Coming into college, Romeo Langford was a five-star recruit and the second-ranked shooting guard in the country. At New Albany High School in his hometown, the Indiana native decided to play all four years there instead of choosing the prep school route.
Langford’s natural ability to score the ball and make plays for others garnered plenty of national attention and elevated him to the 2018 McDonald’s All-American Game, where the world was introduced to his talents on a grander stage. The impressive, young swingman went on to be recognized as his home state’s Mr. Basketball in his senior season before committing to the area’s most popular school, Indiana University.
Hoosier Nation was absolutely thrilled to have Langford join their family. Not only was he a local, but he was also a star in the making that could likely propel Indiana to the top of the Big Ten as a freshman. Unfortunately for both parties, though, the season didn’t turn out to be what they had hoped for.
Langford had to battle through multiple injuries from the beginning of the year, including a lingering torn ligament on his shooting hand that clearly affected and hindered his capability to knock down shots. While he could have gone down an easier path by sitting out, Langford decided to play through the pain and show his teammates that he wasn’t going to school just for a one-way ticket to the NBA.
Alas, Indiana needed him to be healthier. After starting the season 12-2, the team went on to win just one of its next 13 games. There were losing streaks of seven and five during the stretch from early January to late February. And despite closing the season by winning four in a row, a first-round conference tournament loss sent the Hoosiers to the National Invitation Tournament. It would be Langford’s final game wearing the candy stripes.
The next stop for Langford is the NBA. Most mock drafts seem to have him ranged between the lower end of the lottery and the middle of the first round.
“I guess you could say I’m under the radar now,” Langford said at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. “So now I gotta just earn my respect back, and I feel like when I have my respect back and I’m fighting for these positions, fighting to be a higher pick. I feel like that shows that I am passionate about the game and I enjoy it.
“It really doesn’t surprise me based off what they saw. That’s what they’re going off of. But I feel like it doesn’t really matter what number you get picked. It matters what team and the fit and where you produce once you get there.”
According to a staffer at Indiana, the best may be yet to come for the standout 19-year-old guard.
With the NBA Draft only 16 nights away, Basketball Insiders is giving you an Insider’s Look at Romeo Langford through the eyes of this staffer, who spent a great amount of time with him during the season in Bloomington.
The second that Langford arrived on campus, it was clear he was special.
In the first month of practice, the confident freshman didn’t take long to cement his presence in the program. Indiana’s coaching staff uses a point system in their drills. At the end of the sessions, the leader in points gets bragging rights and is allowed to give his input on a few things regarding practice methods.
According to the staffer, who wishes to remain anonymous, as soon as Langford learned about the competition, he went right at the team’s veteran leader—6-foot-8, 232-pound forward Juwan Morgan.
“He was competing at the highest level against a senior – who’d been there for four years, who’s bigger and stronger,” the staffer told Basketball Insiders. “It didn’t take long for [Romeo] to start winning the practice points. You could tell right away just given his body, his athleticism, his length, his speed, everything that is his package. He’s just different, that’s why he’s gonna be a lottery pick.”
Despite the ailing thumb, Langford was never shy to attack the basket. Using his 6-foot-6, 215-pound frame, he drove past guys and finished with grace with both hands, making it look like he wasn’t even trying. The size and length are big reasons why, and he’s able to control it well.
The staffer recalls two memorable games that stuck out to him during the season.
“At Penn State in the first half,” the staffer said. “He scored like eight straight on some silly shots – stepback in the corner over Mike Watkins, stepback to the top of the key. That was definitely one. He had a moment probably every game. He’d rip baseline when the baseline wasn’t even open and he’d tight-rope it and finish at the rim. You’d just wonder, ‘How’d he do that?’
“Another moment was in the Maryland game [where he dropped 28 points]. In the second half, he was cookin’. There was flashes every game with a stepback or a one-dribble from the NBA line to get to the rim. Whatever it was, he just makes it look so easy.”
There is no question about Langford’s work ethic. The staffer asserts he’s very coachable, is a great teammate, isn’t confrontational and certainly isn’t “soft” as some perceive him to be. Rather, Langford experienced the hardships of a tough season with the Hoosiers and grinding through the injuries was one of the first times he had dealt with adversity. Yet, Langford managed and made the best out of it.
“He averaged 16.5 points in arguably the best league in America,” the staffer said. “Whoever was guarding him, their number one objective was to stop Romeo Langford and he still averaged 16.5. So when people say if he ever backed away from a challenge, his numbers kinda spoke for themselves.”
