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NBA Power Rankings: Looking ahead to the stretch run of season

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Not much change in the rankings this week as teams only played a game, two max, due to the All-Star break. If the NBA season were a horse race, the horses would be entering the top of the stretch for the final run, so we’ll look ahead in these rankings to what the teams have for them going forward.

 
Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (44-13, Last Week No. 1). They have been on top of the standings and these power rankings for weeks, and they project to have 62-63 wins at the end of the season, neck-and-neck with the Warriors (GSW has the easier remaining schedule). The question is can Houston beat Golden State in a playoff series? Statistically maybe, fivethirtyeight.com gives the Rockets a higher chance of making the Finals than the Warriors, but I’m not sold. I love the Rockets’ team, but they have to prove they can defend, make plays in the cauldron of the playoffs with opponents drilling down on matchups.

 
Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (41-16, LW 3). Winners of seven in a row, they have been the hottest team in the East and project to win the conference with 60-62 wins. This may be the greatest Raptors regular season team ever. Much like Houston, the question is will the improved defense (4th in the NBA on the season) and more egalitarian offense carry over to the playoffs? I want to believe, but when games get tight their offense reverts more to isolations again, and that’s defendable and could be trouble vs. Boston and Cleveland. Still, this team is a legit playoff threat.

 
Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (44-14 LW 2). Is anyone really worried about the future prospects of the Warriors this postseason? Why? Sure, their defense has been pedestrian of late — 13th in the NBA over their past 15 games — but that is more about focus than anything. The Warriors needed a mental break. Steve Kerr goes to Hawaii, Stephen Curry hangs with his family, and Draymond Green does whatever Draymond Green does, then they come back focused and still the team to beat. If their defense struggles the final 24 games, then we’ll talk.

 
4. Timberwolves (36-25, LW 5). This is the highest-ranked team where people around the league seriously question if they can get out of the first round (especially if they matchup with Oklahoma City, which seems the most likely outcome). The Timberwolves’ offense has been elite of late, but the defense continues to struggle — 29th in there NBA over the past 15 games — and how the young players handle the intensity of the postseason — and how they handle Thibodeau in the playoffs — remains a question.

 
Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (40-19, LW 4). Boston should bounce back from the recent run losing 4-of-5, their elite defense is bottom 10 in the last five games and with some rest that will change. Boston is on pace for 51-52 wins on the season, and that likely is enough to hold off Cleveland for the two seed, but catching Toronto will be hard. That will set up a Cavs vs. Celtics second round playoff matchup, Kyrie Irving vs. LeBron James. Does Boston have enough offense to win that series without Gordon Hayward back?

 
Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (35-24, LW 7). Playing basically all season without Kawhi Leonard (he has missed 50 of 59 games), the Spurs are still on pace for a 47-48 win season. Impressive, but also the first time the Spurs will not have won at least 50 games in a (non-lockout) season since 1996. The Spurs are tied with the Timberwolves for the 3/4 seed, but San Antonio has the toughest schedule in the West the rest of the way.

 
Wizards small icon 7. Wizards (33-24, LW 8). The Wizards have won 7-of-9 without John Wall (out another month after knee surgery) and are the four seed in the East, on their way to a projected 46-47 win season. However, they are just 3.5 games up on the eight seed Miami, and Washington has the toughest schedule in the East the rest of the way. They need to find some more wins without Wall or risk losing home court in the first round and having some much tougher road (this is why good teams need to take care of business all season vs. weaker opponents).

Bucks small icon 8. Bucks (32-25 LW 6). One of the hardest teams to evaluate going forward. In part because Jabari Parker is still playing his way back into shape and the rotation (but he is shooting very efficiently). In part because since Joe Prunty took over as coach they are 9-4 with the second-best defense in the NBA, but they did it against a very soft part of the schedule. Denver put up 134 on them in last game before the break. With 7-of-8 coming up against teams in the playoffs (and the one not being Detroit, on the bubble) we should get a better read.

 
Jazz small icon 9. Jazz (30-28, LW 9). Donovan Mitchell broke out as a star during the All-Star weekend, which is good for him. The Jazz have won 11 in a row, they have the easiest schedule of any of the teams in the West fighting for a playoff spot, and they are on pace for about 45-46 wins (which likely would have them as the six seed). Fivethirtyeight.com has them at an 87 percent chance to make the postseason, which is impressive for a team that lost its best player in free agency the summer before.

