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NBA Saturday: Nuggets Finding Their Way Behind Nikola Jokic

The Denver Nuggets are getting back on track now that Nikola Jokic is starting at center.

Jesse Blancarte

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It’s generally not difficult to describe an NBA team in a sentence or two. The Houston Rockets are a top-notch offensive team that shoots three-pointers relentlessly, but is league average on defense. The Brooklyn Nets are a well-coached, scrappy team, but lacks overall talent. The Milwaukee Bucks have a ton of young, athletic talent, but lack shooting. However, it’s not so easy to break down or explain the Denver Nuggets, who have, for the most part, failed to establish a team identity so far this season.

On December 12, the Nuggets lost to the Dallas Mavericks by 20 points. The loss dropped the Nuggets to 9-16. At that point, the Nuggets had lost 9 out of eleven games and it seemed as though this would be another disappointing season for Denver. The team was struggling to balance a roster with a glut of big men, a mix of capable veterans and a core of young, developing talent. There’s a lot of enticing talent throughout the Nuggets’ roster, but the team suffered from awkward lineups, injuries, overlapping talent and poor defense.

After losing to the Mavericks, who until very recently has been one of the worst teams in the league this season, Nuggets coach Mike Malone made some changes. The biggest change he made was ending his experiment of playing Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic together. Both centers are young and have very promising futures, but it’s very difficult to play two centers together in today’s NBA and this pairing was no exception.

Since inserting Jokic as the starting center, dramatically reducing Nurkic’s minutes and getting guard Gary Harris back from injury, the Nuggets have won three of their last five games. Malone has gone with a starting lineup of Emmanuel Mudiay, Harris, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Jokic, which has improved the spacing on the court, opened up driving lanes and allowed Jokic to utilize his diverse skill set more effectively.

“I mean, it has good parts and it has bad parts,” Jokic told Basketball Insiders when asked about playing with Nurkic. “He’s a very good player and he’s a part of our Denver basketball.”

Jokic clearly wanted to be complimentary of Nurkic and didn’t want to say anything negative about his teammate. But when asked whether playing two centers together creates any issues, Jokic indirectly expressed that the pairing isn’t ideal.

“I don’t know, maybe, maybe not. I really don’t know,” Jokic told Basketball Insiders. “I think on the floor, there’s supposed to be good chemistry and that’s what we are doing. Who is playing [well]? He’s going to play, so that’s it.”

Too often Nurkic and Jokic occupied the same space on the court, allowing defenses to crowd the painted area. This often times forced Jokic to stay out on the perimeter since he is a much better shooter than Nurkic. The Nuggets did have an advantage in terms of crashing the offensive glass, but that was offset by awkward offensive possessions that usually led to contested jump shots, such as this one.

It’s understandable that Jokic wants to avoid criticizing a teammate, but the truth is that playing Nurkic and Jokic together was a disaster. Starting Jokic along with three capable shooters and an athlete like Mudiay has led to mostly positive results, at least on offense, over the last five games.

“I think we’re playing really good, we’re playing good basketball,” Jokic said after the Nuggets were outplayed by the Los Angeles Clippers. “Today was a tough loss, back-to-back against a really good team.”

With Jokic as the featured big man in the starting unit, he is much more involved in the offense. We now see Jokic engaging in pick-and-roll sets more frequently, which allows him to get to the rim where he is able to utilize his patience and touch.

Through their first 25 games, the Nuggets were ranked 20th in offensive rating and 24th in defensive rating. Through their last five games, the Nuggets are ranked third in offensive rating (115.3 points per 100 possessions). However, the defense has been problematic, giving up 117.2 points per 100 possessions.

The unfortunate truth is that the Nuggets’ personnel don’t really have the means to be a particularly good defensive team. However, the team was both a poor offensive and defensive team before Coach Malone switched his rotations around. At least with Jokic starting at center surrounded by shooters, the Nuggets can score with the best teams in the NBA and have a shot on any given night of simply outscoring their opponent.

