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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.

Report: Knicks to interview former Knicks coach Mike Woodson

Former Knicks coach Mike Woodson
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The Knicks appear set on both hiring Tom Thibodeau and conducting a coaching search.

Mike Woodson, who coached New York from 2012-2014, will be part of the process.

Ian Begley of SNY:

New York also interviewed Woodson in 2018 before hiring David Fizdale. I understand why the Knicks can’t make up their mind on whether they want him as their coach.

Woodson won 58% of his games with New York, the third-best mark in franchise history (behind Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy). In 2012-13, Woodson did some really creative things with Carmelo Anthony at power forward and two-point guard lineups.

But by the end of that season, Woodson went away from what worked. His views became increasingly suspect the next season. When the Knicks fired him, it appeared to be time to move one.

Will New York return to Woodson? Probably not. The expectation remains Thibodeau will get this job. But Woodson will at least have an opportunity to make his case for a very-strange return.

When Charles Barkley tried to recruit Dirk Nowitzki to Auburn

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Dirk Nowitzki was not headed to an American college before the NBA. Like most of the best European players — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, even going back to Tony Kukoc and others — he was taking a straight trip from his European team to the NBA.

That didn’t stop Charles Barkley from trying to get him to go to Auburn.

It wasn’t meant to be, but Saad Yousuf at the Athletic tells the story of Barkley trying.

The Auburn alum reflected on his first meeting with Nowitzki, in 1997 at a Nike exhibition game in Germany, in which the Big German put on an offensive clinic against a team featuring Barkley, Pippen, Michael Jordan and other NBA talents…

Barkley called Nike and made a strong push to get to Nowitzki through any channel, legal or not. “Just tell him, anything he wants, we’ll get it done,” Barkley recalled in 2012. “Just give him anything he wants; he’s got to go to Auburn.”

Barkley didn’t stop there, though. Nowitzki left such an impression on Auburn’s greatest hoops export that Barkley even talked to Cliff Ellis, Auburn’s coach at the time, to encourage the program to make a run at this relatively unknown teenager in Europe.

Ellis notes that in 1997 he couldn’t just jump on YouTube and find clips of a player, there wasn’t much film of European players. Still, the coach was willing to go on Barkley’s word and reached out.

Turns out Kentucky, Stanford and other colleges did as well, but to no avail. Nowitzki went straight into the 1988 NBA Draft, where the Bucks took him ninth overall then executed a draft-night trade sending the big German to Dallas for Robert “Tractor” Traylor. The rest is Hall of Fame history.

For Barkley, Ellis, and Auburn fans, it’s quite the “what if.” That was a 29-4 Auburn team in 1997-98 that was an NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed led by a couple of future NBA players (Mamadou N’Diaye and Chris Porter). Add Nowitzki into that mix and… we will never know. But it could have been glorius.

 

How will, should player salaries be allocated as only some NBA teams resume?

Timberwolves star Karl-Anthony Towns and Mavericks star Luka Doncic
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The Timberwolves will play 64 games this season. The Mavericks will play 75-77 games before the traditional playoffs.

Should Dallas players get paid a higher percentage of their salaries than Minnesota players?

That’s one of the thorny questions as the NBA resumes its season.

Though players have individual contracts with defined salaries, there’s an overriding factor in determining actual wages. The Collective Bargaining Agreement calls for players and owners to split revenue approximately 50-50. Salaries are adjusted to reach that 50-50 split.

Each year, the salary cap is set to a number designed to get total player salaries to about 50% of league-wide revenue. Obviously, that’s a difficult target to hit precisely. So, there are mechanisms to adjust the distribution of money if necessary. If their total slated salaries are higher than 50% of revenue, players don’t receive their full salaries. If their total salaries are lower than 50% of revenue, players get a shortfall check from owners.

Coronavirus has disrupted that well-oiled system

The league is missing a major chunk of revenue. Players’ slated salaries would call for them to earn WAY more than 50% of revenue. That’s why the NBA has been withholding a portion of players’ salaries. Force majeure allows teams to reduce players salaries for games canceled due to an epidemic.

The NBA’s reported plan reveals the number of lost games. There were 259 regular-season games remaining when the season was suspended. The continued season includes 88 regular-season games (eight each for the 22 continuing teams) plus 0-4 play-in games.* No playoff games are being canceled.

*I’m counting play-in games as regular-season games. It’s a gray area. Perhaps, owners and players will agree to count them as postseason games. It probably doesn’t matter here, anyway. In terms of force majeure, regular-season and playoff games count equally. So, it’s simple enough to count them as regular-season games.

That’s 167-171 canceled games.

