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Jonathan Isaac could end Magic’s long-running star search

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Even as the No. 6 pick in the 2017 NBA draft, Magic forward Jonathan Isaac considered himself a “project.” He was committed to developing, taking it slowly if necessary. Yet, he also wanted to perform well. And he was a 20-year-old adjusting to professional life. As much as he tried to stay balanced, pressure was mounting.

Then, Isaac suffered an ankle injury that November that would sideline him most of his rookie year.

“I could take a deep breath and just get my head right,” Isaac said.

Most players would be devastated by that setback. That Isaac found the blessing in disguise says something about him – and how he got where he is today.

Isaac has emerged as one of the NBA’s top young talents, a real candidate to become Orlando’s first consensus star since Dwight Howard. I already regret omitting Isaac from our list of the top 50 players in 5 years. He is especially a revelation for an expensive, stuck-in-the-middle Magic team.

Though it’s far too soon to shut the door on it, Aaron Gordon still hasn’t made the leap. Markelle Fultz has encouragingly found his footing as a helpful NBA player – but without a reliable jumper, which evaporates his high-end upside. Mo Bamba has struggled so far in the NBA. Nikola Vucevic (an All-Star last year, but likely a one-time All-Star), Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross are too old to expect them to have significant untapped potential. Orlando is too good to tank into elite draft position.

If the Magic are going to get a breakthrough star anytime soon, Isaac is by far their best bet.

“I just want to be great,” Isaac said. “I just want to be an all-around player. I want to be able to help my team win every single night and be the reason why we win.”

That’s big talk for a player who has been content to blend in since entering the spotlight.

Isaac, who considered jumping straight from prep school to the NBA, enrolled at Florida State as a clear one-and-done prospect. Yet, he attempted just eight shots per game for the Seminoles as a freshman, often deferring to Dwayne Bacon and Xavier Rathan-Mayes.

“He came in and never talked about it, never said, ‘I’m one-and-done. I’m out of here,'” Bacon said. “He just played the game the right way every night. Just a great guy.”

One of Isaac’s biggest marks in Tallahassee was repeatedly blaring loud music early in the morning. Bacon even heard it across the hall.

“You can’t really complain to Jon, though, because he wasn’t a guy that did anything wrong,” Bacon said.

Isaac continues to push his limits.

He recently brought up Pascal Siakam, who won Most Improved Player, won a championship then signed a max contract extension with the Raptors. A ring is far-fetched any time soon, but those other goals are within reach for Isaac.

Isaac will be eligible for his own rookie-scale extension next offseason. His projected max? About $181 million over five years. The way Isaac is trending, the Magic – even with all their bigs – might pay it.

A Most Improved Player candidate, Isaac has increased his PIPM from +0.2 last season to +2.3 this season – a jump of 2.1. That’s one of the biggest increases in the league.

Here are the biggest PIPM increases in the NBA, with the left side of the bar showing a player’s previous high, the right side of the bar showing his 2019-20 mark and the difference listed in the middle (minimum: 500 minutes):

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Player Previous high 2019-20 Difference
Luka Doncic (DAL) +1.0 +6.2 5.2
Devonte' Graham (CHA) -1.9 +1.7 3.6
Jarrett Allen (BRK) +0.0 +2.7 2.7
Kelly Oubre (PHO) -1.6 +0.9 2.5
Wendell Carter (CHI) -1.6 +0.8 2.4
Jonathan Isaac (ORL) +0.2 +2.3 2.1
Brandon Ingram (NOP) -1.1 +1.0 2.1
Collin Sexton (CLE) -4.3 -2.2 2.1
Evan Fournier (ORL) -0.1 +1.9 2.0
T.J. Warren (IND) -1.0 +1.0 2.0

Unlike most others on that leaderboard, Isaac is coming off a pretty reasonable year. Among rotation regulars who’d already posted a positive PIPM, only Luka Doncic and Jarrett Allen increased theirs by more.

Isaac rates so highly because of his defense. He has a shot at an honor that eluded Siakam – an All-Defensive team.

The 6-foot-11 Isaac covers a lot of ground with his mobility and length. He reads the floor well, especially for his age. His second jump is elite. He can bite on pump fakes and still re-elevate quickly enough to contest shots. His versatility allows him to guard players across the positional spectrum, and he’s an active help defender.

Now, his main-matchup individual defense has caught up with Isaac getting stronger over the offseason.

“Just watching film, I like the way that I look,” said Isaac, who leads the NBA with 2.8 blocks per game. “Like I said, you watch film just, ‘Man, you look good. You look bigger.'”

Isaac ranks second among forwards in defensive PIPM (minimum: 500 minutes):

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The dramatic growth for Isaac could come offensively. He’s averaging 13.1 points per game (up from 9.6 last season), but his usage percentage remains below average (18.7).

Yet, Isaac shows flashes – dunks from way above the rim, smooth outside shooting, improved ball-handling.

Could he eventually become more of a go-to player?

“The nature of most players that you coach is this: They have a way that they play, and they improve, but the very nature of how they play doesn’t usually change much,” Magic coach Steve Clifford said. “A guy who builds his game around defending, rebounding – usually, that has to remain his strength. And then as he grows in say other areas, you become a more well-rounded player. He’s not going to go from being a great team defender with a defensive mindset to a guy who’s going to want the the ball every play to play in the pick-and-roll. I don’t think. It doesn’t usually happen.”

Isaac isn’t so sure.

Though he played the way Clifford described in college and in the NBA, it wasn’t always that way.

“In high school, I was the man,” Isaac said, beaming. “In high school, I was the guy. I remember, I was putting up – I had 44 one night. I was putting ’em up. All 3s, too.”

Does he want to shift toward that role again?

“Absolutely,” Isaac said. “I think every guy wants to be that guy. I want to continue to work until I am.”

Isaac said he’s experimenting offensively, testing his limits and getting increasingly ambitious. Creating off the dribble, posting up – what’s his ceiling?

“Sometimes, I feel like I’m out there and I can do whatever,” Isaac said.

So far, he hasn’t strayed too far for his coach’s liking. “Everything he does on the floor makes sense to me,” Clifford said. Isaac gets benefit of the doubt because he works hard and carries a positive disposition. His attitude is so welcome.

Even in a short interview, Isaac repeatedly brings up a mantra.

“I’m not where I want to be,” Isaac said. “But I’m much, much farther along than where I started.”

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.

