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Week 9 NBA Power Rankings: Houston rocketing up rankings

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We’re sorry about the lazy wordplay in the headline. I blame the stress of the holidays for not coming up with something better. Houston has flown all the way up to third in the rankings, Utah has climbed to seventh, while the Sixers stay out of the bottom thanks to Brooklyn.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (24-4, Last Week No. 1). Finally, on Christmas we get the Warriors vs. Cavaliers rematch, but this time around the Warriors have JaVale McGee. Oh, and Kevin Durant (though McGee has played pretty well this season). Stephen Curry said it this week, what Durant has brought to Golden State is another level of versatility. Durant slid into Harrison Barnes’ slot in the “death lineup” and they are outscoring teams by 25.6 points per 100 possessions. When Durant and Curry are on the floor together, the Warriors outscore opponents by 16.4 per 100. Also for Warriors this week, interesting game vs. Utah on Tuesday.

Spurs small icon 2. Spurs (22-5, LW 3). As you would expect from the Spurs organization, the retirement of Tim Duncan’s jersey was classy, emotional and just flat out on point. That Sunday win over the Pelicans was first of five games in seven days for the Spurs, including games on the road against the Rockets, Clippers, then the Trail Blazers on the second night of a back-to-back. Rough stretch, guys will get rested. Of course, the Spurs have Christmas Day plans, taking on the Chicago Bulls in the second of the ABC games.

Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (21-7, LW 5). The real key to the Rockets 10-game winning streak? They are allowing 98.4 points per 100 possessions on defense, second best in the NBA in that stretch (Memphis). They are up to 14th in the NBA in defense overall this season — that’s better than Cleveland — and have played well on that end since the return of Patrick Beverley. People are still asking if the Rockets are for real, there’s a good test of that Tuesday night when the Spurs come to town.

Cavaliers small icon 4. Cavaliers (19-6, LW 2). Despite the uproar over Tyronn Lue resting LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love all in one game in Memphis last week, the fact is Lue is keeping a tight rotation most nights and leaning on his stars. LeBron has played the second most minutes of anyone in the NBA in December. Lue needs to trust his bench more — and those guys need to earn that trust. Of course, big showdown against the Warriors on Christmas where Lue should lean on those stars.

Raptors small icon 5. Raptors (19-8, LW 4). Toronto has the best net rating in the NBA over the last 10 games, and the best offense in the NBA this season (yes, better than Golden State). Key to that is Kyle Lowry with the bench lineup continues to just destroy teams — Lowry with Cory Joseph, Lucas Nogueira, Patrick Patterson, and Terrence Ross are +30.3 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents this season (better than the Warriors “death lineup” in nearly as many minutes). Patterson with the starters also has been impressive for the Raptors.

Clippers small icon 6. Clippers (20-8, LW 6). After a 14-2 start that saw them playing better than any team in the NBA, the Clippers have gone 6-6 — and now will be without Blake Griffin for a few weeks due to knee surgery. The Clippers starters with Griffin are the second most used lineup in the NBA and are +16.2 per 100 possessions, when they go to the bench the Clippers struggle. Los Angeles is about to go to the bench a lot. The Clippers “travel” to the Lakers on Christmas — I like that idea, a matchup where both teams get to spend the days with their families before the game, no travel.

Jazz small icon 7. Jazz (18-10, LW 9). Winners of five in a row and eight-of-nine, all while they still can’t get healthy (no George Hill, yet). They still just keep winning games, with the second-best defense in the NBA this season and a top-10 offense. While everybody is talking about the Warriors vs. Cavaliers on Christmas, the Jazz take on the Warriors Tuesday in a very interesting test (same with the Toronto vs. Utah game Friday).

Grizzlies small icon 8. Grizzlies (18-11, LW 7). The Grizzlies got Mike Conley back last Friday, sooner than expected, but the rust is still there as he shot 5-of-23 in two games. The Jazz went an impressive 7-2 while Conley was out. To me, that moves the Grizzlies into the “yes, they are going to make the playoffs for sure” column. Thank Marc Gasol for that. How good is he playing? Here is what Utah coach Quin Snyder said: “Marc Gasol has been the best player in the NBA the last 10 games.”

