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NBA Power Rankings: Do we really believe in Toronto and Portland?

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The top of the rankings this week are filled with the “do we really believe in them?” teams. Toronto and Portland are 1/2 and both have had a reputation of folding in the postseason… but we’re not there yet. Not even close. So they take over the top spots, while the Suns are the new cellar dwellers.

 
Raptors small icon 1. Raptors (12-2, last week No. 2). These Raptors want to run — 19% of their possessions and 17% of their points come in transition. Toronto’s raw pace isn’t extreme (102.1 possessions per game, 12th in the league) but when they do they are efficient. The Raptors had won six in a row, including crushing everyone on a West Coast road swing, until they ran into a hot Anthony Davis Monday. Friday against Boston is a fun test and starts another four-game road swing (you know they wish the schedule maker would put more road trips to warm place in January/February and not the fall).

 
Blazers small icon 2. Trail Blazers (10-3, LW 4). What’s different about these Blazers? Evan Turner struggled to be the third scoring option as a starter, but with the ball in his hands on the second unit, paired with Zach Collins, and he is thriving. Plus continuity matters, especially early in the regular season, and the Blazers have a lot of that. Portland is 6-1 against teams over .500 this season but will be tested on a six-game road trip that criss-crosses the nation and starts Wednesday against the Lakers.

Bucks small icon 3. Bucks (10-3, LW 5). There’s been a lot of talk about the Bucks’ improved defense, and it is vastly improved, now third best in the NBA so far this season. However, it has a flaw. The defense is built around protecting the paint — Brook Lopez and other bigs drop back off the pick-and-roll — but that allows other teams to shoot threes. A lot of threes — 37.2 attempts per game, highest allowed in the league (also the Bucks allow the highest in percentage of opponent shots from three). They are still aggressive going for steals and that can be exposed by good passing to open guys at the arc, just something to watch.

 
Warriors small icon 4. Warriors (12-3, LW 1). Draymond Green took the thing lurking in the shadows of the Warriors season — Kevin Durant’s looming free agency — and shoved it in the spotlight in the middle of the locker room. This is a veteran team that can get past that… probably. But it’s something to watch. Health concerns caught up with the Warriors — Green missed time, Stephen Curry continues to miss time with his groin issue — and it led to two losses in the past week to good teams (the Bucks and Clippers). The Warriors are two games into a 3-games-in-5-days stretch (1-1 so far).

 
Clippers small icon 5. Clippers (8-5, LW 9). It’s time to take the Clippers seriously — they have a top-10 offense and defense and just racked up back-to-back overtime wins against the Bucks and Warriors. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been impressive as a starter with Avery Bradley out a few games (it won’t be easy to send him back to the bench). The Clippers can be even better — they are the second-best three-point shooting team in the league at 38.7 percent, but they take just 25.2 a game, 27th in the league. Doc needs to loosen the reins and get this team firing away more from deep. Monday in Brooklyn starts a stretch of 11-of-15 on the road.

 
Thunder small icon 6. Thunder (8-5, LW 10).. Russell Westbrook is still out with his sprained left ankle and likely will miss another game or two, at least. The Thunder have gone 3-1 without Westbrook through this stretch against a soft patch of the schedule (they are 3-3 on the season). Dennis Schroder has done an admirable job stepping into the primary ball handler role (the bench unit misses having Schroder). Westbrook being out is a reminder just how important Steven Adams is to this team on both ends of the floor, a guy willing to do the dirty work needed for the flashy guys to thrive.

 
Nuggets small icon 7. Nuggets (9-5, LW 3).. Denver has lost four in a row, and the defense that was so good to start the season has been the worst in the NBA in the last four (114 points allowed per 100). Denver switched up its starting five and it was the right move. Denver had started Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Torrey Craig, Paul Millsap, and Jokic but was outscored by 4.7 points per 100 possessions, but sub Juancho Hernangomez in for Craig and it gets 9.1 per 100 better. Against Houston, Juancho got the start and the lineup was -2 in 17 minutes.

