Nerlens Noel, Brett Brown meet to lay out roadmap upon his return


Nerlens Noel, who has been out since October following knee surgery, is getting close to returning to action.

It’s going to be a different front line than the one Noel played in last season — Joel Embiid is now on the court and looking like a franchise cornerstone at center. There is Ersan Ilyasova starting at the four, Jahlil Okafor is getting run off the bench, Dario Saric is showing promise (and will ultimately be a stretch four), and at some point this season the Sixers hope to need to fit Ben Simmons into the rotation (maybe as a big three). Brett Brown is trying to figure out how all the pieces fit together, and where Noel is in that mix.

Noel and Brown sat down and talked about that, reports Jessica Camerato of CSNPhilly.com.

“First, (I want Noel) just embracing the team aspect of everything,” Brett Brown said after practice. “To come into this and to try to draw his own line in the sand and reclaim minutes that he will want. This is going to be on a deserved basis. We have a lot of people at that spot. We will help him. I will coach him. I will put him in an environment where he can succeed and get him back in shape and integrate him with the team….

“He’s different than all of our five men,” Brown said. “He’s probably more like Richaun (Holmes) than he is anybody else. He’s an elite roller. He gets out of pick-and-rolls quick. He is a big lob guy …  I think that defensively he’s very disruptive in his pick-and-roll defense. … He can make plays at the rim, he’s an elite shot blocker.

“It’s just Nerlens being Nerlens. Notice I haven’t said anything about just becoming a really reliable 18-foot jump shooter or really becoming a 90 percent free throw shooter. It’s just effort, athleticism, fitness, energy stuff.”

Noel used that energy to get 11.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game last season. This season he’s going to have to carve out a bit of a different niche — he struggled at the four last year but he’s not starting over Embiid. That energy could make him a good backup, but if he wants a bigger role than that he needs to carve it out. Can he do that?

If Noel plays well upon his return — and likely even if he doesn’t — his name is going to come up in trade talks. The Sixers are going to need to move some from that logjam in the front court, and athletic rim protectors are in demand around the league. Teams have concerns about his maturity (it’s something discussed around the league) but that potential is hard to overlook. That said, teams will want to see him healthy and playing before they do anything.


Miami Heat to retire Shaquille O’Neal’s number Dec. 22

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Pat Riley says that trading for Shaquille O’Neal is the biggest move in Miami Heat franchise history.

I think we can debate that — drafting Dwyane Wade in 2003 would top my list, and signing LeBron would be ahead of Shaq, too — but no doubt bringing in Shaq in a trade with the Lakers (that sent Lamar Odom and others West) was huge. The 2006 NBA championship banner doesn’t hang in Miami without him.

Which is why on Dec. 22, the Heat will retire Shaq’s No. 32.

As they should. This is fitting. He is only the third Heat player to have his number retired, along with Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway. The Heat also have retired the number of Michael Jordan for reasons nobody quite gets, and they have the No. 13 of Dan Marino also hanging in the rafters.

Shaq only played three-and-a-half seasons in Miami but is the franchise leader in field goal percentage (.596), is third in points per game average (19.6), is sixth in blocks (384), is ninth in double-doubles (84), and is 11th in total rebounds (1,856).

The ceremony, which will involve Riley and others, will take place when another of Shaq’s teams — the Los Angeles Lakers — are in town.

NBA Power Rankings Week 5: Warriors climb to top, Mavericks fall to bottom

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We all knew that Golden State would have the top spot in the rankings at points this season (seven wins in a row will do that) but did anyone see Dallas on the bottom? That caught me off guard.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (11-2, Last Week No. 3). They have won seven in a row, and have done it with a dominant offense and a pedestrian defense. The Warriors are moving the ball — they have 30+ assists in their last nine games — and they are scoring 119.5 points per 100 possessions with a True Shooting Percentage of 62.4 in the last seven. Against Toronto last week, almost 74 percent of the Warriors’ shots were either at the rim or a three pointer, and 45 percent of their shots were uncontested (according to NBA.com players tracking). That is covering up a defense giving up 106.6 per 100.

