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NBA Power Rankings: Houston locked in on top, but tanking race at bottom is wild

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Every week with this poll, it’s splitting hairs between about eighth through 17 or so, the teams are very bunched up. This year, oddly, the same is true from about 22 to 30 — the tankapaloza going on in the NBA makes it hard to choose who is really the worst in the NBA. Phoenix is making a very good case for the “crown” however.

 
Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (47-13, Last Week No. 1). James Harden has pulled away as the clear frontrunner in the MVP race with about 20 games to go around the league. He has nine 40-point games to lead the NBA, he leads the league in scoring (31.4 per game), but he also leads in some of the Advanced stats with the league’s best value over replacement player (6.2) and in win shares (11.9). It’s his award to lose at this point. The Rockets have won 13 in a row, including a high-altitude back-to-back in Denver and Utah.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (47-14 LW 3). The All-Star break was what the Warriors needed, apparently, since the time off they have outscored teams by 20.8 points per 100 possessions, and they are back to defending at a high level. One other post All-Star change is the more athletic JaVale McGee starting at center, giving a team that got off to some slow starts (especially defensively) in the weeks before the break a guy who can protect the rim, alter shots, and switch a little on the perimeter. It has worked, the Warriors are getting off to better starts, then blowing teams out in the third quarter.

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (42-17, LW 2). The Raptors have never finished on top of the Eastern Conference and entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed, and their franchise record for wins in a season is 56. If the Raptors can go 15-8 the rest of the way they set the wins record, but they will need to get to 60 or better to hold off the Celtics and keep the top seed (a very obtainable goal). After the Raptors rolled the Pistons on Monday, smart money is on a matchup against Miami in the first round.

 
Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (43-19, LW 5). It’s just three games, but out of the All-Star break the offense that has been the Celtics’ weak point this season has taken off behind Kyrie Irving, scoring 114 points per 100 possessions. We’ll see if they can sustain this — they need to to climb out of the two seed (which would mean facing LeBron James and Cleveland in the second round, something both Boston and Toronto would prefer to avoid).

 
5. Timberwolves (38-26, LW 4). With Jimmy Butler likely out until around the start of the playoffs following meniscus surgery, Minnesota’s playoff standing becomes all about Andrew Wiggins — he has to step up. In the two games without Butler, he has 45 points total on 54.6% shooting, both way up from his numbers through the rest of the season. Minnesota currently sits as the three seed in the West, but they are just two games up on OKC as the 7 seed (and four games up on the Clippers and falling out of the playoffs, which is not likely but also not impossible).

 
Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (36-25, LW 6). Kawhi Leonard is working out again with the team and is expected to make another comeback again in March. The Spurs could use him on both ends. They need is shot creation come the playoffs, but they may need his defense even sooner — San Antonio’s very solid defense all season has fallen off of late and they are 19th in the NBA over their past 10 games. The Spurs went 2-4 on the rodeo road trip and have a tough schedule the rest of the way, they need more wins.

 
Wizards small icon 7. Wizards (36-25, LW 7). Washington has gone 10-3 without John Wall outscoring teams by 5.7 points per 100, fifth best in the league over that stretch. Bradley Beal continues to play like an All-Star, but the big difference has been improved play from Otto Porter, Markieff Morris, and Tomas Satoransky. Things aren’t getting easier with the Warriors, Raptors, and Pacers as the next three teams up.

 
Cavaliers small icon 8. Cavaliers (36-24 LW 10). Some of the shine has come off the new-look roster after losses to the Wizards and Spurs — teams are adapting to the Cavaliers, and Tyronn Lue hasn’t had the practices to put in a lot of new offensive sets yet, so the Cavs don’t have good counters. Cleveland needs to get J.R. Smith rolling again as he has gone cold. LeBron is still putting up numbers but the man needs help (George Hill pitched in Tuesday).

 
Sixers small icon 9. 76ers (32-27, LW 11). Six games over .500 with the easiest schedule in the East the rest of the way, the question now isn’t if they make the playoffs but what seed they will be. They are only two games out of the four seed (and home court in the first round) but the next couple of weeks may decide what happens — they started 0-2 on a stretch of road games that has them away from home for 6-of-8 (half the games are against current playoff teams). Sixers are 13-17 on the road this season primarily because their defense struggles. That has to change now if they are going to climb the ladder at all.

