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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.

Joseph Tsai to buy rest of Nets, Barclays Arena for $3.4 billion

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NEW YORK — Joe Tsai has agreed to buy the remaining 51 percent of the Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center from Mikhail Prokhorov in deals that two people with knowledge of the details say are worth about $3.4 billion.

Terms were not disclosed Friday, but the people told The Associated Press that Tsai is paying about $2.35 billion for the Nets – a record for a U.S. pro sports franchise – and nearly $1 billion in a separate transaction for the arena. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the transactions have not yet been completed.

Tsai is the co-founder and executive vice president of the Alibaba Group, the Chinese e-commerce giant. He already had purchased a 49 percent stake in the team from Prokhorov in 2018, with the option to become controlling owner in four years.

Instead, he pushed up that timeline for full ownership of a team on the rise after signing superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in July.

Prokhorov, a Russian billionaire, became the NBA’s first non-North American owner in 2010 and oversaw the Nets’ move from New Jersey to Brooklyn two years later. He spent big in the first couple years after the move in a quest to chase a championship, but the team soon became one of the worst in the NBA before rallying to return to the playoffs last season.

“It has been an honor and a joy to open Barclays Center, bring the Nets to Brooklyn, and watch them grow strong roots in the community while cultivating global appeal,” Prokhorov said in a statement. “The team is in a better place today than ever before and I know that Joe will build on that success, while continuing to deliver the guest experience at Barclays Center that our fans, employees, and colleagues in the industry enjoy.”

The deal is expected to be completed by the end of September and is subject to approval by the NBA’s Board of Governors.

That would put Tsai, a native of Taiwan, in full control of the team by the time the Nets head to China to play two exhibition games against the Los Angeles Lakers in October. That comes at the start of a season of renewed excitement for the Nets, who just three seasons ago won an NBA-worst 20 games but are set to make a big move up the standings after landing two of the best players on the market when free agency opened.

“I’ve had the opportunity to witness up close the Brooklyn Nets rebuild that Mikhail started a few years ago. He hired a front office and coaching staff focused on player development, he supported the organization with all his resources, and he refused to tank,” Tsai said. “I will be the beneficiary of Mikhail’s vision, which put the Nets in a great position to compete, and for which I am incredibly grateful.”

Brett Yormark, the CEO of BSE Global, which manages the team and the arena, will oversee the transition before leaving for a new role.

Jazz coach Quin Snyder tells Donovan Mitchell to ‘be a sponge’ around Gregg Popovich

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While other players continue to pull out of the USA Basketball roster — De'Aaron Fox was the latest, and P.J. Tucker before him — Utah’s Donovan Mitchell has been outspoken in his commitment to the team.

“Me, I’m 22, some guys are older and got to rest their bodies and I understand that…” Mitchell said Friday night after Team USA’s exhibition game win over Spain. “For me, I’ve never been part of USA Basketball and I’m honored to be here, I’m honored to have this privilege to go out and compete.”

A lot of players have left — or just not put their names in the hat in the first place — saying they wanted to focus on preparing for the regular season, especially players in the Western Conference, which is deep with outstanding teams. The Utah Jazz, now with Mike Conley at the point, are one of those teams with high expectations.

Mitchell, however, has the full backing of his coach Quin Snyder to stay with Team USA and learn from Gregg Popovich, as Snyder told Marc Stein of the New York Times.

“Both Donovan and I have been excited for this opportunity, not just the chance to compete for his country but to play for Pop. I think he has an appreciation for the fact that he’s playing for the greatest coach that’s ever coached…

“Just try to throw yourself completely into it,” Snyder said he told Mitchell. “And try to communicate with Coach as much as you can. Be a sponge.”

Popovich has had an impact on the young players on the roster. For example, there’s more maturity to Kyle Kuzma‘s game, and Popovich recognized him on the court Friday night when Kuzma made a couple of smart plays against Spain.

Just having different coaching voices — not just Popovich but his assistants Steve Kerr, Lloyd Pierce, and Villanova’s Jay Wright — can help a young player. The message may be consistent, but said in a different way, one that better gets through to the player. Styles matter.

Mitchell led Team USA in scoring against Spain with 13, but Snyder and Jazz fans are hoping for more. Not just gold at the World Cup in China starting Sept. 1, but that Mitchell comes back energized and with a broadened game after having been a sponge next to Popovich.

Marcus Smart reportedly cleared to play for Team USA

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Through two weeks of training camp, first in Las Vegas then in Los Angeles, through one intrasquad scrimmage and one exhibition game, Marcus Smart has sat in street clothes.

The Celtics guard has a calf injury that has sidelined him. On Thursday in Los Angeles he took part in the shooting parts of practice during training camp, but not the full-contact scrimmages against the select team. All he could really do was this.

Friday night he never got out of his warmups and did not play against Spain, but he did say on the broadcast he would be back.

Turns out, he was cleared to be back the next day according to Mark Stein of the New York Times.

This takes away a little of the sting of De'Aaron Fox deciding to withdraw from the team just before it left on Saturday for Australia.

It also means four Celtics are on the USA roster: Smart, Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown. USA assistant coach Steve Kerr jokingly said to me last week he asked Brad Stevens for a thank you gift for running Celtics mini-camp.

Smart is one of the 13 players headed down under for a series of tune-up games before the World Cup (against Australia and Canada). If he’s fully healthy enough to go, Smart is a lock to make the roster because of his physical perimeter defense and ability to shoot the three (36 percent last season in the NBA, and the international line is a little closer in). He likely would come off the bench at the two behind Donovan Mitchell.

Bill Walton broadcast White Sox vs. Angels game and was nothing short of brilliant

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Bill Walton is brilliant.

The Hall of Fame hippie and big man was in the broadcast booth Friday night — not for basketball, but for the White Sox vs. Angels MLB game. Walton loves baseball even if his understanding of the sport is… unconventional.

I want Bill Walton to narrate my life.

The world missed him while he battled serious back issues, it’s so good to have him out and around and being himself again.