Kurt Helin

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 25:  Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers dunks against the Utah Jazz at Staples Center on November 25, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Rumor: Celtics target Blake Griffin in three-team deal; want to make big move soon

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The Celtics are one of the big winners of free agency — by adding Al Horford to a 48-win roster they became arguably the second best team in the East. But they are still a step or two behind the Cleveland Cavaliers, and GM Danny Ainge is going to be aggressive in trying to land another star. Not overpaying in deals, mind you, but aggressive.

Like going hard at Blake Griffin.

That’s the guy the Celtics have in their sights, reports Sean Deveney of the Sporting News.

The likely target for the Celtics, according to front-office sources, is Clippers forward Blake Griffin. The Clippers have been weighing trading Griffin all season , and the possibility of a three-team package involving Sacramento sending Rudy Gay to the Clippers has emerged. The Celtics would give up some number of their upcoming draft picks, but opposing front-office members say they don’t want to give up either Brooklyn pick Boston can own in the next two years.

The Clippers have 31-year-old point guard Chris Paul on hand, and league sources have said that if the Clippers move Griffin — a move that Clippers coach and front-office head Doc Rivers is reluctant to make — they will want a deal that involves draft picks and a frontline star who can keep them in Western Conference contention.

Before you get too excited Celtics fans, there is this from the well-connected Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald.

Sources indicate the Celtics are very much open to major moves, but while situations certainly remain fluid and they have expressed interest in Blake Griffin and Russell Westbrook in the past, there have been no discussions regarding those players in quite some time.

For fun, let’s say the rumor has legs. While a lot of details need to be filled in, this deal certainly makes sense for Boston, especially if they can keep the Brooklyn pick — other GMs will demand that in a major deal. Rudy Gay has requested a trade from Sacramento and the Kings are trying to accommodate him, according to the league buzz in Las Vegas (where nearly everyone from the NBA has gathered for Summer League).

But I can’t see the Clippers pulling the trigger on this (at least as currently reported). The Clippers are the second or third best team in the West (depending on what you think of the Spurs) and in win-now mode. They have Paul, who can be a free agent next summer — any move the Clippers make needs to get them closer to a ring and make CP3 want to stay. Swapping Griffin for Gay does neither.

Also, Clippers’ owner Steve Ballmer understands he is competing with the still-more-popular Lakers in a star-driven market, if the Clips move Griffin they need an A-list star back. Gay is still a good player, but he’s not that.

Still, expect a lot of Celtics rumors (particularly around Russell Westbrook, although that has complications as he will be a free agent next summer, too) and a lot of Griffin trade rumors. Just not sure this one pencils out.

PBT’s off-season Power Rankings: Free agency (and Kevin Durant) changed everything

OAKLAND, CA - JULY 07:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors poses with his new jersey during the press conference where he was introduced as a member of the Golden State Warriors after they signed him as a free agent on July 7, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Off-season power rankings are about feel. During the season there are spreadsheets full of statistics — wins and losses, net ratings, etc. — to make these rankings somewhat accurate. There is data. But during the off-season, we are doing more guesswork — which teams made the smart moves, which teams took steps backwards.

It’s also hard because some of the teams near the bottom of this ranking are going to be better than they were a year ago. There is hope in Philadelphia and Los Angeles and a host of other cities — the guess work goes into how much better they may get. Here’s how the league sits after the big names of free agency have settled.
source: 1. Warriors (73-9). I have a general policy that the team that wins the NBA championship should start the next season on top of the rankings — the Kevin Durant signing makes this the exception to the rule. A 73-win team just went from Harrison Barnes to Durant in their starting lineup. They had to give up some depth to get KD (Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, etc.), but pickups such as David West and Zaza Pachulia help fill that gap. It’s going to take a little time to work out the kinks, but this team is going to be the best shooting team of all time.

