Sam Smith's NBA power rankings at the midpoint
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Just about everyone in the NBA hit the halfway point this week, which makes my second quarterly report. I know these so-called power rankings are out weekly everywhere, but it has to be more than your last few wins. So I try to do it as the teams with the best chance to win a championship and on down. There probably are more since I see the NBA perhaps as open as any time since the late ‘70s. My problem is I’m finding it difficult to find anyone who I think will win. Obviously, most have excused the Lakers, but I think they can make a run. Though now everyone talks about that being to get eighth. Somebody will win, and now the field mostly looks like the Thunder, Heat and Spurs. But all seem very vulnerable as the Thunder and Heat showed Sunday, though they may have been distracted by no NFL games. So here’s my NBA at the midpoint:
- Thunder: They’ll outscore you and defend OK. Kevin Durant is amazing. But they still play way too much isolation as they’re in the bottom half in assists and does anyone know what Kendrick Perkins does?
- Heat: It’s difficult to see anyone who’ll beat them in the East, though you can see maybe five teams who can. They’re last in the league in rebounding, a Pat Riley team. Can it be? It be. That automatically makes them vulnerable. LeBron is fabulous in a more versatile way than Durant, but those two are so superior to everyone and a joy to watch,
- Spurs: They can if Gregg Popovich lets them play in the playoffs. Yes, cheap shot, but Pop’s got to take it the way he dishes it out to Craig Sager. They’re quietly — what else — better defensively this season with some younger, more athletic guys off the bench, one of the league’s best. Tim Duncan has been terrific, but he is older as is Manu Ginobili and they do get hurt. But they can when everyone said they never would again.
- Clippers: Really a question mark. I don’t see anyone else who can win, but they might. It’s all negatives from here down. Chris Paul gets hurt a lot and while they are deep, Blake Griffin still has no game, Jamal Crawford is erratic, Chauncey Billups hasn’t played yet and Paul has to be the closer, distributor and defender.
- Grizzlies: Again, it’s tough to see the way they’re in the process of dismantling their bench and perhaps Rudy Gay as well. They’ve got a slow, defensive style with Randolph and Gasol inside and Tony Allen bothering the perimeter. It’s tough to see where enough scoring and consistently will come from, Randolph is smallish and Gasol plays outside more. Maybe trade Rudy for Pau to reunite them and then deal Randolph, who has the longer deal. I’ve got more deals for the Grizzlies below.
- Lakers: I really do believe they have a chance. They just have to make the playoffs. You don’t get to write that often. But the playoffs are their style. Dwight Howard’s back will improve, they could deal Gasol for some good stuff (Rudy Gay and suggestions to come) and Kobe Bryant still is really good. It’s not because they beat the Thunder Sunday, but you look at who they have and slower, physical playoff ball and whose personnel fits so much better? It’s about titles. If they don’t make the playoffs I’m saying it will be much more difficult. Though ESPN is supposed to be able to pick a team for a first round bye in their new TV deal and you know who it will be.
- Bulls: This is not supposed to be the year, but, but, but if Derrick Rose comes back. That one is still all over the place, and it’s tough to estimate how he’d play or even how he could be used and how much. But even with the old bench blown up and Omer Asik stolen by thieves from Constantinople the Bulls defend, have size and now All-Stars, so who knows given the Heat is one LeBron ankle tweak away from a Dan Gilbert I told you so.
- Knicks: See, I told you none of these teams can win. They do have a legitimate scorer and closer in Carmelo Anthony, one of the real few in the league. So that is something. This J.R. Smith thing is a disaster as he’ll shoot you out of way more games than into. They’re going back to more isolation play and Jason Kidd and Kurt Thomas keep getting held up at the Medicare office. Bad joke, but reliable.
- Nuggets: There really never has been a team like this to win as the 2004 Pistons had sort of stars. They’re very good, fifth best home record, and not close to getting an All-Star. The classic team with lots of good players and no great ones. But that sort of was the 1978 Supersonics, who did win without an All-Star.
