Justin Holiday

Associated Press

NBA Power Rankings: After the big four at the top everything is wide open


The top four on this ranking are fairly locked in, the top two teams in each conference. After that, it’s almost even down deep into the teens (how much gap is there between the Pelicans at 5 and the Jazz at 16?). The bottom eight are the same way, although Memphis has established itself as the tanking master right now. Sorry Gasol.

Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (50-13, Last Week No. 1). Winners of 16 straight, a clear title contender, and that only leaves two questions now: Can Houston set a new franchise record win streak (the current is 22-games during the 2007-08 season)? Second, can they hold off the Warriors for best record in the NBA? Golden State is 0.5 games back but has an easier schedule the rest of the way. That said, the Rockets care more about the top seed than the Warriors. Interesting matchup Friday night against Toronto.

Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (50-14 LW 2). That Warriors’ malaise from right before the All-Star break is forgotten now. Coming out of the time off the Warriors are 6-0, their defense is focused again giving up a point per possession (100.1 per 100 possessions, fourth best in the NBA in that stretch), the Warriors are outscoring teams by 17.1 per 100 since the ASG, and they have become a team that starts fast thanks to the energy JaVale McGee brings as a starter (he doesn’t play much still, less than 15 minutes a night, but he gives them some athleticism and energy at the start they lacked).

Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (46-17, LW 3). Rookie starting small forward OG Anunoby has missed three games now with a sprained ankle, but there are signs he should return soon. Norman Powell couldn’t grab the job with Anunoby out. What has made Toronto the No. 1 seed in the east is depth — Fred VanVleet and the bench are outscoring opponents badly and turning small leads into blowouts. The Raptors are up just 2 games up on the Celtics for the top seed but have an easier schedule the rest of the way (including a couple tanking teams this week). Fun test Friday night at the Air Canada Centre when James Harden and the Rockets show up.

Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (45-20, LW 4). Boston’s defense has been good but not great since the All-Star break (although certainly better than it was in the run-up to the break), however, the offense has been phenomenal scoring 117 points per 100 (second only to the Warriors). Helping with that is Jayson Tatum, who was hot to start the season (better than 45% from three in Nov. and Dec.) but hit the rookie wall in January (plus teams adapted and challenged him more), when he shot 34.1% from deep. While he has taken fewer shots in February and March (he’s taking what the defense gives him), he’s shooting well again (39.1% in Feb.).

Pelicans small icon 5. Pelicans (36-26, LW 12). Winners of nine in a row to move all the way up to the four seed in the West, they have impressed of late. Anthony Davis is understandably the focus as he has played at an MVP level during this stretch (34.8 points, 15.2 rebounds, and 3 blocks per game in his last 5) but it’s been a team effort on the defensive end during the run when the Pels are a top-10 defense. The Pelicans can secure a playoff slot (as much as anyone can in the West) over the next few weeks because after playing at Sacramento Wednesday night New Orleans has 9-of-11 at home.

Pacers small icon 6. Pacers (37-27, LW 11). What matters most in a tight race for playoff seeding in the East is beating other playoff teams, which is why the Pacers three-game win streak against the Bucks, Wizards, then Bucks again is big and has vaulted them up to the four seed. The Pacers have done that with all defense (3rd in the NBA since the All-Star break) and in spite of the offense (25th). Darren Collison is expected to still be out this week (knee) and they miss the depth he brings at the point.

Blazers small icon 7. Trail Blazers (39-26, LW 14). Damian Lillard is in full-on beast mode — in his last 10 games Lillard is averaging 35.4 points and 5.3 assists per game, plus shooting 43 percent from three — and has the Trail Blazers on a eight-game win streak that has bumped them up to the three seed in the West. What’s gotten overlooked in the flash of Lillard is the Blazers have the second best defense in the NBA during this eight-game stretch, giving up less than a point per possession.

