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Fixing the Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets are uniquely situated and have a lot of options to continue developing their roster.

Ben Dowsett

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As teams like the Philadelphia 76ers have pushed the boundaries of NBA team building under the current rules, something of a taboo lexicon has become prevalent in many circles. Terms like “process” have been used so often that they’re punchlines at this point. Everyone has their two cents on when a particular non-title contender should “rebuild,” whether or not they bother to qualify such an opinion with any specifics. And god forbid anyone utter that veritable cuss word, “tanking” – there might be children present.

The Denver Nuggets are a solid microcosm for the way our inherent need to label things can cloud what’s really a simpler picture. The observer intent on pigeonholing the Nuggets into a specific category along the team construction spectrum will find contradictory indicators almost immediately. Denver has many of the characteristics of a “rebuilding” team, set against several elements more commonly associated with teams further along in the process.

The Nuggets’ on-court product for the 2015-16 season saw them swap out these various masks regularly. A 6-5 start, with two wins over presumed (at the time) contenders, the Houston Rockets and the New Orleans Pelicans, got them out of the gate more quickly than most had expected – only for eight straight losses from there during a brutal November stretch to bring them back down to earth. As the year wore on, they traded impressive wins that signaled progress beyond their collective age (two over the Toronto Raptors, a February victory over the L.A. Clippers and their signature win of the year over the Golden State Warriors at home in January), with ugly losses that reminded us how far away they still are (a combined eight defeats to the L.A Lakers, Sacramento Kings, Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic).

None of this is necessarily bad, even the tougher losses, which might inherently seem so. They all fall under the “learning experiences” tab for now, with a key reality driving a very positive outlook in Denver: None of it mortgaged the future in any way.

Far from boxing the Nuggets in with a particular group or identity, this year’s events and those preceding them have left them as among the most flexible up-and-coming groups in the league. They have six legitimate young prospects, including guys in Nikola Jokic and Emmanuel Mudiay whose ceilings are still very high. They hold all their own first-round picks, the right to swap with the Knicks in the 2016 first-round, two mid-teen 2016 picks courtesy of Houston and the Portland Trail Blazers and a 2017 first-round pick from the Memphis Grizzlies (protected top-five, a very unlikely landing spot). And, of course, they hold the rights to three veteran players with varying levels of value – be it to Denver or another team.

Here we take a look at a few of their most pressing topics entering the summer:

Vet the Vets

It’s strange to think of Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried as “veterans” when the oldest among them is Chandler at 28, but in a relative sense it’s very true in Denver.

Faried is still in his physical prime at 26, and his age track really isn’t so far removed from the young guys. The issue with him is one of fit and, quite honestly, quality as a modern NBA player given the size and length of his contract. He isn’t exactly breaking the bank, but three more years at a starter-level salary is tough enough for a guy who really doesn’t fit that label on the court – and that’s before one considers that each of Jokic, Jusuf Nurkic and Joffrey Lauvergne is potentially ready to come into their own. Jokic and Nurkic are both 21, and Jokic is already a more valuable NBA player than Faried.

Nuggets GM Tim Connelly doesn’t have to do anything with Faried. All three young guys are probably better as centers, and Jokic in particular won’t be sliding down to power forward any time soon. If all parties are comfortable with a situation where playing time isn’t necessarily in line with salary earned, keeping Faried and playing the best combinations is absolutely a tenable option. But as a big who can’t shoot or defend the rim, there’s a real chance Faried is near the bottom of that totem pole before long. That situation could get sticky in a hurry.

Similar cases could be made for Gallinari and Chandler to some degree, but are made tougher by age and significant health concerns in both cases. Chandler will be 29 before he plays another NBA game, and missed the entirety of the 2015-16 season after hip surgery – his third year in the last five where he played 43 games or fewer. Gallinari is one of the more well-known injury-riddled cases in the league within the last half decade.

