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NBA Daily: Fixing the Denver Nuggets

Following a surprisingly successful postseason run, the Nuggets are off to a relatively slow start. Drew Maresca examines what’s going on in Denver in the latest edition of Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series.

Drew Maresca

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The Denver Nuggets have been on the rise for a while, but it all came together for them last season. If they weren’t already on your radar, a postseason that included two come-from-behind series wins should guarantee that they are now.

The Nuggets finished the 2019-20 season with a record of 46-27 and advanced to the Western Conference Finals where they lost to the eventual NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. Along the way, Nikola Jokic proved that he’s one of the best players in the league, while they also received a significant boost from the rising star Jamal Murray, who scored 30 or more points in six of the team’s 19 postseasons games. Michael Porter Jr. also proved his back is just fine after a serious pre-draft injury and that he’s a real threat in the NBA. So what’s there to fix?

Well, the Nuggets are off to an uninspiring start. They are currently 6-6, good for just seventh in the Western Conference. While they’re supremely talented, they must get back on track – otherwise, the team could be in for a long 2020-21 offseason.

What’s Working

Denver’s offense is still effective. Entering play last night, they were scoring 116.5 points per game, good for fifth in the NBA. They draw a lot of fouls, too – 22.3 per game to be exact – which is tied for first in the entire league. So, that’s a start.

Jokic, meanwhile, is still Jokic. He’s playing better than ever and has legitimately entered the MVP conversation. As of last night, he was averaging a triple-double with 24.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and 10.5 assists per game. He’s also shooting an insane 41.2% on three-point attempts and 82.1% from the charity stripe.

Porter Jr., who has missed the last seven games with a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, began the season on a tear. He showed flashes last season, but he’s done it with consistency so far this season. Porter Jr. is averaging 19.5 points on 42.3% shooting from deep – and he was really hooping in his last game, scoring 30 points on 12-for-18 shooting with 10 rebounds.

JaMychal Green is another bright spot that has done a lot to help replace Jerami Grant, who was lost to free agency. He came over from the Los Angeles Clippers as a free agent and he’s fit in very nicely. Green began the season on the bench due to an injury and, in the four games for which he was out, the Nuggets went 1-3 and gave up 120 or more points in three of those four games. Since Denver has surrendered only 109 points per game, which would be good for the 11th fewest in the NBA. He’s also shot the ball incredibly well (52.8% on three-point attempts), while his presence means that the Nuggets won’t have to rely as heavily on 35-year-old Paul Millsap. The hope is, if Green can stay on the court, the defense will continue to even out.

What’s Not Working

A number of things aren’t working right now for Denver. First and foremost, the Nuggets haven’t put forth a complete effort too often. For example, they built up an 18-point lead in the first half against the Brooklyn Nets earlier this week in which they scored 70 points. They went on to only score 46 in the second half and lost the game 122-116.

On a related note, Denver has also failed to close out tight games. Of their six losses, four were within three points or went to overtime.

Then there are the high-level defensive issues. Entering play last night, the Nuggets had the sixth-worst defensive rating in the league and were allowing opponents to shoot 39% on three-point attempts – also good for sixth-worst. Worse, all of that has been done while playing the fourth easiest schedule in the league.

Drilling down to individual player issues, Murray’s struggles haven’t helped. Yes, his numbers are alright, but 19.7 points, 3.8 assists and 2.9 rebounds is a bit underwhelming considering the performance he put on in the bubble last season. His shooting is down slightly, most notably from between 3-10 feet from the basket (36.8%), and he’s struggled a bit from the free-throw line, too (76.3%, down from 88.1%).

What Needs To Change

First of all, the Nuggets need time to acclimate to one another; the team added seven new players this offseason and when you consider the shortened training camp and limited preseason – which was really only one week long – that leaves little time to build synergy. Theoretically, that should improve with time.

