PBT’s weekly NBA Power Rankings: It’s Warriors, Cavs at the top, likely your Finals favorites

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Golden State remains the class of the NBA this regular season, but for some reason there are people who don’t buy into them as contenders. I guess you can’t win until you’ve already won. The Cavaliers have slid up to No. 2 as the Hawks stumble, and the Spurs start to look like their old selves.

 
source:  1. Warriors (56-13, Last Week No. 1). We’ve had an Andre Iguodala sighting, his scoring has gone up while Klay Thompson is out with his bad ankle. This team is deep with somewhat interchangeable parts, which helps them weather injuries. Good tests on the road at Portland and Memphis this week.

 
source:  2. Cavaliers (46-26 LW 3). In their last 15 games they have the best offense in the NBA, but the defense has surrendered 103 points per 100 possessions 20th in the NBA. That defense has been worse lately. Right now the offense is covering that up, but come the playoffs that defense is going to get them in trouble eventually.

 
source:  3. Spurs (44-25, LW 5). If you noticed one thing lately it’s that Tiago Splitter finally looks healthy, and with that the Spurs’ defense has been more physical and improved. The win over Atlanta Sunday showed just how well this team is playing when focused. The loss in New York shows what happens when they are not. Four games against West playoff teams this week, we’ll see if that keeps them focused.

 
source:  4. Hawks (53-17, LW 2). They have lost three straight to top teams in the West (Warriors, Thunder, Spurs). Part of that was Kyle Korver being out for the first two, he is crucial to their offensive spacing. Also the loss of role guys Thabo Sefolosha and Mike Scott, has dinged them. Still, those three teams shredded the Atlanta defense, a very troubling sign. Easier schedule this week should get them rolling again.

 
source:  5. Grizzlies (49-21, LW 6). Finally Tony Allen is starting and Jeff Green is coming off the bench. Green is just too inconsistent to be trusted nightly, even if his offense is called for some nights. Win over Portland Saturday doesn’t make Memphis a lock for the two seed, but they are pretty close now.

 
source:  6. Rockets (46-23, LW 7). It took a while but I have finally come around: If the vote were today I would put James Harden ahead of Stephen Curry on my MVP ballot. Just how much he matters to the Rockets every game — every possession — put him over the top. His is not an elegant game, but it’s effective. That said, the loss of Terrence Jones (partially collapsed lung) comes at a tough time with seven of next nine on the road.

 
source:  7. Clippers (46-25, LW 8). Coach Doc Rivers and the Clipper organization is promoting DeAndre Jordan for Defensive Player of the Year. He doesn’t deserve it, but that’s another discussion. Here is what Doc Rivers said about promoting players for awards: “It’s good to support players. I don’t know if I believe in it or not, if you want my real answer, but I think that’s what you should do. Because that’s what every other team does.”

 
source:  8. Thunder (40-30, LW 9). They have a 2.5 game cushion over the Suns for the eight seed (the Pelicans are three back). That is amazing considering Kevin Durant is done for the season and Serge Ibaka will be out until close to the playoffs (and Nick Collison is now injured). It’s all about Russell Westbrook and the offense, but that will be enough to get them into the postseason.

 
source:  9. Trail Blazers (44-24. LW 4). They have lost four in a row, all on the road but some of those were very winnable (Orlando, Miami) and Portland didn’t bring their best games. Their defense has been sloppy and now both LaMarcus Aldridge (re-injured hand) and Nicolas Batom could miss a little time with injuries.

 
source:  10. Mavericks (44-27, LW 10). This team remains up and down — they beat the Clippers and Thunder, then lose to the Grizzlies and Suns. Now there are reports Monta Ellis’ notorious up-and-down moods are impacting the team and it’s effort. If they land Memphis in the first round (the current matchup) and play like this they will be done quickly.

 
source:  11. Bulls (42-29, LW 14). The good news is Taj Gibson is back and Jimmy Butler is expected back Monday night. The team expects to have Derrick Rose back for the playoffs. Still, does all of that really strike fear into anyone? On paper Chicago is dangerous, but they have not played Tom Thibodeau level defense all season — they seem to have lost sight of their identity.

