NBA Power Rankings: Vintage LeBron James has Lakers back on top

6 Comments

Volatility is the buzzword in this week’s NBA Power Rankings. Just a couple weeks into the season, we see teams making leaps (Miami and Phoenix) and falls (Golden State), with questions all the way around about if teams can sustain, or turn around, these starts.

Lakers small icon 1. Lakers (6-1, Last week No. 6). Winners of six in a row, and while LeBron’s three-straight triple-doubles get the headlines the Lakers are winning with defense. It’s just seven games in, but they have a defensive rating of 97.9, second best in the NBA (behind Utah). A little of that is Jedi defense (otherwise known as luck), teams are shooting just 32.1% from three against them (that number will come up closer to the league average), but the Lakers have had the best half-court defense in the league. LeBron James, with real rim protectors behind him now, is back to being a disruptive defensive force, playing the free safety role he loves.

Sixers small icon 2. 76ers (5-1, LW 1). Philadelphia’s size causes opponents problems in a lot of ways, but one worth watching: offensive rebounds. So far this season, Philadelphia has grabbed the offensive board on 31% of their missed shots, the league’s best, and the team is getting 15.1 second chance points a game. That’s extra points that are hard to overcome against the Sixers stingy defense. Philly went 1-1 without Joel Embiid, who was suspended by the league for two games after he pushed KAT to the breaking point then taunting him on social media.

Clippers small icon 3. Clippers (5-2, LW 2). This ranking is more about the eye test than the numbers — watch the Clippers play and they look like the best team in the NBA. At least when everyone is on the court (their loss to Utah was with Kawhi Leonard resting, and he will be out against the Bucks Wednesday). This also takes into account that their defense is still coming together. And, of course, no PG13 yet. Doc Rivers is not about to put a timeline on Paul George’s return but did say he will do 5-of-5 work this week. Which is another step closer to the Clippers getting that much better.

Bucks small icon 4. Bucks (5-2, LW 3). Last season, the Bucks got to the rim almost at will — 40.6% of their shot attempts came in the restricted area (via Cleaning the Glass, so no garbage time included) — and 79% of their shots were at the rim or in the restricted area. This season 76.9% of their shots come from those two zones, but they are getting to the rim far less, just 32.5% of their shots (bottom 10 in the league). That puts the Bucks at the whim of their threes falling and they are a pretty average team from deep (34.8% shooting from three this season, pretty much the same as last season). The Bucks need to attack again.

Suns small icon 5. Suns (5-2, LW 14). Aron Baynes has been saving Phoenix’s bacon. With Deandre Ayton out for failing a PED test, Baynes has stepped in scoring 15 points a game, grabbing 5.9 rebounds, but most importantly shooting 48.4% from three, opening up the floor for drives and cuts to the rim. The Suns have signature wins against the Clippers and Sixers, but this is a tough homestand they are in the midst of — the Heat, Nets, and Lakers are their next three, with the Celtics looming not long after that. The Suns are for real, but they are going to come back to earth a little, too.

Celtics small icon 6. Celtics (5-1, LW 9). Gordon Hayward looks is looking a lot more like the All-Star version of himself from Utah, including dropping 39 on the Cavaliers. He’s playing 34 minutes a night, scoring 20.3 points, with an amazing True Shooting Percentage (65.6) because he is knocking down half his threes. Also, he may be the best playmaker for others on the Celtics. He’s not all the way back yet, but he’s closer. This week the Celtics started a stretch of 8-of-10 on the road.

Heat small icon 7. Heat (5-2, LW 8). Miami keeps on winning with a combination of impressive defense (fourth best in the NBA, allowing less than a point per possession) and a lot of Jimmy Butler and rookie Kendrick Nunn. Miami is +14 points per 100 possessions when Butler is on the court this season. Dunn, through his first five games, scored 112 points — more than any No. 1 pick scored his his first five games in 26 years. The only active guy a head of him was Kevin Durant back in 2007 (213).

