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NBA Power Rankings: Reports of the Spurs demise have been greatly exaggerated

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The first weeks of the NBA season saw elite teams have rough weeks, some questionable teams have great weeks, and a lot of volatility in the Power Rankings. There was a lot of movement and plenty of surprises. And that starts with a new team at the top.

 
Spurs small icon 1. Spurs (3-0 Last Week No. 5). The reports of the Spurs demise have been greatly exaggerated. LaMarcus Aldridge has impressed as the team leader with Kawhi Leonard still out, averaging 24.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. Gregg Popovich needs just three victories to pass rival Phil Jackson (1,155) for sixth place on the all time coaching win list (he’s just 24 wins from passing George Karl for fifth).

 
Grizzlies small icon 2. Grizzlies (3-0 LW 14). Maybe the most surprising start to the season is in Memphis — many people mistakenly wrote them off (Tony Allen and Zach Randolph were replaceable) but beating the Warriors and the Rockets in the first week? Didn’t see that coming. Memphis has gotten these wins with impressive defense, particularly making it difficult on opposing shooters.

 
Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (2-1, Last Week No. 2). No Chris Paul for a few weeks, but that is not the most concerning thing. First, through three games the Rockets are 18th in the NBA in pace, which Mike D’Antoni can’t like. Second, they are shooting 27.5 percent from three this young season and have missed more threes than 27 NBA teams have even taken. They have won, but not been who we expected yet. On the bright side, the Rockets defense looks better. 

 
Clippers small icon 4. Clippers (3-0 LW 12). Blake Griffin has been stretching his range for years, and now he has pushed it past the three-point line, hitting 44.4 percent from beyond the arc so far this young season. Griffin is averaging 26.7 ppg, 9.7 rpg, and 4.3 apg so far this season. The Clips started out with an impressive 2-0 record, but we started to buy in more when Los Angeles controlled the second half against Utah Tuesday night. The Trail Blazers and Warriors will provide even better tests in the coming week.

 
Warriors small icon 5. Warriors (2-2 LW 1). They fall from the top spot, and yes their defense has been shaky (they look like a disinterested team just back from China). But is anyone really worried? They shouldn’t be (it’s only four games in and they have the fourth best net rating in the league). Golden State isn’t worried. The Warriors host the Wizards Friday night, a battle of two of the NBA’s top backcourts.

 
Wizards small icon 6. Wizards (3-0 LW 7). They have started fast at 3-0, but their net rating suggests that’s a bit of luck, with the offense being okay and the defense below average overall. New season but last year’s problem has returned: the bench. The Wizards starting five is outscoring teams by 20.4 points per 100 possessions (and playing 23 minutes together a night, but the two most used bench units are worse than -24 per 100. Injuries are a part of that, they need Markieff Morris back.

 
Cavaliers small icon 7. Cavaliers (3-1 LW 4). Another season, another year of the Cavaliers struggling with pick-and-roll defense. They have handled the ball handler fairly well when he shoots, but if the ball moves to the roll man or a spot up guy the rotations are late and good shots are found. That — and the lack of three-point attempts — are good reasons that J.R. Smith is back in the starting lineup and Dwyane Wade is coming off the bench (even if Smith struggled in his first game back as a starter).

 
Blazers small icon 8. Trail Blazers (3-1 LW 13). They had a strong start to the season but this is where context matters — they blew out a very bad Suns team, then got the Pacers without Myles Turner. The Blazers offense has been a force early, but that is to be expected, the question is can they keep up the strong defensive play as the schedule gets tougher (Clippers, Raptors ahead in the next week)?

 
Bucks small icon 9. Bucks (3-1 LW 10). Giannis Antetokounmpo had the best opening night a Buck has had since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1972, — 37 points, 13 boards — and carried that over to average 38.3 points per game through the Bucks first four. Amazingly, he has taken 71 shots in the paint (56 at the rim) but just 17 outside the paint (he’s 5-of-17, 1-of-6 from three). Thursday the Bucks host the Celtics in the MECCA, their old building, part of a 50th anniversary throwback season.

