PBT’s NBA Power Rankings: Just like last year, Spurs on top while Sixers on bottom

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They’re baaaaack.

With the NBA season tipping off on Tuesday ProBasketballTalk’s weekly power rankings have returned to frustrate you by not ranking your team nearly high enough. During the season these rankings are a mix of science — yes, there is a formula weighted toward recent games — and a bit of art as teams are moved up and down based on what the formula misses. However, the first week is just projections (I’m not going off preseason stats, those mean less than what your grandmother thinks of your PS4).

We will be here each week on Monday to rank NBA teams from 1-30, in what is ultimately a meaningless exercise because the playoffs sort it all out anyway. Still, it’s a fun discussion, so we do it.

To start the season, as always the defending champions are on the top, while the Sixers have done nothing to move out of the basement.

 
source:  1. Spurs (Last season 62-20). They will set the bar: Want to win the NBA title? You need to be better than San Antonio. They are not coming back to the pack, you need to pass them. Gregg Popovich says his team didn’t look interested during 2-5 preseason. He’s right, although the best explanation is it’s the preseason. Nobody cares. Expect that to change starting Tuesday night against Dallas.

 
source:  2. Cavaliers (33-49). LeBron James and teammates already have bought into coach David Blatt’s offensive system — creating space and open looks with cuts/ball movement. That will keep Cleveland from getting off to the slow start LeBron’s Miami bit three did their first year together.

 
source:  3. Clippers (57-25). Another team that had a rough preseason, but it won’t matter when the games get real. The one preseason concern worth watching is the Clippers didn’t rebound particularly well, if that carries over it can be trouble. L.A. needs a big season out of its bench bigs (we’re looking at you, Spencer Hawes).

 
source:  4. Bulls (48-34). As we suggested this summer, Derrick Rose’s time with Team USA was good for him because he got to knock the rust off and return to form. I’m not sure Bulls fans are on board yet, but they will be. Maybe by Christmas. This team is a serious contender and can beat the Cavaliers if they just stay healthy.

 
source:  5. Thunder (59-23).. Kevin Durant has missed five games in the last five seasons, which makes this Durant-less Thunder the hardest team to predict in the rankings. They’ll be good, but how good? One other thing to watch: Can Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb cover for Thabo Sefolosha’s defense over the course of the season?

 
source:  6. Mavericks (49-33). Count me among the fans of the Chandler Parsons and Tyson Chandler additions this summer, I think Dallas may be top four in the West. The question is can they get enough out of the three-headed point guard monster of Jameer Nelson, Devin Harris and Raymond Felton (once Felton’s healthy). Look for them to add J.J. Barea to the mix.

 
source:  7. Warriors (51-31). I’m going to side with Klay Thompson’s camp here: If you will not trade the man for Kevin Love and you say he’s half of the best backcourt in basketball, then cough up the max contract extension. On the court, I love the motion and smarter sets the Warriors are running under Steve Kerr.

 
source:  8. Rockets (54-28). I’m not one that buys Trevor Ariza is as good as Chandler Parsons, but he’s a quality pick up. The real interesting addition is Kostas Papanikolaou as a reserve big man, he could give them some of the depth certain of us think they are lacking after a rough summer.

 
source:  9. Trail Blazers (54-28). With Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge leading the way the Blazers starting five can hang with just about anybody, the question remains what they get off the bench. Can new additions Steve Blake and Chris Kaman really change that dynamic? I’m not sold.

 
source:  10. Grizzlies (50-32).  They have won 50 games each of the last two seasons, plus now they add Vince Carter to provide some outside shooting and scoring depth. They will win 50+ again and be a tough out come the playoffs, but they are going to have to deal with Marc Gasol free agency questions all season.

 
source:  11. Pelicans (34-48). If any of the top eight teams that made the playoffs in the West slips far for any reason, this is the team I think leapfrogs them. The addition of Omer Asik was brilliant, they just need to keep the key backcourt guys (Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans) healthy.

