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NBA Power Rankings: Of course Golden State ended on top, what did you expect?

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Golden State is still the team everyone has to beat to win a title, they are the heavy favorites to threepeat, so of course they end the season on top of the rankings. The Bucks are second, and then it gets interesting.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (57-24, Last Week No. 1). Golden State ends the regular season on top of these rankings, and that’s as it should be. We all know this is the team to beat if anyone else wants to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy this June. For all the ups-and-downs of the regular season, the Warriors end it with the best record in the West and relatively healthy heading into the playoffs (Stephen Curry’s ankle sprain Tuesday was minor). Those things are always the goals.

 
Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (60-21, LW 2). There are plenty of doubters, people questioning if these Bucks can carry their regular-season success over to the playoffs. Milwaukee does not deserve that level of skepticism — they have been to the playoffs before, Giannis Antetokounmpo will be his usual self, Khris Middleton was a beast against Boston a season ago, and this team has veterans who understand playoff pressure. That said, they need Malcolm Brogdon back for the second round, and even that may not be enough because Boston has been a matchup problem for Milwaukee.

 
Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (53-29, LW 4). Houston has finished its season, but depending upon what happens Wednesday could be anything from the 2 to 4 seed in the West. Denver played games (resting guys against Portland) to push Houston to the four seed and the Warriors side of the bracket, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Houston facing Golden State in the second round means James Harden isn’t as tired and Chris Paul is less likely to be injured (he has a history), that may be better for the Rockets than waiting until the conference finals.

 
Raptors small icon 4. Raptors (58-24, LW 3). While nobody was looking too closely, the Raptors have played some of their best basketball of the season in resent weeks — they are hitting the playoffs in stride. Marc Gasol has been a big boost — the Raptors are 11-4 when Gasol, Kawhi Leonard, and Kyle Lowry all suit up. When Gasol, Leonard, Lowry, and Pascal Siakam are on the court together, the Raptors have a net rating of 14.3.

 
Jazz small icon 5. Jazz (50-31, LW 7). Utah is locked into the five seed in the West, win-or-lose their final game on Wednesday against the Clippers. The Jazz likely are rooting for shorthanded Portland to stay the four seed (Utah’s goal is to get out of the first round again), but Houston could fall to four, and that would be a real matchup challenge for the Jazz. For fans, however, Donovan Mitchell vs. James Harden would be a very entertaining show.

 
Nuggets small icon 6. Nuggets (53-28, LW 5). Denver has to win its final game against Minnesota to secure the No. 2 seed. The Nuggets’ gambit — resting players against the Trail Blazers and losing to them last weekend — could pay off, if Portland wins Wednesday (and Denver does, too) then Portland is the three seed and Houston falls to fourth. That means the Nuggets avoid the matchup they least want in the second round. But whoever they face, Denver has a lot to prove in its first postseason with this core.

 
Blazers small icon 7. Trail Blazers (52-29, LW 8). If Portland can beat Sacramento on Wednesday they likely finish as the three seed (Denver has to win, too) and with 53 wins — the second straight year as the three seed and with four more wins. That’s an impressive accomplishment. This summer the Trail Blazers should pay Damian Lillard the supermax extension (he will make the All-NBA team and qualify) then decide how to approach the rest of the roster. But make Lillard a Blazer for life, he’s too good on and off the court for this franchise to do anything else.

 
Celtics small icon 8. Celtics (49-33, LW 10). Boston enters the playoff having won 6-of-8 and with things setting up well for them: A shorthanded Pacers team in the first round followed by a Bucks team they match up well with in the second round. Boston’s key is health. Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum have battled little injuries and need to get right before the postseason. The Celtics also need Gordon Hayward to play like a Sixth Man of the Year candidate.

 
Sixers small icon 9. 76ers (50-31, LW 6). No team has undergone a metamorphosis this season like the Sixers — trading away a lot of depth to acquire Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, going all in on a title this season. “The Process” seems like a distant memory. No team in the East has a starting five as talented as Philly, but will the lack of depth and questions about chemistry catch up with them in the second round? Conference Finals? Never. This is going to be a fun team to watch through the playoffs.

 
Thunder small icon 10. Thunder (48-33, LW 12). The team in the bottom half of the West that nobody in the top half wants to face in the first round. With a win against the Bucks (who have nothing to play for) Wednesday, the Thunder secure the six seed in the West. Oklahoma City has two All-NBA level stars in Paul George and Russell Westbrook, and a solid team defense, which makes teams nervous about playing them in the postseason. However, Westbrook has been inefficient and the Thunder role players have stumbled, if that continues it will be another short playoff run for OKC.

