The Cleveland Cavaliers, meanwhile, just watched their closest pursuer in the Eastern Conference standings stand pat at the NBA trade deadline while they strengthened their own roster.
It’s the Warriors and Cavs, then, sitting in the top two spots in ESPN.com’s weekly NBA Power Rankings. With each passing day, it looks more and more like they’re headed for a third straight showdown in the NBA Finals.
The San Antonio Spurs looked quite good on their annual Rodeo Road Trip, as we’ve grown accustomed to seeing February after February, but the Committee (of One) felt compelled to bump the Cavs back up into the top two alongside the Warriors to reflect how good Cleveland’s month has been after what LeBron James memorably described last month as a “s—ty 2017 so far.”
Deadline-day trades influenced many of this week’s other notable moves, with Toronto (No. 8 to No. 5), Oklahoma City (No. 12 to No. 10) and Dallas (No. 19 to No. 15) benefiting the most because of the deals they swung. Read on for the rest of 1-to-30 order … and stay tuned for a special new Power Rankings feature on the overnight SportsCenter that airs Tuesday at 1 a.m. ET.
Profuse thanks, as always, go to ESPN Stats & Information and the Elias Sports Bureau — with ESPN research ace Micah Adams running the point — for all the background data they supply to assist the Committee’s efforts to arrange things here properly.
Although it’s no Rodeo Road Trip, our runaway No. 1 is on tour Monday night in Philadelphia to launch a challenging stretch in which the Warriors must play eight games in eight cities over 13 days while traveling nearly 11,000 miles along the way. The only home game wedged in there is a March 8 date with the Celtics, who will drop in on Golden State just one Warriors off day removed from their lone stop in Atlanta this season some 2,000 miles away. The Dubs will have to turn right around and head to Minnesota in the final game of this stretch, then reacquaint themselves with the Spurs (in San Antonio) for the first time since opening night. Yet you can rest assured that precisely no one out of Bay Area borders will feel sorry for Steve Kerr’s crew, given that it just squashed the Clippers yet again coming out of the All-Star break and clinched a playoff berth before it got to game No. 60 for the second straight season. (Stephen Curry update: With seven more 3-pointers, he’ll crack the league’s all-time top 10 in made baskets from deep.)
Deron Williams is due to sign with the Cavaliers on Monday. Andrew Bogut will likely be next. The Cavs are thus poised to land the two players they wanted most in the buyout market, which is why they’re being hailed as one of this season’s big trade deadline winners. Toronto made some effective moves this month, sure, but Cleveland happily watched Jimmy Butler stay right where he is in Chicago, meaning Boston stood pat. The swoops to add D-Will and Bogut, meanwhile, would mean that Cavs GM David Griffin will have expertly added two more proven commodities to Tyronn Lue’s bench on top of the early-January acquisition of Kyle Korver from Atlanta that truly set a wild trade season in motion. One would think even the ever-demanding LeBron James has to be pleased by all of these developments.
It wasn’t the greatest Rodeo Road Trip in franchise history, but a 6-2 effort lives up to Spurs standards pretty well. They’re making Golden State work for that No. 1 overall seed in the West even though Pau Gasol missed a month with a broken hand and LaMarcus Aldridge is carrying his lowest scoring average (17.4 PPG) since his rookie season. (The dirty secret there, of course, is that Dewayne Dedmon makes San Antonio so much better defensively when he’s playing in Gasol’s spot.) Since the Rodeo Road Trip concept was introduced during the 2002-03 season, San Antonio has a better winning percentage (.704) in those games (88-37) than it does in all other games under Gregg Popovich (.694).
