PBT’s NBA Power Rankings: Rockets, Grizzlies move to the top of the charts

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This early in the season there is still a lot of shifting around in the rankings as we are just starting to get a real sense of the pecking order, while teams that got off to a slow start find a groove (such as San Antonio). About the only thing we can count on right now is the Sixers and Lakers to be bad.

 
source:  1. Rockets (9-1, Last Week No. 2). Nobody is shooting threes like the Rockets, who have averaged 32.7 attempts per game (hitting 36.1 percent, which is okay but not great). Even with that, they just had two rough offensive outings and got wins because they played the Sixers and Thunder. Big showdown Monday with Memphis but the schedule is still pretty kind to Houston.

 
source:  2. Grizzlies (9-1, LW 3) They have racked up the wins but against one of the softest schedules in the NBA so far — Phoenix, New Orleans and Charlotte are the only potential playoff teams they have seen, and they needed a 26 point comeback on Kings and struggled with the Lakers. This week the schedule stiffens with the Rockets, Raptors and Clippers.

 
source:  3. Warriors (8-2, LW 1). What I like most from Steve Kerr’s offense is that he’s got them playing a little bit faster, and that pace seems to be picking up. Also, they are getting used to the offense and the turnovers seem to be going down. Still, that was not a good loss to a Spurs team (on the second night of a back-to-back).

 
source:  4. Mavericks (7-3, LW 12). They are benefitting from a soft spot in the schedule (save for upstart Sacramento, but Dallas came from 24 down to win) and that continues this week. Well, up until a weekend showdown with Houston. If you have Chandler Parsons on your fantasy team, play him that night.

 
source:  5. Trail Blazers (7-3. LW 10). They keep picking up wins (against soft teams last week) behind the hot shooting Damian Lillard — the NBA’s Western Conference Player of the Week is averaging 7.1 attempts from three a game and is hitting 46.5 percent of them. The days of going under the pick with him are long gone.

 
source:  6. Spurs (5-4, LW 15). Back-to-back road wins over the Clippers and Warriors announced San Antonio’s slow start was over and they are back to being the Spurs. That their defense is still top five without Tiago Splitter is impressive because when you watch them play you see how much they miss his rim protection.

 
source:  7. Bulls (7-3, LW 5). Lost in all the “Derrick Rose injury watch” overhype, the Bulls have a Top 10 offense. They are scoring 106 points per 100 possessions. As their defense starts to round into Tom Thibodeau form, this team looks more and more dangerous.

 
source:  8. Raptors (8-2, LW 4).
Loss to the Bulls just showing the Raptors where the bar will be set in the Easter playoffs. Their seven-game home stand ends this week and starting Saturday 5-of-7 are on the road, including at Cleveland Saturday. Some real tests ahead for Toronto.

 
source:  8. Cavaliers (5-3 LW 16). The offense has found its groove, as expected, with great ball movement and guys who can knock down the open look. Plus they have that LeBron James guy (playing 39 minutes a night). But the questions remain on defense, where this is still a bottom five team in the league.

 
source:  9. Wizards (7-2, LW 9). I don’t know that you can be an unimpressive 7-2, but the Wizards have picked up their wins against a soft schedule so far. However, they likely get Bradley Beal back this Friday and he instantly makes them more dangerous.

 
source:  11. Clippers (5-3, LW 8). The Lakers hole at the three spot is creating some serious defensive issues for the team. These are not the kinds of flaws that show up too often in the regular season, but they get exploited mercilessly come the playoffs. Tough week, facing the Bulls then at Memphis and Miami.

 
source:  12. Pelicans (5-3, LW 14). They are outscoring teams by 6.4 points per 100 possessions, sixth best margin in the NBA and ahead of teams like Memphis and Cleveland. We said the key to them this season (aside health) was getting the defense up to at least average. It’s still early, but the Pelicans are currently 14th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, which is pretty much average.

 
source:  13. Kings (6-4, LW 6). The beat the Spurs, but it is a little disturbing that they blew better than 20 point leads against both Dallas and Memphis. Keeping Rudy Gay for a couple more years was a win-win for both sides, he’s found a home in the California capital.

