NBA Power Rankings: Chicago is our kind of town

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It’s our penultimate rankings, the Bulls have solidified themselves at the top and Minnesota is trying hard to make sure they finish the season on the bottom. Or not trying, as the case may be.

1. Bulls (56-20, LW #2). The East is theirs, barring a total collapse, and they are just one back of San Antonio in the loss column for the best overall. Their last couple games without Joakim Noah have not really been impressive wins, if you’re looking to nit-pick.

2. Lakers (55-21, LW #1). The loss Sunday to Denver was really the Lakers second sloppy game in a row, Utah just couldn’t make them pay for it. Also, the Lakers last two losses came in part because of key tip ins over Lamar Odom while Andrew Bynum sat.

3. Heat (54-23, LW #3). The last two weeks LeBron James has been a beast and looked like — dare we say it? — an MVP. Sunday’s game in Boston could be interesting for LeBron and the Heat, with real potential seeding implications.

4. Thunder (50-26, LW #4). Serge Ibaka has averaged 12.4 points and 9.1 rebounds a game the last 10 for the Thunder. But they had to watch Denver Sunday and realize it is going to be a tough first round.

5. Nuggets (47-29), LW #9). Tuesday night they take on Oklahoma City in a first-round playoff preview. The Lakers got the message bout the Nuggets being for real Sunday. Not only has their defense gotten better since the trade, their offense has improved and is now No. 1 in the NBA.

6. Celtics (53-23, LW #8). Boston fans are saying Shaquille O’Neal looked good in the five-and-a-half minutes he played before he got hurt again. Small sample size alert there. They need Shaq, Jermaine and Krstic all to be right by the second round or things will be tough.

7. Spurs (58-19, Last Week #7). They snapped their six-game losing streak and looked good Sunday, but against the Suns without Steve Nash. So we’ll want to see them do it again before we believe they are back.

8. Blazers (45-32, LW #10). Dallas should not be scared of the Blazers in the first round because Dallas lost to them Sunday. They should be scared because the Blazers have been one of the better teams in the league the past month.

9. Mavericks (53-24, LW #5). Three game losing streak drops them down but the last two were on the end of the longest road trip of the year on a back-to-back, so don’t read too much into it.

10. Grizzlies (44-33, LW #11). Winners of four straight and they may well push up to the seven seed in the West, which would mean the Lakers in the first round. That is a team they can challenge.

11. Magic (48-29, LW #6). Losing to Atlanta because Jason Collins played well? Getting out rebounded by Toronto? Orlando has a few issues to work out and about 10 days to do it. They will get those Hawks and Jason Collins in the first round.

12. Rockets (41-36, LW #13). They are 8-2 in their last 10 but just can’t get over the hump and into the playoffs out West. If this was the East, they’d be the six seed.

13. Sixers (40-37, LW #12). We’ve been saying they can scare one of the East elite in the first round, but only if Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams get healthy.

14. Hawks (44-33, LW #14). The win over Orlando this week was not a sign they will beat the Magic in a seven game series. But it was key for the Hawks confidence to make it a tough series, not the sweep it was last year. Jason Collins allows them to single-cover Dwight Howard, the key to beating Orlando.

15. Hornets (43-33, LW #15). Carl Landry has picked up the offensive slack pretty well, but the Hornets are inconsistent with defense and rebounding. Still, they would have to totally collapse to miss the playoffs.

16. Suns (37-39, LW #16). Without Steve Nash this team is pretty hard to watch.

17. Pacers (35-43, LW #21). They had won three in a row before Sunday but still have the Bobcats right behind them for that last spot in the West. Indiana has the tiebreaker, if they can just go 2-2 in their final four they should make it in. Then get crushed by the Bulls.

18. Knicks (38-38, LW #18). Sure, they’re stumbling, but Carmelo Anthony got to be on Saturday Night Live and Sesame Street this week. So it’s all good.

19. Bobcats (32-44, LW #19). They are two games back, just one the loss column. Problem is, Indiana has the tiebreaker so they can’t just catch them, they have to pass. Then Charlotte lost to the Wizards Sunday at home and that is one they may regret if they miss the playoffs.

20. Warriors (33-44, LW #20). Numerous rumblings that Keith Smart is in a lot of trouble. He may have been in trouble since he signed that one-year contract last summer.

