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NBA Power Rankings: Rockets remain locked on top, race to the bottom interesting

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Not much movement at the top of the power rankings, the Rockets are playing well and most of the other top teams seem to have a case of senioritis looking ahead to the All-Star break. The more interesting race may be to the bottom, where the Suns and Nets are losing, the Knicks have dropped seven straight, and the taking for lottery position is about to go full force.

 
Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (43-13, Last Week No. 1). Houston is a run-and-gun Mike D’Antoni team, right? Not really, or at least not as much as people think. The Rockets are ninth in the NBA in pace and 14th in the NBA in the percentage of offense started in transition. The Rockets are very efficient when they get in transition, scoring a league best 129.5 points per 100 transition possessions (stats via Cleaning the Glass), but they don’t run like people think. The Rockets have won nine in a row, they remain tied with the Warriors in the loss column in the race for the No. 1 seed and home court throughout the playoffs.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (44-13 LW 2). Whoever is doing the coaching for Golden State (Steve Kerr, Andre Iguodala, JaVale McGee), he/they seems to have awakened their dormant bench of the past month or so. Which is good, because they may need to fill in for Draymond Green soon — he has a league-leading 14 technical fouls this season, two more and he gets an automatic one-game suspension. One sign of when the Warriors start to buckle down and focus again heading into the playoffs — their dreadful transition defense will improve. Right now it is one of the worst in the league.

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (40-16, LW 3). Winners of six in a row — and the first five each by at least 15 points. The Raptors are in an impressive stretch and look like they could be the class of the East, but they will need to prove it in the playoffs. The Raptors are the top seed in the East as you read this — which could really matter come the playoffs. If Cleveland really has turned things around, the Cavs will still be the 3 seed (six games back of Boston/Toronto), meaning whoever finishes as the two seed gets them in the second round. Finish first, the path to the conference finals is cleaner.

 
Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (40-18, LW 4). Losers of 3-of-4, including ugly losses to the other top teams in the East Toronto and Cleveland. (The Celtics would have lost four in a row if the Wizards had played a little cleaner and Markieff Morris hadn’t fouled late.) The real reason for concern is the defense has been 6.4 points per 100 possessions worse in their last five games, going from best in the league to pedestrian. The offense remains just okay as it has much of the season, they need an elite defense to make up for it. This is likely just a blip, but something to watch.

 
5. Timberwolves (35-25, LW 5). That midseason stretch of good defense may have been a mirage — in their last 10 games the Timberwolves have given up a sieve-like 113.4 points per 100 possessions, 28th in the NBA for that stretch. Their transition defense continues to be the big issue. Rumors persist that Tom Thibodeau wants to pick up Derrick Rose off the buyout market, but I can’t see a good reason to do that. There are better options for point guard depth out there.

Bucks small icon 6. Bucks (32-24 LW 7). When Joe Prunty took over as head coach, his first move was to change the defensive schemes to something simpler and more traditional that his players could execute consistently — and in those 10 games the Bucks have allowed less than a point per possession and gone 8-2. Over that same time the Bucks have had a pedestrian offense (18th in the league) and while injuries (Malcolm Brogdon) are part of that the team needs to step up, starting with Giannis Antetokounmpo.

 
Spurs small icon 7. Spurs (35-24, LW 6). The Spurs have shaken up the starting lineup, inserting Davis Bertans and moving Pau Gasol to a sixth man role. The reason is that with Dejounte Murray starting at the point but not having an outside shot, the Spurs needed better floor spacing. They have gotten it, the offense has looked better with this new lineup. The Spurs are 1-3 at the start of their Rodeo road trip and it continues past the All-Star break through Feb. 25 in Cleveland.

 
Wizards small icon 8. Wizards (32-24, LW 8). Washington has won 6-of-8 since John Wall went down, with the two losses to elite defensive teams (Boston and Philly). With Tim Fraizer also out injured, the Wizards need to pick up a point guard on the buyout market to provide some depth behind Tomas Satoransky (who has played well and moved the ball with Wall out). Expect a move soon.

