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NBA Power Rankings: Bucks hold on to top spot; Celtics climbing fast

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The Bucks and the Lakers have looked like the best team in each conference to start the season, and they remain on top, but surprising Boston and Dallas keep moving up the ladder.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (21-3, Last week No. 1). There are no statement games in December (it’s way too early, teams will evolve by the playoffs), but if there was one it would look a lot like the Bucks 28-point thrashing of the Clippers last Friday. The Bucks have won 15 games in a row and while the Greek Freak gets a lot of credit for that — he is out Wednesday night with a thigh issue — it’s the Bucks’ “protect the paint at all costs” defense that is critical to their success. The Lopez brothers drop back, the long Bucks’ perimeter players lock-and-trail on the P&R, and the result is the Bucks allow the fewest shots in the restricted area in the NBA.

Lakers small icon 2. Lakers (21-3, LW 2). With LeBron James and Anthony Davis we don’t think of the Lakers as a fast-break team — but they are this season. The Lakers score 18.7 fast break points a game, third in the league. To use the advanced stats, the Lakers start 16 percent of possessions in transition, eighth most in the league, with an insane 130.8 offensive rating on those, third best in the NBA. Los Angeles will try to keep up the pace on a five-game road trip through the East starting Wednesday night in Orlando.

Celtics small icon 3. Celtics (17-5, LW 8). Gordon Hayward is back in the Boston rotation, a full two weeks ahead of projections. Boston held up without him — they went 9-4 with a +5.9 net rating — but the team’s offense slid back to middle-of-the-pack, it missed his scoring and shot creation. Boston has won four in a row and 6-of-7 but has a challenging week ahead with Indiana, Philadelphia, and Dallas.

Mavericks small icon 4. Mavericks (16-7, LW 4). While the spotlight is always on Luka Doncic (with good reason), Dallas has quietly had a very good bench this season. The Mavericks get and average of 43.4 points per game from their bench players, fifth best in the league. Dallas’ bench is doing it with balance, getting points and quality minutes from players such as Maxi Kieber, Jalen Brunson, Seth Curry, Delon Wright and more. That depth gives coach Rick Carlisle matchup options nightly.

Clippers small icon 5. Clippers (18-7, LW 3). Montrezl Harrel might be the Sixth Man of the Year (if the vote were taken today), it’s either him or Lou Williams. One key difference between those two is Lou Williams is locked up by the Clippers for this season and the next one (same as Paul George and Kawhi Leonard), but Harrell is an unrestricted free agent next summer in a down year. The man — averaging 19.1 points and 7.8 assists a year — is going to get PAID. The Clippers have his Bird rights and Steve Ballmer can afford the tax, but it’s something to watch come July. Leonard makes his return to Toronto Wednesday night, and there will be nothing but love for him. And a ring.

Sixers small icon 6. 76ers (18-7, LW 6). Philadelphia is a force at home this season, 13-0 with a lock-down defense and a +12.4 net rating. It’s the best home start for the franchise since the Wilt Chamberlain Sixers started 22-0 back in 1966. The concern is that 5-7 road record with the -1.1 net rating — the best teams, especially in the playoffs, win on the road. It was good to see the dancing, having fun Joel Embiid back on Tuesday night.

Rockets small icon 7. Rockets (15-8, LW 10). The new strategy on defending James Harden is now everywhere in the league: Teams are doubling him the second he steps over the half-court line, forcing him to pass and daring anyone else to beat them. That worked at first, the Rockets lost three games in a row when it first saw the strategy, but they have since won 4-of-6 (and the two losses were to the Spurs in 2OT and the Kings on a buzzer-beater). Russell Westbrook has averaged 22.2 points, 9.6 rebounds and 9.6 assists a game his last five games, but his lack of a three ball means teams can keep trying this strategy.

Heat small icon 8. Heat (18-6, LW 9). Sixth man Goran Dragic has missed the last five games, but the Heat are 4-1 (with a couple of OT wins) because they have such a strong-young core carrying them Bam Adebayo is playing at an All-Star level, Kendrick Nunn is second on the team in scoring and in the middle of the Rookie of the Year race, Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro just keep knocking down shots. Jimmy Butler brings it all together, but this team is third in the East because of the young players. Great test against the Lakers on Friday night.

