Andrew Wiggins

NBA Power Rankings: Celtics on top, Spurs move into top five

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The top four in our power rankings did not change this week and the teams just kept on winning — including 13 in a row for Boston, but that will be tested Thursday night when they face the Warriors. The Wizards were the big climbers this week, jumping from 16 to 8 (although I may have had them a little low the week before).

Celtics small icon 1. Celtics (13-2, Last Week No. 1). Brad Stevens is getting a lot of praise from front offices around the league because his Celtics team loses Al Horford for a couple of games, Kyrie Irving gets his face busted by Aron Baynes, and they keep on finding ways to win. Boston keeps on doing it with defense, which remains the best in the NBA. The Celtics have passed every test so far, but the Thursday one against the Warriors is the biggest yet in a young season.

Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (11-3 LW 2). They have won seven in a row and all by double digits, and during that stretch they have the best offense and second best defense in the NBA (it was the D that got off to the slow start). Here’s the scary thing, so far the Warriors have played the second toughest schedule in the NBA, and that doesn’t change Thursday with the Celtics on the docket.

Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (11-4, Last Week No. 3). The top two players in three-point attempts this season so far are James Harden and Eric Gordon (Stephan Curry is third). Harden has made at least five threes in six straight NBA games, which is a record. Chris Paul should return in the next week or two, but Mike D’Antoni has to find a way to keep using the Rockets’ starting five — Harden, Gordon, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Clint Capela — which is outscoring opponents by 25.7 points per 100.

Pistons small icon 4. Pistons (10-3, LW 4). Tobias Harris is having the best start to his career and it all starts at the arc — he has nearly doubled the number of threes he’s taking (3.8 per game last season, 6.4 per game, and it’s hitting 50.6 percent this season. Also, Andre Drummond has grabbed at least a dozen rebounds in every Piston’s game this season, confirming he is the best rebounder in the NBA.

Spurs small icon 5. Spurs (9-5, LW 7). San Antonio went 4-2 on a recent homestand (the Warriors and Bucks were the losses), which has helped them hold on to a playoff slot while we wait for the return of Kawhi Leonard (still no timetable, but “sooner rather than later” is the new word). After a rough start to the season with more isolation than they wanted, on the homestand the Spurs got the ball moving again, averaging 313.8 passes per game (same as the Warriors in that stretch). That has sparked their offense. Even without Leonard the Spurs are fifth in defense.

6. Timberwolves (8-5, LW 5). On the surface they look like they are off to a good start to the season — winning record, great young talent — but if their 26th in the NBA defense, which is 29th if you remove garbage time (as the site Cleaning the Glass does) things will go south. The most concerning thing: Minny’s defense is 10.9 points per 100 possessions worse when Karl-Anthony Towns is on the court. He is still struggling on that end. Andrew Wiggins takes a lot of heat for his D from Timberwolves fans, but the team defense is 5 points per 100 better when he is on the court.

Raptors small icon 7. Raptors (8-5, LW 9). They are moving the ball more and isolating less, but they are still a team that scores on the drive — they average 28.2 points per game on drives, the most in the NBA. The Raptors’ five losses are the Warriors, Spurs, underrated Nuggets, Wizards, and Celtics — they had beaten the team they were supposed to but needed a marquee win, and they got it putting up 129 on the Rockets Tuesday night. OG Anunoby has been a find.

Wizards small icon 8. Wizards (8-5, LW 16). The Wizards move up this week because they feasted on a soft part of their schedule, winning 3-of-4 on a homestand. It’s a good sign that they are at least taking lesser teams seriously. Now the schedule gets harder: 11-of-14 on the road with a lot of playoff teams in the mix is up next, starting with a home-and-home vs. the Heat.

Pelicans small icon 9. Pelicans (8-6 LW 13). The DeMarcus Cousins/Anthony Davis pairing continues to thrive — they are both averaging more than 26 points and 11 rebounds per game (which is a historic pace for teammates, if they can sustain it). Rajon Rondo returned to the lineup in limited minutes on Monday, as he works his way back into shape Alvin Gentry needs to find some perimeter rotations that can help out that strong front line. Darius Miller has earned some extra run with his performances.

