Kemba Walker

Associated Press

Even without Kyrie Irving, Celtics hold off Hornets 90-87

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BOSTON (AP) — Another game, another injury, another win for the Boston Celtics.

Jayson Tatum had 16 points, Shane Larkin added 16 off the bench and the Celtics overcame an injury to Kyrie Irving and a 12-point, fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Charlotte Hornets 90-87 on Friday night.

Terry Rozier finished with 15 points, seven rebounds, and four assists, playing an increased role after Irving left the game in the first quarter after taking an elbow to the face. Jaylen Brown added 10 points and 13 rebounds.

The Celtics extended their win streak to 11 games. Charlotte has lost four straight.

“We just got a lot of fighters, a lot of resilient guys,” Larkin said of a team that’s now seen Gordon Hayward, Al Horford and now Irving beset by injuries.

He said his teammates’ misfortunes have underlined the necessity of staying ready.

“I’m always locked it. That’s my job. I don’t know when my opportunity’s gonna be there,” Larkin said. “Tonight I hit some shots early, coach kept rocking with me, so I tried to throw my best.”

Celtics center Aron Baynes‘ elbow inadvertently struck Irving when Baynes was landing after a rebound attempt. Irving fell to the floor and was bleeding from the nose as he was escorted back to the locker room. Irving was ruled out for the rest of the game while he was monitored for possible concussion symptoms.

Larkin said Irving spoke to the team at halftime and texted them all congratulations on the win.

Kemba Walker led the Hornets with 20 points and 11 assists.

Celtics trailed by 12 after three quarters, but opened the fourth on a 16-3 run and took the lead with 4:05 to play on a basket by Brown.

The lead grew to five before Walker’s three-point play got the Hornets back within 86-85. Marcus Morris connected on a jumper, but Walker responded with a driving layup to get it back to a point.

Boston called timeout, but Rozier accidently stepped out of bounds on the ensuing inbounds play. Walker dribbled the clock down, but his jumper bounced off the back of the rim and was rebounded by Rozier. He was fouled and sank two free throws with 3.6 seconds left.

Charlotte struggled throughout the final period, going 4 of 20 from the field and committing six turnovers.

“We’re giving up huge leads. We’re not maintaining our game,” Walker said. “We’ve got to be better as a whole.”

With Irving out, Charlotte took advantage against Boston’s reserves early, stretching its lead to as many as 18 in the second quarter and taking a 16-point lead into halftime.

 

NBA Power Rankings: Detroit, Minnesota crash top five party

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A few weeks into the season and we’re starting to see which hot starts are for real — Boston, Detroit — and which teams are coming back to earth (Orlando). The top three on this list have started to separate themselves from the pack… for now, it’s a long season.

 
Celtics small icon 1. Celtics (9-2, Last Week No. 1). When Gordon Hayward went down, one of the expected drop offs was that Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were young players about to be thrust into much larger roles, and how were they going to handle it? Turns out, just fine. For example, the pair has shot 35-of-71 (49.3%) during team’s a nine-game win streak, plus they are part of a very switchable perimeter defense. They have been fantastic

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (8-3 LW 3). Their offense hasn’t just been good, it’s been all-time good to start the season. The Warriors are averaging 116.4 points per 100 possessions, that is 7.5 more than the second-place Cavaliers and 1.8 per 100 better than the 1986-87 LA Lakers, who have the best mark of all time. As they were last season, the Warriors have been a dominant third quarter team to start this season.

 
Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (8-3, Last Week No. 4). The Rockets have started to pick up their pace again, and with that their offense has returned to being a force — then James Harden exploded, dropping 56 points on a very good Utah defense. Tough week with the Cavaliers, Grizzlies, Pacers, and Raptors ahead, but if Harden does this again the Rockets will be just fine.

Pistons small icon 4. Pistons (7-3, LW 10). Detroit is off to its fastest start in nine years, and one key reason is the play of Anthony Tolliver off the bench, particularly defensively. While a lot of attention has gone to Andre Drummond shooting 75% from the free throw line (with good reason), he also has improved true shooting percentage (59%), assist rate (doubled it to 12.2%), and his rebound rate (which was already the best in the league and is now at 25.8%). Drummond has been a beast.