Langford also tied for the top usage percentage (26.1) among freshman in the Big Ten with Ignas Brazdeikis and boasted the 11th-best in the conference overall. Looking at ball screen and pick-and-roll statistics on Synergy, he and Michigan State’s Cassius Winston were two of the top players in the country.
Mind you, this was all with the weight of the state and university on his hampered shoulders.
“Obviously in the state of Indiana, there’s a ton of pressure on him, and I thought he handled that like a true pro, whether it was signing autographs, taking pictures, whatever it may be,” the staffer said. “He never gave the cold shoulder to any kids or anything like that and I kinda think that speaks volumes about how he was brought up and raised and all that type of stuff.”
Langford is extremely close to his family. He came up through the church, knows the difference between right and wrong and is as respectful as they come. We’re talking about “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am” type of manners. Yes, there are some nights where he stays up late or plays Fortnite for a little too long, but he doesn’t smoke or drink, isn’t rude, didn’t miss class or rebel against anybody.
As far as his circle goes, it’s pretty tight. Due to the bond he has with his mother (Sabrina), father (Tim) and sisters (Tiffany and Tisha), Langford is well-protected. His personal trainers, Jonathan Jeanty and Kenneth Dion Lee, are good friends of the family and have been around Romeo since he was in elementary school. Tim seems to be “running his show” when it comes to making decisions and determining who is a positive influence on his son.
Romeo is inspired by everyone in his family and wants to make them proud.
“I feel like they have a big part in me being the man I am today,” Langford said. “And one of the reasons I am playing this sport [is] just so I can be able to provide and help my family in the long run. They’ve helped me a lot. Just being there for me. If I have any questions, I can go to them and talk.”
Family is where Langford gets his personality from too. He’s a quiet individual and it’s not easy to hear him when he speaks in a crowded room. He isn’t much of a talker in the first place. Even so, he is easy to get along with and very likable.
“At first, he’ll probably come off as shy and softspoken, but once he gets comfortable around you and trusts that his best interest is in your hands, [he’ll open up],” the staffer said.
“He has a lot of people kinda pulling him, so he’s able to identify who’s there for him and who’s trying to use him. He has a really good sense of that. So once he kinda gets past that initial shy stage, he’s a really, really good kid about the right things.”
On the court, Langford’s skill set is extremely versatile, making him the perfect fit for a constantly evolving league in the association.
“I just feel like my game translates real well for the NBA, where the NBA’s going right now and I’m just built for it,” Langford said.
“His athleticism and his size and his frame allow him to do a lot. I think right away, he’s gonna be able to be a two-way player,” the staffer said. “Obviously, he still has a lot to learn defensive side, but just given his measurables and his frame and his lateral ability and his quickness, his jumping ability – he, right away, will be able to guard the two and the three in the league at his size and his athleticism. So I think that’ll translate seamlessly.”
As specified by the staffer, Langford is at his best with the ball in his hands. He can operate in the two-man game as the handler, set solid ball screens and is adept at making sharp outlet passes in transition.
“He has good IQ,” the staffer continued. “He kinda knows what he’s looking for, whether to throw back off a ball screen, if they put two on the ball or if nobody hedges or shows, he can get in the lane, he’s got really good touch on the floater.”
In furthering his assessment, the staffer believes Langford has to improve his catch-and-shoot threes. The Indiana product is much better and visibly comfortable off the bounce on pull-up jumpers and stepbacks, and he personally agrees with both notions.
Langford plans to stay in the gym to continuously work on his shot. He knows that the thumb injury affected the way the numbers turned out. After all, if you can’t firmly grip and handle the basketball, how can you properly shoot it?
At the same time, he doesn’t use that as an excuse and understands his mechanics could still use some work.
“My form needs a couple things tweaked here and there,” Langford said. “But I can still shoot the ball. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about that…”
The staffer appreciates Langford’s candor and backs his claim.
“I do legit think that his thumb was an issue for him,” the staffer said. “Now, I also think that throughout the course of the year, he got better, he became a better shooter through our program, through the repetition, through everything that we were working with him on. He got better as the year progressed. It wasn’t necessarily his strong suit coming in because he’s just so talented.
“In the end, the jumper now – it’s almost like he didn’t really have to [have one] because he just gets by people and finishes at the rim. I think that was misconstrued a little bit. I think he’s gonna get better and better as a shooter. as his pro career kinda develops and he gets in the right system and he’s able to rep it out and his thumb gets healthy.”
