Los Angeles Clippers' Paul and Griffin wait for play to resume as the Clippers trail the San Antonio Spurs during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles

NBA post free agency Power Rankings: Who is closing in on Miami?

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This summer saw Dwight Howard find a new home, the Clippers and Pacers add depth, and a few other teams making bold moves to get better (or, in some cases, worse intentionally). So how did all this impact the PBT Power Rankings? Glad you asked. Here is where things stand this summer (the number in parenthesis is the squad’s record last season).

source:  1. Heat (66-16). They are the two-time defending NBA champions and they won 66 games last season, including 27 in a row at one point. Yes, we all saw cracks in the armor in the playoffs, but until someone knocks them off the top of the mountain they get to hold this spot in off-season rankings.

 
source:  2. Thunder (60-22). I think the Westbrook injury lulled people into looking past this team. Did they lose Kevin Martin? Yes. But remember this: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are both just 25 — they are still ascending, getting better every season.

 
source:  3. Pacers (49-32). They pushed Miami to seven games then they get Danny Granger back. That means their bench (the weak spot last season) will have Lance Stephenson, C.J. Watson, Luis Scola and Chris Copeland. They should be better and more dangerous.

 
source:  4. Clippers (56-26). They keep Chris Paul and with the additions of J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, this could well be the best offense in the NBA next season. Can Doc Rivers get them to defend? And with that, can DeAndre Jordan step up as defensive anchor? They will go as far as their defense takes them.

 
source:  5. Spurs (58-24). This is probably too low for the Spurs, a team that was just a made free throw or a rebound away from winning the NBA title. They are going to be very good, but can they stay healthy and have things break for them again?

 
source:  6. Bulls (45-37). They get Derrick Rose back, remember the last two seasons they had him healthy they won 62 games and were on a 62 win pace (if the lockout season had been 82 games). They will defend, but can Tom Thibodeau back off the gas at times and bring Luol Deng and Joakim Noah in fully healthy for the playoffs.

 
source:  7. Rockets (45-37). This postseason’s big winners, they landed Dwight Howard and that makes them instant contenders. There are questions, like will Howard play to his pick-and-roll strengths (he fought against that in L.A.) and not just try to be a post up guy. I think this could be a growing together season for the Rockets with 2014-15 being the season they explode.

 
source:  8. Nets (49-33). Another big off-season winner — Mikhail Prokhorov laughs in the face of your puny luxury tax. Still we have big questions: Can Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett stay healthy? Can Deron Williams return to his Utah form? Can Jason Kidd coach?

 
source:  9. Warriors (47-35). Last season’s playoff darlings make a bold move and add Andre Iguodala. They are going to be improved, but how many games they win and how far they go in the playoffs could hinge on how healthy Andrew Bogut is in the middle for them.

 
source:  10. Grizzlies (56-26). This is a team with so much size teams struggle to deal with them, plus they have one of the best defenses in the NBA. But they didn’t address their need for floor-spacing shooters, unless you think Mike Miller is going to stay healthy all season.

 
source:  11. Knicks (54-28). They had the third best offense in the NBA last season (in points per possession) but were 17th in defense. Can the addition of Metta World Peace and a healthy Iman Shumpert improve their defense enough? It feels like the top of the East got better and they stood largely pat.

 
source:  12. Nuggets (57-25). It feels like they took a step back this summer — big changes in the front office and the loss of Andre Iguodala. Still some real talent on the roster, but they need JaVale McGee to take a big step forward if they want to remain top four in a deep West.

 
source:  13. Timberwolves (31-51). Last season should have been a breakout year for them, injuries robbed them of that. This season Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio will lead them to a playoff spot in the West, and they will be fun to watch getting there.

 
source:  14. Lakers (45-37). They still have Kobe Bryant, but he will not be quite the same player. They still have Steve Nash, if he can stay healthy. They still have Pau Gasol, at least until they find a good trading partner. The Lakers could get a lower playoff spot, but this is mostly a placeholder season for the Lakers looking ahead to free agency.

 
source:  15. Mavericks (41-41). A combination of Dirk Nowitzki (finally healthy), Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon might make this a playoff team in the West, but it will be a bottom seed. Still the big goal in Dallas is to bring in another elite player.

 
source:  16. Hawks (44-38). No Josh Smith anymore, but they have Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver in the back court, Elton Brand and Paul Millsap in the front court with Al Horford. I think they remain pretty similar to last season in terms of wins.

 
source:  17. Wizards (29-53). With a healthy John Wall playing like an $80 million guy — meaning his jump shot is falling like it did at the end of last season — to go with a more mature Bradley Beal and a healthy Nene, I think this is a playoff team out East.

 
source:  18. Cavaliers (24-58). Andrew Bynum, with the way the contract was structured, was a good risk. But whether or not they get anything for Drew, with a healthy Kyrie Irving the Cavaliers will be back in the playoffs.