 
source:  12. Wizards (40-30, LW 16). They had won five in a row before running into the hot shooting Clippers last Friday. Then they were awful Sunday against Sacramento. Wizard’s coach Randy Whitman, what’s wrong? “We need to start games with solid defense. That’s the common theme: We need to defend. When we defend we’re pretty good.”

 
source:  13. Pelicans (37-33, LW 11). They had the chance to make up ground on the banged up Thunder this week and couldn’t because Anthony Davis was injured. This team is not close to the same without him (and minor injuries seem to follow him around). They are three games back of the Thunder now, they will need some help to make that ground up.

 
source:  14. Jazz (31-38, LW 13). They are 12-4 since the All-Star break with the best defense in the land, and they have a candidate for Most Improved Player in Rudy Gobert (although Jimmy Butler likely wins that one). Quin Snyder has done a fantastic job, the question becomes how the organization builds on this over the summer for next season.

 
<source:  15. Suns (38-33, LW 18). They have won four games in a row, they are playing improved defense, but remain 2.5 back of the Thunder and are unlikely to make that ground up and get into the postseason. If they are going to catch OKC they need to beat them Sunday in a showdown (which would give Phoenix the tiebreaker).

 
source:  16. Raptors (42-28, LW 19). If Toronto wants to advance past the first round of the playoffs for the second time in franchise history (last one was 2001) they need to hold of Chicago for the three seed. Which makes Wednesday’s showdown with Chicago huge. As does not having slip ups against teams like Detroit and the Lakers this week.

 
source:  17. Celtics (30-39, LW 15). They had moved into the eight seed in the East, then came the three-game losing streak. Two of those were understandable (Thunder and Spurs) but the loss to Detroit is a hard one. Also, Marcus Smart can’t afford to get suspended for punching guys in the groin or any other reason.

 
source:  18. Heat (32-36, LW 21). They had won three in a row before Sunday, mostly because Dwyane Wade has jumped in the hot tub time machine and had scored at least 28 in five straight games. They have seven of nine on the road and need to win away from home to hold on to that two-game cushion they have to make the postseason.

 
source:  19. Nets (29-39, LW 22). They have won three of four due to a resurgent Brook Lopez, and beat a couple teams ahead of them in the standings. That gets them within a game of the playoffs, with key games against Boston and Charlotte this week.

 
source:  20. Hornets (30-38, LW 20). They had lost five of six before getting healthy against the struggling Timberwolves Sunday. Their next five games are against potential playoff teams in the East and if they can keep winning they will hold on to the eight seed, but this will be a key stretch.

 
source:  21. Pacers (30-39, LW 12). Losers of five in a row, they have gone from seeming playoff lock to team on the outside looking in. Paul George may return this week and there will be pressure on him to change this, but it really will take them getting back to playing elite defense.

 
source:  22. Bucks (34-36, LW 17). They are 4-13 since the All-Star break and trading for Michael Carter-Williams, and suddenly they are just 3.5 games ahead of the nine-seed Celtics and missing the playoffs all together. The Bucks likely hold on to a spot because of a soft schedule, but they could use a win over Miami or Indiana this week.

 
source:  23. Nuggets (26-44, LW 23). Losers of three in a row, which should make management happy as they worked to cut off this team at the knees once Melvin Hunt got them winning. If Denver doesn’t pick up Hunt as their full time coach, another team should poach him.

 
source:  24. Pistons (26-44, LW 25). The up-and-down Pistons were up last week with wins over the Grizzlies, Bulls and Celtics. Then they lost to the Sixers. Reggie Jackson is looking more comfortable and is putting up numbers, but is he really blending with where Stan Van Gundy wants to evolve the team?

 
source:  25. Kings (24-45, LW 24). The DeMarcus Cousins/George Karl relationship seems to be a work in progress. The Kings are dangerous any given night — especially with Rudy Gay thriving in Karl’s system. But the defense does them in most nights.

