PBT’s Weekly NBA Power Rankings: Hawks continue to fly high

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Atlanta’s win streak is up to 16 in a row and while we see flashes from the Bulls and Cavaliers, a trip to the Finals in the East still runs through the ATL. That’s a good story. Out West Golden State remains the team to beat, although the margins for error in that conference are miniscule. That’s a good story, too. But in these Power Rankings we talk a lot about All-Star reserves.

 
source:  1. Hawks (37-8, Last Week No. 1). The winning streak is now at a ridiculous 16 games. We know at least one Hawk will be represented at the All-Star Game — Mike Budenholzer will coach the East. The question for the coaches voting around the league is how many of Al Horford, Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver to add to the All-Star team as reserves (two at least, maybe three).

 
source:  2. Warriors (36-6, LW 2). Klay Thompson put on a 37-point third quarter show last week right as coaches started to vote on the All-Star reserves. He’s a bubble guy but that performance plus the fact one more guard will get in with Kobe Bryant being out means Thompson should be a lock for New York.

 
source:  3. Spurs (29-17, LW 3). They have won six of seven and the only off day happened to come on a day the Bulls finally played up to their potential. Looming out there starting Feb. 8: The nine-game rodeo road trip, a signature trip that has made some previous Spurs teams.

 
source:  4. Grizzlies (31-12, LW 4). I’m not so sure about the whole “starting Jeff Green” thing, but the Grizzlies have won six of seven and are looking rock solid again. Interesting tests this week vs. Dallas and OKC. Good on the fans for rightfully voting Marc Gasol as a starter for the All-Star Game.

 
source:  5. Clippers (30-14, LW 5). It’s odd to think that Chris Paul is on the bubble for making the All-Star Game as a reserve, but that’s just how deep the West is. Fans going by points alone or falling for the hot new flavor of the month have others in front of CP3, but look at his assists and assist-to-turnover ratio. To me the best floor general in the game today has to make the cut. Clippers are +11.9 as a team in last 10 games, third best in the NBA, thanks to an offense scoring 114.5 per 100 over that span.

 
source:  6. Rockets (31-14, LW 6). Kevin McHale would like the Rockets to play at a faster pace but says it’s like pulling teeth: “Everybody says they want to run until it’s time to run. I asked one guy, ‘Do you run down to get your mail?’ ‘Do you run and get your eggs?’ Nobody likes to run — they all say they do but they’re lying to me. It’s been 25 years since anyone liked to run, and we grew up running, we ran all the time, that’s the way we grew up playing.”

 
source:  7. Mavericks (30-15, LW 8). It was a scary moment Sunday when Tyson Chandler had to be helped to the locker room holding his knee. Fortunately it was nothing too serious, he returned and played later in the game. However, the next center after him on the roster is Dwight Powell. The Mavs think they can sign Jermaine O’Neal. Either way, both are huge drop offs from Chandler, who is key to any Dallas postseason run.

 
source:  8. Trail Blazers (32-13. Last Week No. 6). The Blazers are entering a tough stretch of the schedule so they could use the fact that LaMarcus Aldridge is going to play through a torn ligament in his thumb. By the way, if you thought he might bolt Portland as a free agent this summer, you think he would put the team first and play through this injury if that was the case?

 
source:  9. Bulls (29-17, LW 12). The Bulls look like they broke out of their mid-season slump with a thrashing of the Spurs followed by a win over Dallas the next night, both on the road. Then they got home Sunday night against a sub-.500 team and laid another egg. Their inconsistency is maddening, but I still see their peaks and think they could come out of the East.

 
source:  10. Suns (26-20, LW 9). If the Suns are going to hold off the hard-charging Thunder in the West they need to do well in a rough stretch of games through Feb. 5. They started of 1-2 and this week face the Wizards, Bulls and Warriors. The good news is the Thunder have yet to get hot.

 
source:  11. Cavaliers (25-20 LW 13). In the Cavs five game winning streak they are averaging 118 points per 100 possessions behind an explosive LeBron James, it’s the best offense in the league by a wide margin in that stretch. Their defense is improved, but still is just middle of the pack in the league. That has been enough of late.

 
source:  12 Wizards (30-15, LW 10). They lost to both the Trail Blazers and Thunder last week because of poor fourth quarter execution (and if Kenneth Faried didn’t miss two late free throws the Wiz would have dropped three last week). Interesting showdown with slumping Toronto later in the week.

