PBT’s NBA Power Rankings: Stability at the top, trades could shake up bottom

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There is no movement at the top of the standings as the top five teams went 15-1 last week (and that one loss was to another top 5 team). However, get past that five and you get into teams like the Rockets, Suns and others where trades could really change rankings as we move toward the deadline.

source:  1. Trail Blazers (21-4, Last Week No. 1). They keep winning and the offense keeps clicking — on the season they are scoring 110.3 points per 100 possessions (best in the NBA by 2 points) but in their last 10 games that is up to 114.7. (That covers up the 24th ranked defense the last 10 games.)

 
source:  2. Thunder (19-4, LW 2). Reggie Jackson in particular and Jeremy Lamb to a lesser degree have started to play really well off the bench for the Thunder. Depth was always the big question there (well, that and why Kendrick Perkins still starts) and OKC may be finding an answer to the big question.

 
source:  3. Pacers (20-3, LW 3). Don’t read too much into their victory over the Heat last week — there are no statement games in December. That said, watch that game and you see why Roy Hibbert is the key to Indiana beating Miami in a playoff series.

 
source:  4. Spurs (19-4, LW No. 4). San Antonio has gotten off to a fast start this season in spite of a struggling Tim Duncan — but that is starting to change. He is scoring 15.8 points a game on 52 percent shooting and is grabbing 11 rebounds a game in his last 5.

 
source:  5. Heat (17-6, LW 5). They get a rematch against the Pacers at home this Wednesday and we’ll see how focused and intense they are. Dwyane Wade has missed six games and just looks slowed — still good, but slowed.

 
source:  6. Clippers (16-9, LW 9). L.A. went a “meh” 4-3 on an East Coast road swing, although they finished it up by winning three of the last four. The loss to the Nets seemed to sum up their issues: The starting five built up a double-digit lead but once you get into their bench they struggle, then they could never regain their early form.

 
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7. Suns (14-9, LW 11). You can stop calling them a fluke now — winners of five in a row they are a playoff team in the West and not going anywhere. As our own D.J. Foster noted, turns out the Eric Bledsoe/Goran Dragic backcourt works well, thank you very much.

 
source:  8. Rockets (16-9, LW 6). Omer Asik will be traded by Thursday night, the question now is where he lands and what the Rockets get. They are angling for a first-round pick but if they could get a stretch four or defensive help on the perimeter that would be good.

 
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9. Nuggets (14-9, LW 7). Brian Shaw has tried changing the diet and everything else he can think of to get this team to stop stinking it up in the first quarter. Time for a rotation change?

 
source:  10. Warriors (13-12, LW 10). Golden State’s recent dramatic come-from-behind wins covered up a string of games with poor defense, too many turnovers and lackluster effort from key guys. They can’t afford that. How unforgiving is the West? The Warriors are the 9 seed, out of the playoffs (BEFORE SUNDAY) as of right now.

 
source:  11. Mavericks (14-10, LW 8). As we noted earlier today, Brandan Wright is in and Samuel Dalembert is out of the Mavericks’ rotations. Dallas needs to find some rim protection somewhere.

 
source:  12. Timberwolves (12-12, LW 13). Their run through the rough part of the schedule continues this three of their next four on the road, with opponents including Portland and both Los Angeles teams. Right now Kevin Love is carrying them — will voters give him a bump past Blake Griffin into the final West starting front court slot in the All-Star Game?

 
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13. Hawks (12-12, LW 12). After a strong start to the season Jeff Teague has hit a slump — he is averaging 10.4 points a game on 37.3 percent shooting and his assists are down over his last five games. Atlanta needs him if they want to be the three seed in the East.

 
source:  14. Pelicans (11-11, LW 17). Stop assuming the Pelicans are eager to move Ryan Anderson, they are not. First, he makes a very reasonable $17 million total for two more seasons. Second, the Pelicans are +12.2 per 48 minutes when Anderson and Anthony Davis are paired.

