Luke Kennard

Associated Press

NBA Power Rankings: Rockets, Warriors remain on top, Sixers slide into late teens

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With just a few days until Christmas, the top of the Power Rankings board remains stable (and likely will for a while), with the only change in the top 5 being Toronto jumping over the Spurs into fifth. The big fall down the board this week is the Sixers, who have lost 7-of-8 and drop nine slots to 18.

 
Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (25-4, Last Week No. 1). The NBA record for average number of three pointers made per game over a season is 14.4, and the most attempts averaged per game is 40.3. This season the Rockets are hitting 15.9 per game on 43.2 attempts per game, shattering the records. That strategy is working, the win streak is up to 14 in a row now. Chris Paul faces his former team the Clippers for the first time Friday in Houston. After that the Rockets have 6-of-8 on the road, and they take on Oklahoma City Christmas Day.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (24-6 LW 2). Stephen Curry and Draymond Green are out (Curry is out for Christmas Day), but Steve Kerr believes injuries have focused his team. “I think when Steph went out we realized we don’t have that margin for error, and if we’re going to win we’re going to have to do two things, take care of the ball and defend,” Kerr said Monday before his team beat the Lakers in OT (in a game they were not terribly focused). The Warriors have won nine in a row and now have seven straight at home, the biggest one against the Cavaliers on Christmas Day.

 
Celtics small icon 3. Celtics (26-7, LW 3). The come-from-behind win against Indiana Monday night was a microcosm of this team recently — inconsistent play bailed out by big shots (Kyrie Irving’s late threes) and timely defense (Terry Rozier’s steal and game-winning bucket). Boston has really struggled of late with Irving off the floor, something to watch going forward. The Celtics get to showcase their return to the top of the East on Christmas Day, going up against a Wizards team that is dangerous when focused (and they should be that day).

 
Cavaliers small icon 4. Cavaliers (23-8 LW 4). Cleveland has won 18-of-20 (even after the loss to the Bucks Tuesday) and in that stretch it is their offense that has carried them (second best offense in the NBA in their last 15, scoring 114.5 per 100 possessions). Of course, the Cavaliers should be packing on wins now, they have played the easiest schedule in the NBA to this point (things get harder starting Christmas Day against the Warriors). Also in this most recent win streak, LeBron James strung together three straight triple-doubles for the first time since the 2008-09 season (the first year he won MVP).

 
Raptors small icon 5. Raptors (20-8, LW 6). The Raptors have won 9-of-10 and separated themselves from the pack in the East — as the three seed they are 4 games up on the Pistons in fourth. The big change is the defense, giving up less than a point per possession and best in the NBA in the last 10 games. The offensive change in this team is for real: last season 41% of the Raptors shots came from the midrange, this season that is down to 30.1%, with the shots moving to more efficient spots on the floor (at the rim or from three).

 
Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (21-10, LW 5). The Spurs have gone 1-2 in games Kawhi Leonard has played, although one of those losses was to a very good Rockets team. Leonard has been efficient in limited minutes (16 per game) he getting, averaging 10.7 points a game with true shooting percentage of 65.3 (above the league average). That said, he clearly still needs to get his legs under him still. The Spurs have 6-of-8 on the road coming up, but if the game is close they know they can lean on Manu Ginobili.

 
7. Timberwolves (18-13, LW 10). Minnesota keeps winning, but here’s the thing that would concern me as a T-Wolves fan (or if I’m Tom Thibodeau): Minnesota has played the easiest schedule in the NBA to this point (tied with the Cavaliers). Well, that and the fact the defense still struggles (it’s bottom 10 in their last 10 games, 25th for the season). And the fact Thibodeau is again running his stars into the ground — Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Jimmy Butler are all in the top 10 in the league in total minutes played. Minnesota has the point differential of a 16-15 team and those things tend to even out. They will play on Christmas Day against the Lakers in a game where the NBA wants to show off its young stars.

