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NBA AM: The Millsap-Jokic Partnership Is A Work In Progress

Nikola Jokic and new addition Paul Millsap are still working out some of the kinks in their new partnership.

Buddy Grizzard

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If things look a bit disheveled around the Pepsi Center in Denver, please pardon their progress as construction of a new frontcourt featuring four-time All-Star Paul Millsap is underway. The partnership of Millsap and Nuggets franchise player Nikola Jokic got off to a fast start this summer when Jokic decided to forgo playing in EuroBasket with the Serbian national team to focus on the upcoming NBA season. That level of commitment didn’t go unnoticed by Millsap.

“For me, it’s a great thing he did,” said Millsap after a win in his return to Atlanta last Friday. “He’s so focused. I got in the gym this summer a month before [training camp] and he was in there working. He worked his butt off this summer to get in great shape and it shows. He’s on the court, he’s making plays and he’s scoring the basketball. You can’t say enough about his work ethic and how hard he works.”

Millsap had perhaps his best game as a Nugget (20 points, three rebounds, four assists, plus-29) in Thursday’s 129-111 win over the visiting Raptors that elevated Denver to 4-4. Millsap gave an exclusive interview to Basketball Insiders senior writer Michael Scotto earlier this week and admitted that his incorporation into Denver’s attack remains a work in progress.

“It’s going pretty slow but I think overall we like the way we’re going,” said Millsap. “[It was a] short preseason so we didn’t have a lot of time. With practice and recovery, it’s kind of hard to cram everything in.”

Jokic was one basket shy of a triple-double against the Raptors with eight points, 16 rebounds, and 10 assists.

“It’s obvious that his passing ability can help get easy baskets and help our team,” said Millsap. “We’re still learning each other, still trying to feed off each other.”

Basketball Insiders predicted that Millsap would see an uptick in quality and quantity of post-up attempts now that he’s playing with a passing center instead of the lane-clogging Dwight Howard. That hasn’t materialized so far as both Jokic and Millsap are in the bottom quarter of the league in scoring efficiency on about 20 post-up attempts each.

Meanwhile, the pick and roll hasn’t been a major weapon either. Jokic is scoring in the 51st percentile with 1.02 points per possession as a roll man (40 possessions) and Millsap the 24th percentile with .81 in 16 possessions. It’s too early to make much of these small samples, but these are certainly opportunities for improvement by Denver’s burgeoning frontcourt partnership.

Denver coach Michael Malone said he was glad to see Millsap get off to a strong start against Toronto with a pair of early three-pointers after struggling with his shot in the early season.

“I knew Paul was going to be aggressive coming off of a 2-for-13 game in New York,” said Malone. “I know he was disappointed in his performance in the Garden. Obviously, for him to get hot like that from the three-point line, draw two four-point plays, it was great to see. When he brings that element to the game, obviously we’re a pretty high-powered offense when we’ve got all our guys clicking.”

However, generating offense hasn’t really been the problem for Denver. The Nuggets are currently seventh in offensive rating, generating 106.3 points per 100 possessions. On the other side of the ball, Denver is allowing 105.8 per 100, which ranks an anemic 22nd. And the issue seems to be concentrated in the second unit. Denver’s five individual leaders in defensive rating are all five starters. Opposing teams are scoring 102.1 per 100 with Jokic on the floor, the worst defensive rating among the starters. But there’s a huge drop-off among bench players, where Will Barton and Mason Plumlee share a 111.2 defensive rating, best among Nuggets reserves with at least 100 minutes.

Richard Jefferson, another new addition to Denver’s frontcourt, said after the Toronto game that embracing Millsap’s leadership will be another element of the Nuggets’ construction project.

“I think he’s still finding his way, still trying to get more and more comfortable,” said Jefferson. “But he’s one of the best players in basketball. He’s one of the best power forwards in the game — four-time All-Star. He’s led teams to multiple playoff appearances. So, he’s a guy that I think our young guys need to look to and rely on a little bit more when things get tough.”

While Millsap was a respected leader on and off the court in four seasons in Atlanta, he told Scotto that he’s taking a measured approach to asserting himself in that area as a Nugget.

