NBA Power Rankings: Bucks remain on top, Jazz move up into top five

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The Bucks will not give up their hold on the top spot in this week’s NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings despite opening the season without two key contributors. The Cavaliers move up to second, but there is a lot of stability at the top of the rankings — and the Jazz are top five. I didn’t see that coming.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (9-1, Last week No.1). The blowout loss to the Hawks ends the (not-realistic) dream of 82-0, but it does not knock the Bucks off the top of the NBA Power Rankings perch. Especially since they are still doing it without Khris Middleton and Pat Connaughton, who remain sidelined (when the Bucks had Jrue Holiday, Middleton, Connaughton and Giannis Antetokounmpo on the court together last season they outscored their opponents by 11.2 points per 100 possessions). Their one loss was on the road in Atlanta, a change from the home-heavy start to the season the Bucks have enjoyed. Milwaukee’s next two games are on the road but winnable in Oklahoma City and San Antonio (but aren’t all games for the Bucks winnable?).

Cavaliers small icon 2. Cavaliers (8-2, LW 3). The Cavaliers came out of their loss to the Clippers talking about lessons to be learned — the physical, matchup-focused style of Los Angeles threw the Cavaliers off at the end of that game, but it’s what Cleveland will see come the postseason. The depth of this Cavaliers team and how well they are playing as a unit was on display in the win over Detroit — no Donovan Mitchell or Darius Garland, so Kevin Love stepped up with 21 points and 10 rebounds. Love will have himself back in the Sixth Man of the Year conversation this season if he can stay healthy, he’s averaging a ridiculously efficient 12.6 points and 7.7 boards a game.

Suns small icon 3. Suns (7-3, LW 2). No Cameron Johnson now for likely 6-8 weeks following his meniscus surgery, which is a blow because he was playing well — he dropped 29 on the Timberwolves just before the injury, and the Suns are +18.3 per 100 possessions when he is on the court this season. Torey Craig is getting the starts with Johnson out, but expect Monty Williams to experiment a bit. The Suns could use Dario Saric to step up with Johnson out, but he has struggled in limited minutes this season. Big tests for the Suns coming up, with 4-of-5 on the road and the one home game in there being the Warriors.

Jazz small icon 4. Jazz (9-3, LW 7). The first place in the West Utah Jazz. Let that sentence sink in. I don’t care that we’re not three full weeks into the season, the Jazz are playing top-10 basketball on both ends of the floor, Lauri Markkanen is averaging 21.9 points and 8.8 rebounds a game, and Jordan Clarkson is suddenly racking up assists — this is a good team. The question a lot of fans are asking: Is this sustainable? Why not? Markkanen has always been impressive when healthy and has the ball in his hands, Collin Sexton will keep scoring off the bench, and Will Hardy has them playing strong defense. Utah heads out East on Sunday on a three-game road trip that includes the 76ers.

Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (7-3, LW 6). The Celtics have taken 47.1% of their shots from 3 this season, the highest percentage in the league, but it works as they are hitting 38.7% of them as a team, leading to 15.6 made 3-pointers a game (best in the NBA). Jayson Tatum leads the way taking 9.2 3-point attempts a game, he’s knocking down 37% of them and that has him scoring more than 31 points a game on the season. Interesting test for the Celtics struggling defense Friday night at home against Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets.

Grizzlies small icon 6. Grizzlies (7-4, LW 9). The Grizzlies have slowed it down this season. The past two seasons, young and athletic Memphis ran teams out of the building (third in pace last season), which made sense with Ja Morant leading the lineup. Not this season. The Grizzlies are 17th in pace, and they are 11th in the league in percentage of possessions that start in transition (16.5%), plus they are not as efficient when they run as in seasons past (stats via Cleaning the Glass). The Grizzlies have become a much better, top-10 half-court offense, which will serve them well in the playoff but is strange to see during the regular season.

Mavericks small icon 7. Mavericks (6-3, LW 11). Luka Doncic continues to be otherworldly, with nine straight games of 30 or more points to open the season (second in the NBA record books to only the video-game numbers of Wilt Chamberlain, who started the 1962-63 season with 23 straight 30+ games). Dallas is playing a lot of close games, with eight of their nine games having clutch minutes (within five points and less than five minutes to go), and those have not been great minutes for Dallas (-25.7 net rating). That’s where the lack of an established secondary ball handler comes back to bite, but they didn’t need one against Kevin Durant and the Nets Monday, when Luka dropped 36.

