NBA Summer Power Rankings: Free agency moves Lakers up

40 Comments

Summer NBA power rankings are about as meaningful and accurate as preseason college football rankings. At least the NBA isn’t silly enough to have something like this matter in determining a champion. That would be stupid.

The top and the bottom of the poll are what you’d expect, but the Lakers and Celtics moved up while the Magic have fallen hard. You probably expected that, too. (Teams are listed with their record from last season.)

1. Heat (46-20) When you are the defending NBA champions you get to start on top (unless someone were to dismantle the team, Mr. Cuban). Miami got better this summer — and it is not just adding Ray Allen. More important is that the Heat have figured out who they are now and what they want to do. They have their identity. They are more dangerous.

2. Lakers (41-25) I think spots two and three — the Lakers and Thunder — are a toss-up. I could go either way and who is better may very well be decided in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals. But while there are questions about the Lakers — Steve Nash’s back, Dwight Howard’s back, Kobe Bryant’s knees, how all these stars mesh — on paper Howard and his defense are key and may make L.A. a little better than OKC. But they have to prove it now.

3. Thunder (47-19) While the Lakers have the potential, the Thunder are reality. We know OKC will come back a little better than they were last year, a little more experienced. And they already were very, very good. The Thunder have done this, they know how to do this, and they will be hungry. They are the bar the Lakers are shooting for, not the other way around.

4. Clippers (40-26) They will be better, because Blake Griffin will grow and improve, because Jamal Crawford is an upgrade over Mo Williams, and because I expect a bounce-back season from Lamar Odom. Besides, bad thumb or not Chris Paul is still the best pure point guard on the planet. But the level the Clippers reach in the playoffs will be determined by what kind of steps DeAndre Jordan makes.

5. Nuggets (38-28) I love the Andre Iguodala signing for them, I think he addresses their defensive needs on the perimeter and he fits what they do on offense. This is going to be a fun, fast team to watch. But the ultimate key will be the play of JaVale McGee for Denver and what George Karl can get out of him.

6. Celtics (39-27) Boston got better this summer — Jason Terry is an upgrade over Ray Allen, they will get Avery Bradley and Jeff Green back, and they figured out how well they play with Kevin Garnett at the five spot. It was a good offseason, Danny Ainge did himself proud. But they still need Miami to come back to them if Boston wants to make the finals. Also, they are not a regular season juggernaut.

7. Spurs (50-16) This is probably too low for them. We always tend to overlook the Spurs. Their stars will get a year older the question is can their young role players step up and help them out again? Probably.

8. Pacers (42-24) They should be better next season, mostly because they found their rotations and identity in the playoffs, with George Hill at the point. They could pass Boston for the No. 2 seed. Smart move to retain Roy Hibbert

9. Bulls (50-16) Derrick Rose is out for half the season (at least) and the Bulls have decimated their bench. And yet Tom Thibodeau will get them to defend like few others and that will win a lot of games. Regular season games. We’ll see come the playoffs.

10. Grizzlies (41-25) They lost O.J. Mayo but this is still a good team with real size up front (Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph). They still need shooters and someone to really organize the offense besides Mike Conley.

11. Knicks (36-30) Knicks fans will be convinced this is too low, that they should be up with Boston as teams to challenge Miami. I’m not sold. They should be a solid defensive team again (thank you Tyson Chandler) but I need to see Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire figure out how to co-exist on the court before I see New York getting out of the first round.

12. Nets (22-44) Well, they got a team they can take into Brooklyn. Who cares if they have a lot of large, long-term contracts they will hate in a few years (Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez). This team will be fun to watch and will put up points, but it’s going to take years off Avery Johnson’s life as he tries to get them to defend.

13. 76ers (35-31) Andrew Bynum gives the Sixers a new direction and I like the moves they made — if the East’s powers are going small (Miami, Boston) then counter by going big. Start Bynum and Spencer Hawes. I think they will be a good defensive team but the offense is going to be a work in progress.

14. Timberwolves (26-40) I think they are a playoff team in the West this year. Sure, the seven seed that gets the Lakers or Thunder in the first round, but it’s a start. I think they make a big move up, Kevin Love will be better and adding guys like Brandon Roy, Andrei Kirilenko and Chase Budinger gives Rick Adelman good depth to work with. They will miss Ricky Rubio for the first half of the season. How Roy plays could move them higher.

15. Jazz (36-30) This is a solid NBA team with good size up front — Al Jefferson, Derrick Favors and Paul Millsap. They will not be anybody’s pushovers, but in a deep West even good teams have to fight for a playoff spot.

