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NBA Power Rankings: Chris Paul, James Harden have Rockets climbing fast

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Welcome to the dog days of the NBA season, when all the elite teams seem to yawn and lose focus, leading to some strange losses. Houston may be the hottest team going right now, and the Rockets jump up in these rankings.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (48-16, last week No. 1). The addition of Pau Gasol is not going to have a massive impact on the court, but the Bucks don’t need that. What the veteran brings is a voice in the locker room of a guy who has been through deep playoff runs and has the rings to show for it. The questions with the Bucks in the postseason are not if they have the talent to contend, but will they have the mental makeup to withstand the pressures, the highs and lows. That has not been tested yet. Gasol helps with that.

Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (46-19, LW 3). Toronto is two games back of Milwaukee for the top seed in the East (and overall), and that leaves the franchise trying to walk a tight line. They want to keep racking up wins — maybe to catch the Bucks, but also to stay ahead of the Warriors (1.5 games back) in case they meet in the Finals. All while making sure Kawhi Leonard is not overtaxed, and meshing Marc Gasol into the new rotations. It’s a lot for Nick Nurse to juggle. If you need evidence of why you want a healthy Leonard on your side with the game on the line…

Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (44-20, LW 2). Golden State is back to being a team looking like a bored team that can’t wait for the playoffs to start, they dropped 4-of-6 and have fallen behind by double digits in 12-of-13 games (and have been resting a lot of players). The Warriors can get away with that as long as Denver keeps slumping and stays behind them in the standings. Klay Thompson has been out with a tweaked knee, and they are being cautious with his return.

Nuggets small icon 4. Nuggets (42-21, LW 4). No team has fought through injuries to key rotation players this season like the Nuggets. Their preferred starting five — Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, and Nikola Jokic — have played just 93 minutes together on the season. Now they are finally healthy and looking to get that unit in sync before the playoffs. The Nuggets have lost three in a row and have a good test against the Warriors coming up Friday night.

Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (41-23, LW 7). What questions about his role? Jimmy Butler took over the closer role late for the Sixers against the Magic Tuesday night, hitting a couple of key fadeaways, making defensive plays, and setting up Mike Scott for a three. The Sixers have gone 4-2 with Joel Embiid out since the All-Star break, but he is expected to return this week. The team needs that, it’s hard to sort out the questions about players’ roles without the first offensive option on the court.

Rockets small icon 6. Rockets (39-25, LW 10). The hottest team in the NBA right now, winners of six in a row, and a lot of it is because Chris Paul is back to playing about how he was a season ago. In his last 10 games CP3 has averaged 16.8 points per game, dished out 9.8 assists, shot 36.8% from three, and played better defense. The Rockets have looked like the second best team in the West the past couple of weeks, although their defense is still pedestrian (14th in NBA over last 10 games) and that could haunt them in the postseason.

Blazers small icon 7. Trail Blazers (39-25, LW 8). Portland won 5-of-7 on a road trip thanks in part to Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter giving Portland a solid second unit again (and this is without Evan Turner in games). That or maybe it was the team bonding of eight players being stuck together in an elevator for 30 minutes. Either way, Portland had the best net rating in the NBA over the last 10 games until a tired last-game-of-the-road-trip loss to Memphis Tuesday. Keep playing well and the three seed is not out of the question in the West. Just like last year.

Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (39-25, LW 5). Paul George was back in the lineup on Tuesday night, which was good because the Thunder were 1-2 and unimpressive in his absence (although they lost in his return, too). Those losses hurt because the Thunder need wins for seeding: fivethirtyeight.com projects seeds 3-6 in the West (Thunder, Rockets, Trail Blazers, Jazz) all to finish with between 50 and 52 wins — the middle of the West is going to be very tight. It will be interesting to see if teams push to be the 3 or 6 seed and avoid the 4/5 to stay away from the Warriors’ side of the bracket.

Pacers small icon 9. Pacers (42-23, LW 6). Indiana has started to come back to earth, having gone 2-3 in their last five, with the problems coming on the defensive end (115 per 100 allowed last five games, 25th in the league). The Pacers sit as the three seed and want to hold on to home court in the first round, they are half-a-game up on the Sixers (they play each other Sunday) and three up on the five-seed Celtics. The Pacers have 8-of-11 coming up on the road and a tough stretch of games, they are going to have to find a new level of resilience to hold on.

Jazz small icon 10. Jazz (36-27, LW 11). Utah’s defense was in vintage form through a tough three-game stretch — Clippers, Nuggets and Bucks — and Utah won all three (then they turned around and lost to the Pelicans). The Jazz sit as the six seed in the West, but with the softest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way the idea they could make up the 2.5 games and climb into the top four to get home court for the first round is not out of the question. They just can’t have games where they aren’t focused, like against New Orleans.

Celtics small icon 11. Celtics (39-26, LW 9). Like a lot of Bostonians this time of year, apparently what the Celtics needed was a trip to California to warm up. After an ugly stretch losing 5-of-6 with internal sniping after each game, the Celtics looked like the team we all expected this season in thrashing the (disinterested) Warriors Tuesday. Boston played with the joy Golden State lacked, they moved the ball and switch on defense well. Can the Celtics build off that win, or will it be a one-off moment? They need to get on a roll now heading into the playoffs.

Clippers small icon 12. Clippers (37-29, LW 12). Ask Clippers coach Doc Rivers (a coach of the year candidate) what he loves about this squad, and he talks about their resilience. “We took a hit. When we made that trade (sending out Tobias Harris at the trade deadline) it hit our locker room. But we got them to believe we want to win still, we’re going to win still. Then for them to start doing it just shows you how resilient they are.”