 
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15. Lakers (11-12, LW 14). The Lakers are now 1-2 with Kobe Bryant back in the lineup, but the real challenge is the injuries at point guard (Steve Blake, Steve Nash and Jordan Farmar are out, although Farmar is getting close to a return). The injuries force Kobe to play facilitator, and worse yet guard guys like Russell Westbrook. He’s not that defender anymore.

 
source:  16. Pistons (11-14, LW 15). Detroit has beaten the teams you’d expect them to beat (the teams struggling in the East) but struggled against the top three in the East (Atlanta is the third) and the West. This week is a test of that with the good Pacers and Rockets, but also the beatable Bobcats and Celtics.

 
source:  17. Wizards (9-13, LW 16). They get Bradley Beal back on Monday and they could use his scoring. However, that’s not going to help Marcin Gortat get the touches in the paint he says he wants more of.

 
source:  18. Grizzlies (10-13, LW 18). Remember the defensive-powerhouse Grizzlies? In their last five games (four of them losses) they have allowed 113.4 points per 100 possessions, which is the worst in the NBA over the that stretch. That’s more than just missing Marc Gasol.

 
source:  19. Celtics (11-14, LW 19). Rajon Rondo has been cleared to practice but word from around the team is not to expect him until the calendar flips to 2014. The Celtics are somehow still the leaders of the Atlantic and the four seed as of right now.

 
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20. Raptors (9-13, LW 22). Since Rudy Gay left their offensive ball movement has been much improved and the team has looked better. That’s not the plan in Toronto so expect a Kyle Lowry trade sooner rather than later.

 
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21. Nets (8-15, LW 27). Deron Williams is back and suddenly the Nets offense looks vastly improved. Shocking what a good point guard can do. With games against the Sixers (twice) and Washington this week, they could put together a little run.

 
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22. Cavaliers (9-14, LW 22). The have won four of their last six but seem to be looking for ways to get Dion Waiters and Kyrie Irving into rotations without the other one. They are not the backcourt of the future.

 
source:  23. Knicks (7-16, LW 23). Kyle Lowry’s penetration and defense would be big boosts to New York’s dream of salvaging this season, but what would you really be sacrificing the future more to get?

 
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24. Bulls (9-13, LW 20). Last season the Chicago front office had prepared for Derrick Rose to miss a large chunk of time, having guys like Nate Robinson on the roster who could score. This season they were not and it shows.

 
source:  25. Kings (7-15, LW 28). Rudy Gay has been efficient his first couple games with the Kings — 10-of-20 with 26 points in the win over Houston Sunday. We’ll see if this continues, but for a couple of tames he has looked good.

 
source:  26. Bobcats (10-14, LW 21). They play hard on defense — even their losses (and there are plenty of them) are hard-fought ones. That’s all you can ask out of Steve Clifford and his staff considering the roster.

 
source:  27. Magic (7-17, LW 25). The good news is Tobias Harris is back in the lineup. Expect to see more and more Orlando players show up in trade rumors — Jameer Nelson, Glen Davis and Arron Afflalo are all available at the right price.

 
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28. Jazz (6-20, LW 29). Trey Burke has been a boost to the Jazz offense — he’s only shooting 38.5 percent and is turning the ball over too much, but that’s to be expected with a rookie point guard. The bottom line is their ball movement and offense are better with him.

 
source:  29. 76ers (7-18, LW 24). These are the Sixers we expected before the season tipped off, it just took a while for them to show up. When Michael Carter-Williams doesn’t play they are almost unwatchable.

 
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30. Bucks (5-19, LW 30). The good news is the Bucks are giving us a lot more Giannis Antetokounmpo lately — if you are going to lose, at least let the exciting rookies learn on the job.

76ers invite Emeka Okafor to training camp (on non-guaranteed deal)

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Emeka Okafor was back in the NBA last season at age 35, after having been out of the league for four years trying to recover from a neck injury. He earned that chance going through the G-League, averaging 6.8 points on 61.2 percent shooting, plus pulling down 8 rebounds a game in 20 minutes a night, with a PER of 18.6, for the Delaware 76ers.

