NBA Power Rankings: Thunder on top, but it’s close

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To be honest, you could have ranked the top three in this week’s PBT NBA Power Rankings and been fine. I’m giving the top spot to the Thunder this week because I think they’d beat the Clippers or Spurs in a seven game series right now. But not easily.

source:  1. Thunder (26-7, Last week ranked No. 2). They move up despite a sloppy loss to the Nets midweek. Their defense has been a little better of late which keeps them winning most nights. OKC has 10 of their next 12 on the road including an interesting game Friday night when they travel to L.A. to face Lakers.

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2. Clippers (27-8, LW 1). The win streak ended, but a back-to-back set of wins over the Lakers and Warriors show they aren’t going anywhere. If Chris Paul is not in your MVP conversations you are doing it wrong.

 

source:  3. Spurs (27-9, LW 3). Their offense has improved the last few weeks and that helps them continue to just rack up wins (except against the Knicks). Interesting games against the Lakers and Grizzlies this week, two dangerous but struggling teams who should be a little desperate against the Spurs.

 

source:  4. Heat (23-9, LW 4). They are on the road for their next six, but it is the end of the trip next week that gets interesting: Utah, Golden State then the Los Angeles Lakers on the second night of a back-to-back on national television.

 

source:  5. Knicks (23-10, LW 6). As Howard Beck of the New York Times said on the PBT Podcast, we’ve all stopped talking about how old the Knicks bench is but the next month — especially with Raymond Felton out — is when those old legs will get tested.

 

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6. Warriors (22-11, LW 5). Teams are no longer looking past the Warriors — notice how pissed the Clippers were after losing to them. Of course, the Clippers then took it out on them in a return match on Saturday. Not an easy week ahead with the Grizzlies, Blazers and Nuggets on the docket.

 

source:  7. Bulls (18-13, LW 9). We’re going to forgive them the ugly loss to the Bobcats, especially after the win over Miami on Friday. Note to a lot of teams: Notice how you can stay in games and win despite an inconsistent offense when you defend hard every night.

 

source:  8. Nuggets (20-16, LW 10). Still have 12 of next 14 at home and this week the only game they shouldn’t run away with is Golden State. Look for the Nuggets to make a push up the rankings in the coming weeks.

 

source:  9. Grizzlies (21-10, LW 8). Like the Bulls they continue to defend, but their offense has become so bad the last 10 games it hasn’t been enough some nights. They are scoring 96.6 points per 100 possessions the last 10 games, 29th in the NBA.

 

source:  10. Pacers (20-14, LW 11). Indiana went 3-1 last week and they are starting to figure out how to win without Danny Granger. It’s not pretty but they are figuring it out. If they get a healthy Granger back and some semblance of the good Roy Hibbert (who has gone missing), they become a dangerous team again.

 

source:  11. Hawks (20-12, LW 7). Some ugly losses last week — by one point to Detroit, by a lot more to Boston — and you have to wonder is this a glitch in a strong season, or a team with a hot start coming back to earth.

 

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12. Rockets (20-14, LW 14). They are on a hot streak — Jeremy Lin and James Harden are figuring out how to play together and the offense is off and running. Houston is going to be tested by a series of road games this month (10 of next 14) but they look like a playoff team.

 

source:  13. Nets (19-15, LW 15). P.J. Carlisimo is almost certain to be the coach the rest of this season — as Howard Beck of the New York Times said in the PBT Podcast, even if you bring in Phil Jackson you don’t install the triangle mid season. Carlisimo has the offense clicking again — sixth best in the NBA over the last five games — but their defense still stinks.

 

source:  14. Trail Blazers (18-15, LW 17). They beat the Knicks, Grizzlies and Timberwolves last week — that’s the kind of week playoff teams have. And Portland looks like it could be one, but they can’t have many slip ups in a deep, deep West.

 

source:  15. Bucks (16-16, LW 12). They were 0-3 last week and with five of their next seven on the road. Look for the Bucks to come back to the pack a little.

 

source:  16. Jazz (17-18, LW 18). They are an unimpressive 4-6 in their last 10 games and the reason is the offense, which has dipped four points per 100 possessions in that span from their season average.

 

source:  17. Celtics (16-17, LW 19). Stop talking about DeMarcus Cousins. Stop talking about DeMarcus Cousins. Stop talking about DeMarcus Cousins. Talk about Avery Bradley being back, winning a couple games and a five-game home stand coming up. Stop talking about DeMarcus Cousins. Stop talking about DeMarcus Cousins.

