PBT’s NBA Power Rankings: Atlanta, Golden State keep lock on top spots

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How does an Atlanta vs. Golden State NBA Finals sound? It’s not out of the question, the Hawks are for real and with Andrew Bogut back the Warriors may well be the best of the West. Of course, there’s a lot of basketball to play and with the arms race in the West the balance of power could shift again out there.

source:  1. Hawks (29-8, Last Week No. 1). They have won eight in a row and last week that included wins over the Clippers, Grizzlies and Wizards. In their last five games they have outscored their opponents by 14.2 points per 100. On the season they are fifth in the league in defense, sixth in offense. Tell me again why can’t this team come out of the East?
source:  2. Warriors (29-5, LW 2). They have won six in a row and now they have Andrew Bogut back in the rotation to strengthen their defense. More scary than that, the Warriors are really starting to find their groove on offense — they have the best offense in the NBA over the last 10 games.
source:  3. Trail Blazers (30-8. Last Week No. 4). Coach Terry Stotts said after they beat the Clippers Sunday that he sends quotes to his players almost every day from famous people and that the last few have been about process — to take things day-to-day. That as well as they are playing now they need to be better by May. To a man believe they are legit title contenders now.
source:  4. Bulls (26-12, LW 3). That Derrick Rose had to sit out a game with a sore knee is a concern, even if Pau Gasol did carry them to a win. Also of concern is Mike Dunleavy’s slow recovery from a sprained ankle. Fun showdown with Atlanta on Saturday night, too bad it’s the second night of a back-to-back for the Bulls.
source:  5. Spurs (23-15, LW 8). Even with all the injuries — they are still without Kawhi Leonard — and juggled lineups the Spurs have won four of five and are 23-15 this season. It still feels to me like they will string together a run soon.
source:  6. Rockets (26-11, LW 9). James Harden is a legitimate MVP candidate putting up 27-6-6 a game (and before you say something about his defense, he starts on the second best defensive team in the league, it’s improved). When he gets more help on offense this team is scary.
source:  7. Clippers (25-13, LW 7). Sunday seemed to sum up the Clippers — they should have been able to beat the Heat but a combination of a lack of both bench play and consistent defense from their bigs did them in. If the regular season is about building good habits for the playoffs then the Clippers are behind a lot of other top six teams in the West.
source:  8. Mavericks (26-12, LW 5). Lakers coach Byron Scott on the late Roy Tarpley, who passed away last week at age 50: “The thing that stood out about Roy is he was an unbelievable athlete and a great basketball player. Hell of a rebounder. He gave us fits, he was a tough cover for everybody. Obviously we’re all saddened that he passed away.”
source:  9. Grizzlies (26-11, LW 6).
In their last 10 games the Grizzlies they are allowing 104.2 points per 100 possessions, 21st in the league and about seven more per 100 than they did in the first month of the season. I like the pickup of Jeff Green, he gives them more athleticism on the wing, but this team has to start to defend again (it did better Sunday vs. Phoenix).
source:  10. Raptors (25-11, LW 10). They snapped their four-game losing streak against the Celtics over the weekend, which is nice but this team still misses DeMar DeRozan. Interesting tests this week against the improving Pistons and the red-hot Hawks.
source:  11. Suns (22-18, LW 13). The pick up of Brandan Wright was a great fit — he’s athletic, can run the floor as well as the pick-and-roll with all those guards, and he gives them another shot blocker. Just don’t think he’s a stretch four. This is an upgrade behind Alex Len. If the Thunder want the eighth playoff spot they need to catch Phoenix, this team is not going to just roll over.
source:  12. Wizards (25-12, LW 12). Quality win over the Bulls reminds us that the Wizards, when healthy, can look like a team that can do damage in the playoffs. Then on Sunday they got just thumped by the Hawks and looked like a team well back of the best in the East. Is this team still maybe a second round playoff team at best?
source:  13. Thunder (18-19, LW 11). They lost both games on the road last week and are 7-12 away from home this season, which isn’t ideal with 6 of their 7 seven on the road (and their one home game is Golden State). They are 2.5 games out of the playoffs, and with Phoenix picking up some wins and Russell Westbrook slumping the “could OKC miss the playoffs?” questions are out there.
source:  14. Pelicans (18-18, LW 14). I love that the fans are voting Anthony Davis in as an All-Star Game starter, he’s more than earned that with his play this season. I just wish the rest of his team were more consistent, they really can beat or lose to anyone on any given night.
source:  15. Bucks (20-19, LW 15). Are we trying to punish England? This week the Bucks — playing fantastic defense of late — will take on the offensively anemic Knicks in London. That could get ugly. At least the fine people of Europe can get an up close look at how Giannis Antetokounmpo has developed.
source:  16. Cavaliers (19-19 LW 16). They have lost five in a row and are now 1-8 on the season without LeBron James. This team relies on him like the Cavs of old used to. That didn’t work then and will not now, this team needs defense and an identity. All the trades — getting J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and particularly Timofey Mozgov — brought upgrades to the roster, but it doesn’t solve the bigger problems.
source:  17. Heat (16-21, LW 17). They may have found something in Hassan Whiteside, who fits in their system well because of his hustle and energy — he outplayed DeAndre Jordan Sunday. The Heat split the first two games of the rough West Coast road swing they are in the middle of.
source:  18. Pistons (13-24, LW 21). . The Pistons in the playoffs? Don’t laugh. They are just three games back of the Nets and Heat (tied for the 7/8 seeds) and Detroit is 8-2 in their last 10. They could make up this ground, which would be a huge story.
source:  19. Nuggets (17-20, LW 23). As their backcourt goes so goes Denver and recently Ty Lawson and Arron Afflalo have played well, so the Nuggets have won four in a row. Trading Timofey Mozgov has opened up minutes for Jusuf Nurkic and he has been a player to watch.
source:  20. Hornets (15-24, LW 25). They have won five in a row and now are just two games out of the playoffs in the East, which is pretty amazing considering their start. It also speaks to just where the bottom half of the East is at.
source:  21. Pacers (15-24, LW 20). Another team just two games out of the playoffs and with hope to climb in thanks to their defense. Still that loss to Philly felt like a setback. If they want to make it in they need to beat other teams trying to climb that ladder like Detroit and Charlotte, both of whom are on the docket this week.
source:  22. Kings (16-21, LW 22). They beat the Thunder and Cavaliers last week, but lost to the Nuggets in between. DeMarcus Cousins should make the All-Star team in the West, but the conference is so overloaded that some very deserving players will be on the outside looking in.
source:  23. Jazz (13-25, LW 19). I loved Trevor Booker’s shot of the year. More than that, I loved that Enes Kanter returned from injury and Quin Snyder left Rudy Gobert in the starting lineup.
source:  24. Nets (16-21, LW 18). They have lost five in a row and it’s not like they were playing a murder’s row — it’s just that the Nets are playing poorly. That gives the Hornets, Pacers and Pistons real hope they could make the postseason.
source:  25. Lakers (12-26, LW 26). There’s a lot of speculation around the Lakers that there is something more wrong with Kobe Bryant than just needing rest (he has missed 3-of-4 and 6-of-11), but Byron Scott denies it. What can’t be denied is Nick young’s slump, he is shooting 25 percent in his last five games and 17.2 percent from three. They need his points.
source:  26. Magic (13-27, LW 24). They have lost six in a row and their offense has gone AWOL, which is bad news with the Bulls, Rockets, Grizzlies and Thunder coming up this week.
source:  27. Celtics (12-23, LW 27). The Celtics fire sale gives them a lot of picks. This next draft they have theirs (which is going to be quite high), the Clippers first, and three second rounders (and two of those are high second round). Celtics fans will be watching a lot of college ball for a while.
source:  28. 76ers (7-29, LW 28). They have won two in a row and three of four, and they are doing it playing solid defense. The offense is still a work in project, but with the game on the line last week Michael Carter-Williams made plays.

