Marvin Bagley

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Luka Doncic is playing chess and NBA defenders are stuck on a checkers board

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LOS ANGELES — Luka Doncic’s second NBA season has been a revelation.

It’s not a surprise, everyone knew Doncic was good, he did just win Rookie of the Year last season (and was EuroLeague MVP before that). It’s how good — MVP-level good — and how fast that has been the revelation to fans (as well as a few NBA front offices that passed him up in the draft for “safer” choices).

Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle had his revelation much earlier.

“The first day he showed up in September [2018] and played pickup,” Carlisle said. “He dominated the pickup games with passing and vision, he wasn’t scoring that much. His size, strength, vision, power, stuff like that, it’s great for a young player.”

That young player was good, but the one filling up the stat sheet this season — and filling up NBA arenas to watch him play — is up another level. Or three. Doncic has been elite, averaging 30.3 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 9.2 assists a game this season, leading a Dallas offense that is the best in the league while putting himself in the middle of the MVP conversation.

And this is not even his ceiling — Doncic is just 20 years old and still improving. Fast.

What led to this season’s leap for Doncic is not one simple thing, but a combination of many elements that led him to be arguably the best pick-and-roll ball-handler in the game. Already. Before he can legally buy a drink.

The story of his leap starts in Europe at Real Madrid — Doncic played more than 120 games over a couple of seasons at the highest levels of basketball outside the NBA. Which means he may be just 20 but he’s seen defenses try everything on him to throw him off his game: Blitz, switch, ice, drop, hedge-and-recover, zones, whatever NBA teams try it’s not the first time he’s seen it. Doncic learned how to read and react, how to set his defender up, how to feign he was driving left just to draw a help defender one step to open a passing lane to the right.

“For me, playing basketball is like playing chess,” Doncic said of how teams defend him. “You got to read the game. If they double you, there’s going to be somebody open.”

Doncic shoots off the pick-and-roll 12.2 times a game and the Mavericks score an incredibly efficient 1.12 points per possession on those plays (for comparison, James Harden scores at a 1.02 rate). Doncic has an eFG% of 60.2 as the ball handler.

Doncic has amassed a Swiss Army Knife of moves he can break out, depending on the situation, and he put in the work in the gym to make those moves — those decoys or step-back jumpers — look smooth and effortless. He shortened the stride on his first step this season, making it both more explosive and easier to switch directions quickly. He can do any of this in games without hesitation, and this season added a floater (and, if he’s driving more from the wing, a bank-floater off the window).

“He really put in a great summer of work, in all areas of his game, from conditioning to all the skill areas,” Carlisle said. “In today’s pick-and-roll game, teams play it a lot of ways. We’ll see trapping, you see drop coverage where the big guys keep dropping, keep dropping and force you to make floaters, which are difficult two-point shots — analytically they are the shots you want to force opponents to take — but he’s got better at executing those at the basket. Some of it is just experience, having gone through it a year, but most of it is just hard work.”

Having gone through it a year matters a lot, too. Last season when the Mavericks came to Staples Center and played the Lakers, it was the first time Doncic went up against his idol LeBron James. The 19-year-old asked for a jersey after the game in the hallway.

“Normally, I was never nervous before a game. That game, I was nervous, for sure,” Doncic said after his team snapped LeBron and the Lakers’ 10-game win streak last Sunday. “It was something special for me. Just growing up, I used to watch him a lot…. I still admire him very much.”

Don’t confuse that with Doncic holding back — he dropped a 27-foot stepback on LeBron last Sunday to help seal Dallas’ win.

The teams that give Doncic trouble have multiple long defenders who can be aggressive. Minnesota, with Josh Okogie and Robert Covington, were able to do that Wednesday night and Doncic shot 8-of-22 (but Dallas still won the game). A week ago, the Clippers with their length and quality defenders did the same thing, overloading Doncic’s side of the floor and forcing him into a 4-of-14 shooting night with seven turnovers.

