PBT Power Rankings: Streaking Spurs on top, streaking Sixers on bottom

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San Antonio is playing the best ball in the NBA right now, having won 13 games in a row and looking like contenders since getting healthy. What that means come the playoffs remains to be seen, but right now they are setting the bar in the NBA. So are the Sixers, but not in a good way….
source:  1. Spurs (53-16, Last week No. 1). They have a 13-game winning streak (and face the Sixers next… so count on 14) and will go into the playoffs setting the bar for consistency and execution in the West. They are the favorites. My only question is athleticism — would peak play from the Clippers or Thunder be too much for them to handle (as it was for Spurs in 2012)?
source:  2. Clippers (49-21, LW 2). Their one loss in their last 13 gems was the second night of a back-to-back at altitude at Denver — that’s a schedule maker’s loss. The chemistry between Chris Paul and Blake Griffin is at an all-time high now and that (along with much better defense) has been key to the Clippers moving up to contender status.
source:  3. Thunder (51-18, LW 5).. Fortunately the scare with Russell Westbrook’s knee turned out to be nothing, They are two games back of San Antonio but have a soft schedule this week (save for at Dallas) where they can make up some ground. Then things get much tougher for them.
source:  4. Rockets (47-22, LW 7). Houston is right to be cautious with Dwight Howard returning from his ankle injury — he has played fantastic ball since the All-Star break and they need him healthy come the playoffs, not with a lingering issue. The Rockets keep winning without Howard because James Harden has sparked the offense in his absence (they scored 124, 129 and 118 in their last three. Big showdown with the Clippers Saturday.
source:  5. Pacers (51-19, LW 3). This has been a .500 team the last 10 games (12-8 their last 20) and Paul George has looked tired, missing from three and not finishing in the lane. Worse than that, since the All-Star break they are 1-4 against teams over .500 and their defense hasn’t been the same. Like the Heat, the advantage they have is in the East they get a playoff round to use as a tune up.
source:  6. Heat (47-21, LW No. 4). They are 3-4 in their last seven and now are three games back of Indiana for the top seed in the East… is it time to let that go as a goal? LeBron James expressed frustration with their play and they have been worse on both ends of the court, but the lack of pressure defense and good help rotations has been the biggest issue.
source:  7. Bulls (39-31, LW 6). They remain half a game back of the Raptors for the three seed, but after the Pacers and Trail Blazers this week their schedule gets easier with just two teams over .500 the rest of the way (Washington, Minnesota).
source:  8. Grizzlies (41-28, LW 8).  When Marc Gasol was leaving the arena in a walking boot Friday night there was legitimate reason for concern, but he bounced back and played Saturday in the win over Indiana. They are on pace for 49 wins, yet have just half a game lead over Phoenix for the final playoff spot in the West — that conference is just brutal.
source:  9. Warriors (44-27, LW 9). Harrison Barnes simply has regressed this season, particularly of late — he started three games this week with Andre Iguodala out and shot 2-of-19. Barnes has a world of athleticism but has become a passive jump shooter rather than a guy who attacks, draws contact and puts pressure on a defense. If things don’t change Mark Jackson will have to limit his run come the playoffs.
source:  10. Suns (41-29, LW 11). They are in a fight with Memphis and Dallas for the final playoff spots in the West — when the music stops one of those teams will be without a chair. This week the schedule is relatively soft (at Hawks, at Wizards, Knicks, at Lakers) then they have tough games the rest of the way. They need to bank some wins this week.
source:  11. Nets (37-31, LW 15). That they continue to win (four in a row) without Kevin Garnett is impressive. Mason Plumlee is playing well and the Nets are showing the kind of resilience they didn’t last season (when the shorthanded Bulls knocked them out of the first round of the playoffs). Like I said, it’s been impressive and Jason Kidd deserves some credit here. But they still need KG back for the playoffs.
source:  12. Mavericks (42-29, LW 10). They lost two overtime games last week (Timberwolves and Nets) and now things get interesting with the Thunder and Clippers coming to Dallas this week. Dallas is just half a game ahead of the 9 seed Suns, they are just half a game from falling out of the playoffs. They need some big wins.
source:  13. Trail Blazers (45-25, LW 12). Not sure when we will see LaMarcus Aldridge back, the Trail Blazers want him to practice before he plays but with five games this week there will not be a full practice for the team. So, no timetable yet. Five of their next six games are on the road (and the one home game is a tough one against Memphis).
source:  14. Hawks (31-36, LW 19). They have a three game cushion over the Knicks and are four up in the loss column, but this week’s Hawks schedule should give the Knicks some hope — Suns, at Timberwolves, Trail Blazers, at Wizards. If the Hawks can just go 2-2 it likely is asking too much for New York to catch up.
source:  15. Raptors (39-30, LW 14). Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan led a big comeback against the Hawks on sunday, and with that the Raptors seemed to gain momentum going into a soft part of the schedule this week. The Raptors remain just half a game ahead of the surging Bulls for the three seed and it will be hard to hold Chicago off.
source:  16. Knicks (29-41, LW 18). The hole they dug themselves was so big that even an eight-game winning streak (which included a win over the Pacers) couldn’t help them climb all the way out of it. Now they head out on a West Coast road trip where they have to rack up wins against good teams (and the Lakers) to have any shot at the postseason.
source:  17. Nuggets (32-38, LW 20). They look like they would have been a playoff team if Ty Lawson could have stayed healthy — they have won 5-of-7 and that includes beating the Heat and Clippers. However losing J.J. Hickson for the rest of the season is a blow.
source:  18. Wizards (36-34, LW 13). Their defense has been terrible of late (which is bad news with the hot Suns on the schedule of late) and it makes me think more and more they will make the playoffs but be one and done. Unless everything changes when Nene returns.
source:  19. Bobcats (34-36, LW 16). Michael Kidd-Gillchrist just has been a let down this year — he did not fix is jump shot in the least and he relies on it too much rather than attacking the rim. He’s become a good defender that fits what Charlotte is doing, but he can’t make a real impact being a big drain on the other end of the court.

