NBA Power Rankings, where the Heat has finally risen to the top

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Our weekly NBA Power Rankings, where the effect of LeBron James’ decision is the difference between No. 1 and No. 30.

1. Heat (30-9). Nine wins in a row and 21 of the last 22. We said before the season this team should be a regular season powerhouse and they are proving to be. They are winning the close, ugly games now, which is what good teams do.

2. Magic (25-12). Nine consecutive wins. What the trade has done is made them a much more balanced offensive team, and Hedo Turkoglu is back to being effective.

3. Spurs (31-6). In the Spurs last 10 games Gary Neal has outscored Tim Duncan, 12.4 points per game to 12.1. Neal is taking 60 percent of his shots from three (shooting 41.1 percent) and has been a key part of the Spurs attack. They find these guys who can fill roles and put them in good positions like no other franchise.

4. Celtics (28-8). In his five games back, Rajon Rondo is averaging 8.8 points and 12.2 assists per game — that passing makes the Celtics offense so much smoother. Celtics start a six-game home stand Monday, and KG is expected back this week.

5. Lakers (27-11). Four wins in a row and six of their last seven. Go ahead and say it’s against soft competition — it is. However, against a resurgent Knicks Sunday the Lakers showed signs of being their big, bad selves.

6. Bulls (24-12). Quality win against the Celtics — not a statement win, Boston didn’t have KG and the Bulls didn’t have Noah, and there are no statements in January. But still a good win. They get the Heat Saturday and that won’t be as easy.

7. Thunder (25-13). Kevin Durant is looking like an MVP candidate again, averaging 30.2 points a game on 53 percent shooting in the last 10 for the Thunder. Big test for them Thursday against the streaking Magic.

8. Jazz (25-13). Utah’s front office has to get a little nervous watching the Carmelo Anthony disaster and realizing they could be in the same spot with Deron Williams next year at this time. Good news, Mehmet Okur is back practicing with the team.

9. Hornets (22-16). In the last 10 Hornets games, no player has taken more threes than Trevor Ariza — and he has hit 25.6 percent of them. He’d be better off leaving those to Marco Belinelli, who is hitting 46 percent over the same period. Just a suggestion.

10. Mavericks (26-10). They have dropped down the rankings due to seven games without Dirk Nowitzki (2-5 in those). Until they get Nowitzki back for a while it’s hard to fully judge how much losing Caron Butler hurts.

11. Hawks (22-14). They have yet to lose in 2011 and they’re 8-2 in their last 10. Outside of Utah, however, they have yet to beat anyone in the last couple weeks that impresses.

12. Knicks (21-15). They got their season signature win over the Spurs last Tuesday, then Amar’e Stoudemire got a good homecoming with a win in Phoenix. After those two, we’ll try to ignore how the Lakers game reminded all of us of this team’s weaknesses.

13. Blazers (20-18). They get credit for two moral victories this week, playing the Heat and Mavericks tough. Like Houston, this team just makes you work for everything.

14. Nuggets (20-16). Three straight losses and it’s hard to see them getting a win so long as the ‘Melo trade rumors hang over their head. He said again Monday he doesn’t think it gets done this week.

15. Grizzlies (17-20). Last year the Grizzlies made a big mid-season run — they have a lot of road games coming up against the bottom half of the East. Can they do it again?

16. Sixers (15-22). After some tough road trips lately the Sixers are home for a little while, where they are a much better team.

17. Bucks (14-21). The good news is that John Salmons seems to have found his touch again, scoring 17 points a game in the last 10. The bad news is the team’s second leading scorer over that stretch is Earl Boykins.

18. Suns (15-20). They barely beat the Cavaliers the other day, which counts as a win but doesn’t inspire confidence. No matter now many times they deny it will happen, the Steve Nash trade rumors will not die.

19. Clippers (12-24). Don’t look now, the Clippers are 7-3 in their last 10 and playing some good ball. Actually, do look. They are worth watching.

20. Rockets (16-21). They have lost five in a row, and this week the schedule is Boston, Oklahoma City, then New Orleans and Atlanta back-to-back. Rough.

21. Bobcats (13-21). They are 4-2 in the Paul Silas era. And they are playing watchable basketball again.

22. Warriors (15-22). The Warriors are loaded with home games in January and are 4.5 games out of the last playoff spot in the West. If it’s going to happen it’s going to happen now.

23. Pacers (14-20). Indiana’s final two possessions against the Spurs in a close game Friday night had Roy Hibbert isolated in the post against Tim Duncan. Really? No Granger there, but rather Hibbert on a very good defender? The Pacers are 1-6 in last seven.

