NBA Power Rankings, the mid-season report edition

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Our weekly NBA Power Rankings, with a focus on the first half of the season and what to look forward to. So for you Cavs fans, we should start talking draft.

1. Spurs (35-6). Well, that first half couldn’t have gone much better. We knew the Spurs would be good, they always are, but one of the biggest surprises in the league is just how good. They have let Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili take over the offense, everyone has stayed healthy for the most part, and the role players have looked fantastic. They should have the Lakers attention now.

2. Celtics (30-9). After last season when the Celtics treated the end of the regular season like a relaxing resort vacation, we weren’t sure what to expect. But Shaq has given them quality minutes on the front line, Kevin Garnett was moving as well as he has in years (or was before the calf injury) and Rajon Rondo has played the best ball of his career. This team knows the window is closing soon and is focused.

3. Lakers (30-12). Pretty much what you expect out of the Lakers in the regular season — very up and down. Streaky. Like the seven straight wins before they dropped one to the Clippers on Sunday. The Lakers schedule starts to get a lot tougher this week — Oklahoma City, Dallas — and stays that way for more than a month, so we’ll get some real tests to judge this team on. As much as you can judge them in the regular season. I don’t think they catch the Spurs for the top seed in the West (5.5 games back now).

4. Heat (30-12). Three straight losses, time to reach for the panic… no, it’s not. Injuries to LeBron and now Chris Bosh, running into a hot Clippers team, these things happen. The Heat took a little while to figure it out this season, but now that they have they are a regular season powerhouse (when healthy). The real questions for them don’t start until the second round of the playoffs.

5. Thunder (27-13). Monday night they get their first shot at the Lakers since Los Angeles eliminated them from the playoffs last year. Think they may be a little hyped for that one? The Thunder got off to a slow start but they have played well of late.

6. Magic (26-14). They looked pretty good after the big trades, until the defensive stinker against the Thunder last week anyway. This is a team where the front office gets credit for realizing they were not going to win a title with what they had and making a bold move to give them a chance. Whether that roster can get them there remains to be seen, but kudos for taking the shot.

7. Bulls (27-13). Someday they’ll all be healthy for a while and we can judge just how good the Bulls really are (having to play a game or two this week without Boozer and Noah will be tough). The question about the Bulls coming into the season was could Tom Thibodeau get a team of questionable individual defenders to buy into his team defensive system. The answer is yes.

8. Jazz (27-13). This team lost Carlos Boozer and brought in Al Jefferson and it hasn’t missed a beat. The Jazz are solid, with one of the best point guards in the game. They’re a team that will be a tough out come the playoffs, just like every year under Jerry Sloan.

9. Hornets (25-16). One of the bigger surprises this season, for two reasons. First, Chris Paul is healthy and we seemed to forget he is simply phenomenal (he should be in the MVP discussions). Secondly, this is a good defensive team (fourth in the league in defensive efficiency). Monty Williams gets a lot of credit for coaching up that defense.

10. Hawks (26-15). They are exactly what we thought they were. Same thing they were last season. This is a good team with quality athletes, they play hard and are entertaining. They are the fifth best team in the East and may still go home in the first round.

11. Mavericks (26-13). Yes, they have lost five in a row and are 2-8 in their last 10 (hence the fall down the rankings), but team management is right to wait and see what this team looks like with Dirk Nowitizki back before they pull the trigger on any moves. However the injury to Caron Butler really hurts them.

12. Knicks (22-17). They are not elite, but they are good and they are fun. Amar’e Stoudemire is a beast and Raymond Felton has figured out how to work this offense. They are going to make the playoffs this season and that is a huge step forward. Accept that Knicks fans and don’t get greedy.

13. Nuggets (23-17). The sword of the Carmelo Anthony trade still hangs over this team, but they seem to have figured out how to deal with the pressure better going 3-1 last week and 6-4 in their last 10. As for the future of this team, who knows?

14. Blazers (21-20). No Greg Oden, which was not unexpected. No Brandon Roy, that was the shocker. Without them the Blazers have become one of those scrappy teams that is never easy to beat, which is a good base to have while the management looks for a star or figures out what to do next.

