PBT Power Rankings: After summer shakeups, Spurs still team to beat

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After a tumultuous summer where LeBron James went home to Cleveland and Carmelo Anthony stayed home with the Knicks, it’s time for another PBT Power Rankings. And after all that nothing has really changed — the top three spots in our power rankings were the top three at the end of last season. But things have shifted a lot in the East.

source:  1. Spurs (Last season 62-20). Defending NBA champs bring back everyone who matters… that might be the best off-season of all. Plus, Kawhi Leonard is just getting better and better every season.

source:  2. Thunder (59-23).. They struck out adding another key piece this summer, but they were the second best team in the NBA last season, and they still have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The more minutes Steven Adams steals from Kendrick Perkins the better.

source:  3. Clippers (57-25). This was the third best team in the NBA at the end of last season. If you just said “but they were eliminated in the second round” it was to the Thunder in a series where Donald Sterling was a major disruption and distraction. They added Spencer Hawes, which is a quality upgrade for their front line depth.

source:  4. Mavericks (49-33). The Mavericks had the third best offense in the NBA last season and just added Chandler Parsons working off the weak side and in transition to that. The concern was their 22nd-ranked defense but they just brought back Tyson Chandler to help on that end. If they can figure out a point guard rotation that works (between Raymond Felton, Jameer Nelson and Devin Harris) the Mavericks become a potential threat.

source:  5. Bulls (48-34). It comes down to this — if Derrick Rose is back to even 85-90 percent of his old self they have the pieces around him to be a contender, certainly a threat in the East. Pau Gasol ad Joakim Noah make the best passing front court in the league, with Taj Gibson, Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott all able to contribute up front.

source:  6. Cavaliers (33-49). They had the best off-season of any team in the NBA landing that LeBron guy. They are contenders in the East right now (but a bit young and untested come the playoffs). If Cleveland completes the Kevin Love trade they move up. Should they move Andrew Wiggins for Love? They should do whatever LeBron wants.

source:  7. Warriors (51-31). This team had arguably the best starting five in the NBA last season but depth was an issue. Adding Shaun Livingston helps a little. It’s all on Steve Kerr now. Even if management didn’t like Mark Jackson or his offense (with reason on the second part) the players would run through a wall for him. Will they for Kerr?

source:  8. Rockets (54-28). They struck out this offseason and more importantly hurt their depth (no Omer Asik, Chandler Parsons or Jeremy Lin). This is still a good team but James Harden is about to find out how important role players are.

source:  9. Trail Blazers (54-28). They are a good team and Damian Lillard is still improving, but will Chris Kaman and Steve Blake really help the bench? This team can go as far as their defense will take them.

source:  10. Grizzlies (50-32). They added some much needed three point shooting with Vince Carter, but mostly the Grizzlies are banking on continuity (see the new deal with Zach Randolph). That and Marc Gasol staying healthy — when he is this team is very dangerous.

source:  11. Suns (48-34). They need to work out the Eric Bledsoe contract situation, but the Suns will have one amazing backcourt with the addition of Isaiah Thomas. They are going to be fun to watch, how good a playoff team they are will be about how good a defensive team they become.

source:  12. Nuggets (36-46). I’m higher on Denver than most — they were ravaged by injury last season and get a healthy Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee back, combined with the quality addition of Aaron Afflalo at the two guard spot. This is a dangerous team. More like the 54-win team of a couple years ago… if Brian Shaw can get that out of them.

source:  13. Wizards (44-38). I think they will be the third best team in the East. They lose Trevor Aria but replace him with a Paul Pierce/Otto Porter combo, they keep Marcin Gortat. John Wall and Bradley Beal should both be improved this season. They just need Nene to stay healthy and if so watch out.

source:  14. Pacers (56-26). One of the hardest teams to figure out — was the second half of last season a fluke? They are going to miss Lance Stephenson’s shot creation. Indiana added C.J. Miles and Damjan Rudez to knock down open looks, but are they going to get any now? Frank Vogel has some work to do.

source:  15. Raptors (48-34). They re-signed Kyle Lowry and bring back almost everyone from a 48-win team. Can the growth of DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas, along with continuity, lift this team up to another top four finish in the East and maybe the second round at least?

source:  16. Hawks (38-44). Remember they were the third best team in the East last season before Al Horford tore his pectoral and he will be back this season. They didn’t land any big names this summer but bring back a solid team that will do fairly well in the East.

source:  17. Heat (54-28). They are not going to be as good without LeBron, obviously, but by running the offense more through Chris Bosh and bringing in Luol Deng they can play the same small-ball, space-and-pace system. But that system’s success was predicated on defense and that end of the floor looks to be an issue for Miami.

source:  18. Pelicans (34-48). This is a team I think can make a leap this season behind Anthony Davis, who will be a top five player in the league. I like Omer Asik next to him for defense and Ryan Anderson in the mix to space the floor. If they stay healthy this can be a playoff team in the East.

