PBT NBA Power Rankings: Spurs finish season on top

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It’s the final power rankings of the season from ProBasketballTalk and the Spurs are going to finish the season on the top. Since Tony Parker got back healthy the Spurs have been a force, but the No. 2 Thunder present real matchup problems for San Antonio come the playoffs. Of course, the Thunder’s road to any potential showdown is brutal. Heck, the whole Western Conference playoffs will be brutal.

 
source:  1. Spurs (62-18, Last week No. 1). You simply have to marvel at this franchise — 17 straight playoff trips and 16 years of at least 50 wins (excluding the 50-game lockout season of ’98-99). Coming into this season we wondered if the painful loss in the finals would hold them back. We wondered if Father Time would overtake the core guys. No and no. This team is once again a legitimate title contender.

 
source:  2. Thunder (58-22, LW 4).. They are No. 2 on this list but I still think they come out of the West into the Finals — their length on defense allows them to recover and contest more shots than anyone and it bothers the Spurs. However, to get to the Spurs they will have to face Memphis or Dallas (and Memphis wants OKC over San Antonio) then likely the Clippers. Thats a hard road.

 
source:  3. Clippers (56-24, LW 2). This looks like a team finally defending, a team finally on the cusp of contending, but they will draw a brutal first round matchup with Golden State. Beat them and you likely land OKC in the second round. Ouch. The three Clipper perimeter players recently battling injury — J.R. Redick, Jamal Crawford and Danny Granger — all need to be back and playing well for the Clippers to have a chance to advance beyond that.

 
source:  4. Heat (54-26, LW No. 3). When focused for a big game, say against Indiana, they bring their defense back to life and look like a contender. But against everyone else they still look like they are going through the motions. That said, there is no team from the East playing well enough right now to beat them in a seven game series. (Indiana is the only one that can, sorry Brooklyn not happening.)

 
source:  5. Rockets (53-27, LW 5). Interesting first round showdown with Portland looming, both teams put up a lot of points on the other when they faced off this season. Patrick Beverley will be key for a Rockets team that will need to harass and slow down Damian Lillard. On the flip side, James Harden should have a strong series against Portland’s inconsistent defense.

 
source:  6. Trail Blazers (53-28, LW 7). Portland is 8-1 since LaMarcus Aldridge returned and the big win at home over Golden State Sunday (maybe the most entertaining game of the season) shows they will not go quietly in the first round. However, their defense is going to have to be improved and consistent to slow down the Rockets offense.

 
source:  7. Bulls (47-33, LW 9). Sunday’s surprising loss to the Knicks lets Toronto control its own destiny for the third seed, which could mean a first round matchup against Brooklyn for Chicago. That would be brutal. The Bulls beat the Nets last year in the playoffs but the Nets have added Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and some other talent since then. The Bulls run since the All-Star break — without Derrick Rose or Luol Deng — has been one of the most amazing parts of the NBA season.

 
source:  8. Warriors (49-31, LW 6). With soft closeouts against Minnesota and Denver it’s likely the Warriors finish with at least 50 wins — the last time they did that was 1994, when Don Nelson coached them, Latrell Sprewell led the team in scoring and Chris Webber was a rookie. Bad news is they likely land the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs and that is a bad draw for a Warriors team that has struggled to beat the Clippers in Los Angeles.

 
source:  9. Mavericks (49-32, LW 11). They are in the playoffs after Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki owned the second half Saturday and the Mavs beat the Suns. However their seeding is still up in the air. Those two guys will put up points in the playoffs, but will Dallas defend well enough to win more than one game in the postseason?

 
source:  10. Grizzlies (47-32, LW 12).  They still need to beat either Phoenix Monday or Dallas Wednesday to secure a playoff spot. They very likely will, then will be a physical, tough out for whoever draws them in the first round.

 
source:  11. Pacers (54-26, LW 13). We saw a flash of this team potentially returning to form Sunday at home beating the Thunder. Indy also won at home a few weeks ago against the Heat — that’s why home court matters. But this team is 20-20 on the road this season and they will not last long in the playoffs without some key road wins. Fortunately, they likely draw the Hawks in the first round, which is like a nice tuneup round, a sparring match to get ready for the main events.

