NBA Power Rankings: Lakers move to top spot with fast-charging Rockets right behind

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The Lakers hot start to the season continues (especially against a soft part of the schedule the rest of the month), but nobody is hotter than Harden’s Houston Rockets, who have raced up the standings to the No. 2 spot.

Lakers small icon 1. Lakers (12-2, Last week No. 2). In something we didn’t see coming, Los Angeles has the top-ranked defense in the NBA. Coach Frank Vogel gave JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard a big chunk of credit for that: “One of the pleasant surprises has been the mobility of our bigs. I knew we knew we were going to have great length at the basket and rim protection, but we’ve really been able to have those guys play up in pick-and-rolls and on pin downs and [dribble hand offs] and challenge three-point shots.” The Lakers have won five in a row against a soft stretch of the schedule, which continues through the end of the month. December will be a much, much stiffer test.

Rockets small icon 2. Rockets (11-3, LW 9). Winners of eight in a row and that doesn’t happen because of just one man, no matter how great The Beard is playing. For example, Russell Westbrook had a triple-double Monday night, and Houston’s defense has been respectable. That said, James Harden is putting up ridonkulous numbers. He’s averaging 39.2 points, 7.6 assists, and 5.6 rebounds a game, with an insane 61.8 true shooting percentage. The faster pace of play from the Rockets this season is giving him more opportunities, and it has led to Harden taking 71 more three point attempts than anyone else in the NBA. And he’s making history.

Celtics small icon 3. Celtics (11-2, LW 1). It was the question around Boston coming into the season: How are the Celtics going to replace Al Horford and Aron Baynes on defense? Turns out, with a rotation of different bigs — Daniel Theis and Robert Williams in particular — and steps forward from Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. The Celtics have the sixth-best defense in the NBA this season, to go with the fourth-best offense. Many didn’t see the Celtics as contenders entering the season, but having a top 10 offense and defense is the definition of a contender.

Bucks small icon 4. Bucks (10-3, LW 3).
Giannis Antetokounmpo is cranking it up in the second half of games, averaging 18.2 points a night on 61.9% shooting, and getting to the lines seven times on average in that half. For comparison, he averages 12 points on 53.6% in the first half (not bad but not otherworldly like after halftime). Antetokounmpo has eight 30 point games this season and two where he scored 29. The Bucks are 5-1 in a run of recent road games (with one more on Wednesday in Atlanta) before 6-of-8 at home.

Nuggets small icon 5. Nuggets (9-3, LW 10). Winners of 6-of-7, and one of the keys has been fourth quarter defense, when the Nuggets have a defensive rating of 101, sixth best in the NBA (and a couple of points better than the rest of the game). That defense will get put to the test this week against three of the best offenses in the league: Houston, Boston, and Phoenix (all three games are in Denver).

Raptors small icon 6. Raptors (9-4, LW 6). Pascal Siakam’s improvement this season has him being talked about as a possible back-to-back winner of the Most Improved Player award (although it’s early), but that has overshadowed the leap made by OG Anunoby this season. He’s averaging 12.4 points a game (up from 7) and 5.5 rebounds a night (up from 2.9), and that’s not just a minutes thing, his true shooting percentage has jumped from 54.4 (around league average) to 70, which is insanely efficient (and probably unsustainable at that level). After a 3-2 road trip the Raptors have a home-heavy schedule for the rest of 2019.

Heat small icon 7. Heat (9-3, LW 5). Winners of three in a row and 4-of-5, it leads to the questions “is this sustainable?” Look at the shot quality data on Second Spectrum (the NBA’s tracking data) and the answer is probably not — they have been fortunate teams are just missing shots against them. That likely balances out. Miami’s three-game win streak is against a soft part of the schedule, and that continues until Philly on Saturday night (in the second half of a back-to-back). Houston on the road in a week will be even a bigger test.

