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.

Seven names popping up as the next coach of the New York Knicks

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David Fizdale is out. Mike Miller is in, temporarily (unless he can work miracles with this roster over 60 games).

The big question now: Who will coach the Knicks next season?

The answer to that question starts with the answer to a different question: Who is the team president of the Knicks next season? Current head honcho Steve Mills is on the hot seat. Does he hold on to his job and get to pick the new coach? If Mills is let go, whoever becomes the new POBO should be allowed to hire his own coach. (Letting Mills hire a coach then forcing that hire on a new president would be a mistake, but not outside the realm of possibility.)

Just because we don’t know who will be making the choice has not slowed the speculation about who is next. Here are seven names being bounced around the league (just know this is far from a complete list):

Mark Jackson: This is a trip down memory lane for the franchise, one that would be a hit with casual fans and certainly would be a marketing success. Jackson’s backers talk about how he built the foundation of the Warriors (and Steve Kerr long credited Jackson for making the peak Warriors a defensive team). However, he was fired in Golden State for good reasons: His offense was old school and heavy on isolation, he was challenging to work with for the front office (Jackson created an “us” vs. “them” mentality in the locker room where them included the front office), he clashed with assistant coaches and asked them to do a lot (he refused to let Mike Malone be an associate head coach), he has a history of distracting personal life dramas (do that in New York and the headlines are much bigger), and the list goes on. There were enough red flags in Golden State that he hasn’t gotten a job since, do the Knicks want to break that trend?

Jeff Van Gundy: Another blast from the past — he was the last coach to get the Knicks to the Finals — and he whet his coaching chops again coaching Team USA’s G-League squads that qualified USA Basketball for the World Cup. He has coached under James Dolan before, he knows what he is getting into. Does he want to leave that cushy ESPN job to be in Madison Square Garden again? Is he a coach for the modern game?

Jason Kidd: Notice how there are a lot of former Knicks on the top of this list? Here’s another. He is currently on the Lakers’ bench, and if the Knicks goal is to once again get a coach respected by players they think can help recruit superstars to Madison Square Garden, Kidd becomes a viable option. Giannis Antetokounmpo credits Kidd for understanding how to be a pro. The knock against him? The performance of his teams in Milwaukee and Brooklyn on the court. He was let go in those places for good reasons.

Tyrone Lue: Another coach whose name comes up for every job, and he has a ring from Cleveland with LeBron James (where he was LeBron’s hand-picked guy). He’s well respected by players around the league and, unlike his reputation among some fans, was a solid tactician. However, when LeBron left and the Cleveland job became a development project, Lue was gone fast — and the Knicks are a development job. Lue is currently sitting next to Doc Rivers on the Clippers’ bench.

Darvin Ham: If the Mills/Perry front office remains, this becomes a name to watch closely. Ham has a championship ring from his playing days (the 2004 Pistons), Perry worked for the Pistons’ front office during that time, and the two have remained friends. Ham has been working at the right hand of Mike Budenholzer in Milwaukee (insert your “we can lure Antetokounmpo” conspiracy theory here) and has been one of the assistant coaches at the front of the line for a head coaching job, having been inconsideration in Cleveland, Minnesota, and Atlanta.

Ettore Messina: If James Dolan can lure Masai Ujiri away from Toronto (a very big if), then Messina becomes more likely. After years on the bench next to Gregg Popovich learning the NBA game, Messina decided to head back to Europe and is the head coach of Olimpia Milano in Italy. Messina is very well respected in coaching circles and it wouldn’t be a shock if he got a call.

Becky Hammon: Her name comes up a lot for this job around the league. The six-year Spurs assistant (and the woman most likely right now to get a head coaching job in the NBA) has New York ties as she played for the Liberty in the WNBA. San Antonio has been a factory of head coaches and Hammon has had several interviews with other teams. She would be the first woman to coach in the NBA, and that headline and marketing potential may appeal to the Knicks (if they decide to go with a first-time coach).

Other names to watch: Kenny Smith, Craig Robinson, Sam Mitchell, Mike Brown, and Nate Tibbetts.

Lauren Holtkamp-Sterling becomes first mother to officiate an NBA game

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CHICAGO (AP) — Referee Lauren Holtkamp-Sterling made NBA history Friday night when she became the first mother to officiate a league game.

Holtkamp-Sterling worked the Bulls-Warriors game in Chicago.

The game was the first for Holtkamp-Sterling since she gave birth to daughter Stoan this year. She missed last season with a knee injury that required surgery and the start of her 2019-20 season was delayed by abdominal surgery.

Her husband, Jonathan Sterling, worked the Los Angeles Clippers-Bucks game in Milwaukee on Friday night. The couple met at a college basketball referees event before they became the first married couple to officiate in league history.

“That’s amazing. They probably have a good nanny, I’m guessing. That cannot be easy raising a child with two NBA refs as parents. It’s a pretty incredible story. I’m happy for Lauren that she’s back on the court,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.

