PBT NBA Power Rankings: At season midway Pacers, Portland on top (not exactly Stern’s dream finals)

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We’re at the midway point in the NBA season and the Indiana Pacers sit on top of the ProBasketballTalk NBA power rankings — we knew they’d be good but they have been better in the regular season than expected. Portland is second, and that is a surprise, but also a team on a win streak. Milwaukee still has the bottom spot locked down.

 
source:  1. Pacers (32-7, Last Week No. 1). Indiana should have three players in the All-Star Game (Paul George will be voted in by the fans, expect Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson to be picked by the coaches as reserves) plus Frank Vogel will coach. Getting hard to play the “nobody respects us” card in Indy.

 
source:  2. Trail Blazers (31-9, LW 5). They have won five in a row, including the last two on the road in San Antonio and Dallas. They have again done it with their offense playing at an elite level, plus now their defense has been average (which is a step up). Terry Stotts could end up as the All-Star coach (job goes to coach of team with the best record in West on Feb. 2 other than Spurs, as Gregg Popovich did it last year).

 
source:  3 Spurs (32-9, LW No. 2). The Spurs are 18-1 against teams under .500 this season but 1-8 against the Blazers, Rockets, Thunder, Clippers and Pacers. It’s hard to judge a veteran team like this during the season, but even Manu Ginobili has had questions about their level of play. The Thunder and Heat are on the docket this week.

 
source:  4. Thunder (31-10, LW 6). Huge comeback win in Houston, then Kevin Durant drops 54 on Golden State — they are 7-5 and playing pretty well without Russell Westbrook. Kevin Durant has scored 30 points or more in seven straight games, which is how it’s going to have to be for now, but the nine assists Sunday was a sign he could get some help from teammates.

 
source:  5. Heat (29-11, LW 4). They went 2-3 on their current road trip (which ends Monday in Atlanta) and maybe the biggest issue is they are shooting just 31 percent from three in those five games. “Space and pace” as an offense only works if you knock down the shots to create space. Also, the defense has slipped in those games — Miami’s defense is based on athleticism and aggressiveness, take their foot off the gas and anyone can get points on them.

 
source:  6. Clippers (28-14, LW 7). They are 5-2 without Chris Paul and while only one win was over a .500 team (the amazing shootout with Dallas) the fact is they are holding their ground with their best player out. So far. They are on their Grammy road trip this week and next.

 
source:  7. Warriors (26-16, LW 3). On PBT Extra CSNBayArea.com’s Warriors insider Monte Poole said to consider the Jordan Crawford trade the first move by Golden State, not the only one. They love their starting five but need depth — Stephen Curry has played more minutes than any other point guard in the league.

 
source:
8. Rockets (27-15, LW 8). GM Daryl Morey told Sports Illustrated he thinks they have the first two pieces of a championship roster — James Harden and Dwight Howard — but lacks the No. 3 piece. Chandler Parsons is offended.

 
source:  9. Mavericks (24-18, LW 9). They gave up 129 to the Clippers, 107 to the Suns then 127 to Portland last week — Dallas needs to tighten up its defense. On a side note, Mark Cuban tells really good Dirk Nowitzki stories.

 
source:  10. Grizzlies (20-19, LW 16). Winners of five in a row and now with Marc Gasol back in the rotation — and not so coincidentally their defense is impressive again — they look like a team that will grab one of the final playoff spots in the West. Then be a brutally tough out for whoever lands them.

 
source:  11. Suns (23-17, LW 13). They have lost four of six, but it was great to see Channing Frye break out for 30 against Denver on Sunday. Sure, Denver defenders left him alone like he had the Hantavirus, still he hit the shots. This is a guy who missed a season with a serious heart condition, it’s good to see him on the court and playing well.

 
source:  12. Raptors (20-19, LW 10). If the Raptors can’t hold off the Nets or otherwise lose the East, they should look back at Sunday’s loss to the struggling Lakers as a game they gave away. Toronto was up 19 in the first half, 16 in the third quarter, and found a way to lose. That and the loss to Boston were not pretty last week.

 
source:  13. Timberwolves (19-21, LW 12). They have lost six of nine and were reduced to the moral victory of “we played hard at the end of the game” after loss to Toronto. We keep saying “they are better than their record” but at some point Bill Parcells is right — “you are what your record says you are.”

 
source:  14. Nuggets (20-20, LW 14). Look for some changes to the bench rotations as coach Brian Shaw is frustrated with the defense with his subs are in. For example, Phoenix went on a 9-1 run late in the first quarter when Nate Robinson entered the contest (and never surrendered that lead). I’d suggest more Andre Miller, but Shaw burned that bridge.

 
source:  15. Bulls (19-20, LW 15). Jimmy Butler played more than 60 minutes in the Bulls 3OT win over Orlando, and look at their rotations and you see the starters getting heavy minutes again. But if the Bulls want to win, what choice does Tom Thibodeau really have?