Langford and the staffer both contend that it was a shame he couldn’t go through the full NBA Draft Combine process.
The staffer would’ve predicted him to finish in the top five in at least in every category. Langford would’ve bet on himself to place at the very top of the 2019 crop of prospects.
“Without a doubt, yes, sir,” Langford said.”I feel like I would’ve performed pretty well out there. At least I wish I could’ve [done] some of the testing.”
One particular question often comes up to the soon-to-be rookie: Do you really love the game of basketball?
Langford maintains this is a common misconception due to how he reacts to big plays and his calm, cool and collected manner on the hardwood.
“The main thing I want guys to realize is how much passion I have for the game, how much love I have for the game and how that dog mentality—actually having it, though it may not seem like it the way I carry myself,” Langford says.
“Just ‘cause I don’t show too much emotion out on the court on the outside doesn’t mean I don’t really love the game, which I actually do love. . . I’m not gonna change myself. Damian Lillard doesn’t really show too much emotion. He has a stone face most of the time, but people don’t question his passion and stuff for the game, so it really doesn’t bother me.”
Having observed him up close and personal, the staffer says Langford’s demeanor doesn’t define his palpable presence when he’s playing.
“He’s never gonna be like an overly emotional, rah-rah type guy,” the staffer said. “What you see is what you get with his personality. I would call it even-keeled whether we were up 20 or down 20, 10-game losing streak, five-game losing streak – just consistent with his everyday approach.”
When asked to compare himself to somebody, Langford didn’t want to say. Though, he was willing to say his playing style is similar to that of Bradley Beal. He envisions a similar type of career for himself and is confident he could play a role like the veteran Washington Wizards All-Star guard.
So what needs to happen in order for Langford to reach his fullest potential?
“It’s all about just development. That’s what it is these days,” the staffer said. “Obviously spending time with the coaches and understanding what they’re asking of him and him being on the same page, doing what they ask. And it’s gonna come down to just hard work. It takes time to mature at the end of the day. He’s 19 years old and what you don’t know is what you don’t know. So he’s still got a lot to learn.
“But whoever gets him, if they develop him and spend time with him and get him into the gym and work on his shot mechanics and all that type of stuff, there’s a lot that he can do. He’s a smart player that has IQ, which sometimes you just get these uber-talented dudes that are ball dominant, know how to play, know what they’re looking for. Romeo just has a really good feel for what’s going on, who’s open, all that type of stuff. He is a sharp kid.”
Of course, situation and fit also play a crucial part in all of this at the pro level. Will he play off the bench? Will he start? Is there a vision the organization has for him? These are the factors that have great importance and make a difference.
“If he goes to a really, really bad team that needs him to play early, I think he’ll develop and mature and get better quicker than say if he goes to a playoff team that has a secure starting five, starting seven and he’s working his way in,” the staffer said.
“I think it’s very dependent on where he goes, who’s coaching him, what their needs are, what their vision is for him. It’s hard to predict if he’s gonna [make] an immediate impact like in college – be one of the best players, which he was not only in the Big Ten but in the country – obviously the NBA is very different when it comes to that.”
Regardless of who drafts Langford on June 20, the staffer sees a team being pleased with who he is as a person, his habits and his consistency.
“He’ll represent the program the right way,” the staffer said. “So I definitely think they’re gonna get a very talented guy that hasn’t even scratched the surface of his potential. Just because, again, shooting the ball is everything in the NBA and I think he’s just gonna continue to get better and better. His body’s gonna continue to mature and get stronger.
“So I think he is very well-deserving of being projected in the top 14 or whatever it may be. . . I mean, he was a highlight show. He’s not like a power dunker or anything like that. It’s hard to say. He’s not gonna be like Miles Bridges and ripping off the rim, but he’s gonna make some shots in the NBA and do some things in the NBA that some people are gonna say, ‘Wow’ – but they’re gonna be like: ‘Woah, that looks really easy.'”
If the NBA allowed players to turn pro straight out of high school, Langford probably could’ve done so. If the option was there, he would’ve considered it.
But Langford doesn’t think he would’ve been ready and likely would’ve ended up where he did anyway. Plus, in one year with the Hoosiers, he changed and became more of a two-way player in preparation for the next level.
“I mean, I enjoyed myself in college and I felt like I learned a lot,” Langford said.” But that was a good stepping stone to go to the NBA.
