NBA Power Rankings: Rockets, Warriors 1-2, Pacers climb into top 10

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Houston remains hot and on top of the rankings, but the Warriors have climbed back up to second place, and we see the Bucks jump into the Top 10 (and they are still aggressively looking to add more talent to the roster). Also, we have a new team on the bottom, and Mike Budenholzer is not going to like it.

Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (21-4, Last Week No. 1). Winners of 10 in a row (although they needed big comebacks vs. Portland and New Orleans). Five of those 10 wins were on the road to push the Rockets’ record to 12-1 away from the Toyota Center this season. Chris Paul’s passing has taken the already potent Rockets offense to a new level, teammates are shooting better than 60 percent off his passes.

Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (22-6 LW 3). The Warriors are 3-0 without Stephen Curry in the lineup, winning thanks to defense and a lot of Kevin Durant (the big concern is the GSW offense has fallen apart when KD sits in those games). Patrick McCaw is back from his concussion, which will help with depth until Curry returns. Golden State has 8-of-9 at home coming up, and they don’t leave California again until next month.

Celtics small icon 3. Celtics (23-6, LW 2). After playing around with smaller lineups, Brad Stephens has gone back to starting Aron Baynes at center and it’s working as the Celtics are getting off to faster starts. That said, the Celtics lost 2-of-3 on the road last week, albeit the last one without Kyrie Irving (a bruised thigh, nothing serious). Also, don’t forget what Jaylen Brown did to Pau Gasol this past week.

Cavaliers small icon 4. Cavaliers (20-8 LW 4). LeBron James has been a marvel this season. He has had to take on more of the Cleveland offense yet his efficiency is up (a career best 65.8 true shooting percentage), his assist percentage is up, he’s shooting better than 70% on contested two pointers (defender within four feet), and remove garbage time he is shooting 78% at the rim and 42% from three (stats via Cleaning The Glass). Cleveland’s win streak ended at 13 in Indiana, but they bounced back with a wins over Philly and Atlanta through the first half of a four-game homestand.

Spurs small icon 5. Spurs (19-9, LW 6). Kawhi Leonard returned on Tuesday night and scored 13 points in 15 minutes, but he understandably looked a little rusty and the Spurs looked out of synch. Like they were trying to integrate a star player back into the rotation. The result was an ugly loss to Dallas. This is going to take a little time, but the Spurs have built a cushion with their play so far this season. It’s not getting easier for the Spurs during this process either with the Houston Rockets on the schedule for Friday.

Raptors small icon 6. Raptors (17-8, LW 5). DeMar DeRozan is scoring 23.2 points per game, but he’s improved his passing this season and with his assist rate is up, too — he is assisting on 24% of teammates buckets when he is on the floor (stat via Cleaning the Glass). The Clippers snapped the Raptors’ six-game win streak, but with the next four being Suns, Nets, Kings, and Hornets Toronto could quickly get another streak going.

Pacers small icon 7. Pacers (16-11, LW 9). Indiana has kept on winning through a tough part of the schedule, including ending Cleveland’s 13-game win streak, and Victor Oladipo is a main reason. This week he averaged 35.7 points a game, shot 45.7 percent from three, plus grabbed 7.7 rebounds per game. Oladipo deserves to be an All-Star this season (but will he be in 2021 when Indy gets to host the All-Star Game?). Paul George makes his return to Indiana on Wednesday night, and he is going to hear it from the fans, and we’ll see if he can slow Oladipo.

Bucks small icon 8. Bucks (15-10 LW 11). The Bucks are switching more and trapping less on defense in recent weeks. This is a good thing — their hyper-aggressive defense was easy to exploit with good ball movement — but this team is still a work in progress. In their last 10 games they have given up 104.6 points per 100 possessions, ninth best in the NBA, but that has been much worse in recent games. Also of note, Malcolm Brogdon has struggled with his efficiency since moving to the bench with the arrival of Eric Bledsoe, he has not lifted up the bench as hoped.

