Report: Bucks trading for Pelicans’ Nikola Mirotic

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The Pelicans are in turmoil with Anthony Davis asking out.

The Bucks want to avoid that situation with Giannis Antetokounmpo.

So, Milwaukee is vulturing the wreckage in New Orleans for Nikola Mirotic. To do so, the Bucks will turn their not-yet-official Thon MakerStanley Johnson trade with the Pistons into a three-way deal involving the Pelicans.

Tim Bontemps of ESPN:

The team with the NBA’s best record and best net rating just improved. Mirotic is a high-quality stretch four. His outside shooting and defensive competitiveness will fit Milwaukee perfectly. Essentially, the Bucks upgraded on Ersan Ilyasova, who was their top free agent last offseason but has underwhelmed.

Mirotic is on an expiring contract, and New Orleans was unlikely to get much value from him the rest of this season or retain him. Four second-rounders are a nice haul and will help into a post-Davis future.

Mirotic’s impending free agency will soon become the Bucks’ problem. They already have four starters – Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon – heading into free agency. Keeping all four could be difficult, and re-signing Mirotic now adds another challenge. On the other hand, Milwaukee gains leverage in negotiations if it tries to keep four of the five. Previously, that would have been four of four, giving the players an upper hand.

Stanley Johnson and Jason Smith, also on expiring contracts, were likely included primarily for salary-matching. At least Johnson is a decent flier. The Pelicans can make him restricted this offseason.

Thon Maker is still headed to Detroit.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is next

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DETROIT – Giannis Antetokounmpo said the Bucks presented him with two choices for his rookie-scale contract extension in 2016:

  • A four-year, $100 million extension
  • A five-year extension that, by rule, would provide a max starting salary with max raises

Antetokounmpo took the shorter deal.

“I was 21 years old,” Antetokounmpo said. “My agent told me that was the best deal we could get and eventually you’re going to make more on the back end, but right now, that’s the best choice for you. And I trusted him.”

With that decision, Antetokounmpo set the timer.

In the likely event he makes an All-NBA team this season or next, Antetokounmpo will be eligible for a super-max extension during the 2020 offseason. If he doesn’t sign an extension, he’ll become an unrestricted free agent in 2021.

As superstars approach their first unrestricted free agency, those inflections points test their commitment to their current team. And everyone knows it. Other teams position themselves to poach the player. Reporters dig up details about the player’s and teams’ plans. Fans and media speculate. Every development feeds the every-expanding news cycle.

Anthony Davis is in the midst of it right now. Before him, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard had their turns.

Antetokounmpo is next in line.

Right now, his existence in Milwaukee appears happy. The Bucks’ record (38-13) and net rating (+9.6) lead the league. Antetokounmpo is an MVP candidate.

But how will he feel in a year or two?

In 2015, Antetokounmpo wrote, “Right now I feel like I want to play for the Milwaukee Bucks forever.” That quote has drawn plenty of attention since. Often forgotten is the perspective Antetokounmpo showed in that same 2015 blog post: “You never know how life turns out. … I don’t know how I’ll be feeling and thinking in 2, 3 or more years.”

So, a few years later, how does Antetokounmpo feel about playing for the Bucks forever?

“I still feel the same,” Antetokounmpo said. “As long as me and the Bucks are on the same page and we build an organization that’s all about winning and nothing more than that, I want to be here.”

Milwaukee obviously wants him there, too. Which warrants revisiting his 2016 contract extension.

At the time, it seemed the Bucks did well to secure Antetokounmpo for less than the max. C.J. McCollum had just signed a four-year, $106,633,450 extension with the Trail Blazers. Getting Antetokounmpo for only $100 million looked like a coup.

There was some consideration Milwaukee should’ve pushed him onto a five-year extension. Though such extensions required a max starting salary with max raises, locking up Antetokounmpo for an extra year held value, too. But he hadn’t even made an All-Star team at that point. The consensus was the savings during the four-year extension made it the right call for the Bucks.

In hindsight, it was a mistake. A five-year extension would have meant paying Antetokounmpo about an extra $4 million total* over the first four years in exchange for paying him about $30 million in the fifth year (2021-22). Now, Antetokounmpo projects to have a max salary of about $44 million in 2021-22.**

*That’s based on the max raises (7.5%) and max-salary calculation required by the previous Collective Bargaining Agreement, which was in effect when Antetokounmpo signed the extension. Had he signed a five-year extension, it’s possible the owners and players would have negotiated special rules for Antetokounmpo’s extension, which went into effect under the current CBA. The current CBA mandates a higher raise (8%) and uses a different max-salary calculation (resulting in a higher amount) for such extensions. Russell Westbrook and James Harden had special rules written for them due to the CBA change. When the previous CBA took effect between him signing an extension and it taking effect, Kevin Durant had his contract terms altered to reflect new CBA terms. Without special dispensation, Antetokounmpo could have wound up earning less during the first four years of his “max” extension than McCollum did on his extension.

