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Grade-school phenom Allonzo Trier took winding road to success with Knicks

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Allonzo Trier appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine as a sixth grader. By then, the Seattle native was already spending his weekends jetting around the country for basketball games. In high school, he moved to Oklahoma then Maryland then Nevada to join teams.

“It’s become normal for the top high school, premier athletes,” Trier said.

Should it be normal?

“We’re not normal people,” Trier said. “You know what I mean? Who’s to say for the normal tech person, the normal other people that are at the top of what they do in their lives and their careers? So, I don’t really think there’s a limit you can put on somebody.”

The top-rated player nationally in his class in elementary school, Trier’s potential seemed limitless, and he worked tirelessly to fulfill it. But spending an up-and-down three years at University of Arizona and going undrafted left doubt about his NBA career as of just a few months ago.

Yet, Trier – who signed with the Knicks – is already proving he belongs.

He’s averaging 11.3 points per game. That’s one of the highest scoring averages ever for an undrafted rookie in his first professional season (minimum: 10 games):

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*Don Barksdale finished at UCLA in 1947, but he spent a couple years playing AAU in Oakland while waiting for the NBA to integrate.

Trier just gets buckets. The 6-foot-5 guard is a methodical dribbler, capable of pulling up or slashing. His crafty moves draw plenty of fouls, especially for a rookie, and he’s a solid shooter.

Trier has a good chance to become just the 13th undrafted player to make an All-Rookie team, joining Yogi Ferrell, Langston Galloway, Gary Neal, Jamario Moon, Walter Herrmann, Jorge Garbajosa, Marquis Daniels, Udonis Haslem, J.R. Bremer, Chucky Atkins, Matt Maloney and Larry Stewart. Only Ferrell, Galloway, Daniels, Bremer, Stewart did it in their first professional season.

In some respects, the biggest surprise is how long it took Trier to reach this point. 247 ranked him No. 6 in his high school class, and everyone ahead of him – Ben Simmons (76ers), Skal Labissiere (Kings), Brandon Ingram (Lakers), Cheick Diallo (Pelicans) and Jaylen Brown (Celtics) – went one-and-done in college.

“We thought I was going to be out in one year,” Trier said.

But Trier broke his hand during his freshman year, wasn’t quite as sharp upon his return and stayed for his sophomore season. That came with expectations from Arizona coach Sean Miller.

“Coach Miller told me that was going to be my last year,” Trier said.

Then, Trier got into a car crash before the season. He failed a drug test, but won his appeal, the NCAA agreeing he unknowingly took Ostarine while recovering from the crash. Still, the NCAA ruled he couldn’t play until the drug completely left his body. “It was really dumb,” Trier said. “It was really tedious.” He missed most the season and again forewent the draft.

In his junior year, Trier got suspended yet again for trace amounts of Ostarine. “A joke,” Trier said. “C’mon now. You guys know what the deal was.” He appealed, and this time, the NCAA allowed him to return to the court within a week.

Trier finally turned pro this year, but he went undrafted.

That “undrafted” label is harsher than it sounds. The Knicks called him during the draft and offered to sign him if he went undrafted. Trier said “a few” teams would have drafted him contingent on him accepting a certain contract, but he turned them down in order to get to New York.

Still, more teams could have called. Someone could have liked him enough to draft him despite his unwillingness to pledge to contract terms beforehand.

“I’m angry. I was upset,” Trier said. “I thought it was like a joke that I didn’t get picked.”

He signed a two-way contract with the Knicks – importantly, for only one season. He earns $4,737 every day he’s on New York’s active list for a game or works out/practices with a teammate at the team’s discretion. On other days, he gets paid $544.

Between the start of G League training camp and the end of the G League season, Trier can spend 45 days with the NBA club. Today marks 45 days since G League training camps opened. Surely, the Knicks have had enough travel days and days off to extend Trier’s deadline at least another week. But it’s looming.

By then, the Knicks have three options:

  • Convert Trier’s contract to a standard contract. He’d get paid $4,737 daily the rest of the season and be eligible to play all New York’s remaining games. But next summer, he’d become a restricted free agent with a qualifying offer $200,000 above the league minimum – meaning his qualifying offer would project to be about $1.6 million.
  • Leave Trier on a two-way contract. He couldn’t play for New York until the G League season ends, but his qualifying offer next summer would be cheaper – a two-way contract with just $50,000 guaranteed.
  • Negotiate a new, longer contract with Trier. The Knicks have enough of their mid-level exception left to offer Trier a minimum salary on a contract that could last up to four years. New York also has the bi-annual exception, which could give Trier a starting salary up to $3,382,000 – but on a deal lasting only two years.

Whether he hits restricted free agency with a minimum+$200k or a two-way qualifying offer, Trier appears likely to command standard-contract offer sheets. So, the second option is likely off the table unless the Knicks are trying to scare Trier into accepting a more team-friendly multi-year deal.

But how could New York not reward an undrafted player who has shown so much determination, even outplaying teammates No. 9 pick Kevin Knox and No. 36 pick Mitchell Robinson?

“He basically just came into training camp and said, ‘I’m going to make this team.’ And then, once he made the team, he said, ‘I’m going to get in the rotation,'” Knicks coach David Fizdale said. “That’s the kind of kid he is. He’s a super competitor.”

Two-way contracts give teams immense control, but Trier’s play has given him unusual leverage. He has scored more than triple the points of any other two-way player this season. His ability to become a free agent this summer presses the Knicks to pay him more now.

But Trier, who turns 23 next month, is older than everyone drafted this year besides George King, Devonte' Graham, Devon Hall, Jevon Carter and Grayson Allen. Maybe Trier should be better than his rookie peers.

Trier’s all-around game is also lacking at this point. And his scoring often comes in isolation after taking his time with his moves. So, when he gets stifled, the shot clock has run down considerably before the Knicks can try another plan of attack. Trier must main very efficient as a scorer to justify continuing to play this way. Even as a two-way rookie, Trier plays with a star’s style.

