PBT’s weekly NBA Power Rankings: Santa brings Warriors top spot, lump of coal for Knicks

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Welcome to the Christmas edition of ProBasketballTalk’s NBA Power Rankings. The Warriors, Trail Blazers and Grizzlies have been on the nice list and have the top three spots in the rankings this week. However of late the Knicks have racked up more lumps of coal than even the Sixers, and that is reflected.

 
source:  1. Warriors (22-3, Last Week No. 1). The good news: Steve Kerr said David Lee looked great in practice and should return soon (will he accept coming off the bench is the question). The bad news: Andrew Bogut is out for a spell after getting PRP treatment on his troublesome knee. They need him come the playoffs — they are good team without him, they are a title contender with him. Which means you rest him all you need to right now.

 
source:  2. Trail Blazers (22-6. LW 4). They passed their test last week beating the Spurs twice — once thanks to 43 points from Damian Lillard — plus beat solid Pelicans and Bucks teams. They have won five in a row. It doesn’t get easier with the Rockets and Thunder up this week, but they are one of a handful of teams that currently have a top 10 offense and defense (based on points per possession), one of the signs of a true contender.

 
source:  3. Grizzlies (21-6, LW 3) Back-to-back wins over the Warriors and Spurs were impressive, then they turned around and dropped games to the Bulls and Cavaliers. I keep getting asked in radio interviews, “Can Memphis can keep this up into the playoffs?” Of course, they’re already playing playoff-style basketball. They don’t have to change a thing.

 
source:  4. Mavericks (20-8, LW 7). You can’t read much into just one game in Dallas for Rajon Rondo — although Monta Ellis sure seemed comfortable with another ball handler on the floor — however there is a new confidence around a team that had struggled against the other top seven in the West. Good test coming Sunday against Thunder.

 
source:  5. Clippers (19-8, LW 6). Doc Rivers would love to make a move to add help from guys who come available like Corey Brewer and Josh Smith, but after giving Spencer Hawes the MLE the hard cap kicks in, making it difficult to get quality. LA stumbled going 3-3 in the last six games of the soft part of the schedule, now things get serious: At San Antonio, at hot Atlanta, Golden State on Christmas Day, then Toronto.

 
source:  6. Raptors (22-6, LW 9). Give the Raptors credit, there were questions about what would happen when DeMar DeRozan went down but Toronto has gone 9-3 without him. We’ll see how they do this week on the road against the Bulls, Clippers and Nuggets.

 
source:  7. Hawks (19-7, LW 12). We wanted to see quality wins from them, so they went out last week and beat Cleveland, Houston and Chicago. Al Horford was a beast, averaging 18.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.7 blocks a game in those three. He remains the most underrated star player in the NBA.

 
source:  8. Rockets (19-7, LW 2). Back-to-back losses to Pelicans and Hawks at home and now things get serious: Blazers, Grizzlies, Spurs up this week, then Wizards to start next week. They’ve got James Harden still playing well but the Rockets have been a turnover machine of late.

 
source:  9. Spurs (17-11, LW 5). After two triple-overtime games in one week, you can expect Gregg Popovich to give Tim Duncan January off to rest. The Spurs lost both those 3OT games and now have dropped four in a row, then when you add in the news Kawhi Leonard has a hand injury, well, it’s been a really rough week in San Antonio.

 
source:  10. Bulls (17-9, LW 10). That was a quality road win in Memphis last week, with rookie Nikola Mirotic going off for 27 points. The Bulls have 12 road wins already. They will play on the Christmas Day stage at home against the Lakers. I don’t think the NBA booked this game thinking about a Carlos Boozer returns to Chicago storyline.

 
source:  11. Cavaliers (16-10 LW 8). Still hard to get a read on this team because of the inconsistent play — are they the team that easily handled Memphis last week or the one that was just throttled by Atlanta? Mike Miller is in the starting lineup for now at the two spot.

 
source:  12. Suns (15-14, LW 17).

 
source:  13. Wizards (19-7, LW 11). They had won six in a row until they ran into Phoenix and John Wall got completely outplayed by the Suns backcourt. Still, the Wizards are 6-2 against the West, which is impressive considering the conference as a whole has a 35.6 percent winning percentage against the West.

 
source:  14. Pelicans (14-13, LW 14). They hang on to the eight seed in the West by beating Oklahoma City (the team that will eventually track them down and pass them) and Houston. They are doing it behind Anthony Davis, who is putting up MVP level numbers in his third season in the league.

