Associated Press

NBA Power Rankings: Rockets back on top behind MVP-to-be Harden

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The Houston Rockets are back on top of the power rankings, with the Raptors now second, and the Trail Blazers holding steady at fourth despite the end of their win streak. At the bottom, Phoenix has “reclaimed” the last spot and are winning their race to keep Deandre Ayton in Arizona.

 
Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (56-14, Last Week No. 2). Things look good for the Houston Rockets: They almost certainly will finish with the best record in the NBA, James Harden almost certainly will win the MVP, Ryan Anderson is back in the rotation giving Mike D’Antoni another three-point shooter to lean on (although how much Anderson can be used in playoff matchups remains to be seen), and after the dramatic 115-111 win in Portland Tuesday night the Rockets’ schedule softens up. D’Antoni has kept his rotations tight and not rested guys very often, how much will that change down the stretch?

 
Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (53-18, LW 1). The Thunder snapped the Raptors’ 11-game win streak Sunday, but don’t read too much into that one loss: It was Toronto’s third game in four days and it showed in their legs late. Toronto plays each of the other two top teams in the East twice, starting with Cleveland Wednesday (the Celtics start next week), which makes for interesting storylines, but be careful drawing big conclusions from those games: If I’m Dwane Casey and I have a strategy I like vs. Cleveland, I’m not breaking it out for a regular season game (maybe beyond a couple of possessions at most). Save your best strategies for the games that matter.

 
Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (53-18 LW 3). Golden State should get Stephen Curry back Friday vs. Atlanta — he would have been back last weekend if this were the playoffs, but the Warriors have conceded the one seed and now are working on just getting their team healthy and rested before the postseason. With Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson banged up, the Warriors health is something to watch over the final few weeks of the season. The team says that everyone will be healthy come the start of the playoffs, and if so they will be a fully formed Voltron again, but if not the equation changes some.

 
Blazers small icon 4. Trail Blazers (44-26, LW 5). Despite the loss to the Rockets and the end of the 13-game winning streak, Portland seems to have nearly locked itself into the three seed in the West (and the way they are defending they should be favorites in the first round). One interesting stat that could play a role in a postseason series: the Blazers have the worst shooting percentage of any team in the league at the rim, 57.1% (not including garbage time numbers, this stat via Cleaning the Glass). Also, they are 27th in the league in corner threes attempted, just 5.5% of their shot attempts.

 
Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (48-23, LW 4). The Marcus Smart thumb injury and surgery is a big blow, especially depending upon how much of the playoffs he misses. Smart is Boston’s best perimeter defender and a central part to the best defense in the NBA this season. Boston is more vulnerable in the first round without him, but would really miss him in a second-round matchup (especially if that is Cleveland). Kyrie Irving is getting a second opinion on his knee and could miss more time than originally thought, but he should still be back for the postseason, giving Boston’s offense a much-needed boost.

 
Thunder small icon 6. Thunder (43-30 LW 6).. Corey Brewer has given the Thunder a tremendous lift since getting picked up after the Lakers’ waived him. Brewer is scoring 11.7 points per game, shooting 38.2 percent from three, playing competent defense, helping them speed up the pace, and generally giving them the fifth starter they needed since Andre Roberson went down. Brewer with the other four starters — Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Steven Adams — is +11.3 per 100 possessions. All this seems unsustainable at this level, in fact, the numbers fell back considerably after the loss to Boston, but still this move has been a big pick up for the Thunder, who had won six in a row before Tuesday.

 
Jazz small icon 7. Jazz (40-31, LW 10). The Jazz had won nine in a row before Tuesday’s punch-to-the-gut loss to tanking Atlanta. Still, Utah seems destined for the playoffs (which should get Quin Snyder some Coach of the Year votes down the ballot). It’s still all about the defense for this team: Their Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Jae Crowder, Rudy Gobert lineup has a defensive rating of just 76.4 since Crowder was traded to the team (and they use that lineup heavily). This is a tough playoff out for whoever lands them. It’s good to see Dante Exum back on the floor.

 
Sixers small icon 8. 76ers (39-30, LW 9). They have won three in a row and still have the easiest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way — 9-of-13 games against teams below .500. The Sixers are just one game back of the four seed — home court in the first round is not out of the question. But there are questions: How hard does Brett Brown and the organization push for that four seed vs. make sure Joel Embiid gets some rest down the stretch before they lean heavily on him in the postseason? And how much can they up his 31 minutes a game average in the playoffs?

