PBT’s NBA Power Rankings: Cream rising to top as playoffs near

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There are only a couple weeks left in the regular season (and only a few more power rankings to come, before the playoffs make them moot) and you can see the cream rising to the top — Warriors, Cavaliers, Spurs and so on. The Clippers are hot, but do you really buy into them as a contender?

 
source:  1. Warriors (60-13, Last Week No. 1). Looking for a team hitting their stride as the playoffs approach? The Warriors have won nine in a row and 14-of-15, getting them to 60 wins and locking down the top seed in the West. They are five games up on the Hawks for best record overall. Tough slate of games this week, expect Steve Kerr to rest some key players.

 
source:  2. Cavaliers (48-27 LW 2). It is looking more and more like they are going to land the two seed and face Miami in the first round — not that the Heat can beat the Cavaliers, but that’s going to draw a lot of attention and be a more challenging first round than the Cavs would prefer. The Cavs play the Heat Thursday in what will be a little preview.

 
source:  3. Spurs (47-26, LW 3). They have won three in a row and 7-of-10 — they finally got healthy, put their regular starting five out there and now look like title contenders again. They keys have bee Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter, and their returns to form gets the bench rotation back in order.

 
source:  4. Hawks (55-18, LW 4). Mike Budenholzer learned his craft next to Gregg Popovich — expect the Hawks to rest a lot of key players the next two weeks with the top spot secured (like they rested all five starters over the weekend). The good news for the ATL is whoever they get in the first round it’s basically a bye and they can use that to get their groove back.

 
source:  5. Clippers (49-25, LW 7). They have won seven in a row and they are doing it with offense — J.J. Redick is playing the best ball of his NBA career. The Clips are just 1.5 games back of the two seed and 1.5 games up on the six seed, no team’s playoff landing spot is harder to predict.

 
source:  6. Rockets (50-23, LW 6). They have won 7-of-8 and, with Dwight Howard back in the rotation, they seem a lock to be a top three seed (they are No. 2 right now). That said the loss of Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas will hurt the team’s depth as they face the Thunder and Mavericks later in the week.

 
source:  7. Grizzlies (50-24, LW 5). They have lost three straight, albeit to quality teams (Warriors, Cavaliers, Spurs). Now the schedule softens up for them as they try to hold on to the two (or at least three) seed in the West (although look for them to jockey for position to avoid the Spurs, who give them trouble).

 
source:  8. Trail Blazers (47-25. LW 9). The Blazers have won three in a row and have broken out of their slump, but those wins came against teams out of he playoffs and with Damian Lillard still looking to regain his shooting form. Key game Wednesday against the Clippers, a potential first-round matchup (and Portland will not have home court in that matchup without a win).

 
source:  9. Bulls (45-29, LW 11). Jimmy Butler is back, Nikola Mirotic is on fire, and the Bulls have won five of six — but have done it beating up on the cream puffs out East. Soon the Bulls will get Derrick Rose back and they seem clearly the third best team in the East heading into the playoffs. How far can that really take them?

 
source:  10. Mavericks (45-29, LW 10). They have lost four of five and the issue is far more than Monta Ellis not getting calls. The Mavs have a tough stretch coming up at Oklahoma City, then hosting Houston and Golden State. If they lose to the Thunder Wednesday, Dallas needs to be concerned about holding on to the seven seed.

 
source:  11. Thunder (42-32, LW 8). It’s official, no Kevin Durant for the playoffs, and Serge Ibaka will be on the bubble. The win over Phoenix Sunday all but secures them a first round playoff spot, but if they are the eight seed it’s nearly impossible to see them getting past Golden State. Beat Dallas on Wednesday and the seven seed is not out of the question. Is just getting this banged up Thunder team to the postseason enough to get Russell Westbrook the MVP?

 
source:  12. Pelicans (39-34, LW 13). The only way they make the playoffs is with a lot of help from OKC. The Thunder close out the season against facing a lot of the playoff teams in the West and it’s going to be hard to rack up wins and stay close at this point.

