2022 Utmost Improved Player

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam in Toronto Raptors v Milwaukee Bucks
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Giannis Antetokounmpo gave himself a D- grade for his rookie season.

Which at least partially explains how he got here.

Drafted as a massive project who didn’t even crack the lottery – a malnourished 18-year-old who faced the difficult transition to America while missing his family in Greece – Antetokounmpo quickly earned a rotation spot and endeared himself to fans with his athleticism and personality. Bucks coaches named him the team’s best player by February. He even made an All-Rookie team.

By every reasonable standard, Antetokounmpo’s rookie year was a smashing success.

But Antetokounmpo holds himself to unreasonable standards.

So, he hit the weight room hard. He honed his skills. He studied the game.

Antetokounmpo received Most Improved Player votes the next year. And again the following year. In his fourth season, he won the award. Then, he became the first Most Improved Player ever to receive MIP votes each of the next two seasons. That second year, Antetokounmpo won MVP. He won a second straight MVP, doing what’s usually necessary for back-to-back winners to offset voter fatigue – improving yet again.

Now, he’s arguably better than ever.

Antetokounmpo almost certainly won’t get Most Improved Player votes this year. If he’s ahead of his 2020 MVP season, it’s only barely.

But Antetokounmpo is winner of the 2022 Utmost Improved Player.

The award, introduced last year, honors the player who improved most since his rookie year. Unlike Most Improved Player, which rewards a single year of improvement, Utmost Improved Player celebrates a full career of growth.

Antetokounmpo was one of the original inspirations for the award, but he didn’t qualify last year (when Jimmy Butler won it). The only ground rule: A player must be having a career year to be eligible.

Antetokounmpo’s latest improvement is subtle. Playing without Brook Lopez – whose floor spacing and defensive size opened so many doors for Antetokounmpo – Antetokounmpo had to up his own game on both ends to keep the Bucks humming.

Antetokounmpo has become more advanced offensively – scoring moves, passing, screening-and-rolling. He became a more staunch paint protector. However, his overall defensive impact was lessened without Lopez freeing him to roam more.

Utmost Improved Player attempts to balance crediting both skill advancement and impact increase. It’s a fine line.

The top 10 for 2022 Utmost Improved Player:

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s biggest advances came in earlier seasons, when he spent time playing like a point guard then center. In era of positionless basketball, Antetokounmpo can do nearly everything.

That all came together last season, when Antetokounmpo led Milwaukee to one of the most-satisfying championships in years. His leadership, loyalty and confidence showed a player at the pinnacle of his sport.

And Antetokounmpo came back even better this year?

This is one of the all-time great player-development stories in NBA history.

2. Nikola Jokic

  • Where he was in 2015-16 (Nuggets): Finishing a distant third in Rookie of the Year voting
  • Where is in 2021-22 (Nuggets): Likely winning his second straight MVP

The Nuggets spent years imploring Nikola Jokic to shoot more. Despite his high efficiency, he preferred to pass. What felt like a genuine unselfishness was actually limiting his team.

That seems like a distant memory.

Jokic is mastering offense.

Jokic scored a career-high 27 points per game, compensating for injuries to Jamal Murray and Michael Porter. Jr. Jokic gets the ball in the interior and aggressively hunts baskets, using his size and touch to score in a bevy of ways. His 2-point efficiency (65%) is the highest by anyone ever to score even 25 points per game. He can also shoot from distance – just the start of his ways of keeping defenses on their toes.

Drawing more defensive attention has also allowed the best passing center in NBA history even more opportunities to set up his teammates. Jokic has gotten into better shape, boosting his defense, too.

No. 4 on this last year, the former second-round pick continues his remarkable rise.

3. Darius Garland

  • Where he was in 2019-20 (Cavaliers): Not even making an All-Rookie team despite having the hype of being a top-five pick and starter
  • Where is in 2021-22 (Cavaliers): First-time All-Star

Drafted No. 5 onto a team that seemingly thought it already had its point guard of the future, Darius Garland began his career in an awkward pairing with Collin Sexton.

Garland has already proven why the Cavaliers made the right choice.

Without knocking Sexton, who has made his own major strides, Garland has stepped up as Cleveland’s best player. This is why fit should take a backseat to ability when drafting.

