NBA Power Rankings: How would you feel about a Spurs/Celtics NBA finals?

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Our weekly NBA Power Rankings, where we’re thinking that the finals could be Spurs and Celtics because no teams are executing anywhere near their level right now in crunch time.

1. Spurs (40-7). They are now 7.5 games ahead of the second place Lakers in the Western Conference (and 4 ahead of Boston for the best record overall). They will be the West’s top seed. Here is the real question: Can they beat the Lakers in a seven-game series? They certainly can beat the Lakers team that played Sunday.

2. Celtics (36-11). Boston looked pretty disinterested in Portland and Phoenix last week, but when they took the court against the Lakers Sunday they were ready. That win was about the team that executed better in the final six minutes, and it was all Boston.

3. Heat (33-14). They actually had everyone healthy for a game this weekend, the first time for that in a while. Some interesting rematches for them this week against the Magic and Clippers.

4. Bulls (33-14). Kurt Thomas is playing much better than I thought possible. He’s averaging 8 points and 8 rebounds a game, shooting 63 percent, over the last 10 Bulls games. Chicago is 8-2 in that stretch.

5. Magic (31-17). They are just 1-4 against teams over .500 in January. Is this team still figuring everything out with the new pieces of Gilbert Arenas and Jason Richardson, or are they just not good enough to be contenders?

6. Lakers (33-15). The schedule is about to get really tough for the Lakers — lots of road games and they have 23 games left against teams over .500 and only 11 against teams under that mark. Either their execution is going to come together against those better teams or they are going to slip. And if they slip at all against these Spurs they are not getting back to the finals.

7. Mavericks (31-15). Before the season Mark Cuban raved about the depth of the Mavericks. Last week they got wins thanks to big offensive games from Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea. Cuban was right.

8. Hornets (31-18). Chris Paul is clutch, but the Hornets lost a couple of heartbreakers last week.

9. Thunder (30-17). Their recent run has been all about Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who have averaged 58 points a game combined over the last 10. The rest of the team is scoring 56.8 per game in that same stretch.

10. Hawks (30-18). If Josh Smith wanted to make an All-Star push, his play against the Bucks was not how to go about it. He tried to take over that game late and tanked. Good news is Joe Johnson has found his groove.

11. Nuggets (28-19). They have found balance — in their last 10 games seven players have averaged double digits in scoring. They are 7-3 in the last 10.

12. Jazz (28-20). It just feels like the wheels are starting to come off. Deron Williams has missed two games with a wrist injury and they need him back fast if they are going to turn this thing around.

13. Blazers (25-22). At least the two guys who had MRI’s last week didn’t suffer major injuries. Really, when was the last time the Blazers had a couple good MRI results in a row?

14. Knicks (25-22). The win over Miami was a statement win, as much as you can really have one of those in January. More and more they look like a playoff lock — and if they don’t pick up Donnie Walsh’s contract they deserve what befalls them.

15. Grizzlies (24-24). No O.J. Mayo for 10 games is not as huge a loss as he was only giving them 9.2 points a game on 40.5 percent shooting in the last 8 he played.

16. Sixers (21-26). There is just no way this team trades Andre Iguodala as they fight for a playoff berth. The rumors will circulate but the Sixers are currently the seven seed and just one game up on the nine seed Bucks. They are not going to throw in the towel unless the offer is just too good to ignore.

17. Suns (22-24). Don’t look now but they are 7-3 in their last 10. So why did they slide down in the rankings? Because they lost to the Sixers and the Knicks snapped their losing streak and jumped them. It happens.

18. Bobcats (20-26). D.J. Augustin is like a new player under Paul Silas, and it changes who the Bobcats are in a good way.

19. Bucks (20-26). They have a three-game winning streak and have outscored their opponents 101.7 to 93.7 in that stretch.

20. Clippers (18-28). They are really going to miss Eric Gordon. Randy Foye is a nice enough replacement but it’s not the same.

21. Rockets (22-27). They are four games out of the final playoff spot in the West. The only way they are making that ground up is if Carmelo Anthony falls to them.

22. Warriors (20-27). We’d like to think Golden State turned a defensive corner against the Jazz Sunday, but that really was a lot more about how bad Utah is right now on offense.

23. Pistons (17-31). Free Rip Hamilton! (We’re just going to keep writing that every week here until it happens.)

24. Kings (12-33). Wins over the Lakers and the Hornets in the same week — and the Kings looked good doing it. They are playing their best ball of the season.