Raptors small icon 9. Raptors (16-7, LW 5). Toronto lost three straight against a tough part of the schedule — Miami, Houston, Philly — and are a concerning 3-7 against teams over .500 (with the Clippers and the return of Kawhi Leonard up for Wednesday night. Pascal Siakam has come back to earth a little bit (we can cool the MVP ballot talk) but is still averaging 22.4 points and 7.8 rebounds a game over his last five, however, he’s shot just 31% from three in that stretch. Toronto has had a few guys out with injuries over the last 10 games but remains in the mix in the East.

Pacers small icon 10. Pacers (15-9, LW 11). While the addition of Malcolm Brogdon last summer gets all the hype, T.J. Warren has been a quality pick up for their rotation. He’s averaged 18.4 points a game, is spacing the floor with his 39.5% shooting from beyond the arc (on 3.2 attempts a game), and he has generally been solid for them. Indiana has a solid 3-2 road trip but came home to a couple tough games, a tough loss to Paul George and the Clippers, and Wednesday night the Celtics come to town.

Nuggets small icon 11. Nuggets (14-8, LW 7). Losers of 5-of-6 and the reasons is their offense has dropped off a cliff (24th in the NBA over that stretch, and the blowout win over the Knicks makes that look better than it really is). Against the Lakers and Celtics, the Nuggets looked like a team a tier or two below. There have been more strong games from Nikola Jokic but the bench has struggled and Denver has not looked like the threat in the West we thought they would be. Thursday starts a five-game homestand against teams all below .500, it’s a chance for Denver to right the ship.

Nets small icon 12. Nets (13-10, LW 14). The Nets get Wilson Chandler — a projected starter before the season — back this weekend from his 25-game PED suspension. Coach Kenny Atkinson said Chandler would be “thrown to the wolves,” so expect him to get some run from Day 1. It also means Iman Shumpert – or someone else, but probably Shumpert — has to be released.

Jazz small icon 13. Jazz (13-11, LW 13). The Jazz made two big summer signings that were supposed to lift them up to the next level. The Mike Conley signing has just not worked out (and Wednesday night will be his fourth game out with a hamstring injury). Conley is averaging 13.9 points a game (his lowest in nine years), is shooting 36.9% from the field, and has a below-average PER of 12.9. On the flip side, the Bojan Bogdanovic signing has been a stroke of genius, he is giving them 20.6 points a night, shooting 45.3% from three, and has provided a second playmaker next to Donovan Mitchell. Still, the Jazz offense lacks the ball movement of seasons past.

Pistons small icon 14. Pistons (10-14, LW 15). They have won 4-of-5 with a top-7 offense and defense in the league over that short stretch. Detroit has beat teams a variety of ways: Blake Griffin stepping up and hitting shots (Indiana), or Andre Drummond owning the glass (he is averaging 16.7 rebounds a game, the last guy to average more than that was Dennis Rodman in 1995, or check out the Derrick Rose game winner against the Pelicans.

Magic small icon 15. Magic (11-12, LW 18). After missing what will be nine games (he is out Wednesday vs. Los Angeles), Nikola Vucevic is expected to return to the Orlando rotation on Friday vs. Houston. The Orlando offense is 9.1 per 100 possessions better when Vucevic is on the court. The Magic have gone 5-3 without him, including a four-game win streak against the soft part of the schedule. That has changed, the Magic lost to the Bucks Monday, have the Lakers and Rockets next, then head out to the West for four games.

Thunder small icon 16. Thunder (11-12, LW 19). Oklahoma City has climbed up to the seven seed and is in the mix for a playoff spot in the West. Just don’t think that has changed the long-term plan — this team is rebuilding and Chris Paul, Stephen Adams, Danilo Gallinari, and others are available. Another bright spot for the future in OKC: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is getting master class in how to be an elite point guard from CP3, sources have said the two have bonded and Paul is in SGA’s ear all the time trying to pass along knowledge.

Suns small icon 17. Suns (11-12, LW 16). Phoenix will get Deandre Ayton back next Tuesday (at the Clippers) from his 25-game PED suspension. They could use him. While Aron Baynes has stepped up brilliantly in Ayton’s absence, there has been a lack of depth along the front line. Phoenix is staying afloat because Devin Booker is still lighting teams up: 29 points per game shooting 40.5% from three, with 6 assists a night in his last five games.

