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.

Report: 76ers open to trading if they hire Mike D’Antoni

76ers forward Al Horford and Tobias Harris
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The 76ers said they wouldn’t trade Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons.

Which makes it confounding they reportedly want to hire Mike D’Antoni as coach.

D’Antoni has typically succeeded with teams that can play small to spread the floor and pressure opponents through speed… and struggled otherwise. Post-based Embiid and non-shooting Simmons don’t fit D’Antoni’s demonstrated style.

Maybe Philadelphia’s roster could change.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

Keith Smith:

The 76ers could trade Al Horford and Tobias Harris to reduce their glut of bigs. But Horford was already on the block (good luck convincing anyone to take his contract), and Harris is also expensive. For what it’s worth, Harris could thrive as a small-ball power forward in D’Antoni’s system, but Harris is often pigeonholed as a small forward on this roster.

The Embiid-Simmons pairing is a fundamental issue, though. Whatever Philadelphia does with Horford and Harris, Embiid and Simmons just haven’t played like they’d fit well together under D’Antoni.

If the 76ers remain insistent on not trading Embiid or Simmons, there are only so many roster moves that can be done to help D’Antoni.

Adding further complications, Philadelphia might be seeking a new lead executive. That could explain why Tyronn Lue has also gotten so strongly linked to this job. It’s not even clear who’ll oversee the coach and roster, let alone what plan that person will have.

So, yes, it’s meaningful if the 76ers are advancing trade talks with other teams to make their roster fit D’Antoni. But there are still plenty of questions about what will actually happen in Philadelphia.

For NBA players, Breonna Taylor grand jury decision ‘not enough’

Grizzlies forward Anthony Tolliver wears Breonna Taylor shirt
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — LeBron James sent the word to the Los Angeles Lakers in a group text on Wednesday afternoon, and basketball suddenly seemed irrelevant.

A grand jury in Kentucky had finally spoken. And James was letting his team know that NBA players, who have spent months seeking justice for Breonna Taylor, did not get what they wanted.

“Something was done,” Lakers guard Danny Green said, “but it wasn’t enough.”

Wednesday’s decision by the grand jury, which brought no charges against Louisville police for Taylor’s killing and only three counts of wanton endangerment against fired Officer Brett Hankison for shooting into Taylor’s neighbors’ homes, was not unexpected by many NBA players and coaches. They had a sense it wasn’t going to go how they hoped.

“I know we’ve been using our platform down here to try to bring about education and a voice in a lot of players on our team, especially also spoken out on justice for Breonna Taylor,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “We have not gotten that justice.”

Teams came to Walt Disney World to finish the season and crown a champion, and hoping that the platform of the NBA’s restart bubble could help amplify calls for change. Players and coaches have used the NBA spotlight to make statements at a time when the demand for racial equality and an end to police brutality is resonating as loudly as it has in generations.

And Taylor’s story – the tale of a 26-year-old Black woman who was killed March 13 by police in Louisville when they burst into her apartment on a no-knock warrant during a narcotics investigation centered around a suspect who did not live there – has captivated NBA players. Many have met, virtually, with members of her family to offer support. They say her name in news conferences, wear it on shirts, scrawl it onto their sneakers.

“We have moms. We have sisters, nieces, aunties. And just like men of color have experienced traumatic instances, so have women,” Boston forward Jaylen Brown said. “That is an example of some things that happen to women in our country. So, we wanted to stand alongside them, but also make it that it’s not just us. I think the future is female, so it’s important to show our sisters that we care. That’s why it’s been important.”

Even for teams not in the bubble, it mattered. Atlanta coach Lloyd Pierce leads a committee of NBA coaches tasked with finding new ways to use their own platform to create change, and he’s encouraged his own players – Black and white alike – to speak out and take action, whether in Atlanta or their own community.

Pierce took Wednesday’s news hard.

“Yeah, there was a grand jury and yeah, they went through the information and yeah, they have facts to support whatever the claims may be,” Pierce said. “But that doesn’t provide any justice for those that are on the outside, those that feel like the police and law enforcement are there to protect them. … What currently is happening isn’t good enough.”

Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell:

Clippers big Montrezl Harrell:

National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts went a step further. “Sadly, there was no justice today for Breonna Taylor,” Roberts said. “Her killing was the result of a string of callous and careless decisions made with a lack of regard for humanity, ultimately resulting in the death of an innocent and beautiful woman with her entire life ahead of her.”

The league shut down for three days last month when a boycott that was started by the Milwaukee Bucks – in response to the shooting by police of a Black man, Jacob Blake, in Kenosha, Wisconsin – nearly caused players to end the season because they felt their pleas for change were not being taken seriously enough.

And Wednesday’s news was another disappointment for them.

“We feel like we’ve taken a step back, that we haven’t made the progress we were seeking,” Green said. “Our voices aren’t being heard loud enough. But we’re not going to stop. We’re going to continue. We’re going to continue fighting, we’re going to continue to push, we’re going to continue to use our voices.”

Report: Celtics were ‘very much enamored’ with Tyler Herro, whom Heat took one pick before Boston

Heat guard Tyler Herro vs. Celtics
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The Celtics – holding the Kings’ first-round pick – lost a tiebreaker with the Hornets and Heat in last year’s draft. Charlotte picked No. 12, Miami No. 13 and Boston No. 14.

