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NBA Power Rankings: It’s Golden State’s world and we just live in it

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The Warriors are running away with the West and the NBA, and that includes knocking off one of their big threats from the East in Boston last week. The playoffs between the top four in the East may be more interesting than what happens in the West this postseason.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (36-14, last week No. 1). The Warriors with DeMarcus Cousins are as good as you thought they would be (and as good as the rest of the league feared). The five-man starting lineup with Cousins has been +37.4 per 100 possessions through its first four games, allowing less than a point per possession on defense and scoring at a 128 per 100 pace. The Warriors are winners of 11 in a row, including a 5-0 road trip with DeMarcus Cousins starting every game at center. That has the Warriors with the best record in the West, if it’s that way on Feb. 3 Steve Kerr will coach the All-Star Game for the third time.

Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (36-13, LW 2). Giannis Antetokounmpo has played 24% of his minutes this season at center, and that lineup can be very effective — against the Hornets the Greek Freak got put in at the five for the fourth and outscored Charlotte 14-12 by himself, leading a come-from-behind win. The Bucks are reportedly putting their big toe in and testing the Anthony Davis trade waters, but it’s hard to picture them pulling it off it because any deal would gut the depth of this team and leave them with two stars, not enough shooting and little else. By the way, Antetokounmpo can still do this to teams.

Nuggets small icon 3. Nuggets (34-15, LW 4). The Nuggets have won three in a row, but the impressive part is they got one without Nikola Jokic (a letter-of-the-law suspension for leaving the bench during a fight) and the last two without Jamal Murray (left ankle). It fits the pattern. All season this team has had to adjust due to injuries, and all season Denver has just kept on winning with the next guy stepping up. It speaks to the coaching of and depth of this roster. Jokic will get an All-Star nod this week, it’s well deserved. Monday’s win in Memphis was the first of 6-of-7 on the road.

Raptors small icon 4. Raptors (37-15, LW 3). Toronto went 3-1 resting Kawhi Leonard for four games, but his return against Houston was not enough to slow James Harden or stop the Rockets from winning. Resting Leonard may hurt the Raptors on the court short-term, but the long-term goal is to win Leonard over so he re-signs and showing him they put his health and welfare first is a big step in that direction. Fun showdown Thursday night against the Bucks.

Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (31-19, LW 7). Celtics fans and brass will be sitting on pins and needles for the next 8 days until the trade deadline passes — once it does they move into the driver’s seat to land Anthony Davis. Until then they can just beg the Pelicans to wait and watch the Lakers. Recently, Boston has looked like the team we expected, a team that will challenge for a trip to the Finals out of the East, and they’ve done it with Kyrie Irving running the show late in games. The problem with a one-man attack late in games was exposed against Golden State — they put the clamps down on Irving and nobody else was able to step up. That could be an issue in the postseason.

Sixers small icon 6. 76ers (33-18, LW 5). Philly went 2-1 while Jimmy Butler was sidelined with a wrist injury, but he returned Tuesday in a victory against the Lakers (which means Butler will be ready to go Thursday night in Golden State). Butler also returned with a new “smoking” celebration. The Sixers keep coming up on the fringes of the Anthony Davis trade talks, but the only deal that really works sends Ben Simmons and filler (Markelle Fultz?) to the Pelicans, and Simmons is a client of Rich Paul’s (Davis’ and LeBron’s agent) and the fierce pushback from Paul makes that trade unlikely (he would push AD not to re-sign with Sixers).

Thunder small icon 7. Thunder (32-18, LW 8). Winners of six in a row, and while Russell Westbrook’s triple-doubles (four straight games) and Paul George’s MVP-level play get the bulk of the attention, something else is going on: The Thunder have become a good shooting team. For the first 40 games of the season, the Thunder shot 32.3% from three as a team (bottom 10 in the league), but in the last 10 games they are shooing 42.9 percent. Those shots falling off kick-outs or other actions opens up everything else because defenders have to contest. The Thunder need to keep it up as OKC has the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA (based on opponent win percentage).

