NBA Power Rankings: The Lakers are on top, the Cavs are out of the cellar

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Changes at the top and bottom of the roster, and we wonder who can coach Kwame Brown?

1. Lakers (45-19, LW #4). It’s not the seven wins in a row that vault them to the top (well, it was in part). It wasn’t just wins over Boston and the Spurs recently. It’s the defense with Andrew Bynum as the anchor. When the Lakers are focused on that end they are a ridiculous matchup.

2. Celtics (46-15, LW #3). No Shaq, no Kendrick Perkins, trying to integrate Jeff Green into the offense, it’s nice to have a soft spot in the schedule to do that. They have won five in a row.

3. Mavericks (45-17, LW #2). They are still hot, but the loss Sunday to the Grizzlies makes you wonder how they will deal with long front lines in the playoffs. The battle between them and the Lakers for the two seed in the West is on, and the teams face off Saturday in Dallas. Big game.

4. Spurs (51-12, Last Week #1). They beat the Heat like a drum, but then get the exact same thing done to them by the Lakers. It doesn’t mean the Spurs are bad, but the Lakers are a brutal matchup for them.

5. Bulls (43-18, LW #5). They beat Miami this week, but everybody is doing that now. They beat the Magic, too. I’ve still got questions about if they have enough offense come the playoffs, but they are a contender now, make no mistake. And Tom Thibodeau is the coach of the year. (Sorry Pops.)

6. Magic (40-23, LW #7). The Magic are kind of locking themselves in as the four seed in the East. Which means a second round matchup against Boston (we’re assuming they get out of the first round). That will be interesting.

7. Thunder (38-22, LW #8). They are waiting on Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson to get healthy. Mostly Perkins. They are pretty locked in at the four seed in the West, which would mean the Spurs in the second round. As we said with the Magic, that will be interesting.

8. Heat (43-20, LW #6). The blown lead to Orlando, the inability to close out in big games, four game losing streak. I don’t care if they cried or not, I care a lot more about seeing some kind of consistent execution. On both ends.

9. Grizzlies (34-29, LW #11). That was a big win in Dallas Sunday, with Zach Randolph hitting the dramatic shot shot. This is a good team folks that is 7-3 in their last 10. And we take it all back, Mike Conley is a good NBA point guard.

10. Blazers (35-27, LW #9). Brandon Roy isn’t really the story, the Blazers defense of late is. They dominated what’s left of Charlotte and are 7-3 in their last 10, with a tough stretch ahead of them.

11. Sixers (32-30, LW #13). They have won 8 of their last 10 and now you’ve got Evan Turner going off for 20 and Andre Iguodala with back-to-back triple doubles. Doug Collins is in my top three for coach of the year (with Thibodeau and Popovich).

12. Nuggets (37-27), LW #14). This is like a complexly different team after the trade — all defense and inconsistent offense. But it’s working, they are 5-2 since the deal.

13. Hornets (37-28, LW #10). We’re just glad Chris Paul is going to be alright. We’ll forgive him for missing Monday’s showdown against Derrick Rose.

14. Knicks (32-29, LW #15). Since he’s come over, Carmelo Anthony is averaging 24.7 points per game on 42.1 percent shooting and 30 percent from three. At the end of games, they still should have Stoudemire option No. 1.

15. Hawks (37-26, LW #12). Nice win against the Bulls, then they get smacked by the Knicks. And that is the Hawks in a nutshell.

16. Suns (32-29, LW #16). They are 1.5 games out of the playoffs, 3.5 out of the five seed. But does anyone not named Nash think they can catch either the Grizzlies, Trail Blazers, Hornets or Nuggets?

17. Rockets (32-32, LW #18). Another scrappy team that is just going to have a hard time catching any of the more talented scrappy teams ahead of them in the playoff chase.

18. Jazz (33-30, LW #17). They are about to head out on a tough road trip, but that might not be all bad as they have lost 7 in a row at home.

19. Pacers (27-35, LW #19). The Frank Vogel offensive boost has flamed out and the Pacers have been dreadful on offense again. Yet, they remain your eight seed in the East. Charlotte should concern them, except they may be playing worse.

20. Warriors (27-35, LW #21). In the last 10 Warrior games, Monta Ellis is putting up an inefficient 24.2 points a game shooting 43.7 percent overall and 26.9 from three. In that same stretch Stephen Curry is putting up 17.9 shooting 50.8 percent overall and 45.5 percent from three. David Lee is averaging a double-double in that stretch.

21. Bobcats (26-36, LW #20). Paul Silas trying to be the fourth coach to lead a team with Kwame Brown on it to the playoffs. The other three: Eddie Jordan, Phil Jackson (twice) and Michael Curry.

22. Clippers (23-40, LW #24). Without Eric Gordon this team struggles to find offensive balance, to see him go down with another wrist injury takes some of the fun out of watching this team. Not all of it, just some.

23. Bucks (23-38, LW #22). How different would they be if Brandon Jennings and Andrew Bogut were 100 percent healthy all season?

24. Nets (19-43, LW #26). They are the best NBA team ever to play in England.

25. Pistons (23-41, LW #23). John Kuester freed Rip Hamilton and he has shot 31.6 percent in three games.

26. Timberwolves (15-49, LW #25). Kevin Love will break the double-double record Monday night with his 51st consecutive. He has four 20-20 games in his last five.

