NBA Power Rankings: Chicago finishes regular season as No. 1

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Our final rankings make for an interesting playoff comparison — the top three come in as the hottest teams going into the playoffs, but the next three more veteran squads. Who do you take when it really matters? (We lean to the second three, but the Bulls may prove us wrong. Again.)

1. Bulls (60-20, Last Week #1). They have won with a much-heralded defense, but their offense has improved as the season has worn on. Derrick Rose can still slash and score, but his decision-making has improved across the board. Make no mistake, they are legit.

2. Heat (56-24, LW #3). The win against Boston was a confidence booster and more importantly likely means Miami is the two seed, but how much of a playoff preview that remains in doubt. Now comes the time we finally get answers to our Heat questions… well, maybe in the second round.

3. Thunder (54-26, LW #4). They come into the playoffs hot and confident, having won 18 of 22. There is a different vibe in the Thunder locker room this season — this team is trying to scowl like Perkins now. Kevin Durant said they are better prepared for the playoffs than a year ago.

4. Spurs (61-19, Last Week #7). The Spurs offense is back in its groove, but Tuesday night in Los Angeles look for Gregg Popovich to sit his stars. He does not want the Lakers falling to the four seed, which could still happen.

5. Lakers (55-25, LW #2). So the Lakers played great ball and set themselves up as the two seed winning 17 of 18, but once the pressure was off they sleepwalked through a five-game losing streak. How is this different than the Lakers we’ve seen the last three years? Now that their backs are against the wall and they have to win to secure the two seed, watch them play well again.

6. Celtics (55-25, LW #6). It’s all about Shaq — if he’s healthy they are a serious contender. If not, they are vulnerable in the second round and every one after. He gives them a big body in the paint, rebounding and scoring from the post they need.

7. Blazers (47-33, LW #8). Huge game Tuesday night against Memphis. Win and they likely are the six seed, which could mean Dallas. That’s the one in the top four of the West all the bottom four teams would like to face.

8. Nuggets (49-31), LW #5). They lost twice to the Thunder this week, reminding everyone what they really want starting in the first round next weekend is Dallas to slip to the four seed.

9. Mavericks (55-25, LW #9). Once again this is a good team — 11 straight 50-win seasons for the franchise — that scares nobody heading into the playoffs.

10. Grizzlies (46-34, LW #10). Great note from John Schuhmann at NBA.com: Memphis is 2-2 against the Spurs and Lakers, 3-1 against the Mavericks and Thunder. This is a team that could pull an upset.

11. Magic (50-30, LW #11). Dwight Howard will finish the season averaging more than 23 points and 14 rebounds per game. Last person to do that (via ESPN’s Marc Stein): Hakeem Olajuwon. I’d have him higher, but if he’s not in the top three on your MVP ballot, you’re doing it wrong.

12. Hornets (46-34, LW #15). Chris Paul was held scoreless Sunday, while in another game Kwame Brown was 9-of-10 shooting. We live in a bizzaro world.

13. Knicks (42-38, LW #18). They have won seven in a row, have gotten big games out of Carmelo Anthony and will get Amar’e Stoudemire back for the playoffs. That should be good enough to push Boston to six games. Maybe.

14. Sixers (41-39, LW #13). The Sixers really miss, and really need back, Lou Williams. And they need Elton Brand and Iggy healthy. With all those things they can push the Heat a little. (They can get the six seed from the Knicks if NY loses its last two and Philly wins out.)

15. Hawks (44-36, LW #14). Losers of four in a row. And they are counting on Jason Collins to be their playoff key against the Magic. If you are counting on a Collins twin to save you….

16. Rockets (42-38, LW #13). The best team not to make the playoffs. Easily.

17. Pacers (37-44, LW #17). Can they win even one game against the Bulls? They won one in the regular season when Roy Hibbert went off, so… yea, probably not.

18. Suns (38-42, LW #16). One very interesting offseason ahead — it is time to rebuild, but that would mean trading Steve Nash and Grant Hill. Does Phoenix ownership and management have the stomach for that?

