B/R NBA Digest: Nikola Jokic Charging into the MVP Conversation
It's trade deadline week, but that's not the only thing happening in the NBA. Believe it or not, teams are still taking the floor and playing actual games, scoring points, passing, playing defense, etc.
The point of all the player movement is, ultimately, to win games, right? That's exactly what Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets, who were down to seven available players, did on Wednesday against the Utah Jazz.
The Nuggets were on the second night of a back-to-back. It was their fifth game in seven nights. It was on the road. And the Jazz are on pace for 50-plus wins. Denver's 98-95 win under those circumstances was about as gutty a performance as you'll find this season.
And it should serve as Jokic's "welcome to the MVP conversation" moment. The 30 points, 21 rebounds and 10 assists he registered Wednesday weren't that much wilder than what he's been up to for over a month now.
But more on that later.
In this week's edition of the Digest, we'll also look at what happened at the deadline, who the New York Knicks hired to run the team and whether Giannis Antetokounmpo is somehow underrated. Plus, staples like "Fun with Numbers," "Lines of the Week," "Weekly Awards" and "Matchups to Watch" are here to make sure you're up to date on the NBA.
Chris Mannix from NBC Sports Boston and FS1 joins “The Full 48 with Howard Beck” to discuss trade deadline winners (Minnesota and the Clippers), the Houston Rockets, the Joel Embiid-Ben Simmons partnership, the perplexing Andre Drummond trade, Isaiah Thomas’ career prospects, and the ongoing disaster that is the New York Knicks.
Nikola Jokic Is Unstoppable
Jokic's 30-20-10 line put him in a club that only includes nine players. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, DeMarcus Cousins, Billy Cunningham, David Lee and George McGinnis and Oscar Robertson are the other members. Jokic, Cousins and Lee are the only players to do it in the three-point era (which started in 1979-80).
What's most impressive, as mentioned earlier, is that this really isn't out of character for Jokic.
Since the start of December, he's averaging 23.0 points, 10.3 rebounds and 7.2 assists, with a 62.6 true shooting percentage (TS%). His season-long net rating swing (the difference in a team's net points per 100 possessions when the player is on or off the floor) is plus-10.6 and ranks in the 95th percentile.
He's dominated games as a scorer, passer and defender (yes, defender). Often, he brings all three on the same night.
Such was the case on Wednesday. Not only did Jokic go 9-of-17 and score 18 of his 30 points on two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, but his passing was also on brilliant display. He was directing guys into open spots with pinpoint passing accuracy. He knew when to throw it on a rope and when to lob it. The timing was on point on every pass.
And then, on the other end, Jokic disrupted multiple lobs to Gobert. When he was on the floor, the Jazz, who entered the game scoring an eighth-place 111.6 points per 100 possessions, scored just 88.5 points per 100 possessions.
Over the course of the season, Denver has allowed 4.8 fewer points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the floor, a defensive rating swing that ranks in the 86th percentile (he's never had a swing on that end that ranked below the 76th percentile).
Jokic doesn't provide the fifth-row swats that some other bigs might, but he's generally in the right place, has exceptionally good hands and can dominate the defensive glass. On balance, he's a plus defender.
Add it all up and it's easy to see why Jokic has crept up to sixth in Basketball Reference's MVP projection. Giannis is still the runaway favorite, but it may be time to start mentioning Jokic in the conversation.
Trade Deadline Chaos
If you want a full breakdown of all the trades that went down during deadline week, check out Dan Favale's analysis for Bleacher Report.
Here, we'll just explore a couple of the biggest moves.
Tuesday's four-teamer that advanced the Houston Rockets' small-ball experiment will be discussed to death. Clint Capela is now on the Atlanta Hawks. Robert Covington is in his place, and Houston looks committed to playing without a conventional center as often as possible. Early returns suggest the Rockets will be fine in the regular season (they've been at this since Capela went down with an injury), but a seven-game series against Anthony Davis or Nikola Jokic could be a problem.
For Atlanta, Trae Young now has one of the game's better rim-rollers, but the fit with John Collins is a little wonky. Perhaps the Hawks are banking on the latter continuing to develop into more of a playmaking 4.
Then there are the Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets. Both shuffled a handful of role players within this trade before making subsequent moves. Denver eventually wound up with Noah Vonleh, Keita Bates-Diop and Jordan McRae, but their core rotation remained intact. Minnesota's overhaul was far more substantial.
By the time the deadline rolled around, the Wolves had surrounded Karl-Anthony Towns with D'Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, Juan Hernangomez and James Johnson, among others.
The buried lede there, of course, is that Andrew Wiggins is now on the Golden State Warriors (more on that in a bit).
For Minnesota, this is a completely different team than the one it had when this week started. Seven players are out. Eight players are in. And the offensive potential of lineups headlined by Towns and Russell is immense, especially when flanked by the shooting of Beasley.
