PBT Weekly NBA Power Rankings: Warriors, Cavaliers, Spurs then everyone else

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In the penultimate PBT Power Rankings of the NBA season there is not a lot of change at the top, although I was tempted to move the Spurs in front of the Cavaliers. Basically it’s Golden State, Cleveland, and San Antonio then the rest of the league. At the bottom, the Timberwolves take a turn.

 
source:  1. Warriors (63-14, Last Week No. 1). They had won a dozen in a row but the Spurs reminded everyone on Sunday the West playoffs are no foregone conclusion. Rather they will be a bloodbath. That said, the Warriors have home court throughout the playoffs and they are 35-2 at Oracle Arena.

 
source:  2. Cavaliers (50-27 LW 2). Cleveland’s offense has been fantastic and it’s defense improved since the All-Star break (and trades), but that defense had gone from terrible to a little above average. But they have shown flashes of better defense of late and they will need that against the Hawks in the conference Finals.

 
source:  3. Spurs (51-26, LW 3). Kawhi Leonard missed a lot of time this season but he is still going to draw Defensive Player of the Year votes. You saw Sunday why with his play against Stephen Curry on Sunday. Big home-and-home against Houston this week, with some wins they could get home court in the first round.

 
source:  4. Hawks (57-19, LW 4). Atlanta beating Brooklyn by 32 Saturday — even with Paul Millsap getting injured — is a preview of what the first round will look like in the East. Millsap is going to miss a couple games but is not in danger of missing playoff games.

 
source:  5. Clippers (52-26, LW 5). Jamal Crawford is set to return on Tuesday and his depth is needed for the shallow-benched Clippers. Los Angeles has a soft schedule the rest of the way, but there is a big game with Memphis this week — win and the three seed is well within reach.

 
source:  6. Rockets (53-24, LW 6). If Houston is going to hold on to the two seed in the West, they have to get at least a split against the red hot Spurs in a home-and-home this week. James Harden has been putting up MVP numbers and is doing it efficiently, pushing his team into a top seed. He’s got a good case.

 
source:  7. Trail Blazers (50-26. LW 8). As the winners of the Northwest Division they will be the four seed, but still likely will start the playoffs on the road because the five seed (Clippers, Spurs or Grizzlies) will have the better record. Portland’s offense is clicking but they will only go as far as their defense takes them.

 
source:  8. Grizzlies (52-25, LW 7). For Memphis the playoffs basically start this week — they are the three seed, just one game back of Houston for the two seed but also just half a game ahead of the Clippers and one up on the Spurs. They could finish anywhere from 2-6 in the West. Big games against the Pelicans and Clippers this week.

 
source:  9. Bulls (46-31, LW 9). Derrick Rose is expected to return this week, and the Bulls can try to make a positive out of how they stuck close to the Cavaliers Sunday without him or Kirk Hinrich. Yet they have not played the level of defense we expect from the Bulls enough this season to picture them as a serious threat for the conference finals.

 
source:  10. Mavericks (46-31, LW 10). The Rockets, Grizzlies, Clippers and Spurs are all holding out hope of getting the two seed — because all of them would love to face Dallas in the first round. The Mavs need to get their defense back on track before the playoffs and hope for a favorable offensive matchup.

 
source:  11. Pelicans (41-35, LW 12). Despite the Pelicans having the tougher schedule they have gotten within half a game of the Thunder as OKC stumbles down the stretch. And the Pelicans own the tie breaker. Ryan Anderson is back in the lineup which is huge for their offense and spacing. Still tough sledding ahead with Golden State, Houston and Memphis on the docket this week.

 
source:  12. Wizards (44-33, LW 14). They have won 4-of-5 and are within a game of four-seed Toronto and home court in the first round. Those wins hadn’t been that impressive until the upset of Memphis on Saturday night, but the Wizards are playing good defense again and that keeps them in just about every game.

