Dewayne Dedmon

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NBA Power Rankings: Rockets remain locked on top, race to the bottom interesting

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Not much movement at the top of the power rankings, the Rockets are playing well and most of the other top teams seem to have a case of senioritis looking ahead to the All-Star break. The more interesting race may be to the bottom, where the Suns and Nets are losing, the Knicks have dropped seven straight, and the taking for lottery position is about to go full force.

 
Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (43-13, Last Week No. 1). Houston is a run-and-gun Mike D’Antoni team, right? Not really, or at least not as much as people think. The Rockets are ninth in the NBA in pace and 14th in the NBA in the percentage of offense started in transition. The Rockets are very efficient when they get in transition, scoring a league best 129.5 points per 100 transition possessions (stats via Cleaning the Glass), but they don’t run like people think. The Rockets have won nine in a row, they remain tied with the Warriors in the loss column in the race for the No. 1 seed and home court throughout the playoffs.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (44-13 LW 2). Whoever is doing the coaching for Golden State (Steve Kerr, Andre Iguodala, JaVale McGee), he/they seems to have awakened their dormant bench of the past month or so. Which is good, because they may need to fill in for Draymond Green soon — he has a league-leading 14 technical fouls this season, two more and he gets an automatic one-game suspension. One sign of when the Warriors start to buckle down and focus again heading into the playoffs — their dreadful transition defense will improve. Right now it is one of the worst in the league.

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (40-16, LW 3). Winners of six in a row — and the first five each by at least 15 points. The Raptors are in an impressive stretch and look like they could be the class of the East, but they will need to prove it in the playoffs. The Raptors are the top seed in the East as you read this — which could really matter come the playoffs. If Cleveland really has turned things around, the Cavs will still be the 3 seed (six games back of Boston/Toronto), meaning whoever finishes as the two seed gets them in the second round. Finish first, the path to the conference finals is cleaner.

 
Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (40-18, LW 4). Losers of 3-of-4, including ugly losses to the other top teams in the East Toronto and Cleveland. (The Celtics would have lost four in a row if the Wizards had played a little cleaner and Markieff Morris hadn’t fouled late.) The real reason for concern is the defense has been 6.4 points per 100 possessions worse in their last five games, going from best in the league to pedestrian. The offense remains just okay as it has much of the season, they need an elite defense to make up for it. This is likely just a blip, but something to watch.

 
5. Timberwolves (35-25, LW 5). That midseason stretch of good defense may have been a mirage — in their last 10 games the Timberwolves have given up a sieve-like 113.4 points per 100 possessions, 28th in the NBA for that stretch. Their transition defense continues to be the big issue. Rumors persist that Tom Thibodeau wants to pick up Derrick Rose off the buyout market, but I can’t see a good reason to do that. There are better options for point guard depth out there.

Bucks small icon 6. Bucks (32-24 LW 7). When Joe Prunty took over as head coach, his first move was to change the defensive schemes to something simpler and more traditional that his players could execute consistently — and in those 10 games the Bucks have allowed less than a point per possession and gone 8-2. Over that same time the Bucks have had a pedestrian offense (18th in the league) and while injuries (Malcolm Brogdon) are part of that the team needs to step up, starting with Giannis Antetokounmpo.

 
Spurs small icon 7. Spurs (35-24, LW 6). The Spurs have shaken up the starting lineup, inserting Davis Bertans and moving Pau Gasol to a sixth man role. The reason is that with Dejounte Murray starting at the point but not having an outside shot, the Spurs needed better floor spacing. They have gotten it, the offense has looked better with this new lineup. The Spurs are 1-3 at the start of their Rodeo road trip and it continues past the All-Star break through Feb. 25 in Cleveland.

 
Wizards small icon 8. Wizards (32-24, LW 8). Washington has won 6-of-8 since John Wall went down, with the two losses to elite defensive teams (Boston and Philly). With Tim Fraizer also out injured, the Wizards need to pick up a point guard on the buyout market to provide some depth behind Tomas Satoransky (who has played well and moved the ball with Wall out). Expect a move soon.

 
Jazz small icon 9. Jazz (29-28, LW 17). Winners of 10 in a row and they have been the best team in the NBA over that stretch. The biggest surprise is that the frontcourt of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert is working again — the Jazz are +26.2 per 100 possessions when those two are on the court together during this streak. Not sure if that’s sustainable. Donovan Mitchell continues to impress during the streak taking over games late, Ricky Rubio has found a comfort level in Quin Snyder’s system and next to Mitchell, and Joe Ingles can’t miss. With a softer schedule the rest of the way than other teams in the fight for playoffs, fivethirtyeight.com says they have a 90 percent chance of making the postseason.

 
Cavaliers small icon 10. Cavaliers (34-22 LW 19). They are 2-0 with the new-look lineup, and while it’s just two games the fact that LeBron James looks energized again, that the athleticism on defense is paying off, and that the bench looks good are all very good signs the Cavs are on the right track. After the All-Star break Tyronn Lue will get a few practices with his new team, which is needed. It’s too early to buy in on the Cavaliers again, but I like what I’ve seen in the test drive so far.

 
Thunder small icon 11. Thunder (32-26 LW 9).. Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony returned to the rotation Tuesday night vs. Cleveland but it didn’t help, and the Thunder are 2-6 in their last eight. Without Andre Roberson in those games their elite defense has fallen to the middle of the pack (15th in the NBA in those 8) and they continue to look for a fifth man in the starting and closing rotation. Also in those eight games, the team’s offense has fallen to bottom 10 in the league. This still feels like a team better built for the postseason, but the hole they have dug themselves will make that a struggle.

