PBT NBA Power Rankings: Even without Westbrook Thunder take top spot

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It’s legitimate to question how well Oklahoma City will fair in the roughly 27 games they will play without Russell Westbrook, but so far so good and that slides the to the top of the last power rankings of 2013.

source:  1. Thunder (25-5, Last Week No. 2). They won all their games last week, but that’s not the story. With Russell Westbrook out until around the All-Star break Kevin Durant will be trying to keep the Thunder near the top of the standings. The good news is 15 of the estimated 27 games Westbrook will miss are against teams below .500. However, if they slip from a top seed to three or four (a real possibility) they make their playoff run that much more difficult.

 
source:  2. Pacers (24-5, LW 4). They lead the NBA in net point difference — they outscore their opponents by 9.6 points per 100 possessions. The reason remains a defense that is 4.1 points per 100 better than anyone in the league. Plus Lance Stephenson is playing well creating shots for others.

 
source:  3. Heat (23-7, LW 3). They have lost seven games this season, six of them to teams below .500. I think that says plenty about their focus night-to-night, or lack thereof. The one team above .500 to defeat them? Indiana.

 
source:  4. Trail Blazers (24-6, LW 1). They continue to win games with the best offense in the NBA — like the comeback win over the Clippers, another dramatic victory that makes this team entertaining to watch. But in their last 10 games they have given up 107.2 points per 100 possessions on defense, 26th in the NBA in that span. They will not win when it matters without better defense.

 
source:  5. Spurs (24-7, LW No. 6). Look for the Spurs to go on a little run. Why? Nine of their next 11 games are at home, and six of those are against teams with records below. 500. Also, while you weren’t paying attention to the Spurs, Manu Ginobili has played well.

 
source:  6. Warriors (18-13, LW 9). Here’s why I think Golden State could be more dangerous in the playoffs than Portland — since the return of Andre Iguodala they have played the second best defense in the NBA. You know they will score, if they defend they are dangerous.

 
source:  7. Clippers (21-12, LW 5). Don’t be shocked if they go after Andrew Bynum. The Clippers biggest need is depth up front and even with all his issues if the Clips could get Bynum to play 15 minutes a night off the bench he’s an upgrade over Ryan Hollins.

 
source:  8. Rockets (21-12, LW 8). They just completed a brutal stretch of the schedule — 7 games in 10 days. It showed in the loss to OKC Sunday night. Houston looked tired and slow. They have just three games in the next 11 and no team over .500.

 
source:  9. Suns (18-11, LW 7). Maybe the best showdown of the week is on their schedule — Eric Bledsoe takes on the Clippers. The Suns have won 9 of their last 11 and are fully capable of beating the Clippers behind Bledsoe.

 
source:  10. Mavericks (17-13, LW 12). Dallas is an entertaining team, one with a strong offense behind Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis, which usually is enough to make up for their defense. If they can improve the D just a little they would look more secure as a playoff team.

 
source:  11. Hawks (17-14, LW 11). Huge blow with the loss of Al Horford for maybe the rest of the regular season. Last time this happened to him (on the other side) he was out four months, which would have him back about when the playoffs start.

 
source:  12. Timberwolves (15-15, LW 13). Still keep waiting for this team to make a run and for their record to catch up with their point differential (+2.2 per 100 possessions, which suggests a 19-11 record). Win over Dallas Monday would help there against a team also in the bottom of the West playoff mix.

 
source:  13. Wizards (13-14, LW 14). My favorite stat of the week, courtesy my man Dan Feldman: Bradley Beal shoots 45 percent overall when Marcin Gortat is on the floor with him, 31 percent when Gortat sits. Beal’s three-point percentage jumps 9 percent also. Good screens matter.

 
source:  14. Raptors (13-15, LW 18). Your Atlantic Division leaders helped secure that position with a home-and-home sweep of the Knicks. Toronto is now 7-3 following the trade and you can argue they are the third best team in the East following the Horford injury.

 
source:  15. Pelicans (13-15, LW 19). I’m not sure Jason Smith is the long-term answer, but this team looks better with him next to Anthony Davis. Also, Tyreke Evans has averaged more than 20 points a game this past week.