If every ruling had gone in his favor, Antetokounmpo would have earned an extra $10,984,160 during the first for seasons of a five-year extension and had a $32,700,690 salary in the fifth year. It still would have behooved Milwaukee to have him on that contract.

**Based on the salary cap rising the same amount in 2021-22 as projected between 2019-20 and 2020-21 and if he makes an All-NBA team this season or next. Without either honor, his projected max in 2021-22 drops to $38 million – still far more than what his final-year salary would have been in a five-year extension.

Escaping that rabbit hole and returning to reality, Antetokounmpo is on the four-year extension. That is Milwaukee’s timeline to please him.

Right now, it looks great. But the future is filled with potential pitfalls.

Four Bucks starters – Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon – can become free agents after the season. Re-signing all four could be difficult, especially if Milwaukee is unwilling to pay the luxury tax. The Bucks have paid the tax only once, the first year it was assessed, 2003.

Even if they re-sign all four, will that be enough? Middleton is 27. Bledsoe is 29. Lopez is 30. How much better will they get?

Milwaukee is also out two future first-round picks. One got sent to the Suns for Bledsoe. The other got traded to the Cavaliers to unload salary and acquire George Hill.

That’s one lingering cost of recent bad signings. The Bucks overpaid John Henson and Matthew Dellavedova then had to surrender that first-rounder to dump them. Larry Sanders’ stretched salary remains on the books through 2022. Milwaukee somehow turned Miles Plumlee‘s toxic contract into smaller pieces, but one of those pieces – Spencer Hawes – still has stretched salary counting through next season. At least the Bucks  dodged a bullet with Greg Monroe taking a three-year max contract in 2015, when he could’ve gotten a four-year max deal that ran through this season.

Still, Milwaukee also squandered the value of the No. 2 pick in the 2014 draft, as Jabari Parker provided little on the court then left in free agency. No. 17 pick Rashad Vaughn was a bust the next year. The No. 10 pick the following year, Thon Maker, barely plays and wants to be traded.

But, in the NBA landscape, these are first-world problems. Milwaukee is an elite team trying to take the next step. So many teams struggle to reach this level.

The Bucks already look championship-caliber. They might be unfortunate to exist at the same time as the super-charged Warriors. But if Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins leave Golden State, Milwaukee could have a better title chance next year.

Yet, it’s impossible to overlook how high the stakes are with Antetokounmpo on the roster. All this success is possible only because of him. Any misstep that threatens his commitment to the franchise could undermine the operation.

But the Bucks keep getting everything right. Even a move some thought would sow unease with Antetokounmpo has done the opposite.

When Milwaukee’s mangled process for hiring a general manager in 2017 sparked talk about Antetokounmpo eventually leaving, he tweeted:

It helps that Bucks general manager Jon Horst, a compromise choice among ownership, has performed so well in his new job. Though he was supposed to signal Milwaukee’s discord, he has fostered stability. Horst helped attract Coach of the Year-favorite Mike Budenholzer and signed players, like Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova, who fit Budenholzer’s system. The Bucks look especially aligned.

It also helps that Antetokounmpo makes so few waves. He even said he could never see himself playing for Los Angeles – music to everyone’s ears in Milwaukee.

Yet, Antetokounmpo also expressed more-nuanced views on loyalty while explaining Durant’s move from the Thunder to the Warriors. A plugged-in former general manager reportedly said, “There’s no way in hell Giannis is going to stay in Milwaukee. I would bet everything that he leaves the Bucks.”

It’s simply impossible for Antetokounmpo to end speculation about his future. As he elevates into superstardom and heads closer to free agency, chatter will only increase.

“He has been incredibly loyal,” Budenholzer said. “I think that’s something that’s important to him. So, he’s a gift, for sure.”

Of course, Budenholzer isn’t taking anything for granted. He obviously always wants to win, but he knows that’s particularly important for the franchise right now.

“Most teams feel that pressure,” Budenholzer said. “Having Giannis does maybe heighten it, but it’s a great part. It’s great to be in Milwaukee with Giannis.”

More importantly, Antetokounmpo thinks it’s great to be in Milwaukee, too.

“It’s not about small market, big market,” Antetokounmpo said. “I don’t think about that. I don’t think about lifestyle. I just think about organization that has treated me well, my family well. And it’s all about winning.

“If the organization main goal is winning, I don’t care about the rest. I feel like my family is getting used to Milwaukee. I’m used to Milwaukee. So, it’s a great place to be.”

Rudy Gobert, Tobias Harris among notable 2019 NBA All-Star snubs

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NBA All-Stars have been released for 2019. We got the starters last week, and now the reserves have come in.

The teams will be selected by captains LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo on Feb. 7 on a live broadcast on TNT. Meanwhile, fans are ecstatic about the players from their favorite teams that made the All-Star game, while at the same time are angry about potential snubs.