Bucks small icon 10. Bucks (33-27 LW 8). New coach (10-5 under Joe Prunty), better (more conservative) defense, but the Bucks are still one of the most inconsistent teams in the NBA — they beat Toronto in Toronto last week, then blew a big lead to the Pelicans. Jabari Parker has played more than 20 minutes each of the last two games, averaging 13 points and 6.5 assets per game, and his increased minutes has let Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton play fewer minutes of late, which is good all around.

 
Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (34-26, LW 14). This ranking may be a little low for a team that has won 7-of-10 and outscored opponents by 5.1 per 100 possessions in that stretch. On the season Indiana’s offense has been efficient in the half-court (ninth in the NBA) but does a lot of damage in transition (particularly off steals), scoring a league-best 128.7 points per 100 in plays started on the break. Monday’s loss at Dallas was the first of four on the road for the Pacers, the kind of games the Pacers need to win if they want to pass the Wizards and get home court in the first round.

 
Pelicans small icon 12. Pelicans (34-26, LW 17). Winners of six in a row, in large part because Anthony Davis is playing like an MVP (he was having a strong season from day one, but since the DeMarcus Cousins injury he has taken everything to a new level). In his last five games, Davis has 196 points and 72 rebounds total (39.2/14.4 per game average). The last guy to put up those kind of numbers in five-game stretch? Shaquille O’Neal in March 2000. The Pelicans start a series of four road games Wednesday night, with a key one next Tuesday against the Clippers (a team they are trying to hold off to stay in the playoffs).

 
Thunder small icon 13. Thunder (35-27 LW 13).. Some nights Russell Westbrook can bail them out (like the last-second shot against Sacramento), but Oklahoma City’s defense continues to struggle and that’s going to be an issue down the stretch and into the postseason. Over the last five games, the Thunder have allowed 113.9 points per 100 possessions, 27th in the NBA. Carmelo Anthony has been solid, but he’s not getting as many isolation and post-up attempts (where he can use his strength to get his shot) this season, and even when he does he is not as efficient with those looks as he was in New York last season. This season, Anthony is taking way more spot-up looks, where he is solid but not great.

 
Blazers small icon 14. Trail Blazers (35-26, LW 16). Damian Lillard has been lighting it up — he is averaging 39.4 points on 51.2% shooting in his last five games, he’s taking 10 threes a game and hitting 38% of them. The Blazers have won four straight, and in the last three their defense has looked good again (albeit against not great offensive teams). Portland is 18-11 at home this season and now have 9-of-11 at the Rose Garden — this is the chance for them to secure their playoff spot with a series of wins.

 
Jazz small icon 15. Jazz (31-30, LW 9). Utah has lost 2-of-3 out of the All-Star break, but against two playoff teams (Portland and Houston), but they still have the easiest schedule the rest of the way of teams fighting for a playoff spot (which is why fivethirtyeight.com has their playoff odds at 55%). Still, they need to rack up some wins (they face the Timberwolves but have a rest advantage with Minny on a back-to-back). The big question down the stretch: Utah relies heavily on rookie Donovan Mitchell at the end of close games, can he keep up this pace of strong play as the pressure mounts?

 
Clippers small icon 16. Clippers (32-27 LW 15). With Tuesday night’s win against Denver, the Clippers are the eighth seed in the West (ahead of the Nuggets by percentage points) and fivethirtyeight.com gives them a 67% chance of sticking in the postseason. Doc Rivers legitimately does deserve some Coach of the Year consideration. Out of the All-Star break the Lou Williams led Clippers offense has impressed scoring 114.4 points per 100 possessions (the Williams/Boban Marjanovic pick-and-roll has shown real promise, seriously) but Los Angeles needs to get more stops.

 
Heat small icon 17. Heat (32-29, LW 19). Kelly Olynyk is back in the rotation, the Heat missed his shooting while he was out. After some stumbles heading into the All-Star break, Miami has won two in a row (Justise Winslow broke out against Memphis, then Dwyane Wade jumped in the hot tub time machine against the Sixers), and now the Heat look secure in the postseason 3.5 games up on the Pistons. Fivethirthyeight.com gives them a 92% chance of making the postseason. They can really lock that spot up with a win over the Pistons Saturday (in Miami, and Detroit is on a back-to-back).

