Associated Press

NBA Power Rankings: Houston locked in on top, but tanking race at bottom is wild

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Every week with this poll, it’s splitting hairs between about eighth through 17 or so, the teams are very bunched up. This year, oddly, the same is true from about 22 to 30 — the tankapaloza going on in the NBA makes it hard to choose who is really the worst in the NBA. Phoenix is making a very good case for the “crown” however.

 
Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (47-13, Last Week No. 1). James Harden has pulled away as the clear frontrunner in the MVP race with about 20 games to go around the league. He has nine 40-point games to lead the NBA, he leads the league in scoring (31.4 per game), but he also leads in some of the Advanced stats with the league’s best value over replacement player (6.2) and in win shares (11.9). It’s his award to lose at this point. The Rockets have won 13 in a row, including a high-altitude back-to-back in Denver and Utah.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (47-14 LW 3). The All-Star break was what the Warriors needed, apparently, since the time off they have outscored teams by 20.8 points per 100 possessions, and they are back to defending at a high level. One other post All-Star change is the more athletic JaVale McGee starting at center, giving a team that got off to some slow starts (especially defensively) in the weeks before the break a guy who can protect the rim, alter shots, and switch a little on the perimeter. It has worked, the Warriors are getting off to better starts, then blowing teams out in the third quarter.

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (42-17, LW 2). The Raptors have never finished on top of the Eastern Conference and entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed, and their franchise record for wins in a season is 56. If the Raptors can go 15-8 the rest of the way they set the wins record, but they will need to get to 60 or better to hold off the Celtics and keep the top seed (a very obtainable goal). After the Raptors rolled the Pistons on Monday, smart money is on a matchup against Miami in the first round.

 
Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (43-19, LW 5). It’s just three games, but out of the All-Star break the offense that has been the Celtics’ weak point this season has taken off behind Kyrie Irving, scoring 114 points per 100 possessions. We’ll see if they can sustain this — they need to to climb out of the two seed (which would mean facing LeBron James and Cleveland in the second round, something both Boston and Toronto would prefer to avoid).

 
5. Timberwolves (38-26, LW 4). With Jimmy Butler likely out until around the start of the playoffs following meniscus surgery, Minnesota’s playoff standing becomes all about Andrew Wiggins — he has to step up. In the two games without Butler, he has 45 points total on 54.6% shooting, both way up from his numbers through the rest of the season. Minnesota currently sits as the three seed in the West, but they are just two games up on OKC as the 7 seed (and four games up on the Clippers and falling out of the playoffs, which is not likely but also not impossible).

 
Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (36-25, LW 6). Kawhi Leonard is working out again with the team and is expected to make another comeback again in March. The Spurs could use him on both ends. They need is shot creation come the playoffs, but they may need his defense even sooner — San Antonio’s very solid defense all season has fallen off of late and they are 19th in the NBA over their past 10 games. The Spurs went 2-4 on the rodeo road trip and have a tough schedule the rest of the way, they need more wins.

 
Wizards small icon 7. Wizards (36-25, LW 7). Washington has gone 10-3 without John Wall outscoring teams by 5.7 points per 100, fifth best in the league over that stretch. Bradley Beal continues to play like an All-Star, but the big difference has been improved play from Otto Porter, Markieff Morris, and Tomas Satoransky. Things aren’t getting easier with the Warriors, Raptors, and Pacers as the next three teams up.

 
Cavaliers small icon 8. Cavaliers (36-24 LW 10). Some of the shine has come off the new-look roster after losses to the Wizards and Spurs — teams are adapting to the Cavaliers, and Tyronn Lue hasn’t had the practices to put in a lot of new offensive sets yet, so the Cavs don’t have good counters. Cleveland needs to get J.R. Smith rolling again as he has gone cold. LeBron is still putting up numbers but the man needs help (George Hill pitched in Tuesday).

 
Sixers small icon 9. 76ers (32-27, LW 11). Six games over .500 with the easiest schedule in the East the rest of the way, the question now isn’t if they make the playoffs but what seed they will be. They are only two games out of the four seed (and home court in the first round) but the next couple of weeks may decide what happens — they started 0-2 on a stretch of road games that has them away from home for 6-of-8 (half the games are against current playoff teams). Sixers are 13-17 on the road this season primarily because their defense struggles. That has to change now if they are going to climb the ladder at all.

