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NBA Power Rankings: Boston moves into second, Minnesota into top five

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The Warriors have the top spot in the rankings on lockdown now (especially with Stephen Curry back), but there’s plenty of movement below them — Houston is sliding, Boston is climbing, and Minnesota has pushed into the Top 5 behind strong recent play (the question is if it is sustainable).

Also, remember just 12 days to get your All-Star vote in.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (29-8 Last Week No. 1). Golden State doesn’t have a traditional rim protector in the rotation, but that doesn’t mean they don’t protect the rim — the Warriors are averaging a league-leading 8.4 blocks per game (Toronto is second at 5.9, the NBA record is the 85-86 Washington team at 8.7). On the other end of the court, Stephen Curry is back, draining 10 threes in his return (the Warriors were 27th in league in three-point percentage while he was out). Kevin Durant should score his 20,000th point this week (likely Thursday vs. Houston).

 
Celtics small icon 2. Celtics (30-10, LW 4). Boston has played more games than any team so far, in part because they only have one game the week they go to London in January (vs. Sixers), but it means there will be time to rest players down the stretch. The Celtics take on the Cavaliers Wednesday night, the first time they have met since opening night, but much like that game don’t read too much into this one (both teams will be different come the playoffs). Also, Isaiah Thomas will not play for the Cavs (back-to-back) but he will get love from the Boston fans, even if there is no tribute (at IT’s request).

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (25-10, LW 3). Toronto may have won 14-of-17, but they did it against a soft part of the schedule. That is changing, the tests are coming. They lost at OKC last week, then got a franchise-record 52 from DeMar DeRozan to beat Milwaukee Monday, and that was the first of nine January games against teams over .500, including the Cavaliers, Warriors, and Spurs. Toronto may have its best team ever this season, but the next few weeks will tell us how real the recent run has been.

 
Rockets small icon 4. Rockets (26-9, LW 2). Chris Paul is back, but the Rockets lost five in a row before beating the Lakers (in 2OT), and now they will be without MVP candidate James Harden for a few weeks with a strained hamstring. The offense should be fine when CP3 is on the court, but Mike D’Antoni is going to have to start trusting his bench. More importantly, their defense has slipped of late (in part due to injuries) — allowing 110.9 points per 100, 26th in the league in the last 10 games — and that end needs to pick up to carry the team through the next month without Harden (give or take).

 
5. Timberwolves (24-14, LW 7). The Timberwolves went 10-5 in December, but a dozen of those games were within 5 points in the final 5 minutes — good teams don’t win more close games, they win more blowouts. When things get tight, the Timberwolves lean heavily on Jimmy Butler, but now he has less help with Jeff Teague out (sprained MCL), meaning there is one less shot creator and three point shooter on the court. Minnesota has played the fifth easiest schedule in the league, but that changes in January with 11 opponents over .500.

 
Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (26-12, LW 6). The Spurs lost by 14 to the Pistons Saturday, the team’s 8th double-digit loss this season — that’s how many they had all of last season. Part of those losses is the team was without Kawhi Leonard to start the season and they are still easing him in (although he had 25 points vs. Knicks). However, another part of it is an inconsistent offense that is 22nd in the NBA over the last 10 games. With the Spurs’ win Tuesday over the Knicks, Gregg Popovich passed George Karl for fifth on the all-time coaching win list.

 
Cavaliers small icon 7. Cavaliers (25-12 LW 5). Isaiah Thomas is back (17 points in 19 minutes in his return), and just in time as the Cavaliers need him to lighten the load on LeBron James, who has played the most minutes of anyone in the league to this point. That’s going to take time as Thomas will be eased back into the rotation, and will not play in Boston Wednesday (second night of a back-to-back). The Cavaliers have the toughest schedule in the NBA in December (12 opponents over .500) and they need all that Thomas can give them.

 
Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (20-17 LW 8).. Oklahoma City was losing a lot of close games early in the season, then went on a hot streak when they started to win those games. Close losses to the Bucks and Mavericks last weekend (both at home) show that being in close games is a crap shoot, even if you have Russell Westbrook on the roster. OKC could use some easy wins but has five-of-six coming up on the road. That said, the swing through Los Angeles (both teams) and Phoenix are winnable games this week.