 
Jazz small icon 9. Jazz (29-28, LW 17). Winners of 10 in a row and they have been the best team in the NBA over that stretch. The biggest surprise is that the frontcourt of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert is working again — the Jazz are +26.2 per 100 possessions when those two are on the court together during this streak. Not sure if that’s sustainable. Donovan Mitchell continues to impress during the streak taking over games late, Ricky Rubio has found a comfort level in Quin Snyder’s system and next to Mitchell, and Joe Ingles can’t miss. With a softer schedule the rest of the way than other teams in the fight for playoffs, fivethirtyeight.com says they have a 90 percent chance of making the postseason.

 
Cavaliers small icon 10. Cavaliers (34-22 LW 19). They are 2-0 with the new-look lineup, and while it’s just two games the fact that LeBron James looks energized again, that the athleticism on defense is paying off, and that the bench looks good are all very good signs the Cavs are on the right track. After the All-Star break Tyronn Lue will get a few practices with his new team, which is needed. It’s too early to buy in on the Cavaliers again, but I like what I’ve seen in the test drive so far.

 
Thunder small icon 11. Thunder (32-26 LW 9).. Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony returned to the rotation Tuesday night vs. Cleveland but it didn’t help, and the Thunder are 2-6 in their last eight. Without Andre Roberson in those games their elite defense has fallen to the middle of the pack (15th in the NBA in those 8) and they continue to look for a fifth man in the starting and closing rotation. Also in those eight games, the team’s offense has fallen to bottom 10 in the league. This still feels like a team better built for the postseason, but the hole they have dug themselves will make that a struggle.

 
Nuggets small icon 12. Nuggets (31-26, LW 12). Denver quietly made a really smart move at the trade deadline, swapping out Emmanuel Mudiay for Devin Harris — Harris has fit right in and helped (he had 17 vs. Phoenix). The win over the Spurs Tuesday night mattered because for Denver the playoffs start now — they are the current six-seed in the West, but just two games up on the nine-seed Clippers (and three on the 10 seed and climbing Jazz). Denver needs victories now.

 
Sixers small icon 13. 76ers (29-25, LW 16). Adding Marco Belinelli after his buyout from the Hawks was a good pickup, he provides shooting and wing depth this team could use. The Sixers have won eight in a row at home now, but have 8-of-10 on the road were they are 12-15 this season. The Sixers need to keep racking up wins to keep Detroit at arms length and stay in the postseason, but the Sixers have the second toughest schedule in the East the rest of the way.

 
Pacers small icon 14. Pacers (30-25, LW 10). Indiana is 6-1 in games decided by three points or less this season, which is a little bit lucky but has helped keep them afloat and out of too much danger of missing the postseason. Although the bigger reason this team remains solidly in the postseason is the play of Victor Oladipo, the team has gone 13-6 since his return from injury.

 
Clippers small icon 15. Clippers (29-26 LW 14). DeAndre Jordan remained a Clipper past the trade deadline, despite a lot of teams calling about his availability (if the Clippers moved him they did not want to take on long-term salary coming back, and that became a sticking point). Whether he remains a Clipper after summer free agency is another question, he told our own Dan Feldman he’s not sure how much the team wants him, and you can bet other teams will work hard to recruit him.

 
Blazers small icon 16. Trail Blazers (31-26, LW 13). The Trail Blazers offense was hot for a while, then has cooled off (despite a 50 spot from Damian Lillard) but the ups-and-downs are expected in an offense where the pick-and-roll ball handler or a guy in isolation take 30.3 percent of the shots (this team does not move the ball well, which can lead to contests against good defenses). Fun matchup Wednesday night when the Blazers face the Warriors: Lillard and C.J. McCollum vs. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

 
Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (30-26, LW 15). New Orleans is 3-5 since DeMarcus Cousins went down for the season, and not surprisingly it is the offensive end of the court where they miss him most. Since the injury, the Pelicans have scored just 101.6 points per 100 possessions, way down from the 108.3 rating they had before. The Pels defense has been okay, but it can’t cover up that much lack of scoring. Of the five teams battling for the final three playoff spots in the West, the Clippers, Trail Blazers, and Pelicans have the toughest remaining schedules, New Orleans needs to find some buckets to stay in the postseason.

