NBA Power Rankings, cue Glenn Frey because the Heat is on…

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Our weekly NBA Power Rankings, where Mavs fans are going climb on me for dropping them down to five, and I get that. I just think the four teams above them are better.

1. Celtics (22-4). They’ve won 13 in a row. Remember how we have said that Doc Rivers is willing to sacrifice regular season games to keep players healthy. Well, not a lot of sacrifice.

2. Spurs (23-3). Manu Ginobili is bucking for the “best closer in the game” title with his play last week. The Spurs have Orlando, Washington and the Suns on the schedule this week — nearly every team in the weekend’s big trades.

3. Heat (21-8). A dozen wins in a row but if they lose Monday to the Mavericks and Saturday in Los Angeles the whole “they can’t beat a good team” meme will continue. Even though it isn’t true. It was that soft schedule which helped turn things around far more than that team meeting in Dallas, however.

4. Lakers (21-7). Either their defense has looked better since Andrew Bynum returned or they played some bad teams. Actually, a little bit of both.

5. Mavericks (21-5). Would have said the two games in Florida this week are a good test, but not sure what to make of Orlando yet (and they need some time to figure it out). So it’s the Heat. This Miami team is playing with more confidence then when the Mavericks beat them last time.

6. Thunder (19-9). They are 7-3 in their last 10, but they keep winning close games (12 by seven points or less) and that concerns me. Those kinds of things tend to balance out.

7. Jazz (19-9). Look for a run out of the Jazz. The return of Mehmet Okur (who may come off the bench for a while) will give them some scoring and options up front. Plus, pretty soft schedule for a few weeks.

8. Bulls (16-9). That loss to the Clippers shows how much they will miss Noah — if you can score inside you can beat the Bulls for the next couple months.

9. Hawks (17-12). Joe Johnson is back and shot 9-of-30 in two games. So, not much of a boost there. They really miss Jamal Crawford.

10. Nuggets (16-10). You could say that when Kenyon Martin gets back soon they can step up into that second tier in the West with Dallas and San Antonio. Except for that whole “going to trade Melo” thing.

11. Magic (16-10). Do you have any idea where this team will be ranked in two weeks? I don’t. Tough time to integrate new guys with the next four games being the Hawks, Mavericks, Spurs and Celtics.

12. Hornets (16-11). Moral victory against the Heat? Maybe if it wasn’t for falling to the Pistons on Sunday when they were without Rodney Stuckey and Rip Hamilton. New Orleans continues to slip and we’d blame the owner if there were one.

13. Knicks (16-12). Three straight losses as teams are just collapsing down on Stoudemire. The role players need to step up more consistently, and the Knicks need to get better backups for Stoudemire and Felton.

14. Blazers (14-14). There are going to be some trades to shake up this roster in the next two months. But is Andre Miller really a guy they are going to send out?

15. Suns (13-13). Marcin Gortat and Robin Lopez make a nice tandem at center and they can protect the paint. On the other side, at this point in their careers Vince Carter is no Jason Richardson in this system. Carter needs the ball in his hands, and that means it’s not in Nash’s.

16. Sixers (11-16). They are No. 16 with a bullet — they are 7-3 in their last 10 and would be are the eighth seed in the East if the playoffs started today. I think they’re going to make the playoffs, which is not something I would have said mid-November.

17. Rockets (12-15). They went 3-1 last week. Now they can forget about trying to integrate Yao and just go out and run. This is a fun team to watch when they just let it go.

18. Pacers (12-14). Danny Granger is averaging 18 points a game in the last 10 shooting 37.1 percent. Not efficient. But that sums up the Pacers right now (that and poor rebounding).

19. Grizzlies (12-16). Zach Randolph is averaging 2014 in his last 10. Why did I not draft him on to my fantasy team again?

20. Bucks (10-15). If you go 1-2 on the week against the Jazz, Mavericks and Spurs is that good? It could have been worse, I guess. Now they need to get by without Brandon Jennings for at least a month with a foot injury.

21. Bobcats (9-17). That gentle breeze you feel caressing your cheek? It’s trade winds coming to Charlotte and they are going to get stronger

22. Raptors (10-18). Well, at least Leandro Barbosa can hit half courters.

23. Pistons (9-19). They beat the Hawks and Hornets, then fall to the Clippers, so you tell me what is up with this team?

24. Warriors (9-17). David Lee averaging 15 points a game but on just 43.5 shooting in his last 10. There are nine boards a game too, from him.

25. Clippers (7-21). Two wins in a row on the road. You can’t stop the Clippers…

26. Nets (8-20). Sasha Vujacic may provide them some offensive spark — which shows you how bad their offense is.

27. Cavaliers (8-19). They are 1-9 in their last 10 but fought hard against the Heat and beat the Knicks. Maybe they are turning it back around.

