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NBA Power Rankings: Pre-Trade Deadline edition topped by Bucks

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The trade deadline is stirring up the NBA, and we get into where teams stand with 25 hours to go (as of this posting) in these rankings. We also thought the Warriors would never surrender the top spot again, but the Bucks just keep on winning and impressing.

 
Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (39-13, last week No. 2). What was most impressive about the win over the Raptors is how the Bucks identified the guy they wanted to stop (Kawhi Leonard) and then made him a non-factor (16 points). That’s the kind of defense that wins teams playoff games — and a lot of them. The Bucks have been mentioned in the Anthony Davis rumor mill, but sources tell me there’s not anything to it. Also with the Bucks, never forget that Giannis Antetokounmpo can do this.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (37-15, LW 1). They live by the three — more than live, the Warriors have won rings by the three — but there are nights they are off from deep and then they are vulnerable. That’s what happened in a loss to the Sixers, when Klay Thompson was out and everyone not named Stephen Curry had no range (1-of-20 from three). The Warriors want depth but are likely to get that through the buyout market, not trades. That Sixers loss meant Denver’s Mike Malone and his staff, not Steve Kerr and his, will be coaching the All-Star Game in Charlotte — and you can be sure Kerr is just fine with that.

 
Celtics small icon 3. Celtics (35-19, LW 5). Despite all the Kyrie Irving “does he want to be a Knick?” drama that drives headlines, the Celtics are playing their best basketball of the season. In the last 10 games they are 9-1 with a +10.7 net rating (third best in the NBA in that stretch) and they look like the team we predicted before the season would be the one to beat in the East. All that is lost in the Anthony Davis trade buzz — if he’s on the Pelicans still Thursday night the Celtics are in the driver’s seat to land him.

 
Nuggets small icon 4. Nuggets (37-16, LW 3). Denver’s name gets bounced around as a team that could be an all-in dark horse in the Anthony Davis sweepstakes, but that seems highly unlikely. Not that Davis wouldn’t fit next to Nikola Jokic, he would, and the Nuggets front office can be gamblers, but this would be a bad short-term bet and they know it. They like what they have. Denver has been pushing through injuries all season and had won five in a row without Jamal Murray, the last couple without Gary Harris, but it all caught up with them in an ugly loss in Detroit Monday. That the losses due to injury are rare are why Mike Malone deserves to coach in the All-Star Game.

 
Raptors small icon 5. Raptors (39-16, LW 4). They are 3-3 in their last six, with losses to the Rockets and getting thrashed by the Bucks. However, against the Sixers on Tuesday Kawhi Leonard was a defensive force, attacked the paint, and Toronto looked dominant again. The Raptors have been a roller coaster of late. They may need the All-Star break. Kyle Lowry will not get a break, he will represent Toronto in the All-Star Game (along with Leonard), and the fact he was an easy selection despite having what is, for him, a down year speaks to how much his reputation as a leader and player has grown around the league.

 
Thunder small icon 6. Thunder (34-19, LW 7). Russell Westbrook has been racking up triple-doubles — seven games in a row now — and seems to have broken out of his early-season shooting slump, having hit 32.5% of his threes in his last 10 games. In those 10 games the Thunder have the fourth best offense in the NBA but their elite defense has been more pedestrian. Fun showdown between James Harden and Paul George on Saturday night in Houston.

 
Sixers small icon 7. 76ers (34-20, LW 6). The Sixers felt like a team on a roller coaster — they end Golden State’s 11-game win streak, then Tuesday night Kawhi Leonard’s defense disrupts Philly’s offense and Toronto blows them out — that was good but felt a player short. The Tobias Harris trade changes all that. Only the Warriors have a better starting five right now on paper, if the Sixers can get it to mesh — and Harris will fit in well — they are now serious contenders to come out of the East this year. Then this summer owner Joshua Harris should have his checkbook ready to go.

 
Blazers small icon 8. Trail Blazers (32-21, LW 8). Portland at home is a different team — 22-8, vs. 10-13 on the road — with a +8 net rating. It’s not one end of the floor, the Blazers’ offense is 6.4 per 100 possessions better at home, their defense improves by 5.4 per 100. Portland at home plays like an elite team (fifth best net rating at home in the NBA). The challenge is they have seven more road games left on the schedule than ones at home, and starting Sunday in Dallas they have 9-of-10 away from the Moda Center. Rodney Hood is not going to be able to change that by himself.

