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NBA Power Rankings: Chris Paul, James Harden have Rockets climbing fast

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Welcome to the dog days of the NBA season, when all the elite teams seem to yawn and lose focus, leading to some strange losses. Houston may be the hottest team going right now, and the Rockets jump up in these rankings.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (48-16, last week No. 1). The addition of Pau Gasol is not going to have a massive impact on the court, but the Bucks don’t need that. What the veteran brings is a voice in the locker room of a guy who has been through deep playoff runs and has the rings to show for it. The questions with the Bucks in the postseason are not if they have the talent to contend, but will they have the mental makeup to withstand the pressures, the highs and lows. That has not been tested yet. Gasol helps with that.

Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (46-19, LW 3). Toronto is two games back of Milwaukee for the top seed in the East (and overall), and that leaves the franchise trying to walk a tight line. They want to keep racking up wins — maybe to catch the Bucks, but also to stay ahead of the Warriors (1.5 games back) in case they meet in the Finals. All while making sure Kawhi Leonard is not overtaxed, and meshing Marc Gasol into the new rotations. It’s a lot for Nick Nurse to juggle. If you need evidence of why you want a healthy Leonard on your side with the game on the line…

Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (44-20, LW 2). Golden State is back to being a team looking like a bored team that can’t wait for the playoffs to start, they dropped 4-of-6 and have fallen behind by double digits in 12-of-13 games (and have been resting a lot of players). The Warriors can get away with that as long as Denver keeps slumping and stays behind them in the standings. Klay Thompson has been out with a tweaked knee, and they are being cautious with his return.

Nuggets small icon 4. Nuggets (42-21, LW 4). No team has fought through injuries to key rotation players this season like the Nuggets. Their preferred starting five — Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, and Nikola Jokic — have played just 93 minutes together on the season. Now they are finally healthy and looking to get that unit in sync before the playoffs. The Nuggets have lost three in a row and have a good test against the Warriors coming up Friday night.

Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (41-23, LW 7). What questions about his role? Jimmy Butler took over the closer role late for the Sixers against the Magic Tuesday night, hitting a couple of key fadeaways, making defensive plays, and setting up Mike Scott for a three. The Sixers have gone 4-2 with Joel Embiid out since the All-Star break, but he is expected to return this week. The team needs that, it’s hard to sort out the questions about players’ roles without the first offensive option on the court.

Rockets small icon 6. Rockets (39-25, LW 10). The hottest team in the NBA right now, winners of six in a row, and a lot of it is because Chris Paul is back to playing about how he was a season ago. In his last 10 games CP3 has averaged 16.8 points per game, dished out 9.8 assists, shot 36.8% from three, and played better defense. The Rockets have looked like the second best team in the West the past couple of weeks, although their defense is still pedestrian (14th in NBA over last 10 games) and that could haunt them in the postseason.

Blazers small icon 7. Trail Blazers (39-25, LW 8). Portland won 5-of-7 on a road trip thanks in part to Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter giving Portland a solid second unit again (and this is without Evan Turner in games). That or maybe it was the team bonding of eight players being stuck together in an elevator for 30 minutes. Either way, Portland had the best net rating in the NBA over the last 10 games until a tired last-game-of-the-road-trip loss to Memphis Tuesday. Keep playing well and the three seed is not out of the question in the West. Just like last year.

Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (39-25, LW 5). Paul George was back in the lineup on Tuesday night, which was good because the Thunder were 1-2 and unimpressive in his absence (although they lost in his return, too). Those losses hurt because the Thunder need wins for seeding: fivethirtyeight.com projects seeds 3-6 in the West (Thunder, Rockets, Trail Blazers, Jazz) all to finish with between 50 and 52 wins — the middle of the West is going to be very tight. It will be interesting to see if teams push to be the 3 or 6 seed and avoid the 4/5 to stay away from the Warriors’ side of the bracket.

Pacers small icon 9. Pacers (42-23, LW 6). Indiana has started to come back to earth, having gone 2-3 in their last five, with the problems coming on the defensive end (115 per 100 allowed last five games, 25th in the league). The Pacers sit as the three seed and want to hold on to home court in the first round, they are half-a-game up on the Sixers (they play each other Sunday) and three up on the five-seed Celtics. The Pacers have 8-of-11 coming up on the road and a tough stretch of games, they are going to have to find a new level of resilience to hold on.

