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NBA Power Rankings after wildest summer in league history

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That. Was. Insane.

The NBA has never seen an offseason like this last one where so many elite players moved teams and shifted the balance of power around the league. While all the dust has not settled (Chris Paul, for example) we can now take a step back and put out our annual power rankings. The basic ranking criteria here is “chance to win an NBA title” which means a couple top teams from the East are ranked ahead of better teams in the West, just because their odds of getting through to the Finals are higher. Let’s go at it:

Clippers small icon 1. Clippers (Last Season 48-34). No team had a better summer than Steve Ballmer’s crew: They had stalked Kawhi Leonard for a year, and not only did he come he recruited Paul George to come with him. The Clippers should be lock-down defensively (Patrick Beverley will get more time at the point), has offensive versatility, and still brings Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell off the bench. In a deep West that makes them the team to beat.

Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (60-22). They re-signed Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez, their two biggest off-season priorities, but they could not keep Malcolm Brogdon, and that will sting. Wesley Matthews will have a lot asked of him to fill that role. Most importantly, they still have an improving Giannis Antetokounmpo. Having both Brook and Robin Lopez will make the Bucks entertaining off the court.

Sixers small icon 3. 76ers (51-31). They lost Jimmy Butler, the guy who was their end-of-game playmaker in the postseason, but adding the underrated Josh Richardson and glue guy Al Horford will help a lot to ease that blow. This should be an elite defensive team that will be right in the middle of it all in the East, but with one big question: Is Ben Simmons ready to be the team’s crunch time, halfcourt ball handler and shot creator?

Jazz small icon 4. Jazz (50-32). Utah had as good an offseason as anyone (except maybe the Clippers). They upgraded at point guard with Mike Conley, who gives them a second shot creator next to Donovan Mitchell. Then they poached Bogdan Bogdanovic out of Indiana, adding more shooting and a guy who can do a little shot creation himself to the mix. This is still one of the league’s best defenses built around Rudy Gobert, but now the Jazz can score a lot, too.

Lakers small icon 5. Lakers (37-45). In Anthony Davis, at his peak at age 26, LeBron James has the single-best teammate he has ever had, one that almost perfectly complements his game. In an NBA filled with powerful duos, the Lakers have the best one. The question becomes: is the rest of the roster good enough to win? The Lakers have talented but flawed players in Danny Green, DeMarcus Cousins, Kyle Kuzma, Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley and the rest. The Lakers may not be a great regular season team (four seed?) but watch out come the playoffs.

Rockets small icon 6. Rockets (53-29). Whatever you think of the fit, Russell Westbrook is a talent upgrade over Chris Paul at this point in their respective (and Hall of Fame) careers. James Harden is still there, as are Clint Capela, P.J. Tucker, and Eric Gordon (despite trade rumors). This was (for my money) the second best team in the West playoffs each of the last two years, they got a little bit better (if Harden and Westbrook can share the ball), and they remain a real threat to win the West.

Nuggets small icon 7. Nuggets (54-28). Denver poked around the free agent market, but in the end got the band back together, including bringing back Paul Millsap. The Nuggets were one of the youngest teams in the NBA last season and are counting on internal improvement from Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic, and company — plus the addition of Michael Porter Jr. to the rotation (not seeing Porter Jr. in Summer League due to an injury was a disappointment) — to take them to the next level. Denver remains an outstanding team, the question is will they have grown and learned enough to take the next step in the playoffs come spring?

Warriors small icon 8. Warriors (57-24). Write off Golden State at your own peril. They are not the juggernaut team of the past three years, Kevin Durant will rehab in Brooklyn and Klay Thompson is not expected back from his ACL tear until after the All-Star break (if he comes back next season at all). However, they still have Stephen Curry, they have Draymond Green in a contract year, and D’Angelo Russell is an All-Star added to the roster. The Warriors will take a step back in wins (less than 50 probably) but will be a dangerous playoff team.

Blazers small icon 9. Trail Blazers (53-29). There were no bold moves (don’t be shocked if they try to make another play for Kevin Love, but his price is high), but they landed Hassan Whiteside to play the five until Jusuf Nurkic returns from injury, and they made a nice wing signing with Kent Bazemore (plus bringing back Rodney Hood). Portland got marginally better this summer, but will that be enough to take the next step in a West filled with teams making big, bold moves?

