Getty Images

Week 11 NBA Power Rankings: The Pelicans, Wizards are moving up the ranks

1 Comment

Only minor changes near the top of the board this week (Toronto and Houston switch spots), as we all await the Martin Luther King Jr. day rematch of Cleveland and Golden State. Two teams on the rise are Washington and New Orleans, now we see if they can sustain success.

 
Cavaliers small icon 1. Cavaliers (25-7, Last Week No. 1). It has raised eyebrows: LeBron James just turned 32 and is racking up a lot of minutes. A lot. He averaged 38.5 minutes per game in December. However, in a radio interview last week Tyronn Lue said the goal was to keep him at about that pace until late January/early February, then back him off some, so he is rested for the playoffs. The problem is resting him hurts the team — he sat a game again last week (they aren’t being punished for that here), and the Cavs are 0-3 when he does. That said, they beat the Celtics and remain the clear best team in the East.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (29-5, LW 2). Good teams not only beat other good teams, but they also don’t stumble against lesser competition — the Warriors are an NBA-best 19-1 against teams under .500. They picked up two wins at home this week and are 14-2 at Oracle this season, where they will be a lot for the next few weeks (they don’t leave California again until Jan 19). A number of radio shows have asked me if the Cavaliers are in the Warriors’ heads? We won’t really know until June, but ask again after the Martin Luther King Day rematch.

 
Spurs small icon 3. Spurs (27-7, LW 3). They went 12-2 outscoring opponents by 8.8 points 100 possessions in December, and a lot of that is thanks to a defense that held teams to a point per possession in December (second best in the NBA in last month). The team also was undefeated in games where they led by 13 until Sunday, when Atlanta came back and won in OT (when a sick Kawhi Leonard couldn’t hit the game winner). Interesting tests this week against two of the better teams in the East, Toronto and Charlotte.

 
Rockets small icon 4. Rockets (26-9, LW 5). The Rockets are 18-2 against teams under .500 this season, third best record in the NBA (behind Golden State and San Antonio). That is what good teams do, not let up and beat the teams they should. Winners of four in a row, their offense has been on fire of late, with a streak of four consecutive games with at least 120 points (the last time the Rockets did that was the 1978-79 season). Of course, James Harden leads the way and his 53 points, 16 rebounds and 17 assists night on New Year’s Even was one of the best performances from anyone this season.

 
Raptors small icon 5. Raptors (23-10, LW 5). Congratulations to DeMar DeRozan, who passed Chris Bosh last week as Toronto’s all-time leading scorer. The Raps have gone 3-2 on a West Coast road trip, which started with a couple wins giving them a franchise-record seven road wins in a row, before falling to the Warriors. One game left on the trip, in San Antonio. Will having Jakob Poeltl step in for Patrick Patterson on the “Kyle Lowry and the bench” lineup that has destroyed teams be a step back? Not so far.

 
Celtics small icon 6. Celtics (20-14, LW 9). They fell to Cleveland, they aren’t on that level yet, but picked up wins against Memphis and Miami, the latter thanks to Isaiah Thomas’ 52-point, 29 in the fourth quarter effort against Miami Friday. IT is having another All-Star level year (choosing the guards in the East will be tough). Just looking ahead to the summer: Thomas and Avery Bradley — who is playing well of late — will both be up for new contracts.

 
Grizzlies small icon 7. Grizzlies (22-14, LW 7). They have the point differential of a team with a 19-17 record, but in December they had the best defense in the NBA (allowing 99 points per 100 possessions) and the last couple weeks their offense has been impressive. Wins last week against Oklahoma City and Sacramento has them solidly in the playoffs in the West, despite ongoing injury issues (Mike Conley missed more time last week). Six of their next eight games are on the road.

 
Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (21-13, LW 8). It’s hard to come up with new ways to say “Russell Westbrook is unbelievable” but when he’s on the floor he accounts for 39.1 percent of the Thunders points (via scoring or assists). The formula of good defense, strong rebounding, and Westbrook works — but can they keep it up through the All-Star break. They spend most of January on the road and have arguably the toughest schedule in the league for month.

Jazz small icon 9. Jazz (21-13, LW 10). They got right with wins over soft teams they should beat (Lakers, Sixers, Suns) but the Nets on Monday night starts a tough five games in seven nights road trip that includes getting Boston and Memphis on the second night of back-to-backs. Can the basketball gods ease up on George Hill, please? He missed 13 games due to injury, looks good coming back and scores 21, then the next game takes an elbow to the head and is knocked into the NBA’s concussion protocol.

