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NBA Power Rankings: Chris Paul, James Harden have Rockets climbing fast

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Welcome to the dog days of the NBA season, when all the elite teams seem to yawn and lose focus, leading to some strange losses. Houston may be the hottest team going right now, and the Rockets jump up in these rankings.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (48-16, last week No. 1). The addition of Pau Gasol is not going to have a massive impact on the court, but the Bucks don’t need that. What the veteran brings is a voice in the locker room of a guy who has been through deep playoff runs and has the rings to show for it. The questions with the Bucks in the postseason are not if they have the talent to contend, but will they have the mental makeup to withstand the pressures, the highs and lows. That has not been tested yet. Gasol helps with that.

Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (46-19, LW 3). Toronto is two games back of Milwaukee for the top seed in the East (and overall), and that leaves the franchise trying to walk a tight line. They want to keep racking up wins — maybe to catch the Bucks, but also to stay ahead of the Warriors (1.5 games back) in case they meet in the Finals. All while making sure Kawhi Leonard is not overtaxed, and meshing Marc Gasol into the new rotations. It’s a lot for Nick Nurse to juggle. If you need evidence of why you want a healthy Leonard on your side with the game on the line…

Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (44-20, LW 2). Golden State is back to being a team looking like a bored team that can’t wait for the playoffs to start, they dropped 4-of-6 and have fallen behind by double digits in 12-of-13 games (and have been resting a lot of players). The Warriors can get away with that as long as Denver keeps slumping and stays behind them in the standings. Klay Thompson has been out with a tweaked knee, and they are being cautious with his return.

Nuggets small icon 4. Nuggets (42-21, LW 4). No team has fought through injuries to key rotation players this season like the Nuggets. Their preferred starting five — Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, and Nikola Jokic — have played just 93 minutes together on the season. Now they are finally healthy and looking to get that unit in sync before the playoffs. The Nuggets have lost three in a row and have a good test against the Warriors coming up Friday night.

Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (41-23, LW 7). What questions about his role? Jimmy Butler took over the closer role late for the Sixers against the Magic Tuesday night, hitting a couple of key fadeaways, making defensive plays, and setting up Mike Scott for a three. The Sixers have gone 4-2 with Joel Embiid out since the All-Star break, but he is expected to return this week. The team needs that, it’s hard to sort out the questions about players’ roles without the first offensive option on the court.

Rockets small icon 6. Rockets (39-25, LW 10). The hottest team in the NBA right now, winners of six in a row, and a lot of it is because Chris Paul is back to playing about how he was a season ago. In his last 10 games CP3 has averaged 16.8 points per game, dished out 9.8 assists, shot 36.8% from three, and played better defense. The Rockets have looked like the second best team in the West the past couple of weeks, although their defense is still pedestrian (14th in NBA over last 10 games) and that could haunt them in the postseason.

Blazers small icon 7. Trail Blazers (39-25, LW 8). Portland won 5-of-7 on a road trip thanks in part to Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter giving Portland a solid second unit again (and this is without Evan Turner in games). That or maybe it was the team bonding of eight players being stuck together in an elevator for 30 minutes. Either way, Portland had the best net rating in the NBA over the last 10 games until a tired last-game-of-the-road-trip loss to Memphis Tuesday. Keep playing well and the three seed is not out of the question in the West. Just like last year.

Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (39-25, LW 5). Paul George was back in the lineup on Tuesday night, which was good because the Thunder were 1-2 and unimpressive in his absence (although they lost in his return, too). Those losses hurt because the Thunder need wins for seeding: fivethirtyeight.com projects seeds 3-6 in the West (Thunder, Rockets, Trail Blazers, Jazz) all to finish with between 50 and 52 wins — the middle of the West is going to be very tight. It will be interesting to see if teams push to be the 3 or 6 seed and avoid the 4/5 to stay away from the Warriors’ side of the bracket.

Pacers small icon 9. Pacers (42-23, LW 6). Indiana has started to come back to earth, having gone 2-3 in their last five, with the problems coming on the defensive end (115 per 100 allowed last five games, 25th in the league). The Pacers sit as the three seed and want to hold on to home court in the first round, they are half-a-game up on the Sixers (they play each other Sunday) and three up on the five-seed Celtics. The Pacers have 8-of-11 coming up on the road and a tough stretch of games, they are going to have to find a new level of resilience to hold on.

Jazz small icon 10. Jazz (36-27, LW 11). Utah’s defense was in vintage form through a tough three-game stretch — Clippers, Nuggets and Bucks — and Utah won all three (then they turned around and lost to the Pelicans). The Jazz sit as the six seed in the West, but with the softest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way the idea they could make up the 2.5 games and climb into the top four to get home court for the first round is not out of the question. They just can’t have games where they aren’t focused, like against New Orleans.