 
5. Timberwolves (7-3, LW 14). Winners of five in a row, and it’s not a coincidence it started with the return of Jimmy Butler to the lineup — they are 8.4 points per 100 possessions better when Butler is on the court. As Zach Lowe noted on Twitter, it’s not because he is dominating the ball, he has the fifth highest usage rate on the team, it’s because of his defense, and he is being efficient on offense.

 
Grizzlies small icon 6. Grizzlies (7-4, LW 2). The Grizzlies are 2-1 so far into a five-game road trip, splitting a pair in Los Angeles then winning in Portland. Tyreke Evans is impressing off the bench, averaging 17.5 points per game and shooting 43.1 percent from three. Watching him live this week he is moving well — which is amazing considering the knee injury he is coming off of — and hitting shots his coach wishes he wouldn’t take. So, vintage Evans.

 
Spurs small icon 7. Spurs (6-4, LW 11). The Spurs offense has not been consistent without Kawhi Leonard, as one would expect. San Antonio is 19th in the NBA in offensive rating, and they no longer shoot threes the same way (22.6 attempts per game, 29th in the league). What is surprising is their usually stout defense (even without Leonard) has fallen to 11th in the league. San Antonio’s ability to execute and not beat themselves works against the Hornets and Suns, but not against the Celtics and Warriors, where they lost.

 
Knicks small icon 8. Knicks (6-4, LW 20). While all the attention is focused on Kristaps Porzingis (he did have a monster week), the Knicks are 6-1 since steady veteran Jarrett Jack was made the starting point guard. He keeps the offense moving and puts the ball in the right place. Porzingis — who gets compared to Dirk Nowitzki all the time but reminds me more of a better Andrei Kirilenko — dropped 40 on a Pacers defense Sunday.

 
Raptors small icon 9. Raptors (6-4, LW 9). DeMar DeRozan is still a guy who gets his buckets in the midrange, but one thing is different this season — he is attacking earlier in the shot clock, rather than letting the defense set. It’s worked, his true shooting percentage is up to a career high 57.1% this season. After a respectable 3-3 road trip through the West, the Raptors came home and got beat by the Wizards without John Wall, a tough loss in this East.

 
Magic small icon 10. Magic (6-4, LW 7). Injuries to their top two point guards — Elfrid Payton and D.J. Augustin — set this team back against Chicago and Boston, and it continued a slide for an offense that was hot early (No. 2 in the NBA) but has since regressed to the middle of the pack. Payton should return Wednesday against the Knicks. Aaron Gordon has shown no signs of slowing down his hot shooting.

 
Sixers small icon 11. 76ers (6-4, LW 21). What team leads the NBA in passes made per game? You guessed it, the Sixers. Rookie point guard/power forward Ben Simmons is averaging the most passes made per game of any player in the league. Those are good signs for the future and speaks to a selfless team. Tuesday night in Utah (a Philly win) started a five-game road trip that includes facing the Warriors and both Los Angeles teams.

 
Blazers small icon 12. Trail Blazers (6-5 LW 13). Damian Lillard remains one of the most clutch players in the NBA. Look at it this way: Lillard shoots 42.3% in the first quarter, 32.4% in the second, 37.9% in the third, then suddenly 54.3% overall and 43.8% from four in the fourth. He was getting to the line late against the Thunder, then against the Lakers he did this.

 
Pelicans small icon 13. Pelicans (6-5 LW 19). This needs to be pointed out: DeMarcus Cousins is putting in real effort on defense and doing well. It’s small sample size theater, but the Pelicans’ defense is 7.1 points per 100 possessions better when Cousins is playing this season (granted, being paired with Davis for a chunk of that time helps). The Pelicans are feasting on weaker teams this season, but that’s a start.

 
Nuggets small icon 14. Nuggets (6-5, LW 22). Last season after the All-Star break — when the Nugget offense was the best in the NBA — they were taking 70 percent of their shots either at the rim or from three. This season that has fallen to 58.2 percent and that is part of the reason their offense is off 5 points per 100. The Nuggets are 3-1 in their current six game homestand after a win over the Nets (tougher matches with the Thunder and Magic are ahead).

