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Denver Nuggets 2017-18 Season Preview

After an eventful offseason with a big addition, Basketball Insiders previews the Denver Nuggets.

Basketball Insiders

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The Denver Nuggets go into the 2017-2018 season hoping that their continued investment in a few talented young players surrounded by capable veterans is an effective recipe to make the playoffs. The team is coming off a year in which they went 40-42, placing them 9th place in the western conference and just outside the playoff picture. Add in a key offseason acquisition in power forward Paul Millsap and the team should be poised to break into the top eight this season.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

One of my favorite offseason acquisitions was the Denver Nuggets’ signing of Paul Millsap. From the terms of the deal (three-years, $90 million, team option on the final season) to Millsap’s fit alongside center Nikola Jokic, this was simply a homerun deal for Denver. Millsap alone can’t turn the Nuggets into an above average defensive team, but he will certainly have a tangible effect on the team. Denver will also have to rely on the continued development of young studs like Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Jokic, who is quickly establishing himself as a superstar level talent. The Northwest Division is hard to get a full grasp on at this point, but with more internal development and the addition of Millsap, Denver could turn some heads this upcoming season.

2nd Place – Northwest Division

— Jesse Blancarte

The Denver Nuggets are smack dab in the middle of possibly the NBA’s toughest conference.

Nearly every team in the Northwest Division will have playoff aspirations this upcoming season. So, with a budding star player in Nikola Jokic already at their disposal, the Nuggets made a move to position themselves equally among their division counterparts by signing free agent forward Paul Millsap.

Placing Millsap alongside Jokic provides Denver a nice frontcourt combo that can stretch the floor on opposing defenses. With Jokic’s above-average passing ability and Millsap’s catch-and-shoot ability, the Nuggets should have a nice one-two punch down low to accompany their cast of young, promising guards.

However, the road to the playoffs won’t be easy for Denver. The West only got stronger this offseason and that includes their division. Should the Nuggets find themselves playoff bound, it will be a result of a best case scenario regular season.

4th place — Northwest Division

— Dennis Chambers

If we liked the Nuggets last season, we sort of have no choice but to love them this year. Golden State owns the Western Conference, obviously, but much of the talk this summer has been about the ground made up by Houston. Denver, though, certainly made their own splashy acquisition in Paul Millsap. He and Nikola Jokic should be one of the most entertaining frontcourts in the league this year, and with further emergence from young studs like Gary Harris and Jamal Murray, it’s really hard not to have these guys as up-and-comers in the West. Unfortunately they play in the league’s most miserable division, but while I’ve got them ranked fourth there, I also don’t see there being a whole lot of space between any two teams in the Northwest.

4th Place – Northwest Division

— Joel Brigham

In an NBA Sunday column, I wrote about the 2014 draft class and how, in some ways, they have already been surpassed by the 2015 draft class. Nikola Jokic could help to turn the tide, though.

After the February 11 trade that saw Jusuf Nurkic land in Portland, Jokic’s number shot up across the board. His usage, minutes and repetitions all increased dramatically and the results had most people that follow the Association gasping. After the trade, in 28 games, Jokic averaged 18.7 points, 12 rebounds, 6.1 assists on about 57 percent shooting from the field. His per-36 numbers were even more impressive: 21.9 points, 14 rebounds and 7.1 assists. He also recorded five triple-doubles.

In other words, Jokic has gotten a lot of people wondering whether or not he is a special player, and if he is the star that the Nuggets have been searching for since trading Carmelo Anthony, they have a few pieces around him that can prove to be helpful. The addition of Paul Millsap helps improve their fortunes, as well, but it’s with Jokic’s proving that last season’s numbers weren’t an aberration that the Nuggets’ postseason hopes lay. It’s also worth noting that in those final 28 games, they were a respectable 17-11.

With all the changes that have taken place in the Northwest, it’s difficult to predict where the division’s teams will ultimately land. I’d probably pick the Nuggets to finish fourth or fifth, but wouldn’t be surprised to see the top four teams from the Northwest make the playoffs. It’s safe to say they are one of my top five teams to watch this season.