As it happens every year — largely because of the continued requirement of a certain number of players from each conference — there appear to be several significant All-Star “snubs” and this season is no different.

The biggest is probably Rudy Gobert, who has been the defensive anchor or a Utah Jazz team that has turned their season around and is currently seventh in the West. Gobert could have easily replaced LaMarcus Aldridge or perhaps Klay Thompson, who is having a down year (at least for his standards) in Golden State.

A quick list of potential 2019 NBA All-Star snubs yields a considerable pool of considerables, including but not limited to:

Who do you think should have made the All-Star Game out of this list? And if you are going to supplant one of the guys that did make it, who would they replace?

The NBA has more good players than they can fit on to two All-Star teams, and that will probably always be the case. That gives fans and players something to consider, and acts as fuel for the fire for the rest of the season.

NBA Power Rankings: Golden State is back on top and it feels like a return to normalcy

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Things seem back to normal, or at least back to what we expected, with the Golden State Warriors back on top of the rankings. Their biggest threats in the playoffs probably come more from teams in the East, not the West.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (33-14, last week No. 3). Golden State has won eight in a row, so are we done with the “what’s wrong with the Warriors” stories? DeMarcus Cousins is now the starting center for Golden State, and while he’s still shaking off the rust and adjusting after a year off (to recover from a torn Achilles), he already brings a lot to the table. His three-point shooting, his playmaking out of the midpost, his solid screens, and his ability to be a big body in the way on defense all give the Warriors a dimension they have not had since Andrew Bogut during the first title run (but Boogie is a better version of that player).

Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (34-12, LW 2). Winners of five in a row, due in part to the fact Eric Bledsoe getting hot in those games — 21.6 points per game on 57.7% shooting, plus he’s dishing out 5 assists a night and is +16.4 per game in those contests. Can Bledsoe take that show on the road? Starting Sunday the Bucks head out for 8-of-10 away from their new arena, where they are 13-8 on the season with a +5 net rating — they are still good away from home, but not the same dominant force.

Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (36-13, LW 1). The Raptors are 25-11 in games that Kawhi Leonard has played this season, but maybe more impressive is they are 10-2 when he rests. Which he has done a lot of this season as Toronto tries to keep him happy and healthy. Leonard will be an All-Star, and it’s possible (despite a slightly down season) that Kyle Lowry will be in Charlotte, but what about Pascal Siakam? He has risen to a spot of vital importance in the Raptors’ rotation, so much so that with the game on the line Nick Nurse called an isolation for Siakam. And it worked.

Nuggets small icon 4. Nuggets (31-14, LW 5).. It’s not going to be fair to the team with the second best record in the West, but likely Nikola Jokic will be their only All-Star. Yes, Jamal Murray has a strong case, but the West is just so stupid deep with good guards that quality players are just not going to make the cut (Curry, Harden, Lillard, and Westbrook are locks, that leaves maybe one spot for Murray or Conley or Thompson or Booker or Fox… the West is so deep). Denver deserves two but may not get it.

Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (31-17, LW 8). This feels a little high for Philly, but they have won 4-of-5 and that includes blowout wins over Indiana and Houston. The Sixers have hit their offensive strides in those last 5 games, and their defense remains strong. Joel Embiid should be a lock as an All-Star Game starter in the East, but it will be interesting to see if Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons get voted in by the coaches. Will the coaches punish Butler for torpedoing Minnesota at the start of the season?

Pacers small icon 6. Pacers (31-15, LW 4). Victor Oladipo deservedly will make the NBA All-Star Game as a reserve voted in by the coaches, but do the surprising Pacers deserve two players in Charlotte? It’s tempting to say yes, but who is their second best player? Myles Turner? Does he really deserve to go? Domantas Sabonis is probably their second best player and could win Sixth Man of the Year, but does a reserve deserve to be an All-Star? Tough stretch coming up for Indy, 5-of-7 on the road ant the two home games are the Raptors and Warriors.

Celtics small icon 7. Celtics (29-18, LW 9). Winners of four in a row and 8-of-11 (although the only road win in the group was at Atlanta). The most impressive of those wins was against Toronto, and Boston went on a clutch 17-2 run late to make it happen. The Celtics have played up and down all season, but they have risen to the level we expected of them in recent wins against Indiana and Toronto, now they need to sustain it as the home stretch continues for 5-of-6. Saturday they can measure themselves against the red-hot Warriors.

Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (29-18, LW 7). Oklahoma City gets a lot nightly out of its starters — Russell Westbrook, Terrance Ferguson, Jerami Grant, Paul George, Steven Adams — as they are +14.3 per 100 possessions this summer. Sub Dennis Schroder in for Westbrook and that lineup still thrives. After that things get more inconsistent, but when they get big nights from the bench like they did Tuesday against Portland this team can hang with anyone. Interesting test Sunday night at home against the Bucks.

