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NBA Power Rankings: Nuggets back on top, Celtics, Pacers climbing fast

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For the second time this season, Denver moves to the top of the power rankings, holding off the healthy and improving Warriors. At the other end of the scale, the Bulls are the new occupants of the cellar.

 
Nuggets small icon 1. Nuggets (21-9, last week No. 6).. Mention Denver as a potential Western Conference Finalist and the question is quickly thrown back: “Is this team for real?” If you’re looking for a sign how about this: The Nuggets are 12-3 against teams over .500, best record in the NBA. Think a contender needs a star? Nikola Jokic is pushing his way into the fringe MVP conversation. Denver has won four in a row (on a homestand) but now have 7-of-11 on the road, where it is just 8-6 this season. Too bad no Nuggets on Christmas, just so we could see Jokic do more things like this.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (21-10, LW 4). The Warriors are still coasting through the regular season, as evidenced by their disinterested loss to the Raptors a week ago (when Toronto was on a back-to-back and without Kawhi Leonard). Have your doubts about the depth and everything else if you want, but when Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green are on the court together they are +12.8 points per 100 possessions. The Warriors will flip the switch when it matters. Like Christmas Day against LeBron James and the Lakers.

 
Bucks small icon 3. Bucks (20-9, LW 1). The Bucks have won 4-of-5, but the one loss was a blowout to the Pacers and it raised some concerns. At the top of the list right now is Khris Middleton, who is shooting 31.5 percent overall and 26.7 percent from three over those last five games. The Bucks need him to get right because Giannis Antetokounmpo and friends got the Christmas Day game they wanted, at noon in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks.

 
Raptors small icon 4. Raptors (23-9, LW 3). Toronto has some of the most impressive wins of the NBA season… and just as many baffling losses. Recently, the Raptors won back-to-back games on the road against the Clippers and Warriors without their best player — Toronto is 7-1 without Leonard this season — then dropped games at Portland and Denver. Both of those losses were without Kyle Lowry (thigh contusion) and it speaks to how crucial he is for this team to thrive. Overall the Raptors have dropped 4-of-6 and have an interesting test against the red-hot Pacers Wednesday night.

 
Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (18-11, LW 8). Boston’s offense was on fire — even with Marcus Smart in the starting lineup — during their eight-game win streak (which ended in Detroit last weekend). This was a bottom five offense for much of the start of the season but in the last nine games (including the Detroit loss) the Celtics had a 120.6 offensive rating and shot 40.4 percent from three. With Gordon Hayward moved to the bench and Al Horford surprisingly looking a step slower, much of the offensive load has fallen on Kyrie Irving, and he has been up to the task.

 
Pacers small icon 6. Pacers (20-11, LW 9). Indiana had won seven in a row and turned heads, at least before a surprising home loss to Cleveland Tuesday. While much of the Pacers’ run has come against a soft spot in the schedule, they knocked off the Bucks and Sixers in this stretch, and they have outscored opponents by 9.7 per 100 possessions in their last eight (including Tuesday’s loss), second best in the NBA. December win streaks are not harbingers of playoff success, but ignore the Pacers at your own peril. This team can play.

 
Thunder small icon 7. Thunder (19-10, LW 2). Who leads OKC in scoring, three point shooting percentage, PER, and has been the team’s MVP this season? Paul George. Not that guy with the MVP trophy at home, the other star. George is averaging 24.9 points per game and his play has got him in the early All-NBA team discussion. The Thunder have 7-of-9 coming up on the road (where they are 7-7 this season) and that includes a Christmas Day game at Houston.

 
Sixers small icon 8. 76ers (20-12, LW 5). A couple of rough losses last week (Pacers and Nets) with Jimmy Butler on the sidelines. That is less about Butler and more about how this team lacks quality depth, they are not getting consistent quality play out of guys like Furkan Korkmaz and Wilson Chandler (Philly misses the guys it traded to get Butler – still a good trade, but there were sacrifices). Fun prime-time Christmas Day showdown with the Celtics.