 
Heat small icon 18. Heat (30-27, LW 11). Dwyane Wade is back home in Miami, and that boost stopped a five-game skid. Wade is not an efficient scorer anymore, but he is an improved playmaker who can serve as sort of a defacto backup point guard, plus he can make some timely plays on both ends of the court. Expect him to keep coming off the bench but to get some crunch time minutes as well.

Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (27-29, LW 18). The Blake Griffin honeymoon is over as the Pistons have lost three straight and remain 2.5 games out of the playoffs in the East. If you really want to be picky, every game Griffin has won with the Piston came when the opponent was on the second game of a back-to-back. Overall the Pistons have been +6.5 points per 100 with Griffin on the court this season, but in the last three games, the Griffin and Andre Drummond pairing has been -14.4 per 100. Stan Van Gundy is looking forward to having some practices with his team at the end of the All-Star break.

 
Lakers small icon 20. Lakers (23-32 LW 21). Isaiah Thomas has a chance with the Lakers to improve his stock heading into his summer free agency — stock that took a serious hit in the past year with his injury, play in Cleveland, and his disruption of that locker room. Thomas had 22 points in his Lakers debut off the bench, and while his defense is still terrible if he can show he can still put up numbers he helps his cause this summer (either as a key ball handler on a lesser team or a sixth man on a good one).

 
Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (23-33, LW 20). The Hornets didn’t trade Kemba Walker at the deadline, as expected, but they should revisit that during the summer when the offers may improve. Charlotte did take a flier on Willy Hernangomez at the deadline, and while it adds some salary long term it’s a good flier on a guy who showed promise as a rookie then got squeezed in the New York rotations this season. On Saturday, while you’re settling in to watch the Dunk Contest, remember to wish Michael Jordan a happy 55th birthday.

 
Bulls small icon 22. Bulls (20-36 LW 29).. After trading out Nikola Mitotic, the Bulls took an interesting flier at the deadline taking on Noah Vonleh. He didn’t impress much in Portland but he was marginally better this season (he started a dozen games for them) and there is potential. Zach LaVine has impressed more and more of late, including the game-winning steal and dunk vs. Orlando on Monday.

 
Magic small icon 23. Magic (18-38, LW 25). And somewhere Scott Skiles smiles — the Magic decided to move on from Elfrid Payton at the trade deadline. They didn’t get much back but it was still the right move, it was time. Orlando continues to play well on offense — they are 10th in the NBA in that category over their last 10 games. The problem is they give up almost as many buckets as they score, leading to a 4-6 record in those games.

 
Mavericks small icon 24. Mavericks (18-40 LW 23). Dennis Smith Jr. continues to show flashes but struggle with efficiency, he scoring 15.5 points per game in his last 10 but is shooting just 36.1 percent overall and 27.7 percent from three in that stretch. On the bright side, Dirk Nowitzki dropped 22 on the Lakers and even had a dunk (his first of the season).

 
Grizzlies small icon 25. Grizzlies (18-37, LW 24). Tyreke Evans is still in Memphis after the trade deadline in one of the most bizarre deadline non-moves we have seen. Memphis’ GM tried to spin this was better for the team, but the reality is no team was going to give him the first he wanted, so now rather than two second-round pick (or a second and Emmanuel Mudiay, a deal that was on the table) the Grizzlies are going to watch him walk this summer for nothing. Will they revisit the Marc Gasol trade idea this summer?

 
Knicks small icon 26. Knicks (23-35, LW 22). They have lost seven in a row and are pushing their way higher into the draft lottery. I like the trade deadline gamble on Emmanuel Mudiay, a big point guard who could be a backup down the line, and maybe play next to Frank Ntilikina. The Knicks aren’t going anywhere (this season or probably next after the Kristaps Porzingis ACL injury) so taking gambles and trying to develop players is what they should do.

