NBA Power Rankings: Nuggets strike gold in win streak, take over No. 1 spot

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As it has been for weeks, there is little separation among the top five teams in these rankings, so whoever gets hot for a couple of weeks climbs to the top. This week that is the Denver Nuggets, but the margins remain slim.

 
Nuggets small icon 1. Nuggets (16-7, last week No. 5).. They should be ranked this high just because of the sweet city jerseys, but also they are winners of a very impressive six in a row, which includes victories at Oklahoma City, Portland, Minnesota, and Toronto. They are the hottest team in the NBA right now. Much like the Nuggets’ season, it’s been a lot of Nikola Jokic with everyone else pitching in, for example, Gary Harris missed a couple of games then returned and dropped 27 on Portland. Paul Millsap has averaged 14 points and 8.4 rebounds a night, shooting 51.9% and knocking down 44.4% of his threes in the last five games. Also, I know the shot was late but this Jokic heave should have counted just because.

 
Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (20-5, LW 1). What team has the best net rating on the road this season? These Toronto Raptors, who are +8.4 per 100 possessions when they travel south of the border this season. Monday’s loss to Denver snapped an 8-game winning streak that included knocking off Golden State and a win at Memphis. Toronto now has 5-of-7 on the road and the two home games in that stretch are the 76ers and Bucks. That road net rating is about to be put to the test.

 
Thunder small icon 3. Thunder (15-7, LW 4). Russell Westbrook has tied Jason Kidd on the all-time triple-doubles list and will pass him soon enough — and of late Westbrook has played more like late-career Kidd, taking more three pointers and attacking the rim a little less. The Thunder and their elite defense feasted on a soft November schedule — as they should — but now things get tougher as Monday’s win in Detroit started 5-of-6 on the road, and the opponents get tougher.

 
Clippers small icon 4. Clippers (16-7, LW 2). When Avery Bradley is on the court, the Clippers defense is good — 104.7 points per 100 possessions allowed, which would be top five in the NBA. When he is off the court their defense ranges between average and bad. The problem is when Bradley is on the court his lack of scoring drags one of the NBA’s top five offenses down to below average. It’s so bad the Clippers have been 2 points per 100 possessions worse with Bradley this season (there is a lot of noise in that number, but it has relevance). It leaves Doc Rivers with some tough choices to make, both at the end of games and overall as the season progresses. The Clippers need Bradley to find his shot.

 
Bucks small icon 5. Bucks (15-7, LW 3). The Bucks have lost 2-of-3 and what’s disturbing is who they lost to, Charlotte and the Knicks. The problem is on the defensive end, which has been bottom five in the league over their last five games. It’s likely just a blip, some mid-season slippage, but Mike Budenholzer and crew need to get it together fast because a tough stretch of games comes up including the Warriors (Friday) and at Toronto (Sunday). That Raptors game also starts a run of 7-of-9 on the road.

 
Sixers small icon 6. 76ers (17-8, LW 6). Obviously, the key to the team’s recent 8-of-9 win streak is the matching white headbands of Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons, the guys Brett Brown calls the “defensive brothers.” However, everything on the defensive end is based around the decisions Joel Embiid makes — they call his defensive position “Batman.” Literally. That’s the team name for it, because whatever he does everyone else has to read and play off or it.

Pistons small icon 7. Pistons (13-8, 9). Detroit had sone 5-in-a-row (including spoiling Stephen Curry’s return to the Warriors) before running into OKC Monday, and the Pistons still have won 9-of-12. The key? Health. Blake Griffin is playing the best basketball of his career as the fulcrum of the offense, he’s going to be in consideration for an All-NBA spot if he keeps this up, but the most important thing is he’s been in all 21 games. Same with point guard Reggie Jackson. The schedule gets tougher — the Bucks and 76ers are the next two games — but the Pistons look like a solid playoff team. If they can just stay healthy.

 
Warriors small icon 8. Warriors (16-9, LW 7). Stephen Curry is back in the lineup and will bring a boost to an offense that was good, but not special, without him. However, just how much the Warriors miss Draymond Green’s defense has been evident in the last 9 games he missed — the Warriors defense has been 20th in the league in those games, surrendering 110.8 points per 100 possessions. The Warriors defense has been 9.8 points per 100 better when Green is on the court this season. Getting Curry back helps, but Golden State needs Green, too.

 
Lakers small icon 9. Lakers (14-9, LW 11). Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant have expressed frustration with how the Lakers have started to run everything on offense through LeBron James, saying the Lakers are playing too much like last year’s Cavaliers. Which is true. But what exactly did Magic expect, this “roster of playmakers” he wanted doesn’t actually have quality playmakers outside LeBron and maybe Lonzo Ball (unless you want to run a lot of moderately efficient isolations for Brandon Ingram). The Lakers will look like the Cavs until they land another superstar. The Laker offense in the last 9 games, since Rajon Rondo went down, is bottom five in the league. However, the Lakers are 6-3 in that stretch thanks to top five defense and some timely plays from LeBron.

