Kevin Knox

NBA Power Rankings: Jazz climbing fast, still chasing Bucks, Lakers

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The top two spots remain locked in, as they have for weeks now, but under that there remains a lot of movement in these NBA power rankings, with the red-hot Jazz climbing up to third.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (36-6, Last Week No. 1). Milwaukee is on a 70-win pace, and while we rightfully credit Giannis Antetokounmpo for much of that (right now he’d get my MVP vote, again), it is the Bucks’ defense that sets them apart. Milwaukee’s 101.6 defensive rating (using NBA.com’s numbers) is the best in the league by more than two full points. Their system protects the paint first, last, and always, and with that gives up the most three-point attempts in the league per game. However, their length and athleticism can contest some of those, and the Bucks take away all of an opponent’s easy buckets at the rim. It works.

Lakers small icon 2. Lakers (33-7, LW No. 2). Winners of nine in a row, and that includes beating OKC when LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Danny Green were all out. Kyle Kuzma lit up the Thunder with 36 in that game, but was very pedestrian (5-of-13 shooting, 11 points) two nights later against the Cavaliers, missing all his threes. Kuzma tends to be up-and-down, which concerns teams that see him as a No. 3 option or a sixth man and might want to trade for him (it also should concern the Lakers, somewhat, although he’s given them what they need this season).

Jazz small icon 3. Jazz (28-12, LW 4). Utah has won 10 in a row and they continue to tear it up on offense — a league-best 122 offensive rating over those 10 games. Donovan Mitchell has played like an All-Star, Joe Ingles has thrived as a starter, Bojan Bogdanovic is having big games, and the Jazz are undefeated since adding Jordan Clarkson to their bench. All of this is without Mike Conley in the mix (still out with a hamstring issue), but it leads to questions about how to fit him in upon his return.

Rockets small icon 4. Rockets (26-13, LW 5). At the midway point of the season, James Harden is on pace to average 37.8 points per game for the season, the most by any player not named Wilt Chamberlain. What’s amazing is he has taken on that increased offensive load and been even more efficient this season, with a ridiculous 63.6 true shooting percentage. Those numbers have slipped a little in recent weeks as teams are throwing ridiculous double-teams at Harden to force the ball out of his hands, but how he is making teams adjust is another reason is in the middle of the MVP mix this season.

Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (27-11, LW 3). Boston’s offense looked clumsy during a three-game losing streak, that was until Jayson Tatum exploded for 41 against a shorthanded Pelicans team on Saturday. It was an All-Star level performance from Tatum, but will the coaches pick him as a reserve in the East? Probably. My money is on the player/media vote bumping Kemba Walker into a starting role, but either way he will be in Chicago as well. Thursday night the Celtics get a good measuring stick game against the Bucks in Milwaukee.

Nuggets small icon 6. Nuggets (27-12, LW 7). In the last 15 games, Denver has looked like the team we expected going into the season: Winning games (11-4) thanks to an elite offense led by Nikola Jokic (second best in the NBA in the last 15), but that masks a troubling defense (28th in the NBA over that same stretch). The impressive Nuggets defense from the first part of the season is gone, and if it doesn’t make a return — or the Nuggets don’t make a trade to boost it — that end of the floor could have them fishing in Cabo earlier than they expected this postseason.

Clippers small icon 7. Clippers (28-13, LW 6). Some nights, the Clippers look like the team the rest of the West feared — they can take apart anybody. Just ask the Lakers. But there are other nights they look disjointed and uninterested, and they do not impress, such as recent losses to Memphis and Denver. Doc Rivers, what do you think of the inconsistency? “I think we’ve been inconsistent on both ends. It is what it is. I’m not that frightened by it.” Should he be?

Heat small icon 8. Heat (27-12, LW 8). Miami keeps winning games — 9-6 in its last 15 — but that’s become in spite of their defense and not because of it. The Heat have been a bottom 10 defensive team over those 15 games (and the team has a net rating of -0.1, basically even). Last weekend’s losses to the Nets and Knicks are the kind of off games teams with poor defenses have. The Heat need to turn this around to keep home court through the first round of the playoffs.

Raptors small icon 9. Raptors (25-14, LW 10). Toronto went a respectable 6-5 without Pascal Siakam, but now he’s back in the rotation (as is Norman Powell; Marc Gasol is still out but is expected to return soon) and the wins need to flow again. Nick Nurse is hoping the return of his likely All-Star in Siakam sparks an offense that was top 10 in the league in November but, with all the injuries, has fallen back to middle-of-the pack in the last 10 games (which, considering the missing players, is not that bad).