- Pacers: There’s no way a team will win with Roy Hibbert at center just as there’s no way he’ll ever be an All-Star. Oh, right, he was. They’re getting their leading scorer back and have been pretty good except for, you know, the scoring part. Can Danny Granger sit out so long and make a difference? Can Rose? They defend and are tough and that’s a big thing.
- Warriors: See, this really is getting tough. The Warriors and a title? But they also get a big guy back in Andrew Bogut, they’ve got athletes, scorers and defend better. So they also have a chance if they make the playoffs. Hey, check the rest of the field.
- Nets: That would be the greatest backcourt ever making $37 million combined not to have an All-Star. They do have someone at every position, which hardly seems like an achievement, though someone who can make a play. They don’t make many as they go slowly, but, hey maybe they trade for Dwight Howard. No, I actually expect Howard to resign with the Lakers even if they hate him and he hates them. Though I think he likes Nicholson.
- Rockets: They’re wearing out James Harden and Jeremy Lin may not be all that as it turns out. But they really can score and they have salary cap room to make another move. I’ve got one for them below and I assume they have a few as well.
- Jazz: I’m running out of deputies to paraphrase Sheriff Cobb in my favorite western, Silverado. Well, after Blazing Saddles. Hey, the Jazz! Title? They’re not title worthy and they’re supposed to trade someone as if they keep playing the old guys the young guys will rot away. And, really, you don’t want Al Jefferson coming back and asking for $15 million.
- Hawks: This was supposed to be sort of a blowup season, which it always can be with Josh Smith. He’s a big name for the trade deadline, and given they’re supposedly a Dwight Howard sweepstakes team for the summer maybe they try to cash in Al Horford. After all, maybe you let Howard build his own team as Wade and LeBron did. That may be the only way I see Howard leaving L.A. and all that money behind. Horford, presumably, would get you some draft picks and probably a pretty good young player with that extra payroll room. His name doesn’t come up much, but it is one to watch as the Hawks have been circumspect about their plans with new GM Danny Ferry. Though knowing Howard he’d probably want Baby Davis and Gilbert Arenas.
- Bucks: Does Scott Skiles get a share if they win? They’ve got scoring and shot blocking and can shoot and a bit of that jack of all, master of none thing with no All-Stars. Though I might have gone for Brandon Jennings. They could bother someone, which is something.
- 76ers: You figure Andrew Bynum is going to want to come back at least to show he should get $15 million while he heals next season. Hey maybe the Lakers trade Howard and Pau and go into free agency for Bynum as ownership loved him so much. They took a gamble and sometime they don’t work. But they’re hanging around the edge and if he does come back and can give them something it changes everything for them. Big, big if.
- Trail Blazers: Another team on the edge of the playoffs and coming back and going and who knows. Are they going young? Kind of bottom of the pack in most statistical categories but rookie of the year with the excellent Damian Lillard. Nicholas Batum puts up some impressive across the board numbers, but you figure there still are big changes to make.
- Raptors: Perhaps they have one big move in them. They’re got some talent, but don’t quite know how to finish games. They’re also missing a real big man as they await the league’s shortest big man, Andrea Bargnani.
- Mavericks: Right now the Mavs, Lakers and Celtics are on the edge of out of the playoffs. How would that be for teams you love to hate? I don’t see the Mavs making it as they’re in the other Howard bidding group. Dirk’s got his title, so he’s pretty patient these days as he usually takes the first few months off to recuperate. Everyone keeps telling me how smart it was to let Tyson Chandler go for the cap space and I’m still working on that one.
- Celtics: Probably will have enough wins not to fall too far, but I do expect a big explosion. Hey, it was Doc Rivers threatening to trade everyone last week when they had Rondo. There’s nowhere to go now and Danny Ainge has to get something, which includes a lottery pick.