“I just feel like my body matured. Obviously, I’ll be able to go against some guys that’s older than me. Instead of going straight to the NBA against guys that already have a name for themselves or are already grown men. But that time in college helped me mature as a young man, physically and mentally.”
That aforementioned season of setbacks at Indiana is a perfect example of a learning experience he wouldn’t have gotten had it not been for choosing the collegiate path.
“Had that little slump of shooting. Sometimes during the season or a game, things wouldn’t go my way. We didn’t win that much,” Langford said. “Hardest part was to keep working hard, see the light at the end of the tunnel and the reason why you wake up every day and work out in the morning. . .
“In high school, the majority of the time everything’s going your way. So now, once you keep going up a level of playing basketball—whether that’s college or NBA—you’re gonna go through the times where something’s not gonna go your way.
“That’s just the time for you to show just how resilient you are. Keep pushing. Don’t give up. Everything’s gonna be good in the long run if you just keep working hard.”
There are always going to be question marks with young players making the leap to the highest level in basketball.
Nobody’s perfect. Everybody’s learning curve differs. There’s just something that sticks out about that mild-mannered, polite young man from New Albany, though.
Maybe we should use his own words to paint the picture.
Romeo Langford is built for this.
NBA Daily: Boston’s Potential Crisis
The Kyrie drama may finally be over in Boston, but some tough decisions could be on the horizon for the Celtics, writes Matt John.
It’s hard to get a read on what exactly the Boston Celtics are going to be this upcoming season.
Losing a talent with the rap sheet that Kyrie Irving has at only 27 years old would usually spell misery for any fanbase. Yet, after all that transpired this season, there may not be a fanbase happier to see an NBA superstar in his prime walk than Celtics Nation was when Irving bolted.
Besides, the sting of his departure was mitigated by the arrival of Kemba Walker. Kemba is a slight downgrade from Kyrie, but his consistent improvement, as well as his reputation as a team player, has some believing that he may be able to produce more effectively than Kyrie did as a Celtic.
The most damaging loss the Celtics suffered from the summer is Al Horford. Horford’s all-around game was the perfect fit in Brad Stevens’ system. His floor-spacing, vision, defense, and unselfishness benefitted the team in so many ways that it would be almost impossible to replace every dimension he brought to the Celtics by himself.
Instead of finding a replacement for Horford, the Celtics thought outside of the box by bringing in Enes Kanter. Kanter can’t do everything that Horford does – comparing those two defensively alone is downright laughable – but Kanter still commands double-teams, is one of the league’s best rebounders and is joining a team that ranked 22nd in rebounds per game. It’s definitely a downgrade, but Enes has proven he can be a solid contributor.
That’s not even factoring in the other unknowns facing the Celtics this season. Jayson Tatum in year three; Jaylen Brown in year four; Gordon Hayward being two years removed from his leg injury. After a down year so difficult that pretty much everyone involved took a step back, it’s hard to say where the bar should be set for this team.
Presently, Boston’s ceiling is drastically lower than it was at this exact time a year ago. But when you consider that they won 49 games, is it delusional to think they’ll be able to exceed that win total with a seemingly lesser roster?
That will depend on whether they can solve a possible crisis that their roster as constructed could produce.
In basketball, it’s common sense that if you want to win, you put your five best players on the court when things matter most. As long as those best players can actually play together on the court. That’s the Celtics’ problem right there.
Boston’s five best players are slated to be the following:
With Kanter designated as the starting center – this may change as the season progresses – one of these five is going to start the season coming off the bench, which Brad Stevens will figure out with due time. Hayward, Brown, and Smart have all played significant minutes with the second unit recently so it shouldn’t be much of an adjustment there.
The problem is, if all five of those players play to the best of their abilities, all of them are too good to be wasting away on the bench in crunch time. But if they all are on the court to close out games, who plays center? The only one out of the five who has any experience playing the five position is Hayward, which came last year and he only played one percent of his minutes there.
Brad Stevens has always been one to experiment. He’s never been hesitant to thrust players who aren’t usually the center type into the role of the small-ball five. From Brandon Bass to Jonas Jerebko to Semi Ojeleye, Stevens can really commit to the small in small-ball.
There’s just one problem. The Celtics’ top competitors for the crown this season sports some of the best centers in the league, which include Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, and Nikola Jokic among others. Should Boston try to use its projected best players in its crunchtime lineup, they won’t stand much of a chance. Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart are good defenders, but they’re not that good.
