NBA Power Rankings: Spurs, Clippers are your clear top two

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The Spurs and Clippers are both on double-digit winning streaks and that vaults both to the top of the PBT weekly NBA power rankings. At the bottom sit the Sixers and their 20-game losing streak — should that impact Michael Carter-Williams’ candidacy for Rookie of the Year? I don’t think it should.
source:  1. Spurs (50-16, Last week No. 1). Winners of 10 in a row and that gives them the best record in the NBA and 50 wins on the season (for 15 straight years, which is just insane). Heading into Sunday night they had the fourth best offense in the NBA in their last 10 games (110.2 points per 100 possessions) and third best defense (98.9 per 100). And you know they can sustain it.
source:  2. Clippers (48-20, LW 2). Going into the season we said “if they can defend they are contenders.” Over their last 15 games they have the second best defense in the NBA (99.7 allowed per 100 last 15; 98 in last 10 games). They are contenders. Danny Granger, given less rigid role by Doc Rivers, is thriving. Winners of 11 in a row with a soft schedule ahead.
source:  3. Pacers (49-17, LW 6). Winners of three in a row but they haven’t looked impressive beating Boston, Philadelphia and Detroit. Better tests this week with the Knicks, Bulls and Grizzlies on tap. Indiana still not playing the same lockdown defense they did earlier in the season, but that they can get back.
source:  4. Heat (45-19, LW No. 4). Miami’s execution at the end of the win over Houston was a reminder that they still have another gear they can get to. Dwyane Wade’s maintenance plan is working — when he has played he has shot a career best 55 percent (59.4 true shooting percentage). When he has played he has been fantastic and was again Sunday.
source:  5. Thunder (48-18, LW 5).. OKC has stumbled because their defense — in particular their perimeter defense — has slumped. They really miss Thabo Sefalosha and Caron Butler is just not much of a defender anymore. This is something to watch when the playoff match ups come into focus.
source:  6. Bulls (37-29, LW 7). They are just half a game back of Toronto for the three seed and after the next 11 days (Pacers twice, Thunder, Blazers) the schedule gets pretty soft for them. Real chance they make it.
source:  7. Rockets (44-21, LW 3). Rough week with losses on the road to the Heat, Thunder and Bulls, but this season the schedule lightens up (Jazz, Timberwolves, Cavaliers) and Houston has done a good job this season of beating the teams they are supposed to. I wonder if the Rockets will move to upgrade the point guard position this offseason.
source:  8. Grizzlies (39-27, LW 9).  They have a slim one-game lead over Phoenix for the final playoff spot in the West and face some challenges this week with both the Heat and Pacers on the docket. Mike Conley is in my Top 10 of current NBA players who I want the ball in their hands in the final seconds with the game on the line.
source:  9. Warriors (42-26, LW 8). This team is a roller coaster — they have an ugly home loss to the Cavaliers then an inspiring 18-point comeback against the Trail Blazers. Roller coaster is a nice way of saying they are inconsistent, which could come back to haunt them in the playoffs.
source:  10. Mavericks (40-27, LW 10). Dallas is just 1.5 games ahead of the Suns (and falling out of the playoffs) but they just crushed Oklahoma City on Sunday and now their next eight games are at home (where they are 21-10). This is where they solidify that playoff spot.
source:  11. Suns (38-28, LW 11). They have been playing .500 ball the last 10 games, do that in the West and you fall. They are now one game back of Dallas for last playoff spots. Their schedule is relatively soft until start of April, they need to stockpile wins now.
source:  12. Trail Blazers (43-24, LW 12). Stat that should worry Portland fans: They have lost their last 12 games against teams that would make the playoffs in the West (hat tip to Ben Golliver of Blazers Edge). Soft schedule this week (Bucks, Wizards, Bobcats) they need to pick up some wins.
source:  13. Wizards (35-31, LW 13). If they get Nene back healthy I still think the Wizards could be the third best team in the East come the playoffs — but they have gone an impressive 8-3 without him. Beat the Nets last week and looked good, then not so much in loss to Bobcats. Andre Miller is providing a real boost off the bench.
source:  14. Raptors (37-28, LW 14). Their lead over Chicago for the three seed is down to half a game, they need some wins.They beat the Grizzlies last week in a quality win, but lost to the Nets and Suns. Their defense continues to look pretty good… at least until the Suns came to town and dropped 121 on them.
source:  15. Nets (33-31, LW 15). Big wins against Raptors and Heat not only solidify their playoff spot but keep dream of Atlantic Division crown alive (they are 3.5 games back of Toronto with 18 games to play, that’s going to be hard to make up without a Raptors collapse). Should be fun Goran Dragic/Deron Williams showdown Monday night.
source:  16. Bobcats (33-34, LW 17). Winners of four in a row and eight in a row at home. Looking back at the All Star Game selections I think Al Jefferson was the biggest snub — he’s averaging 26.6 points per game this month.