 
Nuggets small icon 12. Nuggets (31-26, LW 12). Denver quietly made a really smart move at the trade deadline, swapping out Emmanuel Mudiay for Devin Harris — Harris has fit right in and helped (he had 17 vs. Phoenix). The win over the Spurs Tuesday night mattered because for Denver the playoffs start now — they are the current six-seed in the West, but just two games up on the nine-seed Clippers (and three on the 10 seed and climbing Jazz). Denver needs victories now.

 
Sixers small icon 13. 76ers (29-25, LW 16). Adding Marco Belinelli after his buyout from the Hawks was a good pickup, he provides shooting and wing depth this team could use. The Sixers have won eight in a row at home now, but have 8-of-10 on the road were they are 12-15 this season. The Sixers need to keep racking up wins to keep Detroit at arms length and stay in the postseason, but the Sixers have the second toughest schedule in the East the rest of the way.

 
Pacers small icon 14. Pacers (30-25, LW 10). Indiana is 6-1 in games decided by three points or less this season, which is a little bit lucky but has helped keep them afloat and out of too much danger of missing the postseason. Although the bigger reason this team remains solidly in the postseason is the play of Victor Oladipo, the team has gone 13-6 since his return from injury.

 
Clippers small icon 15. Clippers (29-26 LW 14). DeAndre Jordan remained a Clipper past the trade deadline, despite a lot of teams calling about his availability (if the Clippers moved him they did not want to take on long-term salary coming back, and that became a sticking point). Whether he remains a Clipper after summer free agency is another question, he told our own Dan Feldman he’s not sure how much the team wants him, and you can bet other teams will work hard to recruit him.

 
Blazers small icon 16. Trail Blazers (31-26, LW 13). The Trail Blazers offense was hot for a while, then has cooled off (despite a 50 spot from Damian Lillard) but the ups-and-downs are expected in an offense where the pick-and-roll ball handler or a guy in isolation take 30.3 percent of the shots (this team does not move the ball well, which can lead to contests against good defenses). Fun matchup Wednesday night when the Blazers face the Warriors: Lillard and C.J. McCollum vs. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

 
Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (30-26, LW 15). New Orleans is 3-5 since DeMarcus Cousins went down for the season, and not surprisingly it is the offensive end of the court where they miss him most. Since the injury, the Pelicans have scored just 101.6 points per 100 possessions, way down from the 108.3 rating they had before. The Pels defense has been okay, but it can’t cover up that much lack of scoring. Of the five teams battling for the final three playoff spots in the West, the Clippers, Trail Blazers, and Pelicans have the toughest remaining schedules, New Orleans needs to find some buckets to stay in the postseason.

 
Heat small icon 18. Heat (30-27, LW 11). Dwyane Wade is back home in Miami, and that boost stopped a five-game skid. Wade is not an efficient scorer anymore, but he is an improved playmaker who can serve as sort of a defacto backup point guard, plus he can make some timely plays on both ends of the court. Expect him to keep coming off the bench but to get some crunch time minutes as well.

Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (27-29, LW 18). The Blake Griffin honeymoon is over as the Pistons have lost three straight and remain 2.5 games out of the playoffs in the East. If you really want to be picky, every game Griffin has won with the Piston came when the opponent was on the second game of a back-to-back. Overall the Pistons have been +6.5 points per 100 with Griffin on the court this season, but in the last three games, the Griffin and Andre Drummond pairing has been -14.4 per 100. Stan Van Gundy is looking forward to having some practices with his team at the end of the All-Star break.

 
Lakers small icon 20. Lakers (23-32 LW 21). Isaiah Thomas has a chance with the Lakers to improve his stock heading into his summer free agency — stock that took a serious hit in the past year with his injury, play in Cleveland, and his disruption of that locker room. Thomas had 22 points in his Lakers debut off the bench, and while his defense is still terrible if he can show he can still put up numbers he helps his cause this summer (either as a key ball handler on a lesser team or a sixth man on a good one).

 
Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (23-33, LW 20). The Hornets didn’t trade Kemba Walker at the deadline, as expected, but they should revisit that during the summer when the offers may improve. Charlotte did take a flier on Willy Hernangomez at the deadline, and while it adds some salary long term it’s a good flier on a guy who showed promise as a rookie then got squeezed in the New York rotations this season. On Saturday, while you’re settling in to watch the Dunk Contest, remember to wish Michael Jordan a happy 55th birthday.

 
Bulls small icon 22. Bulls (20-36 LW 29).. After trading out Nikola Mitotic, the Bulls took an interesting flier at the deadline taking on Noah Vonleh. He didn’t impress much in Portland but he was marginally better this season (he started a dozen games for them) and there is potential. Zach LaVine has impressed more and more of late, including the game-winning steal and dunk vs. Orlando on Monday.

 
Magic small icon 23. Magic (18-38, LW 25). And somewhere Scott Skiles smiles — the Magic decided to move on from Elfrid Payton at the trade deadline. They didn’t get much back but it was still the right move, it was time. Orlando continues to play well on offense — they are 10th in the NBA in that category over their last 10 games. The problem is they give up almost as many buckets as they score, leading to a 4-6 record in those games.

 
Mavericks small icon 24. Mavericks (18-40 LW 23). Dennis Smith Jr. continues to show flashes but struggle with efficiency, he scoring 15.5 points per game in his last 10 but is shooting just 36.1 percent overall and 27.7 percent from three in that stretch. On the bright side, Dirk Nowitzki dropped 22 on the Lakers and even had a dunk (his first of the season).

 
Grizzlies small icon 25. Grizzlies (18-37, LW 24). Tyreke Evans is still in Memphis after the trade deadline in one of the most bizarre deadline non-moves we have seen. Memphis’ GM tried to spin this was better for the team, but the reality is no team was going to give him the first he wanted, so now rather than two second-round pick (or a second and Emmanuel Mudiay, a deal that was on the table) the Grizzlies are going to watch him walk this summer for nothing. Will they revisit the Marc Gasol trade idea this summer?

