NBA Power Rankings: Oh-oh Thunder road, oh Thunder road

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A lot of the preseason talk in the West focused on the Lakers… and it still does. And too often it ends with “and the Thunder are still contenders, too.” No, the Thunder are the defending Western Conference champs, the team to beat in that conference and they look pretty good right now. Thank you very much.

source:  1. Thunder (16-4, Last week ranked No. 2). Winners of eight in a row after Monday night including some quality victories last week against the Nets and Lakers. Are the Lakers still considered a quality win? Well it was the Pacers win that impressed me — putting up an offensive rating of 115.3 (points per 100 possessions) against what had been the best defense in the NBA. The Thunder are rolling.

 

source:  2. Spurs (17-4, LW 3). For the past few years, the Spurs have evolved into an offensive team that played enough defense to win games (a lot of games). But this season the Spurs are back to their old ways with the sixth best defense in the NBA (98.2 points per 100 possessions).

 

source:  3. Knicks (15-5, LW 5). Going 2-1 this week without Carmelo Anthony (until Sunday), including a big win over Miami in Miami was impressive. New York is going to ride the train of threes as long as they keep falling. Trail Blazers fans had to watch Raymond Felton in that Heat game and throw things at the television, he didn’t give them games like that last season.

 

source:  4. Clippers (13-6, LW 6). They are the winners of six in a row — and for the last three games the starters have not set foot on the floor in the fourth quarter. The Clippers remain the best and still by far least talked about team in Los Angeles.

 

source:  5. Grizzlies (14-4, LW 4). Not their best week, needing overtime to beat the Suns and losing to the Hawks (who are playing well, to be fair). The Grizzlies remain an elite defensive team and that is keeping them in games, and they are beating the teams they are supposed to beat (they don’t have bad losses) so we’re not worried.

 

source:  6. Heat (13-5, LW 1). Last week I said they might be finding their defensive footing. I would like to officially take that back. Their defense was bad in losses to the Knicks and Wizards, and they really were just a hot shooting team in their one win last week. They get a rematch with the Wizards Saturday.

 

source:  7. Hawks (12-5, LW 8). Quality wins this week over the Grizzlies and Nuggets, with the Heat on tap for Monday. While you weren’t looking they have been a strong defensive team this season behind Josh Smith and Al Horford.

 

source:  8. Warriors (13-7, LW 11). Here’s a shocker — if you put a bunch of guys who can shoot together on a team they are going to score points. For the season their point differential suggests they should be a .500 team but in the past five games their offense has found a groove. They have started a seven-game road trip 3-0.

 

source:  9. Celtics (11-9, LW 10). Shhh, don’t tell anyone, but they have started to play really good defense in Boston the past couple weeks. That’s the first building block. And Doc Rivers is not building for February, he’s looking at May and beyond.

 

source:  10. 76ers (11-9, LW 9). They did well, getting an Evan Turner game winner and splitting a home-and-home with Boston, but they get some tests this week with the Bulls, Pacers and Lakers. And with the Laker game, expect a plethora of Bynum stories. There still is no timeline for his return.

 

source:  11. Bulls (11-8, LW 13). Don’t put too much into the rumors of Rose’s recovery, he’s doing well but he is still more than a month away from playing in games, probably longer. But they are doing okay without him. Winners of three straight, they have a tough stretch ahead — Clippers, 76ers, Nets, Grizzlies, Celtics and Knicks are the next six.

 

source:  12. Bucks (9-9, LW 12). One of the many inconsistent teams in the middle of the pack in the NBA — they lost to the Hornets (in an ugly fashion) then beat the Nets later in the week. It’s like that every week with the Bucks, it feels.

 

source:  13. Nets (11-8, LW 7). Losers of four straight and, dare we say it, their defense is terrible without Brook Lopez in the lineup? It’s true, which suggests maybe the Mayans were right and we should all be stacking up on canned goods for the shelter. Rematch with the Knicks this week.

 

source:  14. Jazz (12-10, LW 15). They split with the Los Angeles teams this week, losing to the good one and beating the struggling one. The Jazz are what we thought they are — a good, hard working, balanced team. One that faces the Spurs and Grizzlies this week, so good luck.

