Miami Heat's James celebrates win over Atlanta Hawks with Bosh and Allen during their NBA basketball game in Atlanta

NBA Power Rankings: Heat, Thunder on top, it feels like 2011

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It’s early in the season, very early, but there are moments it feels line the NBA finals come June could be a rematch of last year — Miami vs. Oklahoma City. And that really shouldn’t be a surprise. Right now those two teams are on top of the PBT power rankings.

source:  1. Heat (12-3, last week ranked No. 3). The Heat are back on top, and on a six-game winning streak, because they are starting to find their defensive stride again. The last two games they have held their opponent below the league average in points per possession, and as a team they are taking the long view of getting the defense to click.

 

source:  2. Thunder (14-4, LW 4). Winners of five in a row, in part because Russell Westbrook is not as one dimensional as you think and has been a real playmaker for them. Good tests this week against the Nets and Lakers.

 

source:  3. Spurs (14-4, LW 2). They went 5-1 on a tough six game road trip, and the one loss really pissed David Stern off. Then they came back and handled the Grizzlies. Would you be shocked if they were the top seed in the West this season? I wouldn’t.

 

source:  4. Grizzlies (12-3, last week ranked No. 1). They were 3-1 last week, the loss coming to a motivated Spurs team out to stick up for their coach after Stern’s fine (and while the Spurs stars were rested the Griz were on a back-to-back). They have the best defense in the land and a pretty soft schedule this week (Hawks are the big challenge).

 

source:  5. Nets (11-5, LW 8). Deron Williams is struggling with his shot — 39.9 percent on the season — but he will not blame his sprained wrist. The Nets offense has been bailed out by the suddenly hot Jerry Stackhouse, who loves the corner three and has 15 from beyond the arc this season. BTW, nice win over the Knicks.

 

source:  6. Knicks (12-4, LW 6). They are defending their house and are now 7-0 at Madison Square Garden. We will see how much the bone bruise in Raymond Felton’s hand bothers him, because with Jason Kidd out also it becomes the Pablo Prigioni show.

 

source:  7. Clippers (10-6, LW 5). Chauncey Billups is back and although he has played limited minutes in those games it seems to have settled their offense down and they put up 100 points in those games (after missing that mark in four of the previous five). Jamal Crawford may be finding his groove again, too. Which is good for all of us.

 

source:  8. Hawks (9-5, LW 7). They won six in a row but did it against soft competition (save for the Clippers win). We’ll learn a lot more from them with teams like Denver, Miami and Memphis coming up.

 

source:  9. 76ers (10-7, LW 9). Like the Hawks above them, this is a team that has played hard and won but done it against a soft schedule. That changes now, starting with a home-and-home against Boston.

 

source:  10. Celtics (9-8, LW 11). I’m not with Doc Rivers, I don’t think the Celtics are soft… well, maybe their bench is. They started out with a 17-0 run against the Bucks and by halftime it was a one-point lead. And they went on to lose. Jeff Green had a couple nice games with Rajon Rondo out, but remains enigmatic.

 

source:  11. Warriors (10-6, LW 17). This is a team with the points per possession differential of a .500 team and I keep waiting for them to revert, and they just keep on finding a way to win. Carl Landry is quietly having a strong season, as is David Lee. When those two are paired the Warriors lineups are stronger.

 

source:  12. Bucks (8-7, LW 13). Quality wins last week over Boston and Chicago, plus they got a triple-double (with blocks) out of Larry Sanders. The jury is still out on the Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings pairing but it just doesn’t seem to be lightning in a bottle (they don’t defend well).

 

source:  13. Bulls (8-7, LW 15). That loss to the Bucks — ahead by 27 only to lose — is a real stinger. That said, they are still in the mix to win the Central division (without that Rose guy) and they have some winnable games this week (Cavaliers, Pistons) before some real tests in the middle of the month (Knicks, Clippers, Nets, Grizzlies).

 

source:  14. Lakers (8-9, LW 10). The NBA’s most inconsistent team. Why so inconsistent? Los Angeles is running an offense based on smart, strong point guard play and they run out Darius Morris and Chris Duhon playing the point. Combine that with some horrible mental vacations on defense and you get up and down. Lots of road games coming up this week.

 

source:  15. Jazz (9-9, LW 16). There is no good time for Derrick Favors to go down but this is about as close as it gets — Jazz are a dramatically better team at home and have four of their next five in Salt Lake City.

 

source:  16. Rockets (8-8, LW 21). They are 2-7 against the Western Conference but 6-1 when they face the East. One other fun little fact, they are playing at the fastest pace in the NBA right now.

 

source:  17. Mavericks (8-9, LW 14). Derek Fisher is not the answer, as his 1-8 shooting night Saturday showed. Dallas is 2-6 on the road this season and six of their next seven are away from Dallas. Meaning a real test for the team that has no certain idea when Dirk Nowitzki might return to the lineup.

