P.J. Tucker

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NBA Power Rankings: Boston vaults to top, Warriors moving up

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From No. 14 to No. 1 in a week? The first few weeks of the power rankings things are volatile and this is just Week 2 of our rankings — we’re just figuring out who teams are, there’s a small sample size, and teams make big leaps up and down the board. Boston and Detroit make big moves up the ladder this week, but can they sustain it?

 
Celtics small icon 1. Celtics (5-2, Last Week No. 14). They have won five in a row, they have the best defense in the NBA so far (much better than expected), and Marcus Morris could return this week, adding front court depth. Early on the Celtics have flipped preseason prognostication on its head — they have an elite defense despite dumping their best defenders over the summer, but they are 18th in offense. They miss the glue that was Gordon Hayward on that end.

 
Grizzlies small icon 2. Grizzlies (5-2, Last Week No. 2). They are doing this with a very good defense (which we expected) and an offense that is knocking down more threes than it used to and is getting to the foul line at a higher rate than any team in the league. They are getting something out of Chandler Parsons this season, which is a boost. Starting Saturday they head out on a five-game road trip that will be a real test.

 
Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (5-3 LW 5). Did they snap out of their malaise with that blowout win over the Clippers? Maybe, we will get a better sense of that when they face the Spurs Thursday night on TNT. Either way, there is no panic in the Warriors locker room, Steve Kerr reminded everyone the 1998 Jordan Bulls started 8-7, but went on to win the NBA title, their third straight. Kerr said that team felt like this one early, just mentally fatigued.

 
Rockets small icon 4. Rockets (5-3, LW 3). The Rockets were in vintage form against the Hornets last Friday — 57 three-point attempts and just 28 midrange shots. That game was the outlier, the Rockets lead the NBA in percentage of shots from the midrange, which is not good. The Rockets offense is 15th in the league right now, and playing at the 20th fastest pace. Is that due to giving heavy minutes to defenders such as P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute? Either way, they miss Chris Paul.

 
Clippers small icon 5. Clippers (4-2 LW 3). It’s a bit of a small sample size mirage, but with DeAndre Jordan and Patrick Beverley leading the way, the Clippers have a Top-10 defense in the NBA (it was first before the Warriors thrashed them, but first was always a bit optimistic). Blake Griffin took too many midrange jumpers in years past (he could hit them, but not at a high enough rate), but that has changed this season with him taking 32 threes and 9 midrange shots. Plus, Griffin is clutch.

 
Thunder small icon 6. Thunder (4-3 LW 12).. They have been better than their record shows so far this young season. The big three are starting to figure things out on offense (I love the way they use Carmelo Anthony with the second unit), but the big question is who is the fifth starter. Well, that’s one big question, the other is why is this team struggling so much on the defensive glass (they are 25th in the league in defensive rebounding percentage)?

 
Magic small icon 7. Magic (5-2, LW 11). The biggest change in Orlando is not how well Aaron Gordon is playing this season — although he has impressed and dropped 41 on the Nets — but it’s the pace. Orlando is playing at the third fastest pace in the NBA this young season, faster than the Warriors or Lakers and Lonzo Ball. They haven’t been incredibly efficient in transition (56.8% eFG%) and they are taking too many midrange shots (and not enough at the rim), which makes us wonder if this is sustainable.

 
Wizards small icon 8. Wizards (4-2, LW 6). After a slow start to the season in terms of taking and making threes, the Wizards have started to find a groove the past few games (17-of-34 against the Kings, for example). They have already blown two 10-point leads this season. Washington is entering a soft part of the schedule the next couple of weeks (7-of-9 at home, a lot of losing teams) so they need to fatten up the win total now.

 
Raptors small icon 9. Raptors (4-2, LW 10). They are 2-2 four games into a rough six-game road swing, which has included losses to San Antonio and Golden State where Toronto had fourth quarter leads but could not execute and hold on down the stretch. On the bright side, they held the Blazers to six points in one quarter. Also, Pascal Siakam has really taken a step forward this season.

Pistons small icon 10. Pistons (5-3, LW 21). They beat the Warriors, Clippers, and Timberwolves on a three-game win streak, which is impressive. We’re still a little skeptical that they can sustain this level — their starters have been outscored by 36 points so far this season — but the improvement from Reggie Jackson (who has looked closer to his old self) is a good sign. Regardless, they look like a playoff team in an upside-down East early.

 
Spurs small icon 11. Spurs (4-3, LW 1). After a 4-0 start they dropped three in a row on their recent road trip. The good news is they have held their own without Kawhi Leonard and are home for 8 of their next 10, giving them a chance to keep banking wins without their best player. Showdown with the Warriors coming Thursday night on TNT.

