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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: Finding Julius Randle A Permanent Home

Julius Randle will be highly sought-after this offseason following his career-year in New Orleans — but where might the talented power forward end up?

Ben Nadeau

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There will be no buried lede this time: Julius Randle is about to make some serious bank this summer.

And without hesitation, he certainly deserves it.

Randle’s road to this advantageous position has been anything but a straight line, first losing his entire rookie season to a broken leg before falling in-and-out of the Los Angeles Lakers’ rotation for the following three seasons. After the acquisition of LeBron James brought the signings of JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley, the hulking forward had no choice but to bet on himself. Randle, 24, asked the Lakers to renounce his rights, wherein he signed a two-year deal worth $18 million with the New Orleans Pelicans.

At the time, it was reported that Randle turned down more lucrative offers to take New Orleans’ — now, he’s set to cash in on his slow burn approach.

See, that second year, wisely, came loaded with a player option. To Randle, he was willing to forgo the long-term security and pay for a re-do at free agency in 2019, should his on-court growth warrant such a decision. Evidently, that threshold has been met and more. In the power forward’s latest career-year rendition, he’s averaged 21 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists on 52.3 percent from three-point range. All in all, Randle has improved in every successive season so far — but 2018-19 has quickly become his magnum opus.

Almost assuredly, Randle will opt out this offseason and sign the newer, bigger and better contract he’s rightfully earned.

While the Lakers certainly deserve scrutiny for their decision to focus on elsewhere — although the Nets’ D’Angelo Russell would like a word on that front too — this is not that piece. Instead, one of the other 29 teams is set to sign their forward of the future, benefiting immensely from Los Angeles’ ultimate impatience. Heading into July, the world may as well be Randle’s oyster — but where might his best fit be?

This, of course, is a messy exercise. There are a handful of franchises that either will be mostly capped out — Boston, Washington, Miami, Oklahoma City, etc — or don’t have a pressing need to add another power forward to the roster — Sacramento, Indiana, Chicago, Dallas, etc. In return, that leaves just about four perfect landing spots for Randle this summer.

Los Angeles Clippers

With the Clippers, their inclusion comes with the obvious whopping caveat: Should they strikeout during their foray into star-chasing free agency, adding Randle would be a more-than-acceptable pivot. As of late, Los Angeles has done a remarkable job of competing without a top-tier star in the crowded Western Conference, particularly so after Tobias Harris’ departure at the trade deadline. If Leonard, the Clippers’ reported main target in free agency, stays put in Toronto or is lured to the opposite locker room within the Staples Center, Randle is a budding option with All-Star potential. Randle would make the Clippers actively better without signing up for another season of wistfully dreaming of a big-time free agent.

In 2018-19, Los Angeles has scored 50.9 points in the paint per game, seventh-most in the NBA. One of the few teams ahead of them? Naturally, the Pelicans at 58.4 are the top dog in that realm and although Anthony Davis certainly boosts their average, Randle’s consistency has been a steady presence under the rim.

Most importantly, Randle would fill a long-term need on the roster. Future restricted free agent Ivica Zubac has remained promising since his arrival from the Lakers in February, but his sample size is still small, all things considered. While Patrick Beverley and Danilo Gallinari have performed dutifully, they’ll both be free agents and on the wrong side of 30 in 2020. Of note, Los Angeles’ most coveted assets — other than that unprotected 2021 HEAT pick — are all guards: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jerome Robinson and Landry Shamet.

Tossing Randle into that mix, especially next to the defensive-minded Harrell, would make for a mobile yin-and-yang pairing down low. Then flanked by those aforementioned young sharpshooters and you’ve got a future worth getting excited about, even without a superstar signing.