8. Timberwolves (38-28, LW 5). Minnesota, still without Jimmy Butler (as it will be until, at best, near the end of the season), have started 0-2 in a tough eight-game stretch against other teams in the playoff mix. They are still projected to finish with 47-48 wins, which will be enough to get in, but Minnesota is just two games up on the nine-seed Clippers and they need to find a way to bank a few more wins. Some help from veteran Jamal Crawford would be nice, he’s shooting just 32.8% in his last five games, averaging 10.2 points on 11.6 shots in those contests. They need his spark of the bench.

Spurs small icon 9. Spurs (37-27, LW 6). They have gone 3-8 in their last 11 and the reason is their usually-stout defense has fallen off, giving up 6 more points per 100 than their season average in those last 11 games. Their transition defense in particular has been an issue during this stretch. Getting Rudy Gay back is not going to help the defense, but they need his shot creation until (if?) Kawhi Leonard returns. Rough stretch with the Warriors, Thunder, and Rockets on the road this week.

Cavaliers small icon 10. Cavaliers (37-26 LW 8). No Tristan Thompson for two weeks or so due to his sprained ankle, which means Larry Nance Jr. starts at center, Rodney Hood is on the wing, and Cedi Osman is coming off the bench. It looked great against the struggling Pistons, but the Cavaliers now head out on a six-game road trip against three teams in the playoff mix (Nuggets, Clippers, Trail Blazers) and a Lakers’ team playing well. That will be the real test for the new starting five.

Sixers small icon 11. 76ers (35-28, LW 9). Philly is headed to the playoffs this season, but looking ahead they still need to add more shooting next summer — the team is getting a below-average 0.98 points per possession on spot up looks (via Synergy Sports). That’s why they brought in Ersan İlyasova and Marco Belinelli off buyouts. Philly can try to retain J.J. Redick, or go after guys such as Wayne Ellington this summer, but they need shooters. The Sixers are a dominant home team (they have won 11 straight there) but started 1-1 in a string of 5-of-8 on the road.

Thunder small icon 12. Thunder (37-29 LW 13).. It can’t be said enough how much this team misses Andre Roberson: They are just 8-9 since his injury. Oklahoma City’s starters (Russell Westbrook, George, Carmelo Anthony, Steven Adams) were +14.8 per 100 possessions with Roberson but just +1.8 per 100 with anyone else in that fifth spot. It’s not just the defensive end, the offense has been worse without him (while Roberson can’t space the floor as a shooter they had figured out how to make him a cutter and hide his deficiencies). On the bright side, Anthony just passed Jerry West to move into 20th on the league’s all-time scoring list.

Wizards small icon 13. Wizards (37-28, LW 7). The Wizards are 13-14 this season in close games (within three points in the final three minutes), but they are shooting just 37.1% in those clutch minutes and 30.8% from three. To be fair, they do get to the free throw line more than any other team in that setting (2.7 times per game in those three minutes). Bradley Beal is shooting 34.1% in those three minutes, and 31.3% from three (he missed a few chances to tie or take the lead against the Pacers Sunday). Just something to remember as we head into the playoffs.

Nuggets small icon 14. Nuggets (35-29, LW 18).. Paul Millsap has played four games since coming back and the Nuggets are working to get him integrated into the offense again (he had some nice two-man dribble hand-off action with Gary Harris Tuesday), and is averaging 11.8 points on 41% shooting, plus grabbing 6.5 rebounds a game. Denver needs him to come around and as a team to bank some wins now — they have 4-of-5 at home and 6-of-8 against teams below .500 (although two of those are the feisty Lakers), then the schedule gets much more difficult.

Clippers small icon 15. Clippers (34-29 LW 16). Since trading Blake Griffin, the Clippers have gone 9-5 and have a top-10 offense scoring 111 points per 100 possessions in that stretch. Lou Williams and DeAndre Jordan get the attention, but Tobias Harris has been key to the surge (his play in Orlando was overlooked by many this season, he’s been impressive). The Clippers have started out 2-2 on a six-game homestand, but starting next Tuesday have 9-of-11 on the road.

