When Nikola Jokic exploded onto the scene in 2017, we knew it was only a matter of time until Denver would establish itself as one of the best teams in the league. After the 2018-2019 season concluded, we now know that the Nuggets’ time has arrived.
Last season, they won 54 games, the most wins they’ve had since 2013. They also won their first Northwest Division Title since 2010. It wasn’t all for nothing either, as they managed to go all the way to Game 7 of the Western Conference Semis, the furthest they’ve gone in the playoffs since 2009.
The difference between that Nuggets and their predecessors- It should only get better from here. Their best players are just scratching the surface of their potential. At just 24 years old, Nikola Jokic is already an MVP candidate. At 22 years old, Jamal Murray is one of the most promising scoring guards in the league. At 25 years old, Gary Harris is one of the better young two-way wings.
The Nuggets have built a great foundation that could lead to the most glorious era of basketball than they’ve ever had as a franchise. Time should be on their side for the next several years, but with as good as they are now, they have to ask how high their ceiling is. Seriously, if everything goes their way, this Nuggets team is a sleeper to win it all.
But how did they get this far this quickly? Basketball Insiders takes a look.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
Among the rest of the contenders, the Nuggets had the quietest offseason – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There weren’t many holes to fill on the second-best team in the Western Conference. Sometimes, doing nothing is doing the most. They did add Jerami Grant to the mix, which could be one of the most underrated moves of the summer. Yet, MVP candidate Nikola Jokic, two-way wing Gary Harris, dynamic guard Jamal Murray, energetic presence Will Barton and more just have another year under their belt. Paul Millsap’s going to be Paul Millsap until he calls it a career. Monte Morris isn’t going to be turning the ball over off the bench. They’re hoping Michael Porter Jr. can shake the injury bug at some point, which would only strengthen their roster. If Mike Malone finds time for him, Vlatko Cancar is another international rookie to watch out for. The tussle at the top of the Northwest (and the West in general) is going to be fun to see unfold.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Spencer Davies
The Nuggets surprised many last season by finishing with the second-best record in the Western Conference. There’s no reason to think they won’t build on that success this upcoming season. They have one of the best young cores in the league. They have one of the NBA’s best coaches in Mike Malone. And they have one of the most intriguing wild cards in Michael Porter Jr. Porter was held out of summer league as a precaution following a minor knee sprain. There was a time he was considered the overwhelming favorite for the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft. His addition and potential skill level can really vault this team to the next level. But expectations should be tempered, and even without him the Nuggets are a formidable threat. They’ve brought back every core player from last season with the great addition of Jerami Grant. Based on the other teams in the West, it’s a stretch to picture the Nuggets in the Finals, but they’ll continue to be a playoff threat and are good enough to give a few other teams a little scare.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– David Yapkowitz
The Nuggets had a strong offseason by default. They didn’t add much talent, but they were so good and young in 2018-19 that keeping their core together is a major success in-and-of-itself.
The Nuggets should be even better in 2019-20 considering their two best players – Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray – are 24 and 22 years old, respectively – and will only continue to improve. They were fortunate that Paul Millsap picked up his player option for 2019-20, although what they do with him beyond this year is up for debate. They also added Jerami Grant and return Michael Porter Jr., who missed his entire rookie season due to a back injury. They must shoot more three-pointers this season and do so more accurately – they were 16th in three-point attempts and 17th in three-point percentage. But accuracy and better shot attempts will come with experience.
The Nuggets will have fierce competition in the Northwest Division, but winning the division isn’t the end goal – winning a championship is. If the Nuggets are healthy come playoff time, the entire Western Conference will have another incredibly talented team to contend with.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Drew Maresca
The Denver Nuggets are L-O-A-D-E-D with talent, and they have another promising young star coming online in Michael Porter Jr, but if the Boston Celtics taught us anything last year it’s that banking on youth to sacrifice their own star status for the greater good is easier said than done, especially with expectations now coming down on the franchise. Last year the Nuggets were not the hunted, they were the hunters. This year they will have to do better than their 54 wins to call the season an improvement, and that will be a tough task even for a team with some much talent.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– Steve Kyler
The Denver Nuggets didn’t make any splashy moves to bolster the roster, but I do like the addition of Jerami Grant, who could have a bigger impact this upcoming season than most people expect. This team is already loaded and another year of collective development should serve Denver well. The X-factor may be Michael Porter Jr, an extremely talented young player who has been hampered with injuries early in his career. Porter Jr has the talent to be a star but it all comes down to health with him. This roster is just well balanced and anchored by Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, who are both still incredibly young and always improving. I do question why the Nuggets felt compelled to offer Murray a max-extension this offseason, which reduces some future cap flexibility they could have utilized. This isn’t a major issue and there is value in showing a franchise cornerstone how much you value him, but it didn’t seem like the most pragmatic move considering the possible benefits of waiting. The sky is the limit for this Nuggets team, but they have plenty of other legitimate title contenders to deal with in the West this upcoming season.
