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Nuggets forward Jerami Grant
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Jerami Grant: Not leaning toward taking $9,346,153 player option with Nuggets

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The Nuggets have their starting point guard (Jamal Murray), shooting guard (Gary Harris), small forward (Will Barton) and center (Nikola Jokic) locked up a combined 11 more seasons.

The big question comes at power forward.

Paul Millsap will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Michael Porter Jr. has shown promise. And Jerami Grant holds a $9,346,153 player option for next season.

Jerami Grant on “Posted Up with Chris Haynes,” via Quenton S. Albertie of Nugg Love:

I’m definitely not leaning towards picking up the player option.

Grant appeared bound for a raise. He’s a good finisher who active seeks opportunities at the basket and has improved his 3-point shooting. His versatile defense is valuable in any system. And he has the track record of hard work that should make teams comfortable investing in the 26-year-old.

But the NBA’s coronavirus-caused revenue decline presents a major variable. We’ll have to see where the salary cap lands. If the wrong teams have space, Grant could be stuck with just the mid-level exception, which – depending on the cap – could be less than $9,346,153.

In any cap environment, Denver has optionality. Millsap is still solid, though at 35, it’s unclear how many more good years he has left. Porter is exciting, though he’s still raw, and health remains a concern. Another impending unrestricted free agent, Mason Plumlee plays in plenty of two-center lineups with Jokic.

The Nuggets – who just traded a first-rounder for him – surely want to keep Grant. But they have other options, which gives them leverage.

Grant’s leverage comes with declining his player option and exploring unrestricted free agency. He’s setting that stage now.

Mock NBA expansion draft: Nuggets, Timberwolves, Thunder, Trail Blazers, Jazz

Mock NBA expansion draft
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The NBA season is on hiatus. NBC Sports is not – even if we have to venture into fantasy.

We’re holding a mock NBA expansion draft. Keith Smith is setting protected lists for existing teams. Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman will run two new teams as this project culminates in an expansion draft.

Current teams can protect up to eight players. Each team must make at least one player available. If selected, restricted free agents become unrestricted free agents. Pending options can be decided before or after the expansion draft at the discretion of the option-holder. Anyone selected in the expansion draft can’t return to his prior team for one year. Players entering unrestricted free agency and players on two-way contracts are essentially ignored.

We’re unveiling protected/unprotected lists by division (here is the Atlantic Division, Central Division, and Pacific Division). Players are listed with their 2020-21 salary. Up now, the Northwest:

Denver Nuggets

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 2

Ineligible – 4

Analysis: Denver had maybe the easiest protections decisions in the NBA. Two rotation players (Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee) are ineligible, so the Nuggets simply protect their other rotation players.

Keita Bates-Diop is the exact type of player an expansion team should snag. He’s shown some upside in limited minutes. Vlatko Cancar has the benefit of an additional year on his contract, and will be only 23 years old at the start of next season.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 5

Ineligible – 1

Analysis: The Wolves are keeping guys who might be a part of the future. Most were no-brainers. The decision point was Omari Spellman v.s Juancho Hernangomez. Keeping Hernangomez doesn’t mean Minnesota will definitely re-sign him, but he has more upside than Spellman.

After Spellman, the rest are take it or leave it. Also, the Timberwolves aren’t paying either expansion team to take James Johnson off their hands.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 3

Ineligible – 3

Analysis: If this was done before the season, there could have been an argument for the Thunder to expose both Chris Paul and Dennis Schroder. Both have played far too well to chance that now. Steven Adams is overpaid, but not by enough to leave him unprotected. The rest of the players, led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, are young players with upside.

Abdel Nader has been a part of the rotation at times for OKC, but he’s not getting protected over a younger player. Deonte Burton and Mike Muscala were easy decisions due to their minimal roles for the Thunder.

Portland Trail Blazers

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 3

Ineligible – 3

Analysis: Portland is keeping its key veterans and younger players. The decision point was Wenyen Gabriel vs. the three unprotected veterans. In the end, the Trail Blazers chose to protect Gabriel, who they’ll likely renounce in free agency.

As for the three veterans, they all had strong cases against protecting them. Trevor Ariza is overpaid at this point his career. Rodney Hood is coming off a torn Achilles’. And Mario Hezonja just isn’t worth protecting, even despite his minimum salary.

