Taj Gibson

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 Chicago Bulls 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 this season 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: 41-41 getting the eight seed, lost to Boston in the first round.

I know what you did last summer: Chicago traded away Jimmy Butler for a handful of magic beans Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and they swapped first round picks with the Timberwolves (that they gave up their No. 16 pick in that trade is inconceivable). The Bulls used that draft pick on Lauri Markkanen They let Rajon Rondo walk, re-signed Nikola Mirotic and Cristiano Felicio, picked up Quincy Pondexter and Justin Holiday.

THREE QUESTIONS THE BULLS MUST ANSWER:

1) When does Zach LaVine return and how does he look? LaVine is an explosive athlete — remember the dunk contest? — who scored 18.9 points per game last season because of that gift. Then he tore his ACL. There is legitimate reason for concern. LaVine is young, he could well bounce all the way back, but traditionally this is not a fast process.

The latest projections are LaVine will start contact in practice in mid-November, which could have him back around Thanksgiving if there are no setbacks. However, expect the Bulls to be cautious with him, and restrict his minutes when he does return. Usually with ACLs it takes players time — like months, maybe a year — after returning to the court to really truly trust the knee again, not think about it, and play like their former selves.

LaVine is a restricted free agent next summer, so how he looks when he does bounce back will directly impact his paycheck next season. The Bulls will want to keep him after getting him for Butler, the only questions are at what cost, and can he continue his upward trajectory after his return.

2) Who plays point guard? This is the worst point guard rotation in the NBA. (I see you waiving your hands Knicks fans, but Ramon Sessions and the promise of Frank Ntilikina is a clear step better than anything in Chicago.) All three of their current options are poor.

The Bulls front office wanted Cameron Payne as part of the Taj Gibson trade with OKC, but he is going to miss at least the first month of the season with his third injury to the same foot in a couple of years. He hasn’t been terribly impressive when on the court and may not be in the NBA next season.

That leaves Kris Dunn and Jerian Grant as the Bulls point guards. Dunn probably gets the first crack at the job, but he was terrible this past season — he shot 37.7 percent overall and 28.8 percent from three, turned the ball over on 21 percent of his possessions, didn’t run the offense well or get to the foul line. His PER of 8.1 last season suggests guy who should be bouncing between the NBA and G-League. He also didn’t look good in very limited Summer League action, either. On the upside, he can defend a little. Fred Hoiberg has a lot of development work to do here, but after last season I wonder if Dunn is as explosive as advertised. Look at it this way: Tom Thibodeau used the No. 5 pick on Dunn, then after one season was willing to trade him away. Dunn is going to get his chance, but he’s going to have to be a lot better for this to work out to the Bulls.

My guess is, like last season, eventually Hoiberg will be Forced to turn to Grant. He played respectably for the Bulls last season in tandem with Rondo (a little below NBA average, but he shot 37 percent from three), at least until the playoffs when Rondo went down and Grant was so bad Hoiberg had to turn to Isaiah Canaan (who Chicago didn’t even bring back). Grant struggles on defense. Bottom line, there are no good options at the point for the Bulls, and that is going to drag their team down.

3) Can Fred Hoiberg develop young talent? The Gar/Pax front office hand-picked Hoiberg out of college as a guy they could work with, who cared about analytics, and a guy who would bring a more modern style of play to Chicago. That hasn’t gone smoothly. To be kind. Now Hoiberg sees his job change to one more about developing players for the future rather than trying everything to win now. He comes out of the college ranks where he did develop players — he still serves as the Bulls’ shooting coach — but can he translate all of that to the NBA level? He’s got a couple a season to prove he can. (Whether Bulls fans should fear Gar/Pax as the architects of this rebuild is another question.)

At the top of the list, how does Hoiberg grow LaVine, Markkanen, Bobby Portis, Paul Zipster, and Denzel Valentine?

Outside of LaVine and Markkanen, how much can any of them grow? They may be rotation players.

Markkanen was a controversial pick, a European big man who can shoot the three, those kinds of players have a mixed history of adapting to the NBA game. Markkanen was unimpressive in Summer League in Las Vegas (he averaged 14 points and 9 boards a game, but shot 29.3 percent and was pushed around by the likes of Ryan Kelly), but the challenge for Hoiberg is to get him in spaces where he can be confident with his shot, then develop his all around game. It’s going to take time. Markkanen did play well in EuroBasket, if you want some silver lining.

The Bulls are tanking this season, they are going to be one of the handful of worst teams in the NBA, and in the final season before lottery reform they should have a very high pick in a draft expected to have serious talent at the top. (The Bulls second-round pick goes to the Knicks via the Thunder.) Starting this season with LaVine (when healthy) and Markkanen, Portis, and Washington, we’ll see if Hoiberg is up to this new developmental. He’s not on the hot seat (yet), but if these players don’t grow it will get warm.

Timberwolves ace Jimmy Butler trade… then made some other moves

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

From the moment former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau took over the Timberwolves, Minnesota was involved in Jimmy Butler trade rumors. But, as of last year, Chicago reportedly wouldn’t budge without receiving Andrew Wiggins, and I didn’t think that was enough for the Bulls. Since, Butler has only improved and Wiggins moved closer to a max salary that will diminish his value. A deal seemed unlikely.

Then, suddenly the Timberwolves traded for Butler – without surrendering Wiggins. A team bound to improve around Karl-Anthony Towns and Wiggins is now set to clobber a 13-year playoff drought.