 
Sixers small icon 8. 76ers (9-6, LW 14). Philadelphia is all-in — Jimmy Butler is a Sixer now and will start Wednesday vs. Orlando. Butler changes the team dynamic, and not just because of Butler’s alpha personality, it puts the Sixers on the clock to win now. No more hand-holding for Markelle Fultz (not by his trainer, either), it’s sink-or-swim time on this roster. Philly will re-sign Butler and be a title threat… but the clock is ticking because Butler turns 30 and has off-roading Thibodeau miles on his legs. The Sixers front office needs to add shooting and depth to this roster to compete with the elite in the East, the team’s new big three alone are not enough.

 
Pacers small icon 9. Pacers (8-6, LW 6). A long break this week (Sunday to Friday) comes a good time to right the ship after losing three of four. The real issue has been the offense, which is scoring 7 points per 100 possessions fewer in those four games. Victor Oladipo and Tyreke Evans need to pick up the scoring starting against Miami Friday, and would help if Domantas Sabonis can do more of this.

 
Spurs small icon 10. Spurs (7-5, LW 7). None of this should come as a surprise I guess, but somehow it does — after Dejonte Murray went down in the preseason I was convinced the Spurs defense would suffer. And it did at first. But in the past nine games they are third in the NBA in defense, which is keeping them in games and allowing the Spurs to execute like they do and win down the stretch. The Spurs are bucking an NBA trend again, starting the lowest percent of their possessions in transition this season (9.7, via Cleaning the Glass).

 
Celtics small icon 11. Celtics (7-6, LW 8). Boston has lost 4-of-5, and surprisingly the biggest problems are on the defense — they are bottom five in the league defensively over that stretch. The Celtics also have problems on offense, specifically Jayson Tatum’s newfound love of a midrange shot, especially long twos early in the shot clock. Last season 35% of Tatum’s shots were from the midrange, this season that is up to 42%. He is taking 12% fewer shots at the rim (but is shooting more from three). Brad Stevens has a lot on his plate right now, but Tatum’s shot selection has to be on that list.

 
Grizzlies small icon 12. Grizzlies (7-5, LW 12). Dillon Brooks being out 6-8 weeks (MCL sprain) is a blow, they need to get JaMychal Green and Omri Casspi healthy to bring back some depth to the roster. Memphis likes their home cooking: They are 5-1 at home where they score 107.3 points per game, and are 2-4 on the road where the point total falls to 96.3 with a slower pace. The Grizzlies are on the road for 4-of-6.

 
Kings small icon 13. Kings (8-6, LW 13). What is De’Aaron Fox doing better this season? Scoring. The quickness was always there, decision making at pace improved as last season went on, but he didn’t finish plays and had a true shooting percentage of 47.8 (well below the league average). This season it’s up to 59.7, which is a big leap and well above the league average. Fox is shooting 75% at the rim and 44.2% from three. His making buckets and playing fast is opening up everything in the Kings’ offense.

 
Jazz small icon 14. Jazz (7-6, LW 17). After more than a year, the Jazz fans had built up plenty of venom for Gordon Hayward and let him hear it when Boston came to town. I get that, but Jazz fans need to move on because their new crush, Donovan Mitchell, is working out pretty well. His ability to go get buckets has been on display again this season, but his passing has improved this season and that’s giving the Jazz offense a little more diversity.

 
Hornets small icon 15. Hornets (7-7, LW 11). New coach James Borego came in with a fresh slate and a plan to give Malik Monk a real chance. The results so far? Meh. He’s scoring 12.5 points per game, shooting 33.3 percent from three, a true shooting percentage of 50.3 and a PER of 12.3 (both of those last two below the league average). For a player expected to be an athletic shooter and finisher out of college, it’s disappointing. That was an ugly loss for the Hornets on Tuesday to Cleveland, and now comes a rough stretch of games: Philadelphia, Boston, Indiana, OKC.

