Getty Images

NBA Power Rankings: It’s Golden State’s world and we just live in it

2 Comments

The Warriors are running away with the West and the NBA, and that includes knocking off one of their big threats from the East in Boston last week. The playoffs between the top four in the East may be more interesting than what happens in the West this postseason.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (36-14, last week No. 1). The Warriors with DeMarcus Cousins are as good as you thought they would be (and as good as the rest of the league feared). The five-man starting lineup with Cousins has been +37.4 per 100 possessions through its first four games, allowing less than a point per possession on defense and scoring at a 128 per 100 pace. The Warriors are winners of 11 in a row, including a 5-0 road trip with DeMarcus Cousins starting every game at center. That has the Warriors with the best record in the West, if it’s that way on Feb. 3 Steve Kerr will coach the All-Star Game for the third time.

Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (36-13, LW 2). Giannis Antetokounmpo has played 24% of his minutes this season at center, and that lineup can be very effective — against the Hornets the Greek Freak got put in at the five for the fourth and outscored Charlotte 14-12 by himself, leading a come-from-behind win. The Bucks are reportedly putting their big toe in and testing the Anthony Davis trade waters, but it’s hard to picture them pulling it off it because any deal would gut the depth of this team and leave them with two stars, not enough shooting and little else. By the way, Antetokounmpo can still do this to teams.

Nuggets small icon 3. Nuggets (34-15, LW 4). The Nuggets have won three in a row, but the impressive part is they got one without Nikola Jokic (a letter-of-the-law suspension for leaving the bench during a fight) and the last two without Jamal Murray (left ankle). It fits the pattern. All season this team has had to adjust due to injuries, and all season Denver has just kept on winning with the next guy stepping up. It speaks to the coaching of and depth of this roster. Jokic will get an All-Star nod this week, it’s well deserved. Monday’s win in Memphis was the first of 6-of-7 on the road.

Raptors small icon 4. Raptors (37-15, LW 3). Toronto went 3-1 resting Kawhi Leonard for four games, but his return against Houston was not enough to slow James Harden or stop the Rockets from winning. Resting Leonard may hurt the Raptors on the court short-term, but the long-term goal is to win Leonard over so he re-signs and showing him they put his health and welfare first is a big step in that direction. Fun showdown Thursday night against the Bucks.

Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (31-19, LW 7). Celtics fans and brass will be sitting on pins and needles for the next 8 days until the trade deadline passes — once it does they move into the driver’s seat to land Anthony Davis. Until then they can just beg the Pelicans to wait and watch the Lakers. Recently, Boston has looked like the team we expected, a team that will challenge for a trip to the Finals out of the East, and they’ve done it with Kyrie Irving running the show late in games. The problem with a one-man attack late in games was exposed against Golden State — they put the clamps down on Irving and nobody else was able to step up. That could be an issue in the postseason.

Sixers small icon 6. 76ers (33-18, LW 5). Philly went 2-1 while Jimmy Butler was sidelined with a wrist injury, but he returned Tuesday in a victory against the Lakers (which means Butler will be ready to go Thursday night in Golden State). Butler also returned with a new “smoking” celebration. The Sixers keep coming up on the fringes of the Anthony Davis trade talks, but the only deal that really works sends Ben Simmons and filler (Markelle Fultz?) to the Pelicans, and Simmons is a client of Rich Paul’s (Davis’ and LeBron’s agent) and the fierce pushback from Paul makes that trade unlikely (he would push AD not to re-sign with Sixers).

Thunder small icon 7. Thunder (32-18, LW 8). Winners of six in a row, and while Russell Westbrook’s triple-doubles (four straight games) and Paul George’s MVP-level play get the bulk of the attention, something else is going on: The Thunder have become a good shooting team. For the first 40 games of the season, the Thunder shot 32.3% from three as a team (bottom 10 in the league), but in the last 10 games they are shooing 42.9 percent. Those shots falling off kick-outs or other actions opens up everything else because defenders have to contest. The Thunder need to keep it up as OKC has the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA (based on opponent win percentage).

Blazers small icon 8. Trail Blazers (31-20, LW 9). Damian Lillard is a lock to be named as a reserve to the All-Star team this Thursday. While he has had another phenomenal season and is the clear leader on this team, the other reason the Blazers have won 5-of-6 is the role players stepping up: Jusuf Nurkic, Jake Layman and Seth Curry in particular. Don’t expect Portland to get in on the Anthony Davis sweepstakes, but also don’t be shocked if they make a small move at the deadline to add some depth.

Jazz small icon 9. Jazz (29-22, LW 11). Just six weeks ago the question was “what’s wrong with the Jazz?” as they were in 14th place in the West, with just an okay defense and a struggling offense. That seems like another lifetime ago. The Jazz have won 9-of-10, have a +9.1 net rating in those games, their defense is back to being elite led by Rudy Gobert (second best in the NBA in the last 10) and Donovan Mitchell has his groove back. Utah is the seven seed in the West as you read this, but they are just two games back of having home court in the first round, and the Jazz have the second easiest schedule in the league the rest of the way.

Rockets small icon 10. Rockets (29-21, LW 10). Chris Paul is back but he doesn’t change the underlying problem: Houston is 6-4 in its last 10 games with James Harden carrying the offense to a top 10 ranking in that time, but the defense can’t get a stop so those efforts go to waste. Tuesday night was a perfect example, Harden had 37 points (his 24th straight 30-plus point game) but the Rockets could not stop the Pelicans’ Jahlil Okafor, who had 27 points and grabbed 12 boards, so the AD-less Pelicans won. That’s an ugly loss. The Rockets are a playoff team but that’s it right now.

