PBT’s NBA Power Rankings: Golden State still on top, but welcome Detroit to the cellar

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Consider this something to read while we all wait to see who Rajon Rondo has breakfast with next. When a team wins 12 in a row, has the best record in the West and is playing the best defense in the NBA, they end up on top of ProBasketballTalk’s weekly NBA power rankings. No shock there. The biggest surprise may be at the other end of the list where Philly has won two of three and ceeded the bottom spot to Detroit.

 
source:  1. Warriors (17-2, Last Week No. 1). We know about all the firepower they have from their stars on offense, but focus too much on Curry/Thompson and things happen like Draymond Green dropping 31. As he did on Chicago. This team is about to get deeper as David Lee expects to return this week, but with the way Green is playing Steve Kerr has to bring Lee off the bench.

 
source:  2. Spurs (15-5, LW 3). The Spurs made a statement with a win over Memphis last week, then the next night picked up the most Spursian of wins — no Tony Parker, no Manu Ginobili, limited minutes from Tim Duncan (18) and they still beat Minnesota. Tiago Splitter appears close to coming back and that is big for the Spurs’ defense and depth.

 
source:  3. Rockets (16-4, LW 6). The Rockets are an impressive 7-3 without Dwight Howard (five of those games against quality, +.500 teams) which is key as he is not going to be back “any time soon.” The Rockets are winning with quality defense and getting good performances from Donatas Motiejunas.

 
source:  4. Trail Blazers (16-4. LW 4). They have won four in a row and seem to do it a different way every time. The one constant is quality play from Damian Lillard (who has taken a big step forward in his third year — and he was an All-Star last year). They are on the road this week but against the East so the Bulls are the only team that should pose a real threat.

 
source:  5. Clippers (14-5, LW 9). They have won seven in a row and that string could stretch out for a while with a pretty soft schedule coming up (save for the Suns Monday night and the Wizards later in the week). In the West, you have to make sure to get your wins against the teams you’re supposed to beat because the schedule will get brutal.

 
source:  6. Grizzlies (16-4, LW 2) They lost to the Spurs and the shorthanded Rockets, but picked up a nice win against the Heat. However, what was the best news in Memphis last week was that Marc Gasol’s MRI was negative. He’s their MVP candidate.

 
source:  7. Mavericks (16-6, LW 5). Sunday night was the most comfortable Chandler Parsons has looked in the Dallas offense, scoring 28 points (it helps that Milwaukee largely left him alone, nine of his 14 shots were uncontested). Not fair dropping this team in these rankings despite a good week, but welcome to life in the West.

 
source:  8. Cavaliers (11-7 LW 17). They beat the Raptors last week and continue to do it by putting up boatloads of points — LeBron James’ passing is opening up the offense. Good tests this week that will jeopardize that streak — Toronto, Oklahoma City and New Orleans all are on the schedule.

 
source:  9. Raptors (15-5, LW 7). When DeMar DeRozan went down coach Dwane Casey tried to downplay his loss defensively to PBT (and other reporters). Nope, their defense has really struggled without him and it’s costing them games, they are just trying to outscore opponents now.

 
source:  10. Hawks (13-6, LW 14). They have won six in a row and gotten fantastic play out of the point guard spot (Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder) but have done so against the easiest schedule in the NBA so far. That does not change this week with the Pacers, Sixers and two against the Magic on the docket. The week after, then things get serious.

 
source:  11. Wizards (13-6, LW 11). Not a pretty loss Sunday on the first end of a home-and-home with Boston. Part of that is tied to them still keeping a cap on Nene’s minutes — they need his defense, but they really need him healthy come the playoffs.

 
source:  12. Bulls (12-8, LW 8). They are 10-3 on the road but just 2-5 at home in Chicago, which is going to have to change for them as they have a lot of home games on the schedule in the coming weeks (including Brooklyn and Portland this week).

 
source:  13. Suns (12-9, LW 12). Jeff Hornacek has moved P.J. Tucker into the starting lineup and is bringing Marcus Morris off the bench now. What really works for this team is how much better Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe seem to play without Isaiah Thomas in the lineup.

 
source:  14. Kings (10-10, LW 13). DeMarcus Cousins spent time in the hospital due to the viral infection and while they finally picked up a win with him out they are still 1-15 without him over the past couple seasons. He should return to action this week, they are 9-5 with him in the lineup.

 
source:  15. Bucks (11-11, LW 16). They have lost four of five but against Cleveland, Houston and Dallas (twice) and looked pretty good in those losses. Things don’t get any easier ahead with Oklahoma City, the Clippers, Phoenix and Portland.

