Expectations weren’t too high for the Denver Nuggets entering last season, as they were developing a young core and adjusting to a new head coach in Mike Malone. The team was clearly rebuilding, so it wasn’t a surprise to see them finish 33-49 (which ranked 11th in the Western Conference).
Because Denver has done a great job of stockpiling draft picks, they had three first-round selections in this year’s draft. They came away from the draft with an impressive haul of top-20 prospects including Jamal Murray (No. 7), Juan Hernangómezz (No. 15) and Malik Beasley (No. 19) – all of whom have a ton of potential and intriguing skill sets.
Aside from the incoming rookies, this year’s Nuggets squad will roll out largely the same roster as last season. That means they’re banking on internal development from their young core and better luck when it comes to injuries (key contributors like Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Emmanuel Mudiay, Kenneth Faried and Jusuf Nurkic all missed significant time due to various ailments last year). Making a huge leap in the West standings may be not be realistic in a very competitive conference, but Denver can definitely make progress if their core steps up and stays healthy.
Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Denver Nuggets.
FIVE GUYS THINK
After 10 consecutive trips to the playoffs, the Nuggets have missed the postseason in each of the past three years. However, head coach Mike Malone’s unit showed signs of improvement last season and looks to carry that momentum forward. The Nuggets invested heavily in their backcourt this summer, drafting Jamal Murray and Malik Beasley to play alongside second-year guard Emmanuel Mudiay. The club also has a solid group of veterans in Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Jameer Nelson, Kenneth Faried and Mike Miller among others to aid in the youth movement. There’s plenty to like in Denver, but these things take time before materializing into significant results.
5th Place – Northwest Division
– Lang Greene
In any other division, a predicted fifth-place finish for a team with this much young talent would look as ridiculous as Allen Iverson in a Nuggets uniform. But the Northwest is as frigid and harsh as the Colorado winter, which means even with an overwhelmingly talented core and a good head coach in Mike Malone, they’re going to have trouble making tracks in the standings. There’s star quality everywhere here, from the international big men in Jusuf Nurfic and Nikola Jokic to the young and athletic backcourt, which features Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris, Jamal Murray and Will Barton. Mix in a few vets like Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler and Jameer Nelson, and it’s easy to like where they’re headed. Unfortunately the rest of the division is a little farther along than the Nuggets are right now, keeping them at the back of the pack in the Northwest.
5th Place – Northwest Division
– Joel Brigham
Honestly, the Nuggets are likely to be the team I watch the least this coming season. They had a good thing going with Ty Lawson and George Karl, but that seems so, so long ago. There are a couple of nice pieces on the roster, but the franchise seems to be biding time until they either get lucky and draft a franchise cornerstone or manage to swing a trade for a stud player who wants a change of scenery (like, say, DeMarcus Cousins). Out in the Northwest, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers will duke it out for supremacy, while the Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves battle for the third and fourth spots (and perhaps a late playoff seed). Emmanuel Mudiay, Danilo Gallinari and Co. can’t do much to change that.
5th Place – Northwest Division
– Moke Hamilton
The Nuggets are a team that largely goes unnoticed in the Western Conference. The team peaked in the 2012-13 season when they won 57 regular season games, and they’ve failed win more than 36 games in a season since. However, when the Sacramento Kings made the mistake of firing their former head coach Mike Malone, it opened the door for the Nuggets to hire him. Entering his second season with Denver, Malone now has a nice mix of talented veterans like Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler and young players like Emmanuel Mudiay and Nikola Jokic. Overall, I like what they did in the draft, bringing in Jamal Murray, Juancho Hernangomez and Malik Beasley. Unfortunately, the West is still pretty deep and the Northwest Division has some hungry teams in the mix. While I like the mix of talent on this team and Malone at head coach, I think this year will ultimately be more about developing the young cornerstone players than making a playoff run.