Clippers small icon 8. Clippers (9-5, LW 4). Paul George is back and put up a ridiculous 70 points in his first 44 minutes on the court. What was impressive was how fluid his game looked after the time off, George looked like the guy from the first half of last season, the one in the mix for the MVP trophy (he ultimately finished third after fading). George credits the offseason surgery, saying he feels like he has two new shoulders. We have yet to see George and Kawhi Leonard paired with George because Leonard has missed three games with a bruised knee. This week we should finally see the duo together.

Jazz small icon 9. Jazz (8-5, LW 7). Utah’s offense still has not found a consistent rhythm — they are 24th in the NBA over the past two weeks, via Cleaning the Glass — but the problem is the defense has slipped a little in recent weeks, too. Part of that is how much they miss backup center Ed Davis. The Jazz don’t want to play Rudy Gobert heavy minutes this early in the season (but Gobert has been impressive on both ends when he is on the court), which has forced Tony Bradley into heavy minutes, and their offense drop to well below a point per possession when he is on the court. Davis is expected to be out a couple more weeks.

Mavericks small icon 10. Mavericks (8-5, LW 13). It feels like all we do with Dallas is praise Luka Doncic… but have you seen him play this year? LeBron James is right, Luka is a bad man (not his exact words, but this is a family power rankings). Doncic joined LeBron as the only two players in NBA history with a 40+ point triple-double before age 21. Doncic is averaging 29.5 points, 10.7 rebounds and 9.3 assists per game, all with a ridiculously efficient 61.2 percent true shooting. He has pushed himself into the early-season MVP conversation — and he’s in just his second year in the league.

Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (8-6, LW 12). That Indiana looks like a lock playoff team in the East, has a top 10 defense, and is above .500 without Victor Oladipo is impressive and a good sign for the team moving forward. The Pacers have won 5-of-7 and the two losses in there were to the Rockets and Bucks on a back-to-back. Oladipo has been getting in some work with the Pacers’ G-League team, a sign that he could be back a little before the Christmas date that quietly always seemed to be the target.

Sixers small icon 12. 76ers (8-5, LW 8). It was expected that Philadelphia’s offense would take some time to find a groove this season, with Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick gone and more now on Ben Simmons plate, but the defense was going to carry the Sixers to start the season. Except it hasn’t, it’s been just okay. On the season, the Sixers are not even a top 10 defense, and in the last eight games (when Philly is 3-5), the defense is a middle-of-the-NBA pack team giving up 106.2 points per 100. All that length is not keeping teams from shooting well against them, and that is even true in the half court when the defense should be set. It’s early, but the Sixers need to clean this up.

13. Timberwolves (8-6, LW 14). Andrew Wiggins playing well — not “I have earned that max contract well, but well — has been one of the biggest surprises of the season. A few things are helping that, such as the five-out offense Minnesota can play (Karl-Anthony Towns has to be respected at the arc), which has opened up driving lanes. His assists are up, his shooting percentages are up, but a lot of it ties back to his handles — Wiggins has been much better with his ball control. He’s more comfortable running the pick-and-roll, he doesn’t feel rushed and surveys the court now, making better decisions, and it all ties back to being more comfortable and confident with his handles.

Suns small icon 14. Suns (7-6, LW 11). Phoenix has lost 3-of-4, and while the offense has dipped slightly during that time, the bigger issue is the defense has struggled to get stops. Devin Booker and the Suns have not been a team in the national spotlight much in recent years, which is why them being the late TNT game on Thursday night — against a Zion-less Pelicans — feels like such an important game. New Orleans is a feisty team that plays hard, and if the Suns defend like they did giving up 120 to Sacramento on Tuesday they will be in trouble in front of a national audience.

Magic small icon 15. Magic (6-7, LW 23). I keep hearing the same whisper from different sources around the league (something Shams Charania reported already as well): Teams are interested in trading for Aaron Gordon. Officially the Orlando front office wants no part of this and shoots the idea down, but around the league a lot of teams think the Magic brass will change their minds on this. Just something to watch. In the short term, the Magic have won 4-of-5 and the reason is they have the third best offense in the NBA over the past two weeks.