Thunder small icon 9. Thunder (16-11, LW 8). The Thunder stumbled last week on offense with Victor Oladipo out, although things looked better when Anthony Morrow slid into the starting lineup and provided some shooting. Something else that should help is the return of Cameron Payne in the next couple weeks, improving the backup point guard situation. Russell Westbrook gets a star turn on Christmas day, and should put up strong numbers against a struggling (to be kind) Minnesota defense.

Celtics small icon 10. Celtics (15-12, LW 11). Think the Celtics didn’t miss Isaiah Thomas? They lost three of four when he was out recently, and won both games since he returned. Granted, the toughness of the schedule played into that, but the Celtics are not the same without Thomas in the lineup. What should please Celtics fans more is the team’s improved defensive play the past couple of weeks. The Celtics tip-off the Christmas Day games against the Knicks

Hornets small icon 11. Hornets (15-13, LW 10). They had lost four in a row until picking up a victory against Atlanta Saturday, and the key factor in that remains the bench play. When Kemba Walker is on the floor, the offense is a force. When he sits, and when Steve Clifford leans on the bench, the team struggles at both ends of the floor. Interesting game against the stumbling Bulls on Friday.

Bucks small icon 12. Bucks (13-12, LW 15). Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only player in the NBA to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. The guy just does everything (except be consistent on jumpers), and they have surrounded him with enough shooting — including from Jabari Parker — to make it all work. They have a tough home-and-home with Cleveland this week.

Pacers small icon 13. Pacers (14-14, LW 16). They enter a softer part of the schedule for the next couple of weeks — this is when good teams, playoff teams, pad their win totals. The Pacers have seemed to play up-and-dwon to the competition. The new CBA “designated player” rule makes things interesting the next couple of years for certain players such as Paul George — if he makes the All-NBA team he’s in line for a potentially much larger raise. He’s one of the early test cases, if he qualifies.

Wizards small icon 14. Wizards (12-14, LW 20). The Wizards have won five-of-six and they got on this hot streak because of their the offense – they are 6.6 points per 100 possessions better in the last six games (the defense has remained basically flat just 0.4 points per 100 possessions better). Also, the bench has been playing much improved (they had nowhere to go but up). The Wizards have been shooting very well from the midrange, we’ll see if they can sustain that.

Pistons small icon 15. Pistons (14-15, LW 14). They have been stumbling on the offensive end, which Stan Van Gundy said has stated to impact their defense. That led to some ugly losses (Sixers, Wizards, Pacers) and sparked a team meeting to talk it out. We’ll see if that helps, but better play from Reggie Jackson (trying to get right after a return from injury and is shooting 39 percent. Rough week to try and get things right, they start against Chicago but then get the Grizzlies and Warriors.

Knicks small icon 16. Knicks (14-13 LW 13). They have lost three in a row, and it’s not a coincidence that Derrick Rose missing most of the last six games has something to do with that. Brandon Jennings is a fun spark plug off the bench, but not a great fit with Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. Madison Square Garden hosts the tip off of the Christmas Day games, as the Celtics come to town. The Knicks also have Indiana and Orlando in town this week, the kinds of games they need to win to remain a playoff team.

Blazers small icon 17. Trail Blazers (13-16, LW 18). They have dropped 6-of-7 and are now 8-4 at home but 5-12 on the road for the season. The defense remains dead last in the NBA, but in the last 10 games they remain sixth in the NBA in offense, keeping them afloat. However, they have nights where there is a lot of pounding the ball and watching. Also, this season the Trail Blazers have been outscored by 186 points when Evan Turner is on the court.

Bulls small icon 18. Bulls (13-13, LW 12). Losers of three in a row and that includes blowing a 21-point lead to the Timberwolves. Chicago’s offense has gone into the tank. They have an ABC, prime time, Christmas Day game against the lock-down defense of the Spurs. Watch during the game how the Bulls try to neutralize Kawhi Leonard by having whoever he is guarding the half court (usually Jimmy Butler) act as a decoy on the weak side, not involved in anything, and the rest of the Bulls will attack 4-on-4 against the remaining Spurs.

Magic small icon 19. Magic (12-17 LW 19). The defense we expected to see from the Magic this season just is not there — they are 19th in the NBA in defensive net rating, and over the last few weeks they have been much worse. What has saved them is a surprisingly good offense led by Aaron Gordon and Serge Ibaka. The new starting lineup — no Elfrid Payton or Nikola Vucevic — is 5-2.

