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Top free agent everyone seems to think they can poach, Kemba Walker, focused on Hornets playoff push

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DETROIT – Kemba Walker got up from his seat, headed toward pregame warmups then returned to his locker apparently because he forgot something. Then, he again headed toward the door and again returned before finally exiting the locker room.

Is Walker in or out?

That’ll be the big question for him and the Hornets this summer. Walker is approaching his first free agency. If he makes an All-NBA team this season, he’ll qualify for a super-max contract that projects to be worth $221 million over five years.

In the meantime, Charlotte has won three straight – including yesterday’s big victory over the Pistons – to remain in the playoff race. Walker insists he’s focused on finishing this season strong, not setting up his next contract.

“There’s no way I could play basketball thinking about those kind of things,” Walker said. “You know what I mean? Yeah, I just can’t. I just can’t go on the court thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got to get 30 because I need to.’ I just can’t think about those kind of things. I mean, I see it, hear about it. But it’s nothing that comes to my attention too much.”

The noise will grow only louder as July nears. Walker feels more attainable than most star free agents.

Kevin Durant could leave the Warriors, but most view him as ticketed for the Knicks. If Kawhi Leonard leaves the Raptors, he’s widely expected to join the Clippers. Kyrie Irving is most commonly linked to the Celtics and Knicks – not a wide-open field. Klay Thompson can say only so many times how badly he wants to stay with the Warriors.

But rumors are already swirling about Walker leaving Charlotte. No clear destinations have emerged, though the Mavericks are reportedly interested. That opens the door for many fan bases to view landing Walker as realistic.

Don’t rule out the Hornets, either.

“This is the team that believed in me from day one,” Walker said. “So, of course. They’re always going to be on top of the list.”

If there’s any bitterness Charlotte must overcome, a $221 million super-max contract could go a long way. Sans super-max, Walker’s max projects to be $190 million over four years if he re-signs or $141 million over four years if he leaves.

But Walker must make an All-NBA team even to be eligible for the designated-veteran-player contract. That’s hardly a given.

James Harden, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving seem highly likely to take four of the six All-NBA guard spots. That leaves two spots up for grabs with Walker, Russell Westbrook, Bradley Beal, Klay Thompson and Jrue Holiday the main candidates.

Walker has fallen off after a hot start to the season, but he remains highly effective on a team built around him.

Walker has been Charlotte’s lone star for years. The Hornets are usually solid when plays and awful when he sits. Walker – not owner Michael Jordan – was the face of the franchise as Charlotte hosted All-Star Weekend.

“As he go, we go,” Jeremy Lamb said.

Yet, the Hornets haven’t gotten far with Walker. They’ve made the playoffs only twice and have never won a series with Walker. If he re-signs, Charlotte – which has never paid the luxury tax – will face major payroll concerns. Especially if Walker gets the super-max.

It’s far from a given the Hornets would or should pay Walker that much, even if he qualifies. He’ll turn 29 next month, and short guards can decline quickly.

On the other hand, Charlotte also projects to be taxed out even if Walker leaves. If the Hornets are stuck in a dismal situation regardless, maybe they’d be better off with the franchise icon who can at least keep them competitive.

Walker has certainly done that this season. Whatever speculation occurs about his future, he set a tone of steadiness.

“I think the biggest thing that Kemba tries to establish, obviously as the leader of our team, is that this is the team that he’s on,” Marvin Williams said. “This is the only thing that he’s focusing on. And as a teammate, it does give you a good feeling knowing that he is all-in, he’s not thinking about this summer.”

Walker appears to be enjoying the playoff race, especially considering the Hornets were three games and two teams out of playoff position with five games remaining. Now, they’re only one game back with two games left.

“It’s crazy that we’re in this situation,” Walker said. It’s been such an up-and-down year. For us to be in this situation, it’s fun, man. I’m really enjoying it. I’m happy to still be playing for something.”

This summer, other teams will offer Walker a clearer opportunity to play for something. They’ll try to convince Walker he deserves his meaningful games to come in May and June, not April. They’ll sell deeper playoff runs and stronger supporting casts.

And maybe Walker will choose one of those situations. But he also said just over a year ago he’d be “devastated” if Charlotte traded him. He has laid roots there and grown accustomed to playing for the Hornets.

Asked about Detroit keying on him yesterday, Walker shrugged.

“That’s every night for me,” Walker. “I know I’m the guy that every team is trying to stop.”

Soon, he’ll be the guy many teams are trying to get.

After All-Star glamour, Kemba Walker returning to mundane reality of carrying Hornets

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CHARLOTTE – Kemba Walker just started a basketball game alongside Stephen Curry, Paul George, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid. The NBA’s biggest stars came to his city. World-class entertainers performed throughout the weekend.

“It was amazing, man,” Walker said. “It was amazing.”

Walker will start his next game on the same court, but it’ll be alongside Jeremy Lamb, Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller. Walker’s 27-30 Hornets will face the Wizards in a battle for a low playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. Most celebrities will have long cleared out.

Except Walker.

Walker remains as the face of the Hornets, a role he has embraced despite the franchise’s mediocrity. When his name emerged in trade talks last year, he said he’d be “devastated” to get dealt. He has made Charlotte his home and was so delighted to play host for yesterday’s All-Star game and all the accompanying festivities.

