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NBA Power Rankings after wildest summer in league history

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That. Was. Insane.

The NBA has never seen an offseason like this last one where so many elite players moved teams and shifted the balance of power around the league. While all the dust has not settled (Chris Paul, for example) we can now take a step back and put out our annual power rankings. The basic ranking criteria here is “chance to win an NBA title” which means a couple top teams from the East are ranked ahead of better teams in the West, just because their odds of getting through to the Finals are higher. Let’s go at it:

Clippers small icon 1. Clippers (Last Season 48-34). No team had a better summer than Steve Ballmer’s crew: They had stalked Kawhi Leonard for a year, and not only did he come he recruited Paul George to come with him. The Clippers should be lock-down defensively (Patrick Beverley will get more time at the point), has offensive versatility, and still brings Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell off the bench. In a deep West that makes them the team to beat.

Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (60-22). They re-signed Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez, their two biggest off-season priorities, but they could not keep Malcolm Brogdon, and that will sting. Wesley Matthews will have a lot asked of him to fill that role. Most importantly, they still have an improving Giannis Antetokounmpo. Having both Brook and Robin Lopez will make the Bucks entertaining off the court.

Sixers small icon 3. 76ers (51-31). They lost Jimmy Butler, the guy who was their end-of-game playmaker in the postseason, but adding the underrated Josh Richardson and glue guy Al Horford will help a lot to ease that blow. This should be an elite defensive team that will be right in the middle of it all in the East, but with one big question: Is Ben Simmons ready to be the team’s crunch time, halfcourt ball handler and shot creator?

Jazz small icon 4. Jazz (50-32). Utah had as good an offseason as anyone (except maybe the Clippers). They upgraded at point guard with Mike Conley, who gives them a second shot creator next to Donovan Mitchell. Then they poached Bogdan Bogdanovic out of Indiana, adding more shooting and a guy who can do a little shot creation himself to the mix. This is still one of the league’s best defenses built around Rudy Gobert, but now the Jazz can score a lot, too.

Lakers small icon 5. Lakers (37-45). In Anthony Davis, at his peak at age 26, LeBron James has the single-best teammate he has ever had, one that almost perfectly complements his game. In an NBA filled with powerful duos, the Lakers have the best one. The question becomes: is the rest of the roster good enough to win? The Lakers have talented but flawed players in Danny Green, DeMarcus Cousins, Kyle Kuzma, Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley and the rest. The Lakers may not be a great regular season team (four seed?) but watch out come the playoffs.

Rockets small icon 6. Rockets (53-29). Whatever you think of the fit, Russell Westbrook is a talent upgrade over Chris Paul at this point in their respective (and Hall of Fame) careers. James Harden is still there, as are Clint Capela, P.J. Tucker, and Eric Gordon (despite trade rumors). This was (for my money) the second best team in the West playoffs each of the last two years, they got a little bit better (if Harden and Westbrook can share the ball), and they remain a real threat to win the West.

Nuggets small icon 7. Nuggets (54-28). Denver poked around the free agent market, but in the end got the band back together, including bringing back Paul Millsap. The Nuggets were one of the youngest teams in the NBA last season and are counting on internal improvement from Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic, and company — plus the addition of Michael Porter Jr. to the rotation (not seeing Porter Jr. in Summer League due to an injury was a disappointment) — to take them to the next level. Denver remains an outstanding team, the question is will they have grown and learned enough to take the next step in the playoffs come spring?

Warriors small icon 8. Warriors (57-24). Write off Golden State at your own peril. They are not the juggernaut team of the past three years, Kevin Durant will rehab in Brooklyn and Klay Thompson is not expected back from his ACL tear until after the All-Star break (if he comes back next season at all). However, they still have Stephen Curry, they have Draymond Green in a contract year, and D’Angelo Russell is an All-Star added to the roster. The Warriors will take a step back in wins (less than 50 probably) but will be a dangerous playoff team.

Blazers small icon 9. Trail Blazers (53-29). There were no bold moves (don’t be shocked if they try to make another play for Kevin Love, but his price is high), but they landed Hassan Whiteside to play the five until Jusuf Nurkic returns from injury, and they made a nice wing signing with Kent Bazemore (plus bringing back Rodney Hood). Portland got marginally better this summer, but will that be enough to take the next step in a West filled with teams making big, bold moves?