Boston right now isn’t really considered a contender by most people who follow the NBA but adding the 29-year-old Walker, who is now entering the prime of his career, signaled that they aim to be one. Say Boston tries the Walker-Smart-Brown-Tatum-Hayward lineup, and it does not pan out, they may have to trade one of them in order to balance out the roster and crunchtime lineup.
Who they would ship out is the real mystery. They’re definitely not trading Kemba after they just added him. Jayson Tatum’s trade availability expired the second Anthony Davis was traded to the Lakers. Many fans are clamoring for it after a not-so-stellar comeback, but Gordon Hayward is unlikely to be traded. His contract at this moment is an albatross, and when teams trade the star free agents they lured to them shortly after said luring, it’s not a good look for the franchise, especially after what Hayward has gone through.
For better or worse, Gordon Hayward is remaining a Boston Celtic. That leaves Smart and Brown. This is where this hypothetical crisis gets interesting. If Danny Ainge’s hand is forced to choose between the two, who does he trade?
If Ainge wants to keep the one with the highest ceiling, it’s Brown. Jaylen did not have the easiest start last season. He was so bad in fact that they benched him for Smart. Over time, Brown found his game again off the bench. As good as he was, a man of Brown’s talents should not be relegated to the bench.
If that’s not enough, remember that just the year prior, Brown was one of the most vital contributors on a team that was within inches of the NBA Finals. Eighteen points on 46/39/64 splits in 18 of what had to be the most important games of his life as a 21-year-old cemented Brown’s status as a high-upside, possible star player.
Between Brown and Smart, Brown has a higher ceiling.
If Ainge wants to keep the one who solidifies the team culture, it’s Smart. Smart may never have the scoring prowess or the reliable jumper that Brown has, but ask anyone who sets the tone for the game more, and it’s Smart.
Ever since he first walked on the court, Smart’s been one of the most intense, high-energy players in the league. His playmaking and defense inspire the Celtics to play at their best. When the Celtics’ 2018 playoff run comes up, people talk about how impressive the youngsters were, but they forget that their fortunes may not have turned out so well if Smart had not come back in time from injury.
It’s true that his love for the game puts his flaws on display, but Marcus Smart is what helped catapult the Brad Stevens era and establish a successful culture in Boston. His efforts probably won’t lead to any All-Star appearance, but they solidify him as an impact player for a championship team.
Between Brown and Smart, Smart brings more of a winning culture.
Some other components at play – Brown is in a contract year, and he should have suitors next offseason, while Smart is currently being paid $12 million (salary that could be used in a possible trade for a star player).
Now there’s the chance that none of this happens. The Celtics may go forward with the core they have right now, and maybe they have something up their sleeve that nobody knows about. There’s also the chance they may trade both Smart and Brown for an upgrade or trade someone else.
There’s obviously no way to tell what will happen at this point. However, these are the pertinent questions that the Celtics need to ask themselves as we approach the upcoming season.
High-Performance Mindfulness: Incorporating The Mental Health Resource Into The NBA
Jake Rauchbach outlines best practices and working parameters for integrating a mental health/Mental Performance resource into the coaching staff.
As NBA teams begin to integrate mental health resources into the overall working structure of their organizations, several key points should be taken into consideration so that practitioners can be most effective when working with players.
Before we dive in, it is important to note that, within the mental health spectrum, there are generally two avenues.
There is the clinical side, which focuses on diagnosing and treating behavioral disorders like depression, substance abuse and learning disabilities. There is also the applied/performance-related side, where the end goal is to improve on-court performance through techniques such as High-Performance Mindfulness.
Let’s jump in and break down some of the best practices and key considerations for successfully installing this resource within your staff:
Best Practices & Key Considerations
Player buy-in should be the number one priority. All other considerations should directly feed into facilitating and supporting this. With any sort of coaching, trust and rapport with the player are vital. The same thing holds for mental health resources/High-Performance Mindfulness coaches. Credibility and strong rapport with the player must be built.
This responsibility lies on the shoulders of the interpersonal skill-sets of the High-Performance Coach. However, much more of this responsibility resides with the decision-makers, who define the working parameters for the resource. If players do not like, trust or see value in the resource and the services offered, it is going to be very tough to make much headway. Before any substantial progress, this foundation must be in place first.
