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NBA Power Rankings Week 5: Warriors climb to top, Mavericks fall to bottom

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We all knew that Golden State would have the top spot in the rankings at points this season (seven wins in a row will do that) but did anyone see Dallas on the bottom? That caught me off guard.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (11-2, Last Week No. 3). They have won seven in a row, and have done it with a dominant offense and a pedestrian defense. The Warriors are moving the ball — they have 30+ assists in their last nine games — and they are scoring 119.5 points per 100 possessions with a True Shooting Percentage of 62.4 in the last seven. Against Toronto last week, almost 74 percent of the Warriors’ shots were either at the rim or a three pointer, and 45 percent of their shots were uncontested (according to NBA.com players tracking). That is covering up a defense giving up 106.6 per 100.

 
Clippers small icon 2. Clippers (12-2, LW 1). You can’t underestimate how great Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have been defensively this season, propelling this team — but don’t sleep on how great the Clippers’ offense has been of late. In the Clippers’ last five games they have scored 118.9 points per 100 possessions (second only to ridiculous Warriors offense). They are scoring efficiently in every possible way — transition, pick-and-roll, spot-up jumpers, whatever they run now it works.

 
Cavaliers small icon 3. Cavaliers (10-2, LW 2). What’s the primary place the Cavaliers are getting shots? Catch-and-shoots. They account for 30 percent of their looks, and the Cavs are shooting 55.4% eFG% on those (stats via Synergy Sports). The one loss last week was when LeBron James rested. They enter a fairly soft stretch of the schedule, with the only challenge being Portland in the next week.

 
Spurs small icon 4. Spurs (10-3, LW 6). They have won five in a row and remain undefeated on the road at 7-0. San Antonio’s offense is 3.8 per 100 better when Tony Parker is on the court. “Tony knows the offense better than anybody, and he gets us organized in a lot of situations, so he has been really important since he came back from his injury,” said Gregg Popovich.

 
Hawks small icon 5. Hawks (9-4 LW 5). Part of Atlanta’s success has been it’s bench — it has the most efficient scoring bench in the NBA so far this season (using points per possession). Well, at least until the entire team sleepwalked through a day game Sunday in New York. At the heart of that bench has been the play of Thabo Sefalosha, who is having his best season in the NBA, efficient on offense and playing fantastic defense.

 
Bulls small icon 6. Bulls (9-5, LW 9). Dwyane Wade sat out the second game of a back-to-back in Los Angeles, which signaled the start of Chicago’s knee maintenance program for him. Chicago won anyway with Jimmy Butler dropping 40, and with that have won five-of-six (with the lone loss being the Clippers). When Butler and Dwyane Wade are on the court but no Rajon Rondo, the Bulls outscore opponents by 24.7 points per 100. They finish up their road trip vs. Denver and Philly this week.

 
Hornets small icon 7. Hornets (8-4, LW 8). Kemba Walker has been a flat out beast this season, especially running the pick-and-roll. He’s got a 53.9 percent eFG% on those shots, and as a team the Hornets score at a very good 1.03 points per possession on those plays. Teams are trying to take the ball out of his hands on those plays, but when he has to pass out Hornets still at a good 0.91 points per possession (stats via Synergy Sports). Tough start to the week with Memphis and San Antonio, then an interesting home-and-home with New York.

 
Raptors small icon 8. Raptors (8-5, LW 4). We didn’t want to penalize them too much for losses to the Cavaliers and Warriors last week, and while the referees followed the letter of the law in the end in Sacramento that rule needs to be changed. The Raptors have been all offense, no defense of late: in the last five games they are scoring 111.6 points per 100 possessions, but giving up 108.8. Also, your weekly reminder that DeMar DeRozan is a beast even if Anthony Davis passed him in the scoring leader chase.

 
Rockets small icon 9. Rockets (8-5, LW 15). The Rockets looked every bit a playoff team this week beating Portland and Utah, while playing Oklahoma City to the wire in a two-point loss. It’s just two games, but to the eye the Rockets’ defense looks much improved with Patrick Beverley back. (Can he pull it out of the bottom 10? They are 22nd right now.) After Thanksgiving Houston heads out on a five-game West Coast road trip that will be a real test.

 
Grizzlies small icon 10. Grizzlies (8-5, LW 17). Winners of four in a row, and that includes beating the Clippers and Jazz on nights David Fiddle’s spread the floor offense clicked. The bad news is they will need to continue this streak without Chandler Parsons for a couple weeks (bone bruise in his left knee), and their spacing and shooting is not the same with him off the floor, they are 8.3 points per 100 possessions worse with him sitting.

