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NBA week 10 Power Rankings: Cleveland would like to remind you they are the champions.

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Sorry these arrive a little late on the day after Christmas, blame me for getting sucked into watching Elf and all the Christmas Day games. The Cavaliers have earned their spot at the top with their Christmas Day performance.

 
Cavaliers small icon 1. Cavaliers (23-6, Last Week No. 4). The Cavaliers have won five in a row, have handled the loss of J.R. Smith well so far, and reminded everyone on Christmas that the road to any NBA title goes through them. And LeBron James doesn’t just give rings away, some team is going to have to play better and take it. Also, the technical for Richard Jefferson for winking takes over the title for most ridiculous technical foul ever in NBA history. It’s a few weeks until the rematch, this week’s interesting game for the Cavs is against up-and-coming Celtics.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (27-5, LW 1). This team can use Christmas as a motivation, and they know June series are not decided in December. Here’s why statistics — advanced, regular, whatever — can miss the reality of the Warriors: More than 20 percent of their time on the court this season has been in what statistically is “garbage time.” Those blowout fourth quarters — like against a good Utah team last week — warp the number, often toward the negative because the bench guys get all the run and they aren’t as good. The Warriors start a string of 9-of-10 at home.

 
Spurs small icon 3. Spurs (25-6, LW 2). San Antonio has won 7-of-8 and showed us on Christmas how they can make a defense look bad with their ball movement, especially if said defense not that fleet of foot (like the Bulls). Also, Christmas was an example of what they can do to a traditional big who wants to stay near the basket, because both LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol can space the floor. Soft schedule this week should keep the wins coming. Even if the questions about how good this team really is linger.

 
Raptors small icon 4. Raptors (21-8, LW 5). Why isn’t this team playing on Christmas? They’ve earned it, NBA schedule gods — they are entertaining. Winners of 7-of-8, the Raptors started out their six-game West Coast road trip with a win in Utah, but their are tough stops ahead in Portland (tough place to win even with the Blazers’ recent struggles), Golden State, and San Antonio. This trip is a measuring stick again for Kyle Lowry and Toronto, who are 0-3 against Cleveland but can try to gain some confidence against the best of the West.

 
Rockets small icon 5. Rockets (22-9, LW 3). Losses last week to the Spurs and Grizzlies showed how much the Rockets miss Clint Capela in the paint. Montrezl Harrell and Nene got roasted by Zach Randolph. The lack of Capela means more small ball from Mike D’Antoni, but maybe they will call up Chinanu Onuaku and give him a chance (he’s averaging a double-double in the D-League but reports are he is painfully raw still). Also, expect the Rockets to get a Christmas Day slot next year. Just a guess.

 
Clippers small icon 6. Clippers (22-10, LW 6). This team can survive the loss of Blake Griffin and keep winning (they seem to do it every year, their offense gets more efficient running CP3/DeAndre Jordan pick-and-rolls), but they can’t lose Chris Paul too. His hamstring injury has cost them two games (including to the Lakers on Christmas), and he is expected to be out at least one more (Monday) and possibly Wednesday and Friday as well.

 
Grizzlies small icon 7. Grizzlies (20-12, LW 8). It took a few games after his return, but Mike Conley looked like himself again in the win over Houston last week (24 points, running the offense). The team needs that Conley with six of Memphis’ next seven are on the road, and the one home game is against Oklahoma City. Also, consider this a reminder that Marc Gasol is shooting 43 percent from three this season.

 
Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (19-12, LW 9). Of course Russell Westbrook had a good game on Christmas, but it was the hustle of Steven Adams that also stood out. He was physical on the boards, and simply out-hustled Karl-Anthony Towns down the floor all game long. Adams and Enis Kanter also are strong passers out of the post, which makes the thunder tough to stop.

