NBA Power Rankings: Top spot now Thunderstruck

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The top three teams remain the same, just trading places, because they are the three best teams in the league right now. But all three also have long road trips coming up, which should test them.

1. Thunder (16-3, last week ranked No. 3). They are “only” fifth in point-per-possession differential in the league, but yet they just keep on winning. That said it gets tough now with a series of road games coming up, starting with a fun one against the Clippers Monday night. Wednesday we’ll see if Dirk Nowitzki is scared of the Thunder after he plays them.

2. Heat (15-5, LW 4). They got Dwyane Wade back and they got a quality win over the Bulls on Sunday. Lots of road games against lesser teams coming up, do the Heat lose focus and drop a couple?

3. Bulls (17-5, LW 1). Close loss to the Heat and they were without Luol Deng. Their next two weeks are on the road, so expect some challenges (and if this season is any indication, an ugly loss or two, everybody gets them now).

4. 76ers (14-6, LW 5). So far this season they have played the weakest schedule (opponents have a 43.6 winning percentage) but this week sees the Magic, Bulls and Heat lined up. Now we find out how good the 76ers really are. But they will miss Spencer Hawes.

5. Clippers (11-6, LW 9). They fell to the Lakers, showing they still have issues with end-game execution. Like all young teams learning to win. But they got a good win in Denver Sunday. And so far this season they have played the toughest schedule in the league, things get easier. Well, after Monday when they play the Thunder.

6. Nuggets (14-6, LW 2). Kind of unfair to move them down four spots in a week where they continued a six-game winning streak until their loss Sunday to the Clippers. Life and rankings are harsh like that — they simply are not better than the teams above them.

7. Hawks (15-6, LW 8). They just keep winning, even if it takes a miracle play by Joe Johnson at the buzzer to top the Pistons. Interesting game against the 76ers this week, but getting Philly on the second night of a back-to-back after Miami bodes well for Atlanta.

8. Pacers (13-6, LW 6). The schedule got tough and while they got a nice win against the Bulls they fell to Boston and split with Orlando. Which sounds about right, capable of very good nights but mostly a 4-5-6 seed in the East.

9. Mavericks (13-8, LW 16). They got a good win over the Spurs and now they have Dirk Nowitzki back (even though he shot 5-14 Sunday). This team has found its footing and is good. But Nowitzki should be scared of the Thunder, who they face this week.

10. Spurs (12-9, LW 10). They need to rack up some wins this week (Saturday against the Thunder?) because next week looms the start of the rodeo road trip.

11. Rockets (12-8, LW 14). They have a depth of good role players and in this condensed season that wins them a lot of games. It may not be a system as suited to the playoffs, but they are at least on pace to make it in.

12. Magic (12-8, LW 7). Two ugly losses to the Celtics, scoring 56 one game and blowing a 27 point lead in the other. Then an ugly loss to the Pacers Sunday. You can say Dwight Howard should lead them out of this, but will the other players follow a guy with one foot out the door?

13. Blazers (12-8, LW 15). Fantastic at home (9-1) but pretty weak on the road. Good news is they have a string of games at home starting later in the week.

14. Lakers (12-9, LW 13). They are 2-8 on the road this season, which is bad news for them as the Grammys force them out of Staples Center the next couple of weeks. Their defense carried them early but it has been unimpressive the last few games, which you know is driving Mike Brown crazy.

15. Jazz (11-7, LW 11). If the playoffs started today, the Jazz would be in as the five seed. Sure, two games separate the three seed from the 10 seed in the West, but did anyone expect the Jazz to be in this position before the season?

16. Grizzlies (10-9, LW 12). We should drop them just for those horrid TAMS throwback uniforms, but we do it more for the three straight losses. Their offense is starting to show how much they miss Zach Randolph.

17. Celtics (9-10, LW 20). Won four in a row before running into the Cavs on Sunday, all with Rondo out and Paul Pierce playing the role of point guard and play maker. Apparently the Fountain of Youth was not located in Florida but rather outside the Union Oyster House in Faneuil Hall.

18. Timberwolves (9-11, LW 18). Good wins against the Spurs and Mavericks last week, but they are going to need much more of that to climb back into the Western Conference playoff race (they are currently 2.5 games out of the last spot).

19. Cavaliers (8-11, LW 22). Kyrie Irving is a stud. Make no mistake. But this team is young and can beat the Celtics one game and lose to the Wizards in another.

