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NBA Daily: Malone, Nuggets Just Keep On Fighting

Despite injuries to both Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic, the Denver Nuggets have stayed strong in the tough Western Conference.

Ben Nadeau

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At 16-14, the Denver Nuggets are far from NBA royalty. Currently, the darling sleeper pick of the summer is in a dogfight for fourth place in the stacked Western Conference with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Portland Trail Blazers. Inversely, somehow, Denver remains inside the playoff picture by just 1.5 games as well. But for a franchise that has dealt with a major injury already, the fact that the Nuggets have weathered the storm at all is a testament to their well-rounded roster and a resilience.

Unfortunately, that injury belongs to Paul Millsap, the Nuggets’ recent marquee free agent signing. His wrist surgery to fix a torn ligament suffered in November is expected to keep him out until after the All-Star break, if not longer. Naturally, misery loves company, so 11 days later, center Nikola Jokic sprained his ankle and missed the next seven games — an injury that occurred just prior to a brutal road trip. Still, head coach Mike Malone has found a source of pride in the Nuggets’ resilient spirit night after night.

“It’s been great coaching — why is everybody laughing?” Malone joked to the media before a recent game. “When you lose Paul and Nikola, granted those are our two best players, but you have Mason Plumlee, who has started on a playoff team before. You have Kenneth Faried, who has played major minutes. Wilson Chandler is starting to find his rhythm, get into a groove and get his confidence back. Gary Harris and Will Barton have embraced playing 40-plus minutes a night and [are] doing a great job.”

There’s no embellishment here either, Malone is right on point about his roster’s willingness to step up in big moments.

Currently, the Nuggets’ bench unit tallies 39.3 points per game, good for the ninth-best mark in the NBA. As Plumlee (6.7 points, 5.4 rebounds), Faried (6.6 points, 5.2 rebounds) and Barton (15.4 points, 3.7 assists) have stepped up as the incumbent starter when called upon, their second unit numbers have remained strong nonetheless. For example, there’s the case of Trey Lyles, who sports a career average of just 6.4 points and 3.6 rebounds over a paltry 16.7 minutes per game. Through November, Lyles had accrued more DNP-CDs (5) than he had double-digit scoring totals (3), but the injury to Jokic unleashed a side of the stretch power forward we’re rarely seen from him at the NBA level.

Over the last nine games, Lyles has exploded for a red-hot 14 points per contest, a stretch that also includes his first-ever back-to-back 20-point efforts. In fact, during his previous 167 career games, Lyles reached the 20-point plateau on just two others occasions — now, he’s gotten there twice in the last 10 days. Always the motivator, Malone has encouraged his players, both new and old, to take advantage of the fresh opportunities.

“We’ve always had a next man up mentality …” Malone said. “It’s part of the NBA, there are going to be injuries — how do you respond to that? Do you feel sorry for yourself — which I will never let us do — or do you embrace the opportunity and the minutes that you now have available because of the injuries? I think guys have done a really good job with that.”

According to Malone, Barton is another key rotation player that has grown fully into his new role. While Barton has been long lauded for his energetic scoring ability off the bench, little else was expected from the sixth-year professional. Today, Barton has seen a statistical rise in all the right places — points (15.4), assists (3.7), field goal percentage (45.8) and three-point percentage (38.9) — while becoming a defensive asset that his head coach and teammates can trust. Poetically, on the night that Jokic sprained his ankle, Barton’s 37 points — and a game-winning reverse layup with 3.2 seconds left — single-handedly pushed the Nuggets past the Bulls late last month.

Slowly but surely, this Denver campaign has turned into a total team effort, a season that’ll hinge on getting consistent contributions from the entire rotation. Barton is often overshadowed by the promising pair of backcourt starters in Jamal Murray and the aforementioned Harris, but Malone credits the 6-foot-6 guard with extending his game beyond just getting buckets.

“He means everything — [Barton] is just a complete basketball player …” Malone said. “Last year when we had [Danilo Gallinari], we had Chandler and Harris and he wasn’t sure of the minutes — I think he kinda forced it a little bit and was looking for his shot too much. Now he knows he’s going to play heavy minutes and he’s playing a complete game — he’s a scorer, he’s a facilitator, he’s a rebounder.

