Sixers' Tobias Harris Believes James Harden Rumors Fueled Ben Simmons

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    We’ve seen plenty of talent exit the West in recent years, but the NBA’s varsity conference still looks as strong as ever as the 2021 postseason approaches. The Lakers remain the favorites even as they limp through the season without Anthony Davis and LeBron James, and if you look past the champs, plenty of legitimate contenders emerge. The Clippers may sport the West’s best roster. The Nuggets and Jazz are in the midst of their strongest seasons this century. Chris Paul is turning the Suns into a potential Finals threat and there are still dangerous pseudo-contenders in Dallas and Portland. The shuffling of seeds in the West will be one of the season’s most interesting subplots down the stretch.

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    We’ll take a deeper look at the Western Conference contenders at a later date. For now, let’s dive into this week’s power rankings with notes on all 30 teams.

    30. Minnesota Timberwolves

    It was nice to see Karl-Anthony Towns show some nasty in a 39-point performance against Joel Embiid and the 76ers on Saturday night. Towns’s offensive gifts are undeniable and, at his best, he’s perhaps the game’s most impressive offensive big man. But too often we see KAT float in and out of games, too willing to pick-and-pop his way through a given contest. Perhaps we should send Embiid to Minnesota every night to get the best out of Towns.

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    29. Detroit Pistons

    The Pistons sit in the Eastern Conference cellar entering Tuesday night, with their most recent loss coming by 44 points against the Knicks. But let’s add a dose of positivity to these proceedings amid another lost year in Detroit. Rookie Killian Hayes is back, and so are his imaginative dimes. Let’s hope to see a healthy Hayes the rest of the season as Detroit looks to see some development from the No. 7 pick.

    28. Houston Rockets

    The Rockets were largely pilloried for their lack of return in the Victor Oladipo trade, though there could be one silver lining. Kelly Olynyk has been effective throughout his Houston tenure, finishing with 26 points in a loss against the Pelicans on Sunday. Olynyk’s skill set allows him to work comfortably alongside Christian Wood, and there’s a solid chance the Rockets retain him in free agency. Is Olynyk the type of blue-chip piece the Rockets were looking for in an Oladipo trade? Not exactly. But he could be an effective rotation piece in Houston for years to come.

    27. Orlando Magic

    The Utah-Denver back-to-back is always a difficult stretch for opposing teams, something the Magic learned in a major way over the weekend. Orlando suffered a 46-point defeat against the Jazz in Utah on Saturday, and Aaron Gordon exacted his revenge with 24 points in Denver to close the weekend on Sunday night. The Magic’s rotation is thinning by the week. The youth movement is on full display. Expect an extended tankathon through the season’s last couple of months.

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    26. Cleveland Cavaliers

    Isaac Okoro isn’t exactly putting up sensational counting stats in his rookie season, but the Auburn product is making a marked defensive impact on a struggling Cavaliers team. He held Ben Simmons to just five points on April 1, and he drew the respect of Jimmy Butler after a strong defensive performance in Miami two nights later. Okoro is already carving out his niche in the NBA, which should lead to a long, productive career.

    25. Washington Wizards

    Washington lost its fourth straight in a defeat against the Raptors on Monday as it kicks off a six-game road trip. The Wizards will face Phoenix, Utah and Golden State on their trip out West, and by the time they return, they could lead only the Pistons in the Eastern Conference standings. The constant churn of Bradley Beal rumors is likely frustrating to the Washington faithful, but again, what exactly is Beal doing in a Wizards uniform? Perhaps this purposeless season will spur him to reevaluate his options this offseason.

    24. Oklahoma City Thunder

    Oklahoma City’s player development pipeline continues to be unrivaled across the league. The Thunder signed center Moses Brown to a multiyear contract on March 28, converting Brown’s two-way deal after an impressive 16-game stint at the NBA level. Brown has tallied three 20-point games and six double doubles since joining the Thunder, including a 21-point, 23-rebound effort against Boston. Like Lu Dort, Oklahoma City may have found another diamond in the rough with Brown.

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    23. Sacramento Kings

    Harrison Barnes continues to be one of the more underappreciated players in the league as he rolls through his ninth season. Barnes may never be an All-Star, yet he continues to be a steady cog for a Sacramento team in striking distance of a play-in tournament. Barnes’s size provides at least some defensive resistance for a struggling unit, and he’s a smart player off the bounce as well as a quality shooter. Without Barnes, it’s likely Sacramento would be firmly out of playoff contention by now

    22. Chicago Bulls

    I have confidence that Zach LaVine and Nikola Vučević will be enough to propel the Bulls toward at least a play-in appearance or two, though to ascend any further, there needs to be greater production from the rest of Chicago’s core. That starts with Coby White. The second-year guard has struggled to find his footing as of late, shooting just 41% from the field and 32.5% from three in his last 20 games. It’s too early to give up on White’s potential, but the results through two seasons don’t necessarily suggest he’s a future building block.

