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NBA Power Rankings: Warriors remind everyone why they should finish on top

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Golden State’s thrashing of Denver Tuesday night was the latest reminder that when the Warriors care and flip the switch they have gears no other team in the NBA has. They move back into the top spot in this penultimate power rankings of the season, and they should probably finish on top for good reason.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (52-24, Last Week No. 2). Golden State flipped the switch and dominated the Nuggets (behind DeMarcus Cousins’ best game as a Warrior), reminding everyone what they can do when they care. With the win, the Warriors are all but assured to have home court through the West playoffs (and in the Finals, unless they face Milwaukee or Toronto). As Mark Medina told me in this week’s PBT Podcast, the Warriors don’t feel all that threatened by anyone in the West this season. The biggest problem for Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry is having to listen to Draymond Green crow about that Michigan State win all week.

 
Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (58-20, LW 1). Milwaukee has been the best regular season team in the NBA, but the questions linger: Can they execute like this in the playoffs? Can Eric Bledsoe/Kris Middleton/Brook Lopez keep up this level of production deep into the playoffs and the pressure mounts? What happens when they run into a team with a stretch big that pulls Lopez out of the paint? Fair questions. The counter: Giannis Antetokounmpo is playing less than 33 minutes a night, what happens when that jumps to 40? I will tell you, a lot more of what he did to the Nets:

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (55-23, LW 5). It was kind of the ideal week for Toronto — four wins and Kawhi Leonard got his “load management” rest in two of them. With little to play for, expect more rest for a lot of Toronto players this week. The Raptors are locked into the two seed, which doesn’t tell them who they will face in the first round yet but does set up a second-round showdown with the Sixers that will be an amazing series.

 
Rockets small icon 4. Rockets (49-28, LW 4). To help bolster James Harden’s MVP case, here’s a fun stat from our old friend Matt Moore of The Action Network: Harden scored more points this past January than any player had in January during the last 50 years. Harden’s scoring alone is not going to win them playoff games, the fact the Rockets have the second-best defense in the NBA in the last 15 games will. The Rockets have a relatively easy last 5 games (just two playoff teams) but they need wins to beat Portland to the three seed and avoid Utah in the first round and being on the Warriors’ side of the bracket.

 
Nuggets small icon 5. Nuggets (51-25, LW 3). Denver is not a good matchup with Golden State (but who is?), and combine that with a Denver offense stumbling down the stretch and you get one ugly loss. That loss, however, does not define their season. The Nuggets should finish as the No. 2 seed (although Houston is just 1.5 games back in third) and this team should be able to advance to the second round in its first playoff appearance. That’s the goal, and that’s a strong season for one of the youngest teams in the league. However, like in that Warriors’ game, there are some tough lessons to learn ahead.

 
Sixers small icon 6. 76ers (49-28, LW 6). Philadelphia is becoming an increasingly trendy pick among league watchers to come out of the East, because the ceiling is so high with that starting five (and they get more minutes together in the postseason). That lineup — Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Joel Embiid — is +17.6 per 100 this season, with strong play on both ends of the court. Hopefully all this rest for Embiid has him ready to go for the playoffs (he is sitting out this three-game road trip), they need him. Big showdown with the Bucks on Thursday.

 
Jazz small icon 7. Jazz (47-30, LW 8). The hottest team in the NBA, they have won 10-of-11 and in that stretch have a +16.3 net rating. However, before you get too high on the Jazz, in those 11 games the Jazz have played just one playoff team (Brooklyn). Utah has three more games against non-playoff teams before closing with the Nuggets and Clippers. The Jazz would love to hang on to the five seed and (potentially) get the banged-up Trail Blazers in the first round (although that 4/5 seeding means the Warriors in the second round).

 
Blazers small icon 8. Trail Blazers (49-28, LW 7). Who is fading? Portland is 3-1 in the games since Jusuf Nurkic went down injured, and every one of those games was without C.J. McCollum, too. Portland is just half a game back of the Rockets in the race for the 3/4 seed, and the Blazers only have two of their remaining games against playoff teams (a home-and-home with Denver Friday and Sunday). Getting the three seed means avoiding a surging Utah team in the first round, plus it keeps them on the other side of the bracket from the Warriors.

