PBT NBA Power Rankings: Durant powers Thunder to top slot

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No Russell Westbrook yet Kevin Durant has pushed the Thunder to the top of the West and the top of PBT’s weekly power rankings. Still strange to see the Celtics and Lakers near the bottom of the poll, but it’s where they belong this season.


 
source:  1. Thunder (35-10, LW 4). Kevin Durant is making is MVP push and carrying the Thunder to seven straight wins. Without Russell Westbrook. They are doing it on both ends, a top three offense and defense the last five games. That seven-game streak includes beating the Rockets, Warriors, Blazers and Spurs. Bottom line, this team is the standard in the West — if another squad wants to go to the Finals they need to be better than the Thunder.

 
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2. Heat (32-12, LW 5). They have been going through a malaise of late but with the Spurs in town they showed that they can still flip the switch and play like a contender. Especially when Chris Bosh is on. Now they get another real test with the Thunder on Wednesday (Miami has won six straight against OKC).

 
source:  3. Pacers (34-9, Last Week No. 1). The Pacers have hit a little mid-season lull on a tough West road swing. They picked up a nice win over Golden State but lost to the Suns, needed overtime to beat the Kings and fell to Denver. Every team has slumps, but with Indiana’s focus on getting the No. 1 seed (the remain 2.5 games ahead of the Heat) don’t expect it to last long.

 
source:  4. Clippers (31-15, LW 6). Los Angeles has gone 4-2 on the Grammy road trip (with a winnable game left in Milwaukee) and done it without Chris Paul. Their offense has been on fire. This stretch was when the Clippers could have struggled and fallen back, that they didn’t is a good sign about this team’s growth.

 
source:  5. Warriors (27-18, LW 7). Stephen Curry deserves to be an All-Star starter and he showed it with 38 points and the dagger to beat Portland. That made up for the loss to Indiana earlier in the week that showed Golden State the benchmark for contending. Fun game against the Clippers coming up this week.

 
source:  6. Trail Blazers (33-12, LW 2). Yes, LaMarcus Aldridge should have been voted in an All-Star starter if we were going by talent and how they played the first half of the season. But the fan ASG vote is a popularity contest. Aldridge needs a good playoff run by the Blazers this season and some more Trail Blazers game on national television to raise his profile.

 
source:  7. Spurs (33-11, LW No. 3). The Spurs are now 1-10 against the league’s teams playing better than .600 ball (Indiana, Oklahoma City, Portland, the Clippers, Houston and now Miami) and 32-1 against the rest of the league. It doesn’t help that they will be without Kawhi Leonard for a few weeks.

 
source:  8. Grizzlies (22-20, LW 10). They are fast climbing in the West, taking both ends of a home-and-home from Houston and doing it with their trademark defensive toughness. Courtney Lee has been a great fit, averaging 16.9 points a game since arriving from Boston.

 
source:  9. Rockets (29-17, LW 8). Dwight Howard and Darryl Morey can blame whatever they wish for Howard not being an All-Star starter, we all know it is a symptom of what happened to his reputation. The way he fixes it is wins, playoff wins. A lot of them. Just as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James did.

 
source:  10. Suns (25-18, LW 11). They are 2-1 at the start of an eight-game run against teams from the Eastern Conference. After a 2-4 stretch against the West a chance to get healthy against the Leastern Conference is welcomes, but there will be tough road games in that stretch (at Indiana for one).

 
source:  11. Nets (19-22, LW 17). They win this week’s “third best team in the East” trophy (doesn’t that title change weekly?). They have won five in a row and 10-of-11 since going small, but there are real tests this week against the Raptors, Thunder and Pacers.

