NBA Power Rankings: Milwaukee on top, Jazz pass Lakers for second

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Milwaukee, on a seven-game winning streak, continues to hold on to the top slot, but the Lakers recent troubles — combined with the Jazz being on a hot streak — has Utah moving up to the second slot (with the two Los Angeles teams right on their tail).

 
Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (39-6, Last Week No. 1). One does not hear the words “load management” and “Giannis Antetokounmpo” in the same sentence often, but that’s because the Bucks have been able to keep his minutes in check by blowing teams out. Antetokounmpo has played in 41 of the Bucks 45 games but is 48th in the NBA in total minutes played — Cedi Osman and Tomas Satoransky have played more total minutes. That’s because the Bucks are destroying teams and letting the Greek Freak have large parts of the fourth quarter off. He’s averaging just 30.6 minutes a night. The last time coach Mike Budenholzer had Antetokounmpo on the court for more than 35 minutes in a game was Nov. 27th.

 
Jazz small icon 2. Jazz (30-13, LW 3). Mike Conley returned on Saturday and has fit in well off the bench in a couple of blowout wins. That leads to the question: Should Conley become Utah’s sixth man? On paper that works because the current starting five — Donovan Mitchell, Royce O’Neale (who just got a contract extension), Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Rudy Gobert — has been dominant, with a +22.5 net rating this season, and defensively that group gives up less than a point per possession. However, will Conley willingly accept that role? Could everything change during the playoffs? And who will close games?

 
Lakers small icon 3. Lakers (34-9, LW No. 2). It would be a mistake to overreact to one ugly loss to the Celtics, in the middle of January, during a long road trip. It happens. However, if you’re looking for a thread that ties together the Lakers’ losses to Boston and Orlando last week it is transition defense — both teams had success running on L.A. The Lakers are third best in the NBA in half court defense but middle of the pack in transition defense (stats via Cleaning the Glass). This is a regular season concern, but maybe less of a postseason concern (because the games tend to slow down). The Lakers play the Clippers next Wednesday and a win helps make their “Best in LA” case.

 
Clippers small icon 4. Clippers (31-13, LW 7). In his last six games, Kawhi Leonard has averaged 36 points per contest on 55.8% shooting overall, plus 5.6 rebounds and 4.8 assists a game. He’s looked like the all-world player from last postseason. Lou Williams was asked over the weekend what has changed with Leonard in recent games: “I think he just got his legs. He won a championship, I think he took a break, and basketball is a rhythm game. He’s just playing consistently now, getting his legs under him, and he’s more comfortable with the guys he’s playing with now.”

 
Nuggets small icon 5. Nuggets (30-13, LW 6). Jamal Murray is going to miss some time with a sprained ankle, and don’t be surprised if we’re talking weeks according to the buzz around the league. That’s a blow to Denver, which is +9.6 per 100 possessions better when he is on the court (using Cleaning the Glass stats, which filter out garbage time). The timing of Murray’s injury is rough for Denver as it struggles to hold on to a high seed in the tight West and has 7 of its next 10 games on the road.

 
Celtics small icon 6. Celtics (28-14, LW 5). The utter destruction of the rival Lakers on MLK day ended a three-game losing streak (and 6-of-8), and it also was the first game in a week where the normally solid Boston defense looked like itself. Defense and slow starts — even the Lakers opened on an 8-0 run before falling apart — have been issues Brad Stevens has been focused on in recent weeks. With the Celtics healthy again the inconsistent bench shooting should be less of an issue.

 
Heat small icon 7. Heat (30-13, LW 8). Jimmy Butler is a lock for the All-Star Game — he might even start, if the media/players vote him in — and he should be joined by Bam Adebayo (who the coaches will need to vote in as a reserve). With an efficient 16 points and 10.5 rebounds a game, plus strong defense, Adebayo deserves a spot on the ASG roster. Miami went 2-3 in a recent run of road games, but came home where they are 19-1 on the season for five games. Good tests coming up with the Clippers on Friday and the Celtics next Tuesday.

 
Raptors small icon 8. Raptors (29-14, LW 9). The Raptors are finally healthy — Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, and Norman Powell are all back in the lineup — and not coincidentally the Raptors have won four in a row. After Philly on Wednesday night the Raptors have six games in a row against teams below .500, expect them to rack up wins as Masai Ujiri decides whether to be a seller at the trade deadline or to stick with the roster he has and see how much noise they can make in the postseason.

