PBT’s NBA Power Rankings: Summer Edition, where the Spurs keep on winning

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The dust has almost settled on the NBA summer, with just some minor deals to get done (although there are a few good players still out there). Now that we’ve seen most the trades (probably) and gotten a look at the rookies in Summer League, it’s time to adjust the power rankings. The top of the board is easy — the Spurs move up but not to the top spot, yet — the bigger challenge is the bottom where every team has hope and think they’ve improved, but we know some will be disappointed.

source:  1. Warriors (last season 67-15). The defending champs always start in the top spot, but the Warriors did what they needed to this off-season keeping the band together. The key was re-signing Draymond Green. Their road to a repeat will be much tougher than to their first title, but this team certainly is a contender.

source:  2. Cavaliers (53-29). They re-signed LeBron James (no shock), Kevin Love, and Iman Shumpert, then added Mo Williams to the mix. Not bad, and they are not done with Tristan Thompson, Matthew Dellavedova and J.R. Smith still looming and likely re-signed. Plus they can make a move with the Brendan Haywood contract. The Cavs are clear and away the best team in the East.

source:  3. Spurs (55-27). They won the off-season — Tiago Splitter was good but replacing him with LaMarcus Aldridge was a huge upgrade. Plus they re-sign Kawhi Leonard, add David West, and keep Danny Green at a fair price. This team will be hungry with it likely being Tim Duncan’s final season. But the brilliance of their off-season is they will stay near the top of the league for years even after Duncan steps away.

source:  4. Clippers (56-26). Doc Rivers the GM bounced back and had a great summer. He kept DeAndre Jordan in house (barely), plus added Paul Pierce to start, and Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith to the bench. The Clippers have the depth they lacked last season, and they are a motivated team.

source:  5. Thunder (45-37). Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka are all back and healthy, with that the Thunder are back to contending for a title. The Thunder kept Enes Kanter (they had no choice) and I like the Cameron Payne draft pick. There may be no more of a desperate, win-now team in the NBA this season.

source:  6. Rockets (56-26). With the Ty Lawson trade — and if he can get his head screwed on right — the Rockets move into the elite title contender status with the five teams above them in this ranking. They are going to have a quality bench this season and lots of flexibility for coach Kevin McHale.

source:  7. Grizzlies (55-27). They did very well re-signing Marc Gasol, plus they got a good-fit pickup with Matt Barnes. But while Barnes can knock down the three ball, have they added enough shooting to balance things out.

source:  8. Pelicans (45-37). The hiring of Alvin Gentry as coach is a fantastic off-season move, and I like the re-signing of Alexis Ajinca (they should bring back Norris Cole as well). But the two key reasons this team improves are: 1) They finally get Jrue Holiday and others healthy; 2) Anthony Davis is still improving by leaps and bounds each season (and Gentry will be a big boost to them). How good their defense is determines how far they go.

source:  9. Bulls (50-32). Was the problem Tom Thibodeau grinding them down? We’ll find out. New coach Fred Hoiberg will trust Doug McDermott and the bench more, put in a modern offense, and likely not fight with management (at least for a couple years, if history continues). Is that enough with the same core? Can the Bulls be a team that can threaten the Cavaliers?

source:  10. Wizards (46-36). Paul Pierce is in Los Angeles but Otto Porter can step into the three spot just fine. Added Jared Dudley and Gary Neal help make this a deeper team. The bigger questions fall to coach Randy Whitman: Will he finally trust the small lineup more like he did in the playoffs? And can this team find more offensive diversity rather than being the John Wall show.

source:  11. Heat (37-45). They re-signed Goran Tragic and Dwyane Wade, plus added some depth with Justise Winslow, Gerald Green and Amar’e Stoudemire. With Chris Bosh back healthy is going to be a sneaky good regular season team that finishes is the East’s top four.

source:  12. Mavericks (50-32). They bounced back well after losing DeAndre Jordan — Deron Williams, Wesley Matthews and Zaza Pachoulia make Dallas a pretty good team that should battle for a playoff spot in the West.

