NBA Power Rankings: Greek Freak knocking down threes helps Bucks back to top spot

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Milwaukee is back on top and look like a real threat in the playoffs, although the East remains a fascinating chase. It’s Golden State then everyone else in the West.

 
Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (46-14, last week No. 2). Don’t tell anyone, but Giannis Antetokounmpo is hitting his threes lately. In his last 15 games, the Greek Freak is shooting 39.5% from three on 2.9 attempts per game. The defensive strategy on the Bucks in the playoffs will be to lay 15 feet off Antetokounmpo and dare him to shoot, if he can take and make enough of those just to keep the defense honest, it’s a game changer. Of course, if the Bucks need a big three at the end of a game — say, against the Celtics — they would want Khris Middleton to take it.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (43-17, LW 1). The much-hyped starting five of the Warriors — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, DeMarcus Cousins — has struggled. In its last 8 games together, the lineup has a net rating of -15.1 per 100 possessions, and they have been bad on both ends of the court. The result is the Warriors having to dig out of holes seemingly every game. In his last five games, DeMarcus Cousins is averaging 14.6 points per game but on just 40.3 percent shooting overall and 20 percent from three. If you’re looking for chinks in the armor, Golden State has some.

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (45-17, LW 3). Toronto appears locked into the two seed in the East (2.5 games back of the Bucks, 4.5 up on the Pacers), giving Nick Nurse a chance to experiment with lineups around Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin, to see where they best fit. Toronto made a statement by blowing out the Celtics on Tuesday night, showing off their combination of length, shooting, and versatility. Toronto looked every bit the title contender in the win. The kind of team Kawhi Leonard might want to stick around for.

 
Nuggets small icon 4. Nuggets (41-18, LW 7). Denver has found its defense again — in the last five games, they have allowed less than a point per possession (97.7 per 100), the best in the league over that stretch. That’s a good sign for the postseason — so is the fact Nuggets also are a matchup nightmare for the Thunder. In their three meetings this season OKC has led the games for 12 minutes total, Denver for 85 minutes. There have been questions about how far the untested Nuggets can go in the postseason, but in the win Tuesday night over the Thunder they looked like the second best team in the West.

 
Thunder small icon 5. Thunder (38-21, LW 4). This is better Thunder team than a year ago heading into the playoffs — Russell Westbrook has found his shooting stroke of late, Paul George looks like an MVP candidate, and there is no Carmelo Anthony. Of concern, however, is the fact Denver seems to have their number, which would be an issue in the playoffs The Thunder are the current three seed in the West but have the toughest remaining schedule of any team in the NBA, and Portland is only one game back — slip to the four seed and even if they beat Houston/Utah in the first round they are on the Warriors’ side of the bracket for the second round.

 
Pacers small icon 6. Pacers (40-21, LW 8). So much for the Pacers falling back without Victor Oladipo: They are 8-2 in their last 10 with a +11.1 net rating, mostly because their defense has been elite during the stretch. Nobody is a bigger Pacers fan the rest of the way than the Raptors, because if Indiana holds on to the three seed the path for the two seed (almost certainly Toronto) to the conference finals is much easier.

 
Sixers small icon 7. 76ers (39-22, LW 6). The Sixers have gone 2-1 without Joel Embiid since the All-Star break (sore knee), but they have not looked like the same team without their best player and anchor in the middle. Philly will be without him (and Boban) against Oklahoma City Thursday. That is followed by a big test against Golden State on Saturday — if Embiid is not back for that game it feels like the red flag on his health flies a little higher. They need Embiid back to help this team gel before the playoffs.

 
Blazers small icon 8. Trail Blazers (37-23, LW 11). How much they can play him in the postseason is a different question, but in the regular season adding Enes Kanter to back up Jusuf Nurkic has led to an advantage in the paint and on the glass so far for Portland. Combined through three games they have averaged 37 points and 17.7 rebounds a game. Portland has started 3-0 on a 7-game road trip through the East, but Boston and Toronto are up next.

 
Celtics small icon 9. Celtics (37-24, LW 5). They have lost three in a row out of the All-Star break, including to Milwaukee and getting blown out by Toronto. More concerning, the Celtics have a bottom-10 defense in the NBA through their last 10 games — that was supposed to be their calling card, supposed to be Brad Steven’s strength, and the Celtics have not been good of late (they are fifth in the NBA defensively for the season). It’s hard to figure out where this team ranks in the pecking order of the East, but the last couple of games have not been promising.

 
Rockets small icon 10. Rockets (35-25, LW 9). James Harden’s 30+ points a game scoring streak ended the way it was always going to — against a team where he didn’t need to put up crazy numbers for them to win (he still had 28). If the Rockets are going to return to being the second best team in the West two things need to happen the rest of the way: Chris Paul needs to keep playing like he did against Golden State (23 points, 17 assists) and their defense needs to improve to at least league average levels if not better. Just a couple of things to watch.

