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NBA Power Rankings Week 19: Trade deadline shuffle didn’t change balance of power, rankings

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We saw a couple big moves in the run-up to the trade deadline, and there were plenty of rumors, but when the dust settled it still looks like a Golden State/Cleveland Finals rematch, so long as everyone can just stay healthy.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (49-9, Last Week No. 1). Here’s the only question that matters with the Warriors: Are they better than last year’s team? It’s a question answered in the postseason, but they are not going to win as many games. However, as of right now they have a better net rating (beating opponents by 12.8 points per 100 possessions) than last season (11.8). I think this team can hit higher highs than last season, just ask the Clippers who watched the Warriors drop a 50-point quarter on them last week.

 
Spurs small icon 2. Spurs (45-13, LW 3). They are pretty locked in as the two seed in the West, 4.5 games behind the Warriors and 3.5 games up on the Rockets. We keep looking past a team about to win 50 games for a 20th straight non-lockout season. Also, we need to enjoy the final ride of Manu Ginobili, he is going to be missed.

 
Cavaliers small icon 3. Cavaliers (40-17, LW 2). No Kevin Love now until around the start of April but the Cavaliers are filling out their depth nicely with the expected signings this week of Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut off the waiver wire (two guys who can still contribute plenty). That depth helps but it’s LeBron James carrying this team — with a heavy minutes total — and that’s not going to let up as they battle to keep home court. Kyle Korver returns to Atlanta on Friday night, he should get a warm greeting from those fans.

 
Rockets small icon 4. Rockets (42-18, LW 4). Houston is averaging a league-best 40.3 three-point attempts per game, but they hit 50 fairly regularly now — and the addition of Lou Williams is going to only up that number. Admit it, you want to see a Rockets/Warriors Western Conference Finals just like I do, not because Houston can beat a healthy Golden State team, but because it would be so damn entertaining.

 
Jazz small icon 5. Jazz (37-22, LW 7). They are the anti-Rockets — they want to play slow and they have won three in a row keeping their opponent under 100 points (actually, their last nine wins they opponent hasn’t cracked triple digits). They have the point differential of a team a couple games better than their record (the rash of injuries early caused that), and come the playoffs Utah could make the second round and be a tough out.

 
Celtics small icon 6. Celtics (38-21, LW 6). It was one of the NBA hot topics after the trade deadline: Should the Celtics have stood pat at the trade deadline? It’s not a simple question. For one, you’re assuming that Paul George or Jimmy Butler could be had without a gut-the-assets deal, which would be a mistake (Indy, in particular, wasn’t that interested in a deal). Second, they can revisit those trades this summer. Of course, we all know this decision will ultimately be viewed through the revisionist history lens of whatever comes in the next several years for Boston.

 
Wizards small icon 7. Wizards (34-23, LW 5). Nice pickup landing Bojan Bogdanovic for a little depth help, but this team is still heavily dependent upon its starters. Scott Brooks has done a great job lightening up the practice schedule to keep guys fresh, but they have a lot of road games and a tough schedule remaining, can they hold off Toronto for the three seed? They have a home-and-home with the Raptors this week that will be telling.

 
Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (36-25, LW 11). OKC made strong moves for this season at the trade deadline, grabbing Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott (although they clearly have not figured out how to use the latter guy yet). The Thunder went 4-6 with Ends Kanter out and have won three in a row, the last two since his return. Key games with Utah, then at Portland and Dallas this week.

 
Raptors small icon 9. Raptors (35-24, LW 12). They are 2-0 since the All-Star break, where they made bold moves landing Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker. Often these moves get cast in the light of the Cavaliers, but first and foremost these moves need to get them back past the Wizards and into the three seed, so they avoid Cleveland in the second round. They have six of seven on the road, the one home game part of a home-and-home with the Wizards that will be key in getting the three seed.