 
Clippers small icon 9. Clippers (47-31, LW 9). Part of what makes the Clippers a tough regular season matchup for teams is they bring two of their three best players off the bench. “You want to find your best defenders on Lou (Williams) as much as you can, but your rotation has to change for that to happen,” Grizzlies coach J.B. Bickerstaff said last week. “You’re getting guys out quicker so they can get back in and find that matchup. That’s the pressure that they put on you and I think is brilliant by Doc.”

 
Celtics small icon 10. Celtics (46-32, LW 11). Gordon Hayward has looked better the last couple of weeks, his best stretch as a Celtic. Hayward is averaging 13.8 points per game of 53.1% shooting in his last five games and grabbing 6.2 rebounds a game, although he is still not shooting well from three (25% in those games). The Celtics remain tied with the Pacers in the battle for home court in the first round when those two teams meet, they go head-to-head Friday and that could go a long way to deciding where the playoffs start for Boston.

 
Spurs small icon 11. Spurs (44-33, LW 10). The Spurs have stumbled of late — losing 4-of-7, with Derrick White coming back to earth — and that has them in a tie with the Thunder for the 7/8 seed, and neither of those teams wants the Warriors in the first round. San Antonio’s toughest remaining game is Wednesday night (in Denver on a back-to-back) then after that they have three non-playoff teams. The Spurs can’t afford let-down losses like the recent ones to the Kings and Hornets if they are going to get the seven seed.

 
Thunder small icon 12. Thunder (44-33, LW 13). Russell Westbrook’s 20-20-20 game was extraordinary, even by his standards, and it came when the Thunder needed it as they had lost 7-of-9 and found themselves in a battle with the Spurs to avoid the eight seed (and the Warriors in the first round). OKC has a tougher closing stretch than San Antonio and they could use more Westbrook (and a more efficient Westbrook at that), but what they really miss is pre-All-Star Game, MVP level Paul George. The Thunder are essentially in the playoffs the rest of the way.

 
Pacers small icon 13. Pacers (46-32, LW 12). Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis has a strong case for Sixth Man of the year, as evidenced by this stat (hat tip Justin Kubatko): Sabonis has 25 double-doubles coming off the bench this season, the most by a reserve since Detlef Schrempf in 1991-92. The Pacers and Celtics will face off in the first round and the only question remaining is home court for the 4/5 series — the teams are tied and face each other Friday night.

Pistons small icon 14. Pistons (39-38, LW 18). Blake Griffin deservedly gets a lot of credit for making Detroit’s offense work this season, and while Andre Drummond hasn’t always been a comfortable fit next to Drummond he has been steady. Another stat from Justin Kubatko: Drummond has 37 games with at least 15 points and 15 rebounds this game, putting him in a select company of players who have done this (Moses Malone did it four times, most recently Kevin Love did it). While not completely safely in the playoffs (Detroit is 1.5 games up on nine-seed Orlando), the Pistons look like a playoff team this year under Dwane Casey. Probably as the six seed.

 
Magic small icon 15. Magic (38-40, LW 14). Fivethirtyeight.com projects the next three teams in this ranking (Orlando, Miami, and Brooklyn) all to finish at 40-42, bringing it down to tiebreakers to see who gets into the playoffs and which one of those teams stays home. Orlando went 2-2 on its recent road trip, including beating Miami (and Indiana), but with the tough-out Hawks and Celtics on the schedule this week, Orlando needs to win at least one of those to make sure they have a chair when the music stops.

 
Heat small icon 16. Heat (38-39, LW 15). Miami has struggled at home more than it should all season (18-21, and their two games left there are the Celtics and 76ers), and in recent weeks the Miami offense has sputtered. The Heat have scrapped and clawed to stay in the playoffs, but now they need some upset wins with Boston, Toronto, and Philly on the schedule in the next week. It’s the ultimate test of a scrappy team.

 
Nets small icon 17. Nets (39-39, LW 16). Caris LeVert started the season so hot he got far-too-early most improved player buzz, but his severe leg injury set his season back. Of late he has started to find that form again, including having 24 points and 6 assists in a loss to the Bucks. “From a confidence level and a physical level, that was the Caris from the beginning of the year,” Coach Kenny Atkinson said after that Bucks game. Smart move by the Nets locking up Atkinson and his staff with new contracts.

