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NBA Power Rankings: Toronto, Denver start fast, race to top

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It’s just a few games into the season, it’s too early to read too much into numbers or trends, but we’ve seen a few things that caught our eye — especially in Toronto and Denver. Lots of movement in the power rankings this week, as tends to happen in the early season before we get a real feel for teams.

Raptors small icon 1. Raptors (4-0, last week No. 4). Kawhi Leonard is averaging 25.7 points a game, shooting 46.7 percent from three, is dominating games — and is clearly still shaking off rust. It’s scary how good he is (and it’s great to have him back). Kyle Lowry is thriving with his new wing partner. The Raptors are playing faster this season and their offensive efficiency is already up more than four points per 100. Oh, and they beat the Celtics. The Raptors are legit, and with Leonard they are a playoff threat if everyone stays healthy.

Nuggets small icon 2. Nuggets (4-0, LW 8).. Denver is tied for the league’s best defense, one of only two teams allowing less than a point per possession this season (Boston)… that’s not going to last. Denver with the best defense is the ultimate example of small sample size. Still, if the Nuggets defense can be average this season then they may be home for the first round of the playoffs. The Will Barton injury (out at least six weeks) is a blow. Nikola Jokic is earning that new contract to start the season, including an 11-of-11 shooting triple-double already.

Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (3-1, LW 1). The good news, Damian Jones is doing a solid job as the starting center, and is playing within himself — 9.3 points per game on a ridiculous 85 percent shooting (small sample size, but still impressive). The bad news, Klay Thompson is now 3-of-22 from three this season. We know that’s not going to last, and pity the team the Warriors play when those flood gates open. Nobody on the Warriors can get as white hot for a quarter or half as Thompson.

Bucks small icon 4. Bucks (3-0, LW 10). The Bucks are playing four possessions a game faster than last season, their offense is 5.3 points per 100 better, the defense is 4.4 per 100 better, and last season they took less than 28 percent of their shots from three, this season it if 44.7 percent so far. Welcome to the Mike Budenholzer effect, and the Bucks are going to be much better for it. Fun test against the Sixers coming up.

Pelicans small icon 5. Pelicans (3-0, LW 12). Impressive opening night win blowing Houston out on the road, and they have kept that level of play up. The Pelicans have had the best offense in the NBA early (122.2 points per 100 possessions, although just through three games). Anthony Davis is a beast averaging 30.3 points and is hauling in 13 rebounds a night, with 3.3 blocks. Real test coming up against Utah, Rudy Gobert, and that defense.

Pistons small icon 6. Pistons (3-0, 19). Blake Griffin may be the hottest player in the NBA right now — 36.3 points per game (leading the league) on 53.3 percent shooting overall at 61.1 percent from three, plus gragging 11.3 boards a game and dishing out 5.7 assists a night. And he dropped 50 on the Sixers. The Pistons are using Griffin as a point forward for stretches, running pick-and-rolls as the ball handler. And it works. He has been nothing short of amazing.

Blazers small icon 7. Trail Blazers (2-1, LW 13). The “Free Nik Stauskas” crowd has to be happy — 14 points a game, and shooting 52.9 percent from three through three games. He has been a huge boost to the Trail Blazer bench. Portland has started the season with the kind of wins they need to make the playoffs (West foes Lakers and Spurs). Now the Blazers head as far as they can go to play a couple of games, Orlando and Miami, and it’s a chance for Portland to get off to a fast start.

Pacers small icon 8. Pacers (2-2, LW 11). That stinging loss to the Bucks should serve as a reminder of the level of the top teams in the East, and that the Pacers have work to do. The Pacers just aren’t in sync early, Victor Oladipo seems to be trying to do too much, and their team shot selection is less than ideal. That said, the 2-2 record does not do the Pacers justice, they are +5.8 per 100 possessions this season, keep that kind of pace up and they will win a lot of games.

Celtics small icon 9. Celtics (2-2, LW 2). The Celtics’ offense is stumbling to start the season, scoring less than a point per possession. Integrating Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward turns out to not be plug and play. One thing we know — Jayson Tatum has announced his presence with authority and has Celtics’ fans hyped. It’s too early to say how good he will ultimately be, but if you told me someday he’s a top 10 NBA player, I would believe you.