Clippers small icon 2. Clippers (12-2, LW 1). You can’t underestimate how great Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have been defensively this season, propelling this team — but don’t sleep on how great the Clippers’ offense has been of late. In the Clippers’ last five games they have scored 118.9 points per 100 possessions (second only to ridiculous Warriors offense). They are scoring efficiently in every possible way — transition, pick-and-roll, spot-up jumpers, whatever they run now it works.

Cavaliers small icon 3. Cavaliers (10-2, LW 2). What’s the primary place the Cavaliers are getting shots? Catch-and-shoots. They account for 30 percent of their looks, and the Cavs are shooting 55.4% eFG% on those (stats via Synergy Sports). The one loss last week was when LeBron James rested. They enter a fairly soft stretch of the schedule, with the only challenge being Portland in the next week.

Spurs small icon 4. Spurs (10-3, LW 6). They have won five in a row and remain undefeated on the road at 7-0. San Antonio’s offense is 3.8 per 100 better when Tony Parker is on the court. “Tony knows the offense better than anybody, and he gets us organized in a lot of situations, so he has been really important since he came back from his injury,” said Gregg Popovich.

Hawks small icon 5. Hawks (9-4 LW 5). Part of Atlanta’s success has been it’s bench — it has the most efficient scoring bench in the NBA so far this season (using points per possession). Well, at least until the entire team sleepwalked through a day game Sunday in New York. At the heart of that bench has been the play of Thabo Sefalosha, who is having his best season in the NBA, efficient on offense and playing fantastic defense.

Bulls small icon 6. Bulls (9-5, LW 9). Dwyane Wade sat out the second game of a back-to-back in Los Angeles, which signaled the start of Chicago’s knee maintenance program for him. Chicago won anyway with Jimmy Butler dropping 40, and with that have won five-of-six (with the lone loss being the Clippers). When Butler and Dwyane Wade are on the court but no Rajon Rondo, the Bulls outscore opponents by 24.7 points per 100. They finish up their road trip vs. Denver and Philly this week.

Hornets small icon 7. Hornets (8-4, LW 8). Kemba Walker has been a flat out beast this season, especially running the pick-and-roll. He’s got a 53.9 percent eFG% on those shots, and as a team the Hornets score at a very good 1.03 points per possession on those plays. Teams are trying to take the ball out of his hands on those plays, but when he has to pass out Hornets still at a good 0.91 points per possession (stats via Synergy Sports). Tough start to the week with Memphis and San Antonio, then an interesting home-and-home with New York.

Raptors small icon 8. Raptors (8-5, LW 4). We didn’t want to penalize them too much for losses to the Cavaliers and Warriors last week, and while the referees followed the letter of the law in the end in Sacramento that rule needs to be changed. The Raptors have been all offense, no defense of late: in the last five games they are scoring 111.6 points per 100 possessions, but giving up 108.8. Also, your weekly reminder that DeMar DeRozan is a beast even if Anthony Davis passed him in the scoring leader chase.

Rockets small icon 9. Rockets (8-5, LW 15). The Rockets looked every bit a playoff team this week beating Portland and Utah, while playing Oklahoma City to the wire in a two-point loss. It’s just two games, but to the eye the Rockets’ defense looks much improved with Patrick Beverley back. (Can he pull it out of the bottom 10? They are 22nd right now.) After Thanksgiving Houston heads out on a five-game West Coast road trip that will be a real test.

Grizzlies small icon 10. Grizzlies (8-5, LW 17). Winners of four in a row, and that includes beating the Clippers and Jazz on nights David Fiddle’s spread the floor offense clicked. The bad news is they will need to continue this streak without Chandler Parsons for a couple weeks (bone bruise in his left knee), and their spacing and shooting is not the same with him off the floor, they are 8.3 points per 100 possessions worse with him sitting.