Raptors small icon 8. Raptors (4-2, LW 12). Nick Nurse has gotten the Raptors off to a fast start but he has leaned heavily on his starters to do it — Kyle Lowry leads the league in minutes played per game, and Fred Van Vleet is second. Both are at more than 37 minutes a night. Toronto is not a deep team so Nurse has to find a balance between winning and running his guys into the ground. He needs to get them some rest in games against the (fairly large) soft underbelly of the East.

Jazz small icon 9. Jazz (4-3, LW 5). They have the best defense in the NBA — and Rudy Gobert, asked to do more on that defense this season, has been up to the task — but the offense remains clunky. The biggest issue is Mike Conley is just not comfortable yet, shooting 31.8% overall and 28.2% from three — he is supposed to be the second shot creator next to Donovan Mitchell and he’s not filling that role. The Jazz are convinced it will turn around soon, but with their next two games against the Sixers and the Bucks it will be tough. Tony Bradley is going to get his shot at backup center with Ed Davis out for a month due to a fractured left fibula.

Mavericks small icon 10. Mavericks (4-2, LW 10). Dallas has the best offense in the NBA so far this season, and Luka Doncic — who is racking up triple-doubles at an impressive rate for a guy not even able to legally drink until next February — and Kristaps Porzingis at the heart of the attack. However, the Mavs are -5 points per 100 possessions when they are on the court together, it’s the Dallas reserves that have boosted this team up. It’s early, but Dallas looks like a playoff team, the question is only can the bench (and those two stars) can sustain this level play.

Nuggets small icon 11. Nuggets (5-2, LW 11). Nikola Jokic is playing well this season as the anchor of one of the West’s better teams, but he’s also a little down from last season. His points per game are down, he’s shooting percentages (including from three) are off, and he’s dishing out fewer assists. None of it dramatic, he’s still an elite player, but it makes one wonder if his playing for the Serbian national team this summer at the World Cup took a toll.

Spurs small icon 12. Spurs (4-3, LW 7). So far this season, the Spurs have done what they have always done — take care of business against the lesser teams, not beat themselves, and take their chances against the better teams. Three of the Spurs four wins came against New York, Washington, and Golden State — three teams with dreadful defenses. (The win against Portland was quality.) The schedule starts to toughen up in the next weeks, we’ll see how the Spurs handle that.

13. Timberwolves (4-2, LW 4). Minnesota is jacking up threes this season — 39.2% of their shots are from beyond the arc, way up from 28.4% last season (one of the bottom five in the league; stats via Cleaning the Glass). That sounds like a good idea, but they are hitting just 33.6% of them (bottom 10 in the league) and their offense remains a little below average. Karl-Anthony Towns was suspended for a couple of games for putting Joel Embiid in a headlock (and Towns got off light) and in those games they went 1-1.

Rockets small icon 14. Rockets (4-3, LW 13). James Harden is hitting just 25.3% of his shots from three this season (it was 36.8% last season, for comparison). Eric Gordon is hitting 23.3% of his shots from beyond the arc so far. Those numbers are going to improve, this is just a little slump to start the season, and in spite of that the Rockets still have the sixth best offense in the league. Russell Westbrook also has opened up the offense, the Rockets are playing at the second fastest pace in the league so far this season.

Thunder small icon 15. Thunder (3-4, LW 17). It feels like last season’s tough playoff loss to Portland has carried over to this season — in all four of OKC’s losses they were within two points in the final five minutes but could not close the game out. Sure, they miss Russell Westbrook, but the defense has also stumbled down the stretch. On paper this is better than a below .500 team, but until their identity solidifies it’s hard to trust this team late in games.

Hawks small icon 16. Hawks (3-3, LW 15). No John Collins for 25 games is a blow to this team. (He’s going to appeal the suspension on the grounds he didn’t know what he ingested, it was a tainted supplement with a banned growth hormone… good luck with that.) Collins was averaging 17 points and 8.8 rebounds a game, plus playing 31% of his minutes at center, where the Hawks are thin. Now, a lot more falls on Jabari Parker. Trae Young returned from his sprained ankle and snapped a three-game losing streak when he dropped 29 and 13 on the Spurs in Atlanta.