 
Celtics small icon 10. Celtics (13-10, LW 13). Since starting to come off the bench, Gordon Hayward has started to find his groove. Hayward is averaging 13.8 points per game on 47.4 percent shooting, up from 10.1 on 39.9 as a starter. Hayward is hotting 39.1 percent from three as a starter, his assists are up (4.5 a game) and he is an average of +8.3 per game in the bench role. Boston has won three in a row and is in a soft part of the schedule for the next couple of weeks, so the wins should keep piling up.

 
Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (14-10, LW 8). Indiana is 5-4 without Victor Oladipo in this stretch, and while the offense misses the All-Star the defense has (surprisingly) been one of the top 5 in the NBA in that stretch, allowing just 101.5 points per 100 possessions. The one guy who has stood out during the Oladipo absence has been Domantas Sabonis, who was looking like a Most Improved Player candidate before but in the last nine games Indiana has had to run their offense through him more and Sabonis has been up to the task. He looks like the big of the future in Indy (sorry Myles Turner, who has played decently).

 
Grizzlies small icon 12. Grizzlies (13-9, LW 10). Jaren Jackson Jr. is injecting himself into the Rookie of the Year conversation with his play, and he made a statement last Friday in Brooklyn scoring 7 points in the final 27 seconds to help force OT, and finishing the game with 36. He’s the best two-way rookie player by far. Despite Jackson’s play, the Grizzlies have hit a rough patch dropping 4-of-5, and now their next four games are other potential/likely West playoff teams (Clippers, Pelicans, Lakers, Nuggets).

 
13. Timberwolves (12-12, LW 21). Minnesota is now 8-3 since the Jimmy Butler trade and the key has been the second-best defense in the NBA in that stretch (despite not being able to stop Gordon Hayward last Saturday), led by Robert Covington, who even has Karl-Anthony Towns focused and protecting the rim well on that end. Towns has taken a step forward, Andrew Wiggins… is still Andrew Wiggins. Tonight against Charlotte is the end of a home-heavy stretch (10-of-12) and Minnesota heads out on the road for four, including at Portland and Golden State.

 
Mavericks small icon 14. Mavericks (12-10, LW 16). Dallas has won 9-of-11, including knocking off the Clippers and Trail Blazers this week. The Mavericks have been solid on offense — with rookie Luka Doncic leading the way — but the big key to the streak has been on the defensive end, where they have allowed just 101.6 per 100 (third best in the NBA in that stretch). What’s most impressive is Dallas has done this against a run of games against other potential playoff teams in the West, the kind of wins that signal this could be a playoff team in Dallas after all.

 
Blazers small icon 15. Trail Blazers (13-11, LW 12). This ranking almost feels too high for Portland the way it has played the past couple of weeks, having dropped 6-of-7 with a -13.1 net rating. Damian Lillard and the offense have struggled some in those games, but by far the bigger problem is a disastrous defense surrendering 119.5 per 100 possessions in those seven games. Lillard said after the game the team needs to look at itself in the mirror. It does. Portland also needs a better effort on defense and to spread the floor more and have someone other than just Lillard and C.J. McCollum shooting threes.

 
Rockets small icon 16. Rockets (11-12, LW 14). Just when you think things are turning around… Chris Paul returned (they are 0-5 without him) and the Rockets’ offense clicked in weekend wins against the Spurs and Bulls, it felt like Houston was finding a groove, then Monday the Timberwolves smacked them around. That was a cold shooting night for Houston but they scored just 9 points in the fourth quarter, which is disturbing. Plus they could not slow Karl-Anthony Towns in the post, something they did last season in the playoffs (when Minnesota had less shooting, so help was easier to give) but had no answers for Monday. The issues with the Rockets are real.

 
Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (12-13, LW 15). Julius Randle is having a Sixth Man of the Year level season in the Big Easy, scoring 18.3 points per game of 54.9 percent shooting, pulling down 9 rebounds a night, with career high PER of 22.6. But Randle and MVP-level performances from Anthony Davis are not enough right now, as the Pelicans have dropped 6-of-8 due to a struggling defense. That end of the court needs to get fixed fast as their next five games are against teams that would be in the playoffs if they started today.

 
Kings small icon 18. Kings (12-11, LW 20). After Sacramento got a win with Willie Cauley-Stein’s putback dunk, the Kings improved to 9-3 in clutch games this season (within five points in the final five minutes). That’s likely not sustainable, and why they have the net rating of a 10-13 team, but to their credit this Kings team just keeps finding ways to win. Tuesday’s win in Phoenix started a string of 6-of-8 on the road where getting tough wins will be put to the test.

