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The ever-tinkering Boston Celtics and the rocky road back to NBA Finals contention



THE BALL SWUNG from Jayson Tatum to Dennis Schroder to Al Horford to Marcus Smart, pinging around the perimeter in search of the best possible shot.

It was Nov. 19, and the Boston Celtics — already leading by 14 points with just over five minutes to go against LeBron James and the visiting Los Angeles Lakers — were about to put the finishing touches on an impressive win over their forever rivals.

Smart drove baseline, sucked in two defenders, jumped and fired a pass back to a wide-open Tatum in the left corner directly in front of the Lakers bench.

L.A. coach Frank Vogel, standing 5 feet from Tatum on the baseline, had already started walking toward the referee to call timeout before the dagger 3 fell through the net.

The play encapsulated how things have changed for Boston since November began with a fourth-quarter collapse on their home court against the Chicago Bulls, followed by Smart calling out the team’s two young stars, Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and a players-only meeting the next day.

Since then, Boston has ripped off eight wins in its past 11 games entering Wednesday’s showdown with the Brooklyn Nets at TD Garden (7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN). Boston, 10-8, has posted the league’s best defense over that span and is pushing back into the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

But Brooklyn’s arrival provides a reminder of where the Celtics stand in the East: a clear rung below the Nets and the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks, the conference’s two preseason favorites to reach the NBA Finals this season.

Boston spent several years living in that rarified air, both signing and trading for multiple All-Stars en route to a stretch of three conference finals appearances in four seasons. Ultimately, however, the push to hang Banner 18 from the rafters failed, despite the amount of capital — both in dollars and trade assets — the Celtics spent trying to do so.

Now, as Boston tries to retool its roster around its All-Star wings and return to championship contention, the Celtics will have to do so without the benefit of the draft picks and assets they had available to them over the past several seasons.

“I can’t believe this whole era for them hasn’t really worked,” one league executive said. “They’re stuck in neutral — and maybe going backwards.”

THE CELTICS LOST to James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2018 East finals, but the future seemed much more certain then.

Brown had averaged 19.7 points for the series, while Tatum, in his rookie year, posted 17.9 points, including an iconic dunk over James in the fourth quarter of that Game 7.

The fact Boston did so with both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward watching in street clothes only fueled the belief the East would inevitably tilt back toward the Celtics’ favor — especially once James jumped to L.A. that offseason.

The Celtics entered the 2018-19 season with a roster featuring five either present or future All-Stars: Irving, Brown, Tatum, Hayward and Horford, along with starting-caliber players in Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris Sr. coming off the bench. Future unprotected first-round picks from non-playoff teams — via the Sacramento Kings and Memphis Grizzlies — were either expected to net high draft picks or turn into trade options.

In the span of three years, the franchise underwent a steep and steady talent drain:

  • Irving, Horford and Morris left via free agency.

  • The picks from the Kings and Grizzlies turned into the 14th selection in consecutive seasons, netting Boston a pair of reserve swingmen in Romeo Langford and Aaron Nesmith.

  • Rozier was sent to the Charlotte Hornets in the sign-and-trade deal to land Kemba Walker, who was subsequently sent to the Oklahoma City Thunder along with a first-round pick for Horford.

  • The trade exception created when Hayward left became two months of Evan Fournier and then Josh Richardson.

  • Coach Brad Stevens left the sidelines to replace Danny Ainge as president of basketball operations.

The result? Boston now is short both on high-end talent and high-end assets to build around its young stars.

“Ultimately, you can’t keep losing — albeit flawed — All-Star talent like Kyrie, Gordon, Kemba, Horford,” an Eastern Conference scout said. “That adds up.”

Meanwhile, out of Boston’s past four drafts, only Robert Williams III appears to have the upside of a long-term starter. Four other first-round picks — Grant Williams, Payton Pritchard, Langford and Nesmith — have spent time sliding in and out of the rotation for Stevens and his replacement, coach Ime Udoka. Another high second-rounder, Carsen Edwards, quickly flamed out too.