 
Thunder small icon 11. Thunder (8-6, LW 11). This team has some ugly losses — they lost to the Pistons without Andre Drummond this week, and despite a triple-double from Russell Westbrook they lost to a Pacers team resting Paul George on Sunday. They have a mini West Coast road swing to start the week (no Warriors), then head home to take on the Pistons with a chance to get a little revenge for that loss.

 
Celtics small icon 12. Celtics (7-6, LW 12). Both Al Horford and Jae Crowder returned on Saturday night — and Horford celebrated by hitting the game winner, then getting the game sealing block. Isaiah Thomas’ offense has struggled recently, the return of Horford as a pick-and-roll partner and guy to space the floor should help. Look for them to climb the rankings the next few weeks now that they are healthy again.

 
Blazers small icon 13. Trail Blazers (8-7, LW 10). They have the worst defense in the NBA this season, giving up 108.5 points per 100 possessions this season (the loss of Al-Farouq Aminu is part of the problem). All of that is why there will be more of things like the recent three-game losing streak, it’s hard to get consistent wins without defense — the offense can only bail you out so much. How many wins can they get out of a week with the improving Knicks and Pelicans, plus the Cavaliers and Rockets on the schedule?

 
Lakers small icon 14. Lakers (7-7, LW 12). The offense is there, the Lakers have scored 120+ points four times this season, which is already more than the two years under Byron Scott combined. The problem is on defense, where the Lakers cannot get stops, which did them in against a depleted Bulls team Sunday. The Lakers have allowed 116 points per 100 possessions through their last four games. Larry Nance Jr. is turning everyone’s heads, he had 18 points on 11 shots vs. the Bulls.

Jazz small icon 15. Jazz (7-8, LW 7). The Jazz have a four-game losing streak, and they have played eight games without George Hill now (out with sprained thumb) and are 3-5 in that stretch. Maybe the guy feeling Hill’s loss the most is Gordon Hayward, who has struggled with his shot because the spacing is not there. Dante Exum makes a nice backup right now but he cannot fill Hill’s shoes, which is why Utah is taking a serious look at extending Hill.

 
Pacers small icon 16. Pacers (7-7, LW 20). The Pacers beat the Cavaliers, although only because LeBron James sat, but more impressively got a win Sunday vs. Oklahoma City with Paul George out. He’s got a sprained ankle and will miss at least one more game (Warriors). Jeff Teague had 30 points and nine assists in the win over OKC, after a slow start to the season he has found his shooting groove the last couple of weeks. Tough schedule this week with the Warriors, Hawks, and Clippers (and a respite against the Nets).

 
Knicks small icon 17. Knicks (6-7 LW 25). They have won three of four and in those four games the Knicks defense has been near the league average — which is a massive improvement. We’ve only had a small sample size but the Knicks have looked great with Carmelo Anthony at the four and Kristaps Porzingis at the five, they need to run more of that. Tough tests for that defense this week vs. Portland, then a home-and-home with Charlotte.

 
Pistons small icon 18. Pistons (6-8, LW 16). They beat the Thunder on the night Andre Drummond rested, but have lost three in a row since as their defense has been terrible. There may be no team with a bigger road/home difference than the Pistons, who are 1-7 on the road but 5-1 at home. This week they are home for three but it won’t be easy against the Rockets, Heat, and Clippers.

 
timberwolves small icon 19. Timberwolves (4-8, LW 18). They continue to struggle getting production out of the point guard position — Ricky Rubio’s never-good shot has not taken a step forward, and Kris Dunn is not ready to take over that role — the rookie is shooting 32.7 percent overall and is miserable from the midrange (and 27 percent from three). The defense also remains bottom 10, which is where Tom Thibodeau is going to push for improvement.

 
Magic small icon 20. Magic (6-7 LW 22). They are getting outscored by 7 points per 100 possessions this season, which would would suggest a 3-10 team (according to basketball-reference.com), but their defense is improving and that is winning them some games. Jeff Green is starting over Aaron Gordon now at the three, which reminds us that Gordon was at his best at the four but isn’t getting used there enough. Winnable games this week: Suns, Wizards, and two against the Bucks.

 
Heat small icon 21. Heat (4-8, LW 26). Goran Dragic is back from a sprained ankle and the Heat picked up two quick wins (Bucks and Wizards). Not a coincidence. Hassan Whiteside is living up to that massive new contract — 17.7 points, 16.2 rebounds and 2.8 blocked shots per game, with a PER of 25. He’s playing like an All-Star. This week they are on the road in Philly, Detroit, and Memphis.

 
Bucks small icon 22. Bucks (5-7, LW 14). The Bucks have lost five of six, including three in a row to quality teams (Hawks, Heat, and Warriors). What player has the lowest eFG% in the league on shots from from outside the paint? Gianni Antetokounmpo at 25.5%. They have two games against Orlando coming up, but the Cavaliers and Raptors are mixed in as well.