NBA Power Rankings: Red-hot Boston climbs up into top spot

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Three weeks and around 10 games into the season, we are starting to figure out what is real and what is not — and how injuries are going to blow all that up. A lot of key players around the league are out now, but go ahead and blame Kawhi Leonard for sitting out and trying to avoid getting injured.

Celtics small icon 1. Celtics (8-1, Last week No. 6). Winners of eight in a row, making the timing of Gordon Hayward’s fractured hand feels like a punch to the gut. He was looking close to his vintage, All-Star self again averaging 18.9 points per game, shooting 43.3 percent from three, pulling down 7.1 rebounds and dishing out 4.1 assists. Hayward is in three of the Celtics’ four most-used lineups, and when paired with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown the Celtics are +27.2 points per 100 possessions. The silver lining is he is only out six weeks (at a point in the season it doesn’t crush them).

Lakers small icon 2. Lakers (8-2, LW 1). Did anyone really say LeBron James was washed? No doubt his game took a step back last season — his groin injury playing a big role in that — but washed? He was third-team All-NBA. LeBron apparently talked himself into using a straw man argument for motivation — and it worked. He is playing at an MVP level so far this season. He seems much more comfortable pushing the ball in transition this season and attacking the rim. When asked how he has held off Father Time, LeBron had a great answer: “Wine. It ages well.”

Bucks small icon 3. Bucks (7-3, LW 4). He may not have taken a step forward this season as hoped, but Khris Middleton was playing like his All-Star self of a season ago — 18.5 points per game, shooting 39.3 percent from three, finishing well at the rim, and the Bucks offense was 3.3 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court. Now they are without him for 3-4 weeks with a thigh bruise. The Bucks have won 4-of-6 in a road heavy portion of the schedule, and after being at home against the Bulls on Thursday it’s back out on the road for three more.

Clippers small icon 4. Clippers (7-3, LW 3). When Kawhi Leonard is on the court this season, Los Angeles is +24.3 points per 100 possessions better. That is exactly why he is getting load management nights now — to prevent and avoid injuries down the line, so he can be on the court in the games that matter. Starting Thursday he will be joined by Paul George, who is expected to make his debut on the road in New Orleans. Then we get to witness the fire power of this fully armed and operational Death Star.

Heat small icon 5. Heat (7-3, LW 7). Rookie Kendrick Nunn has come back to earth a little after his hot start, defenses started focusing on him and blitzing him a lot more. Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find a guy happier with his situation: “Everything is good — Miami, the organization, the culture, where I live… It’s a lot warmer (than where he grew up in Chicago), I don’t like the cold.” Nunn, however, likely will be back in Chicago in February — All-Star weekend, for the Rising Stars Game on Friday night with teams of rookies and second-year guys. “I’m looking forward to that for sure, just for a couple days though,” Nunn told NBC Sports.

Raptors small icon 6. Raptors (7-3, LW 8). Nick Nurse didn’t lean much on his bench until injuries to Kyle Lowry (thumb) and Serge Ibaka (ankle) forced him to, but he has been rewarded. Chris Boucher has been a defensive force, blocking shots by LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was hitting critical shots against the Lakers. The Raptors have started 2-1 on a five-game road trip, with the only loss being on the second night of a back-to-back against the Clippers (who had a rested Kawhi Leonard).

Jazz small icon 7. Jazz (8-3, LW 9). Utah’s offense has looked better the past couple of weeks (up 2.1 points per 100 possessions over their season average, via Cleaning the Glass), but it is still the Utah defense that has them winning games. Last week they won two big ones, at home against the best of the East in Philadelphia and them Milwaukee. Bojan Bogdanovic’s game-winner against the Bucks that will be one of the big shots of the season for the Jazz.

Sixers small icon 8. 76ers (7-3, LW 2). The Sixers are all about the close games. Four of Philadelphia’s seven wins have been by eight points or less. The Sixers struggled on a recent road trip going 1-3 — with all three losses by a combined 10 points — but came home and fattened up on Charlotte and Cleveland, before going back out on the road for three more. Those three losses, particularly the one in Denver, brought up the question we asked heading into the season: Who is the closer on this team? Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris combined for one bucket in the fourth quarter against Denver. They have to do better.

Rockets small icon 9. Rockets (7-3, LW 14). The Rockets have used the combination of a soft schedule (second easiest in the league so far this season) and a historically-hot James Harden to jump out to a fast start. While the Rockets defense has struggled, that has come from the bench, their preferred starting five — Russell Westbrook, Harden, Danuel House, P.J. Tucker, and Clint Capela — is allowing less than a point per possession when on the court together. Caplet’s off-season shoulder injury (suffered while playing for the Swiss national team) has slowed his offense.

Nuggets small icon 10. Nuggets (7-3, LW 11). Mike Malone is leaning on his starters — the combination of Paul Millsap, Will Barton, Gary Harris, Nikola Jokic, and in Jamal Murray has played the most minutes of any five-man lineup in the NBA so far this young season. Denver’s record looks better than their advanced stats because Jokic has quietly become as good a clutch shooter as we have in the league right now, and he hit two game-winners over the weekend to save the Nuggets.

Suns small icon 11. Suns (6-4, LW 5). It’s the question a lot of people keep asking: Are the Suns for real? It sure feels like they are (they played the Lakers tough until the end Tuesday night). For one thing, this is a top 10 offense and the defense is respectable (middle of the pack). Then there are games like Sunday, coming off a loss to Miami, where the Suns bounced back and trounced the Nets. Or, when Devin Booker scored 11 in a row in the fourth quarter recently to help beat Philly. The combination of Monty Williams as coach and Ricky Rubio at the point has Phoenix playing smart ball, the kind that is sustainable.

Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (7-4, LW 18). Malcolm Brogdon has the Pacers off to a quality start to the season, but they should be racking up wins now — all 11 of their games have been against teams currently below .500. That’s about to change with the Rockets and Bucks the next two teams up on the schedule. The Pacers sent Victor Oladipo down to the G-League for a day to get in practice, he’s still a ways away but it’s a good sign he’s getting in the work.

Mavericks small icon 13. Mavericks (6-4, LW 10). The boos are about to rain down on Kristaps Porzingis as he returns to Madison Square Garden Thursday to take on the Knicks (even though, when you look at the Knicks right now, do you blame him for wanting out?). Dallas lost to the New York at home last week despite another Luka Doncic triple-double. Porzingis has not played up to the level of his pre-injury self yet, but after nearly 20 months away from an NBA court that is to be expected. This was always going to take time.

