Victor Oladipo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Things to Know: Vintage Kyrie Irving gives Brooklyn offense much needed spark

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

1) Vintage Kyrie Irving gives Brooklyn offense much-needed spark. The Brooklyn Nets offense has been as grey as their court in recent weeks. The Nets are just coming off a recent seven-game losing streak where their offense scored less than a point per possession (95.1 points per 100 possessions through those seven) and the team had a net rating of -12.

Enter Kyrie Irving and his handles and sharpshooting on Sunday night.

Back on the court after missing 26 games, Irving had 21 points on 10-of-11 shooting (in 20 minutes of action), he fit in well next to Spencer Dinwiddie at guard, and the Nets rolled the Hawks 108-86.

Irving looked sharp, essentially getting wherever he wanted on the court and taking whatever shot he wanted — not looking like a player who had just missed two months due to right shoulder bursitis (Irving admitted as much), an injury that required a cortisone shot to get him back on the court (just a week ago Irving would not rule out season-ending surgery). To be fair, the Nets gave Irving a soft landing spot to return, at home against the Hawks and their 27th ranked defense (and Atlanta was without Trae Young for the night).

The tests get tougher for Irving with Brooklyn’s next games being a back-to-back against red-hot Utah (skip ahead to No. 2 of our three things) then Philadelphia. Two outstanding defensive teams.

Brooklyn needs Irving’s spark, and to get used to playing with a more ball-dominant player. The Nets had fallen three games below .500, which is still good enough for the seven seed in the East, but they didn’t look at all like a threat. It may be difficult for the Nets to climb any higher than seventh — they are 5.5 games back of a good six-seed Indiana team that will get Victor Oladipo back — but with Irving having the ball in his hands, the Nets become a much more dangerous team, especially in a seven-game playoff series.

Also, well done by the Brooklyn fans giving former Net Vince Carter a standing ovation in his final game against his former team. Maybe one day Carter’s number will be retired and hanging in the rafters over Nets games.

2) Jazz win ninth in a row, Nuggets beat Clippers, and seeds 2-5 in the West are insanely tight. Sunday morning, the Los Angeles Clippers woke up in second place in the Western Conference, trailing only that team down the hall. They went to bed Sunday night fifth in the West, opening the playoffs on the road if they started today.

The two through five seeds in the West — four teams — are separated by just half a game right now. With a little more than half a season to go, the race for seeding at the top of the West is going to be must-watch television.

The Jazz are on a nine-game win streak after knocking off the Wizards 127-116 Sunday. Over the course of those nine games, the Jazz have the best offense in the NBA, averaging a ridiculous 121.9 points per 100 possessions (against a decidedly soft schedule, but still). On Sunday, it was Bojan Bogdanovic’s 31 points leading the way, but it should be noted the Jazz are undefeated since adding Jordan Clarkson to their bench.

Combine that with a balanced Nuggets attack — seven players in double figures — knocking off the Clippers (without an injured Paul George) and you have the Nuggets jumping up to the two seed and the Jazz are third. At least for today.

The battle for seeding at the top of the West is going to be intense through the second half of the NBA season.

3) DeMar DeRozan detonated on Chris Boucher. This dunk by DeRozan — back in his old stomping grounds in Toronto — is amazing. However, the best part is the reaction of the bench.

The Spurs went on to win that game 105-104 behind 25 from DeRozan.

NBA Power Rankings: Everyone still chasing the Bucks, Lakers

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The power rankings took a week off so they could go out and celebrate New Year’s Eve last week, but they’re back — and nothing at the top has changed. It’s still Bucks and Lakers on top.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (32-6, Last Week No. 1). Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe both missed time in the past couple of weeks, and the Bucks just kept right on winning. Milwaukee is on pace to win 69 games and run away with the top slot in the East, but at what point does the franchise start to think about resting Antetokounmpo and others to make sure they are fully rested and healthy heading into the playoffs? It’s a little early for that now, but as we move into the coming weeks it’s something Mike Budenholzer needs to consider.

Lakers small icon 2. Lakers (29-7, LW No. 4). Anthony Davis had a nasty fall on Tuesday night and has a bruised tailbone. The good news is the MRI came back clean and it’s just a bruise, but expect the Lakers to be without AD’s 27.1 points and 9.4 rebounds a night. Also expect a lot of Kyle Kuzma trade rumors in the coming weeks, but most likely they get Darren Collison out of retirement and he’s a better playmaker than just about anyone they land for Kuzma. Which is to say, don’t expect a trade. Also, the Lakers are ready for some football.

