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.

Michelle Roberts says if you don’t like player movement blame owners, too

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Last summer was one of the wildest offseasons in NBA history, maybe the wildest, and the headline was player empowerment. Anthony Davis pushed his way to the Lakers, Paul George forced his way out of Oklahoma City to go to the Clippers and join Kawhi Leonard, which soon had Russell Westbrook joining his old teammate James Harden in Houston. It led to frustration by some owners and changes in how the NBA will handle tampering.

Except, by choice is not how most players change teams. While AD or George has the leverage to make a power play — because of their exceptional talent — most of the time players are traded because the owner/team has all the power and can uproot players for whatever reason (basketball reasons sometimes, saving money other times). The stars have free agent options, rotation players much less so in that system.

Michelle Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players’ Association, wants you to remember that it’s not just player power that has led to the increase in player movement, as she told Mark Spears of The Undefeated.

Michele Roberts, told The Undefeated that she believes there is a “double standard” between how stars are viewed when they decide to move on compared with when franchises choose to make a major transaction, adding that team owners “continue to view players as property.”

“If you want to be critical of one, be critical of both,” Roberts said from the NBPA’s offices in Manhattan. “Those of us who made decisions to move, it’s really astounding to even consider what it feels like to be told in the middle of your life you are going to have to move. But that’s the business we’re in. …

“No one seems to spend a lot of time thinking about what it’s like to make those kinds of moves completely involuntarily. You volunteer to play or not play. But, yeah, if it’s still the case that if you think you’ve got to suck it up, player, then, hell, you’ve got to suck it up, team.”

She’s right. From Chris Paul to Blake Griffin, plenty of big stars have been moved against their will. The door swings both ways, but in those cases most fans tended to see why and like what the teams did. Those fans like it less when players do the same thing.

There’s also a classic labor vs. management angle to all this, which has political overtones.

For my money, how one views player movement tends to be part generational and part where you live.

Older fans remember days — or, at least think they remember days — when players stayed with teams for much or all of their career. It’s understandable, fans form a bond with players and want them to stay… while they’re still good and useful, after that fans beg ownership to get the “dead weight off the books.” Players before the late 1980s stayed with teams because they didn’t have a choice — for Bill Russell in the 60s or Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the 1980s, free agency was not an option. And for every Kobe Bryant that did stay with a team, there were a lot more Wilts and Shaqs, who were traded several times and played with multiple teams.

Younger fans (generally, nothing is universal) are okay with the player movement, sometimes are more fans of a player than a team, and like the action and buzz of all the trades.

Location matters because if you’re in Oklahoma City there’s reason to not like what George did and the era of player empowerment. New Orleans fans can feel the same way (although part of that case is the “supermax” contract that owners wanted but really forced up the timeline on teams and players to make a decision on paying stars). But fans in Los Angeles or wherever players ultimately choose to go will feel differently. Fans want what’s best for their team, but there is no way in the star culture of the NBA to wash away the lure of big markets or of teaming up with another elite player.

The NBA dynamic is different from the NFL’s (for now), but it’s not changing. LeBron James helped usher in an era of player empowerment and it’s the new reality for the NBA, one the best franchises will adapt to rather than fight.

Evan Fournier says that Frank Ntilikina just ‘needs a real opportunity’

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New York Knicks fans haven’t had a lot to cheer for recently. The team traded away Kristaps Porzingis, who is thought to be the franchise cornerstone. Now they move forward with a young core, RJ Barrett, and tons of cap space.

So what does that mean for players who have been around in the Big Apple like Frank Ntilikina?

Based on how Ntilikina played in the 2019 FIBA World Cup for France this year, things might be looking up.

Ntilikina’s statistics weren’t eye-popping, but he was seen as a very solid player in a backcourt that helped propel France to the bronze medal in China.

To that end, fellow countrymen Evan Fournier thinks that all Ntilikina needs is a chance to shine.

Via Twitter:

Ntilikina’s season last year was marred by injuries, and he played in just 43 games. Still, he has the physical tools to be a useful NBA player, and he’s just 21 years old. With the surprisingly low-pressure situation in New York, it’s possible that extended time playing in the World Cup could help aid what Ntilikina is able to produce next season for the Knicks.

Report: Lakers receive DeMarcus Cousins disabled-player exception

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A chance at a championship. LeBron James. Anthony Davis. The Los Angeles market. Great weather.

The Lakers can offer plenty to anyone who gets bought out this season.

Now, the Lakers – who lost DeMarcus Cousins to a torn ACL – get a mechanism to offer post-buyout players more money.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The exception holds little value presently. It’s worth less than a full-season minimum salary for anyone with more than four years experience.

But minimum-salary and mid-level exceptions decline throughout the season. This exception does not.

So, on March 1, a team with only a minimum slot available can offer a free agent just between $233,459 and $666,546 (depending on the player’s experience level). The Lakers can offer $1.75 million.

This means an NBA-appointed doctor ruled Cousins is “substantially more likely than not” to be out through June 15. Given that prognosis, the Lakers could open a roster spot by waiving Cousins, who’s on a one-year deal and facing a domestic-violence charge. They’d still keep the exception.

If Cousins can return more quickly than expected, he’d be eligible to play, whether or not the Lakers use the exception.

Damian Lillard says he plans to play for Team USA in 2020 Olympics

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Stephen Curry said he wants to play for Team USA in the 2020 Olympics.

He isn’t the only star point guard eager for Tokyo.

Damian Lillard, via James McKern of news.com.au:

“I plan on being a part of that. I plan on playing,” Lillard said

Though neither Curry nor Lillard played for Team USA in this year’s World Cup, there’s a potentially large difference: Curry never agreed to play. Lillard did then withdrew. USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo indicated particular scorn for players who decommitted.

Of course, Colangelo also wants to win. That might require swallowing his pride and accepting players who withdrew this year. He has talked tough in the past about players who didn’t show his desired devotion to USA Basketball. Lillard got cut in 2014 then missed the 2016 Olympics citing injury. It can be difficult to determine which absences Colangelo forgives.

One factor working against Lillard: The Americans’ point guard pool is deep. Curry rates higher. Kemba Walker earned respect by playing in the World Cup. James Harden (who also withdrew from the World Cup) and Kyrie Irving also factor.

I expect Colangelo to operate on a sliding scale: The better the player, the less prior commitment to USA Basketball necessary. Lillard is an excellent player. We’ll see how far that gets him.

And whether he’ll even want to play next year. The reasons for playing – pride of representing your country, prestige marketing opportunities – are more obvious now. The reasons not to play – injury, fatigue, personal commitments – are more likely to emerge closer to the Games.