14. Timberwolves (6-4, LW 13). It’s time to acknowledge this: Andrew Wiggins is playing the best basketball of his career. It’s not all puppy dogs and rainbows — he’s not defending all that well, he’s certainly not living up to his contract — but it’s better than we have seen him play. It remains a tail of halves: In the first half he shoots 30.3% from three and doesn’t really impact the game on either end; then in the second half he shoots 37.9% from three (50% in the fourth), he’s more engaged and attacks the rim, and he impacts games late. We’ll see if it keeps up, but so far his 21.1 PER is lightyears ahead of any other season he’s had and a sign of just how well he is going.

Spurs small icon 15. Spurs (5-5, LW 12). The San Antonio Spurs are averaging 25.2 free throw attempts per game, 11th most in the NBA. That doesn’t seem remarkable until you compare it to their history, the Spurs are not a team that draws fouls — they have been in the bottom 10 in the league in free throw attempts four of the past five years (and never were above 22 a game). San Antonio is attacking a little more, and just finding ways to win.

Nets small icon 16. Nets (4-6, LW 17). When Jarrett Allen is on the court, Brooklyn outscores opponents by 8.8 points per 100 possessions. When DeAndre Jordan is on the court, the Nets get outscored by 12.8. Allen is averaging 25.5 points per game, Jordan 22.4. Jordan is making $9.9 million a season in the first-year of a four-year contract. The lesson here? It’s good to have Kyrie and KD as your friends.

Blazers small icon 17. Trail Blazers (4-7, LW 19). Tuesday night’s loss sloppy loss to a Sacramento team without D’Aaron Fox set off even more alarm bells in Portland — this team is not right. The defense is struggling and the offense isn’t bailing them out Damian Lillard is carrying this team — he dropped 60 on Brooklyn and Portland still lost the game. CJ McCollum is struggling with his shot, Hassan Whiteside is Hassan Whiteside, and guys that might help such as Rodney Hood, Zach Collins, and Jusuf Nurkic are out injured. It all just puts more pressure on GM Neil Olshay to make a trade at the deadline.

Thunder small icon 18. Thunder (4-7, LW 15). While the record isn’t what OKC had hoped, this is a very competitive team that has four losses by five points or less. Filter out garbage time (as Ben Falk does at Cleaning the Glass) and the Thunder have a net rating of -0.7 — just a little under a .500 team. Catch a couple of bounces and this team has another win or two. That said, it’s going to be tough to rack up wins in the next four games against the 76ers, Clippers, and a home-and-home against the Lakers.

Bulls small icon 19. Bulls (4-7, LW 24). There are still a lot of things wrong in Chicago, but for a night rookie Coby White was able to cover them up by making seven three pointers in the fourth quarter to lead a win over the Knicks. Pulling away in the fourth is a nice change of pace for Bulls’ fans, who have had to watch their team blow four double-digit leads that became losses already this season.

Cavaliers small icon 20. Cavaliers (4-6, LW 25). Ten games into the season, we can now say: The Cleveland Cavaliers are not that bad. Which is a whole lot better than most of us expected (including Cavs fans). Take garbage time out of the equation (as stats at Cleaning the Glass do) and their net rating is -0.2, which is basically a .500 team. Collin Sexton and Darius Garland are showing some chemistry, veterans such as Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson are playing well (and upping their trade value), and the Cleveland offense has looked pretty good the past couple of weeks.

Hawks small icon 21. Hawks (4-6, LW 16). Trae Young has made the leap in his second season — he is playing like an All-Star. Young is making history right now — he is the first Hawks player ever to have three straight games with at least 30 points and 10 assists. Tuesday night he had 42 points, shot 8-of-11 from three (with some Stephen Curry-ranged makes), dished out 11 assists, and willed the Hawks to an impressive 125-121 win on the road in Denver.

Hornets small icon 22. Hornets (4-6, LW 20). Statistically, the Hornets may be 4-6 but they are playing over their head, with a -7.3 net rating that would suggest another loss or two. Or, look at it this way: Charlotte has trailed by at lest 10 points in every one of its games. The one bright spot has been Devonte' Graham, who is averaging 17.9 points per game and absolutely should be starting in place of Terry Rozier right now.

Magic small icon 23. Magic (3-7, LW 23). The rumors that Orlando is interested in DeMar DeRozan make sense: Orlando’s problem is on offense where they average less than a point per possession this season (second worst in the league), and DeRozan is a “just add water and instant offense” kind of player. Orlando has dropped 5-of-6 and on Wednesday night the 76ers come to town for what could be the Markelle Fultz revenge game.

Kings small icon 24. Kings (4-6, LW 27). The Kings feel snakebit. First Marvin Bagley III goes down injured. Then on Monday, De’Aaron Fox rolled his ankle near the end of the Kings’ practice and he will be out 3-4 weeks with what has been described as a grade 3 sprain. Fox was putting up 18.2 points and dishing out 7 assists a game this season as the focal point of the Kings’ offense. Look for more Cory Joseph and Yogi Farrell.

Pistons small icon 25. Pistons (4-8, LW 22). Blake Griffin has returned to the lineup and looked pretty good in his debut with 19 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists. Derrick Rose could return to the lineup this week as well from his strained hamstring, and the Pistons could use his playmaking skills off the bench as they are on the road for 3-of-4.

Wizards small icon 26. Wizards (2-6, LW 21). The good news is that with Bradley Beal and impressive rookie Rui Hachimura the Wizards have been getting buckets — they have the 11th ranked offense in the league. The bad news is with those two on the floor the Wizards give up more than 122 points per 100 possessions — Washington’s defense is a mess. Thomas Bryant is not a rim-protecting backstop, and the insertion of Isaiah Thomas into the starting lineup is not a boost on that end of the court. Thomas is averaging 10 points a game with a dreadful 47.1 true shooting percentage as a starter.

Pelicans small icon 27. Pelicans (2-8, LW 28). Brandon Ingram is averaging a career high 25.9 points per game. but how he’s getting those buckets has evolved since previous seasons. Ingram is getting to the rim less (just 21% of his shots, down fro 34% a season ago) but he’s not taking 30% of his shot attempts from beyond the arc and is hitting 46.9% of them. That shooting percentage is going to come down to earth some, but Ingram’s improved jumper speaks to the overall improvement in his game.

Grizzlies small icon 28. Grizzlies (3-7, LW 29). Ja Morant continues to put up numbers and look like a Rookie of the Year candidate, but what the Grizzlies really need is him and Jaren Jackson Jr. to find some chemistry, and that has yet to happen. When those two are on the court this season the Grizzlies score less than a point per possession and have a net rating of -11.8. Morant has 47 assists this season but only four have been to Jackson. It’s early, but the Grizzlies need this pairing to grow and work better.

