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NBA Power Rankings: Warriors still on top

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The NBA season is back, and with it, so are the NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings, which are put together each week throughout the season.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (Last season 58-24). If a team is the two-time defending champs and made four straight Finals appearances, they start on top. The only question is how motivated the Warriors are during the regular season — which may be less of an issue this time around, listening to the buzz around the team. Keeping Golden State healthy and not letting it build a bunch of bad habits while waiting for the games to really matter again has to be Steve Kerr’s focus. Don’t expect to see DeMarcus Cousins until after you’ve opened your Christmas presents.

Celtics small icon 2. Celtics (55-27). Don’t read too much into the preseason struggles — that was exactly what coach Brad Stevens needed to get this team’s attention and get them focused on the process. It turns out bringing two superstar players — Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward — back into the fold is not simply a matter of plug-and-play, it’s going to take some work. Plus, Hayward is not all the way back yet. Still, with all this depth, the Celtics should own the East.

Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (65-17). Carmelo Anthony has blended fairly smoothly in the preseason, accepting his role coming off the bench and as more as a shooter working off the ball, now we will see if that continues when opposing defenses start to care. A lot of lineup shuffling in the preseason, which leads to a question: Who will close games for Houston? Chris Paul and James Harden for sure, but after that which two of Anthony, P.J. Tucker, Eric Gordon, James Ennis, and Clint Capela will sit?

Raptors small icon 4. Raptors (59-23). Understandably a lot of the preseason focus has been on Kawhi Leonard, but there is another big question for this team (both early and for the full season): What kind of difference does new coach Nick Nurse make? He’s a rookie coach and he’s doing things like talking about changing the starting five based on opponent, but the hope was he would bring a less predictable offense (especially for the postseason). Nurse said he is going to be “fluid” with rotations — read: experimenting — for the start of the season, but this is a deep team that had the best bench in the NBA last season, and it could be better this year.

Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (52-30). Replacing J.J. Redick with Markelle Fultz in the starting lineup to start the season is an interesting tactic by Brett Brown (the Sixers starting lineup with Redick was +21 points per 100 possessions last season), but it should do one thing for sure: The Sixers’ defense should be better. And it was top five last season. The question becomes floor spacing on the other end: Ben Simmons is not a jump shooter, Joel Embiid can hit threes but needs to be around the basket, and Fultz doesn’t have the jumper of an NBA two-guard yet (he attempted just five shots from three in the preseason). Defenses will pack the paint on Philly. Also, teams that make the China trip in preseason tend to start slowly the next season.

Jazz small icon 6. Jazz (48-34). There are a lot of people on the Jazz bandwagon, some even suggesting they are better than the Rockets. What Utah has going for it is an elite defense (if Rudy Gobert can stay healthy) and continuity from the team that was so good the second half of last season. But after Donovan Mitchell, who is the other shot creator? Ricky Rubio can set guys up, but is he a secondary go-to guy? The Jazz bet big on Dante Exum this summer, he is a guy to watch.

Thunder small icon 7. Thunder (48-34).. Russell Westbrook is banged up to start the season (he had his knee scoped a month ago and will miss at least the opener), and Andre Roberson is out until December — that second part is a bigger blow than some fans realize. The injuries could lead to a slow start for the Thunder, which is dangerous in the very deep West. Can Terrance Ferguson step up on the wing and give them something?

Nuggets small icon 8. Nuggets (46-36).. Everyone is high on the Nikola Jokic/Jamal Murray/Gary Harris starting lineup, and with good reason, especially with Will Barton added to it. The Nuggets will have an elite offense. Two big questions loom for this team: Can their defense (bottom five last season) improve, even up to league average? And, with Isaiah Thomas out who will lead the bench unit? Can Trey Lyles step into that role and thrive?

Lakers small icon 9. Lakers (35-47). The Lakers are going to run this season (they likely will have one of the fastest paces in the league) and that combined with LeBron James distributing from the elbow should lead to an impressive offense, although the lack of true shooters could hold them back a little. The question is at the other end of the court, will the Lakers get enough stops to win? They were sloppy defensively in the preseason. Portland and Houston this week start off a brutal schedule to start the season.

