The Denver Nuggets were a dysfunctional mess a season ago. A coaching change, some roster moves and a strong draft have positioned the Nuggets for a much brighter future. The question is, can they make this season brighter than expectations?
Basketball Insiders previews the 2015-16 Denver Nuggets.
The Emmanuel Mudiay era is underway in Denver. I think Mudiay has star potential and will eventually emerge as one of the best rookies in this class. He’s a perfect fit for Denver’s up-tempo style of play and I think he’ll thrive from day one under new head coach Mike Malone. Denver has done a good job stockpiling young talent (Mudiay, Kenneth Faried, Jusuf Nurkic, Nikola Jokic, Will Barton, Gary Harris, etc.) and draft picks. They also have some strong veteran leaders on the team – such as Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Jameer Nelson – who will help the young players adjust to the NBA and maximize their full potential. I don’t think Denver will be a playoff team in the insanely competitive Western Conference, but I do think they’re heading in the right direction with the team they’ve assembled.
4th Place – Northwest Division
It’s easy to get down on the Nuggets, who were not good a year ago and didn’t do much in the offseason to improve their situation much for 2015-16, but Emmanuel Mudiay is a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate and second-year big man Jusuf Nurkic could very well be a double-double machine for Denver this year. Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Jameer Nelson all prove that this team is still far away from a full-on rebuild, but that doesn’t mean this season is going to be pretty. The West is a scary place to live and Denver just doesn’t have the horses for a serious playoff run. Mudiay and Nurkic are the future, but the present just isn’t all that rosy.
5th Place – Northwest Division
– Joel Brigham
Things will undoubtedly get worse in Denver before they get any better. The Nuggets traded their best player and floor general Ty Lawson to Houston this past summer for a collection of role players. Now factor in that Denver’s top three players heading into training camp are arguably Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler. While each of these guys have had success in the league, how far can they realistically take the Nuggets in a stacked Western Conference? The good news in Denver is Emmanuel Mudiay and Jusuf Nurkic are oozing with potential. Mudiay should be in the Rookie of the Year discussion at season’s end; he’s a terrific building block for the future. Every successful rebuilding project must begin with a strong foundation.
5th Place – Northwest Division
– Lang Greene
I’ll admit, I haven’t seen much of Emmanuel Mudiay, but for some almost inexplicable reason, I have believed in him and his potential from the time I first heard about him and his amazing story. Kenneth Faried is a beast, but I have no idea what the Nuggets were thinking in re-signing both Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari to rich extensions this past summer. Chandler got four years for a total of $46.5 million while Gallinari got two years tacked onto his contract for a total of $34 million. I’m not sure what either has done since arriving in Denver back in 2011 to warrant that type of payday and for those that want to point out the NBA’s rising cap (which I’m aware of), I’d say that the Nuggets would have been better off going down the route of the Philadelphia 76ers. They could have used their salary cap space to absorb bad contracts from other teams and gotten some draft picks in return for saving some of their opponents some hard-earned dollars. By this point, you’ve probably figured out that I’m not very high on the Nuggets, though I will say that a good point guard can change a team’s fortunes overnight. If Mudiay is the real deal, he, Faried, Gallinari and Chandler will at least give the team some semblance of a nucleus, but with Ty Lawson’s departure, one could easily make the argument that the Nuggets are worse now than they were when we last saw them, and in this instance, I’ll take the easy way out.
5th Place — Northwest Division
— Moke Hamilton
The Nuggets may have gotten the steal of the 2015 Draft by landing Emmanuel Mudiay at the seventh spot. The guard proved to be NBA-ready at Summer League and can make an immediate impact on the roster. The trade of Ty Lawson gives the Nuggets a fresh start in the backcourt, where they re-signed veteran Jameer Nelson. The team is looking to start off on the right foot after a rocky season that resulted in the firing of Brian Shaw. Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried pose two question marks for the Nuggets. Can Gallinari stay healthy? If so, how much more effective can he be? Will Faried live up to his potential this season? Production from both of them will be key to the team.
5th Place – Northwest Division
– Jessica Camerato
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: Danilo Gallinari
Fresh off an extension from the Nuggets utilizing a rarely-used CBA provision this offseason, Gallinari has continued a strong run of games from the final couple months of the 2014-15 season into summer international play. He’s been fantastic for Italy in the FIBA Eurobasket tournament, a walking mismatch who even the top teams in Europe have had no answer for.
If he can finally stay healthy for a full NBA season (a big question mark until he proves it), Gallo should be Denver’s offensive centerpiece. He can toggle back and forth between the three and four spots, but should likely be utilized more as a small-ball power forward given the numerous advantages he’ll have over nearly any defender there. A smart Nuggets scheme would involve him both on and off the ball; his gravity from beyond the arc could open up a number of options for sets involving him with multiple off-ball screens, and he’s got the handling chops to make things happen with the ball in his hands as well.
