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NBA Power Rankings: Chris Paul, James Harden have Rockets climbing fast

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Welcome to the dog days of the NBA season, when all the elite teams seem to yawn and lose focus, leading to some strange losses. Houston may be the hottest team going right now, and the Rockets jump up in these rankings.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (48-16, last week No. 1). The addition of Pau Gasol is not going to have a massive impact on the court, but the Bucks don’t need that. What the veteran brings is a voice in the locker room of a guy who has been through deep playoff runs and has the rings to show for it. The questions with the Bucks in the postseason are not if they have the talent to contend, but will they have the mental makeup to withstand the pressures, the highs and lows. That has not been tested yet. Gasol helps with that.

Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (46-19, LW 3). Toronto is two games back of Milwaukee for the top seed in the East (and overall), and that leaves the franchise trying to walk a tight line. They want to keep racking up wins — maybe to catch the Bucks, but also to stay ahead of the Warriors (1.5 games back) in case they meet in the Finals. All while making sure Kawhi Leonard is not overtaxed, and meshing Marc Gasol into the new rotations. It’s a lot for Nick Nurse to juggle. If you need evidence of why you want a healthy Leonard on your side with the game on the line…

Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (44-20, LW 2). Golden State is back to being a team looking like a bored team that can’t wait for the playoffs to start, they dropped 4-of-6 and have fallen behind by double digits in 12-of-13 games (and have been resting a lot of players). The Warriors can get away with that as long as Denver keeps slumping and stays behind them in the standings. Klay Thompson has been out with a tweaked knee, and they are being cautious with his return.

Nuggets small icon 4. Nuggets (42-21, LW 4). No team has fought through injuries to key rotation players this season like the Nuggets. Their preferred starting five — Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, and Nikola Jokic — have played just 93 minutes together on the season. Now they are finally healthy and looking to get that unit in sync before the playoffs. The Nuggets have lost three in a row and have a good test against the Warriors coming up Friday night.

Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (41-23, LW 7). What questions about his role? Jimmy Butler took over the closer role late for the Sixers against the Magic Tuesday night, hitting a couple of key fadeaways, making defensive plays, and setting up Mike Scott for a three. The Sixers have gone 4-2 with Joel Embiid out since the All-Star break, but he is expected to return this week. The team needs that, it’s hard to sort out the questions about players’ roles without the first offensive option on the court.

Rockets small icon 6. Rockets (39-25, LW 10). The hottest team in the NBA right now, winners of six in a row, and a lot of it is because Chris Paul is back to playing about how he was a season ago. In his last 10 games CP3 has averaged 16.8 points per game, dished out 9.8 assists, shot 36.8% from three, and played better defense. The Rockets have looked like the second best team in the West the past couple of weeks, although their defense is still pedestrian (14th in NBA over last 10 games) and that could haunt them in the postseason.

Blazers small icon 7. Trail Blazers (39-25, LW 8). Portland won 5-of-7 on a road trip thanks in part to Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter giving Portland a solid second unit again (and this is without Evan Turner in games). That or maybe it was the team bonding of eight players being stuck together in an elevator for 30 minutes. Either way, Portland had the best net rating in the NBA over the last 10 games until a tired last-game-of-the-road-trip loss to Memphis Tuesday. Keep playing well and the three seed is not out of the question in the West. Just like last year.

Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (39-25, LW 5). Paul George was back in the lineup on Tuesday night, which was good because the Thunder were 1-2 and unimpressive in his absence (although they lost in his return, too). Those losses hurt because the Thunder need wins for seeding: fivethirtyeight.com projects seeds 3-6 in the West (Thunder, Rockets, Trail Blazers, Jazz) all to finish with between 50 and 52 wins — the middle of the West is going to be very tight. It will be interesting to see if teams push to be the 3 or 6 seed and avoid the 4/5 to stay away from the Warriors’ side of the bracket.

Pacers small icon 9. Pacers (42-23, LW 6). Indiana has started to come back to earth, having gone 2-3 in their last five, with the problems coming on the defensive end (115 per 100 allowed last five games, 25th in the league). The Pacers sit as the three seed and want to hold on to home court in the first round, they are half-a-game up on the Sixers (they play each other Sunday) and three up on the five-seed Celtics. The Pacers have 8-of-11 coming up on the road and a tough stretch of games, they are going to have to find a new level of resilience to hold on.

Jazz small icon 10. Jazz (36-27, LW 11). Utah’s defense was in vintage form through a tough three-game stretch — Clippers, Nuggets and Bucks — and Utah won all three (then they turned around and lost to the Pelicans). The Jazz sit as the six seed in the West, but with the softest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way the idea they could make up the 2.5 games and climb into the top four to get home court for the first round is not out of the question. They just can’t have games where they aren’t focused, like against New Orleans.

Celtics small icon 11. Celtics (39-26, LW 9). Like a lot of Bostonians this time of year, apparently what the Celtics needed was a trip to California to warm up. After an ugly stretch losing 5-of-6 with internal sniping after each game, the Celtics looked like the team we all expected this season in thrashing the (disinterested) Warriors Tuesday. Boston played with the joy Golden State lacked, they moved the ball and switch on defense well. Can the Celtics build off that win, or will it be a one-off moment? They need to get on a roll now heading into the playoffs.

Clippers small icon 12. Clippers (37-29, LW 12). Ask Clippers coach Doc Rivers (a coach of the year candidate) what he loves about this squad, and he talks about their resilience. “We took a hit. When we made that trade (sending out Tobias Harris at the trade deadline) it hit our locker room. But we got them to believe we want to win still, we’re going to win still. Then for them to start doing it just shows you how resilient they are.”

Spurs small icon 14. Spurs (36-29, LW 16). Home cooking matters to the Spurs. They looked like a team that would fall out of the playoffs during their 1-7 rodeo road trip, but they got home and knocked off three quality teams in a row (Pistons, Thunder, Nuggets) thanks to a much improved defense. The Spurs are projected for 45 wins and fivethirtyeight.com gives them a 95% chance of making the playoffs, considering the loss of DeJonte Murray before the season that is an impressive effort by San Antonio.