Even the team’s two-way slots — which teams around the league have turned into high-end rotation players such as Alex Caruso, Duncan Robinson and Luguentz Dort — have been wasted. For the past two seasons, Boston used theirs on guard Tremont Waters and center Tacko Fall, neither of whom came close to becoming rotation players before being replaced this summer.

“The Celtics the last couple years have had a few really good players,” another executive said, “and too many roster spots dedicated to players they drafted who aren’t good enough.”

But through all the roster and front-office turnover, Boston still has Tatum and Brown.

Last season, seven teams had at least two All-Stars. Five of them were top-four playoff seeds in their respective conferences. The other two were the Lakers, who had James and Anthony Davis miss a combined 63 games, and Tatum, Brown and the Celtics, who finished .500 in the East and were dismissed in five games by Brooklyn in the first round.

“Jaylen and Jayson aren’t making anyone better,” a Western Conference scout said. “I put that on them.”

THE FRUSTRATION ON Smart’s face was clear through his face mask.

“I would just like to play basketball,” Smart said on Nov. 1, after the Celtics had entered the fourth quarter at TD Garden with a 14-point lead over the Bulls, only to lose by that same margin after being outscored 39-11 over the final 12 minutes.

“Every team knows we are trying to go to Jayson and Jaylen, and every team is programmed and studies to stop Jayson and Jaylen. I think everybody’s scouting report is to make those guys try to pass the ball. They don’t want to pass the ball …

“They’re still learning, and we’re proud of the progress they are making, but they are going to have to make another step and find ways to not only create for themselves but create for others on this team.”

Smart’s comments led to a players-only meeting in Orlando, Florida, the following day. And though Boston’s eight wins in its 11 games since then have calmed things down, these issues aren’t exactly a new story in Boston.

Smart shouted at teammates in the locker room after Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals inside the NBA’s Orlando bubble a little over a year ago. Hayward never quite regained his pre-injury form and couldn’t consistently stay healthy, ahead of leaving for Charlotte before last season. Irving’s final season in Boston was littered with issues on and off the court, including several testy exchanges between players through the media.

“They’ve looked like [players that] legitimately don’t enjoy each other’s success, and it’s been like that for years,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “The fact it’s still rearing its head is not surprising in that regard.”

Meanwhile, Smart’s critique of Tatum and Brown wasn’t without merit. From the moment training camp began in late September, the Celtics have preached the importance of the duo as playmakers. So far, it hasn’t happened.

Their assist numbers have dropped since last season — from 4.3 to 3.5 for Tatum and from 3.4 to 2.5 for Brown. Both players also have seen their potential assists drop, per Second Spectrum’s player tracking data, with Brown dropping from 5.4 to 4.7 and Tatum going from 8.1 to 7.6 per game. And while Brown has spent half the season sidelined with injuries, Tatum’s play has drawn scrutiny from opposing teams.

“I don’t think he cares about winning now, and if he does, it is on his terms. He doesn’t want to score 15 and win. He wants to score 39 and win.”

An Eastern Conference assistant coach, on Jayson Tatum

Tatum has taken the seventh-highest percentage of contested 3-pointers this season and ranks 29th in efficiency among 30 players with at least 75 isolation plays this season — while attempting the third most in the league — per Second Spectrum.

This all factors into the fifth-year wing’s career-worst shooting percentages from the field (41.2%) and 3-point range (33.3%) this season.

“Jayson Tatum is about Jayson Tatum,” an Eastern Conference assistant coach said. “I don’t think he cares about winning now, and if he does, it is on his terms.

“He doesn’t want to score 15 and win. He wants to score 39 and win.”

But Boston’s recent play has the Celtics encouraged about where things are headed — especially after Brown returned to the lineup on Monday against the Houston Rockets after missing eight games with a hamstring strain.

