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NBA Power Rankings: Warriors locked on top, Timberwolves slowly climbing

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There’s a lot of stability at the top of the power rankings, with the Warriors and Celtics still in the top two slots. Minnesota keeps on winning, they are defending better, and they climb up to No. 4 — but will the heavy minutes load for the starters catch up to them?

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (33-8 Last Week No. 1). In the five games since his return from a sprained ankle, Stephen Curry has averaged 35.2 points per game, hit 53.2% of the 12 threes he has a game, and averaged a +13 — and with him back the Warriors have averaged 121.7 points per 100 possessions as a team (7 per 100 better than second-place in that span). Remember, Kevin Durant missed a couple of those games. That’s all just a reminder how crucial Curry is to the Warriors success.

 
Celtics small icon 2. Celtics (33-10, LW 2). Boston swept a five-game homestand that included beating the Rockets, Cavaliers, and Timberwolves — all because their defense is locking teams up. In their past six games, the Celtics have allowed just 91.7 points per 100 possessions. Only one game for the Celtics this week as they are in London (Thursday against the Sixers).

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (28-11, LW 3). This season, DeMar DeRozan is assisting on 23% of his teammates’ buckets when he is on the floor, a career high for him by a healthy margin. Combine that with his improved shooting profile — his midrange attempts are down, replaced with threes he confidently knocks down — and you have a guy playing the best ball of his career and leading his team to a five-game win streak (which ended vs. Miami Tuesday). The Raptors don’t get on national television enough (their Canadian audience doesn’t count in US television ratings) but they get a showcase against the Cavaliers Thursday on TNT.

 
4. Timberwolves (26-16, LW 5). Over the past 10 games, Minnesota has been the best team in the NBA statistically, outscoring its opponents by 11 points per 100 possessions — and most importantly their bad defense had been fifth best in the league during that stretch. Karl-Anthony Towns’ defense has improved, but Jimmy Butler is key for the Timberwolves on that end. I’d say they turned the corner, but then I see the minutes for their starters and worry things could fall apart.

 
Rockets small icon 5. Rockets (28-11, LW 4). With James Harden out for a few more weeks, it’s the Chris Paul show in Houston — when he is on the floor the Rockets are still dominating teams, when he sits the team’s defense falls apart (allowing more than 130 points per 100 possessions) and that gets them in trouble. Houston misses Luc Mbah a Moute a lot on defense, but need to find a way to get more consistent stops during the next few weeks until Harden returns.

 
Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (28-14, LW 6). Kawhi Leonard is out again after tweaking his shoulder, but this isn’t expected to keep the forward out for long. That’s good news for the Spurs — their defense is elite with him on the court this season (allowing less than a point per possession). The Spurs have gone 2-3 in a recent strung of road games that heads to Los Angeles (Lakers) on Thursday, then after a game at home against Denver Saturday the Spurs are back on the road for three more.

 
Wizards small icon 7. Wizards (23-17, LW 9). We always talk about John Wall or Bradley Beal, but the guy who doesn’t get enough credit on this team: Otto Porter. He is averaging 14.2 points and 6.5 rebounds a game, both career highs, and is shooting 44.8% from three. ESPN’s Real plus/minus is may not be a perfect stat, but the fact Porter is sixth in the NBA in it this season speaks to his importance as the glue guy in Washington that makes it work. The Wizards seem to have gotten the memo and showed up to play against the last few below .500 teams that they played.

 
Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (22-19 LW 8).. Andre Roberson is missed — if you wondered who the fifth player with the Thunder’s big four would be wonder no longer. In the five games Roberson has been out with a sore knee the OKC defense, once second in the league, has been 24th in the NBA allowing 111.5 points per 100. Consider this a boost for Roberson’s Defensive Player of the Year candidacy. Rookie Terrence Robinson got a few starts and looked like the future (he couldn’t miss in the second half against the Lakers and had 24), but it’s not the same. A fun matchup with the Timberwolves Wednesday, could well be a first-round playoff preview.

 
Cavaliers small icon 9. Cavaliers (26-14 LW 7). Call it an expected mid-season malaise if you want, the Cavaliers continue to look vulnerable to the other top teams in the East. They have lost 5-of-6 on the road recently, giving up 127 points in their last two games (including to Orlando), and now face the Raptors and Pacers in real tests. Then the Warriors next Monday. Kyle Korver has moved into fourth on the all-time three-pointers made list (he moved past Paul Pierce on Monday night).

 
Nuggets small icon 10. Nuggets (21-19, LW 10). Just a reminder: This team is without Paul Millsap, and have gone 12-12 with the star forward (injured wrist). The trade deadline question for Denver: what should it do with Kenneth Faried? Trade him? Play him? The energy bring that doesn’t bring what he once did has racked up 8 DNP-CDs in the last 10 games. Can’t blame coach Mike Malone for that, the Nuggets are 8.9 points per 100 possessions better when the Manimal is sitting this season. Faried isn’t going to bring much of anything on his own, if traded he’s in a package (with Emmanuel Mudiay?).

