NBA Power Rankings: Trade deadline passes, Bucks still on top followed by Raptors, Lakers

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The trade deadline has passed, rosters are set (sort of, the buyout market does exist), and still the Bucks are locked in at the top. The Lakers slip back to third behind a Raptors team that has won 15 in a row.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (46-7, Last Week No. 1). Milwaukee makes a quality pickup getting Marvin Williams on the buyout market, he is a stretch four at this point in his career, he spaces the floor well and is a reliable defender. He can eat up some minutes for Khris Middleton and others down the stretch of the season, keeping them fresh. Milwaukee continues to be carried by an elite defense, best in the NBA by a wide margin for the season, and it has been even better the past 15 games allowing less than a point per possession.

Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (40-14, LW 3). Pascal Siakam will head to Chicago this weekend for a much-deserved All-Star Game start, the leap he made this season is impressive. Toronto has won 15 in a row, and has the best offense in the NBA over that stretch, which is what has carried them (the defense is sixth-best, not shabby at all). All of that despite a rash of injuries, the most recent of which is Kyle Lowry out with whiplash. How do they do it, what is Toronto’s secret weapon? Serge Ibaka’s scarf.

Lakers small icon 3. Lakers (40-12, LW No. 2). It wasn’t for lack of effort, but the Lakers stood pat at the trade deadline, which was always the most likely outcome considering how hard it was to construct a good deadline around Kyle Kuzma. The bigger blows are the Clippers getting Morris and Darren Collison deciding to stay retired. J.R. Smith/Dion Waiters are not the answer. Still, the Lakers sit atop the West by 3 games and have won 4-of-5 because they continue to beat up weak teams (26-2 against teams below .500).

Celtics small icon

4. Celtics (37-16, LW 4). This trade deadline was like so many others in Boston: a lot of rumors, smoke and mirrors, and when it all clears away the Celtics stood pat. That’s a good decision with this roster, a team that just had a seven-game win streak (snapped Tuesday by Houston), has won 11-of-13, and they have done it against a much tougher schedule than the Raptors have faced. Still, this team could use a little more size and toughness in the middle for the playoffs, and the buyout market may not offer that this year.

Nuggets small icon 5. Nuggets (38-16, LW 7). Nikola Jokic’s strong play of late moves him into the MVP “on the ballot” discussion (he’s not in the “can he win it” talk this season). He could well get some fourth and fifth place votes. Denver has won 8-of-10 because it has gotten healthy (or, healthier) and started to play good defense again, seventh best in the NBA over those 10 games.

Clippers small icon 6. Clippers (37-17, LW 5). Doc Rivers’ team is treating the regular season like a team that has just won back-to-back titles — some nights they take it seriously (and handle Miami comfortably), then a few nights later they let Minnesota snap a 13-game losing streak against them. The Clippers upgraded at the deadline landing Marcus Morris, this is an incredible team on paper but just a good one on the court. After the All-Star break, can the Clippers put together a run and start to build some good habits?

Heat small icon 7. Heat (35-18, LW 6). The addition of Andre Iguodala at the trade deadline has gotten all the headlines, but picking up Jae Crowder in the Memphis trade could be key for Miami down the stretch. In his first two games with Miami Crowder has averaged 19.5 points per game, shooting 56.3% from three, and is pulling down 9.5 boards a night. Miami is 1-3 on their current road trip, with 3-of-4 still to come away from South Beach.

Jazz small icon 8. Jazz (38-18, LW 10). Since his return from injury, Mike Conley has looked much more like the point guard the Jazz thought they were getting last summer: 18.6 points per game, shooting 45.2% from three, with four assists a night in his last five games. Utah snapped out of its slump and won three in a row. Highlight of the week goes to Bojan Bogdanovic for going playground on Kristaps Porzingis.

Rockets small icon 9. Rockets (34-20, LW 9). Houston has gone 3-2 since going all-in on the small-ball lineup, and the team’s offensive rating hasn’t taken off yet like we expect (small sample size and all). The one guy who is thriving with this style is Russell Westbrook: 34 points, 7.2 rebounds and 6 assists a game in his last five. Good test against the Jazz Saturday night in Utah.

