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NBA Power Rankings: Come Christmas Day, everyone is chasing Milwaukee

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The Lakers three-game losing streak — although it has its reasons — dropped the team a couple of spots in this week’s rankings, so the hottest teams in the East and West moved up.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (27-4, Last Week No. 1). Milwaukee locked itself into this top spot with a comfortable win last Thursday over the Lakers — and Giannis Antetokounmpo locked himself in as the early MVP leader with his performance that game. Milwaukee has a Christmas Day showdown with Philadelphia — a team built with beating the Bucks in mind — but then the schedule softens up with 10-straight against below .500 teams.

Celtics small icon 2. Celtics (20-7, LW 6). Jayson Tatum has gotten hot. Nowhere was that more evident than Sunday night, when he dropped 39 points (on 29 shots) against Charlotte, including 22 in the fourth to spark the win. More importantly to Brad Stevens, Tatum is playing fantastic defense on the perimeter, using his length to contest shooters and disrupt passing lanes.

Nuggets small icon 3. Nuggets (21-8, LW 9). After a rough start to the season Denver has found its offensive groove — and it looks like they are having fun again. The Nuggets have won seven in a row and have the third-best offense in the NBA over that stretch, using Cleaning the Glass’ numbers (which filters out garbage time). Jokic is making highlight passes nightly again, guys are cutting off the ball, and the big shots are falling. That includes Jamal Murray’s jumper with 3.2 seconds left to beat Phoenix Monday night.

Lakers small icon 4. Lakers (24-6, LW No. 2). Los Angeles has lost three in a row, but all can be explained away: No LeBron James for one, no Anthony Davis for another, and any loss to the Bucks is no upset. Yet, the health issues are a concern (LeBron’s back, Davis’ knee), and both L.A. stars are officially questionable for the big Christmas Day showdown with the Clippers (although both practiced Tuesday so expect them to go). That is the marquee matchup of the day, a potential Western Conference Finals preview, lets’ hope it’s not marred by injuries to the team that has scoffed at the idea of load management.

Rockets small icon 5. Rockets (21-9, LW 8). Ask Russell Westbrook why he’s hot — 30.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 6.2 assists a game his last five, shooting 36.4% from three — and he’ll talk about being healthy finally. Remember, he dislocated a finger during the preseason, and that’s right now. Whatever the reason, his 40-points against the Clippers, sparking a 15-0 fourth quarter run and a comeback win for the Rockets, was Houston’s defining win of the season so far. James Harden passed Elgin Baylor for fourth on the all-time 40+ point game list with 89 last week.

Clippers small icon 6. Clippers (22-10, LW 4). One of the reasons to look forward to the Christmas Day showdown with the Lakers: We may finally get a look at what a healthy, everyone-playing Clippers roster can do. It’s still hard to get a handle on this team because most of their losses (like in Oklahoma City) come against good teams when Los Angeles rests one of their stars. Against the Lakers we likely will get the full Clippers squad (hopefully we get the full Lakers’ one as well).

Heat small icon 7. Heat (22-8, LW 10). Miami went into Philadelphia and handed the Sixers their first road loss of the season last Wednesday, a statement win that came the way all the Sixers wins do — a lot of Jimmy Butler and one of their rookies or second-year players stepping up. That day it was Kendrick Nunn with 26. Miami is the best team in the NBA not playing on Christmas Day, a testament to how much they have exceeded expectations this season for coach Erik Spoelstra.

Pacers small icon 8. Pacers (21-10, LW 7). Quietly, the Pacers have been one of the hotter teams in the NBA of late, having won 6-of-7, with the only loss being to Milwaukee. Of course, Malcolm Brogdon leads them, but it’s been the sneaky good offensive distribution of Domantas Sabonis, plus play from Aaron Holiday at the point and Myles Turner in the paint, that has the Pacers looking like a tough out in the playoffs — and they still don’t have Victor Oladipo back yet.

