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.

Ryan McDonough: Suns plan to be ‘major players’ in 2017 free agency

Ryan McDonough
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The Suns have swung big in free agency the previous couple years, chasing LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony in 2014 and LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015.

But 2016 appeared to be the year Phoenix really eyed.

The Suns structured the contracts of multiple players – including Brandon Knight, Tyson Chandler, Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris – to have salaries that dipped this summer. Time that flexibility correctly, and it can really pay off.

Phoenix big prize? Jared Dudley.

Dudley is a nice player, but he’s hardly the star the Suns seek. So, they’ll try again next year.

Phoenix general manager Ryan McDonough, via Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

That’s been one of our frustrations this summer. We were kind of on the sideline for some of the marquee free agents. But as you know, Woj, it wasn’t the deepest free agent class.

Potentially, it’s a very strong free agent class next year. And one of the things we’ve done with our contracts is we’ve lined them up to have max cap space next year without really touching the core of our roster.

I think and I hope at this time next year, we’re major players in free agency. Because as you mentioned, the Phoenix Suns are a destination franchise.

The 2017 free agent class won’t be as strong as hoped.

LeBron James locked in for multiple years with the Cavaliers. Russell Westbrook signed a contract extension with the Thunder. Kevin Durant indicated he’ll re-sign with the Warriors. So has Stephen Curry. Blake Griffin is reportedly “adamant” about re-signing with the Clippers.

Teams will almost certainly match any offer for the top restricted free agents – Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert, Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel – if they don’t extend their contracts first.

That still leaves several quality unrestricted free agents – including Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, Gordon Hayward and Paul Millsap – but Paul and Lowry are point guards. Phoenix already has Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, and Devin Booker looks like the shooting guard of the future. So, forget simply sliding Bledsoe or Knight to off guard. It’d take a major shakeup for Paul or Lowry to make sense with the Suns.

Still, McDonough’s approach is logical. If he can keep kicking the can down the road, perpetually selling that his plan is a year from taking it hold, it’ll make it easier for him to retain his prestigious job.

But if he has to make his 2017 free agency plan work rather than deferring to 2018, it could be difficult.

The Suns project to have about $17 million in cap space (under a system that could change significantly with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement). Renouncing restricted free agent Alex Len could clear about $12 million more, and just $500,000 of Leandro Barbosa‘s $4 million salary is guaranteed. Trading Tyson Chandler, Bledsoe and/or Knight could open even more space. Losing Len isn’t ideal, but for the right free agent, the upgrade would be worthwhile.

The bigger issue is winning. Phoenix has struggled to lure top free agents, because the team has missed the playoffs six straight years. That’s unlikely, though not impossible, to change this year. If the probabilities hold, what does McDonough sell then?

He always has the option of using cap space to facilitate uneven trades, a route he previously broached. Depending on the deal, that could encroach on 2017 cap space.

But if his plan holds, the Suns will keep their books relatively clear until next summer.

Wesley Matthews: ‘I’m a whole different person’ further removed from injury

DENVER, CO - MARCH 06:  Wesley Matthews #23 of the Dallas Mavericks controls the ball against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center on March 6, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. The Nuggets defeated the Mavericks 116-114 in overtime. 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 Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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After Wesley Matthews tore his Achilles in March 2015, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle preached caution and suggested Matthews could be out until Christmas.

Matthews said he’d play opening night.

Matthews was right.

He played in Dallas’ first game and 77 others last season. The problem: He didn’t play that well. Matthews meandered through arguably his worst pro season.

Matthews, via Earl K. Sneed of Mavs.com:

“I’m a whole different person,” the 29-year-old Matthews said. “I’m a whole different player, and I’m really just excited to get out there and show it, and just to be who I know I can be and just to continue to grow. Obviously, it was different coming off of an Achilles (injury) and not having four or five months to prepare and all that stuff, and jumping right into the season being physically able to play every single game and play heavy minutes. It took until about after the All-Star break for me to get my legs back, because I play both ends of the court. And I feel better than when I got hurt.

I’ll need to see it to believe it.