Nets small icon 17. Nets (3-4, LW 19). Are the Nets the team that outdueled Harden and Westbrook and beat the Rockets last Friday? Or are they the team who on Saturday lost to a Pistons team sitting any player you can probably name on that roster? A lot of confusing things on this roster, such as why Jarrett Allen has not taken another step forward — he’s playing a little worse than last season so far, and with that has lost his starting center spot to DeAndre Jordan. This should be a breakout third season for him but… just a lot of confusing things in Brooklyn.

Pacers small icon 18. Pacers (3-4, LW 27). Last summer the Pacers made an $85 million bet that Malcolm Brogdon — and so far it has paid off. Brogdon is averaging 23.7 points per game, dishing out 9.4 assists per night, he’s playing at an All-Star level and propping up the Indy offense as best he can. Both Domantas Sabonis (calf) and Myles Turner (ankle) have been out, which has forced Goga Bitadze into the starting lineup, and he has held his own.

Blazers small icon 19. Trail Blazers (3-4, LW 16). Injuries have ravaged the Blazer front court — Jusuf Nurkic, Pau Gasol, Zach Collins (out four months following shoulder surgery) and Hassan Whiteside (bone bruise in his left knee) are out, leaving Anthony Tolliver to play some center. Seal Labissiere is getting key minutes. That has sparked early trade rumors around this team, and even when guys get healthy a player like Danilo Gallinari makes a lot of sense for them, adding much-needed shooting. This is a win-now season in Portland, one off to a slow start, and they may need to push their chips into the middle of the table soon.

Hornets small icon 20. Hornets (4-3, LW 20). Charlotte is above .500 in record but they are being outscored by 5.9 points per 100 possessions so far this season — that suggests they should be 2-5, but they’ve been lucky so far. The Hornets are catching teams at the right time: Sacramento is slumping, the Warriors are very banged up, and the Pacers were without their starting front line, but credit the Hornets for taking advantage. Things get tougher with Boston and Philadelphia on the docket this week.

Wizards small icon 21. Wizards (2-4, LW 18). The Wizards have the fourth-best offense in the NBA this season, and while that is a bit skewed by the 158-point OT loss to the Rockets, this is still a team that is surprisingly good on offense. As expected Bradley Beal is playing at an All-Star level, but rookie Rui Hachimura is giving them 14.7 points a night, Isaiah Thomas is in the starting lineup and scoring 14.5 a night, and beyond that they have a balanced lineup of scorers. As good as Washington’s offense is, its defense is a little worse than that. Meaning the Wizards are an entertaining game to watch, and you should bet the over.

Pistons small icon 22. Pistons (3-5, LW 20). Detroit is without their three top point guards — Reggie Jackson (out at least a month with a stress reaction in his lower back), Derrick Rose (right hamstring) and Tim Frazier (shoulder) — which leaves Bruce Brown trying to run the point. Blake Griffin remains out, and while he is closer to a return to the court he has yet to do a 5-on-5 full-contact workout. The fact they beat the Nets despite the injuries is fairly amazing.

Magic small icon 23. Magic (2-6, LW 22). It’s really hard to overstate how bad Orlando’s offense is. They have the worst offensive rating in the league (scoring well below a point per possession), they are shooting 26.8% from three as a team (second worst in the league), they aren’t finishing well at the rim, and they aren’t drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line. But aside that how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln? The fifth-ranked defense in the league is keeping them this high in the rankings.

Bulls small icon 24. Bulls (2-6, LW 21). That was a punch-to-the-gut loss to the Lakers Tuesday, one where the Bulls led by as many as 19 at home and 13 heading into the fourth quarter. The game turned with a 16-0 Laker run to start the fourth against an all-bench Bulls lineup where weaknesses were exposed. For example, Coby White has had flashes and put up 16 in the first half of this game, but in this stretch took an ill-advised step-back three, and tried to drive at Dwight Howard and got his shot swatted back. A lot of questions in Chicago about why coach Jim Boylen stuck with this unit so long — he said postgame because he has to develop guys and they need to figure it out. Okay, sure. Let’s just say there are a lot of people around the league who question if Boylen is head coach material.