 
Knicks small icon 26. Knicks (23-35, LW 22). They have lost seven in a row and are pushing their way higher into the draft lottery. I like the trade deadline gamble on Emmanuel Mudiay, a big point guard who could be a backup down the line, and maybe play next to Frank Ntilikina. The Knicks aren’t going anywhere (this season or probably next after the Kristaps Porzingis ACL injury) so taking gambles and trying to develop players is what they should do.

 
Hawks small icon 27. Hawks (18-40, LW 28). Dewayne Dedmon is back in the rotation, and Mike Budenholzer is going deep into that rotation to get a good look at the players they have as the Hawks start to work out who can be part of the rebuild long-term. Atlanta has won 3-of-6, which normally one would say is a good thing but in a tight race for lottery position, the Hawks wins cost them the best lottery odds in the past week.

 
Kings small icon 28. Kings (18-38, LW 26). The Kings moved on from George Hill at the deadline, and they got a second-round pick for it. The real key for the Kings is what they do with that and their other picks — the Kings have either missed on or been unable to properly develop players over the past decade, and that has held them back. Sure, they nailed DeMarcus Cousins, and this is not about Georgios Papagiannis (who they waived), rather it’s about not regularly turning first-round picks into solid rotation players they can hold onto at an affordable price. That’s how teams get built, and the Kings need to get there to turn this ship around.

 
Nets small icon 29. Nets (19-39, LW 27). Getting a second-round pick for Tyler Zeller was a good move for the Nets. Losers of six in a row, that only serves to make Cavaliers fans happy as they control the Brooklyn pick (and they value it enough that Cleveland would not give it up at the trade deadline despite a roster overhaul). Allen Crabbe has shown some signs of life in the last two weeks, a good thing as he is near the top of the “most disappointing player in the NBA this season” list.

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (18-40, LW 30). Losers of six in a row and 11-of-12, the Suns are now tied for the worst record in the NBA (and a chance for the top spot in the draft lottery). I like the flier on Elfrid Payton at the trade deadline, they want a point guard to put next to Devin Booker eventually, and while Payton may not be it they didn’t give up much and Payton has potential if he could find his shot.

NBA Power Rankings: Minnesota into top 3, Miami into top 10

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It should be a shock to nobody that Golden State and Boston remain locked in the top two slots, but after that things get interesting. Minnesota is finally defending and is up to No. 3, Miami has pushed its way into the top 10, and a disinterested Cavaliers team (which has some real flaws, too) has fallen to 12th.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (36-9 Last Week No. 1). The Warriors have now won 13 in a row with Stephen Curry in the lineup, and 13 in a row on the road. That includes wins this past week in Toronto (up by 27 at one point) and in Cleveland showed the gap between the best in the East and the top of the West. If you’re looking for something to point to as a flaw, the famed “death” lineup hasn’t played much or terribly well. Not that it’s mattered.

Celtics small icon 2. Celtics (34-11, LW 2). Boston is now 1-0 in London and on a 7-game winning streak — a run that includes wins over the Rockets, Cavaliers, and the Timberwolves. The amazing thing during this win streak is the offense has been an unimpressive 27th in the NBA, it’s just that their defense has been so dominant it has not mattered. That may raise questions come the playoffs, but in the regular season the Celtics keep on rolling.

3. Timberwolves (29-17, LW 4). Jimmy Butler has moved into the broad MVP conversation, averaging 21 points a game on 53.1% shooting in the last five Timberwolves wins, and he’s hitting 64.3% from three in those contests, with 6.2 assists and rebounds per game. Tuesday night’s unimpressive loss in Orlando was the first of 7-of-9 on the road, a test for the improving Timberwolves. One of those tests is Thursday’s game against the Rockets, which becomes far more fun to watch if Harden returns.

Raptors small icon 4. Raptors (29-13, LW 3). The comeback against the Warriors — from 27 down to make it a game late — without Kyle Lowry was impressive. However, a blowout win over the Cavaliers was the bigger deal, giving the Raptors some confidence as they look ahead to potential postseason matchups (and they did it without Lowry or Serge Ibaka). More than the improved offense, having rookie OG Anunoby doing a credible job defending LeBron James is crucial, allowing other guys to stay home on shooters. Toronto should have hope.

Rockets small icon 5. Rockets (30-12, LW 5). As good as Chris Paul is at knowing back tunnels and instigating trouble in the Clippers locker room, on the court the Rockets need James Harden — they have gone 4-3 without him (hamstring issue). Harden could return as early as Thursday night in a big televised game against Minnesota. Saturday night comes a nationally televised showdown with the Warriors and you know The Beard wants to suit up for that.

Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (29-16, LW 6). Just when you thought the Spurs would get healthy, Kawhi Leonard is out again with his quad issue. At least Rudy Gay should be back soon. The Spurs are where they are because of the second best defense in the NBA this season, then getting enough offense when they need it (13th in the league), mostly in the half court (Spurs are 28th in NBA in percentage of points in transition). If they can get healthy the offense should improve.

Wizards small icon 7. Wizards (25-19, LW 7). Washington’s offense has been good this season — 11th in the NBA overall, seventh in the league in percentage of their points in transition — but they have struggled to get to the rim. Only 31% of the Wizards shots are at the rim, 26th in the NBA (for comparison, the Lakers and Grizzlies get more than 40% of their shots there). Washington finishes well when it does get to the rim, shooting 65.5% (7th in the league) but instead they take more midrange shots (41% of shot attempts) which is less efficient. The Wizards could use to get to the rim for shots and to draw fouls more often.

Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (24-20 LW 8).. The Thunder starting five when healthy — Steven Adams, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Andre Roberson (out right now), and Russell Westbrook — have outscored teams by 11.3 points per 100 possessions. Start to dip into that bench and things get worse — sub Terrence Ferguson in for Roberson and the lineup is -9.1 per 100. Coach Billy Donovan is throwing a lot of different bench lineups against the wall trying to find something that sticks right now.

Heat small icon 9. Heat (25-18, LW 12). Miami’s loss to Chicago Monday was the first game of 9-of-11 on the road — a real test for the Heat, who had won 7 in a row before that (but only the last one by double digits). A test because the Heat have a negative point differential (outscored by 32 points this season), and that tends to catch up with teams. Part of the recent rise of Miami is that rookie Bam Adebayo is making a real contribution to the team nightly, he was a real find in the draft.

Bucks small icon 10. Bucks (23-20 LW 11). Just how big a threat is Milwaukee come the playoffs? We don’t know. Not just because it’s early, but we don’t yet know: 1) What this team looks like with Jabari Parker in the lineup (that’s a month away); 2) What moves the Bucks may make at the trade deadline. They have been one of the more aggressive teams in talks, but to land someone like DeAndre Jordan would require sending Parker out, and that doesn’t seem likely. This is a good team, but how dangerous remains to be seen.

Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (24-20, LW 17). If there’s one end-of-season award that seems a lock, it’s Victor Oladipo winning Most Improved Player. He played a major role in the 22-point comeback the Pacers had to beat the Cavaliers this past week as the Pacers went 3-1 on a homestand. Now they head out on the road with tough games at Portland and San Antonio this week.

Cavaliers small icon 12. Cavaliers (26-17 LW 7). Losers of four in a row (all against good teams), including the one game they really got up and focused on in Golden State. The Cavaliers need to do something at the trade deadline up upgrade (both for Warriors and ensure getting out of the East) but the options are not great in a tight trade market: DeAndre Jordan would help, as would Nikola Mitotic in a different way. The shooting of Evan Fournier could help. But if the Cavs will not give up the Nets pick (I hear they will not) then how good a player can they really land?

Pelicans small icon 13. Pelicans (23-20, LW 15). Anthony Davis, already a name floating around the second tier of the MVP race, has been flat out dominant the past week, dropping 48 in Madison Square Garden on Sunday, then turning around and putting up 45 in the Boston Garden Tuesday. However, under the radar in those games Jrue Holiday has been fantastic with his defense and knocking down midrange shots. The Pelicans enter a soft week in the schedule, they need to add wins to pad their playoff slot.

Clippers small icon 14. Clippers (22-21 LW 18). The Clippers — despite no Chris Paul and a rash of injuries to key players such as Blake Griffin, Patrick Beverley, and Danilo Gallinari — are just half a game out of the playoffs as of today in the crowded back end of the West. Insane. Doc Rivers deserves some Coach of the Year consideration. ESPN’s Kevin Pelton had a stat that shows just how much health matters to this team: The Clippers are 12-4 and plus-9.2 per 100 possessions when Milos Teodosic plays and 10-17 with a minus-4.3 differential when he is out.

Sixers small icon 15. 76ers (20-20, LW 14). J.J. Redick is out for a couple of weeks with a leg injury and that’s a concern because the Sixers offense is 7.8 points per 100 possessions worse when the sharpshooter is not on the court. Tough stretch for Philly coming up without Redick, with a game at Boston Thursday starting 7-of-10 on the road — Philly is a game out of the playoffs as that stretch starts, they have to stay in touch with Detroit and Milwaukee to keep the dream of the postseason alive.

Pistons small icon 16. Pistons (22-20, LW 16). The Pistons have been one of the more active teams seeking a trade as the deadline approaches — Stan Van Gunny wants to win now (or at least win more). With Andre Drummond in the fold they won’t want DeAndre Jordan, but wing depth and scoring — Tyreke Evans, Lou Williams — would be a priority, the question is will Van Gundy pay the price to get those guys? After a tough game vs. Toronto Wednesday, the Pistons have 13-of-15 at home.

Blazers small icon 17. Trail Blazers (23-21, LW 13). The good news, Portland has finally found its missing offense — they have averaged 110.1 points per 100 possessions over their last 10 games. The bad news, their stout defense for most of the season went away in that same stretch, giving up 111.8 per 100 (so the Blazers are 5-5 in that stretch). Starting next Monday in Denver (a key game in a tight playoff race) Portland has 7-of-10 on the road.

Nuggets small icon 18. Nuggets (23-21, LW 10). Nikola Jokic snapped out of his recent scoring slump to drop 29 points (with 18 boards and 7 assists) on the Mavericks Tuesday. Denver needs more of that, as it is in the middle of the brutally tight back end of the Western Conference (1.5 games separates the 5 seed Thunder and the 9 seed Clippers). Along those lines, the Nuggets game at the Clippers’ Wednesday feels important.

Knicks small icon 19. Knicks (20-24, LW 19). Tim Hardaway Jr. is back healthy and in the rotation, and they needed him. The Knicks are 5-15 away from home and Monday’s win at Brooklyn was the first of 7 in a row and 9-of-10 away from Madison Square Garden. The Knicks are currently three games out of the playoffs and if they don’t do well on this upcoming road test they could be out of the race by the time Justin Timberlake is dancing on the halftime stage at the Super Bowl.