 
Pacers small icon 8. Pacers (17-14, LW 7). Indiana’s ball movement has slowed down recently, and on an offense-driven team that led to tougher, contested shots — but none of that seems to matter to Victor Oladipo, who keeps going off (38 in the loss to Boston Monday). The Pacers were one of the hot teams in close games to start the season, but that scale is balancing out (as it tends to) with close losses to the Thunder, Pistons, and Celtics recently. Good news is the schedule gets soft for the next week.

 
Wizards small icon 9. Wizards (17-14, LW 12). John Wall is back but the Wizards offense hadn’t found a groove again — despite a couple of wins in a row — until they ran into New Orleans Monday. Mike Scott has stepped up with Otto Porter out, in his last five games he has averaged 16.6 points per game on 67.9% shooting, and hitting 42.9% from three in that stretch. Washington will take on the Celtics on Christmas Day, with a chance to make a statement they belong in the top four in the East (despite the Wizards’ inconsistent play this season).

Pistons small icon 10. Pistons (17-13, LW 13). The Pistons snapped out of their seven-game losing streak and won three in a row now, including a quality win over the Pacers on the second night of a back-to-back. The offense has seen a boost with Luke Kennard getting starts (Avery Bradley is out) and Reggie Bullock playing well and finding his stroke from three once he moved into the starting lineup.

 
Nuggets small icon 11. Nuggets (16-14, LW 11). Denver struggled without Nikola Jokic, going 2-4, but he’s back now just in time for a key stretch of games against the other teams fighting for one of the last playoff slots in the West. The Nuggets beat the Pelicans in overtime but fell to the Thunder. Their next run of games: Timberwolves, at Trail Blazers, at Warriors, Jazz, and at Timberwolves. Rack up some wins here and it helps the playoff cause.

Bucks small icon 12. Bucks (16-13 LW 8). The Bucks had lost three in a row and in that stretch their defense had been the big problem — and it was again against the Cavaliers Tuesday night (Milwaukee is still 24th in the league on the season defensively). However, against the Cavs, their athleticism and offense overcame the defensive issues. Rumor is the Bucks have been active as potential buyers on the trade market, but the trade will have to be close to even financially (the Bucks are just about $5 million short of the tax line, and ownership does not want to cross it). Also, they get Jabari Parker back in February.

 
Knicks small icon 13. Knicks (16-14, LW 15). Kristaps Porzingis’ defense at the rim this season has been spectacular, opponents are shooting just over 40% in the restricted area when he is the primary defender, and when KP is switched onto the pick-and-roll ball handler they are shooting just 34.9%. The Knicks are playing on Christmas Day again, and interestingly their game against the Sixers has a higher secondary market ticket price than Cavaliers at Warriors (according to TickPick).

 
Blazers small icon 14. Trail Blazers (16-14, LW 17). They continue to surprise with a top-10 defense (4th in the league for the season, 8th the last 10 games) but struggling on offense. The Blazers went a respectable 3-2 on a five-game road trip, improving the team to 9-6 away from Portland (which is better than their 7-8 record at home). One other concern for Portland fans: Your team has played the third easiest schedule in the NBA so far. Things will get tougher.

 
Thunder small icon 15. Thunder (15-15 LW 18).. The Thunder have won three of four (including a triple-overtime thriller vs. the 76ers), and that got them up to .500 and the seven seed in the West. Don’t confuse that with the offense looking smoother, it just means Russell Westbrook is asserting himself again, especially late in games. OKC has 7-of-8 at home, and one of those is the Rockets on Christmas day.

 
Pelicans small icon 16. Pelicans (15-16, LW 14). The buzz started up this week again about the Celtics and other teams keeping an eye on Anthony Davis’ trade availability (GMs are vultures seeking out potential steals). I’ve been told that the Pelicans do not have any plans to trade him, and nobody thinks they will go down that road for at least a year, maybe two (the summer of 2019 seems the earliest it gets considered). The Pelicans have lost 3-of-4 overall and the first two games of a four-game road trip.

 
Heat small icon 17. Heat (15-15, LW 19). Miami had won 4-of-5 before the injuries — Justise Winslow, James Johnson, and Hassan Whiteside are out — caught up with the Heat Monday in an ugly loss to Atlanta. After playing at Boston on Wednesday, the Heat have 7-of-8 at home, many against teams under .500, and they need to rack up the wins before they hit the road and things get tougher in January.

