NBA Power Rankings: Jazz keep on playing the right tune, move to No. 1


It’s a strange week in the power rankings, with the top two teams having suffered a high profile loss during the week that raised questions about them. Still, the Jazz and Clippers are the hottest teams in the league and deserve those spots right now, even if postseason questions loom.

Jazz small icon 1. Jazz (16-5 Last Week No. 2). Utah has won 12-of-13, but that one loss to Denver over the weekend was a reminder of the work this team still has to do. Part of that work is to figure out an answer for Nikola Jokic, who continues to torch Rudy Gobert and anyone else the Jazz put on him. That said, Utah still has the fifth-best offense in the league over the last 7 games. As a team they are draining threes — even had 20 in the loss to Denver, the problem was Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley went cold, 5-of-22 overall — and the last couple of games Bojan Bogdanovic has started to find his groove. The Jazz are not going to fade away.

Clippers small icon2. Clippers (16-6, LW 3). Here is the most impressive thing about the Clippers this past week: In the two games without Paul George and Kawhi Leonard they beat Miami and hung with Atlanta — there is quality depth on this team. The Clippers have been dominant when their two stars have both played — 9-1 in those games (with the one loss being Tuesday to Brooklyn). The Clipper offense has been impressive all season, but over their last 7 games they are 3rd in defense (stats via Cleaning the Glass); if L.A. figures out that end of the court consistently they are a threat to anyone.

Sixers small icon 3. 76ers (15-6 LW 5). The “Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons can’t play together” camp is taking a beating this season — Philly is +14.9 points per 100 possession when they are on the court together. So what’s different? “This year I can’t even explain it. It’s just been different…” Embiid said. “I don’t even know how to explain it. It’s just been fun.” Philly’s starting five — Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Embiid — is +17.1 per 100 possessions with their offense driving their success.

Lakers small icon 4. Lakers (16-6, LW 1). These Lakers don’t take a lot of threes (25th in the league in attempts a game) but they have become sharpshooters with the ones they take, shooting 38.1% as a team — way up from 34.9% last season and 33.3% LeBron’s first season as a Laker. LeBron James is a big part of that, shooting 40.9% from three this season, by far a career high and basically even with Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard. Los Angeles went 5-2 on their road trip and now come home to a softer schedule (after Denver on Thursday).

Nuggets small icon 5. Nuggets (12-8 LW 7). This ranking might actually be a little low. There are no statement wins in January, but if a team was going to make one that demolition of Utah on Sunday is what it would look like. The Nuggets got a little lucky — 15-of-17 from three in the first half is not sustainable — but they also earned the win. Denver is playing better defense of late, not elite but solid, and that helps. Nikola Jokic strengthened his MVP case in that game with 47 points and 12 rebounds.

Nets small icon 6. Nets (14-9, LW 8). Brooklyn plays its best games against the league’s better teams — it is 9-3 against teams over .500. The defense is still a legitimate issue, the Clippers had an offensive rating of 120 in their meeting, but if Brooklyn can get just a couple of stops it’s enough for their insane offense to overwhelm opponents. Against a good Clippers team, Brooklyn’s big three scored 90 points. Since the trade the Nets have also played much faster, which makes matching up with them even more difficult.

Bucks small icon 7. Bucks (12-8, LW 4). In their last six games, Milwaukee has been elite offensively (122.5 offensive rating, third-best in the league for that stretch) but have been bottom 10 in defense (115.6 defensive rating), and that has led to a 3-3 record (despite that +7 net rating). In their losses this past week, the Bucks gave up 126 points to Charlotte and 131 to New Orleans — it’s jarring to see that from what has been an elite defense the past couple of seasons. Teams are hitting those threes the Bucks have surrendered the past two seasons. Is that a statistical fluke that will normalize as the season goes on, or is it time for Milwaukee to adjust a little?