Nuggets small icon 10. Nuggets (8-6, LW 14). Nikola Jokic is having a fast start to the season and the reason is he is trusting his three-ball. Jokic is nearly doubling the number of threes he took per game last season (1.9 up to 3.6) but the key is he is hitting 41.2 percent this season (up from 32.4 percent last season). Denver moved up the rankings going 5-1 on a homestand, but Monday’s loss at Portland is the first of 11-of-15 on the road.

Knicks small icon 11. Knicks (7-6, LW 8). The Knicks thought they had a signature win Monday night against Cleveland, only to blow a 23-point lead and take a punch to the gut. I know that coach Jeff Hornacek likes his center rotation of Enes Kanter and Kyle O’Quinn, but he played Kristaps Porzingis there at the end of the Orlando game, I’d like to see more of that.

Sixers small icon 12. 76ers (7-6, LW 11). The big news for the Sixers this week is Robert Covington can sign a new contract extension, and expect the Sixers to make him a happy man with a healthy payday in the next few days. The Sixers are 2-2 on a five-game road trip that ends in Los Angeles Wednesday (one loss was an ugly one to the Kings), then the Sixers are home for six straight.

Magic small icon 13. Magic (8-6, LW 10). It’s still a little strange to type this, but Aaron Gordon continues to kill it from three, shooting 53.7 percent this season, best in the NBA. The Magic are improved on both ends of the court this season, but are 1-2 on their current road trip, with 5-of-7 on the road still to go.

Blazers small icon 14. Trail Blazers (7-6 LW 12). Portland has the third best defense in the NBA this season, and with that should have a better record than they do so far (they have the point differential of a 9-4 team). What’s holding them back is a middle of the pack offense, and the reason is they get the fewest points out of transition in the league. The Blazers need to play a little faster and get some easy baskets.

Grizzlies small icon 15. Grizzlies (7-6, LW 6). I like the move to start Dillon Brooks over Andrew Harrison, but it does not change the momentum of a team that has lost 5-of-7, with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol struggling with their shot. The most impressive thing about Memphis this season has been the strong play of its bench, led by Tyreke Evans.

Bucks small icon 16. Bucks (7-6 LW 23). Winners of three in a row since Eric Bledsoe arrived, although none of those wins was particularly pretty. What he has brought is a willingness to push the pace more — a team with the Greek Freak and a defense designed to create turnovers shouldn’t be 26th in the league in pace. On Saturday the Bucks head out for 5-of-6 on the road.

Heat small icon 17. Heat (6-7, LW 24). The Heat had a solid 3-3 road trip, one where they played good defense, allowing less than a point per possession during the trip. Problem is they also scored less than a point per possession. Still, that road trip felt closer to the Heat team from the second half of last season than we have seen yet this season.

Cavaliers small icon 18. Cavaliers (7-7 LW 20). Kevin Love playing the five has been an experiment that has not always looked good, but Love has finished better at the rim — 70.8 in the restricted area this season — than at any point in his career. LeBron James has played more regular season games now than Michael Jordan, is in his 15th NBA season, yet leads the NBA in 38.1 minutes played per game. He’s been phenomenal in those minutes – because the Cavs need him to be — but that’s a heavy load.

Thunder small icon 19. Thunder (6-7 LW 21).. The Thunder have a couple wins in a row, which happened for two reasons. First, because Paul George went off for 42 and 37 in those games to carry a struggling offense. The other reason for the wins is the Thunder played the Clippers (six game losing streak and then a Dallas team that is last in the Western Conference. Maybe the Thunder needed a couple easy wins as slumpbusters, just any wins to turn the team around, and with Chicago up next the streak could well reach three wins.

Hornets small icon 20. Hornets (5-7, LW 15). They have played the toughest schedule in the NBA so far this season. The Hornets start fast, outscoring teams by 6.9 points per 100 in the first quarter, but they get outscored by 6.3 per 100 in the fourth, which has them blowing leads and losing ugly (like leading by 12 in the forth to Boston and losing).