“I think it’s imperative that I help these guys in that aspect but also not beat them up to death with it,” said Millsap. “You’ve got to pick your spots when you’re doing it because they are young. If you hear too much of my voice you might drown it out, so I’m picking my spots. It’s still a learning process and they’re willing learners.”

Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will be Denver’s revamped frontcourt as Millsap and Jokic learn to play together and the entire team learns how to get the most from Millsap. It may be messy at times, but the Nuggets are committed to the work of building something special.

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

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NBA Daily: Can the Milwaukee Bucks be Real Contenders?

Do the Bucks now have the talent and coaching to legitimately contend for this year’s championship?

Shane Rhodes

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The Milwaukee Bucks weren’t very good in 2017.

While they had one of the best players in the world, Giannis Antetokounmpo, on the court at almost all times, they struggled to win games under then Head Coach Jason Kidd. While things improved with the transition to Joel Prunty, Milwaukee and its underperforming roster ultimately fell to the Boston Celtics, sans their two best players, in the first round of the postseason.

But with Mike Budenholzer, one-time Coach of the Year award winner and former head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, in the fold along with some new personnel, are the Bucks good enough to challenge the top teams in the NBA?

If their 2018 debut is anything to go by, the NBA needs to be on alert.

On the road against the Charlotte Hornets, Milwaukee looked completely dominant at times with the Greek Freak leading the charge in a 113-112 win. Antetokounmpo was his usual dominant self and finished the game with 25 points, 18 rebounds and eight assists.

The most important take away from their season debut, however, has nothing to do with Antetokounmpo. It’s the fact that he got a sizeable amount of help from his supporting cast.

The Bucks often looked like a one-man show last season, with Antetokounmpo doing his thing while the rest of the team failed to pull their collective weight. They often looked slow and were worse than average, defensively; Milwaukee was just 20th in pace-of-play and 18th in defensive rating last season. And, amidst the NBA’s three-point revolution, the Bucks ranked just 25th in three-point attempts and 22nd in three-point percentage.

In a nutshell, the Bucks system wasn’t an ideal workspace for its star player. Antetokounmpo, who isn’t a great long-range shooter himself, needs all the spacing he can get in order to be the best version of himself. And that is why the 2018 version of the Bucks could be so dangerous.

Going back to the 2013-14 regular season, Budenholzer’s first as the Hawks head coach, here is how Atlanta ranked compared to the rest of the league in three-point attempts: 2nd, 7th, 7th, 16th, 7th. Budenholzer has instilled that same three-point happy offensive system in Milwaukee. Not only have they played faster, but they are shooting more; the Bucks attempted 34 shots from beyond the arc, 10 more than they averaged per game last season.

More importantly, the Bucks have the players to take advantage of that system and clear the interior as much as possible for the multipositional and uber-athletic Antetokounmpo.

Khris Middleton, the often underrated two-way wing, is a career 39.2 percent three-point shooter. Eric Bledsoe, who struggled at times last season, has been solid from behind the arc for his career as well. Free agent additions Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova, two big men who have steered into the three-point evolution of the NBA, have both shot 34 percent or better from three-point range over the last two seasons. Even rookie Donte DiVincenzo, who went two-for-four from three-point range against Charlotte, was a long distance specialist at Villanova and shot 37.8 percent from three during his three years with the school. The roster is loaded with more shooters than ever and they are being put in a position to shoot the long-ball, thanks to the gravity that Antetokounmpo has on the floor and Budenholzer’s system.

Now, as with almost everything, there could be some complications.

While shooting more shots per game could equate to more makes and, therefore, more points, it could, by the same logic, yield more missed shots as well. The Bucks aren’t a strong defensive team, nor have they been for the last four seasons or so, and those extra possessions for the opposition could kill the Bucks in the final stretch of games. Likewise, playing quickly can lead to more turnovers, creating further opportunities for opponents and hurting Milwaukee even further.

But, for now, the benefits seem to outeight the risks, and Antetokounmpo can cover up a lot of mistakes with the talent he possesses.

One game may seem like a small sample size to go on, but, if the Bucks can limit their offensive mishaps and defensive blunders, they have the chance to be a legitimate threat to win the Eastern Conference crown and, perhaps, the NBA title.

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NBA Daily: Kings Starters Show Promise Despite Loss

The end result may be the same as it has been every season in the past decade, but the Sacramento Kings have something brewing for the first time in a long time.

