NBA power rankings

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nba_james1_250.jpgThe Association from top to bottom.

1. Cavaliers (41-11) Best record in the NBA and on an 11-game win streak. Going into All-Star weekend they are the team to beat. Didn’t we say that last year, too?

2. Nuggets (34-17) They’ve beaten the Lakers twice, that has to boost Denver’s confidence going forward. Although, doing the same thing in the playoffs is another matter.

3. Jazz (31-18)
Eight straight wins. Jazz are in the middle of their annual “we’re playing like contenders mid-season” stretch.

4. Lakers (39-13) Denver and Utah are hotter right now, and the Lakers have a few issues to resolve (hello Derek Fisher), but who you going to pick when the playoffs start? Exactly.

5. Magic (34-17) The comeback win over Boston means they may be putting it all together post Hedo, finally. If so, watch out.

6. Hawks (32-17) They keep getting overlooked as a contender in the East. Do that at your own peril.

7. Thunder (29-21) OKC is 7-3 in their last 10 games, and Kevin Durant is filling it up. Man is that fun to watch.

8. Suns (31-21) They have won five in a row and are climbing fast. Why do they want to trade Amare Stoudemire again?

9. Spurs (29-20) San Antonio crushes bad teams like the Clippers, but they need to beat some good teams before we buy in.

10. Celtics (32-17) This team needs to get healthy, the All-Star break couldn’t come at a better time. But the problems look deeper than that.

11. Mavericks (31-19) They are 5-5 in their last 10, which in the deepest division in basketball will have them out of the lead quick if they can’t turn it around.

12. Raptors (28-23) When they play a little defense, like the fourth quarter against the Kings, they become a dangerous team.

13. Bucks (23-26) They have found their rhythm again and have won 7 of the last 10.

14. Blazers (30-23) Any more injuries and they will be pulling guys out of the stands to play.

15. Bobcats (24-25) While the franchise is in flux, Larry Brown has quietly done a great job getting Charlotte to play defense.

16. Rockets (27-23) This team is not going to win a title, but nobody in the West wants them in the first round.

17. Heat (24-27) It’s not just that Miami is 3-7 in their last 10, but that the schedule has been pretty soft at the same time.

18. Bulls (24-25) Chicago is 6-4 in its last 10, and if they can put to Thomas situation behind them and get Noah back healthy in a couple weeks, they are playoff bound.

19. Hornets (27-24) Has anyone in New Orleans even thought about the Hornets the last two weeks? They may not for two more after the Super Bowl.

20. Grizzlies (24-26) Hallmark of a young team is thinking you are through a touch stretch, letting your foot off the gas and getting beat by Minnesota.

21. Sixers (19-31) Hey, Allen Iverson is an All-Star. There’s your bright spot.

22. Clippers (21-29) New coach Kim Hughes wants to run, but outside Baron Davis who on that team do you want handling the ball on the break?

23. Knicks (19-31) Nate Robinson is back to the bench, Chris Duhon is starting again. That should solve all their problems.

24. Timberwolves (13-38) Don’t look now, but Minnesota is 5-5 in their last 10 and beat Memphis the other day. They may be fitting the pieces together.

25. Pacers (18-33) With the loss by the Colts, the fans of Indianapolis can turn to the Pacers to brighten their… maybe not.

26. Kings (16-24) Can Kevin Martin and Tyreke Evans play together well? If not, now is the time to move Martin.

27. Wizards (17-32) If Bull Durham taught us one thing, it’s that every once in a while a team needs a rain out. Or a snow out, in this case.

28. Pistons (17-32) Chuck Daly used to get death threats. At least back then the Pistons got noticed.

29. Warriors (13-36) I’ve given up trying to figure out Don Nelson’s rotations. They give me a headache.

30. Nets (4-46) I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find something to write to pick up the spirits of Nets fans. I’ve given up.

Is a rebuild coming to the Washington Wizards? League executives think so.

Detroit Pistons v Washington Wizards
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The Washington Wizards have been stuck in the NBA’s middle ground for years (at least since 2018), with a push from ownership on down to make the playoffs rather than go through a rebuild. The result was 35 wins last season, 35 the season before that, 25 before that, and you get the idea. A team that has underperformed with Bradley Beal on it.

Is that about to change under new GM Michael Winger? No decision about the short term of the franchise has been made, Winger told Josh Robbins of The Athletic (in a fantastic profile of the man). Big decisions will tip Winger’s hand this summer, with Kyle Kuzma a free agent and Kristaps Porzingis able to opt-out and reportedly looking for an extension.

However, outside the organization, the expectation is that a rebuild is coming in the next couple of years.

Many rival executives The Athletic has polled informally over the last two weeks expect Winger to undertake a full rebuild — if not this offseason, then within the next year.

Asked about his plans for the team, Winger says he’s leaving his options open.