Pacers small icon 10. Pacers (25-15, LW 12). With Domantas Sabonis sidelined on Friday, Myles Turner broke out with a 27 point, 14 rebound night. It’s the kind of game that will have other teams calling and checking on Turner’s availability at the trade deadline, but reports are those calls are getting shot down. The Pacers are +6.3 per 100 possessions when those two are on the court together, and the Indy brass wants to see how that looks with Victor Oladipo back.

Thunder small icon 11. Thunder (23-17, LW 11). Shai Gilgeous-Alexander continues to improve during his second season (and the tutelage of Chris Paul can’t hurt), this week becoming the youngest player in NBA history with a 20-20-10 triple-double. Trade rumors continue to swirl around Danilo Gallinari and the Thunder, and OKC is looking for players on SGA’s timeline to build for the future.

Mavericks small icon 12. Mavericks (25-15, LW 9). Dallas has gone 4-4 with Kristaps Prozingis sidelined, but he is expected back Wednesday night from his knee/illness issues. Dallas elite offense remained top six with KP out, but the defense fell from middle of the pack to bottom 10 without his length and rim protection inside. Luka Doncic seems destined to start in the All-Star game this season, as he should, but he will be the only Maverick playing on Sunday.

Sixers small icon 13. 76ers (25-16, LW 13). Sixers fans are calling for Brett Brown’s head with Philadelphia having lost 6-of-8 and not looking like a threat to the Bucks right now (despite what happened on Christmas Day). The offense is clunky, but the problems start here: Ben Simmons has taken 18 shots outside the paint all season, and two of those were end-of-half heaves that don’t really count. Simmons has to get into the paint to be effective, that’s also where Joel Embiid is at his best, and that allows teams to pack the paint and defend Philly’s strengths. Changing coaches will not change the flaws in the roster construction, that’s an Elton Brand thing.

Grizzlies small icon 14. Grizzlies (19-22, LW 19). The NBA world is falling in love with Ja Morant right now, but the Grizzlies have two quality rookies — Brandon Clarke has been solid for them. Here’s Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins on Clarke: “The great thing about Brandon is he doesn’t try to do too much, he plays to his strengths. We knew that when he was coming out of Gonzaga, he’s a guy who plays great team basketball on both ends of the floor. Obviously a super-efficient player on the offensive end, kind of takes what the defense gives him, picks his spots whether it’s the roller game or the floater game, we’re seeing him shoot the three ball a little bit more. Defensively, being in the right place, getting his hands on some defections, he doesn’t get a lot of blocks but he comes over in his rotations… he does it in a team capacity.”

Magic small icon 15. Magic (19-21, LW 14). It seems fitting the Magic are in the middle of these power rankings: Orlando has a net offensive rating of 105.1 and a net defensive rating of 105.1 — exactly neutral. Cleaning the Glass projects the Magic to go 41-41. Orlando seems destined to get the seven or eight seed in the East, which puts it in the hands of management what direction to go at the trade deadline, stay this middle of the road course or think about a retooling effort by moving Evan Fournier or other quality players (except Jonathan Isaac).

Nets small icon 16. Nets (18-21, LW 17). Kyrie Irving is back, Caris LeVert is back, and now we can finally start to see what this Nets roster looks like healthy. The offense looked good against the Hawks “defense” but, more importantly, was respectable against the Jazz defense on Monday. Brooklyn just lost that game because their defense couldn’t slow the red-hot Jazz. It doesn’t get easier for the Nets, their next four games are the 76ers, Bucks, 76ers (again), and Lakers. That’s a gauntlet.

Spurs small icon 17. Spurs (17-21, LW 16). The Spurs 22-year playoff streak is not dead yet, despite the record San Antonio is just half a game out of the final playoff spot in the West (one game back in the loss column). What has to keep Gregg Popovich up at night (at least until the third glass of Pinot) is the bottom 10 defense from this team. It’s very un-Popovich, and there is no simple answer with this roster as constructed.

Kings small icon 18. Kings (15-25, LW 18). Marvin Bagley is back after missing eight games with a sore foot and looked pretty good against the Magic with 18 points and six boards. Combine that with the faster pace of late — which has helped De’Aaron Fox — and maybe Luke Walton’s roster can start to look like the on-the-rise team everyone expected before the season tipped off.