Kings small icon 16. Kings (6-7, LW 24). Sacramento has gone 3-1 without De’Aaron Fox so far, and what has fueled that is the team playing top-10 defense during that stretch. In fact, so far November has been good to Sacramento despite all the injuries, they are 6-2. However, now they head out on an East Coast road swing and have 8-of-10 away from home.

Nets small icon 17. Nets (5-8, LW 16). Kyrie Irving has missed time with a shoulder impingement (and could miss more), Caris LeVert is out a few more weeks with a broken thumb, Wilson Chandler remains suspended (PEDs) and all the puts more on the shoulders of Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie — and when those two share the court this season the Nets are -5.1 per 100 possessions. Brooklyn hits a soft stretch of the schedule this week, a chance to right the ship (before a home-and-home with Boston).

Thunder small icon 18. Thunder (5-9, LW 18). Watch the Thunder play in person and the word that comes to mind is scrappy. They are not the most talented team in the league, but they are tough to play against. One change this season is they are no longer an elite offensive rebounding team — at 21.8% they are worst in the league. Coach Billy Donovan says there are a couple of reasons for that. One, strong rebounders for their positions in Russell Westbrook and Paul George are playing elsewhere. Second, they are pulling Steven Adams out farther from the basket this season to use his versatility, but that takes him off the glass more.

Blazers small icon 19. Trail Blazers (5-10, LW 17). Portland turned to Carmelo Anthony to help fill their frontcourt void — and it’s a smart, low-risk gamble. Watching his first game (small sample size alert), he’s not going to hurt the Trail Blazers because they are so desperately in need of help at the four. Does he make them better? Not sure he does. The 4-of-14 shooting first game with 5 turnovers certainly was in part due to rust. However, the bigger issue is the other side of the ball, Anthony looked lost at points, and things are only going to get tougher because teams will target him. We need more games to really judge this, but so far the reaction to his play is “meh.” Portland is 1-2 to start their six-game road swing.

Spurs small icon 20. Spurs (5-9, LW 15). Losers of six in a row and the problem is on the defensive end where they are second worst in the NBA in that stretch. The problem starts right when the game tips off — San Antonio’s starting unit has a minus-33.3 net rating in 71 minutes of first quarter action, something Tom Osborne of the Express-News pointed out. Dallas recently put up a 36 spot on the Spurs in the first quarter, and that was pretty much ballgame.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (6-8, LW 22). They remain one of the NBA’s luckiest teams, they have the net rating of a 4-10 team, but Charlotte’s ability to fall behind by double digits and come back has them flirting with the idea of a playoff spot early. Devonte Graham in the starting lineup now helps with those comebacks, as does Malik Monk hitting game winners.

Pistons small icon 22. Pistons (4-9, LW 25). Detroit has the best offense in the NBA the past couple of weeks, thanks in part to the return of Blake Griffin, but the team still can’t get stops and that’s why they have lost four in a row. The Pistons’ defense has been bottom five in the league the past four games and for the entire season, there is no way a return trip to the playoffs is happening if the Pistons don’t clean up that end of the court.

Pelicans small icon 23. Pelicans (5-9, LW 27). Despite a training room starting to resemble a television drama ER, the Pelicans have won 4-of-6 behind some strong play from Jrue Holiday (22.4 points and 8.2 assists per game in his last five) and J.J. Redick (21.8 points per game in his last five). Things get tough coming up with 4-of-5 on the road, and the one home game is the red-hot Lakers.

Bulls small icon 24. Bulls (4-10, LW 19). Lauri Markenneen has looked lost and is not taking the step forward everyone expected of him in his third season. He is shooting 36.2% overall and 26.8% from three, both career lows. It’s not just the three ball, Markenneen is taking more shots than ever before at the rim but his hitting just 51.2 percent on those. The Bulls have lost 4-of-5 and look nothing like the playoff team they hoped to be this season.