Probably because he has spent so long as a star.

The New York Times Magazine featured him as an example of the trappings and pressures of high-level grass-roots basketball. The most telling quote in the story came from his mother, Marcie: “They’re doing nice things for my son, things that he needs and I can’t afford. So how can I say no?”

Trier was such a big deal as a kid, it was arranged for him to meet Kevin Durant during a media event Durant’s rookie year in Seattle. Durant and Trier had a mutual friend in Oklahoma, and then Trier transferred to Durant’s former high school in Maryland (Montrose Christian). Through those connections, Durant and Trier developed a friendship.

“I think he just dove into basketball, and it was therapeutic for him,” Durant said. “You can tell.

“He’s one of those kids that really, really, really loves basketball. He’s not doing it for money. He’s not doing it for fame. He’s not doing it for attention. Or to get girls. Or to buy s—. He’s actually a hooper. It’s rare in this league to have guys like that.”

That’s clearly why Trier has persevered through the bright lights , dark days and everything in between. That New York Times Magazine article took Trier to a wider audience, and he just kept plugging away.

“I was young, so I don’t think I understood it fully,” Trier said. “But now that I – I’m still young, so I still don’t understand it. But, one day, I think I’ll get a chance to look back and see the journey I went through and see, man, started at a young age, and it was a hell of a journey.”

Three Things to Know: Damian Lillard goes off for a Portland-record 10 three pointers

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Damian Lillard goes off for a Portland-record 10 three-pointers in Blazers’ victory. When Damian Lillard gets hot —yes, I believe in the hot-hand theory, so sue me — there is no more dangerous player in the NBA.

Wednesday night, Lillard was hot — 10 three-pointers made on his way to 41 points, sparking a 115-112 win over Orlando. Lillard was 10-of-15 from three on the night.

The previous Portland record had been nine threes in a game, which Lillard co-held with Nicolas Batum. The Blazers also tied a team record with 12 threes in the first half. They ended up needing all of that against a pesky Orlando team that is playing everyone tough right now behind the career-best play of Nikola Vucevic.

2) Kyle Korver will help but isn’t the answer in Utah. The scuffling Utah Jazz got a little better on Wednesday.

For one thing, the Jazz got Donovan Mitchell back from injury, their offense looked less bad (not quite good, but better) as Utah got a win on the road in Brooklyn. That improved the Jazz to 10-12 and moved them up to 13th in the crowded West (still way below expectations, we all thought this was a top-three team in the West before the season).

Utah also got better because they traded for Kyle Korver. The Jazz are sending Alec Burks and two future second-round picks (theirs in 2020 and the Wizards in 2021) to Cleveland for the 37-year-old sharpshooter.

The trade should make Utah a little better, but it isn’t a game changer — they still need a high-quality secondary playmaker to take some of the pressure off Mitchell. However, Korver should help the second unit.

As a team, the Jazz have struggled from three this season, shooting 31.9 percent, third worst in the league. Joe Ingles has carried the team’s shooting load hitting 38.5 percent from three on six attempts per game, but the rest of the team combined is shooting 30.2 percent from deep. Donovan Mitchell is taking 6.7 threes a game and hitting 28.9 percent, Jae Crowder is 6.2 per game and is knocking down 29.2 percent, and even Grayson Allen — drafted out of Duke as a shooter — is at 28.6 percent. Second spectrum tracking data shows the Jazz as a team are generating good looks but not hitting the shot — Utah as a team is shooting 31.1 percent on open threes (defender 4-6 feet away) and 34.5 percent on wide open threes (defender more than six feet away, Utah’s shooting percentage on those is sixth worst in the league).

Korver is shooting 46.3 percent from beyond the arc this season on 3.4 attempts per game. The Jazz need that.

Expect Korver to play with Utah’s second unit — the Jazz have really struggled with their shooting and spacing the second Ingles goes to the bench. Now Korver will come in and provide some of that shooting. Korver is 37 and will be 38 before the playoffs start, he doesn’t move as well as he once did and the Jazz will get torched a few times on defense because of him, but when the Jazz have the ball defenders can’t leave him. The Jazz are a system team, they can run Korver off a series of picks to get him looks and the defenses will have to respect him.

Korver isn’t the answer to all the Jazz problems — their defense has been average this season (and just bad when Rudy Gobert sits) and they need another playmaker — but he helps them in a key area. Korver makes them better.

And the price was not that steep, but was as good a haul as Cleveland could expect. Burks can give them some nightly minutes on the wing this season, and he is in the last year of his contract so he helps free up some cap space for Cleveland. With this deal happening now, it’s also possible the Cavs could flip Burks in another deal at the trade deadline. The two second-round pick is about right — no team was giving up a first for Korver — and that 2021 Washington one has the potential to be a high second rounder with some real value.

3) After thrashing by Dallas 128-108, Houston is now the 14-seed in the West. Going into this season we expected the Rockets to be the second-best team in the West, third best at worst. It felt like they took a step back in the off-season on the wing, but this team still had the MVP James Harden, plus Chris Paul and Clint Capela.

After getting crushed by Dallas 128-108 on Wednesday, the 9-11 Rockets are the 14 seed in the West. (The good news for Houston is it’s the crowded West, so it is just 1.5 games out of the playoffs and, amazingly, five games out of first place.)

The Rockets were without Chris Paul again Wednesday (hamstring) and guys missing time has been one factor in the slow start for the Rockets. But it’s more than that. Carmelo Anthony is gone, Jeff Bzdelik is back on the bench as an assistant coach, and yet the defense is still a disaster — third worst in the NBA for the season, worst in the NBA by 5.1 points per 100 possessions in the last five games.