source:  17 . Timberwolves (33-32, LW 15). They are playing fairly well of late, it’s just too late to make a playoff run. I don’t envy Flip Saunders this summer, trying to decide if Kevin Love has one foot out the door or if there is a chance of keeping him if the team turns it around (and if so, how to get a rim protector on the roster).
source:  18. Knicks (27-40, LW 20). Doesn’t matter that he was hired after it started, Phil Jackson is going to get credit for the Knicks six game winning streak. Playoffs remain a longshot, they have 3.5 games to make up on Hawks with 15 to play, the Knicks have 9 on the road and 10 against teams over .500 (Hawks have 7 on road, 9 vs. +.500).
source:  19. Hawks (29-35, LW 24). They have won three in a row with the Knicks suddenly closing some ground. The question is were these wins a mirage or has Atlanta stopped the collapse. Games this week against Charlotte, Toronto (home and home) and Pelicans are the kinds of games where they need to get wins to hold off the Knicks.
source:  20. Nuggets (29-37, LW 18). This team is just being carried by the strong play of Ty Lawson and the hustle of Kenneth Faried. After that, the Nuggets need to do some roster evaluation.This is the team most likely to snap the Clippers 11-game winning streak for a while — Denver gets them at home in the mile high air on the second night of a Clips back-to-back.
source:  21. Cavaliers (26-41, LW 23). They may have lost Kyrie Irving for the season (as of this writing we still don’t know extent of his bicep injury) which would remove any reason to really watch the Cavs. Cleveland picked up two really nice wins last week also, beating Golden State and Phoenix, but this week is brutal (Heat, Thunder, Rockets, Knicks).
source:  22. Kings (23-44, LW 19). DeMarcus Cousins got the night off Sunday and predictably the Kings lost. On the bright side Kings fans, the NCAA Tournament is fun to scout and in May there should be demolition downtown to make way for the new arena.
source:  23. Pistons (25-41, LW 25). Saturday night’s neck injury to Andre Drummond was frightening. I’d rest him the rest of the way. And a few other guys too. Remember if the Pistons pick this year is Top 8 they keep it, 9 or beyond and it goes to the Bobcats (Detroit currently would have the 8 pick).
source:  24. Pelicans (27-39, LW 22). Anthony Davis went off for 40 and 21 Sunday night Anthony Davis is 21 years old and still figuring the game out. Next season if this team can keep Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday healthy they should be a playoff team.
source:  25. Lakers (22-44, LW 21). The shadow of Phil Jackson no longer hangs over this franchise, which is a blessing and a curse to current management. Kobe Bryant is demanding an immediate turnaround but unless someone wants to gift wrap them a trade that is not going to happen, it’s going to take a while. Kobe is what the Lakers sell fans while rebuilding.
source:  26. Celtics (22-45, LW 27). Kris Humphries hit a ridiculous shot to send the game against the Pelicans to overtime, and don’t tell anyone but Humphries has played pretty well of late. If a team gets him at $4 million a year this summer and brings him off the bench for 15-20 minutes a night he can be a solid role player.
source:  27. Jazz (22-45, LW 26). I had picked Trey Burke to win the Rookie of the Year award in my preseason predictions, then he got injured. He has had a rough go since returning, but in this class he’d still be third on my ROY ballot.
source:  28. Magic (19-48, LW 28). With the Sixers epic losing streak a lot of people are pointing toward Victor Oladipo for Rookie of the Year. As if the Magic are playing well. In his last 10 games Oladipo is averaging 14.9 points a game with a true shooting percentage of 53 and a usage rage of 23.1 (percent of possessions he uses when on the court). In his last 10 Michael Carter-Williams is averaging 14.9 points a game with a true shooting percentage of 46.2 and he is taking on more of the Sixers offense (25.1 usage rate). Not sure I blame MCW for the fact the players around him are worse than the ones around Oladipo.
source:  29. Bucks (13-54, LW 29). Brandon Knight has played pretty well of late — he has averaged 19.9 points a game in his last 15 and has guided the Bucks offense to play better than expected. He’s not the answer long term at point but he could be a good reserve (and was a better fit here than Brandon Jennings at his price).
source:  30. 76ers (15-51, LW 30). The losing streak is up to 20 and the next realistic shot they have at a win is against Detroit at home (when the streak will be 26 and tied with the longest in NBA history). The idea of them finishing the season on a 36-game losing streak is not unrealistic.

