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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?

Magic Johnson: Former Pelicans GM Dell Demps leaked Anthony Davis trade-talk details

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The Pelicans reportedly blame the Lakers for details of Anthony Davis trade negotiations leaking.

Former Lakers president Magic Johnson blames former Pelicans general manager Dell Demps.

Johnson on ESPN:

I told Dell Demps, “Let’s just do it in private. What we offer, let’s keep it between us.” Well, Dell didn’t do that. So, that’s how it got out.”

The Lakers have intriguing assets – Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, the No. 4 pick, all their own future first-round picks. Los Angeles will likely try again to land Davis.

Johnson and Demps are out. So, maybe these sour grapes don’t matter.

But enough people remain in each organization – including Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, whom Johnson blasted today – from those winter trade talks. Whether or not there’s an edict in New Orleans forbidding new lead executive David Griffin from sending Davis to the Lakers, there’s clearly mistrust between these franchises. That makes it harder to reach a deal.

Lakers haven for failed coaches

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In the last two decades, 16 teams changed coaches, gave a majority of their minutes to returning players the following season and won 15 more games than the year prior (or equivalent in lockout-shortened season).

Only one of those 16 deposed coaches has gotten another non-interim NBA head-coaching job.

The Lakers will introduce him today.

His lead assistant is also one of the 16. Another member of the 16 was instrumental in hiring them.

Frank Vogel, Jason Kidd and Kurt Rambis make quite a trio.

The Lakers’ new head coach, Vogel is only one year removed from guiding Orlando to a 25-57 record. The Magic’s roster seemed to be the main culprit when they fired him, but Steve Clifford led a similar roster to a 42-40 record. That certainly didn’t reflect well on Vogel.

Ditto how the Bucks responded to Kidd’s departure. After going 44-38 and losing in the first round last season, Milwaukee ascended to 60-22 and is leading the Eastern Conference finals this season under Mike Budenholzer. Yet, Kidd – who’ll assist Vogel – was clearly a priority for the Lakers.

In 2011, the Timberwolves finished 17-65 and fired Rambis. Minnesota went 26-40 the following year under Rick Adelman. After bouncing around other jobs, Rambis is now playing a leading role in Rob Pelinka’s front office.

Every team changes between seasons. Players come and go. Those who stay get older and develop. Injuries happen inconsistently. The NBA hardly runs controlled experiments on coaches.

But these situations don’t instill confidence in Vogel, Kidd and Rambis. That they’re all working together now is remarkable.

Vogel has the most prominent role. Fortunately for the Lakers, he’s also the one least likely to be defined by his fixed-after-he-left tenure. Before Orlando, Vogel had plenty of success with the Pacers.

Kidd also did some positive things with the Bucks. Rambis…

People can learn from their mistakes. Second chances are sometimes warranted.

But the Lakers have LeBron James, whose prime years are dwindling. They’re a prestigious franchise in a premier market. High-end coaches and executives are particularly important and attainable.

The Lakers have given power to this group – maybe for good reason, maybe not.

I hope they explain why today, though there are several other issues they’ll have to address, too.

Magic Johnson on Lakers GM Rob Pelinka: ‘If you’re going to talk betrayal, it’s only with Rob’

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Around the time Magic Johnson stunningly resigned as Lakers president, rumors swirled about his poor work ethic. The source of that rumor was suspected to be Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka. Johnson acknowledged an internal problem the night he quit, citing “backstabbing” and “whispering.”

“If you’re going to talk betrayal,” Johnson said in an incredibly candid interview on ESPN today, “it’s only with Rob.”

Johnson admitted to spending only limited time on the Lakers. But he said Lakers owner Jeanie Buss approved that plan when hiring him.

“I told her, I said listen, ‘I can’t give up all my businesses. I make more money doing that than becoming president of the Lakers. So, you know that I’m going to be in and out. Is that OK with you?’ She said yes,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘Do I have the power to make decisions?’ Because that was important for me to take the job, as well. She said you have the power to make the decisions. So, I said, ‘OK, let’s go do it.’ She said, ‘I’m going to put you with Rob Pelinka,’ because I didn’t know Rob.