- Pistons: Taking baby steps for now, which means falling on your face some. But they’ve got some young big guys in Monroe and Drummond and some guards you can move like Stuckey. So they’ll be coming back, though just not quite yet.
- Hornets: You never quite know what’s up with Eric Gordon and whether this pelican name thing will also make him want to leave. They’ve got some good young talent and win some surprising games with good defense. Just not often enough.
- Timberwolves: It’s been a brutal physical season with major injuries like to Kevin Love and coach Rick Adelman on extended family leave now as well. Ricky Rubio is coming back very slowly from his ACL surgery, saying he’s lost what little jumping ability he had for now when they looked like they were finally going to make the playoffs.
- Wizards: They’re starting to dig out, and John Wall’s return is getting credit, though didn’t he at least practice shooting all this time? They’ve got size inside and some scoring and should move up a bit more.
- Cavaliers: Kyrie Irving may be the first player ever having hardly anyone complaining about being an All-Star from a 13-32 team. They added some bench guys from Memphis last week, but losing Anderson Varejao again was tough.
- Suns: Once the happiest franchise anywhere as the sun shined daily, it’s nothing but clouds now with losing, team legends ripping management, the media no longer in partnership and welcome to your first job Lindsey Hunter.
- Kings: Tough to make DeMarcus Cousins jokes anymore with the team apparently about to move to Seattle. Always bad when a city loses a team as we guys from Brooklyn know, and it only took 55 years to get one back. Sacramento should be as fortunate. They would seem to have a lot of trade possibilities, but likely are frozen with the sale talk.
- Magic: They’ve done better than most expected as the best part of their season has been laughing at the Lakers. Nikola Vucevic was a nice find and maybe they turn J.J.Redick into something at the deadline. They’re the Cubs of the NBA in plans, so we’ll see how that goes.
- Charlotte: And bringing up the rear, yes, but not nearly as bad with some developing young talent, a coach with a plan and maybe they get the Hornets name back.
Another point guard ACL injury
-- The big NBA news Sunday was not the Lakers winning a game. Though you’d hardly know it from the highlight shows. It was, obviously, the Rajon Rondo season ending ACL surgery. Yes, that makes it at least eight guards in the last year with the debilitating injury: Derrick Rose, Iman Shumpert, Baron Davis, Brandon Rush, Lou Williams, Ricky Rubio and Eric Maynor. All play differently, and I don’t know the answer. But guard is the most important position and allowed the most freedom now and perhaps too much. Maybe being hand checked helped prevent injuries?
What now for the Celtics?
Anyway, the Celtics weren’t going anywhere, it was obvious with the ongoing decline of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett even with Sunday’s overtime win over Miami after six straight losses. Which still leaves them under .500, eighth in the East and with two loses fewer than ninth place Philadelphia. Given Rose’s injury, the East figured to be wide open after the Heat. So with Boston stocking it’s bench, they looked like at least a contender. But that’s evaporated as Pierce and Garnett have gotten old before our eyes. It generally happens to great athletes between seasons, like boxers. They look great one fight and then are done. Similarly, both Pierce and Garnett have slipped enough — and Garnett cannot be the center they’d hoped leaving the Celtics helplessly small — that it was time. GM Danny Ainge, who was around at the time playing, said he wasn’t going to be left with nothing when his stars went and go through years of losing like the Celtics did allowing Larry Bird and Kevin McHale to retire. It’s nice for an organization, but Boston then went nine years without winning a playoff series, seven of which they missed the playoffs. But with Rondo and a weak East there was the appearance of a possibility. Now without Rondo there isn’t. Sure, coach Doc Rivers should say, as he did, in effect, “We ain’t dead yet.” But Ainge knows, and you can be sure if he can he’s trading both Pierce, in his final full guaranteed season, and Garnett with just one more. They may not get much, but you have to try now. They won’t get you anything after the season.
