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.

Caris LeVert suffers injury so horrific, it brings teammates to tears and opponents to prayer (video)

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Caris LeVert has been one of the Nets’ biggest bright spots. The hard-working 24-year-old was a Most Improved Player candidate, and he seems well-liked throughout the organization. He’s even already hit a couple gamewinners this season.

But LeVert’s breakout campaign hit a devastating snag tonight, as he injured his leg.

The reactions of both his Brooklyn teammates and the Timberwolves say everything. This is a tough one.

Markelle Fultz takes ugly pump-fake free throw

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A key question after the 76ers traded for Jimmy Butler: How would the demanding star affect Markelle Fultz‘s confidence?

Butler isn’t even playing for Philadelphia yet, but this isn’t an encouraging sign.

Kyle Neubeck of The Philly Voice:

Maybe the ball just slipped out of Fultz’s hands on the way up, and he had to continue pushing it toward the rim to avoid a violation. That could happen to anybody.

But given everything we know about Fultz’s shooting woes, it’s impossible to take this as anything other than a ghastly low point in an ongoing problem.

LeBron James: ‘I almost cracked’ with Lakers’ slow start

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LeBron James has played in eight straight NBA Finals.

How’s he handling reduced expectations with the Lakers, who started 2-5 before rising to 7-6?

LeBron, via Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

‪“I haven’t changed anything outwardly, but you know me. You know how I am. I almost cracked [last week]. I had to sit back and remind myself, ‘[Expletive], you knew what you were getting yourself into,’” James told Yahoo Sports while laughing after Saturday’s win in Sacramento. “This process has been good for me. I just have to continue being patient.”‬

LeBron warned everyone to stay clear when he loses his patience, but he has never sounded close to losing it this season. He signed a four-year deal with the Lakers, said he doesn’t feel urgency to win quickly before his prime ends and seems content to wait for a co-star.

If anything, it seemed LeBron might be too relaxed, enjoying the Los Angeles lifestyle and focusing on showbusiness.

So, this is a welcome sign of his competitiveness.

Also kudos to LeBron for harnessing it unlike others in the organization. These Lakers need time to determine how these oddly shaped pieces fit together – unless a star becomes available. Then, all bets are off.

Dwyane Wade: Making Carmelo Anthony ‘fall guy’ doesn’t address the ‘real problem’

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LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul – the banana-boat buddies – comprise the NBA’s most famous friendship group.

With Anthony nearing his end with the Rockets, that puts Houston teammate Paul in an awkward place. But Wade and LeBron are speaking up. So are the Trail Blazers’ Evan Turner and Damian Lillard.

Wade:

LeBron:

Evan Turner:

Damian Lillard:

It’s unclear whether Wade is scolding the Rockets or fans/media. That comment is far more loaded if he’s referring directly to the organization. I wonder what he sees at the “real problem” in Houston.

A struggling team waiving a minimum-salary player is rarely viewed as making that player the scapegoat. But Anthony has an outsized reputation due to his long, star-level career. With that in mind, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tried to defend Anthony.

But Anthony is a part of Houston’s problems. He’s awful defensively and shooting poorly. There is mounting evidence he’s washed up. Downgrading his role, whether or not that includes waiving him, is a step in the right direction for the Rockets.

It won’t solve everything, and Anthony – after all that he has done in the NBA – should be treated with respect. But there’s no way around his substandard current level of play.