NBA Power Rankings: Bulls on top after quarter of season

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Believe it or not, we are about a quarter of the way through the condensed NBA season already. And with that, these rankings are starting to take some solid shape. Which is bad news for Celtics and Knicks fans. But it’s all good in Chicago.

1. Bulls (15-3, last week ranked No. 1). If Derrick Rose had to miss a stretch of games, this soft part of the schedule was the time. They are 4-1 without him (and he should be back Monday night). Things change at the end of this week — starting Saturday they are on a nine-game road trip.

2. Nuggets (12-5, LW 7). Winners of four in a row on an East Coast swing, highlighted by Danilo Gallinari (37 points, 11 boards) outplaying Carmelo Anthony in New York. They are doing it by getting shots at the rim — Denver takes 44.3 percent of its shots within five feet of the rim, by far the highest percentage in the league (as noted by John Schuhmann at NBA.com). The League average is around 32 percent.

3. Thunder (13-3, LW 2). They had a pretty good week, but when your one loss is to the Wizards you fall around here. They are playing well defensively of late, which is starting with Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka.

4. Heat (11-5, LW 8). They have been winning without Dwyane Wade — they beat the Spurs by 22, the Lakers by 11 and the Sixers by 21. That doesn’t mean they are better without him, it means that Miami is playing like LeBron James’ old Cavaliers teams but with better shooters. And those teams did win a lot of regular season games. Plus, the Heat are at home.

5. 76ers (11-5, LW 3). Losses this week to Denver and Miami means you can end the talk about them being elite — I don’t think they are title contenders — but you can’t question if they are good. The Sixers are home against some beatable teams this week, look for some convincing wins.

6. Pacers (11-4, LW 5). The victory over the Lakers Sunday was a signature win for a team that has been doubted by some. If not for a dreadful quarter against the Kings, they could be 3-0 on a tough West coast swing. That said, Orlando and Chicago on the docket this week, still a lot of tests for this team

7. Magic (11-4, LW 11). Beat the Knicks and Lakers (where Dwight Howard dominated Andrew Bynum) last week but lost to the Spurs. This week they have Boston twice (that used to be a scary game, lately not so much) and the Pacers.

8. Hawks (12-5, LW 9). Credit them for playing well with Al Horford down — they are 5-1 and playing surprisingly good defense. Still think it’s a mirage but so far the results are impressive.

9. Clippers (9-5, LW 6). They are 3-2 without Chris Paul, which has been respectable. The one team getting a lot of rest from the schedule makers so far this young season gets it again this week. Big rematch with the Lakers Wednesday night.

10. Spurs (10-7, LW 4). Beat Orlando on the road but some ugly losses in addition. I like the idea of giving Tim Duncan a night off, as Popovich did Saturday. Spurs have struggled on the road and four of the next five are away from the Alamo Dome.

11. Jazz (10-5, LW 13). They are 9-2 in their last 11, pushing Tyrone Corbin into the discussion for coach of the year with Doug Collins and Frank Vogel (that award always goes to the coach whose team most overachieved). The team is doing all the little things right.

12. Grizzlies (9-6, LW 18). Four straight wins (one over the Bulls) as they are figuring it out without Zach Randolph. That said, brutal next 10 games so we’ll see what they are made of.

13. Lakers (10-8, LW 10). Went 1-3 last week but the losses were all to good teams (Miami, Orlando and Indiana), which is what you get when you are still trying to figure out who you are on offense. What happened to the twin-tower offense idea? Gasol is getting pushed out.

14. Rockets (9-7, LW 19). Winners of six in a row, and you can thank Samuel Dalembert for much of that. He has been a great pickup.

15. Blazers (9-7, LW 12). They have struggled to win on the road and went 2-4 on an East Coast Swing (but are back home this week). They have a back-to-back-to-back this week, just for fun.

16. Mavericks (10-7, LW 14). Dallas is calling it a conditioning camp that will keep Dirk Nowitzki out for four games, but if his knee was fine you can bet he would be playing.

17. Suns (6-9, LW 20). Marcin Gortat has had seven straight double-doubles, and he can thank Steve Nash for some of that. Imagine what Nash could do with a real athletic big like Amare Stoudemire… oh, yea.

18. Timberwolves (7-9, LW 21). They have become everybody’s second favorite team to watch this year, they put on a show with Ricky Rubio and had a great comeback against the Clippers. Of course, this week everyone will be watching to see what happens with Kevin Love and his contract extension.

19. Bucks (6-9, LW 22). Quality win over the Miami Heat on Sunday, as they made the game ugly just like Scott Skiles likes. Brutal rest of the week schedule: Hawks, Rockets, Bulls and Lakers.

20. Celtics (6-9, LW 17). Danny Ainge said he wants to wait and see how this team responds before he thinks about breaking it up. Two games against the Magic and one against the Pacers should paint a picture. Not that Ainge is going to find a great market for his veterans. Three of this team’s six wins are over the Wizards.