Warriors small icon 29. Warriors (2-9, LW 26). Golden State rookie Eric Paschall is getting just about all he can eat in terms of touches on the shorthanded Warriors, and the result is him scoring 15.6 points per game. What’s most impressive is he is getting to the rim, with 43.5% of his shots coming in the restricted area, and he’s finishing a very good 66% of them. He’s one ray of hope for Warriors fans this season.

Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (2-9, LW 30). The Knicks signed Julius Randle this summer to bring his bully ball style in the paint to Madison Square Garden this season, but with other teams able to clog the paint because of a lack of shooting, Randle is shooting just 42.4% this season. His three-point percentage also is way off, down to 21.1% (he hit 34.4% a season ago). Things are so bad with the Knicks team president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry were forced to address the media (you know James Dolan demanded it), and it feels like David Fizdale may be the scapegoat. He’s no blameless, but you can resurrect John Wooden from the dead and he couldn’t get this roster to win, it’s unbalanced and never was going to fit well.

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NBA Power Rankings: Philadelphia’s length, defense, has it looking down at league

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It’s early in the NBA season and that means not only means the NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings are back, but there will be huge swings the first few weeks. We’re learning who is better than we thought, who is worse, and then there are the teams just on a hot (or cold) streak. Here are the rankings after a week of the NBA season, but expect big shifts the first few weeks.

 
Sixers small icon 1. 76ers (3-0, Last week No. 3). Size and defense are winning out for Philadelphia early on. Their size wore down Boston on opening night, and the combination of Josh Richardson and impressive rookie Matisse Thybulle ground down and smothered Trae Young. Questions about where the shooting will come from on this team still exist — they take an average number of threes but are hitting just 32 percent so far — but a defense allowing less than a point per game is getting them wins.

 
Clippers small icon 2. Clippers (2-1, LW 7). Kawhi Leonard is dishing the ball like never before — he is averaging 7.5 assists per game, when he had never been above 3.5 per game before. Or, look at it this way: He is assisting on (an estimated) 47.6% of teammates buckets when he is on the floor, when he has never been above 19% in any previous season. The Clippers have impressed to start the season with an insanely efficient offense, but their defense has not been good (25th in the league on Cleaning The Glass, which eliminates garbage time). If that doesn’t improve it will catch up with them.

 
Bucks small icon 3. Bucks (2-1, LW 1). Giannis Antetokounmpo fouling out of his first two games was a surprise, but the Greek Freak is still putting up monster numbers — 24.3 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 9 assists per game — and he’s still making game-saving plays like against Miami. The Bucks defense has been pedestrian so far this young season, but expect that to turn around.

 
4. Timberwolves (3-0, LW 18). Karl-Anthony Towns is locked in, seems to have taken another leap forward this season, and has put up monster numbers — 32 points, 13.3 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 blocks per game so far. He’s been incredibly efficient and much more active on defense. Andrew Wiggins has looked much better… in the fourth quarter. Only. He’s shooting 33 percent in the first half, but has averaged 7.7 points per game on 57.1% shooting (inlacing 57% from three) in the fourth quarter. The NBA doesn’t really have a closer out of the bullpen role, but Wiggins is trying.

 
Jazz small icon 5. Jazz (3-1, LW 4). Their offense has been clunky this season, not always getting open looks and guys missing open shots when they do come. Only one game has seen Utah score more than a point per possession (Sacramento) but thanks to an elite defense keeping opponents at below a point per possession also they are 3-1. Internally, they expect the offense to turn around as guys just get more familiar and comfortable with each other. Mike Conley isn’t going to shoot 20% overall and 15% from three all season.

 
Lakers small icon 6. Lakers (3-1, LW 6). So far this season Anthony Davis has spent three quarters (74% officially) of his time at the power forward spot and one quarter (26%) of the time at center. AD at the five worked well against Utah, which drops Rudy Gobert back in the paint and the Lakers needed to draw him out. Wherever he plays he’s putting up numbers, including a historic 40 points and 20 rebounds in just three quarters against Memphis.

 
Spurs small icon 7. Spurs (3-0, LW 13). Before an injury robbed him of last season, the Spurs were quietly preaching the improvement in DeJonte Murray’s jump shot. The jumper is a work in progress but Murray is scoring — he is shooting 54.5% from the floor this season (up from 44.3 the last time he played), and his True Shooting Percentage is at an impressive 60.2 percent. Mostly, he’s getting to the rim more and finishing there at a high rate (84.2%, that will come back to earth). The Spurs are undefeated, and while the wins over the Knicks and Wizards are not going to turn heads, beating the Trail Blazers in Portland is impressive.

 
Heat small icon 8. Heat (3-1, LW 15). Kendrick Nunn for Rookie of the Year? Don’t laugh. The undrafted, unheralded two guard is averaging 21 points a game, shooting 44 percent from three, and has played his way into the starting lineup in front of Goran Dragic. It’s a long season, but the undrafted rookie has impressed early and may be another steal for the Heat scouting staff. They went 2-1 in three games without Jimmy Butler (out for the birth of his child) and one of those wins was in overtime against Milwaukee. Butler returned and the Heat knocked off the Hawks.

 
Celtics small icon 9. Celtics (2-1, LW 8). The Celtics have two interesting big man prospects — “Time Lord” Robert Williams and Tacko Fall — and both have gotten a little NBA run. The Celtics offense takes a big leap forward when Williams is in the game, but he just makes too many mistakes, particularly on defense (chasing blocks he shouldn’t, for example). Both just need time on the court and should probably get it with the Maine Red Claws. As for the rest of the roster, after looking overmatched on opening night in Philly, the Celtics picked up a good win in Toronto and an expected one against New York. Wednesday night is a good test against Milwaukee.

 
Mavericks small icon 10. Mavericks (3-1, LW 14). Luka Doncic is putting up numbers — 25 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 6.8 assists a game — and Kristaps Porzingis is right with him, scoring 22.3 a night with 7.8 boards. However, when they have been on the court together this season the Mavericks have been outscored by 1.9 points per 100 possessions, with the offense being the weak link. Don’t expect that to last. Rick Carlise is clearly still toying with lineups, trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

 
Nuggets small icon 11. Nuggets (3-1, LW 2). Two of their wins came despite them trailing by double digits, and they gutted out a win in Phoenix despite Michael Beasley’s horrible foul of Ricky Rubio on a half court heave. They came back to earth a little against Dallas Tuesday, but Denver seems on track for a high seed again (despite the slip in these rankings). Denver has really missed Jamal Murray when he sits, the offense has scored less than a point per possession and the team gets outscored by 2.4 per 100.