Blazers small icon 19. Trail Blazers (17-24, LW 15). What held Carmelo Anthony back from an NBA job for so long was concerns about his defense. In their past 10 games, the Trail Blazers have gone 3-7 and have the worst defense in the NBA over that stretch. That’s not all ‘Melo, but he’s not solving problems on that end. Three tough games on the road for Portland this week: Houston, Dallas, and OKC.

Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (15-26, LW 24). Zion Williamson will be back in a week — Jan. 22 against the Spurs is the target date — but the Pelicans have won 3-of-4 without him. If David Griffin doesn’t like the trade offers for Jrue Holiday and Derrick Favors, does he just keep the band together, add Zion, and see if they can make up the four games to get in the playoffs?

Suns small icon 21. Suns (16-24, LW 22). Deandre Ayton is back to coming off the bench — with Dario Saric starting next to Aron Baynes — and that seems to be working for Phoenix. It allows Monty Williams to still pair Devin Booker and Ayton, they show some real chemistry, while keeping his best lineups on the floor. As a side note: There is no way this should lead to a technical and ejection in the NBA, there are some young refs with quick triggers (and some older ones, too) who are sucking the emotion out of the game.

22. Timberwolves (15-24, LW 20). There are positive rumblings that Karl-Anthony Towns could return to soon. He has missed 14 games and the Timberwolves are 5-9 without him, with the offense 14.8 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the bench. The only thing that has kept Minnesota afloat with him out is the third-ranked defense in the NBA for that stretch.

Bulls small icon 23. Bulls (14-27, LW 21). Wendell Carter Jr. being out weeks with a sprained ankle will be a real blow to Chicago, the offense flows better with him on the court and coach Jim Boylen described him as the Bulls best defensive player. When Carter has been on the court this season the Bulls outscore opponents by 1.4 points per 100 possessions, but when he sits they get outscored by 6.1. The Bulls have lost 7-of-8.

Wizards small icon 24. Wizards (13-26, LW 26). John Wall is practicing with the team and taking on contact, fueling speculation he could play this season after all. Wall isn’t the only Wizard getting healthy: Davis Bertans, Bradley Beal, and Thomas Bryant all returned to the rotation over the weekend. Washington has six of its next eight on the road.

Pistons small icon 25. Pistons (14-27, LW 25). Just how good are Sekou Doumbouya and Thon Maker? That’s the question the Pistons should try to answer the rest of the season, with Blake Griffin done until next fall and Andre Drummond on the trade block (what team is going to be the buyer for him, and will they offer much?). Doumbouya has a lot of promise and Detroit should give him the room to show it the rest of the season.

Knicks small icon 26. Knicks (11-30, LW 27). Mitchell Robinson has looked steadier under new coach Mike Miller, if you’re looking for the silver lining in the dark cloud of this season. R.J. Barrett is putting up numbers but has a lot of work to do to become efficient at the NBA level. After that… it gets thin when quality young players for the Knicks. Kevin Knox has not caught up to the game after showing some early promise.

Cavaliers small icon 27. Cavaliers (12-29, LW 28). Collin Sexton could have his shot blocked more times this season than he has assists (hat tip to @Cavsanada for this stat). Sexton has had his shot blocked 76 times this season (1.9 times per game) and he has 91 assists, a difference of just 15. It’s probably not going to happen, but it’s something to watch if you have to watch Cavs games.

Hornets small icon 28. Hornets (15-28, LW 23). There was a point earlier in the season where Charlotte was the luckiest team in the league, the team most outperforming its point differential. That has regressed to the mean in recent weeks, including the current five-game losing streak (and losing 11-of-13). Devonte’ Graham may still be the frontrunner for Most Improved Player but he has had some rough outings and been inconsistent of late.

Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (9-32, LW 29). Fans want Trae Young in the All-Star Game — he leads East guards in the fan vote — and it’s easy to understand why, Young is fun to watch averaging 28.9 points and 8.4 assists per game. His team, however, is terrible and Young’s defense contributes to that. Should the media/fan voters put Ben Simmons, Kemba Walker, Kyrie Irving and other East guards who are a little more two way higher on their ballots?

Warriors small icon 30. Warriors (9-33 LW 30). Stephen Curry is taking shots again. Klay Thompson says he is itching to get back on the court. Both of them will be re-evaluated next month but how much do the Warriors really want to push them to return (and potentially hurt their lottery odds in the process)? The Warriors have lost nine in a row and seem to be banking losses for the potential return of their stars.