 

source:  18. Timberwolves (15-15, LW 16). The basketball gods are taking out their vengeance on Kevin Love and Minnesota — Love will be out another month plus with a broken finger in his shooting hand. If they make the playoffs after all this Rick Adelman should get coach of the year talk.

 

source:  19. 76ers (15-20, LW 20). They got a road win against the Lakers (doesn’t count as a quality win anymore). Jrue Holiday needs to have a strong couple of weeks if he wants to impress voters and make the All-Star Game (he could).

 

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20. Lakers (15-18, LW 13). They have lost three in a row and we have chronicled how bad their defense is. We’ve also written about how they need wins to stay in the playoff hunt, but the schedule for them this week is at Houston, at San Antonio and then hosting Oklahoma City. Rough patch.

 

source:  21. Kings (13-21, LW 24). Their offense has been a force for the past few weeks and that is winning them games — four of their last six. Now they get Tyreke Evans back and they have a five-game home stand. It’s a chance to build on that. Also, everyone please stop with the DeMarcus Cousins trade rumors. He’s not going anywhere.

 

source:  22. Pistons (13-23, LW 22). Andre Drummond is not going to win rookie of the year. But four years from now he may well be the second best player out of this draft class (still think Anthony Davis is No. 1) and some GMs are going to have to answer questions about passing on him.

 

source:  23. Raptors (12-21, LW 21). Coach Dwane Casey said that Ed Davis may well keep his starting job even after Andrea Bargnani returns — that’s the right move. The easy run of the schedule is over but good on the Raptors for playing better in that stretch.

 

source:  24. Mavericks (13-21, LW 25). Dirk Nowitzki is frustrated. He should be, look at that record. I still think Mark Cuban will eventually land a big star via free agency, but if he can do that during Dirk’s title window is another question.

 

source:  25. Magic (12-21, LW 23). They have yet to win a game since Glen Davis went down, 0-8. That says less about Davis and more about the drop off to the people behind him.

 

source:  26. Suns (12-23, LW 26). Suns fans need to read our own Brett Pollakoff talking to the Suns players about what a mess their offense has become.

 

source:  27. Hornets (8-25, LW 27). Eric Gordon has given this team a little spark, but remember that this is rebuilding process. Anthony Davis is up and down and it’s going to take him time to learn to defend on this level.

 

source:  28. Cavaliers (8-27, LW 28). Kyrie Irving had a 30-point game plus a game winner last week. Tristan Thompson has been solid with Anderson Varejao out. There, that’s it. That’s all the positive Cavs news I can think of.

 

source:  29. Bobcats (8-24, LW 30). They finally snapped the losing streak at 18, in fact they won two games last week. Both on the road. They are not going to finish with the worst record in the NBA this year, and that’s a start.

 

source:  30. Wizards (4-27, LW 29). They may get John Wall back in the next couple of weeks, that will help their anemic offense. However, even that may not stop Wizards fans from watching college basketball now, scouting Cody Zeller and Shabazz Muhammad.

Vinsanity grinds into a 21st season, rare company in the NBA

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ATLANTA (AP) — Vince Carter feels like a 20-something again.

Always does when this time of year rolls around.

Never mind the specks of gray in his beard, all the wear and tear on his body, a resume that shows he entered the NBA the same year teammate Trae Young was born.

Carter has made it to another opening night. The thrill of a new season flows through those creaky ol’ bones. Once again, it all seems worthwhile: the monotonous practices, the tedious film sessions, the long plane flights, the grind of 82 games.

“If I had that old `heck, here we go again’ feeling, then I wouldn’t play,” Carter said Tuesday, having finished up practice with a few extra jumpers. “This is like I’m in my third, fourth, fifth year. I’m excited about the opportunity. I’m excited about playing. I still love playing. I still love competing. I still enjoy the traveling, the ups and downs of the league. That’s what it’s all about. It’s hard to let go.”

The league’s oldest player – Carter is 41 and will turn another year older in January – is back for his 21st season. That puts him on the cusp of some very exclusive company: Robert Parrish, Kevin Willis and Kevin Garnett are the only players to last that long in the NBA (Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki also has a chance to join the 21 Club this year).

