PBT Power Rankings: Heat start season on top, Bobcats in cellar

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It’s that time of year — the PBT’s NBA Power Rankings are back.

Power Rankings before a single game is played are admittedly a bit silly, but then again the NBA has playoffs to determine which team is best so really all power rankings are silly and just for the entertainment value. It would take a ridiculous system that would take writer’s votes before the season and have those influence who gets to compete for a championship… oh, sorry college football.

We start the season with the Heat on top and the Bobcats on the bottom, just as we ended last season. The records next to the teams are from last season.

source:  1. Heat (46-20). They are the defending champs, Dwyane Wade seems to be healthy again, they added Ray Allen (who found his stroke the last couple preseason games) and most importantly they have their identity now. Preseason was sloppy for them at times, but does anyone really care?

 

source:  2. Lakers (41-25). It may take them a couple of months into the season to really hit their stride with a new offense and new players in it, but by the first of the year they should be an offensive juggernaut. If they stay healthy. A lack of depth could hurt them some during the regular season (unless you’re a huge Jordan Hill fan).

 

source:  3. Thunder (47-19). Even with James Harden seven hours south (by car) in Houston, Oklahoma City is a threat. Exactly how big a threat this year will be determined in part by if Kevin Martin can bounce back to his form from before last season. Eric Maynor has to do more with the second team.

 

source:  4. Clippers (40-26). If you are looking for an MVP candidate to pull for outside the obvious of LeBron and KD, might I recommend Chris Paul. Look for him to have a monster year, even if it is a contract year. Also, much deeper Clippers team this year.

 

source:  5. Celtics (39-27). Jeff Green has looked great in the preseason, we’ll see if he can carry it over to the regular season. The added depth in Boston this season (Jason Terry leads the way) is going to help them during the regular season.

 

 

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6. Nuggets (38-28). My pick for the most fun team to watch this regular season, they are going to run and Ty Lawson is perfect for what they are trying to do (so extend him, would ya). Also, look for Andre Iguodala to have a monster year.

 

source:  7. Spurs (50-16). Every year we sleep on them, every year they are better than we thought. They slip a little for us to start the season because Manu Ginobili is out for at least the season opener.

 

source:  8. Pacers (42-24). Darren Collison is gone and George Hill is the guy at the point for a team that sees itself as a threat to Miami… except that Hill is banged up with a hip injury. And Danny Granger has been having knee issues. The Pacers were very healthy last season, which helped their cause.

 

source:  9. Grizzlies (41-25). Great news that new owner Robert Pera has been approved and is taking over the team. Not sure how that will trickle down to the court.

 

 

source:  10. Nets (22-44). Preseason didn’t make us think they were going to play any defense, which was the concern looking at the roster They play their official first game at their new home the Barclays’ Center in Brooklyn on Thursday. Against the budding rival New York Knicks. And the question is how many people there will be Knicks fans.

 

source:  11. Knicks (36-30). No Amare Stoudemire and probably no Marcus Camby to start the season due to injuries is not ideal, except that it moves Carmelo Anthony to the four spot and that is a good thing. I think as the season moves on you’ll see a lot of ‘Melo at the four with Tyson Chandler at the five. I think that could be a good lineup.

 

source:  12. 76ers (35-31). Andrew Bynum remains a question mark for the season opener, and maybe a little longer. The Sixers overcame that in the preseason and looked great, but things will be more difficult now.

 

 

source:  13. Bulls (50-16). The Bulls are going to defend, and a pretty soft schedule to open the season means they may be able to score enough to win. They will get off to a solid start.

 

 

source:  14. Jazz (36-30). Utah starts off the season with eight of their first 11 on the road and a gauntlet of Spurs, Grizzlies, Lakers and Nuggets. Still, the injuries in Minnesota and Dallas help their playoff chances.

 

source:  15. Hawks (40-26). This team is still better than people think — Josh Smith and Al Horford are one of the best front lines in the league. At least until trades start happening midseason. Their backcourt is another story, that could be a running experiment.

