Taj Gibson, Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah,

NBA Power Rankings: Bulls grab top spot by the horns

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The top three are pretty much set, it’s just a matter of who is playing the best among them at this moment. Right now it’s Chicago. The bottom three are pretty much locked in, too, but the Bobcats have really grabbed hold of the last spot and made it their own.

1. Bulls (31-8, last week ranked number 3). Four games, four wins since the All-Star break — and that is with Rip Hamilton not really finding his footing yet since his return. Everybody already looking forward to a week from Wednesday when the Bulls face the Heat again.

2. Thunder (29-8, LW 2). They continue to close out games well despite pretty stagnant late game play calling. Why? They play great defense at the end of games (read Zach Lowe at SI). Their Achilles heel is turnovers, that’s what cost them against the Hawks in their one loss since the All-Star break.

3. Heat (28-9, LW 1). Back-to-back losses to the Lakers and Jazz — both teams with strong front lines playing the Heat without Chris Bosh. He matters a lot more to the Heat then people realize, and the drop-off after him is steep. As for LeBron James, he’s the one guy in the league who gets criticized for passing to an open teammate.

4. Clippers (22-13 LW 6). Hard-fought overtime win Sunday against a Rockets team that is tougher than everyone realizes. Expect a lot more games like that in the coming weeks — their March schedule is brutal. They are on the road this week and have a tough one Friday at San Antonio.

5. Lakers (23-14, LW 8). The Lakers got a signature win over the Heat on Sunday, a game where they really used their assets to exploit Miami inside. Kobe Bryant is shooting 54 percent since Dwyane Wade broke his nose — he says he’s not going to wear the mask any longer than he has to, but the way he is shooting he may want to consider going Rip Hamilton.

6. Spurs (25-12, LW 4). Tough losses to good teams in Chicago and Denver this week. Another test coming Friday against the Clippers. For a while it looked like this team could beat anyone, but do you really buy that when the playoffs get here.

7. Magic (24-14, LW 7). Lost to the Thunder last week… really, does anybody care about their games the next two weeks? Until the deadline the league is on Dwight watch.

8. Pacers (23-12, LW 9). Six wins in a row, but they continue to beat the league’s weak teams. This week the schedule is Bulls, Hawks, Heat and Magic. If you want to say you are upper echelon, talk to us after that gauntlet.

9. Grizzlies (22-15, LW 12). Won 10-12, but most of that at home. When they get Zach Randolph back and integrated, watch out. Who wants this team in the first round of the playoffs? (If the playoffs started today it would be a Lakers/Grizzlies first round, which would be a fascinating battle of bigs.)

10. Mavericks (22-16, LW 5). They had a five-game losing streak before Dirk Nowitzki went off for 40 and stopped it Saturday. Lamar Odom is back and says he is sorry for how things are gone, but the Mavs need actions to speak louder than words.

11. Hawks (22-15, LW 14). Impressive win over the Thunder last week. They have three games in four nights this week, and that is the kind of situation where a lack of mental focus can hurt a team. So, bad news for the Hawks.

12. Nuggets (21-17, LW 16). Nice wins over Portland, San Antonio and Houston last week. They are in the same boat as Houston — one of the last playoff spots in the west with Minnesota just two games back — but with a soft schedule this week they can start to create some distance.

13. Rockets (21-17, LW 11). Lost to Utah, Denver and the Clippers last week and now seven of their next eight are on the road. Right now they are the seven seed in the West but Minnesota is lurking two games back.

14. 76ers (22-16, LW 10). Flying under the trade deadline radar is Andres Nocioni — don’t be shocked if he gets moved.

15. Celtics (19-17, LW 18). Four wins in a row last week out of the All-Star break — this team is dangerous when rested. Some teams struggle when trade rumors swirl, but this veteran group should be able to play through it.

16. Timberwolves (19-19, LW 17). They are in the playoff mix (just two games out) but are going to have to fight to keep that spot — Clippers, Lakers and Blazers this week, then they head out on a lengthy road trip.

17. Knicks (18-19, LW 13). They are the eighth seed in the East, but Milwaukee is four games back so they likely can hold on to a playoff spot baring a total collapse. However, they are three games back of Atlanta at the six seed, and you really don’t want the Heat or Bulls in the first round.

18. Jazz (17-19, LW 19).
They are showcasing Devin Harris for a potential trade — and he’s looked pretty good, including the game winner over the Heat on Friday.

19. Suns (17-20, LW 20). Three straight games where the Suns have rallied from more than 20 points back to win. We’re all watching for Steve Nash trade rumors, but right now it looks like they keep him.

20. Blazers (18-19, LW 15). Jamal Crawford trade rumors are going to engulf this team for the next two weeks, we’ll see how they deal with it. Right now they are not dealing well with much of anything well.

21. Warriors (14-19, LW 22). Their offense is just wildly inconsistent, which makes them a team that can beat anyone or lose to anyone on any given night. But they are entertaining while they do it.

22. Pistons (12-26, LW 23). They have dropped four of five and have looked pretty terrible doing it.

23. Bucks (14-23, LW 24).
If they are going to make a playoff run they need to get very hot right now. That’s not going to happen, by the way.

24. Nets (12-26, LW 26).
They have won three of five since Brook Lopez came back, with two of those wins over Dallas and New York. Of course, Lopez rolled his ankle and may miss a few games, so it will be back to the same old Nets for a while.

25. Raptors (12-25, LW 27).
Here is how Raptors fans need to look at the season — next year they get Jonas Valanciunas and whoever they draft this year to come in to camp. It’s like two lottery picks in one.