Jazz small icon 16. Jazz (34-30, LW 15). Utah’s run before the All-Star break was fueled by a few things, like getting healthy, but also near the top of the list was three-point shooting. However, after the break, Utah is shooting just 29.2% as a team. It’s one thing that has their offense fourth worst in the league since the ASG (the Jazz have still gone 4-2, their defense is saving them). If Utah misses the playoffs, it will be because of their offense, despite the emergence of Donovan Mitchell. The Jazz have won three in a row but now head out on the road to face the Pacers, Grizzlies, and Pelicans.

Heat small icon 17. Heat (34-31, LW 17). Since their December-to-January seven game winning streak, Miami is 9-14 (which is a little unlucky, they have a 0.1 net rating in that window). The issue has been the offense, which is bottom 10 in those 23 games. That said, thanks to Detroit’s collapse, Miami is going to make the postseason, however, it looks like they are going to land Boston or Toronto in the first round and that’s going to be a tough road.

Bucks small icon 18. Bucks (34-30 LW 10). Milwaukee’s bench is one of the key reasons the team has lost 5-of-6, the team lacks depth and it can’t just be the Giannis Antetokounmpo show (with a little help from Eric Bledsoe). I like that coach Joe Prunty has started playing Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jabari Parker together, he needs to give that time to work (after some rough starts early).

Lakers small icon 19. Lakers (28-35 LW 20). In his last 20 games, Lonzo Ball is shooting 41.2% from three. It’s a big change from the 24% from the first 20 games. What is different? First, he’s gotten more comfortable with the speed of the NBA game and has a better understanding of how and where to get his shot off. The second part, the book on him is to go under picks and let him shoot — Gregg Popovich said as much after Lonzo drained threes to beat the Spurs last week. The second part of that is about to change.

Hornets small icon 20. Hornets (28-37, LW 19). With four losses in a row, the Hornets are now six games out of the last playoff spot with 17 games to go. It’s mathematically possible, but it’s not happening. To focus instead on the future, the Hornets have opened up the their GM search to a handful of up-and-comers from other organizations — that makes more sense than a retread, even if said new guy does not have North Carolina ties.

Pistons small icon 21. Pistons (29-35, LW 21). They have lost three in a row, 9-of-11, they have yet to beat a team not on a back-to-back since the Blake Griffin trade, and with all that their dreams of the playoffs have gone the way of the Dodo Bird. Since the trade, the Pistons have scored just 103.8 points per 100 possessions on offense, 24th in the NBA in that stretch. They could use Reggie Jackson back at the point, but Stan Van Gundy said this week “there’s nothing imminent with him.”

Mavericks small icon 22. Mavericks (20-45 LW 22). Dallas is giving Nerlens Noel some run to see what they’ve got, and in six games he’s averaged 4 points a game shooting 50% and has looked okay on that end, plus averaged a little over two blocks a game, but Dallas has struggled overall with him playing, getting outscored by 17.3 per 100 with him on the court (very small sample size alert). Nobody blows leads quite like the Mavericks, who have five times this year led by double digits in the last 10 minutes and still lost (the most recent was to Chicago last Friday).

Magic small icon 23. Magic (20-44, LW 26). Listen to the scuttlebutt around the league right now and Frank Vogel should be polishing up his resume. It’s never a good sign for a coach when the management above him changes, then the team doesn’t win (even if it’s not his fault, and I don’t lay most of the problems there at Vogel’s feet). Orlando won its first two games in March thanks to some hot shooting from Evan Founier, but lost at Utah to start a string of five games on the road against the West.

Hawks small icon 24. Hawks (20-45, LW 27). They have won 2-of-4, with a surprising win over the Pacers then Taurean Prince knocking down the game winner against the Hawks. Part of the reason for that is coach Mike Budenholzer has the Hawks defending fairly well again, over the pat 15 games the Hawks are 12th in the NBA on that end of the floor. It’s a foundation to rebuild on.

