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Already anointed, Devin Booker aims to become worthy of star status

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DETROIT – Devin Booker spent his first two seasons burnishing one of the NBA’s best reputations.

The Suns made him their franchise player. LeBron James and Kevin Durant went out of their way to praise him. He became the youngest player ever to score 70 points in a game.

But there was a dirty little secret behind the curtain: Booker played awful defense.

“Having a heavy load on offense, I just tried to rest a little bit,” Booker said. “But you realize, if you want to be that player in this league, you have to play both sides of the ball.”

That player.

The leader. The one capable of carrying his team deep into the playoffs. The true star.

Despite his accolades, Booker isn’t yet that player. His Suns are just 8-15, on pace for their best record in his three seasons. But he has scored more points before turning 21 (a month ago) than everyone besides LeBron, Durant and Carmelo Anthony.

Booker is judged too harshly by his critics, too generously by his advocates. He’s flawed, to be sure, but don’t ignore his potential. Don’t paint the picture of a player who has already figured it out, either.

Evaluating individual players is a circular exercise. Players can be judged on their own, and their perceived production can each be plugged in to predict team success. But a player’s individual value can also be derived from his team’s output. If a team thrives or struggles, it’s worth examining how its players contribute to that result. Form new evaluations of each player, plug those in and re-predict team success. Then re-apportion the team’s results onto each player again. And on and on.

A good player – someone who contributes positively to winning – can play on a bad team. A bad player – someone who contributes negatively to winning – can play on a good team. A single player can do only so much.

But, at a certain point, a truly elite player should keep his team from the dregs of the league

Phoenix has gotten outscored by 8.4 points per 100 possessions with Booker on the floor. That’s obviously not all his fault. His teammates, frankly, are bad. But if Booker was all his supporters crack him up to be, wouldn’t he lift the Suns higher than he has?

Only a few players since 2000-01 (as far back as NBA.com’s data goes) have been All-Stars while their team was performing so poorly with them on the floor before the All-Star break:

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Yao Ming and Kobe Bryant were over the hill and All-Stars only because of the fan vote. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, from the 17-65 Cavaliers who tanked to get LeBron in 2003, is the only All-Star chosen on the merits despite his team struggling so much.

Becoming an All-Star in this Western Conference – where Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Klay Thompson, Damian Lillard and Jimmy Butler are competing for four to six guard spots – is hard enough, anyway. But Booker holds no illusions about the hole in his case.

“I know that comes with winning,” Booker said.

Booker brings up the 60-win Hawks of a few years ago. Not only were Al Horford and Paul Millsap All-Stars, Atlanta’s team success vaulted Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver into their only All-Star appearances.

Booker isn’t shy about referencing other teams. Asked about his leadership, he pointed to the Warriors as a model he’d like to emulate. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green all share various aspects.

But Phoenix has pinned so much of its future directly onto Booker.

The Suns told Booker they wouldn’t trade him, even when Kyrie Irving became available. Then, they dealt Eric Bledsoe, the team’s best and highest-paid player.

This is now Booker’s team.

“It’s a good pressure to have,” Booker said. “It’s a pressure that keeps you on your toes. It’s a pressure that I want. It’s a pressure that keeps you determined.”

Booker fits as first in command, because Phoenix gives more than a quarter of its minutes to players even younger than him – a smidge behind behind the Lakers, but nearly double anyone else. Not only is he older than Josh Jackson, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender and Derrick Jones Jr., Booker is also more advanced than slightly older starting point guard Tyler Ulis.

Ideally for the Suns, this young core – along with future first-round picks, including all Phoenix’s own plus two extra from the Heat – will blossom into a dangerous team.

Booker is trying to accelerate the process, and that starts with defense.

“He’s taking the challenge of trying to guard guys,” Phoenix interim coach Jay Triano said. “I think that was something, before, he just, ‘It was something I have to do.’ And now, he’s coming to the bench, if a guy has made two in a row and saying, ‘Put me on him. Let me guard him.'”

Like all Suns, Booker’s defensive effort has improved since Triano took over for Earl Watson just three games into the season. (How could it not?) Triano calls Booker’s defensive results under his newfound approach “excellent,” but that seems to be more positive reinforcement than anything. Booker is merely trending up from atrocious defender toward regularly bad defender. He’s more engaged off the ball, and he really locks in during clutch situations.