 

source:  16. Mavericks (36-29). No Dirk Nowitzki to start the season. No Chris Kaman. No Delonte West off the bench. So, a whole lot of O.J. Mayo, with Eddy Curry starting at center. It’s as bad as it sounds.

 

 

source:  17. Bucks (31-35). Welcome to the Brandon Jennings/Monta Ellis experiment. Likely with Scott Skiles job hanging in the balance.

 

 

source:  18. Warriors (23-43). There’s a lot to like here when they are healthy, but Andrew Bogut hasn’t stepped on the court yet and when Stephen Curry did he tweaked his ankle again. I like Harrison Barnes though, if you are looking for a dark horse ROY candidate.

 

 

source:  19. Timberwolves (26-40). They played really good defense in the preseason… which is the preseason. If they can carry it over to games that matter and keep their head above water until Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio return, the playoffs are within reach.

 

source:  20. Blazers (28-38). Hey Damian Lillard, welcome to the NBA. Your first three games: Steve Nash and the Lakers, Russell Westbrook and the Thunder, Jeremy Lin and the Rockets. Have fun storming the castle.

 

source:  21. Rockets (34-32). Royce White’s beard and James Harden’s beard on the same team? New League Pass favorite. Now let’s see if they can run the pick-and-roll well with Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik.

 

source:  22. Raptors (23-43). They looked strong in the preseason, but now they start with 15 of their first 22 on the road. We’ll get a sense if they can contend for a playoff spot in the East in the first few weeks.

 

source:  23. Pistons (25-41). Andre Drummond has been fantastic in the preseason paired with Greg Monroe. Add Detroit to the “teams that could be better than we thought” list.

 

source:  24. Cavaliers (21-45). I like Kyrie Irving. We all like Kyrie Irving. But once we get down the roster into Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters we’re all hesitant. Seems another rough year ahead in Cleveland with not a lot of offense.

 

source:  25. Kings (22-44). DeMarcus Cousins looked good in the preseason, except when he was launching threes. Still, the big question here is where does Tyreke Evans fit in? Or does he?

 

 

source:  26. Wizards (17-46). No John Wall, no Nene to start the season. That means no wins. At least not many with A.J. Price at the point and a lot of Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza. We’ll see how Bradley Beal develops. I answer more Wizards questions here from friend of this blog Ben Standig.

 

source:  27. Hornets (21-45). Anthony Davis looked good in the preseason, as did the Hornets defense. Play like that now that the games matter and they will move up this list fast.

 

source:  28. Suns (33-33). Steve who? Michael Beasley has the green light and his coach thinks he may be passing too much. Going to be a long year in the Valley of the Sun.

 

source:  29. Magic (37-29). Jameer Nelson is solid and Glen Davis is… well, Big Baby. He’ll make some plays. But the Magic are about the future and that means Andrew Nicholson is the guy to watch.

 

source:  30. Bobcats (7-59). They are not going to be as bad as last season, if for no other reason then Michael Kidd-Gillchrist will hustle for 82 games. Think of them as just average bad now, not historically bad. Hey, it’s something.

Pacers head to Cleveland looking to put pressure back on Cavaliers

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CLEVELAND, Ohio (AP) — The Indiana Pacers are in no better position to pull off a historic upset in this first-round playoff series with the Cleveland Cavaliers than when they awoke Sunday morning.

The Pacers had a chance to put the Cavs, at the time reeling with playoff inexperience and the crushing weight of expectations with LeBron James, squarely behind the eight ball in this series by winning Game 4.

But Indiana fell behind by a huge deficit in the first half for the second consecutive game, erased it in the third and early fourth quarters again, but couldn’t sustain the momentum. Kyle Korver and James made enough plays down the stretch for the Cavs to win, 104-100, tying this series at 2-2 with Game 5 on Wednesday in Cleveland.

James has never lost a first-round series in 12 previous playoffs. Now, he has two of the next three games at home to try and keep his streak alive.