That was enough for the New Orleans Pelicans to call him up when DeMarcus Cousins went down, and Okafor got into 26 games. He played solid defense, and while he wasn’t putting up counting stats (4.4 points and 4.6 rebounds a game) he was a steadying presence, and he had a PER of 18.6.

Then this summer, no team offered him a new contract.

Until now, the 76ers — and new GM Elton Brand — are going to bring him in on a training camp deal.

It’s a longshot Okafor makes the roster, the Sixers have 14 guaranteed contract and that does not include T.J. McConnell. Which means the roster is pretty much set. They also have Joel Embiid as the starting center and Amir Johnson behind him, plus some small ball lineups they will roll out.

However, have a good camp and another team looking for a backup center may notice.

 

 

Karl-Anthony Towns agrees to sign five-year, potentially $190 million extension with Minnesota

Associated Press
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It was a matter of when, not if.

Back in July, the Timberwolves had offered Karl-Anthony Towns a five-year max contract extension — which could be worth $158 million or, if he was named to an All-NBA team again next season, $190 million. Towns used his leverage and reportedly told management he can’t coexist with Jimmy Butler and reportedly would not sign the new deal until the Butler situation is resolved. Although everyone knew he eventually would sign, he was not leaving that much money on the table.

Minnesota is now working on a Butler trade — ordered by owner Glen Taylor — so Towns is stepping up to be the franchise’s face, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN but that Towns confirmed on Twitter.

Again, for Towns that is a $158 million extension, unless he makes an All-NBA team again (he was third team last season) or is named MVP, then that jumps to $190 million. Making another All-NBA team is certainly within reach.

From Woj:

Towns’ agent, Leon Rose of CAA Sports, informed the organization of Towns’ intention to sign the extension on Saturday night, sources said. The Timberwolves report for media day on Monday and begin training camp on Tuesday.

In a statement, Towns said: “On June 25, 2015, I was drafted to and committed to the Minnesota Timberwolves. On September 22, 2018, I made a recommitment to the Wolves and have the same feelings of excitement that I felt back in 2015.

“I promise to the fans, my teammates and the organization to keep the vision of the man who drafted me, Flip Saunders, alive and treat his dream of winning with respect and dignity. To the fans from Day One and the Timberwolves fans, this is for you. Thank you for believing in me.”

Towns, at age 23, is one of the best centers in the game. He was the No. 1 pick out of Kentucky in 2015 and the next year was named Rookie of the Year. Last season he averaged 21.3 points, 12.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game, the Timberwolves were 13.1 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the court, and he was a key reason the Timberwolves made the playoffs for the first time in 13 seasons. Towns is one of the best post-up scorers in the NBA, he shot 72.3 percent at the rim last season, but also added three-point range and took 23 percent of his shots from deep and hit 42 percent of them. He is an offensive force.

Maybe most importantly for Minnesota, he hasn’t missed a single game in three seasons. Age and durability were the reasons that if it came down to Towns or Butler, Towns was going to be the choice of the Timberwolves. Towns signing this extension is not good for the standing of coach/GM Tom Thibodeau, who is not on the same page with Towns.

That said, the pressure is on Towns to step up his game now, particularly on defense. Using ESPN’s Real Plus/Minus (a flawed stat but one that provides a good snapshot) Towns was one of the weaker defensive centers in the league, playing at a current Dirk Nowitzki level. Towns was better last season as a shot blocker for stretches, but he was inconsistent, he is unfocused on that end, bites on pump fakes too much, and he is often slow to recognize the play and get over to protect the rim despite his physical tools.

In the playoffs last season, the Rockets’ Clint Capela completely outplayed Towns.

Towns is getting paid to step up and lead this team now, especially with Butler on his way out the door. Minnesota was counting on the same thing out of Andrew Wiggins after his big contract extension, and he regressed last season and has shown little passion or willingness to put in the work needed. Butler and others want to lump Towns and Wiggins together, but Towns has put in the work and is a professional, it’s not a correct comparison. However, the pressure is now on Towns to take that to the next level.

