The battle for No. 1 in the NBA Power Rankings is on.
Phoenix, meanwhile, hasn’t lost in over a month and is one win shy of matching the franchise record of 17 straight victories.
Elsewhere in the NBA, the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks are looking like themselves again and have successfully broken out of the Eastern Conference play-in race. Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks have won seven straight ahead of a Wednesday night meeting with LaMelo Ball and the Charlotte Hornets.
LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers are back to .500, the injury-riddled Denver Nuggets continue to slide in the West standings and the Memphis Grizzlies prepare for a stretch without star guard Ja Morant, who suffered a sprained left knee on Friday.
Where do all 30 teams stand in the final rankings of November?
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: 18-2
Previous ranking: 1
The Warriors are 18-2. Klay Thompson appears to be just a few more weeks away from returning. Stephen Curry is playing like he’s on track to win the third MVP award of his career. Draymond Green continues to play like he’s headed to another Defensive Player of the Year award. They have a chance to snap Phoenix’s 16-game winning streak on Tuesday and will see the Suns again on Friday night. Everything is looking up for Steve Kerr and his talented roster right now. — Friedell
This week: @PHX, PHX, SA
2. Phoenix Suns
2021-22 record: 17-3
Previous ranking: 2
With one more win, the Suns would tie their franchise record with 17 consecutive victories. They’ll get the chance on Tuesday night against the only team in the league with as many wins as the Suns have this season — the Warriors. Phoenix’s 16-game streak is also tied for the third-longest win streak in NBA history for a team that lost in the NBA Finals the previous season. — Lopez
This week: GS, DET, @DET
3. Brooklyn Nets
2021-22 record: 14-6
Previous ranking: 3
Brooklyn is a team that can be viewed in a couple different ways. Good: The Nets have the NBA’s third-best record, the East’s best record and Kevin Durant and James Harden are healthy. Bad: They’ve had three games against the other elite teams in the NBA this season — Milwaukee, Golden State and Phoenix — and have been thoroughly beaten in all of them. — Bontemps
This week: NY, MIN, CHI
4. Milwaukee Bucks
2021-22 record: 13-8
Previous ranking: 9
The Bucks look like one of the powers in the Eastern Conference once again. They’ve won seven consecutive games, thanks to the best defensive efficiency in the NBA during that span, and they are still undefeated (9-0) this season when Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday are all in the starting lineup. Milwaukee has benefited from playing some soft competition recently, so hosting the Hornets and Heat this week should provide a better measuring stick. — Collier
This week: CHA, @TOR, MIA
5. Miami Heat
2021-22 record: 13-7
Previous ranking: 6
Playing without Tyler Herro, the Heat earned a strong win over the Bulls on Saturday night, thanks in part to the 20 points that Gabe Vincent poured in off the bench. Miami has another showdown with the Bucks coming up on Saturday night, but it has to feel good about the way things are going — especially with the way the defense continues to come together behind Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. — Friedell
This week: DEN, CLE, @IND, @MIL
6. Utah Jazz
2021-22 record: 13-7
Previous ranking: 5
It wasn’t a good week for the Jazz, who blew late leads in home losses to the Grizzlies and Pelicans. “This is not who we are,” Donovan Mitchell said after Friday’s loss to New Orleans, during which he was 6-of-21 from the floor days after going 5-of-20 against Memphis. “We have to be better. I have to be better. We have to start moving the ball or this is going to be who we are.” Utah responded by blowing out the Pelicans in a rematch the next night. — MacMahon
This week: POR, BOS, @CLE
7. Chicago Bulls
2021-22 record: 13-8
Previous ranking: 4
The Bulls dropped three of four games last week while letting some winnable games slip by with losses to the Heat and Rockets. Despite their hot start, their half-court offense is taking some time to gel against teams that stop them from running in transition. According to pbpstats.com data, Chicago ranks 27th in offensive efficiency after field goals made by their opponent. — Collier
This week: CHA, @NY, @BKN
8. Washington Wizards
2021-22 record: 13-7
Previous ranking: 7
