Justise Winslow

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NBA Power Rankings: Bucks move back into top spot

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Despite a rash of injuries, the Milwaukee Bucks slide back into the top spot on the strength of their win over Houston. The Nuggets remain just behind the Warriors, and the Clippers are climbing fast.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (56-19, Last Week No. 2). The injury bug has hit the Bucks hard and at the wrong time of the year, with Nikola Mirotic, Donte DiVincenzo, Pau Gaol, and worst of all Malcolm Brogdon all out for extended periods (Brogdon into the playoffs, where they will need him after the first round). Even with all that, the Bucks showed against the Rockets Tuesday night that they were the better team — the MVP battle between James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo never materialized, but Milwaukee had a superior game plan and the players to execute it better. Eric Bledsoe earned that new contract money in that one.

Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (50-23, LW No. 1). There are games in the past few weeks where you see the Warriors focus their defense — holding the Thunder and Pacers each under 90 points, keeping the Timberwolves to 40% shooting overall and 25% from three — and then there are games where they just seem disinterested again. In their last 7 games the Warriors have a top 10 NBA defense, but for the season they are 15th (outside the range that normally wins a ring… although the Warriors feel like an exception). That ugly loss to Dallas on Saturday was a reminder just how much Stephen Curry matters to this team, he sat out to rest and they fell apart.

Nuggets small icon 3. Nuggets (50-23, LW 3). Consider the progress: Rather than a late-season discussion of “can the Nuggets grab the 8 seed” they have already have 50 wins, have secured a playoff spot, and have a shot at the one seed. This week goes a long way toward deciding that seeding. Back-to-back Thursday/Friday against Houston than Oklahoma City a tough one. Bigger yet in the chase for first is the game against Golden State next Tuesday — Denver needs that one.

Rockets small icon 4. Rockets (47-28, LW 5). Houston got a taste of playoff basketball from Milwaukee — a James Harden-focused defensive game plan, the referees letting them play — and there were bright spots to take away. Clint Capela had a strong game (and when his man cut off Harden’s drives he did a good job of sliding to the rim). Chris Paul was dropping defenders with his moves. However, the Rockets will need that and more in the postseason. Another good playoff test Thursday night against Denver.

Raptors small icon 5. Raptors (52-23, LW 6). If you’re looking for positives as Toronto heads toward the playoffs, there is this via NBA.com’s John Schuhmann: Kawhi Leonard leads the NBA in baskets to tie or take the lead in the final minute of a game with eight this season (he is 0-of-3 from three). He’s Toronto’s closer, he can get to his spots and hit contested shots, and late in close playoff games that’s a must. Toronto went 2-2 in the four recent games Kyle Lowry missed with ankle issues.

Sixers small icon 6. 76ers (47-27, LW 4). Philly won six in a row, including a dramatic win over Boston a week ago, and they looked like a team figuring it out… then they lost to the Hawks and Magic (two teams playing better lately, but still). Philly’s defense has not been as good in recent weeks and that combined with the lack of depth makes them vulnerable to teams they should beat (let alone good ones).

Blazers small icon 7. Trail Blazers (46-27, LW 9). I fear this may be the highest Portland gets in these rankings, after losing Jusuf Nurkic for the season (and still being without CJ McCollum, maybe until the start of the playoffs. That’s Portland’s second and third best players (you can debate the order) and the guys who relieve the pressure when defenses trap Damian Lillard. Portland is currently tied with Houston for the 3/4 seeds in the West, the question is can they hold off the Clippers (2 games back) and the Jazz (2.5 back) and keep home court advantage in the first round?

Jazz small icon 8. Jazz (44-30, LW 10). They have won 7-of-8, with the best defense in the NBA and the second best offense — and a +19.1 net rating — in those games. But before we get to high on “the Jazz are back” know that this run has come against a very soft schedule, this is simply the Jazz doing what they should against lesser opponents. Still, it provides momentum and confidence. The easy part of the schedule continues this week and with the Jazz just 2.5 games back of home court in the first round.

Clippers small icon 9. Clippers (45-30, LW 11). The Clippers are the hottest team in the NBA, having won 11-of-12 and in those dozen games Los Angeles has the second best offense in the NBA. Lou Williams gets a lot of credit for that, and he’s the frontrunner for Sixth Man of the Year (again) for a reason, but the big difference of late has been Danilo Gallinari. In his last 10 games, Gallo is averaging 24.5 points per game and is shooting 44.8% from three on 5.8 attempts per game.

