In what has been a disappointing rookie class so far, Charlotte appears to have a steal drafting P.J. Washington at No. 12. The power forward out of Kentucky has started every game for the Hornets this season and is loving the spacing in the NBA game, scoring efficiently in the paint while shooting 40.6 percent from beyond the arc on 3.4 attempts per game, plus is averaging 5.3 rebounds a game.
Now the Hornets are going to be without him, likely for a couple of weeks, due to a fractured fifth finger on his right hand (pinkie). He suffered it in the fourth quarter against Chicago Friday night.
While the Hornets officially only list him as out for Sunday against the Pacers, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reports he’s going to be out through Christmas, which would mean at least five games.
Usually this would mean more minutes for Marvin Williams, but he is out with a sore right knee. Most likely, coach James Borego slides an undersized Miles Bridges over to the four — which had been the preseason plan until Washington surprised everyone — but he has a variety of small-ball players who likely will get a little run there.
The 12-16 Hornets are hanging around the playoff picture, just 1.5 games out of the eight seed (Orlando).
NBA Power Rankings: Philadelphia’s length, defense, has it looking down at league
It’s early in the NBA season and that means not only means the NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings are back, but there will be huge swings the first few weeks. We’re learning who is better than we thought, who is worse, and then there are the teams just on a hot (or cold) streak. Here are the rankings after a week of the NBA season, but expect big shifts the first few weeks.
1. 76ers (3-0, Last week No. 3). Size and defense are winning out for Philadelphia early on. Their size wore down Boston on opening night, and the combination of Josh Richardson and impressive rookie Matisse Thybulle ground down and smothered Trae Young. Questions about where the shooting will come from on this team still exist — they take an average number of threes but are hitting just 32 percent so far — but a defense allowing less than a point per game is getting them wins.
2. Clippers (2-1, LW 7).Kawhi Leonard is dishing the ball like never before — he is averaging 7.5 assists per game, when he had never been above 3.5 per game before. Or, look at it this way: He is assisting on (an estimated) 47.6% of teammates buckets when he is on the floor, when he has never been above 19% in any previous season. The Clippers have impressed to start the season with an insanely efficient offense, but their defense has not been good (25th in the league on Cleaning The Glass, which eliminates garbage time). If that doesn’t improve it will catch up with them.
3. Bucks (2-1, LW 1).Giannis Antetokounmpo fouling out of his first two games was a surprise, but the Greek Freak is still putting up monster numbers — 24.3 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 9 assists per game — and he’s still making game-saving plays like against Miami. The Bucks defense has been pedestrian so far this young season, but expect that to turn around.
4. Timberwolves (3-0, LW 18).Karl-Anthony Towns is locked in, seems to have taken another leap forward this season, and has put up monster numbers — 32 points, 13.3 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 blocks per game so far. He’s been incredibly efficient and much more active on defense. Andrew Wiggins has looked much better… in the fourth quarter. Only. He’s shooting 33 percent in the first half, but has averaged 7.7 points per game on 57.1% shooting (inlacing 57% from three) in the fourth quarter. The NBA doesn’t really have a closer out of the bullpen role, but Wiggins is trying.
5. Jazz (3-1, LW 4). Their offense has been clunky this season, not always getting open looks and guys missing open shots when they do come. Only one game has seen Utah score more than a point per possession (Sacramento) but thanks to an elite defense keeping opponents at below a point per possession also they are 3-1. Internally, they expect the offense to turn around as guys just get more familiar and comfortable with each other. Mike Conley isn’t going to shoot 20% overall and 15% from three all season.
6. Lakers (3-1, LW 6). So far this season Anthony Davis has spent three quarters (74% officially) of his time at the power forward spot and one quarter (26%) of the time at center. AD at the five worked well against Utah, which drops Rudy Gobert back in the paint and the Lakers needed to draw him out. Wherever he plays he’s putting up numbers, including a historic 40 points and 20 rebounds in just three quarters against Memphis.
7. Spurs (3-0, LW 13). Before an injury robbed him of last season, the Spurs were quietly preaching the improvement in DeJonte Murray’s jump shot. The jumper is a work in progress but Murray is scoring — he is shooting 54.5% from the floor this season (up from 44.3 the last time he played), and his True Shooting Percentage is at an impressive 60.2 percent. Mostly, he’s getting to the rim more and finishing there at a high rate (84.2%, that will come back to earth). The Spurs are undefeated, and while the wins over the Knicks and Wizards are not going to turn heads, beating the Trail Blazers in Portland is impressive.
