Associated Press

NBA Power Rankings: After the big four at the top everything is wide open

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The top four on this ranking are fairly locked in, the top two teams in each conference. After that, it’s almost even down deep into the teens (how much gap is there between the Pelicans at 5 and the Jazz at 16?). The bottom eight are the same way, although Memphis has established itself as the tanking master right now. Sorry Gasol.

 
Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (50-13, Last Week No. 1). Winners of 16 straight, a clear title contender, and that only leaves two questions now: Can Houston set a new franchise record win streak (the current is 22-games during the 2007-08 season)? Second, can they hold off the Warriors for best record in the NBA? Golden State is 0.5 games back but has an easier schedule the rest of the way. That said, the Rockets care more about the top seed than the Warriors. Interesting matchup Friday night against Toronto.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (50-14 LW 2). That Warriors’ malaise from right before the All-Star break is forgotten now. Coming out of the time off the Warriors are 6-0, their defense is focused again giving up a point per possession (100.1 per 100 possessions, fourth best in the NBA in that stretch), the Warriors are outscoring teams by 17.1 per 100 since the ASG, and they have become a team that starts fast thanks to the energy JaVale McGee brings as a starter (he doesn’t play much still, less than 15 minutes a night, but he gives them some athleticism and energy at the start they lacked).

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (46-17, LW 3). Rookie starting small forward OG Anunoby has missed three games now with a sprained ankle, but there are signs he should return soon. Norman Powell couldn’t grab the job with Anunoby out. What has made Toronto the No. 1 seed in the east is depth — Fred VanVleet and the bench are outscoring opponents badly and turning small leads into blowouts. The Raptors are up just 2 games up on the Celtics for the top seed but have an easier schedule the rest of the way (including a couple tanking teams this week). Fun test Friday night at the Air Canada Centre when James Harden and the Rockets show up.

 
Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (45-20, LW 4). Boston’s defense has been good but not great since the All-Star break (although certainly better than it was in the run-up to the break), however, the offense has been phenomenal scoring 117 points per 100 (second only to the Warriors). Helping with that is Jayson Tatum, who was hot to start the season (better than 45% from three in Nov. and Dec.) but hit the rookie wall in January (plus teams adapted and challenged him more), when he shot 34.1% from deep. While he has taken fewer shots in February and March (he’s taking what the defense gives him), he’s shooting well again (39.1% in Feb.).

 
Pelicans small icon 5. Pelicans (36-26, LW 12). Winners of nine in a row to move all the way up to the four seed in the West, they have impressed of late. Anthony Davis is understandably the focus as he has played at an MVP level during this stretch (34.8 points, 15.2 rebounds, and 3 blocks per game in his last 5) but it’s been a team effort on the defensive end during the run when the Pels are a top-10 defense. The Pelicans can secure a playoff slot (as much as anyone can in the West) over the next few weeks because after playing at Sacramento Wednesday night New Orleans has 9-of-11 at home.

 
Pacers small icon 6. Pacers (37-27, LW 11). What matters most in a tight race for playoff seeding in the East is beating other playoff teams, which is why the Pacers three-game win streak against the Bucks, Wizards, then Bucks again is big and has vaulted them up to the four seed. The Pacers have done that with all defense (3rd in the NBA since the All-Star break) and in spite of the offense (25th). Darren Collison is expected to still be out this week (knee) and they miss the depth he brings at the point.

 
Blazers small icon 7. Trail Blazers (39-26, LW 14). Damian Lillard is in full-on beast mode — in his last 10 games Lillard is averaging 35.4 points and 5.3 assists per game, plus shooting 43 percent from three — and has the Trail Blazers on a eight-game win streak that has bumped them up to the three seed in the West. What’s gotten overlooked in the flash of Lillard is the Blazers have the second best defense in the NBA during this eight-game stretch, giving up less than a point per possession.

 
8. Timberwolves (38-28, LW 5). Minnesota, still without Jimmy Butler (as it will be until, at best, near the end of the season), have started 0-2 in a tough eight-game stretch against other teams in the playoff mix. They are still projected to finish with 47-48 wins, which will be enough to get in, but Minnesota is just two games up on the nine-seed Clippers and they need to find a way to bank a few more wins. Some help from veteran Jamal Crawford would be nice, he’s shooting just 32.8% in his last five games, averaging 10.2 points on 11.6 shots in those contests. They need his spark of the bench.