Carter is hardly chasing a championship, signing on with a rebuilding Atlanta Hawks team that is years away from having a realistic shot at competing for a title. He’s here to mentor to a bunch of young players and serve as a virtual player-coach on a first-year staff led by Lloyd Pierce.

“When we have our locker room and on-the-bus debates and conversations, he’s on our side,” quipped Pierce, a rookie head coach who is only about eight months older than Carter. “He can relate a little closer to the coaching staff than he can with the players.”

Kent Bazemore, the last holdover from a 60-win team that reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2015, lost most of his golfing buddies – including Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver – when the Hawks embarked on a rebuilding plan that send them tumbling to 24-58 last season.

With Carter on the roster, Bazemore again has someone to tee it up with on off days.

“I’ve got a new golfing buddy,” said Bazemore, who at 29 is one of the oldest players on the roster not named Vince Carter. “I’m excited about that. (The younger players) haven’t gotten into it yet.”

As expected, Carter takes some good-natured ribbing from his teammates, a grandpa joke here, an “ain’t it past your bedtime” there.

But all in all, he seems to fit it quite nicely with all these kids.

“We have a lot in common, believe it or not,” Carter said, breaking into a smile. “I make it my business to know what’s going on in the millennial world.”

While expected to fill a largely backup role for the Hawks, Carter will be in the starting lineup when they open the season Wednesday night against the New York Knicks. He’s subbing for power forward John Collins, a first-round pick in 2017 and one of those building blocks for Atlanta’s future, who is sidelined by an ankle injury.

Never mind that Carter is only 6-foot-6 and has spent his entire career at shooting guard and small forward.

Wherever he’s needed, he’s ready to give it a shot.

“I prepare myself in the summer for any situation,” Carter said. “I tell the coach first thing: `I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”‘

Young, the No. 5 overall pick and cornerstone of the Hawks’ makeover, looks forward to gleaning all he can from a player who was once one of the league’s brightest stars, a guy who threw down sick jams and averaged more than 20 points a game in 10 of his first 12 seasons.

Carter’s above-the-rim antics earned him a variety of nicknames – from “Vinsanity” to “Half-Man, Half-Amazing” – and a likely spot one day in the Basketball Hall of Fame, even though he’s never won a championship and there was griping early in his career about whether he was giving it his all.

These days, he’s a respected senior citizen, a player who draws nothing but awe for hanging on as long as he has, even though he’s bounced around to six teams in the past decade and hasn’t been a regular starter since 2012.

“He’s experienced so many things,” Young said. “I can go to him about anything and just ask him questions. He’s a future Hall of Famer. I’m just blessed to be around him and get advice from him.”

Carter hasn’t decided how long this ride will last.

Twenty-one years might be enough.

Then again, if he still feels that same sort of excitement that he’s feeling right now, he might go where no one has gone before in the NBA.

A 22nd season.

“At year 18, 19, I just said I’ll assess how I feel and the situation at the end of each year,” Carter said. “Just because I’m close to a bunch of different accomplishments, I don’t want to change my routine. I’ve had a lot of success doing it this way.”

With that, Carter hustled off to the locker room, the last guy to leave the court.

There was another flight to catch.

Another opening night to get to.

 

Nuggets agree to contract extension with coach Mike Malone

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Mike Malone was one of the names on the coaching hot seat lists this season. Not that his seat was warm just yet, a lot of pundits were high on his Nuggets (I predicted them to be fourth in the West), but after just missing the playoffs the past two years, if Denver got off to a slow start this season….

Cross Malone off your list, he just got a contract extension from the Nuggets.

This reportedly adds two years to his existing contract, so it now runs through 2021, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Expectations are high in Denver with a return to the playoffs the only acceptable outcome. The Nuggets have improved each season under Malone and won 46 games last season (that gets you in the dance most years). The Nuggets have a deep and impressive roster led by a top 20 NBA player in Nikola Jokic, a point guard in Jamal Murray who is poised to break out in his third season, plus quality rotation players such as Gary Harris and Paul Millsap.

Malone can earn that new contract — and get the team into the postseason — just by finally improving the Denver defense, which was 26th in the NBA last season. If they move up to the middle of the pack, with the Nuggets’ elite offense, they are in.

Whatever happens, Denver is a team to watch this season. And Malone isn’t going anywhere.

