PBT Weekly NBA Power Rankings: Golden State, Atlanta remain on top tier

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With the Hawks knocking off the Cavaliers and Golden State putting up more impressive wins, it has become clear that those are the top teams in their respective conferences. Those are the tea

 
source:  1. Warriors (49-12, LW 2). A key part of the MVP campaign for Russell Westbrook and James Harden is how much they mean to their respective teams. Well, the Warriors are 17.6 points per 100 possessions worse when Stephen Curry is off the court — he matters a lot to his team, too. Seven of Golden State’s next nine are at home.

 
source:  2. Hawks (49-13, Last Week No. 1). Anyone saying the Hawks can’t win the East didn’t watch them take down the Cavaliers Friday night. The Hawks packed the paint cutting off LeBron James, their defensive traps bothered Kyrie Irving, plud the Hawks passing and movement on offense opened up the Cavs defense. This team may very well make a new owner happy with a trip to the Finals.

 
source:  3. Cavaliers (40-25 LW 6). They continue to rack up wins but the loss to Atlanta Friday, and Houston the week before (and even the Cavs win over Toronto), serve as a reminder that their defense has looked beatable against good teams. Also, if you’re hyping this team for the postseason, remember Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have played in a combined 0.0 playoff games. To me, this is the year the Cavs can be beat in the East.

 
source:  4. Grizzlies (44-18, LW 3). Quality grind-it-out win over the Rockets last week, but they still continue to struggle on offense of late, in large part due to Mike Conley’s slump (shooting 40 percent since the All-Star break). If they are going to make a serious playoff run they need to find some shot making and diversified offense.

 
source:  5. Rockets (43-20, LW 4). Just to provide the update, the Rockets are 13-6 without Dwight Howard in this stretch. They remain one game up on Portland for the three seed out West, which makes their showdown with the Blazers Wednesday big. They’ve lost to some good teams of late and the Clippers are on the docket this week as well.

 
source:  6. Trail Blazers (41-20. LW 5). The loss of Wesley Matthews (torn Achilles) is a brutal blow. He’s an important perimeter defender, the team’s offensive spacing will suffer (they need his threes), and he’s an emotional leader in the locker room. Arron Afflalo will get the run but behind him the drop off is steep. Tough timing as the Blazers had started to look like a team you didn’t want to face out West.

 
source:  7. Spurs (39-23, LW 10). They have won five in a row and Tony Parker is back to getting into the paint and being the offensive catalyst San Antonio needs him to be. The question is how much momentum can they build toward the playoffs with 11 of their next 16 games against likely playoff teams?

 
source:  8. Clippers (40-23, LW 7). The Clippers have gone a respectable 7-5 without Blake Griffin against a tough schedule. Now, can they keep the energized DeAndre Jordan going when Griffin comes back is another question. The Clippers are desperate enough for depth that Doc Rivers has returned to giving Nate Robinson a shot.

 
source:  9. Thunder (34-28, LW 9). No, he hasn’t been as efficient as Kevin Durant, but in his last 10 games Russell Westbrook has averaged 33.1 points, 11.2 assists, and 10.1 rebounds a game. What really could win him the MVP however his “overcoming injury, leading team to playoffs” narrative is the kind of thing that garners the award.

 
source:  10. Mavericks (41-24, LW 8). There are all sorts of ominous signs for Mavericks fans: This team is just 18-12 with Rajon Rondo in the lineup, and they have lost seven straight on the road to playoff teams. More than anything, this roster just needs to get fully healthy to have a chance.

 
source:  11. Pelicans (34-29, LW 12). The good news: The Pelicans own the tie breaker against the Thunder. The hard part will be catching OKC — New Orleans is one game back and with a tougher schedule the rest of the way. They still have Anthony Davis, however.

