PBT’s NBA Power Rankings: Warriors start on the top, but it’s crowded

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With the tip-off of another NBA season, we bring you another edition of NBC ProBasketballTalks weekly Power Rankings. Usually these will come out on Mondays, but for the first week of the season it’s coming out when everything gets started.

The Warriors begin defense of their title on top of the rankings, but any of the top six teams could win the title in my eyes. The Sixers begin the season in the 30th spot and I fear they will spend much of the season there despite their new star rookie.

source: 1. Warriors (last season 67-15). The defending champions get their rings and a banner Tuesday and deserve to start atop the rankings. That said, they have looked a little sloppy through the preseason and will be without Steve Kerr for a little while. But if you think last season was “lucky” or a fluke you are dead wrong. This team can repeat.

source: 2. Thunder (45-37). Kevin Durant has looked like his old self. Russell Westbrook is praising the room he finds to operate in Billy Donovan’s offense and dropped a triple-double. And this is just the preseason. Both were very efficient and if they continue to be watch out. There are questions to answer — how exactly do they plan to use Enes Kanter and hide his defense? — but this team is back to being a legit contender.

source: 3. Spurs (55-27). There is no truth to the rumor Gregg Popovich is going to rest Tim Duncan for the opener. While like everyone else I love the LaMarcus Aldridge pickup, I think the key for the Spurs in Tony Parker — he has looked far too close to average going back to the playoffs last season. The Spurs opening the season against the Thunder Wednesday will be fun.

source: 4. Cavaliers (53-29). I’m picking them to be the best team in the NBA come June, but they start a little lower due to injuries — specifically Kyrie Irving. Also not having Tristan Thompson in camp dings them here. But they have LeBron James, and he will play opening night, and that’s all that really matters.

source: 5. Clippers (56-26). They will have one of the top three offenses in the NBA, the question is can they improve their pedestrian defense from last season? They have changed their pick-and-roll coverage in the preseason, leaving DeAndre Jordan (and other bigs) back more to protect the paint, if it works this team becomes far more dangerous.

source: 6. Rockets (56-26). If you’re looking for a breakout player during the preseason it might backup center Clint Capela in Houston. He’s been a stud. Which will be key because nobody expects Dwight Howard to be healthy for 82, and now they can rest him more over the course of the season without the big drop off.

source: 7. Grizzlies (55-27). Meet the new Grizzlies, same as the old Grizzlies. I watched a couple of their preseason games and saw a grinding, defensive team that struggled with its outside shot (Matt Barnes in particular). They are good, they are dangerous, but while any of the six teams above them could win the title this season, above Memphis is where I see the cut-off line right now.

source: 8. Heat (37-45). Look for a fast start to the season, in part because they have a soft schedule loaded with home games (14 of the first 20). If Hassan Whiteside can continue to be a stud and rookie Justise Winslow fits seamlessly into the rotation, this team could finish in the top three in the East.

source: 9. Bulls (50-32). This may be the most interesting team in the NBA this season because of the questions that surround them: How will Derrick Rose play? Can he stay healthy? How does new coach Fred Holberg handle the front court rotations with Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah, Nikola Mitotic, and Taj Gibson? And their defense can’t be as bad as it looked in the preseason, right?

source: 10. Wizards (46-36). Randy Wittman has committed to small ball — their fours are launching threes — and that will give John Wall room to operate (as will having a healthy Bradley Beal next to him). Not only is this team looking to take a step forward, if they are going to have a shot at Kevin Durant next summer they need to show him he can walk in the door and win with their play this season.

source: 11. Raptors (49-33). Their offense looked improved under a thinner and more dynamic Kyle Lowry in the preseason. This is a team that could surprise, especially if DeMarre Carroll returns their defense to something teams must respect.

source: 12. Hawks (60-22). Last season one of the reasons they won 60 games was being lucky with health, but they don’t start the season that way with Kent Bazemore starting and Thabo Sefolosha coming off the bench while still trying to recover from his run-in with the NYPD. Expect Atlanta to climb the rankings the first few weeks thanks to a soft schedule.

source: 13. Pelicans (45-37). I like to think this team will take a step forward under Alvin Gentry, and Anthony Davis will be in the MVP conversation, but they are banged up to start the season. No Tyreke Evans or Norris Cole, plus Jrue Holiday can only go 15 minutes a night. That and a tough schedule could mean a slow start.

source: 14. Jazz (38-44). Coach Quin Snyder did such a good job developing players and building a system that he’s had to spend part of preseason tamping down the expectations. Utah is a trendy pick to make the playoffs and Rudy Gobert is expected to be in the hunt for Defensive Player of the Year. If the Jazz play like they did the second half of last season both those things can happen.

source: 15. Bucks (41-41). They became everybody’s favorite up-and-coming last season then added Greg Monroe this summer. That said, I don’t expect a huge leap because they lack outside shooting and it will mess with their spacing. Also, I expect Greivis Vasquez to start getting key minutes late in games over Michael Carter-Williams sooner rather than later.

