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Buy Or Sell: Northwest Division

Matt John starts off Basketball Insiders’ latest series “Buy Or Sell” by taking a look at which teams in the Northwest Division will be buyers and sellers when the trading season commences.

Matt John

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The holidays are a joyous time — but particularly so for NBA junkies.

Christmas Day is one of the most highly-anticipated events for basketball fans everywhere. Not only do we get to see the best teams in the league face-off — but the best players in the league show themselves off on national television. Needless to say, there’s a lot to look forward to on Dec. 25.

Did you know, however, that there is one day that the NBA’s most devoted fans look forward to arguably even more than Christmas? If you didn’t, that day in mind is Dec. 15.

Sounds a little random at first, doesn’t it? Well, there’s a good reason for this. On that day, almost all of the players who agreed to new contracts over the summer become eligible to be traded. That means, almost everyone in the entire league is free game to acquire once that date rolls around.

With that moment mere days away, Basketball Insiders will take a look at which teams should consider upgrades and what franchises might be in sellers mode.

Today, we start with the Northwest Division.

Denver Nuggets (14-7) – Buyers

Does a team flip a script if they are still in the same place as they were last year? Ask the Nuggets.

Last year, the Nuggets attained the second seed because of their elite offense first and foremost. That hasn’t been the case this year. Denver is still one of the better teams in their conference, but their offense has fallen down the tubes, going from scoring 113 points per 100 possessions to 107.1. Their defense has made up the difference, as they’ve gone from allowing 108.9 points per 100 possessions to 102.5.

Their offensive woes should change, but their bench needs some offensive help. Denver’s starters are doing just fine as they are plus-11.6 when they’re on the floor together. But their second unit is a different story.

The Nuggets’ highest scorer off their bench is Jerami Grant, who scores 9.5 points a game. That’s adequate for a player like him, except Denver is minus-19.5 when he’s on the floor. Grant also does not have a reputation as a scorer, so the fact that he’s the bench’s highest bucket-getter is troubling.

Denver is tied for 18th in the league in three-point percentage although they are 22nd in three-point attempts a game – 30.6. What could give their bench a boost on that end is adding a pure three-point shooter on that end. Doing so could open up the floor a bit for them.

For now, the Nuggets’ needs aren’t all too pressing for them, but if these offensive woes as a team continue, something has to be done.

Minnesota Timberwolves (10-13) – Buyers (?)

Give credit to the Timberwolves. They’ve managed to be slightly better than everyone thought they would be. Karl-Anthony Towns continues his ascension into the league’s most offensively talented big. Andrew Wiggins has recouped a fair amount of the hype he’s lost over the last two years. As for the rest of their roster, well…

Minnesota has a team full of solid players outside of Towns and Wiggins. The best one among them obviously being Robert Covington, who, at his peak, is an elite role player. After him, it’s a roster full of solid rotation players that — sans Jarrett Culver and Josh Okogie — have reached their ceilings.

More likely than not, they’re not going to sell anyone — both because they don’t want to pull the plug on their best young players and their role players outside of Covington wouldn’t fetch much value. At the same time, they don’t really have the assets to get anyone that good. They’ll probably try like mad to get their hands on D’Angelo Russell, but they likely don’t have anything that Golden State would want.

Minnesota’s not particularly great on either side of the floor — 18th-rated offense/20th-rated defense — so of course, they could use personnel for both sides. Because they lack the assets right now, don’t expect them to make any head-turning moves.

Odds are, they’ll probably do nothing barring any unexpected jumps from anyone else not named Towns or Wiggins. So, technically, they’re more likely to be buyers but that’s because they don’t really have much to sell.

Oklahoma City Thunder (11-12) – TBD

See, the obvious choice here for Oklahoma City is to be sellers and for good reason, too. For starters, the Thunder have already sold off their superstars for lesser players and a hefty dose of youth. Overall, they’re strictly a middle-of-the-road team in a loaded Western Conference. The sooner they get rid of Chris Paul and his expensive contract, the better.

Better, in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, they already have the next face of the franchise. Beyond that, Oklahoma City has talented players who could fetch them more young value — so no one would blame them if they blew it up.

