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NBA Power Rankings Week 20: Spurs slide into top slot as Warriors stumble

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Golden State has owned the top of this ranking for a while — they got it back in January — but the injury to sideline Kevin Durant, and the stumbling losses while they try to find a new offensive groove, has them slide a couple spots. The Spurs are red hot, they get the top spot. Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard could not care less about all such things.

 
Spurs small icon 1. Spurs (48-13, Last Week No. 2). Winners of seven in a row and 12-of-14 (the last three in tight games), they have earned the right to be on top of the rankings. Gregg Popovich moving Pau Gasol to the bench has been huge for this team — he’s averaging 16 points a game on 57 percent shooting in his last five games, and he fits better with David Lee and that unit (while Dewayne Dedmon and his hard rolls on offense and rim protecting defense fits better with LaMarcus Aldridge as a starter).

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (51-11, Last Week No. 1). Adjusting to life without Kevin Durant (until around the start of the playoffs) has not been easy, and not aided by the fact they are in their toughest stretch of the schedule this week (they beat the Knicks Sunday but then face a good Atlanta team on the road Monday). Which means they may fall further in these rankings. While the Warriors obviously miss KD on offense (they need to get back to more Stephen Curry pick-and-rolls) the bigger impact is likely on the defensive end, where Durant was having his best season.

 
Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (44-19, LW 4). In their past 10 games, they have taken 50.3 percent of their shots from three. Go ahead and say that’s too much and ruining the game if you want, they also have the best offense in the NBA during that stretch. The real key to their wins: They are 10th in the NBA in defense in that stretch. If the Kevin Durant injury does leave the Warriors vulnerable during the playoffs (because he’s not 100 percent) the Rockets may be the team best suited to take them down.

 
Cavaliers small icon 4. Cavaliers (42-19, LW 3). Kyle Korver had quite the homecoming in Atlanta, he and his teammates rained an NBA record 25 threes on the Hawks. Andrew Bogut is expected to make his debut for the Cavaliers Monday, and I still am impressed they were able to land two D-Wills — Deron Williams and Derrick Williams — who are contributing. Fun showdown against Houston next Sunday on the road.

 
Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (40-22, LW 6). The win against Cleveland last week is not something with lessons that carry over to a potential playoff meeting, but it should have been a big confidence boost. The Celtics split the first two games on their five-game road swing through the West, beating the Lakers but falling to the Suns in the final seconds. Now things get tougher with the Clippers, Warriors, and Nuggets. It doesn’t help that Al Horford and Avery Bradley are a little banged up, both were sidelined over the weekend.

 
Wizards small icon 6. Wizards (36-24, LW 7). They split a home-and-home with the Raptors in the battle for the three seed (and to avoid Cleveland in the second round of the playoffs). That’s keeping them ahead of the Raptors by a game (two in the loss column), but they missed the chance to grow that lead. On the bright side, Bojan Bogdanovic has helped spark the second unit and his eight threes — including the game winner — were huge in Orlando. If the Wizards can get good bench play, they are legit Eastern Conference Finals threat.

 
Jazz small icon 7. Jazz (39-24, LW 5). They seem headed for a first-round 4/5 matchup with the Clippers in the playoffs, and here is what’s concerning about that if you’re a Jazz fan — the loss to Oklahoma City last week made it seven losses in a row by the Jazz to West playoff bound teams. It would have been a much uglier week for Utah if not for the Rudy Gobert tip-in at the buzzer Sunday to secure an OT win in Sacramento.

 
Grizzlies small icon 8. Grizzlies (36-27, LW 10). Chandler Parsons continues to struggle (7-of-29 from the floor since the All-Star Break) but coach David Fizdale continues to get him run because he knows if Memphis is going to make noise in the playoffs they are going to need him. Parsons, for his part, admits he’s “sucked” but remains optimistic. Good tests against the Clippers and Hawks this week.

 
Raptors small icon 9. Raptors (37-26, LW 9). With a defense that is stepping up and a whole lot of DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors have gone 5-2 since Kyle Lowry went down injured. The question is can DeRozan continue to handle the extra workload, or will he get some help. The Raptors split a pair with the Wizards last week to remain within striking distance of the three seed (nobody wants to be the four seed and get the Cavs in the second round).

 
Clippers small icon 10. Clippers (37-25, LW 11). They have had a brutal schedule since the All-Star break — Warriors, Spurs, Rockets — but with both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin on the court and healthy the Clippers are starting to find a groove again. At least the starters are. On offense. The Clippers need more consistent bench play — not just the Jamal Crawford show, he needs some help — and better defense to climb back up the standings and get home court in the first round.