It’s a step in the right direction for Booker as he tries to improve his all-around game. Growth also include better distributing.

Despite a slight downtick in minutes, Booker is averaging a career-high 4.0 assists per game. But he has made an even larger jump in potential assists per game – 8.9, fourth among shooting guards (behind only James Harden, DeMar DeRozan and Jimmy Butler).

Why such a split between his actual assists and potential assists? The simple and partially correct answer: His teammates miss too many shots. But Booker also doesn’t tilt the defense to create efficient opportunities for his teammates quite like an elite playmaker would.

As usual with Booker, context matters, but it doesn’t completely absolve him.

Same with his scoring. He averaged 22.1 points per game last year and his averaging 23.0 this year, shiny numbers that mostly explain his plaudits.

Efficiency matters, too, though. For his usage percentage (28.9), his true shooting percentage (56.8) is only middling. But it’s above league average for the first time, and he’s just 21. Only Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron and Durant have matched Booker’s usage and true shooting percentages in their age-21 season or younger.

Booker is a good scorer, period – and a special one for his age. His 70-point game against the Celtics last season is the crowning achievement of his career so far, unmatched by any active player and not neared ever by anyone so young.

It also heaped loads of attention on him, as a blowout loss to the Pistons on Wednesday perfectly displayed. Booker scored 22 points on 7-of-8 shooting, but Detroit aggressively trapped him throughout the game, and he committed seven turnovers.

Booker returns to Boston, the site of his 70-pointer, tomorrow knowing defenses have treated him differently ever since that game.

“You can’t be a secret forever,” Booker said. “I remember all the open looks I got when I first started playing as a rookie. I haven’t seen one of those since.”

The Suns’ lackluster supporting cast makes it simpler for Booker to remain the center of attention, but that’s not the only culprit. His hype keeps outpacing his production.

Booker is just trying to put his head down and keep up.

NBA Power Rankings: Rockets move into top spot, Cavaliers into top 5

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Changes at the top this week, with Boston and Golden State each picking up a couple losses in the last seven days it was Houston that moves into the top spot. Meanwhile, Cleveland has moved up fast during its win streak and is now fourth and joining the league elites.

 
Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (16-4, Last Week No. 3). Chris Paul has been thriving since his return — he has at least 10 assists and two steals in five of the six games he played in Houston this season, and on the season has 65 assists to only 7 turnovers. The Rockets have won all five games since his return, having the best offense in the NBA and the second best defense in that stretch. They’ve also done this against a relatively soft schedule, but some better tests (Pacers, Blazers) are coming.

 
Celtics small icon 2. Celtics (18-4, LW 1). The win streak ended at 16 when a comeback against Miami fell short, then they dropped the first of a five-game homestand when they had no answer for Andre Drummond or Tobias Harris. The Celtics are 6-3 in games where they trailed by 10 points or more — impressive, but it’s not the way they want to live. Better bench play would keep things closer.

 
Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (15-6 LW 2). Kevin Durant has missed 4-of-5 games with a sprained ankle, and the Warriors offense suffered because of it. However, it didn’t really bite them until Stephen Curry had to sit out too and they fell to Sacramento. Both are questionable Wednesday against the Lakers, a game that starts a six-game road trip which includes the Heat, Pelicans, and Pistons.

 
Cavaliers small icon 4. Cavaliers (14-7 LW 9). Derrick Rose is away from the team contemplating his future, but the Cavaliers have won eight straight without him — the defense is a disaster when Rose has been on the court and overall the Cavaliers are 16.7 points per 100 better when he sits. LeBron continues to carry the offense, especially in the clutch. In the last five minutes of games within five points this season, LeBron has 60 points (second to Kyrie Irving), is shooting 62.2 percent overall, and is a +26.

