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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlotte GM Mitch Kupchak: Hornets won’t build through free agency

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Mitch Kupchak doesn’t see the Charlotte Hornets being major players in free agency as they attempt to build a winning franchise in the post-Kemba Walker era – at least not right away.

Instead, the second-year general manager said Monday he anticipates the Hornets will construct the roster through draft picks and “savvy trades” during the season, while compiling as many assets as possible.

“We will not be an active player” in free agency, Kupchak said. “I think we can build a culture here and get enough assets and have a promising enough future and really attract the kind of free agent you want to spend that kind of money on – but I don’t think you can do it right now.”

So in the meantime, the Hornets will give young players like Dwayne Bacon, Miles Bridges, Malik Monk, Devonte Graham and even rookie PJ Washington extensive playing time this season as part of their No. 1 overall goal of player development after going 39-43 last season and losing Walker, a three-time All-Star, to the Boston Celtics.

Kupchak said that will take patience, but he and owner Michael Jordan and coach James Borrego are on the same page.

Kupchak said he won’t measure this season’s success in terms of wins and losses, but rather on how the team’s younger players continue to progress.

“Win or lose, I want our players to play with energy and our coaches to coach with energy,” Kupchak said. “As the season goes on I want to see improvement. That’s how I’m looking at the season.”

Kupchak said that concept may not be easy for Borrego.

“I am hoping he is better than he was last season,” Kupchak said with a grin. “At the beginning of the season last year he took each loss really, really hard. Hopefully this year he will be able to handle the losses a little bit better.”

Borrego has yet to name a starting lineup for Wednesday night’s home opener against the Chicago Bulls. Point guard Terry Rozier and center Cody Zeller are locks to start, but the combination of the other three remains a mystery.

That lineup could include Washington, who has impressed Kupchak with his 3-point shooting in the preseason since being selected No. 12 overall earlier this year.

Originally, the Hornets planned for the former Kentucky forward to split time between Charlotte’s G League team and the NBA to gain maximum playing experience. But Kupchak said Washington has been the team’s most impressive young player during the preseason and will likely remain in Charlotte, provided he’s seeing 15-plus minutes per game.

“He does have to play, and, based on his production of late, he will play,” Kupchak said. “… He has worked on his game and has turned himself into not only a big man that can be productive down in the paint, but in our game today he can also make 3s.”

Win or lose, Kupchak expects the Hornets to use a “fast-paced style of play.”

 

Report: Hornets still view super-max-eligible Kemba Walker as top priority

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Now that he’s eligible for a super-max contract that projects to be worth about $221 million over five years, Kemba Walker called re-signing with the Hornets his priority.

The big question: Does Charlotte want him back at a huge price?

Apparently so.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The Hornets and Kemba Walker both have each other as top priorities entering July 1, league sources said.

It increasingly sounds as if Walker staying in Charlotte is a done deal. And it might be. But because he can’t sign until July, there’s still time for complications.

Even on a designated-veteran-player contract, Walker is not locked into precise terms. The deal must be five years. It must have a starting salary between 30% and 35% of the 2019-20 salary cap. But his salary can annually increase or decease up to 8% of his initial salary. The contract needn’t be fully guaranteed.

So, there’s room for negotiation. If one side pushes too hard, the other could always look around. Walker can find better teams. Charlotte can find better values.

But as Walker and the Hornets head toward a long-term contract, attention should turn toward how Charlotte will trim salary. Unless Hornets owner Michael Jordan is suddenly willing to pay the luxury tax, expect Charlotte to trade Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller and/or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and/or stretch Bismack Biyombo.

Report: Hornets’ Bismack Biyombo opting in for $17 million

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A few players already made easy calls to opt in.

Bismack Biyombo might had the most obvious choice yet.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Kemba Walker and the Hornets have big decisions to make about each other – especially if Walker makes an All-NBA team and qualifies for a super-max contract. Charlotte has called re-signing the star guard a top priority, but it won’t be easy. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent and courted by better teams. The Hornets are capped out and would have a tough time upgrading the roster around Walker.

If Walker re-signs, especially for the super-max, Charlotte could stretch Biyombo to get breathing room under the luxury tax. That would mean incurring a $5,666,667 cap hit each of the next three seasons.

But that’d make it even harder to escape this mess down the road.

And Hornets could also use Biyombo at center now. Cody Zeller can’t stay healthy. Frank Kaminsky and Willy Hernangomez are defensive liabilities, and Kaminsky is a free agent himself. Biyombo’s defense adds value at a position Charlotte needs depth.

