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NBA PM: Cavaliers Overcame Many Obstacles

Despite early struggles, injuries, midseason moves and a ton of pressure, the Cavaliers are in the NBA Finals.

Alex Kennedy

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Where do the Chicago Bulls go from here? What’s next for Tom Thibodeau? BasketballInsiders.com’s Jessica Camerato and CineSport’s Noah Coslov react to the Bulls firing their head coach.

Cavaliers Overcame Many Obstacles to Make Finals

When LeBron James announced his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers in his Sports Illustrated column last July, he tempered expectations and acknowledged that he didn’t think the team would contend for a title right away.

“I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way,” James wrote in SI. “Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that. I’m going into a situation with a young team and a new coach.”

Some felt that he was just trying to take the pressure off of his young teammates and first-time NBA coach David Blatt, while others believed this was his honest assessment of the team. It seemed more like the latter several months into the season, when Cleveland had lost 19 of their first 39 games and the squad was struggling mightily.

Their key players were having trouble figuring out how to co-exist, they needed defensive help on the perimeter and interior, their lack of depth was an issue and Coach Blatt seemed in over his head at times as he adjusted to the NBA. And like all teams featuring LeBron, the Cavaliers had a target on their back and were put under the microscope, so every loss and issue was blown out of proportion.

Several trades were made, which required even more adjustments to get everyone on the same page. And as if things weren’t already difficult enough, James got hurt and took two weeks off to get his body right. Then, later in the year, Anderson Varejao and Kevin Love each sustained season-ending injuries that depleted their frontcourt, and Kyrie Irving also missed games and was limited by a right foot strain and tendinitis in his left knee.

Yet despite all of the struggles, injuries, transactions and scrutiny, the Cavaliers have advanced to the NBA Finals in James’ first year back with the team. At this time last year, all Cleveland fans had to celebrate was an NBA Draft Lottery win, but now the Cavs are just four victories away from hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Looking back on the season, James admits he is surprised with what they accomplished.

“At one point during the season, we were 19‑20,” James said. “[I was] watching my team struggle and sitting out two weeks; they wanted Coach Blatt fired [and] saying we needed another point guard. ‘Will LeBron and Kyrie be able to play together?’ So many story lines were happening at that point in time. For us to be sitting at this point today, being able to represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals, this is special. This is very special.

“Could I foresee this? At the beginning of the season, I couldn’t. I couldn’t foresee us being in the Finals at the beginning of the season because I just knew that we just had to get better and I just saw how young we were and how young‑minded we were at that point in time. But I knew I had to lead these guys, and if they just followed my leadership, I knew I could get them to a place where they haven’t been before.”

That’s exactly what James has done, lifting the Cavs to the Finals despite numerous obstacles. Cleveland started playing better in mid-January and, despite having to adjust to the personnel changes and injuries, they finished the season 46-11 (including their postseason wins).

In the last two rounds, the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks thought they had the Cavs right where they wanted them since they were without Love, Varejao and Irving (for some games). In fact, many analysts predicted that Cleveland would be eliminated in either the Conference Semifinals or the Conference Finals. However, the Cavaliers have lost just two games all postseason and their sweep over Atlanta was extremely impressive.

“One thing we haven’t gotten caught up in is feeling sorry for ourselves,” James said. “It doesn’t matter if someone is out, the next man is up. If someone is not 100 percent, then as a brother, you pick that guy up. That’s what it’s about. That’s what teamwork and trying to accomplish a dream is all about, being able to sacrifice yourself and what you can do for the better of the team. That’s what’s got us to this point.”

James is proud of what the Cavs have accomplished, regardless of what happens in the Finals.

“Where this ranks as far as my last four Finals appearances, I mean, it’s special… to know how unexperienced we are as a unit playing together, I think that’s special in its own right,” James said. “No matter what happens from here on out, to see what we’ve accomplished being a first‑year team together that’s had different changes throughout the course of the season, that’s faced so many obstacles throughout the season – injuries here, transactions here, lineups here ‑ it’s something we can be very proud of to this point.