 
Cavaliers small icon 10. Cavaliers (34-22 LW 10). Just how good are the Cavaliers now? How real are the changes? We will find out, but one thing was clear All-Star weekend, LeBron James and the Cavs players are energized again. “Just clearing out… I shouldn’t say that, just getting new faces and getting new energy in the locker room has been big for us,” Love told NBC Sports (adding he is about a month away from returning. “Even in the last two games, you can just see the energy is different, you can see guys are really competing on both ends of the floor.”

 
Sixers small icon 11. 76ers (30-25, LW 13). Philly won five in a row in a homestand right before the break (moving them three games into the playoffs ahead of the 9 seed Pistons). Now the real test comes, 9-of-12 on the road, and while the Sixers have been solid away from the Wells Fargo Center (12-15 this season) their defense has not been quite as good. The good news is the Sixers have the easiest schedule the rest of the way in the East, even with the road games they should be able to hang onto a playoff slot, fivethirtyeight.com gives them a 97% chance of doing so.

 
Nuggets small icon 12. Nuggets (32-26, LW 12). Winners of 6-of-7 heading into the break (including beating the Thunder, Warriors, and Spurs), the Nuggets are on pace for 44-45 wins, which will land them in the playoffs at around the 6-7 seed. The concerning factor: They have won those games despite playing terrible defense in that stretch (third worst in the NBA in those last 7 games) and that could catch up with them.

 
Thunder small icon 13. Thunder (33-26 LW 11).. The Thunder are a playoff team, but how much damage can they do once there remains a big question. The issue is their defense was one of the best in the league until Andre Roberson went down, and they are 19th in the NBA since then — the team needs to find a fifth player coaches can trust to start and close games. Their improved offensive efficiency — based on better shot quality — can cover the defense in the regular season, but the playoffs are a different animal.

 
Pacers small icon 14. Pacers (33-25, LW 14). Winners of three in a row and 9-of-12 heading into the All-Star break, they are on pace for around 45 wins and a playoff slot — an impressive season for a team most picked preseason to be jockeying for lottery position right now. The main reason is Victor Oladipo, the Pacers are +14.8 per 100 possessions when he is on the court. Soft schedule this week, but then things get tough for the Pacers much of the rest of the way.

 
Clippers small icon 15. Clippers (30-26 LW 15). Now we get to the interesting part of the West: If Denver and Utah finish with 45ish wins and are in the postseason, it leaves the Clippers, Trail Blazers, and Pelicans all fighting for one playoff slot. All three are projected with almost the same wins (42-44), and it’s going to come down to the little things (and some luck). The bad news for the Clippers? They have one of the toughest schedules in the NBA the rest of the way, more difficult than any of the teams they are fighting for a playoff slot.

 
Blazers small icon 16. Trail Blazers (32-26, LW 16). One of the three teams (with Clippers and Pelicans) really on the bubble for the playoffs in the West, but the good news for Portland is they have the easiest schedule the rest of the way of any of those three teams. Portland picked up a quality win against the Warriors right before the break because Damian Lillard went off, but the Trail Blazers need to find their defense again, they are bottom 10 in the NBA since Jan. 1.

 
Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (31-26, LW 17). Anthony Davis has been playing like an MVP candidate since DeMarcus Cousins went down (31.3 points, 12.2 rebounds, 2.1 blocks per game, knocking down 42.4% from three), and more surprisingly Emeka Okafor has been solid for them getting rebounds and blocking shots inside. Still the Pelicans are just 4-5 without their center and have a challenging schedule the rest of the way out. If the Pelicans do not get in (even with the injury) don’t be shocked if Alvin Gentry is not back next season.

Pistons small icon 18. Pistons (28-29, LW 19). When they got Blake Griffin the idea was to make the playoffs this season, but the Pistons need to make up the 1.5 games on Miami to do that (Philly’s soft schedule will make them hard to catch). The challenge, they have 15-of-25 games on the road left this season and Detroit is 9-17 away from the “pizza! pizza!” arena this season. The problem is on the road their defense has been 4.2 points per 100 worse, if the Pistons don’t figure that out fast they can set tee times for mid-April because their season will be over.