Sixers small icon 9. 76ers (22-10, LW 5). After losing three in a row trying to figure out how to beat a zone defense, the Sixers got a win and took out their frustrations on the worst defense in the NBA in Washington, then followed it up crushing a shorthanded Pistons team on the road. We’ll see on Christmas Day if that built up the Sixers confidence enough as they take on the Bucks. Philly will have to win that game without impressive rookie defender Matisse Thybulle, who is going o miss a couple of weeks with a knee sprain and bone bruise.

Raptors small icon 10. Raptors (21-9, LW 11). Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, and Norman Powell are all out injured, and yet with the players left Kyle Lowry was able to spark a 30-point comeback against Dallas to pick up a win. Chris Boucher has been giving Nick Nurse solid minutes at center, which would cushion the blow if the Raptors decided to move Gasol or Serge Ibaka at the trade deadline.

Mavericks small icon 11. Mavericks (19-10, LW 3). Dallas has gone 2-3 without Luka Doncic in a run through the five best teams in the East (we’re counting the game against Miami, where Doncic played less than two minutes, as one of the games without him). That’s not bad considering the competition, but the blown 30-point lead against Toronto showed just how much they missed the 20-year-old and his ability to settle them down. There is hope Doncic could return to the court on Thursday against the Spurs.

Jazz small icon 12. Jazz (18-12, LW 13). Utah’s bench has been a weak spot all season, scoring 27.1 points per game, second-lowest in the league. The hamstring injury to Mike Conley, forcing Joe Ingles into the starting lineup, makes things worse. That’s why they traded Dante Exum and a couple of second-round picks for Jordan Clarkson — he can get buckets off the bench. Clarkson isn’t much of a playmaker or defender, but he can score, and the Jazz need that right now.

Thunder small icon 13. Thunder (15-14, LW 14). Winners of four in a row, but they were doing it the hard way coming from 26 back against Chicago and 24 back against Memphis. Dennis Schroder has been red-hot scoring 24.6 points per game and shooting 42.9% from three over that stretch, drawing him attention both as a potential Sixth Man of the Year and as a trade target for other teams (OKC remains open for business on that front).

Nets small icon 14. Nets (16-13, LW 12). The Nets have gone 12-6 without Kyrie Irving (still trying to work his way back from a shoulder issue) or Caris LeVert in the lineup. Yet the injuries just keep piling up, the latest one being David Nwaba lost for the season to a torn Achilles. The Nets host the Knicks on Thursday then head out on the road for 4-of-5.

Blazers small icon 15. Trail Blazers (14-17, LW 18). Portland had won 5-of-6 before stumbling against New Orleans on Monday, and the key reason may be their defense with Kent Bazemore in the starting lineup. When Rodney Hood was lost for the season (Achilles), Bazemore was moved up and with him the starters — Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Carmelo Anthony, Hassan Whiteside — have given up less than a point per possession. Where they are paying the price is off the bench, which is why making a trade for some scoring depth makes sense.

Magic small icon 16. Magic (13-17, LW 16). There was a lot of buzz at the G-League showcase in Las Vegas last week about teams inquiring about Evan Fournier in a trade. something to watch. Orlando needed Monday’s win against Chicago, they had lost 6-of-7 and after Christmas get the Sixers and Bucks in a back-to-back. Orlando is beating up the bad teams in the league to stay in the playoff hunt, but struggles against good teams — all six of those recent losses came against teams that made the playoffs a season ago.

Spurs small icon 17. Spurs (12-17, LW 21). About that 22-season playoff streak, it may not be dead yet. Because nobody has run away with the last couple of slots in the West, even with the Spurs slow start they are just one game out of the eight seed (Portland). Point guard Dejounte Murray got his starting spot back and San Antonio and the Spurs are 3-2 in that stretch, with Murray scoring 14.2 points per game on 62.7% shooting.