“I hope everyone here understands that it’s not easy; it’s not easy to even get to this point. It’s so hard just to win an NBA game, and the fact that we’ve won three playoff series so far, it is very, very difficult. And if you’ve never been in this situation, you don’t know how difficult it is.”

So, how have the Cavs managed to play at this high level despite everything they’ve dealt with?

While playing in the weaker Eastern Conference has certainly helped them (and, as I wrote yesterday, other stars may soon be bolting to the East as well), their players deserve a ton of credit for stepping up and beating every team put in front of them.

It’s no surprise, but the main reason for the Cavs’ dominance has been James. He has played out of his mind this postseason, averaging 27.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 8.3 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.3 blocks. He has put the Cavs on his back, and while he’s still struggling with his shot a bit (shooting just 17.6 percent from three-point range), it’s hard to criticize anything he’s doing right now since he has filled the stat sheet on a nightly basis, played great two-way basketball and provided excellent leadership. The fact that he’s been injured and playing through pain makes his performances even more impressive.

But while James is clearly the team’s catalyst, others have played well too. The team’s acquisitions before the trade deadline have been crucial. The roster looks very different from when James penned that article for Sports Illustrated last summer, as Cavaliers general manager David Griffin did a great job addressing Cleveland’s weaknesses throughout the year.

Shortly after signing James, the Cavs obviously traded for Love and also signed a number of veterans like Shawn Marion, Mike Miller and James Jones (with LeBron helping to recruit them). But perhaps even more important were Cleveland’s midseason trades for Timofey Mozgov (the rim protector they desperately needed) and the backcourt duo of J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert (giving them more depth on the perimeter). All three of those players have done a great job for the Cavs in the postseason and played a significant role in the team’s success.

Three players who were on the Cavs’ roster before the return of King James have been huge too. Irving, Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova are three of the youngest players on the team, but they deserve a ton of credit for the way that they’ve stepped up and shined on the NBA’s biggest stage despite entering the postseason with no playoff experience.

Irving has had some excellent games and has averaged 18.7 points this postseason and really helped spread the floor with his 48.1 percent shooting from long range. He’s continued to contribute even though he’s clearly hurting too.

Thompson has been one of the Cavs’ most important players since the team lost Love and Varejao, and he has provided excellent rebounding and defense. He’s averaging 9.4 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in the playoffs, and he has been great on the offensive boards to give the Cavs extra possessions. He knows his role and will get a big pay day this summer when he hits restricted free agency.

Dellavedova has played well too, going from a seldom-used reserve to the team’s starting point guard in the Eastern Conference Finals due to Irving’s injuries. Some players would choke under those circumstances, but Dellavedova delivered by scoring in double figures in his last three games and doing a lot of things that don’t show up in the box score, such as making hustle plays and playing solid defense.

James has performed at a sensational level and made his depleted supporting cast better (which is his specialty), but those players deserve props for executing as well. While beating the Warriors at less than full strength will be difficult, this wouldn’t be the first time that the Cavs entered a series this postseason being doubted and seemingly outmatched.

“I can’t guarantee the championship; that’s not what I’m here for,” James said. “I’m here to lead. But I will guarantee that we will play our asses off. We will, from the first minute to minute 48 – or if it’s overtime, [minute] 53 – we will do that. At the end of the day, that’s all I can ask for. That’s all we can give.”

James wants to give Cleveland their first NBA championship and end the city’s 50-year title drought in the four major sports. That’s one of the reasons he returned to the Cavaliers.

“I’m a guy who believes in unfinished business, and I understood what these people were going through, the people here not only in Cleveland but in Northeast Ohio and all over the world who love and bleed wine and gold,” James said. “I think we all here know how long it’s been since a champion has been in this city. I mean, you can try and not focus on it. You can try to say, ‘Okay, well, it’s not about that.’ But we all know it. The one thing that we can guarantee as a team – our 15 guys and our coaching staff and people that travel with us on the road and work every day – is we will give our best shot.”

