NBA Power Rankings: Rockets back up to second, Cavaliers keep sliding

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Houston is getting healthy and is back to winning, so they move back up to the No. 2 slot in our weekly rankings (Golden State is still on top, even after the loss to Houston, still can’t move them down yet). Cleveland keeps on falling down the rankings, and Boston slides to fifth.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (38-10 Last Week No. 1). The Warriors usually strong defense has been unimpressive of late, giving up 108.5 points per 100 possessions over the past 10 games, 19th in the league in that stretch (more than 5 per 100 worse than their top five defense for the season). It cost them against the Rockets, but it’s more of a focus and effort thing they will correct when it matters. Four Warriors made the All-Star Game for the second straight season, the first time that has ever happened. The Warriors meet Boston on Saturday night, is that a Finals preview?

 
Rockets small icon 2. Rockets (33-12, LW 5). James Harden is back after missing just 7 games with his hamstring issue (which is good for his MVP case, especially as LeBron’s Cavaliers struggle). He and Chris Paul led the Rockets to a confidence-boosting win against the Warriors Saturday, and now the Rockets are 18-0 when Harden, Paul, and Clint Capela are all in the starting lineup together. This is the team with the best chance at knocking off the Warriors in a 7-game series.

 
3. Timberwolves (31-18, LW 3). A sign how much Minnesota has improved this season: The win over the Clippers Monday gave them as many wins this season as they had all of last season (31). Minnesota beat the Raptors without All-Star and MVP candidate Jimmy Butler, a good sign for the growth of the team, but the loss to Houston was a reminder they still have a ways to go to really contend. The win in L.A. was the start of 5-of-6 on the road. Congrats to Karl-Anthony Towns on his first All-Star nod.

 
Raptors small icon 4. Raptors (31-14, LW 4). DeMar DeRozan is a deserving All-Star starter (he had my vote), now Kyle Lowry is headed to Los Angeles with him (and he dropped 40 on Minnesota on Saturday. Despite having a couple of All-Stars, the Raptors offense has had some stumbles of late, but a soft part of the schedule coming up should help them. After the game in Atlanta Wednesday night, the Raptors have 8-of-10 at home.

 
Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (34-14, LW 2). This has been a debate amongst league watchers: Who is more important to Boston, Al Horford or Kyrie Irving? There was a good case to make for Horford because of his defense and high IQ execution, but without Irving they were blown out by the Bulls and Sixers. Then Irving returns, drops 40, and the Celtics still lose (their offense continues to stumble). None of that may answer the question Irving vs. Horford question, but both men are All-Stars. The Celtics have lost four in a row now after a close road loss to the Lakers Tuesday.

 
Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (31-18, LW 6). Kawhi Leonard remains out, and now Tony Parker is out of the starting lineup with Dejounte Murray given the starting point guard job (even though the starting lineup statistically has been better with Parker this season, and Patty Mills starting when Leonard returns may well be the best lineup). The Spurs offense had been in a little slump until they went against the Cavaliers’ “defense” Tuesday night and put up 114 (doing it without Pau Gasol in the lineup, too).

 
Thunder small icon 7. Thunder (27-20 LW 8).. Really interesting note from Ben Dowsett of Basketball Insiders: When Russell Westbrook gets a triple-double, the Thunder win about 80% of their games, better than the historical average of about 75% . When Westbrook takes 25+ shots and gets a triple-double, the Thunder win about 75% of the time, way up from the historical average of about 55%. Paul George has the right to feel snubbed about the All-Star game. Carmelo Anthony should score his 25,000th point this week, maybe Thursday vs. Washington.

 
Heat small icon 8. Heat (27-20, LW 9). Miami now has 18 wins this season in games that were within five points in the final two minutes of play, the most in the NBA. That’s a tough way to live, but their comeback against the Hornets over the weekend may be the best comeback win of the season (check it out below). The Heat went 2-3 on a five-game road trip, but because the Cavaliers are collapsing they are just ?? games out of the three seed.

 
Pelicans small icon 9. Pelicans (25-21, LW 13). Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins are both starting in the All-Star Game, and that seems to bode well for them staying together past this season (which is what most sources around the league expect). Cousins had a game for the ages against the Bulls, but Jrue Holiday remains the bellwether for this team — when he is playing well and closing games, this is a much more dangerous team. They need the outside to go with the inside. Holiday has played well of late, and the Pelicans have won 5-of-6.

 
Wizards small icon 10. Wizards (26-21, LW 7). Bradley Beal is headed to his first-ever All-Star Game, where he will be joined by John Wall. Despite that the Wizards continue to play down to lesser opponents — they got blown out by Charlotte a week ago, then lost to the Mavericks by 23 Monday (the only win in there was a come-from-behind against Detroit). The Wizards are 1-2 on a current road trip, with 8-of-11 on the road still ahead of them.

