Eric Bledsoe

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.

NBA Power Rankings: Rockets remain on top, Raptors climb into top five

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There’s a lot of stability at the top of the rankings as teams keep on winning. The big mover this week was the Utah Jazz, who leaped from No. 19 up to 8 thanks to their six-game win streak — and they got Rudy Gobert back.

 
Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (18-4, Last Week No. 1). The Rockets have won seven games in a row since Chris Paul’s return, doing so by an average of 21.6 points per contest. Talk to the veteran Rockets and they are a focused group: “If you’re slacking, we let you know,” Trevor Ariza told NBC Sports. “That’s how it is, when we see somebody is not giving the effort they normally give, I’ll yell ‘let’s go’ and it usually works, because everybody knows it’s coming from a good place.”

 
Celtics small icon 2. Celtics (21-4, LW 2). Rookie Jayson Tatum leads the NBA in three point percentage, hitting 51.3% while taking about three shots from beyond the arc a game. He is in the mix for Rookie of the Year for a reason. Marcus Smart has shown a real chemistry with Al Horford already, and that combined with Smart’s defense is why Brad Stevens is choosing to close games with him on the floor. Interesting matchup with the Spurs Friday night.

 
Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (19-6 LW 3). They have started 4-0 on a six-game road trip, but will have to play the rest of it — and a couple weeks after it — without Stephen Curry who sprained his ankle against New Orleans Monday. With Kevin Durant getting more touches, the Warriors have the talent to not miss a beat even with a former MVP in street clothes, but to do so the team needs to be more focused than it has been most of the season. The Warriors are coasting. It gets them in trouble (like down 20 to the Pelicans at the half, so Curry is in at the end of the game and that’s when the injury hits).

 
Cavaliers small icon 4. Cavaliers (17-7 LW 4). Winners of 12 in a row, in part thanks to LeBron James playing at an MVP level (he and James Harden are the clear frontrunners in my book, although it’s very early), but also a defense that is back to being Top 10 during this run. At the heart of that defensive surge, the Cavaliers are defending the arc much better, running teams off it and not giving up those clean looks. The win streak may continue with 5-of-6 at home before a road heavy end of the month.

 
Raptors small icon 5. Raptors (15-7, LW 6). Kyle Lowry has been one of the hottest players in the NBA the past couple of weeks — in his last 5 games he has averaged 21.2 points per game on 53 percent shooting, he’s knocked down five threes a game, and dished out 7.6 assists. It’s been impressive. Starting Friday in Memphis the Raptors get out of the cold a lot with 8-of-11 games on the road, but there are some real measuring stick games in there.

 
Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (16-8, LW 5). Kawhi Leonard could return this week, but before he does we need to give one more shout out to LaMarcus Aldridge, who has been second-tier MVP discussion good through the first quarter of the season. Aldridge is averaging 22.8 points on 50.6% shooting, he’s hitting his threes (38.5%), and he is grabbing 8.2 points per game. Still, the offense needs better shot creation, and Leonard may provide that.

 
Sixers small icon 7. 76ers (13-10, LW 8). That the Sixers are 13-10 having played the NBA’s toughest schedule so far this season is a testament to how improved this team has been. The losses to Cleveland and Boston in the past week are understandable, and beating Washington and Detroit is a sign of where this team stands (the loss to Phoenix was just ugly). Starting Saturday the Sixers have 9-of-12 on the road. #FreeJah

Pistons small icon 8. Pistons (14-9, LW 7). More than a quarter of the way into the season, and despite some recent stumbles, it’s time to stop asking if the Pistons are for real — they are. The stats at Ben Falk’s Cleaning the Glass project them finishing with 44-45 wins, which would be the five seed (and very close to the four and home court in the first round). Stan Van Gundy deserves some consideration for Coach of the Year for his work this season.

