PBT’s NBA Power Rankings: Summer Edition, where the Spurs keep on winning

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The dust has almost settled on the NBA summer, with just some minor deals to get done (although there are a few good players still out there). Now that we’ve seen most the trades (probably) and gotten a look at the rookies in Summer League, it’s time to adjust the power rankings. The top of the board is easy — the Spurs move up but not to the top spot, yet — the bigger challenge is the bottom where every team has hope and think they’ve improved, but we know some will be disappointed.

source:  1. Warriors (last season 67-15). The defending champs always start in the top spot, but the Warriors did what they needed to this off-season keeping the band together. The key was re-signing Draymond Green. Their road to a repeat will be much tougher than to their first title, but this team certainly is a contender.

source:  2. Cavaliers (53-29). They re-signed LeBron James (no shock), Kevin Love, and Iman Shumpert, then added Mo Williams to the mix. Not bad, and they are not done with Tristan Thompson, Matthew Dellavedova and J.R. Smith still looming and likely re-signed. Plus they can make a move with the Brendan Haywood contract. The Cavs are clear and away the best team in the East.

source:  3. Spurs (55-27). They won the off-season — Tiago Splitter was good but replacing him with LaMarcus Aldridge was a huge upgrade. Plus they re-sign Kawhi Leonard, add David West, and keep Danny Green at a fair price. This team will be hungry with it likely being Tim Duncan’s final season. But the brilliance of their off-season is they will stay near the top of the league for years even after Duncan steps away.

source:  4. Clippers (56-26). Doc Rivers the GM bounced back and had a great summer. He kept DeAndre Jordan in house (barely), plus added Paul Pierce to start, and Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith to the bench. The Clippers have the depth they lacked last season, and they are a motivated team.

source:  5. Thunder (45-37). Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka are all back and healthy, with that the Thunder are back to contending for a title. The Thunder kept Enes Kanter (they had no choice) and I like the Cameron Payne draft pick. There may be no more of a desperate, win-now team in the NBA this season.

source:  6. Rockets (56-26). With the Ty Lawson trade — and if he can get his head screwed on right — the Rockets move into the elite title contender status with the five teams above them in this ranking. They are going to have a quality bench this season and lots of flexibility for coach Kevin McHale.

source:  7. Grizzlies (55-27). They did very well re-signing Marc Gasol, plus they got a good-fit pickup with Matt Barnes. But while Barnes can knock down the three ball, have they added enough shooting to balance things out.

source:  8. Pelicans (45-37). The hiring of Alvin Gentry as coach is a fantastic off-season move, and I like the re-signing of Alexis Ajinca (they should bring back Norris Cole as well). But the two key reasons this team improves are: 1) They finally get Jrue Holiday and others healthy; 2) Anthony Davis is still improving by leaps and bounds each season (and Gentry will be a big boost to them). How good their defense is determines how far they go.

source:  9. Bulls (50-32). Was the problem Tom Thibodeau grinding them down? We’ll find out. New coach Fred Hoiberg will trust Doug McDermott and the bench more, put in a modern offense, and likely not fight with management (at least for a couple years, if history continues). Is that enough with the same core? Can the Bulls be a team that can threaten the Cavaliers?

source:  10. Wizards (46-36). Paul Pierce is in Los Angeles but Otto Porter can step into the three spot just fine. Added Jared Dudley and Gary Neal help make this a deeper team. The bigger questions fall to coach Randy Whitman: Will he finally trust the small lineup more like he did in the playoffs? And can this team find more offensive diversity rather than being the John Wall show.

source:  11. Heat (37-45). They re-signed Goran Tragic and Dwyane Wade, plus added some depth with Justise Winslow, Gerald Green and Amar’e Stoudemire. With Chris Bosh back healthy is going to be a sneaky good regular season team that finishes is the East’s top four.

source:  12. Mavericks (50-32). They bounced back well after losing DeAndre Jordan — Deron Williams, Wesley Matthews and Zaza Pachoulia make Dallas a pretty good team that should battle for a playoff spot in the West.

source:  13. Hawks (60-22). This is a good team and they retained Paul Millsap, but the loss of DeMarre Carroll certainly does not help. That said, Thabo Sefolosha steps into that role, and the did make a quality addition with Tiago Splitter. The real question is this: Can they really replicate the first two-thirds of last season, or was that just things going perfectly for them and they are not quite that good?