1st Place – Northwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Nuggets are all-in on the duo of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, paying Jokic the max last summer and giving Murray a five-year extension through 2024-25 in July. Denver is very close to the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax threshold which may limit their willingness to dip further into their Mid-Level ($8.4 million remaining) or Bi-Annual ($3.6 million) Exceptions. Using either (at least $2.6 million of the Mid-Level) will trigger a hard cap at $138.9 million.
Before November, the Nuggets need to decide on Michael Porter Jr.’s rookie-scale option. Juancho Hernangomez is eligible for an extension before the start of the season.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Nikola Jokic
When you lead your team in points, assists, rebounds aka the three most essential elements to a team’s offense, you earn the title of top dog in that department. In all honesty, were you really expecting someone else? There may not be a big in the league that has the all-around game offensively that the Joker has.
That’s not even a shot at the other players on the Nuggets’ roster. They’ve got some weapons next to their young phenom. His repertoire despite his doughy frame outshines them all badly. That’s what makes him so entertaining to watch. The guy does so much on the basketball court despite being arguably the least athletic one out there.
An even scarier thought is that the guy finished fifth in MVP voting last season, and his campaign for Most Valuable Player revolved around his dominance offensively despite only shooting a tick under 31 percent from distance. We’ve seen Nikola shoot consistently well from deep before, so if that comes back, then we’re all in trouble.
Top Defensive Player: Gary Harris
The NBA values players who are labeled as 3&D swingmen. Now that he’s entering the sixth season of his career at just 25 years old, Harris has made a name for himself as one of the better 3&D wings in the NBA.
The Nuggets won’t be messing around with anyone this season. They’re expected to be among the best of the best in their conference and the NBA. In their way will be the likes of Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, James Harden, and Damian Lillard. Expect their primary stopper to be Gary Harris.
In the playoffs, the Nuggets assigned Harris to their opponent’s top offensive players such as DeMar DeRozan, Damian Lillard, and CJ McCollum, and did a solid job of preventing them from getting into a good groove. His defensive assignments are going to be a lot harder this season with the new-look Clippers, Lakers, and Jazz to name a few. So far, he’s been up to the task. If Denver is for real, Harris’ efforts defense should be a vital reason why.
Top Playmaker: Nikola Jokic
Leading your team in assists (7.3) by a pretty fair margin when you’re the center is an impressive enough feat by itself. Leading all centers in that department – again, by a pretty fair margin – makes you look all the better. Averaging the ninth-highest assists per game when the only other bigs who come close to that average are the likes of Draymond Green and Giannis Antetokounmpo automatically vaults you to elite status.
If someone who didn’t watch the NBA asked you why Nikola Jokic is so much fun to watch, your answer would quickly refer to his passing ability without hesitation. There are plenty of bigs in the league who are terrific passers. Jokic though puts almost all of them to shame. He doesn’t just make passes that will make you get you out of your chair. He’ll make passes that make you think, “How did he even see that guy?”
Now that the NBA has more footage of the Serbian, he doesn’t make as many flashy passes as he did when he came into his own in 2017, but his vision is still something we’ve rarely been able to see from any center in the history of the NBA.
This early in his career, Jokic has already made his case as the best passing big of all time. If he’s going nowhere but up from here on out, then there may not be a debate when he hangs up his sneakers.
Top Clutch Player: Jamal Murray
Fun fact: Denver was excellent in games that were considered clutch last season. They went 31-15 in games that were considered to be in clutch situations, which gave them the best winning percentage in the entire league in that specific statistic.