 
Bucks small icon 12. Bucks (4-3 LW 9). Giannis Antetokounmpo keeps putting up stunning point totals — 28, 33, and 28 this week — but also is playing 37.4 minutes per game right now (third highest in the league). They are getting decent bench play, Jason Kidd may want to trust it more, even with Greg Monroe out for a couple week. Tough four game road trip starts Wednesday and includes the Cavaliers and Spurs.

 
Blazers small icon 13. Trail Blazers (4-3 LW 8). That six-point quarter against Toronto was UGLY, but let’s not dwell on it. The Blazers are the second-best offensive rebounding team in the NBA to start the season, grabbing a ridiculous 28.6 percent of their missed shots. Portland has had a soft schedule to start the season, when they have faced quality teams such as the Clippers and Raptors they lost. The next week sees the Jazz, Thunder, and Grizzlies, and we’ll get a better sense of how good this team really is.

 
timberwolves small icon 14. Timberwolves (4-3, LW 13). This was supposed to be the season Minnesota got better on defense, but early in the season they are dead last in the league on that end, allowing 113.3 points per 100 possessions. That’s very concerning. This team has beaten a good Thunder team twice with Jimmy Butler but lost to the Pacers (without Myles Turner) and Pistons without him, reverting to a lot of old, bad habits.

 
Jazz small icon 15. Jazz (4-3, LW 16). As expected, their defense is fantastic (fourth in the NBA and improving) but the offense relies on spurts from guys who have hot games, like Donovan Mitchell did with 22 against the Lakers. Mitchell also broke out this nastiness against the Lakers.

 
Hornets small icon 16. Hornets (4-3, LW 18). Dwight Howard was brought in to return the Charlotte defense to form, and he has helped make this a top-10 defense again early in the season. Problem is, the offense has fallen to 21st in the league and doesn’t get enough points in the paint. Tough week ahead with the Bucks, then on the road against the Spurs, Timberwolves, and Celtics.

 
Cavaliers small icon 17. Cavaliers (3-4 LW 7). Going through a soft spot in the schedule they lost four of five, and in those five games they had the second worst defense in the NBA and were outscored by 11.2 points per 100 possessions. Their transition defense and rotations are a mess. LeBron has been the lone bright spot and Friday night against the Wizards he should hit another milestone and score the 29,000th point of his career, the youngest player (at 32) to do it.

 
Pacers small icon 18. Pacers (4-3, LW 20). Myles Turner is still sidelined with a concussion, but the Pacers offense is a surprise third in the NBA this young season thanks to Victor Oladipo — averaging 23.9 points per game with a 63.5 true shooting percentage — plus some very good play from Domantas Sabonis. That Paul George trade suddenly doesn’t look so bad.

 
Pelicans small icon 19. Pelicans (3-4 LW 22). Not to ruin a secret coming out later soon, but after DeMarcus Cousins destroyed his old team in Sacramento then dropped a triple-double on the Cavaliers, he won the PBT Extra player of the week (video coming). The Pelicans also got Anthony Davis back in the lineup, and when those two are on the court together this season the Pelicans are +44, when they are not the team is -53. Depth remains the issue.

 
Knicks small icon 20. Knicks (3-3, LW 28). About those rebuilding Knicks, as Bobby Marks of ESPN notes, they have the third oldest roster in the East, both raw totals and when waited by playing time. Those old guys can crash the glass however — the Knicks are they best offensive rebounding team in the league this young season, grabbing a second chance on 29.5 percent of their missed shots.

 
Sixers small icon 21. 76ers (3-4, LW 23). Markelle Fultz is sidelined for a while to get his shoulder right, which is what the team should have done all along. Ben Simmons continues to be fantastic early in the season, racking up a triple-double in Dallas and prompting Mavericks’ coach Rick Carlisle to say he thought Simmons would be good, but the kid is beating expectations.

 
Nuggets small icon 22. Nuggets (3-4, LW 17). What happened to the Nuggets’ offense? They are scoring 10 points per 100 possessions fewer than they did after All-Star break last season. Maybe last season’s numbers were the anomaly, or maybe the struggles of Jamal Murray’s shot and the lack of Danilo Gallinari (now with the Clippers) is hurting their spacing. The Nuggets are home for six in a row and they need to rack up some wins.

 
Lakers small icon 23. Lakers (3-4 LW 24). There’s a lot to like with Lonzo Ball, but when a rookie leads your offense it’s going to struggle — the Lakers are 28th in the league in offensive rating so far this young season, behind even the Suns. I expect that to improve some, but whether they can keep up their 9th-ranked defense to start the season is the more interesting question (don’t bet on it, but they are improved on that end).