Thunder small icon 11. Thunder (8-6, LW 11). This team has some ugly losses — they lost to the Pistons without Andre Drummond this week, and despite a triple-double from Russell Westbrook they lost to a Pacers team resting Paul George on Sunday. They have a mini West Coast road swing to start the week (no Warriors), then head home to take on the Pistons with a chance to get a little revenge for that loss.

Celtics small icon 12. Celtics (7-6, LW 12). Both Al Horford and Jae Crowder returned on Saturday night — and Horford celebrated by hitting the game winner, then getting the game sealing block. Isaiah Thomas’ offense has struggled recently, the return of Horford as a pick-and-roll partner and guy to space the floor should help. Look for them to climb the rankings the next few weeks now that they are healthy again.

Blazers small icon 13. Trail Blazers (8-7, LW 10). They have the worst defense in the NBA this season, giving up 108.5 points per 100 possessions this season (the loss of Al-Farouq Aminu is part of the problem). All of that is why there will be more of things like the recent three-game losing streak, it’s hard to get consistent wins without defense — the offense can only bail you out so much. How many wins can they get out of a week with the improving Knicks and Pelicans, plus the Cavaliers and Rockets on the schedule?

Lakers small icon 14. Lakers (7-7, LW 12). The offense is there, the Lakers have scored 120+ points four times this season, which is already more than the two years under Byron Scott combined. The problem is on defense, where the Lakers cannot get stops, which did them in against a depleted Bulls team Sunday. The Lakers have allowed 116 points per 100 possessions through their last four games. Larry Nance Jr. is turning everyone’s heads, he had 18 points on 11 shots vs. the Bulls.

Jazz small icon 15. Jazz (7-8, LW 7). The Jazz have a four-game losing streak, and they have played eight games without George Hill now (out with sprained thumb) and are 3-5 in that stretch. Maybe the guy feeling Hill’s loss the most is Gordon Hayward, who has struggled with his shot because the spacing is not there. Dante Exum makes a nice backup right now but he cannot fill Hill’s shoes, which is why Utah is taking a serious look at extending Hill.

Pacers small icon 16. Pacers (7-7, LW 20). The Pacers beat the Cavaliers, although only because LeBron James sat, but more impressively got a win Sunday vs. Oklahoma City with Paul George out. He’s got a sprained ankle and will miss at least one more game (Warriors). Jeff Teague had 30 points and nine assists in the win over OKC, after a slow start to the season he has found his shooting groove the last couple of weeks. Tough schedule this week with the Warriors, Hawks, and Clippers (and a respite against the Nets).

Knicks small icon 17. Knicks (6-7 LW 25). They have won three of four and in those four games the Knicks defense has been near the league average — which is a massive improvement. We’ve only had a small sample size but the Knicks have looked great with Carmelo Anthony at the four and Kristaps Porzingis at the five, they need to run more of that. Tough tests for that defense this week vs. Portland, then a home-and-home with Charlotte.

Pistons small icon 18. Pistons (6-8, LW 16). They beat the Thunder on the night Andre Drummond rested, but have lost three in a row since as their defense has been terrible. There may be no team with a bigger road/home difference than the Pistons, who are 1-7 on the road but 5-1 at home. This week they are home for three but it won’t be easy against the Rockets, Heat, and Clippers.

timberwolves small icon 19. Timberwolves (4-8, LW 18). They continue to struggle getting production out of the point guard position — Ricky Rubio’s never-good shot has not taken a step forward, and Kris Dunn is not ready to take over that role — the rookie is shooting 32.7 percent overall and is miserable from the midrange (and 27 percent from three). The defense also remains bottom 10, which is where Tom Thibodeau is going to push for improvement.

Magic small icon 20. Magic (6-7 LW 22). They are getting outscored by 7 points per 100 possessions this season, which would would suggest a 3-10 team (according to basketball-reference.com), but their defense is improving and that is winning them some games. Jeff Green is starting over Aaron Gordon now at the three, which reminds us that Gordon was at his best at the four but isn’t getting used there enough. Winnable games this week: Suns, Wizards, and two against the Bucks.