Spurs small icon 10. Spurs (43-32, LW 11). San Antonio has been a top=10 NBA defense at home this season, but get them on the road and they are 8.2 points per 100 possessions worse and fall into the bottom 10 in the league (that balances out right now to 20th in the NBA in defensive rating overall). We saw it Tuesday night, when Kemba Walker went off on the Spurs in Charlotte and led the Hornets to a win. Why is this concerning? The Spurs are going to start the playoffs on the road somewhere.

Celtics small icon 11. Celtics (44-31, LW 7). Remember when the Celtics blew out Golden State and Kyrie Irving said a cross-country plane flight and a chance to air things out with Brad Stevens put the Celtics on the right track? Boston is 4-5 since then, and now have a four-game losing streak. Last season Boston’s playoff run was built on elite defense, but in its last 10 games the Celtics are 26th in the NBA (and it’s gotten worse during the last five). We shouldn’t be more than 70 games into the season and asking if this team can pull it together in time.

Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (45-29, LW 12). Indiana knocks down threes when they take them, shooting 37.2 percent from beyond the arc as a team, fifth best in the NBA. However, they take the second fewest a game (25.4). Will that change in the playoffs, where they seem destined to face Boston in the first round? The Pacers will need to generate more offense and without Victor Oladipo to create looks and the three ball seems a reasonable way to do that.

Thunder small icon 13. Thunder (42-31, LW 13). Oklahoma City has dropped 5-of-6, and part of that is how their MVP candidate Paul George has slumped of late. This is the second season is a row George has struggled after the All-Star break. Last season he shot 38.5 percent overall (32.4 percent from three) after the ASG. This season it’s 38.6 percent shooting overall and 32.9 percent from three. Russell Westbrook is putting up numbers but he’s not as efficient, the Thunder need peak PG13.

Magic small icon 14. Magic (37-38, LW 18). Winners of six in a row, with the victory over Miami on Tuesday night the Magic are in the playoffs as you read this. By half a game, but they are in (the Magic and Heat are tied in the loss column). Back at the trade deadline, the Magic decided to keep Terrence Ross and make a playoff push rather than rebuild, and now that seems brilliant. While fivethirtyeight.com gives Orlando an 80% chance to hold on to a playoff spot, it’s not that simple when you look at the schedule. This week Orlando has road games at Detroit (another team the Magic trail by just half a game), Indiana, and Toronto.

Heat small icon 15. Heat (36-38, LW 14). The Heat are strongly worse at home than on the road this season, having gone 17-21 in AmericanAirlines Arena. That came back to bite them on Tuesday with a loss to Orlando. If the Heat are going to climb back into the postseason they need wins against Dallas and New York the rest of this week before a home-and-home with Boston. Justise Winslow‘s absence has further hurt a struggling offense, plus the Heat just can’t stay healthy enough for Erik Spoelstra to have regular rotations.

Nets small icon 16. Nets (38-37, LW 16). D’Angelo Russell and company need to keep finding enough offense to go with their top-10 defense (the last five games, anyway) if the Nets are going to hold on to a playoff spot. While they are currently the six seed, they are just 1.5 games up on the nine-seed Heat and every remaining Brooklyn game is against a playoff-bound team (including the Heat on the final game of the regular season). Fivethirtyeight.com gives Brooklyn a 79% chance of making the playoffs, but to live up to that will require a little more offense down the stretch.

Kings small icon 17. Kings (37-37, LW 17). The Kings are not making the playoffs, but with eight games to play the goal of a .500 season remains in their grasp. It just won’t be easy. The Kings are on the road for 5-of-8, and they have five playoff teams in that mix. Nice feel-good story by the Kings recently signing former Sacramento State guard and local kid Cody Demps to a 10-day contract.

Pistons small icon 18. Pistons (37-37, LW 15). I am rooting for a first-round Detroit vs. Toronto matchup, the Dwane Casey revenge series. Detroit took the season series 3-0. For the Pistons to make any postseason noise they not only need a huge series from Reggie Jackson, but they also need a team where their postups with Andre Drummond are more efficient than they are against most teams. With Marc Gaol and Serge Ibaka the post-ups may be difficult against Toronto, but that would be an entertaining series.

Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (35-39, LW 22). Kemba Walker just will not let this team go away. He had 38 points against the Spurs Tuesday night, 11 of them in overtime, and was a one-man offensive force just when the Hornets needed it. Charlotte is going to need a lot more of the Kemba show down the stretch. The Hornets are 1.5 games out of the playoffs and have their next four games (and 6 of the 8 remaining) on the road. Plus there are five current playoff teams in that eight. If Charlotte can find enough wins, the final game of the season against Orlando could be interesting.