19. Warriors (35-45, LW #20). The good news is Monta Ellis is out of the hospital. That was a nasty fall. The bad news is what happens to Keith Smart. He is in trouble. Fair or not.

20. Bucks (33-47, LW #21). The most injured team in the NBA this season (they lost most man games and most minutes played by regulars). If they were healthy, if Andrew Bogut’s elbow gets right, could they have beat out the Hawks for the five seed?

21. Bobcats (32-48, LW #19). Lost six in a row and went from fighting for a playoff spot to out of it entirely. Michael Jordan has said the right thing — they can’t live in the middle they may need to get worse to get better. Short term pain and try to draft for long-term gain.

22. Pistons (29-51, LW #25). Tom Gores. That is your hope for the future, Pistons fans. The ship at least has a rudder now.

23. Kings (24-56, LW #24). Just for the record, we’re not as high on Marcus Thornton as everyone else — a high volume, low efficiency scorer. Not that the Kings shouldn’t bring him back, but don’t overpay. The other Cousins — DeMarcus — is the future.

24. Jazz (37-43, LW #22). They will have three lottery picks in this draft. Smart planning, it just may not be the best year to have all those picks.

25. Wizards (22-58, LW #26). There were big steps — Wall got better and they traded the Gilbert Arenas contract (that still amazes me). Still a lot of roster changes needed, but they took steps in the right direction this season.

26. Clippers (31-50, LW #23). Another team poised for a leap forward next season, a team on the right path if they keep making smart moves. But can the combo of Vinny Del Negro and owner Donald Sterling be counted on for more smart moves?

27. Raptors (22-58, LW #27). A bright spot? Ed Davis started to play better late in the season. The ownership change needs to happen, that will help more than anything.

28. Nets (24-56, LW #28). They got the star point guard, but if they can’t recruit some more names — and get a more rounded game out of Brook Lopez — they could lose that new star guard.

29. Cavaliers (17-63, LW #29). Lots of rebuilding to do here, but winning the lottery and getting Kyrie Irving would help.

30. Timberwolves (17-63, LW #30). They have lost 13 in a row to close the season trying to get Kyrie Irving, too. So they can add him to Ricky Rubio, Jonny Flynn and Luke Ridnour.

Michele Roberts: Cap smoothing was ‘disgraceful request’ by NBA

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In 2016, new national TV contracts pushed the NBA’s salary cap from $70 million to $94.143 million – a larger jump than over the entire previous decade. Free agents cashed in majorly that summer.

But now, the cap is leveling off. It went up to just $99.093 million last year and is projected to reach only $101 million this year and $108 million next year. With so many lucrative long-term 2016 contracts still on the books, free agents the following few years haven’t gotten and won’t get comparable compensation.

The problem was predictable, and the NBA proposed a solution at the time – cap smoothing.

Players get 49%-51% of Basketball Related Income (BRI) each year, the precise amount determined by formula. The salary cap is set so teams’ payrolls collectively reach that range. (There are procedures if teams fall short or pay too much.)

With cap smoothing, the NBA would have set an artificially lower cap for 2016-17. Players would have gotten less than 49%-51% of BRI in salary, but presumably, the league would have distributed the difference to players after-the-fact. That way, all players – not just 2016 free agents – would cash in.

But the players union rejected the plan.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has looked back longingly, wishing the union approved. National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts, um, has not.

Roberts, in a Q&A with Paul Flannery of SB Nation:

When the salary explosion happened and you rejected the smoothing idea that the NBA proposed, has anything that has happened in the last few years caused you to reconsider that stance?

No, in fact it’s completely confirmed the correctness of that position. I delight and the players delight in reading about some of these contracts because they know they absolutely deserve it.

There was going to be no smoothing of the owners’ profits at all. They were going to enjoy real money that reflected where we were financially as a game. Why in the world would players pretend that the game was not making as much money and therefore have smaller contracts?

It was an absurd suggestion, I thought personally. But what we did to make sure it wasn’t just Michele’s instinct was hire two separate economists to tell us whether this was something that was going to be of value to our players in the long run.

