NBA Power Rankings: Brooklyn Nets Trade Way into NBA's Elite

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist IJanuary 18, 2021

NBA Power Rankings: Brooklyn Nets Trade Way into NBA's Elite

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    There's never a dull moment in the NBA, as the long-awaited James Harden trade showed. The Brooklyn Nets got Harden, the Houston Rockets got Victor Oladipo and several draft picks and swaps, the Indiana Pacers got Caris LeVert, and the Cleveland Cavaliers got Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince.

    A few players made their season debuts last week. Kristaps Porzingis came back to the Dallas Mavericks, and Kemba Walker's 2020-2021 season started on Sunday. A couple of guys returned to action, such as rookie Obi Toppin for the New York Knicks and Lauri Markanen for the Chicago Bulls. Also Ja Morant returned much earlier than expected for the Memphis Grizzlies.

    It was a weird week for several teams dealing with COVID-19 protocols. Many games were postponed, leading to some teams playing just one game, while others were able to stick with their whole schedule. That did have an impact on the rankings.

    For teams that played just one or two games last week, the rankings took into account how they were trending in previous weeks. Teams that played with several key rotation players in the health and safety protocols weren't docked as much for losses.

    Besides the COVID-19 effect, the criteria remain the same. Were a team's wins against opponents at full strength? Did it win with style points or just squeak by? Did it end the week on a high note? All of these go into where a team is ranked.

30. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 30th

    If the Wolves are going to climb out of the basement of the rankings, it will start with D'Angelo Russell. He simply has to be better.

    Their defensive rating with him on the court is 120.8 and 99.0 when he is off. It would be digestible the Wolves were making up for it on the offensive end, but their offensive rating goes up to 105.7 when Russell is off the court from the 103.2.

    Minnesota was forced to postpone its game Friday night with two people in the organization testing positive, including Karl-Anthony Towns, and a few in protocols will keep them sidelined for a bit.

29. Detroit Pistons

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 29th

    Like several teams last week, the Pistons had a game postponed due to the NBA's COVID-19 protocols. They only played two games. So with a limited sample, now is a good time to take an early look at what their free-agent prize, Jerami Grant, is doing.

    Twelve games into the season, Grant is averaging 24.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists while shooting 38.5 percent from three. He is averaging a career-high usage of 26 percent in his first opportunity as the leading man.

    Grant is putting up big numbers, but the Pistons are still struggling to find wins. It seems they have a player they can count on but will need to start to build around him if they are going to be more than a lottery-bound team for the next few seasons.

28. Washington Wizards

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 27th

    Now that James Harden has been traded, expect many more stories about Bradley Beal's availability. Teams would be willing to give up a hefty sum to get him. Washington is sitting on a 3-8 record. Russell Westbrook has been out with a quad injury.

    Meanwhile, Beal has been awesome this season. He is leading the league in scoring, putting up 34.9 a night while shooting 37.5 percent from three. It seems it is only a matter of time until a trade request is made.

    After upsetting the Suns, the Wizards had several games postponed. As of Friday, they had six players test positive for COVID. It may be a while before we see them on the court.

27. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 20th

    The Cavs have been without Darius Garland and Collin Sexton. They snapped a three-game losing streak against the Knicks behind a monster performance from Andre Drummond, who had 33 points and 23 rebounds.

    More importantly than any single game, Cleveland smartly jumped at the opportunity to acquire Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince from Brooklyn in the Harden trade. It cost the Cavs only Milwaukee's 2022 first-round pick for their big man of the future.

    Having Allen allows the Cavs to shop Drummond, and that might net them a nice asset as the season goes on.

26. Chicago Bulls

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 28th

    The offense is clicking in Chicago. The Bulls are averaging 116.8 points a game, but it does not make a difference if they keep giving up 120.0. They do lead the NBA in moral victories, taking both the Clippers and Lakers to the wire. They finished their six-game Western Conference swing 2-4 with a rout of the Dallas Mavericks.

    Zach LaVine went on a scoring tear during the trip, averaging 29.7 points and giving out 6.8 assists. Coby White was also dealing during the trip, handing out 6.8 assists.