source: 2. Cavaliers (57-25). When you have a championship team, the smart play is not to make radical changes, and that’s what the Cavaliers did this summer — they kept the band together (even if we still wait for the formal re-signings of LeBron James and J.R. Smith). They are clear and away the best in the East. The only changes are on the periphery — no need to pay Timofey Mozgov as much as the Lakers did, they traded Matthew Dellavedova, but get a nice pickup with Mike Dunleavy.

source: 3. Spurs (67-15). Tim Duncan has retired and Pau Gasol has stepped in to fill that role — he brings better offense but worse defense at this point in his career. That said, he will fit seamlessly into their culture. The Spurs won a franchise best 67 games last season, but they didn’t get younger or more athletic this offseason, will that haunt them in the playoffs? This team is likely the Warriors biggest threat in the West.

source: 4. Clippers (53-29). I didn’t love their offseason — Cole Aldrich was good for them and will be missed, they still have Luc Mbah a Moute as their starting three, and they overpaid Austin Rivers — but they kept the core together including Jamal Crawford. With the Thunder taking a step back the odds of the Clippers reaching a conference Finals just went up.

source: 5. Celtics (48-34). Is this too high for Boston? Maybe. But they could be the second best team in the East (them or Toronto). Al Horford was a very good signing in that he is now their best player and he opens the door to bring in other name free agents next summer. This team won 48 games last season and should make a leap up into the low 50s with this roster, and nobody would be shocked if they pulled off some quality trades before the season gets rolling.

source: 6. Thunder (55-27). Gone are Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka, and with that Oklahoma City is going to take a step back from last season when they proved to be title contenders. That said, they still have Russell Westbrook (who will have a monster season) and the Victor Oladipo trade made them better on the wings. The question that will loom is when will they trade Westbrook? And if he’s going to test the market at all (as is rumored), that has to be “when” they trade him, not “if.”

source: 7. Grizzlies (42-40). Memphis had one of the better offseasons out there — they kept Mike Conley and he helped recruit Chandler Parsons into the fold. They will have Marc Gasol back from injury. Draft pick Wade Baldwin has looked like a rotation player at Summer League. If this team can stay healthy — and that’s a big “if” — they become a tough matchup nobody wants in the playoffs, and they may well have home court in the first round.

source: 8. Raptors (56-26). Can they replicate the franchise-best season from the last campaign? They were able to re-sign DeMar DeRozan, which was key. They lost Bismack Biyombo via free agency and will try to replace him with free agent big Jared Sullinger and draft pick Jakob Poeltl (who needs to add strength but has nice footwork, watching him at Summer League). It all comes down to this: Can Kyle Lowry replicate last season? If so, this ranking may be a little low for Toronto and they may remain the second best team in the East.

source: 9. Pacers (45-37). This team quietly had a very nice summer and got better. Jeff Teague is an upgrade at the point over George Hill, Thaddeus Young is a strong addition as well, and Al Jefferson can get them buckets inside off the bench. They lost Solomon Hill, but this team is poised to take a step forward this season.

source: 10. Pistons (44-38). Maybe I’m a little too high on this team, but they were already a team on the rise in the East — especially after getting Tobias Harris — and they had a solid summer. They locked up Andre Drummond as they should. A lot of casual fans asked “who is Jon Leuer?” but the stretch four fits what Stan Van Gundy wants to do. They got depth up front with Boban Marjanovic. This team is poised for a healthy step forward this season.

source: 11. Jazz (40-42). They quietly had a fantastic summer. George Hill is an upgrade at the point (where they also get Dante Exum back from injury). They add depth and shooting on the wing with Joe Johnson. This was already a team on the rise, one expected to make the playoffs, and that looks more likely now. The one looming question: Gordon Hayward can and almost certainly will opt out next summer and become a free agent, can they keep him? If not, do they need to trade him?

source: 12. Trail Blazers (44-38). While the playoffs showed the need for another playmaker and perimeter defender, the dramatically overpaid Evan Turner to get “meh” versions of those skills. Portland also made a number of good moves: matching the Allen Crabbe offer sheet, re-signing Meyers Leonard, picking up Festus Ezeli on a good contract. Portland should be a little better next season than last.

