PBT Power Rankings: Hawks, Raptors making moves up the ladder

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Traditionally when you get to Christmas and look at the standings, at least six and maybe seven of the teams in playoff position will be there when the season ends. This season — with crazy parity through the middle of the league — it could be different, a lot of teams and slots are in play. Here’s where we rank teams for the final time in 2015.

source: 1. Warriors (28-1, last week No. 1). They got the win on Christmas Day over Cleveland in a game where it didn’t feel like they played their best. It starts with Stephen Curry, who is shooting just 28.1 percent from three in his last five games. The Warriors have had a lot of time off the last couple weeks, that’s about to change, but the schedule isn’t filled with the toughest teams.

source: 2. Spurs (26-6, LW 2). They struggled and fell to a frisky-for-a-day Rockets team on Christmas, but when most people weren’t watching they comfortably won their other three games last week. They are outscoring their opponents by 17.3 points per 100 possessions their last 10 games.

source: 3. Thunder (21-10 LW 4). Another team that lost on Christmas Day when a struggling team (Chicago) played their best game of the season. OKC seems to be looking past the teams in the East, they are 6-8 against them and 15-2 against the West.

source: 4. Cavaliers (19-9, LW 3). The loss to Golden State on Christmas is understandable, that’s an elite team at home. The blowout loss the next night to Trail Blazers without Damian Lillard is harder to explain. Cleveland is still struggling to find its rotations with Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert back in the lineup, but look for coach David Blatt to settle on something sooner rather than later.

source: 5. Hawks (20-12, LW 9). Winners of six in a row, and it’s come because of their depth and ability to match up with different teams and lineups. Their starters have been just okay. Tough tests this week on the road: Indiana, Houston, and New York.

source: 6. Raptors (19-12, LW 12). They got DeMarre Carroll back last week and Jonas Valanciunas returns to take on the Bulls’ Monday — the Raptors outscore opponents by 4.4 points per 48 minutes when Carroll and Valanciunas are on the court together. Kyle Lowry was third in Eastern Conference guards in All-Star voting, look for Raptors fans to make a push to get him to start as Toronto hosts the event this February.

source: 7. Celtics (18-13, LW 15). Winners of four in a row as they enter the soft part of the schedule (Lakers and Nets this week). They are doing it mostly with a defense that is second only to San Antonio this season, plus enough offense (hello Kelly Olynyk) to get the job done.

source: 8. Clippers (18-13, LW 8). Blake Griffin is out for 2-3 weeks with a quad injury, and the Clippers lack the depth to replace him with anyone other teams fear. Doc Rivers tried Josh Smith on Saturday, but that didn’t last long. Look for Paul Pierce as the small ball four to get more run, but when the Clippers don’t have all their starters they are vulnerable.

source: 9. Heat (18-11, LW 5). On Christmas the Heat showed why it’s good to have stars to lean on — Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade dominated the overtime (13 of the Heat’s 16 points). We’re still waiting for Goran Tragic to join that group and play like the third start that puts Miami over the top and helps them break out of the pack in the East.

source: 10. Hornets (16-13, LW 6). Al Jefferson is back — the Hornets were 5-6 while he was out injured and suspended — but he showed his rust shooting 1-of-8 in his return (if he’s not scoring he hurts this team). If Steve Clifford is not near the top on your early Coach of the Year ballot, you’re doing it wrong.

source: 11. Mavericks (17-13, LW 13). Deron Williams is out injured and in his place J.J. Barea is putting on a show — 32 points against Brooklyn, 26 against Chicago (both games Mavs’ wins). Dirk Nowitzki passed Shaq on the All-Time scoring list, just a reminder that he will go down as the greatest shooting big man in NBA history.

source: 12. Pacers (17-12, LW 7). Their defense keeps them in games, but the loss to the Kings this week showed that if a team can bottle up Paul George the Pacers struggle to score. Myles Turner is nearing a return, they are better when that rookie is playing and developing.