The Lakers tried the same thing with their length, but Doncic and the Mavs adjusted.

“[Doncic] made a really good adjustment in the second quarter, he started moving the ball quickly then getting the ball back, and that put him in some positions that were a little harder to predict for the defense,” Carlisle said. “The second half was more of the same…

“He hit a couple of hellacious shots that only a handful of people in the world can hit,” Carlisle added. Dallas pulled away to beat the Lakers comfortably.

Dallas has become dependant on Doncic and a few of those hellacious shots a game.

Doncic leads the league in touches at 97.7 per game, and he holds the ball an average of 5.59 seconds per touch (to be fair, him bringing the ball up the court skews that time number). Dallas has become dependant upon him to create, and Carlisle adjusted the starting lineup, rounding it out with shooters and finishers who can work off the ball, such as Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Dwight Powell, and Dorian Finney-Smith. That group gives Doncic options: a roll man in Powell, a pick-and-pop guy in Porzingis, plus shooters and size everywhere (the shortest starter for Dallas is Hardaway at 6’5”).

Doncic was playing chess against Minnesota — they had taken away what works for him, but it opened up the opportunity for Jalen Brunson to come in off the bench and have room to operate. Brunson had 14 points in the fourth quarter, Doncic seven, and Dallas got the win.

Looking back to June 2018 now it seems laughable: The reason teams passed on Doncic in the draft were questions about how high his ceiling really went. With two seasons of high-level basketball in Europe to watch, teams picked his game apart and decided he wasn’t athletic enough, or that he had come close to maxing out what he could do in the pick-and-roll. Teams became enamored with American players such as Deandre Ayton or Marvin Bagley Jr. who were seen to have higher ceilings. It’s also always safer for a GM to miss on a high draft pick with American prospect than a European one, there’s less stigma. So Doncic slid down the board a little.

Doncic knows what any good chess player knows: Fortune often favors the bold. Mark Cuban’s Mavericks understood that and made the bold move, trading for Doncic.

The revelation that comes with that boldness is Dallas is going to be a force in the West for years to come. Because they have one of the top five players in the game and put the ball in his hands.

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.

Kings’ De’Aaron Fox to miss another 2-3 weeks with ankle sprain

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There is good news on the Sacramento Kings injury front, big man Marvin Bagley III is getting closer to a return after missing six weeks with a broken thumb.

The news is not so good for point guard De'Aaron Fox, who has been out three weeks with a sprained ankle and is going to miss at least a couple more, including Wednesday’s home game against Portland.

The Kings have gone 4-5 in those nine games Fox has been out, with a solid defense making up for a bottom-five offense in that stretch. Sacramento has been helped because it does have depth at the point guard spot after signing Cory Joseph over the summer to a three-year, $37 million contract, plus picking up a team option on Yogi Ferrell.

Still, the promise of the Kings has been unfulfilled this season due to injuries. After a breakout season a year ago, this season Fox had come back to earth a little in new coach Luke Walton’s system — his turnovers were up and his efficiency had slipped, but he was still putting up 18.2 points and dishing out 7 assists a game.

Fortunately, in a West that is not as deep as predicted before the season, the Kings are just three games back of a playoff spot and not out of things. They just need to get healthy and find a groove.

 

 

NBA Power Rankings: Lakers on top of ‘things to be thankful for’ edition

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With Thanksgiving on Thursday, this week’s edition of NBC’s NBA Power Rankings, we go around the table and talk about what each team should be thankful for this holiday.

Lakers small icon 1. Lakers (15-2, Last week No. 1). Lakers fans should be thankful for how quickly the LeBron James and Anthony Davis pairing has come together, the team is +13 points per 100 possessions when those two are on the court together. Wednesday night, Davis is going to get booed mercilessly by the New Orleans fans who feel betrayed by him, but those fans are going to see why he wanted to partner with LeBron. The combo works brilliantly. Los Angeles has won 8 in a row through the soft part of the schedule — as good teams do — but when the calendar flips to December things get much harder.

Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (14-3, LW 4). Milwaukee fans should be thankful they get to see Giannis Antetokounmpo play — he is the reigning MVP and he has been better this season than last. The Greek Freak is averaging 31.1 points, 13.9 rebounds, and 6.4 assists a game this season — all numbers that are up from his MVP season. Plus he remains an elite defensive player — it is that end of the floor that won him the MVP over James Harden last season — who happens to have a ridiculous 61.5 true shooting percentage. Players don’t come along like this often, we need to savor watching him play while we can.

Clippers small icon 3. Clippers (13-5, LW 8). Clippers fans are thankful they are finally getting to see Paul George and Kawhi Leonard play together: In 94 minutes together on the court this season the Clippers are +6.9 per 100 possessions, with an elite defense allowing less than a point per possession. The Clippers are 4-0 with both superstars in the lineup, and that includes shutting down the league’s best offense in Dallas on Tuesday, plus hard-fought victories over hot teams in Boston (a playoff-level intensity game) and Houston. Leonard even had the game-winner against the Rockets.

Nuggets small icon 4. Nuggets (13-3, LW 5). Nuggets fans should be thankful their front office has built a team that can beat opponents a variety of ways, including going 10-1 in November because of a league-best defense (a genuine surprise this season). The Nuggets also are one of the best clutch teams in the NBA. Denver is 8-2 this season in games that are within five points in the final five minutes, the second best winning percentage in the league. Denver is outscoring teams by 13.2 points per 100 possessions in those minutes. Change it to look at games within 3 points in the final 3 minutes and the Nuggets are 7-1.

Mavericks small icon 5. Mavericks (11-6, LW 10). What Dallas is thankful for is obvious: The play of Luka Doncic and the Dallas offense — at 116 points per 100 possessions it is on pace for the best offensive rating ever. Not just Mavericks fans should be thankful, but all fans of the game. The Mavericks are just fun to watch. That said Tuesday night vs. Clippers that powerful offense was held to less than a point per possession, and on Sunday they face the Lakers in another test to that offense.

Raptors small icon 6. Raptors (12-4, LW 6). North of the border they should be thankful for Fred VanVleet, who has taken on a much higher percentage of the offense (his 22 usage rate is the highest of his career) but has been more efficient because of his improved shot selection. VanVleet just isn’t taking midrange shots, he’s either getting to the rim or shooting threes. VanVleet has taken 239 shots this season and only 11 of those were between the paint and the three-point line. He’s also getting to the free throw line more, which is upping his efficiency. The man is a free agent next summer, and he is going to see offers with a lot of zeros at the end with the way he is playing.

Celtics small icon 7. Celtics (12-4, LW 3). Celtics fans should be thankful Kemba Walker’s scary-looking head/neck injury only cost him one game, Walker is expected to return to the lineup on Wednesday night. Walker is averaging 22.9 points per game this season and the Boston offense is 11.7 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court. And all that doesn’t get into the improved chemistry issues on this season’s squad, which is the other thing Boston fans should be incredibly thankful for this season.

Sixers small icon 8. 76ers (11-6, LW 12). Heat fans should be thankful Ben Simmons has made his first three in an NBA game, against the Knicks one week ago. It is something to build upon… except he hasn’t. In the week since, he has attempted only one other three-pointer, and that was a desperation turn-around shot. Hitting one three is not going to make teams respect him in space, he’s got to take a couple a game (or more) or defenses will continue to sag off of him, creating spacing issues. Since starting the season 3-0 on the road, the Sixers have gone 1-6 since away from home (they have the Knicks on the road Friday, which should be a win).

Heat small icon 9. Heat (12-4, LW 7). Heat fans should be thankful for their young stars, who have made the Heat a winning and playoff team this season. Sure, this is Jimmy Butler’s team, but around him is a collection of players under 25 getting the job done: Kendrick Nunn, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, and Justise Winslow (he’s still just 23). It’s a credit to the Heat scouting and player development teams that they keep finding and helping build up these players in a way few other franchises ever have. Those young stars have a good test against the Rockets tonight.