The big question mark, beyond his health, will be if Gallinari can improve a bit as a playmaker should Denver rightly choose to focus much of their halfcourt offense around his skill set. He’s gotten better over the years but has never been quite the incisive passer his physical profile suggests is possible, and with few other options on the roster who can create their own shot in a pinch, things could tighten up in a hurry if Gallinari isn’t able to find the open man when defenses collapse to him.
Top Defensive Player: Jusuf Nurkic
Defense is a potentially huge issue for the Nuggets. Nurkic is legitimately one of the few guys on the roster who has proven for even a full year that he’s capable of defending at an above-average level in the NBA. The Nuggets went from a borderline top-10 defense in the league when Nurkic played last season to a bottom-five unit when he sat, per NBA.com, and Nurkic actually finished ninth overall for Defensive Real Plus-Minus on ESPN.com. He’s a positive defending the rim and he’s completely unafraid of challenging anyone in the league. His lateral mobility is reasonable for his size, and he even played bits of four in the right matchups last season. If anything happens with Kenneth Faried in the frontcourt, be it a trade or injury, Nurkic will be a prime candidate to start alongside Gallinari.
Top Playmaker: Emmanuel Mudiay
The Nuggets sacrificed 9.6 assists per game when they moved Ty Lawson, and not a single member of last season’s roster averaged over four a night. As noted above, one hopes Gallinari will expand his playmaking role as more of an offensive centerpiece, but in the end this title likely comes down to rookie point guard Mudiay. He’s already an impressive passer at 19 years old, and all signs point to him being thrust directly into the starting role as the franchise’s heir apparent. He won’t be the primary offensive focal point for a year or two, but expect him to have the ball in his hands often and likely initiate plenty of sets. And if Mudiay isn’t confident or talented enough to grab hold of this role? It could be a long, iso-heavy season in Denver.
Top Clutch Player: Danilo Gallinari
It has to be Gallo here. He’s played this role for Italy in Eurobasket with great success this summer, including an overtime win over Germany where he hit several huge shots down the stretch to propel Italy to a massive victory. Unless Mudiay is even more impressive than expected right out of the gate, there just aren’t any other guys on the roster truly capable of generating their own good looks in the clutch. Given Gallinari’s size, though, this could become a small area of concern for the Nuggets if teams start overloading him in low shot clock situations.
The Unheralded Player: Joffrey Lauvergne
This title could likely go to each of Denver’s three high-ceiling Euro transplants: Lauvergne, Nurkic or incoming rookie Nikola Jokic. Nurkic is a fiery player and a great defender, and could grow into a strong two-way role with the right development. Jokic may not see a ton of minutes in a crowded frontcourt, but he’s a fascinating 20-year-old prospect, a big who shot threes in the Adriatic league and has a gigantic 7’3 wingspan.
But Lauvergne gets the nod, again in part due to a strong summer of play. Both at NBA Summer League and in Eurobasket, Lauvergne has showcased himself splendidly, playing his tail off on both ends of the floor and flashing significant upside. France has begun letting him space all the way to the three-point line over the last couple weeks, and he appears easily capable of knocking these shots down at the NBA level when left open. Like countryman Rudy Gobert, he’s a supremely intense player on the floor who’s out to prove himself, and without a ton of wildly noticeable flaws in his game, he could be in line for a major minutes upgrade.
Best New Addition: Mike Malone
Mudiay is obviously the best roster addition, but the hiring of Malone is arguably just as important. Denver’s coaching under Brian Shaw was among the worst in the league, and it only improved marginally under interim man Melvin Hunt. The staff was very clearly undermined by players who found it too easy to take advantage of them, and this plus a lack of talent or much ingenuity doomed the Nuggets from the start. Malone should step in and re-institute the order of things. He’s a strong disciplinarian who emphasizes structure (something Denver has badly lacked) as well as defensive integrity (another element they’ve been woefully devoid of). He may not be enough to turn a group limited in talent into a playoff squad, but the culture in the Denver locker room should do a 180 with Malone on board.
– Ben Dowsett
Who/What We Like
1. Wilson Chandler – Chandler also went Gallinari’s route with a renegotiate-and-extend deal this summer, erasing speculation over the last couple seasons as to whether he was really a part of Denver’s core moving forward. He’s 27 years old and his new deal will carry him through the remainder of his physical prime. Chandler may not be a game-breaker, but he’s a mostly consistent presence who does several things well and has very few big holes. Denver will rely on him to help steady the ship in trying times.