Celtics small icon 11. Celtics (39-26, LW 9). Like a lot of Bostonians this time of year, apparently what the Celtics needed was a trip to California to warm up. After an ugly stretch losing 5-of-6 with internal sniping after each game, the Celtics looked like the team we all expected this season in thrashing the (disinterested) Warriors Tuesday. Boston played with the joy Golden State lacked, they moved the ball and switch on defense well. Can the Celtics build off that win, or will it be a one-off moment? They need to get on a roll now heading into the playoffs.

Clippers small icon 12. Clippers (37-29, LW 12). Ask Clippers coach Doc Rivers (a coach of the year candidate) what he loves about this squad, and he talks about their resilience. “We took a hit. When we made that trade (sending out Tobias Harris at the trade deadline) it hit our locker room. But we got them to believe we want to win still, we’re going to win still. Then for them to start doing it just shows you how resilient they are.”

Spurs small icon 14. Spurs (36-29, LW 16). Home cooking matters to the Spurs. They looked like a team that would fall out of the playoffs during their 1-7 rodeo road trip, but they got home and knocked off three quality teams in a row (Pistons, Thunder, Nuggets) thanks to a much improved defense. The Spurs are projected for 45 wins and fivethirtyeight.com gives them a 95% chance of making the playoffs, considering the loss of DeJonte Murray before the season that is an impressive effort by San Antonio.

Pistons small icon 14. Pistons (31-31, 14). The Pistons are clicking, 9-2 in their last 11 with a +10.9 net rating. They’ve had the best offense in the NBA during that stretch, at 118.1 per 100 (and the defense is fifth in the league). The run really started 15 games ago when Andre Drummond returned from concussion protocol, since then he has averaged 20.5 points a game on 62.6 percent shooting, and he’s grabbing 15.7 rebounds a game. Reggie Jackson has played well, and Blake Griffin is showing off new levels of handles and shooting.

Nets small icon 15. Nets (33-33, LW 13). In the 14 games he played at the start of the season, Caris LeVert was the Nets’ leading scorer and looked like a candidate for most improved player. He’s been back for 10 games now but things have not been the same — he’s shooting just 36.2% overall and 27.5% from three, and he hasn’t been the same positive force. The Nets have come back to earth a little and are 4-6 in their last 10. The Nets also have the third toughest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way, they are going to need to find some wins to hold on to that playoff spot.

Kings small icon 16. Kings (32-31, LW 15). It was good news that Marvin Bagley only suffered a sprained knee that will sideline him a couple of weeks, it looked like it could have been much worse. That said, it came at a bad time as Bagley was playing his best basketball of the season. Harry Giles has looked good in Bagley’s absence, at least when he stops elbowing opponents in the head.

Magic small icon 17. Magic (30-36, LW 18). While Orlando sits half-a-game out of the playoffs as this is written, the fact they have a much softer schedule than the teams they are chasing (Orlando’s next seven games are against teams below .500), and they have played well of late, has fivethirtyeight.com giving them a 67% chance of making the playoffs. Jonathan Isaac has been the key to it all, the Magic are +12.7 per 100 when he is on the court in the last 15 games.

Pelicans small icon 18. Pelicans (30-36, LW 20). Nobody, including NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, thinks playing Anthony Davis 20 minutes a night and sitting him in the fourth is a good look for the league. But sit him and there is pushback from the league and union, play him 40 a night and the Pelicans are taking an unnecessary risk and hurting their draft position. So ugly compromise it is. Jrue Holiday continues to play well when he is on the court in limited minutes.

Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (29-34, LW 19). Charlotte has dropped 8-of-11 and coach James Borego is searching for answers. He switched around the starting lineup, but the new group can’t defend. He’s pulled Frank Kaminsky out of the dog house and played him — and Kaminsky has responded with solid play. Nothing has really worked. Big showdown with the Heat Wednesday (one of the teams they are battling for a playoff spot) and on Saturday they head out on the road for four.

20. Timberwolves (30-34, LW 17). Robert Covington went down to the G-League to practice, usually the last step before a player returns to action with the main team, but now the Timberwolves are sounding cautious and being patient again. Maybe his knee didn’t respond well to the increased workload, but whatever it is he will be out a little while longer. After three losses in a row that all but doomed their playoff dreams in Minnesota, Karl-Anthony Towns exploded for 41 and 14 against the Thunder. That was good to see.

Heat small icon 21. Heat (29-34, LW 22). They have won 3-of-4, including an upset of the Warriors, the kinds of wins the Heat will need more of down the stretch if they are going to get a playoff spot. Dwayne Wade’s last dance has just been fun, from the jersey exchanges to the moments he shows he still has it on the court. It’d be nice to see Miami make the playoffs just to set up more potential moments like this.

Lakers small icon 22. Lakers (30-34, LW 21). In the 13 games since LeBron James returned from his groin injury, the Lakers have the worst defense in the NBA, giving up 116.3 points per 100 possessions. Their effort on that end has been up and down, but more than that they have lacked basic defensive recognition and cohesion. The Lakers are 4-9 since LeBron’s return, and 2-4 since the All-Star break when LeBron “activated” playoff mode. Their playoff dreams are dead and Luke Walton may want to start polishing up his resume.

