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NBA Power Rankings, where the top still looks like last year’s finals

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Our weekly NBA Power Rankings, where nothing confuses us more than the Suns playing at the 20th fastest pace in the league.

1. Lakers (3-0). Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol have been the best front line in basketball through the first week. Kobe’s knee isn’t right, but it hasn’t mattered yet. Oh, and we told you Steve Blake was a huge pickup for them.

2. Celtics (2-1). They beat the Heat opening night… and you can’t read much into that. Not that Boston isn’t well built to give Miami problems, but the first game of the season is no time to make playoff assertions.

3. Heat (2-1). Along the same lines as the Celtics note, Heat fans should not just write off Orlando after one regular season game (Orlando was on a back-to-back and won’t shoot that poorly again). The overwhelming of a lesser New Jersey team, that you will see again.

4. Blazers (3-0). They said they wanted to reclaim their place as the young, up-and-coming team in the West. So far, so good. They are playing well at both ends of the floor.

5. Hawks (3-0). Hawks are killing it on offense, and that has been enough so far. But they killed it on offense last season, if the defense doesn’t improve it will catch up with them.

6. Mavericks (2-1). All that depth and some Jason Kidd three-quarter court shots has it looking like this could be a very good regular season for the Mavericks.

7. Magic (1-1). That loss to the Heat came on the second night of a back-to-back, when tired legs can turn good shooting teams into bad ones (and the Heat defense deserves some credit). The bad-shooting Magic will turn it around this week.

8. Hornets (3-0). New Orleans is the poster child for the preseason not mattering. They looked terrible in preseason, then Chris Paul flips the switch and they are undefeated first week in.

9. Spurs (1-1). In an era of rebuilding for superstar teams, the Spurs have remained loyal. Their big three will be together for another few years. Can those players reward management for that loyalty is the question?

10. Thunder (2-1). Oklahoma City is shooting just 39.9 percent from the field and just 20.7 percent from three. But they are winning because they are still attacking the rim, getting fouled and getting to the line. When they didn’t do that the Jazz blew them out. The shooting woes will turn around.

11. Nuggets (2-1). What Carmelo Anthony distraction? Have no idea what you’re talking about, they are playing just fine considering the front line is so banged up.

12. Grizzlies (2-1). Zach Randolph is out with a sore tailbone, but Marc Gasol is back from a sprained ankle. Memphis will need both of them to keep this up.

13. Bulls (1-1). It is the Derrick Rose show, they have nobody else who can create offense like him (until Boozer returns). That is a very entertaining show, by the way.

14. Jazz (1-2). It’s taking them some time to find their footing on offense with the new personnel, but they found it Sunday and blew out the Thunder. Was that an aberration or have they started to get it?

15. Kings (2-1). They’d be 3-0 if it were not for a total collapse in New Jersey. The Kings offense is fast and fun to watch, but the defense is going to improve or hold them back.

16. Bucks (1-2). Their offense and defense will get better, you have to think. Right now they are pretty average.

17. Warriors (2-1). Another from the really good on offense, really bad on defense category. But if you take away Stephen Curry and put Ron Artest on Monta Ellis, things don’t go so well.

18. Suns (1-2). It’s three games in, but the Suns are 20th in the league in pace. What happened to the team from last season? Can we blame Hedo for this too?

19. Pacers (2-1). Roy Hibbert has 11 assists versus just 2 turnovers in the Pacers two wins — the ball is not sticking with him and letting the defense adjust. That’s a big step forward for this team.

20. Nets (2-1). Come from behind wins against the Pistons and Kings — they would not have done that last year.

21. Knicks (1-2). Raymond Felton is still not comfortable just attacking off the pick-and-roll, and I drafted Danilo Gallinari on my fantasy team so I should have warned all of you he would turn to ice because of it. Still, better than last year.

22. Bobcats (0-3). Last season the Bobcats made the playoffs because they had one of the best defenses in the league. Three games in, they are 29th in defensive efficiency. If that keeps up, it will get ugly fast.

23. Rockets (0-3). Who are the Rockets? Their guards dominate and they should run more, but when Yao is in the team just looks lost and never really adjusts to the half court. The transition of Yao back into the rotation has been painful.

24. Pistons (0-3). Ben Gordon and Rodney Stuckey have been kept the offense going and the team does attack. But three heartbreaking losses? Either they fight through and win a few in a row, or this could become a season-long pattern.

25. Raptors (1-1). The Raptors are playing good defense. Yes, we believe this to be a mirage.

26. Timberwolves (1-2). Michael Beasley said they had to be the worst team in the NBA after they got blown out by Memphis. If Beasley says you’re the worst team in the league…

27. Cavaliers (1-2). Do you think the win over the Celtics was the real Cavaliers, or the two ugly losses? We lean toward the latter right now.

