Markieff Morris

Mock NBA expansion draft
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Mock NBA expansion draft: Warriors, Clippers, Lakers, Suns, Kings

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

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

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

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

Golden State Warriors

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 5

Ineligible – 0

Analysis: The Warriors have their core together with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins. Ky Bowman, Marquese Chriss, Damion Lee and Eric Paschall provide value on minimum contracts. That’s all the Warriors need to protect.

Golden State wouldn’t mind seeing Kevon Looney or Jordan Poole selected to get the salaries off the cap sheet. The rest of the players are ones the Warriors won’t lose any sleep over if they’re drafted.

L.A. Clippers

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 2

Ineligible – 4

Analysis: L.A. has its main guys with four starters under contract. They aren’t being exposed here. The other three players are key bench contributors on good contracts. And Kabengele and Mann were just drafted. Easy decisions across the board for the Clippers.

L.A. could lose Green as a free agent. The Clippers also bet he does undrafted and could return. Rodney McGruder makes too much money for his role.

Los Angeles Lakers

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 2

Ineligible – 5

Analysis: The Lakers and Anthony Davis will work out that he’ll opt out before the expansion draft, which makes him ineligible. The rest of the players are role players that Los Angeles would rather keep around LeBron James than risk losing.

Los Angeles won’t be upset to see Quinn Cook or Rajon Rondo selected. They’re both replacement-level players for the Lakers at this point.

Phoenix Suns

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 5

Ineligible – 1

Analysis: Phoenix keeps it simple and protects all the guys who are part of its core. The Suns could have left Dario Saric unprotected, but by protecting Saric, they keep the flexibility to re-sign him as a restricted free agent. The rest are all easy decisions.

Of the unprotected players, none of have established themselves as NBA rotation players. If any are selected, Phoenix won’t lose any sleep over it.

Sacramento Kings

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 2

Ineligible – 4

Analysis: The Kings will protect their five starters and three key reserves. Cory Joseph is a decision-point, but considering De’Aaron Fox’s injury issues, Joseph is too valuable to let walk away.

Sacramento won’t mind if Jabari Parker is selected, but they aren’t going to pay anyone to do it. Justin James has been an interesting prospect, but the Kings won’t stress if he gets selected.

LeBron James reminds everyone road to Larry O’Brien Trophy still goes through him

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LOS ANGELES — For nearly a decade, any team that wanted to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy had to go through LeBron James. Whether he was in Cleveland or Miami or back in Cleveland, he was the best player in the league on the best team in the East. Want a ring? Then beat LeBron. Teams like the Spurs and Warriors did, but it was never easy.

Last season, LeBron and the Lakers were not in the title picture. Blame LeBron’s groin injury or him moving to the West or the team built around him, but for the first time in a long time, the road to the Finals did not go through LeBron.

It does again.

LeBron proved that this weekend. With wins over the Bucks on Friday night and Clippers on Sunday, LeBron’s Lakers established themselves as title favorites. Once again, any team with title aspirations is going to have to go through LeBron.

“It’s a really good weekend for us, playing against two of the best teams, the top two (other) teams in the league record-wise,” LeBron said.

After being at both games this weekend at Staples Center, I am more convinced that the ultimate champion this season will be one of these three teams — the Lakers, Clippers, or Bucks.

Let’s break down what we learned about the title chances of each this weekend.

LOS ANGELES LAKERS

This weekend was a boost for the Lakers’ confidence.

The players and coaching staff have said all the right things about already believing in themselves, about the process of getting better, about there not being statement games in March — but the fact remains they were 0-3 vs. the Bucks and Clippers this season. If that had become 0-5 this weekend, the vibe around this team would have been very different.

Now they’ve beaten the league’s other two elite teams in consecutive games. The Lakers established themselves as championship favorites.

However, for LeBron to add to his legacy by bringing another title to the Lakers, it means replicating everything that went right this weekend for full series at the end of May and into June. What LeBron gave his team this weekend was a roadmap to a ring, but following that map will be anything but easy.

What does Los Angeles have to do?

It starts with LeBron James playing as well as anyone on the planet — MVP-level LeBron has to show up every night for the Lakers to have a chance. This feels like the one thing the Lakers can most count on.

Next, Anthony Davis has to show up every night — he had 30 points in each game this weekend, plus played fantastic defense. Again, this feels like something the Lakers can bank on happening, but unlike with LeBron we haven’t seen Davis do it because he’s never been as deep as he’s about to go in the playoffs. He has to prove himself on the game’s biggest stages, and while everyone expects he will the question still hangs in the air.

The Lakers also have to keep defending like they did this weekend — which is going to mean a lot of energy expended by LeBron and Davis because they are the Lakers’ best players on that end as well. That said, the Lakers have the third-best defense in the NBA this season, there is no reason to think that will not continue into the playoffs.

Finally, someone else has to step up on offense every game. The Lakers got an impressive 24 points and key three-point shooting from Avery Bradley against the Clippers.

“We know what we’re going to get from him defensively, but what he gave us offensively tonight was gigantic,” LeBron said. “Every time they made a run, or we needed a three, especially in the first quarter and the third quarter when he got hot… he was wonderful.”