Pistons small icon 14. Pistons (31-31, 14). The Pistons are clicking, 9-2 in their last 11 with a +10.9 net rating. They’ve had the best offense in the NBA during that stretch, at 118.1 per 100 (and the defense is fifth in the league). The run really started 15 games ago when Andre Drummond returned from concussion protocol, since then he has averaged 20.5 points a game on 62.6 percent shooting, and he’s grabbing 15.7 rebounds a game. Reggie Jackson has played well, and Blake Griffin is showing off new levels of handles and shooting.

Nets small icon 15. Nets (33-33, LW 13). In the 14 games he played at the start of the season, Caris LeVert was the Nets’ leading scorer and looked like a candidate for most improved player. He’s been back for 10 games now but things have not been the same — he’s shooting just 36.2% overall and 27.5% from three, and he hasn’t been the same positive force. The Nets have come back to earth a little and are 4-6 in their last 10. The Nets also have the third toughest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way, they are going to need to find some wins to hold on to that playoff spot.

Kings small icon 16. Kings (32-31, LW 15). It was good news that Marvin Bagley only suffered a sprained knee that will sideline him a couple of weeks, it looked like it could have been much worse. That said, it came at a bad time as Bagley was playing his best basketball of the season. Harry Giles has looked good in Bagley’s absence, at least when he stops elbowing opponents in the head.

Magic small icon 17. Magic (30-36, LW 18). While Orlando sits half-a-game out of the playoffs as this is written, the fact they have a much softer schedule than the teams they are chasing (Orlando’s next seven games are against teams below .500), and they have played well of late, has fivethirtyeight.com giving them a 67% chance of making the playoffs. Jonathan Isaac has been the key to it all, the Magic are +12.7 per 100 when he is on the court in the last 15 games.

Pelicans small icon 18. Pelicans (30-36, LW 20). Nobody, including NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, thinks playing Anthony Davis 20 minutes a night and sitting him in the fourth is a good look for the league. But sit him and there is pushback from the league and union, play him 40 a night and the Pelicans are taking an unnecessary risk and hurting their draft position. So ugly compromise it is. Jrue Holiday continues to play well when he is on the court in limited minutes.

Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (29-34, LW 19). Charlotte has dropped 8-of-11 and coach James Borego is searching for answers. He switched around the starting lineup, but the new group can’t defend. He’s pulled Frank Kaminsky out of the dog house and played him — and Kaminsky has responded with solid play. Nothing has really worked. Big showdown with the Heat Wednesday (one of the teams they are battling for a playoff spot) and on Saturday they head out on the road for four.

20. Timberwolves (30-34, LW 17). Robert Covington went down to the G-League to practice, usually the last step before a player returns to action with the main team, but now the Timberwolves are sounding cautious and being patient again. Maybe his knee didn’t respond well to the increased workload, but whatever it is he will be out a little while longer. After three losses in a row that all but doomed their playoff dreams in Minnesota, Karl-Anthony Towns exploded for 41 and 14 against the Thunder. That was good to see.

Heat small icon 21. Heat (29-34, LW 22). They have won 3-of-4, including an upset of the Warriors, the kinds of wins the Heat will need more of down the stretch if they are going to get a playoff spot. Dwayne Wade’s last dance has just been fun, from the jersey exchanges to the moments he shows he still has it on the court. It’d be nice to see Miami make the playoffs just to set up more potential moments like this.

Lakers small icon 22. Lakers (30-34, LW 21). In the 13 games since LeBron James returned from his groin injury, the Lakers have the worst defense in the NBA, giving up 116.3 points per 100 possessions. Their effort on that end has been up and down, but more than that they have lacked basic defensive recognition and cohesion. The Lakers are 4-9 since LeBron’s return, and 2-4 since the All-Star break when LeBron “activated” playoff mode. Their playoff dreams are dead and Luke Walton may want to start polishing up his resume.

Wizards small icon 23. Wizards (26-37, LW 24). If you’re looking for a silver lining to this Wizards season, well, I’m sorry about that. Not sure there’s much we can do. Can I recommend reading our own Dan Feldman’s story on Thomas Bryant? That’s about as positive as I can get with this franchise.

Grizzlies small icon 24. Grizzlies (26-40, LW 25). This summer, some team is going to give up some quality pieces to trade for Mike Conley. Tuesday night he showed why that team will be making a smart play. Conley had 19 in the fourth, 40 for the game, and was the reason the Grizzlies beat the Trail Blazers.

Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (22-43, LW 27). Trae Young continues to just tear it up. In his last five games, the rookie has averaged 30.6 points per game and is shooting 50% from three on 7.6 attempts per game, plus is dishing out 9.4 assists per night. He was honest that he was overthinking things early in the season, but the game has slowed down and now he is just letting it fly. Combined with John Collins next season, the Hawks could be a team looking to make a leap.

Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (27-36, LW 23). Dallas has been the worst team in the NBA over the last 10 games, a -13.9 net rating that has them going 2-8. They have the worst offense and the worst defense in the NBA during that stretch. Mavericks fans, focus on Dirk Nowitzki and dream of next season with Kristaps Porzingis.

Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (18-47, LW 26). Chicago had won 5-of-7 until recent setbacks against the Hawks and Pacers, and the reason remains the offense. The Bulls are scoring 114.1 per 100 in their last 15 games, fifth best in the league (and ahead of the Warriors in that stretch). The Bulls have an offensive rating of 119.8 and are outscoring teams by 8.8 per 100 when Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, and Otto Porter are all on the court together.

Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (16-48, LW 20). Cleveland is 5-2 in games Kevin Love has played in since his return. Cedi Osman has been playing better of late too, averaging 16.9 points per game and shooting 47.5 percent from three in his last 15 games. The Cavs are playing well enough they could have moved out of the bottom three of the draft lottery, except the Bulls have been playing even better.