 
Pacers small icon 9. Pacers (41-30, LW 7). Injuries have caught up with the Pacers, Domantas Sabonis is still out with an ankle issue, and Myles Turner missed a little time, all of which meant more Al Jefferson than the Pacers would like to see and a couple of losses. The Pacers need some quality wins — like vs. the Pelicans, Clippers, and Heat coming up this week — because of the teams in the mix for the 3/4 seeds in the East (Cleveland, Washington, and Philadelphia are in there, too) the Pacers have the toughest remaining schedule. That includes a West Coast road swing starting next Tuesday in Golden State.

 
Cavaliers small icon 10. Cavaliers (41-29 LW 12). Kevin Love is back (he looked pretty good dropping 18 in his return from a broken hand) and Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance Jr. should be back in the rotation soon as well. Cleveland survived a recent road trip with a 3-3 record but need to rack up wins — and find some cohesion on defense — to keep the three seed and home court in the first round of the playoffs. Interesting test Wednesday against Toronto (they catch the Raptors on a back-to-back).

 
Wizards small icon 11. Wizards (40-30, LW 14). The Wizards are a good three-point shooting team, hitting 37.6% of their triples once you remove the garbage time stats from the equation (via Cleaning the Glass). Which makes you wonder why they are 23rd in percentage of their shots taken from three — if you can make them, take them. What matters most to this team is the return of John Wall, which may not be that far off — Scott Brooks thinks he could get into some 5-on-5 drills in the coming days, the last step before suiting up.

 
Spurs small icon 12. Spurs (41-30, LW 16). The death of the Spurs has been greatly exaggerated. Just a reminder not to completely count them out, the Spurs have won four in a row and it appears they will extend their playoff streak to 21 seasons. This Spurs run of wins has come like so much of their season: Incredible defense — 0.88 points per possession allowed through the four games — and enough offense courtesy LaMarcus Aldridge to get the “W” (he’s averaging 30.25 points per game over the streak). Bet the under when the Spurs and Jazz play Friday.

 
Pelicans small icon 13. Pelicans (41-30, LW 5). It’s not only the Anthony Davis show since DeMarcus Cousins went down, Jrue Holiday has stepped up, too — he is shooting 41.1% from three in his last 15 games, adding the spacing the Pelicans need. In the wake of owner Tom Benson’s death, his wife Gayle runs the show now and there are not going to be big changes, according to sources. Also, the rumors that she’s going to sell the team are not true (at least not for a while, the Pelican’s lease runs through 2024). New Orleans won the first game of a rare back-to-back-to-back at home, something forced by the leaky roof postponement against the Pacers earlier this season.

 
14. Timberwolves (41-31, LW 8). The Timberwolves have gone 5-5 without Jimmy Butler, and Tuesday night against the Clippers was what we need to see more of from this team. First, Karl-Anthony Towns was getting touches and shot attempts (through the first 8 Butler-less games he was getting just one more shot attempt per game than he did during the rest of the season). Second, there was leadership on both ends from Andrew Wiggins, who had one of his better defensive nights. Minnesota is now three games up on the Clippers and the Timberwolves have a much easier schedule the rest of the way, they are going to make the playoffs.

 
Heat small icon 15. Heat (38-33, LW 19). With no Dwyane Wade, in a very close game with Denver last weekend, it was Josh Richardson isolation at the end of regulation then James Johnson at the end of overtime. Neither really got to their spots on the floor for a quality shot (fortunately for Miami it dominated the second OT, so no need to look for another option). With an easier schedule than the stumbling Bucks, Miami may be destined for the seven seed and a date with Boston in the first round.

 
Nuggets small icon 16. Nuggets (38-33, LW 15).. Denver has started a crucial 7-game road trip 0-2, including a gut-punch loss to the Grizzlies (and the 2OT one to the Heat stung, too). Just since the start of March, the Nuggets have lost to the Mavericks, Lakers, and Grizzlies — that lack of urgency and consistency is why they are two games out of the playoffs and with difficult prospects to climb back in (fivethirtyeight.com has them with a 12% chance of getting in). The Nuggets have gone 11-23 on the road this season (they are 27-10 at home) and if they don’t change their road woes around this week the playoffs will be out of reach.

 
Clippers small icon 17. Clippers (37-33 LW 13). Since the All-Star break, the Clippers are 24th in the NBA in defense, and their problems were evident Tuesday night when they had no answer to the Jeff Teague/Karl-Anthony Towns pick-and-roll and were roasted in the second half because of it. Tough road games ahead against the East coming up next — at Milwaukee, Indiana, and Toronto — and with the Clippers 2.5 games back of the Jazz and the final playoff spot, they need to find some road wins fast.