20. Timberwolves (33-41, LW 19). It looks like Ryan Saunders is going to keep the head coaching job, in part because he is getting credit for unleashing Karl-Anthony Towns. (KAT is playing so well he is in line to make third team All-NBA, which would mean a $32 million bump in his contract extension with Minny.) The real question is who will be he next GM and how can they upgrade around Towns on a roster that Thibodeau bogged down with expensive veterans and the max contract/anchor that is Andrew Wiggins.

Lakers small icon 21. Lakers (33-41, LW 24). While the Lakers play out the string, talk in Los Angeles has moved on to “Who is next?” As in, who is taking over for Luke Walton after they let him go? While the Lakers eyed big names, Doc Rivers is staying at his end of the Staples Center hallway and Rick Carlisle likes working for Mark Cuban. While Mark Jackson’s name comes up, the smart money is on Tyronn Lue — a former Laker player and someone respected by LeBron James — getting the job.

Pelicans small icon 22. Pelicans (31-45, LW 20). Now Jrue Holiday has been out since March 7 and now has undergone surgery to repair a “core muscle injury” (what used to be called a sports hernia). Just for fun, here are Anthony Davis’ numbers since the All-Star break (when his minutes got cut following his trade request): 16.9 points per game with an impressive 60.8 true shooting percentage, 8.4 rebounds a game and a +11 net rating in 21.1 minutes a night.

Grizzlies small icon 23. Grizzlies (30-44, LW 23). Jonas Valanciunas has been an interesting fit in Memphis, essentially stepping into the role of Marc Gaol after the Toronto trade. He has averaged 19.3 points and 10.2 rebounds a game, but he doesn’t seem to have the same chemistry with Mike Conley (the pair have a -4.7 net rating together in 270 minutes shared on the court). Remember, JV has a $17.6 million player option this summer, he may look at the market and decide to take the bird in the hand and opt-in for another season.

Wizards small icon 24. Wizards (30-45, LW 21). Interesting situation brewing with Bradley Beal: He leads the league in total minutes played with 2,823 (181 more than second place James Harden… that’s a lot) and with the team just playing out the string it would make sense to scale back and ease up on the team’s best player. However, if Beal can make an All-NBA team — and he is seriously in the mix for third team, talking to voters — then this summer he qualifies for a supermax extension of an estimated $199 million over four years (added on to the two years that would remain on his contract, locking him up for six seasons). The Wizards already maxed out John Wall, does Ted Leonsis have the stomach to do it with Beal, too?

Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (27-48, LW 25). How hot is Trae Young? He has four straight games now with at least 20 points and 10 assists (that includes dropping 33 and 12 on the Pelicans Tuesday night. Four other players have had a streak of at least three 20-10 games this season: James Harden (twice), LeBron James, D'Angelo Russell, Russell Westbrook (twice). That’s some select company.

Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (29-45, LW 26). Luka Doncic has had back-to-back triple doubles and that gives him seven on the season. Here’s the list of other players who had that many triple-doubles their rookie season: Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Ben Simmons. Impressive company to keep. As hot as Trae Young has been to finish the season, Doncic’s consistency since Day 1 will win him Rookie of the Year.

Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (21-54, LW 27). The Bulls showed what an entertaining team they could be, but with Wendell Carter Jr. already shut down for the season and both Zach LaVine and Otto Porter Jr. battling nagging injuries, the spark is gone. The Bulls would be wise not to risk anything and either shut those other two guys down as well, or at least scale them way back. Next season should be interesting in Chicago, with Lauri Markkanen ready to go from the start (hopefully coach Jim Boylen will let up on the reins and let this team put up more threes).

Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (19-56, LW 29). It’s about the bright spots for Cleveland going forward, and Collin Sexton has proven to be one of those in recent weeks. He is averaging 24.6 points per game and shooting 50.8% from three on 6.3 attempts per game in his last 10 games. Cleveland is still just 3-7 in those games, but heading into the draft there is reason for hope going forward (plus maybe Kevin Love will be healthy next season).

Suns small icon 29. Suns (17-58, LW 28). Devin Booker put up 59 the other night in a loss, with the Suns fouling late to get the ball back so he could take a three and get to 60, and the Jazz countering by fouling him when he touched the ball so he couldn’t take a three. While Zion Williamson is the obvious prize of this draft, if the Suns land in the No. 2 spot and can get Ja Morant, that seems a good fit.

Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (14-60, LW 30). If this were the old lottery system, the Knicks heavy tanking in recent weeks to secure the worst record in the NBA would have been smart with Zion Williamson hanging out there. As it is the Knicks have a 14% chance of the top pick and a 27.4 percent chance of drafting in the top two. The Knicks continue to project confidence about free agency this July, we will see if that is justified.

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

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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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