 
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12. Mavericks (26-20, LW 9). Dallas is in a fight for the last playoff spot in the West — they are the eight seed, half a game back of Phoenix and just 2 games ahead of surging Memphis (they are tied in the loss column) and 2.5 games up Denver, 3.5 on Minnesota. They need a run of wins to solidify their spot.

 
source:  13. Nuggets (22-21, LW 14). Quality win over the Indiana Pacers and again a lot of it has to do with their bench — when Timofey Mozgov plays well inside and Nate Robinson hits his shots this is a hard team to beat. But you can’t count on it consistently.

 
source:  14. Bulls (22-21, LW 15). Derrick Rose who? Luol Deng who? After an initial stumble when their point guard went down, they are 10-3 since the calendar flipped over to 2014. We might try to talk about that and not Carmelo Anthony. Tough West Coast road swing starts this week for the Bulls, who will be happy for the warm weather if nothing else.

 
source:  15. Raptors (22-21, LW 12). Big showdown Monday night with the streaking Brooklyn Nets — the Atlantic Division crown (such as it is) will come down to these two teams. If the Raptors start to slide does the price team is asking for Kyle Lowry in a trade slide down as well?

 
source:  16. Hawks (23-20, LW 18). They have not fallen apart as predicted, Atlanta is 7-7 since Al Horford has went down. They remain the three seed in the East and look like a playoff team. Paul Millsap has made a good All-Star case but we’ll if it’s enough to get the coaches to vote for him as a reserve. He’s on the bubble.

 
source:  17. Timberwolves (21-22, LW 13). Finally Minnesota picked up their first win of the season by 5 or fewer points this week, beating Golden State by one on Friday night. They still remain one game below .500 and are 0-10 when trying to crack that barrier. We’ll see if they can get over the hump with the Bulls, Pelicans, Grizzlies and Hawks up on the docket this week.

 
source:  18. Wizards (21-22, LW 16). Washington is the six seed in the East but don’t be shocked if their record and standing take a hit the next couple weeks as between now and the All-Star break six of their next eight are against the top six in the West.

 
source:  19. Knicks (17-27, LW 22). Carmelo Anthony went off for a historic 97 points over two games at Madison Square Garden and the Knicks picked up a couple wins. That is how the Knicks have to win right now — just outscoring teams — because their defense is a mess.

 
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20. Bobcats (19-27, LW 19). When their defense is clicking they can beat anyone, as we saw in wins over the Raptors and Clippers last week. But that defense is not consistent anymore, hasn’t been for a month, and you saw the other side of it when Carmelo Anthony went off for 62.

 
source:  21. Pelicans (18-25, LW 26). Anthony Davis put up a huge line — 22 points, 19 rebounds, 7 blocks — in a “consider me for the All-Star reserves” kind of game Sunday. But New Orleans has won three of four more because of play from the guards, including steadier performances from Austin Rivers.

 
source:  22. Cavaliers (16-27, LW 20). They had the most embarrassing play of last week, when with a chance to tie the game late they couldn’t even get the ball inbounds. Even with Luol Deng it’s going to be a real fight for this team to even make the playoffs in the East.

 
source:  23. Kings (15-27, LW 24). Losing both Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins to ankle issues, when both had been playing so well, is just the basketball gods being unfair to Sacramento. The good news is both are expected to return this week.

 
source:  24. Jazz (15-29, LW 25). Gordon Hayward is Utah’s leading scorer at 17.3 points a game, with a true shooting percentage just above the league averaged at 54.8 percent. He’s got a PER of 17.9 and a big fan club in front office’s around the league. The question: How much will he be offered as a restricted free agent this summer?

 
source:  25. Pistons (17-26, LW 21). In case you need more evidence that the defense is the issue: The Pistons are on a four-game losing streak but scored more than 100 points in each of those losses. Mo Cheeks benched Andre Drummond for a half because of his defense.

 
source:  26. 76ers (14-30, LW 27). Despite the struggles of the Sixers offense of late (look at the points per possession numbers) Michael Carter-Williams is still my Rookie of the Year with what he is doing in Philly. The only other guys in the race are Trey Burke and Victor Oladipo.

 
source:  27. Magic (12-33, LW 28). After missing the start of the season with an ankle injury Tobias Harris has found his groove again — he’s averaged 17.7 points and 9.7 rebounds his last 10 games. That includes dropping 28 and 20 on the Lakers’ “defense” last week.