Utah Jazz

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 5

Ineligible – 2

Analysis: Utah’s first seven players were easy decisions. They are all rotation players. The decision point was keeping a non-guaranteed player (ultimately chose 2019 second-round pick Miye Oni) over either Mike Conley or Ed Davis.

The Jazz are leaving Conley and Davis unprotected because neither acquisition has worked out as hoped for. If Utah can clear Conley’s salary, that would be helpful for a team that is starting to get very expensive. Davis makes less than Conley, but the fit just doesn’t work. And of the minimum players, none have found a rotation role.

NBA Power Rankings: Can anyone threaten the Bucks, Lakers in top spots?

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The Bucks and Lakers are running away with their conferences, and with that hold on to the top spots in this week’s power rankings. The question is can anyone knock them off come the playoffs?

 
Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (50-8, Last Week No. 1). The calendar hasn’t even flipped over to March yet and the Bucks have 50 wins and have officially secured a playoff spot already. They have been that dominant in the East, and they looked every bit the inevitable favorite to come out of that conference in crushing the Sixers on Saturday, then beating Toronto on the road Tuesday, on the second night of a back-to-back. The Bucks are now 6-2 this season against teams winning at least 65% of their games (stat via Tom Ziller).

 
Lakers small icon 2. Lakers (44-12, LW No. 3). Picking up Markieff Morris on the buyout market not only gives the Lakers another solid rotation player, it gives them a floor-spacing four to play in lineups with Anthony Davis at center (which remain their best lineups, the Lakers were +14 against Boston with AD at the five). With a 5-game cushion in the West, Los Angeles should find a way to reduce LeBron’s minutes and get him some rest in the next month, before the grind of the playoffs start.

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (42-16, LW 2). Toronto has lost just twice in their last 19 games. The first came to Brooklyn in the game before the All-Star break, which they treated like the last day of school before vacation. That happens. However, the loss to the Bucks at home on Tuesday was more disturbing. It came on a night Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry struggled, exposing issues with this team. If Lowry and Pascal Siakam are not hot this team struggles to create good looks — and hit them — against a quality defense. Also, Kyle Lowry, this simply isn’t ever going to work.

 
Rockets small icon 4. Rockets (37-20, LW 9). Small ball is working. Since the Rockets added Robert Covington they are 5-1 with a +12.9 net rating when he is on the court. The best news for Rockets fans dreaming of a deep playoff run is that the team’s defense has been solid in those six games, 13th in the league over that stretch. With James Harden and this version of Russell Westbrook (playing to his strengths, not jacking up threes) the Rockets will score plenty, but if they get stops this team becomes dangerous.

 
Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (39-17, LW 4). Kemba Walker is out and this team barely misses a beat because Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are playing so well. Tatum continued the leap forward this season that made him an All-Star when playing the Lakers last Sunday, scoring 41 and forcing Los Angeles to throw doubles at him and get the ball out of his hands. Combine that with an aggressive, switchable defense and maybe Boston is the one team in the East with any shot at Milwaukee.

 
Thunder small icon 6. Thunder (36-22, LW 11). Oklahoma City has some of the best lineups in the league. Their three-guard lineup — Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — has a net rating of +29.7 and dominates on both ends when out there together. Round that group out with Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams and the Thunder have a +30.5 net rating. That’s a long list of guys with some playoff experience, too — the Thunder are going to be a tough out for whichever team lands them in the first round.

 
Nuggets small icon 7. Nuggets (40-18, LW 5). Denver is finally healthy and with that, when you look at their roster led by a motivated (and thinner) Nikola Jokic, you see this team has the potential to be a threat to the Lakers and Clippers. A lot needs to go right for that to happen. They need Gary Harris to play better. They need to prove they can defend and execute on the biggest of stages. They need to keep the second seed. All that said, the potential is there. Denver picked up a couple of soft wins once healthy (Timberwolves and Pistons), but there’s a good test coming against a (probably) full-healthy Clippers squad on Friday night (then Toronto next).

 
Clippers small icon 8. Clippers (38-19, LW 6). Monday night was the first game the Clippers had their fully healthy new roster in place, with Marcus Morris starting and all the core guys there — and they crushed the Grizzlies. It was a reminder of how good this team can be: They are 15-5 this season in games Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Patrick Beverley all play. Injuries have forced Doc Rivers to use a league-high 28 different starting lineups this season, but if this core can stay healthy for a month, get time on the court together and build chemistry, nothing stands in their way.

