PBT NBA Power Rankings: It’s the Pacers, Spurs then everyone else

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David Stern’s nightmare Finals matchup is on top of the second PBT NBA Power rankings — Indiana and San Antonio. Lots of shifting still going on in the rankings as teams shake themselves out just a couple weeks into the season, but a few patterns are emerging.

source:  1. Pacers (7-0, Last Week No. 1). Yes their defense is the best in the league. Yes Paul George has stepped up. Yes their starting five is outscoring opponents by +28 per 48 minutes. But don’t overlook the growth in Lance Stephenson. He’s averaging 14.4 a game, shooting 50 percent from three and defending well.

 
source:  2. Spurs (6-1, LW 5). They have looked like an old-school Spurs team so far this season — they have the third best defense in the NBA. The offense is ninth best in the NBA, a number bumped up thanks to the explosion against the Knicks “defense” Sunday.

 
source:  3. Thunder (5-1, LW 8). Russell Westbrook is averaging 21 points a game but the rust is still there — shooting 33.8 percent overall and 30.8 percent from three. That will change eventually. But Westbrook could miss a game after shoving Nene Sunday night.

 
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4. Timberwolves (5-2, LW 3). Yes, Kevin Love is putting up historic numbers and the offense is clicking, but the Timberwolves are winning because they have a top-10 NBA defense so far this season (sixth in points allowed per possession). It’s early, but if they maintain that they become a much more dangerous team.

 
source:  5. Warriors (4-3, LW 7). This is the key stat from Golden State so far this season: They have the second best defense in the NBA. The offense is going to put up points with this roster (although they struggled with Stephen Curry out Friday), but if they continue to defend near this level they become more dangerous when the games matter.

 
source:  6. Heat (4-3, LW 9). Great stat from ESPN: Miami is 1-3 in clutch games this season (score within five in final five minutes of the game) after being an NBA-best 32-8 last season. I think that’s a sign of focus and effort, something LeBron James echoed after the Celtics loss saying “We messed around with the game tonight, and that was that.”

 
source:  7. Clippers (4-3, LW 6). On paper the Clippers have an impressive bench — Jamal Crawford, Daren Collison, Matt Barnes when he is healthy again — but the defense from that second unit has been a real issue so far. A front court of Byron Mullens and Ryan Hollins isn’t going to solve that. Tough schedule this week with Minnesota, Oklahoma City and Brooklyn.

 
source:  8. Suns (5-2, LW 12). The fast start is in part due to Eric Bledsoe, but also Jeff Hornacek has them playing the seventh best defense in the NBA (based on points per possession). It’s early, we’ll see what kind of level they can sustain, still this is a good sign for trying to build a foundation going forward.

 
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9. Trail Blazers (4-2, LW 11). They are putting up this nice early record despite a defense 25th in the NBA in points per possession (and some shooting struggles for Damian Lillard). Robin Lopez was supposed to improve Portland’s interior defense but there are communication issues in the system.

 
source:  10. Rockets (4-3, LW 2). A 1-3 week where the Rockets’ perimeter defense was exposed by the Lakers and Clippers. It’s bad. James Harden is part of the issues, and Dwight Howard along the front line can’t clean up all of that mess (when he is position).

 
source:  11. Mavericks (4-3, LW 10). Monta Ellis is a little up and down in Dallas so far (big shock) but it should be noted is playing much more efficient basketball — his 23 points a game are coming on 47.9 percent shooting (up 6.3 percent from last season). The key is he is shooting 48.3 percent from the midrange.

 
source:  12. 76ers (4-3, LW 4). A 1-3 week brings them back to reality. Still, this season is supposed to be about player development and in that case the big outing from Evan Turner over the weekend and the strong play of Michael Carter-Williams are good signs.

 
source:  13. Grizzlies (3-3, LW 19). Memphis got a quality win over Golden State but their defense still is not consistent. And while we’re at it neither is the offense. With Indiana and Toronto on the schedule, we’ll see if they can build off what happened against the Warriors.