 
source:  16. Pelicans (9-10, LW 18). There were murmurs around the league that if Monty Williams couldn’t get the Pelicans to play better defense with Omer Asik on board his job could be in jeopardy at the end of the season. Well, the Pelicans are 24th in defensive efficiency. Something to watch as the season goes on.

 
source:  17. Nuggets (9-11, LW 17). They have lost three in a row and looked really ugly doing it in losses to Washington and Atlanta. This is a roller coaster, up and down team and the ups come when their inconsistent shooting is on, lately it hasn’t been.

 
source:  18. Thunder (7-13, LW 22). While Kevin Durant dropped 27 on Sunday and showed flashes of his old self the Thunder are still trying to find a groove with Russell Westbrook and Durant back. This is a stretch where they need to get wins — Milwaukee and Phoenix are on the docket and are the kind of teams the Thunder need to beat if they are going to make this playoff run.

 
source:  19. Heat (9-11, LW 15). They have lost four straight and it really comes down to this — they can’t get stops. Without LeBron James on the roster Chris Andersen just looks old and they don’t have the same level of athleticism and maturity on that end of the floor.

 
source:  20. Celtics (7-11, LW 21). They have won three in a row and not so coincidentally those came when Jeff Green has shown up and played well. It also helped to have the Pistons and Lakers on the schedule. Eagerly awaiting the reports of who Rondo has breakfast with this week.

 
source:  21. Nets (8-10, LW 20). The most interesting thing about the Nets: Prince William and Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, are coming to watch them play against the Cavaliers. Great, now LeBron has more motivation than just playing in New York to put up numbers.

 
source:  22. Magic (9-14, LW 23). Of all teams to tip the historic imbalance between the West and East this season (the West has won 70 percent of the games between conferences so far), the Magic are 4-5. And it could have been 5-4 if they had held on against Golden State. Problem this week is they take on Washington and Atlanta of the East.

 
source:  23. Pacers (7-13, LW 19). They are 0-4 on a road trip through the West and have a tough go this week with the hot Hawks, the Clippers, the Raptors, and finally the Trail Blazers. Against that gauntlet they are really going to miss Ian Mahinmi, who is out for 6-8 weeks.

 
source:  24. Lakers (5-16, LW 25). Kobe Bryant needs just 63 points to pass Michael Jordan on the all-time NBA scoring list, and it will likely happen on an upcoming Lakers three-game road trip (San Antonio, Minnesota and Indiana). Recently both Toronto and Detroit threw early double teams at Kobe and he carved them up with passing and the Lakers won. Don’t expect to see that much anymore, teams will dare Kobe to beat then.

 
source:  25. Hornets (5-15, LW 28). You can always count on the Knicks to help you snap a 10-game losing streak, but that doesn’t solve the larger issues of bad offense (Lance Stephenson’s shot selection can get ugly) and disappointing defense.

source:  26. Timberwolves (4-15, LW 24). Reports came out a week ago Monday that Flip Saunders told his team to play back and let the Clippers shoot threes in their meeting. Um, Chris Paul shoots 41 percent, J.J. Redick 38 percent, Jamal Crawford 37 percent, and Spencer Hawes 34 percent. Interesting strategy, Flip. The Timberwolves have lost five in a row.

 
source:  27. Jazz (5-15, LW 26). After a fast start they have lost eight in a row, but they got some good news that starting two guard Alec Burks should return this week from his shoulder injury (but he will need surgery on it after the season).

 
source:  28. Knicks (4-18, LW 27). They have lost eight in a row but if you want a silver lining they are not getting blown out — the last four of those losses were by a combined 13 points. The Knicks just don’t close out games well. The bad news? The Knicks have had one of the easiest schedules in the NBA so far this season.

 
source:  29. 76ers (2-18, LW 30). Two wins in three games, beating the Timberwolves and Pistons. The key has been they played pretty good defense in those games (granted against teams that can’t shoot the ball well).

 
source:  30. Pistons (3-18, LW 29). The loss to the Sixers was ugly, but I think the final shot against OKC Sunday summed up their play best: down two and with less than 10 seconds on the clock the Pistons settled for having Josh Smith take a three pointer for the win. A guy who shoots 25 percent from three but ran to the arc and got the pass. That’s just bad basketball.

Devin Booker reportedly could return to Suns next week

Toronto Raptors v Phoenix Suns
Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images
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The Phoenix Suns are 9-13 since Devin Booker went out with a left groin strain (which counts a few games before, but does not include, his attempted Christmas Day comeback, which lasted all of four minutes in a Suns loss). While they have bounced back lately as Chris Paul and Cameron Johnson returned, Phoenix still slid down to eighth in the standings.

