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Fixing the Los Angeles Lakers

With a developing core, the Lakers’ new front office willl have tough choices to make, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Lakers are a team and franchise in flux. The Lakers have gone through six head coaches since the 2010-11 season and have won 85 regular season games over the last four seasons combined. Los Angeles finally said farewell to Kobe Bryant at the end of last season, which officially launched a new era of Lakers basketball.

The Lakers have been accumulating young talent over the last few seasons, and now have a promising head coach in Luke Walton to guide the team forward. They have made some mistakes along the way (e.g., the contracts of Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov) and they recently went through a significant shakeup in the front office, which has serious long-term implications. As things currently stand, the Lakers have an opportunity to take significant steps forward as a franchise. However, there is the potential to make some costly mistakes.

Executing the following four principles could help push the Lakers forward as they seek to reclaim their former glory.

Be Honest About the Core Young Players

The Lakers have several young players still playing on their rookie contracts, including guard D’Angelo Russell as well as forwards Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. Additionally, Jordan Clarkson has three years remaining on his deal at a decent annual salary. Each player has shown varying degrees of promise and appears capable of being a valuable piece to a developing core of talent. However, none of these players have proven themselves to be unquestionable franchise players worthy of max-level contracts. Eventually, each of these young players will be positioned to earn a significant, long-term contract. When that time comes for each player, the Lakers need to be extremely calculated and shrewd, rather than being overly eager to hand out massive contracts to keep their players around.

With this in mind, the Lakers need to continue to evaluate which of these players are franchise cornerstones, and which are simply quality players that do not warrant a max-level commitment.

Walton has seemingly already started this process by benching veteran players like Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng in favor of his young players. In addition, at the trade deadline, the Lakers traded away Lou Williams to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Corey Brewer and a 2017 first-round draft pick. The Lakers need to continue monitoring and executing on moves like these. Moving veterans like Williams generates additional future assets and opens up playing time for younger players to show what they can do, which must be the priority for Los Angeles over the next few seasons.

Clarkson is one of the more interesting talents for Los Angeles. He’s not a true point, is undersized for a wing player and has been disappointing as a defender. However, Clarkson has flashed the sort of skill and explosiveness that grabs the attention of each NBA team. The issue is, at this point, it’s not clear if Clarkson is a player worth making another significant investment in or just a promising, but limited contributor on the wing. This is a question the Lakers’ front office needs to determine before his current contract is set to expire.

Answering this question isn’t particularly easy. For example, on March 12, Clarkson contributed a career-high 30 points, eight assists, six rebounds to go along with 10-11 shooting from the free throw line. This is the kind of performance that leads many to believe that Clarkson could develop into one of the better guards in the NBA. However, at 6-foot-5, Clarkson is undersized as a wing-defender and hasn’t displayed the fundamentals or discipline to make up for this limitations. The result is that more often than not, Clarkson is a liability on defense, which is reflected in his on/off court numbers this season – he has the third-worst defensive rating on the team, per Basketball Reference. Despite his offensive talents, his poor has made him mostly a net negative for the Lakers.

The Lakers have seen flashes of brilliance from Russell, who has both wowed and frustrated fans in his short NBA career. At times, he displays the vision of a player like Chris Paul, and at other times he proves himself to be an underwhelming athlete who is often overmatched by opposing point guards.

So is Russell the point guard of the future? He may be, but it’s notable that Coach Walton has played started Clarkson at point guard recently. Walton offered an explanation for this move.

“Just to see what it looks like when he’s out there running the point guard position against starting groups and what not,” Walton explained. “Part of our evaluation is always seeing how players respond to different opportunities.”

It’s likely too early to tell just how good Russell could be. Russell struggled last season under ex-head coach Byron Scott, who seemingly prioritized trying to make the playoffs and celebrating Kobe’s final season over player development. In just his second season, Russell is showing that he has the tools to be worthy of a significant, long-term investment from the Lakers. But Russell has also been maddeningly inconsistent at various points and has displayed maturity issues, so the Lakers need to continue monitoring his development closely.

Julius Randle has teased with high impact games throughout his young NBA career, including a 25-point, 12-rebound effort against the Utah Jazz on December 27. In addition, Randle has upped his shooting from 42.9 percent last year to 48 percent this year. Notably, Randle is shooting 74.8 percent of his shots from 0-10 feet, per Basketball Reference.

While his shooting percentages have gone up overall, his shooting primarily takes place close to the basket. In the current era, where big men are increasingly expected to stretch the floor with their shooting, it’s imperative that Randle be able to expand his range. He is currently shooting 25 percent on three-pointers, down from 27.8 percent last year, on 0.6 attempts per game. In his third year on the Lakers, three-point shooting, unfortunately, remains outside of Randle’s arsenal. While Randle can put up strong statistics on any given night, the question remains if he has the overall skill set to be a premier player worthy of a significant investment.

Larry Nance Jr. has suffered multiple injuries throughout his young career. So far Nance has missed significant time both in his rookie season and this year specifically because of knee injuries. Nance has played well at times, and even started 22 games for the Lakers last season. However, in 49 games this season, Coach Walton has yet to insert Nance into the starting lineup. So far, Nance hasn’t made a significant statistical leap and it’s still unclear just where his ceiling may be.

Gifted with notable athleticism, Nance has the potential to be a nice contributor moving forward. But the Lakers need to remain grounded in how they evaluate him and refrain from giving him an inflated contract that exceeds his relative on-court impact and future potential.

