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).

Stephen Curry responds to Kevin Durant: We all want to iso, but I’d rather win titles

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After the Warriors lost to the Jazz in December, Steve Kerr said his team didn’t move the ball enough. Kevin Durant said Golden State passed too much.

That public disagreement sure looks more significant now. Not only did Durant leave for the Warriors, he cited offensive style as a reason.

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“The motion offense we run in Golden State, it only works to a certain point,” he says. “We can totally rely on only our system for maybe the first two rounds. Then the next two rounds we’re going to have to mix in individual play. We’ve got to throw teams off, because they’re smarter in that round of playoffs. So now I had to dive into my bag, deep, to create stuff on my own, off the dribble, isos, pick-and-rolls, more so than let the offense create my points for me.” He wanted to go someplace where he’d be free to hone that sort of improvisational game throughout the regular season.

Stephen Curry clearly viewed things differently.

Curry, via ESPN:

“Well, I don’t really care what plays we ran,” Curry said. “We won two championships. And at the end of the day, we had a lotta talent and there was an expectation of us figuring out how to balance all that. And we talked a lot about it throughout the three-year run. It wasn’t always perfect, but I think in terms of, you know, the results and what we were able to do on the floor, that kinda speaks for itself. We all wanna play iso-ball at the end of the day in some way, shape or form. But I’d rather have some championships, too.”

There’s truth to what Durant said. Defenses tighten deep in the playoffs, both because good defensive teams are more likely to advance and scouting committed to a single opponent tends to favor the defense. At that level, elite isolation scorers like Durant are particularly valuable. They can render schemes moot.

The Warriors learned that the hard way in the 2016 NBA Finals. They lost to the Cavaliers, who turned up their defense that postseason. Golden State scored fewer points per possession in its series against Cleveland than the Pistons did in the first round against the Cavs.

Adding Durant made the Warriors’ offense nearly unstoppable in every round. They leaned on their movement-heavy system when possible then turned to Durant isolations in moments of need.

Assessing playoff output is tricky because of varying opponents. But in three years with Durant, Golden State faced nine teams that played multiple postseason series. Eight of those teams had their worst defensive series against the Warriors, each by at least 2.6 points per 100 possessions. Only the 2019 Trail Blazers fared worse defensively against another team. They allowed just 0.2 more points per 100 possessions against the Nuggets than against Golden State.

Of course, Durant missed last season’s Western Conference finals against Portland. His absence was a big reason the Warriors’ didn’t meet their usual offensive standards.

Still, Golden State’s base offense was elite. Infallible? No. But it won multiple big playoff series before Durant arrived. He just took the Warriors to an even higher level.

Though he sometimes chafed at how the Warriors played, Durant also did his part to fit with them. He played his part in running Kerr’s preferred style.

It just seems Durant no longer wanted that safety-valve role. He holds immense respect for individual scoring as a skill. He’ll have a better chance to spread his wings in Brooklyn.

Durant will have a harder time winning a title without the incredible supporting cast he left behind. Curry might have wanted to point that out.

But everyone did their part in Golden State the last few years. That’s why they won those championships.

76ers once again overhaul around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there

Can Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons coexist?

While I’ve wondered about that question, the 76ers have charged ahead with the pairing. Embiid and Simmons are the givens. The surrounding players change. In just two seasons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Markelle Fultz, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris have cycled through as starters.

The latest supporting starters: Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson.

This might be the last chance to find a trio that works.

Philadelphia has taken advantage of Embiid’s and Simmons’ low rookie-scale salaries, which was always a selling point of The Process. A roster loaded with cheap young players created a window to add more-expensive talent. Then, with everyone already in place, NBA rules generally allow teams to keep their own players.

But Embiid is already on his max contract extension, and Simmons just signed a max contract extension that will take effect next year. The flexibility is vanishing.

One last time, the 76ers made the most of it. They signed-and-traded Butler for Richardson and let Redick walk in free agency. That left enough cap space to sign Al Horford (four years, $109 million with $97 million guaranteed) and use Bird Rights to re-sign Tobias Harris (five years, $180 million).

That’s a lot of deliberate disruption for a team that was already good and rising.

The big question: Did it make Philadelphia better?

I just don’t know.

As fond as I am of Butler, I understand all the reasons to be wary of offering the 30-year-old a huge contract. But moving on from him to give a huge deal to a 33-year-old Horford? That’s curious. Then again, Philadelphia also added Richardson – a solid replacement for Butler on the wing – in the process.

The 76ers will miss Butler’s shot creation. He often took over their offense in the clutch during the playoffs. Harris can pick up some of the slack, but that still looks like a hole.

At just 27, Harris is young for a player who has already been in the league so long. That’s a big reason it was worth Philadelphia signing him to a sizable long-term contract.

Horford’s deal could age poorly, but he’s a winner still playing quality all-around basketball. If nothing else, the 76ers removed Embiid’s best defender from the rival Celtics.