 
Spurs small icon 5. Spurs (13-7, LW 4). Tony Parker is back, playing 14 minutes in his return and looking understandably a bit rusty, but he brings them even more depth. The better news is he said Kawhi Leonard could return in 2-3 weeks (a timeline Gregg Popovich shot down, but it sounds like Leonard is getting close to a comeback). After a rough start to the season without Leonard, the Spurs defense is back to it’s usual dominating self, allowing 100.3 points per 100 possessions in the last 10 games (third best in the NBA) and climbing up to 5th overall in the league.

 
Raptors small icon 6. Raptors (12-7, LW 5). They went 1-2 on a quick three-game road trip (crushing Atlanta for their one win). What has kept them afloat all season is fantastic bench play (a +12.1 per 100 net rating, best in the NBA) and the latest addition to that is Fred VanVleet, who is giving they quality guard minutes and allowing Dwane Casey to keep his regular rotations.

 
Pistons small icon 7. Pistons (13-6, LW 7). The win in Boston Monday night is as much of a statement win as a team can have in November (which is to say, not much of a statement but a good confidence booster). Andre Drummond was a force of nature, Tobias Harris had 31 points, and Avery Bradley hounded Kyrie Irving into a 6-of-16 shooting night. It’s very early, but that is a blueprint for how the Pistons could be a difficult playoff out.

 
Sixers small icon 8. 76ers (11-8, LW 13). Philly is 3-2 in the midst of a long homestand, but the two losses were to the Warriors and Cavaliers so they’re understandable. It’s time to trade Jahlil Okafor for the best offer, those options are not going to get better than the protected second round picks on the table now. It’s a blow to the ego to trade a No. 3 pick for that little, but it has to be done, it’s best for him and the team. #FreeJah

 
Blazers small icon 9. Trail Blazers (13-8, LW 10). When their big three of Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic are on the court together, the Trail Blazers outscore opens by a healthy 5.6 points per 100 possessions, with their offense clicking along with a 108 net rating (would be sixth in the NBA). Portland went an impressive 4-1 on a five-game road trip, knocking off the Wizards and Knicks among others. Now they are home for four games, then will spend much of the rest of December on the road.

 
Pacers small icon 10. Pacers (12-9, LW 14). Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis have had a fantastic chemistry this season, they read each other’s planned cuts and moves well, and are outscoring opponents by 12.9 points per 100 possessions when on the court together. But Sabonis and the just returned Myles Turner are not finding that same groove and are -6 per 100 (in a limited 66 minutes). Tough week ahead with Houston, Toronto, and New York.

 
Wizards small icon 11. Wizards (11-9, LW 6). John Wall is out for a couple of weeks with a knee injury, and the Wizards are 10.6 points per 100 possessions with him off the court. The Wizards are 1-1 without Wall, with the win courtesy a strong game from Otto Porter vs. Minnesota, and the Wizards will need more of that as they have 6-of-7 games on the road coming up.

 
12. Timberwolves (12-9, LW 8). Minnesota’s defense continues to be what holds the team back (the offense is sixth in the league in the last 10 games), and the main reasons is Minnesota is one of the worst transition defense teams in the league. They allow 17.6% of opponent possessions in transition (only the Clippers are worse) and teams score 127.4 points per 100 possessions on those, 25th in the league (Stats via Cleaning The Glass). Minnesota needs to take away easy buckets from the opposition.

 
Nuggets small icon 13. Nuggets (11-9, LW 11). Paul Millsap is going to be out for three months following wrist surgery, and that has moved Kenneth Faried into the starting lineup with Trey Lyles getting run behind him. Since Millsap went down the Nuggets are 2-2, but that’s a bit lucky as they are bottom 10 in the league in both offense and defense in those four. Starting Monday Denver has 7-of-8 on the road and needs to find wins in there to stay in a strong spot in the playoff race in the West.

 
Pelicans small icon 14. Pelicans (11-9, LW 15). New Orleans has won 3-of-4 as they move through a difficult part of the schedule, with the kind of games they need to win if they want to be a playoff team in the West (Minnesota, Utah, Portland, and Golden State are up this week). The Pelican defense, led by Anthony Davis, has looked better. With the Pelicans staying healthy (*knock on wood*) while teams around them in the West struggle, now is the time they can win some games and build a little cushion in that playoff race.

