PBT NBA Power Rankings: Durant powers Thunder to top slot

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No Russell Westbrook yet Kevin Durant has pushed the Thunder to the top of the West and the top of PBT’s weekly power rankings. Still strange to see the Celtics and Lakers near the bottom of the poll, but it’s where they belong this season.


 
source:  1. Thunder (35-10, LW 4). Kevin Durant is making is MVP push and carrying the Thunder to seven straight wins. Without Russell Westbrook. They are doing it on both ends, a top three offense and defense the last five games. That seven-game streak includes beating the Rockets, Warriors, Blazers and Spurs. Bottom line, this team is the standard in the West — if another squad wants to go to the Finals they need to be better than the Thunder.

 
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2. Heat (32-12, LW 5). They have been going through a malaise of late but with the Spurs in town they showed that they can still flip the switch and play like a contender. Especially when Chris Bosh is on. Now they get another real test with the Thunder on Wednesday (Miami has won six straight against OKC).

 
source:  3. Pacers (34-9, Last Week No. 1). The Pacers have hit a little mid-season lull on a tough West road swing. They picked up a nice win over Golden State but lost to the Suns, needed overtime to beat the Kings and fell to Denver. Every team has slumps, but with Indiana’s focus on getting the No. 1 seed (the remain 2.5 games ahead of the Heat) don’t expect it to last long.

 
source:  4. Clippers (31-15, LW 6). Los Angeles has gone 4-2 on the Grammy road trip (with a winnable game left in Milwaukee) and done it without Chris Paul. Their offense has been on fire. This stretch was when the Clippers could have struggled and fallen back, that they didn’t is a good sign about this team’s growth.

 
source:  5. Warriors (27-18, LW 7). Stephen Curry deserves to be an All-Star starter and he showed it with 38 points and the dagger to beat Portland. That made up for the loss to Indiana earlier in the week that showed Golden State the benchmark for contending. Fun game against the Clippers coming up this week.

 
source:  6. Trail Blazers (33-12, LW 2). Yes, LaMarcus Aldridge should have been voted in an All-Star starter if we were going by talent and how they played the first half of the season. But the fan ASG vote is a popularity contest. Aldridge needs a good playoff run by the Blazers this season and some more Trail Blazers game on national television to raise his profile.

 
source:  7. Spurs (33-11, LW No. 3). The Spurs are now 1-10 against the league’s teams playing better than .600 ball (Indiana, Oklahoma City, Portland, the Clippers, Houston and now Miami) and 32-1 against the rest of the league. It doesn’t help that they will be without Kawhi Leonard for a few weeks.

 
source:  8. Grizzlies (22-20, LW 10). They are fast climbing in the West, taking both ends of a home-and-home from Houston and doing it with their trademark defensive toughness. Courtney Lee has been a great fit, averaging 16.9 points a game since arriving from Boston.

 
source:  9. Rockets (29-17, LW 8). Dwight Howard and Darryl Morey can blame whatever they wish for Howard not being an All-Star starter, we all know it is a symptom of what happened to his reputation. The way he fixes it is wins, playoff wins. A lot of them. Just as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James did.

 
source:  10. Suns (25-18, LW 11). They are 2-1 at the start of an eight-game run against teams from the Eastern Conference. After a 2-4 stretch against the West a chance to get healthy against the Leastern Conference is welcomes, but there will be tough road games in that stretch (at Indiana for one).

 
source:  11. Nets (19-22, LW 17). They win this week’s “third best team in the East” trophy (doesn’t that title change weekly?). They have won five in a row and 10-of-11 since going small, but there are real tests this week against the Raptors, Thunder and Pacers.

 
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12. Mavericks (26-20, LW 9). Dallas is in a fight for the last playoff spot in the West — they are the eight seed, half a game back of Phoenix and just 2 games ahead of surging Memphis (they are tied in the loss column) and 2.5 games up Denver, 3.5 on Minnesota. They need a run of wins to solidify their spot.

 
source:  13. Nuggets (22-21, LW 14). Quality win over the Indiana Pacers and again a lot of it has to do with their bench — when Timofey Mozgov plays well inside and Nate Robinson hits his shots this is a hard team to beat. But you can’t count on it consistently.

 
source:  14. Bulls (22-21, LW 15). Derrick Rose who? Luol Deng who? After an initial stumble when their point guard went down, they are 10-3 since the calendar flipped over to 2014. We might try to talk about that and not Carmelo Anthony. Tough West Coast road swing starts this week for the Bulls, who will be happy for the warm weather if nothing else.

 
source:  15. Raptors (22-21, LW 12). Big showdown Monday night with the streaking Brooklyn Nets — the Atlantic Division crown (such as it is) will come down to these two teams. If the Raptors start to slide does the price team is asking for Kyle Lowry in a trade slide down as well?

 
source:  16. Hawks (23-20, LW 18). They have not fallen apart as predicted, Atlanta is 7-7 since Al Horford has went down. They remain the three seed in the East and look like a playoff team. Paul Millsap has made a good All-Star case but we’ll if it’s enough to get the coaches to vote for him as a reserve. He’s on the bubble.

