NBA Power Rankings: Orlando season restart edition

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The NBA is back! Probably. There are still a few things to work out, some serious issues to untangle for players such as the impact of a return on the Black Lives Matter movement, and their own health and safety. Still, our NBA Power Rankings are back; this is a basketball-focused look on where the teams stand going into Orlando (or, what the teams not headed to Orlando need to look at).

 
Lakers small icon 1. Lakers (49-14, Last Week No. 1). LeBron James wants to play and chase a legacy-defining ring in Orlando, and that’s good enough for some other players. They have the best duo in the league with LeBron and Anthony Davis. Just before the NBA shut down the Lakers beat the Buck and Clippers in one week, showing off an impressive defense, and if Los Angeles can get back to defending at that level (and using it to spark some easy transition buckets) they will be tough to beat. You know LeBron is in shape and ready to go.

 
Clippers small icon 2. Clippers (44-20, LW 2). The Clippers are one of the teams that may benefit from the extended break this season — a healthy and rested Kawhi Leonard should be ready to go in Orlando. The Clippers were just getting healthy and coming on when the season was shut down, and remember this team is 21-5 in games Leonard, Paul George, and Patrick Beverley are healthy and play. Will the relentless pace of games every other day slow down Leonard by the conference finals and Finals?

 
Bucks small icon 3. Bucks (53-12, LW 3). Giannis Antetokounmpo missed a couple of games with a knee injury right before the league was shut down and would have missed more — maybe opening up the MVP race for LeBron — but now, headed to Orlando, he is 100% and fired up. The lingering question with the Bucks in the playoffs remains: When it gets down to the conference finals and Finals, and another team cuts Antetokounmpo’s easy paths to the rim, can the Bucks go to a “Plan B” and still have enough offense to win games? It’s easy to say “yes” on paper, but they have to prove it (and Mike Budenholzer has to lead the adjustments).

 
Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (43-21, LW 5). Jayson Tatum broke out as an elite, All-NBA level player in the month of the season. Jaylen Brown was just a step behind him. Pair those two with veteran and scoring machine Kemba Walker and a healthy Gordon Hayward, and that is as athletic, versatile, and switchable 1-4 as there is in the league. Those players, and the Celtics fourth-ranked defense, make them a threat to make the Finals out of the East. The question becomes, are big men Daniel Theis, Enes Kanter, and Robert Williams good enough to hang with the Bucks (and Philly in the first round, if that’s the matchup)? Teams with size will test Boston.

 
Raptors small icon 5. Raptors (46-18, LW 4). Toronto had the second best defense in the NBA over the course of the season and that can carry them a long way in Orlando, especially when combined with the breakout season of Pascal Siakam. Nick Nurse has done a Coach of the Year job of putting players in positions to succeed. However, the Raptors are 2-7 against other teams who are the top three seeds in either conference – Toronto beat the teams it was supposed to beat, but can it rise up and knock off the best teams in the playoffs without their closer from last season’s championship run?

 
Rockets small icon 6. Rockets (40-24, LW 9). More than 60 games into the NBA season James Harden looked worn down by the grind and the load put on his shoulders: In his five games played in March before the shut down he averaged 28.2 points a game (down from his 34.4 season average) and his True Shooting Percentage dropped to a league-average 55.3. He looked slower on defense, and he averaged a -10.3 in those games. Video workouts show he has lost weight and comes back rested and ready to run, and there is nobody in the league who can stop his setback. How far Houston can go with their extreme small remains to be seen, but they don’t have another option, and nobody has seen anything quite like it.

 
Nuggets small icon 7. Nuggets (43-22, LW 8). Skinny Nikola Jokic is real and that should worry the rest of the league — over the final month of the season he was already playing at a “consider me for the bottom of your MVP ballot” level. Denver has depth and versatility (likely enough to hold on to the three seed through the “seeding games”), but whether their pick-and-roll defense is good enough to advance them in the playoffs will be a challenge — every team is going to target Jokic and Jamal Murray in the pick-and-roll.

 
Heat small icon 8. Heat (41-24, LW 6). Miami added Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder at the trade deadline to join Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic in providing a veteran and winning presence on this team. Even so, how far Miami goes in the playoffs will depend on their young core of Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson. Can that young group handle the pressure and intensity of the postseason?

