NBA Power Rankings: Mavericks start out season on top

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Welcome to our inaugural power rankings for the 2011-12 NBA season (a regular Monday feature at PBT). These are fun if ultimately meaningless — in the NBA we have a playoff system to decide who is best (are you listening college football?). This is a preseason ranking, so remember that when you get mad about where your team is ranked.

1. Mavericks (last season 57-25). The defending champions always get to start out on top. The Mavericks are going to be a very good regular season team again — Lamar Odom gives them some real versatility — but how much will they miss Tyson Chandler in the playoffs?

2. Heat (58-24). They made it to the finals and added Shane Battier. In the playoffs last year this team seemed to really figure out how to play together, expect that to carry over to the regular season.

3. Bulls (62-20). Best regular season record in the NBA and they added Richard Hamilton. No team went harder in the regular season last year, but when it got to the playoffs they didn’t have another gear. Will that change this time around?

4. Thunder (55-27). This is a team that won 18 of 22 down the stretch last year and went to the Western Conference finals. Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka make them able to match up with the big front lines in the West and they have that Kevin Durant guy.

5. Lakers (57-25). They will miss the depth of Lamar Odom off the bench, but this is still a team that boasts as good a front line as there is in the league with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, plus they have Kobe Bryant on the wing. Look for L.A. to be a more physical defensive team this year.

6. Knicks (42-40). They won free agency by signing Tyson Chandler, who will turn them from a bad to average defensive team. Plus, he will change their pick and roll game because he sets a mountain of a pick and then rolls hard. Not that Toney Douglas knows what to do with it.

7. Celtics (56-26). Amazing starters but not a lot of depth here, we’ll see how that impacts them as the season wears on. I’m expecting a big year for Brandon Bass.

8. Grizzlies (46-36). Expectations are high. After Rudy Gay went down last season the Griz found an identity working the ball inside out, can they now integrate Gay into that or will it throw off their system?

9. Spurs (61-21). They were the best team in the West last regular season, but they didn’t have the size up front to stop a team with a big front line in the playoffs. A team like Memphis. That hasn’t changed.

10. Clippers (32-50). This honestly may be too high a ranking for them, but like everyone else we are excited to see the Chris Paul/Blake Griffin pick-and-roll. The real question is how well this team defends.

11. Blazers (48-34). This is a good team that added Jamal Crawford. They lack the superstar to get them over the top, but you underestimate them at your own peril.

12. Magic (52-30). They still have the single best big man in the league in Dwight Howard. At least for now. I’d say the swirling trade rumors around the team will hurt them on the court, but really it’s their roster that does that more.

13. Nuggets (50-32). They are fielding the best team in China (J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin and Wilson Chandler are all still there). Keeping Nene was huge for this team.

14. Sixers (41-41). They took steps forward last year under coach Doug Collins, but can they do that again? Will the roster let them take that step forward?

15. Hawks (44-38). No Jamal Crawford is going to hurt them. But at least with Mike Bibby gone Jeff Teague finally gets to be the point guard here.

16. Rockets (43-39). The best team not to make the playoffs last season. They should be about the same. GM Daryl Morey is looking under every rock for a big man to sign.

17. Pacers (37-45). Great pick up with David West, if he is back anywhere near his old form the Pacers move up in the Eastern rankings.

18. Bucks (35-47). Last season it seemed everyone on their roster was injured. This team defends like mad, if they can stay healthy they are a team you don’t want in the first round of the playoffs. Good center, good point guard, good defense.

19. Suns (40-42). They were able to keep Grant Hill and pair him with Steve Nash in a remake of the Over The Hill Gang.

20. Warriors (36-46). Hands down, man down. Momma, there goes that man. They just gotta come out and compete.

21. Jazz (39-43). The Derrick Favors and Al Jefferson front line is worth watching.

22. Kings (24-58). There is so much potential on this roster, and I am in no way convinced they can bring it all together. Do you trust the Tyreke Evans/DeMarcus Cousins combo to bring it every night?