 
Kings small icon 18. Kings (38-39, LW 17). This will be the 13th consecutive season the Kings miss the playoffs, the longest active streak in the NBA and tied for the second longest all-time — yet this season has to be considered a success. Sacramento was expected to be high up in the lottery, instead they are pushing .500, found a style of play and identity, and found a future star in De’Aaron Fox. This is a team heading in the right direction and it has been a season to build on. The playoff streak will be in danger of ending next season.

 
Lakers small icon 19. Lakers (35-43, LW 21). The Lakers finally decided to shut LeBron James down for the season with six games left, which was probably later than it should have been considering his groin injury was clearly not fully healed. The Laker defense was middle-of-the-pack for the NBA season, but strangely for a LeBron team it was the offensive end that was the problem — the Lakers were bottom 10 and the pieces did not fit. Turns out, shooting matters. Who knew?

 
Hornets small icon 20. Hornets (35-42, LW 19). Reality caught up with Charlotte on the road, where they have dropped three straight and in practice have fallen out of the playoff chase in the East (three games back with five to play). Kemba Walker is still in the mix for one of the final All-NBA guard slots, but missing the playoffs doesn’t help his cause (if he makes it and the Hornets can offer a super-max contract it makes it more likely he sticks around this July).

 
21. Timberwolves (34-43, LW 20). Ryan Saunders seems likely to keep the Timberwolves head coaching job — Karl-Anthony Towns and other players love him — but it might be wise to get an experienced defensive coach next to him. Under Saunders, the Timberwolves have struggled on that end, starting with KAT and his level of interest. Since the All-Star break, Minnesota has the worst defense in the NBA, and that can’t continue into next season if this team wants to get back into the playoff mix.

 
Wizards small icon 22. Wizards (32-46, LW 24). And there was much rejoicing in Washington, for Ernie Grunfeld is out as the Washington GM. Fans had been calling for his head for years. But whoever takes this job has got an Everest of challenges to climb, starting with: Do you trade Bradley Beal and start a rebuild, or re-sign him (possibly to a supermax extension if he makes All-NBA) and build around him? You get to make that call while managing the ego and expectations of owner Ted Leonsis. Plus, the anchor of the John Wall contract will hang around the new GM’s neck for four years.

 
Hawks small icon 23. Hawks (28-49, LW 25). Atlanta is making an impressive surge late in the season, and for playoff teams needing wins for seeding (or just to get in) this is not the team they want to see on the schedule right now. Trae Young 24.2 points and 8.9 assists per game in March, with a solid 55.8 true shooting percentage — the kid is special (but now Hawks fans, he’s not winning Rookie of the Year, sorry).

 
Grizzlies small icon 24. Grizzlies (31-46, LW 23). The trio of Mike Conley, Jonas Valanciunas, and Avery Bradley pass the eye test for me — together they look like they could do some damage. On the season the Grizzlies are -3.6 per 100 possessions when those three are on the court together (less than 200 minutes, so small sample size), but you have to wonder what they might have been able to do under different circumstances. Once the season ends the Mike Conley trade rumors will start to ramp up as we head toward the draft.

Pelicans small icon 25. Pelicans (32-46, LW 22). Was their an uglier, more disappointing season in the NBA than the one in the Big Easy? The breaks did not go their way, and then Anthony Davis torpedoed the second half of the season. In their last 10 games, the Pelicans have a -11.3 net rating, which puts them in the neighborhood of the Bulls and Cavaliers in that stretch (not the company they want to keep). The GM search is underway and that person will sit down at his new desk and find a massive to-do list.

 
Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (31-46, LW 26). Dallas’ first-round pick in the upcoming draft belongs to Atlanta but is top-five protected. Currently, the Mavericks are tied for the 6/7th worst record in the NBA. Dallas currently has an 8.2% chance of jumping up to the No. 1 pick, and a 34.2% chance of landing in the top four and keeping the pick. Which means basically a two-thirds chance of losing it. With Luka Doncic a year older and Kristaps Porzingis joining him on the court next season, this might be the Mavericks’ last shot at a high pick for a while.

 
Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (21-57, LW 27). Chicago heads into the NBA Draft Lottery with at least 12.5 shot at landing Zion Williamson (the Bulls will have at best the fourth worst record in the NBA). The Bulls have a lot of needs heading into the draft, but there are things to be positive about: I am curious what a Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. front line looks like. Put Zach LaVine and Otto Porter on the wings around them and this becomes an interesting squad next season.