 
source:  15. Thunder (13-15, LW 13). Kevin Durant has been out again with a sprained ankle but this time it really showed as the Thunder were passive against a soft Laker defense, then they lost to the Pelicans thanks to an unimpressive defense. Good news is Durant’s injury is minor.

 
source:  16. Bucks (14-14, LW 14). While the team has played well in his absence, the loss of Jabari Parker for the season to an ACL injury is just a loss for basketball fans everywhere. He was playing well. This is a setback for his development.

 
source:  17. Nuggets (12-15, LW 18). They are going to be without Danilo Gallinari for at least three weeks for another knee surgery. While this one is relatively minor, it’s not a good sign. Meanwhile the Nuggets keep slogging along.

 
source:  18. Heat (13-15, LW 20). Chris Bosh is still out and Dwyane Wade is in and out of the lineup, which is why the Heat are 1-3 on their current home stand. The bigger question is just how loud the boos will be — or should be — when LeBron James returns to Miami on Christmas Day.

 
source:  19. Kings (11-15, LW 16). They snapped a five-game losing streak against the hapless Lakers. In that game Lakers radio broadcaster (and former No. 1 pick) Mychal Thompson compared DeMarcus Cousins with Moses Malone — that’s some high praise. But Cousins has earned it this season.

 
source:  20. Celtics (10-15, LW 23). I know a lot of Celtics fans don’t think they got enough, but fans tend to overvalue their own assets — there just wasn’t that much trade demand for Rajon Rondo and what they got for Dallas was likely about as good as it gets. I bet Boston asked for all the restrictions on that first round pick, hoping to stagger their picks out and move it to next season.

 
source:  21. Nets (11-15, LW 19). The rumors of the Deron Williams to Sacramento trade sum things up well — the Kings only will take on Williams and his contract if they can get the coveted Mason Plumlee as well. Not much demand for the Nets stars out there.

 
source:  22. Hornets (8-19, LW 25). Hey, don’t know if you heard, Lance Stephenson is available in a trade. The problem with moving him is evidenced in the report the Pacers players were polled about the idea of bringing him back and they shot the idea down.

 
source:  23. Magic (10-20, LW 21). There are moments you see the potential, you can see how Victor Oladipo is developing into a quality player. Then they go lose to the Sixers.

 
source:  24. Pacers (9-19, LW 24). They had lost eight in a row but have split their last four. Even with the second worst offense in the NBA and the need to add shot creation, their players rejected the idea of bringing back Lance Stephenson.

 
source:  25. Lakers (8-18, LW 22). After Kobe is 11-of-45 (24.4 percent) shooting over his last two games and 33-of-113 (29.2 percent) in his last five games. He’s clearly exhausted. Yet after going 3-of-14 against the Thunder, the Lakers needed a game-winning shot so coach Byron Scott called up an isolation play for Bryant. It shows who really has the power in that organization.

 
source:  26. Jazz (8-20, LW 27). Derrick Favors talking to PBT: ““I spent a lot of time this off-season working on my jump shot and my whole offensive game. When Quin (Snyder) got hired we talked, he told me how he was going to use me in the offense, the things he wanted me to work on, the things to keep improving on and so far it seems to be paying off.” Check back to PBT Tuesday for more.

 
source:  27. Pistons (5-23, LW 28). It was a bold stroke by Stan Van Gundy to cut Josh Smith loose, that signing was Joe Dumars desperately grasping at straws to save his job. The most amazing part of this is SVG not only had the balls to suggest to owners Tom Gores to eat $27 million after this season, he was able to get the owner to sign off on it.

 
source:  28. 76ers (3-23, LW 30). Through all the losses and occasional skirmishes on the bench, there are signs of development in Philadelphia. Count me in the group that thinks one or two veterans on this team — just role paying real pros — could help speed that development along by modeling professionalism, but there is development.

source:  27. Timberwolves (5-21, LW 26). Losers of five in a row and they have shipped Corey Brewer out of town, likely not the last veteran moved off this roster before the deadline. Maybe Troy Daniels can find a home and his shooting stroke in Minny, that guy was lights out in the D-League from beyond the arc.

 
source:  29. Knicks (5-25, LW 29). They have lost five in a row and are just hard to watch right now (and that’s with Carmelo Anthony in the lineup). The temptation is to say Phil Jackson inherited this roster, but he chose to re-sign Carmelo, went out and got guys like Jose Calderon and Samuel Dalembert, plus much of the bench were his guys. He didn’t put together much of a triangle team.

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.