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Denver Nuggets 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Denver Nuggets.

Basketball Insiders

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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

STRENGTHS

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

WEAKNESSES

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

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NBA Daily: Jimmy Butler’s Potential Absence Could Doom Minnesota

Should Jimmy Butler miss an extended period of time, the Minnesota Timberwolves could lose footing quickly in the tight Western Conference playoff race.

Dennis Chambers

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Say it ain’t so, Basketball Gods.

In his first game back from the All-Star break, coincidentally after logging zero minutes in the glorified exhibition game, Jimmy Butler left Friday night’s game with an apparent knee injury.

If the worst comes to fruition — a season-ending injury — Butler would join a laundry list of players whose seasons have been cut short.

 Butler’s Minnesota Timberwolves are in the midst of battling for position amongst their Western Conference peers for playoff spots. At the time of Butler’s injury, seeds three through nine are all separated by one game in the loss column.

Calling it a tight race out West would be a vast understatement. With a few more than 20 games to play, the seeding could land in a different order on basically a nightly basis. And for a team like Minnesota, losing their All-Star and veteran presence could be catastrophic.

But, not all hope is lost.

David Aldridge reported Friday night that there may be some light at the end of the tunnel.

Given how tight the race is amongst the conference, losing Butler for any extended period of time is going to be a big blow to the way Minnesota operates. Very literally, Butler produces a drastic improvement on both ends of the court his team.

On the surface, Butler’s averages are good. They don’t blow you away, but it’s clear that his presence is felt on a nightly basis. 22.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and five assists with a 59.3 true shooting percentage is more than worthy of an All-Star selection. But to the naked eye, it doesn’t scream that he’s the team’s most valuable player by a long shot.

So, let’s dig a little deeper.

When Butler is on the court, Minnesota benefits from a 116.3 offensive rating. Houston and Golden State have 115.7 and 115.4 offensive ratings for the season, respectively. The addition of Butler creates more free space for the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins to play with.

Speaking of those two, with the addition of an established superstar like Butler, they’ve been able to focus more on playing basketball than leading a locker room, allowing for growth in their games — Towns especially.

Truly coming into his own as one of the league’s best big men this season, arguably nobody on Minnesota’s roster benefits more from Butler’s performance on the wing than Towns does. On the court together, Towns sports a pretty 114.1 offensive rating, which produced a satisfying 9.3 net rating. That’s winning basketball.

Take Butler away, though, and things get ugly. Fast.

Because of his vast arsenal of offensive versatility, Towns’ offensive rating doesn’t suffer when Butler isn’t in the fold. But his defense? Well, it falls off of a cliff. Towns’ defensive rating balloons to 120.9, bringing that once impressive 9.3 net rating all the way down to -6.5. Butler alone accounts for a 15.8 point swing in Towns’ net rating. The levels of codependency from Towns to Butler in relation to effective basketball are incredibly concerning if the latter is lost for an extended period of time.

Basketball isn’t just a two-man game, though. So, while Minnesota’s younger All-Star benefits greatly from his elder counterpart, maybe the rest of the roster isn’t in such bad shape without him, right?

Wrong.

In fact, as you could probably assume, the production for the Timberwolves as a whole plummets when Butler grabs a seat on the bench. Shooting percentage, net rating, assist rate, rebound rate, finishing at the rim, defending and just about any other conceivable statistic you can find is worse for Minnesota when Butler isn’t on the floor.

Beyond all of the stats though, Butler represented more to the Timberwolves this season. He was the star to get the team over the hump. The veteran two-way impact player that could take just enough of the load off of the two budding studs in Towns and Wiggins to make Minnesota a threat night in and night out. Tom Thibodeau brought Butler over from Chicago because he knew the level of work ethic and leadership he would bring to a team that had talent, but needed guidance.

Up until Friday night, the pieces were falling into place.

The state of Minnesota will hold its collective breath while waiting for the results of Butler’s MRI. For the sake of Timberwolves fans, the organization and most importantly, Butler himself, hope for a clean scan.

Without it, and without Butler, the team could find itself in a free-fall amid this clustered Western Conference playoff race.