 
<source:  13. Suns (38-36, LW 15). That loss to Oklahoma City on Sunday was the stake through the heart to their playoff hopes. Well, that and the losses in the two games before Sunday as well. They seemed destined for a second strong season as the nine (maybe 10) seed in the West.

 
source:  14. Wizards (41-33, LW 12). Lots of people look at the Wizards stumbling to the playoffs, then the job Randy Whittman has done, and think the Wizards need a new coach. However, he has a guaranteed contract for next season and owner Ted Leonsis is not likely to throw that kind of money away. I’ve been told to expect Whittman back as the Wizards coach next season.

 
source:  15. Raptors (43-30, LW 16). For the second year in a row the Raptors have clinched the Atlantic Division crown, which is something to celebrate. They have a soft schedule the rest of the way in (after Houston on Monday) so they should be able to hold on to home court against Washington in the first round.

 
source:  16. Jazz (32-41, LW 14). They had lost four in a row and their mojo until Enes Kanter decided to go WWE smack talk and wake up the Jazz again. One thing that has seemed evident during this stretch is the Jazz need to draft or go after more shooters in free agency. Or both.

 
source:  17. Bucks (36-37, LW 22). Last weeks back-to-back wins over the Heat and Pacers all but assured Milwaukee will make the playoffs out East as the six seed. However, tough stretch this week with the Hawks, Bulls, and Celtics, fall in all those games and they slide down the standings.

 
source:  18. Heat (34-39, LW 18). In the volatile bottom of the East Miami is back up to the seven seed, all on the back of Dwyane Wade (who dropped 40 on Sunday). Tough games early in the week with the Spurs and Cavs, really key game late in the week vs. Indiana.

 
source:  19. Nets (32-40, LW 19). They hold the eight seed in the East now thanks to Brook Lopez carrying their offense averaging 28.2 point per game his last five (and in spite of a terrible defense). Like everyone at bottom of East, this is a flawed team likely to have a couple more bad losses.

 
source:  20. Celtics (32-41, LW 17). They have played great defense their last 10 games, but an anemic offense leads to some unexpected losses. They can make or break themselves this week facing the Hornets, Pacers, Bucks and Raptors. But I expect we get more up and down results.

 
source:  21. Pacers (32-41, LW 21). Sunday’s win over slumping Dallas was key for them heading into a week that will likely make or break their playoff dreams: at Brooklyn, at Boston, Charlotte, and Miami. Whatever happens, should they really bring Paul George back for any games this season? Hard to see why.

 
source:  22. Nuggets (28-46, LW 23). After a fast start the Nuggets have fallen back to 8-7 under Melvin Hunt as interim coach. That says less about him and more about how some minor injuries have exposed the limitations of this roster. He still deserves serious consideration for the big chair next season.

 
source:  23. Pistons (28-44, LW 24). The Pistons have played fairly well without the injured Greg Monroe (which could be a good sign for next season). Reggie Williams and Andre Drummond are starting to develop a real nice pick-and-roll chemistry.

 
source:  24. Kings (26-46, LW 25). The best thing about the Kings right now is the Sauce Castillo nickname. Check out Monday’s PBT Extra where I discuss if Willie Cauley-Stein is a good fit next to DeMarcus Cousins (short answer, not really).

 
source:  25. Hornets (31-41, LW 20). The Hornets beat the Hawks… only because Atlanta rested all five starters. If they want to get back in the mix for the eight seed in the East they need a big week of wins against Boston, Detroit, Indiana and Philadephia.

 
source:  26. 76ers (18-56, LW 26). They lost to the Cavaliers Sunday but the way their defense kept them in the game, the way they scrapped, is a sign of what this team could develop into down the line. There is reason for optimism in Philly.

 
source:  27. Magic (22-52, LW 27). They changed coaches mid-season (and will get a new one next summer) but rumor is GM Rob Hennigan is going to get a contract extension. That shows you ownership has bought into this rebuilding plan and thinks the problems are in execution down the line. Interesting.

 
source:  28. Lakers (19-53, LW 30). I wish the Lakers and Byron Scott would stop selling fans on the quick fix that is not coming. Rebuilding like they are doing takes years to do right, even if you nail your picks and get a quality free agent or two. Lakers fans will buy into a building process if you treat them intelligently, not like little children.