Wizards small icon 23. Wizards (26-37, LW 24). If you’re looking for a silver lining to this Wizards season, well, I’m sorry about that. Not sure there’s much we can do. Can I recommend reading our own Dan Feldman’s story on Thomas Bryant? That’s about as positive as I can get with this franchise.

Grizzlies small icon 24. Grizzlies (26-40, LW 25). This summer, some team is going to give up some quality pieces to trade for Mike Conley. Tuesday night he showed why that team will be making a smart play. Conley had 19 in the fourth, 40 for the game, and was the reason the Grizzlies beat the Trail Blazers.

Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (22-43, LW 27). Trae Young continues to just tear it up. In his last five games, the rookie has averaged 30.6 points per game and is shooting 50% from three on 7.6 attempts per game, plus is dishing out 9.4 assists per night. He was honest that he was overthinking things early in the season, but the game has slowed down and now he is just letting it fly. Combined with John Collins next season, the Hawks could be a team looking to make a leap.

Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (27-36, LW 23). Dallas has been the worst team in the NBA over the last 10 games, a -13.9 net rating that has them going 2-8. They have the worst offense and the worst defense in the NBA during that stretch. Mavericks fans, focus on Dirk Nowitzki and dream of next season with Kristaps Porzingis.

Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (18-47, LW 26). Chicago had won 5-of-7 until recent setbacks against the Hawks and Pacers, and the reason remains the offense. The Bulls are scoring 114.1 per 100 in their last 15 games, fifth best in the league (and ahead of the Warriors in that stretch). The Bulls have an offensive rating of 119.8 and are outscoring teams by 8.8 per 100 when Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, and Otto Porter are all on the court together.

Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (16-48, LW 20). Cleveland is 5-2 in games Kevin Love has played in since his return. Cedi Osman has been playing better of late too, averaging 16.9 points per game and shooting 47.5 percent from three in his last 15 games. The Cavs are playing well enough they could have moved out of the bottom three of the draft lottery, except the Bulls have been playing even better.

Suns small icon 29. Suns (14-51, LW 30). They have had some fun playing spoiler. They beat a Miami team that needs wins to stay in the playoffs in the East, and when they beat the Lakers last weekend it felt like the death of the Lakers’ playoff chances. The most impressive thing in that win over Los Angeles was Deandre Ayton — not the rookie’s 26 points and 10 rebounds, but that they had him defend LeBron James all game and he did a respectable job.

Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (13-51, LW 28). Mitchell Robinson is the reason to tune into Knicks games now — the rookie shot blocker is a lot of fun. Knicks fans deserve something good to happen and watching Robinson play is it this season. I’m not as sold he’s going to be anywhere near as good as some Knicks fans are pumping him up to be, but his defensive presence and energy could make him a solid rotation big man in whatever form the Knicks take on the next few years.

NBA Power Rankings: Warriors reign as teams head into All-Star Weekend

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It seems appropriate to head into the All-Star break with the Warriors on top of the Power Rankings, but it feels like slots 2-7 could be shuffled in any order any week and it wouldn’t be wrong, those teams are all essentially even. Programming note: Since the league is off for a week around the All-Star break and there are just a handful of games between now and next Wednesday, the NBC NBA Power Rankings will take a week off, then return in two weeks.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (41-15, last week No. 2). Any discussion about Golden State understandably focuses on their stars — this Sunday will be the fourth straight year Golden State has three or more All-Stars, the last team to do that was the Celtics way back when JFK was president in 1960-63. However, the addition of DeMarcus Cousins to the starting lineup has meant a boost for the second unit with the play of Kevon Looney, who brings some athleticism around the rim to the team. Everything is clicking for the Warriors, who have won five in a row and 16-of-17.

 
Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (42-14, LW 1). Teams that suffer their worst loss of the season — as Milwaukee did against Saturday against Orlando — don’t hang on to the top spot in the power rankings, but don’t read too much into that one game. The loss was because Giannis Antetokounmpo was off for the night, and the rest of the team took it off, too. The pickup of Nikola Mirotic fits in perfectly with Mike Budenholzers’ system in Milwaukee — the Bucks shoot more threes than any team in the East but are middle of the pack in accuracy, they need what Mirotic brings to the table. They will get that once he gets healthy and gets in the lineup. Which could be Wednesday night against Indiana (he’s close), if not certainly after the All-Star break.

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (42-16, LW 5). Nick Nurse and the Raptors are still figuring it all out, but Marc Gasol with the second unit in Toronto shows a lot of promise. Kawhi Leonard’s game-winner against Brooklyn dominated the highlights (with good reason, check it out below) but the Raptors starting five with Serge Ibaka in the paint was -4 in that game. However, some of the lineups with Marc Gasol at the elbow/midpost as the offensive fulcrum surrounded by athletes and shooters — Danny Green, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby — had strong runs that helped get the Raptors the win and showed real promise. The kind of promise that will be hard to match up with in the postseason. The Jeremy Lin pickup should help mitigate the loss of Fred VanVleet for a few weeks (thumb injury).