 
Thunder small icon 9. Thunder (40-24, LW 7). Oklahoma City is an interesting chess match on the court in the playoffs. When they go to a three point-guard lineup — Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — they are +16.2 per 100 possessions in the regular season, but will that hold up against better (and bigger) teams in the playoffs. Surround those three guards with Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams and the Thunder are +29.9 per 100 possessions (in only 177 minutes, but still). However, sub Adams or Gallinari out and the numbers fall of quick (defenses can ignore anyone else in that scenario and focus on the guards). Can Billy Donovan’s best lineups play enough minutes together in the postseason to win a series?

 
Sixers small icon 10. 76ers (39-26, LW 12). Philadelphia is one of the teams that benefits the most from the coronavirus-forced break — they get a healthy Ben Simmons back from his back issues, and adding an All-Star to the starting lineup makes the team better. The issue remains shooting, which is why it is expected Brett Brown will bring Al Horford off the bench and start Shake Milton with Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid — but that five has played zero minutes together this season. Are eight seeding games enough for the Sixers to settle into a rotation that works? If so, this is a dangerous team in the East.

 
Mavericks small icon 11. Mavericks (40-27, LW 10). Don’t worry about Luka Doncic’s conditioning, he’s fine and will be good to go when play resumes. Dallas would like to get out of the seven seed in the West (and a date with the Clippers in the first round) but while they are just 1.5 games back of Houston and Oklahoma City (the two teams ahead of them), the Mavs have played three more games than either of those teams and lost them all. Dallas needs to get on a run in the seeding games to leapfrog either of them.

 
Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (39-26, LW 11). Indiana was starting to find a groove as Victor Oladipo worked his way back, they won six of the last seven games he played (but he sat out four games in the middle of that stretch). Combined with Malcolm Brogdon and a top-10 defense, the Pacers will be a tough out in the postseason (even without Jeremy Lamb, who is still out after his torn ACL). However, to win a playoff round would require the All-NBA level Oladipo to show up in Orlando and take over games.

 
Jazz small icon 13. Jazz (41-23, LW 13). A bigger concern than the Donovan Mitchell/Rudy Gobert issues and its potential impact on team chemistry (league sources say the two have worked things out) is the loss of Bojan Bogdanovic to a wrist injury. He became a critical secondary playmaker and the Jazz offense was 8.5 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the court this season. His loss dampens Utah’s postseason hopes, they will need Mike Conley to quickly find a comfort zone and dominate in the pick-and-roll to have much hope come the postseason, even with Gobert and the Utah defense.

 
Blazers small icon 14. Trail Blazers (29-37, LW 19). No team benefitted more (not even Philly) from the forced three-month suspension of the league than the Trail Blazers. They return with a fully healthy Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins on their front line, essentially re-uniting the core that won 53 games and made the conference finals the season before. Is that enough to get Portland into the play-in games with Memphis, then beat the Grizzlies two games in a row? Maybe, maybe not, but Portland, led by the clutch shooting of Damian Lillard, has a better shot at that any other team in the West. This restart sets up well for them (they have the winning percentage advantage over New Orleans).

Pelicans small icon 15. Pelicans (28-36, LW 17). The league got what it wanted: Zion Williamson is in the bubble. The Pelicans were playing better basketball than anybody at the bottom of the West the final 10 games before the forced break (a +2.5 net rating) — and they got there because they were playing good defense. If the Pelicans can sustain that defense and mix it with an improving offense this team is a threat to make the playoffs. You know the suits at ESPN/Turner want that Brandon Ingram/Lonzo Ball against LeBron and the Lakers matchup in the first round of the playoffs.

 
Grizzlies small icon 16. Grizzlies (32-33, LW 15). Memphis earned the right to be the eighth seed in the West and the advantages that come with it thanks to the Rookie of the Year play of Ja Morant. Now they add a healthy Justise Winslow — with a training camp and eight seeding games to work him in — plus a 3.5 games cushion on everyone chasing them. The Grizzlies should hold on to the eighth seed heading into a play-in series. Then they just have to win one of two games — that’s the real test for this young team.

 
Magic small icon 17. Magic (30-35, LW 14). Orlando’s offense caught fire after the All-Star break, it was the best in the NBA. If they can recapture that fire, then add defensive stopper Jonathon Isaac (injured but working to return, although it’s a long shot), we could see the best of Orlando in, well, Orlando. That may well be enough to vault them past Brooklyn and into the seven seed, avoiding any threat from a play-in series (although it’s hard to imagine Washington catching up enough with Orlando to force those games anyway).