 
Bucks small icon 15. Bucks (10-9 LW 16). The Bucks are 6-3 since Eric Bledsoe came to town, and most impressively the team’s defensive rating since his arrival is 101.7 (seventh in the NBA in that stretch). But the defense hasn’t been consistent, there were losses to Utah and Dallas where they didn’t defend the arc well. Milwaukee is 2-1 midway through a stretch of 5-of-6 on the road.

 
Heat small icon 16. Heat (10-10, LW 17). They ended the Celtics 16-game win streak, but maybe more impressive was scoring just 7 points against Chicago in the first quarter and coming back to win that game last Sunday. Goran Dragic has led the offense of late, averaging 19.5 points and 4.3 assists per game, while hitting more than half his threes in their last four games.

 
Knicks small icon 17. Knicks (10-10, LW 12). The Knicks are 9-4 at home and 1-6 on the road, it is something they need to figure out in the next month because after Christmas they have 17-of-21 on the road after a home-heavy schedule to start the season. Joakim Noah was activated and played three minutes in one game, but the Knicks still have a glut of big men, which means they could look to be sellers at the trade deadline.

 
Thunder small icon 18. Thunder (8-11 LW 19).. The win over the Warriors was the best Russell Westbrook has looked all season, both taking charge of the offense and setting up teammates. Then after that win, the Thunder drop games to the Pistons and Mavericks (that’s losses in 4-of-5) and Westbrook hasn’t been as good in those games as the Thunder need him to be. Westbrook is too good not to figure it out, but he’s part of the problem early with the Thunder this season.

 
Jazz small icon 19. Jazz (10-11, LW 23). The Jazz have won three straight and are a surprisingly good 5-4 since Rudy Gobert’s injury. Utah has done it with an impressive offense, scoring 111.7 points per 100 possessions (that level is not sustainable), sparked in part by rookie Donovan Mitchell, who dropped 24 on the Bucks recently. Utah’s defense without Gobert hasn’t been as good, but it’s been middle of the pack, which is better than expected. Utah is the current eight seed in the West and is keeping itself in the playoff hunt without its star.

 
Hornets small icon 20. Hornets (8-11, LW 17). The Hornets seemed to be putting it together and won three in a row, with Dwight Howard playing like his old self (or as close to it as we can expect anymore), but then hit a tough part of the schedule and fell to the Cavaliers and Spurs. Bad news it doesn’t get any easier this week: At Toronto, At Miami, then after Orlando it’s the Warriors that come to town.

 
Clippers small icon 21. Clippers (8-11 LW 27). The Clippers had righted the ship against the dregs of the league (wins against the Kings, Lakers, and Hawks) but then came the news that Blake Griffin is going to be out a couple of months with a sprained MCL. The Clippers offense has been 8.6 points per 100 possessions worse when he sits and with him and Danilo Gallinari out, it’s hard to see where quality playmaking — or wins — are going to come from. The Clippers will struggle to stay in the playoff mix the next couple of months, and that could lead to bigger roster changes come the trade deadline.

 
Lakers small icon 22. Lakers (8-12 LW 22). The Lakers continue to have a top-10 NBA defense (seventh in the league right now), but that has slipped the last couple of weeks — the Lakers are giving up 5.2 points more per 100 possessions in their last six games (bottom 10 in the league). That defense is about to be put to the test in a brutal stretch of the schedule — 7-of-10 games on the road and only one team in those 10 is under .500.

 
Suns small icon 23. Suns (8-14, LW 24). Jay Triano is experimenting with who will start at the four. Marquese Chriss has been sent to the bench and Greg Monroe got the first shot, but him next to Chandler Parsons was a spacing disaster. Dragan Bender got the start vs. Chicago and that lineup was -5 in just more than 10 minutes of play (but the Suns got the win because Devin Booker went off for 33, plus the Bulls). With that win the Bulls have started 1-1 on a six-game road trip but the next four are brutal: Detroit, Boston, Philadelphia, and Toronto.

 
Nets small icon 24. Nets (7-13, LW 25). The Nets have won just one game in their last five, and when they beat the Grizzlies it helped lead to coach David Fizdale getting fired. Brooklyn has been a scrappy team this season and in their last five games have averaged 107.3 points per 100 on offense (ninth best in the NBA in that stretch). It’s especially impressive with both Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell out injured.