 
Spurs small icon 11. Spurs (47-34, LW 11). Gregg Popovich deserves some Coach of the Year love from voters this season, taking a team filled with guys you don’t know — and the ones you do know love the midrange shot a little too much — and turning them into a playoff team. Again. The man is a wizard. The Spurs can finish anywhere from the 6-8 seed by the time Wednesday night ends, but the fact they are in the playoffs is a win in and of itself.

 
Clippers small icon 12. Clippers (47-34, LW 9). The Clippers have stumbled, losing three in a row down the stretch, which puts them in danger of getting the Warriors in the first round (the Clippers can finish 7th or 8th, depending on what happens Wednesday night). Whatever happens, Doc Rivers is deservedly going to get a lot of Coach of the Year votes. This team entered the season with low expectations from pundits, traded their best player midway through the season (Tobias Harris, although Boban was close), and still made the playoffs. The Clippers are well positioned to land a star free agent next summer, now we’ll see if that plan comes together.

 
Pacers small icon 13. Pacers (47-34, LW 13). The third straight team in these rankings where the coach — in this case, Nate McMillan — deserves credit and should/will get Coach of the Year votes. This was a team heavy on guys who would be free agents, yet they bought in and played as a team. That’s a credit to McMillan. The Pacers hung on to the five seed in the playoffs and will face Boston in the first round, a team they can push but not likely beat without Victor Oladipo.

 
Magic small icon 14. Magic (41-40, LW 15). They will finish the season as at least a .500 team and as anywhere from the 6 to 8 seed in the East — that is a huge accomplishment for this franchise. The question for Orlando this summer is will they pay enough to keep All-Star Nikola Vucevic from bolting, because he will have options. My guess is that after they got a look at Mo Bamba for a season they will pay Vucevic to stay, figuring if/when Bamba is ready to take over the starting job someday they can trade Vucevic.

 
Nets small icon 15. Nets (41-40, LW 17). The Nets have been rebuilding — without high draft picks or big time free agents — for years now, and that they will turn that into a playoff appearance this season is impressive. The wins last weekend against the Pacers and Celtics speak to the scrappy play this team has shown all season. Now they enter the summer as big game hunters in free agency, although, like the rebuild, that may require patience as well. Brooklyn was not rebuilt in a day.

Pistons small icon 16. Pistons (40-41, LW 14). With Blake Griffin hobbled, the Piston have struggled to hold on to a playoff spot and now must win the final night of the regular season to ensure they get a ticket to the dance. If the Pistons make the playoffs, they aren’t much of a threat with Griffin slowed as he is. Detroit can finish as the 7,8, or 9 seed — win Wednesday and they are 7 or 8, lose and they are at the mercy of the next team on this list.

 
Hornets small icon 17. Hornets (39-42, LW 20). Kemba Walker will not let this team die. While he has stumbled some after the All-Star break, he has willed this team to still have a shot at the playoffs on the final day of the regular season. Kemba Walker loves Charlotte, but the man is going to have options from coast-to-coast next summer — literally from New York to Los Angeles — and he will be able to choose his city and working environment. The question is, what does Kemba really want?

 
Heat small icon 18. Heat (39-42, LW 16). Thank you, Dwyane Wade. Few if any players were as entertaining on the court, as professional, as gifted, and a joy to watch as Wade was. He got rings as the best player on the team and as the guy willing to make the sacrifices to win. He was a smart player and maybe the best shot blocking guard of all time. It’s not going to be the same watching Heat games or the NBA without him. It’s too bad his final season ended without one more trip to the playoffs.

 
Kings small icon 19. Kings (39-42, LW 18). Coaches and players hate the term “moral victory,” but that’s what this season was in Sacramento. The Kings could not sustain their fast start and eventually fell out of the playoffs, but this season the Kings found their identity in pace. The Kings found two guys who can be part of the foundation of what is being built — De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley — plus other players such as Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Harry Giles who could play roles on a good team. There is a lot to like, now the Kings just have to build on it. And not screw it up.

