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PBT’s off-season Power Rankings: Free agency (and Kevin Durant) changed everything

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Off-season power rankings are about feel. During the season there are spreadsheets full of statistics — wins and losses, net ratings, etc. — to make these rankings somewhat accurate. There is data. But during the off-season, we are doing more guesswork — which teams made the smart moves, which teams took steps backwards.

It’s also hard because some of the teams near the bottom of this ranking are going to be better than they were a year ago. There is hope in Philadelphia and Los Angeles and a host of other cities — the guess work goes into how much better they may get. Here’s how the league sits after the big names of free agency have settled.
source: 1. Warriors (73-9). I have a general policy that the team that wins the NBA championship should start the next season on top of the rankings — the Kevin Durant signing makes this the exception to the rule. A 73-win team just went from Harrison Barnes to Durant in their starting lineup. They had to give up some depth to get KD (Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, etc.), but pickups such as David West and Zaza Pachulia help fill that gap. It’s going to take a little time to work out the kinks, but this team is going to be the best shooting team of all time.

source: 2. Cavaliers (57-25). When you have a championship team, the smart play is not to make radical changes, and that’s what the Cavaliers did this summer — they kept the band together (even if we still wait for the formal re-signings of LeBron James and J.R. Smith). They are clear and away the best in the East. The only changes are on the periphery — no need to pay Timofey Mozgov as much as the Lakers did, they traded Matthew Dellavedova, but get a nice pickup with Mike Dunleavy.

source: 3. Spurs (67-15). Tim Duncan has retired and Pau Gasol has stepped in to fill that role — he brings better offense but worse defense at this point in his career. That said, he will fit seamlessly into their culture. The Spurs won a franchise best 67 games last season, but they didn’t get younger or more athletic this offseason, will that haunt them in the playoffs? This team is likely the Warriors biggest threat in the West.

source: 4. Clippers (53-29). I didn’t love their offseason — Cole Aldrich was good for them and will be missed, they still have Luc Mbah a Moute as their starting three, and they overpaid Austin Rivers — but they kept the core together including Jamal Crawford. With the Thunder taking a step back the odds of the Clippers reaching a conference Finals just went up.

source: 5. Celtics (48-34). Is this too high for Boston? Maybe. But they could be the second best team in the East (them or Toronto). Al Horford was a very good signing in that he is now their best player and he opens the door to bring in other name free agents next summer. This team won 48 games last season and should make a leap up into the low 50s with this roster, and nobody would be shocked if they pulled off some quality trades before the season gets rolling.

source: 6. Thunder (55-27). Gone are Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka, and with that Oklahoma City is going to take a step back from last season when they proved to be title contenders. That said, they still have Russell Westbrook (who will have a monster season) and the Victor Oladipo trade made them better on the wings. The question that will loom is when will they trade Westbrook? And if he’s going to test the market at all (as is rumored), that has to be “when” they trade him, not “if.”

source: 7. Grizzlies (42-40). Memphis had one of the better offseasons out there — they kept Mike Conley and he helped recruit Chandler Parsons into the fold. They will have Marc Gasol back from injury. Draft pick Wade Baldwin has looked like a rotation player at Summer League. If this team can stay healthy — and that’s a big “if” — they become a tough matchup nobody wants in the playoffs, and they may well have home court in the first round.

source: 8. Raptors (56-26). Can they replicate the franchise-best season from the last campaign? They were able to re-sign DeMar DeRozan, which was key. They lost Bismack Biyombo via free agency and will try to replace him with free agent big Jared Sullinger and draft pick Jakob Poeltl (who needs to add strength but has nice footwork, watching him at Summer League). It all comes down to this: Can Kyle Lowry replicate last season? If so, this ranking may be a little low for Toronto and they may remain the second best team in the East.

source: 9. Pacers (45-37). This team quietly had a very nice summer and got better. Jeff Teague is an upgrade at the point over George Hill, Thaddeus Young is a strong addition as well, and Al Jefferson can get them buckets inside off the bench. They lost Solomon Hill, but this team is poised to take a step forward this season.