 
source:  13. Raptors (29-15, LW 11). In their last 10 games as a team they are -3.2 per 100 possessions, and the real concern is it’s a drop on both ends of the court. That said, Raptors fans should celebrate Kyle Lowry being voted an All-Star starter of Dwyane Wade, that was the correct choice.

 
source:  14. Pelicans (23-21, LW 16). They picked up a quality win over Phoenix and are now just two games out of the final playoff spot in the West, plus they have 10 of their next 12 at home. The playoff dream is alive in New Orleans.

 
source:  15. Thunder (22-22, LW 14). They have dropped two in a row and are 5-5 in their last 10 because their offense is struggling. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have been fantastic (and both deserve to be All-Stars) but in his last five games Dion Waiters is shooting just 37.7 percent and Reggie Jackson is worse. The rest of the team has to step up.

 
source:  16. Hornets (19-26, LW 19). They have won 8 of 11 and with that moved past the Nets to be the eight seed in the East. Why the run? Because of a soft schedule, the only quality wins in there were over the slumping Raptors and the Heat. Things change this week on the road at the Spurs, then next week they have a home-and-home with Washington.

 
source:  17. Heat (20-24, LW 18). Heat fans (and people around the team) had been buzzing for a while about Hassan Whiteside, but he announced his presence with authority on Sunday blocking a dozen shots in a win over Chicago. He’s matured physically — he’s put on a lot of weight since he entered the league, and he needed to — and in terms of the mentality of his game. He’s patient now, not frenetic.

 
source:  18. Bucks (22-22, LW 15). They are 1-3 since returning from London and have not looked sharp, particularly the bench. Potentially important game for seeding against Miami on Tuesday.

 
source:  19. Pistons (17-28, LW 17). . The Brandon Jennings injury could be devastating. D.J. Augustin had a great game as a replacement on Sunday, and he has played better as a starter than off the bench in recent years, but this is still a step back.

 
source:  20. Jazz (16-28, LW 25). If he were not in a ridiculously stacked Western Conference, Derrick Favors should deserve a little All-Star buzz. The Jazz are 10-10 in their last 20 games and are doing that with solid defense.

 
source:  21. Nets (18-26, LW 21). The most interesting thing about this team continues to be the trade rumors — now they are talking to Charlotte about a Joe Johnson trade for Lance Stephenson. There will be other rumors flying as they try to reduce payroll before selling the team.

 
source:  22. Nuggets (18-26, LW 20). They have lost six in a row and the issue is on defense, where they have been the worst team in the NBA over their last five games. Brian Shaw should make sure his resume is in order for this summer.

 
source:  23. Celtics (15-27, LW 26). Credit coach Brad Stevens if you want, credit the makeup of the players if you want, but what you have to like about this Celtics team is that they don’t quit. Down in games when a lot of teams would just roll over Bosotn fights back. That is a good quality.

 
source:  24. Pacers (16-30, LW 22). Well they beat Orlando on Sunday to snap a seven-game losing streak. However despite their good defense their offense is not going to allow them to win many more games.

 
source:  25. Kings (16-27, LW 23). DeMarcus Cousins should make the All-Star team, at least in my book (I’d have him over Dwight Howard or Tim Duncan, which Duncan would be good with as he doesn’t want to be there). Cousins getting in might takes Kings’ fans minds off the six-game losing streak.

 
source:  26. Magic (15-32, LW 24). I think Nikola Vucevic deserves to make the Eastern Conference All-Star team, but if he doesn’t it’s because he plays on a struggling team right now that shows flashes of good play surrounded by some raw, sloppy play.

 
source:  27. Knicks (8-37, LW 30). Break up the Knicks! They have won three in a row and Langston Galloway is on his way to establishing cult hero status in New York. They could keep winning with teams like the Kings and Lakers on the docket this week.

 
source:  28. Lakers (12-33, LW 27). The loss of Kobe Bryant is the big story, but the other issue around the Lakers is that the minutes and rotations are just all over the map. Coach Byron Scott is searching nightly for anything that works, but the result is guys just don’t know if they will be called on. Nick Young is the latest guy in that doghouse.

 
source:  29. 76ers (8-36, LW 28). As if the Sixers couldn’t get any harder to watch, Tony Wroten goes down with a knee injury and is done for the season. They play hard and defend as well as they can, but this team is not entertaining.

source:  30. Timberwolves (7-35, LW 29). Nikola Pekovic is back and Flip Saunders is throwing him out there like he wants to showcase him for a trade. Or he doesn’t have other good options. Or a little of both. Kevin Martin can expect the same thing.

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.