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Boston’s Potential Crisis

The Kyrie drama may finally be over in Boston, but some tough decisions could be on the horizon for the Celtics, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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It’s hard to get a read on what exactly the Boston Celtics are going to be this upcoming season.

Losing a talent with the rap sheet that Kyrie Irving has at only 27 years old would usually spell misery for any fanbase. Yet, after all that transpired this season, there may not be a fanbase happier to see an NBA superstar in his prime walk than Celtics Nation was when Irving bolted.

Besides, the sting of his departure was mitigated by the arrival of Kemba Walker. Kemba is a slight downgrade from Kyrie, but his consistent improvement, as well as his reputation as a team player, has some believing that he may be able to produce more effectively than Kyrie did as a Celtic.

The most damaging loss the Celtics suffered from the summer is Al Horford. Horford’s all-around game was the perfect fit in Brad Stevens’ system. His floor-spacing, vision, defense, and unselfishness benefitted the team in so many ways that it would be almost impossible to replace every dimension he brought to the Celtics by himself.

Instead of finding a replacement for Horford, the Celtics thought outside of the box by bringing in Enes Kanter. Kanter can’t do everything that Horford does – comparing those two defensively alone is downright laughable – but Kanter still commands double-teams, is one of the league’s best rebounders and is joining a team that ranked 22nd in rebounds per game. It’s definitely a downgrade, but Enes has proven he can be a solid contributor.

That’s not even factoring in the other unknowns facing the Celtics this season. Jayson Tatum in year three; Jaylen Brown in year four; Gordon Hayward being two years removed from his leg injury. After a down year so difficult that pretty much everyone involved took a step back, it’s hard to say where the bar should be set for this team.

Presently, Boston’s ceiling is drastically lower than it was at this exact time a year ago. But when you consider that they won 49 games, is it delusional to think they’ll be able to exceed that win total with a seemingly lesser roster?

That will depend on whether they can solve a possible crisis that their roster as constructed could produce.

In basketball, it’s common sense that if you want to win, you put your five best players on the court when things matter most. As long as those best players can actually play together on the court. That’s the Celtics’ problem right there.

Boston’s five best players are slated to be the following:

-Kemba Walker
-Jayson Tatum
-Gordon Hayward
-Jaylen Brown
-Marcus Smart

With Kanter designated as the starting center – this may change as the season progresses – one of these five is going to start the season coming off the bench, which Brad Stevens will figure out with due time. Hayward, Brown, and Smart have all played significant minutes with the second unit recently so it shouldn’t be much of an adjustment there.

The problem is, if all five of those players play to the best of their abilities, all of them are too good to be wasting away on the bench in crunch time. But if they all are on the court to close out games, who plays center? The only one out of the five who has any experience playing the five position is Hayward, which came last year and he only played one percent of his minutes there.

Brad Stevens has always been one to experiment. He’s never been hesitant to thrust players who aren’t usually the center type into the role of the small-ball five. From Brandon Bass to Jonas Jerebko to Semi Ojeleye, Stevens can really commit to the small in small-ball.

There’s just one problem. The Celtics’ top competitors for the crown this season sports some of the best centers in the league, which include Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, and Nikola Jokic among others. Should Boston try to use its projected best players in its crunchtime lineup, they won’t stand much of a chance. Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart are good defenders, but they’re not that good.

Boston right now isn’t really considered a contender by most people who follow the NBA but adding the 29-year-old Walker, who is now entering the prime of his career, signaled that they aim to be one. Say Boston tries the Walker-Smart-Brown-Tatum-Hayward lineup, and it does not pan out, they may have to trade one of them in order to balance out the roster and crunchtime lineup.

Who they would ship out is the real mystery. They’re definitely not trading Kemba after they just added him. Jayson Tatum’s trade availability expired the second Anthony Davis was traded to the Lakers. Many fans are clamoring for it after a not-so-stellar comeback, but Gordon Hayward is unlikely to be traded. His contract at this moment is an albatross, and when teams trade the star free agents they lured to them shortly after said luring, it’s not a good look for the franchise, especially after what Hayward has gone through.

