NBA Power Rankings: Golden State is back on top and it feels like a return to normalcy

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Things seem back to normal, or at least back to what we expected, with the Golden State Warriors back on top of the rankings. Their biggest threats in the playoffs probably come more from teams in the East, not the West.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (33-14, last week No. 3). Golden State has won eight in a row, so are we done with the “what’s wrong with the Warriors” stories? DeMarcus Cousins is now the starting center for Golden State, and while he’s still shaking off the rust and adjusting after a year off (to recover from a torn Achilles), he already brings a lot to the table. His three-point shooting, his playmaking out of the midpost, his solid screens, and his ability to be a big body in the way on defense all give the Warriors a dimension they have not had since Andrew Bogut during the first title run (but Boogie is a better version of that player).

Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (34-12, LW 2). Winners of five in a row, due in part to the fact Eric Bledsoe getting hot in those games — 21.6 points per game on 57.7% shooting, plus he’s dishing out 5 assists a night and is +16.4 per game in those contests. Can Bledsoe take that show on the road? Starting Sunday the Bucks head out for 8-of-10 away from their new arena, where they are 13-8 on the season with a +5 net rating — they are still good away from home, but not the same dominant force.

Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (36-13, LW 1). The Raptors are 25-11 in games that Kawhi Leonard has played this season, but maybe more impressive is they are 10-2 when he rests. Which he has done a lot of this season as Toronto tries to keep him happy and healthy. Leonard will be an All-Star, and it’s possible (despite a slightly down season) that Kyle Lowry will be in Charlotte, but what about Pascal Siakam? He has risen to a spot of vital importance in the Raptors’ rotation, so much so that with the game on the line Nick Nurse called an isolation for Siakam. And it worked.

Nuggets small icon 4. Nuggets (31-14, LW 5).. It’s not going to be fair to the team with the second best record in the West, but likely Nikola Jokic will be their only All-Star. Yes, Jamal Murray has a strong case, but the West is just so stupid deep with good guards that quality players are just not going to make the cut (Curry, Harden, Lillard, and Westbrook are locks, that leaves maybe one spot for Murray or Conley or Thompson or Booker or Fox… the West is so deep). Denver deserves two but may not get it.

Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (31-17, LW 8). This feels a little high for Philly, but they have won 4-of-5 and that includes blowout wins over Indiana and Houston. The Sixers have hit their offensive strides in those last 5 games, and their defense remains strong. Joel Embiid should be a lock as an All-Star Game starter in the East, but it will be interesting to see if Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons get voted in by the coaches. Will the coaches punish Butler for torpedoing Minnesota at the start of the season?

Pacers small icon 6. Pacers (31-15, LW 4). Victor Oladipo deservedly will make the NBA All-Star Game as a reserve voted in by the coaches, but do the surprising Pacers deserve two players in Charlotte? It’s tempting to say yes, but who is their second best player? Myles Turner? Does he really deserve to go? Domantas Sabonis is probably their second best player and could win Sixth Man of the Year, but does a reserve deserve to be an All-Star? Tough stretch coming up for Indy, 5-of-7 on the road ant the two home games are the Raptors and Warriors.

Celtics small icon 7. Celtics (29-18, LW 9). Winners of four in a row and 8-of-11 (although the only road win in the group was at Atlanta). The most impressive of those wins was against Toronto, and Boston went on a clutch 17-2 run late to make it happen. The Celtics have played up and down all season, but they have risen to the level we expected of them in recent wins against Indiana and Toronto, now they need to sustain it as the home stretch continues for 5-of-6. Saturday they can measure themselves against the red-hot Warriors.

Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (29-18, LW 7). Oklahoma City gets a lot nightly out of its starters — Russell Westbrook, Terrance Ferguson, Jerami Grant, Paul George, Steven Adams — as they are +14.3 per 100 possessions this summer. Sub Dennis Schroder in for Westbrook and that lineup still thrives. After that things get more inconsistent, but when they get big nights from the bench like they did Tuesday against Portland this team can hang with anyone. Interesting test Sunday night at home against the Bucks.

Blazers small icon 9. Trail Blazers (29-20, LW 10). Portland has gotten strong play out of Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic of late, but after them things drop off fast. Evan Turner and the strong bench that carried the team early in the season does’ show up nightly, especially on the road right now. Despite that Portland has the fourth best offense in the NBA over the last 10 games (119.4 offensive rating) and when the team can get just a few stops it can rack up wins.