 
source:  13. Thunder (42-35, LW 11). They have lost five of six and given the Pelicans hope (and New Orleans has the tie breaker). Russell Westbrook is racking up triple doubles (11) but he’s not efficient, the Thunder defense is bad and the losses pile up. Games this week are the surging Spurs, the Kings, then an interesting test at Indiana (with Paul George).

 
source:  14. Raptors (45-32, LW 15). Toronto’s sloppy defense continues to cost them in close games, as it did over the weekend. They need the wins, the Wizards are just one game back and could take home court away in the first round. Toronto is on the road this week but the games are winnable at Charlotte, Orlando, and Miami.

 
source:  15. Jazz (35-42, LW 16). Interesting discussion around the NBA now is what the much-improved Jazz should do this summer to build on their defense and second half surge. History suggests there will be patience, looking for growth out of the guys they already have, and maybe one or two trades but not a blockbuster. They just need the right guys.

 
<source:  16. Suns (39-38, LW 13). Can the Suns finish over .500? Not going to be that easy with this being four of their final five games: At Atlanta, at Dallas, at New Orleans, at San Antonio.

 
source:  17. Bucks (38-39, LW 17). They should be doing their homework on the looming I-94 first round showdown with Chicago. Just making the playoffs will be a positive experience for John Henson, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the rest of the young Bucks.

 
source:  18. Nets (35-41, LW 19). They have won 8-of-10 behind the return of Brook Lopez (he was just named Eastern Conference player of the week), yet they are not secure in the playoffs. The Nets are the seven seed, 1.5 games ahead of nine seeds Indiana/Miami, with a tough lineup of Portland, Atlanta, Washington and Milwaukee this week.

 
source:  19. Celtics (35-42, LW 20). This could be the make or break week for Boston’s playoff dreams. The Celtics are the eight seed, one game up on the Pacers/Heat, but Boston has a home-and-home against Cleveland this week.

 
source:  20. Pacers (34-43, LW 21). Paul George looked good but rusty in his return Sunday (as to be expected), but his presence brought a new energy to a Pacers team that throttled the Heat. Indy is just one game out of the playoffs with winnable road games against the Knick and Pistons this week, followed by a tough one against Oklahoma City. This is going to go down to the wire.

 
source:  21. Heat (34-43, LW 18). They were on the wrong side of the Paul George return Sunday, but their problems are bigger than that having lost four in a row. They are a game out of the playoffs and need wins at home this week against Chicago and Detroit or Dwyane Wade could miss the playoffs for only the second time in his career.

 
source:  22. Pistons (30-47, LW 23). They may just be playing out the string but there are reasons for hope in Detroit — Reggie Jackson is putting up big lines, Andre Drummond remains a beast inside, and the Pistons have turned the Palace into a tough place to play again. All things to build on.

 
source:  23. Hornets (33-43, LW 25). Kemba Walker came to the defense of coach Steve Clifford this week, saying it’s not his fault the Hornets regressed this season. While everyone can take some blame, more goes on the guys in the front office who pushed for the Lance Stephenson trade than on Clifford, who can still flat out coach.

 
source:  24. Magic (24-53, LW 27). The Magic are in an interesting place, with some quality young players that should be part of the future — Nikola Vucevic, Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris, Elfrid Payton — but they lack a true No. 1, a cornerstone/foundational player. That’s always the hardest piece to get. Oh, and they need a new coach with a system that fits all these guys.

 
source:  25. Nuggets (28-49, LW 22). Denver’s players are clearly mailing in the rest of season, which is a bad sign for interim coach Melvin Hunt (but I think this is more on the makeup of the players mentally than the coach).

 
source:  26. Kings (26-50, LW 24). DeMarcus Cousins put up back-to-back 20-20 games last week and looks very comfortable in the George Karl offense. But it’s what Karl and the Kings front office do this summer that is really going to determine the future in Sacramento, this roster needs work.

 
source:  27. 76ers (18-60, LW 26). I’m excited to see Joel Embiid in a Sixers uniform playing at Summer League in Las Vegas, he could be the foundational piece that helps transform these Sixers (who certainly have looked better since the All-Star Break).