Celtics small icon 10. Celtics (49-33). Kyrie Irving headed to Brooklyn, but replacing him with Kemba Walker means Boston didn’t lose a lot on the court (casual fans don’t get just how Walker carried the Hornets) and they get a better leader for their culture. Expect big step from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Losing Al Horford will sting more, they didn’t really replace him. Boston will be fun, they will score a lot of points but not stop much of anyone.

Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (48-34). Indiana paid big to steal Malcolm Brogdon out of Milwaukee, giving them another shot creator and someone on Victor Oladipo’s timeline. The Pacers made nice pickups at a good price in Jeremy Lamb and T.J. Warren, but this team is going to miss Bogdanovic a lot (he’s in Utah now). The Pacers need to keep their heads above water until Oladipo returns from injury (Christmas or a little after).

Raptors small icon 12. Raptors (58-24). They did everything right but could not compete with the lure of home for Leonard (and they won a title with that gamble), but now they are without their alpha. This is still a talented team with Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and others. When the trade deadline nears will the Raptors move some of those older players, all in the last year of their contracts, to jumpstart the rebuilding process?

Nets small icon 13. Nets (42-40). Brooklyn was one of the biggest winners in free agency landing Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. However, with Durant out likely most or all of next season (and not fully his old self yet if he does return), the Nets are not yet a threat to win the East. Irving, however, is an upgrade over D’Angelo Russell on the court. Irving struggled to lead a young, talented team in Boston, can he do better in Brooklyn with a team that made the playoffs with a gritty, team-focused style a year ago?

Spurs small icon 14. Spurs (48-34). No big moves this summer, although they picked up DeMarre Carroll on a nice contract. The biggest improvement will be getting Dejonte Murray back at point guard, an All-Defensive team level point guard (with rumors that his shot has come a long way). Paired with Derrick White that’s a strong defensive backcourt. Don’t forget, they still have DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge on the roster. The Spurs are going to be tough to play against every night and make the playoffs.

Mavericks small icon 15. Mavericks (33-49). Now we get to see what the Luka Doncic/Kristaps Porzingis pairing looks like — can this be one of the elite super duos in the West? Dallas is betting yes, but the rest of us need to see it work on the court before buying in. I like the Seth Curry and Delon Wright signings, Boban Marjanovic is always fun, and re-signing Maxi Kleber was smart. This team should be in the mix for a playoff spot in the West, but there is no margin for error.

16. Timberwolves (36-46). They struck out landing D’Angelo Russell or any other star on Karl-Anthony Towns’ timeline, but this team should be improved next season by not having Jimmy Butler torpedo them to start the season (then switching coaches midway through the campaign). Getting Robert Covington back from injury will help a lot, too, this was a much better defensive team with him out there. I expect more from this team than many others, but Andrew Wiggins remains the anchor on how high they can climb.

Kings small icon 17. Kings (39-43). Everyone’s favorite League Pass team from last season is not sneaking up on anyone this time around. They have a good new coach in Luke Walton and made a nice signing with Cory Joseph, and I like the Dewayne Dedmon signing more than most, but for Sacramento it’s going to be about internal improvement if they are going to end the longest playoff draught in the NBA (13 years and counting).

Pelicans small icon 18. Pelicans (33-49). This may be too low a ranking for a team with a lot of potential. New Orleans will be a League Pass favorite this season — Alvin Gentry will have them playing fast and that should benefit Zion Williamson (put it bubble wrap early at Summer League) and Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram can just get buckets, and Jrue Holiday is a good leader. This team could live up to that potential and be a playoff threat in the West. Either way, they will be must watch.

Heat small icon 19. Heat (39-43). They landed Jimmy Butler in an impressive sign-and-trade and then maxed him out, but he is surrounded by role players — Justise Winslow, Kelly Olynyk, Bam Adebayo, Goran Dragic — who have to step up big if this team is going to make a splash in the East. Tyler Herro showed promise at Summer League. The most interesting thing to watch with Miami is them chasing another star to go with Butler (is Chris Paul, with that contract, a good fit?).