18. Timberwolves (10-13, LW 12). Minnesota has dropped five in a row and the reason is their defense has been dreadful — a 124.7 defensive rating those past five games, worst in the NBA over that stretch (and 16.9 per 100 possessions worse than their defense was in November. It was evident against a good Lakers team — Minnesota could score enough to hang around, even against that long and aggressive L.A. defense, but they could not get stops. It caught up with them. Light week, with just the Jazz and Clippers at home.

Kings small icon 19. Kings (10-13, LW 20). The Kings have been keeping their heads above water in the playoff race until they get healthy, but that starts soon. Marvin Bagley III is expected to return this week, and in a couple of weeks De’Aaron Fox will come back from his sprained ankle. Sacramento had two of the biggest wins of the week, sweeping the Mavericks and Rockets on back-to-back nights on the road, the second one of those thanks to Nemanja Bjelica (and a defensive lapse from Houston).

Blazers small icon 20. Trail Blazers (10-15, LW 17). With Rodney Hood now gone for the season due to a torn Achilles, and combined with a disappointing start to the season, no team has seen trade rumors swirl around them like Portland. There is a lot of talk about them trying to bring Kevin Love back to Oregon (where he grew up and played his high school ball), but Love is in the first year of a four-year, $120 million contract, which makes trading him difficult. Landing Danilo Gallinari out Oklahoma City makes more sense financially and going forward, but one way or another look for something to happen.

Spurs small icon 21. Spurs (9-14, LW 21). Two wins in a row, both in overtime, could be the kind of spark the Spurs need this season. More of the Dejounte Murray we saw against the Kings — the guy with 14 points off the bench and who hit the game-winner (he lost his starting job because of his play, the Spurs need him to play like he’s winning it back). Lonnie Walker broke out against Houston but was back to being ineffective against the Kings, San Antonio needs more of him as a guy who changes games. The Spurs are going to be interesting to watch at the trade deadline, will they be sellers?

Hornets small icon 22. Hornets (10-16, LW 25). Devonte' Graham has been one of the best stories in the NBA this season. A second-round pick out of Kansas, Graham played in just 46 games for the Hornets last season. This season he is their leading scorer at 19.2 a night, had 29 points on 19 shots to lead the Hornets to a win over the Wizards on Tuesday.

Bulls small icon 23. Bulls (8-17, LW 22). Chicago has lost three in a row, 6-of-8, and somehow lost twice to Golden State in span of 10 days, second one last Friday. The media reports about player frustration with coach Jim Boylen fit with what I’ve heard floating around the league for a while now, players are not fans. In fact, the only fans seem to be in the Bulls front office, who like Boylen’s old-school, hard-nosed style. But if he’s not winning changes will come.

Grizzlies small icon 24. Grizzlies (7-16, LW 24). Ja Morant returned to the lineup Monday night after missing four games with “back spasms,” which popped up after he fell into courtside cameraman. Memphis is second in the league in points scored in the paint, averaging 53.7 a game, and a lot of that is from Morant and the other young stars of the team pushing the ball in transition.

Wizards small icon 25. Wizards (7-16, LW 23). Rui Hachimura is making an impression. In his last five games, the Japanese national — and there is a media contingent from Japan following him around — is averaging 18.2 points a game. Against Philadelphia last Thursday he may have had his best game as a pro, scoring 27 points on 18 shots, with seven rebounds, and two steals. The concern is that he takes too many midrange shots — 24.6% of his shot attempts come from outside the paint and inside the arc. While he hits a respectable 42.3% of those shots, he needs to extend his range and turn some of those into threes.

Hawks small icon 26. Hawks (6-18, LW 28). Vince Carter played in his 1,500th regular season NBA game Tuesday night, a joining just four other players ever to do so (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Robert Parish, John Stockton, and Dirk Nowitzki). Reports have surfaced that Trae Young is frustrated with the Hawks’ losing — which is good. I’d be more concerned if he took it in stride. John Collins’ eventual return will help this team, but it’s young and going to take some time.