Jazz small icon 10. Jazz (11-6, LW 9). These last two games without Rudy Gobert (sprained ankle) has reminded Jazz fans why they are thankful for the big Frenchman — Giannis Antetokounmpo drove the lane at will and put up 50 on Utah with him out. It’s going to take a lot to grab the Defensive Player of the Year trophy out of Gobert’s hands. That loss to the Bucks was the start of a five-game road trip for the Jazz, who are 3-5 outside Salt Lake City to start the season. With Gobert out, Utah needs Joe Ingles to break out of his shooting slump (30.3% from three and a dreadful 48 true shooting percentage).

Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (10-6, LW 11). In Indiana they are thankful for Malcolm Brogdon, who has kept the Pacers offense afloat with Victor Oladipo out. Thanks to Brogdon the Pacers are one of the six teams that look like playoff locks in the East. Brogdon is playing at an All-Star level averaging 18.8 points and 8.2 assets a game. The other thing that has helped Indy this season is a top-10 defense anchored by Myles Turner in the paint (the Pacers defense this season has been as good as the Sixers).

Rockets small icon 12. Rockets (11-6, LW 2). Give thanks for The Beard in Houston. It’s been that way for years, whether it was Dwight Howard or Chris Paul or now Russell Westbrook next to him. James Harden is one of the great scorers the game has ever seen and he’s having a monster season, averaging 37.9 points and 8 assists a game. Teams are being far more aggressive defending him with double teams high up the court now, trying to force the ball out of his hands and daring any other Rocket to beat them. For top teams it has worked so far, as evidenced by three straight losses (Nuggets, Clippers, Mavericks). The schedule softens up some after Thanksgiving, at least for a few weeks (that marquee Christmas Day game against Golden State doesn’t look as threatening now).

13. Timberwolves (9-8, LW 13). Timberwolves fans should be thankful for Ryan Saunders, the young coach who has both connected with Karl-Anthony Towns — pushing the big man to his best NBA season so far — and opened up the Minnesota offense. The Timberwolves have taken the fourth most three pointers in the league this season. The problem is they have hit just 31.7 percent of them (third worst in the NBA). Towns is not the problem, he is attempting 9 threes a game and hitting 44.4% of them, but the front office ultimately needs to find other shooters to put on this roster.

Nets small icon 14. Nets (9-8, LW 17). In Brooklyn, be thankful for Spencer Dinwiddie. Since Kyrie Irving was sidelined by his shoulder six games ago, Dinwiddie is averaging 24.7 points and 6.7 assists a game with a 58 true shooting percentage — and the Nets are 5-1. The offense just flows more smoothly with Dinwiddie — who has fully bought into coach Kenny Atkinson’s selfless style of play — running the show, as opposed to Irving, who will always lean towards isolation because he is so good at it.

Suns small icon 15. Suns (8-8, LW 14). Suns fans should be thankful for Aron Baynes, a guy brought in to back up Deandre Ayton who thrived when forced into a larger role, becoming the stretch five that has made their offense click (and provided a big body to protect the paint on the other end). The fact the Suns are 1-3 without him (hip) and Ricky Rubio (back issue, but expected to return tonight) shows how much the veteran additions have helped this young team.

Kings small icon 16. Kings (7-9, LW 16). Sacramento faithful need to be thankful for Bogdan Bogdanovic, who has helped the Kings get back on the right track in November despite Marvin Bagley and De’Aaron Fox missing time with injuries. In his last five games, Bogdanovic has averaged 19 points and 6.8 assists per game, and shot 39.5 percent from three. You can see why the Kings made a $51.4 million contract extension offer to him (the max they can offer) and also why he didn’t take it, thinking there is a bigger payday out there for him next summer. It’s also clear why Bogdanovic wants a bigger role than sixth man.