 
source:  11. Bulls (39-25, LW 11). Jimmy Butler to PBT on why the Bulls defense is pedestrian this season (13th in defensive efficiency): “I think it’s more about us being able to score the ball so well now that we think we can outscore opponents, which if we want to win a championship like we say we want to, we’re going to have to start guarding and stop trying to outscore people and just stop them from scoring as a whole.”

 
source:  13. Pacers (28-34, LW 16). Winners of five in a row, they are defending again, plus they get Paul George back soon. Look for the Pacers to grab one of the two final playoff seeds in the East, then be a tougher out than their opponent would prefer.

 
source:  14. Bucks (33-29, LW 15). The good news was they beat the floundering Wizards last week. The bad news is they dropped four games against the West — and three of those games were against the Jazz, Nuggets and Lakers. The Bucks have held opponents to 85 points or fewer 15 times this season, tops in the NBA.

 
source:  15. Hornets (28-33, LW 23). They have won five in a row and since he joined the team Mo Williams has averaged 21.7 points a game to spark this run. Look for them to make the playoffs out East. Steve Clifford’s biggest challenge will be getting Williams and Kemba Walker to play together when he returns to the lineup soon.

 
<source:  16. Suns (33-31, LW 13). They are the longest shot of the teams vying to grab the final playoff spot in the West, 2.5 games out (and having shaken up the roster). However they have nine of their next 10 at home, so maybe they can put together a run. The problem is there are a lot of playoff teams in that mix, it will not be easy.

 
source:  17. Jazz (26-36, LW 20). Quin Snyder was brought in to develop talent ant that is happening — the Jazz have found their defensive identity. They have a run of games against the East and should rack up some win is that stretch.

 
source:  18. Heat (28-34, LW 17). Tyler Johnson? That’s another D-League call-up making plays for the Heat, along with Hassan Whiteside. Those are the guys that have them tied for the eight seed in the East right now, but it’s going to be tough to catch Indiana and Charlotte unless Goran Dragic goes on a huge run.

 
source:  19. Celtics (25-36, LW 21). No JaVale McGee in Beantown, which may be a good thing, not sure he’s the best role model for a young team. If the Celtics want to make the playoffs they have their fate in their own hands with a number of games coming up against Charlotte, Indiana, Brooklyn, Miami and Detroit (the other teams in the playoff mix at the bottom of the East). Whatever the outcome, good learning experience for the young team.

 
source:  20. Raptors (38-24, LW 14). They snapped a five-game losing streak with a win over the lowly Sixers, but then turned around and lost to Charlotte and Cleveland. Their defense continues to struggle so they just try to outscore teams, and as well as DeMar DeRozan is playing — and now that Kyle Lowry is back — that isn’t the way to win come the playoffs.

 
source:  21. Wizards (35-28, LW 19). John Wall admitted Monday that he is physically beat up right now. Which was kind of obvious. Resting him is not easy as the Wizards continue to rely on him to create shots for everyone, but they need to get him a break before the playoffs.

 
source:  22. Nets (25-36, LW 22). They beat Golden State last week, showing that on any given night in the NBA anything can happen. The loss to the Hornets later in the week is the bigger blow to their playoff hopes, which seem to be fading fast.

 
source:  23. Pistons (23-39, LW 16). They have lost six in a row and seen their surprising playoff run crash on the rocks. It comes back to the same old issues with the Pistons, regardless of coach: They need more shooting to space the floor.

 
source:  24. Kings (21-40, LW 24). You can see hope for the Kings’ offense going forward, but George Karl’s real work (both in getting players over the summer and in training camp next fall) will be establishing even an average defense. They are a mess on that end of the court.

source:  25. Timberwolves (14-47, LW 25). They aren’t winning a lot but with their new rotation they are pushing qualities teams. Which is all they see this week on the road with the Clippers, Suns, Thunder and Spurs.

 
source:  26. Magic (21-43, LW 27). The up-and-down rookie Elfrid Payton was up over the weekend when the Magic picked up a couple nice wins. Victor Oladipo is putting up numbers lately, too.

