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NBA PM: Excitement and Questions Surround The Nuggets

There is a lot of optimism surrounding the Nuggets, but there are some outstanding questions and issues as well.

Jesse Blancarte

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The Denver Nuggets have not made it to the playoffs since the 2012-13 season. However, this season, the franchise has plenty of reason to be optimistic and hopeful it can break its playoff drought. This is especially true after Denver has won its first three preseason games.

The excitement around the Nuggets begins with one of their offseason additions. Denver pulled off one of the offseason’s best deals by signing Paul Millsap to an incentive-laden three-year, $95.4 million contract, with a team option on the final season.

In his Nuggets’ debut, Millsap contributed 22 points, 11 rebounds and two assists to help lead the Nuggets to a 108-102 win against the Golden State Warriors. Many projected Millsap to be an ideal fit in the Nuggets’ frontcourt alongside Nikola Jokic. So far, the duo has been encouraging on both ends of the court.

With playmakers like Jokic and Millsap in the frontcourt, and plenty of offensive talent on the wing, the Nuggets are likely to be one of the NBA’s most efficient offensive teams this season. However, with Jokic at center and Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray and Jameer Nelson at point guard, the Nuggets are likely limited to being an average defensive team. But the Nuggets have looked more engaged, focused and aggressive on defense this preseason, which may be due to Millsap’s presence. If this renewed effort and engagement on defense maintains throughout the entire season, the Nuggets should be in range of making the playoffs, especially considering how potent their offensive attack is. Through three preseason games, the Nuggets rank fifth in offensive efficiency and 16th in defensive efficiency.

Millsap’s defensive impact is a welcome addition for the Nuggets, but it doesn’t address one of the other major issues Denver faces. Specifically, who will be the team’s starting point guard?

Last season, Mudiay struggled and Murray showed flashes of his overall talent, but Nelson eventually took over the starting position. It’s still unclear which point guard is going to take control of the starting position but there has been a lot of optimism surrounding Mudiay recently. Mudiay has shot the ball well from three-point range, his efficiency has improved significantly from last season and he has been active as a playmaker and scorer. Turnovers continue to be a major issue for Mudiay, which ultimately could be the reason he loses the starting role to either Murray or Nelson.

Murray is another intriguing prospect who displayed a diverse offensive skill set last season. Murray doesn’t have the explosiveness that Mudiay has, but he has a knack for creating space, getting into the lane and finishing around the rim. Murray may not be a true point guard, however, and it’s not clear whether he’s ready to manage the team’s offense as a starter. However, with his combination of shooting, scoring at the rim and solid playmaking skills, he arguably has the highest ceiling among the Nuggets’ point guards. Also, Mudiay has proven to be most effective coming off the bench so far this preseason, which may be a factor in determining who will win the starting position.

Nelson is probably the Nuggets’ safest option to fill the starting spot. Nelson is a 14-year veteran and had a bounce back campaign last season. But Nelson doesn’t have the upside that Mudiay and Murray have and it’s possible that injuries and age could slow him down this season. Also, with Millsap and Jokic in the frontcourt acting as playmakers as well, it arguably makes most sense to have the best shooter in the starting unit to spread the court. Murray could punish teams as a spot up shooter with Jokic and Millsap drawing defenses toward the basket. Mudiay has been on fire from distance this preseason, but it’s unlikely that he can maintain this hot streak (though only time will tell). Head coach Mike Malone has a tough decision ahead of him. There is no obvious answer here and he Malone may even tinker with different lineups throughout the season before he names a fulltime starter.

Another open ended question is the contract status of sharpshooter Gary Harris. Nuggets general manager Arturas Karnisovas told the Denver Post on Thursday that the franchise is working with Harris on a contract extension.

“He’s been such a huge part of what we’re trying to do here, a representation of what we’re building here,” Karnisovas said regarding Harris. “Him going through trade rumors and still staying with us and being consistent and being a good leader for our guys and (knowing) how to do it, he was the ultimate professional.

“We’re trying to find ways to keep him here as long as we can.”