Spurs small icon 10. Spurs (2-1, LW 14). It’s a bit of small sample size theater, but it’s still strange: San Antonio has the worst defense in the NBA through three games, allowing 122 points per 100. Chalk a lot of that up to the Dejounte Murray ACL injury, they leaned on him on the perimeter. Those low numbers are not going to last, they will get better, but for now they are winning thanks to the second best offense in the league.

Sixers small icon 11. 76ers (2-2, LW 5). How long will the Markelle Fultz starting experiment go on? The Sixers starting five with Fultz has been a disaster on both ends (in very limited minutes, to be fair), but when J.J. Redick replaces Fultz that lineup becomes elite (it’s more than 60 points per 100 better). It’s about shooting, floor spacing, and experience. With Ben Simmons out against the Pistons and Fultz having the ball in his hands he looked more comfortable on offense, but Fultz was struggling defensively with the Pistons’ screens and for most of the fourth quarter and all of OT he was on the bench because of it.

Clippers small icon 12. Clippers (2-2, LW 17). That 2-2 record came against a brutal early schedule (and it doesn’t stop yet, the Rockets are up next). Rookie guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has shown a lot of promise, especially on offense, while veteran guards Patrick Beverley and Avery Bradley have been up and down on that end. My favorite dunk of the early season goes to Boban Marjanovic. who was holding on to the rim with his feet on the floor. It’s insane.

13. Timberwolves (2-2. LW 20). Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The Timberwolves don’t get Karl-Anthony Towns the ball enough on offense. Towns is too timid a soul to demand the rock like he should and the Minnesota offense — while the fifth most efficient in the NBA so far — does not run creative sets that get him the ball in space or against enough mismatches. Also once again, what is holding Minnesota back is a bottom-10 defense. Tom Thibodeau got louder boos in the home opener than Jimmy Butler, and the previous stats and figures in this note explain why that is deserved.

Jazz small icon 14. Jazz (1-2, LW 6). Utah’s dominant defense hadn’t been on lock-down to start the season, it’s been pretty pedestrian (welcome to the small sample size theater, one of those games was against the Warriors, which skews things). The loss to Memphis on Monday where the Jazz only scored 84 points was more troubling, if Donovan Mitchell can’t get it going there is no great secondary playmaker on this team, they have to get the offense out of the system. Utah has 5-of-6 games coming up on the road, starting in Houston.

Rockets small icon 15. Rockets (1-2, LW 3). The Rockets looked disinterested on opening night and got run out of their own building by the Pelicans. Watching them in person, you can see their defensive communication is not nearly as good as it was last season, when they were a top-10 defense, the Rockets are not sharp on rotations and switches right now. Lost in the fight with the Lakers (which has Chris Paul sitting out against Utah Wednesday), James Harden dominated after the altercation and got Houston the win.

Hornets small icon 16. Hornets (2-2, LW 21). Kemba Walker is on fire to start the season, averaging 33 points a game (second in the NBA) and in new coach James Borego’s system has been freed up to shoot 11.3 three pointers a game, hitting 46.7 percent of those so far. Those numbers will come down as defenses adjust, but there is a lot more freedom in the new system and it shows. The Hornets’ defense has impressed at times, if that gets more consistent the playoff dream will be within reach.

Grizzlies small icon 17. Grizzlies (2-1, LW 18). This ranking may seem low considering their record (which includes a win over the Jazz), but I’m not yet sold. Well, I’m sold on the defense, which has been top 10 so far. However, the offense hasn’t been good and the Grizzlies have been outscored overall through three games. The JaMychal Green injury hurts (out for weeks with a broken jaw) but there is a silver lining if it means more minutes for Jaren Jackson Jr.

Mavericks small icon 18. Mavericks (2-1, LW 22). Luka Doncic is leading the Mavericks averaging 18.3 points per game. He’s shown a good shooting touch, has been strong in transition, but is still learning to master the NBA-style pick-and-roll as the ball handler (Dallas is scoring 68 points per 100 possessions so far on those P&R plays). He will get better. Dallas is another team that has more wins than losses, but has been outscored this season. Doncic vs. Trae Young showdown Wednesday night.

