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.

Damian Lillard misses clutch FTs, Trail Blazers blow key game against Clippers backups

Damian Lillard vs. Clippers
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The Clippers – maybe wanting to give the Lakers a tougher first-round matchup – showed their lack of interest in beating the Trail Blazers today by sitting Kawhi Leonard. Down five with two minutes left, the Clippers really waved the white flag by closing with a lineup of:

But that group ended the game on a 12-2 run to hand Portland a devastating 122-117 loss.

The Trail Blazers are now just half a game up for ninth in the Western Conference. This further opens the door for the Spurs, Pelicans, Suns and even Kings to make a play-in (and gives the Grizzlies more breathing room for advancing to that stage).

After McGruder hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 26 seconds left, Damian Lillard drew a pair of free throws with Portland down one. Lillard is arguably the NBA’s most clutch player, and he had made 89% of his free throws this season. But he missed both – to the particular delight of injured Clippers guard Patrick Beverley:

Beverley and Lillard have a longstanding personal rivalry. The Clippers also have Paul George.

After the game, Lillard – who hit a series-winning shot against Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and another series-winning shot over George, who was with the Thunder, last year – didn’t mince words.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Lillard:

Asking me about Patrick Beverley, who – I sent him before at the end of a game. Paul George just got sent home by me last year in the playoffs. So, they know. The reason they’re reacting like that is because of what they expect from me, which is a sign of respect, and it just shows what I’ve done at a high clip more times than not. So, I’m not offended by it. If anything, it should just tell you how much it hurt them to go through what I put them through in those situations previously.

I love Lillard’s ability to remain calm and in control. Kudos for him for finding a way to boast after missing a pair of free throws that effectively cost his team a big game. Really. Lillard’s emotional maturity is an asset.

Expect the Trail Blazers to follow his lead and not further unravel. They can and probably should still be favored to reach the play-in.

But their margin for error definitely just shrunk.

76ers star Ben Simmons leaving bubble for surgery

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Ben Simmons injured his knee, and the 76ers didn’t hide their concerns.

This is serious.

Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Obviously, the surgery itself is a setback. If Simmons becomes healthy enough to return before Philadelphia gets eliminated, he could be required to quarantine in his hotel room – which would limit rehab and training.

And of course it will be difficult for Philadelphia to advance deep into the playoffs without Simmons.

There are even graver concerns beyond this season. Will Simmons now be more susceptible to future injuries? This could derail a budding championship contender with Joel Embiid and Simmons.

Embiid already has long-term health concerns. It was always uncertain how long Philadelphia’s window would remain open despite Embiid and Simmons being so young.

Even next season could be perilous. How long will Simmons take to recover? Next season could be right around the corner (or not). If the 76ers’ outlook looks worse – especially amid the economic downturn caused by coronavirus – they could no longer follow through on their plan to pay the luxury tax. Slashing payroll could further reduce the roster’s effectiveness.

Already, expectations shrink this season without Simmons. Philadelphia appears increasingly likely to land the No. 6 seed and a tough first-round series against the Celtics (rather than a spot in the 4-5 series against the Heat or Pacers).

Will these difficult circumstances give 76ers coach Brett Brown more leeway to keep his job? Or do they just make it more likely the 76ers lose early in the playoffs and fire him?

He has plenty of options for proceeding without Simmons. Simmons was a multi-positional star who spent most of the season at point guard but had been playing power forward in the bubble.

Without Simmons, Al Horford moved back into the starting lineup, and Mike Scott – who had been out with a knee injury – joined the rotation. Glenn Robinson III could also get an expanded role once he’s healthy.

Many sans-Simmons lineups could give Philadelphia more spacing around Embiid, which makes the star center even more dangerous.

But this loss of talent can’t be offset and significantly lowers the 76ers’ ceiling this season and maybe reduces their odds of reaching their ceiling in future seasons.

NBA announces finalists for awards, including MVP and Rookie of the Year

Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo and Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson
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We made our award picks months ago.

Now, the NBA is finally getting around to the official versions.

The league announced finalists for Most Valuable Player, Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Most Improved Player, Sixth Man of the Year and Coach of the Year (based on regular-season, not seeding, games):

Most Valuable Player

Antetokounmpo is heavy favorite to repeat as MVP and should win the award. But LeBron certainly has his supporters. Really, I had a tougher time choosing between LeBron and Harden for second place than between Antetokounmpo and LeBron for first place.

