PBT NBA Power Rankings: Spurs set the bar while Pacers fall like a rock

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Not much change at the top — the Spurs and Clippers remain at the top and while there is a little shuffling below them it’s still all the same teams. Well, except the Pacers who are crashing harder than Justin Bieber’s career.

 
source:  1. Spurs (60-17, Last week No. 1). The loss to the Thunder shows what makes this an interesting playoffs for the Western Conference — it’s all about match ups. Oklahoma City gives San Antonio trouble, although I don’t read too much into a road loss on the second night of a back-to-back (which is why the Spurs stay on top of the rankings).The Spurs are the NBA’s first 60-win team and have set the bar for everyone else — if you want to win an NBA title you need to be better than San Antonio.

 
source:  2. Clippers (55-23, LW 2). Health is the prevailing question in L.A., with key bench contributors Jamal Crawford and Danny Granger likely out until the playoffs begin. With a likely looming first round series against Golden State (and potential second round vs. OKC), the Clippers need Glen Davis focused (and playing for his next contract), plus a healthy Crawford and Granger to advance.

 
source:  3. Heat (53-23, LW No. 5). LeBron James said he wants to play every Heat game down the stretch, but if Miami beats Indiana in their showdown Friday night and can lock up the No. 1 seed in the East, look for Erik Spoelstra to give him a game or two off.

 
source:  4. Thunder (55-21, LW 3).. Interesting potential playoff preview Wednesday when the Thunder and Clippers meet — if things follow form that would be the second round matchup. Speaking of matchup problems for teams, the Thunder likely would prefer not to see the Suns in the first round — Phoenix’s style puts up points on OKC. (The Thunder are 3-1 vs. Memphis and 1-2 vs. Dallas.)

 
source:  5. Rockets (51-25, LW 4). Sunday’s come from behind win is huge for a team trying to hold on to home court advantage in the first round. What really matters is getting Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley back healthy — they shouldn’t rush back for the regular season but they are needed likely against Portland in the first round.

 
source:  6. Warriors (48-29, LW 8). The players seem unfazed by the assistant coach turmoil going on around this team and just keep picking up key wins. They continue to play good defense nightly — particularly when Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut are both on the court. It’s that defense as much as the jump shooting that makes them dangerous in the postseason.

 
source:  7. Trail Blazers (50-28, LW 13). Playing better since LaMarcus Aldridge’s return (shocking!) they are just 1.5 games back of Golden State for the fifth playoff seed in the West — the two teams play Friday night in a showdown that could determine the slot. Five seed likely gets Rockets, six the Clippers. Both tough, but Houston is more vulnerable.

 
source:  8. Suns (46-31, LW 10). Tough stretch of games started with a loss to Clippers but then wins over Portland and Oklahoma City. Four of final five are on the road (starting with the Spurs) but this team just keeps on winning. Big games Saturday vs. Mavericks then April 14 vs. Grizzlies.

 
source:  9. Bulls (45-32, LW 12). If they met today I’d pick the Bulls to beat the Pacers in the second round of the playoffs. A lot of things can change by then but the Bulls just keep winning with their defense and Joakim Noah as the focal point of the offense. They know who they are, which is more than you can say for the Pacers right now.

 
source:  10. Raptors (45-32, LW 13). While nobody south of the border was paying attention the Raptors have won 6-of-7 — they are going to win the Atlantic Division. Holding off the Bulls for the three seed will be more difficult, but a soft schedule this week (Sixers, Knicks, Pistons) will help.

 
source:  11. Mavericks (47-31, LW 11). They have a 1.5 game lead on nine seed Memphis, which is a nice cushion late in the playoff chase, but with games this week against the Spurs and Suns they need to play more like the team we saw against the Clippers last Tuesday than the couple of sloppy wins since.

 
source:  12. Grizzlies (43-29, LW 9).  Five games left and they control their own fate — the Heat are tough on Wednesday but after that the Sixers and Lakers are beatable. Then they close against the Suns and Mavericks and that could decide it all.