Jokic’s ability to score from anywhere on the court has been a big part of Denver’s recent offensive surge. As previously mentioned, Jokic has a nice touch around the rim, which often was ignored with Nurkic occupying the painted area. The more often the Nuggets can get the ball to Jokic at or near the rim, the better off they will be.

Jokic also facilitates the offense with his underrated passing. He may not be Marc Gasol in terms of passing ability or vision, but Jokic does have a nice feel for the game, is a willing passer and clearly is always looking ahead to see where he may be able to find teammates for open looks.

Whether he just secured an offensive rebound, is operating out of the post or has the ball out at the three-point line, Jokic is always looking for an opportunity to find a teammate for an open look.

Jokic is arguably Denver’s best player already and is making a compelling case that, at the very least, the team’s offense should be built around him. Again, this team as currently constructed is not going to be a particularly good defensive team, but it has a diverse collection of offensive talent that could make them a top-level offensive team.

Jokic is only in his second NBA season, but is already proving to be one of the league’s best up-and-coming players. He isn’t quite as great as Karl-Anthony Towns, as unique as Kristaps Porzingis or an elite defensive center like Rudy Gobert, but he has patience, unselfishness and a feel for the game that is reminiscent of a center like Marc Gasol. However, don’t expect Jokic to make any comparisons of himself to other skilled big man or to pat himself on the back for already becoming one of the best young big men in the NBA.

“I really don’t know,” Jokic said when asked what his ceiling is. “I just want to go to the playoffs this season. That’s my goal and that’s the goal of the team, and we are going to try our best to do that.”

Some have compared Jokic’s offensive skill set to Pau Gasol’s in his prime, which is high praise. When asked who Jokic has modeled his game after, he again passed on the opportunity to talk about himself and instead talked about his team.

“No, no actually, no. I just want to be myself,” Jokic said. “I’m trying to do whatever needs to be done to help my team win the game.”

Jokic is very humble and clearly would rather talk about his teammates and trying to make the playoffs than himself or his development. When asked what he planned on working on moving forward, Jokic turned to his veteran teammate Jameer Nelson for his input.

“Jameer, what do I need to do more … jump higher?” Jokic asked with a smile on his face.

Nelson simply grinned and noted that Jokic is more comfortable talking about the team’s goals.

“He doesn’t like talking about himself,” Nelson said. “It’s a positive thing though. Not too many young guys are as humble and hold their self as accountable as he does.”

Since Jokic would rather talk about his team than himself, we asked him to explain what the identity of his team is.

“If someone is playing bad, we have a lot of good players on the bench and someone will step up,” Jokic said. That’s the good part of the team.”

Depth is certainly a strength of this Nuggets team. However, it’s likely that at some point in the very near future, any discussion of Denver’s identity or overall strengths will start with a mention of Nikola Jokic.

 

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 PM: Hornets Rookies May Become Key Contributors

Some key injuries may force Charlotte’s rookies into becoming effective role players earlier than expected, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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As the NBA finally gets underway tomorrow evening, the 2017 rookie draft class will get their first taste of regular season action. Teams reliant on young rookie talent might produce an exciting brand of basketball but that rarely translates into a winning formula. Having rookies play a key role for a team hoping to make the playoffs can be a risky endeavor.

Out West, the Los Angeles Lakers are relying on both Lonzo Ball as well as Kyle Kuzma, who may have worked his way into the rotation with his surprising preseason play. However, the Lakers are, at this point, not realistic contenders in the competitive Western Conference. In the East, the Philadelphia 76ers have more realistic playoff hopes. The team is relying on this year’s top overall draft pick, Markelle Fultz, and 2016’s top pick, Ben Simmons, for meaningful production. Although Simmons has been in the league for over a year, he is still classified as a rookie for this season since he didn’t play last season.

The Charlotte Hornets are looking to return to the playoffs after narrowly missing the cut this past season. The team will likely feature not one, but two true rookies as a part of their regular rotation. Like the Lakers, the Hornets feature a highly touted rookie with the talent and poise to contribute right away in Malik Monk. The team also features Dwayne Bacon, a rookie that has flashed scoring potential as well as maturity — key attributes that will allow him to quickly contribute to the team.