 
Grizzlies small icon 10. Grizzlies (34-25, LW 8). In a league where versatility is a buzzword, the Grizzlies are what they are — big, physical, grinding — and it works for them. The Grizzlies also are one of the better fourth quarter teams in the NBA because they execute well. Memphis remains a squad that the teams near the top of the West would prefer to avoid in the first round of the playoffs, just because of the physicality.

 
Clippers small icon 11. Clippers (35-23, LW 13). Chris Paul is back, and with that Blake Griffin is going off (72 points in his last two games). Still things are not smooth, they needed overtime to get by the Hornets, and with a tough schedule and a lot of back-to-backs left it will near impossible for them to get out of the four/five matchup in the first round of the playoffs (they are 5.5 games back of the three seed Rockets) and that means a tough Utah team in the first round, win that and get the Warriors.

 
Heat small icon 12. Heat (27-32, LW 14). They came out of the break and smacked around Indiana and Atlanta — the Heat have won 16 of 18 and are just one game back of Detroit for the final playoff slot in the East. Waiters Island has more visitors than Hawaii right now. Miami has winnable games this week (Dallas, Philadelphia, Orlando) followed by the Cleveland in what could be a fun showdown.

 
Hawks small icon 13. Hawks (32-26 LW 9). The Hawks looked more than rusty in the two games since the All-Star break, shooting 38 percent in them combined with an average of 17.5 turnovers. It didn’t help that Dennis Schroder was suspended for one game (visa issues getting back into the country after the break) then didn’t start the next game because he missed a team bus. They are poised to face a team like Toronto or Washington in the first round, I don’t see the consistency from the Hawks to think they could threaten in one of those series.

 
Bulls small icon 14. Bulls (30-29, LW 15). The Bulls front office insists there is a plan, but it remains hard to see it. They kept Jimmy Butler at the trade deadline as the core guy to build around, but moved Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott, who were key rotation guys. That said, they have won four in a row including over the Raptors, Celtics and Cavaliers (without LeBron). Fun Thursday night showdown withe Warriors on national television.

 
Pacers small icon 15. Pacers (30-29, LW 10).. While they tested the market, the Pacers didn’t really want to move Paul George at the deadline, so they didn’t. That said, if he doesn’t make an All-NBA team this year (allowing the Pacers to offer him a Designated Player contract worth $210 million) expect them to revisit trade talks over the summer. They have five of their next six on the road and a little losing streak could have them scrambling to hold on to a playoff slot in the East.

Pistons small icon 16. Pistons (28-31, LW 17). Does everyone on this roster being available at the trade deadline — including Andre Drummond — impact the roster chemistry going forward? The Pistons tried to move Reggie Jackson at the deadline but couldn’t find a buyer (not sure what Orlando was thinking), still expect a heavy diet of Ish Smith as this team tries to hold off Miami for a playoff slot.

 
Nuggets small icon 17. Nuggets (26-33, LW 16). That Wilson Chandler and Danilo Galinari are still on the roster is a sign this team wanted to keep the veterans with its young core and make a push to hold off Portland and keep the eighth seed. Emmanuel Mudiay has fallen out of the rotation, which puts more on the shoulders of Jamal Murray, but he can handle it. Check back to PBT on Tuesday for more on Murray.

 
Blazers small icon 18. Trail Blazers (24-34, LW 19).. Jusuf Nurkic has brought some toughness — he lost two teeth and stayed in the game Sunday — it hasn’t been enough yet. The real question with Portland and Denver — and who gets the eighth seed — is which teams plays better defense down the stretch? The good news for Portland is they have a softer schedule the rest of the way.

 
Bucks small icon 19. Bucks (25-31, LW 22). They are 10-15 since Jan. 1 and have the 24th ranked defense in the NBA in their last 15 games, and unless that number changes (they were top 10 in defense the first couple months of the season) they are not going to climb back into the playoff mix. Seeing Khris Middleton back in the starting lineup is a good thing.