16. Mavericks (36-29) They could make the playoffs if O.J. Mayo gets his groove back, Elton Brand stays healthy and productive, Chris Kaman has a career year… exactly. Well, they still have Dirk Nowitzki. And this is a placeholder roster as they keep cap space for next summer.

17. Hawks (40-26) Joe Johnson and the iso-Joe offense is gone to Brooklyn, but if that means more up-tempo offense, if it means more Jeff Teague/Josh Smith pick-and-roll it could be a good thing. I just don’t think they are as consistent, I think they are closer to a .500 side.

18. Bucks (31-35) The question isn’t will the Brandon Jennings/Monta Ellis backcourt score a lot, they will. And they will be entertaining. But who are they going to be able to stop? Defense is key in Milwaukee.

19. Warriors (23-43) On paper it’s a nice roster, but it needs Stephen Curry and Andrew Bogut to be healthy and productive like their old selves for it to work. I’m just not convinced they get that for the 70+ games they need from both of them.

20. Blazers (28-38) They have a couple quality young pieces — LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum — and Damian Lillard is my guy for Rookie of the Year (Anthony Davis probably wins but he is too obvious). But it’s a rebuilding process and it will take some time.

21. Wizards (17-46) Where you rank them says what you think about John Wall and his ability to make the leap to elite point guard. Yes, they added Nene and Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor (all should help the defense), but this team is all about how Wall gets the offense going.

22. Raptors (23-43) They are a good dark-horse playoff team in the East, mostly because Kyle Lowry could help generate offense, and they have scorers like DeMar DeRozan and Andrea Bargnani. But what they really need is rookie Jonas Valanciunas to look a lot better than he did in the Olympics.

23. Pistons (25-41) I like their young core — Brandon Knight, Rodney Stuckey and Greg Monroe (who should have gotten a USA Select Team invite). And if rookie Andre Drummond comes along, they could finish up these rankings. There are reasons for hope.

24. Kings (22-44) They have an interesting frontcourt with DeMarcus Cousins and rookie Thomas Robinson. But this season in Sacramento is the “what do we really have with Tyreke Evans?” season. Well, that and when do the Maloofs do something else stupid.

25. Cavaliers (21-45) We all love Kyrie Irving. People outside of Cleveland are less sold on Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson. And is this the year Anderson Varejao gets traded?

26. Magic (37-29) The post Dwight Howard rebuilding begins, but the roster having Arron Afflalo and Jameer Nelson may keep the Magic from sucking as much as the front office hopes (they want high draft picks).

27. Hornets (21-45) They have a young core to watch — Anthony Davis in the paint, Eric Gordon at the two, Ryan Anderson as a stretch four, Austin Rivers at the point — and Monty Williams will get them to play defense. It’s a rebuilding process, it’s going to take time. But they will be much better in March than they will be in November.

28. Rockets (34-32) They have Jeremy Lin and Kevin Martin. But I like what they did this summer even without getting Dwight Howard — don’t be middle of the pack, that’s just a rut you stay in. Be bad, get a high draft pick, and have trade flexibility. The Rockets have all that. They are ready for a good rebuild.

29. Suns (33-33) The post Steve Nash era rebuilding starts this year with the Suns being bad and getting a high draft pick. We’ll watch how Kendall Marshall pans out and we’ll watch Michael Beasley take a lot of shots. A lot of shots.

30. Bobcats (7-59) They are going to be better than last year. Thing is, they were the worst team in NBA history last year so even if they are better they could still be the worst team in the league.

Lonzo Ball recruits LeBron James to Lakers (video)

Leave a comment

Lonzo Ball doesn’t play for the Lakers. LeBron James isn’t a free agent.

But they’re headed that way – and Ball is already embracing it.

The Lakers are expected to draft Ball No. 2 tonight, and rumors are heating up about LeBron leaving the Cavaliers in 2018.

Why should LeBron join Ball in Los Angeles?

Ball on ESPN:

LeBron, I like to win. I know you like to win. I think our games can help each other out a lot. Any time you want the ball, just let me know. It’s going to be there.

Ball was asked to to pitch LeBron, so it’s not as if Ball is out here talking so brashly on his own. But answering the question was a rookie mistake.

Besides, I’m not sure Lonzo Ball can undo the bad blood between LeBron and LaVar Ball.

Celtics seemingly between Josh Jackson and Jayson Tatum at No. 3 in NBA draft

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
1 Comment

NEW YORK (AP) — Markelle Fultz is still expected to be the No. 1 pick, though the destination has changed.