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Otto Porter Jr., Washington Wizards Aiming For Consistency

Spencer Davies has a one-on-one talk with Otto Porter about the Wizards’ up-and-down season and why they’ve been clicking over the last few weeks.

Spencer Davies

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When a team loses an All-Star point guard after dropping four out of five games while other teams continue to improve and climb up the standings, it’s usually a sign that things are headed south.

But the Washington Wizards have debunked that thanks to a commitment from literally every man on the roster to step up. Since John Wall went down with injury, they’ve won eight out of their last 10 games and are a half game back of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the number three seed in the Eastern Conference.

Why that is, is simple—there’s a balance.

“Everybody eats” is the mantra that Wall’s backcourt partner Bradley Beal came up with when the tide started to turn and the D.C. family has been living by it for weeks now.

The setback has definitely forced them to alter their style of play, but it hasn’t been a bad thing so far, according to Wizards head coach Scott Brooks.

“It’s definitely a challenge missing one of the best guards, one of the best players in the league,” Brooks said before Thursday’s game in Cleveland. “We’ve had to change definitely the way we play a little bit. We couldn’t expect our point guards to play like John. His speed you just don’t come by often.

“We have to play a little different. I think guys have stepped up defensively. We’ve played well. We definitely had some favorable games go our way with the scheduling, but the challenge is ahead of us now. We’ve got a lot of tough games coming up, but we just have to still keep playing and focus on each game.”

Otto Porter has been somebody who’s really kicked it into gear at a higher level and looks like himself again after a tough start to the New Year. Since January 30th, he’s averaging 18.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, and over a steal per game. On nearly 14 attempts per game during the stretch, he’s shot above 52 percent from the field.

When asked how Washington can best fill the void of Wall while he’s on the sidelines, he said it’s not possible to. Rather than focusing on that specific facet, it’s a responsibility of the group collectively to keep trending in the right direction.

“You don’t,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “I mean you just have to, next man up. You really can’t. X-Factor is everybody steppin’ up. With the guys that we have, it’s very simple. Just go out there and play for each other.

“Getting out in transition. Getting stops. Creating points. Threes. The ball going from side to side. That’s how we play. We goin’ through adversity, so we took the challenge.”

Mind you, this is a Wizards team that was once reportedly divided in the locker room. There were rumblings of disdain among certain players. Tweets, Instagram posts, and on-air interviews fueled the fire even more as the losses continued to pile up.

However, we all know the solution to any sort of rough patch is winning games. As soon as the victories started to come, the noise started to quiet down more and more.

“That’s with any sport for real,” Porter told Basketball Insiders after inquiring whether the negativity was overblown.

“I mean you gon’ have your ups and downs. You gon’ have that. But we’re gonna stick together no matter the wins or the losses. We’re gonna stick together. We’re not gonna let anything break us apart. That’s just how we feel.”

The All-Star break came at a good time for Porter, who admitted to Basketball Insiders that he was playing through with nagging injuries in the first half of the season and getting a week to see family and recuperate “was what I needed.”

In the meantime, he kept in contact with Beal, who was experiencing his first All-Star weekend in four years, except this time around he was selected by Team LeBron as a part of the big game.

“All-Star, he said he was mad busy,” Porter told Basketball Insiders of Beal’s hectic three days in Los Angeles. “That sucks ‘cause you know you really wanna—I mean All-Star is cool, but the guys all busy during All-Star. Seeing people, events, stuff like that, so you don’t really get a break. He enjoyed it though.”

Porter raved over the season Beal has had and what it’s meant to Washington. There hasn’t been a change in mentality at all, but the improvements are evident.

“He’s always been motivated,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “Each year he’s adding bits and pieces to his game every year that make him a threat and it shows this year.”

Another teammate of Porter’s that has taken on the challenge is Kelly Oubre. This month hasn’t been kind to him so far as a shooter, but taking the season as a whole, the third year forward is hitting a career-high 36.9 percent of his threes and averaging close to 12 points per game.

Not only that, but Oubre is always locked in defensively with an in-your-face method of guarding his opponents. It’s a physical style that constantly bothers opponents and most of the time, it works.

“He’s been improving,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “He’s been putting in a lot of work. I’ve seen him put in so much work this offseason on his shot improving his mechanics and it’s paying off.

