PBT Power Rankings: After summer shakeups, Spurs still team to beat

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After a tumultuous summer where LeBron James went home to Cleveland and Carmelo Anthony stayed home with the Knicks, it’s time for another PBT Power Rankings. And after all that nothing has really changed — the top three spots in our power rankings were the top three at the end of last season. But things have shifted a lot in the East.

source:  1. Spurs (Last season 62-20). Defending NBA champs bring back everyone who matters… that might be the best off-season of all. Plus, Kawhi Leonard is just getting better and better every season.

source:  2. Thunder (59-23).. They struck out adding another key piece this summer, but they were the second best team in the NBA last season, and they still have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The more minutes Steven Adams steals from Kendrick Perkins the better.

source:  3. Clippers (57-25). This was the third best team in the NBA at the end of last season. If you just said “but they were eliminated in the second round” it was to the Thunder in a series where Donald Sterling was a major disruption and distraction. They added Spencer Hawes, which is a quality upgrade for their front line depth.

source:  4. Mavericks (49-33). The Mavericks had the third best offense in the NBA last season and just added Chandler Parsons working off the weak side and in transition to that. The concern was their 22nd-ranked defense but they just brought back Tyson Chandler to help on that end. If they can figure out a point guard rotation that works (between Raymond Felton, Jameer Nelson and Devin Harris) the Mavericks become a potential threat.

source:  5. Bulls (48-34). It comes down to this — if Derrick Rose is back to even 85-90 percent of his old self they have the pieces around him to be a contender, certainly a threat in the East. Pau Gasol ad Joakim Noah make the best passing front court in the league, with Taj Gibson, Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott all able to contribute up front.

source:  6. Cavaliers (33-49). They had the best off-season of any team in the NBA landing that LeBron guy. They are contenders in the East right now (but a bit young and untested come the playoffs). If Cleveland completes the Kevin Love trade they move up. Should they move Andrew Wiggins for Love? They should do whatever LeBron wants.

source:  7. Warriors (51-31). This team had arguably the best starting five in the NBA last season but depth was an issue. Adding Shaun Livingston helps a little. It’s all on Steve Kerr now. Even if management didn’t like Mark Jackson or his offense (with reason on the second part) the players would run through a wall for him. Will they for Kerr?

source:  8. Rockets (54-28). They struck out this offseason and more importantly hurt their depth (no Omer Asik, Chandler Parsons or Jeremy Lin). This is still a good team but James Harden is about to find out how important role players are.

source:  9. Trail Blazers (54-28). They are a good team and Damian Lillard is still improving, but will Chris Kaman and Steve Blake really help the bench? This team can go as far as their defense will take them.

source:  10. Grizzlies (50-32). They added some much needed three point shooting with Vince Carter, but mostly the Grizzlies are banking on continuity (see the new deal with Zach Randolph). That and Marc Gasol staying healthy — when he is this team is very dangerous.

source:  11. Suns (48-34). They need to work out the Eric Bledsoe contract situation, but the Suns will have one amazing backcourt with the addition of Isaiah Thomas. They are going to be fun to watch, how good a playoff team they are will be about how good a defensive team they become.

source:  12. Nuggets (36-46). I’m higher on Denver than most — they were ravaged by injury last season and get a healthy Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee back, combined with the quality addition of Aaron Afflalo at the two guard spot. This is a dangerous team. More like the 54-win team of a couple years ago… if Brian Shaw can get that out of them.

source:  13. Wizards (44-38). I think they will be the third best team in the East. They lose Trevor Aria but replace him with a Paul Pierce/Otto Porter combo, they keep Marcin Gortat. John Wall and Bradley Beal should both be improved this season. They just need Nene to stay healthy and if so watch out.

source:  14. Pacers (56-26). One of the hardest teams to figure out — was the second half of last season a fluke? They are going to miss Lance Stephenson’s shot creation. Indiana added C.J. Miles and Damjan Rudez to knock down open looks, but are they going to get any now? Frank Vogel has some work to do.

source:  15. Raptors (48-34). They re-signed Kyle Lowry and bring back almost everyone from a 48-win team. Can the growth of DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas, along with continuity, lift this team up to another top four finish in the East and maybe the second round at least?

source:  16. Hawks (38-44). Remember they were the third best team in the East last season before Al Horford tore his pectoral and he will be back this season. They didn’t land any big names this summer but bring back a solid team that will do fairly well in the East.

source:  17. Heat (54-28). They are not going to be as good without LeBron, obviously, but by running the offense more through Chris Bosh and bringing in Luol Deng they can play the same small-ball, space-and-pace system. But that system’s success was predicated on defense and that end of the floor looks to be an issue for Miami.

source:  18. Pelicans (34-48). This is a team I think can make a leap this season behind Anthony Davis, who will be a top five player in the league. I like Omer Asik next to him for defense and Ryan Anderson in the mix to space the floor. If they stay healthy this can be a playoff team in the East.

source:  19. Hornets (43-39).A playoff team last year they did it with defense, now they improved that and added some shot creation with Lance Stephenson — if his antics aren’t a distraction this could be a great pickup. This is a team that could make a jump up the ladder in the East this season.

source:  20. Timberwolves (40-42). It does’t feel like this team will have Kevin Love when training camp opens, but even if it does the level of distraction can’t be good for this team. This roster, if it could just stay healthy and execute better late in games, could be a playoff team… but only with Love. And he’s gone.

source:  21. Nets (44-38). A potentially dangerous team in the East, but coach Lionel Hollins has to get Brook Lopez to be a force at both ends, get Deron Williams to play more consistently, and get Joe Johnson in the post against smaller guards not just shooting jumpers. Plus Kevin Garnett has to return to close to his Boston form. Still a lot of interesting pieces here.

source:  22. Knicks (37-45). The kilt Carmelo Anthony and with Derek Fisher/Phil Jackson running the show there is a direction now. But they still have a lot of mediocre players, although Jose Calderon is an upgrade at the point. Still going to be a team that struggles defensively.

source:  23. Pistons (29-53). Stan Van Gundy is a good hire as coach and team president, but unless he figures out how to make Andre Drummond, Josh Smith and Greg Monroe coexist together it’s not going to matter. They added some shooting to the roster, which should help a little.

source:  24. Kings (28-54). Nobody knows that the plan is, but we do know that Darren Collison is not as good a point guard as Isaiah Thomas. Kings need DeMarcus Cousins to have a monster year.

source:  25. Jazz (25-57). Can Quin Snyder develop young talent? They have a lot in Utah with Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Trey Burke, Dante Exum, Rodney Hood, and the re-signed Gordon Hayward. Build that talent up and this becomes a much better team the second half of the season.

source:  26. Lakers (27-55). They can be a decent offensive team team with Kobe Bryant, Carlos Boozer, Nick Young and Julius Randle, but they are going to be a defensive disaster. If Jack in the Box only gives out free tacos when the Lakers win and hold the opposing team under 100 the chain can save a lot of money.

source:  27. Bucks (15-67, LW 30). Jabari Parker is going to get a lot of minutes and could make a Rookie of the Year push, and with John Henson make a nice front line. The big question is Larry Sanders, if he plays like the guy from two seasons ago again this could be a pretty good defensive team.

source:  28. Celtics (25-57). This is a young team… and Rajon Rondo. They have a number of first round picks that should get better in the coming years but this season is going to be dominated by trade rumors in Boston.

source:  29. Magic (23-59). A really young roster with some nice pieces… plus Channing Frye and Ben Gordon. Some nice young players on this roster that should get run and time to grow.

source:  30. 76ers (19-63). Nerlens Noel looks like he could be a player in a couple years, and Michael Carter Williams should take steps forward. But Joel Embiid can’t pitch in this season. This is a team that could be really good in a few years but this season is going to be a rough one in Philly.

David Stern: We thought we could re-work Chris Paul-to-Lakers trade until Mitch Kupchak ‘panicked’

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NBA commissioner David Stern – acting as New Orleans’ owner representative, he says – infamously vetoed a potential Chris Paul-to-Lakers trade in 2011.

But that didn’t close the possibility of Paul going to the Lakers.

The New Orleans Hornets (now the Pelicans and not be confused with the current Charlotte Hornets), Lakers and Rockets tried to rework the three-team trade that would’ve sent Paul to the Lakers, Pau Gasol to Houston and Lamar Odom, Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Goran Dragic and a first-round pick to New Orleans. But talks fell apart around the time the Lakers dealt Odom to the Mavericks.

Stern on Nunyo & Company (hat tip: Harrison Feigen of Silver Screen & Roll):

In fact, in the course of the weekend, we thought we could re-do the deal. We really thought that Houston would be ready to part with Kevin Lowry, and we had a trade lined up for Odom that would have gotten us a good first-round draft pick – not we, but my basketball folks. But Mitch Kupchak at the time panicked and moved Odom to Dallas. So the piece wasn’t even there for us to play with at the time. So that was it — just about what was good for the then-New Orleans Hornets.

Remember, Stern – roundly criticized for his handling of this episode* – has blamed the Lakers and Rockets for the lingering perception. This could just be him again trying to shift responsibility.

*Somewhat fairly, somewhat not. Owners veto general manager-approved trades often enough, and Stern was acting as New Orleans’ owner after George Shinn sold the franchise back to the league. But Stern had an agenda as commissioner. He never should have assumed such a large conflict of interest. What he did with the Paul trade was reasonable for an acting owner, but because Stern was also commissioner, it’s fair to question how much New Orleans’ interests and how much the league’s interests factored into the decision-making.

But let’s take Stern at his word – that he and the Hornets thought they could re-do the trade and send Paul to the Lakers. That doesn’t mean they were right. Maybe the Lakers and Rockets (who had Kyle Lowry, not the “Kevin Lowry” Stern named) were never going to part with enough to get Stern’s approval.

And maybe New Orleans didn’t properly convey its interest in still completing a deal. Perhaps, Kupchak acted reasonably by trading Odom to Dallas – for a first-round pick, a deal Mark Cuban would ultimately regret – rather than wait around for the Hornets, who eventually sent Paul to the Clippers.

It’s easy to blame Kupchak, but he might tell a different story.

Isaiah Thomas makes it clear he wants to stay in Boston

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It’s been a long time since there was so much discussion about whether a team needs to trade or just let go of an All-NBA and All-Star player at his peak who is clear and away a fan favorite.

Yet that’s where the Boston Celtics and Isaiah Thomas find themselves. After landing the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft — where they will almost certainly take point guard Markelle Fultz — and with the Celtics looking a full couple steps behind the Cavaliers in the playoffs, the question about whether Thomas is part of the future in Boston has come up. He is a free agent in 2018 and are the Celtics willing to pay the big money it will take to keep him?

Know this, Thomas wants to remain a Celtic and win a Celtic. You can listen to his full comments above, but Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe has the money quote:

Outside of chasing Gordon Hayward, this summer the Celtics are going to focus on getter some frontcourt help, someone to help with rebounding and rim protection. They will look to get better, but Danny Ainge isn’t going to push all his chips into the middle of the table to make a gambit on immediate massive improvement. He will remain patient, building this team so that in three years and five years they will be a force in the East.

And the Thomas discussion likely gets put on hold for a year (unless there is a change of course and contract extension talks come up, but that’s only if Boston misses on Hayward and any other big targets).

Stephen Curry says talk of lack of competitive balance “disrespectful” to Warriors, Cavaliers

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This year’s NBA playoffs have been horribly lopsided and they lacked drama because we all knew where it was headed: Golden State vs. Cleveland. They were so dominant that between them they lost one playoff game so far. This has brought up discussions of competitive balance — we have seen the same Finals three years in a row, and we will almost certainly head into next season expecting a fourth. Then maybe a fifth.

Not surprisingly, Stephen Curry isn’t a fan of the lack of competition argument, saying it disrespects the Warriors and the Cavaliers.

“That almost is kind of disrespectful, because it’s not like it’s easy for us to get here. It wasn’t that at all. Us and Cleveland worked our butts off all year to put ourselves in a position to be playing for a championship. The league is as strong talent-wise across the board as it’s ever been. Every night we get challenged. Obviously, we had that one stat I guess, point differential, all year. We had a pretty solid showing in that respect. But, every night was hard. Every night was challenging. You can’t just sleepwalk through a season and sleep walk through the playoffs and expect to be here. You got to do something. You got to come out every night and prove yourself. Granted, anybody who was betting on who was gonna be in the Finals probably picked those two. It’s easy for them to say that and just wake up in June and see it happen. We had to put that work in all year long to make it happen.”

Curry is right in that nobody should question the work the Warriors and Cavaliers put in to get to this point, and that the other teams did not just roll over for them. Also, both teams did get a little lucky with injuries.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that right now there is a dominant team in each conference, and that sucks the drama out of the postseason. (Maybe a healthy San Antonio team could have pushed the Warriors, we didn’t get to find out.) Golden State has four of the top 15-20 players in the NBA, and that makes them a juggernaut — again, regardless of the work put in. Other teams don’t have much of a chance if the Warriors are healthy and focused, not in a seven game series. The fact that it was flukey circumstances that put a dominant team in each conference — there isn’t another LeBron James returning home, and out West it took a one-time salary cap spike to add Kevin Durant to a 73-win team — doesn’t change the fact this season has felt like a foregone conclusion from the start.

Right now we’ve got what we wanted and expected, the trilogy between the Warriors and Cavaliers. But if we head into next season expecting (and maybe getting) round four of this matchup in the Finals, is that good for the league? Why watch the movie if you know how it ends before it starts?

Bill Laimbeer on LeBron vs. Jordan comparisons: “I’ll take LeBron James, absolutely”

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LeBron James is headed to his seventh straight NBA Finals. He just passed Michael Jordan to take over the top spot on the NBA’s all-time playoff scoring list. Fourteen years into his NBA career, he has put together a resume that few in the game’s history can match — and he’s not done.

You don’t have to think that LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan, however, if you don’t think it’s a valid discussion, you’re blinded by bias.

Former NBA All-Star, champion, and WNBA coach Bill Laimbeer of the “bad boy” Detroit Pistons was asked about the LeBron/Jordan comparison on “The Rematch” podcast, and he said we’ve never seen anyone like LeBron (hat tip the USA Today).

“I’ll take Lebron James, absolutely,” Laimbeer said to host Etan Thomas… “He’s 6-8, 285 (James is listed at 250 pounds). Runs like the wind, jumps out of the gym. Phenomenal leader since he’s been 12 years old. Understood when he came into the league how to involve his teammates from the start. And you can’t guard him. You can’t double-team, he’s too big, he powers through everything. Michael was a guard. Yeah, he was 6-6, but he wasn’t a real thick and strong guard. It took him a lot of years to learn how to involve his teammates in order to win championships. Don’t fault him for that, it’s a learning experience. But we’ve never seen anybody like LeBron James physically. He just bullies you.

It was Laimbeer and the Pistons who taught Jordan to win — they beat the Bulls year after year in the playoffs, until Jordan broadened his game (and got better teammates) and the Pistons started to fade. People point to MJ’s unblemished Finals record, but he was seen for years as a guy who couldn’t get a team to the Finals because of those Pistons (LeBron learned his lessons on a different stage, taking some early Cavs teams that had no business in the Finals to that stage anyway, only to get crushed).

LeBron has a more versatile game than Jordan, which better suits this era: When Jordan was a force in the ’80s and ’90s there was no zone defense, which led to a lot of clear-out sets where eight guys watched a one-on-one battle from the other side of the key, and if the double-team came it was obvious from where. Jordan’s skill as a guy who could get his shot, kill it from the midrange or get to the rim, his ability to physically play through contact, and the legendary killer instinct made him great. But he was aided by timing — the booming popularity of the sport in the 1990s, the rise of Nike as a marketing giant, and the fact he didn’t have a true rival, a Bird to his Magic, that could best him.

LeBron has reached the point in his career that the legacy talk and where he ranks all-time is the only real discussion left — and Jordan sits as the bar to clear. Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Bill Russell, and a few others should be on that tier as well, part of the discussion, but the point is LeBron has moved on to that level of discussion. He’s earned it. The fact some people on Twitter/sports talk radio feel the need to rip him for everything doesn’t change that — if Jordan played the social media era he would have heard the same things from the same people.