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).

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.