source:  13. Hawks (60-22). This is a good team and they retained Paul Millsap, but the loss of DeMarre Carroll certainly does not help. That said, Thabo Sefolosha steps into that role, and the did make a quality addition with Tiago Splitter. The real question is this: Can they really replicate the first two-thirds of last season, or was that just things going perfectly for them and they are not quite that good?

source:  14. Jazz (38-44). This was one of the better teams — and by far the best defense — in the NBA after the All-Star break. They didn’t make big off-season moves, instead banking on more growth and development (although draft pick Trey Lyles looked at Summer League like a guy who needs a couple years). If they can retain anywhere near that defense from the second half of last year, the Jazz should be in the mix for one of the final playoff spot in the West.

source:  15. Bucks (41-41). This may be low for the Bucks. They looked like a team on the rise last year under Jason Kidd and with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Michael Carter Williams improving, plus Jabari Parker back and healthy. Then they nail free agency landing Greg Monroe. This team could move into the second tier in the East, but I need to see it.

source:  16. Raptors (49-33). Toronto has spent the offseason transitioning from an offense-heavy team that doesn’t defend well to a defense first roster — signing DeMarre Carroll was at the heart of that transition. That may serve them better in the playoffs, I’m not sure about the regular season. Still, they should win the weak Atlantic division.

source:  17. Pistons (32-50). Greg Monroe is gone but replacing him with Ersan Ilyasova, who can stretch the floor as a shooter, is a better fit for what Stan Van Gundy wants to do. Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond showed some pick-and-roll chemistry last season, with what those two are now getting paid they better have a lot more of it.

<source:  18. Suns (39-43). I like their guard rotation with Brandon Knight, Eric Bledsoe, Archie Goodwin, and Devin Booker. Both Booker and T.J. Warren looked strong at Summer League. I’m not sure about the Tyson Chandler fit, and I don’t see a big step forward in a West where there are good teams fighting for the last playoff spots.

source:  19. Kings (29-53, LW 26). This is the hardest team to place on the board — this is either way too low or way too high for them. George Karl can coach, DeMarcus Cousins is a big-time talent, they added Rajon Rondo, Marco Belinelli, Kosta Koufos and Willie Cauley-Stein. Karl called the mix combustable. The players will either unite (possibly in a dislike of Karl) and they will surprise people and be in the playoff mix, or they will blow apart in spectacular fashion. I don’t see much in between.

source:  20. Celtics (40-42). They snuck into the playoffs last season in the East, then this summer made a nice pickup with Amir Johnson. Terry Rozier looked good in Summer League, and Jordan Mickey impressed as well. That said, this is still a team trying to develop into a winner and there is a lot of work to do.

source:  21. Magic (25-57). This feels like a year the young Magic can take a step forward. They retained Tobias Harris, made a nice draft pick with Mario Hezonja, and Aaron Gordon looks like he’s going to take a big step forward based on what we saw at Summer League. If all that happens this spot is too low for them, but I need to see it happen first.

source:  22. Trail Blazers (51-31). It’s been a rough offseason in the Pacific Northwest. Gone are LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, and Robin Lopez. This is now a rebuilding team — but one that gets to start with Damian Lillard. That’s a big head start. There are some other nice players here like Mason Plumlee but it’s going to take time.

source:  23. Nets (38-44). They finally got out from under the Deron Williams contract and people around the team say that alone will bring the players closer together. The Nets have a nice front line with Joe Johnson, Thaddeus Young and Brook Lopez, but defense and consistent play out of the guards remain a question mark (no offense intended, Jarrett Jack).

source:  24. Lakers (21-61). After striking out when swinging for home run, the Lakers hit some solid singles this off-season landing Lou Williams, Brandon Bass and Roy Hibbert. D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle may well turn out to be players, but that is going to take a couple years of development. This team will not be embarrassing like last season, but it’s going to be more about the Kobe farewell tour than wins.

source:  25. Pacers (38-44). Paul George will be back, which is reason to celebrate. Pair him with Monta Ellis and you have some dynamic wing scoring. But this is now a roster in transition with a lot of questions along the front line.

