PBT’s NBA Power Rankings: Warriors, Cavaliers, Spurs clear top three

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The top two remain the same as last week (and likely will be in and around that area much of the season), but the Spurs have become a solid third in these rankings now, despite some questions they still have to answer. Still a lot of volatility in these early rankings, just ask the Rockets.

source: 1. Warriors (11-0, last week No. 1). If you want to nitpick their perfect record, they have only played one team over .500 (the Clippers). Part of racking up great regular season record is catching teams at the right time, and the Warriors have done just that with Houston and Memphis. Stephen Curry holds the record for most threes made in a season at 286 — he’s on pace for 424 this season.

source: 2. Cavaliers (8-2, LW 2). The Cavaliers have had a lot of slow starts followed by come-from-behind wins, something that has frustrated LeBron James. What may be more frustrating with LeBron are the struggles with his jumper — it’s not just the 26.2 percent from three this season, he was 6-of-12 from the free throw line in the loss to the Bucks.

source: 3. Spurs (7-2, LW 5). While their record has been fantastic and they are beating teams by more than 10 points per 100 possessions, it’s more due to great bench play and Kawhi Leonard rather than the starting five. The starting five of Tony Parker, Danny Green, Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Tim Duncan are -10.7 points per 100 possessions, and they are struggling with both their shots and defense.

source: 4. Clippers (6-4, LW 6). That they split a couple games without Chris Paul and J.J. Redick on the floor is a bit of a testament to their improved depth, but mostly it’s a testament to how well Blake Griffin is playing. Big showdown Thursday night against Golden State, that will be must watch.

source: 5. Thunder (6-4 LW 11). Kevin Durant says his hamstring is much improved and it sounds like he could be back sooner rather than later. Russell Westbrook threw up a couple triple-doubles without him in the lineup (of course), but this team is still 18.6 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents when those two are on the court together this season.

source: 6. Heat (6-3, LW 10). Miami has the second best defense in the NBA this season — didn’t see that coming, and it makes them the second best team in the East so far. We’ll see if they can sustain that level of D, they tweaked their system and they are trapping far less and the bigs are hanging back on the pick-and-roll. Three winnable games this week with Minnesota, Sacramento, and Philly.

source: 7. Raptors (7-4, LW 8). If you enjoy free throws, watch a Raptors game — they get to the line more than any other team in the league (which is a good way to get points, even if it’s not always thrilling to watch). Tough West Coast road trip this week with the Warriors, Jazz, and Clippers scheduled.

source: 8. Hawks (8-4, LW 3). Rough week going 1-3, but this team is still getting more out of Kent Bazemore than we expected (hopefully the sprained ankle he suffered Sunday is not serious). Our thoughts are with Mike Budenhozler’s wife, good to see him back on the bench Sunday and hear things are improving.

source: 9. Bulls (6-3, LW 13). This week we likely see a change to the Bulls starting lineup, with Joakim Noah starting and Nikola Mirotic coming off the bench (if it happens, Hoiberg is going last season’s starters of Noah and Pau Gasol up front, a lightly used combo this seson). I think their best lineup is Noah and Mitotic starting and Pau Gasol coming off the bench, but who knows if and when we might see that.

source: 10. Pacers (6-4, LW 16). Paul George may not like analytics, but the analytics love him — and he’s been in beast mode of late, hitting 41 percent from three. The Pacers will be without Myles Turner for a while due to his broken thumb (non-shooting hand, at least).

source: 11. Celtics (5-4, LW 20). They have the fourth best defense in the NBA this season, and that was key with wins over the Hawks and Thunder last week. Their offense is pedestrian but balanced, and that’s been good enough. Brad Stevens is a stud.

source: 12. Mavericks (6-4, LW 18). This is a team that lost Tyson Chandler in the offseason and has still become better on defense — they are 14th in the league in defensive rating and 3.8 points per 100 better than last season. We knew they could score (especially when they go small) but the solid defense has been the surprise.

source: 13. Jazz (5-5, LW 7). They went 0-3 without Rudy Gobert; then he was back from injury Sunday and while the Jazz defense wasn’t all the way back (the Hawks had an offensive rating of 106.1) Utah got the win on the road. Their heavy road schedule to open the season continues this week.

source: 14. Pistons (5-5, LW 4). Losers of four straight, including an ugly loss to the Lakers Sunday. Their offense can be a lot of Andre Drummond postups, and Synergy Sports tweeted out Saturday night that Detroit is getting 0.65 points per Drummond postup possession — that is not good. They need to find other offense to balance this out, not just Reggie Jackson.

source: 15. Wizards (4-4, LW 15). Well, they’re playing small more, but their offense remains middle of the pack and their defense has fallen off to bottom 10. They had three straight losses by 15 or more points, which is concerning, but they did get a nice win against Orlando.

