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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.

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

Pelicans big Zion Williamson
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The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.

Rumor: Next NBA season could begin in March

Wizards guard Bradley Beal and 76ers center Joel Embiid
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The NBA could reportedly delay the start of next season – currently planned for Dec. 1 – if fan attendance becomes foreseeable.

How long would the league wait?

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

one plan includes starting in March if the NBA feels they can get fans in the arena by then, as well as not lose personnel and viewership to the Summer Olympics.

I understand the temptation to delay. The coronavirus pandemic has made it more difficult for NBA teams to turn a profit.

But this plan would invite all sorts of complications:

  • What if there’s no vaccine, cure or comparable solution by March? Then, the league would have wasted months getting practically no revenue – rather than reduced revenue – without reaching a more favorable point. (However, maybe owners could also reduce costs with a lockout.)
  • Starting the season in March would radically alter the NBA’s calendar. Shifting back to an October – or even December – start date would mean even more upheaval, potentially for several years.
  • The Tokyo Olympics are scheduled for July and August 2021. The Olympics have been a powerful tool for the NBA and its players expanding their global reach.

These are unique and trying circumstances. Coronavirus is a massive and confounding variable. Everything should be on the table.

Do I predict next season will begin in March? No. But apparently the possibility is being considered, which is something.

Magic center Mo Bamba had coronavirus

Magic center Mo Bamba
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Mo Bamba has fallen behind Khem Birch as the Magic’s backup center (to Nikola Vucevic). At the NBA’ resumption at Disney World, Bamba has played in only two of Orlando’s four games, receiving just four and six minutes. Magic coach Steve Clifford cited the 22-year-old’s conditioning.

Bamba wants you to know the full story: He had coronavirus.

Josh Robbins of The Athletic:

Bamba received word of his positive test on June 11

The illness temporarily robbed him of his senses of smell and taste, made him unusually fatigued and caused muscle soreness.

“Part of me is reading the temperature of the room and just knowing that there are definitely going to be questions, and sometimes you’ve just got to address them with honesty,” Bamba said. “In this case, I think it’s best for them to have that context and have that understanding of what, exactly, is going on.

“I want people to know that I’m still working as hard as ever, if not even harder, and I’ll get through this.”

Bamba thought he had endured the worst by the time the Magic entered the NBA bubble on July 7. But the false positives required him to have an additional three-day in-room quarantine while his teammates practiced together on July 9, July 10 and July 11.

I appreciate Bamba being so forthcoming. It was easy for people to suspect he didn’t train properly during the hiatus. Though medical privacy should also be valued, transparency often alleviates the worst suspicions.

At least 54 NBA players have tested positive for coronavirus. Does that number already include Bamba? It’s unclear.

After going quiet during most of the shutdown, the league has announced the number of players who’ve tested positive since June 23. Maybe Bamba continued to test positive on June 23 or later. Or perhaps he’s an additional case from the quiet period. There definitely were some cases in that timeframe.

False positives are an issue – an unavoidable one. It’s unfair Bamba was stuck in his hotel room, not training, longer than necessary. But the NBA can’t risk allowing a potentially contagious player into the bubble. Better to err on the side of safety.

The No. 6 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, Bamba improved steadily from an underwhelming rookie season. He still needs more work to become a quality NBA player. This is a setback, and one that makes him unlikely to contribute much the rest of this season. Hopefully, he’ll be able to pick up next season where he left off when this season got suspended.

Three Things to Know: What’s next for 76ers without Ben Simmons?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out every day in the bubble — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) What’s next for 76ers without Ben Simmons?

“This one stings, for sure.”

That was 76ers coach Brett Brown, who has had to deal with a lot of injuries to players during his tenure in Philadelphia. But this one hurts a little more because of the timing. The Sixers will be without Ben Simmons for a while after he suffered a subluxation of the left patella — his kneecap essentially dislocated then popped back into place — against Washington.

The 76ers were adjusting to playing Simmons at power forward during the restart in Orlando. Now there are just questions.

How long will Simmons be out? That’s the big one and the answer is nobody knows for sure. The Sixers are evaluating treatment options. As Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes notes, Allen Crabbe had the same injury earlier this year and missed 11 days (three games), but he had no damage to the ligaments or rest of the knee. That’s the most common outcome for this injury and it would have Simmons back around the start of the playoffs. However, if there is any ligament damage, Simmons could be out much longer. (The early reports were the MRI came back clean, but that doesn’t tell us much about the real level of damage other than it wasn’t severe.) Philadelphia has always been cautious when it comes to bringing its stars back from injury.

Who starts for Philadelphia while Simmons is out? That’s one Brown has to decide by today (Friday) and the game against Orlando. He could plug Al Horford back into the starting lineup — the Sixers were +1.4 points per 100 possessions this season with Embiid and Horford on the court together without Simmons (it was -0.7 with all three and the floor spacing was a mess). Or, Brown could keep Horford on the bench and go with another wing such as Matisse Thybulle or Furkan Korkmaz.

Philadelphia seems locked into the six seed in the East (they are one game back of five seed Indiana with four to play, but the Pacers beat the Sixers last Friday and have the tiebreaker, so it is in practice a two-game lead).

Philadelphia is 6-5 this season without Simmons, and while they can plug other players into the four they will not have Simmons’ elite defense, nor his passing skills, and the new player will not be the same threat in transition. Philadelphia is just not the same threat in the East without Simmons.

2) Portland is in control of ninth seed in West after win, New Orleans loss

There is going to be a play-in series in the West — and Portland is going to be in it.

That much seems obvious after Thursday’s action, where Jusuf Nurkic was dunking on Bol Bol and Portland was picking up a 125-115 win over Denver.

That win has Portland half a game back of  Memphis for the eighth seed in the West — and the 0-4 Grizzlies face a tough game against the Thunder Friday. The West could be tied by Saturday morning.

Portland looks to be a lock for the play-in.

Can anyone else crash that party? Sacramento earned it’s first win in the bubble on Thursday, knocking off Zion Williamson and New Orleans, meaning now both the Kings and Pelicans sit 2.5 games back of the Grizzlies with four to play. Both need to win out and hope Memphis continues losing to have a chance to get into a play-in with Portland.

The undefeated-in-the-bubble Suns and the Spurs both sit two games back of the Grizzlies and with a chance to make a play-in. Just as with the Kings/Pels, the Suns and Spurs essentially need to win out and count on the Grizzlies continued stumbles to have a chance.

Memphis controls its own destiny. But without Jaren Jackson Jr., and with Ja Morant struggling from three, a sharp turnaround is needed.

3) Milwaukee wraps up No. 1 seed in East

This was expected, but the Bucks made it dramatic. Miami led this game by 23 points in the first half, but both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton turned it on — both finished with 33 points each — and Milwaukee came back to get 130-116 win. With that, the Bucks officially wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the East.

While this is good for the Bucks — who now get an easy first-round playoff matchup against Brooklyn or Orlando — they know they will be judged on the playoffs. This is a Finals-or-bust team. And Milwaukee fans don’t want to think about the options for bust.

Milwaukee has eased into games in the NBA restart, not worrying about wins now and rather being healthy and firing on all cylinders when the games matter. They have that luxury with the lead they built up in the East, but they need to flip the switch eventually. As they did coming back on the Heat.