 
Sixers small icon 9. 76ers (29-16, LW 13). Winners of four in a row despite continued offensive issues — the Sixers are bottom 10 in offensive rating during that time (and over the past 10 games). After looking at the roster for half a season Elton Brand is checking out the trade market looking for shooting and playmakers, eyeing Derrick Rose for the point and wings Robert Covington and Malik Beasley. If the goal is winning the East this season and having a real shot in the Finals the Sixers may be one player away still.

 
Mavericks small icon 10. Mavericks (27-16, LW 12). Dallas has lost Dwight Powell for the season with a ruptured Achilles and he is going to be difficult to replace. It’s not just the 9.6 points and 5.7 rebounds a game Powell gave them, but also he brought grit and a willingness to do the dirty work needed inside to allow Kristaps Porzingis to play his pick-and-pop game on the outside. Maxi Kleber and Boban Marjanovic will get more run but it’s not the same.

 
Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (28-16, LW 10). This ranking is too low for this team, but it sadly kind of fits the trend of media overlooking the Pacers and coach Nate McMillan. Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon are both on the bubble for making the All-Star Game, but expect one of them to get a nod from the coaches for a reserve spot. Sabonis is battling a bruised knee but got his first career triple-double anyway, and in general the Pacers are getting healthy and look like a team that could make a run up the East standings (and these rankings).

 
Rockets small icon 12. Rockets (26-16, LW 4). Losers of four in a row and 5-of-6, just as Russell Westbrook is taking on a larger role and seeming more comfortable in the offense. Coincidence? The problem for the Rockets over the past six games has been the offense, just 19th in the league over that stretch, not good enough to cover up for a defense that has struggled all season. Houston takes on Denver on Wednesday night then takes off for four on the road, including a difficult Denver/Utah back-to-back.

 
Thunder small icon 13. Thunder (25-19, LW 11). Shai Gilgeous-Alexander became the youngest player in NBA history to rack up a 20-20 triple-double last week — he continues to be a great get from the Paul George trade, someone who OKC can build around. Expect the trade rumors to fly around this team in the coming weeks, but also expect the big names — Chris Paul and Steven Adams — to stay put, mostly because their contracts are so large and hard to match. Danilo Gallinari remains a name that comes up in a lot of trade discussions, he’s the guy that could be on the move. If anyone will be.

 
Grizzlies small icon 14. Grizzlies (20-23, LW 14). Over the past 10 games, the Grizzlies have the third best offense in the NBA, which is overwhelming opponents and has he Grizzlies in the playoffs if they started today. Ja Morant continues to lead the team on that end of the floor, running away with the Rookie of the Year race (no way Zion can catch him) and putting up ridiculous highlights every time he steps on the court.

 
Magic small icon 15. Magic (21-23, LW 15). Orlando got its signature win of the season so far beating the Lakers (ending L.A.’s nine-game win streak) behind a Markelle Fultz triple-double, but consistency has not been Fultz’s or this team’s strength. That’s especially troubling with backup point guard D.J. Augustin likely to miss three-to-four weeks with bone irritation in his knee, he was a stabilizing influence on this roster (and a potential trade chip that just got harder to move). Evan Fournier is still drawing a lot of trade interest from other teams, but the Magic are a playoff team right now (5 game cushion) and are not having a fire sale, it’s going to take a quality offer to get a deal done.

 
Spurs small icon 16. Spurs (19-23, LW 17). San Antonio has settled into its identity this season: A top-10 offensive team led by efficient shooting from DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, but a bottom five defense that continues to put their playoff streak in jeopardy. DeRozan has a good case to get an All-Star game invite, however the West is so stacked at the guard position that it seems a longshot he (or Aldridge) make the final cut. It will be in the hands of the coaches, who vote on the reserves.

 
Blazers small icon 17. Trail Blazers (19-26, LW 19). This week’s trade — which sent out Kent Bazemore and brought back Trevor Ariza — was mostly about reducing Portland’s league-largest tax bill (now down to $6.2 million). Can’t blame ownership for not wanting to pay the tax for this team, which means expect another trade — Hassan Whiteside? — or two as the deadline nears to get all the way under the tax. Also, did you see Lillard’s ridiculous 61?

 
Pelicans small icon 18. Pelicans (17-27, LW 20). Zion Williamson finally makes his debut for the Pelicans Wednesday night, and that means a few things. One is dunks — highlight dunks nightly. But it also means a playoff push from a team that is not out of the mix (3.5 games back) and has gone 11-5 in its last 16 before Zion’s arrival. The Pelicans have stepped back from the edge of trading away their best veterans, for now, to see how well this team can perform together and if they can make a legitimate push for the postseason.