source: 13. Hawks (48-38). This is going to be a very different Hawks team without Al Horford and Jeff Teague. They are bringing Dwight Howard to his hometown, but how will he fit into their ball-movement, selfless system? They made a smart move by bringing back Kent Bazemore, but the Hawks are going to take a step back off last season unless Dwight returns to Orlando form.

source: 14. Rockets (41-41). Offensively this team is going to be a lot of fun, but can they get any stops? GM Daryl Morey did a good job shaping this roster into one that better fits how new coach Mike D’Antoni wants to play — Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, and even Nene can help if they can stay healthy. Smart move locking up James Harden for an extra year, too. This team should be entertaining to watch, but not much of a playoff threat.

source: 15. Timberwolves (29-53). One of the teams on the rise in the West, their best move this summer was hiring coach Tom Thibodeau. First-round pick Kris Dunn has impressed at Summer League. Cole Aldrich was quietly a very nice signing. This is a team everyone, myself included, expects to make a big leap this season.

source: 16. Heat (48-34). I’m not sure where to rank this team because I don’t know the answer to the one big question: Will Chris Bosh play? The Heat lost Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng and Joe Johnson, so it feels like there may be a short-term step back. However, they are well poised for the future by re-signing Hassan Whiteside and matching the offer to Tyler Johnson. If Bosh plays this season this ranking is way too low, but if he doesn’t it’s too high.

source: 17. Hornets (48-34). They kept Nicolas Batum, which was huge, and they also re-signed Marvin Williams after his best season. However, the Hornets lost depth with Jeremy Lin, Courtney Lee, and Al Jefferson all heading out the door. This is still going to be a good team for Steve Clifford, but not quite as good as a year ago.

source: 18. Magic (35-47). Their best move of the off-season may have been getting coach Frank Vogel. With him as the coach and Serge Ibaka looking to prove himself, this should be a much improved defensive squad. They wisely kept Evan Fournier. They brought in Bismack Biyombo and Jeff Green (at least Green is on a one-year deal). Individually I like all the moves, but I don’t see how all the pieces fit together well, especially on offense. Vogel will need to earn his keep this season.

source: 19. Mavericks (42-40). Once again Dallas swung for the fences in free agency, missed, then recovered nicely with a series of singles. They rolled the dice on a huge contract for Harrison Barnes — is he ready to step up from a No. 4 option to the second slot? They re-signed Dirk Nowitzki and Deron Williams, plus made a nice trade to get Andrew Bogut. If Barnes can live up to the contract they should be battling for one of the final playoff slots in the West.

source: 20. Wizards (41-41). They maxed out Bradley Beal, because they had to if they wanted to keep him, now they just need him to stay healthy and on the court. Maybe new coach Scott Brooks can get Beal and John Wall to be the powerhouse duo that can carry a team that they need to take a step forward. I like them getting Andrew Nicholson, but what is going to be different about these Wizards compared to the last few years? Can just staying healthy be enough to take a step forward?

source: 21. Bulls (42-40). They chose a direction trading Derrick Rose and keeping Jimmy Butler — then they assembled an older team that can’t shoot with Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade. I did like the pickup of Robin Lopez and drafting Denzel Valentine, but this Bulls team is going to struggle defensively and the ball may stick on offense. Bulls fans will think this ranking is too low, I fear it’s too high.

source: 22. Bucks (33-49). I haven’t loved their off-season — Thon Maker was a reach at No. 10 in the draft, while Mirza Teletovic and Matthew Dellavedova are nice but not game changing pick ups. They found something near the end of last season with Giannis Antetokounmpo playing essentially the point, maybe that’s enough to propel them back on the trajectory we thought they were on a year ago. Their defense needs to get better.

source: 23. Knicks (32-50). How far can Carmelo Anthony, Joakim Noah, and contract-year Derrick Rose take this team? Do any of them really fit the way Jeff Hornacek wants to play? And what is the long-term plan? I did like the Courtney Lee signing for them. The Knicks will be better, but they are still going to be scrapping for one of the bottom playoff spots in the East.

