The MVP race isn't the only thing heating up around the NBA these days. The exploits of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and Goran Dragic (among others)—all without their trusty sidekicks—have done plenty to shake up these here power rankings since last week.
If there's any upside to superstars like Dwyane Wade, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul suffering through debilitating injuries, it's the opportunity to see their franchise-cornerstone counterparts step up their efforts in the interim.
Then again, with the NBA announcing the starters for this year's All-Star Game in New Orleans and USA Basketball sending out invitations for its upcoming international competitions this week, the absences of the Association's most recognizable faces from the ongoing action are more glaring than ever.
But before we all turn into a bunch of Gloomy Guses and Glorias while thinking about who's not playing, let's have a gander at how things around the NBA have shifted on account of those who are.
The Milwaukee Bucks are still the worst team in the NBA, but at least they've got some good news to celebrate this week.
And quite a bit of it, at that.
First came the report from Gery Woelfel of the Racine Journal Times that the Bucks are likely to stay in Brew City for the foreseeable future. Woelfel's sources suggest that there's no shortage of Wisconsinites and erstwhile Midwesterners to take control of the team if/when current owner Herb Kohl is ready to loosen the reins.
Then came the Bucks' 104-101 win over the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday to snap what had been a nine-game losing streak—the second-longest of the 2013-14 season so far for Milwaukee. Better yet, Badger State native Caron Butler boosted the Bucks, pouring in 30 points, seven rebounds and five assists in 32 minutes.
Off the bench.
On Caron Butler Bobblehead Night.
After suffering through a root canal on Monday night.
tl;dr: Tuff Juice FTW!
If there's such a thing as a "gift" for losing, these Orlando Magic certainly have it. Their 112-109 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday was their 12th in 13 games and dropped their record without starting center Nikola Vucevic to 1-14 on the season.
The lone exception to both lowly rules: a 93-91 win over the Boston Celtics this past Sunday. Arron Afflalo—who registered 20 points, 13 rebounds and six assists that day—has gone cold since, with a combined 17 points on 7-of-18 shooting in Orlando's last two outings.
Don't weep for the Magic, though; they come by their putridity honestly and by design. If anything, losing now is the best possible outcome for Orlando in the long run.
Even if that immediate pain also brings with it a lack of financial gain for the franchise, per Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel.
The return of Tyreke Evans from an ankle sprain has done little to stem the tide of losing that's overwhelmed the New Orleans Pelicans in recent weeks.
Not that Evans is to blame for New Orleans' string of nine losses in 10 games. He scored in double figures off the bench in each of his first three games back from injury and was particularly effective down the stretch against the Memphis Grizzlies, when he either scored or assisted on seven of the Pels' possessions over the final 8:45 of a 95-92 New Orleans win.
The problem for the Pelicans is the same one that's plagued them all season: injuries. Jason Smith has missed the team's last three games with a right knee injury. He'll be out indefinitely, per the Associated Press, making him the third member of New Orleans' core to join the ranks of the long-term infirm in 2013-14, alongside Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson.
The insult of blowing a fourth-quarter lead at home in a loss to the flunky Philadelphia 76ers was bad enough for the New York Knicks, even more so when tacked on to the four defeats that immediately preceded it. The last thing the Knicks needed was another injury to further punctuate roller coaster of mutinous misery into which the 2013-14 season has devolved.
Yet, here's New York, with yet another big man trapped in the training room. According to Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPNNewYork.com, Andrea Bargnani is out indefinitely with a torn ligament in his left elbow. That makes Bargnani one of four bigs—along with Kenyon Martin, Amar'e Stoudemire and Metta World Peace—currently on the shelf for the Knicks, with a fifth (Tyson Chandler) having recently returned.
And to think, Bargs might be OK to play if not for his ill-fated attempt to be Blake Griffin against the Sixers.
How very Knicks of him, indeed.
Despite (occasionally) strong showings from Victor Oladipo and Trey Burke, Michael Carter-Williams remains the clear front-runner to be the NBA's 2013-14 Rookie of the Year.
