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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 Seattle-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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G-League

NBA Daily: G League Guards Showing They Belong

Jordan Hicks spoke with NBA hopefuls Trey Lewis and Isaiah Cousins about their current games, playing in the G League and more.

Jordan Hicks

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The Utah Jazz currently have three players out due to injury – all three point guards, coincidentally – so one might say they are a little shorthanded. Because of this, both of their two-way players – Tyler Cavanaugh and Naz Mitrou-Long – have been called up to travel with the team. Unfortunately for Utah’s G League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars, they are left short-handed.

Add this to the fact that their first overall draft pick – and arguably their most important player, Willie Reed – is done for the season.

Things like this aren’t uncommon for the G League. In essence, that is primarily why it is there. As a developmental league for the NBA, it is used to both groom young talent, as well as have players readily available when needed (for teams lucky enough to have a program in their area).

In recent years, the SLC Stars have helped groom current Jazz rotation players Georges Niang and Royce O’Neale.

In a league that is growing more and more competitive with every game, every advantage a team can get is clearly a plus. Therefore, having the Stars so close has definitely been a huge positive for the Jazz.

Because a couple of heavy contributors are missing games, guys who are typically important role-players need to step up and be the key guys for the team.

Basketball Insiders had the chance to catch up with two of their young guards – Isaiah Cousins and Trey Lewis – after a recent home loss to fellow G League team the Stockton Kings (affiliate to the Sacramento Kings). In a close game where the Stars were slightly outmatched, these players stepped up in a big way and almost led the Stars to an unlikely come-from-behind victory.

Isaiah Cousins is having a career year with the Stars. His third year in the G League – and second with the Stars – Cousins is averaging 12.7 points, 6.4 assists and 4.6 rebounds a night. He’s currently second in the league in assist to turnover ratio at 3.27.

“Making the right reads and [not trying] to force anything,” Cousins told Basketball Insiders. “Whatever the scouting report is, each team has a different defensive scheme each game, so I look at the scouting report and see what they are going to do.”

Isaiah alluded to the fact that preparation is what helps him take care of the ball so well. In a league where taking care of the ball is essential to winning games, solid point guard play is a must. Cousins’ development in that area goes hand-in-hand with his ability to someday make an NBA roster.

“This is my third year in the G League so I’m experiencing and understanding the game now,” Cousins said.

When asked what position Cousins sees himself playing in the NBA, he noted his versatility.

“I think I’m a point guard, but I can play multiple positions and I can guard multiple positions,” Cousins said. “I do a little bit on-ball and off-ball. Basically, wherever a job is open, I’ll take it.”

Trey Lewis has been instrumental to the Stars’ winning record coming off the bench. Averaging 11.6 points and 2.3 assists, the team relies on his scoring and playmaking abilities to pull-ahead.

Although he isn’t in the starting lineup, Lewis finds himself closing out many games, thanks in part to his clutch shotmaking. Just over two weeks ago Lewis hit a big, go-ahead three-pointer with just seconds left to seal a home win. On the season – in which Lewis has only participated in 13 games due to an early-season ankle injury – Trey has already dropped 20+ points on four occasions.

Lewis played for a handful of teams during his collegiate years, ultimately ending up on Louisville with current Jazz star Donovan Mitchell. Lewis and Mitchell are now playing basketball for the same organization and living in the same city. “[Mitchell] is somebody who I talk to on a daily basis. We push each other, we motivate each other, and we support each other so it’s been great.”

Lewis garnered the essential skill of shooting the deep ball in college. While playing for Cleveland State in the Horizon League, he led the conference in threes made, knocking them in at a 42.3 percent rate.

After playing overseas in Germany for two seasons where he was a two-time All-Star in the BBL, Germany’s top basketball league, Lewis came back to the states.

“My goal since a little child has always been to play in the NBA,” said Lewis when asked why he came to the G League. “I feel like I had two great seasons overseas and felt like this was the next step to get to where I want to go.”

As the NBA continues its move to a heavy three-point shooting league, players are finding they need to adapt in this sink-or-swim situation. Players that can’t shoot the deep-ball – at least at a respectable mark – need to hold elite skills in other areas.

Luckily for Lewis, three-point shooting has always been a strength for him.

Basketball Insiders asked him where he gets his confidence from behind the arc.

“Just hard work; my regimen every day, sticking to my routine, getting my reps, and that builds confidence,” Lewis said. “I know I can hit those shots in needed situations.”

The window has opened for NBA teams to sign 10-day contracts. Whether they eventually end up with the Utah Jazz or with an entirely different franchise, it doesn’t matter. Cousins and Lewis will continue to grind so they can have their shot at a spot in the league. But for now, they will continue to work for their current team and help the Stars try and lift the G League championship trophy at the end of the season.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Potential 10-Day Contract Players

Basketball Insiders takes a look at a few players who could be prime candidates for 10-day contracts.

