NBA Power Rankings: Jazz climbing fast, still chasing Bucks, Lakers

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The top two spots remain locked in, as they have for weeks now, but under that there remains a lot of movement in these NBA power rankings, with the red-hot Jazz climbing up to third.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (36-6, Last Week No. 1). Milwaukee is on a 70-win pace, and while we rightfully credit Giannis Antetokounmpo for much of that (right now he’d get my MVP vote, again), it is the Bucks’ defense that sets them apart. Milwaukee’s 101.6 defensive rating (using NBA.com’s numbers) is the best in the league by more than two full points. Their system protects the paint first, last, and always, and with that gives up the most three-point attempts in the league per game. However, their length and athleticism can contest some of those, and the Bucks take away all of an opponent’s easy buckets at the rim. It works.

Lakers small icon 2. Lakers (33-7, LW No. 2). Winners of nine in a row, and that includes beating OKC when LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Danny Green were all out. Kyle Kuzma lit up the Thunder with 36 in that game, but was very pedestrian (5-of-13 shooting, 11 points) two nights later against the Cavaliers, missing all his threes. Kuzma tends to be up-and-down, which concerns teams that see him as a No. 3 option or a sixth man and might want to trade for him (it also should concern the Lakers, somewhat, although he’s given them what they need this season).

Jazz small icon 3. Jazz (28-12, LW 4). Utah has won 10 in a row and they continue to tear it up on offense — a league-best 122 offensive rating over those 10 games. Donovan Mitchell has played like an All-Star, Joe Ingles has thrived as a starter, Bojan Bogdanovic is having big games, and the Jazz are undefeated since adding Jordan Clarkson to their bench. All of this is without Mike Conley in the mix (still out with a hamstring issue), but it leads to questions about how to fit him in upon his return.

Rockets small icon 4. Rockets (26-13, LW 5). At the midway point of the season, James Harden is on pace to average 37.8 points per game for the season, the most by any player not named Wilt Chamberlain. What’s amazing is he has taken on that increased offensive load and been even more efficient this season, with a ridiculous 63.6 true shooting percentage. Those numbers have slipped a little in recent weeks as teams are throwing ridiculous double-teams at Harden to force the ball out of his hands, but how he is making teams adjust is another reason is in the middle of the MVP mix this season.

Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (27-11, LW 3). Boston’s offense looked clumsy during a three-game losing streak, that was until Jayson Tatum exploded for 41 against a shorthanded Pelicans team on Saturday. It was an All-Star level performance from Tatum, but will the coaches pick him as a reserve in the East? Probably. My money is on the player/media vote bumping Kemba Walker into a starting role, but either way he will be in Chicago as well. Thursday night the Celtics get a good measuring stick game against the Bucks in Milwaukee.

Nuggets small icon 6. Nuggets (27-12, LW 7). In the last 15 games, Denver has looked like the team we expected going into the season: Winning games (11-4) thanks to an elite offense led by Nikola Jokic (second best in the NBA in the last 15), but that masks a troubling defense (28th in the NBA over that same stretch). The impressive Nuggets defense from the first part of the season is gone, and if it doesn’t make a return — or the Nuggets don’t make a trade to boost it — that end of the floor could have them fishing in Cabo earlier than they expected this postseason.

Clippers small icon 7. Clippers (28-13, LW 6). Some nights, the Clippers look like the team the rest of the West feared — they can take apart anybody. Just ask the Lakers. But there are other nights they look disjointed and uninterested, and they do not impress, such as recent losses to Memphis and Denver. Doc Rivers, what do you think of the inconsistency? “I think we’ve been inconsistent on both ends. It is what it is. I’m not that frightened by it.” Should he be?

Heat small icon 8. Heat (27-12, LW 8). Miami keeps winning games — 9-6 in its last 15 — but that’s become in spite of their defense and not because of it. The Heat have been a bottom 10 defensive team over those 15 games (and the team has a net rating of -0.1, basically even). Last weekend’s losses to the Nets and Knicks are the kind of off games teams with poor defenses have. The Heat need to turn this around to keep home court through the first round of the playoffs.

Raptors small icon 9. Raptors (25-14, LW 10). Toronto went a respectable 6-5 without Pascal Siakam, but now he’s back in the rotation (as is Norman Powell; Marc Gasol is still out but is expected to return soon) and the wins need to flow again. Nick Nurse is hoping the return of his likely All-Star in Siakam sparks an offense that was top 10 in the league in November but, with all the injuries, has fallen back to middle-of-the pack in the last 10 games (which, considering the missing players, is not that bad).

