Denver Nuggets coach Mike Malone didn’t mince his words.
He made it clear to anyone within earshot and spelled it out for all the folks who would later digest his words on social media.
If you are having a conversation about the Kia MVP race entering Christmas Day, Nikola Jokic better be a part of it.
Sure, Jokic has never been an All-Star. And there are plenty of casual basketball fans who couldn’t pick him out of a lineup.
But make no mistake, Jokic and the Nuggets have arrived. And Malone is a true believer in his versatile big man, the engine that has driven Denver to the top of the Western Conference standings.
“I think Nikola is showing everybody in the NBA, with three starters out, that he is a most valuable player candidate,” Malone told The Denver Post after Jokic carved up the Dallas Mavericks Tuesday with a 32-point, 16-rebound, four-assist, three-steal masterpiece. “Not just from a stats standpoint, but he does it every single night in so many different ways. That’s why he’s a special player.”
Mavericks rookie Luka Doncic came into the game with some hype, and deservedly so for what he’s done so far in his first season. But it’s Jokic who serves as the league’s real international man of mystery.
“Special” is the perfect description for a player with Jokic’s sublime game. He’s a lumpy and seemingly lumbering 7-footer who will work foes over, all while they’re trying to figure out how someone so unsuspecting can dazzle as he does. At 23 and just four seasons into his career, he’s the NBA’s best passing big man and can beat you in every phase of the game.
He’s the best player on a deep and talented Nuggets team that, at 21-9, is off to the best start in franchise history through 30 games.
It’s only fitting, then, that Jokic take his rightful place this week among the latest Kia Race to the MVP Ladder on the strength of the Nuggets’ four-game win streak (wins over the Mavericks, Toronto Raptors, Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies).
Jokic has posted double-doubles in six straight games and in seven of the Nuggets’ eight games this month. After three days off, Jokic and the Nuggets will get back to it Saturday night in Los Angeles against the Clippers (5 ET, NBA League Pass).
Malone has ensured his big man will hit Staples Cnter with a bit more buzz surrounding him after making it his mission to fuel Jokic’s MVP bid.
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The top five this week in the 2018-19 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:
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1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Last week: No. 4
Season stats: 26.7 points, 12.9 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.3 blocks, 1.3 steals
Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are back on a roll, winners of three straight heading into tonight’s road showdown with the Celtics (8 ET, ESPN). This is yet another pre-Christmas statement game opportunity for “The Greek Freak” and his crew (no offense, but starting the Christmas Day festivities against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden doesn’t offer much of an opportunity for statements). Antetokounmpo went toe-to-toe with Anthony Davis in his last outing, finishing with 25 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, two steals and a block. But more importantly, he got the win and then made sure to get in his recruiting pitch for Milwaukee after the game. His actions, however, serve as the best recruiting tool. He dropped 44 points (on 13-for-19 shooting) with 14 rebounds, eight assists and two blocks in a road win against Cleveland to kick off the Bucks’ current streak. He followed that up with 32 points (on 15-for-21 shooting) 12 rebounds, five assists and two blocks in a dominating performance against Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond in Detroit. The Garden crowd on Christmas is in for a treat Tuesday morning.
2. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors
Last week: No. 2
Season stats: 26.4 points, 8.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.8 steals
The Raptors continue to win against elite-level competition without Leonard in the lineup, a testament to the quality depth GM Masai Ujiri has assembled in Toronto. That doesn’t change the fact that the Raptors are a next-level outfit and have the league’s best record whenever Leonard is doing what he does. Even with Fred VanVleet hitting the go-ahead 3-pointer in Wednesday’s comeback win against Indiana, Leonard’s fingerprints were all over the game. He scored 28 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, dished out six assists and collected four steals to help key Toronto’s rally. In back-to-back road losses to Portland and Denver, Leonard piled up the type of numbers that have defined his season when he’s active. He had 28 points, six rebounds and four assists vs. the Trail Blazers and 29 points, 14 rebounds and four assists in the loss to the Nuggets. Tonight’s home game against the Cleveland Cavaliers (7 ET, NBA League Pass) should be yet another reminder of how dramatically things have changed for the Raptors and their one-time Eastern Conference playoff nemesis.
3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
Last week: No. 1
Season stats: 28.0 points, 7.9 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.3 steals
Give LeBron his credit — his timing is already Hollywood perfect. Who else would the Lakers be welcoming into Staples Center tonight other than Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans (10:30 ET, ESPN)? NBA Twitter has been waiting all week for this after LeBron’s gushing about how remarkable it would be if the Lakers’ front office could pull off a deal to bring “The Brow” into the fold. In a week where he’s made bigger headlines for getting a dunk blocked (in Brooklyn) and who he dines with on the road in the New York City (insert Carmelo Anthony jokes and memes here), LeBron is poised to continue his dominance of the headlines through the weekend. That’s because of tonight’s matchup with the Pelicans as well as Christmas Day’s marquee showdown at Oracle Arena with the rival Warriors (8 ET, ESPN/ABC). Naismith knows what the narratives will surround James this time next week. That said, don’t let the drama fool you. LeBron has been every bit the change agent the Lakers could have hoped he’d be by this time of the season. And if they are indeed interested in an in-season trade, the drama in LA is just getting started.
4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Last week: No. 3
Season stats: 29.0 points, 5.3 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 1.3 steals
The Warriors’ season of weird continued Wednesday night in Utah. Golden State lost for the first time in the Curry-Kevin Durant era when the duo went for 30 or more points apiece in the same game. Maybe this really is the come-back-to-earth season for the Warriors, who also lost for the first time this season when holding an opponent under 40 percent shooting. The Jazz also handed the Warriors their 11th loss of the 2017-18 season, but that one came on Jan. 30, 2018. Golden State is clearly way off its usual mark and when Curry talks of the Warriors needing to get their edge back, it’s no just lip service. The Warriors have seen their quality depth deteriorate over the grind of the past few seasons. And that means the (All-)stars will carry a more rigorous load if they want to avoid the drama that marked their run to The Finals last season (see also: the West finals vs. Houston). Saturday’s home game against the Dallas Mavericks (8:30 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass) is probably a good place for the Warriors to start searching for their (suddenly) elusive edge.
5. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Last week: No. 8
Season stats: 18.1 points, 10.2 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.5 steals
Any serious conversation about the NBA’s best big man this season must include Jokic. The Nuggets’ 7-foot dynamo’s performance as the fuel cell for the best team in the Western Conference heading into the Christmas weekend demands it. While he doesn’t score like some of his contemporaries – and, quite frankly, isn’t asked to — he’s more than capable of contributing however Malone needs him to. Over the past five games (26.6 points on 54.9 percent shooting, 33.3 percent shooting on 3-pointers and a 90.3 free throw percentage) he’s shown he’s got the skill set to get it done in that department. Malone and Jokic’s teammates are animated about touting his MVP worthiness, a topic that Jokic has managed to sidestep rather diplomatically thus far. But there won’t be any denying him after the All-Star bids go out. Jokic won’t have to fret over that. His name will certainly be mentioned prominently in that conversation if the Nuggets keep up their winning ways.
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The next five
6. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder
7. James Harden, Houston Rockets
T-8. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
T-8. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
10. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
And five more: Tobias Harris, Los Angeles Clippers; Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics; Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers; Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors; Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
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