Cory Joseph

NBA Power Rankings: Preseason rankings for every team from Warriors to Bulls

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They’re back. The weekly NBA Power Rankings from NBC Sports have returned as the NBA season tips off. As always the defending champions start on top — and in the case of the Warriors, the question is will there be more than one week they are not ranked No. 1 this season? These first rankings are pure gut, with a little preseason influence thrown in (once we move 15+ games into the season we have a mathematical system to help guide us, then those figures get massaged by the eye test.

Quick note, these rankings come out on Tuesday to start the season, but starting next week and throughout the NBA season they will come out on Wednesday.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (last season 67-15). Thanks in part to Kevin Durant’s willingness to sacrifice for the team, Golden State not just brought back but also improved the best team in the NBA. They are going to spend a lot of weeks on top of these rankings. The only question to open the season is does the hangover/jet lag from the China trip still impact them the first couple weeks of the season.

Rockets small icon 2. Rockets (55-27). Adding Chris Paul to the James Harden show was a brilliant move, the Rockets will have one of the top three offenses in the NBA this season. However, what may really get this to the conference Finals is the additions of defenders such as Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker on the wing. They Rockets outscored teams by 21.9 points per 100 possessions in the preseason, an NBA best number (don’t read much into it, but it’s interesting).

Thunder small icon 3. Thunder (47-35).. I think they may be second in this ranking by the end of the season, I like their defense (which should be Top 5), but I’m going to need to see Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony do more than just talk about sacrifices to fully buy in (they looked good together in limited preseason minutes). With Westbrook committed to OKC, George will be asked about his free agency at every turn this season, how will he handle that pressure?

Cavaliers small icon 4. Cavaliers (51-31). By the end of the season I think they will be the team best positioned to knock off Golden State — Isaiah Thomas will be healthy (*knocking on wood*), the Cavs still have LeBron James, and they will get to come out of a soft East while the Warriors will have to battle their way out of a deep West. That said, they are not healthy now and will be experimenting with Kevin Love at center.

Spurs small icon 5. Spurs (61-21). No Kawhi Leonard in the opener and the question is now much more time will he miss with a lingering quad injury. While the Spurs looked like a mess in the playoffs without Leonard that was against the Warriors, in the regular season they are 14-4 the past two seasons with him sitting. LaMarcus Aldridge is the go-to guy while Leonard is out and he can handle the role.

Celtics small icon 6. Celtics (53-29). It’s going to be a circus — one with lots of boos — with Kyrie Irving and company opening on the road in Cleveland. No Marcus Morris the first week of the season with a knee injury, that means rookie Jayson Tatum likely gets the starts. That could add to the one big question about the Celtics — can they get enough stops?

Wizards small icon 7. Wizards (49-33). The Wizards looked good and their bench improved during the preseason, which is a nice sign but now they have to do it when it matters. That bench will be tested more early with Markieff Morris missing time due to a sports hernia (the Wizards lost very little time from their starters due to injury last season, that has changed already).

Raptors small icon 8. Raptors (51-31). The Raptors are trying to change who they are on offense, with less isolation and more threes — and it worked in the preseason, they scored 110.1 points per 100 possessions. Can they sustain that when the defenses get serious? And how much will they miss the depth that DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph, and Patrick Patterson provided?

timberwolves small icon 9. Timberwolves (31-51). They added Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague Taj Gibson, and Jamal Crawford to an already promising young team led by Karl-Anthony Towns — Minnesota is ready to make a leap. Well, if they can defend. They were 27th in defensive rating last season, and they need to get up to the middle of the NBA pack at least. Butler helps, but it’s Towns and Andrew Wiggins learning what to do and putting in the effort night in and night out that will make the biggest difference on that end.

Bucks small icon 10. Bucks (42-40). Is this too high a ranking for the Bucks? Maybe. I am betting on a lot of internal improvement with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Thon Maker, Kris Middleton, and Malcolm Brogdon. However, the real key to the Bucks season is if Jason Kidd tweaks his gambling defensive system so the Bucks don’t get torched every time the ball swings sides, do that and this team can move into East’s top four.

Nuggets small icon 11. Nuggets (40-42). Denver looked good this preseason in the minutes that both Nicola Jokic and Paul Millsap shared the floor, but the questions are everyone around them. Gary Harris needs to live up to his lofty new contract, and Jamal Murray needs to start looking like the point guard the Nuggets thought they had at the end of last season. Also, is Denver going to defend well enough to make the playoffs?