Suns small icon 29. Suns (14-51, LW 30). They have had some fun playing spoiler. They beat a Miami team that needs wins to stay in the playoffs in the East, and when they beat the Lakers last weekend it felt like the death of the Lakers’ playoff chances. The most impressive thing in that win over Los Angeles was Deandre Ayton — not the rookie’s 26 points and 10 rebounds, but that they had him defend LeBron James all game and he did a respectable job.

Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (13-51, LW 28). Mitchell Robinson is the reason to tune into Knicks games now — the rookie shot blocker is a lot of fun. Knicks fans deserve something good to happen and watching Robinson play is it this season. I’m not as sold he’s going to be anywhere near as good as some Knicks fans are pumping him up to be, but his defensive presence and energy could make him a solid rotation big man in whatever form the Knicks take on the next few years.

NBA Power Rankings: Pre-Trade Deadline edition topped by Bucks

Associated Press
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The trade deadline is stirring up the NBA, and we get into where teams stand with 25 hours to go (as of this posting) in these rankings. We also thought the Warriors would never surrender the top spot again, but the Bucks just keep on winning and impressing.

 
Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (39-13, last week No. 2). What was most impressive about the win over the Raptors is how the Bucks identified the guy they wanted to stop (Kawhi Leonard) and then made him a non-factor (16 points). That’s the kind of defense that wins teams playoff games — and a lot of them. The Bucks have been mentioned in the Anthony Davis rumor mill, but sources tell me there’s not anything to it. Also with the Bucks, never forget that Giannis Antetokounmpo can do this.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (37-15, LW 1). They live by the three — more than live, the Warriors have won rings by the three — but there are nights they are off from deep and then they are vulnerable. That’s what happened in a loss to the Sixers, when Klay Thompson was out and everyone not named Stephen Curry had no range (1-of-20 from three). The Warriors want depth but are likely to get that through the buyout market, not trades. That Sixers loss meant Denver’s Mike Malone and his staff, not Steve Kerr and his, will be coaching the All-Star Game in Charlotte — and you can be sure Kerr is just fine with that.

 
Celtics small icon 3. Celtics (35-19, LW 5). Despite all the Kyrie Irving “does he want to be a Knick?” drama that drives headlines, the Celtics are playing their best basketball of the season. In the last 10 games they are 9-1 with a +10.7 net rating (third best in the NBA in that stretch) and they look like the team we predicted before the season would be the one to beat in the East. All that is lost in the Anthony Davis trade buzz — if he’s on the Pelicans still Thursday night the Celtics are in the driver’s seat to land him.

 
Nuggets small icon 4. Nuggets (37-16, LW 3). Denver’s name gets bounced around as a team that could be an all-in dark horse in the Anthony Davis sweepstakes, but that seems highly unlikely. Not that Davis wouldn’t fit next to Nikola Jokic, he would, and the Nuggets front office can be gamblers, but this would be a bad short-term bet and they know it. They like what they have. Denver has been pushing through injuries all season and had won five in a row without Jamal Murray, the last couple without Gary Harris, but it all caught up with them in an ugly loss in Detroit Monday. That the losses due to injury are rare are why Mike Malone deserves to coach in the All-Star Game.

 
Raptors small icon 5. Raptors (39-16, LW 4). They are 3-3 in their last six, with losses to the Rockets and getting thrashed by the Bucks. However, against the Sixers on Tuesday Kawhi Leonard was a defensive force, attacked the paint, and Toronto looked dominant again. The Raptors have been a roller coaster of late. They may need the All-Star break. Kyle Lowry will not get a break, he will represent Toronto in the All-Star Game (along with Leonard), and the fact he was an easy selection despite having what is, for him, a down year speaks to how much his reputation as a leader and player has grown around the league.

 
Thunder small icon 6. Thunder (34-19, LW 7). Russell Westbrook has been racking up triple-doubles — seven games in a row now — and seems to have broken out of his early-season shooting slump, having hit 32.5% of his threes in his last 10 games. In those 10 games the Thunder have the fourth best offense in the NBA but their elite defense has been more pedestrian. Fun showdown between James Harden and Paul George on Saturday night in Houston.

 
Sixers small icon 7. 76ers (34-20, LW 6). The Sixers felt like a team on a roller coaster — they end Golden State’s 11-game win streak, then Tuesday night Kawhi Leonard’s defense disrupts Philly’s offense and Toronto blows them out — that was good but felt a player short. The Tobias Harris trade changes all that. Only the Warriors have a better starting five right now on paper, if the Sixers can get it to mesh — and Harris will fit in well — they are now serious contenders to come out of the East this year. Then this summer owner Joshua Harris should have his checkbook ready to go.

 
Blazers small icon 8. Trail Blazers (32-21, LW 8). Portland at home is a different team — 22-8, vs. 10-13 on the road — with a +8 net rating. It’s not one end of the floor, the Blazers’ offense is 6.4 per 100 possessions better at home, their defense improves by 5.4 per 100. Portland at home plays like an elite team (fifth best net rating at home in the NBA). The challenge is they have seven more road games left on the schedule than ones at home, and starting Sunday in Dallas they have 9-of-10 away from the Moda Center. Rodney Hood is not going to be able to change that by himself.

 
Rockets small icon 9. Rockets (31-22, LW 10). James Harden’s historic offensive run continues — 27 straight games with at least 30 points — but what goes unnoticed sometimes is he can make plays on the other end. In Houston’s blowout win against Utah (the Rockets’ best win in a while) Harden had six steals and four blocked shots. But that was just one night — in the 11 games since Clint Capela went down the Rockets are allowing 114 points per 100 possessions, fifth worst in the league. They can hang on to a playoff spot with that defense, but not climb the ladder.

 
Spurs small icon 10. Spurs (32-23, LW 11). Don’t expect a lot of trade deadline activity from San Antonio, but one big deal that went down may have bothered them a little — they were a team hoping to poach (or trade for) Kristaps Porzingis. Dallas had a better package right now than San Antonio could have put together (considering the Knicks’ goals) but if KP signs long-term in Dallas that will sting a little. DeMar DeRozan has been slumping lately, trying to play through a sore knee, the All-Star break will be good for him.