5th Place — Northwest Division

— Moke Hamilton

Outside the world champion Warriors, maybe no offense in the NBA should inspire as much excitement as the Nuggets heading into next season. A group that shined offensively down the stretch last year then went out and added even more firepower in the form of star Paul Millsap, leaving Denver with a fearsome scoring machine. In Millsap and rising star Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets boast an incredible combination of skill and playmaking in their frontcourt – they can run the entire offense through it. They retain strong wing options like Gary Harris and Wilson Chandler, along with second-year spark plug Jamal Murray. They’ll push the pace in transition, and when they have to play in the halfcourt, Millsap and Jokic will create a huge number of issues for defenses with their passing and creativity from the elbows. This group will have some real questions to answer on defense, but Millsap also provides a real boon on that end. Look for them to be right there in the Northwest Division.

2nd place — Northwest Division

— Ben Dowsett

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Paul Millsap

The 2016-2017 NBA Offseason will go down as one of the busiest in recent history. Players such as Kyrie Irving, Paul George, Isaiah Thomas, Gordon Hayward and Jimmy Butler all moved teams and did so in surprising fashion. In comparison, the offseason signing of power forward Paul Millsap was, in comparison, less talked about and, for longtime Nuggets fans, not as much of a surprise. However overlooked, this is the perfect acquisition for the team.

Millsap brings savvy passing, intelligent defense and the ability to score one-on-one, both from the outside and in the post. Although other teams didn’t make aggressive overtures to Millsap and the Hawks apparently never tendered an offer, the Nuggets got just the player they wanted in Millsap.

Top Defensive Player: Wilson Chandler

Look for the Nuggets to rely on Wilson Chandler as a primary defensive player. Chandler has both the skill and experience to lead the Nuggets on defense, though his health has been a concern in recent seasons. Building around Jokic is great for the Nuggets’ offense but deprives the team of possibly using a more athletic, defensive minded player to anchor the team’s defense. Chandler, with his length, strength and size is best suited to guard the elite small forwards in the league, which makes him very valuable defensively. Chandler is in a contract year also, so don’t be surprised to see a boost in his overall performance this season.

Top Playmaker: Nikola Jokic

After narrowly being edged out for Top Offensive Player by new addition Paul Millsap, Jokic holds the crown decisively for the Nuggets as the team’s Top Playmaker. The Nuggets are now built around Jokic and his rapidly developing game. There was a point last season where the Nuggets tried in earnest to make the pairing of Jokic and center Jusuf Nurkic work. Since trading Nurkic, Jokic has emerged as a star whose combination of excellent court vision, deft passing and high IQ gives the Nuggets a unique and talented base to build around. Running the offense through Jokic alleviates pressure on point guard Jameer Nelson, who finished last season as the team’s primary point guard but whose best days in the NBA are behind him.

Top Clutch Player: Paul Millsap

Again, this is a team built around multi-skilled big men with a knack for nifty passing. The incumbent top clutch player is Jokic as he was the only player with a positive net rating (1.9) in clutch minutes (in a minimum 20 games according to NBA.com), to go with the highest shooting numbers of any Nuggets player and passing numbers comparable to point guard Jameer Nelson.

However, under the same criteria, Millsap comes to the team with a much higher net rating (16.4) than Jokic, higher usage percentage (30.8) than Jokic (23.8) and similar passing numbers. Look for the team run the offense through Jokic late in the game and give the ball to Millsap to utilize his ability to score the ball on final possessions. It’s a close call here, but Millsap gets the nod.

The Unheralded Player: Jamal Murray

Jamal Murray. Both Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay came to the Nuggets as the seventh pick in their respective drafts. Despite the attention having been on Mudiay for the past two years, all eyes should be on Murray going forward. Murray played point guard in high school and when drafted by the Nuggets expressed his interest in returning to the position. Murray received his wish, playing in and starting a few games at point guard at the end of last season. Expect the Nuggets to continue to explore how viable Murray can be in this position. If Murray builds on his brief but successful run at the point, this could pay huge dividends for a team fretting whether Mudiay will ever transition into the player they hoped he would become.