Bucks small icon 18. Bucks (37-33 LW 18). The Bucks are going to make the playoffs — in large part because the teams behind them in the East have collapsed — but that’s not what people around the league are talking about with this team. The question is who will be the next coach? This is going to be a coveted job — getting to coach Giannis Antetokounmpo and a host of good role players who just need a better system in place — plus the team will be moving into a new arena. Will Bucks ownership spend what it takes to get a name/high-level coach?

 
Lakers small icon 19. Lakers (31-39 LW 17). Remember a few weeks back when Lonzo Ball torched the Spurs from three because, as coach Gregg Popovich admitted after the game, their game plan was to go under the pick and dare him to beat them from deep, then Ball did just that? Teams in the NBA learn, they are now trailing over the top on Ball, not letting him have uncontested looks, and since Spurs game he’s shooting just 23.1% from three (and 30.3% overall). Ball is good from three if he gets some room and his feet set, but teams have figured that out and are taking his space away.

Pistons small icon 20. Pistons (32-39, LW 20). Detroit has played poorly of late and is going to miss the playoffs. What happened in Detroit? Blake Griffin is getting blamed for it. Stan Van Gundy likely will lose his GM title for it (and we’ll see if he is back as coach next season). However, the reality is this team came apart when point guard Reggie Jackson got hurt. Since he went out Dec. 27 the Pistons were 12-25 without him — they were 19-14 with him. Jackson returned Tuesday in a limited role (15 minutes) but it will be too little, too late for the Pistons this season.

 
Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (30-41, LW 21). Nicolas Batum is going to miss some time to deal with chronic tendinitis in his left Achilles — a real concern because that doesn’t exactly heal well. Much like Mike Conley in Memphis, it requires constant monitoring and plenty of rest during the season. Before the All-Star break the Hornets were a middle of the pack defensive team in the NBA. Since the break they are 26th in the NBA giving up 6.6 points more per 100 possessions.

 
Kings small icon 22. Kings (23-49, LW 24). No team of late has given a higher percentage of minutes to first and second year players than the Kings — and there have been bright spots. Specifically, back-to-back wins last weekend against Miami and a banged-up Golden State team where rookie point guard D’Aaron Fox was making clutch plays. The Kings have started out 0-1 on a six-game homestand at the Golden One Center where the home fans can get a good look at the young players themselves.

 
Nets small icon 23. Nets (23-48, LW 25). Part of what the Nets wanted to do after the All-Star break is give a lot of minutes to D’Angelo Russell and see what they really have in a player eligible for a contract extension this summer. He has shown flashes of both an ability to score and ability to lead a team, but the simple matter is the Nets have been 4.8 points per 100 possessions better this season when he is off the court, with most of the improvement coming on the defensive end. My guess is Russell is back next season without an extension and hits restricted free agency in 2020.

 
Knicks small icon 24. Knicks (26-45, LW 28). New York easily took care of Chicago on Monday night, meaning the Knicks almost certainly will enter the lottery in the nine slot (a 6.1% chance of jumping up into the top three). Few people around the league expect Jeff Hornacek to keep his job past this season, but who replaces him? Mark Jackson’s name gets mentioned. New York would be wise to get David Fizdale in early and talk to him. Whoever gets the gig, with Kristaps Porzingis likely out for the first half of next season, the new coach needs a long leash to build a culture that can win with KP in a couple of seasons.

 
Bulls small icon 25. Bulls (24-46 LW 22).. Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine are two of the young cornerstone pieces the Bulls think they have going forward. One problem, when they are on the court together this season, the Bulls get outscored by 19.1 points per 100 possessions. When those two are paired, the Bulls score less then a point per possession and are sieve defensively. This is over the course of 308 minutes, so while there is certainly noise in that number it’s not inconsequential. Chicago may not be able to keep both.

 
Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (22-49 LW 23). Whatever Mark Cuban says — and he should be far more focused on off the court Dallas issues right now rather than on it — the Mavs players are not tanking. The team just went 1-3 on a recent road trip, but in the losses they took the Raptors to overtime and played both the Nets and Pelicans tight. Another week, another milestone for Dirk Nowitzki, who is now fifth on the NBA’s career regular season games played record.

 
Magic small icon 27. Magic (21-50, LW 26). With Elfrid Payton shipped West, D.J. Augustin has played well as a point guard for Orlando since the All-Star break. It’s a lone bright spot in an offense where Aaron Gordon missed time, Evan Fournier is still out, and after some impressive play lately Jonathon Simmons missed Tuesday’s game against the Raptors.