 
Lakers small icon 16. Lakers (7-6, LW 19). In their last five games, the Lakers have the fourth-ranked defense in the NBA, allowing 101.7 points per 100 possessions. Tyson Chandler certainly helps with that, but the improvement had already started. The troubling long-term thing in Los Angeles: In back-to-back games Lonzo Ball was pulled for the clutch minutes of a game because he was getting torched defensively. First by Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox. Sunday night it was rookie Trae Young. In a “sink-or-swim” season for the Lakers, that is not a good sign and something to watch going forward.

 
Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (7-6, LW 20). Win four in a row, lose six in a row, win three in a row again including a statement victory at Toronto. It’s a little hard to get a good read on the streaky Pelicans this season, although we have to note the team is 7-3 when Anthony Davis plays. The Pelicans are +11.1 per 100 possessions when Davis is on the court, -11.6 when he sits. Maybe that’s the only read about the Pelicans that matters.

 
Rockets small icon 18. Rockets (6-7, LW 15). Carmelo Anthony is away from the team, but don’t be shocked if the saga drags out for a while because finding a landing spot for him is not going to be easy for his agent. Houston has looked better in recent games, although one thing to watch: Teams are now not switching the pick-and-rolls with James Harden as often as they used to, they are now trapping and double-teaming him more, essentially getting the ball out of his hands and daring other players to beat them. How the Rockets adapt and if those other players step up to the challenge will be interesting to watch in the coming weeks, but they looked good doing it against Denver Tuesday.

Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (6-6, 18). Dwane Casey gets his homecoming Wednesday night in Toronto, where he was Coach of the Year last year, and he should get a warm welcome Raptors’ fans. He did a lot for that franchise. Blake Griffin still leads the NBA in touches per game at 92.5, but he does a good job keeping the ball moving — just 1.7 dribbles and 3.3 seconds per touch. (Compare that to James Harden, who averages 5 dribbles over 6.2 seconds every time he touches the rock.)

 
Nets small icon 20. Nets (6-8, LW 21). The Caris LeVert injury, while not as serious as it looked, is still a setback for a guy having a potential Most Improved Player season early. On the bright side for Nets fans, second-year man Jarrett Allen has stepped up his game across the board this season: 11.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game, a very efficient 62.6 true shooting percentage and a PER of 21.2. He is playing more, taking on more of the offense than his rookie season, and still upped his efficiency. All great signs for the future.

 
Heat small icon 21. Heat (5-8, LW 16). A few weeks ago Miami had a better offer on the table for Jimmy Butler than the Sixers — I’d take Josh Richardson/Dion Waiters/2019 first round pick over what the Timberwolves got every day. However, after Richardson’s strong start to the season, when Thibodeau called last week Richardson was off the table. In Miami that leaves the question: What does Pat Riley and company do now to spark this team? Miami will not have cap space until 2020, so it’s going to have to be a trade. Expect to hear a lot of Heat rumors.

 
Magic small icon 22. Magic (6-8, LW 23). The point guard spot remains this team’s Achilles heel, they were convinced things would be better without Elfrid Payton and they’re not. D.J. Augustin is a solid backup forced into a starter’s role, and when backup Jerian Grant is on the court Orlando is outscored by 11.6 points per 100 possessions.. Expect the Magic to look at any point guards who become available on the trade market, although the move expected by sources around the league is them to go hard at a point guard as a free agent next summer.

 
Mavericks small icon 23. Mavericks (5-8, LW 25). Luka Doncic is averaging 19.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.4 assists, is shooting 38.6 percent from three, has a PER of 15.7 — and you have to figure this is about as bad as he will ever be as an NBA player. He’s a 19-year-old rookie with a lot of room to get better (and he has, his defense has looked better the last few games). Dallas players reportedly have tired of DeAndre Jordan’s act — he was at his best when Doc Rivers was building him up, and Chris Paul was both pushing him and setting him up. Without CP3 Jordan is a far less consistent actor.

