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).

Kevin Knox won over Knicks and now expects to win over their fans

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GREENBURGH, N.Y. (AP) — Kevin Knox took a call from someone who knew exactly what he experienced on draft night.

New Yorkers didn’t welcome Kristaps Porzingis with open arms, either.

“He asked me how the fans reacted and I told him I got the same amount of boos as he got,” Knox said Friday. “He just laughed and he said it’s all motivation and fuel to the fire, and he said just work and he said sooner or later they’ll be cheering for you.”

That’s what happened with Porzingis, who quickly won over those who loudly booed his selection in 2015 with his talent, competitiveness and work ethic.

The Knicks see the same traits in Knox, convincing them that the Kentucky freshman was not only the player to take with the No. 9 pick but that he’s ready to start and match up with the NBA’s best small forwards next season.

That’s why they decided a day before the draft they were taking Knox if he was available and didn’t waver from that even when Michael Porter Jr. was still on the board – disappointing some at Barclays Center who chanted for Porter and then booed Knox.

“I love the fact that he wanted to be at Kentucky, that he wanted to be a Knick,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said. “Says a lot about that kid that he wants challenges and so I think he’s going to fit exactly the way we want to build our culture.”

Beyond the 15.6 points he averaged last season while sharing SEC Freshman of the Year honors with Collin Sexton – drafted one pick earlier by Cleveland – Knox impressed the Knicks with his confidence. He chose to play at Kentucky out of Tampa Catholic in Florida and compete for playing time with the other talented players in Lexington, then agreed to play 3-on-3 in workouts when many top prospects prefer to do them individually.

And the annual outsized expectations faced by John Calipari’s teams should help Knox prepare for the pressure of New York, perhaps giving him a quicker adjustment period than Frank Ntilikina, the Knicks’ lottery pick last season, had after coming to the U.S. from France.

“That actually is going to be up to Kevin, what the learning curve is and how long the adjustment takes,” team president Steve Mills said. “But what I will say is that while all college basketball programs prepare guys to play in the NBA, the sort of pressure and the limelight and the spotlight you’re under when you make a decision to play at Kentucky I think does prepare you in a different way to play in a place like New York. So I think some of the things that are tougher for rookies to make adjustments to are some things that he’s already been through.”

The adjustment is likely much longer for 7-footer Mitchell Robinson, who the Knicks took with the No. 36 pick. A high school All-American in 2016-17, he enrolled at Western Kentucky but never played, instead leaving school and opting to train for the draft. He said he worked out daily, but hasn’t played competitively in a year so it’s unknown how soon he could contribute.

But Fizdale sounds ready to put Knox on the court right away on a team that used Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee as undersized small forwards last season.

“They’re both 6-5 and he’s got to guard LeBron and (Kevin) Durant and those are the 3s in our league,” Fizdale said. “So I feel like it’s a very good opportunity to have a chance to start.”

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

As expected, Denver’s Wilson Chandler to opt into $12.8 million next season

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Wilson Chandler played a workmanlike role for the Nuggets last season — more than 30 minutes a game (in 74 games), 10 points a night, shot 35.8 percent from three. His efficiency and value slipped from previous seasons but he still played a role for the team.

Not the kind of role that’s going to earn him a big payday as a free agent, so he will opt into the $12.8 million for next season, a story broken by Chris Haynes of ESPN.

Denver Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler will exercise his player option for the 2018-19 season, league sources tell ESPN.

Chandler, 31, is opting into a $12.8 million salary instead of entering free agency this summer. Denver was notified of his decision on Friday.

Chandler’s name has come up in trade discussions in recent years, and no doubt the Nuggets would be happy to move his salary now, too. However, in a tight financial market it’s unlikely that’s happening without Denver throwing in a sweetener, and that’s not likely either. So it will be another season of Chandler in Denver.

Deandre Ayton arrives as symbol that Suns are on the rise

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PHOENIX (AP) — Since the heady days of Steve Nash came to an end, there have been few signs of joy from a dwindling fan base that watched the Phoenix Suns tumble to the bottom of the NBA standings and miss the playoffs for the eighth year in a row.

Then came the announcement that Deandre Ayton would go to the Suns with the first overall pick. A huge cheer went up from the several thousand fans at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Thursday night for the draft party. General manager Ryan McDonough, owner Robert Sarver and coach Igor Kokoskov came out of their meeting room to watch and bask in that rare moment of sheer joy from the fans.

“It was a pretty special moment for our franchise,” McDonough said.

