PBT’s NBA Power Rankings: Life is good in the Golden State

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There are some tough calls at the top of the power rankings right now as a number of teams are playing well — each with questions but ones they are answering so far — that make it a challenge to rank them. Things are still shaking themselves out as we head into Thanksgiving. At least the bottom of the rankings is simple.
source:  1. Warriors (10-2, Last Week No. 3). They are playing the best defense in the NBA and have turned the corner on their early turnover issues. Plus, they are about to get David Lee back (bring him off the bench?). Didn’t expect to say this: Steve Kerr should win NBA Coach of the Month in his first month on the job.
source:  2. Raptors (11-2, LW 8). Winners of five in a row and that includes victories over Memphis, Cleveland, and Phoenix they are besting teams by an average of 11.6 points per 100 possessions (third best in the NBA). However their long run of home games — they have maybe the best home court advantage in the league — is over with four of the next five on the road.
source:  3. Grizzlies (11-2, LW 2) Marc Gasol continues to play ridiculously well. He dropped 30 on the Clippers (who inexplicably left him wide open for midrange jumpers early, shots everyone knows he can hit) and he is averaging 19.9 points a game on 50 percent shooting. Remember a couple years ago Gasol surprised casual observers winning DPOY? How do you feel about him as a potential MVP candidate?
source:  4. Trail Blazers (9-3. LW 5). Winners of seven in a row but not against any of the other likely playoff teams in the West (New Orleans and a depleted Chicago team have been the best victories in this streak). Still, they are beating the teams in front of them, however now they head out on the road for a stretch that will be a bigger test. Well, not in Philly but the rest of the games.
source:  5. Spurs (9-4, LW 6). They have won four in a row and at the ends of close games have executed like we know the Spurs can. What’s should be scary is that they have key guys out — Patty Mills, Tiago Splitter — and have not yet started to really hit their stride.
source:  6. Rockets (10-2, Last Week No. 1). Houston has won games with fantastic defense and in spite of a struggling offense (which has been the second worst in the league the past eight games). They struggled with their starting front line of Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones injured (they are 15 points per 100 better with Howard on the court), so it’s good news Howard should return this week (if not Monday) from his strained knee.
source:  7. Mavericks (10-4, LW 4). This is what makes the rankings hard this time of year, seven feels low for Dallas. However, that loss to Houston was a reminder they still are not playing well against the league’s better teams. Good test on the road at Toronto this week.
source:  8. Wizards (9-3, LW 10). Bradley Beal is back and shooting 51.2 percent overall and 45.5 percent from three. That win last week over Cleveland had to be good for the egos in Washington — Paul Pierce handled LeBron and the Wizards were clearly the better team.
source:  9. Bulls (8-5, LW 7). Media and some Bulls fans like to get uptight and make a lot of noise about Derrick Rose (and to a lesser extent Pau Gasol) missing games right now but their teammates Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler get it and have their back — this team needs to be right for the playoffs, not games around Thanksgiving. that said, don’t be shocked if he is back this week.
source:  10. Suns (9-5, LW 14). They picked up four wins last week against the dregs of the Eastern conference, but a couple of those were closer than they should have been. Tougher slate up this week with a game at Toronto then with a home-and-home against a Nuggets team that is playing better ball of late.
source:  11. Kings (8-5, LW 13). We have not thrown enough praise DeMarcus Cousins’ way this season — he is the NBA’s leading rebounder, is averaging 23.2 points a game while shooting 51.9 percent and has been one of three dominant bigs in the West so far (with Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol). Cousins has been fantastic, the Kings defense is improved but needs to get better to get where they want to be at the season’s end.
source:  12. Pelicans (7-5, LW 12). Anthony Davis has been the best player in the NBA the first month of the season, with a PER of 35.7, which he is not likely to maintain but even if he comes back to earth in the low 30s that’s peak Jordan territory. Davis has been that efficient this season.