The Rockets’ roster is top-heavy, but that’s how it is with contenders (the Warriors have the same situation). The problem in Houston is Daryl Morey’s off-season bets on role players have not worked out at all — it’s not just that Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Ryan Anderson are gone, it’s that their replacements (Carmelo Anthony, Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Knight, Marquese Chriss) have not worked out. At all. Then you throw in the injuries, not just to CP3 but to Gerald Green and Nene, and you have a team that just lacks depth and continuity. The nights Harden can’t bail them out, they lose (and sometimes, even when he drops 54, they lose).

When the Rockets get healthy they will be good enough to make the playoffs (the team is 8-4 when both Paul and Harden play), but they are not the team we thought they could be. Morey is actively looking for trades that will help fill in the wing depth, but that may be too little, too late at this point.

• BONUS THING TO KNOW: Watch Khris Middleton‘s game-winner for Milwaukee. Kids, this is why your coaches preach rebounding.

Milwaukee grabbed three offensive rebounds in the final 10 seconds, eventually kicking the ball out to Middleton who drained a three and gave the Bucks a 116-113 win over the Bulls Wednesday.

NBA Power Rankings: Toronto is for real, maybe the Clippers are, too

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Klay Thompson called the upcoming Thursday night matchup between Toronto and Golden State a potential Finals preview… and he’s right. Nobody doubts the Warriors will figure it out in the West (and they may have Curry back for that game) and so far, Toronto has been the class of the East. And they sit atop these rankings.

 
Raptors small icon 1. Raptors (18-4, last week No. 2). Toronto has won 6 in a row, but the knock on them had been they had the fourth easiest schedule in the league. Tuesday night they went into Memphis and beat the Grizzlies — that’s a quality win. A good game in that one from Fred VanVleet, who has struggled this season, was promising. The tests will keep coming over the next few weeks, so it’s a good thing C.J. Miles is back, they could use the depth. Now Golden State, Denver, and Philly make up three of the next four (and the tough run continues like that through much of December).

 
Clippers small icon 2. Clippers (13-6, LW 3). With the caveat it’s too early to have a serious postseason awards conversation yet, if I were voting for Sixth Man of the Year right now the Clippers would have two guys in the top three. First is the defending holder of that crown Lou Williams, who again leads the league in fourth quarter scoring. Then there’s Montrezl Harrell, who might be more important to the team off the bench. His energy, defense, and rebounding are eye-popping.

 
Bucks small icon 3. Bucks (14-6, LW 1). The Bucks are for real — they have the best net rating in the NBA, the best offense, a top-10 defense, and a serious MVP candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo — but when you live by the three like they do, you can die by it, too. When Brook Lopez goes 0-of-12 from three against the Suns, you lose. When you shoot 22.9% from three over the final three quarters against Charlotte, you lose. Not that they can or should stop shooting threes, it’s working, but it can lead to some ugly losses now and again (and a little slide down the rankings when it happens).

 
Thunder small icon 4. Thunder (12-7, LW 4).. Russell Westbrook had his first triple-double of the season last week, he’s not racking up the raw numbers like he used to, but what he’s done is be more efficient and that’s leading the Thunder to wins. Last season, Westbrook averaged 19.3 drives per game (leading the league) but shot 49.9% when he shot on those. This season the volume of drives is down, 15.5 per game, but he’s shooting 57.7% when he does drive and shoot. Those kinds of little things — and impressive OKC defense — has them as one of the best teams in the NBA over the last 15 games.

 
Nuggets small icon 5. Nuggets (14-7, LW 10).. Jamal Murray is struggling with his shot. The point guard Denver sees as part of its core is shooting 42.9% overall, 31% from three (down from 37.8% last season) and his 51.8 true shooting percentage is below the league average. His assists are up and the offense is still 2.3 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court (largely because he’s often paired with Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris), but the Nuggets need more out of him to stop having the hot-than-cold streaks. Right now they are hot, having won four in a row but now head out for five straight on the road.

 
Sixers small icon 6. 76ers (14-8, LW 7). Philadelphia is 5-2 since the Jimmy Butler trade. Butler is the closer they needed, he’s already got two game-winners, but that masks a +0.1 net rating in those seven games — basically that of a .500 team. The Sixers have a top five offense (it came together more quickly than expected) but a bottom five defense since they made the big trade. While the Sixers have some elite defenders, they don’t have great depth and teams are targeting the weak links on that end. It’s not a big concern, yet, especially as long as Butler keeps doing this:

 
Warriors small icon 7. Warriors (15-7, LW 11). About those Warriors’ struggles… they have won three in a row, Kevin Durant has been taking over (he dropped 49 on the Magic), and they may have Stephen Curry back as soon as Thursday in Toronto (and certainly during the upcoming five-game road trip). Golden State’s “rough patch” has dropped them all the way to the No. 2 seed percentage points behind the Clippers. Still a few interesting tests coming up on the road in Toronto, Boston, Milwaukee.

 
Pacers small icon 8. Pacers (13-8, LW 6). Indiana is 3-2 so far with Victor Oladipo out due to a knee issue, including a win over the Jazz (Indy was 0-7 last season, so it’s a huge improvement). The Pacers also keep winning while bucking the trend of shooting threes — they are 27th in the league in percentage of shots taken from three, but they are fifth in the NBA in three-point percentage, shooting 37.3 from deep. It helps make up for that when Darren Collison can do this with his crossover.

Pistons small icon 9. Pistons (11-7, 15). The Pistons are 7-2 in their last nine, Blake Griffin is still beasting, and the wing combo of Glenn Robinson III and Reggie Bullock settled in right as the winning streak started. All good things, but it’s not those starters that is to thank for this run — it’s the Detroit bench. Pistons fans should thank Ish Smith, Langston Galloway, and Bruce Brown are leading the way and it’s working, Detroit is solidly in playoff position in the East.