Spurs small icon 11. Spurs (30-22, LW 12).
Will LaMarcus Aldridge make the All-Star team? He’s got a great case averaging 21.1 points and 8.8 rebounds, leading the Spurs into a playoff position, but the West is so ridiculously deep with talent he is on the bubble. The Spurs have won three in a row as they move through a soft part of the schedule, which continues this week. That doesn’t mean all the wins are easy, Gregg Popovich was livid at his team for the way they came out against Phoenix, but Rudy Gay bailed them out.

Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (32-17, LW 6). Victor Oladipo is lost for the season with a torn quadriceps tendon, and that’s a huge punch to the gut. The Pacers have gone 0-2 without him (and now head out on the road for their next four). This team is not going to fall out of the playoffs in the East, if they go just 10-23 the rest of the way they are above .500 for the season, but the team struggles to score without Oladipo and they are no longer a threat in the playoffs. Which is unfortunate, this was a team everyone wanted to avoid in the postseason before because of their balance and defense.

Nets small icon 13. Nets (28-24, LW 13). The loss of Spencer Dinwiddie to a thumb injury for 4-6 weeks is a blow, he’s in the Most Improved Player conversation for good reason and their bench will not be the same without him. That said, D’Angelo Russell is playing the best basketball of his career the last month and will take on more responsibility as the starter and this is why Shabazz Napier is on the roster. Tough season for the Nets losing Caris LeVert and now Dinwiddie, but this team keeps plugging guys in and winning.

Clippers small icon 14. Clippers (28-23, LW 14). Will Tobias Harris make the cut for the All-Star reserves? He is right on the bubble despite averaging 21.2 points, 7.9 rebounds, and shooting 43.3% from three this season because the West is so stacked with talent. He deserves it, but his reward will come this summer when he’s a free agent and gets paid. The Clippers had won 4-of-5, much of that on a tough road trip, but a sloppy loss Sunday to the Hawks is the kind of game L.A. will look back on and regret if they miss the playoffs.

Heat small icon 15. Heat (24-24, LW 17). The Heat get mentioned in the fringes of the Anthony Davis trade talks, but if they end up in it — before the deadline or in July — it will be as a third team in a big deal. Which is to say it’s unlikely, but the rumors will not stop. Miami picked up a couple of road wins in Cleveland and New York this week — the kind of games playoff teams should win — and now are home for a week before heading back out on the road. Miami needs to rack up wins as it has the second-toughest remaining schedule in the East

Lakers small icon 16. Lakers (26-25, LW 15). The Lakers are 6-11 without LeBron James, who is expected to return Thursday against the Clippers, which is just in time for one of the toughest stretches of the schedule for the Lakers. But nobody wants to talk about any of that. The Lakers are pushing hard to force an Anthony Davis trade before the deadline — before Boston can get involved — and the offer reportedly would involve Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, a first-round pick and more. Sources have told me the Pelicans will be patient making this move (meaning after the Feb. 7 deadline) but the Lakers and Rich Paul are going to do everything they can to force a move now.

Hornets small icon 17. Hornets (24-25, LW 21). Kemba Walker gets to start in the All-Star Game in his city of Charlotte — that is huge for him and the organization. The Hornets are holding on to the eight seed in the East, they have a three-game lead over the Pistons, but they need to keep finding wins. Which is why the loss to the Bucks — when Milwaukee went small with Antetokounmpo at the five and outscored Charlotte 35-12 — sting. Stealing wins against good teams will be a huge boost for Charlotte in a playoff push.

Kings small icon 18. Kings (25-25, LW 16). The Kings will have Buddy Hield and De’Aaron Fox in the rising stars challenge and taking part in events All-Star Saturday night, but if the Kings were in the East both of those guys would have a good argument to make the All-Star Game itself. In the West, sorry, but the conference is just too deep. Sacramento is home for its next six and needs to rack up wins to make a playoff push (they are 2.5 games back of the Clippers right now).

19. Timberwolves (24-26, LW 18). Karl-Anthony Towns will make the All-Star team reserves announced Thursday, and that’s well deserved (although his slow start to the season may keep him off the All-NBA squad). Minnesota has gone 7-6 without Robert Covington, sporting a middle-of-the-pack defense without their best defender. He’s riding a stationary bike now and his return could help the defense and spark a push to the playoffs by the timberwolves.

Mavericks small icon 20. Mavericks (22-27, LW 22). Luka Doncic will be in the All-Star Friday Rising Stars game, then on Saturday in the skills competition, but will the coaches vote him in as a reserve for Sunday’s All-Star Game itself? While the fans had Doncic second in the voting (ahead of Paul George and Anthony Davis) it’s unlikely the coaches will put him quite on that pedestal.

Pelicans small icon 21. Pelicans (23-28, LW 19). Anthony Davis wants out, and while the team makes its trade decision — sources told me they will not be rushed to make, meaning it will likely drag out past the trade deadline and likely until the June draft or July — there is another question: Do the Pelicans bring him back and play him this season? They are not making the playoffs this year and are about to start a rebuild, I would say no — send him home, trade guys like Nikola Mirotic if there’s a good deal, and improve their draft position. There’s no reason to invite the circus to town whenever he plays a home game and gets booed.

Wizards small icon 22. Wizards (21-29, LW 20). The Wizards were telling teams very recently that they were not sellers — no Bradley Beal or Trevor Ariza trades — because they were making a playoff push. Does the loss to Cleveland Tuesday, dropping them 3.5 games back of the playoffs, change that equation? Washington is 8-7 without John Wall sporting a +1.8 net rating in those 15 games, basically treading water but not making up ground either. If they become a seller teams will be interested in Ariza and Otto Porter (there’s interest in Beal, too, but Washington isn’t moving him).