It'll take some time for everyone to jell. And the Wolves are too bad to get back into this season's playoff picture. But at least the team now has an identity (or at least a path to one). The two-man game with that top duo could be appointment viewing as early as next week.
For Golden State, swooping in after the four-team deal and swapping Russell for Wiggins and picks just makes sense. There was too much positional and stylistic overlap between Russell and Stephen Curry. Wiggins' individual numbers are worse, but he's bigger and has never been the clear No. 3 option on a good team.
He's never played with as much space as he's about to enjoy with the Warriors. With opponents' top two defenders forced to watch Curry and Klay Thompson way outside the three-point arc, driving and cutting lanes should be wide-open for Wiggins.
He may finally be headed to the right role.
Is Giannis Antetokounmpo Underrated?
His Bucks were scheduled for the sixth-most national TV games this season.
The Milwaukee juggernaut (on pace for nearly 71 wins) and the all-time great leading them have somehow flown under the radar.
Giannis will almost certainly secure his second straight MVP, but are we really appreciating his numbers? The per-game stuff is wild, but you have to remember that he's getting the 2015-16 Stephen Curry treatment. All the blowouts affected Curry's numbers.
Giannis is playing even less.
His per-75-possession marks of 33.5 points, 14.7 rebounds and 6.4 assists have never been matched. If you drop the qualifiers to 30, 10 and five, Russell Westbrook's MVP campaign and the current Luka Doncic campaign are the only names added.
We're basically witnessing (if you have the ability to find Milwaukee's local broadcasts) prime Shaquille O'Neal's physical dominance with more passing and a couple threes per game. If Giannis has the ball within a couple feet of the rim, or with a full head of steam in transition, he's borderline unstoppable.
Every few years (or more) a physical anomaly makes its way to the NBA. Giannis is very much in that group with Shaq, LeBron, Wilt and others.
At some point, hopefully, he'll start to get the same kind of credit and attention other all-timers receive. Of course, that elusive title would go a long way to accomplishing that.
Knicks Move Forward with Leon Rose
On Tuesday, the New York Knicks fired team president Steve Mills. Since 2013-14, when Mills was hired as general manager, New York is 178-365, giving it the league's worst winning percentage (32.8) over that span. So, this week's move wasn't particularly surprising.
The big question instantly became who would replace him. Almost immediately, rumors started flying about the possibility of the Knicks somehow acquiring Masai Ujiri from the Toronto Raptors. Those were abruptly shut down on Thursday.
"The Knicks plan to make CAA player agent Leon Rose the franchise's next President," ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted. "Knicks adopting a model that has gained popularity w/ the successes of Bob Myers (Warriors) and Rob Pelinka (Lakers). Rose has been one of the top agents in basketball for years, w/ clients including Joel Embiid, Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Karl-Anthony Towns and Carmelo Anthony."
The relationships successful agents have to develop with players, media and front offices gave executives like Myers and Pelinka a good foundation before entering their current roles. If Rose can bring the same to New York's front office, perhaps he can start to repair the damage that's been done to the organization's reputation over the last two decades.
It will be an uphill climb. In October, Kevin Durant said on Ebro in the Morning, "The cool thing right now is not the Knicks." If that's the perception among players around the league, it'll take time to change minds.
Fun with Numbers
The three-point revolution is fun (at least to this writer), but I've received a number of texts and comments from more casual NBA fans who are turned off by the nightly barrage of shots from downtown.
Believe it or not, there are some players who shouldn't be participating, at least not to the degree they have been.
Take Russell Westbrook, for example, someone who's never been accused of being a great three-point shooter. When he was traded to one of the pioneers in this revolution, it was assumed he'd take more threes. And for a while, he did.
Through Christmas, he attempted 5.1 threes per game, hitting just 23.8 percent of his attempts. His TS% over that span was a woeful 50.8. Since then, he's taking 2.3 three-point attempts per game. His post-Christmas TS% is 55.0 (still shy of the league average, though not quite as detrimental as before).
There are still players who should prioritize other strengths over getting up threes. Westbrook is one of them. And his recent recommitment to attacking the paint may have been a factor in Houston's decision to trade Capela. The Rockets may have been averse to playing two non-shooters at the same time.
Foregoing a traditional center is a gamble, but surrounding Westbrook with four shooters makes sense.
Damian Lillard has hit a league-leading 37 threes from beyond 30 feet. That's already significantly more than anyone hit last season (Trae Young led 2018-19 with 24 such makes). Stephen Curry hit a league-leading 21 in his historic 2015-16 campaign.
This display of range and shotmaking from Lillard is absurd. And it underscores the further bending of NBA floors. This season, all NBA players have combined for 350 makes from beyond 30 feet. The league totaled 265 such shots last season. Five years ago, the total was 94.