Porter Jr.’s defense is another aspect that must change. He is regularly Denver’s soft spot in the defense because he either loses focus or takes defensive shortcuts. The upside, Porter Jr. is still just a sophomore and his defensive should improve with time – he certainly has the requisite skills needed to be a successful defender (e.g., length and athleticism). So let’s give him a little more time before we make any bold claims about him.

Finally, the Nuggets have to find a way to deploy Bol Bol. Bol is averaging just 6 minutes per game. Sure, he’s incredibly lean and might not match up well in the half court with most bigs. Additionally, he’s a bit hesitant to shoot, despite a solid range. But, while the Nuggets are clearly in win-now mode, what contender couldn’t use a 7’2” shooter with a 7’8” wingspan? If they get Bol a bit more burn and he can mature, it would give the Nuggets one of the most unique weapons in the entire league. And, to Denver’s credit, Bol did receive the first two start of his young career in back-to-back games this week — perhaps that change is already underway.

The Nuggets may have started slowly, but all should be well in Denver. The Western Conference is incredibly competitive, but the Nuggets have more talent than most and, assuming finishing the season is realistic given COVID-19’s impact on it already, the Nuggets should be comfortable with where they are, regardless of their early-season record.

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NBA

Has the NBA Passed Andre Drummond By?

Andre Drummond is being held out by the Clevland Cavaliers while they look for a trade, but does anyone want Drummond? And can he help a good team compete for an NBA Championship?

Zach Dupont

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The NBA has seen a revival of the center position over the past few seasons. Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic have become front-runners for MVP, Rudy Gobert is anchoring the defense of the Western Conference-leading Utah Jazz and Anthony Davis co-led the Los Angeles Lakers to last year’s NBA title.

Not among those centers is the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Andre Drummond, who is currently being held out of games while the Cavs look for a trade to move him out of town.

On a surface level, Drummond’s numbers are quite impressive. This year, Drummond is averaging 17.5 points and 13.5 rebounds per game, his rebounds per game mark is even good enough for second in the NBA, trailing just Clint Capela’s 13.9 rebounds per game. It’s not as if these numbers are an outlier for Drummond either; Drummond has averaged at least 15 points and 13 rebounds per game since his 2017-18 season. Drummond has been dominant on the boards his entire career averaging at least 13 rebounds per game every year of his career after his rookie season. Drummond also manages to secure a lot of blocks and steals, averaging more than 1.1 of each per game every season since 2015-16.  

But on deeper inspection, Drummond’s gaudy numbers begin to falter. Despite Drummond putting up more than 17 points per game, he isn’t doing it efficiently enough to justify taking as many shots per game as he currently does. Drummond’s field goal percentage of 47.4 percent isn’t an alarming number, but Drummond has taken 288 of his 380 field goal attempts from within five feet of the rim. Drummond has only taken 21 field goal attempts from more than 10 feet away from the rim all season, per NBA.com.

With this information, it’s no surprise that Drummond has a less than stellar true shooting of 50 percent, well below league average. To make matters worse, Drummond is a player who needs the ball in his hand to put up big scoring numbers. Drummond currently has a usage rate of 30 percent, the 16th highest number in the NBA, higher than players like Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard and Nikola Jokic. Drummond is also one of just two centers in the top 20 in usage percentage in the NBA, the only other center in the top 20 is Joel Embiid. Drummond also provides very little as a playmaker, holding an assist to turnover ratio of .79, averaging 2.6 assists and 3.1 turnovers per game. 

Drummond has been in the NBA for nine seasons now and has only made the playoffs twice, and both were first-round sweeps with the Detroit Pistons. Drummond has never played for a real contender, and a significant reason why is because of his style of play. There isn’t room for a high-usage, low-efficiency center with questionable defensive effort on teams trying to compete for an NBA title. It’s not because of Drummond’s position, it’s because his style of basketball isn’t conducive to productive scoring in the modern NBA.