 
source:  27. Nuggets (22-41, LW 29). Brian Shaw has a lot of supporters around the league — Paul George, David West, Kevin Garnett — which is more than he had in the Nuggets’ locker room.

 
source:  28. 76ers (14-49, LW 30). Since the Michael-Carter Williams trade the Sixers have become a much better three-point shooting team, one of the top five in the NBA in terms of percentage. Which is good with plans to have Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid in the paint, this team needs to space the floor.

 
source:  29. Lakers (16-45, LW 26). Kobe Bryant came by to watch the Lakers blow a lead against the Mavericks Sunday. I know fans want to see him being a mentor, but who is there to mentor on this current active roster that will be a Laker in three years? Jordan Clarkson and…

 
source:  30. Knicks (12-49, LW 28). Phil Jackson has been traveling around scouting top college prospects. As he should, the Knicks are very likely to have the best lottery odds to get the top pick this year. Knicks fans will be watching the NCAA Tournament with that eye.

As expected, Khris Middleton to decline his $13 million option with Bucks

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Khris Middleton doesn’t want to leave Milwaukee, but the man does want to get paid.

Which has led to the expected: The All-Star forward is opting out of the $13 million his is owed next season and will negotiate a new contract with the Bucks, something first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Milwaukee Bucks All-Star forward Khris Middleton is declining his $13 million player option and will become an unrestricted free agent, his agent told ESPN on Wednesday…

Middleton and the Bucks are planning to work together toward a new long-term deal, league sources said. Middleton is expected to command a max contract with Milwaukee or elsewhere. He is eligible to sign a five-year, $190 million deal to stay with the Bucks, or a four-year, $141 million contract with another team.

Middleton is the Bucks’ top priority in a free-agent class that includes Malcolm Brogdon, Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic.

The Bucks want to keep the band together, they like the group they have around Giannis Antetokounmpo. Middleton was the second best player on a team that won 60 games and made it to the conference finals before falling to the eventual champion Raptors. This team is a contender and, while it will take them into the luxury tax, ownership wants to bring most of the roster back (Mirotic may be the odd man out).

Middleton averaged 18.3 points and 6 rebounds a game, shot 37.8 percent from three, and had a true shooting percentage of 55.8. He also plays good defense. He’s the ultimate glue guy who can do everything well, which is why a lot of teams will make calls and try to lure him out of Milwaukee this summer.

The Bucks are expected to offer the fifth year (Middleton will be 28 at the start of next season, so not a huge risk) and the max or very close to it. Middleton is expected to take it. But the Bucks need to move Tony Snell or Ersan Ilyasova to make all the pieces fit, something they are trying to do.

Milwaukee is close to a title, it will be interesting to see what moves GM Jon Horst makes this summer to try and put them over the top. Keeping Middleton is a no-brainer at the heart of that plan. The Bucks will pay up.

Utah get its point guard: Grizzlies reportedly trade Mike Conley Jr. to Jazz

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This deal had been rumored for a while, it’s something the Jazz really wanted to happen to put another high-level shot creator and shooter next to Donovan Mitchell. They got their man.

Mike Conley Jr. is going to be a member of the Utah Jazz.

Memphis reportedly is trading Conley to Utah for a package that includes Grayson Allen, Kyle Korver, Jae Crowder, the 23rd pick in Thursday’s Draft and a future first-round pick. Shams Charania of The Athletic broke the story, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN fleshed out the details.

Conley averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three and plays strong defense. Conley is maybe the most underrated player in the NBA, a borderline All-Star level point guard (he should have made it one year) and for Utah a healthy upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the point.