    Lauri Markkanen returned toward the end of the trip. In his second game back, he erupted for 29 points and 10 rebounds. The most impressive part of Markkanen's game against the Mavs was how confident he looked attacking off the catch.

25. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 23rd

    It has been anything but easy in the Big Easy. The Pelicans had a five-game losing streak. An inconclusive test result forced them to keep Zion Williamson out of their game against the Clippers. To make things worse, Lonzo Ball is out with bilateral knee tendinopathy.

    New Orleans’ defensive rating has been moving the wrong direction each week. It was 112.7 for the week covering the last power rankings, and last week it was 119.7. The offense has improved, but not nearly enough to cover for the decline of the defense.

    The Pelicans snapped their losing streak but nearly blew a 17-point second-half lead to the struggling Kings. New Orleans held on for the win, but it was not convincing enough to keep it from dropping in the rankings.

24. Houston Rockets

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    Carmen Mandato/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 26th

    It was a big week for the Rockets. They pulled the trigger on sending James Harden to Brooklyn while getting back a treasure trove of draft assets and Victor Oladipo. Most importantly, it has removed the dark cloud hanging over Houston.

    Harden was not bought in, and it was weighing on the team. John Wall alluded to as much with his postgame comments after its blowout loss to the Lakers. "When you have certain guys in the mix who don't want to buy in all is one, it's gonna be hard to do anything special as a basketball team."

    The Rockets pulled out a tough win against the Spurs after the trade even with Wall sitting out. Christian Wood is continuing to ball out, proving he is worth every cent they paid him. The young center is averaging 23.2 points and 10.9 rebounds.

    Houston's ceiling is lower without Harden, but the floor is higher with everyone on the team wanting to be there.

23. Toronto Raptors

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 25th

    The statistical profile of Toronto looks similar to a .500 team. A net rating of minus-0.8 does not usually apply to a team 4-8. Unfortunately for the Raptors, that is where they stand.

    The main culprit is their poor play in clutch situations. They are 2-5 in games with a three-point differential and three minutes left. Their net rating is minus-30.6 in those situations.

    Going into the season, OG Anunoby was a candidate to break out this season, but it has been Chris Boucher who has the heads turning. After floating around the NBA, he has found a home in Toronto. Coming off the bench, he is averaging 15.7 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks a game while shooting 47.7 percent from three.

    With how much Aron Baynes has struggled, it will not be long until Boucher is starting.

22. New York Knicks

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 21st

    The Knicks ended their five-game losing streak with an empathic win against the Celtics. They held Boston to just 75 points, which is a good sign, as their defense has been struggling of late. The Knicks' defensive rating during the losing streak was 117.2. A steep drop-off to the 105.7 defensive rating before the streak began.

    Rookie Immanuel Quickley is turning heads. Last week, he averaged 15.5 points, 2.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists and just 1.0 turnovers. Kevin Knox II found his shooting stroke, connecting on 52.6 percent of his 4.8 three-point attempts. RJ Barrett kept the scoring going, averaging 17.5 points a night.

21. Atlanta Hawks

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    Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 18th

    It is getting rather ugly in Atlanta. They are 1-6 in their last seven games. They were supposed to be on a three-game West Coast road trip, but their game against Phoenix was postponed. Atlanta got blown out by the Jazz and lost a close game to the Blazers on its two-game trip.

    Trae Young’s game has fallen significantly since the start of 2021. He’s averaged 18.3 points but made only 32.9 percent of his field goals. Young’s three-point percentage for the season is just 26.5 percent, a far cry from the 36.1 percent he shot last season.

    The Hawks have a rash of injuries. But if Young is going to struggle with his shot like this for the year, it is going to be a rough season in Atlanta even if they get to full strength.

20. Sacramento Kings

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 17th

    The Kings are dead last in defensive rating by a 5.5-point margin. They've given up the most points in the NBA. Sacramento has yet to keep an opponent from scoring triple digits. The Kings have the second-worst point differential of minus-9.3. The defense was even worse last week with a rating of 130.7 over four games.

