NBA Power Rankings: Bulls, Heat own top two spots. Again.

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The trade deadline could really shake up the power rankings… but probably not.

1. Bulls (34-9, last week ranked number 1). The Bulls keep winning while they are banged up — Joakim Noah is back Monday for the Knicks but Luol Deng and Richard Hamilton are out. Those wins are really impressive. But the big showdown Wednesday with the Heat may well show how much Chicago needs everyone healthy.

2. Heat (31-9, LW 3). Here’s what is missing in the “is LeBron James” clutch debate — it really doesn’t matter in the regular season. The best teams don’t win a lot of close games, they win a lot of blowout games. Showdown with the Bulls Wednesday.

3. Thunder (32-9, LW 2). While the rest of the nation will be bemoaning how their brackets fell apart Friday night, I’ll be watching Thunder vs. Spurs. Want to see how the up-and-down Thunder respond to the challenge.

4. Spurs (26-13, LW 6). They didn’t play any defense against the Clippers on Friday and it is games like that one, which makes me wonder about this team in the playoffs. Enjoy that Dallas/Oklahoma City back-to-back this week. Fun times!

5. Magic (27-15, LW 7). Can we please get past the trade deadline so we can focus on how this is a good Magic team that will get crushed in the second round of the playoffs? In July we can get back to focusing on where Dwight Howard will play again.

6. Lakers (25-16, LW 5). At home they are dangerous (18-2), on the road they are a danger to themselves (7-14). They are not a title contender right now, but let us see what the trade deadline brings (it’s time to cough up one of those two first round picks for a point guard).

7. Grizzlies (24-16, LW 9). The real news is that they should get Zach Randolph back this week — which will mean another readjustment period, but this makes them so much more dangerous in the post season. He may be back Tuesday for the Lakers.

8. 76ers (25-17, LW 14). A week ago we thought Boston or New York would pass them for the lead in the Atlantic, but the Sixers went out and beat them both last week. The Celtics are now three games back. Philly needs to hold on to that division crown and the four seed, avoiding the Heat or Bulls in the first round.

9. Clippers (23-16 LW 4). They picked up a quality win Friday in San Antonio — their first win ever in the AT&T Center — but dropped three other games including to the Warriors Sunday at home. They need to stop falling behind early. As for the trade deadline, I get the need for a veteran at the two guard spot but the Clips shouldn’t overpay — think long-term, do not mess up future seasons for this one.

10. Hawks (24-17, LW 11). If the Hawks move Josh Smith it needs to be part of a bigger plan to rebuild this team into a contender. Do you trust the Hawks management to do that? Besides, how to you rebuild with Joe Johnson’s contract on the book anyway? The Hawks went 4-2 with Smith down injured, by the way.

11. Nuggets (23-18, LW 12). The Nuggets have played well since the All-Star break, their two losses both came on a final possession. But they are going to miss Ty Lawson this week, he’s out with a sprained ankle.

12. Pacers (23-15, LW 8). Tough schedule last week — Bulls, Hawks, Heat and Magic — led to four losses. It gets a little better this week but not a ton — Trail Blazers, 76ers and two against the Knicks. These are the kind of games the Pacers need to win if they are to prove they really belong.

13. Mavericks (23-20, LW 10). They are 2-7 in their last nine and falling fast. But sure Mr. Cuban, this team is better than last year’s.

14. Celtics (21-19, LW 15). Come Thursday afternoon, will there still be a big three in Boston? Weird to think not, but it is time for changes.

15. Rockets (22-20, LW 13). Another team falling fast after having to play a lot of games on the road. Now no Klye Lowry for 2-4 weeks due to a bacterial infection and holding on to that 8 seed in the West will be a real challenge.

16. Timberwolves (21-21, LW 16). Ugh. Just ugh. No Ricky Rubio for the rest of the season means they are relying on Luke Ridnour to get them into the playoffs. So, ugh.

17. Jazz (19-21, LW 18). They keep beating teams they should beat — Cleveland and Charlotte last week — but the schedule is not going to make it easy on them. Lots of tough games ahead.

18. Suns (19-21, LW 19). Not only are the Suns not going to trade Steve Nash at the deadline, they are just two games out of a playoff spot in the West now. They can make a push for it.

19. Bucks (17-24, LW 23). Ersan Ilyasova was the best player in the NBA last week. You read that right. He scored 89 points in three games on 72 percent shooting. You read that right, too. They are making a playoff push, but it’s a real uphill climb

20. Blazers (20-21, LW 20). They got blown out by the Celtics and Timberwolves, can they turn it around this week against the Pacers and Knicks? It’s sad to see how far this team has fallen after a promising start to the season.