Some of Denver’s best players had very positive net ratings in the clutch. Jokic, Murray, Monte Morris, Paul Millsap. Murray gets the nod here because now that he’s entering his prime, he should be relied on to the go-to guy on this roster. Better yet, we’ve seen that he can be unstoppable when the game is on the line. He wasn’t consistent in the postseason, but he did put the entire team on his back on multiple occasions.
If you were watching Denver’s playoff run, you probably knew about the time Murray exploded for 21 points in the fourth quarter when the Nuggets toppled the Spurs to tie the series at one a piece in the first round, or when he had back-to-back 34-point outings, the latter of which included clutch free throws that tied the Western Conference Semis with the Blazers. For a first playoff outing, Murray’s performance could have been a lot worse.
Coming off a nice payday from Denver this summer, and with the prime of his career approaching, expect Murray to put up more of the same this season. If not better.
The Unheralded Player: Paul Millsap
It sounds weird because Millsap’s had a fantastic reputation in the league for what seems like an eternity now. It sounds even weirder since Denver chose to pick up his $30 million team option hence demonstrating how much the Nuggets value what he does on the floor.
So what makes him unheralded? Because of both his expected decline and the expected improvement from the Nuggets’ young guys. Paul’s numbers have gradually decreased since he came to Denver, which should surprise no one since he will be 35 by mid-season in 2020. As he ages for the worse much like anyone else would at that age, everyone around him should age for the better.
He’s still going to be a valuable piece to this Denver squad. Millsap may not be what he was during his Jazz/Hawks days, but he’s always reliable to play within the offense, keep it all together on defense, and be a good teammate. It’s not that he’s an unheralded player. It’s that he’s going to be.
Best New Addition: Jerami Grant
Denver didn’t really revamp its roster this summer for good reason. There’s no need to mess with what’s working unless you see that there are obvious limits to what your roster can do. However, that shouldn’t stop you from adding players who can improve certain areas if the price is right. Acquiring Jerami Grant for what will probably be a late first-round pick fits the profile.
After being nothing but a rotation player on a team that didn’t bother to try, Grant broke out as a premier 3&D ¾ tweener in Oklahoma City. Last season, he averaged 13.6 points on 50/39/71 splits while also proving himself to be one of the most versatile defenders on one of the league’s best defensive squads.
In Denver, he should add more versatility and depth to a team that already had plenty of it but was clearly more than open to having more. If Grant’s skillset wasn’t enough, take note that he has a player option after this season. If he really wants good money in what looks like a pretty barren offseason next summer, expect him to give the Nuggets his all.
WHO WE LIKE
1. Michael Porter Jr.’s potential
It’s a shame that we don’t have a lot of data to support Porter. All we have are his high school/McDonalds’s/AAU highlights and the few college games he played at Missouri to judge where he stands as an NBA player. With all that he’s gone through, all we can say about MPJ as a player is that he has potential.
Denver wisely kept him on the shelf after taking him with the last pick in the 2018 lottery. Both the talent and the injury rap sheet plus the team’s timeline afforded Denver the privilege of preserving him until they knew he had a clean bill of health. The Kings did the same thing with Harry Giles, and so far, it’s working out quite well for them.
Porter is expected to be ready for training camp. If healthy, the possibilities are endless for what he could do for the Nuggets. He gives them another scorer to put next to Jokic and Murray, and could give so many more lineup possibilities. But that’s all banking on that he’ll avoid the injury bug. This isn’t just high-risk/high-reward. This is a monumental risk/legendary-level reward.
No pressure though kid!
2. The other young guys
So much praise has been heaped on the likes of Jokic, Murray, and Harris that the other young talent on Denver’s roster definitely deserves a shoutout. They don’t have the same ceilings as the aforementioned players, but they played a role in Denver’s uprise last season
-Malik Beasley: When Denver traded the long-tenured Wilson Chandler, Will Barton was the starting small forward meaning the backup wing was up for grabs. Beasley took that role and ran with it, averaging 11.3 points on 47/40/84 splits. Establishing himself a rim-running three-point specialist, Beasley gave Denver an unexpected jolt.