His reality here otherwise has been markedly different. In his eight seasons with the Hornets, he has never had an All-Star teammate. Not a single one.

Here’s every player in NBA history who played his first eight seasons without an All-Star teammate (seasons, including partial, with each team in parentheses):

Player Teams
Kemba Walker (2012-2019) CHA (8)
JaVale McGee (2009-2016) WAS (4), DEN (4), PHI (1), DAL (1)
David Lee (2006-2013) NYK (5), GSW (3)
Monta Ellis (2006-2013) GSW (7), MIL (2)
Ben Gordon (2005-2012) CHI (5), DET (3)
Andris Biedrins (2005-2012) GSW (8)
Zach Randolph (2002-2009) POR (6), NYK (2), LAC (1)
Eddy Curry (2002-2009) CHI (4), NYK (4)
Jamal Crawford (2001-2008) CHI (4), NYK (4)
Elton Brand (2000-2007) CHI (2), LAC (6)
Adonal Foyle (1998-2005) GSW (8)
Shareef Abdur-Rahim (1997-2004) VAN (5), ATL (3), POR (1)
Erick Dampier (1997-2004) IND (1), GSW (7)
Lamond Murray (1995-2002) LAC (5), CLE (3)
Glen Rice (1990-1997) MIA (6), CHA (2)
Grant Long (1989-1996) MIA (7), ATL (2)
Herb Williams (1982-1989) IND (8), DAL (1)
Larry Drew (1981-1988) DET (1), KCK/SAC (5), LAC (2)

Of that list, just Walker, David Lee, Elton Brand, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Glen Rice became All-Stars in their first eight seasons. Walker’s three All-Star appearances lead the group.

Just three of those players – Walker, Andris Biedrins (Warriors) and Adonal Foyle (Warriors) – spent that entire time with only one team.

So, obviously Walker is the only player in NBA history with a first eight seasons like this – All-Star himself, one team, no All-Star teammates.

I asked Walker whether he felt playing with another star was a missing piece of his career.

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” Walker said, pausing as if he were truly contemplating then shaking his head and shrugging. “I don’t know.”

If Walker wants to play with other stars, he’ll have an opportunity this summer as an unrestricted free agent. Some teams pursuing Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Klay Thompson will strike out. There will be opportunities for Walker to land with better teams. The Bronx native has poohpoohed the Knicks, but there are many other possible destinations.

There’s something to be said about staying in Charlotte, too. Walker is probably already the greatest player in Hornets history, and another contract with them could cinch it. For a player who’s relatively underpaid, a five-year max-contract projected to be worth $190 million could be quite appealing. Walker could continue to stand alone in a league where stars frequently switch teams and join forces. That probably won’t lead to championships, but that isn’t the only way to define success.

“He’s made this franchise relevant,” LeBron James said.

Still, that has translated to only two playoff appearances for Walker, both first-round losses. Charlotte landed in the lottery the last two years and has a 55% chance to return there this season, according to 538. The Hornets are capped out with unappealing contracts, so significant progress soon seems unlikely.

But with All-Star Weekend behind him, the last All-Star left in Charlotte is focused on a stretch run with the Hornets.

“That’s what we do,” Walker said. “We play basketball. And for us, if we really want to make a push, we’ve just got to be locked in. So, I’ll try to my best to get some rest, recover a little bit from this weekend and keep it going.”

Myles Turner with monstrous block of Marvin Williams dunk (video)

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Pacers center Myles Turner leads the NBA with 2.8 blocks per game.

Few were better than this one of Marvin Williams in Indiana’s win over the Hornets last night.

Though Williams was slightly losing control of the ball before Turner got to it, the Charlotte forward still went up for a big dunk. But that wasn’t happening on Turner’s watch.

NBA Power Rankings: Toronto back on top as team to beat in East

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Toronto is back on top after knocking off their closest Eastern Conference foes last weekend, but we keep waiting for some team to flip the switch and demand to be No. 1 in the rankings. The Warriors are disinterested, maybe the Rockets make that push if they keep winning? We shall see, we’re just halfway through the marathon NBA season.

 
Raptors small icon 1. Raptors (31-12, last week No. 3). The Raptors showed they are the team to beat in the East last weekend knocking off the Bucks and Pacers in back-to-back games. Even better news for the Raptors is Kyle Lowry returned to the lineup on Sunday. They had missed their All-Star point guard — since his injury the Raptors had gone 10-8 (he played in some of those games trying to come back but clearly wasn’t ready). Now the Raptors are healthy (except for Jonas Valanciunas, still out most of this month with a thumb injury) and have 5-of-7 at home in a soft part of the schedule to rack up some wins.

 
Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (28-11, LW 1). The Bucks’ offense has been on an absolute tear the last five games, scoring a ridiculous 122.1 per 100, led by a starting five that can’t seem to miss a shot. However, the defense in those same five has slipped out of the top 10 and it was an inability to get stops — or slow Pascal Siakam — that cost them against the Raptors. The next few weeks is the big test for these Bucks: They travel to Houston on Wednesday night and that starts 5-of-6 and 11-of-14 on the road.

