PBT Weekly NBA Power Rankings: Warriors, Cavaliers, Spurs then everyone else

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In the penultimate PBT Power Rankings of the NBA season there is not a lot of change at the top, although I was tempted to move the Spurs in front of the Cavaliers. Basically it’s Golden State, Cleveland, and San Antonio then the rest of the league. At the bottom, the Timberwolves take a turn.

 
source:  1. Warriors (63-14, Last Week No. 1). They had won a dozen in a row but the Spurs reminded everyone on Sunday the West playoffs are no foregone conclusion. Rather they will be a bloodbath. That said, the Warriors have home court throughout the playoffs and they are 35-2 at Oracle Arena.

 
source:  2. Cavaliers (50-27 LW 2). Cleveland’s offense has been fantastic and it’s defense improved since the All-Star break (and trades), but that defense had gone from terrible to a little above average. But they have shown flashes of better defense of late and they will need that against the Hawks in the conference Finals.

 
source:  3. Spurs (51-26, LW 3). Kawhi Leonard missed a lot of time this season but he is still going to draw Defensive Player of the Year votes. You saw Sunday why with his play against Stephen Curry on Sunday. Big home-and-home against Houston this week, with some wins they could get home court in the first round.

 
source:  4. Hawks (57-19, LW 4). Atlanta beating Brooklyn by 32 Saturday — even with Paul Millsap getting injured — is a preview of what the first round will look like in the East. Millsap is going to miss a couple games but is not in danger of missing playoff games.

 
source:  5. Clippers (52-26, LW 5). Jamal Crawford is set to return on Tuesday and his depth is needed for the shallow-benched Clippers. Los Angeles has a soft schedule the rest of the way, but there is a big game with Memphis this week — win and the three seed is well within reach.

 
source:  6. Rockets (53-24, LW 6). If Houston is going to hold on to the two seed in the West, they have to get at least a split against the red hot Spurs in a home-and-home this week. James Harden has been putting up MVP numbers and is doing it efficiently, pushing his team into a top seed. He’s got a good case.

 
source:  7. Trail Blazers (50-26. LW 8). As the winners of the Northwest Division they will be the four seed, but still likely will start the playoffs on the road because the five seed (Clippers, Spurs or Grizzlies) will have the better record. Portland’s offense is clicking but they will only go as far as their defense takes them.

 
source:  8. Grizzlies (52-25, LW 7). For Memphis the playoffs basically start this week — they are the three seed, just one game back of Houston for the two seed but also just half a game ahead of the Clippers and one up on the Spurs. They could finish anywhere from 2-6 in the West. Big games against the Pelicans and Clippers this week.

 
source:  9. Bulls (46-31, LW 9). Derrick Rose is expected to return this week, and the Bulls can try to make a positive out of how they stuck close to the Cavaliers Sunday without him or Kirk Hinrich. Yet they have not played the level of defense we expect from the Bulls enough this season to picture them as a serious threat for the conference finals.

 
source:  10. Mavericks (46-31, LW 10). The Rockets, Grizzlies, Clippers and Spurs are all holding out hope of getting the two seed — because all of them would love to face Dallas in the first round. The Mavs need to get their defense back on track before the playoffs and hope for a favorable offensive matchup.

 
source:  11. Pelicans (41-35, LW 12). Despite the Pelicans having the tougher schedule they have gotten within half a game of the Thunder as OKC stumbles down the stretch. And the Pelicans own the tie breaker. Ryan Anderson is back in the lineup which is huge for their offense and spacing. Still tough sledding ahead with Golden State, Houston and Memphis on the docket this week.

 
source:  12. Wizards (44-33, LW 14). They have won 4-of-5 and are within a game of four-seed Toronto and home court in the first round. Those wins hadn’t been that impressive until the upset of Memphis on Saturday night, but the Wizards are playing good defense again and that keeps them in just about every game.

 
source:  13. Thunder (42-35, LW 11). They have lost five of six and given the Pelicans hope (and New Orleans has the tie breaker). Russell Westbrook is racking up triple doubles (11) but he’s not efficient, the Thunder defense is bad and the losses pile up. Games this week are the surging Spurs, the Kings, then an interesting test at Indiana (with Paul George).

 
source:  14. Raptors (45-32, LW 15). Toronto’s sloppy defense continues to cost them in close games, as it did over the weekend. They need the wins, the Wizards are just one game back and could take home court away in the first round. Toronto is on the road this week but the games are winnable at Charlotte, Orlando, and Miami.

 
source:  15. Jazz (35-42, LW 16). Interesting discussion around the NBA now is what the much-improved Jazz should do this summer to build on their defense and second half surge. History suggests there will be patience, looking for growth out of the guys they already have, and maybe one or two trades but not a blockbuster. They just need the right guys.