Rumor: Raptors want two first-round picks as compensation if Masai Ujiri leaves for Knicks

Raptors president Masai Ujiri
Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images
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Raptors owner Larry Tanenbaum said team president Masai Ujiri is “here to stay.”

But what if Ujiri wants to leave for the Knicks?

Ian Begley of SNY:

one NBA team recently demanded two first-round picks when another team inquired about letting its exec out of an existing contract, per SNY sources. The transaction – which would have involved an exec generally considered a tier below Ujiri, sources said – didn’t get to the finish line.

But teams talk, and a baseline of two first-round picks is where multiple SNY sources familiar with the dynamic of such negotiations expect any Knicks-Ujiri talks to start.

When talking about the Knicks-Ujiri hypothetical, it’s fair to assume that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment chairman Larry Tannenbaum will want at least two firsts in a package for Ujiri.

It’s unclear how much Begley is reporting on the Raptors and Knicks specifically or extrapolating from a somewhat similar situation. If it’s the latter, this is of only limited utility. Different teams have different approaches on these issues.

Besides, this is only talk of Toronto’s starting point. New York would offer less. The teams would negotiate toward the middle.

The Knicks sent the Kings compensation for general manager Scott Perry, and he’s serving under team president Steve Mills. Does that show New York would be willing to send the Raptors compensation for Ujiri? Or would the failed Mills-Perry regime show the Knicks the futility in offering compensation for an executive? Good luck guessing what Knicks owner James Dolan will do, though higher-ups in his organization are reportedly obsessed with Ujiri.

Of course, even if New York and Toronto agree on compensation, Ujiri would also have to agree. The Knicks’ young core – R.J. Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Dennis Smith Jr., Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina – is already underwhelming. Losing multiple first-round picks would make rebuilding even more difficult and could push Ujiri toward staying with the Raptors – or demanding more money from New York.

At that point, the Knicks might say they’re already giving up draft picks and that additional salary for Ujiri is a bridge too far.

It’s all a very delicate balance.

Kevin Knox with an high-flying putback dunk into his own basket (VIDEO)

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Give the Knicks credit, they have won two games in a row for the first time this season after knocking off the Kings. The return of Elfrid Payton at point guard — meaning they don’t have to play rookie R.J. Barrett out of position in that role — has given New York some floor balance and they look much better.

But there are still moments.

Such as this one from Kevin Knox, with the putback dunk — into his own net.

Mike Breen wanted to credit Buddy Hield there, and to be fair, Hield did come flying in and force the action. But that was Knox. (Hield got the bucket in the official scorebook).

Well, at least Knox is contributing something here.

NBA Power Rankings: Red-hot Milwaukee moves into top spot

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We’ve got a new team on top because the Bucks have been tearing up the league, and while they have some tough games coming up, the fact they are in the East means Milwaukee might hold down this slot for much of the season.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (18-3, Last week No. 2). Winners of 12 in a row with a top three offense and defense in the league over that stretch. All that, and this team still leaves points on the table from the three-point line — the Bucks take 40.2 threes a game (third most in the NBA) but hit just 35.1% of them (20th in the league). Gianni Antetokounmpo being willing to shoot from three now is part of that (4.9 attempts a game, hitting 30.4%).They miss Malcolm Brogdon on that front. Good test Friday night when the Clippers come to town.

Lakers small icon 2. Lakers (18-3, LW 1). Watch the Lakers play in person and two things that jump out at you. First, this is is a tall, long team. Second, they play hard. Those two things combined are why they have the fifth-best defense in the league right now. LeBron James sees what’s on the table this year and he’s not coasting, nor is he letting others coast defense, which is another reason he’s in the MVP conversation. That said, the Lakers have gotten sloppy and not played 40+ good minutes a game lately, they got away with that last month but not against Dallas, but showed they learned a lesson against Denver on Tuesday.

Clippers small icon 3. Clippers (16-6, LW 3). We have yet to see the full potency of this Clippers roster. For example, when the game is on the line their four best players are Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Lou Williams, and Montrezl Harrell, and that group together (with any other fifth player) is +38.3 per 100 possessions. But we have only seen it for 48 minutes (just five against Portland Tuesday night). It just sigs in Doc Rivers back pocket. The Clippers head out East for six games now (with two back-to-backs), including the Bucks on Friday.

