NBA Power Rankings: Nobody is knocking the Celtics off the top spot this week

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Most of the NBA’s eyes are on Dec. 15 and the coming trade season, but games are still being played and the Celtics are still looking dominant, which is why they top this week’s NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings. The Bucks are back up to second, knocking the Suns down to third.

 
Celtics small icon 1. Celtics (20-5, Last week No.1). Fueling the Celtics’ historically good offense — they are on pace to have the most efficient offense in NBA history — is the 3-pointer. Boston is on pace to make more 3s than any team in NBA history: They are averaging 16.6 3s a game, which is on pace for 1,361. The 2020-21 Utah Jazz made 16.74 3s per game that season, but because of the COVID-shortened season they “only” made 1,205 total — Boston should smash that number. The Celtics are 2-0 to start a tough road trip, with the Suns, Warriors and then both Los Angeles teams left on the schedule.

 
Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (17-6, LW 3). Brook Lopez is having maybe the best season of his career, playing at a Defensive Player of the Year level on that end of the floor with a league-leading three blocks a game, plus pitching in 15.3 points a night — and the time to do that is a contract year. Nobody around the league thinks he’s bolting the Bucks, he’ll get an extension or sign a new deal in the offseason, but he’s getting a big raise from the $13.9 million he’s making now. Friday night in Dallas starts a string of 8-of-10 on the road for Milwaukee (they are 6-3 away from home so far).

 
Suns small icon 3. Suns (16-8, LW 2). Chris Paul returns to the Suns lineup on Wednesday night after missing a month with a heel injury. Phoenix went 9-5 while Paul rested heel, with a +5.9 net rating that was fourth best in the NBA over that stretch. Really interesting test coming up over the weekend with the team just below the Suns in this ranking — games Friday and Sunday nights in New Orleans. The Pelicans are just on the Suns’ heels in the West, can Phoenix establish itself early as the team to beat to get the top seed out West, or is New Orleans more of a real threat than some give them credit for?

 
Pelicans small icon 4. Pelicans (15-8, LW 6). The conventional wisdom was that having CJ McCollum and Zion Williamson full-time in the Pelicans lineup would spell trouble for the team’s defense, but coach Willie Green has them playing the third-best defense in the NBA on that end. Of late, Zion Williamson is starting to contribute on that end — his athleticism made him a defensive force at Duke, but in the NBA he has been more of a target for offenses. That has looked better of late, and it helps that Zion can occasionally do this:

 
Grizzlies small icon 5. Grizzlies (15-9, LW 5). Desmond Bane remains out, but the return of Jaren Jackson Jr. is starting to have the expected impact on defense — the Grizzlies are sixth in the league in defense over their last six games (stats via Cleaning the Glass, and BTW the Griz are 5-1 in that stretch). The offense, carried by Ja Morant, continues to be in the top 10 in the league. This is just a reminder of how big a difference Jackson Jr. can make at the rim.

 
Cavaliers small icon 6. Cavaliers (16-9, LW 4). After beating the Lakers Tuesday, the Cavaliers are 11-1 at home in the Rocket Mortgage Field House, with a +12.2 net rating. However, on the road the Cavs are 5-8, albeit with a +1.3 net rating (they have been a little unlucky on the road). That matters because the win over Los Angeles was the first of 9-of-11 games at home. It also helps that Cleveland got Jarrett Allen back against the Lakers, he has played at a Defensive Player of the Year level when healthy this season.

 
Warriors small icon 7. Warriors (13-12, LW 12). While they had a nice recent win in Minnesota, Golden State is 2-10 away from the Chase Center this season with a -8.5 net rating. Their offense stumbles a little away from home (15th in the league), but the issue has been on defense where they are second worst in the league (and 12.8 per 100 worse than their defense at home). This matters because the Warriors have 7-of-8 coming up on the road, including games against the Bucks, 76ers, and both New York teams. The Warriors have recalled James Wiseman from the G-League after he got seven games under his belt.

 
Mavericks small icon 8. Mavericks (13-11, LW 11). Luka Doncic continues to play at an MVP level, but Jason Kidd knows he needs to reduce Doncic’s minutes at some point. He told Yahoo Sports: “For 82 games, it’s no way that he can play at this level, the usage is just way too high. No one can.” Tim Hardaway is providing some help since being moved into the starting lineup, scoring 21.3 points per game and shooting 52.5% on 3-pointers.

 
Kings small icon 9. Kings (13-9, LW 15). Sacramento fans were mocked for chanting “40 wins” after a good Summer League outing, but suddenly that number seems low for the feel-good story of the season. Based purely on point differential so far, Cleaning the Glass projects the Kings to finish with 49 or 50 wins, while the more nuanced formulas at fivethirtyeight.com suggest 44 or 42 wins. The Kings’ offense has come back to earth the last couple of weeks, but Mike Brown’s defensive lessons seem to be taking hold as the Kings have the third-best defense in the NBA over the last six games. Sacramento is heading out on the road for six games against the East.