<source: 16. Suns (39-43). After five seasons out of the playoffs, owner Robert Sarver has put pressure on everyone to end that drought. They brought in Tyson Chandler to improve their defense, and look out for T.J. Warren to have a bit of a breakout season.

source: 17. Mavericks (50-32). I don’t like to read much into the preseason, but going 0-7 with the worst offense in the Association is still a bit concerning. Getting Wesley Matthews back sooner than expected should help those numbers from becoming a season-long trend.

source: 18. Pistons (32-50). I’m predicting this team climbs up and makes the playoffs in the East behind a revamped offense that puts up points. Stanley Johnson has impressed and is a dark horse ROY candidate, and watch Reggie Bullock have a strong season. Andre Drummond delaying signing his contract extension is a huge boost for the Pistons next summer.

source: 19. Pacers (38-44). He resisted it at first but once he got comfortable there Paul George looked good at the four — he looks like he is back. The question with the Pacers is defense, and how much rookie Myles Turner can play and help them there.

source: 20. Kings (29-53, LW 26). They played faster and shot threes like wild in the preseason (DeMarcus Cousins was 1-of-12 from deep). It feels like this team will be Jekyll and Hyde from night to night, week to week.

source: 21. Celtics (40-42). I love the Amir Johnson pickup and Marcus Smart had a strong preseason, but I’m not as high on this team as many. They have a pretty challenging first few weeks of the season to test how good they really are.

source: 22. Magic (25-57). Scott Skiles is going to make this team better than a lot of people expect, but we may not see that the first couple weeks of the season thanks to a difficult schedule (they start Wizards, Thunder, Bulls).

source: 23. Hornets (33-49). The Michael Kidd-Gilchrist injury sets them back from playoff team in the East to one that likely doesn’t have enough defense to get to .500 and in that mix. Jeremy Lin put up nice numbers in the preseason.

source: 24. Timberwolves (16-66). Rest in peace Flip Saunders. I’m excited to watch the team he put together — Ricky Rubio, Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns — try to figure things out as the season moves on.

source: 25. Lakers (21-61). The Lakers continue to walk a line between not wanting to be as bad as they were a year ago — so they bring in veterans and keep Metta World Peace — and rebuilding. For example, they brought in Roy Hibbert to improve their defense (that didn’t work great in the preseason by the numbers) and if he can this ranking may be a little low for them.

source: 26. Nuggets (30-52). I think Emmanuel Mudiay is going to be a very good player in this league (and in the ROY running) but he’s going to have a bumpy season — he had 27 assists and 24 turnovers in the preseason. If I were to bet on one team trading a veteran this season, it would be Denver.

source: 27. Knicks (17-65, LW 29). Carmelo Anthony put up strong shooting numbers in the preseason, we’ll see if that trend continues with a challenging opening week (Bucks, Hawks, Wizards). I like the idea of starting Kristaps Porzingis, throw him into the deep end and let him learn through his mistakes.

source: 28. Nets (38-44). They have Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson, plus a good coach in Lionel Hollins, but this team is going to struggle. They finally got under the salary cap again and have money to spend next summer, but that came with sacrifices on the court.

source: 29. Trail Blazers (51-31). Consider putting C.J. McCollum on your fantasy team, he’s the only guy not named Lillard who can be trusted to create shots and score on this team.

source: 30. 76ers (18-64). They are going to run the offense through Jahlil Okafor, but without Robert Covington and Nik Stauskas to start the season (due to injury) defenses will collapse on him and as good as the rookie may be he can only do so much.

Timberwolves win first road game in 52 days, top Heat (video)

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MIAMI — Jordan McLaughlin’s layup with just under nine seconds left put Minnesota ahead for good, D’Angelo Russell led all scorers with 27 points and the Timberwolves added to Miami’s late-season stagger by beating the Heat 129-126 on Wednesday night.

Malik Beasley scored 21 points, Juancho Hernangomez tied a season-high with 17 and McLaughlin added 13 for Minnesota. The Timberwolves were down by 12 with 3:59 left, then closed on a 20-5 run to get just their second victory in 20 games.