And yet, there’s so much to like about this team. They come to fight every night. They have enough manpower to compete with just about anyone. They’ve had their good stretches, though it’s pretty evened out by their bad stretches. Above all else, these guys look like they’re having fun playing together.

All reports indicate that Chris Paul is fully embracing his new role as the mentor of this young team. He probably would prefer playing for a contender, but he’s teaching this team how to win and they’re soaking it all in. The Thunder would be better off without him clogging up their cap, but he is bringing a positive influence in the locker room — that counts for something.

Whether they decide to really start from scratch depends on how desperate the interested parties would be in their players. They also have to ask how much would they honestly get for Danilo Gallinari, who’s been excellent, but is on an expiring contract.

The Thunder also have the rare opportunity to have their cake and eat it. They can put on a fun, winning team on the court while acquiring young players through the draft. Teams have formed winning cultures by going this route and it’s worked for them. Just ask Boston.

The more sensible direction for Oklahoma City is to blow it up and start fresh, but seeing how their current group does this season isn’t the worst idea, either.

Portland Trail Blazers (9-15) – Buyers

We already knew Portland would look into improving their roster when the season started. We just didn’t know how many wrenches were going to be thrown into their plans. It was bad enough for them to deal with Jusuf Nurkic’s unclear return date. Zach Collins hurting his shoulder early on hindered an already thin frontcourt — and now, Rodney Hood is done for the year at the very least.

Carmelo Anthony and Hassan Whiteside have done what they can — although the latter is guilty of falling into the same frustrating habits he had in Miami — but that’s not enough. The Trail Blazers currently have the 21st-rated defense, allowing 112.2 points per 100 possessions and their offense hasn’t been as efficient as it was last year. They went from scoring 114.7 points per 100 possessions to 109.6. Now that they’ve lost Hood, it’s going to be even harder to keep that up.

Their needs are clear as day: They need depth in the frontcourt or, more specifically, they need interchangeable wings. Portland losing Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu has been very reminiscent of Houston losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute last year. Those lock-down assets gave so much cushion with their shooting, defense and versatility that replacing them hasn’t been easy.

That’s why the perfect candidate would be Marcus Morris. He’s a tweener three-four who should fit snugly in Hood’s role as the third off-ball scorer. Admittedly, Morris is a ball-stopper but still a reliable shooter that provides better defense than any of Portland’s other wings.

Further, Morris wold also gives Portland a headstrong personality that would benefit them both on and off the court.

But they will need more than just him. Whiteside’s mammoth expiring deal can be awfully useful in a trade, but if Nurkic isn’t the same guy when he comes back, it may not be the wisest decision to trade Hassan.

For Portland, we’ll get a better picture of things when February arrives.

Utah Jazz (13-11) – Buyers

Something is wrong in Utah. What’s been happening to them over the past week or so is not indicative of a bad stretch. It’s indicative of what they are as a team — broken.

While early-season struggles are a yearly tradition for Utah, this go-round feels different. Their offense isn’t as fluid as it’s been in the past and the defense has somehow taken a step back. The worst part is that the Jazz have seemingly lost their identity in that they don’t play as one unit anymore.

When they added Mike Conley Jr. and Bojan Bogdanovic — the talent may have come in, but the grit went out. Their mediocre start in spite of their new toys is garnering them comparisons to the 2018-19 Boston Celtics.

In order to avoid the same fate as that team, the Jazz must address their issues head-on. Plainly, the Jazz have one of the worst benches in the league. The disappearance of Joe Ingles’ three-pointer has hurt a lot, Utah has lacked scoring from the likes of Jeff Green, Emmanuel Mudiay, Dante Exum and Ed Davis — so the starters aren’t getting the support they need.

If they are serious about contending this year, they need a reliable scoring option in their second unit. Quin Snyder can stagger Donovan Mitchell and Bogdanovic’s minutes to help their bench, but they can only do so much on their own.

They also have to start asking themselves if they acquired Conley one year too late and — if they believe they have — decide what their next move is. Conley has fallen well short of expectations and his shot isn’t falling nearly as often as it once did. There’s still time for him to get his form back, but if it’s still the same story as it’s been these first two months, the Jazz may have to look for someone else.

