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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: Georges Niang’s Big Break

After dominating the G-League for a year, Georges Niang has more than earned this big opportunity with the Utah Jazz, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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For Georges Niang, reaching professional stability was always going to be a tall order.

Even after four dominant seasons at Iowa State, the tweener forward was viewed as a draft risk. At 6-foot-8, the versatile playmaker has always scored in bunches but also struggled to find his place in the modern NBA. Despite excelling as a knockdown three-point shooter, the fundamentally sound Niang has bounced around the country looking for a long-term opportunity.

In the two seasons since he was drafted, Niang has played in 50 G-League games for three separate franchises and had his non-guaranteed contract waived twice.

As a summer league standout for the second straight offseason, Niang’s determined efforts officially paid off last week after he signed a three-year deal with the Utah Jazz worth about $5 million. Now with a fully-guaranteed contract under his belt for 2018-19, Niang has been eager to prove his worth both on and off the court — a newfound skill-set he happily attributes to Utah’s excellent system.

“In the Jazz organization, from top to bottom, they do a good job of nurturing guys and forming them into good leaders and things like that,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, it was really easy to transition to summer league, [I’m] really just trying to lead by example, not with just my words.

“And I think playing hard, being a good teammate and doing the right thing –I think those are three things that the Jazz really stand for.”

But his meandering path toward year-long job security wasn’t destined to end up this way — no, not at all.

Selected by the Indiana Pacers in the 2016 NBA Draft with the No. 50 overall pick, Niang was correctly projected as a hard-working, high-IQ contributor that could put up points on almost anybody. Unfortunately, following a low-impact rookie year with the Pacers — and some short stints with their G-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, as well — Niang was waived the ensuing summer. Shortly thereafter, Niang latched on with the Golden State Warriors, where he participated in training camp and four preseason games — but, again, he was waived before the season began.

With the Santa Cruz Warriors, Niang flat-out dominated the competition for months, up until he grabbed a two-way contract from Utah in January. In total, Niang played in 41 games between Santa Cruz and the Salt Lake City Stars in 2017-18, averaging 19.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals on 45.7 percent from deep over 33.9 minutes per game.

Once attached to Utah’s affiliate franchise, Niang averaged a team-high 22 points per game and finished the campaign as the 13th-best scorer in the G-League. On top of all that, Niang was both an All-Star and honored with a spot on the All-NBA G-League First Team at season’s end.

Although he would ultimately play in just nine games for the deep Western Conference roster, Niang was simply laying important groundwork for the days ahead.

This summer, Niang averaged 16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in three contests during Utah Summer League. Given the golden opening to impress his future would-be-employers, Niang kept things rolling in Sin City and posted similar numbers over five games. On the back of a 20-point, eight-rebound performance early on in Las Vegas, Niang embraced the chance to fight and compete for his team — five full days before the Jazz signed him to a guaranteed deal.

“It was a real physical game, but those are the games you want to play in during summer league,” Niang said. “You want to play in those types of environments, where every possession matters and you gotta make plays down the stretch — and I think we did a really good job doing that.”

Those scrappy aspirations have been a staple of Niang’s since his collegiate days at Iowa State, too. During an ultra-impressive senior year, Niang tallied 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game for the Cyclones, leading their roster to 23 wins and an eventual trip to the Sweet Sixteen. That season, Niang took home the 2016 Karl Malone Award as Division-I’s top power forward and finished with 2,228 points, the second-best mark in school history.

Any way you slice it, whether at college or in the G-League, Niang can play, the moment just needs to reveal itself — and maybe it finally has.

Of course, this new contract — one that’s only fully guaranteed in 2018-19 — doesn’t ensure Niang any playing time and he’ll have some stiff competition. Just to get on the court, he’ll need to squeeze minutes from Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles — a tough task in head coach Quin Snyder’s defense-first rotation. No matter what his role or obligations end up amounting to, Niang is ready to meet that challenge head-on.

“In the NBA, everyone has a role,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, obviously, things are gonna be peeled back and you’ll have a defined role. My role is just when I get the ball, and if I do, play-make for others or get guys open, defend multiple positions, play multiple positions on offense and knock down open shots.”

