PBT Weekly NBA Power Rankings: Golden State on top but don’t sleep on Memphis

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After a one-week hiatus while the entire PBT crew was at the All-Star Game, the Power Rankings have returned. For the first time in a few weeks, Atlanta has fallen out of the top slot and Golden State has regained its rightful spot. But Memphis is lurking near the top and is a team everyone should fear come the playoffs.

 
source:  1. Warriors (43-9, Last Week No. 3). Stephen Curry was out Sunday with a sore ankle — with his history that is frightening — and without him he Warriors lost to the Pacers. That speaks to his importance — this team is 17.2 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court compared to when he sits. That’s the sign of an MVP.

 
source:  2. Grizzlies (40-14, LW 2). Everyone seems to look past Memphis as a contender but there are only three 40-win teams so far and this is one of them. They showed how resilient they are with a come-from-behind win over Portland on Sunday. They’ve gotten good bench play of late and they’re going to need that — Memphis has the toughest schedule in the West the rest of the way out.

 
source:  3. Hawks (44-12, Last Week No. 1). They seem to have hit the mid-season doldrums, they have gone 4-4 in their last eight, their offense isn’t executing at the same level as it had earlier in the season. Still, nobody in the East will catch them as the top seed.

 
source:  4. Cavaliers (35-22 LW 4). I’m not sure Kendrick Perkins gives them much behind Timofey Mozgov — Perk just doesn’t have much left in the tank — but at this price it’s worth a shot. Interesting game Thursday night hosting Golden State (let’s just hope Curry is healthy by then).

 
source:  5. Clippers (37-19, LW 10). Winners of four in a row despite Blake Griffin being on the sideline. They are doing most of their damage on the offensive end, in part thanks to aggressive play from DeAndre Jordan (well, except when he goes to the free throw line).

 
source:  6. Rockets (37-18, LW 6). They are 7-4 without Dwight Howard so far and with that have been able to hold on to the three seed in the West. I like the additions of K.J. McDaniels and Pablo Prigioni to provide depth, but this team’s offense still goes as James Harden goes.

 
source:  7. Trail Blazers (36-19. Last Week No. 8). Arron Afflalo wasn’t impressive in his debut but I expect he will find his groove — I think he was one of the most underrated pickups of the trade deadline. That said, the way Memphis ground down the Blazers in the fourth quarter on Sunday couldn’t make Rip City fans optimistic about the playoffs (where the style of play Memphis brings becomes more common).

 
source:  8. Mavericks (37-20, LW 7). They picked up a quality win over the Rockets this past weekend, but just a couple nights before the Thunder ran the Mavs out of the building. Amar’e Stoudemire looked good and bouncy in his debut, if he can keep that up it will be a nice pick up.

 
source:  9. Raptors (37-18, LW 9). The Raptors are 3-1 against the top seeded Hawks in the East this season, and that includes a blowout win last Friday. They are still up and down (as evidenced against Houston over the weekend) but this team is playing slightly better defense of late and that end will be needed down the stretch and into the playoffs. They have a fairly soft schedule the rest of the way out and with that can hold on to that two seed from charging Cleveland.

 
source:  10. Thunder (31-25, LW 14). No Durant for the next couple weeks, but that likely doesn’t slow this team down now. The lowest seed to win the title was the Houston Rockets as the six seed. The only eight seed to make the NBA Finals was the 1999 Knicks. The Thunder may rewrite the NBA history books this year. Russell Westbrook should be on bottom of MVP ballots this year, as Sam Amick of USA Today noted he is only player in the NBA to average at least 26 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds a game.

 
source:  11. Spurs (34-21, LW 5). They are 2-3 on the rodeo road trip so far, with both of the wins coming against Eastern Conference teams. The trip continues all this week then the Spurs are at home for six in a row. This team hasn’t struck fear in anyone yet, as evidenced by their 7-10 record against the other West playoff teams so far.

 
source:  12. Bulls (35-21, LW 12). Derrick Rose missed practice, followed by a bad game, and the shocking number of people in Chicago out for his head were back at it. Rose had played well in the run up to that game, he was starting to look like his old self, if that Rose rounds into form for the playoffs watch out. But this team still just cannot string good performances together.

 
source:  13. Bucks (31-24, LW 16). I was surprised they were willing to send Brandon Knight out at the trade deadline in a year he had been key to their success. Everyone likes to play the “Michael Carter-Williams reminds Jason Kidd of a young version of himself” game, but second year Jason Kidd was already a good point guard (PER of 17.8) and MCW is a long way from that (PER 12). Kidd, despite his problems, was a better shooter already, too.