Lakers small icon 21. Lakers (6-8 LW 18). What’s impressive is the Lakers have the fourth best defense in the NBA this season, which is shocking after years of horrid defense from the team. They are defending well in the half court, with Brook Lopez playing a key role in the paint, but they struggle defending in transition (20th in NBA according to Cleaning the Glass). The offense, like Lonzo Ball’s shot, needs a lot of work.

Pacers small icon 22. Pacers (6-8, LW 19). Myles Turner returned to the lineup, and since then the Pacers are 1-6 with the fifth worst defense in the NBA. Turner hasn’t seemed himself since returning from injury, but the Pacers are doing a poor job of getting him the ball in the spots he wants. It’s hard to find positives, outside of Victor Oladipo’s in-game 360 dunk.

Clippers small icon 23. Clippers (5-8 LW 17). Losers of six in a row and 7-of-8, and the key reason is their defense has fallen apart. The Clippers are allowing 113.8 points per 100 in their last six games, worst in the NBA. Injuries — games lost for Danilo Gallinari, Milos Teodosic, and Patrick Beverley — has exacerbated the problems for this team.

Jazz small icon 24. Jazz (6-8, LW 22). Rudy Gobert is out for at least a month after Dion Waiters crashed into his knee, and the Jazz could be in real trouble — in their second game without him the Timberwolves pounded Utah inside. It doesn’t get easier, Utah’s schedule for the next month is brutal. The Jazz need to find a way to get wins and not slide out of the playoff picture in the crowded West while Gobert is out.

Nets small icon 25. Nets (5-9, LW 25). After the past few seasons it’s strange to type this, but the Nets are fun to watch. This is a scrappy, if not good, team. The Nets suffered a blow when D’Angelo Russell tweaked his knee, he is now out for a while and that means more Spencer Dinwiddie at the point, and Caris LeVert doing some playmaking as well.

Suns small icon 26. Suns (5-10, LW 26). That bump the Suns got after firing Earl Watson and replacing him with Jay Triano — winning 4-of-5 — is over, Phoenix has dropped 6-of-7 since. In those seven games the Suns have a bottom 10 offense and defense, and have been outscored by 10 points per 100 possessions. Devin Booker puts up numbers, but Phoenix desperately needs a playmaker to put next to him.

Kings small icon 27. Kings (3-10, LW 28). While George Hill had a good game against the Wizards Monday, for much of this season he has struggled and rookie De’Aaron Fox has been as good or better. Fox shows real promise. A young guns lineup for the Kings — Fox, Buddy Held, Justin Jackson, Skal Labissiere, and Willie Cauley-Stein — has only played 21 minutes together this season, and it hasn’t been great (-9.8 per 100) but I would like to see more of it. This is a developmental year in Sacramento.

Bulls small icon 28. Bulls (2-9 LW 27). Since returning from suspension, Bobby Portis is averaging 19.3 points and 10 rebounds a game. It’s going to be awkward when Nicola Mirotic eventually returns to practices and the lineup, but with Portis playing this well he is going to get a lot of run. The Bulls have lost 6-of-7 and have 5 of their next six on the road.

Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (2-12, LW 29). Ersan Ilyasova is back healthy and will come off the bench for Atlanta on Wednesday against the Kings. The Hawks have gotten help from some unexpected places, for example Luke Babbitt is shooting the ball well and that is opening things up for Dennis Schroder. Also, rookie John Collins is averaging 10.4 points per game shooting 50.4 percent, is grabbing 7.2 rebounds a night, and has a PER of 18.9 that is the best on the team among regular rotation players.

Mavericks small icon 30. Mavericks (2-13 LW 30). With his second made basket Friday against Minnesota, Dirk Nowitzki will pass Hakeem Olajuwon for eighth place on the NBA’s all-time made baskets list. Nowitzki passed Olajuwon in points three seasons ago to become the all-time leading scorer among international players. Nowitzki said he will let his body — and not the Mavs record — determine if he will come back for one more season after this one.

Hot Timberwolves ready for litmus test vs. champion Warriors

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The last time the Minnesota Timberwolves won five straight games, five head coaches and nearly nine long years ago, Al Jefferson was the centerpiece of the team. Kevin Love was a rookie, still coming off the bench. Fifteen different players started at least one game.

