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NBA Power Rankings: Boston vaults to top, Warriors moving up

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From No. 14 to No. 1 in a week? The first few weeks of the power rankings things are volatile and this is just Week 2 of our rankings — we’re just figuring out who teams are, there’s a small sample size, and teams make big leaps up and down the board. Boston and Detroit make big moves up the ladder this week, but can they sustain it?

 
Celtics small icon 1. Celtics (5-2, Last Week No. 14). They have won five in a row, they have the best defense in the NBA so far (much better than expected), and Marcus Morris could return this week, adding front court depth. Early on the Celtics have flipped preseason prognostication on its head — they have an elite defense despite dumping their best defenders over the summer, but they are 18th in offense. They miss the glue that was Gordon Hayward on that end.

 
Grizzlies small icon 2. Grizzlies (5-2, Last Week No. 2). They are doing this with a very good defense (which we expected) and an offense that is knocking down more threes than it used to and is getting to the foul line at a higher rate than any team in the league. They are getting something out of Chandler Parsons this season, which is a boost. Starting Saturday they head out on a five-game road trip that will be a real test.

 
Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (5-3 LW 5). Did they snap out of their malaise with that blowout win over the Clippers? Maybe, we will get a better sense of that when they face the Spurs Thursday night on TNT. Either way, there is no panic in the Warriors locker room, Steve Kerr reminded everyone the 1998 Jordan Bulls started 8-7, but went on to win the NBA title, their third straight. Kerr said that team felt like this one early, just mentally fatigued.

 
Rockets small icon 4. Rockets (5-3, LW 3). The Rockets were in vintage form against the Hornets last Friday — 57 three-point attempts and just 28 midrange shots. That game was the outlier, the Rockets lead the NBA in percentage of shots from the midrange, which is not good. The Rockets offense is 15th in the league right now, and playing at the 20th fastest pace. Is that due to giving heavy minutes to defenders such as P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute? Either way, they miss Chris Paul.

 
Clippers small icon 5. Clippers (4-2 LW 3). It’s a bit of a small sample size mirage, but with DeAndre Jordan and Patrick Beverley leading the way, the Clippers have a Top-10 defense in the NBA (it was first before the Warriors thrashed them, but first was always a bit optimistic). Blake Griffin took too many midrange jumpers in years past (he could hit them, but not at a high enough rate), but that has changed this season with him taking 32 threes and 9 midrange shots. Plus, Griffin is clutch.

 
Thunder small icon 6. Thunder (4-3 LW 12).. They have been better than their record shows so far this young season. The big three are starting to figure things out on offense (I love the way they use Carmelo Anthony with the second unit), but the big question is who is the fifth starter. Well, that’s one big question, the other is why is this team struggling so much on the defensive glass (they are 25th in the league in defensive rebounding percentage)?

 
Magic small icon 7. Magic (5-2, LW 11). The biggest change in Orlando is not how well Aaron Gordon is playing this season — although he has impressed and dropped 41 on the Nets — but it’s the pace. Orlando is playing at the third fastest pace in the NBA this young season, faster than the Warriors or Lakers and Lonzo Ball. They haven’t been incredibly efficient in transition (56.8% eFG%) and they are taking too many midrange shots (and not enough at the rim), which makes us wonder if this is sustainable.

 
Wizards small icon 8. Wizards (4-2, LW 6). After a slow start to the season in terms of taking and making threes, the Wizards have started to find a groove the past few games (17-of-34 against the Kings, for example). They have already blown two 10-point leads this season. Washington is entering a soft part of the schedule the next couple of weeks (7-of-9 at home, a lot of losing teams) so they need to fatten up the win total now.

 
Raptors small icon 9. Raptors (4-2, LW 10). They are 2-2 four games into a rough six-game road swing, which has included losses to San Antonio and Golden State where Toronto had fourth quarter leads but could not execute and hold on down the stretch. On the bright side, they held the Blazers to six points in one quarter. Also, Pascal Siakam has really taken a step forward this season.