 
Nets small icon 18. Nets (30-34, LW 16). No Kevin Durant. No Kyrie Irving. And interim coach in Jacque Vaughn and a lot of uncertainty around the roster. That’s a lot of issues for Brooklyn to deal with during the restart. Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen and company played good defense this season, they will need to sustain that and find some consistent offense or Orlando will pass them and maybe Washington can even force the play-in games. Brooklyn has some work to do.

 
Kings small icon 19. Kings (28-36, LW 18). Sacramento was starting to pull itself together before the forced hiatus of the league, with De’Aaron Fox and Bogdan Bogdanovic sparking an offense that was finding its footing. Add in Marvin Bagley III — who was injured but is expected back — and the Kings have an outside chance to end their 14-year playoff drought if they get hot in Orlando.

 
Spurs small icon 20. Spurs (27-36, LW 20). LaMarcus Aldridge is out for the restart following shoulder surgery, and that put a dagger in the Spurs chances, which were pretty long before that news. They do have Gregg Popovich as the coach and an interesting young backcourt with Dejounte Murray and Derrick White, but a team that lives and dies on the midrange jumper (especially that of DeMar DeRozan) is not going to get hot enough in the seeding games to climb up into the postseason. Will Popovich realize that and experiment with lineups for next season? Popovich, and a lot of the Spurs staff, have been powerful when speaking on social justice issues in recent weeks.

 
Suns small icon 21. Suns (26-39, LW 21). Phoenix is expected to have Kelly Oubre Jr. back from injury for this restart. Combine him with Devin Booker, Ricky Rubio, Mikal Bridges, and Deandre Ayton and you have an impressive starting five that has been +20.2 points per 100 possessions (small sample size theater alert here, they haven’t played together much). Even with that group the Suns are not leapfrogging enough teams to get into the playoff mix this season, but it’s a chance for Monty Williams to lay groundwork for next season.

 
Wizards small icon 22. Wizards (24-40, LW 22). No John Wall. That means Bradley Beal is going to go to Orlando and put up numbers… which is what he did before the break, playing at an All-NBA level, and Washington is still 16 games below .500. Which speaks to this team having the worst defense in the NBA last season. Washington is a long shot even to force play-in games against Orlando or Brooklyn, let alone beat one of those two more talented and better-balanced squads two games in a row to make the playoffs.

 
Bulls small icon 23. Bulls (22-43, LW 24). How many changes Arturas Karnisovas will make this offseason — with its condensed timeline and likely reduced salary cap — remains to be seen, although Jim Boylen being out as coach is likely the big one. Still, there are a lot of questions. Can Coby White and Zach LaVine form a winning backcourt? Will a new coach use Lauri Markkanen in a better way? What is Wendell Carter Jr.’s role in a new offense? Is Kris Dunn part of the future in Chicago? There is some talent on this roster, and players have improved, but the pieces have yet to get together in a winning way.

 
24. Timberwolves (19-45, LW 28). D'Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns played just 25 minutes together and that leads to the biggest question for Minnesota going forward: Can those two play good enough pick-and-roll defense to make this a winning team? The offense will be strong, but can this team get stops. Expect Gersson Rosas to be aggressive in looking for shooters and defenders to go around his stars, but there are 29 other teams looking for defenders who can shoot, too.

 
Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (20-46, LW 29). Coach Lloyd Pierce didn’t get a chance to unleash a Trae Young/Clint Capela pick-and-roll on the world in Orlando, it will have to wait until next season (if Pierce is around next season, that is not a lock by any means). Atlanta needs to improve its ball movement on offense and improve its 28th in the league defense to take a step forward, but they have the talent on the roster to do all of that. Expect a leap from the Hawks next season.

 
Hornets small icon 26. Hornets (23-42, LW 23). It was fun to watch Devonte' Graham explode on the scene this year and make a run at Most Improved Player, but for my money the biggest question for Charlotte going forward remains: Who is it building this team around? Who is the future star? The team will have another lottery pick this season, and in 2021 should have cap space (once Nicolas Batum comes off the books), but they need to find a cornerstone player now that Kemba Walker is gone.