Pacers small icon 10. Pacers (25-15, LW 12). With Domantas Sabonis sidelined on Friday, Myles Turner broke out with a 27 point, 14 rebound night. It’s the kind of game that will have other teams calling and checking on Turner’s availability at the trade deadline, but reports are those calls are getting shot down. The Pacers are +6.3 per 100 possessions when those two are on the court together, and the Indy brass wants to see how that looks with Victor Oladipo back.

Thunder small icon 11. Thunder (23-17, LW 11). Shai Gilgeous-Alexander continues to improve during his second season (and the tutelage of Chris Paul can’t hurt), this week becoming the youngest player in NBA history with a 20-20-10 triple-double. Trade rumors continue to swirl around Danilo Gallinari and the Thunder, and OKC is looking for players on SGA’s timeline to build for the future.

Mavericks small icon 12. Mavericks (25-15, LW 9). Dallas has gone 4-4 with Kristaps Prozingis sidelined, but he is expected back Wednesday night from his knee/illness issues. Dallas elite offense remained top six with KP out, but the defense fell from middle of the pack to bottom 10 without his length and rim protection inside. Luka Doncic seems destined to start in the All-Star game this season, as he should, but he will be the only Maverick playing on Sunday.

Sixers small icon 13. 76ers (25-16, LW 13). Sixers fans are calling for Brett Brown’s head with Philadelphia having lost 6-of-8 and not looking like a threat to the Bucks right now (despite what happened on Christmas Day). The offense is clunky, but the problems start here: Ben Simmons has taken 18 shots outside the paint all season, and two of those were end-of-half heaves that don’t really count. Simmons has to get into the paint to be effective, that’s also where Joel Embiid is at his best, and that allows teams to pack the paint and defend Philly’s strengths. Changing coaches will not change the flaws in the roster construction, that’s an Elton Brand thing.

Grizzlies small icon 14. Grizzlies (19-22, LW 19). The NBA world is falling in love with Ja Morant right now, but the Grizzlies have two quality rookies — Brandon Clarke has been solid for them. Here’s Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins on Clarke: “The great thing about Brandon is he doesn’t try to do too much, he plays to his strengths. We knew that when he was coming out of Gonzaga, he’s a guy who plays great team basketball on both ends of the floor. Obviously a super-efficient player on the offensive end, kind of takes what the defense gives him, picks his spots whether it’s the roller game or the floater game, we’re seeing him shoot the three ball a little bit more. Defensively, being in the right place, getting his hands on some defections, he doesn’t get a lot of blocks but he comes over in his rotations… he does it in a team capacity.”

Magic small icon 15. Magic (19-21, LW 14). It seems fitting the Magic are in the middle of these power rankings: Orlando has a net offensive rating of 105.1 and a net defensive rating of 105.1 — exactly neutral. Cleaning the Glass projects the Magic to go 41-41. Orlando seems destined to get the seven or eight seed in the East, which puts it in the hands of management what direction to go at the trade deadline, stay this middle of the road course or think about a retooling effort by moving Evan Fournier or other quality players (except Jonathan Isaac).

Nets small icon 16. Nets (18-21, LW 17). Kyrie Irving is back, Caris LeVert is back, and now we can finally start to see what this Nets roster looks like healthy. The offense looked good against the Hawks “defense” but, more importantly, was respectable against the Jazz defense on Monday. Brooklyn just lost that game because their defense couldn’t slow the red-hot Jazz. It doesn’t get easier for the Nets, their next four games are the 76ers, Bucks, 76ers (again), and Lakers. That’s a gauntlet.

Spurs small icon 17. Spurs (17-21, LW 16). The Spurs 22-year playoff streak is not dead yet, despite the record San Antonio is just half a game out of the final playoff spot in the West (one game back in the loss column). What has to keep Gregg Popovich up at night (at least until the third glass of Pinot) is the bottom 10 defense from this team. It’s very un-Popovich, and there is no simple answer with this roster as constructed.

Kings small icon 18. Kings (15-25, LW 18). Marvin Bagley is back after missing eight games with a sore foot and looked pretty good against the Magic with 18 points and six boards. Combine that with the faster pace of late — which has helped De’Aaron Fox — and maybe Luke Walton’s roster can start to look like the on-the-rise team everyone expected before the season tipped off.