28. Wizards (0-2). Orlando then Atlanta is a tough way to open the season. We’ll get a better feel for just where the Wizards really stand in the next couple weeks.

29. Sixers (0-3). This team is worse than we thought. It’s worse than Doug Collins thought. But apparently the people of Philadelphia understood and are now solely focused on the Eagles.

30. Clippers (0-3). Blake Griffin is just flat out fun to watch. More Eric Gordon and Bledsoe will help in the backcourt. But this team is being out scored by 15.8 points per 100 possessions so far, worst in the NBA. So they get the bottom spot.

Heat’s Josh McRoberts says he broke foot in Game 6 vs. Raptors, remains out

MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 26: A portrait of Josh McRoberts #4 of the Miami Heat on September 26, 2016 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
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To call Josh McRoberts‘ time in Miami injury plagued might be the understatement of the decade.

Now with Chris Bosh out, the Heat could really use McRoberts at the four, but “shockingly” he is not healthy. Wednesday he finally admitted the reason he has been limited in training camp with foot issues.

McRoberts run of bad luck continues. And foot injuries — when your job involves running up and down a hardwood floor — are something that has to be taken seriously and allowed to fully heal, lest they become chronic. I’m not sure the Heat can bet on a lot out of McRoberts this season.

With no Bosh and McRoberts, expect Derrick Williams, Udonis Haslem, and maybe Luke Babbitt will get some run there. Coach Erik Spoelstra also likely will have some small lineups where Justise Winslow will play the four.

51Q: Will Larry Bird’s renovation of the Pacers pay off?

Larry Bird, Paul George
AP Photo/Michael Conroy
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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season.

There are two types of basketball analysts: Those who believe the Pacers improved by swapping George Hill for Jeff Teague and those who believe Indiana got worse in the trade.

Teague uses his superior quickness in the pick-and-roll to score and assist more. Hill defends better, commits fewer turnovers and shoots more efficiently.

I prefer Hill. Larry Bird opted for Teague.

I can’t wait to see who’s right.

Though I’m inclined to value Hill’s less-flashy contributions – and like his lead-guard skills if he were called upon for that role – I’m also not arrogant enough to believe I certainly know better than Bird. An all-time great who has excelled as a player, coach and executive deserves some benefit of the doubt.

Bird is leveraging it now.

Seemingly unsatisfied with the team that reached consecutive conference finals in 2013 and 2014, Bird has now fully torn down the roster to build a more dynamic offense around Paul George. The Pacers president has long talked about the change, and we’ll learn this season whether his vision will bear fruit.

In addition to trading Hill for Teague, Bird let Lance Stephenson leave in free agency, deemphasized and traded Roy Hibbert, offended David West into leaving and fired Frank Vogel. In came Monta Ellis, Rodney Stuckey, Myles Turner, Thaddeus Young, Teague and Nate McMillian.

And Bird hasn’t stopped after jettisoning everyone who regularly started with George in those conference-finals runs. Indiana will miss Ian Mahinmi‘s defense – maybe more than Al Jefferson works as a change-of-pace in the low post. But Bird is fully embracing the course of trading defense for offense.

Debate how he addressed it, but the team’s identity was clear. In the last four years, the Pacers stunk offensively and thrived defensively. Their rank in points per possession:

  • Offense: 20th, 23rd, 23rd, 25th
  • Defense: 1st, 1st, 7th, 3rd

The beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I see an excellent defense propping up an offense that could have been better. Bird saw a struggling offense and couldn’t look past it.

Indiana now has a deep squad of players who can break down opponents off the dribble. They will have matchup advantages – if they pass well enough to find the player in favorable position. The ball will move plenty between the hardwood and the dribbler’s hands. Between players? That’s a major question mark.

It’s one of numerous hitches in Bird’s plan.

He tried to fast-track the offense last year by moving George from small forward to power forward. Despite Bird’s demands, George resisted. The plan was largely scrapped early in the season.

McMillian was also a curious choice given Bird’s stated goals. McMillian’s Trail Blazers and SuperSonics teams usually played slow. Still, perhaps the coach can adapt his scheme to fit his players (and appease his boss). Bird chose McMillian for a reason, after all.

Bird chose it all.

This is the team he long desired – for better or worse.