Mavericks small icon 4. Mavericks (14-6, LW 5). Luka Doncic averaged a 30-point triple-double in the month of November, which puts him in some rarified company — the only other people to accomplish that are Russell Westbrook (twice) and Oscar Robertson (eight times). Doncic fuel’s Dallas’ engine, but their ball movement gets them a lot of open threes, 40.4 a game, second most in the NBA, and they hit 36.1% of them (10th best in the league). This offense is not a one-man show.

Raptors small icon 5. Raptors (15-4, LW 6). Nick Nurse didn’t win a title his first season as an NBA coach just because he had Kawhi Leonard on his team (although, that helped). It was because this guy can flat-out coach, and we have seen that this season with Leonard gone, injuries piling up, and yet the Raptors had won seven in a row until Miami on Tuesday and have a top 10 offense and defense over their last 10 games. The Raptors keep finding guys deep on the roster — rookie Terrence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, among others — who can contribute. Tough tests coming up with the Rockets, 76ers, and Clippers as three of their next four.

Sixers small icon 6. 76ers (15-6, LW 8). Everyone — from Sixers fans to coach Brett Brown — keeps waiting for the offense to catch up with the defense. Hasn’t happened yet. Defensively they are fourth in the league (and 0.7 in net rating out of the top spot), and in the last five games that defense has only been better. The offense, on the other hand, is 17th in the NBA for the season and 2.8 per 100 worse in the last five games. Philadelphia needs that offense because the schedule gets much tougher in the next month.

Nuggets small icon 7. Nuggets (13-5, LW 4). Can Denver get its offense rolling? The Nuggets are winning with the league’s second-best defense (a strange thing to type), but they are 20th in the league in offense. Denver doesn��t take a lot of threes (fourth-fewest in the league per game), and they don’t get to the free throw line much (fifth-fewest times per game), which leaves them working hard for the shots they do get. Plus, Nikola Jokic has not been the All-NBA dominant force on offense he was a season ago (the Lakers held him to 13 points on 12 shots Tuesday). Maybe the offense turns around, but we now have nearly a quarter of the season and we can’t just call it slow start anymore.

Celtics small icon 8. Celtics (14-5, LW 7). There are times the Celtics clearly miss his shot creation, but Boston has held up quite well since Gordon Hayward went down with a fractured left hand. The Celtics are 9-4 without Hayward with a +6.5 net rating, with a top 10 defense and a solid offense. Boston is also 7-0 at home this season where their offense has been dominant (and covered up for a sloppy defense in the Garden). Interesting showdown with the upstart Heat on Wednesday.

Heat small icon 9. Heat (15-5, LW 9). Jimmy Butler is averaging 18.8 points a game, but some in Heat nation think he needs to score more to bolster the team’s offense. I don’t see it that way, what the Heat need is more of the triple-double Butler — 22 points, 13 rebounds, 12 assists — from the win that snapped Toronto’s winning streak on Tuesday. That Butler gets other guys such as Duncan Robinson or Bam Adebayo involved, and when that happens the Heat are much more difficult to beat.

Rockets small icon 10. Rockets (13-7, LW 12). James Harden has found his three-point stroke. The Beard shot just 29.8% from three through the first 10 games of the season, but over the last 10 games he’s shooting 38.9%. And that is on 14.4 attempts from beyond the arc. Harden has 88 more attempts from three than the second person on that list this season (Buddy Hield) and is on pace to break his own record for most threes in a season (set last season).

Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (13-7, LW 11). The Pacers have been good — 11-4 in November — but it’s also a challenge to get a real gauge on this team between the soft schedule and rash of injuries they have faced. All that is about to change. The Pacers are getting healthy, the two-bigs lineup of Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis are showing promise, and most important of all Victor Oladipo is taking some contact in practice and is getting closer to a return. That they have kept their heads afloat through all this is an impressive coaching job by Nate McMillan.

12. Timberwolves (10-9, LW 13). This is not getting enough attention: Karl-Anthony Towns is having an All-NBA (maybe First Team), bottom-of-the-MVP ballot kind of season. Towns is averaging 25.9 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks a game, is shooting 42.1% from three and is playing solid defense. He’s the reason this team is above .500. Minnesota is 7-2 on the road this season, where they score nine more points a game, and seem to play better defense. At home the Timberwolves are 3-7 on the season. So it’s good news that the Wolves start a four-game road trip on Wednesday.

Jazz small icon 13. Jazz (12-9, LW 10). Utah lost 4-of-5 on its recent road trip, including ugly losses in Toronto and Philadelphia. We knew the offense would struggle to start the season, but it’s 23rd in the league and Mike Conley is shooting 37%. The defense that was supposed to carry the team is good but not great, ranked in the league for the season, and in the last 10 games they have fallen to 17th in the league giving up 4.9 more points per 100 possessions than they averaged last season (Rudy Gobert did miss some of those games). The Jazz are a good team, but do not look like the potential contender some of us expected.