But all hope is not lost for Drummond; it’s just going to take a rebuild of who he is as a player. Every good NBA team still needs productive big men, but the role these teams are looking for differs from what Drummond has been doing his entire career. These teams need big men to provide sufficient defense and rebounding, specifically in matchups against the NBA’s best bigs come playoff time. That’s what Drummond will have to do to be able to have a shot at a ring. The good news for him is that he possesses the skills to make that happen for himself.

Drummond is still among the NBA’s best in grabbing rebounds, and while that provides limited value on the defensive end, it does have a lot of value on the offensive boards. Drummond is fourth in the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage at 15 percent and fourth in offensive rebounds per game at 4.0. Drummond is also capable of providing a team with rim protection and solid defense from the center position. At 6-foot-11 and 280 lbs. Drummond has the frame that not many have to compete physically against star bigs like Jokic, Embiid and Davis. Drummond has also made the Cavaliers’ defense slightly better when on the court, holding a defensive rating of 113.2 compared to Cleveland’s team rating of 114.4, per NBA.com. Drummond also has no issue collecting blocks and steals, maintaining a steal percentage of 2.7 and a block percentage of 3.7, both respectable marks.   

There aren’t any good NBA teams looking for the player Drummond currently is, but there are plenty looking for the player Drummond is capable of being. The Brooklyn Nets have needed depth at center since trading away Jarrett Allen, and the Clippers could use depth at center behind Ivica Zubac, to name a few. Drummond doesn’t need to be traded to another non-contender and continue to put up empty scoring numbers because if he does that, Drummond’s shot at a ring will continue to fade.  

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NBA Daily: Will We See The Real Andre Drummond?

Now that Andre Drummond is on the verge of switching teams again, Matt John looks into if he could thrive in a lesser role wherever he ends up.

Matt John

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Andre Drummond is available. Repeat. Andre Drummond, the two-time All-Star, four-time rebounding champ, walking double-double and ball-swatter, is available. Not just available. Available for cheap.

Cheap in the sense that you wouldn’t have to give up a whole lot of assets outside of matching salaries to get him. You probably won’t do much better for such a low price. Who wouldn’t want someone who averages 17 points, 13 rebounds, almost three assists, and at least one block and one steal a game for pennies on the dollar?

The only reason why the Cleveland Cavaliers are getting rid of him is that they got the younger, more effective big in Jarrett Allen who fits their timeline like a glove. The Land wasn’t big enough for both Allen and Drummond from the start, so the latter’s exodus seemed unavoidable.

But what will hang over both his and Cleveland’s heads is that when they got him for spare parts last year, which signified what his value truly was to NBA teams. Now, asking for spare parts in return for Andre Drummond might be too optimistic when this situation is done and over with.

There aren’t a whole lot of teams that have $28.75 million in deadweight contracts or trade exceptions for that matter – the one that the Boston Celtics possess from the Gordon Hayward trade is $250,000 (give or take) lower than Drummond’s current salary, and even if they could match, they’d have to get rid of $5+ million to fit him into their team salary. The ones that do aren’t in dire need of someone like Andre Drummond or would probably rather save what they have for someone better.

But any NBA viewer who’s watched Andre Drummond knows the real issue with acquiring him. His numbers can wow you as much as his winning percentage can put you off. But that red flag has been the monkey on Drummond’s back for quite some time now.

OK, so Andre Drummond is never going to be ‘the guy’ on a championship team, or even be included in a vaunted ‘Big 3’ that the NBA has so heavily popularized. That ship has sailed. The question that remains is if he can be an effective player on a winning team in the NBA. The fact remains that Drummond has minimal playoff experience – eight games total – and zero playoff success to his name. But is that on him?

Let’s go back to the most team success Drummond has ever had as a pro. The best team Drummond ever played for record-wise was the 2015-16 Pistons. They went 44-38, snagged the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and were promptly swept by the LeBron-led Cavaliers. Drummond was not all that great in that series, putting up around 17 points, nine rebounds, and nearly two blocks per game to go with almost 52 percent shooting, according to Basketball-Reference.