 
Celtics small icon 9. Celtics (18-13, LW 10). Winners of five-of-six, including holding off the Knicks on Christmas Day, the Celtics look like a team coming together. Most underrated streak going right now: Isaiah Thomas 15 straight 20-point games. As trade rumors start to heat up you know Boston — with a lot of young players and picks — is going to come up, but with no superstars looking to be moved at the deadline don’t be surprised if they stand pat. Interesting games this week vs. Cleveland and Memphis.

Jazz small icon 10. Jazz (18-13, LW 7). Losers of three in a row, and that 30-point thrashing at the hands of Golden State was a reality check. Still, things like the blown lead (or inability to stop Toronto’s guards) might be different when George Hill gets healthy. Soft schedule this week (Lakers, Sixers, Suns) can help them get right before a rough road trip the following week.

 
Hornets small icon 11. Hornets (17-14, LW 11). I’m going to keep saying this every week — Kemba Walker deserves to be an NBA All-Star. The coaches need to pick him as a reserve (fans aren’t going to vote him in). He’s carried Niclas Batum on offense, as the Frenchman has turned into a jump shooter and stopped attacking the rim. Charlotte has won three in a row and should be able to extend that with a soft start of the week (Nets, Magic, Heat) before running into Cleveland.

 
Bucks small icon 12. Bucks (14-14, LW 12). They lost both games of a home-and-home to Cleveland, but in doing so made everyone both respect them and want to see that as a first-round playoff matchup. If you want the bright side: The sign of a contender is being top 10 in offense and defense and the Bucks are there (one of four teams, although the Cavs will get there). The Bucks are 10th ranked in offense and ninth in defense, and their point differential suggest they should be 16-12.

 
Knicks small icon 13. Knicks (16-14 LW 16). The Knicks fell on national television Sunday — exposing their defense as the weakness it is, particularly in the paint — but wins earlier in the week against Orlando and Indiana were the kind of wins playoff teams rack up. This seems like a team that can get one of the bottom few seeds in the East this season, which is a step forward for Phil Jackson’s roster.

 
Pacers small icon 14. Pacers (15-16, LW 13).. Indiana is 11-5 at home, 4-11 on the road, which gets to what Paul George was saying this week that the team’s “identity is inconsistency.” Glenn Robinson III is struggling to knock down shots in Monta Ellis’ place. The Pacers are the eight seed in the East as this goes live Monday, but they have road games against the Bulls and Wizards — the two teams behind them in the standings — to start the week. The Pacers need to string a few wins together.

 
Hawks small icon 15. Hawks (15-15 LW 20). Dwight Howard is expected back in the rotation Monday, but the Hawks won 2-of-3 without him beating the Thunder and Nuggets. They did it by going smaller for stretches, including Kyle Korver as the most deadly stretch four ever, and Paul Millsap looked great at the five spot. Also Dennis Schroeder seemed to have more driving lanes. Knicks, Piston, and Spurs come to Atlanta this week.

 
Wizards small icon 16. Wizards (13-16, LW 14). Bradley Beal had an eight-game streak scoring 20+ points (before Friday against the Bucks), John Wall has been putting up numbers, but then the offense has not been what is holding the Wizards back. It’s the defense, particularly when they need to go to the bench. That’s not helped by Ian Mahinmi being out for another six weeks.

 
Bulls small icon 17. Bulls (14-16, LW 18). Not surprisingly, the Bulls take the fewest three pointers per game of any team in the league (19.6) and shoot the lowest percentage when they do (31 percent). That lack of spacing has caught up with the starters. What was a surprise on Christmas Day was the bench pulling Chicago back into the game in San Antonio. But the Spurs had the tools to expose the Bulls weaknesses, as do a lot of playoff teams.

 
Kings small icon 18. Kings (13-17, LW 22). They are on a three-game winning streak (and have won 4-of-5) and with that, they are the eight seed and in the playoffs if the postseason started today. They are playing their best basketball of the season, but it’s fair to question if they can sustain it and make the postseason. The Kings face the Trail Blazers again on Wednesday, which means another round of the Boogie Cousins vs. Meyers Leonard feud.