 
source:  28. Lakers (20-55, LW 28). Here’s the only number that matters in Los Angeles — 82.8. That is the percentage chance the Lakers hold on to their draft pick this year. They have the fourth worst record in the NBA, if two teams jump them in the lottery and the Lakers fall to the six pick then the Sixers get it (remnants of the Steve Nash trade). But if they keep it and draft wisely, someone to pair with Julius Randell and Jordan Clarkson, then the foundation of the future starts to get laid.

 
source:  29. Knicks (15-62, LW 30). Phil Jackson talked about defense to season ticket holders this week, and in doing so it sounded like he was leaning toward Karl-Anthony Towns over Jahlil Okafor if the Knicks land the top pick. That may be the better long-term pick but it’s not going to help Carmelo Anthony win right now, and it may be a tough sell.

source:  30. Timberwolves (16-60, LW 29). Watch them to see future Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins (he’s putting up numbers now), but no Nikola Pekovic or Ricky Rubio. Mostly sadly, maybe no more Kevin Garnett again.

Suns to sign French point guard Elie Okobo to first-round style contract

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The Suns have an impressive young core four: Devin Booker at the two, Mikal Bridges at the three, Josh Jackson at the four, and Deandre Ayton at center.

The hole: Who will be the point guard?

The Suns like Elie Okobo of France a lot. They drafted him 31st overall, the top pick of the second round, but they will give him a first-round style contract with two guaranteed seasons and two team options after that, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Suns hinted they were going to do this, and it’s a smart move at a fair price if they can develop Okobo (even as a backup).

Okobo has potential. Last season, at the highest level of the athletic French league he averaged 13.2 points on 57 percent shooting (38 percent from three) plus 4.4 assists per game. Okobo is an NBA level athlete who has all the tools to be a good NBA point guard — and he already knows how to score (he had 44 points in a playoff game this season). He’s going to have to round out his game and adapt to the NBA style, but the Suns think they have something.

And they are betting they have with a nice sized contract.

Dirk Nowitzki and Luka Doncic: Mavericks tap brakes on inevitable comparisons

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DALLAS (AP) — Luka Doncic didn’t get compared to Larry Bird when he was introduced a day after the Dallas Mavericks traded up to get the third overall pick in the NBA draft.

For president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson, that’s progress based on his last experience of getting a tender-aged European in hopes of lifting the Mavericks out of the doldrums.

Twenty years later, Dirk Nowitzki is the highest-scoring foreign-born player in league history. Back then, the big German wasn’t remotely comparable to Larry Legend – and his rough first two years proved it.

So ask Nelson about a player the Mavericks clearly coveted heading into the draft in Doncic, and he’ll choose his words carefully regarding the 19-year-old from Slovenia. Doncic won’t turn 20 until after the All-Star break of his rookie season, which is expected to be Nowitzki’s record 21st with one franchise.

“Dirk and I had a long talk coming in,” Nelson said about the player Dallas drafted days after his 20th birthday in 1998.

“We’re obviously very excited to have (Doncic) but he’s got a very tough road ahead of him. Dirk wasn’t done any favors in his first two years. We are going to steer away from any of those comparisons. Luka is his own guy. He’s got his own challenges.”

Coach Rick Carlisle dropped a few international names in trying to describe the versatility Dallas thinks is offered by the 6-foot-7 Doncic, who won Euroleague MVP and Final Four MVP honors while helping Real Madrid win the title just days before the draft.

After offering comparisons to the late Drazen Petrovic, three-time champion Toni Kukoc and longtime San Antonio star Manu Ginobili, Carlisle stopped.

“I really feel it’s important that we shouldn’t try to compare this guy to anybody,” Carlisle said Friday during an introductory news conference that included Doncic and second-round pick Jalen Brunson, who won two NCAA titles in three years at Villanova. “Let him be himself. Let his game takes its own form.”

Doncic figures to shape the future of the Mavericks in some form with Dallas coming off consecutive losing seasons for the first time since the second of Nowitzki’s two difficult years at the start of his career.