28. Wizards (6-19). They needed to ship out Gilbert Arenas and make this John Wall’s team. Now they just need to get Wall back.

29. Timberwolves (6-22). They are 0-5 on a road trip but can salvage one win against the Clippers Monday. Love vs. Griffin.

30. Kings (5-20). In their last 10 games the Kings are shooting 43.9 percent, while their opponents are shooting 47.7 percent. You don’t win a lot of games with that kind of gap.

As expected, Denver’s Wilson Chandler to opt into $12.8 million next season

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Wilson Chandler played a workmanlike role for the Nuggets last season — more than 30 minutes a game (in 74 games), 10 points a night, shot 35.8 percent from three. His efficiency and value slipped from previous seasons but he still played a role for the team.

Not the kind of role that’s going to earn him a big payday as a free agent, so he will opt into the $12.8 million for next season, a story broken by Chris Haynes of ESPN.

Denver Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler will exercise his player option for the 2018-19 season, league sources tell ESPN.

Chandler, 31, is opting into a $12.8 million salary instead of entering free agency this summer. Denver was notified of his decision on Friday.

Chandler’s name has come up in trade discussions in recent years, and no doubt the Nuggets would be happy to move his salary now, too. However, in a tight financial market it’s unlikely that’s happening without Denver throwing in a sweetener, and that’s not likely either. So it will be another season of Chandler in Denver.

Deandre Ayton arrives as symbol that Suns are on the rise

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PHOENIX (AP) — Since the heady days of Steve Nash came to an end, there have been few signs of joy from a dwindling fan base that watched the Phoenix Suns tumble to the bottom of the NBA standings and miss the playoffs for the eighth year in a row.

Then came the announcement that Deandre Ayton would go to the Suns with the first overall pick. A huge cheer went up from the several thousand fans at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Thursday night for the draft party. General manager Ryan McDonough, owner Robert Sarver and coach Igor Kokoskov came out of their meeting room to watch and bask in that rare moment of sheer joy from the fans.

“It was a pretty special moment for our franchise,” McDonough said.

Not only that, but McDonough engineered a last-minute trade for swingman Mikal Bridges of Villanova, the 10th pick. It was a spendy move because Philadelphia demanded and got Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick. But the Suns are weary of stockpiling assets. It’s time to cash in, they figured, and did it with that trade.

“We weighed the pros and cons of trading it heavily and carefully,” McDonough said. “We were only going to put it in play if we had a chance to get a special player and that’s how we feel about McKell.”

All four of the Suns’ picks showed up on a crowded dais in Phoenix on Friday – Ayton, Bridges, French point guard Elie Okobo (chosen 31st) and forward George King of Colorado (the 59th selection).

The 7-foot-1 Ayton towered over the others, in a white unbuttoned collared shirt and a sharp blue suit, but he looked and sounded a bit weary from the whirlwind of being the No. 1 draft pick. His only sleep lately, he said, was a couple of hours on the plane ride from New York on Tuesday.

“I’m just excited to finally get a jersey on and be able to play five-on-five again,” Ayton said.

Ayton had been the frontrunner for the No. 1 pick ever since the draft lottery and any doubts were erased when he went through an individual workout with the Suns, the only team which he did so.

McDonough said that Ayton’s workout “in and of itself was as impressive as I’ve ever seen in my 16 drafts in the NBA.”

Ayton is seen as strictly a center, so how does he fit in the modern style of the NBA, when center plays is diminished and players are essentially interchangeable, is a question. Ayton replied that he’s no ordinary center.

“I don’t like it when people think I’m just a guy down low,” he said. “They haven’t watched me shoot the basketball.”

Ayton and Bridges say they got to know each other well at the college awards ceremony in Los Angeles but never figured they’d be on the same team.

“It’s like I’ve known him my whole life,” Bridges said.

Now comes the hard work, molding a team with Ayton, Devin Booker and Josh Jackson. A billboard of those three already has been erected downtown.

The Suns, so bad for so long, seem on the brink of being relevant.

“We’re very hungry,” Ayton said. “I think the great team chemistry and the work ethic that we have, especially us guys coming in, we’re going to bring it to the next level. We’ve got young lets. We can run all day. … We can really start a winning legacy.”

And Ayton is the reason for the sudden leap in optimism, even though he won’t turn 20 until next month.

“I embrace it a lot,” he said of the expectations placed upon him. “Through my career I’ve always had that on my shoulder, the expectations. I represent a whole nation (Bahamas) I just do that the best that I can and just help this community start over and be the best player I can possibly be. I just want to be the best great player.”