 
24. Timberwolves (5-9, LW 22). They went 0-5 on a West Coast road swing, losing whether Jimmy Butler played or not, which finally was enough to get it through Tom Thibodeau’s skull that he was not going to win with Butler on the roster this season and he needed to make a change. If he had come to that conclusion a few weeks earlier, he would have taken the better trade package from the Heat. That said, Robert Covington in particular, and maybe Dario Saric long term, should fit with the young Timberwolves core. Karl-Anthony Towns, this is your team now — act like it and take over. Every night.

 
Bulls small icon 25. Bulls (4-10, LW 27).. There was an interesting side note out of all the Jimmy Butler trade talk: Tom Thibodeau is considered a dead coach walking in Minnesota, very likely gone at the end of the season, and Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor is a big Fred Holberg fan. Could this lead to a coaching change in Chicago? We’re a long way from that, right now Zach LaVine has to be Mr. Everything to get the Bulls wins, and he had to try and do too much, as was evident in a loss to Dallas.

 
Wizards small icon 26. Wizards (4-9, LW 28). There’s a lot of trade speculation around the Wizards but little actual traction — other teams are interested in Bradley Beal but Washington wants to keep their best player and move the almost untradable contracts of John Wall or Otto Porter. Reality is likely nothing happens. Washington is in a soft part of the schedule, seven games in a row against teams below .500, and they are 3-2 so far after Monday’s win against Orlando. Everything changes on Sunday when Portland comes to town, starting a stretch of seven games in a row against teams over .500.

 
Knicks small icon 27. Knicks (4-10, LW 24). Allonzo Trier, the undrafted rookie out of Arizona who is averaging 11.4 points a night and is closing games for the Knicks now, remains one of the best stories of the young season. It makes up for the uninspired play from Frank Ntilikina, who didn’t impress me at Summer League in Las Vegas (and second-year Summer League guys who got a lot of run as rookies should blow you away in Summer League). New York is 2-5 on the road this season (they’re 2-5 at home, too) and have 7-of-9 coming up away from Madison Square Garden.

 
Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (3-11, LW 26). Vince Carter on Trae Young: “I think teams, if he is scoring or distributing the ball, they are going to beat him up a little bit. I tell you what, he has done a great job of staying the course, trying to make the right read and play, he has done that these first couple of games. [Sunday night against the Lakers] wasn’t anything different.” Young had an up-and-down game against the Lakers but when it mattered in the fourth he was making plays, including a good shot attempt for the game winner (Tyson Chandler just made a better play).

 
Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (2-11, LW 30). Where did that come from — the Cavaliers thrashed the Hornets on Tuesday night by 24 (to be fair, Charlotte’s horrible shooting from three helped with that). That win moved this team out of the bottom of the rankings. Kyle Korver’s name is coming up in trade buzz around the Sixers, a team now desperately in need of shooting, but it’s not going to be easy to get a deal done because they Cavs will want building blocks for the future back and the Sixers have used up a lot of those assets.

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (2-11, LW 29). If the future is Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker, how are they playing when together? Well, not good — the Suns are getting outscored by 9.2 points per 100 when they are on the court together. However, the team’s offense ticks up 5.3 points per 100 when they are paired and as Ayton’s defense improves (that’s going to take time) those numbers should improve. The Suns are losers of four in a row and 10-of-11, they are doing it with the worst offense in the NBA and the third-worst defense overall.

Wizards’ Bradley Beal: “The recruiting process is really going alright… I’m trying”

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LeBron James went out of his way to say he was not recruiting guys on his free-agent heavy All-Star Team.

Bradley Beal had no such hesitation, he tried to recruit guys, as he told Chase Huges of NBC Sports Washington.