Respect to the Rockets. Mike D’Antoni, who happens to be just three wins shy of becoming the fifth active coach with 500, is going to win or lose this season playing his way. The deadline-week acquisition of Lou Williams not only gave Houston two of the league’s most feared sixth men by teaming Lou Will with Eric Gordon but also furnished the Rockets with five of the league’s top 20 players in terms of 3-point makes this season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no team has ever previously fielded five of the 20 most prolific long-range shooters since the 3-point line was installed in the NBA starting with the 1979-80 campaign. Williams’ seven 3s in his Rockets debut also established a league record, topping the six J.R. Bremer sank in his Cavs debut on Oct. 29, 2003. If there’s a problem in Houston at the moment, it’s the fact that GM Daryl Morey’s prime buyout targets (Andrew Bogut and Jose Calderon) like other destinations better.
“All-in.” In his visit with us on the NBA Insiders show Sunday night on ESPN Radio, DeMar DeRozan used those words to describe the Raps after their acquisitions of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker this month. When Toronto beat Boston in its first game coming out of the All-Star break, Raps coach Dwane Casey had both of his new defensive specialists on the floor along with Cory Joseph in place of the ailing Kyle Lowry for the final 7:30 of the stirring win over the Celts. The small-ball alignment closed the game with a 25-12 run to show what the new Raps are capable of. As long as Toronto recovers sufficiently from its recent 5-11 stretch to finish third in the East and assure that it won’t see Cleveland until the conference finals at the earliest, consider this second half a rousing success.
We could try to address the pros and cons of Boston’s standing pat at the trade deadline within the confines of this cyberspace, but there’s really no need. Just click here to read Zach Lowe’s thorough masterclass on the subject. The schedule is such that we’ll get an immediate look at how the Celts, with what they have right now, measure up to the Cavs, as Boston hosts the reigning champs Wednesday night. Mr. Fourth Quarter Isaiah Thomas has led the Celtics outright in scoring in 23 consecutive games — something no player in this league has done since Kevin Durant did it with the Thunder way back in the 2009-10 season — but Boston trailed by 17 and 18 points, respectively, entering the final period in its first two meetings of the season with the Cavs. What can Thomas do about that?
Why don’t we talk more about Gordon Hayward‘s athleticism? Since returning from his maiden All-Star appearance, Hayward has thrown down dunks over Giannis Antetokounmpo (two, actually) and John Wall. George Hill and Dante Exum, meanwhile, have both shown some promising flashes in recent days after Utah flirted with trying to reacquire Jazz alumnus Deron Williams, then decided against it and to ride with the point guards already on the roster. As for the Utah big men: Derrick Favors has played better since surviving the trade deadline, and Rudy Gobert just joined Anthony Davis on the season’s short list of players to assemble a 15-point, 20-rebound, 4-block outing with Sunday’s efforts in the nation’s capital.
Week after week we get asked: Why do you have the Wizards ahead of the Celtics? Answer: On top of that recent monster 17-game home streak, Washington entered the All-Star break on an 18-3 wave, which made it the league’s hottest team since Jan. 6. But Friday night’s loss in Philadelphia to the Joel Embiid-less Sixers, followed by a home loss to Utah, undeniably burst a few D.C. bubbles and inevitably raised a more uncomfortable question: Is Washington as good as its record suggests? If you subscribe to the notion that success in close games is more of a random event than an indicator of team competency, you’ll find it worrisome that Washington entered Sunday’s play sporting the league’s best record (15-6) in games decided by six points or fewer. Another fair question: Was the acquisition of Bojan Bogdanovic enough to bolster Scotty Brooks’ iffy bench?
Chris Paul is back after missing more than a month and just announced his return with a vintage CP3-esque performance, racking up 15 assists against zero turnovers in Sunday night’s overtime escape against Charlotte. Maybe we’ve been too tough on the Clips lately, keeping them out of the top 10 while Paul was healing, but we’ve decided to move them back into the upper third even though Golden State suddenly seems to own this team as much as Steve Ballmer does. Golden State’s recent 50-point third quarter against the Clips fell just eight points shy of matching the NBA’s record for a quarter and (gulp) topped each of the four quarters that the West posted in the All-Star Game. (Some good trivia as a bonus if you’re in the mood: Blake Griffin is up to eight 40-point games for his career after the havoc he wreaked on the Hornets — but strangely all eight have been at home.)
