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NBA Power Rankings: Rockets, Raptors on top, movement in middle

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Nothing juch is changing at the top or bottom of the rankings, but in the middle where things are tightly bunched up in each conference there is more moving around. The Clippers climb, the Wizards fall, and nobody is quite sure what to make of the Cleveland Cavaliers night to night.

Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (61-14, Last Week No. 1). Since the All-Star break, the Rockets have gone 17-1 with the fourth best offense and third best defense in the NBA, all of which has them coasting into the best record in the league. Chris Paul got some rest (after tweaking his hamstring) and sat out three games, then on Tuesday it was James Harden’s turn for a night off. With the No. 1 seed and Harden’s MVP locked up, expect a little more of this the last couple weeks of the season.

Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (55-20, LW 2). Don’t read too much into the Raptors loss at Cleveland last week — it was the second night of a back-to-back and third game in four days, their legs looked tired at the end. Still, Toronto has taken their foot off the gas a little having gone 3-3 in their last six with the third worst defense in the NBA during that stretch. They are allowed to coast a little, they have the No. 1 seed in the East all but locked up (plus they are now half a game up on the Warriors for the second best overall record). Interesting road tests at Boston and Cleveland this week.

Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (54-20 LW 3). The Stephen Curry MCL sprain in his knee is the first of the Warriors’ litany of injuries expected to bleed into the playoffs — Steve Kerr says Curry is out for the first round, and we believe him. The Warriors should still win a first-round series without Curry fairly comfortably, even if that means more Kevin Durant isolations/post-ups, and more midrange shots (both go up without Curry). However, Portland will be no second-round pushover and the Warriors could really use a healthy Curry by that point. Durant is expected back Thursday, with Thompson a couple games after that.

Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (51-23, LW 5). Kyrie who? The Celtics have won four in a row without the only guy on the roster who can be relied upon to create offense. The questions following Kyrie Irving’s knee surgery are when will he be back and do the Celtics really want to push him to get back for the first round? With no Gordon Hayward, no Marcus Smart (for the first round) and no Daniel Theis, will the Celtics take the long view and figure a potential first-round loss is a small price to pay for Irving to be healthy, especially considering this team is poised to be a force next season and beyond.

Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (43-30, LW 8). Markelle Fultz is back in the rotation after missing 68 games with a shoulder injury that evolved into a remade jump shot that he’s still gaining confidence in. Felt has been put into a sixth-man role as the ball handler and shot creator off the bench, something the Sixers need, and in his first game back he looked like a talented rookie with some good plays and some rough decisions. The Sixers are tied in the loss column with the Cavaliers for the three seed in the East and have a chance to pull away and secure that spot thanks to a soft schedule the rest of the way (much to Toronto’s chagrin, they don’t want the Cavs in the second round).

Blazers small icon 6. Trail Blazers (46-28, LW 4). A big win over Oklahoma City last weekend (because C.J. McCollum went off), plus victories like Tuesday over New Orleans (because Damian Lillard went off with 20 points in the fourth quarter), means Portland had a tight grip on the three seed in the West. It’s theirs to lose, they have a three-game lead in the loss column. That said, the Blazers will be without Lillard for a game (the birth of his son — congratulations!) and without Maurice Harmless, who will have his knee scoped on Wednesday. His return is up in the air.

Cavaliers small icon 7. Cavaliers (44-30 LW 10). Cleveland just looked flat Tuesday night once Kevin Love went out, and if he goes into the concussion protocol after a blow to the face that knocked loose a tooth they are going to have to get by without him for a few games. LeBron James was merely good Tuesday night, and with the Cavaliers porous defense that is simply not enough — he has to be MVP-level and lift the offense up for this team to have a chance against good teams. The Cavs are now tied in the loss column with the Sixers for the three seed, and Philly’s schedule the rest of the way is tissue soft. Cleveland has a showdown (and potential second-round matchup preview) with Toronto next Tuesday.

