NBA Power Rankings: Celtics, Spurs drop at regular season’s end

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At the top would be every lazy sports columnist’s dream finals matchup — the Lakers versus the Bulls in Phil Jackson’s final year. (Well, final year for now, anyway). But do you really think the recent struggles of the Celtics and Spurs tell you much about those teams in the playoffs?

1. Lakers (53-20, LW #1). They’ve won seven in a row, only one loss since the All-Star break, and are now just four games back of the Spurs (losers of three in a row). That leaves the Lakers are four games back with nine to play, it would still take a miracle to catch the Spurs, but you can start talking about it now.

2. Bulls (53-19, LW #3). Winners of four in a row and gaining a lot of confidence heading into the playoffs. Which as a team entering its first playoffs as a unit matters more than it does for some of the veteran units that are contenders. We had questions about the Bulls offense but it has been improved lately.

3. Heat (51-22, LW #5). Winners of five in a row, eight of their last 10 and the big three are playing well together. Six of those wins came against playoff teams, but seven of their final nine are against teams below .500 so don’t be shocked if they push the Bulls for the top seed.

4. Thunder (48-24, LW #6). Kendrick Perkins made some plays against the Blazers Sunday. OKC is coming together at the right time but are poised to face Denver in the first round. Denver will be a tough out.

5. Mavericks (52-21, LW #7). Odd stat of the week, the Mavs are 15-0 when Peja Stojakovic plays at least 15 minutes.

6. Magic (47-26, LW #8). Five straight wins and the best center in the game, solid four seed, but nobody mentions them among the contenders in the East. You’ll see more Gilbert Arenas this week, which may not be best for then Magic.

7. Spurs (57-16, Last Week #2). Three straight losses with no Tim Duncan (and they lost Manu for much of Sunday, even though that is not as serious). What matters is getting both healthy by the playoffs, but that may costs them games now. Doesn’t matter because the Lakers can’t make up four games in the remaining nine… can they?

8. Celtics (51-21, LW #4). They are struggling coming into the playoffs. Fooled us once with that trick, we’re not falling for it again. But, they need to get Shaq back with a few games under his belt before the playoffs.

9. Nuggets (44-29), LW #11). He’s not going to win it (Tom Thibodeau is with the Bulls), but George Karl has to move on to your Coach of the Year ballot now.

10. Blazers (42-31, LW #9). Damn that Gerald Wallace trade was brilliant. He can score and with him and Nicolas Batum they can defend the forward spots very well. There are going to be no easy outs for the West’s top teams in the first round.

11. Grizzlies (41-33, LW #10). They went 2-1 against the Spurs, Celtics and Bulls last week. They are going to make the playoffs, and read the Blazers note about tough outs in the West.

12. Sixers (37-36, LW #12). There was a time a couple weeks ago when the Sixers looked like a dangerous team in the first round. Not so much any more.

13. Rockets (38-35, LW #13). They are 7-3 in their last season and playing with a real push for the playoffs, but nobody in the west is coming back to them at all. They are 2.5 games back of Memphis, which has an easy schedule from here on out.

14. Hawks (42-32, LW #15). The Hawks are coasting to a five seed in the playoffs. Which should last about one round for them.

15. Hornets (42-32, LW #14). No David West the rest of the way, and that makes for an undersized front line of Emeka Okafor and Carl Landry. That is an anagram for “we’re in trouble now.” (Well, it should be an anagram of that.) They are 3.5 games ahead of the Rockets.

16. Suns (36-36, LW #17). This summer, we are starting a “free Steve Nash” campaign. Vince Carter has gone to the bench, as it should be.

17. Jazz (36-38, LW #18). Their defense has been a disaster since the trade. Disaster.

18. Knicks (35-34, LW #16). They are 3.5 games ahead of the eight-seed pacers and 4.5 ahead of the nine-seed Bobcats, they are almost certainly not falling out of the playoffs. But their defense remains terrible and now the offense is joining it.

19. Bobcats (30-42, LW #23). They beat the Celtics and Knicks last week to keep their playoff hopes alive, but they need to beat the Bucks Monday to make sure they stay alive. They remain one game back of the Pacers for the last spit.

20. Warriors (32-42, LW #19). Of the teams on the bottom third of this bracket, this is the one we can recommend watching. They are very, very entertaining right now, with Monta Ellis leading the way.

21. Pacers (32-42, LW #20). About the only thing that is consistent about them is a good game from Tyler Hansbrough.

22. Clippers (29-45, LW #22). Eric Gordon is back and it makes you wonder: Is this really a playoff team with him healthy? There are still a lot of questions.

23. Bucks (29-43, LW #21). They are not out of the playoffs mathematically, but six of their next seven are on the road and they are 10-24 this season away from home.

24. Kings (20-52, LW #27). They just went 4-1 on their latest road trip. I’m sure that is generating a lot of excitement in Anaheim.

25. Pistons (26-47, LW #24). You know Detroit, if you had played Rip Hamilton more before the trade deadline, and he played like this, you might have been able to move him.

26. Nets (23-49, LW #25). Fun game Wednesday in New York. What is the over/under on Brook Lopez rebounds against the weak Knicks front line? Seven?