 
Nuggets small icon 10. Nuggets (14-10, LW 8). Maybe some home cooking will help turn around the Nuggets’ 26th-ranked defense — the stat that makes us question if they really are a threat in the West. Denver is tied for the most road games in the league, but after Portland on Thursday have 6-of-7 at home in the Rocky Mountains. If your question is, ‘does Denver struggle defensively in the halfcourt or transition?’ the answer is yes. Both rank in the bottom 10 in the league. The one bright spot is the fifth-ranked offense, which is led by Nikola Jokic, who is having another MVP-level season statistically (even if it is highly unlikely voters will give him a third-straight award).

 
Jazz small icon 11. Jazz (14-12, LW 14). Are the Jazz the 10-3 team from the start and the season or the team that has gone 4-9 since? While Utah has dropped 6-of-8, they have been in those games with only one of the losses being by double digits. One pleasant surprise of late has been the play of rookie center Walker Kessler, who has averaged 7.2 points and two blocked shots a game coming off the bench in his last five games. The Jazz are 2-2 on a six-game homestead that wraps up this week with the Warriors then Timberwolves.

 
Nets small icon 12. Nets (13-12, LW 16). TJ Warren returned to the court Friday night and was rusty, as one should expect of a guy who has missed the better part of two seasons. That said, he looked solid and if he can shake off the rust and stay healthy he can bring some needed depth to Brooklyn — depth that is needed because some role players they expected more out of have not lived up to the hype. Joe Harris must still be bothered by his ankle issue as he is averaging 8.6 points a game and shooting 36.8% from 3, numbers far below his pre-injury production.

 
Sixers small icon 13. 76ers (12-12, LW 7). James Harden is back, but so much for being eased into things as he had to play 38 minutes in a 2OT loss to the lowly Rockets (a game where Joel Embiid fouled out). Harden was an understandably rusty 4-of-19 shooting in that game, but he made some passes and a couple of step-back 3s that reminded everyone how he juices an offense — which matters because over the past couple of weeks that’s been the weaker end of the court for Philly (23rd in the league over the last seven games). Maybe the Sixers can find their footing on the seven-game homestead that starts against the Lakers Friday.

 
Hawks small icon 14. Hawks (13-11, LW 19). The reports of friction between Trae Young and Nate McMillan are not new, those rumors have been all over the league all season, nor are the questions about whether Young will adjust his game to fit better with Dejounte Murray next to him. With those two guards, John Collins has become an afterthought in the offense on too many trips down the court and the long-simmering rumors of a trade for him seem to both be heating up and have some validity this time. The question is what will the Hawks seek in return? The Hawks have 5-of-6 coming up on the road, including both New York teams and a tough test Monday in Memphis.

 
Clippers small icon15. Clippers (14-11, LW 9). Kawhi Leonard is back and, right on cue, knocked down the game-winner in his first game. The Clippers have done a great job with their role players keeping their heads above water — their most-used five-man lineup of Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard, George, Marcus Morris and Ivica Zubac has a +15 net rating. The Clippers also have a +18.5 net rating when Leonard and George are on the court together. Now they have to just stay healthy and give this roster a chance to build some chemistry and good habits going forward, then we’ll see what they’ve got.

 
Raptors small icon 16. Raptors (12-12, LW 13). Is this ranking too low for the team with the fifth-best net rating in the East? Maybe, but the return of Pascal Siakam has not sparked a middle-of-the-road offense — since he came back Toronto is 2-3 with an offensive rating a couple of points worse than their season average. Siakam is putting up numbers (24.5 points, 8.9 rebounds, 7.1 assists a game) but as a team Toronto is just not efficient shooting the ball and it holds them back. Maybe the Raptors two games over the weekend in Orlando will be a chance for the Raptors’ offense to find a groove.

 
Blazers small icon 17. Trail Blazers (13-11, LW 18). Damian Lillard is back in the lineup and the Trail Blazers’ offense just looked more fluid, the spacing and ball movement was better in the win against Indiana. Portland had gone 2-5 without him for this stretch, he is too critical to a team with little margin for error to miss much time. The guy Portland could use to get back next is Gary Payton II to help their defense — they are 24th in the league in defense for the season, but that has been worse of late (28th in the NBA over their last seven games). Unfortunately, there is no timeline yet for his return from core muscle surgery this offseason. Portland’s win over Indiana was the start of a four-game homestead that precedes a heavy road stretch through the start of the new year.

 
Lakers small icon 18. Lakers 10-13, LW 24). The Lakers are 8-3 in their last 11 games, with a top-10 offense and defense, but it was evident how critical Anthony Davis is to all that in the Lakers’ loss Tuesday in Cleveland (when Davis left the game in the first quarter due to “flu-like symptoms”). As pointed out at The Athletic, during this streak the Lakers have been running a lot more Davis/LeBron James pick-and-rolls (they leaned on it late in the win over the Bucks), and they are doing it closer to the top of the key, not out above the arc.

 
Pacers small icon 19. Pacers (13-11, LW 10). Bennedict Mathurin isn’t the only rookie standing out in Indiana (although he is one of the clear top-two rookies so far this season), former Gonzaga point guard Andrew Nembhard dropped 31 points with 13 assists on the Warriors this week in a Pacers’ upset win. The recent struggles with the Pacers (they have dropped 5-of-8) had some league executives hoping Indiana would revert to its plan to trade veterans Myles Turner and Buddy Hield, but the team is two-games over .500 and still the fifth seed in the East — if they stay in the playoff mix, convincing ownership to make that trade becomes very difficult.