Blazers small icon 9. Trail Blazers (29-20, LW 10). Portland has gotten strong play out of Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic of late, but after them things drop off fast. Evan Turner and the strong bench that carried the team early in the season does’ show up nightly, especially on the road right now. Despite that Portland has the fourth best offense in the NBA over the last 10 games (119.4 offensive rating) and when the team can get just a few stops it can rack up wins.

Rockets small icon 10. Rockets (26-20, LW 6).
Clint Capela has missed four games, and in those games James Harden has scored 200 points, and the Rockets have gone 2-2. Houston has got 3-4 in their last 7 as teams are starting to give Harden a version of the defense used against Jordan and Steve Nash — let him score a lot, just don’t let him get anyone else involved and they’re vulnerable. The Rockets need other stars to step up. Chris Paul is expected to return this week, that will be a huge boost for Houston.

Jazz small icon 11. Jazz (26-22, LW 11). Ricky Rubio has returned from injury (he came off the bench Monday against Portland) and he is needed with Dante Exum and Raul Raul Neto still out). Donovan Mitchell has found his groove again, in his last five game he’s score 30 points a night average with an impressive 58 true shooting percentage, all with an increased usage rate (35.6%). Friday and Sunday it’s a home-and-home against Minnesota, which leads to the always fun Nikola Jokic vs. Karl-Anthony Towns matchup.

Spurs small icon 12. Spurs (27-21, LW 12). Most teams count on their starters to get them a lead and hope the bench can hold it, but for the Spurs their starting five — Bryn Forbes, Derrick White, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, LaMarcus Aldridge — are +0.4 in their last 15 games, basically playing other starters to a standstill. It’s the bench and its three-point shooting that give the Spurs the lead. After a tough game Wednesday against Philly, San Antonio hits a soft part of the schedule for the next week plus (not all gimmies but winnable games) and they need to rack up wins to pad their record in a deep West.

Nets small icon 13. Nets (25-23, LW 18). One of the biggest changes in Brooklyn this season (especially the past month as the team has pushed above .500) is the ability to close out games. The Nets were terrible at it a season ago but are 10-9 in games within three points in the final three minutes this season (despite a -10.7 net rating). D’Angelo Russell has had big games lately: 34 points against Boston, 40 vs. Orlando, 31 against Sacramento, but in all those games combined he shot two free throws. Russell does not attack the rim and does not draw fouls, and that’s hurting his stock some coming into next season.

Clippers small icon 14. Clippers (25-22, LW 14). While the Clipper defense has struggled for much of the season (22nd ranked), it was bailed out by the offense. Until recently. In the last five games, the Clippers have scored just 102.8 points per 100, 25th in the league. Injuries that sidelined Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari have plenty to do with that, but the Clippers need to find their offense quickly. Los Angeles has started 1-1 on a stretch of 11-of-15 on the road that will decide its season, can the Clippers hang in playoff contention through all of this.

Lakers small icon 15. Lakers (25-23, LW 15). The Lakers have gone 5-9 without LeBron James but were finally going to get healthy — LeBron could be back this weekend, Rajon Rondo sooner — when Lonzo Ball went down with a sprained ankle that will have him out 4-6 weeks. Ball had been playing well without LeBron — 12.9 points, 6.9 assists, 6.2 rebounds a game shooting 38.9% from three — without LeBron and seemed ready to maybe step up. Now that is on hold. The Lakers are home this week but starting Jan. 29 hit one of their toughest stretches of the season.

Kings small icon 16. Kings (24-24, LW 13). Buddy Hield has a surprisingly strong All-Star case. He’s averaging 20.2 points per game to lead the rings, is shooting 45.5% from three, and is the team’s go-to scorer in the clutch (just ask the Pistons, or watch the video below. Hield isn’t going to make it this year — the West is so deep with guards with Curry/Harden/Lillard/Westbrook as locks for the game — but it would be good to at least see him in the three-point contest. The Kings are 1-3 so far on a six-game road trip.

Heat small icon 17. Heat (22-23, LW 16). Dion Waiters wants to play more — he got fined publicly complaining about it — and since his return he’s been solid but not blowing anyone’s doors off at 9.5 points per game, shooting 31.6% from three. He could get his chance to starts soon just because with Goran Dragic out and Josh Richardson running the point the Heat meed all the scoring they can find. The Heat went 1-3 on a recent road trip and still have 8-of-12 coming up away from South Beach.

18. Timberwolves (23-24, LW 19). The fans are trying to vote Derrick Rose into the All-Star Game, and while it’s unlikely the media and players go along with that Rose does remain one of the best stories in the league this season. That leads to a bigger question: If the All-Star Game is an exhibition for the fans, why not give them what they want? Why not put Rose and Dwyane Wade in the game? Rose is still making plays, just ask the Suns.

