PBT NBA Power Rankings: Heat on the top, Sixers fall to very bottom

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We have a new team at the top and the bottom of PBT’s weekly NBA Power Rankings. Miami’s defense is back and propelled them to a couple wins that have them back on top of the chart. It has taken some sustained losing — a real effort — on the part of a Sixers team that started fast, but Philly is finally on the bottom of the rankings. Where they seemed to strive to be.
source:  1. Heat (40-14, Last Week No. 2). The only people really concerned about LeBron James’ broken nose are the people who want to put him in Space Jam 2. What should catch the attention of the other contenders in the NBA is the way the Heat defended in beating the Thunder (and Bulls) — when they are focused on D Miami is hard for anyone to beat.

source:  2. Pacers (42-13, LW 4). Soft schedule this week (Lakers, Buck, Celtics, Jazz) which is exactly what a team needs as it tries to fit Evan Turner into the sixth man role. Turner can be a big upgrade for them but he’s going to have to play within the system in way he did not in Philly (where he could run and gun to his heart’s content).

source:  3. Thunder (43-14, LW 2).. There is a whole lot of “see, the Thunder aren’t as good with Westbrook” crap after he came back and the Thunder dropped two in a row. First off, Miami played one of its best game of the year and the Thunder lost to the Clippers because of their defense, not Westbrook. Second, you need to wait 10-15 games then see how the Thunder look. With the losses they are still 21-6 when he plays with Durant. Things are fine in OKC.

source:  4. Spurs (40-16, LW No. 6). They went 6-3 on the rodeo road trip and they did some of that damage without Tony Parker — Patty Mills stepped up with monster games after the All-Star break. Don’t sleep on how well this team survives injuries. Now the Spurs are at home and look to be locking down a top three seed in the West, likely top two. Again.

source:  5. Rockets (38-18, LW 3). They have still won 9 of 10 and have done it some improved defense but mostly a whole lot of offense. When James Harden was asked All-Star Weekend if this team was a contender he sounded like a guy not yet fully sold as he talked about growing and learning. I think they have more learning to do come the playoffs.

 
source:  6. Clippers (38-20, LW 10). After watching the Clippers get ground down by Memphis then beating Oklahoma City thanks to their offense (nobody played good defense that game) I still have this question: Will the Clippers get out of the first round? Glen Davis will help in that regards, he is a huge upgrade over Ryan Hollins, currently the first big off the bench.

source:  7. Trail Blazers (38-18, LW 7). LaMarcus Aldridge being out with a groin strain is the first time a Portland starter has had to miss a game this season. They picked up a nice comeback win over Minnesota without him thanks in part to a big game from Thomas Robinson (and Wesley Mathews’ points in the fourth quarter).

source:  8. Grizzlies (31-24, LW 9).  They picked up a quality win over the Los Angeles Clippers last week now this week they have another interesting test against the Thunder.What really matters is beating teams like the Lakers and Cavaliers (both on the schedule this week) so they can climb past Dallas or someone else who stumbles and get the eighth seed (right now Memphis is the nine seed, on the outside looking in.

source:  9. Suns (33-22, LW 10). That we are still talking about these Suns as a playoff team when they haven’t had Eric Bledsoe for going on two months is why Jeff Hornacek is your leading Coach of the Year candidate. That award usually goes to the guy whose team most exceeded expectations, and that’s the Suns.

source:  10. Warriors (34-22, LW 11). They have put together a nice three-game win streak and continue to play quality defense even without Andrew Bogut. They make a swing through the Eastern Conference (Detroit, Chicago, New York and Toronto) and those are the kinds of games a team just 2.5 games from falling out of the playoffs has to win (at least most of them).

source:  11. Mavericks (34-23, LW 8). They keep winning but have done it mostly against a pretty soft schedule. Things get more interesting coming up this week with the scrappy Bulls and Spurs. Plus Memphis is just two games back and looming to knock Dallas out of the playoffs. They need more key wins.

source:  12. Bulls (29-25, LW 13). Winners of five in a row, including over the Nets and Raptors — that makes Chicago this weeks “third best team in the East.” That the Bulls sans Rose and Deng are playing like this is a tribute to Tom Thibodeau’s culture, and another sign of where the East really stands.