source:  20 . Timberwolves (34-34, LW 17). Everything you need to know about why Minnesota is going to be outside the playoffs rather than in them could be seen last week — they had a 22 point lead against Dallas and needed overtime and a big Kevin Love shot to win; they had a 22 point lead against the Suns and lost.
source:  21. Pelicans (29-40, LW 24). Anthony Davis is playing like a beast — in his last five games he’s averaged 33.8 points on 59.6 percent shooting, plus grabbing 12.4 rebounds and blocking 2.2 shots a game. He’s a top 10 player in the NBA right now, the only question is where he is on that scale. And how soon before he is in LeBron James/Kevin Durant territory.
source:  22. Cavaliers (27-44, LW 21). Jarrett Jack is the man — he was Kyrie-like leading the Cavs back against the Knicks Sunday. The Cavs have made a real habit of falling behind and storming back lately, which you can take as good or bad depending on how you want to spin it.
source:  23. Kings (24-45, LW 22). They are the No. 7 pick in the NBA draft as of right now (depending on the lottery) but have a lot of games left against the tough West, don’t be shocked if they climb a little higher on the draft ladder as the season winds down.
source:  24. Pistons (25-44, LW 23). We remain on lottery watch — if they finish in the top 8 in the draft they keep their pick, 9 or higher and it goes to Charlotte. Right now they are 8th but just one game “ahead” of Cleveland. It’s time to full on tank in Detroit to keep that pick, and watching Josh Smith’s play last week he seems on board with it.
source:  25. Celtics (23-47, LW 26). They lost every road game against teams from the West this season — 0-15. That said they did beat the Miami Heat again last week, getting a big jump shooting night from Avery Bradley, so there is that sign of hope.
source:  26. Jazz (23-47, LW 27). Interesting draft question for Utah: As of right now they have the No. 4 pick, Assuming Wiggins, Embiid and Parker are off the board, would Utah take Marcus Smart or Dante Exum even though they already have Trey Burke and he has shown signs of life, or would they take someone more like Julius Randall?
source:  27. Lakers (23-46, LW 25). Jordan Hill showed up big in the win over Orlando Sunday, which had some Lakers fans wondering why he doesn’t play more. But he also missed the team photo last week. Let’s just say I’m not sure he is part of the team’s future plans.
source:  28. Magic (19-51, LW 28). They have lost nine in a row and what’s brutal is their schedule the rest of the way — they only have two games left against non-playoff teams. With all those losses not sure Victor Oladipo is playing well enough to take the ROY award away from Michael Carter-Williams.
source:  29. Bucks (13-56, LW 29). They have lost seven in a row and all you can really say for them is they put up points and put up a fight before losing because they can’t get a stop. They have the Clippers and Heat on the schedule this week, which will not end well.
source:  30. 76ers (15-55, LW 30). Up to 24 losses in a row and the next two games are at San Antonio and at Houston — they will get to 26 straight, which ties the league record. The showdown is Saturday at home, a chance to break the streak against the Pistons. Question is, if they lose 27 in a row will Sixers fans (all in for the tanking) cheer it on?