Kokoskov says Ayton possesses “a unique talent for the decades.”

Ayton said he wants “to be the best person on and off the court.”

Now the Suns move on to the next phase. Free agency starts July 1 and McDonough wants some veteran players to add to this very young core. He said the team should have $15 million to $20 million to spend.

“We were aggressive last night with the picks and the trade up to get Mikal,” McDonough said. “We’re going to continue to be aggressive for the next couple of weeks in free agency. We’ve got some money to spend and we’re looking to spend it on the best players we can get.”

Hornets GM Kupchak: Kemba Walker focal point of franchise going forward

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — General manager Mitch Kupchak wants point guard Kemba Walker to end his NBA career right where it started — with the Charlotte Hornets.

Kupchak said Friday that Walker is “revered” in the Charlotte community, and that he and owner Michael Jordan look at the two-time All-Star as “the focal point of this franchise going forward.”

The 28-year-old Walker has been the subject of possible NBA trade talks as he prepares to enter the final year of his contract with the Hornets. That speculation has amped up recently because it is a practical impossibility for Charlotte to sign Walker to an extension before he becomes a free agent in July of 2019 since the Hornets are so tight under the salary cap.

“I think everybody is aware of the situation, if you follow basketball a little bit, it is unique that he is on an extension that may make it a challenge going forward to figure out before he becomes a free agent,” Kupchak said.

At $12 million per year, Walker well underpaid when compared to the other top point guards in the league.

But that doesn’t mean Kupchak is giving up hope the team can keep Walker in Charlotte.

“I don’t think it is anybody’s goal to lose him in free agency,” Kupchak said. “But going forward, in the community, in the franchise, this is a player that we hope is with us – not only for the next couple of years, but ends his career here.”

The Hornets don’t have much experience behind Walker at point guard.

They have last year’s first-round draft pick Malik Monk and drafted Devonte Graham from Kansas in the second round on Thursday night.

Graham said he is excited to pick Walker’s brain when it comes to basketball.

“I have never met him, but I remember watching him play when he was at UConn though,” Graham said. “I’m just excited man to learn from someone like that and just be around someone like that who is winner, and knows how to win and compete. I am looking forward to being able to learn from him.”

 

Another report Spurs will not trade Kawhi Leonard within West

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The people around Kawhi Leonard made it clear (through leaks to the media, not by talking to the Spurs at first): Leonard wants out of San Antonio, and he wants to go to Los Angeles. Specifically, the Lakers.

Almost as quickly, the Spurs leaked that they were not going to trade Leonard to the Lakers or any team in the West.

Sam Amick of the USA Today echoed that sentiment in his discussion of LeBron James‘ offseason options on Saturday.

But in the days that followed, the Spurs wasted no time in sending this message all around the NBA: The only Western Conference team he might be playing for is theirs.

Fellow West teams have been told, in essence, to get lost – none moreso than the Lakers, according to ESPN. As it stands, the Spurs are determined to either fix the situation or trade Leonard to an Eastern Conference team.

Leonard has leverage here: He can tell teams he will not re-sign with them and will leave as a free agent. That will scare off most teams who don’t want to put in

Would it scare off Boston or Philadelphia? The rumor is no. Those teams have real interest in Leonard, and both have the assets to get a deal done and make the bet that a year in their cultures, with their coaches and top players, a year contending, and with their fans and city would win Leonard over. Just like Oklahoma City made that bet with Paul George. Also, whoever trades for Leonard will be able to offer a five-year, $188 million contract, while as a free agent the max will be four years, $137 million. For a guy who just missed almost an entire season with an injury, that guarantee can matter.

Boston could go all in on an offer — Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, the Kings first-round pick next season (top one protected) and the Clippers first round pick next year (lottery protected). Philadelphia could put together an offer of Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington, and Miami’s unprotected 2021 pick (the first year high schoolers likely re-enter the NBA draft, making it a deep one).

The question is would those team put in all those assets on a bet they would win Leonard over?

The other big looming question, when the offers start to come in will a rational Spurs front office reconsider and look at a trade from the Lakes of Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, a future first, and the contract of Luol Deng to balance out the numbers. Would they consider it superior because they like Ingram? (That trade may require a third team to take on Deng’s contract, and the Lakers might need to throw in Lonzo Ball or some other sweetener to get a team to take on Deng’s $36 million remaining.)

Expect the Spurs to take their time with this, try to win Leonard back over, then consider all their options. They are in no rush, in fact, they’d love to create a bidding war for Leonard. Any offer from Boston and Philadelphia on the table in July will be on the table in September when training camps open. The Lakers, however, may be in a very different space.

It’s going to be a very interesting next few weeks.