 
Blazers small icon 9. Trail Blazers (17-13, LW 14). Two quality wins last week (Toronto and the LA Clippers) stopped the bleeding of a 3-8 stretch. Part of the reason for the Blazers’ fast start (12-5) was the play of the Evan Turner and the bench, but that has fallen off so hard that coach Terry Stotts has gone back to keeping one of Damian Lillard or C.J. McCollum on the court at all times. You can watch those rotations in the Christmas Day nightcap, where Portland travels to Salt Lake City (the Jazz are playing better than their record indicates, that will be an interesting game).

 
Lakers small icon 10. Lakers (18-13, LW 7). For those of you tracking how well LeBron James is meshing with the young Lakers, know that L.A. is +1.9 per 100 when LeBron and Lonzo Ball share the court. When LeBron and Brandon Ingram share the court it’s just +0.5. (The best is LeBron and Josh Hart, +8.3.) Los Angeles just went 1-3 on a road trip, including ugly losses to the Wizards and Nets. The Lakers are 8-3 vs. teams over .500 and 10-10 against teams under that mark. Does that mean it’s good news they get the over .500 Warriors on Christmas Day?

 
Rockets small icon 11. Rockets (15-14, LW 21). Eric Gordon has moved into the starting lineup, James Ennis is coming off the bench, and in spite of that — Gordon has struggled and Ennis got injured — the Rockets have won four in a row, all against good teams in the West. What changed? Their defense has moved from bottom-five abysmal to league average in those wins, and in two of those games James Harden went off like a guy who wants to keep his MVP trophy. He had 50 points against the Lakers and 47 against the Pacers. Yes, he traveled on that setback everyone saw vs. Indy. Yes, he’s frustrating to play against. But Harden is an elite scorer and when he is on opponents are helpless.

 
Spurs small icon 12. Spurs (16-15, LW 19). San Antonio won 5-of-6 during its recent homestand, and we’re just going to ignore that baffling loss to Chicago (blowing a 21-point lead). The Spurs have been dominant during this stretch (best offense in the NBA, second best defense over that stretch) and they have done it with balance. That said, the loss to the Bulls was a reminder of the inconsistencies of this team. Starting Friday in Minnesota the Spurs have five games in a row against other teams fighting for playoff slots in the West.

 
Kings small icon 13. Kings (16-14, LW 18). No Marvin Bagley III for at least another week due to a bone bruise in his left knee. The rookie made headlines anyway this week when coach Dave Joerger praised Luka Doncic and some interpreted that as a shot at Bagley (when in reality it was a shot at the front office). Joerger then tried to make up for it comparing De’Aaron Fox and Bagley to Westbrook and Durant. Even when the franchise is playing well — much better than expected — and in the playoff mix, they can’t stop the petty, distracting sniping.

 
Mavericks small icon 14. Mavericks (15-14, LW 12). It’s good to see Dirk Nowitzki back on the court, but he is playing a very limited role through three games — 7.3 minutes a night, scoring 2.7 points per game and shooting a very un-Dirk like 37.5 percent. He’ll get better, but he’s not the focal point of this team any longer. Dallas has lost three straight, that despite getting J.J. Barea back from a sprained ankle. Tuesday’s loss in Denver was the start of 9-of-11 on the road, much of that against other teams in the West battle. The next few weeks could make or break their season.

 
Grizzlies small icon 15. Grizzlies (16-14, LW 11). Joakim Noah is giving Memphis between 14 and 15 minutes a night off the bench, and the defense remains solid when he is on the court (1.2 points per 100 better than when he’s off). The problem is the offense nosedives with him out there, more than 10 points per 100 worse (which is not all about Noah, the Grizzlies weak bench is all to blame). The Grizzlies have lost 5-of-6 and have three games remaining on a tough road trip through the West.

 
Clippers small icon 16. Clippers (17-13, LW 10). Losers of four in a row, all without Lou Williams, but the Clippers problems go farther back than that, they have dropped 6-of-7, the lone win in that stretch came in overtime against the Suns team without Devin Booker. While Tobias Harris is in a slump and the offense without Sweet Lou is struggling, the bigger problem is on defense where the Clippers are allowing 121 points per 100 in the last four games and 115.9 in the last 10 (both worst in the NBA). Things don’t get easier for the Clippers with their next six against teams in the playoff hunt in the West.