The Suns need Booker to return — and they may get it next week, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker, sidelined the past five weeks because of a left groin strain, could return as soon as Tuesday against the Brooklyn Nets, sources told ESPN… Booker has been ramping up his on-court work, and is expected to join the Suns at the start of a five-game road trip that begins Friday in Boston and continues Saturday at Detroit.

Booker should be named an All-Star reserve Tuesday, despite all the time missed — he has been that good. Booker is averaging 27.1 points a game shooting 37% from 3 (a good 58.5 true shooting percentage) and is dishing out 5.1 assists per night. The bottom line, the Suns have outscored opponents by 5.1 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court this season and been outscored by 2.5 per 100 when he is out.

He returns to a team that needs a jolt and could get a couple — both the return of Booker to the rotation and a trade at the deadline to bring in depth. The Suns are likely to trade Jae Crowder at the deadline — the Bucks are considered the frontrunners but the Heat and Hawks are reportedly in the mix — which may not bring back what James Jones once hoped, but should give the team a little more depth.

If the Suns can get back to the team that started the season 15-6 they could make some noise in the West, but there is a lot for the Suns to clean up to get back to those days.

PBT Podcast: LeBron chases history, WNBA superteam and trade talk

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It’s one of the craziest weeks in the NBA — the week before the trade deadline is always insane — yet that is maybe the third biggest story in the league right now.

First, in this edition of the PBT Podcast, we dive into LeBron James chasing history and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record — what does that say about LeBron and his legacy? And his conditioning to be doing this 20 years into his NBA career.

From there, Corey Robinson of NBC Sports and myself dive into the biggest move in the basketball world this week — Breanna Stewart shaking up the WNBA and choosing the New York Liberty in free agency. She formed a superteam in New York, and there is another one in Las Vegas, and this is an opportunity for the WNBA to grow – and get charter flights for their players. From there, it’s Corey’s Jukebox and time to talk some Damian Lillard.

Then we into trade rumors from around the league and everyone waiting on the Raptors to open up the market.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above (the Christmas games segment) or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Three things to Know: Breanna Stewart is headed to New York, WNBA must seize moment

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Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Breanna Stewart is headed to New York, WNBA must seize moment

The biggest free agent in WNBA history has chosen to form a super team in league history — and that’s a real opportunity for everyone.

Former league MVP and two-time WNBA champion Breanna Stewart has chosen to leave Seattle and play for the New York Liberty.

Just a few weeks ago, the Liberty traded for 2021 WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones to pair with Sabrina Ionescu, forming one of the best pick-and-roll threats in the league. Now add Stewart and her playmaking to a roster filled with quality players —  Michaela Onyenwere, DiDi Richards, Joceyln Willoughby, Kayla Thornton — and this is a team that’s a legitimate threat to win the WNBA title next season. This is a superteam.

New York’s move comes just days after two-time former MVP and WNBA champ Candace Parker chose to join the defending WBNA champion Las Vegas Aces with reigning MVP A’ja Wilson and quality players around her such as Kelsey Plum, Jackie Young and Chelsea Gray. This is also a superteam.

It’s not a coincidence Stewart and Parker chose to go to teams with newish WNBA owners willing to spend to win, Joe Tsai in New York (also the owner of the NBA’s Nets) and Mark Davis in Las Vegas (owner of the NFL’s Raiders). Two owners who came into the WNBA wanting to spend to pay players but also improve their experience — a new practice facility in Las Vegas, for example — and grow the sport that way. Owners with the vision to know they must spend money to make money — grow the league and its popularity and franchise values will skyrocket.

Stewart in her free agency pushed charter flights for players to the top of the list of ways to improve the league. Right now, the WNBA CBA requires teams to fly commercial. It’s part of a penny-pinching mindset from some quarters that sometimes feels like it will choke off the growing league. Charter flights for every team to every game — something common in professional sports and high-level college sports, including women’s college basketball — would cost about $30 million for the league.

There’s a divide among WNBA owners, not all want to pay that added charter flight cost out of their pocket, but the league has to find a way. As Corey Robinson of NBC Sports noted in the video above, this feels a lot like when his father — Hall of Famer David Robinson — wrote an open letter in 1991 to then San Antonio Spurs owner Red McCombs asking to fly charter to games because of the competitive advantage (McCombs agreed after the public pressure, now charter flights are just expected in the NBA).