source:  26. Timberwolves (16-66). They are going to win more than 16 games, and they are going to be must-watch because of the entertainment value of Andrew Wiggins in his second year, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Ricky Rubio running the show. This may be a must-watch League Pass team. But they are not going to be good. Not yet. There still is a lot of development to do, although Kevin Garnett should help speed that process along.

source:  27. Knicks (17-65, LW 29). I like what Phil Jackson did this summer — Kristaps Porzingis looked at Summer League like he will develop into a player, Jerian Grant can help them right now, plus Arron Afflalo and Robin Lopez are solid pros. The Knicks should be better, and maybe if everything comes together they can compete for a playoff spot. But with this team right now, I need to see it before I believe it.

source:  28. Hornets (33-49). This may be too low for a team that could have a bounce-back season. I like landing Nicolas Batum, Spencer Hawes and Jeremy Lin will be better than either was in Los Angeles last season, but the question is defense and if Al Jefferson will be serious about playing it. Another team that has to prove to me on the court they can bounce back.

source:  29. Nuggets (30-52). I love the hiring of Mike Malone to change the culture (and moving Ty Lawson had to be part of that). After seeing him at Summer League I think Emmanuel Mudiay can develop into a franchise cornerstone kind of player. All this portends good things for the future, but the present will be rough as they work to get to that better spot.

source:  30. 76ers (18-64). Maybe this is too low for them, but if we didn’t start the season with the Sixers on the bottom it would feel wrong. It’s tradition. I saw Jahlil Okafor in Las Vegas and was impressed, he can be a franchise cornerstone. He’s also still a rookie with a rough learning curve. There are still serious questions about the backcourt.

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Doc Rivers: I told Steve Ballmer, if Kawhi Leonard signed with Lakers, Clippers moving to Seattle

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We know what happened: The Clippers traded for Paul George, signed Kawhi Leonard and became championship favorite.

But at one point, Clippers coach Doc Rivers thought the George trade with the Thunder would fall through and Leonard could sign with the Lakers.

Rivers, via Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times:

“The day of the trade at 12 noon the deal was off,” Rivers said. “I was at home in Malibu and Lawrence called me and told me, ‘It looks like he’s either going to Toronto or the Lakers.’ The Lakers part just threw me over. I told him that can’t happen. … I remember I kept telling him, ‘We cannot allow that to happen!’

“I actually told Steve jokingly that if that happens, we’re moving the team to Seattle. It was a joke, but I was actually serious about it. I really believed that.”

Kawhi Leonard cost us the SuperSonics returning!

I don’t know how serious Rivers really was. Leonard joining LeBron James and Anthony Davis on their cross-arena rival would’ve been disastrous for the Clippers.

I’m convinced Ballmer will keep the franchise in Los Angeles. Ballmer’s ties to Seattle through Microsoft are well-established, and he previously tried to buy the Kings to move them to Seattle. But I can’t see him moving the Clippers from such a prime market, especially after going so far to get a new arena built in L.A. At every turn, he has maintained he’ll keep the team in Los Angeles.

Then again, Ballmer also phrased that guarantee as, “I will die owning the L.A. Clippers.” Now, he’s open to changing the nickname. Hmmm…

To be clearer than Rivers: That’s a joke I’m not actually serious about don’t really believe.

Stephen Curry responds to Kevin Durant: We all want to iso, but I’d rather win titles

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After the Warriors lost to the Jazz in December, Steve Kerr said his team didn’t move the ball enough. Kevin Durant said Golden State passed too much.

That public disagreement sure looks more significant now. Not only did Durant leave for the Warriors, he cited offensive style as a reason.

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“The motion offense we run in Golden State, it only works to a certain point,” he says. “We can totally rely on only our system for maybe the first two rounds. Then the next two rounds we’re going to have to mix in individual play. We’ve got to throw teams off, because they’re smarter in that round of playoffs. So now I had to dive into my bag, deep, to create stuff on my own, off the dribble, isos, pick-and-rolls, more so than let the offense create my points for me.” He wanted to go someplace where he’d be free to hone that sort of improvisational game throughout the regular season.

Stephen Curry clearly viewed things differently.