8. Heat (3-1, LW 15).Kendrick Nunn for Rookie of the Year? Don’t laugh. The undrafted, unheralded two guard is averaging 21 points a game, shooting 44 percent from three, and has played his way into the starting lineup in front of Goran Dragic. It’s a long season, but the undrafted rookie has impressed early and may be another steal for the Heat scouting staff. They went 2-1 in three games without Jimmy Butler (out for the birth of his child) and one of those wins was in overtime against Milwaukee. Butler returned and the Heat knocked off the Hawks.
9. Celtics (2-1, LW 8). The Celtics have two interesting big man prospects — “Time Lord” Robert Williams and Tacko Fall — and both have gotten a little NBA run. The Celtics offense takes a big leap forward when Williams is in the game, but he just makes too many mistakes, particularly on defense (chasing blocks he shouldn’t, for example). Both just need time on the court and should probably get it with the Maine Red Claws. As for the rest of the roster, after looking overmatched on opening night in Philly, the Celtics picked up a good win in Toronto and an expected one against New York. Wednesday night is a good test against Milwaukee.
10. Mavericks (3-1, LW 14).Luka Doncic is putting up numbers — 25 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 6.8 assists a game — and Kristaps Porzingis is right with him, scoring 22.3 a night with 7.8 boards. However, when they have been on the court together this season the Mavericks have been outscored by 1.9 points per 100 possessions, with the offense being the weak link. Don’t expect that to last. Rick Carlise is clearly still toying with lineups, trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
11. Nuggets (3-1, LW 2). Two of their wins came despite them trailing by double digits, and they gutted out a win in Phoenix despite Michael Beasley’s horrible foul of Ricky Rubio on a half court heave. They came back to earth a little against Dallas Tuesday, but Denver seems on track for a high seed again (despite the slip in these rankings). Denver has really missed Jamal Murray when he sits, the offense has scored less than a point per possession and the team gets outscored by 2.4 per 100.
12. Raptors (3-1, LW 9). When Pascal Siakam got a max extension, there were those questioning if he really would grow into that contract and be worth it. So far, yes. Through four games he’s averaging 27.5 points per game, shooting 42.9% from three, and has a team best PER because he’s so efficient. The other guy standing out in Toronto: Fred Van Vleet, who is scoring 18 points a game and shooing 40.7% from three. He’s going to be one of the biggest name free agents next July and he’s going to see a lot of zeros after the first number on his check.
13. Rockets (2-1, LW 5).Russell Westbrook and James Harden have found a balance on offense already, and the Rockets have an impressive 109.3 offensive rating so far. However, Houston is simply not consistent defensively and that is going to catch up with them at some point, likely in the postseason (and against elite teams in the league). During the regular season, the combination of Harden and Westbrook should be able to cover up the D with energy and scoring. That theory will be put to a better test as they head out on a four game road trip.
14. Suns (2-2, LW 25). The fourth best net rating in the NBA? A defense that gives up less than a point per possession? Devin Booker hustling and making plays on defense? The Phoenix Suns are arguably the biggest surprise in the NBA to start the season and Monte Williams deserves a lot of credit for coaching this team up. They’ve had a tough schedule to start the season, and they have had to do most of this without the suspended Deandre Ayton, which makes it all seem sustainable. The Suns look legitimate.
15. Hawks (2-2, LW 24). Trae Young is out for at least a couple of weeks, and that is bad news for Atlanta — the Hawks are 22.5 points per 100 possessions better this season when Young is on the court. Or, put in raw numbers, Atlanta is +28 when Young has been on the court this season and -24 when he has sat. Atlanta’s backup point guard was supposed to be Evan Turner but he is out injured (left Achilles pain), which means just-claimed-off-waiver Tyrone Wallace has a lot on his shoulders.
16. Trail Blazers (2-2, LW 11). This ranking may be a little low because no team has a tougher schedule to start the season than Portland — six of their first eight on the road, and the two home games are the Nuggets and Sixers. Going against those good teams has had Portland taking fewer threes than a season ago and making fewer (33.3% so far this season), something that’s going to need to improve if they want to climb back up the standings.
17. Thunder (1-3, LW 23). Oklahoma City has kept games close because of an impressive defense holding teams down to less than a point per possession this young season. The offense showed up against Golden State in that beatdown, and they put up points against Houston, but buckets have not come easily to OKC. The standout has been Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is averaging 23.8 points per game, both getting to the rim and knocking down his threes. Danilo Gallinari is playing well enough to make other teams covet him in a trade.
18. Wizards (1-2, LW 26).Isaiah Thomas is back and getting his chance, playing almost 20 minutes against the Spurs and scoring 16 points on 6-of-14 shooting, including 4-of-10 from three. The biggest positive for Washington’s future may be a solid start to the season buy rookie Rui Hachimura, who is averaging 16.3 points a night on 46.9% shooting. He’s not hitting threes yet, he doesn’t get to the line enough, but the rookie has potential.