 
Grizzlies small icon 10. Grizzlies (12-8, LW 8). Memphis has zigged when the league zagged — pace is up everywhere, but the Grizzlies are throwing teams off by slowing it down (the slowest pace of play in the league) and playing a smart, grind-it-out game that takes teams out of their rhythm. Combine that with their length and Marc Gasol playing at a Defensive Player of the Year level in the paint and you have a defensive rating of 104.9, fifth best in the league. One troubling trend while losing three in a row is blowing leads (including 17 to Toronto Tuesday), this team doesn’t have the firepower to come from behind well.

 
Lakers small icon 11. Lakers (11-9, LW 13). Tuesday night, the Lakers were 5-of-35 from three. That’s not terribly out of character, ] Lakers normally don’t shoot a lot of threes (29.7 a game, 20th in the league), and they are shooting 34.7%. Laker coach Luke Walton is okay with some threes. “It is as long as we keep taking good ones…. Other teams scout to let us shoot threes, so when they are open, we’ll make open threes. Our guys are good… We don’t want to run to the three-point line in transition, we want to attack the rim. We don’t want to swing, swing, jack up a three, we want to penetrate the defense and then shoot a three. So as long as we take the right kinds of threes our percentage will stay up. We want to be a team that attacks the rim.”

 
Blazers small icon 12. Trail Blazers (12-8, LW 5). Losers of three in a row and 5-of-7, and that includes in the last week a 43-point thrashing by the Bucks and 28 by the Warriors (without Steph and Draymond). It’s been a rough patch, but they had a few days off, the schedule softens some (although Orlando tonight is no pushover) and the best news is Jusuf Nurkic should be ready to go after a shoulder contusion. They need him in the one lineup that is firing for this team (Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Evan Turner, Al-Farouq Aminu, Nurkic).

 
Celtics small icon 13. Celtics (11-10, LW 14). What is wrong with Boston’s offense is everyone’s new favorite parlor game around the NBA (that and Bradley Beal trade scenarios). I don’t think it’s one simple thing, but to me the Celtics have to start driving more (their 34.8 per game is third fewest in the league), getting to the rim more (24.6 shots per game in the restricted area is third fewest per game in the NBA), draw some fouls (second lowest free throw rate in the league), and stop settling for long pull-up twos, nothing will change. The Celtics need to get playing downhill, that will open up the jump shooters more.

 
Rockets small icon 14. Rockets (9-10, LW 12). Just when you think they’ve turned the corner, the Rockets drop three straight, including games to the Cavaliers and Wizards (and despite James Harden dropping 54 in Washington). Those last two were without Chris Paul, who now is battling a left hamstring injury (that’s not the one that cost him games earlier this season), which means he could miss more time. Houston’s net rating is -1.1 this season. We keep thinking they will get healthy, go on a big run and look like the threat to Golden State we expected, but at what point is it time to start really worrying about this roster?

 
Pelicans small icon 15. Pelicans (10-11, LW 9). Losers of four in a row, although the first three were without Anthony Davis. He remains the key to everything in New Orleans, they are 10-7 when he plays and 0-4 when he doesn’t, no need to overthink that stat. The Pelicans are 17.4 points per 100 possessions worse when Davis sits. On the bright side, Julius Randle’s strong play has him in early consideration for Sixth Man of the Year (although that’s a crowded field and he’s got a lot of work to do).

 
Mavericks small icon 16. Mavericks (9-9, LW 20). They have won 6-of-7 with a +11 net rating during that stretch (third best in the NBA). That one loss in the last seven not coincidentally was the one J.J. Barea had to miss — Dallas is 17.6 points per 100 possessions better offensively when he is on the court this season, and he drives that second unit. They’ll need him with a rough week ahead: at Rockets, at Lakers, Clippers, Trail Blazers.

 
Hornets small icon 17. Hornets (10-10, LW 17). If we were picking emojis to go with teams Charlotte would get the ¯_(ツ)_/¯. They have the seventh best net rating in the league, which should mean a 13-7 record, but here we are. They have beaten the Buck and the Celtics in the past two weeks, but lost to the Hawks. What they have that’s working is Kemba Walker, who is playing at a “you better include me in your MVP talk” level. However, when he is not playing at that level this team lacks shot creation and just looks pedestrian. Hawks, Jazz, and Pelicans at home this week.

 
Spurs small icon 18. Spurs (10-10, LW 19). The Spurs are 2-5 on a string of 7-of-9 away from San Antonio, a run that ends tonight in Minnesota. Following a theme in these rankings, the Spurs can shoot the three (38.5% from beyond the arc this season, third best in the league) but take the second fewest shots from there of any team. Only 25.9% of their points come from threes, fourth fewest in the league. That’s to be expected on a team where DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are the stars, but a few more three pointers could help the cause.

 
Magic small icon 19. Magic (10-11, LW 16). Nikola Vucevic is having the best season of his career (in a contract year… shocking) and he credits coach Steve Clifford for a lot of that. ““The way we play now, it helps me playing inside-out, it gets me going and makes me more comfortable… [it] makes it much more difficult for the other team and gives them a different look. It works great for me because I get some easy ones in the paint and am able to step out. The way coach wants me, wants us, to play fits my skill set.” That’s true, but now Vucevic is confident — so confident he’s posting up and spinning by LeBron James.

 
Kings small icon 20. Kings (10-10, LW 18). This ranking feels too low for a team in the playoff mix in the West (but that brutal conference makes the middle of these rankings a bit of a crap shoot). They have lost 4-of-6 and over the last 10 games have a -4.6 net rating, maybe the fast start was a bit of a mirage. On the flip side, they have played the sixth toughest schedule in the NBA so far, as things soften up a little they may be able to rack up a few easy wins. Fun game Thursday night against the Clippers, two of the NBA’s most surprising teams through the first quarter of the season.