Kevin Durant already tired of free agency rumors: ‘Don’t ask me every time you see me’

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It’s going to be one of the most discussed undercurrents of the NBA season:

Is this Kevin Durant‘s final season with the Golden State Warriors?

He can opt out next summer of his $31.5 million deal, and sources from multiple teams around the league think he may be ready to bolt the Bay Area and have his own team. Teams are already preparing for it and getting their pitches ready, and the Warriors are privately bracing for him to leave. The Knicks, Clippers, and maybe a dozen other teams are rumored and want to make their case. (The Lakers are in that group, too, but is Durant going to leave being in a team culture Stephen Curry created to being in LeBron James‘ shadow and culture? You thought he took flack for joining a championship Warriors team, imagine the reaction if he joins LeBron?)

Durant almost certainly does not know what he’s going to do next summer, staying with Golden State is a real possibility, but as rumors have their own life around the NBA this is going to be a topic all season long. People are going to try to read the tea leaves with everything Durant says and does.

Durant has been there before, and he’s already tired of it this time around, as he told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

“I just want people to focus on basketball,” Durant told Yahoo Sports after posting 27 points, eight rebounds and six assists. “Focus on what goes on the court. I know it’s hard to keep up with it. I know it’s easy to look at that type of [expletive] because it’s the entertainment side. But wait until the season is over with to analyze [free agency]. I know it’s your job and it’s hard to say that, but try to shift some of your focus to the court, too. I know you have to still do your job and check on stuff like that, but every day? Every city I go to? Come on, man. I said what I had to say at media day. I understand your job, but let’s come to a little agreement. Don’t ask me every time you see me. If it’s the first time I’m seeing y’all, I don’t mind answering. But every time? Come on, bro.”

It’s easy to appreciate Durant’s “just focus on the games” sentiment, but the simple fact of the matter is that is not what fans want — it’s not what they read, watch, and consume. We all want to play fantasy GM and player movement is of far bigger interest to fans than the game itself. Coverage of the league reflects that taste now.

Which means the questions are going to keep coming. How is Durant going to handle that?

“It depends on how I feel that day,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “If I’m in a [expletive]-up mood, you’re going to see. Ask me that question and you’re going to really see what mood I’m in.”

No contract extension for Kristaps Porzingis, is that a problem? Depends…

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Most teams, when they get a franchise cornerstone player, lock him up with a max contract extension as soon as humanly possible. Minnesota did that this summer with a big offer to Karl-Anthony Towns (which he eventually signed). Before that Philadelphia did it with Joel Embiid, New Orleans with Anthony Davis, and on down the list.

Kristaps Porzingis is that kind of player for the Knicks.

But there was no contract extension for KP this offseason. This has nothing to do with the torn ACL that will have him out most if not all of this season (which tips off tonight for the Knicks at home against the Hawks).

The reason is cap space — not giving Porzingis an extension now frees up $10 million extra to go big game hunting in free agency next summer. After that, the Knicks can sign him after to that max contract. It’s what the Spurs did with Kawhi Leonard (and the problems between those two sides that led to Leonard being a Raptor were not about that contract).

It all works if the player understands this is not a “snub” but rather a strategic salary cap move designed to put a better team around him. The player has to be good with the move or it can create bad blood.

Does Porzingis and his camp know and understand all this? Knicks GM Scott Perry hinted yes, but was a little vague, via Ian Bagley of ESPN.

Is this a good move by the Knicks? Depends. The extra money is helpful next summer. Perry and team president Steve Mills are smart men who have made good decisions (mostly) so far, and it sounds like they have been clear to Porzingis and his people about what they are doing and why. That’s important.

The question is, did Porzingis fully buy into it? That we do not yet know. We won’t know until we see what Porzingis does next summer (his actions will speak louder than any words when he returns).

In theory it doesn’t matter, the Knicks control Porzinis’ rights as a restricted free agent next summer and they would match any offer. He’s not leaving NYC. However, in practice what the Knicks don’t want to do is create bad blood, something that festers and becomes an issue when this contract is up (Porzingis could sign an offer sheet with another team that is shorter than the max the Knicks want to throw at him).

I expect we will see Porzingis back with the Knicks this season, but not until the last 10-20 games of the season. He’s not coming in as a savior to get the team to the postseason, rather just getting his legs under him and shaking off some rust before another long summer of work. It’s the following season that he will be targeting.

We will see if the Knicks can use that extra $10 million in cap room to get another star to be with him that season.