 
Thunder small icon 4. Thunder (37-19, LW 6). Paul George is putting together a season that is going to get him MVP votes — Damian Lillard said he deserved the award after the Thunder beat the Blazers Monday night — but what also has fueled OKC’s 11-of-12 win streak is three-point shooting. The Thunder are hitting 44.1% of their 31.3 attempts a night from beyond the arc in the last dozen games, the best percentage in the NBA during that stretch. For comparison, the Thunder are a 35% team from three on the season (on basically the same number of attempts). Jerami Grant is knocking down everything and is a big part of that.

 
Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (35-21, LW 3). Gordon Hayward is getting his legs back, he is attacking the rim and closing out shots there much more often, and his legs are under his jumper. In his last 10 games he has taken 46.5 percent of his shots in the paint, and overall he’s averaging 11.8 points per game on 50% shooting overall and 42.3% from three. That includes 26 points against the Sixers in a statement win Tuesday night. The Celtics needed that win to shake off the two ugly losses against the Los Angeles teams, but against an Eastern foe (and without Kyrie Irving) the Celtics looked like the team we expected to lead the East this season.

 
Sixers small icon 6. 76ers (36-20, LW 7). The addition of Tobias Harris to the starting lineup in Philadelphia with Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, and Joel Embiid has worked very well so far. Through three games, that fivesome is +21 in 53 minutes, and that includes a 14-7 run against Denver late in that game that helped Philadelphia seal a win. However, as the loss to the Celtics Tuesday showed, the question will be the bench behind those five can bring (even with Brett Brown staggering his stars some). In the last three games, the Sixers are +6 total with lineups that are not the starters (and the bench units were -7 against Boston).

 
Nuggets small icon 7. Nuggets (38-18, LW 4). Denver dropped three in a row on the road, not coincidentally the three games that Paul Millsap was out. Their defense falls apart without him to do the dirty work and little things. He returned against Miami at home, Denver wins. The Nuggets may be the one team most settled into a playoff slot in the otherwise crowded West. It’s hard to imagine they will make up 2.5 games on Golden State for the top seed, but they have a five-game cushion over the five seed (Rockets). Denver is going to have home court in the first round, the team just wants to stay in the 2/3 seed slots (and avoid the other side of the bracket where they would meet Golden State in the second round).

 
Pacers small icon 8. Pacers (38-19, LW 12). This team is not giving up its plans for having home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs without a fight as the Pacers have rattled off six straight wins (against some soft competition, but still). Give coach Nate McMillan a lot of credit. The buyout market pickup of Wesley Matthews is a good one, he is kind of a Victor Oladipo-lite who can fill some of those same roles and fits with the balanced attack that has made the Pacers such a tough team to beat this season (and that lack of a weak link will make them a playoff threat as well, Indiana will not be an easy out).

 
Rockets small icon 9. Rockets (33-23, LW 9). Iman Shumpert, and to a lesser extent James Ennis (go Long Beach State!) could be critical to any playoff run Houston makes. The offense isn’t the question, not with James Harden’s streak of 30+ point games at 30 and counting. The often-discussed challenge is on the defensive end, where the Rockets have been bottom 10 all season, and that has continued through the last 10 games. Shumpert had a resurgence in Sacramento few saw coming, and Ennis is long and athletic. The Rockets need them to step up and disrupt some quality scorers down the stretch and into the postseason.

 
Jazz small icon 10. Jazz (32-25, LW 11). Utah may not have landed Mike Conley at the trade deadline (he will still be available this summer), but they did add some depth at the position with Raul Neto and returning to action. Utah now is off through the All-Star break — but Rudy Gobert should have been in Charlotte. Last Saturday Gobert matchup up against Spurs All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge and owned the battle dropping 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting, plus grabbing 13 boards and blocking a couple shots, while holding Aldridge to 15 points on 16 shots. Gobert took the snub personally.

 
Blazers small icon 11. Trail Blazers (33-23, LW 8). It’s only been three games (and Portland lost two of them), but Rodney Hood has looked good as a trade deadline pickup, averaging 10.3 points per game on 68.4% shooting and hitting 55.6% from three. Obviously, he’s not going to keep shooting at that pace, but he is providing an additional scoring threat and that’s what Portland was counting on. I also like the trade deadline roll of the dice on Skal Labissiere, I feel like there’s a solid player in there if they develop him.