Bucks small icon 10. Bucks (33-27 LW 8). New coach (10-5 under Joe Prunty), better (more conservative) defense, but the Bucks are still one of the most inconsistent teams in the NBA — they beat Toronto in Toronto last week, then blew a big lead to the Pelicans. Jabari Parker has played more than 20 minutes each of the last two games, averaging 13 points and 6.5 assets per game, and his increased minutes has let Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton play fewer minutes of late, which is good all around.

 
Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (34-26, LW 14). This ranking may be a little low for a team that has won 7-of-10 and outscored opponents by 5.1 per 100 possessions in that stretch. On the season Indiana’s offense has been efficient in the half-court (ninth in the NBA) but does a lot of damage in transition (particularly off steals), scoring a league-best 128.7 points per 100 in plays started on the break. Monday’s loss at Dallas was the first of four on the road for the Pacers, the kind of games the Pacers need to win if they want to pass the Wizards and get home court in the first round.

 
Pelicans small icon 12. Pelicans (34-26, LW 17). Winners of six in a row, in large part because Anthony Davis is playing like an MVP (he was having a strong season from day one, but since the DeMarcus Cousins injury he has taken everything to a new level). In his last five games, Davis has 196 points and 72 rebounds total (39.2/14.4 per game average). The last guy to put up those kind of numbers in five-game stretch? Shaquille O’Neal in March 2000. The Pelicans start a series of four road games Wednesday night, with a key one next Tuesday against the Clippers (a team they are trying to hold off to stay in the playoffs).

 
Thunder small icon 13. Thunder (35-27 LW 13).. Some nights Russell Westbrook can bail them out (like the last-second shot against Sacramento), but Oklahoma City’s defense continues to struggle and that’s going to be an issue down the stretch and into the postseason. Over the last five games, the Thunder have allowed 113.9 points per 100 possessions, 27th in the NBA. Carmelo Anthony has been solid, but he’s not getting as many isolation and post-up attempts (where he can use his strength to get his shot) this season, and even when he does he is not as efficient with those looks as he was in New York last season. This season, Anthony is taking way more spot-up looks, where he is solid but not great.

 
Blazers small icon 14. Trail Blazers (35-26, LW 16). Damian Lillard has been lighting it up — he is averaging 39.4 points on 51.2% shooting in his last five games, he’s taking 10 threes a game and hitting 38% of them. The Blazers have won four straight, and in the last three their defense has looked good again (albeit against not great offensive teams). Portland is 18-11 at home this season and now have 9-of-11 at the Rose Garden — this is the chance for them to secure their playoff spot with a series of wins.

 
Jazz small icon 15. Jazz (31-30, LW 9). Utah has lost 2-of-3 out of the All-Star break, but against two playoff teams (Portland and Houston), but they still have the easiest schedule the rest of the way of teams fighting for a playoff spot (which is why fivethirtyeight.com has their playoff odds at 55%). Still, they need to rack up some wins (they face the Timberwolves but have a rest advantage with Minny on a back-to-back). The big question down the stretch: Utah relies heavily on rookie Donovan Mitchell at the end of close games, can he keep up this pace of strong play as the pressure mounts?

 
Clippers small icon 16. Clippers (32-27 LW 15). With Tuesday night’s win against Denver, the Clippers are the eighth seed in the West (ahead of the Nuggets by percentage points) and fivethirtyeight.com gives them a 67% chance of sticking in the postseason. Doc Rivers legitimately does deserve some Coach of the Year consideration. Out of the All-Star break the Lou Williams led Clippers offense has impressed scoring 114.4 points per 100 possessions (the Williams/Boban Marjanovic pick-and-roll has shown real promise, seriously) but Los Angeles needs to get more stops.

 
Heat small icon 17. Heat (32-29, LW 19). Kelly Olynyk is back in the rotation, the Heat missed his shooting while he was out. After some stumbles heading into the All-Star break, Miami has won two in a row (Justise Winslow broke out against Memphis, then Dwyane Wade jumped in the hot tub time machine against the Sixers), and now the Heat look secure in the postseason 3.5 games up on the Pistons. Fivethirthyeight.com gives them a 92% chance of making the postseason. They can really lock that spot up with a win over the Pistons Saturday (in Miami, and Detroit is on a back-to-back).

 
Nuggets small icon 18. Nuggets (33-28, LW 12).. Nikola Jokic’s triple-double streak ended at three and the Nuggets have had a couple tough losses (home to Houston when the Rockets were on a back-to-back, then to the Clippers). Denver is now a coin flip to make the playoffs and they need wins now — four of their next eight are against tanking teams, two more are against the Lakers (not tanking but not good), and two are Cleveland. This is the time Denver needs to make a run because after this a 7-game road trip looms and things get harder.

