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Denver Nuggets 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Denver Nuggets might be the deepest team in the NBA, but in a division in which every team might make the post-season, are the Nuggets good enough to be more than first-round fodder? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Denver Nuggets in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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Despite missing out on the latest installment of the NBA playoffs, there is almost too much to like about this Denver squad. It’s easy to forget about their lack of defense when you realize just how explosive they are offensively. Throw in the fact that they are one of the younger teams in the league and it becomes clear why so many people are high on their potential.

An important thing to note with this Nuggets squad: they barely missed out on the postseason last year. I can’t put enough emphasis on the word barely. Not only did a trip to the playoffs come down to the last game of the season (the Nuggets played the Minnesota Timberwolves with the winner moving on), but a win could’ve vaulted the Nuggets up much higher than just the 8th seed. That’s how close the Western conference playoff race was. Obviously, the Nuggets lost, missed out on the postseason and found themselves yet again in the lottery. But the future for this young core has never been brighter. Let’s take a look at this year’s edition of the Denver Nuggets.

FIVE GUYS THINK

The Denver Nuggets are not going to be the NBA’s best defensive team next season, but their offense should be quite potent. The Nuggets didn’t add make any major changes this offseason, though Isaiah Thomas could be a difference-maker if he is at least relatively healthy. Assuming players like Paul Millsap can avoid the injury bug as well, Denver should be considered a playoff contender as we approach opening night. This is especially true when you consider that some of Denver’s key players, like Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray are still young and improving. However, while I like the talent on this team and think their offense will be a matcup problem for most opponents, their defense will likely be an Achilles heel. Players like Jokic and Murray are not impact players on defense and are often targeted by opponents. If Denver can put together a league average defense, I think they have a good shot of making the playoffs.

4th Place – Northwest Division

-Jesse Blancarte

The Nuggets didn’t make sweeping changes to any of the primary players on their roster this summer, but that hasn’t stopped some pundits from predicting big things for them in 2018-19. After missing the playoffs by just a game last year, the Nuggets will bring back much of the same crew – only with hopes for a full season of health from Paul Millsap, a potential small boost from signee Isaiah Thomas, and most importantly, some solid development from young pieces like Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Denver has one of the league’s most potent offenses when Jokic is on the floor, and while they’ve struggled at times on the other end, they may only have to approach league average here to rack up a ton of wins if everyone stays healthy. At the same time, it’s unlikely they’ll break into a true tier of contention until the defensive side of the ball gets a bit more attention.

3rd Place – Northwest Division

-Ben Dowsett

Oh, what this team could do! Before Paul Millsap’s wrist injury undid everything last season, the bar for the Nuggets was set at the playoffs. Now he’ll be back fully healthy. On top of that, Denver’s summer can be summarized in two hyphenated words: “Low-risk” and “high-reward.” They took Michael Porter Jr with the 14th pick after many believed he could have been top-three in a loaded draft. Then they signed Isaiah Thomas, who’s only one year past his MVP candidacy. So much could go right for Denver this season that it’s actually kind of scary to think of their potential. With all they’ve accumulated, Denver has to feel good about their chances.

3rd Place – Northwest Division

– Matt John

One of the strongest young cores in basketball resides in the Mile High City. Jamal Murray and Gary Harris Jr. have continued to develop into a significantly productive backcourt tandem. Nikola Jokic heads into his fourth year with plenty of hype surrounding him. There’s a nice veteran presence in Paul Millsap, who can truly making an impact if he stays healthy for the majority of 2017-18. A bench featuring Isaiah Thomas, Will Barton and Trey Lyles will provide plenty of scoring as well. The Nuggets fell one game short of making the NBA playoffs last season. Mike Malone’s talented bunch won’t be missing out this time around.

3rd Place – Northwest Division

– Spencer Davies

If you look at the West in an unbiased way, it’s fair to say all five teams in the Northwest could make the postseason. The division is that good. For Denver specifically, how can you not like their roster? Nikola Jokic might be the best “every category” player in basketball and he’s really just finding his way. The Nuggets’ roster is just loaded, so beyond injury, the Nuggets should be a playoff team at worst, and at best could win 45-50 games. The West is going to be brutally tough, so its not a given for anyone, but one this is as close to a lock as they come, the Nuggets look like a formidable cover every night.