27. Raptors (20-53, LW #26). The worst defensive team in the league. Just wanted to reiterate that.

28. Cavaliers (14-58, LW #29). Joe Tait was back in the radio broadcast booth this week. That is a win for Cleveland.

29. Wizards (17-55, LW #30). JaVale McGee is getting his blocks lately. Rebounding be damned.

30. Timberwolves (17-57, LW #28). Losers of seven straight and no Kevin Love for the remainder of the season. Anthony Randolph teased with his talents for a game then ran into the reality of Kevin Garnett.

L.A. Lakers will stay big, start Dwight Howard at center

Dwight Howard start
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images
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While it is easy to say the Lakers’ best lineups have Anthony Davis at center, the numbers say the Lakers are best playing big with another player at center and Davis at the four.

That’s how the Lakers will start the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat on Wednesday — and Dwight Howard gets the call, the team announced.

This start was expected, especially after how well Dwight Howard played in the Denver series against Nikola Jokic.

It creates an interesting defensive choice for Erik Spoelstra and the Heat: Do they start Bam Adebayo on Davis and have Jae Crowder on Howard, or reverse that. Adebayo is an All-Defensive Team player who may be the best one-on-one matchup in the league for Davis,  but does Spoelstra want to risk early foul trouble for his star center, and would it wear Adebayo down to have to work so hard on both ends. Expect Crowder to start on Davis and Adebayo to get the key minutes later in the game.

The challenge for the Lakers: Howard fouls a lot.

“Probably fouling,” Laker coach Frank Vogel said when asked what was at the top of the team scouting report for the Heat. “I think they are great at getting to the free throw line. If we can play with discipline, not give them opportunities to shoot free throws, set their defense, that will help us win games, because they are great at getting to the free throw line.”

Howard can’t mess that plan up for Los Angeles. But he’s going to get the chance.

 

Two men charged with taking over NBA player’s social media accounts, selling info

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — A Louisiana man and a Florida man allegedly gained access to professional athletes’ social media accounts and either sold the information or used it to extort payments, according to federal criminal complaints released Wednesday.

Trevontae Washington and Ronnie Magrehbi each face wire fraud conspiracy and computer fraud conspiracy counts filed by the U.S. attorney’s office in New Jersey.

The 21-year-old Washington, of Thibodaux, Louisiana, allegedly obtained usernames and passwords for multiple NFL and NBA players and sold access to the information.

Magrehbi, 20, of Orlando, Florida, allegedly obtained an NFL player’s email and Instagram account information and extorted money by publishing explicit photos of the player and threatening to publish more.

Washington and Magrehbi were scheduled to make initial court appearances Wednesday in their respective states. They were not alleged to have worked together on the scams.

Their alleged victims included two NFL players and one NBA player, all of whom lived in New Jersey at the time of the alleged crimes.

According to the complaint, Washington used a “phishing” scam — requesting login information purportedly for a legitimate purpose — to gain access to the accounts of one NFL player in 2018 and locked the player out of the accounts.

Washington also took over the accounts of at least two other players, and acknowledged to investigators after his arrest last year that he had sold access to players’ accounts for between $500 and $1,000 each, the complaint alleged.

Magrehbi also used phishing to take over the social media accounts of an NFL player living in New Jersey in 2018 who eventually paid him $500, according to the complaint.

A few days later, explicit images of the player were posted to his Twitter and Instagram accounts and he was asked for an additional $2,500 to prevent the publishing of additional photos, the complaint alleged. The request came from a prepaid cellphone linked to Magrehbi, according to the complaint.

Court personnel for the Eastern District of Louisiana didn’t provide information on an attorney representing Washington. A message was left Wednesday at the Middle District of Florida seeking attorney information for Magrehbi.

Wire fraud conspiracy is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Computer fraud conspiracy has a five-year maximum sentence.

LeBron James, Anthony Davis have two of top three selling jerseys during bubble

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The Los Angeles Lakers have the biggest, most popular brand of any NBA franchise. LeBron James is the biggest brand of any active NBA player, nationally and globally.

Combine them and it sells a lot of jerseys.

LeBron sold more jerseys during the NBA restart in Orlando than any other player, the NBA announced Wednesday, hours before LeBron and his Lakers tipped off in the NBA Finals. LeBron’s teammate, Anthony Davis, was third on the list. Here is the list released by the NBA.

Top 15 Most Popular NBA Jerseys

1. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
2. Luka Dončić, Dallas Mavericks
3. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
6. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
7. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
8. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
9. Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers
10. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
11. Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics
12. Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets
13. Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets
14. Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets
15. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

A few notes of interest:

• The sixth and seventh best selling jerseys were players who did not suit up in the bubble, Curry and Durant.
• Rookie Ja Morant sold the 15th most jerseys, making his first appearance on this list, while Zion Williamson did not make the top 15.
• Second is the highest Luka Doncic has ever finished on this list, his spectacular play in the bubble helped spike his popularity.
• These results are based on NBAStore.com sales from July 30 through Sept. 28.