However, replacement level at center is very high (part of the reason Biyombo is so overpaid relative to his production). The Hornets could sign another effective backup center far cheaper.

At least whatever the Hornets decide, Biyombo will get this money.

After All-Star glamour, Kemba Walker returning to mundane reality of carrying Hornets

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CHARLOTTE – Kemba Walker just started a basketball game alongside Stephen Curry, Paul George, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid. The NBA’s biggest stars came to his city. World-class entertainers performed throughout the weekend.

“It was amazing, man,” Walker said. “It was amazing.”

Walker will start his next game on the same court, but it’ll be alongside Jeremy Lamb, Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller. Walker’s 27-30 Hornets will face the Wizards in a battle for a low playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. Most celebrities will have long cleared out.

Except Walker.

Walker remains as the face of the Hornets, a role he has embraced despite the franchise’s mediocrity. When his name emerged in trade talks last year, he said he’d be “devastated” to get dealt. He has made Charlotte his home and was so delighted to play host for yesterday’s All-Star game and all the accompanying festivities.

His reality here otherwise has been markedly different. In his eight seasons with the Hornets, he has never had an All-Star teammate. Not a single one.

Here’s every player in NBA history who played his first eight seasons without an All-Star teammate (seasons, including partial, with each team in parentheses):

Player Teams
Kemba Walker (2012-2019) CHA (8)
JaVale McGee (2009-2016) WAS (4), DEN (4), PHI (1), DAL (1)
David Lee (2006-2013) NYK (5), GSW (3)
Monta Ellis (2006-2013) GSW (7), MIL (2)
Ben Gordon (2005-2012) CHI (5), DET (3)
Andris Biedrins (2005-2012) GSW (8)
Zach Randolph (2002-2009) POR (6), NYK (2), LAC (1)
Eddy Curry (2002-2009) CHI (4), NYK (4)
Jamal Crawford (2001-2008) CHI (4), NYK (4)
Elton Brand (2000-2007) CHI (2), LAC (6)
Adonal Foyle (1998-2005) GSW (8)
Shareef Abdur-Rahim (1997-2004) VAN (5), ATL (3), POR (1)
Erick Dampier (1997-2004) IND (1), GSW (7)
Lamond Murray (1995-2002) LAC (5), CLE (3)
Glen Rice (1990-1997) MIA (6), CHA (2)
Grant Long (1989-1996) MIA (7), ATL (2)
Herb Williams (1982-1989) IND (8), DAL (1)
Larry Drew (1981-1988) DET (1), KCK/SAC (5), LAC (2)

Of that list, just Walker, David Lee, Elton Brand, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Glen Rice became All-Stars in their first eight seasons. Walker’s three All-Star appearances lead the group.

Just three of those players – Walker, Andris Biedrins (Warriors) and Adonal Foyle (Warriors) – spent that entire time with only one team.

So, obviously Walker is the only player in NBA history with a first eight seasons like this – All-Star himself, one team, no All-Star teammates.

I asked Walker whether he felt playing with another star was a missing piece of his career.

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” Walker said, pausing as if he were truly contemplating then shaking his head and shrugging. “I don’t know.”

If Walker wants to play with other stars, he’ll have an opportunity this summer as an unrestricted free agent. Some teams pursuing Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Klay Thompson will strike out. There will be opportunities for Walker to land with better teams. The Bronx native has poohpoohed the Knicks, but there are many other possible destinations.

There’s something to be said about staying in Charlotte, too. Walker is probably already the greatest player in Hornets history, and another contract with them could cinch it. For a player who’s relatively underpaid, a five-year max-contract projected to be worth $190 million could be quite appealing. Walker could continue to stand alone in a league where stars frequently switch teams and join forces. That probably won’t lead to championships, but that isn’t the only way to define success.

“He’s made this franchise relevant,” LeBron James said.

Still, that has translated to only two playoff appearances for Walker, both first-round losses. Charlotte landed in the lottery the last two years and has a 55% chance to return there this season, according to 538. The Hornets are capped out with unappealing contracts, so significant progress soon seems unlikely.

But with All-Star Weekend behind him, the last All-Star left in Charlotte is focused on a stretch run with the Hornets.

“That’s what we do,” Walker said. “We play basketball. And for us, if we really want to make a push, we’ve just got to be locked in. So, I’ll try to my best to get some rest, recover a little bit from this weekend and keep it going.”