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2014-15 Denver Nuggets Season Preview

Basketball Insiders continues previewing the 2014-15 NBA season with a look at the Denver Nuggets of the Northwest Division.

Basketball Insiders

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Along with massive changeover in the front office and on the sidelines, the Denver Nuggets had to deal with a rash of injuries last season that never really allowed us to see them at their full potential, or even get a sense of what their potential actually is. Even though health is going to be an issue again once training camp starts, but what could this team be if they’re at full strength from midseason on?

Basketball Insiders takes a look at the 2014-15 Denver Nuggets.

Five Guys Think

It’s kind of hard to believe that just two years ago, the Nuggets were one of the league’s most exciting upstart teams, but last season was the first without Masai Ujiri or George Karl, and it should have been obvious that life after losing one of the best execs and one of the best coaches in the NBA would be a little difficult.  This year, things should be marginally better, with Nate Robinson, Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee both coming back healthy and Arron Afflalo (who was practically stolen from Orlando around the draft) back in powder blue. Rookie Gary Harris (and to a lesser extent Jusuf Nurkic) add depth to the rotation, making this an all-around better team than it was last year. They maybe aren’t as exciting as they were two seasons ago, but it won’t be anywhere near as painful to watch as it was in 2013-2014. Expect improvement out of the Nuggets this season.

3rd Place – Northwest Division

-Joel Brigham

Five players who were expected to play a significant role for the Denver Nuggets missed 20 or more games due to injury last season. So it didn’t surprise many that Denver’s streak of 10 consecutive playoff appearances came to an abrupt halt last season. If healthy, Denver has the talent on the roster needed to get back into the playoff mix but it won’t be an easy road in the competitive Western Conference by any stretch of the imagination.

3rd Place – Northwest Division

– Lang Greene

Last season was a rough one for the Nuggets from an injury standpoint, with JaVale McGee, Ty Lawson, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari and Nate Robinson among others all missing significant time. Don’t be surprised if they turn some heads this year since they’re back at full strength. This was a strong offseason for Denver, acquiring Arron Afflalo in exchange for Evan Fournier and a second-round pick (which seems like an absolute steal) and landing quality prospects Gary Harris and Jusuf Nurkic in the draft. The Western Conference is insanely competitive, but the Nuggets have the potential to sneak into the playoffs this year as long as they can stay healthy.

3rd Place – Northwest Division

– Alex Kennedy

After trading Evan Fournier for Arron Afflalo, Afflalo joins Tyson Chandler of the Dallas Mavericks as a player who left their respective team only to be re-acquired by the team via trade a few years later. That is not something you see everyday in the NBA, and you certainly do not see it as often as you see a torn ACL. Thankfully, for Danilo Gallinari and the Nuggets, he is on the record as saying he “feels great” and is ready to return. JaVale McGee is expected to be fully healthy, as well, and with Kenneth Faried and Ty Lawson picking up from where they left off, the Nuggets have a core five that has a chance to be very good. With Wilson Chandler, J.J. Hickson, Timofey Mozgov and Randy Foye presumably coming off of the bench, the Nuggets have scores of talent, even if they still lack a superstar. They will now add Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris to their stable of talent and, more than likely, continue to hover around the .500 mark for the balance of the season. If Lawson and Faried emerge as the two alpha-males and primary playmakers on this team, it may bode positively for the team, but if identity issues and what, at times, appeared to be uncertainty amongst the players as to who should have the ball and who should take big shots continues, the Nuggets’s identity issues will persist. With moving pieces and players returning form injury, that will be second-year head coach Brian Shaw’s biggest challenge. That, well, and avoiding the same 36-win fate that me this team last season. As much talent as there is in Denver, that will be a tall task.

3rd Place – Northwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

The Nuggets are one of the bigger mysteries in the Western Conference going into this season. They were plagued by injuries last year, a couple of which that were so severe they’re going to linger into this season as well. While this is going to be Brian Shaw’s second year as a head coach, he’s not going to have the luxury of truly being able to pick up where he left off last year due to all the new pieces that he’s going to have to integrate into his system. However, he did learn over the course of last year how to best utilize Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried, who look poised to lead the way for him this year and continue their ascents. The addition of Arron Afflalo, a borderline All-Star last year, at their weakest position without giving up any significant assets was one of the better deals of the summer. If healthy, the Nuggets certainly have the potential to make the playoffs in the West, but that’s a risky assumption considering that they won’t even be going into training camp healthy.

3rd place – Northwest Division

– Yannis Koutroupis

Top Of The List

Top Offensive Player: After last season’s All-Star-caliber season with the Orlando Magic, Arron Afflalo will be picking up where he left off, but this time back in Denver. Afflalo is playing the best basketball of his career so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Nuggets fans are thinking about a return to the playoffs. Afflalo averaged a career-high 18.2 points per game last season with the Magic and shot 43 percent from three-point range. The seven-year veteran will benefit by having a better cast of players around him which will allow him to play more off of the ball. Having guys like Kenneth Faried, Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari on the team will take the pressure off of Afflalo after being the team’s go-to player like he was in Orlando.