 
source:  26. 76ers (17-53, LW 28). Nice loss by the Sixers to the Lakers Sunday, if they were trying to hurt the Lakers’ lottery odds so the Sixers get the pick (sixth or higher and it is Philly’s via trade). Also no, Nerlens Noel is not going to unseat Andrew Wiggins as the Rookie of the Year, but he could garner some votes farther down the ballot.

 
source:  27. Magic (22-50, LW 27). Elfrid Payton still has a long way to go with his shot, but he’s finding a groove in the NBA and had two straight triple-doubles last week. He’s going to get mentioned in the Rookie of the Year balloting as well (even if he can’t catch Wiggins at this point). He’s a piece they can have as part of their core going forward.

source:  28. Timberwolves (15-54, LW 26). Kevin Garnett has missed seven games in a row and with that their defensive numbers have plummeted. Minnesota has lost 11-of-13 and one of those wins was in overtime against the hapless Knicks.

 
source:  29. Knicks (14-56, LW 29). Their win over the Spurs last week was one of the shocking results of the NBA season. Can they pull that off again this week against Memphis or the Clippers? No, probably not.

 
source:  30. Lakers (17-50, LW 30). The Steve Nash signing just didn’t work out for the Lakers At the time it was a good gamble — he was relatively healthy and the Lakers thought they could contend with Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard — but that third year was a question mark from the start and came back to bite them.

Report: John Paxson to remain in power with Bulls

Bulls executive John Paxson
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The Bulls are reportedly looking for a general manager to replace Gar Forman.

But the other half of GarPax – Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson – apparently isn’t going anywhere. And of course neither is president/CEO Michael Reinsdorf, son of owner Jerry Reinsdorf.

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

A source familiar with the situation told the Sun-Times on Wednesday that there could be multiple people hired, as the power structure is still being determined.

Paxson and Reinsdorf are still running the show, with Paxson still considered to have a valuable seat at the table no matter what title they come up for him.

Even if it appears that Paxson will be taking a background approach, the source said don’t believe it. The Reinsdorfs still have 100 percent faith in him leading the direction of this organization.

Evaluating individual members of a front office can be extremely difficult from the outside.

But Paxson didn’t cover himself in glory when he effectively declared the Bulls, after going 27-55 in 2017-18, were done tanking. Chicago went 22-60 last season and is 19-36 this season.

The Bulls need an honest assessment of where they are. They’re not good and probably not that close to being good. They have a few interesting young players – Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Coby White and Wendell Carter Jr. But even with a high pick in this year’s draft, Chicago’s young core isn’t strong enough to assume it will rise into a quality team.

Though Paxson has supported Jim Boylen, the Bulls could probably use a new coach.

More importantly, they must understand that remaining at the bottom and securing more high picks is their best path forward. Drafting well would accelerate the process, but drafting is hard. Sometimes, you need more bites at the apple.

Of course, that will require a patience Chicago has rarely shown.

Knicks’ former player, G-League GM Allan Houston could get promotion

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There was a time when former Knicks All-Star player Allan Houston was seen as the rising front office star of the team. Since then, he has risen to assistant GM (before the Phil Jackson era), survived multiple management changes, and bounced around to different roles, most recently as the GM of the G-League Westchester Knicks.

Now he could be seeing a promotion under soon-to-arrive team president Leon Rose, according to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

As Leon Rose prepares for his imminent takeover, Garden constant Allan Houston has emerged as a candidate for a front office promotion, a league source told the Daily News…

According to a source, Craig Robinson, the current Knicks’ vice president of player development, has already had his responsibilities cut. Robinson, who is Michelle Obama’s brother, was hired by his Princeton buddy Steve Mills to oversee a comprehensive player development initiative…

The future of GM Scott Perry is unknown but it’s worth noting he has a strong relationship with Rose’s confidante, William Wesley.

Nobody knows exactly what the Knicks front office will look like after Rose officially takes the reins (he is still finishing up commitments to his CAA clients before coming over). We know William “World Wide Wes” Wesley will not have a role with the team, staying with CAA, but he will likely still have Rose’s ear. There will be a host of changes.

