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NBA Power Rankings: Houston rockets up to second spot with nine-game win streak

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Houston has Rocketed up to No. 2 in the rankings (see what I did there?) and right now look like the biggest threat to Golden State. They haven’t knocked the Bucks out of the top spot, at least not yet.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (51-17, last week No. 1). The defense has slipped since the All-Star break — 110.1 net rating, 16th in the league — but the Bucks are still 8-3 in that stretch because their offense has gotten even better. Everyone in Milwaukee is looking ahead, the Bucks in the Giannis Antetokounmpo era have never won a playoff series, that will change in the first round this year. But the second round… on paper this team is a contender but will Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe perform on the biggest stages. Good benchmark Sunday vs. Philly.

Rockets small icon 2. Rockets (42-25, LW 6). Winners of nine in a row, the Rockets look like the second-best team in the NBA again. A team that may be a threat to the Warriors (as much as anyone). Not just because Chris Paul is playing well (although he is playing closer to last year’s version), or because Clint Capela is healthy and running the floor hard again, but because they are defending well for the first time this season. Since the All-Star break, Houston has a defensive net rating of 106.4, seventh best in the NBA (better than Utah in that stretch). Can they sustain it? If so, the Warriors will be looking over their shoulders.

Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (48-20, LW 2). Toronto didn’t pick up Marc Gasol expecting an eventual Serge Ibaka suspension, but it helps with Ibaka missing three games after throwing hands with Marquese Chriss. This is not a team making a strong playoff push (5-4 since the All-Star break) but it’s hard to read them because Kawhi Leonard has gotten a lot of rest and because their playoff position has been essentially set (the No. 2 seed) removing urgency in games. One thing to bet on, Pascal Siakam is going to win Most Improved Player.

Warriors small icon 4. Warriors (45-21, LW 3). For one game, against Denver on the night the Nuggets could have tied the Warriors with a win, we saw what the fully-functional Death Star can do. It was awe inspiring. Then the Warriors turned around and lost to the Suns. Expect to see Kevin Durant (ankle) and other key players rest down the stretch, and expect more erratic performances, but does anyone doubt they can play like the Death Star team four times in any seven game series?

Nuggets small icon 5. Nuggets (44-22, LW 4). Isaiah Thomas has struggled to fit in off the bench so far, which is why coach Mike Malone is shrinking his role and minutes (IT got a DNP-CD on Tuesday). Through nine games he’s averaging 8.6 points a night but is shooting 27.3% from three (where he takes 44% of his shot attempts), and even when he gets to the rim he’s only finishing 50% of his attempts. Monte Morris bounced back with a good game against the Warriors and coach Mike Malone will need to lean on him and not IT when the playoffs start.

Sixers small icon 6. 76ers (43-25, LW 5). Joel Embiid’s return Sunday had Philadelphia looking like a team that could come out of the East again — he had 33 and 12 in a key win over the Pacers, he anchored their defense and bullied the Pacers in the paint on offense. The Sixers need that Embiid to be a real threat. Big test Sunday at Milwaukee, a chance for both teams to make a statement they are contenders for the East crown.

Celtics small icon 7. Celtics (41-27, LW 11). They went a strong 3-1 on a West Coast road trip and looked like the team we expected coming into the season (don’t read into the loss to the Clippers, last games of a trip get mailed in sometimes). Much like it has been recently in the regular season, Boston’s chances in the playoffs will swing with how Gordon Hayward plays — when he scores in double digits off the bench, the Celtics become a much more dangerous team.

Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (41-26, LW 8). Russell Westbrook’s interaction with a fan in Utah got the NBA community finally talking about an issue that needed to be in the spotlight — there are too many fans crossing the line of what is said to players, and there is little the players can do about it. Westbrook got fined for it, but my guess is he’s good with that if it sparked a real discussion (which it did). The Thunder went 2-2 on their recent road trip and things do not get easier now, they have their next six games against playoff teams.

