NBA Power Rankings, where the Heat has finally risen to the top

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Our weekly NBA Power Rankings, where the effect of LeBron James’ decision is the difference between No. 1 and No. 30.

1. Heat (30-9). Nine wins in a row and 21 of the last 22. We said before the season this team should be a regular season powerhouse and they are proving to be. They are winning the close, ugly games now, which is what good teams do.

2. Magic (25-12). Nine consecutive wins. What the trade has done is made them a much more balanced offensive team, and Hedo Turkoglu is back to being effective.

3. Spurs (31-6). In the Spurs last 10 games Gary Neal has outscored Tim Duncan, 12.4 points per game to 12.1. Neal is taking 60 percent of his shots from three (shooting 41.1 percent) and has been a key part of the Spurs attack. They find these guys who can fill roles and put them in good positions like no other franchise.

4. Celtics (28-8). In his five games back, Rajon Rondo is averaging 8.8 points and 12.2 assists per game — that passing makes the Celtics offense so much smoother. Celtics start a six-game home stand Monday, and KG is expected back this week.

5. Lakers (27-11). Four wins in a row and six of their last seven. Go ahead and say it’s against soft competition — it is. However, against a resurgent Knicks Sunday the Lakers showed signs of being their big, bad selves.

6. Bulls (24-12). Quality win against the Celtics — not a statement win, Boston didn’t have KG and the Bulls didn’t have Noah, and there are no statements in January. But still a good win. They get the Heat Saturday and that won’t be as easy.

7. Thunder (25-13). Kevin Durant is looking like an MVP candidate again, averaging 30.2 points a game on 53 percent shooting in the last 10 for the Thunder. Big test for them Thursday against the streaking Magic.

8. Jazz (25-13). Utah’s front office has to get a little nervous watching the Carmelo Anthony disaster and realizing they could be in the same spot with Deron Williams next year at this time. Good news, Mehmet Okur is back practicing with the team.

9. Hornets (22-16). In the last 10 Hornets games, no player has taken more threes than Trevor Ariza — and he has hit 25.6 percent of them. He’d be better off leaving those to Marco Belinelli, who is hitting 46 percent over the same period. Just a suggestion.

10. Mavericks (26-10). They have dropped down the rankings due to seven games without Dirk Nowitzki (2-5 in those). Until they get Nowitzki back for a while it’s hard to fully judge how much losing Caron Butler hurts.

11. Hawks (22-14). They have yet to lose in 2011 and they’re 8-2 in their last 10. Outside of Utah, however, they have yet to beat anyone in the last couple weeks that impresses.

12. Knicks (21-15). They got their season signature win over the Spurs last Tuesday, then Amar’e Stoudemire got a good homecoming with a win in Phoenix. After those two, we’ll try to ignore how the Lakers game reminded all of us of this team’s weaknesses.

13. Blazers (20-18). They get credit for two moral victories this week, playing the Heat and Mavericks tough. Like Houston, this team just makes you work for everything.

14. Nuggets (20-16). Three straight losses and it’s hard to see them getting a win so long as the ‘Melo trade rumors hang over their head. He said again Monday he doesn’t think it gets done this week.

15. Grizzlies (17-20). Last year the Grizzlies made a big mid-season run — they have a lot of road games coming up against the bottom half of the East. Can they do it again?

16. Sixers (15-22). After some tough road trips lately the Sixers are home for a little while, where they are a much better team.

17. Bucks (14-21). The good news is that John Salmons seems to have found his touch again, scoring 17 points a game in the last 10. The bad news is the team’s second leading scorer over that stretch is Earl Boykins.

18. Suns (15-20). They barely beat the Cavaliers the other day, which counts as a win but doesn’t inspire confidence. No matter now many times they deny it will happen, the Steve Nash trade rumors will not die.

19. Clippers (12-24). Don’t look now, the Clippers are 7-3 in their last 10 and playing some good ball. Actually, do look. They are worth watching.

20. Rockets (16-21). They have lost five in a row, and this week the schedule is Boston, Oklahoma City, then New Orleans and Atlanta back-to-back. Rough.

21. Bobcats (13-21). They are 4-2 in the Paul Silas era. And they are playing watchable basketball again.

22. Warriors (15-22). The Warriors are loaded with home games in January and are 4.5 games out of the last playoff spot in the West. If it’s going to happen it’s going to happen now.

23. Pacers (14-20). Indiana’s final two possessions against the Spurs in a close game Friday night had Roy Hibbert isolated in the post against Tim Duncan. Really? No Granger there, but rather Hibbert on a very good defender? The Pacers are 1-6 in last seven.

24. Raptors (13-24). Remember at the start of the season we said they were playing good defense? We take that back.

25. Pistons (12-24). Tom Gores could turn out to be the kind of rich, big-spending owner the Pistons need. But really, right now any kind of owner to point them in a direction is needed.

26. Kings (8-26). They got a win over Denver this week, which any other week would be considered a quality win. Right now, well, still counts as a win. DeMarcus Cousins is beasting lately.

