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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.

Five players most likely to be traded this season

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Jimmy Butler, Timberwolves

Even with all the reported issues in negotiation between Minnesota and other teams, Butler must make this list. He wants out, and Tom Thibodeau at least said he’d honor Butler’s trade request. It’s unclear precisely what Thibodeau means by that, but Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor could always get involved, and he’s more likely to deal Butler.

In the interest of variety, the rest of this list will ignore players with heightened trade alerts simply due to Butler’s availability. Minnesota could use this as a method to unload Gorgui Dieng. The Timberwolves could get another point guard then deal Jeff Teague or Tyus Jones. The Heat are reportedly talking about trading Justise Winslow, Goran Dragic and/or Josh Richardson for Butler.

Kyle Korver, Cavaliers

Even after losing LeBron James, Cleveland is trying to maintain perception of legitimacy. That could mean trading the 37-year-old Korver to a winner. He’s still a dangerous 3-point shooter, and his contract – $7.56 million salary this season, $3.44 million of $7.5 million guaranteed next season – is quite manageable. The Cavs could see trading Korver to a contender as doing right by him, a move that would be respected around the league. And they’d get positive assets for a player extremely unlikely to contribute to their next winning team.

Marquese Chriss, Rockets

Chriss just got traded from the Suns to Houston, but don’t assume he’ll stick there all season. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey loves to wheel and deal and is especially willing to shuffle players during the season. There’s probably a place for Chriss to develop his tools in the NBA, but it might not be on a championship contender. The 21-year-old has looked so far from understanding the game well enough to help at the highest levels. If he shines with the Rockets early, they could trade him for someone more experienced and dependable. If he doesn’t play well (or maybe even if he does), Houston might just want to unload his $3,206,160 salary considering his the luxury-tax hit.

Courtney Lee, Knicks

Lee denies he wants to be traded, but he can still see the writing on the wall: He no longer fits in New York. The Knicks are rebuilding and eying 2019 free agency. Lee is 32 and due $12,759,670 in 2019-20. That salary might make Lee difficult to move, but he can still play. Plenty of teams can use another 3-and-D wing.

Dewayne Dedmon, Hawks

Dedmon is a helpful player on an expiring ($7.2 million ) contract who’s stuck on a bad team – usually a set of factors that lead to a trade. But few good teams need a center, so his market is more limited. Dedmon’s combination of production and salary give him an edge in trade likelihood over other centers on expiring contracts on bad teams: Magic’s Nikola Vucevic, Bulls’ Robin Lopez, Kings’ Kosta Koufos. Atlanta also already has John Collins, Omari Spellman and Alex Len. The Hawks should want to get what they can for Dedmon then give more playing time to those younger bigs.

Report: Hawks signing former No. 5 pick Thomas Robinson

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When the Kings drafted him No. 5 in the 2012, Thomas Robinson was widely hailed as one of the draft’s safest picks, the type of player who’d spend a decade in the NBA. But Robinson fell out of the league after just five seasons, spending last year in Russia.

He’s back — at least for training camp.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The Hawks already had 15 players with standard contracts — the regular-season limit — and all 15 of those have guaranteed salaries for next season. So, it’s hard to see Robinson breaking through.

Robinson is merely a rebounding specialist and already 27. Atlanta already has John Collins, Dewayne Dedmon, Alex LenOmari Spellman and Miles Plumlee as bigs.

It’s hard to see where this goes.

Hawks progressing nicely in rebuild

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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.

It seems as if the Hawks have been rebuilding for ages.

Really, they’re only one season removed from a decade-long playoff streak, the NBA’s second-longest at the time.

General manager Travis Schlenk has swiftly done what his predecessors didn’t – dismantle a team that won 60 games and commit to rebuilding. In fact, Schlenk has advanced far enough that he’s already well into building Atlanta back up.

Only Kent Bazemore remains the playoff-series-winning team in 2016, let alone the 60-win squad in 2015. Heck, only Taurean Prince, DeAndre’ Bembry and Bazemore remain from the team Schlenk inherited just last year.

The Hawks aren’t done dismantling. They’re poised to tank another season. But their rebuild has already seen a defining move.

On draft night, Atlanta traded the rights to No. 3 pick Luka Doncic to the Mavericks for the rights to No. 5 pick Trae Young and a future first-round pick. That decision will take year to evaluate and will linger over both franchises far longer.

For now, it seems about fair. I rated Doncic ahead of Young and both above their draft slots. The Dallas pick – top-five protected the next two years, top-three protected the following two years and unprotected in 2023 – roughly bridges the gap between the players.

