Brook Lopez

Associated Press

Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler lead Timberwolves rally past Lakers, 119-111

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Timberwolves were flat, facing a double-digit deficit for long stretches of the game.

This is why they traded for Jimmy Butler and signed Taj Gibson, for fourth-quarter lifts like these.

Gibson scored a season-high 28 points and Butler added 24, providing the Timberwolves with the production and energy for a 119-111 comeback victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday night.

Butler and Gibson, the former Chicago teammates, muscled their way to the basket with a fierce determination down the stretch. Butler drove along the baseline and flicked a short pass to Gibson in the lane, where he dropped in a layup and converted a three-point play for a 110-104 lead with 3:59 left.

“What he and Jimmy have brought to the team has really changed things for us,” said Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau, who had them both with the Bulls. “Those guys, they weren’t going to let us lose.”

Jeff Teague pitched in 20 points and Jamal Crawford added 15 for the Timberwolves, who rallied from a deficit as large as 15 points in the second quarter and 12 points late in the third to raise their home record to 24-7 on an emotional evening that started with a tribute to former coach and executive Flip Saunders.

Except the Lakers had the mojo for much of the first three quarters. Julius Randle had 23 points and nine rebounds, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brandon Ingram each scored 17 points.

“I know how good we can be when we decide to play hard,” Butler said. “But we think that we’re so good on paper that we can just go through the motions.”

Ivica Zubac, who went 8 for 8 from the floor for a season-high 19 points, threw down a dunk for a 99-98 lead for the Lakers, but that was essentially their last momentum-creating play of the game.

“They’ve got some big-time closers on that team, starting with Jimmy Butler,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “He kind of set the tone in the fourth with the way he played.”

Butler blocked shots by Randle and Isaiah Thomas on consecutive possessions in the closing minutes, putting his stamp on yet another winning performance.

“I think that’s what separates him as a superstar,” Crawford said. “Most guys, they do it on one end, but those types of plays, they’re immeasurable.”

This was a win the Wolves badly needed before the All-Star break, after their 13-game home winning streak ended in humbling fashion on Tuesday against Houston. They moved within percentage points of San Antonio for third place in the Western Conference at 36-25. The Spurs are 35-24.

The Lakers shot so sharply to start the game, going 17 for 27 from the floor in the first quarter, that the Wolves produced separate spurts of 23-8 and 21-6 in the first half yet still trailed 65-62 at halftime.

Randle had 10 points in the third quarter as the Lakers again pushed ahead. He drove and scored on Karl-Anthony Towns for an 86-76 lead, and a frustrated Towns was called for an offensive foul on Brook Lopez to erase a spin-move layup on the next possession.

But Crawford got the Wolves and the crowd going early in the fourth quarter, sandwiching a 31-foot swish by Tyus Jones with a pair of 3-pointers of his own. The second one came off a slick crossover dribble that deked Corey Brewer at the top of the key and brought the Wolves within 95-94.

 

 

NBA Power Rankings: Rockets move into top spot as Warriors slide down

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The top teams in the NBA seem to be getting some senioritis as All-Star Weekend approaches — but not the Houston Rockets, who keep on winning and with that move to the top spot in the rankings. Cleveland keeps on falling down the board as the Raptors and Celtics have established themselves on top of the East. Orlando is out of the bottom slot,
which sucks or Phoenix.

 
Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (39-13, Last Week No. 2). Houston’s destruction of the Cavaliers over the weekend was just another reminder that the Rockets are in the NBA’s elite (and the Cavs… not so much right now). The Rockets move into the top spot having gone 8-2 in their last 10, with a top-five offense and defense — while the rest of the league’s best teams struggle through the dog days of the season Houston is rolling and beating other top teams. Don’t expect any trade deadline moves from Houston, they are going to roll with the team they have.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (41-13 LW 1). If the Warriors repeat as NBA champions this June, everyone will credit their superior talent or how they gel as a team. But maybe it will be Karma — when everyone’s favorite halftime act Red Panda had her 7-foot unicycle stolen last week (and it devastated her), the Warriors stepped up with $25,000 to replace it. Karma isn’t helping their defense in the short term, however, which is 23rd in the NBA over last 10 games. After falling to the Thunder Tuesday, the Warriors are 1-4 vs. OKC and Houston this season.