source: 24. Nuggets (33-49). This is a team that started to develop a nice culture under Mike Malone last season and they should be able to build on that, but the roster needs more talent. Jamal Murray has looked pretty good at Summer League, but both he and Emmanuel Mudiay like the ball in their hands to create so they may need their minutes staggered. The Nuggets should improve with consistency of roster and system, but in a deep West how big a step forward they can take remains to be seen.

source: 25. Pelicans (30-52). If Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday are healthy and all the way back, this ranking may be much too low. I like how the roster has started to be shaped more to the style of coach Alvin Gentry — Solomon Hill, Langston Galloway, and E’twaun Moore are good free agent signings, and Buddy Hield will be a quality NBA player once he adjusts to the league. This team should be better than it was a year ago, but I’ll need to see it in action before I fully buy in.

source: 26. Lakers (17-56). This is going to be an improved Lakers team — but a young one still with growing pains. D’Angelo Russell has looked fantastic at Summer League, No. 2 pick Brandon Ingram needs to get stronger but will find his way, and they wisely re-signed Jordan Clarkson. I like the summer addition of Luol Deng both to add front court depth and as a veteran in the locker room. They overpaid for Timofey Mozgov but if healthy he can help them in the paint. Best case for the Lakers is they about double last year’s win total and show promise for the future.

source: 27. Kings (33-49). I expect a monster year out of DeMarcus Cousins (who looks to be in the best shape of his career), but I’m not sure how the rest of the pieces fit together. New coach Dave Joerger has his work cut out for him. Maybe the pickups of Arron Afflalo and Matt Barnes will provide some veteran stability, and point guard Darren Collison was better than Rondo last season. I don’t get the Georgios Papagiannis pick, but like what I’ve seen of Malachi Richardson and Skal Labissiere at Summer League (Skal could pass Willie Cauley-Stein on the depth chart sooner rather than later). This team could be better than this ranking, but I’ll need to see it shake out that way on the court before I buy in.

source: 28. Nets (21-61). GM Sean Marks has done as good a job as could be expected moving this franchise in the right direction considering what he had to work with. He made a good signing with Jeremy Lin. He made smart gambles going after restricted free agents Tyler Johnson and Allen Crabbe (even if neither worked out). They still have Brook Lopez in the paint. This isn’t going to be a good team, but they will be better than last year.

source: 29. Suns (23-59). They are banking on Eric Bledsoe staying healthy and a youth movement — they drafted Marquese Chriss, and Dragan Bender has looked good at Summer League. Bringing in Leandro Barbosa and Jared Dudley are nice veteran pickups. Still, hard to imagine the Suns’ playoff drought coming to an end this season.

source: 30. 76ers (10-71). Maybe the Sixers are better than this, but after the past couple seasons they will need to prove it to get out of the cellar. Ben Simmons has shown flashes at Summer League, they will get Joel Embiid on the court (*knocks on wood*), and veterans such as Gerald Henderson and Sergio Rodriguez will help this team not be embarrassing. It’s still a long road to good, but expect a step forward (and maybe out of the bottom slot in these rankings) this season.

Mark Cuban thinks Warriors becoming “villain” will be good for NBA business

DALLAS, TX - APRIL 21:  Owner, Mark Cuban before game three of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Center on April 21, 2016 in Dallas, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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“I don’t think it’s good for the league, just to be really clear. I will say whoever is the prohibitive favorite, try telling that to the 430 other players who aren’t on those two teams. I mean, we have the greatest collection of basketball players in the world in our league, and so I’m not making any predictions, but there’s no question, when you aggregate a group of great players, they have a better chance of winning than many other teams….But just to be absolutely clear, I do not think that’s ideal from a league standpoint.”

Those are the words NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who works at the pleasure of the NBA owners, many of whom are not happy that there are a couple dominant, clear favorite teams in the NBA heading into next season (mostly because it’s not their team, but that’s another discussion).