source:  29. Timberwolves (16-56, LW 28). When Ricky Rubio has been out, I have fully enjoyed the entertainment value of Zach LaVine running the Timberwolves offense. But that is not a long-term answer, they need another point guard in the mix.

 
source:  30. Knicks (14-60, LW 29). They have 60 losses on the season, a franchise record. This team needs a lot more than a “big butt to hold space.” Look at it this way, who leads the Knicks in total shot attempts this season? Carmelo Anthony, despite having played in just 40 games (‘Melo has 167 more than Tim Hardaway Jr.).

Royce O’Neal on Durant, Irving trade rumors: ‘That was the summer’

Philadelphia 76ers v Brooklyn Nets
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The Brooklyn Nets are trying to move on from a turbulent, awkward summer where their two best players tried to get tradedone throwing down a “me or the coach and GM” ultimatum — and they are tired of talking about it.

It sounds like they have moved on from the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving drama in the locker room, at least based on what Royce O’Neal told Michael Scotto of Hoopshype.

“That was the summer. Nobody cares about it now. We’re all here, and we’re going to make it work. We have a lot of work to do to get to where we want to go. That’s what we’re focusing on.”

No doubt that is the mantra in the locker room, and it’s easy to do during the carefree, optimistic days of training camp or even the first preseason games. The players believe they have moved on.

The real question about these Nets is what happens when adversity hits? And it will hit, it does every team. How will Ben Simmons handle the stress? Irving? Can coach Steve Nash keep the Nets all on task, or will the finger-pointing start, and will the locker room get split?

Those questions are why everyone is finding it hard to predict these Nets — they could win a ring, they could have Durant demanding a trade again by Christmas. Most likely they land in the middle somewhere, but every possibility is on the table.

Speaking of teams being broken up, Scotto also asked about O’Neal’s former team, the Utah Jazz, and Danny Ainge’s decision to trade Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell this summer. Ainge said “this team didn’t believe in each other,” but that’s not how O’Neal saw it. He was surprised the team was blown up.

“I was definitely shocked. I had been there for five years. The team we had for a couple of years fell short. I thought we were going to build on it. Things happened, so keep it moving.”

The question is will the Nets keep moving when things get hard?

Collin Sexton expects to start for Jazz once he gets back to full speed

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After the blockbuster trade that was centered around Donovan Mitchell sent Collin Sexton to Utah, the immediate expectation was that he would start for the Jazz and have the ultimate green light.

However, that wasn’t the case in their first preseason matchup with Toronto on Sunday. In 18 minutes off the bench, Sexton finished with 11 points on 4-for-9 shooting (3-for-4 on 3-pointers) to go along with one rebound, two assists, two steals, and two turnovers.

It came as a bit of a surprise to most viewers that Sexton didn’t get the starting nod, but he told Sarah Todd of Deseret News that he expected to come off the bench for this game. He acknowledged that it was because he hasn’t played much since his meniscus surgery, but he expects to start once he gets back to full speed.

Utah hit the reset button by dealing away four of their five starters from last season. They’ve ushered in a new era that is centered around Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, Jarred Vanderbilt, and a ton of first round picks. Sexton has talked about wanting to improve on his assists numbers this season, which we should definitely see him get the opportunity to do.

The Jazz have cemented their place in the center of the Victor Wembanyama race, so they’ll have no problem letting their young guys learn through trial and error. Sexton averaged 4.4 assists per game for Cleveland just two years ago. However, he won’t be playing alongside another young guard like Darius Garland, so Sexton should have the ball in his hands more than he ever has in the NBA.

Ben Simmons looks fine in return, is ‘grateful just to be able to step on that floor’

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Ben Simmons played in an actual, live basketball game on Monday night.

It’s preseason, sure, but the Nets rolled out their likely starting five — Simmons, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Joe Harris, and Nic Claxton — and had Simmons initiating a lot of the offense early.