 
source:  12. Suns (47-33, LW 8). The reason Jeff Hornacek is Coach of the Year in my book is the amazing development of players under him – Goran Dragic and Gerald Green could get votes for most improved player, Markieff Morris will get some votes for Sixth Man of the Year (and deservedly so). The Suns need to beat the Grizzlies Monday night then hope Dallas beats Memphis on Wednesday to get into the playoffs. It’s a longshot, but I’m saying there’s a chance.

 
source:  13. Raptors (47-33, LW 10). They control their own playoff destiny — beat the Bucks Monday and the Knicks Wednesday and the Raptors are the three seed, likely getting Washington in the first round. Which means they could make the second round of the playoffs, a huge accomplishment for this franchise. This team is solid on both ends of the floor and look for Kyle Lowry to have a monster playoffs (just have a feeling).

 
source:  14. Nets (43-36, LW 14). Maybe the most interesting and hardest to read team entering the playoffs. They have had stretches of strong play but have been a little sloppy of late, they have veterans with playoff experience but ones Father Time is starting to win the race with. If they land Chicago in the first round that is brutal.

 
source:  15. Bobcats (41-39, LW 16). That this team made the leap it did this year and made the playoffs is a credit to three men: Coach Steve Clifford for getting this group to play good team defense; GM Rich Cho for maybe the move of the summer picking up the next guy on the lat; finally Al Jefferson for a season that will land him on an All-NBA team.

 
source:  16. Wizards (42-38, LW 15). You want a sleeper playoff team in the East? With Nene on the court the Wizards have a very good defense — allowing 99 points per 100 possessions — and their offense plays with more confidence. They will not be an easy out, and if they land Toronto in the first round the Wizards have to feel they have a real shot at advancing.

source:  17 . Timberwolves (40-39, LW 18). Hey, look over here at Gorgui Dieng and how well the rookie is playing with Nicola Pekovic out — don’t look over there at another year without the playoffs. Minnesota’s point differential of +2.9 is better than the Bulls, Suns, Grizzlies and Mavericks, but Minny could not win close games and it cost them.

 
source:  18. Hawks (37-43, LW 17). That they held on to playoff spot without Al Horford for much of the season is a testament to what GM Danny Ferry and coach Mike Budenholzer are starting to build there. Still a long way to go and the best they can do in the first round is win one game, but it’s something to build on.

 
source:  19. Nuggets (36-44, LW 22). Kenneth Faried really started to show off the development of his game the second half of the season — just in time to talk contract extension (he is eligible this summer). He and Ty Lawson played well down the stretch (when Lawson was healthy). Next season if they can stay healthy and get Danilo Gallinari back things get interesting.

 
source:  20. Knicks (35-45, LW 19). Carmelo Anthony made a valiant effort this season, and I expect he will not be going anywhere this summer. But Phil Jackson has a mandate to make changes yet almost no flexibility — nobody sane is taking on Andrea Bargnani’s deal — which will make this a very interesting summer in New York.

 
source:  21. Cavaliers (32-49, LW 20). They will offer Kyrie Irving a max extension this summer and he will sign it and stick around — the only question is does he ask for an opt-out after three seasons. Two other big questions for the Cavs this summer: Who gets the GM job and how much does said GM offer Luol Deng to stick around?

 
source:  22. Kings (28-53, LW 21). Ownership is committed to DeMarcus Cousins as a building block, but what about Rudy Gay? Gay has a $19.3 million million option for next season he may pick up, but hinted he may opt out for a longer deal and some security. If he does opt out, how much and how long a deal would the Kings offer Gay?

 
source:  23. Pelicans (32-48, LW 23). This is the team I most expect to make a leap next season — Anthony Davis is exploding and if they can keep Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and the rest healthy this is a playoff team. However their lottery pick this year goes to Philly (top 5 protected).

 
source:  24. Pistons (29-51, LW 25). Joe Dumars is out as GM after his Josh Smith/Brandon Jennings gamble failed. It will be interesting to see which way owner Tom Gores goes with finding a replacement — spend money on a name or bring in one of the up-and-coming generation if front office people? Whoever takes over has to pick a coach and clean up a real mess of an ill-fitting roster.

 
source:  25. Magic (23-56 LW 24). The youth movement continues in Orlando this summer — they will have their own pick, at least top six, plus the higher of the Knicks or Nuggets picks (Denver gets the other one). They have a few nice young players like Victor Oladipo but it’s going to take years to develop all these players into something.