 
Wizards small icon 9. Wizards (21-16, LW 9). The Wizards are 11-6 vs. teams over .500 this season, including a nice Christmas Day win over the Celtics, but they are 10-10 against teams below .500. You can spin that as they are a good team when focused, but they are not building good habits and those losses will keep them down in the standings and make their push through the playoffs that much more difficult. Sorry Wizards fans, but nobody is ducking you.

Pistons small icon 10. Pistons (20-15, LW 11). Tobias Harris and Andre Drummond are first and second in total screens set in the entire NBA this season, according to the NBA’s Second Spectrum player tracking data. The Pistons have a middle-of-the-pack NBA offense, mostly because they lack a real shot creator who can get the ball in isolation and make things happen (especially with Reggie Jackson out with his sprained ankle), so they set more picks off the ball to create looks. It’s worked fairly well.

 
Nuggets small icon 11. Nuggets (19-17, LW 10). Jamal Murray is the barometer for this team — Nikola Jokic is the guy who makes the offense work, but the offense is 9.6 points per 100 possessions better when Jamal Murray is on the floor because he’s a threat to score. When Jokic and Murray are on the court together, the Nuggets have outscored opponents by 8.4 points per 100 possessions. The next step in Murrays’ evolution is playmaking (2.7 assists per game is low), but he’s become the clear point guard of the future.

Bucks small icon 12. Bucks (19-16 LW 14). The Bucks continue to struggle defensively (25th in the NBA in their last 10 games, 23rd on the season). On the bright side, Milwaukee allows the fewest transition opportunities in the NBA (but teams that can run on them score at a high percentage). However, where they struggle is closing out on spot-up shooters — those long Bucks athletes are good isolation defenders, but move the ball to an open shooter and the Bucks don’t rattle their shooters.

 
Heat small icon 13. Heat (19-17, LW 13). While Hassan Whiteside was out, the Heat found a playing style that worked — smaller, faster, moving the ball and spacing the floor. Fitting Whiteside back into that has been hit and miss so far. Miami has gone 2-1 since his return, but both wins are against Orlando so the opponents this week (Pistons, Knicks, Raptors) will be a better test.

 
Pelicans small icon 14. Pelicans (18-18, LW 15). When the Pelicans signed Rajon Rondo late last summer, I wasn’t sold on the fit, but it turns out his high IQ passing is what the team needs. When he is on the court, the Pelicans offense is 4.6 points per 100 possessions better, and when he is on the court with Jrue Holiday the Pelicans outscore opponents by 2.4 per 100. Last Wednesday was the Rajon Rondo show, as he dished out 25 assists against Brooklyn.

 
Blazers small icon 15. Trail Blazers (19-18, LW 17). Damian Lillard missed six games after tweaking his hamstring, but Portland went 4-2 in that stretch, thanks in part to big nights from C.J. McCollum, plus big shots from Evan Turner and Al-Farouq Aminu. Tuesday’s loss to the Cavaliers is the start of a string of tough games, including the Spurs, Thunder, and Rockets in a row.

 
Clippers small icon 16. Clippers (16-19 LW 19). Los Angeles has won four in a row and 6-of-7, and now sits just one game out of the final playoff slot in the West. Also, hey have Blake Griffin back in the fold. Will Los Angeles make a push to get into the postseason, or will it trade DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams in an effort to jump start a retooling of the roster? The buzz around the league is they’re thinking playoffs more than retool, and they have a long run of home games (and the road games are in California this month), a push up the standings could well influence the big decisions.

 
Pacers small icon 17. Pacers (19-18, LW 12). Indiana is not the same without Victor Oladipo (thanks, Capt. Obvious) having dropped three games in a row, and he is expected to miss more time due to a sore right knee. Indiana is just one game ahead of the Knicks for the final playoff slot in the East right now, and with New York heading out on the road more (where they struggle) this time was a chance for Indy to create some space in the standings. The good news is they have four games at home after Wednesday night’s tilt with the Bucks in Milwaukee.

