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NBA Power Rankings Week 25: Warriors, Spurs, Rockets top final ranking of NBA season

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This is the final NBA Power Rankings of the season, a fun exercise that is ultimately moot because the NBA has a playoff system and is too smart to use polls to pick which teams are in it. Meaning yes, these are moot, but it’s still an entertaining exercise (there’s just no reason freak out about then).

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (66-14, Last Week No. 1). Golden State went 15-4 with Kevin Durant out, and they are now 1-0 with him back (no Stephen Curry in that game). Because we as fans want drama and unpredictability, we keep looking for reasons to doubt the Warriors — how healthy is Durant? Will he return mess up the flow of their offense? — when we all know the reality: This is the best team in the NBA, and if they stay healthy it’s hard to see anyone beating them four out of seven. The road to the title goes through Oracle.

 
Spurs small icon 2. Spurs (61-19, LW 2). Despite being locked in as the No. 2 seed in the West, Gregg Popovich said he’s not resting anyone the final couple games of the season (they got to rest, and they have days off between games). I’ll believe it when I see it. Once again, a great defense (best in the NBA) drives the Spurs and will drive them deep into the playoffs as well. Kawhi Leonard had a season good enough to win the MVP award almost any other year, but he seems destined to come in third this time around — then in the playoffs show everyone that was probably too low.

 
Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (54-26, LW 4). Going into the season, I said the Houston Rockets would go as far as their defense would take them. We knew the offense would be elite (second best in NBA), but the Rockets improved on defense, too, and finished 15th in the league. There’s a reason Mike D’Antoni should win Coach of the Year, but I would have Daryl Morey as executive of the year, too, for giving D’Antoni a team that fits his style of play (something the Lakers and Knicks failed to do).

 
Clippers small icon 4. Clippers (49-31, LW 6). Maybe this is ranking them a little too high, but Los Angeles is hitting it’s stride at the right time — they have won 9 of 11 and have the second best net rating in the NBA over their last 10 games. Maybe a little health, a little luck, and knowing this could be the final run for the Blake Griffin/Chris Paul era of the Clippers could propel this team to a deep playoff run. Then again, they get the Warriors in the second round.

 
Cavaliers small icon 5. Cavaliers (51-28, LW 9). Wednesday night they look like the unquestioned and unquestionable best team in the East, thrashing the Celtics. Then they drop back-to-back games to Atlanta and look terrible doing it. It’s easy to question this team’s lack of focus of late, its lack of depth up front (the Andrew Bogut injury was a setback), the fact they’re a little less versatile than a season ago, but who you going to pick to beat them four out of seven in the East?

 
Raptors small icon 6. Raptors (50-31, LW 5). Kyle Lowry is back, if shaking off a little rust, and with that Toronto may be the team best suited to beat both Boston in the second round and threaten the Cavaliers in the conference finals. Toronto has size up front with Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas, versatility, and great guard play. The Raptors took the Cavaliers six games last season, added Ibaka (who is an upgrade for them at the four), and just feel like we are sleeping on how dangerous they might be.

 
Celtics small icon 7. Celtics (51-29, LW 3). They are tied with the Cavaliers and have a real shot at the No. 1 seed in the East with two games left to play. That is a huge credit to Brad Stevens and what he’s done getting the most out of this team, and to the improvement Isaiah Thomas has shown this year. That said, the way they lost to the Cavaliers and Hawks last week raises questions about how deep this team can go in the playoffs.

 
Jazz small icon 8. Jazz (49-31, LW 7). It’s hard to see them getting home court in the first round because, although they are tied with the Clippers, Los Angeles owns the tie breaker and the Jazz finish the season against the Warriors and Spurs. Without home court, it’s going to be difficult for the Jazz to beat the Clippers. That said, this season has been a big step forward for Utah — now can they keep Gordon Hayward this summer as he hits free agency?

