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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.

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.