If the Hawks preferred Young anyway, they did a great job leveraging an extra first-rounder and still getting their man.

Atlanta’s other first-round picks – Kevin Huerter (No. 19) and Omari Spellman (No. 30) – were also sound. Squint hard enough, and Young and Huerter comprise a backcourt that somewhat resembles Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. That’s the easy comparison considering Schlenk came from the Warriors’ front office, though that’d probably make Spellman the next Marreese Speights.

And that’s make Dennis Schroder the next Monta Ellis, a talented player it was time to move. Though Schroder is just 24, he’s too combustible with and away from the team. Young is the Hawks’ future at point guard.

Rather than pay Schroder $46.5 million over the next three years, Atlanta is better off sinking $25,534,253 into a waived Carmelo Anthony this season. And the Hawks got a potential first-rounder in the deal!

The Thunder pick is lottery-protected in 2022. Otherwise, it converts into two second-rounders. So, there’s a decent chance Atlanta never receives a first-rounder. But unloading Schroder, who had negative value to many teams around the league, was enough. Getting a pick or two – who knows how good Oklahoma City will be in four years? – is gravy.

The Hawks also swapped Mike Muscala for Justin Anderson in the three-way trade with the Thunder and 76ers. For this team in this league, going from the 27-year-old center to a 24-year-old small forward  is an upgrade. Anderson must gain traction in his career, but it’s worth the bet he does so in Atlanta.

Alex Len makes sense as another flier. The former No. 5 pick had moments in five years with the Suns, and he took major strides forward last season. Perhaps, the 25-year-old is on the verge of emerging as capable of being in a good team’s rotation. I’m surprised the price (guaranteed $8.51 million over two years) was so high, but the Hawks had cap space to burn. Better to get their preferred project center.

To that end, Atlanta splurged a lot of its cap room on Jeremy Lin, getting the point guard with just a smattering of second-round considerations going between Atlanta and Brooklyn. Could that cap space have been put to better use, like a salary dump or even just saving ownership money? Did the Hawks acquire Lin as a fan draw? Will Lin generate more revenue than his $13,768,421 salary? He could work well as a veteran mentor, but that’s a lot to pay a veteran mentor.

With Young, John Collins and Taurean Prince at the forefront and Spellman, Anderson and Len diversifying the portfolio, the Hawks have a nice core to build around. They’ll add to it with their own first-rounder, the extra first-rounder from Dallas and a potential first-rounder from Cleveland (top-10 protected the next two years or else it becomes two second-rounders).

Atlanta lost a good coach in Mike Budenholzer, but he didn’t seem eager to oversee a rebuild. Lloyd Pierce, known for player development and teaching defense, takes over. Like practically every first-time NBA head coach, Pierce is a roll of a dice. Maybe the Hawks could have leveraged Budenholzer into securing compensation from another team for letting him leave or even just paying off less of contract. Instead, they just sent him packing.

Sometimes, it’s best to make a clean break and move on.

Offseason grade: B-

How do you feel about Trae Young, Jeremy Lin backcourt?

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Trae Young is the future of the Atlanta Hawks. General manager Travis Schlenk bet big on draft night, trading away the rights to No. 3 pick Luka Doncic — the EuroLeague MVP a lot of scouts were very high on — to get Young as the point guard of the future and the face of the Hawks.

That’s part of why Schlenk went and got Jeremy Lin, to mentor Young.

However, they also will be playing together some, Lin told the media at a his charity game press conference in China (translation and interview with Young via Michael Scotto of The Athletic).

“I think I can help (Young) a lot and share my experience playing in the NBA with him. I know the Hawks plan to use us on the court together. I had played for the Rockets, Lakers and Hornets that put two point guards on the court simultaneously, so I know Trae and I could play very fast. Coach Lloyd Pierce, one of the (former) coaches for the Warriors, was also my coach, so I have talked to him already. I’m really excited, about the upcoming season, it’s going to be fun.”

Said Young: “I think we’ll work really well together. This is a rebuilding team, and we’re going to try some things. Some are going to work, some aren’t, so we’re just going to work together and do whatever we can to turn this franchise around.”

I want to see this. It may be a disaster defensively, but it could be fun to watch.

Coach Lloyd Pierce and the Hawks should be experimental this season, he told NBC Sports at Summer League this was going to be a season of learning for everyone. With an athletic big like John Collins on the court, the Hawks could play Lin and Young in the backcourt, slide Kent Bazemore to the three and Taurean Prince to the four, and just get up and down the court, using athleticism and shooting. Try everything. The Hawks are not going to win a lot, so make this a learning experience for everyone.