Jazz small icon 10. Jazz (36-27, LW 11). Utah’s defense was in vintage form through a tough three-game stretch — Clippers, Nuggets and Bucks — and Utah won all three (then they turned around and lost to the Pelicans). The Jazz sit as the six seed in the West, but with the softest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way the idea they could make up the 2.5 games and climb into the top four to get home court for the first round is not out of the question. They just can’t have games where they aren’t focused, like against New Orleans.

Celtics small icon 11. Celtics (39-26, LW 9). Like a lot of Bostonians this time of year, apparently what the Celtics needed was a trip to California to warm up. After an ugly stretch losing 5-of-6 with internal sniping after each game, the Celtics looked like the team we all expected this season in thrashing the (disinterested) Warriors Tuesday. Boston played with the joy Golden State lacked, they moved the ball and switch on defense well. Can the Celtics build off that win, or will it be a one-off moment? They need to get on a roll now heading into the playoffs.

Clippers small icon 12. Clippers (37-29, LW 12). Ask Clippers coach Doc Rivers (a coach of the year candidate) what he loves about this squad, and he talks about their resilience. “We took a hit. When we made that trade (sending out Tobias Harris at the trade deadline) it hit our locker room. But we got them to believe we want to win still, we’re going to win still. Then for them to start doing it just shows you how resilient they are.”

Spurs small icon 14. Spurs (36-29, LW 16). Home cooking matters to the Spurs. They looked like a team that would fall out of the playoffs during their 1-7 rodeo road trip, but they got home and knocked off three quality teams in a row (Pistons, Thunder, Nuggets) thanks to a much improved defense. The Spurs are projected for 45 wins and fivethirtyeight.com gives them a 95% chance of making the playoffs, considering the loss of DeJonte Murray before the season that is an impressive effort by San Antonio.

Pistons small icon 14. Pistons (31-31, 14). The Pistons are clicking, 9-2 in their last 11 with a +10.9 net rating. They’ve had the best offense in the NBA during that stretch, at 118.1 per 100 (and the defense is fifth in the league). The run really started 15 games ago when Andre Drummond returned from concussion protocol, since then he has averaged 20.5 points a game on 62.6 percent shooting, and he’s grabbing 15.7 rebounds a game. Reggie Jackson has played well, and Blake Griffin is showing off new levels of handles and shooting.

Nets small icon 15. Nets (33-33, LW 13). In the 14 games he played at the start of the season, Caris LeVert was the Nets’ leading scorer and looked like a candidate for most improved player. He’s been back for 10 games now but things have not been the same — he’s shooting just 36.2% overall and 27.5% from three, and he hasn’t been the same positive force. The Nets have come back to earth a little and are 4-6 in their last 10. The Nets also have the third toughest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way, they are going to need to find some wins to hold on to that playoff spot.

Kings small icon 16. Kings (32-31, LW 15). It was good news that Marvin Bagley only suffered a sprained knee that will sideline him a couple of weeks, it looked like it could have been much worse. That said, it came at a bad time as Bagley was playing his best basketball of the season. Harry Giles has looked good in Bagley’s absence, at least when he stops elbowing opponents in the head.

Magic small icon 17. Magic (30-36, LW 18). While Orlando sits half-a-game out of the playoffs as this is written, the fact they have a much softer schedule than the teams they are chasing (Orlando’s next seven games are against teams below .500), and they have played well of late, has fivethirtyeight.com giving them a 67% chance of making the playoffs. Jonathan Isaac has been the key to it all, the Magic are +12.7 per 100 when he is on the court in the last 15 games.

Pelicans small icon 18. Pelicans (30-36, LW 20). Nobody, including NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, thinks playing Anthony Davis 20 minutes a night and sitting him in the fourth is a good look for the league. But sit him and there is pushback from the league and union, play him 40 a night and the Pelicans are taking an unnecessary risk and hurting their draft position. So ugly compromise it is. Jrue Holiday continues to play well when he is on the court in limited minutes.

Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (29-34, LW 19). Charlotte has dropped 8-of-11 and coach James Borego is searching for answers. He switched around the starting lineup, but the new group can’t defend. He’s pulled Frank Kaminsky out of the dog house and played him — and Kaminsky has responded with solid play. Nothing has really worked. Big showdown with the Heat Wednesday (one of the teams they are battling for a playoff spot) and on Saturday they head out on the road for four.

20. Timberwolves (30-34, LW 17). Robert Covington went down to the G-League to practice, usually the last step before a player returns to action with the main team, but now the Timberwolves are sounding cautious and being patient again. Maybe his knee didn’t respond well to the increased workload, but whatever it is he will be out a little while longer. After three losses in a row that all but doomed their playoff dreams in Minnesota, Karl-Anthony Towns exploded for 41 and 14 against the Thunder. That was good to see.

Heat small icon 21. Heat (29-34, LW 22). They have won 3-of-4, including an upset of the Warriors, the kinds of wins the Heat will need more of down the stretch if they are going to get a playoff spot. Dwayne Wade’s last dance has just been fun, from the jersey exchanges to the moments he shows he still has it on the court. It’d be nice to see Miami make the playoffs just to set up more potential moments like this.

Lakers small icon 22. Lakers (30-34, LW 21). In the 13 games since LeBron James returned from his groin injury, the Lakers have the worst defense in the NBA, giving up 116.3 points per 100 possessions. Their effort on that end has been up and down, but more than that they have lacked basic defensive recognition and cohesion. The Lakers are 4-9 since LeBron’s return, and 2-4 since the All-Star break when LeBron “activated” playoff mode. Their playoff dreams are dead and Luke Walton may want to start polishing up his resume.

Wizards small icon 23. Wizards (26-37, LW 24). If you’re looking for a silver lining to this Wizards season, well, I’m sorry about that. Not sure there’s much we can do. Can I recommend reading our own Dan Feldman’s story on Thomas Bryant? That’s about as positive as I can get with this franchise.

Grizzlies small icon 24. Grizzlies (26-40, LW 25). This summer, some team is going to give up some quality pieces to trade for Mike Conley. Tuesday night he showed why that team will be making a smart play. Conley had 19 in the fourth, 40 for the game, and was the reason the Grizzlies beat the Trail Blazers.

Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (22-43, LW 27). Trae Young continues to just tear it up. In his last five games, the rookie has averaged 30.6 points per game and is shooting 50% from three on 7.6 attempts per game, plus is dishing out 9.4 assists per night. He was honest that he was overthinking things early in the season, but the game has slowed down and now he is just letting it fly. Combined with John Collins next season, the Hawks could be a team looking to make a leap.

Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (27-36, LW 23). Dallas has been the worst team in the NBA over the last 10 games, a -13.9 net rating that has them going 2-8. They have the worst offense and the worst defense in the NBA during that stretch. Mavericks fans, focus on Dirk Nowitzki and dream of next season with Kristaps Porzingis.

Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (18-47, LW 26). Chicago had won 5-of-7 until recent setbacks against the Hawks and Pacers, and the reason remains the offense. The Bulls are scoring 114.1 per 100 in their last 15 games, fifth best in the league (and ahead of the Warriors in that stretch). The Bulls have an offensive rating of 119.8 and are outscoring teams by 8.8 per 100 when Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, and Otto Porter are all on the court together.

Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (16-48, LW 20). Cleveland is 5-2 in games Kevin Love has played in since his return. Cedi Osman has been playing better of late too, averaging 16.9 points per game and shooting 47.5 percent from three in his last 15 games. The Cavs are playing well enough they could have moved out of the bottom three of the draft lottery, except the Bulls have been playing even better.

Suns small icon 29. Suns (14-51, LW 30). They have had some fun playing spoiler. They beat a Miami team that needs wins to stay in the playoffs in the East, and when they beat the Lakers last weekend it felt like the death of the Lakers’ playoff chances. The most impressive thing in that win over Los Angeles was Deandre Ayton — not the rookie’s 26 points and 10 rebounds, but that they had him defend LeBron James all game and he did a respectable job.

Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (13-51, LW 28). Mitchell Robinson is the reason to tune into Knicks games now — the rookie shot blocker is a lot of fun. Knicks fans deserve something good to happen and watching Robinson play is it this season. I’m not as sold he’s going to be anywhere near as good as some Knicks fans are pumping him up to be, but his defensive presence and energy could make him a solid rotation big man in whatever form the Knicks take on the next few years.

LeBron James welcomes Anthony Davis to Lakers

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LeBron James got exactly what he wanted — a young superstar to play with him, a guy who can be a force on both ends of the court. The kind of elite player the Lakers needed to not only make the playoffs next season but be a threat to win the West.

Anthony Davis got what he wanted — out of small market New Orleans to the brightest spotlight in the NBA, the Los Angeles Lakers. He will go unnoticed by casual fans no more.

A happy LeBron welcomed Davis to Los Angeles.

The Lakers gave up a lot to get Davis — some Lakers fans would argue too much — but they have landed two of the top seven players in the world (when healthy). Round out the roster wisely with veterans (and get some shooters this time) and the Laker can move into a crowded list of contenders next season (with the Warriors headed for a down year, teams are lining up to take their shot).

Lakers fans should be happy, what is in this Instagram post is going to win them a lot of games.

LeBron, Anthony Davis and… Kemba? What are the Lakers next steps to contention

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We have seen this before, the Lakers add a superstar player — Pau Gasol via trade, Shaquille O’Neal via free agency— and instantly vault up to being a title contender.

Of course, we have seen the Lakers add superstars in the offseason — say Dwight Howard and Steve Nash — and watch the whole thing blow up due to injuries and chemistry issues.

Neither of these scenarios is completely off the table with the LeBron James and Anthony Davis Lakers, which is going to be a reality now after the Lakers have agreed to a trade for Davis that sends Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and three first round picks (including the No. 4 pick in the 2019 Draft) to New Orleans.

The Lakers look like contenders on paper right now, but they have to round out the roster in a smart way.

Two key things will differentiate success and failure with these Lakers.

First is injuries. It’s obvious to state, but Davis has an injury history, and LeBron missed 18 games with a groin injury last season, the most time he has ever missed with an injury, but that’s what comes with age. If either or both miss significant time, this all comes apart.

Second is how the Lakers round out the roster. That is something the core of this Lakers’ front office did very poorly last season, we will see if lessons were learned.

After the trade, the Lakers will have on the roster LeBron, Davis, Kyle Kuzma, Moritz Wagner, Isaac Bonga… and that’s it. They need to add 10 players.

Los Angeles going to try and add a third star.

The Lakers will have $27.7 million available in cap space on July 1 — that is not enough to sign Jimmy Butler or Kemba Walker to max deals. Both of them have been linked to the Lakers on various levels.

Sources have told me that after qualifying for a “supermax” contract extension (five years, $221 million), Walker is leaning heavily toward staying in Charlotte, a city he has grown to love (and his family enjoys). He could even give the Hornets a little hometown discount on the back end of that deal and make more than the max the Lakers or any other team could offer him. The question is, does this trade and the chance to chase a ring alter Walker’s thinking?

Butler, also, reportedly is leaning toward re-signing with the Sixers if they offer him a full five-year, $191 million max deal as expected (with Butler’s injury history, that fifth year only Philly can offer will matter to him). The same question about this deal changing his mindset applies to Butler as well.

The Lakers also could go after Kyrie Irving, although a number of people around the league view that as a longshot.

What the Lakers could do to max out Walker/Butler/Irving, as suggested by cap guru and consultant to NBA teams and agents Larry Coon, is to draft whoever the Pelicans want at No. 4, sign that player July 1, then trade him 30 days later (the first chance he is eligible) as part of the Davis deal where the salaries match up. It would delay the actual Davis trade but the  Lakers would have the $32.5 needed for a max slot for a player with 7-9 years experience.

The Lakers also could go after guys who are not stars but are high level role players and may just be a better fit, such as J.J. Redick. The Lakers could use that $27 million to land three or more quality, solid NBA rotation players. That’s an internal discussion Los Angeles need to have.

Beyond that, the Lakers will have the room exception at $4.8 million and no other space.

