Will LeBron James keep outlasting Eastern Conference field?

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DETROIT – When I brought up comments he made about LeBron James during the Cavaliers’ sweep of the Raptors in last year’s playoffs, Kyle Lowry responded before I even asked a question.

“Finish the quote, though,” Lowry said. “Go look at the whole quote.”

The headline:

Kyle Lowry: ‘They’ve got LeBron James and nobody’s closing the gap on him’

“The whole quote,” Lowry insists. “So, what did it say? Go ahead.”

The second paragraph and first quote:

“They’ve got LeBron James,” Lowry told The Vertical late Friday night. “Nobody’s closing the gap on him. I mean, that’s it right there: They’ve got LeBron James and nobody’s closing the gap on him.”

“Did you finish the quote?” Lowry asks again.

Finally, the fifth paragraph (which followed a large image):

“I don’t know when his prime is going to stop,” Lowry told The Vertical. “I don’t think it’s going to stop anytime soon. I think he’ll be able to continue what he’s doing for a long time. But that’s basketball. You’ve got to find a way to beat the best.”

To Lowry, the key portion of the quote: “You’ve got to find a way to beat the best.” He believes people took his statement out of context with that part buried.

“Yes, they did,” Lowry said. “For sure. That’s why it kind of got to me.”

Lowry said he meant no disrespect with his defensiveness, and I took none. He sounded tired of hearing about that quote for nearly an entire year.

He doesn’t want that soundbite to go the way of Brandon Jennings‘ “Bucks in 6,” Lance Stephenson‘s ear blow and Stanley Johnson‘s “I’m definitely in his head” as the latest punchline in LeBron’s reign of Eastern Conference dominance. No, Lowry wants to end LeBron’s rule completely.

“We’ve got to be better than him to be the best team we can be,” Lowry said. “And that’s what it is. We’re not afraid of him. We’ve got to be a better team and figure out how to beat him and beat every other team.”

The Raptors are the last challenger standing in the wreckage left in LeBron’s wake.

LeBron has won seven straight Eastern Conference titles, four with the Heat then three with the Cavs. In that span, he’s 21-0 in Eastern Conference playoff series and 84-21 in Eastern Conference playoff games.

Of the 21 Eastern Conference teams LeBron has beaten in this run, 11 have completely turned over their roster since losing to him.

LeBron has broken up the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen-Rajon Rondo Celtics, Paul George-Roy Hibbert-Lance Stephenson-David WestGeorge Hill Pacers, Derrick RoseJoakim NoahLuol Deng Bulls, Al HorfordPaul MillsapKyle KorverJeff TeagueDeMarre Carroll Hawks and Isaiah ThomasAvery BradleyJae Crowder Celtics. Yup, LeBron is going for seconds.

Of Eastern Conference players who lost to LeBron’s Miami teams, only John Henson (2013 Milwaukee) and Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller (2014 Charlotte) have remained with the same team. And those were teams LeBron swept in the first round, hardly marquee competition.

Here’s everyone who has played against LeBron in the Eastern Conference playoffs the last seven years. Players are sorted by minutes in the series. Those in green remain with that team. Those in red and crossed off changed teams (though three – Lance Stephenson, Brandon Jennings and Omer Asik – returned).

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LeBron’s moves from Cleveland to Miami in 2010 and then back to Cleveland in 2014 were obviously monumental. But his presence has loomed over the entire East.

“You’re gauged on if you can beat his team that gets to the Finals every year,” said Bucks center John Henson, the only man who has stayed with an Eastern Conference team beaten by LeBron’s Heat from 2011-2013. “Constantly building and rebuilding and trades are being made to dethrone him.”

Paul George takes pride in pushing LeBron as hard as anyone in the East has during this time. His Pacers were the last Eastern Conference team to reach even a Game 7 against LeBron (2013 conference finals), and Indiana battled the Heat in a hard-fought six-game conference finals the following year.

“Going through that changed me as a player, changed my learning, my experience,” George said. “And that’s what it came down to. I was very proud of where we, that group that competed in that Eastern Conference finals, I’m very proud of what we accomplished in that short period of career we had together.”