 
Jazz small icon 11. Jazz (30-24, LW 9). All kinds of Mike Conley to the Jazz buzz is flying around the league and it wouldn’t be a shock to see that trade go down before 3 ET Thursday. Considering Conley is more of a big-picture question for the Jazz: Do they want to lock down that much money in one player, and give up a pick, pushing the tax and reducing flexibility for the small market team? No doubt Conley would make the Jazz better, if he can stay on the court — he has missed significant time two of the last four seasons with an Achilles issue.

 
Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (35-19, LW 12). The Pacers lost their first four games after the Victor Oladipo injury, but have bounced back to win their last three (including a thumping of a distracted Lakers’ team). In those seven games, the Pacers have had a bottom-10 offense but a top-10 defense, and a net rating of -1.6. Which is pretty impressive, considering. Don’t expect any trade deadline moves from the Pacers, and any moves they might make will be more about next season and beyond than this one.

 
Clippers small icon 13. Clippers (30-25, LW 14). Los Angeles made a smart play in trading Tobias Harris — even if we are all going to miss the Bobi and Tobi Show in L.A. The Clippers could have fought to hang on to the eight seed, made the playoffs, and got crushed in the first round. Now they likely fall back into the lottery, meaning they keep their own first-round pick (otherwise Boston gets it) and they get the much-coveted Miami 2021 unprotected pick. The Clippers are in the mix for Kawhi Leonard this summer, and now they have the assets to go after a big trade (Anthony Davis) or put an interesting team around him. Plus, I want to see what a Shai Gilgeous-Alexander/Landry Shamet backcourt looks like.

 
Kings small icon 14. Kings (28-25, LW 18). Everyone around the league expects the Kings to be involved in a trade deadline deal, one way or another. While they have expiring veteran contracts they can move — Zach Randolph, Iman Shumpert, and Kosta Koufos — what matters more is the $11 million in salary cap space, more than any team in the league. The Kings can go after a more expensive player (Kent Bazemore, Harrison Barnes) or be the facilitating third team in a trade, taking on a bad contract for assets. One way or another, expect a deal.

 
Nets small icon 15. Nets (28-27, LW 13). The banged-up Nets — no Spencer Dinwiddie or Caris LeVert, although the LeVert could be back soon, he and Allen Crabbe are working out in the G-League — have lost three in a row and 4-of-5. The problem has been the offense, which has scored less than a point per possession in those five games. D’Angelo Russell is a deserving All-Star — and it has to sting the Lakers’ front office he made it — but he’s not a guy who can carry an offense nightly on his own, he needs some help. Don’t expect deadline trades out of Brooklyn, their eyes are on free agency.

 
Hornets small icon 16. Hornets (26-27, LW 17). There was a lot of buzz (no pun intended) about Marc Gasol being traded to Charlotte, and maybe that comes together last minute, but the Grizzlies have had a high asking price and the talks have cooled, according to sources. Still, the Hornets would like to make one or two moves at the deadline to shore up their roster and make sure they get into the postseason (and help convince Kemba Walker to re-sign this summer).

 
Lakers small icon 17. Lakers (27-26, LW 16).
Clearly the trade rumors hit the young Lakers hard, they were distracted and disinterested in Indiana and got smoked by 42 points on Tuesday. Thing is, just the deadline passing will not be enough, Ingram/Ball/Kuzma all know they could get traded this summer now, they have to learn to be pros and deal with it. With the Clippers trading Tobias Harris and throwing in the towel, and with LeBron back, the Lakers should make a push into the playoffs. What does LeBron’s return mean? Here is what Josh Hart said after 23’s first game back: ”He made the right plays, he got guys open, he finished when he had to,” Laker guard Josh Hart said. “He’s just so smart. He’s such a good veteran player. He gets guys in their spots to get easy buckets. His basketball IQ is just through the roof.”

 
18. Timberwolves (25-28, LW 19). Don’t expect a trade deadline move, if there are going to be roster shakeups it will be with the new regime — whoever that is — over the summer. With the Clippers throwing in the towel, did the playoff door crack open just a little for Minnesota? Maybe. But they are 4 games back and have to leapfrog the Lakers and Kings, which is a longshot. Especially considering they have lost 4-of-5, and the one win required Karl-Anthony Towns doing this in overtime.

 
Heat small icon 19. Heat (24-27, LW 15). There’s a lot of trade speculation around Wayne Ellington, a veteran shooter a lot of playoff teams could use. But there has been less buzz about where he might end up than expected, maybe the interest in him is not sincere around the league. Tuesday night’s win in Portland kicked off a six-game road trip with a victory, a tough stretch for a Heat team currently the eight seed in the East and trying to hold off Detroit and Washington to keep that spot).

 
Mavericks small icon 20. Mavericks (24-28, LW 20). They went all-in on the future with the trade for Kristaps Porzingis — a good gamble if he can stay healthy and return to full unicorn status (there’s a lot of uncertainty about a 7’3” guy coming off an ACL). Dallas believes in its training staff and thinks they may have Nash/Nowitzki 2.0 now. Speaking of the future Hall of Famer from Germany, classy and smart move by the league office to put Nowitzki (and Dwyane Wade) in the All-Star Game for one final time.

Pelicans small icon 21. Pelicans (23-31, LW 21). As NBC has reported since the start of the saga, don’t expect Davis to be traded before the deadline, there are powerful people in the Pelicans’ organization who want to be patient (and don’t want to help Rich Paul or the Lakers). The interesting question: If Davis is not traded, will he play between the deadline and the end of the season, or will he be shut down. Injury concerns would make it logical for both Davis and the Pelicans to want him to sit, but Davis says he wants to play, and what would the league say about a top-five player in the league being a healthy scratch nightly? It would not be a good look.