Celtics small icon 3. Celtics (25-9, LW 2). Dealing with Danny Ainge at the trade deadline should scare teams, he tends to win everything he touches as a GM. For example, that four-year, $107 million Jaylen Brown extension this summer — he has arguably been the most important Celtics player this season and that contract looks like a steal for Boston. The Celtics could use a center that can shoot threes and is more on the age timeline of Brown and Jayson Tatum. That guy may not be available at the deadline. And no, the CBA does not allow Boston to trade to get Aron Baynes back (they could re-sign him next summer).

Jazz small icon 4. Jazz (24-12, LW 12). Winners of six in a row and 11-of-12, and in those last dozen games the Jazz have a league-best +8.7 net rating, with the second best offense in the land (the defense is 10th in the league, good, but not what we expected from this team). Donovan Mitchell is at the heart of the offensive resurgence averaging 24.9 points per game on 50% shooting from the floor over his last 10 games — he won’t be a starter, but he should be an All-Star this season in Chicago.

Rockets small icon 5. Rockets (24-11, LW 5). Russell Westbrook has been more efficient of late because he is getting to the rim more and not settling for the mid-range jump shots defenders are completely willing to give him. Combine Westbrook with Harden, and eventually Eric Gordon, and you have the offense of a contender. However, unless Clint Capela can suddenly turn into a defensive force, the Rockets middle-of-the-pack defense will let them down in the postseason.

Clippers small icon 6. Clippers (26-12, LW 6). The lack of an identity for these Clippers nearly halfway into the season is a concern for Doc Rivers — he said as much after last Saturday’s ugly loss to Memphis — but this mostly stems from health issues. Rivers has had his full compliment of starters and top four bench players exactly one game this season, and that makes it hard to develop chemistry and continuity. The good news for Rivers: The Clippers have easiest schedule of any team in the West in January.

Nuggets small icon 7. Nuggets (25-11, LW 3). There are moments it feels like Michael Porter Jr. is going to break out, like the 19-point game against the Kings or the 25 against the Pacers. But it’s not consistent, the next game after the Pacers he scored just seven and was -16 against Washington (I know single-game plus-minus is flukey, but it illustrates the point here). The Nuggets were counting on him this season, but he’s playing the up-and-down ball of a rookie, as we should have expected of him. The Nuggets have gone 2-2 so far on a five-game road trip that ends in Dallas Wednesday.

Heat small icon 8. Heat (26-11, LW 7). Miami is the luckiest team in the NBA this season. The Heat are outplaying their point differential by four games (via Cleaning the Glass), meaning they have played like a 22-14 team but have gotten lucky. Part of that, Miami is 6-0 in overtime games this season, which involves some luck. Also, teams are getting decent shots and just not hitting them — they have the 10th best eFG% against, but based on the shots they give up that should be 22nd (using Cleaning the Glass’ location eFG% tool). Miami’s a good team, but maybe not as good as their record suggests.

Mavericks small icon 9. Mavericks (23-13, LW 11). LeBron James is impressed with the Dallas bench: “We know not only the season that Luka’s having, but they’ve been successful because of their bench as well. Their bench gives them so much of a push. Luka comes out, KP comes out, their starters come out and their bench seems to rise to the occasion.” The Mavericks are 2-1 halfway through a six-game homestand.

Raptors small icon 10. Raptors (24-13, LW 10). Injuries continue to hobble the Raptors: Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet, and Norman Powell all missed the Raptors most recent game (a loss to the Trail Blazers. That’s why Toronto is 2-3 in its last five. Nick Nurse has done an impressive coaching job this season, getting young players to step up and veterans to take on larger roles, but if the Raptors are going to be a threat in the East they need to get everyone healthy.

Thunder small icon 11. Thunder (21-16, LW 13). Chris Paul has been the most clutch player in the NBA this season. CP3 has scored 103 points in clutch minutes this season (the final five minutes of a game within five points), and that’s far and away the most in the league. He is shooting 54.5% in those clutch minutes and has dished out 11 assists as well. Paul was at it again Tuesday night, scoring 20 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, lifting OKC past Brooklyn.

Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (23-14, LW 8). Victor Oladipo’s return is now targeted for Jan. 29 (this past week he was practicing with the Pacers’ G-League team) — and they could use him. Malcolm Brogdon has been battling back issues which have kept him in and out of the lineup, and the Pacers offense feels the pinch. After a tough game Wednesday night against Miami, the Pacers head out on the road for 7-of-9, and Indy is 8-10 away from home this season.

