NBA Power Rankings: Rockets, Warriors 1-2, Pacers climb into top 10

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Houston remains hot and on top of the rankings, but the Warriors have climbed back up to second place, and we see the Bucks jump into the Top 10 (and they are still aggressively looking to add more talent to the roster). Also, we have a new team on the bottom, and Mike Budenholzer is not going to like it.

Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (21-4, Last Week No. 1). Winners of 10 in a row (although they needed big comebacks vs. Portland and New Orleans). Five of those 10 wins were on the road to push the Rockets’ record to 12-1 away from the Toyota Center this season. Chris Paul’s passing has taken the already potent Rockets offense to a new level, teammates are shooting better than 60 percent off his passes.

Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (22-6 LW 3). The Warriors are 3-0 without Stephen Curry in the lineup, winning thanks to defense and a lot of Kevin Durant (the big concern is the GSW offense has fallen apart when KD sits in those games). Patrick McCaw is back from his concussion, which will help with depth until Curry returns. Golden State has 8-of-9 at home coming up, and they don’t leave California again until next month.

Celtics small icon 3. Celtics (23-6, LW 2). After playing around with smaller lineups, Brad Stephens has gone back to starting Aron Baynes at center and it’s working as the Celtics are getting off to faster starts. That said, the Celtics lost 2-of-3 on the road last week, albeit the last one without Kyrie Irving (a bruised thigh, nothing serious). Also, don’t forget what Jaylen Brown did to Pau Gasol this past week.

Cavaliers small icon 4. Cavaliers (20-8 LW 4). LeBron James has been a marvel this season. He has had to take on more of the Cleveland offense yet his efficiency is up (a career best 65.8 true shooting percentage), his assist percentage is up, he’s shooting better than 70% on contested two pointers (defender within four feet), and remove garbage time he is shooting 78% at the rim and 42% from three (stats via Cleaning The Glass). Cleveland’s win streak ended at 13 in Indiana, but they bounced back with a wins over Philly and Atlanta through the first half of a four-game homestand.

Spurs small icon 5. Spurs (19-9, LW 6). Kawhi Leonard returned on Tuesday night and scored 13 points in 15 minutes, but he understandably looked a little rusty and the Spurs looked out of synch. Like they were trying to integrate a star player back into the rotation. The result was an ugly loss to Dallas. This is going to take a little time, but the Spurs have built a cushion with their play so far this season. It’s not getting easier for the Spurs during this process either with the Houston Rockets on the schedule for Friday.

Raptors small icon 6. Raptors (17-8, LW 5). DeMar DeRozan is scoring 23.2 points per game, but he’s improved his passing this season and with his assist rate is up, too — he is assisting on 24% of teammates buckets when he is on the floor (stat via Cleaning the Glass). The Clippers snapped the Raptors’ six-game win streak, but with the next four being Suns, Nets, Kings, and Hornets Toronto could quickly get another streak going.

Pacers small icon 7. Pacers (16-11, LW 9). Indiana has kept on winning through a tough part of the schedule, including ending Cleveland’s 13-game win streak, and Victor Oladipo is a main reason. This week he averaged 35.7 points a game, shot 45.7 percent from three, plus grabbed 7.7 rebounds per game. Oladipo deserves to be an All-Star this season (but will he be in 2021 when Indy gets to host the All-Star Game?). Paul George makes his return to Indiana on Wednesday night, and he is going to hear it from the fans, and we’ll see if he can slow Oladipo.

Bucks small icon 8. Bucks (15-10 LW 11). The Bucks are switching more and trapping less on defense in recent weeks. This is a good thing — their hyper-aggressive defense was easy to exploit with good ball movement — but this team is still a work in progress. In their last 10 games they have given up 104.6 points per 100 possessions, ninth best in the NBA, but that has been much worse in recent games. Also of note, Malcolm Brogdon has struggled with his efficiency since moving to the bench with the arrival of Eric Bledsoe, he has not lifted up the bench as hoped.

