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?

Report: Grizzlies in ‘extensive discussions’ with Joakim Noah

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Marc Gasol has been awesome this season. The 33-year-old is holding off questions about his decline that reached fever pitch last season. He’s deferring just a little more offensively to become much more efficient and save energy to play superb defense.

The Grizzlies have played like a 61-win team with him on the court this season.

But they’ve also played like a 17-win team when he sits.

A potential solution to Memphis backup-center problem? Joakim Noah.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ivan Rabb haven’t cut it at center behind Gasol. (Jackson has been better at power forward.) JaMychal Green could work, but he’s just getting healthy, and he’s also more of a power forward.

So, Noah could be another option. He definitely has the size for the position. Performing better than the Grizzlies’ other backup centers is not a high bar.

But I still doubt Noah helps Memphis. The 33-year-old looked so wash up with the Knicks, not even Tom Thibodeau would sign the former Bull.

Pelicans: Elfrid Payton out six weeks

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The Pelicans are 5-1 when Elfrid Payton plays and 4-6 when he doesn’t.

New Orleans will have to find a winning formula without its starting point guard.

Pelicans release:

New Orleans Pelicans guard Elfrid Payton, who suffered a fractured left fifth finger against the New York Knicks on November 16, will undergo surgery tomorrow to repair the fracture. Payton is expected to miss approximately six weeks.

It’s not that Payton is great, though he has been solid this season. It’s that the Pelicans are ill-equipped to deal with this injury.

Jrue Holiday can shift to point guard, but that weakens New Orleans even further on the wing. Without Payton, the Pelicans are also forced to give more playing time to substandard players at point guard: Ian Clark, Tim Frazier and Frank Jackson.

At least New Orleans can pivot its offense to run the ball through Anthony Davis and Julius Randle. Those skilled bigs can distribute.

The Pelicans are in the middle of a tight playoff race. They have little margin for error, and this injury cuts deeply into it.

Report: Cavaliers GM Koby Altman told LeBron James they wouldn’t trade Kyrie Irving

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LeBron James told the Cavaliers not to trade Kyrie Irving last year. LeBron didn’t do anything to win over the point guard, who asked out. But LeBron still told Cleveland not to honor the request.

LeBron’s last message on the top went to Cavs general manager Koby Altman shortly before they dealt Irving to the Celtics.

Joe Vardon of The Athletic:

James was adamant on the call — do not trade Irving, especially to the Celtics. By the end of the call, according to four separate accounts of people present for the conversation, Altman told James the trade would not occur.

James suggested he didn’t feel he was lied to by Altman, so much as Altman was overruled by owner Dan Gilbert.

“You realize at that point in time, take nothing from Koby, because Koby (was just named GM), but at that point in time, you realize that Koby’s not the only one running the team, as (former GM David Griffin) had done, and that’s why Griff was let go pretty much,” James said.

Cavs front-office officials declined to be quoted for this story but disputed that Altman gave James any indication the trade would not occur. They also said Altman asked James whether he would commit to the Cavs long-term if Irving were not traded, and James said no.

If he didn’t have the authority to keep Irving, Altman shouldn’t have said he would.

Maybe Altman didn’t know he lacked that authority. He was new in the job, after all. So, maybe his error was easily forgivable. But it sounds like an error, nonetheless.

The Cavaliers also didn’t necessarily err by trading Irving. The package they got proved problematic, but the concept of trading the disgruntled star had more merit to the team than LeBron. LeBron lasted only one more season in Cleveland, and it seems likely – though not certain – he would have left even if the Cavs listened to him on Irving. That meant, the Cavaliers could have been left without LeBron and trying to trade Irving in the final year of his contract, when his trade value would have been lower. LeBron might have just wanted to use Irving for one more playoff run then leave Cleveland holding the bag.

The communication issues are a bigger issue. It’s unclear how to divvy blame between Gilbert, Altman and LeBron, but that call ended with those three on different pages. And it doesn’t seem LeBron’s exit has fixed the problem in Cleveland. Since, the Cavs:

Again, it’s unclear whether Gilbert, Altman or others are the problem. But that’s a lot of disarray under Altman, and at a certain point, it’s his responsibility to ensure proper communication is flowing smoothly within the organization.

There are numerous reasons LeBron left for the Lakers. But it’s hard to overlook the Cavaliers’ crummy management in the last year.

With John Wall and Bradley Beal, Wizards shouldn’t be this bad

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Entering the 2016-17 season, John Wall said he and Bradley Beal have a “tendency to dislike each other on the court.”

That year, the Wizards won 49 games and a playoff series – their best season in nearly four decades.

Dysfunction in Washington is nothing new. Losing through it is a change from the recent past.

The Wizards have not had a losing record in the previous five years. They made the playoffs in four of those years and won a postseason series in three.

Talent tends to win out, and with Wall and Beal, Washington has plenty.

But that hasn’t been enough this season. Washington is 5-11 and reportedly open to trading Wall and Beal.

This is the bottom falling out like never before in NBA history.

Wall and Beal have both proven themselves as All-Stars. Wall is just 28, and Beal is 25. Neither has missed a game this season.

Here’s every time since the NBA-ABA merger a team has had two prior All-Stars age 28-and-under play at least a third of team’s games and had a losing record, sorted by win percentage:

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Wall and Beal can blame their teammates – and they will. They can blame Dwight Howard‘s injury, as he fills a major hole on the team. They can blame the distortion of a small, 16-game sample. That’s all valid.

But Wall and Beal must be better. Every other team with two healthy prior All-Stars under age 28 has been better. Other such teams have had surrounding problems, too. They still found a way to top this.

I’m not convinced Washington will actually trade Wall or Beal. This seems more like testing the waters. But the pairing certainly isn’t worth insisting on keeping together.

As good as Wall and Beal seem on paper, this just isn’t working.