<source: 16. Suns (5-4, LW 17). Eric Bledsoe has this team running again, with the second fastest pace in the league (which suits their talent such as Brandon Knight and T.J. Warren). Soft schedule this week, they need to bank some wins.

source: 17. Bucks (5-5, LW 19). They picked up a surprising, quality win against Cleveland, but the rest of their week was not near as impressive. They are getting healthy, we’ll see if that means they start to find their groove from last season.

source: 18. Hornets (5-5, LW 23). If you are looking ahead on your team’s schedule and think “Charlotte, that’s an easy win” you will be in for a rude awakening. They have the seventh best offense in the NBA, they don’t turn the ball over, and Jeremy Lin has been good in the sixth man roll (11.5 points per game).

source: 19. Nuggets (5-5, LW 25). They are playing over their heads a little right now, and that may well get exposed with their front line so banged up. Wilson Chandler and Jusuf Nurkic are out, while Kenneth Faried and Joffrey Lauvergne are banged up and questionable to play at the start of the week.

source: 20. Knicks (5-6, LW 24). Five wins already this season, they didn’t have that until mid-December last season — and if Kristaps Porzingis had gotten a shot off a tenth of a second earlier in Charlotte New York would be above .500. It helps to have Arron Afflalo back, but he is still shaking off the rust.

source: 21. Grizzlies (5-6, LW 22). This team has been getting outscored by 8.4 points per 100 possessions, which should have them at a 3-8 record. Their offense is 28th in the NBA and Marc Gasol looks a step slower this season, and he’s not making the plays he did in years past.

source: 22. Timberwolves (4-6,LW 14). How much do the Timberwolves miss the injured Ricky Rubio? It’s more than just the four straight losses while he’s been out. Minny’s regular starters with Rubio are +18.3 per 100, with Zach LaVine in his place they are -20.8. The defense with that group is 41.1 per 100 worse when LaVine is in for Rubio. The LaVine at the point experiment needs to end, he’s a two.

source: 23. Magic (5-6, LW 21). If you’re looking for an early contender for most improved player, look at Evan Fournier in Orlando — he’s averaging 18.8 points per game and shooting 35.8 percent from three. His true shooting percentage is up to 56.3 percent, but a lot of the jump from last season to this is getting nearly 10 more minutes a game on the court.

source: 24. Kings (4-7, LW 26). They have won three in a row and started to hit their stride, not coincidentally DeMarcus Cousins came back for those games and is beasting. The Kings had 9 of their first 11 games at home, now they head out on a five-game road trip.

source: 25. Trail Blazers (4-7, LW 12). They have become kind of what we expected — Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum have carried the Blazers to the sixth best offense in the league, but they are 26th on defense (and Lillard/McCollum are at the heart of that, too).

source: 26. Rockets (4-6, LW 9). Losers of three straight and you can blame the defense — they are 29th in the league in defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions). They are getting outworked on the boards and they lack a glue guy, an effort guy (Trevor Ariza used to be that guy, and Patrick Beverley is out with a sprained ankle).

source: 27. Lakers (2-8, LW 27). While their defense isn’t good, it’s improved (now 21st in the league) and it showed Sunday against Detroit when they were able to get enough stops for a win. D’Angelo Russell has looked pretty good coming off the pick-and-roll in the half court, but he’s still looking for consistent offense. It’s going to take time (it would be nice to play him more late, though).

source: 28. Pelicans (1-9, LW 28). There rightfully is a lot of talk about the injuries (Norris Cole and Tyreke Evans are missed) and how the lack of shot creation has damaged the offense, but the bigger issue is the Pelicans have the worst defense in the NBA this season. GM Dell Demps secured Anthony Davis for years, but he has a lot of work to do to put a better team around him.

source: 29. Nets (1-9, LW 29). They almost picked up a win over Golden State over the weekend, but they didn’t execute down the stretch — and that’s why teams are 1-9. More Rondae Hollis-Jefferson please (they are much better with him on the court).

source: 30. 76ers (0-10, LW 30). When will the NBA’s only winless team pick up a victory? They host Dallas and Indiana this week (both teams playing pretty well) then head out on a six-game road trip. I expect somewhere on that road trip they catch a team on the right night, if not they host the Lakers on Dec. 1.