 
Knicks small icon 27. Knicks (20-45, LW 25). Leon Rose is running the show and soon Tom Thibodeau will be the head coach (or, maybe Kenny Atkinson, but the smart money is still on Thibs), which means changes are coming to Madison Square Garden. The question is what direction do they go: Build around their young talent such as RJ Barrett, Michell Robinson, and whoever they draft this season; or, use that talent and some money to trade for an established star (or get one in future free agency)? Or maybe they split the difference and try to do a little of both (which sounds very Knicks on the surface). It’s another redo in New York; we’ll see if this one goes better than the previous attempts.

Pistons small icon 28. Pistons (20-45, LW 26). They got out from under the contract of Andre Drummond, and there are some good young players on the roster such as Luke Kennard and Sekou Doumbouya (and Christian Wood, if they can re-sign him). However, Blake Griffin is still an anchor on the books. Derrick Rose may be better as trade bait with his $7.7 million contract. There is still a lot of rebuilding work to be done in Detroit, this process is just getting started.

 
Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (19-46, LW 27). Cleveland’s last two top draft picks, Darius Garland and Collin Sexton, have formed a defensive disaster of a backcourt with questions about the offensive upside for either or both (depending upon who you ask). Andre Drummond is on the roster now but his size alone is not going to protect the rim and improve the defense, the Cavaliers need perimeter defenders. And just a lot more talent (hopefully they can pick some up in this year’s draft).

 
Warriors small icon 30. Warriors (15-50 LW 30). The question in the Bay Area is what draft pick do the Warriors end up with — 14% chance of No. 1, but a 48% chance of No. 5 — and what do they do with it. The expectation around the league is they will shop the pick, but in a down draft that may not be enough, so they may just use it to add some young talent. This team will still have Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green next season, and if they can find a role for Andrew Wiggins and get decent center play they become a very dangerous, high seed team again.

Teams reportedly watching to see if Bulls make stars available; Lakers had internal discussions on it

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It was a talking point going into the season: What teams we thought would be good will struggle, and then pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama in the lottery.

What about the 9-13 Chicago Bulls? They barely look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even at their best where do they fall in the East? Would they blow it up? With DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic and Zach LaVine, they have players that would interest other teams and could bring quality picks (or young players) back to Chicago. Other teams are watching, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

One of those teams: The Los Angeles Lakers.

That is according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe on the Lowe Post Podcast. He was discussing a potential trade floated by The Ringer’s Bill Simmons where the Lakers send Russell Westbrook and two future first-round picks (2027 and 2029) to the Bulls for DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic.

“The trade I saw on Twitter was Russ and both picks, one with light protections I think for DeRozan and Vucevic. I can tell you 100% for sure that the Lakers have had internal discussions about that very possibility, if it would ever come up. Not that they would do that. Let me be clear.”

None of this matters if the Bulls don’t decide to pivot, and they are not there yet. They may never get to that point. But the Lakers and other teams are surveying what teams might make game-changers available at the deadline, and the way the Bulls are stumbling has other teams keeping an eye on them. Expect the rumors to keep coming.

But for now, that’s all they are, rumors and speculation.

On the bright side for Bucks, Khris Middleton looks good in return

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton initially said that making his 2022-23 debut in his return from offseason wrist surgery felt great.

Then he quickly corrected himself.

“I should actually say good,” Middleton said Friday night after the Bucks’ 133-129 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. “If we got the win, I think I would have been (feeling) great. It felt really good to be back out there with the guys competing and playing,”

Middleton, 31, had 17 points and seven assists while playing 26 1/2 minutes in his first game since spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee April 20 in Game 2 of the Bucks’ first-round playoff series with the Chicago Bulls. That injury caused him to miss the entirety of the Bucks’ Eastern Conference semifinal with the Boston Celtics, a series Milwaukee lost in seven games.

The 6-foot-7 forward then had surgery on his left wrist in the summer, having played through the injury late last season.

“Pretty impressive how kind of seamlessly he got back into the game on both ends of the court,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.

Middleton said Friday at a post-shootaround availability that he might need some time to readjust, but the three-time All-Star didn’t show any signs of rust in his first game back. He shot 6 of 11 and went 3 of 4 from 3-point range.

“Just relying on my experience,” Middleton said. “Just (trying) not to rush and let the game come to me. Don’t try to do too much the first game back and try to fit in and play off my teammates.”

The most important thing is that Middleton felt just fine physically.