 
Pacers small icon 9. Pacers (13-11, LW 10). A lot has been made of Indiana shooting an impressive 39.8% from three as a team (it jumps over 40% when you take out garbage time), but when you’re 24th in the league in attempts from beyond the arc it limits the impact of that shooting. The Pacers lost to the Rockets and Raptors in the last week (they did beat the Kristaps Porzingis-less Knicks), and the schedule doesn’t get easier with the Cavs, Nuggets and Thunder coming up.

 
10. Timberwolves (14-11, LW 12). The fact Minnesota’s name came up in the list of teams pushing hardest for DeAndre Jordan is interesting — has Tom Thibodeau decided Karl-Anthony Towns is never going to be a great defender and needs one next to him to do the dirty work? The Timberwolves are 27th in the league in defensive rating (when you take out garbage time) and that’s not good enough for the kind of team they want to be. All that said, I don’t see how Minnesota has the players that would interest the Clippers in a trade. What is interesting is the reasoning to go after Jordan.

Bucks small icon 11. Bucks (12-10 LW 15). The Bucks are 8-4 since the Eric Bledsoe trade, however Monday’s loss at Boston felt like a reminder that even when Giannis Antetokounmpo is brilliant — 40 points — they have a ways to go to compete with the NBA’s elite. The Bucks need to do better on the defensive glass and stop fouling as much to take the next defensive step forward.

 
Jazz small icon 12. Jazz (13-12, LW 19). They had won six in a row until running into Oklahoma City on Tuesday, and that streak pushed them up the board thanks to an offense that found it’s groove. Part of that is Derrick Favors, who is a dangerous scorer inside and out at the five, and he has dominated second half through this stretch. Rudy Gobert is back now (he played the end of the game against the Thunder, not Favors), but what’s impressive is Utah’s 7-4 record without him. Rodney Hood has been out the last three and Alec Burks has stepped up.

 
Wizards small icon 13. Wizards (13-11, LW 11). Bradley Beal’s 51 points on Tuesday in Portland is just part of what has been Beal’s best NBA season — 23.3 points per game, and a strong true shooting percentage of 56.7% despite having to take on more of the offense this season. He’s playing at an All-Star level. Washington also has gotten a lot more out of its bench lately, led by Kelly Oubre.

 
Blazers small icon 14. Trail Blazers (13-11, LW 9). Despite their inability to stop Beal on Tuesday, the Blazers are still are a surprisingly good defensive team, fourth in the league overall with the lowest opponent field goal percentage around the rim in the league (55.3%, from Cleaning the Glass). Opponents are still getting a lot of shots there, however, which is concerning. The Blazers have lost three in a row to start a four-game homestand and now things get tough: Houston on Saturday, followed by five in a row on the road, opening against Golden State. Then when the road trip ends they come home to the Spurs.

 
Thunder small icon 15. Thunder (11-12 LW 18).. Oklahoma City has won three in a row beating teams above them in the standings — Minnesota, San Antonio, and Utah — using a combination of good defense and Russell Westbrook. More importantly, the Thunder won close games and played well down the stretch — if they can build on that they can become the team people expected before the season. The Thunder travel to Mexico this Thursday to take on the Nets in Mexico City.

 
Nuggets small icon 16. Nuggets (13-10, LW 13). They are 4-3 since Paul Millsap went down. Nikola Jokic has missed a couple games with with a sprained ankle suffered against the Bulls, which is not ideal because they are on a six game road trip. The Nuggets hope to have him back near the end of it (in a week), but they are 3-8 on the road this season and need to find a way to get some wins on this trip.

 
Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (12-12, LW 14). The Pelicans have lost 4-of-5, and while part of that is playing the Warriors twice, part of it is they are not the same without Anthony Davis — they are 14.8 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court this season, he is playing at a level that would get him bottom of the ballot MVP votes, and now he is missing time due to his hip injury. The Pelicans are -9.2 per 100 when DeMarcus Cousins is on the court without Davis. New Orleans got one win without Davis in Portland when DeMarcus Cousins went off, with four of five at home they need more of that from their big man.