Blazers small icon 9. Trail Blazers (41-26, LW 7). Coach Terry Stotts shot down a question about the playoffs, saying he is not thinking about matchups or seeding yet, but Portland wants to climb up to the four seed and have home court in the first round (they are tied with Oklahoma City for that spot as of this writing). Portland is 25-9 at home this season and 16-17 on the road — if they are going to advance pat the first round playing at home would be a big boost.

Clippers small icon 10. Clippers (39-30, LW 12). Wins over Boston and Oklahoma City recently show why this Clipper team is going to be a tough out in the playoffs. Spend time around the Clippers and you sense a confidence amongst this team despite all the roster changes this season — they like each other, they joke around in the locker room, and on the floor they know who they are and they play hard. Lou Williams is making a push for Sixth Man of the Year with his play of late, but the loss to Portland shows just how much Danilo Gallinari’s shooting and ability to create looks matters to this team (he rested that game).

Spurs small icon 11. Spurs (39-29, LW 13). Winners of six in a row (they needed that after a brutal rodeo road trip) and the streak has solidified their playoff position. The Spurs have done it with good defense — 105.1 net rating in this stretch, sixth best in the NBA — and enough offense from DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge to make it all work (they combined for 61 Tuesday night to beat the Mavs).

Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (43-25, LW 9). The Pacers need to play better (they have lost 6-of-9) if they are going to hold on to home court in the first round. The Pacers are tied with Philly for the 3/4 seed with Boston just two games back, but Indy has a brutal schedule coming up — Oklahoma City at home Thursday then 6-of-7 on the road including the Nuggets, Clippers, Warriors, Thunder again, then Celtics. It’s going to be tough to find wins in there.

Jazz small icon 13. Jazz (37-29, LW 10). With the softest remaining schedule in the NBA, it should have been time for Utah to make its push up the Western standings and maybe even get home court in the first round. Instead, they have lost 3-of-4 (including to Memphis and New Orleans). More concerning, Julius Randle and Jonas Valanciunas have punished the Jazz in the paint. Utah is still in the playoffs as the eight seed, but their lack of focus against teams they should beat is going to have them starting the playoffs on the road.

Nets small icon 14. Nets (36-33, LW 15). Winners of four in a row, the last one against Detroit to keep them ahead of the Pistons and in the six seed. Spencer Dinwiddie had 19 against Detroit, continuing his run of good play — he is going to get some Sixth Man of the Year votes. But now the Pacers have seven in a row on the road and every one of their remaining games this season except one (Lakers) is against a team over .500.

Pistons small icon 15. Pistons (34-32, LW 14). Detroit has leaned a little too much on fourth-quarter comebacks lately, but they had won 8-of-9 before the loss to the Nets Monday. Still, because of the Nets’ schedule, expect the Pistons to finish the season as the six seed in the East. Give coach Dwane Casey credit for pulling this team together in his first season in Detroit, finding an offense that works, and getting this team into the postseason.

Kings small icon 16. Kings (33-33, LW 16). The Kings have had the most surprising season in the NBA, and that will mean Coach of the Year votes for Dave Joerger and Most Improved Player votes for De’Aaron Fox. Both well deserved (although neither are likely to win the award). However, the surprising season is not going to end with a playoff berth, the Kings are four out with 16 games to play. The key this offseason is to stick with the building plan and not to become impatient and make win-now moves.

Heat small icon 17. Heat (31-35, LW 21). Miami’s new starting lineup — Justise Winslow, Bam Adebayo, Josh Richardson, Dion Waiters, and Kelly Olynyk — has led the team to win 4-of-5 and hang on to the final playoff slot in the East. In the seven games they have started (91 total minutes) that lineup is +7.1 per 100 possessions, with a high powered offense leading the way. Miami has a tougher schedule than Orlando (one game back) and Charlotte (1.5 back) the rest of the way and will need more out of that lineup if the Heat are going to get an invite to the postseason dance.