 
Magic small icon 19. Magic (12-12, LW 19). They went a very respectable 3-3 on a six-game road trip, and two of those losses (Golden State and Portland) had something to do with Aaron Gordon’s back issues flaring up. Nikola Vucevic continues to put up numbers, and while it is tempting to think about the trade offers the Magic might get for him at the deadline, but this team is currently 7th in the East and if they are in the middle of a playoff chase he — or Terrence Ross, or anyone on the roster — is likely not available. At least at a reasonable price.

 
Jazz small icon 20. Jazz (12-13, LW 23). Last week the Jazz traded for Kyle Korver and he has been the spark they needed. Since the trade the Jazz are 3-1 and shooting 43.3% from three, including dropping a franchise record 20 threes on the Spurs Tuesday. That may not be sustainable (and the wins didn’t come against top tier talent) but it’s a start. The Korver effect will be put to the test with games against Houston and OKC this week, plus 4-of-6 coming up on the road.

 
Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (11-12, LW 17). Marvin Williams is going to miss at least a week with a shoulder injury, which isn’t major but the Hornets have been getting hit with a lot of bumps and bruises in the past couple of weeks and it exposes the lack of depth when this team’s key starters can’t go. The Hornets have lost 4-of-6 but have been able to hang around the playoff bubble in the East, but this team needs Kemba Walker to be Mr. Everything to win and he has been good but not his earlier MVP level of late.

 
Spurs small icon 22. Spurs (11-13, LW 18). They have had the worst defense in the NBA over the last 15 games allowing 115.4 points per 100, and with that have slid all the way down to the 14 seed (but still just two games out of the playoffs in the bunched up West). It’s just not like a Gregg Popovich team. Starting Friday when the Lakers visit the Spurs have six in a row at home and 8-of-10, this could be a springboard for them to bounce back up the standings in the West (if not… it would be concerning).

 
Heat small icon 23. Heat (9-14, LW 26). The inconsistent Miami Heat continue along, a team that lost to Atlanta and followed it up with wins over New Orleans and Utah. The Heat have been a gritty, tough-to-play against team that has overachieved the past couple of seasons, we’ve come to expect that from them, but this season Miami only shows that in flashes. Friday night in Phoenix starts a six-game road trip through the Western Conference.

 
Wizards small icon 24. Wizards (10-14, LW 22). Tomas Satoransky has moved into the starting lineup, with Scott Brooks saying he likes having a player who will accept a role. That’s a hint. However, if you want to focus on the Wizards’ issues start with John Wall, both on defense and his speed of play.

 
Knicks small icon 25. Knicks (8-17, LW 24). New York has had a series of improbable wins this season, the latest one being an overtime win against the bucks last Saturday at the Garden. That despite the fact Tim Hardaway Jr. is in a deep slump, shooting 34.2% in his last five games (he’s under 40% for the season, this has not been his year, but it’s been worse lately). Of course, there is only one play everyone wants to talk about with the Knicks.

 
Cavaliers small icon 26. Cavaliers (5-18, LW 27). Collin Sexton continues to be up-and-down, he was red hot for five games, then in his last five he’s shooting 37.6% overall and 25% from three. Rookies, that’s what you get. The Cavaliers did well — or, as well as they were going to do at this point — in the Kyle Korver trade. While they will save money going into next season with Alec Burks off the books, this season he can give them some minutes and buckets off the bench — and he gave them a game-winning dunk this week.

 
Nets small icon 27. Nets (8-17, LW 25). Brooklyn’s net rating on the season of -2 suggests this team should have an 11-14 record, three games better than what it does. Why have the Nets been “unlucky?” Because they struggle to close out close games, having gone 4-11 in games that were within five points in the final five minutes. The Nets system and hustle make up for a lot, but in close games they just don’t have the talent of many of the teams they go up against. The Nets have lost seven in a row with the Thunder and Raptors next on the schedule.

 
Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (5-19, LW 28). Atlanta has moved Kevin Huerter into the starting lineup and Kent Bazemore to the bench, and that sparked them to a couple of wins before dropping their last three. Taurean Prince is going to be out at least three weeks with a sprained ankle, that is a blow the Hawks’ frontcourt rotation. Still, tune in to watch Trae Young because whether he’s red hot or ice cold — and it can be either at any time — he puts on a show.

 
Bulls small icon 29. Bulls (5-20, LW 29). Fred Hoiberg is out as coach and now Jim Boylen is tasked with getting this team to play with a little more grit and fire than the mild-mannered Hoiberg could get out of the crew. Smart move giving Boylen the head coaching job for the rest of the season — and saying they want him to be back next season — so he has some leverage to get the players to buy into whatever changes he makes. That said, the biggest problem with this team was not Hoiberg, he just wasn’t the answer either.