Except not every team will have the same number of games canceled.

There’s a four-game spread in the number of games each team has played so far. The Warriors, Timberwolves, Cavaliers, Pistons, Hawks, Knicks, Bulls and Hornets are done now. Every other team will play at least eight more games. The Mavericks, Grizzlies, Nets, Magic, Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, Spurs, Suns and Wizards could play up to two play-in games.

Based strictly on games played, here’s how much players on each team stand to lose in salary:

  • Timberwolves: 19%
  • Hornets: 18%
  • Bulls: 18%
  • Cavaliers: 18%
  • Warriors: 18%
  • Pistons: 17%
  • Knicks: 17%
  • Hawks: 16%
  • Lakers: 12%
  • Spurs: 10%-12%
  • Celtics: 11%
  • Rockets: 11%
  • Clippers: 11%
  • Thunder: 11%
  • Raptors: 11%
  • Jazz: 11%
  • Nets: 9%-11%
  • Pelicans: 9%-11%
  • Kings: 9%-11%
  • Wizards: 9%-11%
  • Nuggets: 10%
  • Pacers: 10%
  • Heat: 10%
  • Bucks: 10%
  • 76ers: 10%
  • Grizzlies: 8%-10%
  • Magic: 8%-10%
  • Suns: 8%-10%
  • Trail Blazers: 6%-9%
  • Mavericks: 5%-8%

Is that fair to players on the eight done teams? They didn’t ask for their season to end prematurely.

On the other hand, they don’t have to do any more work. Other players must travel to Orlando, live under restrictions, play games with heightened injury concerns and risk contracting coronavirus just so the league can increase its revenue. Should eliminated players reap the rewards while sitting home?

This tension also exists in normal times. Players across 16 playoff teams divvied up just $20 million total for competing in the 2018 playoffs, and the amount was similar last year. Player income is largely earned on the regular season, even though the players playing in the playoffs disproportionately draw the revenue that funds everyone.

But the disparity feels sharper now – with the worst teams not even finishing the regular season and playoff teams facing a far larger burden just to keep playing.

To a certain degree, this is a player problem. Owners are going to pay approximately 50% of league revenue to players. The CBA dictates how players on each team should have their salaries cut through force majeure. If players want to share the losses more evenly among each other, owners should accommodate.

Consider this similar to cap smoothing, which the union infamously rejected. Except in that case, it was more just luck which players were in the favored class. Now, the players who could earn more will actually be the ones putting in the additional work. Then again, there could be a push for everyone to share the losses more equally.

Like many things disrupted by coronavirus, there are no good answers.

Report: NBA planning to start next season on Christmas

NBA Christmas
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The current NBA season – interrupted by coronavirus – could extend as late as Oct. 12. That means the league must delay next season. How long past the normal mid-October start? December was the popular notion, but that’s still a wide timeframe.

Now, we can pinpoint it.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

If the N.B.A. can successfully complete the 2019-20 season under this structure, it is expected that the 2020 N.B.A. draft would be moved to October, with free agency to follow shortly thereafter and a tentative plan to establish Dec. 25 as opening day for the 2020-21 season.

Coronavirus can ruin the best-laid plans. Though NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said play would continue around a positive test, it’s unclear whether that would delay this season’s schedule – then the offseason then next season. It’s also unknown how the country will be handling coronavirus in December. The cold weather, pushing people indoors, could increase cases.

But it’s still interesting to know the plan, even if it’s tentative.

People fondly recall the NBA season starting on Christmas in 2011. Many have pointed to Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin’s idea of permanently opening in December to avoid overlap with the NFL, though he suggested mid-December – not Christmas.

That’s quite late.

This year, coronavirus has forced radical changes. A Christmas start might be totally reasonable for the 2020-21 season.

What about beyond?

If the NBA wants to begin each season on Christmas, this is the simplest time to shift. A different start date for future seasons would require altering the calendar to get on track.

There are plenty of issues with opening on Christmas in normal times, though:

  • Historically, TV viewership is down during the summer. That might be changing, but people might find other activities while it’s warm rather than attending or watching an indoor NBA game.
  • Would people really watch more NBA games just because fewer of them would compete with the highly popular NFL? The NBA regular season might just be too long to capture attention, no matter when it’s held.
  • By starting on Christmas, the NBA would reduce two marquee regular-season dates – opening day and Christmas – to one.
  • Many regional TV networks that carry NBA games also carry MLB games. Many of those networks already carry NHL games. But with baseball teams playing more games, there would be more conflicts.
  • With schools out, the American system is built on summer being more of a vacation time. People within the league – including players, especially those with children – might object to working during that time.