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.

O.J. Mayo says abusing prescription painkillers triggered NBA ban

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Last year, O.J. Mayo was banned from the NBA for at least two years due to a drug violation. Aside from stating a plan to come back, Mayo didn’t say much publicly.

Until now.

Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated:

He acknowledged smoking marijuana and abusing a prescription pain medication that triggered his two-year ban because it is on the NBA’s “drugs of abuse” list. (He emphatically denied testing positive for hard drugs like cocaine.)

Mayo also concluded that he had been “overwhelmed” by a string of difficult life events: his father, high school basketball star Kenny Ziegler, was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison for distributing crack cocaine, his brother was placed in juvenile lock-up, a close friend went to jail, and another was killed. “I was bred to play basketball and I thought I could balance everything,” he said. “I couldn’t.”

That’s part of an interesting feature on Mayo, who’s training for his come back. Golliver’s story makes it easy to pull for Mayo.

But the guard will be 30 when he’s eligible to apply for reinstatement, and he played lousily in his last three seasons with the Bucks.

Hopefully, Mayo has and keeps his personal life in order. But returning to the NBA will be an uphill battle.

James Harden throws alley-oop to Chris Paul, pair puts on show at Houston charity event

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What chemistry problem?

There are legitimate questions about how Chris Paul and James Harden will share the backcourt and ball with the Rockets, but none of those were on display on Sunday. That’s when CP3 joined his new teammate in Harden’s charity game (raising money for Harden’s charity, which helps children from single-family homes get a higher education), a kind of pro-am with some names thrown in to draw a crowd.

Harden and CP3 put on a show for the fans.

This is a charity event, not every team is going to defend like this or the Phoenix Suns. It’s going to be harder when the games matter.

But the Rockets are going to be entertaining to watch this season. No doubt.

Tampering is common in the NBA, but proving it is very difficult

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Want proof there is tampering in the NBA: Free agency starts on July 1 at midnight Eastern every year, and every year a number of new contracts for players with new teams are announced at 12:01 a.m. There is no way that a complicated NBA contract — even one where the two sides are both interested and will agree quickly on the price — is negotiated faster than it takes to get an In-N-Out Burger (or Five Guys burger, if you prefer the inferior).

Those deals are announced that fast because everything’s already been agreed to through back channels. Same with meetings when a major (or even mediocre) free agent starts talking to teams on July 1. Yet, the NBA rarely investigates, and even more rarely punishes a team for tampering. Why? Because it’s very difficult to prove.

The Lakers are being investigated for tampering with Paul George while he was under contract to the Indiana Pacers, an investigation reportedly started at the request of Pacers’ owner Herb Simon. Teams are not allowed to recruit or entice players under contract. The Lakers have denied any wrongdoing. Lakers president Magic Johnson went on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and, with a wink, joked about what he’d tell George if they met this summer, and that ticked Simon off. The Pacers had to trade George, and because everyone around the league knows he more likely than not is a Laker next summer (long before Magic went on TV), his trade value was diminished. The Pacers got back Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for him the day before free agency opened (although there may have been better offers on the table, and the choice and timing were odd). The Pacers think if there is an agreement in place between the Lakers and George that would have driven down the trade market (because he was a one-year rental, that market was already depressed).

Good luck proving tampering. Unless Magic did something stupid like text George directly, it will be almost impossible to prove.

NBA agents and front offices know how to avoid tampering using “back channels” — not unlike how governments who are public enemies still communicate. Someone, a couple of people removed from the agent/GM, can talk with someone a couple of people removed from the other side and set something up that gets brought back and agreed to. Or, an agent can have one of his other players do some of the work for him — players recruit each other all the time on social media (and off it), and the league doesn’t see that as tampering, unless specifically ordered by a GM/owner. James Harden recruited Chris PaulDraymond Green and other Warriors recruited Kevin Durant, and the league shrugged, but GM Bob Myers could not have done that (or directed the players to do that… again, good luck proving it if you think he did).

There are a few reasons it will be hard to prove the Lakers did anything. First, the Lakers’ GM Rob Pelinka is a former agent and knows how to work the system — he’s not getting caught. Look what another agent told Kevin O’Connor at The Ringer.

“Pelinka for sure knows how to tamper without getting caught,” one agent told me. “Pelinka will do whatever it takes to get players. Magic could easily have done something dumb and got caught for it, though.”

To prove tampering, Magic needs to have left a “paper trail,” which more accurately is a digital trail of texts or emails. But even that can get tricky. If Magic was texting with George’s agent Aaron Mintz that alone proves nothing, he also represents Julius Randle on the Lakers and D'Angelo Russell, who the Lakers traded a week before the George trade. It will take an email or text specifically talking about George for the Lakers to get in trouble, and Magic is smarter than that. Well, we think he is.

The bottom line is tampering is common and almost impossible to prove. Unless Magic screwed up, it will be unprovable here. Maybe the Pacers made their point, maybe Simon feels better, but it’s hard to see how this is going to be tampering.

Joakim Noah talks of “bounce back” year for himself, Knicks

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In a season of disappointments in New York, none was bigger than Joakim Noah.

There was plenty of scoffing around the league in the summer of 2016 when Phil Jackson signed the oft-injured, already declining Noah to a four-year, $72 million contract that was seen as one of the worst of a summer (and it was an ugly summer for contracts). He only played in 46 games, averaging 5.5 points on 49 percent shooting, plus 8.8 rebounds a game in those (and basically being averaged on offense and a step slow defensively). He missed time with a rotator cuff surgery and got a 20-game suspension for testing positive for Androgen (he has 13 of those games left and can’t play until Nov. 13).

Noah realizes how poorly last season went he told the “Truth Barrel’’ podcast, doesn’t think Jackson deserves all the blame, and said his goal is to make it up this season (hat tip The New York Post for the transcription).

“It’s tough, man, because I got a lot of love and respect for Phil,’’ Noah said. “He gave me an opportunity to play back home. Somebody I read all his books as a kid. I was just a big fan and still am. I have a lot of respect for him. It didn’t work out. That sucks. It’s something I have to live with. He believed in me, and I kind of let him down. That’s frustrating. He got a lot of blame that it was his fault. But we didn’t lose all those games because of Phil Jackson…

“I went through a lot of adversity,’’ Noah said. “You go through injuries. I lost my confidence this year. It’s about bouncing back and showing who I am through these tough times. It can really show what you’re made of.”

This is the only attitude Noah should have — look forward, get healthy, and look to right his wrongs next season.

Once he finishes his suspension, Noah likely will come off the bench behind Willy Hernangomez. (The Knicks should spend more time with Kristaps Porzingis at the five, but that’s another discussion.) Noah is going to get his chances, but nothing he has shown the past few seasons should have Knicks’ fans expecting a return to form. Noah has been an average to below-average player for a couple of seasons, he’s not moving the same way, and he’s not getting younger.

Noah can still have a positive impact on this team, he has a role to play, but it has to start with him getting back on the court.