Utah Jazz

Heading into April, Utah appears to be flying under the radar once again — and that’s for a few reasons. The Jazz will reach the postseason for a third consecutive season, they’ve found their prodigal centerpiece in Donovan Mitchell and, top to bottom, the roster is well-built already. Elsewhere, Rudy Gobert is in the midst of another potential Defensive Player of the Year campaign, Joe Ingles is a two-way standout and the roster has blossomed with head coach Quin Snyder at the helm — Randle, however, might just be the lottery ticket worth buying. Should the Jazz let Ricky Rubio walk and then waive the non-guaranteed $16.9 million left on Derrick Favors’ deal, the franchise would suddenly have top-tier money to spend.

Similarly to the Clippers, Utah is not often considered a marquee free agent destination — but those times, they are a-changin’. Still, not landing Klay Thompson or Kevin Durant wouldn’t a nightmare scenario as it would clear the runway for Randle. Although the Jazz remain one of the league’s premier defensive units, their scoring efforts are often middling and an offensive rating of 109.4 (15th) reflects that. If anything, Randle is a certified bucket-getter and Utah can lean rather heavily on Mitchell to make things happen. The 6-foot-9 big man has already thrived next to one elite rim-protecting center, but teaming him up with two other up-and-coming superstars is a tantalizing thought exercise.

Brooklyn Nets

The Nets themselves are said to be chasing a white whale the offseason — the likes of Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard continue to pop up — but those free agent fever-dreams still seem at least an offseason away. In recent years, the Nets have become an incredibly successful island of misfits — so signing Randle would be the blissful cherry on top of it all. Understandably, Randle and Russell are buddies from their Lakers days and Brooklyn has an absolutely glaring need at power forward. Ideally, Randle would be a stretch option already — 0.9 made three-pointers per game on 33.3 percent, a career-best mark — but the Nets have created a strong portfolio of development since bringing head coach Kenny Atkinson on in 2016. In fact, Brook Lopez — another one of Randle’s forgotten teammates last season — turned into a three-point maestro almost overnight, after seemingly ignoring the line for the first eight years of his career.

If they can transform Joe Harris from a scrap heap shooter to a three-point champion in two years, the Nets can certainly get Randle to hit at least the league average from deep.

Regardless, the Nets have hit home runs with nearly every signing in the Sean Marks era — but it’s time to get serious. Now all they need is a bullish, reliable power forward to wrap their painful three-year rebuild together with a neat bow. Currently, veteran extraordinaire DeMarre Carroll is out of a contract this summer, while Rondae Hollis-Jefferson will hit restricted free agency. Rodions Kurucs, energetic as he may be, has not proven to be the long-term answer in the frontcourt and the speedy rookie seems better suited to riveting one-man fastbreaks. With Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Caris LeVert and Russell holding down the guard spots and Jarrett Allen coming into his own at center, the Nets shouldn’t be afraid to chase Randle’s looming athletic stature (and his even brighter potential) come July.

New Orleans Pelicans

Last but not least, we’d be remiss not to mention the Pelicans.

This is an issue most certainly complicated by the status of Anthony Davis — but if you’re hitting the reset button on a perennially disappointing franchise, Randle’s not a bad place to start from scratch.

Davis’ midseason trade request managed to torpedo both New Orleans and Los Angeles’ playoff hopes rather remarkably — but Randle, to his credit, has just kept on trucking. Last week, Randle exploded in a loss to Portland, dropping a career-high 45 points, plus 11 rebounds and six assists. Long before this drama even started, Randle even managed to notch his first-ever triple-double during a November victory over San Antonio. At just 24 years old, that’s undoubtedly something worth betting on.

With Davis’ presumed exit already on the cards — and Nikola Mirotic’s swift departure at the trade deadline — Randle is suddenly the Pelicans’ most talented frontcourt asset, bar none. Even if they don’t recoup complete value for Davis, they’ll have the money to spend big in free agency this summertime. Growing by the game, Randle’s self-gamble has paid off in a remarkable way as he’s gone from castaway to a legitimate near-max contract contender in the span of a year.

And he did all that in New Orleans.

Needless to say, Randle should be a priority for the rebuilding Pelicans the moment he (presumably) opts out. This time, however, the power forward won’t come so cheaply. After some career-scarring bumps and bruises along the way, Randle has made good on his effortless potential — finally, he’ll get to reap what he’s sown. In October, Randle will head into his sixth NBA season and at long last, wherever he may be, he’ll finally have a place to call home.

