NBA Power Rankings: Red-hot Milwaukee moves into top spot

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We’ve got a new team on top because the Bucks have been tearing up the league, and while they have some tough games coming up, the fact they are in the East means Milwaukee might hold down this slot for much of the season.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (18-3, Last week No. 2). Winners of 12 in a row with a top three offense and defense in the league over that stretch. All that, and this team still leaves points on the table from the three-point line — the Bucks take 40.2 threes a game (third most in the NBA) but hit just 35.1% of them (20th in the league). Gianni Antetokounmpo being willing to shoot from three now is part of that (4.9 attempts a game, hitting 30.4%).They miss Malcolm Brogdon on that front. Good test Friday night when the Clippers come to town.

Lakers small icon 2. Lakers (18-3, LW 1). Watch the Lakers play in person and two things that jump out at you. First, this is is a tall, long team. Second, they play hard. Those two things combined are why they have the fifth-best defense in the league right now. LeBron James sees what’s on the table this year and he’s not coasting, nor is he letting others coast defense, which is another reason he’s in the MVP conversation. That said, the Lakers have gotten sloppy and not played 40+ good minutes a game lately, they got away with that last month but not against Dallas, but showed they learned a lesson against Denver on Tuesday.

Clippers small icon 3. Clippers (16-6, LW 3). We have yet to see the full potency of this Clippers roster. For example, when the game is on the line their four best players are Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Lou Williams, and Montrezl Harrell, and that group together (with any other fifth player) is +38.3 per 100 possessions. But we have only seen it for 48 minutes (just five against Portland Tuesday night). It just sigs in Doc Rivers back pocket. The Clippers head out East for six games now (with two back-to-backs), including the Bucks on Friday.

Mavericks small icon 4. Mavericks (14-6, LW 5). Luka Doncic averaged a 30-point triple-double in the month of November, which puts him in some rarified company — the only other people to accomplish that are Russell Westbrook (twice) and Oscar Robertson (eight times). Doncic fuel’s Dallas’ engine, but their ball movement gets them a lot of open threes, 40.4 a game, second most in the NBA, and they hit 36.1% of them (10th best in the league). This offense is not a one-man show.

Raptors small icon 5. Raptors (15-4, LW 6). Nick Nurse didn’t win a title his first season as an NBA coach just because he had Kawhi Leonard on his team (although, that helped). It was because this guy can flat-out coach, and we have seen that this season with Leonard gone, injuries piling up, and yet the Raptors had won seven in a row until Miami on Tuesday and have a top 10 offense and defense over their last 10 games. The Raptors keep finding guys deep on the roster — rookie Terrence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, among others — who can contribute. Tough tests coming up with the Rockets, 76ers, and Clippers as three of their next four.

Sixers small icon 6. 76ers (15-6, LW 8). Everyone — from Sixers fans to coach Brett Brown — keeps waiting for the offense to catch up with the defense. Hasn’t happened yet. Defensively they are fourth in the league (and 0.7 in net rating out of the top spot), and in the last five games that defense has only been better. The offense, on the other hand, is 17th in the NBA for the season and 2.8 per 100 worse in the last five games. Philadelphia needs that offense because the schedule gets much tougher in the next month.

Nuggets small icon 7. Nuggets (13-5, LW 4). Can Denver get its offense rolling? The Nuggets are winning with the league’s second-best defense (a strange thing to type), but they are 20th in the league in offense. Denver doesn��t take a lot of threes (fourth-fewest in the league per game), and they don’t get to the free throw line much (fifth-fewest times per game), which leaves them working hard for the shots they do get. Plus, Nikola Jokic has not been the All-NBA dominant force on offense he was a season ago (the Lakers held him to 13 points on 12 shots Tuesday). Maybe the offense turns around, but we now have nearly a quarter of the season and we can’t just call it slow start anymore.

Celtics small icon 8. Celtics (14-5, LW 7). There are times the Celtics clearly miss his shot creation, but Boston has held up quite well since Gordon Hayward went down with a fractured left hand. The Celtics are 9-4 without Hayward with a +6.5 net rating, with a top 10 defense and a solid offense. Boston is also 7-0 at home this season where their offense has been dominant (and covered up for a sloppy defense in the Garden). Interesting showdown with the upstart Heat on Wednesday.

