Dennis Schroder

Associated Press

NBA Power Rankings: Rockets back on top behind MVP-to-be Harden


The Houston Rockets are back on top of the power rankings, with the Raptors now second, and the Trail Blazers holding steady at fourth despite the end of their win streak. At the bottom, Phoenix has “reclaimed” the last spot and are winning their race to keep Deandre Ayton in Arizona.

Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (56-14, Last Week No. 2). Things look good for the Houston Rockets: They almost certainly will finish with the best record in the NBA, James Harden almost certainly will win the MVP, Ryan Anderson is back in the rotation giving Mike D’Antoni another three-point shooter to lean on (although how much Anderson can be used in playoff matchups remains to be seen), and after the dramatic 115-111 win in Portland Tuesday night the Rockets’ schedule softens up. D’Antoni has kept his rotations tight and not rested guys very often, how much will that change down the stretch?

Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (53-18, LW 1). The Thunder snapped the Raptors’ 11-game win streak Sunday, but don’t read too much into that one loss: It was Toronto’s third game in four days and it showed in their legs late. Toronto plays each of the other two top teams in the East twice, starting with Cleveland Wednesday (the Celtics start next week), which makes for interesting storylines, but be careful drawing big conclusions from those games: If I’m Dwane Casey and I have a strategy I like vs. Cleveland, I’m not breaking it out for a regular season game (maybe beyond a couple of possessions at most). Save your best strategies for the games that matter.

Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (53-18 LW 3). Golden State should get Stephen Curry back Friday vs. Atlanta — he would have been back last weekend if this were the playoffs, but the Warriors have conceded the one seed and now are working on just getting their team healthy and rested before the postseason. With Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson banged up, the Warriors health is something to watch over the final few weeks of the season. The team says that everyone will be healthy come the start of the playoffs, and if so they will be a fully formed Voltron again, but if not the equation changes some.

Blazers small icon 4. Trail Blazers (44-26, LW 5). Despite the loss to the Rockets and the end of the 13-game winning streak, Portland seems to have nearly locked itself into the three seed in the West (and the way they are defending they should be favorites in the first round). One interesting stat that could play a role in a postseason series: the Blazers have the worst shooting percentage of any team in the league at the rim, 57.1% (not including garbage time numbers, this stat via Cleaning the Glass). Also, they are 27th in the league in corner threes attempted, just 5.5% of their shot attempts.

Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (48-23, LW 4). The Marcus Smart thumb injury and surgery is a big blow, especially depending upon how much of the playoffs he misses. Smart is Boston’s best perimeter defender and a central part to the best defense in the NBA this season. Boston is more vulnerable in the first round without him, but would really miss him in a second-round matchup (especially if that is Cleveland). Kyrie Irving is getting a second opinion on his knee and could miss more time than originally thought, but he should still be back for the postseason, giving Boston’s offense a much-needed boost.

Thunder small icon 6. Thunder (43-30 LW 6).. Corey Brewer has given the Thunder a tremendous lift since getting picked up after the Lakers’ waived him. Brewer is scoring 11.7 points per game, shooting 38.2 percent from three, playing competent defense, helping them speed up the pace, and generally giving them the fifth starter they needed since Andre Roberson went down. Brewer with the other four starters — Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Steven Adams — is +11.3 per 100 possessions. All this seems unsustainable at this level, in fact, the numbers fell back considerably after the loss to Boston, but still this move has been a big pick up for the Thunder, who had won six in a row before Tuesday.

Jazz small icon 7. Jazz (40-31, LW 10). The Jazz had won nine in a row before Tuesday’s punch-to-the-gut loss to tanking Atlanta. Still, Utah seems destined for the playoffs (which should get Quin Snyder some Coach of the Year votes down the ballot). It’s still all about the defense for this team: Their Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Jae Crowder, Rudy Gobert lineup has a defensive rating of just 76.4 since Crowder was traded to the team (and they use that lineup heavily). This is a tough playoff out for whoever lands them. It’s good to see Dante Exum back on the floor.

Sixers small icon 8. 76ers (39-30, LW 9). They have won three in a row and still have the easiest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way — 9-of-13 games against teams below .500. The Sixers are just one game back of the four seed — home court in the first round is not out of the question. But there are questions: How hard does Brett Brown and the organization push for that four seed vs. make sure Joel Embiid gets some rest down the stretch before they lean heavily on him in the postseason? And how much can they up his 31 minutes a game average in the playoffs?

