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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.

Report: Al Horford opting out with Celtics

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Celtics president Danny Ainge called restructuring Al Horford‘s contract status – which would involve the center declining his $30,123,015 player option then re-signing for a lower starting salary but more total compensation in a multi-year deal – a priority.

This is either a step toward that or a step toward Boston, with Kyrie Irving seemingly exiting, losing multiple stars this summer.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

If they renounce all their free agents, the Celtics would project to have about $32 million in cap space. That’d be about enough for a max player with fewer than 10 years experience, and Boston would get the room exception (projected to be about $5 million)

Or the Celtics could use Bird Rights to re-sign Horford, Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris. That route would come with a mid-level exception, either the non-taxpayer (projected to be about $9 million) or taxpayer (projected to be about $6 million).

Horford could determine Boston’s path. If the 33-year-old wants to re-sign, that’d probably consume most of the Celtics’ cap space. If he sees Irving leaving and wants to chase a title elsewhere, Boston could reset around Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and three first-round picks in Thursday’s draft.

The Celtics could bring back Rozier, who’ll be a restricted free agent, in either scenario. But if Horford departs, that’d at least open the door to pursue an outside point guard – like D'Angelo Russell or Malcolm Brogdon – to replace Irving.

Report: Kyrie Irving has ‘ghosted’ Celtics as free agency approaches

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The emerging expectation: Kyrie Irving will sign with the Nets in free agency.

Many thought the Celtics had a chance of changing his mind by trading for Anthony Davis. But Boston didn’t deal for the star center.

There’s little reason to believe Irving will re-sign with the Celtics now.

Adam Himmelsbach of The Boston Globe:

The strangest part of the Irving situation right now is that it appears he has essentially ghosted on the Celtics. The people within the organization I have spoken with have made it clear that they have had little, if any, communication with Irving in recent weeks.

Irving is the prize. He’s not interviewing for jobs. Employers are chasing him. By becoming one of the best basketball players in the world, Irving has earned the power to act however he wants in this situation.

The season is over. If Irving wants space, he’s entitled to it.

Maybe it’s because he’s being a jerk. Maybe it’s because telling Boston he wants to leave isn’t an easy message to deliver.

Either way, Irving can proceed as he sees fit. The Celtics will still offer him a max contract if he wants to stay.

This is the same tact he reportedly took on his way out of Cleveland. So, it’s believable he’s behaving this way again.

But we’ve also repeatedly seen players smeared on their way out the door. Whether or not it’s accurate, this report will reflect poorly on Irving in many circles. So, in light of recent history, have at least a little skepticism for this depiction of Irving.

2019 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Ja Morant is the future of the point guard position

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Over the course of the next two weeks, as the 2019 NBA Draft draws closer and closer, we at Pro Basketball Talk will be taking deep dives into some of the best and most intriguing prospects that will be making their way to the NBA.

Today, we are looking at Ja Morant.

Previous draft profiles:

The trajectory that Zion Williamson and Ja Morant have taken to get to the point where they are projected to be the top two picks in the NBA draft could not be more different.

Four years ago, they were playing on the same, small AAU team out of South Carolina. From there, Zion blew up, becoming a viral sensation thanks to his athletic exploits, having his jersey get worn by Drake when he was still a high school junior and spending the majority of his time in the high school ranks as a top-five talent in his recruiting class.

Morant, on the other hand, was more or less a no-name prospect into the summer before his senior year. He eventually became a popular mid-major target, and he even received a scholarship offer from in-state South Carolina. He was hardly unknown, but he was miles away from being someone considered to be a potential franchise-changing talent at the NBA level.

As it stands today, the thing that both Zion and Ja have in common — besides the two most recognizable first names — is an otherworldly level of explosiveness that has both ratcheted up their hype and buried the lede. The reason Williamson is the most exciting prospect to come out of the college ranks since Anthony Davis is because of his ability to play the point and the five, all at the same time. He’s Draymond Green, only if he was injected with NOS from Dominic Toretto.

Morant’s athleticism rivals Williamson’s. Blessed with a 44 inch vertical, Morant’s motto this season was “jump with me if you want to go viral,” and that couldn’t have been more accurate. He spent more time on SportsCenter this season than every Ohio Valley Conference player before him combined, something that was highlighted by this dunk:

And that explosiveness matters, I would never try to say otherwise. Dunking over weakside defenders in the NBA is going to be more difficult than when playing at UT Martin, but being able to elevate the way Morant elevates will help him transition to the next level. His quick-twitch athleticism also manifests in his ability to make plays in the halfcourt, where his ability to change speeds — and to go from a standstill to top speed — is what allows scouts to be able to project Morant as a player that can create offense against set NBA defenses. For a player who did so much of his damage at the college level in transition, that’s a big deal.

Morant’s physical tools makes it very easy to see him as another De'Aaron Fox. They’re both about 6-foot-3 and 170 pounds with a 6-foot-6 wingspan, and Fox just wrapped up his second season in the NBA with averages of 17.3 points, 7.3 assists and 3.8 boards.

But simply focusing on Morant’s athletic ability is to ignore what he does best: Pass.