Heat small icon 9. Heat (15-5, LW 9). Jimmy Butler is averaging 18.8 points a game, but some in Heat nation think he needs to score more to bolster the team’s offense. I don’t see it that way, what the Heat need is more of the triple-double Butler — 22 points, 13 rebounds, 12 assists — from the win that snapped Toronto’s winning streak on Tuesday. That Butler gets other guys such as Duncan Robinson or Bam Adebayo involved, and when that happens the Heat are much more difficult to beat.

Rockets small icon 10. Rockets (13-7, LW 12). James Harden has found his three-point stroke. The Beard shot just 29.8% from three through the first 10 games of the season, but over the last 10 games he’s shooting 38.9%. And that is on 14.4 attempts from beyond the arc. Harden has 88 more attempts from three than the second person on that list this season (Buddy Hield) and is on pace to break his own record for most threes in a season (set last season).

Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (13-7, LW 11). The Pacers have been good — 11-4 in November — but it’s also a challenge to get a real gauge on this team between the soft schedule and rash of injuries they have faced. All that is about to change. The Pacers are getting healthy, the two-bigs lineup of Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis are showing promise, and most important of all Victor Oladipo is taking some contact in practice and is getting closer to a return. That they have kept their heads afloat through all this is an impressive coaching job by Nate McMillan.

12. Timberwolves (10-9, LW 13). This is not getting enough attention: Karl-Anthony Towns is having an All-NBA (maybe First Team), bottom-of-the-MVP ballot kind of season. Towns is averaging 25.9 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks a game, is shooting 42.1% from three and is playing solid defense. He’s the reason this team is above .500. Minnesota is 7-2 on the road this season, where they score nine more points a game, and seem to play better defense. At home the Timberwolves are 3-7 on the season. So it’s good news that the Wolves start a four-game road trip on Wednesday.

Jazz small icon 13. Jazz (12-9, LW 10). Utah lost 4-of-5 on its recent road trip, including ugly losses in Toronto and Philadelphia. We knew the offense would struggle to start the season, but it’s 23rd in the league and Mike Conley is shooting 37%. The defense that was supposed to carry the team is good but not great, ranked in the league for the season, and in the last 10 games they have fallen to 17th in the league giving up 4.9 more points per 100 possessions than they averaged last season (Rudy Gobert did miss some of those games). The Jazz are a good team, but do not look like the potential contender some of us expected.

Nets small icon 14. Nets (10-10, LW 14). Kyrie Irving is doing on-court work to return from his shoulder impingement but is not taking contact and will remain out through at least Friday. Brooklyn is 6-3 in the games he’s missed, with a basically even net rating, and last week split a home-and-home with Boston — they are playing well thanks to Spencer Dinwiddie. The point guard has averaged more than 25 points and 7 assists a game since Irving went down, and he has the ball moving and the offense flowing more like it did last season in Brooklyn.

Pistons small icon 15. Pistons (8-13, LW 17). The Pistons are getting healthier and playing better of late, and all that starts with Blake Griffin. He has played in nine games so far and the team is 4-5 in those games, plus the Detroit offense is 4.6 points per 100 better when he is on the court. Detroit is playing better of late (+8.7 point differential that past two weeks, sixth-best in the NBA, via Cleaning the Glass), which is keeping them in the hunt of a playoff spot in the East despite the slow start.

Suns small icon 16. Suns (9-10, LW 15). Things have cooled off after the hot start to the season, having gone 2-6 in their last eight games with a -4.7 net rating. The offense has still been okay, but the defense has faded and is bottom 10 in the league over that stretch. The defense tends to be solid when Aron Baynes is on the court but drops off dramatically when he sits. The Suns will need to turn this thing around on the road, they have eight road games remaining this month.

Blazers small icon 17. Trail Blazers (8-13, LW 21). Portland is 3-4 since the return of Carmelo Anthony, which is a step forward (even if the Clippers on Tuesday reminded Portland how far it still needs to go). Those three straight wins for the Trail Blazers were less about ‘Melo and more about the return of Damian Lillard to the lineup, but when those two are paired the Blazers are +8.5 per 100 possessions (in 120 minutes), mostly because the offense is on fire. Hassan Whiteside set a franchise record with 10 blocks this week, when he is on he is impressive.