Kings small icon 25. Kings (20-44, LW 28). Is the De'Aaron Fox and Bogdan Bogdanovic pairing the backcourt of the future in Sacramento? It’s early, but those the team is -10 per 100 with the pair on the court for the season, and in the last 10 games that is -10.5 per 100 (Sacramento has a -8.6 net rating for the season, for comparison). The Kings picked up a couple of recent wins against other tanking teams (the Knicks and Nets).

Knicks small icon 26. Knicks (24-41, LW 23). They are 2-15 without Kristaps Porzingis this season, and now have lost 13 of their last 14. Without KP for this last stretch the New York offense is terrible as you would expect, scoring less than a point per possession, but Porzingis’ presence in the paint is missed as well, with the Knicks allowing 112.2 points per 100 possessions, 27th in the NBA for that stretch. The Knicks took a flier on Emmanuel Mudiay, but through 9 games he is shooting 33% overall, 12.5% from three, and has been a defensive mess.

Nets small icon 27. Nets (20-45, LW 24). While they still get outscored with him on the court (because this is not a good team), the Nets have been 6 points per 100 possessions better with D’Angelo Russell on the court during the last 15 games. He’s averaged 13.8 points per game in that time, but has not been efficient needing 13.2 shots to get there (and shooting 31% from three). The Nets have been 4.4 points per 100 better than their average when Russell has been paired in the backcourt with Spencer Dinwiddie, although the defense struggles with both of them on the court.

Bulls small icon 28. Bulls (21-42 LW 25).. The Bulls got their warning and we will see Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday back in the rotation (although likely in laminated minute). That said, the Bulls have found some success with a front court rotation of Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis. That said, if the Bulls are trying to tank then playing Markkanen next to Lopez has proved an effective mess all season.

Suns small icon 29. Suns (19-47, LW 30). In his 10 games with the Suns, Elfrid Payton has averaged 15.7 points per game, dished out 6.3 assists per night, with a slightly below average true shooting percentage of 52.7, he’s been solid. That said, the Suns are -9.7 when Payton and Devin Booker are paired (they are -11.2 per 100 in those games total) and the defense struggles when both are on the court. I’m not sold this is the pairing of the future, that said in the draft the Suns need to take the best player regardless of position. They just need talent.

Grizzlies small icon 30. Grizzlies (18-45, LW 29). Losers of 14 in a row, that slides them down to the bottom of these rankings. They even lost to the Suns in a battle of losing streaks. This is good for the team heading into the draft, but Marc Gasol is frustrated with all the losing which could make this an interesting summer in Memphis. He wants to stay, but does he trust ownership/management enough to get this team back on track (just getting Mike Conley back is not enough).

Report: Bulls warned by league to stop resting healthy players


NBA Commissioner Adam Silver sent out a memo to all 30 teams recently saying that while developing younger players is a legitimate way to improve a team (especially late in the season for those out of the playoff chase) he would not tolerate tanking. That led to plenty of questions around the league about where that line is, especially for the franchises in the eight-team tankapaloza going on at the bottom of the NBA standings right now.

Chicago has rested veteran center Robin Lopez for six straight games and wing Justin Holiday five of the past six, instead starting David Nwaba (and playing heavy minutes for their young guys such as Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, and Lauri Markkanen who could be part of their future). That has crossed the line and the NBA league office warned the Bulls, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

After the NBA issued a warning to the Chicago Bulls this week about resting healthy players, the franchise now plans to play veteran starters Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday more extensively the remainder of the season, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

The Bulls have lost 14 of their past 17 games and publicly stated in mid-February that they would begin sitting Lopez and Holiday….

The NBA and commissioner Adam Silver formally informed team owners about resting healthy players – perhaps an effort to diminish the league-wide verbiage of “tanking” – after the league moved up the start of this season to spread games out for coaches and players. The Bulls changed course on their plans to continue sitting Lopez and Holiday in the past day, league sources said.

Bulls president John Paxson discussed the issue with Nick Friedel of ESPN.

What exactly is “adhere to their recommendations” in practice? Do the Bulls start Lopez and Holiday, but play them 15 minutes or so a night and then get the young guys in? Exactly how much do they have to play them, because the Bulls currently would head into the lottery in eighth, giving them a 9.9 percent chance at a top-three pick. You can be sure they would like to “improve” those odds.