Blazers small icon 8. Trail Blazers (31-20, LW 9). Damian Lillard is a lock to be named as a reserve to the All-Star team this Thursday. While he has had another phenomenal season and is the clear leader on this team, the other reason the Blazers have won 5-of-6 is the role players stepping up: Jusuf Nurkic, Jake Layman and Seth Curry in particular. Don’t expect Portland to get in on the Anthony Davis sweepstakes, but also don’t be shocked if they make a small move at the deadline to add some depth.

Jazz small icon 9. Jazz (29-22, LW 11). Just six weeks ago the question was “what’s wrong with the Jazz?” as they were in 14th place in the West, with just an okay defense and a struggling offense. That seems like another lifetime ago. The Jazz have won 9-of-10, have a +9.1 net rating in those games, their defense is back to being elite led by Rudy Gobert (second best in the NBA in the last 10) and Donovan Mitchell has his groove back. Utah is the seven seed in the West as you read this, but they are just two games back of having home court in the first round, and the Jazz have the second easiest schedule in the league the rest of the way.

Rockets small icon 10. Rockets (29-21, LW 10). Chris Paul is back but he doesn’t change the underlying problem: Houston is 6-4 in its last 10 games with James Harden carrying the offense to a top 10 ranking in that time, but the defense can’t get a stop so those efforts go to waste. Tuesday night was a perfect example, Harden had 37 points (his 24th straight 30-plus point game) but the Rockets could not stop the Pelicans’ Jahlil Okafor, who had 27 points and grabbed 12 boards, so the AD-less Pelicans won. That’s an ugly loss. The Rockets are a playoff team but that’s it right now.

Spurs small icon 11. Spurs (30-22, LW 12).
Will LaMarcus Aldridge make the All-Star team? He’s got a great case averaging 21.1 points and 8.8 rebounds, leading the Spurs into a playoff position, but the West is so ridiculously deep with talent he is on the bubble. The Spurs have won three in a row as they move through a soft part of the schedule, which continues this week. That doesn’t mean all the wins are easy, Gregg Popovich was livid at his team for the way they came out against Phoenix, but Rudy Gay bailed them out.

Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (32-17, LW 6). Victor Oladipo is lost for the season with a torn quadriceps tendon, and that’s a huge punch to the gut. The Pacers have gone 0-2 without him (and now head out on the road for their next four). This team is not going to fall out of the playoffs in the East, if they go just 10-23 the rest of the way they are above .500 for the season, but the team struggles to score without Oladipo and they are no longer a threat in the playoffs. Which is unfortunate, this was a team everyone wanted to avoid in the postseason before because of their balance and defense.

Nets small icon 13. Nets (28-24, LW 13). The loss of Spencer Dinwiddie to a thumb injury for 4-6 weeks is a blow, he’s in the Most Improved Player conversation for good reason and their bench will not be the same without him. That said, D’Angelo Russell is playing the best basketball of his career the last month and will take on more responsibility as the starter and this is why Shabazz Napier is on the roster. Tough season for the Nets losing Caris LeVert and now Dinwiddie, but this team keeps plugging guys in and winning.

Clippers small icon 14. Clippers (28-23, LW 14). Will Tobias Harris make the cut for the All-Star reserves? He is right on the bubble despite averaging 21.2 points, 7.9 rebounds, and shooting 43.3% from three this season because the West is so stacked with talent. He deserves it, but his reward will come this summer when he’s a free agent and gets paid. The Clippers had won 4-of-5, much of that on a tough road trip, but a sloppy loss Sunday to the Hawks is the kind of game L.A. will look back on and regret if they miss the playoffs.

Heat small icon 15. Heat (24-24, LW 17). The Heat get mentioned in the fringes of the Anthony Davis trade talks, but if they end up in it — before the deadline or in July — it will be as a third team in a big deal. Which is to say it’s unlikely, but the rumors will not stop. Miami picked up a couple of road wins in Cleveland and New York this week — the kind of games playoff teams should win — and now are home for a week before heading back out on the road. Miami needs to rack up wins as it has the second-toughest remaining schedule in the East

Lakers small icon 16. Lakers (26-25, LW 15). The Lakers are 6-11 without LeBron James, who is expected to return Thursday against the Clippers, which is just in time for one of the toughest stretches of the schedule for the Lakers. But nobody wants to talk about any of that. The Lakers are pushing hard to force an Anthony Davis trade before the deadline — before Boston can get involved — and the offer reportedly would involve Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, a first-round pick and more. Sources have told me the Pelicans will be patient making this move (meaning after the Feb. 7 deadline) but the Lakers and Rich Paul are going to do everything they can to force a move now.

