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NBA Power Rankings: Lakers on top of ‘things to be thankful for’ edition

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With Thanksgiving on Thursday, this week’s edition of NBC’s NBA Power Rankings, we go around the table and talk about what each team should be thankful for this holiday.

Lakers small icon 1. Lakers (15-2, Last week No. 1). Lakers fans should be thankful for how quickly the LeBron James and Anthony Davis pairing has come together, the team is +13 points per 100 possessions when those two are on the court together. Wednesday night, Davis is going to get booed mercilessly by the New Orleans fans who feel betrayed by him, but those fans are going to see why he wanted to partner with LeBron. The combo works brilliantly. Los Angeles has won 8 in a row through the soft part of the schedule — as good teams do — but when the calendar flips to December things get much harder.

Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (14-3, LW 4). Milwaukee fans should be thankful they get to see Giannis Antetokounmpo play — he is the reigning MVP and he has been better this season than last. The Greek Freak is averaging 31.1 points, 13.9 rebounds, and 6.4 assists a game this season — all numbers that are up from his MVP season. Plus he remains an elite defensive player — it is that end of the floor that won him the MVP over James Harden last season — who happens to have a ridiculous 61.5 true shooting percentage. Players don’t come along like this often, we need to savor watching him play while we can.

Clippers small icon 3. Clippers (13-5, LW 8). Clippers fans are thankful they are finally getting to see Paul George and Kawhi Leonard play together: In 94 minutes together on the court this season the Clippers are +6.9 per 100 possessions, with an elite defense allowing less than a point per possession. The Clippers are 4-0 with both superstars in the lineup, and that includes shutting down the league’s best offense in Dallas on Tuesday, plus hard-fought victories over hot teams in Boston (a playoff-level intensity game) and Houston. Leonard even had the game-winner against the Rockets.

Nuggets small icon 4. Nuggets (13-3, LW 5). Nuggets fans should be thankful their front office has built a team that can beat opponents a variety of ways, including going 10-1 in November because of a league-best defense (a genuine surprise this season). The Nuggets also are one of the best clutch teams in the NBA. Denver is 8-2 this season in games that are within five points in the final five minutes, the second best winning percentage in the league. Denver is outscoring teams by 13.2 points per 100 possessions in those minutes. Change it to look at games within 3 points in the final 3 minutes and the Nuggets are 7-1.

Mavericks small icon 5. Mavericks (11-6, LW 10). What Dallas is thankful for is obvious: The play of Luka Doncic and the Dallas offense — at 116 points per 100 possessions it is on pace for the best offensive rating ever. Not just Mavericks fans should be thankful, but all fans of the game. The Mavericks are just fun to watch. That said Tuesday night vs. Clippers that powerful offense was held to less than a point per possession, and on Sunday they face the Lakers in another test to that offense.

Raptors small icon 6. Raptors (12-4, LW 6). North of the border they should be thankful for Fred VanVleet, who has taken on a much higher percentage of the offense (his 22 usage rate is the highest of his career) but has been more efficient because of his improved shot selection. VanVleet just isn’t taking midrange shots, he’s either getting to the rim or shooting threes. VanVleet has taken 239 shots this season and only 11 of those were between the paint and the three-point line. He’s also getting to the free throw line more, which is upping his efficiency. The man is a free agent next summer, and he is going to see offers with a lot of zeros at the end with the way he is playing.

Celtics small icon 7. Celtics (12-4, LW 3). Celtics fans should be thankful Kemba Walker’s scary-looking head/neck injury only cost him one game, Walker is expected to return to the lineup on Wednesday night. Walker is averaging 22.9 points per game this season and the Boston offense is 11.7 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court. And all that doesn’t get into the improved chemistry issues on this season’s squad, which is the other thing Boston fans should be incredibly thankful for this season.