source:  13. Raptors (30-25, LW 12). Kyle Lowry stayed put at the deadline, the Raptors continue to play quality defense and now the target is not just making the playoffs but winning the Atlantic, having home court in the first round and advancing to the second. With the easiest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way winning the division is very doable.

source:  14. Nets (26-28, LW 14). Lost in much of the Jason Collins talk — the Nets could use his skill set. Collins is a good post defender, sets strong screens and is strong on the boards. In certain match ups the Nets need those skills, they can still be a bit soft.

source:  15. Wizards (28-28, LW 15). If they lose Nene for the rest of the season it’s not good — Washington’s defense was +6.7 per 100 possessions better when he was on the court. When Nene, Marcin Gortat and John Wall played together the Wizards outscored opponents by +10.1 per 100 possessions and had an elite defense. Without that hard to see them advancing past the first round.

source:  16. Bobcats (27-30, LW 19). The sweep of a home-and-home with Detroit this week was huge for solidifying a playoff spot in the East. The win over Memphis was a big step that direction, too. Now though a tough week on the road at San Antonio and Oklahoma City.

source:  17. Timberwolves (27-29, LW 18). This team really misses the offense that Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic bring — they need to scoring from those two to beat good teams because the Timberwolves are not a good defensive team. At all. Which is why they will miss the playoffs (they can’t make up 6.5 games at this point).

source:  18. Hawks (26-29, LW 16). This is a team falling fast, snapping their eight-game losing streak against the Knicks but with All-Star Paul Millsap out (at least a couple more games with a knee bruise) you have to wonder if they can hold off the Pistons (3.5 games back) or Cleveland (5 back).

source:  19. Pelicans (23-32, LW 17). New Orleans was an amazing host for the All-Star weekend of festivities. I may have gained 20 pounds with all I ate. But the team may be eating to get over the three close losses last week, including letting the Knicks win and letting Nene beat them with a dunk.

source:  20. Pistons (23-33, LW 20). Had a chance to get in the playoff mix and instead got blown out in both ends of a home-and-home against Charlotte (they have now dropped four of five overall). Detroit could still get back in the playoff mix (Atlanta is banged up and sliding) but Detroit is going to have to defend a whole lot better than they are right now to make that happen. Not sure John Loyer can get them to do that.

source:  21. Cavaliers (22-34, LW 23). They were hot winning eight straight, and they look better with Jarrett Jack in the starting lineup, but when they ran into Toronto and Washington last week they lost. Cleveland needs some key wins to keep the playoff dream alive, and they have Toronto, Oklahoma City and Memphis on the schedule this week.

source:  22. Nuggets (25-29, LW 21). Brian Shaw consistently talks about the energy and will to compete that he doesn’t see in his Nuggets. He’s right. But it’s not as easy to get that out of a team as Phil Jackson made it look (Frank Vogel as well). Denver has won on of its last eight and has two against Portland this week.

source:  23. Knicks (21-35, LW 22). The idea of giving up the one decent trade chip they have in Iman Shumpert to land a short-term, modest upgrade at the point in Darren Collison was never a good idea. But now that they are waiving Metta World Peace it seems this is a team waiving the white flag on this season. That would be the smart thing to do, but what will Carmelo Anthony think?

source:  24. Kings (19-36, LW 26). They don’t have a big three in Sacramento, they have an “only three” — Isaiah Thomas, Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins accounted for 92 of the Kings 109 points on Sunday. Those three can play, the rest of the roster needs a lot of work. (And spare me the Jimmer Fredette talk, the Kings couldn’t get a second round pick for him at the deadline.)

source:  25. Lakers (19-36, LW 28). They are terrible but they are entertaining — Summer League sensation Kent Bazemore got 33 minutes on Sunday. Throw in Kendall Marshall with the free-flowing Mike D’Antoni system and you have a fun team to watch… usually watch lose, but at least it’s fun.

source:  26. Magic (17-40, LW 27). Glen Davis is gone via buyout, which means they can just make Tobias Harris the four full time and not have to showcase Big Baby. The Magic are a pretty good team at home lately but have a 15-game road losing streak.

source:  27. Celtics (19-38, LW 24). Check out Celtics blogs and you see a lot of talk about the players in the upcoming draft and available in free agency. As it should be. This fan base needs the Red Sox in Spring Training ASAP so they can focus on a quality roster for a while.

