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NBA Power Rankings: Bucks, Lakers hold on to top two spots heading into showdown

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The Bucks and Lakers both dropped a game this week but kept the top two slots in these power rankings heading into their showdown Thursday night. Dallas has climbed to third, but it will be tough to stay there with Luka Doncic out for a couple of weeks.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (24-4, Last Week No. 1). Their 18-game win streak came to an end with an off night against Dallas, but they got that win streak with elite play on both ends: The second-best defense and the second-best offense in the NBA over the last 15 games. Even with that, Thursday night against the Lakers is the real measuring stick. Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. LeBron James in a potential Finals preview (except for Eric Bledsoe, Kyle Kuzma, and others out injured, plus the fact both teams will evolve a lot before the playoffs even start).

Lakers small icon 2. Lakers (24-4, LW No. 2). If anyone needed evidence of what Anthony Davis means to this Lakers team, watch the video of the loss to Indiana from Tuesday night (which snapped the Lakers 14-game road win streak). Indiana grabbed the offensive rebound on 30% of their missed shots without Davis there to clean up the glass, and without those rebounds Los Angeles couldn’t get out and run to transition points like it normally does. Their spacing was off, too. We could go on, but you get the idea. If the Lakers want to prove they belong on top of this ranking, they get the chance Thursday night against the Bucks.

Editor’s note: Tickets to Bucks-Lakers? Click here

Mavericks small icon 3. Mavericks (18-8, LW 4). No Luka Doncic for two weeks (at least, due to a sprained ankle) is a huge test for Dallas — they passed the first part beating Milwaukee on the road. The Mavs offense will not be the same without the guy giving them 29.3 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 8.8 assists per game, the guy who runs their pick-and-roll based game. Where Dallas can make up for it is on the defensive end (they are 6.1 per 100 better defensively when he sits this season), and with Kristaps Porzingis stepping up.

Clippers small icon 4. Clippers (21-8, LW 5). Paul George has become as dangerous a three-point shooter as there is in the league. PG13 is hitting 40.3% from three on 9.8 attempts from beyond the arc per game (only James Harden and Buddy Hield attempt more). The Clippers face the Rockets Thursday night in what will be an interesting chess match: Last time these teams met the Clippers doubled and trapped Harden out near the mid-court line, and while the Clippers won the game (122-119) Harden still had 37 points and the Rockets’ offense was not slowed. What strategy does Doc Rivers test out this game?

Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (20-8, LW 6). Philadelphia is Jekyll and Hyde when it comes to being in the Wells Fargo Center or on the road. Philly is 14-0 at home, 6-8 on the road, and the real difference is on defense — the Sixers allow less than a point per possession (98.9 defensive net rating) and play with more emotion and energy at home. The Sixers have a +12 net rating at home and -2 net rating on the road. The Sixers have 4-of-5 coming up at home including the Bucks on Christmas Day.

Celtics small icon 6. Celtics (17-7, LW 3). How much Marcus Smart means to the Celtics defense was evident in losses last week to Indiana and Philadelphia, games where they gave up at least 115 points to teams outside the top 12 offenses in the league. Those games — particularly against the Sixers — exposed the lack of bench depth outside Smart on this team, the challenge is the Celtics do not have great options to trade for more depth at the deadline. Boston also doesn’t have a good answer for Joel Embiid (few teams do), and that will be a playoff challenge if they meet.

Pacers small icon 7. Pacers (19-9, LW 10). The Myles Turner/Domantas Sabonis big man combo is starting to work: In the last 15 games, they have played nearly 300 minutes together and the Pacers have an impressive 100.3 defensive rating and an impressive +9 net rating in those minutes. How well it worked showed up against the Lakers (without AD) when Turner was switching onto LeBron an others late and holding his own defensively, while Sabonis scored 26. The Pacers have won four in a row and have a fun showdown with the Bucks on Sunday.

Rockets small icon 8. Rockets (18-9, LW 7). Once again, James Harden is right at the front of the discussion for MVP, scoring 38.9 points per game. Once again, he scoffs at the idea of load management and taking a night off. And, once again, he is second in the league in total minutes played (only he and Devonte' Graham are over 1,000 already) and usage rate (38.6, tied with the Greek Freak for the most). That’s a lot on his shoulders and it’s fair to wonder if he will be able to hold up physically. The Rockets have 5-of-6 coming up on the road, starting with the Clippers Thursday.