 
Heat small icon 24. Heat (2-4, LW 15). Miami really misses Hassan Whiteside, both on the glass (where they are getting pushed around), and to get some putbacks and easy buckets that they are not getting now. This has been a very inconsistent team — not just game-to-game, but also within games — and that makes them hard to get a handle on early. They head out Friday on a six-game road trip.

 
Suns small icon 25. Suns (3-4, LW 30). The Suns have looked better their last four games, winning three, and there are a couple reasons for that. First, they sent Eric Bledsoe home and are playing Mike James and Tyler Ulis at the point — those guys aren’t nearly as talented but at least they care and are trying on defense. Second, Jay Triano has made other moves — starting Marquese Chriss — that make this team a little better. Not good, but not the train wreck they were.

 
Nets small icon 26. Nets (3-5, LW 19). They would be higher on this list if they could hold a lead — three of their losses came when blowing a 10-point lead (or more) in the game. That includes handing the cross-town Knicks their first win of the season. The Nets remain a really good shooting team, but they do a lot more damage in the first quarter than they do the rest of the game.

 
Kings small icon 27. Kings (1-6, LW 25). Last Sunday the Kings sat both George Hill and Zach Randolph against the Wizards, going young for a day, and it was a reminder of how far this team has to go. The bright spot has been De’Aaron Fox, who has shown impressive flashes — he’s shooting 42.9 percent from three, and is quick enough to to the rim where he is shooting an impressive 68.8 percent.

 
Mavericks small icon 28. Mavericks (1-7 LW 27). Dallas’ one win for the season surprisingly came against a hot Memphis team. Shooting has been a problem: Dirk Nowitzki is shooting 40.5%, Harrison Barnes 37.9%, and Devin Harris 35.7%. The other problem for Dallas is now the schedule gets tougher — four of their next six are on the road and the level of competition steps up with the Clippers, Timberwolves, Wizards, Cavaliers, and Thunder coming up.

 
Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (1-6, LW 26). They have lost six in a row, and while injuries were part of that (Dennis Schroder missed time) this is an average defensive team so far with a bottom-five offense. With Schroder and Kent Bazemore as the primary offensive options, I’m not sure efficiency is in the cards. It could be a long season.

 
Bulls small icon 30. Bulls (1-4 LW 29). They have the worst offense in the NBA this season, and there are not a lot of prospects of it getting better. If you want a silver lining, Lauri Markkanen has played fairly well, the rookie is averaging 15.6 points per game and is showing 41.7 percent from three. Kris Dunn is healthy and has returned to the lineup, he will get a chance to prove his struggles in Minnesota last season were a fluke.

Draymond Green goes down, Rockets rally to spoil Warriors ring night 122-121

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Draymond Green is not the best player on the Warriors. He’s third or fourth best, depending on what you think of him vs. Klay Thompson.

But Draymond Green is the most important Warrior — what they do defensively does not work without him (and their small ball playmaking suffers as well). Without him, the Warriors are not the same.

That was on full display Tuesday night in the season opener — the night the Warriors got their 31-diamond rings and the latest banner went up at Oracle Arena. Green tweaked his knee in the third quarter landing off a shot and did not play in the fourth, and that’s when the Rockets outscored the Warriors 34-20 to come from behind and steal a win, 122-121.

Green was diagnosed with a “knee strain” and was walking around after the game without a cast/boot/crutches, although with a slight limp according to reports. He said this is nothing serious, although don’t be shocked if the Warriors give him another game or two off to rest it.

Kevin Durant almost saved the day for Golden State with a baseline jumper as time expired — the referees called it good, but an official review showed the ball was still in his hands when the buzzer went off.

What should not be undersold in this game is how well the Warriors played. They showed a lot of potential and depth — the P.J. Tucker at center lineups were fantastic — and they got key contributions from stars and role players.

James Harden had 27 points and 10 assists to lead the Rockets. However, the real story was their revamped bench outplaying the Golden State bench — Eric Gordon looked like the sixth man of the year with 24 points, P.J. Tucker had 20 and shot 4-of-6 from three, and Luc Mbah a Moute added 14. Mike D’Antoni treated it like a playoff game (an eight-man rotation) but they were playing for a confidence boost that they can compete with Golden State.

The Rockets made their final push with Chris Paul sitting on the bench. CP3 sat the final four-and-a-half minutes of the game, and the Rockets thrived with Gordon, Harden and an old-school (meaning, like last season) offense. After the game, coach Mike D’Antoni said that Paul was out there “playing on one leg” due to his knee problem, and Paul could miss more time.