Both players will be given the opportunity to contribute as a result of the unfortunate and untimely injury to forward Nicolas Batum. Batum tore a ligament in his left elbow in an October 4 preseason game against the Detroit Pistons. Initial speculation was that the injury would require surgery. However, it was announced on October 10 that surgery would not be necessary, and that he is projected to return in six to eight weeks. Assuming that there are no setbacks in Batum’s recovery, the Hornets will be looking to replace his perimeter scoring, playmaking abilities and perimeter defense. Enter Monk and Bacon.

Monk and Bacon have both shown the ability to score the ball, which is not exactly a common trait in Hornets rookies. Bacon, the 40th pick in the 2017 NBA draft, has made it a point to look for his shot from the outside, averaging 7.8 three-point shots per game while knocking down 33.3 percent of his attempts. As Bacon gains more experience, he presumably will learn how to get cleaner looks at the basket within the flow of the team’s offense. Doing so should help him increase his shooting percentage from beyond the arc, which would turn him into an even more effective contributor for Charlotte.

Bacon spoke to reporters after a recent preseason game against the Boston Celtics. Bacon was placed in the starting lineup and went 4-4 from three-point range in 34 minutes of action.

When asked what are some of the things he wanted to work on, Bacon focused on one end of the court in particular.

“Definitely defense. I’m trying to perfect the defensive side, I want to be one of the best two-way players to ever play the game,” Bacon stated. “I feel like I got the offensive side so just keep getting better on defense, I’ll be fine.”

Lack of consistency and defense are key factors that prevent many rookies from playing and being successful on winning teams right away. Based on Bacon’s size (6-foot-6, 221 pounds with a long wingspan) and physicality, he has the physical tools necessary to play passable defense. Combine that with his ability to score (he led the team in scoring in three of its five preseason games) and the unfortunate injury to Batum, it’s apparent that Bacon will get an opportunity to make the rotation and contribute.

Reliable two-way players on the wing are crucially important, but are not always readily available and are even less common on cheap contracts. The Los Angeles Clippers went through the entire Chris Paul/Blake Griffin era swapping small forwards on a nearly annual basis, struggling to find this kind of contribution from the wing. With little cap flexibility, the Clippers were unable to acquire a forward that could effectively and consistently play both end of the court, which caused issues over the years. As a second round pick, Bacon is set to make $815,615 in his first year. If Bacon is able to contribute at even a league average level, that will be a major boost for the shorthanded Hornets. Bacon is smart to focus on improving as a defender as Steve Clifford is a defensive-minded coach who will leave talented players on the bench if they aren’t making a positive impact on the defensive end of the court.

In fact, Clifford offered some strong simultaneous praise and criticism of Monk when it came to his scoring and defense.

“He can score, he can score, he can score [speaking of Monk],” Clifford stated. “I think his defense will come because he’s willing, he’s a good guy. I think that being a good player is very important to him.”

It’s apparent in Clifford’s comment that he values scoring, but that defense is also extremely important and essential to any player that wants to be a “good player.”

“He knows and understands that the way he has played in the past [in college], he can’t play in this league if he wants to be a good player,” Clifford said about Monk. “The big thing is, I told him, when people say, ‘he’s a talented offensive player’ that is a lot different than somebody saying, ‘he’s a talented NBA player.’”

Point guard Michael Carter-Williams also suffered an injury (bone bruise in his left knee), which received less attention than Batum’s injury. While Carter-Williams is not the same caliber of player as Batum, the Hornets are alarmingly thing at backup point guard. Without Carter-Williams, the team was going to lean on Batum to act as a playmaker more than he has in the past, which would have, at least in part, addressed the lack of an established backup point guard. But with Batum sidelined, Coach Clifford has given Monk time at the point guard position. If Monk proves capable of playing both guard positions and playing alongside Walker, that could go a long way towards mitigating the loss of Batum and Carter-Williams. It’s not reasonable to expect Monk (or Bacon) to produce as consistently as a seasoned veteran, but having them contribute at a league average level would constitute a big win for a Charlotte team with serious playoff aspirations.