source: 10. Pistons (44-38). Maybe I’m a little too high on this team, but they were already a team on the rise in the East — especially after getting Tobias Harris — and they had a solid summer. They locked up Andre Drummond as they should. A lot of casual fans asked “who is Jon Leuer?” but the stretch four fits what Stan Van Gundy wants to do. They got depth up front with Boban Marjanovic. This team is poised for a healthy step forward this season.

source: 11. Jazz (40-42). They quietly had a fantastic summer. George Hill is an upgrade at the point (where they also get Dante Exum back from injury). They add depth and shooting on the wing with Joe Johnson. This was already a team on the rise, one expected to make the playoffs, and that looks more likely now. The one looming question: Gordon Hayward can and almost certainly will opt out next summer and become a free agent, can they keep him? If not, do they need to trade him?

source: 12. Trail Blazers (44-38). While the playoffs showed the need for another playmaker and perimeter defender, the dramatically overpaid Evan Turner to get “meh” versions of those skills. Portland also made a number of good moves: matching the Allen Crabbe offer sheet, re-signing Meyers Leonard, picking up Festus Ezeli on a good contract. Portland should be a little better next season than last.

source: 13. Hawks (48-38). This is going to be a very different Hawks team without Al Horford and Jeff Teague. They are bringing Dwight Howard to his hometown, but how will he fit into their ball-movement, selfless system? They made a smart move by bringing back Kent Bazemore, but the Hawks are going to take a step back off last season unless Dwight returns to Orlando form.

source: 14. Rockets (41-41). Offensively this team is going to be a lot of fun, but can they get any stops? GM Daryl Morey did a good job shaping this roster into one that better fits how new coach Mike D’Antoni wants to play — Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, and even Nene can help if they can stay healthy. Smart move locking up James Harden for an extra year, too. This team should be entertaining to watch, but not much of a playoff threat.

source: 15. Timberwolves (29-53). One of the teams on the rise in the West, their best move this summer was hiring coach Tom Thibodeau. First-round pick Kris Dunn has impressed at Summer League. Cole Aldrich was quietly a very nice signing. This is a team everyone, myself included, expects to make a big leap this season.

source: 16. Heat (48-34). I’m not sure where to rank this team because I don’t know the answer to the one big question: Will Chris Bosh play? The Heat lost Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng and Joe Johnson, so it feels like there may be a short-term step back. However, they are well poised for the future by re-signing Hassan Whiteside and matching the offer to Tyler Johnson. If Bosh plays this season this ranking is way too low, but if he doesn’t it’s too high.

source: 17. Hornets (48-34). They kept Nicolas Batum, which was huge, and they also re-signed Marvin Williams after his best season. However, the Hornets lost depth with Jeremy Lin, Courtney Lee, and Al Jefferson all heading out the door. This is still going to be a good team for Steve Clifford, but not quite as good as a year ago.

source: 18. Magic (35-47). Their best move of the off-season may have been getting coach Frank Vogel. With him as the coach and Serge Ibaka looking to prove himself, this should be a much improved defensive squad. They wisely kept Evan Fournier. They brought in Bismack Biyombo and Jeff Green (at least Green is on a one-year deal). Individually I like all the moves, but I don’t see how all the pieces fit together well, especially on offense. Vogel will need to earn his keep this season.

source: 19. Mavericks (42-40). Once again Dallas swung for the fences in free agency, missed, then recovered nicely with a series of singles. They rolled the dice on a huge contract for Harrison Barnes — is he ready to step up from a No. 4 option to the second slot? They re-signed Dirk Nowitzki and Deron Williams, plus made a nice trade to get Andrew Bogut. If Barnes can live up to the contract they should be battling for one of the final playoff slots in the West.

source: 20. Wizards (41-41). They maxed out Bradley Beal, because they had to if they wanted to keep him, now they just need him to stay healthy and on the court. Maybe new coach Scott Brooks can get Beal and John Wall to be the powerhouse duo that can carry a team that they need to take a step forward. I like them getting Andrew Nicholson, but what is going to be different about these Wizards compared to the last few years? Can just staying healthy be enough to take a step forward?