 
Hornets small icon 17. Hornets (14-15, LW 16). Charlotte goes as Kemba Walker goes, and in the last 10 games that has not been good. Walker is shooting 33.7 percent in those 10 and 24.7 percent from three, is scoring six fewer points per game and the Hornets are getting outscored by 4.7 per game with him on the court. That said, the Hornets are 5-5 in that last 10 including wins over the Nuggets and Bucks, but they are not going to be able to sustain that level of winning — or make the playoffs — if Walker does not get his mojo back soon.

Pistons small icon 18. Pistons (14-14, 13). Detroit pulled off one of the most improbable wins of the season last Saturday: The Pistons had lost six in a row, the Celtics had won eight in a row, and yet it was Detroit’s night. That, however, is the Pistons lone win in their last eight games. The good news is the schedule eases up a little: Minnesota, Charlotte, Atlanta, an Washington are the next four. That should help Detroit get its footing back.

 
19. Timberwolves (14-16, LW 15). Since the Jimmy Butler trade, the Timberwolves are 8-3 at home but 2-4 on the road, and that includes a recent four-game losing streak. In that losing streak their defense, particularly chasing teams off the arc, came undone. That’s nothing new, the Timberwolves have a defensive rating that is 9 points worse per 100 — or, to go old school, they have given up 9.5 more per game — away from Target Center. The concern about that is starting Friday in San Antonio the Timberwolves are back on the road for 6-of-7, they can’t afford to slide farther down the standings in the West.

 
Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (15-16, LW 17). Despite Anthony Davis playing like an MVP and Julius Randle beasting on everyone, the Pelicans are treading water — their last 10 games have gone win, loss, win, loss, etc. The Pelicans offense has been a little better than average, their defense about average, during that stretch, but the Pelicans just can’t string together wins and they remain 12th in the West (1.5 games back of the eight seed). No team is being more active and aggressive heading into the trade deadline, management wants to impress Davis and prove he can win in the Big Easy before what will be a big summer for him.

 
Jazz small icon 21. Jazz (14-17, LW 20). This feels to low for how the Jazz look on paper and with their point differential, but then again they have lost 4-of-5. Utah has been the unluckiest team in the NBA this season, they have the point differential of a 17-14 team (according to Cleaning the Glass, which means stats without garbage time included). Utah has played the toughest schedule in the NBA so far and it shows. It doesn’t get easier this week with the Warriors, Thunder, and the Trail Blazers twice, once on Christmas Day.

 
Nets small icon 22. Nets (14-18, LW 24). The scrappy, never-say-die Nets are winners of six in a row (with wins over the Raptors, Sixers, and Lakers in there). They’ve done it with an elite offense (117.6 points per 100 possessions in the streak, third best in the NBA) covering up for a still bottom 10 defense. Great move signing Spencer Dinwiddie to an extension, he’s the kind of tough, smart player that epitomizes the Nets.

 
Magic small icon 23. Magic (14-15, LW 23). No team gets to the free throw line less than Orlando, their free throw rate of 15.3 is worst in the league. Which is interesting in that the team drives the lane 41.3 times per game, right about the middle of the pack (18th in the league), the Magic just don’t draw contact. That was some ugly basketball played in Mexico City last week, but the Magic won both games there so it looked pretty to them.

 
Heat small icon 24. Heat (13-16, LW 22). Miami has hung on without Goran Dragic, who missed 12-of-14 with knee soreness (the Heat went 6-6) but can they sustain that over the next couple of months now that he is out with knee surgery? The Heat are -5.8 per 100 without Dragic, almost all of that drop coming on the offensive end. Also, now Pat Riley and the Heat will become the target of other teams thinking the Heat will be sellers at the deadline.

 
Wizards small icon 25. Wizards (12-19, LW 25). Washington went out and got Trevor Ariza, the kind of solid wing presence on the court and professional off of it that management hopes can turn the season around, but it feels like they could have gotten more than that for Kelly Oubre. Nothing sums up the Wizards’ season better than an impressive win at home against LeBron and the Lakers where John Wall is engaged and dropping 40, then turning around and losing to the Hawks. Ariza is not going to fix that.

