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Fixing The Brooklyn Nets

The Brooklyn Nets have some big choices ahead of them this summer and onward, writes Buddy Grizzard.

Buddy Grizzard

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The Long Rebuild

In the summer of 2013, the Brooklyn Nets tried to cut in line for an NBA championship. The team sent Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Kris Joseph, Keith Bogans and first-round picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018 — as well as the right to swap picks in the upcoming 2017 draft — to the Celtics for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and D.J. White. The Nets likely thought those picks would be late first rounders since the team was set to contend for years to come. Instead, Brook Lopez suffered a broken foot 17 games into the 2013-14 season and the assembled core peaked with a 4-1 second round playoff series loss to LeBron James and the Miami HEAT.

Paul Pierce departed to the Washington Wizards the following summer after Brooklyn declined to offer him a contract. Thus began one of the most painful and prolonged rebuilds in NBA history. The Celtics used the 2014 pick to draft James Young 17th. But with the Nets refusing to commit to the core it invested so much in, Brooklyn finished 21-61 last season and surrendered the third pick, which Boston used to draft Jaylen Brown.

The Youth Route

Oddly, despite not owning its first round pick outright until 2019, the Nets are still having some success in building through the draft.

Last summer, Brooklyn traded starting power forward Thaddeus Young to the Pacers for the 20th pick, which was used on former Michigan shooting guard Caris LeVert. As Basketball Insiders’ Ben Dowsett noted Wednesday, LeVert has flashed huge potential on both ends of the court. He leads the Nets in deflections per minute while contributing to gaudy efficiency numbers for roll men and spot up shooters he connects with. As Dowsett noted, his 30 percent three-point shooting isn’t all that was hoped, but he shot 40 percent from three from his sophomore season onward. There’s a strong possibility that his shot will round into form at the NBA level.

LeVert was considered to have lottery talent ahead of last summer’s draft, but recurrent foot issues caused him to drop and allowed Brooklyn to get him late in the first round. It seemed like a risky strategy to trade a known quantity in Young for a college prospect with an extensive injury history, but LeVert has played so well as a rookie that Nets’ GM Sean Marks’ decision is looking better by the day.

In addition to LeVert, one positive holdover from former GM Billy King’s regime is Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a 6-foot-7 small forward who finished fifth in defensive real plus-minus among NBA small forwards as a rookie. Known as a defensive specialist, Hollis-Jefferson is shooting only 23 percent from three-point range for his career. But with the opportunity to play for Kenny Atkinson, a coach famous for his talents in player development, Hollis-Jefferson could eventually develop a reliable shot that would open up the game for him and unlock his full potential.

Besides identifying wing contributors late in the first round, the Nets also had success in targeting undrafted free agent shooting guard Sean Kilpatrick. In one of Marks’ first acts as Brooklyn GM, he signed Kilpatrick to a three-year deal in March of last year. Kilpatrick is currently third on the team in scoring behind Lopez (20.4) and Jeremy Lin (13.8) with 13.5 points per game on 34.4 percent shooting from three. Free agency has otherwise been a mixed bag for Brooklyn, as Lin has only been available for 21 games and power forward Trevor Booker has failed to take a major step forward, languishing in the bottom five of the roster in net rating.

Looking Forward

Several big questions face the Nets in the coming months. The team already traded Bojan Bogdanovic to the Wizards for a lottery-protected first round pick that will almost certainly convey for this summer’s draft. That gives the Nets a pair of first rounders when combined with the late first rounder the team will receive from the Celtics via the previously-mentioned swap. With those picks in hand, Marks should continue what he’s already done by seeking more hidden gems outside the lottery. The team must also decide if it wishes to seek additional draft assets in a Lopez trade or enter next season with Lopez on an expiring contract. The Nets have already explored the market for Lopez, and retained him, in part, because no sufficiently attractive offer was presented. That could change as the draft approaches.