The Wizards bounced back after a 127-102 loss at New Orleans with two straight wins. They pulled out a two-point win at Oklahoma City before getting a quality victory at Dallas. They will look to close this road swing at San Antonio with their third straight win. Washington is also starting to get reinforcements, as Davis Bertans has returned from injury and Rui Hachimura has been ramping up slowly for a possible return in December. The Wizards continue to play much-improved defense and are still one of the biggest surprises in the East. — Youngmisuk
This week: @SA, MIN, CLE, @TOR
9. Dallas Mavericks
2021-22 record: 10-8
Previous ranking: 10
Kristaps Porzingis‘ career-long streak of seven consecutive 20-plus-point performances was snapped in Saturday’s loss to the Wizards. He was particularly pleased about being a featured act in two games against the Clippers, as opposed to being used almost solely as a spacer in last season’s playoff series. “What a contrast, right?” said Porzingis, who scored 55 points on 19-of-34 shooting as the Mavs split the two games in L.A. “Honestly, I haven’t felt like this for a while. Last time I can remember was probably [with] New York.” — MacMahon
This week: CLE, @NO, NO, MEM
10. Charlotte Hornets
2021-22 record: 13-9
Previous ranking: 13
Charlotte continues to keep things interesting each and every week. The Hornets notched a win over the Timberwolves on Friday, followed by an overtime loss to the Rockets on Saturday night. The Hornets have three more intriguing road games this week against the Bulls, Bucks and Hawks. Kelly Oubre Jr. needs to stay hot in order to give the young team its best chance this week — he’s averaging 23.7 points per game over his past three contests. — Friedell
This week: @CHI, @MIL, @ATL
11. LA Clippers
2021-22 record: 11-9
Previous ranking: 12
The Clippers are beginning to get a little healthier. Marcus Morris Sr. returned last week, and Serge Ibaka is back, although not a major part of the rotation yet. But the Clippers miss Nic Batum, who has missed the past four games while in the health and safety protocols. The Clippers are 2-2 in that stretch, and a healthy Batum might’ve made the difference in the Clippers’ 112-104 overtime loss to the Mavericks on Tuesday. They played the Warriors tough on Sunday until Steph Curry put them away in the fourth. — Youngmisuk
This week: NO, SAC, @LAL, @SAC
12. Philadelphia 76ers
2021-22 record: 10-10
Previous ranking: 11
Philadelphia got Joel Embiid back after nearly three weeks away due to COVID-19 on Saturday night, but that wasn’t enough to stop the 76ers from losing in double overtime to the Timberwolves. More important in the long run, however, is that Embiid immediately looked like he was back to normal when he took the court. — Bontemps
This week: ORL, @BOS, @ATL
13. Atlanta Hawks
2021-22 record: 11-10
Previous ranking: 18
Atlanta’s seven-game win streak ended on Saturday against the Knicks, but it was another stellar night for Clint Capela, who finished with 16 points and 21 rebounds. It was his 22nd 15-point, 15-rebound game since joining the Hawks last season, tied with Rudy Gobert for the most in that span. In his past eight games, Capela is averaging 15.1 points and 15.1 rebounds per game. — Lopez
This week: @IND, PHI, CHA
14. New York Knicks
2021-22 record: 11-9
Previous ranking: 14
As Kemba Walker continues to struggle, at some point Tom Thibodeau will have to consider making a change to his starting lineup at the point. Of course, given how poorly the Knicks’ starting group has performed overall — it has been outscored by over 15 points per 100 possessions while being the most played five-man group in the NBA — some would argue he should do so now. — Bontemps
This week: @BKN, CHI, DEN
15. Portland Trail Blazers
2021-22 record: 10-10
Previous ranking: 17
Portland opened last week with its fourth straight win, a 19-point victory over Denver. But the Blazers lost at Sacramento the next night before losing by 15 to the Warriors on Friday. They’ll complete a three-game road swing at Utah on Monday. At 10-10, Chauncey Billups’ Blazers continue to struggle to find consistency. — Youngmisuk
This week: @UTAH, DET, SA, BOS
16. Denver Nuggets
2021-22 record: 9-10
Previous ranking: 8
The Nuggets are sinking fast with injuries crippling their season. Denver has lost six straight games, the last four without MVP Nikola Jokic (wrist). The Nuggets’ injury report is packed. Sitting alongside Jokic are Jamal Murray (knee) and Michael Porter Jr. (back), who are both out indefinitely. And Denver lost valued reserve P.J. Dozier for the season to a torn ACL. The Nuggets start a seven-game road swing on Monday at Miami, where the Nuggets will face the Heat for the first time since Jokic and Markieff Morris had their run-in that resulted in a one-game suspension for Jokic. Morris hasn’t played since that game. — Youngmisuk