Top Defensive Player: On a team that ranked 28th in points allowed last season, it may be hard to pinpoint one standout defensive player, but center Timofey Mozgov is underrated and defense oriented. As a backup for the majority of the season, Mozgov has proven to be a very good rim protector off of the bench. Playing in just 21 minutes per game last season, Mozgov averaged 1.22 blocks a game, or 2.71 per 48 minutes. As pointed out by Denver Stiffs, Mozgov was 10th-best in limiting opponents’ field goal percentage at the rim at 45.2 percent through the first-half of last season, which puts him in the same company as Roy Hibbert, Serge Ibaka and Joakim Noah, among others. Perhaps one of the biggest indicators of Mozgov’s defense are the splits when he is on the court versus off of the court. When Mozgov is playing, opponents’ field goal percentage within three feet of the rim is 55 percent versus 65 percent when he is off of the court. Looking at these stats, it may not be a surprise to hear that the Cavaliers are reportedly looking to trade for Mozgov. He provides any unit on the floor a great rim protector that can help a team lock teams down.

Top Playmaker: The hands down answer here is Ty Lawson. The 5’11, 195-pound Lawson has the perfect frame to make plays and get the Nuggets’ offense rolling. Lawson’s ability to drive through the lane really sets the tone for the offense and keeps it moving. Lawson was tied for the third-most assists in the league at 8.8 per game, behind only Chris Paul, Kendall Marshall and John Wall. The 8.8 assists per game really speaks volumes to his ability to drive in the lane and kick the ball out to the open shooter, especially in a year where some of his best passing options were hurt.

Top Clutch Player: By season’s end, the Nuggets’ top clutch player could very well be Afflalo, but at this time their clutch player is Lawson. Lawson’s quickness and ability to drive through the lane makes him perhaps their most dangerous player and one that is heavily guarded during crunch time of games, making it easy to find the open man for the shot. After a career year, coach Shaw has the trust in him to put the ball in his hands and make the right play when it matters most.

Most Unheralded Player: Even though Lawson remains one of the league’s most underrated point guards, the Nuggets’ most unheralded player is Mozgov. The underrated defender proved at the end of last season that he is a capable starter. With the Cavaliers reportedly showing interest in the 7’1 big man, the Nuggets may be able to cash in on his value and bring in assets to help the team in the future.

Best New Addition: If being named the team’s best offensive player wasn’t enough of an indication, Afflalo is the team’s best addition. At the cost of Evan Fournier and a second-round draft pick, the addition of Afflalo may be one of the best moves of the offseason. The Nuggets were more than 10 games out of the playoff race in the Western Conference when it was all said and done, but Afflalo will give the Nuggets a legitimate chance of closing that gap. Afflalo has proven to be a capable scoring threat, but also is an underrated defender. He was often assigned to guard opposing teams’ top wing players and did a good job when he was engaged. Though Afflalo admitted during the season that he wasn’t used to losing as much as the Magic were and his performances were affected, the hope of playing for the playoffs is back in Denver and so will his perimeter defense.

– Cody Taylor

Who We Like

Kenneth Faried: After lighting it up with Team USA in Spain, Faried will be coming back to the Nuggets a changed player. Over the course of just a couple of months with Team USA, Faried has gone from a player expected to provide some energy off of the bench backing up Kevin Durant to one of the team’s biggest contributors. Faried is averaging 13 points per game with Team USA on a blistering 71 percent shooting from the floor and a team-high 8.1 rebounds. There’s nothing suggesting that Faried won’t continue his tremendous play this season with the Nuggets. It seems Faried really started to grasp the Nuggets’ new offense under head coach Brian Shawn in the second half of the season as Faried increased his points per game from 10.4 per game before the All-Star break to 18.8 after the All-Star Break. In addition, Faried’s rebounding per game improved from 7.6 to 10.1. Faried’s tremendous improvement this year is another reason why the Nuggets could make some noise in the playoffs.

Danilo Gallinari: After undergoing two knee surgeries in the past 18 months, Gallinari is said to be ready to return and feeling great. The Nuggets desperately missed his versatility last season as he can play both forward positions. At 6’10, Gallinari can play the three-spot on the floor with the best of them and at 225 pounds, he is big enough to compete with most power forwards in the league. Two seasons ago Gallinari shot 37 percent from three-point range and adding him back onto the floor will provide another weapon for Lawson to utilize. Gallinari also possesses the necessary ball-handling skills needed to run in the Nuggets’ up-tempo offense.