    Luke Walton has used a three-guard lineup with De'Aaron Fox, Tyrese Haliburton and Buddy Hield. The problem is that it has not bred much fruit for the Kings. The three-man lineup data has Sacramento's net rating at minus-18.8 when they share the court together.

    Walton will have to rework his rotation to maximize the potential of his guards.

19. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 22

    The Thunder are off to a surprising start with a 6-6 record. The development of their young talent is continuing to get them wins.

    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is growing into the franchise star everyone thought he was capable of becoming. In their overtime win against the Bulls, he had a career-high 33 points as well as 10 assists and five rebounds while committing just one turnover.

    Luguentz Dort has shown a dramatic improvement from three. He leads the Thunder in three-point percentage, connecting on 43.1 percent on 5.4 attempts.

    This coming week they start a second five-game road trip with stops in Denver and a miniseries against the Clippers, and then they head to Portland next Monday before finishing it off with a game in Phoenix.

    This road trip will be a good gauge for the Thunder as they figure out where they stand in the West.

18. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 28th

    Memphis shoots up the rankings this week riding a four-game winning streak and doing it mostly without its two best players. The Grizzlies have wins against the Nets and Sixers in that run. It might be an overreaction to that, but they were left for dead when Ja Morant sprained his ankle. Memphis was able to stay afloat, going 5-4 and keeping its playoff hopes alive.

    Tyus Jones stepped up in a big way taking over the reins for the Grizzlies. He’s averaging 6.9 assists on the season.

    Morant did make his return to the court in their win against Philly. He finished with 17 points and six assists and looked bouncy.

    With the return of Morant, the Grizzlies will watch for the return of Jaren Jackson Jr.

17. Charlotte Hornets

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 19th

    Maybe for the first time since they became a franchise, the Charlotte Hornets are a League Pass team. LaMelo Ball has been putting on a show with his passing ability. For the season he is handing out 6.1 assists a night in 25.2 minutes. Miles Bridges has been punctuating many of these assists with ferocious dunks.

    It has not been all flash with the Hornets. Terry Rozier is scoring 19.9 points on 44.3 percent from three. Gordon Hayward has been in and out of the lineup, but when available he is leading Charlotte with 22.2 points per game.

16. Golden State Warriors

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 15th

    After a troubling start, things have begun to settle down for the Warriors. With games being postponed, Golden State played only two games last week. They dropped both games and averaged only 99.5 points. 

    Coach Steve Kerr has quite a conundrum on his hands. Their starting lineup is struggling offensively, and a change is required. The most obvious change would be moving Kelly Oubre Jr. to the bench and inserting Damion Lee into the starting lineup. Doing that might further damage Oubre’s confidence, and he is a player they are going to need to get going. 

    The question is how long can Kerr wait on that to happen? Lee is shooting 44.7 percent from three, and according Curry shoots 45.2 percent from three when he is on the court.

15. Denver Nuggets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 16th

    The Nuggets’ 2.9 net rating would make one think they are better than a 6-7 team. They are in the top 10 in field-goal percentage, assists and points scored. So what’s the problem? It is their play in clutch games.

    Five of the Nuggets’ losses are in games with a three-point differential with three minutes left. They have a net rating of minus-35.4 in those contests. That is a big change from last season when they were a plus-14.6 in their 29 clutch games.

    Jamal Murray’s numbers are concerning in the clutch. Last season he averaged 2.1 points in the regular season in those games, and this season he is just averaging 0.4 points. That is something Denver will need to change as it gets into more close games this season.

    It really showed in the Nuggets’ four-point loss to the Jazz to close the week.

14. Miami Heat

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 10th

    The Heat have several players out due to COVID protocols but had enough to play their games last week. They nearly stole the first game of a miniseries against the Sixers but then got blown out in the second game.

    Turnovers have plagued the Heat all season. They average the most turnovers per game at 18.3. It was a turnover in the backcourt against the Sixers that cost them the chance to win that game.

    It has been a difficult start to the season. Injuries and COVID-19-related absences have made it difficult to get going.