 
source:  17. Timberwolves (21-22, LW 13). Finally Minnesota picked up their first win of the season by 5 or fewer points this week, beating Golden State by one on Friday night. They still remain one game below .500 and are 0-10 when trying to crack that barrier. We’ll see if they can get over the hump with the Bulls, Pelicans, Grizzlies and Hawks up on the docket this week.

 
source:  18. Wizards (21-22, LW 16). Washington is the six seed in the East but don’t be shocked if their record and standing take a hit the next couple weeks as between now and the All-Star break six of their next eight are against the top six in the West.

 
source:  19. Knicks (17-27, LW 22). Carmelo Anthony went off for a historic 97 points over two games at Madison Square Garden and the Knicks picked up a couple wins. That is how the Knicks have to win right now — just outscoring teams — because their defense is a mess.

 
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20. Bobcats (19-27, LW 19). When their defense is clicking they can beat anyone, as we saw in wins over the Raptors and Clippers last week. But that defense is not consistent anymore, hasn’t been for a month, and you saw the other side of it when Carmelo Anthony went off for 62.

 
source:  21. Pelicans (18-25, LW 26). Anthony Davis put up a huge line — 22 points, 19 rebounds, 7 blocks — in a “consider me for the All-Star reserves” kind of game Sunday. But New Orleans has won three of four more because of play from the guards, including steadier performances from Austin Rivers.

 
source:  22. Cavaliers (16-27, LW 20). They had the most embarrassing play of last week, when with a chance to tie the game late they couldn’t even get the ball inbounds. Even with Luol Deng it’s going to be a real fight for this team to even make the playoffs in the East.

 
source:  23. Kings (15-27, LW 24). Losing both Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins to ankle issues, when both had been playing so well, is just the basketball gods being unfair to Sacramento. The good news is both are expected to return this week.

 
source:  24. Jazz (15-29, LW 25). Gordon Hayward is Utah’s leading scorer at 17.3 points a game, with a true shooting percentage just above the league averaged at 54.8 percent. He’s got a PER of 17.9 and a big fan club in front office’s around the league. The question: How much will he be offered as a restricted free agent this summer?

 
source:  25. Pistons (17-26, LW 21). In case you need more evidence that the defense is the issue: The Pistons are on a four-game losing streak but scored more than 100 points in each of those losses. Mo Cheeks benched Andre Drummond for a half because of his defense.

 
source:  26. 76ers (14-30, LW 27). Despite the struggles of the Sixers offense of late (look at the points per possession numbers) Michael Carter-Williams is still my Rookie of the Year with what he is doing in Philly. The only other guys in the race are Trey Burke and Victor Oladipo.

 
source:  27. Magic (12-33, LW 28). After missing the start of the season with an ankle injury Tobias Harris has found his groove again — he’s averaged 17.7 points and 9.7 rebounds his last 10 games. That includes dropping 28 and 20 on the Lakers’ “defense” last week.

 
source:  28. Lakers (16-29, LW 23). Kobe Bryant may not want to play in the All-Star Game but if he comes back before Feb. 16 he’s not going to have no choice. The question now is when he will return. The Lakers went 2-5 on the Grammy road trip, now get the Pacers as a welcome home present.

 
source:  29. Celtics (15-31, LW 29). Jeff Green put up 39 against the Wizards, just as a teasing reminder of what he can do some nights. Then he went back into his shell for the rest of the week. So frustrating.

 
source:  30. Bucks (8-35, LW 30). The Bucks picked up a win last week when Caron Butler went off for 30 points. He says he wants to re-sign in Milwaukee, but do the rebuilding Bucks want to spend on a veteran this summer?

Jordan Clarkson urges NBA to allow players to compete in more global events

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The NBA is trying to walk a fine line. On the one hand, the league and its owners want to globalize the NBA — it is the best, most watched basketball league on the globe and they want people in Europe and Asia to follow the NBA the way American soccer fans follow the Barclays’ Premiere League. That will make the owners more money, and never forget this is a business first, second, and third. With that, the owners allow players to compete for their native countries in major events, such as the FIBA World Cup or Olympics.

However, there is a “club vs. country” tug of war in the NBA. Players want to represent their countries — and sometimes are pressured to do so — while NBA teams see injury risk. They look at the story of Dante Exum blowing out his ACL playing for Australia as a cautionary tale.

So when the Cavaliers’ Jordan Clarkson wanted to play for the Philippines in the Asian Games (his mother is a native of that country, so he is allowed), the NBA shot it down at first saying this tournament was not part of the agreement between FIBA and the NBA that allows the league’s players to take part in major international events (the Olympics, the basketball World Cup, etc.). However, the league eventually flipped and allowed a “one-time exception” for Clarkson (plus Houston’s Zhou Qi and Dallas’ Ding Yanhuyang).

Now Clarkson says he wants the NBA to allow players to compete in more global events, he told Agence France-Presse at the Asian Games.

“After being told no so many times, I refused to give up. I kept fighting,” he said. “I’m here now, ready to compete.”

“I think they get the point — in Asia kids are picking up a basketball. I feel like the NBA is allowing us to do our thing.”