 
Lakers small icon 20. Lakers (37-45, LW 19). No team enters the offseason with more uncertainty than Los Angeles, Magic Johnson made sure of that. As big a shock as it was, Magic leaving can be good for the Lakers — he was not good at his job. It now falls on Jeanie Buss to be aggressive, use the draw of that Lakers’ brand, and go get an elite president of basketball operations. Poach him from another team, go with David Griffin, whatever, but the Lakers need a guy to set a direction and build a culture. Right now they are just a brand. And LeBron James.

 
21. Timberwolves (36-45, LW 21). Minnesota is going to keep Ryan Saunders as the coach, he had a connection with Karl-Anthony Towns and sparked the offense, that’s a good sign (although he needs a defensive-minded assistant). They are keeping Scott Layden as GM and hiring a new person to oversee all of this and set direction, a new head of basketball operations. With Towns they have a centerpiece, but in Wiggins they have an anchor of a contract (and there are some other bad ones on the books, too). There is work to do in Minny.

 
Wizards small icon 22. Wizards (32-50, LW 22). The Wizards need to find a new GM/president of basketball operations, then figure out the biggest question facing the franchise: Re-sign Bradley Beal to a max (or, if he makes an All-NBA team, supermax) contract that keeps him with the Wizards for six years, making him the franchise cornerstone; or trade him while at his peak and jumpstart a rebuilding/retooling. Don’t expect John Wall to play next season following his torn Achilles.

 
Mavericks small icon 23. Mavericks (33-48, LW 26). Dallas is well positioned: Luka Doncic faded a little as the season went on (rookies often do) but he showed the potential to be a franchise player, they landed Kristaps Porzingis via trade already (even with the cloud of charges hanging over him), and they have the cap space to add quality players to the roster this summer. Dirk Nowitzki is a legend who will be missed (but will still be around the franchise), but Dallas is prepared for the next chapter.

 
Grizzlies small icon 24. Grizzlies (32-49, LW 24). Memphis will finish with 32 or 33 wins this season — which is still 10 or 11 more than a year ago. That speaks more to the disaster of 2017-18, but these Grizzlies did play hard and found a future star in Jaren Jackson Jr. The big question this summer is if they will trade Mike Conley — they probably do — and what they can get in return. He’s an All-Star level player, but on a big contract.

 
Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (29-52, LW 23). No team near the bottom of the standings/top of the lottery should feel as good as the Hawks — they have two cornerstone pieces in Trae Young and John Collins. Add to that this draft, continue to develop guys and this is a franchise that is headed in the right direction.

Pelicans small icon 26. Pelicans (33-49, LW 25). Anthony Davis really worked hard to make sure he squandered all the good will he had built up in New Orleans, didn’t he? Own your clothing choices. What matters most in New Orleans now is who they bring in as the new GM/head of basketball operations. That’s the person who sets the direction, and with that what they want/will get back in the eventual Davis trade.

 
Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (22-59, LW 27). New coach Jim Boylen is hard driving, and that doesn’t sit well with every player, but John Paxson likes him and it feels like the Bulls are going to ride Boylen as coach into next season. It will be interesting to see what this young team can look like together if healthy to start a season, and with a little more experience.

 
Suns small icon 28. Suns (19-63, LW 28). The Suns have got their man, Jeff Bower is going to set the direction for the franchise. Will he bring back Igor Kokoskov as coach? They have an All-Star level player (almost, anyway) in Devin Booker and potential in Deandre Ayton, but they need a lot more talent and a lot more defense to make this all work going forward.

 
Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (19-63, LW 29). Collin Sexton came on as a scorer the second half of the season. Put him with a healthy Kevin Love — probably hard to trade him this summer — and whoever the Cavaliers draft and maybe they can be less bad next season. But this rebuild is going to be a process. A long one.

 
Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (18-64, LW 30). Are the Kevin Durant rumors — which are rampant around the league — true? The Knicks are quietly confident. If it does happen the Knicks are going to be fast-tracked to a turnaround next year whether they land the top pick and Zion Williamson or not. The question is who they can get around him. Also, if KD goes to the Knicks he is my preseason MVP pick for next season.

2019 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Is Jarrett Culver’s upside worth being a top five pick?

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

Today, we are looking at Jarrett Culver.

Previous draft profiles:

Jarrett Culver is the second member of Chris Beard’s first real recruiting class at Texas Tech to go from totally under-the-radar to a guaranteed first round pick.

