NBA Power Rankings: Celtics, Spurs drop at regular season’s end

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At the top would be every lazy sports columnist’s dream finals matchup — the Lakers versus the Bulls in Phil Jackson’s final year. (Well, final year for now, anyway). But do you really think the recent struggles of the Celtics and Spurs tell you much about those teams in the playoffs?

1. Lakers (53-20, LW #1). They’ve won seven in a row, only one loss since the All-Star break, and are now just four games back of the Spurs (losers of three in a row). That leaves the Lakers are four games back with nine to play, it would still take a miracle to catch the Spurs, but you can start talking about it now.

2. Bulls (53-19, LW #3). Winners of four in a row and gaining a lot of confidence heading into the playoffs. Which as a team entering its first playoffs as a unit matters more than it does for some of the veteran units that are contenders. We had questions about the Bulls offense but it has been improved lately.

3. Heat (51-22, LW #5). Winners of five in a row, eight of their last 10 and the big three are playing well together. Six of those wins came against playoff teams, but seven of their final nine are against teams below .500 so don’t be shocked if they push the Bulls for the top seed.

4. Thunder (48-24, LW #6). Kendrick Perkins made some plays against the Blazers Sunday. OKC is coming together at the right time but are poised to face Denver in the first round. Denver will be a tough out.

5. Mavericks (52-21, LW #7). Odd stat of the week, the Mavs are 15-0 when Peja Stojakovic plays at least 15 minutes.

6. Magic (47-26, LW #8). Five straight wins and the best center in the game, solid four seed, but nobody mentions them among the contenders in the East. You’ll see more Gilbert Arenas this week, which may not be best for then Magic.

7. Spurs (57-16, Last Week #2). Three straight losses with no Tim Duncan (and they lost Manu for much of Sunday, even though that is not as serious). What matters is getting both healthy by the playoffs, but that may costs them games now. Doesn’t matter because the Lakers can’t make up four games in the remaining nine… can they?

8. Celtics (51-21, LW #4). They are struggling coming into the playoffs. Fooled us once with that trick, we’re not falling for it again. But, they need to get Shaq back with a few games under his belt before the playoffs.

9. Nuggets (44-29), LW #11). He’s not going to win it (Tom Thibodeau is with the Bulls), but George Karl has to move on to your Coach of the Year ballot now.

10. Blazers (42-31, LW #9). Damn that Gerald Wallace trade was brilliant. He can score and with him and Nicolas Batum they can defend the forward spots very well. There are going to be no easy outs for the West’s top teams in the first round.

11. Grizzlies (41-33, LW #10). They went 2-1 against the Spurs, Celtics and Bulls last week. They are going to make the playoffs, and read the Blazers note about tough outs in the West.

12. Sixers (37-36, LW #12). There was a time a couple weeks ago when the Sixers looked like a dangerous team in the first round. Not so much any more.

13. Rockets (38-35, LW #13). They are 7-3 in their last season and playing with a real push for the playoffs, but nobody in the west is coming back to them at all. They are 2.5 games back of Memphis, which has an easy schedule from here on out.

14. Hawks (42-32, LW #15). The Hawks are coasting to a five seed in the playoffs. Which should last about one round for them.

15. Hornets (42-32, LW #14). No David West the rest of the way, and that makes for an undersized front line of Emeka Okafor and Carl Landry. That is an anagram for “we’re in trouble now.” (Well, it should be an anagram of that.) They are 3.5 games ahead of the Rockets.

16. Suns (36-36, LW #17). This summer, we are starting a “free Steve Nash” campaign. Vince Carter has gone to the bench, as it should be.

17. Jazz (36-38, LW #18). Their defense has been a disaster since the trade. Disaster.

18. Knicks (35-34, LW #16). They are 3.5 games ahead of the eight-seed pacers and 4.5 ahead of the nine-seed Bobcats, they are almost certainly not falling out of the playoffs. But their defense remains terrible and now the offense is joining it.