Celtics small icon 10. Celtics (49-33). Kyrie Irving headed to Brooklyn, but replacing him with Kemba Walker means Boston didn’t lose a lot on the court (casual fans don’t get just how Walker carried the Hornets) and they get a better leader for their culture. Expect big step from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Losing Al Horford will sting more, they didn’t really replace him. Boston will be fun, they will score a lot of points but not stop much of anyone.

Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (48-34). Indiana paid big to steal Malcolm Brogdon out of Milwaukee, giving them another shot creator and someone on Victor Oladipo’s timeline. The Pacers made nice pickups at a good price in Jeremy Lamb and T.J. Warren, but this team is going to miss Bogdanovic a lot (he’s in Utah now). The Pacers need to keep their heads above water until Oladipo returns from injury (Christmas or a little after).

Raptors small icon 12. Raptors (58-24). They did everything right but could not compete with the lure of home for Leonard (and they won a title with that gamble), but now they are without their alpha. This is still a talented team with Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and others. When the trade deadline nears will the Raptors move some of those older players, all in the last year of their contracts, to jumpstart the rebuilding process?

Nets small icon 13. Nets (42-40). Brooklyn was one of the biggest winners in free agency landing Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. However, with Durant out likely most or all of next season (and not fully his old self yet if he does return), the Nets are not yet a threat to win the East. Irving, however, is an upgrade over D’Angelo Russell on the court. Irving struggled to lead a young, talented team in Boston, can he do better in Brooklyn with a team that made the playoffs with a gritty, team-focused style a year ago?

Spurs small icon 14. Spurs (48-34). No big moves this summer, although they picked up DeMarre Carroll on a nice contract. The biggest improvement will be getting Dejonte Murray back at point guard, an All-Defensive team level point guard (with rumors that his shot has come a long way). Paired with Derrick White that’s a strong defensive backcourt. Don’t forget, they still have DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge on the roster. The Spurs are going to be tough to play against every night and make the playoffs.

Mavericks small icon 15. Mavericks (33-49). Now we get to see what the Luka Doncic/Kristaps Porzingis pairing looks like — can this be one of the elite super duos in the West? Dallas is betting yes, but the rest of us need to see it work on the court before buying in. I like the Seth Curry and Delon Wright signings, Boban Marjanovic is always fun, and re-signing Maxi Kleber was smart. This team should be in the mix for a playoff spot in the West, but there is no margin for error.

16. Timberwolves (36-46). They struck out landing D’Angelo Russell or any other star on Karl-Anthony Towns’ timeline, but this team should be improved next season by not having Jimmy Butler torpedo them to start the season (then switching coaches midway through the campaign). Getting Robert Covington back from injury will help a lot, too, this was a much better defensive team with him out there. I expect more from this team than many others, but Andrew Wiggins remains the anchor on how high they can climb.

Kings small icon 17. Kings (39-43). Everyone’s favorite League Pass team from last season is not sneaking up on anyone this time around. They have a good new coach in Luke Walton and made a nice signing with Cory Joseph, and I like the Dewayne Dedmon signing more than most, but for Sacramento it’s going to be about internal improvement if they are going to end the longest playoff draught in the NBA (13 years and counting).

Pelicans small icon 18. Pelicans (33-49). This may be too low a ranking for a team with a lot of potential. New Orleans will be a League Pass favorite this season — Alvin Gentry will have them playing fast and that should benefit Zion Williamson (put it bubble wrap early at Summer League) and Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram can just get buckets, and Jrue Holiday is a good leader. This team could live up to that potential and be a playoff threat in the West. Either way, they will be must watch.

Heat small icon 19. Heat (39-43). They landed Jimmy Butler in an impressive sign-and-trade and then maxed him out, but he is surrounded by role players — Justise Winslow, Kelly Olynyk, Bam Adebayo, Goran Dragic — who have to step up big if this team is going to make a splash in the East. Tyler Herro showed promise at Summer League. The most interesting thing to watch with Miami is them chasing another star to go with Butler (is Chris Paul, with that contract, a good fit?).

Magic small icon 20. Magic (42-40). This may be too low a ranking, but it’s hard to get excited about this team. Orlando re-signed Nikola Vucevic, but didn’t address their other big need at point guard. The Magic remain a decent team stuck in the middle of the East. They do have Markelle Fultz on the roster, that was a good role of the dice, but team officials said they’re not sure he’ll be ready to start the season. Not a good sign.