“I think the greatest area of improvement and growth has been on the defensive end — and not just one-on-one,” Malone continued. “His weak-side awareness [and] game plan discipline is so much improved from where it was last year and I’m just really proud of Will Barton because of all the growth that he’s shown.”

The Nuggets’ overall productivity has not come without their fair share of bruises along the way, however. Heading into this crucial holiday stretch, Denver is just 5-9 against teams that currently hold a playoff spot. Even worse, the Nuggets must finish off the calendar year by playing the Minnesota Timberwolves twice, plus games against the Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz. While the Jazz have dealt with their own slew of injury issues this season, the Nuggets’ divisional rivals have handed them two losses by a combined total of 39 points.

Given their record without their two best players, there’s certainly reason to be optimistic in Denver. Should the Nuggets continue on at this pace, they’ll be firmly cemented in the postseason conversation when Millsap recovers sometime in the spring. With Jokic’s much-needed return, the Nuggets can finally settle back into what they do best: Efficient offensive basketball.

“We had the No. 1 offense in the NBA the second half of [last] year and we’re trying to get back to [that] this year,” Malone said. “You have guys that are making plays for each other and looking to make the right play and I think that unselfishness is definitely contagious for our guys.”

As of now, the Nuggets have no choice but to stay the course. Thankfully, Denver has proved that they’re up to the task of surviving in the Western Conference without their $90 million dollar man. While the improvement of budding prospects like Murray and Harris have been easily identifiable, credit also belongs with those that stepped up following the injuries. From Lyles to Barton, the Nuggets have — as Malone would say — embraced the opportunity and found two more competitors willing to take on a bigger role.

Complete team efforts are a necessary evil for the Nuggets right now as they’re just one of five teams — along with the Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami HEAT and Sacramento Kings — that don’t have a scorer averaging over 17 points per game. Harris’ 16.1 per game is as close as the Nuggets get to that threshold, although Barton, Millsap, Jokic and Murray eclipse 14 points in their own right. They’re also the only team on that list that currently sits within the top eight of their conference, so Malone clearly has his young roster doing something right. Treading water is not always easy, but Denver will likely take their punches and come out on the other side better for it.

Speaking about that welcomed end to a difficult road trip, Malone expounded on one of the Nuggets’ important team mantras.

“What happens a lot of times is you come off of a great win and you’re coming into the last game of a long road trip — three games in four nights — and sometimes you exhale. When you exhale, you get your ass kicked.

“So I’m hoping that we don’t exhale, I’m hoping that we continue to fight and compete.”

That may as well be a microcosm of the Nuggets’ entire season thus far: Don’t exhale, keep fighting. To this point, Malone and his team have done a hell of a job doing exactly that.

Ben Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: Is The NBA Heading Towards An Epic Off-Season?

With so many elite players heading towards less than expected post-season exits, is the NBA heading towards an epically chaotic off-season? Steve Kyler looks at some of the situations to watch.

Steve Kyler

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Heading Towards An Epic Off-Season?

With the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoff teeing up what could be some early exits for some of the bigger names in basketball, there is a growing sense that major change could be heading towards the NBA this offseason. While the odds that everyone that might be unhappy or exiting early are really moved is pretty slim, it does present some interesting options to watch.

Here are a few of them:

LeBron and the Cavaliers

With LeBron James reminding the basketball world to stop underestimating him, the specter of his future in Cleveland still isn’t any clearer. The prevailing thought among NBA insiders and executives is that LeBron will be gone at season’s end unless the Cavs get to and compete in the NBA Finals. Seeing how the Cavs support players are playing against the Pacers, it’s hard to imagine they can get to the Finals, but LeBron is LeBron, and he has been beyond special (again).

There have been so many reports suggesting that LeBron would meet with this team or has interest in that team that it seems redundant to talk about any of them with any seriousness.

Sources close to the situation in Cleveland have been really adamant all year that unlike previous points in LeBron’s career when he could exit, he genuinely won’t entertain the ideas. He dismisses his teammates when they might talk about it, he dismisses and thanks fans and media when they bring it up, but there is a real sense that LeBron is singularly focused on the task at hand and won’t consider his future until the season is over.

