PBT’s weekly NBA Power Rankings: Hawks seem to be out of malaise. Maybe.

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This is the dog days of the NBA season. While there are fun games (Cleveland vs. Houston on Sunday), more likely you see up-and-down performances from the top teams. That may continue for a couple weeks. The most interesting race may be the one for the final two playoff spots in the East, with six teams in contention.

 
source:  1. Hawks (47-12, Last Week No. 3). Are the Hawks back? Are they through what coach Dwane Casey called a “malaise” mid-season? They have won four in a row, doing it mostly with a stout defense (which is back). but we’ll get a better answer this week with Houston and Cleveland on the docket. Dominique Wilkins gets his much-deserved statue outside the Atlanta arena Friday.

 
source:  2. Warriors (46-11, LW 1). They have won three of their last four and that one loss to Cleveland I think is a bit of an outlier — the Warriors missed shots in the paint they normally hit (it wasn’t all Timofey Mozgov). With 10 of 12 at home starting Wednesday, look for Golden State to go on a run.

 
source:  Grizzlies (42-16, LW 2). Memphis traded wins with the Clippers last week. When you watch this team late in games and see them struggle to get good shots at times, you begin to wonder if they will be able to execute well enough late in games come the playoffs. Make no mistake, they are a contender for the title, but they have flaws.

 
source:  4. Rockets (41-18, LW 6). They are 11-4 without Dwight Howard so far and in that stretch James Harden has pulled neck-and-neck with Stephen Curry for the MVP race (Harden may even be in the lead, by a beard). Terrence Jones is back and he’s been huge, averaging 18.5 pints and 10.5 rebounds in his past four games (I never got why some in Houston were down on him).

 
source:  5. Trail Blazers (39-19. LW 7). They have won three in a row and that includes a come-from-behind win Friday against Oklahoma City. This team loves to come from behind (they have done it twice this season to the Thunder from down at least 13) and that makes them a real threat in the playoffs. They are my sleeper out of the West.

 
source:  6. Cavaliers (37-24 LW 4). LeBron James had an off day Sunday. It happens, don’t start drawing big-picture conclusions from one regular season game. This team has still won 18-of-22 and Friday night we get an Eastern Conference Finals preview against the Hawks.

 
source:  7. Clippers (39-21, LW 5). Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan continue to prop up the Clippers, who have held on to the fifth spot in the crowded West despite Blake Griffin being out. The Clips are 5-3 against playoff teams without Griffin, which is impressive and something to build on.

 
source:  8. Mavericks (39-22, LW 8). Not sure Rajon Rondo has shown enough on offense in Dallas to get Rick Carlisle to trust him with the play calling, but I also don’t think that spat means Rondo is gone for sure this summer. They need his defense to make a playoff run (plus they need Tyson Chandler and Chandler Parsons to get healthy).

 
source:  9. Thunder (33-27, LW 10). Russell Westbrook has been playing like an MVP with three straight triple doubles, but that blown lead against Blazers and loss to Suns has them in a fight for the eight seed. New Orleans is just half a game back (tied in the loss column) and Phoenix is two games back. They can’t afford to be without Westbrook and Kevin Durant long (except against the Lakers).

 
source:  10. Spurs (36-23, LW 11). They went an unimpressive 2-7 on the rodeo road trip but now are back home for six in a row, and against some beatable teams this week (Sacramento, Denver and banged-up Chicago).

 
source:  11. Bulls (37-23, LW 12). No Derrick Rose for at least a month, now no Jimmy Butler for another three weeks. It’s the time of year when the Bulls just seem to break down. Cleveland will pass them for the three seed, but can the Bulls find their defensive identity again and hold on to the four spot?

 
source:  12. Pelicans (32-27, LW 15). We thought they’d fade when Anthony Davis went down, but New Orleans has won five in a row. They are just half a game out of the playoffs and are doing it because they have found a balanced offense that has scored 108.3 points per 100 possessions in their last five games, best in the NBA.