2. Darrell Arthur – He only played around 1,000 minutes last season, but Arthur showcased himself as a much more useful player than his slightly undersized stature might indicate. No Denver player saw the team defend as well while they played, with the Nuggets posting a stout 98.7 points allowed per-100-possessions while he was on the floor – a figure that rose all the way to an ugly 107.8 when he sat down, per NBA.com. He’s yet another jigsaw piece in a potentially intriguing frontcourt.
3. Nikola Jokic – It may be some time before Denver’s newest European transplant makes a real impact on the NBA court. He’s got a ton of upside in the modern NBA, though, and it will be very interesting to see how quickly he can adapt to the speed and intensity. He already appears salivating prospect if he can put things together on the margins.
4. Flexibility – Denver isn’t in a fantastic spot for this upcoming season by any means, but they have a few more reasonable paths to salvation than many of the NBA’s other moribund franchises. They own all their own picks minus a couple second-rounders, plus have a couple extra (protected) firsts likely coming in the 2016 draft. They also have a number of tradeable contracts given the right circumstances. Kenneth Faried is the obvious big domino who may need to fall before the rest of the landscape is made clear. They have plenty of options and potentially a lot of cap space available alongside their multiple picks next summer, though, and a few heady moves could have them right back on the upswing in short order.
– Ben Dowsett
Malone has indicated he wants to run an up-tempo offense in Denver, which is never a bad call given the altitude and the advantage it tends to give Nuggets players who are more used to it. And so long as Faried remains on the roster and drawing big minutes, one of his chief strengths is his play on the break. Mudiay also projects to be a strong asset here, possibly immediately, and if Denver uses Gallinari primarily at the four and leaves a lot of speed on the floor, the Nuggets will look to run often.
They’ve also got more shooting than one might instinctively assume. Gallinari, Chandler, Jameer Nelson and Randy Foye are all guys defenses have to account for beyond the arc – if someone like Lauvergne really has three-point range, the Nuggets could even go to some crazy five-out units where every guy on the floor is a spacing threat. Expect shooting to be a major point of emphasis for Malone, who knows spacing the floor will be of paramount importance with a limited number of guys capable of creating.
And finally, this team has sneakily solid depth in the frontcourt. Faried and Gallinari are high-minute guys, and in addition to the three Euros they also have J.J. Hickson and Darrell Arthur in their big stockpile. That’s seven guys, and with a couple potentially worthy of starter-level minutes, Faried is absolutely on the hot seat. He’s been the subject of trade whispers since the middle of last year, and people close to the team have indicated Faried had a larger hand in Shaw’s team sabotage and eventual firing than the public may have been aware of. If he’s anything but excellent early on (or even if he’s great), Denver’s solid depth at the position could allow them the leeway to deal Faried for more positive assets.
– Ben Dowsett
The defensive side of the ball could be a huge issue for the Nuggets right out of the gate. They were a bottom-five unit last year and didn’t really add a whole lot on this end – more minutes for Nurkic might be their only big offseason positive. Chandler is fine and Gallinari is passable on this end in the right matchups, but guys like Faried, Foye and Nelson are all significant minuses defensively. Mudiay has a high ceiling as a defender, but rookie players frequently take time to develop on this side of the ball. Without a few leaps from younger guys, the Nuggets are prime candidates to once again have one of the worst defenses in the league if Malone can’t work some serious magic.
On the other end, as we’ve discussed, the Nuggets are short on guys who can initiate offense and draw rotations. Gallinari and Mudiay (or Nelson) will handle the bulk of the duties here, but they could be limited to some degree and the drop-off after them is fairly steep. If either gets hurt, particularly Gallinari, it’s a problem.
This is a microcosm for the team as a whole – they have interesting pieces and a potentially bright future, but they probably don’t have the overall talent to compete in a stacked West. Malone should tighten things up some from last year and Mudiay will be fascinating to watch, but barring a miracle this feels like a group expecting another high lottery pick.
– Ben Dowsett
The Burning Question
Will Kenneth Faried be on the roster by the end of the season?
For a team highly unlikely to make any real noise this season, this is the looming question. Will the Nuggets look to salvage Faried within their organization and hold onto him for the four years remaining on his deal, or will they jettison him and move forward with their emerging youth and Gallinari?
Many around the league expect Faried to be moved. Not only has he been an issue in the locker room, he’s just not that useful of a modern NBA player – he can’t shoot, he can’t defend on a high level and he can’t create his own offense in the vast majority of matchups. Guys like Nurkic, Lauvergne and Jokic are ready to fill his minutes, and the Nuggets have more high draft picks on the horizon if they feel they need even more talent in the frontcourt.