 
Heat small icon 20. Heat (11-14, LW 21). The Heat remain a mystery. Jimmy Butler returned last Friday and immediately started draining clutch shots in a statement win against the Celtics, reminding everyone why a healthy Heat team is a threat in the postseason. Then they turn around two nights later and lose to a Grizzlies team resting four starters. Two nights after that they fell to the banged-up and not-very-good Pistons. The good news is that on Tuesday night Victor Oladipo made his debut this season, if he can stay healthy and provide some bench support it would be a massive boost to Miami.

 
Wizards small icon 21. Wizards (11-13, LW 17). Kyle Kuzma trade rumors popped up this week and it presents Wizards ownership and management with a question: Do we like where we’re at and should we keep Kuzma and try to re-sign him this summer and see how far the Bradley Beal/Kristaps Porzingis/Kuzma core can go; or, do we sell high on Kuzma and start thinking about the future because we don’t think this team can win a title? History suggests the Wizards will keep Kuzma at the deadline — they just maxed out Beal, they don’t want to blow this up. But if the Wizards are not going to pay up and re-sign him — he will opt out of his $13 million for next season and likely get something closer to $25 million a season — then they have to consider the trade.

 
Knicks small icon 22. Knicks (11-13, LW 22). Knicks management is reportedly working the phones heading into the NBA trade season, but not so much to make a blockbuster move, it’s more looking to send out a player or two — Evan Fournier, maybe Immanuel Quickley — to clear up a roster logjam. Tom Thibodeau finally leaned into Quentin Grimes at the two — he is their best defender on the perimeter — and with that Fournier has largely fallen out of the rotation. The Knicks aren’t going to get a lot back for him, but they would love to get off his salary. Interesting test against the Hawks Wednesday.

 
Thunder small icon 23. Thunder (11-13, LW 25). Jalen Williams is starting to find his way as a rookie, and we saw it last week with his 27-point game against the Spurs. It was a game where Shai Gilgeous-Alexnader was out and Williams had the ball in his hands more, but he took advantage of the opportunity and showed a tremendous feel for the game for a rookie. The Thunder have started their five-game road trip 2-0, but it doesn’t get easier with Memphis, Cleveland, and Dallas ahead.

 
24. Timberwolves (11-12, LW 23). One of the bigger misses in my preseason projections was the Minnesota defense — with Rudy Gobert I thought it would be top-10 in the league and help rack up wins while the team figured out if Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns can play together. Instead, Minnesota is 16th in the league in defense and it hasn’t gotten any better of late (despite Anthony Edwards going on a steals tear). With Towns missing a month or more with a calf injury, the fit questions are also on hold. Starting on Friday in Utah, Minnesota is on a five-game road trip through the West, including a couple of games against Portland.

 
Bulls small icon 25. Bulls (9-14, LW 20). Trying to shake things up, Billy Donovan put Alex Caruso and Javonte Green in the starting lineup replacing Ayo Dosunmu and Patrick Williams, and he may stick with that for a while (although Williams was back with Green out vs. the Kings due to knee soreness). Donovan is searching for something to spark the offense, which remains bottom 10 in the league despite a roster with DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic. As the Bulls continue to struggle, the trade rumors around the team continue to grow (other teams are interested in DeRozan but Chicago is more willing to part with Vucevic).

 
Rockets small icon 26. Rockets (7-17, LW 27). Jabari Smith has found his stoke. The No.3 pick had a rough start to the season, but over his last 10 games he is averaging 14.2 points per game and is shooting 42.2% on 3-pointers (on 6.4 attempts a game). He has been fantastic on the catch of his shoot because of his quick release, something that pairs well with the slashing of Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr. After Thursday’s game in San Antonio, Houston has seven games in a row at home.

 
Hornets small icon 27. Hornets (7-17, LW 26). Steve Clifford has his squad putting out a strong effort every night, which is worth noting considering how hard injuries have hit this team (LaMelo Ball has played in just three games, Gordon Hayward has missed 13 and Terry Rozier eight). The Hornets have not just rolled over. With a void in the offense Kelly Oubre Jr. has stepped up as a gunner and is averaging 22.4 points a game over his last 10, and while he’s not terribly efficient doing it no doubt Oubre Jr. is comfortable taking all those extra shots.

Pistons small icon 28. Pistons (7-19, LW 28). If you’re looking for the silver lining, the fact Cade Cunningham is out (many around the league think for the season, although that is not official yet) means the Pistons have put the ball in the hands of rookie Jaden Ivey and he has shown promise. Ivey is averaging 15.9 points and 4.3 assists a game (that’s the most dimes per game of any rookie). The Pistons are still showing some fight, picking up a win against a Heat team that hasn’t consistently shown the grit of of Detroit this season.