Pistons small icon 21. Pistons (41-41). This is a nice team led by Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, but it’s hard to see their perimeter players taking them forward much. Reggie Jackson is who he is at this point, although I like the pickup of Derrick Rose behind him as a backup. Maybe Luke Kennard can take another step forward. This is a nice team, one that will battle for a playoff spot in the East, but little more.

Bulls small icon 22. Bulls (22-60, LW 27). Another team that may be too low in these rankings because they have a lot of interesting young players in Zach LaVine, Otto Porter, Wendell Carter Jr., and maybe their star in Lauri Markkanen. I like the Tomas Satoransky signing, he played well a couple seasons ago in Washington when John Wall was out. There is good talent on the roster, but who is the alpha who brings it all together?

Hawks small icon 23. Hawks (29-53). Atlanta is building a nice young team around Trae Young and John Collins, and we’ll see what De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish can add to that (the Hawks need a player on the wing and hope one of those two becomes that guy). I expect to see improvement, and for the Hawks to remain entertaining, but they may be a year or two and a player or two away from being the kind of threat they hope to become in the East.

Suns small icon 24. Suns (19-63). The Suns starting five is not bad: Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre, Dario Saric, Deandre Ayton. They also have Mikal Bridges on the wing, but things get thin fast for the Suns. I expect Rubio stabilizes their offense and makes them an improved team from a year ago, but there is a lot of roster building still be be done in the Valley of the Sun.

Wizards small icon 25. Wizards (32-50). It feels like the Wizards will be Bradley Beal against the world every night. This is a thin roster and John Wall is out for the season. We’ll see what guys like Rui Hachimura and Moritz Wagner can develop into for them, but it’s not moving the needle much now. The biggest storyline around the Wizards will be all the teams calling about a Bradley Beal trade, right now those calls are being shot down. Oh, and they may want to hire a formal GM for the season. Just saying’.

Knicks small icon 26. Knicks (17-65). It was a kick to the… er… punch to the guy summer for Knicks fans, who had high hopes going in of stars coming to be the franchises’ savior. The reality, the Knicks need to work to build up a base of talent, and an organizational culture, those stars want to be a part of. R.J. Barrett struggled in Summer League (15.4 points per game but on 34 percent shooting) but second-year guy Kevin Knox concerned me more when I watched him, 16.8 points per game but on just 40 percent shooting in games he should have dominated.

Grizzlies small icon 27. Grizzlies (33-49). The rebuilding is underway and the combination of Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. give them a good base. Brandon Clarke has shown some promise in Summer League, 14.6 points per game but shooting 57 percent. The team will trade (or waive) Andre Iguodala at some point, but no team is giving up a first-round pick for a 35-year-old role player making $17.2 million. Clippers and Rockets are considered the frontrunners.

Thunder small icon 28. Thunder (49-33). It’s hard not to feel for Thunder fans, one year ago they had watched Paul George decide to stay and thought they had him and Russell Westbrook for years, now it’s all gone. Sam Presti pivoted as well as anyone could and stockpiled picks that will help the coming rebuild, and this is one of the league’s great scouting teams, but it will take time. Chris Paul will get traded, and they likely will listen to offers for Steven Adams, but with two-years, $53 million on his contract the market will be thin.

Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (19-63). It was a disappointment not to see Darius Garland or Kevin Porter Jr. in Summer League, but both will get plenty of run come the season as the Cavaliers continue their rebuild. Right now the Cavaliers are keeping the price for a Kevin Love trade so high nobody is interested (top young players and multiple picks), but other teams are waiting for that to change as we get into the new season. Teams are calling about him.

Hornets small icon 30. Hornets (39-43). Without Kemba Walker the Hornets are starting a major rebuilding project, but they can’t even take on other team’s bad contracts for picks/young players until they get Nicolas Batum, Bismack Biyombo, Marvin Williams and the rest off their own books. I like the idea of giving Terry Rozier the ball and a chance at the point guard spot. Beyond that, watch a lot of college ball, Hornets fans, your team needs to start nailing the draft (not exactly a franchise strength over the years).

Blake Griffin inadvertently hits referee in face (video)

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Blake Griffin kept causing problems during the Pistons’ loss to the Bucks last night.

He and Giannis Antetokounmpo went face-to-face a couple times. At one point, Griffin bumped down and stepped over Antetokounmpo, prompting Khris Middleton to confront the Detroit star.