Hawks small icon 8. Hawks (7-3, LW 15). The new pairing is not completely smooth, and Trae Young has yet to find his fitting this season, but the Hawks are +13.9 this season when Young and Dejounte Murray share the court, with an elite offense and what would be a top-5 defense. Still the Hawks are not top-10 overall in offense or defense, they have work to do, but they are winning and starting to find a groove. That will get tested Thursday and Saturday with two against the Sixers, followed by the Bucks on Monday.

Nuggets small icon 9. Nuggets (7-3, LW 16). Denver has won 5-of-6, and part of that is Jamal Murray is taking steps forward and starting to look more like his pre-injury self. Murray is averaging 15.4 points and four assists a game, shooting 35.7% from 3. The Nuggets knew it would take time for Murray to return to form after missing all of last season following knee surgery, but he looks a little better each game. The Nuggets are in the midst of 8-of-10 on the road, having gone 2-1 in the road games to start the string, and now they have the Celtics and Bulls this weekend.

Blazers small icon 10. Trail Blazers (7-3, LW 4). Is this fast start sustainable? On the one hand Portland is 5-0 in games that Damian Lillard finishes (Lillard is back from his calf strain). On the other hand, the Trail Blazers are middle of the pack on offense, 10th in the league on defense, and have the net rating of a .500 team. The Blazers keep finding ways to win late. Jerami Grant got away with a travel on his game-winner against the Suns, but Josh Hart didn’t cross any lines knocking down his game-winner.

Raptors small icon 11. Raptors (6-5, LW 8). Pascal Siakam was playing the best basketball of his career — 24.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 7.7 assists a game — and looking like an All-NBA player again when the basketball gods hit him with a groin strain that will sideline him weeks (likely close to a month or more). A team built on length and switchability, the Raptors are better positioned to handle this absence than any other roster, but it will still set them back. Starting Friday the Raptors head out and have four-of-five on the road, ending in Atlanta.

Pelicans small icon 12. Pelicans (5-5, LW 5). The Pelicans are finally healthy again, with Brandon Ingram and Herbert Jones both back in the rotation as of last weekend. The Pelicans have dropped 3-of-4, but two of those losses were in overtime and the other was a close game against the Pacers in Indiana. This team is the case of a squad playing better than its record indicates — they have a +3.4 net rating (+4.3 when you filter out garbage time like Cleaning the Glass) and that’s more the pace of a 50-win team, not a .500 squad. Starting Thursday the Pelicans are home for six straight games and they should start to rack up a few more wins then.

Sixers small icon 13. 76ers (5-6, LW 10). It’s going to be the Tyrese Maxey show in Philadelphia, with James Harden out a month with a tendon strain in his foot. However, the bigger question may be how De'Anthony Melton plays now that he is pushed into a starting role. The 76ers have split the two games without him so far, losing one without Joel Embiid as well but then getting a quality win over the Suns with Embiid back. Interesting “where do you stand in the East” home and home series with the Hawks this week.

Bulls small icon 14. Bulls (6-6, LW 17). Still one of the hardest teams to get a read on this season, the Bulls have been very up and down despite their top-10 defense (they still miss Lonzo Ball, he would have helped steady the ship). DeMar DeRozan may have taken half a step back from the career-best numbers he had last season, but he still is averaging a very efficient 23.8 points per game, and he can have nights like the 46 he dropped on Boston (in a Chicago loss, but still). Two of the Bulls’ next three are against the Pelicans, which is an interesting test.

Knicks small icon 15. Knicks (5-5, LW 14). Finally Quinten Grimes is in the starting lineup and Evan Fournier is coming off the bench — if he’s untouchable in a trade he has to start. The Knicks needed the shake-up, their regular starting lineup — Jalen Brunson, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson, and Fournier — had a -8.8 net rating this season. New York is third in the league, starting 17.9% of their possessions this season in transition, a dramatic change from last season when they were bottom 10 in the league. Credit Jalen Brunson for that.

16. Timberwolves (5-6, LW 12). Is it time to start worrying about Minnesota? Sure it’s early, and the defense they brought Rudy Gobert in to improve is in the top 10 in the league, but the offense is bottom 10, the spacing is a mess, and Anthony Edwards seems frustrated and called out the team for being soft. It was always going to take some time for coach Chris Finch to find an offensive system that fits with two bigs, but this is a little worse than feared to start the season (and the Jazz starting so well is just salt in the wound). Starting Friday the Timberwolves head out for 6-of-7 on the road, maybe they can bond together on that trip and start to turn things around.

