CHICAGO — After the Chicago Bulls racked up yet another quality victory Wednesday night — the latest, a 117-107 triumph over the Dallas Mavericks at the United Center that moved them to 8-3 on the season — their opponent took note of the way this new-look team has meshed so quickly.
“All I can say is, the Bulls are back, man,” Mavericks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. said.
After beginning the season 4-0 against teams that missed the postseason a year ago, the Bulls have continued their fast start as their schedule has toughened. This week they’ve won back-to-back games against the Brooklyn Nets and Mavericks and are currently tied with the Washington Wizards for the best record in the Eastern Conference.
And although Bulls guard Alex Caruso said he thinks it’s too early to make any grand proclamations himself, he still is encouraged by the way they’re taking care of business.
“We have games here and there where we’re just kind of finding ways to win and I think that’s the sign of a good team,” Caruso said. “I think we have a lot of ways to get better. That’s probably the most encouraging thing for me.
“Eleven games into the season, I don’t think you can say anybody’s back, especially for the prestige of the Bulls. They won three championships in a row twice. Being back, that’s a big statement.”
But the Bulls, who have not made the postseason since the 2016-17 season, are routinely making big statements on the court. They put an exclamation point on this game near the end of the fourth quarter with a highlight-reel, 360-degree dunk from Zach LaVine after a crosscourt overhead pass from Lonzo Ball on a play started after one of Caruso’s career high-tying six steals.
“Zo’s an incredible passer, QB1 throwing that pass up to Zach,” Caruso said. “And then Zach did what he does.”
Chicago shot 50.6% from the field and 48.4% from 3, with 26 assists to just 11 turnovers.
Even though their leading scorer, DeMar DeRozan, struggled from the field and ended up with just 17 points, the rest of the team stepped up around him. LaVine scored 23 points. Ball had 21 and made 7 of 10 of his 3-point attempts. Their defense held Mavericks star Luka Doncic to just 6-of-18 shooting for 20 points.
The Bulls are in the middle of a grueling stretch against teams that made the postseason last year and will begin a five-game West Coast road trip on Friday against the Warriors, who are an NBA-best 10-1.
But as the Bulls keep notching quality wins, they continue to receive respect from their opponents.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” Ball said. “It’s a brand-new team. Trying to build a new culture here. 8-3 is not too bad.”
Fantasy basketball waiver wire finds
Working the waiver wire is pivotal to succeeding in fantasy basketball. With so many games, injuries and endless shifts in rotations throughout the marathon campaign, we’ll need to source stats from free agency to maximize imaginary rosters.
A willingness to entertain competition for the last few spots on your fantasy hoops roster can prove rewarding. When curating this fluid collective of statistical contributors, it helps to consider your end-of-bench players in direct competition with the talent floating in free agency.
The goal of this weekly series is to identify players at each position available in free agency in at least a third of ESPN leagues. Some nominations are specialists capable of helping in one or two categories, while others deliver more diverse and important statistical offerings. In the breakdowns below, I’ve ordered players at each position with the priority of acquisition in mind, rather than roster percentage in ESPN leagues.
Alec Burks, New York Knicks (Rostered in 27.4% of ESPN leagues): Earning Tom Thibodeau’s trust can prove quite valuable for fantasy value, as the coach is notorious for riding his core playmakers for big minutes. Burks’ recent shift to the starting lineup has fueled 18.8 PPG with strong shooting and steal rates.
Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder (44.2%): Due to return to the floor for the Thunder on Monday, Giddey should continue to flirt with triple-double production as one of the lead creators for a young Oklahoma City roster.
Jalen Brunson, Dallas Mavericks (36.8%): With at least 15 points in 12 of his last 15 games, Brunson has emerged as a steady complementary scorer for Dallas. Jason Kidd trusts Brunson to commandeer the second unit, and this Villanova product becomes a legit fantasy starter whenever Luka Doncic is sidelined.
Kevin Porter Jr., Houston Rockets (61.2%): A thigh injury has sidelined Porter for the past handful of Houston’s games, but the third-year combo guard should return to a rewarding role as the team’s primary creator soon. In a league full of heliocentric playmakers, sourcing assists in fantasy free agency has become more difficult, making Porter an undervalued option.