Pacers small icon 9. Pacers (41-30, LW 7). Injuries have caught up with the Pacers, Domantas Sabonis is still out with an ankle issue, and Myles Turner missed a little time, all of which meant more Al Jefferson than the Pacers would like to see and a couple of losses. The Pacers need some quality wins — like vs. the Pelicans, Clippers, and Heat coming up this week — because of the teams in the mix for the 3/4 seeds in the East (Cleveland, Washington, and Philadelphia are in there, too) the Pacers have the toughest remaining schedule. That includes a West Coast road swing starting next Tuesday in Golden State.

Cavaliers small icon 10. Cavaliers (41-29 LW 12). Kevin Love is back (he looked pretty good dropping 18 in his return from a broken hand) and Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance Jr. should be back in the rotation soon as well. Cleveland survived a recent road trip with a 3-3 record but need to rack up wins — and find some cohesion on defense — to keep the three seed and home court in the first round of the playoffs. Interesting test Wednesday against Toronto (they catch the Raptors on a back-to-back).

Wizards small icon 11. Wizards (40-30, LW 14). The Wizards are a good three-point shooting team, hitting 37.6% of their triples once you remove the garbage time stats from the equation (via Cleaning the Glass). Which makes you wonder why they are 23rd in percentage of their shots taken from three — if you can make them, take them. What matters most to this team is the return of John Wall, which may not be that far off — Scott Brooks thinks he could get into some 5-on-5 drills in the coming days, the last step before suiting up.

Spurs small icon 12. Spurs (41-30, LW 16). The death of the Spurs has been greatly exaggerated. Just a reminder not to completely count them out, the Spurs have won four in a row and it appears they will extend their playoff streak to 21 seasons. This Spurs run of wins has come like so much of their season: Incredible defense — 0.88 points per possession allowed through the four games — and enough offense courtesy LaMarcus Aldridge to get the “W” (he’s averaging 30.25 points per game over the streak). Bet the under when the Spurs and Jazz play Friday.

Pelicans small icon 13. Pelicans (41-30, LW 5). It’s not only the Anthony Davis show since DeMarcus Cousins went down, Jrue Holiday has stepped up, too — he is shooting 41.1% from three in his last 15 games, adding the spacing the Pelicans need. In the wake of owner Tom Benson’s death, his wife Gayle runs the show now and there are not going to be big changes, according to sources. Also, the rumors that she’s going to sell the team are not true (at least not for a while, the Pelican’s lease runs through 2024). New Orleans won the first game of a rare back-to-back-to-back at home, something forced by the leaky roof postponement against the Pacers earlier this season.

14. Timberwolves (41-31, LW 8). The Timberwolves have gone 5-5 without Jimmy Butler, and Tuesday night against the Clippers was what we need to see more of from this team. First, Karl-Anthony Towns was getting touches and shot attempts (through the first 8 Butler-less games he was getting just one more shot attempt per game than he did during the rest of the season). Second, there was leadership on both ends from Andrew Wiggins, who had one of his better defensive nights. Minnesota is now three games up on the Clippers and the Timberwolves have a much easier schedule the rest of the way, they are going to make the playoffs.

Heat small icon 15. Heat (38-33, LW 19). With no Dwyane Wade, in a very close game with Denver last weekend, it was Josh Richardson isolation at the end of regulation then James Johnson at the end of overtime. Neither really got to their spots on the floor for a quality shot (fortunately for Miami it dominated the second OT, so no need to look for another option). With an easier schedule than the stumbling Bucks, Miami may be destined for the seven seed and a date with Boston in the first round.

Nuggets small icon 16. Nuggets (38-33, LW 15).. Denver has started a crucial 7-game road trip 0-2, including a gut-punch loss to the Grizzlies (and the 2OT one to the Heat stung, too). Just since the start of March, the Nuggets have lost to the Mavericks, Lakers, and Grizzlies — that lack of urgency and consistency is why they are two games out of the playoffs and with difficult prospects to climb back in ( has them with a 12% chance of getting in). The Nuggets have gone 11-23 on the road this season (they are 27-10 at home) and if they don’t change their road woes around this week the playoffs will be out of reach.

