Alec Burks

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NBA Power Rankings: Rockets remain on top, Raptors climb into top five

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There’s a lot of stability at the top of the rankings as teams keep on winning. The big mover this week was the Utah Jazz, who leaped from No. 19 up to 8 thanks to their six-game win streak — and they got Rudy Gobert back.

 
Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (18-4, Last Week No. 1). The Rockets have won seven games in a row since Chris Paul’s return, doing so by an average of 21.6 points per contest. Talk to the veteran Rockets and they are a focused group: “If you’re slacking, we let you know,” Trevor Ariza told NBC Sports. “That’s how it is, when we see somebody is not giving the effort they normally give, I’ll yell ‘let’s go’ and it usually works, because everybody knows it’s coming from a good place.”

 
Celtics small icon 2. Celtics (21-4, LW 2). Rookie Jayson Tatum leads the NBA in three point percentage, hitting 51.3% while taking about three shots from beyond the arc a game. He is in the mix for Rookie of the Year for a reason. Marcus Smart has shown a real chemistry with Al Horford already, and that combined with Smart’s defense is why Brad Stevens is choosing to close games with him on the floor. Interesting matchup with the Spurs Friday night.

 
Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (19-6 LW 3). They have started 4-0 on a six-game road trip, but will have to play the rest of it — and a couple weeks after it — without Stephen Curry who sprained his ankle against New Orleans Monday. With Kevin Durant getting more touches, the Warriors have the talent to not miss a beat even with a former MVP in street clothes, but to do so the team needs to be more focused than it has been most of the season. The Warriors are coasting. It gets them in trouble (like down 20 to the Pelicans at the half, so Curry is in at the end of the game and that’s when the injury hits).

 
Cavaliers small icon 4. Cavaliers (17-7 LW 4). Winners of 12 in a row, in part thanks to LeBron James playing at an MVP level (he and James Harden are the clear frontrunners in my book, although it’s very early), but also a defense that is back to being Top 10 during this run. At the heart of that defensive surge, the Cavaliers are defending the arc much better, running teams off it and not giving up those clean looks. The win streak may continue with 5-of-6 at home before a road heavy end of the month.

 
Raptors small icon 5. Raptors (15-7, LW 6). Kyle Lowry has been one of the hottest players in the NBA the past couple of weeks — in his last 5 games he has averaged 21.2 points per game on 53 percent shooting, he’s knocked down five threes a game, and dished out 7.6 assists. It’s been impressive. Starting Friday in Memphis the Raptors get out of the cold a lot with 8-of-11 games on the road, but there are some real measuring stick games in there.

 
Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (16-8, LW 5). Kawhi Leonard could return this week, but before he does we need to give one more shout out to LaMarcus Aldridge, who has been second-tier MVP discussion good through the first quarter of the season. Aldridge is averaging 22.8 points on 50.6% shooting, he’s hitting his threes (38.5%), and he is grabbing 8.2 points per game. Still, the offense needs better shot creation, and Leonard may provide that.

 
Sixers small icon 7. 76ers (13-10, LW 8). That the Sixers are 13-10 having played the NBA’s toughest schedule so far this season is a testament to how improved this team has been. The losses to Cleveland and Boston in the past week are understandable, and beating Washington and Detroit is a sign of where this team stands (the loss to Phoenix was just ugly). Starting Saturday the Sixers have 9-of-12 on the road. #FreeJah

Pistons small icon 8. Pistons (14-9, LW 7). More than a quarter of the way into the season, and despite some recent stumbles, it’s time to stop asking if the Pistons are for real — they are. The stats at Ben Falk’s Cleaning the Glass project them finishing with 44-45 wins, which would be the five seed (and very close to the four and home court in the first round). Stan Van Gundy deserves some consideration for Coach of the Year for his work this season.

 
Pacers small icon 9. Pacers (13-11, LW 10). A lot has been made of Indiana shooting an impressive 39.8% from three as a team (it jumps over 40% when you take out garbage time), but when you’re 24th in the league in attempts from beyond the arc it limits the impact of that shooting. The Pacers lost to the Rockets and Raptors in the last week (they did beat the Kristaps Porzingis-less Knicks), and the schedule doesn’t get easier with the Cavs, Nuggets and Thunder coming up.