source:  28. Jazz (19-36, LW 25). Trey Burke looked good at first when he finally got back and healthy, but the league has figured out he can’t shoot and that’s an issue. He is shooting 28.3 percent from three in his last 10 games and 33.8 percent overall. He’s also shooting just 46.2 percent in the restricted area and 40 percent in the paint overall. He can’t finish. That is the summer goal.

source:  29. Bucks (10-45, LW 30). They picked up a win over Orlando and that was enough to move them out of last in these power rankings in a very long time. Don’t worry, they have still lost 12-of-14, they will still have more ping-pong balls than anyone, but right now they play harder and better than one team.

source:  30. 76ers (15-41, LW 29). Their 10-game losing streak got them here, but they can bounce out of the cellar next week if they can win the big Monday night “showdown” with the Bucks. Somebody will win that game, it’s in the NBA rulebook.

Raptors, Pascal Siakam reportedly agree to four-year, $129.9 million max contract extension

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Pascal Siakam is going to be the face of the Toronto Raptors going forward.

This was expected. Toronto was never going to let its young star slip away; the only questions were when it a contract extension got done and the price.

The answers came Saturday, with the Raptors and Siakam’s agents reaching terms on what will be a four-year, $129.9 million max extension for the reigning Most Improved Player. Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe of ESPN broke the news.

There are no player or team options, this is a straight four years.

Last season, his third in the league, Siakam made a huge leap. He averaged 16.9 points and 6.9 rebounds a game, shot 36.9 percent from three, took on a larger role as a shot creator, played impressive wing defense, and was a key part of the Raptors winning the first title in franchise history. He is at the heart of their future and a guy the Raptors wanted to keep through whatever rebuilding/retooling process comes in the next few years.

The Raptors could have played it out, and let Siakam go to restricted free agency next summer. However, in what will be a down free agent market, some team would have tried to poach the young wing — a real position of need around the league — with a max offer. The Raptors would have matched, but all that drama might have created bad blood. Maybe the Raptors overpaid a little, but they get to keep their guy and have him happy.

Siakam is the third player to get a max extension to their rookie contract this summer. Both Ben Simmons (Philadelphia) and Jamal Murray (Denver) signed five-year, $170 million max extensions. Siakam decided to take one year fewer, but also hits free agency again a little earlier.

Chinese state media says Adam Silver will face retribution for ‘defaming’ China

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Adam Silver has worked to portray the NBA as a progressive league that favored free speech. However, when push came to shove in a conflict with China over a Tweet from Rockets GM Daryl Morey supporting protesters in Hong Kong, Silver’s first statement seemed to protect the status quo and the cash the world’s largest nation generates for the NBA.

That backfired, and Silver came out with a stronger second statement that backed Morey’s right to free speech. Since then, the league has worked to emphasize that position.

In an interview at a TIME Magazine event this week, Silver added to that sentiment saying China asked for Morey to be fired and the league said no. “We made clear that we were being asked to fire him, by the Chinese government, by the parties we dealt with, government and business. We said there’s no chance that’s happening. There’s no chance we’ll even discipline him.”

The Chinese government denied this, and now Chinese State media is saying there will be retribution for Silver. From the South China Morning Post:

Chinese state media has warned that NBA commissioner Adam Silver will face “retribution” for defaming China in the latest twist to a dispute that began with a basketball team executive tweeting his support for the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong…

“Silver has spared no effort to portray himself as a fighter for free speech and used freedom of speech as an excuse to cover for Morey, who voiced his support for the violent actors in Hong Kong,” it said. “This has crossed the bottom line of the Chinese people.”

Silver’s handling of the controversy had proved his “double standards”, the broadcaster said, adding that he had “defamed” China on the international stage.

“To please some American politicians, Silver has fabricated lies out of nothing and has sought to paint China as unforgiving,” it said.

Silver didn’t fabricate this. We’re all smart enough to know how this went down: Chinese officials would never outright say “you need to fire Morey” but they could strongly imply it with words and actions. Silver’s phrasing on this — that it was “made clear that we were being asked to fire him” — suggests precisely this scenario. It’s how people with power ask for something unethical or illegal, whether we’re talking mob bosses or politicians, the ask is strongly implied but not direct, allowing denial later.