15. Grizzlies (19-21). The owner keeps talking about keeping this core together, but nobody totally buys that. Will they trade O.J. Mayo before the deadline? Will they be able to sign Zach Randolph to a new deal (after whenever the lockout ends)? The team is starting to find it footing this season and is just 1.5 games out of a playoff spot, but the long-term future is murky.

16. Clippers (14-25). Big wins this week over the Lakers and the Heat. Since their 1-13 start they are 13-12. They would be a playoff team if it hadn’t been for that start, but now it’s too big a hole to climb out of. Still, maybe the best show in the NBA right now.

17. Sixers (16-23). While you weren’t looking, Elton Brand returned to good. He is averaging 15 points per game on 51.8 percent shooting, and is grabbing 8.6 rebounds a game. He’s not the force he was back with the Clippers, but he and Jrue Holiday have been the two best players on the team. Doug Collins has done a good job, but this team needs a roster shakeup.

18. Suns (17-21). This is not a very good team, particularly away from home. Bad news Suns fans, the team kicks off a five-game road trip this week.

19. Bobcats (15-23). They are 6-4 in their last 10 games and Paul Silas has made this team good again by letting them get out and run a little. But they have 8 of their next 10 on the road and that will be a better test of where they stand.

20. Rockets (18-23). Picked up wins in Boston and Atlanta this week, this is a team that can do that — on a hot shooting night they can beat anybody. But defense is what makes a team consistent and the Rockets don’t do a lot of defense.

21. Bucks (14-23). Through the first 35 games, the Bucks were the most injured team in the NBA and played the toughest schedule in the league. The pendulum is swinging the other way on both those, and so might the Bucks fortunes. But they still aren’t winning a lot yet and are not close to the team we thought could push the Bulls in the Central Division.

22. Warriors (16-23). Like the Clippers, they may not win a lot but they put on a good show. Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry can light up the scoreboard any given night. This team still plays no defense, and that costs them.

23. Pacers (16-21). Not a very good offensive team, and somebody there needs to start drawing fouls. They play good defense but you still need to score to win.

24. Pistons (14-26). This sitting Rip Hamilton and saying it’s a coaching decision when it’s really about the Carmelo Anthony trade is just wrong. Admit what is going on. As for the Pistons, the sale of the team to Tom Gores is a good sign that maybe things can start to turn around from the top down.

25. Raptors (13-27). The mid-season report on the Raptors: They are pretty much what you expected. Which is not good.

26. Wizards (11-27). The future is John Wall, but that kid needs a few games off to get healthy first. Right now he just doesn’t have the legs to be quick and explosive, and that’s his game.

27. Kings (9-29). If this franchise moves out of Sacramento it would be a travesty. That has been a very good and loyal fan base when given any reason to show up and cheer. Right now, DeMarcus Cousins is a good reason.

28. Timberwolves (10-31). Kevin Love has been great, but in a battle with Blake Griffin for a potential All-Star slot you have to notice that the Clippers have been winning of late and the Wolves… not so much.

29. Nets (10-30). Trade rumors weigh heavily on young teams. Getting Carmelo Anthony would be a coup, but with the older Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton in the deal there would still be a lot of moves to be made to make the team a contender.

30. Cavaliers (8-32). They lost their three games last week by a combined 105 points (granted, the Lakers alone were more than half of that). This team has just crumbled. It’s sad.

Report: Kawhi Leonard warming to playing for Raptors

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Shortly after the Spurs traded Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors, word leaked he didn’t want to play for Toronto.

That stance is apparently softening.

Adrian Wojnarowski on ESPN:

They’ve been in communication with Kawhi Leonard’s camp. He’s going to play. He’ll be in training camp. He’s healthy. He may be at USA Basketball’s minicamp next week which Gregg Popovich is coaching. That’s possible.

But the one thing I was told today he’s started to warm to the idea that he’s going to a contender. He’s got a team that could be as good as anybody in the Eastern Conference.