Clippers small icon 12. Clippers (51-31). Talk about a changed roster, new to the Clippers are Danilo Gallinari, Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Willie Reed, Sam Dekker, and Montrezl Harrell. Everything still flows through Blake Griffin, and his three-point shot looks improved. The Clippers should be solid on both ends and play faster than they did in the Chris Paul era. This is a playoff team if they can stay healthy, but with this roster it’s a big if (they had their share of minor injuries in the preseason).

Blazers small icon 13. Trail Blazers (41-41). It’s just the preseason, but the facts that Portland went 5-0 and Evan Turner found his shooting stroke are both good signs. C.J. McCollum is suspended for the opener (you can’t leave the bench during an altercation, this isn’t a new rule) so look for Pat Connaughton to get the start.

Grizzlies small icon 14. Grizzlies (43-39). The Grizzlies are trying to change their style of play — they played at the fourth fastest pace of any team in the preseason (they were 19th overall in the NBA last season, which was up from previous years). We’ll see if the pace sticks. We’ll see how much the Grizzlies can get out of Chandler Parsons as well (he averaged 14 minutes a game and shot 33 percent in the preseason).

Heat small icon 15. Heat (41-41, LW 15). Erik Spoelstra will spend the first part of the season figuring out his rotations (Kelly Olynyk is starting now, James Johnson is coming off the bench), and he needs more of Goran Dragic than the two preseason games he played, but this is a deeper team that should get off to a faster start than last season (but not close the season as fast, either).

Jazz small icon 16. Jazz (51-31, LW 7). Utah went 5-0 in the preseason and its offense was the fifth most efficient in the NBA. That’s not going to last, but it’s a good sign that maybe the offense will be somewhat better than projected with Rodney Hood as the playmaker. The defense will be elite with DPOY candidate Rudy Gobert.

Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (34-48). They have their big two — DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis — plus Jrue Holiday at the point, but the supporting cast is already banged up. Rajon Rondo will miss time with a sports hernia, and Solomon Hill may miss the entire season with a torn hamstring. This team remains one of the big question marks heading into the season, but if it goes sideways things could get ugly fast.

Sixers small icon 18. 76ers (28-54). Joel Embiid will start the season on a minutes restriction — Brett Brown said in the teens — and the big man doesn’t like it. Expect the Sixers to be cautious with him all season, we’ll see if he even gets to 55 games. My big question is how good the defense is with him off the court? After a strong preseason, Ben Simmons has moved to the top off everyone’s Rookie of the Year award prediction list.

Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (36-46). The Nicolas Batum injury to start the season is a blow. First, they were already thin on the wing and needed his defense, and second the Hornets toughest stretch of the schedule is the first month, so they could get in a hole that’s tough to dig out of. No Batum means rookie Malik Monk gets more run. A lot of people will tune in to see the Dwight Howard redemption project version 3.0, but stay to watch Kemba Walker — he is one of the most entertaining players to watch in the NBA.

Pistons small icon 20. Pistons (37-45. . How did the Pistons’ starting five look in the preseason? Don’t know, they didn’t play a minute together. What we do know is Reggie Jackson — the lynchpin for this team’s playoff chances this season — struggled, like he did much of last season. One thing of note, Andre Drummond was 16-of-20 on free throws in the preseason, if he is knocking those down he just got a lot more dangerous at the end of games.

Mavericks small icon 21. Mavericks (33-49). We need to savor having another season of Dirk Nowitzki in the NBA, he remains an all-time great. This season is about developing Dennis Smith Jr. and have him develop chemistry with Harrison Barnes (who was underrated as an isolation scorer last season but now needs to learn to be a playmaker. The Mavericks start out with a tough schedule the first couple of months that puts them in a hole they can’t dig out of.

Lakers small icon 22. Lakers (26-56, LW 29). It’s the Lonzo Ball show in Los Angeles, as he brings a buzz on and off the court to this team. Well, unless Kyle Kuzma steals the show again (the Lakers are overloaded at the four thanks to him). Ball will get a boost playing with Brook Lopez on offense. The bigger concern is Brandon Ingram, who shot 37.7 percent in preseason (25 percent from three) and likes to face up in isolation but doesn’t execute that well yet.

Kings small icon 23. Kings (32-50). So much to watch development wise with this team. How does De’Aaron Fox come along running the offense (he will come off the bench behind George Hill to start the season)? Can Skal Labissiere and Willie Cauley-Stein form an impressive front line? Is Buddy Hield going to be a starting two guard in the NBA or is he a future gunner sixth man? Also, how will coach Dave Joerger balance minutes for the young players and the veterans on his roster such as Zach Randolph?

