PBT’s NBA Power rankings: Cavaliers slide to five, Pacers up to three

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For the first time this season, the Cavaliers have slipped out of the Top 3 after dropping three straight (the last one without LeBron James to a good Miami team). Also for the first time this season, the Sixers are out of the cellar.

source: 1. Warriors (22-0, last week No. 1). If you’re looking for a weakness, it’s a relative term for the Warriors. However, their defense is inconsistent (see the 38-point quarter the Nets had Sunday). That said, the defense is still top five overall. Fun showdown against the Pacers Tuesday night.

source: 2. Spurs (17-4, LW 2). They have the best defense in the NBA by a healthy margin, that is getting them wins, but the offense is Top 10, too (despite Gregg Popovich saying it wouldn’t be good until March). Kawhi Leonard has become hard to deal with on the offense end and had a game last week with seven threes.

source: 3. Pacers (12-7, LW 5). Third best point differential in the NBA their past 10 games, but their defense slipped a little the last couple games (on the road). Best game of the week by far is Golden State visiting the Fieldhouse in Indiana on Tuesday.

source: 4. Heat (12-6, LW 6). Wins over the Thunder and Cavaliers (without LeBron) last week move them up, and again it’s all based on their defense which is second best in the NBA. They are getting enough offense thanks to Dwyane Wade having moments and Goran Dragic playing a little better, I still expect the offense will come around.

source: 5. Cavaliers (13-7, LW 3). They have lost three straight, and the Wizards beat them going super small, which is a concern. David Blatt is trying to spark the backcourt by starting Matthew Delavedova and bringing Mo Williams off the bench. What will really spark the backcourt is the return of Kyrie Irving, who was cleared to practice last week and is likely ready to go in the next few weeks.

source: 6. Thunder (12-8 LW 4). Put to the test last week, the Thunder lost on the road at Miami and Atlanta (and they had to hang on against Sacramento). When Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are on the floor together they cover a lot of mistakes, but there is a serious drop off as OKC gets into the bench.

source: 7. Bulls (11-6, LW 9). Mike Dunleavy’s setback is not good, they could certainly use his floor spacing and shooting (the Bulls need more threes), although Tony Snell and Doug McDermott has played better than expected for him. Despite all the questions, the Bulls are the three seed in the East, and they can get better.

source: 8. Hawks (13-9, LW 10). Paul Millsap has been phenomenal this season — 18.2 points and 9.5 boards a game, efficient true shooting percentage of 57.2%, and a PER of 23.4 (the kind of number usually seen with lock All-Stars and a guy mentioned but not really in the MVP conversation). He’s stepped it up this season.

source: 9. Hornets (11-8, LW 11). In their last 10 games, the Hornets have outscored their opponents by 5.7 points per 100 possessions, fourth best in the NBA for that stretch. They have gotten solid bench play out of Jeremy Lamb and Jeremy Lin, this team is solid and legit. Good tests this week with the Pistons, Heat, Grizzlies and Celtics.

source: 10. Grizzlies (12-9, LW 13). Matt Barnes is playing a little better off the bench, but I don’t love the starting wings of Tony Allen and Jeff Green. That said, Green had the game-winning dunk and Marc Gasol is having big games that get them wins.

source: 11. Raptors (12-9, LW 7). If you’re talking about the second tier of early MVP candidates (Curry has his own tier right now) and you’re not mentioning Kyle Lowry, you’re doing it wrong. He showed it last week when the Raptors beat the Hawks and gave Golden State all they could handle. Faster starts so they’re not playing from behind so much would help.

source: 12. Celtics (11-9, LW 12). With Avery Bradley playing more, they are holding their own without Marcus Smart — effort and defense is going to get them through. David Lee seems to be fading from the rotation, he’s not a great fit for their future.

source: 13. Clippers (11-9, LW 15). J.J. Redick could be back
Monday night, but it may be a few more games before Chris Paul returns. Going to be a rough rest of the month for the Clippers, who are heavy with road games (12 road, two home games the rest of the month). We will find out if this team can start to come together as a lot of us expected.

source: 14. Magic (11-9, LW 16). Scott Skiles has they playing Top 10 defense, but the other end of the floor is inconsistent. The combination of Channing Frye backed up by Andrew Nicholson at the four is becoming a strength of this squad.

source: 15. Mavericks (12-9, LW 8). This feels a bit low for them, but the parity out in the East of teams over .500 makes slotting Dallas in challenging. Wes Matthews drained 10 threes in a game Sunday, his shot is back, but understand he’s not near as explosive as they had been.

source: 16. Pistons (12-9, LW 19). They keep on winning despite one of the weakest benches in the NBA right now. They are destined for the playoffs for the first time in years. This team is not turning the ball over, but SVG has to be looking at the market trying to find shooters.

source: 17. Jazz (9-9, LW 14). Being without Rudy Gobert for a while (no timetable, but sprained MCL) will be a challenge, they started 0-3 but then surprised everyone with a win over Indiana. Derrick Favors is playing at an All-Star level this season. Home-and-home with the Thunder this week, that will be a challenge.