Curry, via ESPN:

“Well, I don’t really care what plays we ran,” Curry said. “We won two championships. And at the end of the day, we had a lotta talent and there was an expectation of us figuring out how to balance all that. And we talked a lot about it throughout the three-year run. It wasn’t always perfect, but I think in terms of, you know, the results and what we were able to do on the floor, that kinda speaks for itself. We all wanna play iso-ball at the end of the day in some way, shape or form. But I’d rather have some championships, too.”

There’s truth to what Durant said. Defenses tighten deep in the playoffs, both because good defensive teams are more likely to advance and scouting committed to a single opponent tends to favor the defense. At that level, elite isolation scorers like Durant are particularly valuable. They can render schemes moot.

The Warriors learned that the hard way in the 2016 NBA Finals. They lost to the Cavaliers, who turned up their defense that postseason. Golden State scored fewer points per possession in its series against Cleveland than the Pistons did in the first round against the Cavs.

Adding Durant made the Warriors’ offense nearly unstoppable in every round. They leaned on their movement-heavy system when possible then turned to Durant isolations in moments of need.

Assessing playoff output is tricky because of varying opponents. But in three years with Durant, Golden State faced nine teams that played multiple postseason series. Eight of those teams had their worst defensive series against the Warriors, each by at least 2.6 points per 100 possessions. Only the 2019 Trail Blazers fared worse defensively against another team. They allowed just 0.2 more points per 100 possessions against the Nuggets than against Golden State.

Of course, Durant missed last season’s Western Conference finals against Portland. His absence was a big reason the Warriors’ didn’t meet their usual offensive standards.

Still, Golden State’s base offense was elite. Infallible? No. But it won multiple big playoff series before Durant arrived. He just took the Warriors to an even higher level.

Though he sometimes chafed at how the Warriors played, Durant also did his part to fit with them. He played his part in running Kerr’s preferred style.

It just seems Durant no longer wanted that safety-valve role. He holds immense respect for individual scoring as a skill. He’ll have a better chance to spread his wings in Brooklyn.

Durant will have a harder time winning a title without the incredible supporting cast he left behind. Curry might have wanted to point that out.

But everyone did their part in Golden State the last few years. That’s why they won those championships.

76ers once again overhaul around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons

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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

Can Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons coexist?

While I’ve wondered about that question, the 76ers have charged ahead with the pairing. Embiid and Simmons are the givens. The surrounding players change. In just two seasons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Markelle Fultz, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris have cycled through as starters.

The latest supporting starters: Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson.

This might be the last chance to find a trio that works.

Philadelphia has taken advantage of Embiid’s and Simmons’ low rookie-scale salaries, which was always a selling point of The Process. A roster loaded with cheap young players created a window to add more-expensive talent. Then, with everyone already in place, NBA rules generally allow teams to keep their own players.

But Embiid is already on his max contract extension, and Simmons just signed a max contract extension that will take effect next year. The flexibility is vanishing.

One last time, the 76ers made the most of it. They signed-and-traded Butler for Richardson and let Redick walk in free agency. That left enough cap space to sign Al Horford (four years, $109 million with $97 million guaranteed) and use Bird Rights to re-sign Tobias Harris (five years, $180 million).

That’s a lot of deliberate disruption for a team that was already good and rising.

The big question: Did it make Philadelphia better?

I just don’t know.

As fond as I am of Butler, I understand all the reasons to be wary of offering the 30-year-old a huge contract. But moving on from him to give a huge deal to a 33-year-old Horford? That’s curious. Then again, Philadelphia also added Richardson – a solid replacement for Butler on the wing – in the process.

The 76ers will miss Butler’s shot creation. He often took over their offense in the clutch during the playoffs. Harris can pick up some of the slack, but that still looks like a hole.

At just 27, Harris is young for a player who has already been in the league so long. That’s a big reason it was worth Philadelphia signing him to a sizable long-term contract.

Horford’s deal could age poorly, but he’s a winner still playing quality all-around basketball. If nothing else, the 76ers removed Embiid’s best defender from the rival Celtics.