A deep house cleaning is in order in New York as the Knicks need to change their culture, not just their players. There is a lot of work to be done to develop players and build a foundation that will attract star players — right now the Knicks are not that kind of draw.  Houston apparently is going to get a chance to be part of whatever is next.

Steve Kerr says Stephen Curry will play this season once healthy

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“What’s the point? The Warriors have 12 wins, the worst record in the NBA, and are not sniffing the playoffs this season, so why bring Stephen Curry back this season at all? Why risk the injury? Why not tank?”

Steve Kerr has no use for that attitude.

Curry started practicing with the Warriors again on Wednesday. He will be re-evaluated the first week of March and could return to play soon after — and Kerr wants that. He wants Andrew Wiggins to get used to playing with Curry. Kerr defended the idea at Warriors practice on Wednesday (quotes via Monte Poole at NBC Sports Bay Area).

“It’s important for Steph and Andrew to get to know each other and to play together,” coach Steve Kerr said Tuesday night after practice at Chase Center. “It’s important for Steph to play without all of the guys we’ve lost who are not going to be back next year: Kevin (Durant) and Andre (Iguodala) and Shaun (Livingston). Steph in many ways has depended on those guys as sort of a giant security blanket.

“For a guy who is so skilled and talented, this has still been a team effort over the years. And he’s been blessed with some of the smartest players and most talented players in the league…

“He’s perfectly healthy. If the point is he might get hurt, what’s the point of ever playing anybody? I guess the argument is we’re not making the playoffs. So, are we not trying to entertain our fans?”

Kerr wants to build some familiarity and some momentum heading into next season. They might win a few more games, but with the flattened out draft lottery odds that’s not going to hurt the Warriors in terms of position. Beyond that, this is a down draft — in our podcast last week, NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster described it as the top three picks in this draft would be 6-10 most seasons — so Warriors fans may want to temper expectations about how much help this draft can provide.

Curry wants to play, he’s healthy, he should play. Load management has a role in the league, but this is not it.

Target score ending likely returns to All-Star Game next year

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It seemed obvious this is the direction the NBA would go after the most competitive All-Star Game in recent memory, after it generated an incredibly positive buzz. Now we have some confirmation.

A league executive told Zach Lowe of ESPN that yes, it’s highly likely the target score idea will be back next All-Star Game.

It is a “good assumption” the NBA will use a target score to end next season’s All-Star Game after experimenting with the concept for the first time Sunday, Byron Spruell, the NBA’s president of league operations, told ESPN on Wednesday in New York…

“The intensity popped,” Spruell said. “The guys really bought in…”

If the NBA uses the target score at next season’s All Star Game, they may tinker with the rules so that the game cannot end on a free throw, Spruell said. They have already discussed taking points away from any team that commits a shooting foul on a potential winning shot instead of awarding free throws, Spruell said. They could also force that team to remove the player who committed the foul and replace him with someone else for a certain number of possessions, Spruell said.

If this were used in a regular-season NBA game, then essentially sending a player to the “penalty box” after a foul on a game-winning attempt would have some impact. In the All-Star Game, not so much. For example, if Kyle Lowry had been sent to the bench after fouling Anthony Davis, then Nick Nurse could have replaced him with Jimmy Butler or Trae Young or some other elite player. It’s not that damaging.

Removing points makes more sense.

While the Elam-style ending was a success in the All-Star Game (and next season they may bump the point total up from 24, even though it took 15 minutes of game time to play the quarter, because that is an outlier for the All-Star Game), it’s not coming to the NBA. Which means it’s not coming to the G-League either, Lowe was told. A discussion about Summer League doesn’t seem to be on the table, either.

Where could the target score ending pop up? If/when the NBA starts playing a mid-season tournament, Lowe was told — and those playoff games could be just 40 minutes. Also, the G-League showcase every December makes some sense, Lowe was told.

The target score ending was a huge hit in the All-Star Game, it only makes sense to bring it back. But for the NBA, it will remain more special occasion gimmick than a daily part of the league.