The 11th pick of the 2013 draft out of Syracuse isn't exactly shooting the lights out (.409 from the field, .292 from three, .695 from the line), though his raw numbers (17.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 2.5 steals in 34.6 minutes per game) place him head and shoulders above his competition.
So, too, do performances like his 31-6-5 with three steals against John Wall's Washington Wizards and his 19-12-7 with two steals to topple fellow Orange alum Carmelo Anthony's New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
Better yet, the tank-tastic Philadelphia 76ers sport a somewhat respectable 13-18 record whenever MCW plays, as opposed to the 1-10 mark they've cobbled together when he's sat. The future in Philly figures to be a bright one, especially with Carter-Williams finding his way (and then some) at the point.
ARE THE BOSTON CELTICS BETTER OFF WITHOUT RAJON RONDO?!?! I mean, they lost their first three games with him in the starting lineup but beat the Toronto Raptors just prior to his return from a torn ACL and outlasted the Washington Wizards in overtime while Rondo sat on the second night of a back-to-back.
Clearly, the C's aren't "better off" with their four-time All-Star riding the pine. Those three aforementioned defeats came by a total of 12 points, including a seven-point squeaker against the Miami Heat.
Nor would it behoove them to either hold him out or trade him away in service of tanking. Boston's roster is already bad enough to secure plenty of ping-pong balls in the draft lottery.
More importantly, Rondo, when healthy, is the sort of talent around whom a rebuilding project can be orchestrated. That appears to be the plan for the C's at this point.
"We did talk to Rondo about extending him,” GM Danny Ainge told Toucher and Rich on CBS Radio in Boston. “But that’s all part of the negotiation that will happen again this summer and most likely the summer after. I don’t know [if he will sign an extension], time will tell.”
Folks in Beantown should certainly hope he does. The C's can cross their fingers all they want to find the next big thing in the 2014 draft, but in the NBA, nothing beats a sure thing.
Which Rondo happens to be—or, rather, will be once he's physically sound again.
The fact that the Los Angeles Lakers have a losing record through the first five games of their Grammys road trip should shock absolutely no one. They'd gone 6-13 away from Staples Center prior to skipping town, with three D-Leaguers (Kendall Marshall, Ryan Kelly and Manny Harris) garnering significant playing time on this depleted squad.
Give Mike D'Antoni's team credit, though, for scrapping its way to some surprisingly competitive basketball. The Lakers pulled out back-to-back wins over the C's and the Toronto Raptors and gave the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat a much tougher time than those two likely expected.
It certainly helps that Pau Gasol is (finally) playing like an All-Star again. The sinewy Spaniard has scored at least 20 points in each of his last six games. L.A. has lost four of those, though none has come by more than seven points.
You know a team is struggling when it begins a week by getting blown out by the Jazz and ends that same week with a three-point defeat to the Bucks.
That's a roundabout way of pointing out that the Detroit Pistons are in dire straits at the moment. They've followed up a pair of promising wins over the Sixers and the Phoenix Suns with losses in three of their last four outings, including the two mentioned at the top.
With the way things have been going in the Motor City, one can't help but wonder which team he was referencing.
Kudos to Kyrie Irving for earning his second straight All-Star berth by way of his first fan-voted start in the 2014 midseason showcase. Chances are, though, that Irving would forgo the honor in a heartbeat if it meant his Cleveland Cavaliers could turn their season around.
Unfortunately for Kyrie, it'll take more than that trade-off to get the Cavs back on the winning track. Irving's done his best to engage his own talents in pursuit of victory, with four straight 20-plus-point games.
Only one of which Cleveland has won.
Luol Deng hasn't been too shabby in support either. He's averaged 17.6 points and knocked down 45.5 percent of his threes since coming over from the Chicago Bulls.
But the Cavs are only 3-4 with Deng in the lineup. The Bulls, on the other hand, improved to 7-2 without their former All-Star swingman after fending off the Cavs in Cleveland on Wednesday.
