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All eyes on Derrick Favors as Jazz begin life without Rudy Gobert

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The departures of Gordon Hayward and George Hill were supposed to set Derrick Favors up for more opportunities with the Utah Jazz. That wasn’t consistently so through the first 12 games of the season, but there’s no question the eighth-year big man will now have to shoulder more responsibility on both ends of the floor.

The Jazz will experience life without Rudy Gobert for the next month with the second-team All-NBA center out with a bone bruise in his right leg.

“I’m excited about it,” Favors said. “It’s a new challenge. I get to be a big part of the offense now. A big part of the defense, too. It’s a big responsibility, but I’m ready for it.”

Favors is now the starting center, sliding over from power forward. Thabo Sefolosha started against the Nets at power forward and Jonas Jerebko got the start against the Timberwolves.

Gobert was averaging 13.9 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. Favors had 24 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks against the Nets, but nine points, 10 rebounds and one block against the Timberwolves.

The Jazz were already struggling with consistency as a roster and now they’re without their centerpiece – the defensive player of the year that’s the focal point of one of the league’s top defenses several years running. The 7-foot-1 Frenchman’s rim protection allowed defenders to be aggressive on the perimeter knowing Gobert had their back.

The Jazz will be smaller with the 6-10 Favors in the middle and a combination of Sefolosha, Jerebko, Joe Johnson, who’s currently out with a wrist injury, and Ekpe Udoh at power forward. Coach Quin Snyder can go even smaller with Joe Ingles at the four in certain lineups. That could result in more switching or other nuances defending the pick-and-roll.

“Our margin for error gets a little bit slimmer,” Snyder said. “Our team will adjust. That’s all you can do. Every substitution pattern changes the makeup of the team. Some more dramatically than others. Obviously, Derrick playing with Thabo or Joe Ingles at the four, there’s a different style of attack. It’s something that Derrick’s capable of doing and doing well.”

There will be adjustments offensively, also, as Gobert had improved as a finisher around the rim and is one of the best rollers to the basket in the pick-and-roll. The lob had become a staple of the offense.

Favors is averaging 11.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 0.6 blocks this season – improvements from his injury-riddled 2016-17, but still a step back from the previous three seasons. He has improved his range and has some of his athleticism back after knee and back injuries, but he still hasn’t been as effective. Opinions range from Favors just not being the same player anymore to his numbers being affected by decreased playing time with fewer opportunities.

Offseason acquisition Ricky Rubio has struggled as the starting point guard and his 3.9 turnovers per game are the eighth-most in the league. He’ll have to develop chemistry with Favors.

Snyder said they have to sometimes wrestle with Favors to get him to roll.

“It’s something different because at the four I’m so used to popping out to the free throw line, or beyond 3-point line, while Rudy’s in the paint,” Favors said. “Now my main job is to roll to the basket, roll in the paint, try to draw a lot of attention so guys can get open on the corner three or perimeter. It’s definitely something new this season that I have to get used to, but I’m ready for it.”

The Jazz are dealing with a plethora of injuries again after Favors, Hill, Rodney Hood and Alec Burks all missed significant time last season. Dante Exum (shoulder surgery) is out for the season and Johnson (wrist) should be reevaluated soon.

Gobert said this won’t change any playoff expectations for the team.

“It’s frustrating for sure,” Gobert said. “We know that every game matters. At the same time, I think it’s just going to make us stronger. I’m confident the team can win without me. The only thing I can do is make sure I do everything right and when I come back, I’m stronger and I’m ready to help the team out.”

 

Three Things to Know: Kyrie who? Celtics win streak reaches dozen

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) No Kyrie, no problem — Celtics keep finding ways to win, streak up to 12. Brad Stevens has turned the Boston Celtics into the embodiment of every coaching cliché: one man goes down and it’s next man up, they are just taking it one game at a time, they just have to worry about themselves and play their game, they play a full 48 minutes, they are focusing on defense, and they are giving 110 percent effort.

Bottom line — it’s working, and the Celtics are winning. Twelve in a row now.

Kyrie Irving was out Sunday due to a facial fracture suffered at the elbow of teammate Aron Baynes (he is expected back Tuesday at Brooklyn wearing a mask, which could be bad news for the league, last time Irving had to wear a mask he tore it up for a couple of weeks).