Pelicans small icon 19. Pelicans (22-25, LW 17). Anthony Davis is out for a while and is seeing a specialist, which is never a good sign (not that anyone in New Orleans is noticing, they are still angry about the no PI call at the end of the Rams/Saints game). The Pelicans are 7.2 points per 100 possessions better with their MVP candidate on the court and they need to find wins without him, as they did against the Grizzlies. The Pelicans are three games out of the playoffs and three games below .500, but if Davis misses much time that could get worse.

Wizards small icon 20. Wizards (20-26, LW 23). The Wizards are trying to make a playoff push (they are the nine seed currently, just two games out of the postseason) and to get there they are finding some success with their small-ball lineups that have Otto Porter or Sam Dekker at center. Bradley Beal is thriving in those smaller lineups. Washington got the win in London — and Thomas Bryant got his first game-winner in the NBA — on one of the strangest endings to a game ever, a goaltend with 0.4 on the clock.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (22-24, LW 22). Expect to hear a lot of Kemba Walker trade rumors the next couple of weeks, but I have yet to hear anything credible that the Hornets would be open to a trade — they want to make the playoffs then re-sign Walker next July. Charlotte has gone 4-6 without Cody Zeller (and are lucky to be doing that well, considering the -7.5 net rating in those 10 games) but has won 3-of-4 and need to keep winning to hold off charging Washington for one of the final playoff slots in the East.

Mavericks small icon 22. Mavericks (21-26, LW 20). How much does Dallas miss J.J. Barea? The Mavericks are 20-18 when he plays and now 1-8 without him, including losing 4-of-5. Getting Dennis Smith Jr. back will help mitigate some of that, he showed how much he could help against the Clippers in his first game back, scoring 17 points (on 17 shots, but he was a +9). Dallas has its next seven games against teams from the East.

Pistons small icon 23. Pistons (20-26, 24). Blake Griffin should be a lock as an All-Star Game reserve voted in by the coaches. Detroit remains just two games out of the playoffs in the East and wants to make a push (the loss to Washington Monday didn’t help) but they need more consistent play out of their guards and wings — Luke Kennard and Reggie Bullock have to step up.

Magic small icon 24. Magic (20-27, LW 21). Are the Magic going to be sellers at the trade deadline? There would be a lot of interest in Terrence Ross, some in Nikola Vucevic (teams love his game but he is a free agent come July, teams are not going to pay much for a rental), and there even is some Aaron Gordon buzz. However, that requires management and ownership to decide to throw in the towel on the season. The Magic are just 2.5 games out of the playoffs and may not do that, thinking they would rather make a push for the eighth seed instead.

Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (14-32, LW 25). John Collins has been spectacular this season — like consider him for an East front court All-Star Game slot good. He’s averaging 18.8 points a night, is shooting 57.9% overall and 33.8% from three, is grabbing 10.4 boards a game and has a PER of 21.2. He has taken a leap forward this season. Collins probably won’t get the nod because he plays for the Hawks, but he has earned consideration.

Grizzlies small icon 26. Grizzlies (19-28, LW 26). The Grizzlies — losers of 12-of-13 — are finally open to the idea of trading Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, something that became public days after the two starts met with owner Robert Pera to talk about the future. That makes the trade deadline more interesting, but actually pulling off a deal for Gasol (declining skills and with a player option for $25.6 million next season) or Conley (All-Star level player but with $67 million guaranteed after this season) will be tough to do before the deadline. These could be July trades, but the buzz will be out there.

Suns small icon 27. Suns (11-38, LW 27). The Suns will be an interesting team to watch as they move into the trade deadline, they are willing take on salary now for picks and players who can help with their rebuild. However, teams are not giving up young talent easily, which is one reason the deadline likely will be so quiet. Phoenix’s offense has had its moments since the return of Devin Booker, but that hasn’t translated to wins as the Suns have dropped five in a row.

Knicks small icon 28. Knicks (10-35, LW 28). Enes Kanter (who did not travel to London for safety reasons) was back in the starting lineup with Luke Kornet out with a sprained ankle for a couple of weeks. That will make Kanter happy, but it doesn’t make the team better — sub Kanter in for Kornet with the regular starters and the Knick offense gets 3.8 points per 100 possessions better, but the defense gets 4.3 per 100 worse. Bottom line, the Knicks have lost six straight and 14-of-15.

Bulls small icon 29. Bulls (11-36, LW 29). Wendell Carter has played well and looked like part of the future in Chicago during his rookie season, which is why it’s such a blow he’s out most if not all of the rest of the season due to thumb surgery (he could return for the final few weeks of the season but don’t expect the Bulls to rush him). Chicago had lost 10 games in a row before Monday, when they took on the one team they can beat, the one team below them in these rankings.

Cavaliers small icon 30. Cavaliers (9-39, LW 30). How many players will the Cavaliers move a the trade deadline? Kevin Love is their best player, but he’s not back on the court yet from his foot issue and no team is taking on his massive contract without seeing him play. Could Tristan Thompson get moved? J.R. Smith, or is he more of a buyout candidate? The Cavs are rebuilding and should look to move any veteran for picks or young players. The Cavs have lost 16-of-17 games.

