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.

Dwight Howard reportedly to return to Washington D.C., start on-court steps in recovery

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The return of Dwight Howard should solve all the Wizards problems…

Low hanging fruit jokes aside, Howard was expected to be out two-to-three months for back surgery that happened at the end of November, that would have him back in the coming weeks, and he is now on his way back to the nation’s capital, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Howard played in nine games for the Wizards this season, scoring an efficient 12.8 points and grabbing 9.2 rebounds a game.

The Wizards have been starting Thomas Bryant, with Bobby Portis playing some five behind him, in recent games. How Howard fits into that when healthy will be a question for coach Scott Brooks.

The Wizards would need to make up three games and jump three teams in the final 24 games of the season to make the playoffs.

Surprise: Emanuel Terry joins Heat, not Team USA as planned

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MIAMI (AP) — Emanuel Terry’s plans to play for his country this weekend have been thwarted, for a very good reason.

He’s back in the NBA instead.

Terry was signed to a 10-day contract Wednesday by the Miami Heat, who made the move after he spent a few days with USA Basketball in its training camp at the University of Miami this week. So instead of playing Panama on Friday and Argentina on Monday in the last games of qualifying for the FIBA World Cup, Terry will be with the Sioux Falls Skyforce for a G League game in Long Island on Thursday and then with the Heat this weekend.

Terry got told of the move just before Team USA broke camp in Miami. He says he’s “had dreams about this.”

Terry averaged 4.5 points in two games with Phoenix earlier this season.

Team USA has already won enough games to qualify for the World Championships in China this summer.

Joel Embiid out week with left knee soreness, no structural damage found

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What the Philadelphia 76ers need is time on the court to get all their new players used to each other, their rotations set, and just to find a way to get the most talented starting five in the East to gel before the playoffs start. They have 24 games to make it happen.

This does not help that cause.

The Sixers announced Joel Embiid will miss at least a week to get treatment on a sore left knee, the team announced. Paul Hudrick of NBC Sports Philadelphia has the details.

Embiid felt some soreness and was getting treatment before the All-Star break but did not miss games.

Obviously, what matters most is Embiid being healthy in the postseason, so rest now is better than the alternative.

But this is still not ideal. Especially as the Sixers try to make up a game and climb past the Pacers to ensure home court in the first round of the playoffs.

Through four games (73 total minutes) the new starting lineup of Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and Embiid has been a force — a 116.5 offensive rating and a 91.9 defensive rating. Small sample size theater is at play here, things have not always looked completely smooth to the eye test (see the loss to Boston), and both Butler and Embiid have chaffed against coach Brett Brown’s system at points this season, but a +24.6 net rating through four games is an auspicious sign.

They just need more time to come together, and this injury cuts into that. At least a little.

The more significant concern starts when the bench comes into play. In the playoffs, Brown will likely want to keep two of his big four on the court with the subs (probably an eight-man rotation, nine tops). That’s where the real interesting stuff comes in the next few weeks: Which players would be willing to get their rest a little earlier in the first half to get more opportunities (read: shots) with the ball in their hands with the second unit? Butler? Harris? Which four work best together when it gets down to pairs?

Finding all of that out is now on hold temporarily.

Not just numbers, David Griffin says being GM means handling “noise” around team

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Analytics are a part of the job.

Just often not the most important part.

Part of what has fueled the rise in popularity of the NBA in recent years has been player movement around the league — and how much fans love to talk about the possibilities. Fans love to play GM. Those fans are increasingly savvy and understand analytics better, they know how to go to the NBA stat page and look up detailed data, and they know how to work ESPN’s trade machine. It leads to more “who says no?” trade Tweets than overpriced coffee shops in Seattle.

Ask any current or former general manager/team president — for example, former Suns and Cavaliers GM David Griffin — about the job and they almost cut off the question to say there is so much more to it than a spreadsheet. For example, keeping players happy and helping them understand/deal with social media is now part of the gig. Even in the evaluation of players, there is the eye test and other intel gathered about them, all of which matters as much or more than just the data.

“It’s got to be a marriage of all of them, you know analytics are never the answer in and of themselves,” Griffin told NBC Sports. “But there is infinitely more data available to us thanks not only to SAP but Second Spectrum… they have given us far more robust data sets to make decisions from. I think because of that people think the answers are in the numbers, but the reality is the numbers only answer the better questions you ask it to solve. I think people lose sight of that. The numbers are a part of the process, they are not the answers in and of themselves.”