Rockets small icon 10. Rockets (26-20, LW 6).
Clint Capela has missed four games, and in those games James Harden has scored 200 points, and the Rockets have gone 2-2. Houston has got 3-4 in their last 7 as teams are starting to give Harden a version of the defense used against Jordan and Steve Nash — let him score a lot, just don’t let him get anyone else involved and they’re vulnerable. The Rockets need other stars to step up. Chris Paul is expected to return this week, that will be a huge boost for Houston.

Jazz small icon 11. Jazz (26-22, LW 11). Ricky Rubio has returned from injury (he came off the bench Monday against Portland) and he is needed with Dante Exum and Raul Raul Neto still out). Donovan Mitchell has found his groove again, in his last five game he’s score 30 points a night average with an impressive 58 true shooting percentage, all with an increased usage rate (35.6%). Friday and Sunday it’s a home-and-home against Minnesota, which leads to the always fun Nikola Jokic vs. Karl-Anthony Towns matchup.

Spurs small icon 12. Spurs (27-21, LW 12). Most teams count on their starters to get them a lead and hope the bench can hold it, but for the Spurs their starting five — Bryn Forbes, Derrick White, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, LaMarcus Aldridge — are +0.4 in their last 15 games, basically playing other starters to a standstill. It’s the bench and its three-point shooting that give the Spurs the lead. After a tough game Wednesday against Philly, San Antonio hits a soft part of the schedule for the next week plus (not all gimmies but winnable games) and they need to rack up wins to pad their record in a deep West.

Nets small icon 13. Nets (25-23, LW 18). One of the biggest changes in Brooklyn this season (especially the past month as the team has pushed above .500) is the ability to close out games. The Nets were terrible at it a season ago but are 10-9 in games within three points in the final three minutes this season (despite a -10.7 net rating). D’Angelo Russell has had big games lately: 34 points against Boston, 40 vs. Orlando, 31 against Sacramento, but in all those games combined he shot two free throws. Russell does not attack the rim and does not draw fouls, and that’s hurting his stock some coming into next season.

Clippers small icon 14. Clippers (25-22, LW 14). While the Clipper defense has struggled for much of the season (22nd ranked), it was bailed out by the offense. Until recently. In the last five games, the Clippers have scored just 102.8 points per 100, 25th in the league. Injuries that sidelined Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari have plenty to do with that, but the Clippers need to find their offense quickly. Los Angeles has started 1-1 on a stretch of 11-of-15 on the road that will decide its season, can the Clippers hang in playoff contention through all of this.

Lakers small icon 15. Lakers (25-23, LW 15). The Lakers have gone 5-9 without LeBron James but were finally going to get healthy — LeBron could be back this weekend, Rajon Rondo sooner — when Lonzo Ball went down with a sprained ankle that will have him out 4-6 weeks. Ball had been playing well without LeBron — 12.9 points, 6.9 assists, 6.2 rebounds a game shooting 38.9% from three — without LeBron and seemed ready to maybe step up. Now that is on hold. The Lakers are home this week but starting Jan. 29 hit one of their toughest stretches of the season.

Kings small icon 16. Kings (24-24, LW 13). Buddy Hield has a surprisingly strong All-Star case. He’s averaging 20.2 points per game to lead the rings, is shooting 45.5% from three, and is the team’s go-to scorer in the clutch (just ask the Pistons, or watch the video below. Hield isn’t going to make it this year — the West is so deep with guards with Curry/Harden/Lillard/Westbrook as locks for the game — but it would be good to at least see him in the three-point contest. The Kings are 1-3 so far on a six-game road trip.

Heat small icon 17. Heat (22-23, LW 16). Dion Waiters wants to play more — he got fined publicly complaining about it — and since his return he’s been solid but not blowing anyone’s doors off at 9.5 points per game, shooting 31.6% from three. He could get his chance to starts soon just because with Goran Dragic out and Josh Richardson running the point the Heat meed all the scoring they can find. The Heat went 1-3 on a recent road trip and still have 8-of-12 coming up away from South Beach.

18. Timberwolves (23-24, LW 19). The fans are trying to vote Derrick Rose into the All-Star Game, and while it’s unlikely the media and players go along with that Rose does remain one of the best stories in the league this season. That leads to a bigger question: If the All-Star Game is an exhibition for the fans, why not give them what they want? Why not put Rose and Dwyane Wade in the game? Rose is still making plays, just ask the Suns.