 
Raptors small icon 12. Raptors (3-1, LW 9). When Pascal Siakam got a max extension, there were those questioning if he really would grow into that contract and be worth it. So far, yes. Through four games he’s averaging 27.5 points per game, shooting 42.9% from three, and has a team best PER because he’s so efficient. The other guy standing out in Toronto: Fred Van Vleet, who is scoring 18 points a game and shooing 40.7% from three. He’s going to be one of the biggest name free agents next July and he’s going to see a lot of zeros after the first number on his check.

 
Rockets small icon 13. Rockets (2-1, LW 5). Russell Westbrook and James Harden have found a balance on offense already, and the Rockets have an impressive 109.3 offensive rating so far. However, Houston is simply not consistent defensively and that is going to catch up with them at some point, likely in the postseason (and against elite teams in the league). During the regular season, the combination of Harden and Westbrook should be able to cover up the D with energy and scoring. That theory will be put to a better test as they head out on a four game road trip.

 
Suns small icon 14. Suns (2-2, LW 25). The fourth best net rating in the NBA? A defense that gives up less than a point per possession? Devin Booker hustling and making plays on defense? The Phoenix Suns are arguably the biggest surprise in the NBA to start the season and Monte Williams deserves a lot of credit for coaching this team up. They’ve had a tough schedule to start the season, and they have had to do most of this without the suspended Deandre Ayton, which makes it all seem sustainable. The Suns look legitimate.

 
Hawks small icon 15. Hawks (2-2, LW 24). Trae Young is out for at least a couple of weeks, and that is bad news for Atlanta — the Hawks are 22.5 points per 100 possessions better this season when Young is on the court. Or, put in raw numbers, Atlanta is +28 when Young has been on the court this season and -24 when he has sat. Atlanta’s backup point guard was supposed to be Evan Turner but he is out injured (left Achilles pain), which means just-claimed-off-waiver Tyrone Wallace has a lot on his shoulders.

 
Blazers small icon 16. Trail Blazers (2-2, LW 11). This ranking may be a little low because no team has a tougher schedule to start the season than Portland — six of their first eight on the road, and the two home games are the Nuggets and Sixers. Going against those good teams has had Portland taking fewer threes than a season ago and making fewer (33.3% so far this season), something that’s going to need to improve if they want to climb back up the standings.

 
Thunder small icon 17. Thunder (1-3, LW 23). Oklahoma City has kept games close because of an impressive defense holding teams down to less than a point per possession this young season. The offense showed up against Golden State in that beatdown, and they put up points against Houston, but buckets have not come easily to OKC. The standout has been Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is averaging 23.8 points per game, both getting to the rim and knocking down his threes. Danilo Gallinari is playing well enough to make other teams covet him in a trade.

 
Wizards small icon 18. Wizards (1-2, LW 26). Isaiah Thomas is back and getting his chance, playing almost 20 minutes against the Spurs and scoring 16 points on 6-of-14 shooting, including 4-of-10 from three. The biggest positive for Washington’s future may be a solid start to the season buy rookie Rui Hachimura, who is averaging 16.3 points a night on 46.9% shooting. He’s not hitting threes yet, he doesn’t get to the line enough, but the rookie has potential.

 
Nets small icon 19. Nets (1-2, LW 12). Whatever the Nets think of Kyrie Irving’s mood swings and attitude, the guy is carrying their offense — 37.7 points per game with a ridiculous 61.6 true shooting percentage. The Nets know what they have — that’s why they gave away mock Irving jerseys to fans the night the Nets took on the Knicks. That’s some quality trolling of Knicks fans (who, of course, showed up at the Barclay’s Centre to boo Irving for not wanting to play for James Dolan).

Pistons small icon 20. Pistons (0-0, LW 20). Considering Blake Griffin remains sidelined to start the season, the fact the Pistons have a middle-of-the-pack offense is a positive sign. Andre Drummond has been in “pay me my money mode” heading into free agency averaging 21 points and 16.3 rebounds a game, but the surprise is an efficient Derrick Rose giving them 21.5 points a game off the bench.

 
Bulls small icon 21. Bulls (1-3, LW 22). Chicago has struggled with the three-ball this season, attempting almost 36 a game but hitting just 27.5 percent of them. Thaddeus Young has been good from deep (43.8%) and Zach LaVine respectable (34.8%) but Otto Porter (21.1%) and especially Lauri Markkanen (18.2% on 6.8 attempts a game) have to get those shots to fall. Or stop taking them. Games against Cleveland, Detroit, and Indiana give the Bulls a chance to right the ship this week

 
Magic small icon 22. Magic (1-2, LW 19). Markelle Fultz is playing well in his sixth man role, averaging 12.3 points a game and not shying away from the three ball when it’s open (4.3 attempts per game, hitting 23.1%). Paired with Al-Farouq Aminu and Mo Bamba, the trio has given Orlando a solid bench that Steve Clifford can trust.

 
Cavaliers small icon 23. Cavaliers (1-2, LW 29). He may just be playing his way into a trade, but Tristan Thompson has started the season strongly averaging 19.3 points and 12.3 rebounds a game this season while shooting 60% overall. He even drained a three. Collin Sexton has looked improved and solid this season, but the Sexton/Darius Garland backcourt has a ways to go (the Cavs have a net rating of -11 when those two have share the floor this season, with the offense in particular sputtering.

 
Warriors small icon 24. Warriors (1-2, LW 10). Oh, how the mighty have fallen. The Warriors’ offense has been good enough, actually, top 10 in the league so far. The defense is dead last — that is where games are lost. Some of that is bad luck (teams are shooting 43.2 percent from three against them, that will come back to earth a little) but it’s mostly not having a real defensive rim protector or good wing defenders. Draymond Green’s value as a switching defender onto bigs is only effective if you’re trying to get away from the original defender, teams aren’t really intimidated by the Warriors’ defensively.

 
Knicks small icon 25. Knicks (1-3, LW 27). After stumbling through Summer League, RJ Barrett has come out and found a groove to start the season averaging 20.5 points per game, shooting 50% from the floor (and 46.7% from three), and pulling down 7.5 rebounds a game. He’s one of the guys (along with Ja Morant and Kendrick Nunn) stepping forward early and showing that Zion Williamson cannot just return and waltz to the Rookie of the Year award.