 
Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (21-50, LW 27). Atlanta is 1-1 to start a six-game road trip thanks to a surprising win over the Jazz Tuesday. Dennis Schroder went off in that game for 41. Before that, the bright spot for the Hawks lately has been Taurean Prince, who dropped 38 points Saturday, and now has two 35+ point games this season, the first Hawk to do that since Joe Johnson.

 
Grizzlies small icon 29. Grizzlies (19-51, LW 30). Tyreke Evans is back on the court, and not surprisingly the Grizzlies’ 19-game losing streak came to an end. If the “Most Improved Player” award were still the “Comeback Player of the Year” award Evans would be in the mix, despite playing just 51 games (so far). Evans has averaged 19.5 points a game and shot 39.2% from three, he’s going to make more money than the Grizzlies can afford this summer and they will lose him.

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (19-53, LW 29). Losers of nine in a row, the Suns have “reclaimed” the bottom spot in the rankings. The Suns are on pace to finish the season with the worst offense and the worst defense in the NBA by net rating — an “impressive” feat. They will probably have the best lottery odds going into it (25% chance at No. 1), and if they get the top pick you can bet they would love to keep DeAndre Ayton in Arizona.

NBA Mock Draft 7.0: The final mock before the draft starts

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We’re now less than 48 hours removed from the start of the NBA draft, so here is the latest NBC Sports projections for who will be the best fit for the teams drafting them.

1. New Orleans — Zion Williamson, Duke

2. Memphis — Ja Morant, Murray State

3. New York — R.J. Barrett, Duke

I’m not really breaking new ground with any of these picks. Frankly, I would be shocked if this went any other way on Thursday night. We all know that Zion is the top prospect in this draft. We also all know that Morant and Barrett are, depending on who you ask, the second and third best prospects in this draft. They are closer than the consensus would have you believe, but Memphis looking to replace Mike Conley longterm with the impact that an all-NBA point guard can have on an organization makes Morant the obvious fit.

Either way, here is a full scouting report for each of those three players:

4. New Orleans — Darius Garland, Vanderbilt

This is the flash point for the 2019 NBA Draft, and it is the case for a number of reasons, the most obvious of which is the presence of Garland.

There are some teams out there that believe Garland is the player with the highest ceiling that is not among the top three picks. He’s a terrific shooter that can play on or off the ball, knows how to operate a ball-screen and has the ability to create shots for himself in isolation. It’s not a perfect comparison — comparisons never are and ignore anyone that tells you otherwise — but if Garland maxes out his ability, he’ll could end up being C.J. McCollum-esque. Garland also plays the point, and there are a number of teams that are looking to add a point guard in this draft, and with the point guard crop falling off after Coby White, there is an incentive for those teams to try and move up, especially if they are one of the teams that believes Garland will be the best of the rest.

And New Orleans has an incentive to move the pick, too. Not only do they already have Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday on the roster, but if they can drop down a few spots in the draft while adding picks — either later in this draft or in future drafts — it makes more sense. They’ll be able to draft in a position of need without really seeing the quality of the prospect they end up with being affected; the difference between whoever gets picked fourth and the players at the back end of the lottery is not all that great.

So I’m leaving Garland slotted as the No. 4 pick for now.

I just don’t know who is actually going to be drafting him.

5. Cleveland — Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech

There are a couple of reasons why I think it makes the most sense for the Cavs to pick Culver. For starters, I think that he fits nicely alongside Collin Sexton, as I believe his future is as a secondary playmaker. Sexton is more of a scorer at heart, and adding the shot-creation and pick-and-roll ability of Culver would give John Beilein more options to initiate offense.

I also think that Culver fits in nicely with the kind of player that Beilein has had the most success with in recent years. Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, even a guy like Jordan Poole. They’re wings that were capable of creating in isolation while also thriving in ball-screens, which is where Culver does his best work. If Garland ends up going fourth, the smart play for the Cavs to make is to pick Culver.

(Here is the full scouting report on Culver.)

6. Phoenix — COBY WHITE, North Carolina

What Phoenix needs is obvious: A primary ball-handler that can be used alongside Devin Booker. The ideal pick, then, is probably Garland, but White wouldn’t be a bad consolation prize. He’s lightening quick in transition, he has three-point range and he is deadly off of the dribble. His shooting ability would also allow him to play off the ball, which fits with Booker, who has developed into more of a lead guard than many expected him to be. The concern here is that White is not known for his playmaking ability and can, at times, be ball-dominant. That is not ideal, and it would make some sense for the Suns to trade down if they can find someone willing to part with a veteran guard that fills their needs.