 
source:  13. Pacers (52-21, LW 6). Oh how the mighty have fallen. Their offense always had a small margin for error and a little more stagnation and a little more guys seeming to think about their numbers has hurt them. Plus they are just missing shots they used to make. C.J. Watson should return this week and they could use that point guard to help organize the offense.

 
source:  14. Nets (42-34, LW 14). Kevin Garnett could return this week and along with Andrei Kirilenko that should help a Nets defense that has been a mess of late. Like against the Knicks last week. They are likely the five seed and if they face Toronto in the first round they could advance to the second round, which is the least you could ask considering what Prokhorov is paying for this roster.

 
source:  15. Wizards (40-37, LW 15). Nene is back practicing and is expected to return to the Sixers lineup this week — that makes Washington a far, far more dangerous team. They need to pick up a couple wins down the stretch to keep the six seed, the Bobcats are just one game behind them.

 
source:  16. Bobcats (39-38, LW 18). Winners of four in a row, which has secured them a playoff spot, and as of right now they are above .500. Make sure your remember that and coach Steve Clifford when filling out your Coach of the Year ballots (he’s not going to win but should get mentioned).

 
source:  17. Hawks (34-42, LW 21). Quality offensive outings against the Pacers and Cavaliers have given them a two-game cushion over a banged-up Knicks team — they are in the driver’s seat to make the playoffs, with only two of their remaining six on the road and half the games against teams below .500.

source:  18 . Timberwolves (38-38, LW 16). They pulled out a thrilling come-from-behind close win over the Heat last weekend — if they had pulled out some close ones earlier in the season we’d have them in our playoffs mix. But alas, the discussion moves on to Kevin Love in the off-season.

 
source:  19. Knicks (33-45, LW 17). Carmelo Anthony is doing his best to play through a shoulder injury but this team just isn’t good enough to win games against quality teams without him. Problem is, they are two games back of Atlanta and there are nothing but quality teams left on the schedule — at Toronto, Chicago, at Brooklyn, Toronto. They need a lot of help from the Hawks to make he postseason now.

 
source:  20. Cavaliers (31-47, LW 19). Kyrie can say whatever he wants about his future and the speculation surrounding it, his contract negotiations this summer will tell you all you need to know — will he take a full five year deal with the Cavaliers or will he ask for an opt out after three? And if he does ask, how will the Cavaliers organization handle it?

 
source:  21. Kings (27-50, LW 23). They have five straight 50-loss seasons (not counting the lockout year… but they weren’t exactly impressive that season either). I love the energy Vivek Ranadive is bringing as Sacramento owner, but it shows you how hard it can be to turn an entire franchise around.

 
source:  22. Nuggets (33-44, LW 22). Easily the craziest play of last week was Brian Shaw drawing up a play for a game winning three for Timofey Mozgov — he is a career 20% shooter from three who has taken 18 threes all season (hitting four). I have no idea why.

 
source:  23. Pelicans (32-45, LW 20). They have lost five in a row and have a brutal closing stretch of games — Suns, Thunder twice and Rockets twice. But hey, they have Anthony Davis.

 
source:  24. Magic (22-55 LW 25). The team is not for sale, the DeVos family wants you to know. That’s swell. But this is still a massive rebuilding project in its early stages, this is a team that needs a little lottery luck this year.

 
source:  25. Pistons (28-49, LW 28). It’s unlikely to happen — they likely will have a 3.5% shot at it — but if the Pistons won the NBA Draft lottery and Joe Dumars was kept, do you think he would draft Joel Embiid then refuse to trade Josh Smith, Andre Drummond or Greg Monroe?

 
source:  26. Lakers (25-52, LW 24). Unless they win out — and they are not going to win out — this will be the worst Lakers team in the history of the franchise since it moved to Los Angeles. What’s more there are just not reasonable quick turnaround scenarios out there — it’s going to take a few years at least to rebuild the Lakers.

 
source:  27. 76ers (16-57, LW 27). Two wins in a couple weeks means the Bucks will finish with the worst record in the NBA, not the Sixers. By the way, Michael Carter-Williams has secured himself the Rookie of the Year trophy, with Victor Oladipo second. Despite Oladipo’s play of late.