source:  14. Jazz (38-44). This was one of the better teams — and by far the best defense — in the NBA after the All-Star break. They didn’t make big off-season moves, instead banking on more growth and development (although draft pick Trey Lyles looked at Summer League like a guy who needs a couple years). If they can retain anywhere near that defense from the second half of last year, the Jazz should be in the mix for one of the final playoff spot in the West.

source:  15. Bucks (41-41). This may be low for the Bucks. They looked like a team on the rise last year under Jason Kidd and with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Michael Carter Williams improving, plus Jabari Parker back and healthy. Then they nail free agency landing Greg Monroe. This team could move into the second tier in the East, but I need to see it.

source:  16. Raptors (49-33). Toronto has spent the offseason transitioning from an offense-heavy team that doesn’t defend well to a defense first roster — signing DeMarre Carroll was at the heart of that transition. That may serve them better in the playoffs, I’m not sure about the regular season. Still, they should win the weak Atlantic division.

source:  17. Pistons (32-50). Greg Monroe is gone but replacing him with Ersan Ilyasova, who can stretch the floor as a shooter, is a better fit for what Stan Van Gundy wants to do. Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond showed some pick-and-roll chemistry last season, with what those two are now getting paid they better have a lot more of it.

<source:  18. Suns (39-43). I like their guard rotation with Brandon Knight, Eric Bledsoe, Archie Goodwin, and Devin Booker. Both Booker and T.J. Warren looked strong at Summer League. I’m not sure about the Tyson Chandler fit, and I don’t see a big step forward in a West where there are good teams fighting for the last playoff spots.

source:  19. Kings (29-53, LW 26). This is the hardest team to place on the board — this is either way too low or way too high for them. George Karl can coach, DeMarcus Cousins is a big-time talent, they added Rajon Rondo, Marco Belinelli, Kosta Koufos and Willie Cauley-Stein. Karl called the mix combustable. The players will either unite (possibly in a dislike of Karl) and they will surprise people and be in the playoff mix, or they will blow apart in spectacular fashion. I don’t see much in between.

source:  20. Celtics (40-42). They snuck into the playoffs last season in the East, then this summer made a nice pickup with Amir Johnson. Terry Rozier looked good in Summer League, and Jordan Mickey impressed as well. That said, this is still a team trying to develop into a winner and there is a lot of work to do.

source:  21. Magic (25-57). This feels like a year the young Magic can take a step forward. They retained Tobias Harris, made a nice draft pick with Mario Hezonja, and Aaron Gordon looks like he’s going to take a big step forward based on what we saw at Summer League. If all that happens this spot is too low for them, but I need to see it happen first.

source:  22. Trail Blazers (51-31). It’s been a rough offseason in the Pacific Northwest. Gone are LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, and Robin Lopez. This is now a rebuilding team — but one that gets to start with Damian Lillard. That’s a big head start. There are some other nice players here like Mason Plumlee but it’s going to take time.

source:  23. Nets (38-44). They finally got out from under the Deron Williams contract and people around the team say that alone will bring the players closer together. The Nets have a nice front line with Joe Johnson, Thaddeus Young and Brook Lopez, but defense and consistent play out of the guards remain a question mark (no offense intended, Jarrett Jack).

source:  24. Lakers (21-61). After striking out when swinging for home run, the Lakers hit some solid singles this off-season landing Lou Williams, Brandon Bass and Roy Hibbert. D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle may well turn out to be players, but that is going to take a couple years of development. This team will not be embarrassing like last season, but it’s going to be more about the Kobe farewell tour than wins.

source:  25. Pacers (38-44). Paul George will be back, which is reason to celebrate. Pair him with Monta Ellis and you have some dynamic wing scoring. But this is now a roster in transition with a lot of questions along the front line.

source:  26. Timberwolves (16-66). They are going to win more than 16 games, and they are going to be must-watch because of the entertainment value of Andrew Wiggins in his second year, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Ricky Rubio running the show. This may be a must-watch League Pass team. But they are not going to be good. Not yet. There still is a lot of development to do, although Kevin Garnett should help speed that process along.

source:  27. Knicks (17-65, LW 29). I like what Phil Jackson did this summer — Kristaps Porzingis looked at Summer League like he will develop into a player, Jerian Grant can help them right now, plus Arron Afflalo and Robin Lopez are solid pros. The Knicks should be better, and maybe if everything comes together they can compete for a playoff spot. But with this team right now, I need to see it before I believe it.

source:  28. Hornets (33-49). This may be too low for a team that could have a bounce-back season. I like landing Nicolas Batum, Spencer Hawes and Jeremy Lin will be better than either was in Los Angeles last season, but the question is defense and if Al Jefferson will be serious about playing it. Another team that has to prove to me on the court they can bounce back.