 
Kings small icon 12. Kings (30-26, LW 14). Harrison Barnes has looked like a guy still trying to figure out his fit — and his teammates are doing the same — after a couple of lackluster games. Some practice time over the All-Star break should help with that, and expect coach Dave Joerger to raid Rick Carlisle’s playbook for some of the things Barnes liked in Dallas (and he took over a lot of the old Nowitzki sets). As of this writing, the Kings are the eighth seed in the West and have the final playoff spot, percentage points ahead of the Clippers (it’s a virtual tie). LeBron and the Lakers loom 2.5 games back, but the Kings are also just 1.5 back of the 6/7 seed Spurs and Jazz.

 
Clippers small icon 13. Clippers (31-27, LW 13). Los Angeles went 3-3 on its Grammys road trip, but in each of the wins the team trailed by 20+ points and came back to steal the win. While the conventional wisdom is trading Tobias Harris was a sign the Clippers planned to give up their playoff chase, the trade of Avery Bradley for Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green is the opposite — Bradley had not been great for Los Angeles and the team picked up a couple of quality rotation players. While they may still miss the playoffs, this team will be competitive and will not roll over.

 
Spurs small icon 14. Spurs (33-24, LW 10). The Spurs were thrown off the bucking bull to start the Rodeo road trip, dropping four in a row until they barely beat the Grizzlies on Tuesday (the road trip has three more games on it through the East after the All-Star break). The problem in San Antonio continues to be the defense, it is bottom 10 on the season and worse of late — in the last 10 games the Spurs have allowed 118.8 points per 100 possessions, second worst in the NBA over that stretch. The defense isn’t going to magically improve over the All-Star break, the Spurs are going to have to score their way into the postseason.

 
Nets small icon 15. Nets (29-29, LW 15). D’Angelo Russell will be the first Nets All-Star since Joe Johnson when he steps on the court Sunday, a nice bit of redemption for a guy Magic Johnson said was not a leader as he pushed Russell out the door (to cover the Timofey Mozgov contract, but that ended up a high price for LA). What the Nets need is Russell to help them turn things around on the court fast — the Nets have lost 5-of-6, have fallen back to .500, and no longer look like a playoff lock (they are just 2.5 games up on the nine-seed Heat).

Pistons small icon 16. Pistons (26-29, 22). The Pistons have won four in a row and 5-of-6 to push back into the playoff picture (the Pistons are currently the eight seed in the East, one game up on Miami and 1.5 on surging Orlando). The reason for the good play of late isn’t anything exotic — Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, and Reggie Jackson have played well together and off each other during this streak. That’s the big three in Detroit and as they go the team goes.

 
Hornets small icon 17. Hornets (27-29, LW 16). Kemba Walker deserves his turn in the spotlight this weekend as the hometown starter for the Hornets when the All-Star Game comes to Charlotte. It was surprising to see the Hornets — fighting to both make the playoffs and impress Walker so he stays as a free agent next summer — stand pat at the trade deadline. They were in the mix but missed out on Marc Gasol, and could make nothing else work. There are rumors Walker was unhappy with the lack of activity, we’ll see if that translates to anything come July.

 
Mavericks small icon 18. Mavericks (26-30, LW 20). Just to add to the legend of Luka Doncic: In the final three minutes of games within three points this season, Doncic 16-of-29 shooting (55.2 percent) including 5-of-11 (45.5 percent) from three. He is already clutch. While he’s not in the main All-Star game Saturday (the fans would have voted him in as a starter) he’s the favorite to be the Rising Stars MVP on Friday, then will be in the Skills Competition on All-Star Saturday. The NBA is going to hype him up as much as they can.

 
Magic small icon 19. Magic (26-32, LW 23). Orlando is back in the playoff picture after winning four in a row and 6-of-7 — the Magic are just 1.5 games out of the final playoff slot in the East. In those last seven games the Magic have won with defense, locking teams up and holding them to a point per possession (which has led to a +11.6 net rating in those games. What does that kind of defense look like? Watch Jonathan Isaac block John Collins three times on one possession.

 
Lakers small icon 20. Lakers (28-29, LW 17). The Lakers went 2-4 on their Grammys road trip, they are 2-3 in the games LeBron James has played since he returned, and the loss to Atlanta on Tuesday night was a punch to the gut. It’s not rocket science to figure out what has happened, the Lakers’ defense has fallen apart — on the road trip the team surrendered 119.7 points per 100 possessions (for comparison, the Cavs have the worst defense in the NBA for the season allowing 116.3). Missing Lonzo Ball doesn’t help, but this is much larger, much more systemic than that. Los Angeles’ defense earlier in the season was respectable (for a 30-game stretch they allowed less than 105 per 100), but it has devolved, and that could land Luke Walton in hot water after the season.

 
21. Timberwolves (26-30, LW 18). The Timberwolves opportunity to make a playoff push seems to have gone the way of the Dodo after the team dropped 6-of-8 including every game on a three-game road trip against beatable teams (Memphis, Orlando, and New Orleans). Minnesota has gone 7-9 under Ryan Saunders (who took over for the fired Tom Thibodeau as coach) and the fact this team has not make a playoff push doesn’t seem to speak well of his chances of holding onto this job long term.