Gary Harris: The former Michigan State guard will be competing with Randy Foye and Arron Afflalo for minutes, but Harris will provide the Nuggets with solid minutes off of the bench and could even challenge Foye for his role as the primary backup at the two. Harris averaged 18.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.6 steals and two assists per game in the Las Vegas Summer League and provided a glimpse of what he can turn into. During the Summer League, Harris looked like a very confident player coming out of college and that showed as he was able to score by shooting and driving to the rim against improved competition. Harris can also help the Nuggets improve their defense. Harris was a great defender in college and there’s no reason to think he won’t be solid in the NBA as well. He displayed his athleticism and quick hands during the Summer League with 2.6 steals per game. His fellow rookies seem to think he’ll do well as they voted him as the third-best defender of this class.

The Nuggets’ Second Unit: With so many players returning healthy this season, the Nuggets will most certainly have one of the deepest benches in the league. The Nuggets’ starting five this season could consist of Lawson, Afflalo, Gallinari, Faried and McGee, which means the first team off of the bench could include Nate Robinson, Foye, Wilson Chandler and Mozgov. Four out of the five players – Foye, Wilson, Hickson and Mozgov — that could come off of the bench all started a significant amount of games last season. Given that those players started out of necessity given all of the injuries, the Nuggets’ second unit will be more experienced and talented than most benches in the league.

– Cody Taylor

Strengths

It’s that second unit off of the bench that is easily the Nuggets’ biggest strength heading into the season. The Nuggets have 10 players on the team that could easily play each night and unfortunately for head coach Shaw, finding minutes for each of those players may not be simple. Shaw will have his work cut out to figure out the proper rotations and when to bring certain players into the game, but he and the Nuggets will be in a much better position than last season when they were shorthanded more nights than not.

– Cody Taylor

Weaknesses

The team’s defense will be an ongoing issue for the team throughout the season. The Nuggets were the third-worst team in the league last season with their opponents scoring an average of 106.5 points per game. Should the Nuggets be able to fix their defensive woes, they may very well find themselves in the thick of the playoff race in the ever-challenging Western Conference. While their projected starting five seems to be rock solid on the offensive end, that isn’t going to help get it done on the other end and the Nuggets could be in trouble. While players like Mozgov and Faried are proving themselves each night on the defensive end, other players will need to step up for the Nuggets to have a chance.

– Cody Taylor

The Salary Cap

The Nuggets have held onto most of their Mid-Level Exception, saving $4.8 million after giving rookie Erick Green a three-year minimum deal.  The team is also invested in 13 guaranteed players, with a 14th (Quincy Miller) locked in for $150k.  Kenneth Faried, who has been a vital part of Team USA’s quest for the World Cup, is eligible for a contract extension – but needs to lock in a deal before the October 31 deadline.  Denver is over the cap but under the luxury tax.  The team also had four traded player exceptions ranging from $1.2-$1.7 million.  The Nuggets do not have the $2.1 million Bi-Annual Exception available after using it last season on Nate Robinson.

– Eric Pincus

Dunc’d On

It is difficult to believe that a mere season ago the Nuggets were coming off a 57-win season under Coach George Karl.  The Nuggets fired Karl after that season, reportedly because they did not want to give him a contract extension with only one year remaining on his deal.  Then, team architect Masai Ujiri left for Toronto, replaced by Tim Connelly from New Orleans.  The Nuggets hired Brian Shaw to replace Karl, but both struggled a bit in their first year.  Connelly acquired defensively-challenged players like J.J. Hickson and Randy Foye, and that end of the floor unsurprisingly suffered after losing Andre Iguodala to Golden State.  Season-long injuries to Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee worsened the situation, as did Shaw’s insistence on starting Hickson over Timofey Mozgov in the frontcourt.  The result was a desultory 36-46 finish.

Connelly has bounced back quite nicely though, reacquiring Arron Afflalo from Orlando to upgrade the gaping hole at shooting guard.  He also got great value in the draft by trading down to select Jusuf Nurkic (scouting report) and Gary Harris, both of whom were projected to go quite a bit higher.  Gallinari should be back, and Shaw will hopefully give Mozgov more run, giving this squad a chance to really upgrade the defense.

Best Case

46-36

Better health and defense leads Denver’s fight for the eighth seed.  Ty Lawson has a career year, Afflalo avoids a dropoff from his last year in Orlando, Gallinari looks like his old self by midseason, and Mozgov’s three-pointer that he flashed at the end of last season becomes a semi-passable weapon. (This is a best-case scenario after all.) Kenneth Faried builds on his excellent World Cup on both ends. McGee and Nate Robinson return to anchor a solid bench along with Wilson Chandler and Harris (Nurkic is unlikely to play much). Shaw improves in his second year on the bench.

Worst Case

36-46

The players returning from injury are shells of themselves.  Afflalo reverts back to his career norms, Mozgov rides the pine behind Hickson, and the squad basically duplicates last year’s campaign.  As the squad descends again into irrelevance, Nurkic’s father demands a starting position for his son and nobody has the guts to tell him he’s not ready yet.  Another lost year leaves Denver in limbo going forward with this core.

– Nate Duncan

The Burning Question

With the Nuggets finally healthy, will that be enough to compete for a playoff spot in the West?