 
Hornets small icon 15. Hornets (5-5, LW 16). Kemba Walker is once again brilliant and once again overlooked. This season he has averaged 21.8 points per game and is hitting a solid 37.1 percent from three. More importantly, the Hornets are 30.3 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the court.The Hornets started a four-game road trip 0-3 with Boston still remaining.

 
Wizards small icon 16. Wizards (5-5, LW 8). The Wizards have a soft schedule for the next week plus, giving them a chance to bank some wins, but the problem is this team does not bring its focus against weaker teams. As evidence, look at the home loss to Dallas on Tuesday night. The Wizards want to be contenders but championship level teams bring it nightly. John Wall missed a couple games with a shoulder injury but returned Tuesday.

 
Clippers small icon 17. Clippers (5-5 LW 5). The Clippers just stumbled through a 1-4 homestand where you understand the loss to the Warriors but the other ones hurt, and it’s due to their defense completely falling apart (second worst in the NBA over the past six games). Tuesday’s loss to San Antonio started eight of nine on the road and that includes facing the Thunder and Cavaliers, it’s a tough stretch for a slumping L.A. that could see them tumble down these rankings and the standings.

 
Lakers small icon 18. Lakers (5-5 LW 23). Brook Lopez has been a fantastic big for what the Lakers want to do — he is their best three point shooter, a good passer, and can get buckets down low (they go to him in the post on mismatches after a switch). The Lakers start a four-game road trip in Boston on Wednesday, where Lonzo Ball matches up with Kyrie Irving.

 
Pacers small icon 19. Pacers (5-6, LW 18). Myles Turner is back, which has bumped Domantas Sabonis to the second unit — and that could be a good thing. Sabonis has been fantastic as the guy the offense ran through with the starters, if he can boost the bench it’s a big help in Indy. The loss to the Suns stings, but serves as a reminder that teams struggling on defense — the Pacers are 24th in the league this season — are more likely to have ugly losses. Indy needs to improve on that end of the court.

 
Cavaliers small icon 20. Cavaliers (5-6 LW 17). Four of the five Cleveland wins have come against the Bucks, Wizards, and Celtics — the Cavaliers show up and care against teams seen as a perceived threat. They don’t other nights. LeBron played the best game of the season last Friday night against Washington, scoring 57 points and single-handedly ending the Cavs four-game losing streak. To do that in his 15th NBA season is insane. But it just put a Band-Aid over the Cavaliers woes, and their worst in the league defense. The Cavs biggest defensive problem is not chasing teams off the arc and not contesting out there — teams are shooing 41.9 percent from three against them.

 
Thunder small icon 21. Thunder (4-6 LW 6).. Their defense is second best in the NBA, but the offense remains people taking turns going in isolation, not playing like a team. They have thrown the fewest passes of any team in the league. Carmelo Anthony is taking one more three and seeing one or two fewer possessions a game in OKC, but aside that his numbers are almost identical to his last season in New York. Things are not changing for him. Anthony needs 12 points to pass Hall of Famer and former teammate Allen Iverson for 24th on the all-time scoring list.

 
Jazz small icon 22. Jazz (5-6, LW 15). Utah’s offense is 8.5 points per 100 possessions better when Rudy Gobert is sitting? There’s no one simple answer as to why, but with Ricky Rubio at the point the pick-and-roll with Gobert has no threat of someone taking an outside shot, so the spacing becomes all muddled. Rubio is being more aggressive shooting the ball this season, especially from three, but his hitting just 29.8 percent of them.

 
Bucks small icon 23. Bucks (4-6 LW 12). After dropping three straight and feeling like this might be another season they take a step back, the Bucks made the big move and traded for Eric Bledsoe. That will help the rotations: Bledsoe will start, pushing Malcolm Brogdon to the second unit, and Matthew Dellavedova out of the rotation (a good thing, he’s been awful). Ideally Tony Snell gets fewer shots. On paper this is a smart gamble, now we will see if it pays off.

 
Heat small icon 24. Heat (4-6, LW 24). Hassan Whiteside returned last Wednesday and they needed him — he helped get the win over the Bulls then had 21 and 17 against the Clippers. The Heat just need consistency out of him now. Miami has started 1-2 on a six game road trip, and they have eight road games and three home games the rest of this month.