Pistons small icon 23. Pistons (21-28, 23). Rarely has one gif, one moment from a postgame interview summed up a team’s season so well. The Pistons are not making a playoff push, they are falling back in the East, and after the one win in those five — an ugly win against the Pelicans — Blake Griffin was talking about the team’s lack of focus, when Reggie Jackson proved his point.

Magic small icon 24. Magic (20-31, LW 24). Will Orlando be trade deadline sellers? The team has lost four in a row, 7-of-8, and is five games out of the playoffs — they are not going to make a run and get in. There’s a lot of interest around the league in Terrence Ross and there may even be a taker for Nikola Vucevic (although he is a tougher fit, a good player but one who needs to been the right system to be effective). The Magic had been holding off, thinking playoff push, but the smart move now would become sellers while giving their young players even more run.

Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (16-33, LW 25). Trae Young got buried by the narrative at the start of the season — he couldn’t buy a shot while Luka Doncic looked like the savior in Dallas — but of late Young has started to show a more rounded game. In his last 15 games, he’s shooting 34.8% from three (although he is still inconsistent) and in his last 10 has averaged 20.2 points and 7.1 assists a game. The Hawks almost certainly will be sellers at the trade deadline, with Jeremy Lin and Kent Bazemore at the top of the list of available players.

Grizzlies small icon 26. Grizzlies (20-31, LW 26). Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, the anchors of this franchise seemingly since the Carter administration, are available via trade. It’s the end of an era… eventually. It’s not going to be easy to trade the big salary and diminishing skills of Gasol at the deadline. There’s a lot of interest around the league for Mike Conley, but he’s making $30.5 million this season and has $67 million essentially guaranteed the following two seasons. It takes a lot of players to balance out the salaries, which is why trades that large usually are completed in the offseason.

Suns small icon 27. Suns (11-42, LW 27). Devin Booker has All-Star numbers — 24.8 points, 6.7 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game — but being the best player on the worst team in the West is not going to get him an invite to Charlotte. Don’t tell anyone, but Dragan Bender has had a few good games in a row, the question is can he start to do that consistently.

Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (11-41, LW 30). Break up the Cavaliers, they have won two in a row, beating the Bulls and Wizards. The Cavaliers will try to be sellers at the deadline — J.R. Smith has been available in the bargain bin for months — with the most likely to be moved being Rodney Hood, followed at a distance by Tristan Thompson. A trade for Kevin Love will have to wait until the off-season (at best) because of his injury (and even then it will be hard, he has one of the hardest-to-move contracts in the league).

Bulls small icon 29. Bulls (11-40, LW 29). There has been talk about them trying to bring Anthony Davis home to Chicago via trade, but it makes no sense. Any deal for AD would have to include Wendell Carter Jr., Lauri Markkanen, and anyone else the Pelicans wanted off the roster. Even if the trade happened, this would be a gutted Bulls roster leaving Davis to take on the world alone, and we’ve seen in New Orleans how much he likes that scenario. Then AD would leave as a free agent and the Bulls would be back to square one. Chicago just needs to keep building and save their moves for another day.

Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (10-39, LW 28). With the Knicks having lost 10 in a row, time to give their beleaguered fans a stat they care about (via Tom Haberstroh of NBC Sports): In ACC conference play, Zion Williamson is scoring 25 points a game on 71.8 percent shooting. That is insane. Of course, it leads to a big question: If the Knicks did win the lottery and the rights to draft Williamson, would they try to trade it along with Kristaps Porzingis to land Anthony Davis? Should they? Should they if Kevin Durant said he would come to play with AD?

ProBasketballTalks’ 2019 NBA All-Star selections

Getty Images
3 Comments

The NBA will announce All-Star starters tonight and All-Star reserves in a week.

But we’re not waiting.

Here are our picks, following the same format the league uses for starters (two guards and three frontcourt players per conference) and reserves (two guards, three frontcourt players and two wildcards per conference):

Eastern Conference

Starters

Pos. Kurt Helin Dan Feldman Dane Delgado
G Kyrie Irving Kyrie Irving Kyrie Irving
G Kyle Lowry Kyle Lowry Kemba Walker
FC Giannis Antetokounmpo Giannis Antetokounmpo Giannis Antetokounmpo
FC Kawhi Leonard Kawhi Leonard Kawhi Leonard
FC Joel Embiid Joel Embiid Joel Embiid

Reserves

Pos. Kurt Helin Dan Feldman Dane Delgado
G Bradley Beal Kemba Walker Kyle Lowry
G Kemba Walker Victor Oladipo Bradley Beal
FC Blake Griffin Jimmy Butler Jimmy Butler
FC Ben Simmons Blake Griffin Blake Griffin
FC Nikola Vucevic Khris Middleton Khris Middleton
WC Victor Oladipo Ben Simmons Victor Oladipo
WC Jimmy Butler Bradley Beal Pascal Siakam

Kurt Helin: I have left Victor Oladipo on even though he will not play in the game, he still deserves the recognition. After that, I’m trying to talk myself into guys (unlike the West). Some people will hold Jimmy Butler torpedoing the Timberwolves against him and keep him off (and the coaches who pick the reserves very well might), but I don’t have a problem with it. Kris Midleton, Pascal Siakam, Josh Richardson and others all can make a case, but I’ll stick with this group.

