Willie Cauley-Stein

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 Sacramento Kings 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: 32-50, missed the playoffs for the 10th straight season.

I know what you did last summer: Their “summer” really started last February at the trade deadline when they moved DeMarcus Cousins for Buddy Hield. The Kings had an active summer, and that included moving on from a lot of guys on the roster: Rudy Gay, Darren Collison, Ty Lawson, Tyreke Evans, Arron Afflalo, and Ben McLemore among others were gone. To replace them they drafted De’Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson, rolled the dice on Harry Giles, the Kings finally got Bogdan Bogdanovic to come over, then in free agency landed some solid veteran free agents in George Hill, Zach Randolph, and Vince Carter.

THREE QUESTIONS THE KINGS MUST ANSWER

1) How do the Kings balance the minutes between their best young players and their veterans? George Hill is clear and away the best point guard option on the Kings, but they just drafted the speedy and talented De’Aaron Fox. Zach Randolph, while his skills are fading, is a solid four coach Dave Joerger can trust, but Skal Labissiere could become the most skilled power forward on this roster. Kosta Koufos is a solid veteran big who will not beat you with mistakes, but the Kings are trying to season the talented Willie Cauley-Stein at center.

It’s the biggest question coach Joerger has heading into the season, how to balance out the minutes and opportunities for the veterans on this team vs. the best young prospects on the Kings’ roster. It’s easy to say “George Hill is there to develop guys like Fox and Buddy Hield” but that doesn’t mean Hill is just another coach riding the pine most of the time. The Kings aren’t going to win a lot of games, but veterans like Vince Carter can show young players how to compete (Carter, who has been in the league since roughly the Taft administration, may well be the best three on this roster still). The hope has to be that as the season goes along, as the young players get minutes and good developmental coaching, their role grows as the veterans take a step back, but will it work out that way?

Tied to this: How long are these veterans going to be Kings? Part of the reason for bringing in a guy like Hill is that at some point a team hurting at the point guard spot due to injuries or whatever reason come calling. These teams will want Hill, and in return the Kings can get a quality young prospect or a good pick. The question is how long before the calls come, and how much demand will there be (especially for the aging Randolph and Carter)? It may happen this season, at or before the trade deadline, or it could be next summer, but expect the Kings to make a move.

2) Which young players on this roster develop into quality NBA players? The Kings have eight guys on rookie contracts plus a couple other young players — they have 10 players 25 and younger. The Kings are in the player development business now, and the question is which ones will find their way to become NBA players of some level — stars, starters, rotation players, whatever?

There are interesting questions up and down the young roster. Harry Giles will be out until at least January (if not the season), but can he get healthy and if so how much can he contribute? Skal Labissiere showed promise at the end of last season, can he build on that (he didn’t at Summer League)? Can Justin Jackson get stronger, develop his shot and become a rotation player at the three? Just how good is Willie Cauley-Stein? Same question for Malachi Richardson? A lot of these questions could get answered on the Reno Bighorns, which is where some of these players will go to get run.

For me, the most interesting battle to watch is at the two. The Kings got Buddy Hield back as the main piece from New Orleans in the DeMarcus Cousins trade, and in 25 games with the Kings he averaged 15.1 points per game and shot 42.8 percent from three. However, the Kings are also very high Bogdan Bogdanovic, who Vlade Divac called the “the best player in Europe” and he is going battle for that starting spot. Which one of these two develops into a starter and takes the job, and who does not. We’ll see how Hield develops, but watching him as a rookie — and his both lack of understanding and interest on defense — and I saw a sixth man. A gunner in the Lou Williams/Jamal Crawford mold — which is not a bad thing, those guys have had good careers and helped a lot of teams. Is Hield on that path, or can he develop into something more?

3) Can management and ownership be patient? The Kings have a good plan in place. They have young players with potential — De’Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson, Skal Labissiere, Willie Cauley-Stein, and more — and some veterans were brought in to mentor them and set a tone. Whatever you think of the young talent (I like the potential) or how many veterans they brought in (more than I would have) it’s a solid rebuilding plan. One that’s not going to yield a lot of wins short term (they retain their first round pick next draft) but is a respectable and reasonable path.

The problem is the Kings have never stuck to a plan long enough to let it play out. Look at it this way, since they drafted Cousins in 2010 the Kings coaches have been Paul Westphal, Keith Smart, Mike Malone, Ty Corbin, George Karl, and Dave Joerger. That’s not counting the three different GMs and a change of ownership. With each successive move the plan shifted, and with that, the roster and the style were never settled.

This falls to owner Vivek Ranadive — he has to be patient. It’s not in his nature, but he needs to be. I don’t know that I would have chosen Vlade Divac to run my team, but now that Ranadive has let the basketball people make the basketball decisions. Divac and the staff there have planted a garden, let it start to grow and blossom, and know that it’s going to take years to bear fruit. The biggest mistake the Kings could make right now would be to at the All-Star break (or next summer) change plans, bring in a new GM and coach, and completely change directions.

Kings will keep rookie Harry Giles off court until January to strengthen knee

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When last year’s draft class was done with its freshman high school season, Harry Giles was on top of early recruiting/draft lists. He had everything a team could want in a potential No. 1 pick – size, athleticism, skill, motor. Then the injuries came — ACL, MCL and a meniscus tear in his left knee that have required a couple of surgeries, plus another surgery on his right knee last year.