Desmond Bane, Memphis Grizzlies (36.1%): One of just nine players among the top 40 in 3-point attempts this season sinking at least 40% of his attempts from beyond the arc, Bane sports a 42.1% career clip from deep and is currently enjoying a breakout sophomore season thanks to sizable leaps in minutes and touches this season.
Gary Trent Jr., Toronto Raptors (66.0%): A 3-and-D wing currently found at fifth in total steals and fourth in swipes per game, this larcenous wing is also one of just 33 players to have lofted at least 150 3-pointers entering Sunday’s schedule.
Jae’Sean Tate, Houston Rockets (27.4%): It’s possible Tate could prove more valuable as a fantasy option than even Trent among this week’s waiver wings. After all, Tate has been somewhat prolific lately in slashing for 19.5 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 6.0 APG, 1.5 SPG, and 1.5 BPG during his last four games entering Sunday. While his scoring load will dip once Jalen Green and Porter are good to go, Tate’s ability to create for others on offense and create chaos on defense proves reliable.
Dillon Brooks, Memphis Grizzlies (33.8%): You’d think the absence of Ja Morant would inspire a surge in scoring for Brooks, but he’s been somewhat quiet in that department in recent games. A deeper dive reveals Brooks claims a team-high 32.6% usage rate with Morant off the floor this season, evidence Brooks will fill the bucket soon enough.
Aaron Gordon, Denver Nuggets (47.6%): You’ll need to overlook some quiet scoring outings from Gordon, but increased opportunity rates on a Denver roster in real need should inspire some fun fantasy lines. Such as in Saturday’s win over the Knicks, Gordon wasn’t very effective on offense yet compiled four combined steals and blocks.
Lauri Markkanen, Cleveland Cavaliers (51.4%): Even as the fit is wonky at times in an oversized Cleveland frontcourt, Markkanen enjoys rare shooting freedom as the resident stretch big for the Cavaliers. This role has afforded him at least seven 3-point attempts in six of the last seven outings entering Sunday’s slate.
Marvin Bagley III, Sacramento Kings (37.5%): Will Bagley ever really prove consistently productive with the Kings? That’s unlikely, but a new coaching lens might unlock more minutes and production for Bagley in the coming weeks.
Bobby Portis, Milwaukee Bucks (59.3%): The signing of DeMarcus Cousins in response to the loss of Brook Lopez likely speaks to the team’s potential need for size in the playoffs, but also signals a huge role for Portis for the rest of the regular season. Portis is currently one of just nine NBA players averaging at least 15 points, eight rebounds, and at least 0.8 blocks and 0.8 steals per game. Are these somewhat arbitrary endpoints? Of course, but they also speak to how rare it is to find a player so regularly flirting with double-double production along with respectable defensive rates.
P.J. Washington, Charlotte Hornets (62.8%): If the league is trending to small-ball lineups, why not fantasy rosters, as well? Washington has thrived recently as the team’s primary stretch center, enjoying more rebounding and rim protection opportunities in addition to proving hot from the arc during the past week.
NBA Power Rankings, Week 8
The two best teams in the NBA met twice last week, splitting the series. Deandre Ayton and the Phoenix Suns shut down Stephen Curry on Tuesday in Phoenix, but the Golden State Warriors bounced back on their home floor on Friday.
They both start the week at a league-best 19-4, but which of them takes the top spot in our NBA Power Rankings? The Christmas Day rubber match is shaping up to be one of the best games of the season, but can the Suns and Warriors hold off Donovan Mitchell and the surging Utah Jazz?
And speaking of surging Western Conference teams, Jaren Jackson Jr. led the Memphis Grizzlies to a 73-point win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday, setting the record for the largest margin of victory in NBA history. The Grizzlies are on a four-game win streak and have climbed to No. 4 in the West.
Our experts break down where these surging teams rank among each other.
Note: Throughout the regular season, our panel (Tim Bontemps, Jamal Collier, Nick Friedell, Andrew Lopez, Tim MacMahon, Dave McMenamin and Ohm Youngmisuk) is ranking all 30 teams from top to bottom, taking stock of which teams are playing the best basketball now and which teams are looking most like title contenders.
