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PBT’s NBA Power Rankings: Warriors remain on top, Cavaliers climb to third

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After a one-week hiatus due to the All-Star Game festivities in Toronto, the NBC/PBT NBA Power Rankings return. During that week off, the trade deadline came and went, but not much has changed at the top of the rankings (save for minor shifts) — the power structure of the NBA was not altered by the trade deadline.

source: 1. Warriors (49-5, last week No. 1). They need to go 24-4 the rest of the way to break the Bulls’ single-season win record. That’s very doable, but not simple — their schedule is tough the rest of the way (including against Oklahoma City Saturday), plus Steve Kerr is going to want to rest guys thinking ahead to the playoffs. The Warriors are on the road all week.

source: 2. Spurs (47-9, LW 2). They have gone 2-1 without Kawhi Leonard since the All-Star break, but those wins came against the Lakers and Suns (you need to scroll to the bottom of these rankings to find them). This is not the same defensive team without Leonard, they are vulnerable. This week the Spurs stay on the road as part of the annual rodeo tour, with games against the Kings, Jazz, and Rockets.

source: 3. Cavaliers (40-14, LW 4). When I asked Tyronn Lue at All-Star Weekend if the long All-Star break would give him a chance to put install more offense and make other changes, his answer was a quick “no.” The Cavaliers did make one change adding Channing Frye, who will give them small ball versatility and lineup options. That was a quality win Sunday, running away from the Thunder in the second half, and with Kyrie Irving out (sick) Kevin Lobe stepped up again.

source: 4. Thunder (40-16 LW 3). At the trade deadline the Thunder added Randy Foye, who everyone will love in the locker room but will not add much on the court. Although, considering the way Dion Waiters has shot since the All-Star break (3-of-20) Foye may get some run fairly quickly. That two guard spot could come back to bite a team that would have to beat the Spurs then the Warriors to reach the NBA Finals.

source: 5. Clippers (36-19, LW 6). The Clipper defense in their last 10 games has allowed just 98.8 points per 100 possessions, second best in the NBA during that stretch. The addition of Jeff Green is an upgrade over Lance Stephenson, and Green fits needs (small ball four, can play the three when Blake Griffin returns) but his inconsistent play will wear on Doc Rivers again (not to mention Clipper fans).

source: 6. Raptors (36-18, LW 5). No move at the deadline to get some help at the four seems a lost opportunity. No, we don’t know what was offered and at what price (we do know the Raptors offered some combination of a first-round pick and Patrick Patterson to teams), still how often do the Raptors get this close. The Raptors defense has been slipping of late.

source: 7. Celtics (32-24, LW 7). Danny Ainge looked around at the deadline and didn’t overpay for talent, which was the right move. Even if it’s hard to sell patience to a fan base. If the playoffs started today, Boston would host Atlanta in the first round — could they win that seven-game series? If this team reaches the second round of the playoffs they should already be thinking about a statue for Brad Stevens.

source: 8. Heat (31-24, LW 10). Chris Bosh will be out for a while (hope he makes it back for the playoffs), and Dwyane Wade has missed games with a sore knee, yet the Heat pick up a couple of impressive wins over the Hawks and Wizards. The Heat saved themselves from the luxury tax at the deadline, which considering where they team is headed this season is the smart play. Tough schedule this week with Indiana, Golden State, Boston, then New York.

source: 9. Grizzlies (32-22, LW 8). We’ll see if they can maintain this standing (and their playoff position) without Marc Gasol (broken foot), and now without Courtney Lee (traded to Charlotte). After the deadline this team now has Lance Stephenson, Matt Barnes, Chris Andersen, Tony Allen, and P.J. Hairston in the same locker room. That could get interesting, to put it kindly.

source: 10. Trail Blazers (29-27, LW 16). Winners of five in a row, the Blazers have the best net differential of any team in the NBA over the last 10 games (numbers aided by a 32-point spanking of the Warriors). They are getting it done on both ends. Neil Olshey used the Blazers’ cap space brilliantly at the deadline to acquire picks.

source: 11. Pacers (30-25, LW 11). Rookie Myles Turner continues to impress (12 points, 8 rebounds against Orlando Sunday) in part because he plays fearlessly. Monta Ellis has hit an offensive grove recently as well. The Pacers starting five with Turner, Ian Mahinmi, Paul George, Ellis, and George Hill are playing fantastic defense.