Dan Feldman: I choose All-Stars based on the best players right now. It’s not about who’s having the best season. That’s All-NBA. That said, among the many factors in determining which players are best, how they’re playing this season is usually the most important. With my criteria stated, let’s get to the picks.

Kyle Lowry over Kemba Walker was the only tough call in the East starting lineup. The other four were locks.

Bradley Beal worked his way into relatively easy inclusion with his strong play since John Wall went out. That left only the final reserve frontcourt spot as difficult. I ultimately picked Khris Middleton over Al Horford (still excellent some nights, but not enough), Nikola Vucevic (best season so far) and Andre Drummond (not fully realizing his talent).

Dane Delgado: With LeBron James in the West, the East is now just Giannis Antetokounmpo and a bunch of dudes whom fanbases will yell about not getting enough respect on Twitter. That is, until Kawhi Leonard re-ups in Toronto. In the meantime we have a lot of guys coming to the forefront with surprising seasons — Bradley Beal in the absence of John Wall, Pascal Siakam with a heavier minutes load, etc. The NBA is still a player-first league, and that’s perhaps most apparent when considering guys out East when it comes to All-Star voting. I’m just glad that means we get to vote for guys on teams like the Hornets, Bucks, and Pistons without anybody getting mad.

Western Conference

Starters

Pos. Kurt Helin Dan Feldman Dane Delgado
G Stephen Curry Stephen Curry James Harden
G James Harden James Harden Stephen Curry
FC LeBron James LeBron James Kevin Durant
FC Kevin Durant Kevin Durant Anthony Davis
FC Anthony Davis Anthony Davis Paul George

Reserves

Pos. Kurt Helin Dan Feldman Dane Delgado
G Damian Lillard Russell Westbrook Damian Lillard
G Russell Westbrook Damian Lillard Klay Thompson
FC Paul George Paul George LeBron James
FC Nikola Jokic Nikola Jokic Nikola Jokic
FC Karl-Anthony Towns Rudy Gobert Rudy Gobert
WC Rudy Gobert Karl-Anthony Towns Mike Conley
WC LaMarcus Aldridge Jrue Holiday Paul Millsap

Kurt Helin: This was a brutal process of exclusion — there are far more deserving players than can be fit on the team. Mike Conley, Tobias Harris or Danilo Gallinari from the Clippers, Klay Thompson, Donovan Mitchell, Buddy Hield, and others all could have gotten a slot. Also, these picks are a little heavy on big men, but these are the guys defining the conference and changing our perception of what a big can do. The fans wanted Luka Doncic on the team and if that happens I have no problem with it. It’s an exhibition for the fans, and he has been good.

Dan Feldman: Paul George and even Nikola Jokic make cases for having better seasons so far than LeBron James and Kevin Durant. But in my system? LeBron and Durant are still clearly better players. I’m just not that interested in parsing 40-some-game samples when we have far larger bodies of work, though, again, more recent games count for the most.

Most of the West bench filled in easily – until the final spot. I picked Jrue Holiday over a deep pool that included Mike Conley, Chris Paul, LaMarcus Aldridge, Klay Thompson, Tobias Harris, Danilo Gallinari, Marc Gasol, Robert Covington, De'Aaron Fox, DeMar DeRozan and Luka Doncic. Yes, that gives the 12th-place Pelicans two All-Stars. I don’t care. That’s the shape of their team. They have a superstar, another star, a couple solid players and some massive liabilities. All-Star is an individual honor, and Holiday (narrowly) deserves it. Lesser players on better teams will get their reward in the spring.

Dane Delgado: The West is once against a dogfight and no doubt we will end up with a couple of guys off the All-Star roster who deserve to be included. The standings heading toward the break don’t look exactly the way many of us figured, and perhaps the most glaring omission here is that of Russell Westbrook. The Thunder star has had the lowest VORP of his career despite leading the league in assist percentage. It seems harsh to leave a guy off the All-Star ballot just two seasons removed from an MVP, but here we are. Guys like Lillard, Thompson, and Conley are more deserving than Westbrook, who might just be the third-most important player on his own team.

How Spurs’ Bryn Forbes went from afterthought recruit to NBA starter

AP Images
2 Comments

Bryn Forbes‘ 2014 transfer from Cleveland State to Michigan State was well-covered in the media. Nearly every article on it explained Forbes’ reasoning: The Lansing, Mich., native wanted to be closer to his son, who was born the year prior, and his sister, who was suffering from what would be a fatal illness.

And those explanations weren’t wrong. Family was Forbes’ primary concern.

But he had another reason: He wanted to better prepare for the NBA.

Forbes kept that one close to the vest. After all, he was a 6-foot-3 scoring guard with unexceptional athleticism. He ranked third in his 2012 recruiting class… at Cleveland State. He didn’t even make the All-Horizon League first team.

“People would have thought I’m crazy,” Forbes said. “They honestly would have thought I’m crazy.”

But Forbes’ self-confidence paid off. He’s now the Spurs’ starting shooting guard, averaging 12.4 points per game on 43.6% 3-point shooting.

It’s incredible how far he has come in just a few years.

Forbes worked hard in East Lansing, developing into a college star. Not bad for someone the Spartans initially offered only a preferred-walk-on spot despite Forbes playing in their backyard with Michigan State commit Denzel Valentine (now with the Bulls) at Lansing Sexton High School. Still, Forbes looked like the archetypical good shooter without the size or athleticism to make the NBA.