Offloading Faried early, even if it’s for 80 cents on the dollar, could be their best move. If the other youngsters can impress and give Denver a real up-and-comer feel with a defined identity, their chances at luring a positive asset in the summer of 2016’s free agency period would appear to increase. It would give the guys left on the roster a clearer idea of the franchise’s direction, and would rid them of a negative influence on their culture. The front office may be best served to get the deal done sooner rather than later if an acceptable package is available.
– Ben Dowsett
Buy Or Sell: Atlantic Division
Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series by taking a look at the Atlantic Division.
The early portion of the NBA season is fun for lots of reasons – namely, it helps determine which teams are contenders and those that aren’t. Additionally, it allows teams to gauge and grade their rosters. And on December 15, when newly signed players can be traded, the NBA season shifts gears from fun to cut-throat.
So with that beings said, let’s forge ahead with Basketball Insiders examination of buyers and sellers. We have already covered the Northwest, Southwest and Central divisions. Today, we’ll turn our attention to the Atlantic.
Boston Celtics 17-7 — Buyers
The Celtics have surprised most NBA experts so far this season. But not only because they’re playing well; more so due to looking significantly better than last season despite losing a top-flight point guard (Kyrie Irving), a workhouse center (Al Horford) and then replacing them with less talented players.
The Celtics are 17-7 through 24 games — good for fourth place in the conference. Entering Friday night, they’re playing at essentially the same pace as last season (99.2 possessions per 48 minutes vs. 99.6 in 2018-19), but with an average margin of victory of 7.86 (up from. 4.44), which is the fourth-best margin of victory in the league.
But it’s unlikely that the Celtics are satisfied with their early-season successes. And if they hope to crash the Milwaukee Bucks’ party and represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals, they’ll need some to add some depth to their frontcourt.
Despite being nearly 30 percent of the way through the season, the Celtics still need to shore up the center position. They entered the season with a by-committee approach from the beginning and they’ve stuck to it so far by starting Daniel Theis a whopping 18 times, Kanter three times and Robert Williams twice. Theis averages 21.8 minutes per game, compared to Kanter’s 15.8 and Williams’ 14.2. While the three-headed monster approach can be successful, they lack a true difference-maker.
They’ll need a more skilled and versatile center to put pressure on opposing big men like Joel Embiid and Al Horford, while also keeping the floor appropriately spaced. While good centers are hard to come by, the Celtics could package some combination of their rookies and future picks to entice a trade partner.
And it would be in their best interest to do so. Just look at their record against the Philadelphia 76ers this season. While it’s a ridiculously small sample size, their 0-2 record against Philadelphia, who boasts probably the biggest and best frontcourt in the league, should scare them into adding a big man before the deadline – and maybe as soon as this Sunday.
Brooklyn Nets (13-11) — Neither
The Nets have surprised folks, too — but unlike the Celtics, they did so through early struggles. With the newly acquired Kyrie Irving in tow, the Nets started the season by winning only four of their first 11 games – during which time, Caris LeVert suffered an injury, followed by Irving. And just like that, the sky was falling.
But then something monumental happened, proceedings just stabilized all at once. The Nets have won nine of their last 13 games since Irving’s injury. Spencer Dinwiddie stepped up, averaging 25.1 points per game in Irving’s absence. But it’s not all Dinwiddie. Since Irving went out, the Nets are 13th-best in net rating – compared to 20th with him in the lineup – and their chemistry looks much improved.
And what’s more, the Nets can still look forward to adding Irving back into the rotation. While they’ve struggled with him thus far, it’s not entirely Irving. After all, Irving’s return represents a major talent who was averaging 28.5 points and 7.2 assists per game. Dzanan Musa and Theo Pinson, too, have largely failed to fill in as the backup point guard too.
Sure, it’s going to take time to figure out their identity with Irving suited up. And the team must also welcome back LeVert and Wilson Chandler, who is set to return from a 25-game PED suspension on Sunday. But those are great problems to have.
Fortunately, the Nets’ 2019-20 season was always a placeholder until Kevin Durant returns from his Achilles injury. The team shouldn’t worry too much about a playoff run and, instead, they should be squarely focused on building exceptional team chemistry. And adding or subtracting to a newly-formed roster is a terrible way to do so.
Thus, playoffs or not, the Nets should spend the next three or so months learning one another’s styles and identifying their best rotations without tinkering.
New York Knicks (5-20) – Sellers
The Knicks are very obviously a dumpster fire. They have failed to properly develop their young talent through 25 games this year and prioritized playing time for a slew of their recently signed veteran free agents. Additionally, they panicked after a couple of 30-point losses and decided to fire coach head coach David Fizdale.
There are probably more firings to come. Rumors have begun to circulate about the job security of team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry. But regardless of who’s at the helm, the Knicks must move many of their recent signees to capitalize on their favorable contracts.