Pelicans small icon 19. Pelicans (22-25, LW 17). Anthony Davis is out for a while and is seeing a specialist, which is never a good sign (not that anyone in New Orleans is noticing, they are still angry about the no PI call at the end of the Rams/Saints game). The Pelicans are 7.2 points per 100 possessions better with their MVP candidate on the court and they need to find wins without him, as they did against the Grizzlies. The Pelicans are three games out of the playoffs and three games below .500, but if Davis misses much time that could get worse.

Wizards small icon 20. Wizards (20-26, LW 23). The Wizards are trying to make a playoff push (they are the nine seed currently, just two games out of the postseason) and to get there they are finding some success with their small-ball lineups that have Otto Porter or Sam Dekker at center. Bradley Beal is thriving in those smaller lineups. Washington got the win in London — and Thomas Bryant got his first game-winner in the NBA — on one of the strangest endings to a game ever, a goaltend with 0.4 on the clock.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (22-24, LW 22). Expect to hear a lot of Kemba Walker trade rumors the next couple of weeks, but I have yet to hear anything credible that the Hornets would be open to a trade — they want to make the playoffs then re-sign Walker next July. Charlotte has gone 4-6 without Cody Zeller (and are lucky to be doing that well, considering the -7.5 net rating in those 10 games) but has won 3-of-4 and need to keep winning to hold off charging Washington for one of the final playoff slots in the East.

Mavericks small icon 22. Mavericks (21-26, LW 20). How much does Dallas miss J.J. Barea? The Mavericks are 20-18 when he plays and now 1-8 without him, including losing 4-of-5. Getting Dennis Smith Jr. back will help mitigate some of that, he showed how much he could help against the Clippers in his first game back, scoring 17 points (on 17 shots, but he was a +9). Dallas has its next seven games against teams from the East.

Pistons small icon 23. Pistons (20-26, 24). Blake Griffin should be a lock as an All-Star Game reserve voted in by the coaches. Detroit remains just two games out of the playoffs in the East and wants to make a push (the loss to Washington Monday didn’t help) but they need more consistent play out of their guards and wings — Luke Kennard and Reggie Bullock have to step up.

Magic small icon 24. Magic (20-27, LW 21). Are the Magic going to be sellers at the trade deadline? There would be a lot of interest in Terrence Ross, some in Nikola Vucevic (teams love his game but he is a free agent come July, teams are not going to pay much for a rental), and there even is some Aaron Gordon buzz. However, that requires management and ownership to decide to throw in the towel on the season. The Magic are just 2.5 games out of the playoffs and may not do that, thinking they would rather make a push for the eighth seed instead.

Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (14-32, LW 25). John Collins has been spectacular this season — like consider him for an East front court All-Star Game slot good. He’s averaging 18.8 points a night, is shooting 57.9% overall and 33.8% from three, is grabbing 10.4 boards a game and has a PER of 21.2. He has taken a leap forward this season. Collins probably won’t get the nod because he plays for the Hawks, but he has earned consideration.

Grizzlies small icon 26. Grizzlies (19-28, LW 26). The Grizzlies — losers of 12-of-13 — are finally open to the idea of trading Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, something that became public days after the two starts met with owner Robert Pera to talk about the future. That makes the trade deadline more interesting, but actually pulling off a deal for Gasol (declining skills and with a player option for $25.6 million next season) or Conley (All-Star level player but with $67 million guaranteed after this season) will be tough to do before the deadline. These could be July trades, but the buzz will be out there.

Suns small icon 27. Suns (11-38, LW 27). The Suns will be an interesting team to watch as they move into the trade deadline, they are willing take on salary now for picks and players who can help with their rebuild. However, teams are not giving up young talent easily, which is one reason the deadline likely will be so quiet. Phoenix’s offense has had its moments since the return of Devin Booker, but that hasn’t translated to wins as the Suns have dropped five in a row.

Knicks small icon 28. Knicks (10-35, LW 28). Enes Kanter (who did not travel to London for safety reasons) was back in the starting lineup with Luke Kornet out with a sprained ankle for a couple of weeks. That will make Kanter happy, but it doesn’t make the team better — sub Kanter in for Kornet with the regular starters and the Knick offense gets 3.8 points per 100 possessions better, but the defense gets 4.3 per 100 worse. Bottom line, the Knicks have lost six straight and 14-of-15.