-Monte Morris: Morris was another surprise contributor in Denver’s success. Isaiah Thomas was the designated back-up point guard for the Nuggets, but while he never found his groove, Morris established as the leader of the second unit. In 24 minutes a game, he averaged 10.4 points on 49/41/80 splits. Those stats didn’t continue in the postseason, but Morris proved he could be Denver’s Sixth Man of the future.
-Juancho Hernangomez: The 23-year-old did an excellent job filling in for the injured Will Barton as the starting small forward. He started 25 games for the Nuggets in that time where he averaged 11.2 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 42.5 percent from three. He didn’t exactly have an easy transition back to the bench when Barton returned, but there is a reason to be optimistic about him for the future.
3. Torrey Craig
This writer’s a sucker for underdog stories, and Torrey Craig’s story is no exception. He came into Denver as an NBL stand out, then a 27-year-old rookie on a two-way contract, then got a nice extension last summer.
In response to his newfound job security, Craig did not disappoint in his second season as a Nugget. His offensive stats aren’t great, but Craig’s specialty is more of doing the little things aka bringing energy and playing tough-as-nails defense. When other Nuggets like Morris didn’t keep up their play for the postseason, they spent more time on the bench. Such was not the case with Craig. His defense came in handy for Denver when they needed it to be.
The acquisition of Jerami Grant may or may not eat into his time when the season approaches, but adversity is nothing new to Craig. Perhaps the new competition at the wing will further motivate him to improve his game more than it already has.
4. Mason Plumlee
When your name is in the running for the best backup center in the league, you deserve a shout out. On one hand, Mason Plumlee could be seen as the guy who Denver acquired for Jusuf Nurkic and a first-rounder. On the other, Plumlee can be seen as the guy who was a much better fit as the backup center for Denver.
Plumlee may very well be the most overqualified back-up big in the league. At first glance, his 7.8 rebounds, 6.4 rebounds, and three assists a game are merely acceptable. When you consider that his rebound percentage of 16.4 percent is 22nd among centers and second-highest among backups – behind only Domantas Sabonis – you can’t ask for much more than that. Even better, his assist percentage of 19.5 is fifth among centers. He’s been so good for Denver that they’ve actually played him and the Joker together.
We don’t see a lot of teams playing lineups with two pure centers at the same time for extended minutes anymore. Seeing Denver keep it alive with Jokic and Plumlee is as effective as it is nostalgic.
Can you say “League Pass frontrunner”? Because that’s what this Denver Nuggets team is. They are always a joy to watch. They play basketball in some of the most fun ways it can be played. It’s unselfish. It’s active. It’s pure basketball. At least on the offensive end, the Nuggets are a total viewing pleasure.
At the center of it is Nikola Jokic. Enough praise has been heaped at Nikola so there’s no need to repeat what he can do. Let’s put it like this. The man is the engine for one of the finest offenses in the league, and he’s still got plenty of career left.
That actually shouldn’t take away from their defense. Denver had the league’s tenth-best defensive rating, allowing 108.9 points per 100 possessions. That’s not as boastable of a strength, but it isn’t a weakness. A little added bonus is the versatility that they should have in their arsenal with Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr. could give them a lot more firepower than they already have.
The source of Denver’s sudden uprise last season may very well be what may hold them back when the postseason comes around – their youth. As talented as the Nuggets are, they haven’t been in this position in years. Keep in mind that they lost to Portland – who lost Jusuf Nurkic and replaced him with Enes Kanter on one functional shoulder – even though they were the second seed.
Now Portland barely won that series, but it shouldn’t have been that close. Denver was at full strength and had homecourt advantage. Portland’s victory can be attributed to both the roster continuity and experience. They’ had been in that atmosphere with most of those guys before. Only Millsap had that experience on Denver’s side, and we’ve already dived into why Denver won’t rely on him as much.
Not to fret though. This is just part of the growing process for a young and upcoming team. The Nuggets already impressed everyone with their success last season. They should see more coming their way. It just might not be as fast.
THE BURNING QUESTION
Are the Nuggets one piece away?
Denver should be one of the best teams in the league this season. Most of their best players are 25 years old or younger, so their chances of them individually improving on last season and in turn, the team itself, are pretty high.
They’ve still got their work cut out for them since they play in the brutal Western Conference. The core that they currently have right now will be good enough to put in a good fight against anyone. But, the phrase, “Putting in a good fight” is not synonymous with “The favorite to win”. With the team they have right now, reaching the NBA finals is possible, which is great all things considered, but they may sleep easier at night if they knew they had one more guy.