For better or worse, Gordon Hayward is remaining a Boston Celtic. That leaves Smart and Brown. This is where this hypothetical crisis gets interesting. If Danny Ainge’s hand is forced to choose between the two, who does he trade?

If Ainge wants to keep the one with the highest ceiling, it’s Brown. Jaylen did not have the easiest start last season. He was so bad in fact that they benched him for Smart. Over time, Brown found his game again off the bench. As good as he was, a man of Brown’s talents should not be relegated to the bench.

If that’s not enough, remember that just the year prior, Brown was one of the most vital contributors on a team that was within inches of the NBA Finals. Eighteen points on 46/39/64 splits in 18 of what had to be the most important games of his life as a 21-year-old cemented Brown’s status as a high-upside, possible star player.

Between Brown and Smart, Brown has a higher ceiling.

If Ainge wants to keep the one who solidifies the team culture, it’s Smart. Smart may never have the scoring prowess or the reliable jumper that Brown has, but ask anyone who sets the tone for the game more, and it’s Smart.

Ever since he first walked on the court, Smart’s been one of the most intense, high-energy players in the league. His playmaking and defense inspire the Celtics to play at their best. When the Celtics’ 2018 playoff run comes up, people talk about how impressive the youngsters were, but they forget that their fortunes may not have turned out so well if Smart had not come back in time from injury.

It’s true that his love for the game puts his flaws on display, but Marcus Smart is what helped catapult the Brad Stevens era and establish a successful culture in Boston. His efforts probably won’t lead to any All-Star appearance, but they solidify him as an impact player for a championship team.

Between Brown and Smart, Smart brings more of a winning culture.

Some other components at play – Brown is in a contract year, and he should have suitors next offseason, while Smart is currently being paid $12 million (salary that could be used in a possible trade for a star player).

Now there’s the chance that none of this happens. The Celtics may go forward with the core they have right now, and maybe they have something up their sleeve that nobody knows about. There’s also the chance they may trade both Smart and Brown for an upgrade or trade someone else.

There’s obviously no way to tell what will happen at this point. However, these are the pertinent questions that the Celtics need to ask themselves as we approach the upcoming season.

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High-Performance Mindfulness: Incorporating The Mental Health Resource Into The NBA

Jake Rauchbach outlines best practices and working parameters for integrating a mental health/Mental Performance resource into the coaching staff. 

Jake Rauchbach

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As NBA teams begin to integrate mental health resources into the overall working structure of their organizations, several key points should be taken into consideration so that practitioners can be most effective when working with players.

Before we dive in, it is important to note that, within the mental health spectrum, there are generally two avenues.

There is the clinical side, which focuses on diagnosing and treating behavioral disorders like depression, substance abuse and learning disabilities. There is also the applied/performance-related side, where the end goal is to improve on-court performance through techniques such as High-Performance Mindfulness.

Let’s jump in and break down some of the best practices and key considerations for successfully installing this resource within your staff:

Best Practices & Key Considerations

Player Buy-In

Player buy-in should be the number one priority. All other considerations should directly feed into facilitating and supporting this. With any sort of coaching, trust and rapport with the player are vital. The same thing holds for mental health resources/High-Performance Mindfulness coaches. Credibility and strong rapport with the player must be built.

This responsibility lies on the shoulders of the interpersonal skill-sets of the High-Performance Coach. However, much more of this responsibility resides with the decision-makers, who define the working parameters for the resource. If players do not like, trust or see value in the resource and the services offered, it is going to be very tough to make much headway. Before any substantial progress, this foundation must be in place first.

Staff Buy-In (Cooperation)

If a player senses that staff members, especially decision-makers, surrounding that player do not support or are sending mixed messages regarding the value, effectiveness, and acceptance of the mental health work, it can derail or block the initiative. When leaders within the organization outwardly support the role of the practitioner and initiative, it makes it that much easier to effectively serve the player.

In a perfect world, all levels of the organization are sending the same message to the player(s) regarding the role, value and implementation of the mental health practitioner. More realistically, outward support and clear definition of the practitioner’s role goes a long way.