    21. New Orleans Pelicans

    Lonzo Ball is going to command major money in the offseason, and the Pelicans may regret not coming to an extension agreement before the season. Ball is averaging a career-high 14.5 points per game this season as his three-point shooting continues to improve, and he trails only Kira Lewis among New Orleans rotation players in net rating. Ball is an effective complement to Zion Williamson. He can initiate offense without either of New Orleans’s frontcourt pieces on the floor. Letting Ball walk could add a major crack in David Griffin’s rebuilding plans.

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    20. Toronto Raptors

    Gary Trent Jr. is already making a major impact in Toronto, tallying a 31-point effort against Oklahoma City before dropping 24 on the Warriors in a 53-point demolition on Friday. Trent fills a relatively similar role to Norman Powell when he was in Toronto, providing instant offense and credible spacing alongside Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet. The Lowry rumors persisted throughout trade deadline day, yet Toronto ultimately held off. Perhaps the decision will prove prudent. Running it back with this core and a potential lottery talent could make for a stronger Eastern Conference contender than many realize.

    19. Golden State Warriors

    It’s time to set off the alarm bells in Golden State. The Warriors enter Tuesday night following three straight losses, including a 130–77 shellacking at the hands of the Raptors. Steve Kerr's squad is scoring fewer than 98 points per 100 possessions with Curry off the floor. They are just 4–11 since the calendar turned to March. Klay Thompson’s return and a high lottery pick should bring this team back to the playoffs in 2021–22. But considering such a shaky roster at present, it’s fair to consider whether the Warriors' Finals window is ultimately closed.

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    18. Indiana Pacers

    Few teams in the league feel as ripe for an offseason shake-up as the Pacers. Indiana enters Tuesday sitting firmly in the play-in tournament, and a peek at the roster shows a group with a hard ceiling. There are five Pacers earning over $10 million next season, and there’s plenty of positional overlap with Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis as well as T.J. Warren and Caris LeVert. Don’t be shocked if Indiana jumps into the lottery by shedding a veteran piece in July.

    17. Charlotte Hornets

    The Hornets continue to tread water in the Eastern Conference playoff race, though it’s fair to question whether their slate of injuries will ultimately send them outside the top eight. Gordon Hayward is likely out for a month after suffering a sprained foot, exacerbating a playmaking shortage amid LaMelo Ball and Malik Monk's absence. With the Martin twins and Brad Wanamaker increasingly relied upon, we could see offensive struggles emerge in the coming weeks.

    16. San Antonio Spurs

    The Spurs continued to slide down the Western Conference standings with a loss to the Cavaliers on Monday night, marking San Antonio’s eighth defeat in the last 10 games. Gregg Popovich’s squad has turned in a trio of concerning defensive performances as of late, allowing over 130 points to Atlanta and Indiana before Monday’s 126–101 loss against Cleveland. This is a Spurs team flush with young talent, and the future is bright after effective drafting in the mid-to-late portions of the first round. But the growing pains are evident as we approach the home stretch. It’s hard to imagine San Antonio climbing out of the play-in tournament amid its defensive woes.

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    15. New York Knicks

    This doesn’t really mean much in the grand scheme of things, but I appreciated Julius Randle and Reggie Bullock’s comments about facing Brooklyn’s Big Three before Monday night.

    “We’ve got a big five,” Bullock told the media on Monday. Randle then chimed in, adding, “We got a big 15.”

    The sentiment is indicative of New York’s culture in the first year of the Tom Thibodeau era, one in which a middling roster consistently appears better than the sum of its parts. Randle is in the midst of a career year. RJ Barrett is making significant strides. This Knicks team has shown up numerous times against the best in the East, and they could be a friskier playoff opponent than originally assumed. We can discuss New York’s ceiling another day. For now it’s worth celebrating the Knicks’ strides in year one of Thibodeau’s tenure.

    14. Memphis Grizzlies

    The Grizzlies have won eight of their last 11 (with all three losses coming against the Jazz) entering Tuesday night, seeing a marked boost in their offensive output in recent weeks. De’Anthony Melton is playing a sizable role in the jump. The second-year guard has found his shooting stroke as of late, hitting over 51.4% of his threes since March 1. Melton is, of course, due for some regression, but even a passable mark from three will work given his athleticism on the wing. Memphis continues to churn out quality young players as it eyes a return to the postseason.

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