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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.

Report: Rockets signing Thabo Sefolosha

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The Rockets’ minicamp has produced a signing – Thabo Sefolosha.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

This is surely for the minimum. It’s unclear how much is guaranteed.

Houston has just 10 players with guaranteed salaries, including Nene’s dud of a deal. So, there’s room for Sefolosha to make the regular-season roster.

Sefolosha should fit well in Houston. He’s a smart, versatile defender and can knock down corner 3s. James Harden and Russell Westbrook will allow Sefolosha to concentrate on his strengths in a limited role. The biggest question is how much the 35-year-old Sefolosha has left in the tank.

NBA to better define traveling rule, increase enforcement, explain rule to players, fans

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Gather and two steps.

That is how the NBA has defined the traveling rule for many years now. A player can take a step if he is in the process of “gathering” a dribble or pass, then has two steps. Players such as James Harden have stretched that to the limit, frustrating opponents and non-Rockets fans, but it’s legal.

Now the NBA is looking to better define that “gather” step, then crackdown on enforcement of the rule. With that will come an education program for everyone from players to fans. All of this was approved at the NBA’s Board of Governors’ meeting in New York on Friday.

“One of the most misunderstood rules in our game is how traveling is interpreted and appropriately called,” Byron Spruell, NBA President, League Operations, said in a statement. “Revising the language of certain areas of the rule is part of our three-pronged approach to address the uncertainty around traveling.  This approach also includes an enforcement plan to make traveling a point of emphasis for our officiating staff, along with an aggressive education plan to increase understanding of the rule by players, coaches, media and fans.”

That “aggressive education plan” should be interesting.

At the meeting, the owners also made gamblers everywhere happy by saying that starting lineups now need to be submitted by coaches 30 minutes prior to the start of the game. In past years that had been only 10 minutes (and road teams complained that was not evenly enforced between home and road teams all the time).

This is a good bit of transparency by the league, as have been some of the recent changes in requirements of announcing injuries. But make no mistake, this rule change is all about gambling.

Under new anti-tampering rules, Adam Silver empowered to suspend execs, take away picks, void contracts

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LeBron James publicly courted Anthony Davis. Many free agents seemingly struck deals before free agency even began. Kawhi Leonard‘s uncle/advisor reportedly sought prohibited extra benefits from teams.

The NBA finally reached its breaking point on tampering and circumvention.

After late apprehension, the league will enact stricter enforcement.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

I’m not surprised this passed unanimously. NBA commissioner Adam Silver wanted this to happen and wasn’t going to have owners vote unless he knew it’d pass. At that point, any protest-voting owners would just put themselves at odds with the commissioner. Not worth it.

We’ll see how long this crackdown lasts. I think that anonymous general manager represents many. If nobody is tampering, it’s fine not to tamper. But if some teams tamper, nobody wants to be at a disadvantage.

This could slowly creep back toward the old status quo. But if there’s a clear violator early, Silver will have an opportunity to send a message. We’ll see whether he takes it.

This should be less about which communication is or isn’t allowed. It’s about fairness.

That’s why it’s important the NBA has rules it will enforce and only rules it will enforce. That hasn’t been the case. If it is now, this will be a success.

Knicks’ offseason a giant flop

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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.

In the midst of agreeing to sign Julius Randle, Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington, Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock, the Knicks released a statement.

“While we understand that some Knicks fans could be disappointed with tonight’s news, we continue to be upbeat and confident in our plans to rebuild the Knicks to compete for championships in the future, through both the draft and targeted free agents,” Knicks president Steve Mills said.

This is as close as we’ll ever get to a team apologizing for its transactions in real time.

What an embarrassment.

Knicks owner James Dolan went on TV in March and strongly suggested top free agents would sign with the Knicks this summer. Everyone inferred Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

Instead, Durant and Irving signed with the crosstown Nets without even meeting with the Knicks. The Knicks pathetically put out word they didn’t offer Durant the max due to his injury (as if they would’ve balked had he actually wanted to come) and cancelled a meeting with Kawhi Leonard, who was never coming.

All New York’s planning – stretching Joakim Noah, trading Kristaps Porzingis to clear salary, hyping itself – went to waste on mediocre free agents.

At least the Knicks remain flexible. It’s just tough to see how they turn that flexibility into winning.

Dolan said no incumbent players will become the centerpiece. New York is already acknowledging how disappointing the newly signed free agents look.

That leaves a lot of pressure on No. 3 pick R.J. Barrett, himself a disapointment.

Despite an 86% chance of not getting the No. 1 pick, Knicks fans treated Zion Williamson as a near-inevitability. He was viewed as the rightful reward for a miserable 17-65 season.

This was the wrong lottery to slip. There’s a huge drop in prospect quality from Williamson to Ja Morant to Barrett. Barrett profiles as a leading player, and maybe he’ll be good enough to fill that role on a good team. But this draft was always going to leave the third-picking team with unreliable options.

Randle (three years, $56.7 million with $4 million of $19.8 million guaranteed in year three) was the big addition in free agency. He’ll put up numbers. He’s also only 24 and has shown improvement throughout his career. Maybe he’ll develop defensively and better contribute to winning. Still, it’ll take major modifications to their games for Randle and Barrett to flourish together long-term.

Not that this team represents much of whatever the Knicks are building toward.

Portis ($15 million), Gibson ($9 million), Ellington ($8 million), Payton ($8 million) and Bullock ($4 million) look like stopgaps. After those starting salaries, each has a barely/unguaranteed second season. They all look like trade chips, though most must exceed expectations on the court to hold more than neutral value. Ellington looks like the best deal.

Really, the short contract I like most is Marcus Morris‘ (one year, $15 million). New York signed him after Bullock failed his physical and agreed to a smaller contract. I don’t know why the Knicks prioritized so many other players over Morris, who committed to the Spurs before Bullock’s spine injury gave New York more cap space.

The Knicks could really use a young player like Porzingis now. He’d provide plenty of optimism amid their listless present.

Still, New York can still come out ahead in the Porzingis trade. He was an injury-prone player on the verge of getting a max contract. The Knicks got a couple extra first-rounders.

But clearing Tim Hardaway Jr.‘s an Courtney Lee‘s burdensome contracts was a key part of the trade. That aspect has now gone for naught.

New York is heading toward another lost season. A weak free agent class follows. It’ll take a while for the Knicks to build back up.

This summer – which the Knicks began with the best lottery position, massive cap space and a premier market – was a huge missed opportunity. Even getting past the New York noise and the misplaced expectations this franchise incites, that burns.

Offseason grade: D