Heat small icon 21. Heat (4-8, LW 26). Goran Dragic is back from a sprained ankle and the Heat picked up two quick wins (Bucks and Wizards). Not a coincidence. Hassan Whiteside is living up to that massive new contract — 17.7 points, 16.2 rebounds and 2.8 blocked shots per game, with a PER of 25. He’s playing like an All-Star. This week they are on the road in Philly, Detroit, and Memphis.

Bucks small icon 22. Bucks (5-7, LW 14). The Bucks have lost five of six, including three in a row to quality teams (Hawks, Heat, and Warriors). What player has the lowest eFG% in the league on shots from from outside the paint? Gianni Antetokounmpo at 25.5%. They have two games against Orlando coming up, but the Cavaliers and Raptors are mixed in as well.

Nuggets small icon 23. Nuggets (5-8, LW 24). They won two-of-three last week and the one loss was in OT to the Raptors. Mike Malone is still searching for lineups that work well, but he seems to like a front line of Kenneth Faried and Jusuf Nurkic (it worked well against the massive Jazz front line). Tough week coming up with the Bulls, Jazz, and Thunder on the docket.

Kings small icon 24. Kings (5-9, LW 21). They had lost four in a row before getting a quality win over the Raptors Sunday, which happened when they moved Rudy Gay to the four to start. The story with the Kings is fairly simple: When DeMarcus Cousins is on the court the Kings get outscored by 1.7 points per 100 possessions (very close to playing teams even), when he sits they get outscored by 13.7 per 100. Also, when Cousins and Rudy Gay are on the court together the Kings are +3.4 per 100.

Pelicans small icon 25. Pelicans (4-10, LW 29). The return of Jrue Holiday has been huge for the Pelicans, he is hitting shots (54.8 percent) and when he is on the court the Pelicans are outscoring opponents. Anthony Davis took over the top spot in the NBA scoring race, at 31.7 points a game. Hawks, Blazers, and the Mavericks are on the schedule this week.

Nets small icon 26. Nets (4-9, LW 19). The Nets have lost four in a row and gone 2-6 since Jeremy Lin went down, their offense is just not the same with him sidelined. Of course, their defense has been a disaster of late as well and he’s not going to help as much on that end — the Nets try to be aggressive and pressure on the wings but they don’t have personnel to do that.

Wizards small icon 27. Wizards (3-9, LW 28). The John Wall/Bradley Beal combo isn’t a disaster — when they are on the court together they Wizards outscore their opponents by 2 points per 100 possessions. Overall, the Wizards’ offense is middle of the pack, the problem is their 25th-ranked defense keeps costing them games. Wall and Beal each scored 30+ on Saturday, but they couldn’t get stops and the Heat got the win. Can they pick up wins this week against the Suns and Magic (I wouldn’t count on the Spurs).

Sixers small icon 28. 76ers (3-10, LW 30). The Sixers have won two-of-three, beating the Wizards and Suns last week. Joel Embiid is still a force of nature inside and finding his game, but when Nik Stauskas is hitting shots the Sixers floor spacing is better and they pick up wins. Those wins will be tough to find this week against the Heat, Grizzlies, Bulls, and Cavaliers.

Suns small icon 29. Suns (4-10, LW 27). One of the biggest surprises of the season so far is the fact Devin Booker is shooting 41.4 percent overall and 27.9 percent from three. Not the step forward we all expected. The Suns are in the middle of a six game road trip (1-3 so far, the win against the Pacers without Paul George) and the team continues to struggle on both ends of the court.

Mavericks small icon 30. Mavericks (2-10, LW 23). Losers of five in a row, even with the return of Dirk Nowitzki, and they have the worst offense in the NBA. Harrison Barnes is trying to carry the offense and is doing well, but much of that is coming in isolation — 29.7 percent of his shots have come in isolation, the highest percentage of any player in the league this season, but he’s shooting a very good 52.4 percent on those (via Synergy Sports). It will be hard to find wins this week against the Spurs, Clippers, and Cavaliers.