Bucks small icon 10. Bucks (44-38 LW 18). This may be too low a ranking for a team I am high on. While we should take the preseason with a grain of salt, the Bucks looked like a modern offense under Mike Budenholzer, leaning on three pointers and getting to the rim, avoiding midrange jumpers — and they had an impressive offense because of it. Giannis Antetokounmpo was a flat out beast, showing more confidence in his jumper but also finding a lot more room to drive on a team with genuine floor spacing. We’ll see if it carries over, but the Bucks looked more like a threat to the 76ers/Raptors in the preseason.

Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (48-34). Preseason wasn’t kind to the new players who are expected to push this team forward, Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott, nor did the man with the new contract Myles Turner impress. We’re going to overlook all that for now, this is a team on the tier behind the big three in the East (some think they can push Philly/Toronto) and they should be a tough out every night. Interesting first week game Friday night in Milwaukee.

Pelicans small icon 12. Pelicans (48-34). I am high on this team coming into the season — I predicted Anthony Davis to win MVP — but the preseason defensive performance gave me pause. It’s just preseason, but Elfrid Payton is a turnstile (that’s not new) and they were getting torched in the paint to the tune of 65 points a game. We’ll see if that continues when the games matter, but a tough opener against Houston doesn’t help.

Blazers small icon 13. Trail Blazers (49-33). The entire NBA, and particularly the Blazers community, is mourning the passing of one of the best and classiest owners in the league in Paul Allen. Making the playoffs 23 times in 30 seasons, doing things the right way, he’s a model owner. The road forward will be interesting (the league would not allow this team to be moved, and the lease runs through 2025 anyway). The Trail Blazers open the season on national television Thursday night against LeBron James and the Lakers and can make a statement then.

Spurs small icon 14. Spurs (47-35). Injuries have decimated the guard rotation: Dejounte Murray out for the season with a torn ACL, his backup Derrick White tore his plantar fascia, and Lonnie Walker IV tore the meniscus in his right knee (the latter two are 6-8 weeks, maybe a little more. In a West with little margin for error, is that enough to keep the Spurs out of the playoffs for the first time since 1997? DeMar DeRozan is going to have to be the primary playmaker for this team now.

Wizards small icon 15. Wizards (43-39). Dwight Howard missed all of preseason (with an injured butt, insert your own joke here), but is now practicing with the team and could play in the opener, just in a more limited role. Once again we enter the season saying we like the Wizards players individually — John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter — but as a team how do they really take a step forward from good to great?

Heat small icon 16. Heat (44-38). The Jimmy Butler trade saga hangs over this team a little (nobody likes hearing their name in trade talks), but this is a solid team and it’s Dwyane Wade’s “One Last Dance” so its worth tuning in to watch him put on a show. Get wins against Orlando and Charlotte the first week of the season and it will be easier to tune out all the trade chatter (which has died down a little of late anyway).

Clippers small icon 17. Clippers (42-40). Their starting five has potential — Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley, Danilo Gallinari, Tobias Harris, and Marcin Gortat — if they can stay healthy. Off the bench is the Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, plus Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who impressed at Summer League and through the preseason. Healthy, this could be a playoff team, but the Clippers are littered with players prone to injury and not living up to their potential. Brutal first few weeks of the schedule for Los Angeles, including the Nuggets, Thunder, and Rockets this week.

Grizzlies small icon 18. Grizzlies (22-60). One of a few teams in the West (along with the Clippers and Mavericks) where I can envision a scenario where they make the playoffs, but everything has to go right for them. That means Marc Gasol and Mike Conley stay healthy, Jaren Jackson Jr. plays like a rookie of the year, and Chandler Parsons gives them something (he’s looked passable in the preseason). That’s a lot of “ifs” in a conference with no margin for error.

Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (39-43). They have been penciled in to the final playoff spot in the East by a lot of pundits (myself included) based on the potential of Blake Griffin, Reggie Jackson, and Andre Drummond together (especially with Dwane Casey as coach). It’s also a work in progress that didn’t look very smooth in the preseason. Depth questions also are out there for the Pistons. Still, if they can be solid defensively, they should make the postseason.

20. Timberwolves (47-35, LW 13). Is this too low a ranking, much of it based on the Jimmy Butler trade drama? Maybe. With Butler in the lineup last season the Timberwolves looked like a 3/4 seed kind of squad. On the flip side, chemistry matters in the NBA and good luck finding a team with a worse locker room right now. Also, Butler is going to get booed and it’s going to get ugly Friday night in Minnesota’s first home game (vs. Cleveland). Without Butler in the preseason the Timberwolves defense was a disaster, it’s just preseason but that’s not a good sign.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (36-46). What will new coach James Borego bring to the table? If was can read much into the preseason it’s more three point attempts (and less long twos) and better ball movement and tempo. Rookie Miles Bridges showed some preseason promise and could play his way into the starting lineup eventually. Relatively soft schedule the first month of the season, get off to a fast start and it will keep the “will they trade Kemba Walker?” questions at bay.

Mavericks small icon 22. Mavericks (24-58). Fun start to the season Wednesday: Rookie of the Year favorites Luka Doncic and Deandre Ayton face off (although the matchup to watch in that game is how Ayton handles the strength and athleticism of DeAndre Jordan). Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. started to show some chemistry in the preseason, but lets see what happens when the games matter and the defenses start to care.

Cavaliers small icon 23. Cavaliers (50-32). Kevin Love says he is ready to return to the role of a No. 1 option — and the Cavaliers are certainly paying him like one — but the game has evolved and Love has gotten older since he last time that burden fell on his shoulders. There is still potential on this roster in terms of good shooting, at least until Cavs management starts trading them for young players and picks. After opening in Toronto, pretty soft schedule to start the season.

Bulls small icon 24. Bulls (27-55).. No Lauri Markkanen to start the season (elbow, out at least a few weeks) but there is promise on this roster: Zach LaVine showed some athleticism and looked healthy and efficient in the preseason, and Wendell Carter Jr. continues to impress and is now the starting center for this team (although rough “welcome to the NBA” start in Game 1 against Joel Embiid). How will Jabari Parker look in a Sixth Man role?

Suns small icon 25. Suns (21-61). Firing GM Ryan McDonough nine days before the season started — after letting him make all the off-season moves for the team, including hiring the new coach — is a “the emperor has no clothes” moment for owner Robert Sarver. Deandre Ayton has put up numbers and impressed in the preseason, and Devin Booker will return from hand surgery and be ready for the opener. Jamal Crawford is not a point guard but may end up playing one anyway.

Nets small icon 26. Nets (28-54). Coach Kenny Atkinson has done in Brooklyn what the new coach across the bridge in Manhattan needs to do this season — develop a culture where the players go hard for him within the system. Now the question in Brooklyn is about the talent. How good is D’Angelo Russell really, is he worth a big new contract next summer (he’s a restricted free agent)? Where does Spencer Dinwiddie fit in that mix? Jarrett Allen is expected to make a leap at center, but will he. Where do Caris LeVert and Ronde Hollis-Jefferson fit in? Some potential there, but a lot of questions, too.

Knicks small icon 27. Knicks (29-53, LW 22). For new coach David Fizdale, this is a season about building the culture and getting players who will play his way and play hard. Rookie Kevin Knox needs to be part of that and will be thrown into the deep end to sink or swim for the Knicks. Frank Ntilikina has yet to impress me, but then again Emmanuel Mudiay does not look like the answer at the point guard spot either. Just my guess, we see Kristaps Porzingis return this season for the last dozen games or so, not to make a playoff push (the Knicks won’t be that good) but to hit the ground running for his summer work, and to show free agents he will be ready to go next season.