China wanted its pound of flesh, maybe to fire Morey but at least a public rebuke and fine/suspension. They got none of it. Now they can use Silver’s comment — clearly aimed at the domestic market to bolster the NBA’s image in the US — to cause a little more pain. China has shown it can hit the NBA’s bottom line, it flexed its muscle, but how far does either side really want it to progress?

As we have been saying all along, this issue is not going away anytime soon. It may fade from the spotlight, but the NBA/China relationship is a story that will be a cloud over this entire season.

 

Does the East have a better chance of winning the Finals with crowded, deep West?

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The Golden State Warriors will be hampered without Klay Thompson to start the season. The sharpshooting guard is a crucial part of what the Warriors bring to the table sans Kevin Durant, who is now with the Brooklyn Nets. Even with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George with the Los Angeles Clippers, many have considered the Western Conference to be more open for the taking this season. It’s been thought that this makes it more likely the Eastern Conference can field a second consecutive NBA champion.

Leonard’s decampment from the Toronto Raptors has made way for the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, and Milwaukee Bucks to ascend into the Finals to take on the Western Conference’s best. All of these teams have tried to add pieces with this idea of a wide-open NBA table in mind: The Sixers now have Al Horford, the Celtics Kemba Walker, and Milwaukee a cavalcade of veteran talent including Kyle Korver.

And indeed, the more proven championship-caliber teams are out east. Philadelphia, for all its growing pains and issues arising around Joel Embiid‘s conditioning, added the one player in Horford who was able to put a stop to them. Well, save for Leonard, who put in a bouncing jumper to end the Sixers’ season last year.

That again, Philadelphia is missing two key pieces from last year that we don’t know how they will make up for. JJ Redick is now with the New Orleans Pelicans, and his shooting presence will be missed. Redick made 240 threes last year for the Sixers. Landry Shamet was second on the team with 99. Jimmy Butler is now with the Miami Heat, and his dynamism on the wing will be difficult to replace.

The Celtics and the Bucks have similar issues when looking at their championship resumes. Boston has a glut of wings, although it’s not clear how good any of them are outside of Marcus Smart. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are dueling for future contract extensions. Gordon Hayward didn’t look great last season, and although there is hope he will be his old self this year, we’ll have to wait and actually see it to feel comfortable. That’s before mentioning that Horford is no longer anchoring the paint for the Celtics.

Milwaukee found a hard stop last year when it came to its playoff readiness. The Bucks were not particularly steady in the postseason, and teams were able to plan around Giannis Antetokounmpo and his lack of 3-point shooting. Last season’s MVP has said that his goal is to get better from beyond the arc, and any improvement in 2019-20 would be acceptable. Even despite the team adding Kyle Korver, they will be relying on Wesley Matthews, George Hill, and Pat Connaughton to flesh out the wing. Gone is Malcolm Brogdon to the Indiana Pacers, perhaps their most reliable player in the playoffs.

Put together, all three championship contenders in the Eastern Conference have their issues. But so to do the newly-minted challengers out west. There’s a thought that both of the Clippers and the Los Angeles Lakers — who now have Anthony Davis — will show some weakness to start the year. The Clippers will need to use load management on both Leonard and George, the latter of which is still recovering from double shoulder surgery. And although the Clippers were one of the best teams in terms of depth last season, how adding two new stars changes that dynamic is not yet known.

On the other side of the hallway in Los Angeles stands the Lakers, who outside of Davis, LeBron, and Danny Green don’t have much to show for all the bluster around their title hopes. The Lakers roster is flat-out bad, and despite tons of optimism around media types, I’m just not buying that they are a championship-level squad yet. The Lakers have real injury concerns, and until they make it all the way through to the Western Conference Finals, those will always be top-of-mind.

The second-tier in the west is plucky, but not necessarily ready for overt dominance. The Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, and Portland Trail Blazers, and San Antonio Spurs will all be in the running for the middle of the pack next year. Do any have championship rosters? Some of these teams are top-heavy, including Houston with James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Others, like the Nuggets and Jazz, will rely on their depth. Harden and Nikola Jokic could be legitimate MVP candidates, and that’s a problem in a league where it’s difficult to make it to the Finals without one.