It started last year with Zhaire Smith, a sensational athlete and developing shooter that found his way into Tech’s starting lineup before eventually finding his way into being the No. 16 pick in the first round of last year’s draft. Most expected that Culver, who averaged 11.2 points and just 1.8 assists while shooting 38.2 percent from three, to soak up the role that Smith played for the Red Raiders, but that isn’t what happened.

Instead, Culver became what Keenan Evans — the 2018 Big 12 Player of the Year turned two-way player for the Detroit Pistons — was for the Red Raiders. He didn’t just become a better scorer and a talented wing prospect, he became their point guard.

And that is where the intrigue lies for Culver when it comes to his potential at the next level.

He has the size you want out of an off-guard and, at 6-foot-7 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, is big enough to be able to guard small forwards in the NBA, but he doesn’t have the game of a typical 3-and-D player. As a sophomore, he averaged a team-high 3.7 assists for Texas Tech, but he wasn’t exactly what you would call a point guard. In fact, he was often essentially playing the four, with a trio of smaller guards on the floor around him. What Beard did was build an offense that was heavy with motion principles early in a possession, but as the shot clock wound down, the ball would end up in Culver’s hands, where he would be put into an isolation or a ball-screen action and allowed to create.

That is what he does best.

Shot creation.

Culver is excellent in triple-threat situations. His ability to shoot off the dribble consistently improved throughout his college career, and he’s generally at his best when he is allowed to get into a rhythm jumper off the bounce. He needs to quicken up his release in the NBA, but he has some wiggle room given the way that he gets his shot off. He’s not the most explosive athlete, but he can dunk on defenders when he gets a lane to the basket and his long strides and improving frame allowed him to be able to get to where he wanted to get to in the lane despite the fact that his first step is not all that quick.

But where Culver improved the most during the offseason was with his ability to operate ball-screens. He obsessively studied tape during the summer to learn the proper reads and proper passes to make when running a ball-screen, and the improvement showed. He forced teams to have to stop going under the screen against him because of his ability to step-back and make off-the-dribble threes. He can throw one-handed, live-dribble passes to shooters in either corner. He turned Tariq Owens into a serious threat on the offensive end of the floor with his ability to hit him on lobs while also knowing how to create the space and passing lane for a dump-off.

He’s grown into being a high-level, well-rounded offensive weapon, and there is quite a bit of value in a player that can be a secondary shot-creator without having to play as a point or off-guard.

Now, there are some limitations as well.

Culver has averaged more than four threes per game in his two-year career, and he’s shooting just 34.1 percent from beyond the arc. He’s better as an off-the-dribble shooter, which actually is not exactly ideal for a player that is going to be spending quite a few possessions playing off the ball. He’s added some muscle since last season — and a growth spurt in the last year makes it seem possible that his body is not done developing — but he is still pretty slender and is not great at dealing with physicality on either end of the floor. There are some real concerns offensively about how he will handle the athleticism NBA defenders have, and the 5-for-22 shooting performance he put together in the national title game against De'Andre Hunter doesn’t assuage those concerns.

There are also some question marks about his defense. Personally, I think he’ll be fine. He’s never going to be a total lockdown defender, but I don’t think that he will be a liability. He’s not going to be the guy opposing coaches target. He has spent the last two years playing within one of the best defensive systems in college basketball, but one that is built on exceptional game-planning and coaching as much as raw talent. So while it may have left Culver somewhat over-hyped on the defensive end, to me it is also proof that he can execute a game-plan and do a job on that end.

Put it all together, and what you have is a guy that can do a lot of things really well. You have a guy whose combination of skills should allow him to be a valuable piece in an NBA rotation. What you don’t have is a player that is likely to end up being an NBA superstar. These comparisons aren’t perfect — they never are — but I think he’s going to end up being somewhere between Caris LeVert pre-injury and Evan Turner.

He’s a safe-bet to be a rock-solid starter in the NBA, potentially as early as this season.

But I’m not sure just how much upside he has.

Rumor: Al Horford thinks 4-year, $100 million contract awaits him in free agency

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Things have already gone sideways for the Boston Celtics. Kyrie Irving is set to leave, reportedly for the Brooklyn Nets. Al Horford opted out of his contract with the team this week, and reports have it that the integral big man is looking to go elsewhere.

Horford had $30 million left on his contract at age 33, so there had to be some belief that he would get a job elsewhere for more money than the Celtics would be willing to pay. Now, according to a new report, that is exactly the case.