The Sacramento Kings drafted him at No. 20 out of Duke (via a trade with Portland), and it’s a good gamble in that spot — if he can get anywhere near his previous form this is a steal.

Sacramento is taking the cautious route with Giles, announcing Friday they are going to keep him shut down until at least January, “while he and the Kings training staff focus on a measured and sustained progression plan designed to improve physical strength in his surgically repaired knees,” according to the release. He will remain with and continue to practice with the team, but will not play.

This is not due to a new injury or setback in rehab, a source familiar with the situation told NBC Sports. Rather, this is the Kings taking a page out of the book of other teams rehabbing injured rookies (think Sixers) — better to be cautious than push him back too quickly and set the stage for another injury. Remember, the Kings new assistant GM Brandon Williams came from the Sixers, where this was the norm. Recovering from ACLs and major knee injuries can take years, and the Kings see Giles as a 19-year-old that they are betting on down the line, not for this season. Better for them to focus on getting it right.

Giles wasn’t going to get a lot of run anyway. The Kings will start Skal Labissiere at the four, and after the way he finished last season they want to give him every chance, then will bring Zach Randolph in off the bench. While in theory Giles could play some at center the Kings have Willie Cauley-Stein, Kosta Koufos, and Georgios Papagiannis in that rotation already.

Better to be patient. Maybe Giles never makes it all the way back, but the Kings should be patient and give him the best shot at a full recovery and opportunity.

Kings extend Vlade Divac contract, pick up option on coach Joerger

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It’s good to have the trust of the owner. Not a lot of coaches and front offices coming off a 32-50 season feel secure.

Sacramento  GM Vlade Divac and head coach Dave Joerger get to.

The Kings announced Wednesday the organization has extended the contract of Divac and picked up the fourth-year option on coach Dave Joerger, keeping both of those men in their positions through 2020.

Divac has been taken his share of criticism as a GM — plenty of it deserved, he was learning on the job and it showed — but this is a smart move. It’s good to see Kings’ owner Vivek Ranadive trying to add a little stability to the franchise rather than making changes again out of frustration. Those constant changes — in roster personnel, in coaches, in style — are part of why it’s been a decade since the Sacramento Kings made the playoffs. Now they are on a rebuilding plan and they need to draft well and stick with it (they had a pretty good summer, although they brought in more vets than I would have preferred). They need to solidify a new culture, something that is not easy and takes time. We can debate if Vlade is the guy to head that effort, but tearing the playbook up and starting over right now would be a setback.

“I am so excited to continue to build this team with incredible partners and want to thank Vivek and the entire Sacramento Kings organization for their support. Together, from ownership to the front office to Dave and his team, we’re unified in our vision for the future of this franchise,” Divac said in a statement.

“It is a great time to be in Sacramento and I’m thrilled by the opportunity to continue working alongside Vlade and the entire Kings organization. Together, we are bonded as a group focused on working hard and developing our team,” Joerger said in the same statement.

It’s up to the Kings and Jaeger to develop a lot of young talent on this roster. There are guys already in a Kings jersey such as Buddy Hield, Skal Labissiere, and Willie Cauley-Stein, plus some interesting rookies — De'Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson, Harry Giles, and Bogdan Bogdanovic. Divac and Joerger wanted solid veterans around that group and added guys such as George Hill, Zach Randolph, and Vince Carter. Jaeger has to balance getting those vets minutes and touches, letting the young guys get their run, teaching that young core, and letting them learn from their mistakes. Keeping the morale up on a team that will lose a fair amount of games — they are not playoff bound in the ridiculously deep West — will not be easy.

Report: Kings not interested in trading De’Aaron Fox in Kyrie Irving deal

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Kyrie Irving submitted a list of preferred teams, but – without a no-trade clause and locked into his contract for two more years – he has minimal control where the Cavaliers trade him. So, other teams are emerging.

Like the Kings.

Terry Pluto of The Plain Dealer:

I just heard Irving’s name attached to Sacramento, not sure what comes back to the Cavs other than Kentucky point guard De'Aaron Fox.

Fox – the No. 1 No. 5 in last month’s draft – could make sense as the centerpiece of an Irving trade if Cleveland wants to get younger in preparation of LeBron James leaving next summer. The Kings could also include some combination of Bogdan Bogdanovic, Buddy Hield, Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere, Georgios Papagiannis, Malachi Richardson and/or future draft picks.

But it doesn’t seem that concept is getting off the ground.

James Ham of NBC Sports California:

A league source confirmed to NBC Sports California that the Kings have no interest in dealing Fox, who they acquired with the 5th overall selection in June’s NBA Draft. The 19-year-old is considered the future of the franchise at the point guard position and according to the source, any rumor of the team offering him in a deal are false.

Irving is way more valuable than Fox, even to Sacramento. Irving is just a few months older than Bogdanovic, a rookie the Kings just signed to join their young core. Irving’s contract would keep him in Sacramento for two years, and a desire to spread his wings could secure him longer.

Maybe the Kings are just delusional about Fox’s value. Or maybe Vlade Divac is just trying to gain leverage. After all, he doesn’t have a track record of trustworthiness when he says he won’t trade someone.

Most likely: The Kings know they lack the assets to get Irving without gutting their team to the point it wouldn’t be worth it. So, rather than entering a prolonged pursuit of him only to get rejected later, they’re just saying they’re not interested.