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2015-16 Denver Nuggets Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Denver Nuggets’ 2015-16 season.

Basketball Insiders

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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.

Five Thoughts

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

Alex Kennedy

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

Strengths

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

Weaknesses

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

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NBA Daily: Breaking Down The Bubble’s Race For 8th

Ben Nadeau analyzes the race for the No. 8 and 9 spots in the Western Conference – who will make the cut?

Ben Nadeau

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As the NBA inched toward its inevitable rebirth, the instant drama surrounding the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed became a conversation wildfire.

Was the league rolling out the red carpet in hopes of a Zion Williamson-LeBron James showdown in the first round? Could the healthier Portland Trail Blazers make another historic run toward history? De’Aaron Fox, the Sacramento franchise cornerstone, took umbrage over a lack of Kings-related faith, while the Memphis Grizzlies had more than enough ground to protect their standing in the current hierarchy.

Three or so games in to our bubbled adventure, everything has changed – and fast.

The Pelicans, still worrisome over Williamson’s health and conditioning, played him about 15 minutes in each of their first two contests – coincidently, New Orleans went 0-2. With their backs against the wall and slowly losing traction in a muddied race, the Pelicans played the future superstar for 25 minutes, where he racked up 23 points, seven rebounds and used a personal 6-0 run to clinch a much-needed win. Not only did the victory signify an important swing in momentum for the veteran-laden squad, but it was another crushing defeat for Grizzlies, who fell to 0-3 and further loosened their once-gridlocked hold on the final playoff seed.

Long perceived to be a five-team fight for the right to face Memphis in the play-in game(s), the Grizzlies’ early struggles have now nearly opened both spots up. All the more interesting, the San Antonio Spurs have begun 2-1, alongside the Phoenix Suns’ 2-0 effort. Although invited without much media afterthought, both the Spurs and Suns – who boast two of the most reliable constants of the bunch, Gregg Popovich and Devin Booker, respectively – are within the four-game window needed to force a play-in too.

So then: Thanks to the Grizzlies’ scuffles, who’ll be the two franchises to reach that play-in showdown?

Let’s start with the Pelicans, a team that’ll be better the more Williamson is allowed on the floor, obviously. While that variable remains up in the air, New Orleans’ remaining schedule is not. They’ll finish with the Kings twice, plus winnable matchups against the Spurs, Wizards and Magic. Although that opening day loss versus Utah stings, there’s no shame in falling to the Clippers, so the opportunity is certainly still there for the Pelicans to reach Nos. 8 or 9 in the coming days.

The Spurs, following a hard-fought effort against Philadelphia on Monday, unfortunately, have a much harder path forward: Denver, Utah, New Orleans, Houston and Utah. No Magic, no Nets, no Kings, even. Just New Orleans and three teams currently fighting for ‘home court’ advantage in the first round. Of course, betting against Gregg Popovich is beyond stupid and that is a lesson some select few must re-learn every spring – but they still seem like the least likely of six to leapfrog into a spot.

Likewise, it isn’t much better for Phoenix. They’ll conclude with the Clippers, Indiana Pacers and T.J. Warren’s supernova act, Miami HEAT, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks. Thankfully, Mikal Bridges’ efforts in Orlando and Ricky Rubio’s trusty playmaking have served as great foils for Deandre Ayton and the aforementioned Booker. Overall, their offensive rating just cracks the top half (15th, 110.4) and their defense remains in the lower half – but stars win games and Booker fits the bill.

Even the Kings, losers to the Spurs and Magic to open their bubble campaign, get the Pelicans twice but also a downright bad Brooklyn Nets squad and a potentially-resting Los Angeles Lakers team in four of their final five games – so don’t count them out either. With their destiny firmly in hand, expect the Kings to make a run of their own. Fox put up 39 points against San Antonio before tallying just 13 versus Orlando – and, in the latter, Sacramento’s only scorer above 15 went to Harry Giles’ 23. Given the context and a very winnable schedule, the next week or so bodes well for the Kings’ hopes.

As for Portland, the squad with the most bankable 1-2 punch of the collection, have an impossibly-tough Rockets-Nuggets-Clippers-76ers run-in before ending with the Mavericks and Nets. Worse, that stretch of difficult opposition will come fast and furious – a classic three games in four days slog. But above all, their defense leaves too much to be desired, even with the return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Before the shutdown, Portland’s defense was only better than the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards at 113.6 in the ratings department.

In the two games back, well, it’s actually been even worse and their putrid 132.0 defensive rating is a whopping 7 points behind the Kings’ 29th-rated unit. It’s early and the sample size is certainly small – but with only six games left, they’ll need to figure it out in the against some of the league’s best. Still, Damian Lillard is a big-moment killer – he did, after all, break up the Thunder core on his own last April – and he’s capable of hot streaks that few others are.