The real question is who would be that one piece? Is it an upgrade over one of their best players now or is it a player that adds another dimension to the team? Or both? Again, Denver should remain patient because time is on their side. If they want to show the NBA that they mean business, they may need to take care of this as soon as they can.
It’s sad because, had they just kept Donovan Mitchell’s draft rights in 2017, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
NBA Daily: Are the 76ers a Legit Contender?
Do the Philadelphia 76ers have the roster necessary to compete for a title? Basketball Insiders’ Quinn Davis goes in-depth on one of the league’s most polarizing teams.
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are no strangers to a spirited discussion at their expense. In each of the last three seasons, fans and pundits alike have wrangled over their potential as a championship-winning duo. Different sects have formed, sometimes resembling political parties in their rigid viewpoints.
The arguments branch off into granular takes on things like the viability of an offensive engine that can’t run a pick-and-roll, but they center around a simple question — can Embiid and Simmons be the two best players on a championship team?
Since their partnership came to be, the Philadelphia 76ers have been a playoff lock, but they have yet to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Their 2018-19 iteration was one Kawhi Leonard shot away from the third round (and potentially more), but that team featured Jimmy Butler who handled much of the team’s offensive burden.
Their fourth season together may bring the most clarity on that all-important question. General Manager Daryl Morey used the short offseason to reconfigure the roster, finding shooters and drafting a ball-handler to maximize the duo’s strengths while mitigating their weaknesses. And the early returns have been promising; the team is off to a solid 9-5 start, with two of those losses coming with half of the roster out due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols. In fact, the team is undefeated when all five of the usual starters are active, albeit against a weak schedule.
Still, many question whether the current roster can compete when defenses tighten in the postseason. The obvious comparison is the 2017-18 version of the 76ers when Simmons and Embiid were surrounded solely by shooters like JJ Redick, Marco Bellinelli and Robert Covington. That team went on a 16-game winning streak to end the regular season but faltered in the second round of playoffs, as the lack of ball-handling outside of Simmons led to the team’s demise.
A few of those doubters might even exist within Philadelphia’s front office. The team was reportedly very close to sending Simmons and other assets to the Houston Rockets for James Harden. The aggressiveness pursuing the star guard would seem to confirm the reservations about the team’s current duo.
But, with Harden now playing for a fellow Eastern Conference contender, those reservations no longer matter. And the road to a title is now just a bit harder.
All of this leads to the important question: is Philadelphia, as currently constructed, a true title contender? With the evidence we have available — or lack thereof — the answer would have to be no. There is just too much uncertainty to place the 76ers into the inner circle alongside the Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets and maybe even the Los Angeles Clippers.
That said, this team can join that group. And some early-season trends foster hope for a leap to true contention.
The success of the starting lineup has come largely on the back of Embiid’s dominance this season. The big man’s efficiency is way up — so far, he’s shot at a career-high mark from every area of the court. His 39 percent three-point shooting in particular has been a major addition to his all-around game.
Outside of the hot shooting, Embiid looks fit and motivated as well. He’s taken on a huge role offensively while still managing to anchor one of the NBA’s top defenses. Philadelphia has crushed teams when he’s on the court — and nearly collapses whenever he rests.
Embiid has also significantly improved his passing. While his assist numbers are mostly stagnant, it is clear on tape that Embiid has lost little sweat over a constant stream of double teams. Meanwhile, the shooting around him has given Embiid space inside and the confidence that a pass out will not only reach it’s intended target, but could lead to the best possible outcome for the team.
It’s still early, so whether he can keep it up remains to be seen. That said, if the 76ers are now led by an MVP candidate rather than another run-of-the-mill All-Star, it would bode well for this group to advance further than ever before.
Similarly encouraging has been the play of Shake Milton. Milton has provided a huge boost off the bench, scoring 17 points per game on 62 percent true shooting.
If Milton is truly a sixth man of the year candidate — and, right now, he is — it could solve one of Phialdelphia’s biggest question marks; the lack of a secondary creator around Embiid. The team is currently posting a robust 1.17 points per possession when Milton handles the ball in a pick-and-roll, per NBA.com. That number falls in the 90th percentile league-wide.
