NBA Power Rankings: Heat on top, Blazers best in West

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A little shifting up at the top but nothing too dramatic. Your big movers this week is the 76ers, who are playing well and moving up the rankings, and the Hornets dropping like a rock.

1. Heat (8-1 last week ranked No. 1). Chris Bosh drops 33 on the Hawks and wants you to remember that he is pretty dang good, too. As are the Heat — they won three games without Dwyane Wade last week. Make sure you tune in Wednesday because Heat vs. Clippers is appointment basketball.

2. Bulls (7-2, LW 3). Look for the Bulls to go on a little run — Boston on Friday is the only team over .500 they play the next two weeks.

3. Blazers (6-2, LW 5). Best team in the West so far. Beat the Thunder and Lakers, but then looked tired against the Suns (we’ve chosen to ignore that game, good teams are having ugly losses do to the schedule this year). Interesting game against the Clippers Tuesday in a matchup of the West’s new guard.

4. Thunder (8-2, LW 2). They fall after losses to Dallas and Portland but they are the first team to win all three of a back-to-back-to-back, so they don’t fall far. Kevin Durant is going to put on show in Madison Square Garden next Saturday, just watch.

5. Pacers (6-2, LW 8). Lost to Miami and won an ugly one against Boston as their schedule gets tougher (Philly Monday will be interesting). Don’t expect them to fall apart — the Pacers are going to be solid all season because they are doing it with defense.

6. Hawks (6-3, LW 7). They had the Bulls and Heat twice each last week and went 2-2 (and had a 19 point lead over the Bulls in the game they lost). That’s not bad, not bad at all. Still don’t believe in this team long term, but they had a good week.

7. Spurs (6-3, LW 4). They are now 3-1 without Manu Ginobili. They are also 6-0 at home and 0-3 on the road, falling Sunday to a Thunder team playing its third game in three days.

8. Nuggets (6-3, LW 10). The Nuggets blow up the statistical myth — they are playing at the fastest pace in the league and have a top-10 defense (giving up just 98.1 points per 100 possessions, seventh in the league). To sum up Knicks fans, you can run and defend.

9. 76ers (5-2, LW 15). They are running more and with it their offensive numbers are much improved. Their differential of points scored versus given up per 100 possessions is best in the league — better than the Heat. On the schedule this week are the Pacers and Knicks — two teams they will be fighting for playoff positioning all season. Heavy home schedule ahead for Philly.

10. Lakers (6-4, LW 9). Andrew Bynum is a beast this season and the Lakers remain tough because you can’t handle him and Pau Gasol on the same front line. Oh, and that Kobe guy. Note that Matt Barnes has secured the starting job at the small forward and Metta World Peace is seeing him minutes drop.

11. Clippers (4-2, LW 13). Just two games last week and only three this week — but they are the Trail Blazers, Lakers and Heat. Yikes. Started to see some defense from them this week but that is going to have to get much, much better.

12. Magic (6-3, LW 6). The thumping by the Bulls led Stan Van Gundy to admit they are not on that level. They are beating who they should but are not knocking off the elite.

13. Celtics (4-4, LW 12). We’re going to have a better feel for the Celtics after this week where the play Dallas, Chicago and Indiana.

14. Knicks (4-4, LW 11). Losses to the Bobcats and Raptors last week — those are games that good teams win. The Knicks are wildly inconsistent. Knicks fans are counting on the eventual Baron Davis and Iman Shumpert starting backcourt to save them. That’s trouble.

15. Mavericks (4-5, LW 20). Nice win against the Thunder as they are starting to find a regular season groove (even if they have to do it without Jason Kidd for a few games). That said, they have lost the intimidating aura a defending champion should have.

16. Jazz (5-3, LW 24). They went 4-0 last week and move up, but they did it all at home save for beating Golden State. They look good — Derrick Favors in particular — and seven of their next eight are in Salt Lake City.

17. Suns (4-4, LW 21). The Steve Nash of old is back and the Suns looked pretty good last week.

18. Cavaliers (4-4, LW 23). They are playing better than we thought, and Kyrie Irving has figured out how to fit his game into the NBA in a way the more explosive John Wall has yet to realize. Still not sold, but they’re playing pretty well.

19. Grizzlies (3-5, LW 19). The Grizzlies were 2-2 this week but will struggle without Zach Randolph, as they did against the Lakers Sunday. The good news is the next four are at home for Memphis, the bad news is the Thunder, Bulls and Knicks are in that mix.