24. Raptors (13-24). Remember at the start of the season we said they were playing good defense? We take that back.

25. Pistons (12-24). Tom Gores could turn out to be the kind of rich, big-spending owner the Pistons need. But really, right now any kind of owner to point them in a direction is needed.

26. Kings (8-26). They got a win over Denver this week, which any other week would be considered a quality win. Right now, well, still counts as a win. DeMarcus Cousins is beasting lately.

27. Wizards (9-26). Nick Young is making USC proud (and Gilbert Arenas, too), averaging 17.2 points per game in the Wizards last 10. Sure, he’s shooting just 47.5 percent (eFG%, which accounts for his made threes), but at least he’s scoring. Somebody needs to.

28. Timberwolves (9-29). They get moral victories this week for playing the Celtics and the Spurs close. Sure, moral victories shouldn’t count, but look where we are in the rankings, it’s not like there are a lot of actual victories to count.

29. Nets (10-27). You get the feeling watching them the last week that all the trade rumors are bothering the young Nets, which shouldn’t be a surprise.

30. Cavaliers (8-29). What Cleveland might be able to get in an Anderson Varejao trade was the one interesting thing left for Cavs fans this season. Now…..

Jimmy Butler trade sets the stage for looming free agency

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(AP) — As draft night approached, some of the heavy hitters in the NBA – Cleveland, San Antonio, Houston, Boston, the Clippers among them – were jockeying, making calls and looking for deals to try to position themselves to make a run at the Golden State juggernaut.

The Warriors’ greatness has forced the rest of the league to do deep self-examination and be aggressive in upgrading their rosters if they’re even going to have a chance to compete. The Celtics and Cavaliers were looking hard at Pacers star Paul George and Bulls guard Jimmy Butler, the Rockets and Spurs were looking at clearing cap space to make a run at some big-name free agents next week and the Knicks were, well, the Knicks.

Draft night always lays the groundwork for what will happen when the circus (officially known as free agency) begins on July 1. And with all of those contenders looking to make a splash, the biggest move was made by … the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The Wolves reunited Tom Thibodeau with Butler, giving up two promising young players in Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn and the No. 7 overall pick to land one of the best two-way players in the game. The move should jumpstart Minnesota’s pursuit of its first playoff spot since 2004 and, the Wolves hope, pave the way for success in free agency.

“I think it will (help) a lot,” Thibodeau said. “With players, they look around the league, they see the makeup of the team, they see how they play, play together. That’s the main thing. Both offensively and defensively.”

The Timberwolves have long had difficulty attracting free agents to a relatively small market that spends four months of the year covered in ice and snow. Landing a top-15 player like Butler to team with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins sends a sign of how aggressive the teams could be.

The Bulls plunged head-first into a rebuild with the decision, and now it’s up to the Pacers to decide if they want to do the same.

Much to the dismay of Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard, George let it be known last week that he did not plan to re-sign in Indiana when he becomes a free agent next summer. Most of the league assumes that he wants to play for the Los Angeles Lakers, who appear to be in a tug-of-war with the rival Celtics for George’s attention.

“I’m confident we’ll get something,” Pritchard told reporters in Indianapolis on Friday.

One of the big markets affected on Thursday night was at point guard, the deepest position in the league. Philadelphia, the Lakers, Sacramento, New York and Dallas all drafted point guards in the top 10, which could diminish the options for veterans like Jrue Holiday, George Hill, Jeff Teague and Patty Mills.

The elite point guards available – Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry – should have no trouble finding significant contracts. With Tony Parker suffering a serious injury in the playoffs, the Spurs were reportedly trying to clear space to make a run at Paul, who is widely considered the best point guard in the league. Paul has spent the last six seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers, but has yet to advance to the Western Conference finals.

The Clippers are trying to make a decision about retooling around the core of Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, but really it’s a decision that depends largely on Paul’s thinking. He has long struggled to win big in the postseason, and heading to San Antonio to join with Kawhi Leonard or Houston to team up with James Harden could prove to be more attractive.

Lowry figures to remain in Toronto with a Raptors franchise that he has helped put back on the map, but after that there will be few teams in the market for a high-priced starting point guard. Denver, Utah, New York and Indiana could wade into those waters. But if they look at themselves as still being a couple of year away, they might be hesitant to spend big bucks on a veteran.

Other big names available include Gordon Hayward, Paul Millsap and Andre Iguodala. And while some of the very biggest names like Kevin Durant and Steph Curry figure to stay put, it only ramps up the sense of urgency for teams that have big holes to fill.