Sixers small icon 9. 76ers (14-13, LW 7). They had lost four in a row until the win in Minnesota Tuesday, the losses in part due to injuries that have kept Robert Covington, Joel Embiid, and T.J. McConnell out of games. Markelle Fultz is still out and it will be a few weeks before they re-evaluate him. At least they finally traded Jahlil Okafor, and in doing so got themselves a quality backup big man in Trevor Booker. That was the move of a team looking to go to the playoffs, but they need to keep Embiid healthy to do that (they are 14.9 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court).

10. Timberwolves (16-12, LW 10). Minnesota’s defense remains an issue, ranked 26th in the league, and the problems start in transition — 16.6% of opponent possessions start in transition, 28th in the league, and teams score 110.7 points per 100 on those plays, 26th in the league (stats via Cleaning the Glass). That is just too many easy buckets given up to be a good defense. Minnesota has gone 1-1 to kick off a five-game homestand (the loss was to the Sixers) before they hit the road for most of the end of the month.

Nuggets small icon 11. Nuggets (15-12, LW 16). They have gone 3-3 without Nikola Jokic (sprained ankle), with 5 of those 6 on the road. What’s surprising is they have struggled more on defense than on offense without Jokic. The Nuggets are truly a Jekyll and Hyde team going 10-2 at home and winning by an average of 8.9 points per game, however, get them on the road and they are 5-10 being outscored by 6.4 points per game.

Wizards small icon 12. Wizards (14-13, LW 13). John Wall is expected to return Wednesday night, with Wizards went 4-5 without him (and 2-3 on a just completed road trip without him). Bradley Beal has carried the Wizards through this, averaging 29.8 points per game in this stretch (although he’s struggled a little from three in that time). The Wizards are now home for 4-of-5.

Pistons small icon 13. Pistons (14-13, LW 8). Losers of seven in a row, although to be fair it has been a tough slate of games, Detroit has fallen back from second in the East to scrambling to stay in the playoffs. The problem is on the offensive end, where over those seven games the Pistons are scoring less than a point per possession and have been the worst offense in the NBA. The reason is pretty simple, they have shot the ball terribly as a team, with Avery Bradley (35.4%) and Stanley Johnson (26.8%) leading the way, but Stan Van Gundy laid the blame at the feet of his stars.

Pelicans small icon 14. Pelicans (14-14, LW 17). The Pelicans have become the team that gets in shootouts — they score a lot and give up a lot of points. This recent trend has led to entertaining games and the loss Monday to Houston was the best example (a 78-76 halftime score, but the Pelicans wore down from the pace in the fourth). Injuries just keep on coming for the Pelicans. Anthony Davis missed four of the last six games (the Pelicans went 2-2 without him), and now Tony Allen will be out 3-4 weeks with a fibula fracture (the Pelicans defense is 5.6 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court).

Knicks small icon 15. Knicks (14-13, LW 20). With Tim Hardaway Jr. sidelined Doug McDermott has stepped up and played well for the Knicks, averaging 12 points a game on 56.8% shooting, and 37.5% from three, in his last five games. He’s been efficient in his limited chances all season, shooting 60% eFG% on spot up chances. he’s not creating shots (89% of his buckets are assisted) but he’s knocking them down when he gets the chance.

Jazz small icon 16. Jazz (13-14, LW 12). Expect to see a lot of lineup experimentation in the coming weeks because it’s become clear the twin towers approach of playing Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert together simply does not work (opposing teams outscore Utah by 10.6 points per 100 when they are on the court together). Those two have to be staggered. Utah expects to get Joe Johnson back from injury this week, which will be a boost as they fight to hang on to a playoff slot in the West.

Blazers small icon 16. Trail Blazers (13-13, LW 14). Portland just went 0-4 on a homestand where they needed to rack up wins, because Monday started a tough five-game road trip and they lost the opener of that to the Warriors. The recent slump is due to the defense, which is fourth overall in the NBA for the season but lately has fallen apart, allowing 115.3 points per 100 possession. Portland will try to right the ship on the road with winnable games: Heat, Magic, Hornets, then Timberwolves.