Sixers small icon 9. 76ers (14-13, LW 7). They had lost four in a row until the win in Minnesota Tuesday, the losses in part due to injuries that have kept Robert Covington, Joel Embiid, and T.J. McConnell out of games. Markelle Fultz is still out and it will be a few weeks before they re-evaluate him. At least they finally traded Jahlil Okafor, and in doing so got themselves a quality backup big man in Trevor Booker. That was the move of a team looking to go to the playoffs, but they need to keep Embiid healthy to do that (they are 14.9 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court).

10. Timberwolves (16-12, LW 10). Minnesota’s defense remains an issue, ranked 26th in the league, and the problems start in transition — 16.6% of opponent possessions start in transition, 28th in the league, and teams score 110.7 points per 100 on those plays, 26th in the league (stats via Cleaning the Glass). That is just too many easy buckets given up to be a good defense. Minnesota has gone 1-1 to kick off a five-game homestand (the loss was to the Sixers) before they hit the road for most of the end of the month.

Nuggets small icon 11. Nuggets (15-12, LW 16). They have gone 3-3 without Nikola Jokic (sprained ankle), with 5 of those 6 on the road. What’s surprising is they have struggled more on defense than on offense without Jokic. The Nuggets are truly a Jekyll and Hyde team going 10-2 at home and winning by an average of 8.9 points per game, however, get them on the road and they are 5-10 being outscored by 6.4 points per game.

Wizards small icon 12. Wizards (14-13, LW 13). John Wall is expected to return Wednesday night, with Wizards went 4-5 without him (and 2-3 on a just completed road trip without him). Bradley Beal has carried the Wizards through this, averaging 29.8 points per game in this stretch (although he’s struggled a little from three in that time). The Wizards are now home for 4-of-5.

Pistons small icon 13. Pistons (14-13, LW 8). Losers of seven in a row, although to be fair it has been a tough slate of games, Detroit has fallen back from second in the East to scrambling to stay in the playoffs. The problem is on the offensive end, where over those seven games the Pistons are scoring less than a point per possession and have been the worst offense in the NBA. The reason is pretty simple, they have shot the ball terribly as a team, with Avery Bradley (35.4%) and Stanley Johnson (26.8%) leading the way, but Stan Van Gundy laid the blame at the feet of his stars.

Pelicans small icon 14. Pelicans (14-14, LW 17). The Pelicans have become the team that gets in shootouts — they score a lot and give up a lot of points. This recent trend has led to entertaining games and the loss Monday to Houston was the best example (a 78-76 halftime score, but the Pelicans wore down from the pace in the fourth). Injuries just keep on coming for the Pelicans. Anthony Davis missed four of the last six games (the Pelicans went 2-2 without him), and now Tony Allen will be out 3-4 weeks with a fibula fracture (the Pelicans defense is 5.6 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court).

Knicks small icon 15. Knicks (14-13, LW 20). With Tim Hardaway Jr. sidelined Doug McDermott has stepped up and played well for the Knicks, averaging 12 points a game on 56.8% shooting, and 37.5% from three, in his last five games. He’s been efficient in his limited chances all season, shooting 60% eFG% on spot up chances. he’s not creating shots (89% of his buckets are assisted) but he’s knocking them down when he gets the chance.

Jazz small icon 16. Jazz (13-14, LW 12). Expect to see a lot of lineup experimentation in the coming weeks because it’s become clear the twin towers approach of playing Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert together simply does not work (opposing teams outscore Utah by 10.6 points per 100 when they are on the court together). Those two have to be staggered. Utah expects to get Joe Johnson back from injury this week, which will be a boost as they fight to hang on to a playoff slot in the West.

Blazers small icon 16. Trail Blazers (13-13, LW 14). Portland just went 0-4 on a homestand where they needed to rack up wins, because Monday started a tough five-game road trip and they lost the opener of that to the Warriors. The recent slump is due to the defense, which is fourth overall in the NBA for the season but lately has fallen apart, allowing 115.3 points per 100 possession. Portland will try to right the ship on the road with winnable games: Heat, Magic, Hornets, then Timberwolves.

