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NBA PM: Nuggets Playing Through Learning Curves

With young talent and a group of solid veterans, the Denver Nuggets are well-positioned for the future.

Cody Taylor



Nuggets Playing Through Learning Curves

It’s often said that in the NBA, the worst place to be is in the middle of the pack. Teams either want to be among those competing for a title, or in position to compete for one of the top picks in the draft.

Of course, teams that earn high draft picks year after year want to eventually work their way up to be able to make a deep playoff run. Oklahoma City followed that model years ago and have been in the playoffs in four out of the last five seasons (and narrowly missed out on the playoffs last year because of injury issues).

The Denver Nuggets are one of the teams in the league that find themselves in the midst of a rebuild. As the third-youngest team in the Western Conference, with an average age of 25.6, they now look to be on their way up. In fact, their rebuilding efforts look to be ahead of schedule as they’re currently just six games back of the eighth seed in the Western Conference.

Prior to landing in its current two-game skid, the team had been playing well recently as they won five out of six, including four in a row at home. However, since that stretch, the team lost back-to-back games on the road to the Miami HEAT and Orlando Magic.

With tough upcoming road games against the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets and Cleveland Cavaliers, their playoff hopes could fade fast. While no one inside of the locker room will concede on the postseason, it seems like an accomplishment to still be mathematically alive in the playoff race with so few games remaining.

During their two-game losing streak, the Nuggets have shown some normal bad tendencies for a young team on the rise. The defense has slipped at times and the offense has gone through bouts of inconsistency as well.

The Nuggets trailed by as many as 18 points in the third quarter on Tuesday against the Magic, but managed to cut that deficit to just three points early in the fourth quarter. After cutting the lead down, the team went on a cold streak and the Magic eventually built their lead back up to 13 points just five minutes later. That’s life for a young team on the rise.

“It’s a matter of defense and we’ve shown that we can be a good defensive team, but consistency has been a huge issue for us,” Nuggets head coach Mike Malone said. “I think that speaks to our age and our youth. We’re playing and closing games with a bunch of rookies so there are going to be nights where we look pretty and there are going to be other nights where we don’t look so good.

“What is disappointing for me is that we’re coming off of a four-game win streak and a very productive home-stand and we won because of our defense. We won because of our ball movement and our valuing the ball. We’ve come on the road and we’ve forgotten that. We have some tough teams coming up – Atlanta, Charlotte and Cleveland. It’s not going to get any easier until we learn that defense has to be a constant for 48 minutes [and] 82 games a year.”

Earlier this season, Kevin Durant recalled a game early in his career when the Thunder was still learning how to win games. He told a group of reporters in Orlando that he still remembers the exact game when Carmelo Anthony hit a game-winner over his team. He said that all great teams have to go through those moments in order to become better.

Durant applied that moment to what the Magic are going through and it seems applicable to what the Nuggets are going through as well. While the Nuggets are rebuilding, it’s those moments that they’ll have to learn how to play through in order to be taken seriously as a team and take the next step in their development.

By all accounts, it appears they have the foundation in place to be taken seriously. While the chances of making the playoffs this season are fading quickly, the team will be taking these final 14 games as a chance to build for next season.

“We play a lot of young guys,” Will Barton told Basketball Insiders. “That’s the core of our team right now in the rotation, so we got a lot of rookies and second-year guys that’s playing. If we can close the season on a positive note and get us some momentum and confidence going into next season, that’ll be huge and guys will feel more ready and more comfortable going into next season.”

Denver’s young core is made up of last year’s lottery pick Emmanuel Mudiay, Nikola Jokic, Jusuf Nurkic, Gary Harris and Barton. Of course, they join veteran players in Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler. Each of these players are under contract for the foreseeable future and figure to play a huge role in Denver’s push to return to the playoffs.

Aside from the development of Mudiay, perhaps one of the biggest stories to come from Denver this season has been the emergence of Barton. Since arriving in Denver at last year’s trade deadline, Barton’s numbers have improved dramatically.

He’s improved his offensive production from 6.8 points last season to 14.8 points per game this season. His rebounding has improved from 2.8 to 6.1, assists from 1.4 to 2.4 and his three-point shooting has jumped from 27 percent to 34 percent.

Barton was rewarded with a three-year, $10.6 million deal over the summer to remain in Denver. With the emergence of C.J. McCollum this season in Portland, it remains to be seen whether or not Barton can win the Most Improved Player of the Year award, but he’s certainly in the conversation.

“The next level with me I feel like is more mental than anything,” Barton said. “I’m a guy that expects a lot from myself and I want a lot from myself. I think sometimes that kind of gets me in trouble just trying to prove myself that I can do this and I can do that.