source: 12. Hawks (31-26, LW 9). They kept the core together at the trade deadline, and even brought back an old favorite in Kirk Hinrich. Atlanta thinks in an Eastern Conference with a lot of parity (after Cleveland) they can make another deep playoff run — but not if they play the way they have dropping four-of-five they won’t.

source: 13. Hornets (29-26, LW 18). Getting Courtney Lee at the deadline will help fill the Michael Kidd-Gilchrist role — it was a good gamble, one that could keep them in the playoff mix (the Hornets are the current seven seed). What will also help with that is getting Al Jefferson back, he returned to play Sunday (he had 18 points). Charlotte has won five in a row but has a gauntlet this week on the road with Cleveland, Indiana, and Atlanta.

source: 14. Jazz (27-28, LW 12). It was a quiet move near the trade deadline, but it could end up being huge for Utah — they picked up point guard Shelvin Mack from Atlanta. In his debut Sunday (a loss to Portland) Mack had 16 points and six assists. Give the Jazz better point guard play and this team will make the playoffs again (they are currently the nine seed, just half a game back of Houston).

source: 15. Mavericks (30-27, LW 15). They added David Lee off waivers, and he should get a little run as a backup five for Rick Carlisle. Deron Williams has looked good in Dallas’ couple games since the All-Star break, but he gets a real test with Russell Westbrook and the Thunder this week.

source: 16. Bulls (29-26, LW 14). No Jimmy Butler due to injury, but Derrick Rose has stepped up in his absence and even Doug McDermott came out of virtually nowhere to drop 30 on Toronto in a win. The Bulls offense has looked good but Kobe Bryant nailed the analysis of them — if they get stops they can be a threat in the playoffs, but the Bulls haven’t done that in recent weeks.

source: 17. Rockets (28-28, LW 17). I feel for J.B. Bickerstaff trying to coach this roster the rest of the way after all the noise about them trying to trade key guys at the deadline — including the now-dead Donatas Motiejunas trade to Detroit. Houston is the current eight seed in the West, so the games this week at Utah (nine seed, half-a-game back) and Portland (seven seed, one game ahead) are about as important as late February games get.

source: 18. Pistons (27-28, LW 13). I love their deadline moves long term (Tobias Harris is a great fit), but will it get them into the playoffs this year? The Donatas Motiejunas trade falling apart isnt all bad, the Pistons get their pick back. They have lost five in a row, with a road game at Cleveland on deck. They are 2.5 games out of the playoffs right now and need to get on a little winning streak to make the postseason.

source: 19. Wizards (25-29, LW 19). They went a respectable 2-1 in the back-to-back-to-back they had coming out of the All-Star break (they were forced into that because a storm cancelled a previous game). I like the gamble on Markieff Morris, but is that going to be enough for them to make up 3.5 games and get into the playoffs? I’m not sold.

source: 20. Nuggets (22-34, LW 20). The good news their offense is starting to come together and put up numbers on a nightly basis. The bad news is their defense is struggling. Which makes Denver entertaining to watch if you like shootouts, but shows the developmental process still needed in the Rockies.

source: 21. Pelicans (22-33, LW 21). Not sure it makes up for a disappointing season, but what a performance by Anthony Davis with 59 points and 20 rebounds — he joins Shaquille O’Neal and Wilt Chamberlain as the only guys with 50-20 games in NBA history. They have won four of five games, but will not make up the 5.5 games they are out of the playoffs.

source: 22. Bucks (23-33, LW 22). The Bucks are starting Miles Plumlee at center, have taken the ball out of Michael Carter-Williams hands and given it to Giannis Antetokounmpo, and are seeing Jabari Parker start to find his groove — and so far the results are good, including a double-overtime win over Atlanta Sunday.

source: 23. Magic (24-30, LW 23). The additions of Brandon Jennings and Ersan İlyasova at the deadline should help stabilize the bench for the team to make a little playoff run, but what it really does is give Orlando $40 million in cap space (or more, depending on other moves) to chase free agents this summer. They want Al Horford.