13. Orlando Magic

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 9th

    Orlando started out its five-game road trip with a blowout loss to Boston. Not the way to start an eight-day trip. To make matters worse, the Magic are on a five-game losing streak.

    The offense has let them down. They have only cracked triple digits in one of their losses this season. They average 114.8 points in their wins and 98.6 points in their losses.

    The absence of Evan Fournier has not helped. He has been out since the new year, and the Magic desperately need him for his offensive firepower.

12. Dallas Mavericks

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 13th

    The Mavericks’ four-game winning streak came to an end against Milwaukee, and they followed that up with a bad loss to Chicago. But in the good news department, Kristaps Porzingis returned from a meniscus tear. In his first three games, he looked good, averaging 17.0 points and 7.3 rebounds.

    The return of Porzingis just means more space for Luka Doncic to attack. Since his return, Doncic is averaging a triple-double with 32.7 points, 12.7 rebounds and 12.3 assists while shooting 44.4 percent from three.

    Even though they gave up 117 points to the Bulls, the Mavs have been much improved on the defensive end this season. They are fourth in defensive rating, and if they can get their offense back to its historically good level from last season, the sky is the limit.

11. San Antonio Spurs

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 11th

    The San Antonio Spurs are not only fun to watch, but they also win games. Each night they have a different cast member step up. Anyone from LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan, Patty Mills, Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson or Lonnie Walker IV can go off. They have a balanced attack with seven players all scoring double digits.

    The big key for the Spurs is they commit the fewest turnovers in the league at just 10.3. Protecting the ball is leading to more chances to score. San Antonio’s 94.7 field-goal attempts per game puts them at the top of the league.

10. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 14th

    Going 3-1 was enough to move the Blazers into the top 10 of the power rankings. Damian Lillard is beginning to catch fire. Last week, he put up 30.3 points and 7.3 assists over their games.

    The Blazers will need every bit of that scoring after losing Jusuf Nurkic for a few weeks to a wrist fracture suffered against the Pacers. Look for Harry Giles III’s minutes to climb while Portland waits for Nurkic and Zach Collins to recover.

    Portland also lost CJ McCollum halfway through their win against the Hawks to a sprained foot. This is a big loss, as he is averaging 26.7 points on a 47.3 field-goal percentage.

    Portland is in the middle of a long homestand but will have to find ways to deal with some of these injuries. In particular, Robert Covington has to find his shot.

9. Phoenix Suns

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 6th

    The Suns were knocking on the door of the top five last week. That was until they lost to the Wizards. Phoenix did not just lose—they got run out of the building. They were down as much as 32 points.

    The loss highlights a problem the Suns seem to have. They play up or down to the level of their competition. Three of their four losses have been against teams below .500. Phoenix is too good to drop to that level and should be blowing those teams out of the water.

    That was the only game the Suns were able to play for the week as they had several players out because of COVID-19 protocols.

8. Indiana Pacers

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 7th

    It was a big week for the Pacers on the trade front. It started with a tough loss to the Kings. Then they rattled off wins against the Warriors and Blazers before falling to the Clippers to close the trip.

    It is likely Indiana held Victor Oladipo out of that Golden State game because he was in the process of being traded to Houston for Caris LeVert in the Harden trade. Unfortunately, LeVert will be out indefinitely, as a mass on his kidney was discovered in his physical. The Nets had to throw in $2.6 million to help push the trade through.

    Besides LeVert being out, Myles Turner was out for the Pacers against the Clippers. That game did not go well, and that is being polite. Indiana lost by 33, but the bigger concerns are with Turner’s hand injury.

    Losing Turner for an extended period would be a big blow to the Pacers defense, as he leads the league in blocks.

7. Utah Jazz

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 12th

    The Jazz move up this week off their dominant wins. Utah beat Cleveland by 30 and Atlanta by 24 before pulling out a tough win against Denver. As a team the Jazz lit it up from downtown last week, averaging 46.8 percent from three on 42.0 attempts. That is absurd.