 
Sixers small icon 9. 76ers (36-22, LW 10). Ben Simmons is out for at least two weeks — and likely longer, maybe much longer — with a pinched nerve in his lower back. It’s concerning because we don’t know what is causing the issue in the first place, and these kinds of injuries can linger. Losing the All-Star is a huge blow down the stretch for a Philadelphia team trying to catch Miami and get home court in the first round of the playoffs. Joel Embiid is back to being a beast, playing like the best center in the game, but the Sixers still need some outside to go with that inside.

 
Mavericks small icon 10. Mavericks (35-23, LW 12). Luka Doncic is back from his sprained ankle (his second this season), and Dallas has comfortably won all three games he played in that stretch (the one loss, to Atlanta, was when he and Kristaps Prozingis sat on a back-to-back). The chemistry between Doncic and Porzingis is picking up, they combined for 60 points in a win against Sacramento and 57 against the Magic. Also, Mark Cuban will soon get a healthy fine for his Twitter rant against the referees after the Atlanta loss, adding to the $1.6 million he has paid in fines since becoming the owner of the team (the money goes to NBA charities, for the record).

 
Jazz small icon 11. Jazz (36-21, LW 8). Losers of three in a row (with Boston coming up next), Utah is 4-7 in its last 11 games — with the fifth worst defense in the NBA in that stretch. Utah is not putting together 48 good minutes, letting rough offensive stretches impact their defense (or, sometimes, bad defense impacts the offense). Utah has slid down to the fifth seed and out of having home court in the first round of the playoffs in the West. They have the talent to turn this thing around, but time is running out.

 
Heat small icon 12. Heat (36-21, LW 7). Miami has gone 2-4 since the trade that brought them Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder, with the struggles coming on both ends of the court. Overall the Heat are 2-6 in their last eight games, with five of those losses coming on the road. They are in danger of falling out of having home court in the first round of the playoffs (Miami seems headed to face Philadelphia in that first round, and only one game separates them in the loss column). The Heat have five games in a row and 8-of-10 at home, this is their chance to turn things around.

 
Pacers small icon 13. Pacers (34-24, LW 13). Victor Oladipo sat out the past two games after tweaking his back, it doesn’t sound like he will be out long but it’s something to watch. Indiana is 3-7 since his return and in that time the defense has been solid but the offense has been bottom five in the league. Things are about to get tougher, on Saturday the Pacers start a run of 6-of-7 on the road (with the one home game being the Celtics).

Pelicans small icon 14. Pelicans (25-33, LW 17). Zion Williamson remains must-watch — he has scored at least 25 points in five straight games, and has broken the 20-point barrier in nine straight. That has led to a lot of “Can he catch Ja Morant for Rookie of the Year?” talk. Pelicans fans, do not get your hopes up — availability is the best ability and Morant has missed just five games, plus he is putting up very impressive numbers in his own right as the primary shot creator on a team (currently) in the playoffs. The only hope Zion has is for the Pelicans to bump the Grizzlies out of the playoffs, and even that may not be enough.

 
Nets small icon 15. Nets (26-30, LW 16). Kyrie Irving is out for the season thanks to shoulder surgery, but the Nets are a .500 team (18-18) without him this season. With the Nets comfortably locked into a playoff slot (six games up on ninth seed Washington) Brooklyn can get back to the Spencer Dinwiddie-led balanced attack that makes the Nets a tough team to beat nightly. Their next four games are on the road.

 
Magic small icon 16. Magic (25-32, LW 18). If Orlando is going to climb out of the eight seed and avoid Milwaukee in the first round of the playoffs, now is the time — they enter a soft patch of the schedule the next few weeks and can string together some wins. That has already started. Orlando has turned around its recent rough patch winning three of four, and the trio of Markelle Fultz, Evan Fournier, and Nikola Vucevic should keep the Magic comfortably in the playoffs.

