NBA Power Rankings: Dallas sweeps through Florida, right to the top

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Our weekly NBA Power Rankings, where the top four teams are all 9-1 in their last 10 and probably could be ranked in any order.

1. Mavericks (23-5). They move into the top spot on the strength of their sweep of Miami and Orlando on back-to-back nights. That depth Mark Cuban touted really helps them in the regular season

2. Spurs (26-4). Wondering if these Spurs are for real? We say they are but the next five games — Lakers, Mavericks, Thunder, Knicks and Celtics — will be a real test of that.

3. Heat (23-9). That domination of the Lakers was a good confidence boost. The game will be meaningless if these teams meet again in June, but right now it is a validation — especially of their defense. And couldn’t we all use a little validation?

4. Celtics (23-5). The one loss to Orlando was not that bad, but they miss Rondo when the game is tight and that is going to hurt them until he is back. Whenever that is.

5. Thunder (21-10). We’re discounting the loss to New York — second night of a back-to-back, fourth game in five days and then you have to run with the Knicks? That was a schedule maker’s loss. They are still 7-3 in their last 10.

6. Jazz (21-9). Congrats to Jerry Sloan for moving past Pat Riley on the all-time wins list. That guy does it year after year — it’s time to give him Coach of the Year.

7. Lakers (21-9). Last year after LeBron thumped the Lakers on Christmas on national television the Lakers won five of their next six. Just something to watch, to see if that really was a wakeup call.

8. Magic (18-12). Orlando beat Boston and San Antonio this week. We are pretty skeptical how much better the big trades make them long term, but right now they look pretty good, don’t they?

9. Knicks (18-12). They ran the Thunder off the floor then played one quarter of pretty good defense against the Bulls and that was enough. Two big wins in one week, plus Spike Lee is back doing NBA commercials. It’s all good.

10. Bulls (19-10). Loss to the Knicks then needed overtime to get by the Pistons. The numbers say their defense has been better without Noah but it doesn’t feel like it when you watch them.

11. Hornets (18-12). Chris Paul is really, really good. That can never be said enough. Dude is shooting 45.5 percent from three this season. Remember when he couldn’t hit the three?

12. Hawks (19-13). In his five games since returning, Joe Johnson is shooting 40.7 percent overall and 32.1 percent from three. Not good.

13. Blazers (15-15). A very good team at home in the Rose Garden that struggles on the road. This week they are on the road a lot.

14. Nuggets (16-13). They expect to have Carmelo Anthony back on Tuesday, which would be a big boost. The Nuggets have lost three in a row despite good play from Chauncey Billups.

15. Rockets (14-15). Four straight wins. All against pretty soft competition but the fact is they are beating the teams they are supposed to.

16. Sixers (11-16). They had a 2-2 week — wins over Orlando and Denver, losses to Boston and Chicago. That’s a tough week, so 2-2 is pretty darn good.

17. Pacers (13-15). I thought Darren Collison would have a bigger positive impact on this team than he has. And Danny Granger is shooting 39 percent in his last 10 games.

18. Suns (13-16). They may get Vince Carter back next weekend. When you’ve lost three in a row and are in danger of not making the playoffs you look forward to Vince Carter.

19. Bucks (10-15). They are going to need more wins like the impressive one over the Lakers, because the schedule gets brutal the next couple weeks.

20. Grizzlies (13-17). January means a lot of time on the road for a team that needs to find a groove if they are going to get in the playoffs.

21. Warriors (11-18). Monta Ellis is a stud. Flat out scoring machine. Just fun to watch.

22. Clippers (9-22). If you stop watching Blake Griffin dunks for a few minutes you notice the Clips are 5-5 in their last 10.

23. Raptors (10-19). The Raptors are out of Toronto a lot next month, on the road and missing some Canadian winter. They’d like to thank the schedule maker for that, but they’ll need to find a way to win some of those games.

24. Pistons (10-20). No team’s fans were more convinced we had this team pegged wrong before the season — and they let us know it. This was a team that could make the playoffs they said. Some people don’t like to gloat about being right. I’m not one of those people.

25. Nets (9-21). Sasha Vujacic is averaging 11 points a game and the Nets have played some decent defense lately. Not that it has meant a lot of wins or anything.

26. Bobcats (9-19). Paul Silas is a fine replacement for Larry Brown, but until the roster is fixed the coach won’t really matter.