20. Timberwolves (3-5, LW 22). A 2-2 week with a win over San Antonio. Sunday started a three games in three nights stretch, which brutally ends against the Bulls.

21. Bucks (2-6, LW 14). They go 0-5 on West Coast swing, playing while missing a couple starters (including Andrew Bogut)… which is about what you’d expect. They are a better team than this but we’re going to have to wait to see it.

22. Rockets (2-6, LW 16). They went 0-4 last week, but with a brutal schedule (OKC and both Los Angeles teams made up the schedule). They will look better beating weaker teams but they struggle with the upper echelons.

23. Raptors (3-5, LW 25). Dwane Casey has them playing slower and better defense. You see flashes of potential, then you seen them get crushed by the Sixers and fall to the Nets and it makes your eyes bleed. Going to be that kind of season.

24. Warriors (2-6, LW 17). Really tough schedule so far and their next seven are against the East (including a road swing through Florida).

25. Kings (3-6, LW 27). We feel for Keith Smart — how do you implement real changes dropped into a condensed schedule with far fewer practices? DeMarcus Cousins has put up good numbers after being freed from the Paul Westphal shackles.

26. Hornets (2-6, LW 18). Tough winless week and its hard to be optimistic with Eric Gordon still sidelined.

27. Bobcats (2-6, LW 26). They actually have the worst defense in the league right now, giving up 111.8 per 100 possessions per Basketball-Reference.com. The good news is Hoopdata says they are only 29th in the league (with Houston worse).

28. Pistons (2-6, LW 28). Got the win against Orlando because Greg Monroe could single cover Dwight Howard and when you can do that you beat the Magic. Aside that they got crushed by everyone else.

29. Nets (2-7, LW 29). Their differential of points scored versus given up per 100 possessions is worst in the league (-13.4) — even worse than Washington.

30. Wizards (0-8, LW 30). Last week owner Ted Leonsis essentially said that Flip Saunders job was not in danger. He asked him to play a lot of young players and with that comes losses. Okay. But if those young players aren’t improving…..

Ryan Saunders reportedly likely to stay on as Minnesota head coach

Associated Press
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When Glen Taylor, the owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves, said this a few weeks back, it was pretty clear interim coach Ryan Saunders was probably staying on after the season and getting the job full time.

“I think he has a good chance [to get the job]. It’s like everything, we’re going to wait until we play out these last 20-some games and I think we’ll know and he’ll know at that time if it works out. But he is off to a good start. I would just say I really like him as a person. I have known him since he was a young man, and I am really pleased with how he is starting out coaching this team.”<

Saunders was thrust into the big chair after Jimmy Butler sabotaged the team’s season early on in a push to get out of town, a move that came with a high price coach/GM Tom Thibodeau. Remember Thibodeau wanted to speed up the winning and to get Butler traded Zach LaVine and just drafted Lauri Markkanen, but when Butler didn’t work out in Minny Thibs was doomed.

If you want more evidence that Saunders is staying on, there is this reporting from the well-connected Marc Stein of The New York Times in his weekly newsletter.

Saunders, who turns 33 in April, is known to have a strong relationship with the All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns, who has played some of the best basketball of his career since the departures of Butler and Thibodeau.

The growing expectation around the league is that the credit Saunders will get for his impact on and the buy-in from Towns will more than offset ownership’s disappointment about returning to the draft lottery.

Towns is the franchise cornerstone, one of the top centers and top 10-12 players in the league, if Saunders can get the most out of him — and so far he has — then that is a good reason to keep him around.

When Sauders got the coaching job, Scott Layden took over as GM. His job is not as secure. There have been rumors about Taylor wanting to go big game hunting — specifically Chauncey Billups — but it seems the Timberwolves are likely to go another direction.

Calvin Booth, a Denver executive who the Nuggets hired away from the Timberwolves before the 2017-18 season, is increasingly mentioned as a strong candidate to replace Layden if Taylor does make a change.

Whoever gets the GM job, retooling the Timberwolves roster around Towns will now be difficult — Thibodeau showed no patience and now they are paying the price. Towns’ well-deserved max extension kicks in next season and that gives Minnesota two of max deals for young players — Andrew Wiggins is maxed out as well and an anchor on any rebuild (he has four years at the max after this season, good luck trading that). Don’t forget Gorgui Dieng will make $16.2 million next season. If Jeff Teague opts into his $19 million for next season, the Timberwolves will have very little room to maneuver and shore up the roster.