 
source:  14. Bulls (2-3, LW 14). Excited to see Derrick Rose go up against Kyrie Irving for the first time ever on Monday night. I will also be excited to see Rose return to form once he gets the rust off — he is shooting 25 percent from the midrange so far this season.

 
source:  15. Pelicans (3-3, LW 22). Through six games they are allowing 110.6 points per 100 possessions and scoring 100.6 per 100. The very definition of a .500 team. Anthony Davis is having a monster year with 21.7 points and 11.6 rebounds a game — he looks like the franchise player the Pelicans hoped he would be.

 
source:  16. Hawks (3-3, LW 23). Paul Millsap looks good so far averaging 20.2 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists — when he and Al Horford are paired the Hawks look strong. When they are not… well, this is a .500 team.

 
source:  17. Bobcats (3-3, LW 26). We’re just happy that coach Steve Clifford got a couple stents in his arteries and that nothing more serious came of this. He will be back on the court Monday night.

 
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18. Nets (2-4, LW 13). Great note by Grantland’s Zach Lowe on twitter: The Nets are 11 points per 100 possessions worse on defense and 6 per 100 worse on offense when Kevin Garnett is on the court. It’s early, but that’s an interesting and troublesome trend.

 
source:  19. Pistons (2-3, LW 16). On paper the Pistons look like they should be a defensive powerhouse, but through five games they are 23rd in the league at that end of the floor. They play Golden State this week and that offense against the Pistons defense could get ugly.

 
source:  20. Magic (3-4, LW 20). This may be too low a ranking for Orlando, which has the fourth best defense in the NBA this young season. I’m not sold they can sustain that, and trades are certainly coming, but so far Jacque Vaughn has this team buying in.

 
source:  21. Cavaliers (3-4, LW 21). They are undefeated at home and 0-4 on the road — and three of their four games this week are on the road (at Chicago, Minnesota and Washington). Their offense has been one of the worst in the NBA so far, save for a few spurts that has gotten them wins.

 
source:  22. Celtics (3-4, LW 28). They had a 3-1 week, including an improbable win over Miami thanks to a wild Jeff Green corner three.

 

 
source:  23. Knicks (2-4, LW 15). Sunday’s loss was what we could see more of from New York in the coming weeks — with Tyson Chandler out for a month they are going to have to win games by just outscoring teams. Their small ball with Andrea Bargnani is not a recipe for sustained success.

 
source:  24. Raptors (3-4, LW 17). They had a 1-3 week and talk is starting up again about coach Dwane Casey’s job — why he decided to go small and match up Miami after Jonas Valanciunas was destroying them early is confusing. As was not fouling in Charlotte. Things don’t get easier this week with the Rockets, Grizzlies, Bulls and Trail Blazers on the schedule.

 
source:  25. Wizards (2-3, LW 29). There is potential here and we saw it when Nene took over at the end of the game and led a comeback and overtime win over the Nets. The next night they blew a 12-point lead against the Thunder (and Nene got ejected). This is a team learning to win still.

 
source:  26. Lakers (3-5, LW 18). Pau Gasol has struggled to open the season due to a respiratory infection (he says he is getting better) and is shooting 36 percent so far. Now Steve Nash will join Kobe Bryant on the sidelines. There’s not much shot creation for others or defense on this team.

 
source:  27. Bucks (2-3, LW 25). Rough week with Larry Sanders out with a thumb injury following a bar fight he apologized for… not that Larry Drew is playing him enough anyway. The Bucks love the three ball but that is a tough way to make a living in the league.

 
source:  28. Kings (1-5, LW 24). They have dropped five in a row after an exciting opening night win at home. Three of those losses have been at home, as are their next four games. That will not matter without some better defensive lineups.

 
source:  29. Nuggets (1-4, LW 27). Well Josh Kronke, you wanted more minutes for the young guys and changes on your 57-win team. Here you go. JaVale McGee is now out indefinitely and new coach Brian Shaw has struggled to find a front court rotation he likes. Or at least one he doesn’t hate.

 
source:  30. Jazz (0-7, LW 30). Utah is shooting 40.1 percent as a team and 23.6 percent from three, leading to the worst offense in the NBA. The 27th ranked defense isn’t going to bail them out. Coach Tyron Corbin’s seat has to be getting warm.