18. Timberwolves (32-36, LW 20). Karl-Anthony Towns continues to be on a tear — in his last 10 games he’s averaging 32.9 points per game on 59.6 percent shooting overall, 48.3 percent from three (on 5.8 attempts a game), plus grabbing 12.8 boards a night. Is that going to be enough to get him an All-NBA center spot in a crowded field (Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis) — if he does it’s worth a cool $32 million on his rookie contract extension that kicks in next season (thanks to the Rose rule).

Magic small icon 19. Magic (31-37, LW 17). Playoff teams take care of business against lesser opponents, which is why the Magic are in danger of missing the postseason after their big push to get back in it. Orlando has lost 3-of-4 including the the Cavaliers and Grizzlies. The Magic struggle in tight games, which is part of the problem. I’d say they have a soft section of the schedule ahead, but that doesn’t seem to matter to Orlando. They just need wins.

Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (30-40, LW 18). Jrue Holiday being out is a big blow, he has been playing at a near All-NBA level and off the court has become more of the face of the franchise (after the Anthony Davis situation). Rookie guard Frank Jackson has stepped up with some strong games in Holiday’s absence, which is about all there is to root for if you’re a Pelicans fan.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (30-37, LW 19). The vultures are circling. Needing to make a playoff push the Hornets have instead lost 7-of-9, and now the rumors about Kemba Walker being unhappy and wanting out are growing louder (I had heard from sources right after the trade deadline he was frustrated the team didn’t make a move. Charlotte plays Miami in Sunday, one of the teams they are battling with for the last playoff slot in the East, they need that win.

Grizzlies small icon 22. Grizzlies (28-40, LW 24). Memphis’ first-round pick this year is top 8 protected, and considering it’s a softer draft (and the Grizzlies are just starting their rebuild) they wouldn’t mind letting Boston have it this year (and keeping it in the future). That means winning more now, and the Grizzlies have done just that, with victories in 5-of-7 (thanks to the best defense in the league in that stretch, a 100.3 net rating). Currently, they have the seventh-worst record in the league (85.8% chance they keep the pick) but keep winning and the odds Boston gets it climb fast.

Wizards small icon 23. Wizards (28-39, LW 23). Washington’s playoff chances are not dead — it is 3.5 games out of the final playoff spot (Miami) but they have a 10% chance of making up that ground and getting in, according to fivethirtyeight.com. That makes Wednesday’s game against Orlando and Friday against Charlotte critical — all three of those teams are in the same playoff chase, a couple of wins there and the Wizards chances get much more realistic. Lose both and they can book the hotel in Cabo for mid-April.

Lakers small icon 24. Lakers (31-36, LW 22). Luke Walton is going to take the fall for this Lakers’ season, which is not completely fair because the roster he was given to work with by management was flawed and needed perfect health and some breaks to make the playoffs. That didn’t happen (Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball are shut down for the season now). The question becomes, where do the Lakers get their next coach? Who can they get that LeBron James will respect and buy into? There is not an obvious upgrade just sitting on the open market, but this will be the first big test for management in a summer it has to nail.

Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (23-45, LW 25). Here’s what should have Atlanta fans pumped about the future: In their last 10 games, the Hawks are +5.9 points per 100 when Trae Young and John Collins are on the court together. That pair is the cornerstone of the future for the Hawks, and it’s looking promising. In the loss to the Nets last weekend, Young had his first triple-double and Collins added 33 points and 20 rebounds in the game. The Hawks are going to take a step forward next season, just watch.

Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (27-40, LW 26). The long season seems to be catching up with Luka Doncic. In his last five games he’s still averaging 20.4 points per game, but he’s shooting just 27.8% from three and 37.5% overall. Against San Antonio Tuesday he had his worst game of the season, 5-of-18 shooting, 1-of-7 from three, and even 1-of-9 from the free throw line. What you had to like is the frustrated Doncic went in and worked on his game immediately after that showing, vowing it would not happen again.

Suns small icon 27. Suns (16-52, LW 29). The Suns are not taking for Zion — they have won 5-of-7 and that includes beating the Warriors and the Bucks. The biggest key is that Kelly Oubre has been a fit, and averaged 18.9 points a game since put in the starting lineup, providing another shot creation and scoring option for Phoenix.