 
Heat small icon 19. Heat (30-28, LW 18). Goran Dragic was finally an All-Star, so Miami has that. The Heat continue to play seemingly every game close (within 5 points in the final 5 minutes) and while they dominated those games earlier in the season the math has caught up to them of late having lost 7-of-8. Dwyane Wade provided a boost at first, but is shooting just 32.1% overall and 20% from three since coming back to Miami, the Heat are going to need more from him down the stretch.

 
Hornets small icon 20. Hornets (24-33, LW 21). General manager Rich Cho is out as GM after building a roster that lacks a second playmaker, is not defending well, and is capped out going forward. Expect the Tar Heel Mafia to be in full force with Michael Jordan picking the new GM for a Carolina team — former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak is mentioned. He was a good company man for a long time in LA, but at the end was seen as behind the times, not sure I want him on the day-to-day side of this (maybe as a president overseeing a GM).

 
Lakers small icon 21. Lakers (23-34 LW 20). Lonzo Ball is expected to return to the Lakers’ lineup now and that gives Luke Walton and company to develop and play guys down the stretch. Los Angeles is going to finish with 34-35 wins (probably) and going into the season that was about the projection: Play the young guys, expect inconsistency, watch them grow and develop, don’t worry too much about wins, and clear out some cap space. The Lakers did all that. It’s just an impatient fan base that wants more from the team this summer.

 
Bulls small icon 22. Bulls (20-37 LW 22).. This is where the real race to the bottom of the standings — and the top of the lottery — starts. Just three games separate the Bulls (currently the No. 8 slot in the draft) from the Suns (the No. 1 slot). The Bulls are still trying to integrate Zach LaVine back into the rotation and he’s doing some good things (shooting 37.1% from three) but he is struggling to consistently find good shots. Still a lot of work to do with him and this roster.

 
Magic small icon 23. Magic (18-39, LW 23). A lot of questions as the Magic careen toward the lottery for the sixth straight season: Is Frank Vogel going to be back as coach? (A lot of buzz around the league his seat is very hot.) Are the Magic going to be willing to pay what it takes to keep Aaron Gordon? (He’s a restricted free agent and several teams are lining up to make a run at him, it could get pricy.) Expect a lot of changes this summer around Orlando.

 
Mavericks small icon 24. Mavericks (18-40 LW 24). Are we watching the final 24 games of Dirk Nowitzki’s Hall of Fame career? If so, we need to savor it. One other big to watch in Dallas: Nerlens Noel. He is expected to be back in the coming weeks, the Mavs need to take a look at him. The sexual harassment workplace scandal on the business side is a very dark cloud over this organization, and it’s going to have some serious repercussions around the league as the NBA has promoted itself as a progressive institution and this is a blow to that image.

 
Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (18-41, LW 27). Atlanta has lost four-of-five and is tied for the worst record overall in the NBA — and they have a very tough remaining schedule. Meaning Atlanta is going to get the chance to draft high come June (depending on the lottery) and put someone good next to John Collins. Mike Budenholzer needs to give Collins a lot of run down the stretch, he has the highest PER of anyone in this rookie class but at this point he needs touches and the chance to learn some lessons (likely a few hard ones).

 
Grizzlies small icon 26. Grizzlies (18-38, LW 25). They are on a seven-game losing streak, can Chandler Parsons break them out of it? The oft-injured forward is back in the rotation now and he and Marc Gasol could win this team some games down the stretch (which is not what they should want to do as a franchise, but here we are). It’s going to be an interesting offseason, starting with who is hired as the coach for a franchise that should start a rebuild but ownership (where in the world is Robert Pera?) apparently does not want to.

 
Knicks small icon 27. Knicks (23-36, LW 26). Losers of eight in a row, they have been outscored by 15.8 per 100 in that stretch, and with Kristaps Porzingis out for the season (and the first half of the next one) the only question is where they finish in the lottery. Well, that and if Jeff Hornacek is back next season? And if they can reach a buyout with Joakim Noah? The Knicks’ solid early play this season, back when New York had playoff dreams, is costing them lottery positioning now.

 
Kings small icon 28. Kings (18-39, LW 28). The Kings had three guys in the Rising Stars Challenge — including the MVP — but now the question is how much can any of them help an NBA team? De’Aarron Fox and Justin Jackson need to get a lot of time together on the court, and all these guys need to develop. The Kings are on the way to the lottery for the 10th straight season and they need to do better, more consistent job in that draft, and developing talent, to break out of this rut.