Last season, Harris averaged 14.9 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists and shot 50.2 percent from the field and 42 percent from three-point range. Harris has quickly developed into a knockdown shooter for Denver and has become an effective slasher off the ball as well. Harris is a low usage player that spreads the court, takes efficient shots and moves the ball whenever he doesn’t have an open look at the basket. Harris is also an effective wing defender, though his reputation may actually exceed his actual defensive impact at this point. Nevertheless, his production on both ends of the court is significant and his performance this season will be a big factor in how far Denver is able to go. The Nuggets would do well to lock him up for the foreseeable future on a reasonable contract the way the Toronto Raptors did earlier this week with swingman Norman Powell.

Another outstanding issue for Denver is the situation surrounding forward Kenneth Faried. Faried is clearly unhappy with the fact that the team acquired Millsap this offseason and has locked him into the starting power forward position.

“I’ll just put it out there for everybody. I’m not a bench player. I’ve been saying that for the longest. I’m a starter,” Faried said during Denver’s Media Day. “I love to hear the crowd (when introduced as), ‘Starting at power forward, No. 35, Kenneth Faried.’ Yes, that’s me. One hundred percent, that’s been my whole life. And I’m going to fight for a starting position. I’m just not going to lay down and let somebody take it.

“There are 29 other teams. If this team doesn’t want, or respect me enough, to play me the minutes that I think I deserve to play, then I understand that. Hey, there’s 29 others. Maybe I’ll go somewhere else and do what I need to do there. But at the same token, I’m here in Denver, and I want to play Manimal basketball, no matter what, every time I step on that court.”

Faried is under contract for $12,921,348 this season and $13,764,045 next season. While Faried is a productive player, his inability to stretch the court from the power forward position limits his value. Moving that much salary could prove difficult considering Faried’s limitations, but there may be a few teams that would be interested in adding his energetic style of play.

Millsap is clearly the more complete and talented player and is a better fit in the starting lineup. With this in mind, it’s possible that Faried’s frustrations could become a distraction in the locker room, similar to the situation with Jusuf Nurkic last season. With no obvious solution to this issue, this situation will be something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

The Nuggets didn’t have the most active offseason, but the addition of Millsap could be a catalyst for this team to break its current playoff drought. Denver also features plenty of young talent at just about every position. With some internal development and a consistent emphasis on the defensive end of the court, the Nuggets could be one of the NBA’s most interesting and surprising teams this season. There are some outstanding issues to keep an eye on, but with so much offensive talent and depth, it’s easy to understand why there’s so much excitement surrounding this team.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA DAILY: Lou Williams Stepping Up For Injured Clippers

The Clippers have been hit by injuries again, but Lou Williams is doing everything he can to keep the team afloat.

Jesse Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Clippers have been decimated by injuries this season. Blake Griffin is sidelined until approximately February of next year. Danilo Gallinari has been sidelined for an extended period of time with a glute injury and will continue to be out of action for some time after suffering a second glute injury recently. Patrick Beverley underwent season ending microfracture surgery in November. Milos Teodosic suffered a foot injury in just the second game of the season and only recently returned to the lineup. Austin Rivers just suffered a concussion and could miss some time as well.

With so many injuries, the Clippers currently find themselves in the 10th seed in the Western Conference with an 11-15 record. This isn’t what the Clippers had in mind when they brought back a solid haul of players last offseason in exchange for Chris Paul.

Competing with the top teams in the Western Conference was always going to be difficult for this Clippers team. Los Angeles has plenty of talent on the roster and added a few younger prospects to develop. However, key players like Griffin and Gallinari are injury prone and both needed to stay on the court for the Clippers to have any hope of staying in range of the West’s top teams. The Clippers lost 9 games straight in the middle of November and it looked as though they were on course to be competing for a top lottery pick in next season’s draft.

