Kurt Helin

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 25:  Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers dribbles up court against the Golden State Warriors on December 25, 2015 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland,California.NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
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Kyrie Irving out Tuesday for Cavaliers, says it’s last game he misses

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The Cleveland Cavaliers have a road back-to-back to open this week: Monday night in Phoenix against the devolving Suns, and then Tuesday night against Denver in the thin air.

As has been their practice since his return from a fractured kneecap, Kyrie Irving will play in only one of those games to keep him rested. He’s going to go up against the Suns (without Eric Bledsoe) and let Matthew Dellavedova and company deal the Nuggets. But he swears this is the last time he’s sitting one of these out, he told the Akron Beacon Journal.

“That’ll be the last time I sit out back-to-backs,” he said, “and hopefully the last two games I miss for the rest of the season.”

The next Cavaliers back-to-back is in San Antonio and Houston in a few weeks. We will see if Irving plays, but you have to like the spirit.

He has been understandably rusty in his return, shooting 29.4 percent overall and 22.2 percent from three through 62 minutes over three games. It’s just a matter of getting time on the court to get his rhythm back, plus getting in some sweat in practices (the Cavs are off until this weekend after these games). He will come around.

Irving will sit out other games, however. Eventually. As the playoffs near you can bet coach David Blatt is going to pick his spots to rest his stars and try to keep them fresh for a push to the Finals, and that will include Irving. The Cavs know they will be judged not on the regular season but the playoffs, and being rested will matter.

PBT Power Rankings: Hawks, Raptors making moves up the ladder

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Traditionally when you get to Christmas and look at the standings, at least six and maybe seven of the teams in playoff position will be there when the season ends. This season — with crazy parity through the middle of the league — it could be different, a lot of teams and slots are in play. Here’s where we rank teams for the final time in 2015.

source: 1. Warriors (28-1, last week No. 1). They got the win on Christmas Day over Cleveland in a game where it didn’t feel like they played their best. It starts with Stephen Curry, who is shooting just 28.1 percent from three in his last five games. The Warriors have had a lot of time off the last couple weeks, that’s about to change, but the schedule isn’t filled with the toughest teams.

source: 2. Spurs (26-6, LW 2). They struggled and fell to a frisky-for-a-day Rockets team on Christmas, but when most people weren’t watching they comfortably won their other three games last week. They are outscoring their opponents by 17.3 points per 100 possessions their last 10 games.

source: 3. Thunder (21-10 LW 4). Another team that lost on Christmas Day when a struggling team (Chicago) played their best game of the season. OKC seems to be looking past the teams in the East, they are 6-8 against them and 15-2 against the West.

source: 4. Cavaliers (19-9, LW 3). The loss to Golden State on Christmas is understandable, that’s an elite team at home. The blowout loss the next night to Trail Blazers without Damian Lillard is harder to explain. Cleveland is still struggling to find its rotations with Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert back in the lineup, but look for coach David Blatt to settle on something sooner rather than later.

source: 5. Hawks (20-12, LW 9). Winners of six in a row, and it’s come because of their depth and ability to match up with different teams and lineups. Their starters have been just okay. Tough tests this week on the road: Indiana, Houston, and New York.

source: 6. Raptors (19-12, LW 12). They got DeMarre Carroll back last week and Jonas Valanciunas returns to take on the Bulls’ Monday — the Raptors outscore opponents by 4.4 points per 48 minutes when Carroll and Valanciunas are on the court together. Kyle Lowry was third in Eastern Conference guards in All-Star voting, look for Raptors fans to make a push to get him to start as Toronto hosts the event this February.

source: 7. Celtics (18-13, LW 15). Winners of four in a row as they enter the soft part of the schedule (Lakers and Nets this week). They are doing it mostly with a defense that is second only to San Antonio this season, plus enough offense (hello Kelly Olynyk) to get the job done.

