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.

Rumor: Kawhi Leonard meeting with Clippers set for July 2

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Kawhi Leonard will tip the balance of power this summer.

Whatever the Finals MVP decides with his free agency — stay with the Raptors, come to the Clippers, something else entirely — will change the landscape of the NBA. Wherever he goes that team will be an instant contender, with the Raptors and Clippers long having been the frontrunners and everyone else trying to get their foot in the door.

His decision likely will not drag out, but it’s not going to be LeBron James last summer “let’s do this so I can go on vacation” instant, either, if we believe this report from Frank Isola of The Athletic.

Of course, this report would be unofficial/off the record because teams cannot yet officially reach out to players or agents, and we know there is no tampering in the NBA. (Read that last sentence again in your best sarcastic voice to get the full impact.)

In Los Angeles, the Clipper hype has led to billboards.

If the Clipper meeting is July 2, in Los Angeles we presume, the question becomes when is the Toronto meeting? June 30/July 1 in Toronto, giving the Clippers the last shot? Or, are the first couple of days meetings with other teams that are longshots — Knicks, Lakers, Mavericks, etc. — just to get them out of the way.

It has long been rumored to be a two-team race for Leonard’s services. On the one hand is the chance to return home and become the leader of a 48-win Clippers team poised to be a threat for years to come if they land a superstar. (The Lakers have never been a serious consideration for Leonard, according to sources, for a variety of reasons. Let’s just say he’s not a superteam kind of guy.)

On the other hand is a Raptors team where he was given room to recover and be himself, and where he just won a ring. A city where he was fully embraced by the fans.

Also remember Leonard is at eight seasons of NBA service, meaning the max of this next contract is for 30 percent of the cap (a starting salary around $33 million next season). After two more seasons, he will have 10 years of service and be eligible for 35 percent of the cap (a starting salary of $38 million right now, and with the cap expected to go up the next couple of years it will be higher than that in reality). Despite the injury history, is Leonard willing to bet on himself and sign a two-year contract to get to the larger max, then re-sign?

The leading theory floating around the league now is Leonard signs a short deal in Toronto, then re-enters the market in a year or two. But it’s just a theory. Nobody really knows because Leonard does not tip his hand. About the only thing we seem to know his he will meet with the Clippers on July 2.

Ex-Sacramento Kings exec gets 7 years for siphoning $13.4M

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A former top Sacramento Kings executive was sentenced Monday to seven years in prison for siphoning $13.4 million from the team.

Jeffrey David, 44, the team’s former chief revenue officer, pleaded guilty in December to wire fraud and aggravated identity theft.

David diverted the sponsorship payments of five companies to a bank account he controlled from October 2012 through July 2016, using the money to buy and remodel Southern California beachfront properties, pay for a private jet membership and pay off credit card bills.

“The brazen scheme involved forgeries, stolen corporate executive identities, money laundering and even instructing a former colleague to destroy evidence,” U.S. Attorney McGregor W. Scott said in a statement. “Today’s sentence should deter others from committing substantial frauds such as this one.”

David’s lawyer, Mark Reichel, disagreed with the sentence from U.S. District Judge William Shubb.

“We see no appropriate purpose served by a sentence this lengthy,” Reichel wrote in an email, citing David’s “tremendous life work” before and after his crimes as cause for a reduced sentence.

“The Kings received back every single penny of the previously purloined money, and Mr. David worked very hard to make sure that happened. He is tremendously remorseful,” Reichel said.

The Kings have received over $13.2 million in restitution to date, according to the Department of Justice.

David is scheduled to begin his sentence on Aug. 20.

Lakers’ Jeanie Buss: “I have 100 percent confidence in Rob Pelinka”

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Internally, the Lakers believe they are on the right track: They signed LeBron James as a free agent, they spent years acquiring assets then turned those assets into Anthony Davis, and they believe the roster that will take the court next season will bring vindication for the front office and ownership group. The Lakers believe they will be back on top, where they belong.

From the outside, um, let’s just say there are doubts around the league. Doubts about all the picks — particularly the pick swaps and deferments — that the Lakers gave up to get Davis and now that could hurt them in the future. There are doubts about the ability of Rob Pelinka to build out a roster around LeBron and Davis that is truly a threat.

Jeanie Buss has no such doubts. Speaking to Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times (and other reporters) at the NBA Awards show Monday, Buss expressed nothing but confidence in Pelinka and the Lakers’ staff.

“I’ve always had confidence in Rob, whatever the speculation is out there,” Buss said. “We don’t need outside media to validate the things that we do. I’m very happy and I think we’re on the right path.”

“I have 100% confidence in him in running his basketball operations,” Buss said. “He’s brought us a great new head coach in Frank Vogel, whose teams have had a lot of success in the playoffs and who have played consistently ranking high in defense, which means not only does he emphasize defense but the players buy into his defensive schemes.”

The question isn’t Vogel’s credentials, although how a staff with Jason Kidd, Lionel Hollins, and other veteran coaches with big egos will mesh together is going to be interesting.

The question is talent.

The Lakers have the high end of that with LeBron and Davis, but when you think about the Laker title teams of the past it wasn’t just Shaq and Kobe, it was also Derek Fisher and Robert Horry and Rick Fox and a host of others. The same thing was true in this past Finals — the deeper team won because the Raptors could adapt and handle their star not being 100 percent.

Are the Lakers going to chase another star and then complete the roster with minimum salary players? Or, get two or three quality role players with their cap space to have a deeper team? Has this all been planned out and thought through? Maybe Rob Pelinka builds this roster out beautifully, but we only have one year of experience to judge him on, and that did not go well.

Buss may have confidence, she should, the rest of us are in wait and see mode.

The Greek Freak has arrived, Giannis Antetokounmpo wins NBA MVP

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Mike Budenholzer came in with a plan — an offense built around the fact no one man on the planet can guard Giannis Antetokounmpo.

It worked. The Bucks won 60 games and had the best record in the NBA. Budenholzer picked up Coach of the Year hardware for his efforts.

Now Antetokounmpo has won the NBA MVP award, edging out James Harden (who chose not to attend the NBA’s awards show in Los Angeles Monday). He was emotional in thanking teammates for helping him reach this point, then talking about his father.

It was a long road to this point, Antetokounmpo was playing second-division ball in Greece when the Bucks drafted him at No. 15 back in 2013. The word we used to describe his game at the time was “raw” — he was a long way from the player he would become. What he also turned out to be was driven. Willing to put in the work, be coached, and put in the long hours to get better and maximize his potential. Antetokounmpo earned the chance to walk up on that stage and accept the MVP award.

Antetokounmpo averaged 27.7 points and 12.5 rebounds a game, but it was his ability to destroy any defender one-on-one that made the Bucks offense work. Either the Greek Freak got to the basket and finished, he drew a foul, or he drew so much attention the shooters that surrounded him on the floor had clean looks of their own. He also was the Bucks best defender, a guy tasked with tough assignments nightly.

Antetokounmpo was the best player on the best team.

Antetokounmpo won the award handily with 941 points to Harden’s 776. The Greek Freak had 78 of the 100 first-place votes.

James Harden — who averaged 36.1 points, 7.5 assists, and 6.6 rebounds per game — finished second in the voting, Paul George of Oklahoma City was third. Harden has finished first or second in the voting for four of the past five seasons. Harden believed he deserved to win and was frustrated with another second.

Antetokounmpo is the first player from Europe to win the MVP award since Dirk Nowitzki in 2007.

Nikola Jokic came in fourth in the voting, Stephen Curry was fifth. Here are the full results: