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.

Three things to know from All-Star Weekend: New format worked, for now

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LOS ANGELES — Our regular feature “Three Things to Know” usually wraps up and breaks down the news of the day in the NBA, but in this case we are stepping back to take in all of All-Star Weekend. Three Things will then be off this week until Friday (there are no games until Thursday night as the league takes a little break).

1) The new “captains pick teams” format may have worked as intended. But will it last? This much we can agree on: This was the best played, most dramatic All-Star Game we have seen in a while. There was some actual defense played, guys tried and played with a little pride, they played hard, we had a close and intense ending, and (unlike last season) the night featured something that resembled basketball. There was even a game-tying and game-winning shot.

The new format — where captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry (the highest vote-getters from fans) picked the teams playground-style — got the credit for the change.

“The great thing about our commissioner, he’s absolutely okay with trying something new, to change the format, and it definitely worked out for everybody,” said LeBron, who scored 29 points including the go-ahead bucket late, and was named MVP. “It worked out not only for the players, not only for the league but for our fans, for everybody. It was a great weekend, and we capped it off the right way.”

Was it really the format that led to the change? Tune in next year, and frankly the next few years, to find out.

First off, the players were genuinely embarrassed by the lack of defense and level of play in last year’s game, they talked about it afterwards in New Orleans and it was players’ union president Chris Paul who first pushed for the format change as a way to inject some energy into the game. To a man, the players and coaches talked about “changing the narrative” around the game.

The reality is the game was close, and often in the past when the All-Star Game was close late we got real energy and something resembling defense the final six minutes or so of the game. This year’s game was close, so the genuine energy late was not wildly out of character.

If the league had stuck with East vs. West (but upped the payout to winners and kept the new charity component) would the players have come out and played with this same energy and defense from the start to change the narrative anyway? My sense is probably, again they didn’t want to embarrass themselves again. We’ll never know for sure, but the format got credit for bringing a new energy to the game that may have been coming anyway.

The NBA is going to keep this format — although expect the player draft to be televised next time around — so we will see in Charlotte next February and in Chicago in 2020 if the change was about the format or just a conscious effort by the players to make the product better.

Either way, let’s hope it continues.

2) Donovan Mitchell, welcome to the spotlight. Utah’s rookie Donovan Mitchell is averaging 19.6 points and 4.5 assists a game (and much more than that the past couple of months), has become the Jazz’s go-to scorer and shot creator late in games, and for my money is the current frontrunner for Rookie of the Year (with Ben Simmons a close second). Yet for casual fans Mitchell was flying under the radar — people don’t really tune in to see the Jazz play (they don’t get on national television much) and in a deep rookie class with big names the No. 13 pick out of Louisville was not one of the pre-draft hype guys.

People know who he is now — he took over the spotlight in Los Angeles for a while. He was featured Friday’s Rising Stars challenge, then on Saturday went out and won the Dunk Contest.

“I’ve always been a player who’s not really been talked about a lot,” Mitchell told NBC Sports heading into the weekend. “Never really hyped coming out of high school — I was ranked top 50, but I wasn’t a name that was all over Ball is Life and all those platforms. Then coming into college I wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American, I wasn’t one of those guys averaging 30.

“Playing under (Rick) Pitino (in college), it’s grit and grind basketball, and that’s how I was perceived. That just adds to the chip I have on my shoulder.”

Mitchell had plenty of style and flash in Los Angeles. First, he brought out a second backboard, and did a self-alley-oop off one to the other.

Then he sealed his Dunk Contest win with a tribute to Vince Carter and one of his legendary dunks.

No player did more for his national profile over the three-days in Los Angeles than Donovan Mitchell.

3) Dunk of the weekend? Give that one to Larry Nance Jr. The newly-minted Cleveland Cavalier Larry Nance Jr. (he was traded from the Lakers at the deadline just more than a week before) may have come in second in the Dunk Contest to Mitchell, but he had the best dunk of the weekend. No doubt.

It was the double self-alley-oop off the backboard.

That was the dunk we’ll be talking about out of the weekend.

‘Tired’ Jimmy Butler sits out All-Star Game at his own request

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LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Butler leads the NBA in minutes played per game at 37.3. He’s ninth in the league in total minutes played and played 77:35 minutes in the two games leading up to All-Star Weekend.

Butler was tired and asked Mike D’Antoni to give him some rest, according to both parties (despite speculation this was really a win for the Los Angeles nightlife). Butler did not play in Sunday’s All-Star Game.

“Rest,” Butler said when asked why he didn’t play. “I have to rest. I have to rest my body up. This Timberwolves season is very, very important to me. I’ve got to make sure I’m ready to roll when I get back there.”

“He was tired and he just felt like his legs weren’t there,” Team Stephen head coach Mike D’Antoni. “He didn’t practice yesterday or play today. You have to respect that. He plays hard. Sometimes your body just needs a rest.”

