NBA Power Rankings: The way, way too early offseason edition

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It is way, way, way too early to do an NBA Power Rankings for next season — and we’re doing it anyway. These rankings are going up before any player movement this offseason, before the draft, before every team even has a coach. This is just some seat-of-the-pants fun projecting next season based on the bubble playoffs and what we expect next season.

 
Lakers small icon 1. Lakers (52-19 last season). LeBron James and Anthony Davis won the Lakers one title, and as long as those two are on the roster L.A. is a contender for another. This summer, Davis will opt-out then re-sign, but the challenge is the roster around Davis and LeBron. Markieff Morris and Dwight Howard are free agents; meanwhile, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Rajon Rondo will opt out looking for the bigger payday. Kyle Kuzma is extension eligible. Do the Lakers run it back with last year’s team or make a bold trade (Chris Paul, Victor Oladipo)?

 
Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (56-17). One question hangs over Milwaukee this offseason: Will Giannis Antetokounmpo sign the max contract extension put in front of him? If not, don’t expect a trade, the only way that happens is the Greek Freak tells the Bucks he will not re-sign, and indications are he still wants to win in Milwaukee. If he does wait, it puts other teams in a holding pattern. The Bucks were smart not to overreact to a rough bubble outing, but they need to tweak this roster around Antetokounmpo and get more playmaking, and more shooting would help, too.

 
Clippers small icon 3. Clippers (49-23). Doc Rivers paid the price for an underwhelming bubble performance. Tyrone Lue moves up a chair and takes over as head coach, tasked with improving the chemistry in this talented locker room (and just getting guys on the court together more). The biggest off-season question is will the Clippers: re-sign Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell or will they let him go? Do they re-sign Marcus Morris? Also, can the Clippers find a more traditional playmaking point guard to help spur the playoff offense?

 
Nuggets small icon 4. Nuggets (46-27). Jamal Murray needs to prove that his breakout playoffs — showing he was a true No. 2 option that pairs beautifully with Nikola Jokic — was not just a bubble fluke. We don’t think it was, but we’re cautious with everyone who was way up or way down in that unique environment. Paul Millsap is a free agent and the Nuggets need to re-sign him — at a reasonable price — or bet that Michael Porter Jr., or someone else, is ready to fill that critical defensive and rebounding role Millsap plays for Denver.

 
Warriors small icon 5. Warriors (15-50). The best backcourt in the NBA is back with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson healthy — don’t be shocked if Curry is in the MVP conversation next season. The Warriors also have Draymond Green being the glue guy/defensive anchor, plus Andrew Wiggins — for all his flaws — should fit well in a No. 4 option/Harrison Barnes role. The biggest question is at center, where there is a lot of buzz around the league the Warriors will chase Dwight Howard.

 
Heat small icon 6. Heat (44-29). Was their amazing run in the bubble a fluke? No question Miami earned that trip to the Finals with its mental toughness behind Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, but is it something that the team can replicate in a more traditional season? Probably, the Heat play great defense, have a tough-to-defend motion offense, and with Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro leading the way, they have the shooting. The big offseason question is, what happens with free agent Goran Dragic? Look for Miami to offer a big one-year contract, preserving cap space for 2021 when the Heat will be a player for top free agents.

 
Celtics small icon 7. Celtics (48-24). This ranking feels a little low for Boston — we trust this roster and this front office more than just about any other to take another step forward next season. We trust Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to be the cornerstones. The big question is what happens with Gordon Hayward — he very likely picks up his $34.1 million option, but could he be traded (Danny Ainge will test the market). This team also has three first-round picks to play with as the Celtics look to add depth around a core that has been to the Eastern Conference Finals three out of four years (now just needs to take one more step).

 
Nets small icon 8. Nets (35-37). The season spent waiting is over, now things get serious with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving healthy, surrounded by quality players like Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Jarrett Allen. Is Steve Nash ready to be a head coach (or, Kyrie, do you even need a coach)? The biggest off-season move has to be re-signing Joe Harris, Brooklyn needs his shooting (he is a free agent and will have options). On paper, the Nets are beasts next season, but how close to his vintage self will Durant be? Do all these pieces fit together?

 
Mavericks small icon 9. Mavericks (43-32). Another team where this ranking feels it could be low. Luka Doncic for MVP is a real possibility, and he pairs well with Kristaps Porzingis (which is why KP’s offseason knee surgery, while minor, is a concern). Dallas needs to improve its defense and add another playmaker, but don’t expect fireworks this offseason as the Mavericks keep their powder dry for the summer of 2021, when the Mavs believe they will be big players in free agency.