 
21. Timberwolves (10-11, LW 22). Is the turnaround in Minnesota real? This team has won three in a row and 6-of-8 since trading away Butler, and they have a +5.5 net rating in those eight games with the best defense in the NBA at 101 points allowed per 100 possessions. Robert Covington is quarterbacking that defense from the wing (and putting himself in the early Defensive Player of the Year conversation). The next three on the schedule are the Spurs, Celtics, and Rockets — San Antonio and Houston are the kind of games that count double in a tight Western Conference.

 
Wizards small icon 22. Wizards (8-12, LW 24). Don’t look now, but the Wizards have won 3-of-4 since Scott Brooks moved Thomas Bryant and Kelly Oubre Jr. into the starting lineup, pushing Markieff Morris to the bench where he has solidified the second unit. While the vultures have circled and fans/media members come up with trades, the Wizards have won 6-of-9 and may not be quite so ready to push the eject button when they are the nine seed, just 1.5 games out of the playoffs. Washington has 6-of-7 coming on the road, starting tonight in New Orleans.

 
Jazz small icon 23. Jazz (9-12, LW 21). One of the most confounding teams in the NBA. Their defense remains middle-of-the-pack overall, and even when Rudy Gobert is on the court they are a top-five defense but not elite like a season ago. On the other end, Joe Ingles is knocking down threes (38.9 percent on six attempts per game) but the rest of the team combined is shooting 30.2 percent from deep. Donovan Mitchell is taking 6.6 a game and hitting 29.2 percent, Jae Crowder is 6.4 per game and is knocking down 28.9 percent, and even Grayson Allen is at 28.6 percent. While there are flashes, this team does not look like the three seed we expected.

 
Knicks small icon 24. Knicks (7-15, LW 26). One of the biggest surprises of the young season to me is Noah Vonleh not sucking (that’s what I get for writing off a 23-year-old). He’s knocking down threes (42.1% on the season and he’s been hotter of late) and now has become a solid part of the Knicks’ rotation. Along with Tim Hardaway, Allonzo Trier and others, you can see some guys who could be role players on a roster as things turn around. The Knicks had won three in a row through a tough part of the schedule (Celtics, Pelicans, Grizzlies) until they ran into Detroit Tuesday. Still, David Fizdale’s team is flashing signs of promise.

 
Nets small icon 25. Nets (8-13, LW 23). The “Brooklyn can make the playoffs” talk has slowed as the team dropped three in a row and 7-of-9 (although they are just two games out of the 8 seed right now). They miss Caris LeVert’s playmaking and the one game Spencer Dinwiddie and D'Angelo Russell combined for 69 points Jimmy Butler does them wrong in the end. Jarrett Allen continues to show growth and promise, not just in the raw numbers but in taking on more of the offense while still being efficient.

 
Heat small icon 26. Heat (7-13, LW 25). Miami misses Goran Dragic (knee issue), they are 1-4 without him in this stretch and 2-6 without him on the season, with a -4.3 net rating when he is off the court. Also at issue is Miami’s penchant for turnovers — 15.6 percent of their possessions end in a turnover, fifth worst in the NBA. On the bright side, Bam Adebayo is playing better of late — he’s had some nice double-doubles — and looks like the future for the Heat. Of course, that leads to some tough Hassan Whiteside questions.

 
Cavaliers small icon 27. Cavaliers (4-15, LW 28). Cleveland had a couple of nice wins in the past week, knocking off Philadelphia and Houston (although that will move them up only so much in these rankings). Collin Sexton is showing flashes and getting buckets, and through those wins Tristan Thompson was a beast on the boards. Trade rumors — about Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith, primarily — continue to swirl, but it may take an injury or some pressure on another team to get the job done. Great job by Cleveland handling the LeBron James return tribute last week.

 
Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (5-16, LW 30). The Hawks have won two in a row and it’s not a coincidence that has happened with John Collins back and starting to get his legs under him again. Through six games he has averaged 15.2 points per game shooting 62.7%, with a PER of 18.9, and on defense he had the game-winning block against Charlotte. He provides some of what the Hawks lacked inside. Trae Young continues to struggle with his shot, hitting 34.8% overall and 26.9% from three in his last five games (which isn’t good but better than the previous five games).

 
Bulls small icon 29. Bulls (5-16, LW 27). Losers of 7-of-8 (the lone win came against Phoenix, the only thing keeping Chicago out of the bottom of these rankings). If you’re looking for a silver lining, Jabari Parker is averaging 20 points a game over his last five, and is shooting 35% from three overall in that stretch. It’s not efficient enough to make up for his defense (and someone has to get the points on this team), but he looks like a guy who maybe can find a bench role in the league going forward.

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (4-16, LW 29). Just one win in their last six but you can see the potential — Devin Booker is a scorer, rookie Deandre Ayton is giving them 17 and 10 a night, T.J. Warren has improved — but this team lacks the kind of game-managing quality point guard that can be the glue, who can bring all these parts together and make it all work. Jamal Crawford has given them a couple of nice recent games, expect his name (along with Trevor Ariza) to come up in trade rumors soon).

NBA Power Rankings: Warriors, undefeated Bucks top the list

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This early in the season there is still a lot of volatility in the rankings, with teams making big leaps (or big falls) as we start to figure out who they really are. We do know the Warriors are very, very good. Looks like the Bucks may be, too.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (7-1, last week No 3). Golden State’s offense has been incendiary to start the season — Stephen Curry had a 51-point game and is aggressively hunting his shot again, Kevin Durant knows he can score from anywhere at any time, and then Monday Klay Thompson unleashed 14 threes on the poor Bulls. The Warriors are scoring at a 120 points per 100 possessions pace, more than 5 points better than anyone else in the NBA this season and more than 7 better than they were last season. And it feels like they can sustain this.

Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (7-0, LW 4). The NBA’s last undefeated team, the Bucks haven’t just won games they have dominated — Milwaukee has led by at least 16 points in every game this season. While coach Mike Budenholzer gets (and deserves) credit for opening up the offense, the real key is the Bucks have the second-best defense in the league (Boston) and is one of only two teams allowing less than a point per possession this season. The Bucks are playing a simpler, easier to understand system and are thriving in it. Great test Thursday night against those Celtics (on TNT).