Sixers small icon 10. 76ers (34-21, LW 13). Joel Embiid “shushing” the Philly crowd then trolling everyone on social media grabbed a lot of headlines, as did the idea that other teams are watching the Sixers thinking they might break up Ben Simmons and Embiid. The All-Star duo answered that with their best game together — maybe ever in Brett Brown’s mind — in a big win over the Clippers Tuesday night. That was impressive, but let’s see them take this show on the road and make it work before we celebrate too much.

Thunder small icon 11. Thunder (32-22, LW 12). While there was some flirtation with the idea of sending Danilo Gallinari to Miami, Oklahoma City came out of the trade deadline deciding to ride or die with this group. The Thunder are good with their core five on the floor — Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dennis Schroder, Danilo Gallinari, and Steven Adams — but the lack of depth is the only issue. Still, this team sets up to be a tough playoff out for whomever lands them.

Mavericks small icon 12. Mavericks (32-22, LW 11). Luka Doncic returns from his sprained ankle Wednesday night, and the Mavs went 3-4 without him. The league-leading offense was still clicking without him (119.5 offensive rating, actually 3.2 per 100 better than their season average) but the defense has been bottom 10 in the league in that stretch (5.6 points per 100 worse than their season average). Dallas added Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on the buyout market, he will provide some defensive depth on the wing (but don’t count on much offense).

Pacers small icon 13. Pacers (31-23, LW 8). Losers of six in a row, and if it wasn’t for that long game-tying Victor Oladipo three in his return game against the Bulls it would be eight. While the offense has been bottom 10 in the league during the losing streak, the real issue is the usually solid Pacers defense is off more than 7 points per 100 in this stretch (with a good defender in Oladipo back in the lineup). Indiana gets Milwaukee right before the much-needed All-Star break.

Grizzlies small icon 14. Grizzlies (27-26, LW 15). Zach Kleiman, the guy with the hammer in Memphis basketball operations, must love Justise Winslow, because they gave up their 2020 cap space and took on a lot of dead salary to get him. “To be able to add one player that we believe in as a key piece to fit what we’re building, that was plan A. That was the deal that we were hoping to get.” Winslow is that guy? He will get a chance next to Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr.

Blazers small icon 15. Trail Blazers (25-30, LW 14). Portland is still fuming over the blown goaltending call on a Damian Lillard driving layup to tie the game against Utah last Friday — in a tight playoff chase that call might come back to bite them. That said, they bounced back with a win against Miami, not letting the anger over one loss become two. Lillard has returned to being human, averaging “only” 28.4 points per game over his last five.

Nets small icon 16. Nets (24-28, LW 16). Brooklyn has won 3-of-4 time time around without Kyrie Irving, thanks in large part to Caris LeVert stepping up and playing like the guy the Nets thought they had at the start of last season. Brooklyn is four games below .500 and sits as the seven seed in the East, but their playoff spot looks secure (they have a five-game cushion over the nine-seed Wizards, and the eight-seed Magic are not looking like a team about to make a run to get past the Nets).

Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (23-31, LW 18). Zion Williamson is becoming must-watch television averaging 21 points and 7.7 rebounds a game, and he apparently has a quote of at least one spectacular dunk a game. The Pelicans kept the roster together at the deadline, and New Orleans is 5-4 since Williamson entered the lineup, but the team remains 4.5 games out of the playoffs because the Grizzlies are not coming back to the pack.

Magic small icon 18. Magic (23-31, LW 19). Here is everything you need to know about the bottom of the East: Orlando is 2-8 in its last 10 games with a -8.6 net rating, yet they maintain a three-game playoff cushion over the Wizards (and 4.5 over the Bulls) because nobody can string together some wins. Coming out of the All-Star break, Orlando has 7-of-10 on the road.

Kings small icon 19. Kings (21-32, LW 20). Sacramento came into this season with dreams of ending the longest playoff drought in the NBA; instead they head into the All-Star break six games out of the playoffs in the West. Injuries certainly played a part in that, but roster building and player development have not been strong suits in Sacramento — to put it kindly — and now it seems owner Vivek Ranadive is finally setting his sites on team president Vlade Divac as part of the problem. If Ranadive makes a change, will he give the new president the authority to clean house as needed?