 
Raptors small icon 10. Raptors (53-19). It is a tough line for Toronto to walk this summer: They have three key free agents — Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol — but want to keep enough money and options to chase Antetokounmpo if he chooses to leave Milwaukee. VanVleet will require a contract in the four-year, $85 million range to keep — and the Raptors would likely pay that — but expect the big men to get one-year offers from Toronto, which may have them looking elsewhere (for Gasol, that might include Barcelona). Pascal Siakam learned in the bubble what needs to be his next steps to become a franchise player.

 
Jazz small icon 11. Jazz (44-28). There is one easy offseason decision in Utah: Max out Donovan Mitchell off his rookie deal. Then things get more complex, starting with Rudy Gobert, who is eligible for a supermax extension but the Jazz (and likely everyone else) will want to pay less than that. The Jazz need to get back to being an elite defensive team, and while they need more shooting and shot creation getting Bojan Bogdanovic back from wrist surgery will help a lot with that.

 
Rockets small icon 12. Rockets (44-28). Daryl Morey has stepped down, Mike D’Antoni has walked out the door, and it’s fair to question what the Rockets will look like next season and what owner Tilman Fertitta is willing to pay for. Houston does not have a lot of roster flexibility or ways to add talent, which is why the buzz of Houston looking for Russell Westbrook trades is out there. Good luck with that. While some have speculated about a James Harden trade, that’s a discussion more likely next offseason, the Rockets will try to keep winning.

 
Sixers small icon 13. 76ers (43-30). Doc Rivers is in charge now and that should lead to more creative uses of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid on the court and more accountability for all the players in the film room and off the court. Rivers makes this team the hardest to place in these rankings: They should be better, but Rivers doesn’t solve the core roster issues of spacing and shooting. Elton Brand needs to find another playmaker for this roster, do that and this ranking will seem dramatically low.

 
Blazers small icon 14. Trail Blazers (35-39). Portland isn’t poised to make a lot of roster moves this offseason, but they will have a healthy Jusuf Nurkic to add to Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, so they don’t need to do much to remain a threat. Carmelo Anthony is a free agent and says he found a home in Portland, but with Zach Collins and Rodney Hood healthy there may be a steep minutes drop for ‘Melo, which may have him looking elsewhere. Hassan Whiteside also is a free agent.

Pelicans small icon 15. Pelicans (30-42). Their ranking could get moved up based on who gets hired as head coach, is it someone who can convert the roster’s potential to reality? (Some around the Pelicans thought Tyronn Lue would be their guy, but he stayed in L.A.) The Pelicans will max out and re-sign Brandon Ingram, just leaving the questions of trading or holding onto Jrue Holiday, and if Zion Williamson can stay healthy and impact games.

 
Pacers small icon 16. Pacers (45-28) . It appears Indiana will hire a top assistant coach for the head job, which seems the smart move considering the available field (the Mike D’Antoni rumors started hot but have died off). Victor Oladipo has one year left on his contract and trade rumors are flying around, with him linked to the Knicks, Lakers, and half the teams in between. Oladipo wants to get paid in his next contract; if the Pacers don’t want to back up that Brinks truck, they need to move him this offseason.

 
Grizzlies small icon 17. Grizzlies (34-39). They are counting on the internal growth of Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Brandon Clarke to take a step forward next season. Memphis’ offseason was essentially trading for Justise Winslow at the deadline and re-signing Dillon Brooks, they don’t have a lot of other moves to make (other than re-signing De’Anthony Melton). Memphis should go try to find some shooting, because that Morant/Jackson/Winslow/Clarke core is not exactly spacing the floor.

 
Suns small icon 18. Suns (44-39). They were the darlings of the bubble at 8-0, but we’re being careful reading too much into any of the outlier bubble results. They need to replicate that in the real world now. Devin Booker is a star, and there are moments Deandre Ayton looks like he could be one as well (his defense took a step forward last season). The Suns should consider bringing back Aron Baynes as a floor-spacing big man (something odd to type), but and there are long-term questions about Kelly Oubre Jr. and Dario Saric, and exactly who fits best around the young Suns’ core. But they seem poised for a step forward.