It doesn’t have to be Bradley every night, it could be Kyle Kuzma or Danny Green or whomever, but Davis and LeBron are going to need help every night.

Do all that, and the Lakers will have another championship banner.

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

The Clippers should walk away from Sunday’s loss with some lessons learned and thinking, “we can beat these guys.”

They know that Bradley won’t shoot that well most nights. They know Marcus Morris — who has struggled with his shot adjusting to his new, smaller role with the Clippers — will shoot better most nights. The Clippers can improve their ball and player movement and be a little less isolation based (although they always are going to be a heavy isolation team).

The Clippers should be thinking, “we beat the Lakers twice this season and can beat them four out of seven.” Because they can.

However, the Clippers have faced end-of-game lineup questions all season, and LeBron and the Lakers’ exploited them on Sunday. That is the question Doc Rivers and company has to answer.

Specifically, the Clippers like to close games with Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Marcus Morris, Montrezl Harrell, and Lou Williams — and the Lakers hunted Williams. Every time down. Williams is a poor on-ball defender, and with Harrell at the five the Clippers do not have a lot of shot blocking behind him. LeBron torched the Clippers and Williams and got into the paint at will in the fourth quarter. That’s a problem.

Rivers has to adjust, but every option has trade-offs. The most likely answer is to sit Williams and replace him with Patrick Beverley, but the Clippers surrender a lot of offensive creation with that. The other option is to keep Williams in but replace Harrell with Ivica Zubac for the rim protection, but that hurts in terms of energy and Zubac has his own defensive issues. After Sunday’s game, Rivers acknowledged he had these other options but chose not to use them.

In the playoffs, Rivers will have to make those trade-offs and he knows it. He’s won a ring before, he gets it. The Clippers can’t allow LeBron — or the best player on another team — to hunt Williams and attack him like that in the clutch.

One other thing, something that should come with more time together on the court for the Clippers’ core, is just better crunch time offensive decision making. There were fourth-quarter possessions with Leonard, George, and Williams on the floor, yet the Clippers offense was Harrell going in isolation to try and exploit Markieff Morris. The Clippers had better options, they need to recognize those and go to them. Relentlessly.

MILWAUKEE BUCKS

There was a time when people said, “Michael Jordan can’t win the big one” because his teams couldn’t get past the Bad Boy Pistons. There was a time when critics said LeBron would never lead a team to a ring because he was no Jordan — LeBron kept making the right basketball play and passed rather than shot in clutch spots.

The Bucks now have their “this is just a regular-season team” critics. Some wonder if they can get past Boston in the East.

Put simply: In the eyes of critics the Bucks will never be able to win it all — until they do. That’s the zone Milwaukee lives in right now.

This weekend didn’t change that. The Bucks have been clear and away the best team in the NBA this season, and it’s not close. They have the likely MVP (this weekend didn’t change that, sorry LeBron fans) and the best defense in the league. The Bucks are contenders.

However, it’s fair to question how they will respond in the later rounds of the playoffs when teams have the talent and scheme to make life difficult for Giannis Antetokounmpo — Miami did that last Monday, the Lakers on Friday, both Bucks losses. What is the Bucks’ Plan B?

The Lakers did that with LeBron’s defense on Friday night and key guys did not step up — Eric Bledsoe was 5-of-13 and Kris Middleton 5-of-19. The second best Bucks player was Donte DiVincenzo — which was fun, but not sustainable if the Bucks want to contend.

The knock on Mike Budenholzer in the playoffs has been his teams are not flexible and don’t have that backup plan. He didn’t even play Antetokounmpo that much more last season in the playoffs, fewer than two additional minutes a game. That’s his best weapon — Antetokounmpo is averaging 30.9 minutes a game this season, but come the playoffs that should be 39 minutes a game. Or more. If you have the best player in the game, play him. (First, the Bucks need to get him healthy, let him rest as long as he needs to so that sprained knee heals, then rest him a couple more games just to be sure.)

Then someone else needs to step up nightly. Bledsoe simply has to be good in the playoffs, he cannot disappear. Middleton has generally had strong playoffs, but that has to continue. Other players, even DiVincenzo, have to step up.

At the very least, the Bucks need to reach the NBA Finals this season. Otherwise this will be a tremendous disappointment. And that would lead to even bigger “what will Antetokounmpo do?” questions.

Lakers handle Clippers, secure mantle of best team in Los Angeles

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LOS ANGELES — This past July belonged to the Clippers — they won the offseason landing Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Opening night belonged to the Clippers. Christmas Day belonged to the Clippers.

That sowed enough seeds of doubt in the Lakers’ faithful in Los Angeles that Sunday’s showdown with the Clippers — the final meaningful game between these teams before the playoffs — had the feel of a statement game. Even if everyone involved try to deny it was.

LeBron James made a statement. Undeniably.

He showed his team a roadmap to the Finals if these two teams — as expected — meet in the playoffs.

LeBron made it clear — between the Lakers beating the Bucks on Friday night behind his 37 points, and then the Clippers on Sunday — that the Lakers have to be counted as title favorites. LeBron also staked his MVP claim.