Lakers GM Kupchak tries to brush off Jim Buss’ timeline discussion

Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak speaks to reporters at team headquarters in El Segundo, Calif., Friday, April 15, 2016. With Kobe Bryant's $25 million salary, ravenous shot selection and dominant personality gone from the basketball team after 20 years, Kupchak says he will meet with head coach Byron Scott and owner Jim Buss in a few days to discuss their options for the Lakers, which finished with the NBA's second-worst record at 17-65 in Bryant's farewell season. (AP Photo/Greg Beacham)
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Consider this a little preview: On Thursday the ProBasketballTalk podcast returns, opening with a discussion of the Lakers and the Pacific division with Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News. We talk about the young core — D'Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, etc. — and how Luke Walton fits with them. How this is a team that if handled properly could develop into something of quality in a couple of years as these players come along. Patience is key.

But then we got to what Medina called the “elephant in the room”: Jim Buss’ timeline for returning to contending. He’s the head of basketball operations and vowed to at least make the second round of the playoffs at least by this season. Which is not happening. Will Buss be patient? Is he grounded in today’s NBA reality? Will the woman with the hammer, Jeanie Buss, hold him to that timeline? Does she have the backing of the other Buss children to push him out? (Reportedly she does.) It has Shakespearian drama potential.

Laker GM Mitch Kupchak was asked about that Tuesday and wanted no part of the question. Via Medina at the Daily News.

“I’m not in a position to debate the stuff you talked about,” Kupchak said on Tuesday at UC Santa Barbara. “I’m not sure what was said with certainty. From my point of view, we’ve created a team that has a lot of young talent that can grow into really good NBA players that can leave an imprint on this league. I think we’ve surrounded them with older veterans to help us win games. I’m excited about our coaching staff….

“Wins and losses, I couldn’t pick a number,” Kupchak said. “I could guess. But I would not guess in front of you. That’s not something I would do. That’s something I would stare at for the rest of the year.”

The Lakers should win more than the 17 of last year, maybe climb into the upper 20s, with 30 wins being the goal. That would signify a good season. But what matters is development, and if the Lakers are better at the end of the season, if their young players are on the right track, then that is success for this season.

Everyone around the Lakers understands that.

But is that enough to save Jim Buss’ job? That’s a different question.

New challenges face Portland guard CJ McCollum in Year four

Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum poses for a photograph during NBA basketball media day in Portland, Ore., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)
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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) CJ McCollum became a starter for the Trail Blazers last season, broke out as the NBA’s Most Improved Player then signed a big contract over the summer.

Driving him all along the way was third-year pressure.

“Because I knew that was a make-or-break year for me. I know that going into year three I hadn’t played particularly well. I’d had flashes, but I just didn’t sustain a level of consistency for a season.

“In our league you get three years, you get traded, you get put in a box and they say `This is what you are,”‘ McCollum said when the team convened this week for training camp.

The 25-year-old guard became a star in the Blazers’ backcourt with Damian Lillard last season after four of the team’s starters left in the offseason.

With one of the youngest rosters in the league, the Blazers were considered a team that was rebuilding.

But they surpassed expectations, finishing 44-38 and earning the fifth seed in the Western Conference and advancing to the second round of the playoffs.

At one point last season, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle referred to Lillard and McCollum as “a younger version of those Golden State guys.”

McCollum averaged 20.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists during the regular season. He had 197 3-pointers, fourth most for the Blazers in one season. He scored in double figures in 79 games.

He raised his scoring average by more than 14 points over the previous season and the dramatic turnaround earned him the Most Improved Player award.

That improvement was the most since Tony Campbell from an average of 6.2 points to 23.2 points with Minnesota between the ’88-89 and `89-90 seasons.

McCollum averaged 20.5 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists in the postseason last season.

But at times he was nervous that he was just an injury away from seeing all the hard work fizzle away.

“It was nerve-wracking for me because if you get hurt so many times you fear it. You’re like, `Oh, this could be it,”‘ he said. “So for me to get through a season healthy and to play well, it was comforting.”

McCollum, the 10th overall pick in the 2013 draft out of Lehigh, missed the first 34 games of his rookie season with a foot injury.

The next season he was a reserve, but he started to turn heads down the stretch and into the playoffs after starter Wesley Matthews was knocked out with a ruptured Achilles. His postseason included a 33-point game against Memphis.

This summer the Blazers solidified their backcourt for years to come by signing McCollum to a four-year contract worth $106 million. It will keep him in Portland through the 2020-21 season.

While McCollum says he feels “less pressure” this season, he’s still looking to grow. The Blazers signed free agent Evan Turner in the offseason to help shore up the Blazers’ depth at guard.

“As a younger player you just play and react,” McCollum said. “As an older player you start to get more experience and you start to `think’ the game. I think once I put those two things together I can be a special player.”