Hawks small icon 20. Hawks (13-14 LW 17). The Hawks had an impressive win over the Raptors on the road, but also fell to both the Magic and Hornets last week. Nothing is consistent about this team, well except that their defense is no longer elite. They started the season 9-2, have gone 4-12 since, and it feels like they are more the latter team than the former.

Nuggets small icon 21. Nuggets (11-16, LW 21). Mike Malone is still searching for a front-line rotation that works, and has gone to the “start Nikola Jokic and play Jusuf Nurkic far less” lineup and that has won the team two games in a row. For as bad a start as they had to the season, the Nuggets are just a game back of Portland for the final playoff spot in the West, and if they can put together a run it gets interesting.

Kings small icon 22. Kings (10-17, LW 22). The new CBA is going to make things interesting for DeMarcus Cousins. If the Kings hold on to him past the trade deadline — as most close to the team expect — they can this summer offer Cousins the Designated Player extension, meaning a five-year, $207 million (give or take) deal beyond his current one. If he leaves as a free agent in 2018, he will make roughly $60 million less guaranteed. Will Cousins turn that kind of money down? He will be the first big test case for that rule.

Heat small icon 23. Heat (9-19, LW 25). They just got Justice Winslow back, which should help spark the team, particularly defensively. Miami is playing hard for coach Eric Spoelstra, and Hassan Whiteside has earned that massive contract from last summer, but this team just finds ways to lose close games. With this team looking out of the playoff chase, will they move Goran Dragic, Luke Babbitt, or Dion Waiters at the trade deadline?

Pelicans small icon 24. Pelicans (9-20, LW 23). In the desperate search for silver linings outside Anthony Davis, Buddy Heild had a 21-point game last week and showed off how scouts thought that jumper would. Also good news, Tyreke Evans is back on the floor for New Orleans, that should help. Also, Tim razor has been dishing the ball well and looking like a solid NBA player.

Suns small icon 25. Suns (8-19, LW 27). What player has the worst raw +/- numbers in the NBA this season. Brandon Knight, and it’s not close at -224. (While +/- has its flaws as a stat, if you have that number there are issues.)Eric Bledsoe is trying to do it all on his own — three 30-point games — but the team defense stinks (24th in the NBA) and the offense can’t make up for it.

Lakers small icon 26. Lakers (11-19, LW 24). The team snapped an eight-game losing streak in Philly Friday, but over the past 10 games this has been the worst team in the NBA. The problem isn’t the offense or defense — it’s both. Injuries played a role in the slide, but this young team hasn’t figured out how to fight through fatigue or win on the road. Christmas Day they get to host the Clippers.

timberwolves small icon 27. Timberwolves (7-19, LW 26). This team shows flashes that give you hope — such as the 21-point come-from-behind win in Chicago last week. Then they turn around and blow a 12-point lead with two minutes left and fall to the Rockets on Sunday. Is Tom Thibodeau able to reach the young core players of the Timberwolves, or are they tuning him out already?

Sixers small icon 28. 76ers (7-20, LW 28). Going into the season, Brett Brown told us he wanted to try out different big man combinations to see what fits and what doesn’t. Last year we learned Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel is a poor paring (Noel is now glued to the bench). This year learning that Joel Embiid and Okafor don’t work well together, they get killed on defense. Is Dario Saric the long-term answer at the four?

Mavericks small icon 29. Mavericks (7-20, LW 29). Dirk Nowitzki says he wants to be back by the end of the month, but nobody is sure if that will happen. No Andrew Bogut for a while either. If you’re looking for a bright spot (outside the play of Harrison Barnes), we’re sorry about this: The Mavericks are about to play six-of-seven games on the road, where they are 1-12 so far this season.

Nets small icon 30. Nets (7-19, LW 30). Jeremy Lin is back on the court, which makes this team far more entertaining to watch but not much better — they lost to the Sixers last week (they did get a win over a tired, traveling Lakers team). More bad news, the schedule this week is the Raptors, Warriors, and Cavaliers. Ouch.

Watch Klay Thompson scoff upon learning he missed All-NBA, super-max eligibility (video)

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James Harden, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook and Kemba Walker were All-NBA guards this season.

Not included: Klay Thompson.

That’s a costly missed opportunity for Thompson, who also finished behind Bradley Beal in voting. Thompson’s max contract in free agency this summer projects to be worth $190 million over five years. If he made All-NBA, it would have been a projected $221 million over five years.