 
Sixers small icon 18. 76ers (17-19, LW 18). The Sixers are just 1.5 games out of the playoffs, and it continues to be their offense that holds them back — specifically turnovers. Philly turns the ball over on 17.7% of their non-garbage time possessions, far and away the league leader (stats via Cleaning the Glass). That said, they finally won a game Joel Embiid sat last week. Tough schedule coming up, get through that well and they have a shot at the postseason.

 
Bulls small icon 19. Bulls (13-24 LW 22).. Chicago’s run winning 8-of-10 ended with a couple straight losses to Washington and Portland, still the Bulls are 10-4 since Nikola Mitotic returned to the lineup. The biggest surprise during the run has been the play of Kris Dunn, who is confidently is running the offense and averaging 16 points a game over his last five. He looks like a solid rotation point guard who can be part of the future in Chicago.

 
Knicks small icon 20. Knicks (18-19, LW 16). The Knicks really miss Tim Hardaway Jr. — without him their three point shooting is anemic, and their floor spacing disintegrates. The Knicks are 24th in the NBA in offense over the last 10 games. The Knicks just went 1-2 on a three game road trip, are 3-12 for the season on the road, and have a dozen games away from Madison Square Garden in January.

 
Jazz small icon 21. Jazz (16-21, LW 20). How you know Donovan Mitchell has arrived — he went up against LeBron James last Saturday, ran the offense for the Jazz down the stretch (while Ricky Rubio sat), and Utah got the win. In his last 15 games Mitchell is averaging 22.7 points on 50.6% shooting, and hitting 37.5% from three. It’s both a great find by the Jazz and a credit to one of the best player development programs in the NBA under Quin Snyder.

 
Suns small icon 22. Suns (15-24, LW 23). Devin Booker and T.J. Warren both had more than 30 points in a win over Atlanta Tuesday, and now the Suns have won 3-of-4 (albeit against some of the worst teams in the league). Interesting to note that Gregg Monroe, who the Suns acquired in the Eric Bledsoe trade with the Bucks, has been racking up a lot of DNP-CDs lately. The Suns may try to move Monroe at the trade deadline, and failing that don’t be shocked if he gets bought out then hooks up with another team.

 
Mavericks small icon 23. Mavericks (13-25 LW 26). Winners of four in a row — three on the road and all of them games that were close late. Rookie point guard with the keys to the franchise Dennis Smith Jr. is looking more comfortable, both in those clutch games and from three where his is hitting 44.4% in his last 10 games (on 3.6 attempts per game). The Mavs have 8-of-11 at home coming up.

 
Hornets small icon 24. Hornets (14-23, LW 21). Charlotte has played the toughest schedule in the NBA to this point, but that eases up on them in January (starting with them crushing the Kings on Tuesday). Charlotte is 2-1 through the start of a four-game road trip, including beating the Warriors in Oracle Arena last Friday on a night the good Dwight Howard showed up — he protected the rim, knocked down midrange jumpers, and showed deft passing skills. Wish we saw that Howard every game.

 
Nets small icon 25. Nets (14-23, LW 24). Jahlil Okafor is expected to be in the Nets rotation starting this week, getting his chance to prove his game can fit in the modern NBA, and to earn his next contract. We don’t have an official timetable for D’Angelo Russell’s return yet, although that’s expected later this month by most. With no Russell or Jeremy Lin, Spencer Dinwiddie has shown he has great shooting range and can work as an NBA rotation point guard.

 
Grizzlies small icon 26. Grizzlies (12-26, LW 28). Memphis wants to be a defense-first team that gets enough offense to rack up wins. In their last 10 games, the Grizzlies are 21st in the NBA in defense, allowing 109.6 per 100. They are 18th in the NBA on the season. The Grizzlies went a respectable 2-3 on a recent five-game homestand and now have 9-of-11 at home.