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source:  19. Trail Blazers (33-49). LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum… shouldn’t this team be better than it showed last season? I like the Robin Lopez addition, moving Aldridge to the four, but they need to make big strides in a deep West to make the playoffs.

 
source:  20. Pelicans (27-55). This was an aggressive team this off-season and I think they made great moves adding Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans. This is a young team on the rise, they will look a lot better the second half of the season and they could slip into a bottom playoff spot if things come together.

 
source:  21. Raptors (34-48). With Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and an improved Jonas Valanciunas the Raptors have a shot at the playoffs in the East. But they need to get back to playing defense like they did a couple years ago for Dwane Casey to have a chance.

 
source:
22. Pistons (29-53). They added Josh Smith this offseason, and combined with Andre Drummond (who looked great at Summer League) and Greg Monroe they should have a fantastic front line. But do they have the balance and depth to make the postseason?

 
source:  23. Kings (28-51). They have DeMarcus Cousins plus an interesting backcourt with Greivis Vasquez and Ben McLemore. If Cousins will play consistent defense they become very interesting, but that’s a big “if.”

 
source:  24. Celtics (41-40). They have started the rebuilding process and the most-asked question around them this season will be is Rajon Rondo still with the team after the trade deadline?

 
source:  25. Bucks (38-44). They scraped their way into the postseason, but now with a backcourt of O.J. Mayo and maybe Brandon Jennings (his situation is still up in the air) they take a step back. I like Larry Sanders and John Henson up front, though.

 
source:  26. Bobcats (21-61). Adding Al Jefferson in the paint makes them less bad this coming season, but they are not going to be good. Cody Zeller looked good at Summer League and could be a surprisingly good rookie.

 
source:  27. Jazz (43-39). Trey Burke, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter could be part of a good team in a few years, but this season they will learn some hard lessons. Burke is going to be a lot of people’s call for Rookie of the Year.

 
source:  28. Suns (24-56). They got a nice piece for the future in Eric Bledsoe and they have three first round picks next season. That is how you rebuild. It won’t be pretty this season but I like the direction the team is going long term.

 
source:  29. Magic (20-62). The team with the worst record in the NBA last season will be in the running for it again. Victor Oladipo could have a good rookie year and now they get a whole season of Tobias Harris.

 
source:  30. 76ers (34-48). The Bynum trade misfired, so they are rebuilding from the ground up by shipping out Jrue Holiday and starting over. The Sixers will be back but should have a pick near the top of the draft next season. Which is the new goal.

Paul George on MVP: ‘This is my year to go get it’

TORONTO, ON - MAY 01:  Paul George #13 of the Indiana Pacers reacts after sinking a basket in the first half of Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Toronto Raptors during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 01, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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MVP feels wide open this year.

Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and LeBron James have accounted for the last five. But Curry and Durant are now sharing touches with the Warriors, and LeBron is 31 and has coasted in the last couple regular seasons in the midst of so many Finals runs.

That opens the door for new contenders like Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard (my pick), Anthony Davis – and Paul George, the Pacers star who’s announcing his candidacy loud and clear.

George on SiriusXM NBA Radio:

I want to be MVP. I definitely want to be the MVP this year. It’s tough, as always. It would be a challenge, but with coach Nate and the guys that I got here, I’m in position to move into that spot as long as I remain being me, being a leader, being aggressive and wanting that. It’s not mine for the taking. I got to go get it. And this is my year to go get it.

The MVP usually goes to a player on a top-two seed, and that’ll be a tough nut for Indiana to crack with the Cavaliers, Celtics and Raptors standing in the way. But, again, this is an atypical year with most top teams so balanced.

If the Pacers hit the high end of their potential outcomes, George would be a strong candidate. He’s is the second-best player in the East, so most nights, he’ll be the best player on the court. That goes a long way for perception.

The best thing George can do for his case is help Indiana win big. If he does that, he’ll surely impress enough individually along the way to warrant major consideration.

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.