Bucks small icon 11. Bucks (21-18 LW 12). Toronto is a team that has adapted its game and is now moving the ball, swinging it from strong to weak, and in two recent games they exposed that the Bucks defense can still be ripped apart by teams that do that. The Raptors scored 131 (in OT) and 129 on Milwaukee in those games. The Bucks defense is 23rd in the NBA on the season (25th if you take out garbage time, 21st in the last 10 games) and it’s the end of the floor that will cost them in the playoffs if things don’t change.

 
Heat small icon 12. Heat (23-17, LW 13). Miami has won five straight – all by single digits. Still, a win is a win and as of right now the Heat are tied with the Wizards for the four seed in the East (meaning the first round of the playoffs would be at home). Is Miami poised for a run like the second half of last season? Don’t bet on it. Miami has the point differential of an 18-22 team (according to Cleaning the Glass), they have been the luckiest team in terms of wins in the NBA this season by those numbers.

 
Blazers small icon 13. Trail Blazers (22-18, LW 15). What would help a Portland offense that hasn’t been itself this season? How about some easy buckets in transition — Portland is 29th in the league in percentage of offensive plays that start in transition (11.3%, via Cleaning the Glass). Despite that the Blazers have won of 6 of their last 8, including going into Oklahoma City and getting a win Tuesday at the start of a rough four-game road trip (which includes Houston and Minnesota).

 
Sixers small icon 14. 76ers (19-19, LW 18). Winners of four in a row as they head to London to take on the Celtics. One reason for the win streak is they’ve slowed down the turnovers — on the season the Sixers have coughed the ball up on 17.2% of their possessions, but in the last five games that has dropped to 14.5 percent. Ben Simmons had a solid game against the Spurs, he needs more of those as Donovan Mitchell is closing in on him for Rookie of the Year.

 
Pelicans small icon 15. Pelicans (20-19, LW 14). When they needed a win to help solidify their playoff position, they went in and got it last Wednesday in Utah (thanks to one of their best defensive performances of the season). The Pelicans are the eighth seed in the West, 2.5 games up on the stumbling Clippers, and New Orleans has a soft schedule the next couple of weeks where it can create some cushion in the standings.

Pistons small icon 16. Pistons (21-18, LW 11). The win over the Rockets last week was one of the more inexplicable outcomes of the season — Detroit was without Andre Drummond and on the second night of a back-to-back, yet upset an elite team (the Piston’s only win in their last four). Drummond missed two games last week with a rib injury, he hadn’t missed two games all season in the past five years.

 
Pacers small icon 17. Pacers (21-19, LW 17). Victor Oladipo has been back for two games, and the Pacers are on a two-game winning streak. This is not a coincidence. On the season the Pacers are 13 points per 100 possessions better when Oladipo is on the floor, and in those two wins he was +38 combined (and also scored 38 points). Indiana faces the streaking Heat, Cleveland, then 6-of-7 on the road.

 
Clippers small icon 18. Clippers (18-21 LW 16). Los Angeles keeps lurking around the playoff picture at the bottom of the West and if they can just get healthy… but that’s not going well (Austin Rivers sprained his ankle, Blake Griffin got a concussion, and Millos Teodosic had to miss a few games). The Clippers are also tied for the second easiest schedule in the NBA so far this season (based on opponent records) and things are about to get tougher, starting with Golden State this week.

 
Knicks small icon 19. Knicks (19-21, LW 20). What does Kristaps Porzingis being “so tired” mean? In November, he shot 46.1% overall, so far in January that is down to 33.8%. In November he shot 42.4% on threes, in December that was down to 32.1%. The Knicks are just two games out of the last playoff slot in the East, but they need a lot more Porzingis — and to get Tim Hardaway Jr. back — to make a push.

 
Hornets small icon 20. Hornets (15-23, LW 24). Is Charlotte going to be a seller at the trade deadline? The next few weeks may have a say in that as the Hornets are 5 games out of the last playoffs but have 8-of-9 at home, this is their last chance to make a serious push. Kemba Walker continues to be fantastic but the Hornets need some secondary playmaking form somewhere, and it’s not Nicolas Batum’s nature.

 
Nets small icon 21. Nets (15-253, LW 25). Brooklyn loves to launch threes — they are third in the league in percentage of their shots from three (35.9%, excluding garbage time). The problem is they are hitting 35.8% of them, 28th in the league. The scrappy Nets are also playing their best defense of the season, which is why they were able to push the Celtics twice in recent games.