23 Wizards (23-59). I expect John Wall to have a monster, breakout sophomore campaign. But it is JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche that decide how good this team is and how far it goes.

24. Nets (24-58). How will the trade rumors that will surround this team all season impact them on the court? This team looks better on paper than it does on the court, and I don’t love it on paper.

25. Pistons (30-52). I like the Lawrence Frank hiring, but he has a mountain of work ahead of him.

26. Timberwolves (17-65). They could be this year’s Clippers — entertaining to watch but not going to win a lot of games.

27. Hornets (46-36). They got some nice building blocks from the Clippers, but there is a lot of building to do. And until they have an owner none of that building really starts in earnest.

28. Raptors (22-60). How big a step forward can DeMar DeRozan take this season?

29. Cavaliers (19-63). Kyrie Irving is going to be thrown to the wolves this season, but there is not a whole lot around him.

30. Bobcats (34-48). Sorry MJ, but this is not a good team that has had a rash of injuries and has a disgruntled star.

Doc Rivers says Paul George will be out for the first 10 games

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We are expecting not to see Paul George on the court with Kawhi Leonard in a Los Angeles Clippers uniform until November. But until this week, we didn’t have a good idea about when George could return over the course of the next month.

Speaking to reporters this week, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers let it slip that George could miss up to the first 10 games of the regular season. That would put George at a tentative return date of Nov. 13 against the Houston Rockets.

Via Twitter:

The Clippers are still expected to be one of the best teams in the NBA, and the real question heading into the first several weeks of the season will be how much they allow Leonard to sit out due to load management if George is not on the floor.

The real question in Los Angeles — on both sides of the hall at Staples Center — will be about health, and the Clippers know that it’s not how you start the season but how you finish. It seems likely they will wait until George is fully ready to return to action rather than rushing him back from dual shoulder surgery.

Kyle Kuzma reportedly cancelled plans to announce Chinese sponsorships

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Tensions are still high between the NBA and China, and both sides are hoping that things return to normal soon. Whether that’s possible is another thing altogether, particularly with how raw the response to the NBA has been by domestic fans concerned with the NBA sticking to its stated principles with regard to social justice.

This has affected not just the league, but players too. James Harden and Russell Westbrook were involved in an incident where an official shut down a legitimate question by a CNN reporter. Now it’s being reported that Los Angeles Lakers big man that Kyle Kuzma decided not to announce sponsorship deals with Chinese companies during his team’s visit to the continent this month.

Via Bill Oram:

Kuzma’s plans to announce additional sponsorship deals with Chinese companies were scrapped once the Lakers arrived on Tuesday and found themselves caught in the middle of a stalemate between the NBA and the Chinese government.

The whole story of what it was like to cover the trip in China as an American is worth reading by Oram. It’s an interesting look at the collision of politics, business, and the perception of sports as separate from those spheres.

Meanwhile, players and their management teams will need to think more carefully about the social perception of business deals both at home and abroad.

Facilitator Kawhi Leonard in Clippers opener could be glimpse into season

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This story is part of our NBCSports.com’s 2019-20 NBA season preview coverage. Every day between now and when the season opens Oct. 22 we will have at least one story focused on the upcoming season and the biggest questions heading into it. In addition, there will be podcasts, video and more. Come back every day and get ready for a wide-open NBA season.

LOS ANGELES — You could see the impact almost immediately.

In his first minutes in a Los Angeles Clippers uniform last Thursday against Denver, Kawhi Lenoard drained a 14-foot midrange shot, stole a Gary Harris pass and turned that into a step-back three-pointer. Five points and a steal, all in 21 seconds.

More importantly for the Clippers, you could hear the impact almost immediately, too.

Leonard was talking a lot on defense, directing players and making his presence heard. That has been the case in team practices as well, according to people with the Clippers.

“He’s more verbal than you would ever know,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “He’s more demanding in a very positive way. You have to do it right. I love that for our team.”

