NBA Power Rankings: Hot hot Heat move back to top spot

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It looks like the Miami Heat have started to get focused and in the West it is the Spurs, Thunder and everyone else. The rest of the league has less than two months to state their case that they can knock one of those big three off.

source:  1. Heat (40-14, last week ranked No. 2). Winners of 11 in a row including beating the Bulls and Thunder easily on the road. Might be time for the rest of the league to worry. In their last 10 games the Heat are scoring 116.9 points per 100 possessions and allowing just 98.9 — best offense in the NBA and fifth best defense in that stretch. And can we stop with the Dwyane Wade is done crap?

 
source:  2. Spurs (44-13, LW 3). They went 7-2 on the Rodeo road trip. Impressive. A scout told me recently he thinks the Spurs are better suited to defeat the Heat in the finals than the Thunder. Problem is they will have a hard time getting past the Thunder. Tony Parker deserves to be in the MVP conversation — third in that conversation, but in it.

 
source:  3. Thunder (41-15, LW 1). They are 2-3 in last five and their defense has been up and down — the Thunder allowed James Harden to score 45 on them but Sunday night held the Bulls to 29.1 percent shooting. We’ll see if that gets consistent with games at Denver and at the Clippers this week.

 
source:  4. Pacers (35-21, LW 7). They have won four in a row (by more than 27 points on average), 8-of-10 and they got Danny Granger back this week (even if he struggled in his debut). They have the size and defense to be the team that challenges the Heat out of the East, but they need Roy Hibbert to be his old self.

 
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5. Clippers (40-18 LW 5). After getting undressed by the Heat and Spurs in recent weeks, the question becomes “are the Clippers really contenders?” As always the question is defense and DeAndre Jordan, and both were wanting against the elite.

 
source:  6. Grizzlies (37-18, LW 9). Rudy Gay who? They have won seven in a row and their offense is scoring 108.4 points a game in their last 10 (before Sunday night). Tayshaun Prince is averaging 9.2 points a game in that stretch and making some good defensive plays. Big test vs. Heat on Friday.

 
source:  7. Nuggets (35-22, LW 4). Their record has flattened out as the home-heavy portion of the schedule went away and they have won just two of their last five. They need to knock down threes and space the floor better against the Lakers and Thunder this week to pick up wins.

 
source:  8. Knicks (33-20, LW 6). They had lost four in a row before getting healthy against a Sixers team on a downward spiral Sunday. New York needs to find it’s defensive groove again in the next six weeks or these playoffs are going to look a lot like the last several.

 
source:  9. Rockets (31-27, LW 12). They are 6-4 in their last 10 with wins over the Thunder and Nets — the Rockets are not giving away that last playoff spot. The Lakers are playing better but they are going to have to catch the Rockets or Jazz, neither team is falling far back to them.

 
source:  10. Bulls (32-23, LW 8). The most points they have scored in their last three games is 72 points. It’s a credit to Derrick Rose and the organization that nobody is panicking and forcing him to return to the court before he is ready. They need to look at the big picture. But Reggie Rose wasn’t wrong in saying they could have used another scorer at the trade deadline.

 
source:  11. Nets (33-24, LW 11). It wasn’t for lack of effort by Billy King at the trade deadline, but nobody is taking the HBAP offer (Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks and a pick). This team is what it is headed to playoffs, and that could be one-and-done.

 
source:  12. Jazz (31-25, LW 14). They said they didn’t get an offer they liked at the deadline for Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap. Now they will lose at least one this summer for nothing. But with both big men in house they have a chance to make the playoffs despite a tougher schedule than the Rockets or Lakers the rest of the way.

 
source:  13. Warriors (32-23, LW 13). It’s got to be the sleeves! The Warriors had dropped six in a row until they put on the sleeves and beat the Spurs. They are too far ahead to fall back to the Lakers now, but without Andrew Bogut they need to start finding a playoff groove.

 
source:  14. Lakers (28-29, LW 18). Won 8-of-11 and are playing with an identity, which is letting them win games they lost earlier in the season. The only question now is can they sustain a pace that helps them catch the Jazz or Rockets — they have to catch them neither is coming that far back.