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (7-1, LW. 1). Tuesday night Kawhi Leonard showed what he means to this team — he smothered Ben Simmons and was a key reason the Sixers’ star had 11 turnovers on the night. Oh, and Leonard had 31 points in the game, too. It’s too early to use these words in any meaningful way, but Leonard has played at an MVP level to open the season. After a home-heavy schedule to start, the Raptors have 8-of-11 on the road starting Friday in Phoenix.

 
Nuggets small icon 4. Nuggets (5-1, LW 2).. Denver’s offense still has not found it’s groove to start the season, specifically the team is taking 28.7 threes a game (25th in the league) and is shooting 29.7% on those so far (for comparison, the team took 30.9 threes a game last season and it 37.1%). Gary Harris is shooting 26.9% so far but that will improve. The Nuggets’ defense has slipped a little but is still third rated in the NBA and is covering for the offense until that train gets rolling. Good home tests Saturday and Monday with Utah and Boston.

 
Blazers small icon 5. Trail Blazers (5-2, LW 7). Damian Lillard finished fourth in the MVP voting last season and is coming out playing even better this season: 29.6 points per game, shooting 37.7 percent from three, with a 65.9 true shooting percentage and a 30.6 PER, every one of those a career best. So far 71 percent of his shots are threes or at the rim. It’s stunning. Lillard led the Blazers to a 3-1 record on a recent road trip with some quality wins (Indiana, Houston, if Houston is still a quality win) and now the Blazers are home for six in a row.

 
Celtics small icon 6. Celtics (5-2, LW 9). After a rough start to the season on offense the Celtics are starting to find their groove, including scoring 217 points in a home-and-home sweep of the Pistons. Kyrie Irving found himself in that second Pistons win, scoring 31 on 16 shots, before that the offense has leaned on Marcus Morris. Yes, Marcus Morris — and he’s been up to the task off the bench. Saturday starts a tough five game road trip for the Celtics.

 
Jazz small icon 7. Jazz (4-2, LW 14). Good to see Grayson Allen find a groove against Dallas, 11 points and a +17 when forced into a larger role. Donovan Mitchell has stopped pressing and the Utah offense is starting to fall into place during a three-game win streak on the road (the Jazz are an impressive 4-0 on the road to start the season). Utah’s offense is two points per 100 possessions better this season than last (so far) and improvement on that end is the key to taking the next step forward for this team. Fun Rudy Gobert vs. Karl-Anthony Towns showdown on Wednesday night.

 
Pelicans small icon 8. Pelicans (4-2, LW 5). Two losses in a row for the Pelicans but both without Anthony Davis (elbow) so we’re not going to read much into that. The starting lineup is still a beast when Davis is healthy, outscoring teams by 34.4 points per 100 (and the elbow thing isn’t serious). The loss in Denver was the start of a five-game road trip against potential West playoff teams, a road trip where the Pelicans could use to get Davis back and make a showing because, while it’s early, in the ridiculously deep West these are the games that will matter in the end.

 
Pacers small icon 9. Pacers (4-3, LW 8). While the Pacers are 4-3 to start the season, they are outscoring teams by 6.3 points per 100 possessions, which is sixth best in the league (that per-possessions data suggests they should be at least 5-2). The big key for the Pacers is their shooting, they have hit a league-best 43 percent of their shots from three — but they take the league’s fewest shots from three, 22.6 per game. Victor Oladipo has found a groove and is back to being his old self, and with that the Pacers are showing last season was not some one-off fluke. Now we’ll see if they can take a step forward off it.

Pistons small icon 10. Pistons (4-2, 6). Boston’s defense made Blake Griffin look human again in a home-and-home, and the search for quality shooting and shot creators around him continues. All those wins count, but the Pistons have put together this quality start while having a -1.3 net rating, something that could catch up to them (or, they could swing their rating around) with 6-of-9 coming up on the road, almost all against other teams in the East.

 
Clippers small icon 11. Clippers (4-3, LW 12). The Clippers’ primary bench units are both destroying teams and are just a lot of fun to watch: Lou Williams, Mike Scott, Montrezl Harrell, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are killing it with either Milos Teodosic (+23.2 per 100) or Luc Mbah a Moute (+19.2 per 100) as the fifth man. Those bench units get out and run and Milos is just a walking basketball highlight show.

 
Spurs small icon 12. Spurs (4-2, LW 10). San Antonio is off to a quick start but has a net rating of -3.5 per 100 possessions to start the season — either their record or that rating will correct itself. San Antonio is the second-best three-point shooting team in the league percentage wise, hitting 41.3 percent from deep this season, but with a team full of guys who like the midrange they are taking just 23 shots from three a game, third lowest in the league. What the Spurs are doing well is taking care of the ball, turning the ball over on a league-best 11.4 percent of their possessions.

 
Grizzlies small icon 13. Grizzlies (4-2, LW 17). Memphis is back to the formula we have seen for years: An elite defense that keeps them in games (fourth best in the NBA), which covers up for a bottom 10 offense. In the past that has worked well enough to keep them on the fringes of the playoff race and have a couple of good runs — when everyone stays healthy. Jaren Jackson Jr. update, the rookie is averaging 11.5 points a game on 46.3 percent shooting, with 5.2 rebounds a night and a PER of 16.7. He’s impressing.

 
Hornets small icon 14. Hornets (4-4, LW 16). New coach, same problem in Charlotte: The Hornets are outscoring teams by 6.1 points per 100 possessions, but have a .500 record (when they should be 5-3) because they keep losing close games. The Hornets have lost by two to the Sixers, two to the Bulls, and one to the Bucks — three losses by a total of five points. Kemba Walker continues to tear up the NBA, averaging 30.1 points and six assists per night, shooting 41.4 percent from three with a PER of 28.3.