Pistons small icon 22. Pistons (24-29, 23). The Pistons have traded away a lot of wing depth this week sending Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson out, although I like the roll of the dice on Thon Maker for a year. While Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk is a Summer League favorite and a shooter, I’m less sold on his ability to help Detroit. The Pistons are just 1.5 games back of the Heat for the final playoff slot in the East, but these trades make you wonder how much they prioritize making it as an organization.

 
Magic small icon 23. Magic (22-32, LW 24). Maybe the most interesting team to watch at the trade deadline. They have players that playoff teams would want — Terrence Ross in particular, but also Nikola Vucevic — but the Magic also want to make the playoffs more than any other team on the back end of the East. As of Wednesday morning, the Magic are four games out of the playoffs (and five games back in the loss column), it would take a little run to just get in. That said, will management keep the price fairly high for those two, thinking that if nobody meets it they will just keep them and try to make the postseason?

 
Wizards small icon 24. Wizards (22-31, LW 22). While the Wizards should be sellers at the trade deadline, the buzz around the league is they plan to keep Trevor Ariza and Otto Porter and try to make a playoff push (they are four games back in the loss column). The John Wall Achilles injury raises some big-picture questions about what this franchise does going forward, and does it start to re-tool around Bradley Beal? Wall is missing a lot of his prime with injuries, and a torn Achilles is especially bad for a guy whose game is based on speed. He’s a fighter, but it’s fair to wonder with him “what if?”

 
Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (18-35, LW 25). Will Dewayne Dedmon and/or Jeremy Lin have new homes after the trade deadline? What about Taurean Prince? All three are being shopped around, and there is a lot of Dedmon buzz in particular. Atlanta would love to find a new home for Kent Bazemore, but the $19.5 million he is owed next season is keeping trade partners away. Despite the distracting buzz around them the Hawks have played fairly well of late, going 4-3 on a just ended road trip.

 
Grizzlies small icon 26. Grizzlies (22-33, LW 26). There’s a lot of interest in Marc Gasol (Charlotte) and Mike Conley (Utah and Detroit) but reports are Memphis is keeping the price high, asking for multiple first-round picks. Teams are hesitant to pay that, and we’ll see if the Grizzlies blink or if they are willing to just play out the season with this roster. If this is the end, Gasol and Conley did it right leading the Grizzlies to a couple of wins.

 
Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (12-41, LW 29). What is Chicago going to do with Bobby Portis, who is a restricted free agent this summer and has played well next to Lauri Markkanen the past couple of games? Do they trade him, or do they see what the market will pay for him this summer then decide whether or not to match. Ideally they would like to trade Robin Lopez, but more likely they buy him out and every contender comes out to try and pitch him.

 
Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (11-43, LW 28). The Cavaliers keep stockpiling picks with their Rodney Hood trade, and don’t be surprised if Alec Burks has a new home before the deadline as well. The Cavaliers would love to move Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson, but those veterans with healthy contracts are the kind of trades that get done in the summer, not at the deadline. By the way, just a reminder that the Cavaliers remain on pace to have the worst defensive rating in the history of the NBA — not just this season, but the worst ever. It’s impressively terrible.

 
Suns small icon 29. Suns (11-44, LW 27). The Suns have lost 11 in a row, and while the offense hasn’t been good in that stretch (26th in the league) the defense has been abysmal — a couple points per possession worse than the Cavaliers “worst defense ever” mark. That’s not all on Deandre Ayton either, he missed time in there. Devin Booker will be back to defend his crown in the All-Star Saturday Night Three-Point shooting contest, so… there’s that.

 
Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (10-43, LW 30). The Knicks gambled big on cap space in trading away Kristaps Porzingis and it got the league buzzing: Do they really have a back-channel commitment from Kevin Durant? Will Kyrie Irving take up the second max contract slot? If not, can they lure Jimmy Butler or Kemba Walker to Manhattan? It’s a bold stroke by the Knicks. There’s also been a lot of “if they land the top pick and Zion Williamson” buzz, just remember if the Knicks have the worst record they have a 14% chance of picking first and a 48% chance of picking fifth. Welcome to the new NBA lottery odds to discourage tanking.

Nikola Jokic returns to lead Nuggets past 76ers 126-110

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DENVER — If Nikola Jokic was fired up over his one-game suspension, it was hard to tell.

“He came back and did what we expect him to do,” coach Michael Malone said after Jokic’s seventh triple-double of the season led the Denver Nuggets past the short-handed Philadelphia 76ers 126-100 Saturday night.

“He was a huge part of our attack and made the right play time and time again,” Malone said after watching Jokic score 32 points, pull down 18 rebounds and dish out 10 assists. “He’s proven why he’s an All-NBA type player. Thank goodness he’s in a Nuggets uniform.”

The 76ers gave leading scorer Joel Embiid the night off, robbing fans of a Jokic-Embiid showdown but allowing their star to get a six-day midseason break before their next game Tuesday night against the Lakers in Los Angeles.

Jokic, the Nuggets’ leader in points, rebounds and assists, missed Denver’s rout of the Phoenix Suns on Friday night when he was handed a one-game suspension for leaving the bench during an altercation in Utah earlier in the week.

Malone said he didn’t think Jokic would be any more fired up than usual for his return and instead would focus on helping “his team win another game at home against a quality team from the Eastern Conference.”

Jokic did just that, scoring 17 first-quarter points on his way to a 20-point, 12-rebound first-half as the Nuggets, who led wire to wire for the second straight night, took a 77-68 lead into the locker room.

“That’s the Joker we like to see, coming out physical and aggressive early,” Torrey Craig said. “When he’s aggressive like that, we’re a great team.”

Through three quarters, Jokic had 28 points, 17 boards and nine assists, and he got the triple-double shortly after re-entering the game midway through the fourth quarter with a half-court pass to Malik Beasley, whose dunk put Denver ahead 118-104.

“He did what he does all the time,” Gary Harris said. “He came out and was aggressive. We asserted ourselves early and got the job done.”

Jokic sat out the final few minutes, leaving him two boards shy of the rare 30-20-10 triple-double.

While his teammates are starting to expect triple-doubles out of him on a regular basis, Jokic isn’t focusing on them.