“The raw, unfiltered truth is, I haven’t yet crafted the immediate vision for the franchise,” he says. “There are a lot of talented and high-character players on the team. I want to get to know them a little bit. The construct of a team isn’t just a matter of what is demonstrated on the court. It’s not just a matter of the box score. Team dynamics are personal, and I think that I need to understand those things before hatching an actionable plan. And I know that that’s not necessarily measurable in this moment. But it is the truth.”

If a rebuild is coming, are the Wizards better off re-signing Kuzma and Porzingis to tradable market-value contracts they can move in a year or two? Maybe spend a season running it back, see if this team can stay healthy and what they can do, then start making moves? Or, is it time to hit the reset button now and have a frank conversation with Bradley Beal?

One way or another, the long-postponed rebuild in Washington is coming. It just might not be immediate.

Lillard said he expects to be in Portland next season, so everyone starts trade speculation. Again.

Golden State Warriors v Portland Trail Blazers
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Everyone wants Damian Lillard to leave Portland more than Damian Lillard wants to leave Portland. We trash elite players for being mercenaries jumping teams, then the minute one is loyal, everyone questions why he would do such a thing. Welcome to NBA Twitter.

The latest on Lillard is just more of the same.

Lillard appeared on Showtime Sports The Last Stand with Brian Custer and, when asked if he expects to be a Portland Trail Blazer when next season starts, he said, “I do.” This echoes everything he has said all along, he wants to finish his career in Portland (the man just built a new house there). Lillard then reiterated what he also has consistently said — he wants a chance to compete for it all in Portland. If the Trail Blazers organization decides to go in another direction, then the conversations start.

“We got an opportunity, asset-wise, to build a team that can compete. … If we can’t do that, then it’s a separate conversation we would have to have.”

But Brian Custer leaned into the drama (although he did wait nearly 50 minutes into the pod to get to the topic), and so before asking about Lillard staying in Portland, this is how he phrases a trade question to Lillard:

“Everybody keeps saying Damian Lillard is going to be traded to the Knicks, Damian Lillard’s gonna be traded to the Heat, Damian Lillard should be traded to the Celtics, Damian Lillard’s gonna be traded to the Nets. If one of those trades went through, out of those teams, which one would you be like, that’s not too bad?”

Lillard could have, probably should have shot the premise of the question down. Instead, he’s a good guy and played along and said, “Miami obviously” and praised Bam Adebayo and called him “my dog.” He then said the same thing about Mikal Bridges, now with the Nets (Bridges is a guy long rumored to be a Trail Blazers trade target, maybe with the No. 3 pick in this draft).

All of this is nothing new. Lillard hopes to stay with the Trail Blazers and for them to put a team around him that can compete at the highest levels of the conference. They have young players and the No. 3 pick this year to make a deal for a second star (although some reports say the Blazers are not making Shaedon Sharpe available in any trade, it might take that to get the Nets to even consider a Bridges deal, and even then it may not be enough). If Portland’s front office doesn’t do that this offseason, then Lillard and the franchise need to weigh their options.

That won’t stop the speculation, even from former teammate CJ McCollum.

For now, Lillard wants to be a Trail Blazer and we should celebrate that.

It’s not just Harden, Rockets reportedly eyeing VanVleet, Lopez, Brooks

New York Knicks v Toronto Raptors
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The Houston Rockets are done rebuilding, ownership and management want to shift gears to picking up some wins and making the playoffs. That means using their league-best $60 million in cap space to add difference-making veterans to the young core of Jalen Green, Alperen Şengün, Jabari Smith Jr. and whoever they draft at No. 4 (if they keep the pick).

And it’s not just James Harden they are going after, reports Jake Fischer at Yahoo Sports.

…sharp-shooting center Brook Lopez, is a veteran free agent on Houston’s radar, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

There will be no shortage of players on the market connected to the Rockets between now and the opening of free agency June 30… The Rockets, though, are prioritizing adding a proven table-setting point guard, then looking to acquire upgrades at the wing and center position, sources said. And for that, should Harden ultimately stick with the 76ers, Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet has often been linked to Houston as a secondary option who could perhaps slot into the team’s lead ball-handling role.

On the wing, the Rockets do hold an interest in sharpshooter Cam Johnson, sources said, although Brooklyn personnel has indicated the Nets’ plan to match any realistic offer sheet for the restricted free agent, who was part of the franchise’s return for Kevin Durant. Dillons Brooks, last seen as Memphis’ starting small forward, is another Rockets target, sources told Yahoo Sports, and appears to be a more realistic candidate to join Houston this summer.

There’s a lot to digest there.

Milwaukee is facing some hard decisions as their championship roster is getting old and expensive fast, with the restrictive new CBA’s second tax apron looming. As Fischer notes, the Bucks are expected to extend Khris Middleton, who is owed $40.4 million next season (player option), and Jrue Holiday is extension eligible soon. Lopez will demand a big salary, he finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting and is a floor-spacing big who averaged 15.9 points per game last season. The Bucks would struggle to win without him, but at age 35 how will that contract age?