 
Nets small icon 29. Nets (19-40, LW 29). They have lost seven in a row, and it’s not because of injury or they stopped trying — this is by far the most fun “bad” team to watch in the league, if only every team played this hard — it’s just they are not talented. GM Sean Marks is making smart moves to rebuild Brooklyn, but it is going to be a long, long process.

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (18-41, LW 30). Losers of seven in a row and 12-of-13, they are on pace for another high lottery pick to go with Devin Booker, Josh Jackson and the rest of the young core. The first question is who will be coaching them next season — Jay Triano has done a good job with this roster (despite the losses, this team is not well put together), but will he get a chance. They need a coach who can bring in a culture of player development if they go get anyone.

Knicks “Leon Rose era” reportedly to start Sunday as new team president takes over

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Can superagent Leon Rose do what star player Isiah Thomas, and star coach Phil Jackson, could not?

Can he overcome ownership and change the culture around the New York Knicks, turning one of the NBA’s marquee brands back into a winner?

We’ll find out starting Sunday, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times.

A foundation needs to be built in New York — and the pieces are there to do it. They have a couple of nice young players in RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson, plus New York has seven first-round picks in the next four years.

This is where the change in culture and foundation comes in — will the Knicks have the scouting, and the player development personnel, in place to take advantage of this? Sure, they need some luck with the ping-pong lottery balls, but can they find and develop guys down the board? Can they draft and develop a Brandon Clarke or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Donovan Mitchell or Bam Adebayo?

Can Rose instill a culture where players are brought in, challenged and developed, and grown into quality rotation players? They did that just over the Brooklyn Bridge: Young players such as Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, and Jarrett Allen were developed into a team that made the playoffs last season, and will again this season. Brooklyn built a foundation that became a place stars such as Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant wanted to play.

It will start with a vision by Rose, then the hiring of a head coach and basketball staff that understands how to execute that vision. Without interference by ownership. Then Rose needs time to let the vision come to life, it will not be instant.

Is Rose up to that task? Will James Dolan give him the autonomy and time to do it right? We’ll find out, starting Sunday.

Kyle Lowry tried to drive through George Hill’s legs. That didn’t work. (VIDEO)

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Milwaukee’s George Hill, a physical 6’3″ defender, was up on Toronto’s Kyle Lowry out on the perimeter. Lowry, pinned, had no good options.

So, Lowry tried to go through Hill’s legs. Not dribble through and run around, Lowry tried to tunnel his way between Hill’s legs.

 

Lowry, at 6-foot even, is not going to pull that off. Maybe against Boban Marjanovic. Maybe.

At least Nick Nurse got a good laugh out of it. He needed it; the rest of the night didn’t go so well for Nurse, Lowry, and the Raptors.

Three Things to Know: Bulls’ Coby White is red hot — and the latest Jim Boylen controversy

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday during the NBA regular season we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) Bulls’ Coby White is red hot — and latest Jim Boylen controversy. Will Jim Boylen be the coach of the Bulls next season? Current management — the Gar/Pax team — has his back and loves his old-school ways, but that duo has already lost some power (Gar Forman has seen his role reduced) and John Paxson is about to. A new GM (or whatever title) is coming in this summer — talks have started, and there was a lot of buzz about that around All-Star weekend — and you can bet that person will want a say in who coaches his team.

Bulls players are reportedly not Boylen fans. Bulls fans are with the players and there is a long list of grievances from his heavy-handed practices to the odd (read: poor) use of late-game timeouts.

Now add Coby White to that mix.

White, the rookie backup point guard for the Bulls, is on fire. He had consecutive 33-point games coming into Tuesday night, but White’s mentor and former AAU coach, Chris Paul, promised an end to this trend.

That’s not what happened. White dropped 35 on the Thunder, shooting 13-of-21 overall and 6-of-9 from three (in another Chicago loss).

The last Bulls rookie with three 30+ point games in a row? Some guy named Michael Jordan.

As noted by K.C. Johnson at NBC Sports Chicago, White and Zach LaVine have each scored 30-plus points in consecutive games, and the last Bulls’ teammates to do that were Bob Love and Chet Walker in 1969. Beyond the stats, White brings a level of dynamic play and energy to the Bulls nobody else on that roster seems able to.

