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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.

Celtics GM Ainge on Kyrie Irving: ‘He can be the best player in the world’

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Kyrie Irving has committed to staying with Boston next summer when he can — and will — opt out of his contract and become a free agent. Right now, it’s like all of Boston is singing kumbaya: Irving loves Boston, the Celtics fans love Irving, Brad Stevens is praising Irving and he is returning the praise to his coach, Irving loves his teammates and his teammates love him.

But nobody had praise — and raised expectations — like Celtics president/GM Danny Ainge. Check out his comments to Joe Varden of The Athletic.

“I see a more mature Kyrie than even just last year. I think he feels more comfortable with everything in his life and the organization and where he is as a player…

“I think he’s anxious to be a leader, not anxious to just lead the team in scoring or be the most efficient player on our team, but I think he really wants to hold the guys to a high standard…

“I don’t know to what extent, but it has accelerated our timeline to the point where Kyrie is one of those players that can be the best player in the gym on any given day against any given team,” Ainge said. “He can be the best player in the world. He can add a lot of juice to your team and his teammates a lot of confidence.”

That’s setting the bar high for Irving, but setting the bar high is what this Celtics’ season is about. (For Irving, getting near that bar starts with him staying healthy for a full season.)

Expectations in Boston are Finals or bust — this team made the Eastern Conference Finals last season without Irving or Gordon Hayward, both out injured. Their young core players, particularly Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, stepped up, Al Horford reminded everyone he is good at everything, and Boston kept surprising teams. Until they ran into LeBron James. However, he’s gone, Boston’s healthy, and they are the team to beat.

Celtics spoiled with depth. Too much?

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The Celtics return eight players who started during a playoff run that ended one game from the NBA Finals.

Boston also has two other players who might be better than those eight.

Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward will join Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Aron Baynes, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris and Semi Ojeleye on the court this season. It’s an embarrassment of riches.

It’s also a stacked roster that exists at the same time as the Warriors, arguably the greatest team of all-time. So, Boston will still have major external barriers.

But the Celtics’ initial challenges will come from within as they try to balance all this talent. How will they manage?

Coach Brad Stevens is already sending his message: This is a special team capable of winning big if everyone sacrifices, and these opportunities don’t come around often. Stevens is an excellent communicator and has repeatedly gotten his players to embrace their roles. The expectation should be a continuation this year.

Perhaps no player has set a better tone than Rozier. Starting for an injured Irving in last year’s playoffs, Rozier wowed. He looked every bit like the starting point guard he hopes to become. But Rozier has consistently said he has no problem returning to the bench behind Irving.

This is also a contract year for Rozier (unless he signs an extension before the season). He has been stuck on a relatively low-paying rookie-scale deal and this will be his chance to earn set-for-life money.

If he can buy in, why can’t everyone else?

There are plenty of Celtics with big reputations considering their standing in the league. Boston put a league-high seven players in ESPN’s ranking of the NBA’s top 100 players. Per #NBArank, the Celtics have the NBA’s second-best third-best player (Horford), second-best fourth-best player (Brown), best fifth-best player (Hayward), best sixth-best player (Smart) and best seventh-best player (Rozier).

Here’s how the top 100 is represented by rank within each team – teams’ best players in the first column, teams second-best players in the second column, etc.:

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Quibble with the exact rankings. But the overall picture is clear: The Celtics are loaded.

And Boston has three extra first-round picks, likely including the Kings’ this season (top-one protected). The Celtics aren’t just in great shape now. They’re poised for a long run of success.

But personal agendas sometimes derail teams headed for greatness. Rozier and Morris are playing for new contracts, though at least they might be the only ones in the rotation. Irving is practically guaranteed the max next summer no matter how he performs this year. Horford and Baynes have relatively lucrative player options to fall back on. There are fewer potential pitfalls here than usual.

The best thing Boston can do to keep everyone on track is win. Many players across the league feel as if their role isn’t large enough. The ones on winning teams usually keep quiet (enough) about it. How can they complain when the overall plan is working? They typically understand it won’t go over well. It’s players on underwhelming teams who grumble more.

Essentially, these things snowball.

And the Celtics have been snowballing toward greatness for a while. They could hit a snag, but the avalanche is building and coming for the rest of the league.

Check out Kyrie Irving dropping 20 in preseason home opener

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Back in Boston, Kyrie Irving looked at home.

It was the Celtics’ second preseason game, their first at home, and Irving looked comfortable scoring 20 points on 14 shots. He was finding a little space coming off picks and was pulling up, was dishing to the open man, and just looking like he was in midseason form.

Gordon Hayward was back in the lineup and had four points but struggled with his shot, going 1-of-7 from the floor. He looks rusty these first two games, which is understandable after missing last season.

Meanwhile, rookie Miles Bridges of the Hornets dropped 23 in the game and looked good.

 

Rumor: Celtics, Jamal Crawford have mutual interest

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The Boston Celtics have 15 guaranteed contracts on the roster, the most they can carry into the season. They also have pretty good depth on the wing: Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward will start at the 2/3 spots, with Marcus Smart and Semi Ojeleye behind them. The Celtics are not really looking to add a wing. Plus, Crawford was frustrated with his role last season in Minnesota getting almost 21 minutes a night and having the ball in his hands a lot, that’s not necessarily a fit with Boston’s selfless style.

But a good rumor never lets facts get in the way — like Jamal Crawford to the Celtics.

The Athletic’s Jared Weiss, talking on the Celtics Beat podcast with Adam Kaufman, said there is “mutual interest” between the sides (hat tip to NBC Sports Boston).

“There is mutual interest between the Celtics and Crawford. That I do know. The Celtics didn’t make an offer to him. He’s been kind of waiting for the right situation to materialize. That’s why he’s holding out to training camp, basically. He wants to be in a position to win a championship. He wants to sign on with one of these title teams.” 

Is Crawford really a fit for the Celtics? While he is 38, and his skills and his efficiency have slipped in recent years, he still averaged 10.3 points per game last season in Minnesota. While he is a three-time Sixth Man of the Year (most recently in 2016), he is more of a volume scorer who creates his own shots and is not much of a defender. Is that what Brad Stevens and the Celtics would want? Crawford certainly can still carry a team for a five-minute stretch off the bench some nights, but is it a good fit in Boston?

Depends on how the Celtics’ bench is doing. My guess is we will be well into training camp if not into the season before a team comes calling for Crawford — but a good team will come calling. He has value, he can still get buckets. Maybe the Celtics will need that, but another team could have that need first.