NBA Power Rankings: How about a Spurs vs. Bulls NBA finals?

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It still feels like with the top six teams you could flip a coin week to week on who is playing the best at any given moment. This week the coin came up Spurs.

1. Spurs (54-12, Last Week #4). After a loss to the Lakers a week ago Sunday they put together three nice wins, now comes a more interesting showdowns with the Heat Monday and Mavericks Friday.

2. Bulls (47-18, LW #5). Their defense has them 9-1 in their last 10 games and a real threat to come out of the East. And as long as they win the Derrick Rose for MVP train will keep picking up steam.

3. Lakers (47-20, LW #1). They lost to the Heat with poor execution at the end of the game. They solved that problem against the Mavericks by making sure it wasn’t close late. Lakers still 9-1 in their last 10. Lakers/Magic — and Andrew Bynum vs. Dwight Howard — will be interesting Monday night.

4. Mavericks (47-19, LW #3). They keep winning, the remain a contender, but then you watch the Lakers handle them with ease and you wonder if that is a playoff preview with this squad. Again.

5. Celtics (47-17, LW #2). The Celtics, with losses to the Clippers and Sixers last week, seem to be slumping toward the playoffs. They did that last year, too. More losses could be on the way — the banged up Celtics have five games in seven days starting Sunday night.

6. Heat (45-21, LW #8). They beat the Lakers and the hot Grizzlies in one week. They can beat good teams. They can prove it again this week with a lineup of Spurs, Thunder, Hawks and Nuggets.

7. Thunder (42-23, LW #7). No Jeff Green has meant more James Harden, and that’s a good thing as he is stepping up. He’s shooting 50.4 percent in the team’s last 10 games.

8. Magic (42-25, LW #6). They are your four seed in the East, almost certainly. The question is, do they want to match up with in the second round: the Celtics, Bulls or Heat?

9. Grizzlies (36-21, LW #9). Carmelo Anthony beating you at the buzzer, that happens. But the beat down from the Knicks was more concerning. The Griz can get revenge on the Knicks Thursday night.

10. Nuggets (39-27, LW #12). They are 7-2 since trading Carmelo Anthony and doing that against quality opponents. They are joining the Grizzlies as the team top squads would prefer to avoid in the first round.

11. Sixers (34-32, LW #11). You want to bump them up after beating the Heat, you want to drop them after they lose to the Bucks. So they stand pat, but they are still one of the better teams in the East since the All-Star break.

12. Blazers (37-29, LW #10). They start their road trip with wins over Miami and Orlando, then lose to the Bobcats and Heat. Brandon Roy is back, we’ll see if that steadies them.

13. Hornets (39-29, LW #13). Nice win over the Mavericks without Chris Paul. CP3 came back with big numbers against the Kings… but it was against the Kings. Please take with salt.

14. Knicks (34-31, LW #14). They beat a hot Mavs team and lose to the struggling Pacers. They remain wildly unpredictable.

15. Hawks (38-28, LW #15). Lately it is their offense that has gone into hibernation right as spring started.

16. Suns (33-21, LW #16). They remain just 1.5 games out of the last playoff spot in the West, but who are they going to catch? And the Suns need Nash back to have any shot, they are terrible without him.

17. Rockets (33-34, LW #17). Three games out of the last playoff spot in the West, but nobody above them is faltering. They are going to have to get very hot to have a shot.

18. Warriors (30-36, LW #20). The Warriors got wins last week with enough defense in the paint to slow Dwight Howard and Kevin Love. Did not expect that. The Warriors also had great passing from Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry in that Magic win.

19. Jazz (34-33, LW #18). Sorry Al Jefferson, but you guys are not making the playoffs.

20. Clippers 26-41, LW #22). Don’t look now but they are actually playing well again, and not just because of Blake Griffin. And they are doing it without Eric Gordon.

21. Bobcats (28-38, LW #21). The next three teams are within 1.5 games of each other fir the final playoff spot in the East. We rank them in order we think they will finish. They have Stephen Jackson and D.J. Augustin so we give them the edge, but they face some tough road games (Rockets, Thunder, Spurs) this week.