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Nikola Jokic

Sure, there are multiple guards on this roster that could claim this spot. But Jokic not only averaged the most points per game (18.5), he did so with the highest efficiency. He led the team in both three-point percentage (39.6) and true shooting percentage (60.3). He also led the team in assists, assist percentage, and usage. Did we mention he plays center?

Jokic is one of those “eye-test” players that doesn’t really come off as elite to the casual fan. But make no mistake, this guy can play basketball. He just got inked to a nice, big contract. He’s only 23 years old. He’s improved his per-game points, assists, rebounds, steals, and blocks numbers in each of his three years in the league. Few players have done this in the league’s history.

Top Defensive Player: Paul Millsap

If there is one thing Denver has struggled with, it is their defense. Whether it’s personnel, coaching, or a combination of both, they’ve been one of the worst rated teams in the league on that end of the floor. Paul Millsap has been one of the better defenders on this roster. Standing at 6-foot-8, his elite wingspan at 7-foot-2 allows him to guard players taller than him, yet his quickness helps him stick with more athletic guards on switches. He boasts the second highest block percentage on the roster at 37.6 percent.

Another thing to note, when Millsap is on the floor, the team boasts their lowest defensive rating of 107.1. When off, it goes up to 109.5.

Top Playmaker: Nikola Jokic

This was an easy choice. Although he plays the five, the offense essentially runs through Jokic. Like I mentioned previously, he leads the team in assists per game at 6.1. As impressive as it is to lead the team in assists at center, it’s very easy to see why. Jokic has a natural feel for the game and can fit passes into pockets that most wouldn’t even think about. His high offensive IQ allows him to facilitate the ball whether it’s from the top of the key, or down by the rim. He had mild success playing alongside Jusuf Nurkic a few seasons ago, but we really saw his playmaking abilities flourish as soon as he was placed next to a true stretch four in Paul Millsap.

Top Clutch Player: Paul Millsap

Although his sample size wasn’t as large as other players on the team in clutch minutes, thanks in part to missing extended time with a wrist injury, Millsap is the clear choice for this spot. Considering the fact that “clutch” minutes are the last five minutes of a game when the score is within five, no one played more clutch minutes per game than Millsap. He remained on the floor thanks in part to his veteran presence. He averaged the most clutch points, had the second highest field goal percentage and the highest plus-minus out of anyone who played in more than 10 clutch games.

He led the previous year’s edition of the Atlanta Hawks in clutch points as well, so this isn’t anything new for him. As the season goes on, look at a few younger guards to potentially take this position, but entering the season it’s clear Millsap is the best option with the game on the line.

The Unheralded Player: Gary Harris

No player on this roster has quietly improved his game the way Gary Harris has. Arguably the best shooter on the roster, he’s also developed into an above-average wing defender, and an efficient scorer from almost anywhere on the court. He finished last season with a deadly clip of 39.6 percent from three. He averaged 17.5 points per game, his highest mark to date. He turned in 1.8 steals per night as well, also a career high.

On a team that is so explosive offensively, yet lacking on the defensive end of the court, Harris is a player that stands out. Not only is he a main contributor on the offensive end, he does plenty on defense as well. The Nuggets have a positive 3.2 net rating with him on the court and a negative 2.6 rating with him off.

Best New Addition: Isaiah Thomas

There is not a single player in the NBA that has had a rougher go than Isaiah Thomas in the last few years. He played highly admirable basketball in Boston, got dealt to Cleveland while he was trying to overcome an injury, and ultimately ended up with the Lakers after another string of trades. His season there had its ups and downs, but he wasn’t really a part of the Lakers’ future. After signing with Denver in the offseason, he’ll look to get his career back on the right track.