Philadelphia filled its bench with several value signings – Mike Scott (room exception), James Ennis (minimum), Kyle O'Quinn (minimum), Furkan Korkmaz (minimum), Raul Neto (minimum) and Trey Burke (partially guaranteed minimum). However, sometimes teams need production more than cost-effectiveness. The 76ers’ bench struggled last season, and they devoted minimal resources to upgrading.

In the draft, Philadelphia traded the Nos. 24 and 33 picks for No. 20 pick Matisse Thybulle. That’s a costly move up, especially for a player I rated No. 34. Worse, it seemingly happened because Boston snuffed out the 76ers’ interest in Thybulle then leveraged them. That’s small potatoes, though.

Simmons (No. 9 on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years) and Embiid (No. 11 on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years) will likely define this era for Philadelphia. Embiid is on his way to becoming one of the NBA’s very best players. Simmons is so good, giving him a max extension was a no-brainer.

But they were already in place.

Harris, Horford and Richardson will define this offseason. I just can’t tell whether they made the 76ers’ promising future even brighter or slightly dimmer.

Offseason grade: C

Michelle Roberts says if you don’t like player movement blame owners, too

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Last summer was one of the wildest offseasons in NBA history, maybe the wildest, and the headline was player empowerment. Anthony Davis pushed his way to the Lakers, Paul George forced his way out of Oklahoma City to go to the Clippers and join Kawhi Leonard, which soon had Russell Westbrook joining his old teammate James Harden in Houston. It led to frustration by some owners and changes in how the NBA will handle tampering.

Except, by choice is not how most players change teams. While AD or George has the leverage to make a power play — because of their exceptional talent — most of the time players are traded because the owner/team has all the power and can uproot players for whatever reason (basketball reasons sometimes, saving money other times). The stars have free agent options, rotation players much less so in that system.

Michelle Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players’ Association, wants you to remember that it’s not just player power that has led to the increase in player movement, as she told Mark Spears of The Undefeated.

Michele Roberts, told The Undefeated that she believes there is a “double standard” between how stars are viewed when they decide to move on compared with when franchises choose to make a major transaction, adding that team owners “continue to view players as property.”

“If you want to be critical of one, be critical of both,” Roberts said from the NBPA’s offices in Manhattan. “Those of us who made decisions to move, it’s really astounding to even consider what it feels like to be told in the middle of your life you are going to have to move. But that’s the business we’re in. …

“No one seems to spend a lot of time thinking about what it’s like to make those kinds of moves completely involuntarily. You volunteer to play or not play. But, yeah, if it’s still the case that if you think you’ve got to suck it up, player, then, hell, you’ve got to suck it up, team.”

She’s right. From Chris Paul to Blake Griffin, plenty of big stars have been moved against their will. The door swings both ways, but in those cases most fans tended to see why and like what the teams did. Those fans like it less when players do the same thing.

There’s also a classic labor vs. management angle to all this, which has political overtones.

For my money, how one views player movement tends to be part generational and part where you live.

Older fans remember days — or, at least think they remember days — when players stayed with teams for much or all of their career. It’s understandable, fans form a bond with players and want them to stay… while they’re still good and useful, after that fans beg ownership to get the “dead weight off the books.” Players before the late 1980s stayed with teams because they didn’t have a choice — for Bill Russell in the 60s or Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the 1980s, free agency was not an option. And for every Kobe Bryant that did stay with a team, there were a lot more Wilts and Shaqs, who were traded several times and played with multiple teams.

Younger fans (generally, nothing is universal) are okay with the player movement, sometimes are more fans of a player than a team, and like the action and buzz of all the trades.

Location matters because if you’re in Oklahoma City there’s reason to not like what George did and the era of player empowerment. New Orleans fans can feel the same way (although part of that case is the “supermax” contract that owners wanted but really forced up the timeline on teams and players to make a decision on paying stars). But fans in Los Angeles or wherever players ultimately choose to go will feel differently. Fans want what’s best for their team, but there is no way in the star culture of the NBA to wash away the lure of big markets or of teaming up with another elite player.

The NBA dynamic is different from the NFL’s (for now), but it’s not changing. LeBron James helped usher in an era of player empowerment and it’s the new reality for the NBA, one the best franchises will adapt to rather than fight.