source: 24. Kings (23-31, LW 25). The good news for Kings fans is that Vlade Divac (or whoever) talked Vivek Ranadive out out of making a future-killing trade in an effort to make the playoffs this season. But it’s hard to see how even great play from DeMarcus Cousins (this season isn’t on him) will not get the Kings to the playoffs, and that extends the drought to 10 years, the second longest streak without a postseason appearance in the NBA (Minnesota, to answer your question).

source: 25. Knicks (24-33, LW 24). The equation is pretty simple: no point guard upgrade at the deadline = no playoff chance. The Knicks are 2-9 since they were a .500 team and looked like they could make the playoffs back in January — and the reason is poor defense. Bringing in Jimmer Fredette is not going to solve the problems on that end.

source: 26. Timberwolves (17-39,LW 26). Karl-Anthony Towns completely outplayed Kristaps Porzingis over the weekend, so if there was any doubt about the Rookie of the Year — and there wasn’t before — it’s erased now. More interesting matchup this week against the Pelicans and Anthony Davis — can KAT ultimately be a better player than Davis?

source: 27. Nets (15-41, LW 28). They made a fantastic move hiring Sean Marks to be their GM, and hopefully that second Brinks truck they had to back up to his door to get him to take the deal will buy him some autonomy to rebuild this franchise the right way. Without interference from non-basketball people. This rebuild is going to take years.

source: 27. 76ers (8-47, LW 27). Jahlil Okafor put up 31 on Dallas over the weekend and it begs the question: How good can he be? Get him the ball in the block one-on-one and he can put up points, but his defense is a mess and his offensive game needs more diversity. Is he a Zach Randolph/Al Jefferson level player, or can he be more than that?

source: 29. Lakers (11-46, LW 29). Byron Scott finally put D’Angelo Russell back in the starting lineup and played his three young players — Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Julius Randle — together for long stretches. Hopefully we see a lot of that the rest of the season, and that the Kobe Bryant farewell tour doesn’t get in the way of player development.

source: 30. Suns (14-41, LW 30). Losers of 11 in a row. They made a good deadline trade getting a first-round pick and a player for Markieff Morris, who they wanted to ship out anyway. That means the Suns could have three first round picks this summer, and theirs will be high (currently they have the third worst record in the NBA).

Rudy Gobert says lack of Team USA stars in World Cup will continue

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The 2019 FIBA World Cup is over, and the United States did not medal. It was a disappointing showing for Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, and Jayson Tatum, who led the U.S. national team in a year in which several stars did not want to participate.

Instead it looks as though players like Stephen Curry and Draymond Green will play next year in the 2020 Olympics in Japan. Meanwhile, what can FIBA do to entice stars to play in their tournament?

There are lots of issues with how the World Cup works, including the wonky qualifying windows and the fact that the Olympics come in short succession. That’s not to say that folks back in the States don’t want the World Cup to be a big deal — USA basketball head Jerry Colangelo has said that he wants the FIBA contest to be a premier event.

But some, like Utah Jazz and French national team big man Rudy Gobert, don’t ever see that happening. Speaking to the New York Times’ Marc Stein, Gobert said that he doesn’t believe players will join in on the FIBA games thanks to how the modern NBA works.

Via NY Times:

“I wish all the best players would come, but it’s never going to happen,” Gobert said of the modern N.B.A. player’s approach in the Load Management Era. “They think about themselves more than anything — and it’s understandable. It’s a business. We all have families to take care of.”

Although FIBA has been around since 1932, it’s not a part of American culture yet and thus the Olympics seem to be what both players and fans care about in comparison. That the U.S. men’s team didn’t come away with the gold doesn’t even seem to be that big of a deal, culturally.

Gobert has the right idea in terms of the reality of the situation. Until respective national team organizations can entice their own players to join in, it’s not clear what the World Cup will mean for basketball fans in North America moving forward. As such, we are unlikely to see a star-studded World Cup Team USA in the near future.

Corey Brewer, Raymond Felton, Nick Young among players attending Rockets’ mini-camp

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The Houston Rockets have potential roster spots open.

With Iman Shumpert turning them down, the Rockets have just nine fully guaranteed contracts right now, plus eight guys on temporary deals. When the season starts, Houston has to have at least 13, and likely will have 14 or 15, players on the roster, even if some of those remain temporary contracts. In an NBA where guaranteed contracts are the norm, leaving very little drama for training camp, the Rockets are an exception.

