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.)

Hornets’ GM slips up, introduces Dwayne Bacon as Dwyane Wade

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It’s a slip that would have made Freud proud.

Charlotte had a good draft night. In the first round, Kentucky shooter Malik Monk fell to them at 11 and they grabbed him. In the second round, they took a smart risk with Florida State wing Dwayne Bacon.

Friday came the usual team press conference with the GM introducing his players and Charlotte GM Rich Cho made a mistake, introducing Bacon as “Dwyane Wade.”

I love Bacon’s reaction.

Cho instantly realized his mistake and laughed it off, then later said: “Actually, I think they have some similarities.” Hornets fans can only hope.

Kevin Durant trolls Westbrook, haters with cupcake hat — now topped with a ring

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Back when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were breaking into the NBA together and learning how to win together, one of their veteran mentors was tough guy Kendrick Perkins. When Perkins thought someone was acting soft, he called that player a “cupcake.”

When news broke on the Fourth of July last summer that Durant was leaving OKC for Golden State, the NBA world freaked out. Except for Westbrook. He just posted one Instagram photo that day — a tiered tray of red, white, and blue cupcakes. It was meant as a subtle jab at Durant, but when word got out (via Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated) what it meant, Thunder fans embraced it and had cupcake signs and clothing made for Durant’s return to Oklahoma City.

Durant had the last laugh — he’s got a new hat with a cupcake on it, topped by a ring.

Well played Durant. Well played.

Another report Rockets “aggressively” trying to clear cap space to chase Chris Paul

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Daryl Morey is big game hunting. Again.

The Rockets, with James Harden running Mike D’Antoni’s offense, made a leap up to the NBA’s second tier last season — then landed with a playoff thud. The team should be better the second season in the same system, but to get past the Warriors, the Rockets need more talent.

Hence the Rockets are going to chase Chris Paul. That’s not new news to anyone paying attention, but Chris Haynes laid it out in more detail in on SportsCenter.

The Rockets need talent and Chris Paul is unquestionably that. He and James Harden could figure out how to play together.

The problem is money. Chris Paul is going to demand max or near-max money, so close to $30 million. The Rockets enter the summer with about $10 million. The Rockets need to clear cap space and are ready to deal so long as they don’t take contracts back. Lou Williams will make $7 million next season, so even moving him and Patrick Beverley is not enough to land a Chris Paul or Paul Millsap. Moving Ryan Anderson ($19.6 million) or Eric Gordon ($12.9 million) helps much more.

That Morey is being aggressive isn’t the news, the question is can he find a willing partner to lower some money off his cap and give him a sense of what is to come. CP3 is going to meet with a lot of teams, but the Clippers do have advantages and are the favorites to retain him.

Jimmy Butler trade sets the stage for looming free agency

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(AP) — As draft night approached, some of the heavy hitters in the NBA – Cleveland, San Antonio, Houston, Boston, the Clippers among them – were jockeying, making calls and looking for deals to try to position themselves to make a run at the Golden State juggernaut.

The Warriors’ greatness has forced the rest of the league to do deep self-examination and be aggressive in upgrading their rosters if they’re even going to have a chance to compete. The Celtics and Cavaliers were looking hard at Pacers star Paul George and Bulls guard Jimmy Butler, the Rockets and Spurs were looking at clearing cap space to make a run at some big-name free agents next week and the Knicks were, well, the Knicks.

Draft night always lays the groundwork for what will happen when the circus (officially known as free agency) begins on July 1. And with all of those contenders looking to make a splash, the biggest move was made by … the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The Wolves reunited Tom Thibodeau with Butler, giving up two promising young players in Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn and the No. 7 overall pick to land one of the best two-way players in the game. The move should jumpstart Minnesota’s pursuit of its first playoff spot since 2004 and, the Wolves hope, pave the way for success in free agency.

“I think it will (help) a lot,” Thibodeau said. “With players, they look around the league, they see the makeup of the team, they see how they play, play together. That’s the main thing. Both offensively and defensively.”

The Timberwolves have long had difficulty attracting free agents to a relatively small market that spends four months of the year covered in ice and snow. Landing a top-15 player like Butler to team with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins sends a sign of how aggressive the teams could be.

The Bulls plunged head-first into a rebuild with the decision, and now it’s up to the Pacers to decide if they want to do the same.

Much to the dismay of Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard, George let it be known last week that he did not plan to re-sign in Indiana when he becomes a free agent next summer. Most of the league assumes that he wants to play for the Los Angeles Lakers, who appear to be in a tug-of-war with the rival Celtics for George’s attention.

“I’m confident we’ll get something,” Pritchard told reporters in Indianapolis on Friday.

One of the big markets affected on Thursday night was at point guard, the deepest position in the league. Philadelphia, the Lakers, Sacramento, New York and Dallas all drafted point guards in the top 10, which could diminish the options for veterans like Jrue Holiday, George Hill, Jeff Teague and Patty Mills.

The elite point guards available – Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry – should have no trouble finding significant contracts. With Tony Parker suffering a serious injury in the playoffs, the Spurs were reportedly trying to clear space to make a run at Paul, who is widely considered the best point guard in the league. Paul has spent the last six seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers, but has yet to advance to the Western Conference finals.

The Clippers are trying to make a decision about retooling around the core of Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, but really it’s a decision that depends largely on Paul’s thinking. He has long struggled to win big in the postseason, and heading to San Antonio to join with Kawhi Leonard or Houston to team up with James Harden could prove to be more attractive.

Lowry figures to remain in Toronto with a Raptors franchise that he has helped put back on the map, but after that there will be few teams in the market for a high-priced starting point guard. Denver, Utah, New York and Indiana could wade into those waters. But if they look at themselves as still being a couple of year away, they might be hesitant to spend big bucks on a veteran.

Other big names available include Gordon Hayward, Paul Millsap and Andre Iguodala. And while some of the very biggest names like Kevin Durant and Steph Curry figure to stay put, it only ramps up the sense of urgency for teams that have big holes to fill.

The clock is ticking and Thursday night provided the first steps toward making big improvements to the roster.

The Timberwolves rocked the boat with Butler, but the waters were calm after that, which should only mean one thing: It’s about to get real choppy when the clock strikes midnight on July 1.