Kings small icon 18. Kings (12-18, LW 17). Sacramento is finally getting healthy and had its young stars De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III back in the rotation the last four games — and they lost all four. The reason is a dreadful defense during that stretch surrendering a 116.7 defensive rating for those four — that’s worse than the Wizards season average. The Kings have 9-of-11 at home and if they are going to make a push to get up into the playoffs in the West now is the time.

Bulls small icon 19. Bulls (12-20, LW 24). It seems Lauri Markkanen has broken out of his early-season slump. In his last 10 games, Markkanen is averaging 16.9 points per game, shooting 37.3% from three and 50% overall. He’s not giving the Bulls great rebounding or defense, but at least he’s getting buckets now. Chicago went 2-2 on their recent road trip, now it is home for four starting Saturday against Atlanta.

Pistons small icon 20. Pistons (11-20, LW 15). This team can’t get healthy. Blake Griffin missed three of the last five games (knee issue), Reggie Jackson is still out, Luke Kennard and Bruce Brown have missed time, and Monday against the Sixers Andre Drummond came off the bench (because he missed shoot around). Detroit hosts the Wizards on Thursday then head out of the road for six straight games, mostly through the West (including both Los Angeles teams).

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (13-20, LW 19). It’s a sign of how thin the Charlotte roster is — and how solid the rookie has been — that the Hornets have gone 1-4 and scrambled to find rotations that work without P.J. Washington. He had surgery on his finger and while there is no timetable he should return soon and be put straight into the starting lineup again. The Hornets are three points per 100 possessions better with Washington on the court, with an improved defense accounting for a lot of that.

Grizzlies small icon 22. Grizzlies (11-20, LW 22). Ja Morant is just electric to watch running the Memphis offense and has become the clear frontrunner for Rookie of the Year. He’s averaging 18.2 points and 6.5 assists per game, is shooting 40 percent from three, and there’s nobody as dynamic an athlete currently playing in this class (we all keep waiting for Zion). Moron’s best play of the last week was a missed dunk trying to leap over Kevin Love.

Suns small icon 23. Suns (11-19, LW 20). Deandre Ayton finally gets back on the court after a 25-game PED suspension, then promptly rolls his ankle and has had to sit out the last three. That’s just the way things have gone for Phoenix after a fast start. The Suns are losers of seven in a row, and the reason is on the defensive end where they are 28th in the league over that stretch (using Cleaning the Glass’ numbers).

Wizards small icon 24. Wizards (9-20, LW 25). Washington didn’t make a trade and instead extended Bradley Beal’s contract — and he’s working hard to earn it. Beal is scoring 28.3 points and dishing out 6.8 assists per game, both career highs, but he continues to struggle from three — 28.4% from deep his last 10 games. Davis Bertans could miss a week or more with a right quad strain, which is bad news, but don’t think that means the Wizards want to trade him.

Cavaliers small icon 25. Cavaliers (9-21, LW 28). Winners of three in a row, one of those against Memphis when Jordan Clarkson dropped 33. Now Carkson is in Memphis and the Cavaliers get to see if a new environment can help Dante Exum stay healthy and look like a role player, plus the Cavs pick up a couple of draft picks to help with the rebuild. It’s a smart move for Cleveland, thinking long-term and getting value back while giving up a guy who could help a playoff team now.

Warriors small icon 26. Warriors (7-24 LW 29). Another Christmas Day game that looked great on paper — Stephen Curry vs. James Harden in a shootout — that has gone flat because of injuries. One player to watch on the Warriors Christmas Day is rookie forward Eric Paschall, who has averaged 15.4 points and 4.9 rebounds a game this season (although he has cooled off recently). When the Warriors get to full strength next season Paschall is going to have a key role off the bench.

Pelicans small icon 27. Pelicans (8-23, LW 30). At the G-League Showcase in Las Vegas, the name I heard brought up the most in trade scuttlebutt was Jrue Holiday — there are a lot of teams that covet the point guard. It’s going to take a lot to pry him away from New Orleans, but there was a sense among the sources I spoke with someone would step up and pay the price. It’s something to watch. We all thought Zion Williamson would be back by now, and without him it takes the air out of the Christmas Day game against a hot Denver squad.