 
Raptors small icon 10. Raptors (2-1, LW 8). Biggest plus for Toronto is that after a summer where they lost a lot of their depth, their bench has still been one of the best in the league to start the season. Dwane Casey is doing that with an almost hockey-change lineup of five guys (not mixing in starters) led by C.J. Miles. Rough road trip for Toronto, they fell to the Spurs Monday and have the Warriors, Clippers, Blazers, Nuggets, and Jazz to come.

 
Magic small icon 11. Magic (3-1 LW 24). They have beat Cleveland and lost to Brooklyn — this is a very inconsistent team (they did get revenge on the Nets Tuesday night). Elfrid Payton is still out at the point, but Aaron Gordon returned on Tuesday night and dropped 41 — he has looked much better at the four this season. The Magic have been the second best three point shooting team in the NBA so far, but they are middle of the pack (13th) in attempts.

 
Thunder small icon 12. Thunder (1-2 LW 3).. Despite all the potential, the Thunder offense is off to a shaky start (21st in the NBA in points per possession so far). They have been trying to share the rock, but when the game got tight late against the Timberwolves it was all Russell Westbrook (and the offense looked bater). The defense is Top 10 as expected, mostly by forcing turnovers and not fouling. Steven Adams has been playing well.

 
timberwolves small icon 13. Timberwolves (2-2, LW 9). Minnesota got quality wins in the final minute against the Jazz and Thunder — the way they struggled in close games last year (10-24 in games within three points in the final three minutes) this is a great sign. Then they look like a young team getting blown out by the Pacers at home. Andrew Wiggins leads the T-Wolves scoring 20.3 a game and he’s doing it from three — he’s takin more than twice as many as a year ago and is hitting 36.4 percent of them.

 
Celtics small icon 14. Celtics (2-2 LW 6). The Gordon Hayward injury — he is likely gone for the season, I know he could be back but they will be cautious with him — is a tremendous blow on both ends of the court. Boston lost its secondary playmaker and one of its best wing defenders. In the wake of that Brad Stevens is experimenting with a lot of different lineups to see what works and what doesn’t, which is the smart thing to do but it will take time.

 
Heat small icon 15. Heat (2-1, LW 15). Hassan Whiteside had a monster opening night, putting up 22 points and grabbing 26 rebounds, but he has been out with a knee bone bruise (he will be out Wednesday). They will miss him. Miami has started a six-game homestand 2-0, but it gets tougher with the Spurs, Celtics, and Timberwolves up next.

 
Jazz small icon 16. Jazz (2-2, LW 16). We knew the defense, anchored by Rudy Gobert, would be very good, but the big early-season surprise is the offense has been pretty good (even with Rodney Hood being injured for part of the week). The ball movement with Ricky Rubio and Joe Ingles on the floor has impressed, and the Jazz have been a top-10 shooting team in the NBA this young season (based on eFG%). That’s led by Ingles and his ridiculous 84.6 true shooting percentage so far (that will not last).

 
Nuggets small icon 17. Nuggets (1-2 LW 11). After a couple rough games, Nikola Jokic found his shot against the Wizards going 9-of-13 (3-of-3 from three). It’s a start, the offense has been down to begin the season (and that us supposed to be a strength of this team). Richard Jefferson is in and Jameer Nelson is out, and that may not be only roster change we see (they are in the Eric Bledsoe conversation with the Suns).

 
Hornets small icon 18. Hornets (1-2 LW 19). The Hornets are outscoring opponents by 16.6 points per 48 minutes when Dwight Howard and Kemba Walker are on the court together, but with all the injuries depth is an issue. Charlotte’s defense seems to be back, they are fifth in the league on that end at this point, but the offense remains a work in progress.

 
Nets small icon 19. Nets (2-2 LW 27). Jeremy Lin is lost for the season due to a ruptured patella tendon, which will put the ball in the hands of D’Angelo Russell more often. So far, he has responded with 23 points and 5.5 assists per game, shooting 39.1 percent from three. After a win Sunday over the Hawks, the Nets were 2-1 — the first time they had been over .500 since 2014.

 
Pacers small icon 20. Pacers (2-2, LW 26). The Pacers have been a surprise this season with the second best offense in the NBA (looking good even with Myles Turner out with a concussion). The Pacers are shooting the ball well, not turning it over, and getting their fair share of offensive boards. All that has covered up for an unimpressive defense.

