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Nikola Jokic: I’m a point guard trapped in a center’s body

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DENVER (AP) Nikola Jokic considers himself a point guard who just so happens to be trapped in a center’s 250-pound frame.

“I’m telling that to everybody,” the Denver Nuggets standout said. “But nobody believes in that except me.”

It’s as good a description as any for the hard-to-label and even harder-to-stop play of the 7-footer nicknamed Joker.

He doesn’t exactly have the most athletic look or leap out of the gym, but he’s elevated the Western Conference-leading Nuggets to new heights this season. Jokic is in line to become Denver’s first All-Star since Carmelo Anthony in 2010-11 and is being mentioned in the MVP conversation.

Jokic shrugs off all the attention. He’s just an unassuming big man doing uncommon things on the court so often it’s becoming common.

“A 7-2 Magic Johnson,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said as he over-inflated Jokic’s height in comparing him to the Los Angeles Lakers Hall of Famer. “He’s as good of a passer as any guard in the league. He can shoot 3s. But his ball handling is something I admire.”

Jokic (pronounced yo-kitch) sees the floor with a point guard’s vision, knocks down long-range jumpers with a shooting guard’s poise and drives with a big man’s mentality. He’s earned the respect of San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, who’s spent some time chatting with Jokic. Popovich appreciates the various levels to the game of the 23-year-old from Serbia – enough to even rib him.

“He’s kind of pudgy,” Popovich cracked. “He doesn’t jump out of the gym. He doesn’t run that fast, but he might be one of the smartest players in the league. And he’s got skills and he knows how to use them and he enjoys the hell out of himself out there. He’s been very important for them, obviously.”

At 24-11, the Nuggets are tied for their best NBA start in franchise history through 35 games with the 1976-77 squad. He’s been a big reason why, averaging 18 points, 7.6 assists and 9.9 rebounds.

His recent play with three starters sidelined by injuries led TNT analyst Charles Barkley to anoint Jokic as a front-runner in the MVP race. His co-hosts didn’t exactly agree.

“Wait, he’s not impacting the game?” Barkley incredulously retorted.

No arguments from the Nuggets faithful. The fans serenaded Jokic with a chorus of “M-V-P” after his third triple-double of the season – and 19th of his career – in a win over the Knicks on Tuesday. He took it in stride.

“Whatever they want to do,” said Jokic, a second-round pick in 2014 who signed a max contract over the summer worth around $147 million for five seasons. “But maybe when we’re finalists.”

Really, he’s just a low-key player who in the offseason can be found back home in Serbia hanging out with family, friends or his two race horses.

Ask him about Bella Marguerite, the newest horse in his stable, and his eyes light up.

“She’s scared but calm when the race comes,” he recently said. “She’s a completely different animal. She’s fast.”

Once the ball goes up, he’s a different breed of center.

“In some ways an anomaly,” Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “He doesn’t show super athletic ability. He plays the game close to the floor. But it’s one of the great things about the NBA game, guys like him that have the size and skill and know how to use leverage and angles and their vision and senses can be All-Star-caliber players.”

Jokic grew up watching the likes of Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Boris Diaw and Shaquille O’Neal. He’s also been studying Bill Walton and Hakeem Olajuwon, to name a few.

“Mixed a little bit of old and new guys,” Jokic said.

It’s hard to pinpoint his best game this season, but this one ranks up there: On Oct. 20 against Phoenix, when he joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only NBA players to record a 30-point triple-double (35 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists) while being perfect (11 for 11) from the field.

He raised his game even higher with starters Gary Harris, Paul Millsap and Will Barton out of the lineup (Harris and Millsap have recently returned).

“He’s always carried the same demeanor, the same swagger,” guard Monte Morris said. “Nothing’s really changed.”

This is something the Nuggets hope will change: Jokic making the All-Star Game . Not since Anthony wore No. 15 in Denver – Jokic’s number now – has a Nuggets player suited up in the game.

“If he doesn’t make it, the great thing about Nikola is that it will sting, we all will be upset and hurt by it, but it doesn’t get in the way of our team goals,” coach Michael Malone said. “He’s truly a team player. He cares about the team first. That’s why he’s a unique young man.”

As for Jokic’s assertion he’s really a point guard in a center’s frame, Malone didn’t quite buy it.

“He’s just a great player,” Malone said, “trapped in a great player’s body.”