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NBA Daily: Fixing the Chicago Bulls

Shane Rhodes continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series with a breakdown of the Chicago Bulls.

Shane Rhodes

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With some 10-odd games left in the 2018-19 NBA regular season, Basketball Insiders has begun its annual “Fixing” series. So far, we have covered the Cleveland Cavaliers and New York Knicks. Today, we’ll be looking at the Chicago Bulls.

It’s been nearly two years since the Chicago Bulls kicked off their rebuild with the draft-night trade of Jimmy Butler. In the almost two seasons since, the Bulls have managed an awful — or awesome, depending on who you ask — 48-107 record. Yet, there have been some promising developments, acquisitions and draft selections in Chicago, and the team may be closer to relevancy than most would think.

That being said, there are still some issues that need to be sorted out in order for them to get there. As with any team, the upcoming draft and free agency period could prove crucial to them; the difference between a leap forward or regression.

So, what have the Bulls gotten right or wrong this season, and where do they go from here?

What is Working

Despite an injury that kept him out for an early portion of the season, Lauri Markkanen has continued to show that he can be an impact player on the court and is a major building block for the Bulls.

The Finnish power forward has posted an impressive 18.9 points and nine rebounds per game this season — both increased from his rookie season — while shooting 43.7 percent from the floor and 36.5 percent from three-point range. Markkanen has continued to improve throughout the season and, recently, has flashed a superstar potential. February saw the best stretch of Markkanen’s career; he averaged 26 points, 12.2 rebounds and shot 48.6 percent from the floor.

He has still struggled at times, specifically on the defensive end, but if Markkanen can reach that level of dominance on a more consistent basis, he could find himself in elite company going forward.

Another positive has been Zach LaVine who, like Markkanen, has had a career year in the first of the four-year, near $80 million deal he signed last offseason. LaVine has established himself as the Bulls’ leader on the floor and, in doing so, has set a new career high in points (23.7), rebounds (4.7), assists (4.5) and field goal percentage (46.7 percent). If LaVine and Markkanen can continue to improve in tandem, the two could prove quite the offensive powerhouse in future seasons.

There have been other bright spots from an otherwise dreary season in Chicago; Jim Boylen, after a rough start, has turned things around as of late; while he may not play again this season after thumb surgery in February, Wendell Carter Jr. flashed the ability that made him the seventh overall selection in the draft a season ago; deadline-acquisition Otto Porter has provided another young, scoring wing that the Bulls desperately needed and could make use of going forward; Ryan Arcidiacano, a two-way player for the Bulls last season, earned a standard contract with the team and has provided some big-time energy off the bench ala T.J. McConnel.

More could be said about the Bulls but, to keep it simple: the future is starting to look bright in Chicago.

What Needs to Change

The future may be bright, but the Bulls are still a ways away from it. They are on the up, certainly, but there are still some issues that need to be sorted out, both at a basketball level and with their personnel.

Perhaps the Bulls’ most pressing issue is their defensive inability. According to NBA Stats, Chicago has thus far posted the sixth worst defensive rating (112.4) in the NBA this season. They sit above only the Atlanta Hawks (112.5), Washington Wizards (112.6), New York Knicks (113), Phoenix Suns (113.4) and Cleveland Cavaliers (116), teams that most would consider far worse off than the Bulls.

Part of the problem has been a lack of lineup consistency; Markkanen, LaVine, Carter and others have all missed time at one point or another due to injury. But, on some nights, there is an apparent lack of effort from the Bulls, and that will have to change if they ever want to pull themselves out of the NBA basement.

The future of Kris Dunn is another concern. Another piece involved in the Jimmy Butler trade, Dunn impressed in his first season in Chicago, but has taken a step back in year two with the team. There have been stretches where the former Providence product has seemed too reserved, rather than the aggressor that enabled his success a season ago. That regression isn’t all on him — Dunn’s role with the team, and in head coach Jim Boylen’s offensive system has continued to evolve throughout the season — but Dunn must improve if the team is to.

