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NBA Power Rankings: Hornets continue surprising rise

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NBA Power Rankings: Hornets continue surprising rise

Good luck trying to figure out these Charlotte Hornets.

One of the league's best stories in the season's first two months, racing out to a 14-8 start, things went south. Steve Clifford's group dropped 12 of 15 between December and January and appeared on track to miss the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons.

They inched their way back to relevance in January, coming within a game of .500 at 22-23, then 24-25. They finally got back to .500 on Feb. 8 with a home win over the Bulls. And since that time, they've been on fire.

Led by a dominant Kemba Walker, who was named the Eastern Conference player of the week, Charlotte has won 13 of 15 and, after being left for dead, sits tied for 5th in the East and just 1.5 games behind third-seeded Boston.

They're the biggest risers in this week's power rankings. Here's how the other 29 teams fared:

Previous power rankings: Preseason | Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4 | Week 5 | Week 6 | Week 7 | Week 8 | Week 9 | Week 10 | Week 11 | Week 12 | Week 13 | Week 14 | Week 15 | Week 16 | Week 17 | Week 18 | Week 19

Rank (LW) Team
Record Comment
1 (1) 59-6  They needed a 37-point fourth quarter to avoid an embarrassing home loss to the Suns on Saturday. As it stands, they'll need a 14-3 finish to top the Bulls' mark. It looks like it'll happen, especially if they beat the Spurs on Saturday.
(2) 56-10  Impressive home wins against the Bulls and Thunder to close the week give them a 32-0 record at the AT&T Center. Saturday night's showdown there against the Warriors could be an instant classic (and they play twice more after that).
(3) 47-18  There are days you wonder whether they'll even make it out of the East (Monday's loss to Memphis). Then there are days you wonder if they really can compete with Golden State in a seven-game series (24-point road win over the Clips).
4 (4) 44-20  DeMar DeRozan was an absolute monster Saturday night in Toronto's overtime win against the Heat. He went for a season-high 38 points and grabbed 10 boards, keeping Toronto within reaching distance of Cleveland for the No. 1 seed.
5 (5) 44-22  Incredibly they've now lost six of nine, the worst of those coming Saturday at home to the Timberwolves. There's time to right the ship, and they'll need to do so to stay in the No. 3 spot (and avoid the Warriors in Round 2).
6 (6)   42-23  Sunday's matchup against the Cavs would have been a chance to make a statement. A 24-point loss later, the next chance they'll have to do just that is Tuesday in San Antonio.
7 (9)   38-29  They've now won seven of their last nine and are in the race for the No. 3 seed in the East. Their only two losses in that span were at Golden State and at Toronto. And both were single-digit defeats. Al Horford and Co. are heating up at the right time.
8 (7)   38-28  Can't say enough about how much Joe Johnson has helped the Bosh-less Heat offense. In eight games Johnson is averaging 15.5 points on 57 percent shooting. Miami has won six of eight in that span.
9 (8)   39-27  It'll be on Brad Stevens to figure out his rotation in the wake of Jae Crowder's sprained ankle that'll keep him out two weeks. Boston is clinging to a one-game lead on the No. 3 seed over Miami.
10 (12)   37-28  The Hornets have won seven in a row. In those games, Kemba Walker has averaged Curry-like numbers: 28.6 points, 53% FG, 3.6 3-pointers, 6.9 assists. Charlotte looks like a lock for the postseason after being left for dead two months ago.
11 (11)   39-27  It's incredible they've been able to piece parts together and remain in the playoff hunt without a host of key players. They're 9-5 since Marc Gasol was lost for the season with a broken foot.
12 (10)   35-32  It would have been nice to see them put up more of a fight in Golden State (16-point loss). But they responded nicely Saturday, thumping the Magic by 37 points. The Blazers hit 17 triples in that one, two days after connecting on 18 triples against the Dubs.
