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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.

Report: Inquiring teams don’t always know whom to contact from Timberwolves about Jimmy Butler trade

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The Timberwolves have an owner in Glen Taylor, president-coach in Tom Thibodeau and general manager in Scott Layden.

And they have a disgruntled star in Jimmy Butler, whom many teams want to trade for.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

There’s a lot of people within the league who do not know who to talk to. And there’s different people who have different stances on what it’s going to take to pry themselves from Jimmy. So, that has caused a lot of confusion around the league.

Minnesota has executed just two trades under the Thibodeau-Laden front office. One was with the Bulls, Thibodeau’s former team, for Butler. The other sent Ricky Rubio to Utah, where Scott Layden worked for many years (though that was nearly two decades ago, and the Jazz have obviously had vast turnover since).

Generally, Layden would be the point man on trade talks, leaving Thibodeau to focus on coaching until inquiries became more serious. Taylor would sign off on anything.

But this Butler saga is such a huge moment for the franchise. Thibodeau and Taylor should be deeply involved.

Talks between the Timberwolves and Heat broke down over the weekend – even after discussions reached the ownership level, though Taylor is reportedly telling his front office to deal Butler. So, there’s some confusion.

But I also sense rival teams want to instill enough sense of disarray that Taylor, tired of the drama, steps in to trade Butler for less than the stubborn Thibodeau would. Maybe potential trade partners aren’t as befuddled about whom in Minnesota to contract, but more disappointed they can’t lure Taylor further into the picture.

How far can contrarian, big, defensive Jazz go in the West this season?

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This is the latest of NBC’s NBA season preview stories, and we will post at least one a day on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, with today the Jazz as the focus

We know the NBA buzzwords, the trends. Small ball. Offense over defense. Play fast. Teams have to have men who can spread the floor with their three-point shooting. Teams want undersized power forwards who play more like wings. The offense is to run a pick-and-roll to force a switch, then isolate and let your best shot creator attack the mismatch.

The Utah Jazz are none of that.

They are contrarian, a throwback. And they are one of the most dangerous teams in the NBA.

Utah is defensive team that starts a twin towers front line where neither can really step out and space the floor with their jumper. Utah’s starting power forward, Derrick Favors, is a power forward in the classic sense. They run a motion offense, and only 5.3 percent of their offensive attempts came out of isolation last season. They don’t play at a high pace, they prefer a game that grinds down, physically but also mentally.

They are not following the small ball trend, and that’s a conscious decision.

“Golden State has driven a perception that the whole league is small…” Jazz coach Quin Snyder told NBC Sports last season. “Because Golden State’s been the best team, you’re forced to match up with them, and then people will try to play small, but if you’re playing small just because someone else is, and then you’re not playing your best players, that’s a tough question. Do you chase a mismatch or do you play the way you play?”

Utah plays the way it plays. And with that, most pundits have them as a top-four team in the West (Vegas books have them with the fourth highest under/over win total in the West at 48.5), and some around the league wonder if the Jazz can beat a diminished Rockets’ squad this season.

However, does their style also have a ceiling? Utah’s defense stymied Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs last season, but the spacing and pace of the Houston Rockets proved to be too much — it was hard to keep Rudy Gobert on the court against those smaller lineups, and Houston’s switching defense stalled out the Utah offense.

If the question is “can we beat Golden State and Houston the way we play?” then 12 teams in the West — and 28 teams across the entire NBA — are asking that same question. Utah believes it can, or it can at least threaten them, by just doing what they do better.

If the Jazz are going to live up to a top-four slot, a few things have to happen, and it starts with Rudy Gobert staying healthy. He missed most of the first half of last season with knee injuries — not chronic things, but both times because a player fell into him — but once he was back and right Utah went 29-6 to close out the season. He won Defensive Player of the Year because of how dominant he was during that run.

Obviously, the reason for the hot finish was Utah’s incredible defense: After the All-Star break it allowed just 96 points per 100 possessions, by far the best in the league. That defense could get better this season: a healthy Gobert all season, plus full seasons out of Jae Crowder and Royce O’Neale, plus players with another season in the system.

The surprise for the Jazz last season was a respectable offense (16th in the league), which came about because rookie Donovan Mitchell played like an All-Star, 20.5 points and 3.7 assists per game. Mitchell impressed everyone, but sometimes players with strong rookie campaigns plateau their second season, not growing and making the next leap some expect. Utah, to take a step forward, needs him to grow.