Damian Lillard misses clutch FTs, Trail Blazers blow key game against Clippers backups

Damian Lillard vs. Clippers
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The Clippers – maybe wanting to give the Lakers a tougher first-round matchup – showed their lack of interest in beating the Trail Blazers today by sitting Kawhi Leonard. Down five with two minutes left, the Clippers really waved the white flag by closing with a lineup of:

But that group ended the game on a 12-2 run to hand Portland a devastating 122-117 loss.

The Trail Blazers are now just half a game up for ninth in the Western Conference. This further opens the door for the Spurs, Pelicans, Suns and even Kings to make a play-in (and gives the Grizzlies more breathing room for advancing to that stage).

After McGruder hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 26 seconds left, Damian Lillard drew a pair of free throws with Portland down one. Lillard is arguably the NBA’s most clutch player, and he had made 89% of his free throws this season. But he missed both – to the particular delight of injured Clippers guard Patrick Beverley:

Beverley and Lillard have a longstanding personal rivalry. The Clippers also have Paul George.

After the game, Lillard – who hit a series-winning shot against Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and another series-winning shot over George, who was with the Thunder, last year – didn’t mince words.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Lillard:

Asking me about Patrick Beverley, who – I sent him before at the end of a game. Paul George just got sent home by me last year in the playoffs. So, they know. The reason they’re reacting like that is because of what they expect from me, which is a sign of respect, and it just shows what I’ve done at a high clip more times than not. So, I’m not offended by it. If anything, it should just tell you how much it hurt them to go through what I put them through in those situations previously.

I love Lillard’s ability to remain calm and in control. Kudos for him for finding a way to boast after missing a pair of free throws that effectively cost his team a big game. Really. Lillard’s emotional maturity is an asset.

Expect the Trail Blazers to follow his lead and not further unravel. They can and probably should still be favored to reach the play-in.

But their margin for error definitely just shrunk.

76ers star Ben Simmons leaving bubble for surgery

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Ben Simmons injured his knee, and the 76ers didn’t hide their concerns.

This is serious.

Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Obviously, the surgery itself is a setback. If Simmons becomes healthy enough to return before Philadelphia gets eliminated, he could be required to quarantine in his hotel room – which would limit rehab and training.

And of course it will be difficult for Philadelphia to advance deep into the playoffs without Simmons.

There are even graver concerns beyond this season. Will Simmons now be more susceptible to future injuries? This could derail a budding championship contender with Joel Embiid and Simmons.

Embiid already has long-term health concerns. It was always uncertain how long Philadelphia’s window would remain open despite Embiid and Simmons being so young.

Even next season could be perilous. How long will Simmons take to recover? Next season could be right around the corner (or not). If the 76ers’ outlook looks worse – especially amid the economic downturn caused by coronavirus – they could no longer follow through on their plan to pay the luxury tax. Slashing payroll could further reduce the roster’s effectiveness.

Already, expectations shrink this season without Simmons. Philadelphia appears increasingly likely to land the No. 6 seed and a tough first-round series against the Celtics (rather than a spot in the 4-5 series against the Heat or Pacers).

Will these difficult circumstances give 76ers coach Brett Brown more leeway to keep his job? Or do they just make it more likely the 76ers lose early in the playoffs and fire him?

He has plenty of options for proceeding without Simmons. Simmons was a multi-positional star who spent most of the season at point guard but had been playing power forward in the bubble.

Without Simmons, Al Horford moved back into the starting lineup, and Mike Scott – who had been out with a knee injury – joined the rotation. Glenn Robinson III could also get an expanded role once he’s healthy.

Many sans-Simmons lineups could give Philadelphia more spacing around Embiid, which makes the star center even more dangerous.

But this loss of talent can’t be offset and significantly lowers the 76ers’ ceiling this season and maybe reduces their odds of reaching their ceiling in future seasons.

NBA announces finalists for awards, including MVP and Rookie of the Year

Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo and Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson
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We made our award picks months ago.

Now, the NBA is finally getting around to the official versions.

The league announced finalists for Most Valuable Player, Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Most Improved Player, Sixth Man of the Year and Coach of the Year (based on regular-season, not seeding, games):

Most Valuable Player

Antetokounmpo is heavy favorite to repeat as MVP and should win the award. But LeBron certainly has his supporters. Really, I had a tougher time choosing between LeBron and Harden for second place than between Antetokounmpo and LeBron for first place.