Thomas certainly will not help Denver on the defensive side of the ball, as his sheer size essentially hinders any success on that end, but he’s only two seasons removed from one of the better offensive seasons in recent memory. His final year with Boston, he averaged 28.9 points and 5.9 assists per game, with an effective field goal percentage of 54.6. If Thomas can get back to that kind of production, he’ll make an already impressive offense even better.

– Jordan Hicks

WHO WE LIKE

1 – Jamal Murray

Murray didn’t get any mentions above, but could essentially find himself in each of the aforementioned categories. It was clear the Nuggets viewed him as the point guard moving forward after dealing Emmanuel Mudiay to the Knicks. In just his second year in the league, he started in all but two games and played in all but one, averaging 16.7 points on 45.1 percent shooting, and 3.4 assists. He has incredible range from beyond the arc, and is a superb free throw shooter, finishing last season at 90.3 percent.

2 – Michael Porter Jr.

Once considered the top high school prospect in the country, a back injury caused him to miss almost his entire college season. He still entered the draft, and luckily for the Nuggets slid all the way to No. 14. Boasting a combination of elite size, skill, and athleticism, Porter Jr. could be the next big star. The only unknown currently is his expected return date, as he opted for a second back surgery not long after this year’s draft. If he can return this season, he’ll likely add instant help off the bench. But that’s a big if. When healthy, there’s no doubt Porter Jr. will contribute, but it may not be this season.

3 – Nikola Jokic

Much can be (and already has been) said about this big man. An interesting rhetoric that surrounds this team is whether or not the Nuggets can actually win a championship with Jokic at the five. He’s slow, not overly athletic, and certainly doesn’t look like an elite basketball player. But the numbers don’t lie. When he is on the court, this team is better. He has the highest net rating differential on the team at 9.9.

He got paid a lot of money this offseason, and many people are arguing that his contract is too much. Only time will tell if his on-court production is worth his max contract, but one thing’s for certain: This Nuggets team is considerably better with him on the court.

4 – Trey Lyles

Many would argue that the Utah Jazz got the better end of this trade. They gave up their 24th pick in the draft and Trey Lyles for Donovan Mitchell. We all witnessed the season Mitchell put together and no one would say the Jazz were stupid to give up Lyles. What isn’t getting enough attention is how well Lyles played in the absence of Paul Millsap. During this stretch of a little over two months, Lyles average 13 points and six boards off the bench. He did so shooting 49.8 percent from the field, and 40.1 percent from three. In Millsap’s absence, Lyles was essentially the sixth man for the squad and performed under that title commendably. In that same span he also had the fourth lowest defensive rating, something Lyles had struggled with “effort-wise” earlier in his young career.

– Jordan Hicks

STRENGTHS

One word: offense. This team can flat out score. They have the personnel to do so at the rim, from mid-range, and most definitely from three. They finished sixth last season in points per game and 5th in assists per game. Adding Isaiah Thomas to this squad will only bolster their bench’s ability to get buckets.

Another really important attribute that this team possesses is continuity. Their core four players of Millsap, Harris, Jokic, and Murray all have one season of playing together. Take out Millsap and they have two full seasons. Add in another key player like Will Barton and you can go back even further. This team clearly has chemistry on the court, and that is an absolute plus.

– Jordan Hicks

WEAKNESSES

One word: defense. The Nuggets finished 26th in defensive rating, 22nd in opponents points per game, and dead last in opponent field goal percentage. They struggle mightily at protecting the rim. Jokic is better at defense than most people assume, but rim protection isn’t his strong suit. During the offseason the Nuggets seemed to have gone all out on offense, adding Isaiah Thomas. He clearly isn’t going to help the team defensively, so it appears that the Nuggets will continue to try and hide their poor defense with an even better offense.

– Jordan Hicks

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will Denver’s strategy of focusing more on offense and less on defense get them to the playoffs?

This question ultimately depends on how well they do offensively this season. They have an arsenal of players that can score, create, and do a little of both. They do not have an arsenal of players that can defend.