Both can still have real value if healthy, Gallinari in particular within a Nuggets context if they choose to move Faried. Danilo should spend almost all his time at power forward in the 2016 NBA, and a Jokic-Gallinari frontcourt is a tantalizing prospect even if they’re far apart in age. Chandler can provide a solid two-way game at the small forward spot, likely the weakest in Denver’s young stockpile.

With so many factors at play, the “right” course of action is really tough to discern. The Nuggets aren’t as concerned as most developing teams with staying in the high lottery, what with so many young chips already in place and more on the way if they desire. The experience and know-how these older guys bring to the table could be valuable to the young bucks, though predicting those dynamics with any accuracy is tough. The size of their stockpile is important when considering the potential return on a trade involving one of the vets – too many more young pieces coming back would quickly bring them to a saturation point, something the Nuggets will already be approaching if they make all three of their first-round picks this year.

There aren’t too many truly wrong answers here with so much flexibility, but how Connelly chooses to maximize the pieces and which direction he moves in will be telling.

Parsing the Youngsters

The Nuggets need to continue the already-active process of evaluating their young core, even as they simultaneously address their larger salary slots and the interplay between the two sets of players.

The frontcourt is most crowded and most interesting, especially while Faried and Gallinari remain in the fold. Jokic quickly separated himself in his rookie season, stretching the floor (33 percent from deep is more than fine for a rookie at his position) and showcasing ball skills rare for anyone his size, much less a 21-year-old. Jokic became the first rookie center since 1974-75 to log over 1,000 minutes and assist on at least 18 percent of teammate baskets while on the floor, per basketball-reference.com – and just the third player in league history to do so, joining Alvan Adams and the great Bill Walton.

Jokic already has all the basics you hope for from a passing big. He uses his length well to view and create angles, and has a good sense for where guys like the ball (don’t throw a bounce pass to a seven-footer rolling for a dunk, that sort of thing). He’s decisive, and rarely hesitates or gets tunnel vision. But when you see a kid this young pulling out second-level stuff like a look-off thread pass, on the move and in traffic against a top defense, you have to double-take for a moment.

Mudiay was the belle of Denver’s 2015 draft, but a mostly forgotten 2014 second-rounder might already be their top overall prospect. Jokic has enough lateral mobility that he shouldn’t flounder defensively against top pick-and-roll teams, and if his three-point shooting ever ticks up into the high 30s (not unlikely at all) he could be among the most dangerous seven-footers in the league on offense. Continued development at this rate will make adding pieces around him very, very easy. It seems hard to imagine him going anywhere for anything but a Godfather offer.

Nurkic and Lauvergne are tougher to peg. Both have bits of injury concern early in their careers, but both also have plenty of talent. The 2016-17 season will be big for Nurkic, who missed most of this past year and was never quite right physically even when he returned. Whether he can pair with Jokic, something the Nuggets started testing out down the stretch this year, could impact his playing time significantly.

Lauvergne made a leap in his sophomore season, but is an iffier shooter than his reputation suggests and still needs lots of work around the margins. Crazier things have happened than all three sticking around long term, but it feels like there will be at least one odd man out here before it’s all said and done.

The backcourt situation is more straightforward, at least for now. Mudiay had ups and downs in his rookie year, and still boasts plenty of potential as a two-way point guard even if he seems a risky bet to ever become a star-level player. Denver’s offense improved while Mudiay was on the court as the year went on, and while he’ll need significant refinements to several parts of his game, the physical tools are there.

Sophomore Gary Harris led the team in minutes on the season, and is entrenched as the starting shooting guard moving forward. He made a big leap to over 35 percent from three-point range after a disastrous rookie season from distance, and became a much more useful playmaker. He has a long way to go to even reach average as a defender, though, and probably isn’t anything more than a solid supplementary piece offensively. Sixth man Will Barton provided flashes of excitement, but is also already 25 and likely won’t develop much more than what we’ve seen.

