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NBA Power Rankings: Milwaukee starts the season on top, but can it finish there?

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The NBA season is finally here — and with that the NBC NBA power rankings are back. These will normally drop on Wednesday, but this week we are moving them up one week to celebrate the tip-off of the NBA season. The rankings reflect where I see teams today, heading into the season, not where I predict they will land come April and the start of the playoffs (I picked the Clippers to win it all, but they are shorthanded to start the season).

 
Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (60-22). Milwaukee had the best record in the NBA last season, they went 5-0 in the preseason with a stifling defense, and they still have Giannis Antetokounmpo. We can debate how much they will miss Malcolm Brogdon, but that may end up being more of a playoff concern than a regular season one. For most of the season they should be very high in these power rankings.

 
Nuggets small icon 2. Nuggets (54-28). Any questions about Denver are really about the postseason, not the first 82. The combination of continuity, the league’s best home court advantage, and the rest of the West trying to sort out new pieces, should give the Nuggets the top seed in the West this season. Don’t be shocked if they make a mid-season trade to bring in a veteran to help alleviate the concerns about shot creation and defense in the playoffs.

 
Sixers small icon 3. 76ers (51-31). Philadelphia is my pick to come out of the East and make the NBA Finals, but the start of this season will see them still trying to figure the offense out. Fortunately, an elite defense anchored by Joel Embiid — he can be in the mix for Defensive Player of the Year — will carry them to wins while we wait to see if Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris can step up and carry the late-game load. Look for a strong season from Josh Richardson, this is a great fit for him.

 
Jazz small icon 4. Jazz (50-32). This is my dark horse team that could pull an upset the Los Angeles squads and come out of the West. They have the defense, Donovan Mitchell will take a step forward, and the Mike Conley/Rudy Gobert pick-and-roll will be a force. Another team that could make a mid-season trade to bolster them for the playoffs, where Utah is a genuine threat.

 
Rockets small icon 5. Rockets (53-29). James Harden and Russell Westbrook are going to blend better on offense than people think, and the Rockets are set up to win a lot of regular season games. Come the playoffs there are serious defensive questions — I would not rank Houston above the two Los Angeles teams below them for postseason success. Look for Danuel House Jr. to have a strong season as an athlete who can run with Westbrook.

 
Lakers small icon 6. Lakers (37-45). No Kyle Kuzma to start the season as he recovers from a stress reaction in his left foot. Frank Vogel has talked about going with an old school style defense with a defender back protecting the paint. Are Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee up for that? That kind of defense also asks the forwards to cover a lot of ground, and the Lakers backcourt has some defensive questions. The Lakers’ defense (and health) will be what determines how far they go in the postseason.

 
Clippers small icon 7. Clippers (Last Season 48-34). While everyone from NBA GMs to humble NBA pundits (*raises hand*) are picking the Clippers to win their first NBA title, L.A. starts the season without Paul George, who is still recovering from shoulder surgery. Kawhi Leonard is not going to have a minutes restriction to start the season, but expect the Clippers to be team load management as the season wears on.

 
Celtics small icon 8. Celtics (49-33). Kemba Walker is going to provide a lot of what Kyrie Irving did on offense for Boston, and his “put my arm around them and walk together” leadership style should lead to a better locker room dynamic. The Celtics defense, however, especially without Al Horford, is something to monitor. Bet the over in Boston games.

 
Raptors small icon 9. Raptors (58-24). The defending champions get their rings and the banner goes up in Toronto Tuesday night — it was all worth it. Kawhi Leonard is now back home in L.A., but the team that remains in Toronto is pretty good — unless they start trading guys to jumpstart the rebuild. Signing Kyle Lowry to a one-year, $31 million extension didn’t make him any less tradable. Toronto, if it starts out strong, may stand pat, but if they stumble the equation changes.

 
Warriors small icon 10. Warriors (57-24). Yes, Stephen Curry is going to put up numbers that have him in the MVP race (and you want him on your fantasy team). Yes, they still have Draymond Green at the four. Maybe D’Angelo Russell fits well with Curry creating a strong backcourt. But Glenn Robinson III will start at the three and there are legitimate concerns about the Warriors’ defense. They are going to lose some shootouts.