Thunder small icon 18. Thunder (12-14 LW 15).. Welcome to the Thunder’s “You Can’t Go Home Again” week of the schedule. Paul George returns to Indiana Wednesday night, then on Saturday Carmelo Anthony will return to New York. George is going to get booed mercilessly, but the reaction to ‘Melo in NYC will likely be positive (with a few outliers). ‘Melo meant a lot to that organization. The problem for his new team is ‘Melo in a shooting slump (worse than the one the other stars are in), and that plus his lack of defense and ball stopping, has become a part of the problem in OKC.

Heat small icon 19. Heat (13-13, LW 19). After losing three of four, Erik Spoelstra was looking for something that would spark the team and work better on the court, so he’s now starting James Johnson and Kelly Olynyk (both of whom had played well off the bench). It has worked, the Heat have won two straight and gotten back to .500. They are entering a soft part of the schedule and need to rack up wins over the next few weeks to pad their record.

Nets small icon 20. Nets (11-15, LW 21). Great comeback win against the Thunder to earn a split in Mexico City, then on Tuesday they knocked off the Wizards, showing this continues to be a scrappy team that plays hard. All these wins continues to destroy the Cavaliers dreams of a high pick (right now the Nets pick the Cavs have would be the 10th, which makes it more likely the Cavs are willing to deal it). Jahlil Okafor has seen very limited minutes, his time will come down the line.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (10-16, LW 18). Injuries continue to set back the Hornets — Cody Zeller, Jeremy Lamb, coach Steve Clifford — but the other problem is their offense. In their last 10 games, the Hornets have averaged 101.9 points per 100 possessions, 28th in the NBA. Kemba Walker has played well, but can do only so much on his own, and the Hornets still-solid defense can’t cover for that offense.

Clippers small icon 22. Clippers (10-15 LW 24). Milos Todosic was back in the lineup on Tuesday, but after a few games back Danilo Gallinari was sidelined again with the same glute injury. Most of the buzz around the Clippers league wide is about what they can get back for DeAndre Jordan in a trade, but expect some teams to call about Lou Williams as well, he has played well off the bench and more than a few playoff teams could use a scoring punch in the second unit right about now.

Magic small icon 23. Magic (11-17, LW 22). Nikola Vucevic has been having a quietly efficient season (17.4 points per game on a true shooting percentage of 57 (a fair amount above the league average), but he outdid himself against the Hawks with a triple-double of 31 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists. Vucevic had to go off in that game because injuries remain an issue with the Magic — Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, and Jonathan Isaac all were out against the Hawks. This team just doesn’t have the depth to handle key guys missing time.

Lakers small icon 24. Lakers (10-16 LW 26). The Lakers lead the NBA in shots attempted from the restricted area per game this season (42.4% of their shots come within four feet of the rim), but their kryptonite may be when teams foul them on the drive. As a team, the Lakers have struggled from the free throw line this season — as a team LA shoots 70.4%, last in the NBA, and key players such as Lonzo Ball (48.6%), Julius Randle (65.4%), Corey Brewer (66.7%), and Brandon Ingram (67.2%) are below 70%. The Lakers play at the Cavaliers Thursday night, which is a chance to remind everyone that LeBron James and Luke Walton were both taken in the 2003 draft (LeBron No. 1, Walton 32nd, and Dwyane Wade also was in that draft class too at no. 5).

Mavericks small icon 25. Mavericks (8-20 LW 25). While the Mavericks struggle and try to develop young players on the court, ticket sales for the team remain surprisingly brisk according to secondary ticket market company TickPick, up 161% over a year ago. This could be Dirk Nowitzki’s final season and people want to see him play. Dallas lost three straight on the road recently before picking up a win at home Tuesday against the Spurs. Now they head out on the road for two tough ones, Golden State and San Antonio.