25. Pacers (17-27). Look for them to have a little bump in performance under interim coach Frank Vogel — mid-season coaching changes often do that.

27. Nets (14-34). Two wins this week moved them past last season’s win total (12) before the All-Star Game.

27. Wizards (13-33). Still no road wins (and they almost got one by knocking off the Thunder of all teams). John Wall is shooting 38.2 percent in his last 10. Maybe he should eat something other than Doritos.

28. Timberwolves (11-36). I think Kevin Love should be an All-Star reserve.

29. Raptors (13-35). The losing streak is up to 11, and that sad excuse for a zone defense is not the answer.

30. Cavaliers (8-39). No team has ever gone from the best record in the league to the worst in one season. That’s about to change. Sadly with 20 losses in a row now, teams are getting up for the Cavs because they fear being the team that loses to them and ends the streak.

Lakers loving LeBron’s leadership in first practice together

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) Although the Lakers’ first official practice of the LeBron James era was focused on defense and learning new terminology, they ended it with a good old-fashioned 3-point shooting contest.

The Lakers’ new superstar was just another teammate during the spirited back-and-forth competition Tuesday. When James wasn’t draining his own 3s, he marveled along with everybody else at the surprising perimeter prowess shown by JaVale McGee, the 7-foot veteran with exactly one 3-pointer during a game in his 10-year NBA career.

The Lakers have many weeks of work ahead to become a cohesive team assembled around James, but he can already sense they’re heading down the right path. They’re planning to have plenty of fun along the way, too.

“I’m not a very patient guy, but I understand that I have to be patient right now,” James said. “I’ve got to be patient with myself, too, because this is a new start for me. It’s my first year in a new system. I know how to play the game of basketball, but this is all new to me, too. So I have to be patient with myself, not only with my teammates.”

James was both upbeat and businesslike after his first workout under coach Luke Walton, who entered the NBA in the same draft class as James in 2003. The Lakers will hold double practices and a scrimmage on the first two days of camp leading toward their preseason debut in San Diego on Sunday night.

James intends to enjoy the process in his new city.

“We’re here for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to someday hoist the trophy,” James said. “Obviously that’s the end of the road, but you have to have those types of championship habits every day, not only on the floor, but off the floor as well. … Everyone is excited to get back to work. That’s a good thing. No one is coming in today and wishing it was still summer. It’s the best time of the year. Basketball season is back up, baseball season is on its way to the playoffs, and the NFL is in Week 4. So what could you ask for as a sports fan?”

James naturally becomes the center of attention on any team, and he quickly assumed a leadership role for the Lakers. He’s also eager to see his veteran teammates assert themselves to help the Lakers’ young returning core, whether it’s Rajon Rondo instructing his fellow guards on assignments, or Lance Stephenson vocally calling out defensive instructions in half-court work.

“He’s LeBron. He’s one name,” Rondo said. “It speaks for itself. He’s been a leader and a mentor in this league for a long time, on and off the court. He has a blueprint off the court as well. So he embraces his role. He embraces all the pressure that he’s ever dealt with in his career, and he’s always risen above the occasion.”

Although Walton and James are just getting to know each other, the coach is grateful that his new star is leading by example from the opening practice.

The Lakers have lacked this level of respected on-court leadership in the two seasons since Kobe Bryant’s retirement, but LeBron and his fellow new veterans have strong ideas about how an NBA team must approach its work to be a winner.

“I could see it yesterday,” Walton said. “The way he’s approaching (practice) has changed from the pickup we were playing in the summer. It definitely set the tone. We’re on a journey that started today, and we’re very serious about the business that we got done today.”

More AP NBA: http://www.apnews.com/tag/NBA and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Sports

Dion Waiters looks a little out of shape as training camp starts (PHOTO)

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Each summer in the NBA we have to sit around and watch as players seemingly add pounds of muscle to their body. Over the course of the season, this added muscle typically melts away as players spend less time in the weight room and start running more than ever.

#MuscleWatch is a hilarious and staid part of the summer. But its cousin, Weight Watch, is a bit different.

On the flip side, some players show up in worse shape than they ended the season prior. Boris Diaw used to be the king of the early fall extra poundage. Now it appears that Miami Heat wing Dion Waiters is carrying a little bit of baggage with him as he starts training camp.