 
Suns small icon 26. Suns (7-24, LW 30). Winners of three in a row, and they “won” the trade with the Wizards, too (although there were no real winners in that deal, except maybe for Memphis for not being a part of it). Kelly Oubre will be more engaged and play hard in a contract year for the Suns, plus he can still be traded before the deadline (just not in a package with other players, has to be alone). Phoenix could have held on to Austin Rivers and tried to find a trade for him as well, but they decided to let the guard walk and save some money on the buyout.

 
Cavaliers small icon 27. Cavaliers (8-23, LW 28). Kevin Love is out until January, Tristan Thompson remains in street clothes, and the most interesting thing around the Cavaliers right now is J.R. Smith trade watch. There has not been a lot to celebrate in Cleveland this season, so they joy of the Cavaliers after Larry Nance’s tip-in to beat the Pacers was fun to see. Plus, what a great play.

 
Knicks small icon 28. Knicks (9-23, LW 27). In his last five games, four of them starts, Kevin Knox has averaged 19.4 points per game, is shooting 41.7 percent from three, and is grabbing 6.8 rebounds per game. His confidence is growing. The Knicks have lost 7-of-8 but because they’re the Knicks can see them Christmas Day as they try to slow down Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. Good luck with that.

 
Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (7-23, LW 26). No team in the NBA is playing faster than the Hawks, who averaged 106.6 possessions per game (a full possession faster than the second place Kings). Play fast, play poor defense, turn the ball over too much and things happen like giving up 144 points to the Nets. Three point line, imaginary four point line, it doesn’t matter — Trae Young continues to struggle with his shot from beyond the arc.

 
Bulls small icon 30. Bulls (7-24, LW 29). The Bulls have lost 11-of-13 with an offense in that stretch scoring less than a point per possession (worst in the league by far in that time). Now Jabari Parker has been benched and Zach LaVine is out injured, that’s not going to help the Bulls offense (it could be good for their defense, however. With Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis healthy and playing well, Parker moves onto the trade block but it will be interesting to see what Chicago can get for him (Parker has a team option for $20 million, making him valuable for a team looking to clear cap space and willing to send Chicago picks/young players).

Report: Furkan Korkmaz requested trade from 76ers

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The 76ers declined Furkan Korkmaz‘s third-year team option for next season, making him an unrestricted free agent next summer.

He apparently wants to leave Philadelphia even sooner.

Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

Sources have said the Turkish player requested to be traded because of lack of playing time.

“If I’m not getting minutes here, I just want to look for other options,” he said.  “I don’t know what’s the options right now, just try to be on the court.”

“I feel like I didn’t really have that opportunity,” he said of receiving a fair opportunity. “Last year, I was injured for a long time and this year just a couple of games in the garbage time. It wasn’t like good rotation minutes for me. That’s why I feel like I didn’t get that opportunity to show on the court what I got.”

This is very normal. Most players who aren’t in the rotation believe they didn’t get a fair shake and want to be traded.

From the outside, it seems Korkmaz has gotten a fair opportunity. Philadelphia trying to win now. He’s a 21-year-old who must get stronger. It’s a tough fit.

But he possesses intriguing tools, and teams looking more toward the future could use him.

The catch: Any team that trades for Korkmaz and ends the season with him could re-sign him for a starting salary only up to his declined option amount ($2,033,160). So, if a team gets Korkmaz and he breaks out, that team would have a significant disadvantage in keeping him. Better to just wait and try to sign him next summer.

The 76ers got themselves into this predicament by declining Korkmaz’s option. Perhaps, waiting until the Oct. 31 deadline and hoping for the best was their best course. Just because it backfired doesn’t mean it was the wrong plan.

But there probably would have been a better trade market for Korkmaz, a first-round pick just two years ago, earlier in the summer. Perhaps, a team would have traded for Korkmaz intending to exercise his third-year option.