“I don’t think going into the game I need these points, rebounds. I just play hard and try to win,” Jokic said. “If it happens, I like it, and it’s cool.”

Jimmy Butler (sprained right wrist) and Wilson Chandler (left hamstring tightness) also sat out for the 76ers, who got 22 points from JJ Redick and 20 from Corey Brewer but never led.

“We weren’t 100 percent,” said Ben Simmons, who scored 14. “We were missing Jimmy and Joel and Chandler. Pretty big puzzles on this team.”

This isn’t a game the 76ers will dwell on, though.

“We did all right considering what we had to play with tonight,” Redick said. “Overall, we competed. We made mistakes. Young guys made mistakes. You move on.”

 

NBA Power Rankings: Toronto back on top as team to beat in East

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Toronto is back on top after knocking off their closest Eastern Conference foes last weekend, but we keep waiting for some team to flip the switch and demand to be No. 1 in the rankings. The Warriors are disinterested, maybe the Rockets make that push if they keep winning? We shall see, we’re just halfway through the marathon NBA season.

 
Raptors small icon 1. Raptors (31-12, last week No. 3). The Raptors showed they are the team to beat in the East last weekend knocking off the Bucks and Pacers in back-to-back games. Even better news for the Raptors is Kyle Lowry returned to the lineup on Sunday. They had missed their All-Star point guard — since his injury the Raptors had gone 10-8 (he played in some of those games trying to come back but clearly wasn’t ready). Now the Raptors are healthy (except for Jonas Valanciunas, still out most of this month with a thumb injury) and have 5-of-7 at home in a soft part of the schedule to rack up some wins.

 
Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (28-11, LW 1). The Bucks’ offense has been on an absolute tear the last five games, scoring a ridiculous 122.1 per 100, led by a starting five that can’t seem to miss a shot. However, the defense in those same five has slipped out of the top 10 and it was an inability to get stops — or slow Pascal Siakam — that cost them against the Raptors. The next few weeks is the big test for these Bucks: They travel to Houston on Wednesday night and that starts 5-of-6 and 11-of-14 on the road.

 
Pacers small icon 3. Pacers (27-13, LW 2). Indiana has won 7-of-8, but the wins were them fattening up on the soft underbelly of the East. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, Indy has been doing what good teams do — beat the bad teams consistently. The Pacers are winning despite a defense that has been middle-of-the-pack in the NBA the past five games. The good news, the offense has clicked during the winning streak and been a top-10 unit. The one loss in there was too Toronto, and next up they face Boston Wednesday.

 
Rockets small icon 4. Rockets (23-16, LW 6). In Houston’s first 20 games this season, James Harden was getting up an average of 11.4 threes per game, but he has gotten red hot and part of that is Harden raining threes — 16.2 per game in his last 10, and he’s hitting 41.4 percent of them. Also key during this 12-of-13 win streak: Clint Capela. The big man has averaged 18.5 points per game in his last 10, shooting 64.2 percent and grabbing 16.2 rebounds a game, Capela looked out of shape to start the season but he has played his way back into it and has been a force.

 
Warriors small icon 5. Warriors (27-14, LW 4). The Warriors finally got healthy and… meh. The Warriors are 9-5 since both Stephen Curry and Draymond Green returned to the lineup, with a +3.2 net rating (12th in the league). Their offense is 12th best in the NBA, their defense is middle of the pack, and overall the Warriors look meh. The Warriors (and most people around the league) are in the “don’t worry, after the All-Star Game they’ll flip the switch and be fine” camp. We’ll see. Among the reasons for optimism is that the target date for the debut of DeMarcus Cousins has been set, either Jan. 18 or 21 in Los Angeles (against the Clippers in the first game or Lakers in the second). They could use his help in the paint.

 
Thunder small icon 6. Thunder (25-15, LW 7). It’s weird to say this about a guy averaging a triple-double (again) but Russell Westbrook is in a shooting slump. It’s been going on for about a dozen games but has been worse in the last five: He’s shooting 3-of-23 from three in those last five (13%), 32% from the midrange, and just 55.6% at the rim. But with Paul George playing maybe the best basketball of his career, Westbrook still getting in the lane opening things up, and with the best defense in the NBA, the Thunder are 8-4 in those last 12 games.

 
Nuggets small icon 7. Nuggets (27-12, LW 5).. The Nuggets continue to win but their offense is carrying them — they have the fifth best offense in the NBA over the last 10 games, but the fourth worst defense. For the season Denver still has a top-10 defense, but it has fallen off sharply in recent weeks. Maybe getting Paul Millsap and Gary Harris back healthy (as happened last week) will change that, and Will Barton is expected to return to the lineup in the next week or two. That the Nuggets did as well as they did with three starters out speaks to this team’s depth. Plus they have Nikola Jokic hitting game winners.

 
Spurs small icon 8. Spurs (24-17, LW 9). It was cathartic for Spurs fans to get to boo and watch a blowout win when Kawhi Leonard came back to town in a Raptors’ uniform, and you know DeMar DeRozan savored his first ever triple-double in that game. It isn’t just Toronto that got crushed by the Spurs, San Antonio is 12-3 in its last 15 and has the best offense and the best defense in the NBA in that stretch. Monday’s in in Detroit started 7-of-10 on the road for the Spurs.

 
Celtics small icon 9. Celtics (24-15, LW 10). Kyrie Irving missed a couple of games with an eye injury and it was interesting to watch the transformation of some other players: Gordon Hayward averaged 25.5 points, 6.5 assists, and 6 rebounds a night in those two, Terry Rozier looked scary again, and Boston picked up a couple of wins with good ball movement. The Celtics need Irving to be Irving to win, but they also need a little more of what we saw in those games mixed in (which is on Irving to lift those guys up). Are Celtics fans more worried about their team’s start or Anthony Davis trade scenarios?