“We had some turmoil early on,” Smart said after the win over the Lakers. “That’s part of it, just trying to figure out a way to get each other going. And we’re doing it; it’s coming along. Obviously, we still have a lot of work to do, but we’re on the right path.”

IN THE SHORT TERM, that path is one that’s reliant on Boston having an elite defense, plus just enough offense. And lately, that’s worked to perfection.

Over the past three weeks, Boston has the NBA’s best defensive rating, as well as the third-best net rating — trailing the league’s two best teams so far, the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns.

“It’s a constant reminder to us that we can rely on that every night,” Udoka said of Boston’s defensive improvement. “Regardless of the offensive numbers, [the defense] gives us a chance every night.”

While swapping Walker for Horford cost Boston a first-round pick, it cleaned up its cap sheet for future seasons, and Horford has been far better than Walker so far this season while helping the Celtics balance out their roster.

That process also has been helped by Schroder, who fell into Boston’s lap on a one-year deal after his market dried up this summer, returning to the kind of form that made him a Sixth Man of the Year candidate for the Thunder two years ago.

Add it all up and it’s a formula that can allow Boston to reach its projected ceiling of being able to win a playoff series this season. Anything beyond that, though, will require something more.

One path is to acquire a third star. Virtually every champion in recent years — from the last Celtics title team to the Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs, Warriors, Cavaliers and Bucks — has featured a trio of stars.

“They probably need another guy,” the Eastern Conference scout said. “I love Al Horford, but he’s getting older. And I love Smart. But once you get past Brown and Tatum — and especially past [Horford and Smart] — every guy is a question mark for me.

“They’re down to two legitimate stars, [and] you normally need three [to win].”

Finding that star is tricky. The recent movement of players gravitating toward signing extensions has taken free agency largely off the board when it comes to acquiring a star player. And while Boston has all of its draft picks moving forward, other teams — the Warriors and the New York Knicks are two examples — are better equipped to make a splash in the trade market.

Meanwhile, another path for Boston is to have Tatum and Brown continue growing their games. The Lakers won the 2020 NBA title around two stars in James and Davis. An even better comparison are the LA Clippers, who have attempted to do the same with a pair of elite wing players in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

Tatum and Brown, however, still have a ways to go before they can be seen in the same light as any of those four players.

“I would put it simply: Jayson and Jaylen’s ability to make other players better [is crucial],” a Western Conference scout said, when asked for what the key will be for Boston to return to championship contention. “If they can’t get that third guy, they have to make other players better, and they haven’t shown the ability to do that yet.”

Whichever path the Celtics take, returning to championship contention won’t be easy. In the meantime, they’re focused on trying to grow along the way.

“You expect to win every game you play,” Tatum said, “but that’s never the case. I think that’s just part of it. I think with a new coach and a new system, we’re just trying to figure it out.

“And I think as tough and as frustrating as it can be sometimes, I think it can help you in the long run, going through these bumps. It brings you more together and closer.”

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Chicago Bulls’ DeMar DeRozan enters health and safety protocols



Chicago Bulls star DeMar DeRozan has entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols and will miss Monday night’s game against the Denver Nuggets.

DeRozan becomes the third Bulls player currently in the health and safety protocols, joining Coby White and Javonte Green.

DeRozan was recognized earlier in the day as the Eastern Conference Player of the Week for averaging 30.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and shooting 58.7% from the field while the Bulls went 3-0 last week with wins against the Charlotte Hornets, New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets.

DeRozan is fourth in the league in scoring, averaging 26.4 points per game in his first season with the Bulls.

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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.

Point Guard

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.

Shooting Guard

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.

Small Forward

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.

Power Forward

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.

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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.

In the Eastern Conference, Zach LaVine and the Chicago Bulls have won three straight games to climb back near the top of the standings, just half a game behind the Brooklyn Nets for the top seed.

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 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

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