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.

Report: Nets signing Taurean Prince to two-year, $29M extension

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The Nets traded two first-round picks to the Hawks to clear double-max(-ish) cap space for Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

And get Taurean Prince.

Prince was an afterthought in his trade to Brooklyn, which signaled the Nets’ big summer. But Brooklyn acquired him for a reason and will pay to secure him longer.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Considering this information came from his agent, this is almost certainly the most favorable framing of terms. Maybe Prince got all $29 million guaranteed. But if there are any incentives, I bet that $29 million counts them as achieved.

The Nets are trying to build a championship contender. This deal gives them multiple avenues for uisng Prince.

His contract could help for salary-matching in a bigger trade. I can’t recall the rookie-scale extension so short, if there ever was one. Two years are not an especially long commitment. That hints at using this deal as a trade chip. So does Brooklyn extending Prince before he played a regular-season game there.

Of course, Prince has a track record from Atlanta. He’s a good outside shooter with the frame to defend well when engaged. Maybe the Nets really believe in his long-term potential. He fell out of favor with the Hawks only after they changed general managers.

The Nets needn’t decide on Prince’s long-term future now. They have paid for team control for the next three seasons (including this season, the final year of his rookie-scale contract). They can monitor how he plays – and what trades become available.

Pacers, Domantas Sabonis reportedly agree to four-year, $77 million extension

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Indiana is going all-in on the idea of Domantas Sabonis playing the four next to Myles Turner at the five this season. The Pacers have put up the money, now we’re going to see if it can actually work.

After initial struggles to find common ground on a contract extension — leading to reports of the Pacers testing the trade waters for Sabonis — the two sides have come to terms on a four-year contract extension, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The exact figures here are still in flux.

How likely those bonuses are remains to be seen.

This is a pretty fair contract number, a little more than $19 million a year average for the man who came in second in the Sixth Man of the Year voting last season seems about right. Plus, if it doesn’t work out with Sabonis starting next to Turner, this is a very tradable contract and there would be interest in his services (he was harder to trade at his $3.5 million current salary and get anything of value to match that smaller number).

The Pacers hope it doesn’t come to that and Sabonis becomes part of one of the better, younger frontcourts in the league.

Sabonis is skilled and versatile on offense, a fantastic pick-and-roll or dribble hand-off guy who sets good screens then he rolls into open space. He’s strong around the basket and plays a crafty, high IQ game.

The concerns with Sabonis, and why some teams are not convinced he’s a starter, are twofold. First, he is not good defensively and is not a rim protector.

The second concern is that he does not space the floor (76.4 percent of his shots came within 10 feet of the basket last season, and he doesn’t make many beyond that range).

Indiana is betting on this core. They have inked big contracts with Turner (four-years, $72 million) and Malcolm Brogdon (four years, $85 million). Victor Oladipo will be coming up for an extension in a couple of years and, if he returns to pre-injury form, is a lock max player. Throw in this Sabonis contract and that is a lot of guaranteed money. Are these guys worth it?

We’ll find out soon enough, the Pacers have gone all-in with them

Report: Spurs signing Dejounte Murray to four-year, $64M extension

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In 2018, a 21-year-old Dejounte Murray became the youngest player ever to make an All-Defensive team. The following fall, he showed progress on his outside shooting and distributing. Everything was coming together for the young Spurs point guard.

Then, disaster struck.

Just before last season, Murray tore his ACL. He missed the entire year.

Yet, he’ll still get a contract extension in San Antonio.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Given his injury, it’d be difficult for Murray to reject this deal. It’s life-changing money. What if he lost significant athleticism or fails to hit his stride next season? That’d be a grim way to enter restricted free agency next summer.

But what if Murray picks up where he left off? This could be a major steal for the Spurs.

Given the wide range of potential outcomes, this extension seems fair. However, there’s also a reasonable chance Murray significantly underperforms or overperforms this deal. (That’s why it’s fair.)

Murray is a stout defender and elite rebounder for a guard. He can push the pace and slash to the rim. But it’s tough for lead guards who don’t shoot well from the perimeter. Murray’s playmaking for others must also improve, especially if San Antonio eventually transitions from an isolation-heavy offense around DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Murray is just 23. It’s OK he’s not a finished product. The Spurs should know better than anyone how to feel about his progress since the injury. They probably deserve benefit of the doubt in evaluating his value.

Still, long-term fit questions linger with Derrick White. White stepped up in Murray’s absence last season, especially in the playoffs. But White is another subpar 3-point-shooting guard. Can they play together? White will be eligible for his own rookie-scale extension next offseason.

San Antonio is mainly focused on the present, and Murray and White will factor prominently this season. They’re still just supporting players for now, though.

Long term, Murray’s extension is a key step toward whatever comes next for the Spurs.

Zion Williamson out 6-8 weeks after surgery to repair torn right lateral meniscus

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Much like his absence did at Summer League, this news sucks some of the air out the excitement around the start of the NBA season.

Zion Williamson, who tore it up for New Orleans in the preseason, also tore up his right lateral meniscus and had surgery on Monday to repair it, the team announced.

The smart money is on it being closer to the eight weeks because the Pelicans are going to abundantly cautious the future of the franchise. The Pelicans had originally said Williamson had a sore knee, then said he would be out weeks but avoided serious knee issues. This could be worse but is serious enough to require surgery.

This preseason, Williamson instantly took advantage of the greater spacing in the NBA game (Duke was not loaded with great shooters last season) and found lanes to attack and dominate. Williamson scored 55 points on 71 percent shooting across two preseason games, and defenses just were not sure how to stop him.

His loss is a setback to a Pelicans team that has playoff aspirations, despite its youth.

There are still young players with a lot to prove in New Orleans — Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram — and some solid veterans in Jrue Holiday and J.J. Redick. But the Pelicans will just not be the same — or as much fun.

This opens up the Rookie of the Year race, at least a little bit. NBC’s own Dan Feldman and I discussed this very topic on our predictions podcast: How many games does Zion need to play, and be dominant in, to win ROY? Probably around 50 (remember Joel Embiid could not pull it off with a dominant 31 games and Malcolm Brogdon won that year). If Zion is out the full two months, meaning a return just before Christmas, then he would miss about 30 games. Putting him on the bubble for the award. Other players such as Ja Morant in Memphis, RJ Barrett in New York, or maybe even Tyler Herro in Miami or Rui Hachimura in Washington can jump into the conversation.

That conversation is just a little less entertaining without Williamson.