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (37-16, LW 3). Their win over the Celtics Tuesday — in very possibly a preview of the Eastern Conference Finals — was an impressive showing for their defense, which is third best in the NBA over the last 10 games and has been improved all season. I get the people who are hesitant to jump on board, who want to see how this new-look Raptors offense looks in the cauldron of the playoffs, the people who point to Toronto history, but I think the Raptors are legit. This is the best Raptors team of this era, and probably ever. Dwane Casey is not going to win Coach of the Year, but he should be in the discussion.

 
Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (39-16, LW 4). Terry Rozier was a guy Danny Ainge was always high on, even as he seemed slow to find his footing in the NBA, but recently he has rewarded that faith. He had a triple-double against the Knicks and dropped 31 on the Hawks in the past week, and he has developed into a trustworthy part of the rotation. Sunday it will be the Celtics turn to beat up on the struggling Cavaliers, and it’s also the Paul Pierce jersey retirement game.

 
5. Timberwolves (34-22, LW 7). The Timberwolves have the third-best offense in the NBA this season, but they do it in the half court and without the easy transition buckets most elite offenses thrive on. Minnesota plays at the 23rd fastest pace in the league and only 13.1 percent of their offensive possessions start in transition, 26th in the league (stats via Cleaning The Glass). That means their game should translate in the slower pace of the playoffs. Friday night, Jimmy Butler will face the Bulls for the first time since the trade last summer that sent him to Minnesota.

 
Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (34-21, LW 6). The Spurs are a very average 5-5 in their last 10 (with a -0.5 net rating), and the are 9-9 in 2018. The defense has remained top-10 (which is impressive considering they have not had Kawhi Leonard basically all season) but the offense has struggled, scoring 103.4 points per 100 possessions in the last 10 games (24th in the NBA). Rather than a trade at the deadline, the Spurs are going to count on a healthy Leonard and Rudy Gay to change the team’s fortunes around.

Bucks small icon 7. Bucks (30-23 LW 9). Jabari Parker is back and has looked solid through three games, averaging 11 points on 50% shooting in about 17 minutes a night. Already his ability to find space and knock down mid-range jumpers has helped open up an offense that can get clogged at times, and as he starts to stretch those jumpers out to the arc again all the better. Also, we can’t see this enough, Giannis Antetokounmpo dunking over 6’6” Tim Hardaway Jr.

 
Wizards small icon 8. Wizards (31-23, LW 12). Winners of five in a row until they ran into the Sixers Tuesday, Washington has been holding up well so far without John Wall. Washington has been active heading into the trade deadline trying to find backcourt help, and putting Marcin Gortat out there for a potential deal (especially if they can land DeAndre Jordan). However, people close to the team expect they Wizards won’t find a deal they like and will stand pat heading into the playoffs (with a healthy Wall by then).

 
Thunder small icon 9. Thunder (31-24 LW 5).. They had lost four in a row until Russell Westbrook went off and the Thunder put an impressive beatdown on the Warriors Tuesday. Still, OKC is just 2-4 since Andre Roberson went down injured and in that stretch the defense has been pedestrian (13th in the NBA). OKC has been active in trying to add a wing player at the trade deadline, but in a market where sellers are squeezing buyers, the Thunder may decide to ride it out with the guys they have.

 
Pacers small icon 10. Pacers (30-25, LW 11). Indiana is attacking the rim more and it has sparked the Pacer offense, which is ranked in the top 10 in the NBA over the past five games. One of the guys attacking has been point guard Darren Collison, but he is out 2-3 weeks after having his knee scoped — which may well kill the trade rumors surrounding him, too. If Collison is not dealt, don’t expect any other Pacers moves at the trade deadline.

 
Heat small icon 11. Heat (29-25, LW 8). Losers of four in a row and things don’t get any easier with the Rockets, Bucks, and Raptors the next three teams on the schedule. The losses are coming because Miami keeps playing close games and the law of averages is catching up with them — 18 of their last 19 games have been within five points in the final five minutes, and they started 9-2 in those games but have gone 2-6 since then.

 
Nuggets small icon 12. Nuggets (29-25, LW 16). Winners of three in a row, they beat the Thunder and Warriors in that stretch — a good sign as they have a tough February schedule. While Gary Harris hit the game-winner in OKC, it is the improved play of Jamal Murray at the point that has this team taking steps forward into the playoffs. He looks like a foundational piece, along with Nikola Jokic, that Denver can build around for years. Also, Will Barton has played his way into the Sixth Man of the Year discussion.