Lillard and Nurkic put up 30 points apiece against Boston – plus 17 from CJ McCollum and 21 notched by Gary Trent Jr. – and totaled 124 as a team… yet it still wasn’t enough. The heroics of Portland’s stars will be relentless, but if they can’t stop the opposition – they’ll come up short.

In the end, even guessing at Nos. 8 and 9 is a fool’s errand. The Bubble has provided shock after shock already – and the added hurdle of rested players for locked-in seeds are soon to come – but six teams will be whittled down to two before long. Despite the slow start, Memphis remains in the driver’s seat – if they can pick up a win on Wednesday versus a seriously-slumping Jazz side, it’ll go a long way toward clinching their place.

And they’d better hope so: If they don’t, they’ll need to hope for some load management with the Thunder, Raptors, Celtics and Bucks to end the mini-campaign. It’s one of the tougher schedules left in the Western Conference, but their cushion, no matter how rapidly it is shrinking, is still reason to believe they’ll limp into the do-or-die scenario.

As for the second spot, it still feels like the Pelicans’ to lose. Between Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick, Brandon Ingram and, duh, Williamson, there’s too much firepower here to completely struggle through an easier-than-most schedule.

But, sure, bet against Gregg Popovich, Damian Lillard, De’Aaron Fox and Devin Booker at your own risk – conventional wisdom suggests that at least one of them will crash the party, no matter how unlikely it seems today.

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NBA Daily: The Bubble’s Biggest Dark Horses

With the NBA’s restart underway and the postseason around the corner, Shane Rhodes looks at a few teams that could make some noise and prove the league’s biggest dark horse title contenders.

Shane Rhodes

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It’s official: basketball is back.

It may have taken 142 days, but the NBA has returned and seeding games are underway in Orlando. Better yet, and while the heightened intensity of these first few games may make it seem like we’re already there, the postseason is just around the corner.

But what are the playoffs going to look like, exactly? Aside from the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, the field is wide open — even teams that struggled during the regular season have a real chance to make some noise.

In fact, the lead up to the postseason has afforded those teams a clean slate, a fresh start and the opportunity to tweak with the formula that failed them in the regular season.

Of course, some rosters are simply too depleted to make any noise. But others, if they can pivot and put their best foot forward, have the chance to emerge as dark horse title threats.

So, which teams have the best chance to come out of nowhere, surprise everyone and, just maybe, punch their ticket to the NBA Finals?

Philadelphia 76ers

The regular season wasn’t exactly kind to the 76ers. And, staring down a 10-24 road record pre-restart, the move to Orlando may only prove worse for them.

But their talent is undeniable, and there’s too much of it on the roster to just cast the team aside.

Despite that abysmal record, the 76ers proved they could dominate with their collective head in the game — their 29-2 record at home was the best in the NBA. They sport a stingy defense and two of the NBA’s best on that end with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Meanwhile, their size — Raul Neto and Zhaire Smith are the only two on the roster shorter than 6-foot-5 — should give them an advantage in almost any situation.

It may even make them the best potential matchup for the top-dog in the Eastern Conference, the Bucks.

Yes, they are a bit of a clunky fit on offense. But Embiid and Simmons represent two of the brightest young stars — they can make it work, adjusting as needed on a series-to-series basis. Paired with Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson, among others, they shouldn’t lack for help, either.

An early-season favorite to at least make the Eastern Conference Finals, Philadelphia no doubt disappointed this season — for some reason, it just didn’t click for them. It may never.

But on paper, the 76ers have enough talent to compete with anyone. If they can fit the pieces together and hit their stride in the first round, don’t be surprised if they go on a lengthy postseason run.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Currently the sixth seed out West, can the Thunder even be considered a dark horse?

But since they never should have been there in the first place – most definitely.

With Paul George gone to Los Angeles and Russell Westbrook to Houston last summer, nobody expected Oklahoma City to be relevant in 2020. With an aging star in Chris Paul — who, at the time, looked like he wanted nothing to do with the team — and a bunch of players that looked more like trade bait than contributors, they looked dead in the water and stocked up on draft picks.

And yet, here they are, giant slayers in position to snag a top-four seed.

Paul, in a bounce-back year, has elevated the entire roster. Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari, quality veterans in their own right, have been strong, uber-efficient contributors. Dennis Schroder has emerged as one of the league’s best sixth-men, while Sam Presti’s diamond-in-the-rough, Luguentz Dort, has grown from a raw defensive specialist into a surprise starter and arguably their best defender.

