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NBA Power Rankings: Do we really believe in Toronto and Portland?

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The top of the rankings this week are filled with the “do we really believe in them?” teams. Toronto and Portland are 1/2 and both have had a reputation of folding in the postseason… but we’re not there yet. Not even close. So they take over the top spots, while the Suns are the new cellar dwellers.

 
Raptors small icon 1. Raptors (12-2, last week No. 2). These Raptors want to run — 19% of their possessions and 17% of their points come in transition. Toronto’s raw pace isn’t extreme (102.1 possessions per game, 12th in the league) but when they do they are efficient. The Raptors had won six in a row, including crushing everyone on a West Coast road swing, until they ran into a hot Anthony Davis Monday. Friday against Boston is a fun test and starts another four-game road swing (you know they wish the schedule maker would put more road trips to warm place in January/February and not the fall).

 
Blazers small icon 2. Trail Blazers (10-3, LW 4). What’s different about these Blazers? Evan Turner struggled to be the third scoring option as a starter, but with the ball in his hands on the second unit, paired with Zach Collins, and he is thriving. Plus continuity matters, especially early in the regular season, and the Blazers have a lot of that. Portland is 6-1 against teams over .500 this season but will be tested on a six-game road trip that criss-crosses the nation and starts Wednesday against the Lakers.

Bucks small icon 3. Bucks (10-3, LW 5). There’s been a lot of talk about the Bucks’ improved defense, and it is vastly improved, now third best in the NBA so far this season. However, it has a flaw. The defense is built around protecting the paint — Brook Lopez and other bigs drop back off the pick-and-roll — but that allows other teams to shoot threes. A lot of threes — 37.2 attempts per game, highest allowed in the league (also the Bucks allow the highest in percentage of opponent shots from three). They are still aggressive going for steals and that can be exposed by good passing to open guys at the arc, just something to watch.

 
Warriors small icon 4. Warriors (12-3, LW 1). Draymond Green took the thing lurking in the shadows of the Warriors season — Kevin Durant’s looming free agency — and shoved it in the spotlight in the middle of the locker room. This is a veteran team that can get past that… probably. But it’s something to watch. Health concerns caught up with the Warriors — Green missed time, Stephen Curry continues to miss time with his groin issue — and it led to two losses in the past week to good teams (the Bucks and Clippers). The Warriors are two games into a 3-games-in-5-days stretch (1-1 so far).

 
Clippers small icon 5. Clippers (8-5, LW 9). It’s time to take the Clippers seriously — they have a top-10 offense and defense and just racked up back-to-back overtime wins against the Bucks and Warriors. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been impressive as a starter with Avery Bradley out a few games (it won’t be easy to send him back to the bench). The Clippers can be even better — they are the second-best three-point shooting team in the league at 38.7 percent, but they take just 25.2 a game, 27th in the league. Doc needs to loosen the reins and get this team firing away more from deep. Monday in Brooklyn starts a stretch of 11-of-15 on the road.

 
Thunder small icon 6. Thunder (8-5, LW 10).. Russell Westbrook is still out with his sprained left ankle and likely will miss another game or two, at least. The Thunder have gone 3-1 without Westbrook through this stretch against a soft patch of the schedule (they are 3-3 on the season). Dennis Schroder has done an admirable job stepping into the primary ball handler role (the bench unit misses having Schroder). Westbrook being out is a reminder just how important Steven Adams is to this team on both ends of the floor, a guy willing to do the dirty work needed for the flashy guys to thrive.

 
Nuggets small icon 7. Nuggets (9-5, LW 3).. Denver has lost four in a row, and the defense that was so good to start the season has been the worst in the NBA in the last four (114 points allowed per 100). Denver switched up its starting five and it was the right move. Denver had started Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Torrey Craig, Paul Millsap, and Jokic but was outscored by 4.7 points per 100 possessions, but sub Juancho Hernangomez in for Craig and it gets 9.1 per 100 better. Against Houston, Juancho got the start and the lineup was -2 in 17 minutes.

 
Sixers small icon 8. 76ers (9-6, LW 14). Philadelphia is all-in — Jimmy Butler is a Sixer now and will start Wednesday vs. Orlando. Butler changes the team dynamic, and not just because of Butler’s alpha personality, it puts the Sixers on the clock to win now. No more hand-holding for Markelle Fultz (not by his trainer, either), it’s sink-or-swim time on this roster. Philly will re-sign Butler and be a title threat… but the clock is ticking because Butler turns 30 and has off-roading Thibodeau miles on his legs. The Sixers front office needs to add shooting and depth to this roster to compete with the elite in the East, the team’s new big three alone are not enough.

