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: Hornets’ Michael Kidd-Gilchrist opting in for $13 million

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The Hornets’ last hope for super-maxing out Kemba Walker and avoiding the luxury tax without trading or stretching anyone has been extinguished.

With Michael Kidd-Gilchrist‘s $13 million salary locked in for next season, Charlotte faces hard choices.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

If the Hornets re-sign Walker to the super-max, sign their draft picks (Nos. 12, 36 and 52) and add no other free agents, they’d project to be about $9 million over the tax line.

Would Walker take that large of a discount? That $9 million below the super-max would be for just next season. Over a five-year contract with max raises, he’d be leaving about $54 million on the table. And that’s all to maintain a lottery team that’s not really upgrading.

Would Michael Jordan pay the tax? He never has, and I doubt this mediocre team sways him.

The most likely outcome if Walker re-signs: Charlotte trades an undesirable contract – Kidd-Gilchrist’s, Nicolas Batum‘s, Marvin Williams‘, Cody Zeller‘s) – or stretches Bismack Biyombo. Trading those rotation players would probably require a sweetener. Stretching Biyombo would create a cap hit through 2022.

So, the Hornets get even more depleted in the long-term, maybe also the short-term.

That’s the cost of overpaying so many players – including Kidd-Gilchrist, who plays hard and defends well but hasn’t developed enough of an offensive game.

Report: After working out Darius Garland, Knicks set on R.J. Barrett with No. 3 pick

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R.J. Barrett is the consensus No. 3 prospect in this draft. The Knicks have the No. 3 pick.

A potential snag  – New York working out Vanderbilt point guard Darius Garland today – apparently won’t keep Barrett from his desired Knicks.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The top of the draft looks clear:

1. Pelicans: Zion Williamson

2. Grizzlies: Ja Morant

3. Knicks: R.J. Barrett

New Orleans has the No. 4 pick but is looking into trading it. I rate Garland as the top available prospect, but the Pelicans already have Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday in the backcourt. They could still take Garland, but the fit would be tricky.

Will New Orleans pick Garland? Take someone else? Trade the pick?

The draft will get interesting at No. 4.

Trade who? Wizards reportedly will offer Bradley Beal three-year, $111 million contract extension

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Predicting what the Wizards will do this off-season — from the No. 9 pick in the draft on Thursday through what to do with Jabari Parker‘s $20 million team option — is difficult because they do not have a permanent general manager. The Wizards have made a run at Toronto’s Masai Ujiri (something sources told me is true despite owner Ted Leonsis’ denials), but for now in-house candidate Tommy Sheppard is running the show (and will for a while longer).

The biggest question: What will the Wizards do with Bradley Beal?

While every team in the league has called to try and feel out trade possibilities, the Wizards are leaning toward offering him a three-year, $111 million extension to his current contract, something reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

“He’s eligible for a three-year, $111 million extension. I’m told it’s the team’s intention to offer that up to him and try and move forward.”

The Wizards should offer it up.

It would be a surprise if Beal accepted it.

In part because he will want to see who is in charge and what direction this person takes the franchise before he commits to it, but also in part because it doesn’t hurt him financially. Beal can get a larger-year four-year extension in the summer of 2020, or become a free agent and sign a max five-year contract in 2021 (or, he could bolt them to another team that summer). Beal is just 25 years old and has not had the kind of injury issues that would make him think he needs to take the security now (he has played 82 games the last two seasons).

This little dance will go on in our nation’s capital, but it signifies nothing. Meanwhile, Beal will gear up for next season, another without John Wall where Beal will once again be the focal point of the office.

Mavericks reportedly front runners to land Al Horford, Lakers and Clippers also interested

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Al Horford is moving on from Boston, the latest blow in a year where the Celtics went from “they will be in the Eastern Conference Finals every year for the next five years at least” to “they’re okay but have a lot of work to do.” It’s been a perfect storm of things gone wrong.

So where does Al Horford play next season?

How about next to Kristaps Porzingis in Dallas?

That’s the buzz, with the two Los Angeles teams trying to get in the conversation, according to Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer.

The Mavericks are considered favorites to land Celtics free-agent big man Al Horford, according to league sources, and the two Los Angeles teams are said to also have interest, though they both have their sights set on bigger fish like Kawhi Leonard.

Dallas makes sense for both sides.

The Mavericks have the cap space to offer Horford the $20 million or more starting salary he wants, reportedly he seeks $100 million across four years (he opted out of a $30.5 million season in Boston for the security of more years). Dallas has $31.3 million in cap space, even after Dwight Powell opting in. While they likely will reach a max deal on a new contract with Porzingis, the Mavs have his bird rights so they can sign Horford then go over the cap to re-sign Porzingis (who missed all of last season recovering from an ACL injury).

On the court, Horford can both be paired with Porzingis — two bigs teams have to defend out to the three-point line — and help limit the young big man’s minutes. While not young at 33 (and the Mavs may regret the final year of a four-year contract), Horford is the kind of glue big man who can do everything well, giving coach Rick Carlisle a lot of options. Horford can score in the post, shot 36 percent from three, sets good screens, is a good man defender and can protect the rim, and all that versatility makes him valuable. He can fit into the Dallas frontcourt rotation with Porzingis, Dwight Powell, and Maxi Kleber.

That versatility would make him a great second addition to the Clippers if Kawhi Leonard chooses to leave the Raptors to join Doc Rivers’ squad (he Leonard stays the Clippers are out of this running). While Los Angeles start Ivica Zubac at the five, Horford would be an upgrade and they still have Montrezl Harrell off the bench. Horford also could mix in at the four for the Clippers.

For the Lakers, who are looking for a third star, they could sigh Horford at a $20 million starting salary (with raises from there) without having to go through the salary cap gymnastics it would take for them to clear cap space to land someone like Jimmy Butler or Kemba Walker.

Horford has fans all over the league and will have options, but Dallas is aggressive and there is a logical fit there.