Last season the Dallas Mavericks as the eighth-seed needed 49 wins to lock in a playoff berth and the Suns were right behind them with 48 wins. The Nuggets will need to see an improvement of about 14 games to get to 50 this season and have a chance at making the playoffs. Out in the West, there could be as many as 12 teams legitimately competing for the playoffs and the Nuggets’ chances will surely be determined by how their players coming back from injury perform. With those players returning and playing like they have in the past, the Nuggets should be competitive for the season and their deep bench could prove huge come March and April if it remains as is. Barring an injury to Afflalo, Faried or Lawson, the Nuggets should be a playoff team next season.

– Cody Taylor

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NBA

Changing Circumstance: On Utah’s Foundational Frontcourt

Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors are ready for a big season as a duo, writes Ben Dowsett.

Ben Dowsett

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In many ways, the partnership that now forms the starting frontcourt in Utah is characterized by circumstance. The Jazz basically stumbled upon the duo of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert during a mostly lost 2014-15 season, allowing it to blossom after trading Enes Kanter at the deadline. Many in the organization loved Gobert, but few expected to force his way into such a large role as early as he did.

Even with the league beginning to move firmly in the direction of smaller, spaced-out lineups, the Jazz quickly realized they had something here. Favors and Gobert picked up chemistry in a hurry – the ability to “communicate telepathically,” as Favors jokingly puts it. They quickly formed a formidable defensive duo, nicknamed “The Wasatch Front” by certain clever folks in Jazzland. (Jazz fans: Rudy is fine with this nickname, but is open to better suggestions. Get those Twitter fingers typing.)

After the Kanter trade really opened things up for the pair to start games following the All-Star break, the Jazz posted a frighteningly low 92.5 per-100-possession defensive figure – over 10 full points better than their third-ranked defense in 2016-17, and nearly nine better than the league-best Spurs posted last year.

Over the next couple years, circumstance would strike in other ways. Both guys would miss significant time with injuries in 2015-16, including overlapping periods that made it tough to find rhythm. Gobert admitted he was never really himself after an MCL sprain he likely rushed back from just a bit. Even many casual fans could pick up on how physically limited Favors was last year, even when he was ostensibly healthy.

Another bit of circumstance arose last season: With Joe Johnson in town, the Jazz found their own versions of the league’s small trend. Lineups featuring Gobert at center and Johnson playing the power forward spot were easily Utah’s best for the season, quickly becoming coach Quin Snyder’s go-to look in crunch time. Even when Favors was in the lineup, he’d regularly lose big minutes.

Circumstance was once again present over the summer, with star Gordon Hayward and point guard George Hill departing. Where Favors may have once looked like a forgotten man, he’s back at full health for the first time in over a year and is right back in the picture as a foundational piece. Where Gobert may have been part of a two-headed monster hoping to challenge for contender status in the West, he’s now the singular face of a franchise that fully expects to avoid another rebuild.

Individually, it’s a big season ahead. As a duo, it might be even bigger – not only for the pair, but for the Jazz and even for the league as a whole.

******

Most of the concerns you hear regarding the Favors-Gobert duo come on the offensive side of the ball. There were some struggles in that first year together, where they posted an anemic on-court figure (they were still a net plus, but only because they also strangled opponents in those minutes). That’s also about how long it took for that almost supernatural connection to kick in, as Favors tells it – it was in full swing by the 2015-16 season.

“That whole type of thing normally comes with a point guard, because they’ve got the ball all the time and they see stuff,” Favors told Basketball Insiders. “We just see each other, just communicate telepathically.”

Favors describes the connection as one of the most unique of his career, and it was visible on both sides of the ball. The two developed an uncanny knack for covering each other at the rim. Offensively, they quickly picked up a big-to-big passing game that helped with some of their spacing concerns.

“I think we both learned that we need to space for each other, we need to be precise with our spacing,” Gobert told Basketball Insiders. “I got better at passing, I got better at finishing, he got better at passing too. I know that when I’m rolling, if his guy comes, he’s going to be open – so I dump it off to him or the corner.”

“These things don’t come just like that, but once we figure it out, it’s very hard to guard,” Gobert continued. “People see that as a weakness – I see it as a strength. When teams play small, there’s going to be small guy on either one of us.”

A smaller guy on Favors means a better passing lane for Gobert, or an opportunity to seal for deep post position. A smaller guy on Gobert – something teams used to do often but have moved away from more and more as he’s developed his rolling skills – invites high lobs and dunks, or compromising help from elsewhere in the defense.

Both guys have gotten much better with their angles, as well. That smaller defender is often trying to mitigate his size advantage by fronting or some other exploitable technique, and both Favors and Gobert have learned how to attack these strategies.

Gobert has taken huge strides in his ability to finish from both sides of the hoop, and through contact. He shot one of the highest percentages in the league among centers near the rim last year, at over 68 percent, and was up at a ludicrous 81.5 percent during the preseason.