 
source:  28. Jazz (24-53, LW 29). Is Tyron Corbin capable of developing players at the level the Jazz need him to during this rebuild? His contract is up at the end of the season and this is a very patient Utah ownership that doesn’t like change, but they need to ask that question.

 
source:  29. Celtics (23-54, LW 26). They are 1-13 in their last 14 games and last weekend lost to both the Sixers and the Pistons. That is some terrible basketball. There’s a lot of rebuilding to do in Boston and I don’t know that Rajon Rondo wants to stick around for all of it.

 
source:  30. Bucks (14-63, LW 30). This team has the worst record in the history of the Bucks franchise — and what hurts is they didn’t go into this season trying to tank. The O.J. Mayo signing has been a disaster and Larry Sanders’ season has gone up in a puff of smoke. Hey but they’ll have the highest lottery odds. So they got that going for them, which is nice.

Michael Jordan will still have input on Hornets draft day decisions

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Michael Jordan hired proven general manager Mitch Kupchak this offseason to help turn around a franchise mired in mediocrity since he became the Charlotte Hornets’ majority owner eight years ago.

But that doesn’t mean the highly competitive Jordan won’t have input on personnel decisions, beginning with the NBA draft on Thursday night.

Kupchak said in a pre-draft news conference Tuesday that he’ll have final say in who the Hornets select before quickly adding, “well, with the exception of one person – and obviously that’s ownership.”

Kupchak has won 10 NBA championships, including seven as an executive with the Los Angeles Lakers – so he knows a thing or two about building a winning roster. But he’s quickly learning that Jordan, who many consider the best NBA player ever, is still very much a hands-on owner when it comes to the players he employs.

And Kupchak understands that.

“There is a huge business component to our relationship,” Kupchak said.

Kupchak said he has communicated with Jordan on the phone and via text throughout the draft evaluation process. The 55-year-old Jordan arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina on Monday and the two have been studying tape on potential draft picks since.

The Hornets, who have failed to make the playoffs three of the past four seasons, have the 11th overall pick in the draft.

Kupchak has known Jordan since he was a freshman at the University of North Carolina.

However, Kupchak said that while they both are former Tar Heels, he never had considered Jordan a friend prior to being hired this past offseason to replace Rich Cho as Hornets general manager.

Since then they have had dinner together and gotten to know each other a little more.

He said the relationship has changed for the better.

“Hopefully when all is said and done, our other relationship, which is our friend relationship continues to grow and is not altered in any way,” Kupchak said. “There are no favors being done here. We’re friends and I think we’ll remain friends, but the bottom line in this business is success and winning games.”

Kupchak was rather forthcoming in the team’s pre-draft press conference Tuesday, saying the does not expect to trade the 11th overall pick.

He also said he expects that the handful of top-notch big men will be off the board by the time the Hornets make their selection.

“Right now I think the best player on the board is the player we are going to go after – and I’d expect that player to be a guard or a wing,” Kupchak said. “… I think we expect that we will be looking at guards and wings, but we will see.”

 

Can Lakers form a LeBron/Leonard/George superteam? Technically yes, but…

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Two weeks ago the cry from some corners of the Internet and a lot of talk radio hosts was that superteams were ruining the NBA…

Until they got the chance to talk about a new one being formed.

Last Friday, when Kawhi Leonard’s people leaked that he wanted out of San Antonio (without telling the Spurs first face-to-face, something that still has not happened… real classy), it came with the news his preferred destination was the Lakers. Add that to the fact both LeBron James and Paul George had already been rumored to want to go to Los Angeles and… suddenly the NBA speculation machine was in high gear. People could envision another threat in the West to the Warriors.

The rumors started flying. This is why Magic Johnson was given the reins of Lakers’ basketball, to bring back the days where Lakers’ exceptionalism seemed justified, and if he can pull off getting these three he could bring back the glory days with this one swoop.

Can the Lakers pull this off?

Technically, yes. In fact, you can be sure that people from teams LeBron/Leonard/George are at least discussing how to make it work (through back channels, of course, there is never any tampering in the NBA…).