This week: @MIA, @ORL, @NY
17. Boston Celtics
2021-22 record: 11-10
Previous ranking: 15
Boston got a win Sunday night over the Raptors to end November over .500, giving the Celtics a little bit of momentum going into a brutal month of December. How rough will it be? The Celtics have 15 games on the schedule — and every single opponent has a record of .500 or better. — Bontemps
This week: PHI, @UTAH, @POR
18. Los Angeles Lakers
2021-22 record: 11-11
Previous ranking: 16
“I mean, it ranks right at the top with any other challenge I’ve had in my career,” LeBron James said of the Lakers’ season after Sunday’s win over Detroit. “Which actually brings out the best in me and I love that.” L.A. fans will love to see some consistency out of their team after the see-saw continued this week. — McMenamin
This week: @SAC, LAC
19. Minnesota Timberwolves
2021-22 record: 10-10
Previous ranking: 23
The Timberwolves are fresh off a victory in one of the most thrilling games of the season so far, a double-overtime road win against the 76ers that marked Minnesota’s sixth win in its past seven games — including a five-game winning streak, the team’s longest since the 2016-17 season. With a defense that is 10th in the NBA in efficiency, the Wolves seem primed for a legitimate challenge for at least a spot in the play-in tournament. It would be just Minnesota’s second postseason appearance since 2003-04. — Collier
This week: IND, @WAS, @BKN
20. Cleveland Cavaliers
2021-22 record: 10-10
Previous ranking: 19
All it took for Cleveland to snap its five-game losing streak was to have Rookie of the Year front-runner Evan Mobley return to the lineup. Mobley came back from an elbow sprain absence to put up 13 points, nine rebounds and four blocks in Saturday’s 105-92 win over the Magic. — McMenamin
This week: @DAL, @MIA, @WAS, UTAH
21. Memphis Grizzlies
2021-22 record: 10-10
Previous ranking: 21
The MRI results on franchise star Ja Morant‘s sprained left knee were a relief, but he will miss at least a few weeks. “We avoided significant injury,” coach Taylor Jenkins said before Sunday’s game against the Kings. “Basically, there’s no set timeline, just so everyone understands.” The Grizzlies managed to stay afloat when Morant missed time due to a sprained ankle last season, going 4-4 in that stretch. — MacMahon
This week: @TOR, OKC, @DAL
22. Indiana Pacers
2021-22 record: 9-13
Previous ranking: 22
The Pacers have been one of the more difficult teams in the league to gauge, and they continued their up-and-down play last week. They won comfortably on the road against the Bulls and at home against the Raptors, but had an overtime loss to the Lakers and blowout loss to the Bucks mixed in. — Collier
This week: @MIN, ATL, MIA
23. Toronto Raptors
2021-22 record: 9-12
Previous ranking: 20
Toronto got off to a 6-3 start, powered by a five-game winning streak, but the Raptors have since dropped nine of 12, including Sunday’s loss at home to the Celtics. The Raptors need to get OG Anunoby back on the court, as his absence due to injury was felt in a big way against Boston, which simply wore Toronto down. — Bontemps
This week: MEM, MIL, WAS
24. Sacramento Kings
2021-22 record: 8-13
Previous ranking: 25
Leave it to the Lakers to make the Kings feel good about themselves for a night. Losers of eight out of 10 coming into Friday night’s game in L.A., the Kings overcame a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit and seven-point hole in the first overtime to beat the Lakers in triple overtime. Something to keep an eye on: Marvin Bagley III is back in the rotation with Alvin Gentry at the helm, and is averaging 11.5 points on 81.8% shooting and 7.5 rebounds in the Kings’ past two wins. — McMenamin
This week: LAL, @LAC, LAC
25. Oklahoma City Thunder
2021-22 record: 6-13
Previous ranking: 24
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander missed two games last week due to a sprained right ankle and has been struggling recently. He has scored fewer than 20 points in his past five games, the first time that has happened since the end of the 2019-20 season. Gilgeous-Alexander is shooting 30.8% from the floor and 19.4% from 3-point range in this slump. — MacMahon
This week: @HOU, HOU, @MEM
26. San Antonio Spurs
2021-22 record: 5-13
Previous ranking: 26
The free throw line has not been kind to San Antonio this season. The Spurs rank last in free throws made per game and second to last in free throws attempted per game. San Antonio is also shooting a league-low 69% from the stripe. San Antonio still ranks 18th in scoring this year despite ranking last in 3-pointers made and attempted. — Lopez
This week: WAS, @POR, @GS
27. Detroit Pistons