 
source:  28. Lakers (16-29, LW 23). Kobe Bryant may not want to play in the All-Star Game but if he comes back before Feb. 16 he’s not going to have no choice. The question now is when he will return. The Lakers went 2-5 on the Grammy road trip, now get the Pacers as a welcome home present.

 
source:  29. Celtics (15-31, LW 29). Jeff Green put up 39 against the Wizards, just as a teasing reminder of what he can do some nights. Then he went back into his shell for the rest of the week. So frustrating.

 
source:  30. Bucks (8-35, LW 30). The Bucks picked up a win last week when Caron Butler went off for 30 points. He says he wants to re-sign in Milwaukee, but do the rebuilding Bucks want to spend on a veteran this summer?

Spurs waive Manu Ginobili, will likely continue paying him into retirement

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The Spurs are still paying Tim Duncan, who retired in 2016.

It seems they’ll also give Manu Ginobili, who retired this summer, a similar golden parachute.

Duncan will earn $1,881,250 this season, the final installment of his three years of post-retirement income. When he retired, Duncan had one season remaining on his contract with a $6,393,750 salary. San Antonio didn’t have to pay him that money. Duncan wasn’t coming to work anymore. But the Spurs graciously allowed the all-time great to receive all but $750,000 of his remaining salary and stretched the payments over three years. That money still counted against the cap and was paid despite San Antonio trying to clear cap space in both 2016 and 2017.

The Spurs waived Ginobili yesterday, and no word has emerged on a buyout amount. He was due $2.5 million this season.

Based on the process and Duncan precedent, it seems highly likely Ginobili will continue to draw paychecks from San Antonio.

The Spurs would do well to pay Ginobili all his money this season, whether it’s the full $2.5 million or a negotiated reduced amount. They’re already over the cap and still below the luxury-tax line, so there’s minimal flexibility harm. The only other option – stretching Ginobili’s payments into equal thirds over the next three seasons – could interfere with roster building in future years.

Of course, the other option was getting Ginobili removed from the books entirely. But it seems that route has passed with waiving him.

San Antonio wants to treat its legends well, and that means paying them more than necessary – even with that money counting toward the cap as the Spurs transition into their next era.

Clippers biding their time until star hunt

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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.

Lob City is the proudest era in Clippers history. Really, it’s the franchise’s only proud era since moving to California. After reaching the playoffs just four times in the first 33 years post-Buffalo, the Clippers qualified all six years Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan played together. In that span, only the Spurs and Thunder won more games.

And now it’s over.

The Clippers moved the final remaining link from their 2012-2017 teams by trading Wesley Johnson yesterday. That’s historic turnover, as the roster is completely remade just two years later. Since the early 1950s, only the 1996 Mavericks and 2003 and 2004 Hawks completely changed their rosters within two seasons.

L.A.’s flux comes with big eyes. The Clippers are trying to lure star free agents, which means closely monitoring situations elsewhere. Entering the season with the Raptors, Kawhi Leonard reportedly favors the Clippers. Jimmy Butler is unhappy with the Timberwolves – ideal for the Clippers, who want to avoid another pleasing team landing his Bird Rights. Though Kevin Durant rumors are focused on the Knicks, talk of him leaving the Warriors could mean L.A. is at least in the mix.

The Clippers project to be able to unilaterally open about $63 million in cap space without stretching players next summer.

Creating so much flexibility required stinginess this summer. The only free agents signed to multi-year guarantees were Montrezl Harrell (two years, $12 million) and Avery Bradley ($12 million this season, just $2 million of $12.96 million guaranteed next season).

The Clippers also gave multi-year deals to their first-round picks, No. 11 pick Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and No. 13 pick Jerome Robinson. I’m much more bullish on Gilgeous-Alexander. Those two rookies could be important in building back up, because for the second straight summer, the Clippers lost their best player.