Butler is having the kind of season that has him in the discussion for a place on the MVP ballot. He’s averaging 22.4 points per game with a very efficient true shooting percentage of 59.3, plus he’s playing strong defense. He and Karl-Anthony Towns have led the Timberwolves to a 36-25 record that has them as the current four seed in the West, poised to break an 11-year playoff drought for the franchise.

Still thankful, LeBron James breaks Michael Jordan’s record for years between All-Star MVPs

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Los Angeles – When LeBron James became the youngest-ever NBA All-Star MVP in 2006, he said during the trophy presentation: “I’d like to thank the fans for voting me in as a starter.”

Twelve years later, he sounds similar, maybe just a little more thoughtful: “It’s always been my fans who voted me in. For 14 straight years, my fans have voted me in as an All-Star starter, and it’s been up to me to go out and let them know and show them, listen, I appreciate that, and here’s what I’m going to give to you every time you vote me in.”

He plays similarly, too.

LeBron again won All-Star MVP, leading his team to a 148-145 victory Sunday. He finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.

“Every night I step on the floor, I have to lead my guys or prove to myself that I’m still able to play at a high level,” said LeBron, 33. “I feel great.”

The 12-year gap between LeBron’s first and last All-Star MVP – he also won in 2008 – is the longest in NBA history. It tops the 10 years between Michael Jordan’s first (1988) and last (1998).

Here’s the difference between the first and last All-Star MVP for every multi-time winner:

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Players’ effort in this exhibition game comes and goes, but LeBron appeared invigorated .

When LeBron’s team trailed by 15 in the second quarter, he checked in and quickly led it back into the lead. When his team fell behind by 13 midway through the fourth quarter, he again led a spirited comeback. He hit the go-ahead bucket.

Despite playing a game-high 31 minutes, his intensity lasted all the way through the final buzzer.

His coach, the Raptors’ Dwane Casey, said he asked LeBron whether to foul or defend on the final possession while up three. LeBron said defend.

“If he says that, or any great players say that, you want to go with them because it was their idea, their belief, and he had it,” Casey said. “…He got the guys jacked up and juiced up as far as wanting to get a stop.”

LeBron and Kevin Durant swarmed Stephen Curry, who couldn’t shoot and could barely pass. Curry’s team didn’t even get a shot off:

“As you can hear in my voice, that tells how competitive it was,” LeBron said scratchily.

Again, his message echoed 2006: “We’re competitors, and our competitive nature kicked in and said let’s get some defensive stops.”

A lot will get made about the format change, and it might have mattered.

But maybe LeBron is just uniquely capable of dominating and embracing of this stage all these years later.

Defense? Dramatic finish? Team LeBron wins All-Star Game that’s worth watching

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LOS ANGELES — The NBA gambled its new format — with captains picking teams playground style — would produce an All-Star Game where the players showed some pride, played hard, and the showcase again would become something that resembled basketball (unlike last season).

It worked.

For proof guys were invested this time around, check out how Team LeBron responded to winning with a defensive stop, taking away Team Stephen’s attempt to get a clean look at a game-tying three in the closing seconds.

The THRILL of #NBAAllStar VICTORY!

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“It had a real game feel to it,” LeBron James said.

Team LeBron beat Team Stephen 148-145. LeBron was named MVP with 29 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists. He also hit the game-tying and go-ahead shot that got the win.

“I played with (LeBron) a few times,” Kyrie Irving said of the play and pass that set up that LeBron game-winner. “I cut back door, (Russell Westbrook) was driving, I saw the opportunity. I saw, before even Russ even passed to me, LeBron was going to circle to the rim, and he’s one of the best finishers at the rim.”

Most importantly, this was an All-Star Game with some defense — it had 81 fewer points than the layup line game last year, and the fewest points in five years. It also proved to be the closest game in six years.

“We wanted to kind of change the narrative of the All-Star Game being a joke,” Kevin Durant said. “Today we wanted to make it a real basketball game.”

There was more defense than last year from the start of the game — for example, LeBron blocked an alley-oop pass in the first quarter. Of course, “better than last year” was not a high bar to clear, but there was some effort to not just have a layup line. Most of the time.

Also to start the game, Anthony Davis came out wearing the “0” jersey of injured teammate DeMarcus Cousins (he switched back to his own #23 before the first half was over).

On the night, Team LeBron got 19 points out of Kevin Durant, 16 from Paul George, and 14 from Andre Drummond. Team Stephen was led by 21 from both DeMar DeRozan and Damian Lillard, and 19 points and eight rebounds from Joel Embiid in his first All-Star Game.

The fantastic ending made up for what was a laughable opening skit/national anthem before tip-off that did something very rare — it unified NBA Twitter. It was awful.

Now all anybody is talking about is the game itself. And that’s what the NBA wanted.