 
Suns small icon 28. Suns (18-60, LW 29). Devin Booker is putting up insane numbers recently, scoring 59 against Utah, 50 against Washington, and 48 against Memphis — but Phoenix lost all three of those games. Mostly because their defense remains dreadful. That certainly is a team problem, but it will fall more on Deandre Ayton to become a good rim protection and stop some of those buckets in the paint. The No. 1 pick had an impressive rookie season on offensive end, but we know what he needs to work on this summer.

 
Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (19-59, LW 28). The interesting question heading into the draft for Cleveland: What to do if the Cavs land the No. 2 pick? Ja Morant is the second best player on the board, but the Cavaliers have been very happy with how Collin Sexton and how he has found his game the second half of the season. Do they draft Morant and try to get the two guards to mesh? Draft R.J. Barrett or another wing? Trade the pick? It may be a moot issue, but it’s the kind of thing a GMs need to be prepared for.

 
Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (15-62, LW 30). Mitchell Robinson’s potential as a defensive force in the paint is the one good thing about the grinding end of the season in New York. As Justin Kubatko noted on Twitter, Robinson is averaging one block every eight minutes he is on the court, which is the third highest block rate by a rookie ever. Whatever is getting built in New York in the coming years, he can be key part of it in the paint.

This Date in NBA History: James Harden goes off for then career-high 51 vs. Kings (VIDEO)

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The 2014-15 season is one of several years where James Harden feels he should have been MVP but was robbed by voters. It’s become almost an annual tradition.

Stephen Curry won the award that year — he was bombing threes on his way to 23.8 points and 7.7 assists a game, leading the 67-win Warriors to an NBA title — but Harden put up raw numbers that were right there, 27.4 points and seven assists a game.

Harden made his case for the award on Feb. 1, 2015, with a 51-point outburst against Sacramento that was, at the time, his highest-scoring game ever. He shot 16-of-25 from the field overall, a ridiculous 8-of-9 from three, and he got to the line 13 times. Sacramento had no answer.

Harden has scored more points since — he’s had 60+ point games each of the last three seasons — but this was his first 50+ point game, and to this day remains one of his signature games.

Heat’s Goran Dragic says he’s not going to Slovenia during layoff

Heat guard Goran Dragic
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MIAMI (AP) — Goran Dragic of the Miami Heat said Tuesday that he is prepared to forgo his annual offseason move back to his native Slovenia if that is what the NBA schedule necessitates.

Dragic, his wife and their two children are in Miami and have no plans to leave for Slovenia amid the global coronavirus pandemic. His parents recently left Miami to return home, but the Heat guard says he’s staying.

“Three days ago they flew back home because they had to, the government said that all the Slovenian citizens needed to get back,” Dragic said, referring to his parents, adding that they wore masks and gloves on their not-very-full flight back to Slovenia. “But my situation is different. Here is my home. We have health insurance in America and we have a home to go to, so we’re going to stay here.”

Dragic and his family have gotten a firsthand global view of the pandemic.

He’s in Miami, and so is his uncle — who is staying in the U.S. because he cannot get back to his native Serbia because Dragic said that country has essentially locked its borders over health concerns. Dragic’s brother Zoran, a former Heat guard, was quarantined while playing in Spain, then returned to Slovenia recently and is under quarantine again, unable to leave his hotel room for a couple more weeks.

“It’s a really crazy situation over there,” Dragic said, detailing what his brother went through in Spain — one of the hardest-hit nations with more than 94,000 confirmed cases of the virus and more than 8,000 deaths attributed to the virus, the second-highest total worldwide behind only Italy. Slovenia has confirmed 802 cases through Tuesday, with 15 deaths.

In Miami, though, Dragic is trying to keep some sense of normalcy.

Dragic said the Heat are participating in a daily team workout on Zoom most mornings, those sessions often including strength and conditioning coach Eric Foran and Heat assistant coach Chris Quinn, among others.

“We try to work together, in isolation,” Dragic said.

Dragic has been working out individually as well at his waterfront home, trying to stay fit. He’s hopeful that the season resumes at some point, and said he hopes the league has teams play no more than a handful of games before starting the playoffs.

“I’m running around the house. I’m going to be in good shape,” Dragic said.