 
Hawks small icon 27. Hawks (18-40, LW 28). Dewayne Dedmon is back in the rotation, and Mike Budenholzer is going deep into that rotation to get a good look at the players they have as the Hawks start to work out who can be part of the rebuild long-term. Atlanta has won 3-of-6, which normally one would say is a good thing but in a tight race for lottery position, the Hawks wins cost them the best lottery odds in the past week.

 
Kings small icon 28. Kings (18-38, LW 26). The Kings moved on from George Hill at the deadline, and they got a second-round pick for it. The real key for the Kings is what they do with that and their other picks — the Kings have either missed on or been unable to properly develop players over the past decade, and that has held them back. Sure, they nailed DeMarcus Cousins, and this is not about Georgios Papagiannis (who they waived), rather it’s about not regularly turning first-round picks into solid rotation players they can hold onto at an affordable price. That’s how teams get built, and the Kings need to get there to turn this ship around.

 
Nets small icon 29. Nets (19-39, LW 27). Getting a second-round pick for Tyler Zeller was a good move for the Nets. Losers of six in a row, that only serves to make Cavaliers fans happy as they control the Brooklyn pick (and they value it enough that Cleveland would not give it up at the trade deadline despite a roster overhaul). Allen Crabbe has shown some signs of life in the last two weeks, a good thing as he is near the top of the “most disappointing player in the NBA this season” list.

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (18-40, LW 30). Losers of six in a row and 11-of-12, the Suns are now tied for the worst record in the NBA (and a chance for the top spot in the draft lottery). I like the flier on Elfrid Payton at the trade deadline, they want a point guard to put next to Devin Booker eventually, and while Payton may not be it they didn’t give up much and Payton has potential if he could find his shot.

Kings’ De’Aaron Fox: ‘I don’t crave to be in a big market’

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De'Aaron Fox was the breakout star of the Kings’ breakthrough season. The future looks bright in Sacramento.

But we’ve seen this story play out so many times. A young player excels in a small market then eventually moves to a more desirable destination. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George.

Will Fox be different?

Fox, via Corban Goble of ONE37pm:

“I don’t crave to be in a big market,” he says. “After last season, there was a buzz in Sacramento. Everyone in Sacramento is a Kings fan. If we start making the playoffs, or if we become a championship contender, the entire city is going to go nuts. That’s the difference between a big market and a small one.”

I’m glad Fox is happy in Sacramento. He had minimal say in getting there. The Kings picked him in a draft that gives teams massive control over top young prospects. That he landed somewhere he likes so much was largely coincidental. He could’ve easily wound up with Boston, Phoenix, Orlando, Minnesota or any other team picking in that range.

Some of this is Fox’s attitude. I suspect he would’ve found joy nearly anywhere. Now, he’s with the Kings and feeling positively about them.

They’ll have to continue to keep him happy as he approaches free agency. Unrestricted free agency is still several years away. A lot can change between now and then.

But Sacramento ought to feel good about Fox’s outlook now.

Damian Lillard on leaving Trail Blazers for super team: ‘We would win it, but what is the challenge or the fun in that?’

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Kevin Durant left for the Warriors for many reasons. LeBron James left for the Heat for many reasons. Anthony Davis and Paul George forced their way to Los Angeles for many reasons.

Those are life-altering moves. Nobody does something so consequential for a single purpose.

But whether or not it intended, each of those stars took an easier route to a championship. That’s just the reality.

Damian Lillard, on the other hand, has done so much to elevate himself then pull up the Trail Blazers with him. Lillard has often touted his loyalty to Portland. He showed it by signing a super-max extension that locks him in through 2025.

Lillard, via Adam Caparell of Complex:

“To leave, what did I invest all this time for just to leave, you know?” he says. “If I go play with three other stars, I don’t think that many people would doubt that I could win it. We would win it, but what is the challenge or the fun in that?”

