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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.

Bucks GM not worried about other players recruiting Giannis Antetokounmpo inside bubble

Giannis Antetokounmpo
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Already reports are leaking out of the NBA restart bubble of players from different teams mingling, talking, hanging out together some. There will inevitably be some tampering (which goes on between players whether they are in the quarantine bubble or not).

All eyes are on Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is eligible for a supermax extension this summer, one the Bucks are going to offer him the minute they can (how much that is worth will depend on where the salary cap lands). Most people around the league expect he signs the deal, but if not rumors will fly. In the bubble, some players may try to plant the “come play with us” seed in his head.

Buck GM Jon Horst said he can’t worry about that. Via Eric Woodyard of ESPN:

“Zero [worries]. We can only control what we can control. If it’s considered tampering or recruiting or whatever it is, in our league people talk, people are connected, people have relationships,” said Bucks GM Jon Horst. “At the end of the day, I have full confidence in my personal relationship, our league’s relationship, our coach’s relationship, his teammate’s relationship with Giannis in what we’re doing and what we’re about.

“I think that separated us and we’re going to continue to be above that and not worry about that. We can only worry about what we can control, to be the best that we can, to have the best organization of support and success as possible, and that’s really where our energy and our focus is. Also, just as a funny kind of side note, I think that technically violates the social distancing rules and I think everyone is getting tracked for that, so I think we’ll be OK that way as well.”

I’m not sure how much players are sticking to the social distancing rules — they don’t have to wear the proximity alarms that team staff, media, and others do — but it doesn’t matter.

What happens in the playoffs could impact Antetokounmpo’s decision, but in the end he is expected to stay with the Bucks — they can offer the most money, they are a contending team, and Milwaukee is the only home he has known in the United States. It’s where his family is, where his child lives. That said, Antetokounmpo has played this close to the vest, not talking about his intentions.

That said, he knows what he wants. Nobody is going to say anything in the bubble to sway Antetokounmpo’s mind.

Bradley Beal, Mason Plumlee part of Alex Rodriguez’s bid to buy Mets

Bradley Beal mets
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Bradley Beal, a St. Louis native who is a die-hard Cardinals fan, may have to switch allegiance to the Mets.

Beal, the Wizards’ All-star, as well as Nuggets reserve big man Mason Plumlee, are part of a group of celebrity investors led by Alex Rodriguez and his wife working to purchase the New York Mets. From Vaughn McClure of ESPN:

Rodriguez, who last starred with the Yankees, and fiancée Lopez have put $300 million of their own money toward the bid. Other investors include future Hall of Fame offensive lineman Joe Thomas, who spent his entire career with the Cleveland Browns, two-time NBA All-Star Bradley Beal from the Washington Wizards, and Denver Nuggets center Mason Plumlee.

Beal’s group is competing against several other groups, with the first round of bids reportedly due Thursday. Josh Harris, owner of the Sixers, heads one group. Hedge fund billionaire Steve Cohen has made a top bid so far of $2 billion. Rodriguez’s group reportedly bid $1.7 million. The first-round of bids is non-binding, but it starts the negotiations.

While the NBA has rules against owner/players in its own league, Beal is free to invest in other leagues. Beal would not be alone, LeBron James owns a piece of Premier League champions Liverpool, while a number of European players own small basketball clubs back in their native country.

Beal is not with the Wizards in the Orlando restart bubble, he is recovering from a shoulder injury.

WNBA MVP Delle Donne says league denied her medical waiver

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NEW YORK (AP) — Elena Delle Donne’s request to be medically excused from the WNBA season was denied, according to the league’s reigning MVP.

The Washington Mystics star said in a statement Monday that the independent panel of doctors the league and union agreed upon to decide whether players should be medically excused deemed her not to be “high risk, and should be permitted to play in the bubble.”

Had Delle Donne been medically excused, she would have earned her entire salary for the season. Now, if she chooses not to play, the defending WNBA champion Mystics wouldn’t have to pay her.

Delle Donne has battled Lyme disease since 2008. The disease is not included on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of underlying conditions that could put someone at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

“I love my team, and we had an unbelievable season last year, and I want to play! But the question is whether or not the WNBA bubble is safe for me,” Delle Donne said in the statement. “My personal physician who has treated me for Lyme disease for years advised me that I’m at high risk for contracting and having complications from COVID-19.”

Delle Donne’s statement was first obtained by ESPN.

“I’m thinking things over, talking to my doctor and my wife, and look forward to sharing what I ultimately plan to do very soon,” the 30-year-old said. “My heart has gone out to everyone who has had to choose between their health and having an income, and of course to anyone who has lost their job, their home, and anyone they love in this pandemic.”

The league declined to comment, citing privacy concerns about player health matters.

Delle Donne’s new teammate Tina Charles also was waiting for a decision from the medical panel. If both players miss the season, the Mystics would be down to 10 players on the roster.

“As with all of our players, we have and will support Elena throughout this process. The health and well-being of our players is of the utmost importance,” Mystics coach and general manager Mike Thibault said.

Charles and Delle Donne did not travel with the team to Bradenton, Florida, last week. The WNBA is using IMG Academy as a single site for its season which will begin on July 25.

There are a handful of players who are waiting to have their cases heard by the three-person panel. Phoenix forward Jessica Breland, who missed a year while at North Carolina to be treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, was deemed high-risk and was medically excused, the Mercury said.

Philadelphia practices with Ben Simmons as power forward, Shake Milton at point guard

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It’s been rumored for a while, and now it seems to be happening.

Philadelphia has been practicing with Ben Simmons playing power forward, coach Brett Brown told the media on a conference call from Orlando Monday. Joel Embiid added that Shake Milton has been playing point guard, which would add shooting and make the Sixers starters a more dynamic and dangerous lineup. That also means Al Horford would be coming off the bench.

Embiid had nothing but praise for Milton, via Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadephia:

“He’s been amazing,” he said. “He’s been the starting point guard. I think he has a huge opportunity to help us accomplish what we believe we can. He’s been doing an amazing job, just running the team, and we’re going to need him to knock down shots, which he did before the league basically got shut down. He was on a roll. So we all need him to keep it going. But it’s been great.”

On paper, a lineup of Milton, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Simmons, and Embiid should be a force — but it has played zero minutes together this season. A couple of weeks of practices and eight seeding games — ones treated more like an exhibition game than a regular-season game — may not be enough time to develop real chemistry.

Playing Simmons and Embiid as the frontline is the latest attempt to get their games to fit together. There remain doubters around the league the two can blend — unless Simmons can develop a reliable jump shot and three-point ball to space the floor — but the best chance may be to put three shooters around Simmons and Embiid. One of the three shooters needs to be a secondary shot creator. Maybe that can work, and for the rest of this season the Sixers can take notes on if this will work.

A healthy Philadelphia team — Simmons would have missed a lot of time heading into the playoffs with his back issue — is one of the dark horses in the East. If this team becomes as good on the court as it does on paper, if it can play like it’s a home game and not a road game (the 76ers were 10-24 on the road), they have a chance. This lineup may give them the best chance.