 
Grizzlies small icon 17. Grizzlies (28-29, LW 14). No coach does the “we just want to get better every day” coach speak than the Grizzlies Taylor Jenkins. However, it seems to be working. Back in November, Memphis had a defensive rating of 113.8, fifth-worst in the NBA. In February, that is down to a 106.4 net rating, fourth-best in the NBA. That has not led to wins because the offense has been bottom five in the league the past five games. Memphis needs some wins to hold off Portland and New Orleans for the final playoff spot in the West.

 
Kings small icon 18. Kings (23-33, LW 19). It’s too little too late to end the league’s longest playoff drought, but Sacramento has won 6-of-8, and are doing it without bigs Marvin Bagley III and Richaun Holmes (injures). De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Heild (the latter coming off the bench) are carrying the offense, both averaging more than 20 points a game during the streak. Suddenly the Kings look like the exciting, athletic, attacking team we’d hoped to see all season long.

 
Blazers small icon 19. Trail Blazers (26-32, LW 15). Damian Lillard remains out with a groin strain suffered the night before the All-Star break, and with that Portland’s chances to climb back into the West playoffs remain on hold. The Blazers have one of the softest remaining schedules in the league, but they have lost 4-of-5 and without Lillard they are not the same threat. Portland has 4-of-5 coming up on the road.

 
Suns small icon 20. Suns (24-34, LW 21). Much of the talk around Deandre Ayton and the Suns is the numbers the young center puts up, but quietly Phoenix has become a good defensive team with him around. The Suns have a defensive rating of 107.1 when he is on the court, which would be top 10 in the league. When Ayton and Booker share the court, the Suns are +6.1 per 100 possessions. The Suns have won 3-of-4, and they now have six in a row coming up at home.

 
Spurs small icon 21. Spurs (24-32, LW 20). Don’t leave San Antonio out of your “they could get the eighth seed in the West” discussions, they are only 3.5 games back of struggling Memphis. The Spurs have a heavy home schedule and some softer teams coming up, if San Antonio is going to make a run to extend their playoff streak to 23 years now is when it happens. San Antonio is going to need consistency out of Dejounte Murray to make that run.

 
Wizards small icon 22. Wizards (20-36, LW 23). Bradley Beal is going off — two straight 50+ point games — and yet both of those games ended up in the loss column for Washington. That stings. The Wizards are just 3.5 games back of the Magic (four in the loss column) for the final playoff spot in the East, but to get there Washington needs to take advantage of their best player making a push for the All-NBA team.

 
Bulls small icon 23. Bulls (20-39, LW 26). Coby White is on fire, scoring 30+ points in three straight games — the last Bull to do that was some guy named Michael Jordan. That, however, has not moved White into the starting lineup (despite Kris Dunn being out for the season injured), which has become the latest knock on coach Jim Boylen. It’s right up there with his bad timeouts at the end of decided games. Will the new front office person hired by the Bulls this summer have the authority to remove the coach? We know John Paxson doesn’t want to.

Pistons small icon 24. Pistons (19-41, LW 22). Andre Drummond? Gone. Reggie Jackson? Gone. Markieff Morris? Gone. The rebuild is on in Detroit, but for the rest of this season it will be Derrick Rose against the world. The Pistons have lost seven in a row and things are not going to get better in the short term.

 
Hornets small icon 25. Hornets (19-38, LW 28). After he shot 1-of-17 in the first two games out of the All-Star break, coach James Borego decided to give Devonte’ Graham some rest on Tuesday night. Graham has come back to earth after his hot start to the season, although he still looks like a rotation player who can be part of Memphis’ future. So does P.J. Washington. After that… Mitch Kupchak has a lot of roster building to do this summer.

 
Hawks small icon 26. Hawks (17-42, LW 27). It’s tough to say this team can build for the future as it plays out the string this season because it is doing so without Clint Caplela, the big man they traded for at the deadline who remains out injured. John Collins is playing like a guy who got his job threatened at the deadline, averaging 25 points a game on 63.3 shooting, plus 10.5 rebounds a night in his last 10 games.

 
Cavaliers small icon 27. Cavaliers (16-41, LW 30). Cleveland has the most heavily used five-man lineup in the NBA this season: Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Cedi Osman, Kevin Love, and Tristan Thompson. That group also has a -9.6 net rating. The Cavaliers have won 3-of-4 and are home for 6-of-7, but the teams coming in are all over .500 playoff teams.