But Griffin saved his most devastating work for referee Scott Twardoski.

Griffin extended his arm and whacked Twardoski in the face, flooring the official. Play stopped for Twardoski to recover. The replay doesn’t do the contact justice. Twardoski was moving quickly up the floor when he ran straight into Griffin’s hand.

At least it wasn’t as bad as this legendary Carlos Boozer moment:

Out of game, shoeless LeBron James waves towel on court near play (video)

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LeBron James wasn’t about that NBA-rulebook life last night.

Not only did he get away with a comically blatant travel, he – ostensibly out of the game – later wandered onto the court during play. He got pretty close to the action, waving his towel in celebration of consecutive Kyle Kuzma blocks.

And LeBron was wearing only socks on his feet. He had already given his shoes away to young fans – with 4:20 left! Sure, the Lakers were up 19 on the Jazz, but that’s a lot of time remaining. What a kind and totally disrespectful gesture, a real do-it-all move.

Restless-late-in-a-blowout LeBron is the best LeBron.

Three Things to Know: Lakers make defensive statement in back-to-back road wins

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Lakers make a defensive statement in back-to-back road wins in Denver, Utah. After winning 10 games in a row against the softest part of their schedule, the calendar flipping to December was supposed to start a real test for the Lakers. No more playing hard for 24 minutes and getting a victory, no more sloppy quarters leading to a comeback win — the Dallas Mavericks made that clear on Sunday.

Los Angeles answered that with back-to-back road wins where their defense — led by Anthony Davis — shut down the Nuggets and Jazz. Through the two games, the Lakers allowed less than a point per possession (96.5 defensive net rating total), including holding Donovan Mitchell and Utah to 96 points (and a 97 net rating) on the second night of a back-to-back. The Jazz shot just 41 percent as a team for the game.

Mitchell, who has played at an All-Star level this season, scored 29 but on 11-of-24 shooting — the Laker defense made him work for his buckets. (Bojan Bogdanovic had another strong game for the Jazz with six threes, he has been the Utah summer signing that has worked out well.)

Los Angeles led struggling Utah by 18 at the half and cruised to a 121-96 win. In what looked like a scheduled loss before the season — the second night of a back-to-back at altitude against a good team — never felt in doubt as Davis had 26 points and LeBron James 20 and 12 assists.

The only drama was that LeBron got away with a blatant and hilarious travel and double dribble in the first quarter, one the officials somehow missed.

After the game LeBron owned it, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“It was the worst thing, probably one of the worst things I’ve ever done in my career,” James said after the game… “I didn’t realize I did it until halftime. One of my coaches showed me.”

Coming into the season there were questions about how good the Lakers’ defense was going to be, with coach Frank Vogel wanting to play two bigs and more of a drop-back style of defense. That’s the style Vogel used with success back in Indiana (with peak Roy Hibbert protecting the paint) and has become in vogue again in the NBA. That includes in Utah, where Rudy Gobert has won back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards because he owns the paint but also because of his length and mobility tp contest and cause problems out on the perimeter.

Davis has done exactly that for the Lakers this season.

It was most evident late in the game against Denver Tuesday. On one fourth quarter play big man Nikola Jokic tried to back down Davis, put on a move and score in the post and AD just stuff blocked him. A couple of possessions later, Davis got switched onto quick guard Jamal Murray on consecutive plays and forced him into a couple of bad shots that missed.

Stretches like that are the reason the Lakers’ have the fourth-ranked defense in the NBA this season — and it is their defense that has them looking like legit title contenders. Davis is at the heart of it, although both Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee have used their mobility to be surprisingly good defenders who can contest at the arc and get back to protect the rim.

Davis’ performance has the Lakers already campaigning for him to win Defensive Player of the Year (and some in the Lakers’ media core seem eager to promote that idea). We’re just a quarter of the way into the season, and this award is one that has to be earned over a much longer stretch of ground. There are no actual frontrunners yet, and players like Gobert, the Bucks’ Greek Freak, and Boston’s Marcus Smart — among others — will be in the middle of any conversation down the line.

But make no mistake, the Lakers defense and Davis are for real. They made a statement about that the past couple of nights — and showed why their defense could carry them to a parade in June.