Sixers small icon 13. 76ers (24-14, LW 9). Ever since the impressive win against Milwaukee on Christmas Day, the Sixers are 1-4 with a -3.9 net rating, having played rather pedestrian ball on both ends of the court. The offensive issues are not a surprise (Ben Simmons needs to attack the rim in crunch time and stop fearing fouls because of his trouble from the stripe), but it’s the defense that is supposed to keep the Sixers afloat through tough times and that has not impressed lately. Brett Brown has to find a way to get this team out of its malaise.

Magic small icon 14. Magic (17-20, LW 16). The loss of Jonathan Isaac in a breakout year for him — he looked like a guy who could make one of the All-Defensive teams at the end of the season — is a real blow. He’s out for two months, which will dent this team’s top-10 defense, but his activity will be missed on offense as well. And Orlando can’t have their offense get any worse if they plan to hold on to one of the last couple of playoff spots in the East.

Blazers small icon 15. Trail Blazers (16-22, LW 15). As disappointing as Portland has been this season — and they are in the running for “most disappointing team in the league — they still sit tied for the nine seed, just 1.5 games out of the playoffs thanks to the surprisingly soft bottom of the West. However, Portland faces a difficult January schedule, playing a lot of quality offensive teams that will test the Blazers’ bottom 10 defense. The schedule will make it tough to climb the ladder in the West. Well, unless they can get more Carmelo Anthony game-winners.

Spurs small icon 16. Spurs (15-20, LW 17). LaMarcus Aldridge, three-point marksman. Apparently that’s a thing now. In his last five games Aldridge is averaging 4.6 attempts from three a game, a huge leap from the 0.5 attempts a game he made last season, and it doubles the less than two attempts a night from the first 20 games of this season. More amazing, he’s hitting 69.6% from three in the last five games. It could be a rough month in San Antonio the Spurs have toughest schedule in the West in January.

Nets small icon 17. Nets (16-20, LW 14). Kyrie Irving got a shot in his shoulder, hoping to numb the pain so he can get back, but if you listened to the press conference he sounded like a guy who could well be headed for season-ending surgery. That adds to the woes in Brooklyn — the Nets have lost six in a row, and it doesn’t get easier with the Heat and Jazz on the schedule this week (and it actually gets tougher the week after that).

Kings small icon 18. Kings (14-23, LW 18). The three players the Kings are counting on to be their core — De'Aaron Fox, Marvin Bagley III, and Buddy Hield — have played a total of 49 minutes together this season due to injuries. Kings fans can blame Luke Walton because their team went from one of the fastest-paced teams in the NBA last season to one of the slowest, but it’s tough to judge his performance without the players the Kings need healthy enough to play. The Kings had the league’s worst record over the last 10 years but have started the new decade winning 3-of-4.

Grizzlies small icon 19. Grizzlies (16-22, LW 22). Ja Morant is the clear frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, but more than that he can be a cornerstone for Memphis to build around (probably with Jaren Jackson Jr.). Morant is incredibly fluid, his trust in his shot is growing, and he is fearless — more than once on Saturday Kawhi Leonard got switched onto him and Morant went right at him (with mixed results). Morant is also walking highlight reel and has become must-watch League Pass viewing.

20. Timberwolves (14-22, LW 28). Karl-Anthony Towns remains sidelined with a sprained knee (11 games and counting), but the Timberwolves have found some spark and have won 3-of-5 without him. This remains a team to watch at the trade deadline, with Robert Covington still drawing interest from teams. Also, stop with the Towns trade talk, that is not happening, he may be frustrated with the losing, but that’s different than going Anthony Davis and forcing his way out. Plus, in the first year of a five-year extension, everyone wants to find a way to make this work.

Bulls small icon 21. Bulls (13-24, LW 19). Chicago’s defense is tied for fifth best in the NBA this season (they have the same defensive rating as the stacked Sixers), but that hasn’t translated into wins because of their 28th-ranked offense. Still, the Bulls have the net rating of a 16-21 team (which would have them half-a-game out of the playoffs). The Bulls have lost four straight against some of the league’s better teams, but the schedule does soften up going forward.

Suns small icon 22. Suns (14-22, LW 23). Devin Booker is on fire, having scored at least 30 points in seven straight games, setting a new franchise record (Charles Barkley had held it at five games). Phoenix is 3-4 in those games seven games, and Booker has lifted their offense up to middle of the pack). He’s not going to be a starter, but Booker should travel to Chicago next month to play in his first All-Star game as a reserve.