 
Magic small icon 29. Magic 5-20, LW 29). The Magic are finally healthy in the backcourt, with Markelle Fultz and Cole Anthony returning to the floor this past week. However, that guard depth did not spark a win and the Magic have dropped nine straight, although all the losses were to teams with records of .500 or better. This is just a tough patch for the Magic and the young core is learning lessons the hard way. However, we can’t go a week without a Bol Bol highlight, how about coast-to-coast for the slam against the Raptors.

 
Spurs small icon 30. Spurs (6-18, LW 30). The losing streak has reached 11 straight (second longest in franchise history) and it’s tough to find bright spots at this point (other than Spurs fans watching Victor Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson highlights). One might be the play of backup center Charles Bassey, the second-round pick a year ago out of Western Kentucky, who is averaging six rebounds a night off the bench in San Antonio. The Spurs host the Rockets Thursday night, which is their best chance to break the streak this week.

Watch Pacers rookie Nembhard drop 31, outduel Curry, lead Pacers past Warriors

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SAN FRANCSICO — Rookie Andrew Nembhard outshined the Splash Brothers on their home court.

Nembhard scored a season-high 31 points and added 13 assists and eight rebounds to lead the undermanned Indiana Pacers to a 112-104 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Monday night.

A second-round draft pick, Nembhard made a key 3-pointer with 4:26 to go and another jumper less than two minutes later.

“He was masterful tonight … 31 and 13, those are high lottery numbers,” coach Rick Carlisle said.

Indiana played without starting point guard Tyrese Haliburton for a second straight game as he nurses soreness in his left groin.

Klay Thompson scored 28 points and made eight 3-pointers, moving up the NBA’s career 3-point list on the six-year anniversary of his 60-point masterpiece against the Pacers.

Thompson finished 9 of 23, but Stephen Curry was held to 12 points on 3-for-17 shooting. Jordan Poole scored 23 starting in place of Andrew Wiggins, who sat out with tightness of the adductor muscle in his right leg.

“No matter what we do, it’s going to be hard to guard these guys. We had some good fortune with them missing some shots they may normally make,” Carlisle said. “But our guys played with a lot of presence to start the game. We were switching a lot and everyone was tied together.”

Nembhard hit five 3s while Buddy Hield added 17 points, nine rebounds and five assists as Indiana snapped a three-game losing streak with just its second win in six games.

Nembhard and the Pacers hardly looked like a team playing the second game of a road back-to-back.

“He was hoopin’ and I think that starts in the first half for us,” Golden State’s Donte DiVincenzo said. “The guards have to get into it a little bit more.”

Golden State had its 10-game home winning streak snapped.

Curry went 1 of 7 in the first half, missing all four of his 3-point tries and was 2 for 10 from deep overall. Curry finally connected from long range with 5:13 left in the third after missing his first five.

The Pacers, missing six players with injuries or illness, jumped out to a 22-12 lead as Golden State started 5 for 17.

Thompson knocked down three straight 3-pointers – all from the right wing – to tie the game at 42 with 4:51 left in the second quarter before a Pacers timeout. Thompson also dished out an assist on Jonathan Kuminga‘s layup before his trio of 3s and nearly had another when Kuminga was fouled and made both free throws to cap a 20-2 run 3:40 before halftime.

Three things to know: On night of returns Harden rusty, Leonard hits game-winner

Philadelphia 76ers v Houston Rockets
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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) James Harden was rusty, Joel Embiid fouled out, 76ers fall to Rockets in 2OT

Philadelphia picked a soft landing spot for the return of James Harden, on the road against his young and struggling former Houston team, followed by coming home for seven in a row.

This was not what Doc Rivers and company pictured.

For example, remember Harden was going to be a minutes limit? Rivers had him out there for 38 minutes in a double-overtime game, throwing him back into the fire in the overtimes because he had little choice.

Harden made four 3-pointers but was understandably rusty after missing 14 games with a strained tendon in his right foot, and he was 0-8 inside the arc. He missed an open potential game-winner at the end of the first overtime. Still, he made some passes and a shot or two that reminded everyone what he can do when he gets his legs back under him — and why the 76ers need him.

Combine that with Joel Embiid feasting early on the undersized Rockets inside, and Sixers fans could see a path to a comfortable win.

However, the underlying problem that did them in was looming — Houston was attacking the rim, drawing fouls, and living at the line. The Rockets got 15 free throw attempts in the first quarter, a trend that would continue much of the night.

The Rockets hung around and hung around, getting 27 points from Jalen Green, while Kevin Porter Jr. added 24. And they kept drawing fouls, eventually fouling out Joel Embiid in the first overtime. When the Rockets hit a couple of 3-pointers to open the second OT, they took control and got the win, 132-123.

Harden’s return should eventually boost the 76ers bottom 10 offense, but what this team really needs is to get healthy (Tyrese Maxey remains out with a foot injury) and to string together a few wins. They start a seven-game homestead Friday against the Lakers (not the best time to catch Anthony Davis and company) and that would be a chance to right the ship. And get out of the play-in level they are at right now.

2) Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return, until the game was on the line

The Clippers followed the 76ers model for the return of their stars — Kawhi Leonard and Paul George both returned to the lineup against an injury-plagued and struggling Hornets team. A nice soft landing spot…

That turned out not to be as soft as imagined.