Not only that, but McDonough engineered a last-minute trade for swingman Mikal Bridges of Villanova, the 10th pick. It was a spendy move because Philadelphia demanded and got Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick. But the Suns are weary of stockpiling assets. It’s time to cash in, they figured, and did it with that trade.

“We weighed the pros and cons of trading it heavily and carefully,” McDonough said. “We were only going to put it in play if we had a chance to get a special player and that’s how we feel about McKell.”

All four of the Suns’ picks showed up on a crowded dais in Phoenix on Friday – Ayton, Bridges, French point guard Elie Okobo (chosen 31st) and forward George King of Colorado (the 59th selection).

The 7-foot-1 Ayton towered over the others, in a white unbuttoned collared shirt and a sharp blue suit, but he looked and sounded a bit weary from the whirlwind of being the No. 1 draft pick. His only sleep lately, he said, was a couple of hours on the plane ride from New York on Tuesday.

“I’m just excited to finally get a jersey on and be able to play five-on-five again,” Ayton said.

Ayton had been the frontrunner for the No. 1 pick ever since the draft lottery and any doubts were erased when he went through an individual workout with the Suns, the only team which he did so.

McDonough said that Ayton’s workout “in and of itself was as impressive as I’ve ever seen in my 16 drafts in the NBA.”

Ayton is seen as strictly a center, so how does he fit in the modern style of the NBA, when center plays is diminished and players are essentially interchangeable, is a question. Ayton replied that he’s no ordinary center.

“I don’t like it when people think I’m just a guy down low,” he said. “They haven’t watched me shoot the basketball.”

Ayton and Bridges say they got to know each other well at the college awards ceremony in Los Angeles but never figured they’d be on the same team.

“It’s like I’ve known him my whole life,” Bridges said.

Now comes the hard work, molding a team with Ayton, Devin Booker and Josh Jackson. A billboard of those three already has been erected downtown.

The Suns, so bad for so long, seem on the brink of being relevant.

“We’re very hungry,” Ayton said. “I think the great team chemistry and the work ethic that we have, especially us guys coming in, we’re going to bring it to the next level. We’ve got young lets. We can run all day. … We can really start a winning legacy.”

And Ayton is the reason for the sudden leap in optimism, even though he won’t turn 20 until next month.

“I embrace it a lot,” he said of the expectations placed upon him. “Through my career I’ve always had that on my shoulder, the expectations. I represent a whole nation (Bahamas) I just do that the best that I can and just help this community start over and be the best player I can possibly be. I just want to be the best great player.”

Kokoskov says Ayton possesses “a unique talent for the decades.”

Ayton said he wants “to be the best person on and off the court.”

Now the Suns move on to the next phase. Free agency starts July 1 and McDonough wants some veteran players to add to this very young core. He said the team should have $15 million to $20 million to spend.

“We were aggressive last night with the picks and the trade up to get Mikal,” McDonough said. “We’re going to continue to be aggressive for the next couple of weeks in free agency. We’ve got some money to spend and we’re looking to spend it on the best players we can get.”

Hornets GM Kupchak: Kemba Walker focal point of franchise going forward

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — General manager Mitch Kupchak wants point guard Kemba Walker to end his NBA career right where it started — with the Charlotte Hornets.

Kupchak said Friday that Walker is “revered” in the Charlotte community, and that he and owner Michael Jordan look at the two-time All-Star as “the focal point of this franchise going forward.”

The 28-year-old Walker has been the subject of possible NBA trade talks as he prepares to enter the final year of his contract with the Hornets. That speculation has amped up recently because it is a practical impossibility for Charlotte to sign Walker to an extension before he becomes a free agent in July of 2019 since the Hornets are so tight under the salary cap.

“I think everybody is aware of the situation, if you follow basketball a little bit, it is unique that he is on an extension that may make it a challenge going forward to figure out before he becomes a free agent,” Kupchak said.

At $12 million per year, Walker well underpaid when compared to the other top point guards in the league.

But that doesn’t mean Kupchak is giving up hope the team can keep Walker in Charlotte.

“I don’t think it is anybody’s goal to lose him in free agency,” Kupchak said. “But going forward, in the community, in the franchise, this is a player that we hope is with us – not only for the next couple of years, but ends his career here.”

The Hornets don’t have much experience behind Walker at point guard.

They have last year’s first-round draft pick Malik Monk and drafted Devonte Graham from Kansas in the second round on Thursday night.

Graham said he is excited to pick Walker’s brain when it comes to basketball.

“I have never met him, but I remember watching him play when he was at UConn though,” Graham said. “I’m just excited man to learn from someone like that and just be around someone like that who is winner, and knows how to win and compete. I am looking forward to being able to learn from him.”