Spurs small icon 14. Spurs (36-29, LW 16). Home cooking matters to the Spurs. They looked like a team that would fall out of the playoffs during their 1-7 rodeo road trip, but they got home and knocked off three quality teams in a row (Pistons, Thunder, Nuggets) thanks to a much improved defense. The Spurs are projected for 45 wins and fivethirtyeight.com gives them a 95% chance of making the playoffs, considering the loss of DeJonte Murray before the season that is an impressive effort by San Antonio.

Pistons small icon 14. Pistons (31-31, 14). The Pistons are clicking, 9-2 in their last 11 with a +10.9 net rating. They’ve had the best offense in the NBA during that stretch, at 118.1 per 100 (and the defense is fifth in the league). The run really started 15 games ago when Andre Drummond returned from concussion protocol, since then he has averaged 20.5 points a game on 62.6 percent shooting, and he’s grabbing 15.7 rebounds a game. Reggie Jackson has played well, and Blake Griffin is showing off new levels of handles and shooting.

Nets small icon 15. Nets (33-33, LW 13). In the 14 games he played at the start of the season, Caris LeVert was the Nets’ leading scorer and looked like a candidate for most improved player. He’s been back for 10 games now but things have not been the same — he’s shooting just 36.2% overall and 27.5% from three, and he hasn’t been the same positive force. The Nets have come back to earth a little and are 4-6 in their last 10. The Nets also have the third toughest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way, they are going to need to find some wins to hold on to that playoff spot.

Kings small icon 16. Kings (32-31, LW 15). It was good news that Marvin Bagley only suffered a sprained knee that will sideline him a couple of weeks, it looked like it could have been much worse. That said, it came at a bad time as Bagley was playing his best basketball of the season. Harry Giles has looked good in Bagley’s absence, at least when he stops elbowing opponents in the head.

Magic small icon 17. Magic (30-36, LW 18). While Orlando sits half-a-game out of the playoffs as this is written, the fact they have a much softer schedule than the teams they are chasing (Orlando’s next seven games are against teams below .500), and they have played well of late, has fivethirtyeight.com giving them a 67% chance of making the playoffs. Jonathan Isaac has been the key to it all, the Magic are +12.7 per 100 when he is on the court in the last 15 games.

Pelicans small icon 18. Pelicans (30-36, LW 20). Nobody, including NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, thinks playing Anthony Davis 20 minutes a night and sitting him in the fourth is a good look for the league. But sit him and there is pushback from the league and union, play him 40 a night and the Pelicans are taking an unnecessary risk and hurting their draft position. So ugly compromise it is. Jrue Holiday continues to play well when he is on the court in limited minutes.

Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (29-34, LW 19). Charlotte has dropped 8-of-11 and coach James Borego is searching for answers. He switched around the starting lineup, but the new group can’t defend. He’s pulled Frank Kaminsky out of the dog house and played him — and Kaminsky has responded with solid play. Nothing has really worked. Big showdown with the Heat Wednesday (one of the teams they are battling for a playoff spot) and on Saturday they head out on the road for four.

20. Timberwolves (30-34, LW 17). Robert Covington went down to the G-League to practice, usually the last step before a player returns to action with the main team, but now the Timberwolves are sounding cautious and being patient again. Maybe his knee didn’t respond well to the increased workload, but whatever it is he will be out a little while longer. After three losses in a row that all but doomed their playoff dreams in Minnesota, Karl-Anthony Towns exploded for 41 and 14 against the Thunder. That was good to see.

Heat small icon 21. Heat (29-34, LW 22). They have won 3-of-4, including an upset of the Warriors, the kinds of wins the Heat will need more of down the stretch if they are going to get a playoff spot. Dwayne Wade’s last dance has just been fun, from the jersey exchanges to the moments he shows he still has it on the court. It’d be nice to see Miami make the playoffs just to set up more potential moments like this.

Lakers small icon 22. Lakers (30-34, LW 21). In the 13 games since LeBron James returned from his groin injury, the Lakers have the worst defense in the NBA, giving up 116.3 points per 100 possessions. Their effort on that end has been up and down, but more than that they have lacked basic defensive recognition and cohesion. The Lakers are 4-9 since LeBron’s return, and 2-4 since the All-Star break when LeBron “activated” playoff mode. Their playoff dreams are dead and Luke Walton may want to start polishing up his resume.

Wizards small icon 23. Wizards (26-37, LW 24). If you’re looking for a silver lining to this Wizards season, well, I’m sorry about that. Not sure there’s much we can do. Can I recommend reading our own Dan Feldman’s story on Thomas Bryant? That’s about as positive as I can get with this franchise.

Grizzlies small icon 24. Grizzlies (26-40, LW 25). This summer, some team is going to give up some quality pieces to trade for Mike Conley. Tuesday night he showed why that team will be making a smart play. Conley had 19 in the fourth, 40 for the game, and was the reason the Grizzlies beat the Trail Blazers.

Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (22-43, LW 27). Trae Young continues to just tear it up. In his last five games, the rookie has averaged 30.6 points per game and is shooting 50% from three on 7.6 attempts per game, plus is dishing out 9.4 assists per night. He was honest that he was overthinking things early in the season, but the game has slowed down and now he is just letting it fly. Combined with John Collins next season, the Hawks could be a team looking to make a leap.

Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (27-36, LW 23). Dallas has been the worst team in the NBA over the last 10 games, a -13.9 net rating that has them going 2-8. They have the worst offense and the worst defense in the NBA during that stretch. Mavericks fans, focus on Dirk Nowitzki and dream of next season with Kristaps Porzingis.

Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (18-47, LW 26). Chicago had won 5-of-7 until recent setbacks against the Hawks and Pacers, and the reason remains the offense. The Bulls are scoring 114.1 per 100 in their last 15 games, fifth best in the league (and ahead of the Warriors in that stretch). The Bulls have an offensive rating of 119.8 and are outscoring teams by 8.8 per 100 when Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, and Otto Porter are all on the court together.

Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (16-48, LW 20). Cleveland is 5-2 in games Kevin Love has played in since his return. Cedi Osman has been playing better of late too, averaging 16.9 points per game and shooting 47.5 percent from three in his last 15 games. The Cavs are playing well enough they could have moved out of the bottom three of the draft lottery, except the Bulls have been playing even better.

Suns small icon 29. Suns (14-51, LW 30). They have had some fun playing spoiler. They beat a Miami team that needs wins to stay in the playoffs in the East, and when they beat the Lakers last weekend it felt like the death of the Lakers’ playoff chances. The most impressive thing in that win over Los Angeles was Deandre Ayton — not the rookie’s 26 points and 10 rebounds, but that they had him defend LeBron James all game and he did a respectable job.

Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (13-51, LW 28). Mitchell Robinson is the reason to tune into Knicks games now — the rookie shot blocker is a lot of fun. Knicks fans deserve something good to happen and watching Robinson play is it this season. I’m not as sold he’s going to be anywhere near as good as some Knicks fans are pumping him up to be, but his defensive presence and energy could make him a solid rotation big man in whatever form the Knicks take on the next few years.

Three months after scary foot injury, Caris LeVert set to rejoin Nets Friday

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NEW YORK (AP) — Caris LeVert is set to rejoin the Brooklyn Nets after missing nearly three months with a dislocated right foot.

Coach Kenny Atkinson says LeVert “is in” for the Nets’ home game on Friday against the Chicago Bulls.

LeVert was leading the Nets in scoring with 18.4 points per game when he sustained a gruesome injury Nov. 12 at Minnesota.

He was taken off the floor on a stretcher, but it was quickly determined the damage wasn’t as bad as originally feared. LeVert returned to practice this week.

Brooklyn has surprisingly surged into playoff contention during the guard’s 42-game absence, sitting in sixth place in the Eastern Conference with 29 wins, one more than it had all of last season.

NBA Power Rankings: Pre-Trade Deadline edition topped by Bucks

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The trade deadline is stirring up the NBA, and we get into where teams stand with 25 hours to go (as of this posting) in these rankings. We also thought the Warriors would never surrender the top spot again, but the Bucks just keep on winning and impressing.

 
Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (39-13, last week No. 2). What was most impressive about the win over the Raptors is how the Bucks identified the guy they wanted to stop (Kawhi Leonard) and then made him a non-factor (16 points). That’s the kind of defense that wins teams playoff games — and a lot of them. The Bucks have been mentioned in the Anthony Davis rumor mill, but sources tell me there’s not anything to it. Also with the Bucks, never forget that Giannis Antetokounmpo can do this.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (37-15, LW 1). They live by the three — more than live, the Warriors have won rings by the three — but there are nights they are off from deep and then they are vulnerable. That’s what happened in a loss to the Sixers, when Klay Thompson was out and everyone not named Stephen Curry had no range (1-of-20 from three). The Warriors want depth but are likely to get that through the buyout market, not trades. That Sixers loss meant Denver’s Mike Malone and his staff, not Steve Kerr and his, will be coaching the All-Star Game in Charlotte — and you can be sure Kerr is just fine with that.

 
Celtics small icon 3. Celtics (35-19, LW 5). Despite all the Kyrie Irving “does he want to be a Knick?” drama that drives headlines, the Celtics are playing their best basketball of the season. In the last 10 games they are 9-1 with a +10.7 net rating (third best in the NBA in that stretch) and they look like the team we predicted before the season would be the one to beat in the East. All that is lost in the Anthony Davis trade buzz — if he’s on the Pelicans still Thursday night the Celtics are in the driver’s seat to land him.

 
Nuggets small icon 4. Nuggets (37-16, LW 3). Denver’s name gets bounced around as a team that could be an all-in dark horse in the Anthony Davis sweepstakes, but that seems highly unlikely. Not that Davis wouldn’t fit next to Nikola Jokic, he would, and the Nuggets front office can be gamblers, but this would be a bad short-term bet and they know it. They like what they have. Denver has been pushing through injuries all season and had won five in a row without Jamal Murray, the last couple without Gary Harris, but it all caught up with them in an ugly loss in Detroit Monday. That the losses due to injury are rare are why Mike Malone deserves to coach in the All-Star Game.

 
Raptors small icon 5. Raptors (39-16, LW 4). They are 3-3 in their last six, with losses to the Rockets and getting thrashed by the Bucks. However, against the Sixers on Tuesday Kawhi Leonard was a defensive force, attacked the paint, and Toronto looked dominant again. The Raptors have been a roller coaster of late. They may need the All-Star break. Kyle Lowry will not get a break, he will represent Toronto in the All-Star Game (along with Leonard), and the fact he was an easy selection despite having what is, for him, a down year speaks to how much his reputation as a leader and player has grown around the league.

 
Thunder small icon 6. Thunder (34-19, LW 7). Russell Westbrook has been racking up triple-doubles — seven games in a row now — and seems to have broken out of his early-season shooting slump, having hit 32.5% of his threes in his last 10 games. In those 10 games the Thunder have the fourth best offense in the NBA but their elite defense has been more pedestrian. Fun showdown between James Harden and Paul George on Saturday night in Houston.

