NBA Power Rankings: Who said the Spurs were over the hill?

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Our weekly NBA Power Rankings, where that Spurs/Celtics game Wednesday is looking like the game of the week.

1. Spurs (29-4). They beat a suddenly reeling Mavericks team as well as the Lakers this week. By the way, Tim Duncan has put up an average of 16 points and 10 rebounds a game in the Spurs last 10, plus anchored their defense. Every team could use an over the hill guy playing like that.

2. Heat (26-9). Five wins in a row and they are playing the best ball in the East right now. Why? Because their big three have got it going and are starting to play like we expected, and carrying that supporting cast along.

3. Celtics (25-7). They had lost two in a row due to injuries before Rajon Rondo returned to the lineup Sunday. What does that mean? That the Celtics are not easily cruising to the Eastern Conference’s top seed. But Boston knows it’s about being healthy starting in late April that really matters.

4. Magic (21-12). Five wins in a row because the offense is a little better. And so is the defense — didn’t see that coming. We still question the trades and taking on all that extra salary long term, but in the short term we’re starting to believe.

5. Mavericks (25-8). Three losses in a row with Dirk Nowitzki out and while he may be back soon now Caron Butler may be done for the rest of the season. That could mean a lot more Shawn Marion, which raises depth questions.

6. Lakers (23-11). You see flashes of better play from the Lakers then they get blown out at home by Memphis (and the Grizzlies were on the second night of a back-to-back). Go ahead and say they are bored right now, but because of that they are not developing good habits they will need later. Their offense was best in the NBA but has fallen to fourth.

7. Bulls (22-10). Chicago is 8-2 in their last 10 and it’s because they’ve held opponents to 41 percent shooting in that stretch. Without Noah for some of it (they are 6-2 without him).

8. Thunder (23-12). The Thunder are being held back by being an average defensive team (17th in the league in defensive efficiency). That will cost them in the playoffs, too, if they can’t right that ship.

9. Jazz (23-11). Mehmet Okur was back, and then his back (and back pain) took him out again. The Jazz are a Jekyll and Hyde team from game-to-game and even quarter-to-quarter.

10. Hornets (20-14). They play at the fourth slowest pace in the league — if you had Chris Paul on your roster wouldn’t you run more?

11. Nuggets (19-13). I know it’s not going to matter, ‘Melo is gone no matter what, but I’d like to see this team play at full strength for a few weeks just to see what they would have been like.

12. Knicks (19-14). Some tough games coming up, starting with the Spurs Tuesday followed by a West Coast road swing. Still, solidly a playoff team right now, and that was all you could really hope for with this roster. And it’s a step in the right direction.

13. Blazers (18-16). Call it the Ewing Theory if you wish, but the Blazers are 8-3 without Brandon Roy this season and just beat a hot Rockets team Sunday.

14. Hawks (22-14). Great note from Hoopinion: At 19-5 against sub-.500 teams and 3-9 against teams above .500 the Hawks are currently the perfect gauge for NBA quality.

15. Rockets (16-17). After playing well of late on Sunday the Rockets lost to the Blazers and looked like a team that needed a star to take over for them. Daryl Morey would love to get in the Carmelo Anthony talks for that reason.

16. Grizzlies (15-19). This team just brings it against the Lakers. And the OJ Mayo move to the bench seems to have sparked him personally. When the Grizzlies bring the consistent defensive effort they can beat a lot of teams, but about half the time they don’t bother.

17. Sixers (13-20). A long road trip without Andre Iguodala for much of it has been tough, but the Sixers are still 5-5 in their last 10. They head home Monday night.

18. Bucks (13-18). They only play the Heat and Magic this week, as the Bucks are in the brutal point of their schedule.

19. Pacers (14-18). Here’s the Pacers problem in a nutshell — they shot 37 percent against the Knicks on Sunday. The Knicks. It was a sloppy shooting game both ways but the Pacers should be better than that.

20. Warriors (13-20). Monta Ellis in the All-Star game? I can see that. Just tough to be a guard in the West and get in because who are you going to leave out? Deron Williams? Steve Nash? Tony Parker? Russell Westbrook?

21. Suns (14-18). They are 3-7 in their last 10 and lost to the Kings this week. The Suns are in real trouble.

22. Bobcats (11-20). Paul Silas and the faster pace have the Bobcats looking better than they have all season. But Gerald Wallace injuring his ankle, again, will not help.

23. Clippers (10-24). Blake Griffin for the All-Star game? I can see that, but forward in the West may be the single deepest spot on the ballot. So do you leave of Tim Duncan? Dirk Nowitzki? Pau Gasol?

24. Raptors (11-22). During Summer League we were hyping DeMar DeRozan as a guy who could have a breakout year, and he’s finally staring to show it.

25. Pistons (11-22). They caught the Celtics at the right time, but if you thought maybe they were turning a corner we hope you didn’t watch the Suns game.

26. Timberwolves (9-25). The Wolves are on fire from three-point range — 48 percent as a team in the last five games — and that has got them on a little hot streak (3-2 in those five games).

27. Kings (7-24). Even if you don’t watch the whole game, tune in for the end of Kings games to see dramatic endings. The Kings got two wins in one week, a legitimate one over the Suns and a lucky one over the Grizzlies.

28. Nets (9-25). Well, at least they are not in the running for the worst record in NBA history this year. But this is a long, slow and painful rebuilding process.

29. Wizards (7-21). Soft part of the schedule for the next couple weeks, including road games in Philly, Charlotte and Minnesota. Win one of those and the Wizards will have one road win this season.

30. Cavaliers (8-22). They are 1-9 in their last 10 and that one win was in overtime against the Knicks. They are bad at both ends of the floor and watching their trade wire will be more interesting than their games.

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.