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NBA Power Rankings Week 20: Spurs slide into top slot as Warriors stumble

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Golden State has owned the top of this ranking for a while — they got it back in January — but the injury to sideline Kevin Durant, and the stumbling losses while they try to find a new offensive groove, has them slide a couple spots. The Spurs are red hot, they get the top spot. Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard could not care less about all such things.

 
Spurs small icon 1. Spurs (48-13, Last Week No. 2). Winners of seven in a row and 12-of-14 (the last three in tight games), they have earned the right to be on top of the rankings. Gregg Popovich moving Pau Gasol to the bench has been huge for this team — he’s averaging 16 points a game on 57 percent shooting in his last five games, and he fits better with David Lee and that unit (while Dewayne Dedmon and his hard rolls on offense and rim protecting defense fits better with LaMarcus Aldridge as a starter).

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (51-11, Last Week No. 1). Adjusting to life without Kevin Durant (until around the start of the playoffs) has not been easy, and not aided by the fact they are in their toughest stretch of the schedule this week (they beat the Knicks Sunday but then face a good Atlanta team on the road Monday). Which means they may fall further in these rankings. While the Warriors obviously miss KD on offense (they need to get back to more Stephen Curry pick-and-rolls) the bigger impact is likely on the defensive end, where Durant was having his best season.

 
Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (44-19, LW 4). In their past 10 games, they have taken 50.3 percent of their shots from three. Go ahead and say that’s too much and ruining the game if you want, they also have the best offense in the NBA during that stretch. The real key to their wins: They are 10th in the NBA in defense in that stretch. If the Kevin Durant injury does leave the Warriors vulnerable during the playoffs (because he’s not 100 percent) the Rockets may be the team best suited to take them down.

 
Cavaliers small icon 4. Cavaliers (42-19, LW 3). Kyle Korver had quite the homecoming in Atlanta, he and his teammates rained an NBA record 25 threes on the Hawks. Andrew Bogut is expected to make his debut for the Cavaliers Monday, and I still am impressed they were able to land two D-Wills — Deron Williams and Derrick Williams — who are contributing. Fun showdown against Houston next Sunday on the road.

 
Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (40-22, LW 6). The win against Cleveland last week is not something with lessons that carry over to a potential playoff meeting, but it should have been a big confidence boost. The Celtics split the first two games on their five-game road swing through the West, beating the Lakers but falling to the Suns in the final seconds. Now things get tougher with the Clippers, Warriors, and Nuggets. It doesn’t help that Al Horford and Avery Bradley are a little banged up, both were sidelined over the weekend.

 
Wizards small icon 6. Wizards (36-24, LW 7). They split a home-and-home with the Raptors in the battle for the three seed (and to avoid Cleveland in the second round of the playoffs). That’s keeping them ahead of the Raptors by a game (two in the loss column), but they missed the chance to grow that lead. On the bright side, Bojan Bogdanovic has helped spark the second unit and his eight threes — including the game winner — were huge in Orlando. If the Wizards can get good bench play, they are legit Eastern Conference Finals threat.

 
Jazz small icon 7. Jazz (39-24, LW 5). They seem headed for a first-round 4/5 matchup with the Clippers in the playoffs, and here is what’s concerning about that if you’re a Jazz fan — the loss to Oklahoma City last week made it seven losses in a row by the Jazz to West playoff bound teams. It would have been a much uglier week for Utah if not for the Rudy Gobert tip-in at the buzzer Sunday to secure an OT win in Sacramento.

 
Grizzlies small icon 8. Grizzlies (36-27, LW 10). Chandler Parsons continues to struggle (7-of-29 from the floor since the All-Star Break) but coach David Fizdale continues to get him run because he knows if Memphis is going to make noise in the playoffs they are going to need him. Parsons, for his part, admits he’s “sucked” but remains optimistic. Good tests against the Clippers and Hawks this week.

 
Raptors small icon 9. Raptors (37-26, LW 9). With a defense that is stepping up and a whole lot of DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors have gone 5-2 since Kyle Lowry went down injured. The question is can DeRozan continue to handle the extra workload, or will he get some help. The Raptors split a pair with the Wizards last week to remain within striking distance of the three seed (nobody wants to be the four seed and get the Cavs in the second round).