5th Place – Northwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
The Nuggets have an interesting mix of veteran leaders and young prospects. I really like their young core, which consists of Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic, Jusuf Nurkic, Gary Harris, Juan Hernangomez and Malik Beasley among others. Veterans like Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, Jameer Nelson, Mike Miller and Darrell Arthur are in place to help the young players develop (and also serve as trade chips, as general manager Tim Connelly has done a good job of flipping significant contributors for draft picks). It’s hard to imagine the Nuggets finishing anywhere but fifth in the Northwest Division since Minnesota is expected to improve and the other three teams (Oklahoma City, Portland and Utah) seem poised to make the playoffs. Still, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for the Nuggets. It’s clear that the team is a few years away from seriously competing in the Western Conference, so they should just focus on developing their core. At this point, the top priority should be maximizing the full potential of their youngsters.
5th Place – Northwest Division
– Alex Kennedy
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Danilo Gallinari
Going forward, it’s possible that Mudiay or Murray could emerge as Denver’s go-to scorer. Both players are very talented and will have the ball in their hands quite a bit. However, for now, Gallinari is clearly the Nuggets’ best offensive player. The 28-year-old led Denver in points per game (19.5) and offensive rating (120) last season. It wasn’t particularly close either; the Nuggets’ second-highest scorer was Will Barton, who averaged 14.4 points off of the bench, and Mudiay rounded out the top three with 12.8 points per game. Gallinari has the ability to score the ball inside and out, and he’ll be asked to do a lot in Coach Malone’s offense this season. For now, it’s hard to make the case for any other Nugget here, at least until some of their other potential cornerstones are further along in their development.
Top Defensive Player: Jusuf Nurkic
Last season, Nurkic led the Nuggets in defensive rating (102) and, perhaps more importantly, provided the team with a contagious swagger on that end of the court. He didn’t back down from any challenge, trash talked to some of the league’s best offensive players (see DeMarcus Cousins) and took pride in being a defensive beast down low. That’s the kind of guy who becomes the heart and soul of a defense, and who motivates his peers to step up defensively as well. He averaged 1.4 blocks and .8 steals in just 17.1 minutes per game last year. In other words, he averaged four blocks and 2.2 steals per-100-possessions. Nurkic is still just 22 years old and is very raw, so his best defensive days are likely still ahead of him too. In a few years, when he’s playing more minutes and feels even more comfortable locking down his opposition, he could be a force to be reckoned with in the paint.
Top Playmaker: Emmanuel Mudiay
The Nuggets are hoping that Mudiay is the team’s floor general of the future. The 20-year-old still has a lot of growing to do, but he certainly showed glimpses of brilliance at times during his rookie campaign. Not only did Mudiay lead all Nuggets players in assists per game (5.5), he led all players in his rookie class. Also, his 1.71 assist-to-turnover ratio was second among all rookies. Mudiay must improve his shooting percentages, limit his turnovers and continue to get more comfortable running an NBA offense, but there’s no question that he is Denver’s best playmaker. The franchise is betting on him moving forward.
Top Clutch Player: Danilo Gallinari
Emmanuel Mudiay did hit a crazy three-pointer to beat the Philadelphia 76ers last season, but the play also showed why it makes more sense to put the ball in Gallinari’s veteran hands late in games. Prior to hitting the shot, Mudiay fumbled the ball and nearly lost it before barley getting up the attempt that won the game. Gallinari is the more experienced player, and he shoots much better from the field, from distance and from the charity stripe. Unless Mudiay, Murray or someone else emerges as a clutch threat, expect Gallinari to be the go-to option in crunch time in the near future.
The Unheralded Player: Juan Hernangomez
During the pre-draft process, I had the opportunity to attend a private workout that Hernangomez held in a crowded gym of NBA executives and scouts at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL. Entering the workout, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the forward who he was being projected as a late first-rounder. To be honest, it seemed more people were in the building to evaluate his workout partner, Skal Labissiere, than Hernangomez. Well, after watching Juan knock down long NBA threes with ease, display impressive athleticism that he I didn’t know he had and just flat out dominate the workout, I came away believing he could be the steal of this draft class. He has the skill set to be a perfect fit for today’s NBA and I think he was an excellent pick for the Nuggets at No. 15. Jamal Murray is going to get more hype, and understandably so since he was a top-seven selection and has more buzz surrounding him, but don’t sleep on Hernangomez. He may be unheralded now, but I’d be shocked if that lasts long.