There are some realities to the situation, too. LeBron’s kids are entering the AAU world and building foundational relationships that LeBron is deeply committed to. There are a hundred reasons not related to basketball for LeBron to remain in Cleveland beyond this season. However, almost no one in the NBA world believes that going to happen without a championship run (win or lose).

The prevailing thought from outside the Cavaliers is that LeBron forces a trade rather than walking away. Much like his good friend Chris Paul, LeBron can choose to opt into his final contract year and push his way to a team with existing stars – like Houston. The fact that teams like the Lakers and even the Philadelphia 76ers could sign him outright in free agency gives him some leverage. The question remains would the notoriously icy relationship with Cavs ownership, block any chance at an amicable divorce as the Clippers got with Paul?

There is little doubt the direction and focus of the Cavaliers change pretty dramatically if LeBron exits the team, meaning inflated cap-killing deals wouldn’t get it done. But, as we saw last season in the Paul situation, there are creative ways to meet the salary cap requirements of a trade that might not need to include big ugly contracts that linger on the books long after LeBron is gone.

All of this may be a bit premature, especially considering how consistent and adamant the talk from LeBron’s world has been, and if he can get his team where he wants to be it could all be moot. However, if there was ever a game-to-game pendulum hanging over a franchise, the future of LeBron James is a very real one in Cleveland.

Paul George and the Thunder

When the agent for Paul George notified the Indiana Pacers that his client would not be signing a new deal in Indiana, it was a foregone conclusion George would eventually end up in Los Angeles with the Lakers. Then the unexpected happens, and George was traded to Oklahoma City.

At the time of the trade, no one believed the move was anything more than a rental for the Thunder and a “dare to be great” move meant to lock up Russell Westbrook to a long-term deal. The idea that George would stay was at best laughable, but then he started to tell people publicly and privately how much he liked the situation. He would talk about how much fun it was to have two other star-level players to share the season with and how the Thunder organization was so impressive.

There was a stretch of several months where the sense in NBA circles was that George would seriously consider staying for another season and allow Carmelo Anthony to finish his deal and the Thunder to add more players in free agency and build a real contender. While that remains a possibility, the way the Thunder season has played out over the last couple of months and how funky things have gotten is pointing toward George moving on.

There is still a window of hope that the Thunder can advance and make some noise, but most in NBA circles see George heading to his personal dream situation in L.A. with the Lakers or looking at the Philadelphia 76ers.

It’s far from decided, but it seems more likely than not that this postseason run turns out to be exactly what it looked like when the trade was consummated, a one-season dare to be great rental.

Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs

The San Antonio Spurs season is officially in the books, and the focus of the team is shifting toward fixing the painfully obvious rift between the team and its very best player, Kawhi Leonard.

Leonard has been away from the team rehabbing what is actually a pretty serious injury. While some have tried to be dismissive of whether or not Leonard could have played, medical experts all over the sports world have weighed in on exactly what quadriceps tendinopathy means (you should read this one). It is a pretty scary injury for a player facing the possibility of missing out on a $219 million contract extension.

Knowing exactly how the injury could play out, there is zero reason for anyone to have expectations that Leonard should have played, regardless of what the team’s medical staff may have determined. The risk to Leonard’s future was too great, especially if he was still having pain and discomfort.

The big issue was the disconnection between Leonard and the team. While it is easy to say Leonard wants out or that he wants a new team because the optics of all of this were and are so bad.

However, in a recent conversation with a former NBA player who went through something similar as Leonard, we posed the rather insightful questions: “What drove Leonard a normally tight knit team guy away?”

Was it the medical and coaching staff pushing him to play? Was it his veteran teammates that were in the swan song days of their Spurs career? Was he embarrassed that he couldn’t get right physically?

This particular player went through something similar where he had a pretty serious injury, and his veterans would give him grief about not wanting to play through pain. So, the story with Leonard resonated with him. This player was absolutely clear that he didn’t have any insight into what was going on, just wondered why no one was asking that question – What drove Kawhi away?

