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NBA Power Rankings: From Paris to Milwaukee Giannis Antetokounmpo keeps on winning

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Kobe Bryant’s untimely death has cast a pall over the NBA, a dark cloud blocking the light for both players and fans. But the league grinds on, and so do our NBA power rankings, which now have Kobe’s Lakers back up to No. 2.

 
Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (41-6, Last Week No. 1). Giannis Antetokounmpo was one of the many elite players in the league who credit Kobe Bryant for helping him reach that level: “I grew up with Kobe. Kobe influenced my life. Looking up to him, one of the reasons I started playing basketball. One of the reasons that I am here today.”Milwaukee picked up a win last week the NBA’s first-ever game in Paris.

 
Lakers small icon 2. Lakers (36-10, LW No. 3). Postponing the Tuesday night game against the Clippers was the right move by the league. It’s not just the Lakers’ players who are grieving, Kobe was a 20-year Laker employee who had deep ties outside the locker room with people in game operations, the marketing team, season ticket sales, and so much more. The organization is grieving, and will undoubtedly have a tremendous tribute for Kobe on Friday night against Portland. It’s a crazy coincidence that Kobe died just a day after LeBron James passed him on the all-time scoring list.

 
Jazz small icon 3. Jazz (32-14, LW 2). Utah should have two players in the All-Star Game next month, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. There seems to be momentum behind the Gobert candidacy, talking to people around the league (although the coaches make that vote). Mitchell, while deserving, is battling for a spot on the reserves with other guards who also can make good cases (Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, etc.), and the coaches have some tough choices. Utah slips one spot this week because of the loss to a very shorthanded Rockets team.

 
Clippers small icon 4. Clippers (33-14, LW 4). Against Miami over the weekend, Doc Rivers rolled out his 21st different starting lineup of the season — the most in the NBA. Last season the Clippers had 14 starting lineups total, but roster changes and injuries have made this season exceptional. It speaks to why there has yet to be real cohesion with this Clippers roster, and also why — while they are actively looking at the trade market — they are in no way panicking. This team, as is, remains a serious title contender.

 
Raptors small icon 5. Raptors (33-14, LW 8). Pascal Siakam was voted in an All-Star starter and he earned it. Not just with his 23.8 points and 7.7 rebounds a game, but also with the fact the Raptors outscore opponents by 8.6 per 100 possessions when he is on the court (and look like maybe the second best team in the East). The Raptors are winners of eight in a row (and rolling into a soft part of the schedule, so expect that number to climb).

 
Celtics small icon 6. Celtics (31-15, LW 6). Statistically, Boston is playing some of its best basketball of the season, having won 4-of-5 (with victories over the Lakers and Heat in there). That has come with Jayson Tatum missing three of those games (groin injury, but he seems close to a return) and players such as Kemba Walker, Gordon Hayward, and Marcus Smart picking up the offensive slack. The Celtics can get healthy against a bit of a soft spot in the schedule, just one of their next five games is against teams over .500.

 
Heat small icon 7. Heat (32-15, LW 7). We mentioned it in this space a week ago but will do so again: Bam Adebayo deserves to be named an NBA All-Star. The East coaches unquestionably will vote in Jimmy Butler as a reserve (I thought he should have started) but Adebayo is in a tight mix with Tatum, Khris Middleton, Domantas Sabonis and others, and someone is going to get left out. Miami needs to force every game to overtime, they are 8-0 in the extra frame this season (some of that is luck, some of that is how hard they play).

 
Sixers small icon 8. 76ers (31-17, LW 9). Joel Embiid is back from his hand surgery, and Philly needed him. Yes, the Sixers went 6-3 without him and Ben Simmons stepped up, he averaged 24 points a game on better than 70 percent shooting in his last 5 without Embiid. However, in those nine Embiid-less games the 76ers offensive rating was just 104.9, 29th in the NBA in that stretch. Even in the last five it was 103.2, still 29th in the league. Embiid is critical to making the offense elite.

 
Nuggets small icon 9. Nuggets (32-15, LW 5). That Denver is keeping its head above water — 6-4 in their last 10 — despite the rash of injuries is impressive. They got Gary Harris back this week, but it has been an impressive run by Nikola Jokic and some good nights from Michael Porter Jr. that has kept Denver as a team that would have home court in the first round through all of this. Big tests this week against Utah and Milwaukee.