 
Nets small icon 25. Nets (4-7, LW 26). The Nets are averaging 109.2 possessions per game (via NBA.com), 3.5 possessions faster than the second place Suns, but combine pace and a bad defense and you have five guys having dropped at least 30 points on the Nets this season. Brooklyn has dropped five of its last six, and suddenly all that talk about the pick the Cavaliers got not being all that good has been silenced.

 
Suns small icon 26. Suns (4-7, LW 25). After the Suns sent Eric Bledsoe home, they gave up all their leverage, so the first-round pick they just got back for him — despite all the odd protections — is about as good as they were going to do. The question now is can the Suns flip Greg Monroe for more assets from another trade? Probably, but they are not going to get much in return as every team knows they want to dump him.

 
Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (2-7 LW 30). Bobby Portis is back in the rotation and didn’t look bad in his first game against the Raptors. Lauri Markkanen remains impressive, and is second in the NBA among rookies in both points per game and rebounds (trailing Ben Simmons in both categories). With Robin Lopez as an anchor, the defense for the Bulls’ starting five is pretty good, but get into the bench and things get ugly fast.

 
Kings small icon 28. Kings (2-8, LW 27). They still have the worst net rating in the NBA — -11.5 per 100 possessions — but the win over the Thunder Tuesday night keeps them out of the bottom of these rankings. It’s an odd mix with coach Dave Joerger trying to get minutes for George Hill (when healthy, he’s not right now), Zach Randolph, Garrett Temple and Vince Carter, and with them win games, then also be sure their young players get run to develop.

 
Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (2-9, LW 29). Their ailing offense looked good against the Cavaliers, which speaks more to Cleveland than Atlanta. Dennis Schroder is averaging 22.6 points and 6.6 assists per game, both career highs, and he’s been efficient if not consistent this season.

 
Mavericks small icon 30. Mavericks (2-10 LW 28). It’s been a rough start to the season (save for a nice win against Memphis last week), with Dallas having the third worst defense and seventh worst offense in the NBA this season. While seven of their remaining 10 games this month are at home, it’s a brutal schedule with the Thunder and Spurs twice each, the Cavaliers, Timberwolves and Celtics also in the mix.

Dwight Howard fined $25,000 for obscene gesture toward a fan

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Dwight Howard still hears it from fans everywhere he goes.

In Minnesota, he let it get to him and made, how shall we put this… an impolite gesticulation toward one of those fans. Now it’s going to cost him.

The NBA announced it has fined Howard $25,000 for an “obscene gesture toward a fan.” There is not a quality video of this, but here you go if you care.

Howard has played well for the Hornets this year, filling the defensive and rebounding role they need, averaging 14.6 points and 13.6 rebounds a contest. The Charlotte defense is 4.2 points per 100 possessions better when Howard is on the court, and when Howard and point guard Kemba Walker are paired Charlotte is outscoring teams by 10.4 points per 100.

NBA Power Rankings: Preseason rankings for every team from Warriors to Bulls

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They’re back. The weekly NBA Power Rankings from NBC Sports have returned as the NBA season tips off. As always the defending champions start on top — and in the case of the Warriors, the question is will there be more than one week they are not ranked No. 1 this season? These first rankings are pure gut, with a little preseason influence thrown in (once we move 15+ games into the season we have a mathematical system to help guide us, then those figures get massaged by the eye test.

Quick note, these rankings come out on Tuesday to start the season, but starting next week and throughout the NBA season they will come out on Wednesday.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (last season 67-15). Thanks in part to Kevin Durant’s willingness to sacrifice for the team, Golden State not just brought back but also improved the best team in the NBA. They are going to spend a lot of weeks on top of these rankings. The only question to open the season is does the hangover/jet lag from the China trip still impact them the first couple weeks of the season.

Rockets small icon 2. Rockets (55-27). Adding Chris Paul to the James Harden show was a brilliant move, the Rockets will have one of the top three offenses in the NBA this season. However, what may really get this to the conference Finals is the additions of defenders such as Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker on the wing. They Rockets outscored teams by 21.9 points per 100 possessions in the preseason, an NBA best number (don’t read much into it, but it’s interesting).

Thunder small icon 3. Thunder (47-35).. I think they may be second in this ranking by the end of the season, I like their defense (which should be Top 5), but I’m going to need to see Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony do more than just talk about sacrifices to fully buy in (they looked good together in limited preseason minutes). With Westbrook committed to OKC, George will be asked about his free agency at every turn this season, how will he handle that pressure?

