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Power Rankings: Just how far will the Cavaliers fall?

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The Blake Griffin trade, plus injuries to Kevin Love and DeMarcus Cousins, have shaken up the NBA, but their impact is just starting to be felt in the power rankings. Golden State and Houston are cruising on top, while the Cavaliers have fallen to 14th and that that may not be rock bottom

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (40-11 Last Week No. 1). Teams playing the Warriors work hard to chase all those shooters off the three-point line, as they should. The problem is both Klay Thompson (43.1%) and Stephen Curry (41.2%) are shooting very well on threes off the dribble — they still make defenders pay for crowding them out at the arc with a little bit of movement. Well, not the Utah Jazz on Tuesday, when the Warriors had their worst loss of the season. I pity the Kings, who are up next on the schedule after the Warriors rest up and Kerr yells at them.

 
Rockets small icon 2. Rockets (36-13, LW 2). Houston is defending well again (or at least back to their season average) and are 12th in the NBA on that end of the floor in their last 1o games. Not coincidentally, Luc Mbah a Moute came back in that stretch, they are much better defenders with him on the floor. More big tests this week for the Rockets with the Spurs (Thursday) and the Cavaliers (Saturday), the week after the Rockets finally lost a game where James Harden, Chris Paul, and Clint Capela all played.

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (34-15, LW 4). Kyle Lowry didn’t make the All-Star game for his first eight seasons in the league, but is now back for his second straight. The only other NBA player ever not to be named an All-Star the first eight seasons then make it? Chauncey Billups. That’s good company. The Raptors have started 2-1 in a home-heavy stretch of the schedule (7-of-10 in the Air Canada Centre).

 
Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (36-15, LW 5). Boston is active on the trade market, looking to add a little more depth and scoring at the deadline. Their bench has had some rough games, and now they second-unit leader Marcus Smart is going to miss time because he hates the pictures on the walls in hotels. I’ve been told they have interest in Tyreke Evans, but they are looking at more than just him. This isn’t a major move, just a team looking for more depth to get through the second half of the season.

 
Thunder small icon 5. Thunder (30-21 LW 7).. They had won eight in a row until Tuesday, but things are going to get difficult for the Thunder now. Andre Roberson being out for the season is a big blow — the team’s defense is 11.9 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court. He and Paul George made a strong pair of switchable defensive wings that could help get stops — the kind of wings you need against the Warriors in the playoffs.

 
Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (34-19, LW 6). San Antonio has won 4-of-5, and while it’s fair to say they’ve done it scoring points against struggling defenses (such as Cleveland) the wins still count the same. And they are doing it without Kawhi Leonard (plus LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol have missed time). Light week on the schedule before the Spurs head out on their annual “rodeo road trip.”

 
7. Timberwolves (32-22, LW 3). You could see what Jimmy Butler means to this team on defense when he was out for four games. For the season the Timberwolves are a whopping 11 points per 100 possessions worse when Butler is off the court. Minnesota has lost 4-of-5 and are home to some challenging tests this week with the Bucks and Pelicans.

 
Heat small icon 8. Heat (29-21, LW 9). They’re the best team without an All-Star, and it seems a little unfair that a team knocking on the door of passing the stumbling Cavaliers in the standings doesn’t have an All-Star. Dallas coach Rick Carlisle is right, Eric Spoelstra is the Miami All-Star — he’s had wildly shifting lineups all season, a record in close games that seems unsustainable (they are a league-best 22-11 in games within five points in the final five minutes of a game), yet they keep on getting it done.

Bucks small icon 9. Bucks (27-22 LW 11). Milwaukee is 4-0 under interim coach Joe Prunty, although he walked into a soft part of the schedule. That starts to change with 5-of-6 coming up on the road, including stops in Minnesota and Miami. Jabari Parker makes his return to the lineup Friday night against the Knicks, and hopefully soon we can see what a fully healthy and functional Bucks team will look like.

 
Pelicans small icon 10. Pelicans (27-23, LW 9). What a punch to the gut. DeMarcus Cousins is out for the season with a ruptured Achilles (not coincidentally after a stretch of very heavy use by Alvin Gentry), and that leaves the Pelicans and Anthony Davis trying to hang on to a playoff slot. Which is not going to be easy, as a home loss to Sacramento Tuesday night showed. New Orleans should still be good when Anthony Davis is on the court (especially with Jrue Holiday playing well), but the question is how bad does it get when he rests? The Pelicans wanted to rent Nicola Mitotic but he wants to get paid his $12.5 million next year if traded, so the sides could not reach a deal.

