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NBA Power Rankings: Warriors still on top

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The NBA season is back, and with it, so are the NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings, which are put together each week throughout the season.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (Last season 58-24). If a team is the two-time defending champs and made four straight Finals appearances, they start on top. The only question is how motivated the Warriors are during the regular season — which may be less of an issue this time around, listening to the buzz around the team. Keeping Golden State healthy and not letting it build a bunch of bad habits while waiting for the games to really matter again has to be Steve Kerr’s focus. Don’t expect to see DeMarcus Cousins until after you’ve opened your Christmas presents.

Celtics small icon 2. Celtics (55-27). Don’t read too much into the preseason struggles — that was exactly what coach Brad Stevens needed to get this team’s attention and get them focused on the process. It turns out bringing two superstar players — Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward — back into the fold is not simply a matter of plug-and-play, it’s going to take some work. Plus, Hayward is not all the way back yet. Still, with all this depth, the Celtics should own the East.

Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (65-17). Carmelo Anthony has blended fairly smoothly in the preseason, accepting his role coming off the bench and as more as a shooter working off the ball, now we will see if that continues when opposing defenses start to care. A lot of lineup shuffling in the preseason, which leads to a question: Who will close games for Houston? Chris Paul and James Harden for sure, but after that which two of Anthony, P.J. Tucker, Eric Gordon, James Ennis, and Clint Capela will sit?

Raptors small icon 4. Raptors (59-23). Understandably a lot of the preseason focus has been on Kawhi Leonard, but there is another big question for this team (both early and for the full season): What kind of difference does new coach Nick Nurse make? He’s a rookie coach and he’s doing things like talking about changing the starting five based on opponent, but the hope was he would bring a less predictable offense (especially for the postseason). Nurse said he is going to be “fluid” with rotations — read: experimenting — for the start of the season, but this is a deep team that had the best bench in the NBA last season, and it could be better this year.

Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (52-30). Replacing J.J. Redick with Markelle Fultz in the starting lineup to start the season is an interesting tactic by Brett Brown (the Sixers starting lineup with Redick was +21 points per 100 possessions last season), but it should do one thing for sure: The Sixers’ defense should be better. And it was top five last season. The question becomes floor spacing on the other end: Ben Simmons is not a jump shooter, Joel Embiid can hit threes but needs to be around the basket, and Fultz doesn’t have the jumper of an NBA two-guard yet (he attempted just five shots from three in the preseason). Defenses will pack the paint on Philly. Also, teams that make the China trip in preseason tend to start slowly the next season.

Jazz small icon 6. Jazz (48-34). There are a lot of people on the Jazz bandwagon, some even suggesting they are better than the Rockets. What Utah has going for it is an elite defense (if Rudy Gobert can stay healthy) and continuity from the team that was so good the second half of last season. But after Donovan Mitchell, who is the other shot creator? Ricky Rubio can set guys up, but is he a secondary go-to guy? The Jazz bet big on Dante Exum this summer, he is a guy to watch.

Thunder small icon 7. Thunder (48-34).. Russell Westbrook is banged up to start the season (he had his knee scoped a month ago and will miss at least the opener), and Andre Roberson is out until December — that second part is a bigger blow than some fans realize. The injuries could lead to a slow start for the Thunder, which is dangerous in the very deep West. Can Terrance Ferguson step up on the wing and give them something?

Nuggets small icon 8. Nuggets (46-36).. Everyone is high on the Nikola Jokic/Jamal Murray/Gary Harris starting lineup, and with good reason, especially with Will Barton added to it. The Nuggets will have an elite offense. Two big questions loom for this team: Can their defense (bottom five last season) improve, even up to league average? And, with Isaiah Thomas out who will lead the bench unit? Can Trey Lyles step into that role and thrive?

Lakers small icon 9. Lakers (35-47). The Lakers are going to run this season (they likely will have one of the fastest paces in the league) and that combined with LeBron James distributing from the elbow should lead to an impressive offense, although the lack of true shooters could hold them back a little. The question is at the other end of the court, will the Lakers get enough stops to win? They were sloppy defensively in the preseason. Portland and Houston this week start off a brutal schedule to start the season.