George has moved on to the Thunder in the Western Conference, where the competition certainly isn’t easier, but at least doesn’t include LeBron.

Al Horford helped the Hawks win 60 games in 2014-15 only to get swept by LeBron’s Cavaliers in the conference finals. Atlanta returned mostly intact the following year, but got swept by LeBron again.

“They just kind of just kept wearing down on us over the years,” Horford said.

Now, Horford is with Boston, again trying to get past LeBron.

The Celtics appear particularly conscious of LeBron. While still competitive, they traded icons Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in 2013. Though the Nets’ ridiculously generous offer certainly helped, it’s hard to believe Boston wasn’t influenced by LeBron being in his prime.

That prime has only continued. After losing in five games to LeBron’s Cavs in last year’s conference finals, Boston got rid of 11 of 15 players.

If the Celtics’ front office fears LeBron (wisely, if it does), it shares company with his opponents on the floor

“Some people he plays in this league, for sure, get intimidated,” said P.J. Tucker, who faced LeBron with the Raptors last year. “…People, when you watch the TV, you think he’s just going to come in and just manhandle you.”

Of course, LeBron isn’t doing this alone. He played with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in Cleveland.

But that’s part of the lore. LeBron has engineered super teams so he could dominate a conference for the better part of a decade.

Continuing the streak won’t be easy. The 76ers are growing up before our eyes. The Celtics are young and good, and they’ll be healthier another year. The Raptors are digging in.

And the Cavs look vulnerable. Their defense is ugly. For the first team in this era, LeBron has only one supporting star, Love. The Cavaliers are just the No. 4 seed, LeBron’s lowest seed since 2008. Though LeBron isn’t worried, that means a first-round matchup with the Pacers (48-34) – the best record of any of LeBron’s first-round opponents.

LeBron has won all 12 of his first-round series, including 21 straight first-round games. Given how much Cleveland relies on him, even a prolonged series with Indiana could have lasting negative consequences deeper in the playoffs.

The last time so much was on LeBron’s plate was 2010, when his top teammates were Mo Williams and a declining Antawn Jamison. The Cavaliers lost to the Celtics in the second round.

Rajon Rondo, now with the Pelicans, said he had no idea that Boston squad was the last non-LeBron team to win the East.

“He won seven straight, huh?” Rondo said. “It’s looking like it’s about to be eight.”

Report: Hornets offer GM job to Mitch Kupchak, expect to hire him

AP Photo/Greg Beacham
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As soon as the Hornets fired Rich Cho as general manager, Mitch Kupchak emerged as the likely replacement. Charlotte interviewed other candidates but has apparently circled back to the expected choice.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

Kupchak previously worked as general manager of the Lakers. He won multiple titles, but by the end of his tenure, he looked desperate and out of touch.

His North Carolina connection with Hornets owner Michael Jordan probably helped Kupchak get another chance.

If he accepts the offer, Kupchak will inherit a rough situation. Charlotte is merely a borderline playoff team and strapped with:

Kemba Walker is a star, but time is ticking until his 2019 free agency.

Will Kupchak trade Walker and rebuild? Unloading all those big contracts won’t be easy.

Will Kupchak try to win around Walker? Again, those big contracts are prohibitive.

A middle ground of rebuilding while keeping the beloved Walker? That might push him out in free agency.

This isn’t an easy job, but there are only 30 NBA general managers. Kupchak has an offer to become one again.

Hornets dropping GM Rich Cho, will reportedly pursue Mitch Kupchak

AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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Update: Hornets release:

The Charlotte Hornets announced today that the team will not extend the contract of General Manager Rich Cho. The Hornets will begin a search for a new general manager immediately.

“I want to thank Rich for all of his hard work with the Charlotte Hornets organization through the years and wish him and his family the best in the future,” said Hornets Chairman Michael Jordan. “Rich worked tirelessly on behalf of our team and instituted a number of management tools that have benefited our organization. We are deeply committed to our fans and to the city of Charlotte to provide a consistent winner on the court. The search will now begin for our next head of basketball operations who will help us achieve that goal.”