 
Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (28-23, LW 12). Call it the former Thunder connection: Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis have a great pick-and-roll chemistry. When the Pacers were losing to the Magic on Saturday, Indiana started to lean heavily on that combination and it helped spark a comeback win. Indiana has started off 2-0 on a stretch of 5-of-6 at home, a chance for them to cement a little playoff security with wins.

 
Wizards small icon 12. Wizards (28-22, LW 10). The Wizards have been 6.2 points per 100 possessions better with Wall on the court, and they have been outscored by 1.8 per 100 with him sitting. Now Wall is out for a knee operation for 6-8 weeks (another clean-up), and combine that with the fact 16 of Washington’s next 20 games are against teams currently in the playoffs and there is a serious potential for a slide down the standings (and these rankings). Expect to see a lot more Thomas Satoransky and Tim Frazier, but they are no John Wall.

 
Blazers small icon 13. Trail Blazers (28-22, LW 15). Terry Stotts sounded a little frustrated before his team beat the Clippers Tuesday — early in the season the defense was good but the offense stumbled, now the offense has found a groove again (111.4 points per 100 possessions in the last 10 games, fourth in the NBA) but the defense has slid back to bottom 10. As the Blazers fight for playoff position, they need both on the same night to lock down their spot.

 
Cavaliers small icon 14. Cavaliers (29-20 LW 13). Just when it looked like they might turn things around, Kevin Love breaks his left hand and that will need surgery to repair. He’s out 6-8 weeks, and that messes up not only the rotations and leaves the Cavaliers scrambling for more scoring, but it makes it harder for the Cavs to trade Channing Frye or Tristan Thompson (unless another big man comes back in the deal). Big game against Miami Wednesday for third place in the East.

 
Sixers small icon 15. 76ers (24-23, LW 14). In a sign of how far the Sixers have come this season, they swept the season series from the San Antonio Spurs — for the past six years it was the Spurs who did the sweeping. Ben Simmons and some Sixers fans have been campaigning for the rookie to be put on the All-Star team as a reserve (he hadn’t been as of this writing), but he’s faded some after a fast start and that likely hurt him on the coaches’ ballots (which is what Adam Silver generally goes on when he picks).

 
Nuggets small icon 16. Nuggets (26-25, LW 18). With the Pelicans and Clippers both losing key parts to their team this week, the Nuggets should be able to hold on to a playoff slot in the West — but things are not that simple. They have dropped two in a row to Boston and San Antonio, and the rough stretch of the schedule continues with the Thunder and Warriors this week, the Rockets and Spurs next week. Denver needs to find some wins in there and lock down its spot.

 
Clippers small icon 17. Clippers (25-25 LW 16). The Blake Griffin trade left the Los Angeles locker room stunned, and with the sense that the trading is not done — don’t be shocked if the Clippers move one or both of DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams before the Feb. 8 deadline. While this is the right basketball move in a cold world, Griffin forever changed the Clippers franchise from the inside by his talent and work ethic — he made a joke of a team be more professional to keep up with him (back in the Donald Sterling years). They should still retire his number someday.

 
Knicks small icon 18. Knicks (23-28, LW 20). Kristaps Porzingis shot an impressive 47.4% from three in January, but he shot just 39.5% in the paint for the month and only 46.7% at the rim. He and the Knicks need more consistency. The Knicks also need better defense — which was nearly non-existent on a recent 7-game road trip (where the Knicks went 3-4). While the Knicks may dream of the playoffs, they likely need to go about 22-9 the rest of the way to get to where the Sixers and Pacers will be.

Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (23-26, LW 17). Stan Van Gundy has swung for the fences — or at least for the playoffs — with his move to trade for Blake Griffin. When healthy Griffin is an All-Star level player — to pair with Andre Drummond who is now an All-Star in the East — but his massive contract will make it hard to put enough pieces around the two bigs to make this a truly dangerous team. But, the move should help sell tickets in the new downtown arena.

 
Jazz small icon 20. Jazz (22-28, LW 25). Joe Ingles leads the NBA in three-point shooting percentage off the dribble hitting 48.3% — that’s an incredibly valuable skill as teams chase shooters off the arc more. Utah’s playoff dreams are not dead (not with what has happened to the Clippers and Pelicans), but they will still need to go at least 21-9 or better the rest of the way to make the cut. That’s a tall order.