22. Bucks (26-39, LW #23). Before getting just destroyed by the Celtics Sunday they were playing the best of the three. They have to make up 1.5 games on the other two but if Brandon Jennings can spark they offense they can climb into that last spot

23. Pacers (28-38, LW #19). They looked terrible all week then found their shot and energy in Madison Square Garden. The bad news — Boston and Chicago on the schedule this week.

24. Nets (21-43, LW #24). Kris Humphries is going to make some money as a free agent next summer (or whenever the lockout ends), he is ballin’.

25. Timberwolves (17-51, LW #26). Kevin Love may actually play a little better with the pressure of the streak now gone.

26. Pistons (23-44, LW #25). I think the rotations are set by random lottery. They need to complete the sale of this team so some needed shakeups can happen.

27. Raptors (18-48, LW #27). Having Reggie Evans back soaking up rebounds helps. Not enough to get a few wins in a row but it helps.

28. Kings (15-49, LW #28). Just 8 home games left in Sacramento.

29. Cavaliers (12-53, LW #29). No Baron Davis for part of this week, and without him they really lack any threatening scorer on the floor that can consistently create his own shot.

30. Wizards (16-48, LW #30). They still just have one road win this season and 11 road games left on the schedule. They also have just one win in their last 11 overall.

Report: Rockets to be “aggressive” going after Jimmy Butler, do sign-and-trade with Capela, Gordon

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It is fully expected in league circles that come Sunday evening, when free agency opens, the Philadelphia 76ers are going to offer Jimmy Butler a five-year max contract at $189.7 million. Considering the Sixers are contenders, plus the facts Butler will be 30 next season and has a building history of injuries (not unexpected considering his hard-charging style of play), he may well jump at that offer.

The Houston Rockets are going to try hard to convince him to come to Houston with James Harden and Chris Paul.

That’s been reported for a while, but Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN added details and emphasis to that on Tuesday:

Once free agency starts on Sunday, the Rockets are planning to recruit Jimmy Butler to push the Philadelphia 76ers for a sign-and-trade deal that would allow the All-Star forward to join James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston, league sources tell ESPN.

The Rockets don’t have the salary-cap space to sign Butler, so they’d need the threat of the Sixers losing him for nothing to a team with the available room to motivate Philadelphia into a trade. The Rockets also would potentially need to make this a multiteam deal to satisfy the rules of base year compensation that would cover Butler’s outgoing salary…

Butler would be eligible to sign a four-year, $140 million contract on the way to the Rockets, but Houston likely would need to include two of these players — center Clint Capela, guard Eric Gordon and power forward P.J. Tucker — to make the financial deal work, sources said.

A few thoughts here:

• If Philadelphia balks at giving Butler a fifth guaranteed year on his new contract — which is reasonable, sources from other teams told me they would be scared of the fourth year of a max with him — that could push this closer to reality. If that fifth year is on the table, then Butler has a different choice to make.

• The other question here: Does Butler want out of Philadelphia? Because to head to Houston he would give up guaranteed money and leave a team clearly a contender for a more uncertain situation.

• As noted by Woj, Philly would only agree to a sign-and-trade if Butler told them he was leaving anyway so the Sixers might as well get something for him.

• Under the new CBA, Butler can sign “only” a four-year, $140 million contract for a sign-and-trade, he cannot get that fifth year and the larger raises the Sixers can offer then trade that contract to Houston. A sign-and-trade can only be for what the team receiving the player could have signed him for as a free agent.

• Jimmy Butler, James Harden, and Chris Paul all in one locker room with a lame duck coach. What could possibly go wrong?

• If Butler forced this to happen, it would not be the worst result ever for the Sixers. Eric Gordon would be a great fit (especially if J.J. Redick leaves in free agency) and Capela could be platooned with Joel Embiid up front, or traded for another player the Sixers see as a fit. Capela has real value around the league.

• Houston, however, would be giving up a lot to go all-in for the season the Warriors are down due to injuries (and maybe defections). This trade would hurt Houston’s depth and make them top heavy (how did that work for the Warriors this past Finals?), but with that big three they would need to be mentioned among the contenders in the West, no matter how the rest of free agency shakes out.

 

Cavaliers still look to trade, waive J.R. Smith before Sunday; He may ultimately be a Laker

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The math is simple: J.R. Smith is set to make $15.7 million next season, however, if he is waived before Sunday, the Cavaliers team — or whatever team he is a member of — only has to pay $3.9 million of that. For a team looking for salary cap savings in this fiscal year, that’s about as good a deal as can be found.