 
Magic small icon 25. Magic (8-13, LW 20). Losers of nine in a row (and it’s not likely to get easier with the next three games being the Thunder, Warriors, and at the Knicks). The offense hasn’t been good but the issue during the streak is the team’s defense — they have surrendered 116.4 points per 100, worst in the NBA in that stretch. Teams are killing the Magic both from three and on the offensive glass, plus Orlando does not force turnovers or get easy buckets. Notice all those upcoming games mentioned in the first graph are against good offensive teams.

 
Grizzlies small icon 26. Grizzlies (7-12, LW 21). Coach David Fizdale was fired, and any bounce they get from J.B. Bickerstaff at the helm will be short lived — one can only win so much without the talent to do so. This team was built around the idea that Mike Conley and Marc Gasol could be All-Star level players, and they have enough good role players around them to make it work. Conley is out with an Achilles issue, and with other injuries Gasol has struggled to carry the weight of the offense. Management said they made the change because they expect to make the playoffs, not even most Grizzlies fans thought that would happen if one of their stars missed significant time.

 
Mavericks small icon 27. Mavericks (5-16 LW 28). Dallas has won three of its last five and the reason is defense — they are giving up less than a point per possession in that stretch. On the other end, Dirk Nowitzki is back — he is a team-best +55 in the last five games, averaging 12.8 points per games, shooting 45 percent from three, plus grabbing 7.2 boards a game.

 
Kings small icon 28. Kings (6-15, LW 29). It’s strange to say this about a six-win team, but according to Cleaning the Glass they are also the luckiest team in the NBA with 2.8 more wins than their net rating would suggest (meaning they should be 3-18). They are 29th in offense and 30th in the league in defense this season. On the bright side, D’Aaron Fox has shown flashes (he, like most rookies, just needs to work on his jumper).

 
Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (4-16, LW 26). I like the fact that John Collins has gotten to start the last three games (Luke Babbit is injured), even if that means the Hawks defense suffers. At this point, play and develop the rookie. After Cleveland Thursday there are two home-and-homes where the Hawks could pick up a win or two, with Brooklyn and with slumping Orlando.

 
Bulls small icon 30. Bulls (3-16 LW 30). They have lost six in a row, Lauri Markkanen seems to have run into the rookie wall early, and Jerian Grant and Kris Dunn have been consistently inconsistent. Just to rub salt in all of this, Jordan Bell trolled the Bulls for trading him (well, his pick) for cash considerations, and now he is playing regular rotation minutes for the Warriors. It’s been a rough week in Chicago, but at least they got the 2020 All-Star Game.

NBA Power Rankings: Celtics, Warriors, Rockets solidify as top three

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The top three teams in the Association have separated themselves — Boston, Golden State, and Houston, and they remain atop these rankings (and may well for a while). However, after that, there is more East than West at the top, not something we expected to see before the season.

 
Celtics small icon 1. Celtics (16-2, Last Week No. 1). Welcome to the season of Al Horford appreciation. He’s a four-time All-Star who once made an All-NBA team (2011), but he still might be the most underappreciated star in the league. At least until this season. He’s not flashy, but he does everything well — there are no serious holes in his game. That is showing this season as he anchors the Celtics’ league-best defense plus gives them almost 15 points and 9 boards a night. He is at the heart of the reason the Celtics have won 16 in a row and beat the Warriors.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (13-4 LW 2). This season the Warriors are taking 31.4 percent of their shots at the rim, once you exclude garbage time (as is done by Ben Falk at Cleaning The Glass). Last season that was 36 percent. Last season the team free throw rate was 20.6 (FTA per 100), this season that is down to 19.6. The Warriors still have the best offense in the NBA, but to Charles Barkely’s dismay (if he paid attention to stats) they are even more of a jump shooting team.

 
Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (13-4, Last Week No. 3). Chris Paul has only been back two games, but he’s averaged 14 points and 8 assists, while shooting 6-of-11 from three in the two wins (against the Suns and injured Grizzlies). Houston is entering a soft part of the schedule, including having 11-of-14 at home, look for CP3 (and James Harden) to put up impressive numbers for a few weeks.