Pelicans small icon 27. Pelicans (6-18, LW 26). Zion Williamson is not doing on-court work, almost certainly will not meet the 6-8 week deadline, and it would be a surprise to see him on Christmas Day. Zion is reason for hope, but the No. 1 pick alone is not going to fix the mounting problems in New Orleans. Lonzo Ball’s struggles continue — 38.2% shooting from the field — and he has lost his starting job with the Pelicans.

Warriors small icon 28. Warriors (5-20 LW 30). Eric Paschall’s run of 13 double-digit scoring games came to an end against Memphis, but the rookie has still had quite a run and is the one bright spot in this Warriors season (that and the draft pick that will be coming their way). Paschall is scoring 16.6 points per game with a PER of 15.4 — right at the league average but good for a rookie. It’s easy to see where he fits in the rotation next year when the Warriors get healthy.

Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (5-18, LW 27). It’s been a rough season for Matthew Dellavedova, he’s down to getting 13.1 minutes a night and is shooting 27.7% when he does get on the court. Then again, it’s been rough everywhere for the Cavaliers, who have lost 7 in a row and 13-of-14 (with a tough stretch coming up, Wednesday against Houston then on the road for three more games.

Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (4-20, LW 29). Lots of Masai Ujiri as the next team president rumors flying around — how interested he is in the job depends upon who you talk to around the league — but those rumors should mean something bigger for Knicks fans: James Dolan seems finally ready to turn over total control of his basketball operations to a competent individual (Ujiri or someone else). If Dolan does that, then actually sticks with a plan for three or four years and stops looking to shortcut the process, the Knicks could turn this thing around.

Increasing buzz teams well out of playoffs will not come to Orlando for games

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The Golden State Warriors have been public about it, they expect their season to be over. Golden State is far from alone, multiple teams well out of the playoff picture have questioned the expense and risk-to-reward ratio of coming back to play a handful of regular season games without fans in Orlando.

More and more, the buzz has been the NBA league office sees things the same way. I am not the only reporter hearing this: Steve Popper of Newsday wrote a column saying there was no reason to invite all 30 teams to the bubble city and the USA Today’s well-connected Jeff Zillgett added this:

This is where we throw in the caveat: There are no hard-and-fast plans from the NBA yet and every option is still being considered. One lesson Adam Silver took from David Stern was not to make a decision until you have to, and Silver is going to absorb more information in the coming weeks — such as from the recent GM survey — before making his call.

That said, the league seems to be coalescing around a general plan, which includes camps starting in mid-June and games in mid-July in Orlando.

For the bottom three to five teams in each conference, there is little motivation to head to Orlando for the bubble. It’s an expense to the owner with no gate revenue coming in, teams want to protect their NBA Draft Lottery status, and the Warriors don’t want to risk injury to Stephen Curry — or the Timberwolves to Karl-Anthony Towns, or the Hawks to Trae Young — for a handful of meaningless games.

The league is considering a play-in tournament for the final seed or seeds in each conference (there are a few format options on the table, it was part of the GM survey). That would bring the top 10 or 12 seeds from each conference to the bubble, depending upon the format, and they would play a handful of games to determine which teams are in the playoffs (and face the top seeds).

Either way, that would leave the three or five teams with the worst records in each conference home. Which is the smart thing to do, there’s no reason to add risk to the bubble for a handful of meaningless games.

Eight-year NBA veteran Jon Leuer announces retirement

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Jon Leuer is only age 31, but the big man has battled ankle and other injuries in recent seasons, playing in only 49 games over the past three seasons. Last July, the Pistons traded him to the Bucks in a salary dump, and Milwaukee quickly waived him. Leuer struggled to get healthy and did not catch on with another team.

Sunday he took to Instagram to announce his retirement.