The Nets may have dodged a bullet when Portland and Miami matched massive offer sheets on Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson last summer. Since both teams retained their players, the Nets are faced with the decision to either continue to gun for free agents this summer or hoard cap space for 2018’s spectacular free agent class. The class of 2018 could include Isaiah Thomas, LeBron James, Paul George, DeAndre Jordan, DeMarcus Cousins, Carmelo Anthony, LaMarcus Aldridge and Derrick Favors. If two or more of those stars want to congregate on a single team — as James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh did in Miami — Brooklyn could position itself as the most viable destination.

Lopez and Booker are set to expire after 2017-18. If Jeremy Lin declines his player option for 2018-19 and the Nets make no major salary commitments beyond next season, Brooklyn could hit the summer of 2018 with Andrew Nicholson’s $6.6 million as the largest contract on its books. The Nets might be able to trade Nicholson’s contract to a team seeking to reach the NBA’s salary floor, leaving enough cap space to court multiple stars.

It might sound like a pie-in-the-sky strategy, but Brooklyn’s front office must decide by the end of the season if it wants to shoot for the stars in 2018 or continue firing off huge offers to free agents this summer. It’s a valid question as, by committing $145 million to Crabbe and Evan Turner, the Trail Blazers have become a cautionary tale about how the sort of unrestrained spending Brooklyn attempted last summer can go wrong. Only Noah Vonleh had a worse net rating last season than Crabbe among Trail Blazers with at least 500 minutes of action. Crabbe has failed to take a significant step forward this season, remaining firmly in the bottom half of Portland’s roster in net rating. Meanwhile, Turner’s contract was even more questionable after he posted the second-worst net rating for Boston last season (minimum 500 minutes). Turner is a known quantity. This season only Ed Davis has a worse net rating among Trail Blazers with at least 500 minutes.

Crabbe might have made a leap with a bigger role in Brooklyn, or he could have been the same cap-clogging underachiever he currently is in Portland. Johnson would likely have been a more positive addition, but since he stayed in Miami, the Nets can explore their options. Even if Brooklyn avoids long-term salary commitments this summer but fails to attract stars in 2018, the team could retain full Bird rights for Lopez and early Bird rights for Lin. A core of Lopez and Lin along with a corps of developing wings and whatever impact free agents are inevitably attracted by cap space is a foundation Brooklyn can build on. The Nets are in the NBA’s top media market with a top five arena. If the Warriors win another championship after obtaining Kevin Durant, the super team trend could continue and Brooklyn would be poised as a potential destination.

More Conservative Options

One thing that would undoubtedly help the Nets would be doing a better job of recognizing the talent that’s already on the roster. Yogi Ferrell’s success in Dallas has been salt in the wounds of a Brooklyn fan base already robbed of talent by King’s disastrous trade. But in addition to Ferrell, the Nets also waived Willie Reed, who is exactly the sort of young, rim-protecting big man the franchise desperately needs.

If the Nets want to throw a big contract at a wing coming off his rookie deal, the franchise could do a lot worse than current Atlanta Hawk Tim Hardaway Jr. Once derided for his defensive shortcomings as a Knick, Hardaway has become one of the Hawks’ most consistent two-way players. His plus-5.4 on-court net rating through 64 games is second on the team. Bench players often benefit from playing fewer minutes against opposing starters. But when Thabo Sefolosha lost time to injury and Hardaway was pressed into service as Atlanta’s starting shooting guard, his net rating improved. Opponents are shooting just 39.7 percent overall when guarded by Hardaway, per optical tracking data on NBA.com, and only 32 percent on three-pointers.

But if the Nets go the route of hoarding cap space, the biggest short-term need is a physical power forward who can rebound but also stretch the floor. There are several undervalued options to fill this role for Brooklyn that include another current Hawk, Ersan Ilyasova. Linsanity happened when — with Carmelo Anthony out — Mike D’Antoni surrounded Amar’e Stoudemire-Lin pick and rolls with three-point shooters. Ilyasova fits that configuration and he defends and kills opponents’ possessions with his rebounding.