However, despite all of the injuries and setbacks, Lou Williams, along with iron man DeAndre Jordan, has picked up the slack and has done more than his fair share to keep the Clippers’ playoff hopes alive. This season, Williams is averaging 20 points, 4.8 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game, while shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range (on 6.2 attempts per game). Williams is sporting a healthy 21.2 Player Efficiency Rating, which is a near career best rating (Williams posted a 21.4 PER last season). His True Shooting percentage (59.3) is tied with his career high rating, which Williams posted last season as well. Williams’s free throw rate has taken a dip this season, but his ability to draw timely (and often questionable) fouls has been a valuable asset to his team once again. Simply put, Williams has been particularly efficient on offense this season for the Clippers – a team that has lost its most reliable scorers and playmakers.

“We’ve had some guys go down with injuries and somebody has to step in and fill that scoring void,” Williams said after helping the Clippers defeat the Magic. “I’ve been able to do it.”

Williams has also hit plenty of big shots for the Clippers this season. Most recently, Williams knocked down a go-ahead three-pointer in the final seconds against the Washington Wizards that sealed the win for the Clippers. The Clippers are used to having a natural born scorer coming off the bench to act as a sparkplug as they had Jamal Crawford on the roster for the last five seasons. Similar to Crawford, Williams struggles to hold his own on the defensive side of the ball. But Williams has been more effective defensively so far this season for the Clippers than Crawford was for the majority of his time in Los Angeles. Williams isn’t going to lock down the Russell Westbrooks of the world, but he isn’t giving back the majority of the points he scores either.

In addition to his scoring, Williams is a solid playmaker and has managed to facilitate the Clippers’ offense at various points of the season. Williams isn’t exactly Chris Paul in terms of setting up his teammates for easy baskets, but he has been notably effective in this role, which is very important considering how many playmakers have falled to injury this season. Williams is now, arguably, the team’s best offensive weapon and one of its most effective floor generals. Now that we are nearly two months into the NBA season, it seems as though Williams and his teammates are starting to find a little more chemistry with one another.

“I think these guys are just starting to be more comfortable. They understand we’re going to have some injuries and guys are going to be down,” Williams said recently. “So they’re just playing with a lot of confidence. I think at first you’re kind of getting your feet wet and guys don’t want to make mistakes. Now guys are just going out there and playing as hard as they can.”

Williams will need to continue building chemistry with his teammates if they are to keep pace until players like Gallinari and Griffin make it back onto the court.

The Clippers have won six of their last 10 games and are starting to steady what had becoming a sinking ship. Smart gamblers and predictive algorithms would caution against betting on the Clippers making the playoffs this season, but they are in much better shape now than they were in the middle of November — an accomplishment that Williams deserves plenty of credit for.

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 12/15/17

Spencer Davies checks in on the race for DPOY with his top six candidates.

Spencer Davies

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It’s mid-December and candidates for individual awards are starting to really garner attention. On Basketball Insiders, we’ve been taking a close look at players who should be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year in a unique fashion.

As the numbers begin to even out and the noise lessens with larger sample sizes, the picture becomes clearer. There is no clear-cut favorite, and the return of Kawhi Leonard will likely complicate things more in the future, but right now there are six players who have stood out from the rest.

 Luc Richard Mbah a Moute

It’s a shame that a right shoulder injury is going to keep Mbah a Moute out of action for the next few weeks. He’s done everything that the Houston Rockets have asked of him and more. It’s been his versatility defensively that’s made him a headache for any opponent he’s guarded. He’s able to seamlessly switch onto assignments coming off screens and create turnovers from forcing extra pressure.

The Rockets have the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA (103.7) as it is, but when the veteran forward is on the floor, they allow just 99.8 points per 100 possessions per Cleaning The Glass.

 Andre Roberson

There’s not a lot of good going on with the Oklahoma City Thunder right now, though you can pick out a bright spot when it comes to the defensive side of the ball. As a team, they are first in the league in turnover percentage and second in defensive rating. This is due in part to Roberson’s ability to force his matchups to make errant decisions with the ball, which usually results in a steal for one of his teammates.

Currently, the 26-year-old is the top guard in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranking system and 10th in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. According to CTG, Oklahoma City is worse when Roberson isn’t playing (97.9 on/10.5 off) and his impact using those figures ranks in the 94th percentile.