I disagree with Lillard’s certainty about winning a title if he teamed with other stars. Not every perceived super team has won. A championship still must be earned. It’s not easy.

But it would be easier.

It also probably wouldn’t be as rewarding.

Durant has admitted winning a championship with Golden State didn’t fill the void he thought it would. Maybe for other reasons, but it’s easy to see the Warriors’ talent advantage as a reason. He joined a title contender and made it even better. He didn’t build that team. Perhaps, a championship with the Nets would mean more to him.

Lillard is less likely to win a title by staying Portland. I think he knows that. He enjoys the city, and the $196 million he projects to earn on his four-year extension doesn’t hurt, either.

But if Lillard ever wins a championship with the Trail Blazers, it would be so gratifying. That’s what he’s chasing.

Lillard made clear he’s not criticizing stars who chose an alternate path. He’s doing what’s right for him, just as they did what was right for them.

His quest should earn him plenty of fans. For everyone who disliked Durant joining Golden State because it offended their sensibilities of how a title pursuit should work, Lillard is a great foil.

Andre Iguodala recalls Draymond Green doubling Kevin Durant in practice: ‘he was mad … We was tryna win’

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Devin Booker complained to his opponents for double-teaming him during a pick-up game.

That has sparked a Great National Debate: Is it right or wrong to double-team during pick-up games?

Kevin Durant:

That’s a reasonable conclusion. The primary defender is missing an opportunity to work on his defense by getting help. But I also think it fails to address the main point. Booker wasn’t complaining to help the defender. Booker wanted the ideal training environment for himself, the offensive player.

How should the offensive player feel about it?

It’s a reasonably interesting question that’s getting taken far too seriously because the NBA is in a dead period. But to give it more juice, let’s add the Kevin Durant-Draymond Green relationship to the equation.

Andre Iguodala:

Durant:

It seems Durant can laugh it off now, but this story feeds into what so many people think they know about these players – that Green is a relentless competitor (accurate) and that Durant is soft (inaccurate).

NBA players spend so much time playing basketball. Sometimes, it’s helpful to face game-like conditions, where double-teams can happen at any point. Other times, it’s helpful to have more-relaxed conditions.

I don’t know enough about Booker’s pick-up game or the Warriors’ practice to say what was appropriate in each.

Report: Executives expect Thunder to say they are not trading Chris Paul (but they are)

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It’s all about leverage.

Right now the vultures are circling the Oklahoma City Thunder, hoping to get a free meal. Everyone knows the Thunder are moving into a rebuilding mode and want to trade Chris Paul for picks/young players, so other general managers — the vultures — are throwing out lowball offers hoping to get a steal of a trade. And by steal we mean making the Thunder throw in a first-round pick as a sweetener to get CP3 and the three-years, $124 million left on his contract off their books.

Oklahoma City’s response? Say “we’re not trying to trade him” and be patient. Here is how Brian Windhorst phrased it on ESPN’s The Jump (hat tip Real GM):

“Here’s what executives expect to happen: they expect the Thunder to put out a message that we’re not looking to trade Chris Paul…We want him to work with our young guys. Because they don’t want anybody to think they’re panic-trying to trade him, and they want to hope that somebody has something happen where they need Chris Paul,” said Windhorst.

Royce Young, who covers the Thunder for ESPN, added that he believed the Thunder would hold on to Chris Paul rather than surrender a draft pick.

This is the smart play. CP3 is still a top-flight point guard in the NBA, even if he has taken half a step back, and there are at least eight NBA teams going into this season thinking they have a shot at a title, and a few more looking at deep playoff runs. Some team is either going to realize they are not as good as they thought they were, or are going to suffer an injury, and be looking for an All-Star level player and replacement. Enter the Thunder and Chris Paul.

What this ultimately means is expect this to drag out. Not just through the summer and through training camp, but maybe all the way to the trade deadline.