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NBA Power Rankings: Warriors locked on top, Timberwolves slowly climbing

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There’s a lot of stability at the top of the power rankings, with the Warriors and Celtics still in the top two slots. Minnesota keeps on winning, they are defending better, and they climb up to No. 4 — but will the heavy minutes load for the starters catch up to them?

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (33-8 Last Week No. 1). In the five games since his return from a sprained ankle, Stephen Curry has averaged 35.2 points per game, hit 53.2% of the 12 threes he has a game, and averaged a +13 — and with him back the Warriors have averaged 121.7 points per 100 possessions as a team (7 per 100 better than second-place in that span). Remember, Kevin Durant missed a couple of those games. That’s all just a reminder how crucial Curry is to the Warriors success.

 
Celtics small icon 2. Celtics (33-10, LW 2). Boston swept a five-game homestand that included beating the Rockets, Cavaliers, and Timberwolves — all because their defense is locking teams up. In their past six games, the Celtics have allowed just 91.7 points per 100 possessions. Only one game for the Celtics this week as they are in London (Thursday against the Sixers).

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (28-11, LW 3). This season, DeMar DeRozan is assisting on 23% of his teammates’ buckets when he is on the floor, a career high for him by a healthy margin. Combine that with his improved shooting profile — his midrange attempts are down, replaced with threes he confidently knocks down — and you have a guy playing the best ball of his career and leading his team to a five-game win streak (which ended vs. Miami Tuesday). The Raptors don’t get on national television enough (their Canadian audience doesn’t count in US television ratings) but they get a showcase against the Cavaliers Thursday on TNT.

 
4. Timberwolves (26-16, LW 5). Over the past 10 games, Minnesota has been the best team in the NBA statistically, outscoring its opponents by 11 points per 100 possessions — and most importantly their bad defense had been fifth best in the league during that stretch. Karl-Anthony Towns’ defense has improved, but Jimmy Butler is key for the Timberwolves on that end. I’d say they turned the corner, but then I see the minutes for their starters and worry things could fall apart.

 
Rockets small icon 5. Rockets (28-11, LW 4). With James Harden out for a few more weeks, it’s the Chris Paul show in Houston — when he is on the floor the Rockets are still dominating teams, when he sits the team’s defense falls apart (allowing more than 130 points per 100 possessions) and that gets them in trouble. Houston misses Luc Mbah a Moute a lot on defense, but need to find a way to get more consistent stops during the next few weeks until Harden returns.

 
Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (28-14, LW 6). Kawhi Leonard is out again after tweaking his shoulder, but this isn’t expected to keep the forward out for long. That’s good news for the Spurs — their defense is elite with him on the court this season (allowing less than a point per possession). The Spurs have gone 2-3 in a recent strung of road games that heads to Los Angeles (Lakers) on Thursday, then after a game at home against Denver Saturday the Spurs are back on the road for three more.

 
Wizards small icon 7. Wizards (23-17, LW 9). We always talk about John Wall or Bradley Beal, but the guy who doesn’t get enough credit on this team: Otto Porter. He is averaging 14.2 points and 6.5 rebounds a game, both career highs, and is shooting 44.8% from three. ESPN’s Real plus/minus is may not be a perfect stat, but the fact Porter is sixth in the NBA in it this season speaks to his importance as the glue guy in Washington that makes it work. The Wizards seem to have gotten the memo and showed up to play against the last few below .500 teams that they played.

 
Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (22-19 LW 8).. Andre Roberson is missed — if you wondered who the fifth player with the Thunder’s big four would be wonder no longer. In the five games Roberson has been out with a sore knee the OKC defense, once second in the league, has been 24th in the NBA allowing 111.5 points per 100. Consider this a boost for Roberson’s Defensive Player of the Year candidacy. Rookie Terrence Robinson got a few starts and looked like the future (he couldn’t miss in the second half against the Lakers and had 24), but it’s not the same. A fun matchup with the Timberwolves Wednesday, could well be a first-round playoff preview.