 

source:  18. Nuggets (8-9, LW 12). This was a team expected to run everyone into the ground, but they are playing at just the eighth fastest pace in the league and are 23rd in points scored per possession in transition. They don’t have a good running game right now.

 

source:  19. Timberwolves (7-8, LW 19). Ricky Rubio is back practicing, which is great news and fits with the timeline of him returning mid-December. In the interim, they need Kevin Love to shoot better (37 percent since he returned to action).

 

source:  20. Bobcats (7-8, LW 18). Three straight losses against tougher competition, including an ugly thrashing at the hands of the Thunder where they looked like last-season’s Bobcats. The feel good story may be ending with the Knicks, Bucks and Spurs up this week (as well as the Blazers).

 

source:  21. Pacers (8-9, LW 22). They got a quality win against the Lakers last week (although pretty soon we are going to stop saying that about beating LA). David West has been playing well of late, but they miss Danny Granger’s shot creation.

 

source:  22. Trail Blazers (7-10, LW 20). They lost to the Wizards and the Pistons, then needed a dramatic Nicolas Batum three to beat the Cavaliers. This is not a very good team. Sorry. Nice pieces but not a good team.

 

source:  23. Suns (7-10, LW 23). After watching him against the Knicks Sunday, you have to wonder how long before Alvin Gentry just starts slashing Michael Beasley’s minutes. Dramatically. He guns on offense, hurts them on defense.

 

source:  24. Pistons (5-13, LW 26). Don’t tell anyone, but they have gone 5-5 in their last 10 games. They remain a dreadful road team (1-10) but at the Palace they will make you work for it.

 

source:  25. Magic (6-10, LW 24). There is no real revenge for Dwight Howard, but that win Sunday night sure tasted good to Magic fans. As it should.

 

source:  26. Raptors (4-13, LW 27). They are 1-9 on the road this season and their next five games are a West Coast swing that includes the Nuggets, Jazz and Clippers. Have fun with that.

 

source:  27. Hornets (4-11, LW 28). They are going to have to go at least another week without Anthony Davis and they have to figure out how to defend without him. With Davis in the lineup they allowed opponents 103.1 points per 100 possessions, that has jumped way up to 110.5 in the past five games.

 

source:  28. Cavaliers (4-13, LW 29). No Kyrie Irving. Not even Dion Waiters to be a gunner. All Cavaliers fans have right now is Anderson Varejao trade rumors.

 

source:  29. Kings (4-12, LW 25). You look at where the Kings are now, where they have been for the past few years, and you’d think an owner would clean house starting with the GM and working down into the roster. But Geoff Petrie in entrenched as GM. The Kings marketing team can start planning another lottery party for fans now.

 

source:  30. Wizards (1-13, LW 30). Nene was back, now he’s gone (but may be back this week). Randy Wittman’s mom wants to know when John Wall is coming back and there are no answers. It’s going to be a long season in the nation’s capital.

51Q: Did the Hornets lose too much in free agency to continue on upward track?

CHARLOTTE, NC - APRIL 25:  Teammates Courtney Lee #1 and Jeremy Lin #7 of the Charlotte Hornets react after a play against the Miami Heat during game four of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Time Warner Cable Arena on April 25, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season.

The Hornets improved from 33 wins in 2014-15 to 48 in 2015-16, a 15-win jump no other team topped. Their 48-34 record was their best since reemerging as the Bobcats in 2004. They won their first three playoff games in this era.

The key?

Buying low on players heading into unrestricted free agency and reaping the rewards before their contracts expired.

Charlotte traded for Nicolas Batum and Courtney Lee on ending deals and signed Jeremy Lin to a contract that allowed him to re-test the market again a year later. Those three joined Marvin Williams and Al Jefferson among Hornets with expiring contracts.

Management and fans can decide whether Charlotte’s fine, though unspectacular, season justified the risk. But the Hornets predictably paid a price this summer.

On the bright side, considering free agency was always going to treat them poorly, they took as small a beating as possible.

Charlotte somehow convinced Batum to re-sign for less than the max and Williams to re-sign through his early Bird Rights. So, though they lost Lin (Nets), Lee (Knicks) and Jefferson (Pacers), the Hornets still had money left to limit their net losses. They signed Ramon Sessions to replace Lin and Roy Hibbert to replace Jefferson. (In a far less inspiring move, they also replaced Lee by trading their first-round pick for Marco Belinelli.)

But the biggest “addition” will come from within: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who missed nearly all of last season due to injury.

Kidd-Gilchrist is an ace defender whose motor keeps him helpful offensively. He’s a jumper and good health away from stardom, though both have escaped him throughout his career. At just 23, he could still tap into a higher level.