 
Pacers small icon 10. Pacers (30-17, LW 11). Victor Oladipo makes his return to the court this Wednesday after missing nearly a year with a right quad tendon rupture, and this could be a huge boost to the Pacers. Eventually. He’s going to come off the bench and have a minutes limit at first. Nate McMillan needs to blend Oladipo’s All-NBA skills (if he can get back to that level) with the scoring and passing of Malcolm Brogdon, plus the secondary playmaking that Domantas Sabonis has provided. It will take some time but the Pacers could be taking a big step forward in the coming weeks.

 
Rockets small icon 11. Rockets (29-17, LW 12). James Harden has missed two games, and likely will miss at least one more, due to a bruised thigh. That forced rest may be a good thing, Harden has struggled in games running up to the injury and looked worn down — in his last five games he’s averaging 23 points a game (13.1 below his season average), shooting 33.3 percent overall and 13.6 percent from three. While Russell Westbrook’s numbers went up, Houston needs Harden’s scoring, the team is 3-5 in its last 8.

 
Mavericks small icon 12. Mavericks (29-18, LW 10). Dallas has gone 2-2 since center Dwight Powell went down with a torn Achilles, and while the offense has been off a little without him it’s the defensive end that has been the bigger issue (surprisingly). Smart trade by Dallas to get Willie Cauley-Stein, who can provide some depth and athleticism behind Maxi Kleber at the five. Clearly, Dallas is still adjusting to its new reality.

 
Thunder small icon 13. Thunder (28-20, LW 13). The most underrated, fun lineup in the NBA is OKC’s three-guard grouping of Dennis Schroder, Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — they are +29.3 points per 100 possessions when they share the floor. Chris Paul missed his first game of the season mourning his good friend Kobe. CP3 deserves to be an All-Star this year and expect the coaches to give the veteran the nod over some young (but also deserving) players around the league.

 
Grizzlies small icon 14. Grizzlies (23-24, LW 14). 2020 has been good to Memphis so far, they are 10-3 since the calendar flipped to the new year and the key to that has been transition buckets. In January 18.2% of the Grizzlies offense has come in transition (up from 16.6% before that) and, more importantly, in January they are getting 1.36 points per possession when they run (up from 1.22 earlier in the season). Ja Morant has become and open court beast. Memphis now has a 2.5 game cushion for the eighth seed in the West, but they need to be ready for a run by one of the teams behind them.

 
Spurs small icon 15. Spurs (20-26, LW 16). Before a stinker of a game against the Bulls, Derrick White had been playing some of the best basketball of his career — five straight games scoring in double figures, including dropping 25 on the Suns. With LaMarcus Aldridge spending more time at the arc spacing the floor, White had more room to drive and make plays (the same reason DeMar DeRozan saw a scoring spike. The Spurs have lost three close games in a row and next Monday head out on the Rodeo Road trip that has them outside of Texas for eight straight games.

 
Blazers small icon 16. Trail Blazers (20-27, LW 17). Damian Lillard is on a tear, scoring at least 47 points in three straight games and at least 34 in his last five games. He is trying to will this team back into the playoff chase (they are 3 games behind Memphis) but they will need more than his magic against the coming stretch of games: Rockets, Lakers, Jazz, Nuggets, Spurs, Jazz (again).

Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (19-29, LW 20). It’s just four games, but Zion Williamson is averaging 18 points in 63.3% shooting plus 8.3 rebounds a game, and the Pelicans are 14.7 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court (with most of the improvement coming on the defensive end). It’s small sample size theater, but it’s also very impressive. Even with him the Pelicans are 2-2 in those four games and if they are going to make a playoff run they need to start racking up wins.

 
Suns small icon 18. Suns (20-27, LW 19). Phoenix has not had an All-Star since Steve Nash, Devin Booker has put up the kind of numbers that have him in the mix — 27.1 points and 6.4 rebounds a game — but he’s still on the bubble. Lillard is a lock to be a West guard reserve, but after that Booker is battling Westbrook, CP3, Donovan Mitchell and others for the final guard slots in the West. He’s deserving, but some deserving players will get snubbed this year.

 
Bulls small icon 19. Bulls (19-30, LW 21). Lauri Markkanen, already not having the breakout season many in Chicago hoped to see, will now miss 4-to-6 weeks with stress reaction of his right pelvis. Chicago can offer Markkanen an extension to his rookie contract after this season, but this injury and all the others will make them hesitant. Chicago may come in with a lower number and Markkanen may choose to bet on himself and see if a good season can boost his value in the market.

 
Magic small icon 20. Magic (21-27, LW 15). No team in the NBA seems to have a divide on how they play against teams under or over .500 like Orlando. The Magic are 4-21 against teams over .500 but 17-6 against the ones under that mark. Orlando has lost four in a row and has Miami up next, then they head on the road for three games.