source: 13. Bulls (16-12, LW 11). They played their best game of the season on Christmas Day against Oklahoma City, but that is the only win in five games for arguably the league’s most consistent team. With the Raptors twice, the Knicks and the Pacers on the schedule this week, it feels like the Bulls could go 0-4 or 4-0 and it wouldn’t be a shock.

source: 14. Pistons (17-14, LW 10). Brandon Jennings could be back at the end of this week (or the following week) and then things get interesting. Jennings will get showcased, Stan Van Gundy will see if he can play with Reggie Jackson, and the Pistons will listen to trade offers for him.

source: 15. Magic (15-12, LW 14). This week marks the anniversary of an NBA record game: The most assists dished by one player in a game, 30. The record holder? Scott Skiles. The Magic are the current eight seed in the East and seem to be finding their footing, which is a credit to Skiles the coach getting the most out of this roster.

source: 16. Rockets (16-16, LW 16). Still the most Jekyll and Hyde team in the NBA, beating the Spurs on Christmas Day then having their coach lash out at them as “disrespecting the game” after a sloppy loss to the Pelicans. They are outscoring opponents by 5.1 points per 100 possession their last 10 games, fifth best in the NBA during that stretch.

source: 17. Grizzlies (17-16, LW 17). Look for Memphis to start climbing up these rankings and the Western Conference standings — over the next month they have a fairly soft schedule. The team still seems to be adjusting to the new rotations, well except for Zach Randolph who has put up big numbers the past few games.

source: 18. Wizards (14-14, LW 20). Winners of four in a row thanks to an offense scoring 107.4 points per 100 possessions their last 10 games (fourth best in the NBA). Marcin Gortat is your Eastern Conference Player of the Week averaging 21.3 points and 11.7 rebounds a game the past seven days.

source: 19. Jazz (12-16, LW 19). Another injury, this one to Alec Burks, is a body blow to a team trying to hang onto a playoff spot without Dante Exum or Rudy Gobert (and Derrick Favors of late). That this team is still the eight seed in the West with this record (which would have them tied for 12th in the East) speaks to how some things have flipped in the West this season.

source: 20. Kings (12-18, LW 21). With all the injuries to the Suns and to the Jazz, the door has swung open for the Kings to jump into one of the final playoff spots in the West. How did they respond to that challenge. With terrible defense, 3-of-22 shooting in the fourth, and a loss to the Trail Blazers (despite 36 from DeMarcus Cousins). If this team doesn’t score in transition it can’t score.

source: 21. Knicks (14-18, LW 18). Losers of four in a row, on the heels of a four-game win streak, which was on the heels of another four-game losing streak. Consistency is not a word in the Knicks’ vocabulary this season. Their next six games are against teams above. 500, we’ll see if they can grab a couple wins in that group.

source: 22. Trail Blazers (13-20, LW 25). They beat the Cavaliers and Kings without Damian Lillard (they are 2-2 since he went down) and C.J. McCollum might be the early leader for most improved player. Despite everything with this team they are just 1.5 games out of the playoffs, keeping those dreams alive.

source: 23. Nuggets (12-19, LW 24). If you blow a 21-point lead to the Lakers and lose, you have issues. Danilo Gallinari and Emmanuel Mudiay remain out, which makes watching this team a little dull (save for the occasional Will Barton show).

source: 24. Bucks (12-19, LW 26). Their defense remains a mess and things could get ugly this week on the road at Dallas, Oklahoma City, Indiana and Minnesota. The Bucks have 11-of-15 on the road starting this week, and they are 3-of-13 on the road this season.

source: 25. Pelicans (10-20, LW 27). There are flashes of improvement, like the good Christmas Day showing against the Heat to force overtime, but the Pelicans are not getting wins, and now come reports Mickey Loomis — the Saints GM — is going to have more say over the Pelicans. That doesn’t sound like recipe for success.

source: 26. Timberwolves (11-19,LW 22). Losers of three in a row, but that’s to be expected as they lean on and try to develop their young stars (they very well may have back-to-back Rookies of the Year with Andrew Wiggins last season and Karl-Anthony Towns this one). The most talked about thing around this team as we head into the new year will be Kevin Martin trade rumors.

