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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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2018 NBA All-Star Sunday Recap

Michael Petrower recaps the All-Star Game from Sunday in Los Angeles.

Basketball Insiders

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The 2018 NBA All Star Game had some added appeal this year, with Captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry selecting playground style from the pool of All-Stars. Although it was not televised, it drew a lot of interest to say the least.

Team Lebron was headlined by Kevin Durant (the alleged first pick), Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, and Kyrie Irving. Sadly, Team Lebron suffered big losses with John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Kevin Love and Kristaps Porzingis going down with injuries. Team Stephen was led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Joel Embiid and Demar DeRozan.

NBA fans were ready to indulge on the highlight real of plays to commence…That was, until the NBA inflicted a marathon-like performance that seemed a bit unnecessary, to say the least. Kevin Hart was at the center of theatrics that had NBA fans scratching their heads questioning what was on their television screen. Fergie topped off the saga with what was one of the more questionable national anthems we’ve seen in recent years. However, if you stuck around long enough, the game started at 8:40 PM EST and the flashy plays that we hoped for, began.

Joel Embiid made his first A;l-Star game appearance and kicked off the scoring festivities for Team Stephen with a ferocious and-one dunk. Team Stephen led all of the first quarter and won the quarter 42-31. Karl Anthony Towns led the first quarter scoring with 11 points. Team LeBron, however would storm back and cut the lead to two, 78-76 at half. LeBron came into his 14th straight All-Star game and lead his team at the half with 15 points. Klay Thompson also lead Team Stephen with 15 points at half.

The second half ensued and after some back and forth between the two teams, Team Stephen was leading by three going into the fourth quarter, 112-109. Team Stephen grew their lead to 11 while LeBron and KD got some rest. But after the two came back in, the 11-point deficit was erased after a LeBron three and the teams were now tied at 144 with 1:16 left in the fourth quarter.

DeRozan would make a free throw to put Team Stephen up one point, but Lebron followed with a strong two-pointer to put his team up one. DeRozan tried to answer, but threw away a pass which resulted in an easy two points for Russell Westbrook to ice the game. Team LeBron was the 2018 All Star Game winner with a score of 148-145.

LeBron James went on to win his third All Star MVP after finishing with 29 points to go along with 10 rebounds, eigh assists and a steal on 12-17 shooting. DeRozan and Damian Lillard lead Team Stephen with 21 points each.

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Rest Assured, the 1-16 NBA Playoff Format Is Coming… Kinda

Based on Adam Silver’s comments, it’s safe to assume that the NBA will soon reformat the playoffs.

Moke Hamilton

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If there’s one thing Adam Silver has proven in his four years as the NBA’s Commissioner, it’s that he isn’t afraid to do things his way.

And if Silver has his way, the league will eventually figure out how it can implement a system that results in a more balanced playoff system. On Saturday, though, he revealed that it’s probably closer to a reality than many of us realize.

During his annual All-Star media address, Silver admitted that the league will “continue to look at” how they can reformat the playoffs to both ensure a better competitive balance throughout and pave the way for the league’s two best teams to meet up in the NBA Finals, even if both of those two teams happen to be in the same conference.

“You also would like to have a format where your two best teams are ultimately going to meet in the Finals,” the commissioner said on Saturday night.

“You could have a situation where the top two teams in the league are meeting in the conference finals or somewhere else. So we’re going to continue to look at that. It’s still my hope that we’re going to figure out ways.”

Since Silver took over the league, he’s been consistent in implementing dramatic changes to improve the overall quality of the game. Although Silver didn’t take over as the league’s commissioner until 2014, he was instrumental in getting the interested parties to buy into the notion that the “center” designation on the All-Star ballot was obsolete.

As a result, beginning with the 2013 All-Star Game, the Eastern and Western Conference teams have featured three “frontcourt” players, which essentially lumps centers in with forwards and eliminates the requirement that a center appear in the All-Star game. That wasn’t always the case.

From overhauling the league’s scheduling to reducing back-to-back games to implementing draft lottery reform to, this year, eliminating the traditional All-Star format which featured the Eastern Conference versus the Western Conference, it’s become clear that Silver simply “gets it” and isn’t afraid to make revolutionary changes if he deems them to be in the overall best interest of the league.

At this point, everyone realizes that something needs to be done about the league’s current playoff system.

Last season, for example, the Western Conference first round playoff series featured the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder squaring off against one another. Only one series—the Los Angeles Clippers versus Utah Jazz—went seven games.

Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference, the first round series that were contested weren’t exactly compelling.

The Cleveland Cavaliers steamrolled the conference to the tune of a 12-1 run to their third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. It wasn’t the first time that the public questioned the wisdom behind separating the playoff brackets by conference, but the dominance of the Cavs and LeBron James specifically (who is expected to win the Eastern Conference for the eighth consecutive time this season) has caused renewed scrutiny.