 

Last spring, the Hornets exercised their option on general manager Rich Cho for this season. It wasn’t exactly a strong vote of confidence without a contract extension.

Now, it’s becoming even more clear he’s a lame duck.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Cho has had plenty of hits and misses as general manager, including a year with the Trail Blazers. But the misses have added up in Charlotte. The Hornets’ next general manager will inherit:

Kemba Walker helps, but he can’t do it alone. This bloated payroll leaves little flexibility for roster upgrades – necessary to lift Charlotte into strong playoff contention. Walker will become an unrestricted free agent in 2019, and affording him could be tricky.

This is not a good job (relative to the other 29 NBA general manager jobs, of course).

Hornets owner Michael Jordan certainly plays into that. In one of the biggest gaffes of the Cho era, Charlotte rejected the Celtics’ offer of four first-round picks for the No. 9 pick in the 2015 draft, just to pick Frank Kaminsky. (Boston wanted Justise Winslow.) Was that Cho’s call or Jordan’s?

Cho takes the fall, though. That’s how this works.

Jordan’s ownership also means he gets to pick the replacement. It’s surely not a coincidence he’s leaning toward Mitch Kupchak (who played at North Carolina) and Buzz Peterson (who played with Jordan at North Carolina).

Kupchak fizzled late, but his overall tenure with the Lakers was a success. Has the game passed him by, or did recency bias unfairly paint him unfavorably? We might get to find out.

Can Kemba Walker save the sinking Hornets? He doesn’t want to jump the ship he’s (barely) keeping afloat

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DETROIT – Around this time last year, Kemba Walker‘s reputation peaked.

The season prior, he led Charlotte to its first playoff-game wins since the franchise reemerged as the Bobcats. The Hornets were on pace to make the playoff again, which would have been their first back-to-back postseason appearances in the second Charlotte era. And Walker made his first All-Star team.

While basking in his personal and team success, Walker found one downer: The NBA moved the All-Star game from his home arena to New Orleans due to North Carolina’s anti-gay law.

“It would have been really special if this had been in Charlotte,” Walker said.

The Hornets have gone south since.

They stumbled in the second half and missed the playoffs last season. They’re even worse this season, 18-25 and 11th in the Eastern Conference. As a result, Walker’s stock has tanked. He’s treated as a fringe All-Star candidate at best.

Yet – as trade speculation emerges – Walker has come to a conclusion similar to his a year ago: His experience would be more special in Charlotte.

“I would definitely be devastated if I was to get traded,” Walker said. “I do want to be here.”

Walker is one of the most intriguing cases as the trade deadline approaches. The 27-year-old is earning $12 million this season and is due the same salary next season before his contract expires. It’s not clear the Hornets would trade him. It’s not clear they should trade him.

Charlotte is bad around Walker, not because of him. The Hornets have played better with Walker on the floor (+5.2 points per 100 possessions) than the Cavaliers have with LeBron James (+0.3), Bucks with Giannis Antetokounmpo (+3.7) and Pelicans with Anthony Davis (+5.1).

Put another way, using Pythagorean win percentage, Charlotte has played like 55-win team when Walker plays and a 12-win team when he doesn’t. That 43-win-pace drop is the fourth largest league-wide (minimum: 20 games):

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The Hornets have struggled with Michael Carter-Williams at backup point guard and even more with rookie Malik Monk (a natural shooting guard) in the role while Carter-Williams was hurt. Backup point guard was a glaring weak spot last season, too, and Charlotte signed Carter-Williams to stop the bleeding.

But he was a budget choice. The Hornets’ mid-level exception sits mostly unused as they duck the luxury tax.

Using starting shooting guard Nicolas Batum as the primary playmaker when Walker sits has worked better than most alternatives. Staggering those two more often could right Charlotte.

However, even if Batum is the solution to the micro problem, he’s central to the macro problem.

The Hornets’ payroll has become bloated with prohibitive long-term deals. Several players are owed major money after this season:

With those constraints, it will be difficult to build a winner around Walker without paying the luxury tax, which Charlotte has never paid.

