NBA Power Rankings: Blazers climb, Heat on top of mountain

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Lots of big moves up and down as the rankings start to shake themselves out a little. In college football they should hold off doing polls through those early weeks because said polls impact the postseason, but as the NBA has a playoff to determine who is best let’s dive in.

1. Heat (5-0, last week ranked No. 1). They have yet to lose but it took two last-second shots by Dwyane Wade to secure wins this week against teams Miami should crush. The bar is set high for this team. But at least LeBron James is engaged now.

2. Thunder (5-0, LW 3). It’s never really too early to start a “James Harden for Sixth Man of the Year” campaign. Like the Heat, they needed a ridiculous game winner — theirs from Kevin Durant — to stay undefeated this week.

3. Bulls (4-1, LW 2). They started the season on a tough West Coast road swing and had one off night. Good start for a team with room to improve still. Rip Hamilton is starting to find a groove and his hamstring injury doesn’t appear to be serious.

4. Spurs (3-1, LW 10). Big jump because, like last year, they look strong in the regular season. Manu Ginobili is playing like a beast. All their wins have been by at least 13 points.

5. Blazers (3-1, LW 11). Another climber as they have been impressive, especially on defense, at least until they ran into the Clippers Sunday. They are deep and that will help a lot in this condensed season.

6. Magic (4-1, LW 15). The pattern follows — they lost to OKC opening day because they have someone who can single cover Dwight Howard in the post. They consistently beat lesser teams that can’t do that. They are a good offensive squad.

7. Hawks (3-1, LW 14). They move way up as they are got off to a fast start against the Nets (twice) and Wizards, but now reality hits as they have two games each upcoming against the Heat and Bulls.

8. Pacers (3-1, LW 17). Sort of the same as the Hawks, they’re beating bad teams but soon they start to run into better squads (Heat and Celtics this week). However, the Pacers are better than people think and they are going to be a tough out in the playoffs.

9. Lakers (3-3, LW 6). They went .500 in four games without Andrew Bynum, which included a back-to-back-to-back. That’s not bad. But somebody besides Kobe Bryant has to pick up the offensive load.

10. Nuggets (3-2, LW 12). If not for a missed layup they could have swept the Lakers, but still a sweep not all bad. Al Harrington is playing well with 15.4 points per game.

11. Knicks (2-2, LW 4). If you’re going to hire Mike D’Antoni as coach, knowing his system, shouldn’t you try to build a team that fits it? Not in New York, apparently. The good news is they got their West Coast trip out of the way early.

12. Celtics (2-3, LW 7). After an 0-3 start they have gotten healthy on a couple struggling teams (and have the Wizards again Monday night). And they got Paul Pierce back, which helps.

13. Clippers (2-2, LW 5). Great offense (that rarely turns the ball over) but until they played Portland Sunday they had not been good at all on defense. If they can start to defend consistently they will be scary.

14. Bucks (2-1, LW 18). Good start will be tested on five-game road trip out West (including a back-to-back against the Lakers and Clippers).

15. 76ers (2-2, LW 13). Their two wins were blowouts, their two losses close ones. Small sample size but this is a team to watch as they may be better than their .500 record indicates.

16. Rockets (2-2, LW 16). Kyle Lowry is playing like an All-Star. Tough week with Lakers, Clippers and OKC on the schedule.

17. Warriors (2-2, LW 21). Inconsistent — beat the Bulls, get blown out by 28 by the Sixers — and they have had Stephen Curry injured and Monta Ellis out for personal reasons. Still can’t get a read on this team other than they play hard for Mark Jackson.

18. Hornets (2-2, LW 27). Impressive win over Boston but they got smacked by a not very good Suns team. Credit Monty Williams for getting them to play over their heads.

19. Grizzlies (1-3, LW 9). They had a tough schedule to start the season and have had to navigate it without Mike Conley. But this brings back to reality the contender talk — this team isn’t the Thunder or other elite teams in the West. Not consistently, not yet.

20. Mavericks (1-4, LW 8). Dirk Nowitzki on the Mavs start, “One win over Toronto doesn’t really make the world great.” Yup. There are a lot of issues, including Lamar Odom admitting he is out of shape.

21. Suns (1-3, LW 19). Steve Nash is playing through some bruised ribs, which is slowing his game. Signing Michael Redd was a shot in the dark, but this squad might as well take those shots right now.