Sixers small icon 8. 76ers (11-6, LW 12). Heat fans should be thankful Ben Simmons has made his first three in an NBA game, against the Knicks one week ago. It is something to build upon… except he hasn’t. In the week since, he has attempted only one other three-pointer, and that was a desperation turn-around shot. Hitting one three is not going to make teams respect him in space, he’s got to take a couple a game (or more) or defenses will continue to sag off of him, creating spacing issues. Since starting the season 3-0 on the road, the Sixers have gone 1-6 since away from home (they have the Knicks on the road Friday, which should be a win).

Heat small icon 9. Heat (12-4, LW 7). Heat fans should be thankful for their young stars, who have made the Heat a winning and playoff team this season. Sure, this is Jimmy Butler’s team, but around him is a collection of players under 25 getting the job done: Kendrick Nunn, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, and Justise Winslow (he’s still just 23). It’s a credit to the Heat scouting and player development teams that they keep finding and helping build up these players in a way few other franchises ever have. Those young stars have a good test against the Rockets tonight.

Jazz small icon 10. Jazz (11-6, LW 9). These last two games without Rudy Gobert (sprained ankle) has reminded Jazz fans why they are thankful for the big Frenchman — Giannis Antetokounmpo drove the lane at will and put up 50 on Utah with him out. It’s going to take a lot to grab the Defensive Player of the Year trophy out of Gobert’s hands. That loss to the Bucks was the start of a five-game road trip for the Jazz, who are 3-5 outside Salt Lake City to start the season. With Gobert out, Utah needs Joe Ingles to break out of his shooting slump (30.3% from three and a dreadful 48 true shooting percentage).

Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (10-6, LW 11). In Indiana they are thankful for Malcolm Brogdon, who has kept the Pacers offense afloat with Victor Oladipo out. Thanks to Brogdon the Pacers are one of the six teams that look like playoff locks in the East. Brogdon is playing at an All-Star level averaging 18.8 points and 8.2 assets a game. The other thing that has helped Indy this season is a top-10 defense anchored by Myles Turner in the paint (the Pacers defense this season has been as good as the Sixers).

Rockets small icon 12. Rockets (11-6, LW 2). Give thanks for The Beard in Houston. It’s been that way for years, whether it was Dwight Howard or Chris Paul or now Russell Westbrook next to him. James Harden is one of the great scorers the game has ever seen and he’s having a monster season, averaging 37.9 points and 8 assists a game. Teams are being far more aggressive defending him with double teams high up the court now, trying to force the ball out of his hands and daring any other Rocket to beat them. For top teams it has worked so far, as evidenced by three straight losses (Nuggets, Clippers, Mavericks). The schedule softens up some after Thanksgiving, at least for a few weeks (that marquee Christmas Day game against Golden State doesn’t look as threatening now).

13. Timberwolves (9-8, LW 13). Timberwolves fans should be thankful for Ryan Saunders, the young coach who has both connected with Karl-Anthony Towns — pushing the big man to his best NBA season so far — and opened up the Minnesota offense. The Timberwolves have taken the fourth most three pointers in the league this season. The problem is they have hit just 31.7 percent of them (third worst in the NBA). Towns is not the problem, he is attempting 9 threes a game and hitting 44.4% of them, but the front office ultimately needs to find other shooters to put on this roster.

Nets small icon 14. Nets (9-8, LW 17). In Brooklyn, be thankful for Spencer Dinwiddie. Since Kyrie Irving was sidelined by his shoulder six games ago, Dinwiddie is averaging 24.7 points and 6.7 assists a game with a 58 true shooting percentage — and the Nets are 5-1. The offense just flows more smoothly with Dinwiddie — who has fully bought into coach Kenny Atkinson’s selfless style of play — running the show, as opposed to Irving, who will always lean towards isolation because he is so good at it.

Suns small icon 15. Suns (8-8, LW 14). Suns fans should be thankful for Aron Baynes, a guy brought in to back up Deandre Ayton who thrived when forced into a larger role, becoming the stretch five that has made their offense click (and provided a big body to protect the paint on the other end). The fact the Suns are 1-3 without him (hip) and Ricky Rubio (back issue, but expected to return tonight) shows how much the veteran additions have helped this young team.