 

source:  15. Mavericks (10-10, LW 17). O.J. Mayo was a 36.4 percent three-point shooter the past two seasons, but this year he is knocking down 52.3 percent of his looks from deep. And he is taking 5.6 threes a game. I keep expecting this bubble to burst but we are 20 games in now.

 

source:  16. Lakers (9-12, LW 14). What the slow start almost ensures is that the Lakers will have no home court advantage come the playoffs. The Thunder, Spurs and Grizzlies are out of their reach, and they are 5.5 games back of a good Clippers team in the Pacific. The Lakers are back out on the road for four more this week and they may or may not get Pau Gasol and Steve Nash to help them at some point.

 

source:  17. Nuggets (10-11, LW 18). They have faced a tough schedule (although the Clippers and Hornets have had it worse) but that does not excuse the bad turnovers late in a couple games last week by Ty Lawson. This is another middle of the pack NBA team we keep expecting to get it and go on a run.

 

source:  18. Timberwolves (9-9, LW 19). They expect to get Ricky Rubio back this week, which will be a huge boost to a struggling offense. Once they start putting up points again look for them to shoot up the rankings and the standings.

 

source:  19. Pacers (10-11, LW 21). The drop off with this team when the bench enters the game is just hard to watch. They continue to play good defense as a team (save the Oklahoma City game) but the offense is passable at best with the starters then nosedives with the bench play.

 

source:  20. Rockets (9-10, LW 16). We are just happy to see Kevin McHale back on the sidelines with this squad. Hopefully he can help even out another up and down team, one that beat the Lakers and the Jazz then lost to Spurs and Mavericks in their last four.

 

source:  21. Trail Blazers (8-12, LW 22). If you’re a Trail Blazers fan and you watch the play of Raymond Felton in New York or Jamal Crawford in Los Angeles this season, you just have to be pissed.

 

source:  22. Magic (8-12, LW 25). The gutted Magic have gone 3-2 on their road trip and are playing hard for Jacque Vaughn. They are the eighth best defensive team in the NBA without what’s his name in the paint blocking shots.

 

source:  23. Pistons (7-15, LW 24). Detroit’s offense is 12.7 points better per 100 possessions at home compared to on the road. Which is good news for the Sixers and Nets as the Pistons travel there this week.

 

source:  24. Kings (7-12, LW 29). The Kings are on a three game winning streak, but that will get tested on the road this week at Dallas, Milwaukee and Oklahoma City.

 

source:  25. Bobcats (7-12, LW 20). They are the losers of seven in a row, and the reason is they can’t defend. In their last five games they have given up 116.1 points per 100 possessions, the worst team in the NBA during that stretch (using the NBA’s own stats page).

 

source:  26. Suns (7-15, LW 23). They also have lost seven in a row, including one to the Magic on Sunday night they though was winnable. The two games this week are Memphis and Utah, although they are at home (and Utah can struggle on the road).

 

source:  27. Raptors (4-17, LW 26). They are a terrible road team and this West Coast swing has them losing and looking for answers. I look at the roster and still don’t see a grand plan from GM Bryan Colangelo.

 

source:  28. Hornets (5-14, LW 27). I want to cut them some slack — they have been without Anthony Davis for a long stretch and have played the toughest schedule in the NBA so far. But their problems go well beyond that.

 

source:  29. Cavaliers (4-17, LW 28). Losers of five straight but they get Kyrie Irving back Tuesday night. And they bring him back against a Lakers team that has terrible defense at the point guard position.\

 

source:  3 30. Wizards (2-15, LW 30). Sorry, even a win over the Heat can’t get them out of the cellar… although if not for a Festus Ezeli block they would have beat the Warriors and moved up. They are close to getting out of this jail. Oh, and still no John Wall timeline.

Report: Kawhi Leonard warming to playing for Raptors

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Shortly after the Spurs traded Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors, word leaked he didn’t want to play for Toronto.

That stance is apparently softening.

Adrian Wojnarowski on ESPN:

They’ve been in communication with Kawhi Leonard’s camp. He’s going to play. He’ll be in training camp. He’s healthy. He may be at USA Basketball’s minicamp next week which Gregg Popovich is coaching. That’s possible.