Suns small icon 8. Suns (11-8 LW 12). Despite Chris Paul‘s mastery of the pick-and-roll and Devin Booker‘s shooting, the Suns have a middle of the pack offense. Why? Chris Paul shooting just 32.8% from three is part of it, as is the fact Phoenix doesn’t get to the free throw line enough (second-lowest free throws attempts per game, 18.9, and second-lowest free throw rate in the league). The Suns need to draw fouls. If that play the Suns ran to get Booker a game-winner against Dallas looks familiar, it’s because Paul’s Clippers used to run it all the time (for J.J. Redick). It still works beautifully.

Celtics small icon 9. Celtics (11-8, LW 6). Kemba Walker has been back for a couple of weeks now, but he has not rounded into his All-Star form yet, and the Celtics need him to. Walker had 19 points against Golden State Tuesday but shot just 6-of-18. Walker is shooting just 30% from three (his career average is 36%), his 48.2 true shooting percentage is dreadful, he’s getting to the free throw line less often, and he’s basically been a slightly above average point guard. He’s not a player expected to add a lot on the defensive end; Boston needs him to be more of a contributor on the offensive end.

Pacers small icon 10. Pacers (12-9, LW 9). Myles Turner is getting mentions as a potential Defensive Player of the Year — but there is little chance he will be an All-Star). Turner is averaging 3.9 blocked shots a game which, if he can keep it up all season, would be the most in two decades (Alonzo Mourning in 1999). Cleveland’s Collin Sexton has talked about needing to look out for Turner when he drove the paint — a sign of his impact on opponents. Turner is altering a lot of shots. That said, if the coaches put a Pacer on the All-Star bench (they are not getting a starter) it will come down to Malcolm Brogdon or Domantas Sabonis, with Turner on the outside looking in.

Grizzlies small icon 11. Grizzlies (9-7, LW 13). The Grizzlies’ loss to the Pacers on Tuesday snapped a seven-game win streak that extended back to before their 11-day COVID-19 forced break. The key to that streak and the season is Memphis’ defense, the fourth best in the league. That they had that streak and played such good defense without Jaren Jackson Jr. in the lineup speaks to the impressive depth they are developing in Memphis. Also, while nobody was looking, rookie Desmond Bane is shooting 50.8% on 3.8 threes per game.

Warriors small icon 12. Warriors (11-10, LW 14). James Wiseman will be out at least a week with a sprained wrist, which is a blow as he’s started to find a comfort level coming off the bench. In the four games since he was taken out of the starting lineup, his minutes went down (by a couple a night), but his scoring and efficiency have gone up. The bottom line, the Warriors are +5.3 points per 100 possessions in Wiseman’s minutes off the bench. The team, already without Marquese Chriss (broken fibula), will also be without Wiseman and Kevon Looney (sprained ankle) for a couple of games, leaving the Warriors without a traditional center on the active roster.

Spurs small icon 13. Spurs (11-10, LW 10). How do the Spurs keep finding these guards? Keldon Johnson slid down the 2019 draft to 29th, but he is now averaging 15 points and 7.5 rebounds a game, starting and playing 30 minutes a night. He has scored in double digits for 11 straight games, including dropping 25 on the Grizzlies in their most recent meeting. The Spurs play 3-of-4 at home this week before heading out on the annual rodeo road trip.

Rockets small icon 14. Rockets (10-9 LW 24). Houston has the best half-court defense in the NBA with an 89.6 net rating that is 6.3 better than the league average, and better than both the Lakers and Jazz. However, run on the Rockets and their transition defense is dreadful (25th in the league). Overall, the Rockets have the best defense in the NBA since the Harden trade. The Rockets have won six in a row and, as of now, are within striking distance of a top-six seed that keeps it out of the play-in games (getting there would be a huge win for Houston).

Blazers small icon 15. Trail Blazers (11-9, LW 11). Portland is 3-4 since CJ McCollum went down, doing a respectable job of keeping their head above water until he and Jusuf Nurkic return. A lot more has been asked of Anfernee Simons and he has responded averaging 15.8 points per game those last six. Of course, ultimately the pressure falls on Damian Lillard to lead this team and make plays — and nobody is better in the clutch than him.