Ryan Saunders reportedly likely to stay on as Minnesota head coach

Associated Press
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When Glen Taylor, the owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves, said this a few weeks back, it was pretty clear interim coach Ryan Saunders was probably staying on after the season and getting the job full time.

“I think he has a good chance [to get the job]. It’s like everything, we’re going to wait until we play out these last 20-some games and I think we’ll know and he’ll know at that time if it works out. But he is off to a good start. I would just say I really like him as a person. I have known him since he was a young man, and I am really pleased with how he is starting out coaching this team.”<

Saunders was thrust into the big chair after Jimmy Butler sabotaged the team’s season early on in a push to get out of town, a move that came with a high price coach/GM Tom Thibodeau. Remember Thibodeau wanted to speed up the winning and to get Butler traded Zach LaVine and just drafted Lauri Markkanen, but when Butler didn’t work out in Minny Thibs was doomed.

If you want more evidence that Saunders is staying on, there is this reporting from the well-connected Marc Stein of The New York Times in his weekly newsletter.

Saunders, who turns 33 in April, is known to have a strong relationship with the All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns, who has played some of the best basketball of his career since the departures of Butler and Thibodeau.

The growing expectation around the league is that the credit Saunders will get for his impact on and the buy-in from Towns will more than offset ownership’s disappointment about returning to the draft lottery.

Towns is the franchise cornerstone, one of the top centers and top 10-12 players in the league, if Saunders can get the most out of him — and so far he has — then that is a good reason to keep him around.

When Sauders got the coaching job, Scott Layden took over as GM. His job is not as secure. There have been rumors about Taylor wanting to go big game hunting — specifically Chauncey Billups — but it seems the Timberwolves are likely to go another direction.

Calvin Booth, a Denver executive who the Nuggets hired away from the Timberwolves before the 2017-18 season, is increasingly mentioned as a strong candidate to replace Layden if Taylor does make a change.

Whoever gets the GM job, retooling the Timberwolves roster around Towns will now be difficult — Thibodeau showed no patience and now they are paying the price. Towns’ well-deserved max extension kicks in next season and that gives Minnesota two of max deals for young players — Andrew Wiggins is maxed out as well and an anchor on any rebuild (he has four years at the max after this season, good luck trading that). Don’t forget Gorgui Dieng will make $16.2 million next season. If Jeff Teague opts into his $19 million for next season, the Timberwolves will have very little room to maneuver and shore up the roster.

All of that will make Saunder’s job a real challenge.

Report: Knicks talked Kristaps Porzingis for De’Aaron Fox trade with Kings last draft

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The Knicks had made their minds up and were considering moving on from Kristaps Porzingis long before this trade deadline (when he was sent to Dallas), they were testing the waters all the way back to last June and the draft.

