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.

Gordon Hayward: My relationship with Brad Stevens ‘completely overstated and overhyped’

AP Photo/Michael Conroy
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Gordon Hayward is still trying to seize control of the narrative surrounding his free agency.

The Celtics – coached by Brad Stevens, Hayward’s coach at Butler – expressed interest in Hayward in 2014. Then, with Stevens still in Boston, they completed their highly anticipated pursuit of Hayward by signing him this year.

Just don’t pin that all on Stevens.

Hayward on The Woj Pod:

The relationship between Brad and I has been completely overstated and overhyped from everybody.

And you mentioned it. There was always rumors about going to Boston, and those, to me, were always just rumors. I didn’t really ever think about it, because I wasn’t a free agent, wasn’t really concerned with the Boston thing. But everybody else was saying, “Oh, he’s going to go to Boston because of Brad.” And we had a great relationship, but it wasn’t like we were constantly texting each other or calling each other. He’s the head coach of the Boston Celtics. He’s got things to worry about.

I played for Brad for two years. And so it wasn’t like everybody kind of made it seem, like we were besties or something.

That was something I kind of was – “what’s this going to be like? It’s been seven years since he coached me.” And immediately though, he called me July 1. And after that phone call, I thought like, “Oh, no. This isn’t going be any different.” It was one of those things where he made me feel like, even if I don’t go to Boston, it’ll be fine, and we’ll still have that great relationship, and he’ll still be in my corner, and he’ll still be rooting for me and supporting me.

Hayward was in control, and he chose Boston. Stevens didn’t do it for him. Hayward did it – and he did it the evening of July 4, not before.

Got it?

That darned fake news, always talking up the Hayward-Stevens relationship. Take this article in The Players Tribune, in which the author contends Hayward viewed Stevens as “the person I knew I could count on the most.”

Look, NBA players generally like the trappings of being recruited. They generally dislike the perception that they were recruited and weren’t in complete control. That’s why Kevin Durant keeps denying Draymond Green‘s stories of recruiting the superstar to the Warriors.

Elements of Hayward’s relationship with Stevens were probably perceived incorrectly by some. I doubt the Celtics’ coach was in frequent contact with a Jazz player. But the underlying idea – that Stevens made Boston more likely to pursue and get Hayward – was also probably correct.

Report: Cavaliers prioritizing youth in Kyrie Irving trade

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In the wake of Kyrie Irving‘s trade request, the Cavaliers have three fundamental options:

  • Trade Irving for immediate help to continue a championship chase around LeBron James
  • Trade Irving for younger players and/or draft picks to kick start a rebuild in case LeBron leaves next summer
  • Don’t trade Irving

It seems Cleveland is taking the second route.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

The Cavaliers are projecting confidence they can snare a king’s ransom for Kyrie Irving, and more than that, they are acting — for now — as if a trade is almost inevitable, and that there is little chance of salvaging their relationship with him, according to several sources familiar with the situation.

Cleveland is seeking a bundle of assets, but the highest priority right now is snagging a blue-chip young player, according to sources across the league. That is not necessarily a signal they think James is leaving. They would like to get everything: one or two veterans who can help LeBron dethrone Golden State, that blue-chipper, and picks. They want to prepare for a worst-case scenario of LeBron leaving without shoving him out the door by acquiring players he deems unready. Even so, the blue-chipper appears to be their guidepost, sources say.

Barring a misevaluation by another team, Cleveland can’t trade Irving for better players now and significant long-term assets. The Cavaliers could try to straddle both paths, but the more they prioritize the future, the less they’ll get for the present (and vice versa).

I’m a little surprised the Cavs aren’t posturing about not trading Irving to drive up his value – especially after the leak – and I’m surprised they’re not pushing in for next year. A championship lasts forever, and they’re still contending.

But it seems they’ve chosen their course. The big danger: It reduces their ability to win this year and pushes LeBron further out the door.

Reading that description of Cleveland’s target, does anyone fit better than Andrew Wiggins – whom, in a strange twist, the Cavaliers drafted then traded for Kevin Love? The 22-year-old is seen by many as a rising star, and his value is in Irving’s general range. Plus, not only did Irving list the Timberwolves among his preferred teams, Jimmy Butler (a friend) and Karl-Anthony Towns are urging Minnesota management to deal for Irving.

The Wiggins we’ve seen so far – an underwhelming defender and 3-point shooter – would fit poorly with LeBron. Wiggins is young enough to develop and adjust, but LeBron’s free agency is only a year away. It’s a dangerous time to take a step back.

But if the Cavs are going to trade Irving for a young player, that’s almost certainly what they must do.

Damian Lillard talks about his “no pressure” pitch to Carmelo Anthony, selling Portland

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Self-made, over-achieving players in the NBA tend not to be the recruiters. They worked hard and made it to where they are more on their own, and their world-view follows that path. Think Derrick Rose in Chicago.

Damian Lillard was one of those guys, but he has done a little recruiting of late — he reached out to Carmelo Anthony last week. Lillard told Chris Mannix of NBC Radio (who is filling in for Dan Patrick for the day on his national radio show) that it wasn’t really the John Calipari hard-sell.

“It wasn’t really a pitch, I just reached out to him and let him know the interest just wasn’t from our front office, if there was a possibility there was definitely interest from the players as well, and I didn’t want that to be confused,” Lillard said on the radio show. “I didn’t put no pressure on him or ask him a bunch of questions, I just said what it was from our end.”

That is nice, but Anthony reportedly has focused in on Houston, and might settle for Cleveland (if there was a deal to be had). Would ‘Melo waive his no-trade clause to head to Portland?

“I didn’t get a sense that he wouldn’t,” Lillard said in a tepid response. “What we have here is a good situation for him and that’s just kind of where it went. I let him know what I thought he could do for our team and what our team could do with his presence. And that was it. We didn’t go over no details or talk about a no trade clause or nothing like that. He’s gonna make his own decision to do that or not, I just want to make sure we had some kind of a conversation.”

It’s a start. It’s likely not enough. Anthony wants to go somewhere and chase a ring, and despite what C.J. McCollum thinks, Portland with ‘Melo isn’t a contender. Even with Anthony, I would have them sixth in the West, maybe fifth at best (Warriors, Rockets, Spurs, Thunder, and probably Minnesota are better still). And this is assuming Portland can find a team to take on Myers Leonard’s contract to make a deal work.

What Lillard wanted to get across was that Portland is a great place to be an NBA player.

“I think people talk about what it would be like in Portland or to play in Portland, but actually having lived here, I live here year-round, so I know it’s a great place to live,” Lillard said. “Some of the best food in the United States. You talk about loving the game of basketball, our team and the soccer team are all the city has, so we get a lot of support and our fans really back our team and are really passionate about our team. That type of environment, and that type of love and support around the city, what NBA player wouldn’t want to be a part of that?”

Jimmer Fredette re-signing in China

AP Photo/George Bridges
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Jimmer Fredette played well in China last year, and buzz even emerged about him re-joining the NBA after the Chinese season ended in March. Never happened.

Even in the offseason, when every NBA team had open roster spots, nobody stateside has signed Fredette.

So, he’s returning to the Shanghai Sharks.

Fredette:

Fredette retains a cult following in America, but not the talent of an NBA player. He can score plenty in a lesser league, but his game doesn’t fit with better players on the floor.

Perhaps, he could’ve gotten a training-camp invite, maybe even with a small guarantee. But would’ve faced an uphill battle sticking into the regular season. Better for him to lock into a bigger salary in China now.