2021-22 record: 4-16
Previous ranking: 27
The Pistons’ week was most notable for the fallout after the on-court scuffle between LeBron James and Isaiah Stewart, but Detroit has also dropped a season-high six straight games. The Pistons have had issues making shots all season and are last in the league in 3-point percentage (29.7%). — Collier
This week: @POR, @PHX
28. New Orleans Pelicans
2021-22 record: 5-17
Previous ranking: 29
In Friday night’s win over the Jazz, the Pelicans’ Willy Hernangomez hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer at the end of the first half to take a lead into the break and then Devonte’ Graham nailed a 3-pointer with 1.3 seconds to go in the fourth quarter to lift New Orleans to a win. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Pelicans became the first team since 2013 to hit go-ahead 3-pointers in the final two seconds of each half. — Lopez
This week: @LAC, DAL, @DAL, @HOU
29. Orlando Magic
2021-22 record: 4-17
Previous ranking: 28
Orlando has dropped six straight and starts a four-game West Coast swing later this week. The good news for the Magic is that Markelle Fultz has started practicing with the team’s G League affiliate and appears to be inching closer to a return to the floor. The Magic need all the help they can get as young players Cole Anthony and Mo Bamba are dealing with injuries of their own. — Friedell
This week: @PHI, DEN, @HOU
30. Houston Rockets
2021-22 record: 3-16
Previous ranking: 30
John Wall‘s desire to play puts the franchise in the position of trying to figure out how to respect the five-time All-Star while still prioritizing the development of Kevin Porter Jr. It has been a rocky start to Porter’s first season as a full-time starting point guard, but he showed promise during the Rockets’ shocking two-game winning streak, averaging 18.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 10.5 assists in upsets of the Bulls and Hornets that came on the heels of a 15-game losing streak. — MacMahon
This week: OKC, @OKC, ORL, NO
Shaedon Sharpe, 18, can apply for 2022 NBA draft after joining Kentucky Wildcats in January
Shaedon Sharpe, who was ESPN’s No. 1 prospect in the 2022 high school class before he joined the Kentucky Wildcats in early January, can apply for the 2022 NBA draft as an early-entry candidate, a source told ESPN on Thursday.
Sharpe started the current school year at Dream City Christian in the Phoenix area, but he had sufficient credits to graduate from high school before the start of the NBA season in October. He committed to Kentucky in September and then decided to arrive in Lexington early and enroll at the beginning of January.
He is currently practicing with the Wildcats and is eligible to play, but he has not yet participated in any games, something that might change in the coming weeks depending on the inclination of the coaching staff, led by John Calipari.
Sharpe turns 19 on May 30 and thus meets the age requirement for the NBA draft, along with being one NBA season removed from high school graduation.
A little-known prospect unranked by recruiting services at the beginning of the 2020-21 high school season, Sharpe led the prestigious Nike EYBL in scoring this past July, making a dramatic rise to the No. 1 spot in the ESPN 100 before signing with Kentucky.
Sharpe is considered a potential top-five pick in the 2022 NBA draft thanks to his combination of prototypical frame with dynamic shot-making and explosive finishing ability, regularly coming up with highlight-reel-caliber dunks, blocks and putbacks.
Although slated as the No. 6 prospect in the ESPN Top 100 for the 2022 NBA draft, Sharpe has not yet made his intentions known regarding his plans for the upcoming draft, which likely will depend at least partially on whether he plays this season. He could ultimately elect to wait until the 2023 NBA draft, especially if he does not suit up for Kentucky this season.
Jonathan Givony is an NBA draft expert and the founder and co-owner of DraftExpress.com, a private scouting and analytics service used by NBA, NCAA and international teams.
Fantasy 30 – Joel Embiid is playing at an MVP level
Who is trending up? Which rotations are changing? What’s the latest with the notable injuries around the NBA?
Here’s a look around the league at the most fantasy relevant news and notes for all 30 teams:
De’Andre Hunter was mentioned in last week’s column, and he’s still available in 85.5% of ESPN leagues. Since returning from his nearly two-month absence due to a wrist injury, he’s been outstanding. Hunter’s has averaged 17 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1.4 APG, 0.4 SPG and 1.2 BPG in his last five games. Pick Hunter up now.