 
source:  16. Wizards (19-20, LW 19). Needing wins — because the order of the day is to make the playoffs — and with a stretch of home games to get them, coach Randy Wittman has tightened things up with an 8-man rotation. It’ got them a win over Miami but they can’t keep up these minutes long term (not with the injury history of some guys in that locker room.)

 
source:  17. Nets (16-22, LW 17). Deron Williams returns Monday and it gets interesting — can the small ball lineup with Kevin Garnett quarterbacking the defense and Paul Pierce as an offensive fulcrum continue to work? Winnable games this week if it does (Dallas is the only above .500 team on the schedule).

 
source:  18. Hawks (20-19, LW 11). Only one game last week, in London, but it wasn’t a pretty one as the Nets rolled them. They have lost five of seven and without Al Horford the rest of the season it’s hard to see how that trend changes dramatically.

 
source:  19. Bobcats (17-25, LW 23). This is a team that seemed like it could make a playoff push behind the return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who brought their defense back to life. But losing Kemba Walker for a couple weeks with a sprained ankle is a real blow.

 
source:  20. Cavaliers (15-25, LW 24). In the five games since Luol Deng came on board the Cavaliers starters are averaging 118 points per 100 possessions — that is a ridiculously good number (stat via our old friend Matt Moore). Deng makes his home debut for the Cavs Monday against Dallas.

 
source:  21. Pistons (17-23, LW 21). Rasheed Wallace is drilling Andre Drummond before tames on post moves, working on improving him on the block. But right now, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith get far, far more low block touches than Drummond because they are more polished. Still, the big man needs to get fed more.

 
source:  22. Knicks (15-25, LW 18). If the Knicks were going to make a push now would be the time — seven straight home games, only one against a team over .500 (Miami). But can the Knicks really good enough to beat the Nets and Bobcats this week? Not if they don’t start to defend better.

 
source:  23. Lakers (16-25, LW 25). The Lakers are 2-1 on their Grammy trip, they held a team meeting after getting spanked by the Suns and won two straight, including a win in Toronto. Not sure it’s sustainable, but when these Lakers knock down shots they are fun to watch.

 
source:  24. Kings (14-25, LW 22). Friday night when the Pacers come to town the Kings are going to have a “Google Glass” game with some cheerleaders, announcers and during warm-ups players wearing Google Glass, then those images can be broadcast through the arena. Should be interesting.

 
source:  25. Jazz (14-28, LW 27). They remain a .500 team of late, having gone 5-5 in their last 10, and did the last five games without Gordon Hayward. Don’t tell anyone, but right now the Jazz are a good offensive team that can just flat out outscored you.

 
source:  26. Pelicans (15-24, LW 20). For a team that made big moves in the off-season and had dreams of being in the playoff hunt this season, the Pelicans are 7.5 games out of the last playoff spot in the West and 2.5 games ahead of Utah for the worst record in the West.

 
source:  27. 76ers (13-27, LW 26). As expected preseason this is a terrible team, which means the most interesting thing will be he Thaddeus Young trade rumors that are going to increase as we move closer to the Feb. 20 trade deadline.

 
source:  28. Magic (11-30, LW 29). Well, they beat Boston, so the losing streak is over. That’s one positive. Aside that, like the Sixers the most interesting thing the next few weeks is to watch the trade offers role in for Glen Davis and others.

 
source:  29. Celtics (14-28, LW 28). Rajon Rondo is back, and considering the time off he has looked good in his first couple games. That said, the Celtics are 2-14 in their last 16 games and even Rondo cannot stem that kind of tide.

 
source:  30. Bucks (7-33, LW 30). They have yet to win a game in 2014. Just play a lot of John Henson and Larry Sanders together, let them develop chemistry and just take your lumps as you move toward getting some good lottery odds. (Maybe the number of quality bigs at the top of this draft can get Sanders to start playing like his job is in jeopardy.)

Report: Pistons searching for new general manager

Pistons executive Ed Stefanski
Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images
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The Pistons hired Ed Stefanski as a senior advisor to owner Tom Gores in 2018. Among Stefanski’s duties: Assist in the ongoing search for a new head of basketball operations. But it quickly became clear Stefanski would just run the front office himself.

Now, two years later, Detroit is finally getting around to that general-manager search.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The Detroit Pistons are opening a search to hire a general manager to work with senior advisor Ed Stefanski, sources tell ESPN.

Stefanski will be working with Pistons and Palace Sports Vice Chairman Arn Tellem on the process to hire a GM, sources said.

Rod Beard of The Detroit News:

If Stefanski is still running the front office, a new general manager would be the No. 2 – equivalent to assistant general manager on many teams.