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (4-20, LW 30). They have dropped six in a row, but if you’re looking for a bright spot rookie De'Anthony Melton stepped up with 21 points in the Suns’ loss to the Kings and looked like a player who needs some more run. Melton was a second-round pick who barely played in college, but out of high school was considered a big-time talent, maybe the Suns lucked out and got a steal with him. We need to see more of him to understand just what the Suns might have.

Danny Ainge says he is going to be patient through Celtics early-season struggles

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It’s the most common question around the NBA right now:

What is wrong with the Boston Celtics?

After making it to the Eastern Conference Finals last season, then getting Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back, there were “finals or bust” expectations. Instead, they are 10-10 with an offense that is 27th in the NBA. Debate has ranged from what offensive tweaks they can make to a discussion of Gordon Hayward’s and Jaylen Brown‘s slow starts, and it always seems to end with trade speculation.

In character, Celtics GM Danny Ainge will be patient. Here is what he told Michael Kaskey-Blomain of the Boston Herald.

“I’ve been through this many, many years, and I’m not impatient,” said Ainge, who, after Saturday’s 113-104 loss in Dallas, presides over a 10-10 team. “I feel like obviously I know the frustrations our players have felt and the ups and downs that we’ve had through this season so far.

“But I think that we all know we should be doing more and doing better and are capable of it. That’s pretty much all I’ll say about it….

“But patience wins out more often than not — more than panic. It has to. I know panic is a bad way to react, so I will remain patient and allow our players to find their form.”

What, you expected anything else from slow-playing Ainge? He does not rush anything.

What this means is don’t expect a blockbuster trade. Or maybe even a B-movie trade. First off, the Celtics cannot trade for Anthony Davis in season, not that he is in any way available right now anyway (if Davis does not sign the $240 million designated veteran extension this summer then fire up your trade machines, until then it is all moot).

Even smaller tweaks will not be easy. With the West 14 deep with teams in the playoff hunt (literally, there is a 4.5 game gap between the 1 and 14 seeds right now) there are fewer sellers on the market, and there are now more teams looking to buy to get an edge. That does not lead to an efficient market.

What the Celtics have should work better than it does, and we still have three-quarters of a season left for Brad Stevens and company to figure it out. Desperation moves not the answer. At least not yet.

NBA Power Rankings: Milwaukee jumps into top spot as Golden State slides

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No team has really grabbed hold of the top spot in the power rankings, with everybody stumbling a little. Toronto had a short slide, the Clippers just lost to the Wizards, Golden State can’t get healthy, and in the absence of one dominant team the Milwaukee Bucks — the team with the best net rating in the NBA — move into the top spot. For now.

 
Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (12-4, last week No. 3). Thon Maker, this is opportunity knocking. With backup center John Henson out about three months following surgery on a ligament in his left wrist, the Bucks’ front line depth will be tested and Maker is going to get some run as the backup center. This is his opportunity to show he deserves to be on the court more (plus the Bucks need those minutes). Maker can space the floor some as a shooter (Brook Lopez-lite) but the real key is on the defensive end. The Bucks are 8-1 at home (the one loss because the Grizzlies got hot late) and have 7-of-10 at their new arena coming up. They can’t keep digging first quarter holes to climb out of, however.

 
Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (14-4, LW 1). Kawhi Leonard was brilliant against the Celtics in a game that had us hoping these teams meet in the playoffs because the matchups are fascinating and the teams evenly matched. One drop off from last season to this one: Toronto’s bench. Last season it was the best in the NBA but this season Fred VanVleet is scuffling shooting less than 40 percent on the season and not hitting threes, and the rest of the Raptors second unit is following suit. That depth is what can keep them on top of the East over the long grind of the season and they need to find it again.

 
Clippers small icon 3. Clippers (11-6, LW 5). Winners of five in a row until a second-half collapse in Washington (dead legs on a back-to-back), the Clippers may be the biggest positive surprise in the early NBA season. In two short seasons Los Angeles has transformed itself from the glamour of Lob City to a workmanlike team that is easy to get behind: Tobias Harris getting it done on the wing, Lou Williams (still coming off the bench) as the star and closer, Montrezl Harrell and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as the hardworking young talent, Danilo Gallinari reminding everyone he can play when healthy, and of course everyone loves Boban Marjanovic. The Clippers are 2-1 on the road to start of stretch of 11-of-15 away from Staples Center.

 
Thunder small icon 4. Thunder (10-6, LW 6).. The Thunder have won 10-of-12, that despite Russell Westbrook having missed half of those games. While the offense has stayed afloat the real key is on the other end of the court, where the Thunder have the best defense in the league over the past dozen games, allowing 101.6 points per 100 possessions. Paul George and Steven Adams have stepped up their roles in this stretch, and with Westbrook back OKC should be rolling again. They need to close out November strong, because December gets tougher with a lot more time on the road.