source: 8. Clippers (18-13, LW 8). Blake Griffin is out for 2-3 weeks with a quad injury, and the Clippers lack the depth to replace him with anyone other teams fear. Doc Rivers tried Josh Smith on Saturday, but that didn’t last long. Look for Paul Pierce as the small ball four to get more run, but when the Clippers don’t have all their starters they are vulnerable.

source: 9. Heat (18-11, LW 5). On Christmas the Heat showed why it’s good to have stars to lean on — Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade dominated the overtime (13 of the Heat’s 16 points). We’re still waiting for Goran Tragic to join that group and play like the third start that puts Miami over the top and helps them break out of the pack in the East.

source: 10. Hornets (16-13, LW 6). Al Jefferson is back — the Hornets were 5-6 while he was out injured and suspended — but he showed his rust shooting 1-of-8 in his return (if he’s not scoring he hurts this team). If Steve Clifford is not near the top on your early Coach of the Year ballot, you’re doing it wrong.

source: 11. Mavericks (17-13, LW 13). Deron Williams is out injured and in his place J.J. Barea is putting on a show — 32 points against Brooklyn, 26 against Chicago (both games Mavs’ wins). Dirk Nowitzki passed Shaq on the All-Time scoring list, just a reminder that he will go down as the greatest shooting big man in NBA history.

source: 12. Pacers (17-12, LW 7). Their defense keeps them in games, but the loss to the Kings this week showed that if a team can bottle up Paul George the Pacers struggle to score. Myles Turner is nearing a return, they are better when that rookie is playing and developing.

source: 13. Bulls (16-12, LW 11). They played their best game of the season on Christmas Day against Oklahoma City, but that is the only win in five games for arguably the league’s most consistent team. With the Raptors twice, the Knicks and the Pacers on the schedule this week, it feels like the Bulls could go 0-4 or 4-0 and it wouldn’t be a shock.

source: 14. Pistons (17-14, LW 10). Brandon Jennings could be back at the end of this week (or the following week) and then things get interesting. Jennings will get showcased, Stan Van Gundy will see if he can play with Reggie Jackson, and the Pistons will listen to trade offers for him.

source: 15. Magic (15-12, LW 14). This week marks the anniversary of an NBA record game: The most assists dished by one player in a game, 30. The record holder? Scott Skiles. The Magic are the current eight seed in the East and seem to be finding their footing, which is a credit to Skiles the coach getting the most out of this roster.

source: 16. Rockets (16-16, LW 16). Still the most Jekyll and Hyde team in the NBA, beating the Spurs on Christmas Day then having their coach lash out at them as “disrespecting the game” after a sloppy loss to the Pelicans. They are outscoring opponents by 5.1 points per 100 possession their last 10 games, fifth best in the NBA during that stretch.

source: 17. Grizzlies (17-16, LW 17). Look for Memphis to start climbing up these rankings and the Western Conference standings — over the next month they have a fairly soft schedule. The team still seems to be adjusting to the new rotations, well except for Zach Randolph who has put up big numbers the past few games.

source: 18. Wizards (14-14, LW 20). Winners of four in a row thanks to an offense scoring 107.4 points per 100 possessions their last 10 games (fourth best in the NBA). Marcin Gortat is your Eastern Conference Player of the Week averaging 21.3 points and 11.7 rebounds a game the past seven days.

source: 19. Jazz (12-16, LW 19). Another injury, this one to Alec Burks, is a body blow to a team trying to hang onto a playoff spot without Dante Exum or Rudy Gobert (and Derrick Favors of late). That this team is still the eight seed in the West with this record (which would have them tied for 12th in the East) speaks to how some things have flipped in the West this season.

source: 20. Kings (12-18, LW 21). With all the injuries to the Suns and to the Jazz, the door has swung open for the Kings to jump into one of the final playoff spots in the West. How did they respond to that challenge. With terrible defense, 3-of-22 shooting in the fourth, and a loss to the Trail Blazers (despite 36 from DeMarcus Cousins). If this team doesn’t score in transition it can’t score.

source: 21. Knicks (14-18, LW 18). Losers of four in a row, on the heels of a four-game win streak, which was on the heels of another four-game losing streak. Consistency is not a word in the Knicks’ vocabulary this season. Their next six games are against teams above. 500, we’ll see if they can grab a couple wins in that group.

source: 22. Trail Blazers (13-20, LW 25). They beat the Cavaliers and Kings without Damian Lillard (they are 2-2 since he went down) and C.J. McCollum might be the early leader for most improved player. Despite everything with this team they are just 1.5 games out of the playoffs, keeping those dreams alive.

source: 23. Nuggets (12-19, LW 24). If you blow a 21-point lead to the Lakers and lose, you have issues. Danilo Gallinari and Emmanuel Mudiay remain out, which makes watching this team a little dull (save for the occasional Will Barton show).

source: 24. Bucks (12-19, LW 26). Their defense remains a mess and things could get ugly this week on the road at Dallas, Oklahoma City, Indiana and Minnesota. The Bucks have 11-of-15 on the road starting this week, and they are 3-of-13 on the road this season.

source: 25. Pelicans (10-20, LW 27). There are flashes of improvement, like the good Christmas Day showing against the Heat to force overtime, but the Pelicans are not getting wins, and now come reports Mickey Loomis — the Saints GM — is going to have more say over the Pelicans. That doesn’t sound like recipe for success.

source: 26. Timberwolves (11-19,LW 22). Losers of three in a row, but that’s to be expected as they lean on and try to develop their young stars (they very well may have back-to-back Rookies of the Year with Andrew Wiggins last season and Karl-Anthony Towns this one). The most talked about thing around this team as we head into the new year will be Kevin Martin trade rumors.

<source: 27. Suns (12-20, LW 23). Phoenix handed Philadelphia just its second win of the season and that seemed to set off alarm bells in the front office — ones that almost cost Jeff Honacek his job. Instead, just his assistants got the ax. The bigger problem is Eric Bledsoe’s injury, without him this team’s playoff chances drop off like a Clayton Kershaw curve ball.

source: 28. Nets (8-22, LW 28). Not a lot of reasons for short-term hope with their next eight opponents being .500 or better. Expect a lot of trade rumors to swirl around Brooklyn as the February deadline approaches, but I’d be surprised if the struggling Joe Johnson is one of the guys who gets moved (he’s struggling with his shot AND he’s expensive).

source: 29. Lakers (5-26, LW 29). Kobe Bryant is going to be a starter in his final All-Star Game — it’s an exhibition, so give the people what they want. We’ve seen flashes of vintage Kobe, while liking more the flashes we’ve seen from D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle (and Larry Nance, who is an underrated young player on this roster).

source: 30. 76ers (2-30, LW 30). They are 1-0 with Ish Smith running the offense and Mike D’Antoni being on the bench. Smith clearly is their best point guard and gives them a chance to win more games. A few more. While the Sixers want to be more respectable they don’t want to start winning too many games — despite all the talk of speeding up the process this is a huge couple drafts coming up (they likely have three or four first rounders this June) and they don’t want to hurt their odds of getting top picks.

Tom Benson scoffs at suggestion he sell Saints, Pelicans

FILE - In this Jan. 24, 2013 file photo, New Orleans Hornets NBA team owner Tom Benson speaks at a news conference announcing that the NBA basketball team's name will change from the Hornets to the Pelicans, in New Orleans. One of the people most responsible for bringing NBA All-Stars back to the Big Easy this weekend is an 86-year-old man who wasn't that into basketball for much of his life. He is Tom Benson. And in New Orleans, NBA fans and community leaders are grateful the Pelicans owner finally came around. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)
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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson scoffed at a suggestion this weekend that he sell his NFL and NBA teams because of his age and a protracted legal struggle with estranged heirs.

The 88-year-old Benson made his stance known in a written statement disseminated by the team on the same day as a front-page Times-Picayune editorial that stated Benson, as well as the City of New Orleans and Louisiana would be better off if the team was sold to local buyers.