Anthony Slater of The Athletic:

Thompson:

That’s cool and all, but when you go to five straight Finals – I respect those guys. But, holy, when you go to five straight, it takes more than just a couple All-NBA guys.

But whatever. I’d rather win a championship than be third-team All-NBA. So, it’s all good.

Do I think there’s that many guards better than me in the league? No.

To me, the All-NBA teams should honor the players who had the best regular season that year. It’s not about who the best players are. It’s not about who advanced furthest in prior years. It’s about who performed the best during that regular season. (Obviously, better players are more likely perform better.)

That wasn’t Thompson, and I didn’t think he was particularly close.

Maybe Thompson conserved energy for the playoffs. That would have been the right approach. The Warriors are good enough to bank on reaching the postseason, and the organization should emphasize this time of year.

But a side effect is being less deserving of regular-season awards.

That’s why super-max contracts probably shouldn’t be tied to All-NBA. A player’s value to his team stems so much from the playoffs, and these awards are voted upon immediately after the regular season.

For the most part, it will work out fine. But Thompson is the exact type of player to get slighted. I wouldn’t blame him for resenting the system.

He’s focused on a different question – who are the best guards, especially in the playoffs? – than most All-NBA voters were answering. Incidentally, Thompson’s question is much more similar to one teams ask themselves when determining players’ salaries. Unfortunately for Thompson, the All-NBA voters’ considerations will matter much more in how much he gets paid.

Warriors: Kevin Durant likely to miss start of NBA Finals

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The Warriors have a historically long nine-day layoff before the NBA Finals.

It probably won’t be long enough for Kevin Durant.

Warriors release:

Warriors forward Kevin Durant (strained right calf) and center DeMarcus Cousins (torn left quadriceps muscle) were evaluated by the team’s medical staff earlier today.

Durant, who has not yet been cleared to begin on-court activities, continues to make good progress with his rehabilitation. At this point, it is unlikely that he will play at the beginning of the 2019 NBA Finals, but it’s hopeful that he could return at some point during the series.

Cousins also continues to make good progress with his rehabilitation and practiced with the team today for the first time since suffering the injury on April 16. It’s anticipated that he will play at some point during the 2019 NBA Finals, but the exact date is to be determined and depends on his progress.

The status for both players will be updated next Wednesday.

The Warriors are better with Durant. They’re also really darned good without him.

Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala still make Golden State extremely talented. Those players fit well together.

The competition will get harder against the Bucks or Raptors, but the Warriors can still prevail without Durant.

Of course, as soon as he’s healthy, Golden State will welcome him back with open arms. Whatever complications he brings, his ability justifies dealing with them

DeMarcus Cousins is trickier. He’s been out longer and not the same level of player. He could help in small doses, but it’s harder to find a place for him in the rotation, even if he’s healthy enough to play.

Kemba Walker gets super-max eligibility with All-NBA voting; Bradley Beal, Klay Thompson miss out

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Super-max contracts have made All-NBA teams incredibly important.

This year’s selections (first-team votes, second-team votes, third-team votes and voting points in parentheses):

First team

G: James Harden, HOU (100-0-0-500)

G: Stephen Curry, GSW (91-9-0-482)

F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, MIL (100-0-0-500)

F: Paul George, OKC (71-25-3-433)

C: Nikola Jokic, DEN (59-38-2-411)

Second team

G: Damian Lillard, POR (8-87-5-306)

G: Kyrie Irving, BOS (0-52-39-195)

F: Kevin Durant, GSW (29-71-0-358)

F: Kawhi Leonard, TOR (0-73-23-242)

C: Joel Embiid, PHI (40-57-4-375)

Third team

G: Russell Westbrook, OKC (1-43-44-178)

G: Kemba Walker, CHA (0-4-39-51)

F: Blake Griffin, DET (0-13-76-115)

F: LeBron James, LAL (0-13-72-111)

C: Rudy Gobert, UTA (1-5-69-89)