 
Knicks small icon 28. Knicks (17-40, LW 24). The Leon Rose era in New York officially begins on Sunday, and he takes over a team with a couple nice young players — RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson — plus seven first-round picks in the next four years. The pieces are there, but can Rose put together an organization that drafts well and develops players, building a foundation to attract elite free agents? Will James Dolan give him the autonomy and time to do it.

 
29. Timberwolves (16-40, LW 25). Losers of five in a row and 18-of-19, and Karl-Anthony Towns is out weeks with a fractured wrist. There have been flashes from D'Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez, but this team is a defensive disaster, which makes it difficult to win any games. Especially without Towns to put up points and cover the mistakes.

 
Warriors small icon 30. Warriors (12-45 LW 29). Stephen Curry will make his return to the lineup on Sunday after missing four months with a fractured hand. Expect it to take a few games for him to get his legs back under him, but the Warriors should be better — and a vastly more interesting team to watch — as Curry and Andrew Wiggins start to figure out how to play together.

LeBron James’ triple-double leads Lakers to overtime win in Denver

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DENVER — LeBron James wasn’t about to coast into the All-Star break, and neither was Anthony Davis.

“I could tell they were locked in pregame. LeBron had his jersey with like 80 minutes to go before the game,” guard Alex Caruso said after the Los Angeles Lakers’ 120-116 overtime triumph in Denver on Wednesday night.

James posted his 12th triple-double of the season, tied with Luka Doncic for the NBA lead, and Davis scored seven of his 33 points in overtime as the Western Conference leaders took a 41-12 record and a four-game lead over second-place Denver into the All-Star break.

“I was trying to be laser sharp, laser focused as I could,” James said. “I know the break was coming, but I wasn’t going to take this opportunity for granted. I wanted to play extremely well tonight for our ballclub and I wanted us to play extremely well going into the break on a high note. And our team, we responded very well.”

The Nuggets were the hottest team in the league, having won six of seven, including short-handed stunners at Milwaukee and Utah.

So, James, who had 32 points, 14 assists and 12 rebounds, saw this as playoff prep.

“Every opportunity we get to play in a close game against a tough opponent, it’s a learning experience for all of us,” he said. “It prepares us for a postseason game where it’s going to be back and forth, back and forth. I thought tonight was a playoff atmosphere for both teams, being No. 1 and No. 2 in the Western Conference, jockeying for position. We were just trying to make plays whatever it takes. And A.D. was there knocking down big 3s and getting a block and getting some stops, the jump ball, as well. It was big time.”

In addition to his 33 points, Davis tied up All-Star Nikola Jokic for a key jump ball late in regulation when the officials had to waive off the basket by Denver’s big man after he muscled the ball away from Davis and into the basket.

Jokic has 22 points and 11 rebounds for Denver, which saw its four-game winning streak snapped.

Dwight Howard added 14 points for the Lakers, who improved their NBA-best road record to 23-5.

Jamal Murray led the Nuggets with 33 points, but Jokic was in foul trouble late and made some crucial blunders in the extra period, including a turnover on a bad pass with 19 seconds left after he passed up an open 3-pointer with Denver down 119-116.

The back-and-forth game went to overtime tied at 111 when James’ fadeaway 15-footer hit the iron and bounced away at the buzzer.

Gary Harris’ 3-pointer tied it at 116 with 3:06 remaining in overtime, but the Nuggets suddenly went cold, especially Jokic, who missed three shots and bypassed a wide-open 3 with 20 seconds left and the Nuggets down 119-116. He followed with a bad pass right into the arms of Kentavious Cadlwell-Pope.

“It was a close game. We just didn’t execute in the last minutes,” Jokic said. “I made a lot of terrible mistakes. Every decision was bad. So, I need to be better with my decision-making. I think I just need to look to shoot a little bit more.”

NBA Power Rankings: From Paris to Milwaukee Giannis Antetokounmpo keeps on winning

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Kobe Bryant’s untimely death has cast a pall over the NBA, a dark cloud blocking the light for both players and fans. But the league grinds on, and so do our NBA power rankings, which now have Kobe’s Lakers back up to No. 2.

 
Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (41-6, Last Week No. 1). Giannis Antetokounmpo was one of the many elite players in the league who credit Kobe Bryant for helping him reach that level: “I grew up with Kobe. Kobe influenced my life. Looking up to him, one of the reasons I started playing basketball. One of the reasons that I am here today.”Milwaukee picked up a win last week the NBA’s first-ever game in Paris.