Karl-Anthony Towns had just turned 13. President George W. Bush was still in the White House.

The woebegone Wolves have waited a long time for this. They will play at Golden State on Wednesday night, just one-half game behind the defending NBA champion Warriors for the best record in the Western Conference. Forget for a moment that the regular season is merely 12 percent complete. For the first time in, well, 13 years or so the Wolves will be a legitimate participant in a marquee national game on ESPN rather than a token opponent.

“You want to see where you are and how you measure up,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Everyone in the league is chasing them.”

These Wolves (7-3) have produced the franchise’s best 10-game start to the schedule since a 9-1 record in 2001 when Kevin Garnett was 25, Terrell Brandon was the point guard and Anthony Peeler was the first player the off the bench.

With only three players who’ve been on the roster longer than three years, there aren’t as many scars in the locker room as all that franchise futility would suggest. The last few seasons have been frustrating enough, though.

“It’s something that’s changing around here, and I’m glad to be a part of it,” said Shabazz Muhammad, who with fellow reserve Gorgui Dieng has the longest tenure in their fifth year.

The 2008-09 team finished 24-58, so the early January success was clearly not a harbinger.

The Wolves have lost 461 games between the end of that streak and now, so even three solid weeks to start a season is an accomplishment. Thibodeau was hired to take them much further than that, of course.

The hard-driving, no-nonsense coach sure won’t be satisfied with this team’s progress anytime soon, and neither will these players, from 17-year veteran Jamal Crawford to Towns, who’s still only 21.

“We just want to keep doing more of what we’re doing,” Crawford said after practice on Tuesday.

That’s continuing to better the defense, for one.

The Wolves have held three consecutive opponents under 100 points, with newcomers Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Crawford beginning to pick up the tendencies of their returning teammates and the young core of Towns and Andrew Wiggins starting to learn the principles of helping and switching under the defensive-minded Thibodeau. Chemistry is just as important when they’re guarding the basket as it is when they have the ball.

“It’s still a work in progress,’ Thibodeau said, “but I think we are moving in the right direction.”

The depth, and the versatility of that depth, is another area of vast improvement. The second team, which Thibodeau has played together as a unit for several stretches at a time, includes Tyus Jones, Crawford, Muhammad, Nemanja Bjelica and Dieng. When they are in, there has not been a drop-off at all from the star-studded starting lineup.

The Wolves are shooting 3-pointers more effectively and often, too, another long-running weakness of this team going back dozens of players and a handful of head coaches. With Towns in the paint and Wiggins on the wing, the Wolves already have two of the league’s best offensive players.

“They can definitely score. They have three or four guys out there that can get 20 on any given night,” said Charlotte Hornets power forward Marvin Williams, whose team lost at Minnesota on Sunday night. “They are definitely tough to stop.”

Then there’s Butler, the alpha wolf who Thibodeau wanted so badly as a tough, experienced two-way player who would not only challenge his teammates to excel but selflessly defer to them on the court as needed.

“When I feel like it’s my time to shoot, I’ll shoot it,” Butler said. “But as of right now, my teammates are rolling. Feed them. Let them get us going.”

Butler’s attitude and perspective might be the biggest upgrade the Wolves have made among so many.

“Often times you hear people say things, and they never do the things that they say. But when you watch what they’re doing, it tells you what’s important to them,” Thibodeau said. “Jimmy has always played that way.”

 

Andrew Wiggins bursts through paint for explosive clutch dunk (video)

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This wasn’t quite a dagger. Thanks to their suspect defense, the Timberwolves still needed overtime to beat the Heat, 125-122.

But dear lord, Andrew Wiggins.

Tom Thibodeau still hasn’t fixed Timberwolves defense

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DETROIT – Taj Gibson is experiencing déjà vu – to a point.

Gibson played for the Bulls in 2010 when they hired Tom Thibodeau, who exhaustively drilled his trademark defense with his players. Now with the Timberwolves – who hired Thibodeau as president/coach last year – Gibson said Thibodeau is scheming and teaching his defense similarly.

But the results have been radically different.