Like most rookie starting point guards, Garland was in over his head. The game was coming too fast. As he struggled to work inside the arc, 6-foot-1 Garland looked too small.

Garland hasn’t become a bruiser, but he’s strong enough to allow his skills to shine. He’s an excellent shooter, off the dribble and spotting up. His ability to mesh with another point guard has led some of the brightest moments of the Cavs’ season (and bodes well if Cleveland re-signs Sexton in restricted free agency. Garland’s passing has developed quickly.

An oversized Jarrett AllenEvan MobleyLauri Markkanen frontline wouldn’t usually flow so well offensively. Garland’s advanced offensive game is a big reason it has.

Essentially, the difference between the Cavaliers having some fine building blocks in a rebuild and the Cavaliers having a good team with a bright future: Garland.

4. Fred VanVleet

  • Where he was in 2016-17 (Raptors): Riding the bench
  • Where is in 2021-22 (Raptors): First-time All-Star

Fred VanVleet used to sit on the end of the bench, pissed about not playing, and talk to his teammates about what he’d do with an opportunity on the court.

To a certain degree, VanVleet should’ve known what he was getting into. As an undrafted free agent, he chose the Raptors despite Toronto having three point guards ahead of him (Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph and Delon Wright). Merely making the regular-season roster was an accomplishment for VanVleet. But he never sold himself short, not even as an undrafted rookie.

“I did 18 workouts. So, I saw almost everybody throughout the draft process,” VanVleet said. “And I was like, ‘I know guys that’s going lottery that I would shred.’ You know what I mean? So it was like, ‘I know I can play.'”

VanVleet was right.

After barely playing as rookie, he became a quality reserve then a part-time starter then a full-time starter than a good starter. He’s not necessarily way better than the previous couple years, but with Kyle Lowry gone, VanVleet has really gotten to spread his wings this season and made an All-Star team.

VanVleet is a high-quality 3-point shooter and dogged defender. Without Lowry, VanVleet has improved his point-guard skills, though those responsibilities are shared with Raptors forwards Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes. Credit VanVleet, who’s relatively small (6-foot-1) and unathletic, for being able to handle 38 minutes per game. That heavy playing time goes a long way toward maximizing his value.

And is what VanVleet wanted all along.

5. DeMar DeRozan

  • Where he was in 2009-10 (Raptors): Not making an All-Rookie team despite being a top-10 pick who started 65 games
  • Where is in 2021-22 (Bulls): Potentially cracking MVP ballots

DeMar DeRozan had already doubled his scoring average from his rookie year when he signed a four-year, $40 million contract extension entering his fourth season with the Raptors.

That deal was universally panned.

But DeRozan proved to be worth the money – and then some.

By 2014, he was an All-Star. By 2016, he definitely deserved to be an All-Star.

He improved his ball-handling, allowing him to take far better advantage of his athleticism on dribble drives. He drew more free throws. He got to better spots for his jumpers.

DeRozan became an All-Star mainstay by expanding his all-around game.

Traded him to the Spurs in 2019,  DeRozan regressed and appeared to age out of stardom. Still, he really honed his point guard skills in San Antonio.

Yet, he’s suddenly having a career year in his 13th season. The oldest player on this list by more than four years, 32-year-old DeRozan is among the several players vying for fourth- and fifth-place MVP votes.

DeRozan has become so comfortable in his own skin. He’s a flamethrower from mid-range, never embracing 3-pointers the way his generation has. He made 47% of his non-paint 2-pointers this season – six percentage points above league average and seven percentage points above his prior-career mark – while attempting a high volume against defenses that know his preferences.

All the elements of DeRozan’s offensive game have come together like never before. Playing with (and without) Lonzo Ball, DeRozan has frequently used his point guard skills in Chicago, too.

Though still not a good defender, DeRozan is at least providing value with his versatility as the nominal power forward in many Bulls’ lineups. Tangling with bigger opponents speaks to his toughness.

Just another way his determination has shined through a long career.

6. Pascal Siakam

  • Where he was in 2016-17 (Raptors): Surprisingly ready to contribute as an unexpected first-round pick, but still not ready for a major role on a good team
  • Where is in 2021-22 (Raptors): Playing like the total package, drawing All-NBA third-team consideration

Pascal Siakam won 2019 Most Improved Player and was mounting an incredible case to repeat in 2020.

Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Siakam struggled in the bubble. As the Raptors played a difficult year in Tampa last season, Siakam looked particularly out of sorts. He missed the start of this season with a shoulder injury.

But Siakam has regained his momentum as he heated up down the stretch this season.

He averaged career highs in points (23), rebounds (nine) and assists (five) per game. His scoring efficiency (56% true shooting) is the best it has been in the three years Siakam has expanded his offensive repertoire and taken a larger load. Even while playing 38 minutes per game, he sustains energy for defense, where his length and mobility cause terror.

Essentially, Siakam is combining the hustle skills and role acceptance that endeared him early in his career with the enhanced skill set that has allowed him to take the next step. He is a definite contender for All-NBA third team (though I went with Jimmy Butler).

7. Dejounte Murray

  • Where he was in 2016-17 (Spurs): Averaging 3.4 points per game and looking like his career could go any direction
  • Where is in 2021-22 (Spurs): First-time All-Star, albeit as an injury replacement

Dejounte Murray was overhyped by the mock-draft community. So, when he “fell” to the Spurs with the No. 29 pick in the 2016 draft, a narrative took hold: San Antonio got another steal.

But that obfuscated just how big a project Murray was.

Murray barely played as a rookie, showing flashes and – perhaps more importantly to the Spurs – coachability. He was too often out of control, though.

Murray first found his footing as a defender, making an All-Defensive team and becoming starting point guard in his second season. At 21, he was the youngest All-Defensive teamer in NBA history.

Missing his third season due to an ACL injury only barely stunted Murray’s growth. He kept getting better and better, improving as a shooter and decision-maker.

This season, Murray really broke out with career highs in points (21), assists (nine) and rebounds (eight) per game. He took hold of San Antonio’s offense unlike ever before, though he has plenty of room to become more efficient in that go-to role. His defense remained solid despite having so much more responsibility on the other end.

In other words, Murray is a prime candidate to keep climbing this list.

8. Joel Embiid

  • Where he was in 2016-17 (76ers): Nearly winning Rookie of the Year despite missing 51 games
  • Where is in 2021-22 (76ers): Seriously challenging for MVP

Joel Embiid was already playing like a star when he finally took the court in his third professional season. Despite injury issues limiting him to 31 games, he nearly won Rookie of the Year.

So, this is a story more of greater impact than greater skill.

But don’t lose sight of the work Embiid did to handle 34 minutes per game in 68 games – both career highs. He has taken better care of his body, doing the work to improve his conditioning.

Embiid has also improved his skill. He didn’t have the moves to lead the league in scoring before. As double teams become more frequent, Embiid has become more adept as a passer (though still has plenty of room to grow). He has sharpened his defense.

All told, this is Embiid’s fifth career year in six NBA seasons. If he keeps improving from such lofty initial heights, he’ll eventually get that MVP he covets.

9. Jordan Poole

  • Where he was in 2019-20 (Warriors): Playing like a bust
  • Where is in 2021-22 (Warriors):

It’s foolish to write off a 20-year-old first-round pick after only one season.

But Jordan Poole certainly looked like he might fall out of the league quickly.

As a rookie, Poole seemed SO far from even a decent NBA player. He shot 39% on 2-pointers and 28% on 3-pointers. And shooting was supposed to be his strength!

It’s not as if Poole’s underlying talent level were absolutely reassuring, either. The Warriors drafting him No. 28 was considered a surprise at best, a reach at worst. Publicly at least, he was mostly considered a second-round-caliber prospect. Second-rounders sometimes play like that – then wash out.

But in a progression that should have generated more Most Improved Player-ballot consideration, Poole became a solid backup last season. He’ll probably get more MIP love this year.

If not for injuries to Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry, Poole could be contending for another award. Poole’s stats (22 points and five assists per 36 minutes, 60% true shooting) resemble presumptive Sixth Man of the Year Tyler Herro‘s (23 points and four assists per 36 minutes, 56% true shooting). But Poole started 51 of 76 games, making him ineligible for Sixth Man of the Year.

Too good for that award, Poole cracks this list with his rapid progress. Just he and Garland made this top 10 in their third seasons. Everyone else is an at least their sixth.