27. Timberwolves (7-24). They beat Cleveland and are now 2-8 in their last 10. Which is enough to move up two spots.

28. Cavaliers (8-22). If you look at their point per possession differential they are the worst team in the league. Which is saying maybe this ranking is generous, but it is Christmas time and we’re feeling generous still.

29. Wizards (7-21). It would be nice for Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee to show some fight on the court, too.

30. Kings (5-22). They actually hang in games then lose them in the fourth quarter — they came from ahead to lose twice last week. Which is just a little more salt in the wounds of Kings fans. Sorry.

Report: Udoka used ‘crude language’ with female subordinate prior to improper relationship

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The Boston Celtics handled the Ime Udoka investigation and suspension by the corporate handbook: They kept the woman’s name out of the news, kept details confidential (not even telling the players much for legal reasons), and acted swiftly and decisively.

But as the team on the court starts defending its Eastern Conference title, there has been a concern that details leaking out about the investigations — and responses to those leaks — could turn this into a season-long drama and distraction for the team. That first started on Friday when Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported this:

The independent law firm probe into Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka found that he used crude language in his dialogue with a female subordinate prior to the start of an improper workplace relationship with the woman, an element that significantly factored into the severity of his one-year suspension, sources told ESPN.

Those investigative findings — which described verbiage on Udoka’s part that was deemed especially concerning coming from a workplace superior — contribute to what is likely a difficult pathway back to his reinstatement as Celtics coach in 2023, sources told ESPN.

A few thoughts here.

• “Crude language” is just part of a more detailed and damning report, league sources have told NBC Sports. There is much more uncovered by the independent investigation, including about the power dynamic in play. It was enough that the Celtics thought the best move was to suspend for an entire season a coach loved by players who led the team to the NBA Finals (it’s not something the Celtics organization did lightly).

• As Wojnarowski and others have noted, it’s increasingly unlikely Udoka returns to coach the Celtics next season, even if that is not yet official.

• While some pundits and people around the league have said Udoka is “done,” the NBA has seen unexpected turnarounds before. Never say never in this league.

• About the only sure thing is that this story is not over.

Lillard poised to pass Drexler as Trail Blazers all-time leading scorer

2022-23 Portland Trail Blazers Media Day
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images
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Damian Lillard could have done what a lot of NBA stars have done — what a lot of them told him to do while recruiting him — and has chosen to stay in Portland. He wants to be remembered as the greatest Trail Blazer ever.

One good way to do that: Become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Sometime around Thanksgiving or a little after, Lillard will do just that, passing Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler and his 18,040 points (Lillard is 531 back).

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports spoke to Lillard about when he knew the record was within reach, during Trail Blazers training camp in Santa Barbara, California (go Gauchos!). It was when Lillard got to 10,000 points.

“I was like, ‘Damn, I got 10,000 already?’ ” Lillard told Yahoo Sports he recalled at the time. “It was my sixth season in the league. That’s when I started thinking, if I could be consistent, I could score into the high 20,000-point range. As a scorer, 20,000 points is always looked at as a special mark. From that moment, I knew it was possible, but it’s also when I first researched Clyde Drexler’s [scoring] record with the team.”

Drexler is good with being passed by Lillard.

“You and I know records are made to be broken, but I can’t think of a better player or person to break the record than Dame,” Drexler told Yahoo Sports. “He exemplifies being a team player and going about his business in a professional way. I have nothing but admiration and respect for him. When he comes close to getting the record, and if our schedules align, I would love to be there to help out in any way I can. That’s a nice milestone to achieve. I am looking forward to him accomplishing that.”

Lillard is on a lot of front office people’s watch list this season, as in “how long before he is unhappy and asks for a trade?” The thing is, Lillard has been on that list for years and he keeps choosing Portland — he isn’t looking to leave. Of course, the $120 million extension and a retooling of the roster around him helped with that decision, but Lillard always had other options if he wanted them (and at times it felt like he would take them).

The Trail Blazers brought in Jerami Grant, re-signed Anfrenee Simons, and will put them with a solid core of others such as (a finally healthy) Jusuf Nurkic, Josh Hart, Gary Payton II and others. It’s a good roster, the question is how good in a deep West?

There are a lot of questions about how this season shakes out in Portland, but the one seeming sure thing is Lillard becoming the Trail Blazers’ all-time leading scorer. And that seems fitting.