Dennis Schroder has thrived with Marcus Smart in the protocols. Over the last three games, he’s averaged 21 PPG, 6.0 RPG and 7.3 APG while shooting 58.5% from the field. Schroder should continue to produce while Smart is out.
With Kevin Durant out a month with a sprained MCL, Patty Mills becomes an instant beneficiary and a reliable source of points and 3-pointers. This season, he has averaged 7.6 triples per game, connecting on 42.6% of them. Those playing deeper formats shouldn’t overlook Kessler Edwards, who has been starting lately. In the last four games, he averaged 10.3 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 1.0 SPG and 1.0 BPG in 34 MPG You can find Edwards in virtually all ESPN leagues.
Terry Rozier has been fantastic for fantasy managers in January. In five of his last six games, he has scored 20 or more points while averaging 5.5 rebounds and 6.0 assists in five of his last six games. If you are looking for a short-term streamer, then I recommend Jalen McDaniels since P.J. Washington is questionable for the Hornets Friday night against the Thunder after sustaining a right hip contusion last game. He has averaged 15 points and eight rebounds per 40 minutes this.
Ayo Dosunmu remains a viable streamer while Lonzo Ball and Zach LaVine are out with knee injuries. During the past three games, he has a 76.7 FG% to go with 18 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 8.0 APG, 2.3 SPG and 0.7 BPG. Dosunmu is available in 94% of ESPN leagues.
This season, Lauri Markkanen has been a consistent scorer for the Cavaliers. Over the last five games, he has averaged 16.4 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 0.6 BPG and 3.0 3PG while posting a 57 FG%. Markkanen provides plenty of points and triples and is available in 54.6% of ESPN leagues.
Luka Doncic has not met fantasy expectations so far this season, but his epic effort against the Raptors on Wednesday with 41 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists and a steal hopefully represents a return to form. This was his third career game with at least 40 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, which is the most in Mavericks franchise history. Doncic is only 22 years old.
Jeff Green has scored 10 or more points in six of his last seven games,. His other counting statistics are mediocre. Green has averaged 15.3 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 1.1 3s made in the last seven games. In deeper formats, he’s someone to consider since he’s available in nearly all ESPN leagues.
Rodney McGruder has scored 15 or more points and averaged 4.5 rebounds and 27 minutes in his last two games. He is available in virtually all ESPN leagues. In deeper formats, keep McGruder on your watch list and consider adding him if he plays well against the Jazz on Friday.
Jonathan Kuminga has an opportunity to shine in the absence of Draymond Green, who is out for at least 10 more days with a calf injury. Over the last four games, the rookie lottery pick has averaged 18 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.0 steals, and 1.0 blocks. Available in 88.4% of ESPN leagues, it’s possible — but not probable — that Kuminga continues to be fantasy relevant once Green returns.
Those fantasy managers seeking points and triples should consider Garrison Mathews. He’s averaged 20 points, 4.5 triples and 26.5 minutes over the last two games. Mathews is available in 98.4% of ESPN leagues.
Myles Turner will miss significant time with a left foot stress reaction. That opens the door for Goga Bitadze (rostered in 1.4% of ESPN leagues), who can provide rebounds and shot-blocking in Turner’s absence. Bitadze has averaged 15.2 points and 11 rebounds per 40 minutes this season.
Ivica Zubac scored a career-high 30 points and grabbed 10 rebounds against the Nuggets on Wednesday. This performance should cement his position as the Clippers’ starting center for the remainder of the season. Zubac has averaged 10 PPG, 8.0 RPG,and 1.0 BPG this season, and is available in 41% of ESPN leagues.
Reggie Jackson tosses it up to Ivica Zubac, who finishes with a jam over Nikola Jokic.
Russell Westbrook has been a liability for the Lakers, who have lost four of their last five games. He has averaged 12.9 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 5 APG over the last seven games, numbers that are a far cry from the Westbrook we’ve come to know over the past decade. Wednesday night’s game against the Pacers marked Westbrook’s seventh consecutive game with 20 or fewer points, his longest streak since his second season in the league way back in 2009-2010.
One of the reasons why the Grizzlies are among the top teams in the Western Conference is their abundance of playmakers. De’Anthony Melton is one of them, but he only has played 22.6 MPG this season. On the other hand, he has averaged 16.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 4.8 assists per 40 minutes. Melton is available in 93% of ESPN leagues and could be a difference-maker if traded to another team and given more playing time, but his importance on the contending Grizzlies makes that unlikely.