NBA Power Rankings: Warriors surge, Raptors still on top

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The Golden State Warriors reminded everyone Tuesday night what they are capable of, but the top two spots still belong to the top teams in the East. They have been more consistent.

Raptors small icon 1. Raptors (33-12, last week No. 1). Things are coming together for the Raptors. They have won five in a row, the last four of those with Kyle Lowry back in the lineup returned from injury, Kawhi Leonard has moved the ball better in those five wins (26 assists), Pascal Siakam is getting more run at center, and Serge Ibaka has slipped up a few times but is still having a renaissance season playing center. Raptors fans, enjoy the journey, this may well be the best Toronto team ever, try to ignore that cloud over the team about Leonard and July. Teams like this don’t come around often. Savor it.

Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (31-12, LW 2). They had a statement win against Houston — where Brook Lopez’s defense in the paint was the surprising key (after they overplayed Harden and forced him right and into Lopez) — and while the Bucks then turned around and lost to the Wizards a couple of nights later it was without Giannis Antetokounmpo so we’re not holding that against them. The other interesting thing out of the win over Houston: How well Eric Bledsoe did on James Harden. Yes, Harden had 42 points on 30 shots, but Bledsoe made him work for his buckets and that bodes well for the Bucks heading into the postseason. Milwaukee has 7-of-9 on the road coming up.

Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (30-14, LW 5). The reports of the troubles/demise of Golden State have been greatly exaggerated — despite the injuries, lack of depth, infighting and everything else they currently have the best record in the West. They took control of the conference with an emphatic win over Denver, a game that was a reminder of how good they can be. Friday night against the Clippers the DeMarcus Cousins experiment begins and should be one of the more interesting stories of the second half of the season (when you hear rumors of the Warriors’ interest in Robin Lopez on the buyout market, that’s really just Cousins insurance, nobody knows how this is going to go).

Pacers small icon 4. Pacers (29-13, LW 3). Myles Turner returned from injury against Phoenix Tuesday, which was good news because their defense when he was out was not the same — and the Pacers are second in the NBA in defensive rating. It’s a credit to coach Nate McMillan how well he has this team defending, that end of the floor has become their calling card. Indiana went 3-2 on a recent road trip but the losses were to Toronto and Boston, two of the other teams at the top of the East, and that’s a cause for some concern.

Nuggets small icon 5. Nuggets (29-14, LW 7).. Will Barton is back in the lineup — he played in just the first two games of the season before injuring his groin — and that is a big boost for Denver and it’s wing depth and rotation. Just ignore the Warriors game, Golden State does that to teams a couple times a season, except that it was another rough defensive outing. While the Nuggets on the season have a top-10 NBA defense, that has slid to the second worst in the NBA in their last 10 games. The defensive slippage has been covered up because Nikola Jokic can do things like this.

Rockets small icon 6. Rockets (25-18, LW 4). Clint Capela is out 4-6 weeks with an injured right thumb, and the pressure just mounted even more on James Harden — he responded with 57 points in the first game without Capela, but can he sustain this? The Rockets are 3-3 in their last six with an elite offense covering up for a bottom-10 defense, and that defense is not likely to improve with Capela out. Look for Daryl Morey to try and find some help at the five because the only real center on the roster now is Nene and he can give them maybe 15 minutes a night, tops.

Thunder small icon 7. Thunder (26-17, LW 6). The Thunder have the best defense in the NBA on the season, allowing 103.6 points per 100 possessions (via NBA.com stats), but in the last five game that has slipped to 119.7 per 100 (28th in the league in that stretch). While teams have bad runs of games over the course of 82, the Thunder are built on defense and they can’t afford for the defensive issues to last much longer, or there will be more ugly losses like Tuesday’s one to Atlanta.

Sixers small icon 8. 76ers (29-16, LW 10). Philadelphia is 20-10 since trading for Jimmy Butler, and the way the Sixers looked and the way the Timberwolves rolled over in that game Butler looked prophetic. That said, all is not just puppy dogs and rainbows with the Sixers — After an Embiid-less loss at home to the lowly Hawks, Ben Simmons called his team out as soft (Atlanta was the more physical team in that game). That Simmons would go there speaks to the struggles still going on trying to get Butler/Embiid/Simmons on the same page.

Celtics small icon 9. Celtics (25-18, LW 9). Terry Rosier said this week this team is “too talented” and that has been a popular theory — too many mouths to feed, too many players who want touches and shots, and it leads to a crowded rotation and guys pushing for larger roles. Is it too much talent or that talent not fitting together? The Celtics can rise up and look like one of the best in the East — they did it in the win over Indiana — but they don’t consistently. Brad Stevens also needs to be thinking about who will be in his 8/9-man playoff rotation, and which current rotation guys (likely Robert Williams, Daniel Theis, and Semi Ojeleye, maybe others) will be relegated to the bench.