As expected playing just his sixth game of the year, Leonard looked rusty in his return, starting the night 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

Then he hit two buckets in the final minute that got the Clippers the win.

The first was set up by an impressive hustle play from Paul George, who saved a ball going out of bounds to Leonard under the basket for a shot that tied the game.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner. That is vintage Leonard, using his strength to get to his spot and then calmly draining the shot.

If you’re looking for positives in Los Angeles, the Clippers showed some resilience and grit in getting the win. Leonard finished with 16 points and George looked sharper with 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. Clippers’ role players stepped up.

The Clippers need their stars to stay healthy and on the court, and to build some chemistry. Traditionally 20 games into the season we know who a team is, but this year’s Clippers are the exception to that rule. Their role players and a strong defense have kept the team’s head above water (14-11 on the season), but they need their stars back to turn around their 29th-ranked offense. Then we can see if they have the potential to be a threat in the West or not.

3) Pacers rookie Andrew Nembhard outduels Stephen Curry, Pacers win

Yes, you read that right.

While Bennedict Mathurin has been the Pacers’ rookie garnering most of the attention (and some early Rookie of the Year talk), Andrew Nembhard has been showing out of late. Monday night he had 31 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists and hit some key shots late to fuel the Pacers’ 112-102 upset win over the Warriors.

With Tyrese Haliburton out (groin injury), Nembhard — the four-year college player from Gonzaga who was taken No.31 in last year’s draft — showed he knows how to run a team and knock down a 3 (he’s shooting 42.9% from deep this season).

The Pacers also won because it was just an off night for Stephen Curry: 12 points on 3-of-17 shooting overall and 2-of-10 from 3. It felt like a night where the Warriors looked at the Pacers’ inactive list for the game — Haliburton, Myles Turner, Chris Duarte, T.J. McConnell, Daniel Theis, James Johnson — and thought they would cruise to a win. Do that against NBA players and you pay the price.

Because guys like Andrew Nembhard can flat-out play.

BONUS THING TO KNOW: Today is Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s 28th birthday. What does he want? What are his plans? And why is he doing his postgame media session with Homer J. Simpson? There are a lot of questions.

Lakers reportedly leaning toward packaging Beverley, Nunn in trade

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While the Lakers have looked better of late winning 6-of-8 with a top-10 offense and defense in the league in that stretch, plus Anthony Davis continues to play at an All-NBA level at center.

That run — which still has Los Angeles sitting 13th in the West — came against a soft part of the schedule (three wins against the Spurs, for example), and is about to get tested with a few weeks of tougher games, starting with the suddenly healthy Milwaukee Bucks on Friday. While the Lakers have been better, nobody is watching them and thinking “contender.” Are they even a playoff team?

Which is why the Lakers are still in the market for trades. But Jovan Buha reports at The Athletic the Lakers realize moving Russell Westbrook and his $47 million may not happen, so they are focused more on a smaller deal moving Patrick Beverley and Kendrick Nunn (with maybe a pick) to bring back quality role players to round out the roster).

The Lakers are leaning toward [a Nunn/Beverley trade] at this point, the team sources said. That would entail making a smaller move to marginally upgrade the roster while retaining the possibility of following up with a larger Westbrook deal later in the season…

Beverley ($13 million) and Nunn ($5.3 million) are both underperforming relative to their contracts. With the Lakers’ needs for additional size on the wing and a better complimentary big next to Anthony Davis, along with the roster’s glut of small guards, Beverley and/or Nunn are expendable. Packaged together, the Lakers could acquire a player or players in the $20 million range.

Trading Nunn and Beverley lines up with a couple of good options from the Lakers’ perspective. For example, the salaries work to get Bojan Bogdanovic out of Detroit, or it matches up with a deal for Jakob Poeltl and Josh Richardson out of San Antonio. However, neither the Pistons nor Spurs care much about adding veteran guards on expiring contracts in Nunn and Beverley, so it’s going to require the Lakers throwing in one of their first-round picks unprotected (2027 or 2029) and maybe a second-rounder to get it done. (With how well the Pacers are playing, it’s not a sure thing that a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade is still available.) The Spurs trade may be more appealing to the Lakers because Richardson and Poeltl are expiring contracts, so it doesn’t change the Lakers’ plans to use cap space to chase bigger names this offseason (Bogdanovic was recently given a two-year, $39.1 million extension).

These may not be the “move us into contender range” blockbuster Rob Pelinka and the front office hoped was out there, but either of those trades would make the Lakers better. It could move them into playoff-team status, and considering LeBron James turns 38 at the end of the month they can’t waste a year and retool next offseason.

The Lakers have made a number of miscalculations over the years, but they are all-in with this group now and have to find a way to maximize it, even if the cost is a little painful.

NBA Power Rankings: Celtics remain on top but Suns jump up to second

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We head into the holiday season and the Boston Celtics are still rolling atop the NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings this week. The Suns jumped up to second with a few wins while the Bucks stumbled, but the Pelicans remain in the top 10 and a surprise to be there.