28. Timberwolves (10-19, LW 23). Losers of 11 games in a row, with a -9.4 net rating in those games (worst in the NBA over that stretch). The problem is on defense, where Minnesota has surrendered 117.9 points per 100 possessions in those games. Adding to the issues, Karl-Anthony Towns has missed four straight games with a knee sprain.

Knicks small icon 29. Knicks (7-24, LW 26). New York has gone 3-6 since firing David Fizdale and throwing Mike Miller in the big chair. They had a couple of wins early — on the road at Golden State and Sacramento — but have now lost 4-of-5 and are about to head out on the road for 6-of-7. Rookie R.J. Barrett looks good in flashes, but up against good teams recently — Miami and Milwaukee — the former Duke star has looked overwhelmed. The question with him isn’t, “is there potential?” There is. The question is, can the Knicks develop it?

Hawks small icon 30. Hawks (6-25, LW 27). John Collins returned to the rotation Monday after a 25-game suspension for PEDs, Atlanta went 4-21 without him. Even with him they lost their eighth straight game, falling to Cleveland. While we expected the Hawks to struggle defensively, they have the 30th ranked offense in the NBA over the past two weeks, using Cleaning The Glass stats, Trae Young is not saving them on that end.

Rudy Gobert on dynamic with Jazz teammate Donovan Mitchell: ‘I’m the a—hole’

Jazz stars Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell
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Rudy Gobert is the Jazz’s best player.

Donovan Mitchell is the Jazz’s biggest star.

That situation naturally creates tension. Gobert and Mitchell testing positive for coronavirus exacerbated it.

Mitchell was upset with Gobert, whose reckless actions made him more likely to contract and spread coronavirus. Now, Mitchell sounds ready to move on.

But other issues remain.

Mitchell quickly became Utah’s go-to offensive player. He’s a sensational scorer with a magnetic personality and electrifying dunks. But he’s still developing as a playmaker, which can frustrate Gobert.

Most famously, Gobert cried when discussing his All-Star snub last year. Gobert plays a complementary style that can be underrated. He’s an elite defender who cleans up for his teammates. On offense, does all the little things – screening, finishing, rebounding. Yet, all that diligent screening isn’t always rewarded with passes when he gets open.

Should Mitchell pass more to Gobert? Yes. But Gobert has also let his effort slip this season when not getting touches, and that’s not the right solution, either.

Gobert, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“I understand that I’m annoying. I can be very annoying,” said Gobert, adding that he knows Mitchell’s job is difficult as the focal point of defenses. “I think maybe because he was really good really early, I’ve been very demanding and maybe in not always a positive way. Sometimes you don’t realize it.

“Like with me, people can be hard on me and I can handle it, but for some guys, it can become very frustrating. I can understand that 100 percent. Donovan has gotten better every year since he’s gotten here. I think he’s going to keep getting a lot better. It’s pretty much, I’m the a–hole.”

“If I was 12 years old, I wouldn’t want to be watching f—ing Rudy Gobert. I’d want to watch Donovan Mitchell. I wouldn’t want to watch Rudy Gobert get dunks and alter shots. I’d want to watch Donovan Mitchell cross people up and do crazy layups, crazy dunks, of course.

“I totally understand how it works, and I’m fine with it.”

There’s an endearing amount of self-awareness in these quotes.

Gobert and Mitchell have a chance to form a highly successful partnership in Utah. Winning could bond them. On the other hand, losing could push them further apart. Another potential complication: Mitchell – with all his talent and about four years younger than Gobert – will probably soon surpass Gobert as a player. Then what? How will each handle that?

The future is unpredictable, but it’s worth understanding the current relationship between Gobert and Mitchell. To do that, I highly recommend reading MacMahon’s excellent article.