 
Rockets small icon 9. Rockets (31-22, LW 10). James Harden’s historic offensive run continues — 27 straight games with at least 30 points — but what goes unnoticed sometimes is he can make plays on the other end. In Houston’s blowout win against Utah (the Rockets’ best win in a while) Harden had six steals and four blocked shots. But that was just one night — in the 11 games since Clint Capela went down the Rockets are allowing 114 points per 100 possessions, fifth worst in the league. They can hang on to a playoff spot with that defense, but not climb the ladder.

 
Spurs small icon 10. Spurs (32-23, LW 11). Don’t expect a lot of trade deadline activity from San Antonio, but one big deal that went down may have bothered them a little — they were a team hoping to poach (or trade for) Kristaps Porzingis. Dallas had a better package right now than San Antonio could have put together (considering the Knicks’ goals) but if KP signs long-term in Dallas that will sting a little. DeMar DeRozan has been slumping lately, trying to play through a sore knee, the All-Star break will be good for him.

 
Jazz small icon 11. Jazz (30-24, LW 9). All kinds of Mike Conley to the Jazz buzz is flying around the league and it wouldn’t be a shock to see that trade go down before 3 ET Thursday. Considering Conley is more of a big-picture question for the Jazz: Do they want to lock down that much money in one player, and give up a pick, pushing the tax and reducing flexibility for the small market team? No doubt Conley would make the Jazz better, if he can stay on the court — he has missed significant time two of the last four seasons with an Achilles issue.

 
Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (35-19, LW 12). The Pacers lost their first four games after the Victor Oladipo injury, but have bounced back to win their last three (including a thumping of a distracted Lakers’ team). In those seven games, the Pacers have had a bottom-10 offense but a top-10 defense, and a net rating of -1.6. Which is pretty impressive, considering. Don’t expect any trade deadline moves from the Pacers, and any moves they might make will be more about next season and beyond than this one.

 
Clippers small icon 13. Clippers (30-25, LW 14). Los Angeles made a smart play in trading Tobias Harris — even if we are all going to miss the Bobi and Tobi Show in L.A. The Clippers could have fought to hang on to the eight seed, made the playoffs, and got crushed in the first round. Now they likely fall back into the lottery, meaning they keep their own first-round pick (otherwise Boston gets it) and they get the much-coveted Miami 2021 unprotected pick. The Clippers are in the mix for Kawhi Leonard this summer, and now they have the assets to go after a big trade (Anthony Davis) or put an interesting team around him. Plus, I want to see what a Shai Gilgeous-Alexander/Landry Shamet backcourt looks like.

 
Kings small icon 14. Kings (28-25, LW 18). Everyone around the league expects the Kings to be involved in a trade deadline deal, one way or another. While they have expiring veteran contracts they can move — Zach Randolph, Iman Shumpert, and Kosta Koufos — what matters more is the $11 million in salary cap space, more than any team in the league. The Kings can go after a more expensive player (Kent Bazemore, Harrison Barnes) or be the facilitating third team in a trade, taking on a bad contract for assets. One way or another, expect a deal.

 
Nets small icon 15. Nets (28-27, LW 13). The banged-up Nets — no Spencer Dinwiddie or Caris LeVert, although the LeVert could be back soon, he and Allen Crabbe are working out in the G-League — have lost three in a row and 4-of-5. The problem has been the offense, which has scored less than a point per possession in those five games. D’Angelo Russell is a deserving All-Star — and it has to sting the Lakers’ front office he made it — but he’s not a guy who can carry an offense nightly on his own, he needs some help. Don’t expect deadline trades out of Brooklyn, their eyes are on free agency.

 
Hornets small icon 16. Hornets (26-27, LW 17). There was a lot of buzz (no pun intended) about Marc Gasol being traded to Charlotte, and maybe that comes together last minute, but the Grizzlies have had a high asking price and the talks have cooled, according to sources. Still, the Hornets would like to make one or two moves at the deadline to shore up their roster and make sure they get into the postseason (and help convince Kemba Walker to re-sign this summer).