Otherwise, internal improvement could be limited. Frank Kaminsky (23), Cody Zeller (23) and Walker (26) aren’t finished products, but they’re all relatively polished, with their actual production closing on their ceilings fast.

With the new acquisitions, it’s less about improvement and more about limiting lost production. Sessions will attack the rim a little better than Lin, but Session’s lackluster outside shooting will hinder his ability to share the court with Walker – a role that served Lin, and Charlotte, well last season. Hibbert is a defensive upgrade over Jefferson, maybe even a big one depending on Hibbert’s mindset. But the Hornets go from strong to zero in the offensive post. Belinelli, on the wrong side of 30, is trying to rebound from an awful season with the Kings.

Beyond their individual production, it also can’t be understated how well Lin and Lee jelled with their Charlotte teammates. Jefferson, even though his fit devolved during his tenure, still set an example by trying to make it work.

The Hornets were a feel-good team last season, but they built their success on a shaky foundation. When the storms came, they kept their house in as much order as possible, but there was only so much they could do at that point.

They didn’t experience the disaster of losing Batum. They kept another top free agent in Williams. Yes, Lin, Lee and Jefferson got away, but it’s not the end of the world – especially if Kidd-Gilchrist fulfills his potential.

After relying on players with expiring contracts last year, Charlotte is dependent on a new questionable source of production this year: Kidd-Gilchrist. Will he perform as well as those pending free agents did? The Hornets’ opportunity is greater this time around. Locked up for three more years, Kidd-Gilchrist could be a path to sustained success rather than the fleeting version experienced last season.

But first, Kidd-Gilchrist must provide immediate production to keep the good vibes going after the Hornets downgraded elsewhere. They’re putting a lot on his shoulders.

Tyronn Lue hid Cavaliers’ cash in Warriors-arena ceiling after Game 5, returned some of it after Game 7 win – but LeBron says he didn’t get repaid

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  Head coach Tyronn Lue of the Cleveland Cavaliers reacts during the first half in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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There’s always money in the banana stand ceiling of an NBA arena where Doc Rivers or one of his coaching disciples is trying to prove a point.

As Rivers did in Los Angeles with the 2010 Celtics, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue – a Rivers assistant in Boston and with the Clippers – collected cash from his team as a motivational tactic during the NBA Finals.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

After the Cavs’ 112-97 win at Golden State in Game 5, coach Tyronn Lue entered his jovial locker room and asked for $100 from everyone.

Not just from LeBron James, or Kyrie Irving, or Kevin Love — you know, the players who print money. But everyone in the room, from owner Dan Gilbert (also not poor) down to Cavs’ public relations staffers and equipment managers.

Lue took the wad of cash — senior vice president of communications Tad Carper says it was $4,500 — and hid it in the ceiling of the coaches’ dressing room in the corner of the Oracle Arena visitor’s locker room.

“They were like, ‘Where is the money going?'” Lue said Tuesday, following the Cavs’ first practice as defending champs. “I’m like, ‘It’s going to me and I’m going to wrap it up and put it in the ceiling in the coaches locker room and we’re going to come back, get our money and get our trophy for Game 7.'”

Of course, Cleveland overcame its 3-1 deficit and everyone got their money back. Right?

Vardon:

Lue was assessed a $25,000 fine after Game 4 for ripping the officials, and he said some of what he collected after Game 5 went to pay his fine.

“I’m still looking for my money. I didn’t get mine back,” James said.

This is why so many Cavaliers employees deserves a championship ring. Even modestly paid staffers had to front their own money so the coach could prove a point.

This is the perfect example of winning curing all ills. This will be seen as a fun story, but what if Cleveland lost Game 7 – or even Game 6 and never returned to California?

Player or other employee, I’d quickly grow tired of a coach whose motivational tactic is taking my money. He can’t think of anything better?

Even as is – whether Lue was joking or not, whether LeBron is legitimately upset or not – the players association shouldn’t take kindly to a coach taking money from a player to pay the coach’s fine,

Bryan Colangelo: Nerlens Noel’s center comments ‘understandable,’ but he’s too young to dictate terms

CAMDEN, NJ - SEPTEMBER 26: Nerlens Noel #4 of the Philadelphia 76ers looks on during media day on September 26, 2016 in Camden, New Jersey. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Nerlens Noel called the 76ers’ center situation – with himself, Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid – “just silly” and said, “It doesn’t make any sense.” Then, he doubled down at media day.

How is management taking the public criticism?

76ers general manager Bryan Colangelo, via Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Daily News:

“It’s not disappointing. I think it’s understandable. I think Nerlens did a pretty good job sizing up what we have. There is a lot of depth and a lot of talent at that position. I want to correct one aspect of it, though. He left out someone who has made great strides and improved significantly over the summer through hard work and his performance in the Summer League, but Richaun Holmes has really emerged as another player we’re excited about in terms of what, potentially, he is going to bring to this team.”

