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PBT mid-season awards: Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year and more

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The 2019-20 NBA season reached its midpoint by games played last night. So, we’re naming winners for mid-season awards. Yesterday, we picked Most Valuable Player and All-NBA. Now, we’re onto the other major honors.

Defensive Player of the Year

Kurt Helin: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

This is the hardest award for me to pick mid-season, but the Jazz put more on the plate of Gobert this season and he has responded amazingly (even if the Jazz’s defense is a little off from its usual highs this season). A lot of other players still in the mix here for me including Joel Embiid (if he plays enough games), Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, and Marcus Smart.

Dan Feldman: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

Even as reigning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year, Gobert doesn’t have the final award sewn up. Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez and Kawhi Leonard are in the mix. But in a tight race, Gobert gets the benefit of the doubt. Utah’s strong defense is built entirely around Gobert’s rim protection.

Rookie of the Year

Kurt Helin: Ja Morant (Grizzlies)

This is a runaway award, but not for the guy we expected to run away with it. Zion Williamson makes his debut next week and maybe he could climb to third in this race, but he’s not winning the award. Morant and his fluid athleticism have turned Grizzlies into must-watch television, and he looks every bit the franchise player. Kendrick Nunn is a clear second in this race.

Dan Feldman: Ja Morant (Grizzlies)

Some rookie point guards put up big numbers. Some rookie point guards produce electric highlights. Some rookie point guards show promising flashes of winning basketball. Few rookie point guards are actually good. Morant is actually good. His athleticism, shooting and overall offensive control form an incredible package for his age. Sure, Morant is sometimes too reckless. He doesn’t completely break the mold of a young point guard. But Memphis has a gem.

Most Improved Player

Kurt Helin: Devonte' Graham (Hornets)

Last season, Graham was an end-of-the-bench guy in Charlotte. This season, he’s averaging 18.7 points a game, hitting 38.7 percent from three and is the team’s best player. Nobody saw that coming and it’s a radical improvement. Also in the mix for this award are Bam Adebayo and Luka Doncic — yes, the MVP candidate, he as made a massive leap this season.

Dan Feldman: Luka Doncic (Mavericks)

It’s a two-man race between Doncic and Devonte’ Graham. As the reigning Rookie of the Year, Doncic will get overlooked. He’s a second-year player. He was supposed to be this good. BS. The leap into superstardom is generally more difficult than the climb from non-rotation player to good starter, which Graham made. For Doncic to get this good this quickly is unprecedented.

Sixth Man of the Year

Kurt Helin: Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)

Harrell was in the mix for this award last season and came back this season as a better defender and more efficient on offense. He’s a critical element for a contending Clippers team, and closes games for them at the five. However, this is not a decided race by any means, both Derrick Rose and George Hill deserve serious consideration. Also, Spencer Dinwiddie in Brooklyn could be in the mix, but likely starts too many games to qualify.

Dan Feldman: Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)

I nearly chose Harrell for this award last season. Since, he has improved his offensive skill and defensive effectiveness. His big role in L.A. gives Harrell the edge over another highly productive reserve, the Bucks’ George Hill. Derrick Rose and Harrell’s teammate, Lou Williams, also warrant consideration.

Coach of the Year

Kurt Helin: Erik Spoelstra (Heat)

This is a wide-open race and my spreadsheet goes eight deep with worthy candidates: Nick Nurse has done an impressive job in Toronto, same with Brad Stevens in Boston and Frank Vogel with the Lakers, and the list goes on. Spoelstra, however, leads for me because of a combination of player development — Kendrick Nunn, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, etc. — and smart utilization of the players’ he has. Plus, Spoelstra is getting it all to mesh around Jimmy Butler.

Dan Feldman: Nick Nurse (Raptors)

Nurse kept Toronto humming when Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green left. Nurse kept Toronto humming when key players, including breakout star Pascal Siakam, got hurt. Nurse kept Toronto humming when unproven young players had to join the rotation. Nurse’s defenses are particularly exemplary – both his creativity and ability to get everyone up to speed. The Heat’s Erik Spoelstra and the Pacers’ Nate McMillan aren’t far behind.

