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PBT Power Rankings: Tell me again how the Spurs are too old….

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With a number of top teams stumbling — Oklahoma City, Miami, Indiana — it is the Spurs who have gotten healthy and looked good going 6-0 since the end of the rodeo trip. The West now dominates the top of the rankings, the Sixers are looking to set records at the bottom.

source:  1. Spurs (46-16, Last week No. 3). They get fully healthy and have rattled off six wins in a row since the end of the rodeo road tip, including a signature win over Miami. In their last five games San Antonio’s offense is 4 points per 100 possessions better than their season average, their defense 2 points per 100 better. Bottom line, they look like the contender Spurs again and the only question is whether they can continue to defend this well.

source:  2. Clippers (44-20, LW 5). Which team has the highest net efficiency rating (differential between points scored and points allowed per 100 possessions)? The Clippers and Thunder are tied at +7.7 per 100. That stat is also a very good indicator of who wins in the playoffs, although the Clippers inflated that number with some blowouts. They have won seven in a row, but the differential number suggests they are at least knocking on that door of contender status.

source:  3. Rockets (44-19, LW 6). We said the Rockets would get tested this week. Well, they beat the Heat, Pacers and Trail Blazers. That’s pretty much acing your test. More to come with the Thunder, Bulls and Heat on the road this week, but the fact is Houston has looked like a legit contender the past week. James Harden averaged 30.3 ppg in those three big wins last week. He’s pretty good.

source:  4. Heat (43-17, LW No. 1). LeBron James had tough shooting nights against the Spurs and Bulls, and that has a lot less to do with what jersey he was wearing and a lot more to do with Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard being in his jersey. He got some help from Wade but Heat need more help, and more LeBron attacking and not settling for jumpers.

source:  5. Thunder (46-17, LW 4).. Two losses this week to the Lakers and Suns, two teams that try to beat you with their guard play and tempo. It’s not an accident both of those Thunder losses came with Thabo Sefalosha sidelined, they need him back and they need generally improved perimeter defense. Good test Tuesday against a hot Rockets team.

source:  6. Pacers (46-17, LW 2). Why the slump? In their last 5 games they have allowed 111.6 points per 100 possessions — 16 more than their season average. This team does not have the offense to cover its defense taking a night off. Despite slump they officially clinched a playoff berth last week.

source:  7. Bulls (35-28, LW 9). Bulls fans want Joakim Noah to get some MVP votes, and while he’s not getting one of the top two spots on the ballot, his play leading the Bulls this season has to merit consideration for the fourth or fifth slot on the ballot. The Bulls showed against the Heat Sunday why nobody wants to play them in the postseason.

source:  8. Warriors (40-24, LW 10). Of the four teams fighting for one of the final playoff spots in the West they are in the best position — the softest schedule and the most home games. When their jumpers fall they can beat anyone, as they did with the Pacers (10-of-20 from three), when they don’t they can fall to anyone.

source:  9. Grizzlies (36-26, LW 8).  As we broke down last week, it really comes down to the Grizzlies needing to get past the Suns in the West — and they have, the two teams are tied now with 20 games to go. To get the playoff spot Memphis needs some big wins on the road — after Portland Tuesday 4-of-5 and 10-of-14 are away from the good barbecue or Memphis.

source:  10. Mavericks (37-26, LW 11). They are just one game ahead of the Grizzlies and Suns, which is why that wins over Portland and Indiana mattered (and the loss to Denver hurt). They have a heavy home schedule the rest of the way, which bodes well for them making the playoffs.

source:  11. Suns (36-26, LW 12). They lost to the Clippers and Warriors but picked up a big win over the Thunder. They are tied with Memphis and have a tough schedule ahead — 3-of-4 on the road this week including at the Clippers — and they need to find a way to get wins because the Grizzlies are hot.

source:  12. Trail Blazers (42-20, LW 7). The road losses to Dallas and Houston were tough last week, but you can explain those… that loss at home to the Lakers? Not a good sign. Tough road stretch this week at the Grizzlies and Spurs.

source:  13. Wizards (33-29, LW 13). Don’t look now, but the Wizards have played good defense since the All-Star Break. Combine that with nights of hot shooting — hello Trevor Ariza — and a soft schedule and you get wins. More interesting tests this week against the Heat and Nets.

source:  14. Raptors (34-26, LW 14). While we talk about how well the Wizards, Nets and Bulls are playing they are all looking up at a Raptors team that is 8-2 in their last 10 and has the easiest schedule the rest of the way out. Hard to see the Nets making up four games and taking the Atlantic from them, but the Bulls are one game back for the three seed. Nets, Grizzlies and Suns on the docket this week, which should be a good test.