How to start your Saturday night: Watching 15 minutes of best plays from NBA season

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There are no NBA playoff games Saturday night, the first night since the start of the postseason there hasn’t been one game. Don’t worry, there are two games on Sunday, including Game 7 between the Jazz and Clippers.

But if you need a Saturday night fix, this will have to do: 15 minutes of the best plays from last season, as compiled by NBA.com.

Go ahead, watch it. You’ve got nothing better to do.

 

Paul Millsap says the expected, he will “most likely” opt out of contract

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This is ranked right next to “overeating can lead to weight gain” on the list of surprising things, but we will dutifully report it anyway:

Paul Millsap is going to opt out and officially become a free agent this summer.

Atlanta’s owner as well as Mike Budenholzer, the coach and head of basketball operations, have both said they plan to do whatever it takes to re-sign Millsap with the Hawks. Millsap didn’t sound like someone eager to leave after the Hawks were eliminated from the playoffs Friday.

“It’s been great. I’m looking to expand this and see where the franchise can go. These last four years has been great. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Even with both sides singing Kumbaya, keeping Millsap in Atlanta likely means a five-year contract at or near the max, which for a 32-year-old player means the Hawks would regret the last year or two of that deal.

Not that the Hawks have much of a choice here, they have to come in big and keep him. For one, they can’t afford to lose Al Horford and then Millsap for nothing in back-to-back years. If they were going down the rebuilding road, they needed to trade Millsap at the deadline (or last summer) to make sure they got something in return. Atlanta explored trade options at the deadline, but then pulled back (rumored to be because of an edict from ownership, which didn’t want to see the team blown up after the Kyle Korver trade).

By not making that trade the Hawks signaled their intention to remain a good team — a 43-win team this season that got them the five seed — with Dennis Schroder and Dwight Howard, one that draws well at an arena that historically has not been that full, and see if they can add on. They strike me as a team that will win between 42-50 games a year and be middle of the pack in the East for the next few years, unless they can find a way to add an elite player (which is incredibly difficult).

But if the Hawks can’t re-sign Millsap, then the plan gets blown up. So expect them to come in with a big offer come July 1.

Milwaukee Bucks eager to build after strong finish to season

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ST. FRANCIS, Wis. (AP) — With the sting of their frantic but failed Game 6 comeback effort still fresh in their minds, the Milwaukee Bucks returned to their practice facility Friday morning to pack their things and head their separate ways.

The Bucks consider themselves a team on the rise in the Eastern Conference, a belief no doubt reinforced by a furious 14-4 run late in the season that propelled them to sixth place in the East and solidified by a strong, though inconsistent, effort against Toronto in the playoffs.

“We thought we were the better team,” forward Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We thought we could beat the Raptors and go to the second round. We feel like we got the Raptors’ attention so hopefully next year … we can go deeper in the playoffs.”

To get to that next step, which includes gaining home-court advantage and winning a playoff series for the first time since 2001, a lot of work needs to be done. Milwaukee needs Antetokounmpo to continue his rapid development, but will be looking to young additions like Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon, the Bucks’ two picks in last year’s draft, to refine their bodies and their games this summer.

Maker was one of the biggest surprises in the league. The 15th overall pick was a relative unknown and figured, at the outset, to be a draft-and-develop pick. Instead, he made a strong impression on the coaching staff with his commitment to defense and made opposing teams panic with his ability to shoot the 3 and wound up starting all six playoff games.