Top New Addition: Jamal Murray
As much as I love Hernangomez, Murray deserves plenty of love too. Plenty of executives were drooling over his game during the pre-draft process because he has all of the talent and upside to eventually become a star. Mudiay and Murray could become a very scary backcourt one-two punch for years to come if both players can maximize their full potential. Murray is a score-first combo guard, so having a floor general like Mudiay alongside him could actually help as he transitions to the NBA. I’m excited to watch Murray develop throughout his career because he could be a special player. Years from now, people may look back on this draft class and ask, “How did Murray slip to No. 7?!”
– Alex Kennedy
WHO WE LIKE
1. Nikola Jokic
Entering last season, Jokic wasn’t receiving as much attention as he should have. This made some sense at the time; after all, he was the No. 41 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft and nobody was sure what to expect from him during his rookie season with Denver. Well, now we know that Jokic is a stud who shouldn’t be overlooked again. He averaged 10 points, seven rebounds, 2.4 assists and one steal in 21.7 minutes per game for the Nuggets. Jokic shot 51.2 percent from the field, 33.3 percent from three-point range and 81.1 percent from the free throw line. Jokic played so well (and efficiently) that he was moved into the starting lineup for 55 games. He finished his first NBA season with 16 double-doubles, which was third among all rookies behind only Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis. Oh, and he finished third in Rookie of the Year voting and was named to the NBA’s All-Rookie First Team. All signs point to Jokic being a cornerstone for the Nuggets moving forward.
2. Tim Connelly
As previously mentioned, Connelly has done a solid job building this squad. Not only has he made smart draft selections since taking over the organization (see Nikola Jokic above), he has traded off veterans at the right time in order to get back attractive assets like first-round picks and additional young players. Remember, he landed two first-round picks from the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for Timofey Mozgov. He obtained Will Barton, a first-round pick and cap flexibility from the Portland Trail Blazers for Arron Afflalo and Alonzo Gee. He sent Randy Foye to the Oklahoma City Thunder for two second-rounders and cap space. Knowing when to move on from veteran contributors can be tough, but he has returned quite a few assets in these deals and helped Denver’s rebuild as a result. Overall, Connelly deserves a lot of credit for the job he has done. Also, he has remained aggressive in trying to package some of his young talent and picks for a star-caliber player, so he’s certainly someone to keep an eye on should a disgruntled franchise player start making headlines.
3. Mike Malone
I was adamantly against the Sacramento Kings’ decision to part ways with Malone following a relatively impressive start to the 2014-15 season. However, this worked out for Denver since they were able to land one of the better up-and-coming coaches in the league. The 45-year-old sideline general is very well respected around the NBA and seems like the perfect coach to instill a winning culture in Denver once again. He’s smart and holds his players accountable, but he is also good at building relationships with his team. Turning things around with the Nuggets may take some time, especially with so many young guys on the roster, but I believe in Malone to get it done.
4. Wilson Chandler
Chandler failed to play in a single game last season as he recovered from surgery to repair a labral tear in his right hip. Now, the 29-year-old is hoping to return to 100 percent and the Nuggets can’t wait to have him back. Just before that injury occurred last November, Denver inked Chandler to a four-year, $46.5 million extension. With the rising salary cap, this deal now looks like an incredible bargain. The last time Chandler was healthy, he averaged 13.9 points and 6.1 rebounds. The Nuggets are looking forward to getting him back him to full strength so he can produce on the court and help the team continue to take steps forward throughout this rebuilding phase.
– Alex Kennedy
SALARY CAP 101
The Nuggets are still well below the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap, with about $74 million in guaranteed commitments. Teams are required to spend at least $84.7 million this season – any shortfall will be paid out to Denver’s rostered players at the end of the year. With 14 guaranteed, the Nuggets have just one roster spot available for non-guaranteed players like JaKarr Sampson, Axel Toupane, D.J. Kennedy, Robbie Hummel, Jarnell Stokes and Nate Wolters.