For the last three games, White and LaVine have formed an electric offensive backcourt. Starting point guard Kris Dunn is out for the season. A lot of people are calling for White to get the call and start games.

So coach Boylen, is it time to make White the starter?

No. Boylen is going to keep White coming off the bench (and play his veterans, in general), rather than move White into the starting lineup.

“I keep getting this question and I’m just going to answer it one more time,” Boylen said. “Coby’s in a good place. We’re going to keep him in a good place. Let’s let Coby keep playing and lets let him keep developing.”

Don’t change what’s working is a good philosophy.

If it’s actually working. Which, in the big picture, is the real question in Chicago.

John Paxson will remain the Bulls president and he fully buys into Boylen’s style. Normally that would mean Boylen is safe, but the ground is shifting in Chicago with front office changes coming. How much they change remains to be seen, but any GM coming needs to have new ideas and bring change — otherwise what’s the point of bringing him in — and that will include on the coaching front. The ground is shifting in Chicago, and that makes it difficult for Boylen to remain standing.

2) Zion Williamson comes to Los Angeles but LeBron James steals the show, drops season-high 40. Zion Williamson made his debut against LeBron and the Lakers — and he did some very Zion things. Like dunk.

And show off the kind of hops where he can grab a rebound away from Dwight Howard.

Despite that, Tuesday night was the LeBron James show — the MVP candidate got whatever he wanted. Wherever he wanted. The results was a season-high 40 points (and a 118-109 Laker win).

Los Angeles has won six in a row and is in control atop the West.

New Orleans is now four-games behind Memphis in the loss column in the chase for the eighth seed — and the right to face the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.

3) Bucks remind everyone they own the East. The Milwaukee Bucks have been the clear best team in the East — rather, the best team in all of basketball — this season. It’s not up for debate. The calendar hasn’t even flipped to March yet and the Bucks have 50 wins.

If you want more evidence, take a look at the Bucks schedule. Last Saturday, Milwaukee dismantled Philadelphia (largely without Ben Simmons, but still).

Then on Tuesday night, on the second night of a back-to-back (and the team’s third game in four days), Milwaukee went into Toronto and took care of a red-hot Raptors team. It was a balanced attack. Giannis Antetokounmpo had 19 points and 19 rebounds (plus eight assists), Khris Middleton had 22 points, Eric Bledsoe had 17, and Brook Lopez had 15 as the NBA-leading Bucks won their fifth straight and 18th of 20.

Antetokounmpo said yes, he was motivated by the fact Toronto is where the Bucks lost in the playoffs last season — you have to love that attitude.

We keep talking ourselves into teams that will challenge the Bucks in the East — right now the Celtics are trendy on that list — but then you watch the Bucks play and realize it is them and then a big gap to everyone else.

Lakers, Dion Waiters reportedly to talk March 2

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It has always been easy to connect the dots that would bring Dion Waiters to the Lakers. Waiters’ former agent is Rob Pelinka, who is now the Lakers’ GM. Waiters’ current agent is Rich Paul, who reps both LeBron James and Anthony Davis. That gets your foot in the door.

After Memphis bought out Waiters, it was rumored he and the Lakers would talk. That is now set to happen on March 2, next week, something Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reported Tuesday night on TNT during the Lakers win against New Orleans.

The Lakers have been active in the buyout market — they signed Markieff Morris, who made his debut for the team Tuesday night — looking to add playmaking and shooting. Waiters can shoot — 37.7 percent from three last season and 38.6 percent on catch-and-shoot threes — but is not much of a playmaker (he can put the ball on the floor but only to create for himself). The Lakers need to decide if he’s a fit, they have Avery Bradley and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at the two-guard spot already. Waiters has played a fair amount at the point in Miami, but he’s not the kind of playmaker the Lakers are seeking to go with Rajon Rondo.

Waiters clashed with coaches and management in Miami, but with a strong, LeBron-led locker room culture the Lakers aren’t worried about that impact.

Waiters is available because Miami used his salary to balance out the money in the Justise Winslow to Memphis/Andre Iguodala trade. Memphis did not want a distraction, plus they are deep at the two-guard spot with the just extended Dillon Brooks, De'Anthony Melton, and Grayson Allen. So the Grizzlies waived Waiters, as was expected.

The only question is does he upgrade the Lakers roster?

What we do know is he has the connections to at least get in the building and make his case.