Cavaliers small icon 25. Cavaliers (4-9, LW 20). When you have a young team — particularly a young backcourt such as Collin Sexton and Darius Garland — consistency is not in the cards. The Cavaliers can destroy the Knicks and look good in a one-point loss to Philly, then turn around a week later and get blown out by those same two teams (with an ugly loss to the Heat in between). It can be rough to watch sometimes, but it’s about getting them reps so in a couple of years we see a polished product that is consistent (and wins more).

Knicks small icon 26. Knicks (4-10, LW 30). New York has the third-worst offense in the league this season in part because they have had the worst half court offense in the league and they play at the 27th slowest pace in the league, so they spend more time in the half court. That and they can’t seem to buy a make in the paint. Despite that, the Knicks have won 2-of-3 and their one loss was a close game to the Hornets (and of their four wins this season, two are against Dallas, it must be a Kristaps Porzingis revenge thing). The bad news: Starting tonight in Philadelphia the schedule is brutal for the next few weeks.

Grizzlies small icon 27. Grizzlies (5-9, LW 29). When we talk Grizzlies youth movement we talk Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. — and those two have shown a lot more chemistry the past week or so — but don’t sleep on Brandon Clarke being part of what is built in Memphis. The first-round pick out of Gonzaga has proven to be a solid role player averaging 12.7 points and 6.1 rebounds a game, plus shooting 44% from three. The Grizzlies aren’t winning much, but they remain a team worth watching.

Wizards small icon 28. Wizards (3-8, LW 26). The Washington Wizards have the third-best offense in the NBA this season (overall and even when you filter out garbage time like Cleaning the Glass does). Bradley Beal averaging 30.1 points per game and playing like an All-Star is at the heart of that, but Thomas Bryant, Isaiah Thomas, and Rui Hachimura are all pitching in points and balancing the offense as well. If Scott Brooks could just coax a few stops out of this team, well, at least they’d move up these rankings.

Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (4-9, LW 21). This really shouldn’t be a surprise, but we’ll detail it anyway: When Trae Young is on the court, the Hawks offense scores 108.4 points per 100 possessions, which would have them a little above average in the NBA this season. However, when he sit the Hawks cannot get buckets, averaging a dreadful 89.6 per 100. This team desperately misses John Collins (out with a PED suspension).

Warriors small icon 30. Warriors (3-12, LW 29). What a world we live in, where a year ago we weren’t sure the Warriors would ever give up the top spot in these rankings, and now their fall to the bottom is complete. The one bright note remains rookie Eric Paschall, who is proving to be surprisingly efficient in isolation sets for the Warriors.

Free agent Candace Parker announces she will sign with champion Aces

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Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
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The WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces are about to get better.

Two-time MVP and two-time WNBA champion Candace Parker announced she plans to sign with the Aces when free agency opens on Feb. 1

The WNBA champions just got better — a starting frontcourt of Parker and reigning MVP A’ja Wilson (with Kelsey Plum in the backcourt) could make Las Vegas the best defensive team in the league. While Parker may not be the scorer she once was, she can serve as a fulcrum for the offense, get the ball to the other players on the deeply talented Aces, and make them a serious threat to repeat.

Still, a cloud hangs over the Aces organization after what Dearica Hamby alleged after she was traded to the Sparks. Hamby said she was “lied to, bullied, manipulated, and discriminated against” by the Aces front office surrounding her pregnancy and contract. Those are serious allegations, and the WNBPA is looking into the matter.

On the court (if the investigation results don’t weigh them down), the Aces have to be title favorites now. However, when WNBA free agency comes on Wednesday that could shift, depending on what Breanna Stewart chooses to do (along with other key free agents). There has been speculation Stewart could head to New York to team up with Jonquel Jones, Betnijah Laney and Sabrina Ionescu on a Liberty team that would instantly be the biggest threat to the Aces (if not the outright favorite).

Stay tuned, it’s going to be an interesting WNBA free agency.

Three things to Know: Giannis Antetokounmpo puts up 50 spot in 30 minutes

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Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Giannis Antetokounmpo puts up 50 spot in 30 minutes

Before the ball was even tossed up at center circle Sunday, this looked to be a long night for the Pelicans: No Zion Williamson (strained right hamstring), no Brandon Ingram (toe injury) and no CJ McCollum (sprained right thumb).