 
Lakers small icon 17. Lakers (27-26, LW 16).
Clearly the trade rumors hit the young Lakers hard, they were distracted and disinterested in Indiana and got smoked by 42 points on Tuesday. Thing is, just the deadline passing will not be enough, Ingram/Ball/Kuzma all know they could get traded this summer now, they have to learn to be pros and deal with it. With the Clippers trading Tobias Harris and throwing in the towel, and with LeBron back, the Lakers should make a push into the playoffs. What does LeBron’s return mean? Here is what Josh Hart said after 23’s first game back: ”He made the right plays, he got guys open, he finished when he had to,” Laker guard Josh Hart said. “He’s just so smart. He’s such a good veteran player. He gets guys in their spots to get easy buckets. His basketball IQ is just through the roof.”

 
18. Timberwolves (25-28, LW 19). Don’t expect a trade deadline move, if there are going to be roster shakeups it will be with the new regime — whoever that is — over the summer. With the Clippers throwing in the towel, did the playoff door crack open just a little for Minnesota? Maybe. But they are 4 games back and have to leapfrog the Lakers and Kings, which is a longshot. Especially considering they have lost 4-of-5, and the one win required Karl-Anthony Towns doing this in overtime.

 
Heat small icon 19. Heat (24-27, LW 15). There’s a lot of trade speculation around Wayne Ellington, a veteran shooter a lot of playoff teams could use. But there has been less buzz about where he might end up than expected, maybe the interest in him is not sincere around the league. Tuesday night’s win in Portland kicked off a six-game road trip with a victory, a tough stretch for a Heat team currently the eight seed in the East and trying to hold off Detroit and Washington to keep that spot).

 
Mavericks small icon 20. Mavericks (24-28, LW 20). They went all-in on the future with the trade for Kristaps Porzingis — a good gamble if he can stay healthy and return to full unicorn status (there’s a lot of uncertainty about a 7’3” guy coming off an ACL). Dallas believes in its training staff and thinks they may have Nash/Nowitzki 2.0 now. Speaking of the future Hall of Famer from Germany, classy and smart move by the league office to put Nowitzki (and Dwyane Wade) in the All-Star Game for one final time.

Pelicans small icon 21. Pelicans (23-31, LW 21). As NBC has reported since the start of the saga, don’t expect Davis to be traded before the deadline, there are powerful people in the Pelicans’ organization who want to be patient (and don’t want to help Rich Paul or the Lakers). The interesting question: If Davis is not traded, will he play between the deadline and the end of the season, or will he be shut down. Injury concerns would make it logical for both Davis and the Pelicans to want him to sit, but Davis says he wants to play, and what would the league say about a top-five player in the league being a healthy scratch nightly? It would not be a good look.

Pistons small icon 22. Pistons (24-29, 23). The Pistons have traded away a lot of wing depth this week sending Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson out, although I like the roll of the dice on Thon Maker for a year. While Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk is a Summer League favorite and a shooter, I’m less sold on his ability to help Detroit. The Pistons are just 1.5 games back of the Heat for the final playoff slot in the East, but these trades make you wonder how much they prioritize making it as an organization.

 
Magic small icon 23. Magic (22-32, LW 24). Maybe the most interesting team to watch at the trade deadline. They have players that playoff teams would want — Terrence Ross in particular, but also Nikola Vucevic — but the Magic also want to make the playoffs more than any other team on the back end of the East. As of Wednesday morning, the Magic are four games out of the playoffs (and five games back in the loss column), it would take a little run to just get in. That said, will management keep the price fairly high for those two, thinking that if nobody meets it they will just keep them and try to make the postseason?

 
Wizards small icon 24. Wizards (22-31, LW 22). While the Wizards should be sellers at the trade deadline, the buzz around the league is they plan to keep Trevor Ariza and Otto Porter and try to make a playoff push (they are four games back in the loss column). The John Wall Achilles injury raises some big-picture questions about what this franchise does going forward, and does it start to re-tool around Bradley Beal? Wall is missing a lot of his prime with injuries, and a torn Achilles is especially bad for a guy whose game is based on speed. He’s a fighter, but it’s fair to wonder with him “what if?”