Although his past resume certainly speaks for itself, it’ll be up to Niang take his big break even further. But given his efficiency and execution at every other level, there’s little reason to doubt the forward now. Days before they signed Niang, he was asked if Utah was somewhere he could see himself for the foreseeable future — his response was precise and foreboding.

“I’d love to be here — what [the Jazz] stand for is what I’m all about. I’ve had a blast with all these guys and I’d love to keep it going.”

And now, he’ll get at least 82 more games to make his case.

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NBA Daily: The Carmelo Anthony Trade is a Rare Win-Win for All Involved

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation.

Shane Rhodes

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The Big Three Era in Oklahoma City came and went rather quickly.

On Thursday, the Thunder reached an agreement to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks for guard Dennis Schröder, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. As part of a three-team deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Thunder will also walk away with Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot while the Hawks and 76ers swap Mike Muscala and Justin Anderson.

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation. Just as well, the trade is perhaps even more beneficial for the players involved.

While Anthony may have wanted to stay with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the trade is more than beneficial for him. After the trade goes through, the Hawks plan to buyout Anthony’s contract and he will reportedly receive the entire $27.9 million he is owed next season. Even better still, Anthony is free to join any team he wants, whether it be the Houston Rockets and friend Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Lakers and friend LeBron James, or elsewhere.

With his money already in hand, Anthony could sign on the cheap as well, making negotiations with any franchise that much easier.

For the Thunder, clearing Anthony’s massive salary from their books was of paramount importance. Staring down a $150 million luxury tax bill, Sam Presti managed to move Anthony and improve the team or, at the very least, make a lateral move depending on how you look at Schröder. Even as they take back the remaining $46.5 million owed to Schröder, the Thunder will save more than $60 million next season alone. That makes the trade worth it for Oklahoma City all by itself.

Still, the move allowed them to fill a need, perhaps more important than the cash savings as they look ahead to next season. Schröder not only fortifies the Thunder bench but the point guard position behind starter Russell Westbrook as well; he is another athletic playmaker that Oklahoma City can play on the wing with confidence. And, after averaging a career-high 19.4 points per game to go along with 6.2 assists last season, Schröder provides the Thunder offense with more firepower to compete against the other top teams in the Western Conference, a necessity if they hope to make a long playoff run.

For Schröder, the move to Oklahoma City is just as beneficial for him as it is for the team. Schröder is no longer the starter (he was unlikely to be the starter in Atlanta with Trae Young in the fold), but he can still make an impact and now he can do so for a contender.

The Hawks, as they should be, are playing the long game here. They acquired Jeremy Lin, an expiring contract, from the Brooklyn Nets earlier this offseason. After drafting Young, their guard surplus afforded them the chance to move Schröder’s deal off their books, netting them a first-round pick in the process and opening up playing time for the Young right away.

While the pick is top-14 protected (the pick becomes two second rounders if it doesn’t convey in 2022, every asset counts as the Hawks will look to add talent through the draft for years to come. With the addition of the Thunder pick, the Hawks now are owed an extra three first-round picks between the 2019 and 2022 drafts, a benefit for the Hawks whether they use those picks or trade them for already established talent. Meanwhile, Anderson, 24, presents another intriguing, and more importantly, young, option alongside the core of Young, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Taurean Prince.

Anderson will almost certainly receive more playing time in Atlanta as they figure out who and who can’t help the team. His time in Philadelphia was mired by injury and he never had the opportunity to show what he could do. So, whether they use him as an asset in a future trade or plan to keep him on the roster, Anderson, at the very least, will have the opportunity to show what he can do.

For the 76ers, Muscala is essentially insurance for the reneged deal with Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the team but the stretch-four never signed his contract and backed out of the deal. With him out of the picture along with losing Ersan Ilyasova, Muscala was one of the few remaining options for the 76ers in that specific, stretch-big role.

Muscala doesn’t have the same shooting chops that Bjelica has, but he is younger and might have more upside alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and co. Last season, Muscala, in addition to career highs in points and rebounds, averaged a career-high 3.2 three-pointers per game and hit 37.1 percent of them. While he likely won’t see the playing time he saw in Atlanta, Muscala should easily slide into a role off the bench for the 76ers. Moving Anderson and Luwawu-Cabarrot clears a logjam on the wing as well and will afford more minutes to Markelle Fultz (when he is ready), T.J. McConnell and rookies Zhaire Smith and Furkan Korkmaz.