The Bulls didn’t go the full Mark Cuban and tell everyone tanking would be good for them, but their front office did say at the All-Star break they had instructed coach Fred Hoiberg to prioritize playing the young guys.

Three Things to Know: Kristaps who? Lauri Markkanen drops 33 and 10 on Knicks.

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Kristaps who? Lauri Markkanen drops 33 and 10 on Knicks. In a season of surprise rookies having significant impacts — Donovan Mitchell in Utah, Kyle Kuzma is the Lakers’ best rookie, and OG Anunoby starting for a very good Raptors team, to name a few — Lauri Markkanen might be the biggest surprise of all. There were plenty of doubters — I’ll admit, myself included — about how well his game would translate from Arizona to the NBA, and Markkanen’s poor play at Summer League seemed to confirm that. However, he found his footing playing for Finland at EuroBasket then carried the momentum over to the NBA season, seemingly improving with each game.

Markkanen formally announced his arrival Wednesday, dropping 33 points and 10 boards on the Knicks — and doing in the face of Kristaps Porzingis, the guy Markkanen is most often compared to. Markkanen knocked down eight threes (the only other 7-footer to hit that many in a game is Dirk Nowitzki) and that wasn’t even his biggest highlight. The poster dunk of Enes Kanter was.

Markkanen had a monster game, but Bulls fans can chill on the “I’d rather have him than Porzingis” talk — KP is the better defender and has proven to be more diversified and efficient on offense over time. This was one game…. but what a game. Markkanen can shoot the three and most teams now body him up at the arc to try to take that away, but he has shown the ability to play in the post (exploiting mismatches off a switch), finish with his left hand in the paint, and even run the occasional fast break. Markkanen has some real versatility on offense, he’s not just a shooter. That’s why Nowitzki said Markkanen has the potential to be as good as Porzingis and the rookie lived up to that in Madison Square Garden.

Although he faded as the game wore on — Markkanen was just 1-of-9 in the fourth quarter and the two overtimes. The Bulls don’t stay in the game through three quarters without Markkanen, but in the fourth it was David Nwaba early and Justin Holiday late who made plays. Then in the OTs, it was Robin Lopez who had 6 points and 5 rebounds.

For a Knicks team two games out of a playoff slot in the East, this was the kind of game they need to win. And they didn’t.

2) Kevin Durant reaches 20,000 point milestone, but Lou Williams owns the night. Back after missing three games with a strained calf, KD returned to the court at Oracle Arena Wednesday night and became only the 44th NBA player in history to reach 20,000 points — and he is the second youngest to do it (LeBron James.

Durant is going to go down as one of the best pure scorers the game has ever seen. He’s rounded out his game — he can defend, run an offense, rebound, and do so much more — but few if any in the history of the game could create and score with him.

However, the night wasn’t Kevin Durant’s, it was Lou Williams’. The Clipper guard — by far the leading candidate for Sixth Man of the Year this season (although he started this one) — dropped 50 on the Warriors, leading the Clippers to a 125-106 road win that snapped a 12-game losing streak to the Warriors. Williams just knows how to get buckets, but this was a career high and came at a time the Clippers need it — no Blake Griffin and the Clippers are trying to stay relevant in the playoff race.

Williams’ name has come up in trade talks — a lot of playoff-bound teams could use a guy who knows how to score like that — but a report came out after the game that Williams and the Clippers have had talks of an extension. Maybe that’s trying to pump up his trade value (“if you’re not going to offer us much, we’ll just keep him”) but the idea the Clippers keeping the band together, re-signing DeAndre Jordan next summer, and trying to win with this core is not out of the question. Steve Ballmer and L.A. could have blown up the team and started a rebuild last summer when Chris Paul left, and they didn’t, so why start now?