Walker is the Hornets’ most valuable asset, and trading him could make their second-most valuable asset – their upcoming first-round pick – even more valuable. Charlotte also use Walker as enticement to unload a bad contract, a tactic Adrian Wojnarowski reports is being explored. Still, the Hornets are in so deep, it’d be difficult to escape salary-cap purgatory, even while shedding Walker.

Because he signed his rookie-scale extension before the national TV deals carried the salary cap into the stratosphere and before he rose into stardom, Walker has a low salary for his status. That could open the door for trades not possible with other stars, especially if the Hornets want to attach an albatross.

Only Isaiah Thomas has a lower salary among reigning All-Stars:

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Of course, teams looking to upgrade at point guard for the stretch run – Pistons? Pacers? Jazz? Nuggets? Cavaliers? Spurs? – would be interested in Walker. But because he has an another season left on his contract, other teams – Knicks? Magic? Suns? – could trade for him as a head start on next year. The best analogue: The Jazz getting out ahead by trading Deron Williams to the Nets before his contract entered its final year.

A team must also prepare to pay Walker in 2019, when he’ll be 30 years old. Though the $48 million over four years he’s earning now is nothing to sneeze at, free agency will be his first opportunity to really cash in on the new TV money. In the extremely likely event he doesn’t make an All-NBA team next season, the largest extension he could sign (starting July 1) would be four years, $64,512,000. That probably won’t cut it. So, Walker’s team – unless it has cap space to renegotiate-and-extend his deal – will likely have to ride out his unrestricted free agency.

“Of course, it would be nice to get a big contract like a lot of the guys around the league are getting,” Walker said. “But, at the same time, I just try to take it one day at a time.”

All these discussions have thrown Walker for a loss. Charlotte drafted him and built around him. He’s not quite sure how to handle this.

“I’ve never really been in trade rumors like that, like I’ve been hearing lately about myself,” Walker said. “But I mean, I don’t know. I don’t even know. I don’t know.

“This is very new, and I really just don’t know.”

Walker said management hasn’t told him anything, and he won’t ask. It’s easy to read the writing on the wall: Walker is a good player on a losing team, and those players are always ripe to get dealt. On the other hand, a team owned by Michael Jordan is probably less inclined to enter rebuilding voluntarily.

“I’m here,” Walker said, “and I’m just trying to play and trying to win and trying to do what I can for this organization and try to get back in the playoff hunt. That’s the main priority.”

The Hornets have won two in a row, and head coach Steve Clifford is back. A surge into playoff contention isn’t out of the question.

If it happens, it’ll probably be on Walker’s shoulders.

“We put so much pressure on Kemba to do so much,” said assistant coach Stephen Silas, who served as acting head coach in Clifford’s absence.

Too much pressure?

“At times, it can be,” Silas said. “But that’s what he signed up for, and that’s how we’re built.”

For now, at least.

NBA Power Rankings: Rockets, Warriors 1-2, Pacers climb into top 10

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Houston remains hot and on top of the rankings, but the Warriors have climbed back up to second place, and we see the Bucks jump into the Top 10 (and they are still aggressively looking to add more talent to the roster). Also, we have a new team on the bottom, and Mike Budenholzer is not going to like it.

Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (21-4, Last Week No. 1). Winners of 10 in a row (although they needed big comebacks vs. Portland and New Orleans). Five of those 10 wins were on the road to push the Rockets’ record to 12-1 away from the Toyota Center this season. Chris Paul’s passing has taken the already potent Rockets offense to a new level, teammates are shooting better than 60 percent off his passes.

Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (22-6 LW 3). The Warriors are 3-0 without Stephen Curry in the lineup, winning thanks to defense and a lot of Kevin Durant (the big concern is the GSW offense has fallen apart when KD sits in those games). Patrick McCaw is back from his concussion, which will help with depth until Curry returns. Golden State has 8-of-9 at home coming up, and they don’t leave California again until next month.

Celtics small icon 3. Celtics (23-6, LW 2). After playing around with smaller lineups, Brad Stephens has gone back to starting Aron Baynes at center and it’s working as the Celtics are getting off to faster starts. That said, the Celtics lost 2-of-3 on the road last week, albeit the last one without Kyrie Irving (a bruised thigh, nothing serious). Also, don’t forget what Jaylen Brown did to Pau Gasol this past week.