And, with a guard-loaded draft on the horizon, the Bulls will have to make a decision on Dunn as well; whether or not Dunn has secured a spot in their vision of the future for Chicago could have a drastic effect on the Bulls’ draft strategy come June.

Focus Area: The Draft

As of right now, the Bulls hold the fourth worst record in the NBA and would have just a 12.5 percent chance of landing the top pick.

Chicago could go a number of different ways depending on whether they end up there, stick at four, or fall somewhere in between (or out of the top four altogether). But, obviously, if the Bulls have the opportunity the grab Zion Williamson, they take him. The future prospects are so high and the upside so great that you just can’t not take him (barring injury, anyway), regardless of how he would fit within the current roster construction. Williamson has the potential to ascend to that upper echelon level of NBA elite that few players — the LeBron James’, Kevin Durant’s and Giannis Antetonkoumpo’s of the world — reach and so, if you can, you make the roster fit around him, not the other way around.

Assuming they don’t luck out, however, a large part of their strategy should revolve around the future of Porter and Dunn and how they believe their futures align with the future of the team. In a draft loaded with high-upside wings and point-guard type players, the Bulls must leave no stone unturned in order to get the best player to help expedite their rebuild.

Porter, currently out due to injury, had performed well in his brief, post-trade deadline stint with the team — in 15 games, Porter averaged 17.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists and shot 48.8 percent from three-point range on over five shots per game — but is still potentially due more than $55 million over the next two seasons. Should they choose to move him in the offseason, an abundance of minutes would be made available on the wing, minutes that could almost certainly be eaten up by a number of different prospects: R.J. Barrett, Jarrett Culver, Cam Reddish, DeAndre Hunter, etc.

Dunn, meanwhile, has flashed his ability but, ultimately, has taken a step back this season. Should Chicago believe him incapable of running their offense in the future, a number of different point guard prospects sit near the top of this class, including Barrett, Ja Morant, Darius Garland and others.

Focus Area: Free Agency

While they may try, the Bulls probably won’t have much luck in free agency. As for their own free agents, Robin Lopez is on an expiring contract and may not return next season, while Arcidiacano and guard Wayne Seldon will enter restricted free agency come the end of the regular season. Other than that, the entire roster is under contract through at least next season.

Replacing Lopez (or re-signing him, unlikely as that would seem) is likely somewhere near the top of general manager Gar Forman’s to-do list. Not only did Lopez provide a stable, veteran presence in the locker room, but he provided valuable minutes behind Markkanen and Carter in the front-court. Likewise, Forman could look to add another forward to play behind Porter or, should they look to trade him, to split time with rookie Chandler Hutchison.

Whether they draft a point guard for the future or retain Dunn, a veteran backup guard would also seem a likely option for the Bulls in free agency. A steady hand at such a crucial position could prove invaluable and calming for Dunn or whatever young players the Bulls acquire in the coming months.

The Bulls have been bad the last two seasons, there is no other way to put it. But, for the organization and the fans, there is light at the end of the tunnel. It may not be next season, but the Bulls are certainly on the up. They still have some things to sort out but, if they continue to play their cards right, they could find themselves back in the thick of Eastern Conference contention soon enough

Also, make sure to keep on the lookout for the rest of Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series.

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NBA Daily: Who Deserves Coach of the Year?

As the season enters its final stages, Matt John takes a look at who are the prime candidates for Coach of the Year.

Matt John

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Last year, this writer started his tenure with Basketball Insiders writing about who had the best case for Coach of the Year. One year later, we’re revisiting the same discussion. This time, with an entirely new slate of candidates.

The Coach of the Year Award produces one of the most fascinating races in the NBA that doesn’t get as much attention. What makes it fascinating is that there are a variety of reasons for why a coach can win the award. Why it doesn’t get enough attention is because fans understandably care more about the players than the coaches, which is nobody’s fault.