Bulls small icon 29. Bulls (11-36, LW 29). Wendell Carter has played well and looked like part of the future in Chicago during his rookie season, which is why it’s such a blow he’s out most if not all of the rest of the season due to thumb surgery (he could return for the final few weeks of the season but don’t expect the Bulls to rush him). Chicago had lost 10 games in a row before Monday, when they took on the one team they can beat, the one team below them in these rankings.

Cavaliers small icon 30. Cavaliers (9-39, LW 30). How many players will the Cavaliers move a the trade deadline? Kevin Love is their best player, but he’s not back on the court yet from his foot issue and no team is taking on his massive contract without seeing him play. Could Tristan Thompson get moved? J.R. Smith, or is he more of a buyout candidate? The Cavs are rebuilding and should look to move any veteran for picks or young players. The Cavs have lost 16-of-17 games.

James Harden scores 37 but Joel Embiid’s 32 leads 76ers to 121-93 rout of Rockets

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PHILADELPHIA — Joel Embiid relished the chance to face James Harden, and wasn’t going to let a little back tightness stop him.

Embiid had 32 points and 14 rebounds to lead the Philadelphia 76ers past fellow MVP contender Harden and the Houston Rockets 121-93 on Monday night.

“I love playing against guys you guys say are better than me,” Embiid said.

Harden, selected Western Conference player of the week earlier in the day, finished with 37 points – giving him 20 straight games with at least 30.

Philadelphia played without four-time All-Star Jimmy Butler (sore right wrist), and Embiid more than made up for his absence.

“It was really fun for us,” Embiid said. “Don’t think it was fun for them.”

Embiid was questionable before the game with lower back soreness and coach Brett Brown hinted during pregame it might be best for the Philadelphia big man to sit this one out. Embiid clearly had other intentions.

“I want to fight with my teammates,” he said. “Whatever I have to do, I’ll do for my team.”

His 24 first-half points helped Philadelphia to a 65-50 halftime lead, and he punctuated an entertaining opening 24 minutes by pinning Harden’s layup attempt with 7.5 seconds left for a crowd-pleasing block. The duo had to be separated with 38.7 seconds left in the half, with each being issued a technical, after Harden took exception to Embiid’s foul on him.

The 76ers broke the game open in a dominant third quarter as they outscored Houston 29-13 to take a 94-63 advantage into the fourth. Ben Simmons stole Harden’s pass, made a layup and finished a three-point play after being fouled by Harden to make it 73-52. The lead kept growing, getting as large as 31.

“We were due for a game like this,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said.

Harden had 10 points in the third but missed four of six field goal tries as the 76ers hounded him defensively with double-teams and different looks. A tired-looking Harden’s air ball with 12.3 seconds left in the third showed the effects of the Philadelphia defense – and, perhaps, Harden’s offensive workload.

With the game out of range, Harden sat in the fourth.

“This is not a great way to rest him, but we rested him today,” D’Antoni said.

Paul George hits game winner, lifts Thunder past 76ers 117-115

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Paul George converted a four-point play with 5.1 seconds left, sending Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder to a wild 117-115 victory over Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday.

George’s clutch shot capped a wild finish that included another memorable exchange with Westbrook and Embiid. Westbrook hit the floor out of bounds under the basket after a foul by Embiid late in the game, and Westbrook fouled out with 14.9 seconds remaining after he got Embiid while shooting a 3-pointer.

Embiid made all three foul shots, tying it at 113, and Jimmy Butler‘s driving layup put Philadelphia in front with 6.9 seconds to go. But George drained a 3 while being fouled by Butler and made the foul shot.

Philadelphia had one last chance, but Butler missed a 3-point attempt in the final seconds. The 76ers have lost 19 in a row to the Thunder.

George finished with 31 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals. Westbrook had 21 points, 10 rebounds and six assists for Oklahoma City, and reserve Dennis Schroder also scored 21 points.

The Thunder had dropped five of six, including a 138-128 overtime loss against the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday night.

Embiid, who was a game-time decision because of back tightness, had 31 points, eight rebounds and six assists. JJ Redick scored 22 points for Philadelphia, and Ben Simmons finished with 20 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists.

Oklahoma City led by as many as 16 points in the first quarter, but Philadelphia rallied in the second and trailed 59-56 at the break.

 

Markelle Fultz returns to Philadelphia to do shoulder rehab with team

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Markelle Fultz is back with the 76ers.