Make that 29 triple-doubles this season for Russell Westbrook, who just triple-doubled in three consecutive games for the fourth time in this 2016-17 campaign. Yet we’d argue here that Thunder GM Sam Presti actually upstaged his superstar point guard last week (for once) by completing the sort of underrated deadline-day upgrade he’s known for. Presti acquired two players in Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott who would appear to have the legit capacity to help the thin post-Durant Thunder. Back to Angry Russ: He can’t possibly manufacture 12 more triple-doubles in OKC’s remaining 23 games to break Oscar Robertson’s single-season record of 41. Could he? (According to Micah Adams’ math, Westbrook very well can, since he’s on pace for 40 for the season as it is.)
The Grizzlies have drained 551 3-pointers already this season after sinking just 504 for the entire 2015-16 campaign. A lot of that obviously stems from Marc Gasol‘s increasing reliance on the long ball, as Team Grit ‘n’ Grind continues to evolve under new coach David Fizdale, but suspicion persists that Memphis’ record looks more impressive than it really is. Some support for that case: Our man Micah Adams reports that entering Sunday’s play, Big Spain and Friends had held a lead for only 44 percent of their court time this season, which ranked as the league’s second-lowest figure for a team with a winning record, behind Atlanta’s 42 percent. The Grizz, mind you, promptly went out and showed us what they think of our math by posting a quality win in Denver on Sunday night behind 30 points from Mike Conley. It was Conley’s sixth 30-point outing of the season, which already tops last season’s total of five.
Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside, Dion Waiters, Rodney McGruder, Luke Babbitt, Willie Reed and Wayne Ellington. For posterity’s sake: That is the complete list of players to start at least one game for Miami during its recent 13-game winning streak. So much else is happening in this crazy league that it’s easy to forget that the Heat are 16-2 in their past 18 games entering Monday’s visit to their old friends from Dallas, accounting for a run so unexpectedly dominant that it snuffed out virtually any suggestion of Pat Riley making a move of significance at the trade deadline. The update from Waiters Island: At nearly $20 million less than Dwyane Wade is earning this season, Waiters is averaging 20.6 points and 5.3 assists over those 18 games.
The Hawks have been in a stupor since returning from the All-Star break, suffering heavy defeats at home (Miami) and away (Orlando) in games that Dennis Schroder either missed entirely (suspended for the Heat visit after returning to the team late from Europe) or was forced to come off the bench (losing his starting spot to Malcolm Delaney after showing up late for the team bus). Yet we can understand if you missed any of those developments while you continued to process the wild rumbles that Atlanta offered at least four future first-round picks to both Indiana and Chicago in an attempt to join the trade bidding for Paul George and Jimmy Butler. It sounds like we should expect #eventhehawks to be aggressive in the late-June trade market, too. Friday, meanwhile, serves up Kyle Korver’s return to Atlanta for the first time since the early-January trade that sent him to Cleveland. Korver is shooting 52.5 percent on 3-pointers for the Cavs after shooting just 40.9 percent from deep this season as a Hawk. #betterlooks
Easily lost amid the never-ending curiosity about Jimmy Butler’s future as well as the trade Chicago did make to ship out Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott: The Bulls have quietly won a season-high-tying four games in a row. It’s a run that has convinced ESPN’s trusty Basketball Power Index that the Bulls have gone from having a 52 percent shot at making the playoffs to being a team one game over .500 that’s also suddenly boasting an 85 percent shot to reach the postseason in the forgiving East. The next human capable of figuring these guys out, in other words, will be the first. (Rookie guard Denzel Valentine, meanwhile, has scored double figures in both of Chicago’s games since the All-Star break after doing so just once in his first 32 games.)