Other options could include Nikola Mirotic, who has struggled mightily this season. Despite these struggles, Mirotic has a better on-court net rating than any Bull except Jimmy Butler this season. For all his struggles, the Bulls are still performing better as a team with Mirotic on the court than almost any other player. This speaks to the value of stretch big men in the pace-and-space era. Even with Mirotic shooting a career-low 30 percent from three, he still pulls an opposing big man away from the basket, opening the driving lanes that Lin thrives in. If there was ever a player whose value seems so low that his team might let him walk rather than match a modest offer in restricted free agency, Mirotic is that player. Brooklyn could steal Mirotic on a bargain contract and then watch him flourish in a new role away from Chicago’s dysfunction.

Two other players that could get overlooked due to their current teams’ salary cap crunch are Clipper forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and current Raptor forward Patrick Patterson. Mbah a Moute would be an exceptional addition for the Nets as he can play either forward position at both ends. Known as an elite defender, he has worked on his outside shot and is currently hitting a career-best 37.5 percent from beyond the arc. This makes him a perfect frontcourt partner for Lopez and an ideal candidate to improve Brooklyn’s porous defense.

Patterson isn’t exactly the banger that Brooklyn needs, but he’s another under-the-radar commodity that could be available. Toronto made a major commitment to Serge Ibaka by trading away Terrence Ross, a legitimate rotation piece. With Kyle Lowry possibly commanding the max and the luxury tax looming, Patterson will almost certainly change teams this summer. Toronto is plus-11.5 per 100 with Patterson on the court, easily a team-best among Raptors to play meaningful minutes.

Finally, two players the Nets should consider are a pair of teammates on the Serbian national team. Miroslav Raduljica (rad-oo-LEETS-uh) is an overlooked, bruising big man who would give the Nets the enforcer it needs. He doesn’t stretch the floor to the three-point line like countryman Nikola Jokic, but he absolutely has a face-up game. As seen in these highlights, Raduljica can pull up from the elbow and baseline, has a dribble-drive game, and a penchant for thunderous dunks and the occasional highlight assist. In 53 career games for the Milwaukee Bucks, Raduljica averaged 14 points and eight rebounds per 36 minutes. Don’t let the snarling biker look fool you: Raduljica speaks or understands five languages.

The other Serbian national team member the Nets are already rumored to be interested in is current CSKA Moscow point guard Milos Teodosic. His contract expires July 1, and he has expressed interest in making the jump to the NBA. Teodosic gained wide acclaim by leading Serbia to the silver medal in last summer’s Rio Olympics. Serbia fell to the United States 94-91 in the gold medal game and Teodosic has been coveted by NBA teams ever since. Sportando recently reported that the Nets are among the teams that plan to pursue him. Teodosic is not noted for his defense but he has a flair for dramatic passes and an elite feel for the game.

This summer’s free agent class isn’t as star-studded as 2018’s, but it’s fair to ask if Brooklyn should pass up so many players that could help now to chase a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. So, should the Nets continue to hoard cap space and keep the sheet clear for the summer of 2018 or look more toward short-term improvement via players who are more attainable? If Marks has the right answers, he could transform the Nets from one of the NBA’s most painful fan experiences to an unexpected success story. But if he chooses unwisely, history is unlikely to let him or Brooklyn’s fans forget.

Buddy Grizzard has written for ESPN.com and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.

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NBA PM: Lopez Leading On And Off The Court

Brook Lopez has been a valuable addition to the Los Angeles Lakers, both on and off the court.

Ben Nadeau

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In spite of the ongoing media circus, an inherently tougher conference and a roster that features just five players with more than three years of NBA experience, the Los Angeles Lakers are 8-10. Naturally, that won’t be good enough to reach the postseason in the West, but it’s better than most expected the young Lakers to fare. Their early season successes can be chalked up to their glut of budding talent — Julius Randle, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, among others — but there’s one other major driving force at hand here and his name is Brook Lopez.

Following years of will-they, won’t-they rumors, Lopez was acquired in a shocking blockbuster trade with the Brooklyn Nets just prior to this year’s draft. The Lakers were eager to get out from under Timofey Mozgov’s lengthy, albatross-sized contract, so they packaged him with the once-troubled D’Angelo Russell, shipping the pair off for Lopez and the No. 27 overall pick. The deal was largely made with financial implications in mind, but the initial returns on Lopez have been a massive win for the Lakers as well.