Bulls small icon 28. Bulls (19-50, LW 27). What has Zach LaVine done to step up his game this season? Get to the rim. Before his injury (his three seasons in Minnesota) LaVine took 33% to 35% of his shots at the rim, but this season that is up to 49% (stats via Cleaning the Glass). He can get to the rim whenever he wants and is finishing a solid 61% of those shots. He’s taking fewer midrangers also and has found a steady stroke from three (although he should get and take more corner threes, he’s deadly there).

Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (17-51, LW 28). Collin Sexton was not the instant star some of the other guys in the last draft have been, but he has steadily improved throughout the season. Last week he broke Kyrie Irving’s franchise record for triple-doubles as a rookie. He’s got work to do, particularly on the defensive end, but he’s taking steps in the right direction.

Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (13-55, LW 30). Zion Williamson will return from injury to play in the ACC Tournament and then the NCAA Tournament for Duke. While have been fans and pundits calling for him to shut it down, it speaks to his makeup and desire that he wants to play and wants to win with his teammates, not just sit back and wait until he gets paid. With him, and particularly how Zion improves their defense, the Blue Devils have a real shot to win it all. What… you want to talk about the Knicks? Come on.

Watch James Harden score 58 points, rally Rockets past Heat 121-118

Associated Press
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HOUSTON (AP) — James Harden had 58 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds and the Houston Rockets overcame a 21-point third-quarter deficit to beat the Miami Heat 121-118 on Thursday night.

Harden made 8 of 18 3-pointers and was 16 of 32 overall from the field and 18 of 18 on free throws. He fell three points short of his career high set at New York on Jan. 23, and had the most point ever against the Heat – breaking Willie Burton’s mark of 53 for Philadelphia on Dec. 13, 1994.

Austin Rivers scored 17 points, and Chris Paul and Gary Clark each had 14 to help Houston win its fourth straight game. The Rockets shot 49 percent, including 19 of 46 on 3-pointers.

Kelly Olynyk and Goran Dragic each had 21 points for Miami, Justise Winslow added 19 points and eight assists, and Josh Richardson had 18 points. The Heat shot 52 percent, making 15 of 28 3-pointers.

Miami was coming off a home victory over Golden State on Wednesday night on Dwyane Wade‘s banked 3-pointer at the buzzer. Houston played at Charlotte on Wednesday night.

With Houston down 113-103 after Dragic’s 3-pointer with 6:18 remaining, Harden scored 10 points on a 14-0 run that made it 117-113.

Miami had a chance to regain the lead after Paul missed a 3-pointer, but Wade missed a jumper, and Richardson missed a 3-pointer. Paul hit a jumper with 46 seconds left to give finish the scoring.

 

Pat Riley: Heat will pursue two max players in 2020

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In the 1995-96 season, the Heat traded for Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway.

In 2004, the Heat traded for Shaquille O’Neal.

In 2010, the Heat signed LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

Will Miami makes its next star splash in 2020?

Near-star Josh Richardson is locked into a relatively cheap contract for two more years. Bam Adebayo has two more seasons on his relatively low-paying rookie-scale deal. Justise Winslow, who’s maybe finding his groove, is guaranteed two more seasons on his rookie-scale extension.

That core could appeal to free agents in 2020, when Hassan Whiteside‘s, Ryan Anderson‘s and Goran Dragic‘s contracts expire.

Heat:

Heat president Pat Riley, in an interview with Jason Jackson:

We’re chasing a playoff spot when we’re young. And then we’re going to be chasing some players that can come in. If we can get one or two players to come in with this group, this young group, then I think the sky’s the limit for this team in the next couple years.

We’ve done this four times now, had a good group of players, young players, and then either through free agency or through trade brought the superstar in.

In 2020, we’ll have a lot of room. We’ll also have the possibility to have enough room to go after two max contracts. And we’re going to do that. So, we’re planning that 2020 will be the room year.