This season, we have coaches with different reasons for why they are viable candidates for Coach of the Year. Some aren’t necessarily coaching the best team, or are making the most progress, but they’re making a good enough case that they should be in the discussion.

Please note that these are ranked in alphabetical order, not by who deserves it the most.

Mike Budenholzer

A few weeks ago, this writer detailed why the Bucks’ front office deserved credit for building the contender that they did, and he stands by it. However, while it’s on the front office to assemble a great team, it is on the coach to make the pieces work. That is what Coach Bud has done, and he’s done it marvelously.

Milwaukee sits atop the Eastern Conference with a 53-19 record, they have the best net rating in the NBA and Giannis Antetokounmpo is in the center in one of the most intense MVP races of all time. With the exception of the most recent untimely injuries to Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic, this season could not have gone better for the Bucks.

Milwaukee always had the talent to be one of the league’s best teams. They just needed the right guy calling the shots. They have their man. Let’s be fair though. The Bucks needed Mike just as much as he needed them. So far, it’s worked for the best for both sides because now, Coach Bud has a very believable chance to join his mentor Gregg Popovich among the very few coaches who have won the award multiple times.

Dave Joerger

Anytime you make the NBA’s doormat look the most promising it’s been in over a decade, you automatically get your name among the NBA’s coaching elite.

Coming into the season, many thought the story surrounding the Kings was going to be about how good of a pick they were going to give Boston or Philadelphia in the lottery. That was proven wrong. Somehow, with 11 games left in the season, the Kings are still fighting for a playoff spot. Miraculously, they’ve become the NBA’s little engine that could.

Much credit should go to the improvement of De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, along with the exciting play of Marvin Bagley III among others, but young talent can grow together without being cohesive. Joerger deserves credit for the youth’s improvement and cohesion getting Sacramento results. The one knock against Joerger is that the Kings probably aren’t going to make the playoffs, but they’re finally trending in the right direction.

For that, Joerger absolutely deserves to be in the conversation. Let’s just hope those rumors of tension with upper management turn out to be nothing more than gossip.

Michael Malone

It’s arrived later than they would have wanted, but hey, better late than never! The Nuggets’ new era has finally started, and it has started gloriously.

The Nuggets currently place second in the Western Conference and have clinched their first playoff berth since 2013. They have the third-highest offensive rating in the league, and one of the best all-around offensive bigs the league has ever seen in Nikola Jokic. The improvements of Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, along with the surprising productivity coming from Monte Morris and Malik Beasley, have given the Nuggets a team swimming in depth.

This season has shown that just because you have depth on your squad does not mean that everything will fall into place – See Celtics, Boston – which is what makes Malone’s work in all the more impressive. It’s helped that he’s gotten more games out of Paul Millsap – who has the highest net rating on the team (plus-8.4) – but Malone has mixed and matched the roster about as well as Denver could have hoped.

There is a fair amount of skepticism as to whether the Nuggets will keep this up in the playoffs. Even if they don’t, Malone did his job extraordinarily.

Kenny Atkinson

Atkinson has been on the radar for a couple of years now since he’s had to clean up Brooklyn’s mess for the previous two seasons. This season, the Nets are starting to reap the benefits from the winning culture he has created.

Besides Joerger, Atkinson has the least impressive record of the coaches put on this list. Much like Joeger, in Atkinson’s case, it doesn’t matter because the jump his team has made from last season makes his case all the more legitimate. DeMarre Carroll and Ed Davis have been dependable veterans, and the leaps that Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris Levert have taken are too good to go unnoticed.

But most impressive of all, Atkinson seems to have unlocked D’Angelo Russell. After both the turmoil and the injuries that D-Lo has had to deal with since entering the league, he now has emerged as one of the league’s brighter young stars. It’s important that young talent be molded correctly otherwise it can stunt a player’s growth. We’ll never know if that would have happened in LA, but we now know that Russell’s move to Brooklyn was vital to his progress.

Brooklyn believed Atkinson was up to the task when he was first hired, and now, their faith is being rewarded.