 
10. Timberwolves (14-11, LW 12). The fact Minnesota’s name came up in the list of teams pushing hardest for DeAndre Jordan is interesting — has Tom Thibodeau decided Karl-Anthony Towns is never going to be a great defender and needs one next to him to do the dirty work? The Timberwolves are 27th in the league in defensive rating (when you take out garbage time) and that’s not good enough for the kind of team they want to be. All that said, I don’t see how Minnesota has the players that would interest the Clippers in a trade. What is interesting is the reasoning to go after Jordan.

Bucks small icon 11. Bucks (12-10 LW 15). The Bucks are 8-4 since the Eric Bledsoe trade, however Monday’s loss at Boston felt like a reminder that even when Giannis Antetokounmpo is brilliant — 40 points — they have a ways to go to compete with the NBA’s elite. The Bucks need to do better on the defensive glass and stop fouling as much to take the next defensive step forward.

 
Jazz small icon 12. Jazz (13-12, LW 19). They had won six in a row until running into Oklahoma City on Tuesday, and that streak pushed them up the board thanks to an offense that found it’s groove. Part of that is Derrick Favors, who is a dangerous scorer inside and out at the five, and he has dominated second half through this stretch. Rudy Gobert is back now (he played the end of the game against the Thunder, not Favors), but what’s impressive is Utah’s 7-4 record without him. Rodney Hood has been out the last three and Alec Burks has stepped up.

 
Wizards small icon 13. Wizards (13-11, LW 11). Bradley Beal’s 51 points on Tuesday in Portland is just part of what has been Beal’s best NBA season — 23.3 points per game, and a strong true shooting percentage of 56.7% despite having to take on more of the offense this season. He’s playing at an All-Star level. Washington also has gotten a lot more out of its bench lately, led by Kelly Oubre.

 
Blazers small icon 14. Trail Blazers (13-11, LW 9). Despite their inability to stop Beal on Tuesday, the Blazers are still are a surprisingly good defensive team, fourth in the league overall with the lowest opponent field goal percentage around the rim in the league (55.3%, from Cleaning the Glass). Opponents are still getting a lot of shots there, however, which is concerning. The Blazers have lost three in a row to start a four-game homestand and now things get tough: Houston on Saturday, followed by five in a row on the road, opening against Golden State. Then when the road trip ends they come home to the Spurs.

 
Thunder small icon 15. Thunder (11-12 LW 18).. Oklahoma City has won three in a row beating teams above them in the standings — Minnesota, San Antonio, and Utah — using a combination of good defense and Russell Westbrook. More importantly, the Thunder won close games and played well down the stretch — if they can build on that they can become the team people expected before the season. The Thunder travel to Mexico this Thursday to take on the Nets in Mexico City.

 
Nuggets small icon 16. Nuggets (13-10, LW 13). They are 4-3 since Paul Millsap went down. Nikola Jokic has missed a couple games with with a sprained ankle suffered against the Bulls, which is not ideal because they are on a six game road trip. The Nuggets hope to have him back near the end of it (in a week), but they are 3-8 on the road this season and need to find a way to get some wins on this trip.

 
Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (12-12, LW 14). The Pelicans have lost 4-of-5, and while part of that is playing the Warriors twice, part of it is they are not the same without Anthony Davis — they are 14.8 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court this season, he is playing at a level that would get him bottom of the ballot MVP votes, and now he is missing time due to his hip injury. The Pelicans are -9.2 per 100 when DeMarcus Cousins is on the court without Davis. New Orleans got one win without Davis in Portland when DeMarcus Cousins went off, with four of five at home they need more of that from their big man.

 
Hornets small icon 18. Hornets (9-13, LW 20). Our thoughts are with coach Steve Clifford as he takes an indefinite leave of absence from Charlotte to deal with a personal health issue. Stephen Silas takes over as acting coach, but I don’t know that he, nor any coach, can simply solve the bench issues for this team — the starters are fine (even with Kemba Walker missing a couple of games) but the Hornets bench digs a hole the starters can’t get the team out of.