Suns update: Ayton blames Sarver for contract, Crowder conflict, Johnson to start

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Phoenix went to the NBA Finals two seasons ago and had the most wins in the NBA last season, yet dark clouds seem to be blocking out the Suns heading into this NBA season.

Here’s the latest on three situations with the Suns: Deandre Ayton‘s contract frustration, why Jae Crowder is asking out, and who starts at the four now.

• Ayton ended up signing a four-year, $132.9 max contract and will be back with the Suns to start this season, but the road to get there was rocky. The Suns would not offer Ayton a max five-year contract extension, his name kept coming up in Kevin Durant trade rumors, so Ayton went out and got a four-year max offer from the Pacers — which the Suns instantly matched. Phoenix saved $40 million and a guaranteed year, but the process left Ayton a little bitter.

Ayton blames outgoing owner Robert Sarver — a notorious penny pincher as an owner (among other, much worse things) — Marc Spears and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN discussed on NBA Today (hat tip Real GM).

“That is certainly something that caused the ire of him,” said Marc J. Spears. “I was told that it was Robert Sarver who didn’t want to give him that fifth year, who wanted to save the money.”

“My understanding from talking to people close to Deandre is that he thinks this was Robert Sarver’s decision as well. And Robert Sarver’s not going to be the owner anymore. So there is some healing that can happen there. But I know there were some hurt feelings over that contract and how that played out.

“If they were going to instantly match an offer sheet that he signed, why not just give him the max contract? Yes, it saved them a year and $40 million but as somebody close to Deandre told me ‘There’s a karma to this. Why do that to your No. 1 overall pick?'”

Shelburne hit the nail on the head — the NBA is a business, but it’s a business of relationships. Not only did the Suns sour theirs with Ayton, but you can also be sure every other agent around the league noticed how that was handled. It doesn’t help when recruiting players. The eventual new owner, whoever it ends up being, has a lot of work to change the franchise’s perception.

• Jae Crowder remains away from the Suns during training camp awaiting a trade (which reportedly will not be to Dallas). Crowder started 109 games for the Suns during the past two seasons and was a key part of their run to the NBA Finals, so how did things deteriorate so quickly? Marc Stein lays it out in his latest Substack newsletter.

Entering the final season of his current contract at $10.2 million, Jae Crowder let the Suns know that he was seeking a contract extension. League sources say that the Suns’ messaging, in response, was to let Crowder know that, at 32, he was no longer assured of starting or finishing games ahead of Cam Johnson. That gulf between the parties led Crowder to seek an exit from the desert that has landed him on indefinite mutual leave from the team until Phoenix can find a trade for him.

While Miami gets mentioned as a suitor a lot, it’s next to impossible to put together a trade that works for both sides right now (at the trade deadline, maybe, but Crowder isn’t going to be with the Suns that long). Cleveland is currently the hot name in league circles when talking Crowder trades, and Stein also mentions the Milwaukee Bucks, who have been looking for a P.J. Tucker-like replacement for P.J Tucker. But, do any of these teams want to extend Crowder at age 32?

• Suns coach Monty Williams confirmed what Crowder heard — Cameron Johnson will start at the four for the Suns this season.

Johnson brings better shooting to the table — 42.5% last season on 3-pointers — and is more athletic at this point, but Crowder brings better defense, toughness, and veteran savvy that can be trusted in the playoffs. The Suns may miss that when it matters, but Johnson will get the chance to prove us all wrong.

Blake Griffin agrees to join Boston Celtics on one-year deal

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Blake Griffin has agreed to join the Boston Celtics on a one-year contract which will be fully guaranteed.

The Celtics were desperate for frontcourt depth following injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Robert Williams, as Luke Kornet was even getting some run with the starting group at training camp.

You do have to wonder just how much the 33-year-old Griffin has left in the tank though. Last season with the Brooklyn Nets, Griffin only managed to play 17.1 minutes per game and his 3-point percentage dropped like a stone to 26%. He was also a major liability on defense, and the Celtics surely know that after Jaylen Brown drove by him with ease time and time again during the postseason.

Griffin was still an effective playmaker and that may make him a good fit with the second unit alongside the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White and Grant Williams with all of these capable of handling the ball. Injuries and Father Time have zapped Griffin’s athleticism, but if anyone can squeeze the last bit of value out of him, I’d bet on Brad Stevens and the Celtics.