PBT mid-season awards: MVP and All-NBA

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The 2019-20 NBA season will reach its midpoint by games played tonight. So, we’re naming winners for mid-season awards. Tomorrow, we’ll pick Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Most Improved Player, Sixth Man of the Year and Coach of the Year.

Most Valuable Player

Kurt Helin: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)

This is how wide-open this race remains to me: a couple of weeks ago I would have said LeBron James led this chase, and a few days ago it was James Harden (and Luka Doncic could still be the one holding the trophy at the end of the season). Harden’s case is his 37.2 points per game scoring average, which the fourth-highest average in NBA history (trailing only three Wilt Chamberlain seasons) — and he’s scoring even more efficiently than he did a season ago. However, those numbers have slipped slightly in recent weeks, although that’s because defenses have adjusted and are throwing crazy double-teams at him. Antetokounmpo is averaging 30 points and 12 rebounds a game, added a three-point shot to his game, and has led the Bucks to the best record in the NBA. As it was last season, it’s the defense that separates Antetokounmpo — and this year LeBron, too — from Harden in my book.

Dan Feldman: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)

James Harden is averaging an astounding 37.2 points per game. That’s the start of his MVP case. But per 100 team possessions, Harden’s scoring lead over Antetokounmpo is a mere 46.4 to 44.9. Consider Antetokounmpo’s all-around advantages – especially defensively – and he deserves this honor.

Harden gets additional credit for playing more than Antetokounmpo. Those are minutes Harden is providing value to his team. But Antetokounmpo plays fewer minutes because he and Milwaukee are putting away teams early. Like Harden, Antetokounmpo is playing as much as necessary for his team to win.

LeBron James, Luka Doncic and Anthony Davis are also in the mix.

All-NBA

Kurt Helin:

First team

G: Luka Doncic (Mavericks)

G: James Harden (Rockets)

F: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)

F: LeBron James (Lakers)

C: Joel Embiid (76ers)

Second team

G: Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)

G: Kemba Walker (Celtics)

F: Anthony Davis (Lakers)

F: Kawhi Leonard (Clippers)

C: Nikola Jokic (Nuggets)

Third team

G: Paul George (Clippers)

G: Donovan Mitchell (Jazz)

F: Pascal Siakam (Raptors)

F: Jimmy Butler (Heat)

C: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

Every year I find All-NBA third team the most difficult part of the ballot — there are usually several players for each position very close in my mind, and those decisions by voters can have financial implications for the players. (Why players salary levels should not be based on media player votes is a rant for another day — but I have that rant ready.)

That’s the case again this season. I feel comfortable with the first two teams (although, obviously, things can shift) but the third team is challenging, and there are players not listed above who could make my end-of-year ballot. Karl-Anthony Towns is my fourth center but only because he has missed so much time and he likely gets back on the court soon (he has been phenomenal offensively when he plays). Bradley Beal could climb into a guard spot, as could Devin Booker or Trae Young (their defense still holds them back in my mind). Khris Middleton and others are hanging around as well.

Dan Feldman:

First team

G: James Harden (Rockets)

G: Luka Doncic (Mavericks)

F: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)

F: LeBron James (Lakers)

C: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

Second team

G: Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)

G: Chris Paul (Thunder

F: Anthony Davis (Lakers)

F: Jimmy Butler (Heat)

C: Nikola Jokic (Nuggets)

Third team

G: Ben Simmons (76ers)

G: Kemba Walker (Celtics)

F: Kawhi Leonard (Clippers)

F: Jaylen Brown (Celtics)

C: Joel Embiid (76ers)

Gobert and Jokic could go in either order at center. Because he has played less, Embiid had to edge out Bam Adebayo.

The final guard spot was extremely close between Walker, Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker and Trae Young. It’s splitting hairs.

Same for the final forward spot. Brown narrowly topped Jayson Tatum, Brandon Ingram and Domantas Sabonis

Pascal Siakam might have taken it if he stayed healthy, and he’ll have a chance to seize it the rest of the season. Paul George could also get in the race at either forward or guard if he’s healthier the rest of the season.

Alex Caruso jumps Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry in All-Star voting

Alex Caruso
Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images
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Alex Caruso‘s All-Star votes caused waves when the Lakers backup ranked sixth among Western Conference guards.