 
Cavaliers small icon 9. Cavaliers (26-14 LW 7). Call it an expected mid-season malaise if you want, the Cavaliers continue to look vulnerable to the other top teams in the East. They have lost 5-of-6 on the road recently, giving up 127 points in their last two games (including to Orlando), and now face the Raptors and Pacers in real tests. Then the Warriors next Monday. Kyle Korver has moved into fourth on the all-time three-pointers made list (he moved past Paul Pierce on Monday night).

 
Nuggets small icon 10. Nuggets (21-19, LW 10). Just a reminder: This team is without Paul Millsap, and have gone 12-12 with the star forward (injured wrist). The trade deadline question for Denver: what should it do with Kenneth Faried? Trade him? Play him? The energy bring that doesn’t bring what he once did has racked up 8 DNP-CDs in the last 10 games. Can’t blame coach Mike Malone for that, the Nuggets are 8.9 points per 100 possessions better when the Manimal is sitting this season. Faried isn’t going to bring much of anything on his own, if traded he’s in a package (with Emmanuel Mudiay?).

Bucks small icon 11. Bucks (21-18 LW 12). Toronto is a team that has adapted its game and is now moving the ball, swinging it from strong to weak, and in two recent games they exposed that the Bucks defense can still be ripped apart by teams that do that. The Raptors scored 131 (in OT) and 129 on Milwaukee in those games. The Bucks defense is 23rd in the NBA on the season (25th if you take out garbage time, 21st in the last 10 games) and it’s the end of the floor that will cost them in the playoffs if things don’t change.

 
Heat small icon 12. Heat (23-17, LW 13). Miami has won five straight – all by single digits. Still, a win is a win and as of right now the Heat are tied with the Wizards for the four seed in the East (meaning the first round of the playoffs would be at home). Is Miami poised for a run like the second half of last season? Don’t bet on it. Miami has the point differential of an 18-22 team (according to Cleaning the Glass), they have been the luckiest team in terms of wins in the NBA this season by those numbers.

 
Blazers small icon 13. Trail Blazers (22-18, LW 15). What would help a Portland offense that hasn’t been itself this season? How about some easy buckets in transition — Portland is 29th in the league in percentage of offensive plays that start in transition (11.3%, via Cleaning the Glass). Despite that the Blazers have won of 6 of their last 8, including going into Oklahoma City and getting a win Tuesday at the start of a rough four-game road trip (which includes Houston and Minnesota).

 
Sixers small icon 14. 76ers (19-19, LW 18). Winners of four in a row as they head to London to take on the Celtics. One reason for the win streak is they’ve slowed down the turnovers — on the season the Sixers have coughed the ball up on 17.2% of their possessions, but in the last five games that has dropped to 14.5 percent. Ben Simmons had a solid game against the Spurs, he needs more of those as Donovan Mitchell is closing in on him for Rookie of the Year.

 
Pelicans small icon 15. Pelicans (20-19, LW 14). When they needed a win to help solidify their playoff position, they went in and got it last Wednesday in Utah (thanks to one of their best defensive performances of the season). The Pelicans are the eighth seed in the West, 2.5 games up on the stumbling Clippers, and New Orleans has a soft schedule the next couple of weeks where it can create some cushion in the standings.

Pistons small icon 16. Pistons (21-18, LW 11). The win over the Rockets last week was one of the more inexplicable outcomes of the season — Detroit was without Andre Drummond and on the second night of a back-to-back, yet upset an elite team (the Piston’s only win in their last four). Drummond missed two games last week with a rib injury, he hadn’t missed two games all season in the past five years.

 
Pacers small icon 17. Pacers (21-19, LW 17). Victor Oladipo has been back for two games, and the Pacers are on a two-game winning streak. This is not a coincidence. On the season the Pacers are 13 points per 100 possessions better when Oladipo is on the floor, and in those two wins he was +38 combined (and also scored 38 points). Indiana faces the streaking Heat, Cleveland, then 6-of-7 on the road.