Looking ahead to next summer, the Nuggets project to have roughly $37 million in spending power under a $102 million salary cap. That figured presumes Danilo Gallinari opts out of the final year of his contract ($16.1 million). Mike Miller, who re-signed with the team for $7 million, has a non-guaranteed $3.5 million salary for 2017-18. Denver will undoubtedly pick up the rookie-scale options on Emmanuel Mudiay, Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris before November.
– Eric Pincus
Malone wants him team getting up and down the court, as evidenced by their 13th-ranked pace for last season. The team certainly has the personnel to thrive in the open court, and adding guys like Murray, Hernangomez and Beasley to this aggressive core should only help since they provide scoring and spacing. Rebounding was another strength for Denver last season, as their 44.6 boards per game ranked eighth in the NBA and their 51.1 percent rebound rate finished ninth in the league. Malone’s coaching can be considered a strength as well, since he is very good at what he does and ensures that the Nuggets’ young players are in good hands as they mature.
– Alex Kennedy
There were a lot of issues in Denver last year, but that’s to be expected of a young team that’s adjusting to a new coach and several rookies playing a large role. Defensively, the Nuggets struggled; they ranked 24th in the league in defense, allowing 106.4 points per 100 possessions. They also had the 20th-ranked offense in the league, scoring just 102.7 points per 100 possessions. Their true shooting percentage (53.1 percent) was 21st in the NBA. Becoming more efficient on both ends of the floor will be important for this squad going forward. They must also limit their turnovers (14.2 per game, 19th in the NBA) as well as their young mistakes, but time and experience should help them cut back in those costly areas.
– Alex Kennedy
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will the Nuggets trade away one of their veteran forwards?
Danilo Gallinari (who has a player option after this season), Wilson Chandler (who has a player option for the 2018-19 season) and Kenneth Faried have all been mentioned in trade rumors in recent years. And, as previously noted, general manager Tim Connelly likes to pull the trigger on deals when he still has leverage and the ability to receive something of value in return for his outgoing player. The Nuggets are obviously building around their young core, which makes one wonder if Connelly may decide to part ways with one (or more) of the team’s veterans in order to bring in some more youth or draft picks – or at least fill another hole. It remains to be seen if the Nuggets will make a deal. With that said, it’s worth noting that Denver has been aggressive at the last two trade deadlines and this one shouldn’t be any different.
– Alex Kennedy
NBA Daily: Tyus Jones Thriving in Bigger Role
Minnesota’s Tyus Jones speaks to David Yapkowitz about his growing role with the Wolves.
It was the last game of the 2016-17 NBA season. The Minnesota Timberwolves had been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention for quite some time. Their opponent that night, the Houston Rockets, had an impressive year and were on their way to the postseason.
Although the Wolves would go on to lose that game, 123-118, Tyus Jones came off the bench to have to his best game of the year. He would finish with 17 points on 66.7 percent shooting from the field, 75 percent from the three-point line, seven assists, four rebounds, two steals, and a blocked shot.
Jones had just finished up his second year in the NBA, which had gone a little bit just like his first; a few games played here and there followed by some DNP-CD’s. Rookie Kris Dunn was ahead of him on the depth chart at backup point guard for the majority of the year. That stat line he put up on the last night of the season, however, should have been a sign of things to come.
Now in his third year, and second playing under Tom Thibodeau, Jones has firmly seized the backup point guard spot. Thibodeau is notorious for playing short rotations, and along with Jamal Crawford and Gorgui Dieng, Jones has solidified himself as one of Minnesota’s most dependable reserves.
“It’s been good, I’m just trying to contribute to the team as much as possible,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I want to do whatever I need to do to help this team win more games.”
The Timberwolves have done just that so far. They won 31 games all of last season. This year, they already have 16 wins. They didn’t break that mark last season until mid-January. Jones’ impact on the Wolves this year has been a big reason for that.
His stats may not jump off the page; he’s averaging 3.9 points per game on 42.5 percent shooting, and 2.8 assists in about 17 minutes of play. But he’s become a reliable floor leader who is able to anchor the Wolves second unit. He’s also one of their best floor spacers at 38.2 percent from the three-point line, and he’s an improved defensive player.