Spurs small icon 20. Spurs (23-31, LW 17). San Antonio is 1-6 so far on the rodeo road trip (with two more games after the break), the lone win coming in Oklahoma City. As it has been all season, the challenge on this road trip for the Spurs has been defense — a 118.3 defensive rating that is third worst in the league over the last eight games. The Spurs stood pat at the deadline, but this trip has knocked them 4.5 games behind Memphis for the last playoff spot, it seems the Spurs historic playoff streak will end at 22.

Suns small icon 21. Suns (21-33, LW 21). Despite plenty of Kelly Oubre trade rumors flying around, the Suns held on to him at the deadline (and they could have gone ahead with Oubre bobblehead night, an event they wisely cancelled last week, just in case). Since getting healthy and joining the starting lineup, Deandre Ayton has averaged 19.9 points and 12.3 assists a game, shooting 54.3%.

Pistons small icon 22. Pistons (19-37, LW 23). That the Pistons found a taker for Andre Drummond is a win — despite the numbers Drummond put up and his solid play as an old-school big, he was an anchor on their rebuild. The Pistons were wise to value the salary cap space more, which is what they should have done during a rebuild. What the front office does with that cap space this summer (and there are a variety of options) will be the next step in the drive to get the Pistons back to the top of the East.

Wizards small icon 23. Wizards (19-33, LW 24). Washington is just three games back of Orlando for the final playoff spot in the West, and the Magic are stumbling down the stretch. The playoffs are within reach, but Orlando has one of the easiest remaining schedules and the Wizards have the sixth toughest in the league. It was a smart long-term move by the Wizards to trade out point guards at the deadline — 31-year-old Isaiah Thomas for 22-year-old Jerome Robinson — but I’m still sorry to see Thomas go.

Knicks small icon 24. Knicks (17-37, LW 25). Superagent Leon Rose is the next in line to save the Knicks (without World Wide Wes), and that’s not a bad choice. If owner James Dolan wasn’t willing to wait and do the dance to land a Sam Presti/Masai Ujiri level experienced POBO, then Rose is a good roll of the dice. Sometimes having an agent in charge works (Bob Myers, Golden State) and sometimes not (Lon Babby, Phoenix) but Rose is smart and connected. There’s a lot of work to do to build a Knicks culture and foundation, only then will the elite talent come.

25. Timberwolves (26-36, LW 30). They got their man in D’Angelo Russell, a good move because it makes Karl-Anthony Towns happy, and it gives Minnesota a a genuine pick-and-roll combo. I just picture a lot of games like Monday’s in their future: Minnesota put up 126 points with an impressive 115 offensive rating, but they lost because Toronto put up 137 — Russell and Towns could be a defensive disaster. Gerson Rosas has to get quality defenders around those two.

Bulls small icon 26. Bulls (19-36, LW 22). The All-Star Game is coming to the basketball Mecca that is Chicago this weekend, but the Bulls mostly need the break to get healthy. Here’s the current list of their walking wounded: Otto Porter Jr. (broken foot), Wendell Carter Jr. (ankle), Lauri Markkanen (hip), Kris Dunn (knee), and Daniel Gafford (ankle). In theory, the Bulls could make a run at grabbing the eight seed and getting to the postseason, but they need to get healthy, and even then 4.5 games would be a challenge to make up.

Hawks small icon 27. Hawks (15-40, LW 26). Atlanta got its center at the deadline in trading for Clint Capela, and it was a nice pickup to get Dwayne Dedmon behind him. The real question now becomes what does this mean for John Collins? He’s athletic and has played better at the four than the five this season, but is he going to be worth what some team likely will pay him as a restricted free agent in a couple of seasons? Expect a lot of Collins trade rumors this summer.

Hornets small icon 28. Hornets (17-36, LW 27). Charlotte is trying to do a spring cleaning on their roster, and that started with buying out Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams (who were signed by Dallas and Milwaukee, respectively. Expect more of the same this summer as they try to find a taker for Nicolas Batum’s contract. There is a lot of rebuilding to do in Charlotte, but at least they found one piece to that puzzle this season in Devonte Graham.