Blazers small icon 19. Trail Blazers (17-24, LW 15). What held Carmelo Anthony back from an NBA job for so long was concerns about his defense. In their past 10 games, the Trail Blazers have gone 3-7 and have the worst defense in the NBA over that stretch. That’s not all ‘Melo, but he’s not solving problems on that end. Three tough games on the road for Portland this week: Houston, Dallas, and OKC.

Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (15-26, LW 24). Zion Williamson will be back in a week — Jan. 22 against the Spurs is the target date — but the Pelicans have won 3-of-4 without him. If David Griffin doesn’t like the trade offers for Jrue Holiday and Derrick Favors, does he just keep the band together, add Zion, and see if they can make up the four games to get in the playoffs?

Suns small icon 21. Suns (16-24, LW 22). Deandre Ayton is back to coming off the bench — with Dario Saric starting next to Aron Baynes — and that seems to be working for Phoenix. It allows Monty Williams to still pair Devin Booker and Ayton, they show some real chemistry, while keeping his best lineups on the floor. As a side note: There is no way this should lead to a technical and ejection in the NBA, there are some young refs with quick triggers (and some older ones, too) who are sucking the emotion out of the game.

22. Timberwolves (15-24, LW 20). There are positive rumblings that Karl-Anthony Towns could return to soon. He has missed 14 games and the Timberwolves are 5-9 without him, with the offense 14.8 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the bench. The only thing that has kept Minnesota afloat with him out is the third-ranked defense in the NBA for that stretch.

Bulls small icon 23. Bulls (14-27, LW 21). Wendell Carter Jr. being out weeks with a sprained ankle will be a real blow to Chicago, the offense flows better with him on the court and coach Jim Boylen described him as the Bulls best defensive player. When Carter has been on the court this season the Bulls outscore opponents by 1.4 points per 100 possessions, but when he sits they get outscored by 6.1. The Bulls have lost 7-of-8.

Wizards small icon 24. Wizards (13-26, LW 26). John Wall is practicing with the team and taking on contact, fueling speculation he could play this season after all. Wall isn’t the only Wizard getting healthy: Davis Bertans, Bradley Beal, and Thomas Bryant all returned to the rotation over the weekend. Washington has six of its next eight on the road.

Pistons small icon 25. Pistons (14-27, LW 25). Just how good are Sekou Doumbouya and Thon Maker? That’s the question the Pistons should try to answer the rest of the season, with Blake Griffin done until next fall and Andre Drummond on the trade block (what team is going to be the buyer for him, and will they offer much?). Doumbouya has a lot of promise and Detroit should give him the room to show it the rest of the season.

Knicks small icon 26. Knicks (11-30, LW 27). Mitchell Robinson has looked steadier under new coach Mike Miller, if you’re looking for the silver lining in the dark cloud of this season. R.J. Barrett is putting up numbers but has a lot of work to do to become efficient at the NBA level. After that… it gets thin when quality young players for the Knicks. Kevin Knox has not caught up to the game after showing some early promise.

Cavaliers small icon 27. Cavaliers (12-29, LW 28). Collin Sexton could have his shot blocked more times this season than he has assists (hat tip to @Cavsanada for this stat). Sexton has had his shot blocked 76 times this season (1.9 times per game) and he has 91 assists, a difference of just 15. It’s probably not going to happen, but it’s something to watch if you have to watch Cavs games.

Hornets small icon 28. Hornets (15-28, LW 23). There was a point earlier in the season where Charlotte was the luckiest team in the league, the team most outperforming its point differential. That has regressed to the mean in recent weeks, including the current five-game losing streak (and losing 11-of-13). Devonte’ Graham may still be the frontrunner for Most Improved Player but he has had some rough outings and been inconsistent of late.

Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (9-32, LW 29). Fans want Trae Young in the All-Star Game — he leads East guards in the fan vote — and it’s easy to understand why, Young is fun to watch averaging 28.9 points and 8.4 assists per game. His team, however, is terrible and Young’s defense contributes to that. Should the media/fan voters put Ben Simmons, Kemba Walker, Kyrie Irving and other East guards who are a little more two way higher on their ballots?