 
Pacers small icon 3. Pacers (27-13, LW 2). Indiana has won 7-of-8, but the wins were them fattening up on the soft underbelly of the East. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, Indy has been doing what good teams do — beat the bad teams consistently. The Pacers are winning despite a defense that has been middle-of-the-pack in the NBA the past five games. The good news, the offense has clicked during the winning streak and been a top-10 unit. The one loss in there was too Toronto, and next up they face Boston Wednesday.

 
Rockets small icon 4. Rockets (23-16, LW 6). In Houston’s first 20 games this season, James Harden was getting up an average of 11.4 threes per game, but he has gotten red hot and part of that is Harden raining threes — 16.2 per game in his last 10, and he’s hitting 41.4 percent of them. Also key during this 12-of-13 win streak: Clint Capela. The big man has averaged 18.5 points per game in his last 10, shooting 64.2 percent and grabbing 16.2 rebounds a game, Capela looked out of shape to start the season but he has played his way back into it and has been a force.

 
Warriors small icon 5. Warriors (27-14, LW 4). The Warriors finally got healthy and… meh. The Warriors are 9-5 since both Stephen Curry and Draymond Green returned to the lineup, with a +3.2 net rating (12th in the league). Their offense is 12th best in the NBA, their defense is middle of the pack, and overall the Warriors look meh. The Warriors (and most people around the league) are in the “don’t worry, after the All-Star Game they’ll flip the switch and be fine” camp. We’ll see. Among the reasons for optimism is that the target date for the debut of DeMarcus Cousins has been set, either Jan. 18 or 21 in Los Angeles (against the Clippers in the first game or Lakers in the second). They could use his help in the paint.

 
Thunder small icon 6. Thunder (25-15, LW 7). It’s weird to say this about a guy averaging a triple-double (again) but Russell Westbrook is in a shooting slump. It’s been going on for about a dozen games but has been worse in the last five: He’s shooting 3-of-23 from three in those last five (13%), 32% from the midrange, and just 55.6% at the rim. But with Paul George playing maybe the best basketball of his career, Westbrook still getting in the lane opening things up, and with the best defense in the NBA, the Thunder are 8-4 in those last 12 games.

 
Nuggets small icon 7. Nuggets (27-12, LW 5).. The Nuggets continue to win but their offense is carrying them — they have the fifth best offense in the NBA over the last 10 games, but the fourth worst defense. For the season Denver still has a top-10 defense, but it has fallen off sharply in recent weeks. Maybe getting Paul Millsap and Gary Harris back healthy (as happened last week) will change that, and Will Barton is expected to return to the lineup in the next week or two. That the Nuggets did as well as they did with three starters out speaks to this team’s depth. Plus they have Nikola Jokic hitting game winners.

 
Spurs small icon 8. Spurs (24-17, LW 9). It was cathartic for Spurs fans to get to boo and watch a blowout win when Kawhi Leonard came back to town in a Raptors’ uniform, and you know DeMar DeRozan savored his first ever triple-double in that game. It isn’t just Toronto that got crushed by the Spurs, San Antonio is 12-3 in its last 15 and has the best offense and the best defense in the NBA in that stretch. Monday’s in in Detroit started 7-of-10 on the road for the Spurs.

 
Celtics small icon 9. Celtics (24-15, LW 10). Kyrie Irving missed a couple of games with an eye injury and it was interesting to watch the transformation of some other players: Gordon Hayward averaged 25.5 points, 6.5 assists, and 6 rebounds a night in those two, Terry Rozier looked scary again, and Boston picked up a couple of wins with good ball movement. The Celtics need Irving to be Irving to win, but they also need a little more of what we saw in those games mixed in (which is on Irving to lift those guys up). Are Celtics fans more worried about their team’s start or Anthony Davis trade scenarios?

 
Sixers small icon 10. 76ers (27-14, LW 8). When a big three is brought together, the question becomes “who is willing to sacrifice for the good of the team?” In Miami, Chris Bosh took on the brunt of it, but Dwyane Wade sacrificed too so LeBron James could lead. In Golden State, Klay Thompson probably sacrifices the most but every one of their stars does to make the whole better. In Minnesota, who is willing to sacrifice and still contribute? That’s still a work in progress. Joel Embiid is complaining about how he is used, Jimmy Butler wants more traditional pick-and-rolls, and Ben Simmons has not fit smoothly yet either. This isn’t a Brett Brown thing, this is the players needing to sacrifice for the greater good and so far that has not happened in Philly.

 
Blazers small icon 11. Trail Blazers (24-17, LW 11). Looking for a third scorer in Portland? Look no further than Jusuf Nurkic, who has been a beast of late scoring at least 20 points in 6-of-7, including 27 points against Golden State a couple days after Christmas. Nurkic is doing most of his damage at the rim, with 75% of his shots in the last five games in the restricted area. Nurkic has made up for the slumping C.J. McCollum of late. After a tough stretch of the schedule, the Blazers are home and drinking good coffee against easier opponents for a couple.