22. Timberwolves (1-3, LW 25). They beat Dallas and their three losses are to the Heat, Thunder and an underrated Bucks team. They are better than their record shows. Rick Adelman is going to have this team paying pretty well by the end of the season, just watch.

23. Cavaliers (2-2, LW 29). If the playoffs started today, the Cavaliers would be the eighth seed in the West (we put that in here because it might be the last week we get to write that). Anderson Varejao is looking healthy and playing well — so expect the trade rumors to ramp up soon.

24. Jazz (1-3, LW 20). They are back for games in the friendly confines of Salt Lake City this week, where they are still tough to beat.

25. Raptors (1-3, LW 28). Tough loss to Orlando Sunday, they let that one get away. Same old Raptors this season, pretty good offense but their defense is terrible.

26. Bobcats (1-3, LW 30). That second game against the Heat — a blowout loss — was more indicative or reality in Charlotte. Kemba Walker scoring 11.5 point per game will inject himself into the Rookie of the Year talk.

27. Kings (1-3, LW 22). What a mess of a franchise right now. The problem for management is what to do with Paul Westphal — cut him now or at the end of the season? If you fire him now you let the players win that power struggle and that might come back to haunt you.

28. Pistons (1-3, LW 24). They are the Pacers lone loss, and they are getting solid play from Greg Monroe and Jonas Jerbko. But the stylings of Ben Gordon still drive this offense.

29. Nets (1-4, LW 26). Looking for a positive… Mashon Brooks has had some nice games and is averaging 12.2 per contest. That’s about it for a team shooting 38 percent for the season.

30. Wizards (0-4, LW 23). Flip Saunders is on the hot seat and can’t fill out a lineup card. The Wizard’s offense is a disaster — this team should run every chance it gets yet the pace is 13th in the league. I expected a breakout year from John Wall and again he looks average this season.

Former Lakers forward Michael Beasley signing in China

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Before the season, Michael Beasley said the Lakers “can be exactly where we want to be at the end of the year.”

I doubt he envisioned himself being in China.

But that’s where he’s headed after getting traded to and waived by the Clippers.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Beasley has played in China twice before and dominated. High-volume scorers like him translate well.

At 30, Beasley might be nearing the end of his NBA chances. He can still contribute a little, but the bar is higher for someone who brings headaches and silliness.

If he again plays well in China, he’ll probably get another chance with an NBA team next season. But that’s certainly not a lock.

Blake Griffin enjoying resurgence a year after trade to Pistons

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DETROIT (AP) — Blake Griffin doesn’t need to jump over any cars to be a hit in the Motor City.

A year after arriving in Detroit with his career at a crossroads, a more earthbound Griffin is doing all he can to shake the Pistons out of their decade-long malaise.

“He does a little bit of everything for us. Probably one of our better pick-and-roll players, passers, scorers, leader by example, just so many things,” Detroit coach Dwane Casey said. “His basketball intellect, for me, is one that’s been the most impressive of our players. I didn’t know that about Blake, because when you think about him, you think about the high-flying dunker and the muscular guy in the post, but there’s a lot more to that than just his dunking and athleticism.”

A month shy of his 30th birthday, there are fewer above-the-rim highlights but Griffin’s first full season with Detroit has been one of his best. He’s averaging a career-high 26.3 points per game while making strides as a perimeter shooter, and he earned his first All-Star selection since 2015.

Most importantly, he’s been able to stay healthy, and although the Pistons still have a losing record, they’re in the playoff race, largely because of Griffin.

“As a player, you always believe in yourself,” Griffin said. “I knew I had another level to go to, and being healthy was part of that. … But the beginning of the year, my goal isn’t to only make the All-Star team. It’s much more than that.”

In July 2017, Griffin agreed to a $171 million, five-year deal with the Clippers, the team that drafted him with the first overall pick in 2009. Less than a year later, he was abruptly traded – from glitzy Los Angeles to a Detroit franchise that hasn’t won a playoff game since 2008. It was a risky move for the Pistons, given Griffin’s high salary and the fact that he has only three seasons with more than 67 games played. They gave up a first-round draft pick in the trade, and when they missed the playoffs anyway, that was the end of Stan Van Gundy’s tenure as coach and president of basketball operations.

For Griffin, it was an inauspicious start to the Detroit portion of his career, and there’s been frustration this season as well. The Pistons are 26-30, tied for the final postseason spot in the Eastern Conference. Even if they do make the playoffs, they don’t look like a team ready to make a run.