Philadelphia filled its bench with several value signings – Mike Scott (room exception), James Ennis (minimum), Kyle O'Quinn (minimum), Furkan Korkmaz (minimum), Raul Neto (minimum) and Trey Burke (partially guaranteed minimum). However, sometimes teams need production more than cost-effectiveness. The 76ers’ bench struggled last season, and they devoted minimal resources to upgrading.

In the draft, Philadelphia traded the Nos. 24 and 33 picks for No. 20 pick Matisse Thybulle. That’s a costly move up, especially for a player I rated No. 34. Worse, it seemingly happened because Boston snuffed out the 76ers’ interest in Thybulle then leveraged them. That’s small potatoes, though.

Simmons (No. 9 on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years) and Embiid (No. 11 on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years) will likely define this era for Philadelphia. Embiid is on his way to becoming one of the NBA’s very best players. Simmons is so good, giving him a max extension was a no-brainer.

But they were already in place.

Harris, Horford and Richardson will define this offseason. I just can’t tell whether they made the 76ers’ promising future even brighter or slightly dimmer.

Offseason grade: C

Michelle Roberts says if you don’t like player movement blame owners, too

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Last summer was one of the wildest offseasons in NBA history, maybe the wildest, and the headline was player empowerment. Anthony Davis pushed his way to the Lakers, Paul George forced his way out of Oklahoma City to go to the Clippers and join Kawhi Leonard, which soon had Russell Westbrook joining his old teammate James Harden in Houston. It led to frustration by some owners and changes in how the NBA will handle tampering.

Except, by choice is not how most players change teams. While AD or George has the leverage to make a power play — because of their exceptional talent — most of the time players are traded because the owner/team has all the power and can uproot players for whatever reason (basketball reasons sometimes, saving money other times). The stars have free agent options, rotation players much less so in that system.

Michelle Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players’ Association, wants you to remember that it’s not just player power that has led to the increase in player movement, as she told Mark Spears of The Undefeated.

Michele Roberts, told The Undefeated that she believes there is a “double standard” between how stars are viewed when they decide to move on compared with when franchises choose to make a major transaction, adding that team owners “continue to view players as property.”

“If you want to be critical of one, be critical of both,” Roberts said from the NBPA’s offices in Manhattan. “Those of us who made decisions to move, it’s really astounding to even consider what it feels like to be told in the middle of your life you are going to have to move. But that’s the business we’re in. …

“No one seems to spend a lot of time thinking about what it’s like to make those kinds of moves completely involuntarily. You volunteer to play or not play. But, yeah, if it’s still the case that if you think you’ve got to suck it up, player, then, hell, you’ve got to suck it up, team.”

She’s right. From Chris Paul to Blake Griffin, plenty of big stars have been moved against their will. The door swings both ways, but in those cases most fans tended to see why and like what the teams did. Those fans like it less when players do the same thing.

There’s also a classic labor vs. management angle to all this, which has political overtones.

For my money, how one views player movement tends to be part generational and part where you live.

Older fans remember days — or, at least think they remember days — when players stayed with teams for much or all of their career. It’s understandable, fans form a bond with players and want them to stay… while they’re still good and useful, after that fans beg ownership to get the “dead weight off the books.” Players before the late 1980s stayed with teams because they didn’t have a choice — for Bill Russell in the 60s or Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the 1980s, free agency was not an option. And for every Kobe Bryant that did stay with a team, there were a lot more Wilts and Shaqs, who were traded several times and played with multiple teams.

Younger fans (generally, nothing is universal) are okay with the player movement, sometimes are more fans of a player than a team, and like the action and buzz of all the trades.

Location matters because if you’re in Oklahoma City there’s reason to not like what George did and the era of player empowerment. New Orleans fans can feel the same way (although part of that case is the “supermax” contract that owners wanted but really forced up the timeline on teams and players to make a decision on paying stars). But fans in Los Angeles or wherever players ultimately choose to go will feel differently. Fans want what’s best for their team, but there is no way in the star culture of the NBA to wash away the lure of big markets or of teaming up with another elite player.

The NBA dynamic is different from the NFL’s (for now), but it’s not changing. LeBron James helped usher in an era of player empowerment and it’s the new reality for the NBA, one the best franchises will adapt to rather than fight.

Evan Fournier says that Frank Ntilikina just ‘needs a real opportunity’

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New York Knicks fans haven’t had a lot to cheer for recently. The team traded away Kristaps Porzingis, who is thought to be the franchise cornerstone. Now they move forward with a young core, RJ Barrett, and tons of cap space.

So what does that mean for players who have been around in the Big Apple like Frank Ntilikina?

Based on how Ntilikina played in the 2019 FIBA World Cup for France this year, things might be looking up.

Ntilikina’s statistics weren’t eye-popping, but he was seen as a very solid player in a backcourt that helped propel France to the bronze medal in China.

To that end, fellow countrymen Evan Fournier thinks that all Ntilikina needs is a chance to shine.

Via Twitter:

Ntilikina’s season last year was marred by injuries, and he played in just 43 games. Still, he has the physical tools to be a useful NBA player, and he’s just 21 years old. With the surprisingly low-pressure situation in New York, it’s possible that extended time playing in the World Cup could help aid what Ntilikina is able to produce next season for the Knicks.