Hawks small icon 16. Hawks (10-10 LW 15). Atlanta is a surprise top-10 defense to start the season, and although some of that was shooting luck — opponents were missing shots they normally hit at a higher rate, via Second Spectrum player tracking — some of it was real. A big part of what works is Clint Capela at center, especially when he is on the court with John Collins at the four giving the Hawks a couple of athletic rim protectors — the Hawks allow less than a point per possession (96.7 defensive rating) when those two share the court.

Cavaliers small icon 17. Cavaliers (10-11, LW 18). Taurean Prince felt like a throw-in on the four-team James Harden trade this season, but he has played some of the best basketball of his career since landing in Cleveland. He’s averaging 9.8 points a game, shooting 41.2% from three, and he’s been solid and gritty on defense. That three-point shooting, in particular, is needed on a Cleveland team that takes fewer threes per game than any in the league. Tough stretch coming up for the Cavaliers as they face the Clippers tonight, then two against the Bucks, then they head out on a five-game road trip.

Raptors small icon 18. Raptors (9-12, LW 16). Parents, you want your kids to grow up to be Fred VanVleet — humble, hard working, a guy his teammates can trust and who just gets the job done (and was paid like that guy last offseason). Toronto started it’s 9-of-10 on the road with a win over Orlando where VanVleet dropped a Raptors record 54 points (also the most ever scored by an undrafted player).

Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (10-11, LW 22). Gordon Hayward is having a strong season after signing a $120 million contract that was universally derided in basketball circles this offseason. He is averaging 23 points and 5.3 rebounds a game, and more importantly, the offense just flows much better when he is on the court. I still don’t like the back end of that contract for Charlotte, but he’s played well and earned his pay this year — and has to be in consideration as an All-Star. Malik Monk has found a groove the past few games, including scoring 36 points with 9 threes against Miami.

Knicks small icon 20. Knicks (9-13, LW 19). How good is rookie Immanuel Quickley playing? In the ultimate sign of respect, midway through the second half Sunday the Clippers switched Kawhi Leonard over to defend him because Quickley was starting to light them up (he finished the game with 25 points). The Knicks under Thibodeau have the eighth ranked defense in the NBA and Quickley is going to have to improve on that end to get more run, but the offense is +5.2 per 100 when he is on the court.

Bulls small icon 21. Bulls (8-11, LW 23). No team turns the ball over more than Chicago, which averages 17.6 turnovers a game, or 15.2% of their possessions (second most in the league). The problems start with the guys who have the ball in their hands the most, particularly Zach LaVine, who turns to ball over on 17.1% of his possessions, with Coby White coughing up the ball on 15.5% of their possessions. Not taking care of the ball is a key reason the Bulls have a middle-of-the-pack offense despite all that scoring talent.

Kings small icon 22. Kings (9-11, LW 27). The Kings’ starting lineup — De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Harrison Barnes, Marvin Bagley III, and Richaun Holmes — is outscoring teams by 10.9 points per 100 possessions. However, sub Rookie of the Year candidate Tyrese Haliburton in for Bagley and it jumps to +21.5 (which is why Luke Walton often closes games with that lineup. The Kings just won 3-of-4 on the road and now return home for 7-of-8, but there are some tough games to start that run (Celtics, Nuggets, Clippers, 76ers, in order).

Mavericks small icon 23. Mavericks (8-13, LW 17). Dallas has lost six in a row, and while that hurts Luka Doncic’s MVP case he has actually been a positive +/- in half of those games. Dallas finally has gotten its players back from injury/COVID-19 protocols, now they have to turn around the defense — in their last eight games they have a 121.8 defensive rating, 28th in the league (stats via Cleaning the Glass). With Josh Richardson and the length of Kriztaps Porzingis plus Dwight Powell, Maxi Kleba and Dorian Finney-Smith this should be a better defensive team, but after COVID-19 hit Dallas they have not been able to regain their rhythm. They have dug themselves a hole this season that will not be easy to climb out of.