Magic small icon 19. Magic (2-2, LW 28). Impressive wins over Miami opening night then holding Boston to just 90 points, and their defense has been solid this season. Their offense, however, is one of the slow starters in the league and is scoring less than a point per possession. Nikola Vucevic is averaging 18.8 points a game and had a triple-double — will that raise his trade value?

Wizards small icon 20. Wizards (1-2, LW 15). Washington started the season with two losses it should regret — both to teams on a back-to-back and missing rotation players. They miss Dwight Howard inside, the Heat grabbed the offensive rebound on 42.9 percent of their missed shots, which includes Kelly Olynyk’s putback game-winner. The overtime win in Portland kicks off five road games in a row (and 8-of-10).

Heat small icon 21. Heat (1-2, LW 16). Josh Richardson has taken on far more of a scoring load and is averaging 18.7 points per game, but it’s taking 17.7 shots a night to get there and has a woeful 48.4 true shooting percentage. The Heat’s three games have all been close and decided by a total of five points between the three. Their one win came because Kelly Olynyk has a thing for torturing Wizards’ fans.

Thunder small icon 22. Thunder (0-3, LW 7).. The first couple of losses without Russell Westbrook were not good, but at least there was an explanation. The home opener loss to a scrappy Kings team is harder to explain. Oklahoma City has the worst offense in the NBA to start the season, but again with Westbrook back that will change. However, their pedestrian defense is the bigger issue, they need a top-10 defense to help cover that predictable offense. They really miss Andre Roberson. Next up on the schedule it doesn’t get easier: Boston on Thursday.

Lakers small icon 23. Lakers (0-3, LW 9). Want to look at the bright side, Lakers’ fans? Gregg Popovich, on the Lakers early struggles: “They’re just going to get better and better. Luke (Walton) has done a great job with this group, still a very young group… and LeBron’s a great teacher, a great role model, and they’ll just get better and better and better. By that I mean mentally, as much as physically… The leadership of LeBron, he’ll demand a lot and he’ll help them all raise to another level for sure.“

Knicks small icon 24. Knicks (1-3, LW 27). Allonzo Trier is NBA Twitter’s new favorite Knick. He played with Deandre Ayton at Arizona, went undrafted but played his way onto the Knicks through a solid Summer League (17 points a game) and camp (14.2 average in preseason games, better than Kevin Knox). Then on opening night he dropped 15 points with some highlight reel plays. Keep an eye on this kid.

Kings small icon 25. Kings (1-3, LW 29). They have played better than their record indicates, they’ve been scrappy and looked like a solid team. De’Aaron Fox has looked improved, but the bigger standout has been “get me paid” Willie Cauley-Stein at center averaging 16.8 points a game on 63.8 percent shooting, plus grabbing 6.8 rebounds a night. The difference in Cauley-Stein’s game is he’s playing to his athletic strengths — no midranges, just get to the rim and finish, and use that athleticism to get putbacks, alley-oops, and easy buckets where you can.

Hawks small icon 26. Hawks (1-2, LW 30). Trae Young is going to be up-and-down this season, but the ups are eye-popping — 35 points and 11 assists against the Cavaliers on Sunday, for example (Young torched Collin Sexton in that game). The Hawks’ home opener in the heavily-renovated State Farm Arena Wednesday night should be a show — Future is performing at halftime. The Young/Doncic showdown Wednesday (even though they’re not matched up) will have people talking. And jumping to way-too-early conclusions.

Suns small icon 27. Suns (1-2, LW 25). It’s too early to draw solid conclusions about anything in the NBA, but right now the hiring of Igor Kokoskov as coach looks like a great get — the ball movement and creative offense have been impressive. It helped Devin Booker to 35 points on 18 shots in the opener. T.J. Warren has been a beneficiary, scoring 20 points a game and shooting 57.1 percent from three so far (on 4.7 attempts per game). The offense is still bottom 10, but that’s more about roster construction than coaching.

Nets small icon 28. Nets (LW 26). Two words sum up the Nets so far this season: Caris LeVert. He’s averaging 24.7 points a game, shooting 40 percent from three, and is having to do a lot of his shot creation himself with quality defenders (such as Victor Oladipo) on him. LaVert and Jarrett Allen look like they could be key parts of what Brooklyn is building. Saturday’s loss to the Pacers starts 4-of-5 on the road for the Nets, with the one home game being the Warriors.

