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Three Things to Know: Paul George loves Los Angeles, playing there is something else

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Paul George loves Los Angeles, but after his current team sweeps city does he want to go there? It’s the siren song of leading your hometown franchise vs. a team built to win right now. Paul George has a decision coming up this summer, and both sides made their case in the last 48 hours.

There was plenty of fodder for the “George wants to play for the Lakers” camp this week — buzz that started with his agent telling the Pacers exactly that last summer. (George seemed disinterested in the Clippers when it was brought up.) The best example of what playing in L.A. could offer was George draining a three against the Lakers Wednesday then running over to hug his mom courtside. Also, there was no shortage of quotes from George about how much he loves his hometown.

“It was awesome,” George said of his welcome in L.A. after his current team, the Thunder, thrashed the Lakers by almost 40. “For one, just being home, being in front of friends, family, and then just the respect, the love, the recruitment. It was awesome. It was awesome to get that love.”

On the other side, there’s the game on the court. The Thunder are winning, and the young Lakers look years away from contending even with a superstar. George got a view of that firsthand this week. Oklahoma City kept up its hot streak — the win over the Clippers Thursday 127-117 was the team’s eighth in 10 games — which should lead to plenty of optimism in the “George is going to stay with the Thunder” camp.

Or there’s this quote:

“If (the Thunder are) trending, if we’re going in the right direction, if I feel there is something that we’re building, and there’s a foundation — it would be kind of clueless, just stupid on my behalf to up and leave.”

George hasn’t made his call about next summer yet, he seems torn and is being patient. Westbrook is all in for Oklahoma City, having signed his max extension. Carmelo Anthony almost certainly opts into his $28 million final year (that money isn’t out there for him as a free agent). Meanwhile, George is playing it LeBron style, keeping all his options open and waiting until the summer. (The financial dance for the Thunder to keep George is a tough one for GM Sam Presti and ownership — they maxed out Westbrook, they would need to max out George, and everyone expects Anthony to opt in, sending the Thunder deep into the luxury tax, maybe too deep for a small market. No matter what ownership says.)

It’s not championship or bust to keep George in OKC, but the Thunder’s slow start dug them a deep hole. OKC is currently the fifth seed in the West and may well climb up to fourth, but they are four games back of the three-seed Spurs who just got Kawhi Leonard back, and the Rockets are out of reach. If the Thunder are the four seed it means a challenging first-round series (likely against the Timberwolves), then in the second round would be the Warriors. If Oklahoma City gets spanked by Golden State in that series it sends a message, if OKC pushes the defending champs hard it’s another.

George is going to wait and see. But we do know he loves Los Angeles.

2) Giannis Antetokounmpo ahead of LeBron James in first fan All-Star voting returns. It is a testament to what a superstar the Greek Freak has become: He, not LeBron James, would be one of the two captains to pick All-Star teams if All-Star voting ended today. In fan voting so far, Antetokounmpo is just 7,336 votes ahead of LeBron (with more than 85 million votes cast for each), but it’s a lead.

Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant would be the captains, although Duran’s lead in the West over just-returned Stephen Curry is only 32,287 votes.

Just as a refresher: The NBA has thrown out the stale old East vs. West All-Star format for this year’s game — Feb. 18 in Los Angeles — and gone to a playground-style picking of teams format: The top vote-getters in each conference will be the captains and they will make the picks (from a pool of All-Stars). They can choose anyone from either conference — Durant is free to pick LeBron instead of Curry. Fan votes combined with select media will choose the starter pool of two guards and three frontcourt players from each conference (consider those media votes Zaza Pachulia insurance, fans almost voted him as a starter last season). The coaches will pick the seven reserves from each conference.

If the voting ended today (and the media agreed) the frontcourt players from the East would be Antetokounmpo, James, and Joel Embiid, paired with guards Kyrie Irving and DeMar DeRozan. Kristaps Porzingis is not far behind Embiid, and Victor Oladipo is close to taking DeRozan’s spot as a starter.