Bulls small icon 20. Bulls (17-27 LW 22).. Zach LaVine is finally healthy and made his debut as a member of the Bulls over the weekend — and he has looked good. He has 32 points in two games, but more importantly looks comfortable and quick attacking the basket — his athleticism has always been the key to his game and he seems to have a lot of that back. The Bulls face the Warriors Wednesday then head out for three on the road — it’s a tough week.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (17-25, LW 20). Steve Clifford is back on the sidelines, and that’s a very good thing. But over the next few weeks the Hornets have some big-picture decisions to make about this team (which is 5 games out of the playoffs) — is it time to trade Kemba Walker and start a rebuild? This team simply isn’t as good as ownership imagined, and there’s no clear path to being more than just a 7/8 seed if things go right in future years. Blowing it up in a small market where the team has struggled is no easy call, but the Hornets need to at least consider it from a basketball perspective.

Jazz small icon 22. Jazz (17-26, LW 23). Thabo Sefolosha is now out for the rest of the season with knee surgery, and Rudy Gobert will be out at least another week. Utah is one of the leading suitors for Nicola Mirotic and they also are shopping around Derrick Favors (Cleveland may be interested), a Mirotic/Favors trade will work but the Bulls want a first-round pick in the deal. Is Utah willing to throw that in? Expect some Utah movement at the trade deadline.

Mavericks small icon 23. Mavericks (15-30 LW 25). Dennis Smith Jr. has shown promise at the point and has taken over at the end of the last two big Dallas comebacks (they fell short in those games, but you have to like what you see in Smith). There is some buzz that Dallas will go hard at DeMarcus Cousins in the off-season, and that sounds like a very Mark Cuban move. If New Orleans comes in big it may be hard to pry Boogie out of the Big Easy, but him and another high draft pick (Dallas would enter the lottery fifth right now) likely has the Mavs back in the playoffs in a year.

Nets small icon 24. Nets (16-28, LW 21). We could see the return of D’Angelo Russell this week, which is good for the Nets evaluation process, but what will it do to the minutes of Spencer Dinwiddie, who has become a really fun player to watch. So have the Nets as a whole — they are scrappy, and they keep games close with their effort. Then at the end of games Dinwiddie tries to take over and… he’s not exactly efficient, but he’ll hit the occasional game winner (ask the Hawks).

Grizzlies small icon 25. Grizzlies (14-28, LW 26). Marc Gasol isn’t going anywhere at the trade deadline, but Tyreke Evans may very well be on the move. He has established himself as a quality bucket getter again averaging 19.6 points per game and shooting 40.6% from three. (He’d be in the Sixth Man of the Year running except he’s started more than half the team’s games.) Evans is on a steal of a contract (one-year, $3.3 million) and the Grizzlies will not have the cap space to re-sign him next summer, so they should get some value for him while they can.

Lakers small icon 26. Lakers (15-28 LW 27). Lonzo Ball is incredibly good at tuning out the noise of his father, if only everyone else around the Lakers could do that. I will add people outside that locker room care a lot more about what LaVar does and says than people inside it. The Lakers had a four-game win streak (including over the Spurs) and Brandon Ingram continues to make strides as a guy who can just score the rock.

Suns small icon 27. Suns (16-29, LW 24). I like the job Jay Triano has done as coach, but is it enough to keep his job next summer? The Suns play fast — they get the fifth highest percentage of their offensive chances out of transition in the league (16.6%). The problem is they are one of the worst teams in the league at scoring in transition. Part of that is they don’t finish well at the rim — Phoenix is shooting 58.7% inside four feet this season, second worst in the NBA.

Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (12-31, LW 29). Dewayne Dedmon returned to the rotation last week, but at this point in the season isn’t it time to just turn John Collins loose? He has the highest PER of any rookie in the league, but Mike Budenholzer is bringing him along slowly off the bench at 22 minutes a night. Collins has been fantastic, time to unleash him on the NBA and let him learn a couple hard lessons along the way.

Kings small icon 29. Kings (13-30, LW 28). Coach Dave Joerger made it official, the Kings are going to play their youth heavily and keep veterans such as Zach Randolph, George Hill, and Vince Carter in smaller roles. This is the smart thing to do for player development, it’s also the smart thing to do because the Kings have their first-round pick this season (not next season) and this draft has some big talent at the top. Call it tanking if you want, the Kings weren’t winning with their vets, might as well get the young guys more rune.

Magic small icon 30. Magic (13-31, LW 30). It feels like a major roster shakeup is coming to Orlando, and that could start at the trade deadline as just about everyone on the roster is available. Evan Fournier is the kind of shooter and all around player a lot of teams could use, but the combination of his contract (three-years, $51 million after this season still) and what the Magic will want back means a deal may could be hard to put together in a tight market. Teams are hesitant to take on salary.

D.J. Augustin hits 3-pointer to force OT, where Magic beat Hawks

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RLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Evan Fournier scored 27 points but injured his right ankle as the Orlando Magic rallied to beat the Atlanta Hawks 110-106 in overtime Wednesday night.

Aaron Gordon had 24 points and 15 rebounds and Nikola Vucevic added 22 points and 16 rebounds for the Magic, and Jonathon Simmons scored 15 points.

Fournier, the team’s second-leading scorer, left with an injured ankle after falling on Vucevic’s foot on the first possession in overtime.

Dennis Schroder led Atlanta with 26 points and seven assists. Taurean Prince had 19 points and Tyler Cavanaugh 13 for the Hawks.

The Magic hit 6 of 10 shots in overtime, five of them layups against a tired and ineffective defense.

Orlando’s D.J. Augustin hit a 3-pointer with 6.2 seconds left in regulation to send the game to overtime. It ended a difficult final two minutes of regulation for both sides.

Fournier hit a driving layup to put Orlando up 93-92 with 1:59 to play, and both teams struggled to execute from there.

Bazemore hit a 3-pointer with 1:33 left, but it was waved off after a review because of a shot-clock violation. Gordon then was charged with an offensive foul as he made a layup, but Schroder and Ersan Ilyasova both missed layups at the other end for Atlanta.