 
source:  26. Celtics (25-55, LW 29). Maybe he was never fully healthy, but the Celtics did not get better once Rajon Rondo returned to the team. That leads to the “keep him or trade him?” question Danny Ainge has been on the fence about for years. This summer could be the time he really does pull the trigger on a Rondo trade.

 
source:  27. Lakers (25-55, LW 26). Can you imagine the uproar and the calls of a fix if the Lakers win the NBA Draft lottery? It would blow the frozen envelope theory out of the top spot in NBA lottery conspiracies. Fair or not. By the way, the Lakers last Top 5 pick? James Worthy. That worked out fairly well.

 
source:  28. Jazz (24-56, LW 28). What kind of money teams are going to offer restricted free agent Gordon Hayward this summer will be one of the best subplots of the off-season. Hayward has a lot of fans in NBA front offices but he’s really a No. 2/3 guy on a good team, how much are you willing to overpay to poach a guy like that out of Utah?

 
source:  29. 76ers (17-63, LW 27). What they learned this season is that Michael Carter-Williams is a keeper, someone who can be a starter/rotation guy on a good team. Now they get to add two lottery picks to that (the Sixers have the Pelicans’ pick, unless it is in the top five). If you’re going to tank for draft picks, you had better nail those picks, Sam Hinkie.

 
source:  30. Bucks (14-63, LW 30). They didn’t plan to tank, it just worked out that way. The more interesting move this summer is the apparently impending sale of the team — who is buying and how much are they willing to put into a new arena to keep the Bucks in Milwaukee?

Pistons present themselves as Eastern Conference heavyweights with Dwane Casey

AP Photo/Paul Sancya
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DETROIT – Pistons spokesman Mark Barnhill, introducing new coach Dwane Casey, said he tucked his notes for today’s press conference into his jacket pocket. Then, as he pulled them out, he discovered an old Pistons playoff ticket in the same pocket.

“It’s a bit of an omen and a bit of a challenge,” Barnhill said.

The ticket was for the Pistons’ best playoff performance in a decade.

“No pressure,” Casey said.

Actually, really, no pressure.

Detroit lost by only two points in Game 4 of the 2016 first round, getting swept by the Cavaliers in the game Barnhill referred to. The Pistons haven’t won a playoff game in the last 10 years and reached the postseason only twice in that span. A two-point loss was their best result.

They’re starving for only moderate success. The 59 wins and second-round loss that got Casey fired by the Raptors? That’d be a dream season in Detroit. Even just making the playoffs next year would be welcomed.

“Our time is now,” Casey said. “…The talent level on the roster is there.”

It better be.

The Pistons are too close to the luxury-tax line to use most of the mid-level exception. They surrendered their first-round pick in the Blake Griffin trade. They’re left with only the No. 42 pick in the second round.

“Whatever player we get, that would be great. But we don’t need another one,” Pistons owner Tom Gores said. “Like, we’re good. That’s why Dwane is here.”

That and $35 million.

The Pistons presented Casey with a favorable contract, a front-office head he knows (more on that later) and a solid roster. Detroit is probably better off trying to win now, because the alternative would be even trickier to pull off. With so many highly paid players stained by losing, the Pistons can’t easily switch paths and rebuild. Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson are close enough to their primes that the present should be the priority, even if this team maxes at pretty good.

Yet, Detroit’s brass couldn’t help but raise expectations even further.

“We have three very – we have a great roster – but very special players,” Gores said of Griffin, Drummond and Jackson.

That’s an overstatement. Besides, how much noise can Detroit make with the Celtics and 76ers rising the Raptors still hanging around?

“I feel very comfortable that we’ll have a product that will compete with the teams that you just said,” Gores’ advisor, Ed Stefanski, said. “We have to win games, as Tom said. But you don’t usually get to an organization and have three core guys like we have.”

Again, they’re talking about Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson.

Griffin hasn’t made an All-Star team in three years, a drought players rarely escape. Drummond is a borderline All-Star in the East (and a tough fit with Griffin). Jackson has only once even sniffed the All-Star discussion.

Casey also praised those three – and Detroit’s last three first-round picks: Stanley Johnson, Henry Ellenson and Luke Kennard. Johnson particularly drew attention from Casey, whose Raptors got swept by LeBron James‘ Cavaliers the last two years and lost the most lopsided six-game series in NBA history to Cleveland the previous year.