Tyler Herro has entered the league’s health and safety protocols. Fortunately, the Heat have an abundance of playmakers to fill Herro’s role considering his usage rate this season is 29%. Max Strus is my preferred streaming option. He is available in 98% of ESPN leagues. Over the past seven games, Strus has averaged 14 PPG, 4.0 RPG and 1.7 APG.
Since returning from the league protocols, Grayson Allen has put together some solid performances. He has averaged 12.8 points, 2.0 3-pointers made, 3.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.0 steals in the last four games. Allen is available in 90.5% of ESPN leagues and is a reliable source of points and triples (39.0 3FG%).
Jarred Vanderbilt has limited his fantasy ceiling due to foul troubles, racking up a whopping 23 fouls over the last five games. That said, he is available in 80% of ESPN leagues and is a consistent contributor to defensive stats, averaging 9.1 RPG, 1.5 SPG and 0.7 BPG this season.
Herbert Jones has averaged 14 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 2.0 steals and 32.4 minutes over the last six games, and the rookie forward is available in 83% of ESPN leagues if you are looking for a player who can contribute in multiple categories.
Throughout the season, Evan Fournier has had his ups and downs. However, he has been a top-50 player in category formats for the last two weeks. The veteran swingman has averaged 18 points and 30 minutes over the last eight games. From the field, he has shot 48.5% while making 51% of his 3s. Fournier is available in 44.3% of ESPN leagues, and is a great source of points and triples if you can handle the fluctuations in statistical production.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has averaged 25.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.0 blocks and 34 minutes in his last four games. With Oklahoma City sitting at 14-30, it’s possible the Thunder will initiate some random DNPs for him during the remainder of the season, so if Gilgeous-Alexander is on your roster, consider selling high.
Since returning from his thumb injury, rookie Jalen Suggs has performed admirably. He has averaged 13 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.0 steals and 25.3 minutes in his last four games. The Gonzaga product has a great chance to end the regular season on a positive note for a Magic team desperate for playmakers. He’s available in 41% of ESPN leagues.
Joel Embiid scored 50 points against the Magic on Wednesday night and nobody should be surprised. In his last 15 games, Embiid has averaged 33 points, 10 rebounds and 4.1 assists while shooting 55% from the field. Fantasy managers should ride Embiid’s statistical wave, but the elephant in the room is his availability. In each of the past five seasons, he has appeared in no more than 64 games during the regular season.
Joel Embiid puts up a career-high 50 points in the 76ers’ win over the Magic.
Deandre Ayton has been ruled out of Thursday’s game against the Mavericks. This puts JaVale McGee on the streaming radar during his absence. While McGee has averaged only 16.2 MPG this season, his per 40 numbers (25 points and 17.3 rebounds) tell you what he’s capable of in a larger role. The veteran 7-footer is available in 91.5% of ESPN leagues.
Despite missing 18 games due to a collapsed lung, an uncommon injury in basketball, CJ McCollum has played well over the last two games, averaging 20 points and 30.5 minutes. Damian Lillard (core surgery) will be out for the foreseeable future, which should lead to an increase in his usage rate. Another player who benefits from Lillard’s absence is Anfernee Simons, who is still available in 55% of ESPN leagues.
Terence Davis made the most of his opportunity with Tyrese Haliburton in health and safety protocols, scoring a a career-high 35 points on Wednesday night against the Pistons. In addition, he had six rebounds, three assists, a steal, a block and seven triples. Davis has averaged 22 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists over the last three games, while shooting 49% from the field. He’s available in 98.1% of ESPN leagues.
It is shocking to see Devin Vassell still available in 94% of ESPN leagues. He can fill up the stat sheet in a variety of ways. Vassell has averaged 12.2 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 1.0 blocks during the past five games, and the trade of Bryn Forbes to the Nuggets positions Vassell for even greater things during the second half of the season.
Chris Boucher has kept up his positive trend since I wrote about him in last week’s column. During the past five games, he has averaged 15.2 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1 steal, 1.6 blocks and — most importantly — a healthy 34 minutes.Pick Boucher up if he’s available in your league — this is the guy everyone thought they were getting on draft day.
In Wednesday night’s game against the Rockets, Bojan Bogdanovic attempted 27 field goals and scored 29 points. Bogdanovic will continue to accumulate field goal attempts while Donovan Mitchell is out with a concussion. He remains available in 39% of ESPN leagues and Joe Ingles is also an option if Bogdanovic is unavailable, but Ingles has seen his offensive production plummet in this, his 8th NBA season.