 
Pelicans small icon 26. Pelicans (0-4, LW 21). It was a good week for Brandon Ingram. First, other potential free agent targets next summer signed extensions with their teams (Jaylen Brown, Bradley Beal, Kyle Lowry, etc.) making him one of the biggest names in the class. Then he has gone out and looked like a guy who deserves to get paid, averaging 27.3 points and 9.5 rebounds a night. A few teams — the Knicks, Hawks, Hornets and others — will have cap space to spend next summer and may see Ingram as the kind of versatile scorer on the wing they could use.

 
Pacers small icon 27. Pacers (0-3, LW 16). Without Victor Oladipo it was right to expect some stumbles out of the gate in Indiana, but this has been ugly — a bottom 10 offense and defense with losses to Detroit and Cleveland. Against the Pistons, Drummond pushed around Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, which was concerning. What should really be concerning is this is the soft part of the Pacers schedule, it gets much tougher in a little over a week. Indiana needs to stockpile a few wins before things get harder.

 
Grizzlies small icon 28. Grizzlies (1-3, LW 28). This team is fun to watch, an early League Pass favorite, and that starts with rookie Ja Morant. He is averaging 17.5 points a game, dishing out five assists, shooting 42% from three and even blocking Kyrie Irving’s shot with the game on the line. His athletic and skill are on display and are must watch. Even if they aren’t going to win a lot (and are likely to trade away some veterans once we get closer to the trade deadline).

 
Hornets small icon 29. Hornets (1-3, LW 30). Terry Rozier came to Charlotte because he wanted the ball in his hands and a chance to show what he can do and… meh. So far i.e. is averaging 13.5 points per game, 5.5 assists a night, with a PER of 12.2. If you’re looking for a bright side, coach James Borego is getting young stars PJ Washington, Dwayne Bacon, Miles Bridges and Devonte' Graham good run, and each of them is showing some thing in flashes.

 
Kings small icon 30. Kings (0-4, LW 17). The “what happened to these guys?” surprise to start the season. Everyone’s League-Pass favorite last season is playing at a bottom 10 pace, in part because they have to keep taking the ball out from under the basket because of their league-worst defense (once you remove garbage time, like at Cleaning The Glass… leave in garbage time and they’re second worst). Sacramento has lost its games by an average of 19.5 points per game. Fans in Sactown want to see Richaun Holmes start over Dewayne Dedmon, and he’s probably earned that.

NBA Power Rankings: Toronto back on top as team to beat in East

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Toronto is back on top after knocking off their closest Eastern Conference foes last weekend, but we keep waiting for some team to flip the switch and demand to be No. 1 in the rankings. The Warriors are disinterested, maybe the Rockets make that push if they keep winning? We shall see, we’re just halfway through the marathon NBA season.

 
Raptors small icon 1. Raptors (31-12, last week No. 3). The Raptors showed they are the team to beat in the East last weekend knocking off the Bucks and Pacers in back-to-back games. Even better news for the Raptors is Kyle Lowry returned to the lineup on Sunday. They had missed their All-Star point guard — since his injury the Raptors had gone 10-8 (he played in some of those games trying to come back but clearly wasn’t ready). Now the Raptors are healthy (except for Jonas Valanciunas, still out most of this month with a thumb injury) and have 5-of-7 at home in a soft part of the schedule to rack up some wins.

 
Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (28-11, LW 1). The Bucks’ offense has been on an absolute tear the last five games, scoring a ridiculous 122.1 per 100, led by a starting five that can’t seem to miss a shot. However, the defense in those same five has slipped out of the top 10 and it was an inability to get stops — or slow Pascal Siakam — that cost them against the Raptors. The next few weeks is the big test for these Bucks: They travel to Houston on Wednesday night and that starts 5-of-6 and 11-of-14 on the road.

 
Pacers small icon 3. Pacers (27-13, LW 2). Indiana has won 7-of-8, but the wins were them fattening up on the soft underbelly of the East. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, Indy has been doing what good teams do — beat the bad teams consistently. The Pacers are winning despite a defense that has been middle-of-the-pack in the NBA the past five games. The good news, the offense has clicked during the winning streak and been a top-10 unit. The one loss in there was too Toronto, and next up they face Boston Wednesday.

 
Rockets small icon 4. Rockets (23-16, LW 6). In Houston’s first 20 games this season, James Harden was getting up an average of 11.4 threes per game, but he has gotten red hot and part of that is Harden raining threes — 16.2 per game in his last 10, and he’s hitting 41.4 percent of them. Also key during this 12-of-13 win streak: Clint Capela. The big man has averaged 18.5 points per game in his last 10, shooting 64.2 percent and grabbing 16.2 rebounds a game, Capela looked out of shape to start the season but he has played his way back into it and has been a force.

 
Warriors small icon 5. Warriors (27-14, LW 4). The Warriors finally got healthy and… meh. The Warriors are 9-5 since both Stephen Curry and Draymond Green returned to the lineup, with a +3.2 net rating (12th in the league). Their offense is 12th best in the NBA, their defense is middle of the pack, and overall the Warriors look meh. The Warriors (and most people around the league) are in the “don’t worry, after the All-Star Game they’ll flip the switch and be fine” camp. We’ll see. Among the reasons for optimism is that the target date for the debut of DeMarcus Cousins has been set, either Jan. 18 or 21 in Los Angeles (against the Clippers in the first game or Lakers in the second). They could use his help in the paint.

 
Thunder small icon 6. Thunder (25-15, LW 7). It’s weird to say this about a guy averaging a triple-double (again) but Russell Westbrook is in a shooting slump. It’s been going on for about a dozen games but has been worse in the last five: He’s shooting 3-of-23 from three in those last five (13%), 32% from the midrange, and just 55.6% at the rim. But with Paul George playing maybe the best basketball of his career, Westbrook still getting in the lane opening things up, and with the best defense in the NBA, the Thunder are 8-4 in those last 12 games.

 
Nuggets small icon 7. Nuggets (27-12, LW 5).. The Nuggets continue to win but their offense is carrying them — they have the fifth best offense in the NBA over the last 10 games, but the fourth worst defense. For the season Denver still has a top-10 defense, but it has fallen off sharply in recent weeks. Maybe getting Paul Millsap and Gary Harris back healthy (as happened last week) will change that, and Will Barton is expected to return to the lineup in the next week or two. That the Nuggets did as well as they did with three starters out speaks to this team’s depth. Plus they have Nikola Jokic hitting game winners.