Warriors small icon 29. Warriors (12-42 LW 29). In terms of a pure positional fit, I get why the Warriors traded for Andrew Wiggins and set out D’Angelo Russell. The Warriors are selling that the combination of their culture and a smaller role (next season, when everyone’s healthy) is going to be good for Wiggins and make him productive. A lot of Timberwolves fans just laughed at that. Bottom line, could the Warriors have found a better wing (at a better price) by the start of next season?

Cavaliers small icon 30. Cavaliers (13-40, LW 28). On one hand, the Cavaliers got a former All-Star, productive NBA center for pennies on the dollar in trading for Andre Drummond. Cleveland looked at the free agent market and said this was a better use of their cap space for 2020. Drummond and Love next season will form a $60 million front line that may be the slowest in the league.

Are plans for a play-in tournament just to get Zion Williamson in the bubble?

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The cleanest, most straightforward, fewest extra people in the “bubble” way for the NBA to return to play is to invite the 16 teams already in the playoffs — eight from each conference — and skip right to the postseason.

However, there is a lot of momentum around the league for a play-in tournament with 20 teams (or more). Specifically, one that brings in the four teams in the West clumped three-and-a-half to four games behind Memphis for the last playoff spot (Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, and San Antonio).

Why those teams? Because they had a real chance to catch the Grizzlies if play had not stopped?

Or, is it because the league wants Zion Williamson — its bright young star who spiked ratings and interest when he returned from injury mid-season — in the bubble? On ESPN’s Hoop Collective podcast, Brian Windhorst said some other teams seem to think the play-in plan is all about Williamson.

“Let me just say how do you get to 20 [teams in the bubble] though? Because if you just go by the straight records, because to me, this is what I’ve already heard, alright. I’ve already heard people in this league say this is an elaborate game to get Zion Williamson into this bubble…

“I’m not saying the NBA is going this route, I’m just saying I’ve already heard this scenario that no matter what happens, the cutoff line will be the Pelicans. They’ll be in.”

Windhorst is very well connected and I don’t know who his sources were for this, but if you’re with the Wizards or Hornets (or maybe even Bulls and Knicks), you would push for the nine and 10 seed in each conference to be in the bubble, not the next four best records (which are all in the West).

The NBA is a star-based league, of course getting its hottest new property into more televised games is a discussion taking place. You’d be naive to think otherwise. Whether Zion and the Pelicans end up in Orlando ultimately is another question.

All the lobbying and leaking of restart plans to the media — and even the pronouncements of Damian Lillard saying he will play if there’s no shot at the postseason — are spin. This is teams lobbying for what is best for them and their chances. Elite teams like the Lakers and Bucks want no part of a soccer-style group stage that is more likely to produce upsets, they want something more traditional. The Bucks are no fans of 1-16 seedings because then they would have to go through both the Clippers and Lakers to win it all (while the Lakers should love that plan, it sets up perfectly for LeBron James and company). Teams back different play-in plans that better lineup for them. It’s all politicking.

This Friday, in a conference call with owners, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is going to lay out a series of return-to-play options. A week or two after that, the owners will get on a conference call again and vote. Until then, everyone is going to lobby for their own self-interest.

That restart likely has teams reporting to Orlando for training camps in mid-July with games starting in late July or early August. How long the season runs depends on the format chosen. Next season almost certainly will start around Christmas (or maybe a week or two earlier, at most).

When a retired Michael Jordan showed up, dominated a Warriors practice

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It was the winter of 1995, major league baseball was on strike and Michael Jordan — at that time still a member of the Chicago White Sox organization — refused to be a scab and cross the picket lines.

“Mike was thinking about coming back (to the NBA), he was getting that itch again, it was a lockout in baseball, and he just wanted to play some basketball,” NBA legend Tim Hardaway told NBC Sports.

The Last Dance documentary covered how Jordan was secretly taking part in Bulls’ practices at that time. What it didn’t cover was the time Jordan flew out to California to see his friend, Rod Higgins (a Warriors assistant coach), and absolutely dominated a Warriors practice.

“It was kind of embarrassing for a guy to take that many months off then to come into our practice and dominate the way he did,” Hardaway said. “But of course, he’s MJ.”

Warriors players tell the story on The Sports Uncovered podcast, which launched today by NBC and takes a unique look at some of the most significant moments in sports. Like Jordan saying, “I’m back.” You can listen to the podcast below or download it at Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your pods.

