NBA Power Rankings, where that Lakers/Heat finals seems a long ways away

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Our weekly NBA Power Rankings. Right now the top four teams on this list are playing the best basketball, but if the playoffs started today I’d pick teams 5 and 6 to meet in the finals. However, this is November, so we’ll worry about the playoffs later.

1. Spurs (14-2). They were down 17 at half to the Hornets Sunday when Gregg Popovich went small — Richard Jefferson at the four, Duncan at the five — and the team just ran and pressured. It worked and the Spurs beat a very good team. I don’t think the Spurs or Popovich could have done this a year ago. Things are different on the Riverwalk.

2. Magic (12-4). They are playing as well as anyone in November, but apparently Orlando management is not convinced they can do the same thing in May.

3. Mavericks (12-4). Five wins in a row, plus they had the Heat bumping into each other and sent them into a team meeting. All that and they get Roddy Beaubois back in a month, instantly become much more dynamic.

4. Jazz (13-5). Also five wins in a row. And another big comeback, this one against the Lakers. Apparently LA forgot to read the scouting report.

5. Celtics (12-4). The loss of Delonte West will hurt this team as it means more of the streaky Nate Robinson. Meanwhile Shaq says this is the best team he has ever been on, and he would never say something just to needle and old team. Nope, not him. Never.

6. Lakers (13-4). Two losses this weeks sends them a few steps down. They really need Andrew Bynum back so they can win some games at the defensive end of the floor.

7. Hornets (12-4). A 1-3 week, but you knew they were coming back to earth eventually. Games this week against the Thunder and Spurs will start to give you a sense of exactly where this team stands.

8. Hawks (11-7). Three wins in a row, including looking good beating Toronto Sunday, and they creep up the standings a little. But if they don’t start beating teams with winning records (they have yet to do that) they will fall.

9. Thunder (11-6). They could have had a bigger week, but Kevin Durant missed a couple game winners. The moral of that story — this is why you want to blow teams out and not be in close games. There’s a reason the best teams win a lot of games big.

10. Nuggets (10-6). The Nuggets have won four in a row and they did it without Chauncey Billups in a couple and Carmelo Anthony in the last one. This team is pretty good.

11. Bulls (9-6). The Bulls went 4-3 on their annual circus trip, and they still have yet to get Boozer back in the fold.

12. Pacers (8-7). They beat the Lakers and Heat this week with defense. That may be sentence I least expected to type this season.

13. Heat (9-8). They have a better scoring differential than many of the teams above them, but when faced with good defense they become stagnant on offense. The questions this week about the return to Cleveland may be a welcome break from the questions about team friction with coach Erik Spoelstra.

14. Blazers (8-8). The Blazers offense is struggling with a hobbled Brandon Roy not able to create shots as well. This may become more Andre Miller’s team soon, if it hasn’t already.

15. Knicks (9-9). The record says they are average, but that feels like a big step forward. Soft schedule this week may see them climb farther up the rankings.

16. Suns (8-9). They have got to find a way to get more of a defensive presence in the paint and grab more boards.

17. Warriors (8-9). David Lee returned and the Warriors are 7-2 when he plays. They can’t keep up that pace, but with him they may be a playoff team.

18. Cavaliers (7-9). LeBron returns to Quicken Loan Arena this week, time to laugh?

19. Grizzlies (7-10). Xavier Henry starts, OJ Mayo comes off the bench and they win three in a row. We’re not sold that was the reason, but wins are wins.

20. Bucks (6-10). Look at their point differential and this looks like a .500 team, but when you have the worst offense in basketball (looking at points per possession) you lose a lot of games you should win.

21. Bobcats (6-11). What happened to the Bobcats dominating defense from last season? Did Tyson Chandler’s 51 games mean that much?

22. Raptors (6-11). Losing Reggie Evans is really going to hurt this team, it will be hard to stay up this high (which isn’t that high) in the rankings the coming weeks.

23. Pistons (6-11). Looking for a silver lining? The Pistons only turn the ball over on 14.4 percent of their possessions, fourth lowest rate in the league.

24. Nets (6-11). They beat the struggling Blazers. They beat the Hawks. Then they turn around and loose to the Sixers. Inconsistency, my old friend.

25. Rockets (5-11). They get a nice win against the Thunder, but now get the Mavericks and Lakers. Tough road without Yao or Aaron Brooks.

26. Wizards (5-10). The Wizards need to play a lot of John Wall to get him acclimated to the NBA game, but they looked a little better when he was out for five games.

27. Sixers (4-13). This team cannot win a close game to save their season.

28. Clippers (3-15). Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon make this team watchable, but until they are consistent on defense the will not win much. They need more D like they showed against the Hornets a week ago.

29. Kings (4-11). Tyreke Evans is shooting 38.5 percent overall and 10 percent from three in the last 10 games. Not a good sign for the Kings.

30. Timberwolves (4-13). Couple of long road trips ahead for a team that shows some flashes but can’t put a well rounded game together.