Kings small icon 16. Kings (7-9, LW 16). Sacramento faithful need to be thankful for Bogdan Bogdanovic, who has helped the Kings get back on the right track in November despite Marvin Bagley and De’Aaron Fox missing time with injuries. In his last five games, Bogdanovic has averaged 19 points and 6.8 assists per game, and shot 39.5 percent from three. You can see why the Kings made a $51.4 million contract extension offer to him (the max they can offer) and also why he didn’t take it, thinking there is a bigger payday out there for him next summer. It’s also clear why Bogdanovic wants a bigger role than sixth man.

Pistons small icon 17. Pistons (6-11, LW 22). In Detroit, be thankful you are still in the playoff mix. Despite losing 6-of-7 earlier this month, and the first three games with Blake Griffin back in the lineup, the win against Orlando this week has the Pistons in the nine-seed still and just half a game back of those Magic. Detroit has been playing better of late and has a +0.9 net rating the past two weeks (via Cleaning the Glass), and they have been unlucky so far (according to net rating) and should have 7 or 8 wins, which would have them in the postseason right now.

Wizards small icon 18. Wizards (5-10, LW 28). Wizards fans should be thankful for newcomers Davis Bertans and Moritz Wagner, who have played well for a team desperate for guys not named Beal to do that nightly. Bertans is averaging 13.1 points a game, shooting a ridiculous 43.9% from three, and doing the little things right on the court you expect from a guy out of the Spurs system. Wagner is providing depth and shooting up front, scoring 12.4 points per game and shooting 47.4% on the 2.5 threes he takes a game.

Magic small icon 19. Magic (6-10, LW 15). Orlando, be thankful for the emergence of Jonathan Isaac as a legitimate foundational player for this franchise going forward — whatever they build, he needs to be a part of it. The Magic defense is 3.3 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court, but that doesn’t speak to what a fantastic, switchable defender he is already, able to guard on the perimeter and protect the rim. His 25 points against Indiana are a sign his offense is starting to come along. He’s a keeper.

Thunder small icon 20. Thunder (6-10, LW 18). Oklahoma City fans are not getting to watch the star power they have seen since, well, ever (ever since the move this team has been stacked). What they should be thankful for is a gritty team that plays hard — 13 of their 16 games have been within five points in the final five minutes. Without the stars it’s harder to close those games, out, the Thunder of 5-8 in those clutch games (2-7 in games within three points in the final three minutes). I’ve seen the Thunder in person a few times now and they are hard to play against, and as the schedule softens up and they catch a few breaks this team’s record will improve).

Blazers small icon 21. Trail Blazers (6-12, LW 19). Portland fans, be thankful Damian Lillard is back in the lineup, because this roster needs him. Desperately. The Trail Blazers have not been a team that relies on passing to create open looks a lot in recent years (they were bottom five in the league in passes made a season ago). However, this season they are making 39.5 fewer passes per game than last season (second lowest in the league), which leaves Portland relying even more on isolation, and pick-and-roll creation. Which is why they need Lillard back, he’s the best they have. Terry Stotts has leaned on Lillard for 37.4 minutes a game because he has to, you can decide if all those minutes helped lead to his injury.

Pelicans small icon 22. Pelicans (6-11, LW 23). New Orleans fans, be thankful for lottery ping-pong balls. More than just that, be thankful for a team that is playing the right way even before Zion Williamson suits up — New Orleans is second in the league in passes made per game at 315.9. Wednesday night, Pelicans fans get to boo Anthony Davis, a player they never felt really embraced their city and culture, then forced his way out the bright lights. Wednesday is also a chance for Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart to get a little revenge against a franchise they clearly were not comfortable with on several levels.

Bulls small icon 23. Bulls (6-12, LW 24). Bulls fans, be thankful that Zach LaVine’s reaction to being benched and the erratic coaching of Jim Boylen was to drop 49 points and hit the game winner against the Hornets. After hitting 13 three-pointers in that game LaVine, Boylen, and everyone around the Bulls was singing Kumbaya, but there is plenty of talk around the league about the fit of the coaching staff with this roster in Chicago, and how long until the next incident.