With the gate to winning the West having swung open, the Jazz believe they are ready to walk through it — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert, and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. Yet for two playoffs in a row, when Utah got bounced by Houston (4-1 in the first round this year), it was painfully clear what has kept the team from being truly elite: Another shot creator and shooter. Utah can run all the flex cuts, X cuts, Iverson cuts and everything else in its beautiful offense, but come the playoffs there is a point where a team just needs players who can just go get a bucket. Mitchell could do that, but the best teams can blanket one guy and take him away. The Jazz now have two, and a guy that fits the system.

It is expensive, however. Conley makes $32.5 million this season and has a player option he’s expected to pick up for next season at $34.5 million. This takes the Jazz out of the running in free agency. However, the Jazz have never faired all that well in free agency and this was a sure thing. Conley is expensive, but with only two years left on his contract a lot of teams (Indiana is at the front of that list) wanted to land him. Utah did.

The Grizzlies get building blocks for their rebuild with the picks and Grayson Allen. This is a team being built around Jaren Jackson Jr. and to-be-drafted Thursday Ja Morant, these other players will need to fit with them. The grit n’ grind era has been over for a while, this is just the final nail in the coffin. The Grizzlies face different challenges now.

Don’t be surprised to see Kover and Crowder are cut loose or traded to playoff teams looking for more help.

Report: Rockets want to target Jimmy Butler. Reality: Getting that cap space will be hard

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Rockets GM Daryl Morey is always thinking big. He deserves credit for that.

For the last couple of years, the Rockets have been the second best team in the West, and with the injuries (and maybe free agency) hitting the Warriors it should be Houston at the front of the line. However, Morey doesn’t want to stand pat, he wants to add another star to the roster that can put them over the top.

Such as Jimmy Butler, reports Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle.

Butler would be a good fit, although he would be another big ego in that locker room. Have fun with managing all that with a lame duck coach in Mike D’Antoni (he has yet to sign an extension to stay).

Reality, however, is going to make landing Butler tough to pull off.

The first challenge is Butler himself. Sources have told me the Sixers plan on keeping him and offering him a five-year max contract for $191 million. He’s expected to sign it. Butler will turn 30 before next season, plays a hard-charging style, and has started to rack up an injury history because of it. That guaranteed fifth season may matter a lot to him.

Next, even if Butler were willing to leave Philly and go to Houston (over, say, the Lakers, who have an interest and are trying to clear out cap space), there is still the issue of the salary cap. The Rockets are way over it. Chris Paul will make $38.5 million next season, James Harden $37.8 million, Clint Capela $16.4 and Eric Gordon $14.1. That’s $106.8 million in four players. The NBA salary cap is projected to be $109 million. Throw in P.J. Tucker and the 10 other players the need to have on the roster, cap holds and the like, and you can see the lack of cap space to sign a free agent.

Morey is reportedly willing to trade anyone on the roster not named Harden — although he and others in the organization have pushed back on the idea CP3 asked for a trade — but to do that to clear cap space means making the trade and not taking back salary that bleeds into the new season. Salaries have to be matched in a trade with teams over the cap, so the Rockets would need to convince a team with cap space to trade for Capela or Gordon and just send draft picks and non-guaranteed players back. That’s a really small market. If you’re thinking sign-and-trade, the new CBA took away the incentive of extra money for players that do it, so it just comes down to teams and the Sixers are not going to help him leave.

Expect the Rockets to make moves to shake up the roster this summer. Butler may be the ultimate dream, but getting there makes it nearly impossible to pull off.

2019 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Is Jarrett Culver’s upside worth being a top five pick?

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Over the course of the next two weeks, as the 2019 NBA Draft draws closer and closer, we at Pro Basketball Talk will be taking deep dives into some of the best and most intriguing prospects that will be making their way to the NBA.

Today, we are looking at Jarrett Culver.

Previous draft profiles:

Jarrett Culver is the second member of Chris Beard’s first real recruiting class at Texas Tech to go from totally under-the-radar to a guaranteed first round pick.