<source: 27. Suns (12-20, LW 23). Phoenix handed Philadelphia just its second win of the season and that seemed to set off alarm bells in the front office — ones that almost cost Jeff Honacek his job. Instead, just his assistants got the ax. The bigger problem is Eric Bledsoe’s injury, without him this team’s playoff chances drop off like a Clayton Kershaw curve ball.

source: 28. Nets (8-22, LW 28). Not a lot of reasons for short-term hope with their next eight opponents being .500 or better. Expect a lot of trade rumors to swirl around Brooklyn as the February deadline approaches, but I’d be surprised if the struggling Joe Johnson is one of the guys who gets moved (he’s struggling with his shot AND he’s expensive).

source: 29. Lakers (5-26, LW 29). Kobe Bryant is going to be a starter in his final All-Star Game — it’s an exhibition, so give the people what they want. We’ve seen flashes of vintage Kobe, while liking more the flashes we’ve seen from D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle (and Larry Nance, who is an underrated young player on this roster).

source: 30. 76ers (2-30, LW 30). They are 1-0 with Ish Smith running the offense and Mike D’Antoni being on the bench. Smith clearly is their best point guard and gives them a chance to win more games. A few more. While the Sixers want to be more respectable they don’t want to start winning too many games — despite all the talk of speeding up the process this is a huge couple drafts coming up (they likely have three or four first rounders this June) and they don’t want to hurt their odds of getting top picks.

Watch Tom Brady tell Charles Barkley to “take a suck of that” after he holes fairway shot

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It was the highlight of an entertaining — if not always pretty — afternoon of live golf, raising money for charity.

Tampa Bay Bay Buccanneers quarterback Tom Brady (it’s so weird to type that) was on his fourth shot on the par-5 7th hole at the Medalist Golf Club. Brady had a rough front nine to that point, and commentator Charles Barkley decided to up the trash talk (as if Barkley should talk about someone else’s golf game).

“How many shots do you want? Come on, I’m going to give you some shots man, I want some of you,” Barkley said.

“Don’t worry, it ain’t over yet,” Brady countered as he walked up to his fourth shot, 130 yards from the pin. “I think you just made him mad, Chuck,” host Brian Anderson said. “No, he can take a joke,” Barkley replied. Then this happened.

Brady earned that trash talk.

It wasn’t the only great exchange between the two; they had some fun on an earlier on a par 3 when Barkley bet Brady couldn’t get it on the green.

Increasing buzz teams well out of playoffs will not come to Orlando for games

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The Golden State Warriors have been public about it, they expect their season to be over. Golden State is far from alone, multiple teams well out of the playoff picture have questioned the expense and risk-to-reward ratio of coming back to play a handful of regular season games without fans in Orlando.

More and more, the buzz has been the NBA league office sees things the same way. I am not the only reporter hearing this: Steve Popper of Newsday wrote a column saying there was no reason to invite all 30 teams to the bubble city and the USA Today’s well-connected Jeff Zillgett added this:

This is where we throw in the caveat: There are no hard-and-fast plans from the NBA yet and every option is still being considered. One lesson Adam Silver took from David Stern was not to make a decision until you have to, and Silver is going to absorb more information in the coming weeks — such as from the recent GM survey — before making his call.

That said, the league seems to be coalescing around a general plan, which includes camps starting in mid-June and games in mid-July in Orlando.

For the bottom three to five teams in each conference, there is little motivation to head to Orlando for the bubble. It’s an expense to the owner with no gate revenue coming in, teams want to protect their NBA Draft Lottery status, and the Warriors don’t want to risk injury to Stephen Curry — or the Timberwolves to Karl-Anthony Towns, or the Hawks to Trae Young — for a handful of meaningless games.