Montrezl Harrell is still getting plenty of minutes even with the return of Thomas Bryant and Rui Hachimura. He has averaged 15 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.0 blocks, and 23 minutes in his last five games, and will continue to contribute as a key component of the Wizards’ second unit.
Julius Randle, the New York Knicks and the burden of expectations
MADISON SQUARE GARDEN had just played host to one of the season’s most thrilling comebacks. It was Jan. 6, and New York Knicks fans had witnessed a ridiculous buzzer-beating bank shot 3-pointer by RJ Barrett that capped a 24-point rally and win against the Boston Celtics.
It was the Knicks’ fifth victory in their last seven games and a reason for excitement in the home locker room. But for Julius Randle, whose 22 points and eight rebounds aided New York’s great escape, something seemed off when he sat down at the podium.
Randle’s answers were clipped, and terse. After a couple minutes of awkward silences and short replies, he was asked what message he was trying to send by giving a thumbs down to the hometown fans following a bucket midway through the fourth quarter.
“Shut the f— up,” he said, responding to the MSG fans who had rained down boos early in the game with the Knicks trailing by double figures.
It was a sudden release of frustration — emblematic of a season that hasn’t gone how Randle or the Knicks had hoped. The feel-good story he and the Knicks authored during a spirited run to the 2021 Eastern Conference’s No. 4 seed had dissipated with mounting losses through the first half of the 2021-22 season.
After breaking a seven-year playoff drought, the pillars of New York’s run — combined with the franchise’s offseason roster additions — have yielded mediocre results as the Knicks find themselves fighting for a spot in the play-in.
It all leads to one question: Which ending — last season’s frantic finish for home-court advantage or another seat at the lottery dais — is ahead for the Knicks?
“[The Knicks] are a classic example,” an Eastern Conference executive said, “of what happens when you go from the hunter to the hunted.”
FOUR KEYS POWERED the Knicks’ breakout season in 2020-21: Randle’s rise into an All-NBA player, New York finishing with the league’s No. 4 defense, midseason acquisition Derrick Rose‘s resurgence as a Sixth Man finalist and Barrett’s sophomore leap.
Those pillars of last season’s surprise run have teetered on the edge of collapse.
Randle, last season’s Most Improved Player, has seen his shooting numbers decline: from 41% on 3s last season to 31% in 2021-22.
Some of that could be expected; even this year’s 31% clip from behind the arc is the third highest of Randle’s career. But Randle also ranks among the top five in difficulty of shots created off the dribble, per Second Spectrum’s tracking. He has also run a league-leading 651 isolation and post-up plays this season; among the 31 players who have run at least 225 such plays, Randle ranks 27th in efficiency.
Randle has seen his points per drive drop from 1.12 last season — which was just outside the league’s top 10 — to 1.03, which ranks 32nd out of 63 players with at least 100 direct drives this season, per Second Spectrum.
“They thought they had a guy they were going to be able to build around, and acted that way,” a Western Conference scout said. “It may not be the case.”
Said a second Eastern Conference executive: “He is still good, but he’s not an All-NBA player like he was last year. That’s a big difference.”
The Knicks have stood behind Randle. Coach Tom Thibodeau has pointed out the ways his struggling star is impacting the game beyond making shots, while teammates have preached the importance of his energy on the court.
But while the offense — Randle’s in particular — has been troublesome, the team’s defense has been a larger issue. Thibodeau, a defensive guru, is overseeing a team that slipped to 16th from its fourth-ranked unit last season.
Two of the main reasons: poor transition defense and a sharp decline in 3-point defense. The transition numbers are ugly, as New York went from ranking 11th last season to 27th this season, allowing 1.33 points per possession.
And the Knicks were the NBA’s best team at defending opposing 3-pointers last season. They were also the luckiest. The 2.3% gap between what their opponents shot (33.7%) and what they were expected to shoot (36.0) was easily the biggest difference in the league, per Second Spectrum tracking, nearly twice as big as the second-place Utah Jazz.
This year, that gap has dropped to 1.3%. As a team, the Knicks have dropped to 15th overall in opponent 3-point percentage allowed.
Rose, meanwhile, has been sidelined since Dec. 16 with a right ankle injury that will keep him off the court until near the All-Star break in mid-February.