The results were not bad. Fine. Good in flashes. Simmons ran the floor well and finished with six points on 3-of-6 shooting, five assists and four rebounds. He missed both free throws he took and all three of his makes were at the rim, his three missed shots were all in the paint and included an ugly skyhook-like thing and a turnaround that missed. There was clear rust.

The Nets got him a lot of touches, having him initiate the offense early. Whether that is something that carries over into the season remains to be seen, the offense moved better with the crisp passing and decisions of Kyrie Irving.

Simmons sounded comfortable after the game, quotes via Nick Friedell of ESPN.

“I’m grateful just to be able to step on that floor,” Simmons said. “Step on an NBA floor again. I had a lot of fun out there.”

“That’s the one thing, I thought I was going to be nervous,” Simmons said. “But I wasn’t nervous. I was excited.”

Simmons pushed for a trade off these 76ers a year ago, then sat out all last season due to mental health concerns. Having him back on the court for 19 minutes over a couple of shifts was enough for the Nets.

The 76ers sat Joel Embiid and James Harden for the night, but Tyrese Maxey was the best player on the floor with 20 points in 14 minutes and showing a confident 3-point stroke.

Furkan Korkmaz, another player coming off an injury, added 15 His play will add depth to the Sixers roster.

Claxton ran the floor hard and finished with 12 points on 6-of-6 shooting (all at the rim), while Durant led the way with 13 points.

Annual GM survey predicts Bucks vs. Warriors Finals, Doncic MVP

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The NBA’s annual GM survey is more of a snapshot of the conventional wisdom around the league than a good predictive tool — last season the GMs overwhelmingly picked the Brooklyn Nets to beat the Lakers in the NBA Finals and Kevin Durant as MVP. Didn’t exactly work out that way.

Still, it’s an interesting view into where things stand — and where it stands is a Bucks vs. Warriors NBA Finals. When asked who would win the NBA title, 43% predicted the Bucks, 25% the Warriors, 21% the Clippers and 11% the Celtics (a number that unquestionably fell since the news of Ime Udoka’s suspension came out).

Here’s how the GMs see the top six in each conference, courtesy of Jon Schuhmann and NBA.com who did the survey:

EAST
1. Bucks
2. Celtics
3. 76ers
4. Nets
5. Heat
6. Cavaliers

WEST
1. Clippers
2. Warriors
3. Suns
4. Nuggets
5. Grizzlies
6-T: Mavericks and Timberwolves

Here are some other highlights from the survey:

• Luka Doncic is the betting favorite to win MVP and the choice of the GMs, with 48% of them picking the Dallas star to win the award. Second was Giannis Antetokounmpo (34%) followed by Joel Embiid (14%).

• But ask GMs if they were starting a franchise today and could sign anyone, and they take Antetokounmpo (55%) over Doncic (45%). Those are the only two names on the list.

• Asked the player most likely to have a breakout season and the Cavaliers Evan Mobley led the way with 21% of the vote, followed by Cade Cunningham and Anthony Edwards tied for second (17%).

• The most athletic player in the league? The GMs voted for Ja Morant (38%) over Antetokounmpo (31%) and Anthony Edwards (24%).

• When asked which team had the best offseason, 41% of the GMs picked the Cavaliers, with Donovan Mitchell being named the player changing teams who would have the biggest impact this season.

• The most underrated offseason pickup: Malcolm Brogdon to the Celtics, according to the GMs (28%).

• Most surprising move of the offseason for the GMs was Rudy Gobert to Cleveland (47% of the vote), but Mitchell to the Cavaliers was a close second (43%).

Paolo Banchero is the runaway pick for Rookie of the Year (79%).

• Antetokounmpo was voted the best defensive player in the NBA (45%), with Draymond Green a distant second (24%).

• Gobert, however, was the runaway winner of the best interior defender (83%).

• Best coach in the NBA? Erik Spoelstra led the way with 52% of the vote, followed by Steve Kerr at 22%. The Clippers’ Tyronne Lue, however, won the vote for best in-game adjustments by a coach.

• The Toronto Raptors were voted the team with the best home court advantage (21%), with Boston and Denver tied for second (17%).