Hornets small icon 23. Hornets (15-24, LW 21). Devonte' Graham is the clear early frontrunner to win Most Improved Player this season, he is averaging 19.1 points and 7.8 assists a game. He deserves the award, but it is all fueled by the three-ball — almost 60% of his shot attempts come from deep. To take the next step, Graham has to become a better scorer inside the arc and in he paint. Just look at his shot chart for the season.

Pelicans small icon 24. Pelicans (12-25, LW 27). Derrick Favors has been the guy at the heart of New Orleans winning 5-of-7, with him on the floor they are 6.5 points per 100 possessions better than when he sits. The Pelicans just look like a different team when he plays. The Pelicans are a top-10 defense in the last 10 games thanks to Favors and a scheme where they now drop their bigs back to protect the paint on pick-and-rolls. No word yet on Zion Williamson’s return, but it should be soon. Or, at least soonish.

Pistons small icon 25. Pistons (14-24, LW 20). Blake Griffin had surgery to clean up issues in his knee, and while no official timetable has been given it would be a surprise to see him back this season. That will add to the growing buzz around an Andre Drummond trade, which seems to be more and more likely at the deadline. The silver lining in the Griffin injury is that it clears the way for more Sekou Doumbouya, who has started to look like the future of that franchise.

Wizards small icon 26. Wizards (12-24, LW 24). It’s a “what actually happened to the passengers on flight 828” level
mystery — in the past week a Wizards team without Bradley Beal or Thomas Bryant or
Rui Hachimura or Davis Bertans or John Wall have beaten the Heat, Nuggets, and Celtics. Why? How? Some things are just better left unexplained.

Knicks small icon 27. Knicks (10-26, LW 29). Marcus Morris scoring 38 points against the Clippers on Sunday almost felt like an audition for playoff teams watching — “look, I can help you against elite teams.” The Knicks were competitive in that game, as they have been against some other top teams of late, and New York is 6-9 with Mike Miller as the interim coach. They are at least competing.

Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (10-27, LW 25). Kevin Love is clearly unhappy — even if the way he is venting it on the court is not the most professional of moves — and wants to be traded. It’s just hard to see that coming together thanks to him being in the first year of a four-year, $120 million contract extension. Love still brings value on the court, but not at the level he’s being paid, and that has team balking when it comes to making a trade. Still, the rumors are flying around.

Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (8-29, LW 30). Trae Young is going to be an All-Star this year, and if the fans get their way he will start (he led East guards after the first round of fan voting). While we can talk about his lack of defense or how he needs to grow to be the kind of guy who can lead a team deep in the playoffs, Young is a walking highlight reel and that’s what you want at the glorified exhibition that is the All-Star game.

Warriors small icon 30. Warriors (9-29 LW 26). The focus in the Bay Area has turned to the next draft, understandably, with some calls for the Warriors to get a center or rim-protecting big, wherever they end up picking. That’s the wrong strategy. If James Wiseman falls in your lap, great, but take the best player on the board. Try to draft for position and you end up saying things like “we don’t need to draft Luka Doncic we have De’Aaron Fox” or “we don’t need to draft Michael Jordan, we have Clyde Drexler.” Take the best player and work the rest out later.

Victor Oladipo reportedly hopes to return to Pacers in about a month

Victor Oladipo
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The Pacers said Victor Oladipo was “still a ways away” from returning from a knee injury.

What does that mean?

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Victor Oladipo is hopeful to return to the lineup by early February — and perhaps as soon as late January — from a ruptured right quad tendon, league sources told ESPN.

Whether or not this is good news depends on your perspective. Oladipo got hurt last January. As of last summer, the Pacers reportedly hoped he’d return in December or January. The latest update didn’t sound encouraging.

Indiana is 21-10. Malcolm Brogdon is starring as lead guard. Domantas Sabonis is stepping up inside. Plenty of other players are providing quality depth.

But Oladipo raises the Pacers’ ceiling. Before getting hurt, he played the best defense among high-scoring guards. If he regains his form and he and his teammates acclimate to each other, Indiana could be dangerous in the playoffs.

Three Things to Know: Anthony Davis’ value to Lakers evident in loss to Pacers

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

1) If you want to know how much Anthony Davis means to the Lakers, watch their loss to the Pacers. It’s December, this is when you rest a guy if he tweaks an ankle to make sure it doesn’t become something bigger and chronic. Which is exactly what the Lakers did Tuesday with Anthony Davis — he suffered a “mild” sprained ankle at the end of the win against Atlanta Sunday, so he sat out Tuesday vs. Indiana.