 
Lakers small icon 2. Lakers (36-10, LW No. 3). Postponing the Tuesday night game against the Clippers was the right move by the league. It’s not just the Lakers’ players who are grieving, Kobe was a 20-year Laker employee who had deep ties outside the locker room with people in game operations, the marketing team, season ticket sales, and so much more. The organization is grieving, and will undoubtedly have a tremendous tribute for Kobe on Friday night against Portland. It’s a crazy coincidence that Kobe died just a day after LeBron James passed him on the all-time scoring list.

 
Jazz small icon 3. Jazz (32-14, LW 2). Utah should have two players in the All-Star Game next month, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. There seems to be momentum behind the Gobert candidacy, talking to people around the league (although the coaches make that vote). Mitchell, while deserving, is battling for a spot on the reserves with other guards who also can make good cases (Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, etc.), and the coaches have some tough choices. Utah slips one spot this week because of the loss to a very shorthanded Rockets team.

 
Clippers small icon 4. Clippers (33-14, LW 4). Against Miami over the weekend, Doc Rivers rolled out his 21st different starting lineup of the season — the most in the NBA. Last season the Clippers had 14 starting lineups total, but roster changes and injuries have made this season exceptional. It speaks to why there has yet to be real cohesion with this Clippers roster, and also why — while they are actively looking at the trade market — they are in no way panicking. This team, as is, remains a serious title contender.

 
Raptors small icon 5. Raptors (33-14, LW 8). Pascal Siakam was voted in an All-Star starter and he earned it. Not just with his 23.8 points and 7.7 rebounds a game, but also with the fact the Raptors outscore opponents by 8.6 per 100 possessions when he is on the court (and look like maybe the second best team in the East). The Raptors are winners of eight in a row (and rolling into a soft part of the schedule, so expect that number to climb).

 
Celtics small icon 6. Celtics (31-15, LW 6). Statistically, Boston is playing some of its best basketball of the season, having won 4-of-5 (with victories over the Lakers and Heat in there). That has come with Jayson Tatum missing three of those games (groin injury, but he seems close to a return) and players such as Kemba Walker, Gordon Hayward, and Marcus Smart picking up the offensive slack. The Celtics can get healthy against a bit of a soft spot in the schedule, just one of their next five games is against teams over .500.

 
Heat small icon 7. Heat (32-15, LW 7). We mentioned it in this space a week ago but will do so again: Bam Adebayo deserves to be named an NBA All-Star. The East coaches unquestionably will vote in Jimmy Butler as a reserve (I thought he should have started) but Adebayo is in a tight mix with Tatum, Khris Middleton, Domantas Sabonis and others, and someone is going to get left out. Miami needs to force every game to overtime, they are 8-0 in the extra frame this season (some of that is luck, some of that is how hard they play).

 
Sixers small icon 8. 76ers (31-17, LW 9). Joel Embiid is back from his hand surgery, and Philly needed him. Yes, the Sixers went 6-3 without him and Ben Simmons stepped up, he averaged 24 points a game on better than 70 percent shooting in his last 5 without Embiid. However, in those nine Embiid-less games the 76ers offensive rating was just 104.9, 29th in the NBA in that stretch. Even in the last five it was 103.2, still 29th in the league. Embiid is critical to making the offense elite.

 
Nuggets small icon 9. Nuggets (32-15, LW 5). That Denver is keeping its head above water — 6-4 in their last 10 — despite the rash of injuries is impressive. They got Gary Harris back this week, but it has been an impressive run by Nikola Jokic and some good nights from Michael Porter Jr. that has kept Denver as a team that would have home court in the first round through all of this. Big tests this week against Utah and Milwaukee.

 
Pacers small icon 10. Pacers (30-17, LW 11). Victor Oladipo makes his return to the court this Wednesday after missing nearly a year with a right quad tendon rupture, and this could be a huge boost to the Pacers. Eventually. He’s going to come off the bench and have a minutes limit at first. Nate McMillan needs to blend Oladipo’s All-NBA skills (if he can get back to that level) with the scoring and passing of Malcolm Brogdon, plus the secondary playmaking that Domantas Sabonis has provided. It will take some time but the Pacers could be taking a big step forward in the coming weeks.