Obviously, winning a basketball game comes down to scoring more points than the other team. If the Nuggets can do this night in and night out then they will win games. The issue falls on them being able to perform well, on a consistent basis. There are many teams in the league that can win games both on offense and on defense. The Nuggets’ success this year will rely heavily on their ability to put the basketball through the hoop. Place extra emphasis on the words rely heavily. Are they good enough to do that? The answer is probably, yes. But only time will tell if they are actually able to.

– Jordan Hicks

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NBA Daily: Chasing 40

Can James Harden outdo his last season and drop 40 points per game in 2019-20? History says he can. Drew Mays takes a deep dive into the numbers.

Drew Mays

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As of this writing, James Harden is averaging 38.4 points per game.

Yes, 38.4.

He’s within striking distance of 40 – a number that would put him in the most rarified of air, joining Wilt Chamberlain as the only other player in NBA history to accomplish this feat.

Of course, Wilt averaged over 40 twice – 50.4 in 1961-62 and 44.8 in 1962-63. Harden has played 14 games. There’s a long way to go. But with each passing night, 40 looks more and more in reach.

And why not? He put up 36.1 per contest across 78 games last year. His partitioned game is like a filing system: Put threes there, rim attempts here and free throws in the back. Who says he can’t make one more three and one more free throw per game? He even started this year “slow,” getting 19 and 29 his first two out.

Since those two games, he’s scored under 30 twice. The other 11 games he’s been above 36. Even in today’s game, that’s unheard of – well, unless you’re James Harden.

Only two modern comparisons exist for what Harden’s doing the last 13 months: Michael Jordan in 1986-87 and Kobe Bryant in 2005-06. Jordan averaged 37.1. Kobe averaged 35.4 (for extra points, Rick Barry joins these four in the top-10 scoring seasons of all-time with 35.6 in 1966-67).

This year, Harden has a chance to go supernova — to really pass the Kobe season and to pass Jordan.

On any level, scoring points in the NBA is hard. But scoring at the rate these guys did requires two factors to blend seamlessly into a third. Talent has to meet opportunity in the right era. This equation was true of Wilt’s 50 and 44 seasons, and Jordan and Kobe’s 37 and 35, respectively.

It’s true of Harden’s 2019-20. And he might average 40 because of it.

Kobe, Jordan and Wilt are third, fifth, and seventh in scoring all-time. It’s no surprise they had outlier seasons (though Jordan went for 35 per game the year following 37.1). Harden is currently 55th, but will move into the top 35 or so by year’s end. There’s a good chance he breaks 30,000 career points in the next five years.

The truth is, Harden is as good of a scorer as they were. And he may even be better. Any argument to the contrary isn’t rooted in statistics or results – it’s rooted in a bias against Harden’s ways, or a distorted, reminiscent view of the past. A common refrain against Harden is that his scoring is a product of flopping and free throws – that without that, he wouldn’t be as effective.

Here’s Harden in 2012, still a member of the Thunder.

That looks pretty similar to what he does now — the paced attack; the ball-out, arms-locked attack to incite fouls; the strength to finish anyway.

And here he is the following season, his first as a Rocket.

Copy and paste that into game film from today, and no one notices the difference.

He’s been doing this his whole career…he’s just leveraged his ability with opportunity in the right era to become the most dominant isolation player of the last decade.

Opportunity arises in part because of talent. It’s also borne of team and organizational needs. When Jordan scored 37.1, he was coming off a broken foot and an 18-game season. The 1986-87 campaign saw the Bulls go 40-42, with only three players scoring over 10 per game. Charles Oakley and John Paxson joined Jordan in double figures, with the fourth-highest scorer being Gene Banks at 9.7. Only 8 of the 17 players from ‘86-87 returned the following year.

Charles Oakley scored 9.7 points per game for his career. Paxson scored 7.2. Those were Chicago’s second and third options – with Jordan’s skill level, he had one of the greatest opportunities of all time to put up huge numbers.

In 2005-06, the proud Los Angeles Lakers were on the heels of a 34-48 record and missed the postseason in their first year after Shaquille O’Neal. They entered ’05-06 with Lamar Odom as the only player outside Kobe able to create offense (To our frustration, Smush Parker was as disappointing as we remember him.).