“For me, having a little bit bigger role this year, it’s what I wanted,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just trying to make the most of it and take advantage of it.”
Jones has definitely taken advantage of his new role. Starting point guard Jeff Teague missed four games last month due to a sore right Achilles tendon. Aaron Brooks started in place of Teague for the first game he missed, but Jones was the starter for the next three.
In his first ever career start on Nov. 26 in a win over the Phoenix Suns, Jones had nine points on 50 percent shooting, four rebounds, seven assists, seven steals, and two blocks. The following game, albeit in a loss to the Washington Wizards, he finished with 12 points, four rebounds, and seven assists. In his final start before Teague returned, a win over the New Orleans Pelicans, he had his best game of the season with 16 points on 66.7 percent shooting, four rebounds, six assists, and four steals.
“It was a dream, I’m just trying to make the most of it,” Jones told Basketball Insiders about being a starter. “Once again, take advantage of the opportunity and just do my role.”
Although Jones only spent one season playing college basketball before entering the NBA draft, it was the program he attended that’s allowed him to make a seamless transition. He played at Duke under Mike Krzyzewski during the 2014-15 season, winning a national championship alongside fellow NBA players Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Quinn Cook.
“It’s the best program in the country. Coach K is the best coach, arguably ever, to coach the game,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “There’s nothing comparable on the college level, playing at Duke. They’re the brightest lights, so that helps prepare you for the next level.”
The Wolves are a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in over a decade. It was the 2003-04 season, to be exact. This year, however, they are hoping to change that. They currently sit in fourth place in the Western Conference, fighting for the right to host a playoff series in the first round.
“We’re trying to make the playoffs, that’s our goal right now,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “Each year, we’re trying to get better. We’re still trying to take that next step. This organization hasn’t been to the playoffs in a number of years.”
With Jones playing a pivotal role, the Wolves’ playoff drought looks like it will be coming to an end very shortly.
NBA Most Valuable Player Watch — 12/12/17
Dennis Chambers updates the latest MVP watch rankings.
The NBA season is coming in hot on Christmas Day games, and before we know it the new year will arrive as well. As the second half of the season starts to come into sight, more stability among the league’s MVP candidates will prevail.
By now, most of the frontrunners for the award have staked their claim of consistent dominance over the last eight weeks of the NBA season.
For our list here at Basketball Insiders, the same names make up our ladder from the last MVP race installment. A slight juggling of the order is the only new wrinkle. Thus far, these individuals have put themselves ahead of the pack.
A full season in the NBA is a long race, but through the first few laps, these are the MVP leaders.
6. Steph Curry (Last Week: 3)
Coming in at No. 3 on the last list, Steph Curry sees a bit of a tumble in the standings. Unfortunately for Curry, he’s suffering from a sprained ankle that is going to cause him to miss some time. Fortunately for the Golden State Warriors, they’ve won three straight games without their star point guard.
This doesn’t discredit the type of season Curry is having, or his brilliance on the court when he’s healthy, but the fact that the Warriors have enough firepower to sustain his absence damages his claim to the most “valuable” player throne.
Nevertheless, for the Warriors to truly fulfill their championship potential, Curry needs to be healthy and playing. Otherwise, the Warriors aren’t as lethal as they could be.
Barring a complete meltdown from his ball club, Curry’s spot will likely continue to drop slightly as he sits on the bench watching his team win games without him.
Almost the exact opposite of Curry, the Philadelphia 76ers don’t seem to have a prayer at winning basketball games that Joel Embiid sits out of. Luckily for the city of Philadelphia, though, that hasn’t been nearly frequent of an occurrence as past seasons.
The on/off numbers for Embiid are staggering. On both ends of the court, no less. Without their big man, the Sixers’ offensive rating drops off by more than five points and their defensive rating sees a 10-point spike in favor of their opponents.
In short, it’s worse for the Sixers when Embiid is tweeting rather than playing.
After missing back-to-back games over the weekend, Embiid’s value became more apparent to the Sixers. Among a myriad of injuries, Embiid’s was felt the heaviest as his team posted a defensive rating of 111.6 to the Cleveland Cavaliers and then a 130.2 the next night to the New Orleans Pelicans.