source: 21. Bulls (42-40). They chose a direction trading Derrick Rose and keeping Jimmy Butler — then they assembled an older team that can’t shoot with Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade. I did like the pickup of Robin Lopez and drafting Denzel Valentine, but this Bulls team is going to struggle defensively and the ball may stick on offense. Bulls fans will think this ranking is too low, I fear it’s too high.

source: 22. Bucks (33-49). I haven’t loved their off-season — Thon Maker was a reach at No. 10 in the draft, while Mirza Teletovic and Matthew Dellavedova are nice but not game changing pick ups. They found something near the end of last season with Giannis Antetokounmpo playing essentially the point, maybe that’s enough to propel them back on the trajectory we thought they were on a year ago. Their defense needs to get better.

source: 23. Knicks (32-50). How far can Carmelo Anthony, Joakim Noah, and contract-year Derrick Rose take this team? Do any of them really fit the way Jeff Hornacek wants to play? And what is the long-term plan? I did like the Courtney Lee signing for them. The Knicks will be better, but they are still going to be scrapping for one of the bottom playoff spots in the East.

source: 24. Nuggets (33-49). This is a team that started to develop a nice culture under Mike Malone last season and they should be able to build on that, but the roster needs more talent. Jamal Murray has looked pretty good at Summer League, but both he and Emmanuel Mudiay like the ball in their hands to create so they may need their minutes staggered. The Nuggets should improve with consistency of roster and system, but in a deep West how big a step forward they can take remains to be seen.

source: 25. Pelicans (30-52). If Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday are healthy and all the way back, this ranking may be much too low. I like how the roster has started to be shaped more to the style of coach Alvin Gentry — Solomon Hill, Langston Galloway, and E’twaun Moore are good free agent signings, and Buddy Hield will be a quality NBA player once he adjusts to the league. This team should be better than it was a year ago, but I’ll need to see it in action before I fully buy in.

source: 26. Lakers (17-56). This is going to be an improved Lakers team — but a young one still with growing pains. D’Angelo Russell has looked fantastic at Summer League, No. 2 pick Brandon Ingram needs to get stronger but will find his way, and they wisely re-signed Jordan Clarkson. I like the summer addition of Luol Deng both to add front court depth and as a veteran in the locker room. They overpaid for Timofey Mozgov but if healthy he can help them in the paint. Best case for the Lakers is they about double last year’s win total and show promise for the future.

source: 27. Kings (33-49). I expect a monster year out of DeMarcus Cousins (who looks to be in the best shape of his career), but I’m not sure how the rest of the pieces fit together. New coach Dave Joerger has his work cut out for him. Maybe the pickups of Arron Afflalo and Matt Barnes will provide some veteran stability, and point guard Darren Collison was better than Rondo last season. I don’t get the Georgios Papagiannis pick, but like what I’ve seen of Malachi Richardson and Skal Labissiere at Summer League (Skal could pass Willie Cauley-Stein on the depth chart sooner rather than later). This team could be better than this ranking, but I’ll need to see it shake out that way on the court before I buy in.

source: 28. Nets (21-61). GM Sean Marks has done as good a job as could be expected moving this franchise in the right direction considering what he had to work with. He made a good signing with Jeremy Lin. He made smart gambles going after restricted free agents Tyler Johnson and Allen Crabbe (even if neither worked out). They still have Brook Lopez in the paint. This isn’t going to be a good team, but they will be better than last year.

source: 29. Suns (23-59). They are banking on Eric Bledsoe staying healthy and a youth movement — they drafted Marquese Chriss, and Dragan Bender has looked good at Summer League. Bringing in Leandro Barbosa and Jared Dudley are nice veteran pickups. Still, hard to imagine the Suns’ playoff drought coming to an end this season.

source: 30. 76ers (10-71). Maybe the Sixers are better than this, but after the past couple seasons they will need to prove it to get out of the cellar. Ben Simmons has shown flashes at Summer League, they will get Joel Embiid on the court (*knocks on wood*), and veterans such as Gerald Henderson and Sergio Rodriguez will help this team not be embarrassing. It’s still a long road to good, but expect a step forward (and maybe out of the bottom slot in these rankings) this season.