 
Thunder small icon 11. Thunder (35-27, LW 8). They have dropped three in a row, and Russell Westbrook is shooting just 35 percent in those games. Westbrook also only had five assists on Sunday, he is close to falling below 10 assists per game and losing the season-long triple-double campaign. Tough week ahead with Portland (who they need to beat), the Spurs, then the Jazz to close out the week.

 
Hawks small icon 12. Hawks (34-27 LW 13). Atlanta has been up-and-down this season — slow start, red hot January — and now seemed to have found a groove as a slightly-above .500 team over the past few weeks. That will get them into the postseason for a round. The Cavaliers have played them twice and made 25 threes in each game this season — Cleveland is not a good playoff matchup for Atlanta.

 
Heat small icon 13. Heat (29-34, LW 12). The Heat picked up a nice win against the Cavaliers last week (when LeBron James and Kyrie Irving were both out for rest), but they hurt their playoff drive with losses to the Mavericks and Magic last week. Miami is a 50/50 proposition to make the playoffs according to fivethiryeight.com, but to catch the Pistons the Heat can’t drop more winnable games. The Heat play the Pacers this week in a game they could really use.

Pistons small icon 14. Pistons (30-32, LW 16). They are hanging on to the eight seed, but that with a below .500 record is still a disappointment for Detroit. Why did it happen? Last season the Pistons were +2.6 points per 100 possessions when Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond shared the court; this season it’s -8.2 per 100. And it’s been worse lately. (Stats courtesy John Schuhmann of NBA.com.) Tough tests this week with the Bulls, Pacers, and Cavaliers as the Pistons search for wins.

 
Pacers small icon 15. Pacers (31-30, LW 15).. Paul George had 34 points on 19 shots Sunday against the Hawks — that was huge, his shooting slump has really hurt a team that lacks other quality, consistent shot creators. Their defense has been better of late, the key is just getting a little more offense to go with it. Glenn Robinson III did his part on Sunday.

 
Bulls small icon 16. Bulls (31-31, LW 14). They picked up a quality win over the Warriors (sans Durant) on national television Thursday night. But this is the Bulls, two nights later they scored just 30 points in the second half losing to the Clippers. Consistency is not the Bulls’ buzzword this season. The Bulls have won five-of-seven despite some rough play since the break from Jimmy Butler, who is not creating shots (for others in particular) and not getting to the line. The Bulls need that Butler back sooner rather than later down the stretch.

 
Bucks small icon 17. Bucks (28-33, LW 19). Malcolm Brogdon is starting and Matthew Dellavedova is coming off the bench, but unless Brogdon gets red hot over the final weeks of the season it’s hard to see him passing Joel Embiid for Rookie of the Year. Even though Embiid has played just 31 games. The Bucks are within striking distance of the playoffs, just 1.5 games back of eight seed Detroit, but the Bucks inconsistent play and the upcoming schedule has fivethirtyeight.com saying they have just a 21 percent chance of making the postseason.

 
Nuggets small icon 18. Nuggets (28-34, LW 17). Jamal Murray told NBC that getting the eight seed in the West is discussed a lot in the Nuggets’ locker room — they want it. They have a 1.5 game cushion right now. If Denver is going to separate itself from Portland, Dallas, and everyone else in its rearview mirror, the next two weeks are the time as they have six of their next seven at home. Starting their home run out with a sloppy loss to Charlotte was not helpful.

 
Blazers small icon 19. Trail Blazers (26-35, LW 18).. Interesting note via ESPN and the Elias Sports Bureau, after the trade for Jusuf Nurkic the Blazers became NBA’s youngest roster. That’s little consolation right now for a disappointing season. Fivethirtyeight.com has Portland with just a 26 percent chance to make the playoffs and the reason is a brutal schedule the next couple of weeks that has them playing 7-of-9 on the road. Damian Lillard and the Blazers have won a couple in a row and need to find more wins in this stretch to say within striking distance of Denver.

 
Mavericks small icon 20. Mavericks (25-36, LW 20). This ranking may be too low — Dallas has won four of five and is just a couple games out of the playoffs in the West. With their suddenly stout defense (since the arrival of Nerlens Noel, who has also helped the offense) they may yet make the playoffs, although fivethirtyeight.com has them with just a 12 percent chance. Dirk Nowitzki is just 20 points short of 30,000 for his career and will pass that milestone this week.

 
timberwolves small icon 21. Timberwolves (25-37, LW 23). Minnesota has the fourth best net rating in the NBA (how much you outscore your opponents by) over the last 10 games — better than Miami, Boston, Washington, and even Cleveland. They are 6-4 in those games but have been playing better than that. They beat the Jazz and Spurs recently, this team may be finding its groove, but with a tough schedule through the end of the season the playoff dreams will need to be on hold for another year.