13 (13)   35-31  Indiana took a big step forward toward making the postseason with an impressive win over the Spurs on Monday. Monta Ellis and Paul George combined for 49 points in that one. Three more tests this week, hosting Boston, Toronto and Oklahoma City.
14 (15)   34-32  The time is now for Detroit to make their move. After a road tilt in Washington, D.C., on Monday they'll play nine straight at home. If they want to hang on to that No. 8 seed, it'll happen based on what happens in March.
15 (17)   33-33 Before running into the buzzsaw that is the Charlotte Hornets, James Harden and the Rockets picked up impressive road wins against the Raptors and Celtics. They're currently tied with Dallas for seventh in the West, two games up on Utah.
16 (16)   32-32 Playoff odds are looking bleaker for the Bulls, who are now dealing with injuries to Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol just as Jimmy Butler returns to the lineup. They're only one game back of the Pistons for the No. 8 seed, but Detroit owns the tiebreaker.
17 (20)    31-35 They stopped the bleeding with wins over the Wizards and Kings, but they've still got plenty of work to do if they're going to catch the Mavericks or Rockets.
18 (21)    29-38 More Giannis Antetokounmpo love. In his last 11 games he's logged four triple-doubles, averaging 20.4 points, 9.3 rebounds, 8.6 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.9 blocks per game in 38.5 minutes. He just turned 21 years old.
19 (14)   33-33  A head-scratching five-game losing streak has them on the verge of dropping out of the playoff chase. And now they get a red-hot Hornets team, followed by Cleveland, Golden State, Portland at home, Portland on the road and Golden State again. Yikes.
20 (24)   28-38  They've won four straight, tying the Warriors (yes, those Warriors) for the longest current winning streak in the West. Emmanuel Mudiay has really turned a corner in his rookie season, averaging 19.7 points and 5.7 assists in his last six games.
21 (18)   30-35  John Wall is quietly putting up MVP numbers. But it may be too little, too late for the Wizards, who have now lost five straight and are 3.5 games out of the No. 8 seed in the East. One of the conference's biggest disappointments.
22 (22)   28-37  With the playoffs now out of reach, might be time for Scott Skiles to really unleash rookie Mario Hezonja. He's averaging 23.1 minutes per game in March in a crowded Magic backcourt. #FreeSuperMario.
23 (23)   24-41  Don't tell Anthony Davis to coast down the stretch for a lottery-bound team. In his last four games he's averaged 31.3 points and 11.8 rebounds. Of course, the injury-ravaged Pelicans are 1-3 in those games.
24 (19)   25-40  The Kings have imploded. They've lost nine of 10, DeMarcus Cousins was suspended for screaming at George Karl in a huddle and are 7.5 games out of the No. 8 seed in the West. Just a dysfunctional organization from the top down.
25 (26)   21-45  Ricky Rubio's triple with 0.2 seconds remaining won it for the Wolves in Oklahoma City. But the real story was Karl-Anthony Towns, who had 17 points and 12 rebounds, including two key buckets and a huge block on KD in the final minute.
26 (25)   28-40  Probably not a majority opinion, but if the Knicks heed Carmelo Anthony's advice and make a significant move in free agency they aren't that far away from competing in the East.
27 (27) 18-48  In a lost season, the Nets may have found something in Sean Kilpatrick. The former Cincinnati Bearcat has played well, averaging 13.6 points and 2.0 triples in his last five games. The former All-American has always been able to score.
28 (29) 14-53  The young Lakers are looking better each night. Julius Randle has averaged 15.1 points on 50 percent shooting and 9.9 rebounds in his last eight games. He's rounded into form nicely after a quiet first half.
29 (30) 17-49  Not much to play for in Phoenix, but it'll be fun to watch Devin Booker and Brandon Knight work together in the Suns' backcourt. On Saturday they combined for 48 points and 18 assists in a near-win over the Warriors.
30 (28) 9-57  A six-point win over the Nets at home isn't usually anything to write about. But it marked the Sixers' first win since Feb. 6 and snapped a 13-game losing streak. Congrats. Almost up to double-digit W's.