Spencer Davies

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The end result may be the same as it has been every season in the past decade, but the Sacramento Kings have something brewing for the first time in a long time.

Yes, a 25-9 lead was squandered and the game was lost to the Utah Jazz. Marvin Bagley III confusingly played fewer minutes than 14 of his fellow rookies in his NBA debut. They also forced more miscues than they committed, yet were still outscored 24-13 in points off of turnovers.

All of that makes it seem like Wednesday was the start to a long, frustrating season for the Kings, but don’t be so quick to judge. There was a ton of good to come out of the team’s season opener at the Golden 1 Center.

First off, what a night for Willie Cauley-Stein it was. He had the unenviable task of going head-to-head with Rudy Gobert, the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, to begin the fourth season of his career. We know that the 25-year-old isn’t necessarily a go-to scoring option, however, you wouldn’t have figured that to be the case if you watched the game.

Finishing with the third-most attempts for Sacramento, Cauley-Stein wasted no time and went right at Gobert when he touched the ball. Not once did he hesitate to put it on the floor, showing an improved, tighter handle on drives to the basket. Likely coming from film study, the 7-foot, 240-pound center excelled at using his body to get his shots up and over the “Stifle Tower” with great timing.

Cauley-Stein was determined to attack the paint all game long and showed no fear. He scored 19 of his 23 points with Gobert on the floor, including a thunderous alley-oop slam over the Frenchman following a screen-and-roll. To put the significance of this in perspective, his eight field goal makes are more than he’s had in each of the previous three seasons with Utah’s big man on the floor.

The Kings’ starters, in general, were especially solid, as all five players scored in double figures and had their squad’s best plus-minus ratings.

De’Aaron Fox swiped three steals, showed his playmaking skills and shared the love with his teammates, recording seven assists in addition to his 21 points. A candidate for a breakout year, Buddy Hield looked like the most comfortable player on the floor despite some lazy passes early, knocking down his signature off the dribble, mid-range fadeaways with ease.

Nemanja Bjelica used the threat of his outside shot to make his way to the basket for better looks and poured in 18 points. Starting at the wing, Yogi Ferrell held his own defensively against Donovan Mitchell and added a couple of threes to the mix as well.

Sacramento gave a double-digit led game away, but the players never gave in. During the fourth quarter, they got stops but just couldn’t seem to take advantage on the other side. It was the recurring theme of the night. The chances were there in transition. Now, they’ve got to work on completing those sequences and turning them into points.

Kings head coach Dave Joerger played essentially a nine-man rotation and got little out of his bench players. Justin Jackson struggled at the four spot and carved out 30 minutes of playing time in spite of it. Other than that, though, everybody in the second unit was on the floor for less than 17 minutes. It’s likely because of how well the starters performed, but they’ll need more out of those guys eventually.

There’s already a topic of discussion on the front of development vs. wins in Sacramento. Joerger’s addressed the matter with Bagley after the game and said it’s going to be hard to allocate minutes for a roster heavy with big men.

The counter-argument to that is simple—he’s the second overall pick of the draft. You have to find time for him, period. There should be no excuse not to regardless of who’s on the team. Don’t forget about Bagley being so talented that he re-classified to play with an age group above his own and still dominated as the ACC Player of the Year at Duke. He was a true freshman!

Aside from that whole debate, the Kings did not roll over and quit when they blew a 16-point lead and trailed by 14 soon after. In a game of runs, their young group hung in there and battled until the clock hit zero. Keep in mind this is a ballclub short of last year’s starting shooting guard still, too.

There may not be a whole lot of winning to come by in Sacramento—what with competing in the Pacific Division and Western Conference—but the season could be easier on the eyes if this is the type of effort they’re going to give on a nightly basis. Of course, we’ve got to be careful here since it’s only one game.

Even so, consider this writer in on “Kings SZN.”

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NBA Daily: Offseason Acquisitions Making An Early Impact

Basketball Insiders takes a look at five players on new teams who had a big impact in their respective season openers.

Drew Maresca

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Starting a new job is hard: new co-workers, new processes, new expectations, etc. Most of us have done it, and we can attest that it’s challenging on both a personal and professional level. It’s no different in the NBA. Sure, there is greater familiarity amongst players than for, say, a software engineer jumping from Facebook to Google, but the stakes are also higher. Most people are cut some slack initially due to a lack of familiarity, but not in the NBA. Players are expected to hit the ground running, and are judged harshly for getting off to slow starts. 