That’s the idea behind “GM School,” a new competition show coming to NBA TV (it premieres Wednesday night at 8 ET, with repeat broadcasts throughout the week). The show takes four contestants who are data-driven, die-hard basketball fans and pits them against each other in a series of challenges to show they have what it takes to be in a front office. The contestants don’t just have to pick players to draft (out of an anonymous pool), they need to articulate why they fit with the team philosophy. They have to do a press conference.

“I thought they did an excellent job,” Griffin said of the contestants. “Being at NBA TV before this and getting to see things in a totally different light, I had a different appreciation for this process than I would have otherwise. I thought they did a fantastic job — SAP and the partners affiliated with this — of putting together four really diverse contestants who all had strengths of their own, each was unique from the other, so it was a cool process.”

Like the real GM job, this is about more than the numbers.

“It’s not just taking into account everyone thinks they understand analytics — I hope we speak to the analytics crowd — but it’s about the totality, we hope, of what the job requires,” Griffin said.

There are things that a show like this could just not do justice to with a test.

For example, how to set up an organization that can handle the volume of noise that swirls around a good team. Griffin had to deal with that first hand as the GM of the Cavaliers during LeBron James’ second tour of duty with the franchise.

“One of the things that’s critical to running an organization that’s going to be all about winning — and the only thing that will mark success is winning a championship — is that you’re naturally going to be subjected to more noise around the process,” Griffin said. There’s going to be more tension in the system — and that can be a positive thing if you make it out. You have to become really adept at dealing with adversity and turning adversity into a positive, galvanizing force.

“I think you’ve seen Golden State do that this year with the blowup between Draymond [Green] and KD [Kevin Durant]. They’ve come out of that a stronger, better version of themselves, and that’s what you have to do as an elite franchise. All adversity becomes opportunity for you.”

It’s one thing for a Warriors’ team that is now veteran and savvy to embrace adversity — and tune out the social media noise it creates around the team — and it’s something else entirely for an up-and-coming team with players who have not been there before.

“I think that for teams that are going from being lottery bound year after year to being truly elite there are several steps in that process that are very difficult and painful. And people don’t always welcome adversity…” Griffin said. “You’re not going to get to a championship caliber team from a team of young kids who were in the lottery overnight.”

Some players get thrown off seeing the media used to deliver messages about them and their trade availability — as happened a lot with the Lakers/Anthony Davis saga around the trade deadline, for example. The Lakers, as an organization, has seen more than its fair share of drama over the years and understands how to handle it, but the young core players on the team were going through this part of the business for the first time.

Griffin said the key is being proactive — talking to players to help them understand it before everything overwhelms them.

“[The Lakers] were dealing with more media and more scrutiny than most teams ever do because they are one of the flagship franchises in our league,” Griffin said. “Magic Johnson grew up in that spotlight. I doubt anything happened that they weren’t prepared for. But what happens is LeBron’s presence by itself brings that kind of spotlight. It takes some time to learn how to deal with it.

“Again, if you don’t get in front of it from a leadership standpoint, if you let it just happen, the proliferation of sports media and social media, it just creates so much around your players that, to some degree, if you’re not telling them how to decipher it, they can’t help but to take it poorly. You need to do a really deft job as a leader of getting people to ignore those things. I think Kevin Durant called it a ‘toxic’ environment around a LeBron James team. I don’t think he meant that relative to LeBron and his actions. I think he meant it just relative to the sheer volume of noise around a team. That takes getting used to.”

Handling social media and its fallout is now part of a GM’s job. Like it or not.

“All of these players are on social media, they are subject to noise from more angles and at a greater volume than any players ever have been,” Griffin said. “And because of that, I think it makes it really important that you run the kind of organization that you love each other enough that you tell each other what you need to hear. You have to have conversations. You have to be in front of those messages with Lonzo Ball ahead of time. You have to talk to Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma ahead of time. So that when those things happen, they understand it’s just a natural outcropping of being on a team of that magnitude. That it happens because you matter as a franchise.”

Whenever a GM job comes open in the NBA now, Griffin’s name is one of the first to come up. Most recently that was with the Pelicans (although the buzz All-Star Weekend is that things never really got too serious between the sides). Griffin is open to returning to the NBA, but he’s in a position to be picky about the gig he takes now.

“I think the blessing of doing what I’m doing relative to NBA TV is selectivity,” Griffin said. “It’s helped me be radically better at analyzing things than maybe I wouldn’t have been as good at. As I look at it now, the thing that would attract me to an opportunity is just the opportunity to be in lockstep with ownership. To have ownership, the coach, and the front office all on the same page moving forward and sharing a vision…

“You have to raise a family, and if you’re not going to come at it with that approach it’s probably not a situation that would speak to me.”