Jimmy Butler’s two free throws with 13.8 seconds left put Miami up 126-125, but McLaughlin’s layup on the next Minnesota possession put the Timberwolves on top to stay. Butler’s layup with 3.2 seconds left got blocked by Russell, and the Wolves held on.

Minnesota snapped a nine-game road losing streak, getting its first road victory since beat the Cleveland Cavaliers on Jan. 5.

Kendrick Nunn led Miami with 24 points. Bam Adebayo had 22 points and 10 rebounds and Butler — back after a two-game absence for personal reasons — had 18 for Miami. The Heat fell to 23-4 at home and have dropped seven of their last nine overall.

The Heat stayed a half-game ahead of Philadelphia in the race for the No. 4 spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Philadelphia lost in Cleveland earlier Wednesday, a game where 76ers star Joel Embiid departed early because of a shoulder injury.

The Heat have had major trouble closing games of late — a 22-point lead late in the third quarter against Cleveland on Monday was frittered away in what probably was the worst loss of the season, until now anyway — and a long film session and meeting on Tuesday clearly didn’t solve the issue.

They were up 121-109 with 3:59 left, and 123-112 after a layup by Butler 24 seconds later.

And Minnesota — a team that came into the night with one win in a span of 48 days — still wasn’t finished off. The Timberwolves scored the next 11 points to tie the game, getting five of those points from Beasley and a tying free throw from McLaughlin with 46 seconds left.

TIP-INS

Timberwolves: Minnesota’s 27 attempts from 3-point range in the first two quarters was a first-half franchise record. … The Wolves are 4-0 in road games against Southeast Division teams this season, and 6-19 in all other road contests.

Heat: Adebayo played through a sprained right ankle, pushing his consecutive-game streak to 144 — extending the fourth-longest such streak in team history. … Goran Dragic’s first basket was a 3-pointer, and that pushed him one point past Grant Long (5,473) for 10th on the Heat career scoring list. … Nunn got his third consecutive rookie of the month trophy in a brief halftime ceremony.

JOHNSON RETURNS

Wednesday marked James Johnson’s first game back in Miami since the trade that sent him to Minnesota earlier this month, a move that sent Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill to Miami from Memphis. “I think Minnesota is seeing what kind of versatility he can bring to the game,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

LOOKING AHEAD

A large contingent of fans from Slovenia were in attendance Wednesday — and more are coming Friday, when the Heat play host to the Dallas Mavericks. At last season’s Dallas-at-Miami game, more than 2,000 Slovenians were in attendance to watch their nation’s two best NBA players, Dragic and Dallas star Luka Doncic, go head-to-head.

UP NEXT

Timberwolves: At Orlando on Friday night.

Heat: Host Dallas on Friday night.

Trae Young blocks 7-foot Mo Bamba at rim (video)

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Trae Young might be the NBA’s worst defender.

He’s small (6-foot-1 with a 6-foot-3 wingspan). His athleticism is far from imposing. He also carries a massive load for the Hawks offensively, leaving little energy for defense.

But he still blocked 7-foot Magic center Mo Bamba at the rim.

Not a great moment for Bamba.

Joel Embiid leaves 76ers game with shoulder injury (video)

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Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons?

The debate has gained attention this season after the 76ers spent years retooling around their stars. The answer clearly isn’t neither. But that’s what Philadelphia now faces.

With Simmons already injured, Embiid got hurt in the 76ers’ game against the Cavaliers tonight.

Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

Losing Embiid for an extended period would be a huge blow to Philadelphia, especially with Simmons already out. The 76ers (fifth place, half a game out of fourth) are right on the edge of getting home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Embiid had been playing so well lately. This is an especially tough time for a setback.

At least Philadelphia has depth to cope. Al Horford can easily slide from power forward to center. Tobias Harris might be better off at power forward than small forward, anyway. This is where Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks, acquired just before the trade deadline, come in handy as additional wing options. Kyle O'Quinn can also play behind Horford.

But the loss of talent is the biggest development, and there’s no overcoming that until Embiid and Simmons get healthy.

Zach LaVine: Trash talk directed at Dennis Schroder, not Bulls coach Jim Boylen

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During the Bulls’ loss to the Thunder yesterday, Zach LaVine appeared to say, “I have f—ing 40 points!”

Many assumed LaVine was snapping at Chicago coach Jim Boylen. But LaVine clarified his target was Oklahoma City guard Dennis Schroder.

Eric Woodyard of ESPN:

I take LaVine at his word.

Want to make a case LaVine dislikes Boylen? You’ll just have to point to all the other evidence.