 
Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (28-33, LW 20). Winners of five in a row, the Hornets are more likely to make the postseason now than the Pistons — fivethirtyeight.com gives Charlotte a 29% chance. That said, they are going to need help from Miami or Philly, Charlotte is still four games out of the postseason with 21 to play. Charlotte’s run has been fueled by the fact they are finally healthy and the bench is thriving, plus the team has found it’s three-point shooting stroke of late (41.1% in the last 10 games).

 
Lakers small icon 20. Lakers (26-34 LW 21). In what is going to be a tight market for bigs this summer, Julius Randle is going to get paid. He has developed into a player who does a couple things exceptionally well and plays to those strengths, is physically strong, and has good recognition on passing out of the double teams. A lot of teams could use him as a small-ball five. The Lakers also have waived Corey Brewer in a buyout, a guy who was great in the locker room but not providing a lot on the court for the team.

Pistons small icon 21. Pistons (28-32, LW 18). Since coming to Detroit, Blake Griffin is shooting 40.1% overall and 27.4% from three (he hit 34% from deep with the Clippers). Griffin has not been good enough to lift the Pistons into the playoffs (fivethirtyeight.com gives them a 7% chance of making the postseason) and the team has yet to win a game since his arrival where the opponent was not on the second night of a back-to-back. Internally, the team’s front office has reportedly moved on to focusing more on next season.

 
Mavericks small icon 22. Mavericks (19-42 LW 24). Welcome to the tanking part of the rankings, where Dallas’ quality win over the Pacers makes them look good despite having lost 11-of-14. I like the potential of Dennis Smith Jr., but he has to learn to finish at the rim and find his jumper to take steps forward. He is shooting 57.8% at the rim, Synergy has him at 47.6% shooting around the basket and 30.1% on jumpers. He’s learning as a pick-and-roll ball handler, he’s improving, but until he can finish defenses will live with him shooting.

 
Knicks small icon 23. Knicks (24-38, LW 27). They have lost 10-of-11 (the one win was against fellow taking team Orlando) but with the Knicks racked up enough early season wins that they will almost certainly enter the lottery in the nine slot. Trey Burke was an inefficient gunner his first couple of stops in the league (not moving the ball enough as a point guard to keep coaches happy) but with a couple of recent 25-point games maybe he can find a sixth man kind of role in the league as a scorer.

 
Nets small icon 24. Nets (20-42, LW 29). Jahlil Okafor is averaging 6.2 points per game, shooting 54.1 percent, and grabbing some defensive rebounds, which doesn’t sound terrible. But his lack of shooting range clogs the lane on offense and he provides little on defense — the Nets are 24.3 points per 100 possessions better when he is off the court than on it. It’s not the kind of comeback he hoped for. Maybe this summer a team will offer him a minimum contract as a free agent, but it may not even be fully guaranteed. That’s where he has fallen to.

 
Bulls small icon 25. Bulls (20-41 LW 22).. Zach LaVine is showing some offensive promise, scoring 17.7 points per game and shooting 39.5% from three since his return in Chicago. However, it’s the other end of the floor that’s a concern — the Bulls are 8.2 points per 100 possessions better defensively when LaVine sits. The Bulls are banking on him to be part of their future, but he needs both work on his defensive skills this offseason and be more focused on that end next season to become the kind of player the Bulls can really use as a cornerstone.

 
Magic small icon 26. Magic (18-42, LW 23). Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic may be back and starting, but the Magic have still lost six straight. In the “play the youth” mold the Magic should lean more on Khem Birch down the stretch, the big man could be a solid rotation player down the line. Mario Hezonja has had some rough games of late off the Orlando bench, it will be interesting to see what kind of free agent market there is for him next summer, it’s going to be a tight market and he has looked better but still pretty “meh” this season.

 
Hawks small icon 27. Hawks (18-43, LW 25). It’s good to see John Collins starting and getting more run, that’s what this time of the season is for. The Hawks have been pretty good at home this season (13-18) and better of late, and they started a 7-of-9 homestand Monday with a loss to the Lakers. If you’re watching the tanking race, the Hawks vs. the Suns Sunday in Atlanta could be a big game (someone has to win). It just won’t be a pretty one.

