Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, LeBron James

NBA Power Rankings: Blazers climb, Heat on top of mountain

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Lots of big moves up and down as the rankings start to shake themselves out a little. In college football they should hold off doing polls through those early weeks because said polls impact the postseason, but as the NBA has a playoff to determine who is best let’s dive in.

1. Heat (5-0, last week ranked No. 1). They have yet to lose but it took two last-second shots by Dwyane Wade to secure wins this week against teams Miami should crush. The bar is set high for this team. But at least LeBron James is engaged now.

2. Thunder (5-0, LW 3). It’s never really too early to start a “James Harden for Sixth Man of the Year” campaign. Like the Heat, they needed a ridiculous game winner — theirs from Kevin Durant — to stay undefeated this week.

3. Bulls (4-1, LW 2). They started the season on a tough West Coast road swing and had one off night. Good start for a team with room to improve still. Rip Hamilton is starting to find a groove and his hamstring injury doesn’t appear to be serious.

4. Spurs (3-1, LW 10). Big jump because, like last year, they look strong in the regular season. Manu Ginobili is playing like a beast. All their wins have been by at least 13 points.

5. Blazers (3-1, LW 11). Another climber as they have been impressive, especially on defense, at least until they ran into the Clippers Sunday. They are deep and that will help a lot in this condensed season.

6. Magic (4-1, LW 15). The pattern follows — they lost to OKC opening day because they have someone who can single cover Dwight Howard in the post. They consistently beat lesser teams that can’t do that. They are a good offensive squad.

7. Hawks (3-1, LW 14). They move way up as they are got off to a fast start against the Nets (twice) and Wizards, but now reality hits as they have two games each upcoming against the Heat and Bulls.

8. Pacers (3-1, LW 17). Sort of the same as the Hawks, they’re beating bad teams but soon they start to run into better squads (Heat and Celtics this week). However, the Pacers are better than people think and they are going to be a tough out in the playoffs.

9. Lakers (3-3, LW 6). They went .500 in four games without Andrew Bynum, which included a back-to-back-to-back. That’s not bad. But somebody besides Kobe Bryant has to pick up the offensive load.

10. Nuggets (3-2, LW 12). If not for a missed layup they could have swept the Lakers, but still a sweep not all bad. Al Harrington is playing well with 15.4 points per game.

11. Knicks (2-2, LW 4). If you’re going to hire Mike D’Antoni as coach, knowing his system, shouldn’t you try to build a team that fits it? Not in New York, apparently. The good news is they got their West Coast trip out of the way early.

12. Celtics (2-3, LW 7). After an 0-3 start they have gotten healthy on a couple struggling teams (and have the Wizards again Monday night). And they got Paul Pierce back, which helps.

13. Clippers (2-2, LW 5). Great offense (that rarely turns the ball over) but until they played Portland Sunday they had not been good at all on defense. If they can start to defend consistently they will be scary.

14. Bucks (2-1, LW 18). Good start will be tested on five-game road trip out West (including a back-to-back against the Lakers and Clippers).

15. 76ers (2-2, LW 13). Their two wins were blowouts, their two losses close ones. Small sample size but this is a team to watch as they may be better than their .500 record indicates.

16. Rockets (2-2, LW 16). Kyle Lowry is playing like an All-Star. Tough week with Lakers, Clippers and OKC on the schedule.

17. Warriors (2-2, LW 21). Inconsistent — beat the Bulls, get blown out by 28 by the Sixers — and they have had Stephen Curry injured and Monta Ellis out for personal reasons. Still can’t get a read on this team other than they play hard for Mark Jackson.

18. Hornets (2-2, LW 27). Impressive win over Boston but they got smacked by a not very good Suns team. Credit Monty Williams for getting them to play over their heads.

19. Grizzlies (1-3, LW 9). They had a tough schedule to start the season and have had to navigate it without Mike Conley. But this brings back to reality the contender talk — this team isn’t the Thunder or other elite teams in the West. Not consistently, not yet.

20. Mavericks (1-4, LW 8). Dirk Nowitzki on the Mavs start, “One win over Toronto doesn’t really make the world great.” Yup. There are a lot of issues, including Lamar Odom admitting he is out of shape.

21. Suns (1-3, LW 19). Steve Nash is playing through some bruised ribs, which is slowing his game. Signing Michael Redd was a shot in the dark, but this squad might as well take those shots right now.

22. Timberwolves (1-3, LW 25). They beat Dallas and their three losses are to the Heat, Thunder and an underrated Bucks team. They are better than their record shows. Rick Adelman is going to have this team paying pretty well by the end of the season, just watch.

23. Cavaliers (2-2, LW 29). If the playoffs started today, the Cavaliers would be the eighth seed in the West (we put that in here because it might be the last week we get to write that). Anderson Varejao is looking healthy and playing well — so expect the trade rumors to ramp up soon.

24. Jazz (1-3, LW 20). They are back for games in the friendly confines of Salt Lake City this week, where they are still tough to beat.