“And then I started hearing, ‘Magic, you’re not working hard enough. Magic’s not in the office.’ So, people around the Lakers office was telling me Rob was saying things – Rob Pelinka – and I didn’t like those things being said behind my back, that I wasn’t in the office and so on and on. So, I started getting calls from my friends outside of basketball, saying those things now were said to them outside of basketball. Now, not just in the Lakers office anymore. Now, it’s in the media and so on.

“Just Rob. Other people didn’t bother me. It’s really funny, as I sit here. I don’t worry about those type of things. I’m not a guy who is like, oh man, he said this about and I worry about it. What happened was I wasn’t having fun coming to work anymore – especially when I’ve got to work beside you knowing you want my position. And I’m OK with that. Because this is what happened, Stephen A. I told him in year two, I’m only going to be here three years. So, my job is, Rob, to get you ready for this position. So, I was going to help elevate him to the president’s position. And so, when all this was coming back to me and guys calling me saying, ‘You better watch out for him’ – and then what crazy was, when I took the job, you know how many agents called me and said, ‘You’ve got to watch out for him.’ And I said, ‘Eh, I’ve got to give the guy a fair chance.’ I can’t listen to people. But he was a hard-worker, smart guy. But now you have that position, so I’m good with that.”

Though he said the backstabbing came from only Pelinka, Johnson clearly had friction with other members of the organization.

Johnson described mentoring Joey Buss (Vice President, Research & Development) and Jesse Buss (Assistant GM / Director, Scouting). Johnson made clear he had no problem doing so and liked those Buss brothers. But he also indicated he saw ambition that created complications.

“They felt they should have been in powerful positions, whether that’s the general manager or the president,” Johnson said.

And there’s Tim Harris President (Business Operations, Chief Operating Officer).

“The straw that broke the camel’s back was, I wanted to fire Luke Walton,” Johnson said. “And we had, Max, three meetings. I showed her the things he did well and the things he didn’t do well. And I said, ‘Listen, we’ve got to get a better coach. I like him. He’s great. Former Laker, the whole thing.’ The first day, ‘Well, let’s think about it.’ Second day, ‘OK, you can fire him.’ Then, the next day, ‘No, we should try to work it out.’ So, when we went back and forth like that and then she brought Tim Harris into the meeting with some of the guys. And Tim wanted me to – he wanted to keep him, because he was friends with Luke. Luke’s a great guy. He’s a great guy. So, when I looked up and said wait a minute, I only really answer to Jeannie Buss. Now, I’ve got Tim involved. And I said it’s time for me to go.”

Walton, since hired by the Kings, has been accused of sexual assault.

There’s a ton to digest here, but I can’t escape two ironies:

Johnson – who had never worked in a front office before, didn’t work hard enough running the Lakers, felt his power wasn’t concentrated enough, didn’t build a winner – said people should ascend in the organization only  “once you show that you can drive excellence.”

Johnson – who described the Lakers as a mess, called their general manager a backstabber, said their owner is failing to define clear roles – plans to help them recruit free agents this summer.

Report: Tim Connelly rejects Wizards, staying with Nuggets

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Nuggets president Tim Connelly could have led the Wizards’ front office, worked close to his native Baltimore and presumably gotten a raise from his reported $2 million salary.

Instead, he’s stay in Denver.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

This is a huge win for Denver and even bigger setback for Washington.

Connelly has put the Nuggets into a great position. They’re young and good in a combination rarely seen in NBA history. Connelly drafted Nikola Jokic in the second round then built around him a short time later. This season, Denver won 54 games and reached Game 7 of the second round with 24-year-old Jokic flanked by Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Paul Millsap.

More decisions always lie ahead – notably Millsap’s $30 million team option for next season. But the Nuggets’ core is already in place and mostly under team control.

The Wizards need far more work. John Wall‘s contract is arguably the NBA’s worst. Ian Mahinmi and Dwight Howard are also roadblocks. Several key players will be free agents this summer. If he makes an All-NBA team this season, Bradley Beal be eligible for a super-max extension – a tricky decision for the club.

It would have been great for Washington to entrust Connelly with all that. He has proven excellent at his job.

Troy Weaver, Danny Ferry or Tommy Sheppard might do well for the Wizards. But they’re candidates who offer far less certainty.