19. Bobcats (30-42, LW #23). They beat the Celtics and Knicks last week to keep their playoff hopes alive, but they need to beat the Bucks Monday to make sure they stay alive. They remain one game back of the Pacers for the last spit.

20. Warriors (32-42, LW #19). Of the teams on the bottom third of this bracket, this is the one we can recommend watching. They are very, very entertaining right now, with Monta Ellis leading the way.

21. Pacers (32-42, LW #20). About the only thing that is consistent about them is a good game from Tyler Hansbrough.

22. Clippers (29-45, LW #22). Eric Gordon is back and it makes you wonder: Is this really a playoff team with him healthy? There are still a lot of questions.

23. Bucks (29-43, LW #21). They are not out of the playoffs mathematically, but six of their next seven are on the road and they are 10-24 this season away from home.

24. Kings (20-52, LW #27). They just went 4-1 on their latest road trip. I’m sure that is generating a lot of excitement in Anaheim.

25. Pistons (26-47, LW #24). You know Detroit, if you had played Rip Hamilton more before the trade deadline, and he played like this, you might have been able to move him.

26. Nets (23-49, LW #25). Fun game Wednesday in New York. What is the over/under on Brook Lopez rebounds against the weak Knicks front line? Seven?

27. Raptors (20-53, LW #26). The worst defensive team in the league. Just wanted to reiterate that.

28. Cavaliers (14-58, LW #29). Joe Tait was back in the radio broadcast booth this week. That is a win for Cleveland.

29. Wizards (17-55, LW #30). JaVale McGee is getting his blocks lately. Rebounding be damned.

30. Timberwolves (17-57, LW #28). Losers of seven straight and no Kevin Love for the remainder of the season. Anthony Randolph teased with his talents for a game then ran into the reality of Kevin Garnett.

Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta calls luxury tax ‘horrible hindrance’

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No matter what Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta said, the luxury tax clearly loomed over Houston’s entire offseason. It’s the biggest reason the Rockets fell back in their pursuit of the Warriors.

So, how does Fertitta explain his view on the luxury tax now?

Kelly Iko of The Athletic:

Fertitta:

It’s a horrible hindrance.

And if any of y’all ever want to really understand it, go do the math on it. I mean, it’s just brutal. You can take 5 million, and all of a sudden you look up, and it costs you 20 million.

And at some point, you have to be smart, and you cannot get into the repeater tax, which happens if you’ve been in the luxury tax three years in a row. And that’s something to really look at. And at some point, you have to do some things so you never go in the repeater tax. You’re just dead in the water, and it can ruin your franchise for years. So, it’s something you have to be cognizant of.

At the same time, a team is built is on superstars. If you have your top four or five players, you can always see other players move in and out.

Because it is a chess game playing with the luxury tax. That’s why there’s only three or teams in it.

This year, to be able to make sure that we hopefully get back to the Western Conference finals, we were going to have to be in it around many millions of dollars. And I am here to win championships, and I’m not going to let 5 or 10 or 15 or 20 million dollars make a difference. Because if you do win the championship, that’s easy money back.

Now, if we’re in the luxury tax every year and we’re barely getting into the playoffs and a first-round game is a struggle, then I’m going to go find me a new general manger.

Let’s be clear: Fertitta will spend a significant amount on the Rockets this season. They’re over the luxury-tax line and will very likely remain there once the tax is assessed on the final day of the regular season. Fertitta greenlit one of the league’s largest payrolls.

But his arguments about the repeater rate are lacking.

Teams pay the repeater rate when paying the tax for at least the fourth time five seasons. It doesn’t matter how far over the tax they were in those prior seasons. So, while Houston – which has a completely clean repeater clock – wants to avoid paying the repeater rate down the road, incremental savings this season won’t matter for that. Unless the Rockets avoid the tax completely, which is highly unlikely, this season will count as a tax-paying season.