Hornets small icon 17. Hornets (24-25, LW 21). Kemba Walker gets to start in the All-Star Game in his city of Charlotte — that is huge for him and the organization. The Hornets are holding on to the eight seed in the East, they have a three-game lead over the Pistons, but they need to keep finding wins. Which is why the loss to the Bucks — when Milwaukee went small with Antetokounmpo at the five and outscored Charlotte 35-12 — sting. Stealing wins against good teams will be a huge boost for Charlotte in a playoff push.

Kings small icon 18. Kings (25-25, LW 16). The Kings will have Buddy Hield and De’Aaron Fox in the rising stars challenge and taking part in events All-Star Saturday night, but if the Kings were in the East both of those guys would have a good argument to make the All-Star Game itself. In the West, sorry, but the conference is just too deep. Sacramento is home for its next six and needs to rack up wins to make a playoff push (they are 2.5 games back of the Clippers right now).

19. Timberwolves (24-26, LW 18). Karl-Anthony Towns will make the All-Star team reserves announced Thursday, and that’s well deserved (although his slow start to the season may keep him off the All-NBA squad). Minnesota has gone 7-6 without Robert Covington, sporting a middle-of-the-pack defense without their best defender. He’s riding a stationary bike now and his return could help the defense and spark a push to the playoffs by the timberwolves.

Mavericks small icon 20. Mavericks (22-27, LW 22). Luka Doncic will be in the All-Star Friday Rising Stars game, then on Saturday in the skills competition, but will the coaches vote him in as a reserve for Sunday’s All-Star Game itself? While the fans had Doncic second in the voting (ahead of Paul George and Anthony Davis) it’s unlikely the coaches will put him quite on that pedestal.

Pelicans small icon 21. Pelicans (23-28, LW 19). Anthony Davis wants out, and while the team makes its trade decision — sources told me they will not be rushed to make, meaning it will likely drag out past the trade deadline and likely until the June draft or July — there is another question: Do the Pelicans bring him back and play him this season? They are not making the playoffs this year and are about to start a rebuild, I would say no — send him home, trade guys like Nikola Mirotic if there’s a good deal, and improve their draft position. There’s no reason to invite the circus to town whenever he plays a home game and gets booed.

Wizards small icon 22. Wizards (21-29, LW 20). The Wizards were telling teams very recently that they were not sellers — no Bradley Beal or Trevor Ariza trades — because they were making a playoff push. Does the loss to Cleveland Tuesday, dropping them 3.5 games back of the playoffs, change that equation? Washington is 8-7 without John Wall sporting a +1.8 net rating in those 15 games, basically treading water but not making up ground either. If they become a seller teams will be interested in Ariza and Otto Porter (there’s interest in Beal, too, but Washington isn’t moving him).

Pistons small icon 23. Pistons (21-28, 23). Rarely has one gif, one moment from a postgame interview summed up a team’s season so well. The Pistons are not making a playoff push, they are falling back in the East, and after the one win in those five — an ugly win against the Pelicans — Blake Griffin was talking about the team’s lack of focus, when Reggie Jackson proved his point.

Magic small icon 24. Magic (20-31, LW 24). Will Orlando be trade deadline sellers? The team has lost four in a row, 7-of-8, and is five games out of the playoffs — they are not going to make a run and get in. There’s a lot of interest around the league in Terrence Ross and there may even be a taker for Nikola Vucevic (although he is a tougher fit, a good player but one who needs to been the right system to be effective). The Magic had been holding off, thinking playoff push, but the smart move now would become sellers while giving their young players even more run.

Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (16-33, LW 25). Trae Young got buried by the narrative at the start of the season — he couldn’t buy a shot while Luka Doncic looked like the savior in Dallas — but of late Young has started to show a more rounded game. In his last 15 games, he’s shooting 34.8% from three (although he is still inconsistent) and in his last 10 has averaged 20.2 points and 7.1 assists a game. The Hawks almost certainly will be sellers at the trade deadline, with Jeremy Lin and Kent Bazemore at the top of the list of available players.

Grizzlies small icon 26. Grizzlies (20-31, LW 26). Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, the anchors of this franchise seemingly since the Carter administration, are available via trade. It’s the end of an era… eventually. It’s not going to be easy to trade the big salary and diminishing skills of Gasol at the deadline. There’s a lot of interest around the league for Mike Conley, but he’s making $30.5 million this season and has $67 million essentially guaranteed the following two seasons. It takes a lot of players to balance out the salaries, which is why trades that large usually are completed in the offseason.

Suns small icon 27. Suns (11-42, LW 27). Devin Booker has All-Star numbers — 24.8 points, 6.7 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game — but being the best player on the worst team in the West is not going to get him an invite to Charlotte. Don’t tell anyone, but Dragan Bender has had a few good games in a row, the question is can he start to do that consistently.

Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (11-41, LW 30). Break up the Cavaliers, they have won two in a row, beating the Bulls and Wizards. The Cavaliers will try to be sellers at the deadline — J.R. Smith has been available in the bargain bin for months — with the most likely to be moved being Rodney Hood, followed at a distance by Tristan Thompson. A trade for Kevin Love will have to wait until the off-season (at best) because of his injury (and even then it will be hard, he has one of the hardest-to-move contracts in the league).

Bulls small icon 29. Bulls (11-40, LW 29). There has been talk about them trying to bring Anthony Davis home to Chicago via trade, but it makes no sense. Any deal for AD would have to include Wendell Carter Jr., Lauri Markkanen, and anyone else the Pelicans wanted off the roster. Even if the trade happened, this would be a gutted Bulls roster leaving Davis to take on the world alone, and we’ve seen in New Orleans how much he likes that scenario. Then AD would leave as a free agent and the Bulls would be back to square one. Chicago just needs to keep building and save their moves for another day.

Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (10-39, LW 28). With the Knicks having lost 10 in a row, time to give their beleaguered fans a stat they care about (via Tom Haberstroh of NBC Sports): In ACC conference play, Zion Williamson is scoring 25 points a game on 71.8 percent shooting. That is insane. Of course, it leads to a big question: If the Knicks did win the lottery and the rights to draft Williamson, would they try to trade it along with Kristaps Porzingis to land Anthony Davis? Should they? Should they if Kevin Durant said he would come to play with AD?

Report: NBA planning to start next season on Christmas

NBA Christmas
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The current NBA season – interrupted by coronavirus – could extend as late as Oct. 12. That means the league must delay next season. How long past the normal mid-October start? December was the popular notion, but that’s still a wide timeframe.

Now, we can pinpoint it.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

If the N.B.A. can successfully complete the 2019-20 season under this structure, it is expected that the 2020 N.B.A. draft would be moved to October, with free agency to follow shortly thereafter and a tentative plan to establish Dec. 25 as opening day for the 2020-21 season.

Coronavirus can ruin the best-laid plans. Though NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said play would continue around a positive test, it’s unclear whether that would delay this season’s schedule – then the offseason then next season. It’s also unknown how the country will be handling coronavirus in December. The cold weather, pushing people indoors, could increase cases.

But it’s still interesting to know the plan, even if it’s tentative.

People fondly recall the NBA season starting on Christmas in 2011. Many have pointed to Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin’s idea of permanently opening in December to avoid overlap with the NFL, though he suggested mid-December – not Christmas.

That’s quite late.

This year, coronavirus has forced radical changes. A Christmas start might be totally reasonable for the 2020-21 season.

What about beyond?

If the NBA wants to begin each season on Christmas, this is the simplest time to shift. A different start date for future seasons would require altering the calendar to get on track.