 
source:  14. Suns (5-5, LW 13). Isaiah Thomas has looked great coming off the bench. Like “can we still keep bringing him off the bench?” good. Interesting week for the Suns as they head out for an Easter road trip but all four games (Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia, Indiana) are winnable.

 
source:  15. Heat (5-5, LW 7). Dwyane Wade went down with a hamstring injury (he’s missed two games so far), then not so coincidentally Chris Bosh and Luol Deng have off shooting nights. When defenses can focus on fewer threats it makes it can take away the space and pace the Heat rely on.

 
source:  16. Hawks (5-4, LW 21). This is a team getting nice play out of Jeff Teague and Al Horford on offense, plus they are moving the ball and as a team assisting on 2/3 of their buckets. However, their bottom 10 defense so far has them hanging around .500.

 
source:  17. Bucks (5-5, LW 20). We knew the Greek Freak would be fun to watch, as would Jabari Parker. What nobody saw coming was Brandon Knight playing beautifully and the Bucks having a top three defense. You’ve got to give Jason Kidd a round of applause for his work so far.

 
source:  18. Nets (4-5, LW 11). A tough West Coach road swing exposed some issues for the Nets. Now Joe Johnson is calling the team “selfish” and Brook Lopez isn’t his old self late in games, all of which means the struggles from the West could well follow Brooklyn home.

 
source:  19. Celtics (3-5, LW 17). The collapse and loss to Cleveland was a tough to swallow, even if it took LeBron going LeBron to make it happen. The Celtics have the sixth most efficient offense in the NBA but when your defense is 27th you still lose more than you win.

 
source:  20. Jazz (4-7, LW 18). Utah’s offense is 13.3 points better per 100 possessions when Gordon Hayward is on the floor. With Derrick Favors the offense is +10.6 better. And you wonder why the Jazz decided to pay those two guys big money.

 
source:  21. Hornets (4-6, LW 19). They went 1-2 on a West Coast road swing but they Hornets showed some real signs of life. Lance Stephenson seems to be getting more and more comfortable with his teammates. It was always going to be a process in Charlotte, with that team looking a lot better in the second half of the year compared to the first.

 
source:  22. Pacers (4-7, LW 29). Roy Hibbert remains on of the best rim protecting big men in the game and the heart of the Pacers defense, but when he sits down the Pacers offense gets 13.2 points better per 100 possessions. Still, credit the Pacers for finding themselves lately and picking up a few wins.

 
source:  23. Magic (4-7, LW 27). Losing rookie Aaron Gordon to injury is a punch to the gut, but on the bright side Victor Oladipo is back and finding his way. You have to like the way they competed against Toronto and Washington this past week.

 
source:  24. Knicks (3-8, LW 24). The Knicks will take the win over struggling Denver as it ends their seven game losing streak, and they have three more winnable ones coming up (Milwaukee, Minnesota and Philly). So, anyone still think Steve Kerr has second thoughts about not taking this job last summer?

 
source:  25. Thunder (3-8, LW 25). The return of Reggie Jackson has been a boost to a previously terrible offense, but it doesn’t exactly make it good. We’ll see how much the Thunder are improving in winnable games against Utah, Denver and Brooklyn this week — these are the kind of wins they need to keep their heads above water before the dynamic duo returns next month.

 
source:  26. Pistons (3-7, LW 23). Brandon Jennings is putting up impressive numbers and the defense isn’t terrible, but until the Pistons can get the front line to work together — and until Andre Drummond really blossoms under Stan Van Gundy — this team is going to struggle. The question is how long.

source:  27. Timberwolves (2-7, LW 22). They had two of the ugliest losses of the season, giving up better than 130 points on back-to-back nights. Ricky Rubio is a better defender than he gets credit for and they clearly miss him. They are reportedly shopping veteran Corey Brewer and don’t be shocked if other veterans on that team find themselves in a lot of trade rumors.

 
source:  28. Nuggets (2-7, LW 26). This team is a mess and you’ve got a feeling Brian Shaw’s seat has to be getting pretty warm right now. When your home fans are booing the team’s effort, it’s not a good sign.

 
source:  29. Lakers (1-9, LW 28). On the season now the Lakers have a defensive rating of 114.7, which is 3.8 points per 100 possessions worse than anyone else in the NBA, and if they keep this up it would be the worst NBA defense since at least 2000. But hey, Kobe Bryant is scoring.

 
source:  30. 76ers (0-9, LW 30). We try to focus on the good of seeing Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel together, but when you trail 78-29 at the half in a game as the Sixers did last week there really are no positives. Teams trying to avoid giving the Sixers their first win of the season this week: San Antonio, Boston, Phoenix and New York.