 
Hornets small icon 10. Hornets (19-15, LW 11). I love Kemba Walker’s “Walker, Charlotte Ranger” campaign for the All-Star Game, and he deserves to be there. Whether he will be will come down to the coaches, who have some tough choices to make. Nicolas Batum has been playing well for the last few weeks, and the Hornets need him to continue. Charlotte can look up and see Boston just a game ahead of them in the standings, but they need to keep winning because they are just 2.5 games up on New York and the nine seed — and falling out of the playoffs.

 
Bucks small icon 11. Bucks (16-16, LW 12). With Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker, the Bucks are about on the top of my must-watch League Pass list — this team is entertaining. And good. They remain one of four teams with a top 10 offense and defense, and their point differential is that of a 19-13 team. Malcolm Brogdon put up his first triple-double ever, and he’s making a push to get more of Matthew Dellavedova’s minutes. Interesting home-and-home with the Knicks, plus the Wizards on the schedule this week — the kind of games a playoff team needs to win.

 
Hawks small icon 12. Hawks (18-16 LW 15). Interesting note: in close games late, Thabo Sefolosha plays for the Hawks and Kent Bazemore — he of the new four-year, $72 million contract — sits. With Bazemore watching, the Hawks had an impressive win over the Spurs Sunday at home. Interesting timing department: Al Horford returns to Phillips Arena for the first time Friday night with his new team, just as rumors of Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver trades start to rumble through the league.

 
Clippers small icon 13. Clippers (22-14, LW 6). Losers of six in a row, much of that without Chris Paul (hamstring) and all of it without Blake Griffin (knee). CP3 is expected to miss at least one more game (Monday in Phoenix). Get this team healthy and they’ll be fine. If you want a bright spot Clippers fans, the January schedule is probably the softest in the West.

 
Wizards small icon 14. Wizards (16-16, LW 16). A hot second half of December — the Wizards have won 9-of-12 overall and eight in a row at home — has them in the middle of the playoffs in the East right now. What 2-8 start? What chemistry issues — Bradley Beal cast an online vote for John Wall for the All-Star Game (and himself, of course). The Wizards defense was middle of the pack in December (which was an improvement), but it’s their top-10 offense that has them moving up the standings. Fun, high-scoring showdown with the Rockets this week.

 
Pacers small icon 15. Pacers (17-18, LW 14).. They fell to the Wizards, but picked up good wins against the Bulls and Magic because the ball started moving again on offense (Jeff Teague had 26 combined assists in those wins). We will assume Paul George found those games fun. Good news for the Pacers’ playoff hopes, the schedule softens up considerably for them in January, including having the Piston, Nets, and Knicks this week.

 
Knicks small icon 16. Knicks (16-17 LW 13). Great stat via Haralabos Voulgaris: Through the last two seasons Kristaps Porzingis is shooting 77.2% eFG% on uncontested threes. But the Knicks are putting a huge load in terms of both minutes and demand on the young, still-growing player and now he is trying to play through a sore Achilles. Not ideal. The Knicks have lost four games in a row, and Derrick Rose has scored at least 20 points in each of those games. This week they play the Magic, the Bucks twice in a home-and-home, and the Pacers — all teams they will be battling with for a playoff spot until the end of the season. They need some wins.

 
Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (14-21, LW 23). Winners of four in a row, the last three of those with Anthony Davis starting at center and no Alexis Ajinca or Omer Asik (both are racking up DNPs). The win streak has this team in the hunt for the eight seed in the West, just a game back of Sacramento and Denver (tied for eighth), with Portland also in that mix. Tough week ahead with Cleveland and Boston on the schedule. Also, a smart roll of the dice on Donatas Motiejunas, but don’t expect much of him to start.

 
Bulls small icon 18. Bulls (16-18, LW 17). Reports surfaced that Fred Hoiberg could be in trouble as the Bulls coach after a rough December for the team. Really? The front office assembles the worst three-point shooting team in the NBA, one that still doesn’t fit the coach’s preferred style of play, and so you fire the coach? I’m not sold yet on Hoiberg, but this is not on him. He has sent Rajon Rondo to the bench and is playing Michael Carter-Williams in his place — that’s not going to solve the Bulls’ shooting problems.

 
Magic small icon 19. Magic (15-19 LW 19). This team has the makings of being great on defense, and they have shown that in stretches this year, but then in December they were back to being bottom 10 in that category. Despite some good nights from Aaron Gordon, the offense isn’t going to bail this team out much, they need to defend better. It’s not going to get easier to stay in the playoff hunt, they have a tough January schedule ahead of them.