Is it likely? No. But in a world where Mexico can beat Germany in the World Cup anything is possible. Just don’t bet the rent money on the Lakers here, this is a longshot.

• How the Lakers can pull it off

The Lakers put themselves in position to land two max contract superstars this season with just minimal moves (waiving and stretching Luol Deng and the $36.8 million he is owed over the next two years is a big part of that). That flexibility can be put to use to bring the three stars together.

First, the Lakers trade for Leonard, sending the Spurs some combination of Brandon Ingram/Lonzo Ball/Kyle Kuzma plus some picks and Deng and his contract. I have heard from sources (and others have reported) the Spurs are not particularly interested in Ball as part of this deal, and as a rebuilding team they would not want Deng either. Ingram, Kuzma, Deng and picks (maybe this year’s No. 25, more likely future picks) can work for Leonard and Bryn Forbes. That’s not likely to go down before this Thursday’s Draft, however.

More likely this trade would ultimately involve a third team that would take on Deng (probably and Ball) and send some players/picks back to the Spurs that they find more interesting. There are scenarios where this works out.

Bottom line: The Lakers have the assets and cap space to pull this off — it will gut the roster and leave the Lakers trying to fill out the team around their stars with the taxpayer midlevel ($4.4 million) and minimum contracts, but we know LeBron James can attract veterans to chase a ring with him for less.

What’s more, expect the Lakers to go all in on this — this will not be a half measure. They will exhaust their efforts to see this come about.

• The Biggest Roadblock: The San Antonio Spurs

For this to work, Gregg Popovich and the Spurs have to play along.

That could happen, but first the Kawhi Leonard is going to have to sit down across from Popovich and say he wants out. That hasn’t happened, it has just been through social media. (The Spurs think the people around Leonard are trying to get him to a bigger market for branding reasons, that this isn’t fully driven by Leonard himself.) Until it does, the Spurs are still not listening to trade offers.

Also, there are reports that it’s not the Spurs preference to play ball with the Lakers, which is also what I have heard around the league. All things being equal, San Antonio would rather send Leonard to the East, not a team in the West with the resources of the Lakers. Ultimately, however, the Spurs are going to take the trade offer that’s best for them, and if they perceive that to be the Lakers, then they will do it.

(Note: Some Lakers fans seem convinced Spurs have no leverage here, that if Leonard says he will only re-sign with the Lakers that’s the only place they can trade him. Not true. Most importantly, the Spurs care only about the return on the trade not what happens after. Leonard’s threat will scare off some teams that shouldn’t put that many assets into a deal — Sacramento’s rumored interest is a perfect example — but it’s not going to scare off Boston, Philadelphia, or a handful of others who are convinced they could win Leonard over within that first year. They will make the same bet OKC did on George, that they can win him over with their culture/coach/fans/winning, plus he would be able to get $49 million more guaranteed if he re-signed.)

The Spurs will get multiple trade offers. The Lakers offer likely looks something like discussed above: Ingram, Kuzma, picks, and Deng (very possibly with a third team in the mix to take on Deng and other assets the Spurs don’t want, but that team will need a sweetener, too).

Boston’s offer is rumored to be along the lines of Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris (for salary reasons), and Sacramento’s first-round pick in 2019 (only No. 1 pick protected). The Celtics and their wealth of assets could alter this trade in other ways: Sub in Jayson Tatum for Brown (that would mean less valuable picks going to the Spurs), plus they have the Grizzlies 2019 pick (top seven protected) and the Clippers 2019 first round pick (lottery protected), plus their own first rounders and a few second rounders. Boston also could re-sign Marcus Smart and move him in the trade. Danny Ainge has options.

Philadelphia will want to get in on this, too: This year’s No. 10 pick, Markelle Fultz, and Robert Covington would work, and they have their own first-round picks in future years to offer. (While fans seem to have given up, some teams believe Fultz could still be developed into what was expected of the former No. 1 pick.) However, after this draft the deal gets harder for the Sixers unless the Spurs love Fultz.

