NBA Power Rankings: Spurs close out season riding high

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This is it, our final power rankings of the season. Usually I’d have them ranked in the order I would rank championship contenders, but this year any of the top four could win a chip and I wouldn’t be surprised. Hard to rank teams at the end of the season with everyone coasting and resting guys — and at the bottom of the rankings outright tanking. But here is a final rundown.

1. Spurs (47-16, last week ranked number 3). If they are the top seed in the West they could get through to the finals without having to play Memphis or the Lakers — two big challenges because of their front line size. Manu Ginobili is the key for this team.

2. Heat (46-18, LW 4). They need to get the big three healthy, but to me that’s not the real heart of the matter. If they get good production from their role players — Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem, Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier — they will get a ring. But if, like last year and large parts of the second half of this season, it is the big three against the world they will fall short again.

3. Bulls (48-16, LW 1). They need to get Derrick Rose back and fully integrated, fortunately getting the struggling Sixers in the first round gives them more time to do just that.

4. Thunder (46-18, LW 2). They need to get James Harden back, but Sunday’s loss to the Lakers was the latest in a string of losses to playoff teams. They need to get right during the first round because the Lakers will not be an easy out in the second.

5. Pacers (41-23, LW 6). Everyone is sleeping on the Pacers, but with George Hill at the point they are a very good team. They win the playoff lottery and get Orlando in the first round, but watch how hard they push the Heat in the second round.

6. Celtics (37-27, LW 5). They have put a lot of confidence in their veteran core — they are resting key guys rather than going after home court. On one hand it makes sense, do you think Kevin Garnett cares where they game is? But Boston is 22-9 at home this season and 15-18 on the road, and they have not been a great road team in recent playoffs. Doc Rivers has taken a risk.

7. Grizzlies (39-25, LW 9). The Spurs and the Thunder are the two best teams in the West this season, but are the Grizzlies the third best entering the playoffs? Maybe. They are going to be a tough out for anyone they face. It looks like Grizzlies/Clippers in the first round and that is going to be the best first round series in either conference.

8. Lakers (41-24, LW 7). Maybe the hardest team to predict entering the playoffs — when focused on defense and running the offense inside out through Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol they can beat anybody. But they are just as likely to get away from what works for them, play hero ball and lose to anyone. Can Matt Barnes fill in well enough for Metta World Peace?

9. Clippers (40-24 LW 8). The Clippers have talked a lot recently about standing their ground and defending Blake Griffin. They are very likely getting Memphis in the first round. They better be ready because that is going to be a black-and-blue series.

10. Hawks (38-26, LW 10). No Al Horford for the playoffs. With him I thought they had a real chance to beat the Celtics in the first round, but without him that is a hard slog.

11. Knicks (34-30, LW 12). The Knicks play defense and have developed into a pretty good team that can defend and put points on the board. The problem is they did it so late in the season they get the Heat in the first round. Ticket prices for this series will be through the roof, but the Heat talent will overwhelm.

12. Nuggets (35-28, LW 13). JaVale McGee in the playoffs. This should be fun.

13. Mavericks (36-29, LW 11). They still have Dirk Nowitzki, they have been playing their best basketball of late, but nobody thinks they are a threat and may not even get out of the first round. Hey, didn’t people think that last year, too.

14. Jazz (34-30, LW 17). Huge game Tuesday night against the Suns. If the Jazz get into the playoffs, Tyron Corbin and Paul Millsap deserve huge kudos.

15. 76ers (33-30, LW 15). Do you think they could win even a game against the Bulls or Heat in the first round the way they are playing right now?

16. Suns (33-31, LW 16). Much like the Jazz, just being in the playoff conversation is a win for this team. Steve Nash deserves all the credit he gets, but don’t overlook Marcin Gortat’s contribution.