Nate McMillan

Of all the coaches that were put on this list last year, only two resurfaced this season. You probably already know who one of them is, while McMillan is the other.

First off, hats off to McMillan for reviving his career as a head coach. Many were skeptical when Indiana replaced Frank Vogel with him. Since then, he’s only made them eat their words. His work last season was already impressive. He’s only continued to do so this season.

The Pacers are currently 44-29. If they just go 4-5 over their last nine games, they’ll match their record from last season. That’s remarkable considering they lost Victor Oladipo, i.e. their best player halfway through the season. They were on a 56-win pace before ‘Dipo’s injury, but his numbers actually declined this season, which shows that the team itself has grown.

Indiana currently is tied for the second-best defensive rating in the league (105.9) thanks to the likes of Myles Turner, which has mitigated Oladipo’s absence. They haven’t been great since Victor went down, but they’ve done well enough to stick with Boston and Philly in the playoff race. For that, Nate deserves recognition.

Nick Nurse

The new kid on the block had a tall order when the Raptors replaced Dwane Casey with him as head coach. So far, he’s run with it.

It’s likely Toronto won’t be able to match last season’s regular season win total. Their defense has stayed the same, but their offense has taken a step back this season, going from the second-highest in the league to the seventh. Nobody seems too concerned about that because the general feeling is that this is the best Raptors team ever assembled.

Kawhi Leonard has looked as good as ever. Pascal Siakam has exploded onto the scene as perhaps the team’s second-best all-around player. Serge Ibaka’s having his most efficient season in years. New additions Danny Green, Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin have fit in without much trouble. The list goes on.

Nurse had a lot to juggle when he was appointed head coach, and so far, he’s filling in well for the departed Casey. We’ll have to see if he gets Toronto past its playoff demons, but what a season he’s had.

Gregg Popovich

Just when you think the Spurs are down for the count, they find ways to stay relevant. They’ve done this so many times that you’d think the national media would learn not to count them out. Somehow we still do, and we’re always wrong.

To recap, Coach Pop lost his best player (Leonard) during the summer. He lost his most promising young player (Dejounte Murray) just before the season started. Two of the most iconic Spurs ever – Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili – left the team. His two best players – LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan – are not reliable three-point shooters in a league that’s become increasingly reliant on floor spacing. It was supposed to be the start of the Spurs’ descent.

For a while, it looked that way, but as the season is winding down, it appears San Antonio isn’t going anywhere. They’ve won nine of their last 10 games, they have the sixth-highest offensive rating in the league, and most ironic of all, they have the best three-point shooting in the league at almost 40 percent.

It’s fair to say that this has been fantastic work by Popovich, but when was the last time he fell short of that description?

Doc Rivers

Rivers has plenty of evidence to support that he’s one of the league’s best coaches. He won Coach of the Year back in 2000 and led one of the most dominant basketball teams in the 21st century in 2008, but this season might just be his best work yet.

The Clippers looked like they were about to start rebuilding, but instead opted to build a winning culture. Doc’s coaching has put guys who know who they are in positions to thrive. Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari, Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – all of them, no matter where they are at in their career, have played excellent in the role Doc gave them. Oh, and has it been brought up that the Clippers traded their best player and haven’t slipped at all?

By doing this, Doc went back to his roots during his days as the head coach of the Magic. There were no elite players on the team, but guys who knew what they were supposed to do. What makes this Clippers team more impressive team than that Magic team is the Western Conference in 2019 is much tougher than the Eastern Conference was in 2000.

This could do so much for the Clippers. After the Magic’s impressive run in 2000, they landed Tracy McGrady, Grant Hill and almost Tim Duncan. If Doc continues to impress, a certain LA-native and Canadian resident might be donning a Clippers uniform.

There are some tough omissions, such as Quin Snyder, Brett Brown and Billy Donovan. The difference between them and the others mentioned is that they’ve reasonably met expectations. All of them are coaching playoff teams. It’s just that their respective teams or where we thought they’d be.

That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve consideration. It’s just that their case isn’t as strong as the others mentioned above.

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