Now, he’s fourth, passing Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry.

Fourth!

Ultimately, this won’t matter. Caruso won’t be an All-Star. Starters are determined by a formula that combines the votes of fans, players (who’ll barely choose Caruso) and media (who won’t at all choose Caruso). Reserves are picked by coaches (who won’t at all choose Caruso). Caruso getting so many fan votes is funny and nothing more.

Really, if his climb produces any more outrage, that’d further expose the absurdity of this whole process. He passed Westbrook (who has slipped and is no longer playing like a Western Conference All-Star) and Curry (who has missed nearly the entire season due to injury). It’s a popularity contest that only somewhat overlaps with on-court production. Caruso is among the bigger absurdities in All-Star voting, but there’s no sanctity to uphold here.

The latest update in All-Star voting provides minimal meaningful change from the previous returns.

Carmelo Anthony moved from eighth to sixth among Western Conference frontcourt players, passing Kristaps Porzingis and Karl-Anthony Towns. It still seems likely LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard will snag the three Western Conference frontcourt starting spots. But Anthony – who’s highly popular among fellow players – has an outside chance if media votes (which won’t include him) are concentrated enough.

LeBron James still leads the overall voting. Giannis Antetokounmpo leads Eastern Conference players, though he trails Luka Doncic. Let me restate my objection: If he has more votes than Antetokounmpo, Doncic should be an All-Star captain. Dividing by conference at the captain-picking stage – when the whole point is no longer dividing the All-Star game by conference – is a bad method.

Likewise, players shouldn’t be divided by conference when selected at all (though I understand Eastern Conference teams want to protect spots for their lesser players).

Maybe we can start by eliminating positional designations. Make the best 26 – yes, 26 – players All-Stars, and let them sort it out on the court.

Here’s the All-Star full leaderboard:

Eastern Conference

Guards

1. Trae Young (ATL) 2,066,924

2. Kyrie Irving (BRK) 1,814,618

3. Kemba Walker (BOS) 1,797,633

4. Derrick Rose (DET) 1,381,934

5. Kyle Lowry (TOR) 848,293

6. Zach LaVine (CHI) 847,632

7. Jaylen Brown (BOS) 718,355

8. Ben Simmons (PHI) 629,199

9. Bradley Beal (WAS) 609,899

10. Fred VanVleet (TOR) 546,471

Frontcourt

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo (MIL) 4,474,107

2. Pascal Siakam (TOR) 2,433,411

3. Joel Embiid (PHI) 2,398,743

4. Jimmy Butler (MIA) 2,046,257

5. Jayson Tatum (BOS) 1,622,635

6. Tacko Fall (BOS) 757,375

7. Bam Adebayo (MIA) 529,244

8. Gordon Hayward (BOS) 398,213

9. Domantas Sabonis (IND) 381,390

10. Andre Drummond (DET) 325,178

Western Conference

Guards

1. Luka Doncic (DAL) 4,598,323

2. James Harden (HOU) 2,934,614

3. Damian Lillard (POR) 984,140

4. Alex Caruso (LAL) 894,827

5. Russell Westbrook (HOU) 837,187

6. Stephen Curry (GSW) 819,352

7. Donovan Mitchell (UTA) 673,917

8. Devin Booker (PHO) 577,035

9. D’Angelo Russell (GSW) 491,047

10. Ja Morant (MEM) 399,703

Frontcourt

1. LeBron James (LAL) 4,747,887

2. Anthony Davis (LAL) 4,412,619

3. Kawhi Leonard (LAC) 2,973,076

4. Paul George (LAC) 1,171,616

5. Nikola Jokic (DEN) 889,387

6. Carmelo Anthony (POR) 784,038

7. Kristaps Porzingis (DAL) 774,056

8. Karl-Anthony Towns (MIN) 746,013

9. Brandon Ingram (NOP) 672,666

10. Dwight Howard (LAL) 670,643

Three Things to Know: This is the confident Markelle Fultz we’ve been waiting for

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) That’s the confident Markelle Fultz we’ve been waiting for, he has 21-point triple-double to lead Magic past Lakers. When Philadelphia threw in the towel on Markelle Fultz and the nerve issue that wrecked his jump shot, they did the former No. 1 pick a favor and sent him to Orlando. A favor because they got him out of the bright spotlight of Philadelphia — a big market and a team with big expectations — and to a franchise that has developed players, an out of the way place on the NBA map where he could play, make mistakes, and not have his every jumper over-analyzed.