But the one thing I was told today he’s started to warm to the idea that he’s going to a contender. He’s got a team that could be as good as anybody in the Eastern Conference.

And now it’s on Toronto to try to recruit him, keep him. But in his mind right now, he’s headed to L.A. next year.

Leonard has little choice but to get on board. If he withheld services from the Raptors, they could fine him – eventually all the way up to his entire $20,099,189 salary for next season. Perhaps even more catastrophically, if it was determined he withheld services for more than 30 days of the season, he could be denied free agency entirely.

Maybe he could have finessed using his injury as an excuse rather than explicitly holding out. It has been threatened before. But that’s hard to manage and would have hurt his stock among all teams, including his preferred destination(s).

The best way for Leonard to get everything he wants is going to Toronto, playing well then becoming a free agent next summer.

I’d advise Leonard to keep an open mind until then. It might have made sense to posture against the Raptors to discourage a trade. But the trade has happened. Maybe he’ll join Toronto and like it more than he expects.

Paul George didn’t expect to stay with the Thunder, but he considered them throughout the season and found a long-term home. I don’t expect that to repeat with Leonard and the Raptors, but it could. Why close the option?

If not, Los Angeles will always be waiting.

Report: Spurs wanted to declare Kawhi Leonard out for the season, but he wouldn’t let them

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In February, Gregg Popovich said he’d be surprised if Kawhi Leonard played again during the 2017-18 season. Leonard didn’t, but the Spurs never followed Popovich’s doubt with a clear statement on Leonard’s status. Instead, Popovich repeatedly deferred questions of Leonard’s health in the following months to Leonard’s “group.”

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

Privately, officials within organization had hoped Leonard would let the Spurs declare him out for the season due to his injury, according to sources with knowledge of the situation. Believing he’d eventually return, Leonard declined each time

Did Leonard not realize this made him – not the Spurs – look bad? Especially once it leaked he’d been cleared medically. Especially when he told the team repeatedly and public once he’d return soon but never did.

Perhaps, this was just genuine competitiveness. Maybe Leonard really thought, or at least wanted to believe, a return was around the corner. This could have been him valiantly never giving up.

But there’s a reason teams usually err on the side of caution in long-term injury announcements. It’s to protect the player from looking bad for remaining out if he’s not quite ready as quickly as initially projected.

The Pacers received a disabled-player exception for Paul George in 2014-15, and he still beat the odds to return late in the year. The Celtics called Gordon Hayward out for this season and weren’t going to stray from that public stance until he suited up, even when – for a moment – it appeared he had a chance of returning.

Even if the Spurs publicly declared him out for the rest of the year, nothing would have stopped Leonard from playing. It’s not a binding resolution. Instead, he repeatedly missing targeted return dates and looked soft to many because of it.

And he insisted on the strategy that led to that perception!

This is just more evidence those around Leonard might not know what they’re doing.

Report: Spurs wouldn’t trade Kawhi Leonard to 76ers unless they included Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid

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The 76ers reportedly refused to include Markelle Fultz in trade offers for Kawhi Leonard, which seems misguided to me. Leonard carries major questions about his future, but after his rookie year, so does Fultz! At least Leonard has proven he can reach an elite level. That’s not to say Philadelphia should have definitely dealt Fultz for Leonard. The 76ers definitely have a better understanding of Fultz’s behind-the-scenes progress, and they might have more information on Leonard’s health and willingness to stay long-term. I just wouldn’t have made Fultz a deal-breaker in negotiations.

But it seems the Spurs placed a far more unreasonable restriction on Philadelphia, though.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

The Spurs made it clear any deal with Philly would require Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid (likely Simmons), and the Sixers weren’t going anywhere near that, league sources say.

Given their age and contract status – and, in Simmons’ case, health – Simmons and Embiid are each way more valuable than Leonard. There’s no way the 76ers would have dealt either of those two for Leonard.

Which apparently took a still-viable suitor off the table for San Antonio.

Between Fultz, Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Zhaire Smith, the Heat’s 2021 first-rounder and Philadelphia’s own picks, the 76ers could have assembled a better package than the Raptors sent the Spurs for Leonard. Maybe the 76ers wouldn’t have. But it would have been worth at least exploring.

