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.

Another day, another impressive Luka Doncic game: 28 points in 26 minutes (VIDEO)

Leave a comment

DALLAS (AP) — With Kristaps Porzingis joining Luka Doncic in the Dallas lineup this season, the Mavericks expected to be better. But Boban Marjanovic?

Doncic scored 28 points in 26 minutes, Porzingis had 13 points and the 1,500th rebound of his career and Marjanovic had season highs of 15 points and 16 rebounds to help Dallas rout the New Orleans Pelicans 130-84 on Saturday.

Doncic also had nine assists and six rebounds.

Dallas led 64-52 at halftime. Doncic already had 20 points, and Marjanovic scored 11 points, nine in the second quarter.

“(Marjanovic) did a great job,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “The group in the second quarter really did a good job of giving us a 10-point lead. He was a big part of it, getting it to him with a smaller guy on him. He was doing a lot of damage.”

The Pelicans didn’t get within 10 points in the second half.

“The rest of the game was just a formality,” Porzingis said.

Last season, Doncic was the NBA’s rookie of the year and Porzingis was injured and didn’t play after being acquired in a trade with the New York Knicks.

Marjanovic, a 7-foot-4 Serbian, played for two teams before taking a 50% pay cut to sign with Dallas as a free agent. He was a force against the undersized Pelicans.

“When they elected to use (Jahlil) Okafor, that was an opportunity for us to use Boban,” Carlisle said. “It’s hard to use him against guys like (Jaxson) Hayes because of the quickness and shooting.”

Porzingis and his teammates were happy for Marjanovic.

“Can’t stop Bobie,” Porzingis said. “He played great on the boards. He’s so big, so strong. Once he gets the ball in the paint, they can’t do much out there.”

Marjanovic energized the crowd and his teammates.

“When you hear (the crowd) cheering for you, basically you warm up your body so fast. Blood keep going through the body, and you’re not too tight anymore.”

The 46-point margin was two shy of Dallas’ season high against Golden State.

Dallas has won five in a row to improve to 18-8. The Mavericks have won 10 of 11 for the first time since winning their only NBA championship in 2010-11.

New Orleans has lost eight in a row.

“A poorly played game, a poorly coached game,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said.

Doncic, Porzingis and the other starters didn’t play in the fourth quarter after the Mavericks ran up a 38-point lead at 104-66.

Tim Hardaway Jr. scored 14 points.

Off the bench, Jalen Brunson scored 14 on 6-for-6 shooting and Seth Curry had 11.

J.J. Redick led New Orleans with 15 points. Brandon Ingram and Jrue Holiday scored 14 each and Hayes had 11.

Seven names popping up as the next coach of the New York Knicks

Getty Images
1 Comment

David Fizdale is out. Mike Miller is in, temporarily (unless he can work miracles with this roster over 60 games).

The big question now: Who will coach the Knicks next season?

The answer to that question starts with the answer to a different question: Who is the team president of the Knicks next season? Current head honcho Steve Mills is on the hot seat. Does he hold on to his job and get to pick the new coach? If Mills is let go, whoever becomes the new POBO should be allowed to hire his own coach. (Letting Mills hire a coach then forcing that hire on a new president would be a mistake, but not outside the realm of possibility.)

Just because we don’t know who will be making the choice has not slowed the speculation about who is next. Here are seven names being bounced around the league (just know this is far from a complete list):

Mark Jackson: This is a trip down memory lane for the franchise, one that would be a hit with casual fans and certainly would be a marketing success. Jackson’s backers talk about how he built the foundation of the Warriors (and Steve Kerr long credited Jackson for making the peak Warriors a defensive team). However, he was fired in Golden State for good reasons: His offense was old school and heavy on isolation, he was challenging to work with for the front office (Jackson created an “us” vs. “them” mentality in the locker room where them included the front office), he clashed with assistant coaches and asked them to do a lot (he refused to let Mike Malone be an associate head coach), he has a history of distracting personal life dramas (do that in New York and the headlines are much bigger), and the list goes on. There were enough red flags in Golden State that he hasn’t gotten a job since, do the Knicks want to break that trend?

Jeff Van Gundy: Another blast from the past — he was the last coach to get the Knicks to the Finals — and he whet his coaching chops again coaching Team USA’s G-League squads that qualified USA Basketball for the World Cup. He has coached under James Dolan before, he knows what he is getting into. Does he want to leave that cushy ESPN job to be in Madison Square Garden again? Is he a coach for the modern game?

Jason Kidd: Notice how there are a lot of former Knicks on the top of this list? Here’s another. He is currently on the Lakers’ bench, and if the Knicks goal is to once again get a coach respected by players they think can help recruit superstars to Madison Square Garden, Kidd becomes a viable option. Giannis Antetokounmpo credits Kidd for understanding how to be a pro. The knock against him? The performance of his teams in Milwaukee and Brooklyn on the court. He was let go in those places for good reasons.