Chicago ranked No. 1 in points allowed per possession Thibodeau’s first season then second, sixth and second before slipping to a still-above-average 11th his final year. Minnesota ranked 27th last season and is not only dead last this season, but is allowing the most points per possession of all time by a wide margin.

“The only thing about Chicago, we just did what he told us to do – every game,” said Gibson, whom the Timberwolves signed last summer to provide defense and toughness. “If he said A to Z, we did A to Z every single game. And in practice, we did A to Z.

“That’s the only thing we’re trying to work out here now, have us work on things from A to Z. And sometimes you don’t want to do it, but you’re going to have to do it if you want to be successful in this league.”

Gibson didn’t pinpoint why the Timberwolves didn’t follow Thibodeau’s game plans as well as the Bulls did. Minnesota’s roster is less experienced and maybe lacking the defensive capabilities of Chicago’s. Joakim Noah won Defensive Player of the Year and Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler also made All-Defensive teams for Thibodeau’s Bulls. Gibson and Omer Asik were no slouches on that end, either. The only Timberwolves with notable defensive accomplishments are… Butler and Gibson.

And Thibodeau.

Thibodeau was expected to immediately overhaul the Timberwolves – install an impenetrable defense and lift them into playoff contention. He was an overnight success in Chicago, winning Coach of the Year and guiding the Bulls to 62 wins and the conference finals his fist season. Why couldn’t he duplicate that speedy ascension in Minnesota?

His first year there was bumpy, to say the least. The Timberwolves went 31-51 and finished 27th in points allowed per possession.

The common reaction: Pundits, in hindsight, probably overrated Thibodeau’s ability to instantly transform a moribund franchise. The failure to meet expectations was seen as a failure of those setting the expectations, not Thibodeau. Give him another year, and everything would turn out alright – especially once he acquired Butler.

Yet… everything is not alright. Not even close.

Minnesota (2-3) is allowing 114.0 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. No other team is close:

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Five games are a small sample, but it’s not as if the Timberwolves have faced a murders’ row of offenses. They’ve played the Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs, Jazz, still-figuring-it-out Thunder, Pacers and Pacers.

“We’ve got to be better,” Minnesota center Karl-Anthony Towns said. “It’s only five games in. We have a lot more time. But we don’t have that much time. It’s too damn much. We’ve got to be better.”

The Timberwolves were missing Butler (illness) for their worst two defensive performances of the season, Indiana and Detroit. When he returns, that will patch some problems. Not only is he the Timberwolves’ best defender, the strong wing unlocks small-ball lineups that allow Minnesota to handle more matchups.

At power forward, the 32-year-old Gibson sometimes looks too slow to handle smaller stretch fours. Butler was a masterful addition, but with a two-year, $28 million contract, Gibson is an expensive band-aid. Despite Gibson’s deficiencies, Thibodeau wanted the big’s reliability.

The real problem: Thibodeau can’t find that elsewhere – especially his franchise cornerstone younger players, Towns and Andrew Wiggins.

Towns is a mobile 7-footer with ideal physical tools and improving defensive effort. Yet, his awareness lags far behind, as this play clipped by Dane Moore of Zone Coverage illustrates:

Like Towns, Wiggins, entered the NBA with high defensive expectations. Rangy and quick, Wiggins looked like he could hawk opposing wings. Instead, he has turned into a score-first player with limited complementary skills. He’s not nearly aggressive enough defensively even to tell whether he gets it.

The Timberwolves are lucky they fleeced the Bulls for Butler, because he covers what would have been major growing pains around Towns and Wiggins (and Zach LaVine, another minus defender). Minnesota has allowed an astounding 134.0 points per 100 possessions when Towns and Wiggins share the court without Butler.

“You need everyone committed to playing defense,” Thibodeau said. “It can’t be left upon one or two guys.

“If one guy is resting or taking it easy, it’s going to make the whole group look bad. I think that we still have to have an understanding of how hard we have to play and how hard we have to close out and challenge shots and get in the fight to rebound and things like that.”