Houston’s key losses – Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute – left for one-year contracts elsewhere. Keeping them would have been expensive this year, but they would have triggered no additional costs later.

Again, re-signing those forwards would have pushed the Rockets’ payroll extremely high. It might be reasonable for Fertitta to place his spending limits where he did. But it should have nothing to do with the repeater tax.

It’s OK if Fertitta doesn’t know the exact ins and outs of the luxury tax. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey does and handles it. But the degree to which Fertitta is willing to pay the tax is so important to Houston’s title chances, it’s worth assessing everything he says about it.

“Horrible hindrance” and “just brutal” speak loudly.

Kawhi Leonard lays out roadmap for Raptors keeping him

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Kawhi Leonard laughed at his own answer to a reporter questioning how Leonard would describe himself to a Toronto market that doesn’t know him. “It’s just more questions you have to ask me in order for me to tell you about myself. I just can’t give you a whole spiel. I don’t even know where you’re sitting at.” Leonard talked about his excitement for getting traded to the Raptors, a “great organization” in a “great city.” He smiled big while posing for pictures.

Most importantly, he described what it’d take for Toronto to re-sign him next summer.

“By winning games,” Leonard said, “this is how you get star-caliber players to want to come here and play.”

The Raptors can do that.

They’ve won at least 48 games the last five years, peaking with 59 wins last season. Leonard, Kyle Lowry and a deep supporting cast should rank near the top of the Eastern Conference again.

But will Toronto win enough – especially in the playoffs, where disappointing results have become the norm – to get Leonard to sign on the dotted line?

For now, Leonard wants to focus on the present, including his current thoughts on Toronto: “I want to play here.” That means not meaningfully reflecting publicly on his time with the Spurs other than to say he has no regrets. It means not addressing Los Angeles rumors.

“If you’re looking in the future, you’re going to trip over the present,” Leonard said.

The present looks bright for the Raptors. Kyle Lowry re-signed last summer. DeMar DeRozan made clear how badly he wanted to stay. Leonard is in Toronto now.

At one point during today’s (delayed) introductory press conference, Raptors president Masai Ujiri interjected without being asked a question.

“Guys, the narrative of not wanting to come to this city is gone,” Ujiri said, his voice rising far louder than the low-talking Leonard’s had all morning. “I think that’s old. Believe in this city. Believe in yourselves.”

And, at this point, believe Leonard when he said winning is the key to re-signing him. Maybe he’ll still leave, but winning gives Toronto the best chance to keep him.

“I came here with an open mind,” Leonard said. “I want to do great things.”

Raptors right to swing for fences with Kawhi Leonard

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Raptors are one step closer.

To seriously contending for a championship? To actually rebuilding?

We’ll see.

But Toronto is racing toward a resolution, one way or another.

Last offseason, the Raptors positioned themselves for a breaking point in the summer of 2020. They gave Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka three-year contracts, matching the timeline of Jonas Valanciunas‘ contract ending. The hitch was DeMar DeRozan‘s huge deal, which ran through 2021. If it reached the point Toronto president Masai Ujiri wanted to retool in 2020, perhaps DeRozan wouldn’t be as appealing on the trade market. Keeping DeRozan – central to the Raptors’ identity – could have been even more limiting.

So, Ujiri got ahead of that potential problem by trading DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a top-20-protected first-round pick for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.

The move was extremely risky. Leonard missed nearly all of last due to injury. He can become an unrestricted free agent next summer, and he’s reportedly eying Los Angeles.

But Leonard is just 27 and only one season removed from being an MVP candidate. He could lift Toronto to a championship this season. He could re-sign. The upside is so high.

The downside is starting a rebuild that probably would have come anyway.

First, the Raptors will give it their best shot this season.

They re-signed Fred VanVleet – the driving force behind their excellent bench – to a two years, $18 million contract. That likely assures aying the luxury tax for the first time since 2004, though there’s still time to shed salary before the tax is assessed on the final day of the regular season.