 
Blazers small icon 13. Trail Blazers (29-25, LW 13). Losers of three in a row (all though games on the road against some of the best of the East), and the concern remains the defensive slippage — they are 24th in the NBA over the last 15 games — which is holding back a team finally finding its offensive groove. Portland has talked to a lot of teams heading into the trade deadline and may make a “win now” kind of move, but they have shot down everyone who has called asking or C.J. McCollum. Portland is not breaking up its backcourt.

 
Clippers small icon 14. Clippers (27-25 LW 16). Owner Steve Ballmer doesn’t want to bottom out and rebuild, so while there has been a lot of buzz around Lou Williams and DeAndre Jordan trades, L.A. was only going to do that if they got quality back, such as as a first-round pick for Williams. That didn’t materialize, so now they have extended him and will keep Williams through the end of the season. If Los Angeles doesn’t make a move at the trade deadline (keeping Avery Bradley, too), this roster still has a shot at making the playoffs (a 50% chance according to fivethirtyeight.com).

 
Pelicans small icon 15. Pelicans (28-25, LW 10). New Orleans is 1-4 since DeMarcus Cousins went down with his Achilles injury, including a tough loss to a hot Utah team that is a threat to pass the Pelicans in the playoff chase. Anthony Davis has moved to center and, of course, played well there (he was the All-NBA First Team center last season), plus the addition of Nikola Mitotic seems to be a good fit. Can they hold on to a playoff slot? Fivethirtyeight.com says its 50-50.

 
Sixers small icon 16. 76ers (26-25, LW 15). The Sixers are only half-a-game ahead of surging Detroit for the final playoff slot in the East, but fivethirtyeight.com likes their chances saying they have an 88% chance of making the postseason. The win over Washington Tuesday helped with that. That said, the Sixers are active at the trade deadline looking at Tyreke Evans and other players who could be a scoring upgrade and improve this team’s chances of making the postseason dance.

 
Jazz small icon 17. Jazz (25-28, LW 20). Winners of six in a row, they have surprisingly vaulted back into the playoff picture (fivethirtyeight.com says they have a 74% chance of making the postseason). The Jazz are defending better but the key to the streak is the offense — they have scored 115.7 points per possession during the last six games, which is a couple points better than the league-leading Warriors on the season.

Pistons small icon 18. Pistons (26-26, LW 19). Detroit has yet to lose with Blake Griffin in the lineup and the win streak is up to four. Griffin is just being his healthy self (20.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game in his new uniform) but the team passing, and defense, has been better of late and pushed them into the playoff mix. Friday night Blake Griffin faces his old team the Clippers for the first time, and you could see some of this as Griffin and Andre Drummond are developing some fast chemistry on big-to-big passes.

 
Cavaliers small icon 19. Cavaliers (30-22 LW 14). The Cavaliers are active at the trade deadline, but let’s be honest here: There is no magic bullet trade that is going to solve the Cavs’ problems right now. (And that’s putting aside the fact that nobody wants the players they are offering in trades.) The Cavaliers have been awful, their effort has been pathetic many nights (including LeBron, who carried this team early in the season), and the only way to fix all of it is internal changes. Are they capable of that?

 
Hornets small icon 20. Hornets (23-30, LW 21). Smart trade deadline move by Charlotte picking up Willie Hernangomez from the Knicks — he’s a solid young big man who made the All-Rookie team last season, looks like he can become a solid rotational big man who can get some buckets, and is on an affordable contract for a couple of years. Charlotte can be dangerous when Nicolas Batum is aggressive and creates, like he did against the Hawks and Pacers last week, just wish that happened more often.

 
Lakers small icon 21. Lakers (22-31 LW 23). Los Angeles is trying to be active at the trade deadline, they still want to get off the contract of Jordan Clarkson, and they’ll listen to offers for veterans such as Brook Lopez, but the reality is there may not be a deal for them. The Lakers don’t seem likely to land a big free agent this summer, which will lead to the question should they use some of their cap room to keep Julius Randle, who has evolved into a quality small-ball five a lot of teams could use. Randle is going to get contract offers this summer, we’ll see if the Lakers are willing to match.

 
Knicks small icon 22. Knicks (23-32, LW 18). It’s painful to watch Kristaps Porzingis go down with an ACL injury, knowing that not only ends the slim chance of a playoff comeback this season, but could doom next season as well. As a comparison, Zach LaVine in Chicago tore his ACL in early February a year ago and didn’t return until mid-January this season, 11 months later. If Porzingis is out the start of next season — something very possible, the Knicks will be cautious bringing him back — it could doom any playoff dreams in 2019 also. Still, the Knicks will max Porzingis out this summer with a contract extension.

 
Mavericks small icon 23. Mavericks (17-37 LW 25). Congratulations to Dirk Nowitzki for reaching the 50,000 minutes club in his NBA career (only five others have done it, and they are all in the Hall of Fame, as Nowitzki will eventually be). Not having Seth Curry all season is one of the things that has held Dallas back, and now he is officially out for the rest of the campaign to have Tibia surgery, which should solve his issues. Curry should be back on the court for Dallas next season, which will provide some needed shooting.

 
Grizzlies small icon 24. Grizzlies (18-35, LW 22). If there is one thing to be sure of at the trade deadline, it’s that Tyreke Evans will get traded out of Memphis. The question is where (Boston, Philly, and Denver are the frontrunners) and will the Grizzlies get a first-round pick for him as they have demanded. So far that hasn’t been on the table (and if they get one it may be a “fake first” that is so heavily protected it eventually becomes a couple of seconds). Memphis is 0-6 without Evans this season, once he is moved they will fall back into a better lottery position.

 
Magic small icon 25. Magic (17-36, LW 30). With Nikola Vucevic out, so has been the high-post passing offense that Frank Vogel had them running. In it’s place has been more ball movement and that has worked to get better shots — Orlando is scoring 113.4 points per 100 possessions in its last five games, sixth best in the NBA. This had earned the Magic some wins (3-2 in those five), pulled them out of the bottom of this ranking, and gives them something to build on the rest of this season and into the summer.

 
Kings small icon 26. Kings (17-36, LW 26). Will George Hill get traded at the deadline? To Cleveland? Those questions hanging in the air, and while the urgency has come out of those talks it’s still on the board and could happen. The Kings rookies — De'Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Justin Jackson — are getting the start but it was a big night from Zach Randolph that helped get them the big win against New Orleans recently.

 
Nets small icon 27. Nets (19-36, LW 27). Jarrett Allen has taken over the starting center spot and is showing real promise as the Nets future at that position. He doesn’t have much range, but he is efficient around the rim and provides a lot of rim protection on the other end. The Nets could take on a bad contract at the deadline if another team will throw in a good enough pick to make it worth their while.

 
Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (17-37, LW 28). Marco Belinelli has reportedly been told he will be traded at the deadline and Ersan Ilyasova could be out the door as well — 29 other teams could use more shooting, and both of these veterans can provide that. Expect the Hawks to make a move. Taurean Prince has played well of late, including dropping 31 on the Celtics, and is evolving into part of the future in Atlanta.

 
Bulls small icon 29. Bulls (18-35 LW 24).. Losers of seven in a row, the Bulls have had a bottom-six offense and defense in the league over that stretch. The move to trade Nikola Mitotic has worked — Chicago’s own pick is looking better and they picked up another first-rounder for the rebuild. Doesn’t make this team any easier to watch in the short term. Hey, Robin Lopez, how do you feel about the Bulls’ play recently?

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (18-37, LW 29). The Suns have lost 11-of-13 and have played the worst defense in the NBA during that stretch (worse than the Cavaliers or Nets). The offense hasn’t been much better at 29th in the league in those 13. If you’re looking for a bright side Devin Booker and Josh Jackson seem to be developing some chemistry. The Suns bought out Greg Monroe, and with that don’t really have the pieces for a deal at the deadline.

Report: With 2018 hopes fading, Lakers might aim for 2019 free-agency splash

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The Lakers have been building to chase two stars this summer. The biggest names tied to that plan:

So, where does that leave the Lakers?

Ramona Shelburne and  Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

As the Los Angeles Lakers become more realistic about the franchise’s chances of snaring superstars in the free agent class of 2018, the front office is increasingly looking through a longer lens in its team building process, league sources told ESPN.

The Lakers aren’t abandoning a summer pursuit of stars, but rather recalibrating on the possibility of a 2019 class that could include San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard, Golden State’s Klay Thompson and Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, league sources told ESPN.

This is just the Lakers posturing and spinning as they lose battles. They haven’t given up on the war, but it’s clear the fight is tougher than they anticipated.

Of course, the Lakers still want to add a star or two this summer. No team would wait an additional year if not necessary. A key step in that process is shedding Luol Deng‘s and maybe Jordan Clarkson‘s contracts. Letting Julius Randle walk – or preemptively trading him now – is also imperative. How do the Lakers maximize their return for Randle and Clarkson and minimize the cost of dumping Deng? Convincing teams they’re not desperate to make a splash this summer and are willing to wait until 2019.

On one hand, waiting would work. The Lakers can keep building with Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Larry Nance Jr. and Josh Hart. Of that group, only Nance’s cheap rookie-scale contract will expire by 2019 – and his cap hold ($6,817,172) will be low that summer. Each season the Lakers pay Deng and Clarkson, the easier it becomes to trade them.

On the other hand, waiting until 2019 will make it tricky to handle Randle, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brook Lopez in free agency this summer. The Lakers shouldn’t commit to multi-year deals if they’re prioritizing 2019, but they also need to win in the interim to impress 2019 free agents. It’s tough to add as much talent on expiring and one-year contracts as this year’s Lakers did.

And how long until Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and Jimmy Butler fall through as targets? He’s not there yet, but Magic Johnson is moving one step closer to becoming like Jim Buss.

NBA Power Rankings: Boston moves into second, Minnesota into top five

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The Warriors have the top spot in the rankings on lockdown now (especially with Stephen Curry back), but there’s plenty of movement below them — Houston is sliding, Boston is climbing, and Minnesota has pushed into the Top 5 behind strong recent play (the question is if it is sustainable).

Also, remember just 12 days to get your All-Star vote in.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (29-8 Last Week No. 1). Golden State doesn’t have a traditional rim protector in the rotation, but that doesn’t mean they don’t protect the rim — the Warriors are averaging a league-leading 8.4 blocks per game (Toronto is second at 5.9, the NBA record is the 85-86 Washington team at 8.7). On the other end of the court, Stephen Curry is back, draining 10 threes in his return (the Warriors were 27th in league in three-point percentage while he was out). Kevin Durant should score his 20,000th point this week (likely Thursday vs. Houston).

 
Celtics small icon 2. Celtics (30-10, LW 4). Boston has played more games than any team so far, in part because they only have one game the week they go to London in January (vs. Sixers), but it means there will be time to rest players down the stretch. The Celtics take on the Cavaliers Wednesday night, the first time they have met since opening night, but much like that game don’t read too much into this one (both teams will be different come the playoffs). Also, Isaiah Thomas will not play for the Cavs (back-to-back) but he will get love from the Boston fans, even if there is no tribute (at IT’s request).

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (25-10, LW 3). Toronto may have won 14-of-17, but they did it against a soft part of the schedule. That is changing, the tests are coming. They lost at OKC last week, then got a franchise-record 52 from DeMar DeRozan to beat Milwaukee Monday, and that was the first of nine January games against teams over .500, including the Cavaliers, Warriors, and Spurs. Toronto may have its best team ever this season, but the next few weeks will tell us how real the recent run has been.

 
Rockets small icon 4. Rockets (26-9, LW 2). Chris Paul is back, but the Rockets lost five in a row before beating the Lakers (in 2OT), and now they will be without MVP candidate James Harden for a few weeks with a strained hamstring. The offense should be fine when CP3 is on the court, but Mike D’Antoni is going to have to start trusting his bench. More importantly, their defense has slipped of late (in part due to injuries) — allowing 110.9 points per 100, 26th in the league in the last 10 games — and that end needs to pick up to carry the team through the next month without Harden (give or take).

 
5. Timberwolves (24-14, LW 7). The Timberwolves went 10-5 in December, but a dozen of those games were within 5 points in the final 5 minutes — good teams don’t win more close games, they win more blowouts. When things get tight, the Timberwolves lean heavily on Jimmy Butler, but now he has less help with Jeff Teague out (sprained MCL), meaning there is one less shot creator and three point shooter on the court. Minnesota has played the fifth easiest schedule in the league, but that changes in January with 11 opponents over .500.

 
Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (26-12, LW 6). The Spurs lost by 14 to the Pistons Saturday, the team’s 8th double-digit loss this season — that’s how many they had all of last season. Part of those losses is the team was without Kawhi Leonard to start the season and they are still easing him in (although he had 25 points vs. Knicks). However, another part of it is an inconsistent offense that is 22nd in the NBA over the last 10 games. With the Spurs’ win Tuesday over the Knicks, Gregg Popovich passed George Karl for fifth on the all-time coaching win list.