Because while Morant did average 24.5 points and 5.7 boards while shooting 36 percent from three, perhaps what is most impressive about his sophomore season with the Racers is that he led all of college basketball in assists at 10.0 per game, just like Lonzo Ball led the nation in assists in 2017 and Trae Young did in 2018.

I mention both of those guys for a reason. Morant does not have the same hit-ahead ability in transition that Ball does, but Morant’s vision in the open floor and ability to make long, accurate passes in the open floor is one of the things that he does best. He also thrives in early-offense, where his And-1 Mixtape handle allows him to keep his dribble alive and probe opposing defenses. Because he is such a threat as a scorer, defenses would then collapse, which is when Morant’s ability as a dump-off passer and a lob-thrower comes into effect.

And that’s not even what he does best as a passer, because where he really shines is in the halfcourt and working off of ball-screens. Morant’s basketball IQ is the most underrated part of his game. He knows how defenses are going to defend him. He knows how to use his eyes to move weakside defenders. He knows where the tag is coming from, and whether the shooter in the far side corner or the roll-man will be open. This is where that Trae Young comparison comes into play, because reading defenses is where Young thrived while at Oklahoma.

The best way to describe Morant’s ability as a passer is that he not only knows when and where his teammates are going to come open, but he has the ability to find a way to make the pass that will get them an open shot. Morant is right-handed, but he will, at times, look like a left-handed player because of how often he makes bullet, live-dribble passes with just his left. He makes reads, and passes, that few point guards in the NBA today can make.

That passing is what makes all the difference, and as much as his athleticism or ability as a scorer, it’s the reason why he can be viewed as a player with the potential to be a franchise-changing point guard in the same stratosphere as the likes of Russell Westbrook and John Wall.

Now, Morant does have some flaws, and they are quite notable and relevant.

For starters, he is of a slight build, which is less than ideal. He is not going to be able to bounce off of contact in the NBA the same way he did in the OVC, and in a league where switchability is a priority at the highest-level, he is going to be targeted. Opposing coaches are going to target him by trying to force switches the same way that Nick Nurse did with Steph Curry in the finals. That is going to be an issue if he can’t add some weight and strength, particularly because he has not been a consistently great defender to date. Some of that can be attributed to the load that he was asked to carry offensively, and there is reason to believe that Morant’s athleticism, anticipation and quick hands will translate to being an above-average defender in the NBA.

Morant can also be a bit sloppy. He averaged more than five turnovers per game, and while some of that is strictly a result of workload and defensive attention, he also had a habit of trying to force passes that weren’t there.

But the biggest question mark, and what is going to determine his ceiling more than just about anything else, will be how well his jumper comes along. Morant shot 36.3 percent from three this past season, but that number drops to just 33.6 percent if his 7-for-8 shooting from three in the NCAA tournament is factored out.

Put another way, as good as Morant was this past season, there is still plenty of room for him to grow moving forward.

And in a league where ball-dominant lead guards that thrive in ball-screens is the norm, Morant is a player with quite a bit of value in the long-term.

Damon Jones says Lakers are in play for Kawhi Leonard

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I had heard from multiple sources going back to Summer League last year that the Lakers were not an option for Kawhi Leonard. He’s a guy who does not like a lot of drama and chaos around him, he just wants to play basketball, and being with LeBron James on the Lakers is to live in the spotlight with drama your constant companion.

Did the Anthony Davis trade change his thinking? Damon Jones, the former NBA player and assistant coach, said yes it did on ESPN’s Get Up show. He said a source that would know told him the Lakers are now in play.

Two thoughts here:

First, nobody knows what Kawhi Leonard is thinking. We can all play the “read the tea leafs” game — at the Raptors’ championship parade some fans started a “one more year” chant and Leonard’s close advisor Uncle Dennis (as he is commonly known) had one finger up and was chanting along, read what you want into that — but none of us really know which way Leonard leans. The “people close to Leonard” have sent mixed signals from the start, some have different agendas, and they are not Leonard. Stay in Toronto, come to the Clippers or Lakers? We don’t know.

Second, getting Leonard to the Lakers requires a semi-complicated salary cap move. After the Davis trade the Lakers have between $23 million and $27 million in salary cap space (depending on how much of Davis’ trade kicker he is going to take, if any) but that is not enough to sign Leonard to a max contract. And he’s not taking a discount. Los Angeles could create the room by delaying the Davis trade for a month. Follow along: Currently, the Davis trade can’t be executed until July 6. However, if the Lakers draft whoever the Pelicans want with the No. 4 pick, sign him, then wait a month and include that player and his salary in the trade (the CBA says a draft pick cannot be traded for 30 days after he signs his contract) then the Lakers could have $32.5 million in cap space, enough to sign Leonard (or Kemba Walker, or Jimmy Butler, or Kyrie Irving, or any free agent with 7-9 years of service and earning a max deal).

Except, the Pelicans want to get the trade done and, I was told, don’t have to agree to this delay. Would the Lakers have to throw in another second round pick or something to make this work? Maybe.

That all assumes Leonard wants to come to the Lakers. And nobody really knows that for sure.

Whatever happens, the board man gonna get paid.