Nets’ Taurean Prince tests positive for coronavirus, will sit out restart

Taurean Prince Nets
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Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and Nicholas Claxton all had pre-existing injuries and were never expected to play in the NBA’s restart in Orlando. Wilson Chandler opted out of the restart to spend time with his family.  DeAndre Jordan and Spencer Dinwiddie both tested positive for the coronavirus and did not join the team headed to Orlando on Tuesday. That’s six players from the Nets roster not playing in the restart.

Make that seven — forward Taurean Prince tested positive for coronavirus and will sit out restart as well. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the news.

Prince started at the four for the Nets and averaged 12.1 points and six rebounds a game.

The Nets are free to sign a substitute player to fill in for Prince, however, that player must have fewer than three years of NBA experience. Whoever the Nets line up, it will be a drop off in quality from what Prince brought to the table.

Expect the Nets to look at big men for substitute players because they need size. Jarrett Allen is the only true center on the roster, and there are only two other players — Rodions Kurucs and Dzanan Musa — are taller than 6’9″. Amir Johnson is one Nets’ big man target, according to Marc Stein of the New York Times.

Brooklyn enters the restart as the seven seed in the East, but just half a game up on eight seed Orlando, a team that is largely healthy and bringing its full roster. It’s likely the Nets slide back to the eight seed, but likely make the playoffs (Washington, playing without Bradley Beal or Davis Bertans, would have to make up two games on the Nets during the eight seeding games, then beat Brooklyn in a two straight play-in series games, a tall order). The Nets reward for making the playoffs? Giannis Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee.

WNBA players call for ouster of Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler, a Georgia senator

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA)
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NBA players showed their power by getting Donald Sterling removed as Clippers owner.

WNBA players might be having a similar moment with Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler, a Republican U.S. Senator from Georgia.

Sterling committed incredibly harmful racist and sexist acts for years. Ironically, something far more benign – telling his girlfriend not to post pictures with black people or bring them to games – did him in. But he went too far in a time of growing sensitivity to speech.

Now, there’s even less tolerance for people saying the “wrong” thing. And Loeffler has said things lately that range from disagreeable to offensive.

The WNBA announced its plans for promoting social justice during its upcoming season:

The WNBA will begin its season in late July with a weekend of competition centered around the Black Lives Matter movement, during which teams will wear special uniforms to seek justice for the women and girls, including Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Vanessa Guillen and many more who have been the forgotten victims of police brutality and racial violence. Throughout the season, players will wear NIKE-branded warm-up shirts that display “Black Lives Matter” on the front.   Additionally, “Say Her Name” will adorn the back of the shirts.  “Black Lives Matter” will also be prominently displayed on courts during games.

In response, Kelly Loeffler wrote a letter to WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert. A portion of that letter, via Greg Bluestein and Bria Felicien of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

All of us have a constitutional right to hold and to express our views. But to subscribe to a particular political agenda undermines the potential of the sport and sends a message of exclusion.

The truth is, we need less—not more politics in sports. In a time when polarizing politics is as divisive as ever, sports has the power to be a unifying antidote. And now more than ever, we should be united in our goal to remove politics from sports.

The lives of each and every African American matter, and there’s no debating the fact that there is no place for racism in our country. However, I adamantly oppose the Black Lives Matter political movement, which has advocated for the defunding of police, called for the removal of Jesus from churches and the disruption of the nuclear family structure, harbored anti-Semitic views, and promoted violence and destruction across the country. I believe it is totally misaligned with the values and goals of the WNBA and the Atlanta Dream, where we support tolerance and inclusion.

Amid the recent unrest in many American cities, this movement advocated the creation of lawless autonomous zones in places like Atlanta. I denounced these zones of violence—for which I have been criticized. However, this same group fell silent over the fourth of July weekend when an 8-year-old girl was murdered under the “mob rule” that I warned about days earlier. This is not a political movement that the league should be embracing, and I emphatically oppose it.

Though I was not consulted about—nor do I agree with the League’s decision in this matter, I am proposing a common-sense recommendation to ensure we reflect the values of freedom and equality for all. I believe we should put an American flag on every jersey. Include it in our licensed apparel for players, coaches and fans.