    Donovan Mitchell found his rhythm offensively, averaging 23.8 and shooting 47.3 percent. Jordan Clarkson is making an early run at Sixth Man of the Year, as he averaged 20.0 points off the bench in the three games last week. Clarkson was instrumental in Utah’s win over Denver.

    The Jazz get good contributions up and down the roster. They are on a five-game winning streak.

6. Boston Celtics

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 2nd

    The Celtics started the week with two games postponed due to COVID-19 protocols. They were able to get two games in at the end of the week as they had enough players return.

    There was no rust in the Celtics’ first game as they blew out the Magic. The return of Kemba Walker did not last long, as he left the game with an injury in the second half of their blowout loss to the Knicks.

    With Jayson Tatum still out with COVID, Jaylen Brown has been Boston’s rock, averaging 25.8 points. His game has taken a leap in scoring, and the Celtics will need every bit of that until Tatum and Walker returns.

5. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 5th

    Philadelphia was almost the new home for James Harden for the cost of Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle. With the Rockets going with the Nets’ offer, that should put an end to Simmons trade rumors for the time being.

    The uncertainty rumors bring can weigh on a player’s mind. It is not clear whether the rumors affected Simmons’ play, but the Sixers need him to step up. Especially in games when they rest Joel Embiid. In their loss to Grizzlies, Simmons scored only 11 points on just nine shots and had seven turnovers.

    With the Harden trade done, Simmons’ mind should be at ease, and the Sixers will need him going forward.

4. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 3rd

    Paul George took a lot of heat for the Clippers’ play in the bubble. This season he has come back completely locked and loaded. Right now he’s in the 50/50/90 club, shooting 51.0 from the field, 51.0 percent from three and 92.3 percent from the line while leading the Clippers in scoring at 24.8 points a night.

    As good as L.A.’s offense has been, the defense needs some work. The Clippers have a defensive rating of 110.9 and are last in rebounds per game. They also have given up big leads in games, making it much harder on themselves.

    They will need more efforts like the game against the Pacers when they held them to 96 points and dominated the glass.

3. Brooklyn Nets

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 8th

    It was a wild week for the Nets. Kyrie Irving, out for personal reasons, missed all the games last week. On Wednesday, Brooklyn acquired James Harden in a four-team trade. The Nets sacrificed a lot of defense for even more offensive firepower.

    With all of this going on, it did not affect the team on the court. The Nets won all three of their games last week. Kevin Durant was phenomenal, averaging 34 points on 60 percent shooting from three and eight assists.

    Harden looked great in his Brooklyn debut, putting up a triple-double. There were flashes of how it might work on offense and where the holes might exist defensively. The sooner Irving returns the better for the Nets so they can begin the process to build chemistry.

2. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 4th

    Very quietly Milwaukee's offense is humming. The Bucks have the best offensive rating at 117.8, which is higher than the Mavericks' top-rated offense from last year by nearly two points. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday are all playing at a high level, but it is their supporting cast that is key.

    The Bucks are getting good minutes from Donte DiVincenzo (10.3 points), Brook Lopez (1.6 blocks) and Pat Connaughton (48.5 percent from three). Milwaukee is going to need all of these guys to continue to contribute at a high level as it heads into a tough week with matchups against the Nets and Lakers.

    One thing of concern has been Antetokounmpo's poor free-throw percentage. He is getting the line 10 times a game but is only making 57.5 percent of them. This is going to open the door to a hack-a-Giannis strategy if he does not correct it.

1. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 1st

    The Lakers are playing on another level right now. They lead the league in point differential, defensive rating and net rating. Los Angeles has a top-five offense and is having fun along the way, like LeBron James’ Curry imitation. The Lakers are riding a five-game winning streak winning by an average of 16.6 points in that span.

    Last year, L.A.’s biggest question mark was its three-point shooting. This year, the Lakers are knocking down 39.6 percent from three. Alex Caruso is hitting 58.3 percent, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is connecting on 55.3 percent, and Kyle Kuzma is shooting 40.0 percent.

    The Lakers’ schedule gets tougher starting this week with a seven-game road trip that includes stops in Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Boston.