Defensive Player of the Year

Antetokounmpo could and should join Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players to win MVP and DPOY in the same season. Gobert and Davis would be worthy runners up. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Davis – playing for the Los Angeles Lakers – wins this award.

Rookie of the Year

Morant will and should run away with this award. Williamson was awesome when on the floor, but that was too rare. A breakout player in his second professional season (but first playing in the NBA), Nunn could finish ahead of the better but less-available Williamson.

Most Improved Player

This was an incredibly deep field. Ingram is the most likely winner with his major strides just ahead of restricted free agency. My choice, Doncic improved enough to become a finalist despite a bias against second-year players, especially highly drafted ones. Though Adebayo didn’t make Rising Stars his first two seasons then became an All-Star his third season – an incredible jump – his candidacy is wrongly boosted by him being underrated previously. That Hornets guard Devonte' Graham‘s out-of-nowhere season didn’t land him in the top three is somewhat surprising. But again, it was a deep field. Hawks guard Trae Young didn’t get enough consideration, either.

Sixth Man of the Year

Harrell had the strongest overall season and has drawn plenty of acclaim for it. But Schroder led reserves in points per game, and scoring tends to have an outsized role in award voting. See Williams being a finalist (though it’s not as if there an absolutely clearly better choice).

Coach of the Year

  • Mike Budenholzer (Bucks)
  • Billy Donovan (Thunder)
  • Nick Nurse (Raptors)

Budenholzer and Nurse split the award from their peers. Here’s betting Nurse gets this official NBA recognition. He deserves it for keeping the Raptors humming without Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green and amid numerous injuries. Nurse’s defensive creativity is particularly impressive.

Report: Teams in playoff race bothered by Jazz resting starters vs. Spurs

Spurs forward Rudy Gay vs. Jazz
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The Jazz sat four starters – Mike Conley (right knee soreness), Donovan Mitchell (left peroneal strain), Royce O’Neale (right calf soreness) and Rudy Gobert (rest) – against the Spurs yesterday. Five if you count Bojan Bogdanovic, who underwent season-ending surgery before the bubble.

That cleared the way for San Antonio to get a 119-111 win and boost its chances in the Western Conference playoff race.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Were those teams chasing the Western Conference’s play-in tournament thrilled with the Utah Jazz’s decision to sit four starters with injuries and rest center Rudy Gobert in a loss to the San Antonio Spurs?

Among teams trying to catch the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth seed, they were somewhere between displeased and livid, sources said.

Winning seeding games doesn’t matter much to the Jazz, who are in the tightly packed 4-6 range in the Western Conference. There’s no home-court advantage in the 4-5 series. In fact, Utah might prefer to drop to sixth. That’d likely mean facing the Nuggets – rather than the Rockets or Thunder – in the first round and avoiding the Lakers in the second round. Though Denver could move up and leave the Clippers in the No. 3 seed, and the Clippers are no easy second-round opponent either, it’s at least a viable strategy for Utah.

The Jazz also play the Nuggets today in the second leg of a back-to-back. Whatever its ideal standings, Utah definitely prioritizes having its players healthy and ready for the playoffs.

It also can’t be lost: Jazz lead executive Dennis Lindsey came up in the Spurs organization. That connection surely fueled the strongest paranoia.

Utah isn’t alone in appearing to put its finger on the playoff-race scale.

The Clippers will sit Kawhi Leonard against the Trail Blazers today and play him against the Nets tomorrow.

Andrew Greif of the Los Angeles Times:

Maybe this is just about timing. Obviously, it’s normal sit Leonard in one leg of a back-to-back.

But the Trail Blazers look like the strongest team among those chasing the No. 8 seed. Think the Clippers might want to give the Lakers the toughest-possible first-round matchup? The possibility is impossible to ignore when considering which weekend game Leonard is playing.

These are all variations of a common problem: Too few NBA regular-season (or seeding) games matter.

To be fair, the situation differs in the bubble. Home-court advantage would solve some of these problems. The play-in offers a new wrinkle. The long layoff before seeding games increases injury risk.

But it also feels especially absurd to go to all the trouble of playing basketball amid the coronavirus pandemic – separating players, coaches and other staff from their loved ones for at least several weeks – just to a play a game a team prefers, or at least doesn’t mind, losing.