Not all the owners feel that way. Here is what Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

“They become the villain,” Cuban told ESPN on Wednesday, a day after Silver indicated that changes in the collective bargaining agreement are needed to prevent similar situations from developing in the future. “Just like when LeBron James went to Miami, I loved that there was a villain. They become the villain. I’m fine with that. Everybody’s going to root for them to lose.”

The history of the league backs Cuban.

When was the NBA’s television ratings the highest and the league most popular? When Michael Jordan led one dominant team that was the clear favorite to win a title every season. Other fans look at the 1980s as the golden age of the NBA — when there were two dominant teams (the Lakers and Celtics) that often met in the Finals in epic clashes.

Not when there was great parity in the league, although there were other good teams in those eras. The NBA is most popular when it has great stars clustered on a couple of teams.

Silver is right to push for a system where any well-managed team has a shot to become a contender, regardless of market size. The stars should be able to cluster anywhere they choose. But that is a different thing than saying the talent pool should be flattened out — that’s not what makes the NBA popular.

Notes from a Summer League Wednesday: Boston’s Jaylen Brown has turned it around

Philadelphia 76ers' Ben Simmons, left, defends as Boston Celtics' Jaylen Brown (9) drives the basket during the second half of an NBA Summer League basketball game Monday, July 4, 2016, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Kim Raff)
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LAS VEGAS — There’s so much constant action going on at NBA Summer League you can’t take it all in (sort of like Vegas itself). Let me dump my notebook from my final day watching games at UNLV.

Jaylen Brown — the guy the Celtics drafted at No. 3 in June rather than move that pick — looked overwhelmed in his first few Summer League games. Between contests in Utah and Las Vegas he started 5-of-26 shooting in three games, he couldn’t find lanes to make plays, and generally looked like a massive project (in part due to battling a hyperextended knee).

Wednesday he had 25 points on 8-of-16 shooting, he got to the line 11 times, he attacked the rim, and he pulled down 11 boards. That was his second straight impressive game. What changed?

“Just embracing the process,” said Celtics’ Summer League coach Jamie Young said. “We watch film with him, work with him in practice on where he needs to improve.”

Young added the team also is getting Brown the ball in spots he’s more comfortable — in transition, or spots where he can quickly attack off the bounce in more of a straight line rather than weave through a forest of defenders. Spots that let him use his freakish athleticism.

Brown put on his strong performance Wednesday with Boston GM Danny Ainge and coach Brad Stevens in the building. Good timing.

The question is how much run he will be able to get come the fall — Boston is a deep roster of good young talent. Minutes will have to be earned, but Brown can find some on the wing behind Jae Crowder. (Although, what Boston’s roster looks like come the start of training camp could be very different from how it does now.)

• One thing you can count on at Summer League: Second-year players who got quality run in their rookie years tend to dominate when they return. D’Angelo Russell, Trey Lyles, Devin Booker, Emanuel Mudiay all fit that mold this year.

As does the Spurs’ Johnathon Simmons. He had 19 points on 9-of-16 shooting in the Spurs loss Wednesday. Before this game he averaged 15 points a contest on 54.2 percent shooting. The Spurs have thrust him into more of a leadership role here, with the goal of sharpening his playmaking skills.

“We wanted to give him the ball, put it in his hands a lot and let him work on his decision making,” said Spurs Summer League coach Becky Hammon. “Kind of let him run things out there, organize people, like I said he’s a gifted passer so putting him in positions where he has to make decisions and read the defense. You can’t simulate that in a pickup game, so it’s putting him out her with the ball in his hands and a game plan and let him go out there and know what the options are and get the other guys the ball.”

• Atlanta seems to have found a good fit in Taurean Prince, the No. 12 pick out of Baylor (who was traded from the Jazz in the three-team Jeff Teague deal). He went right at Kings big man Georgias Papagiannis, was physical inside, knocked down a couple of threes, and finished Wednesday’s game with 21 points on 11 shots. More than just raw skills, his game seems to fit the selfless, versatile style the Hawks like to play. Atlanta fans are going to grow to like him quickly.