The vultures have already begun to circle. According to SNY’s Ian Begley, interested teams could be willing to part with a late first-round pick in exchange for Marcus Morris.
The team should also begin shopping Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis, Wayne Ellington, Reggie Bullock (who has been injured so far all season), Elfrid Payton and even Julius Randle. Cashing in on any of those players would be helpful to a team that is clearly still in the early stages of a rebuild.
And they should be looking to acquire young players who are still viewed as projects — like the Orlando Magic did with Markelle Fultz last season — and/or draft picks. Nothing else. Fit does not matter. Bring in as much talent as you can and see what sticks.
Philadelphia 76ers (19-7) – Buyers
The 76ers are another Atlantic Division buyer.
Despite losing Jimmy Butler to Miami and JJ Redick to New Orleans, the 76ers entered the season with extremely high expectations — and they’ve mostly lived up to them. They are 18-7 overall and 7-3 against teams who are .500 or better. Joel Embiid is better than ever and Al Horford appears to be hitting his stride in Philadelphia. Further, Josh Richardson has looked like an extremely promising fit when healthy and rookie Matisse Thybulle has performed better than anyone could have expected.
So what do the 76ers need to add? One thing: Shooting. The 76ers rank 26th in three-point attempts and the team is currently lacking a Redick-level three-point threat. We’ve all seen opposing defenses, as the Raptors did in the 2019 playoffs, go under screens and sag away from Ben Simmons. Expect more of that. And expect teams to willingly pack the paint to affect Embiid, Simmons and Horford until the team surrounds them with more shooters.
The 76ers should be targeting guys like Kevin Love, Robert Covington, Danilo Gallinari, Marcus Moris, Davis Bertans and even the aforementioned Reddick – any of whom would be an excellent addition if the 76ers could put together an acceptable offer. But that’s where things get challenging. Remember, the 76ers have approximately $126 million tied up in their core five (Embiid, Horford, Simmons, Richardson and Tobias Harris) for 2020-21.
Toronto Raptors (16-8) – Sellers
This may be an unpopular opinion, but this at its core, shouldn’t teams either compete for championships or set themselves up to do so? Obviously that’s easier said than done and there are a number of teams that don’t adhere to such strategy because of the primary driver of profitability.
That being said, the Raptors are coming off a championship and just lost a player that many believe is one of the three best alive. In all likelihood, they’re not quite ready for primetime again, despite what their record suggests. Toronto’s primary focus now should be building around their young talent and adding even more to a team that is already ahead of schedule.
Their roster isn’t well-aligned from an age standpoint, anyway. Their 25-year-old centerpiece (Pascal Siakam) and relatively young core are on a different trajectory than aging stars Kyle Lowry, 33, Marc Gasol, 34, and Serge Ibaka, 30. What’s more, Gasol and Ibaka are on expiring contracts that’ll be chased by contenders looking to add versatile big men – like Boston.
Lowry is different given what he’s meant to the team and the entire city of Toronto. There is a clear benefit to keeping him on as a locker room leader and having him retire a Raptor. Even if they wanted to move Lowry, it would be challenging as he’s signed through next season.
But that doesn’t mean that moving him isn’t worth exploring. Plenty of contenders would benefit from Lowry’s services, even with another season at $30.5 million. Lowry can still lead a team and he’s a fearless competitor. Cooler, the former All-Star has played better this year than in the previous two seasons, scoring 19.1 points in 37 minutes of action per night across 13 games.
Considering how unlikely the Raptors are to win the Eastern Conference again, they should seriously consider moving at least one of their slightly-older stars. It could be one of their last opportunities to add additional building blocks. And as we saw last February and in previous seasons, contenders make silly deals as the trade deadline approaches.
December is an extremely exciting time for the basketball world. Christmas Day represents the sport’s first real prime time opportunity of the young season. But for many, the holiday comes nine days early as teams can begin trading players who were signed last offseason.
But it doesn’t stop there, intensifying in the lead up to the Feb. 6 trade deadline. So let’s all sit back and enjoy the best time of the year, all kicking off in just two days.
NBA Daily: Devonte’ Graham’s Unfathomable Breakout In Charlotte
Devonte’ Graham never drew high praise in high school, college or in draft prep. Breaking through in his second season is a rarity unlike almost any other. Douglas Farmer writes.
Comparing a sweet-shooting, 6-foot-2 guard in his second year with the woebegone Charlotte Hornets to Draymond Green misses its mark on paper, but the poor-shooting forward in his eighth season — three of which have ended with him and the Golden State Warriors hosting an NBA Finals trophy — may be the only player in the league analogous to Devonte’ Graham.