Pistons small icon 21. Pistons (2-2, LW 20). Eminem pumping up the Detroit crowd in the new building before the opener was the best part of the week. The other silver lining is that Andre Drummond is now knocking down his free throws, hitting 83.3 percent (it was 38 percent last season). He should give Markelle Fultz lessons.

 
Pelicans small icon 22. Pelicans (1-3 LW 17). The Anthony Davis’ knee injury sounded scary, but the MRI was clear and he is day-to-day. When Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Jrue Holiday are on the court together, the Pelicans are +10 per 100 possessions. Good news is when it’s just Cousins and Holiday they are +12, the Pelicans may need to lean on that for a few games. Thursday night, Cousins returns to Sacramento for the first time since being traded. Or, you can look at it as the Buddy Hield revenge game.

 
Sixers small icon 23. 76ers (1-3, LW 18). Ben Simmons had at least 10 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists through his first three games, the first player to do it since Kareem Abdul-Jabari in 1969 (other guys to do this include Oscar Robertson and Elgin Baylor). He has impressed. Joel Embiid’s minutes limit appears very very flexible. The Sixers have a tough schedule the first couple months of the season, can they keep their heads above water during it? That’s the key to them making the playoffs.

 
Lakers small icon 24. Lakers (1-2 LW 22). Lonzo Ball has shown grit — his first game against Patrick Beverley was better than some suggested, and he’s had better games since (against lesser defensive teams). He gets a real test the next couple of days going against John Wall (Wednesday) and Kyle Lowry (Friday). The real question is what kind of help does he get from Brandon Ingram? Julius Randle has struggled, but Jordan Clarkson has impressed so far.

 
Kings small icon 25. Kings (1-3, LW 23). Thursday night DeMarcus Cousins returns to Sacramento for the first time, and don’t expect a bunch of laid-back Californians — they will boo him. D’Aaron Fox has been fairly efficient (for a rookie) and leads the team averaging 15 points and 5 assists per game.

 
Hawks small icon 26. Hawks (1-3, LW 28). The bench was supposed to be a weak point but it scored 57 in an opening night win. Injuries have taken their toll since, with DeAndre’ Bembry out 4-6 weeks (wrist), and both Dennis Schroder and Ersan Ilyasova missing the Miami game. Atlanta has shown some grit on the defensive end, but the team is struggling to score points.

 
Mavericks small icon 27. Mavericks (0-4 LW 21). Dallas started last season 0-5, that was not a trend they wanted to continue but here we are. Dennis Smith Jr. had a double-double in his first game, then missed two with injuries and struggled in his return against the Warriors. The bigger problem on offense is Dirk Nowitzki is shooting 30.2 percent, while Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews are both at 34.9 percent. Also, Dallas has the worst defense in the NBA through the first week.

 
Knicks small icon 28. Knicks (0-3, LW 25). Three games into the season, the Knicks have the worst offense in the NBA, and they have been the worst shooting team in the NBA (particularly from three). Courtney Lee said some Knicks players don’t even know the plays, which is almost throwing Jeff Hornacek under the bus. New York has called about the availability of Eric Bledsoe in a trade, he would help them immensely on offense, but the Knicks aren’t willing to give up the quality young player the Suns are asking for. Yet. Free Willy Hernangomez!

 
Bulls small icon 29. Bulls (0-3 LW 30). Lauri Markkanen is starting after Bobby Portis sidelined Nikola Mitotic for at least a month with a punch (Portis also sidelined himself for eight games without pay for his actions), and the rookie playing well enough mate he should keep his starting spot. Kay Felder is the best point guard on the team, he should be starting, which is not a great statement about the Bulls.

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (1-3, LW 29). Phoenix does have a win, but when you fire your coach three games into the season, then tell your best player to go home and put him on the trade block, you move to the bottom slot. The Suns are asking for a quality young player back for Bledsoe, and so far teams are balking at offering that. The Suns are 27th in offense, 29th in defense, and getting outscored by 18.4 points per 100 possessions.

As expected, Denver’s Wilson Chandler to opt into $12.8 million next season

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Wilson Chandler played a workmanlike role for the Nuggets last season — more than 30 minutes a game (in 74 games), 10 points a night, shot 35.8 percent from three. His efficiency and value slipped from previous seasons but he still played a role for the team.