Nets small icon 14. Nets (10-10, LW 14). Kyrie Irving is doing on-court work to return from his shoulder impingement but is not taking contact and will remain out through at least Friday. Brooklyn is 6-3 in the games he’s missed, with a basically even net rating, and last week split a home-and-home with Boston — they are playing well thanks to Spencer Dinwiddie. The point guard has averaged more than 25 points and 7 assists a game since Irving went down, and he has the ball moving and the offense flowing more like it did last season in Brooklyn.

Pistons small icon 15. Pistons (8-13, LW 17). The Pistons are getting healthier and playing better of late, and all that starts with Blake Griffin. He has played in nine games so far and the team is 4-5 in those games, plus the Detroit offense is 4.6 points per 100 better when he is on the court. Detroit is playing better of late (+8.7 point differential that past two weeks, sixth-best in the NBA, via Cleaning the Glass), which is keeping them in the hunt of a playoff spot in the East despite the slow start.

Suns small icon 16. Suns (9-10, LW 15). Things have cooled off after the hot start to the season, having gone 2-6 in their last eight games with a -4.7 net rating. The offense has still been okay, but the defense has faded and is bottom 10 in the league over that stretch. The defense tends to be solid when Aron Baynes is on the court but drops off dramatically when he sits. The Suns will need to turn this thing around on the road, they have eight road games remaining this month.

Blazers small icon 17. Trail Blazers (8-13, LW 21). Portland is 3-4 since the return of Carmelo Anthony, which is a step forward (even if the Clippers on Tuesday reminded Portland how far it still needs to go). Those three straight wins for the Trail Blazers were less about ‘Melo and more about the return of Damian Lillard to the lineup, but when those two are paired the Blazers are +8.5 per 100 possessions (in 120 minutes), mostly because the offense is on fire. Hassan Whiteside set a franchise record with 10 blocks this week, when he is on he is impressive.

Magic small icon 18. Magic (9-11, LW 19). Orlando has gone 3-3 and kept its head above water while Nikola Vucevic remains out with a right ankle sprain, although those three wins came against a softer part of the schedule. Still, the Magic will take the victories. Of all the young Orlando players, it is Jonathan Isaac who is emerging as a potential star, a defensive force already who is working on his offense game, check out our feature from Dan Feldman on Isaac’s development.

Thunder small icon 19. Thunder (8-11, LW 20). Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the future of this team at the point, he’s already impressive in just his second season (18.2 points per game) and is ready for more responsibility. However, when the game is on the line, the Thunder turn to Chris Paul — he has more fourth-quarter points in the clutch than any other player in the league this season. It’s good that’s working out in OKC because Paul is going to be nearly impossible to trade in season (due to his contract). The Thunder are just a game out of the playoffs in the West but have a tough stretch coming up the next six games.

Kings small icon 20. Kings (8-11, LW 16). Sacramento has kept its head above water with young stars De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III both out — the Kings are 5-5 in games the pair has missed, with a -1.3 net rating. We’ll see if the Kings can stay in the playoff hunt in the West with 8-of-10 coming up on the road. Fox is going to be out at least another couple of weeks with his ankle sprain, but Bagley seems to be getting much close to a return.

Spurs small icon 21. Spurs (8-14, LW 24). Back in July at Summer League, it didn’t take much time watching Lonnie Walker IV to realize he is an NBA player who could dominate in Las Vegas and was ready for more and to break out in San Antonio. We may have seen that breakthrough Tuesday night, Walker scored 24 against Houston, with 18 of those coming in the fourth quarter, including eight consecutive points to tie the game. In what has been a rough season in San Antonio, Walker could be a bright spot.

Bulls small icon 22. Bulls (7-14, LW 23). There are positives when you watch the Bulls play — Wendell Carter Jr. has shown to be a solid big man on both ends of the court, with 12.6 pints and 9.7 rebounds a game, who can be part of the future in Chicago — but their offense continues to be a slog. The Bulls are 29th in the league in offensive efficiency and their offense has not been better the past five games. Chicago needed a lot more out of a healthy Lauri Markkanen than they have gotten this season.