27. Wizards (9-26). Nick Young is making USC proud (and Gilbert Arenas, too), averaging 17.2 points per game in the Wizards last 10. Sure, he’s shooting just 47.5 percent (eFG%, which accounts for his made threes), but at least he’s scoring. Somebody needs to.

28. Timberwolves (9-29). They get moral victories this week for playing the Celtics and the Spurs close. Sure, moral victories shouldn’t count, but look where we are in the rankings, it’s not like there are a lot of actual victories to count.

29. Nets (10-27). You get the feeling watching them the last week that all the trade rumors are bothering the young Nets, which shouldn’t be a surprise.

30. Cavaliers (8-29). What Cleveland might be able to get in an Anderson Varejao trade was the one interesting thing left for Cavs fans this season. Now…..

Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett Hall of Fame induction pushed back to May

Kobe Hall of Fame
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ASSOCIATED PRESS — Kobe Bryant and the rest of this year’s Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame class won’t be inducted in 2020 – or at the birthplace of basketball.

The Hall announced Friday that the enshrinement ceremony will be held May 13-15, 2021, and the entire festivities will be moved to Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut.

This year was to be a highlight for the Hall of Fame, located in Springfield, Massachusetts. Bryant, killed in January in a helicopter crash, headlined a decorated class featuring Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett that would have been enshrined in the recently renovated museum.

But the coronavirus pandemic scuttled those plans and hit the Hall so hard that it eliminated several full-time positions and cut senior management pay in the 25-40% range.

“These are people who have been a big part of the Hall’s success in recent years; it hurts deeply,” said John Doleva, President and CEO of the Hall of Fame, said in a statement. “The decision to reschedule Enshrinement into May of next year, along with diminished museum guest visitation and a very uncertain future regarding our multiple collegiate and high school basketball events this fall, has forced us to make these very difficult decisions. Our goal now is to conserve resources so that we may stabilize in 2021 and return to our growth trajectory in 2022 and beyond.”

“For this single event, and only because of the pandemic, we will relocate the entire event one time to Mohegan Sun which has been a long-time marketing partner of the Hall. Mohegan Sun has shown they can effectively operate a ‘near-bubble’ for our event which provides a more secure environment for our guests,” Doleva explained. “In making this announcement today, our goal is to provide this date and location change with ample notice for our network broadcast partners, nationally and internationally traveling guests and the many basketball constituents the Hall serves.”

Mohegan Sun is a long-time partner of the Hall. Doleva says it can operate a “near-bubble” to provide a secure environment for guests.

 

Vlade Divac steps down as Kings GM; Joe Dumars takes over in interim

Vlade Divac out
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Days after the Kings’ playoff drought reached 14 seasons — second-longest in league history and only one year behind the Donald Sterling Clippers — the repercussions hit GM Vlade Divac and he is out.

Divac has stepped down as the Kings’ general manager, the team announced Friday. Joe Dumars, the former Pistons GM who had been working as a consultant with the team, will step in during the interim while the search for a new GM takes place.

“This was a difficult decision, but we believe it is the best path ahead as we work to build a winning team that our loyal fans deserve,” Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé said in a statement. “We are thankful for Vlade’s leadership, commitment and hard work both on and off the court. He will always be a part of our Kings’ family.”

While there are legitimate questions about the job Luke Walton did in his first season in Sacramento, his job is safe, something first reported by Sam Amick of The Athletic and since confirmed by James Ham of NBC Sports Bay Area. The Kings also said there will be no other major roster moves made until a new GM is in place.

“Joe has become a trusted and valued advisor since joining the team last year, and I am grateful to have him take on this role at an important time for the franchise,” said Ranadivé.

Divac was a member of the best Kings’ teams ever (during the Chris Webber era) and is in the Hall of Fame as a player. Playing and being a GM, however, are two very different skill sets. Divac did sign a contract extension with the Kings a year-and-a-half ago.

The NBA restart bubble was not kind to the Kings, and that ultimately doomed Divac.

After a promising finish as the ninth seed a season ago, playing a fast-paced style that suited young star De'Aaron Fox, Divac made a move to switch coaches last off-season and fired Dave Joerger to hire Walton. However, under Walton the Kings played slower and were much easier to defend. The Kings did get healthy and start to find a groove right before the league was shut down, going 7-3 in those last 10, but once in the bubble Sacramento was a mess again with a bottom-10 defense in Orlando, and they finished 3-5 in the seeding games.

The salt in the wound in Orlando — and what really eats at Kings’ fans — was the elite play of Luka Doncic in Orlando, and all season long.

Divac — who had scouted in Europe and has deep connections there — chose to use the No. 2 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft on Marvin Bagley out of Duke instead of Doncic. While the Kings had scouted Doncic extensively (Ranadive even went to Europe to watch him play and backed taking Doncic), Divac and the front office staff thought the athleticism of Bagley gave him a higher upside than Doncic. (Scouts were often divided on Doncic: Nobody thought he would be bad, but some questioned his ceiling because he already had so much polish to his game and he’s not an explosive athlete by NBA standards. Divac and the rest of the Kings’ front office fell into this camp.) Plus, Divac liked the idea of a big man to pair with their point guard Fox, rather than bringing in another ball handler in Doncic.