17. Magic (36-28, LW 18). They are 3-7 without Dwight Howard. They will be 0-4 against the Pacers in the first round.

18. Rockets (33-31, LW 14). For the third straight year they will have a better than .500 record and miss the playoffs. That stings.

19. Bucks (30-33, LW 19). They actually have a slim chance to still make the playoffs, but when you need things like the Nets to win you are hoping against hope.

20. Pistons (24-40, LW 21). Greg Monroe had a good season but he clearly was worn down in the end. There are some pieces to build on here.

21. Blazers (28-36, LW 20). Losers of five straight. They have LaMarcus Aldridge, what they need is a team president and GM to set a direction for the franchise and for the owner to stay out of the new hire’s way.

22. Raptors (22-42, LW 22). They get Jonas Valanciunas next season plus whoever they get in this draft. With DeMar DeRozan there is something to build on. Especially if Andrea Bargnani can stay healthy.

23. Timberwolves (26-39, LW 23). Of all the teams in the bottom 10, with Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Rick Adelman at the helm, none has a brighter future.

24. Hornets (20-44, LW 25). New stable ownership, now we can see what Dell Demps and Monty Williams can really do.

25. Nets (22-42, LW 24). No team may have a wilder offseason. They could enter Brooklyn with a complete rebuilding project, or they could enter with Dwight Howard and Deron Williams. I kind of think the former is more likely.

26. Cavaliers (21-42, LW 28). Kyrie Irving comes back and the Cavs get a win, no coincidence there. They have their point guard of the future, just four other positions to fill out now.

27. Wizards (17-46, LW 29). A three game win streak… don’t start printing playoff tickets, but when Nene is in the lineup this team plays pretty good defense and can compete a little. Lots of work to do to change the culture, but they made some good first steps.

28. Warriors (23-41, LW 26). If you want to talk about outright tanking… then they go and win a game on Sunday night. They are all about the ankles of Andrew Bogut and Stephen Curry being right next season.

29. Kings (21-43, LW 27). DeMarcus Cousins is key to the future of this team. Is Tyreke Evans anymore?

30. Bobcats (7-55, LW 30). Worst. Team. Ever. (That could be official by Thursday if they don’t win any more games.)

Report: Dennis Smith Jr. planned to have J. Cole dunk in dunk-contest routine

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Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. seemed pretty steamed about getting eliminated in the first round of the dunk contest:

The dunk-contest scoring system – five judges ranking dunks on a scale of 6-10 – is plenty flawed. There should have been a larger difference between the Smith and Victor Oladipo dunks the Dallas point guard mentioned. But Oladipo didn’t advance, either. Personally, I thought the right two players – eventual-winner Donovan Mitchell and runner-up Larry Nance Jr. – advanced.

Maybe Smith was more upset about the missed opportunity – dunks (plural!) involving rapper J. Cole.

Amin El-Hassan of ESPN on Black Opinions Matter:

If Dennis had made it to the finals, Cole was going to throw him the alley-oop. But then the plan was, he was going to throw him the oop, Dennis would dunk it, and then Cole would catch the ball, and then he’d dunk it too. That was going to be the ill, craziest dunk-contest use of a prop or a person ever. But we never got to saw it, because they were holding out until the final round. They didn’t want to bring it out in the first round.

This certainly would have been unprecedented and cool. But unless Smith had something amazing planned for the alley-oop, the best element would have been Cole dunking. That would have upstaged Smith, who’s presumably the one being judged.

For what it’s worth, Cole can dunk. We’ve seen it in the celebrity game:

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich says he’d be surprised if Kawhi Leonard returns this season

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When announcing last month Kawhi Leonard was out indefinitely due to a lingering quad injury, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich dismissed the idea his star forward would miss the rest of the season:

Apparently, Popovich’s expectation has changed.

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

The Spurs (35-24) are third in the West despite Leonard playing just nine games. Popovich has done a great job (maybe Coach of the Year-worthy). LaMarcus Aldridge is having a bounce-back season in a leading role. Pau Gasol leads a supporting cast of players good in their roles.