Pelicans small icon 24. Pelicans (7-12, LW 26). There is not enough consistent shooting on the Pelicans, but on the nights the shots fall they are very dangerous. Case in point, Eric Bledsoe is shooting 31.4% from three in Pelicans losses but 47.1% in wins. Lonzo Ball has a similar split, and J.J. Redick has generally struggled from deep this season (30% from three). Another concern is that New Orleans has a bottom-10 defense this season despite Stan Van Gundy’s efforts. A big part of the challenge is the Pelicans’ young bigs: When Zion Williamson and Jaxson Hayes are both on the court, New Orleans has a dreadful defensive rating of 128.8.

Heat small icon 25. Heat (7-13 LW 21). Jimmy Butler is back in the rotation and the Heat are finally relatively healthy, but the Heat are just 4-4 when Butler has played so far this season and need to do better. Injuries and COVID-19 have robbed them of steady rotations that let them build the chemistry we saw in the bubble last year, now the Heat have the chance to turn that around and need to do it fast (two games against Washington this week could be a real launching pad for that run).

Magic small icon 26. Magic (8-14 LW 20). With Steve Clifford as the coach, Orlando could always count on a strong defense to keep them in games, the question was just finding enough offense. Not this year. Orlando is 19th in the league in defense, and that has actually gotten a little worse over the past couple of weeks. The Magic have been playing more minutes each game without a point guard — they miss D.J. Augustin, they had turned the ball over to Markelle Fultz (who was solid) but he got injured, and now it’s rookie Cole Anthony learning hard lessons nightly.

Thunder small icon 27. Thunder (8-11, LW 25). There has been an Al Horford sighting in Oklahoma City — in the three games since he returned he has averaged 16.3 points a game and been solid on the glass. Two of those games were blowout losses (to the Nets and Rockets). If you think this ranking is too low for a Thunder team that hangs around and finds a way to win games, know that they have been the luckiest team in the NBA this season in terms of outperforming their net rating so far — OKC has the point differential of a 5-14 team. These things tend to balance out.

Pistons small icon 28. Pistons (5-16 LW 28). Detroit has just two wins in their last nine games, but those victories came against the Lakers and 76ers (the fact those teams were without Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid, respectively, does not diminish the wins). Griffin jumped in the hot tub time machine and dropped 23 on the Lakers, he is capable of playing like that in flashes. Wayne Ellington continues to be red-hot from three, hitting 49.5% from deep on 6.3 attempts a game.

Wizards small icon 29. Wizards (4-13 LW 30). Despite Bradley Beal being on the roster the Washington offense has struggled since returning from its COVID-19 forced break — except against Brooklyn, where they put up 149 and got the win on a Russell Westbrook three. That was a signature win. Bradley Beal may not like being the focus of trade rumors when he has not asked out and been nothing but loyal to the franchise, but that is the way of the NBA now. Other teams are poised and waiting to pounce, whether Beal likes it or not.

30. Timberwolves (5-15, LW 29). No. 1 pick Anthony Edwards has been moved into the starting lineup and has been much more efficient in that role, scoring 17 points a game, shooting 47.4% from three, and with a true shooting percentage of 61.1 (up from 45.2). It’s small sample size theater considering we’re talking about three games, but the fact is he is thriving, and considering where the Timberwolves are in the standings there is zero reason to move him back to the bench. Let the man learn on the court.

Rumor: Could Tyronn Lue step away from Clippers after season?

Oklahoma City Thunder v LA Clippers
Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue has clearly been frustrated this season.

It’s been the things out of his control — injuries and load management forcing constant lineup shuffling, and with that difficulty in building continuity — that have left Lue exasperated at points. However, is that enough to make Lue walk away from the Clippers this summer? That rumor is out there, Jake Fischer of Yahoo Sports said during the new No Cap Room podcast with Dan Devine. (Hat tip Hoopshype.)