Kobe was all LA had – he obliged by taking 27 shots per game and leading the league in scoring.

Generational, ball-dominant perimeter talents anchoring otherwise average to below-average rosters equal the recipe for lots and lots of points.

That’s where Harden has found himself in Houston, this year more than ever.

Since the now-infamous Thunder deal, Harden is averaging 29 points per game. He’s on his way to his third straight 30-point-per-game season, and second above 35. His numbers have continued to climb not only due to individual improvement, but also within his permanent place as the unquestioned center of the offense. This is the collection of point guards Harden’s seen during his Houston tenure:

Jeremy Lin, Patrick Beverley, Aaron Brooks, Ty Lawson, Chris Paul.

The latter four were far from central playmakers – Paul was the only other star Harden’s joined forces with, and even he declined significantly last season. Sidenote: We’re also not counting the failed Dwight Howard experiment. While other teams were doubling and tripling down on star-laden rosters, Harden was primarily left as the single-engine to the Rockets’ vehicle. He had no choice but to make all the decisions.

This becomes even more true with Paul gone. Paul and Harden have similar styles in that they both control the ball. Consequently, even with the two often playing staggered minutes, Harden’s opportunities decreased. Paul took some of the slowed-down possessions away from him.

The fit with Russell Westbrook, however, is more complementary. Westbrook has Houston playing at the fastest pace in the NBA. He gets it and goes. When he doesn’t have it in transition, he pulls back and gives it to Harden. Harden isn’t losing those prodding isolation possessions anymore.

As Harden has improved year-by-year, he’s done it amid a changing NBA. His rise has coincided with the three-point boom – and it’s led to the possibility of a 40-point-per-game season.

In 1986, Michael Jordan was doing things on a basketball court that few had ever seen.

The ability to leap and hang in the air wasn’t common then. The clip below encapsulates Jordan’s 37.1 ppg season:

Look at that spacing! Jordan clunkily misses a jumper over a double-team, gets the ball back and makes a play at the basket. He scored because he was more athletic than everyone else. That’s not an indictment on Jordan, and he didn’t only score this way – he was skilled this early in his career, too. But the athleticism was the predominant thing. Just check out this clip from 1988:

You’d have thought MJ was a Salem Witch the way the announcers reacted to a behind-the-back dribble. Imagine if they saw Kyrie back then!

Jordan was unparalleled in talent over the history of the NBA; this was especially true, athletically, in 1986. That, along with the state of the Bulls’ roster, mightily contributed to his single-season top-five scoring average.

Kobe Bryant took 2,173 shots in 2005-06. Of those, 1,655 were two-pointers. And of those two-pointers, 1,041 were taken between 10 feet and the three-point line. Kobe took 27 shots per game and 13 of them were long twos. Think about that: Kobe spent an entire NBA season not only shooting 27 times a night, but taking the least efficient shot in basketball nearly half the time.

(Quick aside: Jordan took 27.8 shots per game in ’86-87. Wilt took 34.6 shots per game in his 44-point season and 39.5 shots per game in his 50-point season. So, when Harden scores 49 on 41 shots as he did in Minnesota last week, please don’t complain while standing up for the other three.)

The league’s climate in ’05-06 was perfect for Bryant to hoist an inordinate amount of mid-range shots. 79.8 percent of the league’s field goal attempts came from two-point range, compared to 62.5 percent this year — Harden’s Rockets are at 49.4 percent. Kobe’s greatest strength was the NBA’s most popular shot, and he took advantage.

That brings us to Harden. If Harden followed Steph Curry’s lead and broke basketball last season, he’s slammed into a million pieces in 2019-20.

Harden set a record last year by attempting 1,028 threes, making up over half of his total field goal attempts. That averages out to 13.2 per night – and most of those were unassisted. His shooting percentage of 61.6 was otherworldly, considering the difficulty of his looks.

Now, he’s back for an encore.