1. Golden State Warriors
2021-22 record: 19-4
Previous ranking: 1
Stephen Curry and the Warriors caught a glimpse of the first team all season that appears to be playing on their level: Phoenix. The Suns have the same kind of deep and talented roster that has made these two teams the early favorites in the Western Conference. After dropping Tuesday’s game to Chris Paul & Co., the Warriors responded by snapping the Suns’ 18-game winning streak on Friday. They ran out of gas in a surprising loss to the Spurs on Saturday — capping a 19-for-69 week from the field for Curry. — Friedell
This week: ORL, POR, @PHI
2. Phoenix Suns
2021-22 record: 19-4
Previous ranking: 2
Without Devin Booker (left hamstring injury), the Suns’ franchise-record 18-game win streak came to an end on Friday night against the Warriors. The Suns had beaten Golden State last Tuesday to finish November with a 16-0 mark, becoming the seventh team in NBA history to go 16-0 or better in a calendar month. The 18-game win streak was also a career best for coach Monty Williams as a coach or a player. His previous best was a 17-game win streak as a player with San Antonio (1996). Williams and the Suns get a chance to start another win streak on Monday against the Spurs. — Lopez
This week: SA, BOS
3. Brooklyn Nets
2021-22 record: 16-7
Previous ranking: 3
It continues to be a weird season in Brooklyn. The Nets remain atop the Eastern Conference but have now gone a combined 1-6 against teams currently in the top eight in the NBA standings, including losses to Chicago, Miami, Phoenix and Golden State at Barclays. Against the rest of the league, the Nets are 15-1. — Bontemps
This week: @DAL, @HOU, @ATL, @DET
4. Chicago Bulls
2021-22 record: 16-8
Previous ranking: 7
The Bulls made an early-season statement with a sweep at Staples Center on back-to-back nights, and their performance in New York to sweep the Knicks and Nets last week was a worthy follow-up. Chicago has continued rolling, despite playing a bit short-handed recently. Coby White and Javonte Green have entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols, and Alex Caruso was limited to just eight minutes Saturday because of a hamstring injury. — Collier
This week: DEN, @CLE, @MIA
5. Milwaukee Bucks
2021-22 record: 15-9
Previous ranking: 4
Just when the Bucks started rolling, their roster took another hit with Giannis Antetokounmpo sitting out back-to-back games with a right calf injury. Milwaukee is hopeful this will be a short-term ailment for Antetokounmpo, who is registering another season at an MVP level. He’s averaging 27.6 points and 11.8 rebounds per game to go along with a career-high 6.0 assists and 1.7 blocks. — Collier
This week: CLE, @MIA, @HOU, @NY
6. Utah Jazz
2021-22 record: 16-7
Previous ranking: 6
Utah has by far the NBA’s best offense — 116.2 points per 100 possessions, 3.7 more than the second-ranked Warriors — and Donovan Mitchell is in the midst of his best groove of the season. He has averaged 30 points on 56.3% shooting during the Jazz’s four-game winning streak, the first time this season he has hit more than half of his shots from the floor in four consecutive games. Mitchell has scored 30-plus in the past three games, matching his total of 30-point performances in the first 20 games. — MacMahon
This week: @MIN, @PHI, @WAS
7. Miami Heat
2021-22 record: 14-10
Previous ranking: 5
Miami was dealt a tough blow with the news that Bam Adebayo will miss time after having right thumb surgery. Jimmy Butler is still dealing with a tailbone contusion, as well. The Heat need to get healthy for an intriguing three-game home stretch this week, which includes matchups against the Grizzlies, Bucks and Bulls. — Friedell
This week: MEM, MIL, CHI
8. Washington Wizards
2021-22 record: 14-10
Previous ranking: 8
The Wizards’ defense has shown slippage in recent losses. Last week, Washington surrendered 116 points in both the 17-point loss to San Antonio and the 15-point loss to the Cavs. Worse, Washington trailed by as many as 36 to Cleveland. The Wizards started a brutal 10-game stretch on Sunday in Toronto in which they will play nine games on the road. We’ll find out more about what the Wizards are made of during this road trip. — Youngmisuk
This week: @IND, @DET, UTAH
9. Philadelphia 76ers
2021-22 record: 12-11
Previous ranking: 12
Philadelphia has dealt with more COVID-19 absences than any team so far this season, including losing superstar center Joel Embiid for nine games. But now Embiid is back, and the 76ers have a chance to build some consistency and momentum as the world continues to wait for a potential Ben Simmons trade to materialize. — Bontemps
This week: @CHA, @CHA, UTAH, GS
10. Memphis Grizzlies
2021-22 record: 13-10
Previous ranking: 21
The Grizzlies have led their past four games wire to wire, the first team to have such a streak in the 25 seasons since play-by-play data has been tracked, according to Elias Sports Bureau data. That’s a rather impressive response to losing star guard Ja Morant to a knee injury — fortunately for weeks, not months. “Everyone’s done a great job of standing up to the challenge and believing in each other,” said backup point guard Tyus Jones, who has 30 assists and only four turnovers during the win streak. — MacMahon
This week: @MIA, DAL, LAL, HOU
11. Boston Celtics
2021-22 record: 13-11
Previous ranking: 17
Boston emerged from the first few days of its brutal December with a pair of victories over Philadelphia and Portland and a strong performance in a close loss at Utah. Now comes a back-to-back in Los Angeles, followed by a game in Phoenix to round out this five-game West swing. — Bontemps
This week: @LAL, @LAC, @PHX
12. Atlanta Hawks
2021-22 record: 12-12
Previous ranking: 13
The Hawks won eight of their first nine games inside State Farm Arena. Their past three home games, however, have not gone their way, with losses to the Knicks, Sixers and then a 130-127 loss to the COVID-19-depleted Hornets on Sunday. Against Charlotte, Trae Young did have 25 points and 15 assists — his 11th 25-point, 15-assist game since he debuted in 2018, the most of any player in the league since then. — Lopez
This week: @MIN, BKN
13. Charlotte Hornets
2021-22 record: 14-11
Previous ranking: 10
Charlotte has been hit hard by health and safety protocols, as LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier, Mason Plumlee and Jalen McDaniels all missed Sunday’s game and will be out in the short term. The good news for the Hornets is that Miles Bridges is still active and offered another reminder on Sunday of just how much he continues to improve. Bridges racked up 32 points while helping the Hornets snap a three-game losing skid with a win over the Hawks. Charlotte has three more games this week and has to hope Bridges can help carry the offense for now. — Friedell
This week: PHI, PHI, SAC
14. Dallas Mavericks
2021-22 record: 11-11
Previous ranking: 9
Dallas has dropped seven of nine games since Luka Doncic sprained his left knee and ankle. The Mavs are 2-3 in the games that Doncic has played in that span, including blowout home losses to the Cavaliers and Pelicans. His frustration has been problematic, as coach Jason Kidd noted that Doncic’s constant complaining to the referees often results in poor transition defense. Soreness in that ankle sidelined Doncic again Saturday night, and Kristaps Porzingis has missed the past two games because of a knee contusion. — MacMahon
This week: BKN, @MEM, @IND, @OKC
15. Cleveland Cavaliers
2021-22 record: 13-11
Previous ranking: 20
There are no moral victories in the NBA, but it certainly says a lot about the Cavs’ growth this season that they can look at Sunday’s 109-108 loss to the Utah Jazz as a game they would have won had they not gone 0-for-4 in the final 90 seconds. It was a wildly successful week for the Cavs regardless, as Cleveland went 3-0 on a road trip through Dallas, Washington and Miami before the close loss to Utah. — McMenamin
This week: @MIL, CHI, @MIN, SAC
16. LA Clippers
2021-22 record: 12-12
Previous ranking: 11
If it weren’t for a feel-good and clutch win over the Lakers, the Clippers’ past week would’ve been a low point. They lost twice to the Kings, including in Sacramento for the first time in 16 games. And they were blown out at home by the Pelicans and flame-throwing Jonas Valanciunas, who hit seven 3s and had 39 points and 15 rebounds. The Clippers have lost seven of their past 10 games, with their wins coming against the Pistons, Lakers and the Luka Doncic-less Mavericks at home. Ty Lue’s team is getting healthier with Marcus Morris Sr. back, and perhaps Nic Batum could be nearing a return from health and safety protocols. — Youngmisuk
This week: @POR, BOS, ORL
17. Denver Nuggets
