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?

Report: Udoka used ‘crude language’ with female subordinate prior to improper relationship

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The Boston Celtics handled the Ime Udoka investigation and suspension by the corporate handbook: They kept the woman’s name out of the news, kept details confidential (not even telling the players much for legal reasons), and acted swiftly and decisively.

But as the team on the court starts defending its Eastern Conference title, there has been a concern that details leaking out about the investigations — and responses to those leaks — could turn this into a season-long drama and distraction for the team. That first started on Friday when Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported this:

The independent law firm probe into Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka found that he used crude language in his dialogue with a female subordinate prior to the start of an improper workplace relationship with the woman, an element that significantly factored into the severity of his one-year suspension, sources told ESPN.

Those investigative findings — which described verbiage on Udoka’s part that was deemed especially concerning coming from a workplace superior — contribute to what is likely a difficult pathway back to his reinstatement as Celtics coach in 2023, sources told ESPN.

A few thoughts here.

• “Crude language” is just part of a more detailed and damning report, league sources have told NBC Sports. There is much more uncovered by the independent investigation, including about the power dynamic in play. It was enough that the Celtics thought the best move was to suspend for an entire season a coach loved by players who led the team to the NBA Finals (it’s not something the Celtics organization did lightly).

• As Wojnarowski and others have noted, it’s increasingly unlikely Udoka returns to coach the Celtics next season, even if that is not yet official.

• While some pundits and people around the league have said Udoka is “done,” the NBA has seen unexpected turnarounds before. Never say never in this league.

• About the only sure thing is that this story is not over.

Lillard poised to pass Drexler as Trail Blazers all-time leading scorer

2022-23 Portland Trail Blazers Media Day
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images
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Damian Lillard could have done what a lot of NBA stars have done — what a lot of them told him to do while recruiting him — and has chosen to stay in Portland. He wants to be remembered as the greatest Trail Blazer ever.

One good way to do that: Become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Sometime around Thanksgiving or a little after, Lillard will do just that, passing Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler and his 18,040 points (Lillard is 531 back).

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports spoke to Lillard about when he knew the record was within reach, during Trail Blazers training camp in Santa Barbara, California (go Gauchos!). It was when Lillard got to 10,000 points.

“I was like, ‘Damn, I got 10,000 already?’ ” Lillard told Yahoo Sports he recalled at the time. “It was my sixth season in the league. That’s when I started thinking, if I could be consistent, I could score into the high 20,000-point range. As a scorer, 20,000 points is always looked at as a special mark. From that moment, I knew it was possible, but it’s also when I first researched Clyde Drexler’s [scoring] record with the team.”

Drexler is good with being passed by Lillard.

“You and I know records are made to be broken, but I can’t think of a better player or person to break the record than Dame,” Drexler told Yahoo Sports. “He exemplifies being a team player and going about his business in a professional way. I have nothing but admiration and respect for him. When he comes close to getting the record, and if our schedules align, I would love to be there to help out in any way I can. That’s a nice milestone to achieve. I am looking forward to him accomplishing that.”

Lillard is on a lot of front office people’s watch list this season, as in “how long before he is unhappy and asks for a trade?” The thing is, Lillard has been on that list for years and he keeps choosing Portland — he isn’t looking to leave. Of course, the $120 million extension and a retooling of the roster around him helped with that decision, but Lillard always had other options if he wanted them (and at times it felt like he would take them).

The Trail Blazers brought in Jerami Grant, re-signed Anfrenee Simons, and will put them with a solid core of others such as (a finally healthy) Jusuf Nurkic, Josh Hart, Gary Payton II and others. It’s a good roster, the question is how good in a deep West?

There are a lot of questions about how this season shakes out in Portland, but the one seeming sure thing is Lillard becoming the Trail Blazers’ all-time leading scorer. And that seems fitting.

Suns update: Ayton blames Sarver for contract, Crowder conflict, Johnson to start

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Phoenix went to the NBA Finals two seasons ago and had the most wins in the NBA last season, yet dark clouds seem to be blocking out the Suns heading into this NBA season.