 
Pacers small icon 9. Pacers (8-6, LW 6). A long break this week (Sunday to Friday) comes a good time to right the ship after losing three of four. The real issue has been the offense, which is scoring 7 points per 100 possessions fewer in those four games. Victor Oladipo and Tyreke Evans need to pick up the scoring starting against Miami Friday, and would help if Domantas Sabonis can do more of this.

 
Spurs small icon 10. Spurs (7-5, LW 7). None of this should come as a surprise I guess, but somehow it does — after Dejonte Murray went down in the preseason I was convinced the Spurs defense would suffer. And it did at first. But in the past nine games they are third in the NBA in defense, which is keeping them in games and allowing the Spurs to execute like they do and win down the stretch. The Spurs are bucking an NBA trend again, starting the lowest percent of their possessions in transition this season (9.7, via Cleaning the Glass).

 
Celtics small icon 11. Celtics (7-6, LW 8). Boston has lost 4-of-5, and surprisingly the biggest problems are on the defense — they are bottom five in the league defensively over that stretch. The Celtics also have problems on offense, specifically Jayson Tatum’s newfound love of a midrange shot, especially long twos early in the shot clock. Last season 35% of Tatum’s shots were from the midrange, this season that is up to 42%. He is taking 12% fewer shots at the rim (but is shooting more from three). Brad Stevens has a lot on his plate right now, but Tatum’s shot selection has to be on that list.

 
Grizzlies small icon 12. Grizzlies (7-5, LW 12). Dillon Brooks being out 6-8 weeks (MCL sprain) is a blow, they need to get JaMychal Green and Omri Casspi healthy to bring back some depth to the roster. Memphis likes their home cooking: They are 5-1 at home where they score 107.3 points per game, and are 2-4 on the road where the point total falls to 96.3 with a slower pace. The Grizzlies are on the road for 4-of-6.

 
Kings small icon 13. Kings (8-6, LW 13). What is De’Aaron Fox doing better this season? Scoring. The quickness was always there, decision making at pace improved as last season went on, but he didn’t finish plays and had a true shooting percentage of 47.8 (well below the league average). This season it’s up to 59.7, which is a big leap and well above the league average. Fox is shooting 75% at the rim and 44.2% from three. His making buckets and playing fast is opening up everything in the Kings’ offense.

 
Jazz small icon 14. Jazz (7-6, LW 17). After more than a year, the Jazz fans had built up plenty of venom for Gordon Hayward and let him hear it when Boston came to town. I get that, but Jazz fans need to move on because their new crush, Donovan Mitchell, is working out pretty well. His ability to go get buckets has been on display again this season, but his passing has improved this season and that’s giving the Jazz offense a little more diversity.

 
Hornets small icon 15. Hornets (7-7, LW 11). New coach James Borego came in with a fresh slate and a plan to give Malik Monk a real chance. The results so far? Meh. He’s scoring 12.5 points per game, shooting 33.3 percent from three, a true shooting percentage of 50.3 and a PER of 12.3 (both of those last two below the league average). For a player expected to be an athletic shooter and finisher out of college, it’s disappointing. That was an ugly loss for the Hornets on Tuesday to Cleveland, and now comes a rough stretch of games: Philadelphia, Boston, Indiana, OKC.

 
Lakers small icon 16. Lakers (7-6, LW 19). In their last five games, the Lakers have the fourth-ranked defense in the NBA, allowing 101.7 points per 100 possessions. Tyson Chandler certainly helps with that, but the improvement had already started. The troubling long-term thing in Los Angeles: In back-to-back games Lonzo Ball was pulled for the clutch minutes of a game because he was getting torched defensively. First by Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox. Sunday night it was rookie Trae Young. In a “sink-or-swim” season for the Lakers, that is not a good sign and something to watch going forward.

 
Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (7-6, LW 20). Win four in a row, lose six in a row, win three in a row again including a statement victory at Toronto. It’s a little hard to get a good read on the streaky Pelicans this season, although we have to note the team is 7-3 when Anthony Davis plays. The Pelicans are +11.1 per 100 possessions when Davis is on the court, -11.6 when he sits. Maybe that’s the only read about the Pelicans that matters.

 
Rockets small icon 18. Rockets (6-7, LW 15). Carmelo Anthony is away from the team, but don’t be shocked if the saga drags out for a while because finding a landing spot for him is not going to be easy for his agent. Houston has looked better in recent games, although one thing to watch: Teams are now not switching the pick-and-rolls with James Harden as often as they used to, they are now trapping and double-teaming him more, essentially getting the ball out of his hands and daring other players to beat them. How the Rockets adapt and if those other players step up to the challenge will be interesting to watch in the coming weeks, but they looked good doing it against Denver Tuesday.

Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (6-6, 18). Dwane Casey gets his homecoming Wednesday night in Toronto, where he was Coach of the Year last year, and he should get a warm welcome Raptors’ fans. He did a lot for that franchise. Blake Griffin still leads the NBA in touches per game at 92.5, but he does a good job keeping the ball moving — just 1.7 dribbles and 3.3 seconds per touch. (Compare that to James Harden, who averages 5 dribbles over 6.2 seconds every time he touches the rock.)

 
Nets small icon 20. Nets (6-8, LW 21). The Caris LeVert injury, while not as serious as it looked, is still a setback for a guy having a potential Most Improved Player season early. On the bright side for Nets fans, second-year man Jarrett Allen has stepped up his game across the board this season: 11.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game, a very efficient 62.6 true shooting percentage and a PER of 21.2. He is playing more, taking on more of the offense than his rookie season, and still upped his efficiency. All great signs for the future.

 
Heat small icon 21. Heat (5-8, LW 16). A few weeks ago Miami had a better offer on the table for Jimmy Butler than the Sixers — I’d take Josh Richardson/Dion Waiters/2019 first round pick over what the Timberwolves got every day. However, after Richardson’s strong start to the season, when Thibodeau called last week Richardson was off the table. In Miami that leaves the question: What does Pat Riley and company do now to spark this team? Miami will not have cap space until 2020, so it’s going to have to be a trade. Expect to hear a lot of Heat rumors.

 
Magic small icon 22. Magic (6-8, LW 23). The point guard spot remains this team’s Achilles heel, they were convinced things would be better without Elfrid Payton and they’re not. D.J. Augustin is a solid backup forced into a starter’s role, and when backup Jerian Grant is on the court Orlando is outscored by 11.6 points per 100 possessions.. Expect the Magic to look at any point guards who become available on the trade market, although the move expected by sources around the league is them to go hard at a point guard as a free agent next summer.

 
Mavericks small icon 23. Mavericks (5-8, LW 25). Luka Doncic is averaging 19.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.4 assists, is shooting 38.6 percent from three, has a PER of 15.7 — and you have to figure this is about as bad as he will ever be as an NBA player. He’s a 19-year-old rookie with a lot of room to get better (and he has, his defense has looked better the last few games). Dallas players reportedly have tired of DeAndre Jordan’s act — he was at his best when Doc Rivers was building him up, and Chris Paul was both pushing him and setting him up. Without CP3 Jordan is a far less consistent actor.

 
24. Timberwolves (5-9, LW 22). They went 0-5 on a West Coast road swing, losing whether Jimmy Butler played or not, which finally was enough to get it through Tom Thibodeau’s skull that he was not going to win with Butler on the roster this season and he needed to make a change. If he had come to that conclusion a few weeks earlier, he would have taken the better trade package from the Heat. That said, Robert Covington in particular, and maybe Dario Saric long term, should fit with the young Timberwolves core. Karl-Anthony Towns, this is your team now — act like it and take over. Every night.

 
Bulls small icon 25. Bulls (4-10, LW 27).. There was an interesting side note out of all the Jimmy Butler trade talk: Tom Thibodeau is considered a dead coach walking in Minnesota, very likely gone at the end of the season, and Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor is a big Fred Holberg fan. Could this lead to a coaching change in Chicago? We’re a long way from that, right now Zach LaVine has to be Mr. Everything to get the Bulls wins, and he had to try and do too much, as was evident in a loss to Dallas.

 
Wizards small icon 26. Wizards (4-9, LW 28). There’s a lot of trade speculation around the Wizards but little actual traction — other teams are interested in Bradley Beal but Washington wants to keep their best player and move the almost untradable contracts of John Wall or Otto Porter. Reality is likely nothing happens. Washington is in a soft part of the schedule, seven games in a row against teams below .500, and they are 3-2 so far after Monday’s win against Orlando. Everything changes on Sunday when Portland comes to town, starting a stretch of seven games in a row against teams over .500.

 
Knicks small icon 27. Knicks (4-10, LW 24). Allonzo Trier, the undrafted rookie out of Arizona who is averaging 11.4 points a night and is closing games for the Knicks now, remains one of the best stories of the young season. It makes up for the uninspired play from Frank Ntilikina, who didn’t impress me at Summer League in Las Vegas (and second-year Summer League guys who got a lot of run as rookies should blow you away in Summer League). New York is 2-5 on the road this season (they’re 2-5 at home, too) and have 7-of-9 coming up away from Madison Square Garden.