Doncic almost certainly will make an All-Seeding Games team out of the bubble in Orlando, and in his second NBA season is an MVP candidate (he will get bottom of the ballot votes). Bagley did not play in any seeding games due to another injury, this one to his foot.

Moving on from Divac may be the right move for the Kings, but it begs the question: Who are they going to hire to replace him? What is the new GM’s basketball philosophy and what kind of team does he want to build? And, will he have the power to do it, or will Ranadive keep his reputation as an owner who likes to meddle in basketball operations?

The Kings need a change — but they need the right change. That will be the tricky part.

Miami’s Derrick Jones Jr. taken off court on stretcher after collision

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It was the kind of play that happens countless times a game: Miami’s Derrick Jones Jr. was trying to chase Doug McDermott over an off-ball (and moving) screen when collided with pick-setting 6’11” center Goga Bitadze.

This ended up being no standard collision — Jones’ head and neck whipped back, and he instantly went to the ground.

Jones was grabbing his neck at first and was on the ground for about 10 minutes — in the eerie silence of a fanless bubble arena in Orlando — before being taken off the court on a stretcher.

The good news is Jones has just suffered a neck strain, the team announced. There is no timeline for his return, but this could have been much worse.

The Heat and the Pacers, who already have tension between them thanks to a beef between Jimmy Butler and T.J. Warren, will face each other in the first round of the playoffs starting Monday.

Jones, who tested positive for the coronavirus before coming to Orlando (and was quarantined), will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. He has been making the NBA minimum since coming into the league and was in line for a life-changing payday this summer after playing strong defense while averaging 8.6 points per game — and some spectacular dunks — in nearly 23 minutes a night for Miami. Our thoughts are with him after this incident.

The time Shaq peed in Suns teammate Lou Amundson’s shoes – and worse!

Suns players Lou Amundson and Shaquille O'Neal (Shaq)
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Gilbert Arenas has earned a reputation as the NBA player who relieved himself in a teammate’s shoe (Wizards forward Andray Blatche’s).

But Arenas’ tactic wasn’t unique.

Shaquille O’Neal got into a prank war with Suns teammate Lou Amundson during the 2008-09 season. It got intense as Phoenix, coached by Alvin Gentry, reached the final game of its season.

ESPN’s Amin Elhassan on “The Dan Le Batard Show With Stugotz” local hour, hosted by Mike Ryan:

Shaq is the big prankster, the big joker. But if you do something against him, there’s no tit for tat. There’s tit for nuclear war.

He goes to Lou’s locker, grabs his sneakers, pees in them.

That’s the start, right? He then goes and let’s just say “messes with” some of Lou’s haircare devices, like his brush and his comb and stuff. Messes with them. Let me put it this way: Messes with them in a way that – I was comfortable telling you he peed in the shoes. I’m not comfortable telling you what he did to the hair stuff. And then this part, I will tell you: He tampers with Lou’s mouth guard.

He tampers with it.

He tampers with it.

Lou shows up at like 8 or whenever he usually shows up. And he’s skittish and nervous. And Suns.com is there like, “What do you think Shaq is going to do?” “I don’t know. I think he’s going to do something, though.”

So, I’ll never forget this. He’s sitting at the locker, and he opens – he starts to reach for the sneakers and then looks at them and says, “Nah, something doesn’t feel right.” Opens the door up, pulls out a fresh pair of sneakers for the last game of the year, right? Again, this is irregular behavior. Usually, you have a couple of sneakers. You break them in for the year, and you switch between two or three or three or four, whatever. So to break out a whole brand new pair … was weird.

Most of the time when you’re an NBA player, you don’t put on the mouth guard immediately. You have it in a case, and you give the case to the trainer. Then, you go out to the bench. Then, when you’re about to come into the game, that’s when you grab your mouthpiece.

There’s no funnier image than Alvin drawing up a play, kneeling down, coaches standing around him. Lou is sitting there, because now he’s in the game. The guys who are in the game are usually seated. Sitting there just staring at the clipboard, like, “OK, coach. I got you.” And everyone else is just staring at Lou. No one’s paying attention.

Puts the mouth guard in. One, two [sounds of disgust], takes the mouth guard out and flings it with tremendous accuracy at the bench. Everyone starts dying. I remember going back and watching the broadcast, “Oh, Suns bench seems to be getting a lot of fun.” They had no idea what’s happening.

What did Shaq do to Amundson’s mouth guard? My imagination is running WILD.

Elhassan also explains why Grant Hill took 25 shots – his most in four years – in that game. Hill needed to score 26 points to average 12 points per game for the season, which would trigger a large bonus in his shoe contract. Hill’s gunning got him 27 points.

It’s a good podcast with other fun anecdotes and worth a listen.