Jazz small icon 8. Jazz (42-32, LW 7). I don’t know if Donovan Mitchell is going to win Rookie of the Year, but the man has made a strong case. He put up 35 points in a loss to the Spurs in overtime — that’s four 35+ point games this season, only Carmelo Anthony has had more as a rookie (6) — and in crunch time he is the guy with his ball in his hands, being asked to create. Mitchell is averaging 20.3 points per game, and while his efficiency has dipped a little lately he is the guy driving the offense of a playoff-bound team. (I wish he and Simmons could be co-MVPs, they both are very deserving.)

Thunder small icon 9. Thunder (44-31 LW 6).. Carmelo Anthony’s well-publicized recent struggles in the clutch — two missed late free throws against Boston, then four missed threes in the crunch against Portland — lead to questions about just how effective he can be in the playoffs. Anthony has a below league average true shooting percentage (50.8) and he gets most of his shots this season on spot-ups where he is shooting just 36.8%. He’s going to get targeted in the playoffs when the Thunder are on defense. His ability to lift his game up could be key to the Thunder getting out of the first round and getting their crack at Golden State or Houston.

Pacers small icon 10. Pacers (44-31, LW 9). Lance Stephenson is a beast at home in the Fieldhouse — .536 true shooting percentage and hitting 33.1% from three, plus aggressive defense — but get him on the road and those numbers drop to .469 TS% (well below the league average) and 26.3% from three. He and all the Pacers need to step it up on the road — Tuesday’s win against the Warriors started a stretch of 6-of-7 on the road as they fight the Sixers for the 4/5 seed all while trying to hold off the Wizards right behind them.

Spurs small icon 11. Spurs (43-32, LW 12). The Spurs are on pace to win 47-48 games this season and solidly make the playoffs, which considering they have done it essentially without Kawhi Leonard is amazing. How did they do it? They took care of business against the teams they should beat — the Spurs are 25-6 against teams below .500 on the season. Gregg Popovic’s teams don’t beat themselves, and against lesser squads that is often enough. Tough schedule this week with the Thunder, Rockets, and Clippers.

Pelicans small icon 12. Pelicans (43-32, LW 13). One of the most impressive feats of the season — the Pelicans swept their back-to-back-to-back. Anthony Davis is everything to this team right now, they struggle (especially offensively) when he sits, which is why he tried to tough it out with a sore ankle Tuesday night. He has been good enough to carry them to a likely playoff slot, but seeding is still up in the air and the schedule this week is tough with Cleveland and Oklahoma City.

13. Timberwolves (42-33, LW 14). Losses to the Sixers (understandable) and the Grizzlies (not remotely understandable) in their last two games has Timberwolves looking like they will be either the 7 or 8 seed in the West, which means a brutal first round (those losses also kept hope alive for the Nuggets and Clippers behind them, L.A. is just one game back in the loss column). Jimmy Butler is still on track to be back right at the end of the season or for the playoffs.

Clippers small icon 14. Clippers (40-34 LW 18). Los Angeles went just 3-5 on a stretch of 7-of-8 on the road, but Minnesota’s stumbles plus winning their last two (Bucks and Raptors) has Los Angeles still with a shot at the playoffs, just 1.5 games back of the Timberwolves (1 in the loss column). Without Blake Griffin the Clippers have truly become Lou Williams’ team — fantastic on offense but struggling on defense. They need to find a lot of wins coming up to get into the postseason.

Wizards small icon 15. Wizards (41-33, LW 11). A slimmer John Wall — he says he’s lost 10-15 pounds — should be back soon, and the Wizards could use him. Tuesday’s win over the shorthanded Spurs ended a streak where the Wizards lost 5-of-7 and in their last eight games the Wizards’ offense has been middle-of-the-pack in the NBA (Bradley Beal seems to have hit a wall and is not getting to the line like he was) while the defense is below average. Wall is the spark they could use with three winnable games up this week.