While many had hoped that Simmons would evolve into a player who could create offense in crunch-time situations, his game has yet to allow for that dimension. That isn’t to say that the 76ers would be better off trading Simmons for the first decent guard they can find, though; Simmons is still extremely valuable and someone who can drive winning basketball even if it’s in unconventional ways.
The best role for Simmons is that of a supercharged Draymond Green. In the half-court he would mostly be tasked with setting screens and cutting rather than serving as on offensive initiator, ceding that duty to Milton or perhaps the hot-shot rookie, Tyrese Maxey. It would avoid Simmons’ biggest weaknesses, but it would still allow him to leave his mark on the game by dominating on the defensive end, rampaging down the court in transition and zipping passes to open shooters.
In fact, having Simmons initiate less of the offense has already paid dividends. When Milton has played with the starters in the place of Danny Green, Philadelphia has outscored opponents by 60 points per 100 possessions, posting on an offensive rating of 143.1, per Cleaning the Glass. Those numbers are clearly unsustainable — that lineup has played just 65 possessions together — but it’s a sign that having a pick-and-roll creator alongside Simmons and Embiid may work wonders for an offense that could struggle against a set defense, particularly in the playoffs.
If the team doesn’t want to bank on the internal improvement of Embiid and Milton, then it may still look to improve the roster via trade.
Of course, Harden would have been their best bet, but a name to watch here might be the newest Rocket: Victor Oladipo. A solid defender with some serious pick-and-roll prowess, Oladipo could be a perfect fit alongside the nominal starters. It’s unclear whether Houston would be open to moving Oladipo, who is 29-years-old and on an expiring contract with no promise of staying with the team long-term. If he isn’t a part of the Rockets’ plan for the future, Philadelphia could certainly offer an interesting package to try and bring him in.
Bigger names could also become available. Bradley Beal’s name will continue to be mentioned as long as the Washington Wizards continue to struggle. Kyle Lowry could be another option if the Toronto Raptors can’t right the ship and decide their run is over. Both of those are highly unlikely but, in a league where circumstances change by the hour, anything is possible.
The 76ers have flaws to figure out. The play of Simmons has been somewhat concerning thus far. But, when everyone has been available, the team has looked elite.
And, while that small-sample size isn’t enough to lump them in with the best of the best, Philadelphia’s potential paths to get to the top of the NBA are more plentiful and plausible than they were six months ago.
Point-Counter Point: Biggest Surprise In The NBA So Far?
While there have been a number of surprising developments in the NBA, like say James Harden landing in Brooklyn, but the way Julius Randle has emerged in New York has been impressive, the question is will it last?
From time to time there are things that surface in the NBA landscape that requires a little debate, we call that Point – Counter Point. We have asked two our of writers to dive into the biggest surprises in the NBA so far this season.
While there have been a number of surprising developments in the NBA, like say James Harden landing in Brooklyn, but the way Julius Randle has emerged in New York has been impressive, the question is will it last?
Ariel Pacheo and Chad Smith look at both sides of the equation.
No one could have predicted Julius Randle’s hot start after coming off a rough 2019-20 season. However, now that it’s here, there’s reason to believe it’s built to last. He’s averaging a career-highs across the board and almost none of it is unsustainable.
While his production is up, the way he is playing is what is more significant than the numbers.
Randle has always had the ability to set teammates up, but he is now making a concerted effort to get teammates involved. He’s finding shooters in the corner and setting up his frontcourt counterparts for dunks. His usage percentage is currently at 27.2, just 0.1 higher than last season, but his assist percentage is at 38.2%, which is 17.3% higher than last season. This shows that Randle has the ball in his hands the same amount as last season, but is creating for others at a much higher rate.
His playmaking has been his best skill and there’s no reason to believe it won’t continue. Randle’s decision-making is much-improved. It seems as if he has a better understanding of how defenses want to play against him and he’s using it to his advantage to pick apart defenses.
Randle’s scoring may take a small hit, as his mid-range shooting numbers are unsustainable. He’s shooting 57.4% from mid-range, so that should drop some. However, if the Knicks were to play Randle in more lineups with shooting in them, he could turn those mid-range jumpers into drives to the basket. He is attempting the most free-throws per game of his career at 6.8 a game. He’s also converting them at a career-high 78.1%. There’s reason to believe he can sustain this, as he has been aggressive driving to the rim and drawing fouls all season.