 
Blazers small icon 11. Trail Blazers (53-29). Number crunching advanced analytics predictions are down on Portland again, some have them even missing the playoffs. That’s not going to happen with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in the backcourt. However, with Jusuf Nurkic out until the calendar flips to 2020, is Hassan Whiteside going to be the answer Portland needs in the paint in the deep West? Not sure a top four seed is in the cards in this conference.

 
Nets small icon 12. Nets (42-40). If Brooklyn is going to climb into the top four in the East this season (without Kevin Durant, don’t bet on his return this season) then it’s going to be less about Kyrie Irving and more about Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen having breakout seasons. Also keep an eye on Spencer Dinwiddie, he’s my preseason pick for Sixth Man of the Year.

 
Spurs small icon 13. Spurs (48-34). It’s tempting to pick against San Antonio making the playoffs and putting the fast-rising Mavericks or Kings in that slot, but after 22 straight playoff appearances are you really going to bet against Gregg Popovich and the Spurs? I’m not. They will defy league trends and have DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge shoot a lot from the midrange, but the Spurs also will not beat themselves. If Dejounte Murray is healthy and found a jump shot, watch out for a breakout season.

 
Mavericks small icon 14. Mavericks (33-49). Kristaps Porzingis was moving well and looking good in the preseason, and if that continues — and Luka Doncic takes a step forward with his conditioning and game — the Mavericks could be a playoff team this season. If they make it will come down to whether Delon Wright and Dwight Powell can step up in larger roles and provide support to those two stars — and Powell is out to start the season due to a hamstring strain.

 
Heat small icon 15. Heat (39-43). One of two teams (along with Portland) on the top of my list to make a win-now trade during the season. Look for the to try and flip the expiring Goran Dragic contract (and still good player) into a player that fits better next to Jimmy Butler. This is not a slow build situation in Miami, and you know Pat Riley is willing to be aggressive making moves.

 
Pacers small icon 16. Pacers (48-34). One of the hardest teams for me to pin down this season because of three questions: Can Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner work well next to each other on the front line? Is Malcolm Brogdon ready to handle being the No. 1 option and the guy scouting reports are focused on? When does Victor Oladipo return, and will he play at an All-NBA level again (and if so, how quickly)? I can see the Pacers ending up everywhere from a dangerous fifth seed nobody wants to face to being out of the playoffs entirely, depending upon how those questions are answered.

 
Kings small icon 17. Kings (39-43). It’s natural to think that after a 12-game improvement last season up to 39 wins, the rapid trajectory of De’Aaron Fox and Sacramento will continue into this season. However, I expect it to plateau a little, they will get better and be around .500, flirting with a playoff slot in the deep West, but the rise will not be as rapid as Kings fans or ownership hope. They are desperate to end a 13-year playoff drought.

 
18. Timberwolves (36-46). When Robert Covington was healthy and on the court for Minnesota last season, the team’s defense was 6.9 points per 100 possessions better than when he sat, and statistically it played at the level of a top five defense in the league. Covington, if he can stay healthy, will be critical to the Timberwolves making a playoff run. There are also a lot of other teams coveting him via trade, there will be rumors. It’s something to watch.

 
Magic small icon 19. Magic (42-40). This may be too low a ranking for a solid team that won 42 games last season, made the playoffs and brought the band back for another tour. All eyes are on Markelle Fultz, who in the preseason looked like a solid backup point guard for Orlando (a big step forward for him) but let’s see what happens when the trials and tribulations of the NBA regular season hits him.

Pistons small icon 20. Pistons (41-41). Another playoff team in the East from last season that may be too low on this list. Detroit is thinking playoffs or bust this season, don’t expect a mid-season sell off of Blake Griffin or anyone else unless things go very poorly the first half of the season. Kind of disappointed Joe Johnson didn’t make the final roster spot, but he looked old and a step slow in camp while Christian Wood played very well.

 
Pelicans small icon 21. Pelicans (33-49). No Zion Williamson for the first 20-30 games of the regular season is a setback — in the preseason he had taken advantage of the better spacing of the NBA game to put up 55 points on 71 percent shooting in a couple of games. This is still a good team without him — Brandon Ingram has a lot to prove this season, something to watch — but not nearly as high on the must-watch list.

 
Bulls small icon 22. Bulls (22-60, LW 27). The Bulls could outperform teams such as the Pistons (and maybe the Magic or Pacers, if Indiana fall off) and sneak into the playoffs. I loved the Tomas Satoransky pick up this summer and he has played his way into the starting point guard job, I think he could have a breakout season now that he’s out of Washington.