  • Defined Role: Clearly defining the role, will properly position the resource. It will also put players and staff members on notice regarding working parameters.
  • Embed Resource in Coaching Staff: The highest probability for success is by having the resource sit on the bench during the game, ideally right between the player rotation. This is ultra-effective in improving performance and halting performance issues straight away as they arise during the game.
  • Direct Line of Communication: A direct line of communication from the mental health resource/performance coach to the decision-makers within the organization is vital. The mental and emotional responses of athletes are illogical and often unpredictable. So is the performance improvement of the player. It is very rarely a straight line up. A clean and clear feedback loop from the mental health expert to the decision-makers make this job much easier.
    • Expert feedback presented consistently is a must, ideally in weekly or bi-weekly meetings. Confidentiality is always a major consideration. However, performance results and projective performance trajectories of a player are different than confidential information. When it comes to player performance, results, trajectories and player progression can be shared and must be put into context.

Measurable Success

In High-Performance Mindfulness, there should be measurables, or metrics, showing the improvement for the player. Performance coaches should be judged by the tangible production they can facilitate for a player or set of players. In a results-based business such as professional basketball, showing the value add via statistical improvement is important. This is especially true in a growth space such as Mental Performance.

Finding a way to do this so that it does not infringe upon the domains of other coaching staff members is also a consideration. However, not acknowledging that Mental Performance has the potential for improving statistical on-court performance would be missing the point.

Time

There is a gestation period that exists in High-Performance Mindfulness Coaching. Just like any other type of coaching, there is a period between the implementation of the work and the actual production improvement results. Understanding this will provide clarity and context.

There are just some of the best practices for helping jump-start your mental health and High-Performance Mindfulness initiatives at the NBA and professional basketball level.

The application of the mental health and High-Performance Mindfulness resources within the NBA and professional basketball is a little like the wild west right now. Through trial and error, organizations will see what works and what doesn’t within the context of their given situation.

One thing is for sure, though: This space is growing and growing fast, and decision-makers better have foundational understanding for how to give this initiative the best probability for success.

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NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Denver Nuggets

James Blancarte continues Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series by examining the Denver Nuggets’ deep roster.

James Blancarte

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James Blancarte continues Basketball Insiders’ “Grading the Offseason” series analyzing the Denver Nuggets.

Throughout the offseason, Basketball Insiders has been taking a look at each respective franchise’s roster after the draft, offseason signings and trades. In doing so, we look to analyze and determine how each team did as they prepare for next season and beyond.

There are numerous strategies teams can take when it comes to the future. Some teams look to acquire various assets in exchange for taking on players with undesirable contracts. Having cleared up cap space, other teams use the offseason targeting free agents with the hope of making a big leap going forward. This offseason was one for the ages with a few teams willing to take huge risks and spend a treasure trove of assets to build an instant contender. Successful teams oftentimes resist the urge to make any major additions or subtractions and take a bet on internal growth and continuity.

And that leads us to the Denver Nuggets. Denver is fresh off a playoff run that nearly saw the franchise return to the Western Conference Finals. Some teams in big markets seem to come away with the biggest free agents. This offseason, Denver mostly did not come up with any top-tier acquisitions. However, with the talent and youth of their key players, the Nuggets shouldn’t be concerned. A year older, more mature and with the benefit of continuity, the Nuggets again enters the upcoming season as a Western Conference contender.

Overview

Last year, the Nuggets jumped up to second place in the west after finishing in ninth the prior two seasons. With that jump, Denver finally returned to the postseason, ending a five-season playoff drought. Jumping up seven seeds is an impressive season-to-season jump not often seen in the NBA. However, many Nuggets followers would argue that the team had been better than their prior results and the jump shouldn’t come across as a major surprise.

Credit the Nuggets’ investment and patience in their core players for last year’s results. The team has allowed their franchise star Nikola Jokic to fully explore his talents as his minutes, effectiveness and usage have increased year-to-year. Alongside Jokic, the team has seen significant development and improve play from Gary Harris and Jamal Murray.