Independent of each other and not knowing what either of us felt, they both came almost saying, “Are you kidding? Why would you do this?”

I don’t have any regrets at all. I don’t think a single player does either.

Not a single owner came up to me and suggested that they thought we should do this. The league did. But I didn’t see any chorus of support from any of the owners. I thought it was a disgraceful request.

It’s impossible to evaluate whether Roberts was right without knowing the particulars of the NBA’s smoothing plan. That has not leaked.

She implies the league proposed artificially lowering the cap (which, again, is determined by formula based on revenue) for the first year or two of the new national TV deals without offering the players something in return. I find that hard to believe. At minimum, it seems likely the NBA would have distributed the rest of the 49%-51% of BRI to players not earned in traditional salary.

Not that that would have been enough for the players to favor cap smoothing.

Players’ salaries are sometimes based on their previous salaries under cap rules. If only a portion of players’ NBA-provided income was considered official salary, that could have debilitating long-term effects.

Perhaps, the NBA could have accounted for that. But it seems there was little negotiating here. The league made a proposal, and the union rejected it.

I’m not sure which side benefited, and evaluating that becomes even more difficult when dividing the sides into competing interests.

For argument’s sake, let’s say rejecting cap smoothing led to more money for players. That largely went to 2016 free agents. What about all the players still under contract that summer? They didn’t get to reap the rewards.

What’s a better measure – the amount of money players collectively gained by rejecting cap smoothing or the percentage of players who earned more money by rejecting cap smoothing? There’s no easy answer.

And there’s more than just money at stake. Most significantly, a lack of cap smoothing allowed the Warriors to sign Kevin Durant. How many players prefer that never would have been possible?

I’m just not as convinced as Roberts rejecting cap smoothing was the right call. At minimum, negotiating a cap-smoothing compromise could have worked.

Many players already under contract in the summer of 2016 have been waiting their turn for a huge payday. But wait until many of them find out their windfall wasn’t just delayed. It’s not coming. Then, some of Roberts’ constituents might question her insistence that rejecting cap smoothing was correct.

Paul George says he wants to sign with team for long haul

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Paul George is enjoying his time with the Thunder. He also likes the idea of playing near his hometown in Los Angeles.

How will George pick between the two in free agency?

One idea: Sign a short-term contract with Oklahoma City.

He’ll be eligible for a higher max-salary tier in two years (35% of the cap, up from 30%). He’d also get to play more with a prime Russell Westbrook while still having an out if the 29-year-old point guard drops off. George would likely remain with Carmelo Anthony next season, too, as Anthony likely opts in. That’d give the Thunder more time to jell and show what they can do.

It’d also give the Lakers’ young core time to develop. If a prolonged test run in Oklahoma City fizzles, the Lakers would probably look even more appealing in a couple years (provided they keep open or can create cap space).

But George doesn’t sound interested in such a plan.

George, via Fred Katz of The Norman Transcript:

“I’m not looking to bounce around and play for multiple teams throughout my career. The decision I make will ultimately be to build something,” he said. “The only way it’s going to be done. So, this next decision, whatever it is, is to make sure I’m there for a duration.”

George can always change his mind, and he isn’t bound to follow his public statements. But he’s quite open about revealing his thought process. I respect that.

This statement doesn’t hint at any particular team. He could sign long-term anywhere.

But it speaks to the stakes of his upcoming free agency. Any team that wants George better sign him this summer. He probably won’t be available again.

Clippers executive Jerry West raves about Warriors’ Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green

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A former great player who’s now an executive for a Los Angeles NBA team praised an opposing player.

The last time this happened, Lakers president Magic Johnson got fined for tampering with the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo.

How will Jerry West fare with these comments about Warriors stars Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green?

West, via the TK Show:

Kevin Durant, I don’t know. Obviously, he’s one of my favorite players I’ve ever watched play. His size, the efficiency that he plays the game is scary. And then you have Steph over there, your little, your next-door-neighbor kid. Let’s go play with him. And then you get out there, and then you find out, oh my god, this guy’s a killer. But pretty unique with that. And the complementary players, in their own right, they’re great. There’s Klay Thompson. He just goes and plays and never seeks any credit. He just plays and really competitive. Draymond, the guy that drives the horse. They’ve got some really unique players up there, and it’s still fun for me to watch. I watch them play. I root for them, because I know some of the players.

