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NBA Power Rankings: Reports of the Spurs demise have been greatly exaggerated

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The first weeks of the NBA season saw elite teams have rough weeks, some questionable teams have great weeks, and a lot of volatility in the Power Rankings. There was a lot of movement and plenty of surprises. And that starts with a new team at the top.

 
Spurs small icon 1. Spurs (3-0 Last Week No. 5). The reports of the Spurs demise have been greatly exaggerated. LaMarcus Aldridge has impressed as the team leader with Kawhi Leonard still out, averaging 24.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. Gregg Popovich needs just three victories to pass rival Phil Jackson (1,155) for sixth place on the all time coaching win list (he’s just 24 wins from passing George Karl for fifth).

 
Grizzlies small icon 2. Grizzlies (3-0 LW 14). Maybe the most surprising start to the season is in Memphis — many people mistakenly wrote them off (Tony Allen and Zach Randolph were replaceable) but beating the Warriors and the Rockets in the first week? Didn’t see that coming. Memphis has gotten these wins with impressive defense, particularly making it difficult on opposing shooters.

 
Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (2-1, Last Week No. 2). No Chris Paul for a few weeks, but that is not the most concerning thing. First, through three games the Rockets are 18th in the NBA in pace, which Mike D’Antoni can’t like. Second, they are shooting 27.5 percent from three this young season and have missed more threes than 27 NBA teams have even taken. They have won, but not been who we expected yet. On the bright side, the Rockets defense looks better. 

 
Clippers small icon 4. Clippers (3-0 LW 12). Blake Griffin has been stretching his range for years, and now he has pushed it past the three-point line, hitting 44.4 percent from beyond the arc so far this young season. Griffin is averaging 26.7 ppg, 9.7 rpg, and 4.3 apg so far this season. The Clips started out with an impressive 2-0 record, but we started to buy in more when Los Angeles controlled the second half against Utah Tuesday night. The Trail Blazers and Warriors will provide even better tests in the coming week.

 
Warriors small icon 5. Warriors (2-2 LW 1). They fall from the top spot, and yes their defense has been shaky (they look like a disinterested team just back from China). But is anyone really worried? They shouldn’t be (it’s only four games in and they have the fourth best net rating in the league). Golden State isn’t worried. The Warriors host the Wizards Friday night, a battle of two of the NBA’s top backcourts.

 
Wizards small icon 6. Wizards (3-0 LW 7). They have started fast at 3-0, but their net rating suggests that’s a bit of luck, with the offense being okay and the defense below average overall. New season but last year’s problem has returned: the bench. The Wizards starting five is outscoring teams by 20.4 points per 100 possessions (and playing 23 minutes together a night, but the two most used bench units are worse than -24 per 100. Injuries are a part of that, they need Markieff Morris back.

 
Cavaliers small icon 7. Cavaliers (3-1 LW 4). Another season, another year of the Cavaliers struggling with pick-and-roll defense. They have handled the ball handler fairly well when he shoots, but if the ball moves to the roll man or a spot up guy the rotations are late and good shots are found. That — and the lack of three-point attempts — are good reasons that J.R. Smith is back in the starting lineup and Dwyane Wade is coming off the bench (even if Smith struggled in his first game back as a starter).

 
Blazers small icon 8. Trail Blazers (3-1 LW 13). They had a strong start to the season but this is where context matters — they blew out a very bad Suns team, then got the Pacers without Myles Turner. The Blazers offense has been a force early, but that is to be expected, the question is can they keep up the strong defensive play as the schedule gets tougher (Clippers, Raptors ahead in the next week)?

 
Bucks small icon 9. Bucks (3-1 LW 10). Giannis Antetokounmpo had the best opening night a Buck has had since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1972, — 37 points, 13 boards — and carried that over to average 38.3 points per game through the Bucks first four. Amazingly, he has taken 71 shots in the paint (56 at the rim) but just 17 outside the paint (he’s 5-of-17, 1-of-6 from three). Thursday the Bucks host the Celtics in the MECCA, their old building, part of a 50th anniversary throwback season.

 
Raptors small icon 10. Raptors (2-1, LW 8). Biggest plus for Toronto is that after a summer where they lost a lot of their depth, their bench has still been one of the best in the league to start the season. Dwane Casey is doing that with an almost hockey-change lineup of five guys (not mixing in starters) led by C.J. Miles. Rough road trip for Toronto, they fell to the Spurs Monday and have the Warriors, Clippers, Blazers, Nuggets, and Jazz to come.

 
Magic small icon 11. Magic (3-1 LW 24). They have beat Cleveland and lost to Brooklyn — this is a very inconsistent team (they did get revenge on the Nets Tuesday night). Elfrid Payton is still out at the point, but Aaron Gordon returned on Tuesday night and dropped 41 — he has looked much better at the four this season. The Magic have been the second best three point shooting team in the NBA so far, but they are middle of the pack (13th) in attempts.