David Yapkowitz

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January 5 was an important deadline in the NBA in that it marked the first day teams can begin signing players to 10-day contracts.

Usually reserved for younger, unproven talent looking to get their first shot in the NBA, recently NBA veterans have started going the 10-day route to refresh their careers and get back in the league. For example, Corey Brewer just recently signed a 10-day contract with the Philadelphia 76ers.

These contracts are very beneficial for teams in that there’s essentially no risk, and the potential for a high reward. It’s a relatively cheap tryout for teams to get a quick look at players who can potentially be helpful. Best case scenario, they end up finding a solid contributor. If not, then the player is no longer with them after 10 days.

Here’s a look at a few players who could be candidates for a 10-day contract.

1. Willie Reed

The veteran big man has had his taste of the NBA. He began last season as the Los Angeles Clippers’ primary backup to DeAndre Jordan. With the emergence of other players, however, his playing time decreased and he was ultimately traded to Detroit in the Blake Griffin trade.

The Pistons then shipped him off to the Chicago Bulls for Jameer Nelson, and the Bulls proceeded to cut him. He ended up being the first overall pick of the Salt Lake City Stars of the G League.

This season with the Stars, he’s been one of the best big men in the G League. Reed has put up 20.1 points per game on 66.5 percent shooting from the field, 11.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. He’s still a quality rotation player and could help a playoff team in need of some size off the bench.

2. John Jenkins

Another NBA veteran, Jenkins developed a reputation as a sharpshooter during his early years in the league, but didn’t do much else. His last appearance in the NBA was last season when he was brought to training camp by the Atlanta Hawks.

He ended up being one of the Hawks’ final cuts before the end of camp, and he subsequently chose to play overseas. He returned stateside this season, where he joined the Westchester Knicks, the New York Knicks’ G League affiliate.

Jenkins has had a very strong season thus far, putting up 24.8 points per game on 47.2 percent shooting, 42.8 percent from the three-point line, 3.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists. Perhaps the biggest changes in his game have been his playmaking ability and his development into a more versatile scorer. Any team in need of some bench scoring should give him a look.

3. Anthony Bennett

Keeping with the trend of NBA veterans using 10-day contracts to get back to the league, the former No.1 overall pick in the 2013 draft has begun to put people on notice this season.

Bennett last saw NBA minutes two season ago with the Brooklyn Nets. He wasn’t that bad during his stint in Brooklyn, but the Nets cut him almost halfway through the 2016-17 season. Aside from a brief stop overseas, Bennett has been playing in the G League.

This season with the Agua Caliente Clippers, Bennett has looked like he’s ready for another shot in the NBA. He’s been averaging a modest 13.0 points per game on 54 percent shooting from the field. One of the biggest additions to his game though has been his expanded shooting range. He’s knocking down 43.6 percent of this 5.1 three-point attempts. He’s worth another look for a team in need of a stretch big man.

4. Bruno Caboclo

Another player with NBA experience, it’s probably not fair to call Caboclo a veteran seeing that he rarely saw playing time in the league. When he was drafted by the Toronto Raptors, his selection caused quite a bit of confusion, leading to Fran Fraschilla’s now famous quote of him being, “two years away from being two years away.”

Caboclo toiled on the Raptors’ bench for about four years before being traded to the Sacramento Kings. He finally was able to see some minutes with the Kings, but still didn’t show much. The Houston Rockets invited him to training camp but ultimately cut him.

Caboclo joined the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Rockets G League affiliate, and has since been showing that he may very well be worth a 10-day contract. He’s averaging 16 points per game on 51 percent shooting from the field, 42.5 percent from downtown, 7.2 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. When he was drafted, the expectation was he’d develop into a 3&D wing but that didn’t happen. He’s looking much closer to that now. For a team in need of a wing defender who can shoot from distance, he’s worth a look.

Again, 10-day contracts have become a very valuable and inexpensive way for NBA teams to try out potential contributors. If the player pans out, then you have a relatively cheap guy in the rotation. If they don’t, you cut your losses after 10 days. It should be interesting to see if these vets are able to parlay their G League success into a path back to the NBA.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Capela’s Injury is a Massive Setback for Houston

Clint Capela’s thumb injury couldn’t have come at a worse time. Spencer Davies looks at the massive loss, who may get opportunities and what moves the Houston Rockets could make in response.

Spencer Davies

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James Harden has a real challenge on his hands.

The Houston Rockets’ remarkable stretch from mid-December to the New Year behind the reigning MVP helped put them back in the middle of the playoff picture.

But he had a right-hand man—the same right-hand man who has emerged as a dominant two-way interior presence over the last three years under Mike D’Antoni—and that is Clint Capela.

Friday afternoon, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Capela would be out for at least the next month with ligament damage in his right thumb. There’s a chance that the 24-year-old big man could get a second opinion from a hand specialist following the MRI he took Monday.