 
Clippers small icon 10. Clippers (37-25, LW 11). They have had a brutal schedule since the All-Star break — Warriors, Spurs, Rockets — but with both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin on the court and healthy the Clippers are starting to find a groove again. At least the starters are. On offense. The Clippers need more consistent bench play — not just the Jamal Crawford show, he needs some help — and better defense to climb back up the standings and get home court in the first round.

 
Thunder small icon 11. Thunder (35-27, LW 8). They have dropped three in a row, and Russell Westbrook is shooting just 35 percent in those games. Westbrook also only had five assists on Sunday, he is close to falling below 10 assists per game and losing the season-long triple-double campaign. Tough week ahead with Portland (who they need to beat), the Spurs, then the Jazz to close out the week.

 
Hawks small icon 12. Hawks (34-27 LW 13). Atlanta has been up-and-down this season — slow start, red hot January — and now seemed to have found a groove as a slightly-above .500 team over the past few weeks. That will get them into the postseason for a round. The Cavaliers have played them twice and made 25 threes in each game this season — Cleveland is not a good playoff matchup for Atlanta.

 
Heat small icon 13. Heat (29-34, LW 12). The Heat picked up a nice win against the Cavaliers last week (when LeBron James and Kyrie Irving were both out for rest), but they hurt their playoff drive with losses to the Mavericks and Magic last week. Miami is a 50/50 proposition to make the playoffs according to fivethiryeight.com, but to catch the Pistons the Heat can’t drop more winnable games. The Heat play the Pacers this week in a game they could really use.

Pistons small icon 14. Pistons (30-32, LW 16). They are hanging on to the eight seed, but that with a below .500 record is still a disappointment for Detroit. Why did it happen? Last season the Pistons were +2.6 points per 100 possessions when Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond shared the court; this season it’s -8.2 per 100. And it’s been worse lately. (Stats courtesy John Schuhmann of NBA.com.) Tough tests this week with the Bulls, Pacers, and Cavaliers as the Pistons search for wins.

 
Pacers small icon 15. Pacers (31-30, LW 15).. Paul George had 34 points on 19 shots Sunday against the Hawks — that was huge, his shooting slump has really hurt a team that lacks other quality, consistent shot creators. Their defense has been better of late, the key is just getting a little more offense to go with it. Glenn Robinson III did his part on Sunday.

 
Bulls small icon 16. Bulls (31-31, LW 14). They picked up a quality win over the Warriors (sans Durant) on national television Thursday night. But this is the Bulls, two nights later they scored just 30 points in the second half losing to the Clippers. Consistency is not the Bulls’ buzzword this season. The Bulls have won five-of-seven despite some rough play since the break from Jimmy Butler, who is not creating shots (for others in particular) and not getting to the line. The Bulls need that Butler back sooner rather than later down the stretch.

 
Bucks small icon 17. Bucks (28-33, LW 19). Malcolm Brogdon is starting and Matthew Dellavedova is coming off the bench, but unless Brogdon gets red hot over the final weeks of the season it’s hard to see him passing Joel Embiid for Rookie of the Year. Even though Embiid has played just 31 games. The Bucks are within striking distance of the playoffs, just 1.5 games back of eight seed Detroit, but the Bucks inconsistent play and the upcoming schedule has fivethirtyeight.com saying they have just a 21 percent chance of making the postseason.

 
Nuggets small icon 18. Nuggets (28-34, LW 17). Jamal Murray told NBC that getting the eight seed in the West is discussed a lot in the Nuggets’ locker room — they want it. They have a 1.5 game cushion right now. If Denver is going to separate itself from Portland, Dallas, and everyone else in its rearview mirror, the next two weeks are the time as they have six of their next seven at home. Starting their home run out with a sloppy loss to Charlotte was not helpful.

 
Blazers small icon 19. Trail Blazers (26-35, LW 18).. Interesting note via ESPN and the Elias Sports Bureau, after the trade for Jusuf Nurkic the Blazers became NBA’s youngest roster. That’s little consolation right now for a disappointing season. Fivethirtyeight.com has Portland with just a 26 percent chance to make the playoffs and the reason is a brutal schedule the next couple of weeks that has them playing 7-of-9 on the road. Damian Lillard and the Blazers have won a couple in a row and need to find more wins in this stretch to say within striking distance of Denver.