Magic small icon 24. Magic (29-53). This may be too low for the Magic, who have a lot of talent on paper. Aaron Gordon is back at the four, where he should be, and he looked good this preseason. Jonathon Simmons also looked good and helped the team’s defense this preseason. The pieces still are an odd fit on this team, but Frank Vogel is trying to find rotations that work.

Knicks small icon 25. Knicks (31-51 LW 26). Carmelo Anthony is gone but the Knicks biggest problem persists — this is going to be a bad defensive team. With the full triangle offense having been exiled with Phil Jackson, coach Jeff Hornacek wants to run, but to run well a team has to get stops. Is Kristaps Porzingis ready for the load about to be put on his shoulders?

Pacers small icon 26. Pacers (42-40, LW 16). This is Myles Turner’s team now, but he will miss having Glenn Robinson III’s floor spacing around him (Robinson’s ankle injury has him out until 2018). On the bright side T.J. Leaf looked better in preseason than he did in Summer League, he will get some run. This team will put the ball in Lance Stephenson’s hands, which is always entertaining.

Nets small icon 27. Nets (20-62). They have an interesting backcourt with Jeremy Lin — the undrafted guard who has worked hard on his game and scrapped his way to a solid NBA career — and D’Angelo Russell, the No. 2 pick whose work ethic frustrated the Lakers and they were willing to move on from (he was the sweetener in dumping Timofey Mozgov’s salary). Soft start to the schedule gives them the chance at a decent start.

Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (43-39). It’s all about Dennis Schroder and Kent Bazemore creating shots and Mike Budenholzer’s team playing solid defense. This is a rebuilding team (Al Horford and Paul Millsap left in successive summers) and their string of making the playoffs 10 years in a row will end, but they should play hard and be in games, just not able to close them out. They start the season with a five-game road trip.

Suns small icon 29. Suns (24-58). They have some interesting young talent in Phoenix with Devin Booker and now rookie Josh Jackson (14 points per game and shot 42 percent from three in the preseason). With Eric Bledsoe running the point the Suns should be able to put up some points, but will the young team get enough stops?

Bulls small icon 30. Bulls (41-41, LW 13). Chicago has finally, fully embraced the rebuild. Lauri Markkanen will be the guy to watch this season, he was up-and-down during preseason (1-of-9 in debut, good game against Toronto to close it out) but how does he develop over the course of the season. Rough first week of the season with the Raptors, Spurs, and Cavaliers.

Three questions the Toronto Raptors must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season: 51-31, made the playoffs for a franchise-record fourth straight season, got swept in the second round by the Cavaliers

I know what you did last summer: The Raptors re-signed Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka but otherwise lost plenty of productive playersP.J. Tucker, Patrick Patterson, DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph – in an effort to limit payroll. Only C.J. Miles and No. 23 pick O.J. Anunoby solidly counter the exodus of talent.

THREE QUESTIONS THE RAPTORS MUST ANSWER:

1) Does anyone lift Toronto to the next level? The Raptors look like a team that has peaked. Kyle Lowry is 31, and DeMar DeRozan is 28. Toronto pushed in on its supporting cast last season, trading for Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker before the deadline. It didn’t work. The Raptors got swept by the Cavaliers in the second round. Ibaka is now a year older. Tucker is gone. So are the long-term assets used to acquire the veterans. With cost an apparent concern, the supporting cast has been downgraded.

So, was this the end of the ascent?

If so, it wasn’t a bad run. Correction: It isn’t a bad run. The Raptors are still solidly a playoff team in the Eastern Conference, and the four straight postseason appearances – including a trip to the 2016 conference finals – is nothing to sneeze at, especially in Toronto.

But a taste of success only increases the appetite for more. The Raptors would love to break through LeBron James in the Eastern Conference before the Celtics develop chemistry and the 76ers ascend. The Wizards lurk, too.

The mystery: How does it happen? Toronto’s veterans look established. Its young players – Norman Powell, Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright, Lucas Nogueira and Pascal Siakam – are varying degrees of formidable, but these aren’t high-upside options.

Perhaps, one of those young players defies expectations. Maybe Bruno Caboclo breaks out, though the indicators are negative for the project. O.G. Anunoby could get healthy and become a difference-maker.

The odds appear against it, but with the Raptors already establishing such a high floor, attention turns intently on their search for players to raise their ceiling.