21. Knicks (6-10, LW 15). Six straight losses, so finally Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire are going to sit down and talk. That seems prudent. Baron Davis is the big hope for this team, and anyone who has watched him the last few years should be nervous about that.

22. Cavaliers (6-9, LW 16). Kyrie Irving is winning me over, the guy can score and has a great left hand around the basket. That said, this team still has a long, long way to go.

23. Kings (6-11, LW 25). They have some wins — including one against the Pacers — but when this team loses (especially on the road) it really gets blown out.

24. Warriors (5-10, LW 23). If they are going to make Mark Jackson look good on his statement this team is better than last year’s, it will start this week on a six-game homestand.

25. Nets (5-12, LW 28). Teams are destroying the Nets from three point range… well, they are destroying them from everywhere. Brook Lopez would help a little, but not as much as Dwight Howard.

26. Pistons (4-13, LW 27). Rodney Stuckey is starting and they beat the Blazers this week, so that’s your bright spots.

27 Bobcats (3-14, LW 29). They are one of five teams really trying to lay claim to the coveted “worst in the league” title. They play the Wizards twice this week and have the chance to prove they suck less.

28. Wizards (2-13, LW 30). The win over the Thunder was surprising, but they followed it up with a good effort in a couple losses. That’s enough to move out of the cellar. For now.

29. Raptors (4-13, LW 26). Eight straight losses after starting 4-5. Now they head out on a West Coast swing. Not a good combo.

30. Hornets (3-13, LW 24). They have lost seven in a row and are 1-9 in their last 10, and they may lose Eric Gordon for an extended period. That will land you looking up at the rest of the league. If you want a bright spout, they have had close losses, so go ahead and feel good about that.

Report: Udoka used ‘crude language’ with female subordinate prior to improper relationship

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The Boston Celtics handled the Ime Udoka investigation and suspension by the corporate handbook: They kept the woman’s name out of the news, kept details confidential (not even telling the players much for legal reasons), and acted swiftly and decisively.

But as the team on the court starts defending its Eastern Conference title, there has been a concern that details leaking out about the investigations — and responses to those leaks — could turn this into a season-long drama and distraction for the team. That first started on Friday when Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported this:

The independent law firm probe into Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka found that he used crude language in his dialogue with a female subordinate prior to the start of an improper workplace relationship with the woman, an element that significantly factored into the severity of his one-year suspension, sources told ESPN.

Those investigative findings — which described verbiage on Udoka’s part that was deemed especially concerning coming from a workplace superior — contribute to what is likely a difficult pathway back to his reinstatement as Celtics coach in 2023, sources told ESPN.

A few thoughts here.

• “Crude language” is just part of a more detailed and damning report, league sources have told NBC Sports. There is much more uncovered by the independent investigation, including about the power dynamic in play. It was enough that the Celtics thought the best move was to suspend for an entire season a coach loved by players who led the team to the NBA Finals (it’s not something the Celtics organization did lightly).

• As Wojnarowski and others have noted, it’s increasingly unlikely Udoka returns to coach the Celtics next season, even if that is not yet official.

• While some pundits and people around the league have said Udoka is “done,” the NBA has seen unexpected turnarounds before. Never say never in this league.

• About the only sure thing is that this story is not over.

Lillard poised to pass Drexler as Trail Blazers all-time leading scorer

2022-23 Portland Trail Blazers Media Day
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images
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Damian Lillard could have done what a lot of NBA stars have done — what a lot of them told him to do while recruiting him — and has chosen to stay in Portland. He wants to be remembered as the greatest Trail Blazer ever.

One good way to do that: Become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Sometime around Thanksgiving or a little after, Lillard will do just that, passing Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler and his 18,040 points (Lillard is 531 back).

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports spoke to Lillard about when he knew the record was within reach, during Trail Blazers training camp in Santa Barbara, California (go Gauchos!). It was when Lillard got to 10,000 points.

“I was like, ‘Damn, I got 10,000 already?’ ” Lillard told Yahoo Sports he recalled at the time. “It was my sixth season in the league. That’s when I started thinking, if I could be consistent, I could score into the high 20,000-point range. As a scorer, 20,000 points is always looked at as a special mark. From that moment, I knew it was possible, but it’s also when I first researched Clyde Drexler’s [scoring] record with the team.”

Drexler is good with being passed by Lillard.

“You and I know records are made to be broken, but I can’t think of a better player or person to break the record than Dame,” Drexler told Yahoo Sports. “He exemplifies being a team player and going about his business in a professional way. I have nothing but admiration and respect for him. When he comes close to getting the record, and if our schedules align, I would love to be there to help out in any way I can. That’s a nice milestone to achieve. I am looking forward to him accomplishing that.”

Lillard is on a lot of front office people’s watch list this season, as in “how long before he is unhappy and asks for a trade?” The thing is, Lillard has been on that list for years and he keeps choosing Portland — he isn’t looking to leave. Of course, the $120 million extension and a retooling of the roster around him helped with that decision, but Lillard always had other options if he wanted them (and at times it felt like he would take them).