“I feel like I’m at best when I’m just out there playing care-free; not thinking and not over thinking. Just going out there and having fun playing the game. I feel like now I have to come to grips with myself that [I’m] becoming who [I] want to be – don’t rush it too fast or don’t try to get caught up in it all.”

Given the rise with Barton, and several other players on the team, the Nuggets seemed to be well-positioned for the future. They have a good mixture of veterans on the roster that can help mentor the younger players.

This summer could be the offseason that boosts the team into contention. They could have as many as three first-round draft picks in the draft, and as much as $28 million in cap space to utilize in free agency.

When Malone took over as head coach last June, the Nuggets were a mess. Players were said to have been counting down the days until the end of last season, and the future of several of those players was in question. Fast forward nearly one season later, and it seems like those issues are a thing of the past.

Nothing is guaranteed in the NBA, but it seems like the Nuggets are on the verge of achieving success for years to come.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.


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NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics

The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.

Moke Hamilton



Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.

Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.

Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.

As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.

Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.

Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.

“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by

“I’m tired of not playing.”

Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.

As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.

What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.

Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.

Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.

Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.

In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.

Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.

With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.

As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.

Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.

But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.

And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.

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Winslow and the Miami HEAT Are “Believing in Each Other”

Justise Winslow discusses the all-around team effort of the Miami HEAT with Basketball Insiders.

Dennis Chambers



The days of LeBron James in Miami are over. Chris Bosh isn’t there anymore, either. No more Ray Allen or Shane Battier. Dwyane Wade is back, but he’s not “Flash” nowadays.

Actually, check the entire Miami HEAT roster; there’s no superstar. They have an All-Star in Goran Dragic, even if he was the third alternate. But during this most recent playoff push, the HEAT don’t have a worldwide household name to plaster all over billboards as a reason for their success.

With 10 games remaining until the playoffs, Miami doesn’t have a player averaging more than 33 minutes per game. Instead, they have 11 players who average at least 20 minutes a contest. Their approach is that of a deep rotation, and its led them to a 39-33 record and the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. All while the rest of the league is star-driven.

One of those key cogs to the Miami machine is third-year wing, Justise Winslow. A former top-10 pick out of Duke, Winslow is enjoying most efficient season so far for the HEAT. To him, the fact that his squad isn’t littered with names like LeBron and Steph doesn’t make a difference.

“I think our team is extremely confident in each other,” Winslow said. “I think that’s a big thing is that we all believe in each other. We play to each other’s strengths, and most importantly we’re a defensive-minded team. We hang our hats on the defensive end, and that’s really what gets us going as a team.”

Winslow isn’t exaggerating. The HEAT is seventh in the NBA in defensive rating. Head coach Erik Spoelstra harps on the team’s defensive scheme and preparation. Without a go-to scorer capable of getting the team 30 any given night, Miami needs to do their job as a collective unit on the defensive end of the floor night in and night out.

“Each night the coaching staff preaching to us that we have enough, no matter who is in the lineup,” Winslow said. “So it’s just about going out there and executing and putting together a good game of 48-minute basketball. I think our belief in each other that we have enough to get the job done is key.”

In the current NBA landscape, a lot of the playoff contenders are centered around players with big resumes and bigger names. As a result, the HEAT get lost in the shuffle of the national conversation from time to time. Their culture of togetherness and slight from the media outside of their city could make for the perfect “chip on the shoulder” recipe. Or so you would think. Winslow doesn’t believe the chatter, or lack thereof, matters any to Miami.

“We don’t pay too much attention to that,” Winslow said. ‘We’re so focused, and locked in on our team, and each other, and trying to win each game. For us, it’s about having the respect of your peers, of the other team. I think every night no matter who we have or who’s healthy, I think teams know we’re going to be a tough, physical team. Guys in this league don’t want that, you don’t want to have to play against a Miami HEAT team that’s going to be physical, that’s going to get into your body, that’s going to make you play a hard, 48-minute basketball game.”

Because of the HEAT’s brand of basketball, an 82-game season can be grueling. For Winslow, keeping his body right throughout the grind is important to him. After dealing with a few injuries last season, and ultimately being shut down for the year last January to undergo right shoulder surgery for a torn labrum, Winslow was determined to make sure he kept his body in check throughout his comeback so he would be available for a long playoff run.

While his numbers aren’t flashy, Winslow is showing improvement. His 49.3 true shooting percentage is the highest of his career, along with shooting nearly 43 percent from beyond the arc, Winslow made strides in arguably the biggest knock against his game since coming out of college.

Because NBA players have the freedom to form partnerships with whichever companies they’d like, Winslow made the choice to strike up a partnership that he felt would not only help him off the court but more importantly, on it as well.

