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NBA AM: Good Problems? Deciphering Utah’s Depth

The Jazz’s depth is posing big lineup questions even as they rack up wins, writes Ben Dowsett.

Ben Dowsett

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Midway through the third season of the best television show in history, one of the best television villains in history is contemplating a brighter future for himself.

Drug dealer Marlo Stanfield is winning his turf war with rival Avon Barksdale, and preparing for a reality where he might hold more territory and wear the proverbial “crown” of Baltimore hustlers. When an advisor points out that this also means he’ll be faced with more responsibility and pressure, plus rivals gunning for him, Stanfield’s response is among the more iconic lines in the show (warning: video NSFW).

“Sounds like one of them good problems.”

A “good problem” seems a bit like an oxymoron, but Marlo’s point was clear: A brighter future might present a few extra challenges, but they’re well worth the trouble.

And as watchers of The Wire will know, Stanfield did, in fact, hold it down once he took the crown, in some manner of speaking. He wore it longer than anyone else on the show, and was one of the only major characters in his line of work still living when the final credits rolled (plus, as we’re led to assume, he had a pretty nice chunk of change in his pocket for his efforts). A good problem, indeed.

Take away the drugs, the gangster rep, the cold-hearted murders and maybe a few other silly details: Marlo Stanfield and his good problems feel something akin to this season’s Utah Jazz.

Bear with me here.

From the moment the 2016-17 season began, Jazz fans everywhere had at least one eye toward a quickly approaching brighter future. Maybe they weren’t in line for a crown, per se, but only a few nagging injuries stood between them and the realization of a contender several years in the making.

And then a few more nagging injuries pushed the timetable back a little. And then a few more. The Jazz were winning games and staking themselves to a likely playoff spot the entire time, but it was hard to escape the feeling that their real rise lay ahead. With the full clip in tow, so to speak.

Fast forward a month, and it seems like the Jazz may have a few good problems on their hands – but potential problems nonetheless.

They’re still dealing with that same array of now-standard issues, with starters Derrick Favors and Rodney Hood both once again sidelined this week. But with those injuries hopefully minor and the rest of the team finally on the floor together, an interesting question is on the table in Utah: Is there such thing as too much depth?

When everyone is healthy, there’s an argument the Jazz employ 14 NBA rotation-quality players. Some of these are borderline, but look at the track records: Shelvin Mack started 27 games last season (the Jazz went basically .500 in those against a tough Western schedule); Raul Neto started 53 of his own in the same season, at an above-.500 clip; Jeff Withey played nearly 700 minutes, including 10 starts while Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors suffered overlapping injuries in early 2016; Dante Exum started his entire rookie season for one of the biggest surprise young teams in the league.

With some offseason additions and actual health, though, these guys are often relegated to DNP status. George Hill has stepped into the spot Mack and Exum may have otherwise battled for, and Alec Burks’ return to the lineup after missing nearly all of last season has given coach Quin Snyder the option to play neither of them (or Neto) behind Hill – an option he’s taken the last few weeks. Favors has mostly taken Withey’s backup center role when healthy as Snyder staggers his minutes with Gobert’s and works in guys like Boris Diaw and Trey Lyles.

“You just look at numerically – I think there’s only one lineup that’s played more than 100 minutes together all year,” Snyder said.

He’s right. Only the team’s ostensible starting lineup, a Hill-Hood-Hayward-Favors-Gobert length-fest that’s still somehow been a significant net minus on the year, has crossed the three-figure barrier. There are 75 such lineups in a 30-team league, and the Jazz barely even have one of them.

The NBA isn’t a video game, and player chemistry matters a lot; at the same time, having better players to fill the roles needed on the court is a decided positive. Suddenly, continuity – especially vital in a Snyder system that prioritizes cohesive movement and attention to detail – is beginning to emerge as a real challenge for the Jazz, even with more talent on the floor. Good problems, anyone?

“You’re not going to have some of the instinctive stuff that players have when they’ve played together a lot,” Snyder said. “You have that with individual guys, with combinations. But as you work new people in, that has to develop. It’s not a question of chemistry as much as it is repetition. It’s a good thing that we’re going through this.”

In the long term, there’s no doubt he’s right. The resilience through injury made them stronger, and the ability to keep winning while working major guys back in will do the same. In the present, though, it’s created two interesting rotational quandaries to consider.

Backup Point Guard

As if this one wasn’t already complicated enough with three guys behind Hill on the depth chart, each of whom started games for this team in the last 18 months, Hill’s own various injuries thrust both Mack and Exum into the starting lineup for periods at a time. Both have been relatively all over the place this season, and Snyder has appeared reluctant to use Neto as more than a change of pace.

More recently, with Burks back on the court and returned to a more impressive form than many might have assumed right away, none of the traditional backup guys are getting any run. Burks replaces Hill late in the first and third quarters, and functions as the de facto point guard with bench units.

“When we have that lineup, particularly if it’s Joe Ingles and Alec too, they’re sharing the ball-handling a little bit on some level,” Snyder said. The real emphasis is on the other end, where the Jazz’s backups have badly struggled containing quicker guards this year. “I think [Alec’s] athleticism allows him to be impactful [defending] the ball. His size. It allows us to switch certain matchups.”

It’s a smaller sample, but the Jazz are clearly succeeding in these minutes so far. It seems tough to question that Burks is the best available option currently.

Hanging over all this, though, is Exum’s future. The young Aussie’s absent campaign last year due to an ACL injury is looking more and more damning every day. Instead of entering his second NBA season holding the keys at the point for a franchise still in development mode, he’s in a logjam for backup minutes for a team that wants to win right now.