Cavaliers small icon 4. Cavaliers (20-8 LW 4). LeBron James has been a marvel this season. He has had to take on more of the Cleveland offense yet his efficiency is up (a career best 65.8 true shooting percentage), his assist percentage is up, he’s shooting better than 70% on contested two pointers (defender within four feet), and remove garbage time he is shooting 78% at the rim and 42% from three (stats via Cleaning The Glass). Cleveland’s win streak ended at 13 in Indiana, but they bounced back with a wins over Philly and Atlanta through the first half of a four-game homestand.

Spurs small icon 5. Spurs (19-9, LW 6). Kawhi Leonard returned on Tuesday night and scored 13 points in 15 minutes, but he understandably looked a little rusty and the Spurs looked out of synch. Like they were trying to integrate a star player back into the rotation. The result was an ugly loss to Dallas. This is going to take a little time, but the Spurs have built a cushion with their play so far this season. It’s not getting easier for the Spurs during this process either with the Houston Rockets on the schedule for Friday.

Raptors small icon 6. Raptors (17-8, LW 5). DeMar DeRozan is scoring 23.2 points per game, but he’s improved his passing this season and with his assist rate is up, too — he is assisting on 24% of teammates buckets when he is on the floor (stat via Cleaning the Glass). The Clippers snapped the Raptors’ six-game win streak, but with the next four being Suns, Nets, Kings, and Hornets Toronto could quickly get another streak going.

Pacers small icon 7. Pacers (16-11, LW 9). Indiana has kept on winning through a tough part of the schedule, including ending Cleveland’s 13-game win streak, and Victor Oladipo is a main reason. This week he averaged 35.7 points a game, shot 45.7 percent from three, plus grabbed 7.7 rebounds per game. Oladipo deserves to be an All-Star this season (but will he be in 2021 when Indy gets to host the All-Star Game?). Paul George makes his return to Indiana on Wednesday night, and he is going to hear it from the fans, and we’ll see if he can slow Oladipo.

Bucks small icon 8. Bucks (15-10 LW 11). The Bucks are switching more and trapping less on defense in recent weeks. This is a good thing — their hyper-aggressive defense was easy to exploit with good ball movement — but this team is still a work in progress. In their last 10 games they have given up 104.6 points per 100 possessions, ninth best in the NBA, but that has been much worse in recent games. Also of note, Malcolm Brogdon has struggled with his efficiency since moving to the bench with the arrival of Eric Bledsoe, he has not lifted up the bench as hoped.

Sixers small icon 9. 76ers (14-13, LW 7). They had lost four in a row until the win in Minnesota Tuesday, the losses in part due to injuries that have kept Robert Covington, Joel Embiid, and T.J. McConnell out of games. Markelle Fultz is still out and it will be a few weeks before they re-evaluate him. At least they finally traded Jahlil Okafor, and in doing so got themselves a quality backup big man in Trevor Booker. That was the move of a team looking to go to the playoffs, but they need to keep Embiid healthy to do that (they are 14.9 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court).

10. Timberwolves (16-12, LW 10). Minnesota’s defense remains an issue, ranked 26th in the league, and the problems start in transition — 16.6% of opponent possessions start in transition, 28th in the league, and teams score 110.7 points per 100 on those plays, 26th in the league (stats via Cleaning the Glass). That is just too many easy buckets given up to be a good defense. Minnesota has gone 1-1 to kick off a five-game homestand (the loss was to the Sixers) before they hit the road for most of the end of the month.

Nuggets small icon 11. Nuggets (15-12, LW 16). They have gone 3-3 without Nikola Jokic (sprained ankle), with 5 of those 6 on the road. What’s surprising is they have struggled more on defense than on offense without Jokic. The Nuggets are truly a Jekyll and Hyde team going 10-2 at home and winning by an average of 8.9 points per game, however, get them on the road and they are 5-10 being outscored by 6.4 points per game.