7. Chicago — De'Andre Hunter, Virginia

Chicago, like Phoenix, needs a point guard, as neither Zach LaVine nor Kris Dunn appear to be the longterm answer at the position. With Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. already on the roster, they certainly don’t need to target big men in this draft. So Chicago will have some choices to make. They can trade up to get a guard they want to target. They can trade down to add assets if they believe they can land a free agent to bolster their backcourt. Or they can take the best available player, which, in this case, would be Hunter.

He’s the best two-way wing available, he will be able to contribute immediately and there’s a chance that his ceiling as a scorer is higher than some believe. I think that he’ll likely end up being somewhere between DeMarre Carroll and Trevor Ariza, with a real chance of developing into an all-star down the line.

(Here is the full scouting report on Hunter.)

8. Atlanta — Cam Reddish, Duke

This is yet another pick that could every well end up being involved in a trade, as the Hawks have three picks between 8-17 and six picks in the top 44. Packaging two of their first rounders to jump up into the top five to snag Culver or Hunter seems like a very real possibility. Whatever ends up happening, eight seems like the floor for Reddish, who has a world of potential but spent his one-and-done season at Duke finding myriad ways to make people question it.

(Here is the full scouting report on Reddish.)

9. Washington — Sekou Doumbouya, France

Who knows.

The Wizards still are in front office limbo, as interim GM Tommy Sheppard will be running the draft this year. They have a thin roster loaded with aging veterans, a star in Bradley Beal that could end up being shipped out and an ailing John Wall, who is recovering from a torn Achilles. The position of need for them is on the wing, and Doumbouya is probably the guy with the highest ceiling in that spot, but there are plenty of options for them in this range — Nassir Little, Rui Hachimura, P.J. Washington, etc.

10. Atlanta — Jaxson Hayes, Texas

Hayes is a project. He’s big, he’s athletic, he has great hands, he’s mobile and he’s in theory a guy that will be a terrific rim-running, lob-catching, rim-protecting five to pair with Trae Young. He fits alongside John Collins, too. But he’s raw, he’s super-young in basketball years (he didn’t even start in high school until his senior season) and he has yet to prove himself a quality rebounder. This also could end up being a pick that is traded by the Hawks, but for now, let’s send Hayes to the A.

11. Minnesota — Brandon Clarke, Gonzaga

I understand why there will be some hesitancy when it comes to drafting Clarke. His jumper is not something that can be trusted. He’s 6-foot-8 and 220 pounds and more or less limited to playing the five in the NBA. He’s not a great passer. His efficiency, elite athleticism, shot-blocking feel and basketball savvy should make him a useful player in the NBA, but he needs the right fit.

Minnesota is that fit. He can be slotted alongside Karl Anthony-Towns, who will have the size to allow Clarke to guard opposing four and has the perimeter ability to keep the paint from getting too crowded. Clarke will also provide the Wolves with defensive cover, as KAT is not exactly known for his desire to play on that end of the floor. He can step into the league right away and contribute, and for a team that really isn’t that far away from being in the playoffs, there’s value there.

12. Charlotte — RUI HACHIMURA, Gonzaga

Charlotte needs to fill a hole at the four, and there are plenty of options in this range. Clarke and Doumbouya could both drop while Nassir Little and P.J. Washington are still on our board. But Rui makes sense to me here. He fits the Charlotte profile of drafting players that have had a ton of success at the collegiate level — he was an All-American this past year — while also having A) elite physical tools and B) plenty of room to grow. Remember, he grew up in Japan playing against totally outmatched competition. His first year at Gonzaga was spent trying to learn to speak English. He needs to continue to develop his shooting, and learn how to play defense, but he has the stroke and the athleticism to, in theory, do both.

13. Miami — P.J. WASHINGTON, Kentucky

Washington makes sense in Miami. He can compliment Bam Adebayo in the frontcourt, and he has the length and defensive ability to guard multiple positions. He’s continued to develop as a shooter and he is more athletic than he looks at first glance. His ceiling is limited, but I do think that he is the kind of player that will be a solid rotation piece for a decade in the NBA. Sam Vecenie of The Athletic called him the next Patrick Patterson, and I’m going to steal that comparison because I love it. Getting P-Patt at 13 is solid value in this draft.