Out West, the starters voted into the pool would be Durant, Anthony Davis, and DeMarcus Cousins (yes, two Pelicans). The guards are Curry and James Harden. Draymond Green and Paul George are within striking distance of Cousins, while Russell Westbrook is third in the guard voting.

Voting is open through Jan. 15.

3) Warriors without Kevin Durant beat Rockets without James Harden. Do I even need to write “don’t read anything into this?”

No Durant or Harden throws a preview of playoff defensive matchups largely out the window (although overall the Rockets did a good job sniffing out the Warriors backcuts and floppy actions that usually lead to easy buckets). Aside the missing stars, Gerald Green went off for 8-of-15, and while that may give the Warriors something to think about it’s also not sustainable for Green (although someone on the Rockets always seems to step up).

Plus, we are more than four months away from a playoff series between these squads — both teams will evolve between now and then.

Basically, this game felt like a one-off. It was familiar only in Golden State’s pattern of owning a game late — the Warriors took over the final nine minutes to win 124-114. Curry and Klay Thompson combined for 57 points. With that the Warriors keep their perch on top of the West secure. But that’s about it.

LeBron James congratulates himself, ‘Young King,’ on reaching 30,000 points later tonight

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The Cavaliers have lost nine of 12. Prominent Cleveland players are raising concerns about the roster. Rumors are swirling about coach Tyronn Lue getting fired. The locker room is in disarray. Some Cavs are even pointing the finger at LeBron James himself.

And this is what LeBron posts to Instagram hours before tonight’s Cavaliers-Spurs game:

Wanna be one of the first to Congratulate you on this accomplishment/achievement tonight that you’ll reach! Only a handful has reach/seen it too and while I know it’s never been a goal of yours from the beginning try(please try) to take a moment for yourself on how you’ve done it! The House you’re about to be apart of has only 6 seats in it(as of now) but 1 more will be added and you should be very proud and honored to be invited inside. There’s so many people to thank who has help this even become possible(so thank them all) and when u finally get your moment(alone) to yourself smile, look up to the higher skies and say THANK YOU! So with that said, Congrats again Young King 🤴🏾! 1 Love! #striveforgreatness🚀 #thekidfromakron👑

A post shared by LeBron James (@kingjames) on

LeBron is just seven points from 30,000. The only players to score so much in their careers: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Dirk Nowitzki.

It’ll be a nice milestone for LeBron, but he darn well better score those seven points tonight. Not getting there tonight would be the simplest way to make this even more insufferable.

Report: Dennis Smith Jr., Aaron Gordon, Victor Oladipo and Larry Nance Jr. to compete in dunk contest

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Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. already looked like he was competing in the dunk contest.

Apparently, he’ll put those skills to use in the real thing.

And so will Aaron Gordon (Magic), Victor Oladipo (Pacers) and Larry Nance Jr. (Lakers).

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

Oliver Maroney of Uproxx:

The number of contestants in the dunk contest has varied, but it’s been four the last few years. So, this might be the entire field – and it’d be a strong one.

Gordon narrowly lost to Zach LaVine in an epic dunk contest a couple years ago. Oladipo brings star power, as he’ll probably play in the actual All-Star game. Nance has the pedigree, and I bet he involves his dad – who won the NBA’s first dunk contest in 1984 – in a dunk. Smith is the young up-and-comer with the first platform to prove himself nationally.

I can’t wait.

Nuggets struck gold by drafting Nikola Jokic in second round. Now what?

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DETROIT – Asked whether he’s becoming a leader on the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic shook his head then turned to Gary Harris in the adjoining locker.

“Do you think I’m a leader?” Jokic asked.

“Who?” Harris responded.

“Me,” Jokic said.

“No,” Harris said.

“See,” Jokic said, turning back to me. “That’s what I’m talking about.”