 
Sixers small icon 18. 76ers (14-16, LW 9). The Sixers have lost 7-of-8, and those losses can often be traced back to turnovers — they give the ball up on 17.5% of their non-garage time possessions, worst in the NBA by a large margin (stats via Cleaning The Glass). Rookie Ben Simmons having the ball in his hands a lot is part of it, but plenty of Sixers, including Joel Embiid, are coughing it up too much. On the bright side, one bit of good news about the Sixers’ early season play: They have gone against the second toughest schedule in the NBA so far. It should lighten up.

 
Jazz small icon 19. Jazz (14-17, LW 16). The Jazz have dropped the two games since Rudy Gobert went down with his second significant injury of the season, although losses to Cleveland and Houston might well have come anyway. Donovan Mitchell continues to impress as a rookie playmaker and scorer, but he and the Jazz will be put to the test with this upcoming schedule: at Thunder, Spurs, Thunder, at Nuggets, at Warriors, Cavaliers.

 
Hornets small icon 20. Hornets (11-19, LW 21). In their last 10 games, the Hornets have the second best defense in the NBA but the worst offense, and that has them still getting outscored by 2 points per 100 possessions. The Hornets continue to struggle in close games. All of this has led to speculation around the league that Charlotte could be sellers at the trade deadline, if they decide to move out of the Kemba Walker era and rebuild.

 
Nets small icon 21. Nets (11-18, LW 20). Last season, the Nets didn’t have 11 wins until March, a sign of the steps forward this team is taking. Nik Stauskas has hit 5-of-9 from three since the trade (but is 1-of-5 inside the arc) since being traded out of Philadelphia. Much like Jahlil Okafor (who is still getting his legs under him), Stauskas will get a chance to prove his worth in Brooklyn.

 
Clippers small icon 22. Clippers (11-18 LW 22). How much do the Clippers miss Chris Paul? Last season they scored an excellent 1.02 points per possession on pick-and-roll plays, one of the tops in the league, this season that is down to 0.89 per possession, near the bottom of the league (and 36 percent of Clipper possessions are a pick-and-roll this season). Also, the Clippers have lost three in a row and have not scored more than 91 pints in any of those games.

 
Bulls small icon 23. Bulls (9-20 LW 27).. The Bulls are 6-0 since the return of Nikola Mitotic to the lineup, and he is averaging 20.3 points per game on a true shooting percentage of 65.1. One difference in his game, he is not hesitating now — not nearly as many pump fakes. He feels he can get his shot off and the confidence shows. After Orlando at home Wednesday the win streak will be put to the test with a three game road trip against the Cavaliers, Celtics, and Bucks.

 
Lakers small icon 24. Lakers (10-18 LW 24). The Lakers honored Kobe Bryant Monday night retiring both his numbers, 8 and 24. The question for the future is, will a player on the roster such as Lonzo Ball or Brandon Ingram ever get their name and number up next to him? The Lakers have a lot of nice young players on the roster — including Kyle Kuzma — but are any of them future top 10 players in the league you can build a contender around? Tough schedule for L.A. with the Rockets and Warriors both on the road coming up.

 
Suns small icon 25. Suns (11-21, LW 29). After dropping their first four games after Devin Booker went down, the Suns have won a couple in a row — and both because of their bench play. Isaiah Canaan had 11 fourth quarter points against Dallas to spark a comeback, and against Minnesota the game before both Troy Daniels and Dragan Bender stepped up with 17 points. We’ll see how sustainable that is, but the Suns will take the wins.

 
Magic small icon 26. Magic (11-20, LW 23). Playing for his next contract (and wanting it to be in the NBA not Europe), Mario Hezonjia went off for 28 points Sunday, including 8 threes. Hezonjia has started the last five Orlando games (with Aaron Gordon out) and has been up and down depending upon the day. Remember, the Magic didn’t pick up his option for a fourth season, he’s an unrestricted free agent this summer.