14. Boston — NASSIR LITTLE, North Carolina

With the news that Al Horford is going to opt out of his contract, the Celtics will be in the market for bigs that can defend and space the floor. There are a number of them in this range — Mfiondu Kabengele, Goga Bitazde, Bol Bol, even someone like a Nic Claxton. But the Celtics also have picks at No. 20 and No. 22, and it’s likely that at least one of those four will still be on the board then. So I’m going with Little here, who is the kind of hard-nosed wing that Brad Stevens seems to love. He was a top three prospect in the class before an up-and-down season with North Carolina, but some of that was due to simply being a weird fit with Roy Williams’ system. He’s worth the risk.

15. Detroit — Tyler Herro, Kentucky

The Pistons have Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson. They need a wing, and there are plenty to choose from in this range — Romeo Langford, Keldon Johnson, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Kevin Porter Jr. For my money, Herro is the best of the group. He’s a big-time shooter with a developing off-the-dribble game, he’s wired to be a shot-maker and he’s tougher defensively than he gets credit for. I also think he has a higher ceiling than the rest of that group, save Porter.

16. Orlando — NICKEIL ALEXANDER-WALKER, Virginia Tech

The Magic need shooting, they need backcourt help and they need someone that can help take some of the playmaking load off of Markelle Fultz, as the former No. 1 pick looks to restart his career in Orlando. Alexander-Walker makes perfect sense, as he has the size and length to defend multiple positions, thrived in ball-screens under Buzz Williams this past season and has proven to me as adept as a spot-up shooter as he is as a creator.

17. Atlanta — MFIONDU KABENGELE, Florida State

If Atlanta ends up making a trade in this trade, there’s a real chance that the No. 17 pick is the one they move. At that point, all bets are off, so I’ll slot Kabengele in here, because I think that he is underrated in terms of his longterm potential, he is developed enough that he can play a role immediately and he fits with the teams that the Hawks would likely be trading with to move up in the draft — New Orleans and Cleveland.

If Atlanta ends up shipping off the No. 10 pick and Minnesota picks someone other than Clarke at No. 11, then I can see the Hawks ending up with Clarke here. He’d fit well alongside John Collins, he’d boost their defense and he would be a terrific lob target for Trae Young.

18. Indiana — ROMEO LANGFORD, Indiana

An Indiana schoolboy legend turned Hoosier that goes to play for the Pacers is just too good of a story, isn’t it? There are some very real reasons to be concerned about Langford’s upside — namely the poor perimeter shooting and the fact that he is right-hand dominant — but he spent the season playing through a thumb injury that required surgery. He’s a risk, but at No. 18, it’s a low-cost risk that could return value, both on the court and in ticket sales, if he maximizes his upside.

19. San Antonio — GOGA BITADZE, Georgia

The Spurs have some solid pieces on their perimeter, but with an again LaMarcus Aldridge anchoring their frontline, it’s time for a rebuild there. Enter Bitadze, who was impressively productive in the Euroleague and whose combination of shot-blocking and floor-spacing is intriguing.

20. Boston — BOL BOL, Oregon

I have my doubts about Bol’s future as a pro, but it’s not because I don’t see the potential there. He has a ton of red flags, as detailed in this scouting report, but he is also a 7-foot-2 center that is a lights-out three-point shooter and an elite rim-protector when he is engaged. This is also the kind of organization that will A) take a risk on a guy with red flags and B) has proven to be a place where players can develop. He needs their culture more than any other prospect in this draft.

21. Oklahoma City — Cam Johnson, North Carolina

Oklahoma City badly needs to add shooting, and Johnson may just be the best shooter in this draft. He’s a finished product, as he is already 23 years old, but he stands 6-foot-9 and can will immediately contribute to a team that needs all the floor-spacing they can get. This is also a pick that has been rumored to be on the market.

22. Boston — KEVIN PORTER JR., USC

Like Bol Bol, Porter is an extremely high-upside player that has myriad red flags. He missed six weeks with a mysterious thigh injury. He was suspended on a road trip due to what sources close to the program said was a long list of relatively small problems that kept building up. He’s immature, but that doesn’t mean that he is a bad person. With the right infrastructure and influence around him, he could thrive, and if that happens, his ceiling is as the best scorer in this draft. He is that talented.

I don’t expect Boston to end up with both Bol Bol and Porter, partly due to the fact that I can see the Celtics being active on the trade market, but both players would make perfect sense on that roster.

23. Memphis — KELDON JOHNSON, Kentucky

Johnson doesn’t have one elite skill, but there are plenty of things that he does well: He’s a willing defender if not an elite athlete. He’s a good-not-great shooter. He’s a capable straight-line driver. He’s tough. He’s versatile. He may not be the kind of a player with a super-high ceiling, but he has a floor because of how well-rounded he is. He’s good value this late in the draft.