Defensive Player of the Year

Antetokounmpo could and should join Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players to win MVP and DPOY in the same season. Gobert and Davis would be worthy runners up. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Davis – playing for the Los Angeles Lakers – wins this award.

Rookie of the Year

Morant will and should run away with this award. Williamson was awesome when on the floor, but that was too rare. A breakout player in his second professional season (but first playing in the NBA), Nunn could finish ahead of the better but less-available Williamson.

Most Improved Player

This was an incredibly deep field. Ingram is the most likely winner with his major strides just ahead of restricted free agency. My choice, Doncic improved enough to become a finalist despite a bias against second-year players, especially highly drafted ones. Though Adebayo didn’t make Rising Stars his first two seasons then became an All-Star his third season – an incredible jump – his candidacy is wrongly boosted by him being underrated previously. That Hornets guard Devonte' Graham‘s out-of-nowhere season didn’t land him in the top three is somewhat surprising. But again, it was a deep field. Hawks guard Trae Young didn’t get enough consideration, either.

Sixth Man of the Year

Harrell had the strongest overall season and has drawn plenty of acclaim for it. But Schroder led reserves in points per game, and scoring tends to have an outsized role in award voting. See Williams being a finalist (though it’s not as if there an absolutely clearly better choice).

Coach of the Year

  • Mike Budenholzer (Bucks)
  • Billy Donovan (Thunder)
  • Nick Nurse (Raptors)

Budenholzer and Nurse split the award from their peers. Here’s betting Nurse gets this official NBA recognition. He deserves it for keeping the Raptors humming without Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green and amid numerous injuries. Nurse’s defensive creativity is particularly impressive.

Report: Teams in playoff race bothered by Jazz resting starters vs. Spurs

Spurs forward Rudy Gay vs. Jazz
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The Jazz sat four starters – Mike Conley (right knee soreness), Donovan Mitchell (left peroneal strain), Royce O’Neale (right calf soreness) and Rudy Gobert (rest) – against the Spurs yesterday. Five if you count Bojan Bogdanovic, who underwent season-ending surgery before the bubble.

That cleared the way for San Antonio to get a 119-111 win and boost its chances in the Western Conference playoff race.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Were those teams chasing the Western Conference’s play-in tournament thrilled with the Utah Jazz’s decision to sit four starters with injuries and rest center Rudy Gobert in a loss to the San Antonio Spurs?

Among teams trying to catch the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth seed, they were somewhere between displeased and livid, sources said.

Winning seeding games doesn’t matter much to the Jazz, who are in the tightly packed 4-6 range in the Western Conference. There’s no home-court advantage in the 4-5 series. In fact, Utah might prefer to drop to sixth. That’d likely mean facing the Nuggets – rather than the Rockets or Thunder – in the first round and avoiding the Lakers in the second round. Though Denver could move up and leave the Clippers in the No. 3 seed, and the Clippers are no easy second-round opponent either, it’s at least a viable strategy for Utah.

The Jazz also play the Nuggets today in the second leg of a back-to-back. Whatever its ideal standings, Utah definitely prioritizes having its players healthy and ready for the playoffs.

It also can’t be lost: Jazz lead executive Dennis Lindsey came up in the Spurs organization. That connection surely fueled the strongest paranoia.

Utah isn’t alone in appearing to put its finger on the playoff-race scale.

The Clippers will sit Kawhi Leonard against the Trail Blazers today and play him against the Nets tomorrow.

Andrew Greif of the Los Angeles Times:

Maybe this is just about timing. Obviously, it’s normal sit Leonard in one leg of a back-to-back.

But the Trail Blazers look like the strongest team among those chasing the No. 8 seed. Think the Clippers might want to give the Lakers the toughest-possible first-round matchup? The possibility is impossible to ignore when considering which weekend game Leonard is playing.

These are all variations of a common problem: Too few NBA regular-season (or seeding) games matter.

To be fair, the situation differs in the bubble. Home-court advantage would solve some of these problems. The play-in offers a new wrinkle. The long layoff before seeding games increases injury risk.

But it also feels especially absurd to go to all the trouble of playing basketball amid the coronavirus pandemic – separating players, coaches and other staff from their loved ones for at least several weeks – just to a play a game a team prefers, or at least doesn’t mind, losing.