Here’s the latest on three situations with the Suns: Deandre Ayton‘s contract frustration, why Jae Crowder is asking out, and who starts at the four now.

• Ayton ended up signing a four-year, $132.9 max contract and will be back with the Suns to start this season, but the road to get there was rocky. The Suns would not offer Ayton a max five-year contract extension, his name kept coming up in Kevin Durant trade rumors, so Ayton went out and got a four-year max offer from the Pacers — which the Suns instantly matched. Phoenix saved $40 million and a guaranteed year, but the process left Ayton a little bitter.

Ayton blames outgoing owner Robert Sarver — a notorious penny pincher as an owner (among other, much worse things) — Marc Spears and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN discussed on NBA Today (hat tip Real GM).

“That is certainly something that caused the ire of him,” said Marc J. Spears. “I was told that it was Robert Sarver who didn’t want to give him that fifth year, who wanted to save the money.”

“My understanding from talking to people close to Deandre is that he thinks this was Robert Sarver’s decision as well. And Robert Sarver’s not going to be the owner anymore. So there is some healing that can happen there. But I know there were some hurt feelings over that contract and how that played out.

“If they were going to instantly match an offer sheet that he signed, why not just give him the max contract? Yes, it saved them a year and $40 million but as somebody close to Deandre told me ‘There’s a karma to this. Why do that to your No. 1 overall pick?'”

Shelburne hit the nail on the head — the NBA is a business, but it’s a business of relationships. Not only did the Suns sour theirs with Ayton, but you can also be sure every other agent around the league noticed how that was handled. It doesn’t help when recruiting players. The eventual new owner, whoever it ends up being, has a lot of work to change the franchise’s perception.

• Jae Crowder remains away from the Suns during training camp awaiting a trade (which reportedly will not be to Dallas). Crowder started 109 games for the Suns during the past two seasons and was a key part of their run to the NBA Finals, so how did things deteriorate so quickly? Marc Stein lays it out in his latest Substack newsletter.

Entering the final season of his current contract at $10.2 million, Jae Crowder let the Suns know that he was seeking a contract extension. League sources say that the Suns’ messaging, in response, was to let Crowder know that, at 32, he was no longer assured of starting or finishing games ahead of Cam Johnson. That gulf between the parties led Crowder to seek an exit from the desert that has landed him on indefinite mutual leave from the team until Phoenix can find a trade for him.

While Miami gets mentioned as a suitor a lot, it’s next to impossible to put together a trade that works for both sides right now (at the trade deadline, maybe, but Crowder isn’t going to be with the Suns that long). Cleveland is currently the hot name in league circles when talking Crowder trades, and Stein also mentions the Milwaukee Bucks, who have been looking for a P.J. Tucker-like replacement for P.J Tucker. But, do any of these teams want to extend Crowder at age 32?

• Suns coach Monty Williams confirmed what Crowder heard — Cameron Johnson will start at the four for the Suns this season.

Johnson brings better shooting to the table — 42.5% last season on 3-pointers — and is more athletic at this point, but Crowder brings better defense, toughness, and veteran savvy that can be trusted in the playoffs. The Suns may miss that when it matters, but Johnson will get the chance to prove us all wrong.

Blake Griffin agrees to join Boston Celtics on one-year deal

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Blake Griffin has agreed to join the Boston Celtics on a one-year contract which will be fully guaranteed.

The Celtics were desperate for frontcourt depth following injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Robert Williams, as Luke Kornet was even getting some run with the starting group at training camp.

You do have to wonder just how much the 33-year-old Griffin has left in the tank though. Last season with the Brooklyn Nets, Griffin only managed to play 17.1 minutes per game and his 3-point percentage dropped like a stone to 26%. He was also a major liability on defense, and the Celtics surely know that after Jaylen Brown drove by him with ease time and time again during the postseason.

Griffin was still an effective playmaker and that may make him a good fit with the second unit alongside the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White and Grant Williams with all of these capable of handling the ball. Injuries and Father Time have zapped Griffin’s athleticism, but if anyone can squeeze the last bit of value out of him, I’d bet on Brad Stevens and the Celtics.