We’re very fluid. We’re very on top of it. And we are a destination place, Jax. The tax, the sun, the beautiful city. It’s a very progressive city, diverse city. So, we are a destination place. And we’re going to be moving in that direction.

That’s quite ambitious. But Riley has executed grand plans before. That will only embolden him to pursue this one.

It won’t be easy.

Miami projects to have just $34 million of cap space in 2020. A single max salary that summer projects to be $30 million-$41 million, depending on the player’s experience.

James Johnson ($16,047,100) and Kelly Olynyk ($13,598,243) have player options for the 2020-21 season. It’s difficult to see a 33-year-old Johnson or 29-year-old Olynyk declining those options. The Heat also owe Dion Waiters $12,650,000 that season.

Of course, there’s plenty of time to unload contracts. If this is Riley’s vision, keep an eye on those three players between now and next year’s trade deadline. Miami could also move its next two first-round picks to unload salary.

But even if the Heat clear double-max cap room, whom would the spend it on?

Anthony Davis is the big prize in 2020 free agency. After that, it’s slim pickings.

Most of this year’s All-Stars are already under contract for 2020-21. Several more – Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Khris Middleton, Kemba Walker, D'Angelo Russell and Nikola Vucevic – will be free agents this summer. While some could sign a one-year or 1+1 contract to return to free agency next summer, I wouldn’t bet on that. Dwyane Wade will be retired by then and is already in Miami. Dirk Nowitzki will also likely retire by then, but even if he doesn’t, he’s neither leaving the Mavericks nor commanding a substantial salary.

That leaves Ben Simmons, Kyle Lowry and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Simmons will be eligible for a contract extension this offseason. Even if he doesn’t sign one, he’ll be restricted in 2020. It’s nearly impossible to see him getting away in free agency that year.

Lowry will be 34. The Heat showed interest in him before, but that was five years ago. As he leaves his prime, he won’t draw nearly as much attention.

Aldridge will become a 2020 free agent only if waived. His $24 million salary for 2020-21 is $7 million guaranteed. But if his team would rather pay him $7 million to leave than $24 million to stay, that’d say something about his value.

Other players will emerge. This is far from set in stone. But a little more than a year out, the 2020 free-agent class looks very weak.

Is that really the year the Heat want to splurge?

Riley has already once admitted he regretted saying he planned to go whale hunting. I wonder whether his 2020 plan will eventually inspire a similar evaluation.

NBA Power Rankings: Greek Freak knocking down threes helps Bucks back to top spot

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Milwaukee is back on top and look like a real threat in the playoffs, although the East remains a fascinating chase. It’s Golden State then everyone else in the West.

 
Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (46-14, last week No. 2). Don’t tell anyone, but Giannis Antetokounmpo is hitting his threes lately. In his last 15 games, the Greek Freak is shooting 39.5% from three on 2.9 attempts per game. The defensive strategy on the Bucks in the playoffs will be to lay 15 feet off Antetokounmpo and dare him to shoot, if he can take and make enough of those just to keep the defense honest, it’s a game changer. Of course, if the Bucks need a big three at the end of a game — say, against the Celtics — they would want Khris Middleton to take it.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (43-17, LW 1). The much-hyped starting five of the Warriors — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, DeMarcus Cousins — has struggled. In its last 8 games together, the lineup has a net rating of -15.1 per 100 possessions, and they have been bad on both ends of the court. The result is the Warriors having to dig out of holes seemingly every game. In his last five games, DeMarcus Cousins is averaging 14.6 points per game but on just 40.3 percent shooting overall and 20 percent from three. If you’re looking for chinks in the armor, Golden State has some.

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (45-17, LW 3). Toronto appears locked into the two seed in the East (2.5 games back of the Bucks, 4.5 up on the Pacers), giving Nick Nurse a chance to experiment with lineups around Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin, to see where they best fit. Toronto made a statement by blowing out the Celtics on Tuesday night, showing off their combination of length, shooting, and versatility. Toronto looked every bit the title contender in the win. The kind of team Kawhi Leonard might want to stick around for.