 
<source:  16. Suns (39-38, LW 13). Can the Suns finish over .500? Not going to be that easy with this being four of their final five games: At Atlanta, at Dallas, at New Orleans, at San Antonio.

 
source:  17. Bucks (38-39, LW 17). They should be doing their homework on the looming I-94 first round showdown with Chicago. Just making the playoffs will be a positive experience for John Henson, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the rest of the young Bucks.

 
source:  18. Nets (35-41, LW 19). They have won 8-of-10 behind the return of Brook Lopez (he was just named Eastern Conference player of the week), yet they are not secure in the playoffs. The Nets are the seven seed, 1.5 games ahead of nine seeds Indiana/Miami, with a tough lineup of Portland, Atlanta, Washington and Milwaukee this week.

 
source:  19. Celtics (35-42, LW 20). This could be the make or break week for Boston’s playoff dreams. The Celtics are the eight seed, one game up on the Pacers/Heat, but Boston has a home-and-home against Cleveland this week.

 
source:  20. Pacers (34-43, LW 21). Paul George looked good but rusty in his return Sunday (as to be expected), but his presence brought a new energy to a Pacers team that throttled the Heat. Indy is just one game out of the playoffs with winnable road games against the Knick and Pistons this week, followed by a tough one against Oklahoma City. This is going to go down to the wire.

 
source:  21. Heat (34-43, LW 18). They were on the wrong side of the Paul George return Sunday, but their problems are bigger than that having lost four in a row. They are a game out of the playoffs and need wins at home this week against Chicago and Detroit or Dwyane Wade could miss the playoffs for only the second time in his career.

 
source:  22. Pistons (30-47, LW 23). They may just be playing out the string but there are reasons for hope in Detroit — Reggie Jackson is putting up big lines, Andre Drummond remains a beast inside, and the Pistons have turned the Palace into a tough place to play again. All things to build on.

 
source:  23. Hornets (33-43, LW 25). Kemba Walker came to the defense of coach Steve Clifford this week, saying it’s not his fault the Hornets regressed this season. While everyone can take some blame, more goes on the guys in the front office who pushed for the Lance Stephenson trade than on Clifford, who can still flat out coach.

 
source:  24. Magic (24-53, LW 27). The Magic are in an interesting place, with some quality young players that should be part of the future — Nikola Vucevic, Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris, Elfrid Payton — but they lack a true No. 1, a cornerstone/foundational player. That’s always the hardest piece to get. Oh, and they need a new coach with a system that fits all these guys.

 
source:  25. Nuggets (28-49, LW 22). Denver’s players are clearly mailing in the rest of season, which is a bad sign for interim coach Melvin Hunt (but I think this is more on the makeup of the players mentally than the coach).

 
source:  26. Kings (26-50, LW 24). DeMarcus Cousins put up back-to-back 20-20 games last week and looks very comfortable in the George Karl offense. But it’s what Karl and the Kings front office do this summer that is really going to determine the future in Sacramento, this roster needs work.

 
source:  27. 76ers (18-60, LW 26). I’m excited to see Joel Embiid in a Sixers uniform playing at Summer League in Las Vegas, he could be the foundational piece that helps transform these Sixers (who certainly have looked better since the All-Star Break).

 
source:  28. Lakers (20-55, LW 28). Here’s the only number that matters in Los Angeles — 82.8. That is the percentage chance the Lakers hold on to their draft pick this year. They have the fourth worst record in the NBA, if two teams jump them in the lottery and the Lakers fall to the six pick then the Sixers get it (remnants of the Steve Nash trade). But if they keep it and draft wisely, someone to pair with Julius Randell and Jordan Clarkson, then the foundation of the future starts to get laid.

 
source:  29. Knicks (15-62, LW 30). Phil Jackson talked about defense to season ticket holders this week, and in doing so it sounded like he was leaning toward Karl-Anthony Towns over Jahlil Okafor if the Knicks land the top pick. That may be the better long-term pick but it’s not going to help Carmelo Anthony win right now, and it may be a tough sell.

source:  30. Timberwolves (16-60, LW 29). Watch them to see future Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins (he’s putting up numbers now), but no Nikola Pekovic or Ricky Rubio. Mostly sadly, maybe no more Kevin Garnett again.

LeBron James rips AAU workload: ‘AAU coaches couldn’t give a damn about a kid’

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Last week, during the pointless debate about Kawhi Leonard missing a game for load management, the most salient point came from former Suns coach Earl Watson.

He echoed a must-read story (from Baxter Holmes at ESPN) that reverberated around the NBA this summer (but for many fans got lost in the shuffle of player movement): How NBA team medical staffs — as well as just doctors working on young athletes — were noticing the extreme wear and tear on the body of AAU basketball players. The volume of games, often without enough training and conditioning to properly strengthen their young bodies or let them recover, sets young players up for injuries later in their playing career. NBA teams and doctors, with their load management techniques, are trying to make up for damage that started long before.