Colangelo, via Derek Bodner of Philadelphia magazine:

“These are all young players not in a position necessarily to dictate circumstances other than through hard work and effort,” Colangelo continued

In other words: Nerlens, you don’t have leverage.

Colangelo is mostly right. Noel is under contract this season, and if he doesn’t sign a contract extension by Oct. 31, he’ll be a restricted free agent next summer. Philadelphia has major control over his future, no matter how much he gripes.

As coach Brett Brown said, Noel’s best path to getting paid – by the 76ers or another team – is playing hard and playing to his strengths. He’ll have to earn minutes in a field that, as Colangelo noted, also includes Richaun Holmes. Colangelo is challenging Noel right back.

Colangelo is also correct that Noel’s complaints are understandable. Noel never asked to be put on a team that cared more about asset accumulation than winning, but he’s paying the price. Because the 76ers have so many centers, they’re unlikely to extend his contract now. That stinks for Noel.

Colangelo certainly has a higher tolerance for roster criticism, because his predecessor, Sam Hinkie, acquired all four centers. That’s Colangelo’s problem now, and he’s seeking a trade. But most understand the pros and cons of what he inherited.

Neither Noel nor Colangelo seems happy about Philadelphia’s center situation. They also seem unhappy with how the other is addressing it – though that could flip on a dime if Colangelo finds a trade and/or Noel provides inspired play.

Justise Winslow wants his own team one day, developing into role with Heat

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 30: Justise Winslow #20 of the Miami Heat drives down court during the first half against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on October 30, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)  *** Local Caption *** Justise Winslow
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PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — Justise Winslow‘s position with the Miami Heat has finally been clarified.

He’s their small forward.

That is, unless he’s playing power forward.

Or shooting guard. Or defending the opposition’s point guard. Or playing at center, as he did at times out of necessity in last season’s Eastern Conference semifinal series against Toronto.

In Heat vernacular, the second-year player out of Duke is a Swiss Army knife, a jack-of-all-trades whose role is fast increasing. Not only will Winslow be called upon to play multiple positions, he’s also being asked to take more of a leadership role now for a team that – without Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh – is rebuilding on the fly this season.

“That’s what I want,” Winslow said Wednesday. “That’s what I’ve been working for my whole life, to make it to the NBA – not only that, but to be a star and have my own team one day. This is the next step in me progressing and getting there, expanding my role and growing as a leader. And I accept whatever the coaching staff throws at me.”

Winslow was one of the last players to leave the court after Wednesday’s morning practice, a full-contact session that had players diving on floors and crashing into one another throughout. And after it was over, Winslow spent a good half-hour working on his shot.

The oldest Heat player is taking notice of the extra work the youngest Heat player is doing.

“He’s going to play a little bit of everything,” said 36-year-old Heat forward Udonis Haslem. “Just be Justise Winslow. Be that Swiss Army knife we need. One night it might be 10 rebounds. Another night it might be seven assists. Another night it might be 15 to 20 points. Just be Justise Winslow. He has the ability to do all those things and he has a high-enough basketball IQ where he knows when he needs to be aggressive, make plays and do other things.”

Winslow, who would be going into his junior year at Duke if he wasn’t in the NBA right now, isn’t just Miami’s youngest player – he holds that distinction by a lot.

He’s 20; next on the Heat age lists are 23-year-olds Briante Weber, Stefan Jankovic and Josh Richardson.

“He was quiet,” Haslem said. “But he fit in right away.”

Winslow was the fifth-youngest player to get time in the NBA last season, older than only Tyus Jones, Stanley Johnson, Rashad Vaughn and Devin Booker. And more than half of the 60 players to get taken in this year’s draft are older than Winslow as well.

“He doesn’t have to listen to anybody else’s expectations,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “There’s so many things out there about who he needs to be or what position he needs to play, how many more points a game he has to score this year. He’s going to get more minutes, more responsibilities. I want him to embrace that in a healthy way and not try to live up to anything coming from the outside.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t things Winslow wants to emulate.

Wade’s departure over the summer hit Winslow hard. They bonded quickly, forged by Wade realizing that Winslow was willing to learn anything and everything he could from the three-time NBA champion wanted to teach. Winslow would spend time chatting up Bosh about nuances of the big-man game; their lockers were side-by-side last season.

And this summer, Winslow was part of the group invited by USA Basketball the U.S. Olympic team and help them prepare for what became a gold medal at the Rio Games.

“Seeing all those guys come together and not really care about stats before the gold medal, that’s the kind of mindset we have to have as a team,” Winslow said.