Hassan Whiteside

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

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DETROIT – Donovan Mitchell inspires confidence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not that Mitchell is giving it much thought.

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

And that’s the rub.

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

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

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

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

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

Mitchell’s position is hazy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jordan.

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

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

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

So, when did shock wear off?

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

Hassan Whiteside wants more run, Eric Spoelstra says he needs more from center

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When the Miami Heat went on a 16-7 run against Utah to close out the game Sunday and win by a point, Hassan Whiteside had a courtside seat for it all.

The highest paid player on Miami’s roster sat while Kelly Olynyk played the five in crunch time. This has been a pattern since Whiteside’s return from a knee injury — Whiteside starts, gets minutes into the low 20s, but doesn’t usually close out the game. In six games since his return, Whiteside has averaged 11.5 points per game on 48.3 percent shooting, plus is grabbing 8.3 and has 1.3 blocks a night. When Whiteside is on and focused he is a very dangerous player, but that guy doesn’t show up game-to-game or even possession-to-possession.

Whiteside said all the right things about how the team is winning and that what matters, but he also told Manny Navarro of the Miami Herald he wants more run.

“You always want to play,” he said. “As a player, I don’t want to come out. If you ask me, I want to play 48 minutes. So that’s a tough question. But coach sees different things. Maybe he sees different things on the court. Sometimes it’s tough to take those guys out, too, because you got to take somebody off the court. And them guys were playing well.”

Heat coach Eric Spoelstra was up front in a response — he needs more from the center.

“It’s both ends,” Spoelstra replied when asked if there’s a specific area where he wants Whiteside to improve. “He’ll get there. Some things he’s doing better. As he does it more consistently, harder and with a better motor and attention to detail, he’ll earn more minutes.”

Whiteside gets frustrated at times he is not mentioned in the same breath as the best centers in the game right now. Consistency, playing with a consistently high motor, is the step that might get him in that conversation.

 

Josh Richardson’s layup lifts Heat past Jazz, 103-102 (VIDEO)

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MIAMI (AP) — Josh Richardson‘s layup with 5.1 seconds left capped a Miami rally from eight points down in the fourth, Donovan Mitchell missed what would have been the winner at the buzzer and the Heat beat the Utah Jazz 103-102 on Sunday.

Tyler Johnson and Goran Dragic each scored 16 points for Miami, which has won four straight – all by single digits, the Heat’s longest stretch of such games since November 2012.

Richardson and Hassan Whiteside each had 14 points, James Johnson scored 13 and Kelly Olynyk had 12.

Mitchell scored 19 of his 27 points in the second half, but couldn’t save Utah from dropping its seventh straight on the road. He went into the backcourt to take the final inbounds pass and wound up taking a jumper from the right side that missed as time expired.

Rodney Hood scored 17 points, Thabo Sefolosha added 13 and Derrick Favors 11 for the Jazz. Utah was up eight with 6:59 left, and was still up by five in the final 2 minutes before Miami closed on an 8-2 spurt.

Richardson’s winner came after the Heat called a timeout with 7.8 seconds left, after corralling the rebound off of Hood’s miss. Richardson got to the rim with ease, laid it in and Miami moved back to fifth in the Eastern Conference.

“He’s ready for the next jump,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “The jump is ready for him. It’s just a matter of when.”

Miami improved to 2-14 when trailing after three quarters.

The Heat led for 20 of the 24 first-half minutes, but their lead was only 49-47 at the break.

Mitchell was 3 for 12 in the opening half, after going 5 for 14 against the Heat when the teams met in November. It was like he was due to break out – and did just that, needing only 3 minutes to score Utah’s first 11 points of the second half.

He made his first five shots of the third, ended up 6-for-8 for 13 points in the quarter and Utah took a 75-74 lead into the fourth.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NBA Power Rankings: Rockets, Warriors remain on top, Sixers slide into late teens

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With just a few days until Christmas, the top of the Power Rankings board remains stable (and likely will for a while), with the only change in the top 5 being Toronto jumping over the Spurs into fifth. The big fall down the board this week is the Sixers, who have lost 7-of-8 and drop nine slots to 18.