Scottie Pippen's injury history sheds light on what could be ahead for Michael Porter Jr.

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USA TODAY

Scottie Pippen's injury history sheds light on what could be ahead for Michael Porter Jr.

By now you probably know the story of Michael Porter Jr.'s back. Right as his college basketball career was starting—two minutes in to be exact—he had to sit out with back pain, which eventually developed into Porter undergoing a microdiscectomy of the L3-L4 spinal discs. The general consensus has been simple: if Porter's medicals are clean then he is a potential top-five pick, but if there is a lack of medical information or any indication that lingering issues persist, he will be available at picks six through the late lottery. Regardless of how his medical records look, what we do know is that Porter was the top-ranked player in his high school class before the eventual re-classification of Marvin Bagley. With this in mind, any team in need of serious star power—hello Bulls!—should have no problems spending a high pick on Porter, and Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen is a big reason why.

In July of 1988, Pippen has disc surgery following a rookie season that was plagued by constant back pain. During that rookie season Pippen played just over 20 minutes a night and played in a total of 79 games.

While the late 80's didn't have the help of NBA Twitter to breathe doubt into fans, there was still a running sentiment that Pippen may not be effective as he was during his initial NBA season. But in his sophomore NBA year, he almost doubled his scoring total while raising his free throw percentage from 57.6 percent to 66.8 percent. On top of this, Pippen also increased his workload by playing 33.1 minutes per game. Altogether he increased his field goal and free throw percentage each of his first four seasons in the league, all following his rookie year back surgery.

This however, should not come as a shock. In an interview with SB Nation, Dr. Charla Fischer, a spine surgeon at NYU Langone Health, stated: "Most patients tell me they feel at least 50 to 80 percent better immediately after the surgery." 

Players typically take two seasons to return to form following herniated disc surgery, and that is right in line with Pippen's first All-Star appearance in 1990, about one and a half seasons following his procedure. When you relate this back to Porter, a clearer picture of what to expect forms. Because Porter has already missed an entire season of basketball (at Missouri), it figures to take about a year for him to totally regain the explosivness that he showcased at the high school level. 

Pippen averaged 14.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.1 apg, along with a combined 1.9 stl/blks per game in the season following his back procedure. Now it would be unreasonable to expect Porter to come into the NBA performing at that level, but more so because of his lack of all-around polish more than anything else. And that is what makes Porter such a conundrum. He is a player whose game—as of now—is totally based on scoring, and his scoring is directly tied to how close he is to 100 percent. So again, developing the rest of his game in terms of passing and defense will take on everlasting importance, regardless of if he ends up with Chicago or another team. 

And while it is true that Pippen's injury history eventually caught up with him, leading to another back surgery in 1998, this was six NBA championships later. Pip went on to play six more seasons following his 1998 procedure. This included four seasons with Portland where the team routinely won around 50 games, and had a legendary battle with the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2000 Western Conference Finals.

So no matter what, Porter's first year should be looked at as one very, very long training camp. He will be in the best position to succeed if he is selected by a team willing to look at him as a long-term piece, rather than a 6-foot, 11-inch savior.

 

NBA Buzz: Draft night is almost here

NBA Buzz: Draft night is almost here

With a number of national writers and broadcasters forecasting an active trade market in the hours leading up to Thursday's NBA Draft, the whole idea of a mock draft might just be an exercise in futility at this point. Still, we have learned quite a bit about which players are coveted by teams drafting in the top five after sorting through the smokescreens of the individual workouts.

So, with that in mind, here's my final stab at how Thursday's lottery  picks could play out.

1. Suns: Deandre Ayton, C, Arizona.  An absolute no-brainer here. Ayton combines the size and power of an old school center with the athleticism and shooting touch of a new-age "stretch five".

2. Kings: Marvin Bagley III, PF, Duke.  Vlade Divac shouldn't risk his good fortune at moving up to the No. 2 slot by taking a risk on Michael Porter Jr.'s health. Remember the Kings already have a rehabbing teenager in one of their first round picks from last season, Duke F Harry Giles. Bagley should be a 20-10 guy in the NBA for the next decade.

3. Hawks: Jaren Jackson Jr., PF-C, Michigan St.  This will be the first spot to look for a possible trade. The Hawks reportedly like Trae Young and might consider offers to move down and draft him later in the top 10. If they stay at No. 3, Jackson offers the rim protection and 3-point shooting ability Atlanta desperately needs.

4. Grizzlies: Luka Doncic, G-SF, Slovenia.  The Grizzlies should run to the podium if Doncic is still on the board at No. 4. The 19-year old wunderkind gives Memphis a secondary shot creator to go along with Mike Conley.

5. Mavericks: Michael Porter Jr., F, Missouri.  Mark Cuban is looking for his next big star with Dirk Nowitzki entering what is most likely his final season. The Mavs reportedly are also high on Mo Bamba, but Porter's potential as a 20 ppg scorer will probably win the discussion in the war room.

6. Magic: Trae Young, PG, Oklahoma.  Good chance of another trade at this spot involving a team that really likes Bamba. Orlando could move down a few spots and still get one of the three top-rated PG's, Young, Collin Sexton and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. If the Magic stay at No. 6, Young's quick-strike scoring and box office potential are likely to win the day.

7. BULLS: Mo Bamba, C, Texas.  Yes, John Paxson said the Bulls’ biggest need is a defensive-minded wing, but Bamba's ability to dominate at that end of the court is too great to pass up. Bamba is incredibly raw offensively, but he's been working on his low post skills and shooting form since the college season ended. The Bulls were not a good defensive team last season, and adding a shot-blocking threat like Bamba should improve them immediately.