 
Spurs small icon 8. Spurs (24-17, LW 9). It was cathartic for Spurs fans to get to boo and watch a blowout win when Kawhi Leonard came back to town in a Raptors’ uniform, and you know DeMar DeRozan savored his first ever triple-double in that game. It isn’t just Toronto that got crushed by the Spurs, San Antonio is 12-3 in its last 15 and has the best offense and the best defense in the NBA in that stretch. Monday’s in in Detroit started 7-of-10 on the road for the Spurs.

 
Celtics small icon 9. Celtics (24-15, LW 10). Kyrie Irving missed a couple of games with an eye injury and it was interesting to watch the transformation of some other players: Gordon Hayward averaged 25.5 points, 6.5 assists, and 6 rebounds a night in those two, Terry Rozier looked scary again, and Boston picked up a couple of wins with good ball movement. The Celtics need Irving to be Irving to win, but they also need a little more of what we saw in those games mixed in (which is on Irving to lift those guys up). Are Celtics fans more worried about their team’s start or Anthony Davis trade scenarios?

 
Sixers small icon 10. 76ers (27-14, LW 8). When a big three is brought together, the question becomes “who is willing to sacrifice for the good of the team?” In Miami, Chris Bosh took on the brunt of it, but Dwyane Wade sacrificed too so LeBron James could lead. In Golden State, Klay Thompson probably sacrifices the most but every one of their stars does to make the whole better. In Minnesota, who is willing to sacrifice and still contribute? That’s still a work in progress. Joel Embiid is complaining about how he is used, Jimmy Butler wants more traditional pick-and-rolls, and Ben Simmons has not fit smoothly yet either. This isn’t a Brett Brown thing, this is the players needing to sacrifice for the greater good and so far that has not happened in Philly.

 
Blazers small icon 11. Trail Blazers (24-17, LW 11). Looking for a third scorer in Portland? Look no further than Jusuf Nurkic, who has been a beast of late scoring at least 20 points in 6-of-7, including 27 points against Golden State a couple days after Christmas. Nurkic is doing most of his damage at the rim, with 75% of his shots in the last five games in the restricted area. Nurkic has made up for the slumping C.J. McCollum of late. After a tough stretch of the schedule, the Blazers are home and drinking good coffee against easier opponents for a couple.

 
Clippers small icon 12. Clippers (24-16, LW 12). The Clippers will be serious contenders on the free agent market — both Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant have been rumored… and maybe both could come — but don’t ignore the here and now. Montrezl Harrell might be the leader in the Sixth Man of the Year race and is a nightly must watch. Consistency has not been the Clippers’ hallmark of late, but the team has won three in a row and 7-of-10, using a softer part of the schedule to vault back up to the top four in the West — if the playoffs started today the Clippers would have home court in the first round.

 
Lakers small icon 13. Lakers (22-19, LW 13). The Lakers are now 2-5 with LeBron out, and where they miss him most is in the fourth quarter and in the clutch The Lakers are shooting 36.7% in the clutch (last 5 minutes, game within 5 points) since LeBron’s injury, scoring a league-worst 82.9 points per 100 in that stretch (the team is 1-3 in clutch games). Brandon Ingram just is not an “isolate him at the top of the key and let him go” kind of player, he can’t get to his spots, and he struggles. Lonzo Ball has great instincts but doesn’t read half-court plays well consistently, plus he is just not a threat to score on drives — he has no floater, can’t finish at the rim consistently, and is in his own head about free throws so he avoids contact. This is not what the Lakers imagined.

 
Jazz small icon 14. Jazz (20-21, LW 17). On paper the Jazz have been better than their record (they have the point differential of a 23-18 team) but it’s time for that to start translating to wins. Utah has 8-of-9 at home (and 12-of-15) and this is when the push needs to come. Defenses have adjusted and taken away some of what Donovan Mitchell wants to do, and while he needs to grow his game to counter those defenses, what the Jazz really need is someone to step up as a secondary scorer and athlete. Quin Snyder’s system can get them some buckets, but Utah needs a second scoring threat to reach the goals they have set for themselves this season.

 
Heat small icon 15. Heat (19-20, LW 18). Miami had won 8-of-10, Hassan Whiteside was playing impressive defense in the paint and Justise Winslow was making it work as the point guard. But then came an ugly loss to the Hawks — how is this team 0-3 to Atlanta this season? — followed by a loss to Denver as the schedule starts to turn tough. Those banked wins should help keep them in the postseason, but they can’t afford a losing streak the next couple of weeks. By the way, Dwyane Wade still knows how to make the highlight play.

 
16. Timberwolves (20-21, LW 20). Tom Thibodeau didn’t build up enough good will in the organization and community to survive the Jimmy Butler trade, and so he’s out and Ryan Saunders (son of Flip) is in. Minnesota has played better after Butler tried to sabotage the franchise, having gone 16-12 since Butler was traded (they got off to a fast a 9-3 start but are 7-9 since, mainly due to injuries to Derrick Rose, Jeff Teague, and Robert Covington). Karl-Anthony Towns has returned to his All-NBA form, but unless Andrew Wiggins consistently lives up to his status as a No. 2 option it will be difficult to grow and improve this capped-out team. Also, the Timberwolves have been dreadful in the clutch (-22.2 net rating, games within 5 points in the final 5 minutes) and that has to change.

 
Kings small icon 17. Kings (20-21, LW 14). Back in October and November, the Kings were a ridiculously good clutch team, but that has changed lately. In their last 15 games, 12 have been within 5 points in the final 5 minutes and the Kings are lucky to be 5-7 in those games considering their -20 net rating. The Kings have slipped below .500, have lost 5-of-6, and while just 2.5 games out of the playoffs they can’t afford a longer losing streak, it would be too hard to climb out of the hole. Which is why Tuesday’s loss to a Devin Booker-less Phoenix is so ugly for them. The Kings have a couple winnable games against Detroit and Charlotte at home coming up before the schedule gets tougher, De’Aaron Fox and the Kings need to get wins now.

 
Hornets small icon 18. Hornets (19-21, LW 15). How far has Frank Kaminsky fallen? Staring center Cody Zeller is out (broken hand, he’ll miss another month or so) and so James Borrego has gone to a starting front line of Devonte' Graham and Bismack Biyombo, and Willy Hernangomez got time at the give while Kaminsky ranks up DNPs. Charlotte’s best look is closing with Marvin Williams at center, but that’s not an all-game kind of thing. Kemba Walker is putting up All-Star level numbers and is even making half courters as he tries to run out the clock.