It’s not entirely clear whether Jokic is serious or showing the self-deprecating humor of someone nicknamed The Joker.

Denver is trying to be patient with Jokic – a 22-year-old former second-round pick – but his production and contract status demand his ascent be expedited.

Jokic has arguably been the Nuggets’ best player every season of his three-year career. He definitely is now.

And that has caused Denver to adjust its plan on the fly – all for a player drafted No. 41 in 2014 and who entered the NBA in 2015.

Jusuf Nurkic was coming off a promising All-Rookie second-team season when the Nuggets signed Jokic. It was quickly clear there’d be complications with the two centers coexisting, but Nurkic’s injuries and second-year slump delayed adjudication. Finally, the Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Trail Blazers. Once Jokic became a starter in mid-December, Denver led the NBA in points per possession the rest of last season.

“His rapid development last year kind of changed how we view our organizational development,” Nuggets president Tim Connelly said. “His unique skill set is something we think we can build around.”

Jokic is a generationally good passer for a center, and he works in so many offensive sets. He posts up, screens on pick-and-rolls, spots up and cuts. He finishes well at the rim, and his range extends through the mid-range to beyond the arc, though he’s not quite a knockdown 3-point shooter. He’s a good rebounder on both ends of the floor.

But he’s not much a rim protector. His slow foot speed, especially laterally, hampers him in space defensively.

Power forwards who complement Jokic on both sides of the court are rare, but Denver found one in Paul Millsap, who can space the floor and cut strongly offensively and safeguard the interior and switch on the perimeter defensively. The Nuggets signed the 32-year-old to a contract worth $61 million over the first two years and with a $30.5 million team option for the third season – a clear win-now response to Jokic’s readiness to win.

On the other hand, Jokic’s youth presents a long window for success. Before the season, Denver also waived Jameer Nelson, a veteran point guard whom Nuggets coach Michael Malone often leaned on as a crutch when younger options were undependable. That forced Denver to rely on 20-year-old Jamal Murray and 21-year-old Emmanuel Mudiay at point guard. Murray has grown in his starting role and looks like a foundational piece with Jokic. Mudiay couldn’t hack it in the rotation and was replaced by Will Barton, who also plays wing. After all, the Nuggets (24-23, eighth in the Western Conference) are trying to win this season.

It’s a tough balancing act, and the next big question comes with Jokic’s team option next summer.

Jokic is due the minimum salary ($1,600,520) in 2018-19, and that’s obviously a huge bargain. But if Denver exercises the option, he’d become an unrestricted free agent in 2019. By declining Jokic’s option, the Nuggets could make him a restricted free agent this year.

As a restricted free agent, Jokic could probably draw a max offer sheet – which projects to be worth about $109 million over four years (about $27 million annually) – that Denver would surely match. In a direct offer, the Nuggets’ max projects to be about $146 million over five years (about $29 million annually).

Jokic is worth the investment at either price. There’s value in securing him for an extra season during his prime.

But the Nuggets hold leverage. They could condition declining his option on him pledging to accept a sub-max, but still large, contract. After all, that’d still be his quickest ticket to a life-altering payday. That route would require trust, but – Carlos Boozer and the Cavaliers potentially excepted – everyone usually follows through on those informal agreements.

Of course, if Denver offers too little, Jokic could wait until 2019 free agency. There’s even a case for delaying a new contract even with a max offer this summer. If he makes an All-NBA team in 2018-19, he’d be eligible for a super-max contract the following summer. That projects to be worth about $188 million over five years (about $38 million annually) – enough to offset a smaller salary, either the team-option amount or qualifying offer, next season.

To make this even more complex, the possibility of a super-max offer in 2019 could lead the Nuggets to exercise Jokic’s option. They could leverage his low salary next season then have potentially an even larger leg up financially over other suitors in 2019.