Spurs small icon 24. Spurs (6-12, LW 20). Be thankful for Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and the five titles and decades of elite play they brought you. At some point for every franchise there comes a time to rebuild, and while the Spurs have pushed that back for a few years it feels like the bill is coming due (losing Kawhi Leonard really made a rebuild ultimately inevitable). Expect to hear a lot of potential trade talk about DeMar DeRozan, and to a lesser degree LaMarcus Aldridge. The struggles of Dejounte Murray this season, which have now sent him to the bench and moved Derrick White into the starting lineup, are a concern because he is seen as a good young rebuilding piece.

Hornets small icon 25. Hornets (6-12, LW 21). Hornets fans, be thankful for the emergence of Devonte' Graham, who leads the team averaging 18.1 points a game, he and Cody Zeller have been critical to the Hornets getting this many wins this season. After that… be thankful there’s really elite college basketball to watch in North Carolina, because reality is catching up with the Hornets after their fast start and it’s not pretty (the loss to the Bulls in the Final seconds was particularly painful).

Knicks small icon 26. Knicks (4-13, LW 26). Be thankful for the play of Mitchell Robinson and RJ Barrett, young stars who provide hope for the future no matter how much it feels like ownership will just find a way to screw it up. (Unfortunately, I’m not as convinced Kevin Knox is a big part of that future anymore.) Knicks fans are some of the smartest and most loyal in the NBA and they deserve better than the product on the floor the past couple of decades.

Cavaliers small icon 27. Cavaliers (5-12, LW 25). Be thankful that the NBA is bringing the 2022 All-Star Game to Cleveland, because by then some of these young Cavaliers who are struggling now might be playing well enough to be in the game. The warm feeling of the 4-5 start to this season wore off during the recent six-game losing streak (by an average of 19.2 points), while the backcourt of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland are learning hard lessons about life on an NBA court. Expect the Tristan Thompson trade rumors to start up soon, especially after his strong game against Portland.

Grizzlies small icon 28. Grizzlies (5-11, LW 27). Be thankful for rookie Ja Morant — and that his scary fall into a cameraman courtside this week wasn’t something worse. Morant is the early leader in the Rookie of the Year race and is averaging 19.1 points and 6.3 assists per game, is shooting better than 40% from three, and is just an amazingly fluid athlete. Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. are starting to show some chemistry, too, something the Grizzlies are banking on for their future.

Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (4-13, LW 29). Trae Young may be slumping a little of late, still Hawks fans should be thankful for him. While Atlanta is off to a slow start this season — their defense was expected to struggle some, but to also have a bottom five offense is a surprise — there are signs of hope. Like Young’s potential. Or De'Andre Hunter’s recent run of 18+ point games where he showed real potential as a catch-and-shoot wing.

Warriors small icon 30. Warriors (3-15, LW 30). Who should Warriors fans be thankful for? James Wiseman. Anthony Edwards. Cole Anthony. Tyrese Maxey. Deni Avdija. Eric Paschall (and they can watch him nightly). The Chase Center. Nico Mannion. Maybe even LaMelo Ball. The future for this team, next season and beyond, remains incredibly bright. This season, well, five straight trips to the Finals will catch up with a team.

Mavericks reportedly reach out to Joakim Noah to help at center

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Dallas’ starting center Dwight Powell is lost for the season due to a torn Achilles suffered Tuesday night.

The Mavs have other centers on the roster, Maxi Kleber and Boban Marjanovic, but they want more depth behind those guys. That has led to them touching base with Joakim Noah, reports Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

The Lakers worked Noah out before the season but decided to go with Dwight Howard.

Noah had a solid second half of last season with Memphis, coming off the bench and providing good defense and 7.1 points per game. He was moving well and fit in as a role player at giving them 16.5 minutes a night.

That’s all Dallas would need, someone to grab rebounds and do the dirty work inside that lets Kristaps Prozingis play his pick-and-pop game. We’ll see if Dallas goes this direction, or another one.