Not in uniform for games, but he is back from Los Angeles and in Philadelphia working out with the team to recover from thoracic outlet syndrome, according to multiple reports. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the story, then Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia confirmed it.

Fultz was in the arena for the Sixers game Saturday against the Thunder on national television (though not suited up to play).

There is no timetable for Fultz’s return, although his agent has said he expects Fultz to be back on the court this season. Whether that would be with the Sixers is another question, teams have called about the availability of the No. 1 pick from the 2017 NBA Draft, but the offers have been so lowball that none of them have been seriously considered by Philadelphia.

After consulting with a number of specialists just a few weeks into the season (and just after the Jimmy Butler trade), the 20-year-old Fultz was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, a pinching of the nerve through the collarbone area. Since December he has been in Los Angeles is doing physical therapy to relieve the issue.

Fultz has returned to Philadelphia and is continuing that therapy.

 

LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo pulling ahead as captains for All-Star draft, which will be televised Feb. 7

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After last year’s debacle, the NBA will televise the All-Star draft. Now, we have a firm date: 7 p.m. Eastern Feb. 7 on TNT.

Don’t expect it to be live. LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo are in line to be captains, and LeBron’s Lakers play the Celtics at 8 p.m. that night. I doubt LeBron will interrupt his pre-game routine for this. He and Antetokounmpo will likely record the draft earlier in the day.

The full fan-voting leaderboards:

Western Conference

Frontcourt

1. LeBron James (LAL) 3,770,807

2. Luka Doncic (DAL) 3,301,825

3. Paul George (OKC) 2,583,342

4. Kevin Durant (GSW) 2,432,134

5. Anthony Davis (NOP) 2,091,770

6. Steven Adams (OKC) 1,483,223

7. Nikola Jokić (DEN) 1,128,766

8. Kyle Kuzma (LAL) 899,237

9. Draymond Green (GSW) 660,276

10. DeMarcus Cousins (GSW) 450,480

Guards

1. Stephen Curry (GSW) 2,979,080

2. Derrick Rose (MIN) 2,712,938

3. James Harden (HOU) 2,315,093

4. Russell Westbrook (OKC) 2,090,432

5. Klay Thompson (GSW) 1,120,675

6. Damian Lillard (POR) 851,125

7. DeMar DeRozan (SAS) 850,415

8. Lonzo Ball (LAL) 764,892

9. Chris Paul (HOU) 419,410

10. Devin Booker (PHO) 405,432

Eastern Conference

Frontcourt

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo (MIL) 3,626,909

2. Kawhi Leonard (TOR) 2,882,227

3. Joel Embiid (PHI) 2,292,511

4. Jayson Tatum (BOS) 826,177

5. Jimmy Butler (PHI) 740,778

6. Blake Griffin (DET) 677,472

7. Vince Carter (ATL) 423,795

8. Pascal Siakam (TOR) 338,716

9. Gordon Hayward (BOS) 336,476

10. Al Horford (BOS) 291,722

Guards

1. Kyrie Irving (BOS) 3,187,015

2. Dwyane Wade (MIA) 1,738,043

3. Kemba Walker (CHA) 1,156,040

4. Ben Simmons (PHI) 941,368

5. Victor Oladipo (IND) 778,983

6. Kyle Lowry (TOR) 708,071

7. Zach LaVine (CHI) 440,568

8. Jeremy Lin (ATL) 341,024

9. Goran Dragic (MIA) 335,899

10. Bradley Beal (WAS) 251,170

The standings are taking shape. Not much movement from the previous returns.

The most significant race is between Paul George, Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis in the Western Conference frontcourt.

LeBron is a lock to start. Luka Doncic probably won’t get enough support in other categories of the All-Star starter formula – 50% fans, 25% players, 25% media – to start despite ranking second in the fan vote. That leaves two starting spots for George, Durant and Davis.

George leads Durant by just 151,208 votes for third place in fan voting. I’m not sure how players and media will rank the two. George is having a better season. Durant is the better player. It could come down to which of the two squeaks by the other in the fan vote, which carries added importance of being the tiebreaker.

I doubt Davis – who trails Durant by 340,364 votes and George by 491,572 votes – will rise in the fan-vote rankings. He’ll have to make up ground with players and media. Which he could do.

At least George, Durant and Davis are all shoe-ins to make the All-Star game. In the long run, we won’t really care who started and who came off the bench.