Associated Press freelancer Raul Dominguez in San Antonio contributed to this report.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

LeBron James on Lakers adding Carmelo Anthony: ‘There are some things that need to be worked out on both sides’

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After the Rockets announced they were finished with Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James said it wasn’t his place to determine whether the Lakers should acquire Anthony. Then, LeBron put out word he wants Anthony on the Lakers – but only under the cover of anonymity and with the caveat he wouldn’t go to management with that desire.

Now, LeBron is openly addressing the possibility of Anthony joining the Lakers.

Kyle Goon of The Orange County Register:

LeBron:

We’ll see. I don’t run the team. Obviously, there are some things that need to be worked out on both sides. But I’ve always wanted to play along with Melo, and if the opportunity presents itself, it’ll be great. So, we’ll see what happens.

The Lakers acquiring Anthony is complicated. He’s still under contract with Houston (though the Rockets would gladly buy him out or trade him to Los Angeles for nothing). The Lakers have a full roster. Anthony might be washed up.

But LeBron talking about Anthony so openly is quite interesting. LeBron also just expressed his desire to play with Anthony Davis.

Is LeBron signally he wants more veteran help? The Lakers (18-13) are near the high end of their reasonable projections. The Warriors’ season has been rockier than expected. No matter how much LeBron indicated he’d take a multi-year approach in Los Angeles, he could see a window to chase a title this season.

LeBron’s history of passive-aggressiveness means we shouldn’t ignore these comments. I still doubt the Lakers get Anthony – or even Davis, who’d make far more sense but probably isn’t available.  Their big move likely comes this summer, when the Pelicans will know if Davis rejects a super-max extension and Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant will be free agents.

But if LeBron is angling for roster upgrades this season, that’s something for the Lakers to manage. Winning while he remains in his prime should be the priority, but it also might be too late for this season. The last thing the Lakers want to do is push in for the present, fall short and be left less-equipped for future seasons.

Report: Rockets’ primary trade target is Lakers’ Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

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While they have won four in a row and looked improved recently, the Houston Rockets have turned it around from “wow, they suck” to “they should make the playoffs.” Except, that was never the goal, the Rockets were up at halftime of Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals against the Warriors last May and they want to take the next step. Even the new and improved Houston team of the last couple of weeks is not on that level.

So GM Daryl Morey is actively working the trade market right now, something a lot of us are hearing and has been reported everywhere. Adding wing depth is the goal (shockingly, the Carmelo Anthony signing didn’t work out).

The top target? Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, reports Marc Stein of The New York Times in his weekly newsletter.

Houston has expressed exploratory interest in Cleveland’s J.R. Smith, who has been sent home by the Cavaliers as they try to find a new home for him via trade. But the Lakers’ Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is said to be the Rockets’ top target in their search for help on the wing, with Smith somewhere further down the list.

Caldwell-Pope can veto any trade as what is known as a One-Year Bird, having signed a one-year contract in July with the same team that employed him last season. All indications are that Caldwell-Pope would agree to a trade that lands him in Houston if the Rockets can indeed construct one.

Constructing one is absolutely the problem. Caldwell-Pope is making $12 million this season and the Lakers are not just taking back Brandon Knight, who is owed a fully-guaranteed $15.6 million next season. After that, the rest of the guys the Rockets would give up make $3.7 million (Nene) or less. Which means bringing in a third team, which always makes things far more complicated.

On top of that the Pelicans are incredibly active and looking for wing help (KCP for Solomon Hill and a second rounder?) and so is Philadelphia. If the Lakers trade Caldwell-Pope they will have options, and the Rockets may not be the best one.

Caldwell-Pope had a rough start to the season but has played better of late, averaging 12.2 points per game and shooting 37 percent from three in his last five games.

Remember that Caldwell-Pope has the same agent as LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers are going to make sure that if they trade him, it will be to a place he wants to be.

That said, when Morey wants something, or someone, he goes at it full speed. Keep an eye on this.

NBA Power Rankings: Bucks move into top spot, finally healthy Warriors climbing fast

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The Bucks have had the best net rating in the league much of the year, they have the leading MVP candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo, and now they have the top spot in these rankings. At least until the finally healthy Warriors really get rolling again.