 
Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (20-29, LW 19). It doesn’t look like the Hornets will be sellers at this trade deadline, but the questions about whether to hang on or move Kemba Walker and some bad contracts to start a rebuild will continue into the summer. Charlotte seems to have found a little more of an offensive groove again with Steve Clifford back on the sidelines — they’re taking and making more threes — which is going to get them wins.

 
Grizzlies small icon 22. Grizzlies (18-31, LW 21). Mike Conley will have surgery on his heel he has tried to avoid and is now done for the entire season, which is the smart thing (get him right for next season). Tyreke Evans will almost certainly be moved at the trade deadline, Memphis is simply holding out for the best deal (they are demanding a first-round pick, which teams have yet to cough up). Rookie Ivan Rabb is getting more run late, and with the Grizzlies out of the playoff picture that should continue as they try to develop him.

 
Lakers small icon 23. Lakers (19-30 LW 22). No timeline yet on exactly when Lonzo Ball will return to the lineup (or if he can play in the Rising Stars game All-Star weekend, although the Lakers would like him to since it’s at Staples Center.) Still the Lakers are showing development and some grit, getting wins over Indiana and Boston before heading out for 8-of-10 on the road (they have started that stretch 1-1).

 
Bulls small icon 24. Bulls (18-32 LW 23).. The bubble has burst on the Bulls hot streak, having now lost 4-of-5 and about to head out on the road for three more games. Rookie Lauri Markkanen has been part of that, shooting just 21.6% from three over his last five games. The Bulls are still working to move Nikola Mitotic before the deadline, but he’s not going to approve a trade where the new team doesn’t pick up his $12.5 million option for next season (he can do that because he will lose his Bird rights) and it’s unlikely a team will do that. New Orleans wouldn’t.

 
Mavericks small icon 25. Mavericks (16-35 LW 24). Another week, another milestone: Dirk Nowitzki is on the verge of being only the sixth player in NBA history to play 50,000 regular season minutes, which is an impressive feat. We will remember the future Hall of Famer for his one-legged fadeaway and being the best shooting big man, and best European, ever in the NBA, but he has been tough, and durable, as well.

 
Kings small icon 26. Kings (16-34, LW 29). Sacramento went a respectable 3-3 on a six-game road trip through the South, and they showed again that if they can get a lead they can hold it — the Kings are 10-2 when leading after three quarters this season. Good news that coach Dave Joerger has been given a clean bill of healthy to return to the sidelines after his dizzy spell on the court recently. He probably will be on the bench again Friday, or at least this weekend.

 
Nets small icon 27. Nets (18-33, LW 26). D’Angelo Russell has been back for five games now but he’s still looking rusty and off, shooting just 28.6% overall and 22.2% from three. He’s also been turning the ball over about twice as often as he’s made an assist. Some rust is expected, but he’s not playing in a way that will make Brooklyn want to give him an extension this summer. Expect them to pick up his option, play his fourth season, and then become a restricted free agent.

 
Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (15-35, LW 27). When I watched a young Dennis Schroder fresh out of Germany at his first Summer League, I thought “he’s going to be a great defender, I just hope his offense comes along. His offenses did, but he’s not put in the effort on defense — the Hawks are 9.2 points per 100 possessions better defensively with him off the court this season. That has to be driving Mike Budenholzer crazy.

 
Suns small icon 29. Suns (17-34, LW 28). The Suns have moved Devin Booker over to the starting point guard role now — he has the ball in his hands. Booker has put up points (31 against the Rockets) but he’s not consistent at getting teammates involved, and he needs a much better defensive guard next to him or the plan will be exploited. With where the Suns are this season, this is exactly what they should be experimenting with.

 
Magic small icon 30. Magic (14-35, LW 30). Orlando is willing to be a seller at the trade deadline, but will there be any buyers for Evan Fournier or Elfrid Payton. A lot of teams — maybe 29 other ones — could use the shooting Fournier brings, but his salary is going to make a few teams back off. Orlando is certainly a team to watch as we move toward the Feb. 8 deadline.

Lonzo Ball on college basketball: ‘Everybody knows everybody’s getting paid. Might as well make it legal’

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The logs of payment by Andy Miller’s former agency to high school and college basketball players leaked today.

That has sparked discussions about the entire system, and Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball has a thought.

Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times:

Simply, I don’t believe Ball about not getting extra compensation at UCLA. That sounds like he caught himself going further then he wanted and attempting to backtrack.

I can see why Ball wouldn’t want to admit getting extra benefits. He still knows people at UCLA, and an NCAA inquiry based on his comments could hurt them – and his reputation at UCLA.