Sources around the situation have been pretty clear that the Spurs feel like they can repair the relationship, mainly because they can offer the so-called Super Max contract extension.

They plan to meet with Leonard and see where his head really is and will make decisions from there. There is no doubt that NBA teams would line up for the chance to get Leonard in trade. There is also a reality that Leonard is eligible for free agency in July 2019 and wouldn’t gain any real benefit from extending with a new team, especially considering the Super Max extension isn’t available from any team other than the Spurs.

There is no doubt that the Spurs and Leonard will be front and center in the rumor mill, right up until they either extend him or trade him.

There is a risk for any team obtaining him in trade, but given what he has become as a player, there is surely a title contender willing to take the risk.

The HEAT and Hassan Whiteside

It seems the marriage between the Miami HEAT and center Hassan Whiteside is on the rocks in a pretty significant way. The HEAT explored their options at the trade deadline and entertained a deal with the Milwaukee Bucks, but the teams stayed their respective courses.

With Whiteside’s role diminishing in favor of rookie Bam Adebayo and veteran big man Kelly Olynyk, there is a growing sense that not only are the HEAT looking for an exit, so is Whiteside.

The challenge for the HEAT is Whiteside has regressed a lot since inking his max deal, a deal that including his player option has two years and some $52.5 million remaining on it.

The HEAT faces some additional pressures by way of the Tyler Johnson contract. The HEAT matched the offer sheet the Brooklyn Nets gave Johnson back in July 2016, and that deal balloons from $5.8 million this season to $19.24 million next season. As things stand today, the HEAT have $119.9 million in guaranteed salaries, putting them a few million under that expected $123 million 2018-19 luxury tax line.

Finding a new home for all of Whiteside’s contract may be a tough deal to make, but it seems as the HEAT season comes to an end, he is more likely to be moved than not.

The Trail Blazers

The Portland Trail Blazers had a pretty impressive run after the All-Star break in February. However, all that magic came to crashing halt after being swept out of the Playoffs at the hands of the streaking hot New Orleans Pelicans.

The questions surrounding the Blazers is what’s next?

The narrative out of Portland is no one is going to panic and overreact, but it seems fair to question the security of president Neil Olshey and even head coach Terry Stotts.

Equally, it’s fair to wonder what the roster will look like at the draft and into free agency.

Will the Blazers, who have historically been very aggressive around the draft, look to cash out roster players for picks? Will owner Paul Allen green light buying more picks, especially in the second round when cash can get you additional draft assets?

The Blazers have done a pretty good and consistent job of downplaying the idea of trading either of the Blazers cornerstone guys in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. There is no doubting that one of those guys could net a king’s ransom in trade, as both are elite level guards that are under long-term contract as both have three more fully guaranteed years remaining on their deals.

There is no question change is coming in Portland, the question becomes how significantly. Like the HEAT, the Blazers are facing some tough cap decisions, especially with guard Shabazz Napier and big man Jusuf Nurkic hitting free agency and the Blazers sitting on $110.4 million in salary commitments for next season.

The fact that no one has been fired (as of this morning) bodes well for the leadership remaining intact; the question is how aggressively will the roster change for a team that failed pretty miserably in the postseason?

The Wizards

The Washington Wizards are not done yet, but after last night’s loss, the inevitable seems to be getting closer.

There is a growing sense in NBA circles that however special Wizards guards John Wall and Brad Beal can be together (they have their moments), the team isn’t nearly as dominant as many have hoped.

Maybe that’s a result of Wall’s injuries, or maybe the match just isn’t going to work.

The narrative around the team is that they are not going to consider breaking up the duo, but that won’t stop some teams from testing the Wizards resolve. The fact that both Wall and Beal are locked up long-term makes them fairly desirable in trade because of the security and team control that comes with their deals.

As things stand today, the Wizards have $115 million in committed salary for next season, giving them almost no wiggle room to be aggressive in free agency.

Unless the Wizards can find a home for some of their money, they may be handcuffed to this roster, which makes the idea of trading off one of their alpha guards at least something to entertain.