source: 18. Knicks (10-11, LW 20). That loss to Milwaukee over he weekend was a reminder of just how far this team needs to to still, despite all the Kristaps Porzingis hype. As a team the Knicks are struggling from three of late and that has hurt their already fragile offense.

source: 19. Rockets (10-11, LW 23). Expect this team to climb the rankings and standings the next couple weeks. Their next six games are against are against teams under .500, giving the Rockets the chance to get on a roll — if they take things seriously and show up focused every night. Good news for them getting Donatas Motiejunas back in the lineup.

source: 20. Trail Blazers (9-12, LW 22). Great stat via John Schulman at NBA.com — the Blazers have played just 13 minutes total this season without at least one of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum on the floor. When you have just to shot creators, that is exactly what you should do, stagger the minutes. Well done, Terry Stotts.

source: 21. Wizards (8-10, LW 21). There is no more bipolar team in the NBA than in the one in nation’s capital. They beat the Cavaliers last Tuesday with an aggressive John Wall and everyone thought “maybe they have turned the corner.” Then the next night they lost to the Lakers. Don’t expect that to mean Randy Wittman is in trouble — no way owner Ted Leonis pays for two coaches at once for more than one season.

source: 22. Timberwolves (8-11,LW 18). Losers of three in a row, but this is a team that is hanging around games, the young core just doesn’t know how to finish games yet. That will come. It’s only a quarter of the way through the season, but if the vote was today Karl-Anthony Towns would be the ROY.

<source: 23. Suns (8-13, LW 17). Losers of four in a row, they were within five points in the final five minutes in all of them. This team struggles to execute on the both ends. This team is the reigning champ of painful losses. The loss on the Jeff Green alley-oop Sunday was especially hard. We will see how Markieff Morris trade rumors impact the team, but know that teams are calling the Suns to see how attached they are to the forward.

source: 24. Bucks (8-13, LW 24). If you watched the Bucks beat the Knicks on Saturday, you’d say “that looks like the Bucks’ defense from last season.” Been that way for a little more than a week now. The real test of that defense is coming up this week: Trail Blazers, Clippers, Raptors, and Warriors.

source: 25. Pelicans (5-15, LW 26). Tyreke Evans is back and starting, and they got a dramatic overtime win against the Cavaliers Friday (despite a monster LeBron-led comeback by the Cavs, Jrue Holiday was nails sending the game to OT). Heavy road stretch coming up the rest of the month and the Pelicans have played poorly this season outside the big easy.

source: 26. Kings (7-15, LW 25). Willie Cauley-Stein is out 4-6 weeks, so the Kings are going small and starting Rudy Gay again. The Kings’ starting five with Gay is -1.8 points per 100 possessions, which isn’t good but not terrible either. However, Gay isolations to end games — as Sacramento tried and failed against the Thunder — are not a good idea.

source: 27. Nuggets (8-13, LW 27). This team continues to get unexpected wins (against Toronto last week, for one) and play over it’s head, they have the point differential of a 6-15 team according to basketball-reference.com. Credit new coach Mike Malone for getting this team to play hard every night, that’s getting them some victories they might not otherwise pick up. Don’t worry about Emmanuel Mudiay’s struggles, he’s been put in a tough spot.

source: 28. Nets (5-15, LW 28). They had won four straight at home until the Warriors showed up Sunday, which is good because they have five games left in this homestead. After that dreaded 0-7 start the Nets are 5-8, which isn’t great but not terrible. Shane Larkin is showing some potential.

source: 29. 76ers (1-20, LW 30). Only one win (although they came close to another against Denver) but the head-to-head win against the Lakers moves them out of the cellar for at least a week. The Jahlil Okafor suspension is over — hopefully so are the days of him putting himself in troubling situations — and maybe they can pick up a couple more.

source: 30. Lakers (2-15, LW 29). The Lakers need to get Jordan Clarkson more touches early in games. He’s second on the team in scoring (15.8 per game) and is shooting 43.9 percent from thee (top 15 in the league). Of course, those shots go to the Kobe Bryant farewell tour fund, but if you’re trying to develop players you need to give them a lot of touches.

Report: Utah “frontrunner” to land Mike Conley Jr. if Memphis trades him this week

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Utah feels like it is close — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. They look at the West next season, with a depleted Warriors team, and see an opening.

Yet when Utah fell to Houston 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs this year, it was reminded of what is keeping the team from being truly elite, and another shot creator and shooter is at the top of that list.

Enter Mike Conley Jr. He averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three, and plays strong defense. Conley would be an upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the spot.

The almost All-Star point guard out of Memphis is available via trade. He’s the kind of veteran floor general, shooter, and shot creator Utah could use. The Jazz and Grizzlies talked but couldn’t come to an agreement at the trade deadline, but the sides are talking again and conversations are “intensifying” in the run-up to the NBA Draft Thursday, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Grizzlies are intensifying talks to potentially move franchise cornerstone Mike Conley Jr., league sources told The Athletic. Memphis has been in conversations with the Jazz and Utah is a frontrunner to acquire Conley should the Grizzlies trade the point guard during draft week, league sources said.