Clippers small icon17. Clippers (6-5, LW 24). Kawhi Leonard has played a total of 42 minutes across two games so far this season, both off the bench. He has missed the Clips’ last eight games — that’s beyond concerning. Leonard has always worked on his own timeline with his own people, but these Clippers are built around him as the No. 1 option. “We knew coming off an ACL, it wouldn’t be a straight line. We talked about it before the season,” Tyronne Lue said, and it helps that Paul George is averaging 25 points a game and is back to being an All-Star. But without a healthy Kawhi Leonard, this team is average and is playing like it.

Pacers small icon 20. Pacers (5-5, LW 23). Indiana is all offense this season, despite having Myles Turner in the paint to protect the rim they are bottom five in defense. That offense could be slowed a little in the coming weeks with second-year scorer Chris Duarte out after he suffered a grade 2 ankle sprain. Although, less Duarte could mean more Bennedict Mathurin, which will be good for everyone except opposing defenses. Interesting tests for the Pacers this week at home against Denver and Toronto.

Heat small icon 19. Heat (4-7, LW 21). Watch Heat games now and it’s not how much they miss P.J. Tucker that jumps out at you, but it’s the lack of elite athleticism across the board that gets them in trouble. Especially against teams such as Toronto and Portland, which are loaded with young athletes. Kyle Lowry is healthy and in shape but has still taken half a step back off last season, which is very concerning. Still, this team has a better net rating than its record would suggest, and if they can get a couple of wins at home this week against the Hornets they can quickly turn things around.

Warriors small icon 20. Warriors (4-7, LW 18). This sums up the Warriors best this season: When Stephen Curry is on the court, the Warriors have a positive net rating of 6; when Curry is off the court that net rating falls to -22.6. It takes Curry playing at an MVP level to keep this team afloat to start the season, as Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole have yet to find their form, while the young bench the Warriors were leaning into — particularly Jonathan Kuminga and James Wiseman — have struggled. Mightily. Curry can carry the load, but that will take a toll on him, not ideal for a team thinking about games in May and June.

Wizards small icon 21. Wizards (5-6, LW 20). The Wizards’ most-used lineup — Bradley Beal, Kyle Kuzma, Deni Avdija, Markieff Morris, Kristaps Porzingis — is tearing it up this season with a +21.6 net rating, but the second the bench comes in at all things fall apart fast. That has been particularly true on the defensive end, where they have been the second-worst team in the league over the last seven games (they have gone 2-5 in those contests). Can the Wizards turn that around during a six-game homestead? Maybe, but the first three teams are Dallas, Utah and Memphis — it will not be easy.

Nets small icon 22. Nets (4-7, LW 26). Good move by the Nets to hire Jacque Vaughn, a veteran coach who will stabilize the situation. They need the reduced drama because much of the talk about the Nets around the league is about if and when the Nets will blow this thing up, and if Kyrie Irving will ever play for them again? (The earliest he can return is Sunday against the Lakers, but don’t bet on that one.) Through all the distractions, Kevin Durant continues to play at an MVP level (which is why other teams hope he reassures his trade demand). Poor Daniel Gafford ended up in one of the highlights of the year.

Thunder small icon 23. Thunder (4-6, LW 19). Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been special to start the season. How special? He scored 226 points through his first seven games (he sat out one), and that’s the most points any Thunder player has ever scored in his first seven games in the season. Not Kevin Durant. Not Russell Westbrook. It’s Shai. One other interesting note on the Thunder: They are second in the league in steals at 9.1 per game (which has led to them playing at a top-10 pace so far this season).

Kings small icon 24. Kings (3-6, LW 25). Sacramento can’t afford to give away games, and their play in the clutch is an issue. It’s not just the officiating (although that has screwed them as well). The Kings are tied for the third most clutch minutes in the league this season, but have a -10.5 net rating in those minutes. They need to be better under pressure. Case in point, the Kings almost gave the game away in Orlando — they were up 6 with under a minute to go but the Magic came back to tie it — then De'Aaron Fox bailed them out.

Spurs small icon 25. Spurs (5-6, LW 13). Sign that the Spurs are a young team still figuring things out: They are second in the league in turnover rate, with 14.9% of their possessions ending in a turnover — 9.7 a game of those are steals (worst in the league), which leads to a lot of easy transition buckets going the other way. Devin Vassell has looked good since his return, but it has not been enough as the Spurs have dropped four in a row, and things don’t get any easier with the Grizzlies, Bucks, and Warriors as the next three teams on the schedule.

Hornets small icon 26. Hornets (3-8, LW 22). Coach Steve Clifford says LaMelo Ball is “extremely” close to returning, and that might be over the weekend in two games against a desperate Heat squad. While Dennis Smith Jr. and company have had their moments, it’s been clear during the team’s four-game losing streak just how much they miss Ball and his shot-creation skills (Charlotte is bottom three in the league in offensive rating this season). Terry Rozier (whose name has started popping up in trade rumors) is back, if he and Ball can get on the court together the offense should improve quickly.