Heat small icon 16. Heat (40-35, LW 15). Miami picked up a quality win Tuesday in a rare way — its defense held Cleveland in check (less than a point per possession for the Cavs on offense). Since the All-Star break, the Heat have won with offense, scoring 114 points per game (4th in the NBA in that stretch) and that has covered up the defensive flaws. The Heat could be in a good spot, with the Bucks stumbling to the end of the season, Miami could get the seven seed and draw a banged-up Boston in the first round.

Nuggets small icon 17. Nuggets (40-35, LW 15).. Denver has gone 2-4 with one game left in a crucial road trip (at Oklahoma City is the last game) and that may not be enough to get an invite to the dance, although the stumbling Timberwolves have kept hope alive (the Nuggets and Timberwolves play twice in the final week of the season, Denver has to win enough to keep those games meaningful). It would help to get some stops to get the win — they have the fourth-worst defense in the NBA since the All-Star break and are 22nd in the NBA in their last 10.

Bucks small icon 18. Bucks (39-35 LW 18). In their last 10 games, the Bucks have the fourth-best offense in the NBA (113 points per 100 possessions) and the 24th ranked defense (112.3). That’s why they’ve stumbled of late with losses (their only quality win in the last 11 is against a banged-up Spurs team). Jabari Parker played 30 minutes in back-to-back games recently, a good sign, but in his last three games has shot a combined 7-of-28 (25%). Heading into a tight market as a restricted free agent who has been up-and-down since two ACL surgeries, this market might be tough for Parker (or, the Bucks may be able to re-sign him on terms they like).

Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (34-40, LW 20). Detroit has won 4-of-5 (the lone loss in OT to Houston) thanks to a defense that finally woke up and is allowing less than a point per possession in those games. Where was this defense the last couple of months, when they could have used it? The offense continues to just look more fluid with Reggie Jackson back at the point. All of this is not expected to save Stan Van Gundy’s job as GM (coach… maybe).

Hornets small icon 20. Hornets (34-41, LW 21). Winners of four in a row (they are with Detroit in the “too little, too late” club) thanks to some brilliant play from Kemba Walker, who has averaged 31.3 points per game in that stretch, shot 48.7 percent from three, and has been +17.5 per 48 minutes. Walker is a free agent in 2019 and said the new GM’s plans and if the team can steadily make the playoffs will determine if he re-signs with them. The new GM’s first major job is to sit with Michael Jordan and pick a direction — keep Kemba or rebuild?

Lakers small icon 21. Lakers (32-41 LW 19). Lonzo Ball is learning tough lessons about how the NBA adjusts. Early in the season, he couldn’t buy a three, so teams started playing off him and going under everything. Eventually, Ball found a comfort level on when he could get his three-ball off and his confidence in taking them, they started to fall and that was culminated with him basically beating the Spurs with threes back on March 3. Teams saw that and adapted, starting to chase him over picks and trail him, challenging his shot. In his last 10 games, he is 13-of-68 from three (19.1%). Both his three ball and finishing better around the rim are keys for Ball to work on and improve this offseason.

Knicks small icon 22. Knicks (27-48, LW 24). Phil Jackson is gone, but the drama is not (nor likely will it ever be from the Knicks with this ownership). As the Knicks stumble to the end of the season, there is more speculation about who will be the next coach there —it’s all but assumed around the league Jeff Hornacek will be let go — than anything else. The next coach, whoever he is, needs to get players to buy into a defensive system and play it with energy, and he needs an offensive system that doesn’t lead to more mid-range jumpers than threes (the Knicks are the only team in the NBA to do that this season).

Mavericks small icon 23. Mavericks (23-51 LW 26). Dirk Nowitzki says he plans to come back for one more season in Dallas, which gives the Mavs something to sell and fill the seats while Dennis Smith Jr. (and the rest of their young core) develops. The Mavericks are suffering through their first 50-loss season since Nowitzki came to the team 20 years ago.