 
Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (18-35, LW 25). Will Dewayne Dedmon and/or Jeremy Lin have new homes after the trade deadline? What about Taurean Prince? All three are being shopped around, and there is a lot of Dedmon buzz in particular. Atlanta would love to find a new home for Kent Bazemore, but the $19.5 million he is owed next season is keeping trade partners away. Despite the distracting buzz around them the Hawks have played fairly well of late, going 4-3 on a just ended road trip.

 
Grizzlies small icon 26. Grizzlies (22-33, LW 26). There’s a lot of interest in Marc Gasol (Charlotte) and Mike Conley (Utah and Detroit) but reports are Memphis is keeping the price high, asking for multiple first-round picks. Teams are hesitant to pay that, and we’ll see if the Grizzlies blink or if they are willing to just play out the season with this roster. If this is the end, Gasol and Conley did it right leading the Grizzlies to a couple of wins.

 
Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (12-41, LW 29). What is Chicago going to do with Bobby Portis, who is a restricted free agent this summer and has played well next to Lauri Markkanen the past couple of games? Do they trade him, or do they see what the market will pay for him this summer then decide whether or not to match. Ideally they would like to trade Robin Lopez, but more likely they buy him out and every contender comes out to try and pitch him.

 
Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (11-43, LW 28). The Cavaliers keep stockpiling picks with their Rodney Hood trade, and don’t be surprised if Alec Burks has a new home before the deadline as well. The Cavaliers would love to move Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson, but those veterans with healthy contracts are the kind of trades that get done in the summer, not at the deadline. By the way, just a reminder that the Cavaliers remain on pace to have the worst defensive rating in the history of the NBA — not just this season, but the worst ever. It’s impressively terrible.

 
Suns small icon 29. Suns (11-44, LW 27). The Suns have lost 11 in a row, and while the offense hasn’t been good in that stretch (26th in the league) the defense has been abysmal — a couple points per possession worse than the Cavaliers “worst defense ever” mark. That’s not all on Deandre Ayton either, he missed time in there. Devin Booker will be back to defend his crown in the All-Star Saturday Night Three-Point shooting contest, so… there’s that.

 
Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (10-43, LW 30). The Knicks gambled big on cap space in trading away Kristaps Porzingis and it got the league buzzing: Do they really have a back-channel commitment from Kevin Durant? Will Kyrie Irving take up the second max contract slot? If not, can they lure Jimmy Butler or Kemba Walker to Manhattan? It’s a bold stroke by the Knicks. There’s also been a lot of “if they land the top pick and Zion Williamson” buzz, just remember if the Knicks have the worst record they have a 14% chance of picking first and a 48% chance of picking fifth. Welcome to the new NBA lottery odds to discourage tanking.

LeBron James, Anthony Davis combine for 49 points, Lakers beat Knicks

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NEW YORK (AP) — LeBron James scored 19 of his 21 points early, cutting into Kobe Bryant’s shrinking lead over him for the No. 3 scoring spot in NBA history, and the Los Angeles Lakers beat the New York Knicks 100-92 on Wednesday night.

Anthony Davis led the Lakers with 28 points in his second game back after a five-game absence, after the Western Conference leaders were handed their worst loss of the season Monday in his return.

James’ quiet second half left him with 33,599 points, 44 back of Bryant.

That keeps James in good shape to catch the former Lakers star Saturday at Philadelphia, where the five-time NBA champion was born. Los Angeles has a game in between Thursday in Brooklyn.

Davis scored eight points in the final 3:45 and finished 13 of 13 from the free throw line. He played 30 minutes after going only 23 in his return from a bruised gluteus maximus on Monday in Boston, where the Lakers were routed 139-107.

Marcus Morris scored 20 points and Damyean Dotson had 17 for the Knicks, who put up a much better effort after losing by 30 two weeks ago in Los Angeles. But they just couldn’t come up with timely shots to really threaten the Lakers in the fourth quarter.

James shot 8 of 10 in 17 minutes of the first half, but the Knicks held the rest of the Lakers relatively in check and the game was tied at 48 at halftime.

The Lakers led by six after three quarters, then opened the fourth with Dwight Howard‘s dunk, a 3-pointer by Rajon Rondo and a basket by Kyle Kuzma to extend it to 83-70.

New York hung around and was within six again late but the Lakers prevailed despite only two baskets, both by Davis, in the final four minutes.