Nuggets small icon 9. Nuggets (17-8, LW 11). Denver is a team to watch heading into the trade deadline, with them trying to package players such as Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez to get an upgrade to their rotation. Both of them are expiring contracts, if there’s a team seeking some cap relief, but finding a deal that gets them quality back will not be easy. After losing 5-of-6 and struggling on the road, Denver came home and has strung together three straight wins (against a soft schedule, but still wins). Good test in Los Angeles Sunday against the Lakers.

Heat small icon 10. Heat (19-8, LW 8). Bam Adebayo is on a tear and is putting up All-Star numbers of late: 19 points, 12 rebounds, and 7.4 assists a game over his last five, all while shooting 58.1% from the field. There are no moral victories in the NBA, but the Heat’s three-point loss to the Lakers where they hung with an elite team all game was a good sign for this team heading forward. Another good test Wednesday night in Philadelphia (where the Sixers remain undefeated).

Raptors small icon 11. Raptors (18-8, LW 9). After losses in the past weeks to quality teams (Heat, Rockets, 76ers, Clippers), Toronto may want to step back, assess where they are in the East (and NBA pecking order), and see if they can make deadline trades for Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka. The challenge is the money — Gasol makes $25.5 million, Ibaka $23.2 million — because teams don’t have cap space, but expect Toronto to be active and at least talking to teams. Good test next Monday against Indiana.

Nets small icon 12. Nets (15-12, LW 12). Kyrie Irving has been out 16 games now, the Nets are 11-5 with a top-10 defense in the league during that stretch. Wilson Chandler is back from his 25-game PED suspension, and while he has come off the bench and played a limited role, he ads some much needed veteran depth at the forwards spots.

Jazz small icon 13. Jazz (16-11, LW 13). Donovan Mitchell took over late against Orlando Tuesday, which bailed out another rough performance by the Utah bench (Royce O’Neale had 11 points but the bench as a total had just 14, and they are wildly inconsistent night to night). Winners of three in a row (against a soft part of the schedule) the Jazz now head on the road for 7-of-9. Away from home the Jazz are 5-8 and are getting outscored by 2.4 PPG.

Thunder small icon 14. Thunder (12-14, LW 16). Billy Donovan doesn’t go to a three-guard lineup of Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander all that much — he’s used it in 26 games but for fewer than six minutes a game — however, when he does, they destroy teams. That trio holds teams to less than a point per possession and has a net rating of +25.9 points per 100 possessions. Expect a lot of Danilo Gallinari trade rumors between now and the deadline, he is going to be on the move.

Pistons small icon 15. Pistons (11-16, LW 14). We learned this week that Andre Drummond has a strong Avocado allergy and some ceviche in Mexico sidelined him for a few days. Throw in Blake Griffin’s painful knee and you have a team that has lost two-of-three. Derrick Rose is trying to keep them afloat, averaging 16.6 points and 6.1 assists a game off the bench, and keeps making his case for Sixth Man of the Year.

Magic small icon 16. Magic (12-15, LW 15). The Magic have dropped 4-of-5 through a difficult part of the schedule, with games at Denver and at Portland still ahead. Orlando is banking n the return of All-Star center Nikola Vucevic to start their lowly offense (25th in the league). Even with all that, the Magic sit as the current eight seed in the East.

Kings small icon 17. Kings (12-15, LW 19). De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III are back in the lineup, and while that didn’t mean a win in Charlotte Tuesday it does mean Sacramento is close to whole again. Even with the loss, Sacramento has won 4-of-6, they got their best players back, and starting Dec. 23 (against Houston), the Kings have 10-of-12 at home. Make a run there and the Kings can start to solidify a playoff spot in the West (for the first time in 13 years).

Blazers small icon 18. Trail Blazers (11-16, LW 20). Carmelo Anthony’s defensive reputation was both well earned and the thing that made other teams slow to sign him this summer. However, watch him play now and he is putting in the effort on that end of the floor — he had three blocks and two steals against the Suns on Monday night. He’s active and trying, and that’s a good start. Portland starts a run of 6-of-7 at home on Wednesday against Golden State, if the Blazers are going to turn their season this is the time to do it.

Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (13-17, LW 22). Charlotte remains the team playing the most over its head this season, Cleaning the Glass has them as a 10-win team (9.6, to be specific) but the Hornets keep winning close games. Charlotte is 4-1 in their last five but they are just +8 in those games (and have a 1.2 net rating). Devonte’ Graham continues to impress every time he steps on the court, including dropping 40 on Brooklyn a week ago.

Suns small icon 20. Suns (11-15, LW 17). Deandre Ayton returned from his PED suspension Tuesday and put up 18 points and 14 rebounds in loss to the Clippers. It’s a good start, they need his offensive production in the paint. The Suns have lost four in a row and 5-of-6, with their struggling offense being the main reason for the slide.

Spurs small icon 21. Spurs (10-16, LW 21). Nobody on the Spurs was happy making history by playing in four straight overtime games, but the Spurs won three of them. Even with that it looks like they will miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years this season, which leads to the next question: Will San Antonio be a seller at the trade deadline? Even if they want to be, is there much of a market for the big contracts of DeMar DeRozan ($27.7 million) or LaMarcus Aldridge ($26 million, but only $7 million guaranteed next season)?

Grizzlies small icon 22. Grizzlies (10-17, LW 24). Ja Morant returned to the lineup and the Grizzlies have won 4-of-5 (with the only loss coming to Milwaukee. Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. are -6.4 per 100 possessions when paired together this season, and not particularly strong on either end of the court. That comes with being a young team. Morant’s dunk over Aron Baynes may be a week old, but you can’t see this one enough.

23. Timberwolves (10-15, LW 18). Losers of seven in a row, with a frighteningly bad 123.5 defensive net rating over that stretch. Just for some context, the Wizards have the worst defense in the league this season and their net rating is 116.7. Minnesota has slid back so far they might become sellers at the trade deadline, but the play of Robert Covington during this stretch — on both ends of the court — is going to make teams hesitant, and if nothing else will lower what they could get for him.

Bulls small icon 24. Bulls (10-19, LW 23). Looking for a bright spot on a team that is stumbling along, having lost 5-of-7, a team that keeps blowing big leads? Zach LaVine has added to his offensive arsenal, becoming a far more consistent three-point shooter this season, hitting 40.5% from beyond the arc on 7.6 attempts per game.

Wizards small icon 25. Wizards (8-17, LW 25). New GM Tommy Sheppard is going to get a lot of calls before the trade deadline about the availability of Davis Bertans, who was a steal from the Spurs this past summer. He’s averaging 15.4 points a game, shooting 45.7% from three as a stretch four, and is on an expiring contract. Sheppard has said he doesn’t plan trade Bertans, but if a good enough offer comes through he has to consider it.

Knicks small icon 26. Knicks (7-21, LW 30). The Knicks got Elfrid Payton back seven games ago and the Knicks are 3-4 in those games with an offense that just looks smoother (in part because rookie R.J. Barrett doesn’t have to play out of position at the point). Their defense is still dreadful, but at least New York is competitive. Marcus Morris trade rumors are going to heat up fast as we get closer to the deadline, a lot of teams could use his toughness and shooting.

Hawks small icon 27. Hawks (6-22, LW 26). Losers of five in a row, there is disappointment and frustration in the Atlanta locker room, which has led to questions about the job safety of coach Lloyd Pierce. For now he is safe, according to reports. But there were expectations Trae Young (who has been streaky this season), John Collins (suspended for PEDs), and company would take a step forward this season. If anything, it feels like their regressed, and the defense is a disaster. Not living up to expectations is often what leads to a coach being let go.

Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (6-21, LW 29). Cleveland’s only win his their last 11 games was in overtime against the Spurs. The Cavs will be one of the most discussed teams in the run-up to the deadline, but Kevin Love’s contract makes him very difficult to trade. Tristan Thompson makes more sense for a lot of teams, if he is made available.

Warriors small icon 29. Warriors (5-23 LW 28). Looking for a positive? Alan Smailagic, the No. 39 pick in the last draft, just had a 29-point game for Santa Cruz in the G-League. Expect a lot of D’Angelo Russell trade discussion in the run up to the deadline in February, but I keep hearing from sources that is far more likely a summer trade, not one rushed in February.