 
Jazz small icon 11. Jazz (33-26, LW 10). We don’t question Utah’s ability to defend (even if they have been up and down of late on that end), but the offense… actually has been good recently. In their last 10 games, they have averaged 114.6 points per 100 possessions, sixth best in the NBA over that stretch and better than the Thunder or Bucks. Donovan Mitchell is attacking, and anyone who continues to think Rudy Gobert is just a defender needs to sit down and watch more Utah basketball — he has good hands and can score around the rim.

 
Clippers small icon 12. Clippers (34-28, LW 13). The Clippers are the 7 seed in the West, on pace to finish with 44 wins and they have a 74% chance of making the playoffs (according to fivethirtyeight.com). Doc Rivers is doing that with unconventional lineups — starting Landry Shamet and Ivica Zubac, two recent additions, and counting on Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell off the bench to carry the day. And it’s working — but there are big tests in their playoff chase this week with games against the Kings and Lakers, two of the teams chasing Los Angeles.

 
Nets small icon 13. Nets (32-30, LW 15). After stumbling back into a fight for a playoff spot, the Nets seem to have righted the ship, winning 3-of-4 and they now have a four-game cushion over the nine-seed Magic. They’re going to be a playoff team. That said they have the fourth-hardest remaining schedule in the NBA (second in the East) and that could leave them open to getting passed by surging Detroit for the six seed. They need more of the D’Angelo Russell we saw against Charlotte, where he scored the team’s final 12 points to secure the win.

Pistons small icon 14. Pistons (29-30, 16). Welcome to the playoffs Detroit — winners of 7-of-8 with the best offense in the NBA during that stretch (120 points per 100), the Pistons are the seven seed in the East. And, they have an easier schedule the rest of the way than anyone they are competing with for one of the final spots other than Orlando. They key has been Reggie Jackson, who in his last 10 games is averaging 19.2 points per game, shooting 44.8 percent from three, is dishing out 5.7 assists a night, and is +9.4 points per game. Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond will do their thing, but this team needs Jackson to be great to thrive.

 
Kings small icon 15. Kings (31-29, LW 12). Rookie Marvin Bagley has steadily improved all season starting to really find his groove, he had good games against the Warriors, Thunder, and Timberwolves combining for 72 points and 35 rebounds in those contests. The Kings dropped 3-of-4 on a tough road trip and things do not get easier now with the Bucks and then the Clippers, one of the teams they are trying to catch for the final playoff slots in the West.

 
Spurs small icon 16. Spurs (33-29, LW 14). A couple weeks ago the talk was about the Clippers slipping back and getting passed for a playoff spot by the Kings or Lakers, but now the Spurs look like the vulnerable team. San Antonio went 1-7 on the Rodeo road trip and now sit as the eight seed, just one game up on Sacramento. FiveThirtyEight gives the Spurs an 81% chance of making the playoffs, but that seems high unless the Spurs start to defend a lot better. The Spurs are home again but with the Pistons, Thunder, and Nuggets coming to town there are not easy wins on the horizon.

 
17. Timberwolves (29-31, LW 21). Karl-Anthony Towns’ streak of 303 consecutive games played ended because of a car accident that left him in the league’s concussion protocol. The funniest thing this week was Ja Rule putting a curse on the Timberwolves, saying KAT was going to leave — that would be the same guy whose five-year max extension kicks in next season. If he’s going anywhere it’s not for a while, Minnesota is building around him. Now, if Ja Rule wants to curse Andrew Wiggins out of town that would be welcome among Wolves fans.

 
Magic small icon 18. Magic (28-34, LW 19). Orlando is on the doorstep of the playoffs thanks to an 8-3 run fueled by their defense, the best in the NBA over that stretch (although the loss to the Knicks Tuesday hurt). Not coincidentally, Orlando’s rise started when coach Steve Clifford stopped playing Mo Bamba — he has potential but is not ready — and Jonathan Simmons (since traded). Orlando has an easier schedule than everyone else chasing one of the final playoff spots in the East, they have a real shot.

 
Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (28-32, LW 17). Charlotte has lost 4-of-5 and subbing Miles Bridges in for Jeremy Lamb in the starting lineup after the All-Star break has not changed things. Charlotte sits as the eighth seed in the East as you read this, just one game up on Orlando and 1.5 on Miami, and the Hornets have the toughest remaining schedule of any team in the East. It’s why fivethirtyeight.com gives the Hornets just a 40% chance of making the playoffs. Miss the postseason and Kemba Walker’s free agent decision this summer gets more interesting.

Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (27-35, LW 23). The Pelicans are limiting the minutes of Anthony Davis down the stretch — more interestingly they had some good play without him. The Pelicans beat the Lakers while Davis sat. A fourth-quarter run to make it just a one-point loss (after trailing by 17 earlier) against the 76ers came with Davis on the bench. They are still +7.5 per 100 better with Davis on the court since his return from injury, but the Pelicans are showing they can do some things without their star who doesn’t want to be there. Julius Randle continues to play himself into a big contract this summer.