2) Will Dwane Casey oversee a culture reset? If the roster isn’t getting better, Masai Ujiri isn’t giving up. The Raptors president called for a “culture reset.”

But he kept the coach and two players (Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan) most responsible for Toronto’s style, and many doubt major change will occur.

Still, the Raptors’ offense looks modernized in the preseason so far – more 3-pointers, more passing. If Casey and the players stick with it, the adjustment could pay off in the playoffs, where the team’s isolation-heavy style has been repeatedly stifled.

That’s still a major if. Old habits die hard.

If Casey could coach a more efficient scheme, why didn’t he do it before? Likewise, if Lowry and DeRozan could play a more efficient style, why didn’t they do it before?

They’ll get a chance to prove it’s not too late for them to adapt. If this doesn’t work, though, it could cost Casey his job.

3) How will center shake out? The Raptors owe Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka nearly $115 million over the next three years. That’s too much for a couple players whose best position is center – especially when Toronto also has capable backups in Jakob Poeltl and Lucas Nogueira on rookie-scale deals.

Ibaka is more of a modern center who can shoot 3-pointers and protect the rim. The Raptors can build some nice small-ball lineups with him at the position.

Valanciunas, on the other hand, sees his role significantly reduced in the playoffs. The back-to-the-basket post player becomes a liability.

Toronto seems to realize the problem, shopping Valanciunas this summer. But few teams need a center, and he’s highly paid (three years, nearly $50 million remaining). If the 25-year-old plays well, maybe the Raptors can move him and address other positions.

But if he plugs along at his current pace – which is hardly bad! – Toronto will face some difficult decisions about how to use him and Ibaka.

LeBron James reportedly “invested” in helping Derrick Rose get next big contract

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Reality smacked Derrick Rose across the face last summer.

Last season, the former MVP made $21.3 million in the final year of a five-year rookie contract extension, and while injuries had slowed his game he was playing better. Combine that with seeing the drunken sailor spending spree the previous summer, and he was hoping for — if not a max contract — still a healthy eight digit one. Instead, he signed a one-year deal at the veteran minimum, $2.1 million, to play for the Cavaliers.

LeBron James wants to see his man Rose get paid again, Dave McMenamin of ESPN said on The Jump.

“I’ve heard that for the first couple of days, Derrick Rose has been ‘killing it.’ I’ve also heard that LeBron is invested in Derrick Rose’s career so that he can get that next contract.”

The first part of that, the “killing it” part, you can just throw out. Maybe Rose looks great at the mini-camp LeBron is hosting for the Cavs in Santa Barbara, I hope he is, but preseason everybody is “killing it” or “has lost/gained 15 pounds and is in the best shape of his life” or “has worked hard and now has an impressive jump shot.” Rose probably does look great in Cavaliers camp against Jose Calderon, let’s see how he looks once he has to go up against real NBA players.

Rose’s next contract will be interesting. Maybe LeBron can set him up to look better this season, but it’s going to be on Rose mostly. Once healthy (whenever that is), Isaiah Thomas will be the starting point guard in Cleveland, plus as always LeBron James will have the ball in his hands a lot. (Which he should, he’s the best player on the planet.) But that means Rose needs to learn to work off the ball with LeBron more, and when LeBron (and eventually Thomas) sit, Rose needs to take over and show he can get a team buckets for a 5-7 minute stretch. Do that and he has a role that will get him some money. I’m not sold Rose can do much more than that at this point in his career.

How much money Rose will get is another issue. It’s going to be a tight market next year where only a few teams have much money to spend, and Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Cory Joseph, and maybe Rajon Rondo (depending on how he does in New Orleans) will be higher on team’s boards than Rose.

But if LeBron is “invested” that could help Rose make a little more green next season.

Pacers’ Lance Stephenson will get his chance, but coming off the bench

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Indiana is Myles Turner‘s team now. Gone from last season are Paul George, Monta Ellis, Jeff Teague, Aaron Brooks and more. More than just Turner, everyone on the Pacers’ roster is going to get a chance to shine.

That includes Lance Stephenson.

But he will do that coming off the bench, coach Nate McMillan told the Pacers’ website.

Coach Nate McMillan said he has a starting lineup in mind heading into training camp, but wouldn’t reveal it. He did acknowledge, however, that Lance Stephenson likely will start the season as the sixth man…

“I hope he can establish (that role),” McMillan said. “A sixth man is like a starter, and he can be a guy who can do a lot of things with that second group with his ability to handle the ball, score the ball. He’s an unselfish player.”