2021-22 record: 11-11
Previous ranking: 16
The Nuggets’ fears were confirmed when Michael Porter Jr. underwent lumbar spine surgery last week and will be out indefinitely. The Nuggets, however, still have the reigning MVP. Denver lost six straight, but Nikola Jokic returned from injury and helped Denver beat the Heat again in Miami. And while the banged-up Nuggets lost in Orlando, Florida, Jokic delivered an MVP-like performance in his lone trip to Madison Square Garden, dropping 32 points and 11 rebounds in a win over the Knicks. Jokic will have to keep this up to keep Denver afloat in the West standings and hope that Jamal Murray can return this season. — Youngmisuk
This week: @CHI, @NO, @SA, @SA
18. Los Angeles Lakers
2021-22 record: 12-12
Previous ranking: 18
There’s no getting around the fact that it has been a frustrating season for the Lakers thus far, but here’s a reason for optimism: Anthony Davis has scored 25 points or more in four of L.A.’s past seven games, as he’s showing signs of being ready to shoulder the offensive responsibility night in, night out as a recipient of LeBron James‘ and Russell Westbrook‘s feeds. — McMenamin
This week: BOS, @MEM, @OKC, ORL
19. Minnesota Timberwolves
2021-22 record: 11-12
Previous ranking: 19
The Timberwolves have a grueling schedule in December — they will face just one opponent (Denver Nuggets) with a record not currently above .500. Minnesota has boasted a top-five defense in the NBA so far this season, which it will be counting on to keep it afloat through this stretch. — Collier
This week: ATL, UTAH, CLE, @POR
20. New York Knicks
2021-22 record: 11-12
Previous ranking: 14
After a blowout loss to the Nuggets — New York’s third loss in a row and fourth in its past five games — the Knicks talked about trying to find themselves moving forward. One way to do that? Start guarding people again. Dropping from fourth last season in defense to 19th this season is the reason New York has gone from a playoff team to one currently sitting outside of the play-in mix. — Bontemps
This week: @SA, @IND, @TOR, MIL
21. Portland Trail Blazers
2021-22 record: 11-13
Previous ranking: 15
It wasn’t the best week for rookie coach Chauncey Billups. Besides seeing general manager Neil Olshey — the man who hired him — fired, the Blazers were blown out in three of four games. Damian Lillard has missed three straight games and CJ McCollum bruised some ribs, though he is probable to play on Monday. Portland has lost five of the past six, but even more alarming is that it suffered its past four defeats by 15, 22, 31 and 28 points, respectively. — Youngmisuk
This week: LAC, @GS, MIN
22. Toronto Raptors
2021-22 record: 11-13
Previous ranking: 23
Toronto has the league’s best offensive rebound percentage, per NBA.com advanced stats, and the league’s third-worst defensive rebound percentage. Any Raptors fan who has watched Toronto struggle to close out defensive possessions with a board will have predicted the latter number, one that is a reflection of the lack of interior size Toronto is playing with on a nightly basis. — Bontemps
This week: OKC, NY
23. San Antonio Spurs
2021-22 record: 8-13
Previous ranking: 26
San Antonio pushed its win streak to four on Saturday night in a win over Golden State, where they became the first team all season to hold at least a 20-point lead over the Warriors. Dejonute Murray averaged 22.3 points, 10 rebounds and 8.5 assists on the win streak and ran his streak of double-doubles to six games and has done so in a variety of ways — one triple-double, two points-rebounds double-doubles and three points-assists double-doubles. — Lopez
This week: @PHX, NY, DEN, DEN, NO
24. Indiana Pacers
2021-22 record: 9-16
Previous ranking: 22
Indiana has lost four consecutive games, capped off by a home loss to a Miami Heat team missing two of its All-Stars. Some frustration appeared to boil over during that game when Domantas Sabonis and Caris LeVert got into a heated discussion on the bench during a timeout. — Collier
This week: WAS, NY, DAL
25. Sacramento Kings
2021-22 record: 10-14
Previous ranking: 24
Sacramento is 2-0 against the LA Clippers this season and 8-14 against everybody else. The Kings swept a two-game series against the Clips this week, with Sacramento’s defense holding Reggie Jackson to 5-for-15 shooting in the first win and Paul George to 5-for-21 in the second. Too bad the Kings don’t get the Clippers on the schedule again until the second-to-last game of the season on April 9. — McMenamin