 
Mavericks small icon 27. Mavericks (8-23 LW 25). Dallas gets all the best players from Wurzburg, Germany. First was Dirk Nowitzki, and now they have forward Maxi Kleber, who is averaging 7.3 points per game, shooting 56.5% overall and 38.7% as a starter. He’s a 25-year-old rookie seasoned in the German and Spanish leagues. Dallas has lost 6-of-7 but been competitive in those games, only one was by 10 points or more.

 
Kings small icon 28. Kings (10-20, LW 28). As of right now, the Kings have the worst offensive rating (98.4 points per 100 possessions) and worst defensive rating (108.7 per 100 allowed) in the NBA, but they keep winning enough games (such as against shorthanded Philadelphia on Tuesday) to stay out of the cellar in this ranking. No team has ever finished the season with both the worst offense and worst defense in the league. The Kings have the net rating of a 6-24 team according to Cleaning the Glass, but they keep finding some unexpected wins.

 
Grizzlies small icon 29. Grizzlies (9-21, LW 26). A few years back, Marc Gasol was a deserving Defensive Player of the Year — he wasn’t flashy, but he always made the right play and anchored a very good Grizzlies defense. It feels like Father Time is winning the race with him this season, opponents are shooting 60.4 percent at the rim when he is there as the rim protector this season. That doesn’t mean he is available yet via trade, all the buzz around the league is the Grizzlies have no plans to move either of their stars.

 
Hawks small icon 30. Hawks (7-23, LW 30). The good news is that rookie John Collins is back in the lineup. Well that and the Hawks upset the Heat Monday night behind big games from Taurean Waller-Prince (24 points) and Dennis Schroder (23 points). Atlanta has 3-of-4 at home before heading into a heavy road stretch to ring in the new year.

Pistons kicked the can down the road – heedlessly

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

In their seminal set of transactions this offseason, the Pistons upgraded to a better, cheaper version of their previous shooting guard.

The bill – Marcus Morris already used as down payment – will come due next summer, when Avery Bradley becomes an unrestricted free agent. Will Detroit be better equipped to handle his free agency than Kentavious Caldwell-Pope‘s this year?

That’s the bet the Pistons are making.

They had a breakthrough run to the 2016 playoffs, where they were the youngest team to qualify. But their ascension got sidetracked around Reggie Jackson‘s injury-plagued 2016-17 season. There’s a good case the point guard’s injuries contributed to his ineffectiveness, Andre Drummond‘s regression and the chemistry problems that plague losing teams.

The result: The Pistons had to face Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s restricted free agency with the luxury tax breathing down their neck and most of their players’ values in the gutter. Rather than spend its way out of the hole, Detroit kicked the can to next summer.

In the meantime, the Pistons got Bradley, who will earn about half of Caldwell-Pope’s salary this season. Bradley, two years older, is also better than Caldwell-Pope right now.

But the swap cost Detroit Morris, who was traded to the Celtics for Bradley. It also cost the Pistons Caldwell-Pope – though it didn’t necessarily have to.

They rescinded Caldwell-Pope’s qualifying offer after getting Bradley, clearing Caldwell-Pope to sign a one-year, $17,745,894 deal with the Lakers as an unrestricted free agent. But Detroit could have strengthened itself by keeping Caldwell-Pope restricted – even without actually trying to re-sign him.

If Caldwell-Pope accepted his $4,958,374 qualifying offer, the Pistons would have gotten another quality contributor at a bargain price for this season. They could have easily stayed under the tax with him earning so little. Would he have been somewhat redundant behind Bradley? Yes, but teams need backups, and Caldwell-Pope would have been a heck of a backup and trade chip. He would have held the right to veto trades, but any team dealing for him would’ve likely put him in a better position entering free agency. Barring a trade, Detroit would have entered next summer with both Bradley’s and Caldwell-Pope’s Bird Rights – doubling (or so) the odds of re-signing a quality shooting guard long-term.

If Caldwell-Pope signed an offer sheet elsewhere, it would have been required to be for at least two years (not including option years). So, that Lakers contract would not have been allowed. Whichever team signed Caldwell-Pope would’ve therefore likely been out of the running for another starting shooting guard next summer, easing the Pistons’ ability to re-sign Bradley.