25. Raptors (1-3, LW 28). Tough loss to Orlando Sunday, they let that one get away. Same old Raptors this season, pretty good offense but their defense is terrible.

26. Bobcats (1-3, LW 30). That second game against the Heat — a blowout loss — was more indicative or reality in Charlotte. Kemba Walker scoring 11.5 point per game will inject himself into the Rookie of the Year talk.

27. Kings (1-3, LW 22). What a mess of a franchise right now. The problem for management is what to do with Paul Westphal — cut him now or at the end of the season? If you fire him now you let the players win that power struggle and that might come back to haunt you.

28. Pistons (1-3, LW 24). They are the Pacers lone loss, and they are getting solid play from Greg Monroe and Jonas Jerbko. But the stylings of Ben Gordon still drive this offense.

29. Nets (1-4, LW 26). Looking for a positive… Mashon Brooks has had some nice games and is averaging 12.2 per contest. That’s about it for a team shooting 38 percent for the season.

30. Wizards (0-4, LW 23). Flip Saunders is on the hot seat and can’t fill out a lineup card. The Wizard’s offense is a disaster — this team should run every chance it gets yet the pace is 13th in the league. I expected a breakout year from John Wall and again he looks average this season.

Mario Chalmers says he’s cleared to play

Memphis Grizzlies guard Mario Chalmers moves the ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2015, in Washington. Chalmers was ejected in the first half. The Wizards won 100-91. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
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Mario Chalmers was thriving with the Grizzlies after a midseason trade from the Heat when a torn Achilles ended his season.

Not the way Chalmers wanted to enter free agency.

Still unsigned, he says he’s progressing.

Chalmers:

Can he go 100%, though? If not, when?

A few teams could use another point guard. If Chalmers shows his health, he belongs in someone’s rotation. But that might require taking a low-paying deal and working his way up from the third point guard spot – or even just onto the regular-season roster.

Report: John Wall ‘rankled’ by James Harden’s high-paying Rockets contract

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 29: John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards is defended by James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets in the second half at Verizon Center on March 29, 2015 in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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Bradley Beal isn’t the only player bothering John Wall.

James Harden – who’s earning a lot of money from the Rockets and adidas – is drawing the ire of the Wizards point guard.

Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer:

One league source familiar with Wall’s state of mind simply put it this way: “Wall’s got jealousy issues. He’s always upset with someone who makes more money than him.”

A front office executive tells The Ringer that Wall was “rankled” after Harden signed a four-year, $118 million extension with the Rockets.

O’Connor also pointed out this line from Nick DePaula of Yahoo Sports on Wall rejected adidas’ offer:

“He wanted Harden money,” a source told The Vertical.

I wonder how Wall feels about Beal’s max contract, which pays much more than Wall’s deal. Wall didn’t like Reggie Jackson, another lesser player, earning the same amount as him.

The union rejecting cap smoothing in light of the new national TV contracts has certainly adversely affected Wall, who locked in long-term just before the salary cap explosion became known. As other players sign huge contracts, he’s stuck on his old-money deal.

Washington could’ve renegotiated and extended Wall’s contract, but it would have been more complicated than Harden’s arrangement. Wall has three years remaining to what was previously two for Harden. How much extra money would the Wizards have paid Wall over the next three years just to get him committed for one more year? Instead, they signed Ian Mahinmi, Andrew Nicholson and Jason Smith.

I’m also unsure Wall would’ve accepted an extension. He doesn’t seem overly happy in Washington, and a raise via renegotiation was coming only if Wall provided something in return – an additional year of team control added to his contract.

And don’t lose track of this: Harden is better than Wall.

I don’t mind Wall monitoring other players’ contracts. That jealousy or whatever you want to call it has driven Wall to become a star NBA player. Whatever motivation works.

But demanding Harden’s deal is unrealistic. The Wizards also ought to be mindful of how Beal’s new contract affects chemistry, but that’s their problem.

Wall’s issue – as a player, not endorser – is primarily theoretical. He’s tied to his current contract, and lesser players will earn more than him due simply to timing. He must find a way to make peace with that.

51Q: Is there any reason the Jazz won’t be really good?

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 25:  Gordon Hayward #20 of the Utah Jazz celebrates his three point during a timeout with Derrick Favors #15 and the bench at Staples Center on November 25, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Today is day two of PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. Between now and the start of the NBA season we will 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 (we’re taking some weekends off). Today:

Is there any reason the Jazz won’t be really good?

The Utah Jazz barely missed the playoffs last season, but virtually no team in the middle tier of the league is as universally adored for their direction. They’re well-coached by Quin Snyder, have a roster that makes sense together and made sensible moves this summer to get better. Barring injuries, they should be a lock to make the postseason for the first time since the 2011-12 season.