Bucks small icon 11. Bucks (24-22 LW 10). Jason Kidd is out as coach — and that was the right move, no matter how much the players loved him. This team was not progressing, particularly on defense. Well see if interim coach Joe Prunty can turn that around, but it’s a tall task. Giannis Antetokounmpo sat out a couple of games as the Bucks are managing his knee issues, trying to keep them from becoming anything serious (the knee issue was known and Kidd played Antetokounmpo a lot of heavy minutes, something else that caused friction between Kidd and the front office).

 
Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (25-22, LW 11). Victor Oladipo is headed to his first All-Star Game, the first of many accolades to come his way this season the way he is playing (we may have half a season left, but he has Most Improved Player all but sewn up). The Pacers went a solid 3-2 on a road trip out west, and now have 6-of-8 at home and the chance to pad their record (and solidify their playoff spot) with a soft part of the schedule ahead.

 
Cavaliers small icon 13. Cavaliers (27-19 LW 12). LeBron reaching the 30,000 point threshold is historic, but it doesn’t change the team’s current situation, having lost 6-of-7 after falling to the shorthanded Spir. The Cavaliers have the point differential of a team that should be 23-23. Cleveland is one of the most active teams in talks at the trade deadline, and they have been linked to George Hill, DeAndre Jordan, and Lou Williams among others. Cleveland is trying to reshape its roster, but don’t expect them to give up that Brooklyn pick in the process.

 
Sixers small icon 14. 76ers (22-21, LW 15). Joel Ebmiid is head to his first All-Star next month, a well deserved honor (plus the game is more fun with him in it). The Sixers have won 7-of-9, but that only got them up to the eighth seed in the East and now the schedule gets tougher — they are going to need All-Star Embiid to hold on to that playoff spot.

 
Blazers small icon 15. Trail Blazers (25-22, LW 17). Damian Lillard got back into the All-Star Game this year and it’s well deserved. He also sat down with owner Paul Allen and wanted to talk the future of the franchise — he wants to win more and contend, but the Blazers have a lot of big contracts and kind of are what they are right now. Allen and GM Neil Olshey want to be active at the trade deadline, but there may not be a deal out there that works for them in a tight market.

 
Clippers small icon 16. Clippers (23-23 LW 14). Lou Williams has good reason to feel snubbed, he is having a career-best season and is the main reason the Clippers are in the playoff hunt in the West. That may not be enough to keep him in Los Angeles past the trade deadline — he is more likely to be moved than DeAndre Jordan, although the Clippers are still going to want a player or pick of real quality to make a move. Owner Steve Ballmer isn’t going to blow this thing up and tank (he would have done that this summer if he wanted to) so to get a Clipper player in a trade it’s going to have to be legit. So far, that hasn’t happened.

Pistons small icon 17. Pistons (22-23, LW 16). Andre Drummond was the odd-man out in the Eastern All-Star frontcourt, and he has every right to be ticked (I would have had him in my reserves). However, teams that win get players in the All-Star Game and the Pistons have lost 5 in a row and are 2-8 since the start of January to fall out of the postseason. Stan Van Gundy is looking for help at the trade deadline, but a motivated Drummond may be the best thing for this team.

 
Nuggets small icon 18. Nuggets (24-23, LW 18). Denver got a quality win Monday night over Portland — it looks like those two and the Los Angeles Clippers will battle it out for the final two playoff spots in the West (OKC is set and New Orleans looks like it will get in). All three teams are looking around at the trade deadline, but the Nuggets have one huge advantage — they will get Paul Millsap back. That can’t happen soon enough. Denver is 1-1 on their current homestand and have 6-of-7 at home where the team needs to rack up wins.

 
Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (19-26, LW 21). Kemba Walker doesn’t want to be traded out of Charlotte, and Michael Jordan doesn’t want to move him (his comments cooled that market), but the Hornets are at least open to the idea. That said, it’s going to take a really good offer to make this work, something that would jumpstart the rebuild in Charlotte. That may be more likely to come this summer as opposed to at the deadline. Starting Saturday the Hornets hit the road for 7-of-8.

 
Knicks small icon 20. Knicks (21-27, LW 19). Kristaps Porzingis has deservedly made his first All-Star Game, but will his team get him to his first playoff game? A hot early start in New York (thanks to a home-heavy schedule) raised hopes, but the Knicks are 3-9 in their last 12 and 2-3 on this road trip, with 4-of-5 on the road still ahead (welcome to the Grammys trip, ask the Lakers/Clippers about it). Fivethirtheight.com has the Knicks with an 11 percent chance to make the playoffs and that feels about right, they have 3.5 games to make up to get there.