Keeping Jokic’s salary low next season is particular important, because Denver already has $110,169,322 committed to 12 players (Millsap, Gary Harris, Kenneth Faried, Mason Plumlee, Wilson Chandler, Darrell Arthur, Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray, Trey Lyles, Juan Hernangomez, Malik Beasley and Tyler Lydon). Maxing out Jokic could push the Nuggets so far into the luxury tax that trading either Faried or Plumlee alone wouldn’t be enough to avoid paying it. Chandler ($12,800,562) and/or Arthur ($7,464,912) opting out would provide relief, but moving Plumlee (due $12,917,808 and $14,041,096 the next two seasons) and/or Faried (due $13,764,045 next season) won’t be easy.

In simple terms, Denver has two choices:

  • Keep Jokic’s salary absurdly low next season, but risk he walks in 2019 unrestricted free agency
  • Pay Jokic big money beginning next season, but lose flexibility to spend on his supporting cast

Declining Jokic’s option then leveraging restricted free agency to re-sign him long-term is the safest path.

“I can say with complete certainty that Nikola is going to be here for a long, long time,” Connelly said. “We love him. I think he loves us.”

Whenever Jokic gets his massive raise, it’ll be overdue based on his production. He’s averaging 16.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. Denver plays like a 55-win team with him on the floor and a 27-win team without him, based on points scored and allowed.

He theoretically could have signed a shorter contract initially, proven himself then hit free agency sooner. But he expected to acclimate slowly from the Adriatic League to the NBA, and he appreciated the long-term security a four-year deal afforded.

There’s less slow-playing now, though.

The Nuggets are throwing more on his plate, and that starts defensively.

“Last year, I don’t think he played much defense at all,” Malone said.

Jokic’s athletic limitations will probably prevent him from ever being an elite defender. But his size and basketball intelligence give him a chance to hold his own as a positional defender – if he puts in the effort. Jokic has dedicated himself more this season, and as a result, Denver’s defense has gone from awful to middling.

The Nuggets also want Jokic to become a more aggressive scorer. He’s such a willing passer, and he’s always looking to make what the right play would be if all players were equal. But they’re not. Denver is 10-4 when Jokic attempts at least 15 shots and 14-19 otherwise.

“He takes greater satisfaction out of making his teammates better than he does scoring himself,” Malone said. “…He needs to be a guy that’s looking to score, regardless if he’s double-teamed or not.”

These are good problems to have. Teammates love the player who’s too unselfish, and so do executives.

“As a person, he embodies everything that we’re trying to be organizationally in terms of work ethic and team-first mentality,” Connelly said.

Those are great traits for a young second-round pick as he develops. But the best player on a team is inevitably turned to for leadership.

So, back to the original question: Is Jokic ready to lead?

“He has some natural leadership ability in terms of, he’s a connector,” Connelly said. “Everyone in the locker room really likes him on and off the court. But we also don’t want to force something prematurely. He’s still a kid.

“We don’t want to put too much weight on his shoulders.

“We’re going to let him grow up on his own timeline.”

There’s no blueprint here. If named an All-Star this year, Jokic – who turns 23 the day after the game – would be the youngest-ever All-Star drafted below No. 30. Heck, even if he doesn’t become an All-Star until next year, he’d still be the youngest All-Star picked below No. 30 in what anyone would consider the modern-draft era.

There’s plenty of time to wait for Jokic to come fully into his own.

But it also might already be Jokic’s time already.

Clippers go to third-string coach after Doc Rivers and Mike Woodson ejected (video)

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Remember when Doc Rivers vowed last year to stop getting technical fouls? He actually followed through for the rest of the season.

But the pledge apparently expired with the season.

Rivers got a technical foul and ejection late in the Clippers’ loss to the Timberwolves last night. Lead assistant Mike Woodson followed suit before play even resumed.

That meant assistant coach Sam Cassell – who already got his own technical foul earlier in the game! – took over for the final 7.4 seconds.