 
Sixers small icon 7. 76ers (34-20, LW 6). The Sixers felt like a team on a roller coaster — they end Golden State’s 11-game win streak, then Tuesday night Kawhi Leonard’s defense disrupts Philly’s offense and Toronto blows them out — that was good but felt a player short. The Tobias Harris trade changes all that. Only the Warriors have a better starting five right now on paper, if the Sixers can get it to mesh — and Harris will fit in well — they are now serious contenders to come out of the East this year. Then this summer owner Joshua Harris should have his checkbook ready to go.

 
Blazers small icon 8. Trail Blazers (32-21, LW 8). Portland at home is a different team — 22-8, vs. 10-13 on the road — with a +8 net rating. It’s not one end of the floor, the Blazers’ offense is 6.4 per 100 possessions better at home, their defense improves by 5.4 per 100. Portland at home plays like an elite team (fifth best net rating at home in the NBA). The challenge is they have seven more road games left on the schedule than ones at home, and starting Sunday in Dallas they have 9-of-10 away from the Moda Center. Rodney Hood is not going to be able to change that by himself.

 
Rockets small icon 9. Rockets (31-22, LW 10). James Harden’s historic offensive run continues — 27 straight games with at least 30 points — but what goes unnoticed sometimes is he can make plays on the other end. In Houston’s blowout win against Utah (the Rockets’ best win in a while) Harden had six steals and four blocked shots. But that was just one night — in the 11 games since Clint Capela went down the Rockets are allowing 114 points per 100 possessions, fifth worst in the league. They can hang on to a playoff spot with that defense, but not climb the ladder.

 
Spurs small icon 10. Spurs (32-23, LW 11). Don’t expect a lot of trade deadline activity from San Antonio, but one big deal that went down may have bothered them a little — they were a team hoping to poach (or trade for) Kristaps Porzingis. Dallas had a better package right now than San Antonio could have put together (considering the Knicks’ goals) but if KP signs long-term in Dallas that will sting a little. DeMar DeRozan has been slumping lately, trying to play through a sore knee, the All-Star break will be good for him.

 
Jazz small icon 11. Jazz (30-24, LW 9). All kinds of Mike Conley to the Jazz buzz is flying around the league and it wouldn’t be a shock to see that trade go down before 3 ET Thursday. Considering Conley is more of a big-picture question for the Jazz: Do they want to lock down that much money in one player, and give up a pick, pushing the tax and reducing flexibility for the small market team? No doubt Conley would make the Jazz better, if he can stay on the court — he has missed significant time two of the last four seasons with an Achilles issue.

 
Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (35-19, LW 12). The Pacers lost their first four games after the Victor Oladipo injury, but have bounced back to win their last three (including a thumping of a distracted Lakers’ team). In those seven games, the Pacers have had a bottom-10 offense but a top-10 defense, and a net rating of -1.6. Which is pretty impressive, considering. Don’t expect any trade deadline moves from the Pacers, and any moves they might make will be more about next season and beyond than this one.

 
Clippers small icon 13. Clippers (30-25, LW 14). Los Angeles made a smart play in trading Tobias Harris — even if we are all going to miss the Bobi and Tobi Show in L.A. The Clippers could have fought to hang on to the eight seed, made the playoffs, and got crushed in the first round. Now they likely fall back into the lottery, meaning they keep their own first-round pick (otherwise Boston gets it) and they get the much-coveted Miami 2021 unprotected pick. The Clippers are in the mix for Kawhi Leonard this summer, and now they have the assets to go after a big trade (Anthony Davis) or put an interesting team around him. Plus, I want to see what a Shai Gilgeous-Alexander/Landry Shamet backcourt looks like.

 
Kings small icon 14. Kings (28-25, LW 18). Everyone around the league expects the Kings to be involved in a trade deadline deal, one way or another. While they have expiring veteran contracts they can move — Zach Randolph, Iman Shumpert, and Kosta Koufos — what matters more is the $11 million in salary cap space, more than any team in the league. The Kings can go after a more expensive player (Kent Bazemore, Harrison Barnes) or be the facilitating third team in a trade, taking on a bad contract for assets. One way or another, expect a deal.

 
Nets small icon 15. Nets (28-27, LW 13). The banged-up Nets — no Spencer Dinwiddie or Caris LeVert, although the LeVert could be back soon, he and Allen Crabbe are working out in the G-League — have lost three in a row and 4-of-5. The problem has been the offense, which has scored less than a point per possession in those five games. D’Angelo Russell is a deserving All-Star — and it has to sting the Lakers’ front office he made it — but he’s not a guy who can carry an offense nightly on his own, he needs some help. Don’t expect deadline trades out of Brooklyn, their eyes are on free agency.

 
Hornets small icon 16. Hornets (26-27, LW 17). There was a lot of buzz (no pun intended) about Marc Gasol being traded to Charlotte, and maybe that comes together last minute, but the Grizzlies have had a high asking price and the talks have cooled, according to sources. Still, the Hornets would like to make one or two moves at the deadline to shore up their roster and make sure they get into the postseason (and help convince Kemba Walker to re-sign this summer).