 
Heat small icon 19. Heat (11-12, LW 16). Hassan Whiteside will be out a couple of weeks, although rookie Bam Adebayo has proven to be a solid replacement and NBA starter for Miami. The travel to Mexico City for a Saturday game against Brooklyn but they will be without Hassan Whiteside who is skipping the entire three-game road trip to recover a bone bruise on his left knee. The Heat defense is 6.8 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court.

 
Knicks small icon 20. Knicks (11-12, LW 17). The combination of a sprained ankle and an illness sat Kristaps Porzingis for a couple games, plus Tim Hardaway Jr. missed those same games against Orlando and Indiana, and the Knicks struggled without them. Porzingis is expected back Wednesday, but Hardaway is out a couple of weeks. New York has five straight games against what look like non-playoff teams — Grizzlies, Bulls, Hawks, Lakers, Nets — and they need to pad the win column before the schedule turns difficult.

 
Nets small icon 21. Nets (9-14, LW 24). They have two games this week in Mexico City, Thursday against the Thunder then Saturday against the Heat. When you watch those games, see how the OKC and Miami do from the midrange — the Nets do what teams should do on paper and force opponents to shoot from the midrange, but opponents are hitting 42.4% from there, second highest percentage in the NBA (Cleaning the Glass).

 
Magic small icon 22. Magic (10-15, LW 25). With Terrence Ross out for a while, more will fall on Jonathon Simmons — who has looked pretty good for the Magic but now has a lot more responsibility. The Magic snapped their nine-game losing streak and have won 2-of-4, which is the start to a turnaround, and now they have 4-0f-5 at home.

 
Grizzlies small icon 23. Grizzlies (8-15, LW 26). Since J.B. Bierstaff took over, the Grizzlies have gone back to their old ways and have played at the slowest pace in the league, and they are taking fewer threes. The new coach is 1-3 on the job, but Memphis did snap its 11-game losing streak to the play-down-to-the-competition Timberwolves. Things don’t get easier for the Grizzlies, still without Mike Conley, as the Raptors and Thunder are among the teams on the schedule this week.

 
Clippers small icon 24. Clippers (8-14 LW 21). How will DeAndre Jordan personally, and the Clippers as a team, handle the swirling trade rumors around him (ones that are not going away before he is moved or the trade deadline in February, whichever comes first)? The Clippers should get both Milos Teodosic and Danilo Gallinari back in the next week, which will help, because with Blake Griffin out for at least a month Austin Rivers has become the team’s primary playmaker, and that’s not working.

 
Mavericks small icon 25. Mavericks (7-17 LW 27). The good news is Dallas is playing hard and getting themselves into close games, but they still struggle to close those out as seen in losses to the Spurs and Nets. However, the Mavericks have won two in a row now and head out with 5-of-6 on the road. As for a Nerlens Noel update:

 
Lakers small icon 26. Lakers (8-15 LW 22). The Lakers have dropped five in a row and now have 6-of-7 on the road (with the one home game being Golden State) in their toughest stretch of the schedule this season. On the bright side, Kyle Kuzma continues to impress as a rookie and put up numbers. Also, having seen him twice in the last week in person, Brandon Ingram seems to be turning a corner into a more aggressive player whose shot is coming along.

 
Suns small icon 27. Suns (9-17, LW 23). The Devin Booker groin injury is scary (as of this writing we do not know how long he will be out). He’s averaging 24.3 points per game, is shooting 38.3% from three, is the Suns biggest scoring threat, and the team’s offense has scored less than a point per possession when he is off the court. The Suns went 2-4 on their recent road trip, but it doesn’t get easier coming home to the Wizards and Spurs for a couple games.

 
Kings small icon 28. Kings (7-16, LW 28). There has been little consistency with this team, Skal Labissiere was starting a few games ago, then last week he got assigned to the D-League. The Kings are playing big again with Willie Cauley-Stein and Kosta Koufos starting. De’Aaron Fox is showing flashes, but mostly looks like a rookie thrown to the wolves. George Hill summed up the mood of Kings fans about this season well.