Teams have sought the next Green since he broke through in his third year, seeking a playmaking forward who could defend all five positions. That largely-fruitless search overlooked what made Green so unique — just how overlooked he was.
The No. 122 player in his recruiting class, per Rivals.com, Green did not break into college basketball’s national consciousness until his senior season when he was named a consensus All-American. That pushed him up draft boards all the way to No. 35. He then toiled on the Warrior bench until stepping in for overpriced veteran and changing the trajectory of the Golden State franchise.
Graham was the No. 36 player in his class, per Rivals.com, but otherwise the parallels are nearly exact, and while not as insulting as Green’s recruiting ranking, Graham’s was hardly flattering. He then became a consensus All-American in his senior season, was drafted No. 34 overall and spent his rookie season primarily on the Hornets’ bench. Now, he has usurped free-agent signee Terry Rozier of his starring role and given Charlotte reason to be excited.
Those reasons to be excited are not limited to the long-term, either, as some of Graham’s 20 points per game have included moments of high drama.
Graham’s second-year explosion has come largely off catch-and-shoot threes, clearly showing how different he is from Green, even if their rises from nowhere are similar. Graham has already made 103 threes in just 27 games, a sample size both large enough to end any “Breakout or Mirage? wonders and put him in the company of James Harden and Stephen Curry.
Only Harden and Curry had made it this far into a season on pace to sink 300 shots from deep, and they are also the only ones to actually do so. Maybe Graham cools off and finishes with a mere 280, but given he spent the first 10 games this season coming off the bench, his current pace will likely send him well past 300.
Either way, Graham was never supposed to end up in a sentence comparing him to two surefire Hall of Famers.
Recruits who debate between Virginia Tech, Providence and North Carolina State before ending up at Kansas, who never garner genuine notice until they are three months shy of turning 25, do not break out like this. They go onto decent NBA careers, if that.
While plenty of highly-ranked prep prospects do not pan out at all, it is even rarer for second-tier recruits to reach professional stardom. Of the 120 players Rivals ranked between No. 30 and No. 50 in the six recruiting classes from 2010 to 2015, only 14 have gained genuine traction in the NBA.
2010: No. 31 Meyers Leonard, No. 44 Gorgui Dieng, No. 48 Terrence Ross
2011: No. 31 Dorian Finney-Smith, No. 34 Ben McLemore, No. 37 Otto Porter, No. 41 Maurice Harkless
2012: No. 40 Willie Cauley-Stein
2013: No. 31 Semi Ojeleye, No. 44 Zach LaVine
2014: No. 36 Devonte’ Graham
2015: No. 31 Donovan Mitchell, No. 43 Malik Beasley, No. 46 Dejounte Murray
Porter, LaVine and Mitchell all earned enough notice in college to be drafted in the lottery. Their development into NBA bucket-getters has not been astonishing. It was their play in college that surprised.
Graham did not impress then. Nor did he impress as a rookie, averaging 4.7 points in 14.7 minutes per game and hitting only 28.1 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.
Becoming a 42.9 percent 3-point shooter was not anyone’s expectation. Even in college, Graham topped out at 40.6 percent from behind the shorter arc as a senior when he averaged 17.3 points per game.
Now, he casually went 7-of-12 from deep for 40 points, 5 assists and 5 rebounds on Wednesday in a 113-108 road win over the Brooklyn Nets. The seventh of those made threes drove the fact one more time that Graham is not a flash in the pan.
“Unconscionable” is an overused word in sports. These are just sports, after all. But if ever a shot was unconscionable, it was that dagger on Wednesday. If not that, it may have been unfathomable.
Unfathomable when only Graham’s late prep development got him to a collegiate blueblood, unfathomable when he hardly flashed at Kansas, unfathomable when he fell into the second round, unfathomable when Charlotte signed Rozier for three years and $58 million.
Graham was never supposed to do any of this, and he shows no signs of stopping.
In the first 10 games of the season coming off the bench, Graham shot 42.5 percent from deep and averaged 17.9 points and 7.6 assists per game. In his 17 starts since then, he is shooting 43.1 percent from deep and averaging 21.2 points and 7.6 assists per game.
His consistency has rendered the 6-foot-1 Rozier not just an overpriced point guard, but a lineup liability. With both of them on the floor, Charlotte has a minus-3.1 rating per 100 possessions, getting exposed on defense with an undersized backcourt. With Graham on but Rozier off, the Hornets are plus-1.6. The offensive ratings are within a tenth of a point, but the latter lineup is 4.8 points better per 100 possessions on defense.
Come Sunday, Rozier can be traded. Finding a taker for his onerous deal may be more difficult than one for Graham’s, which pays him only $1.4 million this year and $1.7 million next. Regardless, if Charlotte moves one of them, the organization will be in a better position moving forward because of Graham’s eruption.