Seven more losses will clinch Dallas’ first sub-.500 season since it went 40-42 in 1999-2000, the season in which Mark Cuban bought the franchise. Yet one could argue that Cuban & Co. have carved out as many silver linings as possible since their 4-17 start, whether it’s Harrison Barnes‘ development, Seth Curry‘s blossoming or the trade they just swung for Nerlens Noel. Dallas’ new center had only two double-digit-rebound games for the Sixers this season, but Noel is already 1-for-1 as a Mav after a successful debut Saturday night against the more ballyhooed Kentucky alumni duo of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. Next up: While waiting for Dirk Nowitzki to score 67 points to become the sixth player in league history to crack the 30,000-point plateau, take a listen to our Sunday night visit with Cuban on the NBA Insiders show on ESPN Radio.
For the Pacers, the rest of this season is about one thing and one thing only: putting Paul George in position to find a groove that lands him on one of the league’s three All-NBA teams. If that doesn’t happen, no matter what Indiana achieves in the playoffs, Pacers president Larry Bird won’t be able to offer George that $200-plus-million designated player extension come July that represents Indy’s best hope of getting George to commit to stay with the team that drafted him. Of course, even if George does find a way (against what looks like tough odds) to earn an All-NBA slot at season’s end, you can safely expect rival teams to continue to test Bird’s resolve when it comes to keeping George with more trade offers in June at draft time. It’s obviously not the way that Pacer People would have wanted, but Indy just became one of the most interesting teams in the league.
We’re not going to lie. Denver’s Sunday night’s loss to visiting Memphis was a crusher for the Committee as much as anyone: Had Denver pulled out the W, Nuggets rising star Nikola Jokic was all lined up to join us on our annual Better Than The Oscars edition of the NBA Insiders on ESPN Radio. But the stubborn Grizz wouldn’t let it happen, taking advantage of Denver’s 30th-ranked defense to drop the hosts to an unsightly 8-20 against teams with .500-or-better records. Jokic’s development has certainly been one of the stories of the season, but it’s impossible to miss the fall of Emmanuel Mudiay that’s also underway. Jameer Nelson and Jamal Murray are getting all the point guard minutes in Denver’s playoff push.
The Blazers remain in the bottom five in defensive efficiency, but their path to getting back to the playoffs might not be as complicated as it looks on paper. Of the six teams in “contention” for the West’s No. 8 spot, No. 9 Sacramento and No. 11 Dallas both prefer to finish in the lottery at this point, even if they’re not able to admit that publicly. And No. 12 Minnesota, as you’ll read in the Wolves’ comment section, has to deal with a rough remaining schedule on top of Zach LaVine‘s season-ending injury. Factor in the Pelicans’ struggles even after acquiring DeMarcus Cousins, and you can make the case that Portland, despite its season-long defensive woes, ranks as the foremost threat to the eighth-seeded Nuggets. It sure wouldn’t have hurt, though, if the Blazers could have pulled out a road win Sunday night in Toronto with the Raptors missing Kyle Lowry (wrist) for the second consecutive game. The Raps were 1-5 on Sundays at home before pulling out a 112-106 triumph.
Andre Drummond‘s botched breakaway dunk in Sunday night’s home loss to Boston was so badly clanked that you’ve probably heard and seen much more about it than Drummond’s 1-for-11 showing at the free throw line against the Celts. The Rip Hamilton jersey-retirement ceremony provided the Pistons with a momentary respite from their recent turmoil, but loud questions linger about the future of Reggie Jackson — and perhaps even Drummond — after Detroit fielded offers for pretty much everyone on the roster leading up to Thursday’s trade deadline. That includes prized young swingman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, whose 33 points without a turnover in an OT win over Charlotte in Detroit’s first game out of the All-Star break marked the most points scored by a Piston without committing a turnover since Rip’s 39 against Toronto on Jan. 15, 2008.