Kudos to Gordon Hayward on his invitation to join USA Basketball's player pool this summer in anticipation of the 2014 World Cup of Basketball in Spain and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil, per Jody Genessy of The Deseret News. That news makes Hayward's 27-point torching of the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday read much more like a preemptive celebration of the selection.
Then again, it's tough to imagine Hayward savoring his own output in his return from a left hip flexor injury. His best efforts weren't nearly enough to rescue the Utah Jazz from getting blown out by the T-Wolves in back-to-back games.
But hey, at least Alec Burks (18 points off the bench in Hayward's return) hasn't seen his own playing time and productivity affected in any negative way with Gordon once again gallivanting in Tyrone Corbin's starting five.
It's tough to tell exactly whether the injuries suffered by Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins during the Sacramento Kings' blowout loss to the Houston Rockets on Wednesday qualify as good news or bad news.
OK, I'll admit it's rather callous to suggest that losing Gay to a left Achilles injury and Boogie to a left ankle sprain, per the Associated Press, is "good." Rudy had been fresh off a career-high 41-point effort against the Pelicans, while Cousins had just caught wind of his candidacy for a roster spot with Team USA.
But in the grand scheme of things, losing two key contributors at this point in the season isn't necessarily "bad" for the Kings. Sacramento's already well out of the playoff picture in the Western Conference and could've only hoped to finish slightly outside of the field (and harm its own lottery prospects) with Gay and Cousins in the mix.
This way, the Kings have a respectable alibi for sitting their stars and losing some games now before Rudy and DeMarcus return to build some momentum to carry into 2014-15.
There are few better confidence builders in the NBA this season than a home-and-home set against the Jazz.
The Minnesota Timberwolves should know; they stomped Utah in a sprawling back-to-back by a combined margin of 41 points (!!!). Those victories moved Minny's record to 14-7 in games decided by 10 points or more.
That seemingly impressive mark stands in ever starker contract to the T-Wolves' ongoing failure to capture close games. They're still 0-11 in games decided by four points or fewer and nearly saw that blemish move to 0-12 this past week with a five-point defeat to the Toronto Raptors.
Last week, I wondered aloud as to whether Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's return from a hand injury would propel the Charlotte Bobcats back into the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Seven days and three wins later, the 'Cats are back in the East's eighth and final playoff spot, just one game back of the Brooklyn Nets for seventh place.
Expand the scope of the search back to MKG's comeback, and you'll find that Charlotte has won four of six since the No. 2 pick in the 2012 draft slipped back into Steve Clifford's starting five. The last two W's have come at the expense of division leaders (i.e. the Toronto Raptors and the Los Angeles Clippers).
As for the defeats, you can excuse the 'Cats for losing to the Sixers on a last-second three by Thaddeus Young and to the Miami Heat in overtime.
This past week wasn't kind to the Denver Nuggets, and even that's putting it mildly. They dropped three games in a row—at home to the Cavs and on the road in Phoenix and Portland—to fall back under .500 for the first time since Jan. 5.
If that weren't bad enough, the team announced on Tuesday that Danilo Gallinari would miss the rest of the 2013-14 season after undergoing reconstructive surgery on the left ACL he tore last April. According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, Gallo and the Nuggets had attempted to rehab his knee through a non-traditional, non-surgical method that evidently failed, thereby leaving the team without its resident Italian stallion until sometime in 2014-15.
Good thing the Nuggets are due to return to Denver, then...to take on the Pacers...
The Washington Wizards' uneven season makes a lot more sense when you think of the team as Sisyphus and the achievement of a winning record as the boulder.
The Wizards have pushed their way to a .500 record four times this season but have followed up each occasion with a loss. Their latest shortfall came in overtime to the Celtics, despite John Wall's second career triple-double on one end and Rajon Rondo's absence on the other.