Ty Lue, as respected head coach as they come, but there has been chatter, let’s say about potentially him, in theory, removing himself from the situation at a certain point in time. So there’s a lot I think, at stake on the other side of L.A. where the Lakers get all the attention and LeBron’s quest for a fifth ring is always soaking up the headlines, the Clippers could end up becoming a super buzzy team in the postseason and but again, that could be a situation for a lot of organizations.

This is the fourth year of the Kawhi Leonard/Paul George era with the Clippers, with iffy results at best. It cost a lot of money — not to mention draft capital and talent like giving up Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — to bring this roster together and they have one Western Conference Finals trip to show for it (2021, Lue’s first year as coach). This season they will head into the playoffs with an injured George trying to get back on the court (the good news is he doesn’t need knee surgery, but it may be closer to the second round before he can play).

Both Leonard and George are locked in for next season — at a combined $91.3 million — with player options for the season after that, but there is a sense around the league that if these Clippers don’t make a run in this year’s wide-open West playoffs there could be changes. Steve Ballmer has money to spend, but he wants results for all the checks he’s writing and there is real pressure on this organization to make that happen.

Lue could have had enough and choose to step away from that situation. Or be told to step away. Lue is in the third year of a five-year contract he signed to take over from Doc Rivers in Los Angeles, but it may be decision time for both sides.

What happens over the next couple of months will have a lot of influence over what comes next for these Clippers, but there could be changes coming to this Los Angeles team. They will be one of the more interesting teams to watch this coming off-season.

Three things to Know: Clippers find blueprint to win without Paul George


LOS ANGELES — Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Clippers find blueprint to win without Paul George

What do the Clippers need to do if they are going to hold on to a top-six seed — and be a threat early in the playoffs — without the injured Paul George?

It starts with Kawhi Leonard if you ask coach Tyronn Lue: “We need him to be in attack mode all night, you know, can’t ease into the games.”

Leonard scored 15 points on 7-of-7 shooting in the first quarter Thursday night. Box checked.

All night long the Clippers were following the blueprint Lue laid out to win without George, and the result was a comfortable 127-105 victory against the Thunder.

Leonard, maybe motivated by the lock-down defense Lu Dort played on him at the end of Tuesday’s game (although Kawhi denied that), Leonard had one of his best games of the season, scoring 30 points on 13-of-15 shooting. Leonard also will have to take on tougher defensive assignments early (something George had done) and the result was Leonard with four steals on the night.

What else was on Lue’s blueprint?

“Play with more pace, more pace in the half court getting to our spots, not walk around,” he said pregame. “Attack the basket, attack the rim, don’t just settle for jump shots.”

That pace especially came from a bench unit led by Bones Hyland (16 points), Terrence Mann (14 points) and Nicolas Batum (4-of-6 from 3). The bench plus Leonard unit changed the game, it was +25 early in the fourth quarter thanks to pace, player movement and shots falling.

The Clippers have also gotten more out of Russell Westbrook than the Lakers did earlier this season, the fit has been better, and he had 24 points on 8-of-13 shooting on the night.

“Just having a Hall-of-Fame point guard on the floor,” Leonard said of what Westbrook has brought to the Clippers. “He brings energy to the team, he brings pace… He plays both ends of the floor, he rebounds the ball… He’s been doing a great job.”

The Clippers are going to have to follow this blueprint for a while. George will be re-evaluated in three weeks and the good news is it appears he has no ligament damage that will require surgery. As Lue said, that’s as good of news as the Clippers could have gotten, considering how nasty the injury looked when it happened. Still, reports suggest George could be out until the second round of the playoffs. If the Clippers are still playing at that point.

They will need a lot more nights like Thursday to get to that point.

2) Isaac Okoro drains game-winner, Cavaliers stun Nets

Donovan Mitchell missed the free throw with 11.6 seconds left that would have tied the game, but his hustle (and a lack of fundamental boxing out by Brooklyn) let him get in the lane and keep the ball alive. It caromed around out to Caris LeVert out near mid-court, he drove and could have thrown up a leaner, but instead he whipped a pass to Isaac Okoro in the opposite corner for a 3.