Clippers small icon 17. Clippers (37-33 LW 13). Since the All-Star break, the Clippers are 24th in the NBA in defense, and their problems were evident Tuesday night when they had no answer to the Jeff Teague/Karl-Anthony Towns pick-and-roll and were roasted in the second half because of it. Tough road games ahead against the East coming up next — at Milwaukee, Indiana, and Toronto — and with the Clippers 2.5 games back of the Jazz and the final playoff spot, they need to find some road wins fast.

Bucks small icon 18. Bucks (37-33 LW 18). The Bucks are going to make the playoffs — in large part because the teams behind them in the East have collapsed — but that’s not what people around the league are talking about with this team. The question is who will be the next coach? This is going to be a coveted job — getting to coach Giannis Antetokounmpo and a host of good role players who just need a better system in place — plus the team will be moving into a new arena. Will Bucks ownership spend what it takes to get a name/high-level coach?

Lakers small icon 19. Lakers (31-39 LW 17). Remember a few weeks back when Lonzo Ball torched the Spurs from three because, as coach Gregg Popovich admitted after the game, their game plan was to go under the pick and dare him to beat them from deep, then Ball did just that? Teams in the NBA learn, they are now trailing over the top on Ball, not letting him have uncontested looks, and since Spurs game he’s shooting just 23.1% from three (and 30.3% overall). Ball is good from three if he gets some room and his feet set, but teams have figured that out and are taking his space away.

Pistons small icon 20. Pistons (32-39, LW 20). Detroit has played poorly of late and is going to miss the playoffs. What happened in Detroit? Blake Griffin is getting blamed for it. Stan Van Gundy likely will lose his GM title for it (and we’ll see if he is back as coach next season). However, the reality is this team came apart when point guard Reggie Jackson got hurt. Since he went out Dec. 27 the Pistons were 12-25 without him — they were 19-14 with him. Jackson returned Tuesday in a limited role (15 minutes) but it will be too little, too late for the Pistons this season.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (30-41, LW 21). Nicolas Batum is going to miss some time to deal with chronic tendinitis in his left Achilles — a real concern because that doesn’t exactly heal well. Much like Mike Conley in Memphis, it requires constant monitoring and plenty of rest during the season. Before the All-Star break the Hornets were a middle of the pack defensive team in the NBA. Since the break they are 26th in the NBA giving up 6.6 points more per 100 possessions.

Kings small icon 22. Kings (23-49, LW 24). No team of late has given a higher percentage of minutes to first and second year players than the Kings — and there have been bright spots. Specifically, back-to-back wins last weekend against Miami and a banged-up Golden State team where rookie point guard D’Aaron Fox was making clutch plays. The Kings have started out 0-1 on a six-game homestand at the Golden One Center where the home fans can get a good look at the young players themselves.

Nets small icon 23. Nets (23-48, LW 25). Part of what the Nets wanted to do after the All-Star break is give a lot of minutes to D’Angelo Russell and see what they really have in a player eligible for a contract extension this summer. He has shown flashes of both an ability to score and ability to lead a team, but the simple matter is the Nets have been 4.8 points per 100 possessions better this season when he is off the court, with most of the improvement coming on the defensive end. My guess is Russell is back next season without an extension and hits restricted free agency in 2020.

Knicks small icon 24. Knicks (26-45, LW 28). New York easily took care of Chicago on Monday night, meaning the Knicks almost certainly will enter the lottery in the nine slot (a 6.1% chance of jumping up into the top three). Few people around the league expect Jeff Hornacek to keep his job past this season, but who replaces him? Mark Jackson’s name gets mentioned. New York would be wise to get David Fizdale in early and talk to him. Whoever gets the gig, with Kristaps Porzingis likely out for the first half of next season, the new coach needs a long leash to build a culture that can win with KP in a couple of seasons.

Bulls small icon 25. Bulls (24-46 LW 22).. Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine are two of the young cornerstone pieces the Bulls think they have going forward. One problem, when they are on the court together this season, the Bulls get outscored by 19.1 points per 100 possessions. When those two are paired, the Bulls score less then a point per possession and are sieve defensively. This is over the course of 308 minutes, so while there is certainly noise in that number it’s not inconsequential. Chicago may not be able to keep both.

Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (22-49 LW 23). Whatever Mark Cuban says — and he should be far more focused on off the court Dallas issues right now rather than on it — the Mavs players are not tanking. The team just went 1-3 on a recent road trip, but in the losses they took the Raptors to overtime and played both the Nets and Pelicans tight. Another week, another milestone for Dirk Nowitzki, who is now fifth on the NBA’s career regular season games played record.