Report: Russell Westbrook expected to miss Rockets’ first few playoff games

Rockets star Russell Westbrook and Thunder star Chris Paul
Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images
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Rockets guard Russell Westbrook could miss playoff games with a strained right quadriceps.

That’s no longer just a mere possibility.

It’s an expectation.

Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:

Though the Rockets could only put a timetable on when they will next evaluate Russell Westbrook’s strained quadriceps muscle, the expectation is that he will be out for the first few games of next week’s playoff series and possibly longer, a person with knowledge of the team’s thinking said on Thursday.

The Rockets will face the Thunder in the first-round, and Westbrook missing games would be a major blow.

Both teams have similar median levels. But Oklahoma City is steadier. Houston has a higher ceiling (championship level) but a lower floor – which drops even further without Westbrook.

The Rockets re-engineered their team around Westbrook, going super small so he serves as the only player who doesn’t space the floor with 3-pointers. That gives everyone more room to operate, and the explosive Westbrook has taken particular advantage. Even if he returns during the series, lingering leg issues could really limit him.

James Harden is good enough to lift Houston to playoff relevancy. Role players like P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington can still contribute. The Rockets have plenty of guard who can step into larger roles – Eric Gordon, Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore.

But Westbrook takes this team to the next level.

The Rockets traded a valuable set of draft picks last summer to upgrade from Chris Paul to Westbrook, who looked more durable. Ironically, Houston must now face a rejuvenated and healthy Paul, now on Oklahoma City, with Westbrook sidelined.

Grizzlies’ other rookie, Brandon Clarke again leaping over expectations

Grizzlies rookie Brandon Clarke
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When Brandon Clarke signed with San Jose State in 2014, the Spartans bragged about landing their highest-rated recruit ever – Cody Schwartz.

When Clarke transferred to Gonzaga in 2017, Bulldogs fans viewed him as a consolation prize after the program struck out on other transfers like Chase Jeter, Kameron Rooks, Elijah Brown, Randy Onwuasor and Deontae Hawkins.

When the Grizzlies got Clarke with the No. 21 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, Memphis naturally focused on No. 2 pick Ja Morant.

Unlike the previous situations, the player coveted ahead of Clarke proved worthy of the hype. Morant is the rare rookie point guard who drives winning, and he’s the biggest reason the Grizzlies are still in the thick of the playoff race.

But, as usual, Clarke is quietly thriving.

“I don’t mind not being super famous,” Clarke said. “I don’t mind people kind of missing out on me.

“By now, I’m kind of used to it.”

Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Clarke give Memphis a promising, cohesive young core to build around. Just remember to include Clarke in that group.

After a long run of competitiveness, the Grizzlies were fortunate to go over the hill and bottom out in a year someone as good as Jackson was available with the No. 4 pick. Then, Memphis got lucky in last year’s lottery, nabbing the No. 2 pick in a two-player draft and getting Morant. What a quick way to rebuild.

Especially when nailing moves around the margins like getting Clarke.

In the 2019 NBA Draft, Memphis traded up to the No. 21 pick for Clarke, whom ranked No. 10 on my board. The power forward-center has only outperformed his ratings since.

Clarke’s per-game stats – 12.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 0.8 blocks – are modest. But he’s incredibly productive in his 22.3 minutes per game.

Incredibly productive.

Clarke doesn’t hold ideal size. He’s just 6-foot-8 with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and weighs just 215 pounds.

But he’s a great leaper, both quick and high off the ground. And he plays with an attacking style that maximizes his athleticism.