It’s not pretty in Utah — and frankly, same for Portland and Minnesota as well — but there’s still time to salvage the season. As for Oklahoma City and Denver, they’ll need to evaluate just high their ceilings rise this season and act accordingly. Trade season only heats up from here — so stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for the other divisions this week.

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NBA Daily: Deadline Dilemma In Toronto

After winning the 2019 NBA Championship and losing Kawhi Leonard, the Toronto Raptors have defied the odds, winning 30 of their first 44 games this season — but Drew Maresca argues that conceding this season in hopes of building an even stronger future roster is the smarter long-term move.

Drew Maresca

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The Raptors have overachieved in a ridiculous way in 2019-20. They were +700 to repeat as NBA champions prior to the 2019 free agency period, according to the Draft Kings.

Immediately after Kawhi Leonard fled West, the Raptors’ odds grew to +2200 to repeat – tied with the Celtics, who just lost Kyrie Irving, and the Nets, whose best player was set to miss the entire year. And yet through 44 games, the Raptors are third in the Eastern Conference with a 31-14 record and only one-and-a-half games behind last year’s pace (32-12).

But what’s in a record? There’s more to unpack than just wins and losses, especially when success has almost certainly been redefined in a city that just experienced its first NBA championship ever. So a logical test is how well you’re playing against the crème de la crème. And in that regard, the Raptors haven’t fared too well. Including their home win against Philadelphia on Wednesday night, the Raptors are still only 7-12 against winning teams with a net rating of minus-37 in those 19 games.

Very few teams would be terribly upset to be in a similar situation as the Raptors. In fact, most teams would be thrilled to be third overall in their conference. But the Raptors are barreling toward an interesting decision: embrace the opportunity to continue to gain playoff experience (and additional playoff revenue) or expedite a miniature rebuild. This writer’s thoughts on the matter are well documented in our 2019-20 Toronto Raptors Season Preview and our recent Atlantic Division – buyers or sellers piece. But let’s officially build a case supporting the Raptors trading some of their veterans in an attempt to add assets prior to the Feb. 6 trade deadline.

The Raptors’ most valuable trade chip is also their longest-tenured player – starting point guard, Kyle Lowry. Lowry is 33 years old and experiencing a career resurgence after taking a back seat to Leonard last year. Lowry is averaging a near career-high 37.1 minutes per game, in which time he’s scoring 20 points per game – more than he’s scored since 2016-17 — and dishing out 7.5 assists.

But Lowry is probably the last guy the team wants to move. He’s a fan favorite and has been with the team for eight consecutive seasons; Lowry is currently third overall for games played in franchise history. But if they chose to dangle Lowry on the trade market, they would certainly get a good amount of interest from teams like the Lakers, HEAT, 76ers and maybe even the Jazz and Nuggets. What interested parties would offer is an entirely different story, but it would have to be pretty aggressive to get the Raptors to part with their franchise player.

But there are other guys who make more sense in a trade.

There’s Marc Gasol, their soon-to-be 35-year-old center. Unlike Lowry, Gasol is not experiencing a career renaissance. He’s missed 12 of their 44 games, with down years in scoring (7.8 points per game compared to his 14.7 career average), two-point shooting (44% compared to his from 49.7% career average) and rebounds (6.4 rebounds compared to his 7.6. career average). But he still has a good amount of utility in him. After all, he leads the Raptors in defensive plus/minus, per Basketball Reference – something that he’s prided himself on throughout his career and an attribute that would be a welcomed addition to most contenders.

There’s also Serge Ibaka, their 30-year-old sometimes-starting, sometimes-backup big man. Ibaka is actually outpacing career averages in scoring (14.9), rebounds (8.4) and assists (1.3). Ibaka is still widely viewed as an above-average and versatile defender, and the fact that he’s shooting 37% on three-pointers makes him all the more valuable to teams like the Boston Celtics – who lack a true big man who can stretch the floor.

Gasol and Ibaka’s standing in Toronto is especially vulnerable since both will enter free agency this summer — whereas Lowry signed an extension last year that runs through 2020-21, when he’ll make $30.5 million. The Raptors could choose to keep Gasol and/or Ibaka, but either or both could walk without returning any assets as soon as this July. Further, the team is unlikely to break the bank for either considering they’ll have to make a generous offer to retain soon-to-be free agent guard Fred VanVleet – who is having a breakout season, averaging 18.7 points and 6.7 assists per game while shooting 38.8% on a career-high 6.9 three-point attempts per game. VanVleet is only 25 years old and fits alongside Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and the team’s young role players like Norman Powell far better than Ibaka or Gasol.