 
Lakers small icon 17. Lakers (27-26, LW 16).
Clearly the trade rumors hit the young Lakers hard, they were distracted and disinterested in Indiana and got smoked by 42 points on Tuesday. Thing is, just the deadline passing will not be enough, Ingram/Ball/Kuzma all know they could get traded this summer now, they have to learn to be pros and deal with it. With the Clippers trading Tobias Harris and throwing in the towel, and with LeBron back, the Lakers should make a push into the playoffs. What does LeBron’s return mean? Here is what Josh Hart said after 23’s first game back: ”He made the right plays, he got guys open, he finished when he had to,” Laker guard Josh Hart said. “He’s just so smart. He’s such a good veteran player. He gets guys in their spots to get easy buckets. His basketball IQ is just through the roof.”

 
18. Timberwolves (25-28, LW 19). Don’t expect a trade deadline move, if there are going to be roster shakeups it will be with the new regime — whoever that is — over the summer. With the Clippers throwing in the towel, did the playoff door crack open just a little for Minnesota? Maybe. But they are 4 games back and have to leapfrog the Lakers and Kings, which is a longshot. Especially considering they have lost 4-of-5, and the one win required Karl-Anthony Towns doing this in overtime.

 
Heat small icon 19. Heat (24-27, LW 15). There’s a lot of trade speculation around Wayne Ellington, a veteran shooter a lot of playoff teams could use. But there has been less buzz about where he might end up than expected, maybe the interest in him is not sincere around the league. Tuesday night’s win in Portland kicked off a six-game road trip with a victory, a tough stretch for a Heat team currently the eight seed in the East and trying to hold off Detroit and Washington to keep that spot).

 
Mavericks small icon 20. Mavericks (24-28, LW 20). They went all-in on the future with the trade for Kristaps Porzingis — a good gamble if he can stay healthy and return to full unicorn status (there’s a lot of uncertainty about a 7’3” guy coming off an ACL). Dallas believes in its training staff and thinks they may have Nash/Nowitzki 2.0 now. Speaking of the future Hall of Famer from Germany, classy and smart move by the league office to put Nowitzki (and Dwyane Wade) in the All-Star Game for one final time.

Pelicans small icon 21. Pelicans (23-31, LW 21). As NBC has reported since the start of the saga, don’t expect Davis to be traded before the deadline, there are powerful people in the Pelicans’ organization who want to be patient (and don’t want to help Rich Paul or the Lakers). The interesting question: If Davis is not traded, will he play between the deadline and the end of the season, or will he be shut down. Injury concerns would make it logical for both Davis and the Pelicans to want him to sit, but Davis says he wants to play, and what would the league say about a top-five player in the league being a healthy scratch nightly? It would not be a good look.

Pistons small icon 22. Pistons (24-29, 23). The Pistons have traded away a lot of wing depth this week sending Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson out, although I like the roll of the dice on Thon Maker for a year. While Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk is a Summer League favorite and a shooter, I’m less sold on his ability to help Detroit. The Pistons are just 1.5 games back of the Heat for the final playoff slot in the East, but these trades make you wonder how much they prioritize making it as an organization.

 
Magic small icon 23. Magic (22-32, LW 24). Maybe the most interesting team to watch at the trade deadline. They have players that playoff teams would want — Terrence Ross in particular, but also Nikola Vucevic — but the Magic also want to make the playoffs more than any other team on the back end of the East. As of Wednesday morning, the Magic are four games out of the playoffs (and five games back in the loss column), it would take a little run to just get in. That said, will management keep the price fairly high for those two, thinking that if nobody meets it they will just keep them and try to make the postseason?

 
Wizards small icon 24. Wizards (22-31, LW 22). While the Wizards should be sellers at the trade deadline, the buzz around the league is they plan to keep Trevor Ariza and Otto Porter and try to make a playoff push (they are four games back in the loss column). The John Wall Achilles injury raises some big-picture questions about what this franchise does going forward, and does it start to re-tool around Bradley Beal? Wall is missing a lot of his prime with injuries, and a torn Achilles is especially bad for a guy whose game is based on speed. He’s a fighter, but it’s fair to wonder with him “what if?”

 
Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (18-35, LW 25). Will Dewayne Dedmon and/or Jeremy Lin have new homes after the trade deadline? What about Taurean Prince? All three are being shopped around, and there is a lot of Dedmon buzz in particular. Atlanta would love to find a new home for Kent Bazemore, but the $19.5 million he is owed next season is keeping trade partners away. Despite the distracting buzz around them the Hawks have played fairly well of late, going 4-3 on a just ended road trip.

 
Grizzlies small icon 26. Grizzlies (22-33, LW 26). There’s a lot of interest in Marc Gasol (Charlotte) and Mike Conley (Utah and Detroit) but reports are Memphis is keeping the price high, asking for multiple first-round picks. Teams are hesitant to pay that, and we’ll see if the Grizzlies blink or if they are willing to just play out the season with this roster. If this is the end, Gasol and Conley did it right leading the Grizzlies to a couple of wins.

 
Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (12-41, LW 29). What is Chicago going to do with Bobby Portis, who is a restricted free agent this summer and has played well next to Lauri Markkanen the past couple of games? Do they trade him, or do they see what the market will pay for him this summer then decide whether or not to match. Ideally they would like to trade Robin Lopez, but more likely they buy him out and every contender comes out to try and pitch him.

 
Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (11-43, LW 28). The Cavaliers keep stockpiling picks with their Rodney Hood trade, and don’t be surprised if Alec Burks has a new home before the deadline as well. The Cavaliers would love to move Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson, but those veterans with healthy contracts are the kind of trades that get done in the summer, not at the deadline. By the way, just a reminder that the Cavaliers remain on pace to have the worst defensive rating in the history of the NBA — not just this season, but the worst ever. It’s impressively terrible.