The most common solution offered to this point has been to simply take the 16 best teams across the league, irrespective of conference, and conduct the playoffs as normal.

From afar, this solution seems simple enough, but the obvious concerns are twofold.

First, if the Celtics and Clippers, for example, were pitted against one another in a first round series, the travel would be considerable. Private charter flight or not, traveling is taxing, and the prospect of having to make five cross-country trips over the course of a two-week span would certainly leave the winner of such a series at a competitive disadvantage against the opponents they would face in subsequent rounds, especially if the future opponent enjoyed a playoff series that was contested within close proximity.

Atlanta to New Orleans, for example, is less than a one-hour flight.

Aside from the concerns about geographic proximity, the other obvious issue is competitive balancing of the schedule, which seems to be an easier issue to fix.

Using the Pelicans as an example, of the 82 games they play, 30 are played against the other conference—in this case, the Eastern Conference. The other 52 games would all be played within the conference. If playoff seedings were going to be done on a simple 1-16 basis, the scheduling would have to be realigned in a way to essentially pit all teams against one another evenly. It wouldn’t be fair for a team like the Celtics to be judged on the same standard as the Pelicans if the Celtics faced inferior teams more often.

On Saturday night, Silver revealed that the league’s brass has been thinking about this and is trying to find a solution, and in doing so, he may have tipped his hand.

* * * * * *

As a multinational conglomerate, the NBA values the inclusion of as many markets as possible. Wanting to improve the overall quality of the product, though, there are interests that may not align fully.

What’s obvious with this year’s All-Star game is that the NBA has found a way to balance the two.

Rather than eliminating the conference designations altogether and simply choosing the “best” 24 players to be in the All-Star game, the league still chose All-Stars based on their conference, but then distributed them within the pool to allow for better competition.

That’s exactly what Silver revealed the NBA is considering doing with the playoffs. It makes perfect sense, and it’s probably just a matter of time before it’s implemented.

A report from ESPN notes that the idea that the league is kicking around would essentially do exactly what the league did with the All-Star selections with the playoff teams: choose the best from each conference, then disburse them in a way that allows for competitive balance. 

The proposal would have the league’s teams compete as they normally do and would still feature the top eight teams from each conference getting into the playoffs.

Once the teams are qualified, however, they would be re-seeded on a 1-16 basis and crossmatched, on that basis.

It’s not perfect, but compromises never are. The travel issues would still persist, but the league would accomplish two goals: the less dominant conference wouldn’t be underrepresented and discouraged from competing, but the two best teams would still be on opposite ends of the bracket.

An NBA playoffs that featured 11 or 12 teams from the Western Conference would be a ratings nightmare for the league. Eastern Conference cities are less likely to stay up past midnight during the week to watch playoff games, and less competitive markets would frown at the prospect of having to compete against the other conference for a playoff spot. For many small market teams, the millions of dollars generated from a single playoff game often has a significant impact on the team’s operations, so there would naturally be discord.

This system would at least eliminate that contention.

On the positive side, it would allow for the Rockets and Warriors, for example, to meet in the NBA Finals. In both the NFL and MLB, geography hasn’t been a determining factor on which teams battle for the league’s championship.

Why does it have to be in the NBA?

* * * * * *

With the league having begun regular season play earlier this season, at the All-Star break, most teams have played about 57 games. A lot can change over the final 25 games of the season, but if the seeds were frozen today and the league took the top eight teams from each conference and then crossmatched them, the Los Angeles Clippers would be the team that got the short end o the stick.

Although the Clippers have the 16th best record in the league, they would be the ninth-seeded Western Conference team and would thus be eliminated from postseason contention by the Miami HEAT. The HEAT have the 17th best record in the league but are the eighth-best team in the Eastern Conference, so to preserve the conference weight, the HEAT would win out.

This is what the seedings and matchups would look like…

(1) Houston Rockets versus (16) Miami HEAT

(2) Golden State Warriors versus (15) New Orleans Pelicans

(3) Toronto Raptors versus (14) Philadelphia 76ers

(4) Boston Celtics versus (13) Portland Trail Blazers

(5) Cleveland Cavaliers versus (12) Denver Nuggets

(6) San Antonio Spurs versus (11) Oklahoma City Thunder

(7) Minnesota Timberwolves versus (10) Milwaukee Bucks

(8) Washington Wizards versus (9) Indiana Pacers

Here, the Celtics would face the nightmarish scenario of having to travel to and from Portland for their playoff series, while virtually every other series would feature much more friendly travel (especially the Spurs-Thunder and Raptors-Sixers).