 
Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (5-18, LW 29). The best barometer of the Hawks is point guard Dennis Schroeder — in games he doesn’t play or scores fewer than 20 points, the Hawks are 0-11 (they are 5-7 when he does hit that mark). Tough to see John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon out injured, their play was one of the few reasons to watch the Hawks this season. Atlanta has a home-and-home with Orlando that starts Wednesday.

 
Bulls small icon 30. Bulls (3-19 LW 30).. A couple of harsh 1-point losses (to Denver and Sacramento) last week, which I guess could be seen as moral victories for the Bulls, who have dropped 9 straight. The Bulls could get Nikola Mitotic back this week. The guy they really need suited up is Zach LaVine, but that still seems weeks away.

All eyes on Derrick Favors as Jazz begin life without Rudy Gobert

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The departures of Gordon Hayward and George Hill were supposed to set Derrick Favors up for more opportunities with the Utah Jazz. That wasn’t consistently so through the first 12 games of the season, but there’s no question the eighth-year big man will now have to shoulder more responsibility on both ends of the floor.

The Jazz will experience life without Rudy Gobert for the next month with the second-team All-NBA center out with a bone bruise in his right leg.

“I’m excited about it,” Favors said. “It’s a new challenge. I get to be a big part of the offense now. A big part of the defense, too. It’s a big responsibility, but I’m ready for it.”

Favors is now the starting center, sliding over from power forward. Thabo Sefolosha started against the Nets at power forward and Jonas Jerebko got the start against the Timberwolves.

Gobert was averaging 13.9 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. Favors had 24 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks against the Nets, but nine points, 10 rebounds and one block against the Timberwolves.

The Jazz were already struggling with consistency as a roster and now they’re without their centerpiece – the defensive player of the year that’s the focal point of one of the league’s top defenses several years running. The 7-foot-1 Frenchman’s rim protection allowed defenders to be aggressive on the perimeter knowing Gobert had their back.

The Jazz will be smaller with the 6-10 Favors in the middle and a combination of Sefolosha, Jerebko, Joe Johnson, who’s currently out with a wrist injury, and Ekpe Udoh at power forward. Coach Quin Snyder can go even smaller with Joe Ingles at the four in certain lineups. That could result in more switching or other nuances defending the pick-and-roll.

“Our margin for error gets a little bit slimmer,” Snyder said. “Our team will adjust. That’s all you can do. Every substitution pattern changes the makeup of the team. Some more dramatically than others. Obviously, Derrick playing with Thabo or Joe Ingles at the four, there’s a different style of attack. It’s something that Derrick’s capable of doing and doing well.”

There will be adjustments offensively, also, as Gobert had improved as a finisher around the rim and is one of the best rollers to the basket in the pick-and-roll. The lob had become a staple of the offense.

Favors is averaging 11.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 0.6 blocks this season – improvements from his injury-riddled 2016-17, but still a step back from the previous three seasons. He has improved his range and has some of his athleticism back after knee and back injuries, but he still hasn’t been as effective. Opinions range from Favors just not being the same player anymore to his numbers being affected by decreased playing time with fewer opportunities.

Offseason acquisition Ricky Rubio has struggled as the starting point guard and his 3.9 turnovers per game are the eighth-most in the league. He’ll have to develop chemistry with Favors.

Snyder said they have to sometimes wrestle with Favors to get him to roll.

“It’s something different because at the four I’m so used to popping out to the free throw line, or beyond 3-point line, while Rudy’s in the paint,” Favors said. “Now my main job is to roll to the basket, roll in the paint, try to draw a lot of attention so guys can get open on the corner three or perimeter. It’s definitely something new this season that I have to get used to, but I’m ready for it.”

The Jazz are dealing with a plethora of injuries again after Favors, Hill, Rodney Hood and Alec Burks all missed significant time last season. Dante Exum (shoulder surgery) is out for the season and Johnson (wrist) should be reevaluated soon.

Gobert said this won’t change any playoff expectations for the team.