21. Bucks (31-45, LW #23). One point losses to both Indiana and Charlotte did in their playoff dreams. And both were sloppy finishes at the end, the Bucks could have had them.

22. Jazz (36-41, LW #17). They have lost eight straight and have gone to heavy rookie rotations for the rest of the season.

23. Clippers (30-47, LW #22). You see flashes of this team and what it could grow into next years and in coming seasons. Next season can they be consistent?

24. Kings (22-54, LW #24). They are 5-2 in their last seven (both losses to Denver) and Tyreke Evans is back and playing well. They will love that in Anaheim.

25. Pistons (26-50, LW #25). The infighting between the coaches and players has been allowed to go on to long without some intervention from above. The team sale dragging out is hurting this team badly.

26. Wizards (20-56, LW #29). Two road wins in one week after having just one all season before that. Jordan Crawford is putting up numbers and trying to make the most of his chances.

27. Raptors (21-55, LW #27). They beat Orlando and made a game of it with Chicago in one week. That’s a good week in Toronto this season.

28. Nets (23-53, LW #26). They have lost six straight — Utah fans are loving it. (Remember, Utah got the Nets pick in the Deron Williams trade.)

29. Cavaliers (15-61, LW #28). Savor that win over the Heat.

30. Timberwolves (17-60, LW #30). Losers of 10 in a row and just one game ahead of Cleveland in the loss column in the race for the most Ping-Pong balls. Kevin Love has not even been a factor for them lately, between injuries and his play.

Report: Celtics to pursue Kemba Walker in free agency

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The Celtics appear set to lose Kyrie Irving and Al Horford in free agency.

That’ll open a lot of cap space and create needs at point guard and center.

A possibility at starting point guard: Kemba Walker.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer:

If they renounce all their free agents, the Celtics project to have about $34 million in cap space. That’s enough to offer Walker a max contract that projects to be worth $141 million over four years.

But the Hornets can offer Walker a super-max contract that projects to be worth $221 million over five years. Charlotte and Walker have described each other as the priority.

The Lakers and Mavericks are also reportedly interested in the point guard.

Boston will face plenty of competition. Walker’s stellar player has earned him multiple good options.

The Celtics – with talented young wings like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and plenty of draft capital – look like one. They still have a reasonably bright future, and Walker would elevate their present.

But the same could be said of the Mavericks with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. The Lakers look even better immediately with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. And the Hornets can offer all that money and the comfort of home.

There will be plenty for Walker to consider this summer.

Andre Iguodala: I broke my leg last year, but Warriors called it just a bruise

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Kevin Durant was reportedly in agony about not helping the Warriors deep into the playoffs. His teammates were reportedly frustrated he hadn’t returned.

Did Durant – who tore his Achilles just 12 minutes into his return after a month-long absence – feel pressured (internally, externally or both) to rush back?

Durant has yet to speak publicly on the saga, but Golden State forward Andre Iguodala can relate. He missed the final four games of last year’s Western Conference finals against the Rockets and first two games of the NBA Finals with what the team called a “left lateral leg contusion” (fancy word for bruise).

Iguodala on The Breakfast Club:

We have a really good training staff. I’ll give credit where credit’s due. Our training staff is one of the best in the world. And I feel like they got him back. The tough thing is, when you’re an athlete and you’re hurt, everybody is looking at you sideways. And then it being his teammate is harder, because everyone is feeding stuff in our head. “When is KD coming back? When is KD coming back?”

Last year, it happened to me. I missed last three games of the Houston series. It goes to Game 7. We barely get out of that series. And now they’re looking at me like, “When are you coming back?” And I had a fractured leg. But it’s being put out there like, “You’ve got a bone bruise.” I’m like, “Nah, it’s fractured.” So, I’m fighting with the team. I’m fighting with people. I’m fighting with the media. And then my teammates ask me every day, “How you feeling? How you feeling?”

So, with K, he’s getting it from everywhere, too.

What do they always say in sports? “Oh, he’s a tough guy. He plays through injuries.” You’re validated as an athlete if you win a championship or how tough you were. If you sit out, it’s like, “Ah, he’s not tough.”