As it stands, this trade made sense for all parties involved, and that alone is reason enough to consider it a win all around. While things could certainly change and hindsight is 20/20, this deal is beneficial for all three teams right now and could positively impact all three squads both next season and beyond.

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NBA Daily: Grayson Allen Ready for NBA Challenge

Making it in the NBA alone is quite an impressive feat, which is why Grayson Allen is doing the best he can to prepare for the big stage.

Matt John

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Grayson Allen may not be the most hyped-up prospect to come out of this year’s draft, but he is one of the more experienced rookies coming into the league this season.

Allen spent four years learning under the tutelage of Coach K at Duke University while also playing with the likes of Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, and Marvin Bagley III. He’s been through it all at the collegiate level, but he knows that if he’s going to make it in the pros, he’s going to have to adapt as quickly as possible.

“I have to set the tone for myself where I have to know playing in the NBA as a rookie, guys are going to be physical with you,” Allen said. “They’re going to come at you, they’re going to test you and see what you got. You’re gonna get beat. You’re gonna fail, but you gotta come right back at ‘em the next time.”

Since debuting in the summer league, Allen’s been the perfect storm for the Jazz. His shooting numbers have not been encouraging, but his numbers across the board have shown how impactful a player he can be. These have been his stat lines in both the Salt Lake and Las Vegas summer leagues.

July 2 vs. San Antonio: 11 points on 4/16 shooting including 2/6 from three, eight rebounds, seven assists
July 5 vs. Atlanta: 9 points on 2/13 shooting including 0/2 from three, six rebounds, eight assists
July 7 vs. Portland: 16 points on 6/17 shooting including 2/9 from three, six rebounds, six assists
July 19 vs. Miami: 17 points on 7/17 shooting including ⅕ from three, seven rebounds, three assists

Maybe it’s been the dry climate, or maybe it’s been the high Utah elevation that has caused Allen’s struggles shooting-wise, but the fact that his all-around game has shined despite his shooting woes should excite the Jazz. After his summer league play, Allen says the biggest adjustment he’s had to make offensively is acclimating himself with the pace of the game.

“Offensively, it’s a lot easier when you slow down,” Allen said. “I’m starting to see the space of the floor a lot better and finding the open guys. There’s still a few plays out there where I think I got a little antsy but it’s human nature and I’m trying to fight it right now. As a rookie playing in his first couple of games, I’m trying to fight that and play under control.”

On the other side of the ball, Allen says the biggest adjustment is the increased level of physicality in the pros.

“Defensively, it’s physical,” Allen said. “You gotta fight guys. You gotta get through screens. I mean, the bigs, they really set great screens, so you gotta be able to fight through that… If you’re tired on defense, they’ll find you.”

Allen knows that he needs to commit if he’s going to make it in the NBA, which requires eliminating all bad habits. In order to eliminate any habit that Allen has, which in his case is fatigue at the moment, Allen believes that he needs to be more mindful of himself when he’s physically drained.

“I try to be really self-aware of my habits when I get tired out there,” Allen said. “On defense, I have a habit when I’m tired, I stand up and my feet are flat. On offense, I’m not ready for the shot… I try to be really self-aware of that stuff so that in practice or in August, September, October, leading up to the regular season, I can have good habits when I’m tired because we got a short leash as a rookie. You don’t have many mistakes to make.”

In Utah, Allen will be playing for a team that exceeded all expectation last year and has a much higher bar to reach this season. He believes the summer the league should serve him well as he fights for minutes in the Jazz’ rotation.

“I’m joining a playoff team, so I gotta carve out a role with the guys they already have,” Allen said. “When I’m playing in summer league, I’m trying to play the right way. Don’t take too many tough shots, find the right guy, make the right pass.- Because when you come and play for Quin Snyder, that’s what he’s gonna want. He’s just gonna want you to play the right way.”

When Adam Silver announced that Utah was taking Allen with the 21st overall pick, the general masses laughed due to Utah, a state with a white-bread reputation, took a white player. Given that Allen just played four years of basketball at one of the best college basketball programs in the nation and will be starting his career playing for one of the most well-run organizations in the league, he may be the one laughing when it’s all over.

In other words, Grayson Allen playing in Utah could be quite the trip.

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