 
Mavericks small icon 20. Mavericks (25-36, LW 20). This ranking may be too low — Dallas has won four of five and is just a couple games out of the playoffs in the West. With their suddenly stout defense (since the arrival of Nerlens Noel, who has also helped the offense) they may yet make the playoffs, although fivethirtyeight.com has them with just a 12 percent chance. Dirk Nowitzki is just 20 points short of 30,000 for his career and will pass that milestone this week.

 
timberwolves small icon 21. Timberwolves (25-37, LW 23). Minnesota has the fourth best net rating in the NBA (how much you outscore your opponents by) over the last 10 games — better than Miami, Boston, Washington, and even Cleveland. They are 6-4 in those games but have been playing better than that. They beat the Jazz and Spurs recently, this team may be finding its groove, but with a tough schedule through the end of the season the playoff dreams will need to be on hold for another year.

 
Hornets small icon 22. Hornets (27-35, LW 24). Charlotte just went 3-4 on a seven-game road trip, ending with a win over the Nuggets, but they remain three games out of the playoffs and would need a huge last push. It could happen, a lot of their losses lately have come in close games — this team has the point differential of a 32-30 team, not where they are now but if the close game luck swings they have a shot. An outside shot, but a shot.

 
Pelicans small icon 23. Pelicans (24-38, LW 21). They got their first win Sunday in a game where DeMarcus Cousins played, although it took a scrappy effort at the end against the Lakers to do it. On defense the big man combo of Cousins and Anthony Davis is working well for the Pelicans, but the offensive end is the work still in progress. In theory they could make a playoff run (just 3.5 games out), but with the need to leap five teams to get in it’s hard to picture that run.

 
Knicks small icon 24. Knicks (25-37 LW 25). The most interesting thing the Knicks did last week was playing the first half Sunday without all the music/entertainment/dancers/distractions that are now de rigueur at NBA games. The reaction in the arena was mixed, but New York made mocking them easy when they said they wanted to do this to showcase basketball “in it’s purest form.” In practice, it meant you could hear Knicks fans yell owner James Dolan’s name with an expletive attached from all over the arena for a half.

 
Suns small icon 25. Suns (20-42, LW 28). They picked up a dramatic win Sunday over Boston in the battle of 5’9” point guards with Tyler Ulis hitting the game winner for Phoenix. Of course, the game’s best highlight wows the Isaiah Thomas/Ulis jump ball.

 
Sixers small icon 26. 76ers (23-39, LW 26). Could Dario Saric steal away the Rookie of the year trophy from his teammate Joel Embiid? In his last 10 games, Saric has averaged 19.3 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. Malcolm Brogdon gets mentioned as a guy in the mix, Jamal Murray is getting more and more responsibility in Denver, but Saric is the guy putting up impressive numbers and could make a late run at the award.

 
Kings small icon 27. Kings (25-36, LW 22). They have dropped four in a row — including losing to the Nets. The Kings have no offensive flow now with Cousins gone, and management is all good with that (their pick this year is only top 10 protected, right now they would draft 8/9 (coin flip with Minnesota). Mathematically they are still in striking distance of the eight seed in the West, but in practice that’s not happening.

 
Magic small icon 28. Magic (23-39 LW 27). They picked up a nice win over red-hot Miami last week, and the starting five in Orlando seems to have found a groove. When they can stay healthy and on the court (a game after putting up 25 on Miami, Nikola Vucevic sat with a sore Achilles). You have to think moving Aaron Gordon back to the four more has a lot to do with the improved play of late.

 
Lakers small icon 29. Lakers (19-44, LW 29). When Luke Walton interviewed with the Lakers last summer, he and his agent demanded a five-year deal — now you see why. Jim and Johnny Buss made their Game of Thrones move for the Jeanie Buss’ big chair last week, and while that was thwarted you can be sure it’s not the last of the Lakers’ power struggle drama off the court. And we all know how much ownership fighting amongst itself is good for building an on-court program and attracting free agents.

 
Nets small icon 30. Nets (10-51, LW 30). They snapped their losing streak at 16 games with a win over the Cousins-less Kings. Take it where you can get it. Their offense looks improved when Jeremy Lin is on the court, but right now that’s limited (minutes restriction). The Nets are 1-4 on their current road trip with three more games to go, then they return home to play the Knicks (which always feels like a road game for Brooklyn).

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.