Randle is having the best rebounding year of his career, as he’s been attacking the defensive glass. The added benefit of Randle’s defensive rebounding is he’s able to bring the ball up and immediately attack. He’s also been a lot more active on the defensive end this season. He’s had good one-on-one moments on the defensive end against guys like Domantas Sabonis and Kevin Durant.
Another reason to expect Randle’s play to continue is that the Knicks need him to be this good to have a chance to win games. They will continue to look to Randle to be the focus of their offense every single night. Randle is not only the team’s best playmaker, he’s one of the only few reliable ones on the roster. The ball will continue to be in his hands and he has consistently made good decisions up until this point.
Randle’s always had the talent to be a nightly triple-double threat, but it’s starting to come together for him. He’s giving full effort on both ends, all while being third in the league in minutes. Other than his rookie year when he broke his leg, Randle has proven to be durable. Even if his production drops off some, his effort and newfound style of play are what’s making Randle have this hot start. He’s playing at an All-Star level, and that should continue.
There is a new sheriff in town, and his name is Tom Thibodeau. After a long stint in Chicago where he earned Coach of the Year honors and guiding the lifeless Minnesota Timberwolves to the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, Thibodeau has made his way to the Big Apple. Skeptics were not sold on the hire when it happened, but perhaps he is making believers out of them with the help of Julius Randle.
It is no secret that Thibodeau’s calling card has always been defense. He has the Knicks playing aggressive on that end of the floor. Another skill that he possesses is the ability to put his players in a position that will maximize their talents. To that end, Thibodeau has made a world of difference. However, another common theme in his coaching style is eventually wearing his players out. While that is not his intention, he has done it with his best players at every stop along the way.
This is where some of these improved numbers come into play for Randle. Entering this season Julius was averaging 29.4 minutes per game. So far this season, he is playing 38 minutes per game. That is the 2nd highest in the entire league – trailing only his teammate RJ Barrett.
All of that being said, the individual numbers are very impressive. Averaging 23 points, 12 rebounds, and seven assists is nothing to sneeze at, even in this small sample size. The assist numbers, in particular, are quite astounding when you consider he has never had a season in which he averaged more than 3.6 per game. Part of the reason for this is that he is passing out of double teams, instead of trying to force up a shot.
Randle was the only bright spot in the Battle in the Big Apple on Wednesday night. Still, it felt like an empty calories game for the big man as he repeatedly fired away mid-range jumpers. It was New York’s fourth consecutive loss as they fell to the undermanned Nets, who were without several bodies due to the James Harden trade just hours before tipoff.
Unfortunately for Knicks fans, this same story has been played out before with Thibodeau and Joakim Noah in Chicago. His two All-Star seasons were filled with career-high numbers, but it didn’t necessarily translate to success in the playoffs. Right now Randle leads his team in points, rebounds, and assists. The only other players that are currently doing that are Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic.
Finding open shooters on the perimeter has worked early on, but New York’s shooting has come back down to earth in the past week. They now rank in the bottom half of the league in terms of three-point shooting, and Randle himself figures to follow suit. After shooting 28 percent from beyond the arc last year, Randle was shooting at a 38 percent clip to open the season. A ten percent jump just doesn’t happen overnight. The seven-year pro is a career 29 percent shooter from distance. He is taking the same amount of shots as last season and averaging nearly four more points per game.
Even if the shooting numbers come down a bit, it doesn’t put New York back in the basement. The ball movement and effort on defense are the catalysts for the Knicks, not their scoring – in which they rank 29th at the time of this writing. Looking at Randle specifically, he is actually averaging more passes per minute than Steph Curry.
Randle is the main reason why this team has displayed a pulse for the first time in two decades. He was the 7th overall pick for good reason but the Knicks don’t necessarily need the talented lefty to be the star of the show. They need him to share the stage and allow the spotlight to showcase others.
Should he stay the course, Randle will undoubtedly be in line for the Most Improved Player of the Year Award. If he regresses like I believe he will, he can still play a vital role in changing the culture and the perception of one of the league’s most popular franchises. The 26-year old has been a pleasant surprise this season, in what will surely be another roller coaster ride for Knicks fans.