 
Clippers small icon 12. Clippers (24-16, LW 12). The Clippers will be serious contenders on the free agent market — both Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant have been rumored… and maybe both could come — but don’t ignore the here and now. Montrezl Harrell might be the leader in the Sixth Man of the Year race and is a nightly must watch. Consistency has not been the Clippers’ hallmark of late, but the team has won three in a row and 7-of-10, using a softer part of the schedule to vault back up to the top four in the West — if the playoffs started today the Clippers would have home court in the first round.

 
Lakers small icon 13. Lakers (22-19, LW 13). The Lakers are now 2-5 with LeBron out, and where they miss him most is in the fourth quarter and in the clutch The Lakers are shooting 36.7% in the clutch (last 5 minutes, game within 5 points) since LeBron’s injury, scoring a league-worst 82.9 points per 100 in that stretch (the team is 1-3 in clutch games). Brandon Ingram just is not an “isolate him at the top of the key and let him go” kind of player, he can’t get to his spots, and he struggles. Lonzo Ball has great instincts but doesn’t read half-court plays well consistently, plus he is just not a threat to score on drives — he has no floater, can’t finish at the rim consistently, and is in his own head about free throws so he avoids contact. This is not what the Lakers imagined.

 
Jazz small icon 14. Jazz (20-21, LW 17). On paper the Jazz have been better than their record (they have the point differential of a 23-18 team) but it’s time for that to start translating to wins. Utah has 8-of-9 at home (and 12-of-15) and this is when the push needs to come. Defenses have adjusted and taken away some of what Donovan Mitchell wants to do, and while he needs to grow his game to counter those defenses, what the Jazz really need is someone to step up as a secondary scorer and athlete. Quin Snyder’s system can get them some buckets, but Utah needs a second scoring threat to reach the goals they have set for themselves this season.

 
Heat small icon 15. Heat (19-20, LW 18). Miami had won 8-of-10, Hassan Whiteside was playing impressive defense in the paint and Justise Winslow was making it work as the point guard. But then came an ugly loss to the Hawks — how is this team 0-3 to Atlanta this season? — followed by a loss to Denver as the schedule starts to turn tough. Those banked wins should help keep them in the postseason, but they can’t afford a losing streak the next couple of weeks. By the way, Dwyane Wade still knows how to make the highlight play.

 
16. Timberwolves (20-21, LW 20). Tom Thibodeau didn’t build up enough good will in the organization and community to survive the Jimmy Butler trade, and so he’s out and Ryan Saunders (son of Flip) is in. Minnesota has played better after Butler tried to sabotage the franchise, having gone 16-12 since Butler was traded (they got off to a fast a 9-3 start but are 7-9 since, mainly due to injuries to Derrick Rose, Jeff Teague, and Robert Covington). Karl-Anthony Towns has returned to his All-NBA form, but unless Andrew Wiggins consistently lives up to his status as a No. 2 option it will be difficult to grow and improve this capped-out team. Also, the Timberwolves have been dreadful in the clutch (-22.2 net rating, games within 5 points in the final 5 minutes) and that has to change.

 
Kings small icon 17. Kings (20-21, LW 14). Back in October and November, the Kings were a ridiculously good clutch team, but that has changed lately. In their last 15 games, 12 have been within 5 points in the final 5 minutes and the Kings are lucky to be 5-7 in those games considering their -20 net rating. The Kings have slipped below .500, have lost 5-of-6, and while just 2.5 games out of the playoffs they can’t afford a longer losing streak, it would be too hard to climb out of the hole. Which is why Tuesday’s loss to a Devin Booker-less Phoenix is so ugly for them. The Kings have a couple winnable games against Detroit and Charlotte at home coming up before the schedule gets tougher, De’Aaron Fox and the Kings need to get wins now.

 
Hornets small icon 18. Hornets (19-21, LW 15). How far has Frank Kaminsky fallen? Staring center Cody Zeller is out (broken hand, he’ll miss another month or so) and so James Borrego has gone to a starting front line of Devonte' Graham and Bismack Biyombo, and Willy Hernangomez got time at the give while Kaminsky ranks up DNPs. Charlotte’s best look is closing with Marvin Williams at center, but that’s not an all-game kind of thing. Kemba Walker is putting up All-Star level numbers and is even making half courters as he tries to run out the clock.

 
Nets small icon 19. Nets (20-22, LW 22). Every time I write this I still shake my head, but it’s true — if the playoffs started today Brooklyn would be in as the seven seed. It’s not going to be easy for the Nets to hold on to that (they have a one-game lead over Detroit in the ninth spot) and Brooklyn has the toughest remaining schedule in the East the rest of the way. While making the playoffs would be huge, just the fact this team is in the mix will help them lure free agents this summer (the Nets will have ample cap space and are in New York). Sean Marks has been amazing as a GM turning this franchise around.

Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (19-22, LW 23). Nikola Mirotic is missed in New Orleans. He has been out a dozen games now recovering from a sprained ankle, and without him the team has been 5-7, and while the offense has remained top 10 (it has slipped some without Mitotic’s floor spacing) the defense has been bottom 10 and is costing them games. I know Pelicans fans are sick of Anthony Davis trade rumors, but it’s not a media creation — teams around the league are obsessed with him and the fact the Pelicans are outside the playoffs has those teams convinced Davis is going to move on. Dell Demps is burning up the phone lines trying to trade for help, but this is a dead trade market.