Put it together, and it’s possible the duo’s offensive concerns have been a tad bit overstated in the past. The per-possession net rating the Jazz posted while Favors and Gobert played together in 2015-16 would have ranked seventh in the league for the full season, and it actually rose last year (the corresponding rank dropped, however, as the league improved overall). The Jazz’s slightly above average offense saw virtually no drop-off last year from when the duo played together to when they didn’t, and that’s before considering Favors’ health woes.

The savvy reader will note that their surroundings are an important part of this, and they’d be right. A big chunk of their minutes together last year came with Hill running the point and spacing the floor, and over 90 percent of them came with Hayward on the court – they did okay in a tiny sample last year, but historically have struggled to score at even league average rates without Utah’s former All-Star sharing the court.

Ricky Rubio’s acquisition will likely make them even more lethal defensively, but it also presents some additional theoretical concerns. Snyder appears likely to start each of Rubio, Favors and Gobert, meaning Utah will open the game with three non-threats from deep.

Rubio’s history, though, offers a glimpse of how they might get around these issues. With the exception of last season, when Karl-Anthony Towns’ development as a shooter and playmaker opened things up a bit more, Rubio never exactly played in spacing-charged lineups in Minnesota in the past. Look at the three-point percentages of his most common jump-shooting floor-mates from the 2015-16 season:

Andrew Wiggins (played during 95 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 30.0 percent

Karl-Anthony Towns (89 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 34.1 percent

Gorgui Dieng (54 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 30.0 percent

Zach LaVine (45 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 38.9 percent

Tayshaun Prince (39 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 17.4 percent

Shabazz Muhammad (18 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 28.9 percent

Only Towns and LaVine were passable three-point shooters among that group, and LaVine played well under half of Rubio’s minutes. Virtually every lineup Rubio played in contained at least two other total non-threats (often three), and not a single one ever contained a marksman like Jazzman Joe Ingles, who nearly led the league in three-point percentage last year. Things were like this for the vast majority of Rubio’s time in Minnesota.

And yet, his teams consistently have succeeded offensively.

Since he became the full-time starter, no Wolves offense helmed by Rubio finished lower than 11th in the league during a year he was healthy – in his only non-healthy year, 2014-15, they were 26th. His teams consistently got way worse offensively when he left the floor, and consistently strong offensive Real Plus-Minus ratings (17th among point guards in 2016-17, 12th in 15-16 and 14-15, 22nd in 13-14) indicate that this was more than just a case of bad backups.

“He’s been like that his whole career, and I think he’s been pretty good [despite] it,” Gobert said of his new teammate. “There’s a lot of ways to score. He’s very quick. Even if you’re backing up, he can still attack you and find the open man. I’m not really worried about spacing.”

******

Rubio also comes with a few strong points that should help improve areas the Jazz were lacking on in recent years, namely their transition game. Play type figures from Synergy Sports on NBA.com seem to indicate that the Jazz were elite on the break last year – they had the highest per-possession efficiency – but this is an example of where those numbers can lead you astray. The Jazz had one of the lowest frequencies of such plays in the league; their efficiency was only so high because they only attempted sure-thing shots while avoiding other transition chances like the plague.

That’s not an optimal approach offensively. Even some of those iffier transition chances still hold an expected point value that’s far higher than anything you’ll find in the halfcourt, and backing out of them for fear of an imperfect shot leaves easy points on the table.

Snyder recognizes it, and he’s looking to transition (pun maybe intended) the Jazz away from their state as one of the league’s slowest teams on the break. It starts with Rubio, long known for his ability to jitterbug up the court after defensive possessions and wreak havoc. Snyder is placing more emphasis on the ball in Rubio’s hands after misses – he wants his wings sprinting up the floor to space out to the corners whenever possible. Guys like Favors and Gobert play a big role as well.

“It’s important, especially the big that doesn’t get the rebound,” Gobert told Basketball Insiders. “Coach [Snyder] put an emphasis on [that] this year – the big who didn’t get the rebound has to run, has to sprint and try to beat his guy up the floor.”

Favors is ready for more of that now that he’s back at full health. Gobert has always loved beating guys down the floor; look how far behind DeAndre Jordan he is when he’s pushed out of the frame, and how much faster he is getting up the court for an easy bucket.

Snyder has talked about upping the tempo in preseason before, notably in his first year in Utah, only to see it fall flat when the games count. It feels different this time, though: The Jazz finished eighth in per-possession fast break points for the preseason, per NBA.com, way up from a 29th-place finish last season. Rubio is easily the cleanest fit they’ve had at the point in this area, and it feels like we should expect a few extra freebies every night in transition to goose the offense.

The other area that should see a big spike, especially when the two behemoths play together, is offensive rebounding. The Jazz were a dominant team here in 2015-16, generating the third-most per-possession second chance points in the league largely on the back of the Favors-Gobert duo, which rebounded nearly 30 percent of the team’s own misses and put up over 10 second-chance points for every 36 minutes on the court.

Last year, though, things fell way off. Some of that was drop-off and health concerns from the tandem itself, and some was more stylistic.