 
source:  14. Suns (29-27, LW 9). Losers of four in a row and their moves at the trade deadline — sending out Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas — were not about this season. They know they are not making the playoffs now. People around the Suns love the picks and pieces they got at the trade deadline, personally I’m not sold.

 
source:  15. Pelicans (28-27, LW 13). No Anthony Davis for a week or two (shoulder sprain), no Ryan Anderson for 2-4 week (sprained knee) and no chance at the playoffs now for the Pelicans. When Anderson and Davis are paired, the Pelicans are +5.8 per 100 possessions, they needed those two to make a run. When they miss the playoffs, the Monty Williams job watch can begin.

 
source:  16. Pistons (22-33, LW 18). Reggie Jackson finally got what he wanted, his own team to run, then in his debut Sunday missed his first eight shots. Stan Van Gundy has some work to do here, but Jackson could be a solid long-term answer for them at the point. There are a number of teams fighting for one of those final playoff spots in the East, I have a feeling the Pistons will rise up and get one.

 
source:  17. Wizards (33-23, LW 15). The blowout loss to the Cavaliers was a sign the Wizards are not near the top of the East right now. But that crushing loss to the Pistons showed just how far things are falling in Washington. Their offensive spacing is a real issue with Bradley Beal out.

 
source:  18. Pacers (23-33, LW 22). With an impressive win over the Warriors on Sunday the Pacers have won six of seven. What’s surprising is they are doing it with offense — 110 points per 100 possessions in the last seven, fourth best in the NBA — and not their defense. George Hill has been fantastic at the point (he just wasn’t being put in a good position for him in previous years. And yes, Paul George is serious about a mid-March return.

 
source:  19. Heat (23-31, LW 20). Yin and yang: Great pickup with Goran Dragic, terrible news about Chris Bosh being out the rest of the season. Look for Miami to play a lot faster with Dragic, which is about the only thing they have going for them the rest of this season now.

 
source:  20. Hornets (22-32, LW 17). This was a team with playoff dreams who have dropped five in a row and are now half a game out of the final playoff spot (technically they are 11th but things are bunched). Their schedule the rest of the way isn’t that difficult, but it is tougher than just about everyone they are trying to beat out. They need to beat teams like Boston and Orlando this week.

 
source:  21. Nets (22-31, LW 19). They got what they wanted at the trade deadline: $6.5 million shaved off their tax bill. Plus they pick up Thaddeus Young. If Jarrett Jack can stay healthy at the point that may be enough to get this team into the playoffs. Maybe.

 
source:  22. Jazz (20-34, LW 23). With the Enes Kanter trade the Jazz are committed to the Rudy Gobert/Derrick Favors front line. As they should be. By the way, I like the nickname “the Stifle Tower” for Gobert.

 
source:  23. Celtics (20-33, LW 21). I love the Isaiah Thomas pickup, he’s on an affordable deal who will give the Celtics a spark on offense for a couple years while Marcus Smart develops. Well, as long as he doesn’t get thrown out of more games.

 
source:  24. Kings (19-35, LW 24). Sacramento is out and running under George Karl, the tempo is up and it seems to suit DeMarcus Cousins. The Kings just need to cut down on the turnovers. Brutal schedule week for Karl with Memphis, San Antonio and Portland on the docket.

source:  25. Timberwolves (12-42, LW 25). Kevin Garnett coming back is a nice story, and the emerging Andrew Wiggins can learn a few things from him about being a star in this league (and in this market). I’m not sure the lessons do much for Anthony Bennett’s future.

 
source:  26. Magic (19-39, LW 28). Whispers out of he Orlando locker room is that the players really like interim coach James Borrego, who has helped lead the team to a three-game win streak. It was not management’s plan to keep him on but he has 24 more games to make his case.

 
source:  27. Nuggets (20-35, LW 26). There was a time Denver was one of the most feared places to play on the schedule, but the Nuggets are just 12-14 at home this season. The Nuggets have 15 more home games to get that number above .500.

 
source:  28. 76ers (12-42, LW 27). I’m actually relatively okay with the Michael Carter-Williams trade — they didn’t love his shooting and that Lakers pick will be pretty high the next couple seasons. But their other moves — trading K.J. McDaniels and bringing in JaVale McGee — confuse me. This team was developing a nice defensive identity and trading MCW and KJ away just blows that identity up. Brett Brown gets to start over.

 
source:  30. Lakers (14-41, LW 30). The Lakers beat the Celtics in overtime Sunday, and to show you how far these teams have fallen since 2010 this game was played opposite the Oscars in LA and I can assure you far more people cared about the statue Birdman got than the Lakers win.

 
source:  29. Knicks (10-45, LW 29). Losers of seven in a row and they are 0-15 on the season without Carmelo Anthony. There are not a lot of reasons for hope. That said, I think Phil Jackson’s tweets critical of the team are getting blown out of proportion. Sure, he made the team bad, but he’s said a lot worse about his own players in the past (ask Kobe).