 
Nuggets small icon 23. Nuggets (5-8, LW 24). They won two-of-three last week and the one loss was in OT to the Raptors. Mike Malone is still searching for lineups that work well, but he seems to like a front line of Kenneth Faried and Jusuf Nurkic (it worked well against the massive Jazz front line). Tough week coming up with the Bulls, Jazz, and Thunder on the docket.

 
Kings small icon 24. Kings (5-9, LW 21). They had lost four in a row before getting a quality win over the Raptors Sunday, which happened when they moved Rudy Gay to the four to start. The story with the Kings is fairly simple: When DeMarcus Cousins is on the court the Kings get outscored by 1.7 points per 100 possessions (very close to playing teams even), when he sits they get outscored by 13.7 per 100. Also, when Cousins and Rudy Gay are on the court together the Kings are +3.4 per 100.

 
Pelicans small icon 25. Pelicans (4-10, LW 29). The return of Jrue Holiday has been huge for the Pelicans, he is hitting shots (54.8 percent) and when he is on the court the Pelicans are outscoring opponents. Anthony Davis took over the top spot in the NBA scoring race, at 31.7 points a game. Hawks, Blazers, and the Mavericks are on the schedule this week.

 
Nets small icon 26. Nets (4-9, LW 19). The Nets have lost four in a row and gone 2-6 since Jeremy Lin went down, their offense is just not the same with him sidelined. Of course, their defense has been a disaster of late as well and he’s not going to help as much on that end — the Nets try to be aggressive and pressure on the wings but they don’t have personnel to do that.

 
Wizards small icon 27. Wizards (3-9, LW 28). The John Wall/Bradley Beal combo isn’t a disaster — when they are on the court together they Wizards outscore their opponents by 2 points per 100 possessions. Overall, the Wizards’ offense is middle of the pack, the problem is their 25th-ranked defense keeps costing them games. Wall and Beal each scored 30+ on Saturday, but they couldn’t get stops and the Heat got the win. Can they pick up wins this week against the Suns and Magic (I wouldn’t count on the Spurs).

 
Sixers small icon 28. 76ers (3-10, LW 30). The Sixers have won two-of-three, beating the Wizards and Suns last week. Joel Embiid is still a force of nature inside and finding his game, but when Nik Stauskas is hitting shots the Sixers floor spacing is better and they pick up wins. Those wins will be tough to find this week against the Heat, Grizzlies, Bulls, and Cavaliers.

 
Suns small icon 29. Suns (4-10, LW 27). One of the biggest surprises of the season so far is the fact Devin Booker is shooting 41.4 percent overall and 27.9 percent from three. Not the step forward we all expected. The Suns are in the middle of a six game road trip (1-3 so far, the win against the Pacers without Paul George) and the team continues to struggle on both ends of the court.

 
Mavericks small icon 30. Mavericks (2-10, LW 23). Losers of five in a row, even with the return of Dirk Nowitzki, and they have the worst offense in the NBA. Harrison Barnes is trying to carry the offense and is doing well, but much of that is coming in isolation — 29.7 percent of his shots have come in isolation, the highest percentage of any player in the league this season, but he’s shooting a very good 52.4 percent on those (via Synergy Sports). It will be hard to find wins this week against the Spurs, Clippers, and Cavaliers.

Evan Fournier says that Frank Ntilikina just ‘needs a real opportunity’

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New York Knicks fans haven’t had a lot to cheer for recently. The team traded away Kristaps Porzingis, who is thought to be the franchise cornerstone. Now they move forward with a young core, RJ Barrett, and tons of cap space.

So what does that mean for players who have been around in the Big Apple like Frank Ntilikina?

Based on how Ntilikina played in the 2019 FIBA World Cup for France this year, things might be looking up.

Ntilikina’s statistics weren’t eye-popping, but he was seen as a very solid player in a backcourt that helped propel France to the bronze medal in China.

To that end, fellow countrymen Evan Fournier thinks that all Ntilikina needs is a chance to shine.

Via Twitter:

Ntilikina’s season last year was marred by injuries, and he played in just 43 games. Still, he has the physical tools to be a useful NBA player, and he’s just 21 years old. With the surprisingly low-pressure situation in New York, it’s possible that extended time playing in the World Cup could help aid what Ntilikina is able to produce next season for the Knicks.

Report: Lakers receive DeMarcus Cousins disabled-player exception

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A chance at a championship. LeBron James. Anthony Davis. The Los Angeles market. Great weather.

The Lakers can offer plenty to anyone who gets bought out this season.

Now, the Lakers – who lost DeMarcus Cousins to a torn ACL – get a mechanism to offer post-buyout players more money.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The exception holds little value presently. It’s worth less than a full-season minimum salary for anyone with more than four years experience.