20. Bucks (8-11, LW 19). The Andrew Bogut injury is a setback for this team. They were in the mix for one of the last playoff spots in the East, but hoard to see them holding on to that now. That said, they went 2-2 against a brutal schedule last week.

21. Suns (7-12, LW 17). Surprisingly, it’s their offense that has been terrible, not just their defense.

22. Raptors (7-14, LW 29). They found a way to win without Andrea Bargnani — go small. It worked against the Nets Sunday, although that is the Nets so lets see what happens this week.

23. Nets (7-14, LW 25). They went 4-2 for a stretch, largely because Deron Williams has awoken his inner beast and took over. He almost beat the 76ers by himself Wednesday.

24. Knicks (7-13, LW 21). New York is 1-9 in its last 10 and that win came against the lowly Bobcats. No Baron Davis expected this week. Even when he comes back, asking him to turn this offense back together is asking too much.

25. Warriors (6-12, LW 24). With Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis they have a shooter’s chance every night to outscore opponents and get the win, but their defense is awful. Hence the record.

26. Kings (6-14, LW 23). You know things are rough for this team when Jimmer Fredette airballs a three in Utah with the game on the line.

27. Wizards (4-16, LW 28). They’re not good, but they are better than the Bobcats (beat them twice last week).

28. Hornets (4-16, LW 30). I don’t think the Chris Kaman trade talk is going to hurt this team one-tenth as much as just not having Eric Gordon in the lineup does.

29. Pistons (4-17, LW 26). A Lawrence Frank team that is terrible at defense (only the Nets give up more points per possession). You know that is eating a hole in his stomach. Soft schedule the next couple weeks, so maybe they can move up.

30. Bobcats (3-18, LW 27). Losers of eight in a row, they played and lost to the Wizards last week. Twice. And what might be worse is the Wizards were clear and away the better, more talented team in those contests. On the bright side, I like Kemba Walker’s play. But that’s the only bright side.

Report: Pelicans, Pistons, Kings NBA’s most active buyers in trade market

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The Pelicans are likely in a make-or-break season.

They can offer Anthony Davis a super-max extension next off season. If he signs it, he’d be locked up for five more years. If not, he’d head toward 2020 unrestricted free agency. New Orleans could keep an un-extended Davis through the 2019-20 season and hope for the best, but a trade seems inevitable if he’s not willing to sign the largest-possible extension next summer.

So, this season is the last before that moment of truth. And the Pelicans are just 15-15, tied for 10th in the Western Conference.

That’s why they’re on the far end of the trade spectrum.

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

But what about the buyers? League executives report the New Orleans Pelicans, Detroit Pistons and Sacramento Kings lead the list of teams calling around looking for ways to upgrade their rosters in recent weeks.

All three of these teams are understandable buyers:

Pelicans

New Orleans needs to upgrade around Davis before it’s too late. He has set high standards and placed the burden on himself, but he might eventually look around and realize it shouldn’t be this hard.

The Pelicans have drafted in the first round only once since 2012 (when they picked Davis), and they traded that pick – Buddy Hield – during his rookie year. They have all their future first-round picks and could again use one to get immediate help.

New Orleans could also move Solomon Hill (making $12,252,928 this season, $12,758,781 next season) to match salary, though he holds negative value on that contract. Several smaller expiring contracts could also prove useful.

Unloading yet another first-rounder could come back to bite the Pelicans, but they must impress Davis first. Secure him, and worry about everything else later.

Pistons

The Pistons haven’t won a playoff game in 11 years. They’ve missed the postseason entirely the last two seasons. At 13-13, they could fall out again.

Or they could bolster their roster to become more competitive in April.

Detroit is fairly locked into this expensive team, led by Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond. The Pistons are stuck, somewhat by choice, playing for the present. They might as well make it count.

They could dangle Stanley Johnson if they don’t plan to re-sign him in restricted free agency this summer. The 22-year-old could fetch a better, older player.

Detroit has little breathing room below the luxury-tax line, and as much as owner Tom Gores wants to make the playoffs, I doubt he’d pay the tax on this team.

Kings

Sacramento (15-12) is the NBA’s brightest surprise. After missing the playoffs 12 straight seasons – the NBA’s longest active postseason drought – the Kings are eighth in the Western Conference. They also already traded their 2019 first-round pick.

It’s time to go for it.