 
Mavericks small icon 20. Mavericks (23-35, LW 18). I’m a big fan of their pickup of Nerlens Noel at the trade deadline, but they are now committed to this path because he is a restricted free agent this summer and they will have to pay him handsomely to retain him. While they are just three games out of a playoff slot this season, and Marc Cuban would never admit to tanking, waiving Deron Williams is a sign they are not going to make a huge push for the final spot. I like Yogi Ferrell as much as the next guy, but he’s part of the plan for the future not this playoff run.

 
Pelicans small icon 21. Pelicans (23-36, LW 23). DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis are still trying to figure out how to play together, the biggest sign of that was Sunday night when Davis scored 24 in the first, Cousins zero; then in the second quarter it flipped and Cousins had 19 while Davis scored zero. No other Pelican player had more than 10 points in the game. Despite the dreams it’s hard to see them really making a playoff push this season, they need to figure out how to play better together so they can make a push next season.

 
Kings small icon 22. Kings (25-34, LW 20). They made the move to get away from DeMarcus Cousins, we will see how that plays out long term, but in the short term it’s hard to see them making a serious playoff push without him (despite a good win against Denver this week where Willy Cauley-Stein looked great). Maybe it’s time to see what Skal Labissiere and Georgios Papagiannis can do.

 
timberwolves small icon 23. Timberwolves (23-36, LW 24). They have come along on one end of the court — Andrew Wiggins has scored at least 20 points in 17 straight games, and Karl-Anthony Towns has done the same in 14. The challenge remains on defense, where in their last 15 games the Timberwolves are 25th in the league in defensive rating. Tough week on the road including games in Utah and San Antonio.

 
Hornets small icon 24. Hornets (25-33, LW 21). I feel like we’ve said this before about Charlotte, but this time we mean it: The next couple weeks are do-or-die for the Hornets’ playoff dreams. They are three games out of the eight seed and they have a fairly soft schedule (with the exception of Miami) the next couple of weeks. They climb back into it now or focus on the draft.

 
Knicks small icon 25. Knicks (24-35 LW 25). I thought the potential Derrick Rose for Ricky Rubio trade made a lot of sense for the Knicks, but it didn’t make enough sense for Timberwolves and the Knicks couldn’t sweeten the offer enough to get it done. Then Kristaps Porzingis sprained his ankle and will miss time, sucking more energy out of Madison Square Garden. After hosting the Raptors Monday, the Knicks have six of seven on the road (and the one home game is Golden State).

 
Sixers small icon 26. 76ers (22-36, LW 26). Joel Embiid’s knee is swelling up, Ben Simmons is done for the season, and it’s hard to get excited to watch the Sixers try to up Jahlil Okafor’s trade value the rest of the season. The only question is will 31 games be enough to get Embiid the Rookie of the Year trophy? Has Malcolm Brogdon or Jamal Murray done enough to steal it away?

 
Magic small icon 27. Magic (22-38 LW 28). Orlando got back what it could for Serge Ibaka at the deadline, but at least it was a move that cleared the front court logjam and will allow coach Frank Vogel to go a little smaller and try to get some versatility on the court. They had some good moments against the Blazers and Hawks since the break, maybe it can be something to build upon.

 
Suns small icon 28. Suns (18-41, LW 29). They moved P.J. Tucker to Toronto and now Tyler Ulis and Alan Williams are getting the minutes that had gone to Brandon Knight and Tyson Chandler in the rotation — the Suns have started looking ahead. Devin Booker is part of the future and has looked amazing. I don’t know if Derrick Jones Jr. is part of the future, but he can sure dunk.

 
Lakers small icon 29. Lakers (19-40, LW 27). The Lakers are far more interesting off the court right now than on it, with Magic Johnson taking over control of basketball operations and Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak getting kicked to the curb. Luke Walton is leaning heavily on youth, both because he should and that helps the Lakers odds of keeping their draft pick this year (top 3 protected). If you’re a Lakers fan, you should check out our podcast with Mark Medina of the LA Daily News breaking down the move to Magic.