Cavaliers small icon 4. Cavaliers (51-31). By the end of the season I think they will be the team best positioned to knock off Golden State — Isaiah Thomas will be healthy (*knocking on wood*), the Cavs still have LeBron James, and they will get to come out of a soft East while the Warriors will have to battle their way out of a deep West. That said, they are not healthy now and will be experimenting with Kevin Love at center.

Spurs small icon 5. Spurs (61-21). No Kawhi Leonard in the opener and the question is now much more time will he miss with a lingering quad injury. While the Spurs looked like a mess in the playoffs without Leonard that was against the Warriors, in the regular season they are 14-4 the past two seasons with him sitting. LaMarcus Aldridge is the go-to guy while Leonard is out and he can handle the role.

Celtics small icon 6. Celtics (53-29). It’s going to be a circus — one with lots of boos — with Kyrie Irving and company opening on the road in Cleveland. No Marcus Morris the first week of the season with a knee injury, that means rookie Jayson Tatum likely gets the starts. That could add to the one big question about the Celtics — can they get enough stops?

Wizards small icon 7. Wizards (49-33). The Wizards looked good and their bench improved during the preseason, which is a nice sign but now they have to do it when it matters. That bench will be tested more early with Markieff Morris missing time due to a sports hernia (the Wizards lost very little time from their starters due to injury last season, that has changed already).

Raptors small icon 8. Raptors (51-31). The Raptors are trying to change who they are on offense, with less isolation and more threes — and it worked in the preseason, they scored 110.1 points per 100 possessions. Can they sustain that when the defenses get serious? And how much will they miss the depth that DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph, and Patrick Patterson provided?

timberwolves small icon 9. Timberwolves (31-51). They added Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague Taj Gibson, and Jamal Crawford to an already promising young team led by Karl-Anthony Towns — Minnesota is ready to make a leap. Well, if they can defend. They were 27th in defensive rating last season, and they need to get up to the middle of the NBA pack at least. Butler helps, but it’s Towns and Andrew Wiggins learning what to do and putting in the effort night in and night out that will make the biggest difference on that end.

Bucks small icon 10. Bucks (42-40). Is this too high a ranking for the Bucks? Maybe. I am betting on a lot of internal improvement with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Thon Maker, Kris Middleton, and Malcolm Brogdon. However, the real key to the Bucks season is if Jason Kidd tweaks his gambling defensive system so the Bucks don’t get torched every time the ball swings sides, do that and this team can move into East’s top four.

Nuggets small icon 11. Nuggets (40-42). Denver looked good this preseason in the minutes that both Nicola Jokic and Paul Millsap shared the floor, but the questions are everyone around them. Gary Harris needs to live up to his lofty new contract, and Jamal Murray needs to start looking like the point guard the Nuggets thought they had at the end of last season. Also, is Denver going to defend well enough to make the playoffs?

Clippers small icon 12. Clippers (51-31). Talk about a changed roster, new to the Clippers are Danilo Gallinari, Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Willie Reed, Sam Dekker, and Montrezl Harrell. Everything still flows through Blake Griffin, and his three-point shot looks improved. The Clippers should be solid on both ends and play faster than they did in the Chris Paul era. This is a playoff team if they can stay healthy, but with this roster it’s a big if (they had their share of minor injuries in the preseason).

Blazers small icon 13. Trail Blazers (41-41). It’s just the preseason, but the facts that Portland went 5-0 and Evan Turner found his shooting stroke are both good signs. C.J. McCollum is suspended for the opener (you can’t leave the bench during an altercation, this isn’t a new rule) so look for Pat Connaughton to get the start.

Grizzlies small icon 14. Grizzlies (43-39). The Grizzlies are trying to change their style of play — they played at the fourth fastest pace of any team in the preseason (they were 19th overall in the NBA last season, which was up from previous years). We’ll see if the pace sticks. We’ll see how much the Grizzlies can get out of Chandler Parsons as well (he averaged 14 minutes a game and shot 33 percent in the preseason).