 
Spurs small icon 9. Spurs (37-27, LW 6). They have gone 3-8 in their last 11 and the reason is their usually-stout defense has fallen off, giving up 6 more points per 100 than their season average in those last 11 games. Their transition defense in particular has been an issue during this stretch. Getting Rudy Gay back is not going to help the defense, but they need his shot creation until (if?) Kawhi Leonard returns. Rough stretch with the Warriors, Thunder, and Rockets on the road this week.

 
Cavaliers small icon 10. Cavaliers (37-26 LW 8). No Tristan Thompson for two weeks or so due to his sprained ankle, which means Larry Nance Jr. starts at center, Rodney Hood is on the wing, and Cedi Osman is coming off the bench. It looked great against the struggling Pistons, but the Cavaliers now head out on a six-game road trip against three teams in the playoff mix (Nuggets, Clippers, Trail Blazers) and a Lakers’ team playing well. That will be the real test for the new starting five.

 
Sixers small icon 11. 76ers (35-28, LW 9). Philly is headed to the playoffs this season, but looking ahead they still need to add more shooting next summer — the team is getting a below-average 0.98 points per possession on spot up looks (via Synergy Sports). That’s why they brought in Ersan İlyasova and Marco Belinelli off buyouts. Philly can try to retain J.J. Redick, or go after guys such as Wayne Ellington this summer, but they need shooters. The Sixers are a dominant home team (they have won 11 straight there) but started 1-1 in a string of 5-of-8 on the road.

 
Thunder small icon 12. Thunder (37-29 LW 13).. It can’t be said enough how much this team misses Andre Roberson: They are just 8-9 since his injury. Oklahoma City’s starters (Russell Westbrook, George, Carmelo Anthony, Steven Adams) were +14.8 per 100 possessions with Roberson but just +1.8 per 100 with anyone else in that fifth spot. It’s not just the defensive end, the offense has been worse without him (while Roberson can’t space the floor as a shooter they had figured out how to make him a cutter and hide his deficiencies). On the bright side, Anthony just passed Jerry West to move into 20th on the league’s all-time scoring list.

 
Wizards small icon 13. Wizards (37-28, LW 7). The Wizards are 13-14 this season in close games (within three points in the final three minutes), but they are shooting just 37.1% in those clutch minutes and 30.8% from three. To be fair, they do get to the free throw line more than any other team in that setting (2.7 times per game in those three minutes). Bradley Beal is shooting 34.1% in those three minutes, and 31.3% from three (he missed a few chances to tie or take the lead against the Pacers Sunday). Just something to remember as we head into the playoffs.

 
Nuggets small icon 14. Nuggets (35-29, LW 18).. Paul Millsap has played four games since coming back and the Nuggets are working to get him integrated into the offense again (he had some nice two-man dribble hand-off action with Gary Harris Tuesday), and is averaging 11.8 points on 41% shooting, plus grabbing 6.5 rebounds a game. Denver needs him to come around and as a team to bank some wins now — they have 4-of-5 at home and 6-of-8 against teams below .500 (although two of those are the feisty Lakers), then the schedule gets much more difficult.

 
Clippers small icon 15. Clippers (34-29 LW 16). Since trading Blake Griffin, the Clippers have gone 9-5 and have a top-10 offense scoring 111 points per 100 possessions in that stretch. Lou Williams and DeAndre Jordan get the attention, but Tobias Harris has been key to the surge (his play in Orlando was overlooked by many this season, he’s been impressive). The Clippers have started out 2-2 on a six-game homestand, but starting next Tuesday have 9-of-11 on the road.

 
Jazz small icon 16. Jazz (34-30, LW 15). Utah’s run before the All-Star break was fueled by a few things, like getting healthy, but also near the top of the list was three-point shooting. However, after the break, Utah is shooting just 29.2% as a team. It’s one thing that has their offense fourth worst in the league since the ASG (the Jazz have still gone 4-2, their defense is saving them). If Utah misses the playoffs, it will be because of their offense, despite the emergence of Donovan Mitchell. The Jazz have won three in a row but now head out on the road to face the Pacers, Grizzlies, and Pelicans.