Lakers small icon 27. Lakers 2-8, LW 27). He may have been slow to warm to the role, but Russell Westbrook has thrived coming off the bench, where he can have the ball is in his hands and create (rather than the third option behind LeBron James and Anthony Davis). Westbrook is averaging 19.3 points a game with a 62.8 true shooting percentage coming off the bench. The Lakers may have a cap on how good this roster can be, but they have their moments. For example, it’s been a week, but don’t forget Matt Ryan‘s ridiculous, fading-out-of-bounds 3-pointer to force overtime against the Pelicans (a game the Lakers went on to win).

Rockets small icon 28. Rockets (2-9, LW 30). They picked up their second win of the season, this time against the Magic, so they snap a six-game losing streak and moved out of the bottom slot in these NBA Power Rankings. The hope was that the improving games of players such as Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr., plus the addition of Jabari Smith, would boost the offense to the point it made up for what was always going to be a struggling defense. No such luck so far this season as the Rockets are bottom six in the league in both categories.

Magic small icon 29. Magic 2-9, LW 28). Orlando is hanging in games, they just don’t know how to close them. The Magic have had five “clutch minutes” games — within five points in the final five minutes — but are 1-8 in those games with a -51.6 net rating in those minutes. No, that’s not a typo. That one clutch win? Beating the Warriors by one point. Orlando remains a fun team to watch on League Pass thanks to Paolo Banchero — 23.5 points and 8.3 rebounds a game this season — but the growing pains are evident.

Pistons small icon 30. Pistons (2-9, LW 29). In every game the Pistons have played this season — including their win Monday against the Thunder — they have trailed by at least 10 points at some point. There are flashes with this team — like them almost beating the Bucks — but then they make the plays of a young team still learning the game and fall back. The potential is there with Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey, Saddiq Bey, and the veteran Bojan Bogdanovic, but it can be a hard process to learn how to win in the league.

NBA owners, players union reportedly agree to push back CBA opt-out date

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NBA owners and players are both making too much money to risk screwing things up with a labor stoppage, right? RIGHT?

Don’t be so sure.

In a sign the two sides have a lot of work to do to reach terms on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement — primarily because of an internal dispute among the owners — the NBA (representing the owners) and the players union have agreed to push back the opt-out date for the CBA from Dec. 15 (this would end the current CBA on July 1, 2023). Marc Stein reported this earlier in the week (covered here) and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski added details today.

Talks on a new CBA are ongoing, and a formal ratification of an extension — likely into February — is expected to come at a virtual board of governors meeting Wednesday, sources said.

What’s the stumbling block? A group of owners — bothered by the massive spending into the luxury tax of the Warriors, Clippers, and Nets  — is pushing for an “Upper Spending Limit” for teams. Call it whatever they want, that’s a hard cap and there is no chance the players will sign off on any form of a hard cap. 

The NBA has used a punitive and progressively intense luxury tax to rein in the spending of some owners. However, some owners — how many is unclear, but enough that the NBA has put the issue on the table — feel the tax isn’t doing its job in the wake of new, even wealthier owners. 

Unquestionably some owners are unbothered by the tax. To use the example I have used before, Steve Ballmer’s Clippers are on track to pay $191.9 million in payroll this season, which will result in a $144.7 million luxury tax bill (leading to a payroll and tax total of $336.6 million). The Warriors and Nets will be in the same ballpark. The Clippers will pay more in tax alone than 11 teams will spend on total payroll. Two-thirds of NBA teams will pay around $150 million in payroll or less, not much more than the Clippers’ tax bill.

Recently, the same NBA owners approved a rule change that would allow a sovereign wealth fund — the financial arms of generally oil-rich countries such as Qatar or Saudi Arabia — to buy up to 20% of an NBA team as a silent partner. That has not happened yet, but the door is open. It’s part of a pattern of wealthier owners — including hedge fund managers and the like — entering the playing field for the NBA.

All that has some of the more established, older owners feeling squeezed by this new group’s willingness to spend. That has the older owners pushing for a hard cap to stop what they see as an increased willingness to spend.

Again, there is no chance the players approve a hard cap. The owners know this, but some seem willing to play brinksmanship with a lucrative, growing business (particularly internationally) to protect their bottom lines.

If you read all that and thought, “this isn’t about the players really, it’s an owner vs. owner issue,” you’re spot on. The league and players are giving the owners more time to work out their internal issues.

Are struggling Mavericks on the clock with Luka Doncic?