24. Philadelphia — Ty Jerome, Virginia

I love Jerome’s toughness, shot-making ability and savvy in running ball-screens. He’s not a great athlete, but he makes up for it because of how smart he is, and it’s hard to imagine a guy that spent three years playing under Tony Bennett being a liability defensively. More importantly, he’s excellent at running off of screens and knocking down jumpers. He can be everything that Landry Shamet was for the 76ers before getting traded.

25. Portland — K.Z. Okpala, Stanford

Okpala plays a position of need for the Blazers, and while he struggled late in the season, he’s has the size, length and fluidity to project as an effective big wing down the road. Drafting him here means that you trust in his jumper, which fell off of a cliff in the last six weeks of the college hoops season.

26. Cleveland — NIC CLAXTON, Georgia

Claxton has quite a bit of upside, as he’s something of a late-bloomer that has been the biggest riser throughout the draft process. Outside of SEC nerds, I’m not sure how many people actually knew about this guy before February. He’s going to need to add some weight and continue to develop his perimeter ability, but his athleticism and versatility makes him easily projectable as a forward down the road, not just a center. Drafting Claxton is like chasing the next Pascal Siakam, and if he pans out, he could end up being the best value pick in this draft.

27. Brooklyn — Grant Williams, Tennessee

I love Grant Williams. He’s only 6-foot-6, but he has the strength and the length to guard up. He’s a very good rebounder and a super-smart passer that allowed Tennessee to run their offense through him. He’s also effective in the post and the kind of guy that is going to step up and make big plays in big moments. But I think the most important thing to note here is that his role needs context: He was not really allowed or encouraged to shoot at Tennessee, and I do believe he is going to be better in that area at the next level. I think you’re getting a 10-year pro with the potential to be a starter in the mid-to-late first round, and that is great value in my mind.

He’s precisely the kind of player that would be ideal to get into this Brooklyn organization.

28. Golden State — Dylan Windler, Belmont

I think Windler is super-interesting as a role player in the modern NBA. He can really, really shoot it, and while that’s more or less where his bread is going to be buttered, I do believe that he is better at doing the little things that he gets credit for. He can rebound, he can jump passing lanes, he makes the right reads. He was a superstar for Belmont in the OVC, but at his heart he’s built to be a complimentary. I can see him latching on for a number of years as a role player coming off the bench for a playoff team, and the Warriors have had a lot of success finding college guys that can fill a specific role for them in the late-first and second round.

29. San Antonio — LUKE SAMANIC, Serbia

For all the reasons that Bitadze makes sense in San Antonio, Samanic does as well.

30. Milwaukee — Eric Paschall, Villanova

Like many Villanova products before him, Paschall seems like he’ll fit seamlessly onto the roster of a playoff and contribute. He’s spent the last four years in a system that preaches positionless offense and switchability on defense, and with his size, athleticism and ability to knock down shots from the perimeter, he’s exactly what NBA teams are currently looking for. He’s almost 23 years old, so he’s more or less a finished product, but he’s good enough right now to play in an NBA rotation.

As expected, Khris Middleton to decline his $13 million option with Bucks

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Khris Middleton doesn’t want to leave Milwaukee, but the man does want to get paid.

Which has led to the expected: The All-Star forward is opting out of the $13 million his is owed next season and will negotiate a new contract with the Bucks, something first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Milwaukee Bucks All-Star forward Khris Middleton is declining his $13 million player option and will become an unrestricted free agent, his agent told ESPN on Wednesday…

Middleton and the Bucks are planning to work together toward a new long-term deal, league sources said. Middleton is expected to command a max contract with Milwaukee or elsewhere. He is eligible to sign a five-year, $190 million deal to stay with the Bucks, or a four-year, $141 million contract with another team.

Middleton is the Bucks’ top priority in a free-agent class that includes Malcolm Brogdon, Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic.

The Bucks want to keep the band together, they like the group they have around Giannis Antetokounmpo. Middleton was the second best player on a team that won 60 games and made it to the conference finals before falling to the eventual champion Raptors. This team is a contender and, while it will take them into the luxury tax, ownership wants to bring most of the roster back (Mirotic may be the odd man out).

Middleton averaged 18.3 points and 6 rebounds a game, shot 37.8 percent from three, and had a true shooting percentage of 55.8. He also plays good defense. He’s the ultimate glue guy who can do everything well, which is why a lot of teams will make calls and try to lure him out of Milwaukee this summer.

The Bucks are expected to offer the fifth year (Middleton will be 28 at the start of next season, so not a huge risk) and the max or very close to it. Middleton is expected to take it. But the Bucks need to move Tony Snell or Ersan Ilyasova to make all the pieces fit, something they are trying to do.