 

Zion Williamson’s first NBA basket a putback

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
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In his first NBA action, Zion Williamson looked like what he is: A rookie trying to find his way.

At least Willaimson didn’t force the issue and tried to blend in, making smart basketball plays, which led to a first-half bucket and assist in his 8:11 minutes of action.

Zion’s first bucket in the NBA came in the second quarter of his debut game, a putback off a Nickeil Alexander-Walker miss.

In his first quarter run, Zion looked to be unselfish with the ball and made the right basketball play a  few times, passing out of soft doubles and picking up an assist to Brandon Ingram cutting down the lane (but Zion was 0-of-1 shooting).

It was a good start if a bit tentative, something to be expected of a guy who missed 44 games and is now trying to come into the rotation midseason.

As he grows more comfortable, New Orleans needs Zion to attack the rim. The Pelicans have shot creators and shooters — Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, J.J. Redick — and a rim-running, attacking threat that forces defenses to collapse a little will make things easier for the Pelicans’ perimeter players.

San Antonio was sharp in the first half and led by double-digits for much it. That came in part because New Orleans started 0-of-9 from three (despite some clean looks). San Antonio led 60-51 at the half. If the Pelicans are going to make a playoff push, this is the kind of game they need (at home against another team in the mix for one of the final playoff spots in the West).

NBA games still not on China’s state run television

Yanshan Zhang/Getty Images
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In the wake of the backlash from China after Rockets GM Daryl Morey Tweeted out support for the protestors in Hong Kong — the kind of political statement the NBA takes in stride domestically but found it stirred a hornets’ nest in this case — Chinese state television stopped showing NBA games.

That is still the case today, according to Nets’ owner Joeseph Tsai.

Tsai — one of the co-founders of the Alibaba Group, which runs the Chinese equivalent of Amazon — is a billionaire with his feet in both the United States and China. He spoke to Bloomberg News recently about where things stand now in the NBA/China relationship (hat tip Nets Daily).

Tsai is eager to see NBA games back on [state run] CCTV. Although [streaming service] Tencent has begun showing them again, the state-owned broadcaster has yet to budge. A person familiar with the matter says the league is optimistic the network will relent, beginning with the All-Star Game on Feb. 16—there’s no ready replacement, after all, for LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“Once you are on the air,” Tsai says, “everything will come back.”

For now.

The NBA, like any American group doing business in China, is caught up in geopolitical forces well beyond its control, from trade wars to protests in Hong Kong. Morey’s Tweet touched on what Tsai called a “third rail of Chinese politics” but he spoke of the Hong Kong protestors as separatists when they would argue they simply want what was promised them in the agreement that transferred control of the city from Brittish to Chinese rule. (And that last sentence itself is a gross oversimplification of a complicated situation.)

NBA games likely will end up back on Chinese television soon (although it will be longer for Rockets’ games), and the business of the NBA in China will continue. Both sides want to make money (and in China, keep a younger generation happy with a sport they have grown to love). However, the underlying issues that caused the last flare-up are not going away — things may be just simmering on the back burner, but the flames are not turned off.

When things do flare up again, Tsai will end up fight back in the middle of it.

Cavaliers: Ante Zizic out indefinitely with vestibular condition

Ante Zizic
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Kyrie Irving left the Celtics for the Nets after two seasons. The Cavaliers flipped Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder their first season in Cleveland.

The last player remaining with his team from that monumental-looking Cavs-Celtics trade, Ante Zizic might not be long for Cleveland, either.

In fact, it’s unclear whether he’ll play again for the Cavs.

Cavaliers release:

Center Ante Zizic, who has missed the team’s last five games after being diagnosed with a vestibular condition, will be OUT indefinitely. After experiencing symptoms of nausea and dizziness, it was determined by the Cavaliers medical team that Zizic requires a period of vestibular rehabilitation to evaluate those symptoms further. His return to basketball activities will be updated as appropriate.

“Indefinitely” always sounds scary. That’s especially so with an uncommon basketball medical update.

If the Cavaliers unload veterans like Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love before the trade deadline, Zizic could be in line for more playing time down the stretch. He could use a showcase entering unrestricted free agency this summer.

Hopefully, he’s healthy enough to be up for it.