Wizards small icon 23. Wizards (6-13, LW 18). The defensive book on playing Washington clear, and fairly obvious — blitz Bradley Beal whenever he has a screen set for him, and maybe double him even when he doesn’t. Get the ball out of Beal’s hands and force anyone else on that roster to beat you. That guy who beats you will not be C.J. Miles, who is out indefinitely after getting wrist surgery. At least Isaiah Thomas is keeping things entertaining.

Grizzlies small icon 24. Grizzlies (6-14, LW 28). Brandon Clarke, out of Gonzaga, has been one of the surprises as a rookie this season, averaging an efficient 11.8 points a game by getting to the rim and finishing, plus showing the ability to drain the three when he takes it (45.5 percent but just taking 1.2 a game). Unfortunately, an oblique injury will have him out for at least a week (he’s week to week). The Grizzlies have lost 7-of-8 and now head out on the road for their next four.

Hornets small icon 25. Hornets (8-14, LW 25). Reality has caught up with Charlotte, which has lost 7-of-9, and the reason is its defense. The Hornets are 29th in the league in defensive rating and in the past nine games they have been 4.5 points per 100 worse on that end of the court. The only wins in that stretch were a surprising sweep of a home-and-home against the Pistons where rookie PJ Washington stepped up and showed some promise.

Pelicans small icon 26. Pelicans (6-15, LW 22). Six weeks after his surgery, Zion Williamson is doing some walkthroughs but has not yet done any on-court work, with coach Alvin Gentry adding they would be “overly cautious” with bringing the young star back. Which means don’t expect to see him Christmas Day. The Pelicans have dropped six in a row and 7-of-11 coming up on the road.

Cavaliers small icon 27. Cavaliers (5-15, LW 27). Darius Garland can shoot the three, the rookie is taking 40.4% of his shots from beyond the arc and hitting 37.2% of them. The problem comes when he steps inside the arc, he is shooting just 46% at the rim and is taking a lot of shots from floater range and hitting just 39.2% of them. It’s a project for the rookie to work on the rest of the season (if this continues into next summer and next season, then we start to worry). The Cavaliers have lost 10-of-11 and now have 5-of-7 coming up on the road.

Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (5-16, LW 29). Atlanta snapped its losing streak, and sure it came against the Warriors but that still counts. Atlanta’s offense remains the entertaining Trae Young show, but the team is going to struggle with wins so long as their defense is bad — and it’s 25 in the league for the season. The biggest problem there is in transition, where teams score at a 133.1 points per 100 possessions pace (second-worst in the league), and the Hawks allow teams to start 16% of their possessions that way (bottom 10 in the league). Transition D is a real issue for the Hawks. (Stats via Cleaning the Glass.)

Knicks small icon 29. Knicks (4-17, LW 26). It can be hard to figure out what the Knicks are trying to do with their rotations: Kevin Knox was consistently losing minutes and last Friday got a DNP-coach’s decision, then on Sunday he started against Boston. Knicks fans are focused on the future and RJ Barrett, who has played solidly as a rookie thrown into the fire this season. Barrett has averaged 14.7 points per game but with a dreadful true shooting percentage of 45.8.

Warriors small icon 30. Warriors (4-18, LW 30). D’Angelo Russell has missed his last nine games with a thumb injury, and obviously Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are out, which also has meant a decrease in Draymond Green’s minutes. Like Ralph Fiennes in Taken, Green has a very specific skillset, and it’s one that makes can make great talent better, but doesn’t lift up young or lesser players. Which is what the Warriors are now, so Steve Kerr has started to cut back Green’s minutes. The Warriors have started 0-3 on their current road trip and have lost 6 of their last 7.

Three Things to Know: Warning about Lakers’ future arrives in the form of Luka Doncic

Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES — 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) Warning about Lakers’ tough road ahead arrives in the form of Luka Doncic. Dallas entered Sunday with the best offense in the NBA — not just this season, but in NBA history. The Mavericks had an offensive rating of 116.1 (which would best even the recent Warriors offenses, if Dallas can sustain it).

LeBron James seemed to take that as a personal affront.

He has picked his spots on defense in recent seasons, and those spots were never 20 games into the season. Sunday was going to be his spot — he was active, physical, all over the court and disrupting Luka Doncic at every turn. He had three early steals and got into the body of Kristaps Porzingis to force one of them.

However, the Lakers couldn’t sustain it — and that spotty effort has been a thing the past week plus. While Los Angeles had won 10 in a row, they had faced a softer schedule of late and that allowed them to get away with flipping the switch. Los Angeles trailed Memphis by 15 and New Orleans by 16 recently but were able to come back against those overmatched teams.