Magic small icon 27. Magic (21-50, LW 26). With Elfrid Payton shipped West, D.J. Augustin has played well as a point guard for Orlando since the All-Star break. It’s a lone bright spot in an offense where Aaron Gordon missed time, Evan Fournier is still out, and after some impressive play lately Jonathon Simmons missed Tuesday’s game against the Raptors.

Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (21-50, LW 27). Atlanta is 1-1 to start a six-game road trip thanks to a surprising win over the Jazz Tuesday. Dennis Schroder went off in that game for 41. Before that, the bright spot for the Hawks lately has been Taurean Prince, who dropped 38 points Saturday, and now has two 35+ point games this season, the first Hawk to do that since Joe Johnson.

Grizzlies small icon 29. Grizzlies (19-51, LW 30). Tyreke Evans is back on the court, and not surprisingly the Grizzlies’ 19-game losing streak came to an end. If the “Most Improved Player” award were still the “Comeback Player of the Year” award Evans would be in the mix, despite playing just 51 games (so far). Evans has averaged 19.5 points a game and shot 39.2% from three, he’s going to make more money than the Grizzlies can afford this summer and they will lose him.

Suns small icon 30. Suns (19-53, LW 29). Losers of nine in a row, the Suns have “reclaimed” the bottom spot in the rankings. The Suns are on pace to finish the season with the worst offense and the worst defense in the NBA by net rating — an “impressive” feat. They will probably have the best lottery odds going into it (25% chance at No. 1), and if they get the top pick you can bet they would love to keep DeAndre Ayton in Arizona.

Jodie Meeks 3-pointer forces overtime in Wizards-Celtics (video)

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It appeared Otto Porter was going to pull a Dennis Schroder and shoot a layup while his team trailed by three in the final seconds.

Porter is too smart for that.

The Wizards forward sucked in Celtics defenders relying on habit then kicked the ball to Jodie Meeks, who drilled the game-tying 3-pointer:

Power Rankings: Just how far will the Cavaliers fall?

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The Blake Griffin trade, plus injuries to Kevin Love and DeMarcus Cousins, have shaken up the NBA, but their impact is just starting to be felt in the power rankings. Golden State and Houston are cruising on top, while the Cavaliers have fallen to 14th and that that may not be rock bottom

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (40-11 Last Week No. 1). Teams playing the Warriors work hard to chase all those shooters off the three-point line, as they should. The problem is both Klay Thompson (43.1%) and Stephen Curry (41.2%) are shooting very well on threes off the dribble — they still make defenders pay for crowding them out at the arc with a little bit of movement. Well, not the Utah Jazz on Tuesday, when the Warriors had their worst loss of the season. I pity the Kings, who are up next on the schedule after the Warriors rest up and Kerr yells at them.

Rockets small icon 2. Rockets (36-13, LW 2). Houston is defending well again (or at least back to their season average) and are 12th in the NBA on that end of the floor in their last 1o games. Not coincidentally, Luc Mbah a Moute came back in that stretch, they are much better defenders with him on the floor. More big tests this week for the Rockets with the Spurs (Thursday) and the Cavaliers (Saturday), the week after the Rockets finally lost a game where James Harden, Chris Paul, and Clint Capela all played.

Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (34-15, LW 4). Kyle Lowry didn’t make the All-Star game for his first eight seasons in the league, but is now back for his second straight. The only other NBA player ever not to be named an All-Star the first eight seasons then make it? Chauncey Billups. That’s good company. The Raptors have started 2-1 in a home-heavy stretch of the schedule (7-of-10 in the Air Canada Centre).

Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (36-15, LW 5). Boston is active on the trade market, looking to add a little more depth and scoring at the deadline. Their bench has had some rough games, and now they second-unit leader Marcus Smart is going to miss time because he hates the pictures on the walls in hotels. I’ve been told they have interest in Tyreke Evans, but they are looking at more than just him. This isn’t a major move, just a team looking for more depth to get through the second half of the season.

Thunder small icon 5. Thunder (30-21 LW 7).. They had won eight in a row until Tuesday, but things are going to get difficult for the Thunder now. Andre Roberson being out for the season is a big blow — the team’s defense is 11.9 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court. He and Paul George made a strong pair of switchable defensive wings that could help get stops — the kind of wings you need against the Warriors in the playoffs.

Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (34-19, LW 6). San Antonio has won 4-of-5, and while it’s fair to say they’ve done it scoring points against struggling defenses (such as Cleveland) the wins still count the same. And they are doing it without Kawhi Leonard (plus LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol have missed time). Light week on the schedule before the Spurs head out on their annual “rodeo road trip.”

7. Timberwolves (32-22, LW 3). You could see what Jimmy Butler means to this team on defense when he was out for four games. For the season the Timberwolves are a whopping 11 points per 100 possessions worse when Butler is off the court. Minnesota has lost 4-of-5 and are home to some challenging tests this week with the Bucks and Pelicans.

Heat small icon 8. Heat (29-21, LW 9). They’re the best team without an All-Star, and it seems a little unfair that a team knocking on the door of passing the stumbling Cavaliers in the standings doesn’t have an All-Star. Dallas coach Rick Carlisle is right, Eric Spoelstra is the Miami All-Star — he’s had wildly shifting lineups all season, a record in close games that seems unsustainable (they are a league-best 22-11 in games within five points in the final five minutes of a game), yet they keep on getting it done.

Bucks small icon 9. Bucks (27-22 LW 11). Milwaukee is 4-0 under interim coach Joe Prunty, although he walked into a soft part of the schedule. That starts to change with 5-of-6 coming up on the road, including stops in Minnesota and Miami. Jabari Parker makes his return to the lineup Friday night against the Knicks, and hopefully soon we can see what a fully healthy and functional Bucks team will look like.

Pelicans small icon 10. Pelicans (27-23, LW 9). What a punch to the gut. DeMarcus Cousins is out for the season with a ruptured Achilles (not coincidentally after a stretch of very heavy use by Alvin Gentry), and that leaves the Pelicans and Anthony Davis trying to hang on to a playoff slot. Which is not going to be easy, as a home loss to Sacramento Tuesday night showed. New Orleans should still be good when Anthony Davis is on the court (especially with Jrue Holiday playing well), but the question is how bad does it get when he rests? The Pelicans wanted to rent Nicola Mitotic but he wants to get paid his $12.5 million next year if traded, so the sides could not reach a deal.

Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (28-23, LW 12). Call it the former Thunder connection: Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis have a great pick-and-roll chemistry. When the Pacers were losing to the Magic on Saturday, Indiana started to lean heavily on that combination and it helped spark a comeback win. Indiana has started off 2-0 on a stretch of 5-of-6 at home, a chance for them to cement a little playoff security with wins.

Wizards small icon 12. Wizards (28-22, LW 10). The Wizards have been 6.2 points per 100 possessions better with Wall on the court, and they have been outscored by 1.8 per 100 with him sitting. Now Wall is out for a knee operation for 6-8 weeks (another clean-up), and combine that with the fact 16 of Washington’s next 20 games are against teams currently in the playoffs and there is a serious potential for a slide down the standings (and these rankings). Expect to see a lot more Thomas Satoransky and Tim Frazier, but they are no John Wall.

Blazers small icon 13. Trail Blazers (28-22, LW 15). Terry Stotts sounded a little frustrated before his team beat the Clippers Tuesday — early in the season the defense was good but the offense stumbled, now the offense has found a groove again (111.4 points per 100 possessions in the last 10 games, fourth in the NBA) but the defense has slid back to bottom 10. As the Blazers fight for playoff position, they need both on the same night to lock down their spot.

Cavaliers small icon 14. Cavaliers (29-20 LW 13). Just when it looked like they might turn things around, Kevin Love breaks his left hand and that will need surgery to repair. He’s out 6-8 weeks, and that messes up not only the rotations and leaves the Cavaliers scrambling for more scoring, but it makes it harder for the Cavs to trade Channing Frye or Tristan Thompson (unless another big man comes back in the deal). Big game against Miami Wednesday for third place in the East.

Sixers small icon 15. 76ers (24-23, LW 14). In a sign of how far the Sixers have come this season, they swept the season series from the San Antonio Spurs — for the past six years it was the Spurs who did the sweeping. Ben Simmons and some Sixers fans have been campaigning for the rookie to be put on the All-Star team as a reserve (he hadn’t been as of this writing), but he’s faded some after a fast start and that likely hurt him on the coaches’ ballots (which is what Adam Silver generally goes on when he picks).