Blazers small icon 10. Trail Blazers (26-19, LW 11). The Blazers are 18-7 at home and have a +7.1 net rating, but get on the road and they are 8-12 with a -5.1 net rating. The problems are on both ends of the court, the offense is 5.4 per 100 worse on the road and the defense is 6.8 per 100 worse. We saw it recently in action, the Blazers won four in a row at home then got out of Portland and promptly lost two straight. The Blazers have five more road than home games the rest of the way (but a relatively easy strength of schedule(.

Jazz small icon 11. Jazz (24-21, LW 14). The Jazz look like themselves again winning four in a row, 6-of-7, and they have allowed less than a point per possession in that stretch (best in the NBA). Utah has moved into a tie for the eighth seed in the Wes. Granted, this run has come against a softer part of the schedule (something that ends this week with the Clippers, Trail Blazers, and Nuggets), but the Jazz have the second-easiest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way and the easiest of any team in the West. Utah is starting to look like a playoff team again.

Spurs small icon 12. Spurs (25-20, LW 8). Last Thursday’s dramatic double-overtime win against the Thunder — where LaMarcus Aldridge scored 56 — was a signature win for San Antonio. And, if that’s all you saw of them you’d say they were surging. However, they have dropped 3-of-4, including splitting that home-and-home with OKC. The Spurs’ defense, which has carried the team this season, is bottom 10 in their last 5 games, while the offense has been pedestrian. The Spurs may be coming back to earth a little bit, they need to get their defense right and start winning some road games against the West (3-12 so far).

Kings small icon 13. Kings (23-21, LW 17). Rookie Marvin Bagley III is back in the rotation after missing 11 games and is starting to find his form again. Bagley has played fairly well, averaging 12.7 points and 6.1 rebounds a night off the bench before he got injured (it’s just in this rookie class those numbers get overshadowed). Coach Dave Joerger needs to get Bagley some run and bring him along, the No. 2 pick is a big part of the Kings’ future. Sacramento has won four in a row at home, but now heads out on the road for their next six.

Clippers small icon 14. Clippers (24-19, LW 12). The Clippers have regressed to the mean recently, having lost three in a row and 7-of-8. In those last 15 games the Clippers have had a top-10 offense — with Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell providing a big spark off the bench — but a bottom 10 defense. The Clippers will be the focus of the NBA universe Friday night because DeMarcus Cousins makes his return against them — we all want to see Boban Marjanović matched up against him. Doc Rivers needs to make that happen.

Lakers small icon 15. Lakers (24-21, LW 13). Los Angeles has gone 4-7 since LeBron James’ groin injury, sliding down to a tie for the final playoff spot in the West, and with some ugly games in there — the loss to Cleveland at home was their worst loss of the season. Two things to be concerned about if you’re a Laker fan: 1) This recent run of games really did not help the “we can trade these guys for Anthony Davis” cause (although Brandon Ingram, when he’s facilitating still shows promise); 2) The Lakers have the second toughest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way. With LeBron back they should be able to handle it and make the playoffs, but it’s not going to be easy.

Heat small icon 16. Heat (21-21, LW 15). The unlikely backcourt of Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson has started to find some chemistry, they had big games in the wins against the Celtics and Grizzlies recently, and the Heat have won 10-of-15 with them running the show (although it’s a top-10 defense that has really carried the Heat through this stretch). The loss in Milwaukee Tuesday was the first of 6-of-7 on the road as Miami enters a rough patch of the schedule.

Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (21-23, LW 20). New Orleans finally has Elfrid Payton and Nikola Mirotic back in the rotation after extended absences due to injury, they have gone 2-1 in those games and looked much improved. Their return came at the right time, if New Orleans is going to make a playoff push — read: have any shot at all of keeping Anthony Davis — they need to survive a tough January schedule the rest of the way, with 5-of-7 on the road and much of that against West playoff teams. The Pelicans have the fourth toughest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way.

Nets small icon 18. Nets (22-23, LW 19). Before the season it was expected that Brooklyn would be out of the playoff mix and with some expiring contracts — DeMarre Carroll, Jared Dudley, Ed Davis, Kenneth Faried — and they would be sellers at the trade deadline. But the scrappy Nets, who play hard and take smart shots, have turned their team of journeymen into the seven seed in the West with a real shot at the playoffs. With that, the fire sale is off and Brooklyn is one of the feel-good stories of the season.

19. Timberwolves (21-23, LW 16). Coming out flat against Philadelphia was ugly — they made Jimmy Butler look prophetic about Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins by showing no fire in that game. This team shows flashes — KAT was blocking Anthony Davis at the end of a win over the Pelicans — but they don’t defend or take smart shots with any consistency. Ryan Saunders is 2-2 as a coach and there are people rooting for him to do well enough to keep this job, but he has a lot of work ahead of him to just get more every night out of this roster.