Without a trade, it seems unlikely the Wizards can do much to reshape who they are, and with a first round playoff exit, how soon will it be before the personality issues bubbling below the surface erupt into something difficult to come back from?

Over the coming weeks we’ll be digging more into the various NBA trade and free agency situations on the horizon, so stay tuned.

In case you missed it…

The latest Basketball Insiders Podcast covers a lot of this and more, so if you missed out, take a listen.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, @mike_yaffe, @MattJohnNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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NBA Daily: The Comfortability of Caris LeVert

Caris LeVert talks to Basketball Insiders about filling in at point guard, turning the proverbial corner and getting more comfortable with his game.

Ben Nadeau

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If there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for the Brooklyn Nets, it probably involves Caris LeVert.

After finding his niche as a do-it-all rotation player, LeVert upped his averages in points (12.1), assists (4.2) and three-point accuracy (34.7 percent) during his second NBA season. Although those outer-layer statistics may not scream budding star quite yet, his growth and flexibility were key to a Nets team once again decimated by injuries.

When Jeremy Lin suffered a season-ending ruptured patella tendon during the season opener, the guard situation became understandably shaky. But then the newly acquired D’Angelo Russell went down for two months in November and things almost became untenable. If not for the efforts of LeVert as the backup point guard (and the vastly improved play of Spencer Dinwiddie), things could’ve been a whole lot worse for the Nets in 2017-18.

But according to LeVert, his development as a ball-handler was just the next, albeit necessary, step in his career.

“It’s been important, especially this year with injuries to Jeremy and D’Angelo,” LeVert told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like Spencer and myself had to definitely step up a lot this year and were asked to do a lot. But that was just something the team needed from me.”

Referring to his new-found prowess in such simple terms might be a slight understatement on LeVert’s development this season. Beyond his immense, quick chemistry with rookie center Jarrett Allen, LeVert has been a major bench catalyst all year. Often thriving under the sophomore’s playmaking hand, Brooklyn’s bench tallied a healthy 43.9 points per game, a benchmark only beat out by the Sacramento Kings (44.4). While his role as a point guard came about somewhat as an emergency, it’s clearly a position the Nets like him in.

Although he started 16 fewer games than he did in his rookie season, coming off the bench offered LeVert plenty of offensive freedom and the opportunity to feast on weaker opposition. On most nights, the 23-year-old didn’t disappoint. Some the Nets’ best individual lines all season came via LeVert, but few were better than his dominant play during a narrow one-point victory in Miami. On the road, LeVert torched the HEAT for 19 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists, two steals and block in just over 34 minutes. This season, the Nets were 7-1 when LeVert registered eight or more assists and even topped out with a career-best 11 dimes.

As both a playmaker and a scorer, LeVert has shown serious signs of promise — or, more simply, put the ball in his hands and good things happen. But compare this LeVert to that raw first-year version and he’s convinced it all comes down to comfortability.

“I don’t know, I would say just how comfortable I’m getting,” LeVert said. “My game hasn’t changed all that much, honestly, I’m still getting more comfortable out on the court. But it’s just getting more playing time, more experience and I feel like I’ll grow more into my game.”

Frankly, the Nets have needed a win in the draft department for years. Outside of Mason Plumlee’s brief two-season cameo, the Nets haven’t drafted and groomed a long-term talent since Brook Lopez way back in 2008. Thankfully, he and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson — and joined by the aforementioned Allen this season — seem poised to buck that trend. Hollis-Jefferson, acquired on draft night for Plumlee in 2015, averaged 13.9 points and 6.8 rebounds on 47.2 percent from the field in 2017-18, a vast improvement over his first two campaigns. Allen, a 20-year-old hyper-athletic shot blocker, wasn’t let loose until after the new year but showed potential in the pick-and-roll or while catching lobs up above the rim.

Together, the trio, along with Russell, represent the Nets’ best present and future assets. But ask LeVert if brighter things are on the horizon and the 6-foot-7 multi-positional talent is largely uninterested in getting ahead of himself.

“I feel like I got a lot better on both ends of the ball as the season went on,” LeVert told Basketball Insiders. “Also feel like I learned a couple more positions this year and got comfortable playing them. But I still got a long way to go. You know, it’s only my second year, obviously, but I feel like I definitely made new strides this year.”