 
Suns small icon 19. Suns (18-25, LW 21). Since the calendar flipped to 2020, Deandre Ayton has averaged 19.4 points per game on 55.4% shooting, plus pulling down 12.4 rebounds a game — those are All-Star level numbers if he had played enough games (and wasn’t in the West, which is deep with good centers). Devin Booker will make his first All-Star appearance this season because the coaches will vote him in as a reserve (unlike the fan vote, Alex Caruso is not getting a spot). Phoenix has won 4-of-6 and remains within striking distance of the playoffs.

 
Nets small icon 20. Nets (18-24, LW 16). Kyrie Irving returned right as Brooklyn hit a tough part of the schedule, so it’s not on him the team has dropped four in a row. It was on him that Irving gave an ill-timed “state of the franchise” statement that led to days of news cycle, with each story talking about his 6-of-21 shooting against Philly. The good news for the Nets is that after the Lakers on Thursday the schedule softens up for a couple of weeks.

 
Bulls small icon 21. Bulls (16-29, LW 23). Zach LaVine is a player on the bubble for making the All-Star team in the East, but the game being in Chicago this season may give him a boost with coaches. I thought Lauri Markkanen would evolve into an All-Star level player but he’s been pretty average this season, averaging 14.9 points per game but not excelling in any one area. Markkanen has spent most of his season at the four, but is seeing more time at center with Wendell Carter Jr. out injured.

Pistons small icon 22. Pistons (16-28, LW 25). Andre Drummond is available via trade, but the market for him — especially at $27.1 million this season, has been limited. That should inform Drummond about what awaits him if he opts out of the last season of his contract ($28.8 million) and tests the free agent waters, but it sounds like he is headed to playing the field this July.

 
Kings small icon 23. Kings (15-28, LW 18). De’Aaron Fox is back healthy and the Kings are playing fast again. After being the slowest paced team in the league through November and December, the Kings are top 10 in pace in their last 10 games. Fox is averaging 22.7 points and 8.3 assists per game in January, but the Kings have lost six in a row and need to turn things around to end the longest playoff draught in the NBA.

 
24. Timberwolves (15-28, LW 22). The “Andrew Wiggins has figured it out” narrative got flowing in November when he averaged 27.1 points per game on a 56.6 true shooting percentage, plus he made some clutch plays. But in December that TS% fell to 51.7 (the league average is around 56), and in January Wiggins is scoring 15.4 points per game with a 48 TS%. Wiggins is back to being what he has always been, a nice rotational player who has night that remind you of that potential, but mostly is an average starter. Just one on a max contract owed $93.9 million over the three seasons after this one (fully guaranteed).

 
Wizards small icon 25. Wizards (14-28, LW 24). Bradley Beal may well be frustrated, but he took the big checks and now he is going to be with the Wizards for a while, the only place he is going is to Chicago for the All-Star Game (as a reserve). There’s no real trade buzz there. However, there is a lot of trade buzz around Davis Bertans, numerous teams are interested in the big shooting 43.3% from three, and that leaves the Pelicans with a choice: He’d fit great next to John Wall and Beal next season and the Wizards have talked about re-signing him, but Bertans is a free agent. If Washington isn’t sure they can re-sign him, they will have to consider those deadline trade offers.

 
Knicks small icon 26. Knicks (12-32, LW 26). RJ Barrett is out for a week with a sprained ankle, reducing the reasons to watch this team play — unless you’re scouting Marcus Morris for a trade. Which a lot of teams are doing. Morris is a hot name because a lot of teams could use his combination of shooting and defense inside. But can the Knicks get a protected first or enough else in return to get a trade worth it?

 
Hawks small icon 27. Hawks (10-34, LW 29). It’s just been two games, but so far the “Jeff Teague is here to help the second unit wile Trae Young sits” experiment has had mixed results. Teague has come off the bench and for two games and shot 7-of-12 for 17 points, but is still -19 in those games (because one man cannot save that bench unit). The Hawks lost both games. Atlanta did pick up a quality win in San Antonio Friday night on a Kevin Huerter game winner.

 
Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (12-32, LW 27). Bright spots are hard to find for a team with this record in a five-game losing streak (and 10-of-12), but here is one: In January Collin Sexton is shooting 46.3% from three on nearly five attempts per game. If the second-year guard can start to hit that consistently — and continues his overall improved play this month — he becomes much more valuable to Cleveland.