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Teams Refuse To Back Down To Stacked Warriors

Golden State got better over the summer, but that didn’t stop others from trying to stop them from repeating as champions

Spencer Davies

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Opening week is finally upon us.

Appropriately enough, the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics will kick off the 2017-18 NBA season tomorrow night, as will the defending champion Golden State Warriors when they host the improved Houston Rockets.

The clear-cut favorites to win the league title are the ones who have done so two out of the past three years, and rightfully so. Warriors general manager Bob Myers has done a masterful job of assembling a juggernaut. They’ve kept their insanely talented core intact and—aside from Ian Clark and Matt Barnes—haven’t lost any of their key bench pieces to free agency.

In fact, Golden State has added to that dangerous second unit. Jordan Bell was bought from the Chicago Bulls and will bring another Draymond Green-esque impact almost immediately. Nick Young and Omri Casspi were brought in to fill the void of backup wings, which is an improvement at the position anyway. With the same roster as last year and better reserves to give the starters a breather, there’s no reason Steve Kerr and company can’t repeat if they stay healthy.

Knowing what the Warriors are capable of and how well they are set up to truly be a dynasty, there are some league executives out there who are hesitant to make significant moves that could potentially flop against such a powerhouse.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported back in middle June that select teams don’t want to risk a big play because of it. What that basically translates into is: We’re throwing in the white towel until that ball club disbands.

But luckily for fans and for parity’s sake, there was a handful of general managers that refused to take that path. Just looking down the list in the Western Conference, there were organizations that swung for the fences this summer.

The aforementioned Rockets are one of them.Daryl Morey pieced together multiple trades to allow him to land Chris Paul to play next to James Harden and form a dynamic backcourt tandem. Houston also signed a pair of veteran two-way players in Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker to provide depth and defense.

What about the Oklahoma City Thunder? Just when we thought Russell Westbrook’s MVP season was enough to maybe build off, the unthinkable happened. Sam Presti unloaded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indiana after just one season with the team to add All-Star forward Paul George, who is in a contract year.

That blockbuster move was followed up with another two months later, as Presti decided to deal fan favorite Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott to the Knicks in exchange for Carmelo Anthony. The creation of a Westbrook-George-Anthony big three forms an elite trio that is determined to prove championship worthiness.

Top tier Eastern Conference counterparts did their due diligence as well. The Cavaliers and Celtics are essentially rivals and became trade partners in an attempt to re-tool their respective rosters, in addition to gaining important pieces outside of that.

Boston inked Gordon Hayward to a maximum contract to create a bolstered starting unit alongside Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Al Horford until madness happened.

Firstly, Bradley got moved in a swap with the Detroit Pistons for Marcus Morris to address the hole at power forward. After that—with reports of Kyrie Irving’s unhappiness in Cleveland swirling around the basketball universe—Celtics general manager Danny Ainge acted immediately and swung a deal for the All-Star point guard in exchange for his All-Star point guard, a vital member of his team in Jae Crowder and the coveted Brooklyn Nets first-round pick.

It’s almost a brand new squad, but Brad Stevens has a versatile group to work with to try and finally dethrone the conference champions of the last three years.

As for the East’s cream of the crop, the Cavaliers moves are well known because wherever LeBron James goes the spotlight follows. Thomas and Crowder were huge gets for first-time general manager Koby Altman, especially after the outside growing doubt in the franchise’s front office. The rookie executive was also instrumental in signing Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, and Dwyane Wade to veteran minimum contracts.

Rose and Green have plenty of motivation because their critics think they’re washed up, meaning Tyronn Lue won’t have to give them a reason to play their hearts out. Wade simply made the decision to come to Cleveland because he can play with his best friend and potentially add to his collection of championship rings.

Ante Zizic, Cedi Osman, and Jose Calderon are also now a part of the roster that all-of-a-sudden is now deep at almost every position. It’s a new flavor for a team that may have only one year left to compete for a title with James’ pending free agency next summer.