 
Spurs small icon 4. Spurs (11-6, LW 5). The 23-point comeback win against the Thunder shows the grit and resilience of a team still without Kyrie Irving (and who knows when he returns). Their five-man starting lineup — LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Kyle Anderson, Danny Green, and Patty Mills — outscores teams by 6.7 points per 100 minutes and is key to their success.

 
Raptors small icon 5. Raptors (11-5, LW 7). The Raptors have been flying under the radar to start the season, but their net rating is better than the Wizards’ team everyone thought could be the team that challenges Cleveland/Boston at the end of the season. Toronto has adapted well to its new move-the-ball offense (most of the time), and is scoring at a more efficient clip than a season ago already.

 
Wizards small icon 6. Wizards (10-7, LW 8). The Wizards lost to the Raptors but beat the Bucks in the first two games of one of the toughest stretches of the schedule this season — 8-of-10 on the road, much of it against good teams (over .500). Remove garbage time from the stats and the Wizards are top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating (8th in both), often a sign of a potential contender (Warriors, Rockets the only other teams to do that so far).

Pistons small icon 7. Pistons (11-6, LW 4). They have lost three-of-four and were absolutely demolished at home by LeBron James and the Cavaliers this week. In the one win in the last week, they had to come from 11 down against the Timberwolves. Detroit’s starting five — Reggie Jackson, Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Stanley Johnson, and Andre Drummond — is getting outscored by 12.3 points per 100 possessions, Stan Van Gundy can’t stick with it much longer.

 
8. Timberwolves (10-7, LW 6). Quietly, the Timberwolves have finally started to play good defense — in their last five games they have allowed 101.6 points per 100, ninth best in the NBA for that stretch (they were 28th in the league overall a couple weeks back). Still, they have lost two in a row to beatable teams (Charlotte and Detroit) heading into a four-game homestand.

 
Cavaliers small icon 9. Cavaliers (10-7 LW 18). Winners of five in a row, and what matters most is in those five games their defense is 8.6 points per 100 better than their season average (and eighth in the league). LeBron James is putting up MVP numbers this season, 28.3 points, 8.5 assists, and 7.4 rebounds a game. All in his 15th season, about to turn 33 years old. Insane. Derrick Rose is out for more than a week still with his sprained ankle, and now Iman Shumpert is out with water on the knee, putting even more on LeBron’s plate.

 
Blazers small icon 10. Trail Blazers (10-7, LW 14). Portland fans and players feel they should have done better, but their record to start the season isn’t bad (it’s about where I pictured them), especially in a West where a lot of potential playoff teams are stumbling and/or battling injury. However, the Blazers have had a heavy home schedule so far and Monday’s win in Memphis was the first of five straight games on the road as they will be racking up the frequent flyer miles through the end of the year.

 
Nuggets small icon 11. Nuggets (10-7, LW 10). Paul Millsap is out for a few months (surgery to repair a ligament in his wrist) and he has been key to Denver’s improved defense. As a team they are 4.5 points per 100 possessions better when he plays, both Trey Lyles and Kenneth Faried need to help make that up. The Nuggets are 2-2 to start their stretch of 11-of-15 on the road, they have started to play better but the Millsap injury is a setback.

 
Knicks small icon 12. Knicks (9-7, LW 11). In his last five games, Kristaps Porzingis is shooting just 38.3 percent (although he still is hitting 44 percent of the five threes a game he puts up. It’s just a little efficiency slump. Joakim Noah is eligible to return from his PED suspension, but has yet to suit up for the Knicks as Jeff Hornacek rightfully likes his big man rotation right now (just a reminder Noah is making $17.8 million this season and has two-years, $37.8 million left on the deal after this season… thanks again Phil).