After Paul engineered his way to the Rockets last summer – with Griffin traded to the Pistons between – Jordan left for the Mavericks this summer. His fit in L.A. had become awkward, and though he was willing to take a one-year deal (at least with Dallas), everyone seemed ready to move on. This seemingly wasn’t about maintaining flexibility. It was about turning the page.

The Clippers will miss Jordan on the court next season. They replaced him with Marcin Gortat, acquired in a trade for Austin Rivers, but that’s a downgrade.

Gortat (like Rivers) is on an expiring contract. So are Luc Mbah a Moute – a Lob City contributor returning after a stint in Houston – and Mike Scott, who each signed one year, $4,320,500 deals for half the mid-level exception.

The Clippers look deep and feisty after all this tinkering around Tobias Harris, Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley and Danilo Gallinari. They probably won’t make the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference, but they should remain competitive enough to stay on the radar of free agents.

Remember, though, the Clippers entered the summer coming off a winning season and with plenty of 2019 cap space. They were always setting up to make a big splash next summer. They just took a small step back this summer, which will be no problem if they make their desired leap in a year.

Offseason grade: C-

Timberwolves in turmoil

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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 Timberwolves won 47 games and ended a 13-year playoff drought last season, and their core group returns. Few teams can match the 1-2 star power of Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns. Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson are strong complementary pieces, and Andrew Wiggins has the tools to excel.

But it feels like Minnesota was decimated by a meteorite this offseason.

Butler’s unsatisfied trade request casts a shadow over the upcoming season. It has shined a spotlight on the discord permeating through this organization in so many directions – Butler and Wiggins, Butler and Towns, Towns and Tom Thibodeau, Tom Thibodeau and Glen Taylor.

Maybe Butler and Thibodeau can thrive in this chaotic, energetic, intense environment. It seems the weight of it could crush everyone else, though.

This all reflects terribly on Thibodeau, who let the Butler situation linger over the summer. Chemistry matters, and an unhappy Butler trying to torment Towns and Wiggins into playing with more fire could just burn everyone involved. It was bad enough last year when the young players thought Butler could be there a while. If they expect him to leave next summer in free agency, will they just tune him out until then? If that happens, will Butler become even harder on them? This could get ugly in a hurry.

That said, it’s not as if Minnesota had great chemistry last season, either. This is still such a talented team. Heck, even if the Timberwolves trade Butler by the trade deadline, he might first help them stack enough wins to make the playoffs. Hope isn’t lost.

Most importantly, Minnesota locked up Towns to a long-term extension. No matter what happens with Butler, the 22-year-old star is staying a while.

The Timberwolves also did tinkering to help over the summer. Signing Derrick Rose and Luol Deng, two ex-Bulls, will generate plenty of laughs, but those two for the minimum is fine. So was drafting Josh Okogie No. 20 and Keita Bates-Diop No. 48.

Minnesota’s biggest signing was Anthony Tolliver for one year, $5.75 million – which, to stay under the luxury-tax line, required letting Nemanja Bjelica go. I considered Tolliver an upgrade as the Timberwolves’ stretch four, though part of that calculation considered Tolliver’s positive effect in the locker room.

In that area, it might be too little, too late.

Offseason grade: D   

NBA Power Rankings: Warriors still on top

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The NBA season is back, and with it, so are the NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings, which are put together each week throughout the season.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (Last season 58-24). If a team is the two-time defending champs and made four straight Finals appearances, they start on top. The only question is how motivated the Warriors are during the regular season — which may be less of an issue this time around, listening to the buzz around the team. Keeping Golden State healthy and not letting it build a bunch of bad habits while waiting for the games to really matter again has to be Steve Kerr’s focus. Don’t expect to see DeMarcus Cousins until after you’ve opened your Christmas presents.

Celtics small icon 2. Celtics (55-27). Don’t read too much into the preseason struggles — that was exactly what coach Brad Stevens needed to get this team’s attention and get them focused on the process. It turns out bringing two superstar players — Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward — back into the fold is not simply a matter of plug-and-play, it’s going to take some work. Plus, Hayward is not all the way back yet. Still, with all this depth, the Celtics should own the East.

Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (65-17). Carmelo Anthony has blended fairly smoothly in the preseason, accepting his role coming off the bench and as more as a shooter working off the ball, now we will see if that continues when opposing defenses start to care. A lot of lineup shuffling in the preseason, which leads to a question: Who will close games for Houston? Chris Paul and James Harden for sure, but after that which two of Anthony, P.J. Tucker, Eric Gordon, James Ennis, and Clint Capela will sit?

Raptors small icon 4. Raptors (59-23). Understandably a lot of the preseason focus has been on Kawhi Leonard, but there is another big question for this team (both early and for the full season): What kind of difference does new coach Nick Nurse make? He’s a rookie coach and he’s doing things like talking about changing the starting five based on opponent, but the hope was he would bring a less predictable offense (especially for the postseason). Nurse said he is going to be “fluid” with rotations — read: experimenting — for the start of the season, but this is a deep team that had the best bench in the NBA last season, and it could be better this year.

Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (52-30). Replacing J.J. Redick with Markelle Fultz in the starting lineup to start the season is an interesting tactic by Brett Brown (the Sixers starting lineup with Redick was +21 points per 100 possessions last season), but it should do one thing for sure: The Sixers’ defense should be better. And it was top five last season. The question becomes floor spacing on the other end: Ben Simmons is not a jump shooter, Joel Embiid can hit threes but needs to be around the basket, and Fultz doesn’t have the jumper of an NBA two-guard yet (he attempted just five shots from three in the preseason). Defenses will pack the paint on Philly. Also, teams that make the China trip in preseason tend to start slowly the next season.

Jazz small icon 6. Jazz (48-34). There are a lot of people on the Jazz bandwagon, some even suggesting they are better than the Rockets. What Utah has going for it is an elite defense (if Rudy Gobert can stay healthy) and continuity from the team that was so good the second half of last season. But after Donovan Mitchell, who is the other shot creator? Ricky Rubio can set guys up, but is he a secondary go-to guy? The Jazz bet big on Dante Exum this summer, he is a guy to watch.

Thunder small icon 7. Thunder (48-34).. Russell Westbrook is banged up to start the season (he had his knee scoped a month ago and will miss at least the opener), and Andre Roberson is out until December — that second part is a bigger blow than some fans realize. The injuries could lead to a slow start for the Thunder, which is dangerous in the very deep West. Can Terrance Ferguson step up on the wing and give them something?

Nuggets small icon 8. Nuggets (46-36).. Everyone is high on the Nikola Jokic/Jamal Murray/Gary Harris starting lineup, and with good reason, especially with Will Barton added to it. The Nuggets will have an elite offense. Two big questions loom for this team: Can their defense (bottom five last season) improve, even up to league average? And, with Isaiah Thomas out who will lead the bench unit? Can Trey Lyles step into that role and thrive?

Lakers small icon 9. Lakers (35-47). The Lakers are going to run this season (they likely will have one of the fastest paces in the league) and that combined with LeBron James distributing from the elbow should lead to an impressive offense, although the lack of true shooters could hold them back a little. The question is at the other end of the court, will the Lakers get enough stops to win? They were sloppy defensively in the preseason. Portland and Houston this week start off a brutal schedule to start the season.

Bucks small icon 10. Bucks (44-38 LW 18). This may be too low a ranking for a team I am high on. While we should take the preseason with a grain of salt, the Bucks looked like a modern offense under Mike Budenholzer, leaning on three pointers and getting to the rim, avoiding midrange jumpers — and they had an impressive offense because of it. Giannis Antetokounmpo was a flat out beast, showing more confidence in his jumper but also finding a lot more room to drive on a team with genuine floor spacing. We’ll see if it carries over, but the Bucks looked more like a threat to the 76ers/Raptors in the preseason.

Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (48-34). Preseason wasn’t kind to the new players who are expected to push this team forward, Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott, nor did the man with the new contract Myles Turner impress. We’re going to overlook all that for now, this is a team on the tier behind the big three in the East (some think they can push Philly/Toronto) and they should be a tough out every night. Interesting first week game Friday night in Milwaukee.