“Aggressive defensively, getting his hands on a lot of balls, deflections, steals. That’s what we want from him every game.”

Brooks has rewarded Oubre and Porter’s efforts by giving them a ton of playing time, something that he doesn’t see changing anytime soon considering the job they’ve done with the extra load.

“They’re gonna have to keep playing a lot of major minutes and keep getting better along the way,” Brooks said. “Otto’s really steady, solid. He’s started to make some shots again.

“And Kelly, he hasn’t shot the ball well in February, but we need him to break out of that and start shooting the ball better. With Kelly to me, it’s always how he’s locked in and focused on the defensive end.”

In order for the Wizards to continue scaling the ranks in the East it’s going to come down to consistency, a hurdle that they’ve tried to clear in past years and have a goal of leaping this season.

“We have to,” Brooks said. “Firstly, just takes that consistent effort to win games. This is not an easy league. Nobody feels sorry for you. Nobody gives you wins. You’ve got to go out there and earn it.

“I like the spirit of our team. We’re willing to accept the challenges. We know it’s not gonna be easy, but I like how we’re playing.”

Porter’s personal goal is to make it through 82 games healthy, but he agrees with his head coach about Washington’s top priority as a team.

“Right now yeah, it’s consistency,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “And just sticking to what we do, sticking to our character. We know what type of players we are. We know how to play the right way and play Wizards basketball, so that’s what we’re gonna focus on.”

So far, so good.

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NBA Daily: Tank Tracker 2018

Basketball Insiders looks at the NBA’s race to the bottom as teams jockey for lottery position.

Buddy Grizzard

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With the NBA All-Star game behind and the home stretch of the regular season ahead, this is the time of year when contenders contend and pretenders stop pretending. It’s time for the NBA’s annual race to the bottom with a crowded field featuring four teams from each conference with better odds of getting help through the draft than making a playoff run.

Although Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined $600,000 for public statements detrimental to the NBA for saying the Mavericks should tank, the assumption here is always that players play to win. Every year the NBA Draft brings 30 new first round picks with guaranteed contracts into the league (minus any players that opt to play overseas). That’s 30 NBA jobs that will be taken away from veterans and given to rookies, not counting second-round picks and undrafted free agents who will take still more jobs. Rank-and-file players are playing for their place in the league, not to help their team get in position to draft a potential replacement.

Here we’ll look at teams that are clearly out of the playoff race and factors that could impact draft position as the final stretch of the season unfolds. Below is a tweet from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski from September showing odds to land a top-three pick. This is the final season under the old lottery system (odds in parenthesis) before the new system takes effect next season.

Starting next year, the four worst teams will have nearly-identical odds to land a top-three pick. Since this is the last year in which teams dramatically increase odds of landing a top-three pick the more they lose, the race for lottery position could be as fun to watch as the race for playoff position. With a deep talent pool for the upcoming NBA Draft, the plot gets even thicker.

The Playoff Contenders

Before we look at teams that are clearly not contending for a playoff spot, we’ll mention teams that are out of playoff position but fighting to get in. In the Eastern Conference, the Detroit Pistons acquired Blake Griffin before the trade deadline and are only 1.5 games behind the Miami HEAT for the eighth playoff seed. If Detroit can get point guard Reggie Jackson back healthy — a big if — then the Pistons could get into the playoffs and constitute a scary match-up in the first round.

Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post tweeted Wednesday that Jackson has been cleared for light running and shooting as he continues to recover from an ankle injury.

Also in the East, although the Charlotte Hornets appear headed nowhere, it’s a veteran-heavy squad that will do all it can to claw its way to a playoff spot. With point guard Kemba Walker making a second All-Star appearance and veterans Dwight Howard and Nicolas Batum uninterested in building through the draft this late in their careers, expect Charlotte to do everything in its power to close the five-game gap with the HEAT.

In the West, although the Clippers moved on from Griffin, the team remains just one game behind the eighth-seed Pelicans with a 7-3 record in its last 10 games. The Clippers are another veteran-laden squad with too much pride to play for lottery balls. However, the Clippers’ hopes of being a playoff spoiler are complicated by the league’s hottest team, the Jazz. Utah owns a league-best 11-game win streak and sits a half game behind the Clippers.