 
Wizards small icon 9. Wizards (48-32, LW 8). Washington is locked into the four seed in the East, which likely means starting against the Hawks (although that is not set). Washington should advance out of the first round but they have been a terrible defensive team since the All-Star break, third worst in the NBA, and if they don’t turn that around their playoff run will be much shorter than they hoped or planned.

 
Thunder small icon 10. Thunder (46-34, LW 10). Russell Westbrook has made his MVP cast in recent weeks, not as much with the triple-doubles as with his clutch play leading the Thunder to comeback wins, such as scoring the final 13 points against the Nuggets Sunday. Oklahoma City will face Houston in the first round, and while the focus will be on Westbrook vs. Harden the real challenge for OKC will be depth and finding a second shot creator and scorer.

 
Blazers small icon 11. Trail Blazers (40-40, LW 11). Portland has gotten into the playoffs, aided by Damian Lillard going off for 59 points on the Jazz last week. He’s going to have to have another game like that for the Trail Blazers to steal a game from the Warriors in the first round. That said, there should be fireworks as this is a matchup of the teams with the two best point differentials since the All-Star break.

 
Bucks small icon 12. Bucks (41-38, LW 12). The Bucks may have stumbled a bit getting there in recent weeks, they are in the playoffs. While I love to watch their gambling, aggressive style of defense, it strikes me as a system that can and will get exploited in the playoffs by any of the top four teams. That said, who is not excited to see playoff Giannis Antetokounmpo?

 
Grizzlies small icon 13. Grizzlies (43-37, LW 14). Once again we get the Spurs and Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs, although this time Memphis will have a healthy Mike Conley and he’s the best point guard in this series. Marc Gasol is the best center in this series. This was a series the Spurs wanted to avoid because of the physicality, but it’s one that will be difficult for the Grizzlies to stretch beyond five because of their lack of depth and some rough matchups.

 
Hawks small icon 14. Hawks (42-38 LW 20). Last week they swept a home-and-home from the Cavaliers where Atlanta had none of their regular starters for the first game them came from 26 points down in the fourth to win the second. Insane. One more win, against Charlotte or Indiana this week, and the Hawks get the five seed and a shot at John Wall and the Wizards in the first round.

 
Pacers small icon 15. Pacers (40-40, LW 16).. They look bound for the postseason after beating Toronto and Milwaukee last week (although a spot is not locked up), and they are doing it on the strength of Paul George playing his best ball of the season — 33 points and nine rebounds a game, plus shooting 44 percent from three in his last five games. The Pacers also have gotten some timely defense. Indiana will have some decisions to make this summer if Paul George does not make an All-NBA team (he’s on the bubble), but for now they can enjoy the playoffs.

 
Bulls small icon 16. Bulls (39-41, LW 13). The Bulls had one of the easiest schedules in the NBA down the stretch, have the tiebreaker with the Heat and Pacers, and yet may not make the playoffs because they do things like lose to the Brooklyn Nets. Chicago can’t get out of its own way, but with home games against Orlando and Brooklyn it’s still hard to think the Bulls will miss the postseason. Talk about a team that has some serious decisions to make this summer, Chicago tops the list and it starts with “what kind of team are they trying to build?”

 
Heat small icon 17. Heat (39-41, LW 15). They have gone 5-6 without Dion Waiters (ankle) and in that stretch have gone from everybody’s favorite playoff Cinderella to a team that may well miss out on the dance altogether. Tough games against Washington and Cleveland this week don’t help their cause. Even if they miss the playoffs, EriK Spoelstra is going to get some Coach of the Year votes.

 
Nuggets small icon 18. Nuggets (38-42, LW 19). Westbrook being Westbrook eliminated Denver from the playoffs this year, but it was still a successful season for the Nuggets — they have found a star (Nikola Jokic) and a guard of the future (Jamal Murray), plus have established a style and culture. Now they need to add some defenders to the roster and this team could become something special going forward

 
Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (36-44, LW 18). While their defense took a step back, this was still the most unlucky team in the NBA this year, they had the point differential of a 42-38 team, but some ugly losses have them on the outside looking in at the playoffs. That shouldn’t undersell what a fantastic season Kemba Walker had, he took huge steps forward with his game and carried this team’s offense all season long.