“It’s frustrating for sure,” Gobert said. “We know that every game matters. At the same time, I think it’s just going to make us stronger. I’m confident the team can win without me. The only thing I can do is make sure I do everything right and when I come back, I’m stronger and I’m ready to help the team out.”

 

Report: Jazz signing Thabo Sefolosha to two-year $10.5 million contract

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The Jazz lost their biggest star in Gordon Hayward, but they’re not slipping quietly into irrelevancy.

To help remain competitive for the playoffs, Utah filling its small forward hole with Thabo Sefolosha.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

This would fit into the taxpayer mid-level exception. The Jazz could also waive Boris Diaw or Raul Neto to fit Sefolosha into cap space and use the room exception on someone else. Utah appears far enough below the apron to use the non-taxpayer mid-level exception, but this leaves more options open (signing someone else with the remaining portion of the non-taxpayer mid-level exception, acquiring a player in a sign-and-trade, eventually exceeding the apron).

Likewise, the Jazz will have plenty of options on the court at wing. Rodney Hood and Alec Burks should be healthier. Rookie Donovan Mitchell has impressed in summer league. Joe Ingles and Joe Johnson will receive playing time at both forward positions.

The 33-year-old Sefolosha is past his peak, but he remains a helpful 3-and-D contributor. He’ll fit well in Utah with his high basketball intelligence.

Atlanta already moved the younger Taurean Prince ahead of him. This is another opportunity to remember the Hawks probably should have traded Sefolosha (and Paul Millsap) last year and gotten something for them. But even without a head start in accumulating assets, Atlanta is still moving further into rebuilding now.

NBA free agency winners and losers (plus some teams on the bubble)

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We’ve reached the point in the summer where the big move are made, and now teams are mostly just rounding out their rosters. There could still be a Carmelo Anthony trade, or maybe an unexpected shoe drops, but rosters are basically set now.

Who won the summer? Who lost? Let’s take a look at the list.

Winner: Oklahoma City Thunder. One year ago Kevin Durant walked, and despite the contract extension last summer and the MVP this summer, the risk of Russell Westbrook following him out the door in 2018 was real enough that OKC needed to do something bold. Such as trade for Paul George. It was a master stroke by Sam Presti that should vault Oklahoma City into the top half of the West. The Thunder made good moves in the rest of the rotation, too, bringing back Andre Roberson and getting Patrick Patterson on a steal of a deal. The risk here is that George is a free agent next summer with eyes on the Lakers, and Westbrook has not signed an extension past this season (there’s no reason for him to, he doesn’t make more money sooner doing it) — both could walk next summer. Still, it’s a gamble the Thunder had to take, because if those two bond and thrive, if this team wins enough, they both might stay. It’s all a roll of the dice by the Thunder, but a good one.

Winner: Minnesota Timberwolves. Tom Thibodeau is in a distinctly good mood walking around Las Vegas Summer League — and he should be. With the addition Jimmy Butler at the two, plus adding Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson, and Jamal Crawford, the Timberwolves have gone from “we’re going to be good in a few years” to “we’re going to be a playoff team next season and potentially a contender in a couple of years.” Minnesota still has the borderline All-NBA big man Karl-Anthony Towns, who is still improving, and Andrew Wiggins. They need to start thinking about affording this all when Towns and Wiggins come off their rookie deals, but the Timberwolves are poised to be a force.

Loser: New York Knicks. There was a positive: They dumped Phil Jackson before he could ruin the team’s free agent summer. That should make the relationship with face-of-the-franchise Kristaps Porzingis better. However, turns out the Knicks didn’t need Jackson to have a bad summer. If an owner is going to let go of the guy at the top of basketball operations days before free agency starts, he had better have a quality “Plan B” in place and ready to go. New York eventually talked to David Griffin about coming on board, but he wisely wanted his own people in place and full autonomy over the roster, and the Knicks balked at that so he walked away. Steve Mills has stepped into the top job, and his one big move was to overpay to get Tim Hardaway Jr. — four years, $71 million for a guy who can shoot, but is not a good shot creator for others and is a minus defensively. In a tight market, they overpaid. The Knicks are adrift and trying to trade Carmelo Anthony, but finding that a challenge (Houston still is there, but the Rockets don’t want to give back much as they want to contend). I feel bad for Knicks fans, it’s hard to see how they get out of this cycle.