Of course, it didn't help Washington's cause that Jeff Green exploded for a season-high 39 points, or that a rapidly aging Gerald Wallace was able to work his way to the basket for what turned out to be the game-winning layup with little impediment on the Wizards' part.
It's only a matter of time until Wall and company finally shed their Sisyphian sorrows and get that rock all the way to the top of the hill. For now, though, they can do little more than look back fondly to Halloween of 2009, when this team last knew what it was like to have a winning record.
The same fighting spirit that carried the Chicago Bulls through the 2012-13 season without Derrick Rose appears to have resurfaced in spades of late. The Bulls have won seven of nine since trading Luol Deng for picks and cap relief, including a 98-87 victory over Deng's Cavs.
In the bigger picture, Chicago is 9-2 in 2014 and 12-4 since slipping a Tom Thibodeau-era-worst seven games below .500 on Dec. 19. Credit Thibs for rallying his troops to the cause and recent signee D.J. Augustin (14.4 points, 6.3 assists, .461/.449/.913 over his last 16 games) for the job he's done as Chicago's "next man up" at the point.
Thanks to their efforts, alongside those of Joakim Noah and the rest of Chicago's core, the Bulls still seem like a safe bet to make the playoffs and, perhaps, win a series before they're through.
Unlike most folks across the country, the Brooklyn Nets are still sticking to their New Year's resolution.
Which, I would assume, had something to do with winning games. The Nets have now won eight of nine games since the calendar turned to 2014, with their last three victories coming by an average of 17 points per game.
Simple: defense. According to NBA.com, the Nets have allowed 100 points per 100 possessions on 42.6 percent shooting in January. Those numbers would place Brooklyn sixth and third, respectively, in those categories were they representative of the team's play over the course of the entire campaign thus far.
The size and length of Shaun Livingston up top has helped. So, too, has Kevin Garnett's move to center, wherein he can orchestrate the back line of Brooklyn's defense without having to chase around younger, quicker power forwards.
Let's not forget about Jason Kidd, whose progress as a head coach led at least one of his players to dub him, however hyperbolically, the "next Gregg Popovich," via Nets Daily.
Beneath the surface of the Memphis Grizzlies' five-game winning streak, there lurked a lingering sense of stagnation. Even with Courtney Lee spreading the floor with his shooting and Marc Gasol returning to man the middle, Memphis seemed far too vulnerable for a team of its tremendous talent.
The sloth that the Grizzlies managed to overcome against the lowly Bucks and Kings came back to bite them in a 95-92 loss to the Pelicans on Monday. As Geoff Calkins of the Commercial Appeal noted, that result dropped the Grizz to 0-10 against the Southwest Division, including 0-3 versus New Orleans—a team that's earned two of its three Western Conference road wins at Memphis' expense.
“We walked around, didn’t play hard enough and Milwaukee played harder than we did,” said head coach Dave Joerger after the loss, via the Commercial Appeal. “We came in and walked around against Sacramento.”
That just won't get it done for the Grizzlies if they're to slip their way back into the playoff picture out West.
If I were a Dallas Mavericks fan, I wouldn't be too worried about the team's 93-85 road loss to the Toronto Raptors. After all, the Raptors are actually pretty good this season—certainly good enough to beat a Mavs squad that'd given Dirk Nowitzki the day off to rest, per Dwain Price of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
To Dallas' credit, the team came close to pulling out a W without Dirk anyway. If not for (yet) a(nother) fourth-quarter meltdown, the Mavs may well be in the midst of a three-game road winning streak.
Instead, they'll head to Brooklyn with Nowitzki in tow and defeats in two of their last three outings.
The timing of DeMar DeRozan's career-high scoring night couldn't have been more perfect.
There was DeRozan, dropping 40 points on 15-of-22 shooting from the field to lead his team to victory over the Dallas Mavericks while his home fans booed Vince Carter, the one-time superstar turned pariah for the Toronto Raptors.
V.C. didn't quite seem ready to pass the proverbial torch to DeRozan, unless his posterization of the Raptors' young wing was to be interpreted as such.