Pistons small icon 20. Pistons (36-43, LW 21). . Road wins in Memphis and Houston last week remind us what a disappointing season this has been for a Pistons team that everyone expected to take a step forward off a playoff trip last season. But Andre Drummond was flat, Reggie Jackson started the season injured and seemed to regress, and Stan Van Gundy goes into the summer with some serious questions about what his team should look like next season, particularly in the backcourt.

 
Pelicans small icon 21. Pelicans (33-47, LW 17). One of the most interesting teams to watch this summer, the only thing we know for sure is there will be changes. Maybe to the front office and GM Dell Demps. Maybe to Alvin Gentry as coach. Certainly to the roster — can they re-sign DeMarcus Cousins? Putting aside the question of if Anthony Davis and Cousins can play together (it’s still too early to tell) this team desperately needs help on the wings, guys who can shoot threes and defend a little.

 
timberwolves small icon 22. Timberwolves (31-48, LW 23). After watching him in person Sunday night, it’s going to be two seasons tops before you can’t keep Karl-Anthony Towns off the All-NBA teams. He’s got to get better defensively, but he’s that good. Outside of Towns and Andrew Wiggins, the rest of the Minnesota roster has all the focus of a bunch of school-age kids three days before summer vacation right now, at least that’s how it looked to me at the Lakers’ game Sunday.

 
Mavericks small icon 23. Mavericks (32-47, LW 22). Tuesday night at home the Mavericks will honor former Cowboys’ quarterback Tony Romo by having him in uniform and on the bench for the teams’s final home game of the season. Insert your own joke here about Romo getting inured in warmups and not being able to play. Dirk Nowitzki will be back for one more season, but Dallas needs to be looking for the next star to go with Harrison Barnes, who had a strong season.

 
Kings small icon 24. Kings (31-28, LW 25). This is the 11th season in a row the Kings have missed the playoffs, and after the Cousins trade it’s hard to see them making for a few more years either. While maybe Buddy Hield and Skal Labissiere have shown a little promise of late, Sacramento needs to add picks and start adding talent to this roster. Dave Joerger can coach, but the franchise needs to be patient and draft/trade for young talent. Do we really trust Vlade Divac to do that? Does ownership?

 
Knicks small icon 25. Knicks (30-51 LW 26). It’s not going to be simple to trade a guy who will make $26 million and has a no-trade clause, but it’s hard to see the Carmelo Anthony era in New York lasting past this season. Both sides are ready to move on. The Knicks also likely move on from Derrick Rose. The triangle offense will be in, but that means going out and getting specific players to run it, not just use stopgap measures.

 
Magic small icon 26. Magic (28-52 LW 28). The leaked whiteboard images got a little overblown, yes it was sloppy to allow it but there was nothing on that board that most teams don’t have on their brainstorming boards. That said, no GM is on a hotter seat than Rob Hennigan in Orlando (think of the Serge Ibaka trades alone and you see why), and with a front office change would certainly come some roster changes. Going to be an interesting summer in Orlando.

 
Lakers small icon 27. Lakers (24-55, LW 29). Winners of four in a row to end the season, they now have a less than 50/50 chance of keeping their first-round pick (if it is top three they keep it, four or later and it goes to Philly).I’m not sure if D’Angelo Russell is part of the long-term future in Los Angeles, but his shot to beat the Timberwolves Sunday was certainly one of the highlights of the Los Angeles season.

 
Sixers small icon 28. 76ers (28-52, LW 24). For a team finishing this poorly, they took a lot of strides forward this season — we know Joel Embiid can be a franchise player (if healthy), Dario Saric can put up points, and the team defended and played hard all season. They get Ben Simmons healthy next season, they will have new players (their first-round pick, plus the Lakers’ pick if it falls outside the top three), and next year it feels like this team can make another big step forward.