Those 1990s-era Mavericks had 10 straight losing seasons. Combine the drafting of Doncic with last year’s ninth overall pick in point guard Dennis Smith Jr. and a still-young leading scorer in Harrison Barnes, and Carlisle expects the losing to stop soon, if not this coming season.

“Last night was symbolic to me that it was kind of a defining moment in this rebuild,” said Carlisle, who had just one losing season as a coach before the current Dallas slide. “We’re going propel forward with the idea that we’ve got to start winning games.”

Just as he did last year with Smith, Carlisle is declaring Doncic a starter, which means the opening night lineup will have a teenager for the second straight year. Youth partly explains a two-year record of 57-107, including the 24-58 mark last season that landed Dallas the fifth pick before the draft-night trade with Atlanta on Thursday.

Another explanation was an unusually large number of undrafted players, including a young German in Maxi Kleber who grew up watching his countryman become the 2007 MVP and 2011 NBA Finals MVP.

The Mavericks haven’t won a playoff series since taking their only title in 2011, and have missed the postseason three of the past six seasons coming off a 12-year playoff streak. Doncic might only get one chance to get Dallas back on track with Nowitzki, the 13-time All-Star who has hinted that 40 is a nice round number as a retirement age.

If this is it for Nowitzki, Nelson sees a trio in Barnes, Smith and Doncic that reminds him of Michael Finley mentoring Nowitzki and point guard Steve Nash and helping the Mavericks end a 10-year playoff drought in 2001.

“Michael Finley was our Harrison Barnes back in the day,” Nelson said. “We feel like we’ve got that here in a different form. There’s just some really cool elements to this that take me back and remind me about what it was like 20 years ago when we were watching these young guys.”

Just don’t remind Nelson about the Nowitzki-Bird comparisons.

 

Clippers’ Milos Teodosic opts into $6.3 million for next season

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It was a lot of fun to watch Milos Teodosic play last season…

When he was healthy. He only played in 45 games for the Clippers last season.

Teodosic will be back in the NBA next season, as he has told the Clippers he will opt into a $6.3 million next season, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Clippers can buy him out by July 15 for $2.1 million, and that likely will happen. The Clippers are deep at the point guard spot (Patrick Beverley, Austin Rivers, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jawun Evans) and with a lottery rookie in the fold they will want to get him run.

Expect the Clippers to try to trade him in the next three weeks. He would have value to a team looking for a backup point guard — when he did play he averaged 9.5 points per game, shot 37.9 percent from three. The fans will love his passing and play. The coach will like him too… when healthy.

Report: Suns to renounce rights to Alex Len, Elfrid Payton

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The Suns want to free up some cap space heading into July. They are not going big game hunting, but with $10 million to $15 million they could bring in some solid veterans to provide leadership to their young core — and win a few games along the way.

How they get there starts with not bringing back Alex Len or Elfrid Payton, reports Scott Bordow of the Arizona Republic.

Expect them to renounce their rights to center Alex Len and point guard Elfrid Payton, making them both free agents. Ayton’s addition has made Len expendable, and while Phoenix still needs point-guard help, Payton’s inconsistent play last season and, more importantly, his $10 million cap hold figure, likely means he’s played his last game in a Suns uniform.

This was expected. In Len’s case, he was playing on a qualifying offer and didn’t anticipate being back with the team (especially after they drafted Deandre Ayton).

The Suns acquired Payton at the trade deadline for a second-round pick (which was just by Orlando to land Jarred Vanderbilt) and it was a good flier. The Suns need a point guard to go next to Devin Booker, Payton is a former lottery pick that had shown flashes in the past, so Phoenix rolled the dice on him. It didn’t work out, and the Suns can just move on.

Both Len and Payton probably find new homes in the NBA next season. Len is 7’1″ and can use that size to protect the paint, plus he can score around the rim. Teams can use that off the bench. Payton has shown enough in flashes, and he can get buckets, that some team will grab him, just probably as a reserve.