On the bubble: The Los Angeles Clippers. Normally if the team’s best player leaves, that team falls instantly into the loser’s bracket — and the Clippers lost Chris Paul to the Rockets. But Los Angeles salvaged their summer somewhat by keeping their talisman player in Blake Griffin, trading for Danilo Gallinari, and doing better than anyone should have hoped in a shotgun trade with Houston (Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell are good young rotation players, plus Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams can help right now). If Griffin and Gallinari can stay healthy for 70+ games each (no given), Los Angeles should be in the mix for one of the final playoff slots in the West. From there, they can start to formulate how to rebuild on the fly, but they will not bottom out.

Winner: Gordon Hayward and the Celtics. It’s almost always smart business to zig when everyone else zags — while much of the talent in the NBA went west to line up against the Warriors, Hayward went East, joined up with the Celtics and will go at LeBron James and the Cavaliers (a team showing cracks in the walls). For Hayward, he made the bold and smart basketball move. For the Celtics, they got their man and with Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford on the roster, plus the emerging Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum (both who have looked good in Summer League), the Celtics are poised to be a threat to Cleveland this year and be the team to beat in the East in a couple of years. It’s not hard to picture a Boston/Minnesota Finals in our future in a few years.

Winner: The Trail Blazers’ Twitter Account. These remain still the best Tweets of the Summer, after the Blazers’ were involved in a trade where they got cash back.

Loser: Dan Gilbert, Cavaliers owner. The Cavaliers themselves are not losers — they will bring back the best team in the East from last season, and while Boston got better much fo the rest of the conference got weaker, setting up a chance to get LeBron James and an older roster to get rest and peak during the playoffs. But Gilbert’s unwillingness to pay the going rate — and give reasonable autonomy — to one of the better GMs in the game in David Griffin hurt his team this summer and opened the door further to the best player in the game leaving in a year. Griffin talked to Chauncey Billups, a guy who will be a team president somewhere in the future, but again he lowballed him on pay and Billups wasn’t sold on the working environment. Sense a pattern here? There are cracks in the walls in Cleveland, and it all falls right at the feet of Dan Gilbert.

On the bubble: Sacramento Kings. The Kings summer was not a disaster — they brought in George Hill, Zach Randolph, and Vince Carter to mentor an interesting group of youth such as De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Heild, Skal Labissiere, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Justin Jackson. With that, the Kings are not going to be one of the worst teams in the NBA and they have good role models in house. It’s also not what I would have done because, first, they are not going to make the playoffs with this team in a deep West. For me, one veteran or so makes sense, but I would have played the kids heavy minutes this season and taken the losses because they have their 2018 first-round pick (but not 2019), preserve the cap space, then go into what will be a much tighter free agent market next summer and get veterans. That would have required patience that the Kings rarely show. And all that said, what the Kings did this summer was not a disaster, they will be okay.

Winner: James Harden and the Rockets. I can give you 228 million reasons James Harden is a winner. The man got paid — and he deserves it. Also, you have to love what the Rockets did getting Chris Paul and starting the Game of Thrones rush in the West. It’s fair to question how CP3 and Harden will mesh, or how much better Carmelo Anthony would make them, but the bottom line is this was one of the four best teams in the NBA last season and they added Chris Paul. The Rockets may be next in line for the throne in the West (should the Warriors stumble for whatever reason), and that’s a good place to be.

Winner: Golden State Warriors. I don’t love putting the defending NBA champs and head-and-shoulders best team in the league on this list, it’s just the rich getting richer, but I have no choice. They killed the off-season. They locked up Stephen Curry. They retained Kevin Durant — and he took $9.5 million less than his potential max, the Warriors also were able to retain Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, David West, and Zaza Pachulia. To that they added a good draft pick in Jordan Bell, a shooter in Nick Young (who could blossom there ala JaVale McGee), and they stole underrated Omri Casspi, who fits perfectly into their style. The Warriors just keep doing things right.