 
Nuggets small icon 18. Nuggets (33-28, LW 12).. Nikola Jokic’s triple-double streak ended at three and the Nuggets have had a couple tough losses (home to Houston when the Rockets were on a back-to-back, then to the Clippers). Denver is now a coin flip to make the playoffs and they need wins now — four of their next eight are against tanking teams, two more are against the Lakers (not tanking but not good), and two are Cleveland. This is the time Denver needs to make a run because after this a 7-game road trip looms and things get harder.

 
Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (28-33, LW 20). Winners of five in a row, the Hornets are more likely to make the postseason now than the Pistons — fivethirtyeight.com gives Charlotte a 29% chance. That said, they are going to need help from Miami or Philly, Charlotte is still four games out of the postseason with 21 to play. Charlotte’s run has been fueled by the fact they are finally healthy and the bench is thriving, plus the team has found it’s three-point shooting stroke of late (41.1% in the last 10 games).

 
Lakers small icon 20. Lakers (26-34 LW 21). In what is going to be a tight market for bigs this summer, Julius Randle is going to get paid. He has developed into a player who does a couple things exceptionally well and plays to those strengths, is physically strong, and has good recognition on passing out of the double teams. A lot of teams could use him as a small-ball five. The Lakers also have waived Corey Brewer in a buyout, a guy who was great in the locker room but not providing a lot on the court for the team.

Pistons small icon 21. Pistons (28-32, LW 18). Since coming to Detroit, Blake Griffin is shooting 40.1% overall and 27.4% from three (he hit 34% from deep with the Clippers). Griffin has not been good enough to lift the Pistons into the playoffs (fivethirtyeight.com gives them a 7% chance of making the postseason) and the team has yet to win a game since his arrival where the opponent was not on the second night of a back-to-back. Internally, the team’s front office has reportedly moved on to focusing more on next season.

 
Mavericks small icon 22. Mavericks (19-42 LW 24). Welcome to the tanking part of the rankings, where Dallas’ quality win over the Pacers makes them look good despite having lost 11-of-14. I like the potential of Dennis Smith Jr., but he has to learn to finish at the rim and find his jumper to take steps forward. He is shooting 57.8% at the rim, Synergy has him at 47.6% shooting around the basket and 30.1% on jumpers. He’s learning as a pick-and-roll ball handler, he’s improving, but until he can finish defenses will live with him shooting.

 
Knicks small icon 23. Knicks (24-38, LW 27). They have lost 10-of-11 (the one win was against fellow taking team Orlando) but with the Knicks racked up enough early season wins that they will almost certainly enter the lottery in the nine slot. Trey Burke was an inefficient gunner his first couple of stops in the league (not moving the ball enough as a point guard to keep coaches happy) but with a couple of recent 25-point games maybe he can find a sixth man kind of role in the league as a scorer.

 
Nets small icon 24. Nets (20-42, LW 29). Jahlil Okafor is averaging 6.2 points per game, shooting 54.1 percent, and grabbing some defensive rebounds, which doesn’t sound terrible. But his lack of shooting range clogs the lane on offense and he provides little on defense — the Nets are 24.3 points per 100 possessions better when he is off the court than on it. It’s not the kind of comeback he hoped for. Maybe this summer a team will offer him a minimum contract as a free agent, but it may not even be fully guaranteed. That’s where he has fallen to.

 
Bulls small icon 25. Bulls (20-41 LW 22).. Zach LaVine is showing some offensive promise, scoring 17.7 points per game and shooting 39.5% from three since his return in Chicago. However, it’s the other end of the floor that’s a concern — the Bulls are 8.2 points per 100 possessions better defensively when LaVine sits. The Bulls are banking on him to be part of their future, but he needs both work on his defensive skills this offseason and be more focused on that end next season to become the kind of player the Bulls can really use as a cornerstone.

 
Magic small icon 26. Magic (18-42, LW 23). Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic may be back and starting, but the Magic have still lost six straight. In the “play the youth” mold the Magic should lean more on Khem Birch down the stretch, the big man could be a solid rotation player down the line. Mario Hezonja has had some rough games of late off the Orlando bench, it will be interesting to see what kind of free agent market there is for him next summer, it’s going to be a tight market and he has looked better but still pretty “meh” this season.

 
Hawks small icon 27. Hawks (18-43, LW 25). It’s good to see John Collins starting and getting more run, that’s what this time of the season is for. The Hawks have been pretty good at home this season (13-18) and better of late, and they started a 7-of-9 homestand Monday with a loss to the Lakers. If you’re watching the tanking race, the Hawks vs. the Suns Sunday in Atlanta could be a big game (someone has to win). It just won’t be a pretty one.