In the non-Warriors category, it’s hard to argue that very many teams had better offseasons than the Jazz when it comes to filling holes on their roster without giving up any core pieces. Utah’s weakest position last season was point guard — with Dante Exum out for the year rehabbing a torn ACL, things got so bad that a midseason trade for career backup Shelvin Mack was considered a major upgrade. This summer, they flipped a lottery pick they didn’t really want to Atlanta in a three-team deal that got them George Hill, as solid a starting-caliber point guard as would realistically be available for them. Hill’s playmaking and outside shooting immediately improve Utah’s offense and gives Snyder a rock-solid veteran to take pressure off Exum coming back from missing a full year of action. Even if the Jazz view Exum as their long-term answer at point guard, it’s going to take him a full year to get back up to speed, and having Hill means he has to do less right away.

The Jazz’ other major upgrade came with the signing of seven-time All-Star Joe Johnson to a two-year, $22 million deal. Johnson isn’t a first or second option on offense anymore at this point in his career, but as a veteran scorer off the bench, he can still be effective and should be a great fit in the offense. Taking on Boris Diaw‘s contract could prove savvy, too, if he’s as engaged as he was in San Antonio.

Beyond the roster upgrades, the driving force of all the Jazz optimism this summer is how well all of their young pieces fit together, and the potential for improvement from all of them. Nobody knows what Exum will be, but even if Utah gets nothing out of him, they have an enviable core just entering its prime. Rudy Gobert is one of the most lethal rim protectors in the league at 24 years old. Derrick Favors has developed into an excellent all-around power forward. Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood provide a potent scoring combo on the perimeter, and if Alec Burks is healthy, he can help there too.

The Jazz are also the beneficiaries of the shifting balance of power in the Western Conference. The Thunder lost Kevin Durant and while they’re probably still a playoff team, they’re far from a lock. The Blazers spent a lot of money but didn’t necessarily get better, and may have overachieved last season. The Timberwolves, despite having arguably the brightest future in the league, are still probably a couple years away. The Rockets and Grizzlies are still total question marks, and the Pelicans haven’t been able to construct a solid group around Anthony Davis. Meanwhile, the Jazz are sitting there with the least downside of any of these bubble teams, not a lot of rotation question marks and play in a division without a clear-cut favorite.

Nobody thinks the Jazz are going to be title contenders, but looking up and down the west hierarchy, there isn’t a team that the Warriors or the Spurs should want to face less in the playoffs. And this year, they have the depth to get there.

Ryan McDonough: Suns plan to be ‘major players’ in 2017 free agency

Ryan McDonough
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The Suns have swung big in free agency the previous couple years, chasing LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony in 2014 and LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015.

But 2016 appeared to be the year Phoenix really eyed.

The Suns structured the contracts of multiple players – including Brandon Knight, Tyson Chandler, Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris – to have salaries that dipped this summer. Time that flexibility correctly, and it can really pay off.

Phoenix big prize? Jared Dudley.

Dudley is a nice player, but he’s hardly the star the Suns seek. So, they’ll try again next year.

Phoenix general manager Ryan McDonough, via Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

That’s been one of our frustrations this summer. We were kind of on the sideline for some of the marquee free agents. But as you know, Woj, it wasn’t the deepest free agent class.

Potentially, it’s a very strong free agent class next year. And one of the things we’ve done with our contracts is we’ve lined them up to have max cap space next year without really touching the core of our roster.

I think and I hope at this time next year, we’re major players in free agency. Because as you mentioned, the Phoenix Suns are a destination franchise.

The 2017 free agent class won’t be as strong as hoped.

LeBron James locked in for multiple years with the Cavaliers. Russell Westbrook signed a contract extension with the Thunder. Kevin Durant indicated he’ll re-sign with the Warriors. So has Stephen Curry. Blake Griffin is reportedly “adamant” about re-signing with the Clippers.

Teams will almost certainly match any offer for the top restricted free agents – Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert, Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel – if they don’t extend their contracts first.

That still leaves several quality unrestricted free agents – including Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, Gordon Hayward and Paul Millsap – but Paul and Lowry are point guards. Phoenix already has Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, and Devin Booker looks like the shooting guard of the future. So, forget simply sliding Bledsoe or Knight to off guard. It’d take a major shakeup for Paul or Lowry to make sense with the Suns.

Still, McDonough’s approach is logical. If he can keep kicking the can down the road, perpetually selling that his plan is a year from taking it hold, it’ll make it easier for him to retain his prestigious job.

But if he has to make his 2017 free agency plan work rather than deferring to 2018, it could be difficult.

The Suns project to have about $17 million in cap space (under a system that could change significantly with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement). Renouncing restricted free agent Alex Len could clear about $12 million more, and just $500,000 of Leandro Barbosa‘s $4 million salary is guaranteed. Trading Tyson Chandler, Bledsoe and/or Knight could open even more space. Losing Len isn’t ideal, but for the right free agent, the upgrade would be worthwhile.

The bigger issue is winning. Phoenix has struggled to lure top free agents, because the team has missed the playoffs six straight years. That’s unlikely, though not impossible, to change this year. If the probabilities hold, what does McDonough sell then?

He always has the option of using cap space to facilitate uneven trades, a route he previously broached. Depending on the deal, that could encroach on 2017 cap space.

But if his plan holds, the Suns will keep their books relatively clear until next summer.