Regardless of intent, DeRozan could be the first guard to represent Toronto in the All-Star Game since Carter did a decade ago. The combination of career-best numbers (21.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.7 assists), a dearth of healthy talent in the East and the Raptors' relative success should be enough to get DeRozan to New Orleans.
The hits just keep on coming for the Atlanta Hawks. Pero Antic and DeMarre Carroll both joined the ranks of the infirm in Atlanta this week—the former with an ankle sprain and the latter with a hamstring strain, according to the Hawks.
That leaves Atlanta even shorter of hand heading into a busy four-game week, with dates against the San Antonio Spurs and on the road opposite the Oklahoma City Thunder on tap.
This could all prove costly to the Hawks' hopes of hanging around the top 10 in these here power rankings. For now, though, they deserve some credit for rebounding from a bad loss to the Brooklyn Nets in London with their first win over the Miami Heat in their last 10 meetings.
Home cooking appears to have worked wonders for the Phoenix Suns. They've won three out of four during their current home stand, including an impressive pounding of the Indiana Pacers, after winning just once on the five-game road trip that preceded it.
That 24-point demolition of Indy must've been particularly pleasant for Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee. They both arrived in Phoenix this past summer after forgettable first seasons with the Pacers in 2012-13. Plumlee was productive in the paint, chipping in 11 points and seven rebounds in 30 minutes.
But it was Green who truly stole the show. The high-flying swingman led all Suns with 23 points, including two on this vicious slam in transition.
“I was not mad at all,” Green told Paul Coro of AZCentral.com of the trade that brought him to Phoenix prior to the game. “Obviously, I wanted to play. This second time around, I’m more of a professional. I understand if I play or if I don’t play. I was on a winning team last year. I was fine if I was giving people water. Now, I’m here and I’m glad to be here. I don’t want to ever go anywhere.”
The Golden State Warriors had themselves a tough week, losing two out of three to the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Indiana Pacers, but at least Stephen Curry did well for himself.
Aside from averaging an outstanding line of 29.7 points, 9.3 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 2.3 steals in those three games, Curry came out ahead with a spot in USA Basketball's upcoming player pool and a mandate from the fans to start in his first-ever All-Star Game.
If that weren't enough, Curry drew high praise for his shooting prowess from Kevin Durant, who, as we'll get into in a bit, has been on a tear of his own of late.
Enjoy that trip to Benihana, Steph. You've earned it.
And then some.
For the first time since 2010, Chris Paul will not be starting at point guard for the Western Conference in the All-Star Game. A late push in the polls by Stephen Curry fans has left CP3's candidacy to be decided on by the coaches.
That, as it turns out, could make for a tricky situation since Paul is no shoo-in for the showcase. Paul hasn't played since Jan. 3, when he separated his shoulder during the Los Angeles Clippers' 119-112 win in Dallas.
According to Arash Markazi of ESPNLosAngeles.com, Paul is pushing to return by early February, with an eye toward playing in the All-Star Game in New Orleans, where he spent the first six seasons of his pro career.
The Clips, though, have to be careful that Chris doesn't rush himself back before he's fit to play. Otherwise, L.A. would risk losing its MVP once again for little more than a chance to see him compete in a pointless exhibition.
I won't go so far as to say that the Portland Trail Blazers were desperate for a win, though their 110-105 triumph over the Nuggets on Thursday night was certainly a welcome change. The Blazers were coming off road losses in Houston and OKC to finish up their four-game swing through the Southwest, "slipping" into third place in the Western Conference as a result.
As has been the case in Rip City all season, LaMarcus Aldridge came to the team's rescue with Denver in town. The 28-year-old forward piled up a career-high 44 points on 15-of-29 shooting to go along with 13 rebounds, five assists and two blocks in 38 minutes of action. Of that impressive point total, 15 came in the fourth quarter, doubling as Portland's final points of the game.