And now it’s on Toronto to try to recruit him, keep him. But in his mind right now, he’s headed to L.A. next year.

Leonard has little choice but to get on board. If he withheld services from the Raptors, they could fine him – eventually all the way up to his entire $20,099,189 salary for next season. Perhaps even more catastrophically, if it was determined he withheld services for more than 30 days of the season, he could be denied free agency entirely.

Maybe he could have finessed using his injury as an excuse rather than explicitly holding out. It has been threatened before. But that’s hard to manage and would have hurt his stock among all teams, including his preferred destination(s).

The best way for Leonard to get everything he wants is going to Toronto, playing well then becoming a free agent next summer.

I’d advise Leonard to keep an open mind until then. It might have made sense to posture against the Raptors to discourage a trade. But the trade has happened. Maybe he’ll join Toronto and like it more than he expects.

Paul George didn’t expect to stay with the Thunder, but he considered them throughout the season and found a long-term home. I don’t expect that to repeat with Leonard and the Raptors, but it could. Why close the option?

If not, Los Angeles will always be waiting.

Report: Spurs wanted to declare Kawhi Leonard out for the season, but he wouldn’t let them

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In February, Gregg Popovich said he’d be surprised if Kawhi Leonard played again during the 2017-18 season. Leonard didn’t, but the Spurs never followed Popovich’s doubt with a clear statement on Leonard’s status. Instead, Popovich repeatedly deferred questions of Leonard’s health in the following months to Leonard’s “group.”

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

Privately, officials within organization had hoped Leonard would let the Spurs declare him out for the season due to his injury, according to sources with knowledge of the situation. Believing he’d eventually return, Leonard declined each time

Did Leonard not realize this made him – not the Spurs – look bad? Especially once it leaked he’d been cleared medically. Especially when he told the team repeatedly and public once he’d return soon but never did.

Perhaps, this was just genuine competitiveness. Maybe Leonard really thought, or at least wanted to believe, a return was around the corner. This could have been him valiantly never giving up.

But there’s a reason teams usually err on the side of caution in long-term injury announcements. It’s to protect the player from looking bad for remaining out if he’s not quite ready as quickly as initially projected.

The Pacers received a disabled-player exception for Paul George in 2014-15, and he still beat the odds to return late in the year. The Celtics called Gordon Hayward out for this season and weren’t going to stray from that public stance until he suited up, even when – for a moment – it appeared he had a chance of returning.

Even if the Spurs publicly declared him out for the rest of the year, nothing would have stopped Leonard from playing. It’s not a binding resolution. Instead, he repeatedly missing targeted return dates and looked soft to many because of it.

And he insisted on the strategy that led to that perception!

This is just more evidence those around Leonard might not know what they’re doing.

Report: Spurs wouldn’t trade Kawhi Leonard to 76ers unless they included Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid

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The 76ers reportedly refused to include Markelle Fultz in trade offers for Kawhi Leonard, which seems misguided to me. Leonard carries major questions about his future, but after his rookie year, so does Fultz! At least Leonard has proven he can reach an elite level. That’s not to say Philadelphia should have definitely dealt Fultz for Leonard. The 76ers definitely have a better understanding of Fultz’s behind-the-scenes progress, and they might have more information on Leonard’s health and willingness to stay long-term. I just wouldn’t have made Fultz a deal-breaker in negotiations.

But it seems the Spurs placed a far more unreasonable restriction on Philadelphia, though.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

The Spurs made it clear any deal with Philly would require Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid (likely Simmons), and the Sixers weren’t going anywhere near that, league sources say.

Given their age and contract status – and, in Simmons’ case, health – Simmons and Embiid are each way more valuable than Leonard. There’s no way the 76ers would have dealt either of those two for Leonard.

Which apparently took a still-viable suitor off the table for San Antonio.

Between Fultz, Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Zhaire Smith, the Heat’s 2021 first-rounder and Philadelphia’s own picks, the 76ers could have assembled a better package than the Raptors sent the Spurs for Leonard. Maybe the 76ers wouldn’t have. But it would have been worth at least exploring.