Are these the new Mavericks alternate jerseys?

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The Mavericks want you to take them seriously. They traded up for Luka Doncic, traded for Kristaps Porzingis then signed a bunch of solid role players. Dallas became a good team through brute force.

Then these make the rounds…

Though the Mavericks haven’t announced anything, that would be an elaborate fake of a new alternate jersey.

These are pretty ridiculous. Dallas has the added misfortunate of using a graffiti-influenced font just after the Nets and Clippers did – only the Mavericks’ is more cartoonish.

But I’m absolutely certain, in several years, there will be major nostalgia for these as throwbacks.

Gordon Hawyard admits he’s frustrated by latest injury

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Following a gruesome leg injury that robbed him of a couple of years of his career, Gordon Hayward was finally starting to look and feel like himself — like the All-Star from Utah the Celtics thought they were signing. Hayward averaged 18.9 points per game, shot 43.3 percent from three, pulled down 7.1 rebounds, and dished out 4.1 assists per game. He was a playmaker Brad Stevens could lean on.

Then Hayward fractured the fourth metacarpal bone in his left hand on a fluke play. Hayward had surgery to repair it and will be out for six weeks.

Of course Hayward is frustrated. Via NBC Sports Boston:

“Like I said, happy that it shouldn’t be that long. Obviously frustrated — it sucks watching and not being able to go out there and play, especially with the start that we’ve had. I think this time around, I’ll be able to run around, use my legs still, maintain my conditioning, which I’m very thrilled about and then be around the team, too. And kinda stay involved, which is good…

“I think we’ll take it, as cliche as it sounds, we’ll take it day by day and week by week and it’s one of those things that, once the bone is healed, then it’s kind of how much can you tolerate and how well does my body handle with the swelling, kind of how well it takes ramping up activities and doing different basketball things,” said Hayward. “Honestly, looking at the plan that we set up today and just kind of attacking each day. Hopefully, I’ll be back sooner rather than later.”

The 9-1 Celtics can afford to be patient bringing him back. No need to rush it. They are a deep and talented team, but they need Hayward at his playmaking and scoring best to be a real playoff threat. Hayward should be back around New Year’s Day, why risk his hand issues becoming chronic so he can play in games in December?

Hayward, a competitor, is not going to want to be patient. After everything he’s been through with injuries, hard to blame him.

 

Russell Westbrook on Patrick Beverley: ‘He don’t guard nobody, man. He just running around doing nothing’

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Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley have a history.

After his Rockets beat Beverley’s Clippers last night, Westbrook fanned the flames.

Mark Berman of FOX 26:

Westbrook ripping someone else for phony defensive effort? That’s rich. Westbrook is the king of that style.

Beverley is one of the NBA’s best defensive guards. Sure, he has antics. But there’s an underlying effectiveness behind all his bark.

James Harden scoring 47 points hardly disproves Beverley’s defensive ability. Harden’s output by defender:

  • Beverley: 4 points on 1-of-9 shooting
  • Other: 43 points on 11-of-17 shooting

Three Things to Know: Trash-talking Rockets get 47 from James Harden, beat Clippers

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Trash-talking Rockets get 47 from James Harden, beat Clippers. Dear basketball gods: Can you please arrange a Clippers vs. Rockets playoff series? We’d all appreciate that down here. Thanks.

There are no statement games in November, but after the Rockets 102-93 win against the Clippers Wednesday a lot of statements were being made. An intense, emotional game led to a lot of trash talk on the court that spilled over into the locker rooms afterward. These teams do not like each other — and that makes it fun. The basketball gods need to give us more of this.

Everyone was getting in on the act.

Russell Westbrook trash-talked Patrick Beverley’s defense.

Let’s put aside the irony of Westbrook calling out another players’ defensive effort for a second, he’s just wrong. It’s just not factually accurate. Beverley is a good defender and ESPN’s stats guys have the proof

The best trash-talking of the night came from Austin Rivers.