Which is why the Cavaliers listened to trade offers for Smith on draft night, but they didn’t jump at anything reports Chris Fodor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

The Cleveland Cavaliers entered Thursday night hoping to trade JR Smith, but turned down a few offers that would have returned a first-round pick, league sources tell cleveland.com…

As of now, the Cavs are still trying to make a deal, according to sources familiar with those conversations, but it’s complicated and it has to be the right move, as general manager Koby Altman laid out when recapping the NBA Draft late Thursday night.

“We’re definitely going to investigate what we can do there,” Altman said. “There’s a pain threshold of doing it, going into the tax, which we would have to do in terms of taking back money and the rest of the NBA knowing that we’re in the tax and my job would be getting us out of the tax.”

Those savings are why the Cavaliers may choose to just waive Smith themselves (in a trade they need to bring back $15 million or so in salary, so to pay the tax they need to get a player they really want). Cleveland understandably built a team on expensive, shorter contracts for veteran players around LeBron James — it helped bring them the 2016 title. Now they are still paying a price for that as they want to rebuild around youth, and Dan Gilbert doesn’t want to pay the luxury tax for a team that won 19 games last season.

One way or another, J.R. Smith is going to be a free agent.

Expect him to land with his old friend LeBron James and the Lakers, reports Chris Haynes at Yahoo sports.

That makes sense. However they go about filling out the roster, the Lakers are going to have a number of minimum contract players on the bench and they will want veterans who can play with LeBron. J.R. Smith may be in decline (he shot 30.8 percent from three last season), but he fits that bill and can still make a few plays. Kyle Korver is in that same mold, someone Haynes points to as a fit with the Lakers.

Still, the guys taking the minimum are doing it for a reason, which means the Lakers can’t miss on other players they spend real money on this July. GM Rob Pelinka doesn’t have a

Masai Ujiri: DeMar DeRozan and I put aside differences and embraced in February

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Still bitter about being traded (to the Spurs for Kawhi Leonard), DeMar DeRozan said in January he had no reason to speak to Raptors president Masai Ujiri.

DeRozan’s stance apparently softened when San Antonio played in Toronto in February.

Ujiri:

When San Antonio came here, I’ve never said this to anybody, but something unbelievable happened. DeMar came into our locker room, and to show you the class human being he is, he came up to me, and he hugged me, and he asked me how my family was doing.

It meant a lot for him to come and give me a hug. At the end of the day, this is life. Time heals things. And one day – I know I’m confident that one day, we’ll both sit down and talk about this.

Time heals nearly all wounds. Winning heals most wounds.

Ujiri has both on his side, and he didn’t even need the Raptors’ championship to get embraced by DeRozan. Ditto with Kyle Lowry, who rebelled in solidarity with his friend DeRozan but ultimately reconnected with Ujiri.

I always thought those days would come, and I share Ujiri’s optimism he and DeRozan will eventually have lengthier conversations. They’ve been through much together. Toronto’s title makes it even more difficult for DeRozan to hold a grudge. At some point, he will get on an even-better page with Ujiri.

As expected, Dallas reportedly set to offer Kristaps Porzingis max contract extension

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At his introductory press conference in Dallas, Kristaps Porzingis was asked if he planned to stay with the team as a free agent (there had been rumors he would take the one year, $4.5 million qualifying offer to become an unrestricted free agent, a rumor met with eye rolls around the NBA). Mark Cuban jumped in before Porzingis could answer the question:

“I can answer that for you. Yeah, he does.”

Dallas is about to put its money where Cuban’s mouth is and offer Porzingis a five-year max contract, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.

This was expected the day they traded for him. Dallas is betting big that Porzingis, coming off a torn ACL that cost him a season, can return to the form of an All-NBA level big man who plays 70+ games a season. The hope is in Porzingis and Luka Doncic the Mavs have their core for the future, their next Steve Nash/Dirk Nowitzki pairing.

Expect Dallas to be aggressive chasing free agents this summer as well, they have been linked to Kemba Walker and Kevin Durant, although as long shots. Patrick Beverley and some other mid-level role players could be in Dallas future, and turn them into a dangerous team.