 
Heat small icon 17. Heat (34-31, LW 17). Since their December-to-January seven game winning streak, Miami is 9-14 (which is a little unlucky, they have a 0.1 net rating in that window). The issue has been the offense, which is bottom 10 in those 23 games. That said, thanks to Detroit’s collapse, Miami is going to make the postseason, however, it looks like they are going to land Boston or Toronto in the first round and that’s going to be a tough road.

Bucks small icon 18. Bucks (34-30 LW 10). Milwaukee’s bench is one of the key reasons the team has lost 5-of-6, the team lacks depth and it can’t just be the Giannis Antetokounmpo show (with a little help from Eric Bledsoe). I like that coach Joe Prunty has started playing Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jabari Parker together, he needs to give that time to work (after some rough starts early).

 
Lakers small icon 19. Lakers (28-35 LW 20). In his last 20 games, Lonzo Ball is shooting 41.2% from three. It’s a big change from the 24% from the first 20 games. What is different? First, he’s gotten more comfortable with the speed of the NBA game and has a better understanding of how and where to get his shot off. The second part, the book on him is to go under picks and let him shoot — Gregg Popovich said as much after Lonzo drained threes to beat the Spurs last week. The second part of that is about to change.

 
Hornets small icon 20. Hornets (28-37, LW 19). With four losses in a row, the Hornets are now six games out of the last playoff spot with 17 games to go. It’s mathematically possible, but it’s not happening. To focus instead on the future, the Hornets have opened up the their GM search to a handful of up-and-comers from other organizations — that makes more sense than a retread, even if said new guy does not have North Carolina ties.

Pistons small icon 21. Pistons (29-35, LW 21). They have lost three in a row, 9-of-11, they have yet to beat a team not on a back-to-back since the Blake Griffin trade, and with all that their dreams of the playoffs have gone the way of the Dodo Bird. Since the trade, the Pistons have scored just 103.8 points per 100 possessions on offense, 24th in the NBA in that stretch. They could use Reggie Jackson back at the point, but Stan Van Gundy said this week “there’s nothing imminent with him.”

 
Mavericks small icon 22. Mavericks (20-45 LW 22). Dallas is giving Nerlens Noel some run to see what they’ve got, and in six games he’s averaged 4 points a game shooting 50% and has looked okay on that end, plus averaged a little over two blocks a game, but Dallas has struggled overall with him playing, getting outscored by 17.3 per 100 with him on the court (very small sample size alert). Nobody blows leads quite like the Mavericks, who have five times this year led by double digits in the last 10 minutes and still lost (the most recent was to Chicago last Friday).

 
Magic small icon 23. Magic (20-44, LW 26). Listen to the scuttlebutt around the league right now and Frank Vogel should be polishing up his resume. It’s never a good sign for a coach when the management above him changes, then the team doesn’t win (even if it’s not his fault, and I don’t lay most of the problems there at Vogel’s feet). Orlando won its first two games in March thanks to some hot shooting from Evan Founier, but lost at Utah to start a string of five games on the road against the West.

 
Hawks small icon 24. Hawks (20-45, LW 27). They have won 2-of-4, with a surprising win over the Pacers then Taurean Prince knocking down the game winner against the Hawks. Part of the reason for that is coach Mike Budenholzer has the Hawks defending fairly well again, over the pat 15 games the Hawks are 12th in the NBA on that end of the floor. It’s a foundation to rebuild on.

 
Kings small icon 25. Kings (20-44, LW 28). Is the De'Aaron Fox and Bogdan Bogdanovic pairing the backcourt of the future in Sacramento? It’s early, but those the team is -10 per 100 with the pair on the court for the season, and in the last 10 games that is -10.5 per 100 (Sacramento has a -8.6 net rating for the season, for comparison). The Kings picked up a couple of recent wins against other tanking teams (the Knicks and Nets).