It seems San Antonio placed too much on remaining competitive, which led to a deal revolving around DeMar DeRozan. There’s nothing wrong with that strategy per se, but it gets more difficult to defend when the Spurs got so little. In this Western Conference, they could slip out of the playoffs, even with DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl. A long-term approach should have at least been considered.

To be fair, I’d also caution against taking this report at face value with no skepticism. Today, 28 teams – especially those, like Philadelphia, linked to Leonard – are trying to explain why they didn’t get the star. This could easily be the 76ers’ spin and not an accurate reflection of the Spurs’ stance.

But Lowe is a great reporter, and I tend to trust this – which raises red flags about San Antonio.

NBA players bothered by Raptors trading DeMar DeRozan

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DeMar DeRozan is clearly upset with the Raptors for trading him (for Kawhi Leonard).

Is DeRozan’s frustration justified?

To a certain extent, he’s entitled to feel however he wants. I would never tell him his reaction is “wrong.”

But that’s not the same as endorsing his outlook. Should we rally behind him and hold Toronto accountable for mistreating him? Answering that question relies on so much hearsay, I’m not sure it’s possible to answer fairly.

In what I find a telling illustration of the situation, ESPN has updated its story on the trade multiple times today. In an early version:

Sources close to DeRozan told ESPN’s Chris Haynes that DeRozan met with Toronto brass in Las Vegas during summer league and was told he would not be traded.

That got changed to:

Sources close to DeRozan told ESPN’s Chris Haynes that DeRozan met with Toronto officials in Las Vegas during summer league and believed that he would not be traded.

That’s a subtle, but meaningful, distinction.

Did the Raptors tell DeRozan he wouldn’t be traded? Different people involved in the conversation would probably give different answers.

Did DeRozan take away that Toronto wouldn’t trade him? It seems so, and maybe it’s because team officials told him that directly. But it’s also possible he misinterpreted team officials. Not that he’s willing to grant that possibility.

David Aldridge of NBA.com:

Without being privy to the exact wording, I don’t know where to side.

Unsurprisingly, other players are backing DeRozan – some publicly and quite strongly, others anonymously.

Lou Williams:

Isaiah Thomas:

Damian Lillard:

Anthony Morrow:

Enes Kanter:

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

DeRozan meant a lot to the Raptors, and he deserves a proper sendoff. But some of this strikes me as an overreaction.

The Spurs didn’t thank Leonard in their press release, either. Both teams posted cursory messages of gratitude on social media to their outgoing players. Gregg Popovich held a press conference today and said many kind things about Leonard, though. The main difference appears to be Masai Ujiri just hasn’t happened to hold his press conference yet. I’d be shocked if he doesn’t effusively praise DeRozan in it.

And to Kanter’s claim the Raptors gave away DeRozan for nothing? They got Kawhi freaking Leonard.

For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of the spotlight-seeking Kanter just saying something outlandish to draw attention.

Even if that were Kanter’s intent, that just feeds into this spiraling into a bigger deal than it probably should be.

If the Raptors told DeRozan they wouldn’t trade him, they shouldn’t have done that. If they told DeRozan they didn’t plan to trade him while they were secretly putting the final touches on this deal, they shouldn’t have done that.

But if they told DeRozan they didn’t plan to trade him and truly didn’t at that moment, I wouldn’t blame them. Plans can change, and it would have done them no good to warn DeRozan of that possibility. If he expected more loyalty, that’s on him.

Ujiri will get a chance to explain himself. So will DeRozan – though his narrative is already gaining significant traction, especially among his peers. Maybe we’ll actually become positioned to make an outside judgment.

Most likely, this will remain a he-said, he-said situation that wanes in significance. DeRozan will probably play hard in San Antonio and grow to enjoy it there. Players – even, I bet, including DeRozan – will forgive the Raptors in time. As much furor as these things evoke in the moment, players rarely hold a grudge to the point of avoiding franchises.

But for now, Toronto is dealing with a perception hit right as it begins its courtship of one of the NBA’s top players, Leonard.