 
Celtics small icon 1. Celtics (17-4, Last week No.1). Joe Mazzulla is going to get some Coach of the Year votes. It may be too early to start thinking about awards not voted on until April, but Mazzulla was thrust into an awkward situation with the suspension of Ime Udoka for the season, and all he has done is preside over the best offense in the history of the NBA — a 120.9 net rating (for comparison, the Jazz had the best offense in the NBA the previous two seasons at 116.2 and 116.5). Mazzulla didn’t mess with what works and kept the team focused. He deserves credit for that. Two interesting games this week against the Miami Heat, both in Boston (and the second one may see Jimmy Butler return).

 
Suns small icon 2. Suns (14-6, LW 3). The Suns are not the same team away from the Footprint Center in Phoenix — they are 11-1 at home and 3-5 on the road so far this season. Starting Sunday that will be put to the test as the Suns head out on the road for 6-of-7. Will Phoenix have Chris Paul for those games? Suns just-extended head of basketball ops James Jones said “he’s close” to a possible C3P return (he has missed 10 games with a heel injury), but there is no official return date set (he is out Wednesday vs. Chicago). One of the games on the upcoming road trip is against Dallas and Luka Doncic, the first time the playoff foes from last season have met since opening night.

 
Bucks small icon 3. Bucks (14-5, LW 2). After their 9-0 start to the season, the Bucks are a .500 team, with a pedestrian defense and a bottom-10 offense in that stretch. It’s hard to read too much into that with Khris Middleton still out — although he is poised to return this week, a massive boost for the team in the half-court — all of which may be a sign there are vulnerabilities in Milwaukee. Giannis Antetokounmpo set a career-best with nine dunks against the Cavaliers, a team with generally good rim protection but not in transition last Friday night.

 
Cavaliers small icon 4. Cavaliers (13-8, LW 4). Donovan Mitchell has been everything the Cavaliers have hoped for and more, but the first quarter of the season has shown Jarrett Allen is the most valuable Cavalier — he solidifies their paint defense and provides quality screen setting on offense. The Cavaliers have been 6.9 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court this season, but it’s the defensive end that comes apart when he misses games. Cleveland is a team of streaks: Win eight in a row, lose five in a row, win 5-of-6, then they fell again Monday in Toronto. LeBron and the Lakers come to town next Tuesday.

 
Grizzlies small icon 5. Grizzlies (12-8, LW 12). Memphis may only be 3-2 in games Jaren Jackson Jr. has played since his return, but they have outscored opponents by 13.9 points per 100 possessions in the minutes he is on the court — he matters that much to this team. We also need to give some love to Santi Aldama, who played well with Jackson out and his defense and finishing are going to help this team win games when it matters. A couple of interesting games against the East are coming up, Friday night against the 76ers then Monday against the Heat.

 
Pelicans small icon 6. Pelicans (12-8, LW 9). Is New Orleans for real? On paper they are one of a handful of teams with a top-10 offense and defense, the traditional sign of a contender (it’s also a flawed measure, Boston doesn’t have a top-10 D right now but they are clearly contenders). Doubters will point to the fact opponents are shooting just 33.2% from 3 against the Pelicans (something likely to go up), plus that the Pelicans are 8-1 against teams under .500 but 4-7 against teams over that mark. Still, you have to beat the teams in front of you and the Pelicans have the fourth-best net rating in the league. Good tests are coming up with games this week against Toronto and Denver.

 
Sixers small icon 7. 76ers (12-9, LW 16). James Harden is expected to return on Philadelphia’s three-game road trip, maybe in Houston next Monday night (good soft landing spot). The 76ers are 8-4 in the dozen games Harden has missed so far and have the best defense in the NBA over that stretch — that is the end of the floor where they need to thrive after Harden (and, eventually, Tyrese Maxey) returns. The 76ers have those eight wins without Harden because B-Ball Paul Reed, Shake Milton and others (including Tobias Harris) have stepped up in recent games.

 
Nuggets small icon 8. Nuggets (13-7, LW 11). Denver outscores its opponents by 12.8 points per 100 possessions when Nikola Jokic is on the court, but gets outscored by 13.9 per 100 when he sits — the team is +26.7 when he plays. That’s the kind of wild on/off differential that helped him win back-to-back MVPs, but it was supposed to be different this season with the return of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., the maturation of Bones Highland and the addition of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The issues with the Nuggets bench remains and it’s something they need to solve if they want to challenge the teams above them in this ranking.

 
Clippers small icon9. Clippers (13-9, LW 7). It’s still hard to figure out what these Clippers are. They won the first three games Kawhi Leonard was back, and they have a ridiculous +31.7 net rating in the limited minutes that Paul George and Leonard are on the court together. But this team can’t stay healthy — Leonard was out with a sprained ankle — and gets its rotations set, so it just keeps treading water. Tuesday night in Portland started 6-of-7 on the road for Los Angeles.