Kings small icon 24. Kings (24-51, LW 22). Credit the Kings organization for handling very well the protests that have kept most fans out of their building for a couple of games now. The shooting of Stephon Clark 20 times in the backyard of the house where he lived has torn apart that community, and the Kings have done the right thing wanting to be part of the healing. Sacramento has home games Thursday (Indiana) and Saturday (Golden State) before heading out on the road, it’s not known yet if the protests will continue outside the games and block entrance to the Golden 1 Center.

Nets small icon 25. Nets (23-51, LW 23). The toughest part of a rebuilding process — especially a long one, like the Nets are having to go through due to the sins of the past front office — is to build a culture of getting guys to play the right way despite the losses. Kenny Atkinson is doing that in Brooklyn and deserves credit for it. The Nets bust it on defense. They get their shots at the rim or from three (they take the third smallest percentage of their shots from the midrange in the league, behind only the Rockets and Clippers, via Cleaning the Glass). A foundation is being built for when they have draft picks again and can stockpile some needed talent.

Magic small icon 26. Magic (22-51, LW 27). This may never have been a playoff team, even in the East, but you have to wonder how much better this team could have been if they had been healthy and been able to keep Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic, and Terrence Ross on the court together. The Magic have a net rating of -0.2 — basically a .500 team — when those four are on the court together. Substitute in D.J. Augustin for Ross and they outscore opponents by 6.3 points per 100 possessions. The Basketball Gods never let us really find out this season as they hit Orlando with a lot of injuries.

Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (24-50 LW 25).. The Bulls have dropped six straight, but the bigger disappointment is the injuries to Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen that have slowed the development of the young trio. Chicago has some nice young talent, will add more in this upcoming draft, and have finally started to play offense in the style Fred Holberg has wanted. There is reason for hope in Chicago, even if it may take a couple of years for it to all come together.

Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (21-53, LW 28). Dennis Schroder potentially facing felony battery charges just adds to the dark cloud over the team this season, and the challenges it faces with the German point guard. Taurean Prince and John Collins remain the bright spots as the Hawks continue their rebuild this offseason. The Hawks have lost 9-of-10 and will have one of the top picks in the draft come June.

Grizzlies small icon 29. Grizzlies (20-54, LW 29). The Grizzlies have an interesting off-season coming up. They will lose Tyreke Evans in free agency but pick up a high draft pick. The team will get Mike Conley back at the point — remember, they were 7-6 when he went out — and with Marc Gasol in the paint they could push for one of the last playoff slots in the West. But we don’t know what is up with the ownership situation, and with that we don’t know if there will be a decision from on high that it’s time to tear down and rebuild.

Suns small icon 30. Suns (19-56, LW 30). Will the Suns want to keep Elfrid Payton after this season? His defensive effort and play have been unimpressive since the trade, and his offensive shooting percentages have fallen way off (in part because he’s being asked to create a lot more of his own shots rather than getting them through the flow of a ball-moving offense). Part of whether Payton is back will come down to money, but he has not paired well with Devin Booker and Phoenix is 1-17 since his arrival.

Barrier to entry for NBA playoff race is historically low

NBA playoff race includes Grizzlies, Nets
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As free agency neared last summer, Andre Iguodala told his wife he suspected he’d get traded. She asked, where?

“I’ll probably end up in Memphis or some s—,” Iguodala replied.

The tone seemed apt. The Grizzlies were in the initial stages of a rebuild. Hardly a fit for 35-year-old Iguodala. In fact, Memphis – which of course traded for Iguodala – has agreed to let Iguodala sit out since training camp began. The Grizzlies could search for a trade. Iguodala could stay fresh for a team ready to win now.

But a funny thing happened: Halfway through the NBA season, Memphis is in playoff position.

The Grizzlies are exceeding expectations, of course. Ja Morant and a young core are thriving far sooner than expected. That isn’t the whole story, though.

Memphis (19-22) has won just 46% of its games. That would have been good for 11th place last season. In the East.