Jordan was always looking for a test, and the Warriors at the time provided one: Hardaway was one of the game’s great scorers (but was still coming off a torn ACL) and trash talkers, and Golden State had the game’s “it” up-and-coming player in Latrell Sprewell.

Hardaway takes the story from there.

“[Jordan] and [then Warriors assistant coach] Rod Higgins are really good friends, he just came to visit Rod and said, ‘Hey, Rod, you think [Don Nelson] would let me just come to practice and with y’all?’ And Rod asked him and coach was like, ‘s ***, why not, of course.’

“He just wanted to see where he was at, where his skills was at — and of course they was still there. The same skills, without much rust, that he left with. He was practicing with us, and I came up and was egging him on, ‘Let’s see what you got, s***, let’s see it.’ He said, ‘Alright, now, I’m still MJ.’ And I was like, ‘You had guys throwing balls at you, you been out two years, I heard you been shooting around but this here, this is the real deal now, you got to come and lace your s*** up.”

“It was him, Rony Seikaly, Chris Mullin, some other point guard, against me, Sprewell, some other guys, and man, we was playing for like two hours, and I wanted to go some more because he was bustin’ our a**. He wouldn’t let Sprewell dribble the ball at all — he kinda knew exactly what Sprewell could do, what he couldn’t do, his weaknesses and his strengths.

“It was like he never missed a beat, man. He was out there shooting fadeaways, dunking, playing defense, getting through screens, denying, jumping through passing lanes. It was a little rust, of course, but once he got going each game he got stronger and stronger, his timing got better, you could just tell. He was kinda tired at the end, but it was something to see.”

Hardaway, always the competitor, didn’t want to stop.

“I was kinda upset because I think his team took it more seriously than our team,” Hardaway said. “But he came in and put on a show in practice…

“He said ‘I can play all night, but you all have a game tomorrow and I don’t want to wear you out.’ I was not playing that much anyway so I wanted to get as much run as I can.”

Find out more about that legendary practice, and Jordan’s return, on The Sports Uncovered podcast.

 

NBA veteran Jason Terry takes job as assistant coach at Arizona

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Jason Terry played four years for the legendary Lute Olsen at Arizona, winning a national championship in 1997 and averaging 21.9 points a game his senior year. The Jet went on from there to play 19 years in the NBA, winning a Sixth Man of the Year award in 2009, and he was part of the 2011 Dallas Mavericks championship team.

Terry had moved into the front office side of the business and was serving as the assistant GM of the Texas Legends, Dallas’ G-League affiliate. Now, however, he is jumping back to his alma mater, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

This is a smart hire by Arizona and head coach Sean Miller. High schoolers going to a major D-1 school all have NBA dreams and having a respected NBA veteran who can say “this is what it takes” on staff is a big plus. Besides, Terry was a smart player who knows the game and had a mentality suited to coaching.

For Terry, he’s back in a place he likes, he’s young (42) and has a world of options ahead of him.

Scott Foster says it’s going to be different officiating without fans in building

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The noise from 18,000 people can cover up a lot of sounds in an NBA arena. So when a back-bench assistant coach yells “bulls****” after a call he doesn’t like, the official never hears it and the game moves on.

Not when NBA games restart in fan-less facilities in Orlando in a couple of months. Without those fans, referees are going to get to hear that coach. And a whole lot more.

It’s going to be weird for referees in Orlando, just like for players, veteran official Scott Foster said recently on NBA TV.

I know I don’t want everything that we normally say to each other going out. But normally we’re all in a professional manner out there. But it is going to be different. There’s going to be some assistant coaches that we haven’t really heard from before sitting in the second row that we’ll be able to hear now, so there’s going to be some adjustment there. And then I think we’re going to need to really talk about and analyze what is OK for the public to hear and how we’re going to go about our business.

But it’s definitely going to be a different thing. I’m definitely looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be a really unique experience for the referees, players, coaches, everybody who’s going to go through this.”

It is going to be unique. Everybody is going to hear everything, and that is going to be very different from most nights when coaches have to go to hand signals because it’s too loud just to call out a play. It’s going to lead to some awkward and tense moments.

Everyone is going to have to adjust to the new reality, and that includes the referees, too.