But NBA players should be outspoken on this issue. They have the power to apply pressure on the NCAA’s cartel system, in which schools collude to limit compensation to athletes. As long as that system remains, college players lose out, getting only under-the-table scraps, while coaches and administrators hoard the major money.

Good for Ball for pointing out the farce. It’s easy to stop caring once players reach the NBA and gets rich, but NBA players are uniquely equipped to shine a light on the NCAA’s problems.

Michele Roberts: Cap smoothing was ‘disgraceful request’ by NBA

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In 2016, new national TV contracts pushed the NBA’s salary cap from $70 million to $94.143 million – a larger jump than over the entire previous decade. Free agents cashed in majorly that summer.

But now, the cap is leveling off. It went up to just $99.093 million last year and is projected to reach only $101 million this year and $108 million next year. With so many lucrative long-term 2016 contracts still on the books, free agents the following few years haven’t gotten and won’t get comparable compensation.

The problem was predictable, and the NBA proposed a solution at the time – cap smoothing.

Players get 49%-51% of Basketball Related Income (BRI) each year, the precise amount determined by formula. The salary cap is set so teams’ payrolls collectively reach that range. (There are procedures if teams fall short or pay too much.)

With cap smoothing, the NBA would have set an artificially lower cap for 2016-17. Players would have gotten less than 49%-51% of BRI in salary, but presumably, the league would have distributed the difference to players after-the-fact. That way, all players – not just 2016 free agents – would cash in.

But the players union rejected the plan.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has looked back longingly, wishing the union approved. National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts, um, has not.

Roberts, in a Q&A with Paul Flannery of SB Nation:

When the salary explosion happened and you rejected the smoothing idea that the NBA proposed, has anything that has happened in the last few years caused you to reconsider that stance?

No, in fact it’s completely confirmed the correctness of that position. I delight and the players delight in reading about some of these contracts because they know they absolutely deserve it.

There was going to be no smoothing of the owners’ profits at all. They were going to enjoy real money that reflected where we were financially as a game. Why in the world would players pretend that the game was not making as much money and therefore have smaller contracts?

It was an absurd suggestion, I thought personally. But what we did to make sure it wasn’t just Michele’s instinct was hire two separate economists to tell us whether this was something that was going to be of value to our players in the long run.

Independent of each other and not knowing what either of us felt, they both came almost saying, “Are you kidding? Why would you do this?”

I don’t have any regrets at all. I don’t think a single player does either.

Not a single owner came up to me and suggested that they thought we should do this. The league did. But I didn’t see any chorus of support from any of the owners. I thought it was a disgraceful request.

It’s impossible to evaluate whether Roberts was right without knowing the particulars of the NBA’s smoothing plan. That has not leaked.

She implies the league proposed artificially lowering the cap (which, again, is determined by formula based on revenue) for the first year or two of the new national TV deals without offering the players something in return. I find that hard to believe. At minimum, it seems likely the NBA would have distributed the rest of the 49%-51% of BRI to players not earned in traditional salary.

Not that that would have been enough for the players to favor cap smoothing.

Players’ salaries are sometimes based on their previous salaries under cap rules. If only a portion of players’ NBA-provided income was considered official salary, that could have debilitating long-term effects.

Perhaps, the NBA could have accounted for that. But it seems there was little negotiating here. The league made a proposal, and the union rejected it.

I’m not sure which side benefited, and evaluating that becomes even more difficult when dividing the sides into competing interests.

For argument’s sake, let’s say rejecting cap smoothing led to more money for players. That largely went to 2016 free agents. What about all the players still under contract that summer? They didn’t get to reap the rewards.

What’s a better measure – the amount of money players collectively gained by rejecting cap smoothing or the percentage of players who earned more money by rejecting cap smoothing? There’s no easy answer.

And there’s more than just money at stake. Most significantly, a lack of cap smoothing allowed the Warriors to sign Kevin Durant. How many players prefer that never would have been possible?

I’m just not as convinced as Roberts rejecting cap smoothing was the right call. At minimum, negotiating a cap-smoothing compromise could have worked.

Many players already under contract in the summer of 2016 have been waiting their turn for a huge payday. But wait until many of them find out their windfall wasn’t just delayed. It’s not coming. Then, some of Roberts’ constituents might question her insistence that rejecting cap smoothing was correct.

Paul George says he wants to sign with team for long haul

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Paul George is enjoying his time with the Thunder. He also likes the idea of playing near his hometown in Los Angeles.