Women’s National Basketball Players Association:

WNBA:

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert released the following statement:

“The WNBA is based on the principle of equal and fair treatment of all people and we, along with the teams and players, will continue to use our platforms to vigorously advocate for social justice.  Sen. Kelly Loeffler has not served as a Governor of the Atlanta Dream since October 2019 and is no longer involved in the day-to-day business of the team.”

That is a strong statement from the union. Several players previously criticized Loeffler, especially in the wake of a recent interview.

She was asked, “It is not every day you see people carrying long guns in big cities in America. What is happening on the streets of Atlanta this morning?” While Fox News showed armed black men, Loeffler said, “This is totally unacceptable. We cannot allow mob rule. We’re a nation of the rule of law.”

If Loeffler – a self-avowed Second Amendment advocate – were specifically denouncing legal gun carrying because the carriers were black, that’s racist, hypocritical and completely unacceptable. But it’s unclear whether Loeffler could see the images and videos as she answered. It’s also unclear whether she was answering more generally about everything happening in Atlanta.

Regardless, backlash spread.

Renee Montgomery of the Atlanta Dream:

Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm:

Skylar Diggins-Smith of the Washington Mystics:

Natasha Cloud of the Phoenix Mercury:

Layshia Clarendon of the New York Liberty:

Sydney Colson of the Chicago Sky:

There is room for legitimate debate on the issues raised in the tweets and articles they link, including gun control, abortion and the best tactics for fighting racism. Loeffler shouldn’t be forced out simply because she disagrees with some vocal players. (I suspect, in a league as large and diverse as the WNBA, some players agree with her on some of these issues.)

But Loeffler’s letter to Engelbert is particularly off-putting.

Disagreeing with some elements of the Black Lives Matter organization would be one thing. But condemning the Black Lives Matter political movement is something else. Within that movement, there are disagreements on methods and goals. The unifying thread: Believing black lives matter. That’s why Black Lives Matter, despite some extreme views, holds such mass appeal.

It’s also gross for Loeffler to use a false claim about Secoriea Turner to fit her agenda. Protesters have decried the girl’s killing.

The players who are using their platforms to promote racial justice deserve praise. Their plan is good for the WNBA. It’s good for the United the States.

The truth is there has always been politics in sports. White people can more easily ignore it, but that’s their privilege. The many black players in the WNBA still live in a country with systematic racism. Their humanity doesn’t end when they show up to work, and they shouldn’t be told to be quiet and just wear an American flag on their jerseys.

It’s telling that Loeffler’s solution to politics in sports is to put a political symbol on jerseys.

She doesn’t want politics out of sports. She wants politics she disagrees with out of sports.

Now, the WNBA will determine whether it wants her out of its sport.

 

Celtics’ Jayson Tatum on playing at Disney World: ‘Still not excited, not thrilled’

Celtics forward Jayson Tatum
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Celtics forward Jayson Tatum wasn’t going to sit out the NBA’s resumption due to injury concerns. Players like Tatum got the enhanced insurance they wanted, anyway.

But that doesn’t mean Tatum is eager to go to Disney World.

Chris Forsberg of NBC Sports Boston:

I don’t blame Tatum one bit. Players are facing tight lifestyle restrictions, including be separated from their families and friends for weeks. Coronavirus is an ever-present threat. There’s a very important protest movement sweeping the country.

Who can easily focus on basketball at a time like this?

Of course, Tatum decided the pros outweigh the cons. The money is substantial (for players collectively more so than Tatum individually, though there’s a case for all players to do their part for each other), and the Celtics have a chance to win a championship.

But before coronavirus, Tatum thought he’d get that money and title opportunity. The only new aspects are the downsides.

I appreciate Tatum’s openness about the situation. He’s certainly not alone in feeling this way.

Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions. It’s just the unfortunate reality of the pandemic.