 
Nets small icon 21. Nets (19-26, LW 20). It’s one thing to lose five in a row against the toughest stretch of your schedule all season, but it’s something else to need overtime to beat the Pistons, then to lose to the Knicks. The Nets are now 1-1 in a run of seven straight against struggling, below .550 teams — a chance for them to lock down a playoff spot. Brooklyn continues to hang on to the eighth seed in the East, but mostly because the teams chasing them (Chicago, Detroit, Charlotte) are worse, not because Kyrie Irving has the Nets playing well.

 
Kings small icon 22. Kings (17-29, LW 23). The Kings continue to look for Dewayne Dedmon trades and he likely gets moved before the deadline (he has been fined for publicly requesting a trade), but will he be the only King traded? There has been a lot of Bogdan Bogdanovic chatter around the league, but the price to land him will be steep. The Kings have to seriously consider it, however. With Sacramento 5.5 games out of the playoffs (and a lot of teams to jump to get in), becoming sellers at the deadline makes sense.

Pistons small icon 23. Pistons (17-31, LW 22). Losers of three in a row, now 3.5 games out of the playoffs, and with Blake Griffin done for the season, the question becomes how serious of sellers will the Pistons be at the trade deadline. While there was a lot of buzz early about Andre Drummond trades (a sign the Pistons may not want to pay what the market will this summer when the big man is a free agent), the real push from contenders is for the resurgent Derrick Rose. The question is, can any of them put together a trade that actually interests and helps Detroit?

 
Wizards small icon 24. Wizards (15-31, LW 25). Rookie Rui Hachimura, who has missed 21 games with a strained groin has gone through full practices with the Wizards and is close to a return (but not Wednesday in Miami). Another note on the rookie, he is not giving up his No. 8 jersey in honor or Kobe Bryant, and with good reason:

 
Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (12-36, LW 27). Trae Young is an All-Star starter (the first Hawk voted to start since Dikembe Mutombo in 1998), but it was his backup Brandon Goodwin — along with John Collins — helped spark the comeback of the year for Atlanta, from 19 down to beat the Clippers. Atlanta went 2-2 in their last four, and Young’s skill as a pick-and-roll ball handler continues to improve.

 
Hornets small icon 26. Hornets (16-31, LW 30). Apparently the few days of croissants and crepes of France did Charlotte some good. The Hornets returned from the NBA’s first ever game in Paris (where they lost to the Bucks) and proceeded to snap their eight game losing streak with a win over the Knicks. Malik Monk dropped 31 points on the Bucks in Paris and now James Borego is hoping he can do more of that stateside.

 
Knicks small icon 27. Knicks (13-35, LW 26). From friend of this site Tommy Beer: Since Mitchell Robinson’s 11-of-11 shooting night and 22 points on Jan. 1 (in a win over Portland), he hasn’t attempted more than 7 shots in a game, and is averaging just 4.3 shots a night. If the Knicks are grooming Robinson to be part of the future then RJ Barrett and the other ball handlers need to get him more touches.

 
Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (13-35, LW 28). Strangely, this ranking almost feels like it’s too high. It’s not just that Cleveland has lost 8-of-9, it’s who they lost to in that stretch — the Bulls (twice), Wizards, and Knicks. While the offense is bottom 10 in the league during this nine-game stretch, the real problem has been a 29th ranked defense with a 118 net rating in those games. Ouch.

 
29. Timberwolves (15-32, LW 24). Karl-Anthony Towns continues to put up numbers that could make him an All-Star, he’s been back from injury for seven games now, and in his last five is averaging 31.6 points per game on 53.3 percent shooting, plus grabbing 8.4 rebounds a game. It’s not enough, the Timberwolves have lost 10 straight. A lot of trade buzz around this team, particularly contenders with interest in Robert Covington.

 
Warriors small icon 30. Warriors (10-38 LW 29). Here’s all you need to know about the Warriors’ roster depth right now: Earlier this month the Warriors waived Marquese Chriss because they wanted to convert Damion Lee’s two-way contract to a regular one, but they needed the roster spot. Then, when they traded Willie Cauley-Stein to Dallas, opening up a roster spot again, the Warriors re-signed Chriss — and almost instantly Chriss was starting at center again.

Three Things to Know: Some players switching numbers away from 8, 24 to honor Kobe

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Some players are switching numbers away from 8, 24 to honor Kobe. Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban made the first move, saying on Sunday that no Dallas player would again wear No. 24 in honor of Kobe Bryant. It was a decision made to honor Kobe in the wake of his death (along with his daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash).

Now some players who have been wearing No. 8 or No. 24 are switching numbers for the same reason, a sort of unofficial number retirement. The first was Brooklyn guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who wore No. 8 but asked the league (and got rare in-season permission) to change to No. 26.