Stephenson was only with the Pacers for a few games at the end of last season, but he was their second best player in the postseason brought an energy and toughness the team lacked. He hit threes (62 percent for the Pacers), played hard, and looked more like the guy Indiana had years ago than the guy who has bounced around the league since. But that was a very small sample size, it’s something else to do this over the course of a season.

Indiana is rebuilding but they did not bottom out and tank, they brought in guys who can handle the ball such as Victor Oladipo (the George trade), Darren Collison, and Cory Joseph. Stephenson is going to have to accept and find a role behind and with those guys. But he’s going to get a chance, and he has played his best ball in a Pacers’ uniform.

Paul George trade just the start of a pathetic Pacers offseason

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The Pacers would have been better next season if they just kept Paul George.

They also might have been better in 2019-20.

Indiana got a head start on 2018-19 and little else this offseason.

George said he planned to leave in 2018 free agency, so dealing him was certainly reasonable. But for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis? That paltry return sent shockwaves beyond just scorned Cleveland.

It’ll be tough for Oladipo to provide surplus value as he makes $84 million over the next four years. Sabonis is as pedestrian as a second-year lottery pick can get.

The Pacers also lost Jeff Teague and C.J. Miles in free agency and waived – and stretched! (more on that later) – Monta Ellis, three players who started in the playoffs last season. Their replacements: Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison and Cory Joseph.

Bogdanovic ($1.5 million of $10.5 million) and Collison ($2 million of $10 million) have small guarantees for 2018-19. So does returning center Al Jefferson ($4 million of $10 million). Essentially, Indiana will keep those players if they have value at those salaries or clear cap space otherwise.

Though Miles, essentially acquired for free in a trade with the Raptors, has a $7,945,000 player option for 2018-19, the Pacers will have his Bird Rights.

This is shaping up to be a 30-something-win team, where the “something” will determine whether Indiana sneaks into the playoffs in a down Eastern Conference or picks in the low lottery. Though not stuck in that position with several long-term contracts, it’s still a lousy place to be even for a season or two.

The Pacers might have felt George’s declared plan to depart sent them down this path, but it didn’t have to.

If they kept George, one of two things would have happened:

  • He’d re-sign. Despite his insistence that he was leaving, he could have always reversed course. If he made an All-NBA team this season, he would have been eligible for a super-max contract. Indiana could have dared him to turn that down.
  • He’d leave. The Pacers probably still would have been in better long-term shape than they are now. Though I’m high on Myles Turner, they probably could have tanked around him in his fourth year and launched a proper rebuild.

Either way, Indiana would have been better in the interim. The Pacers wouldn’t have been postseason locks with George this season, but they would have been more likely than this rag-tag bunch. They also could have cut bait on George and dealt him before the trade deadline – likely for more than they got this summer.

Indiana just doesn’t want to slip too far, though. That’ll pay off next summer, when the Pacers have Oladipo and Sabonis locked up, team control over Bogdanovic and Collison in unguaranteed salaries and Bird Rights for Joseph if he opts out.

Starting after the lopsided George trade, this wasn’t bad execution of the plan. It’s just a bad plan.

Striving for mediocrity with established veterans just inhibits meaningful growth. That’s especially evident with stretching Ellis, who will count $2,245,400 against the cap through 2022.

The Pacers cleared nearly $9 million in cap space with the move, but their guaranteed salaries still land about $7.5 million below the salary cap, and the $4,328,000 room exception remains unused. Though the cap space and room exception can’t be combined, the space created by stretching Ellis didn’t go to great use. If Indiana offered Bogdanovic and/or Collison just $1 million or so less, they wouldn’t have signed? It would have been better to play hardball with those free agents and lose one than to stretch Ellis.

Indiana isn’t going anywhere significant this season, anyway. The right move was paying Ellis his entire $11,227,000 this season and getting it over with.

The Pacers aren’t completely bereft of young talent. Turner, a stretch center with impressive defensive potential, is now their franchise player. Oladipo is just 25. Draft picks T.J. Leaf (No. 18), Ike Anigbogu (No. 47) and Edmond Sumner (No. 52) are all fine.

But Indiana lost George, its most valuable asset, without getting a single draft pick or high-end young player. Now, the Pacers are just headed toward a couple uninspiring years before inevitably undergoing the rebuild they could have gotten a head start on this summer or next.

Offseason grade: F