 
Kings small icon 27. Kings (12-25, LW 27). If you’re looking for a bright spot in Sacramento, Willie Cauley-Stein may be playing the best basketball of his career of late. He’s averaged 14.8 points per game in his last five, shooting 56.4% from the floor, and is grabbing 8.2 rebounds a game (with three assists, also). The Kings are 1-3 on a homestand going on right now, and it doesn’t get easier with the Nuggets and Spurs next up at the Golden 1 Center.

 
Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (10-27, LW 29). If you’re looking for a bright spot in Atlanta, watch rookie John Collins — he leads all rookies in PER at 21.2. He’s averaging 11.1 points and 7.1 rebounds a night in limited minutes off the bench (just under 23 a game), but he’s shooting 58.6 percent. Plus he leaps out of the building (dunk contest?). Tuesday’s loss in Phoenix was the first game of a five-game swing through the West for the Suns.

 
Lakers small icon 29. Lakers (11-25 LW 25). Losers of seven in a row, Los Angeles should get both Lonzo Ball and Brook Lopez back in the next week, which will help on the court — the Lakers are playing almost four possessions per game slower with Ball out of the rotation. The Lakers were focused and playing solid defense earlier in the season, but in their past 10 games Los Angeles is allowing 111.4 points per game, 28th in the league.

 
Magic small icon 30. Magic (12-26, LW 30). Remember when this team started 8-4, Aaron Gordon couldn’t seem to miss and we thought Frank Vogel had started to put the misfit pieces of this team together? Seems like eons ago now. They are 4-22 since, and while injuries have certainly played a role in that the Magic have been flat out terrible at both ends of the court and have lost 11-of-12. Their next two games are at home vs. Houston and Cleveland, followed by 5-of-6 on the road, it’s hard to find room for optimism.

As expected, Khris Middleton to decline his $13 million option with Bucks

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Khris Middleton doesn’t want to leave Milwaukee, but the man does want to get paid.

Which has led to the expected: The All-Star forward is opting out of the $13 million his is owed next season and will negotiate a new contract with the Bucks, something first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Milwaukee Bucks All-Star forward Khris Middleton is declining his $13 million player option and will become an unrestricted free agent, his agent told ESPN on Wednesday…

Middleton and the Bucks are planning to work together toward a new long-term deal, league sources said. Middleton is expected to command a max contract with Milwaukee or elsewhere. He is eligible to sign a five-year, $190 million deal to stay with the Bucks, or a four-year, $141 million contract with another team.

Middleton is the Bucks’ top priority in a free-agent class that includes Malcolm Brogdon, Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic.

The Bucks want to keep the band together, they like the group they have around Giannis Antetokounmpo. Middleton was the second best player on a team that won 60 games and made it to the conference finals before falling to the eventual champion Raptors. This team is a contender and, while it will take them into the luxury tax, ownership wants to bring most of the roster back (Mirotic may be the odd man out).

Middleton averaged 18.3 points and 6 rebounds a game, shot 37.8 percent from three, and had a true shooting percentage of 55.8. He also plays good defense. He’s the ultimate glue guy who can do everything well, which is why a lot of teams will make calls and try to lure him out of Milwaukee this summer.

The Bucks are expected to offer the fifth year (Middleton will be 28 at the start of next season, so not a huge risk) and the max or very close to it. Middleton is expected to take it. But the Bucks need to move Tony Snell or Ersan Ilyasova to make all the pieces fit, something they are trying to do.

Milwaukee is close to a title, it will be interesting to see what moves GM Jon Horst makes this summer to try and put them over the top. Keeping Middleton is a no-brainer at the heart of that plan. The Bucks will pay up.

Utah get its point guard: Grizzlies reportedly trade Mike Conley Jr. to Jazz

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This deal had been rumored for a while, it’s something the Jazz really wanted to happen to put another high-level shot creator and shooter next to Donovan Mitchell. They got their man.

Mike Conley Jr. is going to be a member of the Utah Jazz.

Memphis reportedly is trading Conley to Utah for a package that includes Grayson Allen, Kyle Korver, Jae Crowder, the 23rd pick in Thursday’s Draft and a future first-round pick. Shams Charania of The Athletic broke the story, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN fleshed out the details.