Next man up. Marcus Smart started for Steven’s Celtics, Al Horford returned from missing games with a concussion and scored 21 points on 8-of-9 shooting, Jaylen Brown added 18, the Celtics again played strong defense, and they held on through a tight fourth quarter to knock off a good Raptors team 95-94. The Raptors had the chance to win with a couple late pull-up jumpers and an offensive foul call on Jayson Tatum that a kid hated and screamed about, apparently into a courtside mic. However, DeMar DeRozan missed both chances, the second one was the kind of shot he hits a lot of (he is shooting 42.9 percent from that area of the floor this season).

The Celtics have been the NBA’s most surprising and impressive story to start the season, losing Gordon Hayward but shifting the offense around, getting well-rounded games out of Irving, Horford playing like he’s 26 again (but with a three-point shot), and the team is defending like mad, all game long and especially in the fourth quarter. It works. They get a real measuring stick on Thursday against Golden State, but so far all the clichés sound good in Boston.

2) Rudy Gobert out 4-6 weeks with a bone bruise in his knee.
Utah Jazz fans breathed a huge sigh of relief Friday night when Rudy Gobert returned to the court after this injury where Dion Waiters went crashing into his knee.

They may have exhaled too quickly — Gobert is out four to six weeks with a bone bruise.

That’s not good. The Jazz defense, third in the NBA this season allowing just a point per possession (100.2 per 100), is focused around forcing penetration into Gobert, who is the best shot blocking/rim-protecting big in the game right now. Utah is going to struggle to get stops the same way, because Derrick Favors is not that same kind of athlete (nor the same kind of athlete Favors himself was before the injuries).

What might help Utah compensate for this is an improved offense — the two-big starting lineup with Favors and Gobert, and Ricky Rubio running the show, has an offensive rating of 94.7 points per 100 possessions this season in 108 minutes — they are still struggling with those starters despite the defense. They miss Gordon Hayward’s shot creation and shooting with those two bigs on the court. Forced to go to just one big, maybe they find better spacing and options. Maybe.

It still could be a rough time between now and Christmas for the Jazz.

3) Paul George drops 37, Thunder win second in a row… but let’s not say they have figured it out yet. Hey, Paul George, what did you get Russell Westbrook for his birthday.

PG13 dropped 37, Russell Westbrook had 16 of his 27 in the third quarter when the Thunder pulled away, and Oklahoma City beat Dallas 112-99 for a comfortable win on Sunday. The kind of win the Thunder need — that’s two wins in a row now.

You know why Oklahoma City has back-to-back wins? No, not the team meeting, good luck finding a player who actually thinks those things are useful other than to vent. No, I’m nowhere near convinced the Thunder have started to figure it out (they were without Carmelo Anthony on Sunday).

The Thunder have won two straight because they have played a Clipper team that’s falling apart (they are 1-7 in their last eight) and then a Dallas team that is last in the Western Conference. Maybe the Thunder needed a couple easy wins as slump busters, just any wins to turn the team around, and with Chicago up next the streak could well reach three wins. But talk to me after the games against the Spurs, Pelicans, and Warriors, then we will have a measuring stick.

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.

Becoming Lonzo Ball in an impatient NBA world

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LOS ANGELES — Ten games into his NBA career, Lonzo Ball is a basketball Rorschach test.

What do you see when you look at him play? Do you see the playmaker averaging 6.8 assists per game, the guy who keeps the ball moving and rebounds surprisingly well, the one who is pushing the Lakers to the third fastest pace in the league, the one energized their athletic bigs to get out and run the floor, and the guy who has been crucial to L.A.s unexpected 5-5 start?

Or do you see the player who is shooting 29.9 percent this season, the one shooting just 39 percent at the rim and struggling with decisions when the defense collapses, the one that teams are sagging off and daring to shoot, the guy struggling on defense, the one searching to find his way in the half court? Do you see the player some are comparing to Ricky Rubio and are saying will never be an All-NBA (or maybe All-Star) player?

It’s a Rorschach test, the answer says more about you — and your biases about Ball and the Lakers — than it does the player himself.

Ball is both those things — an impressive playmaker and a guy struggling with his shot and defense at the next level.

What is Ball? A just turned 20-year-old rookie 10 games into an NBA career. He’s a guy developing, but in an impatient world that does not want to wait for him. He’s a guy for whom the game is still moving a million miles an hour and he is trying to keep up. What did you expect from him at this point, consistency? The next Magic Johnson?