Pistons small icon 10. Pistons (5-3, LW 21). They beat the Warriors, Clippers, and Timberwolves on a three-game win streak, which is impressive. We’re still a little skeptical that they can sustain this level — their starters have been outscored by 36 points so far this season — but the improvement from Reggie Jackson (who has looked closer to his old self) is a good sign. Regardless, they look like a playoff team in an upside-down East early.

 
Spurs small icon 11. Spurs (4-3, LW 1). After a 4-0 start they dropped three in a row on their recent road trip. The good news is they have held their own without Kawhi Leonard and are home for 8 of their next 10, giving them a chance to keep banking wins without their best player. Showdown with the Warriors coming Thursday night on TNT.

 
Bucks small icon 12. Bucks (4-3 LW 9). Giannis Antetokounmpo keeps putting up stunning point totals — 28, 33, and 28 this week — but also is playing 37.4 minutes per game right now (third highest in the league). They are getting decent bench play, Jason Kidd may want to trust it more, even with Greg Monroe out for a couple week. Tough four game road trip starts Wednesday and includes the Cavaliers and Spurs.

 
Blazers small icon 13. Trail Blazers (4-3 LW 8). That six-point quarter against Toronto was UGLY, but let’s not dwell on it. The Blazers are the second-best offensive rebounding team in the NBA to start the season, grabbing a ridiculous 28.6 percent of their missed shots. Portland has had a soft schedule to start the season, when they have faced quality teams such as the Clippers and Raptors they lost. The next week sees the Jazz, Thunder, and Grizzlies, and we’ll get a better sense of how good this team really is.

 
timberwolves small icon 14. Timberwolves (4-3, LW 13). This was supposed to be the season Minnesota got better on defense, but early in the season they are dead last in the league on that end, allowing 113.3 points per 100 possessions. That’s very concerning. This team has beaten a good Thunder team twice with Jimmy Butler but lost to the Pacers (without Myles Turner) and Pistons without him, reverting to a lot of old, bad habits.

 
Jazz small icon 15. Jazz (4-3, LW 16). As expected, their defense is fantastic (fourth in the NBA and improving) but the offense relies on spurts from guys who have hot games, like Donovan Mitchell did with 22 against the Lakers. Mitchell also broke out this nastiness against the Lakers.

 
Hornets small icon 16. Hornets (4-3, LW 18). Dwight Howard was brought in to return the Charlotte defense to form, and he has helped make this a top-10 defense again early in the season. Problem is, the offense has fallen to 21st in the league and doesn’t get enough points in the paint. Tough week ahead with the Bucks, then on the road against the Spurs, Timberwolves, and Celtics.

 
Cavaliers small icon 17. Cavaliers (3-4 LW 7). Going through a soft spot in the schedule they lost four of five, and in those five games they had the second worst defense in the NBA and were outscored by 11.2 points per 100 possessions. Their transition defense and rotations are a mess. LeBron has been the lone bright spot and Friday night against the Wizards he should hit another milestone and score the 29,000th point of his career, the youngest player (at 32) to do it.

 
Pacers small icon 18. Pacers (4-3, LW 20). Myles Turner is still sidelined with a concussion, but the Pacers offense is a surprise third in the NBA this young season thanks to Victor Oladipo — averaging 23.9 points per game with a 63.5 true shooting percentage — plus some very good play from Domantas Sabonis. That Paul George trade suddenly doesn’t look so bad.

 
Pelicans small icon 19. Pelicans (3-4 LW 22). Not to ruin a secret coming out later soon, but after DeMarcus Cousins destroyed his old team in Sacramento then dropped a triple-double on the Cavaliers, he won the PBT Extra player of the week (video coming). The Pelicans also got Anthony Davis back in the lineup, and when those two are on the court together this season the Pelicans are +44, when they are not the team is -53. Depth remains the issue.

