PBT Power Rankings: If you’re firing a coach mid-season, you’re not highly ranked

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Stability at the top of the rankings this week, as the top eight teams remained in exactly the same spots as last week. Further down you see the Jazz climbing the rankings, the Knicks falling (although probably not as much as they should have considering Derek Fisher getting canned), and the Suns taking over the bottom slot after dropping seven straight.

source: 1. Warriors (46-4, last week No. 1). In the past three weeks, the Warriors have beaten the next three teams in this rankings (OKC gave them the hardest time). Curry’s magical touch couldn’t extend to the Carolina Panthers, but everything else is rolling for this team. So what is everyone in the Bay Area talking about with Golden State? Kevin Durant, of course. It’s always what’s next. Try to enjoy the ride, people.

source: 2. Spurs (43-8, LW 2). San Antonio has gone 5-2 with Tim Duncan out, and they have done that thanks to their offense clicking behind LaMarcus Aldridge, plus solid bench play (as always). However, in those seven games their defense has been middle of the pack, you know Gregg Popovich has noticed.

source: 3. Thunder (38-14 LW 3). I don’t care what Kevin Durant said, the Saturday loss to the Warriors was a moral victory, one that OKC can take positives away from. The Thunder came back on the Warriors and gave them problems the Spurs and Cavaliers couldn’t. Russell Westbrook is averaging near a triple-double in his last 10 games — 23.4 points, 11.7 assists, and 9.3 rebounds a game.

source: 4. Cavaliers (36-14, LW 4). Tyronn Lue has been the Cavs coach for nine games, but he’s not getting to implement all the changes he wants. In those nine games the Cavaliers are basically playing at the same pace (half-a-possession slower per game), their offense has been better but their defense has been 5.4 points per 100 possessions worse. He was never going to solve all the issues mid-season, but he’s got some practices around the All-Star break to work on what he wants the team to do.

source: 5. Raptors (34-16, LW 5). Dwayne Casey so loves his bench rotation that when starter James Johnson went down rookie Norman Powell was made the starter. It worked, even though the Raptors’ win streak died in Denver. Toronto could try to make a bold move to pick up a four at the trade deadline, Ryan Wolstat told PBT in the recent Raptors-focused podcast.

source: 6. Clippers (34-17, LW 6). No, the Clippers are not trading Blake Griffin at the deadline, stop asking. That said, the Clippers have gone 17-4 without him (after a quality win in Miami Sunday) with a smaller lineup that spreads the floor more, creating space for the Chris Paul/DeAndre Jordan pick-and-roll, and that has to have Doc Rivers thinking about moves this summer.

source: 7. Celtics (30-22, LW 7). They got a quality win over Cleveland Friday, they are now on a three-game win streak and have won 12-of-15. The Celtics are doing it with lock-down defense and a balanced offense, and it’s good they have a representative in Toronto for the All-Star Game in Isaiah Thomas.

source: 8. Grizzlies (30-21, LW 8). They seem fairly locked in as the five seed in the West, but a notch below the top four and maybe even some of the other playoff teams in the West (they lost to Dallas last weekend). Don’t be shocked if they again try to get an upgrade at the wing spot at the deadline, but the market isn’t loaded with guys they can get without giving up a lot in return.

source: 9. Hawks (30-23, LW 11). They had won three in a row before a sloppy loss to Orlando on Sunday (one they can seek revenge for Monday night in the second game of the home-and-home series). Jeff Teague’s name has come up in a lot of trade rumors, but if the Hawks want to re-sign Al Hereford this summer — and they do — what kind of message does trading the veteran point guard send?

source: 10. Heat (29-23, LW 10). Tough stretch of games for the Heat but they played good defense and picked up wins over Dallas and Charlotte. Only one game this week (San Antonio) so even with his All-Star duties Dwyane Wade’s knees should get some rest.

source: 11. Pacers (27-24, LW 12). They continue to be up-and-down, but the overtime loss to Cleveland showed just how dangerous this team can be on the right night, not just because of All-Star Paul George but also guys like Myles Turner and C.J. Miles stepping up.

source: 12. Jazz (25-25, LW 15). Winners of six in a row and it’s thanks to the return of Rudy Gobert and the lock-down Jazz defense we have remembered from the second half of last season. The Jazz are healthy and they are 12-6 in games Gobert and Derrick Favors start. Utah has moved into the eight seed in the West and I think it’s more likely they move up past Houston and maybe Dallas than it is Portland or Sacramento catches them.

source: 13. Pistons (27-25, LW 13). Detroit is not in a secure playoff spot, with Charlotte playing well and just 1.5 games behind them for the final slot in the East. To be fair, Detroit is also just 2.5 games back of hosting a first-round playoff series — the East is still tight. If Detroit wants to climb that ladder they have to start playing better, more consistent defense.