“The recruiting process is really going alright. It’s going alright. I’m trying,” Beal said. “This is new for me. I’m definitely getting some ears and seeing what guys are looking for.”

Beal was too smart to name names — that would have brought a fine from the league — but he said some guys asked if he was happy where he was, while other guys he talked to about the possibilities in Washington.

The problem is while the Wizards will have some cap space after trading Otto Porter and Markieff Morris (and assuming they don’t pick up the option on Jabari Parker) they would still not have the max cap space needed to land the elite free agents at the All-Star Game (Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, etc.). Even the second-tier All-Star free agents such as Khris Middleton will get max offers. Same with players who just missed the game, such as Tobias Harris.

The Wizards will have room to make moves for good rotation players, but with John Wall‘s supermax extension kicking in at $38 million next season flexibility is limited. If Washington can move Ian Mahinmi‘s contract without taking money back they would have max room, but: 1) to do that they would likely have to send out a first-round pick; 2) It’s still not an assurance any player worthy of a max will come to the Wizards.

Predicting what Washington GM Ernie Grunfeld will do next summer is a fool’s errand, but Beal is doing his part to try and bring more talent into Washington.

Kevin Garnett says 2000 Olympic team had $1 million bounty to dunk on Yao Ming

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Team USA earned a Gold Medal in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, led by Vince Carter, Kevin Garnett, and Alonzo Mourning. Lithuania made the Americans work that year, losing by just nine in pool play then by two points in the semi-finals.

That’s not what anyone remembers from those Olympics, they remember Vince Carter doing this to 7-footer Fredric Weiss of France.

Recently Garnett sat down with Dwyane Wade for an interview (which airs on NBA TV today) and he told a fantastic story about that dunk. (Hat tip to Yahoo Sports)

Everything just paused. First of all, people didn’t know, we had a bounty out on Yao Ming. The whole USA team had a bet. We had a million dollar bet on who was going to be the first person to dunk on Yao Ming. None of us did. We all tried to dunk on Yao, but he would block it or we would miss. So, the first thing I thought of when I saw Vince dunk over Frederic was oh s***, you won the million dollars. But then I realized it obviously wasn’t Yao. I pushed Vince, and if you look at the clip, he almost punches me in the face by accident. But my first thought was, oh s***, you won, you got the million.

KG has the best stories.

MSG denies rumor James Dolan looking to sell Knicks

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Rumors that James Dolan is considering selling the Knicks — which elicits a “Hallelujah” chorus from Knicks fans — have been cropping up for a couple of years now. There were rumors he wanted to spin off the Knicks and Rangers into their own company to be sold. That’s just one, there are others — he confirmed he got a feeler $5 billion, but never a firm offer, for the Knicks — and each time he has shot them down.

This is no different.

On his latest Podcast, the Ringer’s Bill Simmons said he had heard that Dolan wanted to focus more on concerts/in-game experiences in Madison Square Garden and that the Knicks were “available.”

The Madison Square Garden Company released this statement (hat tip New York Daily News).

“The story is 100% false. There has been nothing. No discussions. No plans to have discussions – nothing.”

That’s pretty unequivocal.

While Dolan may entertain the idea on some level of selling the Knicks, until he takes concrete steps to do so — not rumors, but actual, documented moves — I’m not buying it. He’s sitting on a gold mine that keeps going up in value, despite how he manages it, so why sell now? Knicks fans that buy this rumor will likely end up like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football.

 

 

 

Adam Silver: Multi-year rebuilding not a winning strategy

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CHARLOTEE – Former 76ers president Sam Hinkie undertook one of the most ambitious tanking campaigns in NBA history. Over a four-year stretch, Philadelphia went 19-63, 18-64, 10-72 and 28-54.

That incensed many around the league.

The NBA pursued and eventually enacted lottery reform. Despite his denials, many believed NBA commissioner Adam Silver pressured the 76ers to oust Hinkie. In many ways, the league is still shook by Philadelphia’s bold strategy to lose so long.