As it stands, the Raptors have about $85 million in salary commitments for 2020-21 with $3.8 million in a player option (Stanley Johnson) and another $1.5 million in a team option (Terence Davis). The cap is projected at $116 million with the luxury tax kicking in at $141 million. They can (and should) invest between $20 and $25 million per year in VanVleet, which brings them up to about $110 million. If negotiations begin creeping north of $25 million per year, the Raptors will have to make concessions elsewhere if they hope to retain VanVleet – Ibaka would theoretically be among those concessions since he’ll probably be looking for at least one more generous payday. It’s unclear what Gasol would seek in a new contract.

All three of the aforementioned Raptors have at least one thing in common – they are the only three Raptors born before 1990. So whether they like it or not, the Raptors have turned their roster over quickly and effectively to the extent that they have a talented young core with the framework of a contender in the making.

All three veteran players can definitely continue contributing for at least the remainder of this season – and to varying degrees, well beyond it. But their impact will be more profound on a contender looking to add quality veterans. And despite what their record tells us, that’s just not the Raptors right now.

Instead, the Raptors are a team in the very fortunate position of being able to reload relatively quickly around a blossoming young core. Yes, they’re significantly better than average, but which would you prefer: a team that qualifies for the conference semifinals in 2019-20 or a team that loses in the first round of the 2019-20 playoffs, but adds additional assets — some of whom help the team remain competitive for years to come?

Granted, dislodging Lowry from Toronto requires a monster offer and would result in at least some backlash; but neglecting to trade Gasol and/or Ibaka is likely to result in one or both leaving to pursue more money and/or additional championships – neither of which can the Raptors offer. The Raptors and team president Masai Ujiri have made bold moves time and again. There is no reason to hold off on moving either Gasol and/or Ibaka before Feb. 6 – and if a sweetheart offer comes in for Lowry, then him, too.

Regardless, the Raptors are fairly well set up for the future, so it is unlikely that this move (or lack of it) is analyzed too aggressively in the future. And also, there is certainly a fine line between being opportunist and greedy. But trading one, both or all veterans allows the team to add additional assets to a cupboard that already looks pretty well stocked.

And it’s probably one of the final opportunities to add talent before their core takes its final form — and if that form results in future championships is partially dependent on how the Raptors proceed before the 2020 trade deadline.

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NBA Daily: Raptors’ Thomas Patiently Perseveres

It took a tight family, two years in Spain and a broken finger, but Matt Thomas’ chance to showcase his shooting on the biggest stage might be finally just around the corner.

Douglas Farmer

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Matt Thomas’ long-awaited break was disrupted by a more literal break. After the shooting guard spent two years impressing in the Liga ACB in Spain, Thomas’ first season with the Toronto Raptors was supposed to be his chance to prove himself NBA-ready.

And as the Raptors suffered injury after injury in November, that chance looked like it could grow into a full-blown role, if only on a temporary basis.

“He’s shown he can play at this level, where we can come out there and run stuff for him and he can do work,” Toronto head coach Nick Nurse said. “He’s a really good team defender; he’s much better defensively than maybe people give him credit for.”

Instead, Thomas joined the walking wounded with a broken finger, the first injury to force him to miss extended time in his professional career.

“Anytime you’re injured, it’s hard,” Thomas said. “As a competitor, I want to be on the court, especially we had so many injuries. There was a big opportunity on the table for a first-year guy like myself.”

Thomas had hit 14-of-26 threes at that point, 53.8 percent, already arguably the best shooter on the Raptors’ roster, albeit in limited minutes. The Iowa State product was making the most of his break until his break.

He had waited for it since finishing his four-year career in Ames and Thomas seemed on the verge of reaching the NBA right away in 2017. He spent that Summer League with the Los Angeles Lakers, knowing the Raptors were keeping a close eye. In time, though, Valencia beckoned, a tough decision for someone exceptionally close with his family. Up until that point, the closeness had been as literal as figurative, with Iowa State a four-hour drive from Thomas’ hometown of Onalaska, Wisconsin.

