Let’s jump right into this week’s Mailbag, which you can always submit questions for on X and Instagram. Got more to say? Fire off an email to mannixmailbag@gmail.com

Mannix! What’s up with my Kings? With [De’Aaron] Fox back they are back to scoring a ton. But what about the defense? Are they ever going to be good enough on that end to be a real contender? -Jerome, Oakland.

You’re right about the offense, Jerome. Sacramento’s offensive rating is 14 points better with Fox on the floor, thanks largely due to the 32.2 points per game he is averaging this season. He scored 73 points in back-to-back wins over San Antonio and Dallas, making 11 threes in them. There’s little reason to doubt that if Fox stays healthy, the Kings offense will be as good as it was last season.

Defense, as always, is the question. Sacramento has a solid defensive rating (112.1) this season, which is about four points better than last season. The Kings are surrendering the second fewest fast break points (10.4) and they are second in the NBA in defensive rebounding percentage (75.2%). But they rank in the bottom third in opponent field goal percentage (48.5%) and three-point percentage (37.5%) and are giving up 50.3 points in the paint, per NBA.com.

Last week, I asked Kings coach Mike Brown what metrics he looks at when evaluating the Kings defense.

“This game, in my opinion, is won in a few different areas,” Brown tells SI. “Obviously in the paint. You got to be able to defend around it. I’m a firm believer you don’t need a shot blocker in order to defend around. You need guys, not a guy, but you need guys that are willing to go vertical, guys who are willing to take a hit to protect that paint. I think that’s huge. I think having guys that have a good feel of knowing when and how to fly around. Because you practice your rotations but they’re not always going to be perfect. You’ve got times that you have got to scramble and fly around and contest shots. You’re going to have guys that have a great feel for that because you got to take away the three.

“And then the last two areas that I think are big are the pick-and-roll game. We weren't good at that at all last year, so we have to be better than that, and we are. And then it's a given that transition defense has to be there because if you give up easy baskets in the playoffs, you're in trouble because the other team's not going to. Probably those four areas are the biggest areas that we look at separately.”

Does Brown see the Kings improving in those areas?

“I do,” Brown says. “We still have a lot of room before we reach our ceiling, but I like the direction that we’re going.”

The Kings are currently fourth in the Western Conference thanks to a six-game winning streak.

Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports

What’s going on with Zach LaVine? Is it just a matter of time before the Bulls trade him? -Marcus, Naperville, Ill.

Sheesh, it ain’t pretty in Chicago. The Bulls are 5–9 with a middle of the pack defense (14th in efficiency) and a putrid offense (25th). Meanwhile LaVine isn’t exactly shutting down the speculation, telling reporters last week: “Right now is not the time to really talk about that” when asked if he wanted a trade. He also did a postgame interview in a Dodgers cap (the Lakers are among the teams reportedly interested in LaVine, who played college ball at UCLA) and blew past a Bulls PR staffer who was trying to corral him for an interview after a recent win (LaVine called it a “miscommunication.”)

Chicago has been reluctant—very reluctant—to do anything but plus up the roster but the Bulls are reaching an inflection point. They aren’t good. They probably won’t be good, at least not good enough to compete for anything more than a play-in spot. If there is a market for its top talent, they have to explore it.

The market for LaVine, who has three years and $138 million remaining on his contract after this season, is murky. There are places he kinda, sorta makes sense. Philadelphia could probably lose another ball handler … but not at the cost of next summers cap space. The Lakers could probably use another scorer but how much would LA have to give up to get one? Same for Miami. The Knicks could get antsy but New York has its eyes on bigger prizes.

So it’s complicated. But the more the Bulls sink in the standings, the more motivated ownership will be to rip this team apart and start over.

Nice piece on Dillon Brooks last week. I like the mix in Houston. They seem to have the right blend of veterans and young players. You think they make the playoffs? -David, Sugar Land, Texas

As I type this I’m sitting in the press room at Crypto.com Arena where the Rockets just dropped a nailbiter to the Lakers on Sunday. I agree with your assessment. It’s the right mix. My sharpest criticism of the Rockets in recent years has been they just seemed to be about acquiring talent, no matter what baggage came with it. That led to some bad decisions (Christian Wood, Kevin Porter Jr.) that led to some serious dysfunction.

Everything Houston did last summer though made sense. Fred VanVleet works. Dillon Brooks works. Jeff Green works. The Rockets brought in some serious veterans—and say what you want about Brooks, he worked his way from second-round pick to one of the NBA’s top defenders and a burgeoning two-way player—who are helping the team on the floor and filling the leadership void off it. And Ime Udoka has toughened them up.

How sustainable it is depends on the defense. The Rockets are putting up some astonishing defensive numbers. Entering Sunday, Houston was fourth in defensive rating (107.8). They were giving up 7.6 fast break points, the only team in the league holding opponents to single digits, per NBA.com. They are top ten in opponent points in the paint (46), opponent points off turnovers (15.5) and opponent field goal percentage (45.3%) while leading the NBA in defending the three (31.8%).

Can they keep it up? VanVleet is a solid defender. Brooks is an excellent one. Jabari Smith Jr., Tari Eason and Jae’Sean Tate are all plus defenders. Jalen Green and Alperen Şengün have shown more effort on that end than they did last season. As a team they are resilient. They went 0–2 in Los Angeles last weekend but were a James Harden four-point play from beating the Clippers and a LeBron James free throw from having a shot to knock off the Lakers. I’m a believer in Houston. The Rockets are not going away.

Give me your three biggest surprises? -@onceinhollywood_

In no particular order …

  • Orlando: 8–5 after knocking off Indiana on Sunday. Defense is where the Magic are getting it done but they have a deep bench, a diverse offense and young stars (Paolo Banchero, Franz Wagner) that are only going to get better.
  • Oklahoma City: Yeesh, Chet Holmgren is good.
  • Washington: Yeah, I don’t think Jordan Poole is cornerstone player.