 
Blazers small icon 5. Trail Blazers (12-5, LW 2). The Blazers remain on top of the West standings, and while we should keep talking about their improved bench and top-10 defense, let’s not forget to mention Damian Lillard is ridiculously good. He is fifth in the NBA in total points scored (454) and that works out to 26.7 a game, plus he is dishing out 6.2 assists a night (17th in the league), and he leads the league in win shares at 2.9. Portland is 2-2 so far through a six-game road trip with tough games against the Bucks and Warriors still ahead.

 
Pacers small icon 6. Pacers (11-6, LW 9). The Pacers have won three in a row, the last two essentially without Victor Oladipo, who aggravated a knee injury Saturday vs. Atlanta. This is a step forward for the Pacers, who were 0-7 when Oladipo sat last season. The difference is this season the Pacers have been playing much better defense of late, the best defense in the NBA over the last 10 games at 100.8 points per 100 possessions. That is making up for a sluggish offense, but the Pacers need to find better balance with 6-of-8 on the road against some good teams.

 
Sixers small icon 7. 76ers (12-7, LW 8). The Sixers are 3-1 since Jimmy Butler entered the lineup, and that includes three wins in a row. Against Charlotte, in overtime, you could see how much the Sixers need Butler at the end of games to create shots — he’s fearless at it, and when he missed at the end of regulation he stepped back up to take the big shot in overtime. Philadelphia is 9-0 at home, the final unbeaten team at home in the NBA — that’s relevant because 76ers play five of their next six in Philly.

 
Grizzlies small icon 8. Grizzlies (11-5, LW 12). Remember last summer when a lot of people (*raises hand*) called for Memphis to blow it up, trade Mike Conley and start the rebuild? Well… Memphis is currently the two seed in the West, having won four in a row and 6-of-7. During that stretch they have allowed less than a point per possession on defense — it’s that end of the floor that is carrying the Grizzlies, the offense is still stumbling. Rookie Jaren Jackson continues to impress and is averaging 12.8 points per game so far this season with a good 55.9 true shooting percentage and an 18.2 PER. The Grizzlies are on the road for their next 4-of-6.

 
Pelicans small icon 9. Pelicans (10-7, LW 17). Expect to hear the Pelicans come up in a lot of trade rumors over the few months — they know they have to win, that they are on the clock to keep Anthony Davis, and they need more talent on the roster. (Sorry New Orleans fans, it’s true, you don’t have to like it and maybe Davis decides to stay, but the pressure is on now.) New Orleans was in the Jimmy Butler talks, and already rumors of them going after Bradley Beal (unlikely) and Otto Porter (possible) are out there. That’s not going to stop. Elfrid Payton is going to miss a month or more after surgery on his hand, which really hurts the Pelicans’ depth at the point.

 
Nuggets small icon 10. Nuggets (10-7, LW 7).. The Nuggets have lost 6-of-7 (the only win in there was against the lowly Hawks) as the wheels continue to come off on the defensive end. Denver has allowed 110.4 points per 100 possessions over the last seven games, 27th in the league, and while the offense remains top 10 it can’t cover for everything. The biggest defensive issue is they just can’t stop fouling, but a lot of things need to be cleaned up on that end before they slide deeper into a crowded middle in the West.

 
Warriors small icon 11. Warriors (12-6, LW 4). Welcome to the “real NBA.” The Warriors went 0-3 on a road trip for the first time in the Steve Kerr era and have lost 5-of-7, with the second worst defense in the NBA during that stretch. It’s been ugly, but we also know why: The Warriors aren’t healthy with Draymond Green (toe) and Stephen Curry (groin) out for a stretch. Kevin Durant has tried to put the Green drama behind him, but the best way to do that is step up on the court and both he and Klay Thompson have not been the forces the Warriors need with their other two stars out.

 
Rockets small icon 12. Rockets (8-7, LW 18). Carmelo Anthony has been away from the Rockets for four games, Houston has gone 4-0 with the second best offense in the league during that stretch. It’s not that simple, there’s more to it than just addition by subtraction Eric Gordon returned, Chris Paul has averaged 20.3 points on 59 percent shooting with 6.3 assists a game in those four, and what matters more is James Harden is playing like an MVP again. Everything is falling into place. Probably. Starting Friday the Rockets have 7-of-9 on the road as a test for their newfound level of play.

 
Lakers small icon 13. Lakers (9-7, LW 16). LeBron James is so very, very good at basketball and he has decided to take over a couple of games recently, first scoring 44 in Portland, then dropping 51 on his old friends in Miami. In those two games the Lakers looked like a playoff threat, the kind of team Magic Joshson envisioned. In between there, LeBron had a pedestrian (for him) game of 22 points with some defensive lapses, and the Lakers lost to Orlando. When LeBron isn’t pushing this team defensively they slide, and the offense (even with LeBron) can’t cover that up.