 
Hornets small icon 18. Hornets (9-13, LW 20). Our thoughts are with coach Steve Clifford as he takes an indefinite leave of absence from Charlotte to deal with a personal health issue. Stephen Silas takes over as acting coach, but I don’t know that he, nor any coach, can simply solve the bench issues for this team — the starters are fine (even with Kemba Walker missing a couple of games) but the Hornets bench digs a hole the starters can’t get the team out of.

 
Heat small icon 19. Heat (11-12, LW 16). Hassan Whiteside will be out a couple of weeks, although rookie Bam Adebayo has proven to be a solid replacement and NBA starter for Miami. The travel to Mexico City for a Saturday game against Brooklyn but they will be without Hassan Whiteside who is skipping the entire three-game road trip to recover a bone bruise on his left knee. The Heat defense is 6.8 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court.

 
Knicks small icon 20. Knicks (11-12, LW 17). The combination of a sprained ankle and an illness sat Kristaps Porzingis for a couple games, plus Tim Hardaway Jr. missed those same games against Orlando and Indiana, and the Knicks struggled without them. Porzingis is expected back Wednesday, but Hardaway is out a couple of weeks. New York has five straight games against what look like non-playoff teams — Grizzlies, Bulls, Hawks, Lakers, Nets — and they need to pad the win column before the schedule turns difficult.

 
Nets small icon 21. Nets (9-14, LW 24). They have two games this week in Mexico City, Thursday against the Thunder then Saturday against the Heat. When you watch those games, see how the OKC and Miami do from the midrange — the Nets do what teams should do on paper and force opponents to shoot from the midrange, but opponents are hitting 42.4% from there, second highest percentage in the NBA (Cleaning the Glass).

 
Magic small icon 22. Magic (10-15, LW 25). With Terrence Ross out for a while, more will fall on Jonathon Simmons — who has looked pretty good for the Magic but now has a lot more responsibility. The Magic snapped their nine-game losing streak and have won 2-of-4, which is the start to a turnaround, and now they have 4-0f-5 at home.

 
Grizzlies small icon 23. Grizzlies (8-15, LW 26). Since J.B. Bierstaff took over, the Grizzlies have gone back to their old ways and have played at the slowest pace in the league, and they are taking fewer threes. The new coach is 1-3 on the job, but Memphis did snap its 11-game losing streak to the play-down-to-the-competition Timberwolves. Things don’t get easier for the Grizzlies, still without Mike Conley, as the Raptors and Thunder are among the teams on the schedule this week.

 
Clippers small icon 24. Clippers (8-14 LW 21). How will DeAndre Jordan personally, and the Clippers as a team, handle the swirling trade rumors around him (ones that are not going away before he is moved or the trade deadline in February, whichever comes first)? The Clippers should get both Milos Teodosic and Danilo Gallinari back in the next week, which will help, because with Blake Griffin out for at least a month Austin Rivers has become the team’s primary playmaker, and that’s not working.

 
Mavericks small icon 25. Mavericks (7-17 LW 27). The good news is Dallas is playing hard and getting themselves into close games, but they still struggle to close those out as seen in losses to the Spurs and Nets. However, the Mavericks have won two in a row now and head out with 5-of-6 on the road. As for a Nerlens Noel update:

 
Lakers small icon 26. Lakers (8-15 LW 22). The Lakers have dropped five in a row and now have 6-of-7 on the road (with the one home game being Golden State) in their toughest stretch of the schedule this season. On the bright side, Kyle Kuzma continues to impress as a rookie and put up numbers. Also, having seen him twice in the last week in person, Brandon Ingram seems to be turning a corner into a more aggressive player whose shot is coming along.

 
Suns small icon 27. Suns (9-17, LW 23). The Devin Booker groin injury is scary (as of this writing we do not know how long he will be out). He’s averaging 24.3 points per game, is shooting 38.3% from three, is the Suns biggest scoring threat, and the team’s offense has scored less than a point per possession when he is off the court. The Suns went 2-4 on their recent road trip, but it doesn’t get easier coming home to the Wizards and Spurs for a couple games.