 
Magic small icon 19. Magic (14-18 LW 19). They have been beating inferior teams and looking good doing it, but play a decent team and Elfrid Payton comes apart off the bench, the team looks like it has no depth, and they lose. Orlando is only 1.5 games out of the playoffs, but they need wins against teams like Charlotte and Indiana this week to climb up those standings.

 
Pistons small icon 20. Pistons (14-18, LW 15). Losers of five in a row, but Stan Van Gundy broke out a new starting lineup on Friday, sliding Jon Leuer in and bringing Tobias Harris off the bench. Tough way to break that lineup in, against Golden State, but they hung close. It doesn’t get easier Monday against Cleveland. But after that comes a string of five games against other teams they are battling with to get into the playoffs — starting Wednesday against Milwaukee, Detroit needs to get back on track and rack up some wins.

 
Nuggets small icon 21. Nuggets (12-18, LW 21). It’s a sign of the trouble coach Mike Malone has had in creating stability this season — no five-man lineup for Denver has played more than 77 minutes together this season. Worst in the NBA.

 
Blazers small icon 22. Trail Blazers (13-19, LW 17). They have lost 9-of-10, fallen out of the playoffs (if they started today), and it feels like this ranking may actually be too high. The defense is always an issue, but the offense has been inconsistent of late, the ball sharing that made them fun last year seems gone most nights, and now Damian Lillard’s ankles are bothering him. Raptors and Spurs are tough this week, but the Kings and Timberwolves are the kinds of wins they need to turn things around.

 
Pelicans small icon 23. Pelicans (11-21, LW 24). I would love the Pelicans to just embrace Anthony Davis at the five, Terrence Jones at the four and run with it (bring Omer Asik and/or Alexis Ajinca off the bench) but they lack the shooters and wing defenders to make that work for any stretch. Coach Alvin Gentry said this was a crucial homestand, if they have even the faintest of playoff dreams they need to rack up wins this week against the Mavericks, Clippers, and Knicks.

 
Heat small icon 24. Heat (10-21, LW 23). That was a good comeback last Thursday night, on Shaq’s jersey retirement night, from down 19 to beat the Lakers. But the fact they were down 19 to Los Angeles and could not come back on Orlando or New Orleans shows where this team is right now. Justise Winslow is not consistent on offense but they are leaning more and more on him. The Goran Dragic trade rumor mill is in high gear and will remain there the trade deadline or he gets moved.

 
Mavericks small icon 25. Mavericks (9-21, LW 29). Dallas is getting healthy — Dirk Nowitzki is back — and they have won 3-of-4 and 5-of-9. The Mavericks are doing it with strong defense. The good news for the Mavericks is their toughest in the league schedule is about to soften up, although you wouldn’t know it with the Rockets and Warriors up this week. But Dallas has become a tougher out now.

 
Lakers small icon 26. Lakers (12-22, LW 26). They got the Christmas Day win against what’s left of the Clippers, but that just makes the Lakers 1-12 in December, and their defense remains a disaster. Los Angeles is getting off to strong enough starts, leading or hanging with their opponents, only to have it come undone as the game moves along because they cannot get stops.

 
timberwolves small icon 27. Timberwolves (9-21, LW 27). Karl-Anthony Towns is a snail getting back in transition defense. He seems slow to recognize and doesn’t explode with his first step, nor does he run hard much of the time — Steven Adams torched him all game on Christmas on national television. It was just hustle. The Timberwolves picked up a couple of wins last week and started to show promise, but then fell to the Kings and Thunder, and everything feels like it took a step back.

 
Suns small icon 28. Suns (9-21, LW 25). You see flashes of offense in Phoenix — from Devin Booker or T.J. Warren, sometimes Eric Bledsoe — but it doesn’t matter when the defense is bottom give bad. The roster remains just an oddly constructed mess — it’s hard to see the overarching plan. What’s worse, the schedule gets a lot tougher for the next few weeks, starting with the Rockets, Spurs, Raptors, and Jazz this week.