The Grizzlies are fortunate to play in Western Conference with a weak middle class. Memphis on pace to become the first sub-.500 Western Conference playoff teams since the conference expanded to 15 teams.

And it’s not as if the Grizzlies are getting pushed hard from behind. The ninth-place Spurs (17-22) are on pace for the worst ninth-place finish in the West in this era (since 2004-05).

It’s a similar story in the East.

The Nets (18-22) are in playoff position with a winning percentage barely ahead of the 2003-04 Celtics, who went 36-46 and made the postseason. That Boston team set the low watermark since the Eastern Conference expanded to 15 teams (since 1995-96).

Like Memphis in the West, Brooklyn faces uninspiring competition. The ninth-place Bulls (15-27), 10th-place Pistons (15-27) AND 11th-place Hornets (15-29) are all on pace for the worst finish for their spot in the standings in this era.

Here’s how each team’s win percentage in each conference compares to teams in the same place in the standings in prior 15-team conferences. The 2019-20 teams are shown by their logo. Prior teams are marked with a dot. Columns are sorted by place within a conference, 1-15. After the graphics, 2018-19 teams are compared to the worst, average and best teams ever to finish in each place, 1-15.

Western Conference

NBA Western Conference standings

NBA Western Conference standings

Eastern Conference

NBA Eastern Conference standings

NBA Eastern Conference standings

At least several decent teams are lurking in the West. Even the 14th-place Kings would rank ninth in the East. Between the Grizzlies, Spurs, Trail Blazers, Suns, Pelicans, Timberwolves and Kings, one probably emerges with a winning record.

Both conferences feature relative strength in the 3-6 range. That could mean a high-quality first-round series or two in each conference.

So, why do the conferences look how they do? I wouldn’t rush to ascribe meaning.

The NBA implemented lottery reform last season, and that might have something to do with a lack of teams deeply bottoming out. But it’s too soon to say with certainty how the new lottery odds will affect things. After all, the shape of the standings looked quite different around this time last season.

The league getting further removed from the 2016 cap spike might also play a part in producing parity among good teams. Again, though, it’s too early to carve conclusions into stone.

Mostly, I think there’s just a randomness to it. Some years, the standings shake out a certain way. Other years, it’s a different way.

But now that we know how this year looks, we can see that only a few teams are out of the playoff race. Twelve teams ought to believe they have at least a fair chance of winning a postseason series. That could produce more buyers than usual before the trade deadline.

PBT mid-season awards: Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year and more

Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and Ja Morant
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The 2019-20 NBA season reached its midpoint by games played last night. So, we’re naming winners for mid-season awards. Yesterday, we picked Most Valuable Player and All-NBA. Now, we’re onto the other major honors.

Defensive Player of the Year

Kurt Helin: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

This is the hardest award for me to pick mid-season, but the Jazz put more on the plate of Gobert this season and he has responded amazingly (even if the Jazz’s defense is a little off from its usual highs this season). A lot of other players still in the mix here for me including Joel Embiid (if he plays enough games), Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, and Marcus Smart.

Dan Feldman: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

Even as reigning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year, Gobert doesn’t have the final award sewn up. Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez and Kawhi Leonard are in the mix. But in a tight race, Gobert gets the benefit of the doubt. Utah’s strong defense is built entirely around Gobert’s rim protection.

Rookie of the Year

Kurt Helin: Ja Morant (Grizzlies)

This is a runaway award, but not for the guy we expected to run away with it. Zion Williamson makes his debut next week and maybe he could climb to third in this race, but he’s not winning the award. Morant and his fluid athleticism have turned Grizzlies into must-watch television, and he looks every bit the franchise player. Kendrick Nunn is a clear second in this race.

Dan Feldman: Ja Morant (Grizzlies)

Some rookie point guards put up big numbers. Some rookie point guards produce electric highlights. Some rookie point guards show promising flashes of winning basketball. Few rookie point guards are actually good. Morant is actually good. His athleticism, shooting and overall offensive control form an incredible package for his age. Sure, Morant is sometimes too reckless. He doesn’t completely break the mold of a young point guard. But Memphis has a gem.