 
<source:  13. Suns (31-29, LW 14). Monday night expect Goran Dragic to have a monster game on his former team and remind them what they are missing. The Suns are two games back of the Thunder and it’s just hard now to imagine them catching the Thunder (or maybe even the Pelicans).

 
source:  14. Raptors (37-22, LW 9). They lost five in a row, and it has been an ugly five in a row at that — they lost to the Knicks. Their star players are struggling with their shot. With Cleveland and Oklahoma City up this week it’s a chance to get some big wins to turn this around, or to watch things spiral farther down.

 
source:  15. Bucks (32-27, LW 13). Not surprisingly, the Bucks offense has taken a step backwards since Michael Carter-Williams took over for Brandon Knight. MCW was a long-term play by the Bucks but he is still a bit of a project at the point, one who is turning the ball over a lot.

 
source:  16. Pacers (25-34, LW 18). They are currently the eight seed in the East, and they should get Paul George back in a couple weeks. More and more it feels like they are going to get one of those spots at the bottom of the East bracket.

 
source:  17. Heat (25-33, LW 19). They may have the point guard they wanted in Goran Dragic but without Chris Bosh their offense has struggled for spacing. However, with a run of games at home the next couple weeks expect them to string together some wins and hold on to the seven seed in the West.

 
source:  18. Pistons (23-36, LW 16). They have lost three in a row and they have the majority of their games (14 of 23) on the road the rest of the way. Reggie Jackson is starting to find a groove, especially on defense, but it’s going to be hard for them to climb into one of those last playoff spots.

 
source:  19. Wizards (34-26, LW 17). The good news is Bradley Beal is back and while he was rusty in his return (2-of-10) his shooting and floor spacing will help their offense. Still, that loss to Philadephia last week shows just how far this team needs to go to turn it around before the playoffs.

 
source:  20. Jazz (23-35, LW 22). Their defense has been strong since they fully committed to the Derrick Favors/Rudy Gobert front line and they have won four of five. Because of that defense the Jazz are starting to find their identity and they are a tough out.

 
source:  21. Celtics (23-34, LW 23). For you fantasy players, Isaiah Thomas is putting up good numbers coming off the bench in Boston. He’s probably not available but if you can get him do it. That blown 26-point lead to the Warriors Sunday was a punch to the guy in a season filled with body blows.

 
source:  22. Nets (24-33, LW 21). The Nets are still in the mix for a playoff spot in the East and Thaddeus Young is giving them good minutes in an effort to get there. This is the kind of week where the Nets need some wins to make the postseason: Suns, Hornets and Jazz. All pretty good teams but the kind of games playoff teams win more than they lose.

 
source:  23. Hornets (24-33, LW 20). This is another of the six teams battling for the two final playoff spots in the West but they have a real shot if their offense keeps clicking like it has of late. Big games vs. Brooklyn and Detroit this week that they need.

 
source:  24. Kings (20-37, LW 24). They head out on an eight game road trip, and Sacramento has struggled away from home. George Karl’s imprint can be seen on this team but when DeMarcus Cousins rolled his ankle you saw how dependent this team is on him.

source:  25. Timberwolves (13-45, LW 25). Kevin Garnett back in Minnesota is a wonderful story, but this is still a team that doesn’t play much defense and shoots too many midrange shots on the other end. KG can’t change those things by himself anymore.

 
source:  26. Lakers (14-41, LW 29). How Nick Young acting inappropriately exuberant surprises anybody or became a big story in Los Angeles I will never understand. This is what you can expect with the players the Lakers chose to put on this roster.

 
source:  27. Magic (19-42, LW 26). Elfrid Payton lost some playing time due to his shooting struggles, with interim coach James Borrego leaning on veteran Willie Green. Why exactly? They are not making the playoffs, let the young guys learn some hard lessons on the court. That said, Payton needs to work on his shot. A lot.