He’s clearly doing it on a different grading scale than other Jazz youth, too. When a guy like Lyles or Hood makes a glaring schematic mistake (they happen all the time, probably about as often as Exum in Lyles’ case), they may get a talking-to or even a yelling-at. When Exum makes the same mistake, he sits on the bench – often for the rest of the game, and sometimes for games at a time. His confidence is visibly shaken, to the point where it’s become common practice in Jazz media circles to watch for Exum looking back over his shoulder for the incoming sub every time he does something noticeably wrong.

Look, it’s no one but Snyder’s place to address his handling of Exum, something local media has already run him through his paces on. His developmental track record at multiple levels of basketball is beyond even a hint of reproach, and the very real possibility that Exum simply isn’t as good as his draft slot suggests, and might never be, looms over all of this. Snyder’s mandate is different this year, and as sad as it is, Exum’s devastating injury last season isn’t Quin’s fault.

Still, it’s likely the most interesting future subplot in a series of rotational complexities that mostly affect the present. Exum becomes eligible for a rookie extension following this season, and a completely justifiable emphasis on winning games right now is making it more and more likely the Jazz still have very little clue if he’s worth a future investment by the time July rolls around. It’s one of Utah’s current good problems that could turn iffy in a hurry.

Power Forward

Favors hasn’t been completely right all season, and his struggles with nagging injuries and form over the last year and change are at least a little concerning. What’s resulted is a bit of a revolving door at the four spot, with Favors typically starting each half alongside Gobert and then mostly functioning as the backup center after the first set of subs.

Diaw and Lyles both get their turns alongside Gobert each game. While it’s surely due at least in part to Favors’ nagging issues and some noise, both these combos have been better on a per-possession basis than Utah’s presumed starting frontcourt, by over double in Diaw’s case. There have been chunks of time where the Favors-Gobert combo looks too cramped to get buckets against focused defenses, and though their season-long figures are hovering near respectable together, Snyder has been totally unwilling to play them down the stretch in most close games.

Thing is, his best choice between these three options might be…none of them.

The Jazz have played 253 minutes of small ball with Gobert on the floor and no other traditional big men, per nbawowy.com. They’ve scored at a rate just a hair short of the Warriors during these stretches. In the 212 of those minutes where Joe Johnson has been the small four, both Utah’s offense and defense have been better than the league leaders in both categories on the year (again, the Warriors in both cases).

The numbers feel tough to match with the eye test for each of Snyder’s three traditional alignments. Each unit has strong and weak stretches, skewing toward the former, and each seems to have its vulnerabilities. With these small lineups, though, there’s no visible confusion alongside gaudy numbers: Utah is really potent, and there’s a good chance they aren’t sacrificing much defensively against a lot of teams.

There are fewer and fewer true brutes at the four in the NBA these days, and the few who play big minutes are usually giving up more on the other end to guys like Hayward and Johnson. If tweeners want to post those guys up, the Jazz will gladly take most of those looks. Meanwhile, Utah can switch all over the court around Gobert, now spreading his near-literal wings as the league’s most fearsome interior defender.

And if their defensive integrity continues to hold in these small groups, there’s little doubt these are the Jazz’s best looks. This is Gobert’s purest form offensively, a hyperactive screen-setter using his rim runs to vacuum up space for the four above-average three-point shooters dotting the perimeter.

All four can usually run some pick-and-roll, too, and the Jazz can pick on weak defenders regardless of where the opponent hides them – something Snyder can look to more often in a matchup-driven playoff series.

Snyder has noticed how good they are small, and there are times where it feels like he’s resisting the urge to lean on these lineups more at the expense of his three traditional power forwards. And can you blame him? Those guys are each legitimately good!

It’s evident he sees the writing, though: Over half these small minutes come in the fourth quarter, and many have been in high-leverage crunch time moments. As the games get bigger, you wonder how much more he’ll be willing to expand their role. If they’re healthy come playoff time and the roster stays intact, the Jazz have at least five guys they can cycle through the four perimeter spots – six or seven if Snyder can trust Exum or Mack for minutes here or there.

Once again, there are some future ramifications here for these good problems.

Favors is at the center; he hasn’t had the same success minus Gobert, with those lineups mostly treading water even against a lot of bench-heavy units. Untangling his diminished play from his health issues is priority one for the Jazz, but if the answer isn’t encouraging, the clock is ticking.

Lyles is still inconsistent, but he looms as a more mobile, rangy option who provides a cleaner theoretical offensive fit alongside Gobert. Next year will be Favors’ last at his bargain contract before he gets very expensive; his value in a hypothetical trade gets lower every day until then, and even as it feels painfully early to say it, these are the kinds of things Dennis Lindsey and Utah’s front office have to consider.

Maybe this is an overreaction to what are still cloudy data samples, even if the eye test seems to back them up. Lyles is still a long way away in several areas; he’ll cover up a lot of them if he ever hits enough open threes to change the way defenses play him, but he’s taken a big step back there this year. Diaw has stretches where he’s fantastic, and fewer others where he looks his age. It’s possible that balance changes as the year wears on and legs get heavier.

If Favors’ negative indicators are all health-related and turn around soon, there are plenty of ways this works moving forward. Diaw is on a non-guaranteed deal next year, and Snyder’s willingness to use Favors as a center against benches opens up more minutes for more spaced out options around him and Gobert.

The Jazz sit fourth in the West as of this writing; it’s a bit strange to see a team with that much success despite still ironing out so many kinks in the details.

“We’re still finding out about our team,” Snyder said. “It’s a little more discovery. We know our guys – and then you have to continue to see how they play and fit together.”

These have been good problems so far, but even some good problems might need solutions. The next few months will be telling for one of the league’s deepest and most complicated teams.

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 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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