Not the kind of role that’s going to earn him a big payday as a free agent, so he will opt into the $12.8 million for next season, a story broken by Chris Haynes of ESPN.

Denver Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler will exercise his player option for the 2018-19 season, league sources tell ESPN.

Chandler, 31, is opting into a $12.8 million salary instead of entering free agency this summer. Denver was notified of his decision on Friday.

Chandler’s name has come up in trade discussions in recent years, and no doubt the Nuggets would be happy to move his salary now, too. However, in a tight financial market it’s unlikely that’s happening without Denver throwing in a sweetener, and that’s not likely either. So it will be another season of Chandler in Denver.

Deandre Ayton arrives as symbol that Suns are on the rise

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PHOENIX (AP) — Since the heady days of Steve Nash came to an end, there have been few signs of joy from a dwindling fan base that watched the Phoenix Suns tumble to the bottom of the NBA standings and miss the playoffs for the eighth year in a row.

Then came the announcement that Deandre Ayton would go to the Suns with the first overall pick. A huge cheer went up from the several thousand fans at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Thursday night for the draft party. General manager Ryan McDonough, owner Robert Sarver and coach Igor Kokoskov came out of their meeting room to watch and bask in that rare moment of sheer joy from the fans.

“It was a pretty special moment for our franchise,” McDonough said.

Not only that, but McDonough engineered a last-minute trade for swingman Mikal Bridges of Villanova, the 10th pick. It was a spendy move because Philadelphia demanded and got Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick. But the Suns are weary of stockpiling assets. It’s time to cash in, they figured, and did it with that trade.

“We weighed the pros and cons of trading it heavily and carefully,” McDonough said. “We were only going to put it in play if we had a chance to get a special player and that’s how we feel about McKell.”

All four of the Suns’ picks showed up on a crowded dais in Phoenix on Friday – Ayton, Bridges, French point guard Elie Okobo (chosen 31st) and forward George King of Colorado (the 59th selection).

The 7-foot-1 Ayton towered over the others, in a white unbuttoned collared shirt and a sharp blue suit, but he looked and sounded a bit weary from the whirlwind of being the No. 1 draft pick. His only sleep lately, he said, was a couple of hours on the plane ride from New York on Tuesday.

“I’m just excited to finally get a jersey on and be able to play five-on-five again,” Ayton said.

Ayton had been the frontrunner for the No. 1 pick ever since the draft lottery and any doubts were erased when he went through an individual workout with the Suns, the only team which he did so.

McDonough said that Ayton’s workout “in and of itself was as impressive as I’ve ever seen in my 16 drafts in the NBA.”

Ayton is seen as strictly a center, so how does he fit in the modern style of the NBA, when center plays is diminished and players are essentially interchangeable, is a question. Ayton replied that he’s no ordinary center.

“I don’t like it when people think I’m just a guy down low,” he said. “They haven’t watched me shoot the basketball.”

Ayton and Bridges say they got to know each other well at the college awards ceremony in Los Angeles but never figured they’d be on the same team.

“It’s like I’ve known him my whole life,” Bridges said.

Now comes the hard work, molding a team with Ayton, Devin Booker and Josh Jackson. A billboard of those three already has been erected downtown.

The Suns, so bad for so long, seem on the brink of being relevant.

“We’re very hungry,” Ayton said. “I think the great team chemistry and the work ethic that we have, especially us guys coming in, we’re going to bring it to the next level. We’ve got young lets. We can run all day. … We can really start a winning legacy.”

And Ayton is the reason for the sudden leap in optimism, even though he won’t turn 20 until next month.

“I embrace it a lot,” he said of the expectations placed upon him. “Through my career I’ve always had that on my shoulder, the expectations. I represent a whole nation (Bahamas) I just do that the best that I can and just help this community start over and be the best player I can possibly be. I just want to be the best great player.”

Kokoskov says Ayton possesses “a unique talent for the decades.”

Ayton said he wants “to be the best person on and off the court.”

Now the Suns move on to the next phase. Free agency starts July 1 and McDonough wants some veteran players to add to this very young core. He said the team should have $15 million to $20 million to spend.

“We were aggressive last night with the picks and the trade up to get Mikal,” McDonough said. “We’re going to continue to be aggressive for the next couple of weeks in free agency. We’ve got some money to spend and we’re looking to spend it on the best players we can get.”