Pelicans small icon 30. Pelicans (6-22, LW 27). Brandon Ingram has played his way into a max contract this summer: 24.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. Sources say he is not available via trade (J.J. Redick and Jrue Holiday, however, are). Is Ingram someone the Pelicans, or any other team, should feel comfortable maxing out? No. But in a down market, a guy who can get buckets the way he can is going to get paid. Also, nobody should blame the Pelicans for not extending him, considering health risks (blood clots last season) and they weren’t sure how he would fit next to Zion Williamson (and still aren’t).

Thunder’s Dennis Schroder leaves bubble for birth of child

Dennis Shroder child
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Dennis Schroder was not in uniform when Oklahoma City lost to Denver Monday. He wasn’t even in Orlando.

Schroder left the bubble to be with his wife for the birth of his child, something the team knew was coming but came up suddenly Monday morning, coach Billy Donovan said pregame (reporting from ESPN’s Dave McMenamin inside the bubble).

 

“I’m not gonna leave my wife by herself while she’s having a second baby,” Schroder said when he talked about this with reporters previously. “(Dennis) Jr. is still 17 months old, so I’m for sure gonna go there and support her and try as much as I can to be there for my family.”

Congratulations to the Schroder family, we hope everyone is happy and healthy.

The Thunder will miss Schroder while he’s gone. He is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate averaging 19 points per game while shooting 38.1% from three. The Thunder are at their most dangerous when Schroder is paired with Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a rotation that we will not see for a while.

The first round of the playoffs starts Aug. 17. Schroder can return to the team, the question is how long he will be in quarantine when he does. If Schroeder has a negative coronavirus test for seven consecutive days before his return, he will be in quarantine for four days. If he does not get tested, or if he exposes himself to the virus unnecessarily while outside the bubble — for example, picking up wings from a strip club for dinner — he will have a 10-day quarantine.

The Thunder could use him for what will be a tight first-round playoff series in a very balanced West. Schroder may or may not be there, he has higher priorities right now.

Oklahoma state Rep. threatens to increase Thunder’s taxes for kneeling during national anthem

Oklahoma City Thunder kneel during national anthem
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The Oklahoma City Thunder – like all NBA teams (minus a few individuals) – kneeled during the national anthem.

That powerful protest calls attention to racism, particularly through police brutality. It is highly patriotic to work toward ending those shameful practices. Though some have distorted the underlying message, the protests have largely worked. In the years since Colin Kaepernick first kneeled, Americans have developed a heightened sensitivity to racism and police brutality.

Of course, there are still many opponents of anthem kneeling. The demonstration causes a visceral reaction (which is also why it has been so effective). At this point, it’s hard to stand out among the critics of anthem kneeling who keep making the same, tired arguments.

Oklahoma state representative Sean Roberts found a way.

Roberts, via Oklahoma’s News 4:

“By kneeling during the playing of the national anthem, the NBA and its players are showing disrespect to the American flag and all it stands for. This anti-patriotic act makes clear the NBA’s support of the Black Lives Matter group and its goal of defunding our nation’s police, its ties to Marxism and its efforts to destroy nuclear families.

If the Oklahoma City Thunder leadership and players follow the current trend of the NBA by kneeling during the national anthem prior to Saturday’s game, perhaps we need to reexamine the significant tax benefits the State of Oklahoma granted the Oklahoma City Thunder organization when they came to Oklahoma. Through the Quality Jobs Act, the Thunder is still under contract to receive these tax breaks from our state until 2024.

Perhaps these funds would be better served in support of our police departments rather than giving tax breaks to an organization that supports defunding police and the dissolution of the American nuclear family.”

This is outrageous.

It’s outrageous that the Thunder get such a targeted tax break. The franchise is a private company that should succeed or fail based on its own merits. While it’s easy for NBA fans (like readers of this site) to get caught up in the league, professional basketball isn’t actually important for the greater good.

It’s outrageous that a company’s tax status could depend on how its employees exercise their freedom of expression. The First Amendment still exists.