 
Pacers small icon 10. Pacers (12-8, LW 13). Indiana and Myles Turner came through Los Angeles — the Pacers beat the Lakers on a dramatic game-winner by rookie Andrew Nembhard, but fell to the Clippers — and that revived trade speculation going back to this summer. While Turner works to ignore the noise and is having a career year so far, the bigger question becomes would the Pacers still trade him? Or do they want to keep him with Tyrese Haliburton long-term? Even if Indiana doesn’t want to trade him, if they think he will bolt in free agency next summer they may not have a choice, but for now the buzz around the NBA is the Pacers are not eager to deal (and would need to be blown away by an offer).

 
Mavericks small icon 11. Mavericks (10-10, LW 6). Tuesday night’s win over the Warriors sums things up for the Mavericks:
On any given night they can compete with anyone and win, but it takes a 41-point triple-double from Luka Doncic (12 rebounds, 12 assists) to have a chance. There is no secondary shot creation (off-season acquisition Christian Wood is coming off the bench), and with that the workload on Doncic is incredible. How long can he keep this up? That one game explains why no team wants to face the Mavericks in the playoffs, but what it will take for Doncic to get this team to the postseason is a lot to ask.

 
Warriors small icon 12. Warriors (11-11, LW 19). Golden State is 8-4 in last 12 and has found its footing. A key part of that was a move by Steve Kerr to split more of the minutes of Draymond Green and Stephen Curry more, having Green play with the second unit in place of the youngsters who did not work out as a group. The result has been something steady that works and doesn’t blow leads. Throw in Klay Thompson finding his legs again and the Warriors are starting to look like the Warriors again.

 
Raptors small icon 13. Raptors (11-9, LW 17). Pascal Siakam returned from a 10-game absence Monday and looked like his best self, getting downhill, attacking the rim, grabbing rebounds, and pushing the pace. Toronto went 5-5 without Siakam but it didn’t take long to see why they missed him. Scottie Barnes is back on the court as well, and with OG Anunoby playing at an All-Star — maybe Defensive Player of the Year — level, it could be time for the Raptors to string tother a few wins (doing so at Brooklyn and at New Orleans will not be so easy, however).

 
Jazz small icon 14. Jazz (12-11, LW 5). Losers of five in a row and 8-of-10, Utah has come back to earth after its fast start. The Jazz’s problems are on the defensive end, where they are second worst in the league over the last 10 games. The bad news is that in a very tight West, even a little losing a few games means a quick tumble down the standings (the Jazz fell to eighth in the West, part of the play-in). The good news is they are home for 7-of-8 coming up, a chance to rest and turn this thing around (the Jazz lost the opener of the homestead to the Bulls).

 
Kings small icon 15. Kings (10-9, LW 8). Sacramento looks at the way De'Aaron Fox is thriving, the way Domantas Sabonis fits in with them, and yes, the way Tyrese Haliburton has blossomed in Indiana, and think they nailed the trade (something Sam Amick talked about at The Athletic). Maybe they were right, if they can hold on to a playoff spot. The Kings have had one of the easiest schedules in the league but that is about to change with a 7-of-8 on the road starting Saturday against the Clippers.

 
Nets small icon 16. Nets (11-11, LW 21). The Nets could be getting T.J. Warren back on Friday night, which could be a huge boost if Warren can get back close to his vintage self. Warren was one of the breakout stars of the bubble, averaging 26.6 points and 6.3 rebounds a game for the Pacers. However, he has played just four games since the bubble due to stress fractures in his foot. Kevin Durant may want nothing to do with the MVP conversation, but he continues to play at that level: 30 points per game on an insane 65.9 true shooting percentage, plus 6.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists a night.

 
Wizards small icon 17. Wizards (11-10, LW 15). Consistency has not been in the Wizards’ vocabulary this season. Last week they dropped two games to the Heat, then watched Kristaps Porzingis go off for a career-high 41 against the Timberwolves in a win. Sometimes consistency can come when a team bonds on the road, which is what Washington needs to happen — 14 of its next 20 games are outside DMV. Bradley Beal seems to be finding his scoring groove again, which would help bring some consistency to the table.

 
Blazers small icon 18. Trail Blazers (11-10, LW 10). Good news in Portland: Damian Lillard is targeting Sunday to return from his latest calf strain. They need him. The Trail Blazers have gone 1-4 without him this time, including their worst loss of the season, a blown 18-point second-half lead to a Clippers team without either of their stars. Lillard is averaging 26.3 points and seven assists a game this season, showing the explosion we were used to from the perennial All-Star. Hopefully he gets back to being that player quickly.

 
Hawks small icon 19. Hawks (11-10, LW 19). This team’s success seems fragile at times — Clint Capela has to sit a couple of games with dental pain and the defense comes apart, leading to losses. Trae Young and Dejounte Murray are blending fairly well together (+4.7 net rating when both are on the court) but the players around them have not meshed with the duo, and we thought the offense would thrive but it is 22nd in the league. Atlanta needs to pick up some wins in a soft part of the schedule this week (Orlando, OKC, and the New York Knicks).

 
Bulls small icon 20. Bulls (9-11, LW 20). After a 6-10 start, the Bulls beat the Celtics and Bucks in back-to-back games and have now won 3-of-4. Part of that can be tied to Patrick Williams, who started the season slowly but has averaged 10.8 points and 5.2 rebounds a game in November, with a fantastic 63.2 true shooting percentage. Plus he plays solid defense. Chicago is 2-1 on its six-game road trip, but things do not get easier with Phoenix, Golden State, and Sacramento remaining.