Tyrone Lue: Another coach whose name comes up for every job, and he has a ring from Cleveland with LeBron James (where he was LeBron’s hand-picked guy). He’s well respected by players around the league and, unlike his reputation among some fans, was a solid tactician. However, when LeBron left and the Cleveland job became a development project, Lue was gone fast — and the Knicks are a development job. Lue is currently sitting next to Doc Rivers on the Clippers’ bench.

Darvin Ham: If the Mills/Perry front office remains, this becomes a name to watch closely. Ham has a championship ring from his playing days (the 2004 Pistons), Perry worked for the Pistons’ front office during that time, and the two have remained friends. Ham has been working at the right hand of Mike Budenholzer in Milwaukee (insert your “we can lure Antetokounmpo” conspiracy theory here) and has been one of the assistant coaches at the front of the line for a head coaching job, having been inconsideration in Cleveland, Minnesota, and Atlanta.

Ettore Messina: If James Dolan can lure Masai Ujiri away from Toronto (a very big if), then Messina becomes more likely. After years on the bench next to Gregg Popovich learning the NBA game, Messina decided to head back to Europe and is the head coach of Olimpia Milano in Italy. Messina is very well respected in coaching circles and it wouldn’t be a shock if he got a call.

Becky Hammon: Her name comes up a lot for this job around the league. The six-year Spurs assistant (and the woman most likely right now to get a head coaching job in the NBA) has New York ties as she played for the Liberty in the WNBA. San Antonio has been a factory of head coaches and Hammon has had several interviews with other teams. She would be the first woman to coach in the NBA, and that headline and marketing potential may appeal to the Knicks (if they decide to go with a first-time coach).

Other names to watch: Kenny Smith, Craig Robinson, Sam Mitchell, Mike Brown, and Nate Tibbetts.

Lauren Holtkamp-Sterling becomes first mother to officiate an NBA game

AP Photo/Paul Beaty
Leave a comment

CHICAGO (AP) — Referee Lauren Holtkamp-Sterling made NBA history Friday night when she became the first mother to officiate a league game.

Holtkamp-Sterling worked the Bulls-Warriors game in Chicago.

The game was the first for Holtkamp-Sterling since she gave birth to daughter Stoan this year. She missed last season with a knee injury that required surgery and the start of her 2019-20 season was delayed by abdominal surgery.

Her husband, Jonathan Sterling, worked the Los Angeles Clippers-Bucks game in Milwaukee on Friday night. The couple met at a college basketball referees event before they became the first married couple to officiate in league history.

“That’s amazing. They probably have a good nanny, I’m guessing. That cannot be easy raising a child with two NBA refs as parents. It’s a pretty incredible story. I’m happy for Lauren that she’s back on the court,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.

In 2014, Holtkamp-Sterling became the third full-time female referee in league history.

 

Pelicans to ease Zion Williamson into NBA action, no backs-to-backs at first

Leave a comment

If you didn’t see this coming, you probably donated money to help out that poor Nigerian prince, too.

Zion Williamson is six weeks out from his knee surgery and has yet to start on-court work towards his return, signaling he likely will not make the original 6-8 week timeframe to get back on the court. Williamson is putting in the work and improving, but the fact the Pelicans were going to be “overly cautious” — to use coach Alvin Gentry’s words — with Williamson should not be a surprise, this is the franchise that let him play just one half of one game at Summer League.

Pelicans vice president of basketball operations David Griffin went on the Pelicans in-game broadcast recently to talk about the return of Williamson and the team. There he said Williamson is progressing and added the obvious — that there will be some load management of Williamson upon his return. As there should be.

“Yes, he very likely will not be asked to take the pounding of back-to-backs initially,” Griffin said on the team’s television broadcast. “There will be a sort of ramp-up for him to getting back to where you would call him full strength, but he’s certainly going to be playing, and we’re trying to win basketball games. And quite frankly, we’ve done a horrible job of that.”

The Pelicans are 6-16 with a bottom-five defense holding them back this season.

“Where we may be failing in terms of the short term, I’m very confident that we’re succeeding over the breadth of what we’re trying to do, which is build a sustainable winner,” Griffin said. “And we’re well on our way to that, despite the current record.”

Nobody should have expected instant success with this Pelicans roster, despite having Jrue Holiday, and the additions of J.J. Redick and Brandon Ingram. This was going to take time, even if Williamson had remained healthy. Projections of this as a playoff team were wildly optimistic to begin with.

It’s going to take time with Williamson, too. He should not be rushed, he is a physically unique player and must be treated as such.

Griffin is spot on — rebuilding this franchise is a long process and the Pelicans cannot skip steps. Do that and you’re the Knicks. New Orleans has stumbled out of the gate, but what will they look like at the end of the season and if the team has taken steps forward matters a lot more than what they look like now.

Ease your franchise player back into the fold, don’t force things, and the Pelicans will be just fine.