source:  13. Clippers (7-5, LW 11). The Clippers were challenged with a tough schedule last week and fell to the Bulls and Grizzlies (but did beat the Heat). Their defense against the Grizzlies was uninspired and just sloppy — DeAndre Jordan laid off Gasol early and let him get his midrange feel, and from there they were doomed. Doc has a lot of work to do here.
source:  14. Heat (8-6, LW 15). So maybe the answer to the Mario Chalmers puzzle was to play him at the two — since Dwyane Wade went down injured and Chalmers started he has averaged 20 points and 7 rebounds a game. Can’t yell at him about that… well, you can but it wouldn’t be right.
source:  15. Hawks (6-5, LW 16). There have been things to like with the Hawks this season — hello Jeff Teague, we’re looking at you — but we are going to get a better sense of them with tough week ahead — the Wizards, Raptors, Pelicans and Hornets. (Well, not so much the Hornets lately.)
source:  16. Bucks (7-7, LW 17). Question: Can this team maintain this pace and make the playoffs in the East? We will see. What we do know is Giannis Antetokounmpo’s length and athleticism make him one of the toughest guys to beat in isolation in the NBA, and he showed that against Joe Johnson in a 3OT thriller against the Nets.
source:  17. Cavaliers (5-7 LW 9). They have lost four in a row and things are rough. Kevin Love doesn’t like where he’s getting the ball in the offense (remember when Chris Bosh took heat for suggesting Love would struggle to adjust to playing with LeBron…). The Cavs offense has slipped but it’s still not the end of the floor that is the real issue, they have the NBA’s 26th ranked defensive efficiency and that is costing them games.
source:  18. Nuggets (6-7, LW 28). Last week there were a number of “what is wrong with the Nuggets?” story lines going around and they responded with four straight wins. They have gotten fantastic guard play in that stretch from Ty Lawson and Arron Afflalo. Now we’ll see if they can sustain it against the Bulls, then a home-and-home with the Suns.
source:  19. Magic (6-9, LW 23). Elfrid Payton is inserting himself onto the list of guys to watch as we start to think about rookie of the year — he was the spark in a comeback against Charlotte last week. That said, the Magic have struggled against good teams and there are a few on the docket this week (Cavaliers, Warriors, Suns).
source:  20. Celtics (4-8, LW 19). Jeff Green came out after the last Celtics game saying he did not want to be traded. Which was odd because nobody said he was on the trade block (as much as you can say that about anyone on Danny Ainge’s roster). The story out of CSNNE.com said he would have a strong free agent appeal to teams, that he will have options next summer. That is true.
source:  21. Jazz (5-9, LW 20). Quin Snyder was bought in to develop players and see who fits with whom, and one answer seems to be Gordon Haywood fits with everyone (an efficient 19.1 points a game). Another answer more seems to be they need Rudy Gobert to get run up front for defensive reasons.
source:  22. Pacers (5-8, LW 22). The injury curse does not seem to let up on this team, but the thing is once they get guys like David West, George Hill and C.J. Watson back they could still make the playoffs in the East. Which really speaks to the East more than anything.
source:  23. Nets (5-8, LW 18). They have lost six of seven and the interesting news around this team is the shopping of Andrei Kirilenko in the trade market. They can dump him to the Sixers at any point but expect them to wait until Dec. 15, when players signed this summer can be traded, to see if there is a better offer out there that could roll in.
source:  24. Knicks (4-10, LW 24). Jose Calderon is back and that should be big for the Knicks offense, a smart player who can space the floor with his shot is always welcome. He’s not going to help their woeful defense, but you take what you can get and this is a start.
source:  25. Hornets (4-10, LW 21). They have lost five straight games and we haven’t seen the offensive boost we expected them to get from Lance Stephenson. More than that, this is a pedestrian defensive team (they were top 5 last year) and that is holding this team back.
source:  26. Lakers (3-11, LW 29). Nick Young returns and the Lakers outscore their opponents for a couple wins. This is still a train wreck of a team defensively but it’s entertaining to see if Young’s contested looks and Kobe Bryant’s fadeaways can get them a win any given night.