 
Cavaliers small icon 7. Cavaliers (25-12 LW 5). Isaiah Thomas is back (17 points in 19 minutes in his return), and just in time as the Cavaliers need him to lighten the load on LeBron James, who has played the most minutes of anyone in the league to this point. That’s going to take time as Thomas will be eased back into the rotation, and will not play in Boston Wednesday (second night of a back-to-back). The Cavaliers have the toughest schedule in the NBA in December (12 opponents over .500) and they need all that Thomas can give them.

 
Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (20-17 LW 8).. Oklahoma City was losing a lot of close games early in the season, then went on a hot streak when they started to win those games. Close losses to the Bucks and Mavericks last weekend (both at home) show that being in close games is a crap shoot, even if you have Russell Westbrook on the roster. OKC could use some easy wins but has five-of-six coming up on the road. That said, the swing through Los Angeles (both teams) and Phoenix are winnable games this week.

 
Wizards small icon 9. Wizards (21-16, LW 9). The Wizards are 11-6 vs. teams over .500 this season, including a nice Christmas Day win over the Celtics, but they are 10-10 against teams below .500. You can spin that as they are a good team when focused, but they are not building good habits and those losses will keep them down in the standings and make their push through the playoffs that much more difficult. Sorry Wizards fans, but nobody is ducking you.

Pistons small icon 10. Pistons (20-15, LW 11). Tobias Harris and Andre Drummond are first and second in total screens set in the entire NBA this season, according to the NBA’s Second Spectrum player tracking data. The Pistons have a middle-of-the-pack NBA offense, mostly because they lack a real shot creator who can get the ball in isolation and make things happen (especially with Reggie Jackson out with his sprained ankle), so they set more picks off the ball to create looks. It’s worked fairly well.

 
Nuggets small icon 11. Nuggets (19-17, LW 10). Jamal Murray is the barometer for this team — Nikola Jokic is the guy who makes the offense work, but the offense is 9.6 points per 100 possessions better when Jamal Murray is on the floor because he’s a threat to score. When Jokic and Murray are on the court together, the Nuggets have outscored opponents by 8.4 points per 100 possessions. The next step in Murrays’ evolution is playmaking (2.7 assists per game is low), but he’s become the clear point guard of the future.

Bucks small icon 12. Bucks (19-16 LW 14). The Bucks continue to struggle defensively (25th in the NBA in their last 10 games, 23rd on the season). On the bright side, Milwaukee allows the fewest transition opportunities in the NBA (but teams that can run on them score at a high percentage). However, where they struggle is closing out on spot-up shooters — those long Bucks athletes are good isolation defenders, but move the ball to an open shooter and the Bucks don’t rattle their shooters.

 
Heat small icon 13. Heat (19-17, LW 13). While Hassan Whiteside was out, the Heat found a playing style that worked — smaller, faster, moving the ball and spacing the floor. Fitting Whiteside back into that has been hit and miss so far. Miami has gone 2-1 since his return, but both wins are against Orlando so the opponents this week (Pistons, Knicks, Raptors) will be a better test.

 
Pelicans small icon 14. Pelicans (18-18, LW 15). When the Pelicans signed Rajon Rondo late last summer, I wasn’t sold on the fit, but it turns out his high IQ passing is what the team needs. When he is on the court, the Pelicans offense is 4.6 points per 100 possessions better, and when he is on the court with Jrue Holiday the Pelicans outscore opponents by 2.4 per 100. Last Wednesday was the Rajon Rondo show, as he dished out 25 assists against Brooklyn.

 
Blazers small icon 15. Trail Blazers (19-18, LW 17). Damian Lillard missed six games after tweaking his hamstring, but Portland went 4-2 in that stretch, thanks in part to big nights from C.J. McCollum, plus big shots from Evan Turner and Al-Farouq Aminu. Tuesday’s loss to the Cavaliers is the start of a string of tough games, including the Spurs, Thunder, and Rockets in a row.