How will George pick between the two in free agency?

One idea: Sign a short-term contract with Oklahoma City.

He’ll be eligible for a higher max-salary tier in two years (35% of the cap, up from 30%). He’d also get to play more with a prime Russell Westbrook while still having an out if the 29-year-old point guard drops off. George would likely remain with Carmelo Anthony next season, too, as Anthony likely opts in. That’d give the Thunder more time to jell and show what they can do.

It’d also give the Lakers’ young core time to develop. If a prolonged test run in Oklahoma City fizzles, the Lakers would probably look even more appealing in a couple years (provided they keep open or can create cap space).

But George doesn’t sound interested in such a plan.

George, via Fred Katz of The Norman Transcript:

“I’m not looking to bounce around and play for multiple teams throughout my career. The decision I make will ultimately be to build something,” he said. “The only way it’s going to be done. So, this next decision, whatever it is, is to make sure I’m there for a duration.”

George can always change his mind, and he isn’t bound to follow his public statements. But he’s quite open about revealing his thought process. I respect that.

This statement doesn’t hint at any particular team. He could sign long-term anywhere.

But it speaks to the stakes of his upcoming free agency. Any team that wants George better sign him this summer. He probably won’t be available again.

Clippers executive Jerry West raves about Warriors’ Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green

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A former great player who’s now an executive for a Los Angeles NBA team praised an opposing player.

The last time this happened, Lakers president Magic Johnson got fined for tampering with the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo.

How will Jerry West fare with these comments about Warriors stars Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green?

West, via the TK Show:

Kevin Durant, I don’t know. Obviously, he’s one of my favorite players I’ve ever watched play. His size, the efficiency that he plays the game is scary. And then you have Steph over there, your little, your next-door-neighbor kid. Let’s go play with him. And then you get out there, and then you find out, oh my god, this guy’s a killer. But pretty unique with that. And the complementary players, in their own right, they’re great. There’s Klay Thompson. He just goes and plays and never seeks any credit. He just plays and really competitive. Draymond, the guy that drives the horse. They’ve got some really unique players up there, and it’s still fun for me to watch. I watch them play. I root for them, because I know some of the players.

As a reminder, here’s what Johnson said about Antetokounmpo. Nick Friedell of ESPN:

As Johnson watches from afar, he can’t help but see and enjoy the parallels between his game and that of the Bucks big man.

“Oh yeah,” Johnson told ESPN recently. “With his ball-handling skills and his passing ability. He plays above the rim I never could do that. But in his understanding of the game, his basketball IQ, his creativity of shots for his teammates. That’s where we [have the] same thing. Can bring it down, make a pass, make a play. I’m just happy he’s starting in the All-Star game because he deserves that. And he’s going to be like an MVP, a champion, this dude he’s going to put Milwaukee on the map. And I think he’s going to bring them a championship one day.”

Two key differences between West and Johnson:

West didn’t help get his team fined for tampering last summer. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said there’s no clear line for tampering, but that the Lakers face a higher bar due their previous violations.

Johnson didn’t previously work for Milwaukee. West worked in Golden State’s front office while those players were there and knows them personally.

But Silver also provided a rough outline of when tampering will be enforced when addressing Johnson’s latest fine:

“It’s one thing when you’re asking a coach a question about an opposing team right after a game. It’s another issue when a general manager or president of basketball sort of gratuitously issues a statement that is complimentary of a star player on another team.

“In essence, what we’ve said to him, and it’s a clear message to other team executives, is that stop talking about star players on other teams. There are plenty of other issues they can address. And there is sensitivity around it throughout the league.”

Given that line, I don’t know how West avoid a fine – which is a shame.

What he said is harmless. No player is going to join another team due to benign compliments from an opposing executive.

It’s also a disservice to fans and West himself if he’s discouraged from speaking publicly about current players. The all-time great has valuable perspective, and he shouldn’t be silenced just because he works for an NBA team. His entire interview with Tim Kawakami of The Athletic is interesting. Everybody would lose if West turns down interviews in fear of a fine.

Meanwhile, more meaningful tampering – making plans on future contracts – is rampant. But that’s difficult to curb. So, the NBA enforces silly stuff like this.

The NBA never should have fined Johnson for the Antetokounmpo comments. It just opens too many cans of worms in a fight not worth fighting. Seriously, what’s the point?

If I were the Lakers, I’d be bothered if West skates free on this. But if I were West, I’d also resent a fine.

The league has backed itself into a dumb corner.