 
Nets small icon 30. Nets (9-49, LW 30). Losers of 16 in a row, and at the deadline the market was so glutted with bigs they couldn’t find a reasonable offer for Brook Lopez. They did move Bojan Bogdanovic for a pick, so that’s something. The Nets are 0-2 to start and eight game road trip and the only question is will they break the losing streak away from Barclays’ Centre.

Dwight Howard enlisting Lakers fans to get Kobe to help him in Dunk Contest

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Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant are not exactly blood brothers for life.

When Howard spent a season with the Lakers back in 2012-13 the two men clashed. To put it kindly. Kobe’s single-minded obsession with winning did not mix well with Howard’s “this needs to be fun — and where are the Skittles” mentality. Fans sided with Kobe while Howard — who pushed hard and came back too quickly from back surgery that season then never got right — became the scapegoat.

Howard is on a redemption tour, having won over Lakers fans this season by simply playing his role and keeping his head down (finally). Now that redemption tour is headed to the All-Star Saturday Night Dunk Contest.

Howard wants Kobe to join him — and is trying to get Laker fans to pressure Kobe to be part of the festivities. From Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

“I’m trying to get Kobe,” Howard said… “So if I can get all the Laker fans to lobby to get Kobe to help me in the dunk contest, that’d be really good. That’d be awesome.”

Sure, because pressuring Kobe and telling him he has to do something is always the best way to motivate him. Good luck with that.

Dwight Howard won the 2008 NBA Dunk Contest dawning a Superman cape and flying high — with Kobe sitting courtside and being impressed.

To be fair, Kobe and Howard get along now, but I’m not about to try and predict Kobe’s next move.

Howard will break out gimmicks, props and tricks come Feb. 15 at the United Center in Chicago for this Dunk Contest. The only question is, will Kobe be one of them?

Here are 15 thoughts from Zion Williamson’s debut (and the rest of our Three Things to Know)

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Here are 15 bullet point thoughts from Zion Williamson’s debut. Zion Williamson impressed in his debut game — 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting, plus seven rebounds, all in just 18:18 of court time. Here are my thoughts from his opening night.

• What were the odds Zion’s first game would feature zero monster dunks but four made threes?

• I can’t watch those four minutes in the fourth quarter enough.

• The four line-drive threes were the story because they were unexpected, but the most impressive play of the night came when Jakob Poeltl blocked his shot, but Zion got the ball back, gut to the other side of the rim and scored. It was his most athletic bucket of the night.

• Can’t blame the Spurs for letting Zion take those threes, he was 1-of-4 from deep in the preseason and he was not a great three-point shooter in college (33.8 percent on a couple a game). The scouting report was to let him shoot. Future opponents will not let him set his feet and take those shots uncontested (the Spurs were in a zone when his run started, which seemed to be a green light in Zion’s mind, other teams will defend him differently).

• Zion said postgame that when he couldn’t move much during rehab, he worked on his shot. It showed — he looked more comfortable from deep than Ben Simmons has (and maybe even the Greek Freak). Zion has a set shot from three, it’s not a quick release or something he can take in motion pealing off a screen, but it doesn’t have to be. Defenders now will have to close out on Zion when he sets his feet, and when they do he can blow by them and attack the rim.

• Pelicans’ assistant coach Fred Vinson worked with Zion, Lonzo Ball, and Brandon Ingram this past year on their shots, and all three now have vastly improved jumpers. Vinson is not getting enough credit.

• Coach Alvin Gentry taking Zion out was painful to watch… and exactly the right thing to do. This is not about “rest” it’s about injury prevention — major injuries are more likely to occur when fatigued muscles cannot provide the support for ligaments and tendons on explosive moves and things snap. Williamson was obviously not in peak game shape (nor should he be expected to be coming off knee surgery), so a minutes limit was there to prevent him from pushing through tired muscles and re-injuring his just-repaired knee (or some other body part). Yes, it sucked as fans, but the goal is to have him play most of New Orleans remaining 37 games this season (and for seasons beyond this one), not to watch him go down in his first game back.