Cavaliers small icon 25. Cavaliers (2-5, LW 23). Tristan Thompson is having a standout season: career highs in points (16.9) and rebounds (11.6) per game, all while shooting 53.6% from the floor. That means don’t be surprised if another team having trouble in the front court this season calls up looking for a trade. Of course, Kevin Love’s name will come up in rumors, too, but with him in the first year of a four-year, $120 million contract, trading him is much more complicated.

Warriors small icon 26. Warriors (2-5, LW 24). With all the injuries ravaging the Warriors, there have been suggestions they go out and sign a free agent (Carmelo Anthony’s name comes up). Golden State can’t sign any free agent right now — they are hard-capped because of the D’Angelo Russell trade and are about $300,000 away from that line. They don’t have the money to pull up a guy out of the G-League right now, let alone sign a veteran player (even one willing to take the minimum). What you see is what you get from the Warriors for now. Expect them to make moves at the trade deadline, but ones looking more at next season than trying to salvage this one. This one is lost.

Kings small icon 27. Kings (2-5, LW 30). Two wins in a row — a gritty one against the Jazz, then looking like last season’s uptempo team running past the Knicks — provide a little optimism after a dreadful start. There are no stats to back this up, but plenty of people around the league are looking at the starts of Sacramento and Indiana and thinking the travel to India for a preseason game is part of the problem. Getting to Mumbai is a longer flight than the ones to China that many teams already try to avoid due to concerns about fatigue and starting the season slowly.

Pelicans small icon 28. Pelicans (1-6, LW 26). The injuries just keep coming. In addition to tZion Williamson being out until around Christmas (if not later), three starters — Jrue Holiday, Derrick Favors and Brandon Ingram — have had to miss at least part of a game due to being banged up. Ingram continues to look more fluid, he’s being aggressive, and playing well averaging 25.9 points and 7.1 rebounds a game this season. He may be the best free agent on the market next summer (he’s restricted, the Pelicans can match).5

Grizzlies small icon 29. Grizzlies (1-5, LW 28). The Grizzlies have decided to go slow with their star rookie Ja Morant and not burn him out. Moran is playing 28 minutes a night, and has been on the court more than 30 just once in six games. He is starting, and he’s being given the key to the team — he is averaging 19.5 points and 5.5 assists per game, shooting 50 percent from three (on two attempts per game), all with a PER of 20.3. Those are numbers that get you considered for Rookie of the Year. But the Grizzlies are not going to up his minutes, with coach Tyler Jenkins saying he wants to “put some money in the bank moving forward with him” in terms of minutes played.

Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (1-6, LW 25). Unlike the Grizzlies, the Knicks are going old-school and playing their star rookie RJ Barrett all the minutes he can handle. Including playing him extra minutes deep into decided games. “We gotta get off this load management crap… This kid’s 19 years old. Drop it,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said. Barrett is averaging 37.1 minutes a game and is putting up numbers — 18.3 points per game, 6.1 rebounds, shooting 35.7 percent from three.

Playoffs statement? Boston builds 40-point lead, routs Toronto

Leave a comment

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — The way the NBA standings look right now, there’s a reasonable chance that the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors could be slotted to see each other in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

And Celtics coach Brad Stevens is already making it clear — if that happens, a blowout win over the Raptors now won’t mean anything then.

Jaylen Brown scored 20 points, Jayson Tatum added 18 and the Celtics never trailed on the way to an emphatic 122-100 win over the Raptors on Friday night. Kemba Walker scored 17 points in 23 minutes for the Celtics, who led by 40 at one point and kept slim hope alive of catching the Raptors for the No. 2 spot in the East race.

“This game will mean nothing if we get that opportunity again,” Stevens said. “They’re a really good team. I thought they missed a lot of open looks and it just wasn’t their night. Our guys played well, but it won’t mean anything in a couple weeks.”

Boston also won the season series against Toronto, taking three of the four meetings. The Celtics also won back-to-back games for the first time in the bubble.

