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.

Royce O’Neal on Durant, Irving trade rumors: ‘That was the summer’

Philadelphia 76ers v Brooklyn Nets
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The Brooklyn Nets are trying to move on from a turbulent, awkward summer where their two best players tried to get tradedone throwing down a “me or the coach and GM” ultimatum — and they are tired of talking about it.

It sounds like they have moved on from the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving drama in the locker room, at least based on what Royce O’Neal told Michael Scotto of Hoopshype.

“That was the summer. Nobody cares about it now. We’re all here, and we’re going to make it work. We have a lot of work to do to get to where we want to go. That’s what we’re focusing on.”

No doubt that is the mantra in the locker room, and it’s easy to do during the carefree, optimistic days of training camp or even the first preseason games. The players believe they have moved on.

The real question about these Nets is what happens when adversity hits? And it will hit, it does every team. How will Ben Simmons handle the stress? Irving? Can coach Steve Nash keep the Nets all on task, or will the finger-pointing start, and will the locker room get split?

Those questions are why everyone is finding it hard to predict these Nets — they could win a ring, they could have Durant demanding a trade again by Christmas. Most likely they land in the middle somewhere, but every possibility is on the table.

Speaking of teams being broken up, Scotto also asked about O’Neal’s former team, the Utah Jazz, and Danny Ainge’s decision to trade Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell this summer. Ainge said “this team didn’t believe in each other,” but that’s not how O’Neal saw it. He was surprised the team was blown up.

“I was definitely shocked. I had been there for five years. The team we had for a couple of years fell short. I thought we were going to build on it. Things happened, so keep it moving.”

The question is will the Nets keep moving when things get hard?

Collin Sexton expects to start for Jazz once he gets back to full speed

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After the blockbuster trade that was centered around Donovan Mitchell sent Collin Sexton to Utah, the immediate expectation was that he would start for the Jazz and have the ultimate green light.

However, that wasn’t the case in their first preseason matchup with Toronto on Sunday. In 18 minutes off the bench, Sexton finished with 11 points on 4-for-9 shooting (3-for-4 on 3-pointers) to go along with one rebound, two assists, two steals, and two turnovers.

It came as a bit of a surprise to most viewers that Sexton didn’t get the starting nod, but he told Sarah Todd of Deseret News that he expected to come off the bench for this game. He acknowledged that it was because he hasn’t played much since his meniscus surgery, but he expects to start once he gets back to full speed.

Utah hit the reset button by dealing away four of their five starters from last season. They’ve ushered in a new era that is centered around Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, Jarred Vanderbilt, and a ton of first round picks. Sexton has talked about wanting to improve on his assists numbers this season, which we should definitely see him get the opportunity to do.

The Jazz have cemented their place in the center of the Victor Wembanyama race, so they’ll have no problem letting their young guys learn through trial and error. Sexton averaged 4.4 assists per game for Cleveland just two years ago. However, he won’t be playing alongside another young guard like Darius Garland, so Sexton should have the ball in his hands more than he ever has in the NBA.

Ben Simmons looks fine in return, is ‘grateful just to be able to step on that floor’

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Ben Simmons played in an actual, live basketball game on Monday night.

It’s preseason, sure, but the Nets rolled out their likely starting five — Simmons, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Joe Harris, and Nic Claxton — and had Simmons initiating a lot of the offense early.

The results were not bad. Fine. Good in flashes. Simmons ran the floor well and finished with six points on 3-of-6 shooting, five assists and four rebounds. He missed both free throws he took and all three of his makes were at the rim, his three missed shots were all in the paint and included an ugly skyhook-like thing and a turnaround that missed. There was clear rust.

The Nets got him a lot of touches, having him initiate the offense early. Whether that is something that carries over into the season remains to be seen, the offense moved better with the crisp passing and decisions of Kyrie Irving.

Simmons sounded comfortable after the game, quotes via Nick Friedell of ESPN.

“I’m grateful just to be able to step on that floor,” Simmons said. “Step on an NBA floor again. I had a lot of fun out there.”

“That’s the one thing, I thought I was going to be nervous,” Simmons said. “But I wasn’t nervous. I was excited.”

Simmons pushed for a trade off these 76ers a year ago, then sat out all last season due to mental health concerns. Having him back on the court for 19 minutes over a couple of shifts was enough for the Nets.

The 76ers sat Joel Embiid and James Harden for the night, but Tyrese Maxey was the best player on the floor with 20 points in 14 minutes and showing a confident 3-point stroke.

Furkan Korkmaz, another player coming off an injury, added 15 His play will add depth to the Sixers roster.

Claxton ran the floor hard and finished with 12 points on 6-of-6 shooting (all at the rim), while Durant led the way with 13 points.

Annual GM survey predicts Bucks vs. Warriors Finals, Doncic MVP

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The NBA’s annual GM survey is more of a snapshot of the conventional wisdom around the league than a good predictive tool — last season the GMs overwhelmingly picked the Brooklyn Nets to beat the Lakers in the NBA Finals and Kevin Durant as MVP. Didn’t exactly work out that way.

Still, it’s an interesting view into where things stand — and where it stands is a Bucks vs. Warriors NBA Finals. When asked who would win the NBA title, 43% predicted the Bucks, 25% the Warriors, 21% the Clippers and 11% the Celtics (a number that unquestionably fell since the news of Ime Udoka’s suspension came out).

Here’s how the GMs see the top six in each conference, courtesy of Jon Schuhmann and NBA.com who did the survey:

EAST
1. Bucks
2. Celtics
3. 76ers
4. Nets
5. Heat
6. Cavaliers

WEST
1. Clippers
2. Warriors
3. Suns
4. Nuggets
5. Grizzlies
6-T: Mavericks and Timberwolves

Here are some other highlights from the survey:

• Luka Doncic is the betting favorite to win MVP and the choice of the GMs, with 48% of them picking the Dallas star to win the award. Second was Giannis Antetokounmpo (34%) followed by Joel Embiid (14%).

• But ask GMs if they were starting a franchise today and could sign anyone, and they take Antetokounmpo (55%) over Doncic (45%). Those are the only two names on the list.

• Asked the player most likely to have a breakout season and the Cavaliers Evan Mobley led the way with 21% of the vote, followed by Cade Cunningham and Anthony Edwards tied for second (17%).

• The most athletic player in the league? The GMs voted for Ja Morant (38%) over Antetokounmpo (31%) and Anthony Edwards (24%).

• When asked which team had the best offseason, 41% of the GMs picked the Cavaliers, with Donovan Mitchell being named the player changing teams who would have the biggest impact this season.

• The most underrated offseason pickup: Malcolm Brogdon to the Celtics, according to the GMs (28%).

• Most surprising move of the offseason for the GMs was Rudy Gobert to Cleveland (47% of the vote), but Mitchell to the Cavaliers was a close second (43%).

Paolo Banchero is the runaway pick for Rookie of the Year (79%).

• Antetokounmpo was voted the best defensive player in the NBA (45%), with Draymond Green a distant second (24%).

• Gobert, however, was the runaway winner of the best interior defender (83%).

• Best coach in the NBA? Erik Spoelstra led the way with 52% of the vote, followed by Steve Kerr at 22%. The Clippers’ Tyronne Lue, however, won the vote for best in-game adjustments by a coach.

• The Toronto Raptors were voted the team with the best home court advantage (21%), with Boston and Denver tied for second (17%).