“I rarely respond to preposterous media reports as I understand them to be part of our business,” Benson’s statement said. “However, I respond tonight only for the benefit of our fans. … They deserve better than to read this scurrilous story, which the editors of the TP decided to blast on the front page.”

“What strikes me the most is the pure irony of the Times Picayune imploring me to sell for the benefit of the city,” the statement continued. “I recall in May, 2012, reaching out to the Newhouse family, imploring them to sell to me or other local ownership as they threatened to become and then became a part-time newspaper. Since then the newspaper has done nothing but layoff (sic) staff and move operations out of town.

“I take great pride in promoting New Orleans as a big league city – securing a record number of Super Bowls, getting naming rights deals for both the Superdome and arena, and infusing millions of tax revenue into our state’s general fund,” the statement said. “This is on top of the large investments I have made in this city, and I will soon announce more major projects.”

Benson, a New Orleans native, announced last January his plan to bequeath power over his pro sports franchises to his third wife, Gayle, instead of his daughter and her two children, who long appeared in line to take over the clubs. Since then, the Benson family has been embroiled in several lawsuits in state courts in both Louisiana and Texas, as well as in federal court in Louisiana. In a Louisiana civil lawsuit, Benson’s estranged heirs have challenged whether their patriarch was mentally competent to change his succession plan. They argued he was being manipulated by his wife and an inner circle of executives.

Benson was ruled competent by a civil district judge. That case is now on appeal.

“I am not selling either team. That is not in my makeup. I am not retiring or stepping aside, while I do appreciate all of the sincere concern for my health,” the statement said. “The legacy of both these teams are still yet to be written and my legacy can be discussed when I am long gone, which by the way is not that important to me right now.

“Another important part of our legacy is continuing to rebuild our city, our hospitals and our schools to make them leading institutions in this country,” the statement said. “My wife, Gayle, and I do not take this for granted and cherish our ability to participate and contribute annually.

Benson’s statement also disputed a suggestion that his role in day-to-day operations in his businesses has declined in recent years.

“I have always been and continue to be in complete control of our teams, and that is not in dispute,” the statement said. “Furthermore, my plan to transfer complete control to Gayle is unassailable and designed to provide the long term stability and resources that all franchises need to produce consistently winning teams.”

Five Takeaways from NBA Sunday: With Bledsoe out, coaching Suns gets harder

PHOENIX, AZ - NOVEMBER 18:  Head coach Jeff Hornacek of the Phoenix Suns reacts on the bench during the second half of the NBA game against the Chicago Bulls at Talking Stick Resort Arena on November 18, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Bulls defeated the Suns 103-97. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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We’re all just coming out of our Christmas food coma, and after a busy weekend the NBA took it easy with just four games. Here is what you need to know out of a Sunday around the Association.

1) It’s not the coaches, it’s the players. So the Suns fired some coaches. Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN had an apt description of the coaching moves in Phoenix Sunday, this is the old “let’s fire the hitting coach” strategy.

The Suns have lost 15 of their last 20 games because their roster has holes and chemistry issues, plus now their leading scorer and playmaker — Eric Bledsoe — is out until after the All-Star break following surgery on a torn meniscus. So how did the Suns’ management respond? On Sunday, the Suns fired assistant coaches Mike Longabardi (defensive coordinator) and Jerry Sichting (offense) and promoted the popular-with-the-players Earl Watson, as well as Nate Bjorkgren to the bench to shake up a Suns team that is out of the playoffs right now even in a down West. Head coach Jeff Hornacek kept his job, although there is a dead man walking feel to that. His contract is up after this season, he’s fought with players, and it’s difficult to imagine he will be back in the big chair in Phoenix.

This move was made by a management team that believes this is still a playoff team. I don’t see it. Suns’ owner Robert Sarver could resurrect John Wooden and make him coach and wouldn’t matter. This roster doesn’t have a clear strength and almost certainly will miss the playoffs for a sixth straight season. Without Bledsoe and his 20 points a night, the Suns are not the same. Brandon Knight will have a lot more on his shoulders, Rodney Hood will have to step up, and the Suns will count on its depth that has been a disappointment so far this season. The fact is management spent big on Tyson Chandler this summer and he has been bothered by nagging injuries and has not looked like near his vintage self. This team is a little below average on offense and a little below average on defense, and the players look lackadaisical at times. Coaching may be part of the issue, but talent and fit are the bigger ones.