The Cavaliers beat the Nets 116-114 Thursday night, sweeping a two-game set from Brooklyn.

The Cavaliers stars stepped up. Mitchell had 31 points, Evan Mobley continued his run of impressive play with 26 points and 16 rebounds, and Jarrett Allen reminded his former team what they are missing inside with 12 points and 10 rebounds against his former team.

Mikal Bridges led Brooklyn with 32 points, while Spencer Dinwiddie had 25 points and 12 assists. But the Nets have dropped five straight games and with that fell half a game behind the idle Heat for the No. 6 seed (and avoiding the play-in) in the East. The Nets and Heat play Saturday in a game that could decide who gets that sixth spot.

3) Brandon Ingram gets first-ever triple-double, Pelicans get much-needed win

How tight is the bottom of the West? From the Timberwolves at No.7 through the Jazz at No.12, every team is tied in the loss column at 37 wins. In that mix, the Mavericks, Lakers, Thunder and Pelicans are tied at 36-37.

The Pelicans are part of that bunch thanks to Brandon Ingram, who had his first triple-double Wednesday night and would not let the Pelicans lose at home to Charlotte.

Jonas Valanciunas added 20 points and 19 rebounds for New Orleans, while CJ McCollum added 19 himself. P.J. Washington led the way for the Hornets with 18.

It will be a wild final couple of weeks out West, and the Pelicans will need more of this Ingram with Zion Williamson out.

Watch Isaac Okoro drain game-winning 3-pointer, Cavaliers top Nets


NEW YORK — Isaac Okoro hit a 3-pointer from the corner with 0.7 seconds remaining and finished with 11 points as the Cleveland Cavaliers beat Brooklyn 116-114 Thursday night and closed in on their first playoff berth since 2018 with a two-game sweep of the Nets.

“It was a lot of pressure put into the shot, of course,” Okoro said. “You always feel good with a game-winner. For me, it was my first one.”

Donovan Mitchell scored 31 points, Evan Mobley had 26 points and 16 rebounds and Jarrett Allen finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds against his former team. Cleveland, which beat Brooklyn 115-109 on Tuesday, won for the eighth time in 10 games and reduced its magic number to clinch one of the Eastern Conference’s top playoff spots to two.

“It was ugly at times,” Mitchell said. “There’s just so much going on (in the playoff race), and at the end of the day all we can do is control what we can control and winning these games instead of praying that other teams lose or win, we just gotta go out there and do what we do, and it’s great to have a win like this tonight.”

Mikal Bridges scored 32 points, Spencer Dinwiddie had 25 points and 12 assists and Joe Harris hit five 3-pointers and finished with 15 points as the Nets lost their fifth straight game.

“It’s frustrating,” Bridges said. “Obviously, we’ve got to keep the energy and morale high, but it’s devastating losing like that.”

Cleveland trailed 112-104 with 2:13 left before closing the game on a 12-2 run, with the help of three crucial Nets turnovers. Trailing by one, Mitchell missed a second free throw that would’ve tied the game, then he missed a put-back, and three different Nets had their hands on the ball for the potential rebound before it bounded to Cleveland guard Caris LeVert.

“I thought we did a great job of getting some stops to put ourselves in that position,” Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “You miss the free throw, we had multiple opportunities at it, but guys didn’t quit on the play, and we talk about winning 50-50 balls and winning the scrap.”

LeVert, who spent his first four seasons with Brooklyn, found Okoro in the corner, and he drained the 3-pointer to give Cleveland the lead.

“The ball goes out to Caris, and I’m just running to the corner and going to my spot, and Caris trusted me,” Okoro said. “Once it left my hand, I knew it was going in.”

Bickerstaff said Okoro had no fear of taking the big shot.

“But I think what was most important is Caris saw that he was open and got him the ball, and that speaks to this team,” Bickerstaff said.