And these aren't bad shots being taken by a lot of the long-range shooters. The leaguewide conversion rate in this range is 34.0 percent this season. That's fewer than two points shy of the league average and doesn't show the less quantifiable effect.
When defenders have to pay attention to players who are that far from the rim, it opens up more space inside and buys drivers and cutters valuable fractions of a second before going up to finish.
Lines of the Week
Jokic already got the full-slide treatment, so you won't see him here. But, believe it or not, his massive stat lines weren't able to crack the top three for game score this week. A couple of guards put up some absurd raw numbers.
Surely, Kyrie Irving's "19-of-23" in Friday's box score caused some double-takes. That's a level of efficiency you just don't see from guards.
Unfortunately, Irving left the Brooklyn Nets' next game with a knee injury. He's appeared in just 20 of the team's 50 games. But if he can stay healthy next season, these little previews of what he can provide the Nets should tantalize their fans.
Lillard has been out of his mind, of late. This week alone, over three games, he averaged 40.0 points, 10.3 assists and 5.7 threes.
If he doesn't miss any more games this season, he's now on pace for 10 performances with at least 40 points and five assists. James Harden, Michael Jordan, Russell Westbrook and Allen Iverson are the only players who had more in a single three-point era season.
Should Have Won Player of the Month Award Award: Damian Lillard
Speaking of Dame, he had a mind-blowing January that somehow failed to earn him Western Conference Player of the Month: 34.1 points, 8.4 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 4.9 threes, 1.1 steals, a 45.1 three-point percentage and a winning record for a team missing Jusuf Nurkic, Rodney Hood and Zach Collins.
StatMuse summed it up well:
"Damian Lillard in January:
- Leads league in PTS
- Leads league in 3s
- Most PTS in a month in POR history
- Most 3s in a month in POR history
- First player ever with 6 3s in 6 games
- First player ever with 60 PTS & 10 3s in a game
He didn't win Player of the Month"
In the end, Player of the Month isn't something that will go on Lillard's Hall of Fame resume, and LeBron's 25.4 points, 10.4 assists and 8.1 rebounds are obviously great numbers.
But for the league not to memorialize what Lillard did in some way is a little odd.
Biggest Overreaction to Being "Snubbed" Award: Jaxson Hayes
Can we all just agree to chill on the idea that players are somehow "disrespected" if they don't make an event like the Skills Challenge or the Rising Stars Game?
This season, we've seen what could be deemed as over-the-top reactions to being "snubbed" from Bradley Beal, Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker (probably the biggest All-Star snub), Matisse Thybulle's agent and Spencer Dinwiddie.
But they all pale in comparison to what Jaxson Hayes did. In a NSFW rant that was recorded and made the internet rounds, Hayes unloaded the following:
"It is what it is. The NBA is a bunch of bulls--t. The NBA can really suck my dick for all I care. I hope y'all see this video, by the way. Fine me. Yeah, man, s--t just crazy to me, bro. I work in a f--king political league that's all about politics, and it is what it is."
He later apologized, saying, "I used extremely poor judgment and inexcusable language in a moment of frustration."
For what it's worth, Hayes is 12th among first- and second-year players in wins over replacement player this season.
Matchups to Watch
Los Angeles Clippers at Philadelphia 76ers, Feb. 11, at 7:00 p.m. ET
TNT has a potential Finals preview on the slate for Tuesday, as Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers travel east to face the Philadelphia 76ers.
Philly has stumbled of late, but the recent additions of Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III could be the boost this second unit needs to get back on track.
Both are hitting threes at an above-average clip, and with the spacing issues generated by the Ben Simmons/Joel Embiid pairing, this team needs all the shooting it can get.
Perhaps Tuesday is Philly's chance to show it's still in the tier of legitimate contenders.
The Clippers, of course, are already there. They've more or less cruised through this season, but they look like a nightmare when Kawhi and Paul George are both on the floor.
In just over 1,000 possessions, L.A. is plus-10.9 points per 100 possessions (95th percentile) when the two star forwards are in the game.
Los Angeles Lakers at Denver Nuggets, Feb. 12, at 10:00 p.m. ET
The Lakers and Nuggets are also in that tier. That's a given for L.A., but some have been hesitant to place Denver there.
As pointed out by Krishna Narsu of Nylon Calculus, the Nuggets have the league's best record against the top 13 teams in the NBA. And they're 1-1 against LeBron's Lakers.
By the time this game rolls around, the Nuggets should have some of their newly acquired players up and running. LeBron and Jokic will be on the floor. Anthony Davis and Jamal Murray are plenty fun to watch. Denver has a loaded-with-potential Michael Porter Jr. playing like an X-Factor of late.
This game is loaded with intrigue.