Then Giannis Antetokounmpo went to work early, scored 18 points in the first quarter, 29 in the first half, and went on to have an efficient 50 on 20-of-26 shooting on the night, including hitting 3-of-4 from 3.

The All-Star Game captain is having a “down” season by his insane standards, but he is still averaging 31.3 points and 12 rebounds a game, shooting 64.5% in a season where he has had to take on more offense load because of Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday missing time. He’s still one of the best in the game, and if healthy the Bucks are still a postseason threat (even if they could use some depth at the four).

This was eight straight losses for the Pelicans, who are 3-11 in January and have fallen all the way to the No. 8 seed in the West. New Orleans has looked like a dangerous team on the rise when healthy this season, but the injuries have caught up with them and now they are scrapping to stay in the play-in in a crowded middle of the West.

2) Hornets get 31 from Rozier, upset sleepy Heat team

It will be hard for Miami to hold onto the No. 6 seed in the East (and avoid the play-in) if they don’t win the games they are supposed to win.

Miami looked sleepy for the 1 p.m. start in Charlotte, didn’t play good defense down the stretch, and fell to the Hornets. Charlotte got 31 from Terry Rozier, 27 from P.J. Washington, LaMelo Ball scored 13 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter, and Gordon Hayward was 7-of-7 shooting for 20 points. Charlotte snapped Miami’s three-game win streak with the 122-117 victory.

To be fair to the Heat, sometimes it’s about when you catch teams and the Hornets are playing their best basketball of the season having won 4-of-6. Jimmy Butler scored 28 points for Heat, Tyler Herro added 24.

This was the start of a four-game road trip for the Heat and things are about to get tougher with games at the Cavaliers, at the Knicks (a key game in the chase for the No. 6 seed) and at the Bucks.

3) LeBron James, Anthony Davis out in Brooklyn Monday night

The epidemic — and league-wide PR problem — of stars sitting out will continue Monday night as LeBron James and Anthony Davis will rest as the Lakers face the Nets (officially, LeBron has a sore left ankle and they are watching the foot injury that sidelined Davis for 20 games). This is the team’s one trip to Brooklyn this season. It comes a day after Kawhi Leonard and Paul George sat out in Cleveland (the Cavs blew the Clippers out as a result), and the list goes on and on all season long with Stephen Curry, Jimmy Butler and other stars seemingly resting more than ever before.

There is no easy answer here. Coaches and team medical staffs tasked with ensuring their players peak for the playoffs are resting guys during the season (and on back-to-backs) to avoid injuries and fatigue. Top players have their personal trainers monitoring them and weighing in on these decisions. The NBA schedule is still too long — but reducing that number is a financial mess — and there is nothing in the upcoming CBA that will change this trend.

But fans are noticing. Keep showing them the regular season doesn’t matter and they will respond in kind.

In LeBron’s case — and he hasn’t missed much time this season — this pushes back the timeline for him to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time NBA scoring record to Feb. 7 against the Thunder or Feb. 9 against the Bucks, both games in Los Angeles at the crypto.com Arena. If you want to think that’s a coincidence, go ahead, but I’m a little more cynical than that.

Rozier, Washington, Ball help Hornets rally past Heat 122-117

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Terry Rozier scored 31 points, P.J. Washington had 27 and the Charlotte Hornets stopped Miami’s three-game win streak with a 122-117 victory over the Heat on Sunday.

LaMelo Ball scored 13 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter as Charlotte improved to 7-16 at home. Gordon Hayward was a perfect 7 of 7 from the field for 20 points.

Rozier also had seven assists and six rebounds. He was 11 for 19 from the field, including a 5-for-11 performance from 3-point range. He made two buzzer-beater 3s at the end of quarters.

Jimmy Butler scored 28 points for Miami, and Tyler Herro had 24.