10. Terry Rozier

  • Where he was in 2015-16 (Celtics): Looking like a predictable bust
  • Where is in 2021-22 (Hornets): Living up to his contract as a good starter

Terry Rozier still hasn’t gotten his desired job as starting point guard.

But he’s settling in nicely with Charlotte.

The starting shooting guard signed a four-year, $96 million contract extension before the season. In just a couple years, Rozier completely silenced the talk he was overpaid on the three-year, $57 million deal that brought him to the Hornets.

Strikingly, Rozier has outplayed the other player in that Boston-Charlotte sign-and-trade – Kemba Walker, whose Knicks tenure has gone wayward.

Rozier has become a strong outside shooter. He’s more under control as a passer and scorer when probing inside the arc. Playing with LaMelo Ball, Rozier helps as a secondary playmaker.

Rozier was rated as having career year this season by the narrowest of margins. His output was quite similar to last season. So, he was barely eligible for this list – a close call that meant Raptors wing Gary Trent Jr. (who began his career with the Trail Blazers) was the last cut.

NBA adds Maurice Podoloff Trophy for team with best record

Image courtesy NBA

ASSOCIATED PRESS — There’s now another trophy for NBA teams to chase.

The league announced Tuesday that the team with the best regular season record will now receive The Maurice Podoloff Trophy, named for the first commissioner of the NBA.

And that name strongly suggests that another trophy tweak is coming – since until last season, the league’s MVP trophy was named for Podoloff. Denver’s Nikola Jokic received the Podoloff Trophy when he won his first MVP award in 2021; when he won MVP again last season, he also received a crystal ball amid a leaguewide redesign of many trophies.

The new Podoloff Trophy has a crystal ball cut into 82 panels – a nod to the 82-game regular season – and sits atop a pedestal that combines the structures of the Eastern Conference posts and Western Conference rings.

The league also unveiled several more redesigned trophies Tuesday. The Joe Dumars Trophy for sportsmanship, The Red Auerbach Trophy for coach of the year, The Twyman-Stokes Trophy for the league’s best teammate and the NBA Executive of the Year Trophy all have new looks. Each features an embedment inside a 15-inch crystal net structure.

“Winning the first NBA Sportsmanship Award and being the trophy’s namesake are among the greatest honors of my career,” said Dumars, who is now an NBA Executive Vice President and the league’s head of basketball operations. “The reimagined trophies represent the enduring legacy of past recipients and are a fitting way to honor those who will continue to raise the standard of excellence in our game.”

Last season, the league changed the look of the NBA’s championship trophy, The Larry O’Brien, with the golden ball atop it now tilting in a different direction than the previous version and with a rounded base instead of the square one that the trophy had for decades.

It also made design changes for many other awards, including the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP trophy along with the Eastern Conference and Western Conference championship trophies – naming them for Bob Cousy and Oscar Robertson, respectively. The league also added two new prizes last season, the Larry Bird Trophy for East finals MVP and the Magic Johnson Trophy for West finals MVP.

All the trophies handed out at All-Star weekend, including the Kobe Bryant MVP award, were also redesigned last season. The league also began issuing divisional championship trophies, naming them for Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton (Atlantic Division), Wayne Embry (Central), Earl Lloyd (Southeast), Willis Reed (Southwest), Sam Jones (Northwest) and Chuck Cooper (Pacific).

Three things to know: Can someone explain the Miami Heat?

Miami Heat v Atlanta Hawks
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Three Things 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) Can someone explain the Miami Heat?

Friday night, Jimmy Butler returned to the Heat lineup and was a force down the stretch, Bam Adebayo played like an All-NBA big man and the Heat picked up a don’t-forget-about-us win over the best team in basketball, the Boston Celtics.

Two nights later, with Butler still in the lineup, the Heat fell to a Grizzlies team without Ja Morant or three other starters. The listless loss felt like a low point in the season.

Until Tuesday. That’s when Jimmy Butler got a scheduled rest day and the Heat fell apart in the second half and lost 116-96 to a struggling Pistons team without Cade Cunningham. The Heat defense, one of their strengths on the season, was a mess on Tuesday as they could not contain the ball. More importantly, as has happened too often this season, the Heat simply got outworked.

Typically around 20 games into the season, you have a sense of a team and what it can be. Not the Heat. They are 11-14 and sit 11th in the East, outside even the play-in. They tease with flashes that remind you they came within a made Butler 3 of going to the Finals a season ago, but on more nights they come nowhere near that potential.