Questions abound about how Leonard — and Paul George, when he returns at some point likely in November — will fit in with an established Clippers roster and culture this season. The Clippers on paper may be title favorites, but how all those pieces come together remains one of the potential turning points of this NBA season.

The cultural fit seems smooth.

Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell brought an intense, hard-working, tough-to-play-against ethos to Los Angeles — but Leonard and George are lunchpail guys at heart. The Clippers’ new editions may be top five (certainly top eight) NBA talents, but they came into the league seen as “3&D” guys with some potential. They worked their way to the top, and that works for the Clippers.

On the court — at least in the slightly more than 10 minutes he played against Denver — the roster fit also seemed smooth.

Leonard had seven points on 3-of-6 shooting, but what stood out were the six assists. Leonard played a facilitator role. The first bucket of the game was a Leonard drive-and-kick to JaMychal Green in the corner, who hit the three. Leonard’s other assists were mostly to bigs Ivica Zubac and Harrell cutting to the basket.

Doc Rivers’ plan is to let Leonard feel how other teams are going to guard him, them adapt.

“Some teams will try to guard him one-on-one and he’ll probably try to score,” Rivers said. “Some teams, like Denver today, was up doubling him a lot, and he’ll be a facilitator…

“That’s what Kawhi does, it’s not like we’re recreating anything here. He’s a smart player. We’re going to try and keep as much shooting out with him, so teams can’t help. We will try to keep one roller on the floor with him, so that guy’s going down the middle of the paint and he’s creating help. We don’t have to make it that difficult.”

“He found me every time I was open,” Zubac said. “I really like playing with him.”

This was not by direct design so much as Leonard taking what the defense gave him.

“It just happened naturally,” Leonard said. “For the most part I cause a lot of attention, and I’m going to pass it to the open man. They was knocking down the shots tonight.”

We will see more of “facilitator Leonard” this season, and facilitator George as well. That Rivers wants to keep shooters on the court around his stars speaks to what a vital role Green and second-year guard Landry Shamet will play in Los Angeles — they are going to get opportunities and have to make the defense pay. (Shamet had 11 points against Denver and was 2-of-5 from three.)

Then off the bench, Los Angeles rolls out the best pick-and-roll combo in the league right now, Lou Williams and Harrell. Those two drove the Clippers offense last season, which is why both finished in the top three in Sixth Man of the Year voting, but this season there will be less pressure on them. They may not even close games, even though Williams is one of the better end-game bucket getters in the league.

The Clippers are that deep with talent.

Leonard showed already how he just makes the game easier for that talent. Zubac setting picks for Leonard and rolling, with shooters on the floor, is not going to be easy to stop — and that’s without George in the mix yet.

It’s more than the Xs and Os, however, Leonard and his rings just bring a gravitas to the Clippers they needed.

“He has a presence about him when he is on the floor, just feels a little different, how he carries himself, how he plays,” Shamet said.

That presence could carry the Clippers franchise to places it has never been before. It’s the impact the Clippers are ultimately hoping to see.

Cavaliers visit owner Dan Gilbert, recovering from stroke

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CLEVELAND (AP) — The Cleveland Cavaliers visited team owner Dan Gilbert, who is recovering at home after suffering a stroke in May.

After playing an exhibition game in Detroit on Friday night, the Cavs delayed their trip to Boston so they could spend time Saturday with the 57-year-old Gilbert.

He recently returned to his home in Franklin, Michigan, after staying at a rehabilitation facility in Illinois. Gilbert suffered a stroke on May 26 after being taken to a hospital by a family friend following stroke-like experiencing symptoms.

All of Cleveland’s players, along with first-year coach John Beilein and his staff, held a film session and short walk-through on a replica basketball court Gilbert has at his home before having lunch. Gilbert and his wife, Jennifer, spoke with many of the players.

The Cavs play their third preseason game Sunday against the Celtics.

Gilbert has owned Cleveland’s franchise since 2005.=