source:  29. Timberwolves (5-31, LW 29). Andrew Wiggins is going to be the Rookie of the Year. The only other guy really in the conversation is Nikola Mirotic of the Bulls — he’s playing key rotation minutes for one of the East’s best teams — but I have a hard time seeing voters giving it to the experienced European.
source:  30. Knicks (5-35, LW 30). They head to London for a game this week against the Bucks. Go ahead and insert your “why should we subject the English to this torture” joke here. That said, this is good for Derek Fisher and his team because it’s not many games with extra practices. This team could use that.

Lonzo Ball says ‘I can’t run’ or jump; Bulls’ Donovan has to plan for extended absence

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
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Officially, Lonzo Ball will be out 4-6 weeks after getting his knee scoped this week.

However, this is his second surgery on his left knee this year — he had meniscus surgery in January, after which he was never able to return to the court — and there are concerns Ball could miss significant time again. And coach Billy Donovan has no choice but to plan for an extended absence.

Ball did a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday and it’s hard to come away from what he said overly optimistic. Rob Schaefer reported on the call for NBC Sports Chicago:

“Literally, I really can’t run. I can’t run or jump. There’s a range from, like, 30 to 60 degrees when my knee is bent that I have, like, no force and I can’t, like, catch myself. Until I can do those things I can’t play,” Ball said. “I did rehab, it was getting better, but it was not to a point where I could get out there and run full speed or jump. So surgery is the next step.”