 Kevin Durant

Here’s a case where the numbers don’t exactly tell the real story. The Golden State Warriors are technically a better team defensively by 6.4 points per 100 possessions with Durant off the court. But when you go deeper into things, things get clarified. Let’s start simple: He’s tied for most total blocks in the league (51) and the second-most blocks per game (2.1). The Warriors have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 102.9.

How about we go further into individual defense? Durant is contesting nearly 13 field goals per game and only 38.4 percent of those attempts have been successful, a mark that is the second-lowest for opponent percentage among those defending at least 10 tries per game. Diving deeper, the reigning Finals MVP is stifling in the fourth quarter, yielding a league-low 30 percent conversion rate (min. three attempts) to his competition.

 Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process has gone mainstream, and for good reason. Everybody is focused on the beautiful footwork, the sensational euro steps and the dream shakes, but Embiid’s got a suit just as strong on the other side of the ball. The Philadelphia 76ers are barely on the outside looking in as a top-10 defense, and they’ve been a team improving as they’ve grown together over the course of the season. The entire trio of Robert Covington, Ben Simmons, and Embiid has been the stronghold of the Sixers’ defense, but it’s been the sophomore center who has assumed the most responsibility to anchor down the paint and take on individual challenges against quality big men.

Embiid ranks third in DRPM among those playing at least 30 minutes per game and has the highest defended field goal percentage differential (-8.7) in the NBA for players seeing at least eight attempts per game. Philadelphia is also allowing 112.4 points per 100 possessions with him sitting, which is a 12-point difference that puts his impact in the 97th percentile.

 Eric Bledsoe

Since Bledsoe’s arrival, the Milwaukee Bucks have been on the upswing regarding their defensive principles. The combination of Giannis Antetokounmpo—who could be a candidate for DPOY in his own right—and the strong guard has created havoc for opposing teams. There’s a ton of pressure being applied and it’s worked well. Due to a less-than-ideal stretch a month ago, work still has to be done in order to rid the Bucks out of that bottom-10 stigma in that specific area, but they’re on their way.

Bledsoe’s reputation as an in your face, stick-like-glue defender precedes itself. He’s doing an excellent job with one-on-one matchups. Already hesitant to attack him as it is, opponents don’t try to take him much, but when they do, it doesn’t usually turn out in their favor. In isolation situations, Bledsoe is allowing just 0.44 points per possession and is tied for the second-highest turnover frequency on those plays, ranking in the 97th percentile according to NBA.com. Using CTG, the Bucks’ defensive rating dips by 13 points when he’s off the floor. That discrepancy is also highly regarded and ranks in the 98th percentile.

 Anthony Davis

Where would the New Orleans Pelicans be without Davis? There’s a special talent about The Brow that can’t really be put into words. He takes on the brunt of the defensive load and has for years now. DeMarcus Cousins started off as the physical presence of the duo on that end of the court, but it’s been Davis who has remained the most consistent force.

Answering the question posed in the first paragraph, the Pelicans are giving up 117.5 points per 100 possessions when Davis is not present. That is a ridiculous figure, and given that New Orleans isn’t the best team defensively in the first place, it shows his true importance to that group. Including Cousins, he is one of 13 players defending at least 14 field goals per game. The difference between them, however, is that he is allowing just 40.5 percent of those attempts to be successful. It’s the lowest conversion rate among that list of names. Add in the fact that he’s blocking almost two shots per game and is averaging a steal per game—that’s a convincing case for DPOY.

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Jahlil Okafor Being Slowly Incorporated By Nets

The Nets hope Jahlil Okafor can be a franchise player for them, but, of course, only when he’s ready.

Moke Hamilton

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It’s incredible that a player selected as highly in a draft and as recently as he could be considered damaged goods by his drafting team, but that’s what the Philadelphia 76ers thought of Jahlil Okafor, and the Brooklyn Nets were the beneficiaries.

Remarkably, behind the genius of general manager Sean Marks, the Nets, with Okafor, suddenly have a roster with two young building blocks in he and D’Angelo Russell. With Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll, Marks has done an incredible job of improving the talent base of the Nets despite having little assets to offer in terms of trade value.