Coach Steve Clifford has been bringing Fultz along slowly, building his confidence game-by-game, making him a starter, giving him rope, and not just yanking him after every mistake.

Wednesday night we saw how well that has worked — this is now a confident Fultz who will body up LeBron James, move him out of the way, and get a bucket.

Fultz had a triple-double — 21 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists — and was the heart of Orlando’s upset win against the Anthony Davis-less Lakers on Wednesday, 119-118. That ended the Lakers’ nine-game win streak. It was Fultz’s best game of the season as he took over late and played fearlessly.

Fultz still has a ways to go to live up to the potential that made him a No. 1 pick — he was 0-of-4 in this game on shots outside the paint and is nowhere near a threat from three yet with his work-in-progress jumper — but he’s playing with confidence now. The Magic have a real player at the point.

Orlando also has a real player in Aaron Gordon, and he had a couple of monster dunks against the Lakers.

Damn.

2) Kyrie Irving after Nets loss: “We need one more piece or two more pieces” to go with him and Kevin Durant. After missing 26 games Kyrie Irving is back and, well, be careful what you wish for Brooklyn.

The Nets got their star player back a few games ago, but after Wednesday’s loss to Philadelphia — where the Sixers had another gear and dominated the fourth quarter 31-16 — Irving did not exactly give the Saint Crispin’s Day speech to fire up the troops for battle:

Irving was 6-of-21 shooting for the night and 1-of-7 in the fourth quarter, looking like a guy with some tired legs playing his first back-to-back since his return. He sounded frustrated and spoke his mind.

Do the Nets need more “pieces” to compete with the Bucks at the top of the East? Maybe. Probably. But it’s tough to judge with Irving just returned from injury, Kevin Durant likely out for the season, Caris LeVert also just back from injury, Garrett Temple out, and all the new faces still adjusting to playing next to each other. This season was always a placeholder until the Nets got healthy next season. Maybe Brooklyn can add some quality role players over the summer, but it feels early to call out the organization like that.

The Nets brought in Sean Marks as GM, hired Kenny Atkinson as coach, and built a Spursian “team first, lunchpail work ethic” squad that ground its way to the playoffs last season without “stars,” then went 13-13 without Irving (and Durant) to get back in the playoff mix this season. The Nets have an identity. With Irving now, and Durant over the summer, the Nets will add elite talent but big egos to that mix, guys used to winning by doing things their way. It’s an interesting chemistry experiment, one where we already seem to be getting a reaction.

3) Nuggets star point guard Jamal Murray leaves game with a sprained ankle, he’s going to miss some time. This is a blow to a Nuggets team sitting second in the West — their second-best player is going to miss some time.

Jamal Murray pushed out to contest a three-pointer by Terry Rozier and appeared to land on Rozier’s foot. You can see Murray’s ankle roll in the video. He instantly grabbed at it, and he was eventually helped off the floor by teammates.

This quote from Nuggets coach Mike Malone postgame did not sound positive.

Murray is averaging 17.6 points and 4.6 assists a game for Denver. Expect to see Monte Morris get some more run with Murray out, but this is a setback for a Nuggets team in the middle of a tight race in the West.

NBA Power Rankings: Jazz climbing fast, still chasing Bucks, Lakers

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The top two spots remain locked in, as they have for weeks now, but under that there remains a lot of movement in these NBA power rankings, with the red-hot Jazz climbing up to third.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (36-6, Last Week No. 1). Milwaukee is on a 70-win pace, and while we rightfully credit Giannis Antetokounmpo for much of that (right now he’d get my MVP vote, again), it is the Bucks’ defense that sets them apart. Milwaukee’s 101.6 defensive rating (using NBA.com’s numbers) is the best in the league by more than two full points. Their system protects the paint first, last, and always, and with that gives up the most three-point attempts in the league per game. However, their length and athleticism can contest some of those, and the Bucks take away all of an opponent’s easy buckets at the rim. It works.