19. Nets (1-2, LW 12). Whatever the Nets think of Kyrie Irving’s mood swings and attitude, the guy is carrying their offense — 37.7 points per game with a ridiculous 61.6 true shooting percentage. The Nets know what they have — that’s why they gave away mock Irving jerseys to fans the night the Nets took on the Knicks. That’s some quality trolling of Knicks fans (who, of course, showed up at the Barclay’s Centre to boo Irving for not wanting to play for James Dolan).
20. Pistons (0-0, LW 20). Considering Blake Griffin remains sidelined to start the season, the fact the Pistons have a middle-of-the-pack offense is a positive sign. Andre Drummond has been in “pay me my money mode” heading into free agency averaging 21 points and 16.3 rebounds a game, but the surprise is an efficient Derrick Rose giving them 21.5 points a game off the bench.
21. Bulls (1-3, LW 22). Chicago has struggled with the three-ball this season, attempting almost 36 a game but hitting just 27.5 percent of them. Thaddeus Young has been good from deep (43.8%) and Zach LaVine respectable (34.8%) but Otto Porter (21.1%) and especially Lauri Markkanen (18.2% on 6.8 attempts a game) have to get those shots to fall. Or stop taking them. Games against Cleveland, Detroit, and Indiana give the Bulls a chance to right the ship this week
22. Magic (1-2, LW 19).Markelle Fultz is playing well in his sixth man role, averaging 12.3 points a game and not shying away from the three ball when it’s open (4.3 attempts per game, hitting 23.1%). Paired with Al-Farouq Aminu and Mo Bamba, the trio has given Orlando a solid bench that Steve Clifford can trust.
23. Cavaliers (1-2, LW 29). He may just be playing his way into a trade, but Tristan Thompson has started the season strongly averaging 19.3 points and 12.3 rebounds a game this season while shooting 60% overall. He even drained a three. Collin Sexton has looked improved and solid this season, but the Sexton/Darius Garland backcourt has a ways to go (the Cavs have a net rating of -11 when those two have share the floor this season, with the offense in particular sputtering.
24. Warriors (1-2, LW 10). Oh, how the mighty have fallen. The Warriors’ offense has been good enough, actually, top 10 in the league so far. The defense is dead last — that is where games are lost. Some of that is bad luck (teams are shooting 43.2 percent from three against them, that will come back to earth a little) but it’s mostly not having a real defensive rim protector or good wing defenders. Draymond Green’s value as a switching defender onto bigs is only effective if you’re trying to get away from the original defender, teams aren’t really intimidated by the Warriors’ defensively.
25. Knicks (1-3, LW 27). After stumbling through Summer League, RJ Barrett has come out and found a groove to start the season averaging 20.5 points per game, shooting 50% from the floor (and 46.7% from three), and pulling down 7.5 rebounds a game. He’s one of the guys (along with Ja Morant and Kendrick Nunn) stepping forward early and showing that Zion Williamson cannot just return and waltz to the Rookie of the Year award.
26. Pelicans (0-4, LW 21). It was a good week for Brandon Ingram. First, other potential free agent targets next summer signed extensions with their teams (Jaylen Brown, Bradley Beal, Kyle Lowry, etc.) making him one of the biggest names in the class. Then he has gone out and looked like a guy who deserves to get paid, averaging 27.3 points and 9.5 rebounds a night. A few teams — the Knicks, Hawks, Hornets and others — will have cap space to spend next summer and may see Ingram as the kind of versatile scorer on the wing they could use.
27. Pacers (0-3, LW 16). Without Victor Oladipo it was right to expect some stumbles out of the gate in Indiana, but this has been ugly — a bottom 10 offense and defense with losses to Detroit and Cleveland. Against the Pistons, Drummond pushed around Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, which was concerning. What should really be concerning is this is the soft part of the Pacers schedule, it gets much tougher in a little over a week. Indiana needs to stockpile a few wins before things get harder.
28. Grizzlies (1-3, LW 28). This team is fun to watch, an early League Pass favorite, and that starts with rookie Ja Morant. He is averaging 17.5 points a game, dishing out five assists, shooting 42% from three and even blocking Kyrie Irving’s shot with the game on the line. His athletic and skill are on display and are must watch. Even if they aren’t going to win a lot (and are likely to trade away some veterans once we get closer to the trade deadline).