Rumor: Paul George was indicating Pacers fans should boo Larry Bird

Paul George Larry Bird
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Pacers fans booed Clippers forward Paul George earlier this week, which seems logical enough. After all, he’s a star who left their favorite team (without putting them over the top for their first championship).

But George said there’s more to the story of his Indiana exit, “and I promise you, I’m not the one to boo.”

Brian Windhorst on ESPN:

I spent this morning talking to some people in Indiana, and only Paul really knows. I guess we’ll have to wait tell-all digital short, Uninterrupted special. But the belief in Indiana is that he’s referring to Larry Bird.

It’s important to reiterate: George didn’t say Larry Bird. This is other people speculating. People who might know, which is why this is relevant. But other people speculating, nonetheless.

While with the Pacers, George and Bird sometimes butted heads:

  • Their biggest public clash came in 2015. Bird wanted George to play more power forward. George resisted spending too much time at the position, preferring small forward. Bird noted he was the boss. George eventually came around.
  • Though he said George wouldn’t play until comfortable, Bird played up the possibility of George returning from his Team USA injury late in the 2014-15 season. George said he was on the fence about playing, and then-Pacers coach Frank Vogel tried to pump the brakes.  Ultimately, George played the final six games of the season.
  • Bird also reprimanded George for tweets about Ray Rice and domestic violence in 2014. George apologized for his comments.

In 2016, Bird said he had a standing max offer to George. So, if there were any major problems prior, they didn’t bother Bird too much.

Bird also resigned as Pacers president before George left. Adrian Wojnarowski’s report on George telling the team he’d leave even included this line:

George had a close relationship with the architect of those Pacers teams, Larry Bird, who recently stepped down as team president to become a franchise consultant.

It doesn’t really add up, which makes me wonder: Is the current Pacers regime – led by president Kevin Pritchard – trying to shift blame for something onto Bird? It’s also possible Windhorst’s sources have no nefarious intent and are just simply wrong about Bird being George’s target.

Or they could be right. Maybe Bird crossed George in a way unrelated to anything we know publicly. Or maybe George just holds one of these relatively insignificant issues in greater regard than the rest of us.

If George were referring to Bird – a homegrown basketball legend who coached the Pacers to their first NBA Finals then later took over in the front office and built them back into a contender – good luck convincing Indiana fans to boo Bird over George.

Report: Cavaliers seeking first-rounder for Kevin Love, other teams seeking first-rounder for taking Kevin Love

Kevin Love
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Kevin Love doesn’t fit on the Cavaliers.

He’s a good veteran. They’re a bad team. His talent would be better served on a team ready to win now. Cleveland is unlikely to reach that level during Love’s remaining prime.

But…

Jason Lloyd of The Athletic:

The Cavs are asking for a first-round pick in exchange for Love, one source with knowledge of the situation said. But teams are actually asking for a first-round pick from Cleveland just to absorb the final 3 1/2 years on his deal.

This is why Love didn’t crack my preseason list of players most likely to get traded this season. He has a $28,942,830 salary this season, and he’s due $91,459,342 over the next three years. The Cavaliers signed him to this contract to be an asset. Other teams view the 31-year-old as a liability.

A first-round pick going in opposite directions is a large gap to overcome.

Still, this is how negotiations work. There’s plenty of time for Cleveland and another team to find common ground.

With Love reportedly preferring a trade, the Cavs might want to help someone who helped them win a championship. They might also benefit from removing a sulking player amid resistance to coach John Beilein.

No other team looks desperate to add an offensively talented power forward. But that could change quickly with an injury, an unrelated trade or even just the progression of a season.

Love getting traded would be unsurprising. It also doesn’t appear close to happening.

Report: Knicks considering hiring new coach during season

Knicks coach Mike Miller
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The Knicks lost eight straight games then fired David Fizdale as coach.

The losing streak reached 10 games under interim coach Mike Miller, culminating with a 28-point setback to the Trail Blazers on Tuesday. New York blew a 22-point lead to the lowly Warriors last night, but rallied in overtime to finally end the skid.

Still, Miller hasn’t exactly galvanized the Knicks.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

there have already been ownership-level discussions about hiring a new coach in-season if the team continues to crater, according to sources.