 
Thunder small icon 19. Thunder (44-28). If Oklahoma City runs it back then this ranking is far too low. However, with Billy Donovan moving on as coach, it seems like a rebuild is coming and, after his All-NBA season, Chris Paul’s trade value isn’t going to get any higher. If he goes, then others (Steven Adams, for example) could be on the move as well. Danilo Gallinari is a free agent and likely puts on another jersey next season. This ranking bets on Sam Presti jumping into the rebuild with both feet, which is the smart thing to do.

 
Wizards small icon 20. Wizards (25-47). Re-signing sharpshooting big man Davis Bertans is the Wizards’ highest priority, but they will have competition for him. The Wizards finally have John Wall and Bradley Beal healthy and together again, is that enough (with Bertans) to propel them up to one of the lower playoff spots in the East? Maybe. But only if their defense improves and isn’t 29th-in-the-league dreadful.

 
Magic small icon 21. Magic (33-40). Losing Jonathan Isaac to a knee injury for all of next season is a punch to the gut of this franchise. The Magic are solid with Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic, and Markelle Fultz, but this is a team spending a lot of money to be average. There is buzz around the league of a Gordon trade, and he has a favorable declining contract, but we’ll see if Orlando can find a taker, and if so what direction do they move as a franchise?

 
Kings small icon 22. Kings (31-41, 3-5, LW 20). New Kings GM Monte McNair wants to play faster, and hired Alvin Gentry as Luke Walton’s lead assistant as a warning shot that Walton needs to play by the new rules. The Kings have missed the playoffs 14 straight years and owner Vivek Ranadive desperately doesn’t want his franchise to tie the Donald Sterling Clippers in the futility department next season, but for that to happen Marvin Bagley III needs to stay healthy, on the court, and have somewhere near the kind of impact Vlade Divac thought he would.

 
Spurs small icon 23. Spurs (32-39). The Spurs most likely just run it back with a roster that missed the playoffs last season. DeMar DeRozan has a $27.7 option he almost certainly picks up. San Antonio has some good young players — Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV — and were interesting playing small with DeRozan at the four, hopefully we get more of that even with LaMarcus Aldridge healthy and back in the lineup.

 
24. Timberwolves (19-45). Timberwolves fans are going to see this ranking as too low — they have Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell, a potential devastating pick-and-roll combo. They have the No. 1 pick in the draft (assuming they don’t trade it). They have some developing role players such as Malik Beasley (who was a fantastic fit) and Jarrett Culver. All true, but until we see this actually work well together on the court — and see this team play some defense — the skeptic in us wins out.

 
Bulls small icon 25. Bulls (22-43). Another “prove it to me” team. Billy Donovan is in as head coach, there is scoring with Zach LaVine and real potential in Lauri Markkanen and Coby White, but we have yet to see it all come together. This feels like an evaluation year for new head man Arturas Karnisovas, with aggressive moves coming in a year when he figures out what he’s got and what direction to go.

 
Hawks small icon 26. Hawks (20-46). Trae Young is a potential superstar (at least on offense) and he is finally paired with a strong pick-and-roll big in Clint Capela. Does John Collins fit with that combo, or is it time to look for a trade? Can the Hawks find more shooting and wing talent — and defense — in the draft and free agency? Whatever direction they go, Atlanta has a nice young core but one with serious defensive questions.

 
Hornets small icon 27. Hornets (23-42). This team simply needs an alpha, a true star player. They have the surprisingly good Devonte’ Graham, plus quality young players such as PJ Washington and Miles Bridges, but there is no north star. Charlotte needs to get lucky at No. 3 in the NBA draft (few scouts see a true star in this class) or find another way to add talent — ideally elite talent — to this roster.

 
Knicks small icon 28. Knicks (20-45). Leon Rose is in charge and he has his coach in Tom Thibodeau, but there is not much on this roster outside of Mitchell Robinson and RJ Barrett. Before the Knicks can dream of landing an elite free agent, they need to build the kind of culture and solid roster that would draw that level of star (as the Nets and Lakers did, adding a lot of young talent that showed promise). There is talk of the Knicks making an impatient move and trading picks/players for Russell Westbrook or Chris Paul, but that’s the same old Knicks looking for a quick fix. Patience and player development is required.

Pistons small icon 29. Pistons (20-45). New GM Troy Weaver has Christian Wood, Sekou Doumbouya, the No. 7 pick, and a lot of cap space as he starts to try to stockpile young talent on this roster. He has veterans Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose, who could try to trade them for picks/young players (there is a real market for Rose), but this is going to be a multi-year project that will probably not be much fun for Pistons fans.