When Waiters’ headshot was published this week, Twitter had a bit of a field day with it.

Via Twitter:

This is not to body shame Waiters in anyway of course. As an athlete, his body is up for intense scrutiny with regard to his readiness for the season. And, how Waiters looks heading into training camp is markedly different than how he looked last summer.

No doubt when training camp starts, Waiters will get himself into shape and he will be ready to play by the time games start in October. Still, it’s always shocking to see a professional athlete add some lbs.

Damian Lillard says he started breaking Twitter news to put the ‘shoe on the other foot’

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Damian Lillard surprised us all this summer when he shockingly started tweeting out new destinations for media members as they changed jobs. It was a twist on the typical script, which would normally see journalists break news about athletes.

It was a fun moment on social media, and most people sort of shrugged it off as Lillard reporting information fed to him by members of the media who could be considered his friends.

Left unsaid was the place Lillard’s newsbreaking had with regard to the natural opposition some NBA players feel toward the media. No doubt Lillard getting to break some news instead of having news broken about him gave him some kind of satisfaction. While speaking to The Athletic’s Sam Amick this week, Lillard said as much.

Via The Athletic:

It was just a case of putting the shoe on the other foot. I think there’s a lot of stuff that we go through as players, or a story might come out that might have a little bit of truth, but somebody adds (to it) or put their own spin on it or whatever. We don’t have a chance to say, ‘No, I don’t want that to get out. Yeah, it happened, or yeah that’s accurate but I don’t really want that story to be told at the moment. I don’t want to have to deal with that right now. Our situation is just not considered a lot of times.

I’m just basically showing you how it feels to be vulnerable, I guess, or to be at somebody else’s mercy about something that you might not want out.

… It’s almost like anybody can report anything now. I’m not a journalist, I’ve never done this before, but all of a sudden I can report something and it’s fair game, you know what I’m saying? Why is that even respected? Now if it was CJ, that’s one thing, he went to school for journalism, and he does that. He does podcasts, and he writes articles and things like that. I don’t, so that was part of it. Anybody can drop this information.

Lillard isn’t exactly wrong here. Modern journalism is so skewed from what it once was, it’s hard for those in the industry to even keep track of who is reliable and who is not. The availability of social media and mobile audio and visual capture means that just about every citizen can relay first-hand information quickly. And while it’s a bit of a stretch for Lillard to say that his teammate CJ McCollum is more journalistically reliable than he is, the Blazers star seemingly becoming frustrated with the idea of journalism-as-horsetrading strikes home.

As professional sports across the world have grown in value, and truly become multibillion-dollar businesses, so too has the public relations aspect of professional sports. Beat reporters no longer fly on team planes, and everyone from the athletes to the teams and the agents want to try to control the message. That has driven a wedge between sports journalists and athletes in today’s coverage.

Even Lillard’s description of his reason for dropping his information came, in part, from a stated desire for better public relations management. That is, that stories often are not narrowed to information the athlete wants available, and may come at inconventient time for athletes.

Of course, “I don’t really want that story to be told at the moment” isn’t a good reason not to publish something. That’s what delineates journalists from public relations. But in an era where high-powered media entities wield power with information that is, altruistically, perhaps more trivial than necessary, it seems possible that the pillar on which journalistic ethics once stood has slowly begun to erode. If that’s the case, it’s reasonable to think there are times which you can’t blame players on being upset with writers.

Who knows if Lillard will continue to dip his toes in the news breaking pool? The season is not far away, and he’s probably too busy working out.

Report: Cavaliers, Larry Nance Jr. talking contract extension

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When the Cavaliers made the trade deadline deal with the Lakers last February, they got Larry Nance Jr. (the son of a Cavs legend) and Jordan Clarkson (surrendering Channing Frye, Isaiah Thomas and a 2018 1st round draft pick that became Moritz Wagner).

Nance is the one the Cavaliers seem intent on keeping, and they may extend him, reports Tom Withers of the Associated Press.

This seems like a good fit for both sides, if they can find a number that works. The Cavaliers are committed to not bottoming out right now — which is why Kevin Love got a new massive contract — and Nance fits with that.

This is not going to be a max contract, but Nance has made it clear he likes playing in Cleveland and wants to stay. After he came over last season he averaged 8.9 points on 55 percent shooting, 7 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and 1.4 steals a game. Those numbers could go up with LeBron James no longer in the picture.