“I think just tying the series up and coming back home is something we feel good about,” said Kevin Love, who like every other Cav not named James has mostly struggled in this series. “We feel like it’s a best-of-three type series and at the end of the day, if it comes to it, we have two games at home. We like our advantage and we’re going to use that to our advantage (Wednesday) night.”

The Pacers trailed by 17 at halftime of Game 3 but steamrolled the Cavs in the second half and pulled out a 92-90 win behind 30 points from Bojan Bogdanovic, a playoff career high. They were down 10 through two quarters in Game 4 but fought back and were ahead 93-91 with 3:49 remaining before Korver connected on two deep 3s.

Indiana won Game 1 behind a playoff career-high 32 points from Victor Oladipo, who has struggled since (19-of-53 shooting in the last three games). Domantas Sabonis played a big role in the Pacers’ comeback Sunday, scoring a playoff career-best 19 off the bench.

The Pacers are getting the best night of someone’s playoff career almost each game of this series, and it’s been good enough for two wins. Then again, the Cavs’ two wins were by a combined seven points, and outside of James (32.5 ppg this series) almost no one is scoring.

Love is the next closest at 12.0 points in this series and JR Smith is third with 10.0 points.

“We’re not losing confidence,” point guard Darren Collison said, according to the Indianapolis Star. “This team is the defending Eastern Conference champions. Whatever you want to say about them, this is a very good team. They’ve been through a lot over the last few years. We’re fine. There’s no need to overreact or panic. We’re going to go into their building and we’re going to give the same effort.”

The Cavaliers say point guard George Hill (back spasms) is questionable to play in Game 5. He missed Game 4 with the same injury — four injections before the game were not enough to ease the pain to the point where he could play.

Jose Calderon started for Hill on Sunday and scored five points in 19 minutes. The Cavs are 24-9 this year (regular season and playoffs) when Calderon starts.

Hill is the only player on either team listed on the injury report. But Love suffered an injury to his left thumb in Game 1 and it’s affected him. He’s shooting 17-of-47 in the series with 11 turnovers. Catching and gripping the ball have been obvious problems.

“I’ve been able to get up a lot of shots,” Love said. “I think initially it was painful and in the few days that followed, but now it’s kind of subsided and I’m just getting my feel back in my left thumb.”

Report: Kawhi Leonard to return to San Antonio around exit interviews. Then…

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Nobody is sure how the Kawhi Leonard situation is going to play out with the Spurs. As is the nature of the NBA, the GMs of other teams are starting to circle the Spurs like vultures, on the chance that this time Gregg Popovich cannot smooth out the relationship with his star player and needs to trade him. Leonard spent the playoffs away from the team, working out and talking to doctors in New York while “his group” shielded him from attempts from San Antonio to reach out.

Now has come the time for the sides to talk, and that will happen soon reports Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express-News.

What happens during and after that meeting is anyone’s guess.

The Spurs will only move Leonard as a last resort, and they have two things on their side. First, Gregg Popovich, who has maintained a healthy relationship with his star pupil through all of this. LaMarcus Aldridge told Popovich he wanted to be traded last summer, and over the course of some dinner meetings and self-reflection, Popovich was able to both keep Aldridge in the fold and put him in positions to be an All-NBA level player this season. The key is that both sides were willing to talk with an open mind, are Leonard and his advisors open to that?

Second, the Spurs have the ultimate hammer — the $219 million designated veteran extension (the contract James Harden and Russell Westbrook signed this year). Put that on the table and Leonard will sign it. The question is will the Spurs put it out there? Probably not if Leonard makes it clear he doesn’t want to be in San Antonio any longer. That’s when the trade talks start to gain traction.

But we’re not there yet. Not even close. Let the meetings play out first.

Back home, Thunder try to avoid elimination against Jazz

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma City was built this offseason around three All-Stars with the hopes of contending for the Western Conference crown.