Except Philadelphia didn’t have a general manager throughout the offseason after ousting Bryan Colangelo. This seems like the type of non-move that could slip through the cracks.

So, Korkmaz might be stuck – unless his expiring contract proves useful in a trade or he finds a team that believes in him, but not too much.

Rockets’ Marquese Chriss, 76ers’ Furkan Korkmaz, Nuggets’ Tyler Lydon, Thunder’s Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot also have options declined

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The Rockets tried to sell that their trade with the Suns wasn’t just about financial relief, that they truly believe Marquese Chriss would thrive in their system.

But forced to put their money where their mouth is, the Rockets buckled.

Houston declined Chriss’ $4,078,236 team option for next season.

That was the right call. Chriss is too far from being a productive NBA player to guarantee him that much. He’s just 21 and still possesses the raw tools that got him drafted No. 8 just two years ago, but NBA play is too complex for him right now. This is just more evidence the Rockets’ offseason was primarily driven by limiting costs.

We already knew of four other declined rookie-scale team options – Suns’ Dragan Bender, Timberwolves’ Justin Patton, Pistons’ Henry Ellenson and Raptors’ Malachi Richardson. (How rookie-scale contracts work.) But in addition to Chriss, three other players had their declined options revealed shortly before last night’s deadline. Those three with option salaries:

76ers’ Furkan Korkmaz ($2,033,160)

The 76ers badly want another star, and next summer might be their last good chance to sign one in free agency. It’ll be the last offseason Ben Simmons is still on his relatively cheap rookie-scale contract before he joins Joel Embiid on a max deal. So, I can see why Philadelphia maximized its flexibility by declining Korkmaz’s option.

But I would have exercised it. Korkmaz is athletic and skilled, and though he must get stronger, that isn’t disqualifying for a 21-year-old. Though Korkmaz was drafted No. 26 in 2016, this is actually his third-year option, because he waited a year to sign. So, exercising this option would have come with the chance to keep Korkmaz yet another year at a potentially cheap price if he develops.

The clearer failure probably was not trading Korkmaz to a team that would have exercised his option. Maybe that’s what happens when you go through the offseason without a general manager.

Now, it’ll be tougher to find suitors, because any team that trades for him and ends the season with him will be limited to paying him a starting salary of $2,033,160 in free agency. If he breaks out, that wouldn’t be enough.

Nuggets’ Tyler Lydon ($2,190,720)

The Nuggets have gotten plenty of grief for trading down from the No. 13 pick – which the Jazz used on rising star Donovan Mitchell – in last year’s draft.

This won’t help.

In the deal with Utah, Denver received Trey Lyles (nice) and No. 24 pick Tyler Lydon (not so nice). Lydon just hasn’t looked on track to stick in the NBA, in part due to injury. He was good enough in the NBA’s minor league that I probably would have exercised this third-year option, but the Nuggets could face a luxury-tax crunch next season. It’s a close call.

That said, the Nuggets did this knowing this would make their already-panned draft-day trade look even worse. That says something.

Thunder’s Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot ($2,529,684)

The Thunder love to take fliers on athletic wings – including Luwawu-Cabarrot, who was acquired from the 76ers in the Carmelo AnthonyDennis Schroder trade. But Luwawu-Cabarrot hasn’t developed even a niche, so declining his fourth-year option makes sense. Especially considering Oklahoma City faces repeater-rate tax concerns for next season.

Report: Nemanja Bjelica backs out of contract agreement with 76ers to return to Europe

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Nemanja Bjelica had his $4,937,499 qualifying offer pulled by the Timberwolves (so they could sign Anthony Tolliver while remaining out of the luxury tax).

Bjelica rebounded with the 76ers, agreeing to take the $4,449,000 room exception for one year.

But…

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

DeAndre Jordan 2.0? Maybe. We don’t know exactly what, if any, contingencies Bjelica and Philadelphia put on the agreement.

A key distinction: Jordan pledged to sign with the Mavericks and reneged all during the July moratorium, when he couldn’t officially sign. Bjelica’s deal with Philadelphia came out a day before the moratorium ended, and he could have signed during the last 11 days.