 
Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (18-8, last week No. 5). Kawhi Leonard, who was matched up on Giannis Antetokounmpo in the showdown last week (that the Bucks won) was asked what has the Greek Freak done to step up his game this season: “He’s very aggressive. He got better knowing himself and who he’s playing with. He’s just more comfortable on the floor.” The transformation of the Bucks offense remains one of the most eye-popping things in the league, last season the Bucks took an average of 17.3 midrange shots per game, this season that is down to 6.2. The Bucks are 5-5 on the road this season, allowing 8 more points per game, and now they have 6-of-7 away from home.

 
Thunder small icon 2. Thunder (17-8, LW 3). Oklahoma City has won 5-of-6, and while they’ve done it against a soft part of the schedule with a scare (Brooklyn) and an ugly loss (Chicago) mixed in, their defense keeps them within striking distance of the top. The schedule gets tougher now, we’ll see how they fare (they did beat Utah Monday). Russell Westbrook is averaging a triple-double again — 22.1 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 10.2 assists per game — again, but his efficiency has slipped, he’s hitting just 21.8% from three and 61.8% on free throws (it was his efficiency when carrying a bigger offensive load that won him the MVP a couple years back).

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (22-7, LW 2). How is Southern California guy Kawhi Leonard adapting to the cold of Toronto? “Just wear a jacket,” Leonard said Tuesday night. “We’re in a building. We’re not outside playing in the snow. And it’s good scenery.” Kyle Lowry snapped out of the worst shooting slump of his career Tuesday, shooting 8-of-13 and hitting some tough shots in a win over the Clippers (Lowry had shot 8-of-42 over his previous five games, 5-of-32 from three). Tuesday’s easy win over the Clippers starts a 4-game swing through the West and 7-of-9 on the road.

 
Warriors small icon 4. Warriors (19-9, LW 8). Stephen Curry returned to the lineup last week, Draymond Green was back on Monday, the Warriors have now won 4 in a row and are just percentage points out of the top spot in the Western Conference. For all the drama and hand-wringing about their internal squabbles, lack of depth, and questions about their health/wear and tear they are still right at the top of the West and now are poised to go on a run and remind everyone who the heavy favorite in the NBA is.

 
Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (19-9, LW 6). Joel Embiid may feel uncomfortable being asked to space the floor more since the arrival of Jimmy Butler (although he’s gotten more paint touches per game after the trade compared to before), but the big three is working: When Ben Simmons, Butler, and Embiid share the court the Sixers are +7.8 per 100. Add starters J.J. Redick and Wilson Chandler into that and the five-man starting unit for the Sixers is +12.4 per 100. Philly has won 6-of-7 behind them.

 
Nuggets small icon 6. Nuggets (18-9, LW 1).. Injuries are crushing this team right now: Paul Millsap will miss 3-4 weeks with a broken toe, then there’s Gary Harris (groin), Will Barton, and Isaiah Thomas (hip), and we haven’t even seen first-round pick Michael Porter Jr. (nor will we this season most likely). Things got so bad Denver signed Nick Young as an injury replacement. All the missing bodies led to losses in Charlotte and Atlanta last week, but this team has banked enough wins to stay afloat in the West, plus they still have Nikola Jokic.

 
Lakers small icon 7. Lakers (17-10, LW 9). The Lakers have an insanely good defensive net rating of 95.2 when Tyson Chandler is on the court this season, which is why the Lakers are +12.8 per 100 when Chandler is on the court this season. He was the defensive anchor they needed. Something to watch: How much the second unit suffers without Brandon Ingram (out for a couple of weeks with a sprained ankle), he was often the main shot creator with that unit (the Lakers were -15 Monday vs. Miami in the 10:29 LeBron was on the bench).

 
Celtics small icon 8. Celtics (16-10, LW 10). Winners of six in a row and they have outscored opponents by 25.6 per 100 in that stretch. Granted, a lot of that is against a soft part of the schedule (which continues for the next week) but it’s still confidence-boosting wins for a team that needs it. At the heart of Boston’s run is they are shooting the ball much better from three, 42.7% in those six games (the Celtics struggled to start the season from deep, shooting 32.8% from beyond the arc in October).

 
Pacers small icon 9. Pacers (17-10, LW 11). Indiana may get Victor Oladipo back soon, but they have impressed going 7-4 without him during this stretch with a +6.5 net rating in that time. Two things have keyed this run. First, the Pacers have the second best defense in the NBA over the last 11 games (allowing 101.7 points per 100 possessions). The second is the strong play of the Pacers’ bench, which has the second best net rating of any second unit in the NBA, +4.4 per 100.