Just like last year, the Lakers will need to bring in veterans on minimum contracts — and this time they may want to get some shooting in the mix. The challenge there is guys are taking minimum contracts for a reason, if they could secure longer and more lucrative deals they would. There are far fewer vets willing to take a lot less to chase a ring than fans realize.

These are first world problems for the Lakers, they have so enough elite stars its hard to round out the roster. The art is in doing it right because there are other contenders out there who have done just that.

Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart seem happy with trade; Twitter blows up over deal

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The Toronto Raptors got to have the basketball world to themselves for 43 hours…

And then the Lakers traded for Anthony Davis. The deal is Davis to the Lakers for Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and three first-round picks, including the 2019 pick in this upcoming draft.

There was plenty of bad chemistry with the Lakers after the trade deadline and how an attempt to trade for Davis went down, so maybe we shouldn’t be shocked Ingram and Hart seem just fine with this deal.

LaVar Ball was at the Drew League in Los Angeles, watching his son LaMelo play when the news came down.

Of course, social media blew up around the NBA when the trade was announced.

twitter.com/Kneel2ThaCrown/status/1140028038995947520

And this is just awkward…

Report: Anthony Davis traded to Lakers for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, picks

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LeBron James has his second star next to him.

Anthony Davis has landed exactly where he wanted.

Things had been building toward this for more than a week. Boston was holding back — meaning they would not put Jayson Tatum in an offer. The Clippers and Nets couldn’t get any traction. And there were the Lakers with a quality package that was as good as it was likely going to get.

In the end, that deal — one the Pelicans did not take at the trade deadline — got it done.

Anthony Davis is on his way to the Lakers for Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and three first-round picks including this year’s No. 4, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Here are the details on the first round picks in the deal (and this makes it look even better for New Orleans).

The trade will not be formally consummated until after July 1 for salary cap reasons, but it’s done.

Pelicans’ new president David Griffin came in with an open mind and clean slate. At the trade deadline there was a “we’re not going to send Davis where he wants” mentality from New Orleans. Pelicans management felt put on the spot by the timing and public nature of the trade request by Davis’ agent, Rich Paul, and they didn’t want to feel rushed into a trade they didn’t want.

Griffin, however, saw the big picture — take the best offer, the trade isn’t about where Davis lands, it’s what’s best for New Orleans. That could have been Boston, but with Kyrie Irving having one foot out the door and almost certainly not re-signing with the team, the Celtics couldn’t go all-in on an offer and give the Pelicans what they wanted — Jayson Tatum.

No Tatum offer meant Lakers GM Rob Pelinka had leverage, so he was able to keep Kyle Kuzma out of any trade, something that mattered to Los Angeles. However, this may have been the Lakers only viable path to a star this summer. The top of the free agent market was not — and may still not not — lining up well for the Lakers. Even with this trade. Which is why there was also pressure on Pelinka to get this done, so he threw a lot in the trade. Maybe too much, but he had to get it done.

How the Lakers round out their roster will matter — they may want to add some shooting this time — but this trade vaults them into contender status, especially in a West with an injury-riddled Golden State squad.

This is a big win for a Lakers’ front office that has been maligned and called dysfunctional around the sudden stepping down of Magic Johnson.

Davis will play out his contract and become a free agent, something reported by Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, but also obvious under the current salary cap rules. Davis’ max extension is two-years, $67 million in addition to his current deal (and it could be less than that if he gave up some of his trade kicker in this deal), his free agent contract will be five-years pushing $200 million. That is a no brainer. He will re-sign with the Lakers.

The Pelicans got a serious haul here that jumpstarts a rebuild: Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram as the forwards, whoever they take with the No. 4 pick (or trade that pick for, a real possibility), Lonzo Ball will play alongside Jrue Holiday, who is primarily a two-guard now (and Ball should thrive in Alvin Gentry’s up-tempo system, it plays to his strengths), Josh Hart is a solid role player. That is a team that could hang around and compete for a playoff spot in the West if things break right for them. Or, the Pelicans could flip those players for guys that they really want.

Just picture Lonzo throwing lobs to Zion. This team is going to be fun.

Beyond that, if Williamson develops into who many think he can be — a top-five kind of player in the league — the Pelicans may be a force in about 2023, right as the LeBron era in Los Angeles winds down.