 
Heat small icon 21. Heat (10-11, LW 24). With the roster shorthanded (Jimmy Butler is out for his seventh straight Wednesday due to right knee soreness) the Heat have leaned heavily into more zone defense. Couper Moorhead noted on Heat Twitter that in the six games including Sunday the Heat had over 330 possessions in the zone, “more than 21 teams used all of last year.” All the roster issues are part of why the Heat have been in 15 clutch games this season (within 5 points in the final five minutes), tied for most in the NBA, and they are 7-8 in those games despite a +9.4 net rating in those minutes.

 
Knicks small icon 22. Knicks (10-11, LW 20). RJ Barrett continues to present a challenge for Tom Thibodeau and Knicks fans. On the one hand, he gets you buckets — 18.4 points a game, plus 5.4 rebounds. But he’s terribly inefficient doing it, shooting 27.4% from 3 this season and with an ugly 49.9 true shooting percentage. He has a four-year, $107 million extension that kicks in next season, and while that is not wildly out of line he is not living up to it, either. Thibodeau has given Barrett plenty of room to be Barrett, but if this team wants to take the next steps either he needs to start making more shots, or those shots need to go to someone who will.

 
23. Timberwolves (10-11, LW 18). Karl-Anthony Towns is now out 4-6 weeks with a calf strain, and even if he beats that timeline it’s concerning for the Timberwolves — it’s never good to be without your franchise player for an extended period. What’s more, the Timberwolves have a -11.8 net rating this season when Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards are on the court together but Towns is not. That can change, maybe going to a more conventional one-big lineup and some D'Angelo Russell pick-and-roll will work, but the pieces have not fit well yet in Minnesota and this isn’t going to help matters.

 
Lakers small icon 24. Lakers 7-12, LW 25). The Lakers did what they needed to do, racking up wins (5-of-6) through a soft part of the schedule. Now things get serious, and it didn’t start well with the heartbreaker loss to the Pacers. There are positives with the Lakers — Russell Westbrook‘s play off the bench, a more consistent Lonnie Walker IV — but if the losses start piling up again as the schedule gets tougher, tension around this team is going to rise quickly.

 
Thunder small icon 25. Thunder (8-13, LW 22). After a strong start to the season, OKC has hit a rough patch losing 5-of-6, with a bottom-10 offense and defense in that stretch. There are positives to take away from the first quarter of the season, beyond the fact Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has ascended to All-NBA level star. Rookie Jalen Williams (the wing out of Santa Clara) has impressed. Aleksej Pokusevski has taken a step forward and is contributing. This team was never going to win a lot of games but there are positives.

 
Hornets small icon 26. Hornets (6-15, LW 26). Gordon Hayward‘s fractured left shoulder has added drama on and off the court in Charlotte, Terry Rozier is not meant to play point guard but is forced into the role with LaMelo Ball still out, and the lack of shooting and depth has left the Hornets with the worst offense in the NBA this season. Still, there are positives, such as the recent play of center Nick Richards, who has shown potential at the five (and deserves more run over Plumlee).

 
Rockets small icon 27. Rockets (5-15, LW 28). After a rough start to the season, rookie Jabari Smith Jr. has looked better of late, averaging 15.8 points per game and shooting 40% from 3 over his last five. What’s more he’s +19 in those five games (for context, he is -125 for the season). It will be a process with him, but he’s showing improvement. Rough stretch for the Rockets this week with three on the road — Denver, Phoenix, Golden State — then coming home to a healthy Philadelphia 76ers team.

Pistons small icon 28. Pistons (5-18, LW 29). If you hear one name more than any other starting Dec. 15 (when most players signed this summer can be traded, unofficially the start of NBA trading season) it will be Bojan Bogdanovic. He is playing well, averaging 20.3 points a game and shooting 39.7% from 3. A lot of teams are going to be calling, the Pistons just extended him at a fair price, but the question is do they want to keep him to help speed the turnaround next season (with a healthy Cade Cunningham), or should they get younger players and continue the rebuild? One thing is for sure, they are not giving him away, it will take an impressive offer to land him.

 
Magic small icon 29. Magic 5-16, LW 27). Paolo Banchero is back on the court after missing seven games, and scored at least 18 points in each of those games, including 24 on 9-of-17 shooting against the Nets. Markelle Fultz is also close to a return, as is Cole Anthony, adding more ball handlers and shot creators to the mix for the Magic. When healthy, this is an entertaining team to watch, if not one winning many games because of their defense.

 
Spurs small icon 30. Spurs (6-15, LW 30). It’s challenging to find bright spots on a Spurs team that has lost eight in a row and 13-of-14, but the one worth talking about might be Devin Vassell. The third-year wing out of Florida State has made a leap this season, averaging 20.4 points, shooting 41.9% from 3, and being more efficient overall despite a massive jump in usage. He deserves consideration for the Most Valuable Player award, even if it’s going to be tough to win it on this team.