 
Kings small icon 28. Kings (18-43, LW 28). Buddy Hield was more heralded going into the draft, and has found his niche as a shooter (he is a pure spot-up guy who can do little else), but Rookie Bogdan Bogdanovic looks like a keeper and a solid to good rotation player in Sacramento. Bogdanovic is a quality spot up player, gets out and can finish in transition, and can do damage as a pick-and-roll ball handler. Their most heralded rookie, De’Aaron Fox has to find a shot outside of when he gets to the rim or he’s going to get the Rondo/Tony Allen treatment for his career.

 
Grizzlies small icon 29. Grizzlies (18-41, LW 26). Losers of 10 in a row, and during that stretch the defense has been poor but the offense has been abysmal, scoring 102.1 points per 100 possessions. How many nights off will Marc Gasol get down the stretch in the name of rest/playing the youth? Not that having him on the court has made Memphis better this season (they actually have been 3.5 points per 100 possessions better when he sits this season). The development of JaMychal Green and Dillon Brooks are things to watch down the stretch in Memphis.

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (18-44, LW 30). It’s just six games, but while Elfrid Payton is scoring — 16.7 points per game, with 8 assists — he and Devin Booker have yet to click. When those two are on the court together the Suns are getting outscored by 14.7 points per 100 possessions (a lot of noise there, this is a bad team) and scoring less than a point per possession. It’s a dynamic to watch the rest of the season. Losers of 10 in a row, the Suns have 6-of-8 on the road and are the frontrunners to have the worst record in the NBA entering the Draft Lottery.

Harrison Barnes banks in game-winning, buzzer-beating 3-pointer (video)

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With the shot clock off in the fourth quarter and the game tied, Grizzlies big JaMychal Green put back Tyreke Evans‘ miss with a clutch flush. There’s a very fine line between ensuring the last shot and leaving time for an offensive rebound, and Memphis threated it almost perfectly.

Emphasis on “almost.”

The Grizzlies left the Mavericks 0.5 seconds, which Harrison Barnes used to bank in a 3-pointer – off a pinpoint bounce pass by Dennis Smith Jr. – to give Dallas a 95-94 win.

Three questions the Memphis Grizzlies must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer this season to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last season: 43-39, lost to San Antonio in the first round of the playoffs

I know what you did last summer: Memphis moved on from the “grit n’ grind” era by letting Zach Randolph and Tony Allen leave via free agency. Vince Carter also left, and the Grizzlies got younger and looked to the future re-signing JaMychal Green (two-year deal) and took a gamble on a young player with potential who didn’t work out in Sacramento in Ben McLemore (who will be out with a broken foot until Christmas at least). The Grizzlies also drafted Ivan Rabb and Dillon Brooks, and added Tyreke Evans and Mario Chalmers.

THREE QUESTIONS THE GRIZZLIES MUST ANSWER:

1) Zach Randolph and Tony Allen are gone, did the Grizzlies lose their identity? Did they get worse? This season is going to be different in Memphis, the “grit n’ grind” era has come to an end with the Grindfather himself down in New Orleans (a team that could use some grit). Randolph rejuvenated his career in Memphis and was loved by fans. Memphis’ identity will change some this season.

The thing is, on the court those losses aren’t that serious. Randolph was a bench guy asked to put up shots, and at age 35 Allen could still defend some but opposing teams didn’t have to guard him on the other end of the floor. They were rightfully beloved, but be blunt their on-the-court skills can be replaced.

Memphis is going to be competitive and about at the same level if Mike Conley and Marc Gasol can stay healthy and continue to contribute. Those are both All-Star level players (although neither likely makes the team this season in the stacked West) — Gasol added an efficient 19.5 points per game last season and showed he could shoot threes, Conley averaged 20.5 points per game, shot 40 percent from three, and remained a quality defender. If the production from those two is about the same this team will be around the same number of wins and hang around in the fight for one of the bottom three playoff spots in the West.

Those two should get a little more help this season, too. Chandler Parsons should be able to give them more than 34 unimpressive games (see the next question). JaMychal Green is a year older and should take another step forward. James Ennis has been working hard this summer on his ball handling, midrange game, and being effective in the pick-and-roll. The Grizzlies will get more out of the backup point guard spot (will that be from Mario Chalmers is another question). The Grizzlies are not threatening the Warriors, but healthy this is still a playoff team.

2) Do the Grizzlies get anything out of Chandler Parsons? This feels like an annual question. Parsons, battling knee injuries again, played in just 34 games last season and didn’t look good when on the court — he wasn’t creating shots, and he wasn’t spacing the floor, shooting just 33 percent from three. He was signed to be the third guy to be in the core with Gasol and Conley, and to this point he has done little in Memphis save eat good barbecue.