 
Thunder small icon 12. Thunder (1-2 LW 3).. Despite all the potential, the Thunder offense is off to a shaky start (21st in the NBA in points per possession so far). They have been trying to share the rock, but when the game got tight late against the Timberwolves it was all Russell Westbrook (and the offense looked bater). The defense is Top 10 as expected, mostly by forcing turnovers and not fouling. Steven Adams has been playing well.

 
timberwolves small icon 13. Timberwolves (2-2, LW 9). Minnesota got quality wins in the final minute against the Jazz and Thunder — the way they struggled in close games last year (10-24 in games within three points in the final three minutes) this is a great sign. Then they look like a young team getting blown out by the Pacers at home. Andrew Wiggins leads the T-Wolves scoring 20.3 a game and he’s doing it from three — he’s takin more than twice as many as a year ago and is hitting 36.4 percent of them.

 
Celtics small icon 14. Celtics (2-2 LW 6). The Gordon Hayward injury — he is likely gone for the season, I know he could be back but they will be cautious with him — is a tremendous blow on both ends of the court. Boston lost its secondary playmaker and one of its best wing defenders. In the wake of that Brad Stevens is experimenting with a lot of different lineups to see what works and what doesn’t, which is the smart thing to do but it will take time.

 
Heat small icon 15. Heat (2-1, LW 15). Hassan Whiteside had a monster opening night, putting up 22 points and grabbing 26 rebounds, but he has been out with a knee bone bruise (he will be out Wednesday). They will miss him. Miami has started a six-game homestand 2-0, but it gets tougher with the Spurs, Celtics, and Timberwolves up next.

 
Jazz small icon 16. Jazz (2-2, LW 16). We knew the defense, anchored by Rudy Gobert, would be very good, but the big early-season surprise is the offense has been pretty good (even with Rodney Hood being injured for part of the week). The ball movement with Ricky Rubio and Joe Ingles on the floor has impressed, and the Jazz have been a top-10 shooting team in the NBA this young season (based on eFG%). That’s led by Ingles and his ridiculous 84.6 true shooting percentage so far (that will not last).

 
Nuggets small icon 17. Nuggets (1-2 LW 11). After a couple rough games, Nikola Jokic found his shot against the Wizards going 9-of-13 (3-of-3 from three). It’s a start, the offense has been down to begin the season (and that us supposed to be a strength of this team). Richard Jefferson is in and Jameer Nelson is out, and that may not be only roster change we see (they are in the Eric Bledsoe conversation with the Suns).

 
Hornets small icon 18. Hornets (1-2 LW 19). The Hornets are outscoring opponents by 16.6 points per 48 minutes when Dwight Howard and Kemba Walker are on the court together, but with all the injuries depth is an issue. Charlotte’s defense seems to be back, they are fifth in the league on that end at this point, but the offense remains a work in progress.

 
Nets small icon 19. Nets (2-2 LW 27). Jeremy Lin is lost for the season due to a ruptured patella tendon, which will put the ball in the hands of D’Angelo Russell more often. So far, he has responded with 23 points and 5.5 assists per game, shooting 39.1 percent from three. After a win Sunday over the Hawks, the Nets were 2-1 — the first time they had been over .500 since 2014.

 
Pacers small icon 20. Pacers (2-2, LW 26). The Pacers have been a surprise this season with the second best offense in the NBA (looking good even with Myles Turner out with a concussion). The Pacers are shooting the ball well, not turning it over, and getting their fair share of offensive boards. All that has covered up for an unimpressive defense.

Pistons small icon 21. Pistons (2-2, LW 20). Eminem pumping up the Detroit crowd in the new building before the opener was the best part of the week. The other silver lining is that Andre Drummond is now knocking down his free throws, hitting 83.3 percent (it was 38 percent last season). He should give Markelle Fultz lessons.

 
Pelicans small icon 22. Pelicans (1-3 LW 17). The Anthony Davis’ knee injury sounded scary, but the MRI was clear and he is day-to-day. When Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Jrue Holiday are on the court together, the Pelicans are +10 per 100 possessions. Good news is when it’s just Cousins and Holiday they are +12, the Pelicans may need to lean on that for a few games. Thursday night, Cousins returns to Sacramento for the first time since being traded. Or, you can look at it as the Buddy Hield revenge game.

 
Sixers small icon 23. 76ers (1-3, LW 18). Ben Simmons had at least 10 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists through his first three games, the first player to do it since Kareem Abdul-Jabari in 1969 (other guys to do this include Oscar Robertson and Elgin Baylor). He has impressed. Joel Embiid’s minutes limit appears very very flexible. The Sixers have a tough schedule the first couple months of the season, can they keep their heads above water during it? That’s the key to them making the playoffs.