But for a player whose harshest criticism centers around his stats being empty calories, the Pistons were demonstrably better when Drummond was on the floor. According to NBA.com, Detroit’s offense scored 8.8 more points per 100 possessions and surrendered 11 fewer points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor. The Cavaliers may have taken care of business against Drummond and co., but he was doing his part.

It’s worth mentioning that the Pistons gave the Cavaliers a better fight than your typically-swept eighth seed. The point differential between the two over the four games was 5, 17, 10 and 2. Not bad for a team going up against the soon-to-be-crowned champions in the first round.

But that was the furthest Drummond ever went, all back when he was considered the face of the Pistons. The best players surrounding him at that time were Tobias Harris, Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. All of whom were either previously or are currently reliable supporting cast on good teams, but none of them would ever be considered the main ingredient on a championship team.

Five years later, we’ve known for some time now that Drummond isn’t that guy either. However, what we don’t know is what he would look like if his role was relegated to more of a complementary type. When this saga with Cleveland concludes, that’s probably where he’s headed.

If there’s one thing interested suitors should be excited about with the prospect of bringing in Drummond in a smaller role, it’s that we’ve seen players in similar situations as Drummond thrive in it. Take Andrew Wiggins.

Wiggins came into this league with expectations that, at this point, he’s never going to fulfill. One could argue that the results make him look like a disappointment while another could counter that point by saying that maybe our expectations were a little too high. In any case, that doesn’t matter now because, in Golden State, he’s had a fresh start, and he’s rolled with it.

In his first full season with the Warriors, we’re not seeing Andrew Wiggins as an All-Star. We’re seeing Andrew Wiggins, the efficient and reliable two-way wing.

Just look at the shooting numbers. An effective field goal percentage of 53.6 percent? A true shooting percentage of 55.7 percent? A three-point shooting percentage of almost 37 percent? All career-highs for Wiggins according to Basketball-Reference. The 17.7 points per game are definitely lower than what we’ve seen in the past from Wiggins, but Golden State never asked for him to be their go-to guy for that.

With more energy at his behest, we’ve also seen Wiggins step it up on the defensive side of the ball that… he might actually be making a case for NBA All-Defense?!

Some guys just need to find the right role for them. Andrew Wiggins has seemingly found who he truly is in Golden State. We shouldn’t care anymore if that means he’s never going to be a star. On the flip side, some guys are just meant to be in a starring role. Gordon Hayward flustered Celtics fans with his inconsistency and indecisiveness because being fourth in the pecking order was not what he was used to nor he was brought on to do in the first place. Now we’re seeing a renaissance from Hayward because Charlotte has tasked him with much more responsibility.

We’ve seen Drummond in a starring role, and from what we’ve seen, even though he can put up bedazzling numbers, his team doesn’t benefit much from what he does on the court. But maybe, just maybe, it might be because they expected too much from him much as we all did with Wiggins.

Now, of course, we need to confront the elephant in the room: Wiggins is a wing while Drummond is a big. Those are two very different positions, especially in the modern NBA. There’s no telling if we’re going to see Drummond make the same adjustment. We’ve seen centers – specifically ones that possess similar skillsets as Drummond – have to adapt to lesser roles, and it hasn’t been pretty.

Hassan Whiteside was one of Miami’s go-to guys before Portland acquired him to be Jusuf Nurkic’s temporary replacement. Now, he’s playing spot minutes as Sacramento’s third center on their depth chart. DeAndre Jordan was a vital cog in Lob City before he went to Dallas and was used as salary filler to acquire Kristaps Porzingis. Now he’s the starting center for one of the worst defenses in the NBA.

When that time arrives, we’ll see if Drummond really is an empty calorie big as his critics have pointed out, or if he’s a product of mediocrity just dying to prove he can contribute to a good team.

Glass half-empty would say it’s the former. Glass half-full would say it’s the latter. But for now, only time can tell.

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NBA Daily: Who Else Should Be Let Go?