Ben Simmons targeting Friday vs. Hawks to return from calf strain

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Ben Simmons has missed the Nets’ last three games with knee pain tied to a left calf strain, and he will be out Wednesday, too, when Brooklyn takes on Charlotte.

However, he plans to return on Friday (Dec. 9) against the Hawks.

Simmons was adjusting to a new role in Brooklyn. In Philadelphia he was a point-forward with the ball in his hands playing off Joel Embiid (at least at first), but in Brooklyn the ball needed to be in the hands of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the halfcourt. Simmons is playing more small-ball five, and is asked to be aggressive and attack when he gets the ball — not shoot jumpers — and to push the rock in transition. It took a while for Simmons to settle into that space, but he seemed to in games against Philadelphia (11 points, 11 assists), Toronto (14 points, six assists) and Indiana (20 points). Then the injuries hit.

Brooklyn sits at 13-12, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense for the season. While there are doubts about the ceiling for this team, it has a talent level that should be better than this record, it’s just been beset by injuries, controversy causing Kyrie Irving to miss time, and a coaching change. The Nets have yet to hit their stride.

But they could have a clean injury report on Friday night, and maybe that can be the start of this team getting on a run.

Suns, Hawks reportedly show interest in Kuzma trade, Wizards see him as cornerstone

Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyle Kuzma was the kind of quality, two-way role player the Lakers needed around LeBron James and Anthony Davis to win the 2020 NBA title (the type of player the Lakers wish they had now).

In Washington, his role has been elevated — he’s a 20-point-a-game scorer (20.6 points per game this season, to be precise) who is a key part of generating offense, not just playing off the stars of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis. As he told Shams Charania of The Athletic:

“As soon as I got traded, I was ready to be more,” Kuzma told The Athletic.

It’s been enough to draw the interest of a couple of teams looking for a trade, Charania adds. The Wizards are not necessarily interested in moving on, however.

Several teams, such as the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have expressed trade interest in Kuzma, according to league sources. By the same token, the Wizards have shown interest in Hawks forward John Collins, and the sides seriously discussed a potential deal last offseason, league sources added…

However, the Wizards’ front office, led by general manager Tommy Sheppard, has made clear that it views Kuzma as a cornerstone moving forward as the franchise has seen him thrive since the mega-trade in the 2021 offseason. The Westbrook trade provided future flexibility and assets for the Wizards, who have been known to be aggressive and active in research across the league.

Kuzma has a $13 million player option for next season that he will unquestionably opt out of, making him a free agent in search of a healthy raise (north of $20 million a year, although expect something more in the ballpark of the four-year, $104 million Jalen Brunson contract). If the Wizards are willing to pay they likely can keep him (they have his Bird rights). But if Washington isn’t sure it wants to pay market value, or if management sees a shifting path for future seasons, it should consider trading Kuzma at the deadline.

If he becomes available, far more teams than the Hawks and Suns would be interested, quality two-way forwards are in demand around the league. Kuzma would have some leverage over where he gets sent because he can leave as a free agent (teams would offer up less if they believed Kuzma would only be a rental for this season).

Magic send Jonathan Isaac to G-League for practice, rehabilitation

2022-2023 Orlando Magic Media Day
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There was a time when it was thought Jonathan Isaac might be the Magic’s next big star.

However, he has not stepped on an NBA court since he was in the bubble (Feb. 8, 2020), then he tore his ACL in August of that year (which came on the heels of missing much of that season with an injury to the same knee). Last March he had a setback and another procedure, and at this point he has missed two full seasons plus the start of this one.

Isaac is still working toward recovery and the Magic have assigned him to the Lakeland Magic of the G-League to get in some practice.

Because NBA teams barely practice during the season — the schedule of games nearly every other day plus travel and recovery doesn’t permit more than film sessions and walk-throughs — these kinds of baseball-style minor league rehab assignments are more and more common.

The story from the Magic’s official website notes this will be the first time Isaac will play 5-on-5 with other players during his rehab, which is a significant step forward.

There is no timeline for his return, but the Magic have him under contract this season for $17.4 million and two more fully guaranteed years at the same price. There is no reason for the franchise to walk away, even if some around the league question if his knees will ever let him back on an NBA court again.

The Magic have found their next star in Paolo Banchero and have built a promising young core, something Isaac — an elite defender before his injuries — should fit in well with. If he can get healthy and back on the court.

Antetokounmpo talks about plans for his 28th birthday while holding Simpsons plush

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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Happy birthday, Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak turns 28 today.

After he dropped a casual (for him) 34-13-5 line in the Bucks’ win over the Magic last night, Antetokounmpo discussed his birthday plans. He’s not going out, maybe just dinner, playing with his kids, and once they are asleep… ya know.

I feel safe saying Antetokounmpo is the first NBA player to talk about birthday sex while holding a Homer J. Simpson plush doll.

If you’re asking, why the Simpson doll… why not? Bucks reserve forward Sandro Mamukelashvili won it at Universal Studios, brought it to the game, left it behind in the locker room and Antetokounmpo appropriated it.

In a world where most postgame press conferences are formulaic and filled with cliches it’s good to see a player willing just to be himself and have some fun behind the mic.