 
Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (25-4, Last Week No. 1). The NBA record for average number of three pointers made per game over a season is 14.4, and the most attempts averaged per game is 40.3. This season the Rockets are hitting 15.9 per game on 43.2 attempts per game, shattering the records. That strategy is working, the win streak is up to 14 in a row now. Chris Paul faces his former team the Clippers for the first time Friday in Houston. After that the Rockets have 6-of-8 on the road, and they take on Oklahoma City Christmas Day.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (24-6 LW 2). Stephen Curry and Draymond Green are out (Curry is out for Christmas Day), but Steve Kerr believes injuries have focused his team. “I think when Steph went out we realized we don’t have that margin for error, and if we’re going to win we’re going to have to do two things, take care of the ball and defend,” Kerr said Monday before his team beat the Lakers in OT (in a game they were not terribly focused). The Warriors have won nine in a row and now have seven straight at home, the biggest one against the Cavaliers on Christmas Day.

 
Celtics small icon 3. Celtics (26-7, LW 3). The come-from-behind win against Indiana Monday night was a microcosm of this team recently — inconsistent play bailed out by big shots (Kyrie Irving’s late threes) and timely defense (Terry Rozier’s steal and game-winning bucket). Boston has really struggled of late with Irving off the floor, something to watch going forward. The Celtics get to showcase their return to the top of the East on Christmas Day, going up against a Wizards team that is dangerous when focused (and they should be that day).

 
Cavaliers small icon 4. Cavaliers (23-8 LW 4). Cleveland has won 18-of-20 (even after the loss to the Bucks Tuesday) and in that stretch it is their offense that has carried them (second best offense in the NBA in their last 15, scoring 114.5 per 100 possessions). Of course, the Cavaliers should be packing on wins now, they have played the easiest schedule in the NBA to this point (things get harder starting Christmas Day against the Warriors). Also in this most recent win streak, LeBron James strung together three straight triple-doubles for the first time since the 2008-09 season (the first year he won MVP).

 
Raptors small icon 5. Raptors (20-8, LW 6). The Raptors have won 9-of-10 and separated themselves from the pack in the East — as the three seed they are 4 games up on the Pistons in fourth. The big change is the defense, giving up less than a point per possession and best in the NBA in the last 10 games. The offensive change in this team is for real: last season 41% of the Raptors shots came from the midrange, this season that is down to 30.1%, with the shots moving to more efficient spots on the floor (at the rim or from three).

 
Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (21-10, LW 5). The Spurs have gone 1-2 in games Kawhi Leonard has played, although one of those losses was to a very good Rockets team. Leonard has been efficient in limited minutes (16 per game) he getting, averaging 10.7 points a game with true shooting percentage of 65.3 (above the league average). That said, he clearly still needs to get his legs under him still. The Spurs have 6-of-8 on the road coming up, but if the game is close they know they can lean on Manu Ginobili.

 
7. Timberwolves (18-13, LW 10). Minnesota keeps winning, but here’s the thing that would concern me as a T-Wolves fan (or if I’m Tom Thibodeau): Minnesota has played the easiest schedule in the NBA to this point (tied with the Cavaliers). Well, that and the fact the defense still struggles (it’s bottom 10 in their last 10 games, 25th for the season). And the fact Thibodeau is again running his stars into the ground — Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Jimmy Butler are all in the top 10 in the league in total minutes played. Minnesota has the point differential of a 16-15 team and those things tend to even out. They will play on Christmas Day against the Lakers in a game where the NBA wants to show off its young stars.

 
Pacers small icon 8. Pacers (17-14, LW 7). Indiana’s ball movement has slowed down recently, and on an offense-driven team that led to tougher, contested shots — but none of that seems to matter to Victor Oladipo, who keeps going off (38 in the loss to Boston Monday). The Pacers were one of the hot teams in close games to start the season, but that scale is balancing out (as it tends to) with close losses to the Thunder, Pistons, and Celtics recently. Good news is the schedule gets soft for the next week.

 
Wizards small icon 9. Wizards (17-14, LW 12). John Wall is back but the Wizards offense hadn’t found a groove again — despite a couple of wins in a row — until they ran into New Orleans Monday. Mike Scott has stepped up with Otto Porter out, in his last five games he has averaged 16.6 points per game on 67.9% shooting, and hitting 42.9% from three in that stretch. Washington will take on the Celtics on Christmas Day, with a chance to make a statement they belong in the top four in the East (despite the Wizards’ inconsistent play this season).

Pistons small icon 10. Pistons (17-13, LW 13). The Pistons snapped out of their seven-game losing streak and won three in a row now, including a quality win over the Pacers on the second night of a back-to-back. The offense has seen a boost with Luke Kennard getting starts (Avery Bradley is out) and Reggie Bullock playing well and finding his stroke from three once he moved into the starting lineup.