 
Clippers small icon 10. Clippers (17-10, LW 4). Los Angeles has lost 3-of-4, including having the Raptors hand them their worst loss of the season Tuesday. The Clippers aren’t sneaking up on anyone anymore. “We aren’t the Clippers flying under the radar,” Patrick Beverley said after the latest loss. “People and teams understand our success and they are coming out ready. Not ready, actually, throwing the first punch.” The Clips need to punch back, their next nine games are against West teams in the playoff hunt.

 
Grizzlies small icon 11. Grizzlies (15-11, LW 12). Joakim Noah stepped right into the rotation in Memphis, playing almost 17 minutes a night off the bench, averaging 6.8 points and 4.3 rebounds a contest. Small sample size, but the Grizzlies’ defense has been slightly better with him on the court so far but the offense has taken a real hit in those minutes (there’s a lot of noise there, considering he’s out with the second unit on a team short of playmakers). They have gone 2-2 through a stretch of games against other teams in the West playoff hunt, and Monday’s game in Golden State starts a swing of four in a row away from home.

 
Mavericks small icon 12. Mavericks (14-11, LW 14). Dallas’ bench has the best net rating of any in the NBA, +4.5, and Rick Carlisle deserves a lot of credit for once again finding ways to make misfit pieces fit together and excel. This week brings the Luka Doncic revenge tour — he is going up against the teams that passed on him in the draft. It’s Atlanta Wednesday, Phoenix Thursday, and Sacramento Sunday. Those teams had better hope Doncic does not do to them what he did to the Houston Rockets, scoring 11 straight points to turn a likely loss into a win in the final minutes.

Pistons small icon 13. Pistons (13-12, 7). After spoiling Stephen Curry’s return and beating the Warriors, the Pistons have dropped five in a row. The problem is on the offensive end, where the injuries to Reggie Bullock, Stanley Johnson, and Ish Smith has hurt production and taken away key three-point shooters and floor spacing. With a heavy road schedule coming up, as well as some tough teams this week (Boston, Milwaukee), Detroit needs to find a way to stop the bleeding, knock down a few shots, and get a couple of wins before this starts to spiral.

 
Blazers small icon 14. Trail Blazers (15-12, LW 15). Portland has gone 3-7 in its last 10, with the only win against a +.500 team coming against Minnesota (a game where Jusuf Nurkic went off). Part of the problem in that stretch is their bench, which played well to start the season and but is struggling during this stretch, Houston’s bench outscored them 37-13 Tuesday night. Portland could use more scoring, which is why their name comes up in Carmelo Anthony rumors, but it’s hard to see how ‘Melo would fit in and help them much.

 
15. Timberwolves (13-14, LW 13). While Minnesota can rightfully point to a strong 9-5 record since trading away Jimmy Butler (a record sparked by the fifth best defense in the NBA in that stretch) they need to find a way to get some road wins in the brutal Western Conference — Minnesota is 0-9 against the West away from home after losses this week in Portland and Golden State. Games coming up this week on the road in Sacramento and Phoenix provide better chances for victories, but nothing is given in the West and those road losses could bite them at the end of the season.

 
Hornets small icon 16. Hornets (13-13, LW 21). Charlotte’s preferred starting lineup — Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lamb, Marvin Williams, Nicolas Batum, and Cody Zeller — is the most used five-man lineup in NBA, 311 total minutes together so far (just shy of 13 minutes a game). James Borego leans on that lineup because it’s outscoring opponents by 5.1 points per 100, and this is not a team with a lot of depth behind it. Charlotte has won a couple in a row and now has its next five games at home, a chance for the currently seven-seed Hornets to rack up wins and solidify their playoff standing.

 
Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (14-15, LW 17). Julius Randle was forced into the starting lineup due to an injury to Nicolas Mitotic, but it may be hard to take him out now — he has averaged 27.6 points per game on 59.3 percent shooting, hitting 50 percent from three, grabbing 11.2 boards per game, and a net rating of +13.8 in those games. However, the Pelicans can’t string together wins despite Randle’s play (they are 2-3 in those five games), in part because they struggle on the road, where they are 4-11 (the Pels are 10-4 at home).