 
source:  12. Suns (48-34). I think they are going to miss Channing Frye a lot considering their style of play. Phoenix added Isaiah Thomas and Zoran Dragic this summer, two good players but they play the same positions as the best players already on the Suns’ roster.

 
source:  13. Nuggets (36-46). This team is more dangerous than people realize: Kenneth Faried is poised for a breakout year coming off his Team USA experience, they get Danilo Gallinari back and added Arron Afflalo. Plus Ty Lawson is underrated. Brian Shaw doesn’t get a pass this year, this team needs to push for a playoff spot out West.

 
source:  14. Raptors (48-34). This rating may be too low for them. It will come down to Toronto and Washington for the third best team in the East. Lots of focus on Kyle Lowry’s big payday, but Jonas Valanciunas’ improvement is the key to the Raptors taking a step forward.

 
source:  15. Wizards (44-38). I think they will finish the season as the third best team in the East, but Bradley Beal’s wrist injury to start the season slides Washington down my rankings a little. They need to keep Nene healthy but Marcin Gortat being there helps a lot to keep his minutes under control.

 
source:  16. Hawks (38-44). With a healthy Al Horford the Hawks are a solid playoff team in the Eastern Conference, landing somewhere in the middle of the pack. Like always. The big question around this team is who buys them.

 
source:  17. Heat (54-28). Another team in the East that is hard to predict — they will be good, a playoff team, but how good? Chris Bosh is the focal point, plus Luol Deng and Josh McRoberts are quality additions. But it’s simply not the same without the best player on the planet. Going to be interesting to see where they land in the middle of the Eastern pack.

 
source:  18. Hornets (43-39). We expect that they are again going to be a defensive force, like last season, and the addition of Lance Stephenson helps that. The question is how good the offense becomes with Stephenson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s new shot, Kemba Walker at the point and Al Jefferson in the block. Better than last season, I bet.

 
source:  19. Nets (44-38). This ranking may be low for a healthy Nets team… except already they are not healthy. Brook Lopez is a question mark for opening night. Lionel Hollins needs to win games but keeps these guys fresh for the playoffs, a tough line to walk.

 
source:  20. Pistons (29-53). Stan Van Gundy’s coaching will make this team better — Josh Smith took less than one three a game in the preseason. That’s a start. Detroit really needs Jodie Meeks to get healthy and provide more outside shooting before things can really start to click. The Greg Monroe saga will hang over this team all season.

 
source:  21. Knicks (37-45). All the talk is about the triangle offense, how Carmelo Anthony fits in it and J.R. Smith doesn’t. The real work Phil Jackson needs to do over the next couple years is to revamp this roster, which both doesn’t fit the triangle and just isn’t very good period.

 
source:  22. Kings (28-54). DeMarcus Cousins, coming off a big summer with Team USA in Spain (he was great in the title game), is poised to make another leap forward. But more than just on the court, he has to be a leader on a young roster that has some talent. Not sure that improvement and Rudy Gay having another banner year can get this team 20 more wins and near the playoffs.

 
source:  23. Pacers (56-26). The team that likely will out-lose the Heat on their way to the biggest drop in the NBA this season. The good news is they do have their lottery pick for next season. Going to be lots of questions about Roy Hibbert’s future during the season.

source:  24. Timberwolves (40-42). They are not going to be good but this is going to be a fun team to watch — Ricky Rubio throwing lobs to Andrew Wiggins, and Nikola Pekovic knows how to score in the post. How much will Flip Saunders lean on some veterans trying to get a win over the youth he needs to develop? That’s why it’s hard to be coach and GM

 
source:  25. Lakers (27-55). Kobe Bryant is going to put up a lot of inefficient points and draw the headlines, but the Lakers bench will be more fun to watch — Jeremy Lin, Nick Young (once healthy in December), Julius Randle and Ed Davis. They can’t defend but they’ll be entertaining.