2) Blake Griffin steps over Giannis Antetokounmpo and tempers flare. There wasn’t much drama in the game itself between the Bucks and Pistons on Wednesday — Milwaukee blew the doors off Detroit and never looked back.

Any drama came in the third quarter when Antetokounmpo tried to back down Griffin on the left block, Detroits Bruce Brown came over to double and fouled the Greek Freak, who fell to the floor. Then Griffin stepped over him.

Khris Middleton ran over to get in Griffin’s face about the disrespect and then… well, a lot of words were exchanged. Nothing else. The officials reviewed the play, and both Brown and Middleton ended up getting technical fouls.

That’s the most drama there was in Detroit Wednesday. Antetokounmpo scored 35 points and the Bucks won by 24, extending their win streak to 13.

3) Houston “leaning toward” protesting loss to Spurs over missed James Harden dunk call. That will fail, too. Let’s start with the obvious: The referees missed the call on James Harden’s fourth-quarter dunk against the Spurs Tuesday night. The basket should have counted, and after the game the officials admitted they missed the call.

The league’s response to this has been the same as when it says officials missed a call in the Last Two-Minute reports: be transparent about it but nothing changes. Missed calls are part of the game.

The Rockets are now leaning toward filing a protest of the game, according to multiple reports. We’ll see if they actually go through with it (this could be a lot of noise to make their star happy). If the Rockets do file a protest, it probably fails, too, but from the Rockets’ perspective it at least forces the league to rule on the issue.

First things first: The idea put forward that the league would step in and overturn the game outcome and just hand the Rockets a win was — to use the word of some around the league (not directly involved in the case) — “absurd.” The league would never do that. Let us never speak of that idiocy again.

The Rockets’ protest — if they actually file it — is a longshot. The bar is incredibly high. A successful protest requires proof of a  misapplication of a rule that seriously inhibited Houston’s chance to win a game. Meaning, just saying the crew got the call wrong is not enough. Houston’s protest would hinge on the idea that coach Mike D’Antoni wasn’t given a fair chance to protest the call because of how the referee crew handled the situation. The lead official said after the game D’Antoni didn’t call for a coach’s challenge within 30 seconds, as the rule demands, so there could be no challenge to the call.

The Rockets have a point here. We can be honest and say the referee crew should have handled this better.

However, remember the bar for a protest is the misapplication of a rule that seriously inhibited Houston’s chance to win a game. Back in 2008, the league ordered the Hawks and Heat to replay the final 51.9 seconds of a game because the scorer’s table incorrectly said Shaq had fouled out of the game and forced him to sit when in reality he had just five fouls. That scorers’ table error could have changed the end of a game. In the Rockets case, the referees missed a call but proving the referees misapplied the challenge rule and that’s why the Rockets lost (in a game with nearly 8 minutes left) is a tough sell.

We’ll see if Houston goes through and files this, or if all the bluster is just a PR move to keep an angry Harden happy and show they have his back.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scores 35, Bucks’ winning streak reaches 13 with rout of Pistons

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DETROIT (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 35 points to lift the Milwaukee Bucks to their 13th consecutive victory, 127-103 over the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday night.

The last time the Bucks had a longer winning streak than this was when they won 16 in a row spanning the end of the 1972-73 season and the beginning of 1973-74. They also had a 13-game run shortly after that 16-game streak ended.

Milwaukee had won its previous two games by 41 and 44 points, and the Pistons had won their previous two by 34 and 33. This one wasn’t close either. The Bucks have dominated Detroit of late.

Milwaukee won all eight matchups with the Pistons last season – four in the regular season and four in the first round of the playoffs. The Bucks also beat Detroit last month in their first meeting of 2019-20.

The Bucks went on a 13-2 run late in the second quarter to lead 57-39, and although Detroit closed within 11 at the half, the Pistons never made a major run during the final two quarters. Antetokounmpo scored 12 points in the third quarter, and Milwaukee led 92-72 after three.

Andre Drummond had 23 points and 14 rebounds for Detroit. That included a monster dunk over the Greek Freak.

Khris Middleton had 17 points for the Bucks.

There were six technical fouls in the game, and there were words exchanged during a couple mild altercations. The first involved Antetokounmpo and Detroit’s Blake Griffin after those two collided around midcourt in the second quarter.

In the third quarter, Antetokounmpo fell to the ground after being fouled, and then Griffin stepped over him. Middleton came over to confront Griffin. Three technicals were assessed after that.