And, most importantly, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seems to have leaped toward stardom. The Canadian guard was a stud as a sophomore, averaging 19.3 points, six rebounds and 3.3 assists on strong shooting splits.

They don’t have a legit star to carry them — Paul, despite the resurgence, isn’t the player he once was and Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t quite there yet. But come the postseason, it may not matter. The Thunder are one of the most balanced teams in the NBA; they spread it out on offense — Gallinari, Gilgeous-Alexander, Paul and Schroder averaged at least 17 points for the season — and are a top 10 defensive unit returning one of the league’s best on that end in Andre Roberson.

It’ll be ugly, for sure, but the Thunder don’t care. They’ll scratch and claw their way to wins as they have the whole season. They may not make the Finals, but they are a lock to make life difficult for some other team(s) looking to bring home the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Portland Trail Blazers

Portland has yet to punch their ticket to the big dance, and they have a long road ahead of them before they can. But should they sneak in, they may prove the most dangerous team in the postseason.

Just a season ago, the Trail Blazers were a top-four seed and, despite the loss of Jusuf Nurkic, a Western Conference Finals participant. Unfortunately, it all seemed to come crashing down in the regular season. Already at a disadvantage without Nurkic at the center spot, the team lost Zach Collins to a major shoulder injury just three games into the season and, later, Rodney Hood to a torn left Achilles.

Had the season gone on as scheduled, no one would have blamed the Trail Blazers for throwing in the towel. An ugly 29-37 before the shutdown, there just wasn’t much the team could do to bolster their postseason odds.

But now they’ve been gifted a second chance. The stoppage in play allowed every team to rest and recuperate, yes, but arguably no team benefited more from that time than Portland — and teams are starting to take notice.

The threat presented by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum is obvious. But with the roster back near 100 percent health, the team may pose a legitimate threat to the Western Conference crown. Collins’ presence on defense was sorely missed, to say the least. Nurkic, meanwhile, has played as if he hadn’t missed the last year and change. In two bubble games, the Bosnian Beast has averaged 24 points, nine rebounds, five assists, two steals and 3.5 blocks.

Both players should significantly alleviate the burden placed on Lillard’s shoulders as well, further enabling him to crush opposing defenses.

At the moment, the Trail Blazers are the Western Conference’s ninth seed, just two games back of the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth spot. If they remain within four games, Portland could earn themselves a play-in and potentially jump the Grizzlies (or whomever the eighth seed might be) and steal the last spot in the postseason.

And if they force their way in? The NBA better watch out.

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NBA Daily: Scattered Bubble Thoughts

Four days into The Bubble, Matt John relays some of the observations he’s made since the 2019-20 NBA season has resumed play.

Matt John

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It didn’t sound possible back in March, but the 2019-20 NBA season has finally resumed! We should enjoy the rest of the regular season while we can because, before you know it, we’ll be entering the playoffs. Though Major League Baseball definitely has some more kinks to work out, the NBA has had no issues to speak of since continuing the season in Disney World and its Bubble.

We’ve only had four days of NBA games so far, and we’re going to learn a lot more in the coming weeks, but in the short time we’ve had basketball back, there’s plenty that may have an impact on the final result of the 2019-20 season.

“Defense? What’s that?”

Let’s face it: The NBA is more fun to watch when there are more points on the board. Thanks to the three-point revolution, we’re more likely to get high-scoring games than in the past because of every team’s emphasis on spreading the floor. Thus far, we’ve seen a lot of high scoring games. A lot. More so than we would expect during a typical season.

It’s still early, but in the 19 games we’ve had so far, only two boasted a team being held to less than 100 points – both were on Aug. 1 when the Utah Jazz put up 94 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers put up 92 against the Toronto Raptors. Besides those rare instances, every team has scored 100+. In fact, on Jul. 31, the lowest scoring output for a victorious team was when the Milwaukee Bucks hung 119 on the Boston Celtics.

Honestly, none of this should have come as any surprise. Many suspected that while players have been working earnestly on their games, both individually and with their team, getting their defensive timing back was going to take some time. This should clear up when everyone gets their legs back, especially when the pool of teams shrinks from 22 to 16 and beyond that. Over time, anticipate lower scores, or at least scores to not be nearly as consistently high

Kemba’s Knee – So Far, So Good

There was a lot of justified concern surrounding whether Kemba Walker’s ailing knee would be ready for when the season started. The fact of the matter was that the injury coincided with him tallying some putrid numbers before the season was put on pause. And given his need to still rehab it four months after that is a flag so red you may as well call it scarlet.