I bet Knicks president Steve Mills wants to hire a new coach. Mills is on the hot seat, and he could sell owner James Dolan on getting a chance to build the roster around a new coach. It’d be like when Mills seized control of the front office by signing Tim Hardaway Jr. to a huge contract before Dolan could find another lead executive to replace Phil Jackson.

Dolan should fire Mills by the start of next offseason and let Mills’ replacement pick a coach. Mills has done a poor job. Hiring a new coach now would only bother potential replacement executives.

This is a lost year for New York. Maybe a better coach could help avoid some embarrassing setbacks, but the Knicks won’t accomplish anything notable this year. They might as well just enjoy the silver lining that all their errors will net another high draft pick.

In the last three decades, just two teams have ousted multiple head coaches for performance during a season:

  • 2014-15 Kings: Mike Malone and Tyrone Corbin to hire  George Karl
  • 2004-05 Nuggets: Jeff Bzdelik and Michael Cooper to hire George Karl

Karl is available. So are more-mentioned names like Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy. Though it hasn’t happened in a while, a team could also pluck another team’s assistant coach during the season.

Devonte’ Graham keeps exceeding expectations, including his own

Devonte' Graham
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Devonte' Graham signed with Appalachian State.

It made sense at the time. His next-best scholarship offer came from Murray State. He didn’t view himself as an elite prospect bound to get better offers. Several of his AAU teammates had already committed. So, Graham pledged to play for the middling Southern Conference team that hasn’t produced an NBA player since the professional league’s infancy.

Seven years later, Graham hardly resembles that unconfident kid. He appears in complete control on the court, leading the Hornets and building a strong case for Most Improved Player.

But shades of the mindset that nearly drove Graham to Appalachian State persist and have helped him reach this point.

***

Charlotte’s prized acquisition this offseason was Terry Rozier, a hyped young point guard to replace Kemba Walker. The Hornets gave Rozier a three-year, $56.7 million contract.

Graham hoped to succeed retired Tony Parker as backup point guard.

Once again, Graham didn’t believe enough in himself. The minimum-salaried Graham has forced his way into the starting lineup, sharing the backcourt with Rozier. It’s a tenable, though unideal, fit. The Hornets often stagger the point guards. Graham is just too good to limit to backup minutes.

“We’re figuring that out on the fly,” Charlotte coach James Borrego said.

Graham is averaging 20 points and eight assist per game. He’s launching nine 3-pointers per game and making 43% of them. His real plus-minus (+3.13) ranks ninth among point guards.

If the Hornets knew Graham would be this good, they might not have signed-and-traded for Rozier.

To be fair, how could they have seen this coming?

***

Graham entered last year’s NBA draft looking like a prototypical college star who’d peak on that level. He was undersized (6-foot-1) and relatively old (23). Charlotte drafted him No. 34.

That itself was an accomplishment considering where Graham started.

He blossomed on the court his senior of high school and, finally realizing he could get bigger offers, decommitted from Appalachian State. But Appalachian State held him to his letter of intent. So, Graham enrolled at Brewster Academy, a prep school in New Hampshire, where he continued to impress.

Eventually, Appalachian State fired the coach who refused to release Graham. Jason Capel’s replacement, Jim Fox, set Graham free.

A premier recruit, Graham went to Kansas. It was a big stage for someone who originally didn’t want want to stray too far from his mother, grandmother and sister in North Carolina.

In Lawrence, Jayhawks coach Bill Self urged Graham to shoot more and told him not to worry about getting subbed out. After Graham came off the bench as a freshman, Self told Graham to expect to start the rest of his college career. To Self, it was a simple assessment. To Graham, it was an inspirational message that stuck with him.

Graham started all but two of his games the next three years (coming off the bench once because he overslept and once so a teammate could start on senior day). Graham became Big 12 Player of the Year and a consensus All-American.

“He’s the sweetest, nicest, most popular kid on our campus, hands down,” Self said. “Hands down, the most popular kid on our campus. Everybody adored him. He ran this place as much as a college student could.

“We used to get letters in the mail all the time about what a great kid Devonte’ Graham was. ‘We saw him at Wal-Mart, and he walked out to the car and took pictures with everybody’ or just whatever. He’s just an amazing kid.”

From there, Graham joined a Hornets team with Kemba Walker and Tony Parker at point guard. Graham spent most of last season out of the rotation.

How did Graham handle going from Big Man On Campus to such a limited role?

“It’s something that a lot of people might not be used to, but I wasn’t always the best player on my team growing up,” Graham said. “So, I kind of already knew what that felt like, not being the man.”