 
Suns small icon 29. Suns (11-44, LW 27). The Suns have lost 11 in a row, and while the offense hasn’t been good in that stretch (26th in the league) the defense has been abysmal — a couple points per possession worse than the Cavaliers “worst defense ever” mark. That’s not all on Deandre Ayton either, he missed time in there. Devin Booker will be back to defend his crown in the All-Star Saturday Night Three-Point shooting contest, so… there’s that.

 
Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (10-43, LW 30). The Knicks gambled big on cap space in trading away Kristaps Porzingis and it got the league buzzing: Do they really have a back-channel commitment from Kevin Durant? Will Kyrie Irving take up the second max contract slot? If not, can they lure Jimmy Butler or Kemba Walker to Manhattan? It’s a bold stroke by the Knicks. There’s also been a lot of “if they land the top pick and Zion Williamson” buzz, just remember if the Knicks have the worst record they have a 14% chance of picking first and a 48% chance of picking fifth. Welcome to the new NBA lottery odds to discourage tanking.

Report: Optimism Caris LeVert will return to Nets before All-Star break

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Fewer than three months ago, Nets wing Caris LeVert suffered an injury so horrific-looking, teammates cried and opponents prayed.

Now, he’s on the verge of returning.

Thankfully, LeVert “only” dislocated his foot. Brooklyn quickly said he’d return this season, and now a clearer timeline is emerging.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The Nets have surged since LeVert went down, going 22-18 and climbing to sixth in the East. I don’t think that’s about missing LeVert, though. This is a young team improving on the fly.

Though there should be concern about disrupting chemistry, that’s lessened by Spencer Dinwiddie being sidelined. Brooklyn could use another playmaker. Plus, LeVert’s balanced offensive game should help him fit into most situations.

This is a nice addition for the Nets in what has surprisingly become their playoff push.

NBA Power Rankings: It’s Golden State’s world and we just live in it

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The Warriors are running away with the West and the NBA, and that includes knocking off one of their big threats from the East in Boston last week. The playoffs between the top four in the East may be more interesting than what happens in the West this postseason.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (36-14, last week No. 1). The Warriors with DeMarcus Cousins are as good as you thought they would be (and as good as the rest of the league feared). The five-man starting lineup with Cousins has been +37.4 per 100 possessions through its first four games, allowing less than a point per possession on defense and scoring at a 128 per 100 pace. The Warriors are winners of 11 in a row, including a 5-0 road trip with DeMarcus Cousins starting every game at center. That has the Warriors with the best record in the West, if it’s that way on Feb. 3 Steve Kerr will coach the All-Star Game for the third time.

Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (36-13, LW 2). Giannis Antetokounmpo has played 24% of his minutes this season at center, and that lineup can be very effective — against the Hornets the Greek Freak got put in at the five for the fourth and outscored Charlotte 14-12 by himself, leading a come-from-behind win. The Bucks are reportedly putting their big toe in and testing the Anthony Davis trade waters, but it’s hard to picture them pulling it off it because any deal would gut the depth of this team and leave them with two stars, not enough shooting and little else. By the way, Antetokounmpo can still do this to teams.

Nuggets small icon 3. Nuggets (34-15, LW 4). The Nuggets have won three in a row, but the impressive part is they got one without Nikola Jokic (a letter-of-the-law suspension for leaving the bench during a fight) and the last two without Jamal Murray (left ankle). It fits the pattern. All season this team has had to adjust due to injuries, and all season Denver has just kept on winning with the next guy stepping up. It speaks to the coaching of and depth of this roster. Jokic will get an All-Star nod this week, it’s well deserved. Monday’s win in Memphis was the first of 6-of-7 on the road.

Raptors small icon 4. Raptors (37-15, LW 3). Toronto went 3-1 resting Kawhi Leonard for four games, but his return against Houston was not enough to slow James Harden or stop the Rockets from winning. Resting Leonard may hurt the Raptors on the court short-term, but the long-term goal is to win Leonard over so he re-signs and showing him they put his health and welfare first is a big step in that direction. Fun showdown Thursday night against the Bucks.

Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (31-19, LW 7). Celtics fans and brass will be sitting on pins and needles for the next 8 days until the trade deadline passes — once it does they move into the driver’s seat to land Anthony Davis. Until then they can just beg the Pelicans to wait and watch the Lakers. Recently, Boston has looked like the team we expected, a team that will challenge for a trip to the Finals out of the East, and they’ve done it with Kyrie Irving running the show late in games. The problem with a one-man attack late in games was exposed against Golden State — they put the clamps down on Irving and nobody else was able to step up. That could be an issue in the postseason.

Sixers small icon 6. 76ers (33-18, LW 5). Philly went 2-1 while Jimmy Butler was sidelined with a wrist injury, but he returned Tuesday in a victory against the Lakers (which means Butler will be ready to go Thursday night in Golden State). Butler also returned with a new “smoking” celebration. The Sixers keep coming up on the fringes of the Anthony Davis trade talks, but the only deal that really works sends Ben Simmons and filler (Markelle Fultz?) to the Pelicans, and Simmons is a client of Rich Paul’s (Davis’ and LeBron’s agent) and the fierce pushback from Paul makes that trade unlikely (he would push AD not to re-sign with Sixers).

Thunder small icon 7. Thunder (32-18, LW 8). Winners of six in a row, and while Russell Westbrook’s triple-doubles (four straight games) and Paul George’s MVP-level play get the bulk of the attention, something else is going on: The Thunder have become a good shooting team. For the first 40 games of the season, the Thunder shot 32.3% from three as a team (bottom 10 in the league), but in the last 10 games they are shooing 42.9 percent. Those shots falling off kick-outs or other actions opens up everything else because defenders have to contest. The Thunder need to keep it up as OKC has the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA (based on opponent win percentage).