Bucks small icon 10. Bucks (44-38 LW 18). This may be too low a ranking for a team I am high on. While we should take the preseason with a grain of salt, the Bucks looked like a modern offense under Mike Budenholzer, leaning on three pointers and getting to the rim, avoiding midrange jumpers — and they had an impressive offense because of it. Giannis Antetokounmpo was a flat out beast, showing more confidence in his jumper but also finding a lot more room to drive on a team with genuine floor spacing. We’ll see if it carries over, but the Bucks looked more like a threat to the 76ers/Raptors in the preseason.

Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (48-34). Preseason wasn’t kind to the new players who are expected to push this team forward, Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott, nor did the man with the new contract Myles Turner impress. We’re going to overlook all that for now, this is a team on the tier behind the big three in the East (some think they can push Philly/Toronto) and they should be a tough out every night. Interesting first week game Friday night in Milwaukee.

Pelicans small icon 12. Pelicans (48-34). I am high on this team coming into the season — I predicted Anthony Davis to win MVP — but the preseason defensive performance gave me pause. It’s just preseason, but Elfrid Payton is a turnstile (that’s not new) and they were getting torched in the paint to the tune of 65 points a game. We’ll see if that continues when the games matter, but a tough opener against Houston doesn’t help.

Blazers small icon 13. Trail Blazers (49-33). The entire NBA, and particularly the Blazers community, is mourning the passing of one of the best and classiest owners in the league in Paul Allen. Making the playoffs 23 times in 30 seasons, doing things the right way, he’s a model owner. The road forward will be interesting (the league would not allow this team to be moved, and the lease runs through 2025 anyway). The Trail Blazers open the season on national television Thursday night against LeBron James and the Lakers and can make a statement then.

Spurs small icon 14. Spurs (47-35). Injuries have decimated the guard rotation: Dejounte Murray out for the season with a torn ACL, his backup Derrick White tore his plantar fascia, and Lonnie Walker IV tore the meniscus in his right knee (the latter two are 6-8 weeks, maybe a little more. In a West with little margin for error, is that enough to keep the Spurs out of the playoffs for the first time since 1997? DeMar DeRozan is going to have to be the primary playmaker for this team now.

Wizards small icon 15. Wizards (43-39). Dwight Howard missed all of preseason (with an injured butt, insert your own joke here), but is now practicing with the team and could play in the opener, just in a more limited role. Once again we enter the season saying we like the Wizards players individually — John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter — but as a team how do they really take a step forward from good to great?

Heat small icon 16. Heat (44-38). The Jimmy Butler trade saga hangs over this team a little (nobody likes hearing their name in trade talks), but this is a solid team and it’s Dwyane Wade’s “One Last Dance” so its worth tuning in to watch him put on a show. Get wins against Orlando and Charlotte the first week of the season and it will be easier to tune out all the trade chatter (which has died down a little of late anyway).

Clippers small icon 17. Clippers (42-40). Their starting five has potential — Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley, Danilo Gallinari, Tobias Harris, and Marcin Gortat — if they can stay healthy. Off the bench is the Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, plus Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who impressed at Summer League and through the preseason. Healthy, this could be a playoff team, but the Clippers are littered with players prone to injury and not living up to their potential. Brutal first few weeks of the schedule for Los Angeles, including the Nuggets, Thunder, and Rockets this week.

Grizzlies small icon 18. Grizzlies (22-60). One of a few teams in the West (along with the Clippers and Mavericks) where I can envision a scenario where they make the playoffs, but everything has to go right for them. That means Marc Gasol and Mike Conley stay healthy, Jaren Jackson Jr. plays like a rookie of the year, and Chandler Parsons gives them something (he’s looked passable in the preseason). That’s a lot of “ifs” in a conference with no margin for error.

Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (39-43). They have been penciled in to the final playoff spot in the East by a lot of pundits (myself included) based on the potential of Blake Griffin, Reggie Jackson, and Andre Drummond together (especially with Dwane Casey as coach). It’s also a work in progress that didn’t look very smooth in the preseason. Depth questions also are out there for the Pistons. Still, if they can be solid defensively, they should make the postseason.

20. Timberwolves (47-35, LW 13). Is this too low a ranking, much of it based on the Jimmy Butler trade drama? Maybe. With Butler in the lineup last season the Timberwolves looked like a 3/4 seed kind of squad. On the flip side, chemistry matters in the NBA and good luck finding a team with a worse locker room right now. Also, Butler is going to get booed and it’s going to get ugly Friday night in Minnesota’s first home game (vs. Cleveland). Without Butler in the preseason the Timberwolves defense was a disaster, it’s just preseason but that’s not a good sign.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (36-46). What will new coach James Borego bring to the table? If was can read much into the preseason it’s more three point attempts (and less long twos) and better ball movement and tempo. Rookie Miles Bridges showed some preseason promise and could play his way into the starting lineup eventually. Relatively soft schedule the first month of the season, get off to a fast start and it will keep the “will they trade Kemba Walker?” questions at bay.

Mavericks small icon 22. Mavericks (24-58). Fun start to the season Wednesday: Rookie of the Year favorites Luka Doncic and Deandre Ayton face off (although the matchup to watch in that game is how Ayton handles the strength and athleticism of DeAndre Jordan). Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. started to show some chemistry in the preseason, but lets see what happens when the games matter and the defenses start to care.

Cavaliers small icon 23. Cavaliers (50-32). Kevin Love says he is ready to return to the role of a No. 1 option — and the Cavaliers are certainly paying him like one — but the game has evolved and Love has gotten older since he last time that burden fell on his shoulders. There is still potential on this roster in terms of good shooting, at least until Cavs management starts trading them for young players and picks. After opening in Toronto, pretty soft schedule to start the season.

Bulls small icon 24. Bulls (27-55).. No Lauri Markkanen to start the season (elbow, out at least a few weeks) but there is promise on this roster: Zach LaVine showed some athleticism and looked healthy and efficient in the preseason, and Wendell Carter Jr. continues to impress and is now the starting center for this team (although rough “welcome to the NBA” start in Game 1 against Joel Embiid). How will Jabari Parker look in a Sixth Man role?

Suns small icon 25. Suns (21-61). Firing GM Ryan McDonough nine days before the season started — after letting him make all the off-season moves for the team, including hiring the new coach — is a “the emperor has no clothes” moment for owner Robert Sarver. Deandre Ayton has put up numbers and impressed in the preseason, and Devin Booker will return from hand surgery and be ready for the opener. Jamal Crawford is not a point guard but may end up playing one anyway.

Nets small icon 26. Nets (28-54). Coach Kenny Atkinson has done in Brooklyn what the new coach across the bridge in Manhattan needs to do this season — develop a culture where the players go hard for him within the system. Now the question in Brooklyn is about the talent. How good is D’Angelo Russell really, is he worth a big new contract next summer (he’s a restricted free agent)? Where does Spencer Dinwiddie fit in that mix? Jarrett Allen is expected to make a leap at center, but will he. Where do Caris LeVert and Ronde Hollis-Jefferson fit in? Some potential there, but a lot of questions, too.

Knicks small icon 27. Knicks (29-53, LW 22). For new coach David Fizdale, this is a season about building the culture and getting players who will play his way and play hard. Rookie Kevin Knox needs to be part of that and will be thrown into the deep end to sink or swim for the Knicks. Frank Ntilikina has yet to impress me, but then again Emmanuel Mudiay does not look like the answer at the point guard spot either. Just my guess, we see Kristaps Porzingis return this season for the last dozen games or so, not to make a playoff push (the Knicks won’t be that good) but to hit the ground running for his summer work, and to show free agents he will be ready to go next season.

