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NBA Eastern Conference power rankings: The top 5 is getting interesting

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NBA Eastern Conference power rankings: The top 5 is getting interesting

Things are starting to get interesting in the Eastern Conference’s top five. Let’s take a look at this week’s power rankings.

1. Raptors (28-12) Last week: 1 
We’re sticking with the Raptors at No. 1, but it’s not without serious doubt. They’re dealing with an injury to Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard rest days, but they’re just 5-5 over their last 10. For now, they keep the top spot, but the East looks wide open right now with their struggles.

2. Bucks (26-10) Last week: 2
While Toronto has struggled, Milwaukee is red hot, having won four in a row and eight of their last nine. While an NBA win is an NBA win, the Bucks been beating up on some of the East’s cellar dwellers. Still, it’s tough ignore what Giannis Antetokounmpo and company are doing.

3. Celtics (22-15) Last week: 3
I’m still a little conflicted on Boston. Some nights they look like they’re turning a corner and then they just don’t. The Celtics have to be encouraged by Gordon Hayward’s 35-point performance vs. the Timberwolves. Still have to give them the slight edge over the Sixers and Pacers.

4. Sixers (25-14) Last week: 4
The Sixers had a bizarre road trip. They were a missed JJ Redick jumper from beating Boston and going 4-1 on a tough trip which featured wins in Utah and L.A. over the Clippers. The clunker without Joel Embiid in Portland was just that — a clunker. It happens. The Sixers have a nice stretch of winnable games coming up before what should a fun matchup at Indiana on Jan. 17.

5. Pacers (25-12) Last week: 5
Like the Bucks, the Pacers are on a ridiculous run right now. They’ve won five in a row and 12 out of their last 14. There’s no real secret to how Indiana is doing it despite only having one star player. They have depth and they play defense. They’ll likely still need to add a star-caliber player if they want to stay near the top of the East.

6. Miami Heat (18-18) Last week: 9
And this is where the East basically becomes a pick ‘em, though the Heat have shown life recently. Josh Richardson’s emergence reminds me a little of Victor Oladipo. Both players, who excel on both ends of the floor, had fine starts to their careers, but really emerged during their age-25 seasons. Goran Dragic has missed the last 10, but Miami is 7-3 in that stretch.

7. Hornets (18-19) Last week: 6
I hate to discredit the other members of the Hornets, but I simply don’t understand how they win games unless Kemba Walker goes off. He’ll be a hot name around the trade deadline, but he’s also all Michael Jordan’s franchise has.

8. Brooklyn Nets (18-21) Last week: 8
The Nets have cooled off since winning seven straight. I said in this space a couple weeks ago that this is a playoff team in the East. Nothing has changed. What an accomplishment that would be for GM Sean Marks after the mess he inherited.

9. Detroit Pistons (17-19) Last week: 7
Outside of Blake Griffin, there is no one on this Pistons team that scares you. Though if I’m the Sixers, I’d keep an eye on Reggie Bullock as a trade target if Detroit starts falling out of the playoff picture. He’s shooting 44 percent on 7.4 threes per game over his last 10.

10. Magic (17-20) Last week: 10
It’s a shame that former Sixer Nikola Vucevic is getting little All-Star love. He’s single-handedly keeping the Magic near .500.

11. Wizards (15-23) Last week: 11
John Wall is out for the year. Markieff Morris is out six weeks. The team has grossly underachieved. Just blow the damn thing up already.

12. Hawks (11-26) Last week: 13
The Hawks have been the best of the tanking teams. Both of their bigs, Dewayne Dedmon and Alex Len, have given them solid contributions. Either would look good backing up Embiid.

13. Knicks (9-29) Last week: 15
Kevin Knox looks legit and was just named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month. That’s the only reason they’re ahead of the other two teams.

14. Cavs (8-30) Last week: 13
Just look away.

15. Bulls (10-28) Last week: 14
Chicago is here because they don’t even know how to tank properly. Wendell Carter Jr. played 13 minutes the other night. Inexcusable.

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It sounds like Brett Brown has a long-term plan without Ben Simmons in mind

It sounds like Brett Brown has a long-term plan without Ben Simmons in mind

Updated: Tuesday, 5:09 p.m.

We now have a diagnosis on Ben Simmons' injury. Simmons suffered a nerve impingement in his lower back and will be re-evaluated in two weeks, a team source confirmed Tuesday to NBC Sports Philadelphia (see story). Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium first reported the news.