“Somebody said, ‘Well, what happened to Toronto in the playoffs? ‘Well, I said, ‘It’s about matchups,'” Casey said. “And Stanley Johnson is the best match up for 23 in Cleveland that there is, physically.”

Maybe Casey, with his strong record of player development, will help Johnson eventually compete at those high levels.

“We’re not developing,” Casey said. “We’re not two or three years away. We want to win right now.”

The Pistons are so confident in their current roster, they haven’t even hired a general manager or equivalent. For now, Stefanski – advisor to the owner with the title of “senior executive” – is running the show. It sounds as if that could continue for a while.

“We could make Ed GM tomorrow,” Gores said. “That’s easy. If you guys want a title, that’s kind of easy.

“That’s not the point. The point is we’re building an organization, not around one person, but around what our vision is.”

Stefanski said, no matter how the front office is assembled, Casey will report to him. And Stefanski will report to Gores.

After giving Stan Van Gundy massive control, the Pistons are dispersing power.

Casey is a good coach, and he’ll help. Stefanski has plenty to prove as a front-office head. Gores is still learning as an owner, a failed experiment (keeping Joe Dumars) and unfulfilling tenure (Van Gundy’s) behind him. The roster is solid, though unexciting, when healthy.

They’re now all in it together, awaiting a chance to deliver. Considering how modest external expectations are, maybe they will.

But as the Pistons overstate their standing, it gets harder to take them seriously.

PBT Extra: Dwight Howard traded to Brooklyn, does anybody win?

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Dwight Howard is on the move. Again. Leaving a wake of unhappy teammates behind him. Again.

The trade can’t be consummated until the NBA free agent moratorium ends on July 6, but a deal has been struck where Charlotte sends Howard to Brooklyn for Timofey Mozgov, two second-round picks, and cash.

I don’t love this trade for the Nets — it’s going to get awkward with Howard being asked to come off the bench behind Jarrett Allen (and he should come off the bench). But it frees up an extra $17 million for the Nets in the summer of 2019 as they start to reshape their roster.

The Hornets get away from the luxury tax with this move but tie up their cap space next year with Mozgov still getting paid off the contract former-Laker-now-Hornets GM Mitch Kupchak gave him years ago. It was a short-term move that isn’t great for the long term. Unless Kemba Walker wanted Howard gone and the Hornets want to re-sign their point guard. A lot of unanswered questions still about this team.

Rumor: Kawhi Leonard directly told Gregg Popovich he wanted to leave Spurs

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Kawhi Leonard and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich met in San Diego yesterday.

How did the discussion go? Reports have been mixed about even the nature of the meeting, let alone a resolution from either side.

But here’s an update with a reportedly direct conclusion.

Stephen A. Smith on ESPN:

From what my sources told me, Kawhi Leonard met with Gregg Popovich face-to-face, looked him dead in his face and told him “I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be in San Antonio any longer.”

Leonard put out word he wanted to leave San Antonio, ideally for the Lakers, last week. There was some hope Popovich could mend the relationship, but that seems to running thin. There is so much bitterness between both sides.

The next question: What do the Spurs do about it?

Do they keep trying to ease tension with the 26-year-old superstar? Do they trade him? If so, when? Before or during the draft?

No matter what Leonard told Popovich yesterday, San Antonio has big decisions to make and soon. Leonard firmly stating a desire to leave would be clarifying, but it’d hardly make this situation easy to handle.

Brendan Haywood: Former Hornets teammates ‘sick and tired’ of Dwight Howard’s act

AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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It has become an annual tradition – Dwight Howard getting traded then his former teammates celebrating his exit.

It happened with the Hawks last year. Now, it’s happening with the Hornets, who sent Howard to the Nets.

Brendan Haywood, via Howard Beck of Bleacher Report:

Now retired, Haywood played with current Hornets Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist his final season. He also knows many other players throughout the league.

Howard went to Charlotte and declared himself team leader – despite the presence of Walker, the franchise player. Howard’s immaturity and ego have rubbed teammates and coaches the wrong way for years.

But at least this is progress. Howard’s time with the Magic, Lakers and Rockets devolved into interpersonal strife well before he left those teams.