Milwaukee is close to a title, it will be interesting to see what moves GM Jon Horst makes this summer to try and put them over the top. Keeping Middleton is a no-brainer at the heart of that plan. The Bucks will pay up.

Utah get its point guard: Grizzlies reportedly trade Mike Conley Jr. to Jazz

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This deal had been rumored for a while, it’s something the Jazz really wanted to happen to put another high-level shot creator and shooter next to Donovan Mitchell. They got their man.

Mike Conley Jr. is going to be a member of the Utah Jazz.

Memphis reportedly is trading Conley to Utah for a package that includes Grayson Allen, Kyle Korver, Jae Crowder, the 23rd pick in Thursday’s Draft and a future first-round pick. Shams Charania of The Athletic broke the story, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN fleshed out the details.

Conley averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three and plays strong defense. Conley is maybe the most underrated player in the NBA, a borderline All-Star level point guard (he should have made it one year) and for Utah a healthy upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the point.

With the gate to winning the West having swung open, the Jazz believe they are ready to walk through it — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert, and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. Yet for two playoffs in a row, when Utah got bounced by Houston (4-1 in the first round this year), it was painfully clear what has kept the team from being truly elite: Another shot creator and shooter. Utah can run all the flex cuts, X cuts, Iverson cuts and everything else in its beautiful offense, but come the playoffs there is a point where a team just needs players who can just go get a bucket. Mitchell could do that, but the best teams can blanket one guy and take him away. The Jazz now have two, and a guy that fits the system.

It is expensive, however. Conley makes $32.5 million this season and has a player option he’s expected to pick up for next season at $34.5 million. This takes the Jazz out of the running in free agency. However, the Jazz have never faired all that well in free agency and this was a sure thing. Conley is expensive, but with only two years left on his contract a lot of teams (Indiana is at the front of that list) wanted to land him. Utah did.

The Grizzlies get building blocks for their rebuild with the picks and Grayson Allen. This is a team being built around Jaren Jackson Jr. and to-be-drafted Thursday Ja Morant, these other players will need to fit with them. The grit n’ grind era has been over for a while, this is just the final nail in the coffin. The Grizzlies face different challenges now.

Don’t be surprised to see Kover and Crowder are cut loose or traded to playoff teams looking for more help.

Report: Rockets want to target Jimmy Butler. Reality: Getting that cap space will be hard

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Rockets GM Daryl Morey is always thinking big. He deserves credit for that.

For the last couple of years, the Rockets have been the second best team in the West, and with the injuries (and maybe free agency) hitting the Warriors it should be Houston at the front of the line. However, Morey doesn’t want to stand pat, he wants to add another star to the roster that can put them over the top.

Such as Jimmy Butler, reports Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle.

Butler would be a good fit, although he would be another big ego in that locker room. Have fun with managing all that with a lame duck coach in Mike D’Antoni (he has yet to sign an extension to stay).

Reality, however, is going to make landing Butler tough to pull off.

The first challenge is Butler himself. Sources have told me the Sixers plan on keeping him and offering him a five-year max contract for $191 million. He’s expected to sign it. Butler will turn 30 before next season, plays a hard-charging style, and has started to rack up an injury history because of it. That guaranteed fifth season may matter a lot to him.

Next, even if Butler were willing to leave Philly and go to Houston (over, say, the Lakers, who have an interest and are trying to clear out cap space), there is still the issue of the salary cap. The Rockets are way over it. Chris Paul will make $38.5 million next season, James Harden $37.8 million, Clint Capela $16.4 and Eric Gordon $14.1. That’s $106.8 million in four players. The NBA salary cap is projected to be $109 million. Throw in P.J. Tucker and the 10 other players the need to have on the roster, cap holds and the like, and you can see the lack of cap space to sign a free agent.

Morey is reportedly willing to trade anyone on the roster not named Harden — although he and others in the organization have pushed back on the idea CP3 asked for a trade — but to do that to clear cap space means making the trade and not taking back salary that bleeds into the new season. Salaries have to be matched in a trade with teams over the cap, so the Rockets would need to convince a team with cap space to trade for Capela or Gordon and just send draft picks and non-guaranteed players back. That’s a really small market. If you’re thinking sign-and-trade, the new CBA took away the incentive of extra money for players that do it, so it just comes down to teams and the Sixers are not going to help him leave.

Expect the Rockets to make moves to shake up the roster this summer. Butler may be the ultimate dream, but getting there makes it nearly impossible to pull off.