Ultimately, Roberts almost certainly doesn’t have the power to do what he’s threatening. This is grandstanding for political gain. It gets Roberts into national headlines and little else. Mission accomplished, I guess.

So, Roberts builds a reputation as another big-government politician – someone who wants to use the heavy hand of government to dissuade free expression.

NBA referee Brent Barnaky explains standing for the national anthem

NBA referee Brent Barnaky
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Magic forward Jonathan Isaac, Heat big Meyers Leonard and Spurs coaches Gregg Popovich and Becky Hammon drew plenty of attention for standing during the national anthem while nearly all NBA players, coaches and referees kneeled.

Referee Brent Barnaky also stood.

Tim Bontemps of ESPN:

This isn’t much of an explanation. Nor does it need to be. Barnaky explained that he wasn’t countering the message of kneeling players (opposing racism, particularly through police brutality). That’s sufficient for Barnaky to maintain his neutral positioning – important for an official.

For decades, nearly everyone stood for the national anthem. For many people, that was just about following norms. Even NBA players espousing social-justice messaging previously stood for the national anthem.

But Colin Kaepernick’s brave defiance caused some people to thoughtfully consider their national-anthem posture. So, while many people continued to stand for the national anthem because that’s just was done, some made deliberate choices based on their own values. Sometimes, that led to kneeling. Sometimes, that led to standing.

The thoughtful standers blended into the crowd… until kneeling became widespread in the NBA. Now, they’re the noticeable outliers within the league.

It can take courage to go against the grain. I commend Barnaky for that – and for voicing his support for social justice and peaceful protest.

Barnaky made a personal choice that can stand alone. It doesn’t undermine what anyone else is doing.

Bucks’ Mike Budenholzer and Thunder’s Billy Donovan win Coach of Year from peers

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer and Thunder coach Billy Donovan
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The Bucks (high) and Thunder (low) entered the season on near-opposite ends of the pressure spectrum. Despite their radically different situations, both teams have experienced success this season for a common reason:

They were well-coached.

National Basketball Coaches Association release:

Milwaukee Bucks Head Coach Mike Budenholzer and Oklahoma City Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan are the 2020 recipients of the Michael H. Goldberg NBCA Coach of the Year Award, the National Basketball Coaches Association announced today.

The Michael H. Goldberg NBCA Coach of the Year Award recognizes the dedication, commitment and hard work of NBA Head Coaches and is presented annually to a Head Coach who helps guide his players to a higher level of performance on the court and shows outstanding service and dedication to the community off the court. It honors the spirit of Michael H. Goldberg, the esteemed long-time Executive Director of the NBCA, who set the standard for loyalty, integrity, love of the game, passionate representation and tireless promotion of NBA coaching. It is unique in that it is the only award voted upon by the winners’ peers, the Head Coaches of all 30 NBA teams. This year’s voting was based on games played from the start of the 2019-20 regular season through games played on March 11.

The depth of coaching excellence in the NBA is reflected in this year’s voting as 8 Head Coaches received votes. In addition to Budenholzer and Donovan, the following Coaches also received votes: Taylor Jenkins, Nate McMillan, Nick Nurse, Erik Spoelstra, Brad Stevens and Frank Vogel.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse was third in the race — and just one vote away from creating a three-way tie, sources said.

This is not the main Coach of the Year. That’s voted on by media and will be announced later. This in a new award created by coaches a few years ago.

Nurse remains favorite for the NBA’s recognized Coach of the Year. (He was our unanimous choice.) It’s surprising he didn’t win this award. But it’s also easy to see how fellow coaches would be reluctant to honor an up-and-comer who supplanted Dwane Casey, a coach beloved by his peers and who won this award while getting fired by the Raptors in 2018.

That shouldn’t take away from Budenholzer and Donovan, though. Both had strong seasons.

After turning the Bucks into an elite team last season – winning this award and the NBA’s official Coach of the Year – Budenholzer has Milwaukee looking even stronger this season. The Bucks’ defense is historically dominant, and their role players fit so well around Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Donovan got dealt a tricky hand – an all-time great point guard in Chris Paul who’s past his peak but still in his prime and a point guard of the future in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Donovan made it work while squeezing in another point guard in Dennis Schroder. Donovan’s versatility remains an asset for Oklahoma City.