In 2014, Holtkamp-Sterling became the third full-time female referee in league history.

 

Pelicans to ease Zion Williamson into NBA action, no backs-to-backs at first

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If you didn’t see this coming, you probably donated money to help out that poor Nigerian prince, too.

Zion Williamson is six weeks out from his knee surgery and has yet to start on-court work towards his return, signaling he likely will not make the original 6-8 week timeframe to get back on the court. Williamson is putting in the work and improving, but the fact the Pelicans were going to be “overly cautious” — to use coach Alvin Gentry’s words — with Williamson should not be a surprise, this is the franchise that let him play just one half of one game at Summer League.

Pelicans vice president of basketball operations David Griffin went on the Pelicans in-game broadcast recently to talk about the return of Williamson and the team. There he said Williamson is progressing and added the obvious — that there will be some load management of Williamson upon his return. As there should be.

“Yes, he very likely will not be asked to take the pounding of back-to-backs initially,” Griffin said on the team’s television broadcast. “There will be a sort of ramp-up for him to getting back to where you would call him full strength, but he’s certainly going to be playing, and we’re trying to win basketball games. And quite frankly, we’ve done a horrible job of that.”

The Pelicans are 6-16 with a bottom-five defense holding them back this season.

“Where we may be failing in terms of the short term, I’m very confident that we’re succeeding over the breadth of what we’re trying to do, which is build a sustainable winner,” Griffin said. “And we’re well on our way to that, despite the current record.”

Nobody should have expected instant success with this Pelicans roster, despite having Jrue Holiday, and the additions of J.J. Redick and Brandon Ingram. This was going to take time, even if Williamson had remained healthy. Projections of this as a playoff team were wildly optimistic to begin with.

It’s going to take time with Williamson, too. He should not be rushed, he is a physically unique player and must be treated as such.

Griffin is spot on — rebuilding this franchise is a long process and the Pelicans cannot skip steps. Do that and you’re the Knicks. New Orleans has stumbled out of the gate, but what will they look like at the end of the season and if the team has taken steps forward matters a lot more than what they look like now.

Ease your franchise player back into the fold, don’t force things, and the Pelicans will be just fine.

 

Knicks’ president Steve Mills reportedly on hot seat, too

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David Fizdale is out as coach of the New York Knicks.

He also was just a part of the problem with the Knicks. Fizdale did a poor job as chef trying to cook up a decent meal, but he was also given a list of ingredients — the roster built by the front office — that would make a “Chopped” contestant wince.

It looks like the people responsible for putting that roster together — specifically the long-entrenched Steve Mills, who is currently the team president — are in trouble, too. Mills is on the hot seat, too, according to Frank Isola of The Athletic.

“[The Knicks 18 losses this season] go on Fizdale’s permanent record but the failed Fizdale experiment belongs to Steve Mills, whose days as a Teflon executive under Dolan are about to end.

Mills hired Fizdale over Mike Budenholzer, and [Phil] Jackson and without even considering [Jeff] Van Gundy. Mills looked at Fizdale as the hip young coach with connections to today’s young stars. The Knicks were all in on the free-agent class of 2019 and Fizdale was going to be the guy to get their foot in the door.

We all know how that went — the Knicks didn’t even get a meeting.

These last two seasons fall directly on Mills, who, according to sources, will either be reassigned or simply removed from the building. His expiration date is long overdue. The Athletic reported last month that Dolan will try again to pry Raptors President Masai Ujiri from Toronto. If that doesn’t work, maybe NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will point Dolan toward R.C. Buford, Sam Presti, Neil Olshey and Daryl Morey. The Knicks are in the early stages of another massive overhaul that will only work if Dolan gives his next executive savior full autonomy.

What happens to Mills is a bellwether to watch.

Not simply is he removed as team president (and before he can make trades to try to save his job at the deadline), but is he re-assigned to a new position with the Knicks — so owner James Dolan keeps his man in the building — or is he shown the door? It matters. A lot. As Isola notes, when Phil Jackson was hired he was told he would have full autonomy over the front office, but he wasn’t allowed to remove Mills or other entrenched figures (and when Jackson was let go Mills was promoted to his spot). Sources told me that other people considered for team president have asked for the power to clean out the front office and bring in their own guys, only to have that shot down.

This is the real test for Dolan. If he going to spend the money to hire Ugiri or some other big name, will he give that person the complete autonomy to overhaul basketball operations, like New Orleans did last summer with David Griffin? Then, is Dolan willing to be patient enough to wait years for it to all come together? The Knicks do not need another quick fix, another shortcut to getting back in the playoffs. They need to build a culture, a foundation that can succeed for years. That takes time. And the right guy steering the ship.

We’ll see if Dolan makes that step, or if the Knicks continue business as usual.