Magic small icon 18. Magic (9-11, LW 19). Orlando has gone 3-3 and kept its head above water while Nikola Vucevic remains out with a right ankle sprain, although those three wins came against a softer part of the schedule. Still, the Magic will take the victories. Of all the young Orlando players, it is Jonathan Isaac who is emerging as a potential star, a defensive force already who is working on his offense game, check out our feature from Dan Feldman on Isaac’s development.

Thunder small icon 19. Thunder (8-11, LW 20). Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the future of this team at the point, he’s already impressive in just his second season (18.2 points per game) and is ready for more responsibility. However, when the game is on the line, the Thunder turn to Chris Paul — he has more fourth-quarter points in the clutch than any other player in the league this season. It’s good that’s working out in OKC because Paul is going to be nearly impossible to trade in season (due to his contract). The Thunder are just a game out of the playoffs in the West but have a tough stretch coming up the next six games.

Kings small icon 20. Kings (8-11, LW 16). Sacramento has kept its head above water with young stars De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III both out — the Kings are 5-5 in games the pair has missed, with a -1.3 net rating. We’ll see if the Kings can stay in the playoff hunt in the West with 8-of-10 coming up on the road. Fox is going to be out at least another couple of weeks with his ankle sprain, but Bagley seems to be getting much close to a return.

Spurs small icon 21. Spurs (8-14, LW 24). Back in July at Summer League, it didn’t take much time watching Lonnie Walker IV to realize he is an NBA player who could dominate in Las Vegas and was ready for more and to break out in San Antonio. We may have seen that breakthrough Tuesday night, Walker scored 24 against Houston, with 18 of those coming in the fourth quarter, including eight consecutive points to tie the game. In what has been a rough season in San Antonio, Walker could be a bright spot.

Bulls small icon 22. Bulls (7-14, LW 23). There are positives when you watch the Bulls play — Wendell Carter Jr. has shown to be a solid big man on both ends of the court, with 12.6 pints and 9.7 rebounds a game, who can be part of the future in Chicago — but their offense continues to be a slog. The Bulls are 29th in the league in offensive efficiency and their offense has not been better the past five games. Chicago needed a lot more out of a healthy Lauri Markkanen than they have gotten this season.

Wizards small icon 23. Wizards (6-13, LW 18). The defensive book on playing Washington clear, and fairly obvious — blitz Bradley Beal whenever he has a screen set for him, and maybe double him even when he doesn’t. Get the ball out of Beal’s hands and force anyone else on that roster to beat you. That guy who beats you will not be C.J. Miles, who is out indefinitely after getting wrist surgery. At least Isaiah Thomas is keeping things entertaining.

Grizzlies small icon 24. Grizzlies (6-14, LW 28). Brandon Clarke, out of Gonzaga, has been one of the surprises as a rookie this season, averaging an efficient 11.8 points a game by getting to the rim and finishing, plus showing the ability to drain the three when he takes it (45.5 percent but just taking 1.2 a game). Unfortunately, an oblique injury will have him out for at least a week (he’s week to week). The Grizzlies have lost 7-of-8 and now head out on the road for their next four.

Hornets small icon 25. Hornets (8-14, LW 25). Reality has caught up with Charlotte, which has lost 7-of-9, and the reason is its defense. The Hornets are 29th in the league in defensive rating and in the past nine games they have been 4.5 points per 100 worse on that end of the court. The only wins in that stretch were a surprising sweep of a home-and-home against the Pistons where rookie PJ Washington stepped up and showed some promise.

Pelicans small icon 26. Pelicans (6-15, LW 22). Six weeks after his surgery, Zion Williamson is doing some walkthroughs but has not yet done any on-court work, with coach Alvin Gentry adding they would be “overly cautious” with bringing the young star back. Which means don’t expect to see him Christmas Day. The Pelicans have dropped six in a row and 7-of-11 coming up on the road.

Cavaliers small icon 27. Cavaliers (5-15, LW 27). Darius Garland can shoot the three, the rookie is taking 40.4% of his shots from beyond the arc and hitting 37.2% of them. The problem comes when he steps inside the arc, he is shooting just 46% at the rim and is taking a lot of shots from floater range and hitting just 39.2% of them. It’s a project for the rookie to work on the rest of the season (if this continues into next summer and next season, then we start to worry). The Cavaliers have lost 10-of-11 and now have 5-of-7 coming up on the road.

Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (5-16, LW 29). Atlanta snapped its losing streak, and sure it came against the Warriors but that still counts. Atlanta’s offense remains the entertaining Trae Young show, but the team is going to struggle with wins so long as their defense is bad — and it’s 25 in the league for the season. The biggest problem there is in transition, where teams score at a 133.1 points per 100 possessions pace (second-worst in the league), and the Hawks allow teams to start 16% of their possessions that way (bottom 10 in the league). Transition D is a real issue for the Hawks. (Stats via Cleaning the Glass.)

Knicks small icon 29. Knicks (4-17, LW 26). It can be hard to figure out what the Knicks are trying to do with their rotations: Kevin Knox was consistently losing minutes and last Friday got a DNP-coach’s decision, then on Sunday he started against Boston. Knicks fans are focused on the future and RJ Barrett, who has played solidly as a rookie thrown into the fire this season. Barrett has averaged 14.7 points per game but with a dreadful true shooting percentage of 45.8.

Warriors small icon 30. Warriors (4-18, LW 30). D’Angelo Russell has missed his last nine games with a thumb injury, and obviously Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are out, which also has meant a decrease in Draymond Green’s minutes. Like Ralph Fiennes in Taken, Green has a very specific skillset, and it’s one that makes can make great talent better, but doesn’t lift up young or lesser players. Which is what the Warriors are now, so Steve Kerr has started to cut back Green’s minutes. The Warriors have started 0-3 on their current road trip and have lost 6 of their last 7.

Mark Cuban’s plan for a restart, “I don’t think we can go the old tried and true way”

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Wild, fanciful ideas for restarting the NBA that would never fly in a typical year — 1-16 seeding, or maybe a soccer World Cup-style group stage — are getting an airing this season because everything is on the table. As the NBA moves closer to a restart plan, countless ideas are being floated.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has his own plan.

Shocking, I know. But it’s interesting.

“What I proposed is that we extend the playoff format to 10 teams from each conference, and play at least five games prior to going into playoffs,” Cuban said laying out is plan to NBC’s Mike Tirico on “Lunch Talk Live.” And if we do that, every team in the Eastern Conference would have a chance to make the playoffs, and all but two in the Western Conference would do it [Ed. note: Golden State and Minnesota].

“Then, what I would do, once we got 10 and 10, I would reseed them, and 17 would play 20, and 18 would play 19, in a one-game series. The winner then would take on the eighth-place seed in a five-game series, while the No. 1 seed in each conference would get a bye. Then you go ahead normally from there.

“That gives us a chance to have more meaningful games, it gives almost every team a chance when we come back for whatever is left of our regular season. I think we’ve got to change it up some, I don’t think we can go the old tried and true way.”

Cuban later added, speaking to ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, that he wants to see all 30 teams come to Orlando for regular season games, building excitement for the NBA’s return in every market. This dream, however, seems a long shot, and Damian Lillard spoke for a lot of players when he said he’s not playing if there is not a path to the playoffs for Portland.

Cuban’s point that this is the year to try something different, not to play it safe, has real validity. This season is already upside down due to the corona

Cuban’s plan is a long shot, but is it any longer a shot than any of the other ones out there?

 

Wizards’ Bradley Beal: Thunder considered trading James Harden for me on draft day 2012

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The first three picks of the 2012 NBA Draft, which was held in June:

1. New Orleans Hornets (now Pelicans): Anthony Davis

2. Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets): Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

3. Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal

That August, the Thunder reportedly offered to trade James Harden to Washington for Beal. Washington reportedly rejected the offer due to Harden’s desire for a max contract extension (which Wizards owner Ted Leonsis denied). The Rockets were more than willing to pay Harden, and Oklahoma City dealt him to Houston that October.

Apparently, Washington had a chance to land Harden earlier that offseason.

Beal on “All The Smoke:”

We’re sitting in the draft room. Sure enough, my agent is tapping me. He’s like, “It’s possible you might go to OKC.” I said, “Damn, how am I going to go there? I ain’t even worked out for OKC.” I only worked out for three teams – Washington, Cleveland and Charlotte.

So, the deal was to trade James to Washington, right? OKC gets the third pick. It was either the second or third pick. They were going to trade up to 2 or 3, get me, trade James to Washington.

I would have been in OKC with KD and Russ.

That was a last-minute decision. It was almost done.