 
Kings small icon 18. Kings (14-12, LW 18). Sacramento did what good teams do last week — went on the road and beat lesser teams. The Kings went 3-1 on a recent four-game road swing with wins over the Suns, Cavaliers, and Bulls — all struggling teams, but plenty of teams above Sacramento in these rankings have dropped games like those.) If the ninth-seed Kings are going to make the playoffs it will be because they did well in stretches like the one coming up: Sacramento’s next 13 games are against Western Conference teams in the playoff chase. Those are the teams they need to beat.

 
Spurs small icon 19. Spurs (14-14, LW 22). Congratulations to Gregg Popovich, who moved into fourth place on the all-time wins list for coaches on Tuesday night with 1,211, moving him past Pat Riley. Popovich is only 10 wins back of Jerry Sloan and should move into third on the list in the next couple of months (I’m not sure Popovich will coach long enough to catch Don Nelson or Lenny Wilkins at he top of that leaderboard). San Antonio has started 3-0 on a six-game homestand, wins the team needs if they plan to keep their playoff hopes alive in the deep West.

 
Jazz small icon 20. Jazz (13-15, LW 20). Last Thursday’s win against Houston, despite Rudy Gobert being ejected (wrongfully) in the opening minutes of the game, was probably Utah’s best win of the season. They celebrated that by going out on the road and dropping two more games (to San Antonio and OKC). This team remains maddeningly inconsistent. On the bright side, they have played the toughest schedule in the NBA so far and have had 18-of-28 games on the road, things should lighten up (although the Jazz are 4-6 at home, they need to get some wins in Salt Lake City).

 
Rockets small icon 21. Rockets (12-14, LW 16). While the defense remains the biggest problem for Houston, it’s been enough of the season now that Chris Paul’s slipping level of play — from elite to just good, for example his three-point percentage dropped from 38% last year to 33.9% this year, his PER from 24.4 to 18.5 — is a cause for concern. Especially since this is the first year of a four-year contract. The Rockets just looked bad losing all three games on a road trip (before beating Portland at home Tuesday), and with three more losses the Rockets will tie how many losses they had all of last season.

 
Heat small icon 22. Heat (11-15, LW 23). Dwyane Wade’s emotional farewell in his final game against LeBron James overshadowed a couple of quality road wins that came before it against the Suns and Clippers. The Heat have now won 4-of-6 and are just half-a-game out of the playoffs in the East, where their grit may be enough to get them invited to the dance, although they have played one of the easiest schedules in the league thus far and things will get tougher. That grit Eric Spoelstra prides his teams on will be put to the test.

 
Magic small icon 23. Magic (12-15, LW 19). Orlando is in Mexico City for two “home” games this week against the Bulls (Thursday) and the Jazz (Saturday), so now fans in other countries can marvel first-hand at the smart game of Nikola Vucevic. Orlando won a couple of games in a row against sub-.500 teams (Phoenix, Miami) then last week lost three straight to good teams (Denver, Indiana, and Dallas). Aaron Gordon and the Magic need to string together some wins to hold off Miami, Washington, and other teams with an eye on the final playoff slot in the East (which the Magic currently hold).

 
Nets small icon 24. Nets (10-18, LW 27). Brooklyn has been the NBA’s second worst team this season on clutch games (within 5 points in the final five minutes), going 5-12 — and that 17 clutch games is tied for the most in the league. That’s why the clutch win against Toronto last Friday was good to see, this team deserves a break, they work hard but just have not had the talent that wins out in the final minutes (especially with Caris LeVert out).

 
Wizards small icon 25. Wizards (11-16, LW 24). John Wall scoring one point in a loss to Cleveland last Saturday led him to come forward and say he’s been playing through a bone spur in his heel (I know some on Twitter scoffed at that, but Wall has a history of playing through injuries he should get treated). Wall sat out one game but is expected back in the lineup Wednesday night against Boston. It’s a matter of pain management, but this play is not helping Wall’s already limited trade value (because his max contract kicks in next season and nobody wants to be on the hook for that deal).

 
Hawks small icon 26. Hawks (6-20, LW 28). John Collins continues to impress upon his return from injury, averaging 18.1 points and shooting 62.2 percent in those 11 games. In his last five games, Collins is averaging 21.6 points and 11.6 rebounds a night. This team does have its moments, like beating Denver last Saturday. The Hawks now head out for 5-of-6 on the road.