In short, Aldridge played like an MVP once again at the Moda Center. And, like any legitimate MVP candidate, he came through when his team needed him most.
There may be no clearer indication of how far Dwight Howard's appeal has fallen among fans than his failure to garner a starting spot in the middle for the Western Conference All-Star squad. For the first time since 2007, Howard didn't drum up enough support from the league's legion of followers to secure an All-Star bid without the help of coaches across the Association.
That's even with his Houston Rockets, at 29-15, already seven wins ahead of last season's pace, with Howard contributing 18.3 points, 12.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.8 blocks per game to the cause.
The slight to Dwight seems even greater when considering that he lost at the ballot box to Kevin Love, who missed most of last season with a hand injury and whose T-Wolves were an underwhelming 20-21 through the first half of the campaign.
Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have been playing together for well over a decade, yet the San Antonio Spurs have never found themselves so dependent upon their Big Three as they are right now.
The losses of Tiago Splitter, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard to injury have forced Gregg Popovich to lean ever more heavily on his title-contending trio while hoping that the likes of Marco Belinelli, Boris Diaw, Patty Mills and Jeff Ayres can provide the necessary support.
So far, they have—for the most part. Belinelli has scored in double figures in each of his last eight games. Diaw's chipped in 14 points in two of his last three outings. Mills made the most of his opportunity against Milwaukee with a season-high-tying 20 points. Ayres...ummm...puts his hands up?
Chances are Pop won't ask his veteran core to work any harder or do any more than they usually would, especially with the end of his bench contributing to the extent that it has. If anything, the absences of Splitter, Green and Leonard could prove to be blessings in disguise, as they'll have allowed the Spurs to further develop their already impressive depth.
So long as San Antonio doesn't rack up too many losses along the way.
It's no secret: LeBron James is tired—as well he should be.
The guy's played well over 300 games between the regular season, the playoffs and the Olympics since joining the Miami Heat in 2010. As a four-time MVP, he's had to absorb every individual opponent's best shot, night in and night out, along with those that his Heat inevitably face from teams geeked to take down the two-time defending champs.
Dwyane Wade's ongoing absence hasn't made things any easier for King James. Wade has missed Miami's last four games on account of his typical knee troubles, leaving the rest of his teammates to pick up the slack in the interim.
Ray Allen (10.8 points on 54.8 percent shooting over his last four) has done an admirable job of filling in as the Heat's starting shooting guard. Chris Bosh (23.3 points on 59.1 percent shooting in his last four) has stepped up his game, as well.
But, as is always the case with these Heat, the bulk of the ante-upping burden has fallen to James, who's come through with 30 points, 8.3 rebounds and 5.5 assists without Wade of late.
You could hardly blame James, then, for wondering wistfully about the rest he might otherwise be enjoying if he weren't picked to play in the All-Star Game, per Bleacher Report's Ethan J. Skolnick.
Frankly, it'd be unfair to kick the Indiana Pacers down the proverbial stairs of these power rankings for one bad game in Phoenix. The Suns' fast-paced style of play and granting of prominent places to former Pacers (Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee) made this particular road loss a distinct possibility.
Really, dropping the Pacers much further than this down the ladder would be disrespectful, given that the East's top team prefaced that defeat by crushing the Clippers in Indianapolis and the Warriors in Oakland.
Now, if the Pacers blow any of the remaining three games on the Western Conference road swing—even the ever-dangerous second night of a back-to-back in Denver—then we can talk about sliding them further down the rankings.
Nine straight games of 30 points or more, for an average of 38.9 points (on 52.6 percent shooting). An additional 5.7 rebounds and 5.7 assists chipped in over that same span.
Four games of at least 46 points in the last two-and-a-half weeks, including a career-high 54 against Golden State. Five straight wins for the Oklahoma City Thunder, four against Western Conference playoff teams.
All without Russell Westbrook.
Kevin Durant may not be the NBA's MVP by season's end, but if the league handed out the Maurice Podoloff Trophy today, he'd almost have to be the choice.
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