 
Thunder small icon 23. Thunder (49-33). This may be too low for Oklahoma City, at least to start the season. They have a motivated Chris Paul (he will want to put up numbers and be revitalized to boost his trade value), they have a rock-solid center in Steven Adams, Danilo Gallinari can get buckets, and I love the play of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. A number of those vets could be traded over the course of the season — OKC is rebuilding — but to start the season this is a pretty good roster.

 
Hawks small icon 24. Hawks (29-53). Talk to executives/scouts around the league about Atlanta and you hear a lot of “they are one year away” and an expectation they will plateau a little after last season (improving by only a handful of games). The leap is coming with this roster, especially Trae Young and John Collins, but this team shapes up to be terrible defensively and that will hold them back this season.

 
Suns small icon 25. Suns (19-63). How much does having a competent point guard in Ricky Rubio help players such as Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, and Mikal Bridges get better, cleaner looks at the rim? Probably a lot. This is a team poised to make a leap and be much better than a year before, but the playoff dreams around this team are overstated. Improve by 15 games and they are still at 34 wins, which is not near enough in the West.

 
Wizards small icon 26. Wizards (32-50). Bradley Beal took the money and signed a contract extension, but with the player option it only really adds one season to his deal. What that means is Beal is off the market at this trade deadline (disappointing Denver) but is back on next summer in basically the same situation he was last summer. Between now and then Beal should put up big numbers on an otherwise struggling team.

 
Knicks small icon 27. Knicks (17-65). I know there’s a segment of Knicks fans who see a playoff team in this roster, I just do not. Frank Ntilikina looked good in FIBA and better than expected this preseason, RJ Barrett will get his chances, and we know the combo of Dennis Smith Jr. and Julius Randle will put up points, but unless Mitchell Robinson and others have some surprise breakout seasons this is an improved but still not terribly good team.

 
Grizzlies small icon 28. Grizzlies (33-49). With Zion Williamson out for a couple of months, it opens up the race for Rookie of the Year and Ja Morant could take charge of that race. He will have the ball in his hands and the opportunity. With Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and some other young players the Grizzlies are going to be entertaining, just young and not ready to win in the West.

 
Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (19-63). Eventually the focus around the Cavaliers will flip to Kevin Love trade rumors (they are coming, and Portland will be in the middle of them), but in the short term the meshing of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland in the backcourt will be something to watch. Sexton is poised to take a big step forward and be more of a leader in this team, we’ll see if he’s up to that task.

 
Hornets small icon 30. Hornets (39-43). GM Mitch Kupchak says that Charlotte will be rebuilt through the draft. Good idea… but they need to draft better (and get some higher picks). Here are their first-round picks for the past several years: P.J. Washington (2019), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2018, who was traded for Miles Bridges, a guy who needs to step forward this season), Malik Monk (2017), Malachi Richardson (2016, who was traded for Marco Belinelli), Frank Kaminsky (2015), and Noah Vonleh (2014).

Ben Simmons hits antother three, scores 34 points to lead 76ers past Cavaliers

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Ben Simmons hit another 3-pointer, and his coach wants him to keep on firing.

Simmons hit his second career 3 and scored a career-high 34 points, and the Philadelphia 76ers didn’t need Joel Embiid‘s help to rout the Cleveland Cavaliers 141-94 Saturday night.

Simmons made 12 of 14 field goals, including his only 3-point attempt, and hit 9 of 12 free throws in 26 minutes to help Philadelphia improve to 11-0 at home.

“I was locked in,” Simmons said.

Simmons’ jump shot – or lack thereof – has been a hot topic in Philadelphia. He entered the season 0 for 17 from long range.

Coach Brett Brown has repeatedly said shooting is a part of Simmons’ game that will develop with time. After Saturday’s performance, Brown publicly upped the ante and called for more from his All-Star point guard.

“This is what I want,” Brown said. “I want a 3-point shot per game, minimum. … He will be liberated. His world will open up and, in many ways, so will ours.”

Embiid sat out with a left hip contusion.

Darius Garland had 17 points for the Cavaliers, who have lost six in a row and 12 of 13.

“They were going downhill on us all day long,” Cavaliers coach John Beilein said.

Philadelphia has been projected to be an NBA title contender, but the 76ers haven’t been able to consistently field its starting five of Simmons, Embiid, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris and Al Horford. They have only started nine games together due to injuries and Embiid’s two-game suspension for fighting Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns.