• Clearly, Zion needs to round into game shape (as to be expected for any player coming off knee surgery), but Mark Jackson’s handled the weight topic poorly on the broadcast, buying into the “Zion can’t play at that weight” trope. Zion is a unique athlete. Unless you’re a member of the Pelicans’ medial team that has done extensive testing on Williamson, you’re not in a position to say what his ideal playing weight will be (up or down). Maybe he should play at a lower weight than what he is at right now, maybe not, but this is an issue that should be handled with some delicacy, and Jackson was a Pamplona Bull on the run.

• Between Zion needing to lose weight and Brandon Ingram needing to add it, the Pelicans are a body shamers dream team.

• Williamson did defer too much through the first three quarters, but he mostly looked like a rookie who had not played much and was trying to fit in. The upside is he didn’t force anything. He wasn’t bad, he just wasn’t aggressive.

• Zion’s passing was surprisingly good. He made smart basketball plays passing out of double teams (picking up one good assist on an Ingram drive) and took what the defense gave him.

• Zion’s defense is going to be a work in progress (as it is with every rookie not named Matisse Thybulle). He has the athleticism and instincts to be a good defender, we saw it in the preseason, but in his first game against NBA players going at NBA speed he struggled and made some bad reads. It’s to be expected with any rookie, it’s just going to take time to see what kind of defender he will be.

• Expect to see a lot more Zion as a small-ball five, that seems the most natural fit. However, he did have the gravity to draw defenders, which helped open things up for Derrick Favors to get some first-quarter buckets.

• How well Ingram and Zion play together is the $168 million question for the Pelicans. That’s how much Ingram’s five-year max contract from New Orleans will be worth next summer — and he’s going to get it. The question becomes will Ingram and that contract ultimately get traded because of fit issues? It’s way too early to make that call.

Ja Morant — the Grizzlies point guard running away with Rookie of the Year — came off a similar knee surgery last summer and it took him some time to get his legs under him and start to find how to use his athleticism in the NBA. Now he’s must-watch League Pass television. I expect the same thing out of Williamson as he rounds into form following his knee surgery.

• Bonus bullet point thought: That’s still a loss for the Pelicans to one of the teams they are battling for the final couple of playoff

2) Houston snaps four-game losing streak against shorthanded Nuggets (and they are fine with that). Houston had lost four games in a row (and 5-of-6), then rolled into Denver Wednesday, only to find a beaten-up Nuggets squad. No Jamal Murray (sprained ankle), Paul Millsap (knee), Mason Plumlee (foot), Gary Harris (aductor), or Michael Porter Jr. (back).

This is the NBA, you catch teams when you catch them — and in this case, the Rockets were happy to catch the break. Houston got 27 points from James Harden on just 13 shots, and Russell Westbrook had 28 points, 16 rebounds, and eight assists, and Houston cruised to a 121-105 win.

The Rockets’ offense has struggled of late, enough that it couldn’t cover up the team’s unimpressive defense. On Wednesday everything clicked. The question is, can the Rockets build off this and get back on track?

Denver, for its part, needs to keep its head above water until they get healthy again.

3) Shorthanded Sixers lose another starter in Josh Richardson, Toronto picks up the win. Philadelphia has gone eight games now without Joel Embiid, and now they will need to go a few games without Josh Richardson, too. The Sixers’ wing pulled up four minutes into the game grabbing his left hamstring. He did not return to the game.

Philadelphia fell to 5-3 without Embiid in a 107-95 loss in Toronto. They have tried to win with defense, starting Matisse Thybulle next to Ben Simmons, but when Thybulle picked up a quick second foul on a Kyle Lowry pump fake and had to leave the game, things started to fall apart for the Sixers.