The Cavs would have a very tough road to the Finals, having to beat the Nuggets, Celtics and Rockets if the seeds held. The Celtics would have a similarly tough road, as they’d have to get past the Blazers, Cavs and Rockets.

At the end of the day, the Rockets and Warriors would be aligned in such a way as to avoid one another until the championship, but each of the two would face daunting competition. The Rockets would have to go through the HEAT, Wizards and Celtics, while the Warriors would have to face the Pelicans, Timberwolves and Raptors—again, assuming the seeds held.

It would be a benefit to all observers.

One of the unintended consequences of implementing this system would be to make every single game count. If the Celtics were able to move up to the second seed, for example, their road to the Finals, in theory, could become much much easier, comparatively speaking.

The end result would be less resting of players during the course of the season and certainly less instances in which star players take the final week of the regular season off in other to be fresh for the postseason.

Everyone wins.

No, there’s no perfect solution, but just as the league has found a clever way to serve multiple interests as it relates to the All-Star game’s competitiveness, Silver has revealed that the league is at least considering following suit with the playoffs.

Best bet?

It’s only a matter of time before we see it actually see it happen.

It simply makes too much sense, and if there’s one thing the commissioner has already proven, it’s that he isn’t afraid of changing tradition.

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NBA All-Star Saturday Recap

Brian Slingluff recaps All-Star Saturday from Los Angeles.

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders is here to recap an eventful All-Star Saturday that led to three first-time champs in the various skills contests. Let’s get right to it.

Taco Bell Skills Challenge

In Saturday night’s Taco Bell Skills Challenge, the “Bigs” team, boasting 3 All-Stars, set out to claim a third straight title. The competition kicked off with Joel Embiid coming from behind to best Al Horford, and sharpshooter Lauri Markkanen swishing his first 3 point attempt to eliminate Andre Drummond. On the Guard side, Buddy Hield had an early lead before losing out to Spencer Dinwiddie, and Jamal Murray upset hometown favorite Lou Williams.

In the semifinals, Markkanen was able to dispatch Joel Embiid, who struggled with the pass portion of the competition, and Dinwiddie topped Jamal Murray by making his first 3 pointer for the second consecutive round.

In the Final round, Dinwiddie finally missed a 3 pointer, but it did not matter as he finished with a wire to wire victory over Lauri Markkanen. Dinwiddie, competing in front of his friends and family, was able to end the Bigs’ two year win streak in impressive fashion.

JBL Three Point Contest

The event started off with Tobias Harris scoring a solid 18 points. Wayne Ellington was next, sporting the hot new alternate Miami Vice jersey. Ellington started off cold and heated up on his last three racks, ending up with a score of 17. Devin Booker and former three-point champion Klay Thompson tied for a round-high 19 points. Paul George, Bradley Beal, and Kyle Lowry struggled from the start and never found a rhythm, falling short of making the championship round. Defending champion Eric Gordon never got it going, and would not defend the title, scoring only 12 points.

In the Championship round, Tobias Harris was on fire through the first 3 racks, but quickly got cold, scoring 17 points. Devin Booker was next and could not miss, scoring 28 points, leaving Klay Thompson a high number to match. Thompson fell just 3 points short, and Devin Booker was crowned the 2018 JBL Three Point Champion.

Verizon Slam Dunk Contest

The final and most anticipated event of the night started with Donovan Mitchell bringing out a second hoop, bouncing it off the second backboard and finishing with an impressive windmill dunk, scoring a 48. Victor Oladipo followed with a difficult look-away alley oop dunk attempt that he was unable to complete, totaling 31 points from the judges. Dennis Smith Jr. had a nice reverse double pump that got 39 points and Larry Nance Jr., in a throwback Phoenix jersey, payed homage to his father’s cradle dunk, nailing it almost exactly for a score of 44 points.

Oladipo started the next round of dunks by borrowing Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther mask, and scoring 40 points with a tomahawk windmill dunk. Smith Jr. hit a seemingly impossible reverse 360, through the legs, switching hands dunk for a perfect score of 50. Nance Jr. pulled off a Vince Carter level windmill, nearly missing a perfect score. Mitchell jumped over comedian Kevin Hart to advance to the finals against Larry Nance Jr.

In the Finals, Nance started things off with a windmill alley-oop with some help from Larry Nance Sr., garnering a score of 46. Mitchell completed the difficult one handed alley-oop he had attempted in the previous round, scoring a perfect 50. Nance Jr. answered with an incredible double pass off the backboard dunk, scoring yet another 50 points.  Mitchell ended the contest with a Vince Carter tribute dunk, coming out on top by just two points. It capped off an exciting Saturday night, setting things up for the main event on Sunday, Team LeBron versus Team Stephen.

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