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.

Chris Paul says players don’t really talk about money in locker room

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Locker room banter flies all over the conversational map: Clubs/restaurants to first cars to rappers to Fortnite to why Player X never has any lotion and always has to borrow someone else’s.

What doesn’t come up? Money.

That according to Chris Paul, who should know after 14 years in the league and now serving as the players’ union president. He was talking about his campaign to help players become more financially aware and said this to Clevis Murray of The Athletic.

“I think the reason why I’m so passionate about this is because I’m finishing up my 14th year in the NBA, and I’ve been around long enough to realize that guys in our league, we talk about everything in the locker room except for finance, except for money,” he said. “Nobody talks about money, because it’s one of those uncomfortable things.”

It’s a strange dynamic in an NBA locker room because everybody knows what everybody else makes, it’s very public, and that provides a certain measuring stick of worth.

Yet how does one player tell another “man, your entourage is too big, you’re blowing your money.” Players finally making money understandably want to take care of family and close friends, but other people come into their life and things can spiral fast. CP3 says he gets it, and he is working with Joe Smith — who made $60 million in NBA earnings and lost all of it — to help prepare rookies.

The stories of NBA players blowing through their money absolutely happen, but they also are not the majority, and the numbers are shrinking. More and more players are learning to be smarter with their money and set themselves up on some level for life after basketball. Not all, but guys who stick in the league a few years tend to learn. If Paul and the union can come up with ways to reach players at an earlier age and prepare them for what is to come, all the better.

Bobby Portis says watch out for underrated Knicks, they could make playoffs

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You don’t want a player on your team that heads into the season thinking, “we suck, I just hope we can get to 20 wins and not be embarrassed every night.” Even if that might be the reality for that roster.

Enter Bobby Portis of the New York Knicks. The Wizards let him walk to save money and he has ended up on a Knicks team with a lot of guys who see themselves as underrated: Elfrid Payton, Marcus Morris, and Julius Randle. Plus New York has young players with a lot to prove — especially after Summer League — in Kevin Knox, R.J. Barrett, and Mitchell Robinson.

Portis likes this underdog team, he told Alex Kennedy of Hoopshype.

I love being underrated, man. I’m an underdog. I say that every day. We’re the team that’s being counted out right now. People are looking past us. They’re talking about stars going to new teams and this and that, and that’s okay. Everybody on this team has a huge chip on their shoulder. We’re the guys who are always picked second. I think that’s going to make us close. Our practices are going to be top-notch; we’re all going to be competing and that’s going to make us better. We have a lot of dogs on this team, which will help us out as well. Collectively, we all have a chip on our shoulder – a log on our shoulder – so we’re going to go out there and play with an edge. I think that’s great for us.

So… playoffs?

Yeah, for sure, for sure. The naysayers, the haters, the people who are doubting us will say that we’re crazy as hell for saying that. But we have a bunch of guys who are coming in each and every day with that log on their shoulder and that’s going to push us to become a great team. We have a lot of pieces who can play. I think we’re loaded at every position; there are two-to-three players who could start at every position. When you have that much talent, that rises the competitiveness and improves the team as a whole.

That is exactly the attitude you want to see heading into the season.

The Knicks are going to struggle this year, talent wins out in the NBA and the Knicks don’t have enough of it. However, if the goal is to build a culture of gritty players who go play all out and are tough to play against — the cultures the Nets and Clippers developed that drew stars to them — the Knicks are on a decent road. New York didn’t pull a classic Knicks this year and overspend on a couple of second-tier stars when they struck out on the big guns, they went out and got decent players on short contracts. Stay flexible, build a culture.

We’ll see if Portis will be part of that going forward, but he has the right attitude.

Report: Lakers claim Kostas Antetokounmpo off waivers

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Giannis Antetokounmpo is a 24-year-old MVP playing in Milwaukee and heading toward a super-max decision that could have him hit 2021 unrestricted free agency.

Big-market teams are licking their chops.

That probably has something to do with the Lakers adding his brother, Kostas Antetokounmpo.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Kostas Antetokounmpo was the last pick in last year’s draft. He spent the season on a two-way contract with the Mavericks, who just waived him. He’ll remain on a two-way deal with the Lakers. The 21-year-old was alright in the NBA’s minor league, but he’s not a tantalizing prospect.

Except for his connection to Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Giannis Antetokounmpo said he could never see himself playing for Los Angeles. But maybe he’d change his mind if someone close to him has a positive experience there. That must be the Lakers’ hope, at least.

It’s worth a shot, and the Lakers aren’t the only team trying this angle. The Bucks also signed Thanasis Antetokounmpo this summer.

Harden on fit with Westbrook: ‘When you have talent like that, it works itself out’

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It was the question everybody asked about 30 seconds after they heard Russell Westbrook had been traded to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul (after the initial shock of the deal wore off):

Do Westbrook and Harden, two of the most ball-dominant, isolation heavy players in the NBA, actually fit together?

Harden says yes. Of course, what else is he going to say, but he was earnest about it in comments to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle at the Adidas and James Harden ProCamp event last Friday.

“When you have talent like that, it works itself out. You communicate. You go out there and compete possession by possession. You figure things out. Throughout the course of the season, you figure things out. That’s just what it is. When you have talent, you have guys with IQ, you have guys willing to sacrifice, it always works itself out.”…

“It works,” Harden said. “It’s that trust factor. I trust him; he trusts me. And with the group that we already have and the things we already accomplished, it should be an easy transition for him to be incorporated right in and things are going to go.”

That is essentially is what Mike D’Antoni said, and what Rockets GM Daryl Morey is betting on.

Will Westbrook, and to a lesser degree Harden, be willing to make sacrifices and adjust their games? It is the question that will define the Rockets’ season.

My prediction: The duo works it out on offense and becomes one of the hardest teams to stop in the NBA. They will work it out. However, having to play Harden and Westbrook together on defense for extended stretches will cost Houston in the playoffs earlier than they planned.