Thunder small icon 18. Thunder (12-14 LW 15).. Welcome to the Thunder’s “You Can’t Go Home Again” week of the schedule. Paul George returns to Indiana Wednesday night, then on Saturday Carmelo Anthony will return to New York. George is going to get booed mercilessly, but the reaction to ‘Melo in NYC will likely be positive (with a few outliers). ‘Melo meant a lot to that organization. The problem for his new team is ‘Melo in a shooting slump (worse than the one the other stars are in), and that plus his lack of defense and ball stopping, has become a part of the problem in OKC.

Heat small icon 19. Heat (13-13, LW 19). After losing three of four, Erik Spoelstra was looking for something that would spark the team and work better on the court, so he’s now starting James Johnson and Kelly Olynyk (both of whom had played well off the bench). It has worked, the Heat have won two straight and gotten back to .500. They are entering a soft part of the schedule and need to rack up wins over the next few weeks to pad their record.

Nets small icon 20. Nets (11-15, LW 21). Great comeback win against the Thunder to earn a split in Mexico City, then on Tuesday they knocked off the Wizards, showing this continues to be a scrappy team that plays hard. All these wins continues to destroy the Cavaliers dreams of a high pick (right now the Nets pick the Cavs have would be the 10th, which makes it more likely the Cavs are willing to deal it). Jahlil Okafor has seen very limited minutes, his time will come down the line.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (10-16, LW 18). Injuries continue to set back the Hornets — Cody Zeller, Jeremy Lamb, coach Steve Clifford — but the other problem is their offense. In their last 10 games, the Hornets have averaged 101.9 points per 100 possessions, 28th in the NBA. Kemba Walker has played well, but can do only so much on his own, and the Hornets still-solid defense can’t cover for that offense.

Clippers small icon 22. Clippers (10-15 LW 24). Milos Todosic was back in the lineup on Tuesday, but after a few games back Danilo Gallinari was sidelined again with the same glute injury. Most of the buzz around the Clippers league wide is about what they can get back for DeAndre Jordan in a trade, but expect some teams to call about Lou Williams as well, he has played well off the bench and more than a few playoff teams could use a scoring punch in the second unit right about now.

Magic small icon 23. Magic (11-17, LW 22). Nikola Vucevic has been having a quietly efficient season (17.4 points per game on a true shooting percentage of 57 (a fair amount above the league average), but he outdid himself against the Hawks with a triple-double of 31 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists. Vucevic had to go off in that game because injuries remain an issue with the Magic — Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, and Jonathan Isaac all were out against the Hawks. This team just doesn’t have the depth to handle key guys missing time.

Lakers small icon 24. Lakers (10-16 LW 26). The Lakers lead the NBA in shots attempted from the restricted area per game this season (42.4% of their shots come within four feet of the rim), but their kryptonite may be when teams foul them on the drive. As a team, the Lakers have struggled from the free throw line this season — as a team LA shoots 70.4%, last in the NBA, and key players such as Lonzo Ball (48.6%), Julius Randle (65.4%), Corey Brewer (66.7%), and Brandon Ingram (67.2%) are below 70%. The Lakers play at the Cavaliers Thursday night, which is a chance to remind everyone that LeBron James and Luke Walton were both taken in the 2003 draft (LeBron No. 1, Walton 32nd, and Dwyane Wade also was in that draft class too at no. 5).

Mavericks small icon 25. Mavericks (8-20 LW 25). While the Mavericks struggle and try to develop young players on the court, ticket sales for the team remain surprisingly brisk according to secondary ticket market company TickPick, up 161% over a year ago. This could be Dirk Nowitzki’s final season and people want to see him play. Dallas lost three straight on the road recently before picking up a win at home Tuesday against the Spurs. Now they head out on the road for two tough ones, Golden State and San Antonio.

Grizzlies small icon 26. Grizzlies (8-19, LW 23). After breaking their 11-game losing streak, the Grizzlies have started a new one losing four more (and blowing leads of 17 or more in two of those games). So, maybe the problem wasn’t David Fizdale. GM Chris Wallace said the team would not be looking to trade Marc Gasol and start rebuilding, but they have to consider it (the in-flux ownership situation in Memphis may impact the decisions about long-term planning as well).

Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (6-20 LW 30).. Winners of three in a row, and part of the reason is Kris Dunn. He was a mess last season in Minnesota, but the former No. 5 pick has looked better recently, scoring 16.4 points per game in the last five games, plus dishing out 7 assists a game in those contests. He’s not a future All-Star, but he’s looking like a rotation-level point guard, which is miles ahead of where he was one season ago.

Kings small icon 28. Kings (9-18, LW 28). Buddy Hield is shooting 47.2% from three this season, taking 4.2 threes per game. More than half those attempts from three are catch-and-shoots where he is hitting 59.4% Zach Randolph is just 15 rebounds away from having 10,000 for his career. That would put Z-Bo in some good company, the only other active players with more than 18,000 career points and 10,000 rebounds are Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol.

Suns small icon 29. Suns (9-20, LW 27). The Suns have gone 0-3 without Devin Booker (who is out for a couple of weeks still, and after scoring at least 104 points in six games before his injury they have averaged 97.3 points per game without him. Good to see Mike James moving from a two-way contract to a regular one, he earned it, and he is leading the team in usage rate since Booker went down.

Hawks small icon 30. Hawks (6-21, LW 29). The Hawks are off to the second worst start the franchise has had since moving to Atlanta. What has to really eat at coach Mike Budenholzer is the defense, which was fourth in the NBA a season ago, is is 29th now and giving up 5.6 points more per 100 possessions than they did last year. The Hawks have 5-of-7 at home coming up through Christmas.

Nuggets struck gold by drafting Nikola Jokic in second round. Now what?

AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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DETROIT – Asked whether he’s becoming a leader on the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic shook his head then turned to Gary Harris in the adjoining locker.

“Do you think I’m a leader?” Jokic asked.

“Who?” Harris responded.

“Me,” Jokic said.

“No,” Harris said.

“See,” Jokic said, turning back to me. “That’s what I’m talking about.”

It’s not entirely clear whether Jokic is serious or showing the self-deprecating humor of someone nicknamed The Joker.

Denver is trying to be patient with Jokic – a 22-year-old former second-round pick – but his production and contract status demand his ascent be expedited.

Jokic has arguably been the Nuggets’ best player every season of his three-year career. He definitely is now.

And that has caused Denver to adjust its plan on the fly – all for a player drafted No. 41 in 2014 and who entered the NBA in 2015.

Jusuf Nurkic was coming off a promising All-Rookie second-team season when the Nuggets signed Jokic. It was quickly clear there’d be complications with the two centers coexisting, but Nurkic’s injuries and second-year slump delayed adjudication. Finally, the Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Trail Blazers. Once Jokic became a starter in mid-December, Denver led the NBA in points per possession the rest of last season.

“His rapid development last year kind of changed how we view our organizational development,” Nuggets president Tim Connelly said. “His unique skill set is something we think we can build around.”

Jokic is a generationally good passer for a center, and he works in so many offensive sets. He posts up, screens on pick-and-rolls, spots up and cuts. He finishes well at the rim, and his range extends through the mid-range to beyond the arc, though he’s not quite a knockdown 3-point shooter. He’s a good rebounder on both ends of the floor.

But he’s not much a rim protector. His slow foot speed, especially laterally, hampers him in space defensively.

Power forwards who complement Jokic on both sides of the court are rare, but Denver found one in Paul Millsap, who can space the floor and cut strongly offensively and safeguard the interior and switch on the perimeter defensively. The Nuggets signed the 32-year-old to a contract worth $61 million over the first two years and with a $30.5 million team option for the third season – a clear win-now response to Jokic’s readiness to win.

On the other hand, Jokic’s youth presents a long window for success. Before the season, Denver also waived Jameer Nelson, a veteran point guard whom Nuggets coach Michael Malone often leaned on as a crutch when younger options were undependable. That forced Denver to rely on 20-year-old Jamal Murray and 21-year-old Emmanuel Mudiay at point guard. Murray has grown in his starting role and looks like a foundational piece with Jokic. Mudiay couldn’t hack it in the rotation and was replaced by Will Barton, who also plays wing. After all, the Nuggets (24-23, eighth in the Western Conference) are trying to win this season.