Best New Addition: Paul Millsap

The nod again goes to Millsap. Nuggets fans are aware of the team’s past interest in Millsap, so this move comes as no surprise. The ability of the Nuggets to acquire Millsap to less than a maximum deal and retaining a team option in year three is a credit to the team’s front office. In the past the Nuggets have signaled their interest and attempted to acquire big name post players such as Blake Griffin but came up short. The offense, led by Head Coach Mike Malone, will hum with Millsap at the power forward spot.

— James Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Mike Malone

Mike Malone’s desire for balanced offense with free-flowing ball movement caught fire with the discovery of Jokic’s full skillset. Credit Malone for his part in the free agent pitch that helped to secure the services of Millsap. Jokic playing as a full time starter only began in December. How successful the offense can be with a full season of Jokic and the addition of Millsap is now directly tied to Malone’s ability to make maximize the pairing. He’s the right man for the job and should find plenty of interesting ways to utilize each player’s significant talent.

 2. Juan Hernangomez

Hernangomez has received a lot of attention recently. He and his brother Willy Hernangomez of the New York Knicks are playing together in the Eurobasket. While the Gasol brothers, Pau and Marc, receive more attention, look for the Henangomez brothers to continue to garner increasing amounts of attention from the international audience. On his native Spanish team, Juan Hernangomez is thriving at the small forward spot, using a combination of cuts, ball movement and spot up shooting to make an impact. After not much playing time to start his rookie year, Hernangomez played well for a rookie in the second half of last season. Look for him to have a chance as an impact player off the bench for the Nuggets behind Wilson Chandler.

 3. Gary Harris

Gary Harris has been on an upward trend in his first three years in the league. In addition to Jokic and Millsap, Harris is arguably in position to be the third-most important player on the team. With a full season featuring Jokic as the team’s star player and the addition of Millsap, expect Harris to continue his improvement and creep closer to being a 16-18 point a game player. With more experience and talented teammates in the frontcourt, Harris should have plenty of opportunities to knock down open jumpers on a nightly basis.

4. Kenneth Faried

Kenneth Faried has had an up and down tenure in Denver. While experiencing stints of success and notoriety over the years, he has also chaffed at the prospect of remaining with the Nuggets and even asked for a trade last season. Look for Faried to be the first featured big off the bench as the Nuggets will certainly look to dangle him in trades during the season. Faried may not be the player the Nuggets hoped he would develop into a few years ago, but he has value and, if featured in a positive role, could land Denver something of value in a trade.

— James Blancarte

SALARY CAP 101

The Nuggets used most of their cap space to sign Paul Millsap. While they’re currently about $2.8 million under the league’s $99.1 million cap, that number could grow to $8.6 million if restricted free agent Mason Plumlee leaves for another team. Denver cannot withdraw their $4.6 million qualifying offer to Plumlee without his approval.

The Nuggets have until the end of October to take options on Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray, Trey Lyles, Juancho Hernangomez and Malik Beasley for the 2018-19 season. Gary Harris is extension eligible before the start of the season. Next summer, Denver could reach at least $36 million in cap space, provided Wilson Chandler ($12.8 million) and Darrell Arthur ($7.5 million) opt out of their contracts.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The offense. As mentioned above, Malone has the team in position to improve and potentially explode on the offensive end. The team’s purest playmaker is Jokic. With Millsap now in the fold, the ball should move freely and efficiently. How well the team can stagger the minutes of Jokic and Millsap will help determine how successful the offense is. The second unit should be aided by one of the starting big men staying on the floor to help keep the ball movement going as the back-ups simply cannot mimic either player’s considerable skill set. If the Nuggets are really aggressive, they may try to use Millsap as a backup center to give more room to other more traditional power forwards in the rotation like Trey Lyles or Darrel Arthur. There are plenty of options here for Malone – expect him to make the most of it.