Heat’s Derrick Jones Jr. reportedly agrees to return to dunk contest

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Derrick Jones Jr. didn’t win the underwhelming 2017 NBA All-Star Saturday Dunk Contest, but he did have the best dunk of the night.

Three years later, the Miami wing is headed back to the dunk contest, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

That means we have two Dunk Contest veterans who are in: Dwight Howard and Jones Jr. We also know rookie Ja Morant is out (which is a little disappointing).

Jones is fully capable of winning this thing — he’s had plenty of huge in-game dunks since he was last in this contest. It’s just that dunk contests and in-game dunks are different things, we’ll see how he adapts.

NBA Power Rankings: Milwaukee on top, Jazz pass Lakers for second

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Milwaukee, on a seven-game winning streak, continues to hold on to the top slot, but the Lakers recent troubles — combined with the Jazz being on a hot streak — has Utah moving up to the second slot (with the two Los Angeles teams right on their tail).

 
Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (39-6, Last Week No. 1). One does not hear the words “load management” and “Giannis Antetokounmpo” in the same sentence often, but that’s because the Bucks have been able to keep his minutes in check by blowing teams out. Antetokounmpo has played in 41 of the Bucks 45 games but is 48th in the NBA in total minutes played — Cedi Osman and Tomas Satoransky have played more total minutes. That’s because the Bucks are destroying teams and letting the Greek Freak have large parts of the fourth quarter off. He’s averaging just 30.6 minutes a night. The last time coach Mike Budenholzer had Antetokounmpo on the court for more than 35 minutes in a game was Nov. 27th.

 
Jazz small icon 2. Jazz (30-13, LW 3). Mike Conley returned on Saturday and has fit in well off the bench in a couple of blowout wins. That leads to the question: Should Conley become Utah’s sixth man? On paper that works because the current starting five — Donovan Mitchell, Royce O’Neale (who just got a contract extension), Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Rudy Gobert — has been dominant, with a +22.5 net rating this season, and defensively that group gives up less than a point per possession. However, will Conley willingly accept that role? Could everything change during the playoffs? And who will close games?

 
Lakers small icon 3. Lakers (34-9, LW No. 2). It would be a mistake to overreact to one ugly loss to the Celtics, in the middle of January, during a long road trip. It happens. However, if you’re looking for a thread that ties together the Lakers’ losses to Boston and Orlando last week it is transition defense — both teams had success running on L.A. The Lakers are third best in the NBA in half court defense but middle of the pack in transition defense (stats via Cleaning the Glass). This is a regular season concern, but maybe less of a postseason concern (because the games tend to slow down). The Lakers play the Clippers next Wednesday and a win helps make their “Best in LA” case.

 
Clippers small icon 4. Clippers (31-13, LW 7). In his last six games, Kawhi Leonard has averaged 36 points per contest on 55.8% shooting overall, plus 5.6 rebounds and 4.8 assists a game. He’s looked like the all-world player from last postseason. Lou Williams was asked over the weekend what has changed with Leonard in recent games: “I think he just got his legs. He won a championship, I think he took a break, and basketball is a rhythm game. He’s just playing consistently now, getting his legs under him, and he’s more comfortable with the guys he’s playing with now.”

 
Nuggets small icon 5. Nuggets (30-13, LW 6). Jamal Murray is going to miss some time with a sprained ankle, and don’t be surprised if we’re talking weeks according to the buzz around the league. That’s a blow to Denver, which is +9.6 per 100 possessions better when he is on the court (using Cleaning the Glass stats, which filter out garbage time). The timing of Murray’s injury is rough for Denver as it struggles to hold on to a high seed in the tight West and has 7 of its next 10 games on the road.

 
Celtics small icon 6. Celtics (28-14, LW 5). The utter destruction of the rival Lakers on MLK day ended a three-game losing streak (and 6-of-8), and it also was the first game in a week where the normally solid Boston defense looked like itself. Defense and slow starts — even the Lakers opened on an 8-0 run before falling apart — have been issues Brad Stevens has been focused on in recent weeks. With the Celtics healthy again the inconsistent bench shooting should be less of an issue.