 
Clippers small icon 18. Clippers (18-21 LW 16). Los Angeles keeps lurking around the playoff picture at the bottom of the West and if they can just get healthy… but that’s not going well (Austin Rivers sprained his ankle, Blake Griffin got a concussion, and Millos Teodosic had to miss a few games). The Clippers are also tied for the second easiest schedule in the NBA so far this season (based on opponent records) and things are about to get tougher, starting with Golden State this week.

 
Knicks small icon 19. Knicks (19-21, LW 20). What does Kristaps Porzingis being “so tired” mean? In November, he shot 46.1% overall, so far in January that is down to 33.8%. In November he shot 42.4% on threes, in December that was down to 32.1%. The Knicks are just two games out of the last playoff slot in the East, but they need a lot more Porzingis — and to get Tim Hardaway Jr. back — to make a push.

 
Hornets small icon 20. Hornets (15-23, LW 24). Is Charlotte going to be a seller at the trade deadline? The next few weeks may have a say in that as the Hornets are 5 games out of the last playoffs but have 8-of-9 at home, this is their last chance to make a serious push. Kemba Walker continues to be fantastic but the Hornets need some secondary playmaking form somewhere, and it’s not Nicolas Batum’s nature.

 
Nets small icon 21. Nets (15-253, LW 25). Brooklyn loves to launch threes — they are third in the league in percentage of their shots from three (35.9%, excluding garbage time). The problem is they are hitting 35.8% of them, 28th in the league. The scrappy Nets are also playing their best defense of the season, which is why they were able to push the Celtics twice in recent games.

 
Bulls small icon 22. Bulls (14-27 LW 19).. The emergence of Lauri Markkanen — averaging 17.2 points per game and shooting 50% from three in his last five, continuing the trend of growth we have seen from him all season — makes Nikola Mitotic the guy most likely to be traded at the deadline. Utah and Detroit are the frontrunners, other teams may have interest (watch Portland), but will any give the Bulls the first round pick they want? (The bidding may come down to the protections on the pick.)

 
Jazz small icon 23. Jazz (16-24, LW 21). When Rudy Gobert went down the second time this season with a knee injury, the concern was Utah was heading into a brutal stretch of the schedule. That seems to have done their playoff dreams in — the Jazz are 2-9 during Gobert’s second injury, with their offense and defense in the bottom five in the league. On the bright side, Donovan Mitchell continues to tear it up and is knocking on Ben Simmons’ door in the Rookie of the Year race.

 
Suns small icon 24. Suns (16-26, LW 22). While the Suns are seeing growth — rookie Josh Jackson is looking more comfortable with his shot of late, for example — it’s not likely going to translate into wins as the Suns have the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA. There’s a push in Phoenix to get Devin Booker on the All-Star team, but his biggest obstacle is the conference is LOADED with good guards and it’s tough to crack that group.

 
Mavericks small icon 25. Mavericks (14-28 LW 23). Dallas has become a scrappy team — they pushed the Warriors to the end (and lost on a Curry three) and have been close late in most of their last 10 games. Their most dangerous lineup of late has been Dirk Nowitzki and the bench guys, which is +25.6 points per 100 possessions on the season.

 
Grizzlies small icon 26. Grizzlies (12-27, LW 26). It sounds like Memphis has no interest in moving Marc Gasol at the trade deadline, but what about Tyreke Evans? He is averaging 19.7 points per game and would be in the mix for Sixth Man of the Year if he were coming off the bench more (he’s started half the team’s games so far). In a depressed trading market the Grizzlies would not get a lot back, but maybe a young player or second-round pick who could be part of the future with the Grizzlies.

 
Lakers small icon 27. Lakers (13-27 LW 29). While Lonzo Ball has returned, that didn’t solve the team’s biggest issue o— a severe lack of effort. Especially on defense. What did solve it was playing worse teams (Sacramento and Atlanta, which is who Los Angeles beat on a two-game win streak. The Lakers need more of this play and less of the recent distractions from Lithuania. “We aren’t going to start feeling sorry for ourselves,” Walton said after the loss to the Thunder.