 
Nets small icon 29. Nets (20-60, LW 27). While they finish with the worst record in the league, the Nets quietly went 11-13 after the All-Star break and played pretty well. Part of it was Jeremy Lin getting healthy and providing some offensive spark, but credit coach Kenny Atkinson for getting this team to not just roll over, and this was a good offensive team after the break. They have a lot of money this summer, look for them to try and poach some restricted free agents with big offers (as they tried to do last summer with Allen Crabbe, for example).

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (23-57, LW 30). The Suns went with the youth movement late in the season to see what they’ve got, but what they really have are questions about veterans: Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Tyson Chandler, and Jared Dudley are all under contract for at least two more years — they all need to be shopped. Maybe Bledsoe stays to partner with Devin Booker in the backcourt, but this roster needs an overhaul and a direction.

Report: Rockets becoming “increasingly serious threat” to sign Chris Paul

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The Houston Rockets are one of only a handful of teams in the NBA with a legitimate ability to add a couple of key pieces and try to make a run at the Golden State Warriors.

Chris Paul would be that kind of piece, and the Rockets are ramping up efforts to land him.

From Marc Stein of ESPN.

The Houston Rockets have emerged as an increasingly serious threat in the chase for soon-to-be free agent Chris Paul, according to league sources.

The Rockets still have work to do in terms of clearing sufficient salary-cap space to make a representative offer for Paul, but sources told ESPN that Houston star James Harden has been advocating hard in favor of the Paul pursuit and has made his interest in teaming with the Los Angeles Clippers’ point guard known directly to Paul.

Sources say Houston also remains at the heart of the trade hunt to acquire Paul George from the Indiana Pacers, despite the fact George is only under contract through next season and is known to be angling to sign with his hometown Los Angeles Lakers in July 2018.

The challenge in all of this is the Rockets have just about $10 million in cap space this summer, which is about a third of what it will take to land Chris Paul. That means they need to trade Ryan Anderson and his $19.6 million owed next season and take no salary back, and while there are a few teams in a position to be able to take on that salary — Philadephia, Brooklyn, Sacramento and others — they are going to want a young player or first-round pick as a sweetener. The Rockets also are considering moving Lou Williams and his $7 million salary, or Patrick Beverley and his $5.5 million. However, even moving both of the later two is not getting near the salary Paul will demand.

Chris Paul met with the Clippers front office on Tuesday to talk about the future, but he’s expected to meet with a number of teams in free agency, with the Rockets and Spurs being key suitors. The question is, will any of these teams bring him closer to toppling the Golden State Warriors, and is it worth it to take less money for that chance? Especially after he got the CBA changed so that as of July 1 the “over 36” rule becomes the “over 38 rule” so the Clippers can give him one more five-year max contract.

How much will Dion Waiters earn as a free agent?

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Dion Waiters had the best season of his career last year at age 25 in Miami. The Heat pushed Waiters to get in the best shape of his life (just check out his Instagram), and combine that with the fact that Justise Winslow went down Waiters got the ball in his hands more with a chance to create for himself, and you had a little rush of scoring. He’s still not the most efficient player ever (to be kind), but he’s close to average.

Waiters opted out of his $3.2 million he is owed next season, and he is now a free agent. How much is he will he get now on the open market? Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald wrote this:

One scout said he would be surprised if the bidding for Waiters soars much above $10 million, if that, because of his small sample size of high-level play this past season. One prominent agent who does not represent Waiters predicted he would get $8 million to $10 million annually.

That number seems about right, if it’s a two-year deal (or a team option on the third year). The league average salary will be around $8.5 million, and that’s where Waiters should fall next year.

Whether Miami has that money to spend comes down to whether they land a big free agent such as Gordon Hayward or Blake Griffin (both max guys). If so, the Heat will not have the money, and what they do have would be more focused on keeping James Johnson. However, if the Heat strike out then Waiters could be back in Miami.