– Chad Smith
NBA Daily: Are The Knicks For Real?
Ariel Pacheco breaks down the New York Knicks and their start to the season. Might they be able to push for a spot in the postseason?
The New York Knicks are on a four-game losing streak after their hot 5-3 start to the season. Yes, their play has been inconsistent, but their effort has yet to wane. And, while they are currently 11th in the Eastern Conference, the team has some solid wins under their belt and has seen, arguably, their best start in years.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau’s fingerprints are all over this team. Combined with the positive start, it begs the question: do the Knicks have enough talent to compete for a playoff spot in the East?
The Knicks have been competitive mainly due to Julius Randle; he’s played like an All-Star to start the season to the tune of 22.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game. Randle’s drastic improvement from a season ago has been a major boon to New York, as he’s kept them in close games and, at times, been their lone source of offense. His stat line would put him in elite company, as one of only four to average at least 20, 10 and 5 this season.
The other three? Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Domantas Sabonis.
Behind him, Mitchell Robinson has been the Knicks’ second-best player so far. He’s third in the NBA in offensive rebounds and 10th in blocks. Beyond that, it’s hard to overstate how impactful he’s been on the defensive end — when he’s off the court, the Knicks’ defense completely craters. And, while his offensive game is limited to mostly dunks and layups, Robinson provides the team a vertical threat in the paint with his elite lob-catching skills.
Kevin Knox II has also shown signs of becoming a rotation-level NBA player. He’s shot 41.7% from three and, while he still needs work on defense, he hasn’t been nearly as detrimental the team’s efforts on that end as as he has in years past.
Still, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. First and foremost, they lack the shooting to consistently put teams away and win games. And, of course, teams have taken advantage of that, as the Knicks have faced a zone defense — an effective defense, but one that can easily be shut down by a consistent presence beyond the three-point line — in every single game they’ve played this season. Of every Knick that has shot over 20 threes this season, Austin Rivers and Kevin Knox II are the only two that have shot above 35%, while no starter has shot above league average from deep on the season. During their latest four-game losing streak, they’ve shot just 31% from deep as a team.
RJ Barrett, who has really struggled to shoot the ball from all over the floor to start the year, is arguably New York’s biggest culprit here. Currently, Barrett has shot a bad 37.2% from the field, an even worse 18.5% from three and a better but still below average 70.2% from the free throw line. He’s also struggled to finish near the basket. Of course, more spacing in lineups that feature Barrett, as opposed to the clogged lanes he stares down alongside guys like Randle and Robinson, could go a long way in improving those numbers.
But, unfortunately, the Knicks just don’t have the personnel, or depth, for that matter, that they can afford to take those guys off the floor for extended minutes and expect to succeed. There’s hope that Alec Burks’ return could provide some much-needed range and scoring punch from the bench, but Burks alone might not be enough to turn things around here.
The Knicks have also been lucky when it comes to their opponent’s shooting. Opponents have shot just 32.8% from three against the Knicks, well below league average. On three-point attempts that are wide-open, which the NBA defines as a shot in which no defender is within six feet of the shooter, opponents have shot just 33.9%. If that number sees some positive regression — and it likely will as the season goes on — New York may struggle to stay in games.
There are a litany of other issues as well. The point guard position is certainly an area of concern; Elfrid Payton’s range barely extends beyond the free throw line, while Dennis Smith Jr. just hasn’t looked like the same, explosive player we saw with the Dallas Mavericks and Frank Ntilikina has struggled with injuries to start the year. Immanuel Quickley has looked solid with limited minutes, but Thibodeau has been reluctant to start him or even expand his role. And, as there is with every Thibodeau team, there could be legitimate concern over the workload of his top players: Barrett is first in the NBA in minutes played, Randle is third.
Right now, there would seem to be a lot more questions than answers for the Knicks. As currently constructed, they certainly can’t be penciled in as a playoff team. There’s too much evidence that suggests they won’t be able to consistently win games.
That said, New York should be somewhat satisfied with their start to the season. And, if they continue to compete hard, tighten up the defense and if their younger players can take a step forward (especially from beyond the arc), they might just be able to squeeze into the play-in game in the softer Eastern Conference.