The Trail Blazers brought in Jerami Grant, re-signed Anfrenee Simons, and will put them with a solid core of others such as (a finally healthy) Jusuf Nurkic, Josh Hart, Gary Payton II and others. It’s a good roster, the question is how good in a deep West?

There are a lot of questions about how this season shakes out in Portland, but the one seeming sure thing is Lillard becoming the Trail Blazers’ all-time leading scorer. And that seems fitting.

Suns update: Ayton blames Sarver for contract, Crowder conflict, Johnson to start

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Phoenix went to the NBA Finals two seasons ago and had the most wins in the NBA last season, yet dark clouds seem to be blocking out the Suns heading into this NBA season.

Here’s the latest on three situations with the Suns: Deandre Ayton‘s contract frustration, why Jae Crowder is asking out, and who starts at the four now.

• Ayton ended up signing a four-year, $132.9 max contract and will be back with the Suns to start this season, but the road to get there was rocky. The Suns would not offer Ayton a max five-year contract extension, his name kept coming up in Kevin Durant trade rumors, so Ayton went out and got a four-year max offer from the Pacers — which the Suns instantly matched. Phoenix saved $40 million and a guaranteed year, but the process left Ayton a little bitter.

Ayton blames outgoing owner Robert Sarver — a notorious penny pincher as an owner (among other, much worse things) — Marc Spears and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN discussed on NBA Today (hat tip Real GM).

“That is certainly something that caused the ire of him,” said Marc J. Spears. “I was told that it was Robert Sarver who didn’t want to give him that fifth year, who wanted to save the money.”

“My understanding from talking to people close to Deandre is that he thinks this was Robert Sarver’s decision as well. And Robert Sarver’s not going to be the owner anymore. So there is some healing that can happen there. But I know there were some hurt feelings over that contract and how that played out.

“If they were going to instantly match an offer sheet that he signed, why not just give him the max contract? Yes, it saved them a year and $40 million but as somebody close to Deandre told me ‘There’s a karma to this. Why do that to your No. 1 overall pick?'”

Shelburne hit the nail on the head — the NBA is a business, but it’s a business of relationships. Not only did the Suns sour theirs with Ayton, but you can also be sure every other agent around the league noticed how that was handled. It doesn’t help when recruiting players. The eventual new owner, whoever it ends up being, has a lot of work to change the franchise’s perception.

• Jae Crowder remains away from the Suns during training camp awaiting a trade (which reportedly will not be to Dallas). Crowder started 109 games for the Suns during the past two seasons and was a key part of their run to the NBA Finals, so how did things deteriorate so quickly? Marc Stein lays it out in his latest Substack newsletter.

Entering the final season of his current contract at $10.2 million, Jae Crowder let the Suns know that he was seeking a contract extension. League sources say that the Suns’ messaging, in response, was to let Crowder know that, at 32, he was no longer assured of starting or finishing games ahead of Cam Johnson. That gulf between the parties led Crowder to seek an exit from the desert that has landed him on indefinite mutual leave from the team until Phoenix can find a trade for him.

While Miami gets mentioned as a suitor a lot, it’s next to impossible to put together a trade that works for both sides right now (at the trade deadline, maybe, but Crowder isn’t going to be with the Suns that long). Cleveland is currently the hot name in league circles when talking Crowder trades, and Stein also mentions the Milwaukee Bucks, who have been looking for a P.J. Tucker-like replacement for P.J Tucker. But, do any of these teams want to extend Crowder at age 32?

• Suns coach Monty Williams confirmed what Crowder heard — Cameron Johnson will start at the four for the Suns this season.

Johnson brings better shooting to the table — 42.5% last season on 3-pointers — and is more athletic at this point, but Crowder brings better defense, toughness, and veteran savvy that can be trusted in the playoffs. The Suns may miss that when it matters, but Johnson will get the chance to prove us all wrong.

Blake Griffin agrees to join Boston Celtics on one-year deal

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Blake Griffin has agreed to join the Boston Celtics on a one-year contract which will be fully guaranteed.

The Celtics were desperate for frontcourt depth following injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Robert Williams, as Luke Kornet was even getting some run with the starting group at training camp.

You do have to wonder just how much the 33-year-old Griffin has left in the tank though. Last season with the Brooklyn Nets, Griffin only managed to play 17.1 minutes per game and his 3-point percentage dropped like a stone to 26%. He was also a major liability on defense, and the Celtics surely know that after Jaylen Brown drove by him with ease time and time again during the postseason.

Griffin was still an effective playmaker and that may make him a good fit with the second unit alongside the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White and Grant Williams with all of these capable of handling the ball. Injuries and Father Time have zapped Griffin’s athleticism, but if anyone can squeeze the last bit of value out of him, I’d bet on Brad Stevens and the Celtics.