What would be in a trade package? Certainly the No. 23 pick in this draft, plus some young players the Grizzlies like (maybe Grayson Allen, Royce O’Neal, and even someone like Jae Crowder. Reports say Derick Favors is not part of the discussion.

While anything can happen the week of the draft — and things change quickly — don’t be surprised if some version of this trade gets done.

Kawhi Leonard wins day with last laugh — his viral laugh — at end of speech

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Kawhi Leonard just won again.

He won his second NBA title leading the Toronto Raptors to the franchise’s first crown. He earned his second Finals MVP in the process.

Then on Monday he had the last laugh and won the Raptors’ championship parade in Toronto by ending his speech with his laugh, the same one that went viral at the start of the season.

Of course, what Leonard will do on July 1 was a cloud hanging over the parade, Leonard is a free agent this summer. Kyle Lowry at one point started a “five more years” chant during the parade, which is the maximum number of years Toronto can re-sign Leonard for.

Leonard, exactly as we all should have expected, dodged the question, while praising his time in Toronto.

Unfortunately, this was a parade marred by more serious concerns.

How corrosive is tension between James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston?

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Golden State is not going to be contending for a title next season. Sorry Stephen, but you’re just not.

That throws open the doors to the West crown and, eventually, the NBA title, and teams will be lining up to take their shots. The Lakers just added Anthony Davis to go with LeBron James. Denver should improve and is looking for wing help. Utah feels just one playmaker away. The Clippers are big game hunting, and if they land one they become a threat.

Houston, however, should be at the front of that line… if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. Contract extension talks with coach Mike D’Antoni are stalled, and at ESPN Tim MacMahon put together a fascinating inside look at the tension between at his isolation-heavy and at his peak James Harden and the intense but declining Chris Paul.

But Paul noticeably lost a step last season, as evidenced by analytics and the eye test. Paul pushed for more plays and sets in the Houston offense, more screening and deception, despite Harden being in the process of putting together a historically dominant individual offensive season.

“Chris wants to coach James,” says a source familiar with the stars’ dynamic. “James looks at him like, ‘You can’t even beat your man. Just shut up and watch me.'”…

It has reached a point, team sources say, where Paul cherishes the chance to play without Harden on the floor. On several occasions, according to team sources, Paul barked at D’Antoni to keep Harden on the bench while he was running the second unit. Harden simultaneously would lobby — or demand — to check back into the game.

There’s tension there, but is it corrosive to the point of the team unraveling? Or, as GM Daryl Morey and everyone else with the Rockets says, is this just blown out of proportion? Time will tell.

Two things to point out.

First, tension between two stars and alpha personalities is far from new in the NBA (or any other professional sport), and it does not mean a team is in trouble. These things can be worked out, they just flared up more in the wake of the round two loss to the Warriors.

Second, these guys are stuck with each other. Obviously, the Rockets aren’t trading Harden. They would be open to trading CP3, but at age 34 and owed $124 million over three more seasons, there are no takers (unless the Rockets want to throw in a sweetener, which they don’t). The players around them may change, the coach could change, but Harden and Paul have years left together.

This team is so close to a title, it’s hard to envision them really coming apart at the seams next season. These guys are too professional for that… although in wild NBA crazier things have happened.

Report: Bucks trying to trade Tony Snell or Ersan Ilyasova with draft-pick sweetener

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Coming off their best season in decades, the Bucks will send four quality players into free agency – Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic.

How will Milwaukee keep its core intact?

Maybe by unloading Tony Snell ($11,592,857 salary next season, $12,378,571 player option the following season) or Ersan Ilyasova ($7 million salary next season, $7 million unguaranteed the following season).

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

With Bird Rights for Middleton, Brogdon and Mirotic, Milwaukee faces no salary-cap restrictions on keeping just those three. The only cost is real dollars, including potential luxury-tax payments.

It’s trickier with Lopez. Giving him the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (which projects to be about $9 million) – the most they can pay without opening cap space – would hard-cap the Bucks at a projected team salary of about $138 million. That could be a difficult line to stay under.

Unless Snell or Ilyasova are off the books.

Neither player has a desirable contract, which is why Milwaukee is shopping them with a draft pick attached. But both can still contribute. Ilyasova is a smart veteran power forward who shoots well from outside and takes a lot of charges. Snell is also a good outside shooter, and though his all-around game is lacking, there’s a dearth of helpful wings around the league.

The Bucks have the No. 30 pick in Thursday’s draft. They could select on behalf of another team then trade the draft rights. The Stepien rule applies only to future drafts.

Beyond that pick, Milwaukee is short on tradable draft picks. The Bucks have already traded two protected future first-round picks and their next three second-rounders. Dealing another first-rounder would require complex protections. Perhaps, a distant second-rounder is enough.

It’s important for Milwaukee to figure this out. Giannis Antetokounmpo likes this core group, and everyone is watching his level of satisfaction with the Bucks as his super-max decision approaches.