 
Knicks small icon 20. Knicks (3-3, LW 28). About those rebuilding Knicks, as Bobby Marks of ESPN notes, they have the third oldest roster in the East, both raw totals and when waited by playing time. Those old guys can crash the glass however — the Knicks are they best offensive rebounding team in the league this young season, grabbing a second chance on 29.5 percent of their missed shots.

 
Sixers small icon 21. 76ers (3-4, LW 23). Markelle Fultz is sidelined for a while to get his shoulder right, which is what the team should have done all along. Ben Simmons continues to be fantastic early in the season, racking up a triple-double in Dallas and prompting Mavericks’ coach Rick Carlisle to say he thought Simmons would be good, but the kid is beating expectations.

 
Nuggets small icon 22. Nuggets (3-4, LW 17). What happened to the Nuggets’ offense? They are scoring 10 points per 100 possessions fewer than they did after All-Star break last season. Maybe last season’s numbers were the anomaly, or maybe the struggles of Jamal Murray’s shot and the lack of Danilo Gallinari (now with the Clippers) is hurting their spacing. The Nuggets are home for six in a row and they need to rack up some wins.

 
Lakers small icon 23. Lakers (3-4 LW 24). There’s a lot to like with Lonzo Ball, but when a rookie leads your offense it’s going to struggle — the Lakers are 28th in the league in offensive rating so far this young season, behind even the Suns. I expect that to improve some, but whether they can keep up their 9th-ranked defense to start the season is the more interesting question (don’t bet on it, but they are improved on that end).

 
Heat small icon 24. Heat (2-4, LW 15). Miami really misses Hassan Whiteside, both on the glass (where they are getting pushed around), and to get some putbacks and easy buckets that they are not getting now. This has been a very inconsistent team — not just game-to-game, but also within games — and that makes them hard to get a handle on early. They head out Friday on a six-game road trip.

 
Suns small icon 25. Suns (3-4, LW 30). The Suns have looked better their last four games, winning three, and there are a couple reasons for that. First, they sent Eric Bledsoe home and are playing Mike James and Tyler Ulis at the point — those guys aren’t nearly as talented but at least they care and are trying on defense. Second, Jay Triano has made other moves — starting Marquese Chriss — that make this team a little better. Not good, but not the train wreck they were.

 
Nets small icon 26. Nets (3-5, LW 19). They would be higher on this list if they could hold a lead — three of their losses came when blowing a 10-point lead (or more) in the game. That includes handing the cross-town Knicks their first win of the season. The Nets remain a really good shooting team, but they do a lot more damage in the first quarter than they do the rest of the game.

 
Kings small icon 27. Kings (1-6, LW 25). Last Sunday the Kings sat both George Hill and Zach Randolph against the Wizards, going young for a day, and it was a reminder of how far this team has to go. The bright spot has been De’Aaron Fox, who has shown impressive flashes — he’s shooting 42.9 percent from three, and is quick enough to to the rim where he is shooting an impressive 68.8 percent.

 
Mavericks small icon 28. Mavericks (1-7 LW 27). Dallas’ one win for the season surprisingly came against a hot Memphis team. Shooting has been a problem: Dirk Nowitzki is shooting 40.5%, Harrison Barnes 37.9%, and Devin Harris 35.7%. The other problem for Dallas is now the schedule gets tougher — four of their next six are on the road and the level of competition steps up with the Clippers, Timberwolves, Wizards, Cavaliers, and Thunder coming up.

 
Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (1-6, LW 26). They have lost six in a row, and while injuries were part of that (Dennis Schroder missed time) this is an average defensive team so far with a bottom-five offense. With Schroder and Kent Bazemore as the primary offensive options, I’m not sure efficiency is in the cards. It could be a long season.

 
Bulls small icon 30. Bulls (1-4 LW 29). They have the worst offense in the NBA this season, and there are not a lot of prospects of it getting better. If you want a silver lining, Lauri Markkanen has played fairly well, the rookie is averaging 15.6 points per game and is showing 41.7 percent from three. Kris Dunn is healthy and has returned to the lineup, he will get a chance to prove his struggles in Minnesota last season were a fluke.

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.