 
Cavaliers small icon 30. Cavaliers (19-46). There are a lot of questions to answer in Cleveland: Can Collin Sexton and Darius Garland fit together in the backcourt? Is Andre Drummond a long-term answer at the five? Can they find a taker in a Kevin Love trade? Just how good can Kevin Porter Jr. be? JB Bickerstaff has a lot of player development to do as a coach, while Kobe Altman desperately needs to add more talent to this roster (and the No. 5 pick in this draft is only going to help so much).

Report: Udoka used ‘crude language’ with female subordinate prior to improper relationship

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The Boston Celtics handled the Ime Udoka investigation and suspension by the corporate handbook: They kept the woman’s name out of the news, kept details confidential (not even telling the players much for legal reasons), and acted swiftly and decisively.

But as the team on the court starts defending its Eastern Conference title, there has been a concern that details leaking out about the investigations — and responses to those leaks — could turn this into a season-long drama and distraction for the team. That first started on Friday when Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported this:

The independent law firm probe into Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka found that he used crude language in his dialogue with a female subordinate prior to the start of an improper workplace relationship with the woman, an element that significantly factored into the severity of his one-year suspension, sources told ESPN.

Those investigative findings — which described verbiage on Udoka’s part that was deemed especially concerning coming from a workplace superior — contribute to what is likely a difficult pathway back to his reinstatement as Celtics coach in 2023, sources told ESPN.

A few thoughts here.

• “Crude language” is just part of a more detailed and damning report, league sources have told NBC Sports. There is much more uncovered by the independent investigation, including about the power dynamic in play. It was enough that the Celtics thought the best move was to suspend for an entire season a coach loved by players who led the team to the NBA Finals (it’s not something the Celtics organization did lightly).

• As Wojnarowski and others have noted, it’s increasingly unlikely Udoka returns to coach the Celtics next season, even if that is not yet official.

• While some pundits and people around the league have said Udoka is “done,” the NBA has seen unexpected turnarounds before. Never say never in this league.

• About the only sure thing is that this story is not over.

Lillard poised to pass Drexler as Trail Blazers all-time leading scorer

2022-23 Portland Trail Blazers Media Day
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images
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Damian Lillard could have done what a lot of NBA stars have done — what a lot of them told him to do while recruiting him — and has chosen to stay in Portland. He wants to be remembered as the greatest Trail Blazer ever.

One good way to do that: Become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Sometime around Thanksgiving or a little after, Lillard will do just that, passing Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler and his 18,040 points (Lillard is 531 back).

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports spoke to Lillard about when he knew the record was within reach, during Trail Blazers training camp in Santa Barbara, California (go Gauchos!). It was when Lillard got to 10,000 points.

“I was like, ‘Damn, I got 10,000 already?’ ” Lillard told Yahoo Sports he recalled at the time. “It was my sixth season in the league. That’s when I started thinking, if I could be consistent, I could score into the high 20,000-point range. As a scorer, 20,000 points is always looked at as a special mark. From that moment, I knew it was possible, but it’s also when I first researched Clyde Drexler’s [scoring] record with the team.”

Drexler is good with being passed by Lillard.

“You and I know records are made to be broken, but I can’t think of a better player or person to break the record than Dame,” Drexler told Yahoo Sports. “He exemplifies being a team player and going about his business in a professional way. I have nothing but admiration and respect for him. When he comes close to getting the record, and if our schedules align, I would love to be there to help out in any way I can. That’s a nice milestone to achieve. I am looking forward to him accomplishing that.”

Lillard is on a lot of front office people’s watch list this season, as in “how long before he is unhappy and asks for a trade?” The thing is, Lillard has been on that list for years and he keeps choosing Portland — he isn’t looking to leave. Of course, the $120 million extension and a retooling of the roster around him helped with that decision, but Lillard always had other options if he wanted them (and at times it felt like he would take them).

The Trail Blazers brought in Jerami Grant, re-signed Anfrenee Simons, and will put them with a solid core of others such as (a finally healthy) Jusuf Nurkic, Josh Hart, Gary Payton II and others. It’s a good roster, the question is how good in a deep West?

There are a lot of questions about how this season shakes out in Portland, but the one seeming sure thing is Lillard becoming the Trail Blazers’ all-time leading scorer. And that seems fitting.