— James Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

As good as the offense was last year, the defense held the team back just as much. Expect the defense to continue to struggle but for the team to trend upwards a few spots overall. This year’s team, like last year’s, is built around a lot of younger players, which means there will be plenty of mistakes on defense throughout the season. The addition of Millsap as an experienced veteran who plays smart defense is a plus, but he cannot turn things around on defense by himself.

The Nuggets have some capable wing defenders in Chandler and Harris, but players like Murray, Mudiay and Nelson often struggle on defense. This roster simply isn’t built to be a top defensive squad, which means the offense is going to have to be extremely efficient.

— James Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the team improve enough to make the playoffs?

Yes. With only a few weeks left until the start of training camp, the Nuggets are running out of time to make a move and free up the logjam at power forward and bring better balance to their roster. Even if the team elects to not make a move or at least waits until the trade deadline, the team is already in a great position. Millsap and Jokic will lead a balanced attack based on ball movement and generate open looks for their teammates. The team’s offense should rank in the top five, assuming the team stays healthy for the most part. If the defense can come close to league average, that should be good enough for the team to make the playoffs.

— James Blancarte

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David Nwaba and the Road Less Traveled

David Nwaba speaks to Basketball Insiders about his unconventional path to the NBA.

David Yapkowitz

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A player’s path to the NBA usually follows the same formula: A star in high school, a strong college career, and then eventually being selected in the NBA Draft. However, there are times when a player’s path is more unconventional. In the case of David Nwaba, he definitely took the path less traveled.

He attended University High School in West Los Angeles, where he was named All-Western League MVP twice as well as being an all-league selection. He finished his senior year in 2011 putting up 22.0 points per game and 11.5 rebounds per game.

He went to an NCAA Division 2 school, however, Hawaii Pacific University, but never suited up for them as he redshirted his freshman year. He played a year at Santa Monica Community College, where he was the Western State Conference South Division Player of the Year before transferring to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. According to Nwaba, the decision to leave Hawaii Pacific was made with the NBA in mind.

“It was always a dream of mine, it’s also why I left a Division 2 school that I started at,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “I had bigger dreams of playing D1 and potentially the NBA. So that was a dream of mine. I never thought the journey would go like this but it is how it is.”

Behind Nwaba, Cal Poly made their first-ever NCAA appearance in 2014. They won the Big West Tournament as the seventh seed out of eight teams, and then knocked off Dayton for the right to come in as a No. 16 seed against No. 1 seed Wichita State. Cal Poly would go on to lose to Wichita State, but sparking that run to March Madness put Nwaba on the basketball map.

He didn’t get to the NBA right away, though. His first professional experience came with the then Los Angeles D-Fenders, now South Bay Lakers, the Los Angeles Lakers G-League affiliate. He initially began with the Reno Bighorns, the Sacramento Kings affiliate, but his rights were traded to Los Angeles. His strong play in the G-League was what caught the Lakers’ attention, enough to give him a pair of 10-day contracts, and then one for the rest of the season.

“It was a perfect spot to start up my professional career The G-League is a place to develop your game, and I think I developed a lot,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “I learned a lot about the game, and I think it was a good place for me to start just out of college.”

Although he made a strong impression on the Lakers, Nwaba found out that nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA. Due to a roster crunch when the team signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope over the summer, the Lakers ended up cutting him. He didn’t stay unemployed for long though. Before he had a chance to hit the open market, the Chicago Bulls claimed him off waivers.

He’s since carved out a role as one of the Bulls most dependable players in the second unit. And just like his path to the league, his role is a bit of an unconventional one as a shooting guard. He’s shooting 51.7 percent from the field, but most of his shots come from in the paint. He only shoots 26.3 percent from three-point range. It’s been effective for him though.

“It’s just bringing energy off the bench and just being that defender,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “For the most part, I just try to be aggressive going to the basket, finishing at the rim, making the right plays, just defending and playing hard.”

The Chicago Bulls got off to a slow start this season. They lost 17 of their first 20 games. In December, they started to pick up their play, winning 11 of their 20 games including a seven-game win streak. However, they’ve now dropped eight of their last 11 games. Despite that, Nwaba does see some encouraging signs. And in the Eastern Conference, he’s not quite ready to count out another run.

