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.

Kentucky’s Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro remaining in 2019 NBA draft

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Kentucky forward P.J. Washington declared for the NBA draft.

A couple other Wildcats are following his lead.

Kentucky releases:

Kentucky men’s basketball freshman guard Keldon Johnson will remain in the 2019 NBA Draft pool and will not return to Kentucky, he announced

Kentucky men’s basketball freshman guard Tyler Herro has decided to remain in the 2019 NBA Draft, ending his career at UK.

Washington, Johnson and Herro all look like probable first-round picks. Washington and/or Johnson could sneak into the lottery, but there’s a good chance all three go later in the opening round.

Johnson is a 6-foot-6 shooting guard with a 6-foot-9 wingspan. He brings impressive effort and physicality. If his 3-pointer continues to fall, he’ll have a future in the league as a nice role player. But he hasn’t yet proven himself as a strong NBA-level spot-up shooter. He’s not there off the dribble, as a shooter or playmaker.

Herro can flat out shoot. He races around screens, finds ways to get open and sinks shots on the move and from odd angles. The 6-foot-5 guard might be a defensive liability, but at least he competes on that end. He’s also limited offensively, but the league needs shooters.

Michael Avenatti charged with stealing money Hassan Whiteside intended to pay ex-girlfriend

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Heat center Hassan Whiteside became the first player in NBA history to go from a minimum salary one season to a max salary the next.

Some of that money allegedly got embezzled by Michael Avenatti.

Avenatti – the infamous lawyer who represented Stormy Daniels, who claimed she was paid to keep quiet about having an affair with Donald Trump – has been charged with attempted extortion of Nike and stealing from other clients. One of those other clients: Whiteside’s former girlfriend, Alexis Gardner.

Michael Finnegan of the Los Angeles Times:

An actress and barista, she’d hired him just a few weeks before to negotiate a settlement of a potential lawsuit against Whiteside. It’s unclear what she would have alleged. Avenatti quickly struck a $3-million deal, and the $2.75 million was Whiteside’s first payment.

Avenatti, prosecutors say, was entitled to take just over $1 million in legal fees, leaving the rest for Gardner.

Instead, they allege, Avenatti hid Whiteside’s payment from her and immediately took $2.5 million to buy a share of a private jet.

Report: Lakers have no plans to replace Magic Johnson, who’ll still help team recruit FAs

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Magic Johnson’s stunning resignation as Lakers president caused a commotion.

It didn’t create a power vacuum.

Rob Pelinka is clearly in charge. He’s the highest-ranking member of the front office. His title – general manager – is the one many teams give to the leader of their basketball operations. He’s running the Lakers’ coaching search.

Though they’ve been linked to big-name candidates for president, the Lakers could easily keep the status quo with Pelinka running the show. And it sounds as if that’s what Lakers owner Jeanie Buss will do.

Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times:

Buss has no plans to hire someone to replace Johnson, who is still expected to be part of the Lakers’ free-agent recruiting this summer.

Allowing Pelinka to hire a head coach – which, again, he’s in the process of doing – then supplanting him would be absurd. At least it seems the Lakers aren’t doing that.

But Pelinka was part of the organization while it made a comedy of errors. The former agent also had front-office experience until getting hired with Johnson a couple years ago. It’s hard to believe he’s the right choice to lead the team as it enters this critical stage.

LeBron James is 34. The Lakers will have max cap space this summer. Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart are progressing toward establishing clearer value – one way or the other.

To entrust Pelinka in this situation, Buss ought to have a clear explanation for why Pelinka doesn’t deserve a fair share of blame for all the mistakes that occurred the last couple years. There are plenty of people, inside and outside the Lakers, who question him.

The wildest part about this report: Johnson still helping the Lakers recruit this summer. He’s an all-time great player and charismatic. But he also just said while resigning:

What I didn’t like is the backstabbing, the whispering. I don’t like that. I don’t like a lot of things that went on that didn’t have to go on.

How will he sell that to free agents – especially if Pelinka, suspected to be whom Johnson is referring to, remains in charge?

Russell Westbrook goes from ‘Next question’ to ‘That’s a good question. Not sure’ (video)

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Russell Westbrook can be a pain.

Pain to his opponents. Pain to his teammates. Pain to the media.

Sometimes, it seems Westbrook even takes pride in being a jerk. Which is fine. His cutthroat attitude is part of who he is, and it has gotten him a long way.

Lately, Westbrook has clashed with Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman. For months, Westbrook has answered all Tramel’s questions with, “Next question.” Yet, Tramel keeps asking them – as he should. Westbrook has earned control over a lot of things. Tramel shouldn’t cede control of his job to Westbrook.

The back-and-forth has gotten increased prominence during the playoffs, when postgame press conferences are nationally televised. Both sides have found plenty of support. Westbrook’s fans love that his intensity never relents. Many also respect Tramel’s professionalism.

Four years ago, Westbrook infamously told Tramel, “I just don’t like you.” Westbrook got into it with Tramel again two years ago. But Tramel continues to cover the Thunder the best he can.

Likewise, Westbrook is trying to lead Oklahoma City the best he can. That means picking battles, even small ones like this, and pushing himself to win them all.

But after the Thunder’s Game 4 loss to the Trail Blazers last night, Westbrook finally gave an inch. But just an inch.

Tramel asked how the Thunder’s defense of Damian Lillard changed from the first half to the second half.

“That’s a good question,” Westbrook said. “Not sure.”

Tramel asked about the lessons learned about overcoming a 3-1 deficit to the Grizzlies in the 2014 playoffs. (Oklahoma City trailed 2-1 and 3-2 in that series, but never 3-1).

“Really don’t know,” Westbrook said.

For Westbrook, those answers were a huge breakthrough. They surprised everyone, even Tramel. Just a few days ago, the columnist predicted Westbrook wouldn’t change his two-word answers anytime soon: “He’s not going to give in this playoff series.”

Maybe this means the series is over.