As Sunday winds down, Miami heats up talk of Jimmy Butler trade

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There has been much speculation over the past 48 hours about where disgruntled Minnesota Timberwolves star Jimmy Butler will end up once owner Glen Taylor finds a suitable trade partner for him. We have already discussed at length where Butler might fit best, and Sunday morning saw an influx of new teams ready to come to the Timberwolves with an offer now that it is known that Butler is on the table.

As Sunday came to a close, it became apparent that yet another team is trying to work their way into the Butler sweepstakes.

According to multiple reports, the Miami Heat have been active and are trying to get a deal done for Butler. Once thought of as a middle-of-the-pack suitor, the Heat have apparently been one of the more engaged teams as a deal for the Timberwolves guard is sought before the team opens training camp on Tuesday.

Via Twitter:

Miami joins the Washington Wizards, Portland Trail Blazers, Brooklyn Nets, Detroit Pistons, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers, and Cleveland Cavaliers in teams looking to exchange parts for the next season on Butler’s contract.

No doubt league GMs are trying to weigh the risk vs. reward when it comes to Butler. His contract has a player option for the 2019-20 NBA season, which he will almost certainly opt out of in order to become a free agent. That means that without a guarantee that Butler will re-sign, any team trading for him will need to be careful with what young assets they leverage for the present.

For example, one report out of Portland says that the Blazers are unwilling to give up who they see as their young main core for a one-year rental on Butler. Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic are all off the table for the Blazers.

We still don’t know what the asking price for Butler will eventually be, or how the Timberwolves prioritize getting a solid return for him vs. shipping him outside of the Western Conference. For now, we have to wait and see what happens.

At least until Tuesday.

Elton Brand on 76ers contending for a championship: ‘I think we still need a piece’

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Elton Brand last played in the NBA in April of 2016. Now, in September of 2018 he is the general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers.

The 17-year NBA veteran helms one of the best young teams in the NBA, and takes over a GM position that has previously been under turmoil. Brand has perhaps been blessed with the departure of LeBron James from the Eastern Conference, but so too will other teams try to take over that perennial top spot.

The Boston Celtics have similar assets to Philadelphia, with proven stars mixed with an excellent supporting cast and young players who could develop into stars themselves. The Toronto Raptors are a very good team who just added a Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard. The road ahead will be tough.

But the Sixers still have cap space and they are still looking for a third star to fill a necessary role on their team. Brand said as much during a recent appearance on ESPN, and from all indications it looks like he’s not going to be shy about pulling the trigger either in free agency or in the trade market if he feels he can solidify the Sixers’ position in the east.

Via ESPN:

Everyone talks about free agency, but we may have to pull the trigger on something else before free agency. If we feel we can’t get one of those stars that I can’t name. I still think we need a piece. We’re close. If you ask Joel [Embiid] we have enough and if you ask Ben [Simmons] we have enough, because that’s the chip they have on their shoulder … they don’t want to hear that, but I think we still need a piece.

Brand went on to say that he felt like development was also important in this process, and that it’s possible that Philadelphia has their additional star in Markelle Fultz, Dario Saric, or both.

Philadelphia has reportedly been one of the teams that has jumped into initial conversations with the Minnesota Timberwolves about trading for Jimmy Butler. Whether or not Butler is the right move for the Sixers notwithstanding, that Brand appear is ready to wheel and deal certainly is interesting.

Anthony Davis picks new agent, signs with LeBron James’ rep Rich Paul

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The NBA offseason isn’t over just quite yet, so people are naturally ready to jump at any rumor they can get their hands on. On Sunday, it was announced that New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis had signed with Rich Paul’s Klutch Sports Group, and the Twittersphere exploded.

Davis, 25, has two seasons left on his current contract until he can use a player option to end his deal early and choose another location if he pleases.

Of course, the rampant speculation here — which is baseless, I might add — is that Davis could be looking to jump ship from the Pelicans, with Paul helping to create pressure for such a deal.