But San Antonio’s ceiling is so much lower without Leonard.

He’s an elite defender who shuts down opposing scorers on the perimeter and can comfortably switch inside. He can isolate offensively to score efficiently, and he spaces the floor off the ball with strong 3-point shooting. Those are all skills that translate to the playoffs.

Without him, the Spurs rely too heavily on older, slower defenders. That’s ripe to be exploited in the postseason.

Teams might even jockey to match up with San Antonio – the most vulnerable-appearing Western Conference team in line to get home-court advantage in the first round.

Of course, this doesn’t eliminate the possibility of Leonard returning. Popovich could just be trying to shut down speculation. He clearly doesn’t like discussing this issue.

But the Spurs are the most cautious team on injuries. If Leonard risks further injury, they’ll keep him sidelined.

This injury has already caused tension. This won’t help.

Mark Cuban’s fine third-largest known fine in NBA history

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While explaining how he told his players the team was better off losing this season, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said “I’m probably not supposed to say this” and “Adam would hate hearing that.”

Cuban was right.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver fined Cuban $600,000 for “public statements detrimental to the NBA.” The league doesn’t announce all its fines, but that’s the third-largest known fine in NBA history.

The leaderboard:

1. Timberwolves, $3.5 million in 2000 (signing under-the-table agreement with Joe Smith)

2. Clippers owner Donald Sterling, $2.5 million in 2014 (making racist comments)

3. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, $600,000 in 2018 (saying he told his players the team is better off losing)

4. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, $500,000 in 2002 (criticizing officiating)

4. Knicks, $500,000 in 2006 (fighting Nuggets)

4. Nuggets, $500,000 2006 (fighting Knicks)

4. Vladimir Radmanovic, $500,000 in 2007 (injuring his shoulder while snowboarding)

4. Pistons general manager Joe Dumars, $500,000 in 2010 (leaking confidential league memos)

4. Heat owner Micky Arison, $500,000 in 2011 (tweets during the lockout breaking rank with other owners)

I’d be on Cuban (and/or the Mavericks) getting yet another spot on this list following the investigation of the franchise for a culture tolerant of sexual harassment and domestic abuse. That one will probably be deserved – not just the league trying to preserve the illusion of pure competition amid a system that incentivizes losing.

Mark Cuban fined $600,000 for telling team “losing is our best option”

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Of all the hot water Mark Cuban is in right now with the Mavericks and the NBA league office, this is probably the smallest tub. And the least expensive fine.

Cuban recently went on Julius Erving’s podcast, House Call with Dr. J, and said:

“I’m probably not supposed to say this, but I just had dinner with a bunch of our guys the other night. And here we are, we weren’t competing for the playoffs. I was like, “Look, losing is our best option.” Adam would hate hearing that, but at least I sat down, and I explained it to them. And I explained what our plans were going to be this summer, that we’re not going to tank again.”

You were not supposed to say that — the NBA Wednesday fined Cuban $600,000 for “for public statements detrimental to the NBA.”

Cuban’s not wrong, it’s just a matter of perception. The NBA has worked very hard to lessen the image that teams are tanking for draft position (why do you think there was pressure on the Sixers to replace Sam Hinkie?), they don’t need an owner saying it’s the smart thing to do. Even though it is. Teams tank — it is still the only way for a small or medium market team to get a superstar, get high in the draft and hopefully pick one (it’s not that simple, ask the Magic) — but the league wants at least the facade that all of its teams are competitive. All the way through the end of the season.

As you read this, the bottom eight teams in the NBA are within three games of each other for the worst record — and a higher lottery slot. Does anyone think any of them are not going to roll out young, less-talented rosters in the name of development when the real goal is to lose as many games as they can the rest of the way? Most scouts think there is some real talent at the top of this draft, and teams are going to try to get up there and get it.

Just nobody can talk about it.