Warriors big man Jordan Bell ready for second season

Associated Press
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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — First, his right forearm cramped turning his arm into the shape of a V as his hand bent back, and Jordan Bell could not move it for several minutes as he sat in the bathtub as he recovered post-workout. He yelled for his girlfriend’s help. The cramp briefly released, then quickly returned. Soon, his quads, calves, hamstrings, biceps, hands and feet followed suit.

Then, Bell blacked out. He came to and his girlfriend got him into bed, and he doesn’t remember anything but waking up there.

“I just got cramps everywhere, all at once,” he recalled after a workout at Warriors headquarters this week. “The pain was just so much, I blacked out.”

It was terrifying – “very,” Bell said. He realized he had pushed his body to the brink of physical exhaustion after one especially grueling mid-August day with far from enough food and fuel. He did his cycle class, weights and conditioning, then a couple hours of open gym in Los Angeles – his regular routine all summer to get ready for his second season with NBA champion Golden State.

He’s feeling great now with training camp set to begin Tuesday.

Just chalk that scary experience up to another key learning moment in Bell’s evolution to rising star with the Warriors alongside All-Stars Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and, now, dominant big man DeMarcus Cousins.

“There’s a confidence to him. I think he was confident when he came in but he’s a little more seasoned, which is good, which is what you want in a second-year player,” Warriors general manager Bob Myers said of Bell. “The thing about playing as deep as we did, the best you can give players that are young is experience, because you can’t simulate an NBA Finals game, you just can’t. You can talk about it but he’s actually gotten to experience that and that’s much more than any of us can do to get him ready for his second year. I think there’s a seriousness to him, which is good to see. He’s a fun guy but I think he senses he’s going to have a good opportunity this year.”

Bell’s dynamic play in the post will be even more important now with three centers from last season departed – Zaza Pachulia signed with Detroit, JaVale McGee joined the rival Lakers and David West retired – and Cousins is still recovering from a torn left Achilles tendon that required surgery and ended his season in late January.

And Bell spent the summer taking his fitness and game to another level. He often forgot to eat, just wanting to get home and into bed.

Then he learned his lesson with the blackout episode, likely dehydrated, too – another in many key growth opportunities for the Warriors’ second-round draft pick out of Oregon last year.

In Golden State’s fourth game, he threw the ball off the backboard to himself and slammed it home for his own alley-oop. In a blowout win no less.

Rookie mistake? Maybe. Growth moment? For sure. Even if Curry and Durant could only watch in awe and delight, their mouths agape.

Bell tossed the ball off the glass then dunked during a 133-103 victory at Dallas last Oct. 23. Coach Steve Kerr spoke to Bell afterward and warned him he might face some retaliation the next time against the Mavericks.

Now, Bell is ready to take on a greater role as the Warriors chase another championship as the NBA’s team to beat out West. He’s also treating himself to a new smartphone at long last this season, his other one cracked on draft day a year ago. Though the old one will find a special place in his trophy case.

“I know my role is going to be more extended just because of the bigs we have this year,” he said. “Whether it’s starting, whether it’s playing more minutes or sixth man, whatever it is, I just know I’m going to have a big role and I think the work I put in this summer is going to have me ready for it.”

Bell’s troublesome ankles are strong and healthy, too. He was out with a sprained left ankle for 14 games from Jan. 20 through Feb. 24 before working his way back into Kerr’s deep rotation while continuing to deal with ankle issues. After being inactive for six games early, he had emerged as a starter for 11 games before the injury as Kerr went with a more up-tempo lineup.

It took time for Bell to find his groove again. He wound up averaging 4.6 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.8 assists while playing 14.2 minutes in 57 games with 13 starts. Kerr realized early on he needed to create ways to get Bell minutes. While the rookie needed to learn, he would do so by making mistakes and strides on the court next to so many greats.