The league is considering a play-in tournament for the final seed or seeds in each conference (there are a few format options on the table, it was part of the GM survey). That would bring the top 10 or 12 seeds from each conference to the bubble, depending upon the format, and they would play a handful of games to determine which teams are in the playoffs (and face the top seeds).

Either way, that would leave the three or five teams with the worst records in each conference home. Which is the smart thing to do, there’s no reason to add risk to the bubble for a handful of meaningless games.

Eight-year NBA veteran Jon Leuer announces retirement

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Jon Leuer is only age 31, but the big man has battled ankle and other injuries in recent seasons, playing in only 49 games over the past three seasons. Last July, the Pistons traded him to the Bucks in a salary dump, and Milwaukee quickly waived him. Leuer struggled to get healthy and did not catch on with another team.

Sunday he took to Instagram to announce his retirement.

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I love the game of basketball. I still want to play, but I know deep down it’s not the right decision for my health anymore. The past 3 years I’ve dealt with a number of injuries, including 2 that kept me out this whole season. It’s taken me a while to come to grips with this, but I’m truly at peace with my decision to officially retire. As disappointing as these injuries have been, I’m still thankful for every moment I spent playing the game. Basketball has been the most amazing journey of my life. It’s taken me places I only could’ve dreamed about as a kid. The relationships it brought me mean more than anything. I’ve been able to connect with people from all walks of life and forged lifelong bonds with many of them. What this game has brought me stretches way beyond basketball. I’m grateful for this incredible ride and everyone who helped me along the way. 🙏🏼🙌🏼✌🏼

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Leuer — a second-round pick out of Wisconsin for the Bucks in 2011 — averaged 10.2 points and 5.4 rebounds a game for the Pistons in the 2016-17 season, and for the years at the peak of his career he was a quality rotational big man teams could trust, either off the bench or as a spot starter.

Over the course of his career he played for the Bucks, Cavaliers, Grizzlies, Suns, and Pistons. He earned more than $37 million in salary, most of it from a three-year contract the Pistons gave him in 2016. It was not long after his body started to betray him.

Leuer has been riding out the quarantine in Minnesota is wife Keegan (NFL coach Brian Billick’s daughter) and the couple is donating thousands of meals a week to the needy in that community.

 

New York Governor clears path for Knicks, Nets to open facilities for workouts

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As of today, 19 NBA teams have their practice facilities open for players to come in for individual workouts, but 11 have yet to open the doors. Some it’s the decision of the team, some it’s that the municipality or state had not allowed it.

The Knicks and Nets — in the heart of New York, the part of the nation hardest hit by COVID-19 — are two of those teams whose facilities are closed. However, on Sunday New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said they could open the door for practice.

“I believe that sports that can come back without having people in the stadium, without having people in the arena — do it! Do it!” Cuomo said at his press conference. “Work out the economics, if you can. We want you up. We want people to be able to watch sports. To the extent people are still staying home, it gives people something to do. It’s a return to normalcy. So we are working and encouraging all sports teams to start their training camps as soon as possible. And we’ll work with them to make sure that can happen.”

While the teams have not formally announced anything yet, it is likely at least the Nets will open soon for the players still in market to workout (the majority of players from the New York teams went home to other parts of the country). The Knicks, well out of the playoff picture, may be much slower to open their facilities back up.

When they happen, the workouts come with considerable restrictions: one player and one coach at each basket, the coach is wearing gloves and masks, the balls and gym equipment are sanitized, and much more.

One part of a potential plan for the NBA to return to play called for a couple of weeks of a training camp at the team facilities, followed by 14 days of a quarantined training camp in Orlando at the bubble site. Multiple teams reached out to the league about doing their entire training camp in Orlando to avoid having players quarantine twice (once when the player reports back to market, once when the team goes to the bubble city).