It seems San Antonio placed too much on remaining competitive, which led to a deal revolving around DeMar DeRozan. There’s nothing wrong with that strategy per se, but it gets more difficult to defend when the Spurs got so little. In this Western Conference, they could slip out of the playoffs, even with DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl. A long-term approach should have at least been considered.

To be fair, I’d also caution against taking this report at face value with no skepticism. Today, 28 teams – especially those, like Philadelphia, linked to Leonard – are trying to explain why they didn’t get the star. This could easily be the 76ers’ spin and not an accurate reflection of the Spurs’ stance.

But Lowe is a great reporter, and I tend to trust this – which raises red flags about San Antonio.

NBA players bothered by Raptors trading DeMar DeRozan

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DeMar DeRozan is clearly upset with the Raptors for trading him (for Kawhi Leonard).

Is DeRozan’s frustration justified?

To a certain extent, he’s entitled to feel however he wants. I would never tell him his reaction is “wrong.”

But that’s not the same as endorsing his outlook. Should we rally behind him and hold Toronto accountable for mistreating him? Answering that question relies on so much hearsay, I’m not sure it’s possible to answer fairly.

In what I find a telling illustration of the situation, ESPN has updated its story on the trade multiple times today. In an early version:

Sources close to DeRozan told ESPN’s Chris Haynes that DeRozan met with Toronto brass in Las Vegas during summer league and was told he would not be traded.

That got changed to:

Sources close to DeRozan told ESPN’s Chris Haynes that DeRozan met with Toronto officials in Las Vegas during summer league and believed that he would not be traded.

That’s a subtle, but meaningful, distinction.

Did the Raptors tell DeRozan he wouldn’t be traded? Different people involved in the conversation would probably give different answers.

Did DeRozan take away that Toronto wouldn’t trade him? It seems so, and maybe it’s because team officials told him that directly. But it’s also possible he misinterpreted team officials. Not that he’s willing to grant that possibility.

David Aldridge of NBA.com:

Without being privy to the exact wording, I don’t know where to side.

Unsurprisingly, other players are backing DeRozan – some publicly and quite strongly, others anonymously.

Lou Williams:

Isaiah Thomas:

Damian Lillard:

Anthony Morrow:

Enes Kanter:

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

DeRozan meant a lot to the Raptors, and he deserves a proper sendoff. But some of this strikes me as an overreaction.

The Spurs didn’t thank Leonard in their press release, either. Both teams posted cursory messages of gratitude on social media to their outgoing players. Gregg Popovich held a press conference today and said many kind things about Leonard, though. The main difference appears to be Masai Ujiri just hasn’t happened to hold his press conference yet. I’d be shocked if he doesn’t effusively praise DeRozan in it.

And to Kanter’s claim the Raptors gave away DeRozan for nothing? They got Kawhi freaking Leonard.

For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of the spotlight-seeking Kanter just saying something outlandish to draw attention.

Even if that were Kanter’s intent, that just feeds into this spiraling into a bigger deal than it probably should be.

If the Raptors told DeRozan they wouldn’t trade him, they shouldn’t have done that. If they told DeRozan they didn’t plan to trade him while they were secretly putting the final touches on this deal, they shouldn’t have done that.

But if they told DeRozan they didn’t plan to trade him and truly didn’t at that moment, I wouldn’t blame them. Plans can change, and it would have done them no good to warn DeRozan of that possibility. If he expected more loyalty, that’s on him.

Ujiri will get a chance to explain himself. So will DeRozan – though his narrative is already gaining significant traction, especially among his peers. Maybe we’ll actually become positioned to make an outside judgment.

Most likely, this will remain a he-said, he-said situation that wanes in significance. DeRozan will probably play hard in San Antonio and grow to enjoy it there. Players – even, I bet, including DeRozan – will forgive the Raptors in time. As much furor as these things evoke in the moment, players rarely hold a grudge to the point of avoiding franchises.

But for now, Toronto is dealing with a perception hit right as it begins its courtship of one of the NBA’s top players, Leonard.