Leading up to the 2016 draft, DraftExpress ranked the top shooters in the draft. Forbes’ name appeared once – to note why he wasn’t otherwise included:

Please note that this is not an exhaustive study including all of the best shooters in college basketball or even in the 2016 NBA Draft Class. The only players included in this subset are those deemed to “draftable” NBA prospects. Players like Max Hooper (6-6, SG, Oakland, 3.3 3s made per game, 46% 3P%), Max Landis (6-2, SG, IPFW, 3.8 3s made per game, 46% 3P%), Bryn Forbes (6-3, SG, Michigan State, 3.2 3s made per game, 48% 3P%) for example were excluded, amongst others.

Jonathan Givony’s projection wasn’t exactly wrong. Forbes went undrafted.

He signed a barely guaranteed contract with San Antonio and quickly impressed Spurs president-coach Gregg Popovich with his work ethic, coachability and 3-point shot. Against all odds, Forbes made San Antonio’s regular-season roster and earned an NBA salary.

Forbes still spent much of his first professional season with the Spurs’ minor-league affiliate playing point guard. He’s more of an off guard, but that time helped him develop his ball-handling and passing.

In his second season, Forbes became a rotation regular and spot-starter. He played 1,517 minutes on a 47-win team. After the season, he signed a two-year, $6 million deal with the Spurs.

Now, Forbes is one of just six full-time starters this season who went undrafted. The other five: Robert Covington, Joe Ingles, Wesley Matthews, Garrett Temple and Rodney McGruder.

“He’s carved out an NBA career,” Popovich said of Forbes.

Though Forbes has expanded his all-around game, that merely got other facets to tolerable levels. He remains a 3-point specialist, and his 43.6% 3-point percentage ranks 12th in the NBA:

image

Maybe Forbes wouldn’t be in this position if San Antonio didn’t suffer so many backcourt injuries this season. Dejounte Murray is missing the entire season. Lonnie Walker just got healthy. Derrick White was sidelined for the start of the year.

Forbes has considered similar “what ifs” in the past. What if he stayed at Cleveland State? Would he have had the platform to showcase himself for the NBA? Eventually, he decided not to dwell on that.

“I think, one way or another,” Forbes said, “I would have found a way.”

NBA Power Rankings: Toronto back on top as team to beat in East

Getty Images
4 Comments

Toronto is back on top after knocking off their closest Eastern Conference foes last weekend, but we keep waiting for some team to flip the switch and demand to be No. 1 in the rankings. The Warriors are disinterested, maybe the Rockets make that push if they keep winning? We shall see, we’re just halfway through the marathon NBA season.

 
Raptors small icon 1. Raptors (31-12, last week No. 3). The Raptors showed they are the team to beat in the East last weekend knocking off the Bucks and Pacers in back-to-back games. Even better news for the Raptors is Kyle Lowry returned to the lineup on Sunday. They had missed their All-Star point guard — since his injury the Raptors had gone 10-8 (he played in some of those games trying to come back but clearly wasn’t ready). Now the Raptors are healthy (except for Jonas Valanciunas, still out most of this month with a thumb injury) and have 5-of-7 at home in a soft part of the schedule to rack up some wins.

 
Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (28-11, LW 1). The Bucks’ offense has been on an absolute tear the last five games, scoring a ridiculous 122.1 per 100, led by a starting five that can’t seem to miss a shot. However, the defense in those same five has slipped out of the top 10 and it was an inability to get stops — or slow Pascal Siakam — that cost them against the Raptors. The next few weeks is the big test for these Bucks: They travel to Houston on Wednesday night and that starts 5-of-6 and 11-of-14 on the road.

 
Pacers small icon 3. Pacers (27-13, LW 2). Indiana has won 7-of-8, but the wins were them fattening up on the soft underbelly of the East. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, Indy has been doing what good teams do — beat the bad teams consistently. The Pacers are winning despite a defense that has been middle-of-the-pack in the NBA the past five games. The good news, the offense has clicked during the winning streak and been a top-10 unit. The one loss in there was too Toronto, and next up they face Boston Wednesday.

 
Rockets small icon 4. Rockets (23-16, LW 6). In Houston’s first 20 games this season, James Harden was getting up an average of 11.4 threes per game, but he has gotten red hot and part of that is Harden raining threes — 16.2 per game in his last 10, and he’s hitting 41.4 percent of them. Also key during this 12-of-13 win streak: Clint Capela. The big man has averaged 18.5 points per game in his last 10, shooting 64.2 percent and grabbing 16.2 rebounds a game, Capela looked out of shape to start the season but he has played his way back into it and has been a force.

 
Warriors small icon 5. Warriors (27-14, LW 4). The Warriors finally got healthy and… meh. The Warriors are 9-5 since both Stephen Curry and Draymond Green returned to the lineup, with a +3.2 net rating (12th in the league). Their offense is 12th best in the NBA, their defense is middle of the pack, and overall the Warriors look meh. The Warriors (and most people around the league) are in the “don’t worry, after the All-Star Game they’ll flip the switch and be fine” camp. We’ll see. Among the reasons for optimism is that the target date for the debut of DeMarcus Cousins has been set, either Jan. 18 or 21 in Los Angeles (against the Clippers in the first game or Lakers in the second). They could use his help in the paint.

 
Thunder small icon 6. Thunder (25-15, LW 7). It’s weird to say this about a guy averaging a triple-double (again) but Russell Westbrook is in a shooting slump. It’s been going on for about a dozen games but has been worse in the last five: He’s shooting 3-of-23 from three in those last five (13%), 32% from the midrange, and just 55.6% at the rim. But with Paul George playing maybe the best basketball of his career, Westbrook still getting in the lane opening things up, and with the best defense in the NBA, the Thunder are 8-4 in those last 12 games.