“We’re developing every game, just building chemistry amongst each other,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “Who knows, all it takes is just a streak of eight to ten games or something and we’re already back in the playoff race. You never know, anything can turn around. It’s still a long season, a lot of games to be played, and a lot of time to develop our game. We’ve still got a lot of time with each other.”

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NBA Daily: The Los Angeles Lakers Could Be Up Next

The Los Angeles Lakers may not make the playoffs this season, but they’re trending in the right direction.

Dennis Chambers

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The Los Angeles Lakers are coming.

They may not be playoff-bound this season as some of their purple and gold faithful hoped for, but the prestigious franchise occupying the Staples Center is showing improvement from their young players. Perhaps even enough to lure the likes of established stars come summer time.

In Luke Walton’s second season as the Lakers’ head coach, he hits the All-Star break with his team holding a 23-34 record. Granted, that’s not the level of success he was used to during his time with the Golden State Warriors, but it is only three fewer wins than his team had all of last season.

Prior to limping into the break on the back of a three-game losing streak, the Lakers had won eight of 10. During that stretch, they’d beaten the likes of Oklahoma City (twice), Indiana, and Boston. Along with making the most of their performances over that span, the Lakers were also doing so without 2017’s second overall pick, Lonzo Ball, who’s sidelined with an injury.

But Ball isn’t the only Los Angeles darling who has shined this season. In fact, it’s arguable that he’s not even the most impressive youngster on the team.

Drafted second overall last season, Brandon Ingram is showing the improvement this season that warranted such a high selection. His play thus far suggests he’s one of the building blocks of the Lakers’ next era in contending for a championship.

In his 53 games this season, Ingram is averaging 16.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game. His shooting from the floor and from beyond the arc have both seen dramatic increases as well this season. Over the same stretch that saw the Lakers go 8-2 with wins over cemented playoff teams, Ingram upped his assists per night to 5.2, taking the place of facilitator with Ball sidelined.

Though Ingram and the Lakers haven’t been setting the win column on fire all season, the steady growth and improvement show to him that the team is moving in the right direction, under the right coach.

“I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job,” Ingram said to reporters during All-Star weekend. “I think guys have gotten better every single day. I think we come in with the mindset that we have a really good coach that pushes us every single day. I like the progress of what we’re doing in our organization.”

Walton, this season more than last, has shown the ability to get the most out of the players he has. Ingram’s improvement, plus the capability as a point guard Ball has shown, are the givens. They were highly selected players, expected to contribute immediately. But it’s the production of the players who were afterthoughts that are a major testament to Walton’s teachings.

Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart were selected with the 27th and 30th picks in last June’s draft. Both were collegiate upperclassmen with noted handicaps in their respective games that led to teams selecting younger, or more athletic, or sweeter shooting players in their place.

A few years from now when everyone looks back, that could prove to be a silly mistake.

All Kuzma has done this season is keep his name consistently in the Rookie of the Year award race by averaging 15.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and shooting nearly 36 percent from beyond the arc. He’s been a lightning rod of scoring for the Lakers on nights where they desperately need it, racking up 13 games where he’s reached at least 20 points, and three games breaking the 30-point plateau.

Hart, on the other hand, hasn’t been as steady a performer as his fellow late first-round selected teammate. But when called upon, especially since Ball has been out, Hart’s shown the all-around game that made him one of the most decorated players in college basketball while at Villanova.

Over the last month, Hart has averaged 8.8 points and five rebounds per game, while shooting 52.8 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from beyond the arc. During that same stretch, Hart’s scored in double-figures six times and registered three straight double-doubles at the beginning of February.

Moving forward, as the Lakers look to add high-priced free agent in the coming summers, having guys like Kuzma and Hart on cost-effective rookie contracts is a luxury teams around the league hope to have.