His shot chart is more categorized than ever. 56 percent of his attempts are threes, up slightly from last season. 21 percent come at the rim, and almost 20 come from 3-10 feet – and if you watch, most in the 3-10 range are short floaters. Only 2.9 percent of Harden’s looks are between 10 feet and the three-point line.

He’s taking 13.9 three-point attempts per game. Before last night’s loss in Denver, he’d already taken 200 threes!

His total shot attempts per game are at 25.4 (lower than Wilt, Jordan and Kobe during their historic seasons) and he’s taking 14.5 free throws per game. If you threw twos out the window, Harden would get you 28 points on threes and free throws alone!

The free throw rate should slightly regress. He took 11 per game last year and should stay in that 11-12 range. But his shooting percentages are down; he’s shooting 42.5 from the field and 34 from three, about two percentage points lower than his Houston norms. Assuming those tick back up, there’s no reason to believe he can’t add a few points per game to break 40.

Averaging 40 is next to impossible. Only one person has ever done it – and he did it towering over the league, on 39.5 and 34.6 shots each night, at a breakneck pace. Jordan, Kobe and Harden are the only players in the last 30 years or so to even sniff it.

Harden is at the peak of his powers. He plays with a team that relies on him to be the offense and a star running mate whose game doesn’t clash with his. He’s reached the heights of his game at the summit of the three-ball movement, where shot distribution and efficiency are king.

He still has to prove it can work in the playoffs. And even if he can’t, maybe that’s okay. Maybe, among the detractors whining about his style, complaining about his methods, we should enjoy this for what it is: an all-time scorer tearing through the league.

Jordan had a funny quote about his 37.1-point season that went something like this: It was hard, because he’d score 32 one night and then realize, man, I have to get 42 tomorrow to stay on track.

Harden had 27 last night. He’d need 53 Friday to keep the pace.

It’s kind of ridiculous when you think about it that way. Still, it seems unwise to bet against him.

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NBA Daily: Reliable Burks Thriving In Long Sought-After Opportunity

Spencer Davies takes a look at Alec Burks’ outstanding start to the season with the Golden State Warriors.

Spencer Davies

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If you go back and look at the 2011 NBA Draft, you’ll see big names all around.

Champions such as Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving. All-Stars like Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker and Nikola Vucevic.

19th overall pick Tobias Harris turned out to be a maximum contract player. “Mr. Irrelevant” was Isaiah Thomas, a player that made an All-NBA team in a near-MVP season.

But there’s still time for another man to prove himself as one of the best talents in his class and, so far this year, he has given us a reason to believe he will.

Once plagued by injuries and often dealt with inconsistent roles, Alec Burks finally has the opportunity he’d been seeking — and this time around, he’s doing the stepping up instead of being the one on the sideline.

Last night against the Memphis Grizzlies, Burks exploded for 29 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists, plus a block and a steal. It’s the most he’s scored in a single game since Dec. 2017 and the fourth game where he’s eclipsed the 20-point mark this season already.  And in the nights that he’s played over 30 minutes, he’s averaging 23.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists.

While that is an impressive accomplishment in its own right, the way Burks is going about getting his points is the real encouraging story. Healthy and fearless, he’s attacking with purpose and being rewarded with results, one way or another.

Burks is drawing fouls at a high rate with his aggressiveness. He’s getting to the line at will and knocking down his free throws, an astounding 23-for-25 over the last three games. A knack for disrupting opposing offenses, he’s been able to capitalize on the other end with a team-leading 5.5 points off turnovers per 100 possessions. That would also explain his success in transition, where he’s made a living on the open floor.

Don’t mistake Burks as a one-tool guy, either. He’s one of Golden State’s top threats in the pick-and-roll, using his dual-threat ability to either penetrate or pull up from distance. Trailing just Paul George, Andrew Wiggins and James Harden, the veteran combo guard is deadly off handoffs with 1.67 points per possession in such situations.