Staff Buy-In (Cooperation)
If a player senses that staff members, especially decision-makers, surrounding that player do not support or are sending mixed messages regarding the value, effectiveness, and acceptance of the mental health work, it can derail or block the initiative. When leaders within the organization outwardly support the role of the practitioner and initiative, it makes it that much easier to effectively serve the player.
In a perfect world, all levels of the organization are sending the same message to the player(s) regarding the role, value and implementation of the mental health practitioner. More realistically, outward support and clear definition of the practitioner’s role goes a long way.
- Defined Role: Clearly defining the role, will properly position the resource. It will also put players and staff members on notice regarding working parameters.
- Embed Resource in Coaching Staff: The highest probability for success is by having the resource sit on the bench during the game, ideally right between the player rotation. This is ultra-effective in improving performance and halting performance issues straight away as they arise during the game.
- The Dallas Mavericks, the Temple University Men’s Basketball Program, and Ironi Ness-Ziona Basketball Club of the Israeli Super League (FIBA Europe Cup) have all employed this set-up with success. Embedding a High-Performance Coach reinforces credibility and shows players that the team means business regarding the integration of the mental side of the game within the overall team dynamic.
- Direct Line of Communication: A direct line of communication from the mental health resource/performance coach to the decision-makers within the organization is vital. The mental and emotional responses of athletes are illogical and often unpredictable. So is the performance improvement of the player. It is very rarely a straight line up. A clean and clear feedback loop from the mental health expert to the decision-makers make this job much easier.
- Expert feedback presented consistently is a must, ideally in weekly or bi-weekly meetings. Confidentiality is always a major consideration. However, performance results and projective performance trajectories of a player are different than confidential information. When it comes to player performance, results, trajectories and player progression can be shared and must be put into context.
In High-Performance Mindfulness, there should be measurables, or metrics, showing the improvement for the player. Performance coaches should be judged by the tangible production they can facilitate for a player or set of players. In a results-based business such as professional basketball, showing the value add via statistical improvement is important. This is especially true in a growth space such as Mental Performance.
Finding a way to do this so that it does not infringe upon the domains of other coaching staff members is also a consideration. However, not acknowledging that Mental Performance has the potential for improving statistical on-court performance would be missing the point.
There is a gestation period that exists in High-Performance Mindfulness Coaching. Just like any other type of coaching, there is a period between the implementation of the work and the actual production improvement results. Understanding this will provide clarity and context.
There are just some of the best practices for helping jump-start your mental health and High-Performance Mindfulness initiatives at the NBA and professional basketball level.
The application of the mental health and High-Performance Mindfulness resources within the NBA and professional basketball is a little like the wild west right now. Through trial and error, organizations will see what works and what doesn’t within the context of their given situation.
One thing is for sure, though: This space is growing and growing fast, and decision-makers better have foundational understanding for how to give this initiative the best probability for success.
NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Denver Nuggets
James Blancarte continues Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series by examining the Denver Nuggets’ deep roster.
James Blancarte continues Basketball Insiders’ “Grading the Offseason” series analyzing the Denver Nuggets.
Throughout the offseason, Basketball Insiders has been taking a look at each respective franchise’s roster after the draft, offseason signings and trades. In doing so, we look to analyze and determine how each team did as they prepare for next season and beyond.
There are numerous strategies teams can take when it comes to the future. Some teams look to acquire various assets in exchange for taking on players with undesirable contracts. Having cleared up cap space, other teams use the offseason targeting free agents with the hope of making a big leap going forward. This offseason was one for the ages with a few teams willing to take huge risks and spend a treasure trove of assets to build an instant contender. Successful teams oftentimes resist the urge to make any major additions or subtractions and take a bet on internal growth and continuity.
And that leads us to the Denver Nuggets. Denver is fresh off a playoff run that nearly saw the franchise return to the Western Conference Finals. Some teams in big markets seem to come away with the biggest free agents. This offseason, Denver mostly did not come up with any top-tier acquisitions. However, with the talent and youth of their key players, the Nuggets shouldn’t be concerned. A year older, more mature and with the benefit of continuity, the Nuggets again enters the upcoming season as a Western Conference contender.
Last year, the Nuggets jumped up to second place in the west after finishing in ninth the prior two seasons. With that jump, Denver finally returned to the postseason, ending a five-season playoff drought. Jumping up seven seeds is an impressive season-to-season jump not often seen in the NBA. However, many Nuggets followers would argue that the team had been better than their prior results and the jump shouldn’t come across as a major surprise.