 
Kings small icon 28. Kings (7-16, LW 28). There has been little consistency with this team, Skal Labissiere was starting a few games ago, then last week he got assigned to the D-League. The Kings are playing big again with Willie Cauley-Stein and Kosta Koufos starting. De’Aaron Fox is showing flashes, but mostly looks like a rookie thrown to the wolves. George Hill summed up the mood of Kings fans about this season well.

 
Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (5-18, LW 29). The best barometer of the Hawks is point guard Dennis Schroeder — in games he doesn’t play or scores fewer than 20 points, the Hawks are 0-11 (they are 5-7 when he does hit that mark). Tough to see John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon out injured, their play was one of the few reasons to watch the Hawks this season. Atlanta has a home-and-home with Orlando that starts Wednesday.

 
Bulls small icon 30. Bulls (3-19 LW 30).. A couple of harsh 1-point losses (to Denver and Sacramento) last week, which I guess could be seen as moral victories for the Bulls, who have dropped 9 straight. The Bulls could get Nikola Mitotic back this week. The guy they really need suited up is Zach LaVine, but that still seems weeks away.

Suns’ Mike James a two-way trailblazer

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DETROIT – When the Suns offered Mike James a two-way contract last summer, he was intrigued.

There was only one problem.

“I didn’t know what they were talking about,” James said. “I never heard of such a thing in my life.”

So, James researched the contract, a device of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

In addition to 15 players on standard contracts, each NBA team is allowed two two-way players. Two-way players earn a prorated minimum NBA salary while with the parent club and a prorated minor-league salary while with the affiliate. They can spend up to 45 days in the NBA.

James’ 45th day will be Wednesday. He has spent the entire season in Phoenix, the clock starting once the Northern Arizona Suns opened training camp.

Suns general manager Ryan McDonough has already said he wants to get James onto a standard contract so he can stay in Phoenix. The Suns can unilaterally convert his deal to a one-year standard minimum contract, or they could reach a new multi-year agreement. Similar to second-round negotiations, the team would offer additional guarantees in exchange for James locking into a multi-year minimum or near-minimum deal.

Either way, it’ll be an awesome achievement for James, who started at Eastern Arizona community college, transferred to Lamar, went undrafted in 2012 then worked his way up through Croatia, Israel, Italy, Greece, Spain then Greece again.

His whirlwind journey continued to Phoenix, where he became starting point guard in game four – immediately after the Suns fired Earl Watson and banished starting point guard Eric Bledsoe. James provided a much-needed spark, scoring 18 points and hitting the go-ahead shot in the Suns’ first win:

The only two-way player to start in the NBA, James ceded his starting spot after 10 games to Tyler Ulis. But James remains an rotation regular, and he has scored nearly as many points (260) as all other two-way players combined (284). The leaderboard:

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James is unquestionably the biggest success story for a two-way player so far.

“I don’t really think about it,” James said. “I just think I’m regular player.”

Contract status aside, the 27-year-old rookie must relish just being in the NBA, right?

“To be honest, I didn’t think about it as much as everybody else thought about it for me,” James said. “I think I just kind of played, and then this opportunity came, and I took it. I didn’t really think about, ‘Oh, I might never go’ or ‘I might never do this.’ It just didn’t bother me.”

Even now, the Portland native says he appreciates being the NBA because he’s closer to family more than he cares about the status of reaching the peak of his profession.

James says he dislikes attention. He even appreciated the cloak implicitly provided by the former NBA player who shared the same name – the now-42-year-old who played for the Heat, Celtics, Pistons, Bucks, Rockets, Raptors, Timberwolves, New Orleans Hornets, Wizards, Bulls and Mavericks in a 12-year NBA career that ended in 2014.

Now, the Suns’ James is starting to make a name for himself.

“I think it’s starting to pick up a little more,” James said. “I don’t know. I hope it doesn’t get too big.”

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.