As is, Detroit doesn’t have Caldwell-Pope this season, will have Bird Rights on only one starting-caliber shooting guard next offseason and will face a deeper pool of teams courting Bradley.

Rescinding Caldwell-Pope’s qualifying offer, clearing the way for his one-year, bet-on-himself contract with the Lakers was a huge favor to him. He didn’t have to lock into a multi-year deal in a market he found unfavorable. He’s earning more than triple what he would’ve on the qualifying offer while still getting a crack at unrestricted free agency next summer. There’s valuing in doing right by players who don’t quite fit the long-term plan.

I’m just not sure the Pistons are in a strong enough position to do a favor that big rather than exercising their collectively bargained rights. Graciously letting Caldwell-Pope walk just puts more pressure on everyone else.

Without Morris, the Pistons will need Stanley Johnson to step up this season. Tobias Harris can man one forward spot, but Johnson – the No. 8 pick in 2015 – is the ideal choice for the other. Johnson struggled his first two seasons, but he’s just 21, and it’s far too soon to close the book on him. Though I wouldn’t want to rely on him making a jump, Detroit has little choice.

The Pistons won’t be forced to lean on Stan Van Gundy’s other two first-round picks, power forward Henry Ellenson (No. 18 last year) and shooting Luke Kennard (No. 12 this year), quite as much. Detroit hedged with more experience – and expensive – veterans.

Langston Galloway might live up to his three-year, $21 million contract. But he’s just one forgettable season split between New Orleans and Sacramento away from the Knicks pulling his qualifying offer and the Pelicans signing him to just a two-year, $10,634,000 deal with a player option. It seems likely Detroit went well above market rate to sign the combo guard, a disturbing trend.

The Pistons got power forward Anthony Tolliver cheaper, for one year with the $3.29 million bi-annual exception. But that also means they can’t use the bi-annual exception again next year. Using the bi-annual exception this summer is not necessarily flawed. The Pistons knew it’d be useful now, and there’s no guarantee it would be next offseason. But preserving resources for the future seems to barely be a consideration for this franchise.

At least they convinced Aron Baynes to decline his $6.5 million player option, granting them more maneuverability. He was left with the $4,328,000 room exception in Boston.

Winning creates flexibility, as players on winning teams hold more value. Perhaps, Jackson getting healthy creates a ripple effect in Detroit that – with these new additions bolstering the roster – sparks a revival.

But the Pistons are poised to face the same luxury-tax issues they had with paying Caldwell-Pope this summer with paying Bradley next summer. Except Bradley will start free agency unrestricted, meaning Detroit will have even less control of the situation.

The Pistons just hope they win enough this year to confront that issue from a position of greater strength.

Offseason grade: C-

Only two of 38 rookies surveyed say No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz will have class’s best career

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The 76ers drafted Ben Simmons No. 1 last year, believing he’d have the best career of anyone in his draft class. This year, Philadelphia traded up to draft Markelle Fultz No. 1 for the same reason.

Their fellow rookies – Simmons missed all of last season due to injury – aren’t nearly as enthused.

John Schuhmann of NBA.com conducted his annual rookie survey, polling 39 players who weren’t allowed to vote for themselves or college or NBA teammates. Thirty-eight responded to the best-career question:

Which rookie will have the best career?

1. Lonzo Ball, L.A. Lakers — 18.4%
Jayson Tatum, Boston — 18.4%

3. Josh Jackson, Phoenix — 10.5%
Dennis Smith Jr., Dallas — 10.5%

5. De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento — 7.9%

6. Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia — 5.3%
Harry Giles, Sacramento — 5.3%
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia — 5.3%

Others receiving votes: Jarrett Allen, Brooklyn; John Collins, Atlanta; Jonathan Isaac, Orlando; Luke Kennard, Detroit; Kyle Kuzma, L.A. Lakers; Donovan Mitchell, Utah; Malik Monk, Charlotte

Simmons might not have come to mind to players at the rookie photo shoot, which was for the most recent draft class. And rookies have tended to pick someone other than the No. 1 pick for this question. Anthony Davis in 2012 was the last No. 1 pick to lead voting. Simmons tied for fourth at 6.7% last year – behind Brandon Ingram, Kris Dunn and Buddy Hield. Even Karl-Anthony Towns landed behind Jahlil Okafor in 2015.