Lakers small icon 2. Lakers (33-7, LW No. 2). Winners of nine in a row, and that includes beating OKC when LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Danny Green were all out. Kyle Kuzma lit up the Thunder with 36 in that game, but was very pedestrian (5-of-13 shooting, 11 points) two nights later against the Cavaliers, missing all his threes. Kuzma tends to be up-and-down, which concerns teams that see him as a No. 3 option or a sixth man and might want to trade for him (it also should concern the Lakers, somewhat, although he’s given them what they need this season).

Jazz small icon 3. Jazz (28-12, LW 4). Utah has won 10 in a row and they continue to tear it up on offense — a league-best 122 offensive rating over those 10 games. Donovan Mitchell has played like an All-Star, Joe Ingles has thrived as a starter, Bojan Bogdanovic is having big games, and the Jazz are undefeated since adding Jordan Clarkson to their bench. All of this is without Mike Conley in the mix (still out with a hamstring issue), but it leads to questions about how to fit him in upon his return.

Rockets small icon 4. Rockets (26-13, LW 5). At the midway point of the season, James Harden is on pace to average 37.8 points per game for the season, the most by any player not named Wilt Chamberlain. What’s amazing is he has taken on that increased offensive load and been even more efficient this season, with a ridiculous 63.6 true shooting percentage. Those numbers have slipped a little in recent weeks as teams are throwing ridiculous double-teams at Harden to force the ball out of his hands, but how he is making teams adjust is another reason is in the middle of the MVP mix this season.

Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (27-11, LW 3). Boston’s offense looked clumsy during a three-game losing streak, that was until Jayson Tatum exploded for 41 against a shorthanded Pelicans team on Saturday. It was an All-Star level performance from Tatum, but will the coaches pick him as a reserve in the East? Probably. My money is on the player/media vote bumping Kemba Walker into a starting role, but either way he will be in Chicago as well. Thursday night the Celtics get a good measuring stick game against the Bucks in Milwaukee.

Nuggets small icon 6. Nuggets (27-12, LW 7). In the last 15 games, Denver has looked like the team we expected going into the season: Winning games (11-4) thanks to an elite offense led by Nikola Jokic (second best in the NBA in the last 15), but that masks a troubling defense (28th in the NBA over that same stretch). The impressive Nuggets defense from the first part of the season is gone, and if it doesn’t make a return — or the Nuggets don’t make a trade to boost it — that end of the floor could have them fishing in Cabo earlier than they expected this postseason.

Clippers small icon 7. Clippers (28-13, LW 6). Some nights, the Clippers look like the team the rest of the West feared — they can take apart anybody. Just ask the Lakers. But there are other nights they look disjointed and uninterested, and they do not impress, such as recent losses to Memphis and Denver. Doc Rivers, what do you think of the inconsistency? “I think we’ve been inconsistent on both ends. It is what it is. I’m not that frightened by it.” Should he be?

Heat small icon 8. Heat (27-12, LW 8). Miami keeps winning games — 9-6 in its last 15 — but that’s become in spite of their defense and not because of it. The Heat have been a bottom 10 defensive team over those 15 games (and the team has a net rating of -0.1, basically even). Last weekend’s losses to the Nets and Knicks are the kind of off games teams with poor defenses have. The Heat need to turn this around to keep home court through the first round of the playoffs.

Raptors small icon 9. Raptors (25-14, LW 10). Toronto went a respectable 6-5 without Pascal Siakam, but now he’s back in the rotation (as is Norman Powell; Marc Gasol is still out but is expected to return soon) and the wins need to flow again. Nick Nurse is hoping the return of his likely All-Star in Siakam sparks an offense that was top 10 in the league in November but, with all the injuries, has fallen back to middle-of-the pack in the last 10 games (which, considering the missing players, is not that bad).

Pacers small icon 10. Pacers (25-15, LW 12). With Domantas Sabonis sidelined on Friday, Myles Turner broke out with a 27 point, 14 rebound night. It’s the kind of game that will have other teams calling and checking on Turner’s availability at the trade deadline, but reports are those calls are getting shot down. The Pacers are +6.3 per 100 possessions when those two are on the court together, and the Indy brass wants to see how that looks with Victor Oladipo back.