Magic small icon 20. Magic (42-40). This may be too low a ranking, but it’s hard to get excited about this team. Orlando re-signed Nikola Vucevic, but didn’t address their other big need at point guard. The Magic remain a decent team stuck in the middle of the East. They do have Markelle Fultz on the roster, that was a good role of the dice, but team officials said they’re not sure he’ll be ready to start the season. Not a good sign.

Pistons small icon 21. Pistons (41-41). This is a nice team led by Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, but it’s hard to see their perimeter players taking them forward much. Reggie Jackson is who he is at this point, although I like the pickup of Derrick Rose behind him as a backup. Maybe Luke Kennard can take another step forward. This is a nice team, one that will battle for a playoff spot in the East, but little more.

Bulls small icon 22. Bulls (22-60, LW 27). Another team that may be too low in these rankings because they have a lot of interesting young players in Zach LaVine, Otto Porter, Wendell Carter Jr., and maybe their star in Lauri Markkanen. I like the Tomas Satoransky signing, he played well a couple seasons ago in Washington when John Wall was out. There is good talent on the roster, but who is the alpha who brings it all together?

Hawks small icon 23. Hawks (29-53). Atlanta is building a nice young team around Trae Young and John Collins, and we’ll see what De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish can add to that (the Hawks need a player on the wing and hope one of those two becomes that guy). I expect to see improvement, and for the Hawks to remain entertaining, but they may be a year or two and a player or two away from being the kind of threat they hope to become in the East.

Suns small icon 24. Suns (19-63). The Suns starting five is not bad: Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre, Dario Saric, Deandre Ayton. They also have Mikal Bridges on the wing, but things get thin fast for the Suns. I expect Rubio stabilizes their offense and makes them an improved team from a year ago, but there is a lot of roster building still be be done in the Valley of the Sun.

Wizards small icon 25. Wizards (32-50). It feels like the Wizards will be Bradley Beal against the world every night. This is a thin roster and John Wall is out for the season. We’ll see what guys like Rui Hachimura and Moritz Wagner can develop into for them, but it’s not moving the needle much now. The biggest storyline around the Wizards will be all the teams calling about a Bradley Beal trade, right now those calls are being shot down. Oh, and they may want to hire a formal GM for the season. Just saying’.

Knicks small icon 26. Knicks (17-65). It was a kick to the… er… punch to the guy summer for Knicks fans, who had high hopes going in of stars coming to be the franchises’ savior. The reality, the Knicks need to work to build up a base of talent, and an organizational culture, those stars want to be a part of. R.J. Barrett struggled in Summer League (15.4 points per game but on 34 percent shooting) but second-year guy Kevin Knox concerned me more when I watched him, 16.8 points per game but on just 40 percent shooting in games he should have dominated.

Grizzlies small icon 27. Grizzlies (33-49). The rebuilding is underway and the combination of Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. give them a good base. Brandon Clarke has shown some promise in Summer League, 14.6 points per game but shooting 57 percent. The team will trade (or waive) Andre Iguodala at some point, but no team is giving up a first-round pick for a 35-year-old role player making $17.2 million. Clippers and Rockets are considered the frontrunners.

Thunder small icon 28. Thunder (49-33). It’s hard not to feel for Thunder fans, one year ago they had watched Paul George decide to stay and thought they had him and Russell Westbrook for years, now it’s all gone. Sam Presti pivoted as well as anyone could and stockpiled picks that will help the coming rebuild, and this is one of the league’s great scouting teams, but it will take time. Chris Paul will get traded, and they likely will listen to offers for Steven Adams, but with two-years, $53 million on his contract the market will be thin.

Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (19-63). It was a disappointment not to see Darius Garland or Kevin Porter Jr. in Summer League, but both will get plenty of run come the season as the Cavaliers continue their rebuild. Right now the Cavaliers are keeping the price for a Kevin Love trade so high nobody is interested (top young players and multiple picks), but other teams are waiting for that to change as we get into the new season. Teams are calling about him.

Hornets small icon 30. Hornets (39-43). Without Kemba Walker the Hornets are starting a major rebuilding project, but they can’t even take on other team’s bad contracts for picks/young players until they get Nicolas Batum, Bismack Biyombo, Marvin Williams and the rest off their own books. I like the idea of giving Terry Rozier the ball and a chance at the point guard spot. Beyond that, watch a lot of college ball, Hornets fans, your team needs to start nailing the draft (not exactly a franchise strength over the years).