Last draft, the Sacramento Kings had a decision to make, too: How much did they believe in De'Aaron Fox? As a rookie, Fox had shown flashes and promise, but at No. 2 the Kings could pick Luka Doncic (or even Trae Young) and have gone in another direction.

That led to an interesting story from last June’s draft: The Knicks reached out to the Kings about a possible Porzingis for Fox swap, reports Zach Lowe of ESPN (in a fascinating piece on how this season changed things in Sacramento).

Sacramento moved up in the lottery again — to No. 2 — and faced a pivotal moment: the chance to reorient their team around Luka Doncic. Rivals sensed the dilemma and made offers for Fox — including a template from the New York Knicks centered around Kristaps Porzingis that would have required Sacramento to either send something beyond Fox or take unwanted Knicks salary (or both), sources say.

The Kings might have been able to leverage Doncic fever by trading down, but they wanted a guaranteed chance at Marvin Bagley III. The pick doubled as a vote of confidence in Fox. They didn’t need another ball handler. They wanted a springy big who could run with perhaps the league’s fastest player.

The Kings bet big on Fox. In the short term, that has worked out incredibly well for them, Fox made the kind of leap this season that will earn him a lot of Most Improved Player votes. He found his identity in pace and dragged the Kings with him to maybe the most surprising season of any team (and they were everyone’s league pass favorites). Bagley started to come on the second half of the season as he figured out how to fit his game in the NBA. How it works out long term for both teams remains to be seen, but the Kings have to feel good about how things look now.

Talks like this happen more than fans think — a lot of things are explored, very become trades. Kings fans should be glad this one didn’t.

 

Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic undergoes surgery to repair leg, full recovery expected. Eventually.

Associated Press
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As expected, Jusuf Nurkic underwent surgery on Tuesday repair the frightening leg injury he suffered on Monday night, a fractured left tibia and fibula that left his leg bending in a way that no leg should ever bend.

The good news is the surgery went as well as could be hoped, according to the team and Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Even with a successful surgery, this is going to take a long time to come back from.

As Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes noted, the only comparable injury like this in the NBA was Paul George‘s frightening leg injury with Team USA. George made a full recovery, but it was eight months before he got back on the court and much longer until he was comfortable enough to be the MVP candidate he is this season.

Nurkic had made a leap this season, averaging a career-high 15.4 points per game this season on 50.7 percent shooting. The advanced stats loved him — his PER of 23.1, true shooting percentage of 57, value over replacement player of 3.5, and other advanced stats are all career bests. He was the anchor in the middle of the Portland defense, using his big body to cut off drives on pick-and-rolls. He was serving as a playmaker on offense: When he’d set a high pick for Damian Lillard, teams would trap the guard, Lillard would pass to Nurkic, and the Bosnian had become a good passer or he just take it in and scores himself

All of that came after Nurkic signed a four-year, $48 million contract extension last summer.

His injury also devastates the Blazers heading into the postseason, where they could have been a tough matchup but have now lost a key piece of their puzzle.

 

Celtics’ Kyrie Irving to rest against Cavaliers, his former team

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CLEVELAND (AP) — Kyrie Irving said returning to Cleveland tonight won’t mean anything to him.

He won’t even play.

The Celtics will rest rest the star against his old team, the Cavaliers.

Irving is averaging 23.8 points and the Celtics want to keep him as fresh as possible going into the postseason.

The Celtics have lost four straight and are fifth in the Eastern Conference entering Tuesday night’s game in Cleveland.

Irving played his first six seasons with Cleveland. The six-time All-Star demanded a trade following the 2016-17 season and was dealt to Boston. He hasn’t played in Cleveland since the 2017-18 opener.

Celtics center Al Horford (sore left knee) and forward Jayson Tatum (back contusion) could return Tuesday. Coach Brad Stevens said both were “questionable to probable” at the team’s shootaround.