Pistons small icon 17. Pistons (6-11, LW 22). In Detroit, be thankful you are still in the playoff mix. Despite losing 6-of-7 earlier this month, and the first three games with Blake Griffin back in the lineup, the win against Orlando this week has the Pistons in the nine-seed still and just half a game back of those Magic. Detroit has been playing better of late and has a +0.9 net rating the past two weeks (via Cleaning the Glass), and they have been unlucky so far (according to net rating) and should have 7 or 8 wins, which would have them in the postseason right now.

Wizards small icon 18. Wizards (5-10, LW 28). Wizards fans should be thankful for newcomers Davis Bertans and Moritz Wagner, who have played well for a team desperate for guys not named Beal to do that nightly. Bertans is averaging 13.1 points a game, shooting a ridiculous 43.9% from three, and doing the little things right on the court you expect from a guy out of the Spurs system. Wagner is providing depth and shooting up front, scoring 12.4 points per game and shooting 47.4% on the 2.5 threes he takes a game.

Magic small icon 19. Magic (6-10, LW 15). Orlando, be thankful for the emergence of Jonathan Isaac as a legitimate foundational player for this franchise going forward — whatever they build, he needs to be a part of it. The Magic defense is 3.3 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court, but that doesn’t speak to what a fantastic, switchable defender he is already, able to guard on the perimeter and protect the rim. His 25 points against Indiana are a sign his offense is starting to come along. He’s a keeper.

Thunder small icon 20. Thunder (6-10, LW 18). Oklahoma City fans are not getting to watch the star power they have seen since, well, ever (ever since the move this team has been stacked). What they should be thankful for is a gritty team that plays hard — 13 of their 16 games have been within five points in the final five minutes. Without the stars it’s harder to close those games, out, the Thunder of 5-8 in those clutch games (2-7 in games within three points in the final three minutes). I’ve seen the Thunder in person a few times now and they are hard to play against, and as the schedule softens up and they catch a few breaks this team’s record will improve).

Blazers small icon 21. Trail Blazers (6-12, LW 19). Portland fans, be thankful Damian Lillard is back in the lineup, because this roster needs him. Desperately. The Trail Blazers have not been a team that relies on passing to create open looks a lot in recent years (they were bottom five in the league in passes made a season ago). However, this season they are making 39.5 fewer passes per game than last season (second lowest in the league), which leaves Portland relying even more on isolation, and pick-and-roll creation. Which is why they need Lillard back, he’s the best they have. Terry Stotts has leaned on Lillard for 37.4 minutes a game because he has to, you can decide if all those minutes helped lead to his injury.

Pelicans small icon 22. Pelicans (6-11, LW 23). New Orleans fans, be thankful for lottery ping-pong balls. More than just that, be thankful for a team that is playing the right way even before Zion Williamson suits up — New Orleans is second in the league in passes made per game at 315.9. Wednesday night, Pelicans fans get to boo Anthony Davis, a player they never felt really embraced their city and culture, then forced his way out the bright lights. Wednesday is also a chance for Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart to get a little revenge against a franchise they clearly were not comfortable with on several levels.

Bulls small icon 23. Bulls (6-12, LW 24). Bulls fans, be thankful that Zach LaVine’s reaction to being benched and the erratic coaching of Jim Boylen was to drop 49 points and hit the game winner against the Hornets. After hitting 13 three-pointers in that game LaVine, Boylen, and everyone around the Bulls was singing Kumbaya, but there is plenty of talk around the league about the fit of the coaching staff with this roster in Chicago, and how long until the next incident.

Spurs small icon 24. Spurs (6-12, LW 20). Be thankful for Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and the five titles and decades of elite play they brought you. At some point for every franchise there comes a time to rebuild, and while the Spurs have pushed that back for a few years it feels like the bill is coming due (losing Kawhi Leonard really made a rebuild ultimately inevitable). Expect to hear a lot of potential trade talk about DeMar DeRozan, and to a lesser degree LaMarcus Aldridge. The struggles of Dejounte Murray this season, which have now sent him to the bench and moved Derrick White into the starting lineup, are a concern because he is seen as a good young rebuilding piece.