Lonzo Ball wants to stay home with the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 2, and it seems surer than ever he will.

The intrigue, then, starts with the No. 3 pick in the NBA draft Thursday.

That’s where the Boston Celtics are scheduled to pick after moving down two spots in a trade with Philadelphia, giving the 76ers the right to select Fultz with their second No. 1 pick in two years.

Forwards Josh Jackson of Kansas and Jayson Tatum of Duke are two players frequently mentioned as possibilities at the No. 3 spot, and Celtics president Danny Ainge said Boston could get the player there they might have taken at No. 1.

Jackson never thought that would be him, so he said he didn’t work out for the Celtics.

“Me and my agent talked and we just didn’t feel like they had much interest in drafting me at No. 1, so we felt like it would be sort of a waste of time for me to go out and work out if they were really not considering drafting me,” Jackson said. “After they got the third pick, we tried to schedule something for me to get out there. But it was just scheduling issues and it was a little delayed for me to get out there.”

He said he had been open to working out for the Celtics and said it was possible they might draft him, anyway.

Tatum and the Celtics seem to have more familiarity, with the 6-foot-8 swingman believing he’d be a good fit on the roster of the team that had the best record in the Eastern Conference.

“I talked about that with coach Brad Stevens,” Tatum said. “He just said guys that are my size and are versatile offensively and defensively, it’s hard not to play those guys. That’s what we talked about.”

Other things to watch from Barclays Center:

IT’S GOT TO BE THE SHOES: When Fultz walks on stage to shake hands with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, he recommends you check out his feet.

“Pay attention to my footwear,” the Washington guard said. “I’m going to have some custom-made shoes that I think nobody ever had before.”

LOVING LONZO – AND LAVAR: Ball acknowledged that there might be a “target” on him entering the draft because of all his father’s comments. But if the Lakers want Lonzo – and it seems they do after trading point guard D'Angelo Russell to Brooklyn – they won’t be turned off by LaVar.

“They were just open arms,” Lonzo said of his Lakers workout. “They said they love my dad and left it at that.”

THEIR TIME TO SHINE: With so much trade speculation about All-Stars such as Paul George and Jimmy Butler, there hasn’t been as much focus as usual leading into Thursday on the players who are in the draft.

“We don’t need that attention,” Kentucky guard Malik Monk said. “We’re going to get ours tomorrow.”

FRESHMAN FUN: The record of 14 freshmen selected in the first round might last just one year. Of the 20 players expected to be in the green room, 13 were college one-and-dones.

DULL DRAFT: Neither Golden State nor Cleveland, who met in the NBA Finals, has a pick in the two-round draft. The Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies also are without a pick, while Houston, New Orleans and Washington don’t have one in the first round.

INTERNATIONAL INTRIGUE: A year after nearly half the draft – a record 27 of the 60 picks – were international players, French guard Frank Ntilikina and Finnish forward Lauri Markkanen, who played a year at Arizona, are two of the top international players. Both have met with the New York Knicks, who scored well two years ago when they went overseas with their pick of Latvian Kristaps Porzingis – to whom Markkanen has been compared as a 7-footer with perimeter shooting skills.

Markkanen was asked about potentially playing with or replacing Porzingis, who team president Phil Jackson told MSG Network on Wednesday the Knicks are taking calls about after he left New York without attending his exit interview.

“I try not to think about it too much,” Markkanen said. “I’ve been doing my work here and I’m just waiting for tomorrow night and whatever happens, happens.”

 

Report: Spurs talking to teams about trading LaMarcus Aldridge for top-10 pick

Harry How/Getty Images
8 Comments

San Antonio’s pursuit of Chris Paul hit a snag when the NBA reduced its salary-cap projection to $99 million.

Even if they trimmed their roster to just Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Tony Parker – they were reportedly open to trading Danny Green – the Spurs would no longer have max cap space for Paul.

So, San Antonio might look into trading its highest-paid player: Aldridge.

Ramona Shelburne and Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

The San Antonio Spurs, in pursuit of a top-10 pick in Thursday’s NBA draft, have spoken to at least three teams about a possible trade involving power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, sources confirmed to ESPN.

There were already rumors about the Spurs trading Aldridge, who was reportedly unhappy about Leonard getting the spotlight. Gregg Popovich called out Aldridge publicly during the playoffs.

San Antonio would already be sacrificing immediate production by dealing Aldridge for a rookie whose value is tied to team control, salary and upside. But if trading Aldridge leads to signing Paul, the Spurs don’t even need equal value in return for the big man. Paul would offset the difference.