Speaking before the Sixers' win Monday night over the Hawks, head coach Brett Brown was unsure how long the injury would sideline Simmons. The 23-year-old sustained the injury at practice Wednesday going up for a rebound, according to Brown, and irritated it in the first quarter of Saturday night’s game against the Bucks.

“I don’t know,” Brown said. “And it really is like how long is a piece of string — who knows? Who knows? … Whatever the time equals on days, games, period of time, we can talk more honestly as this thing shakes out.”

However, it sounded as if Brown was preparing for his two-time All-Star point guard to be out for a while. He framed the situation as one the Sixers can cope with if other players take advantage of the chance to play expanded roles.

There’s 25 games left. … It’s an eternity,” he said. “Just keep going back to the end game. What’s the bottom line? I’ll say it again — if you get their health and their spirit, it’s got a chance to equal form. … And it’s all about landing the plane. And so with 25 games left, we’ve taken a hit with Ben. 

"I do see it this way. I’m not spinning it. It’s an opportunity for us to learn and something will emerge. And we need something to emerge. It’s not like we were all saying, ‘Oh, here it is, it’s anointed.’ It wasn’t that. So, I think we’re going to learn something and find something. If this was six games out, I wouldn’t be telling you this story. When it’s 25 games out, it is, with all my heart, what I think. That’s what I said to the team, that’s what I really think and that’s what I’m going to try to pull off.

Who specifically will take over ball handling duties? Brown said it “will be done by committee” for the time being, and he named a few players who he expects to be in that mix. Monday night, the team started Shake Milton, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Joel Embiid. 

“The candidates could be Raul Neto or [Furkan Korkmaz] or Alec Burks or J-Rich, Shake," he said. "So, you have capable people that aren’t traditional point guards but have the ability to get the ball up the floor. Then at that point, you’re probably going to have to be in something that has motion and continuity instead of just giving Chris Paul the ball and saying, ‘Go to work’ out of a pick-and-roll, as an example.”

Regardless of Brown’s attitude, the tangible impact of not having Simmons will clearly be significant. He leads the league in steals, has assisted on the most three-pointers and is a highly athletic, versatile and talented player.

The loss of all those attributes will no doubt be difficult to overcome.

“When there is a vacuum, as there is right now with Ben, something will happen,” Brown said. “Somebody will step up. I’m trying to see the world through those eyes, and I really do — it’s not even creative coach speak. I see it as an opportunity, and I think I need to see it that way.”

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Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons suffered nerve impingement in lower back

Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons suffered nerve impingement in lower back

Ben Simmons suffered a nerve impingement in his lower back and will be re-evaluated in approximately two weeks, a team source confirmed Tuesday to NBC Sports Philadelphia. Simmons will undergo daily treatment. 

Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium first reported the news. 

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports “there's little expectation that [Simmons would] be ready to return to lineup that soon,” and says “doctors are hopeful treatment can drive improvement, but Sixers are preparing to play without him." 

According to head coach Brett Brown, Simmons was first injured at the team’s practice last Wednesday. The 23-year-old All-Star missed the team’s first game after the All-Star break, a win Thursday over the Nets. 

“It was a play where he went up for a rebound and I looked over and he left the court, and went and got treatment,” Brown said Thursday. “And it has played out as it has played out. We don’t believe it’s anything too significant.”

Simmons sat out the Sixers’ game vs. the Nets on Thursday and played Saturday in Milwaukee. He appeared to be in discomfort after drawing a foul in the first quarter on the Bucks’ Brook Lopez. The 23-year-old stayed in the game to make 1 of 2 free throws, then exited when Matisse Thybulle committed a foul to create a stoppage of play and ensure Simmons could return to the locker room.

Ahead of the game against the Bucks, Simmons had averaged 16.9 points, 8.3 assists, 7.9 rebounds and a league-best 2.2 steals. He’d played 36.3 minutes per game, most on the Sixers and third-highest in the NBA ahead of Saturday’s games. 

Brown talked before the Sixers’ win Monday over the Hawks as if he was prepared for a long-term absence. He said the team would split up ball handling responsibilities by committee, with Shake Milton, Josh Richardson and Alec Burks among the possible candidates. Milton started on Monday. 

The 36-22 Sixers are fifth in the Eastern Conference and play the Cavaliers on Wednesday night in Cleveland. 

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