source: 14. Bulls (27-23, LW 9). Jimmy Butler is out for a little bit, but considering how the injury looked at the time a sprained knee is not that bad. Mike Dunleavy is back. The Bulls are 5-10 in their last 15 games, mostly due to the fact their defense, which was solid early in the season, has been unimpressive with Joakim Noah out.

source: 15. Mavericks (29-25, LW 14). They picked up a win over Memphis Saturday, which is important because Dallas would like to catch the Grizzlies for the five seed and avoid Oklahoma City or San Antonio in the first round. (Not that the Clippers would be easy.) The most interesting new thing in Dallas may be Dirk Nowitzki’s haircut.

source: 16. Trail Blazers (25-27, LW 16). As they needed to do, Portland took advantage of a soft stretch of the schedule to climb back in the playoff race in the West, they are currently one game back of Utah for the final playoff slot in the conference. However, now they need to keep getting wins against tougher opponents, such as at Memphis and home to Houston this week. (Portland did beat Houston last week.)

source: 17. Rockets (27-26, LW 18). Houston is 1.5 games from the nine seed and sliding out of the playoffs, and they are heading into a tough stretch of the schedule. This week they are at the Warriors then at the Trail Blazers. Then James Harden heads to Toronto for the All-Star Game. The remainder of the team could use the rest.

source: 18. Hornets (25-26, LW 20). They have played better of late and are now back in the hunt for a playoff spot in the East. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s return has helped their defense, which has keyed this run of solid play. However, if they are going to make the dance, wins against teams such as Chicago and Indiana this week are what they need.

source: 19. Wizards (22-27, LW 17). John Wall continues to be brilliant (he had 41 against the Warriors) but after that there is not much to like — the Wizards get little defense and inconsistent play from the rest of the roster. If they are going to make a run into the playoffs, that needs to start with a win streak out of the All-Star break.

source: 20. Nuggets (21-31, LW 24). Quality wins against Toronto and Chicago last week show Mike Malone’s efforts to build a culture are taking root. Nikola Jokic has been brilliant during this run, including dropping 27 and 14 on Toronto. Don’t be shocked if Denver is a seller at the trade deadline.

source: 21. Pelicans (18-32, LW 19). Losers of four in a row, and Ryan Anderson’s shooting slump is not helping his trade value (I still expect he gets moved before the deadline, some team will come in with a quality offer). Tough game against the Jazz this week, but I love to see Favors and Gobert matched up against Anthony Davis.

source: 22. Bucks (20-32, LW 23). They lost to Sacramento without DeMarcus Cousins, a sign of how poorly things are going for them right now. They will have representation in Toronto, with Khris Middleton in the three point contest (he’s shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc this season). I don’t buy the Jabari Parker trade rumors, they are not giving up on him.

source: 23. Magic (22-28, LW 25). They have been entertaining to watch this week, with a close loss to Oklahoma City then the dramatic win against Atlanta Sunday. Rumor is they are testing the trade waters for Tobias Harris and others, looking to add some veterans — and more consistent talent — to the roster.

source: 24. Knicks (23-31, LW 21). Derek Fisher is out and Kurt Rambis is in, and if you think that will turn the team around this season you should put the bong down and back away (Rambis used to play Ryan Gomes more minutes than Kevin Love). You can pick apart Fisher’s growth as a coach, and the team’s development, but it’s hard to see how this improves things mid-season. You know the dirt is coming on this. Phil Jackson wants Luke Walton, who is staying with the Warriors through the playoffs, but I think they should give Tom Thibodeau a long look.

source: 25. Kings (21-30, LW 22). The Kings have lost six of seven, falling back since being the eight seed in the West. In those seven games Sacramento is getting beat by 6.1 points per 100 possessions, mostly because their defense is giving up 110.4 points per 100 possessions (fifth worst in the NBA in that time). George Karl outlasted Derek Fisher, but maybe not by much.

source: 26. Timberwolves (16-36,LW 26). Karl-Anthony Towns continues to play well, averaging 21.6 points (on 59.9 percent shooting) and 12.7 rebounds a night in his last 10 games. The Timberwolves offense is tearing teams up recently, but they are not getting consistent stops so wins remain elusive.

source: 27. 76ers (8-43, LW 28). They beat the Nets on Saturday, which was most impressive because they did it without injured guard Ish Smith. They have something inside with Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel (even if they platoon them a bit), the focus this summer needs to be adding talent out on the perimeter.

source: 28. Nets (13-39, LW 27). While they have a lot of assets who would make sense to consider trading, the fact the Nets don’t have a GM in place 10 days before the trade deadline suggests their moves will come in the summer, not February. The Nets defense let them down again Saturday against the Sixers.

source: 29. Lakers (11-42, LW 30). They won two games last week and gave the Spurs a scare in San Antonio (where the Spurs have yet to lose this season). All of which has some Lakers fans worried about their draft positioning (if their pick is not top three it goes to Philly). Kobe Bryant is averaging 24.6 points per game in his last five games, but on 39.6 percent shooting.

source: 30. Suns (14-38, LW 29). Losers of seven in a row, and their roster is about to get shaken up at the trade deadline. As if injuries didn’t already do that. Since Eric Bledsoe went down the Suns have been a mess in clutch time of the few games they do keep close.