Greg Monroe was a very nice addition at the minimum. If all goes well, he might even allow Toronto to dump Valanciunas’ salary.

And don’t forget about Green, who’s a solid contributor on the wing, not just a throw-in with Leonard.

Firing Dwane Casey to hire first-time NBA head coach Nick Nurse was another risk. I wonder whether Ujiri would have done it if he knew he’d acquire Leonard later in the summer.

The Raptors could be excellent this season and beyond. They could be excellent this season then fall off dramatically. They could be far worse this season and stay down a while.

But after years of strong regular seasons and playoff disappointments, it was time to change the status quo.

Fortune favors the bold.

 

 

Offseason grade: A

Heat camp arrives, and Goran Dragic says he’s more than ready

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MIAMI (AP) — This time last year, Miami’s Goran Dragic was already tired and the season was just getting started.

It’s very different now.

When the Heat hold their first practice of the season Tuesday, Dragic expects to be as rested and ready as he’s been for any training camp in years. The point guard who went to his first All-Star Game last season wore down as the year went along, in part because of the grind he put himself through last summer while leading his native Slovenia to the European championship.

This summer, he played less – and is hoping that pays off this season.

“I feel amazing. I feel great,” Dragic said. “I think one of the smartest moves I made was retiring from the national team, because I feel energized and pumped for this season. I always kind of hit a wall toward the end of a season, but I feel like this season is going to be a totally different story.”

At 32, Dragic is Miami’s third-oldest player – among those in the Heat locker room, only Udonis Haslem (38) and the entering-his-final-season Dwyane Wade (36) have seen more birthdays. But Dragic is still a starter, still a very intregal part of everything Miami envisions for this season, and is coming off a year where he averaged 17.3 points.

“The band is still together,” Dragic said. “I’m very happy that I’ll be part of this last dance with Dwyane.”

The biggest malady Dragic was dealing with at the end of last season was tendinitis in his right knee, something that bothered him for several weeks. He still led Miami in scoring during its five-game playoff appearance against Philadelphia, averaging 18.6 points.

He wasn’t the only Heat starter ailing when last season ended. Josh Richardson was playing through a bad shoulder, Hassan Whiteside had knee problems, James Johnson had a sports hernia and Tyler Johnson‘s thumb needed surgery. The Heat – who are one of the many teams that have been talking to Minnesota about a trade for Jimmy Butler – are hoping some health luck comes their way this season.

“I think we’re going to be good,” Dragic said.

If nothing else, he’s not coming into this season as harried as he was last fall. Dragic has been back in Miami for about a month, after spending most of his offseason in Slovenia. A year ago, the European championships meant Dragic was still playing right up until the start of Heat camp.

It wasn’t a popular decision in Slovenia for Dragic to stop playing for the national team, which didn’t qualify for the 2019 FIBA World Cup of Basketball in China and now faces an uphill climb if it’s going to reach the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“But it was the right decision for me,” Dragic said.

The Heat sat out this past June’s NBA Draft in part because of the deal they made in 2015 to bring Dragic to Miami. The package sent to Phoenix included two first-round selections, the first of which was used this year at the No. 16 overall spot. The other will be used in 2021.

The price was steep, and the Heat aren’t complaining.

“I’d much rather have Goran Dragic than those two picks,” Heat President Pat Riley said.

Dragic is hoping to give Riley even more bang for his buck this season.

The All-Star nod – even though it came as an injury replacement – was particularly meaningful for Dragic, and he felt that last season was one of his better seasons anyway.

His goal for this season is simple: Be even better.

“I want to be at a high level for as long as possible,” Dragic said. “If you come into a season without goals, you’re just going through practice and it doesn’t mean anything to you. But if you set goals, you’re pushing yourself. And for me personally, my goal is to have a better season than I did last year. I don’t want to drop a little bit at the end this season. I want to be energized, fresher, more consistent the whole way this time.”