 
Heat small icon 22. Heat (25-30, LW 19). The road has not been kind to Miami, which has slid out of a playoff position as the team has gone 1-3 on an ongoing road trip and 6-of-7 overall. Miami realized where it stands and its trade deadline moves were about the bottom line — it saved more than $8 million against the luxury tax for the team. It also opened up the roster a little bit and could lead to more minutes for Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow, we’ll see if they can be consistent and do anything with that extra run.

Pelicans small icon 23. Pelicans (25-33, LW 21). Is it really better for the Pelicans and the league to play a disgruntled Anthony Davis – who had three points on 1-of-9 shooting on Tuesday night against Orlando, then ripped his teammates after the game — than to just sit him. Even if the league fined the Pelicans $100K a game that’s “just” $2.4 million, not an insane sum in the NBA orbit. I don’t blame the Pelicans for not taking the Laker deal at the deadline (I am in the camp that believes it will still be there in July if the Pels want it) but it’s created an awkward situation on that team, where everyone seems to have mentally checked out.

 
Wizards small icon 24. Wizards (24-33, LW 24). The Otto Porter trade was about getting off that contract and saving some long-term money, if Bobby Portis works out as a rotation player for Washington longterm all the better. Bradley Beal will spend part of All-Star weekend dodging questions about whether he wants a trade and how much he can’t stand John Wall, but he’ll still get a lot of love from other All-Stars. A few of which would love to have him on their team in the future.

 
Grizzlies small icon 25. Grizzlies (23-35, LW 26). There were a lot of raised eyebrows around the league that Memphis didn’t trade Mike Conley away before the deadline, too, keeping their price so high that Utah and others refused to pull the trigger. Is the market going to be better for him this summer? Memphis goal now is to hang on to their pick in the upcoming draft — it is top 8 protected, and the Grizzlies have the sixth-worst record in the league. Even with the new lottery odds, hold on to this position and there is only a 3.8% chance they fall back far enough to lose the pick this season (which would be fine with Boston, that pick is more valuable as a trade chip).

 
Hawks small icon 26. Hawks (19-38, LW 25). If your memories of Trae Young are his struggles at the start of the season, you need to watch him again. In Young’s last 10 games he has averaged 21.8 points per game on 15.6 shots a night, he’s hitting 42 percent from three, and he’s dishing out 8.8 assists per night. We’re also starting to see some real chemistry between him and John Collins. Young is confident, watch him go right at LeBron in the final two minutes of a close game Tuesday — and get the and-1.

 
Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (13-44, LW 27). I don’t mind the gamble on Otto Porter at the trade deadline. Sure, the Bulls are going to pay $46.7 million for their starting wings next season (Porter and Zach LaVine, and it goes up the season after that) but this is still a building team and they are not wed to Porter long term. Combine those two with Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr., then mix in a point guard (Kris Dunn is fine but there will be better options available) and Chicago will have a respectable roster

 
Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (12-45, LW 28). I like what Cleveland has done around the trade deadline (and through the season), making moves to add draft picks and get the rebuild going. Kevin Love likely will be up next summer, although with his salary and injury history, finding a team willing to part with much of anything of value will not be easy. The other thing about all those Cavaliers trades this season: It doesn’t make this team easy to watch.

 
Suns small icon 29. Suns (11-47, LW 29). I don’t mind the idea of trading for Tyler Johnson and seeing if he can play next to Devin Booker, a little experiment for the rest of the season. That said, it’s hard to say much positive about a team that has lost 14 games in a row, except that their first two games after the break (Cleveland and Atlanta) give them a chance to snap this streak.

 
Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (10-46, LW 30). The Knicks have lost 17 games in a row, but at least Dennis Smith Jr. has become a distraction from that pain. The athletic guard is averaging 17.4 points per game since coming over from Dallas, although he is shooting just 21% from three and has a dreadful 47 true shooting percentage (way below the league average). On the bright side, he and DeAndre Jordan have a little chemistry.

Magic rookie Mo Bamba to miss “significant” time with left leg stress fracture

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Mo Bamba has a world of potential but is not yet ready for big minutes at the center spot in the NBA (even if he says he wants that role). This season has been a learning experience — just under 17 minutes a night off the bench behind All-Star Nikola Vucevic in Orlando, averaging 6.2 points and 5 rebounds a game, showing flashes of the defensive potential that got him drafted No. 6 last June.

That learning process is going to be put on hold for a while he recovers from a stress fracture, the team announced Tuesday.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski added details.

This may change the Magic’s plans at the trade deadline. There is interest from teams in Vucevic and there is a school of thought Orlando should trade the free agent to be, get some picks/young players back, and throw Bamba into the fire and let him learn. Now there is no Bamba.

Bamba had just told NBC’s Dan Feldman he wanted that larger role.

“The way everything was kind of put in place was kind of perfect for me down here,” Bamba said. “Just have got to earn it.”

He may have to do that next season.