 
Nuggets small icon 20. Nuggets (14-19, LW 21). Nikola Jokic averaged 17 points and 8.9 rebounds a game through December. The Nuggets are playing teams close, but they need to get more wins — particularly this week against Sacramento, the team they are tied with for the eighth seed on the West. The rest of the week is brutal — Warriors, Spurs, and Thunder.

 
Kings small icon 21. Kings (14-19, LW 18). Rudy Gay has missed 8-of-9 due to injury, and it showed last week in losses to Portland and Memphis — the kinds of wins the Kings need if they are going to be a playoff team. The starting lineup with Ben McLemore and Matt Barnes has struggled, particularly on defense. After playing a big game in Denver Tuesday, the Kings have seven games in a row at home and need to rack up wins to solidify a playoff standing.

 
Blazers small icon 22. Trail Blazers (14-21, LW 22). They seemed to break out of their slump with big wins over Sacramento and Minnesota last week — and they did it without the injured Damian Lillard. You can thank C.J. McCollum for that. The defense has looked better with Lillard out (not a huge coincidence with Allen Crabbe getting his minutes).

 
Pistons small icon 23. Pistons (15-20, LW 20). The Pistons are 3-8 in their last 11 games and have been outscored by 9.4 points per 100 possessions, worst in the NBA, in those games. Their offense has been anemic in this stretch, scoring a point per possession, while the defense that carried them early has been a mess and bottom 10. Stan Van Gundy said he doesn’t want to try and shake up this team with a trade yet, but he needs to do something (and figure out how to get Reggie Jackson back to his old self).

 
timberwolves small icon 24. Timberwolves (11-23, LW 27). They have gone 5-5 in their last 10, which is a step forward — all because their defense has been top 10 in the NBA in that stretch. That has been their weakness all season, but maybe Tom Thibodeau is starting to get through to the young core. Look for Thibodeau put on his GM hat and to try and get a better shooting point guard at the deadline or this summer. They need the floor spacing with Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine driving, and Karl-Anthony Towns in the paint — all three of them are averaging better than 20 points a game this season.

 
Mavericks small icon 25. Mavericks (10-24, LW 25). Rick Carlisle is a genius, but even he is going to struggle to get things to work with both Dirk Nowitzki and Andrew Bogut on the floor — the Mavs have been outscored by 62 points in the 53 minutes they have both been on the floor this season. It’s simply too slow on defense, and the offensive spacing doesn’t work, they are better with either of those two paired with Harrison Barnes. Dallas struggles against teams that can push the pace, which may be bad news against Washington and Phoenix this week.

 
Heat small icon 26. Heat (10-25, LW 24). How banged up are the Heat? Sunday night they started Josh Richardson, Rodney McGruder, Wayne Ellington, Luke Babbitt and Willie Reed. That ended about as well as you’d expect. Miami has nine healthy players on the roster, and it’s not their starters, which is why they have lost five in a row. They are on a West Coast road swing this week in Phoenix, Sacramento, and taking on both Los Angeles teams.

 
Sixers small icon 27. 76ers (8-24, LW 29). Was asked on a Philadelphia radio station this week how they can get Joel Embiid to the All-Star Game? No way the fans/players/media will vote him a starter, but you can make a case the coaches should pick him as a reserve — it’s not like he’s going to break his minutes restriction in that game. Probably a year away, but I’d love to see him in New Orleans (and not just for rookie/sophomore). The Sixers salvaged a West Coast road trip with a win in Denver, and when Embiid plays this team does not go down easily.

 
Lakers small icon 28. Lakers (12-25, LW 26). They were 2-14 in December, getting crushed in the second half of games all month, and that continued as the calendar flipped over as Kyle Lowry torched the Lakers in the fourth and the Raptors got the win. The Lakers also “passed” the Trail Blazers for the worst defense in the NBA on the season. Not to pile on, just a reminder that the Lakers first round pick this year goes to the Sixers (unless the lottery balls are kind and they land in the top three again).

 
Suns small icon 29. Suns (10-24, LW 28). Expect trade rumors surrounding the Suns to pick up, particularly around Brandon Knight, but they are going to have to showcase him a little. He’s lost minutes to Tyler Ulis of late, and also Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender are getting more run — Earl Watson wisely has entered the “let them learn on the job” phase of the season.

 
Nets small icon 30. Nets (8-24, LW 30). Jeremy Lin is still out with another hamstring injury (the basketball gods have been unkind to him this season) and Randy Foye is only going to be able to bail them out so much. The Nets are a respectable 7-8 at home, where they play seven of their next nine games. (To save you doing the math, they are 1-16 on the road.)

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

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

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

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

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

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
1 Comment

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

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images
1 Comment

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.