The next name we heard was Orlando’s Terrence Ross, who wore No. 8 but is switching to No. 31. New Orleans center Jahlil Okafor and Philadelphia guard Zhaire Smith are making changes.

Is that the best way to honor Kobe’s legacy?

Or, would it be to continue to wear his number but play with the passion, dedication, and pride that made Kobe special?

There is not a one size fits all answer to that question. Kemba Walker, who wears No. 8 for the Celtics, is grappling with that. (Walker wore No. 15 in Charlotte, but in Boston that number is retired in honor of Tommy Heinsohn.)

There were 30 NBA players this season wearing numbers 8 or 24, and they have a personal decision to make.

Personally, I like how Joel Embiid handled it.

2) 76ers Joel Embiid returns after a nine-game absence, wears No. 24 to honor Kobe, scores 24 points, leads Sixers to win. Joel Embiid was one of many NBA players hit hard by Kobe’s sudden and tragic death.

Embiid returned to action Tuesday after a nine-game absence and donned No. 24 for the night (getting permission from Bobby Jones, the number was retired in his honor), then went out and scored 24 points to spark the 76ers win against Golden State — yelling “Kobe” as he hit his final shot.

Philadelphia needed Embiid back in the lineup.

The Sixers did go 6-3 while Embiid was out — and Ben Simmons stepped up, he averaged 24 points a game on better than 70 percent shooting in the final five without Embiid. However, Philly’s offensive rating in the nine Embiid-less games was 104.9, 29th in the NBA in that stretch. Even in the last five it was 103.2, still 29th in the league. Ben Simmons may have been playing better but the offense was not, and on the road the team really struggled.

If the Sixers are going to make any run the second half of this season and into the playoffs — if they are going to prove the best of a crowded second tier in the East — they will need a lot more from Embiid.

3) Khris Middleton makes his All-Star case, drops 51 on Wizards with Greek Freak out. Giannis Antetokounmpo has a sore shoulder and the Milwaukee Bucks — with their comfortable eight-game cushion on top of the East — gave him Tuesday night off to get healthy.

Khris Middleton said, “I got this,” stepped up and dropped a career-high 51 on the hapless Wizards’ defense (worst in the league).

Middleton was an All-Star last year and wants to get back to the game this season, but he is in the mix with players such as Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo from Miami, Jayson Tatum from Boston, Domantas Sabonis of Indiana, and a lot of quality guards in the East who are deserving. There will be “snubs” when the All-Star reserves are announced Thursday night on TNT.

I would have Middleton on the roster, but its the coaches who cast that ballot.

Joel Embiid’s Kobe tribute: 24 points while wearing uniform No. 24; 76ers’ win

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Wearing No. 24 in honor of Kobe Bryant, Joel Embiid scored 24 points in his first game in three weeks, leading the Philadelphia 76ers to a 115-104 win over the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night.

Embiid and the rest of the Sixers wore No. 24 and No. 8 Bryant jerseys in warmups in honor of the Los Angeles Lakers star, who was killed Sunday in a helicopter crash. Embiid was granted permission from Hall of Famer Bobby Jones to wear the retired No. 24 instead of his usual 21 for his first game since he tore a ligament in a finger in his left hand.

The Sixers went 6-3 without Embiid, the first Sixer to be voted to three straight All-Star Games since Allen Iverson.

Embiid had averaged 23.4 points and 12.3 rebounds in 31 games this season. Against the Warriors, Embiid played with a splint on his hand that didn’t affect him when he buried a 3 that sent the Sixers into halftime with a 59-54 lead.

Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons had “Mamba Forever” and “RIP Gigi” (for Bryant’s daughter, among the nine killed in the crash) on each sneaker and scored 17 points.

The Sixers were the latest team to honor Bryant in a pregame ceremony. Bryant led suburban Lower Merion High School to the Class AAAA state title at Hersheypark Arena in 1996, the school’s first since 1943. His framed No. 33 Aces jersey was displayed at midcourt and the Sixers held a 33-second moment of silence of Bryant and the other eight victims in Sunday’s crash. The Sixers rang a bell nine times and shone nine lights on the court during the solemn remembrance. The Sixers skipped pregame introductions for both teams and instead played a video of Bryant’s last introduction in Philadelphia in a December 2015 game and images of him with Allen Iverson and Julius Erving.

Yes, all teams have been affected by Bryant’s death, but it struck particularly hard in Philly, where the former NBA star had a turbulent relationship with Philadelphia. His high school coach Gregg Downer spoke to the media for the first time earlier in the day, and wore Bryant’s No. 33 Lower Merion warmup jacket.