 
Clippers small icon 16. Clippers (16-19 LW 19). Los Angeles has won four in a row and 6-of-7, and now sits just one game out of the final playoff slot in the West. Also, hey have Blake Griffin back in the fold. Will Los Angeles make a push to get into the postseason, or will it trade DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams in an effort to jump start a retooling of the roster? The buzz around the league is they’re thinking playoffs more than retool, and they have a long run of home games (and the road games are in California this month), a push up the standings could well influence the big decisions.

 
Pacers small icon 17. Pacers (19-18, LW 12). Indiana is not the same without Victor Oladipo (thanks, Capt. Obvious) having dropped three games in a row, and he is expected to miss more time due to a sore right knee. Indiana is just one game ahead of the Knicks for the final playoff slot in the East right now, and with New York heading out on the road more (where they struggle) this time was a chance for Indy to create some space in the standings. The good news is they have four games at home after Wednesday night’s tilt with the Bucks in Milwaukee.

 
Sixers small icon 18. 76ers (17-19, LW 18). The Sixers are just 1.5 games out of the playoffs, and it continues to be their offense that holds them back — specifically turnovers. Philly turns the ball over on 17.7% of their non-garbage time possessions, far and away the league leader (stats via Cleaning the Glass). That said, they finally won a game Joel Embiid sat last week. Tough schedule coming up, get through that well and they have a shot at the postseason.

 
Bulls small icon 19. Bulls (13-24 LW 22).. Chicago’s run winning 8-of-10 ended with a couple straight losses to Washington and Portland, still the Bulls are 10-4 since Nikola Mitotic returned to the lineup. The biggest surprise during the run has been the play of Kris Dunn, who is confidently is running the offense and averaging 16 points a game over his last five. He looks like a solid rotation point guard who can be part of the future in Chicago.

 
Knicks small icon 20. Knicks (18-19, LW 16). The Knicks really miss Tim Hardaway Jr. — without him their three point shooting is anemic, and their floor spacing disintegrates. The Knicks are 24th in the NBA in offense over the last 10 games. The Knicks just went 1-2 on a three game road trip, are 3-12 for the season on the road, and have a dozen games away from Madison Square Garden in January.

 
Jazz small icon 21. Jazz (16-21, LW 20). How you know Donovan Mitchell has arrived — he went up against LeBron James last Saturday, ran the offense for the Jazz down the stretch (while Ricky Rubio sat), and Utah got the win. In his last 15 games Mitchell is averaging 22.7 points on 50.6% shooting, and hitting 37.5% from three. It’s both a great find by the Jazz and a credit to one of the best player development programs in the NBA under Quin Snyder.

 
Suns small icon 22. Suns (15-24, LW 23). Devin Booker and T.J. Warren both had more than 30 points in a win over Atlanta Tuesday, and now the Suns have won 3-of-4 (albeit against some of the worst teams in the league). Interesting to note that Gregg Monroe, who the Suns acquired in the Eric Bledsoe trade with the Bucks, has been racking up a lot of DNP-CDs lately. The Suns may try to move Monroe at the trade deadline, and failing that don’t be shocked if he gets bought out then hooks up with another team.

 
Mavericks small icon 23. Mavericks (13-25 LW 26). Winners of four in a row — three on the road and all of them games that were close late. Rookie point guard with the keys to the franchise Dennis Smith Jr. is looking more comfortable, both in those clutch games and from three where his is hitting 44.4% in his last 10 games (on 3.6 attempts per game). The Mavs have 8-of-11 at home coming up.

 
Hornets small icon 24. Hornets (14-23, LW 21). Charlotte has played the toughest schedule in the NBA to this point, but that eases up on them in January (starting with them crushing the Kings on Tuesday). Charlotte is 2-1 through the start of a four-game road trip, including beating the Warriors in Oracle Arena last Friday on a night the good Dwight Howard showed up — he protected the rim, knocked down midrange jumpers, and showed deft passing skills. Wish we saw that Howard every game.

 
Nets small icon 25. Nets (14-23, LW 24). Jahlil Okafor is expected to be in the Nets rotation starting this week, getting his chance to prove his game can fit in the modern NBA, and to earn his next contract. We don’t have an official timetable for D’Angelo Russell’s return yet, although that’s expected later this month by most. With no Russell or Jeremy Lin, Spencer Dinwiddie has shown he has great shooting range and can work as an NBA rotation point guard.