 
Lakers small icon 24. Lakers (1-2 LW 22). Lonzo Ball has shown grit — his first game against Patrick Beverley was better than some suggested, and he’s had better games since (against lesser defensive teams). He gets a real test the next couple of days going against John Wall (Wednesday) and Kyle Lowry (Friday). The real question is what kind of help does he get from Brandon Ingram? Julius Randle has struggled, but Jordan Clarkson has impressed so far.

 
Kings small icon 25. Kings (1-3, LW 23). Thursday night DeMarcus Cousins returns to Sacramento for the first time, and don’t expect a bunch of laid-back Californians — they will boo him. D’Aaron Fox has been fairly efficient (for a rookie) and leads the team averaging 15 points and 5 assists per game.

 
Hawks small icon 26. Hawks (1-3, LW 28). The bench was supposed to be a weak point but it scored 57 in an opening night win. Injuries have taken their toll since, with DeAndre’ Bembry out 4-6 weeks (wrist), and both Dennis Schroder and Ersan Ilyasova missing the Miami game. Atlanta has shown some grit on the defensive end, but the team is struggling to score points.

 
Mavericks small icon 27. Mavericks (0-4 LW 21). Dallas started last season 0-5, that was not a trend they wanted to continue but here we are. Dennis Smith Jr. had a double-double in his first game, then missed two with injuries and struggled in his return against the Warriors. The bigger problem on offense is Dirk Nowitzki is shooting 30.2 percent, while Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews are both at 34.9 percent. Also, Dallas has the worst defense in the NBA through the first week.

 
Knicks small icon 28. Knicks (0-3, LW 25). Three games into the season, the Knicks have the worst offense in the NBA, and they have been the worst shooting team in the NBA (particularly from three). Courtney Lee said some Knicks players don’t even know the plays, which is almost throwing Jeff Hornacek under the bus. New York has called about the availability of Eric Bledsoe in a trade, he would help them immensely on offense, but the Knicks aren’t willing to give up the quality young player the Suns are asking for. Yet. Free Willy Hernangomez!

 
Bulls small icon 29. Bulls (0-3 LW 30). Lauri Markkanen is starting after Bobby Portis sidelined Nikola Mitotic for at least a month with a punch (Portis also sidelined himself for eight games without pay for his actions), and the rookie playing well enough mate he should keep his starting spot. Kay Felder is the best point guard on the team, he should be starting, which is not a great statement about the Bulls.

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (1-3, LW 29). Phoenix does have a win, but when you fire your coach three games into the season, then tell your best player to go home and put him on the trade block, you move to the bottom slot. The Suns are asking for a quality young player back for Bledsoe, and so far teams are balking at offering that. The Suns are 27th in offense, 29th in defense, and getting outscored by 18.4 points per 100 possessions.

Jeff Hornacek on Joakim Noah: “We’ve moved on. He’s ready to move on”

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Not that anyone actually thought Joakim Noah would be back with the Knicks this season — not after Noah and coach Jeff Hornacek got into an argument that ended with Noah shoving his coach.

But if anyone thought with Kristaps Porzingis out for the season with a torn ACL the Knicks might turn to Porzingis for a little boost, think again. Via Al Iannazzone at Newsday as the Knicks got back to post All-Star practice.

“There’s really nothing more to say about it, update it. We’ve moved on. He’s ready to move on and maybe have an opportunity somewhere else. That’s really our focus to go play Orlando. We have 23 games left. We’re trying to get our young guys to step it up. That’s kind of old story and all done with as far as I’m concerned.”

The Knicks would love to trade Noah, but he has the most untradable contract in the NBA — two years, $37.8 million left after this season. It would take the Knicks attaching a couple of first-round picks and taking back some dead salary to make it happen. The Knicks may eventually buy him out, but the more likely option is they keep him through the summer (in case he is needed as salary in a trade), and possibly into next season (depending upon how big a discount he would give the team to be bought out and move on).

Trail Blazers hope for another post-All-Star break revival

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The Trail Blazers have enjoyed post-All-Star break revivals the past two seasons.

Those late-season rallies will no doubt be an ongoing theme in the congested Western Conference playoff race once Portland resumes play on Friday in Utah.

“I mean, I think that’s in the back of our minds. We know that we’re usually a better team in the second half of the season,” Portland guard Damian Lillard said. “We can’t just go into it saying, `All right, we’re always good at this part of the season.’ I think mentally we have to understand how close of a race it is and that we’ve got to be sharp all the way through.”

Portland is 32-26 at the break, tied for sixth in the West, which is better off than it was last season at the same point.

But the Blazers are one of five teams in the West with 26 losses. The Warriors and Houston Rockets sit comfortably atop the standings with the next eight teams jostling for position.