26. Cavaliers (13-22, LW 21). They lost to the Wizards this week. They are lucky to be this high.

27. Kings (12-25, LW 25). Hey, they got a new arena deal. We’re just going to keep talking about that (and that they plan to bring back coach Keith Smart next season).

28. Hornets (9-28, LW 28). They are showcasing Chris Kaman for a trade and he is looking good — 16.5 points and nearly 10 rebounds a game since his return. Like the kind of player the Hornets should have been playing earlier.

29. Wizards (8-28, LW 29). Randy Wittman is trying to put his foot down and instill some discipline (like by benching JaVale McGee). Good luck with that.

30. Bobcats (4-30, LW 30). Nice decision not to double Deron Williams off the pick-and-roll on Sunday. How did that work out for you?

Jordan Clarkson says he wants to return to Lakers, play for Luke Walton

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 13: Jordan Clarkson of the Los Angeles Lakers is introduced for the Taco Bell Skills Challenge during NBA All-Star Weekend 2016 at Air Canada Centre on February 13, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. 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 Elsa/Getty Images)
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Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson is a restricted free agent, and he is the kind of quality rotation player that teams with cash to burn may well try to poach. The Lakers have the right to match and likely will unless the offer is way over the top. But make no mistake, Clarkson will go with the team that offers him the most money.

That’s July, right now Clarkson is saying the right things about wanting to stay with the Lakers and play for new coach Luke Walton.

Clarkson was interviewed by Chris McGee of Time Warner Cable, as reported by lakersnation.com.

I want to stay in LA….I don’t really look at it as me being a free agent; I want to be here…

He (Luke) called me a few days after he got hired. We talked about the offensive system, what he sees in us young guys, where he sees the organization, the style we’re gonna play. I’m excited for him to come and work with us.

Most likely he gets a chance, the Lakers want to keep him. They see him as part of the future (or at least as an asset they can trade to get parts for their future). He’s saying all the right things to make Laker nation happy.

But it’s going to be about the money. It always is.

DeMarre Carroll was playing through a litany of injuries in playoffs

TORONTO, ON - MAY 23: DeMarre Carroll #5 of the Toronto Raptors defends LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first quarter in game four of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 23, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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Toronto’s DeMarre Carroll was unquestionably terrible in the Eastern Conference Finals.

He shot just 30 percent overall and 19 percent from three. They brought him in as a “3&D” guy to slow down players like LeBron James, but he didn’t even register as a pest on LeBron’s radar. Heck, at one point Richard Jefferson blew past Carroll on the drive.

But as always, there is context. Remember that Carroll came back from knee surgery just for the playoffs, and that was far from the only injury he was dealing with, reports Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star.

Apparently Carroll had everything but leprosy.

Did the gamble pay off? Carroll didn’t play well all playoffs, but the Raptors did reach the Eastern Conference Finals. It depends on perspective.

But Carroll needs to get healthy this summer and earn that $45 million over three years still left on his deal.

DeMar DeRozan doesn’t sound like guy looking to leave Toronto

TORONTO, ON - MAY 27:  DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors reacts in the third quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Air Canada Centre on May 27, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. 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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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DeMar DeRozan will be a free agent come July 1, and in a market flooded with money he’s going to have options. His name has been linked through rumors to his hometown Lakers all season, but they will be far from the only team making a call.

However, DeRozan doesn’t sound like a guy looking to leave Toronto.

He has said multiple times before how much he wanted to finish what was started north of the border and how much he loved the team and city. He said all of it again after the Raptors were eliminated from the playoffs by the Cavaliers on Friday. Check out this exit interview quote when DeRozan was asked if he could find a better situation than the one he’s in, via Zach Harper at CBSSports.com.

“I don’t think so,” DeRozan said. “My mindset has always been Toronto. I always preached it. I was passionate about it when we was losing. When we was terrible, I said I’m going to stick through this whole thing and I want to be that guy who brings this organization to where it is now. I definitely don’t want to switch up after we win.”

Or this.

But how appealing is Los Angeles?

“How appealing? I grew up in L.A.,” DeRozan said. “That’s my home. There’s not a part of L.A. I haven’t seen. I don’t get caught up into it. I let whoever comes up with that say what they want to say. Only thing appealing to me is the things I’ve done in this organization and the things that can be done here. And that’s always been my mindset.”

What should you read into this? If the money is equal, he’s going to choose Toronto over Los Angeles or any other destination.

But make no mistake, this is about the money. In most summers I would not say DeRozan is a max player, but in this summer with so much money flooding the market someone is going to offer it — and it’s probably the Raptors. Despite the holes in his game — lack of outside shooting, inconsistent defense — if the Raptors lose him for nothing they take a big step back. I expect next season he will be putting on a Raptors jersey again.

But July is always an unpredictable month.

Report: Raptors to begin contract extension talks with coach Dwane Casey

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25:  Dwane Casey of the Toronto Raptors looks on from the sideline in the first quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Entering the season, Dwane Casey’s seat was a little warm. He was not hired by the GM now in charge, and last season the Raptors had taken a step back, especially defensively.

After Toronto just ended the greatest season in franchise history — 56 wins and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals — Casey’s job is safe. In fact, the Raptors want to make sure he sticks around a while longer, reports Marc Stein at ESPN.

The Raptors and coach Dwane Casey are expected to soon begin talks on a contract extension, league sources said Friday night after Toronto’s season ended with a 113-87 loss to the Cavaliers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.

Casey has one season left on his current contract at the Raptors’ option for $4 million next season.

Both sides want to get a deal done, which usually means things happen quickly.

This is a smart move by the Raptors, clearly Casey connects with this team and knows how to get the most out of them, and he adapted well in the playoffs looking for rosters and lineups that worked. He’s the right coach for this team.