Blazers small icon 8. Trail Blazers (31-20, LW 9). Damian Lillard is a lock to be named as a reserve to the All-Star team this Thursday. While he has had another phenomenal season and is the clear leader on this team, the other reason the Blazers have won 5-of-6 is the role players stepping up: Jusuf Nurkic, Jake Layman and Seth Curry in particular. Don’t expect Portland to get in on the Anthony Davis sweepstakes, but also don’t be shocked if they make a small move at the deadline to add some depth.

Jazz small icon 9. Jazz (29-22, LW 11). Just six weeks ago the question was “what’s wrong with the Jazz?” as they were in 14th place in the West, with just an okay defense and a struggling offense. That seems like another lifetime ago. The Jazz have won 9-of-10, have a +9.1 net rating in those games, their defense is back to being elite led by Rudy Gobert (second best in the NBA in the last 10) and Donovan Mitchell has his groove back. Utah is the seven seed in the West as you read this, but they are just two games back of having home court in the first round, and the Jazz have the second easiest schedule in the league the rest of the way.

Rockets small icon 10. Rockets (29-21, LW 10). Chris Paul is back but he doesn’t change the underlying problem: Houston is 6-4 in its last 10 games with James Harden carrying the offense to a top 10 ranking in that time, but the defense can’t get a stop so those efforts go to waste. Tuesday night was a perfect example, Harden had 37 points (his 24th straight 30-plus point game) but the Rockets could not stop the Pelicans’ Jahlil Okafor, who had 27 points and grabbed 12 boards, so the AD-less Pelicans won. That’s an ugly loss. The Rockets are a playoff team but that’s it right now.

Spurs small icon 11. Spurs (30-22, LW 12).
Will LaMarcus Aldridge make the All-Star team? He’s got a great case averaging 21.1 points and 8.8 rebounds, leading the Spurs into a playoff position, but the West is so ridiculously deep with talent he is on the bubble. The Spurs have won three in a row as they move through a soft part of the schedule, which continues this week. That doesn’t mean all the wins are easy, Gregg Popovich was livid at his team for the way they came out against Phoenix, but Rudy Gay bailed them out.

Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (32-17, LW 6). Victor Oladipo is lost for the season with a torn quadriceps tendon, and that’s a huge punch to the gut. The Pacers have gone 0-2 without him (and now head out on the road for their next four). This team is not going to fall out of the playoffs in the East, if they go just 10-23 the rest of the way they are above .500 for the season, but the team struggles to score without Oladipo and they are no longer a threat in the playoffs. Which is unfortunate, this was a team everyone wanted to avoid in the postseason before because of their balance and defense.

Nets small icon 13. Nets (28-24, LW 13). The loss of Spencer Dinwiddie to a thumb injury for 4-6 weeks is a blow, he’s in the Most Improved Player conversation for good reason and their bench will not be the same without him. That said, D’Angelo Russell is playing the best basketball of his career the last month and will take on more responsibility as the starter and this is why Shabazz Napier is on the roster. Tough season for the Nets losing Caris LeVert and now Dinwiddie, but this team keeps plugging guys in and winning.

Clippers small icon 14. Clippers (28-23, LW 14). Will Tobias Harris make the cut for the All-Star reserves? He is right on the bubble despite averaging 21.2 points, 7.9 rebounds, and shooting 43.3% from three this season because the West is so stacked with talent. He deserves it, but his reward will come this summer when he’s a free agent and gets paid. The Clippers had won 4-of-5, much of that on a tough road trip, but a sloppy loss Sunday to the Hawks is the kind of game L.A. will look back on and regret if they miss the playoffs.

Heat small icon 15. Heat (24-24, LW 17). The Heat get mentioned in the fringes of the Anthony Davis trade talks, but if they end up in it — before the deadline or in July — it will be as a third team in a big deal. Which is to say it’s unlikely, but the rumors will not stop. Miami picked up a couple of road wins in Cleveland and New York this week — the kind of games playoff teams should win — and now are home for a week before heading back out on the road. Miami needs to rack up wins as it has the second-toughest remaining schedule in the East

Lakers small icon 16. Lakers (26-25, LW 15). The Lakers are 6-11 without LeBron James, who is expected to return Thursday against the Clippers, which is just in time for one of the toughest stretches of the schedule for the Lakers. But nobody wants to talk about any of that. The Lakers are pushing hard to force an Anthony Davis trade before the deadline — before Boston can get involved — and the offer reportedly would involve Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, a first-round pick and more. Sources have told me the Pelicans will be patient making this move (meaning after the Feb. 7 deadline) but the Lakers and Rich Paul are going to do everything they can to force a move now.

Hornets small icon 17. Hornets (24-25, LW 21). Kemba Walker gets to start in the All-Star Game in his city of Charlotte — that is huge for him and the organization. The Hornets are holding on to the eight seed in the East, they have a three-game lead over the Pistons, but they need to keep finding wins. Which is why the loss to the Bucks — when Milwaukee went small with Antetokounmpo at the five and outscored Charlotte 35-12 — sting. Stealing wins against good teams will be a huge boost for Charlotte in a playoff push.

Kings small icon 18. Kings (25-25, LW 16). The Kings will have Buddy Hield and De’Aaron Fox in the rising stars challenge and taking part in events All-Star Saturday night, but if the Kings were in the East both of those guys would have a good argument to make the All-Star Game itself. In the West, sorry, but the conference is just too deep. Sacramento is home for its next six and needs to rack up wins to make a playoff push (they are 2.5 games back of the Clippers right now).