 
Hornets small icon 22. Hornets (27-35, LW 24). Charlotte just went 3-4 on a seven-game road trip, ending with a win over the Nuggets, but they remain three games out of the playoffs and would need a huge last push. It could happen, a lot of their losses lately have come in close games — this team has the point differential of a 32-30 team, not where they are now but if the close game luck swings they have a shot. An outside shot, but a shot.

 
Pelicans small icon 23. Pelicans (24-38, LW 21). They got their first win Sunday in a game where DeMarcus Cousins played, although it took a scrappy effort at the end against the Lakers to do it. On defense the big man combo of Cousins and Anthony Davis is working well for the Pelicans, but the offensive end is the work still in progress. In theory they could make a playoff run (just 3.5 games out), but with the need to leap five teams to get in it’s hard to picture that run.

 
Knicks small icon 24. Knicks (25-37 LW 25). The most interesting thing the Knicks did last week was playing the first half Sunday without all the music/entertainment/dancers/distractions that are now de rigueur at NBA games. The reaction in the arena was mixed, but New York made mocking them easy when they said they wanted to do this to showcase basketball “in it’s purest form.” In practice, it meant you could hear Knicks fans yell owner James Dolan’s name with an expletive attached from all over the arena for a half.

 
Suns small icon 25. Suns (20-42, LW 28). They picked up a dramatic win Sunday over Boston in the battle of 5’9” point guards with Tyler Ulis hitting the game winner for Phoenix. Of course, the game’s best highlight wows the Isaiah Thomas/Ulis jump ball.

 
Sixers small icon 26. 76ers (23-39, LW 26). Could Dario Saric steal away the Rookie of the year trophy from his teammate Joel Embiid? In his last 10 games, Saric has averaged 19.3 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. Malcolm Brogdon gets mentioned as a guy in the mix, Jamal Murray is getting more and more responsibility in Denver, but Saric is the guy putting up impressive numbers and could make a late run at the award.

 
Kings small icon 27. Kings (25-36, LW 22). They have dropped four in a row — including losing to the Nets. The Kings have no offensive flow now with Cousins gone, and management is all good with that (their pick this year is only top 10 protected, right now they would draft 8/9 (coin flip with Minnesota). Mathematically they are still in striking distance of the eight seed in the West, but in practice that’s not happening.

 
Magic small icon 28. Magic (23-39 LW 27). They picked up a nice win over red-hot Miami last week, and the starting five in Orlando seems to have found a groove. When they can stay healthy and on the court (a game after putting up 25 on Miami, Nikola Vucevic sat with a sore Achilles). You have to think moving Aaron Gordon back to the four more has a lot to do with the improved play of late.

 
Lakers small icon 29. Lakers (19-44, LW 29). When Luke Walton interviewed with the Lakers last summer, he and his agent demanded a five-year deal — now you see why. Jim and Johnny Buss made their Game of Thrones move for the Jeanie Buss’ big chair last week, and while that was thwarted you can be sure it’s not the last of the Lakers’ power struggle drama off the court. And we all know how much ownership fighting amongst itself is good for building an on-court program and attracting free agents.

 
Nets small icon 30. Nets (10-51, LW 30). They snapped their losing streak at 16 games with a win over the Cousins-less Kings. Take it where you can get it. Their offense looks improved when Jeremy Lin is on the court, but right now that’s limited (minutes restriction). The Nets are 1-4 on their current road trip with three more games to go, then they return home to play the Knicks (which always feels like a road game for Brooklyn).

Happy birthday Shaquille O’Neal. Let’s celebrate with a highlight reel.

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If you only know Shaquille O’Neal from his buffoonery as part of the TNT crew, or even from the final seasons of his NBA career, need to go back and watch vintage Shaq. Yes, that’s Lakers three-peat Shaq. But go back further and watch his Orlando Magic highlights — the league has never seen a combination of size, strength, and athleticism like that. Wilt Chamberlain may be the only other guy in the conversation.

Shaq’s self-promotion at times seemed to obscure just how dominant a force he was on the court.

Today is Shaq’s 45th birthday. To celebrate, check out a highlight package put together by the NBA on the Hall of Famer and one of the greatest centers ever to play the game.