With 28 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists in Sunday’s home win over Phoenix, Giannis Antetokounmpo moved to 18 games this season with 25-plus points, 5-plus rebounds and 5-plus assists. Only one other player in the Eastern Conference — guess who — has more: LeBron James has done it 29 times. The narrow win against the Suns was also notable for A) Khris Middleton‘s return to Milwaukee’s starting lineup in place of Michael Beasley and B) Middleton’s crunch-time stint in place of Antetokounmpo when The Greek Freak was banished to the bench after some inattention on D. The standings say that the Bucks remain alive in the chase for the East’s No. 8 slot, but you wonder how much they really believe it in the wake of Jabari Parker‘s season-ending knee tear.
I’m as guilty as anyone of simply adding DeMarcus Cousins to Anthony Davis and handing the No. 8 spot in the West to the Pels. (Maybe it’s wishful thinking for a Committee dreaming of the sort of meals that would produce for the Warriors’ road games in the first games in the first round of the playoffs). In real life, New Orleans was outscored by 21 points and outrebounded by 10 in the first 44 minutes with Boogie and The Brow on the floor together in heavy defeats to Houston and Dallas. Things looked a lot better Sunday night in Oklahoma City — except that Cousins picked up suspension-inducing technical No. 18 in that defeat thanks to the fastest T of his career (32 seconds into the game). Throw in the horrendously unfortunate Omri Casspi injury, as well as Jrue Holiday‘s struggles adapting to his new role as third wheel, and the Pels surely have to be wondering why they’re being excluded from Mardi Gras after swinging what so many of us thought was the trade of the season.
Minnesota awoke Monday only three games out of the West’s No. 8 spot, but it’s realistically not a threat to challenge for a playoff berth, even if the Kings and Mavericks start fading out of contention as both of those teams not-so-secretly hope. Minnesota is a minus-10 in the old-school plus/minus ratings, which are calculated by subtracting home losses from road wins. The Wolves also face 15 of their 23 remaining games on the road — with no Zach LaVine to help Karl-Anthony Towns and the scorching-hot Andrew Wiggins. Bonus editorial comment: As hard as Minnesota has shopped Ricky Rubio all season, it was indeed a big surprise to see the Wolves keep Rubio at the trade buzzer when the Knicks offered Derrick Rose for Rubio straight up without seeking any additional compensation. Not because D-Rose is the guy who can end the Wolves’ 12-season playoff drought but simply because of his history with Tom Thibodeau and the longstanding efforts to move the Spaniard.
The Hornets were one of six teams as of Sunday morning to have held a lead this season for a higher percentage of their court time than Memphis despite sporting a losing record. (See the Grizzlies comment for more context.) The others, for the record, are Milwaukee, Portland, Detroit, Denver and Minnesota — but that knowledge doesn’t do Charlotte much good, as it continues to try to shake out of its 6-19 struggles since the calendar flipped to 2017. Let’s see if Steve Clifford’s crew can follow up a much-needed win in Sacramento and Sunday night’s OT near miss in Clipperland by taking advantage of two more stops on this West Coast trip in which the hosts (Lakers and Suns) have the capacity to be quite hospitable.
Mere days after Jim Buss was ousted from Lakerland, Vlade Divac has imposed his own Buss-style deadline on himself to get the Kings turned around. In a lengthy interview published in Sunday’s edition of the Sacramento Bee in which he explained his rationale for trading away DeMarcus Cousins — after publicly and privately assuring Cousins that he was going nowhere — Divac insisted that the decision was his and that he’ll ultimately resign if the trade doesn’t pan out. The full quote: “That’s my job, and I take responsibility. And I totally understand why some fans would be upset. They supported DeMarcus, and I like DeMarcus a lot. But I believe we will be in a better position in two years. I want to hear again from these same people in two years. If I’m right, great. If I’m wrong, I’ll step down. But if I go down, I’m going down my way.”