Failed promise of the Thunder

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After Oklahoma City reached the 2012 NBA Finals, James Harden set expectations.

“A dynasty is being built here,” Harden said.

It sure appeared to be trending that way.

The 2010 Thunder were the youngest playoff team in NBA history. In fact, they were so young, they kept the same core, and the 2011 Thunder became the second-youngest playoff team in NBA history. The 2012 Thunder were the youngest NBA Finals team in decades.

Oklahoma City was loaded with talent. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Harden were future MVPs. Serge Ibaka became a near star.

The Thunder were a nova.

But like all stars, their enormous and powerful fire eventually burned out.

Oklahoma City closed a chapter by agreeing yesterday to trade Russell Westbrook to the Rockets for Chris Paul. The Thunder have now completely turned over their roster since the 2012 Finals, leaving Harden’s proclamation unfulfilled.

Harden was the first to go. When he didn’t agree to a contract extension, Oklahoma City traded him to Houston in 2012. Durant left for the Warriors in 2016. Ibaka got traded to the Magic the same summer. Now, Westbrook exits.

After ascending so far so quickly, the Thunder not winning a title with any of those players is a historic disappointment.

Oklahoma City’s average age (weighted by postseason playing time) was 22.9 in 2011 and 23.8 in 2011. It was still just 25.7 in 2012, when the Thunder lost to the Heat in the NBA Finals.

Just four teams since the NBA-ABA merger have reached the Finals while so young. The other three eventually won a title.

The youngest NBA Finals teams since the merger:

  • 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder: 25.7
  • 1986 Houston Rockets: 25.4
  • 1977 Portland Trail Blazers: 24.2
  • 1977 Philadelphia 76ers: 25.5

The 1977 Portland Trail Blazers won the championship that year.

The 1977 runner-up 76ers had Julius Erving, who was in his first NBA season. He helped Philadelphia return to the Finals in 1980 (loss), 1982 (loss) and 1983 (win).

In an incredible example of the staying power of a young NBA Finals team, the Rockets lost momentum after the 1986 Finals. In the next seven years, they had four first-round exits and two second-round exits and once missed the playoffs entirely. But because Hakeem Olajuwon was just 23 in 1986, he remained a superstar long enough to lead Houston to titles in 1994 and 1995.

It seemed the Thunder might have similar staying power.

Oklahoma City re-tooled around Durant and Westbrook after trading Harden. That edition of the team peaked with a 3-1 lead over the Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference finals.

Then, the Thunder built around Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Then, Westbrook and George without Anthony. Those teams fizzled with first-round losses. Oklahoma City trading George to the Clippers ended that plan.

Now, dealing Westbrook closes an entire era.

The Thunder accomplished plenty in this period. Only the Spurs have a better regular-season winning percentage in the last 10 years. Oklahoma City reached four straight Western Conference finals. When healthy, the Thunder were a mainstay that deep into the playoffs.

But they never won even a single title, a blemish that would’ve once seemed so unlikely.

Raptors were reportedly working on trade for Paul George that might have kept Kawhi Leonard

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The Los Angeles Clippers won the Kawhil Leonard sweepstakes — and they got Paul George in the process.

That process cost Los Angeles a lot, too. To get George, the Clippers had to send Oklahoma City Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (who the Clippers are very high on and didn’t want to trade), Danilo Gallinari, four unprotected first-round picks (three of their own, plus Miami’s in 2021), one lottery-protected first-round pick, and the right to two pick swaps with the Clippers. It was a haul for the Thunder.

Los Angeles had to throw all of that in the deal because Toronto, under team president Masai Ujiri, was making a push to trade for George themselves and bringing Leonard back to Toronto, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. Thunder GM/President Sam Presti was playing the Raptors off Clippers president Lawrence Frank and team.

Clippers’ leadership — [owner Steve] Ballmer, Frank and GM Michael Winger — harbored fears that Presti was close to striking a deal with Toronto that would’ve delivered George to Leonard and the NBA champions, sources said.