 
Grizzlies small icon 21. Grizzlies (17-29, LW 25). Memphis has won 4-of-5 during a home-heavy part of the schedule because they are getting help from guys not named Gasol or Evans for a change. Monday night against Philly it was Mario Chalmers with 18 off the bench. Wayne Selden had 31 points against the Pelicans (in a Memphis loss), and Dillon Brooks has played better of late. Keep an eye on the Tyreke Evans trade rumors as the deadline nears, he’s the one guy who could well get moved to a playoff team. Great tribute to Zach Randolph on his return, well done Memphis.

 
Lakers small icon 22. Lakers (18-29 LW 26). Kyle Kuzma continues to put up numbers — he had 17 of his 28 in the fourth quarter against Boston Tuesday, just taking over that game for a stretch. He can be more efficient, and he can be a lot better defensively, but the Lakers have a keeper in Kuz. The Lakers have won three in a row and 7-of-9, doing it without Lonzo Ball and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for much of that.

 
Bulls small icon 23. Bulls (18-29 LW 20).. The Bulls are 3-1 since Zach LaVine returned. Rookie Lauri Markkanen is on pace to break Damian Lillard’s record for most threes in a season by a rookie (185), but it’s going to be close. It’s still expected around the league they will move Nicola Mitotic before the deadline, but the first-round pick hey want has yet to materialize so they could just hold onto him (the Bulls are 15-8 since his return).

 
Mavericks small icon 24. Mavericks (16-31 LW 23). Rookie Dennis Smith Jr. has found his second wind and is averaging 20.2 points and 5.2 assists per game over his last five. Smith also is headed to the All-Star Weekend Dunk Contest where the explosive leaper has a real chance. Dallas (like Brooklyn) has become the team where they play hard, push teams that go up against them, and can pull the upset if teams don’t take them seriously. They’re scrapy.

 
Jazz small icon 25. Jazz (19-28, LW 22). Rudy Gobert is back, but with the Jazz five games out of the playoffs it’s probably too little, too late. Utah quietly has been one of the more active teams as the trade deadline approaches, look for them to make moves as sellers (Rodney Hood, Derrick Favors, and other role players are available). Any move will not be about this season but putting guys in place to help the Gobert/Donovan Mitchell core in future years.

 
Nets small icon 26. Nets (18-30, LW 24). D’Angelo Russell has looked expectedly rusty since his return, but Spencer Dinwiddie behind him continues to have a breakout season (his floater beat the Pistons’ Sunday, and he almost hit a three at the buzzer to beat the Thunder on Tuesday). The Nets are playing better defense but that’s not translating to consistent wins because they just don’t have players who can generate quality shots and points consistently.

 
Hawks small icon 27. Hawks (14-32, LW 28). What have the Hawks done well this season? They are creating turnovers, forcing them on 16.8% of their opponents non-garbage time possessions, second best in the NBA (stat via Cleaning the Glass). Not that it matters when they are terrible on the defensive glass (worst in the NBA) and don’t defend shooters well, leaving the team with the 26th ranked defense in the league. They are 3-2 on their current homestand with 4-of-5 at home still ahead.

 
Suns small icon 28. Suns (17-30, LW 27). Devin Booker is ticked he didn’t make the All-Star team, and he’s put up good numbers — 25 points per game, 38.2 percent from three, a PER of 19.2 — but the West is stupid deep with guards and some guys are going to get snubbed every year. The fact that he’s the best player on a bad team doesn’t help his cause, but he is a future All-Star. Booker and the Suns have been jacking up more threes the past couple of weeks, which makes them dangerous on any given night.

 
Kings small icon 29. Kings (14-33, LW 29). They won the battle of “who is on the bottom of the rankings” Tuesday knocking off the Magic. The Kings had given a little more run to George Hill until Tuesday, a sign they wanted to show the Cavaliers (and anyone else interested) he is healthy and ready to play. George is certainly available via trade, but the Kings don’t just want salary back, they want a pick to help their future.

 
Magic small icon 30. Magic (14-33, LW 30). It’s hard to have Orlando still in the bottom spot after they beat the Timberwolves and Celtics recently (plus put a scare into Cleveland), but they lost Tuesday to the team that was going to slide into last, so here we are. Another team with a lot of players who could be moved at the trade deadline, and they’re talking, but another team that is not just going to give talent away, they want something of value in return, and that may not be there.

Watch Kawhi Leonard score two clutch buckets, including game-winner, in his return

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Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return for the first 47 minutes Monday night: 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

But that final minute was special.

First, there was a great hustle play from Paul George — also making his return — that got the ball to Leonard to tie it up.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner.