 
Sixers small icon 13. 76ers (9-7, LW 12). When Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are on the court together the Sixers outscore opponents by 12.6 points per 100 possessions, and defensively the team allows less than a point scored per possession. Enmbiid by himself is a force, with the Sixers 19.2 points per 100 better than when he sits. Brett Brown must think Embiid is all the way back because he’s played him more than 30 minutes a game regularly recently. Also, #FreeJah

 
Pacers small icon 14. Pacers (10-8, LW 22). Indiana has won four games in a row, and 5-of-6 (the lone loss is Houston), knocking off some other potential East playoff teams in the process (Detroit, Miami, Orlando). They’ve been better on both ends during the streak, but it is the improved defense that has mattered more. That and Lance Stephenson going off for 13 in the fourth against Detroit. Pacers are in a home-heavy stretch and need to pad their record now.

 
Pelicans small icon 15. Pelicans (9-8 LW 9). DeMarcus Cousins is having a monster year averaging 26.6 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game, but when he got tossed for an elbow to Russell Westbrook’s head (whether Russ sold that or not), it was Anthony Davis who took on the scoring load with 36 and got the win. The Pelicans needed that W, had lost their previous two and have a rough stretch ahead — 4-of-6 on the road with the Spurs, Warriors, Timberwolves, and Trail Blazers in the mix.

Bucks small icon 16. Bucks (8-8 LW 16). Malcolm Brogdon has struggled adjusting to his bench role, shooting 34.1% (down from 46%) with his assists dropping almost in half in his last five games. After winning four in a row with the arrival of Eric Bledsoe, thanks in large part to an improved defense, they have slipped back and dropped two straight — and as of Saturday the Bucks head out for 5-of-6 on the road.

 
Hornets small icon 17. Hornets (7-9, LW 20). They stopped an ugly six-game losing streak with wins at home over the stumbling clippers, then with Dwight Howard going off for 25 points and 20 rebounds against Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves. Maybe the Hornets can find some consistency now that their healthy, but the next four games are no help — Wizards, Cavaliers, Spurs and Raptors.

 
Heat small icon 18. Heat (7-9, LW 17). Miami is being held back by an offense that doesn’t move the ball (25th in percentage of buckets with an assist), 29th in turnover percentage, and 27th in the league in free throw rate. We’re not going to run the video of Dion Waiters going 0-of-10 from the floor against the Pacers, but it wasn’t pretty.

 
Thunder small icon 19. Thunder (7-9 LW 19).. The fourth quarter woes for this team are real — in six of their nine, losses, the Thunder have blown a double-digit lead in the game, the latest being a 19-point lead to the Pelicans (without DeMarcus Cousins). The Thunder’s fourth quarter defense is 10.6 points per 100 possessions worse than the rest of the game (when it is top five in the league). Big showdown with Kevin Durant and the Warriors Wednesday night.

 
Magic small icon 20. Magic (8-9, LW 13). The wheels have come off after a strong start in Orlando — they have dropped five games in a row, with a bottom four offense and defense in that stretch. And that is with point guards Elfrid Payton and D.J. Augustin now healthy. It doesn’t get easier now with four straight and 6-of-8 on the road against some quality teams (Celtics, 76ers, Pacers, Thunder, Warriors).

 
Grizzlies small icon 21. Grizzlies (7-9, LW 15). Memphis has lost five in a row, the last three without Mike Conley who will remain out for a couple more weeks to rest his Achilles. It doesn’t get any easier, because in a week the Grizzlies start a brutal stretch of the schedule with a home-and-home against the Spurs — Memphis has to find a way to keep its head above water in this stretch to keep the playoffs within sight.

 
Lakers small icon 22. Lakers (8-10 LW 21). If the playoffs started today (Wednesday, Nov. 22), the Lakers would be the eighth seed in the West. While the NBA world watches Lonzo Ball’s jumpers go astray (and that is an issue), the Lakers have the No. 4 defense in the NBA, which considering they were dead last a year ago is a big step. That keeps them in games, then they get enough offense in flurries to pull out wins. The defense will likely regress some, but the offense should improve as the season wears on, and the Lakers staying within striking distance (or in) the playoffs is not so far-fetched right now.

 
Jazz small icon 23. Jazz (7-11, LW 24). Utah has gone 2-4 since Rudy Gobert went down. With their offense floundering and already 24th in the league, Utah has turned over more playmaking duties to rookie Donovan Mitchell — he started the last seven games and he’s done fairly well, for a rookie. He has averaged 13.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 5.5 assists, and in the last six games the Jazz have a top-10 NBA offense. However, without Gobert as an anchor in the middle the Utah defense has fallen off to bottom 10 in the league, and the offense may not be able to cover that up for long.