Nuggets small icon 16. Nuggets (26-25, LW 18). With the Pelicans and Clippers both losing key parts to their team this week, the Nuggets should be able to hold on to a playoff slot in the West — but things are not that simple. They have dropped two in a row to Boston and San Antonio, and the rough stretch of the schedule continues with the Thunder and Warriors this week, the Rockets and Spurs next week. Denver needs to find some wins in there and lock down its spot.

Clippers small icon 17. Clippers (25-25 LW 16). The Blake Griffin trade left the Los Angeles locker room stunned, and with the sense that the trading is not done — don’t be shocked if the Clippers move one or both of DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams before the Feb. 8 deadline. While this is the right basketball move in a cold world, Griffin forever changed the Clippers franchise from the inside by his talent and work ethic — he made a joke of a team be more professional to keep up with him (back in the Donald Sterling years). They should still retire his number someday.

Knicks small icon 18. Knicks (23-28, LW 20). Kristaps Porzingis shot an impressive 47.4% from three in January, but he shot just 39.5% in the paint for the month and only 46.7% at the rim. He and the Knicks need more consistency. The Knicks also need better defense — which was nearly non-existent on a recent 7-game road trip (where the Knicks went 3-4). While the Knicks may dream of the playoffs, they likely need to go about 22-9 the rest of the way to get to where the Sixers and Pacers will be.

Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (23-26, LW 17). Stan Van Gundy has swung for the fences — or at least for the playoffs — with his move to trade for Blake Griffin. When healthy Griffin is an All-Star level player — to pair with Andre Drummond who is now an All-Star in the East — but his massive contract will make it hard to put enough pieces around the two bigs to make this a truly dangerous team. But, the move should help sell tickets in the new downtown arena.

Jazz small icon 20. Jazz (22-28, LW 25). Joe Ingles leads the NBA in three-point shooting percentage off the dribble hitting 48.3% — that’s an incredibly valuable skill as teams chase shooters off the arc more. Utah’s playoff dreams are not dead (not with what has happened to the Clippers and Pelicans), but they will still need to go at least 21-9 or better the rest of the way to make the cut. That’s a tall order.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (20-29, LW 19). It doesn’t look like the Hornets will be sellers at this trade deadline, but the questions about whether to hang on or move Kemba Walker and some bad contracts to start a rebuild will continue into the summer. Charlotte seems to have found a little more of an offensive groove again with Steve Clifford back on the sidelines — they’re taking and making more threes — which is going to get them wins.

Grizzlies small icon 22. Grizzlies (18-31, LW 21). Mike Conley will have surgery on his heel he has tried to avoid and is now done for the entire season, which is the smart thing (get him right for next season). Tyreke Evans will almost certainly be moved at the trade deadline, Memphis is simply holding out for the best deal (they are demanding a first-round pick, which teams have yet to cough up). Rookie Ivan Rabb is getting more run late, and with the Grizzlies out of the playoff picture that should continue as they try to develop him.

Lakers small icon 23. Lakers (19-30 LW 22). No timeline yet on exactly when Lonzo Ball will return to the lineup (or if he can play in the Rising Stars game All-Star weekend, although the Lakers would like him to since it’s at Staples Center.) Still the Lakers are showing development and some grit, getting wins over Indiana and Boston before heading out for 8-of-10 on the road (they have started that stretch 1-1).

Bulls small icon 24. Bulls (18-32 LW 23).. The bubble has burst on the Bulls hot streak, having now lost 4-of-5 and about to head out on the road for three more games. Rookie Lauri Markkanen has been part of that, shooting just 21.6% from three over his last five games. The Bulls are still working to move Nikola Mitotic before the deadline, but he’s not going to approve a trade where the new team doesn’t pick up his $12.5 million option for next season (he can do that because he will lose his Bird rights) and it’s unlikely a team will do that. New Orleans wouldn’t.

Mavericks small icon 25. Mavericks (16-35 LW 24). Another week, another milestone: Dirk Nowitzki is on the verge of being only the sixth player in NBA history to play 50,000 regular season minutes, which is an impressive feat. We will remember the future Hall of Famer for his one-legged fadeaway and being the best shooting big man, and best European, ever in the NBA, but he has been tough, and durable, as well.

Kings small icon 26. Kings (16-34, LW 29). Sacramento went a respectable 3-3 on a six-game road trip through the South, and they showed again that if they can get a lead they can hold it — the Kings are 10-2 when leading after three quarters this season. Good news that coach Dave Joerger has been given a clean bill of healthy to return to the sidelines after his dizzy spell on the court recently. He probably will be on the bench again Friday, or at least this weekend.