Schroder ended the run of bad offense by hitting two free throws with 27.3 seconds left for a 94-93 lead, and Bazemore hit two more with 14 seconds left to give Atlanta a 96-93 edge.

Augustin got free at the top of the key and drilled his tying 3-pointer.

TIP-INS

HAWKS: C Dewayne Dedmon missed his fourth straight game with a leg injury and F John Collins missed his third straight with a shoulder strain. … F Marco Belinelli hit his 900th career 3-pointer in the third period.

MAGIC: Rookie F Johnathan Isaac missed his 13th straight game with a sprained ankle. … The Magic haven’t won a game this season when they scored less than 100 points.

UP NEXT

Hawks: Play the Magic again Saturday night at home.

Magic: Host Denver on Friday night. The Nuggets defeated Orlando 125-107 on Nov. 11.

 

NBA Power Rankings: Rockets remain on top, Raptors climb into top five

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There’s a lot of stability at the top of the rankings as teams keep on winning. The big mover this week was the Utah Jazz, who leaped from No. 19 up to 8 thanks to their six-game win streak — and they got Rudy Gobert back.

 
Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (18-4, Last Week No. 1). The Rockets have won seven games in a row since Chris Paul’s return, doing so by an average of 21.6 points per contest. Talk to the veteran Rockets and they are a focused group: “If you’re slacking, we let you know,” Trevor Ariza told NBC Sports. “That’s how it is, when we see somebody is not giving the effort they normally give, I’ll yell ‘let’s go’ and it usually works, because everybody knows it’s coming from a good place.”

 
Celtics small icon 2. Celtics (21-4, LW 2). Rookie Jayson Tatum leads the NBA in three point percentage, hitting 51.3% while taking about three shots from beyond the arc a game. He is in the mix for Rookie of the Year for a reason. Marcus Smart has shown a real chemistry with Al Horford already, and that combined with Smart’s defense is why Brad Stevens is choosing to close games with him on the floor. Interesting matchup with the Spurs Friday night.

 
Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (19-6 LW 3). They have started 4-0 on a six-game road trip, but will have to play the rest of it — and a couple weeks after it — without Stephen Curry who sprained his ankle against New Orleans Monday. With Kevin Durant getting more touches, the Warriors have the talent to not miss a beat even with a former MVP in street clothes, but to do so the team needs to be more focused than it has been most of the season. The Warriors are coasting. It gets them in trouble (like down 20 to the Pelicans at the half, so Curry is in at the end of the game and that’s when the injury hits).

 
Cavaliers small icon 4. Cavaliers (17-7 LW 4). Winners of 12 in a row, in part thanks to LeBron James playing at an MVP level (he and James Harden are the clear frontrunners in my book, although it’s very early), but also a defense that is back to being Top 10 during this run. At the heart of that defensive surge, the Cavaliers are defending the arc much better, running teams off it and not giving up those clean looks. The win streak may continue with 5-of-6 at home before a road heavy end of the month.

 
Raptors small icon 5. Raptors (15-7, LW 6). Kyle Lowry has been one of the hottest players in the NBA the past couple of weeks — in his last 5 games he has averaged 21.2 points per game on 53 percent shooting, he’s knocked down five threes a game, and dished out 7.6 assists. It’s been impressive. Starting Friday in Memphis the Raptors get out of the cold a lot with 8-of-11 games on the road, but there are some real measuring stick games in there.

 
Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (16-8, LW 5). Kawhi Leonard could return this week, but before he does we need to give one more shout out to LaMarcus Aldridge, who has been second-tier MVP discussion good through the first quarter of the season. Aldridge is averaging 22.8 points on 50.6% shooting, he’s hitting his threes (38.5%), and he is grabbing 8.2 points per game. Still, the offense needs better shot creation, and Leonard may provide that.

 
Sixers small icon 7. 76ers (13-10, LW 8). That the Sixers are 13-10 having played the NBA’s toughest schedule so far this season is a testament to how improved this team has been. The losses to Cleveland and Boston in the past week are understandable, and beating Washington and Detroit is a sign of where this team stands (the loss to Phoenix was just ugly). Starting Saturday the Sixers have 9-of-12 on the road. #FreeJah

Pistons small icon 8. Pistons (14-9, LW 7). More than a quarter of the way into the season, and despite some recent stumbles, it’s time to stop asking if the Pistons are for real — they are. The stats at Ben Falk’s Cleaning the Glass project them finishing with 44-45 wins, which would be the five seed (and very close to the four and home court in the first round). Stan Van Gundy deserves some consideration for Coach of the Year for his work this season.

 
Pacers small icon 9. Pacers (13-11, LW 10). A lot has been made of Indiana shooting an impressive 39.8% from three as a team (it jumps over 40% when you take out garbage time), but when you’re 24th in the league in attempts from beyond the arc it limits the impact of that shooting. The Pacers lost to the Rockets and Raptors in the last week (they did beat the Kristaps Porzingis-less Knicks), and the schedule doesn’t get easier with the Cavs, Nuggets and Thunder coming up.

 
10. Timberwolves (14-11, LW 12). The fact Minnesota’s name came up in the list of teams pushing hardest for DeAndre Jordan is interesting — has Tom Thibodeau decided Karl-Anthony Towns is never going to be a great defender and needs one next to him to do the dirty work? The Timberwolves are 27th in the league in defensive rating (when you take out garbage time) and that’s not good enough for the kind of team they want to be. All that said, I don’t see how Minnesota has the players that would interest the Clippers in a trade. What is interesting is the reasoning to go after Jordan.

Bucks small icon 11. Bucks (12-10 LW 15). The Bucks are 8-4 since the Eric Bledsoe trade, however Monday’s loss at Boston felt like a reminder that even when Giannis Antetokounmpo is brilliant — 40 points — they have a ways to go to compete with the NBA’s elite. The Bucks need to do better on the defensive glass and stop fouling as much to take the next defensive step forward.