 
Knicks small icon 27. Knicks (8-20, LW 25). Courtney Lee is back on the court, although he was a rusty 1-of-7 shooting in his first two games. Lee’s name will come up in a lot of trade talks leading up to the February deadline. Rookie Kevin Knox scored 26 points and had 15 rebounds in a loss to the Hornets, becoming only the second teenager in NBA history to go for 25-15 or better (the other is some guy named LeBron… not sure what ever happened to him).

 
Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (6-21, LW 26). Cleveland did okay in the George Hill trade, doing what a rebuilding team should do — taking on contracts other teams want to dump in exchange for draft picks and young players (this included a protected 2021 first rounder). Maybe the Cavaliers could have held out for a little more, but there is no guarantee they would have gotten it in a tight market. This worked. Next up on the trade block should be J.R. Smith.

 
Bulls small icon 29. Bulls (6-22, LW 29). The Bulls are 1-3 in the Jim Boylen era, with him coming in so out-of-touch old school he had players threatening a mutiny. Well done, Chicago. New coach or not, the biggest difference on the court is the return of Lauri Markkanen from an elbow injury. He has averaged 15.2 points per game, and while he’s struggled with the rust oh his shot the biggest key is he spaces the floor. The Bulls gave the elite Thunder defense problems last Friday because a Zach LaVine/Markkanen pick-and-pop pulled Steven Adams out of the paint and opened up driving lanes — the Bulls floor spacing is so much better with Markkanen in the lineup. Plus, he can do this.

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (4-24, LW 30). Losers of 10 in a row, all I can offer Suns fans is that on Wednesday I dropped an NBA Draft preview podcast where we talk about Zion Williamson, why the shine is coming off R.J. Barrett, and there are thoughts on other top picks coming up in the next draft. Focus on that, you’ll feel better, especially with Devin Booker having to miss time with a hamstring injury.

Frustrated Eric Gordon after latest Rockets’ loss: ‘I’m just not having fun, man’

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You can hear it on the court when the Rockets are on defense… or more accurately not hear it. The communication that was key to their sixth-ranked defense of a season ago is gone. Silence replaced the chatter.

You can see it when you look at the Rockets’ body language after their opponent makes an inevitable run — heads hang, shoulders slump, and they look defeated. Like a team that doesn’t know what the answer is.

And you can see it in the standings where the Rockets are 13th in the West at 11-13 after a blowout loss to the Jazz. Utah is a team that Houston handled easily in the playoffs last season (4-1) but had no answers for this time around with missed shots and a defense that was picked apart by Utah’s attacking switches and quick ball movement. It’s a game that showed just how far the Rockets have to go to get anywhere near their goals for this season.

Eric Gordon is frustrated. Here is what the former Sixth Man of the Year told Kelly Iko of The Athletic in a story about the Rockets and their locker room.

“I’m just not having fun man,” Gordon told The Athletic. “I’m just not. This sucks. Even the times where I have good games. We’re just not using some guys the right way. Are we gonna make the right sacrifices? Do we have the right attitude?

“Last year was the best year I’ve ever had being a part of a team,” he added. “We just never had a bad moment. If we ever had a bad game as a team, you knew the next game we would blow somebody out. It didn’t matter who it was….

“Look how [the Jazz are] playing, that’s how we used to play. Sharing the ball, getting up and down and attacking. We’re not doing that anymore.”

The Rockets are playing a little slower this season, and while they ran a lot of isolations last year — trying to get James Harden or Chris Paul in a matchup they liked — the ball kept moving. This year it seems to get stuck more often: The Rockets averaged the fewest passes per game of any team in the NBA last season and this season they are averaging eight fewer passes a contest.

Even with that the offense is still good, it’s the defense, where they are 3.7 points per 100 possessions worse, that is the problem. Last season if the Rockets struggled on one side of the ball, the other side could cover up the issue for a night. This season the offense can’t cover for the faltering defense. Carmelo Anthony wasn’t the problem (he wasn’t the solution, either).

Houston hasn’t dug too big a hole to climb out of — this is the West, everyone is beating each other up. Right now the Rockets are just 1.5 games out of the eight seed.

But just making it into the playoffs was not the Rockets’ goal this season, and they are a long way — and maybe a new player or two — from getting anywhere near the heights they hoped to achieve.