But so few votes for Fultz – the consensus top prospect in the draft – is fairly stunning.

Dennis Smith Jr. received the most votes for Rookie of the Year, but at just 25.7%. A large majority of rookies picked someone other than the Mavericks point guard.

Lonzo Ball (71.8% for best playmaker) was the only player to receive a majority of votes in a category. Luke Kennard (48.6% for best shooter) and Smith (43.6% for most athletic), who each tripled second place, came close.

LeBron James reemerged as rookies’ favorite player after a three-year run by Kevin Durant. Maybe that Warriors backlash if finally catching up to Durant?

Report: Pistons offered Kentavious Caldwell-Pope five-year, $80 million contract

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Entering the offseason, the Pistons were reportedly prepared to match a max offer sheet for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

Instead, they renounced him and let him hit unrestricted free agency.

Obviously, Detroit drafting Luke Kennard, signing Langston Galloway then – most importantly – trading for Avery Bradley influenced the reversal on Caldwell-Pope. Whether because of Caldwell-Pope’s demands or their fondness for the players they acquired or both, the Pistons are at least set now at shooting guard.

But Caldwell-Pope is suddenly the best unrestricted free agent available late in the process, and he has no clear future. What’s his market like?

The Pistons’ offer at least informs our understanding.

Jake Fischer of Sports Illustrated:

Caldwell-Pope’s max is $106,524,975 over four years. That’s obviously quite a gap.

He’s not worth the max based on previous production, but Caldwell-Pope is very good – a high-end perimeter defender, good 3-point shooter and excellent transition threat – and just 24. Whomever signs him will get an immediate contributor who can get better.

But there are limited apparent suitors with him becoming unrestricted so late in the process. One possibility, the Nets, used a bunch of cap space to extract draft picks in the DeMarre Carroll salary dump even after knowing Caldwell-Pope had been renounced. Could the Hawks sign him? Would he take a one-year deal with the Lakers? Will another team clear cap space to get in the running?

I believe Caldwell-Pope would have gotten a better offer than Detroit’s if he were unrestricted earlier in free agency. But by now, so many teams have used their cap space. It’s much trickier for him at this point.

Report: Pistons renouncing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who becomes unrestricted free agent

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The Pistons’ trade for Avery Bradley signaled Kentavious Caldwell-Pope‘s end in Detroit.

The biggest question was how it would happen.

It seems the Pistons are making it easy for him.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Caldwell-Pope becomes the best unrestricted free agent on the market. There are probably some teams that regret signing other players before he became so available. The Nets will have competition for him, and a six-day wait on the Wizards matching Otto Porter could hurt Brooklyn’s chances.

Just 24, Caldwell-Pope should provide plenty of production throughout his next contract. He’s a 3-and-D shooting guard who’s excellent in transition. He can defend point guards, important in a league with so many talented ones. Caldwell-Pope is lacking off the bounce and as a distributor, but smart teams will work around his limitations and extract value from his strengths.

This is a major risk for the Pistons, who are choosing 26-year-old Bradley one year from unrestricted free agency over locking up 24-year-old Caldwell-Pope long-term. Bradley is better and cheaper (important considering luxury-tax concerns) than Caldwell-Pope right now, but Bradley could also walk – or become paid even more than Caldwell-Pope – in just a year.

First-round pick Luke Kennard hedges Detroit’s bet long-term, and newly signed Langston Galloway adds depth as a combo guard. Stanley Johnson can also play some shooting guard, though he’s better at forward.

But the Pistons just kicked their problems down the road another year, when another financial crunch looms. Maybe those issues will be easier for Detroit to handle if its players rehab their trade values next season. Everyone’s had bottomed out after last year’s disappointment. And again: Bradley improves the Pistons this season.

Still, other teams will salivate at an unexpected chance to add Caldwell-Pope.