 
source:  28. Knicks (12-46, LW 30). They won a couple games in a row — including beating Detroit in OT — all because they started Andrea Bargnani and he has put up numbers. That may be the seventh sign of the apocalypse.

 
source:  29. Nuggets (20-39, LW 27). Losers of six in a row and the players are already apparently throwing in the towel. Brian Shaw will take the fall for this over the summer, but the fact is the current state of the Nuggets all goes back to decisions by management years ago when George Karl and Masai Ujiri left the franchise.

 
source:  30. 76ers (13-46, LW 28). How much does GM Sam Hinkie covet draft picks? They traded for JaVale McGee then bought him out at full price, $15 million basically, just to get a first rounder.

PBT mid-season awards: Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year and more

Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and Ja Morant
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The 2019-20 NBA season reached its midpoint by games played last night. So, we’re naming winners for mid-season awards. Yesterday, we picked Most Valuable Player and All-NBA. Now, we’re onto the other major honors.

Defensive Player of the Year

Kurt Helin: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

This is the hardest award for me to pick mid-season, but the Jazz put more on the plate of Gobert this season and he has responded amazingly (even if the Jazz’s defense is a little off from its usual highs this season). A lot of other players still in the mix here for me including Joel Embiid (if he plays enough games), Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, and Marcus Smart.

Dan Feldman: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

Even as reigning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year, Gobert doesn’t have the final award sewn up. Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez and Kawhi Leonard are in the mix. But in a tight race, Gobert gets the benefit of the doubt. Utah’s strong defense is built entirely around Gobert’s rim protection.

Rookie of the Year

Kurt Helin: Ja Morant (Grizzlies)

This is a runaway award, but not for the guy we expected to run away with it. Zion Williamson makes his debut next week and maybe he could climb to third in this race, but he’s not winning the award. Morant and his fluid athleticism have turned Grizzlies into must-watch television, and he looks every bit the franchise player. Kendrick Nunn is a clear second in this race.

Dan Feldman: Ja Morant (Grizzlies)

Some rookie point guards put up big numbers. Some rookie point guards produce electric highlights. Some rookie point guards show promising flashes of winning basketball. Few rookie point guards are actually good. Morant is actually good. His athleticism, shooting and overall offensive control form an incredible package for his age. Sure, Morant is sometimes too reckless. He doesn’t completely break the mold of a young point guard. But Memphis has a gem.

Most Improved Player

Kurt Helin: Devonte' Graham (Hornets)

Last season, Graham was an end-of-the-bench guy in Charlotte. This season, he’s averaging 18.7 points a game, hitting 38.7 percent from three and is the team’s best player. Nobody saw that coming and it’s a radical improvement. Also in the mix for this award are Bam Adebayo and Luka Doncic — yes, the MVP candidate, he as made a massive leap this season.

Dan Feldman: Luka Doncic (Mavericks)

It’s a two-man race between Doncic and Devonte’ Graham. As the reigning Rookie of the Year, Doncic will get overlooked. He’s a second-year player. He was supposed to be this good. BS. The leap into superstardom is generally more difficult than the climb from non-rotation player to good starter, which Graham made. For Doncic to get this good this quickly is unprecedented.

Sixth Man of the Year

Kurt Helin: Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)

Harrell was in the mix for this award last season and came back this season as a better defender and more efficient on offense. He’s a critical element for a contending Clippers team, and closes games for them at the five. However, this is not a decided race by any means, both Derrick Rose and George Hill deserve serious consideration. Also, Spencer Dinwiddie in Brooklyn could be in the mix, but likely starts too many games to qualify.

Dan Feldman: Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)

I nearly chose Harrell for this award last season. Since, he has improved his offensive skill and defensive effectiveness. His big role in L.A. gives Harrell the edge over another highly productive reserve, the Bucks’ George Hill. Derrick Rose and Harrell’s teammate, Lou Williams, also warrant consideration.