The Nets, in a vacuum, can be viewed in almost the same way.

Since LeVert was drafted with the No. 20 overall pick back in 2016, the Nets have racked up a total of just 48 wins. This year alone, 11 franchises equaled or earned more wins than the Nets’ two-year yield. In fact, the only franchise with fewer wins over that period of time were the Phoenix Suns at 45, but they were also recently rewarded with Josh Jackson and currently own a 25 percent chance of taking home the No. 1 pick this summer. All of this is to say that Nets have struggled to hoist themselves out of a pick-less bottomless pit for reasons outside of their control.

Despite the devastating injuries, this resilient Nets squad put together a relatively strong final stretch under head coach Kenny Atkinson. While the second-year head coach spent much of the campaign feeling out what worked and what didn’t, LeVert became a steady presence just about everywhere. Following the All-Star break, the Nets went 6-4 in games in which LeVert surpassed his season average in points, but they were just 1-4 when he went for single-digits.

Needless to say, the Nets often go where LeVert takes them.

But after two back-to-back disappointing campaigns. LeVert says that the Nets’ locker room senses that they’re close to turning the proverbial corner. Still, they know they’ve got a long, long way to go.

“[It felt that way], especially after the All-Star Break and going into the second half of the season,” LeVert said. “But we’re definitely not satisfied — we can’t wait to work hard this offseason and get after it next year.”

Now with two seasons under his belt, the Nets’ front office must be pleased with the steps LeVert has taken — whether that’s effectively running an offense or snaking through the paint for a crafty finish. But for LeVert to join the higher class, he returns to the same word again and again: Comfortability. Between getting familiar with his body and skillset, LeVert knows that a big key is also finding consistency each and every night. However, he’s not worried about who he might play like or how good he might end up being — LeVert is just focused on getting better one day at a time.

“I kinda just take little parts of everybody’s game and try to put it in my own — I don’t really just look at one person,” LeVert told Basketball Insiders. “As a young player in this league, that’s kinda how it is, a little inconsistent. But like I said, I’m still getting more comfortable with myself and my game.”

Although the Nets are headed into another offseason of uncertainty, they can rest assured knowing that a bigger and better LeVert will likely emerge next fall. It hardly matters if he’s filling in at point guard again or growing into his shoes out on the wing, LeVert will clearly play a large role in sculpting Brooklyn’s malleable future.

LeVert, as always, is up for the challenge.

“I still got a long ways to go, I’m still getting more comfortable, still growing into my body — but I’m ready for a big summer for sure.”

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The Real Jrue Holiday Has Finally Arrived

It may have been a little later than they would have wanted, but the Jrue Holiday that New Orleans has always wanted is finally here, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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New Orleans has always earned the nickname “The Big Easy”, but ever since Jrue Holiday came to town, his time there has been anything but.

When New Orleans traded for Holiday back in 2013, they hoped that he would round out an exciting young core that included Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, and Ryan Anderson. At 23 years old, Holiday averaged 17.7 points, 8.0 assists, and 4.2 rebounds the previous season and was coming off his first all-star appearance in Philadelphia, so the Pelicans had much to look forward to.

Unfortunately, recurring extensive injuries prohibited the Pelicans’ new core from ever playing together fully healthy, with Holiday getting his fair share of the bruises. In his first two seasons, Holiday played in only 74 games combined with the team due to injury, and things didn’t get much better his third season. While he played more games, Holiday was on a minutes restriction and his season ended again with injury.

Holiday avoided the injury bug his fourth season, but he nobly took a leave of absence at the start the season to tend to his ill wife, which caused him to miss the season’s first 12 games and 15 in total. Holiday’s inability to stay on the court coupled with New Orleans’ stagnated progress made him a forgotten man in the NBA. That was until last summer, when Holiday became a free agent.

Given the circumstances, Holiday did what he could for the Pelicans. He certainly proved he was above average, but he hadn’t shown any improvement since his arrival. Coupling that with both how many games he had missed in the previous four seasons and the league’s salary cap not increasing as much as teams had anticipated, and one would think to proceed with caution in regards to extending Jrue Holiday.