“Those two young guys, they’re a handful,” Grizzlies coach David Fizdale said Sunday of Ball and Brandon Ingram, after the pair helped the Lakers beat Memphis. “I think as their shooting becomes more consistent, they are going to become a problem Everybody is looking at the body of work right now, but these kids get better and they got a heck of a staff down there that I know is going to develop them.”

Not to go all Sam Hinkie, but it’s a process. Players take time to develop. To make any long-term comparisons at this point, to suggest he may not live up to the standards of a No. 2 pick, is foolish this early in his career. We just don’t know.

Ball is a young man going against grown-ass men being physical with him nightly in a way he has never had to deal with before. NBA scouts and staffs are now getting a body of film to study, tendencies to put into scouting reports, and they will take away what he wants to do (like get back and take away the long look-ahead pass). It falls on Ball to adjust (something that didn’t happen the same way at UCLA). The good news for Lakers fans is Ball puts in the work.

Pass first point guards tend to come along slower in the NBA than their scoring counterparts, just look at the first 10 games of Jason Kidd (his and Ball’s numbers are similar). That’s especially true for pass first point guards who don’t have great shooters around them — Ball does not. Brook Lopez is the best three-point shooter among the other Lakers starters (Brandon Ingram has a nice three-point percentage overall but was just 6-of-16 shooting in spot-up situations coming into Sunday, he has to get his buckets with the ball in his hands.)

Ball was not expected to be an elite scorer, he never was (he averaged 14.6 points a game at UCLA). Yet scoring, and making better decision on when to attack and look for his shot, is going to be the first hard lesson to learn. He has to start with being more comfortable with his jumper — until he becomes a bigger threat to score teams are sagging off him and daring him to shoot. When he did, lining up a wide open three deep in the fourth quarter Sunday while Memphis was making a comeback, there were audible murmurs of concern in Staples center from fans (they were right, he missed it and was 1-of-8 from three on the night, 3-of-13 overall).

“I want him to keep shooting. I’m glad he’s not turning them down,” Lakers’ coach Luke Walton said. “I’m glad he’s trying to put pressure on the rim. The way to break through (his rough start shooting) is to keep working, at practice coming in early and get the shots up, then keep doing it in the game. Eventually you will figure it out, especially if you’ve been a good shooter your entire life.”

“A lot of shots that are open I’m getting, now I just got to knock them down,” Ball said.

Ball had his best success in the half court Sunday when he was aggressive and drove into and attacked the space the defender was giving him playing off him, something he needs to do more consistently. He has struggled in the past with his decision making on those drives — shooting over long defenders when kick-out passes were open, or passing when he had the better shot — but that is improving. What Walton said he wants is for Ball to remain aggressive.

“I feel I’m getting better at it,” Ball said of attacking that space. “Especially in transition, there’s a lot of gaps I can get into and I’m just trying to get better at it every time.”

It’s partially a matter of better decision making, something that comes with time and experience.

“Like he had a couple today that felt like heat checks, and if he hit the one before and the crowd’s behind it I’m okay with that,” Walton said. “But there are other quick threes he took when they were on a run. It’s pretty much the same shot, but within the game the momentum is different, so you got to learn the difference between those.”

Ball, like most rookies, is still a raw lump of clay being molded into an NBA player. Watching Ball a lot this season, it’s tempting to think that another ball-dominant playmaker — like the kind of big names the Lakers will target in free agency next summer, LeBron James and Paul George — would help Ball’s game. It would give the floor spacing and open up passing lanes (but again, Ball’s jumper needs to improve to really make that work).

We can see the gifts, not just the passing but the eagerness to do it at tempo that has started to transform the Lakers’ culture. This is a fast team (sometimes a little too fast and out of control, as young teams do), an athletic team in the way the Lakers have not been in a very long time. Like Showtime era long.

But Ball isn’t Magic Johnson, coming in after a few years of college (and being tested there by the likes of Larry Bird), then entering on a championship level team with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar putting up 25 and 10 still, and with Hall of Famer Jamaal Wilkes stroking baseline jumpers to the tune of 20 points a night.

Ball is young and developing, joining a team with the core players young and learning just like him (plus a couple of veterans, such as Brook Lopez, helping them win games). It was Magic that drafted Ball, and what he wanted was leadership and a guy to shift the culture of this team — and he has gotten that. This is a much better Lakers team than a year ago. A team with a long way to go, a team that’s likely watching the playoffs from home this spring, but a team that has a direction now.

Ball brought that. How much more will he bring? That we have to wait and see, we just don’t know yet.

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.