 
source:  16. Nuggets (14-15, LW 10). They have lost six in a row and fallen out of the playoff picture in the West, but look for them to bounce back with six of their next seven at home. They need to make a little run here as the deep West is unforgiving to losing streaks.

 
source:  17. Bobcats (14-17, LW 16). Their defense has carried them this far and when it lapses even a little coach Steve Clifford is calling them out on it. Tough West Coast road swing that includes Clippers and Trail Blazers on tap this week.

 
source:  18. Lakers (13-18, LW 15). They have lost five in a row and Pau Gasol can’t shake an upper respiratory infection to get back on the court — and he looks like he’s giving 75 percent when he does. He is not helping his next contract get any bigger right now.

 
source:  19. Pistons (14-18, LW 17). That Mo Cheeks is calling out Josh Smith and benching him is a sign to me he has reached the “let’s try some gimmicks” stage of getting this to work. Pistons remain -6.6 per 100 possessions when Smith, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe share the court and the defense with all of them is terrible.

 
source:  20. Grizzlies (13-16, LW 20). Marc Gasol is getting close to returning and as he does Memphis has to make up 3.5 games and jump four teams just to get into the playoffs in the West. Doable, but far from easy.

 
source:  21. Celtics (13-17, LW 21). They are getting solid play from guys all around — Jared Sullinger and Jordan Crawford (even after he came back to earth) had strong Decembers. Still wonder what this roster will look like Feb. 21 (day after trade deadline).

 
source:  22. Bulls (11-17, LW 25). Luol Deng is close to returning, it could even be Monday night for Chicago. What Christmas Day showed is that unlike other teams beset by injuries and slow starts, the Bulls will still play hard.

 
source:  23. Nets (10-20, LW 23). Jason Kidd is calling them out and that seemed to help the effort a little. Kidd’s issues still fall to management — they put a first-time, no experience head coach in charge of a team with a very short window to be competitive.

 
source:  24. Kings (9-20, LW 26). They beat the Miami Heat, and while that is partially on the Heat (read their ranking above) it shows that there really is potential in this core group. They have four of their next six against the dregs of the East, it’s a chance to string some wins together.

 
source:  25. Cavaliers (10-20, LW 22). They have lost four in a row and now will have the Andrew Bynum rumors and distraction front and center for the next week as they try to trade him, and failing have to decide whether to waive him or just pay him $6 million to be a trade chip this summer.

 
source:  26. Knicks (9-21, LW 24). That sweep of a home-and-home over the weekend at the hands of the Raptors was a punch to the gut. James Dolan said there were no trades or coaching changes coming, we’ll take him at his word. Even if you do fire Woodson, getting a quality replacement into that zoo will not be easy.

 
source:  27. Magic (9-20, LW 28). Arron Afflalo has scored 20 straight points in six straight games, and while that is not is not going to get him into the All-Star Game (sorry Arron) is should up his trade value at the deadline. A lot of teams could use him.

 
source:
28. Jazz (9-24, LW 27). Trey Burke is looking good as he finds his way in the NBA. He’s not the most explosive athlete, but he has the Damian Lillard style ability to get off his shot or find the right guy. Utah has something here.

 
source:  29. 76ers (9-21, LW 29). Sunday night’s win over the Lakers snapped a 13-game road losing streak, so we’ll forgive Evan Turner for the exclamation point dunk when he should have dribbled it out. They stay on the road against the West this season.

 
source:  30. Bucks (6-24, LW 30). Just as we were starting to see the Larry Sanders, John Henson combo would do together the Bucks have lost Henson for two weeks with an ankle injury. That’s just not fair.

Kevin Knox won over Knicks and now expects to win over their fans

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GREENBURGH, N.Y. (AP) — Kevin Knox took a call from someone who knew exactly what he experienced on draft night.

New Yorkers didn’t welcome Kristaps Porzingis with open arms, either.

“He asked me how the fans reacted and I told him I got the same amount of boos as he got,” Knox said Friday. “He just laughed and he said it’s all motivation and fuel to the fire, and he said just work and he said sooner or later they’ll be cheering for you.”

That’s what happened with Porzingis, who quickly won over those who loudly booed his selection in 2015 with his talent, competitiveness and work ethic.

The Knicks see the same traits in Knox, convincing them that the Kentucky freshman was not only the player to take with the No. 9 pick but that he’s ready to start and match up with the NBA’s best small forwards next season.

