NBA Power Rankings: Western Conference dominates top spots

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We enter 2013 off a week where the two best teams in the East — Miami and New York — looked sloppy while the teams at the top of the Western Conference looked strong and took over the top spots in the weekly rankings.

source:  1. Clippers (25-6, Last week ranked No. 1). The win streak is at 17 in a row and if you’re asking me when it will end my guess is Wednesday, the second night of a back-to-back when the Clippers have to face a good Golden State team. They have the Warriors twice plus the Lakers on deck.

 

source:  2. Thunder (23-6, LW 2). The Christmas Day loss to Miami shows the Thunder where they need to get, but don’t read too much into a December game. Soft part of the schedule ahead with five straight very winnable games coming up for OKC.

 

source:  3. Spurs (24-8, LW 5). I don’t think people realize just how well Tiago Splitter is playing right now, he seems to have figured out how to play next to Tim Duncan. So Gregg Popovich is trusting him. He’s very efficient, with a PER of 20.2.

 

source:  4. Heat (20-8, LW 3). Sloppy lost weekend where they fell to Detroit (after leading by 17) and the Bucks. We’re going to see that this year from the defending champions, stretches where they take a mental vacation. It doesn’t mean much big picture.

 

source:  5. Warriors (21-10, LW 7). They are 11-2 against the Eastern Conference with wins over Miami and Atlanta, but both the losses are to Orlando. Golden State is in rest mode with two games in nine days, but both against the streaking Clippers.

 

source:  6. Knicks (21-9, LW 4). The next month is going to be a real test for New York — no Raymond Felton at the point and they soon will try to integrate Amare Stoudemire back into the rotation. They can come out of this stronger, but the best tests are not easy.

 

source:  7. Hawks (19-9, LW 8). Winners of four in a row, including quality wins over the Bulls and Pacers in that stretch. Their offense is going well with Lou Williams starting, taking over the Joe Johnson role. (Think Hawks fans are enjoying watching the Nets fall apart?)

 

source:  8. Grizzlies (19-8, LW 6). They are struggling of late because their offense is a mess — 29th in the NBA in the last 10 games (ranked in points by possession at NBA.com). Their defense is still strong but in their win over Denver Saturday they scored just 82 points.

 

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9. Bulls (16-12, LW 9). Derrick Rose is back practicing with the team but not doing anything involving contact. Target for his return is still after the All-Star break. Who the Bulls did get back is Richard Hamilton and Rip is good for their defense.

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10. Nuggets (17-15, LW 10). Want to place a bet on the team with the best record in January? Bet Denver, which after a lot of road games to start the season is home for 15 of their next 18.

 

source:  11. Pacers (17-13, LW 11). Third worst offense in the NBA, second best defense. That is enough to win more games than you lose, but they need Danny Granger back and Roy Hibbert to come out of his funk.

 

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12. Bucks (16-13, LW 12). Picked up a quality win over the Heat but then turned around a lost to the Pistons and Cavaliers. Another good defense, weak offense team but the Bucks are just more up and down than the Pacers.

 

source:  13. Lakers (15-15, LW 16). Winners of six of their last seven, and the only loss in there was the second night of a back-to-back in Denver. Still, Dwight Howard’s play looks a step slow. Give Pau Gasol credit for trying to do what Mike D’Antoni wants and being more of a stretch four.

 

source:  14. Rockets (16-14, LW 17). They lost a couple in a row at the end of the week but still look like a team starting to figure out who they are and how they can win games with this roster. James Harden should be an All-Star. Not so much with Jeremy Lin (although he has played better of late).

 

source:  15. Nets (16-14, LW 13). The Nets are 2-0 under P.J. Carlesimo, although that really has a lot more to playing the Bobcats and Cavaliers than it does the coaching. Carlisimo wants the job and knows winning a lot of games is the only chance he has.

 

source:  16. Timberwolves (14-13, LW 14). They have won six of their last 10 and I keep waiting for them to go on a little tear, but with six of their next eight on the road and no gimmies in the lot (don’t sell the Hornets at home short) I may be waiting a little longer. They have not found their groove.

 

source:  17. Trail Blazers (15-14, LW 19). The Damian Lillard show is about to go out on the road the next week with stops in New York, Memphis and Minnesota — all tough wins. But if the Blazers are serious about the playoffs those are the kinds of wins they need to be picked up.