Golden State was also without Andre Iguodala, who tweaked his back lifting weights over the weekend, according to coach Steve Kerr. Not having Green or Iguodala hurt the Warriors defense, especially against an elite offensive team.

Surprisingly, Nick Young led the Warriors with 23 points off the bench, hitting 6-of-7 from three. Stephen Curry added in 22, Kevin Durant scored 20 and Klay Thompson 16. However, in the fourth quarter the Warriors big three of Durant, Curry, and Thompson were 5-of-14 from the floor and 2-of-7 from three. Curry could not find the range.

Last season the Spurs blew the Warriors out by 29 on opening night, and the Warriors bounced back to win 67 games and the NBA title. Nobody should read too much into an opening night win. But for a Rockets team with dreams of challenging these Warriors in May, this is a good confidence boost to start the season.

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.

Five teams with the best shot of knocking off Golden State

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Jeff Van Gundy thinks the Warriors are going to run away with this NBA season.

NBA GMs think the Warriors are going to run away with this NBA season.

One of the things we love about sports is — like life — it rarely follows the script. This NBA season may not either. Maybe the Warriors get challenged — during the regular season, during the Finals, but there will be obstacles in their way. Maybe the Warriors fall. I wouldn’t bet on it, but it’s possible.

If the Warriors are knocked off, who does the deed? Here are the five teams with the best shot of dethroning the champs.

1) The Cleveland Cavaliers. They top the list for two reasons. First, they are the best team in the East, they are likely to reach the Finals, and that gives them the best shot at the Warriors (who could be beat up and worn down after at least two tough series just to get out of the West). The other reason is LeBron James. He remains the best player on the planet (I will listen to your Kevin Durant arguments but still choose LeBron). He raises his game, and the games of everyone around him, in the playoffs. However, for the Cavaliers to have a real shot at the Warriors a lot of things need to come together. Most importantly, as a team they need to defend better. Isaiah Thomas needs to return and get back to close to 90% of his last-year self. The Jae Crowder/Kevin Love starting front line needs to work. The Derrick Rose, Tristan Thompson, and either Dwyane Wade or J.R. Smith bench rotation (however it shakes out to be) has to give the team quality bench play. Things have to go just about perfectly, but because they likely will get their chance in the Finals the Cavaliers have the best shot at dethroning the Warriors.

2) The Houston Rockets. The Rockets had the second-ranked offense in the NBA last season, and they got there with a style of play that can hang with the Warriors. Throw Chris Paul into the mix — once he and James Harden develop some on-court chemistry — and the Rockets are the one team that can score with Golden State. The challenge will be on defense, which was pedestrian last season. CP3 certainly improves the defense out top, plus GM Daryl Morey added quality veteran wing defenders such as P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute to the roster. Those wings are all about matching up with the Warriors firepower. On paper, Houston may be the team best positioned to beat the Warriors, but we need to see all of it work over the course of a season before we give them much hope.

3) The Oklahoma City Thunder. Like the Rockets, if this team comes together maybe they have a shot at the Warriors. For the Thunder, everything starts on defense — they were 10th in the NBA last season, they brought back their core guys (Andre Roberson and Steven Adams), and they added an excellent wing defender in Paul George. Nobody stops the Warriors, but the Thunder have the players to make them work more for their points. On offense, if George and Russell Westbrook can integrate with Carmelo Anthony and figure out how to make the needed sacrifices and play well off each other — making this team a Top 10 offensive squad, too — they have a shot. We need to see the team in action, but maybe.

4) The San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs had the best defense in the NBA last season, and they have an MVP-level player in Kawhi Leonard. We know how this is going to go, the Spurs are going to defend, execute and make plays. Pau Gasol will impress. They will miss the depth that Dewayne Dedmon and Jonathon Simmons brought, but they added the scoring punch of Rudy Gay off the bench (once he gets healthy), plus we know Gregg Popovich will throw guys we don’t know out there and they will shine. What we know is the Spurs will not beat themselves, and because of that for years the Spurs have set the bar in the West. They will be that again, but the Warriors and maybe another team or two can clear that bar.

5) The Boston Celtics. I think Boston will be a bigger threat next season and beyond, but maybe things come together faster than expected. Plus, they are in the East, so get past the Cavaliers and they get to take a swing at the Warriors. The Celtics have quality players all over the floor, Kyrie Irving at the point, Gordon Hayward on the wing, and Al Horford in the paint, plus good role players such as Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and now Jayson Tatum. Boston also has one of the best coaches in the league in Brad Stevens, who will put Irving in better situations than he has seen in the past. The question in Boston is defense — they are not going to be terrible, but after trading away Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder this summer they will not be as good. Can the Celtics get enough stops to stick on this list?