Considering Matthews age, time might not be enough to return his production to pre-injury levels. He did improve after the All-Star break, but not enough to put concern behind him.

The stakes are high for the Mavericks, who still owe Matthews $53,652,528 over the next three years. Not only could Matthews’ decline hinder their ability to win a reasonable amount in Dirk Nowitzki‘s final years, it could limit their inevitable post-Nowitzki rebuild.

Hopefully, Matthews feels as good as he says, but players tend to be overly optimistic in these situations. On the other hand, Matthews backed up his similarly daunting declaration last year.

Report: Nets paid record $3 million to move up 13 spots in draft for Isaiah Whitehead

TARRYTOWN, NEW YORK - AUGUST 07:  Isaiah Whitehead #15 of the Brooklyn Nets poses for a portrait during the 2016 NBA Rookie Photoshoot at Madison Square Garden Training Center on August 7, 2016 in Tarrytown, New York. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
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In 2010, the Thunder paid the Hawks $3 million for the draft rights to No. 31 pick Tibor Pleiss. That, according to Bryan Fonseca of Nets Daily, is the most ever paid for a player’s draft rights.

The Nets matched it this year – and they didn’t even get a fresh pick. They just paid to move up 13 spots in the second round.

Eric Pincus of Basketball Insiders:

Nets sent $3 million and the 55th pick (Marcus Paige) to the Utah Jazz for the 42nd pick (Isiah Whitehead)

That’s a sizable commitment to get Whitehead, who has the size and raw skills to thrive at guard in the NBA. He was just so inefficient at Seton Hall, I have major doubts about his approach to the game. It will be up to Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson to refine Whitehead’s style.

If owner Mikhail Prokhorov is willing to pay for that opportunity, good for the Nets. Brooklyn has bought several extra draft picks over the last few years. The Nets don’t have an exceptionally high hit rate on those selections, but every extra swing increases their odds of finding quality contributors – especially important because they dealt away control of so many of their own first-rounders in doomed trades with the Celtics and Hawks.

Report: Incentive bonuses in Yi Jianlian’s Lakers contract would septuple his salary if he plays 59 games

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 14:  Jianlian Yi #11 of China controls the ball as Nikola Kalinic #10 of Serbia defends during the preliminary round game at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games on August 14, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Yi Jianlian’s unconventional contract terms with the Lakers had slowly emerged. He’ll earn somewhere between $250,000 and $8 million next season, $1,139,123 just for remaining on the roster through Jan. 10.

But that left a huge sum to unknown incentive bonuses.

Now, they’re known.

Yi can trigger $2,286,959 bonuses for hitting three benchmarks based on games played, according to Basketball Insiders. Here’s the running total for those incentives:

  • 20-39 games played: $2,286,959
  • 40-58 games played: $4,573,918
  • 59+ games played:$6,860,877

Whether or not he plays or is even active, Yi will earn $6,701 each day he’s on the roster from Oct. 25 until Jan. 10 (with a guaranteed minimum of $250,000 in total income). Then, if he’s still on the roster Jan. 10, Yi will lock in another $623,167. That’s his base compensation.

But the bonuses – for actually playing in games – are far more lucrative.

Here’s how Yi’s salary would increase throughout the season, which begins Oct. 25 and ends April 12, if he plays every Lakers game:

image

Of course, Yi might not play every game.* So, those three big jumps can be slid back accordingly. The Lakers did well to build Yi’s contract around incentives they have complete control over.

*If Yi doesn’t trigger his first games-played bonus so quickly, his base salary ($6,701 per day) would pass his guaranteed minimum ($250,000) Dec. 1.

The NBA Constitution calls for the trade deadline to be the 17th Thursday of the regular season, which would be Feb. 16 this year – before Yi can earn his third bonus and maybe before he earns one or two. This makes him an intriguing trade chip. Because his cap number will be $8 million throughout the season, he could help fetch a higher-priced player in a trade. Then, the team that acquires him could waive him and pay only what he had earned to date.

But before it gets to that point, Yi will try to fight his way into the rotation.

There’s a lot on the line.