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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 Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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NBA PM: Patrick Beverley Set the Tone for Clippers in Season Opener

Patrick Beverley set the tone for the L.A. Clippers with his aggressive defense in their season opener.

Jesse Blancarte

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“The LA Clippers are going to the Western Conference Finals. Guaranteed.”

That bold statement was made by Charles Barkley during TNT’s coverage of last night’s matchup between the Lakers and Clippers.

While Barkley may have had his hot take canon primed and in mid-season form, that should not overshadow the fact that the Los Angeles Clippers put together a strong showing in their first regular season game since the departure of Chris Paul.

Blake Griffin logged 29 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two steals and knocked down three of his six three-point attempts. Griffin was aggressive and showed no hesitation on his jumper, which seemed to open up lanes for him to drive to the basket (where he is most effective). DeAndre Jordan was fantastic as well, contributing 14 points, 24 rebounds, one assist and one steal.

While the Clippers lost some significant contributors from last season, including J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute and Jamal Crawford, the team had some returning and new players show that they are capable of filling the void.

Milos Teodosic was just 2-9 from the field, but knocked down two three-pointers and looked comfortable and effective running the team’s offense. Danilo Gallinarni shot just 3-13 from the field but looked healthy and spry, displaying the kind of mobility that is necessary to play the small forward position. His ability to act as a secondary playmaker wasn’t on full display, but there were moments where it was apparent that he could be a big help in generating open looks for his teammates. Lou Williams also looked good in his Clippers debut, scoring in a variety of ways off the bench and contributing six assists as well. Wesley Johnson continues to look confident and aggressive, a continuation from his preseason performances, and is starting to knock down the open shots his teammates are creating for him (which has been a problem for him in the past).

While the Clippers looked solid in their opening act without Paul, it should be noted that the Lakers are a young team overall and their defense has been a major problem for the last few seasons. While the Lakers have added some promising young talent over the offseason, like most young teams, they are going to struggle to slow down veteran teams with potent offenses. It would be a mistake to think the Clippers can replicate this sort of offensive performance every night, especially against the better defensive teams in the league. However, perhaps the most promising part of the Clippers’ season debut was the fact that they seemed to feed off of and embrace the gritty demeanor and style of play that Patrick Beverley brings to the court each and every night.

Last night’s game was the NBA debut for rookie point guard Lonzo Ball, who many predict will develop into a star player. Unfortunately for Ball, his opening night matchup came against Beverley, who earned a spot on the 2017 All-Defensive First Team. Beverley repeatedly guarded Ball past half court, pushed him around and did everything he could to throw him off of his game. He held Ball to three points, nine rebounds and four assists in 29 minutes of action.

Beverley, like every NBA player, has heard the hype and noise surrounding Ball and his future in the league (most of it from his outspoken father, LaVar).

“I just had to set the tone,” Beverley said. “I told him after the game that due to all the riffraff his dad brings, that he’s going to get a lot of people coming at him. I let him know that after the game. What a better way to start than spending 94 feet guarding him tonight — welcome the young guy to the NBA.”

Beverley is one of the more aggressive defenders in the NBA and is known for trying to get under the skin of his opponents, so Lonzo may not face this level of intensity in every game. But based on Beverley’s comments, it’s clear that he expects other players around the league to defend Lonzo aggressively as well.

Snoop Dogg, the rapper and passionate Lakers fan, summed up the issue for Ball arguably better than anyone else has so far.

“His father put him in the lion’s den with pork chop drawers on,” said Snoop.

For his part, Lonzo complimented Beverley on his aggressive defense.

“[Beverley] plays hard. He knows his job. He does it very well,” said Ball. “He gets under people’s skin and plays defense and does what he can to help his team win.”

Beverley set the tone for the Clippers, who looked crisp and confident throughout the game. Griffin’s three-point shot looks like it could finally be a reliable part of his offensive arsenal. Jordan was very active on the glass, pulling down 24 rebounds (possibly inspired in part by his commitment to donate $100 per rebound this season to help the effort to rebuild his hometown of Houston after the damage inflicted by Hurricane Harvey). The rest of the supporting cast played with the sort of cohesion and confidence that takes at least a few weeks into the season to develop. Again, the Clippers’ performance could have stemmed primarily from the Lakers’ shaky defense, but it was encouraging to see the team play with such force and confidence in the absence of Paul.

The Western Conference is extremely talented and deep, so it’s unlikely that the Clippers will make it to the Western Conference Finals as Barkley predicted. However, challenging for a spot in the playoffs and perhaps even doing some damage once there seems to be in the realm of possibility. This is especially the case considering how much of an impact Beverley had Thursday night, both defensively and in setting the tone for the rest of his new teammates.

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