Minnesota has been torched in transition, not getting back quickly enough and losing track of opposing players. The Timberwolves surrender steals only slightly more than average. Sometimes, they crash the offensive glass too hard, but they’re only middling at actually securing offensive rebounds. So, there’s no good excuse for getting beat down court as often as they are.

It hasn’t been much better in the halfcourt, where they’re slow to close out and plagued by miscommunication and poor angles against screens and handoffs.

“We’re better, but making mistakes that we made last year,” Towns said. “So, we’ve got to fix it.”

NBA Three Things to Know: Sun sets on Earl Watson in Phoenix

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. This is what you missed on Sunday while wondering if oyster vending machines are a good idea. (They’re not.)

1) Eric Bledsoe Tweets he wants out, hours later it’s Earl Watson who is out, fired as Suns coach. The Suns are a bad team, one that lacked offensive cohesion and defensive effort. Phoenix was blown out by 48 points by the Trail Blazers in their first game, the worst opening night loss in NBA history. It was an ugly start to the season. How could things possibly get worse from there?

Well, how about the Suns get blown out by 42 points in the third game of the season, have their best player Tweet he “doesn’t want to be here” then turn around and fire the coach? That’s what happened, and Earl Watson is out in Phoenix.

Watson was 33-85 as the Suns head coach, but that record isn’t a fair way to judge him — Suns management made him sit Eric Bledsoe and Tyson Chandler to tank at the end of last season, much to Watson’s frustration. This is a young team this season that is not going to be good no matter who coached it. But Watson’s Suns didn’t seem to have a strong offensive identity, didn’t play hard on defense, and there were doubts about his ability to develop young talent. Watson took over as an interim coach after the Suns fired Jeff Hornacek, then he went an unimpressive 9-24 in that role. However, he preached love and togetherness at a time the franchise needed it, and the players loved him, so despite the record management decided to give him a shot as a guy who could develop talent. Watson and GM Ryan McDonough were notoriously rarely on the same page, but Robert Sarver is not the kind of owner who will pay a couple of coaches at once, and the players loved Watson, so he stayed. Then, Eric Bledsoe tweeted this.

I’m not saying the two things are directly related, but if Watson was losing the players, he had little left.

The only question about this move is “why did they wait three games into the season?” Why not make their move over the summer, allowing a new coach to have a training camp to change the tenor of the team? Former Raptor coach (and Canadian national team coach) Jay Triano gets the job in the short term.

The Suns are a young, developing team but with some good pieces already in place — Devin Booker, Josh Jackson — and some guys who need to be brought along (Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss). They need a strong developmental head coach, someone who can install a mindset and get the young guys playing hard. The Suns are going to lose a lot of games this season, and end up with a high draft pick, they are building for the future. They need their process, and they need a coach who can lead it.

2) Carmelo Anthony drains game-winning three… wait, no it’s Andrew Wiggins who drains game-winner for Timberwolves. For a couple of games (this one and the previous one against the Jazz) the Thunder have struggled with their offensive rhythm. Or, more accurately, they just missed shots. Through three quarters the Russell Westbrook/Paul George/Carmelo Anthony trio was 17-of-43 (39.5 percent) and 3-of-10 from three.

But after the Thunder second unit made it a game again, Westbrook found his groove late — he took over the offense, attacking, and going 6-of-9 in the fourth. Then came the big finish. Karl-Anthony Towns — who was a beast again with 27 points and 12 boards (but needs to take fewer threes if he keeps missing like this) — put the Timberwolves up two. With 8.9 seconds left Westbrook drove, drew two defenders, then shared the rock, found Anthony… and just watch for yourself.

Underrated on that last play: Towns set a massive screen to free up Wiggins and get him that look. Wiggins did not call bank, but as Paul Pierce said last season he did call game.

3) Clippers’ Milos Teodosic out indefinitely. The NBA just got a little less fun to watch. The Clippers brought the passing wizard over from Serbia as a 30-year-old rookie, and he was dishing.

Unfortunately, Teodosic is out indefinitely with a plantar fascia injury. The concern with the Clippers this season was not the talent but the health of a team leaning on Blake Griffin, Danilo Gallinari, and others with long injury histories. Hopefully for Los Angeles, the Teodosic injury is not the start of a trend.