Teams often delay signing players with the room exception, because they can exceed the cap with it. But the 76ers have long used up their cap space. Unless they have a bigger deal in mind and asked Bjelica to wait just in case, they should have known for a while something might be amiss.

Bjelica is better than any remaining unrestricted free agent, so he won’t be easily replaced. Philadelphia will probably hold its room exception for potential buyout players, as it’s unclear anyone available could command more than a minimum salary.

The 76ers certainly viewed Bjelica as a replacement for Ersan Ilyasova, who left for the Bucks. Depth matters, but at least Philadelphia still has a stretch four in Dario Saric, who improved his range (and a lot more) last season.

Bjelica’s defection will also help, though not solve, the 76ers’ roster crunch. They still have 16 players clearly getting standard contracts – one more than the regular-season limit – and 2017 second-round Jonah Bolden has stated a plan to sign with Philadelphia for next season. So, the 76ers might have to buy out Jerryd Bayless and/or waive players like Justin Anderson and Furkan Korkmaz.

76ers take 1 big step (and a couple smaller ones, too)

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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.

Even the NBA’s worst team has only a 25% chance of getting the No. 1 pick in the lottery.

The 76ers made their own luck.

Philadelphia finished with the league’s fourth-worst record, fell to No. 5 in the lottery, swapped picks with the Kings to move up to No. 3 thanks to a two-year-old trade then traded up to No. 1 by enticing the Celtics with a future draft pick (another pick acquired in that heist of Sacramento, a Lakers pick or one of the 76ers’ own).

Whew, that’s some Process.

No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz is the latest prize in the 76ers’ reverse engineering of the NBA’s system, joining Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. That’s an exciting young core that might be ready to lift Philadelphia from years of tanking to playoff contention.

To that end, the 76ers signed J.J. Redick to a one-year, $23 million contract. The 33-year-old has already shown signs of decline, but he’s an upgrade over any shooting guard on the roster. If their other young players are ready to make the leap, the 76ers didn’t want to learn the hard way they were a starting shooting guard short of reaching the postseason. In securing an immediate boost, Philadelphia essentially paid extra for flexibility. Redick’s salary will almost certainly outpace his production, the 76ers ensured no lasting negative effects beyond this season.

The same logic could apply to Amir Johnson, who signed a one-year, $11 million contract. But Philadelphia’s frontcourt depth and the dreary market for bigs make that deal less defensible – especially if Johnson’s salary could have been reappropriated for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (who surprisingly became an unrestricted free agent) or paying Robert Covington more up front (as opposed to in future seasons, when the savings might matter more) in a renegotiation-and-extension.

With about $15 million in cap space remaining, the 76ers will likely still renegotiate-and-extend Covington once they can in November. He fits well into a deep crop of solid assets beyond the big three: Dario Saric, Richaun Holmes, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Jahlil Okafor, Justin Anderson, T.J. McConnell, Nik Stauskas, Furkan Korkmaz (the No. 26 pick last year who signed this year), all Philadelphia’s own future first-rounders plus one extra (from either the Kings or Lakers – or both, if if Philadelphia’s own pick is conveyed to Boston). The 76ers even added to the pool this summer with a couple draft-and-stash selections – No. 25 pick Anzejs Pasecniks and No. 36 pick Jonah Bolden (who I’m personally quite high on).

That grouping alone would be envy of many teams. And then there are still Embiid, Simmons and Fultz – the trio that will determine how quickly the brighter days ahead arrive in Philadelphia.

The 76ers’ revival is built on Embiid’s back – and feet and knees. He could be a generational player, but injuries have already cost him 215 games in three years and limited him to just 25 minutes per game in the 31 he has played.

Though it’s the one that looms far beyond, Embiid’s health isn’t the only potential pitfall this season. Rookie point guards – whether it be Fultz or Simmons – rarely lead good teams. It’s a position that typically requires fine-tuning.

Still, this is just the start in Philadelphia. Making the playoffs this season would be nice, but bigger goals down the road appear attainable either way.

The 76ers were in great shape entering the summer. They’re in even better shape now.

Offseason grade: B