After taking over an inflexible roster left by Stan Van Gundy, Stefanski couldn’t do much. Stefanski’s big move was trading Andre Drummond to the Cavaliers just before the trade deadline. That positioned Detroit to have major cap space next offseason, but it’s unclear how much will actually materialize. The salary cap could drop due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Pistons must determine whether they’re still building around Blake Griffin, the 31-year-old due $36,810,996 and $38,957,028 the next two years. Last season, he returned to stardom and carried Detroit into the playoffs. This season, he missed most of the year due to injury.

If they’re trying to win now with Griffin, the Pistons are short on quality complementary players. If Detroit is ready to rebuild, its pool of young talent – Luke Kennard, Sekou Doumbouya, Bruce Brown, impending free agent Christian Wood, its own first-round pick – is hardly assured of success.

After years of being stuck on a path charted under the Van Gundy regime, the Pistons can soon pick a new course. This is the time get the front office up to full staffing.

Report: NBA could resume with group stage

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A fundamental conflict for the NBA:

  • The more traditional of a season – all 30 teams playing 82 games, four rounds of best-of-seven series – the league completes, the more more money it will make.
  • The more teams involved in a resumed season, the higher risk of coronavirus spreading throughout the league.

That’s why the NBA is considering a middle ground – resuming without teams far outside playoff position.

But how would the league structure a format for 20 teams?

Maybe a group stage to replace the first round of the playoffs.

Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer:

The 16 current playoff teams would qualify for the group stage, plus the four teams with the next-best records (Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, and Spurs). The remaining 10 teams would be done for the season. The survey sent to each general manager noted that “tiers” would first be created using the regular-season standings to ensure competitive balance between the groups.

Groups could then be randomly drawn, with one team from each tier going into each group. The NBA is working on approaches to fairly balance the groupings, such as limiting each group to only three Western Conference teams, according to multiple front office sources. Drawings for the group stage could be televised, league sources say.

As an alternative to having groups randomly selected, multiple league sources say the league has considered allowing Tier 1 teams—the Bucks, Lakers, Raptors, Clippers—to draft their own groups.

Teams would play opponents within their own groups twice, meaning every team would play eight games. The two teams in each group with the best record would move on.

Based on the current standings, the tiers would be:

  • Tier 1: Bucks, Lakers, Raptors, Clippers
  • Tier 2: Celtics, Nuggets, Jazz, Heat
  • Tier 3: Thunder, Rockets, Pacers, 76ers
  • Tier 4: Mavericks, Grizzlies, Nets, Magic
  • Tier 5: Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, Spurs

As far as ways to resume with 20 teams, this isn’t bad. The draw – whether random or top-team choice – alone would be a revenue-drawing TV event.

The ninth-place (Wizards) and 10th-place (Hornets) teams in the Eastern Conference might argue they should be included over the 11th-place (Kings) and 12th-place (Spurs) teams in the Western Conference. But Sacramento and San Antonio have better records than Washington and Charlotte. If there were ever a time not to stress conference affiliations, it’s now with the league preparing to resume in a single location.

There would be increased risk for top teams getting knocked out early if their group is challenging. They’ve already lost home-court advantage. But there’s also chance of upset in a regular playoff series. Besides, downside could be mitigated by allowing the top teams to draft their groups* and using regular-season record as a tiebreaker.

*This could even be done in reverse – i.e., the top teams selecting which lower-tier teams not to put in their own group.

The Bucks, Lakers, Raptors and Clippers could rotate selecting lower-tier teams to avoid. Once three top-tier teams have nixed a team, that lower-tier team would be placed in the fourth top-tier team’s group. Each group would still be required to have one team from each tier.

Or maybe the top-tier teams could even rotate sticking lower-tier teams into a specific top-tier team’s group. The Bucks could use their first selection on placing the 76ers into the Lakers’ group, for example.

There are many possibilities how to structure a group draft.

If the NBA locks into resuming with 20 teams, the other 10 teams would be incentivized to vote for whatever system generates the most revenue. Those 10 votes could boost any proposal that would otherwise be doomed by teams trying to clear their own path deep into the playoffs.

This system would satisfy players on marginal teams – like Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard – who want to play only if the games are meaningful. It’d also allow the worst teams just to be done.

The draft order and lottery odds would have to be re-considered with a 20-team group phase. Though that’s a minor issue, it’d involve every team. Again, self-interest would creep in.

This idea has some rough precedent. In 1954, the playoffs began with three-team round robins in each the East and West.

The bigger question is how many NBA teams should resume? But if the best answer is 20, this is the best format I’ve seen.

Lakers’ Jeanie Buss talks steps that led to brother Jim’s removal

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Late Lakers’ owner Jerry Buss set up a very detailed trust and succession plan for his beloved franchise. His daughter Jeanie Buss would be the team’s governor, and his son Jim Buss would run basketball operations. If there was an issue, Jeanie had the ultimate power.