Heat small icon 15. Heat (41-41, LW 15). Erik Spoelstra will spend the first part of the season figuring out his rotations (Kelly Olynyk is starting now, James Johnson is coming off the bench), and he needs more of Goran Dragic than the two preseason games he played, but this is a deeper team that should get off to a faster start than last season (but not close the season as fast, either).

Jazz small icon 16. Jazz (51-31, LW 7). Utah went 5-0 in the preseason and its offense was the fifth most efficient in the NBA. That’s not going to last, but it’s a good sign that maybe the offense will be somewhat better than projected with Rodney Hood as the playmaker. The defense will be elite with DPOY candidate Rudy Gobert.

Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (34-48). They have their big two — DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis — plus Jrue Holiday at the point, but the supporting cast is already banged up. Rajon Rondo will miss time with a sports hernia, and Solomon Hill may miss the entire season with a torn hamstring. This team remains one of the big question marks heading into the season, but if it goes sideways things could get ugly fast.

Sixers small icon 18. 76ers (28-54). Joel Embiid will start the season on a minutes restriction — Brett Brown said in the teens — and the big man doesn’t like it. Expect the Sixers to be cautious with him all season, we’ll see if he even gets to 55 games. My big question is how good the defense is with him off the court? After a strong preseason, Ben Simmons has moved to the top off everyone’s Rookie of the Year award prediction list.

Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (36-46). The Nicolas Batum injury to start the season is a blow. First, they were already thin on the wing and needed his defense, and second the Hornets toughest stretch of the schedule is the first month, so they could get in a hole that’s tough to dig out of. No Batum means rookie Malik Monk gets more run. A lot of people will tune in to see the Dwight Howard redemption project version 3.0, but stay to watch Kemba Walker — he is one of the most entertaining players to watch in the NBA.

Pistons small icon 20. Pistons (37-45. . How did the Pistons’ starting five look in the preseason? Don’t know, they didn’t play a minute together. What we do know is Reggie Jackson — the lynchpin for this team’s playoff chances this season — struggled, like he did much of last season. One thing of note, Andre Drummond was 16-of-20 on free throws in the preseason, if he is knocking those down he just got a lot more dangerous at the end of games.

Mavericks small icon 21. Mavericks (33-49). We need to savor having another season of Dirk Nowitzki in the NBA, he remains an all-time great. This season is about developing Dennis Smith Jr. and have him develop chemistry with Harrison Barnes (who was underrated as an isolation scorer last season but now needs to learn to be a playmaker. The Mavericks start out with a tough schedule the first couple of months that puts them in a hole they can’t dig out of.

Lakers small icon 22. Lakers (26-56, LW 29). It’s the Lonzo Ball show in Los Angeles, as he brings a buzz on and off the court to this team. Well, unless Kyle Kuzma steals the show again (the Lakers are overloaded at the four thanks to him). Ball will get a boost playing with Brook Lopez on offense. The bigger concern is Brandon Ingram, who shot 37.7 percent in preseason (25 percent from three) and likes to face up in isolation but doesn’t execute that well yet.

Kings small icon 23. Kings (32-50). So much to watch development wise with this team. How does De’Aaron Fox come along running the offense (he will come off the bench behind George Hill to start the season)? Can Skal Labissiere and Willie Cauley-Stein form an impressive front line? Is Buddy Hield going to be a starting two guard in the NBA or is he a future gunner sixth man? Also, how will coach Dave Joerger balance minutes for the young players and the veterans on his roster such as Zach Randolph?

Magic small icon 24. Magic (29-53). This may be too low for the Magic, who have a lot of talent on paper. Aaron Gordon is back at the four, where he should be, and he looked good this preseason. Jonathon Simmons also looked good and helped the team’s defense this preseason. The pieces still are an odd fit on this team, but Frank Vogel is trying to find rotations that work.

Knicks small icon 25. Knicks (31-51 LW 26). Carmelo Anthony is gone but the Knicks biggest problem persists — this is going to be a bad defensive team. With the full triangle offense having been exiled with Phil Jackson, coach Jeff Hornacek wants to run, but to run well a team has to get stops. Is Kristaps Porzingis ready for the load about to be put on his shoulders?