Toronto got 22 from Fred VanVleet and had a balanced attack with six players scoring at least 16 points.

If the playoffs started today, this would be the first-round matchup and Toronto would have the home court. The Raptors keep on winning, and Nick Nurse’s case for Coach of the Year gets stronger and stronger.

With 17 straight points fourth quarter, Zion flashes what could be for New Orleans

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Everyone came for the dunks.

Zion Williamson showed he can be so much more than that — he even has a little Stephen Curry in him.

After sitting through his cautious start, fans in New Orleans — and ones sitting in front of televisions from San Diego to Kennebunkport — got their payoff during the fourth quarter of Williamson’s NBA debut:

Zion absolutely dominated a three-minute stretch of the fourth quarter.

Williamson — a 19-year-old rookie who had missed 44 games coming off knee surgery — was the best player on the court for those minutes, scoring 17 straight points and getting the Pelicans back in a game they had trailed by double-digits for much of the night. And he did it going 4-of-4 from three.

Williamson finished the night with 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting, plus seven rebounds, all in just 18:18 of court time.

It wasn’t enough to get the Pelicans a win; San Antonio got 32 points from LaMarcus Aldridge and the victory 121-117.

Williamson spent the first three quarters looking like a rookie who had not played much, needed to work on his conditioning, and was trying to fit in. He didn’t force anything, made smart basketball plays passing out of double teams, and took what the defense gave him. Zion’s first NBA basket came in the second quarter, a putback off a Nickeil Alexander-Walker miss.

Williamson played cautiously through three quarters, with five points on 2-of-3 shooting, four rebounds but also four turnovers. His teammates were telling him to let go and get in the flow of the offense.

Then in the fourth you could see his confidence grow as Aldridge (and later other Spurs defenders) dared him to hit a three over the top of a zone. Postgame, Zion said during is rehab, when he could not run, he took a lot of standstill jumpers and it paid off. Once Zion knocked one down and his confidence started to swell, he got back to being the attacking, aggressive player everyone expected — and Pelicans fans loved every minute of it.

It’s just 18 minutes of basketball, the definition of a small sample size. But those 18 minutes only whetted our appetite. They weren’t even the appetizer, they were an amuse-bouche. 

But this could be the start of an amazing meal.

LeBron James, Anthony Davis combine for 49 points, Lakers beat Knicks

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NEW YORK — LeBron James scored 19 of his 21 points early, cutting into Kobe Bryant’s shrinking lead over him for the No. 3 scoring spot in NBA history, and the Los Angeles Lakers beat the New York Knicks 100-92 on Wednesday night.

Anthony Davis led the Lakers with 28 points in his second game back after a five-game absence, after the Western Conference leaders were handed their worst loss of the season Monday in his return.

James’ quiet second half left him with 33,599 points, 44 back of Bryant.

That keeps James in good shape to catch the former Lakers star Saturday at Philadelphia, where the five-time NBA champion was born. Los Angeles has a game in between Thursday in Brooklyn.

Davis scored eight points in the final 3:45 and finished 13 of 13 from the free throw line. He played 30 minutes after going only 23 in his return from a bruised gluteus maximus on Monday in Boston, where the Lakers were routed 139-107.

Marcus Morris scored 20 points and Damyean Dotson had 17 for the Knicks, who put up a much better effort after losing by 30 two weeks ago in Los Angeles. But they just couldn’t come up with timely shots to really threaten the Lakers in the fourth quarter.

James shot 8 of 10 in 17 minutes of the first half, but the Knicks held the rest of the Lakers relatively in check and the game was tied at 48 at halftime.

The Lakers led by six after three quarters, then opened the fourth with Dwight Howard‘s dunk, a 3-pointer by Rajon Rondo and a basket by Kyle Kuzma to extend it to 83-70.

New York hung around and was within six again late but the Lakers prevailed despite only two baskets, both by Davis, in the final four minutes.