Nets small icon 27. Nets (18-33, LW 26). D’Angelo Russell has been back for five games now but he’s still looking rusty and off, shooting just 28.6% overall and 22.2% from three. He’s also been turning the ball over about twice as often as he’s made an assist. Some rust is expected, but he’s not playing in a way that will make Brooklyn want to give him an extension this summer. Expect them to pick up his option, play his fourth season, and then become a restricted free agent.

Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (15-35, LW 27). When I watched a young Dennis Schroder fresh out of Germany at his first Summer League, I thought “he’s going to be a great defender, I just hope his offense comes along. His offenses did, but he’s not put in the effort on defense — the Hawks are 9.2 points per 100 possessions better defensively with him off the court this season. That has to be driving Mike Budenholzer crazy.

Suns small icon 29. Suns (17-34, LW 28). The Suns have moved Devin Booker over to the starting point guard role now — he has the ball in his hands. Booker has put up points (31 against the Rockets) but he’s not consistent at getting teammates involved, and he needs a much better defensive guard next to him or the plan will be exploited. With where the Suns are this season, this is exactly what they should be experimenting with.

Magic small icon 30. Magic (14-35, LW 30). Orlando is willing to be a seller at the trade deadline, but will there be any buyers for Evan Fournier or Elfrid Payton. A lot of teams — maybe 29 other ones — could use the shooting Fournier brings, but his salary is going to make a few teams back off. Orlando is certainly a team to watch as we move toward the Feb. 8 deadline.

Instead of desired playoff appearance, Jazz might have found better prize in hotshot rookie Donovan Mitchell

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DETROIT – Donovan Mitchell inspires confidence.

Chris Paul watched him play at a spring camp and told Mitchell, who was leaning toward returning to Louisville for his junior season, to declare for the NBA draft. Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey threatened to fire anyone who revealed how good Mitchell looked in a pre-draft workout then traded up to pick the guard No. 13. After Gordon Hayward left Utah for the Celtics in free agency and early injuries set in, Jazz coach Quin Snyder made the rookie his go-to player. Fans flocked to Mitchell for his high-flying dunks, bold pull-up 3-pointers and monster scoring games.

Between his athleticism, smooth shooting stroke and 6-foot-10 wingspan on a 6-foot-3 body, Mitchell oozed promise. His future was undeniably bright.

But, in a distinction too few made, his present was underwhelming. Mitchell’s high-scoring nights were celebrated, but his too-frequent duds were ignored. He posted big point totals out of volume far more than efficiency. At Thanksgiving, his true shooting percentage was a dreadful 46.8, well below league average of 55.6.

Mitchell didn’t step back, though. In fact, he increased his offensive load. And he’s growing up right before our eyes. His true shooting percentage since Thanksgiving is 59.0, a sparkling mark considering his high usage.

“At the end of the day, I’m a rookie,” Mitchell said. “If I miss shots, it’s to be expected. None of this was supposed to happen.”

Not based on Mitchell’s reluctance to leave Louisville. Not based on his projection – mid-to-late first round – once he finally turned pro. Not based on where he actually got picked, No. 13.

But, by now, Mitchell has already established himself as a hyped player.

Most rookies who averaged 18 points per game won Rookie of the Year. Mitchell is averaging 19.1. He might not catch the 76ers’ Ben Simmons, who appeared to be running away with the award earlier in the season, but Mitchell’s candidacy should be taken seriously.

Not that Mitchell is giving it much thought.

“We’re trying to make the playoffs, make a playoff push,” Mitchell said. “I think if I focus on that one award, it’s kind of selfish on my part to be like, ‘Alright, this is why I’m playing.’ We have bigger things in mind.”

And that’s the rub.

Teams rarely win while relying so much on rookies. Sometimes, that’s because the only way to get a rookie worth giving the ball to so much is tankingg for a high pick. Regardless of that rookie’s talent, it can take years to build back up after stripping the roster to tank.

Utah sure didn’t do that, winning 51 games and a playoff series last season. The Jazz are still a veteran team, the NBA’s eighth-oldest weighted by playing time despite the 21-year-old Mitchell nearly leading them in minutes. They were built to win now with Hayward, and his departure threw the entire franchise for a loop.

Those are big shoes for Mitchell to fill, and he’s doing an admirable job – in context.