Warriors small icon 30. Warriors (9-33 LW 30). Stephen Curry is taking shots again. Klay Thompson says he is itching to get back on the court. Both of them will be re-evaluated next month but how much do the Warriors really want to push them to return (and potentially hurt their lottery odds in the process)? The Warriors have lost nine in a row and seem to be banking losses for the potential return of their stars.

Lakers reportedly ‘seriously considered’ Westbrook trade for Hield, Turner

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“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it. So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

That was Lakers GM Rob Pelinka on media day talking about the possibility of the Lakers trading the only two first-round picks they control this decade — 2027 and 2029 — to upgrade this roster around LeBron. Pelinka was clear the Lakers were committed to building a winner around LeBron, “We have one of the great players in LeBron James to ever play the game, and he committed to us on a long-term contract, a three-year contract… He committed to our organization. That’s gotta be a bilateral commitment, and it’s there.”

But should that include a Russell Westbrook trade to Indiana for Buddy Hield and Myles Turner? Shams Charania of The Athletic updated and added to the extensive previous reporting on this trade, saying the Lakers kept the door open right up to the start of training camp but didn’t pull the trigger.

Vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka, owner Jeanie Buss and senior basketball adviser Kurt Rambis seriously considered sending Westbrook and unprotected first-round picks in 2027 and 2029 to the Pacers for center Myles Turner and guard Buddy Hield, sources said. They held a series of meetings in the days leading up to camp to analyze the possible Pacers deal from every angle, with the views of Ham and Lakers executives Joey and Jesse Buss also being strongly considered in the process. The organization even delayed the midweek news conference for Pelinka and Ham as the debate continued…

If they were going to gamble on a make-or-break move of this magnitude, the thinking went, then everyone had to have confidence in the same vision. But when that wasn’t the case, sources say, the choice was made by Pelinka to remain patient and see, yet again, if Westbrook might find a way to make this imperfect fit with the Lakers work.

Hield and Turner would absolutely improve the Lakers. Turner can play the five, is an elite shot blocker who could provide a strong defensive back line next to Anthony Davis, and is a respectable 3-point shooter who can space the floor. He’s a natural fit. Hield brings shooting that the Lakers have coveted for years and need more of now.

That trade would have moved the Lakers up the ladder to a solid playoff team in the West. Would that trade make the Lakers contenders? Probably not. It still would have come back to the bubble version of Davis and LeBron being ready for the final 16-game sprint to have a puncher’s chance (that may be the case regardless of other moves). Also, it would have messed with future free agency plans in Los Angeles — the Lakers can have around $30 million in cap space next summer to chase Kyrie Irving (although Shams reports that’s not in their plans) or other name players, Hield is owed $19.3 million next season and Turner will be a free agent the Lakers would need to re-sign. This deal would end the dream of a free agent taking a little less than the max to come to the Lakers (a dream not likely to come to reality anyway).

As Pelinka said, the Lakers have one shot with trading their two picks to upgrade the roster — they have to hit a home run, this can’t be a solid single. The Lakers were not convinced Hield and Turner could be that home run tandem.

So Los Angeles will go into the season with a starting five of Westbrook, Kendrick Nunn, LeBron, Davis, and Damian Jones, with a bench of Patrick Beverley, Thomas Bryant, Austin Reaves, and Dennis Schroder. The Lakers will see if it fits, how far it looks like this group can take them under new coach Darvin Ham, and watch the market to see what other stars could become available.

The Lakers aren’t done dealing, but it looks like a deal with Indiana is now in the rearview mirror.

PBT Podcast: Philadelphia 76ers 2022-23 season preview

2022-23 Philadelphia 76ers Media Day
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
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The Philadelphia 76ers are title contenders — if James Harden and Joel Embiid can play up to their potential on the biggest of NBA stages. That hasn’t always happened before, particularly with Harden.

Those two are now set up well. Philadelphia learned its lessons from the playoff loss to Miami last season. GM Daryl Morey rounded out the roster with more toughness and two-way players in the form of P.J. Tucker, Danuel House and DeAnthony Melton. Add in the development of Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle and you have a deep roster of quality players — down to BBall Paul.

Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia joins me to discuss if Doc Rivers is ready to take this team to the next level, and if all the additions can come together when it matters. Can Harden shake his history of playoff reputation and lead a team to the Finals?

You can always listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

When will LeBron James break Kareem’s all-time scoring record?

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LeBron James is trying not to think about it too much.