source:  29. Nuggets (30-52). I love the hiring of Mike Malone to change the culture (and moving Ty Lawson had to be part of that). After seeing him at Summer League I think Emmanuel Mudiay can develop into a franchise cornerstone kind of player. All this portends good things for the future, but the present will be rough as they work to get to that better spot.

source:  30. 76ers (18-64). Maybe this is too low for them, but if we didn’t start the season with the Sixers on the bottom it would feel wrong. It’s tradition. I saw Jahlil Okafor in Las Vegas and was impressed, he can be a franchise cornerstone. He’s also still a rookie with a rough learning curve. There are still serious questions about the backcourt.

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Cameron Payne is the next mid-major point guard to rise from obscurity

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NEW YORK – Over the past few years, a mid-major guard has worked his way up from the island of misfit schools to the green room at the NBA Draft.

In 2012, Damian Lillard was selected sixth overall by the Portland Trail Blazers after spending four years at Weber State.

In 2013, Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum joined Lillard in the Blazers’ backcourt as he was selected with the 10th pick.

Last year, Elfrid Payton and Elfrid Payton’s hair successfully made the leap from Louisiana-Lafayette to the lottery as he was selected by the Sixers with the 10th overall pick, but was traded while sitting at the interview podium to the Orlando Magic for Dario Saric, a second round pick in this year’s draft, and a 2017 first round pick.

This year it’s Cameron Payne’s turn to ascend from Murray State into one of the first 14 picks in the 2015 NBA Draft. Payne just has to wait a little while longer to hear his name come out of Adam Silver’s mouth and then he’ll be able to walk up to the stage with a gigantic smile on his face, the same smile that was on display during the pre-draft interviews on Wednesday.

It’s a smile that comes from a desire to tell his story with the masses, who are finally interested in learning about where the 20 year old point guard came from. Because when he was on his way to becoming the Ohio Valley Player of the Year as a sophomore in college, no one seemed to care, but now everyone is asking him to share his backstory.

“I wouldn’t want it any other way,” Payne said during the pre-draft interviews. “I really think this happened for a reason. I tell my story to every guy that I talk to.”

This is a whole new world for Payne, who suddenly finds himself navigating through a massive schedule of interviews. “Man at Murray I used to have one or two [interviews] every two weeks on Monday and now every day it’s like you have nine and then [tomorrow] you have three,” Murray said. He noted that he’s dealing with the added media responsibilities “pretty well.”

Payne’s versatile skill set as a point guard and superior basketball IQ have been the catalysts for his rising draft stock, but with the NBA currently in the golden era of point guards, it’s a gigantic plus to have the ability to play off of the ball, especially if he were to wind up next to Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City. Payne showed flashes of being dangerous without the ball in his hands at Murray State, but the Racers needed him to dominate the ball handling responsibilities.

“I can be a combo guard, I don’t need the ball to succeed,” Payne told NBCSports’ ProBasketballTalk. “But I feel my best attributes come from me having the ball, because I put people in the perfect situation to score and I mean perfect. People like playing with me because I can do that and not a lot of players can do that.”

Just watch the tape on Payne and you’ll see exactly what he’s talking about. I’ll wait here while you watch this Draft Express video.

You’re back! Told ya the kid can pass the ball pretty freaking good, but if he ends up in OKC, he’ll get relegated to briefly running the Thunder’s second unit when Durant and Westbrook hit the bench.

Besides the Thunder, Payne has met with the Pacers, Lakers, Kings and Nuggets. Indiana would be an interesting fit if Larry Bird does decide to use the 11th overall pick on him, as Payne could be an immediate replacement for C.J. Watson, Rodney Stuckey, and Donald Sloan, who are all unrestricted free agents. Stuckey says he’s confident that he and the Pacers will work out a deal, but even if Stuckey does come back, Payne could replace the 1,422 minutes Watson played last year and would have a much better chance of running the point with an actual star playing alongside him.

Payne’s best chance to start immediately would be in Denver, but the Nuggets would have to find a trade suitor for Ty Lawson (George Karl is jumping up and down raising his hand) and receive another pick in the first round (George Karl is now doing jumping jacks). The Nuggets would fill one of their many holes with the first pick and then use the other on Payne as the replacement for Lawson.

Regardless of what happens on draft night, Cameron Payne has followed the path of success by following the advice of a mid-major trail blazer who helped pave the way for him.

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Twitter – @ScottDargis