Thunder small icon 11. Thunder (23-17, LW 11). Shai Gilgeous-Alexander continues to improve during his second season (and the tutelage of Chris Paul can’t hurt), this week becoming the youngest player in NBA history with a 20-20-10 triple-double. Trade rumors continue to swirl around Danilo Gallinari and the Thunder, and OKC is looking for players on SGA’s timeline to build for the future.

Mavericks small icon 12. Mavericks (25-15, LW 9). Dallas has gone 4-4 with Kristaps Prozingis sidelined, but he is expected back Wednesday night from his knee/illness issues. Dallas elite offense remained top six with KP out, but the defense fell from middle of the pack to bottom 10 without his length and rim protection inside. Luka Doncic seems destined to start in the All-Star game this season, as he should, but he will be the only Maverick playing on Sunday.

Sixers small icon 13. 76ers (25-16, LW 13). Sixers fans are calling for Brett Brown’s head with Philadelphia having lost 6-of-8 and not looking like a threat to the Bucks right now (despite what happened on Christmas Day). The offense is clunky, but the problems start here: Ben Simmons has taken 18 shots outside the paint all season, and two of those were end-of-half heaves that don’t really count. Simmons has to get into the paint to be effective, that’s also where Joel Embiid is at his best, and that allows teams to pack the paint and defend Philly’s strengths. Changing coaches will not change the flaws in the roster construction, that’s an Elton Brand thing.

Grizzlies small icon 14. Grizzlies (19-22, LW 19). The NBA world is falling in love with Ja Morant right now, but the Grizzlies have two quality rookies — Brandon Clarke has been solid for them. Here’s Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins on Clarke: “The great thing about Brandon is he doesn’t try to do too much, he plays to his strengths. We knew that when he was coming out of Gonzaga, he’s a guy who plays great team basketball on both ends of the floor. Obviously a super-efficient player on the offensive end, kind of takes what the defense gives him, picks his spots whether it’s the roller game or the floater game, we’re seeing him shoot the three ball a little bit more. Defensively, being in the right place, getting his hands on some defections, he doesn’t get a lot of blocks but he comes over in his rotations… he does it in a team capacity.”

Magic small icon 15. Magic (19-21, LW 14). It seems fitting the Magic are in the middle of these power rankings: Orlando has a net offensive rating of 105.1 and a net defensive rating of 105.1 — exactly neutral. Cleaning the Glass projects the Magic to go 41-41. Orlando seems destined to get the seven or eight seed in the East, which puts it in the hands of management what direction to go at the trade deadline, stay this middle of the road course or think about a retooling effort by moving Evan Fournier or other quality players (except Jonathan Isaac).

Nets small icon 16. Nets (18-21, LW 17). Kyrie Irving is back, Caris LeVert is back, and now we can finally start to see what this Nets roster looks like healthy. The offense looked good against the Hawks “defense” but, more importantly, was respectable against the Jazz defense on Monday. Brooklyn just lost that game because their defense couldn’t slow the red-hot Jazz. It doesn’t get easier for the Nets, their next four games are the 76ers, Bucks, 76ers (again), and Lakers. That’s a gauntlet.

Spurs small icon 17. Spurs (17-21, LW 16). The Spurs 22-year playoff streak is not dead yet, despite the record San Antonio is just half a game out of the final playoff spot in the West (one game back in the loss column). What has to keep Gregg Popovich up at night (at least until the third glass of Pinot) is the bottom 10 defense from this team. It’s very un-Popovich, and there is no simple answer with this roster as constructed.

Kings small icon 18. Kings (15-25, LW 18). Marvin Bagley is back after missing eight games with a sore foot and looked pretty good against the Magic with 18 points and six boards. Combine that with the faster pace of late — which has helped De’Aaron Fox — and maybe Luke Walton’s roster can start to look like the on-the-rise team everyone expected before the season tipped off.

Blazers small icon 19. Trail Blazers (17-24, LW 15). What held Carmelo Anthony back from an NBA job for so long was concerns about his defense. In their past 10 games, the Trail Blazers have gone 3-7 and have the worst defense in the NBA over that stretch. That’s not all ‘Melo, but he’s not solving problems on that end. Three tough games on the road for Portland this week: Houston, Dallas, and OKC.

Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (15-26, LW 24). Zion Williamson will be back in a week — Jan. 22 against the Spurs is the target date — but the Pelicans have won 3-of-4 without him. If David Griffin doesn’t like the trade offers for Jrue Holiday and Derrick Favors, does he just keep the band together, add Zion, and see if they can make up the four games to get in the playoffs?

Suns small icon 21. Suns (16-24, LW 22). Deandre Ayton is back to coming off the bench — with Dario Saric starting next to Aron Baynes — and that seems to be working for Phoenix. It allows Monty Williams to still pair Devin Booker and Ayton, they show some real chemistry, while keeping his best lineups on the floor. As a side note: There is no way this should lead to a technical and ejection in the NBA, there are some young refs with quick triggers (and some older ones, too) who are sucking the emotion out of the game.

22. Timberwolves (15-24, LW 20). There are positive rumblings that Karl-Anthony Towns could return to soon. He has missed 14 games and the Timberwolves are 5-9 without him, with the offense 14.8 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the bench. The only thing that has kept Minnesota afloat with him out is the third-ranked defense in the NBA for that stretch.

Bulls small icon 23. Bulls (14-27, LW 21). Wendell Carter Jr. being out weeks with a sprained ankle will be a real blow to Chicago, the offense flows better with him on the court and coach Jim Boylen described him as the Bulls best defensive player. When Carter has been on the court this season the Bulls outscore opponents by 1.4 points per 100 possessions, but when he sits they get outscored by 6.1. The Bulls have lost 7-of-8.

Wizards small icon 24. Wizards (13-26, LW 26). John Wall is practicing with the team and taking on contact, fueling speculation he could play this season after all. Wall isn’t the only Wizard getting healthy: Davis Bertans, Bradley Beal, and Thomas Bryant all returned to the rotation over the weekend. Washington has six of its next eight on the road.

Pistons small icon 25. Pistons (14-27, LW 25). Just how good are Sekou Doumbouya and Thon Maker? That’s the question the Pistons should try to answer the rest of the season, with Blake Griffin done until next fall and Andre Drummond on the trade block (what team is going to be the buyer for him, and will they offer much?). Doumbouya has a lot of promise and Detroit should give him the room to show it the rest of the season.

Knicks small icon 26. Knicks (11-30, LW 27). Mitchell Robinson has looked steadier under new coach Mike Miller, if you’re looking for the silver lining in the dark cloud of this season. R.J. Barrett is putting up numbers but has a lot of work to do to become efficient at the NBA level. After that… it gets thin when quality young players for the Knicks. Kevin Knox has not caught up to the game after showing some early promise.

Cavaliers small icon 27. Cavaliers (12-29, LW 28). Collin Sexton could have his shot blocked more times this season than he has assists (hat tip to @Cavsanada for this stat). Sexton has had his shot blocked 76 times this season (1.9 times per game) and he has 91 assists, a difference of just 15. It’s probably not going to happen, but it’s something to watch if you have to watch Cavs games.

Hornets small icon 28. Hornets (15-28, LW 23). There was a point earlier in the season where Charlotte was the luckiest team in the league, the team most outperforming its point differential. That has regressed to the mean in recent weeks, including the current five-game losing streak (and losing 11-of-13). Devonte’ Graham may still be the frontrunner for Most Improved Player but he has had some rough outings and been inconsistent of late.

Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (9-32, LW 29). Fans want Trae Young in the All-Star Game — he leads East guards in the fan vote — and it’s easy to understand why, Young is fun to watch averaging 28.9 points and 8.4 assists per game. His team, however, is terrible and Young’s defense contributes to that. Should the media/fan voters put Ben Simmons, Kemba Walker, Kyrie Irving and other East guards who are a little more two way higher on their ballots?

Warriors small icon 30. Warriors (9-33 LW 30). Stephen Curry is taking shots again. Klay Thompson says he is itching to get back on the court. Both of them will be re-evaluated next month but how much do the Warriors really want to push them to return (and potentially hurt their lottery odds in the process)? The Warriors have lost nine in a row and seem to be banking losses for the potential return of their stars.