 
Mavericks small icon 21. Mavericks (18-22, LW 19). Fun summer question: Will Dallas try to bring DeAndre Jordan back? Or, the better question may be: At what discounted price would the Mavericks re-sign Jordan for? Jordan is averaging an efficient 10.9 points and 14.1 rebounds a game, and he leads all NBA centers in ESPN’s defensive real plus/minus (although that is the perfect example of the eye test not matching the stats). Watch the games and he just doesn’t seem to fit with Luka Doncic and the future of the Mavs. Jordan is a free agent this summer and will likely find the market much tighter than he expects, but could that lead to staying in Dallas?

Pistons small icon 22. Pistons (17-21, 21). The Pistons do a surprisingly good job of keeping teams from getting to the rim — they have given up the second fewest shots in the restricted area of any team this season (Milwaukee is first), but when teams do get in the restricted area they are shooing 68.5 percent, the highest percentage in the NBA. Once you get past the defense, there is no rim protection. Detroit has lost 7-of-9 and slipped out of the playoffs in the East, the team has struggled to score, and now it heads out on a five-game road trip through the West. That said, the Pistons have a relatively easy schedule the second half of the season.

 
Grizzlies small icon 23. Grizzlies (18-22, LW 16). Memphis has lost six in a row, 11-of-13, during those 13 games they have a net rating of -7.3 (third worst in the NBA and below the Bulls, Hawks, and Suns), and the team has slid out of the playoffs in the West. It’s been ugly. The only thing we know for sure is Chandler Parsons will not be the Cavalry riding to the rescue (although it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where he gets traded/bought out before this summer). The Grizzlies play the red-hot Spurs Wednesday then head out for 4-of-5 on the road.

 
Magic small icon 24. Magic (17-23, LW 24). Magic fans want to see Nikola Vucevic make the All-Star team — he’s averaged 20.2 points and 12.1 rebounds a game, is shooting 38.1% from three, and his floor spacing and improved game have helped the Magic to what wins they have (17). Let’s stipulate that Joel Embiid will be the starting center for the East, after that who from that conference gets a nod over Vucevic? Brook Lopez? Al Horford? Can’t see it. The concern for Orlando is there is not just a center position, so if the coaches want to reward a lot of forwards — Pascal Siakam and Blake Griffin should make it in my book — Vucevic could get squeezed. I think Vucevic makes the cut, but it will fall to the coach’s vote (they pick the reserves).

 
Wizards small icon 25. Wizards (16-25, LW 26). Washington is 3-3 since John Wall went out for the season, with a slightly above-average offense and a slightly below-average defense. Sadly, in the East that’s enough to keep Washington’s playoff hopes alive. The Wizards might be open to being sellers at the trade deadline, and while John Wall and Bradley Beal aren’t going anywhere, the Wizards should be open to trading Trevor Ariza (again, he was picked up from Phoenix before the Wall injury). Ariza is the kind of veteran wing a number of playoff teams could want (the Lakers were very interested before), it would be a smart move by the Wizards to add some assets in a season they are not competing for anything of consequence.

 
Hawks small icon 26. Hawks (12-28, LW 25). Trae Young is being a bit more selective with his threes and has started to knock down his shots for the Hawks. In his last 10 games, Young is averaging 15.5 points a night and his hitting 50 percent of his 3.2 three-point attempts per game — a number well down from his season average of 4.9 attempts per game. He’s got the passing skills and he’s starting to figure out the NBA game. Atlanta went 0-3 on a road trip, came home for a night to beat the Hawks, and then went back on the road and fell to Toronto. Atlanta has two more games left on this road trip.

 
Suns small icon 27. Suns (10-32, LW 27). I know Suns fans want to see Devin Booker in the All-Star Game, but it’s a long shot. In part because the Suns stink. More than that, the West is just stacked at the guard spot. Stephen Curry and James Harden will be the starters (we can assume), after that there are three or four more guard spots to divide up between Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, Klay Thompson, Luka Doncic, Mike Conley, and Donovan Mitchell, among others. Hard to see Booker, as good as he is, cracking that group. Tuesday’s come-from-behind win against Sacramento (without Booker) snapped a six-game losing streak, just in time for Phoenix hit the road for 5-of-6.

 
Bulls small icon 28. Bulls (10-30, LW 28). Chicago wants to be sellers in the next month heading into the trade deadline. They just moved Justin Holiday to Memphis, a move that frees up minutes for Chandler Hutchison. Ideally, the Bulls would like to trade Robin Lopez, but he makes $14.4 million this season and it’s going to be hard to find players to match that salary the Bulls would want to bring in. Most of the league expects the Bulls will fall short in finding a trade and will just buy him out after the deadline, and a number of teams are ready to pounce if that happens.

 
Knicks small icon 29. Knicks (10-31, LW 29). Coach David Fizdale on the Knicks’ defensive struggles: ““I think just figuring out what these kids can handle and what was a little bit too much. This first half of the season was figuring that out. I think now I’m starting to see, OK, this is the kind of thing that they can really hang their hat on and here are the things we probably should stay away from. Moving into the second half of the season we’re going to try to trim it and simplify it that way for them, so that we can maybe find some consistency in the second half.”