 
Grizzlies small icon 26. Grizzlies (12-26, LW 28). Memphis wants to be a defense-first team that gets enough offense to rack up wins. In their last 10 games, the Grizzlies are 21st in the NBA in defense, allowing 109.6 per 100. They are 18th in the NBA on the season. The Grizzlies went a respectable 2-3 on a recent five-game homestand and now have 9-of-11 at home.

 
Kings small icon 27. Kings (12-25, LW 27). If you’re looking for a bright spot in Sacramento, Willie Cauley-Stein may be playing the best basketball of his career of late. He’s averaged 14.8 points per game in his last five, shooting 56.4% from the floor, and is grabbing 8.2 rebounds a game (with three assists, also). The Kings are 1-3 on a homestand going on right now, and it doesn’t get easier with the Nuggets and Spurs next up at the Golden 1 Center.

 
Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (10-27, LW 29). If you’re looking for a bright spot in Atlanta, watch rookie John Collins — he leads all rookies in PER at 21.2. He’s averaging 11.1 points and 7.1 rebounds a night in limited minutes off the bench (just under 23 a game), but he’s shooting 58.6 percent. Plus he leaps out of the building (dunk contest?). Tuesday’s loss in Phoenix was the first game of a five-game swing through the West for the Suns.

 
Lakers small icon 29. Lakers (11-25 LW 25). Losers of seven in a row, Los Angeles should get both Lonzo Ball and Brook Lopez back in the next week, which will help on the court — the Lakers are playing almost four possessions per game slower with Ball out of the rotation. The Lakers were focused and playing solid defense earlier in the season, but in their past 10 games Los Angeles is allowing 111.4 points per game, 28th in the league.

 
Magic small icon 30. Magic (12-26, LW 30). Remember when this team started 8-4, Aaron Gordon couldn’t seem to miss and we thought Frank Vogel had started to put the misfit pieces of this team together? Seems like eons ago now. They are 4-22 since, and while injuries have certainly played a role in that the Magic have been flat out terrible at both ends of the court and have lost 11-of-12. Their next two games are at home vs. Houston and Cleveland, followed by 5-of-6 on the road, it’s hard to find room for optimism.

Report: Lakers have “given up” on trading Deng, won’t include picks, young star

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When Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss signed Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng to oversized deals a couple of summers ago, part of their logic was they could include them in trades to bring an elite player to Los Angeles — these were big contracts but for useful players who could be moved. It was a terrible misreading of those players and the market. For the Lakers to move Mozgov last summer they had to attach former No. 2 pick D'Angelo Russell (a guy the Lakers were ready to move on from after drafting Lonzo Ball, but still this is a high pick they had to throw in to make it work).

The Lakers aren’t adding enough to the mix to move Luol Deng and are likely not going to be able to trade him, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said on their Full Court Press show (transcription via Lakers Outsiders).

“You talk to teams around the league, no one is bailing the Lakers out with Deng’s contract. They’re not. Teams have asked for multiple first-round picks. They’ve asked for Brandon Ingram. They’ll ask for Kyle Kuzma. The Lakers have essentially given up on the idea that they can trade Deng.”

The Lakers shouldn’t move their future picks (they can’t deal anything to 2020), they need to keep building their foundation.

However, the Lakers need to move Deng to create the cap space for two max contracts next summer, which is still the goal (even if they are a longshot to land LeBron James). Not being able to trade Deng for an expiring contract means the Lakers will have to waive and stretch him, or as Eric Pincus cleverly suggested extend him a couple years, then waive and stretch him to lower the annual hit (but it will go on longer).

Even if the Lakers do that, they will still need to trade Jordan Clarkson (something Wojnarowski said they are confident they can do) and trade, or just let walk, Julius Randle. The Lakers also could not bring back Brook Lopez orKentavious Caldwell-Pope (both free agents), and they would need to let go of Ivica Zubac, Thomas Bryant and Tyler Ennis. That’s a lot of good depth gone from the roster, essentially leaving the core (Ingram, Ball, Kuzma, Josh Hart, and Larry Nance Jr.) with the two max contract guys (if not LeBron, how about Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins?).

The Lakers likely will try to trade for Cousins or George at the deadline, but right now the Pelicans and Thunder are not moving those guys. The Lakers will have to wait to land them this summer.

Los Angeles also could sign just one max contract player this summer, then re-sign Randle or bring back Caldwell-Pope (or another non-max free agent) and count on growth. That likely does not make the Lakers instant contenders, but then again would adding Geroge and Cousins do that?