 
Bulls small icon 22. Bulls (14-27 LW 19).. The emergence of Lauri Markkanen — averaging 17.2 points per game and shooting 50% from three in his last five, continuing the trend of growth we have seen from him all season — makes Nikola Mitotic the guy most likely to be traded at the deadline. Utah and Detroit are the frontrunners, other teams may have interest (watch Portland), but will any give the Bulls the first round pick they want? (The bidding may come down to the protections on the pick.)

 
Jazz small icon 23. Jazz (16-24, LW 21). When Rudy Gobert went down the second time this season with a knee injury, the concern was Utah was heading into a brutal stretch of the schedule. That seems to have done their playoff dreams in — the Jazz are 2-9 during Gobert’s second injury, with their offense and defense in the bottom five in the league. On the bright side, Donovan Mitchell continues to tear it up and is knocking on Ben Simmons’ door in the Rookie of the Year race.

 
Suns small icon 24. Suns (16-26, LW 22). While the Suns are seeing growth — rookie Josh Jackson is looking more comfortable with his shot of late, for example — it’s not likely going to translate into wins as the Suns have the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA. There’s a push in Phoenix to get Devin Booker on the All-Star team, but his biggest obstacle is the conference is LOADED with good guards and it’s tough to crack that group.

 
Mavericks small icon 25. Mavericks (14-28 LW 23). Dallas has become a scrappy team — they pushed the Warriors to the end (and lost on a Curry three) and have been close late in most of their last 10 games. Their most dangerous lineup of late has been Dirk Nowitzki and the bench guys, which is +25.6 points per 100 possessions on the season.

 
Grizzlies small icon 26. Grizzlies (12-27, LW 26). It sounds like Memphis has no interest in moving Marc Gasol at the trade deadline, but what about Tyreke Evans? He is averaging 19.7 points per game and would be in the mix for Sixth Man of the Year if he were coming off the bench more (he’s started half the team’s games so far). In a depressed trading market the Grizzlies would not get a lot back, but maybe a young player or second-round pick who could be part of the future with the Grizzlies.

 
Lakers small icon 27. Lakers (13-27 LW 29). While Lonzo Ball has returned, that didn’t solve the team’s biggest issue o— a severe lack of effort. Especially on defense. What did solve it was playing worse teams (Sacramento and Atlanta, which is who Los Angeles beat on a two-game win streak. The Lakers need more of this play and less of the recent distractions from Lithuania. “We aren’t going to start feeling sorry for ourselves,” Walton said after the loss to the Thunder.

 
Kings small icon 28. Kings (13-27, LW 27). The biggest question for the Kings’ front office during the season should be: How are our young players developing? That’s been up and down, but on the bright side point guard De’Aaron Fox seems to be finding his shot — he shot 37.6% in December and 45.8% so far in January. Also this month his three-point shooting is up to 41.7%. Fox led the Kings’ 25-and-under starting lineup to a win over the Nuggets last Saturday, which is one of those positive signs.

 
Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (10-30, LW 28). Atlanta is reportedly putting Marco Belinelli, Ersan Ilyasova, and Kent Bazemore on the trade block coming up on the Fib. 8 trade deadline, and while there may be some interest, in a depressed trade market don’t expect much of a return despite the quality of players. The Hawks are 0-4 so far on a recent road swing (with Denver still to come on Wednesday), which for the season makes them 3-18 away from home.

 
Magic small icon 30. Magic (12-29, LW 30). Look for Orlando to try and be sellers at the trade deadline as they try to assemble a roster that fits together better. Detroit had interest in Evan Fournier — despite the fact he is owed $17 million a season for three beyond this one — which speaks to the need and value of shooting around the league. The Magic have lost 14-of-15 and have 6-of-8 coming up on the road.

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.

Evan Fournier says that Frank Ntilikina just ‘needs a real opportunity’

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New York Knicks fans haven’t had a lot to cheer for recently. The team traded away Kristaps Porzingis, who is thought to be the franchise cornerstone. Now they move forward with a young core, RJ Barrett, and tons of cap space.

So what does that mean for players who have been around in the Big Apple like Frank Ntilikina?

Based on how Ntilikina played in the 2019 FIBA World Cup for France this year, things might be looking up.

Ntilikina’s statistics weren’t eye-popping, but he was seen as a very solid player in a backcourt that helped propel France to the bronze medal in China.

To that end, fellow countrymen Evan Fournier thinks that all Ntilikina needs is a chance to shine.

Via Twitter:

Ntilikina’s season last year was marred by injuries, and he played in just 43 games. Still, he has the physical tools to be a useful NBA player, and he’s just 21 years old. With the surprisingly low-pressure situation in New York, it’s possible that extended time playing in the World Cup could help aid what Ntilikina is able to produce next season for the Knicks.