Conley averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three and plays strong defense. Conley is maybe the most underrated player in the NBA, a borderline All-Star level point guard (he should have made it one year) and for Utah a healthy upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the point.

With the gate to winning the West having swung open, the Jazz believe they are ready to walk through it — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert, and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. Yet for two playoffs in a row, when Utah got bounced by Houston (4-1 in the first round this year), it was painfully clear what has kept the team from being truly elite: Another shot creator and shooter. Utah can run all the flex cuts, X cuts, Iverson cuts and everything else in its beautiful offense, but come the playoffs there is a point where a team just needs players who can just go get a bucket. Mitchell could do that, but the best teams can blanket one guy and take him away. The Jazz now have two, and a guy that fits the system.

It is expensive, however. Conley makes $32.5 million this season and has a player option he’s expected to pick up for next season at $34.5 million. This takes the Jazz out of the running in free agency. However, the Jazz have never faired all that well in free agency and this was a sure thing. Conley is expensive, but with only two years left on his contract a lot of teams (Indiana is at the front of that list) wanted to land him. Utah did.

The Grizzlies get building blocks for their rebuild with the picks and Grayson Allen. This is a team being built around Jaren Jackson Jr. and to-be-drafted Thursday Ja Morant, these other players will need to fit with them. The grit n’ grind era has been over for a while, this is just the final nail in the coffin. The Grizzlies face different challenges now.

Don’t be surprised to see Kover and Crowder are cut loose or traded to playoff teams looking for more help.

Report: Rockets want to target Jimmy Butler. Reality: Getting that cap space will be hard

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Rockets GM Daryl Morey is always thinking big. He deserves credit for that.

For the last couple of years, the Rockets have been the second best team in the West, and with the injuries (and maybe free agency) hitting the Warriors it should be Houston at the front of the line. However, Morey doesn’t want to stand pat, he wants to add another star to the roster that can put them over the top.

Such as Jimmy Butler, reports Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle.

Butler would be a good fit, although he would be another big ego in that locker room. Have fun with managing all that with a lame duck coach in Mike D’Antoni (he has yet to sign an extension to stay).

Reality, however, is going to make landing Butler tough to pull off.

The first challenge is Butler himself. Sources have told me the Sixers plan on keeping him and offering him a five-year max contract for $191 million. He’s expected to sign it. Butler will turn 30 before next season, plays a hard-charging style, and has started to rack up an injury history because of it. That guaranteed fifth season may matter a lot to him.

Next, even if Butler were willing to leave Philly and go to Houston (over, say, the Lakers, who have an interest and are trying to clear out cap space), there is still the issue of the salary cap. The Rockets are way over it. Chris Paul will make $38.5 million next season, James Harden $37.8 million, Clint Capela $16.4 and Eric Gordon $14.1. That’s $106.8 million in four players. The NBA salary cap is projected to be $109 million. Throw in P.J. Tucker and the 10 other players the need to have on the roster, cap holds and the like, and you can see the lack of cap space to sign a free agent.

Morey is reportedly willing to trade anyone on the roster not named Harden — although he and others in the organization have pushed back on the idea CP3 asked for a trade — but to do that to clear cap space means making the trade and not taking back salary that bleeds into the new season. Salaries have to be matched in a trade with teams over the cap, so the Rockets would need to convince a team with cap space to trade for Capela or Gordon and just send draft picks and non-guaranteed players back. That’s a really small market. If you’re thinking sign-and-trade, the new CBA took away the incentive of extra money for players that do it, so it just comes down to teams and the Sixers are not going to help him leave.

Expect the Rockets to make moves to shake up the roster this summer. Butler may be the ultimate dream, but getting there makes it nearly impossible to pull off.

2019 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Is Jarrett Culver’s upside worth being a top five pick?

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Over the course of the next two weeks, as the 2019 NBA Draft draws closer and closer, we at Pro Basketball Talk will be taking deep dives into some of the best and most intriguing prospects that will be making their way to the NBA.

Today, we are looking at Jarrett Culver.