 
source:  26. Jazz (25-57). Quin Snyder was brought in to develop talent, so we need to see what kind of strides guys like Derrick Favors, Trey Burke and even Gordon Hayward make this season. I expect the Jazz will be a much better team at the end of the season than the start.

 
source:  27. Bucks (15-67). Milwaukee brought in Jason Kidd to develop young talent like Jabari Parker, John Henson, Larry Sanders and Giannis Antetokounmpo. The New York based new Bucks owners brought in a big name as coach, but his he the right guy? Still, watch the Bucks for Parker, very possibly your Rookie of the Year, and of course the Greek Freak.

 
source:  28. Celtics (25-57). There’s just not that much talent on the roster, a few nice rotation guys like Jared Sullinger and guys with potential like Marcus Smart. But the real question is how much talent could they really add with a Rajon Rondo trade? Enough to make it worth it?

 
source:  29. Magic (23-59). Losing Victor Oladipo for the first month of the season is a huge setback for a team already going to struggle this year. Do they give veterans like Channing Frye (once he gets healthy) and Luke Ridnour run to try and maybe pick up a couple wins, or just suffer with more losses?

 
source:  30. 76ers (19-63). They have already won their biggest game of the season — the NBA did not alter the Draft Lottery format to thwart them. I like Nerlens Noel and at some point they get Michael Carter Williams back, but even with that this team will at best get into the teens in wins.

Evan Fournier says that Frank Ntilikina just ‘needs a real opportunity’

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New York Knicks fans haven’t had a lot to cheer for recently. The team traded away Kristaps Porzingis, who is thought to be the franchise cornerstone. Now they move forward with a young core, RJ Barrett, and tons of cap space.

So what does that mean for players who have been around in the Big Apple like Frank Ntilikina?

Based on how Ntilikina played in the 2019 FIBA World Cup for France this year, things might be looking up.

Ntilikina’s statistics weren’t eye-popping, but he was seen as a very solid player in a backcourt that helped propel France to the bronze medal in China.

To that end, fellow countrymen Evan Fournier thinks that all Ntilikina needs is a chance to shine.

Via Twitter:

Ntilikina’s season last year was marred by injuries, and he played in just 43 games. Still, he has the physical tools to be a useful NBA player, and he’s just 21 years old. With the surprisingly low-pressure situation in New York, it’s possible that extended time playing in the World Cup could help aid what Ntilikina is able to produce next season for the Knicks.

Report: Lakers receive DeMarcus Cousins disabled-player exception

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A chance at a championship. LeBron James. Anthony Davis. The Los Angeles market. Great weather.

The Lakers can offer plenty to anyone who gets bought out this season.

Now, the Lakers – who lost DeMarcus Cousins to a torn ACL – get a mechanism to offer post-buyout players more money.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The exception holds little value presently. It’s worth less than a full-season minimum salary for anyone with more than four years experience.

But minimum-salary and mid-level exceptions decline throughout the season. This exception does not.

So, on March 1, a team with only a minimum slot available can offer a free agent just between $233,459 and $666,546 (depending on the player’s experience level). The Lakers can offer $1.75 million.

This means an NBA-appointed doctor ruled Cousins is “substantially more likely than not” to be out through June 15. Given that prognosis, the Lakers could open a roster spot by waiving Cousins, who’s on a one-year deal and facing a domestic-violence charge. They’d still keep the exception.

If Cousins can return more quickly than expected, he’d be eligible to play, whether or not the Lakers use the exception.

Damian Lillard says he plans to play for Team USA in 2020 Olympics

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Stephen Curry said he wants to play for Team USA in the 2020 Olympics.

He isn’t the only star point guard eager for Tokyo.