source:  19. Hornets (43-39).A playoff team last year they did it with defense, now they improved that and added some shot creation with Lance Stephenson — if his antics aren’t a distraction this could be a great pickup. This is a team that could make a jump up the ladder in the East this season.

source:  20. Timberwolves (40-42). It does’t feel like this team will have Kevin Love when training camp opens, but even if it does the level of distraction can’t be good for this team. This roster, if it could just stay healthy and execute better late in games, could be a playoff team… but only with Love. And he’s gone.

source:  21. Nets (44-38). A potentially dangerous team in the East, but coach Lionel Hollins has to get Brook Lopez to be a force at both ends, get Deron Williams to play more consistently, and get Joe Johnson in the post against smaller guards not just shooting jumpers. Plus Kevin Garnett has to return to close to his Boston form. Still a lot of interesting pieces here.

source:  22. Knicks (37-45). The kilt Carmelo Anthony and with Derek Fisher/Phil Jackson running the show there is a direction now. But they still have a lot of mediocre players, although Jose Calderon is an upgrade at the point. Still going to be a team that struggles defensively.

source:  23. Pistons (29-53). Stan Van Gundy is a good hire as coach and team president, but unless he figures out how to make Andre Drummond, Josh Smith and Greg Monroe coexist together it’s not going to matter. They added some shooting to the roster, which should help a little.

source:  24. Kings (28-54). Nobody knows that the plan is, but we do know that Darren Collison is not as good a point guard as Isaiah Thomas. Kings need DeMarcus Cousins to have a monster year.

source:  25. Jazz (25-57). Can Quin Snyder develop young talent? They have a lot in Utah with Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Trey Burke, Dante Exum, Rodney Hood, and the re-signed Gordon Hayward. Build that talent up and this becomes a much better team the second half of the season.

source:  26. Lakers (27-55). They can be a decent offensive team team with Kobe Bryant, Carlos Boozer, Nick Young and Julius Randle, but they are going to be a defensive disaster. If Jack in the Box only gives out free tacos when the Lakers win and hold the opposing team under 100 the chain can save a lot of money.

source:  27. Bucks (15-67, LW 30). Jabari Parker is going to get a lot of minutes and could make a Rookie of the Year push, and with John Henson make a nice front line. The big question is Larry Sanders, if he plays like the guy from two seasons ago again this could be a pretty good defensive team.

source:  28. Celtics (25-57). This is a young team… and Rajon Rondo. They have a number of first round picks that should get better in the coming years but this season is going to be dominated by trade rumors in Boston.

source:  29. Magic (23-59). A really young roster with some nice pieces… plus Channing Frye and Ben Gordon. Some nice young players on this roster that should get run and time to grow.

source:  30. 76ers (19-63). Nerlens Noel looks like he could be a player in a couple years, and Michael Carter Williams should take steps forward. But Joel Embiid can’t pitch in this season. This is a team that could be really good in a few years but this season is going to be a rough one in Philly.

The time Kendall Gill stayed out all night then led Hornets to early-afternoon win (video)

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In the great history of NBA party-then-play stories, 15-year-pro Kendall Gill has a new tale from his rookie year with the Hornets in 1991.

Gill on Off The Dribble:

We pulled into D.C. My cousin took me out. I was out until 6 in the morning. He brings me back to the hotel. My coach, Gene Littles, is sitting in the lobby. And as I walked in the door, he’s like, “What the hell are you doing out here, rook? Don’t you know we’ve got a game at 12 o’clock in the afternoon?” Well, turns out, I go and I score 28 points that day, the high for my rookie season. I scored 28 points. He comes to me after the game and says, “You can go out and hang out any time you want to until 6 in the morning – if you play like that.”

A couple details are off. Gill scored 24 points to lead Charlotte over the Washington Bullets on March 31, 1991. But that wasn’t his season high. He scored 28 a few days earlier in Phoenix. The Washington game also had a listed start of 1 p.m., not noon.

Still, this comes close enough on the verifiable facts. Besides, I want the fun parts of this story to be true, so I’ll choose to believe them, anyway.

Birthday boy Karl-Anthony Towns giving Timberwolves even more reason to celebrate

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Tom Thibodeau is gone. Jimmy Butler is gone. Karl-Anthony Towns has taken greater ownership with the Timberwolves.

Towns organizes team-building activities like Topgolf and a halloween party. Towns gives the pump-up speech before each game. Towns communicates more on the floor.

That’s why, Towns said, he didn’t even realize his birthday was approaching until his parents recently reminded him.

“I get caught up in work,” Towns said.

Whether or not Towns actually needed the reminder, let alone for such a flattering reason, his birthday – which is today – got him reflecting. He felt old.

So, Towns mentioned to Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders that his birthday was around the corner. Saunders had the opposite realization: Towns is turning 24 today. Just 24!

“He’s still young,” Saunders said. “As a coach, that gets me excited.”

Towns is one of the NBA’s special talents – a proven star with room to improve. Picking up the momentum he built last season, Towns appears to be really coming into his own this year.