 
Sixers small icon 29. 76ers (7-22, LW 28). Brett Brown has wanted to give the Jahlil Okafor/Joel Embiid front court time to work out, but that pairing is getting outscored by 17.1 points per 100 possessions and is a defensive disaster. Soon he will try Embiid and Nerlens Noel. But he knows he has one combo that does work pretty well: Embiid and Ersan Ilyasova (they are +5 per 100 possessions in more than 200 minutes together). That doesn’t mean Ilyasova is the long term answer, it does mean a stretch four may be the answer. Hello Dario Saric?

 
Nets small icon 30. Nets (7-22, LW 30). The good news is the team is scoring — the Nets scored more than 100 points in 10 straight games until Cleveland last Friday (they scored 99). The problem for Brooklyn is they went 2-8 in those 10 point games because they can’t get stops. Still, they are at least entertaining and a little bit dangerous when Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Jeremy Lin and Brook Lopez are all on the court together.

Team USA keeps top spot in FIBA men’s world rankings, Spain No. 2

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USA Basketball has kept its No. 1 spot in the FIBA world men’s rankings, even after a disappointing seventh-place showing in the World Cup that ended earlier this week.

It’s now nine-years-and-counting in the top spot for the U.S., which has held the No. 1 ranking since winning the 2010 world championship. World Cup champion Spain stayed No. 2, Australia leaped eight spots to No. 3, World Cup finalist Argentina rose one spot to No. 4 and World Cup bronze-medalist France fell two slots to No. 5.

FIBA’s rankings take results from the most recent eight years into account – which means the U.S. is still reaping point benefits from the 2012 and 2016 Olympic gold medals and the 2014 World Cup title.

“In this day and age, basketball in other countries is not a secret,” U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said after the Americans completed their run in the World Cup. “So it’s not like there’s an epiphany or a revelation to be made. There are wonderful teams and wonderful coaches all over the world. You go compete and the best teams win.”

It’s now expected that the U.S. will retain the No. 1 ranking going into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Several top NBA players, including Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Damian Lillard have said in recent days that they intend to play for the U.S. in Tokyo, where the Americans will try to win a fourth consecutive gold medal.

Most top U.S. players declined to be part of the World Cup team.

“I’m expecting them to be so strong next year,” Spain coach Sergio Scariolo said.

OLYMPIC UPDATE

The new rankings confirmed that European champion Slovenia, which didn’t earn a spot in the World Cup field after many of its top players couldn’t take part in qualifying since those games conflicted with the NBA and Euroleague schedules, will still have a chance to compete in the Olympics – as will seven other teams that found out they’re headed to playoffs next year.

Angola, Senegal, Mexico, Uruguay, China, Korea and Croatia also still have Olympic hopes. Those last eight playoff spots awarded Thursday went to the top two teams from Africa, Europe, Asia-Oceania and the Americas regions who hadn’t either already clinched Olympic berths or spots in the last-chance playoffs.

Japan is automatically qualified for the 12-team Olympic tournament as the host country. The U.S., Argentina, Nigeria, Spain, France, Iran and Australia clinched Olympic spots at the World Cup by finishing as the best teams in their respective FIBA regions – the Americas, Africa, Europe, Asia and Oceania.

That leaves four unclaimed Olympic berths, and 24 teams to compete for them in playoffs next year. There will be four six-team tournaments held from June 23-28, 2020 – winner-take-all, all in this case meaning an Olympic berth. Bidding for sites is expected to begin shortly, FIBA said.

The other 16 playoff spots were awarded based on World Cup placing. They went to Serbia, Lithuania, Greece, Russia, Brazil, Italy, Puerto Rico, Turkey, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Germany, Canada, the Czech Republic, Poland, New Zealand and Tunisia.