The Hornets, who have been hampered by injuries all season, have won four of six for the team’s best stretch of the season. Washington believes it’s a reflection of the team getting healthier.

Charlotte’s projected starting five to begin the season is finally back on the floor and appears to be starting to mesh.

“Everybody is back and everybody is healthy – and that is a major difference,” Washington said. “At the end of the day we have to keep going the way we are right now.”

Hayward has struggled with shoulder and hamstring issues, limiting the team’s highest-paid player to just 24 games.

Sunday marked his best game in months.

“He’s playing confident and getting easy baskets and just bullying guys down low,” Washington said. “He’s playing great basketball and I expect that of him every night.”

Whether a now healthy Hornets team can make a playoff push remains to be seen, but coach Steve Clifford remains optimistic.

“Getting ‘Melo and Gordon back, obviously you’re a different team,” Clifford said. “If we can get into playing set groups then we’ll have a good chance to hopefully put some good stretches together. (It helps) when they know who they’re playing with and they know where the shots are coming from.”

The Heat led 62-58 after Rozier banked in a 3 from the midcourt logo to close out the first half.

Miami went on a 10-1 run to start the third quarter. Herro knocked down two 3-pointers to help the Heat open a 13-point lead.

But Charlotte came storming back behind Washington and Rozier, who began knocking down shots from deep.

Charlotte pushed the lead to 12 with 5:54 left on a turnaround jumper by Rozier.

Miami rallied with a 10-0 run. Kyle Lowry found Bam Adebayo inside for a layup to cut the lead to 108-106.

But Charlotte had another burst as Mason Plumlee got the ball after Rozier won a jump ball and drove to the basket for a score. Ball canned an open 3-pointer to put Charlotte back up 114-106 with 1:50 left.

Washington’s rebound and score off his own miss kept Charlotte up by seven and Plumlee dunked off a pass from Washington to put the game away in the final minute.

Charlotte shot 54.2% from the field and scored 25 points in transition. The Hornets also outrebounded Miami 47-36.

“They have had a lot of injuries but when they have been fully healthy, this team can score much different than their numbers may suggest for the season,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We did not step up defensively, they got a lot of easy run-ups that quickly changed the momentum of the game.”

Bulls’ Lonzo Ball “nowhere near playing,” could miss entire season

New Orleans Pelicans v Chicago Bulls
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“I’m trying to stay positive, keep my hopes up. I would love to play. I would never count that out.”

Lonzo Ball tried to put an optimistic face on his recovery from a second knee surgery, but he was realistic and put no timetable on a return.

Bulls coach Billy Donovan was more realistic, speaking Saturday before the Bulls took on the Magic. Via Julia Poe of the Chicago Tribune.

“He’s made some progress, but I’d be the first one to tell you he’s nowhere near playing,” Donovan said. “He’s just not. Because he’s not running on a consistent basis. When he can get to that place where he can do that consistently and be able to come back the next day and do it again, do it again and do it again — I think you’ll feel a little bit more optimistic.”

Could Ball be out for the entire season? Donovan again, via K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago:

“My guess would be – there’s not been a specifically set date – my guess would be I think we get through the All-Star Break, I think there would probably be everybody sitting down to talk about length and time of the season, how realistic is it for him to get back, if he could get back what would the minutes look like, is it not worth having him back just because it’s too much?’’ Donovan said. “I think everything, at least in my conversations with medical about him, have always been geared towards helping him get back to playing. Certainly once you get out of the All-Star Break, with the amount of time that’s left, basically you’re at the end of February. You have all of March and not even two weeks in April, so you start to get to that point where I think there will be some conversations of, ‘OK, if he’s still not close to playing, what’s the plan moving forward?’”

Ball has undergone multiple knee surgeries. The first was in January 2022 and the expectation at the time was he would return for the playoffs, but his knee didn’t respond well during rehab. That led to a second knee surgery, and recovery from that is going slowly as well. It leaves the Bulls in a tough spot, they miss his defense and his being a floor general on offense as they have struggled to a 23-26 record this season that sees them sitting as the No. 11 seed in the East.