“It was amazing,” Maker said. “Unexpected. I thought I was just going to be on `Project: Build Maker’ and build my body but that’s (what I’m doing) this summer now. I thought that’s what this year was going to be about but everything turned around. I worked hard and it turned out to be way more than I expected. I don’t like the end results – it could have been way better – but you live with the results and you learn.”

Brogdon might have been an even bigger surprise. He was Milwaukee’s second-round pick and began the season on the bench behind free agent acquisition Matthew Dellavedova. But he, too, put in the work and by season’s end, was not only the starting point guard but a key piece of the Bucks’ core.

“I think it’s strong,” Brogdon said of Milwaukee’s nucleus. “I think it’s going to be one of the strongest in the NBA, as long as we’re able to stay together and as long as we’re able to stay healthy. I think we’re going to be one of the best teams in the NBA.”

The Bucks have been in this position before. They were considered a team on the rise in 2010, when they forced the Hawks to seven games but stumbled the next season and didn’t return to the postseason until sneaking into the eighth spot in 2013.

Two years later, Milwaukee was thought to be a sleeper after the Bucks finished .500 in Kidd’s first season at the helm, but again they faltered the next season and missed the playoffs.

Maintaining the momentum will be a major focus as preparations begin for the next season.

“My first year we had seven or eight free agents, so we knew that wasn’t going to be the same team,” forward John Henson said. “(The) second year we had a new coach, more free agents.

My third year coach Kidd coming in, we knew there was going to be some stability. He’s had the same core guys and this is what happens; not have a letdown like we did the year before.”

Milwaukee should benefit with some roster stability. The team’s young core appears set in place with Antetokounmpo, Henson and Khris Middleton locked into long-term contracts, as are Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic.

Tony Snell, who went on to start 80 games after being acquired late in training camp, is a restricted free agent. Greg Monroe, who became one of the league’s best sixth men, holds a player option for next season.

The Bucks will likely be open to bringing back veteran guard Jason Terry for a 19th season, too.

“I think that’s how you become a team that doesn’t regress next year – keeping some of the pieces together,” Henson said.

General manager John Hammond also faces a tough question with Jabari Parker, who will miss at least the first half of the 2017-18 season after tearing his ACL in February. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 draft is eligible for a contract extension this summer and was in line to earn something close to the $100 million Milwaukee gave Antetokounmpo last year.

Lonzo Ball, other top draft picks expected to skip NBA Combine

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The NBA Draft Combine invites started going out Saturday — about 60-70 players are expected to be invited to a gym in Chicago for a couple of days of measurements, interviews, and tests, with a little basketball thrown in. The idea is for teams to get an up-close look (and accurate measurements) with guys they are going to invest time and, in some cases, millions of dollars in over the next several years.

However, the guys at the top of the draft are not going to be in Chicago, as Shams Charania and Bobby Marks of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports noted.

This is the same as with the NFL combine, the top picks see only bad things that can happen by taking part, there’s no upside but their stock could fall, so they stay away.

That’s not about to change. Also, a lot of international players skip the combine. That opens up some slots for more fringe guys, players who may or may not get drafted in the second round, to come in and impress. (Check out Jonathan Givony’s Twitter timeline to get a sense of who got invited and who didn’t.)

Teams looking at drafting the top handful, the elite guys, have already had scouts watch every college and many high school games, not to mention seeing their AAU teams and catching them at things like the Nike Summit or Adidas Nations events. They’ve talked to the guy’s former coaches and others around him, they have a good sense of who he is and is not.

Well, as much as one can in any draft. It’s still a crap shoot. A player can have all the skills, all the physical gifts, be a good person, but what happens once they face real adversity? Or, have to deal with money and temptations? What would you have been like at age 20 with millions of dollars and all the hedonistic temptations of the NBA lifestyle thrown at you? Or, how do does a team know which young players with some very raw skills have the drive and passion for maximizing those talents? Predicting how a 19- or 20-year-old will mature is not an easy task.