In spite of his insistence to play more, Boston has been conservative with their All-Star point guard since the league resumed play. In the 41 minutes total that he’s played in Boston’s first two games, Walker looked more like his old self than he did in February and March.

In Boston’s first game against Milwaukee, he put up 16 points on 5-for-9 shooting which included hitting three of the six three-pointers he attempted in all of 19 minutes. The next game against Portland, he put up 14 points on 5-for-6 shooting from deep in only 22 minutes.

Even when Walker was slumping, he still had a couple of 20+ scoring performances – so why are these so encouraging? Because, besides the fact that his burst looks back to normal, the last time Walker shot better than 40 percent was on Jan. 26. Efficiency was never really Walker’s strong suit to begin with, but barely shooting over 30 percent is definitely not something you expect to see from him. So this, even in spurts, is worth celebrating.

What is yet to be seen is if Walker can do this when his workload increases or, better yet, when the stakes get higher – but Boston has to be excited to smoothish sailing so far. If these numbers aren’t a fluke and the Celtics get Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker at their individual peaks this season, then they become just as dangerous as they were potentially feared to be. If not more so.

Two Playoff Teams Trending In Different Directions

Utah and Oklahoma City squared off on Aug 1, and even though the Thunder won by 16 in the end, the game was pretty much never in doubt. OKC controlled the pace from the very start and led by as many as 29 at one point. Despite Utah remaining in the thick of the playoff race, this was another in what seems like a long line of frustrating losses during an overall underwhelming season. At least now, Bojan Bogdanovic’s season-ending wrist injury gives them an excuse they didn’t have before.

Jazz fans have probably heard all about what’s gone wrong for the boys in Salt Lake so there’s no need to harp over the issues they’ve had both on and off the court. What’s really stood out about their game against the Thunder was the opposing team’s roster design. That bunch is currently led by the likes of:

  • An aging but very experienced/skilled All-Star point guard (Chris Paul)
  • One of the league’s promising young guards (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander)
  • A monster defensive presence on the interior (Steven Adams)
  • A secondary scorer capable of shooting from anywhere (Danilo Gallinari)

Hold on, wasn’t this who the Jazz were supposed to be this season? A playoff contender that may not have boasted the most star power, but the lack of holes in its roster should have made them incredibly hard to topple? We did get to see that team after all. It just wasn’t in Utah. The Thunder have become one of the league’s most entertaining underdogs, while the Jazz have mired in disarray and uncertainty.

Despite that the two’s records are neck-and-neck – Utah (42-24) has a half-game lead over Oklahoma City (41-24) – the former seems stuck in the same rut they were before the season halted. While the latter has been deceptively better than we’re giving them credit for even though they were already exceeding expectations in the first place.

About That Last Spot In The West

Remember the whole conspiracy everyone had that the NBA constructed these temporary playoff rules in The Bubble as just an excuse to get Zion Williamson into the playoffs? Well, whether it’s true or not, New Orleans doesn’t seem to be taking advantage of it. They’ve restricted Williamson’s minutes pretty strangely thus far. With him being off the court for the majority of the game, the Pelicans flat out don’t look ready for the big time just yet. They lost a very winnable game against Utah in the first game back, then got flat-out embarrassed by the Los Angeles Clippers. A lot of rookies don’t usually single-handedly alter a team’s fortunes, but we all know Williamson is a rare breed.

Lucky for them, their schedule eases up a lot following those two games. They then face Memphis, Sacramento (twice), Washington, Orlando and San Antonio. Those are among the lower squads in the 22-team bubble, but they still have to get through a fair amount of competitors for that last spot. San Antonio and Phoenix have won its first two games, and, of course, they’re dealing with Portland now too.

The Trail Blazers, as we are all being reminded, are a much different animal with Jusuf Nurkic back and healthy. Nurkic’s smarts and girth make him such an intimidating presence on the floor that it opens up much more of the floor for the two backcourt stars. He’s primarily the reason why they beat Memphis and were one basket or two away from defeating Boston. Zach Collins’ return also makes a difference, but Nurkic alone makes Portland so much better than their current record is.

It really is such a shame that Portland never had its full squad healthy this season. Imagine what this team could have been with Trevor Ariza and Rodney Hood, too.

After losing its first two games, Memphis is going to have its hands full trying to stave off rivals for that last spot. Many thought the Pelicans were going to be the team to overthrow them, but the Trail Blazers won’t be going down without a fight.

Of course, there have been more noteworthy instances that have come up but we can only talk about so much. There’s plenty of basketball left to be played, so many of this scenarios could be turned on their head in the next week. Still, the early signs are of overall success for the NBA – but there’s rust to kick off around the league.

What has stood out to you since the NBA resumed in The Bubble?

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