 
Rockets small icon 11. Rockets (29-17, LW 12). James Harden has missed two games, and likely will miss at least one more, due to a bruised thigh. That forced rest may be a good thing, Harden has struggled in games running up to the injury and looked worn down — in his last five games he’s averaging 23 points a game (13.1 below his season average), shooting 33.3 percent overall and 13.6 percent from three. While Russell Westbrook’s numbers went up, Houston needs Harden’s scoring, the team is 3-5 in its last 8.

 
Mavericks small icon 12. Mavericks (29-18, LW 10). Dallas has gone 2-2 since center Dwight Powell went down with a torn Achilles, and while the offense has been off a little without him it’s the defensive end that has been the bigger issue (surprisingly). Smart trade by Dallas to get Willie Cauley-Stein, who can provide some depth and athleticism behind Maxi Kleber at the five. Clearly, Dallas is still adjusting to its new reality.

 
Thunder small icon 13. Thunder (28-20, LW 13). The most underrated, fun lineup in the NBA is OKC’s three-guard grouping of Dennis Schroder, Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — they are +29.3 points per 100 possessions when they share the floor. Chris Paul missed his first game of the season mourning his good friend Kobe. CP3 deserves to be an All-Star this year and expect the coaches to give the veteran the nod over some young (but also deserving) players around the league.

 
Grizzlies small icon 14. Grizzlies (23-24, LW 14). 2020 has been good to Memphis so far, they are 10-3 since the calendar flipped to the new year and the key to that has been transition buckets. In January 18.2% of the Grizzlies offense has come in transition (up from 16.6% before that) and, more importantly, in January they are getting 1.36 points per possession when they run (up from 1.22 earlier in the season). Ja Morant has become and open court beast. Memphis now has a 2.5 game cushion for the eighth seed in the West, but they need to be ready for a run by one of the teams behind them.

 
Spurs small icon 15. Spurs (20-26, LW 16). Before a stinker of a game against the Bulls, Derrick White had been playing some of the best basketball of his career — five straight games scoring in double figures, including dropping 25 on the Suns. With LaMarcus Aldridge spending more time at the arc spacing the floor, White had more room to drive and make plays (the same reason DeMar DeRozan saw a scoring spike. The Spurs have lost three close games in a row and next Monday head out on the Rodeo Road trip that has them outside of Texas for eight straight games.

 
Blazers small icon 16. Trail Blazers (20-27, LW 17). Damian Lillard is on a tear, scoring at least 47 points in three straight games and at least 34 in his last five games. He is trying to will this team back into the playoff chase (they are 3 games behind Memphis) but they will need more than his magic against the coming stretch of games: Rockets, Lakers, Jazz, Nuggets, Spurs, Jazz (again).

Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (19-29, LW 20). It’s just four games, but Zion Williamson is averaging 18 points in 63.3% shooting plus 8.3 rebounds a game, and the Pelicans are 14.7 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court (with most of the improvement coming on the defensive end). It’s small sample size theater, but it’s also very impressive. Even with him the Pelicans are 2-2 in those four games and if they are going to make a playoff run they need to start racking up wins.

 
Suns small icon 18. Suns (20-27, LW 19). Phoenix has not had an All-Star since Steve Nash, Devin Booker has put up the kind of numbers that have him in the mix — 27.1 points and 6.4 rebounds a game — but he’s still on the bubble. Lillard is a lock to be a West guard reserve, but after that Booker is battling Westbrook, CP3, Donovan Mitchell and others for the final guard slots in the West. He’s deserving, but some deserving players will get snubbed this year.

 
Bulls small icon 19. Bulls (19-30, LW 21). Lauri Markkanen, already not having the breakout season many in Chicago hoped to see, will now miss 4-to-6 weeks with stress reaction of his right pelvis. Chicago can offer Markkanen an extension to his rookie contract after this season, but this injury and all the others will make them hesitant. Chicago may come in with a lower number and Markkanen may choose to bet on himself and see if a good season can boost his value in the market.

 
Magic small icon 20. Magic (21-27, LW 15). No team in the NBA seems to have a divide on how they play against teams under or over .500 like Orlando. The Magic are 4-21 against teams over .500 but 17-6 against the ones under that mark. Orlando has lost four in a row and has Miami up next, then they head on the road for three games.