Most Improved Player

Kurt Helin: Devonte' Graham (Hornets)

Last season, Graham was an end-of-the-bench guy in Charlotte. This season, he’s averaging 18.7 points a game, hitting 38.7 percent from three and is the team’s best player. Nobody saw that coming and it’s a radical improvement. Also in the mix for this award are Bam Adebayo and Luka Doncic — yes, the MVP candidate, he as made a massive leap this season.

Dan Feldman: Luka Doncic (Mavericks)

It’s a two-man race between Doncic and Devonte’ Graham. As the reigning Rookie of the Year, Doncic will get overlooked. He’s a second-year player. He was supposed to be this good. BS. The leap into superstardom is generally more difficult than the climb from non-rotation player to good starter, which Graham made. For Doncic to get this good this quickly is unprecedented.

Sixth Man of the Year

Kurt Helin: Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)

Harrell was in the mix for this award last season and came back this season as a better defender and more efficient on offense. He’s a critical element for a contending Clippers team, and closes games for them at the five. However, this is not a decided race by any means, both Derrick Rose and George Hill deserve serious consideration. Also, Spencer Dinwiddie in Brooklyn could be in the mix, but likely starts too many games to qualify.

Dan Feldman: Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)

I nearly chose Harrell for this award last season. Since, he has improved his offensive skill and defensive effectiveness. His big role in L.A. gives Harrell the edge over another highly productive reserve, the Bucks’ George Hill. Derrick Rose and Harrell’s teammate, Lou Williams, also warrant consideration.

Coach of the Year

Kurt Helin: Erik Spoelstra (Heat)

This is a wide-open race and my spreadsheet goes eight deep with worthy candidates: Nick Nurse has done an impressive job in Toronto, same with Brad Stevens in Boston and Frank Vogel with the Lakers, and the list goes on. Spoelstra, however, leads for me because of a combination of player development — Kendrick Nunn, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, etc. — and smart utilization of the players’ he has. Plus, Spoelstra is getting it all to mesh around Jimmy Butler.

Dan Feldman: Nick Nurse (Raptors)

Nurse kept Toronto humming when Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green left. Nurse kept Toronto humming when key players, including breakout star Pascal Siakam, got hurt. Nurse kept Toronto humming when unproven young players had to join the rotation. Nurse’s defenses are particularly exemplary – both his creativity and ability to get everyone up to speed. The Heat’s Erik Spoelstra and the Pacers’ Nate McMillan aren’t far behind.

DeAndre Ayton got the start for Phoenix, put up 26 and 21 (VIDEO)

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Coach Monty Williams changed things up as Phoenix went into Madison Square Garden Thursday:

Deandre Ayton got the start at center and Aron Baynes came off the bench.

The result? Ayton had his first-ever 20/20 game — 26 points and 21 rebounds — as the Suns blew out the Knicks 121-98.

Phoenix also got a big night from Ricky Rubio, 25 points and 13 assists. He kept finding Ayton in places the second-year big man could do damage.

It’s one step in a long road for the Suns’ big man, but it was good to see.

Here’s video of Klay Thompson getting up shots in an empty Chase Center

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“I would love to get out there… But I’m trying to make sure this type of injury never happens to me again. So, I’ll be very patient because I want to play at a high level until I’m in my late-30s.”

That’s how Klay Thompson recently described his recovery, making sure there was no specific timeline mentioned. He’ll be back when the doctors clear him to be back — which could be next season. He will be re-evaluated next month. 

That said, Thompson is getting in work on the court and putting up shots. As you can see from the video above, he’s doing it headband on in the Chase Center pregame.

What does that mean? Nothing. It’s not like Thompson is moving at NBA speeds in this video, and ultimately it’s the people who spent years in medical school who get to make this call. Considering where the Warriors are in the standings, management may decide to give Thompson the entire season off. Even if he wants to return.

For now, just enjoy the video.