 
Lakers small icon 21. Lakers (29-31, LW 20). Two ugly losses has led to renewed questions about Luke Walton’s job security (few around the league think he’s back next season) and a passive-aggressive LeBron James seeming current starting lineup with Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, JaVale McGee, Reggie Bullock and James is giving up 116.2 points per 100 possessions. For reference, the Cleveland Cavaliers have the worst defensive rating in the league at 115.9. LeBron’s effort has been at the heart of those defensive issues. Before LeBron (and maybe Magic) goes blaming the young kids for the Lakers not making the playoffs, they may want to look at this chart.

 
Heat small icon 22. Heat (26-33, LW 22). Miami has a lot of nice complimentary players — Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, Bam Adebayo — but no true star to create good looks and lead them in crunch time. The return of Goran Dragic doesn’t change that. The Heat are only 1.5 games out of the playoffs, but with the Warriors, Rockets, and Nets on the schedule this week it’s going to take some upsets to get them in playoff position.

 
Mavericks small icon 23. Mavericks (26-34, LW 18). Losers of five in a row, they were without Luka Doncic for the fist couple of games after the All-Star break, but he was back against Clippers Monday. Not that it mattered. Classy move by Doc Rivers at the end of Monday’s game to make sure that Dirk Nowitzki got a proper send-off from the Los Angeles fans.

 
Wizards small icon 24. Wizards (24-36, LW 24). Bradley Beal leads the NBA in total minutes played this season, but with the Wizards all but out of the playoff chase you’d think Scott Brooks would start to ease up on him. You’d be wrong. He has played at least 41 minutes in each of the Wizards last four games, all losses. Washington is four back of a playoff slot and fivethirthyeight.com has them with a 7% chance of getting back into the postseason. Time to ease up on Beal.

 
Grizzlies small icon 25. Grizzlies (24-38, LW 25). Memphis wouldn’t mind winning enough — and getting some lottery luck — so that they lose their first-round pick to Boston this season in a down draft. Their actions at the trade deadline just made that hard. With where they stand now, the Grizzlies have a 3.8 percent chance of sending that pick to the Celtics, and they are not going to win enough the rest of the way to improve those odds much.

 
Bulls small icon 26. Bulls (16-45, LW 27). The Bulls are playing their best basketball of the season, having won 3-of-4 and having the best offense in the NBA in the month of February. When Zach LaVine, Otto Porter and Lauri Markkanen are on the court together this has been a good offensive team, and that gives real hope for the future in the Windy City.

 
Hawks small icon 27. Hawks (20-41, LW 26). Trae Young continues to play well and put up numbers — 30 points against the Pistons, and 36 against the Rockets. But while we focus on his scoring his passing is still creating highlight after highlight and he — along with John Collins — are making the Hawks worth watching.

 
Knicks small icon 28. Knicks (13-48, LW 30). No tanking for Zion here, the Knicks have won 3-of-4 and have done in part thanks to Dennis Smith Jr., but the emergence of Mitchell Robinson has helped as well. The rookie big man had 17 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 blocks against the solid front line of Orlando Tuesday night. I’m not sure he’s going to be the star some Knicks fans think, but he could be part of the rotation in whatever the Knicks will look like next.

 
Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (14-47, LW 28). Kevin Love, back from injury for five games now, looks like he is starting to get his legs back under him as Love scored 32 against Memphis and now has 66 points and 35 rebounds in his last three games. Love looking healthy the rest of the season will increase the odds he gets traded this summer (although those odds are not that high).

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (12-50, LW 29). A surprising win in Miami ended a 17-game losing streak on Monday night, thanks to a balanced attack from their starters, led by Devin Booker with 20. If Suns fans missed the win because all their doing is watching Duke games, you can’t blame them.
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Barrier to entry for NBA playoff race is historically low

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a similar story in the East.

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

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

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

Western Conference

NBA Western Conference standings

NBA Western Conference standings

Eastern Conference

NBA Eastern Conference standings

NBA Eastern Conference standings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defensive Player of the Year

Kurt Helin: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

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

Dan Feldman: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

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

Rookie of the Year

Kurt Helin: Ja Morant (Grizzlies)

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

Dan Feldman: Ja Morant (Grizzlies)

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

Most Improved Player

Kurt Helin: Devonte' Graham (Hornets)

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

Dan Feldman: Luka Doncic (Mavericks)

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

Sixth Man of the Year

Kurt Helin: Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)

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

Dan Feldman: Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)

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

Coach of the Year

Kurt Helin: Erik Spoelstra (Heat)

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

Dan Feldman: Nick Nurse (Raptors)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For now, just enjoy the video.