One way or another Waiters is going to get a raise. That doesn’t mean teams are not still leery.

Report: Knicks have “legitimate” interest in re-signing Derrick Rose

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Were they watching the games last year?

Derrick Rose put up decent numbers last year — 18 points per game, PER of 17, true shooting percentage of 53 — but was a mess defensively and does not fit in the triangle offense. He’s a decent point guard now, a replacement level player who can help in the right system.

Since the Knicks point guard rotation right now consists of rookie Frank Ntilikina plus whoever the team signs this summer, turns out Rose is not out of the picture, reports Ian Begley of ESPN.

The New York Knicks have “legitimate” interest in re-signing Derrick Rose, league sources familiar with the matter said….

The Knicks’ interest in the point guard is dependent on several factors, including his health and his asking price. When asked last week about New York potentially re-signing Rose, team president Phil Jackson said “we’re listening.”

Money will be the key — it’s not going to be anywhere near the $21.3 million Rose made last season. No team is going to offer that.

Can the Knicks get him for less than $10 million? Will another team come in and offer $12 million or more for him? The market for point guards this summer is going to be interesting because after the big name on the free-agent market — Chris Paul (we’re not counting Stephen Curry, he’s not leaving) — there are some quality players out there that can help teams such as Kyle Lowry, Jrue Holiday, George Hill, Patty Mills, Jeff Teague and Shaun Livingston. There aren’t that many teams with money to really spend on free agent point guards, so while a couple (Holiday, maybe Lowry) re-sign with their old teams there are a number of guys who may find the market softer than they expected. Rose is among them.

And that’s where the Knicks come in. Rose is far from a perfect fit, but if the soft market drives his price down closer to the midlevel ($8.4 million) or just above, that may be worth it for the Knicks for a year while they try to develop the rookie.

Report: Russell Westbrook may sign “designated player” extension with Thunder on July 1

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Russell Westbrook is your NBA MVP, coming off a historic season where he averaged a triple-double.

Westbrook also could see a massive pay raise this summer. Yes, you remember correctly that Westbrook signed one last summer after Kevin Durant left, but the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that kicks in July 1 grandfathered him (and James Harden, who also signed an extension last summer) in to get the “designated veteran” max contract. That would start at about $34.7 million (if the cap is at $99 million as expected) and go up from there.

Thunder management’s first call at midnight July 1 will be to Westbrook to offer the deal, and he may well take it reports Royce Young of ESPN.

Those close to Westbrook fully expect him to take the Thunder’s offer, quite possibly at 12:01 a.m., and stabilize the franchise and present a clear road map. Westbrook signed an extension last summer and invoked the word “loyalty” for a reason. He wanted to make a statement — a public declaration — and take on the burden of leading the franchise forward.

He likes the existing roster and has a close relationship and confidence in Presti and Weaver. He has built a strong bond with head coach Billy Donovan. He knew what he signed for and, with the Thunder coming off a successful first post-Durant season and with pieces in place to improve the team, there are a lot of reasons to commit again.

If Westbrook signs this, the Thunder can get on with the business of improving this roster — which will be next to impossible. The Thunder are capped out and have to re-sign restricted free agent Andre Roberson. Sam Presti is a smart man, but his hands are mostly tied due to some of the big contracts on the roster (ones that would have been no issue if Kevin Durant had stayed). The Thunder will make moves around the edges, but it’s going to take time to do anything substantial.

If Westbrook doesn’t sign this, more than just red flags will go up in OKC — this will be sirens and flashing red lights. The Thunder will be forced to think about trading Westbrook, or finding a way to keep him happy and in house. They will basically be right back to where they were last summer.

If Westbrook signs it — and he likely will, that’s a lot of money to leave on the table — it at least gives the Thunder a clear direction. Which is about all they can hope for this summer.