Mavericks small icon 20. Mavericks (20-23, LW 21). Why are the Mavericks shopping Dennis Smith Jr.? Because, while his shooting has improved this season, he simply has not fit with Luka Doncic (and Doncic is the future). Smith as part of the regular starting five for Dallas scores less than a point per possession, sub rookie Jaylen Brunson in for Smith and that lineup’s offense gets 16 points per 100 possessions better. Smith is incredibly athletic and should have value on the trade market, but with every other team knowing both Dallas and Smith want to part ways, it’s going to be hard to get anywhere near fair value.

Magic small icon 21. Magic (19-24, LW 24).
Another team many around the league expected to be a seller at the deadline, but after back-to-back victories over Boston and Houston, the Magic are just a game out of the playoffs in the East and are more likely to make a push for it rather than tank. The key to making the playoffs will be more of the Aaron Gordon who showed up against Boston and Houston, scoring 28 and 22 points in those games, shooting a combined 51.7 percent, and getting to the free throw line. Orlando needs Gordon to be aggressive and the catalyst for the offense.

Hornets small icon 22. Hornets (20-23, LW 18). Charlotte wants to make the playoffs this season, owner Michael Jordan wants to make the playoffs, and their recent 2-4 road trip did not help that cause (although the Hornets remain a game ahead of Orlando for the eight seed). The bigger problem is they miss Cody Zeller, he has been out seven games (2-5) and in those games the Hornets have the third worst defense in the NBA. They need to get some stops over the next few weeks because Kemba Walker’s heroics alone are not enough to get them into the playoffs.

Wizards small icon 23. Wizards (18-26, LW 25). They beat the 76ers. They beat the Bucks. They took the Raptors to double overtime. Forget about tanking and selling off players, the Wizards are playing better and, with the third easiest schedule the rest of the way the Wizards are thinking playoffs. The Wizards are 5-4 with a +3.2 net rating since John Wall left the team due to injury, there is more balance on the offense and Bradley Beal is attacking the rim more than we’ve seen in years. Despite their horrid start to the season and injuries, the Wizards are just 2.5 games out of the playoffs and stranger things have happened.

Pistons small icon 24. Pistons (18-24, 22). Blake Griffin’s 44-point performance against the Los Angeles Clippers Saturday night was a classic revenge game — he even blew off Steve Ballmer (maybe) — and a great reminder of how good Griffin can be. It’s also the Pistons’ only win in their last six games, the team continues to struggle offensively (bottom 5 in the league over the last 10 games). The Pistons have 7-of-10 at home and if they are going to make a playoff push it needs to come now.

Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (14-30, LW 26). The Hawks have quietly gone 8-7 in their last 15 games, with an average NBA offense and a just slightly below average defense in that stretch. That included a 142-126 win over Oklahoma City. Rookie point guard Trae Young has started to show some chemistry with Kevin Huerter,, and the Thunder found out about that the hard way.

Grizzlies small icon 26. Grizzlies (19-24, LW 23). Unexpected stat: The Grizzlies lead the NBA in passes per game, averaging 342.1. Unfortunately, that does not correlate directly to winning, the Grizzlies have gone 3-13 in their last 16, have slid out of the playoffs, and their next four games are the Bucks, Celtics, Raptors, and Pelicans. If the losing continues for another week or two, and with Marc Gasol a free agent this summer, will we finally see Memphis talk trade and break up their core? Other teams are watching, but if they didn’t do it this summer would they now?

Suns small icon 27. Suns (11-34, LW 27). Kelly Oubre Jr. is starting to find a comfort level in the Valley of the Sun, averaging 17.6 points per game on 50.8 shooting in his last five games. That said, the offense continues to struggle if Devin Booker is not on the floor, and that lack of consistent offense keeps them from winning games (although they are competitive most nights, they are not just rolling over).

Knicks small icon 28. Knicks (10-33, LW 29). It will be February before we get an update, but if the rumors are true that the Knicks want to hold Kristaps Porzingis out all season — against his wishes — then that is the kind of short-sighted things that leads to broken relationships. (This is providing there is not a good medical reason to keep KP out.) Only one game this week as the NBA decided to promote its game by sending the Knicks and Wizards over to London for a Thursday game (don’t they have enough problems over there with Brexit without us making them watch that excuse for basketball?).

Bulls small icon 29. Bulls (10-34, LW 28). Chicago has lost eight in a row, but Bulls management wants to show it’s committed to the old-school ways of coach Jim Boylen by giving him a raise this season and next (they had lost six in a row when that news leaked). Boylen is now 5-15 as head coach. When you’re losing like that, experimenting with Lauri Markkanen at the three — as Boylen wants to do — is worth trying.

Cavaliers small icon 30. Cavaliers (9-35, LW 30). the Cavaliers snapped their 12 game losing streak thanks to the LeBron-less Lakers. One bright spot, Matthew Dellavedova has played like a solid pro for the Cavaliers off the bench providing some steady play their bench units can use. Beyond that… here’s a Zion Williamson highlight to dream about.