But minimum-salary and mid-level exceptions decline throughout the season. This exception does not.

So, on March 1, a team with only a minimum slot available can offer a free agent just between $233,459 and $666,546 (depending on the player’s experience level). The Lakers can offer $1.75 million.

This means an NBA-appointed doctor ruled Cousins is “substantially more likely than not” to be out through June 15. Given that prognosis, the Lakers could open a roster spot by waiving Cousins, who’s on a one-year deal and facing a domestic-violence charge. They’d still keep the exception.

If Cousins can return more quickly than expected, he’d be eligible to play, whether or not the Lakers use the exception.

Damian Lillard says he plans to play for Team USA in 2020 Olympics

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Stephen Curry said he wants to play for Team USA in the 2020 Olympics.

He isn’t the only star point guard eager for Tokyo.

Damian Lillard, via James McKern of news.com.au:

“I plan on being a part of that. I plan on playing,” Lillard said

Though neither Curry nor Lillard played for Team USA in this year’s World Cup, there’s a potentially large difference: Curry never agreed to play. Lillard did then withdrew. USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo indicated particular scorn for players who decommitted.

Of course, Colangelo also wants to win. That might require swallowing his pride and accepting players who withdrew this year. He has talked tough in the past about players who didn’t show his desired devotion to USA Basketball. Lillard got cut in 2014 then missed the 2016 Olympics citing injury. It can be difficult to determine which absences Colangelo forgives.

One factor working against Lillard: The Americans’ point guard pool is deep. Curry rates higher. Kemba Walker earned respect by playing in the World Cup. James Harden (who also withdrew from the World Cup) and Kyrie Irving also factor.

I expect Colangelo to operate on a sliding scale: The better the player, the less prior commitment to USA Basketball necessary. Lillard is an excellent player. We’ll see how far that gets him.

And whether he’ll even want to play next year. The reasons for playing – pride of representing your country, prestige marketing opportunities – are more obvious now. The reasons not to play – injury, fatigue, personal commitments – are more likely to emerge closer to the Games.

Losing Kemba Walker would always sting. Hornets made it nearly as painful as possible

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Hornets faced a miserable choice this summer:

  • Lose not only their by far best player, but the greatest player in franchise and someone with a deep connection to the community
  • Sign a point guard to an expensive contract that will further inhibit an already-strapped team from competing at even a moderate level

Charlotte’s choice? Both.

The Hornets let Kemba Walker leave via free agency and replaced him with Terry Rozier (three years, $56.7 million). That’s a failure, not one of solely this offseason, but a failure nonetheless.

At 29, Walker would’ve likely become a negative value on a long-term deal. But at least he would’ve kept Charlotte more firmly in the Eastern Conference playoff race in the near term – not that on the fringes of that competition is a great place to be. There were reasonable arguments for and against keeping Walker.

But if the Hornets were willing to offer him only $160 million (about $62 million less than his super max), they should have traded him before it got this far. Why did they keep him past last season’s trade deadline? To have him represent Charlotte in the All-Star game there? To make a longshot run at the No. 8 seed? Without knowing exactly what other teams offered, that seems highly likely a mistake.

The Hornets weren’t good enough to make the playoffs with Walker. What makes them think they’ll be good enough with Rozier?

Losing Walker always would’ve invited a year of pain. Charlotte is too capped out, too veteran-laden to pivot in a meaningful way. But at least Bismack Biyombo‘s, Marvin Williams‘ and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist‘s contracts will expire next summer. Nicolas Batum‘s and Cody Zeller‘s will expire the following year.

Now, Rozier is on the books another year after that.

Maybe Rozier, 25, will become a key part of the Hornets’ next successful era. He has the requisite athleticism and has shown flashes of being a good starting point guard. But he’s coming off a down year. That counts, too.

It’s easy to pin Rozier’s struggles on a tough situation behind Kyrie Irving. That surely factored. Still, most players on a starting track would’ve fared better in those circumstances.

Credit Charlotte for creativity. By signing-and-trading Walker to the Celtics for a signed-and-traded Rozier, the Hornets got more spending power. But they probably would’ve been better off with a point guard in the mid-level-exception range like Tomas Satoransky, Delon Wright or Tyus Jones. It’ll take a major jump for Rozier to justify his near-$19 million-per-year salary.

Charlotte isn’t giving him much help. Jeremy Lamb left in free agency. Even though they have enough breathing room under the tax line to use the rest, the Hornets haven’t used their mid-level exception other than sliver for No. 36 pick Cody Martin.

Internal prospects look limited. Charlotte didn’t place anyone on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years. No. 12 pick P.J. Washington probably won’t change the franchise’s arc.

The Hornets didn’t reach this dismal point in one offseason. But this summer worsened the predicament.

Offseason grade: D-