Bulls small icon 29. Bulls (0-3, LW 24).. Zach LaVine has looked like an offensive force who deserves the contract that had everybody shaking their heads this summer. LaVine is averaging 32.3 points per game with a ridiculous 74 true shooting percentage. He does much of his scoring as the pick-and-roll ball handler (67.3% eFG% on those) but is killing it in isolation and transition as well. We’ll see if he can keep this up all season and make everyone eat their words about that contract.

Cavaliers small icon 30. Cavaliers (0-3, LW 23). Some people tried to sell that the Cavaliers defense would be better without LeBron James because he didn’t work hard on that end last season. Um, nope. Three games in the Cavaliers have the second worst defense in the NBA, and the numbers don’t do how ugly it is justice. Kevin Love is trying, averaging 20.7 points and 14.3 rebounds a game, but there is only so much he can do.

Damian Lillard says he plans to play for Team USA in 2020 Olympics

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Stephen Curry said he wants to play for Team USA in the 2020 Olympics.

He isn’t the only star point guard eager for Tokyo.

Damian Lillard, via James McKern of news.com.au:

“I plan on being a part of that. I plan on playing,” Lillard said

Though neither Curry nor Lillard played for Team USA in this year’s World Cup, there’s a potentially large difference: Curry never agreed to play. Lillard did then withdrew. USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo indicated particular scorn for players who decommitted.

Of course, Colangelo also wants to win. That might require swallowing his pride and accepting players who withdrew this year. He has talked tough in the past about players who didn’t show his desired devotion to USA Basketball. Lillard got cut in 2014 then missed the 2016 Olympics citing injury. It can be difficult to determine which absences Colangelo forgives.

One factor working against Lillard: The Americans’ point guard pool is deep. Curry rates higher. Kemba Walker earned respect by playing in the World Cup. James Harden (who also withdrew from the World Cup) and Kyrie Irving also factor.

I expect Colangelo to operate on a sliding scale: The better the player, the less prior commitment to USA Basketball necessary. Lillard is an excellent player. We’ll see how far that gets him.

And whether he’ll even want to play next year. The reasons for playing – pride of representing your country, prestige marketing opportunities – are more obvious now. The reasons not to play – injury, fatigue, personal commitments – are more likely to emerge closer to the Games.

Losing Kemba Walker would always sting. Hornets made it nearly as painful as possible

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Hornets faced a miserable choice this summer:

  • Lose not only their by far best player, but the greatest player in franchise and someone with a deep connection to the community
  • Sign a point guard to an expensive contract that will further inhibit an already-strapped team from competing at even a moderate level

Charlotte’s choice? Both.

The Hornets let Kemba Walker leave via free agency and replaced him with Terry Rozier (three years, $56.7 million). That’s a failure, not one of solely this offseason, but a failure nonetheless.

At 29, Walker would’ve likely become a negative value on a long-term deal. But at least he would’ve kept Charlotte more firmly in the Eastern Conference playoff race in the near term – not that on the fringes of that competition is a great place to be. There were reasonable arguments for and against keeping Walker.

But if the Hornets were willing to offer him only $160 million (about $62 million less than his super max), they should have traded him before it got this far. Why did they keep him past last season’s trade deadline? To have him represent Charlotte in the All-Star game there? To make a longshot run at the No. 8 seed? Without knowing exactly what other teams offered, that seems highly likely a mistake.

The Hornets weren’t good enough to make the playoffs with Walker. What makes them think they’ll be good enough with Rozier?

Losing Walker always would’ve invited a year of pain. Charlotte is too capped out, too veteran-laden to pivot in a meaningful way. But at least Bismack Biyombo‘s, Marvin Williams‘ and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist‘s contracts will expire next summer. Nicolas Batum‘s and Cody Zeller‘s will expire the following year.

Now, Rozier is on the books another year after that.

Maybe Rozier, 25, will become a key part of the Hornets’ next successful era. He has the requisite athleticism and has shown flashes of being a good starting point guard. But he’s coming off a down year. That counts, too.

It’s easy to pin Rozier’s struggles on a tough situation behind Kyrie Irving. That surely factored. Still, most players on a starting track would’ve fared better in those circumstances.