Clarke is an elite finisher who gets above the rim, dunking or showing nice close-range touch. He has already developed pick-and-roll chemistry with Morant. Clarke is shooting 74% in the restricted area, placing him among the league leaders (minimum: 100 attempts):

When opponents wall off the basket, Clarke turns to his highly effective floater. He gets way up then shows the range of his touch. Clarke is shooting 58% in the paint outside the restricted area – second in the NBA behind only Nikola Jokic, who’s shooting 60% from that range. The league leaders (minimum: 100 attempts):

Clarke also shoots a keep-’em-honest 3-pointer, making 37% of his 1.1 attempts per game.

Clarke pairs well long-term with Jackson, a 3-point-bombing center (who’s out with an injury). Jackson’s outside shooting clears space for Clarke inside, and the attention Clarke should draw in the paint will free Jackson on the perimeter. Yet, both can flip roles – Jackson to the interior, Clarke to the perimeter – to keep defenses guessing.

“Oh, it’s amazing,” Jackson said. “Playing with a guy like him, who’s so explosive and somebody I can bounce off of really well, it’s a lot of fun.”

It’s unclear whether Clarke or Jackson can effectively defend big centers. That responsibility will likely fall to Jackson, who’s 6-foot-11 but must add strength. Clarke’s defense is more versatile. He blocks plenty of shots with his hops and timing, and he moves reasonably well in space.

Clarke knows his role and stays within it. He’s not much of a creator, for himself or teammates. He rarely gambles defensively. He just plays intelligently, makes positive plays and avoids negative ones.

On a certain level, Clarke should be an early contributor. He turned 23 before the season. But even experienced rookies rarely play this well.

Yet, Clarke is still overshadowed among rookies on his own team.

“It’s honestly fine,” Clarke said. “I’m not somebody that loves having a bunch of cameras on me and a bunch of pictures and videos being taken of me. So, I think it’s perfect of having Ja be that guy that gets all of that attention.”

Clarke should get some attention soon. He belongs on the All-Rookie first team with Morant.

The three Rookie of the Year finalists – Morant, Pelicans big Zion Williamson and Heat guard Kendrick Nunn – are locks. I had Clarke safely in my fourth slot. Really, he was closer to Williamson and Nunn that fifth.

But Clarke’s scoring average ranks just 12th among rookies. Williamson, Morant, Nunn, R.J. Barrett, Eric Paschall, Rui Hachimura, Tyler Herro, Coby White, De'Andre Hunter, Darius Garland and P.J. Washington all averaged more points per game. That statistic more than any tends to drive voters. So, it could be close for Clarke.

Yet, Morant and Clarke at least have the opportunity for a rare accomplishment.

Since the NBA entered an expansion era in 1988, just seven teams have put two players on an All-Rookie first team:

  • 2017 76ers: Dario Saric and Joel Embiid
  • 2008 SuperSonics: Kevin Durant and Jeff Green
  • 2007 Trail Blazers: Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge
  • 2007 Raptors: Andrea Bargnani and Jorge Garbajosa
  • 2005 Bulls: Ben Gordon and Luol Deng
  • 2002 Grizzlies: Pau Gasol and Shane Battier
  • 1998 Cavaliers: Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Brevin Knight

Will the 2020 Grizzlies become the eighth?

They have more-pressing goals first.

Memphis faces the Bucks today with a chance to make the Western Conference play-in. Advancing would be a great achievement for one of the NBA’s youngest teams.

But Memphis is ahead of schedule even being in the mix. The Grizzlies’ future is bright, regardless. They’re talented, fun and seem to get along well.

In a game earlier this season, Morant threw Clarke an alley-oop, but Clarke missed the poster dunk.

“I’d be joking with him, saying, ‘Yeah, you don’t want to make SportsCenter,'” Morant said.

Later in the same game, Morant attacked the rim but passed rather than scoring. Clarke shot right back: “You don’t want to make SportsCenter.”

And in some ways, yes. Morant still views himself as the underdog from Murray State. But his game is too stylistic, his highlights too jaw-dropping. There’s no way for him to escape the spotlight.

“I wish I could be in the background,” Morant said.

Does Morant envy Clarke’s low profile?

“It’s not jealousy at all,” Morant said. “He’s getting attention. He’s not necessarily in the background. We love him in Memphis. I’m pretty sure his name will get out there even more soon.”