Then Bell impressed everybody as he handled the load of helping defend James Harden. Bell earned key minutes as the Warriors went on to a repeat championship and the franchise’s third title in four years that sent Golden State into dynasty status.

“Great energy, great speed and athleticism. He’s a good playmaker,” Kerr said. “We’re thrilled with the way he’s played and his future here.”

 

Orlando has become team worth watching for first time in long time

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This is the latest of NBC’s NBA season preview stories, and we will post at least one a day on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, and today the young Orlando Magic are the focus.

A strange sensation came over me during Summer League in Las Vegas this year:

I wanted to watch Orlando Magic games.

It felt weird. It has been years since the Magic were must-watch, but I was intrigued by them and their potential. Part of it was they have zigged when the league has zagged — in a small-ball league the Magic (in Vegas and in general) went big with Mohamed Bamba and Jonathan Isaac. And those two, for stretches, could dominate the paint.

“The potential between me and (Isaac) is unreal, I think in Summer League we’re starting to bridge that potential into production with the small things we do,” Bamba said to NBC Sports in Las Vegas.

That carries over to this season and expands to other players — which makes the Orlando Magic interesting and worth watching.

It’s been a long time since we could say that, but the Magic have the potential for a dynamic defense this season, especially up front: Bamba, Isaac, just-resigned Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Simmons. Put all of them under the guidance of new, defensive-minded coach Steve Clifford, and the Magic can be big and defense-first in an NBA leaning more toward the Warriors’ model of small and offense first.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t even think (the team’s defensive play in Summer League) scratches the surface in terms of where Mo is going to be in a year or two years, or where I am going to be in a year or two years,” Isaac said of the team’s potential. “Physically, mentally, game wise, you throw in AG and all those guys we have on our team now, and I think we will be a defensive nightmare for a lot of teams.”

Isaac was one of the real head turners at Summer League. He missed much of his rookie season with an ankle injury, playing in just 27 games. In Las Vegas he looked healthy and like he spent time in the weight room getting stronger. He was a defensive force but was able to turn some of that into offense.

Bamba showed potential in Vegas as well, although he was more up and down and showed how he needs to get stronger and develop a better feel for the game. For example, the Suns’ No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton pushed him around physically for much of the night. But even then, Bamba blocked an Ayton shot and altered others, plus he flashed offensive potential (and in another game, showed a smooth shooting stroke from three).

“I just have to establish myself as a roller, it really opens up a lot for our team, even if I don’t necessarily get the ball it opens up guys in the corner or in spots as teams adjust to how we are playing,” Bamba said.

The Magic still are not going to be good, and there are a lot of questions to be answered. How well can both Bamba and Isaac play with Gordon (it would be hard to play all three together, with Gordon at the three, he has struggled in that role before)? Coach Clifford has said he wants to switch more and that these bigs can do it, but how will that really work in practice? Clifford also wants to see how Bamba and Nikola Vucevic pair together for stretches.

Gordon is the best player on the team, the franchise cornerstone guy who signed a four-year, $76 million contract this summer (with incentives that could bring it to $84 million). He averaged 17.6 points and 7.9 rebounds a game last season, is a competent three-point shooter who can finish at the rim like a beast.

Can one of the other young Magic players step up and join Gordon as a cornerstone? Can this team go big and become a force? Those are the interesting questions for the Magic this season, what makes them worth watching.

The rest of the team… not as interesting.

The Magic still don’t have a point guard of the future — D.J. Augustin and Jerian Grant will split the bulk of the time there — and beyond that have solid to good NBA players who are not great fits or parts of the future, such as Evan Fournier and Timofey Mozgov. Vucevic and Terrence Ross are in the final years of their contracts and the Magic will look to move them (they have tried to trade Vucevic since last trade deadline, and he could help some teams, but no deal has been found).

Orlando will lose more games than it wins this season, Bamba and Isaac will learn hard lessons. It will not always be pretty.

But there is real reason for hope, and with it this is a team worth keeping an eye on. It’s been a long time since we could say that.