“I personally don’t think it’s a winning strategy over the long term to engage in multiple years of rebuilding,” Silver said Saturday. “…There’s a mindset that, if you’re going to be bad, you might as well be really bad. I believe, personally, that’s corrosive for those organizations, putting aside my personal view of what the impact it has on the league overall.”

Except it is a winning strategy.

The 76ers are proving that.

They’re 37-21 and led by Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, two players drafted with high picks earned through tanking. Philadelphia traded for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris using assets stockpiled through tanking. The 76ers signed J.J. Redick to a high salary because they had a low payroll, the byproduct of a assembling a roster of young, cost-controlled players acquired through tanking.

Few teams have ever planned and executed a multi-year tank. Most tanking teams entered the season planning to win then pivoted once that went sideways. Some teams decide to tank for a full season. But deciding in advance to tank even two straight years? It’s rare.

The SuperSonics/Thunder probably did it their last year in Seattle and first in Oklahoma City. With Kevin Durant already on board, that netted them Russell Westbrook, James Harden and a decade of strong teams. Of course, that situation is complicated by the franchise leaving one market and getting a grace period in its new location.

Few teams have the resolve to set out to tank that long, let alone the four years the 76ers committed to the cause. Most teams that go young still add a veteran or two in hopes of winning sooner than expected.

Even Chicago, which knowingly took a step back last season by trading Butler talked big about that being a one-year ordeal. Chicago’s struggles this season were unintended, at least initially. The Bulls have obviously shifted gears, but that was only after failing to win early.

Chicago isn’t alone in major losing this season. Four teams – Suns (11-48), Knicks (11-47), Cavaliers (12-46) and Bulls (14-44) – are on pace to win fewer than 20 games. The last time so many teams won fewer than a quarter of their games was 1998, when a six teams – Nuggets (11-71), Raptors (16-66), Clippers (17-65), Grizzlies (19-63), Warriors (19-63) and Mavericks (20-62) – performed so poorly.

Does that mean the NBA’s lottery reform is failing?

“I’m certainly not here to say we solved the problem,” Silver said. “I will say, though, that while you point out those four teams, we have many more competitive teams this year than we’ve had any time in the recent past of teams that are competing hard, competing for spots in the playoffs, and great competition on the floor. So I think we’ve made progress.”

Silver raises a good point. Judging the shape of the league by only the bottom four teams is far too simplistic. There are a historic number of teams in the playoff mix. Maybe that’s because of lottery reform, which offers better chances of a top-four pick to teams that barely miss the postseason.

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 2018-19 teams are show by their logo. Prior teams are marked with a dot. Columns are sorted by place within a conference, 1-15.

Eastern Conference

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Western Conference

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The 10th- through 14th-place teams in the Western Conference are historically good for their place in the conference. That matters.

But the sixth- through 11th-place teams in the Eastern Conference being in a tight race is because the top teams in that group are historically bad for their place in the conference. That matters, too.

There’s no simple way to judge this.

The glut of terrible teams this season is somewhat surprising because the draft projects to feature only one elite prospect – Zion Williamson. The new lottery rules give the bottom three teams each an equal chance (14%) of the No. 1 pick. The advantage of finishing with the worst vs. second-worst vs. third-worst is getting slotted higher in the draft if multiple of those teams get their numbers pulled in the lottery.

Maybe it’s just that four teams happened to be quite bad, and all four are committed to avoiding the fourth-worst record and just a 12.5% chance of the No. 1 pick.

Though tanking has undeniably worked for some teams, it’s probably bad for the NBA. So many games are uncompetitive. Fans lose interest.

But as long as high draft picks remain so valuable and tied to having a worse record, teams will tank.

“You understand now why there’s relegation, in European soccer, for example, because you pay an enormous price if you’re not competitive,” Silver said. “I think, again, for the league and for our teams, there’s that ongoing challenge of whether we can come up with yet a better system.”