“Hopefully tomorrow when I wake up, I feel the same also and I won’t feel too sore or whatever,” he said.

The Bucks had gone 15-5 in Middleton’s absence. Milwaukee is second in the Eastern Conference, behind only the Boston Celtics.

Middleton’s teammates believe his return should make them even better.

“It takes us to a whole different level,” Bucks forward and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We scored 129 points and we had a bad first half. That says a lot.”

Lakers coach Darvin Ham knows how much Middleton means to the Bucks’ title hopes. Ham was an assistant coach on Budenholzer’s Bucks staff from 2018-22, including their 2021 championship season.

“Giannis is the heart and soul and the engine, and Khris is like the steering wheel,” Ham said before Friday’s game. “He’s the GPS in terms of understanding what to do. Giannis is the focal point but Khris is the master of putting guys where they need to be. He’s like that quarterback.”

The Bucks aren’t going to overexert Middleton as he returns to the floor for the first time in about 7 1/2 months. Budenholzer said Middleton probably won’t play Saturday at Charlotte.

“We’ll talk about it on the plane, but my guess is he will not play a back-to-back,” Budenholzer said.

Middleton’s just happy he’s back on the floor at all.

“Just a range of emotions,” Middleton said. “(I’ve) been through a lot these last couple months. Happy, sad, anxious, nervous. To finally get out there and play and get a lot of those nerves past me felt pretty good.

LeBron James passes Magic Johnson for sixth all-time in assists

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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Magic Johnson is one of the greatest, most creative passers the game has ever seen.

Friday night, LeBron James passed Magic for sixth all-time in assists in the NBA. For LeBron, doing that in a Lakers’ jersey like Magic wore was special.

It happened with 8:41 remaining left in the game, LeBron found Anthony Davis for a 3-pointer on the right wing.

LeBron finished the night with 11 assists and 28 points, which along with a monster 44-point night from Anthony Davis led the Lakers to an impressive win over the Bucks in Milwaukee.

 

 

 

Jimmy Butler returns, hits clutch shots to lift Heat past Celtics

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics
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BOSTON (AP) — Bam Adebayo scored 28 points, Tyler Herro had 26 and the Miami Heat completed a split of two games in Boston, beating the Celtics 120-116 on Friday night after Jaylen Brown banked in a long 3-pointer to force overtime.

Heat leading scorer Jimmy Butler returned to the lineup and had 25 points in 36 minutes after missing the previous seven games with a sore right knee. He added 15 rebounds.

“Obviously having JB back is big time for us,” Herro said. “He helps us in so many different ways.”

Kyle Lowry chipped in with 20 points before fouling out in OT for the Heat, who sent Boston to just its second loss in 16 games.

“My team welcomed me back and let me do what I do,” Butler said. “It was a big `W’ for the team.”

Brown sent the game to overtime by banking in his long 3 with 1.7 seconds to play in regulation. He finished with 37 points.

“It felt good coming off my hand,” Brown said. “I know we wanted to get a shot up off the rim as fast as possible, just in case we missed we could get a rebound, a tip out.”

The Celtics had won 10 straight at TD Garden.

Boston star Jayson Tatum scored just 14 points on a cold shooting night, going 5 of 18 from the floor, including 0 of 7 on 3-point attempts. He had 49 points in the Celtics’ 134-121 victory on Wednesday night.

“That’s the biggest thing about the league; you’re not going to stop anybody from just scoring,” Adebayo said. “I feel like (we’re) making him take tough shots every time we play him and living with the result.”

Butler hit a clutch jumper over Al Horford, making it 110-107 with 5.1 seconds left in regulation before Brown took a pass near midcourt, dribbled to his right and nailed his shot.

In OT, the teams were tied twice before Butler nailed a foul-line jumper over Horford with 1:45 left, but Brown hit two free throws to tie it.

Adebayo nailed two free throws and, after Tatum misfired on a 3, Butler hit a jumper to seal it.

“Jimmy made two tough, tough baskets,” Brown said. “That’s just a credit to his work and his skill and his development. He gets going in games like this; on the road in a hostile environment. … Tonight, two shots that in our defensive scheme we could live with, but Jimmy a big-time player made both of them.”

Unlike Wednesday, when shots were open more and both teams were making them effectively (each shot over 50%), defense was tighter and it resembled more of the postseason matchup last season between the pair that went seven games before Boston captured the Eastern Conference title.