The center is posting his usual impressive numbers (25.8 points and 12.0 rebounds per game), but his new attitude has stolen the show. He fought Joel Embiid and went face-to-face with Rudy Gay.

Don’t let the antics completely overshadow an impressive basketball story, though. Towns has led Minnesota to a surprising 7-4 start by revamping his game. Most of his shots are coming from beyond the arc, and his 4.2 assists per game are a career high.

By creating spacing and keeping the ball moving, Towns is contributing to a style that lifts all the Timberwolves. Perhaps, nobody has benefited more than Andrew Wiggins, who’s fitting right into this modern look.

The transformation is only the latest chapter for Towns, whose reputation has fluctuated significantly throughout his five-year career. This might explain why he already feels so old:

Minnesota drafted Towns No. 1 in 2015, and he won Rookie of the Year. In the 2016 and 2017 NBA general-manager survey, a plurality of voting executives picked Towns as the player they’d most like to start a team with. In the 2017 survey, Towns also received the most votes for league’s best center (even while getting a couple votes as league’s best power forward).

On paper, Towns delivered. He made his first All-Star and All-NBA teams the following season. He also reached the playoffs for the first time.

But Thibodeau and Butler butted heads with Towns, who never showed the hard edge those former Bulls tried to coax from him. After trading Butler, Minnesota went right back to losing.

In the 2018 and 2019 surveys, no general manager picked Towns to start a team with. Only a few picked him as best center.

Now, the landscape has shifted again. Anthony Davis spends a lot of time at power forward. Joel Embiid doesn’t stay as healthy. Nikola Jokic has fallen way off.

Towns is the early frontrunner for All-NBA first-team center.

“Everybody takes big steps in their growth at different times,” Saunders said, “and I think we’re seeing that from Karl.”

Towns can’t take anything for granted, and neither can the Timberwolves. But he at least has a good chance for vindication after his preseason playoff talk.

The way Towns has implemented more 3-point shooting into his game is particularly impressive. His 9.0 attempts per game lead NBA bigs, and he’s converting more than 40%. But floating on the perimeter was once a sign Towns was being too passive. Now, Towns is finding the right balance between spotting up beyond the arc and playing aggressively.

That’s in part his own mentality changing, in part his teammates’ mentality changing. Gone are the days when Towns could be an afterthought outside the paint.

“The ball is always going to find KAT,” Timberwolves guard Josh Okogie said. “He’s the center of our offense.”

Towns’ defensive intensity still comes and goes. He still must prove himself in the playoffs, and that usually requires trials and tribulations he hasn’t yet experienced.

But at age 24, Towns is finally/already showing something special.

DeAndre’ Bembry gets ejected for taunting Ricky Rubio, continued talking (video)

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The Hawks are rapidly changing. General manager Travis Schlenk took over just two years ago and has already turned over nearly the entire roster. Only DeAndre’ Bembry remains as an inherited player.

It’s not an easy situation for Bembry, who’s headed toward free agency next summer. He’s playing for a team with a lead executive who never chose him. Bembry can’t count on any team investing in him.

That’s the context in which Bembry got ejected from Atlanta’s loss to the Suns last night. He blocked Ricky Rubio‘s shot, taunted the Phoenix guard, got a technical foul, kept talking and got another technical foul.

The ejection seems pretty weak, but Bembry left himself vulnerable to the techs.

Hawks rookie Cameron Reddish also got ejected for multiple flagrant fouls.

Eric Bledsoe apparently bothered Bulls with post-buzzer dunk (video)

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Eric Bledsoe doesn’t care about the rules – written or unwritten.

As the buzzer sounded in the Bucks’ 124-115 win over the Bulls yesterday, Bledsoe dunked then hung on the rim. The basket came after time expired and didn’t count.

Bulls forward Thaddeus Young and coach Jim Boylen confronted Bledsoe on the court:

Young, via K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago:

“We all know what it is,” Young said. “They had the game won. There are some things you just don’t do at the end of games just out of common courtesy. We’ll move on. It is what it is. It happened. We just have to be ready when we play them in four or five days. We gotta be ready to get a win.”

“That’s with any team that cares about the morals and principles of the game,” Young said. “If we did that and the score was the opposite, they’d say the same thing. It is what it is. We just gotta be ready in four or five days. We gotta get a win. That’s the only way we can follow it back up now.”

Usually, I’d say: If you don’t like it, stop it. But that doesn’t really apply for a post-game dunk. There’s no defense after the buzzer.

Still, I’m not outraged by Bledsoe’s dunk. I bet, aside from Bulls partisans, most people aren’t (though plenty could work themselves into a tizzy if they desire). Some of Chicago’s bitterness probably stemmed from losing and allowing Bledsoe to score 31 points on 12-of-12 shooting inside the arc.

If the Bulls want to use this as motivation, more power to them. They should. Young, whose professionalism appears exemplary, is an ideal messenger.

But Boylen, who wouldn’t comment on this to the media, can’t claim the moral high ground.