 
Nuggets small icon 4. Nuggets (41-18, LW 7). Denver has found its defense again — in the last five games, they have allowed less than a point per possession (97.7 per 100), the best in the league over that stretch. That’s a good sign for the postseason — so is the fact Nuggets also are a matchup nightmare for the Thunder. In their three meetings this season OKC has led the games for 12 minutes total, Denver for 85 minutes. There have been questions about how far the untested Nuggets can go in the postseason, but in the win Tuesday night over the Thunder they looked like the second best team in the West.

 
Thunder small icon 5. Thunder (38-21, LW 4). This is better Thunder team than a year ago heading into the playoffs — Russell Westbrook has found his shooting stroke of late, Paul George looks like an MVP candidate, and there is no Carmelo Anthony. Of concern, however, is the fact Denver seems to have their number, which would be an issue in the playoffs The Thunder are the current three seed in the West but have the toughest remaining schedule of any team in the NBA, and Portland is only one game back — slip to the four seed and even if they beat Houston/Utah in the first round they are on the Warriors’ side of the bracket for the second round.

 
Pacers small icon 6. Pacers (40-21, LW 8). So much for the Pacers falling back without Victor Oladipo: They are 8-2 in their last 10 with a +11.1 net rating, mostly because their defense has been elite during the stretch. Nobody is a bigger Pacers fan the rest of the way than the Raptors, because if Indiana holds on to the three seed the path for the two seed (almost certainly Toronto) to the conference finals is much easier.

 
Sixers small icon 7. 76ers (39-22, LW 6). The Sixers have gone 2-1 without Joel Embiid since the All-Star break (sore knee), but they have not looked like the same team without their best player and anchor in the middle. Philly will be without him (and Boban) against Oklahoma City Thursday. That is followed by a big test against Golden State on Saturday — if Embiid is not back for that game it feels like the red flag on his health flies a little higher. They need Embiid back to help this team gel before the playoffs.

 
Blazers small icon 8. Trail Blazers (37-23, LW 11). How much they can play him in the postseason is a different question, but in the regular season adding Enes Kanter to back up Jusuf Nurkic has led to an advantage in the paint and on the glass so far for Portland. Combined through three games they have averaged 37 points and 17.7 rebounds a game. Portland has started 3-0 on a 7-game road trip through the East, but Boston and Toronto are up next.

 
Celtics small icon 9. Celtics (37-24, LW 5). They have lost three in a row out of the All-Star break, including to Milwaukee and getting blown out by Toronto. More concerning, the Celtics have a bottom-10 defense in the NBA through their last 10 games — that was supposed to be their calling card, supposed to be Brad Steven’s strength, and the Celtics have not been good of late (they are fifth in the NBA defensively for the season). It’s hard to figure out where this team ranks in the pecking order of the East, but the last couple of games have not been promising.

 
Rockets small icon 10. Rockets (35-25, LW 9). James Harden’s 30+ points a game scoring streak ended the way it was always going to — against a team where he didn’t need to put up crazy numbers for them to win (he still had 28). If the Rockets are going to return to being the second best team in the West two things need to happen the rest of the way: Chris Paul needs to keep playing like he did against Golden State (23 points, 17 assists) and their defense needs to improve to at least league average levels if not better. Just a couple of things to watch.

 
Jazz small icon 11. Jazz (33-26, LW 10). We don’t question Utah’s ability to defend (even if they have been up and down of late on that end), but the offense… actually has been good recently. In their last 10 games, they have averaged 114.6 points per 100 possessions, sixth best in the NBA over that stretch and better than the Thunder or Bucks. Donovan Mitchell is attacking, and anyone who continues to think Rudy Gobert is just a defender needs to sit down and watch more Utah basketball — he has good hands and can score around the rim.

 
Clippers small icon 12. Clippers (34-28, LW 13). The Clippers are the 7 seed in the West, on pace to finish with 44 wins and they have a 74% chance of making the playoffs (according to fivethirtyeight.com). Doc Rivers is doing that with unconventional lineups — starting Landry Shamet and Ivica Zubac, two recent additions, and counting on Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell off the bench to carry the day. And it’s working — but there are big tests in their playoff chase this week with games against the Kings and Lakers, two of the teams chasing Los Angeles.