Pacers small icon 26. Pacers (42-40, LW 16). This is Myles Turner’s team now, but he will miss having Glenn Robinson III’s floor spacing around him (Robinson’s ankle injury has him out until 2018). On the bright side T.J. Leaf looked better in preseason than he did in Summer League, he will get some run. This team will put the ball in Lance Stephenson’s hands, which is always entertaining.

Nets small icon 27. Nets (20-62). They have an interesting backcourt with Jeremy Lin — the undrafted guard who has worked hard on his game and scrapped his way to a solid NBA career — and D’Angelo Russell, the No. 2 pick whose work ethic frustrated the Lakers and they were willing to move on from (he was the sweetener in dumping Timofey Mozgov’s salary). Soft start to the schedule gives them the chance at a decent start.

Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (43-39). It’s all about Dennis Schroder and Kent Bazemore creating shots and Mike Budenholzer’s team playing solid defense. This is a rebuilding team (Al Horford and Paul Millsap left in successive summers) and their string of making the playoffs 10 years in a row will end, but they should play hard and be in games, just not able to close them out. They start the season with a five-game road trip.

Suns small icon 29. Suns (24-58). They have some interesting young talent in Phoenix with Devin Booker and now rookie Josh Jackson (14 points per game and shot 42 percent from three in the preseason). With Eric Bledsoe running the point the Suns should be able to put up some points, but will the young team get enough stops?

Bulls small icon 30. Bulls (41-41, LW 13). Chicago has finally, fully embraced the rebuild. Lauri Markkanen will be the guy to watch this season, he was up-and-down during preseason (1-of-9 in debut, good game against Toronto to close it out) but how does he develop over the course of the season. Rough first week of the season with the Raptors, Spurs, and Cavaliers.

Sleeper teams for each conference in 2017-18 NBA season

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Eastern Conference

Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets finished a disappointing 36-46 last season, but they were never as far off as it appeared. Despite that dismal record, they still outscored opponents, and point difference tends to better predict future success than record.

Charlotte’s big problem last year was center depth. The team went 3-17 without Cody Zeller.

The Hornets corrected – maybe overcorrected – that by trading for Dwight Howard. Howard will start over Zeller for now, and there’s certainly value in having both players provide depth. But Zeller has proven to be the effective fit in the starting lineup. If Howard’s ego allows a move to the bench, Charlotte is definitely better off with that option in its back pocket. If not, this could get tricky for Steve Clifford.

I’m not sure whether Nicolas Batum‘s injury makes the Hornets more or less of a sleeper. They’re obviously worse without him, but a couple-month absence isn’t nearly enough to write them off. The setback might help them fly further under the radar.

Batum’s injury will put more pressure on Michael Carter-Williams, Julyan Stone and Malik Monk to cobble together effective point-guard minutes offensively and defensively when Kemba Walker sits. That was another, smaller, sore spot last year.

Still, Charlotte is well-coached with a fairly cohesive rotation full of players who’ve developed chemistry together. The Hornets are a highly likely a playoff team, not the borderline outfit many have treated them as. After all, they play in the East.

Western Conference

Utah Jazz

The Jazz will feel the loss of their second-best player.

That’s right. Second.

Rudy Gobert was Utah’s best player even before Gordon Hayward left for the Celtics. Gobert is appropriately touted defensively, the best traditional rim protector in the game right now. But he’s quietly an offensive force – a screener, rebounder and finisher.

The Jazz will miss Hayward, to be sure. But much of that is long-term. The 27-year-old will remain in his prime for multiple years and would’ve pushed Utah’s ceiling much higher.

This season, the Jazz rebounded with enough veterans – Ricky Rubio, Thabo Sefolosha, Jonas Jerebko and Ekpe Udoh – to fortify a deep rotation. The newcomers and returning players like Joe Ingles and Joe Johnson just know how to contribute to winning.

Regression to the mean would make Utah healthier than last season. Rodney Hood and Derrick Favors can take steps forward, though Favors is a tough fit with Gobert. First-round Donovan Mitchell looks like a steal.

For too many, last year was the baseline, and Hayward is simply being subtracted. Make no mistake, his offensive creativity will be missed. But this team should take steps forward in other facets and remain elite defensively behind Gobert.

The middle of the Western Conference is tough, and the Jazz are by no means a playoff lock. But they have the talent and savvy to at least hold their own in that very competitive environment – even without Hayward.