Hornets GM Kupchak: Kemba Walker focal point of franchise going forward

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — General manager Mitch Kupchak wants point guard Kemba Walker to end his NBA career right where it started — with the Charlotte Hornets.

Kupchak said Friday that Walker is “revered” in the Charlotte community, and that he and owner Michael Jordan look at the two-time All-Star as “the focal point of this franchise going forward.”

The 28-year-old Walker has been the subject of possible NBA trade talks as he prepares to enter the final year of his contract with the Hornets. That speculation has amped up recently because it is a practical impossibility for Charlotte to sign Walker to an extension before he becomes a free agent in July of 2019 since the Hornets are so tight under the salary cap.

“I think everybody is aware of the situation, if you follow basketball a little bit, it is unique that he is on an extension that may make it a challenge going forward to figure out before he becomes a free agent,” Kupchak said.

At $12 million per year, Walker well underpaid when compared to the other top point guards in the league.

But that doesn’t mean Kupchak is giving up hope the team can keep Walker in Charlotte.

“I don’t think it is anybody’s goal to lose him in free agency,” Kupchak said. “But going forward, in the community, in the franchise, this is a player that we hope is with us – not only for the next couple of years, but ends his career here.”

The Hornets don’t have much experience behind Walker at point guard.

They have last year’s first-round draft pick Malik Monk and drafted Devonte Graham from Kansas in the second round on Thursday night.

Graham said he is excited to pick Walker’s brain when it comes to basketball.

“I have never met him, but I remember watching him play when he was at UConn though,” Graham said. “I’m just excited man to learn from someone like that and just be around someone like that who is winner, and knows how to win and compete. I am looking forward to being able to learn from him.”

 

Another report Spurs will not trade Kawhi Leonard within West

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The people around Kawhi Leonard made it clear (through leaks to the media, not by talking to the Spurs at first): Leonard wants out of San Antonio, and he wants to go to Los Angeles. Specifically, the Lakers.

Almost as quickly, the Spurs leaked that they were not going to trade Leonard to the Lakers or any team in the West.

Sam Amick of the USA Today echoed that sentiment in his discussion of LeBron James‘ offseason options on Saturday.

But in the days that followed, the Spurs wasted no time in sending this message all around the NBA: The only Western Conference team he might be playing for is theirs.

Fellow West teams have been told, in essence, to get lost – none moreso than the Lakers, according to ESPN. As it stands, the Spurs are determined to either fix the situation or trade Leonard to an Eastern Conference team.

Leonard has leverage here: He can tell teams he will not re-sign with them and will leave as a free agent. That will scare off most teams who don’t want to put in

Would it scare off Boston or Philadelphia? The rumor is no. Those teams have real interest in Leonard, and both have the assets to get a deal done and make the bet that a year in their cultures, with their coaches and top players, a year contending, and with their fans and city would win Leonard over. Just like Oklahoma City made that bet with Paul George. Also, whoever trades for Leonard will be able to offer a five-year, $188 million contract, while as a free agent the max will be four years, $137 million. For a guy who just missed almost an entire season with an injury, that guarantee can matter.

Boston could go all in on an offer — Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, the Kings first-round pick next season (top one protected) and the Clippers first round pick next year (lottery protected). Philadelphia could put together an offer of Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington, and Miami’s unprotected 2021 pick (the first year high schoolers likely re-enter the NBA draft, making it a deep one).

The question is would those team put in all those assets on a bet they would win Leonard over?

The other big looming question, when the offers start to come in will a rational Spurs front office reconsider and look at a trade from the Lakes of Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, a future first, and the contract of Luol Deng to balance out the numbers. Would they consider it superior because they like Ingram? (That trade may require a third team to take on Deng’s contract, and the Lakers might need to throw in Lonzo Ball or some other sweetener to get a team to take on Deng’s $36 million remaining.)

Expect the Spurs to take their time with this, try to win Leonard back over, then consider all their options. They are in no rush, in fact, they’d love to create a bidding war for Leonard. Any offer from Boston and Philadelphia on the table in July will be on the table in September when training camps open. The Lakers, however, may be in a very different space.

It’s going to be a very interesting next few weeks.