Magic small icon 28. Magic (25-57). As discussed on the PBT Podcast on teams to watch, I think Orlando will be an interesting team this season — not good, but worth watching. Specifically, when the big and athletic front line of Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, and rookie Mo Bamba are paired. Can those three play together and make it work (it pushes Gordon to the three when he is better as a four)? The Orlando defense should be pretty good this season, the question is where the points are going to come from?

Kings small icon 29. Kings (27-55). Harry Giles impressed in both Summer League and preseason and could be a sneaky candidate to make All-Rookie teams at the end of the season. Marvin Bagley III showed the potential to go get buckets during the preseason, and I like using Buddy Hield more as a floor-spacing three (at least on offense, nothing worked for the Kings on defense). Rough way to start the season: Jazz, Pelicans, Thunder.

Hawks small icon 30. Hawks (24-58). It’s going to be all Trae Young all the time in Atlanta as they let him be the man and take all the shots — and that worked for a game winner against the Spurs in the preseason. It’s also going to mean some growing pains when the real games begin. Rough to have John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon out to start the season with injuries.

Another guard down: Spurs’ Derrick White out indefinitely with plantar fascia tear

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San Antonio just cannot catch a break.

This summer Tony Parker left for Charlotte, but that was okay because Dejounte Murray had taken the point guard job from him last season and made strides over the summer, he was ready to lead the team now. Then Murray tore his ACL and is out for the season. That made Derrick White the starting point guard, until…

Gregg Popovich announced Friday that White will be out with a heel injury, although it is worse than that, it’s a left plantar fascia tear (a rip of the connective tissue that runs along the bottom of the foot). This is a non-surgical injury. Popovich said that White would be out 6-8 weeks, which is when he may be able to return to the court, although it can often take up to 12 weeks to get back to pre-injury form.

This is the latest in a rash of injuries to hit the Spurs’ backcourt. From Jeff McDonald at the San Antonio Express-News.

Over the last three exhibition games, the Spurs have seen each of their past three first-round draft picks succumb to injury, all of them guards. First it was Lonnie Walker IV, who tore meniscus in his right knee in a win over Detroit on Oct. 5, then Murray and now White.

“That’s three of our youngest, most talented, fastest kids,” coach Gregg Popovich said after another short-handed shootaround Friday morning at Orlando’s Amway Center. “We’ll have to deal with it.”

Bryn Forbes will now be the starting point guard, with Patty Mills getting a lot of time off the bench.

However, this preseason the Spurs have largely run the offense through DeMar DeRozan when the starters have been out on the court, DeRozan likely will take on more of the load now.

Still, this is a more significant setback for the Spurs than some fans realize. Murray was second-team NBA All-Defense last season and the Spurs were high on the improvements to his offensive game, they thought he was ready to make a leap. White had shown a lot of promise in Summer League and was seen as more of a quality guy off the bench, but the Spurs have a way of making those guys stand out… and now he’s out. Forbes is more score first (as is Mills) and Popovich doesn’t have Manu Ginobili to fall back on to run the offense anymore.

This is a lot of setbacks for the Spurs. Is this the season the playoff streak (21 years and counting) ends?

Spurs’ Dejounte Murray tears ACL

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Spurs point guard Dejounte Murray injured his knee yesterday.

Unfortunately, it was as bad as feared.

Spurs:

Spurs guard Dejounte Murray underwent an MRI examination this morning in San Antonio that revealed he has a torn right anterior cruciate ligament. The injury occurred at the 2:47 mark of the second quarter of yesterday’s Spurs-Rockets preseason game. A timeline for his return will be determined at a later date.​

This is a gut punch in both the short and long term.

The Spurs are a fringe playoff team with little margin for error in a stacked Western Conference. Losing their starting point guard is a major blow. Derrick White and Patty Mills will probably handle more at the position. But White is a second-year player who wasn’t even in the rotation last season, and Mills is more of a scorer than distributor. This will be a big ask from both.