Bamba is taking 43 percent of his shots at the rim and hitting an impressive 74 percent of them (top 10 percentile among centers, using Cleaning the Glass stats, so no garbage time numbers included). He is taking 29 percent of his shot attempts from three, and hitting 30 percent on those. If he keeps working on that shot, Bamba can be a real pick-and-pop threat as well as a guy who gets buckets inside.

To earn those minutes he wants, Bamba needs to get stronger, get a better feel on defense, and become a little smoother on the offensive end. Which reads like the to-do list for most rookies. It will be interesting to see what direction the Magic go this summer, do they turn the frontcourt over to Bamba and Jonathan Isaac, or do they bring in veterans so the learning curve remains slower paced?

Either way, Bamba isn’t going to get a lot more game time this season to work on his skills, it appears.

Orlando Magic’s big conundrum

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DETROIT – Magic second-year player Jonathan Isaac said he’s not sure whether he’ll develop into more of a small forward or power forward long-term. At times, he prefers small forward. At other times, he prefers power forward. But some think Isaac – who’s listed at 6-foot-10 and probably already taller than that and still growing – will eventually slide to center as he fills out.

“Become a center? I’m not sure,” Isaac said. “I don’t think I’d want to be a center.

“I’m too used to being out on the perimeter and shooting 3s and coming off the dribble.”

That’s when Orlando rookie center Mohamed Bamba piped in from a few lockers over.

“You can shoot 3s,” Bamba offered.

The Magic are in the early stages of identifying how good their most-valuable players actually are, which of them can play together and in which roles. Orlando certainly hasn’t made it easy on itself.

The Magic’s best player is a center (Nikola Vucevic). Their highly drafted rookie is a center (Bamba). Their highly drafted 2017 first-rounder is a big forward/maybe eventual center (Isaac). Their highest-paid player is a big forward (Aaron Gordon).

A big-man crowd like that is unsustainable in the modern NBA. But how Orlando moves on is tricky.

Vucevic looked like a prime trade candidate entering the season. He’s earning $12.75 million on an expiring contract, and at 28, he might be too old to fit the Magic’s rebuild. They had also just drafted Bamba No. 6.

But Vucevic is in the midst of a career year and was just named Orlando’s first All-Star since Dwight Howard. The Magic (22-31) are also just three games and three teams out of playoff position in the lousy Eastern Conference.

With Vucevic earning name recognition and Orlando at least plausibly in contention to end a six-season postseason drought, the optics of moving him could be tough for the Magic to stomach.

If they keep Vucevic, what then, though? Re-sign him to a hefty salary that keeps the logjam intact? Let him leave in free agency for no return?

Vucevic said Orlando drafting Bamba didn’t faze him, that he wants to mentor the young center. Likewise, Bamba said he appreciates Vucevic’s lessons on the finer points of the NBA.

Yet, Bamba also craves a bigger role. He said he feels as if he’s competing with Vucevic for playing time and wants to prove Magic can depend on him with Vucevic’s contract ending in a few months.

“The way everything was kind of put in place was kind of perfect for me down here,” Bamba said. “Just have got to earn it.”

In the meantime, Vucevic appears essential for making the Gordon-Isaac combo work.

Gordon is a good NBA player and just 23. Isaac is solid, only 21 and also trending in the right direction.

But there’s probably too much overlap between the forwards. They collectively don’t provide enough outside shooting, ball-handling and passing. Gordon is more polished in those areas, but he shines far more at power forward than the small forward he has played most of this season. Even defensively, as mobile and athletic as Gordon and Isaac are for their size, forcing one of them to defend to defend a more wing-y small forward can be an exploitable mismatch.

Yet, the pairing works fine with Vucevic at center. Vucevic is so skilled offensively, he draws defensive attention inside and outside. He can put the ball on the floor, shoot from multiple spots including beyond the arc and distribute. Vucevic is talented enough to mask deficiencies of playing Gordon and Isaac together.

Here are, per NBA Wowy, Orlando’s offensive/defensive/net ratings with Gordon and Isaac on and…

  • Vucevic on: 113.0/107.9/+5.1
  • Vucevic off: 92.7/138.2/-45.5

Gordon and Isaac have played just 29 minutes together without Vucevic, most of those coming with Bamba on the floor. So, the sample size is too small to be completely reliable. But that’s also likely no accident. Magic coach Steve Clifford can see how important Vucevic is to making Gordon and Isaac work together.

Eventually, Orlando should determine how Gordon, Isaac and Bamba fare as a frontcourt. That trio possesses so much size, length, athleticism and defensive potential.

Offense remains worrisome, though. Bamba has theoretical 3-point ability, but he (understandably) lags way behind Vucevic in ball skills. At 20, Bamba is so raw.

So, there’d be value in retaining Vucevic. He’d help provide a structure more conducive to Gordon and Isaac producing.