A heave from half court by Bridges at the buzzer fell short.

Bridges secured his eighth 30-plus point game as a member of the Nets through three quarters with 14 points in the third quarter. Then Harris heated up with four fourth-quarter 3-pointers in a sub-five-minute span, helping Brooklyn build a 10-point advantage.

“I felt like we deserved to win that game because we did a lot of good things throughout the course of the night,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said. “This is an opportunity for us to learn who we are.”

The Cavaliers rank first in the NBA in points-against per game and defensive rating, but had no answer for the Nets offense, which shot 56% in the first half. Dinwiddie had 19 points, including 11 in the second quarter, and seven assists, helping Brooklyn take a 61-60 lead into the break.

Mitchell and Bridges each scored in double figures in the first quarter, seeming to trade baskets in the early going. Mitchell scored 12 in the first, including nine in the first 2:17. Bridges had 10, helping the Nets build a 33-31 lead after one.

Malone says Jokić turned off by ‘ugly, nasty turn in the MVP conversation’


There has always been some element of “if you don’t see things the way I do you’re an idiot” in the NBA MVP conversation. Between sports talking heads and fevered fans on social media, there have always been some pushing the edge in the MVP debate.

However, something about Nikola Jokić looking like he would win a third-straight MVP around the All-Star break — fueled by Tim Bontemps straw poll at ESPN — turned the conversation much more intense much earlier this season. And it got nasty — again driven by ESPN on-air personalities. Some past MVP votes were re-litigated through the lens of this season, while other fans and media equated backing their guy with tearing down someone else (often Jokić, but sometimes Joel Embiid or Giannis Antetokounmpo, the other frontrunners). That has turned Jokić off from the conversation, Nuggets coach Mike Malone said after his team beat the Wizards Wednesday.

Here’s the full quote:

“I think this year unfortunately has just taken a really ugly, nasty turn in the MVP conversation, and I think it’s really turned a lot of people off, including [Jokić]. And what’s happening now is there’s so many guys that could win the MVP this year. Great candidates. Joel Embiid is a great candidate, Luka Doncic is a great candidate, Jayson Tatum, whoever you want to put in that mix, those are all deserving. But what happens in today’s society is that everybody, it’s like when I was a college coach and all the negative recruiting. It’s not promoting my guy, it’s ripping down every other guy. And that’s just ridiculous.

“This game, as Adam Silver told us at the All-Star break, the game is in a great spot. The league’s in a great spot. We have great players. Celebrate them. Don’t criticize, don’t tear them down. Build them all up, and whoever wins it, good for them. And that’s one thing that’s been really disappointing this year with the whole MVP conversation and all the hot takes. It’s really just gotten ugly and nasty, and I really don’t care for it.”

Malone isn’t the only person saying this. Jeff Van Gundy talked about this on the Lowe Post Podcast.

“Can we stop trying to put people down?” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said recently. “We should be celebrating our guys in the league. Giannis, Jayson Tatum, Joker, all of them are great. We don’t need to push one down to elevate the other guy. They all are completely different players.”

The NBA may not always like the tone but it LOVES the debate — it does not want everyone hugging it out. They want drama and tension. They want an argument. And in an online world where tearing someone down gets more clicks/eyeballs than lifting someone up, the debate was always going to get ugly at times.

[Side note: What grates on voters (*raises hand*) is when people jump in our mentions or timelines saying that this stat or style of play – clutch points, defense, some advanced stat, head-to-head play — makes it clear and obvious that it has to be Player X. The NBA goes out of its way to get a very diverse group of voters in terms of background, and everybody brings their own criteria to the table. As it should be.]

There is no single NBA-sanctioned definition of MVP for a reason — the league wants the arguments.

Which this race is providing. You can make a legitimate argument for Jokić, Embiid and Antetokounmpo. It’s boring (and bad sports talk) to say there is no bad choice among them… but there is no bad choice among them.

That said, some passion and a little edge are welcomed in the conversation. Ideally, people just know where the line is.