Offensively, this team is bottom 10 in the league, and it showed against Detroit. The only true shot creators on the roster are Butler and Tyler Herro — if one of them isn’t on the floor Miami barely scores a point per possession. Against Detroit, if it wasn’t a Herro/Adebayo action, the play seemed to go nowhere.

Last season, when the team was shorthanded for a night, the reserves stepped up the energy — Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, Caleb Martin stepped up and made plays. This season, when the stars are out that same energy is not there.

Injuries are part of the issue — Kyle Lowry is their iron man, having played in every game (a sentence I never thought I would type). Herro has missed eight games, Butler 10, and reserves such as Duncan Robinson and Vincent have spent time on the shelf. Victor Oladipo made his debut on Tuesday. Eric Spoelstra constantly has to juggle his rotation, nothing feels settled.

But this team isn’t playing every night with the fire we have come to expect from the Heat. Last season (and traditionally every year), even when the stars had to sit the Heat were a tough out because of the intensity and execution with which they played. Not this season. That Heat culture has not shown through the same way.

It’s also too early to write this team off (and they could make a move at the deadline to boost the rotation). Despite the slow start they are just 2.5 games back of the Hawks and the No. 4 seed, there is time to make a run, but games like the loss to the Pistons Tuesday make one wonder if this version of the Heat has that in them.

2) Donovan Mitchell drops 43, outshines LeBron in Cleveland

There’s a little extra shine on the game any time LeBron James returns to Cleveland. The spotlight is a little brighter.

Donovan Mitchell stole that spotlight on Tuesday.

Mitchell dropped a season-high 43 points and continued to look like one of the best moves of the offseason, sparking the Cavaliers to a 116-102 win over the Lakers.

The big concern from Los Angeles’ end was Anthony Davis left the game in the first quarter due to “flu-like symptoms” and did not return. His status for the team against the Raptors Wednesday night is unknown.

Jarrett Allen returned from injury for the Cavaliers and with Davis out he ate, scoring 24. But it was the Mitchell show in the second half, when he scored 29.

3) Progress toward new CBA reportedly slowed down

It’s long been the conventional wisdom that the owners and players are both making too much money to risk killing the goose that lays the golden eggs — they would find common ground on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Things were going too well for them to risk any labor trouble (and how that would play publicly).

But that may underestimate billionaires’ greed — an internal fight among owners might screw it up.

New CBA talks have reportedly slowed largely because some owners are pushing for an “Upper Spending Limit” — a hard cap by any other name. Marc Stein was among the first to report on this months ago and added yesterday in his newsletter things have gotten serious enough that the sides may need to extend the Dec. 15 opt-out date for the CBA to give them more time to negotiate.

Here’s the issue in a nutshell:

• Some owners want to rein in the spending of other newer, richer owners. Since the punitive luxury tax isn’t doing the job, those owners want a hard cap (possibly to replace, or at least alter, the current tax system).

• There are a minority of owners are willing to shrug off the tax. For example, Steve Ballmer’s Clippers are poised to pay $191.9 million in payroll this season, plus $144.7 million in luxury tax, for a rough total of $336.6 million in salary and tax. The Warriors are likely closer to $360 million this season in salary and tax, and the Nets will be in the same ballpark. For comparison, the Clippers will pay more in tax alone than 11 teams will spend on total payroll, (20 NBA teams will pay around $150 million in payroll or less).

• There is zero chance the players union will approve a CBA with anything resembling a hard cap. The owners know this.

• The owners’ squabbles are part of a larger fight going on across the sporting world, not just domestically but internationally. To use soccer as an example during the World Cup, the oil-rich country of Qatar owns French powerhouse Paris Saint-Germain FC and has paid for a front line of Messi, Neymar, and Kylian Mbappe. They crush domestic competition most seasons because they can outspend them. The Saudi Arabia sovereign wealth fund has bought Newcastle United in the English Premier League and their spending — not just on players but staff and facilities — has turned Newcastle into a Champions League looking team in a year. And the list goes on and on in soccer.

• Earlier this year, the NBA approved a rule change that would allow a sovereign wealth fund — the arms of these oil-rich countries, or other nations — to buy up to 20% of an NBA team. That has not happened yet, but the door is open.