Figuring out who fits where is the next big step for Connelly and his team, and accordingly managing the roster around their decisions.

Draft Picks and Timetables

We mentioned over-saturation of draft picks above, and while such a scenario could certainly qualify as a “good problem,” it will still need addressing if the Nuggets keep all their picks over the next few years. Denver has the roster slots to add a few more guys, but will eventually reach a decision point with all of these young pieces – a fate division rival Utah may navigate a year or two before the Nuggets do. There’s only so much money, so many roster spots and so much playing time.

One outlet here is stashing at least a pick or two, something the Nuggets already did with Jokic and Lauvergne for brief periods. A guy overseas won’t count against their cap or roster limits, and could be brought over only if he deserves a spot over a current piece.

Connelly could also look to move some of those picks, but for what? Most teams in Denver’s position, with their best talent a few years away, would be looking to add first-round picks – things are backward here to a large degree. The picks in question aren’t of the blue chip variety that might yield a similar high-ceiling player in the right deal. Would adding a few mid-tier guys in their mid-20s (if you could even find such players available) do much for the bottom line, either now or a couple years from now? It’s unlikely.

Another move floated in some circles is the equivalent of Connelly’s “all-in” button: A big trade for an established player who speeds up the Nuggets’ timeline.

Denver has the resources to pull off such a deal, and might even have the youth and draft capital to hedge against the most negative outcomes of such an aggressive move (mainly the one where they trade for a star, don’t succeed, and said star leaves at his next available opportunity). They’re the only team outside Boston who can offer the triumvirate: A war chest of picks, current NBA rotation players on fair market deals and at least one or two promising young guys already in the league.

Say Kevin Love becomes available this summer, and the Celtics continue to drive too hard of a bargain – what’s stopping Denver from throwing their hat in the ring? It’s a rough pass, but couldn’t some combination of Gallinari/Chandler, Barton, one of the young bigs and a pick or two at least get the conversation started? The Nuggets made significant inquiries on Love while he was still in Minnesota, something Basketball Insiders’ Alex Kennedy reported last year, and remain potentially interested in adding star power at the top of their depth chart.

This sort of thing is obviously unlikely and would be a big risk, but GMs in Connelly’s position don’t win NBA titles by acting conservatively. A guy like Love (or, say, DeMarcus Cousins – just two examples) isn’t so far ahead of the rest of the core age-wise to make this sort of move patently ridiculous, especially if one or two of the youngest are involved in the return package. If they could do it without sacrificing Jokic or Mudiay – maybe tough in Love’s case, but he’s just one possibility – those two plus their draft stockpile would serve as solid insurance if the new star bolts town after his contract is up.

The biggest risk might not even be their target leaving down the line, but rather the move simply not working well enough. Denver was fun at various points this year, but adding Kevin Love and subtracting a couple previous pieces isn’t creating an overnight title contender here. The Nuggets would have to be confident they could supplement things with at least one impactful summer signing (they have plenty of room under the cap) and some major development from the younger guys. They’d have to do all that while mitigating the risk that a guy like Mudiay or Jokic is harmed in the long run by such a diversion from the normal process of development.

Assuming no swing for the fences, the summer is wide open. The Nuggets could open up over $30 million in cap space without batting an eye, enough for a max deal or multiple solid pieces if there’s mutual interest. Connelly should get a second cell phone for draft night, where the Nuggets have the flexibility to poke their noses around into all sorts of potential fun. They should target guys who can complement Jokic and Mudiay’s development where possible, and the goal barring a huge win-now move should be to take a solid step forward without sacrificing much of this flexibility a year down the road.

The Nuggets are straddling the rebuilding fence, but both feet are somehow still on firm ground. They’re in a hugely advantageous position as a franchise, with the ability to pivot in any direction should a clear path emerge.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA

Rookie of The Year Watch – 12/13/17

Shane Rhodes checks back in on what’s become a relatively consistent Rookie of the Year race.