 
Nuggets small icon 7. Nuggets (27-12, LW 5).. The Nuggets continue to win but their offense is carrying them — they have the fifth best offense in the NBA over the last 10 games, but the fourth worst defense. For the season Denver still has a top-10 defense, but it has fallen off sharply in recent weeks. Maybe getting Paul Millsap and Gary Harris back healthy (as happened last week) will change that, and Will Barton is expected to return to the lineup in the next week or two. That the Nuggets did as well as they did with three starters out speaks to this team’s depth. Plus they have Nikola Jokic hitting game winners.

 
Spurs small icon 8. Spurs (24-17, LW 9). It was cathartic for Spurs fans to get to boo and watch a blowout win when Kawhi Leonard came back to town in a Raptors’ uniform, and you know DeMar DeRozan savored his first ever triple-double in that game. It isn’t just Toronto that got crushed by the Spurs, San Antonio is 12-3 in its last 15 and has the best offense and the best defense in the NBA in that stretch. Monday’s in in Detroit started 7-of-10 on the road for the Spurs.

 
Celtics small icon 9. Celtics (24-15, LW 10). Kyrie Irving missed a couple of games with an eye injury and it was interesting to watch the transformation of some other players: Gordon Hayward averaged 25.5 points, 6.5 assists, and 6 rebounds a night in those two, Terry Rozier looked scary again, and Boston picked up a couple of wins with good ball movement. The Celtics need Irving to be Irving to win, but they also need a little more of what we saw in those games mixed in (which is on Irving to lift those guys up). Are Celtics fans more worried about their team’s start or Anthony Davis trade scenarios?

 
Sixers small icon 10. 76ers (27-14, LW 8). When a big three is brought together, the question becomes “who is willing to sacrifice for the good of the team?” In Miami, Chris Bosh took on the brunt of it, but Dwyane Wade sacrificed too so LeBron James could lead. In Golden State, Klay Thompson probably sacrifices the most but every one of their stars does to make the whole better. In Minnesota, who is willing to sacrifice and still contribute? That’s still a work in progress. Joel Embiid is complaining about how he is used, Jimmy Butler wants more traditional pick-and-rolls, and Ben Simmons has not fit smoothly yet either. This isn’t a Brett Brown thing, this is the players needing to sacrifice for the greater good and so far that has not happened in Philly.

 
Blazers small icon 11. Trail Blazers (24-17, LW 11). Looking for a third scorer in Portland? Look no further than Jusuf Nurkic, who has been a beast of late scoring at least 20 points in 6-of-7, including 27 points against Golden State a couple days after Christmas. Nurkic is doing most of his damage at the rim, with 75% of his shots in the last five games in the restricted area. Nurkic has made up for the slumping C.J. McCollum of late. After a tough stretch of the schedule, the Blazers are home and drinking good coffee against easier opponents for a couple.

 
Clippers small icon 12. Clippers (24-16, LW 12). The Clippers will be serious contenders on the free agent market — both Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant have been rumored… and maybe both could come — but don’t ignore the here and now. Montrezl Harrell might be the leader in the Sixth Man of the Year race and is a nightly must watch. Consistency has not been the Clippers’ hallmark of late, but the team has won three in a row and 7-of-10, using a softer part of the schedule to vault back up to the top four in the West — if the playoffs started today the Clippers would have home court in the first round.

 
Lakers small icon 13. Lakers (22-19, LW 13). The Lakers are now 2-5 with LeBron out, and where they miss him most is in the fourth quarter and in the clutch The Lakers are shooting 36.7% in the clutch (last 5 minutes, game within 5 points) since LeBron’s injury, scoring a league-worst 82.9 points per 100 in that stretch (the team is 1-3 in clutch games). Brandon Ingram just is not an “isolate him at the top of the key and let him go” kind of player, he can’t get to his spots, and he struggles. Lonzo Ball has great instincts but doesn’t read half-court plays well consistently, plus he is just not a threat to score on drives — he has no floater, can’t finish at the rim consistently, and is in his own head about free throws so he avoids contact. This is not what the Lakers imagined.

 
Jazz small icon 14. Jazz (20-21, LW 17). On paper the Jazz have been better than their record (they have the point differential of a 23-18 team) but it’s time for that to start translating to wins. Utah has 8-of-9 at home (and 12-of-15) and this is when the push needs to come. Defenses have adjusted and taken away some of what Donovan Mitchell wants to do, and while he needs to grow his game to counter those defenses, what the Jazz really need is someone to step up as a secondary scorer and athlete. Quin Snyder’s system can get them some buckets, but Utah needs a second scoring threat to reach the goals they have set for themselves this season.

 
Heat small icon 15. Heat (19-20, LW 18). Miami had won 8-of-10, Hassan Whiteside was playing impressive defense in the paint and Justise Winslow was making it work as the point guard. But then came an ugly loss to the Hawks — how is this team 0-3 to Atlanta this season? — followed by a loss to Denver as the schedule starts to turn tough. Those banked wins should help keep them in the postseason, but they can’t afford a losing streak the next couple of weeks. By the way, Dwyane Wade still knows how to make the highlight play.

