NBA Summer Power Rankings: Free agency moves Lakers up

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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.

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.