Shane Rhodes

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It has been a pretty ho-hum Rookie of The Year race so far in the 2017-18 season, with the top rookies staking their claims to this list at the beginning of the season and, for the most part, staying there. While there has been some movement up and down over the season and since our last installment, for the large part those who were on the list remain on the list.

Those players have earned their spots on this list with their play, however. This rookie class is one of the better, more exciting classes in recent memory. These players have just managed to remain at the top of the hill.

Let’s take a look at this week’s rankings.

stockup456. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls (Last Week: Unranked)

By virtue of John Collins missing time due to injury, Markkanen jumps back onto this list. However, that’s not to say Markkanen has played poorly this season. On the contrary, the former Arizona Wildcat and current Chicago Bull has played very well; it’s just hard to get recognized when you are on the worst team in the league.

Markkanen is averaging 14.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, third and second among rookies, respectively, while adding 1.3 assists per game as well. Athletic enough to get his own shot and big enough to be a mismatch when he’s on the floor, Markkanen is probably the best (healthy) offensively player the Bulls have. While his defensive game isn’t great, his defensive rating of 106.4 still ranks ninth amongst rookies.

Perhaps most importantly, Markkanen inspires hope for a brighter future in Bulls fans that have watched the team plummet from the 50-win team it was just three seasons ago.

stockup455. Dennis Smith, Jr., Dallas Mavericks (Last Week: 6)

His shooting percentages continue to underwhelm and the Dallas Mavericks still have one of the worst records in the NBA, but Dennis Smith Jr. has been one of the Mavs’ bright spots this season while averaging 14.4 points, four rebounds and four assists per game.

While he hasn’t been a great shooter overall, Smith Jr. has managed to be a big contributor on offense for the Mavs, with an offensive rating of 101.4, ninth among rookies, and an assist percentage of 25.2 percent, fourth among rookies. He is second on the team in scoring behind Harrison Barnes’ 18.4 points per game as well. He is still a work in progress, but Dallas has found a keeper in Smith Jr.

stockdown454. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers (Last Week: 3)

While the Lakers have stumbled over the past few weeks, Kuzma continues to play well when he is on the floor. He still paces the Los Angeles Lakers in scoring with an average of 16.1 points per game, third among rookies, while also dishing in 6.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game.

Kuzma is now second among rookies in double-doubles with eight on the season and three in his last five games. With a diverse offensive game, the power forward should continue to impress as the season goes along.

stockup453. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz (Last Week: 4)

Donovan Mitchell has been electrifying in recent weeks. Second in scoring among rookies, Mitchell is averaging 17.3 points per game to go along with three rebounds and 3.2 assists. As his confidence has grown, so to have his field goal percentage and three-point percentages. Mitchell has led the Utah Jazz in scoring in 11 of their 27 games, and is second on the Jazz in scoring too, behind Rodney Hood’s 17.7 points per game.

Mitchell became the second rookie ever, first since Blake Griffin in 2011, to score more than 40 points in a single game after going for 41 against the New Orleans Pelicans. Coupling that with his high-flying athleticism, Mitchell has been one of the best rookies to watch this season.

stocknochanges452. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics (Last Week: 2)

Jayson Tatum is on pace to be only the second rookie ever to lead the league in three-point percentage. In over 38 years, the only other player to do it was Anthony Morrow, who shot 46.7 percent on 2.7 attempts per game during the 2008-09 regular season. Tatum is currently shooting 50 percent on over three attempts per game.

The 19-year-old forward has also made a near seamless transition from the isolation-dominated basketball that he played at Duke, and has flourished as the third, fourth and sometimes even fifth option on offense, having scored in double digits in 25 of 29 games and averaging 13.8 points per game on the season. His defense continues to be better than advertised as well.

Tatum has been Mr. Clutch among rookies as well. In the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, Tatum has 14 field goals on 21 attempts, seventh in the entire NBA and tops among rookies. In fact, Tatum is the only other rookie in the top 15 in clutch field goals.