Even still, some players are simply so skilled that their impact is immediately obvious. With that being said, let’s analyze the top five debuts of players who changed teams this past offseason. 

  1. Kawhi Leonard — His post-game comments may have been understated Wednesday night, but his on-court performance was not. Leonard received an incredible amount of support from the Raptors crowd, and he did not disappoint. He posted 24 points and 12 rebounds and was +13 for the game. His offensive arsenal was on full display; he demonstrated his athleticism on dunks, his shooting prowess and range and his willingness to do some dirty work on the glass. No surprises here, but it is encouraging that he came back from the quad injury and looked mostly unchanged. Bonus points to Kyle Lowry for going the extra mile to get Leonard the ball (e.g., passing on an easy transition layup to feed Leonard). 
  1. DeMar DeRozan — While Kawhi did his normal thing, DeRozan may have had his foot on the gas a bit more — or maybe his performance was more a result of greater necessity. Either way, DeRozan delivered. He scored 28 points on 7 for 11 shooting, with four rebounds and four assists in 38 minutes. Similar to Leonard, no one should be surprised by DeRozan’s debut, especially given how upset he was initially with the trade. It’s even less surprising when you consider that he transitioned to playing for Coach Gregg Popovich, whose system is tried and true. If he keeps this up and all goes well for San Antonio, it could re-ignite questions about the Leonard-Popovich-Spurs snafu that resulted in the trade in the first place. 
  1. New New Orleans Pelicans (Julius Rande and Elfrid Payton – tie) — While Anthony Davis continues to be the main story line for the Pelicans, both free agents signings made their mark in the team’s season opener. Payton did so by posting a triple double in his first outing, demonstrating the versatility and promise that led the Pelicans to sign him in the first place; he notched 10 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds in route to an impressive +23. Randle’s performance was probably a bit flashier, but maybe less impactful on the whole. Nevertheless, Randle proved his worth in his first game with the team, finishing with an impressive 25 points on an efficient 9 for 15. He also chipped in eight rebounds and showed his versatility, leading fast breaks and dishing three assists. Concerns over the Pelicans may have been a bit overblown — but that might have more to do with Davis’ impact than the supporting cast. Time will tell.
  1. Brook Lopez — How did the perception of a former top-tier center slip so far so quickly? Just 17 months ago, Lopez was wrapping up another typical Brook Lopez-esque season: 20.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.7 blocks per game. Sure, the league has passed by centers who can’t extend the defense and switch onto guards in the pick and roll, but Lopez introduced an effective three-point shot in 2016-17, shooting .34.6 percent from deep. And yet, one year on the Lakers bench was all it took for the league to begin to overlook and/or underrate Lopez. That was a mistake. Lopez seems to be the same player he’s always been. He’s no longer a go-to option, so his scoring will likely be down from his 17.8 points per game career average; but he will contribute on offense and block some shots on defense. In his first game with the Bucks — with whom he signed for the bargain salary of $3.4 million — he scored 14 points and grabbed three rebounds in 21 minutes of action. Lopez should continue to aid the already talented Bucks. Can he push them deeper into the playoff? If he does, he would likely secure himself one more pay day.
  2. Dennis Shroder — Shroder’s performance may have been inflated by the absence of Russell Westbrook. Correction — Shroder’s performance was definitely inflated by the absence of Westbook. But he demonstrated his value all the same. Oddly, the Hawks decided they wanted to part ways with the 25 year old point guard. Their loss. He notched 21 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out six assists in 34 minutes of action. And it will get easier for him considering the Thunder opened against Steph Curry and the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Shroder gives the Thunder a third playmaker — exactly what they were lacking in last year’s playoffs against the Jazz, and exactly what they hoped Melo could be.

One thing all the guys on this list have in common (beyond being above average players) is their willingness to take on a challenge. Nothing in sports — or life — is guaranteed. But we will have a clearer picture if their respective changes of scenery were made for better or worse. If they were done successfully, they can shift the balance of power in the league, and rework the competitive balance to a pretty crazy extent.

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