 
Cavaliers small icon 30. Cavaliers (8-33, LW 30). They have lost 10 in a row, Kevin Love is not going to return for a few weeks, and the one favor they did for an agent — putting together the offer sheet for Patrick McCaw to get him out of Golden State, then cutting him so he could be an unrestricted free agent — has the NBA league office investigating if the Cavs tried to circumvent the salary cap. Just nothing is going right for this team.

NBA Power Rankings: Bucks move into top spot, finally healthy Warriors climbing fast

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The Bucks have had the best net rating in the league much of the year, they have the leading MVP candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo, and now they have the top spot in these rankings. At least until the finally healthy Warriors really get rolling again.

 
Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (18-8, last week No. 5). Kawhi Leonard, who was matched up on Giannis Antetokounmpo in the showdown last week (that the Bucks won) was asked what has the Greek Freak done to step up his game this season: “He’s very aggressive. He got better knowing himself and who he’s playing with. He’s just more comfortable on the floor.” The transformation of the Bucks offense remains one of the most eye-popping things in the league, last season the Bucks took an average of 17.3 midrange shots per game, this season that is down to 6.2. The Bucks are 5-5 on the road this season, allowing 8 more points per game, and now they have 6-of-7 away from home.

 
Thunder small icon 2. Thunder (17-8, LW 3). Oklahoma City has won 5-of-6, and while they’ve done it against a soft part of the schedule with a scare (Brooklyn) and an ugly loss (Chicago) mixed in, their defense keeps them within striking distance of the top. The schedule gets tougher now, we’ll see how they fare (they did beat Utah Monday). Russell Westbrook is averaging a triple-double again — 22.1 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 10.2 assists per game — again, but his efficiency has slipped, he’s hitting just 21.8% from three and 61.8% on free throws (it was his efficiency when carrying a bigger offensive load that won him the MVP a couple years back).

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (22-7, LW 2). How is Southern California guy Kawhi Leonard adapting to the cold of Toronto? “Just wear a jacket,” Leonard said Tuesday night. “We’re in a building. We’re not outside playing in the snow. And it’s good scenery.” Kyle Lowry snapped out of the worst shooting slump of his career Tuesday, shooting 8-of-13 and hitting some tough shots in a win over the Clippers (Lowry had shot 8-of-42 over his previous five games, 5-of-32 from three). Tuesday’s easy win over the Clippers starts a 4-game swing through the West and 7-of-9 on the road.

 
Warriors small icon 4. Warriors (19-9, LW 8). Stephen Curry returned to the lineup last week, Draymond Green was back on Monday, the Warriors have now won 4 in a row and are just percentage points out of the top spot in the Western Conference. For all the drama and hand-wringing about their internal squabbles, lack of depth, and questions about their health/wear and tear they are still right at the top of the West and now are poised to go on a run and remind everyone who the heavy favorite in the NBA is.

 
Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (19-9, LW 6). Joel Embiid may feel uncomfortable being asked to space the floor more since the arrival of Jimmy Butler (although he’s gotten more paint touches per game after the trade compared to before), but the big three is working: When Ben Simmons, Butler, and Embiid share the court the Sixers are +7.8 per 100. Add starters J.J. Redick and Wilson Chandler into that and the five-man starting unit for the Sixers is +12.4 per 100. Philly has won 6-of-7 behind them.

 
Nuggets small icon 6. Nuggets (18-9, LW 1).. Injuries are crushing this team right now: Paul Millsap will miss 3-4 weeks with a broken toe, then there’s Gary Harris (groin), Will Barton, and Isaiah Thomas (hip), and we haven’t even seen first-round pick Michael Porter Jr. (nor will we this season most likely). Things got so bad Denver signed Nick Young as an injury replacement. All the missing bodies led to losses in Charlotte and Atlanta last week, but this team has banked enough wins to stay afloat in the West, plus they still have Nikola Jokic.

 
Lakers small icon 7. Lakers (17-10, LW 9). The Lakers have an insanely good defensive net rating of 95.2 when Tyson Chandler is on the court this season, which is why the Lakers are +12.8 per 100 when Chandler is on the court this season. He was the defensive anchor they needed. Something to watch: How much the second unit suffers without Brandon Ingram (out for a couple of weeks with a sprained ankle), he was often the main shot creator with that unit (the Lakers were -15 Monday vs. Miami in the 10:29 LeBron was on the bench).

 
Celtics small icon 8. Celtics (16-10, LW 10). Winners of six in a row and they have outscored opponents by 25.6 per 100 in that stretch. Granted, a lot of that is against a soft part of the schedule (which continues for the next week) but it’s still confidence-boosting wins for a team that needs it. At the heart of Boston’s run is they are shooting the ball much better from three, 42.7% in those six games (the Celtics struggled to start the season from deep, shooting 32.8% from beyond the arc in October).

 
Pacers small icon 9. Pacers (17-10, LW 11). Indiana may get Victor Oladipo back soon, but they have impressed going 7-4 without him during this stretch with a +6.5 net rating in that time. Two things have keyed this run. First, the Pacers have the second best defense in the NBA over the last 11 games (allowing 101.7 points per 100 possessions). The second is the strong play of the Pacers’ bench, which has the second best net rating of any second unit in the NBA, +4.4 per 100.