“We’ve emphasized transition defense, and sometimes there’s an opportunity cost at the offensive glass,” Snyder said. “Sometimes when you’re spaced a certain way, it’s harder to get to the glass.

“A couple years ago our spacing was a little different – we just had guys around the rim all the time. We didn’t design our team that way or our offense that way in order to offensive rebound, we designed it that way because we had players that were effective around the rim and didn’t necessarily have three-point range. So when you look at Joe Johnson, offensive rebounding is not going to be as much of a premium for him. But Ekpe [Udoh], Derrick and Rudy, certainly.”

With Favors back healthy and starting, plus the addition of Udoh as mostly a big lineup four-man (at least in preseason), expect the Jazz to revert back to their bullying ways on the offensive glass. They lost nearly three second-chance points per night between the 15-16 season and the 16-17 one – if they can get those back or even add to them slightly, it’s another piece that can help fill in the gaps offensively. Utah was back to fourth in second-chance points for the preseason, another positive sign.

“If you’re a three and you’re playing at the four, and you’re guarding Derrick or myself, it’s not going to be a fun night for you,” Gobert told Basketball Insiders.

And if Favors and Gobert can maintain or even improve offensively together, watch out.

They’re fearsome defensively, and will only be more so if Favors’ improved mobility remains. Utah’s entire defensive scheme is built around them.

“My job really, not to give away a scouting report, but is to take guys off the three-point line and really just send them in there,” Jazz guard Rodney Hood said. “They take pride in defending the basket, they take pride in defense.”

The Jazz are looking to take a few more risks defensively this year to up their steals, which Snyder hopes will feed into increased transition opportunities. Rubio’s presence as one of the league’s premier ballhawks helps, but having those rocks behind them makes this emphasis easier to follow.

“It gives you a lot more confidence – not even to gamble, I guess, but just to be more aggressive,” swingman Joe Ingles said. “I know that if I do get beat being aggressive, that they’re going to be there and they’re going to come over and help.”

How Snyder chooses to use his big duo is yet to be seen. If preseason is any indicator, their usage will resemble much of last season, particularly toward the end: Favors and Gobert both start the game, but outside those minutes and the ones to open the third quarter, they rarely play together once Favors exits. At this point, Favors is mostly relegated to backup center during the minutes Gobert sits while Gobert plays either in small lineups or alongside Udoh.

Can they do enough to force Snyder’s hand into more minutes? It’s tough to say. Gobert is one of the few bigs in the league who can keep an interior defense afloat completely by himself – there was virtually no drop-off to Utah’s field goal percentage allowed at the rim when Gobert played around a small lineup compared with when he played next to Favors last year.

A good chunk of that could have been Favors’ health, and the Jazz will hope it’s a big chunk; if Favors’ presence doesn’t actually swing the interior defense all that much compared to when the Jazz play small, it’ll be hard to really maximize his value. Even for all the offensive improvements they’ve made as a pair, the Favors-Gobert combination still can’t touch the kind of efficiency the Jazz put up with Johnson playing power forward next to Gobert. Why play Favors-Gobert at all if there isn’t a value to the trade-off?

******

A healthy Favors could make that last question sound silly, and he’s out to do that to plenty of folks. Derrick doesn’t have the same kind of outward bravado Gobert boasts, but he’s quietly fierce. He heard all the noise about his declining game over the last 18 months.

He’s also prideful, and it’s tough to sit on the bench during crunch time when you’re a player of his stature. For Favors, this was an intersection of personal frustration and collective acceptance.

“Of course I want to be out there, but at the same time you’ve got to do what’s best for the team,” Favors told Basketball Insiders. He also knew who was replacing him: “If it was anybody else you’d be mad – but it’s Joe Johnson, so it’s like, ‘Hey, Joe Johnson can close games, man.’”

It was a sacrifice for Favors, and not the first one he’s made to help foster optimal usage for a teammate. As a young player, he was one of the league’s up-and-coming talents as a roll man in pick-and-roll; he’s still great there, but Gobert’s emergence as one of the game’s most dangerous lob threats here has changed the way Favors is used.

He expanded his game, working to find ways to complement Gobert when the played together. His timing has grown leaps and bounds as the “dunker” in pick-and-roll action, waiting for a dump-off from Gobert. He’s developed a great chemistry with Gobert on the “short roll” for when teams blitz ball-handlers.

All this has essentially forced him to become more versatile.

“I know when I came into the league, my calling card was rolling to the rim,” Favors said to Basketball Insiders. “[Now] I can roll to the rim, I can pop, I can play in the half roll, I can space out. I think that’s something I wanted to show everybody I can do.”

With a contract year set to begin Wednesday night, it’s a vital time for Favors. Comments from agent Wallace Prather last spring indicated that a Hayward departure was likely the only realistic avenue to Favors remaining in Salt Lake City long term; with Hayward indeed gone, Favors now has to show Jazz brass he’s worth that investment.