 

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18. Jazz (15-17, LW 17). The home and home against the Clippers emphasized the home-road difference with this team — they could have won that at home with a couple breaks or a couple calls, but they couldn’t stay that close on the road. They are 9-4 in Salt Lake City, 6-13 outside it.

 

source:  19. Celtics (14-16, LW 15). Doc Rivers made an interesting point — previous Celtics teams played good defense all the time and didn’t let a stretch of bad offense hurt the other end of the floor. This team falls apart on defense when it has a bad offensive stretch.

 

source:  20. 76ers (13-15, LW 20). They are 1-3 on their road trip with a nice win in Memphis but little else to show. This week it gets tougher with the Lakers, Thunder and Spurs all on the road.

 

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21. Raptors (11-20, LW 23). They are 7-3 in their last 10 games because they have exploded on offense — 5.4 points per 100 possessions better than their season average the last 10 games and 8.8 better over their last five. DeMar DeRozan has put up points but it’s been the bench with guys like Alan Anderson and lately Kyle Lowry that have been key.

 

source:  22. Pistons (11-22, LW 25). Nice wins last week over the Heat and Bucks have them climbing up the rankings. You can credit Will Bynum with the Heat win as he was huge, but it was more of a team effort over the Bucks.

 

source:  23. Magic (12-18, LW 21). They have lost five in a row since Glen Davis went down with a shoulder injury. That’s no coincidence, they miss what Big Baby did on both ends, but particularly on the defensive side.

 

source:  24. Kings (11-19, LW 26). The owner Maloof brothers overruled their own front office and put DeMarcus Cousins back on the active roster. If you think those same owners will roll over and sign off to trade Cousins you will be sorely disappointed.

 

source:  25. Mavericks (12-19, LW 24). Getting Dirk Nowitzki back was not the answer, they have lost five in a row. Coach Rick Carlisle is so frustrated he’s threatening to suspend players, but it’s not like he’s got a deep roster of good replacements.

 

source:  26. Suns (11-20, LW 22). They are the losers of five in a row and the reason is they play no defense. They might outscore you now and again if someone gets hot, but they can’t stop anyone. They have the Thunder, Jazz and Grizzlies on the schedule this week.

 

source:  27. Hornets (7-23, LW 28). They looked so much better, so much more creative when Eric Gordon got back on the floor — through all the injuries and free agency fanfare people forgot this guy can flat out play. He and Anthony Davis will form a very good pick-and-roll duo by next season.

 

source:  28. Cavaliers (7-25, LW 27). They have certainly looked a lot better since Kyrie Irving’s return, but certainly not like a playoff team. Look for them to be sellers at the trade deadline with Anderson Varejao and C.J. Miles.

 

source:  29. Wizards (4-24, LW 29). The Wizards have turned to Shelvin Mack at the point… what more can I say.

 

source:  30. Bobcats (7-23, LW 30). The losing streak is up to 18 games with no clear end in sight. In case you’re curious I looked it up and the NBA’s longest losing streak ever is 26 (Cavaliers just two years ago, how could you forget?).

Report: Utah “frontrunner” to land Mike Conley Jr. if Memphis trades him this week

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Utah feels like it is close — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. They look at the West next season, with a depleted Warriors team, and see an opening.

Yet when Utah fell to Houston 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs this year, it was reminded of what is keeping the team from being truly elite, and another shot creator and shooter is at the top of that list.

Enter Mike Conley Jr. He averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three, and plays strong defense. Conley would be an upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the spot.

The almost All-Star point guard out of Memphis is available via trade. He’s the kind of veteran floor general, shooter, and shot creator Utah could use. The Jazz and Grizzlies talked but couldn’t come to an agreement at the trade deadline, but the sides are talking again and conversations are “intensifying” in the run-up to the NBA Draft Thursday, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Grizzlies are intensifying talks to potentially move franchise cornerstone Mike Conley Jr., league sources told The Athletic. Memphis has been in conversations with the Jazz and Utah is a frontrunner to acquire Conley should the Grizzlies trade the point guard during draft week, league sources said.

What would be in a trade package? Certainly the No. 23 pick in this draft, plus some young players the Grizzlies like (maybe Grayson Allen, Royce O’Neal, and even someone like Jae Crowder. Reports say Derick Favors is not part of the discussion.

While anything can happen the week of the draft — and things change quickly — don’t be surprised if some version of this trade gets done.

Kawhi Leonard wins day with last laugh — his viral laugh — at end of speech

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Kawhi Leonard just won again.