Sacramento’s priority should be building long-term around a young core led by De'Aaron Fox. But there’s still room to focus on satisfying this season, especially with no first-round-pick fallback if the team slips.

The Kings are the only team still with cap space, and they have $11,024,578 of it. They also have several veterans on expiring contracts – Zach Randolph ($11,692,308), Iman Shumpert ($11,011,234), Kosta Koufos ($8,739,500) and Ben McLemore ($5,460,000). That opens a lot of possibilities.

Maybe Sacramento can get a helpful and not-too-old, but overpaid, player on a multi-year deal from a team looking to shed salary? Prime example: Wizards forward Otto Porter.

Bradley Beal foils Celtics’ foul-up-three plan, forces OT (video)

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Foul or defend?

Though it’s always worth it for teams to consider how they can incrementally improve their odds of winning, the debate over strategy when leading by three points late probably gets too much attention. Teams up by three points late almost always win, regardless.

But the rare cases of a team overcoming a late 3-point deficit are so memorable.

Take last night, when the Celtics – up three – intentionally fouled Bradley Beal with 13 seconds left. Beal made the first free throw, missed the second, grabbed the offensive rebound and scored. It was a heck of a play that forced overtime.

It didn’t pay off for the Wizards, who lost in overtime. But it paid off for us, as the extra period produced this awesome sequence.

Report: Knicks undrafted rookie Allonzo Trier will have higher salary than 20 of 30 2018 first-round picks

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Allonzo Trier took a winding road to the Knicks – grade-school acclaim, failed drug tests at Arizona, going undrafted – but he’s thriving now. Trier is scoring 11.3 points per game, one of the highest marks ever for an undrafted rookie in his first professional season.

About to run out of NBA service days on his two-way contract, Trier is cashing in.

Ian Begley of ESPN:

The most the Knicks had to offer Trier over two years is $6,933,100 through the bi-annual exception – $3,382,000 this season and $3,551,100 next season. It sounds as if Trier got that and Begley is rounding.

That’d put Trier’s 2018-19 salary above 20 of this year’s 30 first-round picks. Not bad for an undrafted player.

Trier gets buckets. I still have questions about the 22-year-old’s all-around game, but he has proven himself an NBA contributor. New York did well to reward him and keep him on the roster the rest of the season.

The Knicks are essentially buying flexibility next summer by paying Trier so much now. They’re gearing up for 2019 free agency – most notably, Kevin Durant – and value cap space.

If Trier plays well enough, New York can always exercise his team option and keep him for next season. If not, the Knicks can decline the team option. At that point, they could make Trier a restricted free agent or renounce him entirely to maximize cap room.

Even if he completes this contract, New York can still make Trier a restricted free agent in 2020. It’s a lot of team control.

This comes at a cost, in addition to Trier’s salary, of waiving potential trade chip Ron Baker. Baker’s $4,544,400 expiring contract could have been useful in a trade, though the Knicks’ reluctance to add future salary limited options for utilizing Baker’s contract.

Baker will be best remembered for New York rushing to give him that absurd deal on the first day of 2017 free agency, breaking his face when Anthony Davis dunked on him and sucking on a contact lens then trying to put it in his eye.

Hornets owner Michael Jordan playfully slaps Malik Monk for premature-celebration technical foul (video)

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Malik Monk ran onto the court to celebrate Jeremy Lamb‘s game-winner last night.

One problem: The game wasn’t over.

Lamb’s jumper put the Hornets up two with 0.3 seconds left, and the Pistons were trying to inbound. Officials called a technical foul, and Detroit made the free throw. But Charlotte still held on for the 108-107 win.

The situation created a few tense moments, though. While officials reviewed the play, Hornets owner Michael Jordan playfully slapped the back of Monk’s head a couple times.

Zach Aldridge of WCCB:

I’ll be honest: I wasn’t sure those slaps were playful until Jordan and Monk smiled afterward. Jordan is an intense competitor. He once punched then-Bulls teammate Steve Kerr in the face during practice. I bet there was an element of actual warning behind Jordan’s slaps, even if they were mostly joking.

Why did only Monk receive the treatment? He drew the most attention for running onto the court – but just because he stayed at least somewhat near the bench. Bismack Biyombo was practically at halfcourt! Ashley Holder:

It’s amazing Biyombo escaped the owner’s wrath. Does Jordan know how much he’s paying Biyombo?