Also receiving votes: Bradley Beal, WAS (0-1-31-34); Klay Thompson, GSW (0-3-18-27); Karl-Anthony Towns, MIN (0-0-20-20); LaMarcus Aldridge, SAS (0-2-11-17); Danilo Gallinari, LAC (0-1-4-7); Ben Simmons, PHI (0-0-7-7); Mike Conley, MEM (0-0-4-4); Donovan Mitchell, UTA (0-0-4-4); Pascal Siakam, TOR (0-0-4-4); Nikola Vucevic, ORL (0-0-4-4); Dwyane Wade, MIA (0-1-0-3); Luka Doncic, DAL (0-1-0-3); Andre Drummond, DET (0-1-0-3); DeMar DeRozan, SAS (0-0-3-3); D’Angelo Russell, BRK (0-0-3-3); Tobias Harris, PHI (0-0-2-2); Devin Booker, PHO (0-0-1-1); Eric Gordon, HOU (0-0-1-1); Jrue Holiday, NOP (0-0-1-1); Kyle Lowry, TOR (0-0-1-1); Lou Williams, LAC (0-0-1-1); Marvin Bagley III, SAC (0-0-1-1); Domantas Sabonis, IND (0-0-1-1); Anthony Davis, NOP (0-0-1-1); Myles Turner, IND (0-0-1-1)

The fallout:

  • Kemba Walker is now eligible for a five-year super-max contract projected to be worth $221 million over five years. Will the Hornets offer it? Would he accept it? Difficult decisions for both sides as he enters free agency this summer.
  • The Wizards dodged a bullet with Bradley Beal placing a fairly distant seventh among guards for three All-NBA spots. A super-max extension for him would have been too large a commitment right now, and not offering it threatened to alienate him. Forces would have been pushing toward a trade. Now, Washington’s options with Beal – who has two years left on his contract – are wide open. If he continues to play well and earns All-NBA in a future season, the Wizards could justify giving him the super-max then.
  • Likewise, the Warriors avoid their payroll skyrocketing as far into the stratosphere. Klay Thompson didn’t make All-NBA and therefore his max contract is capped at five years, projected $190 million. Considering he seems so happy in Golden State, the extra spending power of the super-max likely would have only cost the Warriors money without actually making Thompson more likely to stay.
  • Karl-Anthony Towns missed his last chance to trigger the super-max in his rookie scale extension, which will pay him a projected $158 million over the next five seasons. He would have earned about $32 million more with an All-NBA selection. The Timberwolves now have Towns secured at the lower amount. They surely hope the sense of urgency he showed late this season persists.
  • Damian Lillard has clinched eligibility to sign a super-max extension this offseason (four years, projected $193 million) or the 2020 offseason (five years, projected $250 million). He’ll reportedly ink the deal this summer with the Trail Blazers.
  • Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo will be eligible in the 2020 offseason for a super-max extension projected to be worth $250 million over five years. He’ll probably sign it. But until he does, all eyes will be on him.
  • Anthony Davis can this offseason sign a five-year, super-max extension projected to be worth $235 million with the Pelicans. He doesn’t want to. David Griffin has made noise about keeping Davis into 2020 free agency. But because he missed All-NBA this season, Davis isn’t guaranteed to be super-max-eligible then. He’d have to make All-NBA next season. So, New Orleans would have less of an upper hand in re-signing him – which makes a risky strategy even riskier.
  • The actual All-NBA teams look good to me. I would have picked Bradley Beal and Jrue Holiday over Russell Westbrook and Kemba Walker, but it was close. I have no significant complaints about the players chosen.
  • On the other hand, some of the stray votes: Dwyane Wade (second team!),  Eric Gordon, Domantas Sabonis, Marvin Bagley III. Wow.

Report: Mavericks conclude Kristaps Porzingis was just ‘in the wrong place at the wrong time’

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Kristaps Porzingis got bloodied, reportedly while being jumped, in Latvia a couple weeks ago. Details were scarce. Reliable details were even rarer.

But the Mavericks are apparently ready to move on.

Brad Townsend of The Dallas Morning News:

a team source told The News that Porzingis returned to Dallas several days ago and that both of his hands are fine.

Furthermore, the source said, Mavericks officials investigated the incident in Latvia, have spoken at length to Porzingis and are satisfied that the incident was a case of the 7-foot-3 23-year-old being “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

The Mavericks do not deserve benefit of the doubt with their investigations. Their investigation into sexual misconduct in the workplace didn’t name team photographer Danny Bollinger, whom multiple women accused of sexual harassment. (Dallas later fired him.) The Mavericks also traded for Porzingis, who had been accused of rape, and then claimed they didn’t know about the accusation at the time of the deal.

Dallas has called Porzingis its No. 1 offseason priority.