Suns update: Ayton blames Sarver for contract, Crowder conflict, Johnson to start

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Phoenix went to the NBA Finals two seasons ago and had the most wins in the NBA last season, yet dark clouds seem to be blocking out the Suns heading into this NBA season.

Here’s the latest on three situations with the Suns: Deandre Ayton‘s contract frustration, why Jae Crowder is asking out, and who starts at the four now.

• Ayton ended up signing a four-year, $132.9 max contract and will be back with the Suns to start this season, but the road to get there was rocky. The Suns would not offer Ayton a max five-year contract extension, his name kept coming up in Kevin Durant trade rumors, so Ayton went out and got a four-year max offer from the Pacers — which the Suns instantly matched. Phoenix saved $40 million and a guaranteed year, but the process left Ayton a little bitter.

Ayton blames outgoing owner Robert Sarver — a notorious penny pincher as an owner (among other, much worse things) — Marc Spears and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN discussed on NBA Today (hat tip Real GM).

“That is certainly something that caused the ire of him,” said Marc J. Spears. “I was told that it was Robert Sarver who didn’t want to give him that fifth year, who wanted to save the money.”

“My understanding from talking to people close to Deandre is that he thinks this was Robert Sarver’s decision as well. And Robert Sarver’s not going to be the owner anymore. So there is some healing that can happen there. But I know there were some hurt feelings over that contract and how that played out.

“If they were going to instantly match an offer sheet that he signed, why not just give him the max contract? Yes, it saved them a year and $40 million but as somebody close to Deandre told me ‘There’s a karma to this. Why do that to your No. 1 overall pick?'”

Shelburne hit the nail on the head — the NBA is a business, but it’s a business of relationships. Not only did the Suns sour theirs with Ayton, but you can also be sure every other agent around the league noticed how that was handled. It doesn’t help when recruiting players. The eventual new owner, whoever it ends up being, has a lot of work to change the franchise’s perception.

• Jae Crowder remains away from the Suns during training camp awaiting a trade (which reportedly will not be to Dallas). Crowder started 109 games for the Suns during the past two seasons and was a key part of their run to the NBA Finals, so how did things deteriorate so quickly? Marc Stein lays it out in his latest Substack newsletter.

Entering the final season of his current contract at $10.2 million, Jae Crowder let the Suns know that he was seeking a contract extension. League sources say that the Suns’ messaging, in response, was to let Crowder know that, at 32, he was no longer assured of starting or finishing games ahead of Cam Johnson. That gulf between the parties led Crowder to seek an exit from the desert that has landed him on indefinite mutual leave from the team until Phoenix can find a trade for him.

While Miami gets mentioned as a suitor a lot, it’s next to impossible to put together a trade that works for both sides right now (at the trade deadline, maybe, but Crowder isn’t going to be with the Suns that long). Cleveland is currently the hot name in league circles when talking Crowder trades, and Stein also mentions the Milwaukee Bucks, who have been looking for a P.J. Tucker-like replacement for P.J Tucker. But, do any of these teams want to extend Crowder at age 32?

• Suns coach Monty Williams confirmed what Crowder heard — Cameron Johnson will start at the four for the Suns this season.

Johnson brings better shooting to the table — 42.5% last season on 3-pointers — and is more athletic at this point, but Crowder brings better defense, toughness, and veteran savvy that can be trusted in the playoffs. The Suns may miss that when it matters, but Johnson will get the chance to prove us all wrong.

Blake Griffin agrees to join Boston Celtics on one-year deal

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Blake Griffin has agreed to join the Boston Celtics on a one-year contract which will be fully guaranteed.

The Celtics were desperate for frontcourt depth following injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Robert Williams, as Luke Kornet was even getting some run with the starting group at training camp.

You do have to wonder just how much the 33-year-old Griffin has left in the tank though. Last season with the Brooklyn Nets, Griffin only managed to play 17.1 minutes per game and his 3-point percentage dropped like a stone to 26%. He was also a major liability on defense, and the Celtics surely know that after Jaylen Brown drove by him with ease time and time again during the postseason.

Griffin was still an effective playmaker and that may make him a good fit with the second unit alongside the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White and Grant Williams with all of these capable of handling the ball. Injuries and Father Time have zapped Griffin’s athleticism, but if anyone can squeeze the last bit of value out of him, I’d bet on Brad Stevens and the Celtics.