Basketball is a growing sport in Asia — it’s huge in the Philippines already, and it’s growing fast there and in countries such as China. The NBA wants its foot in the door there. It wants to be part of that market — the NBA plays exhibition games in China every year for a reason.

The Asian Games — the second largest multi-national sporting event in the world behind the Olympics — is a good exception to make. Clarkson and other NBA stars playing there — including in the future — is good for the NBA.

However, the league is going to face a challenge trying to find that line in future years between promoting the game and the NBA internationally and protecting its investments in its players.

Watch the top 60 blocked shots of last NBA season

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We love blocked shots. One player is attacking the rim, another gets in his way and rejects that shot. Frankly, we overestimate their importance on defense at points (because it’s a quantifiable stat in a world where defense is hard to quantify), but they matter.

And they are fun.

Check out the top 60 blocks from last season, as put together by NBA.com. It all starts with a chase down block by Kevin Durant (who has improved his rim protection in recent years) and ends with Anthony Davis showing why he is a beast.

It’s Sunday, and what else are you going to do? Watch preseason football?

Grizzlies expected to bring rookie Jaren Jackson along slowly

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Jaren Jackson was one of the standout rookies of Summer League. It started in Salt Lake City at the Jazz Summer League, where he looked like the future of the NBA five — knocking down threes, being athletic enough to run the court on the break, blocking shots, and being physical inside. In Utah, he averaged 15.7 points per game and five boards a night.

Expect the Grizzlies to bring Jackson along slowly, however, once the regular season starts. Jackson likely will come off the bench behind the starting frontline of Marc Gasol and JaMychal Green. That will not be popular with the fan base, but the Grizzlies want to trust their veterans and make a playoff push.

Look at what Grizzlies executive John Hollinger told the Peter Edmiston of the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

I think whatever happens, we want it to happen organically, and not get ahead of ourselves, and make sure we’re taking all the right steps on him, and not getting too excited and skipping ahead….

“We don’t want to put him into overtly physical matchups yet because he’s 18 and his body is still filling out,” he said.

Strength is almost always the biggest challenge facing young big men in the NBA (and Jackson is still 18, he will turn 19 during training camp). These are grown men they are going against nightly, and while Jackson had plenty of strength to hang with the Summer League crowd, things are very different when the big boys come to play. Even in an NBA moving away from old-school power ball, it still matters.

While the Grizzlies will work to not rush Jackson, that plan is somewhat dependent on players with a history of injury issues staying healthy. Jackson is not going to get 30 minutes a night, he’s not going to get the touches that fellow rookies such as Trae Young and Luka Doncic will receive, and he may not be in the mix for Rookie of the Year. We’ll see how things shake out, but on a Grizzlies team looking to put itself in the playoff conversation, the coach likely will lean on veterans he trusts.

Where Jackson will rank in this draft class three years from now could be very different. He has the potential to be the star of this class (or at least one of a few breakouts, this is an interesting group).

Victor Oladipo: “I play nothing safe now” because “that really didn’t get me anywhere”

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Victor Oladipo transformed last season.

Traded to the Pacers, he showed up to camp in better shape than he had ever been before, and with a new confidence in his handles and shot making. Coach Nate McMillan realized what he had, put the ball in Oladipo’s hands, and got out of the way. The result was a 48-win Pacers team where Oladipo was the league’s most improved player, made an All-NBA Team, the All-Defensive Team, and was an All-Star for the first time.

Oladipo, after going to the USA Basketball mini-camp in Las Vegas, is back in a Miami gym with the same team of trainers and staff who transformed his body and game a year ago. In a fantastic profile by J. Michael of the Indianapolis Star, Oladipo talks about the mental transformation he has undergone as well.

“I push the envelope. I play nothing safe now,” Oladipo says. “I’m the guy if we’re down two, I’m pulling up for three. I work too hard to not push the envelope. I used to be conservative but that really didn’t get me anywhere.”

His trainer, Al Watson, talked about getting Oladipo better prepared for defenses that focus on him and late-game situations.

“Last year we started doing a lot of tightening up his ball-handling skills. This year we took it to another level because I watch a lot of film on him,” Watson says. “In the fourth quarter, he’s like the point guard. Wanted to focus on a lot of combination moves, working on traps. It’s no secret now. They’re going to be double-teaming him.

“You look at the great players, Kobe, they had to do a little bit of everything. His shot from the perimeter may be off so he’s got to learn, ‘Let me get myself going, get to the mid-post, get some fouls.’ He’s got to be able to attack with all different facets of the game. We do a lot of sprinting, getting to your spots. Got to get open. I touch everything with in-game situation stuff.”

Oladipo’s team includes an off-the-court group trying to better position himself to make money off his stardom. He doesn’t want to play it safe off-the-court, either.

Indiana is going to lean heavily on Oladipo again. They added some depth — Doug McDermott, drafting Aaron Holiday — and are counting on more from players such as Myles Turner. However, by and large, the Pacers are running it back, and they are sneaking up on nobody this season. Internal improvement will be their key.

Oladipo is ready. He’s not playing it safe anymore.