 
Clippers small icon 10. Clippers (17-10, LW 4). Los Angeles has lost 3-of-4, including having the Raptors hand them their worst loss of the season Tuesday. The Clippers aren’t sneaking up on anyone anymore. “We aren’t the Clippers flying under the radar,” Patrick Beverley said after the latest loss. “People and teams understand our success and they are coming out ready. Not ready, actually, throwing the first punch.” The Clips need to punch back, their next nine games are against West teams in the playoff hunt.

 
Grizzlies small icon 11. Grizzlies (15-11, LW 12). Joakim Noah stepped right into the rotation in Memphis, playing almost 17 minutes a night off the bench, averaging 6.8 points and 4.3 rebounds a contest. Small sample size, but the Grizzlies’ defense has been slightly better with him on the court so far but the offense has taken a real hit in those minutes (there’s a lot of noise there, considering he’s out with the second unit on a team short of playmakers). They have gone 2-2 through a stretch of games against other teams in the West playoff hunt, and Monday’s game in Golden State starts a swing of four in a row away from home.

 
Mavericks small icon 12. Mavericks (14-11, LW 14). Dallas’ bench has the best net rating of any in the NBA, +4.5, and Rick Carlisle deserves a lot of credit for once again finding ways to make misfit pieces fit together and excel. This week brings the Luka Doncic revenge tour — he is going up against the teams that passed on him in the draft. It’s Atlanta Wednesday, Phoenix Thursday, and Sacramento Sunday. Those teams had better hope Doncic does not do to them what he did to the Houston Rockets, scoring 11 straight points to turn a likely loss into a win in the final minutes.

Pistons small icon 13. Pistons (13-12, 7). After spoiling Stephen Curry’s return and beating the Warriors, the Pistons have dropped five in a row. The problem is on the offensive end, where the injuries to Reggie Bullock, Stanley Johnson, and Ish Smith has hurt production and taken away key three-point shooters and floor spacing. With a heavy road schedule coming up, as well as some tough teams this week (Boston, Milwaukee), Detroit needs to find a way to stop the bleeding, knock down a few shots, and get a couple of wins before this starts to spiral.

 
Blazers small icon 14. Trail Blazers (15-12, LW 15). Portland has gone 3-7 in its last 10, with the only win against a +.500 team coming against Minnesota (a game where Jusuf Nurkic went off). Part of the problem in that stretch is their bench, which played well to start the season and but is struggling during this stretch, Houston’s bench outscored them 37-13 Tuesday night. Portland could use more scoring, which is why their name comes up in Carmelo Anthony rumors, but it’s hard to see how ‘Melo would fit in and help them much.

 
15. Timberwolves (13-14, LW 13). While Minnesota can rightfully point to a strong 9-5 record since trading away Jimmy Butler (a record sparked by the fifth best defense in the NBA in that stretch) they need to find a way to get some road wins in the brutal Western Conference — Minnesota is 0-9 against the West away from home after losses this week in Portland and Golden State. Games coming up this week on the road in Sacramento and Phoenix provide better chances for victories, but nothing is given in the West and those road losses could bite them at the end of the season.

 
Hornets small icon 16. Hornets (13-13, LW 21). Charlotte’s preferred starting lineup — Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lamb, Marvin Williams, Nicolas Batum, and Cody Zeller — is the most used five-man lineup in NBA, 311 total minutes together so far (just shy of 13 minutes a game). James Borego leans on that lineup because it’s outscoring opponents by 5.1 points per 100, and this is not a team with a lot of depth behind it. Charlotte has won a couple in a row and now has its next five games at home, a chance for the currently seven-seed Hornets to rack up wins and solidify their playoff standing.

 
Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (14-15, LW 17). Julius Randle was forced into the starting lineup due to an injury to Nicolas Mitotic, but it may be hard to take him out now — he has averaged 27.6 points per game on 59.3 percent shooting, hitting 50 percent from three, grabbing 11.2 boards per game, and a net rating of +13.8 in those games. However, the Pelicans can’t string together wins despite Randle’s play (they are 2-3 in those five games), in part because they struggle on the road, where they are 4-11 (the Pels are 10-4 at home).

 
Kings small icon 18. Kings (14-12, LW 18). Sacramento did what good teams do last week — went on the road and beat lesser teams. The Kings went 3-1 on a recent four-game road swing with wins over the Suns, Cavaliers, and Bulls — all struggling teams, but plenty of teams above Sacramento in these rankings have dropped games like those.) If the ninth-seed Kings are going to make the playoffs it will be because they did well in stretches like the one coming up: Sacramento’s next 13 games are against Western Conference teams in the playoff chase. Those are the teams they need to beat.

 
Spurs small icon 19. Spurs (14-14, LW 22). Congratulations to Gregg Popovich, who moved into fourth place on the all-time wins list for coaches on Tuesday night with 1,211, moving him past Pat Riley. Popovich is only 10 wins back of Jerry Sloan and should move into third on the list in the next couple of months (I’m not sure Popovich will coach long enough to catch Don Nelson or Lenny Wilkins at he top of that leaderboard). San Antonio has started 3-0 on a six-game homestand, wins the team needs if they plan to keep their playoff hopes alive in the deep West.