There are plenty of issues with opening on Christmas in normal times, though:

  • Historically, TV viewership is down during the summer. That might be changing, but people might find other activities while it’s warm rather than attending or watching an indoor NBA game.
  • Would people really watch more NBA games just because fewer of them would compete with the highly popular NFL? The NBA regular season might just be too long to capture attention, no matter when it’s held.
  • By starting on Christmas, the NBA would reduce two marquee regular-season dates – opening day and Christmas – to one.
  • Many regional TV networks that carry NBA games also carry MLB games. Many of those networks already carry NHL games. But with baseball teams playing more games, there would be more conflicts.
  • With schools out, the American system is built on summer being more of a vacation time. People within the league – including players, especially those with children – might object to working during that time.

Projecting schedules for all 22 returning NBA teams

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The NBA will recall 22 teams to each play eight games.

How will the schedule work?

The new structure will reportedly be based on teams’ existing schedules, teams playing their next eight originally scheduled games against the continuing 22 teams. Of course, that doesn’t work cleanly. Some teams would reach eight games more quickly than other teams. So, whenever a team arrived at an opponent that already reached eight games, I just continued to that team’s next game.

With that assumption, here are the remaining opponents for each team:

  • Boston Celtics: Bucks, Wizards, Raptors, Nets, Wizards, Trail Blazers, Grizzlies, Heat
  • Brooklyn Nets: Clippers, Kings, Wizards, Celtics, Magic, Clippers, Magic, Trail Blazers
  • Dallas Mavericks: Suns, Clippers, Kings, Trail Blazers, Suns, Rockets, Jazz, Bucks
  • Denver Nuggets: Spurs, Lakers, Clippers, Thunder, Raptors, Heat, Spurs, Thunder
  • Houston Rockets: Lakers, Trail Blazers, Kings, Bucks, Mavericks, Pacers, 76ers, Raptors
  • Indiana Pacers: 76ers, Heat, Suns, Magic, Rockets, Kings, Clippers, Lakers
  • L.A. Clippers: Nets, Pelicans, Mavericks, Nuggets, Suns, Nets, Pacers, Thunder
  • Los Angeles Lakers: Rockets, Nuggets, Jazz, Jazz, Raptors, Pacers, Trail Blazers,* Heat or Magic*
  • Memphis Grizzlies: Trail Blazers, Jazz, Spurs, Thunder, Bucks, Pelicans, Pelicans, Celtics
  • Miami Heat: Bucks, Pacers, Thunder, Nuggets, Suns, Celtics, Raptors, Lakers or Trail Blazers*
  • Milwaukee Bucks: Celtics, Heat, Grizzlies, Wizards, Rockets, Wizards, Mavericks, Raptors
  • New Orleans Pelicans: Kings, Jazz, Clippers, Spurs, Grizzlies, Kings, Grizzlies, Magic
  • Oklahoma City Thunder: Jazz, Wizards, Grizzlies, Nuggets, Heat, Nuggets, Suns, Clippers
  • Orlando Magic: Pacers, Kings, Nets, Nets, Pelicans, 76ers, Raptors, Lakers or Trail Blazers*
  • Philadelphia 76ers: Pacers, Wizards, Raptors, Trail Blazers, Suns, Rockets, Magic, Spurs
  • Phoenix Suns: Mavericks, Pacers, Clippers, Mavericks, 76ers, Wizards, Heat, Thunder
  • Portland Trail Blazers: Grizzlies, Rockets, Mavericks, 76ers, Celtics, Nets, Lakers,* Heat or Magic*
  • Sacramento Kings: Pelicans, Nets, Mavericks, Rockets, Magic, Pelicans, Pacers, Spurs
  • San Antonio Spurs: Nuggets, Grizzlies, Pelicans, Jazz, Jazz, Nuggets, Kings, 76ers
  • Toronto Raptors: 76ers, Celtics, Nuggets, Lakers, Bucks, Rockets, Heat, Magic
  • Utah Jazz: Thunder, Pelicans, Grizzlies, Lakers, Lakers, Spurs, Spurs, Mavericks
  • Washington Wizards: Celtics, Thunder, 76ers, Nets, Bucks, Celtics, Suns, Bucks

*To reach eight games for each team, I had to create three games not on the schedule:

  • Lakers vs. Trail Blazers
  • Lakers vs. Heat or Magic
  • Trail Blazers vs. Heat or Magic

Los Angeles would face whichever of Miami and Orlando that Portland doesn’t face (and vice versa).