Magic small icon 28. Magic (25-57). As discussed on the PBT Podcast on teams to watch, I think Orlando will be an interesting team this season — not good, but worth watching. Specifically, when the big and athletic front line of Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, and rookie Mo Bamba are paired. Can those three play together and make it work (it pushes Gordon to the three when he is better as a four)? The Orlando defense should be pretty good this season, the question is where the points are going to come from?

Kings small icon 29. Kings (27-55). Harry Giles impressed in both Summer League and preseason and could be a sneaky candidate to make All-Rookie teams at the end of the season. Marvin Bagley III showed the potential to go get buckets during the preseason, and I like using Buddy Hield more as a floor-spacing three (at least on offense, nothing worked for the Kings on defense). Rough way to start the season: Jazz, Pelicans, Thunder.

Hawks small icon 30. Hawks (24-58). It’s going to be all Trae Young all the time in Atlanta as they let him be the man and take all the shots — and that worked for a game winner against the Spurs in the preseason. It’s also going to mean some growing pains when the real games begin. Rough to have John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon out to start the season with injuries.

Raptors bench play key reason Toronto on cusp of first trip to NBA Finals

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There are multiple reasons the Toronto Raptors have beaten the Milwaukee Bucks three times in a row and now are one win away from the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals.

Kawhi Leonard and his play — particularly his defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo — is a huge one. So is the Raptors incredible halfcourt defense, which has held the Bucks to an 84.3 net rating on halfcourt possessions in this series. When the Raptors have been able to slow the game down (which they have done very well the last two games, with possession totals in the mid-90s) they win.

Just don’t forget about the Raptors bench.

Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, and Norman Powell — the three guys coach Nick Nurse leans on in his regular rotations — have been critical for the Raptors, and if they are again on Saturday night in Toronto it will lift the franchise to a place it has never been before.

Toronto’s starters are -23 in this series. That fivesome — Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Leonard, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol — were -10 in Game 5, struggling against an impressive Milwaukee starting lineup.

In Game 5, it was the Raptors’ bench that led the comeback after the Bucks’ fast start. It has been that way all series. Lineups that have at least one of those core three Raptors bench guys on the floor are +30 this series. Lineups with all three of them on the court together are +12.

Different guys are stepping up each game. In Game 5 it was VanVleet’s turn. After a rough few games in this series, he got to Milwaukee late after being with his wife for the birth of their son, then proceeded to knock down 7-of-9 threes in Toronto’s come-from-behind win.

“He oozes the confidence that spreads to the other guys,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said of VanVleet. “Again, he just stepped into the shots that were there tonight, and he was probably due to get hot in these playoffs. It’s been probably a long time coming. Great game by him.”

Toronto’s bench — and Leonard — are key reasons that this team responded to adversity, going down 0-2 in the series and bouncing back. It’s the experience of having been there before, having dealt with the pressure before, learning about themselves because they have been tested like this in previous years. Leonard and Green have rings from San Antonio, Gasol has been to conference finals in Memphis, Lowry has been there through all the Raptors struggles in recent playoffs. On the bench, Ibaka has seen plenty, and these guys have not been fazed by the moment.

It’s the test the Bucks are facing now — this group had never been challenged like this. Their athleticism and Antetokounmpo’s MVP-level season propelled this team to the best record in the NBA, then they swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs with an 8-1 record. After that, they beat the Raptors the first two games of this series.

However, now they have lost three in a row for the first time all season and they are learning about their weaknesses. The Bucks entire offense is based around the idea that nobody can slow Antetokounmpo one-on-one, except that Leonard has done just that. The Greek Freak has shot 35.5 percent this series (11-of-31, via Second Spectrum data) when Leonard has been his primary defender. Antetokounmpo also hasn’t found shooters and those guys have not hit the passes he does make, particularly in the halfcourt. Toronto has controlled the tempo the past few games, and when Antetokounmpo isn’t getting easy buckets in transition the Milwaukee offense stumbles. Toronto also has taken care of the ball and hit shots, with Leonard getting to his spots on the floor, which has limited the Bucks transition chances.