As a reminder, here’s what Johnson said about Antetokounmpo. Nick Friedell of ESPN:

As Johnson watches from afar, he can’t help but see and enjoy the parallels between his game and that of the Bucks big man.

“Oh yeah,” Johnson told ESPN recently. “With his ball-handling skills and his passing ability. He plays above the rim I never could do that. But in his understanding of the game, his basketball IQ, his creativity of shots for his teammates. That’s where we [have the] same thing. Can bring it down, make a pass, make a play. I’m just happy he’s starting in the All-Star game because he deserves that. And he’s going to be like an MVP, a champion, this dude he’s going to put Milwaukee on the map. And I think he’s going to bring them a championship one day.”

Two key differences between West and Johnson:

West didn’t help get his team fined for tampering last summer. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said there’s no clear line for tampering, but that the Lakers face a higher bar due their previous violations.

Johnson didn’t previously work for Milwaukee. West worked in Golden State’s front office while those players were there and knows them personally.

But Silver also provided a rough outline of when tampering will be enforced when addressing Johnson’s latest fine:

“It’s one thing when you’re asking a coach a question about an opposing team right after a game. It’s another issue when a general manager or president of basketball sort of gratuitously issues a statement that is complimentary of a star player on another team.

“In essence, what we’ve said to him, and it’s a clear message to other team executives, is that stop talking about star players on other teams. There are plenty of other issues they can address. And there is sensitivity around it throughout the league.”

Given that line, I don’t know how West avoid a fine – which is a shame.

What he said is harmless. No player is going to join another team due to benign compliments from an opposing executive.

It’s also a disservice to fans and West himself if he’s discouraged from speaking publicly about current players. The all-time great has valuable perspective, and he shouldn’t be silenced just because he works for an NBA team. His entire interview with Tim Kawakami of The Athletic is interesting. Everybody would lose if West turns down interviews in fear of a fine.

Meanwhile, more meaningful tampering – making plans on future contracts – is rampant. But that’s difficult to curb. So, the NBA enforces silly stuff like this.

The NBA never should have fined Johnson for the Antetokounmpo comments. It just opens too many cans of worms in a fight not worth fighting. Seriously, what’s the point?

If I were the Lakers, I’d be bothered if West skates free on this. But if I were West, I’d also resent a fine.

The league has backed itself into a dumb corner.

C.J. McCollum on how Portland’s defense, and his, became respectable

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LOS ANGELES — Portland’s much-maligned defense has been one of quieter turn-around stories of this NBA season.  It went from bottom 10 the past two seasons — and the reason the team has stalled out in the playoffs — to being 11th in the league this season, 2.8 per 100 possessions better than the season before.

Change doesn’t just happen. It started with work last June and July in the gym and has continued into the film room during the season. 

And it started with Portland’s leaders C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard.

The two elite guards were tired of hearing about their sub-par defense, so they prioritized defensive drills every off-season workout to get better on that end. They focused on their film study to how to get more stops. They made defense a priority and started to better use their experience in the league on that end.

“We work a lot with our strength and conditioning staff, we work with our assistant coaches on breaking down film, figuring out ways to find better angles, figuring out ways to move through screens better,” McCollum told NBC Sports of his improved defense. “But I think defensively understanding offenses a little better helps you be in better positions, understanding schemes, tendencies for certain players allows you to become a better defender. A lot of it is this is the NBA, guys are good and they’re going to score, you just have to make it as difficult as possible. Any advantages you can have make it a little bit easier.”

McCollum has been better this year. While all the defensive analytics metrics are flawed, McCollum’s defensive rating is 2.2 per 100 better than last season. Opponents are shooting 41.2 percent against him this season, down from last season by more than a percentage point. McCollum has become a solid defender, which is a step up, and with Jusuf Nurkic more of his mistakes can be erased.