Coach of the Year

Kurt Helin: Erik Spoelstra (Heat)

This is a wide-open race and my spreadsheet goes eight deep with worthy candidates: Nick Nurse has done an impressive job in Toronto, same with Brad Stevens in Boston and Frank Vogel with the Lakers, and the list goes on. Spoelstra, however, leads for me because of a combination of player development — Kendrick Nunn, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, etc. — and smart utilization of the players’ he has. Plus, Spoelstra is getting it all to mesh around Jimmy Butler.

Dan Feldman: Nick Nurse (Raptors)

Nurse kept Toronto humming when Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green left. Nurse kept Toronto humming when key players, including breakout star Pascal Siakam, got hurt. Nurse kept Toronto humming when unproven young players had to join the rotation. Nurse’s defenses are particularly exemplary – both his creativity and ability to get everyone up to speed. The Heat’s Erik Spoelstra and the Pacers’ Nate McMillan aren’t far behind.

DeAndre Ayton got the start for Phoenix, put up 26 and 21 (VIDEO)

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Coach Monty Williams changed things up as Phoenix went into Madison Square Garden Thursday:

Deandre Ayton got the start at center and Aron Baynes came off the bench.

The result? Ayton had his first-ever 20/20 game — 26 points and 21 rebounds — as the Suns blew out the Knicks 121-98.

Phoenix also got a big night from Ricky Rubio, 25 points and 13 assists. He kept finding Ayton in places the second-year big man could do damage.

It’s one step in a long road for the Suns’ big man, but it was good to see.

Here’s video of Klay Thompson getting up shots in an empty Chase Center

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“I would love to get out there… But I’m trying to make sure this type of injury never happens to me again. So, I’ll be very patient because I want to play at a high level until I’m in my late-30s.”

That’s how Klay Thompson recently described his recovery, making sure there was no specific timeline mentioned. He’ll be back when the doctors clear him to be back — which could be next season. He will be re-evaluated next month. 

That said, Thompson is getting in work on the court and putting up shots. As you can see from the video above, he’s doing it headband on in the Chase Center pregame.

What does that mean? Nothing. It’s not like Thompson is moving at NBA speeds in this video, and ultimately it’s the people who spent years in medical school who get to make this call. Considering where the Warriors are in the standings, management may decide to give Thompson the entire season off. Even if he wants to return.

For now, just enjoy the video.

 

Three Things to Know: Brandon Ingram has earned an All-Star nod and max contract

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Brandon Ingram has earned an All-Star nod and max contract. There were legitimate reasons the Pelicans were hesitant to give Brandon Ingram a contract extension last summer.

He was coming off a blood clot issue that, if it returned, would threaten his career. He wasn’t a guy who took or made a lot of threes. He had most of his offensive success in isolation or as a pick-and-roll ball handler, how would he fit in coach Alvin Gentry’s offensive system that required ball movement and catch-and-shoot skills? How would he fit next to Zion Williamson?

Ingram made a leap this season and blew all those questions out of the water (except the Zion one, that starts to get answered next week).

Ingram is averaging 25.8 points per game and is shooting 40.6 percent from three on 6.2 attempts from deep per game. He has dramatically improved his jump shot, fit in brilliantly with Gentry’s system, and become the Pelicans’ best — and go-to — player. Exactly the guy the Lakers envisioned when they drafted him No. 2 out of Duke in 2016.

That peaked on Thursday night when Ingram dropped a career-high 49 on the Utah Jazz and led the Pelicans to a win that snapped Utah’s 10-game win streak.

This leap would not have happened if the Lakers had not traded Ingram, he was never going to be a comfortable fit next to LeBron James (even if Ingram has improved off-the-ball in Gentry’s system).

