizona, are two of the top international players. Both have met with the New York Knicks, who scored well two years ago when they went overseas with their pick of Latvian Kristaps Porzingis – to whom Markkanen has been compared as a 7-footer with perimeter shooting skills.

Markkanen was asked about potentially playing with or replacing Porzingis, who team president Phil Jackson told MSG Network on Wednesday the Knicks are taking calls about after he left New York without attending his exit interview.

“I try not to think about it too much,” Markkanen said. “I’ve been doing my work here and I’m just waiting for tomorrow night and whatever happens, happens.”

 

Report: Spurs talking to teams about trading LaMarcus Aldridge for top-10 pick

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San Antonio’s pursuit of Chris Paul hit a snag when the NBA reduced its salary-cap projection to $99 million.

Even if they trimmed their roster to just Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Tony Parker – they were reportedly open to trading Danny Green – the Spurs would no longer have max cap space for Paul.

So, San Antonio might look into trading its highest-paid player: Aldridge.

Ramona Shelburne and Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

The San Antonio Spurs, in pursuit of a top-10 pick in Thursday’s NBA draft, have spoken to at least three teams about a possible trade involving power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, sources confirmed to ESPN.

There were already rumors about the Spurs trading Aldridge, who was reportedly unhappy about Leonard getting the spotlight. Gregg Popovich called out Aldridge publicly during the playoffs.

San Antonio would already be sacrificing immediate production by dealing Aldridge for a rookie whose value is tied to team control, salary and upside. But if trading Aldridge leads to signing Paul, the Spurs don’t even need equal value in return for the big man. Paul would offset the difference.

Free agency doesn’t begin until July 1, making this tricky for San Antonio, which might regret dumping Aldridge if Paul doesn’t sign. So, the Spurs must read the tea leaves on Paul and proceed accordingly.

De’Aaron Fox’s speed raced him up draft boards, made him confident wherever he lands

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De’Aaron Fox even talks fast.

Speed is what separates the point guard out of Kentucky from a deep crop at the position in this draft. Fox has got impressive playmaking skills, his defense can overwhelm, he has a maturity and confidence about him not seen in most 19-year-olds — there are multiple reasons he has climbed draft boards and is expected to be taken in the top five Thursday night during the NBA Draft.

However, it’s the speed that separates him.

“You can’t really teach speed, you either have it or you don’t,” Fox told NBC Sports. “For me, Coach Cal had me using that as a weapon and that’s just something I learned while I was at Kentucky.”

It’s that speed that intrigues teams. Fox generally has been projected to go to Phoenix or Sacramento (picks four or five), but the ground under this draft is shifting quickly and Fox said he has no idea where he will be taken. He could land a lot of places. He said he’d prefer it to be in an uptempo system, but he believes he can help any team that takes him.

“I think I just bring a level of playmaking that some of the teams in the lottery don’t have,” Fox said. “That’s offensively and defensively. Defensively that’s playing the passing lanes, just getting your hands on balls. And offensively just being able to beat your man and being able to create for yourself and others….

“The NBA game is a lot faster than the college game, but you still have to be able to play in the high gears.”

Where most people remember him using those higher gears was to overwhelm likely No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball of UCLA in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament (frankly, he outplayed Ball both times Kentucky took on UCLA last season). Fox had 39 points on 20 shots that March night, plus got to the line 15 times. However, more impressive was his defense on Ball, holding the bigger guard to 10 points on 10 shots (with eight assists). Again, it was about speed.

“I’m quicker and faster than just about everybody I played against so just being able to get under guards, just try to limit what they can do with their size,” Fox said. “I try to speed them up, play to my tempo.”

Fox has been fast up the draft board — and fast to get endorsements and deals. He inked a shoe deal with Nike. He was in New York Wednesday to shoot a new commercial for Kids Foot Locker — they wanted him even before the draft. Like a lot of scouts, they see a potential star about to bloom.

“I always thought I’d want to see myself in a commercial and things like that, see myself on TV doing things other than just basketball,” Fox said. “This is a blessing to be able to do things like this. I’m just blessed God gave me the talent and I’m just taking it and being able to affect the world.”

If scouts had one question about Fox, it was his jump shot. He shot just 24.6 percent from three last season, and his jump shot was as inconsistent as his release point. His form wasn’t terrible, just a little all over the map.

However, it has looked better in recent workouts, largely because Fox and trainer Chris Gaston put in the time in the gym.

“I put a lot of work on it,” Fox said of his jumper. “I know I’m going to need it at the next level, but also that was something I really just struggled with at the beginning of the year at Kentucky, so I that was one thing didn’t really worry about, I just had to tighten (it up)…

“Really it was just getting up reps, staying focused on every shot, locked in.”

Fox’s maturity showed through when asked what else he’s been working on — he’s been getting in better shape. Something some players don’t figure out until they’ve been in the league a few years.

“Getting my body right,” Fox said. “At the next level, you got to be a lot stronger, quicker, faster… (conditioning) really goes up a tremendous level from college to the NBA, and it’s something that you really need work. You really have to focus on that.”

Fox credits part of him being NBA ready with a year under John Calipari at Kentucky, a school that feels like a one-and-done factory at points.

“Just the way he coaches. He tries to run it like an NBA organization,” Fox said. “You know the track record he’s had, so you don’t go in there like you’re the only high major player he’s ever had, you’re one of many. You just listen to him and he’s able to get you to the next level, he helps us that way. He has us playing like an NBA team, it’s difficult in college to simulate that but he does it the best.”

Thursday night, years of work in the gym for Fox will all culminate with him being drafted — then another whirlwind will start. He will be flown off to the city where he is picked, meet the media, sit down with the coach, and quickly start workouts with the team in advance of Summer League. Fox hasn’t focused too much on where he will land, but he has focused on what he will wear draft night.

“I’ve actually had my suit picked out for a while now,” Fox said. “I haven’t actually picked the shoes yet, though.”

Would John Calipari approve of the look?

“I think he would.”