“I wanted to spread my wings and get out of my comfort zone a little bit,” Thomas said of his two years in Spain where he averaged 13.3 points and shot 47.2 percent from deep. “The distance is tough. The time change is the other thing. It’s a 7-to-8 hour time difference, so you really have to coordinate when you’re going to talk to people.”

That was frustrating for a brother intent on keeping up on his sister’s college career, now a senior at the University of Dubuque. Moreover, it was an even bigger change for a family that had been tight-knit since Thomas lost his father in fifth grade.

Thomas’s mother, brother and sister did manage to visit him in Spain, but watching games stateside is obviously much easier. At least, in theory. When the Midwestern winter dumped five inches of snow on the highways between the Target Center and his hometown about 2.5 hours away, that recent trek to see him became that much tougher.

Nonetheless, about four dozen Thomas supporters filled a section above the Raptors’ bench. They were most noticeable when Nurse subbed in the sharpshooter with just a minute left in the first half.

“It’s special because I have a really good support system,” Thomas said. “I’ve had that my entire life . . . It’s just really special to have so many people make the trip, especially given the weather conditions. I was talking to one of my cousins from Iowa; he was driving 30 on the highway. He got here in six hours, it would normally take maybe three.”

If anyone could understand that Midwestern stubbornness, it would be Nurse, himself from just four hours south of the Twin Cities. When asked why his fan club was not as vocal as Thomas’, Nurse joked his was stuck “in a snowdrift somewhere in Carroll County, Iowa.”

It might not have been a joke.

Nurse did not insert Thomas just to appease his loyal cheering section. The end of half situation called for a shooter — he had gone 7-of-18 in his four games after returning from the broken finger. Of players averaging at least two attempts from beyond the arc per game, Thomas leads Toronto with a 46.7 percentage.

“It’s too bad that he was one of the guys out when we had everybody out because he could have logged some serious minutes,” Nurse said. “Now he gets back and everybody’s back and he kind of gets filtered in.”

That close family, that time in Spain, that broken finger and now that filtering in have all been a part of Thomas getting a chance to prove himself in the NBA.

If he has to wait a bit longer before seeing serious minutes, so be it.

The Raptors did, after all, give him a three-year contract. He has time on his side.

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Who The NBA’s Top Road Warriors?

Jordan Hicks takes a look at the teams boasting the top-five road records in the league and breaks down what makes them so good away from home.

Jordan Hicks

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Winning in the NBA is not easy by any means — but a victory on the road is almost more valuable than one at home. Maybe not as far as standings are concerned, but road wins are harder to come by in the league. Being able to get victories away from home can shoot your team up the standings faster than anything else.

Each year there are new teams that impress. Whether it’s expected franchises such as those led by LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard — superstars with historically great track records, rosters that must do so to meet lofty expectations. But there are always surprise newcomers such as the Miami HEAT or the Dallas Mavericks, too. Either way, a large chunk of those aforementioned team’s success relies heavily upon their ability to get wins on the road.

Who are the best road warriors this year? What teams are posting the highest records away from their home cities at the halfway point? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the top five teams in that realm, plus points to certain reasons they may be finding success.

No. 1: Los Angeles Lakers (19-4)

This first one should come as no surprise. For one, they are led by LeBron James. Secondly, they are co-led by Anthony Davis. Do you even need a third reason?

Listen, everyone thought the Lakers would be good. But did anyone think they’d be this dominant and click this fast? Honestly, high-five if so. But it’s not just those two that are doing all the work. Players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are thriving, Dwight Howard is having a mini-resurgence, Kyle Kuzma is playing for his roster spot and Rajon Rondo is still dishing dimes at a high rate – though not as high as King James.

LeBron is averaging 26 points, 10.9 assists and 8.4 rebounds on the road, almost a triple-double. Davis is just behind scoring-wise at 25.9 points and almost a double-double with 9.2 rebounds. Kuzma is shooting 47.2 percent from the field and scoring just over 15 a game and, most surprisingly, leading the team in plus-minus at a plus-7.1.