 
16. Timberwolves (20-21, LW 20). Tom Thibodeau didn’t build up enough good will in the organization and community to survive the Jimmy Butler trade, and so he’s out and Ryan Saunders (son of Flip) is in. Minnesota has played better after Butler tried to sabotage the franchise, having gone 16-12 since Butler was traded (they got off to a fast a 9-3 start but are 7-9 since, mainly due to injuries to Derrick Rose, Jeff Teague, and Robert Covington). Karl-Anthony Towns has returned to his All-NBA form, but unless Andrew Wiggins consistently lives up to his status as a No. 2 option it will be difficult to grow and improve this capped-out team. Also, the Timberwolves have been dreadful in the clutch (-22.2 net rating, games within 5 points in the final 5 minutes) and that has to change.

 
Kings small icon 17. Kings (20-21, LW 14). Back in October and November, the Kings were a ridiculously good clutch team, but that has changed lately. In their last 15 games, 12 have been within 5 points in the final 5 minutes and the Kings are lucky to be 5-7 in those games considering their -20 net rating. The Kings have slipped below .500, have lost 5-of-6, and while just 2.5 games out of the playoffs they can’t afford a longer losing streak, it would be too hard to climb out of the hole. Which is why Tuesday’s loss to a Devin Booker-less Phoenix is so ugly for them. The Kings have a couple winnable games against Detroit and Charlotte at home coming up before the schedule gets tougher, De’Aaron Fox and the Kings need to get wins now.

 
Hornets small icon 18. Hornets (19-21, LW 15). How far has Frank Kaminsky fallen? Staring center Cody Zeller is out (broken hand, he’ll miss another month or so) and so James Borrego has gone to a starting front line of Devonte' Graham and Bismack Biyombo, and Willy Hernangomez got time at the give while Kaminsky ranks up DNPs. Charlotte’s best look is closing with Marvin Williams at center, but that’s not an all-game kind of thing. Kemba Walker is putting up All-Star level numbers and is even making half courters as he tries to run out the clock.

 
Nets small icon 19. Nets (20-22, LW 22). Every time I write this I still shake my head, but it’s true — if the playoffs started today Brooklyn would be in as the seven seed. It’s not going to be easy for the Nets to hold on to that (they have a one-game lead over Detroit in the ninth spot) and Brooklyn has the toughest remaining schedule in the East the rest of the way. While making the playoffs would be huge, just the fact this team is in the mix will help them lure free agents this summer (the Nets will have ample cap space and are in New York). Sean Marks has been amazing as a GM turning this franchise around.

Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (19-22, LW 23). Nikola Mirotic is missed in New Orleans. He has been out a dozen games now recovering from a sprained ankle, and without him the team has been 5-7, and while the offense has remained top 10 (it has slipped some without Mitotic’s floor spacing) the defense has been bottom 10 and is costing them games. I know Pelicans fans are sick of Anthony Davis trade rumors, but it’s not a media creation — teams around the league are obsessed with him and the fact the Pelicans are outside the playoffs has those teams convinced Davis is going to move on. Dell Demps is burning up the phone lines trying to trade for help, but this is a dead trade market.

 
Mavericks small icon 21. Mavericks (18-22, LW 19). Fun summer question: Will Dallas try to bring DeAndre Jordan back? Or, the better question may be: At what discounted price would the Mavericks re-sign Jordan for? Jordan is averaging an efficient 10.9 points and 14.1 rebounds a game, and he leads all NBA centers in ESPN’s defensive real plus/minus (although that is the perfect example of the eye test not matching the stats). Watch the games and he just doesn’t seem to fit with Luka Doncic and the future of the Mavs. Jordan is a free agent this summer and will likely find the market much tighter than he expects, but could that lead to staying in Dallas?

Pistons small icon 22. Pistons (17-21, 21). The Pistons do a surprisingly good job of keeping teams from getting to the rim — they have given up the second fewest shots in the restricted area of any team this season (Milwaukee is first), but when teams do get in the restricted area they are shooing 68.5 percent, the highest percentage in the NBA. Once you get past the defense, there is no rim protection. Detroit has lost 7-of-9 and slipped out of the playoffs in the East, the team has struggled to score, and now it heads out on a five-game road trip through the West. That said, the Pistons have a relatively easy schedule the second half of the season.

 
Grizzlies small icon 23. Grizzlies (18-22, LW 16). Memphis has lost six in a row, 11-of-13, during those 13 games they have a net rating of -7.3 (third worst in the NBA and below the Bulls, Hawks, and Suns), and the team has slid out of the playoffs in the West. It’s been ugly. The only thing we know for sure is Chandler Parsons will not be the Cavalry riding to the rescue (although it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where he gets traded/bought out before this summer). The Grizzlies play the red-hot Spurs Wednesday then head out for 4-of-5 on the road.

 
Magic small icon 24. Magic (17-23, LW 24). Magic fans want to see Nikola Vucevic make the All-Star team — he’s averaged 20.2 points and 12.1 rebounds a game, is shooting 38.1% from three, and his floor spacing and improved game have helped the Magic to what wins they have (17). Let’s stipulate that Joel Embiid will be the starting center for the East, after that who from that conference gets a nod over Vucevic? Brook Lopez? Al Horford? Can’t see it. The concern for Orlando is there is not just a center position, so if the coaches want to reward a lot of forwards — Pascal Siakam and Blake Griffin should make it in my book — Vucevic could get squeezed. I think Vucevic makes the cut, but it will fall to the coach’s vote (they pick the reserves).

 
Wizards small icon 25. Wizards (16-25, LW 26). Washington is 3-3 since John Wall went out for the season, with a slightly above-average offense and a slightly below-average defense. Sadly, in the East that’s enough to keep Washington’s playoff hopes alive. The Wizards might be open to being sellers at the trade deadline, and while John Wall and Bradley Beal aren’t going anywhere, the Wizards should be open to trading Trevor Ariza (again, he was picked up from Phoenix before the Wall injury). Ariza is the kind of veteran wing a number of playoff teams could want (the Lakers were very interested before), it would be a smart move by the Wizards to add some assets in a season they are not competing for anything of consequence.