Gobert isn’t going anywhere, and that means Favors’ stock could rise and fall depending on how the two fare together. If the combo can’t succeed, or if small lineups end up far more effective, it would be virtually impossible to justify Utah investing the amount Favors is worth into his future.

More than that, the Favors-Gobert combo could represent a last stand of sorts for these kinds of big lineups across the league. An optimized Favors, or a similar type, is virtually a must if you’re going to try big ball against the Golden States and Houstons of the world: A guy big enough to punish wings guarding him on one end, but stick with those guys laterally on the other.

Only the fully healthy version of Favors is capable of this in big minutes. Even then, it might be a struggle against the league’s best teams – every possession in these lineups is an uphill climb against the simple math that’s made small-ball so popular in the first place. Elite opponents will choke away space and demand that Favors and Gobert beat them while outside their comfort zone.

They’re out to prove they’re ready, though. A duo marked by unexpected circumstance ever since they first came together is now looking to write their own narrative, and they’ll start it off on Wednesday night.

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NBA

NBA AM: LeBron James’ Quest For Eighth Straight Finals

Despite playing 30 minutes in preseason, LeBron James dazzled in the season opener with an impressive stat line.

Lang Greene

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Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star forward LeBron James has been known for his durability ever since entering the league in 2003. Despite a heavy annual workload, James has played less than 70 games just twice in 14 seasons. One of those campaigns was the strike-shortened 2012 season, in which in he appeared in 62 out of 66 contests.

Heading into the season opener on Tuesday, there were concerns that James wouldn’t be able to lace them up due to an ankle injury suffered during a preseason in which he logged only 30 minutes. However, James not only suited up, he was the primary driving force in the team’s 102-99 victory over the Boston Celtics.

James finished the contest with 29 points, 16 rebounds and nine assists on 12-for-19 shooting from the floor. Yet, after the game, James was transparent about his physical conditioning – or lack thereof.

“I’m out of shape, very out of shape for my expectations,” James told the press after the Cavaliers’ defeated the Celtics in Tuesday’s season opener. “Rightfully so. I haven’t been able to play during the preseason. I played one game [and] reinjured my ankle. I don’t like where I’m at right now.”

James has a reputation for going to extreme lengths to keep his body in tip-top shape, but Tuesday night’s performance didn’t appear to be the work of a man struggling to keep up.

While the Golden State Warriors are the favorites to once again hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy at season’s end, the Cavaliers are expected to make their fourth straight appearance in the NBA Finals.

But Cleveland has plenty of question marks to start the season.

The Cavaliers are still integrating former league MVP Derrick Rose, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Jeff Green into the rotation. Two starters from previous seasons, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson, are now adjusting to roles off the bench and presumably reduced minutes. This doesn’t even take into consideration the impending unrestricted free agency status of James, Rose and Thomas next summer, which will become a daily outlet of speculation.

James acknowledged the team is still adjusting on the fly and building chemistry where possible.

“The most important thing is we got the win,” James said. “It’s going to be a learning experience for us because we got seven new guys, putting in a new system and every game is going to be a learning experience.”

James has been able to avoid serious injury throughout his career and the preseason ankle injury appears to be a thing of the past.

“It’s a little sore,” James said about his tweaked ankle. “But I’d figured that much.

“We don’t play again until Friday, so I get a couple of days. But I have to get some conditioning in as well. So it’s going to be a fine line for me—rest my ankle trying to get in healthy or do I continue to get some conditioning in because I need it? We have a great support staff and I’ll be fine.”

Other Opening Night Observations

Boston Celtics (99) vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (102)

  • Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward, one of the team’s marquee offseason acquisitions, suffered a fractured ankle early in the first quarter
  • Celtics forwards Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum combined for 39 points and 16 rebounds
  • Celtics guard Kyrie Irving recorded 10 assists in his Boston debut. Last season with the Cavaliers he posted just eight games of 10+ assists
  • Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson played 20 minutes off the bench. Last season the forward averaged 29.9 minutes per contest

Houston Rockets (122) vs. Golden State Warriors (121)

  • The Rockets outscored the Warriors 34-20 in the fourth quarter to stole a victory at Oracle Arena on ring ceremony night
  • Rockets role players P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon combined for 44 points on 15-for-25 shooting from the floor in the victory
  • Rockets guard Chris Paul recorded 11 assists in his debut, but shot just 2-for-9 from the floor and totaled four points
  • Warriors forward Draymond Green left the game in the second half due to a knee sprain. At the time of his departure, Green had posted nine points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists
  • Veteran guard Nick Young led the Warriors in scoring with 23 points on 6-for-7 shooting from three-point range in the opener

The gross majority of the league’s teams will open up their seasons on Wednesday, and by Friday, everyone will have played one game.

In it all, though, from here, it still appears that LeBron James is king.

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NBA

A Few Good Free Agents Left

David Yapkowitz looks at several free agents still remaining on the market ahead of the season.