For McCollum and Portland, the improvement is in part about continuity. One of the strengths of the Blazers is they have kept their core together for years and kept coach Terry Stotts on the sidelines. It leads to a familiarity both with each other and the opponents they face.

“We’ve had the same guys, same staff, the schemes have been the same, our approach has been the same, just our practices have been a little bit different in terms of concepts and what we’re trying to accomplish throughout the season,” McCollum said. “Our shell has been great, a top 10 team defensively (they are currently 11th after a rough stretch before the All-Star break). Obviously, there will be slippage at times, you’re going to give up points here or there, but we’ve been pretty consistent.”

“I just think our shell has been tighter, making them skip the ball across the court a lot of times, and picking it up if they try to hit the roll man or penetrate, making them have to work a little more in the halfcourt and prevent second-chance points.”

McCollum could have easily been an All-Star — the fifth-year guard out of Lehigh University is averaging 21.7 points per game and shooting 42.1 percent from three — but instead was in Los Angeles for the weekend with Verizon Up, the company’s reward program for its mobile customers available through the My Verizon app (of which McCollum said he’s a member). The program offers the chance to redeem points for a lot of experiences, such as being close to Justin Timberlake for a concert. At All-Star weekend members could get premium access to all of the weekend’s events, including the Verizon Up Member’s Lounge – a space to relax, eat and drink, and meet NBA players.

NBA players were looking to relax last weekend, too. McCollum said at this point in the season players (and coaches, and referees, basically everyone) needs the mental and physical break of a few days off. Portland returns to action tonight (Friday) against red-hot Utah, and the Blazers could use the win — they are the current seven seed in the West, but just 1.5 games up on missing the playoffs completely (and just two games up on the Jazz). On the other hand, Portland is just 2.5 games out of the three seed in the bunched up West.

“We go into every game thinking it’s crucial, every game we got to perform, you got to not lose at home, you got to not lose to teams under .500,” McCollum said of the team down the stretch run. “One bad week could have you at 10th, 11th place, one good week could have you at four or five.

“There comes a time (late in the season) when there’s a drop-off. Some teams are going to be a little more inconsistent down the stretch, but you just got to rise above.”

Portland leans on Lillard and McCollum not to let the team be inconsistent down the stretch. Those two have evolved into one of the most dangerous backcourts in the NBA.

“We do a good job of balancing each other out, of figuring out when to attack and when to pass off to the next guy,” McCollum said of him and Lillard. “I think it just comes with continuing to develop a relationship off the court where you have more trust, where you figure out how to communicate more effectively.

“A lot of it is non-verbal stuff on the court because it’s too loud and you can’t hear, or you just notice something and you look to see if he noticed it too then you just kind of play off of that.  A lot of times you learn on the fly. You get in a situation, you see certain things, and five games later it might be the same thing happening again and you kind of look like ‘you remember this?’ And you just kind of figure it out.”

Other team’s game plan against Portland is generally clear — get the ball out of Lillard and McCollum’s hands. Don’t let them get hot and beat us. Just good luck pulling that off, it’s not easy. Also, the improved play of Shabazz Napier has helped, giving Portland another shot creator off the bench.

“He’s been great, really shooting the ball well from the field, a good plus/minus… it helps when you have other guys out there who can handle the ball and create,” McCollum said.

But in the end, Portland’s playoff dreams will rise and fall with McCollum and Lillard, and that improved defense. McCollum and Lillard will get buckets. Will the Blazers get stops?

That’s where the offseason work, the continuity, and the experience all need to come together for Portland.

“(The improved defense) comes with experience, playing in big games, playing in certain environments where you get a better understanding of the play calling,” McCollum said. “We’ve played the Warriors like 16 times the last two years, so you start to understand certain tendencies (the Trail Blazers beat the Warriors just before the All-Star break). You know what guys like to do, certain plays they do out of timeouts, and just different options throughout the game, and as you play in the league more you play against certain players more and you get to figure out their tendencies and what they like to do in certain situations.”