3) Minnesota beats Oklahoma City in what may have been a first-round playoff preview. The Oklahoma City Thunder have lost three in a row and are 2-5 in their last seven — they went from looking like a team that had turned the corner to a team that was just making a U-turn. There are reasons for that — Andre Roberson has missed the last six games and they need his defense, plus the Thunder have little depth — but things still shouldn’t be this bad.

It was against the Timberwolves, players not named Russell Westbrook shot 17-of-56 (30.4 percent). That’s not going to cut it, and the Timberwolves won handily 106-88. Minnesota has played good defense of late and Jimmy Butler has looked like a bottom-of-the-ballot MVP candidate (not the top couple slots, but in a five-deep ballot he’s got to be considered), but you expect more out of the Thunder. As for the Timberwolves, they have been the best team in the NBA over the past 10 games (statistically), they have gotten healthy and found an identity, the only question is can they sustain it with the number of minutes Tom Thibodeau plays his starters?

Nothing is set in stone, but coming into Wednesday night this would have been the first-round 4/5 playoff matchup in the West. And that should make the Thunder worried because these teams are trending in opposite directions.

Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins lead Pelicans in 96-90 OT win over Bulls

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CHICAGO (AP) — Anthony Davis had 27 points and 16 rebounds to lead the New Orleans Pelicans to a 96-90 overtime victory over the Chicago Bulls on Saturday night.

DeMarcus Cousins added 25 points and 11 rebounds – 18 and seven after halftime – to help the Pelicans snap a six-game, regular-season losing streak to the Bulls.

Jameer Nelson added 13 points, Darius Miller had 11, and Jrue Holiday 10 for New Orleans. The Pelicans improved to 4-2 on the road.

Justin Holiday had 18 points, Denzel Valentine added 16 and Lauri Markkanen and Robin Lopez had 14 apiece for the Bulls. They were coming off their first road victory.

Both teams looked sluggish completing their first back-to-backs of the season. The Bulls shot 35.4 percent from the field to the Pelicans’ 40.2 percent.

Cousins made two of three foul shots for a 91-86 lead with 2:35 left in overtime before Nelson hit a 3 for a 96-88 lead with 48.9 seconds remaining.

Davis rebounded Lopez’s putback attempt with 9.7 seconds remaining in regulation. Holiday missed at the other end with 3.3 to go before Cousins blocked Lopez to send the game to overtime.

The Pelicans opened the final quarter on a 20-7 run to take a 77-71 lead. Valentine hit a 3 to put the Bulls ahead 83-81 with 2:28 left before Davis dunked to tie it.

Justin Holiday scored 10 points in the third quarter for the Bulls, who led by as much as nine and 64-57 after the period.

The Pelicans shot 40.5 percent from the field to the Bulls’ 32.6 percent in the first half of a tied game. Davis led New Orleans with 14, and Lopez had nine for Chicago.

Cousins had just seven points and four rebounds at halftime after averaging 29 points and 14 rebounds per game and posting two 20-point, 20-rebound games in his previous five contests.


In a watered down East, Celtics-Cavs is the best thing going

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — As star after star migrated from the Eastern Conference to the West this summer, the lesser of the NBA’s divisions got so watered down that some spice was badly needed.

Kyrie Irving delivered.

The mercurial guard stunned the rest of the league by requesting a trade away from LeBron James and the Cavaliers and the annual trip to the NBA Finals that comes with James. In subsequent interviews since he was traded to the Celtics, Irving has done little to smooth things over with the game’s best player or the franchise that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2011.

“It’s just really between two men,” Irving said last month when asked if he planned to reach out to James to clear the air. “If it happens or not, I’m pretty sure you guys won’t know about it.”

James didn’t hide his disappointment in Irving’s decision after teaming with him to go to the last three finals and win a championship two years ago.

“I tried to give him everything and give him as much of the DNA as I could,” he said. “At some point, when he was ready to take over the keys, I was ready to give them to him. So, the only thing I’m upset about is he took a lot of the DNA and a lot of the blueprint to Boston.”

James wasn’t the only one upset by the deal.

Isaiah Thomas was deeply wounded by Boston’s decision to trade him after an emotional and dominant season, setting the stage for a tense fight for conference supremacy.