21. Knicks (18-23, LW 17). Five losses in a row, and it keeps coming back to the same thing for me: Who are the Knicks? What kind of team are they trying to be? That question is aimed more at management than the players.

22. Pistons (15-26, LW 22). They looked terrible a week ago and then won three in a row this week. Not sure what to make of them other than they play like a young team, inconsistently. They have nine of their next 10 on the road, going to make it tough to make that playoff push some fans are dreaming of.

23. Warriors (17-21, LW 21). They beat the Mavericks and Clippers last week, but Stephen Curry tweaked his ankle again. It’s hard to see them vaulting up into the playoffs, but not impossible

24. Cavaliers (16-23, LW 26). They are just one game back of the final playoff spot in the East. If they made it in, that would be a huge accomplishment (we’re not even going to get into Cavs vs. Heat playoff talk yet).

25. Kings (14-26, LW 27). The surge of point guard Isaiah Thomas makes you wonder what the Kings will do long term with Tyreke Evans?

26. Nets (14-28, LW 24). Just watch clips of this dunk over and over and over.

27. Raptors (13-28, LW 25). Andrea Bargnani is back, which can cost this team some ping-pong balls in the lottery… well, unless they keep playing defense like they have recently.

28. Hornets (10-31, LW 28). Expect them to make some moves at the trade deadline — despite what Mike Dunleavy may want I expect Chris Kaman will get moved.

29. Wizards (9-30, LW 29). How has this team beaten the Lakers and Thunder this season?

30. Bobcats (5-34, LW 30). Bobcats fans will be scouting the NCAA Tournament more than watching their own team this week. With good reason.

Australian NBL pumps breaks on report LaMelo Ball has bought a team

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It was a stunning headline, especially considering LaMelo Ball is just 18:

He bought a team in the Australian National Basketball League, specifically the Illawarra Hawks, the team he played for some last season. It’s an insane story.

And it’s not quite true. At least not yet. The NBL released a statement that pumped the breaks on the idea of a sale to Ball and his manager, Jermaine Jackson. Part of the statement reads:

“The league can confirm LaMelo Ball and his management had discussions about being involved with the club while he was playing in the NBL last season. At this point we are continuing to work with current licence holder Simon Stratford on a number of options for what we hope will be a fruitful outcome for Illawarra and the NBL.

The NBL has final approval on any transfer of licence and no application has been made to date. The NBL has no further comment at this stage.

Did LaMelo and his manager jump the gun? Or, is this a negotiating ploy by the NBL and Stratford to get more money by jacking up the price on a sale?

Those two follow a host of other questions, including what percentage of the team would Ball and his manager own? What would their involvement be?

Ineligible for college stateside, Ball chose to play in Australia under the NBL’s Next Stars program. It worked, he’s projected to be a top-five, maybe top-three pick. He left the NBL after suffering a season-ending foot injury, although that came under a cloud of criticism from Hawks owner Stratford.

The ultimate revenge would be to buy the team, if that is actually happening.

Doc Rivers’ reaction when Clippers traded for Lou Williams, “I was not having Lou”

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Lou Williams is integral to the Clippers’ title dreams.

Since coming to the Clippers, he has averaged 20.6 points a game off the bench, twice winning Sixth Man of the Year, and his pick-and-roll with Montrezl Harrell is as smooth and dangerous a combo as there is in the league. Come the playoffs, while teams are trying to deal with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Lou Williams will be a change of pace scorer with a second unit that can quickly tilt the game towards Los Angeles.

But when Williams first got to the Clippers, Doc Rivers was not thrilled.

Rivers talked about Williams on The Bob Ryan and Jeff Goodman Podcast (hat tip SI).

“When we traded for Lou, I was not having Lou,” Rivers said. “I saw a guy that kept getting traded. And I appreciated his offense, but not nearly, never thought it was this good… When he finally showed up three days before training camp, I was not having him. I was like, ‘We’re not gonna work’, you know?..

“I brought him up in the office and I told him my feelings,” Rivers said. “I said, ‘Lou, you’re one of these guys that wanna do whatever you wanna do, and you don’t want to buy-in. We asked everybody to come in. Everyone did except for you… I don’t know how this is gonna work.’ And he said, ‘I’ve been traded five years in a row. Why would I buy-in to you?’, and I didn’t have an answer.”

Both Williams and Rivers have bought into each other now. Williams has control of the offense when he is in and Rivers said he just wants Williams to “be in the right place” on defense. That defense leads to issues playing Williams at the end of big games, but used as a scorer Williams is tough to deal with.