This is really about his knees — if he can move freely, he can contribute. If his knees hamper how he moves, he will not. If he can contribute on offense, the Grizzlies look a lot more like a playoff team, even in the crowded West. If he can’t, the load on Gasol and Conley may be too much.

3) At what point — next summer? — do the Grizzlies decide it’s time to go full in for the rebuild? Right now, the Grizzlies are not changing their plans or goals — Gasol and Conley were untouchable when teams called about trades this summer.

But for how long? Gasol sounded this summer like a guy who doesn’t want to be on a team treading water in the West for much longer. Gasol has two seasons and a player option on his deal, Conley has three plus an option, and at some point Memphis may want to consider moving one or both of them in trades, while their value is high, to get assets back that help the eventual rebuild. Grizzlies ownership/management isn’t there yet, but if the team struggles this season will that change around the trade deadline? Will it change next summer? This era of Grizzlies basketball — the best era in its history, with a couple of trips to the conference finals — is starting to wind down. At some point, Memphis will want to make moves while their best players still have trade value.

But that time is not yet. Not this season.

Report: JaMychal Green, Grizzlies nearing two-year, $17 million deal

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Earlier today, we passed along a report from the Memphis Commercial Appeal that likely starting forward JaMychal Green and the Grizzlies were nowhere near a deal. Looks like someone was trying to get some spin out in public to push the deal over the finish line (and it was almost certainly the team). The earlier reports of a deal being close turned out to be correct.

It worked. Green and the Grizzlies agreed to a two-year, $17 million deal on Wednesday, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Restricted free agent JaMychal Green is finalizing a two-year, $17 million-plus deal to return to the Memphis Grizzlies, league sources told The Vertical.

Green worked toward coming to terms on the fully guaranteed two-year deal Wednesday. By closing in on an agreement, Green and the Grizzlies will avoid an Oct. 1 deadline of the $2.8 million qualifying offer. Green will also position himself to return to free agency in the summer of 2019, when the market is expected to be less treacherous than 2018.

That last sentence touches on why this deal works for both sides. For Memphis, they get a young, solid starting power forward who can start next to Marc Gasol and provide some of the athleticism the Spaniard doesn’t have. David Fizdale started him in front of Zach Randolph for a reason. With this, Memphis doesn’t lock itself in long term, but in a couple of years they may be looking to rebuild.

For Green, he makes some money — he’s played on 10-day and minimum contracts so far, making $1.9 million through three seasons — but he doesn’t get tied down long term. If he had signed the qualifying offer, he would have struggled next July because next season the free agent market is again going to be tight, particularly for bigs, and there will be quality guys on the market ahead of him. He can bet on himself, but it’s a risk.

Report: Grizzlies, JaMychal Green not close to deal

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A few weeks back, it appeared the Grizzlies and their likely starting power forward JaMychal Green were moving toward a two-year contract extension, reportedly for just less than $10 million a season. Green probably sees that as below market value, but he’s a restricted free agent big man in a tight market and others in his position — Nerlens Noel, Alex Len just to name a couple — have felt the brunt of the market this summer and struggled to get deals they thought they deserved. The Grizzlies have the leverage, and they are using it.

With no deal, Green has yet to appear in training camp. By Sunday the two sides need to have reached an agreement or Green will sign his qualifying offer, play this season for $2.8 million, then be an unrestricted free agent next summer. Right now, the two sides are nowhere near a deal, reports Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

As of Tuesday night, the Grizzlies and restricted free agent forward JaMychal Green weren’t close to making a deal…

“Everyone knows how we feel about him. I love him. He knows that,” (Memphis coach David) Fizdale said. “The fact that I was willing to start him over an All-Star (Zach Randolph) means my actions say enough about how I feel about him. Right now, I have to coach the living, the guys on the court.”

The Grizzlies have about $12-$15 million to go before they reach the salary tax line (which they will not pay), so they could go a little higher, but they don’t have much motivation to do so. The Grizzlies do need Green to take another step forward and play well this season if Memphis dreams of the playoffs (they have to stay healthy), but Green doesn’t have another option.

Green’s other problem is that next season the free agent market is again going to be tight, particularly for bigs, and there will be quality guys on the market ahead of him. He can bet on himself, but it’s a risk.

A two-year deal makes sense for both sides — Green gets back on the market sooner, the Grizzlies keep him for a couple more years with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol — and sometimes the pressure of the deadline leads to gaps being closed. We’ll see if that happens in Memphis, or if Green bets on himself for next summer.