MOVING UP

Belize was the top mover in the new rankings, climbing 50 spots to No. 118. Kosovo rose 21 spots to No. 69, Togo went up 21 spots to No. 136, Tunisia climbed 18 spots to No. 33 and Ivory Coast went up 16 spots to No. 48.

STILL SWEEPING

FIBA has four sets of rankings – for men, women, boys and girls. The U.S. holds the No. 1 spot in all four of those rankings, though the race is tightest among the men.

The U.S. men hold a lead of 54.9 points over Spain in those rankings, while the rankings margins held by the U.S. women (310 points over No. 2 Spain), boys (291 points over No. 2 Canada) and girls (155 points over No. 2 Spain) are far more comfortable.

Report: NBA won’t allow Rockets to use Nene’s contract as $10M trade chip

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Update: Shams Charania of The Athletic:

This is a huge blow to Houston. The Rockets are now stuck with an over-the-hill center they can’t trade for value and can’t play much without triggering bonuses that’ll make him way overpaid.

If they had known how this would turn out, they would’ve signed Nene to a one-year minimum contract at most. At least that’d be partially subsidized by the league. Because this is is a two-year deal, Houston is on the hook for the full base salary.

 

 

The Rockets got a valuable trade chip with Nene’s contract.

At least if the deal goes through.

Bobby Marks of ESPN:

Although Nene signed with the Houston Rockets on Sept. 6, the NBA has yet to officially approve the deal. The 10-day delay is a result of the NBA discussing internally whether it should disapprove details in the contract, according to multiple sources.

Nene’s contract includes a low base salary with a massive amount of likely incentives. Houston could count Nene’s full $10 million salary (base plus likely incentives) in a trade. The acquiring team would then owe Nene his base salary plus only the bonuses he actually triggers.

It’s a workaround to the typical salary-matching rules.

The bonuses are tied to individual games played and team games won. Because Nene played 42 games for the 53-win Rockets last season, the bonuses are qualified as likely. Last year’s performance is the default way to determine whether incentives are likely or unlikely.

You can read more about the contract’s structure here.

The NBA’s apprehension is interesting. The Collective Bargaining Agreement specifies a procedure for challenging incentive classification when the league or union believes the prior season is not a fair predictor. Essentially, that side makes a case to an arbiter that the default assumption is “very likely” to be wrong.

However, in a funny quirk here, that challenge system lays out only how the NBA can challenge to turn unlikely incentives into likely incentives and how the union can challenge to turn likely incentives into unlikely incentives. There’s nothing about the NBA turning likely incentives into unlikely incentives, which the league is apparently considering here (and would make Nene’s contract invalid, as there’s a limit on unlikely incentives).

The CBA also prohibits circumventing the spirit of the rules. The league could rule Houston did that here. However, that’s a tough case considering not only does Nene’s contract meet all stated technicalities, there’s a section specifically on challenging these types of details. It just doesn’t apply.

The Heat opened the door for likely/unlikely-incentive shenanigans a couple years ago. We didn’t hear then about the NBA challenging those contracts, and that’s where the official challenge system would’ve applied.

It seems unfair to punish the Rockets’ creativity now.

Doc Rivers: I told Steve Ballmer, if Kawhi Leonard signed with Lakers, Clippers moving to Seattle

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We know what happened: The Clippers traded for Paul George, signed Kawhi Leonard and became championship favorite.

But at one point, Clippers coach Doc Rivers thought the George trade with the Thunder would fall through and Leonard could sign with the Lakers.

Rivers, via Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times:

“The day of the trade at 12 noon the deal was off,” Rivers said. “I was at home in Malibu and Lawrence called me and told me, ‘It looks like he’s either going to Toronto or the Lakers.’ The Lakers part just threw me over. I told him that can’t happen. … I remember I kept telling him, ‘We cannot allow that to happen!’

“I actually told Steve jokingly that if that happens, we’re moving the team to Seattle. It was a joke, but I was actually serious about it. I really believed that.”