 
Celtics small icon 14. Celtics (9-8, LW 11). Something is wrong in Boston, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what, in part because it’s just not one thing but a lot of little things. It’s a team with a lot of high usage players who want touches but there needs to be more of a pecking order (with Kyrie Irving on top), they need someone to attack the rim looking to score and not dish, they just need to knock down open looks at a higher clip, and they desperately need anyone to grab a rebound. The elite defense is keeping them in games, but the offense is stumbling, nobody more than Gordon Hayward. He just does not have that first step right now, and when he does drive it’s to dish not score. All of it is combining to hold this team back.

Pistons small icon 15. Pistons (8-6, 19). Detroit has won 4-of-5, and including in dramatic fashion in coach Dwane Casey’s return to Toronto. The wins have come during a soft part of the schedule (Orlando, Atlanta, Cleveland), and there are more of those to come after a home-and-home with Houston, but these are the games the Pistons need to win — they will struggle against the elite of the East most nights, but with Blake Griffin and good talent around him they need to feed on the weaker parts of the schedule.

 
Magic small icon 16. Magic (9-9, LW 22). They had won three in a row and 5-of-6 before Danny Green‘s game winner on Tuesday night. We went into the season focused on the potential of the Magic’s new front line — Mo Bamba, Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon — but Nikola Vucevic had become a reliable 20-10 guy this season (averaging 20 points and 11.2 boards a game), including shooting 44.2 percent from three. He’s in the final year of his contract and could help some playoff teams, expect his name to come up in trade rumors. Plus next summer he will have a few suitors willing to pay the going rate a a center who can stretch the floor.

 
Hornets small icon 17. Hornets (8-8, LW 15). Kemba Walker has emerged as a fringe MVP candidate, a guy forcing his way into the conversation with things like the 60-point game against Philly and the 43 he dropped on Boston in the next game (note to the Celtics: trap/double him off a late pick, make someone else beat you, and don’t let Walker get a clean look over Al Horford or you will regret it). James Borego opened up and spaced out the offense (something easier to do with Dwight Howard not clogging the lane) and Walker is attacking into those spaces. Plus the man shoots as nice a three off the move as you will see outside the Bay Area.

 
Kings small icon 18. Kings (9-8, LW 13). And this is why they can’t have nice things in Sacramento. The Kings are off to a much faster start than anyone expected, De'Aaron Fox is having a breakout season, and someone in the organization leaks to the press that coach Dave Joerger’s job is in jeopardy because he’s playing 30-year-old Nemanja Bjelica over rookie Marvin Bagley Jr. Someone clearly invested in Bagley because they pushed to draft him (and maybe feeling the pressure because they took him in front of Luka Doncic, who is having a strong rookie campaign). There was no reason to take this public, but… Kings. I feel for their fans.

 
Spurs small icon 19. Spurs (8-8, LW 10). San Antonio has lost 6-of-8 and at the heart of the problem is LaMarcus Aldridge‘s shooting slump, he is hitting just 36.5 percent of his shots in those eight. It looked like he was going to break out hitting 10-of-16 against Golden State, but he turned around and shot 2-of-11 vs. New Orleans. The other problem is the Spurs are a bottom 10 defensive team right now, and that is where they miss DeJonte Murray.

 
Mavericks small icon 20. Mavericks (7-9, LW 23). This ranking may be too low for them. Dallas has the best point differential in the NBA over its last seven games, although the aberration blowout of the Jazz by 50 skews that number. Still, there wins over OKC and Golden State in a four-game win streak that ended Monday against Memphis. What has sparked this run is strong play from Harrison Barnes, who missed time with a hamstring issue but now seems to have his legs under him again and averaged 19 points a game in the four wins (he had just 10 against Memphis).

 
Jazz small icon 21. Jazz (8-9, LW 14). This is the team that most surprises and confuses me this season. How does a team lose to Dallas by 50 — 50! — then turn around a few days later and beat the Celtics? How does this team have a league average defense? The Jazz have lost 3-of-4 and can’t afford a long slide because it’s hard to climb back up in the deep West, where the conference is loaded with good teams. Starting Friday they have 5-of-6 on the road.

 
22. Timberwolves (7-10, LW 24). They are 3-1 since the Jimmy Butler trade and the thing you notice first is they are playing hard again — even Andrew Wiggins. We’ll see how long that lasts, but it’s refreshing to see. Same with Karl-Anthony Towns stepping up and looking like an All-NBA player again. Minnesota dug itself a hole to start the season but a soft part of the schedule comes up (after Denver Wednesday its the Nets, Bulls, Cavaliers, and Spurs) and it’s a chance for Minnesota to get back in the mix in the West.

 
Nets small icon 23. Nets (8-10, LW 20). The injury to Caris LeVert opened the door for D'Angelo Russell, who has stepped up and had 20 points, 9 boards, and 6 assists in a win at Miami Monday. Russell is playing for his next contract (which likely will not be in Brooklyn) and needs more nights like that. The Nets are struggling of late because they can’t get stops consistently, although they looked better doing that against the Heat. Now they just need to do it consistently.