• Dunk of the Day went to Atlanta’s DeAndre Bembry, who got up and threw it down over Sacramento’s Willie Cauley-Stein.

• Cayley-Stein has not stood out in Vegas, not made the kind of leap other second year players have made and fans should hope to see.

“I think Willie is one those players, he’s really good when he’s familiar with his teammates and they know what he does,” Kings’ Summer League coach Bryan Gates said. “So I’m okay with Willie.”

Maybe. But watch Skal Labissiere and you start to think he’s a more natural fit next to DeMarcus Cousins, he can space the floor, and still defend the rim (Labissiere has a ways to go to develop those skills and find his way in an NBA game). Don’t be shocked if by the end of the season Labissiere is getting some of Cauley-Stein’s minutes.

• The Kings got Isaiah Cousins — the other guard in the backcourt of Oklahoma last season, next to Buddy Hield — on the court for the first time this season following a groin injury.

“I liked it,” Gates said. “He got a feel, he defended, he got hit on pick-and-rolls, and that’s what he needs to continue, he just needs to get his NBA feel. Isaiah was fine.”

Is Skal Labissiere the Kings’ four of the future?

Sacramento Kings rookie center Skal Labissiere, right, works out against assistant coach Larry Lewis during practice at the NBA basketball teams minicamp Wednesday, July 6, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
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LAS VEGAS — Summer League is the first real answers to the test GMs around the league took on draft night. They can watch film, have private workouts, interview players and their college coaches (and high school/AAU coaches), but it’s all still a gamble. Drafting is far from an exact science, teams don’t know what they’ve got until a guy gets out on the floor.

After watching Skal Labissiere for a few games, the Kings think they have passed that part of the test.

Watch him in Summer League play and you see the potential for a quality modern NBA four — a guy who can space the floor on offense and still protect the rim inside on defense. Someone who would complement DeMarcus Cousins far better than anyone currently on the Sacramento roster.

“I’m really excited about Skal’s future,” said Kings’ Summer League coach Bryan Gates said after the Kings’ loss Wednesday. “Maybe it wasn’t just today, it was watching him. When you go through an NBA season you don’t get to watch a lot of college games. I hadn’t seen Kentucky play…. Just seeing him, it’s been cool. I think he has a good future.”

Labissiere — a former elite high school recruit who fell to No. 28 in the June draft — had 9 points on 3-of-6 shooting Wednesday, plus he had three blocks. In the first half he seemed to find his spaces and was making plays, but he faded from the picture more in the second half.

He is clearly working on his feel for the NBA game, but people within the Kings basketball operations praise his instincts on the court. It’s a matter of learning to trust them. He just needs time on the court, they say.

“I’m learning how to pick my spots, where to be when the ball is there, and just how to play,” Labissiere said.

He’s going to need to get stronger for sure — he said after Summer League he will spend the rest of the off-season in Sacramento working out with team trainers — but he has finished through contact a couple of times in the last few games.

“I’m fine (with the physicality), just got to learn to play low, and that’s what I’m doing out in Summer League,” Labissiere said, adding he’s seen this before. “Guys like DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, they came back and played pickup with us (at Kentucky). I learned from that. And here in Summer League I’m kind of used to it.”

Like rookies in every sport, Labissiere is adjusting to the faster pace and increased athleticism across the board that comes with the professional game. But he doesn’t lack for confidence.

“I’m adjusting to it,” Labissiere said. “It’s fast, but I can run the floor really well, it’s not a problem for me.”

He’s not likely to get a lot of run early in the season for Dave Joerger, but don’t be shocked if you see more and more of him as the season goes on (and maybe after he gets a little early run in the D-League). The Kings have struggled to find a way to play Cousins and Willie Cauley-Stein together, if that continues and Labissiere develops, he might insert himself into that mix.