In addition, Burks has had a noticeable impact on the defensive end. The Warriors suffer when he’s not on the floor, as the opposition’s effective field goal percentage is 8.4 percent better when he sits. According to Cleaning The Glass, that ranks in the 99th percentile in the league. Furthermore, those teams are scoring 120.3 points per 100 possessions if he’s on the bench.

The 28-year-old has been a top-10 defender when it comes to guarding his assignments coming off screens, too, holding those players to 33 percent from the field.

Watching Burks operate with a clean bill of health is a gift from the basketball gods who have been cruel to him over the last three years of his career. It’s a shame that this chance has been given to him with his teammates on the mend, but how many times has he been on the other side of that battle?

Selected by the Utah Jazz at No. 12 eight years ago, Burks started his NBA career on a high note. He was a part of a franchise built around Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, playing a complementary bench role while developing with the likes of Gordon Hayward and Enes Kanter. Then, Trey Burke was added to the mix along with Rudy Gobert in Burks’ third season, one where he appeared in a career-high 78 games.

That following year when he signed an extension, things took a downturn. Already having to adjust to a new head coach in Quin Snyder, Burks began having shoulder issues and played through them until electing to have surgery in late December. The Jazz also brought in Rodney Hood and Dante Exum as rookies.

Burks came back from the setback and, again, had been on the floor consistently in the 2015-16 campaign — except the injury bug decided to rear its ugly head in another way. Almost one year to the date that his season ended with shoulder surgery, he suffered a fractured left fibula that once again cut his year short. Snakebitten by misfortune in way too many occasions, his role in Utah never really was the same. His minutes diminished, his rhythm was off and Snyder had his backcourt rotations set.

Utah ultimately parted ways with Burks via a trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers last year, and while he did show flashes of his abilities and even snuck in a game-winning dunk during that 34-game stint, it wasn’t long before the organization moved on. The Cavaliers flipped him to the Sacramento Kings, where he had 15 DNPs and played less than 10 minutes per game.

Burks admitted at Warriors media day that being traded twice after spending seven years with one organization took a toll on him and his family. By the same token, he also knows that things happen for a reason.

Originally signing with the Oklahoma City Thunder this past summer, Burks pivoted to Golden State because he wanted to reevaluate his following the trades of Paul George and Russell Westbrook. He was sold on the Warriors’ team culture and an opportunity to play for a winner. Unfortunately, Stephen Curry went down with a major injury early this season, D’Angelo Russell is out for a couple of weeks and Draymond Green has missed some time as well — so championship aspiration is aiming high.

At the same time, the Warriors need a veteran to show young guys the ropes. Steve Kerr needs a guy to produce at a high-level to keep up with a fast-moving, deep Western Conference. Burks is proving each night that this group can rely on him.

That first-round pick all those years ago with so much promise, so many obstacles to overcome is now on the other side of the spectrum. The chance he’s been starving for is staring him right in the face.

Believe that Burks won’t take it for granted.

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Hungry HEAT Destined To Be Dark Horse In East

The Miami HEAT are off to a hot start at 9-3. Jordan Hicks details why this may actually be legitimate and why the HEAT have a chance to go deep in the playoffs.

Jordan Hicks

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After Jimmy Butler was acquired by the Miami HEAT this past offseason, everyone expected them to be a solid team in the Eastern Conference. They weren’t expected to go deep in the playoffs, and very few people had them pegged as one of the league’s elite teams. But 12 games into the season, the HEAT are 9-3…and they might be — dare we say — really, really good.

The crazy part about how their team is playing together is all the moving pieces that make it work. Butler is the leader of the team — both in general and in scoring — but he’s only averaging 18.4 points. They have six guys averaging double-digit points, another at 9.7 and three more all above 7 points per game.

As a team, they are number one in the league in field goal percentage, third in three-point shooting, fifth in assists per game and first in steals per game. They are tied with the Toronto Raptors for the fourth-best plus-minus.

Looking into more advanced statistics, they are fifth in the NBA in net rating, helped greatly by their current defensive rating of 101.2. They are second in the league in assist percentage and first in both effective and true field goal percentage.