A lot of teams are eyeing Fred VanVleet and Toronto wants to keep him, he will have options. A lot of teams are watching Cam Johnson as a restricted free agent, but the Nets like him as part of their future and are not expected to let him walk. Dillon Brooks will not be back with the Grizzlies as a free agent, and for all the drama he is an elite on-ball defender and energy player who could help the Rockets.

Houston needs the James Harden domino to fall, then they can see what they have left to spend elsewhere. But one way or another, that will be a very different roster next season.

Three things to watch in Game 3, starting with who wins the fourth quarter

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MIAMI — After looking flat in Game 1, the Heat got some rest, acclimated to the altitude, and looked like themselves in Game 2 — particularly in the fourth quarter. Miami had a game reminiscent of the Boston series, and when it was done the NBA Finals were tied 1-1.

Can Denver bounce back in Game 2? The Nuggets are facing adversity they have not seen yet this postseason — they were up 2-0 in every other series — and the question is how will they respond? That and how well will Miami shoot the 3-pointer?

Here are three things worth watching.

1) Who wins the fourth quarter?

While the Heat’s 48.6% 3-point shooting in Game 2 was at the heart of their win, the question shouldn’t be can they repeat it? Of course they can. It’s why they are still playing. They have seven games this postseason shooting 45+% from 3.

However, there is one other key factor in this series: The fourth quarter.

Through two NBA Finals games, the Denver Nuggets are +29 in the first three quarters but are -21 in the fourth.

Nuggets coach Michael Malone is no fan of the trend — and he had the stats to back himself up.

“If you really want to simplify the first two games, in the first three quarters we have dominated both games. The Miami Heat are dominating the fourth quarter,” Malone said, “They’re averaging 33 points a game in the fourth quarter, shooting over 60% from the field in the fourth quarter and over 50% from three.”

Malone was just getting started.

“I’ve got a great stat: I think quarters one through three after two games, we had around 19% of our possessions were [shots] at the end of the shot clock, last seven seconds,” Malone said. “In the fourth quarter of Game 1 and 2, that jumps from 19% to 32%.

“Which means we’re taking the ball out of the net, we’re walking it up, we’re playing against the zone and we’re getting caught playing in really late-clock situations, which is hurting our offense.”

Miami’s late-game dominance goes back to the regular season, when they had the second-best net rating in the clutch of any team in the league. It has continued through the playoffs, starting with against the Bulls in the play-in — when the Heat had to come back in the fourth just to be in the playoffs, — and has been a through line to the NBA Finals.

This is not going to be a series won in blowouts, there will be more games decided in the fourth quarter and the clutch. If Denver can’t figure out the final frame starting in Game 3, they will be in trouble this series.

2) Can Heat keep Nikola Jokić from being an assist machine

The Miami Heat need to make Jokić a scorer.

Erik Spoelstra hates that phrasing and Nikola Jokić says he’s just playing the game, not thinking about it that way. Fine. We’ll put it this way:

The Heat can’t allow Jokić to become an assist machine.

Phrase it any way you wish, but if Jokić is allowed to score and dish the Heat will not be able to keep up with the Nuggets offense. Put simply, if Jokić scores 35+ points but has around five assists, the Heat have a chance to win. But if he scores around 25 points but with 10+ assists, if Denver is raining down scoring from everywhere, Miami will not be able to keep up.

The Heat plan is a lot of Bam Adebayo and to keep giving Jokić different looks.

“He can go through two or three coverages and figure it out in a matter of, up and down, up and down,” Adebayo said, nodding his head up and down. “He’s already read the game, reading the game. So the biggest thing for us is switching up the coverages and having him see different looks.”

3) It’s all about the Heat shooting

It’s simple and reductive, but it’s been true thought the playoffs and continues into the Finals: When the Heat hit their 3-pointers at a 40%+ clip, they win. It was true in Game 2, and it’s how Miami can keep pace with Denver.

Game 2 was not some shooting aberration, the Heat can keep doing this and the Nuggets know it.

“They are shooting against Milwaukee 43%. They are shooting against Boston 40-something percent,” Jokić said. “They have good shooters, and that’s why they are so deadly and dangerous, because you cannot leave them open.
“Yes, the first game Max [Strus] and Caleb [Martin] didn’t shoot well. But we know they’re going to be better. We just need to don’t give them wide-open looks. They are two great shooters that at least they need to see somebody in front of them, not just a basket.”

That was the theme from Denver — get out and contest. Make it tougher. Use the Nuggets’ length and size advantage to challenge them. The problem is the Heat have shot incredibly well on contested 3s on the night their shots are falling, and with the comfort level their role players have at home it may not matter who is in their face.