 
Sixers small icon 15. 76ers (4-4, LW 11). The 76ers are taking a lot of threes, 35.9 a game (fifth most in the NBA), but they are hitting just 33.8% of them so far. Robert Covington (42.9%) and J.J. Redick (39%) are pulling their weight, but Dario Saric (23.4% on 5.9 attempts per game), Joel Embiid (29.4% on 4.3 attempts) and Markelle Fultz (30.8% but just 1.6 attempts) are building a brick house right now. When Fultz, Embiid, and non-threat from three Ben Simmons are on the floor together the Sixers are -14.2 per 100 possessions so far. The starting lineup with Fultz continues to struggle mightily on both ends of the court.

 
Kings small icon 16. Kings (5-3, LW 25). I may have this team ranked too low — the Kings are playing good basketball right now, having won four in a row including a couple games on the road in Florida. De’Aaron Fox has been a second-season revelation, Willie Cauley-Stein is going to get paid like he wants if he keeps playing like this, and Buddy Hield is averaging 18.9 points per game shooting 44.7 percent from three. They have the point differential of a .500 team, so maybe this catches up with them a little, but the Kings are playing hard and much better than anyone expected.

 
Heat small icon 17. Heat (3-4, LW 21). Hassan Whiteside has been critical for the Heat on both ends of the floor this season and the team has been 16.1 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court rather than sitting. We’ll see if he can keep it up as the season moves along (consistency has been an issue) but the start has been strong. That said, if your counting, Whiteside has yet to rack up a single assist this season.

 
18. Timberwolves (3-4, LW 13). Jimmy Butler has upped his distraction ante, deciding to sit out Wednesday’s game in protest of not getting traded yet (I love that the team is calling it “general soreness”). Those trade talks are heating up again, but nothing is imminent and the entire situation continues to be a cloud over this team. It is part of the reason they are inconsistent. Until the Butler situation gets resolved, fans will not know what they will get from this team night to night (and gamblers may want to stay away for the same reason).

 
Thunder small icon 19. Thunder (2-4, LW 22).. The Thunder have won a couple games in a row (Clippers and Suns), with Russell Westbrook and Paul George having a matching 55 points each across the two games. The Oklahoma City defense is also starting to come around, it’s sixth best in the NBA as of Wednesday. The second half against the Clippers was the model of what the Thunder want to be this season, Westbrook and George were playing with pace and running an entertaining offense while the defense got enough stops. Can they build off that is the question?

 
Mavericks small icon 20. Mavericks (2-5, LW 18). Talking to a scout about the Mavericks yielded a couple of impressions: Luka Doncic runs hot and cold as a rookie but there is a lot to like. What impressed more is how well DeAndre Jordan passes out of the high post (he had 9 assists in a loss to Utah). Jordan seems to really enjoy being put in a new role, asked to do things the Clippers did not (they had Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, you’re not making DJ a playmaker when you have those two). Plus, DJ shooting better than 80% from the free throw line makes him far more dangerous.

 
Lakers small icon 21. Lakers (2-5, LW 23). It’s early, but how are things going so far with LeBron James and the young core? When LeBron and Kyle Kuzma are on the court together, the Lakers have a net rating of -0.8 (per 100 possessions), basically playing teams even. LeBron and Josh Hart have a +1.5 rating together. LeBron and Lonzo Ball are -5.3 per 100. LeBron and Brandon Ingram are -6.2 per 100 — and that’s troubling because that’s the one the Lakers really need to work out.

 
Rockets small icon 22. Rockets (1-5, LW 15). Mike D’Antoni threatened to move away from the all-switching defense the Rockets used last season. However, he didn’t when he looked at the film and saw the numbers because the switches have not been the problem. The bigger problem in Tuesday’s loss to a tired Portland team was heart: When the Blazers made a second quarter run you could see the “here we go again” reaction from the Rockets and they folded. The Rockets are already five games back of the Warriors, and now Houston heads out on the road for 6-of-7. Then they come home to the Warriors.

 
Knicks small icon 23. Knicks (2-5, LW 24). Knicks fans got to dream of Kevin Durant last week (and they should soon start watching Duke games and dreaming of drafting that talent), but the Knicks themselves are playing a little better than their record indicates. Eyes Kanter is not happy coming off the bench, but the way Kris Middleton went at him and abused him in the pick-and-roll for the Bucks is a reminder of why Kanter is nice in the regular season but is hard to play in the playoffs.

 
Nets small icon 24. Nets (2-5, LW 28). Three straight losses, and while its easy to forgive the ones to the Warriors and the Pelicans, the Knicks handling handling them this week was a reminder of where this team really is. Still, there are positives: Jarrett Allen has evolved into a flat out beast of a rim protector (except against Noah Vonleh, somehow) and Caris LeVert continues to turn heads around the league.

 
Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (2-5, LW 26). While fans are tuning in to see Trae Young — who has good numbers but is up and down, as rookies tend to be — it is Taurean Prince that should be turning heads. In his third season he is averaging 16.7 points per game, and while his efficiency could be better he has become someone who can be a solid role player on a good team (but has to do more for the Hawks).

 
Magic small icon 26. Magic (2-5, LW 19). There is only one team in the entire NBA scoring an average of less than one point per possession — and you guessed it, it’s Orlando. There are guys who can score on this team, but Nikola Vucevic has never been known as someone consistent, and Aaron Gordon is shooting a little less than he did a season ago but otherwise his numbers are just in line with before.

 
Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (2-5, LW 29).. If one player this season is making pundits and reporters eat crow, it’s Zach LaVine. Almost everyone (*raises hand*) ripped the $78 million offer sheet the Kings gave him, then were dumbfounded the Bulls matched. Yet through seven games he’s averaged 28.1 points per game, shot 38.6% from three, and has a PER of 22.7. He can’t defend, but if he can keep scoring like that it more than makes up for it — and makes that a not insane contract the Bulls agreed to.