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I love the game of basketball. I still want to play, but I know deep down it’s not the right decision for my health anymore. The past 3 years I’ve dealt with a number of injuries, including 2 that kept me out this whole season. It’s taken me a while to come to grips with this, but I’m truly at peace with my decision to officially retire. As disappointing as these injuries have been, I’m still thankful for every moment I spent playing the game. Basketball has been the most amazing journey of my life. It’s taken me places I only could’ve dreamed about as a kid. The relationships it brought me mean more than anything. I’ve been able to connect with people from all walks of life and forged lifelong bonds with many of them. What this game has brought me stretches way beyond basketball. I’m grateful for this incredible ride and everyone who helped me along the way. 🙏🏼🙌🏼✌🏼

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Leuer — a second-round pick out of Wisconsin for the Bucks in 2011 — averaged 10.2 points and 5.4 rebounds a game for the Pistons in the 2016-17 season, and for the years at the peak of his career he was a quality rotational big man teams could trust, either off the bench or as a spot starter.

Over the course of his career he played for the Bucks, Cavaliers, Grizzlies, Suns, and Pistons. He earned more than $37 million in salary, most of it from a three-year contract the Pistons gave him in 2016. It was not long after his body started to betray him.

Leuer has been riding out the quarantine in Minnesota is wife Keegan (NFL coach Brian Billick’s daughter) and the couple is donating thousands of meals a week to the needy in that community.

 

New York Governor clears path for Knicks, Nets to open facilities for workouts

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As of today, 19 NBA teams have their practice facilities open for players to come in for individual workouts, but 11 have yet to open the doors. Some it’s the decision of the team, some it’s that the municipality or state had not allowed it.

The Knicks and Nets — in the heart of New York, the part of the nation hardest hit by COVID-19 — are two of those teams whose facilities are closed. However, on Sunday New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said they could open the door for practice.

“I believe that sports that can come back without having people in the stadium, without having people in the arena — do it! Do it!” Cuomo said at his press conference. “Work out the economics, if you can. We want you up. We want people to be able to watch sports. To the extent people are still staying home, it gives people something to do. It’s a return to normalcy. So we are working and encouraging all sports teams to start their training camps as soon as possible. And we’ll work with them to make sure that can happen.”

While the teams have not formally announced anything yet, it is likely at least the Nets will open soon for the players still in market to workout (the majority of players from the New York teams went home to other parts of the country). The Knicks, well out of the playoff picture, may be much slower to open their facilities back up.

When they happen, the workouts come with considerable restrictions: one player and one coach at each basket, the coach is wearing gloves and masks, the balls and gym equipment are sanitized, and much more.

One part of a potential plan for the NBA to return to play called for a couple of weeks of a training camp at the team facilities, followed by 14 days of a quarantined training camp in Orlando at the bubble site. Multiple teams reached out to the league about doing their entire training camp in Orlando to avoid having players quarantine twice (once when the player reports back to market, once when the team goes to the bubble city).

Warriors’ Bob Myers says he would ‘consider’ trading draft pick

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Even if the NBA decides to play a handful more regular season games upon return, the Golden State Warriors are going to finish the season with the worst record in the NBA (they have a 4.5 game “lead” for the worst record). That means they have a 14% chance at the No. 1 pick, a 40.1% chance of a top-three pick, and a 47.9% chance of having the No. 5 pick.

Those same Warriors are returning next season with a healthy Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, a team with title aspirations.

That’s led to a lot of speculation the Warriors would try to trade down, something Warriors co-owner Joe Lacob confirmed. Warriors president Bob Myers, speaking to NBC Sports’ Bay Area’s Monte Poole, said as much as any executive in his shoes would: He’d consider trading the pick.

“Yeah, we’re going to consider all that,” the Warriors president of basketball operations told NBC Sports Bay Area over the phone, before pausing for a moment. “Now, I don’t know if the headline is going to be that we’re trading our pick. So, be clear that I said ‘consider.’”

On the ProBasketballTalk podcast, NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster said if he were in Myers’ shoes he would try to trade down, get a veteran, and land in picks four through six. There he can likely land a player such as Obi Toppin, Isaac Okoro, or Deni Avdija — players who should not go No. 1 but are better poised to help immediately. The problem for the Warriors, or whoever lands the top pick, is this is a weak draft at the top, depressing the value. Dauster described it this way: the top three picks in this draft would go 6-10 most years.

The 2020 NBA Draft Lottery and Draft Combine have been postponed, and the draft itself will get the same treatment soon (it has yet to be officially changed, but everyone expects it).

Until there is a lottery and the Warriors know where they land, it’s tough for Myers to do much more than plan. Just like the rest of us.