While Mitchell has been on fire recently, Tatum has performed well enough to this point where he is still in control of the number two spot among rookies. But the race for this second spot is close and will continue to be close throughout the season. The race for the number one spot on the other hand? Not so much.

stocknochanges451. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers (Last Week: 1)

It would make for a very boring race if Ben Simmons remained at the top of this list for the entire season. And it looks increasingly likely that that is going to be the case.

Try as they might, the other rookies just can’t hang with Simmons; none of them have the right combination of production and physicality to keep pace with the point-forward. Tatum has been better than advertised while Mitchell and Kuzma have exceeded all predraft expectations, but none of them can produce what Simmons has. With averages of 17.5 points, 8.9 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game, Simmons would be just the second rookie in NBA history, the first since Oscar Robertson during the 1960-61 season, to finish the season with that stat line.

So, unless they combine their powers to become a being with superhuman basketball skills, the other rookies don’t stand a chance against Simmons in the race for Rookie of the Year.

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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: Another 2018 NBA Mock Draft – 12/13/17

Basketball Insiders’ publisher Steve Kyler drops his latest 2018 first-round NBA Mock Draft.

Steve Kyler

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A little less than a month ago we dropped the first 2018 NBA Mock Draft, which was met with a lot of disdain. Which is often a good thing because it sparks the discussion in NBA circles.

Since that Mock dropped, we’ve seen a bit more play out of some of the top prospects and many of the assumptions made almost a month ago are starting to settle into place a little more clearly.

The prevailing thought from NBA scouts and executives is that the possible 2018 NBA Draft class has a lot more questions than answers. The common view is that outside of the top 3 or 4 players there could be a very wide range on who the next 10-12 players will be; so expect for the second tier to evolve a lot over the course of the college basketball season.

A couple of things have started to surface among NBA scouts and executives, there seem to be three camps emerging around the top overall player – Duke’s Marvin Bagley III and international phenom Luka Dončić, seem to be the leading names mentioned most, with Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton making a strong push into the discussion. We can safely call this a three-horse race at this point.

The prevailing belief is that none of the three is far and away better than the other as a professional prospect, making it more likely than not that the top player selected will have a lot more to do with which team ultimately lands the pick, more so than the player themselves.

This class also seems to be brimming with promising athletic point guards, which unlike last year’s draft, could provide a lot of options for teams still trying to find that impact point guard.

There also looks to be 27 players in the projected top 100 that are 6’10 or bigger, eight of which project in the top 30. To put that into perspective, there were 11 players 6’10 or bigger drafted in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, and 17 total in the 60 2017 NBA Draft selections.

As we get into the 2018 calendar year, we’ll start to do deeper dives into the tiers of players and their possible NBA strengths and weakness.

So, with all of that in mind, here is the second 2018 first-round NBA Mock Draft.

Here are some of the pick swaps and how they landed where they are currently projected:

The Philadelphia 76ers are owed the LA Lakers 2018 Draft pick, unprotected, as a result of the 2012 Steve Nash trade with the Suns. The Suns traded that pick to the 76ers as part of the Michael Carter-Williams three-team trade with the Milwaukee in 2015.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this past summer.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Ricky Rubio trade this summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would not convey.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the current standings.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves first round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick only conveys if the Bucks pick lands between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the standings today would not convey.

The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors first round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets first round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick is top-three protected and based on the current standings would convey.

Check out the Basketball Insiders’ Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects http://www.basketballinsiders.com/top-100-nba-draft-prospects/

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Insiders Podcast

PODCAST: How to Keep LeBron in Cleveland

Basketball Insiders

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The media seems to think LeBron is as good as gone this offseason, but Joel Brigham and Spencer Davies discuss why that may not be the case. That, and conversation about whether NCAA or Euroleague success is more valuable in evaluating draft talent.

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