 
Nets small icon 13. Nets (32-30, LW 15). After stumbling back into a fight for a playoff spot, the Nets seem to have righted the ship, winning 3-of-4 and they now have a four-game cushion over the nine-seed Magic. They’re going to be a playoff team. That said they have the fourth-hardest remaining schedule in the NBA (second in the East) and that could leave them open to getting passed by surging Detroit for the six seed. They need more of the D’Angelo Russell we saw against Charlotte, where he scored the team’s final 12 points to secure the win.

Pistons small icon 14. Pistons (29-30, 16). Welcome to the playoffs Detroit — winners of 7-of-8 with the best offense in the NBA during that stretch (120 points per 100), the Pistons are the seven seed in the East. And, they have an easier schedule the rest of the way than anyone they are competing with for one of the final spots other than Orlando. They key has been Reggie Jackson, who in his last 10 games is averaging 19.2 points per game, shooting 44.8 percent from three, is dishing out 5.7 assists a night, and is +9.4 points per game. Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond will do their thing, but this team needs Jackson to be great to thrive.

 
Kings small icon 15. Kings (31-29, LW 12). Rookie Marvin Bagley has steadily improved all season starting to really find his groove, he had good games against the Warriors, Thunder, and Timberwolves combining for 72 points and 35 rebounds in those contests. The Kings dropped 3-of-4 on a tough road trip and things do not get easier now with the Bucks and then the Clippers, one of the teams they are trying to catch for the final playoff slots in the West.

 
Spurs small icon 16. Spurs (33-29, LW 14). A couple weeks ago the talk was about the Clippers slipping back and getting passed for a playoff spot by the Kings or Lakers, but now the Spurs look like the vulnerable team. San Antonio went 1-7 on the Rodeo road trip and now sit as the eight seed, just one game up on Sacramento. FiveThirtyEight gives the Spurs an 81% chance of making the playoffs, but that seems high unless the Spurs start to defend a lot better. The Spurs are home again but with the Pistons, Thunder, and Nuggets coming to town there are not easy wins on the horizon.

 
17. Timberwolves (29-31, LW 21). Karl-Anthony Towns’ streak of 303 consecutive games played ended because of a car accident that left him in the league’s concussion protocol. The funniest thing this week was Ja Rule putting a curse on the Timberwolves, saying KAT was going to leave — that would be the same guy whose five-year max extension kicks in next season. If he’s going anywhere it’s not for a while, Minnesota is building around him. Now, if Ja Rule wants to curse Andrew Wiggins out of town that would be welcome among Wolves fans.

 
Magic small icon 18. Magic (28-34, LW 19). Orlando is on the doorstep of the playoffs thanks to an 8-3 run fueled by their defense, the best in the NBA over that stretch (although the loss to the Knicks Tuesday hurt). Not coincidentally, Orlando’s rise started when coach Steve Clifford stopped playing Mo Bamba — he has potential but is not ready — and Jonathan Simmons (since traded). Orlando has an easier schedule than everyone else chasing one of the final playoff spots in the East, they have a real shot.

 
Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (28-32, LW 17). Charlotte has lost 4-of-5 and subbing Miles Bridges in for Jeremy Lamb in the starting lineup after the All-Star break has not changed things. Charlotte sits as the eighth seed in the East as you read this, just one game up on Orlando and 1.5 on Miami, and the Hornets have the toughest remaining schedule of any team in the East. It’s why fivethirtyeight.com gives the Hornets just a 40% chance of making the playoffs. Miss the postseason and Kemba Walker’s free agent decision this summer gets more interesting.

Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (27-35, LW 23). The Pelicans are limiting the minutes of Anthony Davis down the stretch — more interestingly they had some good play without him. The Pelicans beat the Lakers while Davis sat. A fourth-quarter run to make it just a one-point loss (after trailing by 17 earlier) against the 76ers came with Davis on the bench. They are still +7.5 per 100 better with Davis on the court since his return from injury, but the Pelicans are showing they can do some things without their star who doesn’t want to be there. Julius Randle continues to play himself into a big contract this summer.

 
Lakers small icon 21. Lakers (29-31, LW 20). Two ugly losses has led to renewed questions about Luke Walton’s job security (few around the league think he’s back next season) and a passive-aggressive LeBron James seeming current starting lineup with Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, JaVale McGee, Reggie Bullock and James is giving up 116.2 points per 100 possessions. For reference, the Cleveland Cavaliers have the worst defensive rating in the league at 115.9. LeBron’s effort has been at the heart of those defensive issues. Before LeBron (and maybe Magic) goes blaming the young kids for the Lakers not making the playoffs, they may want to look at this chart.

 
Heat small icon 22. Heat (26-33, LW 22). Miami has a lot of nice complimentary players — Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, Bam Adebayo — but no true star to create good looks and lead them in crunch time. The return of Goran Dragic doesn’t change that. The Heat are only 1.5 games out of the playoffs, but with the Warriors, Rockets, and Nets on the schedule this week it’s going to take some upsets to get them in playoff position.

 
Mavericks small icon 23. Mavericks (26-34, LW 18). Losers of five in a row, they were without Luka Doncic for the fist couple of games after the All-Star break, but he was back against Clippers Monday. Not that it mattered. Classy move by Doc Rivers at the end of Monday’s game to make sure that Dirk Nowitzki got a proper send-off from the Los Angeles fans.

 
Wizards small icon 24. Wizards (24-36, LW 24). Bradley Beal leads the NBA in total minutes played this season, but with the Wizards all but out of the playoff chase you’d think Scott Brooks would start to ease up on him. You’d be wrong. He has played at least 41 minutes in each of the Wizards last four games, all losses. Washington is four back of a playoff slot and fivethirthyeight.com has them with a 7% chance of getting back into the postseason. Time to ease up on Beal.

 
Grizzlies small icon 25. Grizzlies (24-38, LW 25). Memphis wouldn’t mind winning enough — and getting some lottery luck — so that they lose their first-round pick to Boston this season in a down draft. Their actions at the trade deadline just made that hard. With where they stand now, the Grizzlies have a 3.8 percent chance of sending that pick to the Celtics, and they are not going to win enough the rest of the way to improve those odds much.

 
Bulls small icon 26. Bulls (16-45, LW 27). The Bulls are playing their best basketball of the season, having won 3-of-4 and having the best offense in the NBA in the month of February. When Zach LaVine, Otto Porter and Lauri Markkanen are on the court together this has been a good offensive team, and that gives real hope for the future in the Windy City.

 
Hawks small icon 27. Hawks (20-41, LW 26). Trae Young continues to play well and put up numbers — 30 points against the Pistons, and 36 against the Rockets. But while we focus on his scoring his passing is still creating highlight after highlight and he — along with John Collins — are making the Hawks worth watching.

 
Knicks small icon 28. Knicks (13-48, LW 30). No tanking for Zion here, the Knicks have won 3-of-4 and have done in part thanks to Dennis Smith Jr., but the emergence of Mitchell Robinson has helped as well. The rookie big man had 17 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 blocks against the solid front line of Orlando Tuesday night. I’m not sure he’s going to be the star some Knicks fans think, but he could be part of the rotation in whatever the Knicks will look like next.

 
Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (14-47, LW 28). Kevin Love, back from injury for five games now, looks like he is starting to get his legs back under him as Love scored 32 against Memphis and now has 66 points and 35 rebounds in his last three games. Love looking healthy the rest of the season will increase the odds he gets traded this summer (although those odds are not that high).

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (12-50, LW 29). A surprising win in Miami ended a 17-game losing streak on Monday night, thanks to a balanced attack from their starters, led by Devin Booker with 20. If Suns fans missed the win because all their doing is watching Duke games, you can’t blame them.
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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.