Via Twitter:

There is some speculation that Davis could become trade bait as soon as next summer if the Pelicans fail to meet the expectations foist upon them after their first round sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers during last season’s playoffs. New Orleans no longer has the talents of DeMarcus Cousins, although they played spectacularly without him following his Achilles injury going into the end of the year. The West got tougher, and the Pelicans will also have to play without Rajon Rondo, currently of the Los Angeles Lakers.

The coming season will be Davis’ seventh in Louisiana, and it has long been rumored that he could be a trade prospect or might want to sign in a different market. Signing with Klutch Sports Group puts Davis at the center of speculation that he could join LeBron James on the Lakers, as James is a good friend of Paul and a fellow Klutch client.

Players exchange agents all the time, and just because an agent has a specific track record doesn’t mean that anything is set in stone. The NBA is weird like that. However, It’s not completely unreasonable to raise an eyebrow at Davis joining up with Paul after leaving longtime agent Thad Foucher earlier in September. What Paul does have a rep for is getting his players paid handsomely, which is probably the main thing Davis will be looking for.

New Orleans can offer Davis the vaunted super max contract once he is up for an extension.

New lottery rules change tanking incentives, starting this season

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This is the latest of NBC’s NBA season preview stories, and we will post at least one a day on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, and today we focus on the impact of the new lottery odds.

To paraphrase Jerry Tarkanian, the NBA is so mad at the 76ers, it’ll keep the Hawks losing another couple years.

The NBA finally enacted lottery reform that will take effect this season. The measures appeared designed to curb Sam Hinkie’s ambitious multi-year tank, but Philadelphia has already reaped the rewards of The Process. The 76ers, led by former high draft picks Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, are one of the league’s top teams and extremely unlikely to land in the lottery. It’s the next generation of losing teams, like Atlanta, that will feel the brunt of these changes.

Generally, the new rules reduce incentives to chase the league’s worst record. The very-bottom teams face greater variance and worse expected outcomes than previously. The top six seeds in the lottery became less valuable than before, the 7-14 seeds more valuable than before.

In the previous system, the three worst teams had 250, 199 and 156 of 1,000 lottery combinations. The top three picks were drawn then the next 11 picks were slotted in reverse order of record.

Now, the three worst teams each have 140 of 1,000 lottery combinations. The top-four picks are drawn then the next 10 picks are slotted in reverse order of record.

There are several ways to measure the changes, but here a few based on lottery seed in the old system (orange) and new system (blue):

Odds of No. 1 pick:

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Odds of top-four pick:

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Expected pick:

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The “big” change is the bottom three teams all have the same odds of getting drawn, creating an illusion there’s no difference between finishing last or third-to-last. But the last-place team still gets slotted ahead of the second-worst and third-worst (and second-worst ahead of third-worst) if none get drawn in the lottery.

Simply, teams are still incentivized to chase the league’s very worst record. The incentives aren’t as strong as they once were, but they still exist.

And the upside remains just as high. Top draft picks are so valuable – a chance to add elite young talent on a relatively cheap contract that comes with five years of team control that, practically, extends much longer.

So, how will teams handle this changing structure?

Decisions will be fascinating among more than just the lowest of cellar-dwellers. Several teams have traded first-round picks this season that contain protections within the lottery. The Mavericks owe the Hawks a top-five protected first-rounder. The Cavaliers owe the Hawks a top-10-protected first-rounder. The Grizzlies owe the Celtics a top-eight-protected first-rounder. The Nuggets owe the Nets a top-12-protected first-rounder. Those owing teams all face a new batch of decisions of when to give up on trying to make the playoffs and aim to keep that pick.

I mostly share the view that lottery reform won’t change much, particularly on a year-to-year basis. But the cumulative effect could be larger on some teams.

Hinkie’s 76ers were an anomaly. Few teams set out to tank for that long. Many more tanked for a season, knowing that would result in a high draft pick. With a new touted prospect in hand, those teams usually attempted to ascend.

But now, far less is guaranteed. Before, the second-worst team was likely to land a top-three pick and was guaranteed a top-five pick. Now, the second-worst team is likely to pick between No. 4 and No. 6. In that lower range, the team might get stuck with a lesser prospect who leaves it stuck losing again the following year.

At minimum, lottery reform adds uncertainty to a league that had grown familiar with the previous system and how teams proceeded within it. We can all guess how teams will act in the new system, but this season will provide much more tangible clarity.