At no point was it considered Graham could change the franchise’s direction like this.
Then again, it was never expected of Green, either.
Buy Or Sell: Central Division
Drew Mays continues Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series by taking a look at the Central Division.
It’s Dec. 12, and we’re over a quarter of the way through the 2019-20 NBA season. More importantly, we’re three days away from the 15th – the day much of the league because trade-eligible.
By now, teams have a good idea of who they are and where they want to be in four months when the playoffs roll around. This means they also know something else: Whether what they have in the locker room is enough, if they’re missing a piece, or if their season is toast and they should wheel and deal before the February trade deadline.
These thoughts inspired the Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series. Matt John led us off a few days ago by breaking down the Northwest Division. Yesterday, Jordan Hicks batted second with the Southwest Division. Today we’ll be checking on the division with the hottest team in the NBA: The Central.
Milwaukee Bucks (22-3) – Buyers (?)
Can anyone stop Milwaukee? They’ve won 16 straight, 20 of 21, and haven’t lost since Nov. 8. While part of this stretch has involved beating up lesser teams — and winning games you’re supposed to isn’t a bad thing — undoubtedly the most impressive performance came last Friday at home against the Los Angeles Clippers. They won 119-91 and it was even uglier than that. Los Angeles was down nine at halftime and 25 after three quarters. The Bucks held the Clippers’ three offensive stars – Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Lou Williams – to 15-for-39 shooting and forced them into 15 turnovers (LA shot 35 percent and committed 21 turnovers as a team).
What Milwaukee did to the Clippers isn’t an outlier, either. They’ve blitzed the entire league on both ends of the floor. They’re first in defensive rating, third in offensive rating and first in average margin of victory at 13.4 points. They aren’t just winning – they’re winning big. They have the best effective field goal percentage in the NBA and the second-best allowed on defense.
The Bucks are deep and have 12 guys that get significant minutes. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only player above 30 minutes per game, with the rest of the roster falling in succession down to Robin Lopez’s 14.5 per. They’re shooting extremely well while still making the third-most threes per game in the league at 14.4. Nine different players make at least one every game.
Even scarier, Giannis keeps evolving. His three-point shooting volume has been a revelation – he’s taking five each night. He’s never taken more than three. And even shooting only 31.9 percent, the attempts in themselves (and Giannis’ willingness to shoot them) has opened up the offense more than ever before. It’s led to Antetokounmpo somehow topping his numbers from last season – he’s up from 27.7/12.5/5.9 to 30.9/13.2/5.5. Sheesh.
There’s a huge scoring drop off after Giannis, though. Only Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez join him in double figures. They could use another scorer or playmaker. People have long half-jokingly floated the idea of Chris Paul, but that seems unlikely. There may not be a player on the market worth chasing based on their needs.
Still, the lack of extra scoring punch behind the MVP might not even be an issue until the postseason. Until then, Milwaukee fans can enjoy the ride – the Bucks shouldn’t have worries for a while.
Indiana Pacers (16-9) – Buyers
After a slow start, Indiana has rejoined the upper cluster of the Eastern Conference. They’ve won nine of their last 12 and sit in the top half of the league in both offensive (15th) and defensive (10th) rating.
Like Milwaukee, Indiana boasts a ton of depth – they have nine regulars that play over 17 minutes per game. Malcolm Brogdon continues to be the Pacers’ engine, averaging 19.5/4.5/7.5. TJ Warren seems to have found his footing and Domantas Sabonis has been a beast, scoring 18.2 and grabbing 13.5 rebounds every night.
That said, the Pacers suffer a similar problem as the Bucks – they lack high-end talent. Their better part of the rotation is similar to Milwaukee’s non-Giannis top players; they’re useful, productive role players, but not guys you expect to beat teams with more star power.
This lends itself to Indiana being buyers over the next few months. They could add another on-ball threat to pair with Brogdon, thus making things easier for Sabonis and the assist-allergic Warren. TJ McConnell and the pair of Holiday brothers have performed admirably to this point, but no one in the conference is batting an eye at those three.
Of course, the Pacers already have a top-flight scorer and shot creator coming – Victor Oladipo. Oladipo has been out since January and is expected to return in the next few months.
Assuming he’s able to at all, it’ll take him time to get back to form. The likeliest scenario isn’t that the Pacers buy prior to the deadline, but that they continue rolling out their massive lineup and stay the course until their star returns.
Detroit Pistons (10-14) – Buyers
The Pistons are right where they want to be.
Well, maybe not. But after years of mediocre teams and 8th-seed finishes, seeing Detroit a handful of games under .500 and in the 9th spot in the Eastern Conference feels like home.