Pelicans small icon 12. Pelicans (48-34). I am high on this team coming into the season — I predicted Anthony Davis to win MVP — but the preseason defensive performance gave me pause. It’s just preseason, but Elfrid Payton is a turnstile (that’s not new) and they were getting torched in the paint to the tune of 65 points a game. We’ll see if that continues when the games matter, but a tough opener against Houston doesn’t help.

Blazers small icon 13. Trail Blazers (49-33). The entire NBA, and particularly the Blazers community, is mourning the passing of one of the best and classiest owners in the league in Paul Allen. Making the playoffs 23 times in 30 seasons, doing things the right way, he’s a model owner. The road forward will be interesting (the league would not allow this team to be moved, and the lease runs through 2025 anyway). The Trail Blazers open the season on national television Thursday night against LeBron James and the Lakers and can make a statement then.

Spurs small icon 14. Spurs (47-35). Injuries have decimated the guard rotation: Dejounte Murray out for the season with a torn ACL, his backup Derrick White tore his plantar fascia, and Lonnie Walker IV tore the meniscus in his right knee (the latter two are 6-8 weeks, maybe a little more. In a West with little margin for error, is that enough to keep the Spurs out of the playoffs for the first time since 1997? DeMar DeRozan is going to have to be the primary playmaker for this team now.

Wizards small icon 15. Wizards (43-39). Dwight Howard missed all of preseason (with an injured butt, insert your own joke here), but is now practicing with the team and could play in the opener, just in a more limited role. Once again we enter the season saying we like the Wizards players individually — John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter — but as a team how do they really take a step forward from good to great?

Heat small icon 16. Heat (44-38). The Jimmy Butler trade saga hangs over this team a little (nobody likes hearing their name in trade talks), but this is a solid team and it’s Dwyane Wade’s “One Last Dance” so its worth tuning in to watch him put on a show. Get wins against Orlando and Charlotte the first week of the season and it will be easier to tune out all the trade chatter (which has died down a little of late anyway).

Clippers small icon 17. Clippers (42-40). Their starting five has potential — Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley, Danilo Gallinari, Tobias Harris, and Marcin Gortat — if they can stay healthy. Off the bench is the Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, plus Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who impressed at Summer League and through the preseason. Healthy, this could be a playoff team, but the Clippers are littered with players prone to injury and not living up to their potential. Brutal first few weeks of the schedule for Los Angeles, including the Nuggets, Thunder, and Rockets this week.

Grizzlies small icon 18. Grizzlies (22-60). One of a few teams in the West (along with the Clippers and Mavericks) where I can envision a scenario where they make the playoffs, but everything has to go right for them. That means Marc Gasol and Mike Conley stay healthy, Jaren Jackson Jr. plays like a rookie of the year, and Chandler Parsons gives them something (he’s looked passable in the preseason). That’s a lot of “ifs” in a conference with no margin for error.

Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (39-43). They have been penciled in to the final playoff spot in the East by a lot of pundits (myself included) based on the potential of Blake Griffin, Reggie Jackson, and Andre Drummond together (especially with Dwane Casey as coach). It’s also a work in progress that didn’t look very smooth in the preseason. Depth questions also are out there for the Pistons. Still, if they can be solid defensively, they should make the postseason.

20. Timberwolves (47-35, LW 13). Is this too low a ranking, much of it based on the Jimmy Butler trade drama? Maybe. With Butler in the lineup last season the Timberwolves looked like a 3/4 seed kind of squad. On the flip side, chemistry matters in the NBA and good luck finding a team with a worse locker room right now. Also, Butler is going to get booed and it’s going to get ugly Friday night in Minnesota’s first home game (vs. Cleveland). Without Butler in the preseason the Timberwolves defense was a disaster, it’s just preseason but that’s not a good sign.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (36-46). What will new coach James Borego bring to the table? If was can read much into the preseason it’s more three point attempts (and less long twos) and better ball movement and tempo. Rookie Miles Bridges showed some preseason promise and could play his way into the starting lineup eventually. Relatively soft schedule the first month of the season, get off to a fast start and it will keep the “will they trade Kemba Walker?” questions at bay.