Undeterred, Graham kept working

***

One of the NBA’s biggest surprises, Graham looks the part.

“He’s an assassin with a boy’s grin and looks like he’s about 14 years old without his hair out,” Self said. “I asked him, ‘Why don’t you go back to wearing braids or whatever?’ He said, ‘Coach, do you see how young I look when I’ve got my hair short?'”

More importantly, he also plays the part.

Graham has increased his box plus-minus from -4.3 last season to +1.5 this season. That’s one of the biggest jumps in the league.

Here are the biggest increases in box plus-minus from a previous career high (marked by the left side of the bar) to this season (marked by the right side of the bar) with the increase listed in the middle (minimum: 500 minutes this season, 200 minutes in prior season):

image

Player Previous high 2019-20 Improvement
Luka Doncic (DAL) +4.1 +13.2 9.1
Devonte’ Graham (CHA) -4.3 +1.5 5.8
Trae Young (ATL) -1.1 +3.5 4.6
Justin Holiday (IND) -0.8 +2.4 3.2
Jonathan Isaac (ORL) +0.1 +3.1 3.0
Brandon Ingram (NOP) -1.3 +1.4 2.7
OG Anunoby (TOR) +0.6 +3.3 2.7
Malcolm Brogdon (IND) +1.5 +4.1 2.6
Richaun Holmes (SAC) +1.7 +4.2 2.5
Will Barton (DEN) +1.0 +3.1 2.1
Jaylen Brown (BOS) -0.2 +1.9 2.1
Bam Adebayo (MIA) +3.0 +5.1 2.1
Karl-Anthony Towns (MIN) +6.8 +8.8 2.0
Luke Kennard (DET) -1.5 +0.5 2.0
Markelle Fultz (ORL) -3.0 -1.0 2.0

Most Improved Players voters are reluctant to pick second-year players, but the usual argument – that highly touted players are bound to improve after a full season of adjusting to the NBA – doesn’t apply. Graham was just a second-round pick, and he didn’t play much last season. His résumé differs greatly from the players sandwiching him on the above leaderboard (last year’s No. 3 pick Luka Doncic and No. 5 pick Trae Young).

Graham also has an attention-grabbing rise in the statistic that matters most to voters, points per game. Including 40 points in the Hornets’ win over the Nets last night, Graham is now averaging 20.0 points per game – a huge leap from the 4.7 points per game he averaged last season.

That 15.3-point increase from his previous career is one of the largest ever. The last time someone improved his scoring average so much: Dale Ellis who went from 7.1 points per game in 1986 to 24.9 points per game the next season.

Here are the biggest increases in points per from a previous career high (marked by the left side of the bar) to a later season (marked by the right side of the bar) with the increase listed in the middle (minimum: 10 games):

image

Player Previous high New high Improvement
John Block (1968 SDR) 2.9 20.2 17.2
Neil Johnston (1953 PHW) 6.0 22.3 16.4
Don May (1971 BUF) 4.3 20.2 15.9
Dale Ellis (1987 SEA) 9.3 24.9 15.6
Robert Hawkins (1977 NYN) 3.9 19.3 15.4
Devonte’ Graham (2020 CHA) 4.7 20.0 15.3
Cliff Hagan (1958 STL) 5.5 19.9 14.4
Bob Love (1970 CHI) 6.7 21.0 14.3
C.J. McCollum (2016 POR) 6.8 20.8 14.0
Reggie Lewis (1989 BOS) 4.5 18.5 14.0
Jerry West (1962 LAL) 17.6 30.8 13.2
Bob Kauffman (1971 BUF) 7.8 20.4 12.6
Bob McAdoo (1974 BUF) 18.0 30.6 12.5
World B. Free (1979 SDC) 16.3 28.8 12.5
Phil Smith (1976 GSW) 7.7 20.0 12.3

***

Graham will likely face another test of his confidence next offseason. He’ll be eligible for a contract extension that projects to be worth about $54 million over four years. That’s life-long financial security. The way he’s trending and the premium on point guards around the league, it’d be surprising if Charlotte doesn’t offer that highest-allowable amount.

However, if Graham forgoes an extension and completes his contract, he could fetch far more in 2021 restricted free agency. He’d be eligible for any salary, up to the league-wide maximum.

A guaranteed $54 million would be difficult to turn down, especially for someone getting just $150,000 above a minimum salary over his first three seasons. Risking waiting for more money would be a major departure in approach for Graham. At least he could still enter free agency a few years after signing an extension, maybe still in his prime.

Graham has shown, with the right determination, the safe route can work out.