Pierce could fit well with Grizzlies
You can most likely see Pierce going to the Grizzlies. The Celtics aren’t trading either to the Eastern Conference and having to deal with those returns. It looked like Rudy Gay might be safe after that multi-player eighth-man trade last week with the Cavs netted the Grizzlies some financial savings. But they really want to get out from under Gay’s deal that averages about $18 million the next two seasons. He’s the great athlete Jeff Green no longer is and a guy you can start building with considering you’ll get Rondo back perhaps much of next season. Pierce has a $5 million buyout after this season, which saves the Grizzlies more than $30 million, which is their home run and they keep Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, their strength. They play deliberately, which is the only way Pierce can play now. And you get Pierce in the playoffs and even though he’s been slumping and shooting about 35 percent this month, he can make a big shot as he did against the Heat Sunday and is credible for a few months. Then you buy him out and you are making a profit. Not bad for the new guys and not selling out your team, really, as with Pierce you give them a shot.
Could Garnett return to Minnesota?
KG? He’s tougher given he’s a bit of a headache to handle. The Spurs could take him in with their culture, as the NBA saying goes, but don’t really have young talent and draft picks that make any sense for the Celtics. There’s probably two possibilities that make sense. One is Houston. They’re wearing out some and GM Daryl Morey loves the big names and move. He needs a power forward and I can see him taking a shot. It might also appease Garnett putting him back in contention. Houston has draft picks, which Boston now needs, (you can drive to more places in the East with Royce White) pretty good young players like Donatas Montiejunas and Marcus Morris and you can throw in a few more like Patrick Patterson and maybe even Chandler Parsons to make a deal work on the cap. Cut some minimum guys for roster space. The Rockets take chances. Then there’s my sentimental favorite: The Timberwolves. While we don’t know much about Garnett, we know he basically hates everyone not in his family. But that’s a moving target with his actual family and whoever his teammates are at the time. Yes, the Timberwolves are beaten up. But you come back next season with Kevin Love, Rubio, Andrei Kirilenko and Nikola Pekovic and Garnett and you have something. They’ve got good picks, which Boston now will be seeking desperately, plus a few young guys you can match salary with like Derrick Williams, maybe Luke Ridnour or Alexey Shved for a point guard to help Rondo and an extra like Dante Cunningham to make the deal work. You could see someone like Garnett going back to Minnesota, where he actually didn’t want to leave for the longest time, to finish out his career as everyone in Cleveland thinks LeBron eventually will. The Celtics, meanwhile, are close enough to missing the playoffs they could get into the lottery easily. And they know better than most just trying to be good enough to make the playoffs gets you nowhere. And your building empties out as Boston was one of the worst places to go until the daring Garnett and Ray Allen deals. Ainge is a risk taker. And he’s about to take some new ones.
NBA news and notes
-- DeMar DeRozan’s winner last week was the Raptors first at the buzzer in seven years, according to ESPN stats. And if the Celtics cash it in, who knows. I know we prefer to talk about the Lakers losing, which is way more fun and exciting, all the potential trades and dysfunction. But this one still seems to be sitting there waiting to be done. Kobe’s not averaging 14 assists despite doing it the last two games and Pau’s not a bench player. But Pau has value, and it seems to the Raptors, who have blown about a half dozen games in the last few seconds and probably are a center away from being a playoff team. Pau comes East he’s the conference’s best center. Assuming Andrea Bargnani returns healthy, you figure the Raptors jump on him and Kyle Lowry for Gasol. Free agent Jose Calderon figures to stay to play with his country mate and is an ideal pick and roll guy with Pau. The Lakers get a stretch four threat for coach Mike D’Antoni’s game and a tough, physical point guard who can defend the pick and roll for Nash when needed. Bargnani opens the floor for Dwight Howard, and then you can post some and play pick and roll with Howard, who did so constantly in Orlando. Can’t see that not happening.