Wizards small icon 12. Wizards (14-13, LW 13). John Wall is expected to return Wednesday night, with Wizards went 4-5 without him (and 2-3 on a just completed road trip without him). Bradley Beal has carried the Wizards through this, averaging 29.8 points per game in this stretch (although he’s struggled a little from three in that time). The Wizards are now home for 4-of-5.

Pistons small icon 13. Pistons (14-13, LW 8). Losers of seven in a row, although to be fair it has been a tough slate of games, Detroit has fallen back from second in the East to scrambling to stay in the playoffs. The problem is on the offensive end, where over those seven games the Pistons are scoring less than a point per possession and have been the worst offense in the NBA. The reason is pretty simple, they have shot the ball terribly as a team, with Avery Bradley (35.4%) and Stanley Johnson (26.8%) leading the way, but Stan Van Gundy laid the blame at the feet of his stars.

Pelicans small icon 14. Pelicans (14-14, LW 17). The Pelicans have become the team that gets in shootouts — they score a lot and give up a lot of points. This recent trend has led to entertaining games and the loss Monday to Houston was the best example (a 78-76 halftime score, but the Pelicans wore down from the pace in the fourth). Injuries just keep on coming for the Pelicans. Anthony Davis missed four of the last six games (the Pelicans went 2-2 without him), and now Tony Allen will be out 3-4 weeks with a fibula fracture (the Pelicans defense is 5.6 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court).

Knicks small icon 15. Knicks (14-13, LW 20). With Tim Hardaway Jr. sidelined Doug McDermott has stepped up and played well for the Knicks, averaging 12 points a game on 56.8% shooting, and 37.5% from three, in his last five games. He’s been efficient in his limited chances all season, shooting 60% eFG% on spot up chances. he’s not creating shots (89% of his buckets are assisted) but he’s knocking them down when he gets the chance.

Jazz small icon 16. Jazz (13-14, LW 12). Expect to see a lot of lineup experimentation in the coming weeks because it’s become clear the twin towers approach of playing Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert together simply does not work (opposing teams outscore Utah by 10.6 points per 100 when they are on the court together). Those two have to be staggered. Utah expects to get Joe Johnson back from injury this week, which will be a boost as they fight to hang on to a playoff slot in the West.

Blazers small icon 16. Trail Blazers (13-13, LW 14). Portland just went 0-4 on a homestand where they needed to rack up wins, because Monday started a tough five-game road trip and they lost the opener of that to the Warriors. The recent slump is due to the defense, which is fourth overall in the NBA for the season but lately has fallen apart, allowing 115.3 points per 100 possession. Portland will try to right the ship on the road with winnable games: Heat, Magic, Hornets, then Timberwolves.

Thunder small icon 18. Thunder (12-14 LW 15).. Welcome to the Thunder’s “You Can’t Go Home Again” week of the schedule. Paul George returns to Indiana Wednesday night, then on Saturday Carmelo Anthony will return to New York. George is going to get booed mercilessly, but the reaction to ‘Melo in NYC will likely be positive (with a few outliers). ‘Melo meant a lot to that organization. The problem for his new team is ‘Melo in a shooting slump (worse than the one the other stars are in), and that plus his lack of defense and ball stopping, has become a part of the problem in OKC.

Heat small icon 19. Heat (13-13, LW 19). After losing three of four, Erik Spoelstra was looking for something that would spark the team and work better on the court, so he’s now starting James Johnson and Kelly Olynyk (both of whom had played well off the bench). It has worked, the Heat have won two straight and gotten back to .500. They are entering a soft part of the schedule and need to rack up wins over the next few weeks to pad their record.

Nets small icon 20. Nets (11-15, LW 21). Great comeback win against the Thunder to earn a split in Mexico City, then on Tuesday they knocked off the Wizards, showing this continues to be a scrappy team that plays hard. All these wins continues to destroy the Cavaliers dreams of a high pick (right now the Nets pick the Cavs have would be the 10th, which makes it more likely the Cavs are willing to deal it). Jahlil Okafor has seen very limited minutes, his time will come down the line.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (10-16, LW 18). Injuries continue to set back the Hornets — Cody Zeller, Jeremy Lamb, coach Steve Clifford — but the other problem is their offense. In their last 10 games, the Hornets have averaged 101.9 points per 100 possessions, 28th in the NBA. Kemba Walker has played well, but can do only so much on his own, and the Hornets still-solid defense can’t cover for that offense.