Hornets small icon 25. Hornets (6-12, LW 21). Hornets fans, be thankful for the emergence of Devonte' Graham, who leads the team averaging 18.1 points a game, he and Cody Zeller have been critical to the Hornets getting this many wins this season. After that… be thankful there’s really elite college basketball to watch in North Carolina, because reality is catching up with the Hornets after their fast start and it’s not pretty (the loss to the Bulls in the Final seconds was particularly painful).

Knicks small icon 26. Knicks (4-13, LW 26). Be thankful for the play of Mitchell Robinson and RJ Barrett, young stars who provide hope for the future no matter how much it feels like ownership will just find a way to screw it up. (Unfortunately, I’m not as convinced Kevin Knox is a big part of that future anymore.) Knicks fans are some of the smartest and most loyal in the NBA and they deserve better than the product on the floor the past couple of decades.

Cavaliers small icon 27. Cavaliers (5-12, LW 25). Be thankful that the NBA is bringing the 2022 All-Star Game to Cleveland, because by then some of these young Cavaliers who are struggling now might be playing well enough to be in the game. The warm feeling of the 4-5 start to this season wore off during the recent six-game losing streak (by an average of 19.2 points), while the backcourt of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland are learning hard lessons about life on an NBA court. Expect the Tristan Thompson trade rumors to start up soon, especially after his strong game against Portland.

Grizzlies small icon 28. Grizzlies (5-11, LW 27). Be thankful for rookie Ja Morant — and that his scary fall into a cameraman courtside this week wasn’t something worse. Morant is the early leader in the Rookie of the Year race and is averaging 19.1 points and 6.3 assists per game, is shooting better than 40% from three, and is just an amazingly fluid athlete. Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. are starting to show some chemistry, too, something the Grizzlies are banking on for their future.

Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (4-13, LW 29). Trae Young may be slumping a little of late, still Hawks fans should be thankful for him. While Atlanta is off to a slow start this season — their defense was expected to struggle some, but to also have a bottom five offense is a surprise — there are signs of hope. Like Young’s potential. Or De'Andre Hunter’s recent run of 18+ point games where he showed real potential as a catch-and-shoot wing.

Warriors small icon 30. Warriors (3-15, LW 30). Who should Warriors fans be thankful for? James Wiseman. Anthony Edwards. Cole Anthony. Tyrese Maxey. Deni Avdija. Eric Paschall (and they can watch him nightly). The Chase Center. Nico Mannion. Maybe even LaMelo Ball. The future for this team, next season and beyond, remains incredibly bright. This season, well, five straight trips to the Finals will catch up with a team.

Report: Kings GM Vlade Divac and Luka Doncic’s dad spoke, laughed about rumor

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Why did the King draft Marvin Bagley III over Luka Doncic with the No. 2 pick in last year’s draft?

The latest rumor: Kings general manager Vlade Divac wasn’t fond of Sasa Doncic, Luka’s dad.

Kings TV announcer Grant Napear:

Let’s say the initial report is totally true, that Divac knows Sasa well and didn’t draft Luka because of it. It’d probably be difficult to tell Sasa that was the reason. It’d be far easier to deny it and laugh about it. What would confirming the report accomplish besides fracturing their relationship?

Of course, if the report weren’t true, Divac would probably want to speak to Sasa and convey that. They could share a good laugh over the media getting it wrong.

Essentially, whether or not the initial report were true, yesterday’s conversation between Divac and Sasa could sound exactly as Napear describe it.

What’s indisputable: Sacramento could have Doncic, one of the NBA’s top young players, and doesn’t. Drafting Bagley was baffling at the time, and Doncic’s play since has only made the decision look worse. People will continue to seek explanations of what the heck the Kings were thinking.