DeMarcus Cousins and the Houston Rockets have parted ways, rather amicably. What veteran might be given the freedom to join a contender of their choosing next?

Jonathon Gryniewicz

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The Houston Rockets made an interesting move recently, parting ways with DeMarcus Cousins — and it seems like the agreement was mutual.

The Rockets want to play younger and a different style to what would suit Cousins on the court. Cousins, meanwhile, has proven he’s healthy and wanted to play for a team that’s more focused on winning a title right now. They did him a favor and, in the process, likely earned some favor with agents, both Cousins and those representing other players.

But are there any other players out there that could do with the same sort of move? Every player, young or old, wants to win games, but who, in particular, might be able to work out a similar sort of deal to what Cousins and the Rockets have done?

Trevor Ariza, Oklahoma City Thunder

A lot of people have forgotten that Ariza is even on the Thunder. Well, sort of, anyway; since they acquired him, Ariza has yet to report to the team, which is perfectly okay with Oklahoma City as they determine what to do with him next.

Of course, the 16-year journeyman has no interest in playing for the rebuilding Thunder. Likewise, rather than play Ariza, Oklahoma City would like more than anything to move him to a contender for a potential future asset.

At this point in his career, what exactly can Ariza bring to the table? The 6-foot-8 versatile wing is still a strong defender and the type of veteran presence any younger contender might want in the locker room. Ariza also shot 40 percent from three last season, the second-highest mark of his career. Look for someone to take a chance on him and, while it might not open up minutes for any rookies or younger players in Oklahoma City, like the Cousins-Rockets move it could buildup considerable goodwill with agents and potential free agents down the road.

Austin Rivers, New York Knicks

There would no longer appear to be a place for Austin Rivers in the New York Knicks’ backcourt. Since adding Derrick Rose, Rivers has dropped behind him, fellow veteran Elfrid Payton and rookie Immanuel Quickley in the Knicks’ guard rotation. And, with only one non-guaranteed year left on his deal, New York could easily let him go without any long-term cap space ramifications.

Rivers has, more or less, looked like the same player he was a season ago. But, with the addition of Rose and the emergence of Quickely, there just isn’t playing time to go around. And, as the Knicks look to build off this season and potentially compete as soon as next year, they could stand to build a positive reputation, to show other players that they can take care of their veteran players.

And, while Rivers may want to stay in New York, giving him the opportunity to choose his next team reflects significantly better on the Knicks than leaving him to rot on the bench or flipping him to a squad he doesn’t want to play for ever could.

Wayne Ellington, Detroit Pistons

Ellington seemed to be a signing that the Pistons would flip for an asset if he performed well. And, to his credit, he’s done just that: shooting 42.1 percent from three this season, Ellington would provide a nice bench boost to just about any contender.

Detroit has already shown a willingness to play younger guys over veterans. Rose was moved earlier this month, while it was recently reported that Blake Griffin would hit the bench permanently as the team either looked to negotiate a buyout or find a suitable trade for the veteran forward. While Ellington may not be the contributor Rose is, or the type Griffin could be in the right situation, he’s a solid piece on an expiring deal, something that could make him extremely attractive to competing teams that are looking to maintain flexibility beyond this season.

Tony Snell, Atlanta Hawks

Snell was traded to the Hawks this past offseason and, while he has played well when given the opportunity, it’s been hard for him to earn minutes on a team that is loaded on the wing. Through 17 games this season, Snell is averaging just 13.6 minutes, a career-low. That said, he’s a strong three-point shooter and, like Ellington, could be a nice end-of-the-rotation upgrade for a contender.

The veteran presence of Snell is certainly attractive as well, but the Hawks, with a potent mix of veteran talent and high upside youth, should do right by him and allow him to find a situation that might lead to more time on the court.

Whether if be by trade, buyout or letting the player go, you can expect movement from these four players (and more) over the next month as we inch closer to the NBA’s trade deadline.

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