Dragic is averaging 16.1 points and 5.1 assists this season for the Heat, coming off the bench in all but one of his 54 games.

Report: NBA, players’ union in talks to withhold some of players’ salaries

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The forced suspension of the NBA’s regular season is hitting the league hard — and it’s about to hit players’ paychecks hard.

The NBA and the players’ union are in negotiations to withhold more of players’ paychecks in an escrow account if the rest of the NBA season is canceled, as is seeming more and more likely. Up to 25 percent of the players’ salaries will be withheld, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The NBA and National Basketball Players Association are discussing scenarios for withholding up to 25 percent of players’ remaining salaries in a league escrow should regular-season games eventually be canceled, sources tell ESPN…

The Collective Bargaining Agreement maintains that players lose approximately 1 percent of salary per canceled game based on a Force Majeure provision, which covers several catastrophic circumstances, including epidemics and pandemics…

Commissioner Adam Silver, NBPA executive director Michele Roberts and a group of league and union lawyers have been discussing a number of ways to prepare financially for how the likely cancelling of scheduled games will impact some percentage of lost salary for players, sources said.

In every NBA check, even in a typical season, 10 percent of a players’ salary is held back in an escrow fund. Then, at the end of the season when the books are balanced, and the players get 50 percent of the basketball related income (BRI). If league income was slightly lower than projected, the players do not get all of their money back from the escrow fund, the league takes whatever portion is needed to get to the CBA’s prescribed 50/50 BRI split (and the rest is returned to the players).

This season, due to the coronavirus possibly canceling more than 20 percent of the season and condensing the playoffs, there is going to be more than a 10 percent shortfall in the projected BRI.

Players will get a full regular paycheck on Wednesday, April 1. If the NBA and players union reach an agreement before April 15, that check could start to see the reductions as money goes to the escrow account.

The vast majority of players have their pay stretched out for the entire year (the first and 15th of every month), but some players take an option to get more of that money up front. Regardless, everyone will pay into the escrow fund.

The NBA has not officially announced the cancelation of regular season games yet, but games will be lost. Warriors coach Steve Kerr said he doesn’t expect the Warriors will play any more games this season. More and more sources think the regular season is lost, but the league is holding out hope.

It’s impossible to calculate how big the revenue hit to the league will be until a plan for the postseason is put together (if one is put together), but it will be massive. Possibly more than a billion dollars if the season and playoffs are canceled. Right now, the league is simply running a lot of scenarios to try and project how to lessen that blow when they do return to action.

Still, the coronavirus suspension is going to hit the players’ pocketbooks. This increased escrow account is just the first wave.

 

LeBron James, Kevin Durant among handful of players who got this year’s contract money up front

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Years ago, NBA players (like those in other professional sports), got paid every other week during the regular season. They might get a bonus during the playoffs if the team did well, but in the offseason they had no money flowing into their pockets.

Over the past decade that changed. Now the standard contract now calls for players to get paid over 12 months, giving them cash flow all year long.

This also means the vast majority of NBA players have yet to get most of their pay for this year, which will get interesting as the owners and players union start discussing the “Force Majeure” clause in the CBA to take some of the players’ salaries because of canceled games.

Mark Stein of the New York Times talked about it on Twitter.

However, a handful of big-name players got more their money up front — the CBA allows players to get a chunk of their money in advance then get then rest over a 12-check, six-month span. Some of the biggest names in the sport went for that.

In addition to LeBron James, players such as Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Blake Griffin have gotten the majority of their pay already.

NBA owners are scheduled to have a remote meeting soon to discuss next steps. They are talking both about the restart of the season (in whatever form that takes) and about invoking the “Force Majeure” clause. That CBA clause allows teams to reduce players’ salaries in the event of an “act of god” kind of event that cancels games – things like war, natural disaster, and epidemics. Obviously, the epidemic part has come into play and shut down the league.

If the NBA doesn’t play any more regular season games — which reports have said is seeming more likely — teams and players will miss about 25 percent of the season (give or take depending on how many games their team played) and owners would want to recoup some money. Doing some of that through “Force Majeure” is on the table, with the canceled games triggering the clause.

The players union warned its members this could happen. For LeBron, Durant and other players who have gotten most of their money up front it could mean checks next season will be docked to make up the difference.