The Bucks need to make adjustments — finding ways to get Antetokounmpo the ball with better matchups, not having him attack from the top of the key every time and giving him some picks to force switches — and they need another ball handler, such as Eric Bledsoe or George Hill, to have a monster game. Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon can and should do a little more shot creation.

And Milwaukee has to contain that Raptors bench and not get beat so badly when they are on the floor.

If not, the Bucks will be on vacation in Cabo next week while the Raptors are still playing.

Are Rockets trying to push Mike D’Antoni out the door?

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After a slow start to the season, by the end the Houston Rockets had found their groove and were the second best team in the West. That still wasn’t good enough to get by the Warriors dynasty. That has led to some soul searching in Houston.

And some changes to the assistant coaching staff. First came the news Jeff Bzdelik would not return in his defensive coordinator role. Then on Friday, Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle put out a series of Tweets talking about the other coaching changes coming.

Cho had been with the Rockets for a decade. Roland worked closely with James Harden, among others.

This is a near total overhaul of Mike D’Antoni’s staff, which has led to speculation the Rockets are trying to push their coach out the door, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times.

D’Antoni has done an excellent job — and adapted his style — to coach these Rockets into being contenders. He is part of the reason this franchise is a contender. The Rockets have fallen short the last two seasons not because of D’Antoni, but rather because of the Warriors. Golden State is an all-time dynasty level team, they are beating everybody.

This feels like the East in recent years when coaches lost jobs and teams were broken up because they could not get past LeBron James‘ teams when the issue was really LeBron is one of the game’s all-time greats.

There could be other dynamics at play in Houston, but the challenge there is not the coach. If Tilman Fertitta is frustrated his team fell short again, he should start by looking in the mirror at the cost-cutting moves his team made this season to get under the tax line. That put a ceiling on this team more than anything D’Antoni did.

NBA makes it official, moves up free agency six hours to 6 p.m. June 30 (Eastern)

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I’d like to think this means we’ll all be able to go to bed at a reasonable hour on June 30. I also know better.

There is a frenzy of activity right as free agency opens (Tampering? There is no tampering in the NBA…), which traditionally has been as the clock turns to July 1 in New York, right at midnight. Things got so active that a lot of agents and players made sure they were in Los Angeles, even if they didn’t live there in the offseason, just so things started at the more reasonable hour of 9 p.m.

Now the NBA has made the rumors official: Free agency will begin at 6 p.m. Eastern on June 30. Six hours earlier than before.

This was done as an agreement between the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association.

This is going to be a wild July with a lot of big-name free agents — Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler — and maybe a third of the players in the league on the market, plus there are a lot more teams with cap space to spend this season. It’s going to be a frenzy.

Now we know what time the wild times start.

Why does Kevin Durant respond on social media? “I’m qualified to talk about basketball”

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Every NBA player gets ripped on social media, even the guys who are not on social media. Most of the time players just ignore it, the way they ignore fans yelling stuff courtside or distant family asking them for money.

Kevin Durant, however, gets into it sometimes, even with national media members (and even had a burner account). Which always becomes a thing.

Why? Why not just ignore it? From Durant himself at practice Friday, via NBC Sports Bay Area.

“Because I have social media,” Durant said Friday… “I mean, I’m a human being with a social media account. I could see if I ventured off into like politics, culinary arts or music and gave my input, but I’m sticking to something that I know. You know what I’m saying? This is all I know. I’m actually talking about stuff that I know. I’m qualified to talk about basketball.

“So when I respond to something, especially if it’s about me personally, of course I’m going to tell you if you wrong about it. When I’m on the training table getting treatment on my calf and I see a tweet that come by and I disagree — I don’t talk to people because I’m worried about what they say, it’s just that I’m interested. So if you talking about in-game or the NBA Finals, they’re the same to me, you know what I’m saying?”

Durant seems to have more time on hands to get into these spats while he is out injured. Which likely will last into the start of the NBA Finals.

Does this mean the Drake/Durant beef is inevitable?