 
Jazz small icon 12. Jazz (13-12, LW 19). They had won six in a row until running into Oklahoma City on Tuesday, and that streak pushed them up the board thanks to an offense that found it’s groove. Part of that is Derrick Favors, who is a dangerous scorer inside and out at the five, and he has dominated second half through this stretch. Rudy Gobert is back now (he played the end of the game against the Thunder, not Favors), but what’s impressive is Utah’s 7-4 record without him. Rodney Hood has been out the last three and Alec Burks has stepped up.

 
Wizards small icon 13. Wizards (13-11, LW 11). Bradley Beal’s 51 points on Tuesday in Portland is just part of what has been Beal’s best NBA season — 23.3 points per game, and a strong true shooting percentage of 56.7% despite having to take on more of the offense this season. He’s playing at an All-Star level. Washington also has gotten a lot more out of its bench lately, led by Kelly Oubre.

 
Blazers small icon 14. Trail Blazers (13-11, LW 9). Despite their inability to stop Beal on Tuesday, the Blazers are still are a surprisingly good defensive team, fourth in the league overall with the lowest opponent field goal percentage around the rim in the league (55.3%, from Cleaning the Glass). Opponents are still getting a lot of shots there, however, which is concerning. The Blazers have lost three in a row to start a four-game homestand and now things get tough: Houston on Saturday, followed by five in a row on the road, opening against Golden State. Then when the road trip ends they come home to the Spurs.

 
Thunder small icon 15. Thunder (11-12 LW 18).. Oklahoma City has won three in a row beating teams above them in the standings — Minnesota, San Antonio, and Utah — using a combination of good defense and Russell Westbrook. More importantly, the Thunder won close games and played well down the stretch — if they can build on that they can become the team people expected before the season. The Thunder travel to Mexico this Thursday to take on the Nets in Mexico City.

 
Nuggets small icon 16. Nuggets (13-10, LW 13). They are 4-3 since Paul Millsap went down. Nikola Jokic has missed a couple games with with a sprained ankle suffered against the Bulls, which is not ideal because they are on a six game road trip. The Nuggets hope to have him back near the end of it (in a week), but they are 3-8 on the road this season and need to find a way to get some wins on this trip.

 
Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (12-12, LW 14). The Pelicans have lost 4-of-5, and while part of that is playing the Warriors twice, part of it is they are not the same without Anthony Davis — they are 14.8 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court this season, he is playing at a level that would get him bottom of the ballot MVP votes, and now he is missing time due to his hip injury. The Pelicans are -9.2 per 100 when DeMarcus Cousins is on the court without Davis. New Orleans got one win without Davis in Portland when DeMarcus Cousins went off, with four of five at home they need more of that from their big man.

 
Hornets small icon 18. Hornets (9-13, LW 20). Our thoughts are with coach Steve Clifford as he takes an indefinite leave of absence from Charlotte to deal with a personal health issue. Stephen Silas takes over as acting coach, but I don’t know that he, nor any coach, can simply solve the bench issues for this team — the starters are fine (even with Kemba Walker missing a couple of games) but the Hornets bench digs a hole the starters can’t get the team out of.

 
Heat small icon 19. Heat (11-12, LW 16). Hassan Whiteside will be out a couple of weeks, although rookie Bam Adebayo has proven to be a solid replacement and NBA starter for Miami. The travel to Mexico City for a Saturday game against Brooklyn but they will be without Hassan Whiteside who is skipping the entire three-game road trip to recover a bone bruise on his left knee. The Heat defense is 6.8 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court.

 
Knicks small icon 20. Knicks (11-12, LW 17). The combination of a sprained ankle and an illness sat Kristaps Porzingis for a couple games, plus Tim Hardaway Jr. missed those same games against Orlando and Indiana, and the Knicks struggled without them. Porzingis is expected back Wednesday, but Hardaway is out a couple of weeks. New York has five straight games against what look like non-playoff teams — Grizzlies, Bulls, Hawks, Lakers, Nets — and they need to pad the win column before the schedule turns difficult.

 
Nets small icon 21. Nets (9-14, LW 24). They have two games this week in Mexico City, Thursday against the Thunder then Saturday against the Heat. When you watch those games, see how the OKC and Miami do from the midrange — the Nets do what teams should do on paper and force opponents to shoot from the midrange, but opponents are hitting 42.4% from there, second highest percentage in the NBA (Cleaning the Glass).

 
Magic small icon 22. Magic (10-15, LW 25). With Terrence Ross out for a while, more will fall on Jonathon Simmons — who has looked pretty good for the Magic but now has a lot more responsibility. The Magic snapped their nine-game losing streak and have won 2-of-4, which is the start to a turnaround, and now they have 4-0f-5 at home.

 
Grizzlies small icon 23. Grizzlies (8-15, LW 26). Since J.B. Bierstaff took over, the Grizzlies have gone back to their old ways and have played at the slowest pace in the league, and they are taking fewer threes. The new coach is 1-3 on the job, but Memphis did snap its 11-game losing streak to the play-down-to-the-competition Timberwolves. Things don’t get easier for the Grizzlies, still without Mike Conley, as the Raptors and Thunder are among the teams on the schedule this week.

 
Clippers small icon 24. Clippers (8-14 LW 21). How will DeAndre Jordan personally, and the Clippers as a team, handle the swirling trade rumors around him (ones that are not going away before he is moved or the trade deadline in February, whichever comes first)? The Clippers should get both Milos Teodosic and Danilo Gallinari back in the next week, which will help, because with Blake Griffin out for at least a month Austin Rivers has become the team’s primary playmaker, and that’s not working.