It was floated on Tuesday night that Horford already knew that somebody was looking to sign him to another long-term deal. New York Times writer Marc Stein tweeted as much late Tuesday night, saying that Horford and his camp believe there is a deal around $100 million waiting for him in free agency.

Via Twitter:

It is — and we can’t stress this enough — freaking June. It’s literally and figuratively too early for this.

We all laughed last season about the arbitrary deadlines of free agency creeping forward. Deals were already done well before it was permitted to actually sign free agents in July. But this… is getting ridiculous.

Horford is a leader, the glue that apparently kept the Celtics from breaking apart last season. Reports surfaced this week that Brad Stevens’ dedication to former Butler Bulldog Gordon Hayward was at least one reason for the team chemistry starting to unfurl.

Whichever team grabs Horford will be getting a player who still has much left to give, and who can help guide a team into the playoffs. Whether he’s heading to a contender or an overpaying bottom-feeder, we don’t yet know.

This league just keeps getting weirder and weirder.

Daryl Morey denies that Chris Paul requested trade in James Harden dispute

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Things are not all that great for the Houston Rockets. They were bounced in the second round by the Golden State Warriors, and Chris Paul and James Harden appear to be at each other’s throats.

There been reports that Paul and Harden have each issued ultimatums to team management asking the executive branch to instigate a trade. This of course essentially means that the Rockets need to look for a trade partner for Paul.

The problem is that Paul has a massive $125 million left on his deal. It was an insane sum when Paul signed it, but the thought was that even a declining CP3 would be able to help the Rockets as they went all-out expecting a Warriors decline.

But Rockets GM Daryl Morey has refuted the idea that either player has issued an ultimatum. Morey told Marc Stein of the New York Times as much, and reiterated this stance on ESPN radio on Tuesday.

Morey is a veteran general manager, and openly noting that a player has requested a trade cuts his leverage. It has been widely reported that Morey has been looking for trades for Paul and his gargantuan contract for some time, with no apparent taker as of yet.

Now is the time to jump on things in the West. The Warriors are weak, particularly with injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. Who knows what that roster will look like next season (and beyond)?

Houston has been the perennial contender against Golden State in the playoffs, but now they appear to be bursting apart at the seams. Morey is one of the best general managers in the NBA, and he has a history of taking big risks and turning wheat into gold. But until he can offload Paul’s contract, things will be tenuous in Texas.

Report: Brad Stevens’ dedication to Gordon Hayward caused chemistry issues with Celtics

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Things are not all well in Boston. The Celtics are already in a free fall when it comes to free agency, and it’s not yet July. Kyrie Irving and Al Horford are reportedly poised not to return to TD Garden next year. Now, a team that was aiming for the NBA Finals next year could be in serious trouble.

Things have quickly fallen apart for Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens, who are left with a team that also has an apparent enemy in one of the biggest agencies in Klutch Sports. Boston reportedly backed out of serious offers in trade negotiations with the New Orleans Pelicans in part because they felt as though Klutch client Anthony Davis would not re-sign after one year.

Basketball is a game of chemistry, and the Celtics seemed to lose theirs over the course of the year. At least externally, it appeared Boston was disintegrating. Now, according to a report from Jackie MacMullan, we have some confirmation of this rift.

Via NBC Sports Boston:

“You hate to pick on Gordon Hayward because he was coming back from injury and he was doing the best he could, but I really think that’s where it started,” she said. “They were force feeding him on his teammates, Brad [Stevens] knew Gordon well, he wanted to get his confidence back.

“I would contend that Brad Stevens would have done that for any player on that roster that had a catastrophic injury, he would want to fill him with that same confidence, but that’s not what happened,” MacMullan continued. “He gave the benefit of the doubt over and over to a player that wasn’t ready, to a guy who had history with him, and it rankled that locker room, and it bothered that locker room.”

The Celtics have a roster on paper that should have been good enough to get them deep into the playoffs. But Hayward returned and never really looked like himself, and Stevens devoting his faith to his former Butler Bulldog was obviously misplaced.

Chemistry issues for Boston we’re not all to blame on Stevens and Hayward. Irving is perennially mercurial. Given a situation where he got his own team (whatever that means) he didn’t lead the way folks were expecting.

Unless something drastic can be done — and don’t put it past Danny Ainge to get wild — Boston could be taking a step back next season.

Their saving grace, ironically, could be a fully healthy Hayward who has more reign to do what he wants and an unrestricted role on offense. We’ll see how that goes.