Free agency doesn’t begin until July 1, making this tricky for San Antonio, which might regret dumping Aldridge if Paul doesn’t sign. So, the Spurs must read the tea leaves on Paul and proceed accordingly.

De’Aaron Fox’s speed raced him up draft boards, made him confident wherever he lands

Leave a comment

De’Aaron Fox even talks fast.

Speed is what separates the point guard out of Kentucky from a deep crop at the position in this draft. Fox has got impressive playmaking skills, his defense can overwhelm, he has a maturity and confidence about him not seen in most 19-year-olds — there are multiple reasons he has climbed draft boards and is expected to be taken in the top five Thursday night during the NBA Draft.

However, it’s the speed that separates him.

“You can’t really teach speed, you either have it or you don’t,” Fox told NBC Sports. “For me, Coach Cal had me using that as a weapon and that’s just something I learned while I was at Kentucky.”

It’s that speed that intrigues teams. Fox generally has been projected to go to Phoenix or Sacramento (picks four or five), but the ground under this draft is shifting quickly and Fox said he has no idea where he will be taken. He could land a lot of places. He said he’d prefer it to be in an uptempo system, but he believes he can help any team that takes him.

“I think I just bring a level of playmaking that some of the teams in the lottery don’t have,” Fox said. “That’s offensively and defensively. Defensively that’s playing the passing lanes, just getting your hands on balls. And offensively just being able to beat your man and being able to create for yourself and others….

“The NBA game is a lot faster than the college game, but you still have to be able to play in the high gears.”

Where most people remember him using those higher gears was to overwhelm likely No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball of UCLA in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament (frankly, he outplayed Ball both times Kentucky took on UCLA last season). Fox had 39 points on 20 shots that March night, plus got to the line 15 times. However, more impressive was his defense on Ball, holding the bigger guard to 10 points on 10 shots (with eight assists). Again, it was about speed.

“I’m quicker and faster than just about everybody I played against so just being able to get under guards, just try to limit what they can do with their size,” Fox said. “I try to speed them up, play to my tempo.”

Fox has been fast up the draft board — and fast to get endorsements and deals. He inked a shoe deal with Nike. He was in New York Wednesday to shoot a new commercial for Kids Foot Locker — they wanted him even before the draft. Like a lot of scouts, they see a potential star about to bloom.

“I always thought I’d want to see myself in a commercial and things like that, see myself on TV doing things other than just basketball,” Fox said. “This is a blessing to be able to do things like this. I’m just blessed God gave me the talent and I’m just taking it and being able to affect the world.”

If scouts had one question about Fox, it was his jump shot. He shot just 24.6 percent from three last season, and his jump shot was as inconsistent as his release point. His form wasn’t terrible, just a little all over the map.

However, it has looked better in recent workouts, largely because Fox and trainer Chris Gaston put in the time in the gym.

“I put a lot of work on it,” Fox said of his jumper. “I know I’m going to need it at the next level, but also that was something I really just struggled with at the beginning of the year at Kentucky, so I that was one thing didn’t really worry about, I just had to tighten (it up)…

“Really it was just getting up reps, staying focused on every shot, locked in.”

Fox’s maturity showed through when asked what else he’s been working on — he’s been getting in better shape. Something some players don’t figure out until they’ve been in the league a few years.

“Getting my body right,” Fox said. “At the next level, you got to be a lot stronger, quicker, faster… (conditioning) really goes up a tremendous level from college to the NBA, and it’s something that you really need work. You really have to focus on that.”

Fox credits part of him being NBA ready with a year under John Calipari at Kentucky, a school that feels like a one-and-done factory at points.

“Just the way he coaches. He tries to run it like an NBA organization,” Fox said. “You know the track record he’s had, so you don’t go in there like you’re the only high major player he’s ever had, you’re one of many. You just listen to him and he’s able to get you to the next level, he helps us that way. He has us playing like an NBA team, it’s difficult in college to simulate that but he does it the best.”

Thursday night, years of work in the gym for Fox will all culminate with him being drafted — then another whirlwind will start. He will be flown off to the city where he is picked, meet the media, sit down with the coach, and quickly start workouts with the team in advance of Summer League. Fox hasn’t focused too much on where he will land, but he has focused on what he will wear draft night.

“I’ve actually had my suit picked out for a while now,” Fox said. “I haven’t actually picked the shoes yet, though.”

Would John Calipari approve of the look?

“I think he would.”