 
Warriors small icon 29. Warriors (10-35 LW 30). Stephen Curry is targeting March 1 for a return to the court, although at this point expect him to be on a minutes limit and for him still to get plenty of nights off this season. The Warriors are thinking about next season, not this one. They snapped their 10-game losing streak thanks to catching Orlando on the last night of a West Coast road swing, but the win still counts. Then MLK day it took a ridiculous 61 from Damian Lillard to hold the Warriors off.

 
Hornets small icon 30. Hornets (15-30, LW 28). Charlotte was booked to play in an NBA game in Paris (this Friday, against Milwaukee) because Tony Parker was on this roster last season. Except, then Parker retired. Still, Charlotte gets a nice mid-season trip. My word of advice: If the Hornets are going to the Louvre, “Winged Victory” and “Liberty Leading the People” are more inspiring than the “Mona Lisa” and “Venus de Milo.”

Heat’s Goran Dragic says he’s not going to Slovenia during layoff

Heat guard Goran Dragic
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MIAMI (AP) — Goran Dragic of the Miami Heat said Tuesday that he is prepared to forgo his annual offseason move back to his native Slovenia if that is what the NBA schedule necessitates.

Dragic, his wife and their two children are in Miami and have no plans to leave for Slovenia amid the global coronavirus pandemic. His parents recently left Miami to return home, but the Heat guard says he’s staying.

“Three days ago they flew back home because they had to, the government said that all the Slovenian citizens needed to get back,” Dragic said, referring to his parents, adding that they wore masks and gloves on their not-very-full flight back to Slovenia. “But my situation is different. Here is my home. We have health insurance in America and we have a home to go to, so we’re going to stay here.”

Dragic and his family have gotten a firsthand global view of the pandemic.

He’s in Miami, and so is his uncle — who is staying in the U.S. because he cannot get back to his native Serbia because Dragic said that country has essentially locked its borders over health concerns. Dragic’s brother Zoran, a former Heat guard, was quarantined while playing in Spain, then returned to Slovenia recently and is under quarantine again, unable to leave his hotel room for a couple more weeks.

“It’s a really crazy situation over there,” Dragic said, detailing what his brother went through in Spain — one of the hardest-hit nations with more than 94,000 confirmed cases of the virus and more than 8,000 deaths attributed to the virus, the second-highest total worldwide behind only Italy. Slovenia has confirmed 802 cases through Tuesday, with 15 deaths.

In Miami, though, Dragic is trying to keep some sense of normalcy.

Dragic said the Heat are participating in a daily team workout on Zoom most mornings, those sessions often including strength and conditioning coach Eric Foran and Heat assistant coach Chris Quinn, among others.

“We try to work together, in isolation,” Dragic said.

Dragic has been working out individually as well at his waterfront home, trying to stay fit. He’s hopeful that the season resumes at some point, and said he hopes the league has teams play no more than a handful of games before starting the playoffs.

“I’m running around the house. I’m going to be in good shape,” Dragic said.

Dragic is averaging 16.1 points and 5.1 assists this season for the Heat, coming off the bench in all but one of his 54 games.

Report: NBA, players’ union in talks to withhold some of players’ salaries

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The forced suspension of the NBA’s regular season is hitting the league hard — and it’s about to hit players’ paychecks hard.

The NBA and the players’ union are in negotiations to withhold more of players’ paychecks in an escrow account if the rest of the NBA season is canceled, as is seeming more and more likely. Up to 25 percent of the players’ salaries will be withheld, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The NBA and National Basketball Players Association are discussing scenarios for withholding up to 25 percent of players’ remaining salaries in a league escrow should regular-season games eventually be canceled, sources tell ESPN…

The Collective Bargaining Agreement maintains that players lose approximately 1 percent of salary per canceled game based on a Force Majeure provision, which covers several catastrophic circumstances, including epidemics and pandemics…

Commissioner Adam Silver, NBPA executive director Michele Roberts and a group of league and union lawyers have been discussing a number of ways to prepare financially for how the likely cancelling of scheduled games will impact some percentage of lost salary for players, sources said.

In every NBA check, even in a typical season, 10 percent of a players’ salary is held back in an escrow fund. Then, at the end of the season when the books are balanced, and the players get 50 percent of the basketball related income (BRI). If league income was slightly lower than projected, the players do not get all of their money back from the escrow fund, the league takes whatever portion is needed to get to the CBA’s prescribed 50/50 BRI split (and the rest is returned to the players).

This season, due to the coronavirus possibly canceling more than 20 percent of the season and condensing the playoffs, there is going to be more than a 10 percent shortfall in the projected BRI.

Players will get a full regular paycheck on Wednesday, April 1. If the NBA and players union reach an agreement before April 15, that check could start to see the reductions as money goes to the escrow account.