 
Nuggets small icon 11. Nuggets (16-14, LW 11). Denver struggled without Nikola Jokic, going 2-4, but he’s back now just in time for a key stretch of games against the other teams fighting for one of the last playoff slots in the West. The Nuggets beat the Pelicans in overtime but fell to the Thunder. Their next run of games: Timberwolves, at Trail Blazers, at Warriors, Jazz, and at Timberwolves. Rack up some wins here and it helps the playoff cause.

Bucks small icon 12. Bucks (16-13 LW 8). The Bucks had lost three in a row and in that stretch their defense had been the big problem — and it was again against the Cavaliers Tuesday night (Milwaukee is still 24th in the league on the season defensively). However, against the Cavs, their athleticism and offense overcame the defensive issues. Rumor is the Bucks have been active as potential buyers on the trade market, but the trade will have to be close to even financially (the Bucks are just about $5 million short of the tax line, and ownership does not want to cross it). Also, they get Jabari Parker back in February.

 
Knicks small icon 13. Knicks (16-14, LW 15). Kristaps Porzingis’ defense at the rim this season has been spectacular, opponents are shooting just over 40% in the restricted area when he is the primary defender, and when KP is switched onto the pick-and-roll ball handler they are shooting just 34.9%. The Knicks are playing on Christmas Day again, and interestingly their game against the Sixers has a higher secondary market ticket price than Cavaliers at Warriors (according to TickPick).

 
Blazers small icon 14. Trail Blazers (16-14, LW 17). They continue to surprise with a top-10 defense (4th in the league for the season, 8th the last 10 games) but struggling on offense. The Blazers went a respectable 3-2 on a five-game road trip, improving the team to 9-6 away from Portland (which is better than their 7-8 record at home). One other concern for Portland fans: Your team has played the third easiest schedule in the NBA so far. Things will get tougher.

 
Thunder small icon 15. Thunder (15-15 LW 18).. The Thunder have won three of four (including a triple-overtime thriller vs. the 76ers), and that got them up to .500 and the seven seed in the West. Don’t confuse that with the offense looking smoother, it just means Russell Westbrook is asserting himself again, especially late in games. OKC has 7-of-8 at home, and one of those is the Rockets on Christmas day.

 
Pelicans small icon 16. Pelicans (15-16, LW 14). The buzz started up this week again about the Celtics and other teams keeping an eye on Anthony Davis’ trade availability (GMs are vultures seeking out potential steals). I’ve been told that the Pelicans do not have any plans to trade him, and nobody thinks they will go down that road for at least a year, maybe two (the summer of 2019 seems the earliest it gets considered). The Pelicans have lost 3-of-4 overall and the first two games of a four-game road trip.

 
Heat small icon 17. Heat (15-15, LW 19). Miami had won 4-of-5 before the injuries — Justise Winslow, James Johnson, and Hassan Whiteside are out — caught up with the Heat Monday in an ugly loss to Atlanta. After playing at Boston on Wednesday, the Heat have 7-of-8 at home, many against teams under .500, and they need to rack up the wins before they hit the road and things get tougher in January.

 
Sixers small icon 18. 76ers (14-16, LW 9). The Sixers have lost 7-of-8, and those losses can often be traced back to turnovers — they give the ball up on 17.5% of their non-garage time possessions, worst in the NBA by a large margin (stats via Cleaning The Glass). Rookie Ben Simmons having the ball in his hands a lot is part of it, but plenty of Sixers, including Joel Embiid, are coughing it up too much. On the bright side, one bit of good news about the Sixers’ early season play: They have gone against the second toughest schedule in the NBA so far. It should lighten up.

 
Jazz small icon 19. Jazz (14-17, LW 16). The Jazz have dropped the two games since Rudy Gobert went down with his second significant injury of the season, although losses to Cleveland and Houston might well have come anyway. Donovan Mitchell continues to impress as a rookie playmaker and scorer, but he and the Jazz will be put to the test with this upcoming schedule: at Thunder, Spurs, Thunder, at Nuggets, at Warriors, Cavaliers.

 
Hornets small icon 20. Hornets (11-19, LW 21). In their last 10 games, the Hornets have the second best defense in the NBA but the worst offense, and that has them still getting outscored by 2 points per 100 possessions. The Hornets continue to struggle in close games. All of this has led to speculation around the league that Charlotte could be sellers at the trade deadline, if they decide to move out of the Kemba Walker era and rebuild.