That’s why they decided a day before the draft they were taking Knox if he was available and didn’t waver from that even when Michael Porter Jr. was still on the board – disappointing some at Barclays Center who chanted for Porter and then booed Knox.

“I love the fact that he wanted to be at Kentucky, that he wanted to be a Knick,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said. “Says a lot about that kid that he wants challenges and so I think he’s going to fit exactly the way we want to build our culture.”

Beyond the 15.6 points he averaged last season while sharing SEC Freshman of the Year honors with Collin Sexton – drafted one pick earlier by Cleveland – Knox impressed the Knicks with his confidence. He chose to play at Kentucky out of Tampa Catholic in Florida and compete for playing time with the other talented players in Lexington, then agreed to play 3-on-3 in workouts when many top prospects prefer to do them individually.

And the annual outsized expectations faced by John Calipari’s teams should help Knox prepare for the pressure of New York, perhaps giving him a quicker adjustment period than Frank Ntilikina, the Knicks’ lottery pick last season, had after coming to the U.S. from France.

“That actually is going to be up to Kevin, what the learning curve is and how long the adjustment takes,” team president Steve Mills said. “But what I will say is that while all college basketball programs prepare guys to play in the NBA, the sort of pressure and the limelight and the spotlight you’re under when you make a decision to play at Kentucky I think does prepare you in a different way to play in a place like New York. So I think some of the things that are tougher for rookies to make adjustments to are some things that he’s already been through.”

The adjustment is likely much longer for 7-footer Mitchell Robinson, who the Knicks took with the No. 36 pick. A high school All-American in 2016-17, he enrolled at Western Kentucky but never played, instead leaving school and opting to train for the draft. He said he worked out daily, but hasn’t played competitively in a year so it’s unknown how soon he could contribute.

But Fizdale sounds ready to put Knox on the court right away on a team that used Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee as undersized small forwards last season.

“They’re both 6-5 and he’s got to guard LeBron and (Kevin) Durant and those are the 3s in our league,” Fizdale said. “So I feel like it’s a very good opportunity to have a chance to start.”

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

As expected, Denver’s Wilson Chandler to opt into $12.8 million next season

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Wilson Chandler played a workmanlike role for the Nuggets last season — more than 30 minutes a game (in 74 games), 10 points a night, shot 35.8 percent from three. His efficiency and value slipped from previous seasons but he still played a role for the team.

Not the kind of role that’s going to earn him a big payday as a free agent, so he will opt into the $12.8 million for next season, a story broken by Chris Haynes of ESPN.

Denver Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler will exercise his player option for the 2018-19 season, league sources tell ESPN.

Chandler, 31, is opting into a $12.8 million salary instead of entering free agency this summer. Denver was notified of his decision on Friday.

Chandler’s name has come up in trade discussions in recent years, and no doubt the Nuggets would be happy to move his salary now, too. However, in a tight financial market it’s unlikely that’s happening without Denver throwing in a sweetener, and that’s not likely either. So it will be another season of Chandler in Denver.

Deandre Ayton arrives as symbol that Suns are on the rise

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PHOENIX (AP) — Since the heady days of Steve Nash came to an end, there have been few signs of joy from a dwindling fan base that watched the Phoenix Suns tumble to the bottom of the NBA standings and miss the playoffs for the eighth year in a row.

Then came the announcement that Deandre Ayton would go to the Suns with the first overall pick. A huge cheer went up from the several thousand fans at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Thursday night for the draft party. General manager Ryan McDonough, owner Robert Sarver and coach Igor Kokoskov came out of their meeting room to watch and bask in that rare moment of sheer joy from the fans.

“It was a pretty special moment for our franchise,” McDonough said.

Not only that, but McDonough engineered a last-minute trade for swingman Mikal Bridges of Villanova, the 10th pick. It was a spendy move because Philadelphia demanded and got Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick. But the Suns are weary of stockpiling assets. It’s time to cash in, they figured, and did it with that trade.

“We weighed the pros and cons of trading it heavily and carefully,” McDonough said. “We were only going to put it in play if we had a chance to get a special player and that’s how we feel about McKell.”