Both figures are a far cry from the 102.9 rating the team records with Embiid on the floor.
Much like Curry, the Sixers will need Embiid on the court moving forward to live their best life. So long as he is resting on back-to-backs, or sitting with back soreness, the Sixers won’t be as fortunate as the Warriors to pull out wins.
Masked Kyrie joined Untucked Kyrie this season as another alter ego capable of taking the NBA and Twitter by storm on a nightly basis.
Irving, despite suffering an injury to his face that forced him to wear a protective mask a la Rip Hamilton, still has the Boston Celtics atop the league standings with his MVP campaign so far this season. Over Irving’s last 10 games, he’s averaging 25.8 points on 53 percent shooting from the field and 44 percent from beyond the arc. Over the course of that same span, the Celtics are 7-3.
Just to strengthen his already solid MVP claim, the Celtics went into Chicago Monday night to play the Bulls without Irving, as he sat out of the game with a quad contusion. All the league’s best team preceded to do was lose 108-85 to the league’s worst team.
At this point in the season, MVP candidates have their statistics in place. As viewers and fans, we really get to see the difference they make on their teams during the games that they aren’t playing, and Monday night for the Celtics was a microcosm of Irving’s season-long importance to the success of their team.
The Greek Freak is still putting up absurd numbers, keeping him right in the conversation for Most Valuable Player. On top of his gaudy production, the Milwaukee Bucks are starting to pile up some wins as well.
Winning six of their last seven games — the only loss coming to the Celtics where Antetokounmpo put up 40 points, nine rebounds, and four assists — the Bucks currently hold a 15-10 record and the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
It’s been well-documented up to this point how effective Antetokounmpo is for Milwaukee from a numbers standpoint. If he can really start translating those performances into wins over good teams, the narrative of him winning the award may begin to revert back the dominance it held over the first few weeks of the season.
As it currently stands, though, Antetokounmpo is ahead of the rest of the pack before a pretty sizeable gap at the two spots above him.
After having his Cavaliers’ 13-game win streak snapped by an unconscious Victor Oladipo, LeBron James returned to business as usual by defeating the shorthanded Sixers without Kevin Love by his side. He did so in typical Year 15 fashion, posting 30 points, 13 rebounds, 13 assists, and three steals.
No big deal.
That’s the mantra for James’ 15th year in the NBA: Do it all, and do it well. He doesn’t have the supporting cast that many projected coming into this season, and Irving is out doing his thing in Boston. But for the King of the NBA, after a month of rough basketball, he seems to be figuring it all out for his club and putting them in the positions they need to be in to be successful.
Since the start of Cleveland’s winning streak up until the game against Philadelphia, James is averaging 27.5 points, 9.3 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.1 blocks, 55 percent shooting from the field and 44 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
His team is 14-1, Irving is in Boston, and Isaiah Thomas is on the bench.
Year 15 may very well end with James getting MVP number five.
The only man standing between James and his fifth MVP is the man who’s setting the league on fire trying to get his first.
James Harden is recreating his stellar season from a year ag but improving it, somehow. Harden’s averages are incredible: 32 points, 9.5 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 40 percent from downtown, and a 31.6 player efficiency rating.
Not to mention he’s led the Houston Rockets to a 21-4 record, and looks to be a real threat at knocking off the Golden State Warriors.
What Harden is doing on the defensive end is what is brining his game, and his MVP case, to the next level. Harden is posting his lowest defensive rating is four years and coming up big on D in crunch time situations.
On Monday night against the Pelicans, Harden came up with a clutch steal with under a minute to go (his sixth of the night) to extinguish a New Orleans rally and put the icing on his 26-point, 17-assist performance.
LeBron may be having an MVP season, even by his standards, but Harden’s performance this year thus far is keeping the King at arms length of the MVP crown.
NBA DAILY: What Is Really Wrong With The Thunder?
The Thunder continue to struggle to string together wins. What’s the problem in OKC?