 
Jazz small icon 20. Jazz (13-15, LW 20). Last Thursday’s win against Houston, despite Rudy Gobert being ejected (wrongfully) in the opening minutes of the game, was probably Utah’s best win of the season. They celebrated that by going out on the road and dropping two more games (to San Antonio and OKC). This team remains maddeningly inconsistent. On the bright side, they have played the toughest schedule in the NBA so far and have had 18-of-28 games on the road, things should lighten up (although the Jazz are 4-6 at home, they need to get some wins in Salt Lake City).

 
Rockets small icon 21. Rockets (12-14, LW 16). While the defense remains the biggest problem for Houston, it’s been enough of the season now that Chris Paul’s slipping level of play — from elite to just good, for example his three-point percentage dropped from 38% last year to 33.9% this year, his PER from 24.4 to 18.5 — is a cause for concern. Especially since this is the first year of a four-year contract. The Rockets just looked bad losing all three games on a road trip (before beating Portland at home Tuesday), and with three more losses the Rockets will tie how many losses they had all of last season.

 
Heat small icon 22. Heat (11-15, LW 23). Dwyane Wade’s emotional farewell in his final game against LeBron James overshadowed a couple of quality road wins that came before it against the Suns and Clippers. The Heat have now won 4-of-6 and are just half-a-game out of the playoffs in the East, where their grit may be enough to get them invited to the dance, although they have played one of the easiest schedules in the league thus far and things will get tougher. That grit Eric Spoelstra prides his teams on will be put to the test.

 
Magic small icon 23. Magic (12-15, LW 19). Orlando is in Mexico City for two “home” games this week against the Bulls (Thursday) and the Jazz (Saturday), so now fans in other countries can marvel first-hand at the smart game of Nikola Vucevic. Orlando won a couple of games in a row against sub-.500 teams (Phoenix, Miami) then last week lost three straight to good teams (Denver, Indiana, and Dallas). Aaron Gordon and the Magic need to string together some wins to hold off Miami, Washington, and other teams with an eye on the final playoff slot in the East (which the Magic currently hold).

 
Nets small icon 24. Nets (10-18, LW 27). Brooklyn has been the NBA’s second worst team this season on clutch games (within 5 points in the final five minutes), going 5-12 — and that 17 clutch games is tied for the most in the league. That’s why the clutch win against Toronto last Friday was good to see, this team deserves a break, they work hard but just have not had the talent that wins out in the final minutes (especially with Caris LeVert out).

 
Wizards small icon 25. Wizards (11-16, LW 24). John Wall scoring one point in a loss to Cleveland last Saturday led him to come forward and say he’s been playing through a bone spur in his heel (I know some on Twitter scoffed at that, but Wall has a history of playing through injuries he should get treated). Wall sat out one game but is expected back in the lineup Wednesday night against Boston. It’s a matter of pain management, but this play is not helping Wall’s already limited trade value (because his max contract kicks in next season and nobody wants to be on the hook for that deal).

 
Hawks small icon 26. Hawks (6-20, LW 28). John Collins continues to impress upon his return from injury, averaging 18.1 points and shooting 62.2 percent in those 11 games. In his last five games, Collins is averaging 21.6 points and 11.6 rebounds a night. This team does have its moments, like beating Denver last Saturday. The Hawks now head out for 5-of-6 on the road.

 
Knicks small icon 27. Knicks (8-20, LW 25). Courtney Lee is back on the court, although he was a rusty 1-of-7 shooting in his first two games. Lee’s name will come up in a lot of trade talks leading up to the February deadline. Rookie Kevin Knox scored 26 points and had 15 rebounds in a loss to the Hornets, becoming only the second teenager in NBA history to go for 25-15 or better (the other is some guy named LeBron… not sure what ever happened to him).

 
Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (6-21, LW 26). Cleveland did okay in the George Hill trade, doing what a rebuilding team should do — taking on contracts other teams want to dump in exchange for draft picks and young players (this included a protected 2021 first rounder). Maybe the Cavaliers could have held out for a little more, but there is no guarantee they would have gotten it in a tight market. This worked. Next up on the trade block should be J.R. Smith.

 
Bulls small icon 29. Bulls (6-22, LW 29). The Bulls are 1-3 in the Jim Boylen era, with him coming in so out-of-touch old school he had players threatening a mutiny. Well done, Chicago. New coach or not, the biggest difference on the court is the return of Lauri Markkanen from an elbow injury. He has averaged 15.2 points per game, and while he’s struggled with the rust oh his shot the biggest key is he spaces the floor. The Bulls gave the elite Thunder defense problems last Friday because a Zach LaVine/Markkanen pick-and-pop pulled Steven Adams out of the paint and opened up driving lanes — the Bulls floor spacing is so much better with Markkanen in the lineup. Plus, he can do this.

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (4-24, LW 30). Losers of 10 in a row, all I can offer Suns fans is that on Wednesday I dropped an NBA Draft preview podcast where we talk about Zion Williamson, why the shine is coming off R.J. Barrett, and there are thoughts on other top picks coming up in the next draft. Focus on that, you’ll feel better, especially with Devin Booker having to miss time with a hamstring injury.