Had Presti been able to strike a deal for George with the Raptors — and Leonard was willing to stay — George was believed to be willing to join the Raptors too, sources said. Presti pursued a package of Russell Westbrook with George to the Raptors — with the NBA’s Most Improved Player, forward Pascal Siakam as the centerpiece of a deal — and Ujiri balked, league sources said…

In the end, the Clippers reservoir of draft picks and young players — cultivated in the Blake Griffin trade, and built upon in the flipping of Tobias Harris to Philadelphia — gave the Thunder a return that could Toronto couldn’t match in trade talks, league sources said.

The Raptors were never going to go that kind of all in on this trade because, unlike the Clippers, Toronto was not given assurances that if they traded for George that Leonard would come back, according to sources. That didn’t matter to Presti, he just needed the leverage to get more out of the Clippers. It worked.

For the Clippers, it was a lot to put in the trade. However, if being in Los Angeles — and watching the Lakers with even a diminished Kobe Bryant dominate the local landscape — taught Ballmer one thing it was that star power wins out in the modern NBA. On the court, elite stars are needed to win titles. Off the court, stars are what draws fans to the expensive seats and sells sponsorships. It’s also star power that can help Ballmer get a new building for the Clippers built in Inglewood.

The Clippers had to have this trade, whatever the cost that may come back to bite them. It’s the same calculus the Lakers used to land Anthony Davis (although there were not real suitors going against the Lakers in that overpay).

The Raptors now have a decision to make: Compete this season as a second- or third-tier team in the East (they are not a threat to Milwaukee or Philadelphia anymore), or start trading away players for picks and young assets to start the rebuild around Pascal Siakam. Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Fred VanVleet are all in the final year of their contracts. This is going to be a year of change north of the border — but they have a title to celebrate through it all.

The Clippers are hoping Leonard can bring the same to them.

Reports: Kawhi Leonard to meet with Lakers, Clippers, but give Raptors last word

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Kawhi Leonard might not like a lot of drama around him, but he wants to be recruited.

Leonard has not tipped his hand at all about his free agency plans, although most league sources have seen it as a two-team race between coming home to Southern California with the Los Angeles Clippers or staying with the Toronto Raptors, where he just won a title. However, Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reports the Los Angeles Lakers have gotten their foot in the door as well.

Toronto Raptors star Kawhi Leonard intends to grant the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers meetings when free agency opens on June 30, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

The meetings would be held in Los Angeles, sources said.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN added this tidbit.

The Lakers will bring the star-power to their meeting — LeBron James and Anthony Davis will no doubt be in the room — plus they can talk marketing opportunities and the power of the Laker brand in making money off the court.

Will that be enough? Leonard and LeBron have a relationship, but Leonard is not exactly a “join a superteam” kind of guy. Plus, as I have reported before (and many other reporters have echoed from their own sources), Leonard is not a fan of the drama and chaos that follows all things Lakers and LeBron. That’s why the Clippers have long been thought of as the front-runner to land Leonard if he leaves Toronto — that is a 48-win team that plays hard, has a second scorer in Lou Williams, one where Leonard is the best player but a good roster is already in place that makes the team a contender with him (like what awaited him in with the Raptors).

Toronto has made their pitch all season long. Next season Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Fred Van Vleet will all be in the final year of their contracts, Leonard could sign a one-plus-one deal and play another season and chase another ring with Toronto, then come to Southern California in a year. (The Clippers can afford to wait a year for him, the Lakers not so much because they need to win now).

Nobody knows what direction Leonard will go. Now we just know who gets a chance to sit down at the table with him.

Former coach Dwane Casey says it was ‘exciting’ to see Raptors win title

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) — Dwane Casey had nothing but positive things to say about the fact that his former team just won the NBA title.

Casey coached the Toronto Raptors for seven seasons but was fired last offseason – even though he’d just guided the Raptors to a team-record 59 wins and would eventually win coach of the year honors. Nick Nurse took over, and Toronto won its first championship this month.

“It was exciting. It was good to see,” said Casey, now the coach of the Detroit Pistons. “To see a guy like Kyle Lowry, kid like Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and those guys – Serge Ibaka, guys I coached – win. It was really thrilling, because I know that was a goal going in with that group, and to see them win it was great.”

Casey was at the Pistons’ practice facility Friday, when they introduced first-round draft pick Sekou Doumbouya. When asked about the Raptors, he also said he was happy for the fans in a city Casey grew to love during his time there.

“For that city to win a championship, it had to be thrilling for them,” Casey said.