This week: ORL, @CHA, @CLE
26. Houston Rockets
2021-22 record: 7-16
Previous ranking: 30
Raise your hand if you expected the Rockets to have the NBA’s longest active winning streak right now. Houston has reeled off six wins in a row, a run that came on the heels of a 15-game losing streak, the league’s longest this season. Eric Gordon, one of the last links to the Rockets’ recently deconstructed playoff team, has been outstanding during the streak, averaging 16.3 points, .493/.457/.833 shooting splits and 4.2 assists per game. — MacMahon
This week: BKN, MIL, @MEM
27. New Orleans Pelicans
2021-22 record: 7-19
Previous ranking: 28
The Pelicans’ bench was one of the worst in the league to start the season, but coach Willie Green inserting Willy Hernangomez into the rotation has stabilized that unit. In the past eight games, Hernangomez is averaging 11.3 points and 9.1 rebounds in 18.5 minutes per game. In that same time frame, the Pelicans are averaging 44.3 points off the bench — the third-best mark in the league in that stretch. — Lopez
This week: DEN, DET, @SA
28. Orlando Magic
2021-22 record: 5-19
Previous ranking: 29
Orlando snapped a seven-game losing skid with a Wednesday win over the Nuggets. Second-year guard Cole Anthony continues his solid play, combining for 50 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds over the past two contests. The Magic have four straight on the road to complete a tough West Coast swing — including a matchup with Stephen Curry and the Warriors on Monday night. — Friedell
This week: @GS, @SAC, @LAC, @LAL
29. Oklahoma City Thunder
2021-22 record: 6-16
Previous ranking: 25
The Thunder have lost eight in a row. Last week consisted of a couple of losses to the Rockets — outcomes that could be critical in lottery odds — and a record-breaking 73-point rout at the hands of the Grizzlies. OKC opens this week with a big one on the road, playing the Pistons, one of only two teams in the league with fewer wins. — MacMahon
This week: @DET, @TOR, LAL, DAL
30. Detroit Pistons
2021-22 record: 4-18
Previous ranking: 27
The Pistons, who have lost eight games in a row, are second in the NBA in scoring off the bench, a stat that won’t inspire much confidence in Detroit considering its starting lineup is full of young players — Cade Cunningham, Jerami Grant, Saddiq Bey and Killian Hayes — the team hopes will play a big role in the future. — Collier
This week: OKC, WAS, @NO, BKN
Charlotte Hornets outgun Atlanta Hawks despite missing four players
Bridges made each of his four shots in the fourth quarter when he scored 13 points. “I feel like that’s a statement game, let people know that we’re here,” he said.
The Hornets were missing leading scorer LaMelo Ball, starting guard Terry Rozier, starting center Mason Plumlee and forward Jalen McDaniels in Sunday’s contest. All four players are in the NBA’s health and safety protocols and will be sidelined for at least 10 days.
Kelly Oubre Jr. was one of several Hornets who made up the difference as he splashed six 3s and scored 28 points for Charlotte. The Hornets made a season-high 17 3s as a team.
“It was about who wanted it more and we have some guys on our team who are just dogs and wouldn’t be denied,” Oubre said. “It was a blessing for us to go out and just compete and hold it down for our brothers.”
Hawks coach Nate McMillan said the Hornets, even when short-handed, are “probably the best catch-and-shoot team in the league.”
“We just really weren’t able to get stops when we needed to,” McMillan said. “We scored 127 points. That’s more than enough to win the game. It comes down to defensively being able to stop them and we weren’t able to do that.”
The Hawks, who stormed back from an 11-point deficit early in the third quarter, led 89-87 before the Hornets regained momentum with a 12-0 run late in the quarter. Cody Martin had eight points, including two 3s, in the run.
Atlanta stormed but again but Bridges’ 3 with 4:26 remaining gave Charlotte a 115-113 lead that it didn’t relinquish. Oubre added another key 3 to push the lead to 122-116.
The Hornets improved to 14-11 on the season while the Hawks fell back to 12-12.
The Associated Press was used in this story.
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