 
Kings small icon 28. Kings (18-43, LW 28). Buddy Hield was more heralded going into the draft, and has found his niche as a shooter (he is a pure spot-up guy who can do little else), but Rookie Bogdan Bogdanovic looks like a keeper and a solid to good rotation player in Sacramento. Bogdanovic is a quality spot up player, gets out and can finish in transition, and can do damage as a pick-and-roll ball handler. Their most heralded rookie, De’Aaron Fox has to find a shot outside of when he gets to the rim or he’s going to get the Rondo/Tony Allen treatment for his career.

 
Grizzlies small icon 29. Grizzlies (18-41, LW 26). Losers of 10 in a row, and during that stretch the defense has been poor but the offense has been abysmal, scoring 102.1 points per 100 possessions. How many nights off will Marc Gasol get down the stretch in the name of rest/playing the youth? Not that having him on the court has made Memphis better this season (they actually have been 3.5 points per 100 possessions better when he sits this season). The development of JaMychal Green and Dillon Brooks are things to watch down the stretch in Memphis.

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (18-44, LW 30). It’s just six games, but while Elfrid Payton is scoring — 16.7 points per game, with 8 assists — he and Devin Booker have yet to click. When those two are on the court together the Suns are getting outscored by 14.7 points per 100 possessions (a lot of noise there, this is a bad team) and scoring less than a point per possession. It’s a dynamic to watch the rest of the season. Losers of 10 in a row, the Suns have 6-of-8 on the road and are the frontrunners to have the worst record in the NBA entering the Draft Lottery.

Report: Bucks trying to trade Tony Snell or Ersan Ilyasova with draft-pick sweetener

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Coming off their best season in decades, the Bucks will send four quality players into free agency – Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic.

How will Milwaukee keep its core intact?

Maybe by unloading Tony Snell ($11,592,857 salary next season, $12,378,571 player option the following season) or Ersan Ilyasova ($7 million salary next season, $7 million unguaranteed the following season).

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

With Bird Rights for Middleton, Brogdon and Mirotic, Milwaukee faces no salary-cap restrictions on keeping just those three. The only cost is real dollars, including potential luxury-tax payments.

It’s trickier with Lopez. Giving him the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (which projects to be about $9 million) – the most they can pay without opening cap space – would hard-cap the Bucks at a projected team salary of about $138 million. That could be a difficult line to stay under.

Unless Snell or Ilyasova are off the books.

Neither player has a desirable contract, which is why Milwaukee is shopping them with a draft pick attached. But both can still contribute. Ilyasova is a smart veteran power forward who shoots well from outside and takes a lot of charges. Snell is also a good outside shooter, and though his all-around game is lacking, there’s a dearth of helpful wings around the league.

The Bucks have the No. 30 pick in Thursday’s draft. They could select on behalf of another team then trade the draft rights. The Stepien rule applies only to future drafts.

Beyond that pick, Milwaukee is short on tradable draft picks. The Bucks have already traded two protected future first-round picks and their next three second-rounders. Dealing another first-rounder would require complex protections. Perhaps, a distant second-rounder is enough.

It’s important for Milwaukee to figure this out. Giannis Antetokounmpo likes this core group, and everyone is watching his level of satisfaction with the Bucks as his super-max decision approaches.

Toronto police: Report of shooting at Raptors championship parade

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Update: Toronto police:

 

 

The Raptors’ championship parade was interrupted by a scary situation.

Toronto Police:

Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star:

Especially in large crowds like this, chaos and confusion can spread quickly. Hopefully, everyone is OK.

The scene was quite strange, as speeches were interrupted while people in sections of the crowd fled:

The Raptors are continuing their speeches now.

Report: Nets not extending qualifying offer to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson

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The Nets appear to be on the verge of signing Kyrie Irving. They opened double-max cap space to pursue a second star like Kevin Durant, Tobias Harris or Jimmy Butler.

Brooklyn isn’t going to let Rondae Hollis-Jefferson foil that plan.

The Nets could make Hollis-Jefferson a restricted free agent, giving them the right to match any offer he receives. But do so, they must extend a $3,594,369 qualifying offer. That’s essentially a one-year contract offer he could accept at any time. If he did, he’d count against the cap at $3,594,369. Brooklyn doesn’t want to risk that.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The Nets could still re-sign Hollis-Jefferson. This just prevents him from unilaterally accepting the qualifying offer and jamming up cap space.