The clock is ticking and Thursday night provided the first steps toward making big improvements to the roster.

The Timberwolves rocked the boat with Butler, but the waters were calm after that, which should only mean one thing: It’s about to get real choppy when the clock strikes midnight on July 1.

 

Report: Dallas picks up option on Yogi Ferrell for next season. As expected.

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When teams sign a guy out of the D-League, or late second-round picks/undrafted guys as you see this summer, they are often announced as “a three-year deal.” The reality, this is a non-guaranteed contract (or at most a guaranteed contract for a short period of time) with team options for future years.

Why teams do that is guys like Yogi Ferrell.

Dallas snapped him up out of the D-League last season when they needed a point guard, and Ferrell proved to be a solid rotation-level player to bring off the bench. With that Dallas now has the option to bring him back at a good price next season, and they will do just that, reports Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

Sources say the Mavs have informed PG Yogi Ferrell that they are picking up his team option for next season, an easy decision after he proved himself capable of being a rotation player after his promotion from the D-League.

Ferrell will make $1.3 million next season, a steal for a rotation player. Dallas needs that, because the cost of keeping Nerlens Noel could push the Mavericks close to the luxury tax.

If Ferrell keeps playing like he did last season, and his big payday is coming in a couple of years.

What exactly was on the table for Bulls in Jimmy Butler trade?

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It’s been the cry since the Bulls’ front office traded Jimmy Butler for Zach LaVine (coming off an ACL surgery), Kris Dunn, and the No. 7 pick (Lauri Markkanen):

Why didn’t the Bulls get more?

I’m in the camp they didn’t get enough, starting with the question why did they give Minnesota the No. 16 pick in the deal? Even if the Bulls keep that pick, it doesn’t feel like they got enough for an All-NBA player, a top-flight wing defender who can also get buckets with the ball in his hands. The Bulls could have been patient and waited out a better offer, one of this quality would always have been on the table.

However, the deals for Butler may not have been as rich as fans assume. Here is part of what ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote breaking down the trade.

It’s not as if Chicago didn’t canvas the league, either. The Bulls talked to Phoenix about a package centered around Eric Bledsoe and the No. 4 pick, but nothing came close, according to league sources. (Those talks may have been linked at one point to Cleveland’s pursuit of Butler, which apparently fizzled Thursday as Dan Gilbert, the Cavs’ owner, tried to hire a new president of basketball operations on the freaking day of the draft.)

They poked around with Denver, but the Nuggets drew a line at Jamal Murray, sources say. Those teams had to weigh the possibility of Butler bolting in 2019, which cooled the market a bit, sources say.

Boston has danced around Butler for almost a year now, and would not include the No. 3 pick in any package for him as the draft approached, sources say. Other reports suggest they refused to offer next year’s Nets pick, or the Lakers-Kings pick they snagged from Philly in the Markelle Fultz deal.

Boston’s Danny Ainge wanted a deal, a bit of a discount, and the Bulls were not going to give it. Those pick requests are reasonable for a Top 15 player, but Ainge knows he can be patient and the Celtics will still win more than 50 games next season and be a contender in a couple of years. Ainge knows he has a real shot at Gordon Hayward as a free agent this summer. He knows it’s not Butler or bust, so he didn’t go all in. He can afford to be patient right now, but eventually he will have to make a move.

The lack of a better market for Butler speaks to a couple of things. Phoenix, Denver, and other teams are correct to worry about overpaying for a player that could leave in a couple of years. Maybe they can win him over with their culture, maybe a team like Denver becomes very dangerous with Butler in the mix with Nikola Jokic, but is that enough. This is also where the looming shadow of Golden State, the Mount Everest looming over all things in the West, comes into play — how much do teams want to pay to try to contend right now?

Still, the Bulls could have done better. At least know a direction is set, the Bulls are rebuilding. Can Gar/Pax pull that off is another question entirely.

Klay Thompson goes up for 360 dunk in exhibition… and he’s not a dunker (VIDEO)

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Klay Thompson has an amazing skill set — one of the best pure shooters in the league, he can put the ball on the floor and create, and he’s a very good perimeter defender.

He’s not a dunker. Oh, he can dunk, but he’s not the guy you’re inviting to the Dunk Contest.

Case in point, this video out of China where Thompson was part of an exhibition and tried to show off his dunking skills.

Thompson’s shoe sponsor is China-based Anta, which explains why he’s there playing some exhibition ball. In case you missed it, Thompson had a Finals shoe released.

Those are about as good as the 360 dunk.