His value to Los Angeles was clearly evident in a loss to the Pacers Tuesday that snapped a 14-game road winning streak for the Lakers.

Davis is the defensive anchor for Los Angeles (and an early candidate for Defensive Player of the Year), a force on his man who is also an elite help defender. Without him, Domantas Sabonis scored 26 points, and Malcolm Brogdon was getting past Dwight Howard for reverse layups that became game-winners.

Also, Davis is the Lakers’ best rebounder and his presence on the glass was missing. The Pacers grabbed the offensive rebound on 30% of their missed shots, which also limited the chances for the Lakers to get out and run — something the Lakers do surprisingly well — and Los Angeles had just 10 fast break points.

Give Indiana credit, this is a gritty team with a strong defense that deserved the win. Malcolm Brogdon has been worth every penny, and the Sabonis/Myles Turner combination seems to be clicking much better of late. When Victor Oladipo returns, if he can be close to his All-NBA self from before he ruptured his right quad tendon, the Pacers become a dangerous playoff team nobody will want to face.

That doesn’t take away from the fact the Lakers are just not the same team without Anthony Davis (and Kyle Kuzma is out as well with his own ankle issue). Davis’ status for Thursday’s showdown with Milwaukee is not yet known, but as fans we want to see him out there for what is the most anticipated game of the season so far.

2) It’s time to let the Replay Center in Secaucus initiate end-of-game reviews. At every NBA game, there is a guy at the scorer’s table with an oversized headset on in constant contact with the NBA Replay Center in Secaucus, New Jersey. The point is so the scorers can hear quickly and directly from them on reviews of if a shot is a two vs. a three, for example.

It’s time to let the officials in Secaucus also initiate a few reviews of obvious missed calls late in games — plays not reviewed because no call was made to review (or for other reasons).

Case in point, the end of the Pelicans’ overtime loss to Brooklyn.

The game was tied 93-93 and there was about a three-second difference between the shot and game clocks. Brooklyn wisely tried to eat up as much of the shot clock as they could before taking a shot, but then Spencer Dinwiddie badly missed a three that hit the corner of the backboard. It was an obvious shot clock violation, ball out of bounds to New Orleans with 2.7 seconds left — except there was no call. The officials told Pelicans’ coach Alvin Gentry the ball “clearly” hit the rim. Clearly it did not. This was not even particularly close. Even the Brooklyn broadcast on the YES Network said the officials missed this one.

What is the point of having all that review technology if not to get a call like this right? Not just going over and reviewing it comes off as the referees trying to protect their egos over getting a call right. Fair or not.

Which is why Secaucus should be able to talk to the scorer’s table courtside, call over the referees, and say “review this.” Just because there was no call doesn’t mean a play should not be reviewed.

Officiating an NBA game is impossibly difficult and the officials in the league are the best in the world (fans scoff at that, but watch college or FIBA refs and get back to me). They do an amazingly good job, and when they do miss big calls it eats at them. They are professionals who want to get it right. The key is a willingness to check their egos and get things right, which is why a Secaucus-initiated review makes sense.

Would the Pelicans have hit a game-winner and snapped their 12-game losing streak? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe the Pelicans airball their shot, the game goes to overtime, and that OT plays out just like the one we got and the Nets win. We’ll never know.

But at least New Orleans would have had a final shot in that scenario.

3) De'Aaron Fox returns just as Sacramento is starting to play better, could they make the playoffs? The goal in Sacramento this season was simple: Make the playoffs. For the first time in 13 years. The last time Sacramento made the postseason it was 2006 and Rick Adelman was running his corner offense in the California capital.

If the playoffs started today, Sacramento would be in as the eighth seed.

And Sacramento is just getting healthy — Marvin Bagley III returned four games ago, and on Tuesday night in Charlotte De’Aaron Fox returned to the lineup. Fox came off the bench in his first game but still led the team with 19 points and eight assists (he remains on a minutes restriction.

The Hornets won the game, 110-102, and remain in the thick of the East playoff chase, too.

Even with the loss, Sacramento has won 4-of-6, and now they’re about to get their best players back on the court. And, starting Dec. 23 (against Houston), the Kings have 10-of-12 at home. Make a run there and the Kings can start to solidify a playoff spot in the West. Sure, only because the bottom of the West is much worse than expected, but the Kings do not care.

The Kings just want a ticket to the postseason dance, and finally getting healthy, maybe they could earn one.