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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.

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.