 
Kings small icon 28. Kings (13-27, LW 27). The biggest question for the Kings’ front office during the season should be: How are our young players developing? That’s been up and down, but on the bright side point guard De’Aaron Fox seems to be finding his shot — he shot 37.6% in December and 45.8% so far in January. Also this month his three-point shooting is up to 41.7%. Fox led the Kings’ 25-and-under starting lineup to a win over the Nuggets last Saturday, which is one of those positive signs.

 
Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (10-30, LW 28). Atlanta is reportedly putting Marco Belinelli, Ersan Ilyasova, and Kent Bazemore on the trade block coming up on the Fib. 8 trade deadline, and while there may be some interest, in a depressed trade market don’t expect much of a return despite the quality of players. The Hawks are 0-4 so far on a recent road swing (with Denver still to come on Wednesday), which for the season makes them 3-18 away from home.

 
Magic small icon 30. Magic (12-29, LW 30). Look for Orlando to try and be sellers at the trade deadline as they try to assemble a roster that fits together better. Detroit had interest in Evan Fournier — despite the fact he is owed $17 million a season for three beyond this one — which speaks to the need and value of shooting around the league. The Magic have lost 14-of-15 and have 6-of-8 coming up on the road.

Nuggets say Paul Millsap won’t return until after All-Star break

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The Western Conference has been a blast this season, with the Houston Rockets playing strong after the arrival of Chris Paul. The team has 13 straight wins, and a 1.5 game lead over the Golden State Warriors.

That’s just part of the results of the West getting a boatload of stars sent its way over the summer. One team is lacking their new addition, however, and his absence has been a quiet disappointment. The Denver Nuggets still sit in sixth place out West, but new forward Paul Millsap has been sidelined with a wrist injury.

The original timeline for Millsap said he would be out for three months, which would put him back around the beginning of March. That plan was confirmed by Nuggets head coach Mike Malone, who said that he expects Millsap will be out until at least the All-Star break, which starts on February 16.

Malone also seemed to indicate it’s possible Millsap is out longer than that.

Via Twitter:

At least Millsap is on schedule? It’s hard to tell inflection from text, but let’s just hope Malone’s “at the earliest” isn’t an indicator of slow recovery on Millsap’s part. The Nuggets certainly don’t need to rush Millsap back. They have a 16-13 record and instill more confidence than most the teams floundering below them in the standings.

After losing seven straight, Stan Van Gundy calls out Andre Drummond, Pistons stars

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Just a few weeks ago, the Detroit Pistons were the No. 2 seed in the East and were one of the darlings of the early season. We thought the transformation would stick — Andre Drummond was hitting free throws, Tobias Harris had picked up his game, and Detroit was defending well. They looked like a top four seed in the East.

Since then, the Pistons have dropped 7 in a row.

The defense has remained decent, but the Pistons have the worst offense in the NBA in that time, scoring less than a point per possession and with a horrific team True Shooting Percentage of 49.6. After Tuesday’s loss to Denver where the Pistons scored just 85 points, a frustrated Stan Van Gundy called out his stars — Andre Drummond, Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, and Reggie Jackson.

Van Gundy is right to be frustrated with his stars. Harris didn’t have one made basket from the field against Denver Tuesday, and Andre Drummond got outplayed by Mason Plumlee. That can’t happen if Detroit expects to win. In the last seven games, Stanley Johnson is shooting 25 percent (which is why he was coming off the bench Tuesday, Bradley 33.7 percent, and Ish Smith 36.1 percent, which is to say the issues are more widespread than just the stars. But Van Gundy is right, it all starts with them.

To be fair, Detroit also was in a tough stretch of games during this losing streak — Denver is a solid team (albeit they are without Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap) and they may be the worst team Detroit faced — but if the Pistons are a playoff team they are going to find some wins in there somewhere.

It’s just a slump and Detroit has plenty of time to turn things around. They face the Hawks next, that is a game the Pistons should win. But in the East right now playoff slots 6-9 are all tied at 14-13, with the Pistons being one of those teams. They are in a fight to make the playoffs now and need to turn the ship around sooner rather than later.

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.

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.