Before sustaining the injury in Orlando, Capela was having a career season with the Rockets on the offensive end, significantly up-ticking his previous year averages to an impressive 17.6 points and 12.6 rebounds in over 34 minutes per game.

At the bottom of the barrel in defensive rebounding (and 29th in total rebounds per game), Houston already struggles on the glass as it is. However, they are doing a solid job of preventing their opponents from crashing the boards. Taking Capela out of the equation hurts because of his fundamental ability.

According to NBA.com, the Rockets rebound the ball as a team 89.9 percent of the time when Capela boxes out under the basket. He averages six of them per game and the vast majority of those are coming on the defensive end. It’s a simple part of the game, yet such an important aspect for a group that struggles in that area.

With Capela sidelined, Houston loses its rim protector. While it may be true that he’s not having as much success as last year defending in the paint, he is one of only four players in the league seeing at least seven attempts per game within five feet or less. More importantly—anywhere on the floor—the Swiss center is a top five shot contester among all of his peers.

Offensively speaking, Harden might be the most disappointed. He and Capela have developed an incredibly impressive two-man game through the Beard’s ability to finish at the rim.

Using the pick-and-roll to their advantage, the opposing big often chooses to help his man cover Harden, leaving Capela there for the easy high-handoff. It’s a play this duo has literally executed at will, and it’s been made deadly over the last few seasons.

Couple that with the athleticism and precision both have—few teams stand a chance at stopping it. And, back to the battle of the boards, Capela pulls down five offensive rebounds per game and provides second chance opportunities consistently.

If you don’t get the picture, we’ll leave it at this—the Rockets have to do something to keep up in a crowded Western Conference. The postseason hunt cannot solely rest on the shoulders of Harden. He has accomplished unfathomable feats in his career and was the NBA’s 2017-18 Most Valuable Player, but this is another type of challenge.

Houston’s players are dropping like flies. Sure, Chris Paul is on the mend and likely to return soon, and the same could be said of Eric Gordon, but there is little depth in the frontcourt . They’re down to Nene, Marquese Chriss and Isaiah Hartenstein as men in the middle. The rest are versatile forwards with the ability to play multiple positions, but not the one they need desperately at the moment.

We all know what Nene is capable of. That said, he’s not going to play 34 minutes per night at his age. In fact, the veteran has only eclipsed the 20-minute mark four times total in the last two seasons. There’s no doubt that he’ll give Houston a solid boost in spurts, but that’s likely not sustainable throughout the entirety of a game.

This writer is curious to see what Chriss does with the opportunity in front of him. It is fair to say that his athletic ability matches, or even supersedes, Capela’s, so the alley-oops will be there for him. However, these important questions remained unanswered: Can he screen? Can he rebound? Can he take the challenge?

Chriss was a top 10 draft pick not even three years ago. There’s a ton of potential that can be tapped into here. Unfortunately for the Rockets, they’re going to need to see growth and development quickly with little leeway for mistakes. They probably can’t depend on a raw 21-year-old prospect to steadily produce the way Capela has.

Hartenstein offers more size than both of those two and has played in 22 games this season. Still, he has only appeared in one contest since December 3. Hartenstein has taken advantage of his floor time, but the sample size is extremely small. Again, not nearly enough to fill the Capela void.

There are a few names out there that Houston general manager Daryl Morey could pursue.

Purely out of speculation, Bulls center Robin Lopez might be a good fit for a veteran squad and the organization is reportedly refusing to negotiate a buyout, so that may be worth paying attention to.

Hawks big man Dewayne Dedmon has quietly put together two impressive seasons in Atlanta. He’s a consistent player who fights for rebounds and gives a solid effort on the defensive end. And an extra attractive quality for D’Antoni—his expanded shooting range. John Collins has stated his own case for extra playing time with stellar play, so Dedmon probably won’t fit into the plans too much longer.

Tristan Thompson is giving his all with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He just returned from a foot injury and is getting back to the pre-injury version of himself. The 27-year-old is matching his career-high in points per game and is grabbing a career-best 11.2 rebounds per game to boot.

Like Capela, he is a monster on the offensive glass and excels at the fundamentals of the game with pick-and-roll situations and box outs. The only drawback to Thompson is his hefty, fully guaranteed salary, but he’s only on that deal for this year and the next.

With Cleveland looking to take on “bad” contracts with future assets attached, the Rockets should most definitely consider moving Brandon Knight or some other package along with a pick or two.

This is just a matter of spitballing a few names that might fit the bill for Houston. Heck, even if it’s a minor depth move, going out and getting an underutilized player like Skal Labissiere in Sacramento would make a difference to ensure the others aren’t winding themselves down with a huge increase in playing time.

Whatever the Rockets decide to do, the road to the playoffs has become a whole lot bumpier. Harden is going to have his work cut out for him LeBron James style a la 2017-18. We’re all anxious to see how he responds to such a challenge.

The past is the past—and CP3 was incredible for Houston last postseason—but it sure would be nice to have Montrezl Harrell around now, wouldn’t it?

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