Mavericks small icon 22. Mavericks (24-58). Fun start to the season Wednesday: Rookie of the Year favorites Luka Doncic and Deandre Ayton face off (although the matchup to watch in that game is how Ayton handles the strength and athleticism of DeAndre Jordan). Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. started to show some chemistry in the preseason, but lets see what happens when the games matter and the defenses start to care.

Cavaliers small icon 23. Cavaliers (50-32). Kevin Love says he is ready to return to the role of a No. 1 option — and the Cavaliers are certainly paying him like one — but the game has evolved and Love has gotten older since he last time that burden fell on his shoulders. There is still potential on this roster in terms of good shooting, at least until Cavs management starts trading them for young players and picks. After opening in Toronto, pretty soft schedule to start the season.

Bulls small icon 24. Bulls (27-55).. No Lauri Markkanen to start the season (elbow, out at least a few weeks) but there is promise on this roster: Zach LaVine showed some athleticism and looked healthy and efficient in the preseason, and Wendell Carter Jr. continues to impress and is now the starting center for this team (although rough “welcome to the NBA” start in Game 1 against Joel Embiid). How will Jabari Parker look in a Sixth Man role?

Suns small icon 25. Suns (21-61). Firing GM Ryan McDonough nine days before the season started — after letting him make all the off-season moves for the team, including hiring the new coach — is a “the emperor has no clothes” moment for owner Robert Sarver. Deandre Ayton has put up numbers and impressed in the preseason, and Devin Booker will return from hand surgery and be ready for the opener. Jamal Crawford is not a point guard but may end up playing one anyway.

Nets small icon 26. Nets (28-54). Coach Kenny Atkinson has done in Brooklyn what the new coach across the bridge in Manhattan needs to do this season — develop a culture where the players go hard for him within the system. Now the question in Brooklyn is about the talent. How good is D’Angelo Russell really, is he worth a big new contract next summer (he’s a restricted free agent)? Where does Spencer Dinwiddie fit in that mix? Jarrett Allen is expected to make a leap at center, but will he. Where do Caris LeVert and Ronde Hollis-Jefferson fit in? Some potential there, but a lot of questions, too.

Knicks small icon 27. Knicks (29-53, LW 22). For new coach David Fizdale, this is a season about building the culture and getting players who will play his way and play hard. Rookie Kevin Knox needs to be part of that and will be thrown into the deep end to sink or swim for the Knicks. Frank Ntilikina has yet to impress me, but then again Emmanuel Mudiay does not look like the answer at the point guard spot either. Just my guess, we see Kristaps Porzingis return this season for the last dozen games or so, not to make a playoff push (the Knicks won’t be that good) but to hit the ground running for his summer work, and to show free agents he will be ready to go next season.

Magic small icon 28. Magic (25-57). As discussed on the PBT Podcast on teams to watch, I think Orlando will be an interesting team this season — not good, but worth watching. Specifically, when the big and athletic front line of Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, and rookie Mo Bamba are paired. Can those three play together and make it work (it pushes Gordon to the three when he is better as a four)? The Orlando defense should be pretty good this season, the question is where the points are going to come from?

Kings small icon 29. Kings (27-55). Harry Giles impressed in both Summer League and preseason and could be a sneaky candidate to make All-Rookie teams at the end of the season. Marvin Bagley III showed the potential to go get buckets during the preseason, and I like using Buddy Hield more as a floor-spacing three (at least on offense, nothing worked for the Kings on defense). Rough way to start the season: Jazz, Pelicans, Thunder.

Hawks small icon 30. Hawks (24-58). It’s going to be all Trae Young all the time in Atlanta as they let him be the man and take all the shots — and that worked for a game winner against the Spurs in the preseason. It’s also going to mean some growing pains when the real games begin. Rough to have John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon out to start the season with injuries.