Butler is a star in his prime who’s locked up for two more seasons at an affordable salary. The price to land him – Zach LaVine (injured and up for a contract extension), Kris Dunn (ineffective as a relatively old rookie) and moving down from the No. 7 to No. 16 pick – was absurdly low. By dropping only nine spots rather than give up the No. 7 pick entirely, Thibodeau just stunted on his old bosses.

That fantastic trade started a busy offseason in Minnesota, but the rest of it wasn’t nearly as inspiring. (To be fair, how could it be?)

Going from Ricky Rubio (two years, $29.25 million remaining) to Jeff Teague (three years, $57 million with a player option) at point guard wasn’t ideal in a vacuum. But Teague’s shooting was important considering Butler and Wiggins form a sketchy wing pairing on 3-pointers and Thibodeau insists on playing two traditional bigs. Plus, the Timberwolves got a first-rounder a first-rounder from the Jazz for Rubio.

Another former Bull, Taj Gibson, will bolster Thibodeau’s two-big rotation. But Minnesota already had Gorgui Dieng and Cole Aldrich (who’s overpaid and has disappointed, but can still eat up minutes) to limit the defensive burden on Towns, and No. 16 pick Justin Patton is in the pipeline. Does a 32-year-old Gibson have enough left in the tank to justify a two-year $28 million contract?

Likewise, will a 37-year-old Crawford provide value at the full room exception (two years, $8,872,400 with a player option)? The Timberwolves didn’t need another ball-handler. Butler, Wiggins and Teague can be staggered enough to handle that. Towns should be tasked with a greater offensive role, too. At least Crawford is a solid spot-up shooter, but his defense is a big minus.

Shabazz Muhammad won’t fill Minnesota’s 3-and-D void, either. But on a minimum contract, he was too talented to pass up. Dante Cunningham could help, though he’s better at power forward than on the wing, where the Timberwolves need more depth.

Thibodeau hasn’t exactly instilled faith in his ability to take this franchise into the future. But he hit a home run with the Butler trade, and that buys him leeway.

Offseason grade: A+

Have people around Bulls turned Gar Forman’s name into slang for bad GM moves?

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Let’s run through the series of moves that got us here. During the 2014 draft, Bulls GM Gar Forman traded two picks to the Denver Nuggets — picks that became Gary Harris and Josef Nurkic — to move up so they could select Doug McDermott. That didn’t work out. Last February, Forman and the Bulls sent McDermott and Taj Gibson to Oklahoma City for Cameron Payne, Joffrey Lauvergne, and Anthony Morrow. Lauvergne is now with the Spurs, Morrow remains unsigned.

That means Payne is all that is left from those two first-round picks, and he is out at the start of this season due to another foot injury. Beyond that, Payne just hasn’t been good. At all. During the playoffs last season Rajon Rondo got hurt Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg played Isaiah Canaan, Michael Carter-Williams and Jerian Grant in front of Payne.

Which led to this comment in the Chicago Sun-Times (hat tip Ball Don’t Lie).

“We knew the second practice [after he was acquired] that he couldn’t play at [an NBA] level,” the source said. “The only reason it took two practices was because we thought maybe it was nerves in the first one…

“Any [Bulls] coach who says differently is lying. … We got ‘Garred’ on that one.”

We got Garred?

Ouch. Although Bulls fans have felt that way for years now.

It’s going to be a rough season for Bulls fans.

Kevin Durant wonders who will be willing to sacrifice to win in Minnesota

Associated Press
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No doubt, the Minnesota Timberwolves are now one of the most talented young teams in the NBA. Karl-Anthony Towns is the best young center in the game and a true franchise cornerstone. They added Jimmy Butler, an All-NBA player who is a force on both ends. They have Andrew Wiggins, who averaged 23.6 points per game last season and knows how to get buckets. Around them are solid role players such as Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson, Jamal Crawford, and Gorgui Dieng. They’ve got Tom Thibodeau as the coach, so we should expect their poor defense of a year ago to improve.

But do all those pieces fit together well?

It’s a fair question. Kevin Durant is on the Bill Simmons podcast that drops Monday and he had this to say about the new and improved Timberwolves:

“So let’s go down the line with that. Now Teague. Can’t really shoot that well but he can play. He need the ball though. And Jimmy. He can shoot it, but he need a rhythm so he need the ball, too. Wiggins: He the same way. He need the ball. They can all score. They all good, but somebody gotta give up something….

“I’m just saying somebody will have to give up something in their games in order for it to work, and I believe that they will. But Towns needs to be the guy that they get the ball to, I think, because he’s so good. Jimmy needs to be facilitating. Wiggins is going to be the guy [when] you need a basket; he’s going to be the finisher. I think. If I was coaching the team on 2K that’s how I would play it.”

Some are going to read this as “Durant hates the Timberwolves” but that’s not what he’s saying. Durant has learned the lesson in Golden State that to take that big step forward toward a ring the best players have to sacrifice parts of their game for the team. How is that going to work in Minnesota?

I’ll add this question — where’s the shooting going to come from? Statistically Wiggins, Butler, and Teague all shoot better than 35 percent from three (as did Towns), but none of them are catch-and-shoot floor spacers out there, all three prefer to drive and create first. All three you have to respect at the arc, but you’d rather have them shoot from deep then start to get to the rim and create. Wiggins reportedly has been working on his shot this summer, and he’s the guy who may have to alter his game the most and become more of a floor spacer. Still, in the end, I think Minnesota needs more shooting.

This is still a team that breaks into the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, and this is a team that in a few years could start to challenge Durant and his Warriors. But the questions are still out there for them to answer first.