LeBron James, with two sons playing AAU ball right now, is in full agreement.

LeBron ripped the volume of games played in the youth basketball culture, speaking to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

“These kids are going into the league already banged up, and I think parents and coaches need to know [that] … well, AAU coaches don’t give a f***,” James told Yahoo Sports. “AAU coaches couldn’t give a damn about a kid and what his body is going through…

“I think [AAU] has something to do with it, for sure,” James told Yahoo Sports. “It was a few tournaments where my kids — Bronny and Bryce — had five games in one day and that’s just f- – -ing out of control. That’s just too much… So, I’m very conscious for my own son because that’s all I can control, and if my son says he’s sore or he’s tired, he’s not playing.

“Because a lot of these tournaments don’t have the best interest of these kids, man. I see it. It’s like one time, they had to play a quarterfinal game, a semifinal game and a championship game starting at 9 a.m., and the championship game was at 12:30 p.m. Three games. I was like, ‘Oh, hell no.’ And my kids were dead tired. My kids were dead tired. This isn’t right. This is an issue.”

It is an issue. A big issue. The NBA can talk about reducing the number of games — they are, and they should, the season is too long, but cutting the number of games becomes a complex financial issue — but it goes beyond just the NBA level.

There needs to be fundamental changes in youth basketball in the NBA, down to the AAU level. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has talked about this.

“So, where historically it’s been an area, particularly AAU basketball, that the league has stayed out of, I think these most recent revelations (from the NCAA scandal) are just a reminder that we’re part of this larger basketball community. I think ultimately, whether we like it or not, need to be more directly involved with elite youth basketball,” Silver said a couple of years ago. Since then, the league has taken steps in that direction.

However, like shortening the NBA season, there are a lot of competing interests in a complicated situation. A lot of people are making money the way things are now and don’t want them to change.

For the health of players, it needs to.

 

Bucks All-Star Khris Middleton to miss 3-4 weeks with thigh contusion

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Khris Middleton, coming off a summer with Team USA, has quietly continued his All-Star level play this season — an efficient 18.5 points per game, shooting 39.3 percent from three but also finishing well at the rim, and the Bucks offense is 3.3 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court.

However, he’s not going to be on the court for a few weeks due to a deep thigh bruise, a story broken by Shams Charania of The Athletic.

In the third quarter of the Bucks win over the Thunder Sunday, Middleton suffered the thigh bruise, which sent him to the locker room. While he returned to the bench, he did not return to the game. Afterward, in the locker room, Middleton didn’t seem to think it was that serious.

It turned out to be a little more than that, it has to be a deep bruise to have him out for up to a month.

Kyle Korver would be next in line to get those minutes, but he sat out Sunday with a “head contusion.” Behind him look for smaller lineups with Pat Connaughton, Donte DiVincenzo, Sterling Brown, and Wesley Matthews to get more minutes, plus maybe a little Thanasis Antetokounmpo.

After 0-6 start, Raptors coach Nick Nurse celebrates successful challenge like he won a championship (video)

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After the Raptors won the 2019 NBA title, Toronto coach Nick Nurse hugged Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry and Masai Ujiri.

Some of the hug recipients changed, but Nurse’s celebration didn’t look that different last night.

Nurse missed his first six coach’s challenges then finally got one right during the Raptors’ win over the Lakers. He responded by hugging everyone – including a Los Angeles fan – around him.

This was a long time coming. Even after a couple early failed challenges, Nurse sounded exasperated.

Michael Grange of Sportsnet:

Maybe Clippers coach Doc Rivers, a noted challenge critic, will eventually experience this euphoria.

Report: Gordon Hayward to have surgery on left hand

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How good would Gordon Hayward be if he could just stay healthy?

Hopefully we will find out someday, but probably not for the next couple of months after his agent told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that Hayward will have surgery on his non-shooting hand to repair a broken bone.

There will be no official timeline for recovery until after the surgery, but after going under the knife Hayward is likely out at least six weeks. Stephen Curry is out three months after surgery on his non-shooting hand (that is a different injury, but it shows how long the timeline can be).

The play where the injury happened was innocuous.

Even so, it has left Boston with some big questions to answer through New Year’s Eve, or whenever Hayward returns. Hayward was having a bounce-back year, averaging 18.9 points per game, shooting 43.3 percent from three, pulling down 7.1 rebounds and dishing out 4.1 assists per game. He’s been a critical playmaker for the Celtics.

For Boston, this likely means a lot more Marcus Smart, Semi Ojeleye, and maybe Javonte Green.