Honorable mention goes to the Lakers, which sit a dismal eight games behind the Pelicans in the Western Conference standings. The Lakers have almost no chance to make the playoffs but won’t be participating in this season’s tank-a-thon since either the 76ers or Celtics will own its first-round draft pick. L.A. traded two future firsts for Steve Nash in 2012 but has yet to convey the final pick due to protections in 2015, 2016 and 2017. The pick will go to Philly if it’s first overall or lower than fifth, but will otherwise convey to the Celtics. The 76ers used the pick with added protections to move up last year and draft Markelle Fultz with the first overall pick.

Additionally, the Nets do not make the list since the Cavaliers own their unprotected first round pick from the Kyrie Irving trade with the Celtics. The Nets aren’t tanking, they just lack the talent to compete and currently hold the league’s fifth-worst record.

New York Knicks, 24-36

The Knicks are the last entrant into the NBA’s annual race to the bottom owing to Kristaps Porzingis’ season-ending ACL injury. Prior to the injury, the Knicks were doing everything in the team’s power to start the post-Carmelo Anthony era with a playoff appearance. With Porzingis now sidelined for an extended period, the goal shifts to improving the talent around him.

Chicago Bulls, 20-38

The Bulls recently announced that Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba will replace veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday in the starting lineup. Both received a DNP-CD in Thursday’s one-point loss to the 76ers. This is a team in naked tank mode, but it has the most games remaining against other teams on this list. Chicago has its tanking work cut out for it, but the recent lineup decisions show that the Bulls are serious about getting the job done.

Memphis Grizzlies, 18-38

While the Bulls are shameless in pursuit of lottery balls, you can’t blame the Grizzlies for the horrendous injury luck that put the team in this position. It’s a lost season for Memphis, and help in the lottery could be difficult to find since only the Bulls and Magic have more games remaining against teams on this list.

Orlando Magic, 18-40

The Magic have the second-worst record in the East but are matched by the Kings and Mavericks. Counting the Grizzlies, this makes six teams with only 18 wins. This is the heart of the tanking field, and the Magic fully committed when it traded starting point guard Elfrid Payton, a former lottery pick, for a future second-round pick. Orlando has a six-game stretch against teams in playoff contention that should help, but it also has a large number of games remaining against lottery contenders.

Sacramento Kings, 18-40

The Kings did well to get out of the $19 million owed to George Hill next season in a pre-deadline trade with the Cavaliers. Losing the team’s starting point guard also has the benefit of more minutes to develop De’Aaron Fox while upping the odds of adding a quality piece next to him in the draft. Unfortunately, the Kings had a recent stretch of four wins in ten games.

Dallas Mavericks, 18-40

No caveats or disclaimers are needed here since Cuban has gone public with his desire to lose as many games as possible. Aiding Cuban’s cause is that the Mavs are tied with the Hawks and Suns for fewest remaining games against teams on this list.

Atlanta Hawks, 18-41

Equal to the Suns for the league’s worst record, the Hawks come out of the All-Star break in pole position for the Tank 500. However, the team is 4-6 in the last 10 games and lost a ton of close games this year. The Hawks are literally better than the record suggests, and join the Magic and Kings by insisting on shooting themselves in the foot with late-season wins that could poison the lottery well.

As NBA.com’s K.L. Chouinard noted, the Hawks have a net rating of +9.1 in minutes Ersan Ilyasova and Dewayne Dedmon share. Only John Collins and Isaiah Taylor have out-performed this combo among two-man units that have shared at least 200 minutes.

Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer wisely opted to limit the pair to 227 minutes together this season, but the Hawks seem like a team in danger of tumbling out of position for a top-three pick despite how well-positioned the team is currently.

Phoenix Suns, 18-41

When it comes to the gold standard in tanking, nobody tops the Suns. The team shares a league-worst record with the Hawks, has a tough remaining schedule and is showing how it’s done with a 1-9 record in its last 10 games. With the team’s litany of poor draft selections and disastrous trades and free agency decisions, the lottery is the only place Phoenix can turn to for improvement. The prediction here is that nobody out-tanks the Suns the rest of the way.

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