Beyond just flights, this is an inflection point for the WNBA — it has to intensify its marketing, its outreach, and do whatever else it takes to grow the league.

Stewart, a recognizable face and name to any sports fan in America (even casual ones who only know her Olympics efforts) just formed a superteam in the biggest media market in the nation. They have a natural, high-profile rival in Las Vegas with their own superstars and big names. If you can’t sell this, you’re doing it wrong — this will be great basketball (and that’s not even mentioning Brittney Griner and the Phoenix Mercury, and other good teams out there).

New York vs. Las Vegas could be the 1980s Lakers vs. Celtics moment for the WNBA. Stewart vs. Wilson can be a version of Magic vs. Bird — a rivalry and must-watch matchup that took the NBA off tape-delayed late-night television and vaulted it into prime time, putting it on the course for what it is now. This feels like that moment for the WNBA, but will WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert be able to grab the opportunity the way David Stern did? Can she get her owners to buy in the way Stern did? The WNBA must spend, it must take advantage of this opportunity. Chances and players like this don’t come around very often.

2) Timberwolves outplay Warriors in clutch, pick up quality win

Right now, this Warriors team just does not have the aura of its championship teams of years past. Even last year’s team didn’t enter the playoffs as the favorites in the West (that was the 64-win Suns), but we had seen enough to know they could be a threat to win it all with a couple of breaks. Which they got.

This year’s team… the Warriors had a 13-point lead on the Timberwolves Wednesday night with less than 11 minutes left and then got outplayed the rest of the way. While D'Angelo Russell was draining key 3-pointers, Stephen Curry, Donte DiVincenzo and  Andrew Wiggins were missing theirs, and Jonathan Kuminga was committing illegal screens. The result was the Warriors blowing their lead and the Timberwolves took advantage of it — with some critical plays by Naz Ried.

“I thought we had control of the game and then I thought we just kind of gift-wrapped it,” Kerr said postgame, via NBC Sports Bay Area. “And not to take anything away from Minnesota, I thought they were great. They took advantage of our mistakes and lack of execution. [D’Angelo Russell] got hot and guys made big shots, but we missed box-outs, we threw the ball away, we took really difficult shots.

“So everything we had done to that point to have control of the game, we stopped doing. We got what we deserved.”

This year’s Warriors are 13-14 in the clutch (games within five points in the final five minutes), with a -1.8 net rating. Make that a game within three points in the final three minutes and the Warriors are 10-12 this season.

The Warriors had won 4-of-5 before this and it felt like they may be flipping the switch, but then games like this happen and it gives you pause. These Warriors are not there yet.

3) Celtics put on a show, romp past shorthanded Nets

Boston has cooled off following its hot start to the season, but there are nights when they get focused, turn the burner back on high, get hot and remind everyone why they are the title favorites this season.

The Nets ran into those Celtics on Wednesday — Boston outscored Brooklyn 46-16 in the first quarter, hitting eight straight 3-pointers to open the game.

From there the Celtics romped to a wire-to-wire 139-96 win. Boston stayed hot from deep and hit 48.1% from 3 for the game (26-of-54). Jayson Tatum scored 31 points,  Jaylen Brown added 26, and both got to sit in the fourth quarter and watch.

The Celtics needed a win like this.

The Nets… life is tough sometimes without Kevin Durant. This is a game Brooklyn can flush and move on, even with KD it would not have helped much the way the Celtics were shooting.

ONE BONUS THING TO KNOW (or see): Give Tari Eason credit, he did not give up. That is persistence.

Nuggets’ Michael Malone to coach Team LeBron in All-Star Game

DENVER NUGGETS VS LOS ANGELES LAKERS, NBA
AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images
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Denver is comfortably in first place in the West and looking like a contender.

Which is bad news if Nuggets coach Michael Malone purchased any non-refundable plane tickets for the start of the All-Star break, because now he is headed to Salt Lake City.

With Portland beating Memphis on Wednesday, it ensured that the Nuggets will have the best record in the West on Sunday ( two weeks out from the All-Star Game, meaning Malone is now the head coach of Team LeBron.

This is Malone’s second All-Star Game as a coach, but the captains should be familiar to him. In 2019 he coached Team LeBron to a win against Team Giannis 178-164.

Boston’s Joe Mazzulla will coach Team Giannis.

The coaches do not know which players they will coach — Malone doesn’t know if he will be coaching Nikola Jokić or not. This year team captains LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo will pick their teams live, just before the game. We know the pool of starters the captains will pick from, with the reserves being announced Thursday.