 
Wizards small icon 28. Wizards (1-6, LW 20). Having watched this team in person, it’s hard to describe how bad things are for Washington. It’s not just the Xs and Os stuff — although they sluff their way through cuts and play half-hearted without the ball, especially John Wall — but its the chemistry issues. Bradley Beal gets knocked down going to the rim and no Wizard comes over to help him up so Tobias Harris has to. There are almost no high fives around the team pregame. Otto Porter might as well be on an island. Scott Brooks may find his seat getting hot, but the problems run well beyond what a coach can fix.

 
Suns small icon 29. Suns (1-5, LW 27). Phoenix has the worst net rating in the NBA, with the third-worst defense and the sixth worst offense. Not picking up the fourth-year option on Dragan Bender was both the right move and a purging of the sins of the past administration. On the bright side, one move by the last GM looks good — Deandre Ayton is averaging 17.5 point and 10.3 rebounds a game, shooting 64.4 percent. He’s still learning how to defend, but he looks like he could be the franchise anchor the Suns were counting on.

 
Cavaliers small icon 30. Cavaliers (1-6, LW 30). Cleveland finally got a win, knocking off the Atlanta Hawks Tuesday. However, if you don’t have a coach — they fired Tyronn Lue over the weekend and Larry Drew has refused to take on the interim title without a healthy pay raise or some security — you don’t move to get out of the bottom of the rankings.

How far can contrarian, big, defensive Jazz go in the West this season?

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This is the latest of NBC’s NBA season preview stories, and we will post at least one a day on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, with today the Jazz as the focus

We know the NBA buzzwords, the trends. Small ball. Offense over defense. Play fast. Teams have to have men who can spread the floor with their three-point shooting. Teams want undersized power forwards who play more like wings. The offense is to run a pick-and-roll to force a switch, then isolate and let your best shot creator attack the mismatch.

The Utah Jazz are none of that.

They are contrarian, a throwback. And they are one of the most dangerous teams in the NBA.

Utah is defensive team that starts a twin towers front line where neither can really step out and space the floor with their jumper. Utah’s starting power forward, Derrick Favors, is a power forward in the classic sense. They run a motion offense, and only 5.3 percent of their offensive attempts came out of isolation last season. They don’t play at a high pace, they prefer a game that grinds down, physically but also mentally.

They are not following the small ball trend, and that’s a conscious decision.

“Golden State has driven a perception that the whole league is small…” Jazz coach Quin Snyder told NBC Sports last season. “Because Golden State’s been the best team, you’re forced to match up with them, and then people will try to play small, but if you’re playing small just because someone else is, and then you’re not playing your best players, that’s a tough question. Do you chase a mismatch or do you play the way you play?”

Utah plays the way it plays. And with that, most pundits have them as a top-four team in the West (Vegas books have them with the fourth highest under/over win total in the West at 48.5), and some around the league wonder if the Jazz can beat a diminished Rockets’ squad this season.

However, does their style also have a ceiling? Utah’s defense stymied Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs last season, but the spacing and pace of the Houston Rockets proved to be too much — it was hard to keep Rudy Gobert on the court against those smaller lineups, and Houston’s switching defense stalled out the Utah offense.

If the question is “can we beat Golden State and Houston the way we play?” then 12 teams in the West — and 28 teams across the entire NBA — are asking that same question. Utah believes it can, or it can at least threaten them, by just doing what they do better.

If the Jazz are going to live up to a top-four slot, a few things have to happen, and it starts with Rudy Gobert staying healthy. He missed most of the first half of last season with knee injuries — not chronic things, but both times because a player fell into him — but once he was back and right Utah went 29-6 to close out the season. He won Defensive Player of the Year because of how dominant he was during that run.

Obviously, the reason for the hot finish was Utah’s incredible defense: After the All-Star break it allowed just 96 points per 100 possessions, by far the best in the league. That defense could get better this season: a healthy Gobert all season, plus full seasons out of Jae Crowder and Royce O’Neale, plus players with another season in the system.

The surprise for the Jazz last season was a respectable offense (16th in the league), which came about because rookie Donovan Mitchell played like an All-Star, 20.5 points and 3.7 assists per game. Mitchell impressed everyone, but sometimes players with strong rookie campaigns plateau their second season, not growing and making the next leap some expect. Utah, to take a step forward, needs him to grow.

Around him there are solid veterans who knew how to play the game — Gobert running the rim, Joe Ingles spotting up at the arc and moving the ball to the right man on closeouts, Ricky Rubio figuring out how to adjust to the motion offense then thriving in it as a distributor (after the All-Star break he averaged 15 points a game, shot 40.9 percent from three, and had 5.6 assists a night), and Derrick Favors getting his buckets.

Utah didn’t make big moves this summer but believes it has added some firepower. They re-signed Dante Exum over the summer and believe (more than anyone else) he is healthy and ready for a breakout year. They drafted Grayson Allen, who showed at Summer League he’s more than a spot-up guy. They get a full season of the solid Jae Crowder.

Utah is counting on continuity.

That and defense will alone not be enough. The Jazz need health, and they need the offense to get better — a few more easy buckets in transition would help. The Jazz were 19th in the NBA in percentage of offense that started in transition (stat via Cleaning The Glass) and while that’s not bad for a team that wants a defensive game, a few more easy transition buckets a night help.

The Jazz also need to better handle switching defenses — the elite teams they want to challenge in the West switch a lot, and to beat them in a seven-game series Utah has to score more comfortably against the switch. That doesn’t necessarily mean a James Harden back-it-out-and-isolate play, but to do it in the context of the motion offense requires precision and ability to exploit the smallest mistake the Jazz did not have last season.

The Jazz are going to be the Jazz this season — contrarian, grinding, and a nightly defensive force. That can take them a long way, especially in the regular season.
If it can get them where they want to go in the playoffs is a much tougher question.