“We’re enjoying each other and building chemistry,” Tatum said.

Fred VanVleet scored 13 for Toronto, which got 11 from Kyle Lowry and 11 more from Pascal Siakam. The Raptors’ starters — VanVleet, Lowry, Siakam, Marc Gasol and OG Anunoby — combined to shoot 16 for 45 (36%) from the field, 3 for 19 (16%) from 3-point range.

“One thing about this team, we always bounce back and we always stick together,” Toronto’s Norman Powell said. “I’m not too worried.”

Toronto’s biggest deficit in its first three games in the bubble was six points against the Los Angeles Lakers. The Raptors trailed Miami by three, then didn’t trail Orlando at any point in their game on Wednesday.

But only five minutes into this one, the Raptors were down eight.

And it would only get worse from there for the reigning champions.

The biggest deficit Toronto had faced this season was a 30-point hole against Dallas on Dec. 22, a game where the Raptors rallied to win. The Celtics didn’t allow anything close to a rally on Friday — after the Raptors closed within 10 early in the third, Boston went on a 36-12 run over the final 9:39 of the quarter.

It was 91-57 entering the fourth, and the Raptors went with subs the rest of the way. Making the night even worse for Toronto: forward Serge Ibaka left early in the fourth after getting hit in the face on a drive by Boston’s Gordon Hayward.

“I hate to say it, but there’s nothing really I learned,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “The only thing I probably did learn is we’ve got to get a couple of our guys playing a little better.”

Nets, Magic lock up playoff spots in East; Grizzlies help own cause in West

NBA playoffs
Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images
Leave a comment

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — The NBA playoff picture is getting a little clearer, and the Eastern Conference field of qualifiers is now set.

Brooklyn and Orlando clinched the last two remaining East spots Friday, meaning no play-in series — a new wrinkle added to the rules of the NBA’s season restart at Walt Disney World — will be needed on that half of the bracket.

Brooklyn secured its trip by defeating Sacramento 119-106. Orlando’s spot was clinched when Washington lost to New Orleans 118-107 later Friday, eliminating the Wizards from contention.

The Nets and Magic will be No. 7 and No. 8, in some order, in the East playoffs. The No. 8 seed will face the Milwaukee Bucks in the opening round of the playoffs, which begin Aug. 17. The No. 7 seed could meet the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors, who currently hold — but have not secured — the East’s No. 2 spot.

For the Nets, the clinching comes as something to savor in a topsy-turvy season.

Kevin Durant couldn’t play at all because of his recovery from Achilles surgery — yet still got a $1 million contract bonus because Brooklyn made the postseason. Kyrie Irving missed much of the year because of injury, the Nets had several regulars opt out of participating in the restart, changed coaches in March and have used 24 players so far this season.

“It’s great to punch our own ticket into the playoffs,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said. “I joked with the guys: I like my laundry being done, but nothing like doing your own laundry.”

Orlando could have clinched with a win Friday, but lost to Philadelphia 108-101. The Wizards lost about an hour later, falling to 0-5 in the bubble. Washington was one of nine teams from the East who qualified for the restart, but has since fallen behind Charlotte into 10th place in the conference.

Philadelphia’s win tightened the race for No. 4 in the East. The 76ers (42-27) are tied with Indiana for the fifth-best record in that conference, one game behind fourth-place Miami (43-26).

The race for the last unclaimed playoff spot in the Western Conference remains close, with teams vying to grab the No. 8 spot and play the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. If the eighth- and ninth-place teams are within four games of one another when the seeding game schedule ends next week, there will be a two-game series to determine who gets the last playoff spot.

Should that series take place, the ninth-place team would have to go 2-0 in a best-of-two series to advance.

Memphis remained alone in eighth out West, after the Grizzlies snapped a four-game bubble losing streak by beating Oklahoma City on Friday 121-92. The Grizzlies are one game ahead of Portland in the West standings.

“We channeled what we’ve done all season long,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “We played Grizzlies basketball. Grizzlies basketball equals Grizzlies wins, more often than not. We hadn’t done that in the first four games.”