“The only time I’ve kind of like thought about it is when someone, you know, been posting on social and it went through my scroll, through my feed, and I’ve seen it,” LeBron said at Lakers’ media day. “And every single time I’m kind of in awe of it, like, wow.”

The wow is breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time NBA scoring record.

It was a record thought almost untouchable at 38,387 points, but now LeBron sits just 1,326 points shy of breaking it — health willing, he should pass Kareem this season.

When? Well, that takes a little math and speculation.

LeBron scored 30.3 points a game last season, but the two seasons prior to that it was closer to 25 points a game. If we split the difference and land at 27.5 points per game, it would take 48-49 games. We have to assume that 37-year-old LeBron (turning 38 just before the New Year) will sit out at least a couple of those first games, pushing this back a few games.

Considering LeBron could slide back in scoring to close to 25 a game again, the smart bet is he breaks Kareem’s record in late January or early February. The Lakers have a five-game East Coast road trip that includes Boston and New York starting Jan. 28 and running through Feb. 4, and that’s about the window.

“To sit here and to know that I’m on the verge of breaking probably the most sought-after record in the NBA, something that people say will probably never be done, I think it’s just super like humbling, for myself,” LeBron said. “I think it’s super cool.

“And you know, obviously Kareem has had his differences, with some of my views and some of the things that I do. But listen, at the end of the day, to be able to be right in the same breath as a guy to wear the same [Lakers] uniform, a guy that was a staple of this franchise along with Magic and Big Game [James Worthy] over there for so many years, especially in the 80s, and a guy that does a lot off the floor as well. I think it’s just super duper dope for myself to be even in that conversation.”

Having been in the spotlight for as long as LeBron has — remember he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high schooler — he can be very practiced, very polished with the media. His brand is smooth, as are his dealings with the press in general.

However, when talking about passing Abdul-Jabbar, it felt like LeBron’s guard was down. He was raw, more reflective and genuinely moved.

“You guys always see me use my hashtag #thekidfromakron and that those are the moments where I really think about that kid from Akron. Walking those streets and, you know, playing basketball when I had actually had a basketball and the hoop, or actually just walking around and air dribbling and shooting into it and invisible hoop you know, and counting 5…4…3…2…1 and, you know, making game-winning shots.

“I’m not going to put too much pressure on it throughout the season. But I think it’s a pretty historical moment when it gets here and you know, as long as my family and friends are all there that’s that’s the most important for me.”

LeBron’s family will undoubtedly be there, and the whole world will be watching. Longevity and LeBron’s ability to be great into age 38 (and beyond) is part of his GOAT argument — and there is no better cornerstone of that argument than being the game’s all-time leading scorer.

Suns fall to hot shooting Adelaide 36ers from Australia, 134-124

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The Adelaide 36ers may be from Australia’s National Basketball League, but they are professional players — leave them wide open and they will hit shots.

Phoenix treated Sunday like their first preseason game (it was) and the 36ers hit 24 3-pointers on their way to an upset of the Suns, 134-124. The 36ers were the aggressors all night long, playing team basketball and putting Phoenix on its heels.

It’s just preseason. One preseason game is not a bellwether for the season, there should be little more than raised eyebrows in Phoenix. However, with their last game being a crushing 33-point loss to Dallas which eliminated them from the playoffs a season ago, this was not the palate cleanser that Phoenix fans were hoping for.

Craig Randall — you may remember him from the University of Memphis and Tennessee-Martin — scored 35 points while Robert Franks added 32. The 3-point shot is the great equalizer in basketball and the 36ers were on fire.

 

The last NBA team to lose to an International squad before Sunday was the Thunder in 2016 to Real Madrid. The year before, Turkish power Fenerbahce beat Brooklyn in the preseason. It does happen.

Reserve point guard Cameron Payne led the Suns with 23 points, while Deandre Ayton looked solid and dropped 22, as did Mikal Bridges, who also had 22. Devin Booker had 13 points and Chris Paul dished out 12 dimes.

With the size of Ayton and the athletic slashing of Bridges, the Suns scored 64 points in the paint, more than doubling the 36ers. But math was not on the Suns’ side, as they traded twos for threes and kept falling behind.

This is great for the NBL and its efforts to grow the brand — the 36ers will now take on the Thunder later this week.

It’s a shrug and move on game for the Suns. Expect a more focused effort from the team next game.