 
Mavericks small icon 25. Mavericks (7-17 LW 27). The good news is Dallas is playing hard and getting themselves into close games, but they still struggle to close those out as seen in losses to the Spurs and Nets. However, the Mavericks have won two in a row now and head out with 5-of-6 on the road. As for a Nerlens Noel update:

 
Lakers small icon 26. Lakers (8-15 LW 22). The Lakers have dropped five in a row and now have 6-of-7 on the road (with the one home game being Golden State) in their toughest stretch of the schedule this season. On the bright side, Kyle Kuzma continues to impress as a rookie and put up numbers. Also, having seen him twice in the last week in person, Brandon Ingram seems to be turning a corner into a more aggressive player whose shot is coming along.

 
Suns small icon 27. Suns (9-17, LW 23). The Devin Booker groin injury is scary (as of this writing we do not know how long he will be out). He’s averaging 24.3 points per game, is shooting 38.3% from three, is the Suns biggest scoring threat, and the team’s offense has scored less than a point per possession when he is off the court. The Suns went 2-4 on their recent road trip, but it doesn’t get easier coming home to the Wizards and Spurs for a couple games.

 
Kings small icon 28. Kings (7-16, LW 28). There has been little consistency with this team, Skal Labissiere was starting a few games ago, then last week he got assigned to the D-League. The Kings are playing big again with Willie Cauley-Stein and Kosta Koufos starting. De’Aaron Fox is showing flashes, but mostly looks like a rookie thrown to the wolves. George Hill summed up the mood of Kings fans about this season well.

 
Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (5-18, LW 29). The best barometer of the Hawks is point guard Dennis Schroeder — in games he doesn’t play or scores fewer than 20 points, the Hawks are 0-11 (they are 5-7 when he does hit that mark). Tough to see John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon out injured, their play was one of the few reasons to watch the Hawks this season. Atlanta has a home-and-home with Orlando that starts Wednesday.

 
Bulls small icon 30. Bulls (3-19 LW 30).. A couple of harsh 1-point losses (to Denver and Sacramento) last week, which I guess could be seen as moral victories for the Bulls, who have dropped 9 straight. The Bulls could get Nikola Mitotic back this week. The guy they really need suited up is Zach LaVine, but that still seems weeks away.

Three questions the San Antonio Spurs must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer this season to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last season: 61-21, advanced to the Western Conference Finals, where Kawhi Leonard rolled an ankle (thank you Zaza Pachulia) and they got swept by the Warriors.

I know what you did last summer: They kept the status quo going. The Spurs re-signed Patty Mills (probably overpaying, but they had to with Tony Parker injured to start the season). Pau Gasol opted out and re-signed, again for maybe more than the market would have given him. The Spurs brought back Manu Ginobili. They signed Rudy Gay, who is coming off an Achilles injury. The losses were solid bench players Dewayne Dedmon and Jonathon Simmons.

THREE QUESTIONS THE SPURS MUST ANSWER

1) Is Kawhi Leonard healthy, and can he stay that way? We saw in the playoffs last season what happens to this team when Leonard goes down, and it’s not pretty. Leonard is a top five NBA player who is both the focal point of the Spurs offense and the best perimeter defender in the NBA (that’s not just my opinion, the NBA GMs voted him that). The Spurs ask a lot of Leonard and he answered last season with an MVP-level performance.

That’s why it raised a few eyebrows that Leonard is sitting out the preseason to rest his right quadriceps tendinopathy (an inflammation of the tendon just above the kneecap in the thigh), especially after Gregg Popovich said it was something he battled last season. Is Leonard going to miss time at the start of this season because of it? Will it require him getting more rest days during the season?

We know what the Spurs are going to do — defend well, move the ball, not beat themselves. San Antonio is going to have a hard time getting near that 61 win total of a year ago in a loaded West, but without the full Kawhi Leonard treatment they could slide a little further down the board. Nobody is betting on the Spurs to collapse, but did the Rockets and Thunder pass them by?

2) Is playing big the antidote to a league going small? It seems like the entire NBA is going smaller, trying to emulate the Warriors and their death lineup. Cleveland will be starting Kevin Love at the five this season. Houston will play fast and small.

“Golden State is an anomaly, with the group of players they have,” Popovich said last preseason. “And they’re a monster. Definitely the toughest team in the league to guard. But the rest of us poor fools, 29 of us, are kind of a hybrid. Everybody tries to be flexible. Not team is going to be all big or all small. Every game, teams play small for a while, they play big for a while. That’s the way it is. That’s the truth.”

The Spurs zigged when the league zagged — they are a big team that starts Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge up front and have real size in their defenders such as Leonard or Danny Green. This is not an accident. The Spurs have some versatility, but they want a lineup that can give small lineups trouble and push them around a little. It worked last regular season, and we didn’t get a real chance to see how it would have worked against the Warriors in the playoffs. But as those big men age and get a little slower, will going big still work as well.

3) Can the Spurs bench again be the NBA’s best? Or, to put that another way, what guy we don’t recall them drafting is going to come out of nowhere and impress us this season?

Once again last season the Spurs bench was the best in the NBA, outscoring teams by 8.9 points per 100 possessions over the course of the season. That is a key reason they win 55+ games every season — their bench comes in and executes at a high level, extending leads.

This season that bench will be a little thinner without Dewayne Dedmon and Jonathon Simmons, two guys who brought real athleticism off the bench. Still they have the legend that is Manu Ginoboili, Rudy Gay (who is playing in the preseason but may be slowed for a bit coming off an Achilles injury), plus guys like Dejounte Murray, Kyle Anderson, Davis Bertans, and now Joffrey Lauvergne. For the Spurs to keep on winning like we expect, Popovich needs to work his magic and turn these guys into one of the league’s most formidable benches. Again.