“It definitely caught me off guard, but it also woke me up,” Thomas said. “It made me realize that this is a business and anybody other than probably LeBron James or Kevin Durant or those type of guys can be traded.”

This level of drama and intrigue is needed in a conference that lost Jimmy Butler, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague over the summer.

A look at the East, in predicted order of finish:


1. Cleveland – Death, taxes and LeBron in the finals.

2. Boston – The biggest question may be how will they account for the loss of Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder on defense.

3. Washington – John Wall and Bradley Beal are ready for prime time. Now they have to get the rest of the team to follow them.

4. Toronto – Perpetually overlooked around this time of year, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan refuse to give in. Adding C.J. Miles was an underrated score. If they can breathe a little more movement into their offense, they’ll be in the mix again.

5. Miami – Here’s betting the second half of last season (30-11) was a lot closer to what the Heat actually are than the first half (11-30) was. A team that plays as hard as they do could climb even higher in the wide-open East.

6. Milwaukee – Giannis Antetokounmpo – aka the Greek Freak – seems destined for MVP consideration in the very near future. Jabari Parker‘s recovery may keep him out until February, which could hinder the Bucks’ climb up the ladder this season.

7. Charlotte – Here is where it starts to get really tricky. This is a vote of confidence in coach Steve Clifford’s ability to get more out of Dwight Howard than anyone since Stan Van Gundy.

8. Philadelphia – If Joel Embiid is somehow able to stay healthy for 60 games or more, veterans like J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson should be able to usher these kids into the postseason.


1. Detroit – Getting Bradley from the Celtics is a nice fit for Van Gundy. The bigger issue will be getting a team that at times seemed fractured and miserable last season on to the same page. That starts with Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond.

2. Orlando – Someone has to be 10th. Adding Jonathan Isaac‘s defensive instincts to the roster is a plus, but it remains an imbalanced team light on shooters and long on big men in a league that is getting smaller by the day.


1. New York – New GM Scott Perry is boldly trying to go where few Knicks executives have gone – to Rebuilding Road. Now that Carmelo Anthony and Phil Jackson are gone, it’s Kristaps Porzingis and a bunch of unknowns trying to turn the corner.

2. Brooklyn – A year after posting the worst record in the NBA, the Nets should be … a little bit better. Coach Kenny Atkinson has more to work with in DeMarre Carroll, DeAngelo Russell and Allen Crabbe.

3. Indiana – Everyone knew Paul George was on his way out. That made deal-making difficult for GM Kevin Pritchard, and it showed in the return he got for one of the best players in the league. Now Myles Turner will have to step into the void, which is a big one.

4. Atlanta – That 60-win season seems longer than two years ago. New GM Travis Schlenk arrives from the Warriors, and it is going to take him some time to tear things down and build them back up.

5. Chicago – Likely opening night starting five: Jerian Grant, Justin Holiday, Paul Zipser, Nikola Mirotic and Robin Lopez. Enough said.


LEBRON’S FUTURE: There are more than just whispers that James will leave the Cavaliers after this season, with the Lakers and Clippers as two potential suitors. James has said he intends to finish his career in Cleveland, but that doesn’t figure to quiet the questions until he signs a new contract next summer.

SIMMONS DEBUTS: 76ers G/F Ben Simmons, last year’s No. 1 overall pick, missed the entire season with a foot injury. He is ready to go this year, giving the Sixers even more hope that all the pain of the last few years is finally behind them.

HAYWARD’S IMPACT: Gordon Hayward was one of the few stars to leave the Western Conference for the East this summer. How quickly he assimilates with Irving and Al Horford will directly impact Boston’s ability to unseat the Cavs.

HOT SEAT: In a volatile industry, the NBA went an entire season without a coaching change for the first time since 1963-64. The odds of that remarkable stretch of stability holding until the start of next season are remarkably small. Van Gundy, Clifford, New York’s Jeff Hornacek and Indiana’s Nate McMillan enter the season under scrutiny.