It started last year with Zhaire Smith, a sensational athlete and developing shooter that found his way into Tech’s starting lineup before eventually finding his way into being the No. 16 pick in the first round of last year’s draft. Most expected that Culver, who averaged 11.2 points and just 1.8 assists while shooting 38.2 percent from three, to soak up the role that Smith played for the Red Raiders, but that isn’t what happened.

Instead, Culver became what Keenan Evans — the 2018 Big 12 Player of the Year turned two-way player for the Detroit Pistons — was for the Red Raiders. He didn’t just become a better scorer and a talented wing prospect, he became their point guard.

And that is where the intrigue lies for Culver when it comes to his potential at the next level.

He has the size you want out of an off-guard and, at 6-foot-7 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, is big enough to be able to guard small forwards in the NBA, but he doesn’t have the game of a typical 3-and-D player. As a sophomore, he averaged a team-high 3.7 assists for Texas Tech, but he wasn’t exactly what you would call a point guard. In fact, he was often essentially playing the four, with a trio of smaller guards on the floor around him. What Beard did was build an offense that was heavy with motion principles early in a possession, but as the shot clock wound down, the ball would end up in Culver’s hands, where he would be put into an isolation or a ball-screen action and allowed to create.

That is what he does best.

Shot creation.

Culver is excellent in triple-threat situations. His ability to shoot off the dribble consistently improved throughout his college career, and he’s generally at his best when he is allowed to get into a rhythm jumper off the bounce. He needs to quicken up his release in the NBA, but he has some wiggle room given the way that he gets his shot off. He’s not the most explosive athlete, but he can dunk on defenders when he gets a lane to the basket and his long strides and improving frame allowed him to be able to get to where he wanted to get to in the lane despite the fact that his first step is not all that quick.

But where Culver improved the most during the offseason was with his ability to operate ball-screens. He obsessively studied tape during the summer to learn the proper reads and proper passes to make when running a ball-screen, and the improvement showed. He forced teams to have to stop going under the screen against him because of his ability to step-back and make off-the-dribble threes. He can throw one-handed, live-dribble passes to shooters in either corner. He turned Tariq Owens into a serious threat on the offensive end of the floor with his ability to hit him on lobs while also knowing how to create the space and passing lane for a dump-off.

He’s grown into being a high-level, well-rounded offensive weapon, and there is quite a bit of value in a player that can be a secondary shot-creator without having to play as a point or off-guard.

Now, there are some limitations as well.

Culver has averaged more than four threes per game in his two-year career, and he’s shooting just 34.1 percent from beyond the arc. He’s better as an off-the-dribble shooter, which actually is not exactly ideal for a player that is going to be spending quite a few possessions playing off the ball. He’s added some muscle since last season — and a growth spurt in the last year makes it seem possible that his body is not done developing — but he is still pretty slender and is not great at dealing with physicality on either end of the floor. There are some real concerns offensively about how he will handle the athleticism NBA defenders have, and the 5-for-22 shooting performance he put together in the national title game against De'Andre Hunter doesn’t assuage those concerns.

There are also some question marks about his defense. Personally, I think he’ll be fine. He’s never going to be a total lockdown defender, but I don’t think that he will be a liability. He’s not going to be the guy opposing coaches target. He has spent the last two years playing within one of the best defensive systems in college basketball, but one that is built on exceptional game-planning and coaching as much as raw talent. So while it may have left Culver somewhat over-hyped on the defensive end, to me it is also proof that he can execute a game-plan and do a job on that end.

Put it all together, and what you have is a guy that can do a lot of things really well. You have a guy whose combination of skills should allow him to be a valuable piece in an NBA rotation. What you don’t have is a player that is likely to end up being an NBA superstar. These comparisons aren’t perfect — they never are — but I think he’s going to end up being somewhere between Caris LeVert pre-injury and Evan Turner.

He’s a safe-bet to be a rock-solid starter in the NBA, potentially as early as this season.

But I’m not sure just how much upside he has.