 
Nets small icon 21. Nets (11-18, LW 20). Last season, the Nets didn’t have 11 wins until March, a sign of the steps forward this team is taking. Nik Stauskas has hit 5-of-9 from three since the trade (but is 1-of-5 inside the arc) since being traded out of Philadelphia. Much like Jahlil Okafor (who is still getting his legs under him), Stauskas will get a chance to prove his worth in Brooklyn.

 
Clippers small icon 22. Clippers (11-18 LW 22). How much do the Clippers miss Chris Paul? Last season they scored an excellent 1.02 points per possession on pick-and-roll plays, one of the tops in the league, this season that is down to 0.89 per possession, near the bottom of the league (and 36 percent of Clipper possessions are a pick-and-roll this season). Also, the Clippers have lost three in a row and have not scored more than 91 pints in any of those games.

 
Bulls small icon 23. Bulls (9-20 LW 27).. The Bulls are 6-0 since the return of Nikola Mitotic to the lineup, and he is averaging 20.3 points per game on a true shooting percentage of 65.1. One difference in his game, he is not hesitating now — not nearly as many pump fakes. He feels he can get his shot off and the confidence shows. After Orlando at home Wednesday the win streak will be put to the test with a three game road trip against the Cavaliers, Celtics, and Bucks.

 
Lakers small icon 24. Lakers (10-18 LW 24). The Lakers honored Kobe Bryant Monday night retiring both his numbers, 8 and 24. The question for the future is, will a player on the roster such as Lonzo Ball or Brandon Ingram ever get their name and number up next to him? The Lakers have a lot of nice young players on the roster — including Kyle Kuzma — but are any of them future top 10 players in the league you can build a contender around? Tough schedule for L.A. with the Rockets and Warriors both on the road coming up.

 
Suns small icon 25. Suns (11-21, LW 29). After dropping their first four games after Devin Booker went down, the Suns have won a couple in a row — and both because of their bench play. Isaiah Canaan had 11 fourth quarter points against Dallas to spark a comeback, and against Minnesota the game before both Troy Daniels and Dragan Bender stepped up with 17 points. We’ll see how sustainable that is, but the Suns will take the wins.

 
Magic small icon 26. Magic (11-20, LW 23). Playing for his next contract (and wanting it to be in the NBA not Europe), Mario Hezonjia went off for 28 points Sunday, including 8 threes. Hezonjia has started the last five Orlando games (with Aaron Gordon out) and has been up and down depending upon the day. Remember, the Magic didn’t pick up his option for a fourth season, he’s an unrestricted free agent this summer.

 
Mavericks small icon 27. Mavericks (8-23 LW 25). Dallas gets all the best players from Wurzburg, Germany. First was Dirk Nowitzki, and now they have forward Maxi Kleber, who is averaging 7.3 points per game, shooting 56.5% overall and 38.7% as a starter. He’s a 25-year-old rookie seasoned in the German and Spanish leagues. Dallas has lost 6-of-7 but been competitive in those games, only one was by 10 points or more.

 
Kings small icon 28. Kings (10-20, LW 28). As of right now, the Kings have the worst offensive rating (98.4 points per 100 possessions) and worst defensive rating (108.7 per 100 allowed) in the NBA, but they keep winning enough games (such as against shorthanded Philadelphia on Tuesday) to stay out of the cellar in this ranking. No team has ever finished the season with both the worst offense and worst defense in the league. The Kings have the net rating of a 6-24 team according to Cleaning the Glass, but they keep finding some unexpected wins.

 
Grizzlies small icon 29. Grizzlies (9-21, LW 26). A few years back, Marc Gasol was a deserving Defensive Player of the Year — he wasn’t flashy, but he always made the right play and anchored a very good Grizzlies defense. It feels like Father Time is winning the race with him this season, opponents are shooting 60.4 percent at the rim when he is there as the rim protector this season. That doesn’t mean he is available yet via trade, all the buzz around the league is the Grizzlies have no plans to move either of their stars.

 
Hawks small icon 30. Hawks (7-23, LW 30). The good news is that rookie John Collins is back in the lineup. Well that and the Hawks upset the Heat Monday night behind big games from Taurean Waller-Prince (24 points) and Dennis Schroder (23 points). Atlanta has 3-of-4 at home before heading into a heavy road stretch to ring in the new year.