The mood in the building also was tempered, in part, because the 10-win Warriors gave the Sixers a serious challenge. The Sixers were 12-point favorites but D'Angelo Russell, who scored a team-high 28 points, kept the Warriors within single digits for most of the fourth quarter.

Al Horford buried a 3 and Shake Milton followed with another to push it to a 16-point lead and send the Sixers on their way to a whopping 22-2 record at home.

 

Joel Embiid returns to Philadelphia rotation after nine-game absence

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When you saw the image of Joel Embiid‘s dislocated ring finger facing a direction no finger should face, you knew he was going to miss some time (even though he had it taped up and returned to that game). Embiid had surgery to repair a torn radial collateral ligament on the ring finger of his left hand. Ultimately he missed nine games while he recovered.

Tuesday night against the Warriors, Embiid will be back.

He will have a soft wrap on his left hand that has been cleared by the league.

Philadelphia went 6-3 while Embiid was out.

Ben Simmons stepped up — in his last five games (before Tuesday) he averaged 24 points a game on 70.6 percent shooting, plus 10 rebounds and 8.6 assists a game. Without Embiid in the paint or taking up touches, Simmons took over the offense and looked much more comfortable in his role.

However, the Sixers’ offensive rating in those nine Embiid-less games was 104.9, 29th in the NBA (even in the last five it was 103.2, still 29th in the league). Simmons may have been playing better but the offense was not.

When Simmons and Embiid share the court this season, their offensive rating is 106.7 — not great, but better than without Embiid playing.

Erik Spoelstra says it’s a ‘joke’ Jimmy Butler is not an All-Star starter

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Jimmy Butler will be an All-Star when the game tips off in Chicago Feb. 16.

He just will be coming off the bench (to be voted on by the coaches), not starting, and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra says that’s “a joke.”

Spoelstra’s point is a good one: Is Butler a guard or a forward? Butler could only be voted on as a forward, but the Heat coach he sees Butler as the teams starting two guard, and in today’s positionless NBA should we define players this way at all? Here is what Spoelstra said, via Nick Friedell of ESPN:

“I just think it’s ridiculous that we’re still in these antiquated positions,” Spoelstra said… “So who’s to say what position Jimmy is? Does it matter? I put him No. 2 on my [lineup] card. So I go Kendrick Nunn, Jimmy Butler, Duncan Robinson, I go Bam [Adebayo] and then Meyers [Leonard]. But you could flip any one of those guys around. And in many ways he’s our point guard. So should he be in the All-Star Game as a point guard? I don’t know.

“These are such antiquated labels that I feel like we’ve moved on from that years ago when we started talking about positionless [players]. But either way, regardless of how you want to label it or discuss it, Jimmy Butler should be a starter in this All-Star Game. It’s a joke that he’s not. Hopefully this will change things in the future.”

Butler was listed on the All-Star ballot a forward and could not be voted on as a guard. According to Cleaning the Glass’ breakdown, Butler has spent 44 percent of his minutes this season as a shooting guard, 42 percent at small forward, and 14 percent as power forward.

We probably should define Butler as a “wing” player, but that doesn’t fit neatly into the NBA’s voting categories. Butler isn’t even the most obvious category-busting player out there: Is 6’8″ Luka Doncic a point guard? What about Ben Simmons? They are both categorized as guards by the league, however LeBron James — the league leader in assists and the Lakers’ point guard in terms of running the offense — is a forward.

Would Butler have been a starter if he could have been voted on as a guard? We will never know.

I want the league to do away with positions, both on the All-Star ballot and the All-NBA ballot (where voters must choose two guards, two forwards, and a center). It’s also unlikely the league breaks away from that tradition, at least any time soon.

Which leaves Butler on the bench. Coaches vote for the reserves, they will undoubtedly pick Butler, and those results will be announced next Thursday. Butler unquestionably is playing at an All-Star level. In his first season in Miami he is averaging 20.3 points, 7 rebounds, and 6.5 assists per game. He has been the best player and the offensive focal point of a 31-14 Miami team.

Butler is not a starter primarily because of his peers, his fellow players. The fans voted Butler fourth among East frontcourt players. The media voted him third. [For transparency, I am one of the media pannel voters and I had Butler as a starter ahead of Pascal Siakam.]

The players had Butler sixth among forwards, behind Jayson Tatum and Butler’s Miami teammate Bam Adebayo. This vote is still a popularity contest, and Butler has burned a few bridges behind him.

That doesn’t mean Spoelstra is wrong and it’s a joke Butler is not a starter.