San Antonio leaped idle Phoenix into 10th in the West by beating Utah 119-111, with the Spurs improving to 3-2 in the bubble. The Spurs (30-38) are one game behind Portland in the standings.

“At the end of the day, we can’t control what they’re doing,” Spurs center Jakob Poeltl said. “We can only control what we’re doing. We’re going to take every game as it comes. We’re going to try to win every game.”

Phoenix, Sacramento and New Orleans remain in the mix for a West play-in series spot. The Suns, who are 4-0 at Disney, play Miami on Saturday.

Training camps for “delete 8” reportedly might happen inside Orlando bubble

delete 8 training camps
Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Whether the eight teams not invited to the NBA restart will have training camps and get together for scrimmages depends on who you ask. There are some teams adamant they will be at a massive disadvantage if their young teams go nine months without playing competitive NBA basketball. The problem is bringing teams together creates coronavirus issues that are not easily eliminated.

Which led to an idea: Why not bring those eight teams into the Orlando bubble on the Walt Disney World Resort campus and let them practice/play there?

It’s being talked about as an option reports Sam Amick of The Athletic.

What if those eight teams joined the rest of their colleagues inside the Walt Disney World bubble for training after the eliminated teams departed? Sources say the NBA has been exploring that possibility for quite some time now, and that the idea was raised most recently on the aforementioned governors’ call. And in some ways, it makes perfect sense.

As NBPA executive director Michele Roberts has made clear all along, the union has been skeptical of any basketball setting that doesn’t match the Orlando approach in terms of precautions and protocol. But starting on Aug. 17, when six teams go home and the 16-team playoffs begin, space will be opening up inside this three-hotel, three-court, (seemingly) COVID-free community they have created.

More space will open up in the bubble as more teams are eliminated from the postseason, although some of those rooms were to be used by family of team staff still in the bubble. It’s a delicate balancing act for the league.

The eight teams in question are Golden State, Minnesota, Cleveland, Atlanta, Detroit, New York, Chicago, and Charlotte.

Putting together a second bubble for the “delete eight” was never likely to happen, it’s a logistical nightmare, and it’s expensive (but without the television money payoff of the actual bubble). There is some logic to inviting those eight teams to Orlando.

Whether it happens or not remains to be seen.

Memphis picks up first win since restart, beats Oklahoma City

Memphis win
Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images
Leave a comment

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Dillon Brooks scored 22 points, and the Memphis Grizzlies claimed their first win since the restart with a 121-92 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday.

Jonas Valanciunas had 19 points and 11 rebounds and Ja Morant had 19 points and nine assists for the Grizzlies.

Memphis lost its first four restart games and would have fallen into a tie with Portland for eight place in the Western Conference standings with a loss.

“As a whole, we never doubted ourselves, doubted what we can accomplish as a team,” Morant said. “But like, we all was very confident in our team and feel like tonight, we just went out and played freely and we were able to come out with a win.”

Chris Paul scored 17 points and Luguentz Dort added 16 for the Thunder. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City’s leading scorer this season, finished with 10 points on 3 for 13 shooting.

The Thunder looked nothing like the team that rolled past the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday. Oklahoma City missed a chance to move into a tie with the Houston Rockets for fourth place in the West.

Oklahoma City led by 18 in the first quarter, but the Grizzlies rallied to take the lead in the second. The Thunder made 7 of 13 3-pointers in the first quarter but 6 of 30 the rest of the way.

“I thought it was a little bit of fool’s gold in the first quarter,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said.

Memphis led by nine in the final seconds of the first half. Danilo Gallinari hit a 3 for the Thunder with 4.6 seconds left, then Paul got a steal and hit a corner 3 to cut the Grizzlies’ lead to 63-60 at halftime.

The Grizzlies outscored the Thunder 32-18 in the third quarter to go up 95-78 at the end of the period.

“They started making shots,” Paul said. “We never really made them feel us all game long. They were just so comfortable. They got a little bit of everything. They got floaters, they got the threes, they got to the free-throw line. Our defense was just bad today.”