 
Wizards small icon 24. Wizards (6-11, LW 26). The Wizards played their best half of basketball Tuesday night in a comeback win against the Clippers after being down 19 at the half. It’s notable because this team has been quick to fold its tents all season when faced with adversity. That half alone does not solve the problems, nor will it quiet all the trade rumors around this team. From what I hear from sources, most teams have interest in Bradley Beal but the price being asked is too steep, the guy most likely to be moved is Otto Porter.

 
Heat small icon 25. Heat (6-11, LW 21). Their Miami Vice-inspired City uniforms are the best of the city jerseys in the NBA (with the Nets and Timberwolves close behind). That’s something positive about the Heat, it’s hard to come up with much else. They have dropped 6-of-7 and their defense has been okay during that stretch but the Heat can’t score consistently. Josh Richardson is having a good season, but he’s not a No. 1 option, he just has to play that role in Miami.

 
Knicks small icon 26. Knicks (4-14, LW 27). They have lost six in a row and it’s hard to find any positives in there, but I have one: Tim Hardaway Jr. is playing well despite the losses. In the last three games he’s scored at least 30 points (32 twice), pulled down at least 5 rebounds, and is making plays all over the court. So there’s that. Coach David Fizdale has them playing hard and is trying to build a culture, but it all takes time. The problem is this roster and play will not help their free agent pursuits next summer.

 
Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (4-13, LW 25). It’s easy to like the way Zach LaVine is playing as a scorer (25.3 points per game) but he’s not the guy who should be a playmaker as often as he needs to be with this roster — he has as many turnovers as assists this season. This team needs a quality point guard. When good defensive teams hold LaVine in check — as Boston and Milwaukee just did — the Bulls don’t have anyone to turn to. At least until Lauri Markkanen returns and provides a little more hope (although we may be expecting too much from him).

 
Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (2-13, LW 29). They have dropped 7-of-8, J.R. Smith is not with the team until they can find a trade for him (not that simple, it could be a while for rosters to shake out), and Kevin Love says he will not be back until after the first of the year. But Wednesday night the Cavs are on national television and have a distraction — LeBron James is returning to town. This time there will be a video tribute and not the hatred of the last time this happened, because he brought Cleveland a title.

 
Suns small icon 29. Suns (3013, LW 30). Deandre Ayton is having a strong rookie season — 16.3 points and 10.5 rebounds a night, and shooting 60.3% — but Monday night Joel Embiid welcomed him to the NBA and showed the rookie what it will take to be an elite big in the NBA, nearly doubling Ayton up in both points and rebounds. Ayton’s defense has a ways to go, but he is showing promise. Despite that, the young Suns have dropped 6-of-7.

 
Hawks small icon 30. Hawks (3-14, LW 28). Losers of eight in a row and 12-of-13, but with John Collins back things should change around a little. Trae Young also is a distraction because he shows moments of real promise, but he also shows real moments of rookieness (sure, that’s a word). It’s a long process in Atlanta that’s just getting started but there are reasons for optimism despite the string of losses.

Three Things to Know: Kemba Walker, Hornets latest team to expose problems in Boston

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Each night in the NBA there is a lot of action, a lot to unpack. Which is why every weekday morning during the NBA season we bring you three things you need to know out of the night before, to keep you up on all the big happenings around the NBA.

1) Kemba Walker is destroying everyone, including the Celtics Monday night. But Boston has issues. The Boston Celtics, the team that was the favorite in the East going into the season, the team everyone thought they had to beat, is getting beat. A lot more than we expected at 9-8 to start the season. What started as “don’t freak out they just need to get Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward meshed into what they do” has become legitimate reason for concern because the Celtics can’t get key boards, and that elite defense is not slowing their opponent’s best scorer often enough.

Monday night that opponent was maybe the hottest player in the NBA: Kemba Walker. He certainly is the most entertaining player in the league right now he and dropped 43 on the Celtics and yelling “this is my s***” after a big bucket.

Walker is a fringe MVP candidate right now (the way Damian Lillard jumped into the conversation a year ago) and he should thank new coach James Borego. His new Spursian offense has spaced the floor for the Hornets (not having Dwight Howard in the post and clogging the lane helps, too) and Walker is driving into that space and making plays. And if you play back on him, he will destroy you with off-the-dribble threes.

All of that does not change the fact Boston has issues compared to where we thought they would be right now. We went into the season knowing rebounding would be a concern but it has been worse than expected (like at the end of the Hornets’ game, when Charlotte was getting key offensive boards to keep plays alive). The Celtics have the 27th ranked offense in the NBA this season because the ball stops too much — Terry Rozier has been a problem here — plus the team is just not knocking down jumpers (Boston is third in number of three pointers taken a game but 21st in percentage at 34.5 percent). Brad Stevens can’t find a rotation he likes — Aron Baynes started in place of Gordon Hayward Monday — and Stevens just can’t find the toughness we expected from this team on a nightly basis.