The Lakers could not do that against Luka Doncic and the Mavericks.

“We’ve dug ourselves into a couple of holes the past week or so,” guard Danny Green said. “Eventually, it’ll catch up to us. It did.”

By halftime, the Mavericks bench had changed the tone of the game — and the Lakers were struggling enough for LeBron to call a huddle on the court to cuss at his teammates.

This time there would be no L.A. comeback and the reason was Doncic — 16 points, four rebounds, and five assists in the third quarter alone. Dallas made an adjustment that worked beautifully: When the Lakers blitzed Doncic off the pick-and-roll he quickly gave up the ball but then got it right back and attacked again before the defense could reset. Give the young star that kind of space and he will carve a team up.

In the third, the Lakers made a run to get the lead down to 10, but then Doncic found a cutting Delon Wright for a layup, drained a three, hit another layup when Doncic himself drove the lane, and by that point the lead was 17 again. Doncic was feeling it, and it showed with a step-back three over his idol LeBron in the fourth.

The Lakers are 17-3 this season, but the thing is they are 14-0 against teams below .500 when they faced them and 3-3 against everyone else (beating the bad teams is a sign of a good one, the dynasty Spurs were the kings of that). December is filled with a lot of everyone else — the Lakers have the toughest schedule in the league in December. That starts with a Denver/Utah road back-to-back Tuesday and Wednesday, kicking off 8-of-9 away from Staples Center.

The Lakers have been able to get away with some stretches of sloppy play the past few weeks because of their talent level and how much better that was than everyone they faced. When LeBron is playing at an MVP level — which he absolutely is — he can overwhelm weaker and even average teams. The good teams, like Dallas, can weather the storm and make a comeback. The Lakers have to be sharper, have to clean up their play on both ends, get back to playing at an elite level, or it’s going to be a long, cold December.

2) Concern about Marcus Smart injury overshadows another Boston win. Jayson Tatum scored 30 points and Boston did what good teams do on Sunday: They found a way to win on a day they weren’t as sharp as normal, rallying to beat the Knicks. Jaylen Brown added 28 in a win that improves the Celtics to 14-5 and keeps them as the three seed in the East.

That’s not the big story out of this game.

Marcus Smart went down with an oblique injury after a collision with Kevin Knox. Smart left the game not to return, but the real concern is this is the same injury — and Smart said the same spot — that caused him to miss about a month last season.

The Celtics have the sixth-best defense in the NBA this season and Smart is at the heart of that. He has been tenacious on that end, in a way that has to get him Defensive Player of the Year votes (although it’s too early to have that discussion just 20 games into the season). Smart has refused to take time off to heal a variety of smaller injuries this season, something that just comes with his all-out style of play, so a couple of games missed that gives his body time to get right is not the end of the world. However, Boston will miss him a lot if he has to miss any extended time. We should learn more on Monday.

3) Toronto is the best team you’re not watching, now with seven wins in a row. It’s considered the statistical sign of a title contender: Having a top-10 offensive and defensive rating. As you might expect, the Lakers, Clippers, and Bucks all have that this season.

So do the Toronto Raptors — they actually have a top-five offensive and defensive rating.

While most fans have focused on the drama in Los Angeles or how Giannis Antetokounmpo has taken a step forward this season with the Bucks, the Toronto Raptors have quietly looked like a team ready to defend their title. Kawhi Leonard bolted for those bright lights in L.A., but north of the border Pascal Siakam has emerged as a true superstar, Fred VanVleet has stepped up and is scoring 18.6 points a game, Kyle Lowry is still the heart of the team and Marc Gasol is making plays on defense. The Raptors are a legit threat.

Just ask the Utah Jazz — Toronto blitzed the feared Utah defense for 77 first-half points (that was with Rudy Gobert back in the lineup) and led by a franchise-record 40 at the half. From there, the Raptors cruised to a 130-110 win, their seventh in a row to improve to 15-4 on the season. Siakam led the way with 35 points.

Toronto has been one of the great stories of the NBA season, and one not getting enough attention. The Raptors’ ability to develop players — like Siakam and VanVleet, and now rookie Terrence Davis — has not just kept them afloat this season but turned them into a genuine threat to the powers of the East.

Toronto is not going to just celebrate their title and quietly fade away this season. This is an outstanding team that is set on defending its crown. The league underestimated them, but no longer. The Toronto Raptors are turning heads. And winning games. A lot of games.