Credit Charlotte for creativity. By signing-and-trading Walker to the Celtics for a signed-and-traded Rozier, the Hornets got more spending power. But they probably would’ve been better off with a point guard in the mid-level-exception range like Tomas Satoransky, Delon Wright or Tyus Jones. It’ll take a major jump for Rozier to justify his near-$19 million-per-year salary.

Charlotte isn’t giving him much help. Jeremy Lamb left in free agency. Even though they have enough breathing room under the tax line to use the rest, the Hornets haven’t used their mid-level exception other than sliver for No. 36 pick Cody Martin.

Internal prospects look limited. Charlotte didn’t place anyone on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years. No. 12 pick P.J. Washington probably won’t change the franchise’s arc.

The Hornets didn’t reach this dismal point in one offseason. But this summer worsened the predicament.

Offseason grade: D-

Stephen Curry on playing in 2020 Tokyo Olympics: ‘That is the plan, for sure’

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It wasn’t just one thing that had the USA finishing seventh in the recent FIBA World Cup in China, but there was one overriding factor — the USA did not send it’s best players. That’s no knock on Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell, Jaylen Brown and others who sacrificed and certainly gave it their all for Team USA, but we see this every NBA playoffs and now in international ball — the level of play of the top 10 or so players in the world is just different, it  changes and wins games. It takes them to win an NBA title, and now that is true of the gold medal.

Expect some of those elite players to suit up for Team USA in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Stephen Curry is in the front of that line, he told Rachel Nichols of ESPN.

“That is the plan, for sure. You know, obviously knock on wood, you don’t want any injuries or things like that to interfere…

“Definitely wanna go. I’ve never been on the Olympic team. I’ve been on two World Cup championship gold-medal teams. But the Olympics is the experience that I want. And next year will hopefully be it.”

Draymond Green also has said he wants to suit up for the USA in Tokyo.

This was to be expected. As has been written about before here at NBC (and in numerous other publications), it was poor decisions by the international governing body FIBA — in their quixotic quest to have the basketball world cup rival the soccer version — that hurt the USA’s roster, as well as the rosters of other teams around the world.

FIBA moved this World Cup to 2019 — one year before the Olympics — instead of 2018, when it would have traditionally fallen. This shift kept a number of players away. To play for Team USA is a six-to-seven week summer commitment, during the offseason when players are trying to rest, get their bodies right, relax a little, and spend time with friends and family. Putting the World Cup and Olympics in back-to-back years (and FIBA would love to kill 5-on-5 at the Olympics, but that’s another discussion) had players choosing between the two events, and for Americans the Olympics are always going to win that fight. Also, FIBA scheduled this World Cup for early September, so it ran right up against the start of training camps around the globe, with little break for the players. That was another strike (the Olympics next year run late July to early August, and you can catch it all on NBC).

Expect a number of other elite players to want to head to Tokyo. While USA Basketball president Jerry Colangelo has talked tough about players who backed out this year, there is no chance he says no to an Anthony Davis/James Harden/Kawhi Leonard level player if they want to go. The USA wants gold and it needs its best players.

Such as Curry.

Wizards’ Isaiah Thomas out 6-8 weeks following thumb surgery

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With John Wall out likely for the season, the Washington Wizards are going to lean on Ish Smith and Isaiah Thomas to handle point guard duties (although Bradley Beal will have the ball in his hands a lot and do plenty of playmaking, too).

Now the Wizards will be without Thomas through training camp and into the start of the season after surgery Wednesday to repair a ligament in his thumb, the team announced. The injury happened during a regular workout Monday at the team facility.

“This was an unfortunate setback for Isaiah, but with his resolve and the top care he will receive from our medical team, we expect him to make a full recovery,” said Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard in a statement. “In the meantime, he will continue to mentor our young guards and have a positive impact on the team as we start training camp.”

After Smith and Thomas, the only point guard on the roster is undrafted rookie Justin Robinson (on a non-guaranteed contract).

This is a fluky, unfortunate injury for Thomas, who has battled through years of hip and other injuries and is looking forward to the chance to prove himself with the Wizards. Thomas went to Washington for the opportunity, and that will still be there, but missing camp is a setback.