Although Lopez is currently logging a career-low in minutes (24.3), he still often leads the way for Los Angeles — like the night he effortlessly dropped 34 points and 10 rebounds on 6-for-9 from three-point range against his former franchise. Through 18 games, Lopez is averaging just 14.8 points and 5.1 rebounds — a scoring mark that ranks only above his rookie season with the New Jersey Nets in 2008-09 — but his statistical impact is key on this inconsistent roster nonetheless.

But beyond that, it seems as if some of Lopez’s biggest contributions this season have come off the court — just ask Kyle Kuzma and Ivica Zubac.

“[Lopez] has taught me how to be a professional,” Kuzma told Basketball Insiders prior to their game against the Boston Celtics earlier this month. “He’s one of the first guys in the gym, one of the last ones to leave.”

Lopez, who has carried his fair share of incredibly poor teams in the past — and often with a smile — is in the final year of the contract he signed back in 2015. His expiring deal worth $22.6 million made Lopez the perfect acquisition for a Lakers team hoping to shed cap space before the upcoming free agency period — where, allegedly, LeBron James and Paul George are both targets.

For a 7-foot center that just added a three-point shot to his game and knocked down 134 of them last season alone, Lopez may be one of the greatest trade afterthoughts in recent memory. The Lakers will likely finish in the lottery rather than the postseason, but Lopez — along with veterans Andrew Bogut, Corey Brewer and Luol Deng — have been a helpful presence for the slew of young Lakers as they adjust to professional basketball.

“They’re all great — they’ve been there, done that,” Kuzma said. “They have a lot of experience in this league, so it’s good to learn from those guys because they’ve played 10, 13 years and that’s what I want to do.”

Kuzma, of course, was selected with that No. 27 overall pick that the Nets sent to Los Angeles in the trade, and he’s been red-hot ever since. Following an impressive combine, summer league and preseason, Kuzma jumped into the starting lineup after Larry Nance Jr. fractured his hand just eight games into the campaign. Although the Rookie of the Year battle has been dominated by the Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons so far, Kuzma — averaging 16.8 points and 6.6 rebounds per game — has emerged as a strong runner-up candidate.

For Zubac, however, it’s been a slower start to his NBA career but with Lopez, he says, things have gotten easier.

“The whole summer, I worked on my three-point shot,” Zubac told Basketball Insiders. “But also [I worked on my] post offense too, that’s what [Lopez] is good at. I’m really focusing my game around the post, so that’s where I’m trying to learn.”

Last year, Zubac was a popular late-season member of head coach Luke Walton’s rotation and he finished his rookie year averaging 7.5 points and 4.2 rebounds in just 16 minutes per game. Unfortunately, the new arrivals and recent emergences have limited Zubac to just 10 total minutes over four appearances in 2017-18. Still, Lopez gives Zubac a mentor worth modeling his game after, even if it’s at the expense of real experience this season.

To get Zubac on the floor, the center has spent time with the South Bay Lakers, Los Angeles’ G-League affiliate, as of late. In two games, Zubac has averaged 21 points and 10 rebounds on 73 percent shooting from the field. Despite the lack of playing time, Zubac was more than happy to praise not only Lopez but the efforts of the other aforementioned veterans too.

“I can learn a lot from them and they help me play my game,” Zubac said. “Whoever’s on the court, whoever I’m playing with, I just try to learn as much as I can from them.”

Ultimately, though, it all comes back to Lopez.

Again, Lopez has averaged a career-low in minutes, but his contributions have been crucial in the Lakers’ overall standing thus far. In the games that Lopez has played less than 21 minutes, the Lakers are 0-5; but when he plays more than 30, the team is 3-1. On top of that, the Lakers are 5-1 when Lopez hits two or more three-pointers in a game as well. That sample size is still certainly small, but it’s nice indicator of Lopez’s inherent on-court impact, even when he’s not carrying the team on his shoulders.