But for Griffin individually, the season has been a significant step forward. The man who once pulled off a two-handed dunk while jumping over the front of a car is a bit less of an athletic sensation in Detroit, but the blue-collar elements of his game are still plenty effective. The 6-foot-10, 250-pound Griffin can muscle his way to the basket and draw fouls, and he gives the Pistons another tough rebounder alongside Andre Drummond. Griffin is also leading the team in assists.

“I think for me, my job is to make his game as easy as possible on the offensive end. When I get him open, he usually makes the right plays,” Drummond said. “It’s a nightmare for teams. You’ve got to really pick your poison, who you really want to get going, and it’s scary when we both get it going.”

Griffin has expanded his offensive repertoire to include the 3-point shot in recent years. He has already made a career-high 134 3s this season, shooting a credible 37 percent from long distance.

“It helps a lot, especially in today’s NBA, with everybody spacing the floor a little bit more, and playing with a guy like Dre, who’s so effective inside,” Griffin said. “To be able to give him a little bit more space is a good thing. I always see guys working to expand their range, and when you do, you see them add years to their career.”

When Griffin joined the Clippers, he added some legitimacy and excitement to what had been one of the league’s most downtrodden franchises. Now the Pistons are a team that could use some buzz. The results recently have been mixed: Griffin has been terrific, but the team as a whole has remained mediocre.

But Detroit won four of five heading into the All-Star break, and if the Pistons do make the playoffs, they’ll have Griffin to thank.

“He’s thinking the game. He’s a couple steps ahead,” Casey said. “I’ve had a lot of great forwards, power forwards, and he’s right up there with the best, whether it’s Dirk (Nowitzki), (Kevin) Garnett, Detlef Schrempf – just a lot of great players that I’ve been around. He’s right in that category.”

 

Hawks GM: “If we stayed at 3, we would have taken Luka (Doncic)”

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It was the Draft day trade that shook the NBA last June.

In a deal made agreed to before the picks were made, the Atlanta Hawks traded Luka Doncic, taken No. 3, to Dallas for Trae Young (taken fifth), and the Hawks got the Mavericks 2019 first-round pick (top five protected). It forever linked Doncic and Young in the minds of fans (fair or not).

Doncic has gone on to become a historically good rookie — averaging 20.7 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, he is the Mavs best player, is the runaway Rookie of the Year, and is already a star (who fans almost voted into the All-Star Game) — which has led to a lot of criticism for Atlanta in some quarters for not keeping the pick and Doncic. That despite the fact Young has played well after a slow start (20 points per game with 35.9 percent shooting from three in his last 20 games) and the Hawks got another pick in the deal.

On the Woj Pod with Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, Hawks GM Travis Schlenk said that the team would have drafted Doncic if they kept the pick (hat tip Real GM).

“Not a lot of people know this…if we stayed at 3, we would have taken Luka. We had worked with his agent, he did a physical with us that morning in New York…but then Dallas came in an hour or so before the draft. I told them all along that it would take another lottery pick for us to slide back, and that’s when the conversations got started.”

Interestingly, Schlenk added that the team’s analytics department, projecting into next season, played a big role in the deal getting done.

“Our analytics staff was predicting Dallas to finish 8th this year,” added Schlenk.

As of right now (and before the lottery shakes things up), the Mavericks are projected to pick ninth. If that remains, Dallas has a 20.2 percent chance to jump into the top four with the new lottery odds. Otherwise, the pick will go to Atlanta.

Despite Doncic’s play, it’s too early to fully judge the trade. How good will Young become? How high is Doncic’s ceiling? What happens with the future first-round pick, and who will the Hawks get with it?

For a rebuilding team like the Hawks, a second lottery pick to move back a couple of spots can make sense — so long as the guy your trading doesn’t become a superstar. Doncic may become that. Atlanta was higher on Young than many teams, and he has rewarded that faith of late, but how good will he ultimately be? It’s not quite a Sam Bowie pick, but some fans may ultimately see it that way if Doncic’s star continues to rise. However, as Schlenk explained, there were logical reasons to make the trade.

One last look back: Best dunks of All-Star Weekend (VIDEO)

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Defense? That’s one thing that rarely makes an appearance All-Star weekend.

Combine that with the game’s best athletes and what you get are three days of insane dunks.

The NBA put this together, the best dunks of All-Star weekend in Charlotte. Enjoy.