On the bubble: New Orleans Pelicans. Their one big move was expected: they overpaid Jrue Holiday to keep him in house. They had no choice, they didn’t have the cap space to replace him. This team is going to make the playoffs in a deep West — and keep DeMarcus Cousins next summer as a free agent — or there is going to be a top-to-bottom house cleaning in basketball operations. The entire organization seems to be acting like it’s on pins and needles. It all comes down to how the gambit of pairing Anthony Davis and Cousins works out (and plenty of people around the league are not sold it will).

Loser: Utah Jazz. It pains me to put them here because they did everything right, it just wasn’t enough. They lost Gordon Hayward and will take a step back. Utah is not terrible and has pieces to retool around — Rudy Gobert remains one of the best centers in the game, guys like Alec Burks and Rodney Hood are good, and Ricky Rubio can run the show — but it’s all not the same without Hayward.

Winner: Denver Nuggets. This team just missed out on the playoffs a year ago, mostly because their defense wasn’t good enough, then they went out and traded out Danilo Gallinari for Paul Millsap — an upgrade, far more durable, and a guy who will give them something on defense. They have a quality young core with Nikola Jokic (why have they not locked him up with an extension yet?), Jamal Murray and others, and the Nuggets look like a playoff team if healthy. After the disastrous Brian Shaw years, the Nuggets have rebuilt their team culture and roster into something quite good.

Utah’s Donovan Mitchell drops Summer League high 37 points, shows promise

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LAS VEGAS — Donovan Mitchell found his stroke on Tuesday.

Throughout the Utah and Las Vegas Summer Leagues, the combo guard the Jazz traded for on draft night was showing off his athleticism, but his shot was not falling. Through his first four games, he shot 26-of-66 (39.4 percent).

Tuesday against Memphis he dropped a Summer League high 37 points on Memphis in 24 shots. It wasn’t enough for the win — his attempt at a game-winner hit the back of the rim — but it was enough to turn heads.

Mitchell was taken near the end of the lottery (13th), but the Jazz thought his game was better suited for the next level than he showed in college.

“He’s able to show more here than he was at Louisville, maybe because of the NBA-style spacing and pick-and-roll game rather than the tighter confines, the hand-checking in college,” said Jazz Summer League coach Zach Guthrie. “So we felt if the floor opened up for him, his skill and athleticism would really shine.”

It has. Like with all guards stepping up a level, it’s been an adjustment for Mitchell — his shooting shows that — but it’s the mental aspects he has to master going into the fall. His decision-making has to get better.

“To me, the thing he’s grown the most in is sort of the processing of the game, the mental attributes,” Guthrie said. “When to slow it down, ‘hey, I got a two-for-one I gotta get here,’ what are we doing on defense… the offensive skills are there, but what’s going to get him on the floor is defense.”

Utah is a team built around its defense, and that is not changing no matter where Gordon Hayward wants to play. This team starts with Rudy Gobert protecting the rim and builds out.

“Defense is the name of the game, and he’s got to defend at an elite level, which he is capable of doing he has the skills to do it on the ball, can he put all those things together and process it within the schemes that we run, and defend at a high level without making mistakes and fouling?” Guthrie asked.

What gives Mitchell defensive potential is his 6’10” wingspan on a 6’3″ guard — he blows up passing lanes with his length. That is something the Jazz could use.

“This past year we were a good defensive team, but we were a containment defensive team,” said Guthrie, who is an assistant on the Jazz bench during the season. “We weren’t a team that generated a lot of turnovers. So for us to infuse Donovan Mitchell into that with his length and his skills is really something interesting…

“He gets (steals) in a variety of ways. One of the big things he does that a lot of the guys don’t do in this league is as you cut through on defense to the weak side, he maintains vision of the ball. So may guys are man dependent and they go like a lost puppy following their man. But he turns, has vision and is able to make plays off it. So that is a big deal.”

Utah has real depth at guard with Ricky Rubio, Dante Exum, Rodney Hood and Alec Burks. Mitchell is going to have to impress on both ends to get much run with the Jazz this season.

But in Las Vegas, he’s showing the potential to do just that.