Last year saw the two-man game between Jokic and Murray take off to a new level. Their intuitive and fluid two-man game created a foundation on offense that the team thrived on. Throw in a full season of Paul Millsap and the team became that much more dangerous. The year prior, the Nuggets acquired the multi-skilled Millsap but an injury kept him out much of the year and prevented the team from gelling fast enough to get back into the playoff picture. With a full season of Millsap in addition to the team’s young core, the Nuggets were able to hit another level.

The Nuggets should be lauded for their ability to draft, acquire and develop young talent. This past season saw second-year guard Monte Morris join the rotation and establish himself as another key contributor. Malik Beasley, a first-round pick for Denver in 2016, also had his best year so far and started in 18 games. Longtime mainstay Will Barton did struggle with injury last season. With his explosiveness somewhat limited, Barton didn’t have the same overall impact he has had in year’s past.

The Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers matchup in the semifinals produced fireworks. Denver came out of the wrong end of an unbelievable quadruple-overtime game. Losing that marathon game could have easily been the kind of loss that a team doesn’t recover from in a close matchup. Instead, the Nuggets came back and even led the series 3-2. Despite going toe-to-toe, the Nuggets came up just short in the final quarter of game seven.

Offseason

Unlike a few other teams this year, there is no splashy star acquisition and that is just fine. Having come so close to making the Conference Finals and having already seen year-to-year growth from multiple key contributors, slow and steady may still win the race for the Nuggets. Jokic is arguably a top-10 player and is a realistic MVP candidate entering this upcoming season. Also, Jamal Murray was signed to a five-year, $170 million extension. Murray is an emerging talent and has the skill to be a dynamic offensive force in the future.

Just because the Nuggets didn’t sign or trade for a top-tier free agent doesn’t mean they would never consider it. There have been murmurs at times about whether Denver would or should pull the trigger and use their wealth of young talent to acquire a potentially available star like Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal. That speculation never seemed to amount to much and the team opted for a few smaller transactions.

On June 29, Denver exercised their team option to keep Millsap for $30 million for the 2019-20 season. Again, Millsap played well last season and helps make the Nuggets more versatile on both ends of the floor.

The Nuggets also acquired forward Jerami Grant by jumping into the Thunder fire sale of assets that started with the Paul George trade. In exchange for a 2020 first-round pick, the Nuggets picked up a versatile and capable defensive forward to help round out their deep roster.

There are a few other minor transactions to take note of. The Nuggets closed the book on Trey Lyles, who has been in the team’s big man rotation for the past few years. In spot play, he contributed at times but didn’t make an overall impact sufficient to justify the continued investment.

Denver has a deep roster and will need to stay flexible and figure out their best rotations next season. Barton will be looking to re-establish himself. Juan Hernangómez, who can play on the wing or as a small-ball four, will again be trying to find a permanent place in the rotation. Center Mason Plumlee formed a towering two-man front-court tandem that allowed Jokic to play from the perimeter, in addition to his backup center minutes. Plumlee may be wary of Jerami Grant, who could usurp some of those frontcourt minutes alongside Jokic.

PLAYERS IN: Jerami Grant, P.J. Dozier, Tyler Cook, Vlatko Cancar

PLAYERS OUT: Isaiah Thomas, Trey Lyles, Tyler Lydon, Brandon Goodwin, Thomas Welsh

What’s Next

Finishing second in the west, being a quarter away from the Conference Finals and bringing back the same squad of up and coming players should make the Nuggets a near lock to be a top-shelf team again. Continued development from many of their young players and an MVP season from Jokic could easily place them in the top-tier of the Conference again.

Unfortunately, the Nuggets will have to contend with newly minted contenders in the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers. Add a stellar offseason for the Utah Jazz and the possibility that the James Harden-Russell Westbrook experiment could succeed and there are at least four other realistic contenders for the top two spots in the west.

Simply holding the two spot will be quite the challenge. However, the Nuggets have the benefit of youth, player development and continuity. Few teams can tout continuity as a major asset the way Denver can. This upcoming season will be an interesting test to see how important continuity is in an always-improving Western Conference.

Offseason Grade: B+

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