 
Knicks small icon 26. Knicks (24-41, LW 23). They are 2-15 without Kristaps Porzingis this season, and now have lost 13 of their last 14. Without KP for this last stretch the New York offense is terrible as you would expect, scoring less than a point per possession, but Porzingis’ presence in the paint is missed as well, with the Knicks allowing 112.2 points per 100 possessions, 27th in the NBA for that stretch. The Knicks took a flier on Emmanuel Mudiay, but through 9 games he is shooting 33% overall, 12.5% from three, and has been a defensive mess.

 
Nets small icon 27. Nets (20-45, LW 24). While they still get outscored with him on the court (because this is not a good team), the Nets have been 6 points per 100 possessions better with D’Angelo Russell on the court during the last 15 games. He’s averaged 13.8 points per game in that time, but has not been efficient needing 13.2 shots to get there (and shooting 31% from three). The Nets have been 4.4 points per 100 better than their average when Russell has been paired in the backcourt with Spencer Dinwiddie, although the defense struggles with both of them on the court.

 
Bulls small icon 28. Bulls (21-42 LW 25).. The Bulls got their warning and we will see Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday back in the rotation (although likely in laminated minute). That said, the Bulls have found some success with a front court rotation of Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis. That said, if the Bulls are trying to tank then playing Markkanen next to Lopez has proved an effective mess all season.

 
Suns small icon 29. Suns (19-47, LW 30). In his 10 games with the Suns, Elfrid Payton has averaged 15.7 points per game, dished out 6.3 assists per night, with a slightly below average true shooting percentage of 52.7, he’s been solid. That said, the Suns are -9.7 when Payton and Devin Booker are paired (they are -11.2 per 100 in those games total) and the defense struggles when both are on the court. I’m not sold this is the pairing of the future, that said in the draft the Suns need to take the best player regardless of position. They just need talent.

 
Grizzlies small icon 30. Grizzlies (18-45, LW 29). Losers of 14 in a row, that slides them down to the bottom of these rankings. They even lost to the Suns in a battle of losing streaks. This is good for the team heading into the draft, but Marc Gasol is frustrated with all the losing which could make this an interesting summer in Memphis. He wants to stay, but does he trust ownership/management enough to get this team back on track (just getting Mike Conley back is not enough).

Report: LeBron James not planning to sit for elaborate pitch meetings in free agency

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LeBron James held court in Cleveland in 2010, listening to pitch after pitch as teams flew in to recruit the superstar during free agency. That approach became a model, and Kevin Durant followed it in the Hamptons in 2016.

But maybe once is enough.

Durant announced months ago he’d stay with the Warriors. And now LeBron – who could definitely leave Cleveland – is making clear he doesn’t want the hoopla, either.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

sources close to the situation tell ESPN that he has no intention of hearing elaborate pitch meetings from teams.

league sources believe he and his agents Rich Paul and Mark Termini have enough understanding of the stakes and NBA landscape to handle the process without much fanfare.

LeBron is still haunted by The Decision. He’s a great player and philanthropist and does plenty to connect with fans. Yet, people still dislike him purely because of how he changed teams eight years ago.

If I wielded as much power as LeBron, I’d want suitors wining and dining me. He wants to avoid more backlash.

This will probably look similar to 2014 – LeBron’s agents hearing out teams then LeBron meeting with only the most serious options, though the final announcement will likely come via Uninterrupted rather than Sports Illustrated.

The Lakers, Cavaliers, Rockets and 76ers are commonly viewed as the favorites for LeBron. This approach makes it less likely for a longshot to emerge – though, for what it’s worth, we don’t know those four teams are his favorites right now.

Report: Nuggets re-signing Nikola Jokic to five-year max after declining team option

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The Nuggets are building around Nikola Jokic.

But a second-round pick turning into a franchise player so quickly creates complications. Denver is resolving one by declining Jokic’s team option, which will send him into restricted free agency (as opposed to unrestricted free agency next year) and paying him.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

This ought to please Jokic. He would have earned just $1,600,520 next season if Denver exercised his team option.

Jokic is one of the best-passing full-time centers ever. He also shoots and rebounds well, though he must improve his defense to become worthy of this contract. At just 23, he’s worth betting on.