That’s particularly important with Gordon, who’s on the first year of a four-year, $76 million contract that contains deescalating annual salaries. His trade value should only increase as his salary falls.

It could hinder Isaac, though. He’s often the overlooked player in the Magic’s starting frontcourt. His usage percentage (15.6) lags well behind Vucevic’s (28.0) and Gordon’s (21.5).

“He’s developing at a really good pace,” Clifford said of Isaac. “It’s just hard for me to find ways to give him opportunities to iso, to play one-on-one, with the makeup of our team. So, people will see it here eventually, but that’s the part that I have to figure out better, too.”

Isaac’s and Bamba’s development could be especially important to Orlando important because they’re the only two of the four primary bigs acquired by Magic president. Weltman inherited Vucevic and Gordon. Re-signing Gordon was widely seen as a prelude to trading him. I’m not even convinced Weltman particularly coveted Bamba, either. Bamba might have just been the best prospect available when Orlando drafted.

But the Magic have all four big now. They must figure out where to go from here.

Watch Magic’s Evan Fournier hit buzzer beater vs. Pistons (VIDEO)

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) Even when he’s not having a big game, Evan Fournier is still the Orlando Magic’s best option at the end of games.

Fournier took an inbounds pass outside the 3-point arc, dribbled to the free throw line and shot a floating jumper that dropped through the nets as the buzzer sounded on Orlando’s 109-107 win over the Detroit Pistons on Sunday.

“Evan wants the ball at the end, he has courage,” Magic coach Steve Clifford said. “That was not an easy shot, but if he can get a shot like that, you’re comfortable he’s going to make it.”

D.J. Augustin had 26 points and eight assists, and Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon each scored 22 points to help the Magic win their second straight. Fournier finished with 13.

With the clock winding down, Fournier was the easy call for the potential winning shot attempt. He had a 3-pointer to beat Cleveland at the buzzer earlier this season.

“I really embrace those moments,” Fournier said. “It’s everyone’s dream to have one buzzer beater in the NBA so having two is even better.”

Fournier’s winning basket ended a wild finish in which Detroit wiped out an eight-point deficit in the final three minutes only to lose for the 11th time in their last 14 games.

Luke Kennard scored 16 points to lead the Pistons. Reggie Bullock and Blake Griffin had 15 apiece and Andre Drummond had 14 points and 15 rebounds.

Detroit thought it had pushed the game into overtime when Bullock was fouled on a 3-point attempt with 2.5 seconds to go and made all three free throws to tie the score at 107.

However, the Pistons couldn’t come up with a stop when they needed one.

“Games don’t come down to just one play,” Detroit coach Dwane Casey said. “There were way too many possessions before that when we did things that get you beat. We just have to learn to do the simple things.”

Neither team led by more than six points in the second half until Augustin sparked an 8-0 run with back-to-back 3-pointers and fed Jonathan Isaac for a fastbreak layup that gave Orlando a 95-87 lead with 7:07 left in the game.

Later in the quarter, Augustin stole a rebound from Drummond, drove the lane and whipped a wraparound pass to Vucevic for an uncontested layup that made it 104-95 with 3 1/2 minutes to go.

Detroit rallied quickly. A layup by Reggie Jackson cut the deficit to 105-104 with 8.9 seconds remaining.

Orlando’s Terrence Ross got loose for a breakaway dunk with 5.4 seconds to go but Bullock’s free throws tied it.

Fournier took the inbounds pass and immediately drove into the lane, lofting his shot just before the buzzer sound to give Orlando the win.

TIP-INS

Pistons: Detroit came into the game off a season-worst 37-point loss to Indiana. … Detroit is No. 1 in offensive rebounding advantage over opponents with a plus-110 margin coming in. The Pistons added to that, grabbing 17 rebounds to 10 for the Magic. … Griffin took a nasty fall when he slipped on a wet floor while trying to inbound the ball after a turnover. Griffin lay on the floor for 15 seconds before getting up and continuing play.

Magic: PG D.J. Augustin badly sprained his ankle after stepping on Griffin’s foot with 1:44 left in the game, but stayed in the game. … Orlando came in off as season-best 29-point win over Toronto. … F Jonathon Simmons left the game in the second quarter with an ankle injury and did not return. … The Magic outscored the Pistons 22-8 in points in the paint in the first quarter.

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING?

Casey was upset enough with Detroit’s performance in a 125-88 loss at Indiana on Friday to apologize to fans for “one of the worst exhibitions we’ve put on the floor.”

Two days later, he downplayed the impact of the 20-minute team meeting he had with players after the game.

“Nothing came out of the meeting that hasn’t been said before,” Casey said before Sunday’s game. “When you walk across the black lines, if you have your hard hat on and your boots tied, that is what this game is about. We haven’t exemplified that enough consistently and until we do, we’re going to be on a roller coaster.”

UP NEXT

Pistons: Continue a four-game road trip Tuesday night at Milwaukee.

Magic: Start a six-game road trip in Charlotte on Monday night.

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