Grizzlies small icon 26. Grizzlies (8-19, LW 23). After breaking their 11-game losing streak, the Grizzlies have started a new one losing four more (and blowing leads of 17 or more in two of those games). So, maybe the problem wasn’t David Fizdale. GM Chris Wallace said the team would not be looking to trade Marc Gasol and start rebuilding, but they have to consider it (the in-flux ownership situation in Memphis may impact the decisions about long-term planning as well).

Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (6-20 LW 30).. Winners of three in a row, and part of the reason is Kris Dunn. He was a mess last season in Minnesota, but the former No. 5 pick has looked better recently, scoring 16.4 points per game in the last five games, plus dishing out 7 assists a game in those contests. He’s not a future All-Star, but he’s looking like a rotation-level point guard, which is miles ahead of where he was one season ago.

Kings small icon 28. Kings (9-18, LW 28). Buddy Hield is shooting 47.2% from three this season, taking 4.2 threes per game. More than half those attempts from three are catch-and-shoots where he is hitting 59.4% Zach Randolph is just 15 rebounds away from having 10,000 for his career. That would put Z-Bo in some good company, the only other active players with more than 18,000 career points and 10,000 rebounds are Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol.

Suns small icon 29. Suns (9-20, LW 27). The Suns have gone 0-3 without Devin Booker (who is out for a couple of weeks still, and after scoring at least 104 points in six games before his injury they have averaged 97.3 points per game without him. Good to see Mike James moving from a two-way contract to a regular one, he earned it, and he is leading the team in usage rate since Booker went down.

Hawks small icon 30. Hawks (6-21, LW 29). The Hawks are off to the second worst start the franchise has had since moving to Atlanta. What has to really eat at coach Mike Budenholzer is the defense, which was fourth in the NBA a season ago, is is 29th now and giving up 5.6 points more per 100 possessions than they did last year. The Hawks have 5-of-7 at home coming up through Christmas.

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.

76ers once again overhaul around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there

Can Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons coexist?

While I’ve wondered about that question, the 76ers have charged ahead with the pairing. Embiid and Simmons are the givens. The surrounding players change. In just two seasons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Markelle Fultz, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris have cycled through as starters.

The latest supporting starters: Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson.

This might be the last chance to find a trio that works.

Philadelphia has taken advantage of Embiid’s and Simmons’ low rookie-scale salaries, which was always a selling point of The Process. A roster loaded with cheap young players created a window to add more-expensive talent. Then, with everyone already in place, NBA rules generally allow teams to keep their own players.

But Embiid is already on his max contract extension, and Simmons just signed a max contract extension that will take effect next year. The flexibility is vanishing.

One last time, the 76ers made the most of it. They signed-and-traded Butler for Richardson and let Redick walk in free agency. That left enough cap space to sign Al Horford (four years, $109 million with $97 million guaranteed) and use Bird Rights to re-sign Tobias Harris (five years, $180 million).

That’s a lot of deliberate disruption for a team that was already good and rising.

The big question: Did it make Philadelphia better?

I just don’t know.

As fond as I am of Butler, I understand all the reasons to be wary of offering the 30-year-old a huge contract. But moving on from him to give a huge deal to a 33-year-old Horford? That’s curious. Then again, Philadelphia also added Richardson – a solid replacement for Butler on the wing – in the process.

The 76ers will miss Butler’s shot creation. He often took over their offense in the clutch during the playoffs. Harris can pick up some of the slack, but that still looks like a hole.

At just 27, Harris is young for a player who has already been in the league so long. That’s a big reason it was worth Philadelphia signing him to a sizable long-term contract.

Horford’s deal could age poorly, but he’s a winner still playing quality all-around basketball. If nothing else, the 76ers removed Embiid’s best defender from the rival Celtics.

Philadelphia filled its bench with several value signings – Mike Scott (room exception), James Ennis (minimum), Kyle O'Quinn (minimum), Furkan Korkmaz (minimum), Raul Neto (minimum) and Trey Burke (partially guaranteed minimum). However, sometimes teams need production more than cost-effectiveness. The 76ers’ bench struggled last season, and they devoted minimal resources to upgrading.