Detroit is 10th in offensive rating and 16th in defensive rating. Those numbers usually mean postseason appearances, especially in the weaker conference. A five-game losing streak in mid-November slowed their progress, but the 6-4 mark since Nov. 22 in about what you’d expect them to be.
But Blake Griffin has not looked like Blake Griffin. Maybe it’s injury-related, maybe it’s age-related. But a player of his caliber – especially coming off his sneaky-great 2018-19 – should regain form.
Andre Drummond is still doing Andre Drummond things. And as we detailed in October, Derrick Rose looks better than he has in years – he’s averaging 16.1 and 5.8 in just under 24 minutes per game.
The Pistons are buyers because the track record shows they don’t embrace the tank — Exhibit A: the Blake Griffin trade — and their age. Some middling teams prefer to bottom-out and rebuild. Detroit has proven their propensity to just hang around, winning 38-42 games each year before getting trounced in the postseason. That’s admirable; it’s hard to win games in the NBA. Trying to do so, even with moderate success, isn’t a bad thing.
Detroit’s top scorers are Griffin (30), Rose (31), Drummond (26), Luke Kennard (23), Markieff Morris (30) and Langston Galloway (24). Kennard has been pretty good, but Galloway isn’t inspiring fear in anybody. Drummond, still relatively young, cannot be a A or B option as a scorer. Detroit went after the now 30-year-old Griffin a few years ago and Rose this past summer. Those are win-now, stay-relevant moves and there isn’t a lot of flexibility there.
Accordingly, it wouldn’t surprise to see Detroit try and get a few players leading up to February. The only player they might try to unload is the currently-injured Reggie Jackson – although it’s hard to imagine who would want him.
Chicago Bulls (9-17) – Sellers
It’s been repeated for months now: The Bulls, 9-17 and 11th in the Eastern Conference, are a disappointment. They talked up the playoffs preseason only to fall victim to the same prey as they did last year. The injuries have been less (although Otto Porter Jr. has been out since Nov. 8 and Lauri Markkanen has dealt with an oblique injury), but it hasn’t translated to wins.
Chicago’s defense has improved – they’re up to 12th in defensive rating – but their offense continues to be bottom-barrel, currently 26th in the NBA. The two though-to-be stars in Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen have struggled; LaVine has been up (49 points and 13 threes in Charlotte on Nov. 23) and down (5 points on 2-for-11 against Detroit on Nov. 20) offensively and rough on defense. Elsewhere, Markkanen has been outright disappointing by managing just 14.5 points per on 39.3 from the field and 32.7 from three-point range.
There have been reported internal riffs, plus tons of questions about head coach Jim Boylen, his fit for the job and whether the players respond to him.
Even if it gets better for the Bulls, it’s unlikely it does so in a way meaningful enough to meet preseason expectations. Chicago should be looking to sell, whether it’s Kris Dunn or players higher on the totem pole. The front office may not want to hear it, but there’d be a market for both LaVine and Markkanen.
Whether they explore that market or not remains to be seen.
Cleveland Cavaliers (5-19) – Sellers
The Cavaliers aren’t good, but we all expected that. They’re 29th in offense and 28th in defense, and they’ve won just one of their last 15 games – including their current eight-game losing streak.
Collin Sexton looks similar to his rookie year, except now his three-point shooting is down. Cedi Osman and Jordan Clarkson are both shooting 41 percent. Darius Garland is shooting 37.9 from the field, and leads the team with a putrid 2.8 assists per game.
— Bootum (@DaRealBootum) December 12, 2019
That clip also shows us the reason the Cavaliers are maybe the biggest sellers of the trade period: Kevin Love.
Love’s numbers are down across the board. He’s averaging 15.7 and 10.5 rebounds per game on 43.8 percent from the field and 35.4 from three. Much of that can be explained by playing on a wholly uncompetitive team – other franchises want Love, a proven championship commodity who rebounds and stretches the floor.
Jason Lloyd of The Athletic reported today that Cleveland was seeking a first-round pick in exchange for Love. Lloyd also mentioned the problem with Love: He’s more expensive than Oklahoma City’s Danilo Galinari, but the latter is on an expiring deal.
Still, Love is a valuable player, and somebody that contenders will jump at once the deadline nears and executives are pressed to make a move. Portland has long been tied to the forward, but their standing in the Western Conference will factor into their willingness to take him on.
Regardless, it would be shocking (and almost implausible) to see Kevin Love in Cleveland past Feb. 6.
December is a big month for basketball – the Christmas day games are the most-watched regular season event on the NBA’s calendar. But something even more important than those matchups is only three days away, when much of the league becomes trade eligible.
Dec. 15 starts the race to Feb. 6. By then, we’ll know exactly who teams are as we look ahead to another NBA postseason.
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