 
Sixers small icon 10. 76ers (27-14, LW 8). When a big three is brought together, the question becomes “who is willing to sacrifice for the good of the team?” In Miami, Chris Bosh took on the brunt of it, but Dwyane Wade sacrificed too so LeBron James could lead. In Golden State, Klay Thompson probably sacrifices the most but every one of their stars does to make the whole better. In Minnesota, who is willing to sacrifice and still contribute? That’s still a work in progress. Joel Embiid is complaining about how he is used, Jimmy Butler wants more traditional pick-and-rolls, and Ben Simmons has not fit smoothly yet either. This isn’t a Brett Brown thing, this is the players needing to sacrifice for the greater good and so far that has not happened in Philly.

 
Blazers small icon 11. Trail Blazers (24-17, LW 11). Looking for a third scorer in Portland? Look no further than Jusuf Nurkic, who has been a beast of late scoring at least 20 points in 6-of-7, including 27 points against Golden State a couple days after Christmas. Nurkic is doing most of his damage at the rim, with 75% of his shots in the last five games in the restricted area. Nurkic has made up for the slumping C.J. McCollum of late. After a tough stretch of the schedule, the Blazers are home and drinking good coffee against easier opponents for a couple.

 
Clippers small icon 12. Clippers (24-16, LW 12). The Clippers will be serious contenders on the free agent market — both Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant have been rumored… and maybe both could come — but don’t ignore the here and now. Montrezl Harrell might be the leader in the Sixth Man of the Year race and is a nightly must watch. Consistency has not been the Clippers’ hallmark of late, but the team has won three in a row and 7-of-10, using a softer part of the schedule to vault back up to the top four in the West — if the playoffs started today the Clippers would have home court in the first round.

 
Lakers small icon 13. Lakers (22-19, LW 13). The Lakers are now 2-5 with LeBron out, and where they miss him most is in the fourth quarter and in the clutch The Lakers are shooting 36.7% in the clutch (last 5 minutes, game within 5 points) since LeBron’s injury, scoring a league-worst 82.9 points per 100 in that stretch (the team is 1-3 in clutch games). Brandon Ingram just is not an “isolate him at the top of the key and let him go” kind of player, he can’t get to his spots, and he struggles. Lonzo Ball has great instincts but doesn’t read half-court plays well consistently, plus he is just not a threat to score on drives — he has no floater, can’t finish at the rim consistently, and is in his own head about free throws so he avoids contact. This is not what the Lakers imagined.

 
Jazz small icon 14. Jazz (20-21, LW 17). On paper the Jazz have been better than their record (they have the point differential of a 23-18 team) but it’s time for that to start translating to wins. Utah has 8-of-9 at home (and 12-of-15) and this is when the push needs to come. Defenses have adjusted and taken away some of what Donovan Mitchell wants to do, and while he needs to grow his game to counter those defenses, what the Jazz really need is someone to step up as a secondary scorer and athlete. Quin Snyder’s system can get them some buckets, but Utah needs a second scoring threat to reach the goals they have set for themselves this season.

 
Heat small icon 15. Heat (19-20, LW 18). Miami had won 8-of-10, Hassan Whiteside was playing impressive defense in the paint and Justise Winslow was making it work as the point guard. But then came an ugly loss to the Hawks — how is this team 0-3 to Atlanta this season? — followed by a loss to Denver as the schedule starts to turn tough. Those banked wins should help keep them in the postseason, but they can’t afford a losing streak the next couple of weeks. By the way, Dwyane Wade still knows how to make the highlight play.

 
16. Timberwolves (20-21, LW 20). Tom Thibodeau didn’t build up enough good will in the organization and community to survive the Jimmy Butler trade, and so he’s out and Ryan Saunders (son of Flip) is in. Minnesota has played better after Butler tried to sabotage the franchise, having gone 16-12 since Butler was traded (they got off to a fast a 9-3 start but are 7-9 since, mainly due to injuries to Derrick Rose, Jeff Teague, and Robert Covington). Karl-Anthony Towns has returned to his All-NBA form, but unless Andrew Wiggins consistently lives up to his status as a No. 2 option it will be difficult to grow and improve this capped-out team. Also, the Timberwolves have been dreadful in the clutch (-22.2 net rating, games within 5 points in the final 5 minutes) and that has to change.

 
Kings small icon 17. Kings (20-21, LW 14). Back in October and November, the Kings were a ridiculously good clutch team, but that has changed lately. In their last 15 games, 12 have been within 5 points in the final 5 minutes and the Kings are lucky to be 5-7 in those games considering their -20 net rating. The Kings have slipped below .500, have lost 5-of-6, and while just 2.5 games out of the playoffs they can’t afford a longer losing streak, it would be too hard to climb out of the hole. Which is why Tuesday’s loss to a Devin Booker-less Phoenix is so ugly for them. The Kings have a couple winnable games against Detroit and Charlotte at home coming up before the schedule gets tougher, De’Aaron Fox and the Kings need to get wins now.

 
Hornets small icon 18. Hornets (19-21, LW 15). How far has Frank Kaminsky fallen? Staring center Cody Zeller is out (broken hand, he’ll miss another month or so) and so James Borrego has gone to a starting front line of Devonte' Graham and Bismack Biyombo, and Willy Hernangomez got time at the give while Kaminsky ranks up DNPs. Charlotte’s best look is closing with Marvin Williams at center, but that’s not an all-game kind of thing. Kemba Walker is putting up All-Star level numbers and is even making half courters as he tries to run out the clock.

 
Nets small icon 19. Nets (20-22, LW 22). Every time I write this I still shake my head, but it’s true — if the playoffs started today Brooklyn would be in as the seven seed. It’s not going to be easy for the Nets to hold on to that (they have a one-game lead over Detroit in the ninth spot) and Brooklyn has the toughest remaining schedule in the East the rest of the way. While making the playoffs would be huge, just the fact this team is in the mix will help them lure free agents this summer (the Nets will have ample cap space and are in New York). Sean Marks has been amazing as a GM turning this franchise around.

Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (19-22, LW 23). Nikola Mirotic is missed in New Orleans. He has been out a dozen games now recovering from a sprained ankle, and without him the team has been 5-7, and while the offense has remained top 10 (it has slipped some without Mitotic’s floor spacing) the defense has been bottom 10 and is costing them games. I know Pelicans fans are sick of Anthony Davis trade rumors, but it’s not a media creation — teams around the league are obsessed with him and the fact the Pelicans are outside the playoffs has those teams convinced Davis is going to move on. Dell Demps is burning up the phone lines trying to trade for help, but this is a dead trade market.

 
Mavericks small icon 21. Mavericks (18-22, LW 19). Fun summer question: Will Dallas try to bring DeAndre Jordan back? Or, the better question may be: At what discounted price would the Mavericks re-sign Jordan for? Jordan is averaging an efficient 10.9 points and 14.1 rebounds a game, and he leads all NBA centers in ESPN’s defensive real plus/minus (although that is the perfect example of the eye test not matching the stats). Watch the games and he just doesn’t seem to fit with Luka Doncic and the future of the Mavs. Jordan is a free agent this summer and will likely find the market much tighter than he expects, but could that lead to staying in Dallas?

Pistons small icon 22. Pistons (17-21, 21). The Pistons do a surprisingly good job of keeping teams from getting to the rim — they have given up the second fewest shots in the restricted area of any team this season (Milwaukee is first), but when teams do get in the restricted area they are shooing 68.5 percent, the highest percentage in the NBA. Once you get past the defense, there is no rim protection. Detroit has lost 7-of-9 and slipped out of the playoffs in the East, the team has struggled to score, and now it heads out on a five-game road trip through the West. That said, the Pistons have a relatively easy schedule the second half of the season.

 
Grizzlies small icon 23. Grizzlies (18-22, LW 16). Memphis has lost six in a row, 11-of-13, during those 13 games they have a net rating of -7.3 (third worst in the NBA and below the Bulls, Hawks, and Suns), and the team has slid out of the playoffs in the West. It’s been ugly. The only thing we know for sure is Chandler Parsons will not be the Cavalry riding to the rescue (although it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where he gets traded/bought out before this summer). The Grizzlies play the red-hot Spurs Wednesday then head out for 4-of-5 on the road.

 
Magic small icon 24. Magic (17-23, LW 24). Magic fans want to see Nikola Vucevic make the All-Star team — he’s averaged 20.2 points and 12.1 rebounds a game, is shooting 38.1% from three, and his floor spacing and improved game have helped the Magic to what wins they have (17). Let’s stipulate that Joel Embiid will be the starting center for the East, after that who from that conference gets a nod over Vucevic? Brook Lopez? Al Horford? Can’t see it. The concern for Orlando is there is not just a center position, so if the coaches want to reward a lot of forwards — Pascal Siakam and Blake Griffin should make it in my book — Vucevic could get squeezed. I think Vucevic makes the cut, but it will fall to the coach’s vote (they pick the reserves).

 
Wizards small icon 25. Wizards (16-25, LW 26). Washington is 3-3 since John Wall went out for the season, with a slightly above-average offense and a slightly below-average defense. Sadly, in the East that’s enough to keep Washington’s playoff hopes alive. The Wizards might be open to being sellers at the trade deadline, and while John Wall and Bradley Beal aren’t going anywhere, the Wizards should be open to trading Trevor Ariza (again, he was picked up from Phoenix before the Wall injury). Ariza is the kind of veteran wing a number of playoff teams could want (the Lakers were very interested before), it would be a smart move by the Wizards to add some assets in a season they are not competing for anything of consequence.

 
Hawks small icon 26. Hawks (12-28, LW 25). Trae Young is being a bit more selective with his threes and has started to knock down his shots for the Hawks. In his last 10 games, Young is averaging 15.5 points a night and his hitting 50 percent of his 3.2 three-point attempts per game — a number well down from his season average of 4.9 attempts per game. He’s got the passing skills and he’s starting to figure out the NBA game. Atlanta went 0-3 on a road trip, came home for a night to beat the Hawks, and then went back on the road and fell to Toronto. Atlanta has two more games left on this road trip.

 
Suns small icon 27. Suns (10-32, LW 27). I know Suns fans want to see Devin Booker in the All-Star Game, but it’s a long shot. In part because the Suns stink. More than that, the West is just stacked at the guard spot. Stephen Curry and James Harden will be the starters (we can assume), after that there are three or four more guard spots to divide up between Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, Klay Thompson, Luka Doncic, Mike Conley, and Donovan Mitchell, among others. Hard to see Booker, as good as he is, cracking that group. Tuesday’s come-from-behind win against Sacramento (without Booker) snapped a six-game losing streak, just in time for Phoenix hit the road for 5-of-6.

 
Bulls small icon 28. Bulls (10-30, LW 28). Chicago wants to be sellers in the next month heading into the trade deadline. They just moved Justin Holiday to Memphis, a move that frees up minutes for Chandler Hutchison. Ideally, the Bulls would like to trade Robin Lopez, but he makes $14.4 million this season and it’s going to be hard to find players to match that salary the Bulls would want to bring in. Most of the league expects the Bulls will fall short in finding a trade and will just buy him out after the deadline, and a number of teams are ready to pounce if that happens.

 
Knicks small icon 29. Knicks (10-31, LW 29). Coach David Fizdale on the Knicks’ defensive struggles: ““I think just figuring out what these kids can handle and what was a little bit too much. This first half of the season was figuring that out. I think now I’m starting to see, OK, this is the kind of thing that they can really hang their hat on and here are the things we probably should stay away from. Moving into the second half of the season we’re going to try to trim it and simplify it that way for them, so that we can maybe find some consistency in the second half.”

 
Cavaliers small icon 30. Cavaliers (8-33, LW 30). They have lost 10 in a row, Kevin Love is not going to return for a few weeks, and the one favor they did for an agent — putting together the offer sheet for Patrick McCaw to get him out of Golden State, then cutting him so he could be an unrestricted free agent — has the NBA league office investigating if the Cavs tried to circumvent the salary cap. Just nothing is going right for this team.

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.

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