He won his second NBA title leading the Toronto Raptors to the franchise’s first crown. He earned his second Finals MVP in the process.

Then on Monday he had the last laugh and won the Raptors’ championship parade in Toronto by ending his speech with his laugh, the same one that went viral at the start of the season.

Of course, what Leonard will do on July 1 was a cloud hanging over the parade, Leonard is a free agent this summer. Kyle Lowry at one point started a “five more years” chant during the parade, which is the maximum number of years Toronto can re-sign Leonard for.

Leonard, exactly as we all should have expected, dodged the question, while praising his time in Toronto.

Unfortunately, this was a parade marred by more serious concerns.

How corrosive is tension between James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston?

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Golden State is not going to be contending for a title next season. Sorry Stephen, but you’re just not.

That throws open the doors to the West crown and, eventually, the NBA title, and teams will be lining up to take their shots. The Lakers just added Anthony Davis to go with LeBron James. Denver should improve and is looking for wing help. Utah feels just one playmaker away. The Clippers are big game hunting, and if they land one they become a threat.

Houston, however, should be at the front of that line… if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. Contract extension talks with coach Mike D’Antoni are stalled, and at ESPN Tim MacMahon put together a fascinating inside look at the tension between at his isolation-heavy and at his peak James Harden and the intense but declining Chris Paul.

But Paul noticeably lost a step last season, as evidenced by analytics and the eye test. Paul pushed for more plays and sets in the Houston offense, more screening and deception, despite Harden being in the process of putting together a historically dominant individual offensive season.

“Chris wants to coach James,” says a source familiar with the stars’ dynamic. “James looks at him like, ‘You can’t even beat your man. Just shut up and watch me.'”…

It has reached a point, team sources say, where Paul cherishes the chance to play without Harden on the floor. On several occasions, according to team sources, Paul barked at D’Antoni to keep Harden on the bench while he was running the second unit. Harden simultaneously would lobby — or demand — to check back into the game.

There’s tension there, but is it corrosive to the point of the team unraveling? Or, as GM Daryl Morey and everyone else with the Rockets says, is this just blown out of proportion? Time will tell.

Two things to point out.

First, tension between two stars and alpha personalities is far from new in the NBA (or any other professional sport), and it does not mean a team is in trouble. These things can be worked out, they just flared up more in the wake of the round two loss to the Warriors.

Second, these guys are stuck with each other. Obviously, the Rockets aren’t trading Harden. They would be open to trading CP3, but at age 34 and owed $124 million over three more seasons, there are no takers (unless the Rockets want to throw in a sweetener, which they don’t). The players around them may change, the coach could change, but Harden and Paul have years left together.

This team is so close to a title, it’s hard to envision them really coming apart at the seams next season. These guys are too professional for that… although in wild NBA crazier things have happened.

Report: Bucks trying to trade Tony Snell or Ersan Ilyasova with draft-pick sweetener

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Coming off their best season in decades, the Bucks will send four quality players into free agency – Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic.

How will Milwaukee keep its core intact?

Maybe by unloading Tony Snell ($11,592,857 salary next season, $12,378,571 player option the following season) or Ersan Ilyasova ($7 million salary next season, $7 million unguaranteed the following season).

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

With Bird Rights for Middleton, Brogdon and Mirotic, Milwaukee faces no salary-cap restrictions on keeping just those three. The only cost is real dollars, including potential luxury-tax payments.

It’s trickier with Lopez. Giving him the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (which projects to be about $9 million) – the most they can pay without opening cap space – would hard-cap the Bucks at a projected team salary of about $138 million. That could be a difficult line to stay under.

Unless Snell or Ilyasova are off the books.

Neither player has a desirable contract, which is why Milwaukee is shopping them with a draft pick attached. But both can still contribute. Ilyasova is a smart veteran power forward who shoots well from outside and takes a lot of charges. Snell is also a good outside shooter, and though his all-around game is lacking, there’s a dearth of helpful wings around the league.

The Bucks have the No. 30 pick in Thursday’s draft. They could select on behalf of another team then trade the draft rights. The Stepien rule applies only to future drafts.

Beyond that pick, Milwaukee is short on tradable draft picks. The Bucks have already traded two protected future first-round picks and their next three second-rounders. Dealing another first-rounder would require complex protections. Perhaps, a distant second-rounder is enough.

It’s important for Milwaukee to figure this out. Giannis Antetokounmpo likes this core group, and everyone is watching his level of satisfaction with the Bucks as his super-max decision approaches.