Of their nine wins, two of them came on the road against the Milwaukee Bucks and the surprising Phoenix Suns, and another came at home in the complete demolition of the Houston Rockets. Their three losses were all the road against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers — three games you’d almost expect them to lose.

This isn’t a take that’s expecting you to believe the HEAT are the real deal based solely on their wins and losses up to this point in the season, but the fact they are completely taking care of business shows that Erik Spoelstra may be well on his way to one of his best head coaching seasons since the departure of LeBron James.

Just what is making this team so good? Let’s start by highlighting their stingy defense, the main driver behind their early-season success.

Butler is leading the entire NBA in steals with 2.8 per game. He is their leader on that end and a large part as to why they’re so successful. They are currently leading the NBA in steals as a team. This is great for a very obvious reason. It takes possessions away from the opposing offense and, in many cases, leads to an easy look in transition on the other end. The most efficient way to score is a wide-open dunk or layup, and fast breaks usually turn into that. The HEAT are averaging a tick under 10 steals per game, so that is plenty of looks their opponents won’t get off.

A huge breakout player for the HEAT this year is Bam Adebayo. Ever since his rookie year, you got the feeling he’d turn out to be solid, but his third season in the league finally feels like Adebayo’s time to shine. He’s averaging 13.9 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks. Guess how many other players in the NBA are putting up a similar stat line? Just one. His name is Giannis Antetokounmpo, you may have heard of him before.

In a league that is being overrun with efficient scoring, the glue guy is a key piece to any championship team that often goes unnoticed. Take Draymond Green, for example. You remember Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson, but Green played as big of a role as any of those guys in bringing rings back to Oracle. Adebayo has a chance to take an incredibly large leap this season, and some are even calling him an early candidate for the Most Improved Player award. No big deal, just HEAT-royalty Dwayne Wade.

Most impressive is where Adebayo currently sits in box plus-minus. This leaderboard is usually nestled with all the top players in the league, and Adebayo currently sits at No. 8. It’d be crazy if he stayed there all season, but the fact he’s up there already 13 games into the season is pretty impressive.

On the offensive end, things seem to be clicking on many different cylinders. As previously mentioned they have six, basically seven guys in double figures. Two of them happen to be rookies, and one of those rookies happens to be undrafted. That undrafted guy, Kendrick Nunn, is making a whole lot of noise.

He’s second in per-game scoring behind Rookie of the Year favorite Ja Morant, and he leads all rookies in steals per game. He’s first in made field goals and first in total steals, too. He leads all rookies in overall plus-minus. He’s second on the HEAT in points per game behind Jimmy Butler and second in steals per game, as well. He’s shooting well from the field as well as from behind the three, where he’s tied with Coby White for most threes made out of all rookies. He’s shooting the three at 38.4 percent which is killer for a rookie considering he’s shooting over six of them per game.

The other rookie standout, Tyler Herro, is averaging 13.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. He’s a great spot-up shooter, but is capable of creating his own looks, too. Of the rookies on the roster, he’ll likely be the better shooter in the long run, and he’s shown every bit of why he deserved to be drafted in the lottery at No. 13.

The HEAT have many other players contributing in diverse ways, some big and some small. Meyers Leonard is shooting over 60 percent from three on two attempts per night. Justise Winslow was pacing the team in nightly plus-minus before his concussion. Goran Dragic — a savvy veteran who is somehow glossed over in this group — is scoring 16 per game on very efficient marks. One could go on and on about all the talent this Miami team has deep on its roster.

Listen, there is still an eternity left before the playoffs start, and Jimmy Butler has shown previous incapabilities of putting the team first. But the HEAT seem to be off to an incredibly productive start. Most wouldn’t pencil them in as a championship team, but with all the parity in the league today, they absolutely have an argument to be considered the top dark horse.

The Miami HEAT have plenty of pieces to make a deep run in the playoffs. Apart from Butler, they are definitely lacking a superstar or two, but they make up for it with early-season continuity, solid coaching and overall execution on both ends of the floor. With all the talent on their roster at almost every poisition, don’t be surprised if the HEAT end up coming out of the East.

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