source:  27. Timberwolves (3-9, LW 27). Kevin Martin was having his best offensive season as a pro before he broke his wrist last week. That is a real blow. Andrew Wiggins had a career high in points last week but he was 2-of-13 from the midrange in that contest, there is still a lot of work to do with him.
source:  28. Thunder (4-11, LW 25). It is possible that Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant will be back sooner rather than later. That will be huge. But could they go 45-22 the rest of the way with them back, because that’s about what it will take to make the playoffs in the West.
source:  29. Pistons (3-10, LW 26). Even Stan Van Gundy’s magic can’t get the Andre Drummond/Greg Monroe/Josh Smith offense to work, as they are in the bottom three in the league. And they struggle to score in the paint, which is a sign of how much teams are packing it in on them. Van Gundy the GM has a lot of work to do so Van Gundy the coach has a chance.
source:  30. 76ers (0-13, LW 30). We all get the grand strategy in Philly of being bad and stockpiling picks to get talent but you have to ask this question: What are Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel and the rest of them really learning from this experience?

2019 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Ja Morant is the future of the point guard position

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Over the course of the next two weeks, as the 2019 NBA Draft draws closer and closer, we at Pro Basketball Talk will be taking deep dives into some of the best and most intriguing prospects that will be making their way to the NBA.

Today, we are looking at Ja Morant.

Previous draft profiles:

The trajectory that Zion Williamson and Ja Morant have taken to get to the point where they are projected to be the top two picks in the NBA draft could not be more different.

Four years ago, they were playing on the same, small AAU team out of South Carolina. From there, Zion blew up, becoming a viral sensation thanks to his athletic exploits, having his jersey get worn by Drake when he was still a high school junior and spending the majority of his time in the high school ranks as a top-five talent in his recruiting class.

Morant, on the other hand, was more or less a no-name prospect into the summer before his senior year. He eventually became a popular mid-major target, and he even received a scholarship offer from in-state South Carolina. He was hardly unknown, but he was miles away from being someone considered to be a potential franchise-changing talent at the NBA level.

As it stands today, the thing that both Zion and Ja have in common — besides the two most recognizable first names — is an otherworldly level of explosiveness that has both ratcheted up their hype and buried the lede. The reason Williamson is the most exciting prospect to come out of the college ranks since Anthony Davis is because of his ability to play the point and the five, all at the same time. He’s Draymond Green, only if he was injected with NOS from Dominic Toretto.

Morant’s athleticism rivals Williamson’s. Blessed with a 44 inch vertical, Morant’s motto this season was “jump with me if you want to go viral,” and that couldn’t have been more accurate. He spent more time on SportsCenter this season than every Ohio Valley Conference player before him combined, something that was highlighted by this dunk:

And that explosiveness matters, I would never try to say otherwise. Dunking over weakside defenders in the NBA is going to be more difficult than when playing at UT Martin, but being able to elevate the way Morant elevates will help him transition to the next level. His quick-twitch athleticism also manifests in his ability to make plays in the halfcourt, where his ability to change speeds — and to go from a standstill to top speed — is what allows scouts to be able to project Morant as a player that can create offense against set NBA defenses. For a player who did so much of his damage at the college level in transition, that’s a big deal.

Morant’s physical tools makes it very easy to see him as another De'Aaron Fox. They’re both about 6-foot-3 and 170 pounds with a 6-foot-6 wingspan, and Fox just wrapped up his second season in the NBA with averages of 17.3 points, 7.3 assists and 3.8 boards.

But simply focusing on Morant’s athletic ability is to ignore what he does best: Pass.

Because while Morant did average 24.5 points and 5.7 boards while shooting 36 percent from three, perhaps what is most impressive about his sophomore season with the Racers is that he led all of college basketball in assists at 10.0 per game, just like Lonzo Ball led the nation in assists in 2017 and Trae Young did in 2018.

I mention both of those guys for a reason. Morant does not have the same hit-ahead ability in transition that Ball does, but Morant’s vision in the open floor and ability to make long, accurate passes in the open floor is one of the things that he does best. He also thrives in early-offense, where his And-1 Mixtape handle allows him to keep his dribble alive and probe opposing defenses. Because he is such a threat as a scorer, defenses would then collapse, which is when Morant’s ability as a dump-off passer and a lob-thrower comes into effect.

And that’s not even what he does best as a passer, because where he really shines is in the halfcourt and working off of ball-screens. Morant’s basketball IQ is the most underrated part of his game. He knows how defenses are going to defend him. He knows how to use his eyes to move weakside defenders. He knows where the tag is coming from, and whether the shooter in the far side corner or the roll-man will be open. This is where that Trae Young comparison comes into play, because reading defenses is where Young thrived while at Oklahoma.

The best way to describe Morant’s ability as a passer is that he not only knows when and where his teammates are going to come open, but he has the ability to find a way to make the pass that will get them an open shot. Morant is right-handed, but he will, at times, look like a left-handed player because of how often he makes bullet, live-dribble passes with just his left. He makes reads, and passes, that few point guards in the NBA today can make.

That passing is what makes all the difference, and as much as his athleticism or ability as a scorer, it’s the reason why he can be viewed as a player with the potential to be a franchise-changing point guard in the same stratosphere as the likes of Russell Westbrook and John Wall.

Now, Morant does have some flaws, and they are quite notable and relevant.

For starters, he is of a slight build, which is less than ideal. He is not going to be able to bounce off of contact in the NBA the same way he did in the OVC, and in a league where switchability is a priority at the highest-level, he is going to be targeted. Opposing coaches are going to target him by trying to force switches the same way that Nick Nurse did with Steph Curry in the finals. That is going to be an issue if he can’t add some weight and strength, particularly because he has not been a consistently great defender to date. Some of that can be attributed to the load that he was asked to carry offensively, and there is reason to believe that Morant’s athleticism, anticipation and quick hands will translate to being an above-average defender in the NBA.