The 76ers needed little more than Simmons in a dominant first half that ended with them ahead 77-36.

Simmons attacked the basket often and showed off a rarely seen mid-range game when he drained an 11-foot jumper with 6:04 left in the second quarter. That had 76ers fans cheering, but it was just an appetizer for Simmons.

With 3:41 left in the half, Simmons took a cross-court pass from Trey Burke and knocked down a 3 from the left wing. That send the sold-out crowd into a frenzy, and the roars continued when Simmons finished an alley-oop dunk from Burke on Philadelphia’s ensuing possession.

Simmons received a standing ovation at the next stoppage.

“I’m getting more comfortable learning my spots and just adjusting,” Simmons said. “I’m trying not to force it, trying to play the game I know how to play. Hard work pays off. Stay in the gym and keep working.”

Simmons finished the tremendous four-possession sequence with assists on Philadelphia’s next two trips, first to Horford for a 3-pointer and then to James Ennis III for a jumper.

Finally, Simmons ended the first half scoring with a 9-foot jumper for a 41-point lead entering the break.

 

Another day, another impressive Luka Doncic game: 28 points in 26 minutes (VIDEO)

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DALLAS (AP) — With Kristaps Porzingis joining Luka Doncic in the Dallas lineup this season, the Mavericks expected to be better. But Boban Marjanovic?

Doncic scored 28 points in 26 minutes, Porzingis had 13 points and the 1,500th rebound of his career and Marjanovic had season highs of 15 points and 16 rebounds to help Dallas rout the New Orleans Pelicans 130-84 on Saturday.

Doncic also had nine assists and six rebounds.

Dallas led 64-52 at halftime. Doncic already had 20 points, and Marjanovic scored 11 points, nine in the second quarter.

“(Marjanovic) did a great job,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “The group in the second quarter really did a good job of giving us a 10-point lead. He was a big part of it, getting it to him with a smaller guy on him. He was doing a lot of damage.”

The Pelicans didn’t get within 10 points in the second half.

“The rest of the game was just a formality,” Porzingis said.

Last season, Doncic was the NBA’s rookie of the year and Porzingis was injured and didn’t play after being acquired in a trade with the New York Knicks.

Marjanovic, a 7-foot-4 Serbian, played for two teams before taking a 50% pay cut to sign with Dallas as a free agent. He was a force against the undersized Pelicans.

“When they elected to use (Jahlil) Okafor, that was an opportunity for us to use Boban,” Carlisle said. “It’s hard to use him against guys like (Jaxson) Hayes because of the quickness and shooting.”

Porzingis and his teammates were happy for Marjanovic.

“Can’t stop Bobie,” Porzingis said. “He played great on the boards. He’s so big, so strong. Once he gets the ball in the paint, they can’t do much out there.”

Marjanovic energized the crowd and his teammates.

“When you hear (the crowd) cheering for you, basically you warm up your body so fast. Blood keep going through the body, and you’re not too tight anymore.”

The 46-point margin was two shy of Dallas’ season high against Golden State.

Dallas has won five in a row to improve to 18-8. The Mavericks have won 10 of 11 for the first time since winning their only NBA championship in 2010-11.

New Orleans has lost eight in a row.

“A poorly played game, a poorly coached game,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said.

Doncic, Porzingis and the other starters didn’t play in the fourth quarter after the Mavericks ran up a 38-point lead at 104-66.

Tim Hardaway Jr. scored 14 points.

Off the bench, Jalen Brunson scored 14 on 6-for-6 shooting and Seth Curry had 11.

J.J. Redick led New Orleans with 15 points. Brandon Ingram and Jrue Holiday scored 14 each and Hayes had 11.

Seven names popping up as the next coach of the New York Knicks

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David Fizdale is out. Mike Miller is in, temporarily (unless he can work miracles with this roster over 60 games).

The big question now: Who will coach the Knicks next season?

The answer to that question starts with the answer to a different question: Who is the team president of the Knicks next season? Current head honcho Steve Mills is on the hot seat. Does he hold on to his job and get to pick the new coach? If Mills is let go, whoever becomes the new POBO should be allowed to hire his own coach. (Letting Mills hire a coach then forcing that hire on a new president would be a mistake, but not outside the realm of possibility.)