 
Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (3-11, LW 26). Vince Carter on Trae Young: “I think teams, if he is scoring or distributing the ball, they are going to beat him up a little bit. I tell you what, he has done a great job of staying the course, trying to make the right read and play, he has done that these first couple of games. [Sunday night against the Lakers] wasn’t anything different.” Young had an up-and-down game against the Lakers but when it mattered in the fourth he was making plays, including a good shot attempt for the game winner (Tyson Chandler just made a better play).

 
Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (2-11, LW 30). Where did that come from — the Cavaliers thrashed the Hornets on Tuesday night by 24 (to be fair, Charlotte’s horrible shooting from three helped with that). That win moved this team out of the bottom of the rankings. Kyle Korver’s name is coming up in trade buzz around the Sixers, a team now desperately in need of shooting, but it’s not going to be easy to get a deal done because they Cavs will want building blocks for the future back and the Sixers have used up a lot of those assets.

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (2-11, LW 29). If the future is Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker, how are they playing when together? Well, not good — the Suns are getting outscored by 9.2 points per 100 when they are on the court together. However, the team’s offense ticks up 5.3 points per 100 when they are paired and as Ayton’s defense improves (that’s going to take time) those numbers should improve. The Suns are losers of four in a row and 10-of-11, they are doing it with the worst offense in the NBA and the third-worst defense overall.

Watch Caris LeVert’s game-winning layup lifting Nets over Knicks 107-105

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NEW YORK (AP) —  Caris LeVert‘s driving layup with a second left gave him a career-high 28 points and the Brooklyn Nets their first victory of the season, 107-105 over the New York Knicks on Friday night.

LeVert surpassed the 27 points he scored Wednesday night in Detroit, when the Nets fell just short. He made sure they pulled this one out, driving right into the lane and putting up the tiebreaking shot over Tim Hardaway Jr.

D'Angelo Russell and Jarrett Allen each added 15 points for the Nets. They improved to 6-1 in home openers since moving to Brooklyn in 2012.

Hardaway and Enes Kanter each scored 29 points for the Knicks, who were trying for just their third 2-0 start in 20 years. Kanter tied it on a three-point play with 15.9 seconds remaining but all they could manage for a final shot after LeVert’s basket was a long 3-pointer by Hardaway that wasn’t close.

The Nets were still without starting forwards Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who just became a father, and DeMarre Carroll, who had right ankle surgery. But they did get back Allen Crabbe, their normal starting guard who came off the bench after missing the opener while recovering sprained left ankle.

They started fast, shooting 70 percent in the first quarter, and were in control until early in the second half. Then, Kanter and Frank Ntilikina had a couple of baskets apiece in an 11-0 run that wiped out a 10-point deficit and gave the Knicks a 66-65 lead on Hardaway’s 3-pointer.

New York was ahead 76-74 after three quarters and neither team led by more than six in a back-and-forth final 12 minutes.

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.

Knicks stress patience, indulge impatient tendencies by stretching Joakim Noah

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry talked a big game about patiently rebuilding – practically a foreign concept in New York.

And most of the summer, they backed up their words.

They drafted Kevin Knox No. 9 and Mitchell Robinson No. 36. They didn’t sign a single free agent to a multi-year deal. They made no win-now trade (or any trade at all).

Yet, even in the Knicks’ most patient offseason in years, they closed it with an incredibly impatient move.

New York stretched Joakim Noah, locking in a cap hit of $18,530,000 this season and $6,431,667 each of the following three years. The move opens an additional $12,863,333 in cap space next summer.

But what if the Knicks don’t need that extra room? What if they don’t attract free agents worth spending that amount then? Eating Noah’s entire $19,295,000 2019-20 salary that season, rather than splitting it over three years, is off the table.

What if they need even more room? What if they can draw great free agents who command more money than New York can offer? Attaching sweeteners to trade Noah’s salary and remove it entirely is also now impossible.

The Knicks could have waited until next summer to stretch, straight waive or trade Noah. They would have had far more information then, as the stretch deadline is Aug. 31.

This move puts so much needless pressure on New York to use its cap space next summer. Though the Knicks’ reported top target, Kyrie Irving, already said he’d re-sign with the Celtics, Kevin Durant-New York rumors are swirling, and Jimmy Butler put the Knicks on his list. The Knicks project to have about $33 million in cap space next summer, including a cap hold for only Kristaps Porzingis. They could add a franchise-changing star.

But this doesn’t jibe with a patient rebuild.