This is a damning assessment of the Warriors. It’s unclear exactly what happened, but Iguodala is alleging at least one of two things:

1. They misdiagnosed him.

2. They downplayed the extent of the injury publicly.

It could have been both.

A misdiagnosis is obviously troublesome. But downplaying the extent of the injury brings its own problems.

As Iguodala said, that only increased chatter about his return. With so many people talking to him about coming back, it’d be only natural to feel pressure to return. Iguodala is exactly right: Playing through injury gets players praised as tough.

Golden State misleading the public about the injury would also cause issues as the NBA embraces gambling. That opens the door for certain bettors to get inside information.

This sounds a lot like the Durant situation.

The Warriors can talk about how much they care about their players. But a pattern is emerging of injured players being put into peril.

It might be too late with Durant, but Golden State must address this.

The strangest All-NBA ballot

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Remember those odd All-NBA votes? Dwyane Wade, Luke Doncic, Danilo Gallinari and Andre Drummond on the second team, Marvin Bagley III on the third team.

One voter – Kennegh Lau of BesTV, a Chinese outlet – is responsible all those. His ballot:

First team

G: Stephen Curry (Warriors)

G: James Harden (Rockets)

F: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)

F: Kevin Durant (Warriors)

C: Joel Embiid (76ers)

Second team

G: Klay Thompson, Klay (Warriors)

G: Dwyane Wade (Heat)

F: Danilo Gallinari, Danilo (Clippers)

F: Luka Doncic, Luka (Mavericks)

C: Andre Drummond, Andre (Pistons)

Third team

G: Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)

G: Donovan Mitchell (Jazz)

F: Marvin Bagley III (Kings)

F: Pascal Siakam (Raptors)

C: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

A couple other standout All-NBA votes: Michelle Beadle of ESPN voted Eric Gordon third team at guard ahead of Kemba Walker, Bradley Beal, Klay Thompson, etc. Richard Walker of the Gaston Gazette voted Domantas Sabonis third-team forward ahead of LeBron James (who played more minutes than Sabonis!).

There are outlier votes for every award. You can dig through all the results here. Massimo Lopes Pegna of La Gazzetta Dello Sport (an Italian newspaper) apparently submitted his All-NBA team as his All-Defensive team (though it doesn’t exactly match his actual All-NBA team). Beyond that, these votes aren’t necessarily wrong. The consensus isn’t always right.

But All-NBA voting has taken heightened importance with its super-max connection. Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake. Ballots like Lau’s will increase scrutiny on the system.

That’s an overreaction. There are 100 voters so no single ballot carries too much importance. Again, it’s OK for someone to stray from the consensus.

It’d still be good to reconsider the salary incentives of All-NBA, though. The players who had the best regular seasons – my All-NBA criterion – aren’t necessarily the ones who deserve the highest salaries in years to come. It’s a flawed link, and that goes far beyond Lau’s ballot.

Magic Johnson ready to welcome D’Angelo Russell back to Lakers

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In 2017, then-Lakers president Magic Johnson traded D'Angelo Russell to the Nets and delivered a biting sendoff: “What I needed was a leader.”

Russell wasn’t ready to run a team on the court. His work ethic and maturity off it left plenty to be desired. Most infamously, he alienated his teammates by recording and posting a video of Nick Young discussing sleeping with women other than his fiancé.

But Russell went to Brooklyn and became an All-Star.

So, with rumors swirling about Russell returning to Los Angeles in free agency, Johnson is changing his tune.

Johnson, via Bill Oram of The Athletic:

“Now he’s ready,” Johnson said. “He’s much more mature. I said the only thing, he was immature back then. He could always score, but the guys would never play with him because of what he did (with the Young video). But now all those guys are gone and he’s on another level now.”

This is peak Johnson – talking about players on other teams (no longer tampering), spinning the story to make himself look good and directing the Lakers’ roster without having to take responsibility for it.

There is truth to what Johnson is saying here. Russell is more mature now. It would have been difficult to keep him in a locker room with teammates who didn’t trust him.

But Johnson is also the one who moved Russell rather than betting on his talent. With the right nurturing, Russell could have become a star in Los Angeles in the first place. The Lakers wouldn’t have to use all their cap room to sign him now. They could have already had him.

It’s a little disingenuous for Johnson to present this as him being right all along.