 
Heat small icon 7. Heat (30-13, LW 8). Jimmy Butler is a lock for the All-Star Game — he might even start, if the media/players vote him in — and he should be joined by Bam Adebayo (who the coaches will need to vote in as a reserve). With an efficient 16 points and 10.5 rebounds a game, plus strong defense, Adebayo deserves a spot on the ASG roster. Miami went 2-3 in a recent run of road games, but came home where they are 19-1 on the season for five games. Good tests coming up with the Clippers on Friday and the Celtics next Tuesday.

 
Raptors small icon 8. Raptors (29-14, LW 9). The Raptors are finally healthy — Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, and Norman Powell are all back in the lineup — and not coincidentally the Raptors have won four in a row. After Philly on Wednesday night the Raptors have six games in a row against teams below .500, expect them to rack up wins as Masai Ujiri decides whether to be a seller at the trade deadline or to stick with the roster he has and see how much noise they can make in the postseason.

 
Sixers small icon 9. 76ers (29-16, LW 13). Winners of four in a row despite continued offensive issues — the Sixers are bottom 10 in offensive rating during that time (and over the past 10 games). After looking at the roster for half a season Elton Brand is checking out the trade market looking for shooting and playmakers, eyeing Derrick Rose for the point and wings Robert Covington and Malik Beasley. If the goal is winning the East this season and having a real shot in the Finals the Sixers may be one player away still.

 
Mavericks small icon 10. Mavericks (27-16, LW 12). Dallas has lost Dwight Powell for the season with a ruptured Achilles and he is going to be difficult to replace. It’s not just the 9.6 points and 5.7 rebounds a game Powell gave them, but also he brought grit and a willingness to do the dirty work needed inside to allow Kristaps Porzingis to play his pick-and-pop game on the outside. Maxi Kleber and Boban Marjanovic will get more run but it’s not the same.

 
Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (28-16, LW 10). This ranking is too low for this team, but it sadly kind of fits the trend of media overlooking the Pacers and coach Nate McMillan. Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon are both on the bubble for making the All-Star Game, but expect one of them to get a nod from the coaches for a reserve spot. Sabonis is battling a bruised knee but got his first career triple-double anyway, and in general the Pacers are getting healthy and look like a team that could make a run up the East standings (and these rankings).

 
Rockets small icon 12. Rockets (26-16, LW 4). Losers of four in a row and 5-of-6, just as Russell Westbrook is taking on a larger role and seeming more comfortable in the offense. Coincidence? The problem for the Rockets over the past six games has been the offense, just 19th in the league over that stretch, not good enough to cover up for a defense that has struggled all season. Houston takes on Denver on Wednesday night then takes off for four on the road, including a difficult Denver/Utah back-to-back.

 
Thunder small icon 13. Thunder (25-19, LW 11). Shai Gilgeous-Alexander became the youngest player in NBA history to rack up a 20-20 triple-double last week — he continues to be a great get from the Paul George trade, someone who OKC can build around. Expect the trade rumors to fly around this team in the coming weeks, but also expect the big names — Chris Paul and Steven Adams — to stay put, mostly because their contracts are so large and hard to match. Danilo Gallinari remains a name that comes up in a lot of trade discussions, he’s the guy that could be on the move. If anyone will be.

 
Grizzlies small icon 14. Grizzlies (20-23, LW 14). Over the past 10 games, the Grizzlies have the third best offense in the NBA, which is overwhelming opponents and has he Grizzlies in the playoffs if they started today. Ja Morant continues to lead the team on that end of the floor, running away with the Rookie of the Year race (no way Zion can catch him) and putting up ridiculous highlights every time he steps on the court.

 
Magic small icon 15. Magic (21-23, LW 15). Orlando got its signature win of the season so far beating the Lakers (ending L.A.’s nine-game win streak) behind a Markelle Fultz triple-double, but consistency has not been Fultz’s or this team’s strength. That’s especially troubling with backup point guard D.J. Augustin likely to miss three-to-four weeks with bone irritation in his knee, he was a stabilizing influence on this roster (and a potential trade chip that just got harder to move). Evan Fournier is still drawing a lot of trade interest from other teams, but the Magic are a playoff team right now (5 game cushion) and are not having a fire sale, it’s going to take a quality offer to get a deal done.