Biding time until next summer, New York took fliers on Mario Hezonja (one year, $6.5 million) and Noah Vonleh (one year, minimum). But despite seemingly tepid markets for those two in free agency, the Knicks didn’t capitalize on their leverage by attaching any additional unguaranteed seasons to their contracts. That will make it extremely difficult to get value from them. If Hezonja or Vonleh break out, they’ll be in line for bigger deals next summer.

Of course, it’s more likely New York’s first-, not second-, draft players dictate the team’s future. For the first time in eight seasons, the Knicks will have three players simultaneously on rookie-scale contracts – Porzingis, Frank Ntilikina and Knox. That most-modest benchmark is a major accomplishment in New York, where quick fixes have ruled the day.

After waiving Noah, it’s hard to see the Knicks as truly committed to a new, more prudent approach.

 

Offseason grade: C-

Half-dozen players with especially intriguing contract-year seasons ahead

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After increasing 7%, 11%, 34% and 5% the previous four years, the NBA’s salary cap increased just 3% this year. Plus, teams were already overstocked with highly paid players signed during the 2016 – and, to an extent, 2015 – cap booms.

That meant many players signed one-year deals this offseason, allowing them to hit the market again next summer, when the cap is projected to rise 7% and many players signed in 2015 and 2016 come off the books.

The result is a deep 2019 free-agent class.

Some potential 2019 free agents, like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, are assured max-contract offers. Even Kawhi Leonard, who missed nearly all of last season due to injury, is practically guaranteed of max offers.

But there are many more players with their future compensation in flux. Here are six players with a ton on the line next season:

DeMarcus Cousins

Cousins shocked the league by taking the Warriors’ taxpayer mid-level exception. It’s probably a one-year rental. The highest starting salary Golden State can offer him next summer through Non-Bird Rights is $6,404,400. This year will give him a chance to get healthy, show he can contribute positively to winning and expand his versatility. Cousins isn’t the perfect fit with the Warriors, and some teams are still scared off by his attitude. But, if all goes well this season, Cousins won’t be able to claim no offers next summer.

Isaiah Thomas

Thomas learned the hard way Brinks trucks typically carry an amount near his $2,029,463 minimum salary – not the nine-digit max contract he hoped for. That dream has probably passed, but Thomas can still land a lucrative contract next summer if he thrives with the Nuggets this season. First, that means getting healthy, as his hip injury still lingers. Then, the 5-foot-9 point guard must show he can still get separation and lift to get buckets. And it’d help if he meshes better with his teammates and coaches. It’s amazing how big of a hit Thomas’ value has taken in the last year, but he has proven his determination before. Will he do it again?

D'Angelo Russell

Russell entered last season as a potential franchise player for the Nets. Then, he got outplayed by Spencer Dinwiddie. Russell missed 34 games due to injury and stagnated in his growth while on the court. The shine is off the former No. 2 pick. But Russell is still just 22 and talented, and point guards tend to develop later. He could earn a huge payday, though it’ll require a major breakthrough. He and Brooklyn can technically sign an extension by Oct. 15, but that seems unlikely – especially with Dinwiddie, another pending 2019 free agent, also in the mix. Most likely, Russell becomes a restricted free agent next summer.

Tobias Harris

Harris reportedly rejected a four-year, $80 million extension from the Clippers this summer. That’s a lot of money to turn down, but the upside is there. Harris could be the Clippers’ focal point this season, especially in the starting lineup (which probably won’t include Lou Williams). Harris is just 26 and has the all-around skills and work ethic to cash in. The Clippers are aiming higher, so Harris might have to leave L.A. to get paid.

Trey Burke

The No. 9 pick in 2013, Burke gradually fell out of favor with the Jazz. He got a change of scenery with the Wizards and struggled even more in Washington than he had in Utah. Burke seemingly blamed everyone but himself. He fell out of the league until the Knicks called him up in the middle of last season. Burke flourished in New York, showing the offensive command everyone expected when he declared for the draft out of Michigan. Burke must fend off Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay – more recent and higher picks – at point guard, and the Knicks’ reported top target in 2019 free agency is point Kyrie Irving. But if Burke maintains his play with New York over a full season, he’ll have lucrative options somewhere.

Marcus Morris

Morris signed a four-year, $20 million extension with the Suns in 2014, taking a discount to play with his twin brother, Markieff Morris. Then, Phoenix traded Marcus to the Pistons. Marcus vowed never to let personal relationships get in the away of business again. Now with the Celtics, he’ll have his chance to maximize his earnings next summer. Marcus is a hard-nosed and skilled combo forward in a league where his versatility is increasingly valued. He’ll try to prove his worth on a stacked Boston team that has too many strong pieces to allow any individual to fully fly.