But the Pelicans saw it differently. New Orleans gave Holiday a five-year, $126 million extension last summer, befuddling the general masses. Besides Holiday’s inability to stay on the court, the Pelicans already had an expensive payroll, and they later added Rajon Rondo, another quality point guard, to the roster. So, with all that in mind, giving Holiday a near-max contract on a team that had made the playoffs a grand total of once in the Anthony Davis era seemed a little foolish.

This season, however, Jrue Holiday has rewarded the Pelicans’ faith in him and has proven the doubters so very wrong.

With a clean slate of health, Holiday has proven himself to be better than ever. This season, Holiday averaged career-highs in scoring (19 points a game) and field goal percentage (49 percent overall), which played a huge role in New Orleans having its best season since Chris Paul’s last hurrah with the team back in 2011.

Holiday’s impact extended beyond what the traditional numbers said. His on/off numbers from NBA.com showed that the Pelicans were much better on both sides of the ball when he was on the court compared to when he was off. Offensively, the Pelicans had an offensive rating of 108.9 points per 100 possessions when he was the on the court compared to 104.4 points per 100 possessions when he was off.

On the other side of the court, Holiday was even more integral. The Pelicans had a defensive rating of 103.3 per 100 possessions when Holiday was on the court compared to 112.3 off the court. Overall, the Pelicans were 13.6 points per 100 possessions better with Holiday on the floor. That was the highest net rating on the team, even higher than Anthony Davis.

Other statistics also support how impactful Holiday has been this season. According to ESPN’s real plus-minus page, Holiday’s 3.81 Real Plus-Minus ranked ninth among point guards – No. 16 offensively, No. 4 defensively – which beat out Kyrie Irving, John Wall, and Goran Dragic, all of whom made the All-Star team this year.

However, Holiday’s effectiveness shined through mid-way through the season, or more specifically, on Jan. 26, when Demarcus Cousins went down with an Achilles tear. While Davis certainly led the way, Holiday’s role could not have been understated when the Pelicans went 21-13 without their MVP candidate to finish the season. Offensively, Holiday’s point average went from 18.6 to 19.4 and his assist average went from 5.2 to 7.2, all while his turnover average – from 2.6 to 2.7 – stayed the same.

Defensively, Holiday had much to do with the Pelicans’ improved defense after Cousins went down. According to NBA.com, the Pelicans defensive rating went from 106.2 points allowed per 100 possessions to 103.7, and much of it can be attributed to Holiday. When Holiday was on the court, the team’s defensive rating was 101.2 points allowed per 100 possessions compared to 109.6 points allowed per 100 possessions with him off.

Holiday’s improved numbers, combined with the Pelicans steadying the boat without their star center, make a fair argument that Holiday was one of the league’s best all-around point guards this season, but Holiday’s style isn’t much of a thrill to watch. He doesn’t have Russell Westbrook’s other-worldly athleticism, he doesn’t have Stephen Curry’s lethal jumper, nor does he have Chris Paul’s floor general abilities. Holiday’s specialty is that he has every fundamental of a good point guard, which makes his impact usually fly under the radar.

That was until last week, when the Pelicans unexpectedly curb stomped the Blazers. The Jrue Holiday coming out party was in full-swing, as the 27-year-old torched Rip City, averaging 27.8 points, 6.5 assists, and 4 rebounds a game on 57 percent shooting from the field, including 35 percent from deep. He did all of that while stymieing MVP candidate Damian Lillard, as Dame averaged 18 points and 4 assists while shooting 35 percent from the field, including 30 percent from deep, and surrendered four turnovers a game.

If Holiday’s contributions weren’t on full display then, they certainly are now. The Pelicans have suddenly emerged as one of the West’s toughest and most cohesive teams in this year’s playoffs, with Holiday playing a huge role in the team’s newfound mojo and potentially glorious future.

This was the Jrue Holiday the New Orleans Pelicans had in mind when they first traded for him almost five years ago. While his impact has come a little later than they would have wanted, it’s as the old saying goes.

Better late than never.

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