 
Spurs small icon 16. Spurs (19-23, LW 17). San Antonio has settled into its identity this season: A top-10 offensive team led by efficient shooting from DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, but a bottom five defense that continues to put their playoff streak in jeopardy. DeRozan has a good case to get an All-Star game invite, however the West is so stacked at the guard position that it seems a longshot he (or Aldridge) make the final cut. It will be in the hands of the coaches, who vote on the reserves.

 
Blazers small icon 17. Trail Blazers (19-26, LW 19). This week’s trade — which sent out Kent Bazemore and brought back Trevor Ariza — was mostly about reducing Portland’s league-largest tax bill (now down to $6.2 million). Can’t blame ownership for not wanting to pay the tax for this team, which means expect another trade — Hassan Whiteside? — or two as the deadline nears to get all the way under the tax. Also, did you see Lillard’s ridiculous 61?

 
Pelicans small icon 18. Pelicans (17-27, LW 20). Zion Williamson finally makes his debut for the Pelicans Wednesday night, and that means a few things. One is dunks — highlight dunks nightly. But it also means a playoff push from a team that is not out of the mix (3.5 games back) and has gone 11-5 in its last 16 before Zion’s arrival. The Pelicans have stepped back from the edge of trading away their best veterans, for now, to see how well this team can perform together and if they can make a legitimate push for the postseason.

 
Suns small icon 19. Suns (18-25, LW 21). Since the calendar flipped to 2020, Deandre Ayton has averaged 19.4 points per game on 55.4% shooting, plus pulling down 12.4 rebounds a game — those are All-Star level numbers if he had played enough games (and wasn’t in the West, which is deep with good centers). Devin Booker will make his first All-Star appearance this season because the coaches will vote him in as a reserve (unlike the fan vote, Alex Caruso is not getting a spot). Phoenix has won 4-of-6 and remains within striking distance of the playoffs.

 
Nets small icon 20. Nets (18-24, LW 16). Kyrie Irving returned right as Brooklyn hit a tough part of the schedule, so it’s not on him the team has dropped four in a row. It was on him that Irving gave an ill-timed “state of the franchise” statement that led to days of news cycle, with each story talking about his 6-of-21 shooting against Philly. The good news for the Nets is that after the Lakers on Thursday the schedule softens up for a couple of weeks.

 
Bulls small icon 21. Bulls (16-29, LW 23). Zach LaVine is a player on the bubble for making the All-Star team in the East, but the game being in Chicago this season may give him a boost with coaches. I thought Lauri Markkanen would evolve into an All-Star level player but he’s been pretty average this season, averaging 14.9 points per game but not excelling in any one area. Markkanen has spent most of his season at the four, but is seeing more time at center with Wendell Carter Jr. out injured.

Pistons small icon 22. Pistons (16-28, LW 25). Andre Drummond is available via trade, but the market for him — especially at $27.1 million this season, has been limited. That should inform Drummond about what awaits him if he opts out of the last season of his contract ($28.8 million) and tests the free agent waters, but it sounds like he is headed to playing the field this July.

 
Kings small icon 23. Kings (15-28, LW 18). De’Aaron Fox is back healthy and the Kings are playing fast again. After being the slowest paced team in the league through November and December, the Kings are top 10 in pace in their last 10 games. Fox is averaging 22.7 points and 8.3 assists per game in January, but the Kings have lost six in a row and need to turn things around to end the longest playoff draught in the NBA.

 
24. Timberwolves (15-28, LW 22). The “Andrew Wiggins has figured it out” narrative got flowing in November when he averaged 27.1 points per game on a 56.6 true shooting percentage, plus he made some clutch plays. But in December that TS% fell to 51.7 (the league average is around 56), and in January Wiggins is scoring 15.4 points per game with a 48 TS%. Wiggins is back to being what he has always been, a nice rotational player who has night that remind you of that potential, but mostly is an average starter. Just one on a max contract owed $93.9 million over the three seasons after this one (fully guaranteed).