Damian Lillard, via James McKern of news.com.au:

“I plan on being a part of that. I plan on playing,” Lillard said

Though neither Curry nor Lillard played for Team USA in this year’s World Cup, there’s a potentially large difference: Curry never agreed to play. Lillard did then withdrew. USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo indicated particular scorn for players who decommitted.

Of course, Colangelo also wants to win. That might require swallowing his pride and accepting players who withdrew this year. He has talked tough in the past about players who didn’t show his desired devotion to USA Basketball. Lillard got cut in 2014 then missed the 2016 Olympics citing injury. It can be difficult to determine which absences Colangelo forgives.

One factor working against Lillard: The Americans’ point guard pool is deep. Curry rates higher. Kemba Walker earned respect by playing in the World Cup. James Harden (who also withdrew from the World Cup) and Kyrie Irving also factor.

I expect Colangelo to operate on a sliding scale: The better the player, the less prior commitment to USA Basketball necessary. Lillard is an excellent player. We’ll see how far that gets him.

And whether he’ll even want to play next year. The reasons for playing – pride of representing your country, prestige marketing opportunities – are more obvious now. The reasons not to play – injury, fatigue, personal commitments – are more likely to emerge closer to the Games.

Losing Kemba Walker would always sting. Hornets made it nearly as painful as possible

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NBC Sports’ 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 Hornets faced a miserable choice this summer:

  • Lose not only their by far best player, but the greatest player in franchise and someone with a deep connection to the community
  • Sign a point guard to an expensive contract that will further inhibit an already-strapped team from competing at even a moderate level

Charlotte’s choice? Both.

The Hornets let Kemba Walker leave via free agency and replaced him with Terry Rozier (three years, $56.7 million). That’s a failure, not one of solely this offseason, but a failure nonetheless.

At 29, Walker would’ve likely become a negative value on a long-term deal. But at least he would’ve kept Charlotte more firmly in the Eastern Conference playoff race in the near term – not that on the fringes of that competition is a great place to be. There were reasonable arguments for and against keeping Walker.

But if the Hornets were willing to offer him only $160 million (about $62 million less than his super max), they should have traded him before it got this far. Why did they keep him past last season’s trade deadline? To have him represent Charlotte in the All-Star game there? To make a longshot run at the No. 8 seed? Without knowing exactly what other teams offered, that seems highly likely a mistake.

The Hornets weren’t good enough to make the playoffs with Walker. What makes them think they’ll be good enough with Rozier?

Losing Walker always would’ve invited a year of pain. Charlotte is too capped out, too veteran-laden to pivot in a meaningful way. But at least Bismack Biyombo‘s, Marvin Williams‘ and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist‘s contracts will expire next summer. Nicolas Batum‘s and Cody Zeller‘s will expire the following year.

Now, Rozier is on the books another year after that.

Maybe Rozier, 25, will become a key part of the Hornets’ next successful era. He has the requisite athleticism and has shown flashes of being a good starting point guard. But he’s coming off a down year. That counts, too.

It’s easy to pin Rozier’s struggles on a tough situation behind Kyrie Irving. That surely factored. Still, most players on a starting track would’ve fared better in those circumstances.

Credit Charlotte for creativity. By signing-and-trading Walker to the Celtics for a signed-and-traded Rozier, the Hornets got more spending power. But they probably would’ve been better off with a point guard in the mid-level-exception range like Tomas Satoransky, Delon Wright or Tyus Jones. It’ll take a major jump for Rozier to justify his near-$19 million-per-year salary.

Charlotte isn’t giving him much help. Jeremy Lamb left in free agency. Even though they have enough breathing room under the tax line to use the rest, the Hornets haven’t used their mid-level exception other than sliver for No. 36 pick Cody Martin.

Internal prospects look limited. Charlotte didn’t place anyone on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years. No. 12 pick P.J. Washington probably won’t change the franchise’s arc.

The Hornets didn’t reach this dismal point in one offseason. But this summer worsened the predicament.

Offseason grade: D-