Which is why a number of veterans — Corey Brewer, Raymond Felton, Nick Young, Thabo Sefolosha among them — are going to Houston’s mini-camp, reports Kelly Iko of The Athletic.

Mbah a Moute has since changed his plans and will not show up.

Can Brewer and Felton — at their age — beat out guys such as Isaiah Hartenstein, Michael Frazier, Ben McLemore, and Gary Clark for spots on the Rockets’ roster? I’m not sold that they can (Hartenstein is very likely to make the final roster), but the first step is a good showing at mini-camp, which can lead to a training camp invite.

The Rockets are not a deep team, at this point in the summer they may present the best opportunity for anyone to earn their way into an NBA contract.

James Harden wants to win multiple championships — and he hears the clock ticking

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James Harden has a Hall of Fame resume already: An MVP (and he is convinced he should have won more), six-time All-NBA and seven-time All-Star, a two-time scoring champ (averaging the most points per game since Jordan last season), an assist champ, and a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics. Right now he is the most lethal scoring threat in the game, and while I wouldn’t go as far as Daryl Morey he is undoubtedly one of the best scorers ever. His step-back is unstoppable.

However, there is one thing missing from that resume: A ring.

It’s something that irritates Harden but he cannot just get by himself. He has just turned 30 in the past month and told Howard Beck of Bleacher Report that he can hear the clock ticking, which is why he wants to win right now.

“I still haven’t accomplished half of what I want to accomplish,” he says. “Like, multiple championships. I want to be one of those basketball players that you won’t forget. And obviously, we all remember the Kobes and the Jordans and the D-Wades and all those guys. I want to be in that same conversation, obviously, in championships and all that good stuff, and best shooting guards to ever play the game…

“Of course [a championship] matters to me,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about it maybe the last year-and-a-half, two years. I’m on the right path. You can’t rush winning a title. Some win it early, some win it late. It’s perfect timing. The time is going to happen when the time happens. I’ve just got to be patient, continue to work my butt off, continue to be a great leader, great teammate, and just try to bring as much talent and as much guys that have that same drive that I have. I think we all have it right now.”

The Rockets have been the second-best team in the West — and maybe the second or third best team in the NBA — the past couple of seasons (by the playoffs last season the Rockets were back to that level). That has not been enough when faced with the juggernaut of Golden State, but Harden and company have been knocking on the door for years.

That door is now open. The Warriors, while still good, are not the fearsome force of previous seasons and the West is wide open — and seven teams think they can get through that door first.

Houston believes it should be at the front of that line, and they went and got Russell Westbrook as the latest and greatest superstar pairing of the Harden era. It’s a duo that will bring energy and, at least through mid-April, a lot of wins.

But there are questions: Can isolation players James Harden and Russell Westbrook strike a balance (especially in the playoffs when they will share the court more)? Can this team defend well enough with Harden and Westbrook on the court at the same time? Do the Rockets have enough depth to contend?

That’s a lot of questions, but every team in the West has questions, which is what makes this season so compelling.

Just don’t doubt for a second that Harden wants it and wants it badly. That alone, however, will not be enough.

Kevin Durant reverses course on championship: ‘Every day I woke up, I just felt so good about myself, so good about life’

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Following his first NBA title, Kevin Durant said, “After winning that championship (last season), I learned that much hadn’t changed. I thought it would fill a certain [void]. It didn’t.”

How does Durant now reflect on that time with the Warriors?

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“It’s very rare in our lives when we envision and picture something and it comes together the perfect way you envision it. [Winning a title] was the only time in my life that happened, and that summer was the most exhilarating time. Every day I woke up I just felt so good about myself, so good about life.… That was a defining moment in my life—not just my basketball life.”

It’s difficult to reconcile those two quotes. I’d love to hear Durant eventually explain.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t relish the championship aftermath as much he initially expected but, looking back, now realizes how much he actually enjoyed it. The end of his time with Golden State wasn’t totally pleasant. That might have provided perspective on the better times. Or maybe the difference is simply his mood on the day of each interview.

Durant is continuing to try to find himself while in the public eye. That isn’t easy, and it’ll lead to contradictions like this along the way. I appreciate his openness, even when he’s still difficult to understand.