Credit the Nuggets’ investment and patience in their core players for last year’s results. The team has allowed their franchise star Nikola Jokic to fully explore his talents as his minutes, effectiveness and usage have increased year-to-year. Alongside Jokic, the team has seen significant development and improve play from Gary Harris and Jamal Murray.
Last year saw the two-man game between Jokic and Murray take off to a new level. Their intuitive and fluid two-man game created a foundation on offense that the team thrived on. Throw in a full season of Paul Millsap and the team became that much more dangerous. The year prior, the Nuggets acquired the multi-skilled Millsap but an injury kept him out much of the year and prevented the team from gelling fast enough to get back into the playoff picture. With a full season of Millsap in addition to the team’s young core, the Nuggets were able to hit another level.
The Nuggets should be lauded for their ability to draft, acquire and develop young talent. This past season saw second-year guard Monte Morris join the rotation and establish himself as another key contributor. Malik Beasley, a first-round pick for Denver in 2016, also had his best year so far and started in 18 games. Longtime mainstay Will Barton did struggle with injury last season. With his explosiveness somewhat limited, Barton didn’t have the same overall impact he has had in year’s past.
The Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers matchup in the semifinals produced fireworks. Denver came out of the wrong end of an unbelievable quadruple-overtime game. Losing that marathon game could have easily been the kind of loss that a team doesn’t recover from in a close matchup. Instead, the Nuggets came back and even led the series 3-2. Despite going toe-to-toe, the Nuggets came up just short in the final quarter of game seven.
Unlike a few other teams this year, there is no splashy star acquisition and that is just fine. Having come so close to making the Conference Finals and having already seen year-to-year growth from multiple key contributors, slow and steady may still win the race for the Nuggets. Jokic is arguably a top-10 player and is a realistic MVP candidate entering this upcoming season. Also, Jamal Murray was signed to a five-year, $170 million extension. Murray is an emerging talent and has the skill to be a dynamic offensive force in the future.
Just because the Nuggets didn’t sign or trade for a top-tier free agent doesn’t mean they would never consider it. There have been murmurs at times about whether Denver would or should pull the trigger and use their wealth of young talent to acquire a potentially available star like Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal. That speculation never seemed to amount to much and the team opted for a few smaller transactions.
On June 29, Denver exercised their team option to keep Millsap for $30 million for the 2019-20 season. Again, Millsap played well last season and helps make the Nuggets more versatile on both ends of the floor.
The Nuggets also acquired forward Jerami Grant by jumping into the Thunder fire sale of assets that started with the Paul George trade. In exchange for a 2020 first-round pick, the Nuggets picked up a versatile and capable defensive forward to help round out their deep roster.
There are a few other minor transactions to take note of. The Nuggets closed the book on Trey Lyles, who has been in the team’s big man rotation for the past few years. In spot play, he contributed at times but didn’t make an overall impact sufficient to justify the continued investment.
Denver has a deep roster and will need to stay flexible and figure out their best rotations next season. Barton will be looking to re-establish himself. Juan Hernangómez, who can play on the wing or as a small-ball four, will again be trying to find a permanent place in the rotation. Center Mason Plumlee formed a towering two-man front-court tandem that allowed Jokic to play from the perimeter, in addition to his backup center minutes. Plumlee may be wary of Jerami Grant, who could usurp some of those frontcourt minutes alongside Jokic.
PLAYERS IN: Jerami Grant, P.J. Dozier, Tyler Cook, Vlatko Cancar
PLAYERS OUT: Isaiah Thomas, Trey Lyles, Tyler Lydon, Brandon Goodwin, Thomas Welsh
Finishing second in the west, being a quarter away from the Conference Finals and bringing back the same squad of up and coming players should make the Nuggets a near lock to be a top-shelf team again. Continued development from many of their young players and an MVP season from Jokic could easily place them in the top-tier of the Conference again.
Unfortunately, the Nuggets will have to contend with newly minted contenders in the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers. Add a stellar offseason for the Utah Jazz and the possibility that the James Harden-Russell Westbrook experiment could succeed and there are at least four other realistic contenders for the top two spots in the west.
Simply holding the two spot will be quite the challenge. However, the Nuggets have the benefit of youth, player development and continuity. Few teams can tout continuity as a major asset the way Denver can. This upcoming season will be an interesting test to see how important continuity is in an always-improving Western Conference.
Offseason Grade: B+