All of that will make Saunder’s job a real challenge.

Report: Knicks talked Kristaps Porzingis for De’Aaron Fox trade with Kings last draft

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The Knicks had made their minds up and were considering moving on from Kristaps Porzingis long before this trade deadline (when he was sent to Dallas), they were testing the waters all the way back to last June and the draft.

Last draft, the Sacramento Kings had a decision to make, too: How much did they believe in De'Aaron Fox? As a rookie, Fox had shown flashes and promise, but at No. 2 the Kings could pick Luka Doncic (or even Trae Young) and have gone in another direction.

That led to an interesting story from last June’s draft: The Knicks reached out to the Kings about a possible Porzingis for Fox swap, reports Zach Lowe of ESPN (in a fascinating piece on how this season changed things in Sacramento).

Sacramento moved up in the lottery again — to No. 2 — and faced a pivotal moment: the chance to reorient their team around Luka Doncic. Rivals sensed the dilemma and made offers for Fox — including a template from the New York Knicks centered around Kristaps Porzingis that would have required Sacramento to either send something beyond Fox or take unwanted Knicks salary (or both), sources say.

The Kings might have been able to leverage Doncic fever by trading down, but they wanted a guaranteed chance at Marvin Bagley III. The pick doubled as a vote of confidence in Fox. They didn’t need another ball handler. They wanted a springy big who could run with perhaps the league’s fastest player.

The Kings bet big on Fox. In the short term, that has worked out incredibly well for them, Fox made the kind of leap this season that will earn him a lot of Most Improved Player votes. He found his identity in pace and dragged the Kings with him to maybe the most surprising season of any team (and they were everyone’s league pass favorites). Bagley started to come on the second half of the season as he figured out how to fit his game in the NBA. How it works out long term for both teams remains to be seen, but the Kings have to feel good about how things look now.

Talks like this happen more than fans think — a lot of things are explored, very become trades. Kings fans should be glad this one didn’t.

 

Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic undergoes surgery to repair leg, full recovery expected. Eventually.

Associated Press
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As expected, Jusuf Nurkic underwent surgery on Tuesday repair the frightening leg injury he suffered on Monday night, a fractured left tibia and fibula that left his leg bending in a way that no leg should ever bend.

The good news is the surgery went as well as could be hoped, according to the team and Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Even with a successful surgery, this is going to take a long time to come back from.

As Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes noted, the only comparable injury like this in the NBA was Paul George‘s frightening leg injury with Team USA. George made a full recovery, but it was eight months before he got back on the court and much longer until he was comfortable enough to be the MVP candidate he is this season.

Nurkic had made a leap this season, averaging a career-high 15.4 points per game this season on 50.7 percent shooting. The advanced stats loved him — his PER of 23.1, true shooting percentage of 57, value over replacement player of 3.5, and other advanced stats are all career bests. He was the anchor in the middle of the Portland defense, using his big body to cut off drives on pick-and-rolls. He was serving as a playmaker on offense: When he’d set a high pick for Damian Lillard, teams would trap the guard, Lillard would pass to Nurkic, and the Bosnian had become a good passer or he just take it in and scores himself

All of that came after Nurkic signed a four-year, $48 million contract extension last summer.

His injury also devastates the Blazers heading into the postseason, where they could have been a tough matchup but have now lost a key piece of their puzzle.

 

Celtics’ Kyrie Irving to rest against Cavaliers, his former team

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CLEVELAND (AP) — Kyrie Irving said returning to Cleveland tonight won’t mean anything to him.

He won’t even play.

The Celtics will rest rest the star against his old team, the Cavaliers.

Irving is averaging 23.8 points and the Celtics want to keep him as fresh as possible going into the postseason.

The Celtics have lost four straight and are fifth in the Eastern Conference entering Tuesday night’s game in Cleveland.

Irving played his first six seasons with Cleveland. The six-time All-Star demanded a trade following the 2016-17 season and was dealt to Boston. He hasn’t played in Cleveland since the 2017-18 opener.

Celtics center Al Horford (sore left knee) and forward Jayson Tatum (back contusion) could return Tuesday. Coach Brad Stevens said both were “questionable to probable” at the team’s shootaround.