But this signals Brooklyn is ready to move on. Hollis-Jefferson, who become an unrestricted free agent after spending his first four years with the Nets, might also be ready.

The 24-year-old Hollis-Jefferson has settled in as an undersized power forward. He’s a switchable defender and active offensively. Playing power forward somewhat covers for his lack of shooting and ball-handling ability, but that can still be exploited.

Why timing of Anthony Davis trade matters so much for Lakers

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The Lakers will get Anthony Davis.

That’s clearly the only thing that matters to them.

Not only will they send the Pelicans a massive haul of draft picks and young players, the Lakers could lose significant cap space with the trade’s structure.

Los Angeles and New Orleans can’t complete the reported deal until the league year turns over June 30. Then, the NBA immediately goes into a moratorium in which most transactions aren’t allowed. The moratorium ends July 6. That’s when two main options emerge.

Option 1: Trade July 6

Let’s start with Davis’ trade kicker, a bonus paid to him if traded. Davis’ base salary next season is $27,093,018. His 15% trade bonus could raise his salary $4,063,953 to $31,156,971. Davis could waive all or a portion of the bonus. The Pelicans would pay the bonus, but the Lakers can also include enough cash in the trade to cover the full bonus amount.

The Lakers will send Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart (combined salary: $17,918,965) and the No. 4 pick (which will count about $7 million against the cap) to New Orleans.

Davis’ salary will be between $27,093,018 and $31,156,971 next season, depending on his trade kicker.

Simply, the Lakers’ incoming salary in the trade will be about $2 million-$6 million higher than their outgoing salary in the trade.

That works just fine under the cap rules. The Lakers will have way more than $2 million-$6 million in cap space. As far as salary matching, teams can always trade when they end up under the cap.

So, after this deal, the Lakers would have about $24 million-$28 million in cap space.

But there’s another path that would give the Lakers even more flexibility.

Option 2: Trade July 30

On July 6, if they renounce all their free agents and waive Jemerrio Jones‘ unguaranteed salary, the Lakers project to have about $33 million cap space.

That’s about enough for a max salary for a free agent with fewer than 10 years experience – someone like Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard or Kyrie Irving. Or multiple helpful role players.

The Lakers could spend all that money then trade for Davis.

Here’s how they could get Davis after reaching the cap line:

They’d sign the No. 4 pick June 30. (Signing first-round picks is one of the few moves allowed during the moratorium.) He couldn’t be traded for 30 days after being signed. Hence, the July 30 date on this trade. But his actual salary would count toward the trade. Unsigned draft picks count $0 in trades.

In this salary range, the Lakers could acquire 125% of the outgoing salary in the trade plus $100,000. Aggregating Ball, Ingram, Hart and the signed No. 4 pick would allow the Lakers to acquire about $31 million of salary. That covers Davis’ full salary and most, if not all, of his trade bonus.

But why would the Pelicans wait?

That’d mean the No. 4 pick can’t play for them in summer league. There’d also be complications flipping the No. 4 pick to another team.

It’d also tie up a portion their cap space until the trade is completed, as they’re the ones holding the more-expensive Davis through July. Most good free agents will be off the market by July 30.

New Orleans could always reach an unofficial agreement with a free agent then make the deal official after the Lakers trade. But that requires trust, and some free agents might not go for that.

There’s no upside in waiting for the Pelicans. The only question is how much downside.

What’s at stake?

A quick recap:

If the Lakers trade for Davis sooner, they’d project to have $24 million-$28 million in cap space (depending on his trade bonus).

If the Lakers trade for Davis later, they’d project to have about $33 million in cap space.

That extra $5 million-$9 million could go a long way.

What now?

It doesn’t sound as if the Lakers pressed New Orleans to wait until July 30 before accepting the trade.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times:

For now, the plan is to execute the trade on July 6, right after the moratorium ends on the start of free agency — and it’s unlikely that will change.

The Lakers could always negotiate with free agents June 30-July 5 then decide. If they want the additional cap space, the Lakers could try to entice the Pelicans with extra draft picks to delay. But that’d make the trade even more costly to Los Angeles.

The alternative might be even more grim – the Lakers not finding worthy players in the first week of free agency. Los Angeles could even view that as a face-saving move to justify the timing of this trade.

But if the Lakers make this trade July 6 then claim they didn’t have good use for an extra $5 million-$9 million in cap space, they’ll only be telling on themselves.