With multiple road-wins against the Mavericks — and one each over the Miami HEAT, the Utah Jazz, and the Denver Nuggets — what’s not to appreciate? The Lakers appear to be the clear front runner in the Western Conference and their impressive road record is a large reason why.

No. 2: Milwaukee Bucks (18-4)

On top of the road-win totem with the Lakers sits the Milwaukee Bucks. They’ve been every bit as dominating as the Lakers, which is helped, in part, to the much-weaker bottom of the Eastern Conference. But this by no means is a knock on their talent level. Just like the Lakers are the current kings of the West, the Bucks are dominating the East.

Giannis Antetokounmpo appears ready to secure his second consecutive MVP award. He’s even more dominant than he was last year and he’s finally shooting the three at a respectable clip.

While Antetokounmpo’s numbers seem to be pretty steady overall when compared to his road numbers, Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton both see a bump in production when playing away from their home arena. Although the Bucks have an insanely-impressive point differential of plus-13.8 at home, it dips to just plus-11.4 when they play on the road. This is a true testament to their consistency as they travel.

The Bucks appear to lack the road-win resume that the Lakers bolster, but with solid wins against the Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets, they can clearly take care of business against evenly-matched opponents.

No. 3: Dallas Mavericks (14-5)

By far and large the biggest surprise this NBA season has been the Mavericks. A few smart people probably had them penciled in as a surprise eighth-seed, but it’s almost a guarantee no one had them in as a playoff lock as early as December.

The reason they’re playing so well? Luka Doncic. He’s only half an assist away from averaging a triple-double on the road and he’s scoring more to boot. In fact, the Mavericks are averaging just 115.1 points at home compared to a whopping 118.6 on the road.

What’s even crazier is the fact that Dallas’ offensive rating while on the road not only leads the NBA — it’s over four full points greater than the Lakers at No. 2. The gap between them and second place is as big as the space between Los Angeles and the eleventh-ranked team.

The Mavericks boast quite the slate of road wins including the Nuggets, Lakers, Bucks, Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers. Yes, you read all those names right. One thing is for certain, the Mavericks will be a nightmare for whoever has to play them in the playoffs – regardless of seeding.

No. 4: Toronto Raptors (14-7)

You would think that after Kawhi Leonard’s departure that the Raptors would have slightly folded, but they’ve almost picked up right where they left off. Sure, Leonard’s absence was going to leave some sort of void, but it’s amazing just how well Toronto has fared this season.

They boast the second-best road defense with a rating of 102.7, just behind the Bucks. They also have the fourth-best net rating away from home.

The three-headed monster of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry has been as effective on the road as it has been at home. Thanks to the ever-improving play of Siakam, Toronto should comfortably find themselves with home-court advantage come playoff time. They might not have what it takes to repeat as champions, but they’re absolutely going to make life tough for whomever they end up facing.

Solid road wins against the Boston Celtics and Lakers certainly look impressive on the resume, but they’ll need to continue to improve as a unit if they want to make any noise in the playoffs.

No. 5: Denver Nuggets (13-7)

The Nuggets are having an interesting season. Gary Harris hasn’t been playing well at all, Jamal Murray hasn’t been turning heads either, but Nikola Jokic is still feasting on any opposing center thrown his way.

The biggest surprise so far? The stellar play of second-year rookie Michael Porter Jr. He’s only averaging about 15 minutes per game but, on the road, he’s scoring 8.3 points per game on 56 percent from the field and 51.6 percent from three. His NBA sample sizes aren’t quite big enough yet, but it’s becoming more and more clear just how good he’ll become.

Despite no one else on the roster improving much from last season, the Nuggets still find themselves in the upper-echelon of the Western Conference — and their stellar road play is a major reason. With solid road-wins against the Lakers, Mavericks and Indiana Pacers, the Nuggets are primed to finish the second half of the season strong. If Porter Jr. continues to improve and see expanded minutes, Denver could turn into a real threat out west.

All the teams on this list have been pretty impressive up to this point in the season, but there is still a long way to go. Will the Bucks or Lakers get dethroned as the road warriors of their respective conferences? Only time will tell.

But if one thing is certain in the NBA, road wins are no “gimmes,” regardless of opponent. The above teams all deserve their rightful spot on this midseason list. How many will remain come April?

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