 
Nets small icon 21. Nets (19-26, LW 20). It’s one thing to lose five in a row against the toughest stretch of your schedule all season, but it’s something else to need overtime to beat the Pistons, then to lose to the Knicks. The Nets are now 1-1 in a run of seven straight against struggling, below .550 teams — a chance for them to lock down a playoff spot. Brooklyn continues to hang on to the eighth seed in the East, but mostly because the teams chasing them (Chicago, Detroit, Charlotte) are worse, not because Kyrie Irving has the Nets playing well.

 
Kings small icon 22. Kings (17-29, LW 23). The Kings continue to look for Dewayne Dedmon trades and he likely gets moved before the deadline (he has been fined for publicly requesting a trade), but will he be the only King traded? There has been a lot of Bogdan Bogdanovic chatter around the league, but the price to land him will be steep. The Kings have to seriously consider it, however. With Sacramento 5.5 games out of the playoffs (and a lot of teams to jump to get in), becoming sellers at the deadline makes sense.

Pistons small icon 23. Pistons (17-31, LW 22). Losers of three in a row, now 3.5 games out of the playoffs, and with Blake Griffin done for the season, the question becomes how serious of sellers will the Pistons be at the trade deadline. While there was a lot of buzz early about Andre Drummond trades (a sign the Pistons may not want to pay what the market will this summer when the big man is a free agent), the real push from contenders is for the resurgent Derrick Rose. The question is, can any of them put together a trade that actually interests and helps Detroit?

 
Wizards small icon 24. Wizards (15-31, LW 25). Rookie Rui Hachimura, who has missed 21 games with a strained groin has gone through full practices with the Wizards and is close to a return (but not Wednesday in Miami). Another note on the rookie, he is not giving up his No. 8 jersey in honor or Kobe Bryant, and with good reason:

 
Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (12-36, LW 27). Trae Young is an All-Star starter (the first Hawk voted to start since Dikembe Mutombo in 1998), but it was his backup Brandon Goodwin — along with John Collins — helped spark the comeback of the year for Atlanta, from 19 down to beat the Clippers. Atlanta went 2-2 in their last four, and Young’s skill as a pick-and-roll ball handler continues to improve.

 
Hornets small icon 26. Hornets (16-31, LW 30). Apparently the few days of croissants and crepes of France did Charlotte some good. The Hornets returned from the NBA’s first ever game in Paris (where they lost to the Bucks) and proceeded to snap their eight game losing streak with a win over the Knicks. Malik Monk dropped 31 points on the Bucks in Paris and now James Borego is hoping he can do more of that stateside.

 
Knicks small icon 27. Knicks (13-35, LW 26). From friend of this site Tommy Beer: Since Mitchell Robinson’s 11-of-11 shooting night and 22 points on Jan. 1 (in a win over Portland), he hasn’t attempted more than 7 shots in a game, and is averaging just 4.3 shots a night. If the Knicks are grooming Robinson to be part of the future then RJ Barrett and the other ball handlers need to get him more touches.

 
Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (13-35, LW 28). Strangely, this ranking almost feels like it’s too high. It’s not just that Cleveland has lost 8-of-9, it’s who they lost to in that stretch — the Bulls (twice), Wizards, and Knicks. While the offense is bottom 10 in the league during this nine-game stretch, the real problem has been a 29th ranked defense with a 118 net rating in those games. Ouch.

 
29. Timberwolves (15-32, LW 24). Karl-Anthony Towns continues to put up numbers that could make him an All-Star, he’s been back from injury for seven games now, and in his last five is averaging 31.6 points per game on 53.3 percent shooting, plus grabbing 8.4 rebounds a game. It’s not enough, the Timberwolves have lost 10 straight. A lot of trade buzz around this team, particularly contenders with interest in Robert Covington.

 
Warriors small icon 30. Warriors (10-38 LW 29). Here’s all you need to know about the Warriors’ roster depth right now: Earlier this month the Warriors waived Marquese Chriss because they wanted to convert Damion Lee’s two-way contract to a regular one, but they needed the roster spot. Then, when they traded Willie Cauley-Stein to Dallas, opening up a roster spot again, the Warriors re-signed Chriss — and almost instantly Chriss was starting at center again.