In 2017, after the Lakers missed the playoffs for a fifth straight year and were floundering as an organization, Jeanie used that power to oust Jim and bring in a new front office (Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, of which only Pelinka remains). Recently, Jeanie appeared on the “Daddy Issues with Joe Buck and Oliver Hudson” podcast and laid out the philosophy behind removing her brother. (Hat tip Lakers Nation)

“When my brother wasn’t going with the way my dad did things, it was a little distressing for me…

“You’re down and losing, and then my brother was changing coaches every 18 months. Sometimes you have to make coaching changes, I get that. But when you go from a coach like Mike Brown, whose emphasis was defense, to a coach like Mike D’Antoni, who really doesn’t worry so much about defense, that’s two different rosters that you need. Then the outside world thinks, ‘They don’t know what direction they’re going in.’

“You should be able to see a pathway as you hire a coach, you give him the players for his style of basketball and you make decisions that follow ones before it. You follow the path and what the person is thinking. But I couldn’t see what was going on, where he was trying to go and what our identity was going to be as a team.”

The path was clearer with Magic and Pelinka because they quickly landed LeBron James as a free agent (how much they had to do with LeBron’s decision is up for debate). The Lakers instantly became a win-now team and, a year later, traded a lot of the young players and picks to put Anthony Davis next to LeBron. The result has been the team with the best record in the West heading into the playoffs (whatever they look like).

Jim Buss swung and missed plenty, but he had a few hits as well. From the outside looking in, the biggest challenge seemed to be he operated with a mindset of “Laker exceptionalism” — that the very best players would always flock to the Lakers because they are the Lakers. The NBA doesn’t work that way anymore. No doubt, the Lakers have advantages few franchises can match. But from Jerry Buss to Jerry West and Mitch Kupchak, all through the Lakers’ successful runs, they didn’t approach things with a mindset of exceptionalism. The Lakers’ front office was bold, but it was grounded and smart — they identified and developed talent, they always had a strong core, and they had strong relationships with players. It wasn’t exceptionalism, it was hard work.

On top of that, Jim had become the scapegoat of Lakers’ fans, the focus of their blame for the years not in the playoffs. Fair or not, it became a public relations issue, not just a management issue.

Jeanie made the right move. And it may even lead to another ring soon.

Damian Lillard: I won’t play if Trail Blazers have no shot at playoffs

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Most players on lottery-bound teams reportedly prefer to be finished rather than return as the NBA attempts to finish its season amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Someone finally put his name behind that sentiment.

Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard, via Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

“If we come back and they’re just like, ‘We’re adding a few games to finish the regular season,’ and they’re throwing us out there for meaningless games and we don’t have a true opportunity to get into the playoffs, I’m going to be with my team because I’m a part of the team. But I’m not going to be participating. I’m telling you that right now. And you can put that [expletive] in there,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday morning via phone.

I do feel like if we do come back and our mind is right, we can beat anyone. It’s going to be hard to get going with no fans, you’ve been off all this time and some people are just ready for summer like, ‘[Expletive] it, I haven’t played in a long time and the season is basically over to me. Do I really care like I cared before?’ It’s going to be a lot of those factors going on and that presents a lot of room for a team to sneak some [expletive]. Like, really mess around and knock some teams off and then, ‘Oh, they’re in the Western Conference finals.’ It’s room for that with this situation. So the fact that it’s possible and we wouldn’t get an opportunity at that, that’s weak to me. I ain’t getting no younger.”

In ninth place, Portland is 3.5 games behind the eighth-place Grizzlies. The Trail Blazers might still have a chance to reach the playoffs. It depends on the NBA’s format for resumption.

There’s consideration to bringing back only teams with a postseason chance, anyway. But there’s also talk of all 30 teams playing in order to fulfill local TV contracts.

Lillard is a tremendous leader. If he doesn’t play, that would cast such a negative feeling onto his Portland teammates – and beyond. Lillard’s voice could affect how the entire league handles its return.

With a super-max extension already signed, Lillard has the luxury of being able to afford risking his paycheck by not playing. Not everyone can do that. There are major complications in determining how much money, if any, non-returning players should earn.

This also gets into an issue even in normal times: There are too many games late in the season involving at least one team incentivized to lose. The Trail Blazers have made the playoffs every season after Lillard’s rookie year. He has never had to worry about this since becoming a star. But players and teams annually grapple with games that, at best, don’t really matter. It creates a horrible product.

The concern is just magnified now because of the heightened risk of playing.

The NBA should listen to Lillard’s apprehension, realize he’s not alone and take it seriously. Then, whenever normal play resumes, the league should also realize this type of situation comes up – admittedly, with lower stakes – every year.