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%).

Five teams ready — or desperate — to break through into the playoffs

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Making the playoffs in the NBA has always seemed a low bar — more than half the teams in the league get in — but it may never be harder than this season. Right now, the league is stacked with quality teams. There may be only a handful of Warriors or Bucks level teams on a contending tier, but both conferences enter the season 11 or 12 deep with teams that have the talent to make the playoffs. Strong teams are going to be in the play-in this year, and a couple will miss the postseason altogether.

Here are five teams ready and expecting to make the leap into the playoffs next season — or desperate to do so.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Cleveland probably should have made the playoffs last season — the Cavaliers finished as the No. 8 seed in the East but dropped a couple of play-in games and were on vacation when the playoffs actually started.

Then this summer they traded for Donovan Mitchell.

The biggest trade that actually happened this offseason gives the Cavaliers four potential All-Stars: Three who made the game last season in Jarrett Allen, Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell, plus second-year star Evan Mobley, who could be the best of them all within a couple of years. Cleveland has questions about who plays the three and if they have enough defense to threaten the teams at the top, but the Cavaliers don’t have to answer all those questions this season.

This season, they are good enough to make the playoffs. It would be a major disappointment if they did not.

Los Angeles Lakers

It’s boring to put the Lakers on here. Sure, they missed the playoffs last season but they won the title in 2020, and have LeBron James and Anthony Davis — this is not a team coming out of nowhere and surprising anyone. That said, this team has playoff talent and expectations.

Along those lines, new coach Darvin Ham said Monday before the team’s first preseason game that fulfilling that goal is all about Anthony Davis.

“None of this works if he’s not available and he’s not hitting on all cylinders,” Ham said. “He’s a big piece. The biggest piece of our success.”

There are plenty of Russell Westbrook questions — how long will he buy into Ham’s system? Will they trade him? — as well as how much better the defense will be this season (it can’t be worse… can it?). In a deep West the Lakers could be a play-in team, but they should come out of that and make the playoffs.

Sacramento Kings

When you miss the playoffs 16 seasons in a row, there needs to be a culture change in an organization. New coach Mike Brown gets that.

“This is gonna be a process for us, it’s not going to happen overnight,” Brown said before the Kings’ first preseason game Monday. “There’s some things that need to change.”

Those changes may not happen overnight but they can’t take long, not when the goal is to make the playoffs in a deep conference. Potential Kings head coaches interviewed this summer reportedly were told the organization expects a Timberwolves-like turnaround.

“We want to be in the playoffs,” said Brown, the guy who got the job. “We’re not saying this is a rebuild. We’re playing for [the playoffs] and we feel confident we can get there.”

The Kings have their most talented roster in years led by All-Star Domantas Sabonis, with De'Aaron Fox, Harrison Barnes, and solid role players such as Malik Monk, Kevin Huerter, and the potential of youngsters Keegan Murray and Davion Mitchell.

Is all that good enough to be a playoff team in the West? The offense should score, but with Sabonis and Fox getting heavy minutes will they get enough stops? The Kings are desperately betting on yes.

Washington Wizards

Wes Unseld Jr. needs to put an offering of rum on the altar to Jobu, a prayer to keep Kristaps Porzingis healthy.

When on the court, Porzingis is an All-Star level big man who competes on both ends, and if you pair him with just re-signed Bradley Beal you’ve got a good two-man core. The Wizards have upgraded the rotation around that duo with Will Barton and Monte Morris joining Kyle Kuzma, Deni Avdija and Delon Wright. This roster has decent talent, especially if the stars stay healthy.

That’s a pretty good team. Maybe playoff good, but they will need some help from other good teams above them — the Wizards need to stay healthy and hope some other teams stumble. Make that bet if you want to, Ted Leonsis did.

Portland Trail Blazers

It’s a different conference, but Portland finds itself in the same place as Washington: A good team that may not be good enough.

It’s great to see Damian Lillard back on the court, hopefully he gets his burst back and can return to All-NBA Dame Time (one of the most watchable, entertaining players in the league). Jerami Grant was brought as a two-way wing, and Anfernee Simons was re-signed to be another ball handler and scorer. Around them are, Jusuf Nurkic, Gary Payton II, Josh Hart, Justice Winslow and others. Plus whatever talented but raw rookie Shaeden Sharpe can contribute.

Portland is a good team in a conference deep with good teams. Are they good enough? If Lillard is his vintage self and everyone stays healthy… maybe.