27. Raptors (17-46, LW #27). The worst NBA team ever to play in England.

28. Kings (15-45, LW #28). Marcus Thornton is really fitting in there, once again getting a green light to shoot and taking advantage of it (averaging 21.2 points per game in his last 5).

29. Cavaliers (12-50, LW #30). They are 4-6 in their last 10 — and that gets them moved out of the cellar. They keep playing as they have and they’ll pass a couple more teams.

30. Wizards (16-46, LW #29). They have been dreadful since the All-Star break, going 1-7. But Trevor Booker can sure dunk. So there’s that.

Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan finally buried the hatchet

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Deron Williams or Chris Paul? That was the conversation in the NBA just a decade ago, a conversation that now seems practically ridiculous. I never personally thought it was very close between the two, being an adamant Paul supporter. Now, CP3 is with the Houston Rockets and Williams is out of the league, despite Paul being just 200 days younger than the former Utah Jazz star (but having played more games).

Williams was part of a two-man attack, along with Carlos Boozer, that helped fuel the Jazz during the first decade of this century as they churned through the Western Conference. But Williams played just five-and-a-half seasons in Salt Lake City, traded after a blow-up with former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.

Things were unsteady between the two during the 2010-11 season, and Sloan famously decided to retire after a game in February of 2011 in which the Jazz lost to the Chicago Bulls. During halftime of that game, there was a disagreement between Sloan and Williams that apparently pushed the legendary head coach to his tipping point.

Sloan retired and Williams was traded on February 23rd.

Now, it appears that the two have at least made amends. In a story of appearing on UtahJazz.com, Williams recently went to Sloan’s house to talk about the divide between the two and what happened some seven years ago.

Via UtahJazz.com:

“He doesn’t forget a lot of things, instances where I pissed him off, things I did to upset him,” Williams said. “He definitely told me about that—and rightfully so. He was great about some other things. It was kind of typical Coach Sloan, really. If you know him, he’s never been one to shy away from telling you the truth and how he feels.”

“Eventually, I think Jerry came around,” [Jazz CEO Greg] Miller said. “He never really said, ‘Let’s put it behind us’ or anything, but maybe in Sloan speak he did.”

“Two strong men said what they needed to say, shook hands and are now moving forward,” [Jazz president Steve] Starks said.

Sloan, 76, is living with Parkinson’s and reportedly not in the best of health. It’s good to hear that Williams was remorseful about how he acted, and that the two great sportsmen were able to come together and at least see each other’s point of view as a sort of armistice.

Masai Ujiri on Kawhi Leonard: ‘He is happy. There is no maintenance with him’

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No doubt there are big expectations for the Toronto Raptors this year after trading franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan for disgruntled San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard. Ever an enigma (and coming off of one of the worst-managed exits from a team in recent memory) Leonard has fans in Ontario biting their nails about whether he will return healthy this season, and happy for the next.

According to Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, Leonard is giving them every indication that he is ready to go heading into the 2018-19 NBA season. Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Ujiri said that Leonard is happy.

Via Sportsnet:

“He is happy. From what everybody has told me he is healthy. He spends a lot of time with our coaches,” said Ujiri. “He went to L.A. to meet our guys out there. He will be here shortly.”

“He is just quiet … that’s his nature. We can’t all be the same kind of people. But he is as engaging as he would want to be and he’s very interesting. There is no maintenance with him. There’s nothing. It’s remarkable … His (focus) is on basketball which is what you want. He is a basketball junkie … once you just start to talk about basketball his eyes change.”

We have heard rumors that Leonard has purchased a home in Toronto instead of merely renting. We’ve also seen photos of Leonard happy and working out with players like Kobe Bryant, nearly even smiling. And Ujiri is doing his part here, trying to ease any sentiment around Leonard.

The PR machine is in sixth gear in Toronto, but you can’t really blame them. It’s the first good public relations move we’ve seen from Leonard’s enclave in more than a year, and it helps bolster the team if things go south.

Do I believe anything that is reported about Leonard anymore? No. Not after last season. Unfortunately, the issue with Leonard remains the fact that we will have to simply sit to wait and see what he chooses to do next year.

Raptors fans, who are dedicated and passionate, should be hoping that they finally make a Finals run this year. Just in case.

Report: 76ers rookie Zhaire Smith expected to return around Christmas

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76ers first-rounder Zhaire Smith suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot last month, leaving plenty of uncertainty about when he’d return.

Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

The 76ers expect injured rookie Zhaire Smith to be available to play in a game around Christmas, league sources say.

A rookie on a team with legitimate aspirations of deep-playoff advancement, Smith was already unlikely to crack Philadelphia’s rotation this season. All this lost developmental time makes it even less likely.

But the sooner Smith returns, the better for him and Philadelphia. The No. 16 pick impresses with his athleticism and motor, but he needs time to develop his perimeter skills.

Kevin Love launches “Love Fund” to bring more focus to mental health issues

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The NBA is not shying away from the issue of the mental health of its players.

In the wake of All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love coming forward about their mental health challenges, the league and the players’ union combined to tell players to speak out on the issue and take advantage of the services offered.

Kevin Love is doing more than just that, he has formed the Kevin Love Fund to help change the stigma around mental health issues. The fund has partners such as Headspace, with the focus being on prioritizing mental health awareness. He went on the Today Show on NBC to talk about it.

Love has become a leader and spokesman around the issue. Love came forward near the end of last season to talk about his battles with anxiety and depression. That opened the door for others around the NBA to step forward as well, such as Kelly Oubre and Paul Pierce.