All four of the Suns’ picks showed up on a crowded dais in Phoenix on Friday – Ayton, Bridges, French point guard Elie Okobo (chosen 31st) and forward George King of Colorado (the 59th selection).

The 7-foot-1 Ayton towered over the others, in a white unbuttoned collared shirt and a sharp blue suit, but he looked and sounded a bit weary from the whirlwind of being the No. 1 draft pick. His only sleep lately, he said, was a couple of hours on the plane ride from New York on Tuesday.

“I’m just excited to finally get a jersey on and be able to play five-on-five again,” Ayton said.

Ayton had been the frontrunner for the No. 1 pick ever since the draft lottery and any doubts were erased when he went through an individual workout with the Suns, the only team which he did so.

McDonough said that Ayton’s workout “in and of itself was as impressive as I’ve ever seen in my 16 drafts in the NBA.”

Ayton is seen as strictly a center, so how does he fit in the modern style of the NBA, when center plays is diminished and players are essentially interchangeable, is a question. Ayton replied that he’s no ordinary center.

“I don’t like it when people think I’m just a guy down low,” he said. “They haven’t watched me shoot the basketball.”

Ayton and Bridges say they got to know each other well at the college awards ceremony in Los Angeles but never figured they’d be on the same team.

“It’s like I’ve known him my whole life,” Bridges said.

Now comes the hard work, molding a team with Ayton, Devin Booker and Josh Jackson. A billboard of those three already has been erected downtown.

The Suns, so bad for so long, seem on the brink of being relevant.

“We’re very hungry,” Ayton said. “I think the great team chemistry and the work ethic that we have, especially us guys coming in, we’re going to bring it to the next level. We’ve got young lets. We can run all day. … We can really start a winning legacy.”

And Ayton is the reason for the sudden leap in optimism, even though he won’t turn 20 until next month.

“I embrace it a lot,” he said of the expectations placed upon him. “Through my career I’ve always had that on my shoulder, the expectations. I represent a whole nation (Bahamas) I just do that the best that I can and just help this community start over and be the best player I can possibly be. I just want to be the best great player.”

Kokoskov says Ayton possesses “a unique talent for the decades.”

Ayton said he wants “to be the best person on and off the court.”

Now the Suns move on to the next phase. Free agency starts July 1 and McDonough wants some veteran players to add to this very young core. He said the team should have $15 million to $20 million to spend.

“We were aggressive last night with the picks and the trade up to get Mikal,” McDonough said. “We’re going to continue to be aggressive for the next couple of weeks in free agency. We’ve got some money to spend and we’re looking to spend it on the best players we can get.”

Hornets GM Kupchak: Kemba Walker focal point of franchise going forward

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — General manager Mitch Kupchak wants point guard Kemba Walker to end his NBA career right where it started — with the Charlotte Hornets.

Kupchak said Friday that Walker is “revered” in the Charlotte community, and that he and owner Michael Jordan look at the two-time All-Star as “the focal point of this franchise going forward.”

The 28-year-old Walker has been the subject of possible NBA trade talks as he prepares to enter the final year of his contract with the Hornets. That speculation has amped up recently because it is a practical impossibility for Charlotte to sign Walker to an extension before he becomes a free agent in July of 2019 since the Hornets are so tight under the salary cap.

“I think everybody is aware of the situation, if you follow basketball a little bit, it is unique that he is on an extension that may make it a challenge going forward to figure out before he becomes a free agent,” Kupchak said.

At $12 million per year, Walker well underpaid when compared to the other top point guards in the league.

But that doesn’t mean Kupchak is giving up hope the team can keep Walker in Charlotte.

“I don’t think it is anybody’s goal to lose him in free agency,” Kupchak said. “But going forward, in the community, in the franchise, this is a player that we hope is with us – not only for the next couple of years, but ends his career here.”

The Hornets don’t have much experience behind Walker at point guard.

They have last year’s first-round draft pick Malik Monk and drafted Devonte Graham from Kansas in the second round on Thursday night.

Graham said he is excited to pick Walker’s brain when it comes to basketball.

“I have never met him, but I remember watching him play when he was at UConn though,” Graham said. “I’m just excited man to learn from someone like that and just be around someone like that who is winner, and knows how to win and compete. I am looking forward to being able to learn from him.”