Watch Jimmy Butler drop 40 on the Lakers


Dwyane Wade was out, Rajon Rondo was returning from injury, which meant it was going to be the Jimmy Butler show in Los Angeles on Sunday night.

And put on a show he did.

Butler dropped 40 on the porous Laker defense, a season high for the Bulls star. It was enough to earn the Bulls a 118-110 win and a split in the back-to-back at Staples Center against both Los Angeles teams.

Three things we learned Sunday: Another triple-double for Westbrook in a loss


What you missed around the NBA on Sunday, while you were digging out from a tidal wave of foam

1) Another triple-double for Russell Westbrook, another loss for Thunder. That’s five. In 14 games, Russell Westbrook now has five triple-doubles — a pace that would give him 29 over the course of the season (which would be third most all-time for a season, behind Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain). Westbrook had 31 points, 15 assists, and 11 rebounds Sunday. It was another impressive performance.

And it was another loss (115-111 to Indiana), one that showed how thin the margin is for the Thunder. This was not Westbrook’s best night — he described his play as “sh**y.” He needed 34 shots to get his 31 points, he shot just 5-of-13 in the restricted area, and he had seven turnovers. He was -18 for the game. His shot chart was not pretty.


The challenge for Westbrook is he not only has to put up numbers and drive the Thunder offense, he needs to be efficient doing so, if not the Thunder will struggle to win. They don’t have other reliable shot creators and options, it’s the Russell Westbrook show.

Westbrook is almost averaging a triple-double (31.6 points, 10.4 assists, and 9.7 rebounds a game) and that has him in the MVP hunt early, but will the Thunder win enough games for him to win over voters?

2) Was it the meeting? Knicks beat Hawks and have won three of four.
New York picked up its biggest win of the season Sunday, beating a previously-hot Atlanta team 104-94. There were several factors involved: No Joakim Noah seemed to free up Kristaps Porzingis, who had 19 points and 11 rebounds; Carmelo Anthony had 31 points plus some key rebounds and passes late; Atlanta was sluggish all game, like they had really enjoyed their Saturday night in New York and they had not recovered for a Sunday day game. After the game, the Knicks credited a clear-the-air meeting with Phil Jackson (although I think the impact of those kinds of meetings on the court is often overstated).

However, the biggest key was the Knicks defense, which held the Hawks to 40 percent shooting, including 6-of-21 from three. New York has won three of four now, and the big difference is on the defensive end. New York had the worst in the NBA to start the season, but in those last four games it’s been average (17th in the NBA over that time). That’s a massive improvement. And it’s enough to get some wins.

We’ll see if they can sustain it this week. Tuesday Portland comes to town and they will test any defense with their guard play. Then comes a home-and-home against a good Charlotte team. But if the Knicks can keep getting stops, things will be looking up.

3) The Raptors got screwed and the league needs to look at clock issues. I don’t know that Terrence Ross could have gotten off a clean shot in less than 2.4 seconds, he may not have. I don’t know that the outcome of the game would have been any different. But the point is the officials in the Kings’ win over Toronto handled the clock poorly at the end of the game and Toronto never got the chance it deserved.

First, there were 27.2 seconds left when the Kings started their last possession of the game, which ended with a 24-second violation (Sacramento just had to hit the rim, and failed) — but the refs were good with 2.4 seconds left on the clock. Should have been 3.2, if you can do math.

Then on the final play, the clock did not start when DeMarcus Cousins tipped it on the inbounds pass, as it should have. Ross got the ball and hit a three before time expired — but the officials waived it off saying he did not get the shot off before the buzzer should have sounded. That doesn’t fly for me — the home clock operators screws up and the visitors pay the price? Could Ross have gotten that shot off faster and made it? Who knows. I don’t know if the clock impacted when Ross shot — but it could have. That’s the point.

The officials applied the current rule correctly, but the rule is flawed. The only fair thing would have been to replay the final 2.4. That didn’t happen.

It goes in the books as a quality win for the Kings, one they needed and frankly earned with their play most of the game. The ending was just messed up.