Morant can also be a bit sloppy. He averaged more than five turnovers per game, and while some of that is strictly a result of workload and defensive attention, he also had a habit of trying to force passes that weren’t there.

But the biggest question mark, and what is going to determine his ceiling more than just about anything else, will be how well his jumper comes along. Morant shot 36.3 percent from three this past season, but that number drops to just 33.6 percent if his 7-for-8 shooting from three in the NCAA tournament is factored out.

Put another way, as good as Morant was this past season, there is still plenty of room for him to grow moving forward.

And in a league where ball-dominant lead guards that thrive in ball-screens is the norm, Morant is a player with quite a bit of value in the long-term.

Damon Jones says Lakers are in play for Kawhi Leonard

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I had heard from multiple sources going back to Summer League last year that the Lakers were not an option for Kawhi Leonard. He’s a guy who does not like a lot of drama and chaos around him, he just wants to play basketball, and being with LeBron James on the Lakers is to live in the spotlight with drama your constant companion.

Did the Anthony Davis trade change his thinking? Damon Jones, the former NBA player and assistant coach, said yes it did on ESPN’s Get Up show. He said a source that would know told him the Lakers are now in play.

Two thoughts here:

First, nobody knows what Kawhi Leonard is thinking. We can all play the “read the tea leafs” game — at the Raptors’ championship parade some fans started a “one more year” chant and Leonard’s close advisor Uncle Dennis (as he is commonly known) had one finger up and was chanting along, read what you want into that — but none of us really know which way Leonard leans. The “people close to Leonard” have sent mixed signals from the start, some have different agendas, and they are not Leonard. Stay in Toronto, come to the Clippers or Lakers? We don’t know.

Second, getting Leonard to the Lakers requires a semi-complicated salary cap move. After the Davis trade the Lakers have between $23 million and $27 million in salary cap space (depending on how much of Davis’ trade kicker he is going to take, if any) but that is not enough to sign Leonard to a max contract. And he’s not taking a discount. Los Angeles could create the room by delaying the Davis trade for a month. Follow along: Currently, the Davis trade can’t be executed until July 6. However, if the Lakers draft whoever the Pelicans want with the No. 4 pick, sign him, then wait a month and include that player and his salary in the trade (the CBA says a draft pick cannot be traded for 30 days after he signs his contract) then the Lakers could have $32.5 million in cap space, enough to sign Leonard (or Kemba Walker, or Jimmy Butler, or Kyrie Irving, or any free agent with 7-9 years of service and earning a max deal).

Except, the Pelicans want to get the trade done and, I was told, don’t have to agree to this delay. Would the Lakers have to throw in another second round pick or something to make this work? Maybe.

That all assumes Leonard wants to come to the Lakers. And nobody really knows that for sure.

Whatever happens, the board man gonna get paid.

 

 

Rumor: Patrick Beverley may meet with five teams before Clippers

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The Los Angeles Clippers want to bring Patrick Beverley back next season, his spark was at the heart of why this team made the playoffs and impressed with their potential.

First, however, the Clippers are going big game hunting for the likes of Kawhi Leonard and/or Kevin Durant (even with the Achilles injury). Beverley isn’t just going to sit around and wait for them, reports longtime NBA reporter Sean Deveney Tweeted.

The Bulls need a point guard and Beverley — a Chicago native — has said he is interested.

The Lakers also are reportedly big game hunting, but Beverley is the kind of guard they could use around LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Phoenix and other teams have been mentioned.

Beverley is going to have options, but he loved his time with the Clippers last season, and that means something.

Pelicans reportedly pick up option year on coach Alvin Gentry

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David Griffin, the guy with the hammer in New Orleans, likes Alvin Gentry. They have a relationship that goes back to Phoenix, where Gentry was the coach and Griffin was in the front office (and was eventually GM).

Gentry also has a style of play — he wants to run and be up-tempo. That should fit very well with soon-to-be No. 1 draft pick Zion Williamson.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise the Griffin and the Pelicans want to keep Gentry around, as reported by Malika Andrews of ESPN.

This is another smart, stabilizing move by Griffin. The Pelicans want to build an athletic, fast-paced team and Gentry is the right coach for that style.  Maybe it doesn’t pan out, maybe the Pelicans ultimately need to go another direction with their coach, but right now this seems a good fit.