“[The Lakers] have such a rich history of winning, a lot of pressure goes on the shoulders of those young guys,” said the Clippers’ Lou Williams, who spent half a season as a teammate of then-rookie Ingram. “Different organizations have more of a patience to develop more guys. The Lakers want to win right away. So some of the pressure was deserved because [Ingram and Lonzo Ball] was high picks, and they should be good quality basketball players, but at the same time they’re young guys trying to figure it out.”

Ingram figured it out, but things might have been different, he might not have made this leap if Zion had stayed healthy. The Pelicans offense would have been different with the No. 1 pick (also out of Duke).

Forget the “what ifs” however — Brandon Ingram has made the leap and now the rewards should be flowing. NBA coaches should select him as a reserve for the All-Star Game in Chicago. He’s earned it.

Next summer, Ingram will get a max contract — almost certainly from the Pelicans. While New Orleans has not seen Ingram next to Williamson in a meaningful way (the preseason doesn’t count), it can’t afford to lose the restricted free agent and other teams will undoubtedly be lined up with max offers.

Ingram is about to get PAID. That comes with the respect he’s earned.

Ingram was also at the heart of the wild ending in New Orleans Thursday night. The Pelicans thought they had won the game in regulation on Ingram’s off-balance jumper with 0.2 seconds left.

Utah had just 0.2 left to make a play, which by NBA rule means it had to be a tip. The Pelicans packed the paint, but rookie Jaxson Hayes was called for holding Rudy Gobert as the Utah center attempted to free himself for the desperation tip-in (the Last Two Minute report in this game is going to be fascinating, but because there was a little hold — not enough to get called in this situation, but it was there — expect the report to back the refs).

The holding call was upheld after video review.

That gave Gobert a chance to win it by making two foul shots, but he split them, tied the game, and sent it to overtime. In the extra frame, Gobert fouled out on an Ingram drive (another very questionable call) and behind a final five points from Ingram — plus seven from Derrick Favors — the Pelicans got the home win.

2) We have a trade Hawks/Timberwolves trade… that sets up other trades. If one were to grade this trade as a stand-alone move, The Timberwolves would fail the test.

The first trade of the deadline season sees Minnesota sending Jeff Teague and Treveon Graham to Atlanta, and getting Allen Crabbe in return.

For Atlanta, they get a much needed backup point guard behind Trae Young (it’s a short-term fix, but they told a frustrated Young they would get him help). When Young is running the show and bombing deep threes, the Hawks have a respectable offense. However, when Young sits, the Atlanta offense scores far less than a point per possession (90.7 offensive rating) and those stretches end up costing the team games. Teague is a solid point guard who can organize the Hawks offense and keep things from dropping off a cliff while Young rests.

For Minnesota, this trade only makes sense if it’s seen as the precursor to a second trade (maybe involving Crabbe, who makes $18.5 million this season). It clears out a roster spot, something the Timberwolves needed to do to go big game hunting. They are still interested in Golden State’s D’Angelo Russell (to play with his good friend Karl-Anthony Towns) and but lose some flexibility in how to make that trade happen. Whether they should trade for Russell is another question — Wolves GM Gersson Rosas said he wants a playmaking point guard, not a scoring one, except that’s not Russell — but the Timberwolves are moving to try and make that a reality. It’s hard to judge this trade for the Timberwolves until we see what other shoes drop.

3) Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks remind everyone they are beasts of the East with a win against the Celtics. Boston has joined the long list of teams — pretty much 29 of them — that have no good answer to slow Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The Greek Freak scored 32 points and pulled down 17 rebounds, and that plus Khris Middleton’s 23 was enough for Milwaukee to knock off the Celtics 128-123 on Thursday night. The Bucks have now won five in a row and remain on pace for a 70-win season (even if their GM says they will not chase a record number of wins).

Kemba Walker scored 40 points to lead Boston. The bigger concern for the Celtics is Jaylen Brown, who suffered a sprained right thumb against Detroit and sat this game out, plus he could miss more time.