8. Cavs: Kevin Knox, F, Kentucky.  Knox is one of the big risers after the individual workout season, impressing teams with his combination of athleticism and shooting ability. Knox can play both forward spots and could develop into a big-time scorer, replacing you-know-who as the Cavs start to build for an uncertain future.

9. Knicks: Wendell Carter Jr., PF-C, Duke.  The Knicks will be thrilled to add a versatile big like Carter, especially considering Kristaps Porzingis could miss most or all of next season rehabbing an ACL tear. Eventually, Porzingis and Carter could form a nice inside-outside tandem as the Knicks try to build toward playoff contention.

10. 76ers: Mikal Bridges, F, Villanova.  Another perfect fit for a team on the rise. Bridges' defense-first mentality and improving offensive game should blend in well on a Sixers team that's looking to take the next step after losing to Boston in the conference semi-finals. And, his mom already works for the franchise in the human relations department!

11. Hornets: Miles Bridges, F, Michigan St.  Charlotte whiffed on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with the 2nd overall pick a few years ago, and Nic Batum has battled injuries since coming over from Portland. Miles Bridges is another combo forward who should thrive in the pro game with his ability to run the court and finish with authority at the rim.

12. Clippers: Collin Sexton, PG, Alabama.  The Clippers will be thrilled if Sexton falls this far, giving them a dynamic young option at point guard to go along with veterans Patrick Beverley and Milos Teodosic. Sexton could go as high as No. 6 to Orlando or No. 8 to the Cavs. He'll be one of the interesting names to watch on draft night.

13. Clippers: Robert Williams, PF-C, Texas A&M.  The Clippers are still waiting to see if DeAndre Jordan exercises his player option for next season, but if he decides to test the free agent market, Williams would be a perfect replacement. The athletic 6-foot 10-inch big man is a classic rim runner who should be able to finish off alley-oop passes just like Jordan.

14. Nuggets: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, G, Kentucky.  Don't be surprised if Gilgeous-Alexander goes even higher than this after a strong finish to his freshman season. Scouts love his 6-foot 6-inch frame and ability to get to the basket. In Denver, he could come off the bench initially behind young guards Jamal Murray and Gary Harris.

22. BULLS: Chandler Hutchison, SF, Boise St.  So, the Bulls may or may not have made a "promise" to select Hutchison with the No. 22 pick they acquired in the Niko Mirotic trade with New Orleans. Either way, if the Bulls get Bamba at No. 7, Hutchison would be a great addition as the "3-and-D" small forward Paxson talked about in his end of the season news conference. The 6-foot 7-inch swingman improved his 3-point shooting during his senior season at Boise St., and is considered to be an excellent wing defender. Personally, I'd love to see to Bulls draft NCAA tournament hero Donte DiVincenzo of Villanova if he's still on the board at No. 22. 

Around the Association:

While we wait for the draft drama to unfold, NBA Twitter has already been taken over by speculation over where the next super team will be formed. Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka have been plotting for over a year on how to restore the Lakers' franchise to its past glory, and it looks like they'll be swinging for the fences this summer.

If the Lakers are able to find a taker for Luol Deng's contract or renounce the rights to restricted free agent Julius Randle, they should be able to create two max contract slots once the free agent market opens for business on July 1st. The obvious targets are LeBron James and Paul George, but Magic doesn't plan on stopping there. He's hoping to find a way to convince the Spurs to trade unhappy All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard to the Lakers as well, giving L.A. a super-team that will rival what James put together in Miami.

The Lakers have the assets to get a Leonard trade done with draft picks and young players on rookie contracts (Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart), but would Gregg Popovich actually make a deal with one of his long-time rivals? 

You can bet Pop will do everything he can to convince Leonard to accept a five-year, $219 million super max contract extension this summer and spend his prime years in San Antonio. But if that face-to-face meeting goes sour, Pop will make the deal that's best for the Spurs, preferably to an Eastern conference team he'll only have to face twice a season.

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Initial reports out of Houston indicate that free agent point guard Chris Paul plans to re-sign with the Rockets and will do everything in his power to recruit good friend LeBron James. Problem is, Houston has no cap space, so they would have to get the Cavaliers to agree to a trade. And in order to make the money work, the Rockets would want to include high-salaried players like Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, neither of which would hold much interest for Cleveland with the team in rebuild mode.

Rockets' general manager Daryl Morey is one of the league's most creative executives, but trying to find a way to fit James into his bloated payroll will be the biggest challenge he's ever faced. Morey also has to deal with the restricted free agency of breakout center Clint Capela, who could draw a big offer sheet from another team.

Chris Paul and LeBron might be good friends, but the logistics could make it next to impossible to join forces in Houston.