“[He makes life] a lot easier for me,” Kuzma said. “He’s one of the most established scorers in the league and his career average is, like, 20 [points] a game. You can always count on him to be there every single night.”

While the Lakers can plan for a dream offseason haul involving James, George and others, they’ll have a tough decision facing them in July. Whether he’s efficiently stretching the floor, finishing off assists from Ball or setting the tone in an inexperienced locker room, Lopez has been quite the addition for Los Angeles.

This summer, Lopez enters unrestricted free agency and will likely garner offers outside of the Lakers’ pay range considering their big plans. If the Lakers decide to focus elsewhere, another team will reap the rewards. Until then, the youthful core in Los Angeles will benefit from having Lopez train and educate them each day.

“[Lopez] takes care of his body, he stays low-key and is never in trouble,” Kuzma said. “He’s the type of professional I want to be.”

Whether this is just a one-year detour in his extensively underrated career or the start of a great, new partnership, Lopez’s arrival in Los Angeles has been a huge success already. But as far as role models go for both Kuzma and Zubac, there are few choices better than Brook Lopez — both on and off the court.

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The Most Disappointing Teams So Far

Shane Rhodes looks at a few teams that have disappointed so far this season.

Shane Rhodes

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Approaching the season’s quarter mark, NBA teams are finally starting to settle into their respective grooves. As more and more players become comfortable, their teams begin to demonstrate what they can really do on the court. While some teams have exceeded expectations, a number of teams have underperformed and are looking worse, in some cases much worse, than expected.

Here are six of the NBA’s most disappointing teams so far this season.

6. Dallas Mavericks

The Dallas Mavericks were going to be bad this season. They just weren’t expected to be this bad.

At 3-15, the Mavericks currently hold the worst record in the NBA. They rank 27th and 22nd in offensive and defensive rating, coming in at 99.3 and 107.6, respectively. Collectively, they are shooting just 42.2 percent from the floor and 34.7 percent from three-point range, both below league average. Nerlens Noel, whom Dallas acquired at the trade deadline last season, has played sparingly.

But there is seemingly a light at the end of the tunnel. The Mavericks’ three wins have come against the Memphis Grizzlies, Washington Wizards and the Milwaukee Bucks, three teams that made the playoffs a season ago and are expected to do so again this season. Victories against the Wizards — who are currently the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference at 10-7 — and the Bucks — who boast one of the best players in the league in Giannis Antetokounmpo — are especially encouraging.

As of now, though, the team is still a mess on both sides of the ball.

5. Miami HEAT

The Miami HEAT were expected to be playoff contenders after a torrid second half last season that saw them win 30 of their final 42 games. Now, the HEAT are currently sitting at the 11th seed in the East and, with a record of 7-9, are currently boasting a worse record than the New York Knicks (9-7), Indiana Pacers (10-8) and the Los Angeles Lakers (8-10).

The offense just hasn’t arrived yet in South Beach. Miami has an offensive rating of 103.13, good for 26th in the NBA. They are shooting under league average from the field (44.5 percent) and from three (35.2 percent) and are fifth in turnovers per game with 16.6 per contest; not exactly a winning formula. The $50 million man Kelly Olynyk has contributed just 8.9 points and 5.3 rebounds in 18.9 minutes per game while the roster outside its starting unit looks flimsy at best. Dion Waiters hasn’t shot the ball as well as last season, either.

The schedule doesn’t get easier for the HEAT, with four upcoming games against the Boston Celtics, Minnesota Timberwolves, Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors in their next seven. Expect Miami to get even worse before they start to get better.

4. Milwaukee Bucks

Last season, the Milwaukee Bucks were the sixth seed in the East. They boast one of the best young cores in the league, headed by phenom Antetokounmpo and supported by the likes of Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon and, eventually, Jabari Parker.

Somehow, the Bucks find themselves at just 8-8.

In a weakened Eastern Conference, Milwaukee was expected to make a play for one of its top spots. Instead, the Bucks have gotten blown out by the Mavericks, while barely squeaking by teams like the Charlotte Hornets and Lakers. The Bucks are 23rd in the NBA in defensive rating with a mark of 106.5, worse than the Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls while also sitting at 23rd in net rating at -2.2, behind the Los Angeles Clippers (-1.7) and Utah Jazz (-1.3).