That said, I’m surprised the Nuggets didn’t get him on a slight discount. Though they clearly didn’t want to risk him testing unrestricted free agency next year, they gave him a MASSIVE raise (about $24 million) next season when they didn’t have to.

Jokic’s exact max salary won’t be determined until the salary cap and luxury-tax line are set this month. But this clearly puts Denver in cost-cutting mode now.

As constructed, the Nuggets are in line for about $24 million in luxury-tax payments. That’s without considering Will Barton, who’ll be an unrestricted free agent. Expect Denver to look to unload Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur, Wilson Chandler and/or Mason Plumlee.

Jokic was always going to be in Denver next season. The Nuggets have now secured him far longer. It will cost them next year – an important season to them – but they also clearly value a future with Jokic.

With momentum gone and interest down, NBA finally will give out awards tonight

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When the NBA season ended, there was a passionate debate to be had about the end-of-season awards.

Ben Simmons or Donovan Mitchell for Rookie of the Year? James Harden was the MVP favorite, but what about LeBron James and his monster season? Did Rudy Gobert play enough games to win Defensive Player of the Year? Not only was picking the Coach of the Year hard, narrowing the list down to three for the ballot out of the seven or eight candidates was brutal.

NBA fans — and NBA Twitter — had roiling debates over all those topics. Fans backed their man and defended their positions and media members who announced their votes — as we did — had to defend those choices. As they should.

That was mid-April.

Now, the NBA fandom has moved on — the Finals are over, the draft just happened, and everyone’s focus is on free agency and the possibility of a Kawhi Leonard trade and where he might land.

So now, finally, more than two months after the regular season ended, the NBA will get around to giving out its awards at its second annual awards banquet Monday night (televised on TNT, starting at 9 p.m. ET). The league will hand out the official awards for MVP, Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Most Improved, Sixth Man of the Year, Executive of the Year (voted on by other executives), and a series of fan-voted awards (Best Style, Dunk of the Year, Block of the Year, Clutch Shot of the Year, Assist of the Year and Handle of the Year).

The league needs to do something about the timing of the awards show, they have lost all momentum getting around to it now.

I get it, the NBA wants a big awards event and broadcast that can be televised (the league just used to announce them during the playoffs via press release, with the recipients getting the award at a playoff game in their home arena, if there was still one). The NFL does a great awards show, but they have a natural (if too long) two-week break between the AFC/NFC finals and the Super Bowl, which allows them to have their event at the peak of interest for the sport.

The problem for the NBA these are regular season awards now given out 10 weeks after the regular season ended.

The NBA is entering the phase of the calendar that is its most popular — free agency. The draft draws interest as the unofficial start of this off-season, as teams start to reshape their roster. Trades and player movement — and the rumors and breakdowns around them — draw more interest than the NBA Finals or the games themselves (just check the traffic at any NBA website, including ours). Fans of all 30 teams are invested in playing armchair GM and, along with the media, second guessing every move they make to build that roster. (By the way, that second guessing is just part of the job for a GM, they can’t have family members on burner Twitter accounts trying to defend them.)

There’s no easy answer here for the NBA as to the timing of the awards show. There isn’t much of a gap between the end of the regular season and the playoffs and pretty much every player or coach who will win an award is prepping for the postseason at that point, they don’t want to fly to Los Angeles (this year) or New York (last year) for chummy banquet with their soon-to-be rivals. As this year showed, when the conference finals run seven games there isn’t much of a gap there before the Finals start (and again, key players will be involved in the Finals every year).

Where the league has it is the most convenient place on the calendar.

It’s just too late. The momentum of the regular season is gone, the attention of fans has turned to free agency, and this just feels like an odd break.

But Monday night the NBA is getting around to it. And we can try to revive old debates, they will just die out fast in the wake of free agency talk.

LeBron James’s son Bronny Jr. just misses breakaway dunk. At 13.

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LeBron James is spending his summer like a lot of fathers of children who play AAU basketball (or other travel team sports) — going to gyms, local and sometimes not so local, to watch his son play.

And Bronny Jr. can ball.

At age 13, he can almost dunk.

Gotta love LeBron’s reaction.