The Utah Jazz started the year 18-26 without center Rudy Gobert. However, Gobert returned and the Jazz rolled off 11 straight wins into Valentine’s Day with the help of a surprise rookie of the year contender.

One more win and the Jazz will reach the second round for the second straight year. They’ll send the Thunder home with a second straight first-round exit — despite Oklahoma City’s overhauled, star-studded roster.

After losing the first game on the road, Utah won decisively in each of the past three games, including a 17-point victory in Game 4 — a game the Thunder called a must-win in Salt Lake City.

“It’s the playoffs, it’s gonna be war,” Utah point guard Ricky Rubio, who had a triple-double in Game 3, told the Salt Lake Tribune after Utah’s 113-96 victory in Game 4. “We know that it’s gonna be another war next game. We just have to be tough but at the same time, mentally ready for that.”

Game 5 is set for 9:30 p.m. EST Wednesday at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell, who averaged 20 points per game during the regular season, has averaged 27.6 points during the past three games — taking his play to another level to lead a balanced Jazz attack that has five players averaging in double figures. Mitchell, who was the 13th overall pick in last year’s draft, has scored 110 points through the first four games, the most by a rookie in his first four games since Michael Jordan’s 117 in 1985, according to nba.com.

“To be honest, a lot of this is surreal. I’m just taking it game-by-game and not really getting caught up in the big picture,” Mitchell told the Salt Lake City Tribune. “Just focusing on game-by-game. My teammates have helped me out a lot as far as that goes. But we’re playing together.”

Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook picked up four fouls before halftime in Game 4 and was fined $10,000 for an altercation with Gobert late in the game. Luckily for the Thunder, he was not suspended following his altercation with the Utah center.

Westbrook’s foul trouble has hardly been the Thunder’s biggest issue.

Oklahoma City was inconsistent much of the year, but it has had to contend with shooting woes from offseason acquisition Carmelo Anthony, who has hit just 25 percent of his 3-pointers in the first four games of the playoffs.

“We gotta win, nothing to it,” Anthony said after the Game 4 loss. “We’ve just gotta win. We can sit here and say what we gotta do, or what we didn’t do or what we did do, but it comes down to having the will to win that game Wednesday and forcing a Game 6 back in Utah.”

Winning in Utah won’t to be easy, where the Jazz have won six straight. Oklahoma City has to get back to Salt Lake City first and stave off elimination. But Utah hasn’t lost three straight games since Gobert’s return to the lineup in mid-January.

“Every game’s been physical,” Gobert said to reporters. “We just got to watch the tape, see how much better we can get and get ready to play basketball.”

Any end to one-and-done rule remains a couple of years away

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Condoleezza Rice and the Commission on College Basketball released their much-anticipated report and…

Yawn.

We’ll see how much the NCAA wishes to police itself and ban coaches caught cheating from the sport, or to do anything that would stem the flow of money from shoe companies and boosters into college hoops. Will the NCAA make an organizational shift to focus less on enforcement and more on involvement with players before they get to college?

One thing the report wants is an end to the one-and-done rule with the NBA, and it issues some veiled threats about getting back together and coming up with new recommendations if the NBA and its players’ union does not act within a year. Yawn. The NBA will continue to work toward this at its own pace, as Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN notes.

Allowing guys to go back to college if not drafted — even if they had an agent — is a good step.

The NBA will move at its own pace with reforms to its draft rules, and we are still years away from that (if the owners can be herded into a consensus in the first place). This commission’s report changes none of that, and without the NBA and players’ union’s cooperation the commission can’t accomplish some of its goals anyway.

The NBA is moving toward ending one-and-done, NBA commissioner Adam Silver had said they were waiting on this report to take the next steps down that road. With the assistance of the NCAA, the league could move to something more akin to the baseball model (players can be drafted out of high school to the NBA, but if they go to college they have to stay two or three seasons). However, this remains years away. For now, players such as Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III will continue to be one-and-dones. Nobody likes it, but it is the rule for now.