The 33-year-old guard, who reunited with Thibodeau at last season’s trade deadline, has been the leader of a bench unit that routinely outperformed the starting unit; the Knicks are 9.8 points per 100 possessions better with Rose on the court.
The team’s best and most consistent offensive threat during its first-round loss to the Atlanta Hawks in last year’s playoffs, Rose averaged 19.4 points per game and hit over 47% of his 3s in the series as the Hawks successfully limited Randle’s impact.
“Just having his leadership out there, just making the game a lot easier,” Knicks forward Taj Gibson said about Rose’s impact on the Knicks. “He makes it a lot easier for the young guys, too. But then, at the same time, just having him not here, a lot of guys had to step up.”
Enter Barrett, who through the first half of the season failed to build on the career-best numbers he flashed in his sophomore campaign.
But after averaging 15 points on 40% shooting through the end of December, Barrett has started to turn things around in 2022. He’s averaging 23 points in January on 45% shooting from the floor and 44% from 3-point range, including three 30-point performances — matching the number he’d had in his first two-plus seasons.
After missing six games in mid-December due to COVID-19, Barrett said last week he’s feeling good physically again. His play has backed up that belief.
Barrett spent three games hovering in the mid-20s in minutes while he improved his conditioning, then scored 26 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder on New Year’s Eve. Since then, his play has taken off — the 21-year-old wing has averaged 23 points, 6 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game since, and hit over 44% of his shots from 3.
“There’s no ceiling really on what he can do,” Knicks guard Evan Fournier said recently of Barrett. “When he scores on all three levels, he becomes less predictable. So that allows him to do what he does best, which is be aggressive and drive.
“When he plays like that, it makes the job easy for everyone because he draws a lot of attention and he’s a willing passer. So hopefully he [keeps] it going.”
THE KNICKS CONTINUED the process of remaking their roster last week, when they moved Kevin Knox and a protected 2022 first-round pick to the Atlanta Hawks for forward Cam Reddish, a former lottery pick and Duke teammate of Barrett’s whom they hope can improve with a change of scenery.
New York’s offseason splashes — signing Kemba Walker off waivers and adding Fournier via sign and trade with the Celtics — haven’t had the impact the Knicks hoped, particularly in boosting New York’s offense, which continues to rank among the league’s bottom third.
Alan Hahn speculates that the Knicks might make another move to complete the team after trading for Cam Reddish.
Walker was benched early in the season after New York’s starting lineup was getting outscored by more than 15 points per 100 possessions while playing more minutes than any five-man unit in the NBA at that time. Walker only returned to the court when Thibodeau had no choice but to play him after the team’s COVID-19 outbreak.
Walker was brilliant in late December, but, after playing nearly 36 minutes per game over a six-game stretch, he missed three weeks with knee soreness before returning Tuesday.
Some of the Knicks’ issues this season are out of their control. The most prominent is something they haven’t experienced in almost a decade: the burden of expectations.
Last season, the Knicks were predicted to finish with one of the league’s worst records. So hovering around .500 halfway through the season was deemed a success — and stampeding home with 14 wins in their final 18 games was hailed as a remarkable achievement. Following up with a nearly identical record at this same point was never going to be celebrated the same way.
“It’s a long season,” Thibodeau said. “We started last season like this as well.”
One problem: This isn’t last season’s East. The Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers — two of the East’s bottom five teams last season — are currently among the group battling for the conference’s best record. The Toronto Raptors, following a 12th-place finish while playing home games in Tampa, Florida, in 2020-21, are back in the mix as a play-in contender.
New York does own the second-easiest remaining schedule in the league, according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, but last season’s No. 4 seed appears to face a steep climb to return there.
“It’s hard to argue [the Knicks] should be anything other than what they are right now,” a Western Conference executive said. “I don’t think Julius is going to suddenly be more efficient, and I don’t think Kemba, Fournier or even Rose — when he’s healthy — are going to get better defensively.”
Added an Eastern Conference scout: “Everything fell into place for them last year, and they haven’t been able to repeat it.”
And while the Knicks have won five of their last eight games, they still have a ways to go to replicate last season’s formula — a stout defense paired with just enough offense led by Randle, Barrett and Rose — and prove its 2021 playoff run wasn’t fool’s gold.
“Each day you can’t look backwards [and] you can’t look too far down the road,” Thibodeau said. “You just have to look at today. Put everything into today.”
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