Antetokounmpo has yet to improve his stroke from beyond the arc, an undesirable albeit expected deficiency in his game. But, much of the Bucks roster hasn’t shot well from three. Middleton is shooting just 32.1 percent while big-acquisition Eric Bledsoe is shooting an abysmal 16 percent from beyond the arc since arriving in Milwaukee. If they can’t improve here it will be extremely hard for the Bucks to improve their position in the standings.

With six of their next nine games coming against teams at or below .500, the Bucks have a great chance to rebound from their sluggish start. That doesn’t change the fact that, with one of the NBA’s more talented rosters, the Bucks have been a major disappointment up to this point.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers

At the time of this writing, the Cleveland Cavaliers have won five straight games. Most would say that would or should exempt them from a list like this.

They would be wrong.

The collective record of the teams Cleveland has played during its five-game win streak? 35-48. It may be encouraging to the fans to see the team rattle off five straight, but the Cavaliers aren’t exactly beating the best teams in the Association. They have been careless with the ball as well, turning it over more than 15 times per game while

Their biggest problem, however, is the fact that they can defend absolutely no one. With a defensive rating of 109.4, the Cavaliers have the worst defense in the league. They have gotten away with a lackluster effort in the past, Cleveland’s current roster, outside of LeBron James, just doesn’t have enough offensive firepower to make up for it. And the offense has been good; Cleveland is currently averaging 110.9 points per game with an offensive rating of 109.4, but that leaves them with a big goose egg for their net rating.

The Cavaliers will continue to struggle to beat teams as they attempt to outpace them on the offensive end. For a team that has made three straight NBA Finals and has one of the greatest of all time on its roster, that should certainly be regarded as a disappointment.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder

Another “Big-3” was formed in the NBA after Paul George and Carmelo Anthony were paired with reigning Most Valuable Player Russell Westbrook in the offseason. However, the 2017-18 season hasn’t exactly gone according to plan for the Thunder

Labeled as a team to rival the Warriors for Western Conference supremacy, the Thunder have done anything but so far this season. While the individual stats counting of Westbrook, George and Anthony have looked good, the Thunder have not as a collective. The team sits at just 7-9, good for 10th in the Western Conference. They rank 19th, 23rd and 21st in the NBA in points, rebounds and assists per game, respectively while shooting 44.3 percent from the field and 35 percent from three, both good for 21st.

Westbrook’s early season shooting struggles have hurt the Thunder as well. Westbrook is shooting just 39.4 percent from the field and 32.5 percent from three. The dominance he displayed last season, especially late in games, just hasn’t appeared this season and the team is hurting because of it. If the Thunder want to move up in the standings, Westbrook will need to find a way to improve his shooting numbers; they will go as he goes much like last season, even with George and Anthony on the roster.

On a brighter note, the defense has been one of the best in the NBA. But if the Thunder can’t figure it out on offense and score well as a unit, they will continue to struggle, especially when having to face the high-octane offenses of the Warriors and Houston Rockets.

1. Los Angeles Clippers

When losing a player the caliber of Chris Paul, some regression is to be expected. Fortifying the roster with guards Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams and Milos Teodosic and forward Danilo Gallinari, however, the Clippers were expected to weather the storm, to an extent.

Early on the Clippers did exactly that. The team looked impressive in the early going, winning five of their first seven games and averaging 109 points per. Since then? Everything has seemingly gone downhill in Los Angeles, and fast.

The Clippers have lost nine straight by an average margin of 9.8 points per game. Thirteenth in the Western Conference with a 5-11 record, they have looked nothing like the playoff team they were expected to be and are by far the season’s biggest disappointment. They have played poorly on the defensive end, ranking 20th in the NBA with a defensive rating of 106.2. Opponents have shot 45.4 percent from the field and 37.1 percent from three against them.