Report: No punishment from league for J.R. Smith after he had words with Dion Waiters

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Friday night, with just more than a minute left in the Heat’s blowout win over the Cavaliers, Miami’s Rodney McGruder threw down a putback dunk over the Channing Frye, then appeared to give Frye a little push/slap on the back. Cleveland’s J.R. Smith was sitting on the bench (he’s still recovering from a broken thumb) and he started barking at the McGruder. Soon other Heat players defended their guy, specifically Dion Waiters. It was all just a lot of talk. Players and staff of the teams stepped in and ended it before it grew into anything more.

It was really nothing, and that’s how the league is treating it, reports Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

J.R. Smith will not face any disciplinary action from the NBA for his role in an argument with several Heat players at the conclusion of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 120-92 loss to Miami on Saturday, a league source told ESPN.

Furthermore, there will not be any fine levied by the team against Smith, a Cavs source told ESPN.

That’s the right call by the league. Players jawed, cooler heads prevailed, everyone walked away. Nothing to see here, move along.

Alvin Gentry heaps the highest of praise — an MJ comparison — on Kawhi Leonard

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If the vote took place today, Kawhi Leonard would likely finish third in the NBA MVP voting, behind Russell Westbrook and James Harden (in some order).

Maybe that changes in a week. Monday night the Spurs take on the Rockets and Harden, Thursday night it’s Westbrook and the Thunder. A couple of big games and…

Don’t expect Leonard to promote himself. Don’t expect Gregg Popovich to try to bring more attention to his team. There is not going to be a traditional campaign out of San Antonio to get Leonard the award.

But other coaches are doing it for him. Here is what Alvin Gentry said, via the San Antonio Express-News.

“You don’t want to say Michael Jordan,” New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said, “but it is that type of situation where you have a really, really good offensive player and a tremendous defensive player.

“He definitely has to be heavily in the conversation for MVP.”

Leonard’s campaign hinges on that two-way status. Make no mistake, he’s developed into an elite offensive player averaging 26.1 points and six boards a game, shooting 37.9 percent from three, and he’s now the focal point of the Spurs offense. However, he’s never going to put up Harden/Westbrook numbers — the difference is Leonard is a much better defender than either of them. That’s the pitch. That and the Spurs have a better record than the Rockets or the Thunder.

That may not be enough to get him the award this season, but he is in the conversation. As he has earned the right to be.

Larry Bird on Magic Johnson taking over Lakers: “He’s got a lot to learn”

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There is an extensive list of NBA owners who have come in having had wild success in their chosen field and think that everything they learned can apply to basketball, only to find out professional sports is a very different beast. Certainly, there are some structures of how to create a corporate culture that can apply to a new setting (see the success of the Golden State Warriors’ owners on that front). But more often than not owners that think they know it all hurt their teams for years before they admit they need to do things differently.

The learning curve for players jumping into the front office is similar — they often have no idea how much they don’t know. It’s not just on-court skills, it’s the salary cap and CBA complexities, plus so much more. It’s the central question around Magic Johnson running Lakers’ basketball operations — does he know what he doesn’t know? Will he lean on the smart people already in that front office, or will he be dictatorial?

Larry Bird has made that transition from star player to team president, now running the Pacers, and done it as well as any former player. What did his path teach him about the road his former rival Magic is now on? Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times asked Bird just that.

“He’s got a lot to learn,” Bird said. “But he took the challenge and I’m sure he’s ready for it. There’s just so much to learn about it….

“You can put a team together, what you think’s gonna be a pretty solid team on paper, and then when they get out there they don’t mesh well,” Bird said. “I’m sort of going through that this year. We thought we had a decent team that we thought could compete for the fourth or fifth seed. We haven’t played as well as I thought we would all year. That’s the growing pains. That’s the frustration about it.”

When the trade deadline was approaching last month and rumors of Paul George being available swept through the league, Magic called up Bird and the two legendary on-court rivals talked. The deal never came close to materializing (with the Lakers or anyone, not at the deadline) and Bird said most of the conversation was about their families and other off-court things. It had to be an interesting talk nonetheless.

“I wasn’t motivated to move Paul George at the deadline,” Bird said. “I can’t remember if it was even brought up or not. I don’t think it was. It’s all fake news anyway. You know that. Somebody’s gonna start it and [it] just was a snowball effect. [The phone call] was not about Paul George.”

It’s far too early to judge Magic the executive, but he could do a lot worse than buying Bird a nice steak dinner in Las Vegas during Summer League and picking his brain. Bird gets it. Magic may, but for now he’s still a rookie learning on the job.