In the draft, Philadelphia traded the Nos. 24 and 33 picks for No. 20 pick Matisse Thybulle. That’s a costly move up, especially for a player I rated No. 34. Worse, it seemingly happened because Boston snuffed out the 76ers’ interest in Thybulle then leveraged them. That’s small potatoes, though.

Simmons (No. 9 on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years) and Embiid (No. 11 on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years) will likely define this era for Philadelphia. Embiid is on his way to becoming one of the NBA’s very best players. Simmons is so good, giving him a max extension was a no-brainer.

But they were already in place.

Harris, Horford and Richardson will define this offseason. I just can’t tell whether they made the 76ers’ promising future even brighter or slightly dimmer.

Offseason grade: C

Michelle Roberts says if you don’t like player movement blame owners, too

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Last summer was one of the wildest offseasons in NBA history, maybe the wildest, and the headline was player empowerment. Anthony Davis pushed his way to the Lakers, Paul George forced his way out of Oklahoma City to go to the Clippers and join Kawhi Leonard, which soon had Russell Westbrook joining his old teammate James Harden in Houston. It led to frustration by some owners and changes in how the NBA will handle tampering.

Except, by choice is not how most players change teams. While AD or George has the leverage to make a power play — because of their exceptional talent — most of the time players are traded because the owner/team has all the power and can uproot players for whatever reason (basketball reasons sometimes, saving money other times). The stars have free agent options, rotation players much less so in that system.

Michelle Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players’ Association, wants you to remember that it’s not just player power that has led to the increase in player movement, as she told Mark Spears of The Undefeated.

Michele Roberts, told The Undefeated that she believes there is a “double standard” between how stars are viewed when they decide to move on compared with when franchises choose to make a major transaction, adding that team owners “continue to view players as property.”

“If you want to be critical of one, be critical of both,” Roberts said from the NBPA’s offices in Manhattan. “Those of us who made decisions to move, it’s really astounding to even consider what it feels like to be told in the middle of your life you are going to have to move. But that’s the business we’re in. …

“No one seems to spend a lot of time thinking about what it’s like to make those kinds of moves completely involuntarily. You volunteer to play or not play. But, yeah, if it’s still the case that if you think you’ve got to suck it up, player, then, hell, you’ve got to suck it up, team.”

She’s right. From Chris Paul to Blake Griffin, plenty of big stars have been moved against their will. The door swings both ways, but in those cases most fans tended to see why and like what the teams did. Those fans like it less when players do the same thing.

There’s also a classic labor vs. management angle to all this, which has political overtones.

For my money, how one views player movement tends to be part generational and part where you live.

Older fans remember days — or, at least think they remember days — when players stayed with teams for much or all of their career. It’s understandable, fans form a bond with players and want them to stay… while they’re still good and useful, after that fans beg ownership to get the “dead weight off the books.” Players before the late 1980s stayed with teams because they didn’t have a choice — for Bill Russell in the 60s or Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the 1980s, free agency was not an option. And for every Kobe Bryant that did stay with a team, there were a lot more Wilts and Shaqs, who were traded several times and played with multiple teams.

Younger fans (generally, nothing is universal) are okay with the player movement, sometimes are more fans of a player than a team, and like the action and buzz of all the trades.

Location matters because if you’re in Oklahoma City there’s reason to not like what George did and the era of player empowerment. New Orleans fans can feel the same way (although part of that case is the “supermax” contract that owners wanted but really forced up the timeline on teams and players to make a decision on paying stars). But fans in Los Angeles or wherever players ultimately choose to go will feel differently. Fans want what’s best for their team, but there is no way in the star culture of the NBA to wash away the lure of big markets or of teaming up with another elite player.

The NBA dynamic is different from the NFL’s (for now), but it’s not changing. LeBron James helped usher in an era of player empowerment and it’s the new reality for the NBA, one the best franchises will adapt to rather than fight.