David Yapkowitz

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The start of the 2017-2018 NBA season is finally here, and teams are required to have their 15-man roster (plus two possible two-way contacts) finalized. Every year there are players that are left off a roster. Some are younger guys who maybe haven’t proven they belong in the league just yet. Some are older veterans looking for that one final hurrah.

A few of these players might take open gigs in the G-League or overseas in hopes of attracting the attention of NBA front offices as the year goes on. Others remain at home, working out and waiting for that call that might never come. And sometimes, the waiting and anticipating pays off as playoff teams come looking for veteran help and tanking teams are on the hunt for unrealized potential.

For most of the veteran guys, their opportunities will likely come later in the season when teams gear up for the playoffs. Here’s a look at a few of the top veteran free agents left that could certainly help a team at some point during this season.

David Lee

Since being traded from the Golden State Warriors to the Boston Celtics three year ago, Lee has adapted to his new role as a veteran big man helping to anchor second units. He is no longer the automatic double-double machine and borderline All-Star he once was, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything left in the tank.

He didn’t really fit quite right in Boston, but in his stops with the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, he still showed he can be a solid contributor off the bench. In 25 games with Mavericks in the 2015-2016 season, Lee put up 8.5 points per game on 63.6 percent shooting while pulling down seven rebounds per. With the Spurs last year, he averaged 7.3 points on 59 percent shooting to go along with 5.6 rebounds. For a playoff team that needs a little big man depth, he is a solid option.

Deron Williams

Much was made about Williams’ disappearing act in the Finals last year, and rightfully so, but lost in all the chatter was the actual solid job he did with the Cleveland Cavaliers leading up to that point. Once in the conversation for best point guard in the league, injuries and poor play in Brooklyn sort of made Williams a forgotten man. The Nets bought out his contract and he joined his hometown Dallas Mavericks.

After a so-so first year in Dallas, Williams looked rejuvenated last year to the point that he actually drew some interest around the trade deadline. With the Mavericks looking to get younger and head closer to that rebuilding path, they cut Williams and allowed him to join a contending team. Over the final 24 games of last season, including four starts, he averaged 7.5 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting, 41.5 percent from the three-point line, and 3.6 assists. Of course, his Finals performance is all anyone cares to remember, but if a team needs a veteran backup point guard, they could do a lot worse.

Monta Ellis

Last season in Indiana, Ellis posted some of the lowest numbers of his career since his rookie season. Heading into a rebuilding year, the Pacers waived Ellis and his name barely came up in free agent rumors during the summer. At his best, Ellis was a borderline All-Star talent who could put up points in a hurry. Despite his reputation as a gunner, Ellis was a bit of an underrated playmaker and was never as bad defensively as most made him out to be.

He never really seemed to find his groove in Indiana. In his first year with the Pacers during the 2015-2016 season, he posted 13.8 points per game, down from 18.9 the previous year in Dallas, and his shooting dropped from 44.5 percent from the field to 42.7 percent. His playoff numbers with the Pacers were down even more than his regular season numbers, despite exploding in the postseason a few years before with Dallas. His starting days are almost assuredly behind him, but as a sixth man type scorer bringing energy off the bench, he’s probably better than a lot of the players currently in that role.

Leandro Barbosa

The Brazilian Blur’s best days are behind him, but similar to Ellis, he can still help a team in need of additional scoring punch off the bench. It was only two years ago that he was a key contributor off the Warriors bench. Firmly on the rebuilding track, the Suns waived Barbosa during the summer. Despite still being a capable player, his name also rarely came up in the free agent rumor mill.

He didn’t play all that much last season for a Phoenix Suns team that is clearly rebuilding, but he still was able to average 6.3 points per game in only 14.4 minutes per. His role on a rebuilding team would be a veteran mentor, but for a playoff team, he’s not a bad option. He showed that he can still play at the NBA level despite losing a step or two. Perhaps later on in the season when teams start looking for playoff help is when he may find his phone starting to ring.

Derrick Williams

The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations that come with being drafted that high. He’s only averaged double figures (12.0) in scoring once in his career and that was during the 2012-2013 season. When he came into the league, he didn’t really have much of a set position. He was a tweener, somewhere in between small forward and power forward. That was prior to the changes occurring in today’s NBA with more of a premium on stretch big men.

During Williams’ time in Cleveland last season, he played in 25 games and averaged 6.2 points per game. What stood out most, however, was his shooting. He shot 50.5 percent from the field, including 40.4 percent from the three-point line, both career-highs. Shooting from long range was always a bit of a weakness for him and prior to last season, he had never shot higher than 33.2 percent from downtown. He also didn’t register much chatter by way of free agent rumors, but if he can reproduce shooting percentages like that, he fits right in with the direction of the league.

With league rosters pretty much set, there likely won’t be much roster movement, if any at all, for the next few months. Teams are looking to see how their new summer acquisitions work out. But after a few months of real game action, other roster needs start to become more apparent. Don’t be surprised if come the new year, teams start knocking on a few of these player’s doorsteps.

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