The younger Rivers should forever be grateful to his Dad for that oversized three-year, $35 million contract, but when Doc Rivers got into it with the officials, the younger Rivers urged quick-trigger Tony Brothers to go over and toss his dad out. And Brothers did. That’s when Austin waved off his dad and made the call-me gesture

(Just for the record, Doc had a point. After a failed attempt to call a challenge — Rivers took longer than 30 seconds to do so — he said two referees told him the Clippers had two timeouts. After he used one, Rivers was told that was his last one. If the officials indeed screwed up his timeouts, he should have been pissed.)

There was basketball, too — and James Harden was better at it than anybody.

Harden’s 47 pushed his per-game average over his last five to 41.6 per game. More importantly, he got his buckets when his teams needed them — he scored 17 points in the final six minutes (and did it against Kawhi Leonard and Beverley). Even with elite defenders to match up the Clippers started throwing double-teams at Harden, it just didn’t matter.

Thanks to Harden, the Rockets executed down the stretch. The Clippers did not. Los Angeles’ first half was sloppy and listless, their worst half of the season. They missed bunnies and open threes all night. Los Angeles climbed back with a good third and led at 83-80, but the Clippers offensive execution and shot selection down the stretch was poor.

Leonard finished with 26 points, 12 rebounds, and seven assists, but P.J. Tucker did an excellent job keeping him in check — Leonard 4-of-10 for 10 points with Tucker as the primary defender, according to the NBA.com matchup data.

If these teams meet in the playoffs next spring, this November meeting will be ancient history. Both teams will have evolved and be different by then (the Clippers will be different on Thursday night in New Orleans when they get Paul George back). However, the tone was set. And we want more of it.

2) Ja Morant does not play like a rookie, hits game-winner against Hornets. Sure, Ja Morant brings some freakish athleticism to the point guard position in Memphis. But what is really impressive is the poise he brings — he does not look like a rookie coming out of a small college.

He looks like a beast who can hit game-winners – which he did against Charlotte.

Morant finished with 23 points and 11 assists.

He did all that in 30 minutes — the Grizzlies wisely continue to manage his workload this season, limiting him to 30 minutes a game (with some nights off). This is absolutely the right thing to do. When we talk about the science of “load management” what we’re talking about is the cumulative impacts of numerous seasons of running up and down a hardwood floor — starting in AAU/High School and running up to the NBA — and how that wears a body down and leads to injury.

Ja Morant is getting plenty of minutes, plenty of chances to learn and make mistakes, and he is closing out games (obviously). But he’s still thin and his body’s still adapting to the grind of the NBA. If you have a franchise cornerstone player — and the Grizzlies believe they have one in Morant — why wouldn’t you take steps early to lengthen his career and effectiveness? Why would you ramp up the miles on his odometer during a 24-win season? The Grizzlies are making the right long-term play (especially after watching their prized rookie from a season ago, Jaren Jackson Jr., have to miss the end of the season with an injury).

3) Is Orlando interested in DeMar DeRozan? Makes sense. Are the Spurs going to trade him is another question. An interesting early-season trade rumor popped up via our friend Kevin O’Conner of The Ringer:

The Orlando Magic have interest in trading for the Spurs’ DeMar DeRozan.

For Orlando, this makes a lot of sense. The Magic’s offense has been dreadful this season, scoring less than a point per possession so far. They need a guy who can get buckets, and DeRozan can do that. From the midrange, sure, but the guy scores efficiently and raises the floor of your team —get DeRozan the rock and your team will have a respectable offense. Orlando needs that.

The question becomes, what do the Spurs want to do? Good luck with that one. DeRozan can opt out of the $27.7 million he is owed next season and become a free agent next July, and the Spurs talks with DeRozan about an extension went nowhere. Conventional wisdom in that kind of situation is to trade the player and at least get something for him before he walks. The Spurs, however, do not follow conventional wisdom. The Spurs are going to be a fringe playoff team in the West and may want to keep the band together and make a push for the postseason. Maybe they want to start rebuilding around a young backcourt of Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, and Derrick White, but would they really trade DeRozan to jump start that? Maybe. Maybe not.

Just consider this the start of what will be a lot of trade rumors this season — with a very down free agent class next summer, teams will be turning to trades to upgrade their rosters.