He can still get buckets with the best of them.

 

For NBA coaches, the new game is a waiting game

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MIAMI (AP) — Orlando’s Steve Clifford figures he’s like every other NBA coach right now: Wake up, go to whatever now serves as the office, study his own team, maybe think about possible opponents, and resume planning.

Of course, nobody knows what they’re planning for — or when these plans will get used.

A stoppage in play doesn’t mean vacation time has arrived for NBA coaches, especially those like Clifford in position to take their teams to the postseason — assuming this pandemic-interrupted season is able to resume. They’re all spending more time at home, not able to run practices, but none seem to be sitting idly either.

“Not knowing the restart date is the toughest challenge professionally,” Clifford said. “Obviously, we’re all limited in what we can do, and basketball takes a back seat right now to family and health. But I will say this: When I talk to our guys, the one common question that comes up is ‘When do you think we can start again?’”

And that’s a question with no answer. The waiting game is the only game in town right now.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra was coaching the fourth quarter against Charlotte on March 11 when the NBA announced it was suspending the season, a move made once it became known that Utah center Rudy Gobert was the league’s first player to test positive for COVID-19. Spoelstra found out right after the final buzzer, as he walked to the Heat locker room.

He instantly realized that losing to the Hornets that night didn’t ultimately matter much. Spoelstra and his staff are holding Zoom meetings every other day, but he’s also enjoying the benefits of time away — getting more time with his two young sons, his wife and grilling for the family most nights — and is emphasizing to his coaches and players that this is a time to help those less fortunate.

He’s checking the news as well, on a limited basis.

“My routine is checking after dinner, and I usually get on my computer, watch a little bit of what’s going on,” said Spoelstra, who often wears a T-shirt emblazoned with “Stay Positive” and like many coaches he taped a video telling fans the importance of hand-washing and other precautions. “So, I’m staying abreast of the current status of things, but I definitely do not try to start my day that way and I do not obsess about it during the day.”

Dallas coach Rick Carlisle also went the video-message route, doing one for the going-stir-crazy crowd to demonstrate his “Balance, Balance, Shot Drill” that allows players to work on their shooting form even when they don’t have access to a court or a rim.

Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan took advantage of downtime to appear on a virtual coaches clinic, and had a safety message for those who attended — online, of course — before spending about an hour breaking down his philosophy.

This is the first in-season stoppage of its kind in NBA history, but Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer is equating the unknown — in terms of when the next game will be — to what the league went through with lockout-shortened seasons in 1998-99 and 2011-12.

His message to his staff: Things may be slow now, but when the suspension ends the pace of everything will be frantic. So while some projects like things in the video room and breakdowns of his roster are being tackled, Budenholzer is also having staff get ready for potential playoff opponents with a first-round series against either Brooklyn or Orlando likely for the NBA-leading Bucks.

“Things happen really fast, whether it’s three games in three nights, or playoff series are shorter or the time between the end of the regular season to the first playoff game, everything can be shorter or can happen quicker,” Budenholzer said. “We can put a little bit of money in the bank now with preparation for first round but also if you go a little bit deeper, the East.”

For 30 teams, 30 coaches, there’s many ways to spend the down time.

And they all know that they’re in the same boat — waiting and wondering.

“It’s hard for all of us,” Clifford said. “It’s hard to set a plan for yourself that will have you ready. But that’s the parallel, not just for us, but for everyone around the world no matter what profession that you’re in.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci was a high school point guard

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You know Dr. Anthony Fauci as the guy trying to inject facts and reason-based decisions into the federal government’s response to the coronavirus epidemic. You’ve seen him, the guy with the Sisyphean task of standing behind President Donald Trump at press conferences and not reacting with shock or disgust.

It turns out he was a high school baller.

In a profile of Fauci, the Wall Street Journal’s Ben Cohen wrote about Fauci the high school point guard, who led his 1-16 team to a win against Fordham Prep, led by future Knicks executive Donnie Walsh.

Classic point guard, excellent ballhandler, pesky defender. Six of his classmates and teammates described him as a tenacious competitor in short shorts and striped socks whose feistiness on the court defied some parts of his personality and reflected others.

That sounds like a young version of the person he is now.

Dr. Fauci is one of the people the NBA is listening to as it tries to figure out if or when the league can re-start and what its next steps might be. Right now, all of that is beyond the NBA’s control and more in the hands of the rest of us and whether we as a society follow Dr. Fauci’s suggestions.