 
Suns small icon 24. Suns (7-11, LW 26). Giving up 90 points in a half to the Rockets on national television was ugly, but there are some good things happening in the desert. The ball is moving better on offense and their assists are up, for example, and that has helped Dragan Bender and Troy Daniels to shoot better. Josh Jackson’s offense still has a long way to go, however. Starting Sunday, Phoenix heads out on a tough six-game road trip through the Midwest and East that includes the Celtics, 76ers, and Raptors.

 
Nets small icon 25. Nets (6-10, LW 25). No D’Angelo Russell for at least a month after he had his knee scoped, which is a tough break for a guy playing to impress his bosses and get a new contract. With him and Jeremy Lin out injured, point guard duties have fallen to Spencer Dinwiddie, who has done well and led scrappy performances against the Celtics and Warriors recently (both still losses, of course). Allen Crabbe is finding a groove.

 
Hawks small icon 26. Hawks (3-14, LW 29). They have been playing better than their record suggests of late, it just hasn’t translated into wins. The brightest spot for the team this season is just how well rookie John Collins has played, averaging 11.6 points on 56.9 percent shooting, with 7.4 rebounds a game. The Hawks are 1-2 at the start of a home-heavy stretch of the schedule (5-of-6).

 
Clippers small icon 27. Clippers (5-11 LW 23). The Clippers went into this season with a re-signed Blake Griffin and looking to stay in the playoff mix in the West, then build from there. However, after dropping 9 in a row — in the last 10 games Griffin is shooting just 38.2% — the question becomes at what point do they consider other options? Specifically, looking at trade options for DeAndre Jordan — in the last year of his contract — for players/picks to help a rebuild. The Clippers will deny this, however, if they continue to lose, it’s a question that will come up around the trade deadline. The other question is how hot Doc Rivers’ seat is getting.

 
Mavericks small icon 28. Mavericks (3-15 LW 30). They have lost 5-of-6, but have shown some spark by beating the Bucks and pushing the Celtics to overtime in their last two games (this deep in the rankings that’s enough to move a team up). One thing not moving up in Dallas is Nerlens Noel on the depth chart — undrafted rookie Maxi Kleber is starting a little and is ahead of Noel now.

 
Kings small icon 29. Kings (4-13, LW 27). This ranking may be too high for the Kings. Seriously. They have the worst net rating in the NBA and just got blown out by 46 points by the Hawks (another of the NBA’s worst). One thing to look forward to: Wednesday night Lonzo Ball and De’Aaron Fox will go head-to-head against each other for the first time since Kentucky’s Fox owned UCLA’s Ball in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament last year.

 
Bulls small icon 30. Bulls (3-12 LW 28). With rookie Lauri Markannen leading the way, the Bulls are taking 9.4 more threes per game this season than they did last season. They are hitting 33.5 percent of them, which is about the same as last year, but it has opened up the offense. The Bulls have started 0-2 on a four-game road trip.

Report: Suns send Eric Bledsoe home, expect to trade him

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In a shocking twist, the Suns firing Earl Watson did not end the dysfunction in Phoenix.

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

John Gambadoro of Arizona Sports 98.7:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Bledsoe:

That is a first-rate tweet by Bledsoe. It’s great that he’s having fun with the wild situation, because the rest of us sure are amused peering in.

This was always going to be a long season in Phoenix, but things got out of hand in a hurry. The 0-3 Suns have been outscored by 92 – the worst three-game start in NBA history by 16 points. Now, comes the fallout.

At 27, Bledsoe was getting to be a little too old for a rebuild centered on Devin Booker, Josh Jackson, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender and T.J. Warren. The Suns could have dealt Bledsoe in the offseason. Now, they’re negotiating from a position of weakness.

Bledsoe is a good starting point guard when healthy. He’s earning a reasonable $14.5 million this season and due $15 million in the final year of his contract next season. There should be suitors, and Phoenix can gain long-term assets while stepping up its tank.

But this sure seems like a crisis-control move more than anything else.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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