As for Brandon Ingram, this is just his rookie season and he is barely 20 years old, so it’s much too early to make any sweeping determinations about what kind of player he can ultimately become. It will be up to Coach Walton and his staff to closely monitor and mentor Ingram, to help him develop his body and refine his game. Ingram’s potential is arguably higher than any other Laker, but he has a long way to go before coming close to it.

The Lakers have done a good job putting together a nice core of young talent. However, as these players inch close to their next contracts, it will be imperative for the Lakers’ front office to maintain proper perspective. If a player doesn’t fit or isn’t developing, it may make sense to move them before their respective contract is set to expire – similar to how the Philadelphia 76ers traded Nerlens Noel earlier this season. Committing significant money to players that are unlikely to ever play up to a max-level deal could hamper the Lakers and squander their chance at assembling a roster with the talent and range of experience to return to the top of the Western Conference.

Draft the Best Player Available

No single event would be more helpful than if the Lakers were to get lucky and again keep this year’s protected draft pick. With the league’s second-worst record (they won’t catch the Brooklyn Nets), the Lakers will have a 55.8 percent chance of retaining the pick rather than sending it to the 76ers, who will receive it if it falls outside the top three. Fingers crossed.

In the draft, the Lakers could find a star point guard. Although a point guard may not a constitute a perfect fit for the roster, it’s not clear if any of the Lakers young guards currently represents an untouchable cornerstone. Point guard prospects Markell Fultz of Washington and Lonzo Ball of UCLA are projected as top two picks in the upcoming draft, and each could be a franchise-level talent.

Additionally, the Lakers should take the best talent available and don’t be overly concerned about the fit. For example, in 2003, the Detroit Pistons took European prospect Darko Milicic. Milicic had a decently serviceable career. However, that pick, which was seemingly a nice fit with the Pistons championship core at the time, came at the expense of draft prospect and current New York Knicks star forward Carmelo Anthony.

Too often teams become overly concerned about drafting for need. When a franchise-worthy talent comes your way, the best approach is usually to take that player and figure out roster composition later. Like the 76ers, you can always trade players later to reassemble a roster.

Gamble on Young Talent

By most measures, the Lakers are simply not a good team right now. They have the potential ingredients for success going forward, but the likelihood is they are still a few years away from being a high-level playoff team in the West. Thus, it makes sense for the Lakers to gamble on investing in young talent that may have been overlooked by the rest of the league, rather than investing in over the hill veterans whose respective salaries will likely exceed their production.

This season, the Dallas Mavericks have been rewarded for taking a few chances. Two notable successes include guard Seth Curry and Yogi Ferrell, a mid-season D-League signing. These players have bolstered Dallas’ collection of young talent and are significant contributors to Dallas’ current push for the playoffs. Finding gems like Curry and Ferrell could go a long way towards accelerating the Lakers’ rebuild, especially compared to signing veterans like Deng and Mozgov to massive deals. These sort of inflated deals can hamper a franchise for years and carry little upside.

The Lakers should be willing to pass on these sort of veteran deals, and should allocate their resources towards scouting and acquiring young talents that may have been overlooked. This is especially true since it will help the Lakers avoid taking on long-term salary and it will bolster their collection of young talent.

Create and Maintain a Unified and Stable Front Office

The Lakers already have many of the essential ingredients to be successful going forward. The team has a smart head coach who gets along with his players, a number of good, young players and now, a seemingly unified front office after the franchise instilled Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka as the president of basketball operations and general manager, respectively.

This transition marks the end of a tumultuous period for the Lakers’ front office, which has struggled to work cohesively together since the passing of Jerry Buss.

One illustration of this dysfunction came out in a recent report. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne recently reported that ex-Coach Bryon Scott and Lakers’ part owner and President Jeanie Buss never spoke.

“I never talked to Jeanie. It just felt like it’d be a betrayal of Mitch [Kupchak] and Jim [Buss],” Scott stated.

It’s clear that the Lakers’ front office has been fractured for years, and has harmed the team as a result. Whether it was Jim Buss hiring Mike D’Antoni while passing on Phil Jackson, or Buss and Kupchak putting on notoriously ineffective free agent pitches, there was always something negative happening in the Lakers’ front office.

As a former high-profile agent, Pelinka expressed recently the importance of unity.

“The one thing I’ve seen with the great organizations that have had success recently [is] that the coach, general manager, the president, the basketball operations folks have to be in lockstep and have to be collaborating and sharing,” Pelinka stated.

This change in personnel and unity in upper management could help make it clear that the Lakers have a clear direction going forward and together can create a winning culture. This perception could aid in attracting marquee free agents. One of the Lakers’ most recent high-profile targets, prior All Star LaMarcus Aldridge, cited a misguided pitch as a primary reason for passing on Los Angeles. Lakers former head coach Bryon Scott explained.

“I think we looked at it more as a business presentation. It wasn’t basketball, and that’s probably where we made our mistake,” Scott said.

With a new approach, the Lakers can potentially leverage Johnson’s legendary status and Pelinka’s relationships with players across the league to give the Lakers a better chance to put together well-rounded roster that features a few star players. However, it will be up to Johnson and Pelinka to be very selective in chasing these star players, and to do so when it makes sense for the franchise. The Lakers have seemingly suffered from a constant desire to bring stars to the team, which hasn’t worked out so well in recent years. This new regime needs to keep the long-term outlook in mind and follow a plan that is reasonably calculated to create a roster that is capable of contending both in the short and long-term.

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.

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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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