The symptoms are something Ball said he has never dealt with and have left doctors, in his words, “a little surprised.”

It’s never good when doctors are surprised. Ball said the doctors don’t see anything on the MRI, but there is clearly something wrong, so they are going in and looking to find the issue and fix it.

Ball has been diligent in his recovery work from the start, the problem was pain in his knee. Something was still not right after the first surgery. Whatever it is.

The 4-6 week timeline would have Ball back in early November, but you know they will be overly cautious with him after the past year. Coach Billy Donovan was honest — he has to plan for a season without Ball.

The Bulls need Ball in a deep and challenging East. He brings defense, pushes the pace in transition, and takes care of the rock. Chicago has other players who can do those things individually — Alex Caruso can defend, Coby White pushes in transition, Goran Dragic takes care of the ball — but the Bulls lack one player who can do all those things. At least they lack one until Ball returns.

Whenever that may be.

Deandre Ayton says he hasn’t spoken to coach Williams since Game 7

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans - Game Four
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In a Game 7 against the Mavericks last May, Suns coach Monty Williams benched center Deandre Ayton, who ended up playing just 17 minutes in an ugly, blowout loss for Phoenix. When asked about it after the game Williams said, “It’s internal.”

Ayton and Williams have not spoken since then, according to Ayton.

Yikes. Remember that includes a summer where the Suns would not offer Ayton a max contract extension so he went out and got one from the Pacers, then the Suns instantly matched it. Ayton did not sound thrilled to be back in Phoenix on Media Day, and he was rather matter-of-fact about dealing with his coach.

It’s what every fan wants to hear — “this is just my job.”

Reporters asked Williams about this and he played it off, saying he hasn’t spoken with a lot of players yet.

It’s just day one of training camp, but there are a lot of red flags around the Suns: owner Robert Sarver being suspended and selling the team, Jae Crowder not in camp waiting to be traded, and now not a lot of communication between the team’s star center and its coach.

Maybe it all amounts to nothing. Maybe the Suns get on the court, Chris Paul looks rejuvenated, Devin Booker looks like Devin Booker, and none of this matters. But what had looked like a stable situation not that long ago now has a lot of red flags flying heading into the season, and that has to concern Suns fans.

 

Report: Lakers would have traded both first-round picks for Irving, Mitchell

Utah Jazz v Brooklyn Nets
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“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it,” Lakers GM Rob Pelinka said at media day, pulling back the curtain a little on his thinking of trading two first-round picks. “So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

That tracks with the consistent messaging out of Los Angeles all summer: The Lakers would only trade the only two first-round picks they fully control for the rest of this decade (2027 and 2029) for a deal that made them a contender.

That meant landing Kyrie Irving or Donovan Mitchell, ESPN’s Dave McMenamin said on The Hoop Collective Podcast.

“I’ve been told that had the Lakers been able to acquire, Kyrie Irving, or the Lakers been able to acquire Donovan Mitchell, either of those players, the Lakers were willing and able to move both those [first-round] picks to do it.”

The problem for the Lakers is the market price for elite talent has moved beyond two first-round picks. The Jazz got three unprotected first-round picks (2025, 2027 and 2029) plus the rights to two pick swaps (2026 and 2028) in the Mitchell trade, not to mention three players: Lauri Markkanen (who they will try to trade for another pick), Collin Sexton, and Ochair Agbaji. The price for Kyrie Irving would have been at least as high, if the Nets really wanted to trade him.

The Lakers traded all of their young players and most of their picks to land Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook, except for the ones they let walk away (Alex Caruso). Before he was judicious in making trades like he was this offseason, Pelinka made deals that backed him into this corner.

The Lakers likely could use both picks to acquire Buddy Hield and Myles Turner out of Indiana (sending Westbrook back), but that doesn’t make Los Angeles a contender (a playoff team, but not a title threat) and it messes with the plan to have around $30 million in cap space next summer to chase a big name.

The Lakers you see in training camp are the Lakers you get. At least for now.

New coach, new attitude, but will that fix Lakers defense, Westbrook fit?

Los Angeles Lakers Media Day 2022
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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Darvin Ham was the new face at the front of the room, and since the day he walked in the door he has been about looking forward and a clean slate. The Lakers own tabula rasa.

“This year, we’ve turned the page, you know, we’re looking out the windshield, not so much through the rearview mirror,” coach Ham said.

However, at Lakers’ media day everyone kept looking backward — to the team’s poor defense and questionable fit of Russell Westbrook last season.

Can a new face at the front of the room, a new focus, and some better luck with injuries wipe away that past and make the Lakers a threat in the West again?

“I think everyone here has a chip [on their shoulder], and in every right, obviously, [after last] season, last year,” another newcomer, Patrick Beverley, said. “Everyone wants a little bit of oomph, a little bit of you know, more of whatever it is.”