• As wealthier owners — including hedge fund managers and the like — jump into the NBA, some of the older owners feel squeezed by this new group’s willingness to spend. That older group is pushing back to rein in those new owners who (they feel) disrupt the system with their spending.

• This dispute among the owners has suddenly put the dreaded idea of a lockout back on the table. It’s not likely, but it’s possible. This is not a player thing, this is all Adam Silver and the owners, and they need to get their house in order, not risk the league’s standing over their internal issues.

TOP HIGHLIGHT OF THE NIGHT: Kenny shoves Shaq into the Christmas Tree. That is never not funny.

Watch Donovan Mitchell drop 43, upstage LeBron return as Cavs top Lakers


CLEVELAND (AP) — As a kid growing up in New York, Donovan Mitchell idolized LeBron James. On Tuesday night, he upstaged him.

Mitchell scored a season-high 43 points and Jarrett Allen returned from injury to add 24, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 116-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in James’ only visit home this season.

With Anthony Davis missing the final three quarters because of illness, the Cavs improved to an NBA-leading 11-1 on their floor, their best start at home since 2015-16, when James led them to a championship.

Mitchell, who has Cleveland fans dreaming of another title run, took over in the second half and scored 29 points with the kind of performance James had routinely during his 11 seasons for the Cavs.

“You always want to spoil the homecoming,” Mitchell said with a smile.

With Cleveland leading by 12 in the fourth, Mitchell buried a 3-pointer from the left wing to finish the Lakers. After dropping the shot, the All-Star guard strutted around the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse floor nodding his head as James helplessly watched.

“He’s Mitchell,” James said. “He’s a special kid.”

Darius Garland added 21 points and 11 assists for Cleveland.

James finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds, losing for just the third time in 20 games against the Cavs.

Dennis Schroder and Russell Westbrook added 16 points apiece as Los Angeles had its four-game winning streak stopped.

Davis went out after eight minutes with flu-like symptoms. The eight-time All-Star had scored 99 points in his previous two games and had been playing as well as he has in several seasons after being plagued by injuries.

Davis didn’t attempt a field goal and scored just one point before leaving.

“It got progressively worse as the day went on,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “His temperature was 101 and some change. A-D wanted to try to play, but he felt too weak. He’s drained and dehydrated.

“That’s a huge loss, obviously, with the way he’s been playing lately.”

Without Davis clogging the middle, Allen, who missed the last five games with a bruised back, made his first 10 shots and helped the Cavs take a 57-49 halftime lead.

“Next man up,” James said when asked how he reacted to losing Davis. “That’s a tall task – literally and figuratively.”

The Cavs welcomed James back with a video tribute during an early timeout. After a montage of clips, including some from 2016, James waved to the crowd and then blew kisses to show his appreciation.

The warm scene was in contrast to what happened almost exactly 12 years ago, when he came back with the Miami Heat and was met with boos and worse on a night James has said he’ll never forget.

James said he was caught off guard by the tribute.

“It’s always love coming back here,” he said. “The memories I have here will never be forgotten.”


Ben Simmons targeting Friday vs. Hawks to return from calf strain

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
Adam Hunger/Getty Images

Ben Simmons has missed the Nets’ last three games with knee pain tied to a left calf strain, and he will be out Wednesday, too, when Brooklyn takes on Charlotte.

However, he plans to return on Friday (Dec. 9) against the Hawks.

Simmons was adjusting to a new role in Brooklyn. In Philadelphia he was a point-forward with the ball in his hands playing off Joel Embiid (at least at first), but in Brooklyn the ball needed to be in the hands of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the halfcourt. Simmons is playing more small-ball five, and is asked to be aggressive and attack when he gets the ball — not shoot jumpers — and to push the rock in transition. It took a while for Simmons to settle into that space, but he seemed to in games against Philadelphia (11 points, 11 assists), Toronto (14 points, six assists) and Indiana (20 points). Then the injuries hit.

Brooklyn sits at 13-12, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense for the season. While there are doubts about the ceiling for this team, it has a talent level that should be better than this record, it’s just been beset by injuries, controversy causing Kyrie Irving to miss time, and a coaching change. The Nets have yet to hit their stride.

But they could have a clean injury report on Friday night, and maybe that can be the start of this team getting on a run.