“My partnership with MET-Rx has been great,” Winslow said. “They’ve really helped take my game to the next level with all their nutritional supplements, and the Big 100 bar. So, for me, I’m always looking for ways to stay off my feet, but also get in the best shape possible and this was just a great way to help.”

The grind of the NBA season is also eased for playoff teams by a veteran presence. So, when the HEAT brought back franchise legend Wade at the trade deadline, their locker room suddenly had a face and feel of someone who’s been there before. A player who reached the pinnacle, with the very team that traded for him nonetheless.

Getting Wade back to Miami was crucial for the team’s playoff run down the stretch, and more importantly for Winslow, who benefited greatly from his time with the future Hall of Famer when he was fresh out of college.

“First and foremost, it was great to get him back,” Winslow said. “Just the role that he played in my career as a rookie, and everything I learned from him. But then also, just the energy and positivity that he brought to the locker room, and also the community of Miami, the city of Miami as a whole. It was a much-needed energy boost, and good vibes that he brought back for that post All-Star break push for playoffs. So, it’s just been great having him back, and it’s kind of rejuvenated the team and the locker room, and just the city in general.”

Wade is the MVP-caliber player he once was this time around, though. But that’s okay. This version of the Miami HEAT is charging toward the postseason with a team-first mentality.

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NBA Daily: The Road Ahead for Michael Porter Jr.

Michael Porter Jr. is an elite prospect, but questions surrounding his back will determine his landing spot in the NBA.

Steve Kyler



The Road Ahead for Michael Porter Jr.

While some of the highly thought of college players have made their intentions on declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft known, Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr still hasn’t made his proclamation. Most people in NBA circles believe he’ll be in the 2018 NBA Draft class—you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t think he’s in.

Back in November, the Missouri staff was somewhat vague and guarded about Porter’s condition until it was announced that he’d have back surgery on a couple of problematic discs in the lumbar area of his spine. The procedure is called a microdiscectomy and by all accounts was a success.

Porter missed virtually all of his college season but opted to play in the post-season for Missouri, who got eliminated fairly quickly.

There were certainly a lot of ugly things about Porter’s game. He looked out of shape, and certainly wasn’t the overwhelming dominating force he’d been in high school. Some executives applauded his decision to play, even though he wasn’t at a 100 percent. Some pointed to that fact that too many college players play it safe and that’s not always viewed positively. Almost no one Basketball Insiders spoke with was holding the less than stellar outing against him. In fact, most had far more positive things to say than negative. There was one resounding theme from the NBA executives who spoke about this situation—none of it matters until they see his medical.

Assuming Porter does as expected and hires an agent and enters the draft, the next challenge he’ll face is how open he wants to be to teams looking at drafting him.

In recent years, NBA teams have not shied away from using high draft picks on injured or recently injured players. Once a team can get a sense of how the player is recovering, they can make a value judgment.

Agents often use this information and access to the player to help steer their client to the situation they deem most favorable. While fans and outsiders often get caught up in the pick number a player ultimately lands at, more and more agents are concerned with fit, especially for a player that may need time to get back to 100 percent.

Most agents would want to steer their client to a team with favorable medical staff, a team with a proven track record of patience or more importantly, a team with the best chance at a long and fruitful career.

This won’t be good news for some team that could end up in the top 10, as it’s more likely that Porter isn’t made available to everyone. NBA executives will tell you, they can certainly draft him if they wanted to, but most teams won’t draft a player if their medical staff doesn’t sign off, and without information and access how can they do that?

There is a significant financial difference in going third in the draft ($5.47 million) and 10th ($2.964 million) – but several agents commented that the short-term money shouldn’t drive the long-term decision, especially if the player isn’t 100 percent. The fit and situation typically trump everything in these situations.

Another concept to consider is while Porter did play, there are questions about whether he’ll host a pro-day, take part in private team workouts or simply let his body of work drive his draft value.

Almost no one who spoke about this situation believed Porter would take part in the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, as he’d have to subject himself to the medical testing that’s part of that event.

The common perception on Porter is he’s a top-five talent, although it seems more likely that his camp is going to try and work the process to ensure he lands in a favorable situation. That could mean he falls out of top-five selections, simply because he and his agents choose to.

There is still a lot that needs to play out for Porter, including his announcement that he will enter the draft. But given where things stand with him, it’s more likely than not he’s coming into the draft, and it’s more likely than not he’ll have a lot of questions NBA teams will want to understand before his real draft position is clear.

The NBA Draft Lottery will be held in Chicago this year and is scheduled for May 15th. The annual Draft Combine, also in Chicago, gets underway on May 16th.

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