Top 10 Most Popular Team Merchandise

1. Los Angeles Lakers
2. Boston Celtics
3. Chicago Bulls
4. Miami Heat
5. Golden State Warriors
6. Toronto Raptors
7. Dallas Mavericks
8. Milwaukee Bucks
9. Portland Trail Blazers
10. Denver Nuggets

Lakers have historically easy path to championship*

Lakers star LeBron James
Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images
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By the 2018 NBA Finals, LeBron James was feeling the stress of facing the mighty Warriors again. LeBron and the Cavaliers toppled a 73-win Golden State in 2016… only for the Warriors to add Kevin Durant. Golden State beat Cleveland in the 2017 Finals and was on the way to repeating. The too-often overlooked aspect of LeBron’s 3-6 NBA Finals record: His competition on that level has been EXCELLENT.

Not so much this year.

At least on paper.

The fifth-seeded Heat are among the lowest lowest seeds ever to reach the NBA Finals. Miami (44-29) outscored opponents by just 2.9 points per game in regular-season/seeding games. That’s the lowest margin for a Finals team in the last 20 years outside the 2018 Cavs (+0.9).

And it’s not as if that’s just an East-West issue. The Lakers’ road through the Western Conference looked remarkably similar to LeBron’s challenge while he dominated the East for eight years – i.e., not that imposing.

Los Angeles’ postseason opponents’ margins per game during the regular season/seeding games:

  • Trail Blazers: -1.1
  • Rockets: +3.0
  • Nuggets: +2.1
  • Heat: +2.9

Not including themselves, the Lakers avoided the top five teams! The Bucks (+10.1), Celtics (+6.4), Clippers (+6.4), Raptors (+6.3) and Mavericks (+4.9) all had better margins per game than Houston.

Still, at the very minimum, the Lakers must win four series to win a title. In the NBA’s early days, that was just two.

The 1957 Celtics won the championship by beating the Syracuse Nationals (-1.4) and St. Louis Hawks (-0.1). That’s all it took!

Even for dominant teams, each additional series is an opportunity for something to go wrong. So, the Lakers have it tougher than many prior champions. It’s difficult to compare across eras, anyway.

But since the NBA adopted a 16-team postseason in 1984, this is an incredibly soft-looking run.

The Lakers’ playoff opponents have an average margin of +1.7, which would be second-lowest for a championship team in this format. The 1987 Lakers’ opponents had an average margin of just +1.0.

Simply averaging opponents’ margins probably isn’t the best method, though. What does it matter whether a championship team faces a team barely over .500 or a team with a losing record in the first round? An eventual champion usually easily dispatches either. The more significant differences in opponent quality come in later rounds.

So, I created Postseason Strength of Schedule Score (PSSS) for title teams since 1984.

For each championship team, I multiplied the margin of their top opponent by four, the margin of their second-best opponent by three, the margin of their third-best opponent by two and the margin of their worst opponent by one then added the totals. (There is room to quibble with the ratios. I chose this for simplicity.)

The higher the PSSS, the more difficult the schedule.

The 2020 Lakers would have the lowest PSSS (23.7), narrowly behind the 1987 Lakers (23.9) but way below everyone else:

For what it’s worth, the Heat would have the highest PSSS (72.8), topping the 1995 Rockets (68.9):

The big asterisk over this entire discussion: It’s impossible to assess a team’s overall level at the exact time of a playoff series. True in a normal year, it’s especially difficult this year with a long layoff and bubble weirdness.

Yes, the Heat outscored opponents by just 2.9 points per game in the regular season/seeding games. How much does that have to do with Miami’s current ability, though? The Heat have looked awesome in the playoffs.

Maybe they’re particularly resilient in a way that helps in the bubble. Maybe young players like Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro have developed far beyond where they were in the regular season, which ended more than half a year ago. Maybe in-season acquisitions Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala lifted Miami after the Heat built most of their regular-season record.

There are infinite reasons Miami might not be the team suggested by its regular-season/seeding-game record.

Ditto Portland (which got back Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins and developed momentum while winning the play-in), Houston (which looked gassed when the regular season was halted) and Denver (which, honestly, might have gotten worse with Will Barton hurt and so many players recovering from coronavirus).

That said, regular-season success tends to be a strong predictor of postseason success. There’s still something to the Lakers’ playoff competition.

The Lakers would’ve been lauded for beating the Clippers and Bucks. So, shouldn’t the Lakers get more credit for beating the teams that beat the Clippers (Nuggets) and Bucks (Heat)?

There’s certainly an argument to be had. But it’s also plausible that, even though Denver and Miami won each series, the Clippers and Bucks were still better teams overall. Milwaukee had matchup issues with the Heat that wouldn’t have necessarily manifested against the Lakers. Though the Nuggets deserve credit for winning, if the teams played again fresh – even knowing the results of the series that happened – the Clippers would be favored. The Clippers definitely had a higher ceiling, and maybe they would’ve come together during a longer playoff run.

Or maybe they would’ve gotten even sicker of each other.

It’s impossible to know. All we can say: The Lakers beat the teams in front of them. That’s a great accomplishment. They have prevailed where other favorites have faltered. Every NBA title is hard to win.

Some are harder than others, though.