The question I have is: what is the plan in Phoenix? What kind of team are they trying to build? There are no clear answers. A couple of years back the Suns were thought to be a rebuilding team that wasn’t going to go full Sixers but was going to take a few years to rebuild through the draft and free agency — then Hornacek led that team to 48 wins (which was still  not good enough for a playoff spot that season). It put the franchise in more of a “we can make the playoffs now” mindset rather than rebuilding the core, and the results have been less than impressive since. It may be time to rethink how they rebuilt this roster, and not just shuffle the coaching chairs around.

2) C.J. McCollum goes off as Portland gets win. No Damian Lillard on the second night of a road back-to-back taking on a rested Kings team — this looked like a scheduled loss for the Trail Blazers. But C.J. McCollum had other ideas — he went off from the midrange, hitting 10-of-17 from three feet out to the arc, and he picked apart a matador (just waving the cape as he drove past) defensive effort from the Kings. McCollum had 35 points, and combine that with the Kings turning the ball over on nearly 22 percent of their possessions, and you have a 98-94 Trail Blazers win.

Usually, it’s the rested team that plays better in the fourth quarter of these games, but the Kings were 3-of-22 shooting in the quarter, and DeMarcus Cousins was 2-of-9. Still, Cousins had 36 points on the night and provided a counter to McCollum.

3) Russell Westbrook, Thunder were dunking all over Nuggets. Russell Westbrook was within one rebound of a triple-double (30-11-9), and he did it while attacking the Nuggets and throwing down dunks at the rim. Heck, even Dion Waiters got in on the act during the Thunder’s 122-112 win.

4) RIP Meadowlark Lemon. For many, he was THE Harlem Globetrotter of the 1960s and ’70s (when that team was as popular as almost any NBA squad). He could consistently hit a half-court hook shot, was a fantastic trick passer, and was exactly the kind of showman and ambassador the sport and the Globetrotters needed. The Hall of Famer passed away this weekend at the age of 83. Our thoughts are with his family and friends.

5) Isaiah Thomas and Carmelo Anthony put on a show. Boston seemed in control of this game throughout second half (although the Knicks made some mini-runs to try to make it more interesting), and the Celtics won 100-91. Through it all Thomas and Anthony were the ones putting up the points and entertaining the fans.

Reports: Suns fire two assistant coaches in bench shake up

during the NBA game at Talking Stick Resort Arena on December 23, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
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It looks like Jeff Hornacek’s job in Phoenix may be safe. For now.

But not so for two of his key assistants — they are gone in a bench shake up as Suns’ management tries to right a troubled ship that has gone 5-15 in the last 20 games. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports and Marc Stein of ESPN have the details.

As Stein quickly corrected that’s spelled Bjorkgren, he’s a former D-League coach. Watson, the former NBA player, was popular with the Suns’ players but had a secondary role. That is about to change.

Suns management felt it needed to do something after a disappointing start to the season where they are once again out of the playoff chase (Phoenix had not made the playoffs for the past five seasons). Sunday, owner Robert Sarver and GM Ryan McDonough sat down and discussed with players what they saw as the reasons for the Suns’ troubles. This was the resultant move.

I’m not sure it will make much of a difference short-term. That’s mainly because the team’s leading scorer, Eric Bledsoe, is out with a torn meniscus that will require surgery and will sideline him at least six weeks. They will struggle to replace his 20 points a game and playmaking skills, no matter who is calling the shots from the bench.

Add to the Bledsoe injury Tyson Chandler looking older fast, and Markieff Morris being a disappointment which put him on the trade block, and it’s hard to see how any coaching change would make a big difference right now. It’s hard to see the Suns staying in the playoff mix, and that is not on the coaching staff.