This also sidetracks development of the 22-year-old Murray. He’s a staunch defender and elite rebounder for his position, but he had work to do – and was making strides – as a shooter and playmaker. With rookie guard Lonnie Walker also injured, this was a strong 1-2 hit to San Antonio.

The Spurs still have LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan and Gregg Popovich. There’s still hope the coach can figure out something. But Popovich’s challenge has become even greater.

U.S. rolls past Uruguay in FIBA World Cup qualifying, 114-57

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LAS VEGAS — The U.S. is another step closer to qualifying for the FIBA Basketball World Cup.

Frank Mason III scored 16 points and the U.S. beat Uruguay 114-57 on Friday night in the Americans’ first game of the second round of qualifying for next year’s World Cup. The Americans took command with a 15-0 run late in the first quarter, and finished the game shooting 61 percent.

Chasson Randle scored 15 points and Derrick White added 14 for the U.S., which is 6-1 in qualifying. Results from the first round carry over, and Friday’s win puts the Americans in a very strong position.

To be assured of qualifying for next year’s World Cup in China, all the Americans need to do is finish among the top three of a six-team group that’s also composed of Argentina (6-1), Puerto Rico (5-2), Uruguay (4-3), Panama (3-4) and Mexico (3-4). After rolling past Uruguay, the U.S. has a two-game lead over fourth place with five games remaining.

For the first round of qualifying, the U.S. went largely with a roster composed of G League players. There was much more of an NBA presence Friday, thanks to it still being the offseason.

Of the 11 Americans who got into the game, nine had some NBA experience – that group combining for 259 appearances. And they made sure the outcome of this game was never in doubt.

It was 28-8 after one quarter, 56-24 at halftime. Diego Garcia’s layup midway through the opening quarter got Uruguay within 10-7, and that was about the lone moment of hope for the visitors.

Bacon and Moore each had four points in the 15-0 first-quarter run, and the Americans kept total control the rest of the way.

QUALIFYING FORMAT

There are three “windows” for second-round games – one that started Thursday and runs through Monday, another going from Nov. 29 through Dec. 3, and then the final one from Feb. 21-25. G-League players will represent the USA in those windows. The World Cup begins Aug. 31 and NBA players will return for that.

UP NEXT

Uruguay: Hosts Mexico on Monday.

U.S.: Visits Panama on Monday.

Report: After great Spurs tenure, Tony Parker signing with Hornets for two years, $10 million

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Tony Parker‘s harsh comments contributed to Kawhi Leonard‘s falling out with the Spurs.

But Parker – after spending the first 17 years of his Hall of Fame career in San Antonio – will depart first.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Will this help the Spurs keep Leonard? It’ll still be an uphill battle. Leonard’s considerations run far wider than just Parker’s presence.

Even if not changing Leonard’s track, this move still holds huge sentimental ramifications. Unlike Tim Duncan and (probably?) Manu Ginobili, Parker won’t spend his entire career in San Antonio. But Duncan nearly signed with the Magic in 2000, and Ginobili strongly considered leaving for the 76ers in 2016.

That Ginobili situation seems similar to Parker’s now, as Ginobili would have gotten a higher salary and joined former Spurs assistant Brett Brown in Philadelphia. The Hornets just hired San Antonio assistant James Borrego as head coach, and $5 million annually is generous for a 36-year-old Parker.

The key difference: The Spurs spent big to retain Ginobili. They’re watching Parker leave.

San Antonio has already made Dejounte Murray its starting point guard, and Derrick White has looked good in summer league. The Spurs might have wanted to keep Parker, but they’re prepared for a new era at his position.

Charlotte has been desperate for a backup point guard behind Kemba Walker. Even a declining Parker should be an upgrade. He’ll also reunite with fellow French national-team player Nicolas Batum.

This is far from familiar, though. Parker became the Spurs’ starting point guard as a teenager, held the role for his entire prime and helped them win four titles, winning NBA Finals MVP in 2007. We’ll always remember him as a Spur – even if his career ends elsewhere.