It’s a tough balancing act, and the next big question comes with Jokic’s team option next summer.

Jokic is due the minimum salary ($1,600,520) in 2018-19, and that’s obviously a huge bargain. But if Denver exercises the option, he’d become an unrestricted free agent in 2019. By declining Jokic’s option, the Nuggets could make him a restricted free agent this year.

As a restricted free agent, Jokic could probably draw a max offer sheet – which projects to be worth about $109 million over four years (about $27 million annually) – that Denver would surely match. In a direct offer, the Nuggets’ max projects to be about $146 million over five years (about $29 million annually).

Jokic is worth the investment at either price. There’s value in securing him for an extra season during his prime.

But the Nuggets hold leverage. They could condition declining his option on him pledging to accept a sub-max, but still large, contract. After all, that’d still be his quickest ticket to a life-altering payday. That route would require trust, but – Carlos Boozer and the Cavaliers potentially excepted – everyone usually follows through on those informal agreements.

Of course, if Denver offers too little, Jokic could wait until 2019 free agency. There’s even a case for delaying a new contract even with a max offer this summer. If he makes an All-NBA team in 2018-19, he’d be eligible for a super-max contract the following summer. That projects to be worth about $188 million over five years (about $38 million annually) – enough to offset a smaller salary, either the team-option amount or qualifying offer, next season.

To make this even more complex, the possibility of a super-max offer in 2019 could lead the Nuggets to exercise Jokic’s option. They could leverage his low salary next season then have potentially an even larger leg up financially over other suitors in 2019.

Keeping Jokic’s salary low next season is particular important, because Denver already has $110,169,322 committed to 12 players (Millsap, Gary Harris, Kenneth Faried, Mason Plumlee, Wilson Chandler, Darrell Arthur, Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray, Trey Lyles, Juan Hernangomez, Malik Beasley and Tyler Lydon). Maxing out Jokic could push the Nuggets so far into the luxury tax that trading either Faried or Plumlee alone wouldn’t be enough to avoid paying it. Chandler ($12,800,562) and/or Arthur ($7,464,912) opting out would provide relief, but moving Plumlee (due $12,917,808 and $14,041,096 the next two seasons) and/or Faried (due $13,764,045 next season) won’t be easy.

In simple terms, Denver has two choices:

  • Keep Jokic’s salary absurdly low next season, but risk he walks in 2019 unrestricted free agency
  • Pay Jokic big money beginning next season, but lose flexibility to spend on his supporting cast

Declining Jokic’s option then leveraging restricted free agency to re-sign him long-term is the safest path.

“I can say with complete certainty that Nikola is going to be here for a long, long time,” Connelly said. “We love him. I think he loves us.”

Whenever Jokic gets his massive raise, it’ll be overdue based on his production. He’s averaging 16.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. Denver plays like a 55-win team with him on the floor and a 27-win team without him, based on points scored and allowed.

He theoretically could have signed a shorter contract initially, proven himself then hit free agency sooner. But he expected to acclimate slowly from the Adriatic League to the NBA, and he appreciated the long-term security a four-year deal afforded.

There’s less slow-playing now, though.

The Nuggets are throwing more on his plate, and that starts defensively.

“Last year, I don’t think he played much defense at all,” Malone said.

Jokic’s athletic limitations will probably prevent him from ever being an elite defender. But his size and basketball intelligence give him a chance to hold his own as a positional defender – if he puts in the effort. Jokic has dedicated himself more this season, and as a result, Denver’s defense has gone from awesome to middling.

The Nuggets also want Jokic to become a more aggressive scorer. He’s such a willing passer, and he’s always looking to make what the right play would be if all players were equal. But they’re not. Denver is 10-4 when Jokic attempts at least 15 shots and 14-19 otherwise.

“He takes greater satisfaction out of making his teammates better than he does scoring himself,” Malone said. “…He needs to be a guy that’s looking to score, regardless if he’s double-teamed or not.”

These are good problems to have. Teammates love the player who’s too unselfish, and so do executives.