Mitchell shoots 16.1 times per game. The only team in the last 20 years to make the playoffs with a rookie taking at least 15 shots per game: Carmelo Anthony‘s Nuggets in 2004. Even at just 20-28, Utah has the best record of any team since with a 15-shot-per-game rookie:


It’s especially hard to win when that go-to rookie is a guard. Putting the ball in a young player’s hands that often is just asking for trouble. The last team to make the playoffs with a guard shooting 15 times per game was Mitch Richmond’s Warriors in 1989. Restrict it to point guards, and the last team was Ernie DiGregorio’s Buffalo Braves in 1974.

Mitchell’s position is hazy.

He starts with Ricky Rubio, a clear point guard. But Mitchell spends so much time as the lead ball-handler, as he can use a variety of moves to create his own shot. The Jazz also try to get him going plenty off the ball by running him off screens. He’s dangerous as a spot-up shooter.

Mitchell is nearly peerless in the breadth and depth of his scoring.

Players who match Mitchell’s volume (9.9 attempts per game) and efficiency (49.3 effective field-goal percentage) on shots off multiple dribbles: LeBron James, Victor Oladipo, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Lou Williams, Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, D'Angelo Russell, C.J. McCollum, Kemba Walker, DeMar DeRozan.

Players who match Mitchell’s volume (3.6 attempts per game) and efficiency (66.5 effective field-goal percentage) on catch-and-shoots: Clint Capela, Buddy Hield, Mirza Teletovic, DeAndre Jordan, LeBron James, Rudy Gobert, Kevin Durant, Reggie Bullock, Steven Adams, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Enes Kanter, Tyler Zeller, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Trey Lyles, Hassan Whiteside, Jamil Wilson, Kyle Korver, Mike Scott, Dwight Powell, Julius Randle.

If you notice, the only player on both lists is LeBron.

Like LeBron and many other players, Mitchell chose his jersey number to honor Michael Jordan. But Mitchell chose No. 45, not Jordan’s more famous No. 23. Jordan wore No. 45 during his stint in baseball, Mitchell’s favorite sport growing up, then briefly during his first comeback with the Bulls, which happened before Mitchell was even born. Why not pick No. 23 like everybody else honoring Jordan wears?

“Because that’s what everybody else does,” Mitchell said. “I try to be different. I’m not like everybody else.”

Mitchell isn’t blazing a completely new trail, though. His combination of usage percentage (28.7) and true shooting percentage (54.6) is amazing for a rookie, but one other first-year player already did it:


By putting himself in that elite company, Mitchell isn’t having his role reduced – no matter what growing pains the Jazz must endure.

“He’s our best offensive player,” Snyder said. “So, he’s going to get responsibility. From my standpoint, there’s not a timeline.”

Mitchell plays and talks like someone whose self-confidence matches the belief everyone else has in him. So, why was he leaning toward returning to Louisville for his junior – not even sophomore – season until Paul told him otherwise? As Mitchell explains, he was too shocked by the idea of competing against players like LeBron and Durant for his confidence even to set in.

So, when did shock wear off?

“It really hasn’t, to be honest,” Mitchell said. “It’s game by game. It’s kind of crazy to me, the entire thing.”

Marquese Chriss, Dennis Schroder team up to win game for Suns (VIDEO)

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To be fair, the Atlanta Hawks squandered this game in heroic fashion down the stretch. But they could not have done that without a game-saving block from Marquese Chriss, which is an important detail.

So let’s get to this tire fire ending out West.

The critical sequence in Tuesday night’s game between the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns came with 12 seconds to go and the Suns leading by one point, 102-101. Devin Booker had just made three free throws, and the Hawks called a timeout.

After Atlanta inbounded the ball, Chriss actually appeared to misplay a pick-and-roll, staying high while Taurean Prince rolled to the hoop.

Chriss recovered, and blocked Prince at the rim with just six seconds to go.

Atlanta had to foul Booker after the rebound, sending him to the line to extend the game. Booker made two free throws, pushing it to 104-101.

Needing a 3-pointer, Atlanta’s Dennis Schroder decided to instead drive to the bucket and get the quick two points. The only problem with that?

The Hawks had just six seconds to play, and three seconds to go when Schroder actually took his shot.

That’s an incredible moment in clock management, and an even worse bounce for the Hawks on the layup.

Phoenix beat the Hawks, 104-103.