LeBron had 28 points and nine assists, breaking down the Clippers’ defense getting and into the paint, plus playing defense on Kawhi Leonard much of the night. Add in 30 points from Anthony Davis and a strong 24 points from Avery Bradley, and you get a 112-103 Lakers’ win over their building roommates on Sunday.

“I’m willing to do whatever it takes to win. If my teammates need me to take the challenge defensively, offensively, whatever, I’ll take it,” LeBron said. “My teammates asked me to do it this weekend and the rest is history.”

What LeBron did was attack — he had nine shot attempts in the restricted area and eight everywhere else (and six of those were threes, which you want him to take). He also got to the free-throw line 14 times and had nine assists, many of which came on drive-and-kicks. LeBron James got to the rim, was physical, and it set a tone.

“I thought they were the more physical team tonight,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought they were into their game plan more tonight. I thought they trusted each other more tonight. I thought it was a good lesson for us.”

The other thing LeBron did was go right at Lou Williams in the fourth quarter. The Lakers hunted and targeted Williams in the pick-and-roll, and with Montrezl Harrell as the center on the floor for much of that time, the Clippers lacked a rim-protecting big behind Williams. The Lakers dominated that matchup and Rivers stuck with it for much of the fourth quarter anyway (that should be one of their lessons for the postseason).

Anthony Davis had another strong game for Los Angeles, but it was the addition of a big offensive night from Bradley that separated the teams. The Lakers know they have the best duo in the league, but every night they need someone to step up and be that third star. Sunday it was Bradley.

“We know what we’re going to get from him defensively, but what he gave us offensively tonight was gigantic,” LeBron said. “Every time they made a run, or we needed a three, especially in the first quarter and the third quarter when he got hot… he was wonderful.”

For the Clippers, the lessons were about the level of player movement — and not just isolation basketball — they need against the best teams.

“I didn’t think we had a lot of ball movement today, I thought our offense let us down tonight more than our defense,” Rivers said. “We made too many defensive mistakes to recover to win a close game.”

The Clippers also got away from riding the hot hand. Paul George had been their best player through three quarters (he had 31 points for the game), then in the fourth he didn’t get a shot attempt until the game was inside two minutes. There were points when the Clippers had Leonard, George, and Marcus Morris all on the court and the shot ended up being a Montrezl Harrell isolation against Markieff Morris — not their best option.

“I thought we got good shots [in the fourth],” George said postgame. “We should have had just a little more player movement, which would have gotten the ball moving around. But that is just how the game goes.”

This game had the feeling of a playoff game from the start — and Staples Center sounded like a Laker home game when they made a big play. Most of those plays came from LeBron and Davis, who had 31 of the Lakers 49 first-half points.

The Lakers were down 53-49 at the half because of depth — Lakers not named James or Davis shot 29.1 percent in the first half and the Laker bench scored just eight points (compared to the Clippers 17). More than that, the Clippers were able to rest their stars at points and for a few minutes played an all bench lineup against a LeBron Laker lineup and held their own.

The real telling stat was that both teams were 2-14 from three in the first half.

The Lakers, behind Bradley, shot 6-of-10 from three to open the second half. Combine that with an attacking LeBron and the Lakers become a very difficult team to beat.

Especially four games out of seven. Which is ultimately what the Clippers have to do if they want to take the crown of the best team in Los Angeles.

Lakers reportedly sign Dion Waiters for remainder of season

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It was easy to see why Dion Waiters got a workout with the Lakers. First, Waiters’ former agent is Rob Pelinka, now the Lakers’ GM. Second, Waiters’ current agent is Rich Paul, who reps LeBron James and Anthony Davis. That gets you in the door.

Once there, Waiters must have impressed.

At least enough to land a spot on the roster for the rest of the season, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

This is a minimum veteran contract.

It also is Waiters’ last chance in the NBA, blow this and no other team will touch him after everything in Miami this season. While this isn’t a 10-day contract (which expires), with just 20 games left in the season there would be little to no pain for the Lakers to waive him if something does not work out.

There will be a minimal role for Waiters down the stretch, the Lakers are already running a rotation 11 players deep (once Markieff Morris was added). Waiters is not going to get a lot of run, other than to get guys rest down the stretch.

In that limited role, Waiters is as good a fit as was available (after the Lakers couldn’t land a point guard on the buyout market). Waiters can create shots for himself, either in isolation or in the pick-and-roll, and while not great at creating for others he does try. Waiters is a good spot-up shooter — 37.7 percent from three last season and 38.6 percent on catch-and-shoot threes — and he can hit from all over the court.

There is a legitimate concern about fit after Waiters clashed with coaches and management in Miami. However, with a strong, LeBron-led locker room culture the Lakers aren’t worried about that impact.

Waiters has bounced around this season. He started the season in Miami, but the Heat used his salary to balance out the money in the Justise Winslow to Memphis/Andre Iguodala trade. Memphis was not interested (they have Dillon Brooks, De’Anthony Melton, and Grayson Allen at the two), so the Grizzlies waived Waiters, as was expected.

Now he gets a chance — and a shot at a ring — with the Lakers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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