Maybe we will get to March and April and shake our heads thinking “why did we worry about Boston?” They can still put this thing together and get up to be a top two or three seed (they are currently four games back of the Raptors, ground not easy to make up because Toronto is good).

But we are now 17 games in, approaching a quarter of the season, and these issues have not gone away in Boston. It’s time to admit this team is flawed right now and it might not be able to put it all together like we expected.

2) The Wizards are a disaster, they are open to trades… and it’s not going to be that easy. The dumpster fire in our nation’s capital… wait, let me be more specific, there are a lot of dumpster fires in our nation’s capital right now.

The dumpster fire in Washington D.C. that is the Washington Wizards got a little hotter Monday when it was reported that GM Ernie Grunfeld would listen for trade offers for anyone on the team. Including the “not exactly that big three” of John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter. That came just days after a blow up in practice where Beal yelled at Grunfeld and Wall told coach Scott Brooks “f*** you.” That earned Wall an internal fine.

Being open to breaking up its core is something Washington should have been doing last summer (if not earlier) — the chemistry issues around this team are not new. They’re worse right now, but they are not new. Grunfeld and owner Ted Leonsis kept doubling down on the core guys and thought they could fix the chemistry issues by changing coaches or role players (Marcin Gortat was the guy shipped out last summer and was seen as the chemistry problem… the Clippers look really good with him on the roster, by the way, great chemistry there). But the real problem was the core itself.

Grunfeld has come around to that, but now the trade value is down for all of those guys because of the team’s struggles. Talking to sources around the league there is by far the most interest in Beal, who is just 25 and an All-Star player at a position of need around the league. He’s also the one of the three the Wizards least want to trade, so that will take a massive offer (the kind more often seen in July than mid-season).

Second on the list, but well behind, is Otto Porter, a guy playing average basketball this season but on a max contract for two full seasons after this one. There is interest there, with the Pelicans rumored to be kicking the tires on a trade.

Last in interest from teams is Wall. We can talk about how Wall’s contract will make him very difficult to trade — his designated veteran max contract kicks in next season, he has four years at an average of more than $42 million a season left on his deal after this one — but that may not even be the worst part right now. Wall is coasting on the court too much right now, not playing like an elite player at all, and the bigger problem is the best player on the team sets the culture. Stephen Curry set the “fun but work hard” tone in Golden State. LeBron James sets the tone for the Lakers and that tone won titles in Cleveland and Miami. Tim Duncan set the tone for the Spurs for two winning decades and five rings. What culture is Wall setting right now as he jogs through plays and has his hands on his hips? Forget the money, nobody wants to trade for that player, period. (Well, don’t forget the money, but the combo of the money and his attitude make him almost impossible to move right now.)

3) Joel Embiid backs up his trash talk and puts up 33 on Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns. This summer, Joel Embiid said No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton would get his a** kicked this year once the games got real. Embiid lived up to that on Monday night, almost doubling Ayton in points (33-17) and rebounds (17-9). Embiid was making plays on both ends of the floor.

But it was not all perfect for Embiid — this missed dunk is not something Ben Simmons is going to let Embiid forget.

Donovan Mitchell scores 28, Jazz beat Celtics 98-86

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BOSTON (AP) — Donovan Mitchell had 28 points and six assists, bouncing back from one of his worst performances of the season and leading the Utah Jazz to a 98-86 win over the Boston Celtics on Saturday night.

Ricky Rubio scored 20 points for Utah, which beat Boston for the second time in eight days and swept the season series. Rudy Gobert had 12 points and nine rebounds, and Derrick Favors finished with 10 points and eight boards.

Mitchell took 35 shots and did not record an assist in Friday night’s 113-107 loss at Philadelphia. He was far more efficient against Boston, going 10 for 21 from the field and 3 for 4 at the free-throw line.

Boston scored its fewest points since a 93-90 loss at Orlando on Oct. 22.

Kyrie Irving had 20 points for the Celtics, who had won two in a row. He also had the move of the night.

Jayson Tatum finished with 10, but no other player scored in double figures for Boston.

The Celtics were just 8 for 26 from the field in the third quarter. They had to play much of the period without Irving, who fouled Mitchell on a 3-pointer with 5:40 left. Mitchell made all three from the line to put Utah up 68-55, and then Irving picked up his fifth foul just 28 seconds later.

Irving returned in the fourth, but Boston was unable to catch up. Mitchell blocked a dunk attempt by Gordon Hayward and Utah took it the other way for an alley-oop dunk by Favors from Geoges Niang to put the Jazz up 83-64 with 9:07 left to play.

Utah ended a two-game losing streak, which started with a 118-68 loss at Dallas on Wednesday.