Things haven’t been the greatest on offense, either. In Paul’s absence, the Clippers have dropped from 15th in assists per game a year ago to 28th this season, averaging just 19.6 per game. While they are averaging 104.9 points per game, they are doing so on just 44.1 percent shooting.

Injuries have played a major role in the Clippers struggles; additions Beverly, Gallinari and Teodosic have all missed or are currently missing time with injury. But it’s discouraging to see that Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are unable to elevate the Clippers outside of the Western Conference basement.

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NBA AM: Paul Millsap’s Injury Derails Denver

With Paul Millsap injured, the Nuggets hopes to become a contender take a hit.

Lang Greene

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After missing the playoffs for the past four seasons, the Denver Nuggets are a team on the rise. The team won 30 games in 2015, 33 in 2016, 40 in 2017 and are currently on pace to record 48 victories this season, which would be their most since 2013.

The squad features six players averaging more than 10 points per contest, not including two veterans in Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler, both of whom are career double-digit scorers. The Nuggets also boast one of the youngest teams in the league with only three players over the age of 30 (Paul Millsap, Chandler and Richard Jefferson).

But the team was dealt a huge blow this week when it was learned that four-time All-Star forward Paul Millsap will be out the next three to four months after suffering a torn ligament in his wrist.

Millsap was extremely durable during his first 11 seasons in the league, missing 10 games just once (2017). This injury marks the first time in Millsap’s career where he will miss significant time while roaming the sideline in designer suits.

Millsap signed a three-year, $90 million deal this past summer and his acquisition was viewed as the next step in bringing the team back into the realm of the playoffs.

After an early season adjustment period, Denver (10-7) has rattled off seven victories in their last 10 games. For the team, Millsap’s injury news couldn’t have come at a worst time.  The veteran was averaging 15.3 points and 6.2 rebounds through 16 contests. The points are his lowest since 2013 and the rebounding output is his lowest since 2010, but Millsap’s presence has helped stabilize the young Nuggets on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.

The Nuggets do have a plethora of power forwards on the depth chart. Veteran Kenneth Faried has started 366 contests for the franchise since being drafted in 2011. Faried’s future with the franchise has come into question in recent years as his playing time and role in the rotation has consistently diminished. The signing of Millsap likely solidified that fate, however, by not dealing Faried, the Nuggets were able to keep an insurance policy in the fold.

Third-year forward and former lottery pick Trey Lyles is another candidate for an increased workload. Lyles is currently averaging 6.8 minutes in 12 appearances but is shooting a career high from the field (52 percent) and three-point range (42 percent) in his limited court time. Another like candidate for more playing time is second-year big man Juan Hernangomez, who has currently appeared in just six contests.

Offensively, the Nuggets will be able to absorb his loss. Guards Gary Harris and Jamal Murray score the ball efficiently while swingman Will Barton provides pop off the bench. The team will also likely ride the back of their franchise player Nikola Jokic a bit more as well, with the big man averaging just 11.6 shot attempts per game—third on the team.

Perhaps the biggest area the Nuggets will have to adjust is on the defensive end.

According to ESPN’s real defensive plus-minus (DPM), Millsap ranks 31st overall in the league (1.62). He ranks seventh among power forwards with at least 10 games played this season. Last season, Millsap was fifth among power forward and 14th overall in DPM.

The veteran’s track of improving a team’s prowess on the defensive end is proven and it’s exactly the type of “silent” attribute the Nuggets needed on a loaded young team still learning how to play on that side of the ball.

                              Paul Millsap – Real Defensive Plus-Minus
Season DPM League Overall Rank Power Forward Rank
2013-14 2.06                 63                   12
2014-15 2.22                 43                    8
2015-16 3.26                 12                    2
2016-17 3.35                 14                   5
2017-18 1..62                 31                  9

 

The Nuggets will be tested immediately without Millsap in the fold. The team travels to Houston (November 22) and will play nine of their next 13 games are on the road. This includes a six-game road trip from December 4 to December 13.

The team is currently 7-2 at home and just 3-5 away from the Pepsi center.

They will, for sure, be tested without Millsap.

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