Now, with Okafor in tow, the question everyone in Brooklyn wants to know the answer to is “When?”

After acquiring Okafor and shooting guard Nik Stauskas from the Sixers on December 7, neither of the two played in any of the club’s first three games following the trade.

The idea, said head coach Kenny Atkinson, is to bring both Okafor and Stauskas along slowly.

“I just think it’s going to take time,” Atkinson, according to New York Newsday, said Wednesday after practice.

“I can’t give you a timetable. I think we come to these decisions as a group. We’ll know when he’s ready and we’ll give you the word.”

Selected with the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, Okafor averaged 17 points and 7.5 rebounds per game as a rookie. Since then, a combination of the rise of Joel Embiid, his lack of defensive presence and perceived inability to play in an NBA where traditional back-to-basket centers are considered obsolete dropped his stock dramatically, to the point where he played a total of 25 minutes this season for the Sixers.

Still, it hasn’t impacted the value that Atkinson or Marks sees in him.

“I think he’s been very serious, very focused, and that’s a great start because that’s where it starts,” Atkinson said on Wednesday.

“What’s your demeanor like? What’s your work? I’m looking to get to know him more.”

It’s not every day that a coach will acquire a new player who has impact potential and seat him on the bench, but that’s exactly what Atkinson has done. What it means, though, is probably more important.

When one considers what has transpired with the Nets since their move to Brooklyn, the franchise has been renowned for attempting to take shortcuts to the top. From Gerald Wallace to Joe Johnson to even Deron Williams, the moves made by the franchise were always designed with the thought of tomorrow, not the pragmatic patience and long-sighted view that, at least to this point, Atkinson and Marks seem to have.

In most situations, a franchise which knows that its first round pick is going elsewhere would feel at least some sort of pressure to win as much as possible in the short term, especially after having the first overall pick in the prior year’s draft snatched from their grasp. As a reminder, as a part of the 2013 trade that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn, the Nets sent the Celtics their first round picks in the 2014, 2016 and 2018 drafts, as well as the right to swap picks with them in 2017.

As fate would have it, the Nets’ pick in 2017 ended up being first overall, but, obviously, the Celtics exercised their right to swap.

Since then, the Celtics dealt the Nets’ 2018 pick to the Cavaliers in exchange for Kyrie Irving, but to the front office’s credit, the knowledge of the sins of yesterday have no impact on the brick-by-brick approach that Marks has taken in attempting to rebuild the franchise.

Okafor, unlike his prior life in Philadelphia, isn’t coming to Brooklyn with the pressure of being any sort of franchise savior on his shoulders—he simply needs to fit in, on his own time.

“They know my weaknesses and strengths and I’m working with them every day to get better,” Okafor said on Wednesday.

“They already told me what they want me to work on and like I said, I’m all in.”

Obviously, Atkinson has a plan for Okafor, and with the Nets playing three games in four nights, having another big body to provide some minutes would do the team wonders. But, for a change, there’s no haste in Brooklyn.

“Right now, I’m just getting used to the pace,” Okafor said. “That’s the main thing. Especially with me really not having played at all this year,” he said, alluding to the fact that, despite weighing in about 20 pounds lighter than he was last season, his lack of action has cause him to lose a bit of his wind.

But while he may have lost his place in the rotation and his game readiness, in Brooklyn, Okafor has found something much more valuable—a sense of belonging.

“They’re just really invested in me and that just makes me feel wanted, it makes me feel a part of this team,” he said.

With the final debit of the ill-fated 2013 trade being paid this coming summer, the Nets will turn the page on a new era that they hope Okafor and D’Angelo Russell—two players selected one pick apart—can help to lead.

Behind the scenes, Marks will continue to work diligently to acquire undervalued pieces which can, for him, hopefully become a part of a sum that’s bigger than their individual pieces.

But, of course, like Okafor’s debut with Brooklyn, it’ll take some time.

That’s okay, though. Finally, at Barclays Center, for a change, there’s pragmatic patience. For sure, this time, there’s simply no need to rush.

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