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Luka Doncic is in the first year of a five-year, $215.2 million contract. More than that, when asked recently if Mavericks fans should be worried about him wanting out as the team has stumbled at points to start this season, Doncic didn’t sound like a guy looking to bolt:

“I don’t think they’re worried about it right now. I got what, five years left here, so I don’t think they should be worried about it.”

The Mavericks’ front office should be worried about it — teams are always on the clock with a superstar.

The Mavericks let Jalen Brunson get away in the offseason, then brought in Christian Wood (whose defense is an issue and he is coming off the bench). This remains a team a player or two away from contending despite having a potential MVP in Doncic carrying a historic offensive load.

That doesn’t mean Doncic will ask out at the deadline or this summer (he won’t), but if his frustration grows over the next couple of years… who knows. Tim MacMahon of ESPN put it well on the Hoop Collective podcast (hat tip Real GM):

“I think they have a two-year window. This season and next season going into that summer [2024]. I think they have a two-year window where, you know, like Milwaukee did with Giannis [Antetokounmpo], I think in that window they really need to convince Luka that he has a chance to contend year in and year out right here in Dallas. If they can’t get it done in that two-year window, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that he’s going to force a trade or ask for a trade. I’m just saying at that point if he’s not happy, he has all the leverage in the world if he would be looking to leave..

“I don’t think Luka will look for reasons to leave. I think he’d be perfectly happy spending his entire career in Dallas. But if he doesn’t have to look for reasons and they’re slamming him in the face, then that’s a problem. He’s also a guy who is a ruthless competitor, which means he loves winning. He’s used to winning. He won championships with Real Madrid. He won a EuroBasket championship with the Slovenian national team. He also detests losing. Like can’t handle it.”

The Mavericks made the Western Conference Finals last season, knocking off the 64-win Suns in the process — this team is not that far away. Not with Doncic handling the ball. But it feels like a team that has taken a step back from those lofty levels this season. There are many more questions than answers, and it’s impossible to guess how Doncic will feel after this season’s playoffs, let alone the ones ending in the summer of 2024.

But the Mavericks stumbles this season have to put the Dallas front office on notice — this team is not good enough. And if we know it, you can be sure Doncic knows it.

Curry thinking retirement? ‘I don’t see myself slowing down any time soon’

2022 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Awards Presented by Chase
Kimberly White/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated
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Stephen Curry is playing at an MVP level this season: 30 points a game, hitting 43.2% from 3 with a 66.4 true shooting percentage, plus pitching in seven assists and 6.6 rebounds a game. He remains one of the best-conditioned athletes in the sport.

In the face of that, even though he is 34, asking him a retirement question seemed an odd choice, yet a reporter at the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award ceremony — Curry won the award, if you didn’t know — asked Curry about it seems he’s not interested.

Curry should not be thinking of retirement, but there is a sense around these Warriors that this era, this run is coming to an end in the next few years. Curry may be defying father time, but Draymond Green and Klay Thompson (especially post injuries) are not. There is a decline in their games (and this season, the role players have not stepped up around them the same way). With that comes a certain pressure to take advantage of the opportunities, there aren’t going to be as many.

Which is why the Warriors are a team to watch at the trade deadline (and will they sell low on James Wiseman to a team that still sees the potential in him?).

As for Curry, he will still be around and producing for a few more years. Nobody is ready to think about his retirement. Including Curry himself.

Block or charge: Alperen Sengun dunks on Zach Collins

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To borrow the catchphrase of the great Rex Chapman:

Block or charge?

The Rockets’ Alperen Sengun caught a body and threw one down on the Spurs’ Zach Collins but was called for the offensive foul.

NBA Twitter went nuts.

Rockets coach Stephen Silas challenged the call, but it was upheld (from my perspective, the replay officials are always looking to back the in-game officials if they at all can).

By the time Collins slid over and jumped, Sengun was already in the air — if anything that was a block. What the officials called was Sengun using his off-arm to create space.

I hate the call — that’s a dunk and an and-one. Not because it’s a great dunk — although it is that, too — but because Collins literally jumped into the path of an already airborne Sengun, Collins created all the contact. It’s on him. Under the spirit of the rules, Sengun’s off-arm is moot at that point — Collins illegally jumped in Sengun’s way and caused the collision.

Terrible call by the officials.

It was a good night for the Spurs, overall. San Antonio played its best defense in a while and Keldon Johnson — one of the few bright spots in a dark Spurs season — hit his first nine shots on his way to a 32-point night that sparked a 118-109 San Antonio win over Houston, snapping the Spurs 11-game losing streak.