Those four teams feel great about their chances to get in the way of the Warriors. It doesn’t stop there though. The West in general loaded up.

The Minnesota Timberwolves executed the first big move of the year when they traded for Jimmy Butler. The Denver Nuggets signed Paul Millsap to provide leadership and a veteran voice in a young locker room full of talent. The San Antonio Spurs lost Jonathan Simmons but brought in a very capable Rudy Gay under-the-radar as Kawhi Leonard’s backup.

Nobody expected the league to completely fold and hand Golden State another championship, but it was surprising (and relieving) to see so many teams have the fortitude to pull off the moves that they did. There was definitely risk involved for some of them, however, one thing is for certain.

The Warriors will not have a cakewalk to the NBA Finals. They will have to go through a rigorous set of teams in the West throughout the regular season and the playoffs.

If any team is up to the task, it’s Golden State. But we’ll see how it plays out starting about 24 hours from now.

See you at tip-off.

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NBA League Pass Debuts for 2017-18 Season

NBA League Pass has launched for the 2017-18 season. Basketball Insiders has the details.

Ben Dowsett

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The NBA and Turner Sports have launched NBA League Pass for the 2017-18 season, with several new features and pricing options available. NBA League Pass, a subscription-based service, will be available to users across 19 different platforms, from television and broadband to tablets, mobile and a plethora of connected devices.

In addition, an important note: As of Monday, NBA League Pass subscribers who have already purchased their access through a TV provider (Comcast, DirecTV, Dish, etc.) are now able to link their account to the NBA’s streaming service at no additional charge. The link to do this can be found here.

Basketball Insiders has you covered with a breakdown of all the new details immediately available. We will also be bringing you a detailed breakdown of certain important technological areas later in the week.

Features

New or improved features of NBA League Pass include:

  • Improved video quality for streaming League Pass content developed by iStreamPlanet, a high-level video streaming entity working in partnership with NBA Digital. Included among these improvements are faster delivery time for live feeds, reducing notable lag time present in previous versions. More detail on these video quality improvements will be featured in our breakdown later this week.
  • A new premium package that includes continuous in-arena coverage, even during commercials. This allows fans to view team huddles, live entertainment and other venue features that make them feel closer to the experience.
  • A season-long virtual reality subscription package via NBA Digital and NextVR, available to all premium and traditional NBA League Pass subscribers (also available to international subscribers and single-game purchasers beginning in week two of the NBA season). Access will be available across Samsung Gear VR, Google Daydream and Windows Mixed Reality.
  • Coverage of pre-game warmups and other in-arena events.
  • Spanish-language video coverage for select games, as well as Spanish-language audio continuing for select games.
  • NBA Mobile view will contain a zoomed-in, tighter shot of game action that’s optimized for mobile devices.

Pricing

Pricing for NBA League Pass has not changed for traditional access, and will remain at $199.99 for the full season. New monthly-based subscriptions are now also available, both for the full package and for individual teams. Full pricing will be as follows:

  • Traditional NBA League Pass (full league): $199.99
  • Premium NBA League Pass: $249.99
  • NBA Team Pass: $119.99
  • Single Game Pass: $6.99
  • Virtual Reality package: $49.99
  • Premium monthly subscription: $39.99
  • Traditional League Pass monthly subscription: $28.99
  • NBA Team Pass monthly subscription: $17.99

Notes

As previously reported by Basketball Insiders, upgrades are also expected on the TV side of NBA League Pass, particularly through Comcast, which has had the largest share of customer issues for this product in recent years. While only a single nightly HD channel was available via Comcast XFINITY League Pass previously, sources tell Basketball Insiders that all games will be available in HD through Comcast’s Beta channel package by the end of November (or earlier).

This Beta package does have limitations, however, including users’ inability to record, pause or rewind games. The package that was available in previous season will continue to be available until (and after) the Beta package is active, and subscribers will get access to both for no additional charge.

Check back with Basketball Insiders later in the week for a full rundown of the technological improvements being made to NBA League Pass.

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