-- The Boston Globe last week had a revealing interview with Celtics Hall of Famer Robert Parish, who said, “I need a coaching job in the NBA. I’m restless and I need money. I’m not homeless and I’m not penniless, but I need to work. People shouldn’t feel sad. They should help me get a job.” It’s really a story every NBA player should read. Like George Burns said when turning 100 and asked if he were retiring now, “Retire to what?” It’s much overrated. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar found this out as well. He may have been the greatest ever NBA player. Check his career. But he was continually difficult all his years in the NBA, uncooperative with media and teams and often seen as someone who considered himself above everyone. He’s not like that anymore, but he essentially was blackballed by the NBA because no one liked the way he treated them. The same likely with Parish, who was another who didn’t have the time for anyone, a brooding, complaining, difficult guy. It seems fine when everything is going well. But then you are done, even the best of them with the longest careers like Abdul-Jabbar and Parish, and you have lived maybe half your life. And basketball is what you know and did and love and really you’ll never likely excel anywhere like that. It’s why you see so many players willing to do TV and be assistant coaches at the end of the bench. Everyone needs somewhere to go when they wake up. Abdul-Jabbar has come back of sorts with basketball related projects. Guys aren’t always broke, but nowhere to go is a bankrupt life.
-- I love this slights stuff in sports. The Nets, blown out by the Grizzlies, were upset when Marc Gasol went back into the game late, complaining the Grizzlies shouldn’t have put back starters. You don’t like it? Play better. Deron Williams presumably also wants Lionel Hollins fired. ... The Nets feel someone should be an All-Star, and they are eight over .500. But that’s more than $70 million just for the starters and no All-Star. ... The Nets are 12-4 since P.J. Carlesimo replaced fired Avery Johnson and 10-3 this month, making Carlesimo a candidate for coach of the month. Johnson got that award in November and was fired in December. ... The 76ers still don’t know whether Andrew Bynum will return, though he says he will, and he told Philadelphia media when he does: "Once I get back, I'm going to play really hard." This guy is something. ... The Heat lost for the 10th straight time Sunday in Boston. C’mon, how unbeatable can they be? Though this is how life has changed when you’ve won. Chris Bosh said after the game: "We digressed in our late-game execution. I want to be a threat just like everybody else." But, hey, what do you think about Kobe and Dwight?
-- Sometimes simple stupidity is a good enough reason for being left off the All-Star team, like cursing out your coach and being thrown out of practice the week the coaches are voting for reserves, like Josh Smith did. But Smith probably should be the one added to the All-Star team even with a perhaps alltime record low basketball IQ last minute that cost the Hawks the win in New York Sunday. With Rajon Rondo out (likely East coach Erik Spoelstra replaces him in the starting lineup), commissioner David Stern figures to add Josh Smith. He’s had an excellent overall season averaging 16.7 points, 8.5 rebounds and four assists. The Hawks despite a 25-18 record have no All-Star, and, really, I know Brooklyn also has none. But for an All-Star game you can’t ask fans to pay big money to watch Brook Lopez with Tyson Chandler and Joakim Noah. And creaky, old Garnett. I know the Bulls want Carlos Boozer, and he has a shot. But that would give the Bulls three All-Stars and two winning teams with similar records none. It was an amazing last minute with his team leading as Josh dribbled out of the backcourt for no apparent reason and committed an over and back, then hip checked into an offensive foul for no reason with a lead and about 35 seconds left and then played Carmelo Anthony too close and gave up a driving three-point play for the Knicks’ winner. Smith then added a missed three to end it, though he had no choice there. And, no, the commissioner is not expected to select J.R. Smith, though he’s only suspended him a few times and Smith had his best shooting game in about a month Sunday at seven of 13. Smith was shooting 25 for 91 in the Knicks’ last seven games coming in and is seven of 42 on threes the last eight games counting Sunday. The Knicks now are 8-9 over their last 17.