“As a person, he embodies everything that we’re trying to be organizationally in terms of work ethic and team-first mentality,” Connelly said.

Those are great traits for a young second-round pick as he develops. But the best player on a team is inevitably turned to for leadership.

So, back to the original question: Is Jokic ready to lead?

“He has some natural leadership ability in terms of, he’s a connector,” Connelly said. “Everyone in the locker room really likes him on and off the court. But we also don’t want to force something prematurely. He’s still a kid.

“We don’t want to put too much weight on his shoulders.

“We’re going to let him grow up on his own timeline.”

There’s no blueprint here. If named an All-Star this year, Jokic – who turns 23 the day after the game – would be the youngest-ever All-Star drafted below No. 30. Heck, even if he doesn’t become an All-Star until next year, he’d still be the youngest All-Star picked below No. 30 in what anyone would consider the modern-draft era.

There’s plenty of time to wait for Jokic to come fully into his own.

But it also might already Jokic’s time already.

Clippers go to third-string coach after Doc Rivers and Mike Woodson ejected (video)

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Remember when Doc Rivers vowed last year to stop getting technical fouls? He actually followed through for the rest of the season.

But the pledge apparently expired with the season.

Rivers got a technical foul and ejection late in the Clippers’ loss to the Timberwolves last night. Lead assistant Mike Woodson followed suit before play even resumed.

That meant assistant coach Sam Cassell – who already got his own technical foul earlier in the game! – took over for the final 7.4 seconds.

Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. throws down 360 dunk against Wizards (video)

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The Wizards are in a rough place.

They’ve lost three of four, including a 23-point setback to the Mavericks last night, and Dennis Smith Jr. is out here practicing for a dunk contest on them.

Report: Damian Lillard meets with Trail Blazers owner, but doesn’t request trade as Paul Allen feared

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Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen was reportedly investigating whether his team’s problem was roster or coaching. In other words, it sounded as if he were determining whether he should fire general manager Neil Olshey or coach Terry Stotts amid a disappointing season. Portland has the NBA’s fifth-largest payroll and is on track to pay the luxury tax, but the team is just 25-22 and seventh in the Western Conference.

In these turbulent times, Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard – who has strongly supported Stotts publicly – wanted to address Allen directly.

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

Portland Trail Blazers star point guard Damian Lillard met with team owner Paul Allen to gather an understanding of the organization’s direction, league sources told ESPN.

Lillard, who turns 28 on July 15, requested the meeting in part to reaffirm his commitment to the only professional franchise he has ever suited up for, but also to gain assurances that the organization was just as devoted to expeditiously crafting a title-contending team, sources said.

In the weeks leading up to the meeting, Allen feared Lillard would request a trade, sources said, but a trade request was not made.

The meeting, which sources described as a productive, open forum to share opinions and express concerns, could also lead to more sit-downs in the future.

Lillard issued a heartfelt vote of confidence for head coach Terry Stotts, sources said.

They also discussed players to target.

In addition, Lillard sought an explanation from Allen as to why Will Barton was traded to Denver in February of 2015, sources said. Lillard made it known he didn’t agree with the move.

The Trail Blazers traded Barton, because he wasn’t ready to lock down a rotation spot. They got Arron Afflalo, who was more ready to help a team still trying to win with LaMarcus Aldridge. The move was completely logical at the time, and it’s the type of gripe brought up now because Barton has developed with the Nuggets, and Portland is frustrated and in a funk.

Lillard surely suggested win-now moves leading up to the trade deadline, because that’s what players prioritize. I wouldn’t be surprised if Allen would rather shed a few million in salary to avoid the luxury tax in an underwhelming season.

How would Lillard feel about that? Did this meeting open a productive line of communication? Or would he just feel ignored?

Lillard has repeatedly pledged his loyalty to the Trail Blazers. A trade request would have been a huge reversal from his public statements. But did Allen have any reason to suspect Lillard would ask out other than the meeting request and Portland’s middling record?

That Lillard would seek this meeting shows his growth as a player. He’s taking an active role in his team’s fortunes, spreading his reach beyond the court – or at least trying to.

The big question now: Where will that lead him and the Trail Blazers?