Los Angeles picked up the 119-117 win on the road. Not exactly pretty, but for a team just starting to get healthy and build some chemistry, they showed resilience and got the win. Leonard finished with 16 points on 7-of-15 shooting, and George looked sharp on his way to 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. It was a balanced Clippers attack, which is what Tyronn Lue is trying to build.

Kelly Oubre Jr. scored 28 and P.J. Washington added 26 for the shorthanded Hornets.

James Harden returns to 76ers Monday night, is on minutes restriction

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The 76ers were able to keep their heads above water. For 14 games, James Harden was out with a right foot tendon sprain — both Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey missed games in that stretch as well (Maxey remains out) — and Philadelphia went 8-6 with a +2.9 net rating and the best defense in the NBA over that stretch.

Monday night in Houston, Harden returns.

This wasn’t a surprise, nor is the fact Doc Rivers confirmed Harden will be on a minutes restriction at first.

Harden averaged 22 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds a game before his injury, and while his 3-point shooting percentage was down (33.3%) he was still efficient and finding his footing as more of a facilitator than scorer.

The 76ers are 12-11 on the season and sit in a three-way tie for fifth in the East (with the Pacers and Raptors). If Harden can spark the Philadephia offense there is plenty of time for them to climb into the top four, host a first-round playoff game and position themselves for a deep playoff run. But it starts with getting their starting guards healthy again.

Harden is ready to take that on.

Trae Young frustrated ‘private conversations get out to the public’ about missed game

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
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Rumors and chatter of tension in Atlanta — about how Trae Young was adapting to playing with Dejonte Murray, and his pushback on coach Nate McMillan and his efforts to get the ball moving more — have been all over the league since the start of the season. Over the weekend, a little of that leaked out, with reports Young chose not to come to the arena Friday after McMillan gave him a choice of participating in shootaround or missing the game.

Young addressed the report and seemed more concerned that it got out than the report’s content.

“I mean, it was just a situation. I mean, we’re all grown men here and there’s sometimes we don’t always agree. And it’s unfortunate that private situations and private conversations get out to the public, but I guess that’s the world we live in now. Yeah, I’m just gonna just focus on basketball and focus on helping my team win. And that’s what I got to be focusing on…

“Like I said, it’s a private matter, again, made public, which is unfortunate. And if it was to stay private, it probably wouldn’t have been as big of a deal. But like I said, it’s unfortunate in my job, and my goal is to win championships. And that’s what I focus on.”

Young went through shootaround  Monday and is set to play against the Thunder.

Murray has been professional throughout this situation, saying he didn’t see anything at the shootaround Friday and backing Young and McMillan when asked.

Bringing in Murray was supposed to take some pressure off Young and spread the wealth more on offense, ideally allowing Young to be more efficient. Instead, Young’s usage rate is nearly identical to last season, he is shooting just 30.3% from 3 and his true shooting percentage has fallen below league average. The Hawks as a team make the fewest passes per game of any team in the league (stat via NBA.com). The Hawks’ offense is still a lot of Young, but it’s not as efficient as it has been in years past.

Atlanta is still 13-10 on the season, has a top-10 defense and sits fourth in the East — they are not struggling. But neither have they made the leap to become a team that could threaten Boston or Milwaukee atop the conference, and that’s what the Hawks expected.

There could be personnel moves coming in Atlanta — John Collins is available via trade, again — but if the Hawks can’t smooth out their internal, existing concerns (and get Collins and DeAndre Hunter healthy) other roster moves will be just cosmetic.

Nike, Kyrie Irving part ways, making him a sneaker free agent

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Here’s the positive spin for Kyrie Irving: He will have the chance to remake his situation into something he’s more comfortable with during 2023. As a player, he will be an unrestricted free agent and can choose where he wants to play in coming seasons (how many teams are interested and for how many years will be interesting to see).

Irving also is a sneaker free agent — Nike has cut ties with him, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Irving is happy with this.

The separation is not a surprise. Nike suspended its relationship with Irving after he Tweeted out support for an antisemitic film, did not apologize (at first), and was suspended by the Nets. Here was the company’s statement at that time:

“At Nike, we believe there is no place for hate speech and we condemn any form of antisemitism. To that end, we’ve made the decision to suspend our relationship with Kyrie Irving effective immediately and will no longer launch the Kyrie 8. We are deeply saddened and disappointed by the situation and its impact on everyone.”

Nike founder Phil Knight said it was likely the end of the company’s relationship with Irving.

That’s not a small thing by Nike, Irving has had a signature shoe line since 2014 and is reported to have a deal with Nike worth more than $10 million a season because his shoes are popular. However, his contract with the shoe giant was set to end in October 2023, and there had been reports Nike did not plan to extend that deal before this current controversy started.

Nike is already looking in a new direction, at Ja Morant.

Irving now has the chance to choose his new direction.