Chris Paul launches ball off Duncan Robinson, Jimmy Butler runs over CP3 in response

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Chris Paul and Jimmy Butler didn’t need fans to ramp up their intensity Wednesday night.

Just before half of Oklahoma City’s dramatic win over Miami (which cost the Thunder a first-round pick), Paul was getting into it with Miami’s Duncan Robinson. They were jawing back and forth, with Paul draped all over the Heat shooter. Then, on a poor inbounds pass, Paul ripped the ball away from Robinson, lost his balance in doing so and was falling out of bounds, then full-on fired the ball at Robinson to get the out-of-bounds.

Jimmy Butler was having none of that — next time down, he got the switch then intentionally ran over CP3.

“You’re not gonna throw the ball at my teammate like that. We don’t do that here. You mess with one of my guys, especially one of my shooters, then you gotta deal with me and everybody else.”

That was Butler after the game, when asked about the incident.

Paul, for his part, sees a steal on time down the court and drawing an offensive foul the next — two trips down the court the Heat didn’t get off a shot in a tight game. He’ll take that.

Unfortunately for us fans, that’s it for Heat/Thunder matchups for this season (unless you’re picking that as your NBA Finals matchup). I’ve got a feeling Butler and Paul are the kinds of guys who will remember a grudge like this across an off-season.

Every 2020 NBA playoffs first-round matchup set except one; West play-in scenarios

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The first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs is set.

Almost.

Seven of the eight first-round matchups are locked in, but there is still the matter of the eighth seed in the West. The Suns, Blazers, Grizzlies, and Spurs are still alive; which two teams make it to the play-in tournament over the weekend will be decided Thursday.

First, here are the first-round playoff matchups for the NBA restart bubble (times and dates for games have yet to be announced).

EAST

Milwaukee Bucks vs. Orlando Magic
Toronto Raptors vs. Brooklyn Nets
Boston Celtics vs. Philadephia 76ers
Miami Heat vs. Indiana Pacers

WEST

Los Angeles Clippers vs. Dallas Mavericks
Denver Nuggets vs. Utah Jazz
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Houston Rockets

For that eighth and final matchup, we know the Los Angeles Lakers are the top seed in the West.

The only 2020 NBA playoffs spot remaining is the Lakers’ opponent, the eighth seed in the West, which will be determined by a play-in series Saturday and (if necessary) Sunday. In a unique rule set up just for the NBA restart (because of the shortened season), if the ninth-seed team is within four games of the eighth seed (something that will happen in the West), the eighth and ninth seeds are put into a two-game play-in series. The eighth seed team needs only to win one of those games, the ninth seed needs to sweep both. The winner advances on to face the Lakers.

Here are the standings entering Thursday:

Portland and Memphis control their own destiny — win and they are in.

Let’s look at the play-in scenarios for each team.

• Portland: Beat the Nets and the Trail Blazers are the eighth seed. It’s that simple. If Portland loses, it only remains the eighth seed if everyone else loses (which is highly unlikely). Portland can lose and still be the nine seed if two of the other three teams also lose.

• Memphis: Beat Milwaukee — which is without Giannis Antetokounmpo due to suspension after his headbutt of Moe Wagner — and Memphis can finish no worse than ninth. If the Grizzlies win and Trail Blazers lose, then Memphis becomes the eighth seed. If the Grizzlies lose to the Bucks, they need both the Suns and Spurs to lose to stay in the playoffs.

• Phoenix: The Suns must beat the Mavericks and go 8-0 in the bubble or they are out. Even that may not be enough, Phoenix still needs Memphis and/or Portland to lose to move into either of the top two seeds (if both lose the Suns can be eighth, just one and they finish ninth).

• San Antonio: The Spurs must beat the Jazz to have any chance, lose and their 22-season playoff streak ends. Even with a win, San Antonio needs at least two of Portland/Memphis/Phoenix to lose to become the nine seed (if all three lose the Spurs can be the eighth seed, but that is an extreme longshot).

That’s a lot of options, but ultimately Damian Lillard and Portland are in the driver’s seat — and the way he’s playing it’s tough to imagine them losing Thursday, or two in a row after that.