 
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15. Hawks (31-23, LW 15).
Josh Smith surprisingly remains a Hawk at the deadline, so the Al Horford and Smith front line is going to make one more run at it in the playoffs. Not a very long run, but a run.

 
source:  16. Celtics (29-27, LW 10). They are 1-3 on a tough post All-Star Game with a West Coast Road trip, with the lone win coming against what’s left in Phoenix. The trip ends Monday with the brutal Utah Jazz at altitude on the second night of a back-to-back.

 
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17. Bucks (26-28, LW 16).
They have dropped 9 of their last 11 and while J.J. Redick is an upgrade at the guard spot he’s not a game changer. Having a guy who likes to work off the ball paired with Brandon Jennings and/or Monta Ellis is not exactly going to solve a lot of problems. And he’s a free agent this summer.

 
source:  18. Mavericks (25-30, LW 19). That was pretty much a must-win game Sunday in terms of the Mavericks making the playoffs, so thanks a lot Mark Cuban for adding the fuel to Kobe fire for that game. My next question is will they go after Josh Smith this summer, and if yes at what price?

 
source:  19. Cavaliers (18-37, LW 21). They had won two in a row before giving the Heat plenty of fight on Sunday. Talking with Cavaliers players at All-Star weekend it is clear they are an optimistic group about the future.

 
source:  20. Raptors (23-33, LW 24). They are four games out of a playoff spot in the West. They would need an implosion by the Bucks (not likely) or the Celtics (less likely) to get in. Which makes their game at Milwaukee this wee huge for them, a must win to have any chance.

 
source:  21. 76ers (22-32, LW 20). They have lost five in a row and any playoff dreams have gone up in a puff of smoke. The only question now is how many games does Andrew Bynum play and can you make any real reads about the team going forward with him in that time?

 
source:  22. Pistons (22-36, LW 22). Rough week with the Pistons blowing a lead to the Grizzlies then facing the Pacers twice. That doesn’t mean you can haul off and punch Tyler Hansbrough. You listening Will Bynum?

 
source:  23. Wizards (17-37, LW 23). Their five-man starting unit — John Wall, Bradley Beal, Martell Webster, Emeka Okafor and Nene — are playing well together. They want to keep Webster as a free agent this summer but he could get too expensive for their blood.

 
source:  24. Trail Blazers (25-30, LW 17). Lost seven in a row (before Wesley Mathews got them a win over the Celtics Sunday) and with the Lakers and Mavericks surging it’s hard to see this team coming back and make the playoffs.

 
source:  25. Timberwolves (20-32, LW 27). Ricky Rubio is starting to look more and more like his old self and now Kevin Love says he should be back the second half of March. So for 15 games or so we may get to see the playoff team we thought we’d get all season. Damn injuries.

 
source:  26. Hornets (20-37, LW 25). The Hornets had lost three in a row before beating the Kings on Sunday. Anthony Davis has averaged 15.6 points and 8.8 rebounds a game his last five.

 
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27. Kings (19-38, LW 26). They have lost five in a row and with all anybody can talk about being off-the-court, team sale issues it’s hard to see where this team is going to find focus and start playing well.

 
source:  28. Suns (18-39, LW 28). Expect there to be a house cleaning in the front office this summer in Phoenix. Lon Babby is likely out as GM (you sign then anoint Michael Beasley despite the red flags, you get what’s coming to you) and with him Lindsey Hunter will be out.


 
source:  29. Bobcats (13-43, LW 30).
The Bobcats are 6-21 on the road and they will be on the road all this week. They are well on their way to having the most Ping-Pong balls in the lottery for a second straight year. The only team that could catch them….

 
source:  30. Magic (15-41, LW 29). Orlando got a win at the trade deadline — they were going to lose J.J. Redick so they got some nice prospects in Tobias Harris and Doron Lamb. That will not help the win on the court this season, however.

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.