source:  15. Nets (31-30, LW 16). Kevin Garnett is barely playing right now — the Nets are down to two of the six All-Stars they had before the season — yet they keep on winning. If they have any dreams of an Atlantic Division crown they need to beat Toronto this week, then a couple big games against Heat and Wizards on the road will be tests.

source:  16 . Timberwolves (31-31, LW 15). When the Timberwolves get their starting five on the court — Ricky Rubio, Corey Brewer, Kevin Martin, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic — they are +11.7 per 48 minutes. Get into their bench and it’s a mess. That’s not good enough to make the playoffs in the West, and Minnesota is all but mathematically out of that race.

source:  17. Bobcats (29-34, LW 17). They probably can’t do it, but the goal in Charlotte has to be to make up the three games on the Nets and get out of the seven seed in the first round to avoid Miami/Indiana. That said, the way Charlotte defends they will make one of the big two work for the first round playoff win.

source:  18. Nuggets (27-35, LW 22). Ty Lawson is back and not so coincidentally the Nuggets are playing much better ball — they are playing at a much faster pace and are scoring 18 points per 100 possessions better. Basically they are an offensive team that tries to outscore you and just might, which makes them fun to watch if nothing else.

source:  19. Kings (22-40, LW 23). After their last game coach Mike Malone ripped his team for “selfish play” and DeMarcus Cousins (28 and 20 in that contest) agreed. This is a team of guys mostly playing for their next contract and it’s not is Sacramento. Still, on any give night this team is very dangerous.

source:  20. Knicks (24-40, LW 26). Winners of three in a row… no, the playoffs are not happening (they are not making up the 3.5 games back they are now). Phil Jackson, that looks like it’s happening and for all the potential pitfalls if he can just provide the franchise some direction it helps. Until Dolan jumps in to “help” again.

source:  21. Lakers (22-42, LW 21). Let me echo what @jonesonNBA was saying on twitter after the Lakers beat the Thunder Sunday — go ahead and slam Mike D’Antoni if you want, but look around the league at how much his coaching system has influenced other teams. If you don’t think you can win a title that way, I suggest you go back and watch the Heat again.

source:  22. Pelicans (26-37, LW 25). Anthony Davis just continues to put up monster numbers — 32 and 17 against the Nuggets. You know what we media types actually root for? Teams to be good in cities where we like to visit and spend time. Along those lines I am looking forward to the Pelicans taking big leaps forward in the coming years.

source:  23. Cavaliers (24-40, LW 18). Losers of four in a row and now the schedule gets tough — Phoenix, Golden State and the Clippers start a run of 10 against the NBA’s top 10. This stretch always made a late playoff push by the Cavaliers unlikely. Sorry Dan, it was the truth before the Luol Deng trade.

source:  24. Hawks (26-35, LW 19). Losers of six in a row, if the Pistons weren’t terrible the Hawks would be out of the playoffs by now. Yet the worst news of the week was the end of Kyle Korver’s streak of games with a made three, dead at an NBA record 127.

source:  25. Pistons (24-39, LW 20). They have lost three in a row and just looked terrible doing it. NBA Irony of the week: Brandon Jennings says the rest of the Pistons do not hold themselves accountable.

source:  26. Jazz (22-41, LW 24). They would have gone winless on a just-completed six game road trip through the East, but they lucked out with the final game of the trip in Philly. Trey Burke continues to learn hard lessons about adjusting to life in the NBA, but that’s what this season is for in Salt Lake City.

source:  27. Celtics (21-41, LW 28). Spoiler alert — Boston knocked off Brooklyn and Detroit last week, not exactly helping the playoff hopes for those teams (Nets of moving up, Pistons of just making it). This week the Pacers, Knicks and Suns are up on the Celtics spoiler list.

source:  28. Magic (19-45, LW 27). Their offense is playing decently, which is a surprise since pretty much everyone you can name and a few guys you can’t are out.

source:  29. Bucks (12-50, LW 29). All the losing is clearly wearing on the Bucks, as Ersan Ilyasova and O.J. Mayo were suspended last week for throwing punches in games. At least they are showing a little fight.

source:  30. 76ers (15-47, LW 30). They have winnable games against the Knicks and Kings to start the week, then after that things get difficult. Lose those to and an NBA record 27 consecutive losses is a real possibility.

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.