-- Maybe Tom Thibodeau doesn’t play his starters enough. Said Tayshaun Prince after the Bulls beat Detroit: "We just got off to too slow of a start offensively. Thibodeau does a good job trusting his second unit. He leaves them out there and lets them play." ... He admitted the pressure of his offseason deal was bothering him, but Ersan Ilyasova has been hot and starting since coach Scott Skiles left and has scored at least 27 points in three of the last four games. ... That three-year Gerald Green signing looked good, but now he’s out of the rotation and likely for good when Danny Granger does return. ... The Heat gets the White House visit Monday and maybe President Obama gets to the bottom of whether LeBron and Wade were ever serious about Chicago. Though I know they’re done with water boarding. ... Loved to see good guy Jannero Pargo get a 10-day with the Hawks and come in with four three pointers in the fourth to beat the Timberwolves. ... However amazing to hear someone say it and likely undeserving, Chris Bosh is right in telling FOX Sports Florida of whether he expects to make the Basketball Hall of Fame: “Hell, yeah, of course. I've been a Hall of Famer like four years ago. I say that very serious, though. I've talked about it before with my friends." There are some things you just don’t say. And here was a guy who got his Toronto team into the playoffs twice in seven years and didn’t win a series. He’s the third best on the Heat, but he has a championship, and Olympic gold medal and now eight All-Star appearances even if this season seemed questionable. That stuff gets you in right away. Yes, Chris Bosh Hall of Famer. What a country, eh?
-- This Eastern Conference All-Star team is looking pretty weak in the overall star level, likely ranking with the 2002 team that had Antoine Walker and Dikembe Mutombo as starters and 1994 with Kenny Anderson, B.J. Armstrong and Derrick Coleman starting. ... The grind looked like it was catching up with Omer Asik before getting 20 points and 16 rebounds in Saturday’s blowout win over the Nets. Asik had been averaging 7.7 points and nine rebounds the previous 12 games, though he remains averaging a double/double for the season. Houston, meanwhile, is a tough matchup for a team like the Nets, which plays as slow a walk it up deliberate pace as any team. ... The league fined J.J. Berea $5,000 for flopping, which inspired C.J. Watson to get a flopping warning when he said he intentionally flopped against Berea because “he’s such a flopping guy.” Not that you’d have guessed, but Kevin Martin got the first flopping fine of the season which comes after a warning. ... The Nuggets will be trying at the deadline to get something for little used backup center Timofey Mozgov. ... It’s in fits and starts, but with scoreless games bookending, Wilson Chandler had 20 against Houston and 12 against the Thunder returning from hip surgery. ... The ugliness is spilling out in Phoenix with assistants Dan Majerle, one of the most popular Suns ever, and Elston Turner, bitterly blasted the organization as Lindsey Hunter took over as interim coach for GM Lance Blanks, an old friend. Fired coach Alvin Gentry had been telling the staff Hunter was spying and would replace him, and who knows if that was true or not, but it did happen even as with that roster you figured Gentry didn’t have much chance, anyway. Though some of the speculation in Phoenix is owner Robert Sarver wants to get into the restaurant business after running out Amar’e Stoudemire and Majerle, who had two of the most popular restaurants in downtown Phoenix.
-- I’m not sure I ever expected to hear Bill Cartwright say this, but knowing Bill he’s having a ball coaching Osaka in the Japan pro league. Said Cartwright to the Japan Times after winning his first two games last week: “This week will be a big test for our team because we go to Okinawa and they are a very good basketball team, so we will really be tested and we can see where we are.” I’m told Thibodeau thinks their roster is very tough. And if you think the NBA is tough on coaches, Cartwright is the team’s fourth coach in eight months, but immediately got results. His top players are Dwyane Lathan who played at Indiana State and Rick Rickert from Minnesota, though the league has a rule limited the number of “foreign” players (that’s us) who can be on the floor to two in the first and third quarters and three in the second and fourth. Games are 40 minutes. There have been NBA coaches in Japan previously, including former Spurs coach Bob Hill, and knowing Cartwright and his renaissance view of the world he’ll be speaking Japanese and have a restaurant there before long. Cartwright owns the famous Froggy's in Highwood.