 
Wizards small icon 25. Wizards (14-28, LW 24). Bradley Beal may well be frustrated, but he took the big checks and now he is going to be with the Wizards for a while, the only place he is going is to Chicago for the All-Star Game (as a reserve). There’s no real trade buzz there. However, there is a lot of trade buzz around Davis Bertans, numerous teams are interested in the big shooting 43.3% from three, and that leaves the Pelicans with a choice: He’d fit great next to John Wall and Beal next season and the Wizards have talked about re-signing him, but Bertans is a free agent. If Washington isn’t sure they can re-sign him, they will have to consider those deadline trade offers.

 
Knicks small icon 26. Knicks (12-32, LW 26). RJ Barrett is out for a week with a sprained ankle, reducing the reasons to watch this team play — unless you’re scouting Marcus Morris for a trade. Which a lot of teams are doing. Morris is a hot name because a lot of teams could use his combination of shooting and defense inside. But can the Knicks get a protected first or enough else in return to get a trade worth it?

 
Hawks small icon 27. Hawks (10-34, LW 29). It’s just been two games, but so far the “Jeff Teague is here to help the second unit wile Trae Young sits” experiment has had mixed results. Teague has come off the bench and for two games and shot 7-of-12 for 17 points, but is still -19 in those games (because one man cannot save that bench unit). The Hawks lost both games. Atlanta did pick up a quality win in San Antonio Friday night on a Kevin Huerter game winner.

 
Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (12-32, LW 27). Bright spots are hard to find for a team with this record in a five-game losing streak (and 10-of-12), but here is one: In January Collin Sexton is shooting 46.3% from three on nearly five attempts per game. If the second-year guard can start to hit that consistently — and continues his overall improved play this month — he becomes much more valuable to Cleveland.

 
Warriors small icon 29. Warriors (10-35 LW 30). Stephen Curry is targeting March 1 for a return to the court, although at this point expect him to be on a minutes limit and for him still to get plenty of nights off this season. The Warriors are thinking about next season, not this one. They snapped their 10-game losing streak thanks to catching Orlando on the last night of a West Coast road swing, but the win still counts. Then MLK day it took a ridiculous 61 from Damian Lillard to hold the Warriors off.

 
Hornets small icon 30. Hornets (15-30, LW 28). Charlotte was booked to play in an NBA game in Paris (this Friday, against Milwaukee) because Tony Parker was on this roster last season. Except, then Parker retired. Still, Charlotte gets a nice mid-season trip. My word of advice: If the Hornets are going to the Louvre, “Winged Victory” and “Liberty Leading the People” are more inspiring than the “Mona Lisa” and “Venus de Milo.”

Kobe Bryant: There are women who could play in NBA right now

Kobe Bryant
Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images
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Kobe Bryant admitted to having sex with a woman who, per Bryant’s own later statement, didn’t view the encounter as consensual.

Ever since, Bryant has tried to repair his image.

Part of that is visibly championing women’s basketball. In attendance and commercials, Bryant has lent his considerable star power to both the WNBA and women’s college basketball.

He was asked: Could a woman ever play in the NBA?

Bryant, via Calum Trenaman of CNN:

“I think there are a couple of players who could play in the NBA right now honestly.

“There’s a lot of players with a lot of skill that could do it.”

“Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore, Elena Della Donne. There’s a lot of great players out there so they could certainly keep up with them,” he said.

This is inaccurate, and I bet Bryant knows it’s inaccurate. No WNBA player has the size and athleticism to compete in the NBA.

Bryant’s attempt at flattery is actually disrespectful to Taurasi, Moore and Della Donne. They are great players. Instead of leaving it at that, the conversation shifts to a comparison to the NBA, where those three just can’t hold up.

But Bryant gets to show how woke he is by saying women can do anything.