Diamonds in the rough like Kuzma and more than capable contributors like Hart are nice, of course, but the real reason for optimism in L.A. is Ingram. He’s the player with a star power ceiling. He’s the guy that the likes of LeBron James and Paul George look at when they weigh their free agent options, as a guy who can handle the workload on the nights they may not have it.

Ingram’s game isn’t finished, though; far from it, in fact. But he knows that, and he’s aware of the steps he needs to take to get to that next level.

“To improve my game I think from a shooting standpoint,” Ingram said. “If I get that down, I think it would be a lot more easier for me to drive to the basket, break down a lot of guys, make plays for my other teammates. I think it would take me to a whole other level.”

Playing for the Los Angeles Lakers doesn’t come void of expectations. There, in Hollywood, everyone is always watching. Fans, other teams, the media, everyone is waiting for the next time a Laker championship comes around. With the weight of the world on their shoulders, Ingram thinks the current legend captaining the ship is the young team’s best asset to achieving that ultimate success everyone in Los Angeles is accustomed too.

“Magic Johnson,” Ingram said. “He’s in our front office. He’s at most of every practice, every single day. For any advice why not go to him, with the caliber of player he was and how many championships he won, the way he carries himself. He always there for just information on anything we need.”

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NBA All-Star Friday Recap

Simon Hannig recaps NBA All-Star Friday 2018.

Simon Hannig

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NBA All-Star Celebrity Game

The NBA All-Star Celebrity Game was highlighted by many stars this year, including Tracy McGrady, Paul Pierce, Nate Robinson, Candace Parker, Bubba Watson, Rachel DeMita and many more. Team Lakers was led by head coach, Rachel Nichols. Team Clippers was led by Katie Nolan.

Quavo, of hip hop group Migos, had the first the two points for Team Clippers, and Justin Bieber had the first three points for Team Lakers.

Team Clippers defeated Team Lakers 75-66.

Quavo led the way for Team Clippers with 19 points on 7/10 shooting, with 5 rebounds and 3 assists. Olympic sprinter Andre De Grasse had 17 points on 8/14 shooting and 6 rebounds. Actor and social media star Brandon Armstrong finished with 16 points on 6/17 shooting, 11 rebounds and 3 assists for Team Clippers. Both wereamong the top three leading scorers for Team Clippers.

NBA2KTV host, actress and model, Rachel DeMita led the way for Team Lakers with 17 points on 6/12 shooting and 2 rebounds. NBA legend Nate Robinson was the second leading scorer for Team Lakers with 14 points on 4/11 shooting, 5 rebounds and 4 assists.

Other notable NBA and WNBA legends stats from tonight’s game — Stefanie Dolson (Chicago Sky) had zero points. Paul Pierce had 4 points on 2/3 shooting and 1 rebound. Jason Williams had 2 points on 1/3 shooting and 1 rebound. Tracy McGrady had 3 points on 1/3 shooting, 3 assists and 2 rebounds. Candace Parker (Los Angeles Sparks) had zero points.

Quavo was named MVP.

BBVA Compass Rising Stars Game

There is a ton of young talent in this league, and the league will be in good hands for years to come. The talent was put on display tonight in Los Angeles.

Utah Jazz rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell gave us an early preview of the dunk contest tomorrow by throwing an ally-oop pass to himself off the backboard in the first half.

However, it was all Team World in the first half as they led 78-59 at the break. Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic of the Sacramento Kings each had 14 points to lead Team World. Jaylen Brown led the way for Team USA with 16 points at the half.

It felt like a three point contest throughout the entire game, as there were 96 combined three point attempts. Bogdanovic led the way with seven three pointers made for both teams.

All in all, Team World defeated Team USA 155-124. Hield led the way for Team World with 29 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists. Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics led the way for Team USA with 35 points and 10 rebounds.

The MVP of the game was Bogdan Bogdanovic, who dazzled the crowd with his three point shooting. He had 26 points, 6 assists and 4 rebounds with seven made three’s.

Next up for the NBA in this fun-filled weekend is NBA All-Star Saturday Night with the dunk contest, three point contest and much more.

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