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.

Monte Morris plays it safe – to Nuggets’ delight

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DETROIT – Monte Morris entered the NBA inauspiciously.

Despite looking like a borderline first-round pick after his junior year, Morris returned to Iowa State for his senior season. He pulled his quad during the pre-draft process in 2017, missing most of his scheduled workouts. He fell to the No. 51 pick. The Nuggets offered just a two-year, two-way contract.

“I was excited,” said Morris, a Flint, Mich., native. “Where I come from, if you get a chance to get to this level, everybody back home looks at you as the hero. So, I was just happy for my opportunity.”

Morris has seized it.

With Isaiah Thomas sidelined most of the season, Morris has emerged as a quality contributor in Denver. Morris deserves strong consideration for spots on Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player ballots. And this could be just the start.

The knock on Morris has long been his ceiling. The 6-foot-3, 175-pound point guard is neither big nor overly athletic. In four years at Iowa State, he developed a reputation for protecting the ball and taking what defenses gave him. Usually, future NBA point guards bend the game more at that level. They use their burst and/or shooting to dictate terms to the defense. Morris left many scouts believing he’d be a career backup in the NBA – at best.

Morris has improved his outside shooting, making 43.1% of his 3-pointers on 2.8 attempts per game this season. But he’s mostly playing the same style he always has, avoiding bad shots and turnovers. It has just translated far better than expected.

Morris’ 6.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio is on pace to be the best in NBA history. Here are the highest assist-to-turnover ratios since 1977-78, as far back as Basketball-Reference data goes (assists and turnovers per game in parentheses):

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Morris has gone 127 minutes since his last turnover.

“As a coach, that’s what you want in a point guard,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “He’s a throwback.”

Morris is averaging 10.8 points per game, and he competes defensively. Few reserves have produced like him this season.

Montrezl Harrell and Domantas Sabonis are pulling away from the field in the Sixth Man of the Year race. But the ballot runs three deep, and Morris ranks third among Sixth Man of the Year-eligible players in win shares:

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Not bad for someone who spent most of last season in the NBA’s minor league.

Morris played well there, and he has only continued to improve since. He impressed so much in summer league, Denver signed him to a standard contract a year before his two-way deal would have ended. That way, the Nuggets could use Morris more than the 45-day limit for two-way players within the season.

“He embodied who we want to be,” Malone said. “He embodied our culture. Self-motivated. And every time you gave Monte Morris a challenge, he met it head on.”

Judging Morris’ improvement can be tricky. He played just 25 minutes in three NBA games last season. I suspect he could have handled a bigger role, even as a rookie. But there’s a certain amount of guesswork there. (Not so for my Most Improved Player favorite, Kings point guard De'Aaron Fox, who was demonstrably bad last season then has become a near-star this season).

Undeniably, Morris’ impact this season is far greater than ever before.

Here are the biggest increases in win shares (middle) from a prior career high (left) to the current season (right):

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Everything is trending the right direction for Morris. He’s showing the fruits of his work ethic, and he’s just 23. Maybe we can finally view him as someone with upside. But even if this is his ceiling, it’s high enough. Morris is already a productive NBA rotation player.

Perhaps best of all for the Nuggets, Morris is on just a minimum contract.

Here are this season’s win-share leaders among minimum-contract players:*

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*Excluding players who were bought out or just waived in-season then signed elsewhere for the minimum. Excluding players on rookie-scale contracts who had their salaries increased to the minimum by the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Of the 15 minimum-salary players on that leaderboard, only two have contracts that won’t allow them to enter free agency and pursue raises this summer. Spencer Dinwiddie signed a three-year, $34,360,473 extension in December, which he deemed even better than hitting the open market. Morris has two (!) additional minimum-salary seasons on his deal.

By getting him onto a two-year, two-way deal initially, Denver gained immense leverage in negotiations last summer. Morris could have played out his two-way deal and become a restricted free agent next summer. Instead, he took the safe approach with a three-year contract that guaranteed two seasons at the NBA minimum and included a third unguaranteed minimum season.

It’s incredible value for the Nuggets… and delays Morris getting a payday commensurate with his production. But he’s maintaining the same steady approach he shows on the court.

“It’s cool,” Morris said. “I’ve just got to keep being Monte, keep being on-time, keep being a good person, and everything will take care of itself.”

Former Warriors coach Don Nelson on how he’s spending retirement: ‘I’ve been smoking some pot’

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Last night, the Warriors honored their “We Believe” team, which upset the No. 1-seeded Mavericks in the 2007 playoffs. Golden State’s coach that year, Don Nelson, and two of his players – Stephen Jackson and Jason Richardson – were asked how they’re spending retirement.

Nelson:

I’ve been smoking some pot.

But I never smoked when I played or coached. So, it’s new to me. But, anyway, I’m doing that. And I’m having a pretty good time. It’s more legal now than it’s ever been, so I’m enjoying that.

The best part: Jackson – who previously admitted to playing high – raising his arms victoriously while Nelson answered.

Giannis Antetokounmpo makes incredible chase-down block on Jayson Tatum (video)

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Look at this!

Jayson Tatum is barely in the picture as he takes off for the basket. Giannis Antetokounmpo is still at the free-throw line and looking at Terry Rozier.

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Yet, Antetokounmpo still caught Tatum for the awesome block in the Bucks’ 98-97 win over the Celtics last night.

James Harden: Scott Foster ‘rude and arrogant,’ shouldn’t be allowed to ref Rockets games

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In the Rockets’ loss to the Lakers last night, referee Scott Foster called James Harden‘s third and fifth fouls – both offensive. The third came in the first quarter and sent Harden to the bench early. The fifth set up Harden to foul out a short time later.

Foster also called Chris Paul‘s sixth and disqualifying foul. Then, Foster gave Paul and Houston coach Mike D’Antoni technical fouls.

In all, Foster called 12 fouls on the Rockets and six on the Lakers. In the second half, he called 10 fouls on the Rockets and three on the Lakers.

Harden, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“Scott Foster, man. I never really talk about officiating or anything like that, but just rude and arrogant,” said Harden, who finished with 30 points to extend his streak of 30-point performances to 32 games, the second longest in NBA history. “I mean, you aren’t able to talk to him throughout the course of the game, and it’s like, how do you build that relationship with officials? And it’s not even that call [on the sixth foul]. It’s just who he is on that floor.

“It’s lingering, and it’s something that has to be looked at for sure,” Harden said. “For sure, it’s personal. For sure. I don’t think he should be able to even officiate our games anymore, honestly.”

It’s impossible to escape the timing of this. Former referee Tim Donaghy received renewed attention this week as more evidence emerged he fixed games. Donaghy and Foster frequently spoke by phone while Donaghy was still an NBA official, which only raised suspicions about Foster. But he explained the calls as simply friends conversing.

Fair or not, Foster isn’t particularly well-liked within the league. Paul also made pointed comments about him last year.

Does Foster have a personal vendetta against Harden, Paul and the Rockets? Were Foster’s calls last night erroneous? I’m not sure.

But it wouldn’t be the first time a referee let his emotions interfere with calling a game fairly. It’s probably worth the NBA taking Harden’s concerns seriously and assessing them.