 
Nets small icon 19. Nets (20-22, LW 22). Every time I write this I still shake my head, but it’s true — if the playoffs started today Brooklyn would be in as the seven seed. It’s not going to be easy for the Nets to hold on to that (they have a one-game lead over Detroit in the ninth spot) and Brooklyn has the toughest remaining schedule in the East the rest of the way. While making the playoffs would be huge, just the fact this team is in the mix will help them lure free agents this summer (the Nets will have ample cap space and are in New York). Sean Marks has been amazing as a GM turning this franchise around.

Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (19-22, LW 23). Nikola Mirotic is missed in New Orleans. He has been out a dozen games now recovering from a sprained ankle, and without him the team has been 5-7, and while the offense has remained top 10 (it has slipped some without Mitotic’s floor spacing) the defense has been bottom 10 and is costing them games. I know Pelicans fans are sick of Anthony Davis trade rumors, but it’s not a media creation — teams around the league are obsessed with him and the fact the Pelicans are outside the playoffs has those teams convinced Davis is going to move on. Dell Demps is burning up the phone lines trying to trade for help, but this is a dead trade market.

 
Mavericks small icon 21. Mavericks (18-22, LW 19). Fun summer question: Will Dallas try to bring DeAndre Jordan back? Or, the better question may be: At what discounted price would the Mavericks re-sign Jordan for? Jordan is averaging an efficient 10.9 points and 14.1 rebounds a game, and he leads all NBA centers in ESPN’s defensive real plus/minus (although that is the perfect example of the eye test not matching the stats). Watch the games and he just doesn’t seem to fit with Luka Doncic and the future of the Mavs. Jordan is a free agent this summer and will likely find the market much tighter than he expects, but could that lead to staying in Dallas?

Pistons small icon 22. Pistons (17-21, 21). The Pistons do a surprisingly good job of keeping teams from getting to the rim — they have given up the second fewest shots in the restricted area of any team this season (Milwaukee is first), but when teams do get in the restricted area they are shooing 68.5 percent, the highest percentage in the NBA. Once you get past the defense, there is no rim protection. Detroit has lost 7-of-9 and slipped out of the playoffs in the East, the team has struggled to score, and now it heads out on a five-game road trip through the West. That said, the Pistons have a relatively easy schedule the second half of the season.

 
Grizzlies small icon 23. Grizzlies (18-22, LW 16). Memphis has lost six in a row, 11-of-13, during those 13 games they have a net rating of -7.3 (third worst in the NBA and below the Bulls, Hawks, and Suns), and the team has slid out of the playoffs in the West. It’s been ugly. The only thing we know for sure is Chandler Parsons will not be the Cavalry riding to the rescue (although it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where he gets traded/bought out before this summer). The Grizzlies play the red-hot Spurs Wednesday then head out for 4-of-5 on the road.

 
Magic small icon 24. Magic (17-23, LW 24). Magic fans want to see Nikola Vucevic make the All-Star team — he’s averaged 20.2 points and 12.1 rebounds a game, is shooting 38.1% from three, and his floor spacing and improved game have helped the Magic to what wins they have (17). Let’s stipulate that Joel Embiid will be the starting center for the East, after that who from that conference gets a nod over Vucevic? Brook Lopez? Al Horford? Can’t see it. The concern for Orlando is there is not just a center position, so if the coaches want to reward a lot of forwards — Pascal Siakam and Blake Griffin should make it in my book — Vucevic could get squeezed. I think Vucevic makes the cut, but it will fall to the coach’s vote (they pick the reserves).

 
Wizards small icon 25. Wizards (16-25, LW 26). Washington is 3-3 since John Wall went out for the season, with a slightly above-average offense and a slightly below-average defense. Sadly, in the East that’s enough to keep Washington’s playoff hopes alive. The Wizards might be open to being sellers at the trade deadline, and while John Wall and Bradley Beal aren’t going anywhere, the Wizards should be open to trading Trevor Ariza (again, he was picked up from Phoenix before the Wall injury). Ariza is the kind of veteran wing a number of playoff teams could want (the Lakers were very interested before), it would be a smart move by the Wizards to add some assets in a season they are not competing for anything of consequence.

 
Hawks small icon 26. Hawks (12-28, LW 25). Trae Young is being a bit more selective with his threes and has started to knock down his shots for the Hawks. In his last 10 games, Young is averaging 15.5 points a night and his hitting 50 percent of his 3.2 three-point attempts per game — a number well down from his season average of 4.9 attempts per game. He’s got the passing skills and he’s starting to figure out the NBA game. Atlanta went 0-3 on a road trip, came home for a night to beat the Hawks, and then went back on the road and fell to Toronto. Atlanta has two more games left on this road trip.

 
Suns small icon 27. Suns (10-32, LW 27). I know Suns fans want to see Devin Booker in the All-Star Game, but it’s a long shot. In part because the Suns stink. More than that, the West is just stacked at the guard spot. Stephen Curry and James Harden will be the starters (we can assume), after that there are three or four more guard spots to divide up between Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, Klay Thompson, Luka Doncic, Mike Conley, and Donovan Mitchell, among others. Hard to see Booker, as good as he is, cracking that group. Tuesday’s come-from-behind win against Sacramento (without Booker) snapped a six-game losing streak, just in time for Phoenix hit the road for 5-of-6.

 
Bulls small icon 28. Bulls (10-30, LW 28). Chicago wants to be sellers in the next month heading into the trade deadline. They just moved Justin Holiday to Memphis, a move that frees up minutes for Chandler Hutchison. Ideally, the Bulls would like to trade Robin Lopez, but he makes $14.4 million this season and it’s going to be hard to find players to match that salary the Bulls would want to bring in. Most of the league expects the Bulls will fall short in finding a trade and will just buy him out after the deadline, and a number of teams are ready to pounce if that happens.

 
Knicks small icon 29. Knicks (10-31, LW 29). Coach David Fizdale on the Knicks’ defensive struggles: ““I think just figuring out what these kids can handle and what was a little bit too much. This first half of the season was figuring that out. I think now I’m starting to see, OK, this is the kind of thing that they can really hang their hat on and here are the things we probably should stay away from. Moving into the second half of the season we’re going to try to trim it and simplify it that way for them, so that we can maybe find some consistency in the second half.”

 
Cavaliers small icon 30. Cavaliers (8-33, LW 30). They have lost 10 in a row, Kevin Love is not going to return for a few weeks, and the one favor they did for an agent — putting together the offer sheet for Patrick McCaw to get him out of Golden State, then cutting him so he could be an unrestricted free agent — has the NBA league office investigating if the Cavs tried to circumvent the salary cap. Just nothing is going right for this team.