Around him there are solid veterans who knew how to play the game — Gobert running the rim, Joe Ingles spotting up at the arc and moving the ball to the right man on closeouts, Ricky Rubio figuring out how to adjust to the motion offense then thriving in it as a distributor (after the All-Star break he averaged 15 points a game, shot 40.9 percent from three, and had 5.6 assists a night), and Derrick Favors getting his buckets.

Utah didn’t make big moves this summer but believes it has added some firepower. They re-signed Dante Exum over the summer and believe (more than anyone else) he is healthy and ready for a breakout year. They drafted Grayson Allen, who showed at Summer League he’s more than a spot-up guy. They get a full season of the solid Jae Crowder.

Utah is counting on continuity.

That and defense will alone not be enough. The Jazz need health, and they need the offense to get better — a few more easy buckets in transition would help. The Jazz were 19th in the NBA in percentage of offense that started in transition (stat via Cleaning The Glass) and while that’s not bad for a team that wants a defensive game, a few more easy transition buckets a night help.

The Jazz also need to better handle switching defenses — the elite teams they want to challenge in the West switch a lot, and to beat them in a seven-game series Utah has to score more comfortably against the switch. That doesn’t necessarily mean a James Harden back-it-out-and-isolate play, but to do it in the context of the motion offense requires precision and ability to exploit the smallest mistake the Jazz did not have last season.

The Jazz are going to be the Jazz this season — contrarian, grinding, and a nightly defensive force. That can take them a long way, especially in the regular season.
If it can get them where they want to go in the playoffs is a much tougher question.

How Steve Nash became less selfish, scored more, and became an MVP

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One of the great “what ifs” in NBA history was the Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki Dallas Mavericks under Don Nelson. From 2001 through 2004 — when Nash had flowing long hair — the team had the best offense the NBA had seen in decades playing a style closer to today’s game, and won at least 50 games each season (60 in 2002-03, when the team made the conference Finals). If that team had stuck together and embraced its groundbreaking ways, would the ring have come earlier in Big D?

The way the Nash and Nowitzki era began, it didn’t look like we would be asking that question, nor did it look like Nash would end up a Hall of Fame player, as he will officially become this weekend when he is enshrined.

Nash told Marc Stein of the New York Times, for his weekly email newsletter, it was Nelson who pushed him to greatness, but in a way he didn’t expect.

“Nellie was really hard on me, but he also really believed in me,” Nash said in a phone interview the other day. “He had more belief in me than I did.

“It was him imploring me to score. And that was a fundamental building block for me, because once I balanced the playmaking with the scoring, it opened up everything for me and my teammates.

“My nature is just to pass, pass, pass — to give. Nellie finally got it in my head that that was B.S. — that you’re hurting us by doing that. He challenged me, without exactly saying it this way, to realize I was being selfish.”

Very few players enter the NBA being “selfish” by passing too much, but we’ve other great passing point guards get held back to varying degrees by not being enough of a scoring threat (Ricky Rubio may be the most famous example, but there are others). Nash had the scoring in him, both around the rim and as a jump shooter, he just had to trust it and unleash it.

When he did, and with coaches who trusted him — including Mike D’Antoni — Nash helped revolutionize the NBA. And win a couple of MVPs along the way.

It all led to the Canadian icon entering the Hall of Fame this weekend.

Reports: Jazz to re-sign point guards Dante Exum, Raul Neto

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Utah is keeping the band together — and they are opening up the pocket book to do it.

First, they re-signed Derrick Favors to a two-year, $36 million contract (with a player option on the second year).

Now, they have re-signed backup point guards Dante Exum and Raul Neto to deals. Both stories were broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Neto is for two years at the minimum. For a third point guard, he’s a great fit.

For Exum, that price seems high.

He has shown flashes of potential, and the Jazz love him, but he played just 14 games last season due to injury (shoulder surgery this past season, an ACL two seasons before that). He has played a total of 80 games total in the last three seasons. When healthy he shows flashes of the potential that got him drafted fifth overall in 2014, but he does not have a three-point shot (27.8 percent last season), and he turns the ball over too much.

Then, against Houston in the second round of the playoffs, with Ricky Rubio out, we saw that potential again. He played good defense on Harden, but he was turning the ball over.

The Jazz have some Rubio insurance in Exum, but at $11 million a season it just seems high.

Utah is bringing back the team from their surprising and impressive 2017-18 season. I get it, there’s a lot to love about that team. But running it back in the NBA is never as easy as it seems.