Clippers small icon 22. Clippers (10-15 LW 24). Milos Todosic was back in the lineup on Tuesday, but after a few games back Danilo Gallinari was sidelined again with the same glute injury. Most of the buzz around the Clippers league wide is about what they can get back for DeAndre Jordan in a trade, but expect some teams to call about Lou Williams as well, he has played well off the bench and more than a few playoff teams could use a scoring punch in the second unit right about now.

Magic small icon 23. Magic (11-17, LW 22). Nikola Vucevic has been having a quietly efficient season (17.4 points per game on a true shooting percentage of 57 (a fair amount above the league average), but he outdid himself against the Hawks with a triple-double of 31 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists. Vucevic had to go off in that game because injuries remain an issue with the Magic — Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, and Jonathan Isaac all were out against the Hawks. This team just doesn’t have the depth to handle key guys missing time.

Lakers small icon 24. Lakers (10-16 LW 26). The Lakers lead the NBA in shots attempted from the restricted area per game this season (42.4% of their shots come within four feet of the rim), but their kryptonite may be when teams foul them on the drive. As a team, the Lakers have struggled from the free throw line this season — as a team LA shoots 70.4%, last in the NBA, and key players such as Lonzo Ball (48.6%), Julius Randle (65.4%), Corey Brewer (66.7%), and Brandon Ingram (67.2%) are below 70%. The Lakers play at the Cavaliers Thursday night, which is a chance to remind everyone that LeBron James and Luke Walton were both taken in the 2003 draft (LeBron No. 1, Walton 32nd, and Dwyane Wade also was in that draft class too at no. 5).

Mavericks small icon 25. Mavericks (8-20 LW 25). While the Mavericks struggle and try to develop young players on the court, ticket sales for the team remain surprisingly brisk according to secondary ticket market company TickPick, up 161% over a year ago. This could be Dirk Nowitzki’s final season and people want to see him play. Dallas lost three straight on the road recently before picking up a win at home Tuesday against the Spurs. Now they head out on the road for two tough ones, Golden State and San Antonio.

Grizzlies small icon 26. Grizzlies (8-19, LW 23). After breaking their 11-game losing streak, the Grizzlies have started a new one losing four more (and blowing leads of 17 or more in two of those games). So, maybe the problem wasn’t David Fizdale. GM Chris Wallace said the team would not be looking to trade Marc Gasol and start rebuilding, but they have to consider it (the in-flux ownership situation in Memphis may impact the decisions about long-term planning as well).

Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (6-20 LW 30).. Winners of three in a row, and part of the reason is Kris Dunn. He was a mess last season in Minnesota, but the former No. 5 pick has looked better recently, scoring 16.4 points per game in the last five games, plus dishing out 7 assists a game in those contests. He’s not a future All-Star, but he’s looking like a rotation-level point guard, which is miles ahead of where he was one season ago.

Kings small icon 28. Kings (9-18, LW 28). Buddy Hield is shooting 47.2% from three this season, taking 4.2 threes per game. More than half those attempts from three are catch-and-shoots where he is hitting 59.4% Zach Randolph is just 15 rebounds away from having 10,000 for his career. That would put Z-Bo in some good company, the only other active players with more than 18,000 career points and 10,000 rebounds are Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol.

Suns small icon 29. Suns (9-20, LW 27). The Suns have gone 0-3 without Devin Booker (who is out for a couple of weeks still, and after scoring at least 104 points in six games before his injury they have averaged 97.3 points per game without him. Good to see Mike James moving from a two-way contract to a regular one, he earned it, and he is leading the team in usage rate since Booker went down.

Hawks small icon 30. Hawks (6-21, LW 29). The Hawks are off to the second worst start the franchise has had since moving to Atlanta. What has to really eat at coach Mike Budenholzer is the defense, which was fourth in the NBA a season ago, is is 29th now and giving up 5.6 points more per 100 possessions than they did last year. The Hawks have 5-of-7 at home coming up through Christmas.