For the Spurs, it may well simply come down to this: How do they internally rate Ingram vs. Brown/Tatum (and picks) vs. Fultz? If they have a strong preference toward one of those players over the others, or the potential of the picks offered, they will lean that direction.

• What if the Spurs decide to take their time?

Right now, the Spurs are still not listening to trade offers, wanting to sit down with Leonard. While ultimately that may not change the situation, the Spurs are not an organization that gets rushed into things they don’t want to do. Reports are (and again, sources have confirmed this to me) that the Spurs are not going to hurry this decision on when and where to trade Leonard. They are willing to drag it out deep into the summer or even into next season if they don’t like the offers presented.

The longer this goes on, the harder it is on the Lakers to pull together this super team.

On July 1, the Oklahoma City Thunder will put a max five-year, $176 million extension on the table in front of Paul George. Reports are he’s leaning toward taking it — or, more likely, taking a shorter, one-plus-one or two-plus-one contract where he is a free agent again in a year or two — but the idea of going to Los Angeles to play with LeBron and Leonard will give him pause on signing that deal. He will wait to see how it shakes out… for a little while. How long is the question?

LeBron is in the same boat. Starting July 1 he will meet with multiple teams and field multiple max offers, from the Lakers and others. He may want to form a three-player super-team in Los Angeles, but would he come to L.A. without Leonard? If the Spurs sit on their hands early in free agency, how does that impact LeBron’s decision making process?

Even the Lakers are on the hook here — other teams are going to come hard at restricted free agent Julius Randle. Los Angeles would like to keep him after Randle’s leap forward on the offensive end last season. Randle can sign an offer with another team on July 6 and the 72-hour clock is on the Lakers — match it and they can’t bring together this big three.

• Other things that could mess the Lakers up

• The biggest is one mentioned before: Paul George agrees to take OKC’s $176 million on July 1 and it’s done. Or, more likely, George agrees to a shorter deal where he can hit the market (and head to the Lakers or wherever then). George may want to give it a run with the Thunder, and if that doesn’t work consider his options again. If that happens, the Lakers could scramble to try to find another max player to bring in (Chris Paul?) but if PG13 just decides he likes the Thunder and playing with Russell Westbrook, there is nothing Magic Johnson nor LeBron can do about it.

• LeBron James could decide he like’s Chris Paul’s recruitment pitch on Houston and join the Rockets. We’ll know about that one by June 29, the day LeBron has to tell the Cavaliers whether he’s opting into our out of his contract. If he opts in then the trade is worked out in principle (that or he’s staying in Cleveland, but I wouldn’t bet on that one). If LeBron opts out, he’s not going to Houston, it’s just hard to make the math work.

• LeBron decides to stay in the East and signs as a free agent with the Sixers. Philly is going to come hard at him.

Right now, you can be sure that forces are working through back channels to make this new Lakers’ super team happens. Some people want to happen.

But none of those people are in the Spurs organization. Ultimately, they hold the cards on this. And if they don’t want to deal those cards, LeBron, Paul George, and the Lakers will have to find a game elsewhere.

Hawks could turn deep supply of picks into draft-day trade

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ATLANTA (AP) — As the only general manager holding three first-round picks in Thursday night’s NBA draft, including No. 3 overall, Atlanta’s Travis Schlenk has been a popular target for trade talk.

Overall, the Hawks have four picks in the top 34. That’s more than enough depth to attract interest, but the rebuilding Hawks are even more attractive trade targets because they also have about $20 million in salary cap space. That creates more attractive options for a team needing to unload a contract in a trade.

Schlenk says he is answering every call and considering all options – including the possibility of trading up or down from the No. 3 spot.

It’s an exciting time for Schlenk, who never held such a high draft pick in his previous job as assistant GM with the Golden State Warriors.

“This is the highest pick that I’ve been a part of,” Schlenk said last week. “At Golden State, the highest pick we had was six. So it’s exciting. Having the four picks, along with the third pick, we get a lot of phone calls, which is exciting as well, and we’re going to go through all the options that are presented to us and make the best decision, hopefully.”

He says he’s comfortable with the idea of opening the 2018-19 season with four rookies.