Previous draft profiles:

Jarrett Culver is the second member of Chris Beard’s first real recruiting class at Texas Tech to go from totally under-the-radar to a guaranteed first round pick.

It started last year with Zhaire Smith, a sensational athlete and developing shooter that found his way into Tech’s starting lineup before eventually finding his way into being the No. 16 pick in the first round of last year’s draft. Most expected that Culver, who averaged 11.2 points and just 1.8 assists while shooting 38.2 percent from three, to soak up the role that Smith played for the Red Raiders, but that isn’t what happened.

Instead, Culver became what Keenan Evans — the 2018 Big 12 Player of the Year turned two-way player for the Detroit Pistons — was for the Red Raiders. He didn’t just become a better scorer and a talented wing prospect, he became their point guard.

And that is where the intrigue lies for Culver when it comes to his potential at the next level.

He has the size you want out of an off-guard and, at 6-foot-7 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, is big enough to be able to guard small forwards in the NBA, but he doesn’t have the game of a typical 3-and-D player. As a sophomore, he averaged a team-high 3.7 assists for Texas Tech, but he wasn’t exactly what you would call a point guard. In fact, he was often essentially playing the four, with a trio of smaller guards on the floor around him. What Beard did was build an offense that was heavy with motion principles early in a possession, but as the shot clock wound down, the ball would end up in Culver’s hands, where he would be put into an isolation or a ball-screen action and allowed to create.

That is what he does best.

Shot creation.

Culver is excellent in triple-threat situations. His ability to shoot off the dribble consistently improved throughout his college career, and he’s generally at his best when he is allowed to get into a rhythm jumper off the bounce. He needs to quicken up his release in the NBA, but he has some wiggle room given the way that he gets his shot off. He’s not the most explosive athlete, but he can dunk on defenders when he gets a lane to the basket and his long strides and improving frame allowed him to be able to get to where he wanted to get to in the lane despite the fact that his first step is not all that quick.

But where Culver improved the most during the offseason was with his ability to operate ball-screens. He obsessively studied tape during the summer to learn the proper reads and proper passes to make when running a ball-screen, and the improvement showed. He forced teams to have to stop going under the screen against him because of his ability to step-back and make off-the-dribble threes. He can throw one-handed, live-dribble passes to shooters in either corner. He turned Tariq Owens into a serious threat on the offensive end of the floor with his ability to hit him on lobs while also knowing how to create the space and passing lane for a dump-off.

He’s grown into being a high-level, well-rounded offensive weapon, and there is quite a bit of value in a player that can be a secondary shot-creator without having to play as a point or off-guard.

Now, there are some limitations as well.

Culver has averaged more than four threes per game in his two-year career, and he’s shooting just 34.1 percent from beyond the arc. He’s better as an off-the-dribble shooter, which actually is not exactly ideal for a player that is going to be spending quite a few possessions playing off the ball. He’s added some muscle since last season — and a growth spurt in the last year makes it seem possible that his body is not done developing — but he is still pretty slender and is not great at dealing with physicality on either end of the floor. There are some real concerns offensively about how he will handle the athleticism NBA defenders have, and the 5-for-22 shooting performance he put together in the national title game against De'Andre Hunter doesn’t assuage those concerns.

There are also some question marks about his defense. Personally, I think he’ll be fine. He’s never going to be a total lockdown defender, but I don’t think that he will be a liability. He’s not going to be the guy opposing coaches target. He has spent the last two years playing within one of the best defensive systems in college basketball, but one that is built on exceptional game-planning and coaching as much as raw talent. So while it may have left Culver somewhat over-hyped on the defensive end, to me it is also proof that he can execute a game-plan and do a job on that end.

Put it all together, and what you have is a guy that can do a lot of things really well. You have a guy whose combination of skills should allow him to be a valuable piece in an NBA rotation. What you don’t have is a player that is likely to end up being an NBA superstar. These comparisons aren’t perfect — they never are — but I think he’s going to end up being somewhere between Caris LeVert pre-injury and Evan Turner.

He’s a safe-bet to be a rock-solid starter in the NBA, potentially as early as this season.

But I’m not sure just how much upside he has.