The vast majority of players have their pay stretched out for the entire year (the first and 15th of every month), but some players take an option to get more of that money up front. Regardless, everyone will pay into the escrow fund.

The NBA has not officially announced the cancelation of regular season games yet, but games will be lost. Warriors coach Steve Kerr said he doesn’t expect the Warriors will play any more games this season. More and more sources think the regular season is lost, but the league is holding out hope.

It’s impossible to calculate how big the revenue hit to the league will be until a plan for the postseason is put together (if one is put together), but it will be massive. Possibly more than a billion dollars if the season and playoffs are canceled. Right now, the league is simply running a lot of scenarios to try and project how to lessen that blow when they do return to action.

Still, the coronavirus suspension is going to hit the players’ pocketbooks. This increased escrow account is just the first wave.

 

LeBron James, Kevin Durant among handful of players who got this year’s contract money up front

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Years ago, NBA players (like those in other professional sports), got paid every other week during the regular season. They might get a bonus during the playoffs if the team did well, but in the offseason they had no money flowing into their pockets.

Over the past decade that changed. Now the standard contract now calls for players to get paid over 12 months, giving them cash flow all year long.

This also means the vast majority of NBA players have yet to get most of their pay for this year, which will get interesting as the owners and players union start discussing the “Force Majeure” clause in the CBA to take some of the players’ salaries because of canceled games.

Mark Stein of the New York Times talked about it on Twitter.

However, a handful of big-name players got more their money up front — the CBA allows players to get a chunk of their money in advance then get then rest over a 12-check, six-month span. Some of the biggest names in the sport went for that.

In addition to LeBron James, players such as Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Blake Griffin have gotten the majority of their pay already.

NBA owners are scheduled to have a remote meeting soon to discuss next steps. They are talking both about the restart of the season (in whatever form that takes) and about invoking the “Force Majeure” clause. That CBA clause allows teams to reduce players’ salaries in the event of an “act of god” kind of event that cancels games – things like war, natural disaster, and epidemics. Obviously, the epidemic part has come into play and shut down the league.

If the NBA doesn’t play any more regular season games — which reports have said is seeming more likely — teams and players will miss about 25 percent of the season (give or take depending on how many games their team played) and owners would want to recoup some money. Doing some of that through “Force Majeure” is on the table, with the canceled games triggering the clause.

The players union warned its members this could happen. For LeBron, Durant and other players who have gotten most of their money up front it could mean checks next season will be docked to make up the difference.

Damian Lillard opposes idea of later NBA season start running into summer

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At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference a few weeks back (although it feels like a lifetime ago), Atlanta  CEO Steve Koonin suggested the NBA should permanently shift its schedule to a mid-December start with the Finals running into August. The idea was to stop going head-to-head with the NFL and college football at the start of the season. Then the pushed back playoffs forced by the coronavirus have made that discussion more relevant. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has said everything is on the table.

Damian Lillard is not a fan of the idea.

He likes the schedule just the way it is, something he said during a video conference with the media on Tuesday, hat tip to Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Portland.

“I just don’t see it. I mean, the season starts when it starts now, then February all-star weekend, getting toward the end of the season in April and then getting into the playoffs. You get that early June Finals and then you get to go off into your summer…

“You get to enjoy real-time summer,” Lillard said. “Our break is into the summer and then you get to come back as summer is leaving. I think that’s been perfect…

“It’s been perfect for us,” Lillard said. “So, for that to change and for things to be pushed back, I’m definitely not a fan of that and I don’t see many guys being a fan of that.”

Lillard is not alone in thinking this way, but Silver is more open to change than most sports commissioners. That said, changes that break with long-standing traditions are hard to make a reality.

There would be a lot of questions around a schedule change. Would the ratings still be as high for a Finals series in the heart of the summer? The NBA season no longer would sync with the NCAA or international leagues’ schedules, leading to questions about the draft and timing for players who want to test the waters. There would need to be reworked television contracts, both regionally and nationally. It could make scheduling a challenge at arenas used to having more concerts and other events in the summer.

Plus, all of this would need to be negotiated with the players union — and Lillard speaks for a lot of players on this issue.

If the NBA could somehow convince players that starting later meant more money in their pocket, those union negotiations would take on a different tone. But would the move increase revenue? That’s not an easy sell.

With this NBA season likely running late, the start of next season could be pushed back, and this theory could get a little bit of a test. Or, the next season could be shortened a little to get the league back on its regular schedule.

Which would make Lillard happy.