 
Hawks small icon 26. Hawks (12-28, LW 25). Trae Young is being a bit more selective with his threes and has started to knock down his shots for the Hawks. In his last 10 games, Young is averaging 15.5 points a night and his hitting 50 percent of his 3.2 three-point attempts per game — a number well down from his season average of 4.9 attempts per game. He’s got the passing skills and he’s starting to figure out the NBA game. Atlanta went 0-3 on a road trip, came home for a night to beat the Hawks, and then went back on the road and fell to Toronto. Atlanta has two more games left on this road trip.

 
Suns small icon 27. Suns (10-32, LW 27). I know Suns fans want to see Devin Booker in the All-Star Game, but it’s a long shot. In part because the Suns stink. More than that, the West is just stacked at the guard spot. Stephen Curry and James Harden will be the starters (we can assume), after that there are three or four more guard spots to divide up between Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, Klay Thompson, Luka Doncic, Mike Conley, and Donovan Mitchell, among others. Hard to see Booker, as good as he is, cracking that group. Tuesday’s come-from-behind win against Sacramento (without Booker) snapped a six-game losing streak, just in time for Phoenix hit the road for 5-of-6.

 
Bulls small icon 28. Bulls (10-30, LW 28). Chicago wants to be sellers in the next month heading into the trade deadline. They just moved Justin Holiday to Memphis, a move that frees up minutes for Chandler Hutchison. Ideally, the Bulls would like to trade Robin Lopez, but he makes $14.4 million this season and it’s going to be hard to find players to match that salary the Bulls would want to bring in. Most of the league expects the Bulls will fall short in finding a trade and will just buy him out after the deadline, and a number of teams are ready to pounce if that happens.

 
Knicks small icon 29. Knicks (10-31, LW 29). Coach David Fizdale on the Knicks’ defensive struggles: ““I think just figuring out what these kids can handle and what was a little bit too much. This first half of the season was figuring that out. I think now I’m starting to see, OK, this is the kind of thing that they can really hang their hat on and here are the things we probably should stay away from. Moving into the second half of the season we’re going to try to trim it and simplify it that way for them, so that we can maybe find some consistency in the second half.”

 
Cavaliers small icon 30. Cavaliers (8-33, LW 30). They have lost 10 in a row, Kevin Love is not going to return for a few weeks, and the one favor they did for an agent — putting together the offer sheet for Patrick McCaw to get him out of Golden State, then cutting him so he could be an unrestricted free agent — has the NBA league office investigating if the Cavs tried to circumvent the salary cap. Just nothing is going right for this team.

Three Things to Know: Ryan Saunders gets win for “Flip,” is 1-0 as Timberwolves coach

Associated Press
1 Comment

Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Ryan Saunders gets the win for “Flip,” is 1-0 as Timberwolves coach after victory over Thunder. Minnesota needed that. After the firing of Tom Thibodeau as coach and GM, the Timberwolves came out in their first game under coach Ryan Saunders — the son of legendary coach Flip Saunders, and Ryan wore a “Flip” pin on his lapel through the game — and played like the Timberwolves fans had hoped they would see all season.

Andrew Wiggins stepped up with a difference-making — not just stat stuffing — 40 points and 10 rebounds, he took over the offense with Karl-Anthony Towns battling foul trouble. Wiggins was aggressive, hit his free throws, and played one of those (all too rare) games from him where he looks like a max player.

After the win, the Timberwolves celebrated like a young team finding some joy in the game again.

I’m not sure that there is a run in the Timberwolves (especially with Robert Covington and Derrick Rose out injured), but for a night things looked better and this team is just two games out of the playoffs.

That was not the biggest news out of this game.

Oklahoma City’s Nerlens Noel took an unintentional elbow to the face from Wiggins then had a nasty fall and had to be stretchered off the court.

We don’t know much. Noel was held overnight at the hospital for evaluation. Our thoughts are with him and the Thunder.

2) Good night for the Warriors: Klay Thompson drops 43 in a win, DeMarcus Cousins target return date set. While we continue to watch a disinterested Warriors team coast through the regular season, there are nights we’re reminded how much talent this team has and why most expect them to just flip the switch sometime after the All-Star Game and dominate again.

Tuesday night it was Klay Thompson’s turn, he dropped 43 on the Knicks on 18-of-29 shooting, including 7-of-16 from three.

Klay Thompson is back: In his last five games he’s shooting 55.1 percent overall and 51.3 percent from three.

The other bit of good news for the Warriors: The target dates for DeMarcus Cousins’ return has been set, on the road in Los Angeles either Jan 18 (Clippers) or Jan. 21 (Lakers). The Warriors have been lacking at the five spot all season — they miss JaVale McGee far more than they thought they would — and they hope that Cousins can fill that need. (If not, look for them to target Robin Lopez or other centers expected to be available on the buyout market.)

3) Nikola Jokic drains game-winner for Nuggets in Miami. “The floater is kind of my game. I love that shot just because I cannot dunk.”

That was how Nikola Jokic described his game-winner in Miami Tuesday. It was a simple pick-and-roll with Jamal Murray, Jokic rolled, got the ball in the lane, and showed off his floater skills.

The Nuggets defense has not been great of late (although it was better in Miami Tuesday) but an elite offense has kept the Nuggets on top of the West. Plus it helps to have shots like that from Jokic, who should be an All-Star reserve this season.