The Blazers headed into the All-Star Game with a 123-117 victory over Golden State, snapping a seven-game losing streak to the Warriors. Lillard had 44 points, his third straight game with 39 or more and the best scoring stretch of his career. His 133 points over the last three games is the best such run in franchise history.

Afterward, Lillard sounded like he was taking it upon himself to improve the Blazers’ playoff position.

“Each season, it’s always a few teams that fall by the wayside and we’ve just got to make sure we’re not one of them,” he said. “As a leader, I’ve got to be the guy to lead that charge.”

In 2015-16, Portland was 27-27 at the All-Star break after winning eight of nine games going into it. The Blazers finished the regular season 44-38 and in fifth place in the West. They got past the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs before falling to the Warriors in the conference semifinals.

Last season, Portland lost three straight games to go into the break at 23-33. Shortly thereafter, an overtime loss at Detroit put them 11 games under .500.

But in March, Portland caught fire and went 13-3, best in the NBA. Lillard was named the conference’s Player of the Month, averaging 29.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.4 steals in 16 games. Terry Stotts was named Coach of the Month.

Center Jusuf Nurkic, who came to Portland in a trade a handful of days before the All-Star break, went on to average 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 20 games with the Blazers. Portland was 14-5 with the 7-footer in the starting lineup.

Portland made the playoffs for the fourth straight season, but fell in the opening round to the Warriors.

This season, Portland is in the thick of the race. Lillard leads the team with 26.1 points per game, sixth in the league, while also averaging 6.6 assists. Backcourt teammate CJ McCollum is averaging 21.7 points, and Nurkic is at 14.1 points and 8.2 rebounds.

Stotts was asked just before the break whether he was happy with the team’s position.

“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. We’ve got a lot of teams out there fighting for playoff spots,” the coach said. “It’s not about where we are. It’s about where we’re headed.”

 

Karl Malone pranks Anthony Davis in new Redbull video

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Karl Malone still has a few moves left.

Not so much on the court, but the Hall of Famer and one of the greatest power forwards ever was disguised as “Sam the Maintenance Man” where he would disrupt a video shoot by New Orleans Pelicans All-Star Anthony Davis (who thought he was making a basketball video for redbull.com). Malone was decked out in a traditional janitor onesie, a wig of dreadlocks, glasses and extra padding around his gut, and he had fun in his role.

At the end of the clip, you see Malone asking the cameras to cut so he could talk shop with AD on the left block, where Malone was near unstoppable. Check it out.

 

Statement defending self by former Mavs employee makes things sound worse

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In the argument that owner Mark Cuban must have known about the “Animal House” style sexual predatory environment on the business side of the Dallas Mavericks, a statement from a former Mavericks’ employee defending himself is now the best evidence. And it’s pretty damning.

One of the people mentioned directly in the bombshell Sports Illustrated story is former Mavs.com writer Earl K. Sneed. He was involved in a domestic dispute where he beat his then-girlfriend his first season with the Mavericks, then a few months later was arrested — at the Mavericks facility — for assault. He pled guilty to that and went through court-mandated anger management classes. He reportedly had another dispute in 2014 hitting a female co-worker which led to more counseling (this ordered by the team), and as a result of the court issues, he legally was not able to follow the team when it went into Canada to play the Raptors.

Sneed issued this statement to the Dallas Morning News defending himself.

“While both instances described in the report are damning and language used is not accurate, the two relationships described in the report are not something I am proud to have been a part of. I underwent much counseling after both situations, under the direction of [Mavs vice president of human resources] Buddy Pittman, and I feel like I grew from that counseling. I also signed a contract stating that I would not have one-on-one contact or fraternize with female employees after the inaccurately described incident with my female co-worker, who was a live-in girlfriend. I abided by the details of that contract for four years, and received counseling during that period to avoid future instances. I thank Buddy Pittman for helping me to grow during that time, and I thank Mark Cuban for his willingness to help facilitate that growth.”

So let me get this right: Sneed was hauled out of the Mavericks facility in handcuffs, then signed a new contract to stay on employed by the team (for four more years) where he could not do his job if the team went to Canada, and could not “have one-on-one contact or fraternize with female employees” — and Cuban didn’t know about any of this? That strains belief. Sneed’s statement sparked outrage on social media, as it should.

That Sneed stayed employed by the team speaks to the issues in the Mavericks human resources department and the team culture. Both Sneed and the head of HR have been fired in the wake of these stories.

The report says there are no incidents with Cuban, nor any members of the Mavericks basketball team, behaving inappropriately toward women.

Dallas and Cuban have hired an independent investigator to look into the claims and the workplace environment with the Mavericks. When that is done, expect NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to come down hard on the franchise, both to send a message to other franchises (there are rumors the Mavs are not the only one facing issues) and because this all is a big blow to the image of a league that paints itself as progressive.