Schlenk is planning the Hawks’ future with a new coach. Former Philadelphia assistant Lloyd Pierce was hired on May 11 to replace Mike Budenholzer, now the Bucks coach.

Schlenk might use his first pick to select a forward-center to pair with 2017-18 rookie John Collins. Among players who could be available are Duke’s Marvin Bagley III , Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson and Mo Bamba of Texas.

Guards Luka Doncic of Slovenia, Trae Young of Oklahoma and forward Michael Porter of Missouri could be alternatives for Schlenk.

Pierce stressed defense in his first news conference in Atlanta. Schlenk said it’s important to land players with balanced offensive and defensive skills.

“Obviously when you look at the best teams in the league, the majority of the time they’re good defensive teams,” Schlenk said. “But at the end of the day, if you’re not scoring 100 points you’re probably not winning, so we’re going to look for guys that are two-way players, who can play defensively, but also we’ve got to be able to score the ball on the other end.”

Bagley qualifies as that two-way talent, but he could be drafted at the No. 2 spot by Sacramento.

“I put a lot of work into this and I think I’m the best player in the draft,” Bagley said after his draft workout in Atlanta last week. “I mean that in the most humble way possible, not to be cocky.”

Phoenix is projected to select Arizona center DeAndre Ayton with the top pick.

Jackson is an accomplished shot blocker with less polish on the offensive end. He is regarded by many to have the potential shooting skills to develop into a well-rounded NBA big man.

With point guard Dennis Schroder‘s future in Atlanta uncertain, the Hawks can look for talent at any position. Their wealth of picks could make it easier to take a chance on Doncic, who has the skills to play multiple positions even though his ability to create space in the NBA has been questioned by some critics.

“I’ve maintained all along, and I honestly believe this, we’re going to take the best player,” Schlenk said. “We’re in a situation where we’re looking to add the most talent we can, and we’re going to get a good player at the third pick.”

The No. 3 spot is the Hawks’ highest since 2007, when they selected Al Horford at No. 3.

Atlanta also has the No. 19 and No. 30 picks in the first round and No. 34 early in the second round. Those selections give Schlenk a wealth of options, including a deal for a higher pick next year.

Schlenk said he has considered if the possibility to “trade back to collect more assets would be advantageous.”

 

Nate Robinson says Larry Brown made him cry then told the whole Knicks team about it

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In 2013, Kurt Helin declared Nate Robinson “The people’s champion.”

The 5-foot-9 guard won a record three dunk contests. He played fearlessly, especially as a scorer. He gambled defensively. He played hard and with emotion. He had an outsized personality, talking smack and serving as team jokester.

But there was more beneath the surface during his 11-year NBA career with the Knicks, Celtics, Thunder, Warriors, Bulls, Nuggets, Clippers and Pelicans.

Mirin Fader of Bleacher Report:

While in therapy, Robinson questioned himself and God. He wondered if he should have pursued football instead. He opened up about struggles few knew about, like the time, he said, Brown allegedly referred to him daily as “the little shit.” On another occasion, Robinson came into Brown’s office, crying, telling his coach to stop demeaning him. Ten minutes later, in front of the team, Brown called Robinson “the little shit” again and shared that he had cried.

(When asked about the nature of these interactions, Brown said: “I don’t have any recollection. I don’t, I don’t know … I don’t know what I called him, to be honest with you. If I did that, shame on me. I would feel terrible about that. That’s not who I am, but I don’t want to dispute Nate.”)

“The NBA gave me my depression,” Robinson says. “I’ve never been a depressed person in my life.”

Robinson, who’s 34 and two seasons removed from the NBA, is trying to return to the league. It’s unlikely he makes it. Small guards like him are so reliant on athleticism, and when it slips, they usually fall fast and don’t come back.

But I hope he finds sharing his experience cathartic.

DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Love and Kelly Oubre have opened up about their mentalhealth struggles and been embraced for it. Robinson should be, too.

This anecdote also speaks to how Larry Brown, once a great coach, is too old-fashioned in his thinking. At least he seems to realize that about this episode (maybe).