At Some Point It Just Doesn’t Work
The Oklahoma City Thunder continue to be middling, despite having the star level talent it takes in the NBA to be exceptional. With the clock ticking in the wrong direction, is it more likely that this combination of players won’t work, or is there something bigger at play worth considering?
Before we dive too far into this, keep in mind the Thunder have played their 26th game, and are just a half a game out of the eighth spot in the West. Equally, they are also three and a half games behind the fourth-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves, so the sky is far from falling. In fact, they have won four of their last six games, including wins over the Spurs and Timberwolves, which only makes the Jekyll and Hyde of all of this even more frustrating.
All of that said, what’s really wrong with the Thunder? Here are some thoughts:
Not Enough Touches
The Oklahoma City Thunder are dead last in the NBA in touches per game as a team at 384. To contrast that number, the Philadelphia 76ers lead the league in touches at 480.9 touches per game.
Thunder guard Russell Westbrook accounts for 94.4 touches per game, while forward Carmelo Anthony accounts for 61.3 touches with swingman Paul George bringing in 56.0 touched per game. Those three players account for 211.7 of the Thunders 384 touches per game.
That’s not as bad as you would think watching the Thunder play, but what it does illustrate is that neither Anthony or Paul are getting the volume of touches both are used to getting before joining the Thunder. It’s also why neither seems to be able to get into a rhythm on a game to game bases. They have had their moments individually, but it been far from consistent.
It’s more than fair to say that the Thunder offense isn’t generating enough touches to maximize what George and Anthony bring to the table. When the Miami HEAT brought their “Big Three” together, one of the biggest challenges they faced was how to generate the touches to get all their guys in a rhythm and rolling.
That seems to be the biggest part of the problem with the Thunder.
Russ Has To Be Russ
When you look at the Thunder’s “convincing wins” those wins in which they look like an elite team in the NBA, Russell Westbrook plays like last year’s MVP.
The problem for the Thunder is it seems Russell is trying to get other players, specifically Anthony, often to the detriment of his team and his own game. When Westbrook puts his head down and plays his game, the Thunder tend to come out on top.
Westbrook never seemed to have this problem playing with Kevin Durant, and maybe that’s why Durant opted to leave, but Westbrook seems to be trying too hard to get others going.
Where’d Offense Go?
The Thunder continue to talk about how good they are defensively, and that’s a real thing. They are currently the ranked second in the NBA’s defensive rating category. They rank second in point allowed per 100 possessions at 103, just behind league leader Boston at 101.6 points per 100 possessions.
There is no doubt their defense is keeping them in games, but what’s killing them is the long stretches of sub-par offense, many times in the fourth quarter where their offense comes to a grinding halt.
Some have suggested that head coach Billy Donovan simply isn’t creative enough for the construct of this roster. Looking at the stats this far into the season, there may be something to the idea that the Thunder, offensively, just are not creative enough to maximize the potential of their star players.
It’s Not A Selfish Problem
The easy answer on the Thunder is to say they are simply selfish players. There is enough historical evidence on Anthony and Westbrook to support the idea, however, if you really look at the Thunders’ games, it’s actually the opposite. Westbrook likely isn’t selfish enough; it’s likely why he’s struggling from the field on the season.
Part of the offensive problem may be Westbrook’s shooting. His averages this season is markedly down from a year ago—39.6 percent this season from the field versus 42.5 percent last season. Westbrook is also 31.1 percent from three this year versus 34.3 percent from three last season.
But Westbrook is not alone, George is tying his second worst season from the field at 41.8 percent shooting. Anthony is having his worst year as a pro from the field at 40.4 percent.
All three are producing some of their lowest efficiency ratings of their careers, so it’s not just one guy doing so much more than the other. None of them are playing particularly well together.
It’s easy to look at the Thunder and label them one thing or the other; there are enough polarizing personalities on the roster to draw the labels. The truth of the matter is the Thunder just are not very good or efficient offensively, and until they find a way to make that part work, they will likely continue to be middling.
That’s going to make things fairly tough on the Thunder front office, because come the February 9th NBA Trade Deadline, the Thunder may have to cut bait on some players before they potentially lose them in free agency for nothing. The trade deadline is only about 60 days away, believe it or not.
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