That puts us in a difficult position in terms of “counting out” the Warriors. Thompson has said that he is going to take his time coming back from his ACL injury, but he should be a part of a Warriors playoff run in the spring of 2020. Without Durant, both Stephen Curry and Draymond Green will be extra motivated to prove themselves as the core pieces to the team that dominated the NBA long before Durant came to the Bay Area.

Health will be another concern for Golden State, particularly with Curry and his ankles. Weight, if you can call it a health concern in context of the NBA, is what most will be raising questions about when it comes to Green. He entered the season last year a bit slower, and burned off 20 pounds at the All-Star break to make a playoff run. They will need the former Defensive Player of the Year to come into the preseason already able to do what he did last year: Disrupt opposing offenses and pressure the defense with his pace-pushing offensive style.

For now, at the precipice of the season, it seems clear that the Eastern Conference is the odds-on favorite to repeat as champions. At least, as a group. This isn’t a Tiger vs. the field situation for the Clippers. They just aren’t that strong, and in this case the safer bet would be on one of the Eastern Conference powerhouses instead of just L.A. It’s possible that the Clippers are will be as dominant as projected. In that case, it would be a bitter irony for the East to be subjected to yet another super team on the West Coast just as one appears to have a chink in its armor.

New teams coming together — particularly super teams — have not always had the best track record. Will the Clippers be LeBron James with the Miami Heat in 2008? Or will they be Durant with the Warriors in 2017? Consistency and familiarity cannot be ruled out as a function of success in the NBA. It would be smart for teams in the East to continue to build on their core as long as the teams out west are starting to form theirs. They may only have a short window with which to strike before the Warriors, Clippers, or some other team takes control of the league.

Kyrie Irving: ‘There’s enough oppression and stuff going on in America’

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Kyrie Irving finally got some preseason run on Friday night. A fracture in his face had limited his time on the court, including playing just one minute in China against the Lakers, but back home in Brooklyn he put on a mask and dropped 19 points in almost 25 minutes of action.

However, the issues from China followed the Nets back to Brooklyn.

Hundreds of supporters of the Hong Kong protesters attended the Nets game, wearing “Stand with Hong Kong” T-shirts and masks.

After the game, Irving was asked about the protesters and the now scarred NBA/China relationship. He mentioned the meeting with Adam Silver and said he understood the protestors but his focus was more domestic, via Nets Daily.

“Listen, I stand for four things: inner peace, freedom, equality and world peace, man. So if that’s being conflicted inside of me, I’m definitely going to have something to say, and I left it in that room,” Irving said of his conversation with Silver [adding the teams agreed after that meeting to play the games]…

“When you think about communities across the world, a lot of people would stand for world peace,” Irving said. “Government gets involved, it impacts different communities in different ways. And the reality is as individuals it’s our job to stand up for what we believe in. Now, I understand Hong Kong and China are dealing with their issues, respectively. But there’s enough oppression and stuff going on in America for me not to be involved in the community issues here as well.

“That’s one of those four pillars that goes in terms of the black community, colored people here in America. We’re fighting for everyday freedoms. So when I think about Hong Kong and China, the people are in an uproar; and for us as Americans to comment on it, African Americans or American Indians to comment on that, you’re connected nonetheless, especially when it impacts freedoms or world peace.

“So for me as an individual I stand up for those four pillars; and when they’re being conflicted I can understand why protestors come to the games.”

That is much better handled than LeBron Jamessomewhat rambling statement that mentioned financial repercussions. Irving supported the rights of the protesters at the game, but he avoided touching the third-rail issue in China (or, at least with Chinese officials) of the protests in Hong Kong themselves. Remember, Irving does have shoes to sell.

We’ll see if there’s any fallout on the issue, but Irving is not as big a brand and target as LeBron.

Some of those lined up to bash the NBA on this issue will use what Irving said to continue doing so (and many would have no matter what Irving said). There are people who didn’t like what LeBron and Irving and Kevin Durant and others had to say when they spoke out on issues such as Black Lives Matter and now they see an opening to make lazy political points. It’s the way of the world.

However, as much as the league wishes it would the NBA/China issue is not going away. It may go dormant for a while — the NBA certainly wants it to as they try to promote the start of the season this week — but it will flare up again, one way or another. Hopefully, the league’s response next time comes with a better understanding of its priorities and what it stands for.