I can’t tell whether Beal is also revealing a Harden-to-Charlotte offer or just got mixed up on which teams held the Nos. 2 and 3 picks. Obviously, if Beal was the main prize to the Thunder, they would’ve cared only minimally whether they got him with the No. 2 or No. 3 pick. So, there might have been trade talks with Charlotte, too.

But I’m not convinced Oklahoma City valued Beal that way.

The Thunder were a championship contender. They had just lost in the 2012 NBA Finals to the Heat. Oklahoma City couldn’t have depended on a rookie Beal to contribute on that level.

That’s why – in addition to picks/young player acquired from the Rockets for Harden – the Thunder also got Kevin Martin. The veteran Martin was much better than Beal in 2012-13. (Ironically, the open title window was also a strong argument for just keeping Harden, whatever his contract status).

But the 2012-13 season didn’t go as planned for Oklahoma City. Russell Westbrook got hurt early in the playoffs, and the Thunder lost to the Grizzlies in the second round. Martin left for a lucrative contract with the Timberwolves the following summer.

Even with the long runway Kevin Durant and Westbrook provided, Oklahoma City never got back to the Finals. Beal could have grown into a third star whose shooting complemented the duo. The Thunder might have won a championship with this trade (or, again, just keeping Harden).

The Wizards almost certainly would have won more. Harden has perennially gotten the Rockets to the playoff. (They’ve gone further in years he has had more help.) Beal hasn’t singlehandedly carried Washington like that.

So, this is an interesting “what if?” – if you take it at face value.

Beal’s agent warning him of a trade possibility means something. But we don’t know which other pieces were involved.

The Thunder didn’t trade Harden until just before the rookie-scale-extension deadline, suggesting they wanted to give themselves time to extend him themselves before taking the drastic step of trading him. Would Beal have been enough of a return to give up in June (or even August) on keeping Harden? Maybe. Harden didn’t fully blossom until reaching Houston. But I’m skeptical. At minimum, Harden had already established himself as young and good. Beal was young, promising and under greater team control. There’s significant value in the certainty of a player being at least a near-star, and Harden – not Beal – had that.

Even in hindsight, we’re still revisiting the situation with only limited information.

Report: NBA games could resume in August, not July

Bucks center Brook Lopez and Raptors center Marc Gasol
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
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A week ago, the NBA was looking to resume games in July at Disney World.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

In fact, there’s a possibility the first games played in Orlando could be in August, not July, sources said.

It’s good the NBA is being flexible on a start date. The coronavirus presents so much uncertainty.

The league is approaching its most lucrative time – the playoffs. The NBA should make every effort to play the postseason, whenever that can be done safely.

Everyone can figure out next season later, especially because there’s a willingness to delay the start.

Report: Pistons searching for new general manager

Pistons executive Ed Stefanski
Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images
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The Pistons hired Ed Stefanski as a senior advisor to owner Tom Gores in 2018. Among Stefanski’s duties: Assist in the ongoing search for a new head of basketball operations. But it quickly became clear Stefanski would just run the front office himself.

Now, two years later, Detroit is finally getting around to that general-manager search.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The Detroit Pistons are opening a search to hire a general manager to work with senior advisor Ed Stefanski, sources tell ESPN.

Stefanski will be working with Pistons and Palace Sports Vice Chairman Arn Tellem on the process to hire a GM, sources said.

Rod Beard of The Detroit News:

If Stefanski is still running the front office, a new general manager would be the No. 2 – equivalent to assistant general manager on many teams.

After taking over an inflexible roster left by Stan Van Gundy, Stefanski couldn’t do much. Stefanski’s big move was trading Andre Drummond to the Cavaliers just before the trade deadline. That positioned Detroit to have major cap space next offseason, but it’s unclear how much will actually materialize. The salary cap could drop due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Pistons must determine whether they’re still building around Blake Griffin, the 31-year-old due $36,810,996 and $38,957,028 the next two years. Last season, he returned to stardom and carried Detroit into the playoffs. This season, he missed most of the year due to injury.

If they’re trying to win now with Griffin, the Pistons are short on quality complementary players. If Detroit is ready to rebuild, its pool of young talent – Luke Kennard, Sekou Doumbouya, Bruce Brown, impending free agent Christian Wood, its own first-round pick – is hardly assured of success.

After years of being stuck on a path charted under the Van Gundy regime, the Pistons can soon pick a new course. This is the time get the front office up to full staffing.