Just because we don’t know who will be making the choice has not slowed the speculation about who is next. Here are seven names being bounced around the league (just know this is far from a complete list):

Mark Jackson: This is a trip down memory lane for the franchise, one that would be a hit with casual fans and certainly would be a marketing success. Jackson’s backers talk about how he built the foundation of the Warriors (and Steve Kerr long credited Jackson for making the peak Warriors a defensive team). However, he was fired in Golden State for good reasons: His offense was old school and heavy on isolation, he was challenging to work with for the front office (Jackson created an “us” vs. “them” mentality in the locker room where them included the front office), he clashed with assistant coaches and asked them to do a lot (he refused to let Mike Malone be an associate head coach), he has a history of distracting personal life dramas (do that in New York and the headlines are much bigger), and the list goes on. There were enough red flags in Golden State that he hasn’t gotten a job since, do the Knicks want to break that trend?

Jeff Van Gundy: Another blast from the past — he was the last coach to get the Knicks to the Finals — and he whet his coaching chops again coaching Team USA’s G-League squads that qualified USA Basketball for the World Cup. He has coached under James Dolan before, he knows what he is getting into. Does he want to leave that cushy ESPN job to be in Madison Square Garden again? Is he a coach for the modern game?

Jason Kidd: Notice how there are a lot of former Knicks on the top of this list? Here’s another. He is currently on the Lakers’ bench, and if the Knicks goal is to once again get a coach respected by players they think can help recruit superstars to Madison Square Garden, Kidd becomes a viable option. Giannis Antetokounmpo credits Kidd for understanding how to be a pro. The knock against him? The performance of his teams in Milwaukee and Brooklyn on the court. He was let go in those places for good reasons.

Tyrone Lue: Another coach whose name comes up for every job, and he has a ring from Cleveland with LeBron James (where he was LeBron’s hand-picked guy). He’s well respected by players around the league and, unlike his reputation among some fans, was a solid tactician. However, when LeBron left and the Cleveland job became a development project, Lue was gone fast — and the Knicks are a development job. Lue is currently sitting next to Doc Rivers on the Clippers’ bench.

Darvin Ham: If the Mills/Perry front office remains, this becomes a name to watch closely. Ham has a championship ring from his playing days (the 2004 Pistons), Perry worked for the Pistons’ front office during that time, and the two have remained friends. Ham has been working at the right hand of Mike Budenholzer in Milwaukee (insert your “we can lure Antetokounmpo” conspiracy theory here) and has been one of the assistant coaches at the front of the line for a head coaching job, having been inconsideration in Cleveland, Minnesota, and Atlanta.

Ettore Messina: If James Dolan can lure Masai Ujiri away from Toronto (a very big if), then Messina becomes more likely. After years on the bench next to Gregg Popovich learning the NBA game, Messina decided to head back to Europe and is the head coach of Olimpia Milano in Italy. Messina is very well respected in coaching circles and it wouldn’t be a shock if he got a call.

Becky Hammon: Her name comes up a lot for this job around the league. The six-year Spurs assistant (and the woman most likely right now to get a head coaching job in the NBA) has New York ties as she played for the Liberty in the WNBA. San Antonio has been a factory of head coaches and Hammon has had several interviews with other teams. She would be the first woman to coach in the NBA, and that headline and marketing potential may appeal to the Knicks (if they decide to go with a first-time coach).

Other names to watch: Kenny Smith, Craig Robinson, Sam Mitchell, Mike Brown, and Nate Tibbetts.

Lauren Holtkamp-Sterling becomes first mother to officiate an NBA game

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CHICAGO (AP) — Referee Lauren Holtkamp-Sterling made NBA history Friday night when she became the first mother to officiate a league game.

Holtkamp-Sterling worked the Bulls-Warriors game in Chicago.

The game was the first for Holtkamp-Sterling since she gave birth to daughter Stoan this year. She missed last season with a knee injury that required surgery and the start of her 2019-20 season was delayed by abdominal surgery.

Her husband, Jonathan Sterling, worked the Los Angeles Clippers-Bucks game in Milwaukee on Friday night. The couple met at a college basketball referees event before they became the first married couple to officiate in league history.

“That’s amazing. They probably have a good nanny, I’m guessing. That cannot be easy raising a child with two NBA refs as parents. It’s a pretty incredible story. I’m happy for Lauren that she’s back on the court,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.

In 2014, Holtkamp-Sterling became the third full-time female referee in league history.