For Ham, “whatever it is” means defense. On Monday, Ham was preaching defense again. Like he has incessantly since the day the Lakers hired him — he is hanging his hat, his rotations, and the Lakers’ chances on an intense defense.

Of course, Frank Vogel preached defense, too. He is a defensive coach. When the Lakers won the title in 2020 they had the third-best defense in the NBA, the following season it was the best defense in the league. Vogel’s message and the team’s focus on that end got lost last season for various reasons. The Lakers fell to the bottom 10 in the league on that end of the floor. It cost Vogel his job.

Ham tied last season’s defensive concerns and Westbrook’s fit in the rotation together — if you don’t defend, you don’t play. That includes the $47 million former MVP guard.

“We got to have a defensive mindset,” Ham said. “Those are the guys that’s going to get the minutes, guys going out there to get stops. And… [Westbrook has] told me personally, he’s going to commit to that side of the ball.

“And that’s what camp is for. We’ll see.”

Ham would not commit to Westbrook as a starter. That comes after the Lakers spent the summer trying to find a trade for Westbrook, to move on from last season’s frustrations, but any deal had to bring value back to the Lakers. That really never came close to happening (there wasn’t a great market for Westbrook’s services at his current price tag). So Westbrook is back.

“Whether they want me here or not doesn’t really matter,” Westbrook said. “Honestly, my job is to be professional, show up to work like I’ve always done thus far, do my job the best way I know how to, and that’s it. We’ve all had jobs that sometimes people at our jobs don’t like us or don’t want us there, as you guys can probably attest to, and any other job across the world. As a professional and as a working man I have to do my job and do it the best way I know how to be able to support and take of my family, and that’s what I’ll do.”

The awkwardness of Westbrook’s fit was a structural one — he has been a ball-dominant scorer his entire NBA career, and the Lakers are asking him to play a role now. He’s not their best shot creator, he will be standing in the corners at times. That’s not in the nature of the aggressive, confident Westbrook, and Vogel could never strike a balance.

“We’re telling Russ be yourself like we need you to be yourself. I tell him that before every game, like be yourself,” Anthony Davis said. “Because I didn’t want him thinking too much like, ‘Oh, I gotta get the ball LeBron or AD’ and now he’s being passive and not being aggressive, which is who he has been in his league to be Russell Westbrook. And I think the more he does that, we can adjust.”

Ham, however, has talked about running the offense more through Davis — this is a critical year in his time with the Lakers — and, of course, nobody is taking the ball out of LeBron’s hands.

“My thing is offensively, we want to play fast, want to be physical and play free. And fast meaning our running habits, getting AD on that left block, getting Bron around the elbow area,” Ham said. “There’s a variety of sets that we have planned to install that’s going to highlight their strengths, get Russ in post more.”

Westbrook said all the right things about fitting in. Again.

“I’ll continue doing what’s best for the team doing whatever that is asked of me,” Westbrook said. “I’ll continue doing that. And in those parameters I’ll be the best person I could possibly be.”

Westbrook said all the right things a year ago to LeBron and Davis, then his fit with the Lakers was never smooth last season. Will it really change this season? To quote Ham, “we’ll see.”

Each of the Lakers big three talked about just needing more time together healthy (for the record, the Lakers had a -3 net rating last season when all three shared the court). They jumpstarted the process this summer with conversations, but they all said it was just a matter of time.

“With all of us you know our time on the floor together was very limited because of injuries for myself and Bron but I think that was that was really it,” Davis said. “We just didn’t have enough reps.”

Injuries have been an issue. Davis spent the summer getting healthy and stronger, trying to be on the court more and carry a larger load. LeBron echoed that idea.

“The focus of my game is being available…” LeBron said. “Availability is the most important thing in his league and to be able to be available on the floor.”

Ham’s media day message was not a new one, it’s what he’s been saying — defense, accountability, a team mindset. The question, looking back to last season, is fit. Ham has talked to Westbrook about those things and has been the guard’s most vocal supporter. Russ is going to get his chance.

“Everything has been about you know, being selfless, being team-oriented, having a defensive mindset and holding [Westbrook] to that — words that came out of his own mouth,” Ham said.

Roster changes could come in Los Angeles. They didn’t this summer — at least with the core players — because GM Rob Pelinka would not send out both picks the Lakers can trade (2027 and 2029) for any deal that didn’t make Los Angeles a contender. Asked bout that, Pelinka noted he gets one swing at this and it has to be a home run.

“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it,” Pelinka said. “So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

In the short term, that improvement falls to Ham and the Lakers roster. They are saying all the right things about looking forward.

But will the ghosts of seasons past haunt them again? We’ll see.