19. Timberwolves (24-26, LW 18). Karl-Anthony Towns will make the All-Star team reserves announced Thursday, and that’s well deserved (although his slow start to the season may keep him off the All-NBA squad). Minnesota has gone 7-6 without Robert Covington, sporting a middle-of-the-pack defense without their best defender. He’s riding a stationary bike now and his return could help the defense and spark a push to the playoffs by the timberwolves.

Mavericks small icon 20. Mavericks (22-27, LW 22). Luka Doncic will be in the All-Star Friday Rising Stars game, then on Saturday in the skills competition, but will the coaches vote him in as a reserve for Sunday’s All-Star Game itself? While the fans had Doncic second in the voting (ahead of Paul George and Anthony Davis) it’s unlikely the coaches will put him quite on that pedestal.

Pelicans small icon 21. Pelicans (23-28, LW 19). Anthony Davis wants out, and while the team makes its trade decision — sources told me they will not be rushed to make, meaning it will likely drag out past the trade deadline and likely until the June draft or July — there is another question: Do the Pelicans bring him back and play him this season? They are not making the playoffs this year and are about to start a rebuild, I would say no — send him home, trade guys like Nikola Mirotic if there’s a good deal, and improve their draft position. There’s no reason to invite the circus to town whenever he plays a home game and gets booed.

Wizards small icon 22. Wizards (21-29, LW 20). The Wizards were telling teams very recently that they were not sellers — no Bradley Beal or Trevor Ariza trades — because they were making a playoff push. Does the loss to Cleveland Tuesday, dropping them 3.5 games back of the playoffs, change that equation? Washington is 8-7 without John Wall sporting a +1.8 net rating in those 15 games, basically treading water but not making up ground either. If they become a seller teams will be interested in Ariza and Otto Porter (there’s interest in Beal, too, but Washington isn’t moving him).

Pistons small icon 23. Pistons (21-28, 23). Rarely has one gif, one moment from a postgame interview summed up a team’s season so well. The Pistons are not making a playoff push, they are falling back in the East, and after the one win in those five — an ugly win against the Pelicans — Blake Griffin was talking about the team’s lack of focus, when Reggie Jackson proved his point.

Magic small icon 24. Magic (20-31, LW 24). Will Orlando be trade deadline sellers? The team has lost four in a row, 7-of-8, and is five games out of the playoffs — they are not going to make a run and get in. There’s a lot of interest around the league in Terrence Ross and there may even be a taker for Nikola Vucevic (although he is a tougher fit, a good player but one who needs to been the right system to be effective). The Magic had been holding off, thinking playoff push, but the smart move now would become sellers while giving their young players even more run.

Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (16-33, LW 25). Trae Young got buried by the narrative at the start of the season — he couldn’t buy a shot while Luka Doncic looked like the savior in Dallas — but of late Young has started to show a more rounded game. In his last 15 games, he’s shooting 34.8% from three (although he is still inconsistent) and in his last 10 has averaged 20.2 points and 7.1 assists a game. The Hawks almost certainly will be sellers at the trade deadline, with Jeremy Lin and Kent Bazemore at the top of the list of available players.

Grizzlies small icon 26. Grizzlies (20-31, LW 26). Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, the anchors of this franchise seemingly since the Carter administration, are available via trade. It’s the end of an era… eventually. It’s not going to be easy to trade the big salary and diminishing skills of Gasol at the deadline. There’s a lot of interest around the league for Mike Conley, but he’s making $30.5 million this season and has $67 million essentially guaranteed the following two seasons. It takes a lot of players to balance out the salaries, which is why trades that large usually are completed in the offseason.

Suns small icon 27. Suns (11-42, LW 27). Devin Booker has All-Star numbers — 24.8 points, 6.7 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game — but being the best player on the worst team in the West is not going to get him an invite to Charlotte. Don’t tell anyone, but Dragan Bender has had a few good games in a row, the question is can he start to do that consistently.

Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (11-41, LW 30). Break up the Cavaliers, they have won two in a row, beating the Bulls and Wizards. The Cavaliers will try to be sellers at the deadline — J.R. Smith has been available in the bargain bin for months — with the most likely to be moved being Rodney Hood, followed at a distance by Tristan Thompson. A trade for Kevin Love will have to wait until the off-season (at best) because of his injury (and even then it will be hard, he has one of the hardest-to-move contracts in the league).

Bulls small icon 29. Bulls (11-40, LW 29). There has been talk about them trying to bring Anthony Davis home to Chicago via trade, but it makes no sense. Any deal for AD would have to include Wendell Carter Jr., Lauri Markkanen, and anyone else the Pelicans wanted off the roster. Even if the trade happened, this would be a gutted Bulls roster leaving Davis to take on the world alone, and we’ve seen in New Orleans how much he likes that scenario. Then AD would leave as a free agent and the Bulls would be back to square one. Chicago just needs to keep building and save their moves for another day.

Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (10-39, LW 28). With the Knicks having lost 10 in a row, time to give their beleaguered fans a stat they care about (via Tom Haberstroh of NBC Sports): In ACC conference play, Zion Williamson is scoring 25 points a game on 71.8 percent shooting. That is insane. Of course, it leads to a big question: If the Knicks did win the lottery and the rights to draft Williamson, would they try to trade it along with Kristaps Porzingis to land Anthony Davis? Should they? Should they if Kevin Durant said he would come to play with AD?