Remember the Sixers’ storybook 10-5 January? It feels like ages ago given what’s happened this month, with Joel Embiid missing all 11 of Philly’s February games to date and Sixers president Bryan Colangelo announcing the other day that Aussie sensation Ben Simmons will up end being forced to sit out his entire rookie season. We’ll get into this in greater detail later in the week when we come out with the season’s second batch of trimester awards, but the feeling here remains that Embiid — as long as he nudges past the halfway point in games played (42) for the season — still has to be the Rookie of the Year. New York’s Willy Hernangomez, don’t forget, is the league’s only other rookie besides Embiid with a player efficiency rating over the league average of 15.
It was always unlikely to happen because of the no-trade clause Carmelo Anthony possesses, but the fact that just one first-round pick changed hands in the seven deals witnessed Thursday on trade deadline day only made it tougher for the Knicks to get anything done involving Melo. (And that first-rounder — sent from Dallas to Philadelphia in the Nerlens Noel deal — is likely to turn into two second-rounders by the time it’s actually conveyed because of the 1-to-18 protection that the Mavericks secured on the pick.) How hard will it be now for Melo, Derrick Rose and the rest of the Knicks to play out the season’s remaining 23 games in some semblance of peace and mount one last playoff push? Right. These are Phil Jackson’s Knicks, so there’s realistically no chance. New York’s increasing reacquaintance with Jackson’s Triangle offense and the sudden exit of Brandon Jennings figure to keep the Gotham media corps occupied.
The Magic traded Serge Ibaka to cut their losses, knowing they had little to no shot of retaining him in free agency this summer. But they also did it now — despite the grief they’re inevitably getting because of what they gave up to acquire Ibaka in the first place — to bring order to a lineup (and a locker room) that was clearly out of sorts with so many big men vying for minutes. Frank Vogel’s dreams of transforming Aaron Gordon into a Paul George-esque 3-man have been abandoned, allowing Gordon to return to his more comfortable position (power forward) and increasing Orlando’s collective foot speed as a result. “For the first time in a while,” Evan Fournier told reporters after Orlando’s unexpected home shredding of Atlanta, “I feel like we had fun.”
The Lakers — Magic Johnson’s Lakers once again — are just one loss shy of clinching their fourth successive losing season. The fact that the Lakers endured only seven losing seasons in their first 53 years in Los Angeles is obviously a big reason Magic is now running basketball operations. But the reality is that the new boss really does have to bring himself to rooting for lots more losing over these final 22 games to increase the odds that L.A. doesn’t forfeit its top-three-protected first-round pick to Philadelphia. This little tidbit, meanwhile, should help illustrate why Joel Embiid is poised to get our Rookie of the Year vote if he simply manages to appear in 42 of Philly’s games: No. 2 overall pick Brandon Ingram‘s 22 points in Sunday’s home loss to the Spurs marked the first 20-point game of his career.
Few teams were more intent on making trades than the Suns. In the end, though, not even the widely coveted P.J. Tucker could bring back a first-round pick for the Suns, who are heading for their seventh successive trip to the lottery and must win six games from here to avoid recording the second-worst season in franchise history. Last season’s 23-59 mark was the worst witnessed in Phoenix since the Suns went 16-66 as an expansion team in 1968-69. The fact that Earl Watson is expected to focus almost exclusively on the Suns’ various youngsters from here to the regular-season finish line likely means that scratching out six more wins is no gimme. Our selfish hope, of course, is that Dragan Bender‘s recent ankle surgery doesn’t rule him out for the rest of the season as initially feared.
Kevin Pelton? Zach Lowe? Micah Adams? Tom Haberstroh? Which one of the ESPN smart guys can tell us when Brooklyn will score that ever-elusive 10th win? The Nets are 1-24 in 2017 — you can look it up if you, like us, struggle to believe that’s a real stat — and have six games left on a merciless eight-game road trip before hosting their neighboring pals from Madison Square Garden on March 12. The six road stops, if you dare to be curious: Sacramento, Utah, Portland, Memphis, Atlanta and Dallas. If Kenny Atkinson can’t find a way to win one of those first four games, Brooklyn will tie the longest losing streak (19) in franchise history.