The Heat took Tyler Herro No. 13.

A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston:

On NBA draft night last year there was a collective moan among the Boston Celtics brass right about the time the Miami Heat used the No. 13 pick to select Tyler Herro.

The Celtics were very much enamored with the 20-year-old leading up to last June’s draft

The draft is full of smokescreens and disinformation, especially from Boston. So, this can’t be taken as gospel.

But it’s still another fun chapter in the Pat Riley-Danny Ainge rivalry, which includes a previous example of the Heat drafting a player the Celtics coveted.

Herro made the All-Rookie second team and is now helping Miami against Boston in the Eastern Conference finals – no small feat for a rookie.

The Celtics settled for Romeo Langford, who had a far less productive first season and is now out for the year.

Of course, it’s far too early to declare either player will absolutely have a better career than the other. Besides, Boston never chose between Herro and Langford. The Heat got the choice and took the player both teams seemingly agreed was better.

Down 2-1 to Lakers, Nuggets sense a familiar bubble series pattern

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Mike Malone thinks he’s been here before.

Not just down 2-1 in an NBA bubble playoff series and having to come from behind, but the pattern of it — his team getting stronger and figuring things out while the opponent falters.

“This is to me kind of similar to the last series,” Malone said after the Nuggets’ Game 3 victory. “Game 1 the Clippers blew us out. Game 2 we win. Game 3, we felt we gave that game away against the Clippers.

“[The Lakers] blew us out in Game 1. Game 2 we gave away at the end. We had to right that wrong and try to get a game under our belt, which we did tonight. This gives us that much more confidence going into this series letting them know that we’re here, we’re in this for the long haul. We’re going to continue to fight and do whatever we can.”

“You definitely learn more about your opponent, what to try to look for, tendencies, and all that…” Jamal Murray said about why Denver improves as the series gets longer. “Like I said, just taking care of stuff that we can control, whether it’s turnovers, communications, switches, rebounding. Areas that we should control, we got to do that if we want to win. If we’re consistent in our play, like we touched on earlier, we can win a lot of games, put a lot of pressure on other teams.”

Those tendencies and patterns, that history of success, has Denver feeling more and more like this is a series they can win. There is a confidence that is brimming from the Nuggets stars, especially Murray. He has stepped up his game, and it’s not just the three-point shooting — 34.6% in the regular season  47.7% in the playoffs — it’s his aggressive attacks and finishing at the rim. Murry, an inconsistent finisher at the rim even during this regular season, has been lights out when he gets inside in the playoffs. It stems from confidence.

“I think what I’ve seen from Jamal this year, aside from the growth defensively, which has been tremendous, I’m so proud of him in that regard, but now I know every night what I’m getting from Jamal,” Malone said. “Last year we knew what we were getting from Nikola, but what kind of game would Jamal have. That’s no longer the case. We have two superstars in Nikola and Jamal and a lot of young, talented players behind them.”

It should not be a surprise to anyone that the Nuggets played their best basketball with their backs against the wall — this team has been in four straight seven-game playoff series, winning three. They are used to the pressure. Nor should it have caught anyone off-guard that they would not go away quietly. Some in Lakers’ nation thought Anthony Davisgame-winning three to put the Lakers up 2-0 was a gut punch that would floor the Nuggets.

Malone made sure that was not the takeaway from the game.

“[Monday] when we met and we watched the film, I started off by watching the last play of the game,” Malone said. “Get the elephant in the room out of the way. Let’s talk about the play, what happened. When we’re in this situation again, let’s learn from it. Yes, we all take ownership. Let’s learn from it.

“After that, my goal was when we got done with that film, they saw so many positive clips of us doing the right things, which put us in a position to win. Now we had to do that for more than just a second half. We had to do it for four quarters.”

They did it for three, but that was enough to get the win thanks to some late heroics from Murray.

The key to the remainder of this series is defense. For both teams.

Denver is not an elite defensive team, they were middle of the pack for the regular season. What they can do throughout a series is become more disruptive. They have done it this series, quieting the Lakers’ halfcourt offense. The Lakers scored less than a point per possession — 92.8 points per 100 possessions — in their halfcourt in Game 3 (stats via Cleaning The Glass). Add to that the fact LeBron James is fading as games go on — he is dominant in the first quarter but struggling more in the fourth. Denver got a fantastic game from Jerami Grant in Game 3, they will need more of those games, but the Nuggets have a plan that works and that they can execute.

The heart of that plan is keeping the Lakers out of transition, which brings us to the other side of the equation: The Lakers intensity and physicality on defense almost won them Game 3. The Lakers forced turnovers — six in a row at one point — and turned those into transition buckets. The Lakers are as good a transition team as there is in the league and the Nuggets are terrible at defending it. When the Lakers run, they win. It’s just harder to do that when you’re taking the ball out of the basket each time down, the Lakers need stops.

Expect the Lakers to come out with intensity in Game 4, maybe helping them race out to a big lead. Maybe.  But even if that happens, the Nuggets will not be phased — they came from 16 and 19 back against the Clippers to win last round.

Denver has seen this movie before, and they liked the ending.