29. Hornets (1-3, LW 30).Terry Rozier came to Charlotte because he wanted the ball in his hands and a chance to show what he can do and… meh. So far i.e. is averaging 13.5 points per game, 5.5 assists a night, with a PER of 12.2. If you’re looking for a bright side, coach James Borego is getting young stars PJ Washington, Dwayne Bacon, Miles Bridges and Devonte' Graham good run, and each of them is showing some thing in flashes.
30. Kings (0-4, LW 17). The “what happened to these guys?” surprise to start the season. Everyone’s League-Pass favorite last season is playing at a bottom 10 pace, in part because they have to keep taking the ball out from under the basket because of their league-worst defense (once you remove garbage time, like at Cleaning The Glass… leave in garbage time and they’re second worst). Sacramento has lost its games by an average of 19.5 points per game. Fans in Sactown want to see Richaun Holmes start over Dewayne Dedmon, and he’s probably earned that.
Charlotte GM Mitch Kupchak: Hornets won’t build through free agency
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Mitch Kupchak doesn’t see the Charlotte Hornets being major players in free agency as they attempt to build a winning franchise in the post-Kemba Walker era – at least not right away.
Instead, the second-year general manager said Monday he anticipates the Hornets will construct the roster through draft picks and “savvy trades” during the season, while compiling as many assets as possible.
“We will not be an active player” in free agency, Kupchak said. “I think we can build a culture here and get enough assets and have a promising enough future and really attract the kind of free agent you want to spend that kind of money on – but I don’t think you can do it right now.”
So in the meantime, the Hornets will give young players like Dwayne Bacon, Miles Bridges, Malik Monk, Devonte Graham and even rookie PJ Washington extensive playing time this season as part of their No. 1 overall goal of player development after going 39-43 last season and losing Walker, a three-time All-Star, to the Boston Celtics.
Kupchak said that will take patience, but he and owner Michael Jordan and coach James Borrego are on the same page.
Kupchak said he won’t measure this season’s success in terms of wins and losses, but rather on how the team’s younger players continue to progress.
“Win or lose, I want our players to play with energy and our coaches to coach with energy,” Kupchak said. “As the season goes on I want to see improvement. That’s how I’m looking at the season.”
Kupchak said that concept may not be easy for Borrego.
“I am hoping he is better than he was last season,” Kupchak said with a grin. “At the beginning of the season last year he took each loss really, really hard. Hopefully this year he will be able to handle the losses a little bit better.”
Borrego has yet to name a starting lineup for Wednesday night’s home opener against the Chicago Bulls. Point guard Terry Rozier and center Cody Zeller are locks to start, but the combination of the other three remains a mystery.
That lineup could include Washington, who has impressed Kupchak with his 3-point shooting in the preseason since being selected No. 12 overall earlier this year.
Originally, the Hornets planned for the former Kentucky forward to split time between Charlotte’s G League team and the NBA to gain maximum playing experience. But Kupchak said Washington has been the team’s most impressive young player during the preseason and will likely remain in Charlotte, provided he’s seeing 15-plus minutes per game.
“He does have to play, and, based on his production of late, he will play,” Kupchak said. “… He has worked on his game and has turned himself into not only a big man that can be productive down in the paint, but in our game today he can also make 3s.”
Win or lose, Kupchak expects the Hornets to use a “fast-paced style of play.”
First five picks of 2018 NBA draft make All-Rookie first team
This is only the second time the top five picks all made the ensuing All-Rookie first team. The other: 1984-85, when the top five picks were:
1. Rockets: Hakeem Olajuwon
2. Trail Blazers: Sam Bowie
3. Bulls: Michael Jordan
4. Mavericks: Sam Perkins
5. 76ers: Charles Barkley
I don’t think voters erred by favoring bigger-name players this year. I had the same first-team picks.
My only quibble: I would’ve put Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson on the second team over Kevin Huerter and Collin Sexton. Sexton made incredible strides during the season, but focusing on that obscures his awful start in what I think should be a full-season assessment. His box plus-minus (-5.2) is the worst ever for an All-Rookie teamer since Adam Morrison in 2007 (-5.5).
But if Sexton continues on the track he showed within the season, nobody will view him as another bust.
This is an impressive rookie class, led by Doncic. This will be the first of many honors for several of these players.
NBA Power Rankings: Greek Freak knocking down threes helps Bucks back to top spot
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is how many points better/worse the Lakers are per 100 possessions when a player is on the floor this season. (min. 500 minutes played)
LeBron = +7.4 Chandler = +5.6 Hart = +4.7 Zu = +3.0 Zo = +1.3 Kuz = +1.2 BI = +0.2 KCP = -4.1 Rondo = -4.5 McGee = -4.9 Lance = -6.2
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.