Kawhi Leonard cost us the SuperSonics returning!

I don’t know how serious Rivers really was. Leonard joining LeBron James and Anthony Davis on their cross-arena rival would’ve been disastrous for the Clippers.

I’m convinced Ballmer will keep the franchise in Los Angeles. Ballmer’s ties to Seattle through Microsoft are well-established, and he previously tried to buy the Kings to move them to Seattle. But I can’t see him moving the Clippers from such a prime market, especially after going so far to get a new arena built in L.A. At every turn, he has maintained he’ll keep the team in Los Angeles.

Then again, Ballmer also phrased that guarantee as, “I will die owning the L.A. Clippers.” Now, he’s open to changing the nickname. Hmmm…

To be clearer than Rivers: That’s a joke I’m not actually serious about don’t really believe.

Stephen Curry responds to Kevin Durant: We all want to iso, but I’d rather win titles

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After the Warriors lost to the Jazz in December, Steve Kerr said his team didn’t move the ball enough. Kevin Durant said Golden State passed too much.

That public disagreement sure looks more significant now. Not only did Durant leave for the Warriors, he cited offensive style as a reason.

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

“The motion offense we run in Golden State, it only works to a certain point,” he says. “We can totally rely on only our system for maybe the first two rounds. Then the next two rounds we’re going to have to mix in individual play. We’ve got to throw teams off, because they’re smarter in that round of playoffs. So now I had to dive into my bag, deep, to create stuff on my own, off the dribble, isos, pick-and-rolls, more so than let the offense create my points for me.” He wanted to go someplace where he’d be free to hone that sort of improvisational game throughout the regular season.

Stephen Curry clearly viewed things differently.

Curry, via ESPN:

“Well, I don’t really care what plays we ran,” Curry said. “We won two championships. And at the end of the day, we had a lotta talent and there was an expectation of us figuring out how to balance all that. And we talked a lot about it throughout the three-year run. It wasn’t always perfect, but I think in terms of, you know, the results and what we were able to do on the floor, that kinda speaks for itself. We all wanna play iso-ball at the end of the day in some way, shape or form. But I’d rather have some championships, too.”

There’s truth to what Durant said. Defenses tighten deep in the playoffs, both because good defensive teams are more likely to advance and scouting committed to a single opponent tends to favor the defense. At that level, elite isolation scorers like Durant are particularly valuable. They can render schemes moot.

The Warriors learned that the hard way in the 2016 NBA Finals. They lost to the Cavaliers, who turned up their defense that postseason. Golden State scored fewer points per possession in its series against Cleveland than the Pistons did in the first round against the Cavs.

Adding Durant made the Warriors’ offense nearly unstoppable in every round. They leaned on their movement-heavy system when possible then turned to Durant isolations in moments of need.

Assessing playoff output is tricky because of varying opponents. But in three years with Durant, Golden State faced nine teams that played multiple postseason series. Eight of those teams had their worst defensive series against the Warriors, each by at least 2.6 points per 100 possessions. Only the 2019 Trail Blazers fared worse defensively against another team. They allowed just 0.2 more points per 100 possessions against the Nuggets than against Golden State.

Of course, Durant missed last season’s Western Conference finals against Portland. His absence was a big reason the Warriors’ didn’t meet their usual offensive standards.

Still, Golden State’s base offense was elite. Infallible? No. But it won multiple big playoff series before Durant arrived. He just took the Warriors to an even higher level.

Though he sometimes chafed at how the Warriors played, Durant also did his part to fit with them. He played his part in running Kerr’s preferred style.

It just seems Durant no longer wanted that safety-valve role. He holds immense respect for individual scoring as a skill. He’ll have a better chance to spread his wings in Brooklyn.

Durant will have a harder time winning a title without the incredible supporting cast he left behind. Curry might have wanted to point that out.

But everyone did their part in Golden State the last few years. That’s why they won those championships.