The Lakers could also play the Trail Blazers twice, and the Heat could just play the Magic. But that’d mean five Lakers-Trail Blazers games and five Heat-Magic games this season. Generally, teams play each other four or fewer times.

I wouldn’t get too caught up in the order of the games. That almost certainly must be adjusted. Otherwise, teams would finish at significantly different times. For example, the Bucks’ eighth game in this format is against the Raptors. But that’s just Toronto’s fifth game.

The NBA might also use a different method altogether. Again, the reported plan can’t work exactly as reported.

But want the best guess at each team’s remaining games? This is it.

*Thanks to Kevin Pelton of ESPN for providing a handy spreadsheet of originally scheduled games.

LeBron James to Drew Brees: You still don’t understand why Colin Kaepernick kneeled

Colin Kaepernick and New Orleans Saints Drew Brees
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Colin Kaepernick’s protest worked.

Just by kneeling during the national anthem, Kaepernick shined a light on racism – specifically through police brutality – plaguing the United States. Whether or not you agreed with his methods, Kaepernick made it difficult to avoid discussion of the very important issue. Kaepernick’s simple demonstration made society far more sensitive to police misconduct, particularly toward black people. That set the stage for these incredible nationwide protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.

Of course, work remains. Kaepernick suffered far too great of personal cost to deliver his message. Racism and police brutality continue.

So, expect some people – including NFL players – to keep kneeling during the national anthem.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees explained why he objected to that. Lakers star LeBron James then objected to Brees’ explanation.

LeBron:

I do think not standing for the Star Spangled Banner disrespects the United States. The societal norms are clear: Standing is the way to show respect during the national anthem.

But know what else disrespects the United States? Police brutality, which disproportionately harms black people.

At some point, you have to decide which disrespect bothers you more – racism that damages and ends lives or symbolic protest of a song and piece of cloth.

Brees also brought up the military, on which I share LeBron’s disagreement. The Star Spangled Banner represents our entire country, not just our military. It’s weak to use the military as a shield while criticizing Kaepernick. In fact, Kaepernick specifically altered his protest – from sitting to kneeling – to honor the military.

Brees can ignore Kaepernick’s message on that.

But Kaepernick’s larger message rings loudly.

Report: NBA restarted season to follow existing schedule, with tweaks

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It’s been one of the big questions for the NBA’s 22-team restart at the Walt Disney World complex in Orlando:

How would the schedule be put together for those eight regular-season games?

It turns out, the answer is modifying the old schedule, reports Vincent Goodwill at Yahoo Sports. The idea is just to use the old schedule, taking out the teams not in Orlando.

This provides a starting point for the league’s schedulers.  For example, the Pelicans schedule would be: Kings, Jazz, Clippers, Spurs, Grizzlies, Kings, Grizzlies, Magic. The Pelicans would play the Grizzlies twice in this format, giving them a real chance to make up ground toward the eighth seed. Portland also is well positioned to make a playoff push.

The challenge with following the old schedule becomes this: the Thunder’s eighth game in this scenario is the Clippers, except L.A. already played eight. Next for the Thunder then is the Lakers, except they will have played eight. Then the Nets, but again they have played eight. Multiple teams face this scenario, so the league will need to schedule some “made up” games just to balance things out.

While there would be tweaks to be made, using the existing schedule as a base makes sense.

The teams most interested will be the teams battling for the nine seed, particularly in the West. New Orleans had a particularly soft remaining schedule and the Grizzlies had the hardest one in the league, which is why fivethirtyeight.com gave the Pelicans a 60% chance of making the playoffs. With the eight worst teams in the league out of the picture, how does that change and how much do the schedules flatten out?

Considering everything that has gone on with the league this year and the great lengths needed to start up games again, don’t expect teams to complain about the schedule. They’re just happy to be playing.