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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 Daily: Rookie Contributors Lifting Playoff Teams

This year’s impressive rookie class has translated their regular season performances to the playoff stage.

Dennis Chambers

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This past NBA season had the luxury of an incredibly entertaining and high-powered rookie class. Every other day it seemed like the feats of either Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, or Ben Simmons were dominating the discussion about how advanced the league’s crop of newbies appeared to be.

As a result, the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race was a much more heated discussion than the year before.

With the impressive campaign these NBA freshmen put together, it should come as no surprise that on the on bright stage of playoff basketball, three of the aforementioned crop are helping lead their team’s in tight first-round battles.

Donovan Mitchell has been the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz through two games in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jayson Tatum is stepping up for the Boston Celtics to help fill in the void of Kyrie Irving as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. Ben Simmons is nearly averaging a triple-double through three games for the Philadelphia 76ers in their matchup with the Miami HEAT.

Lottery pick talents are expected in today’s NBA to come in and have some level of impact for their clubs. Usually, they play the role as a foundational building block that shows flashes of promise with an expected up-and-down first season. While these three playoff contributors haven’t been perfect all year long, under the pressure of the postseason, they’ve stepped up their play and appear to be avoiding the learning curve.

With that, let’s highlight further what Mitchell, Tatum, and Simmons have been able to do thus far in the postseason.

Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

All season long Mitchell threw the entire scoring load of Salt Lake City on his back for the Jazz and helped carry them to a 5-seed in the Western Conference when early season projections suggested they should head towards in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s injury.

However, the 13th pick out of Louisville had no intentions of missing out on the postseason. And from the looks of his production so far, who can blame him?

Through the first two games of the Jazz-Thunder series, Mitchell yet again placed his name in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Mitchell’s 55 points in his first two playoff games broke Jordan’s record of 53 for most points scored by a rookie guard in that scenario.

Mitchell’s 27 points in Game 1 and 28 points in Game 2 led the Jazz to even the series and steal home court advantage from the Thunder. While he hasn’t been responsible for setting up the team’s offense, tallying just five assists through those two games, Mitchell is fulfilling the role of Gordon Hayward as the team’s primary scorer.

In a series against a team that features the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, Utah needs Mitchell to go out there and get as many buckets as he possibly can.

So far, he appears to be welcoming the challenge.

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

When it was announced that Kyrie Irving would be lost for the entire postseason due to injury, the Boston Celtics’ hold on the 2-seed seemed a lot less intimidating than it once was in the Eastern Conference.

However, three games into the first round series against the Bucks, the Celtics hold a 2-1 lead. A lot part of that has to do with the role Tatum has been able to step in and play right away with the Celtics down their main scorer and playmaker.

Throughout the first three games of the series, Tatum 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. The third overall pick in the 2017 draft started the series off with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals to help Boston start off the matchup with a 1-0 lead.

At just 20 years old, Tatum is matching his age number with his usage percentage thus far against Milwaukee. For some perspective, Jaylen Brown managed just 12 minutes a night for the Celtics last season as a rookie when the playoffs rolled around.

Granted, injuries and missing players are helping in Tatum being on the court as much as he has, but the rookie is earning his time out there on the court.

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

The perceived frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons has taken control in his first ever playoff series.

For starters, Simmons is averaging nearly a triple double over his first three games against the HEAT; 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists.

On top of his triple double ways, Simmons has upped arguably his biggest weakness so far in the playoffs, shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe. During the regular season, Simmons struggled from the line, hitting only 56 percent of his attempts.

With the offensive prowess of Simmons obvious, it’s the job he’s doing on the defensive end of the court against an aggressive and tough Miami squad that’s elevating his play to the next level.

Simmons’ ability to switch all over the defensive end of the court has placed his responsibilities from Goran Dragic to Justise Winslow to James Johnson, and seemingly everywhere in between.

Now with Joel Embiid back in the fold for the Sixers and Simmons, the rookie point guard has his defensive partner on the floor to help ease the workload on that end. A two-way performance each night will be imperative for Simmons in helping lead the young Sixers past the experienced HEAT team.

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Pelicans Role Players are Key to Success

The supporting cast in New Orleans is a big part of their playoff surge, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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The New Orleans Pelicans have taken a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series again the Portland Trail Blazers. While surprising to some, the Pelicans only finished one game behind the Blazers in the standings. The Pelicans have the best player in the series in Anthony Davis and the defensive duo of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday have stifled Portland’s backcourt.

The truth is, the Pelicans have been a good team all season long. A lot of attention and recognition has been given to Davis, Rondo and Holiday this season and playoffs, and rightfully so. But New Orleans wouldn’t be where they are without the important contributions of some of their role players.

Take E’Twaun Moore, for example. Moore bounced around the NBA early in his career, with stops in Boston, Orlando and Chicago before finding long-term stability contract wise with the Pelicans. He’s primarily been a bench player with them before this season, his second in New Orleans, his first as a full-time starter.

He’s given the Pelicans a huge boost, especially from the three-point line. He’s put up 12.5 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field, both career-highs. He’s shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range.

“I think it’s just our style of play,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “We play fast and open. Coach [Gentry] gives us a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence. That’s why my game is up, my shooting is up.”

It’s not just offensively though. Moore has always been one of the more underrated defensive guards in the league. Paired up alongside Rondo and Holiday, the trio form a solid wing defensive unit. They’re a big reason for Portland’s offensive struggles.

Moore is the type of role player that every playoff contender needs to succeed. He knows that his role may change from game to game. Some nights he may be asked to score a little more. Other nights his defense is going to be called upon. Whatever it may be, he’s always ready to do what’s asked of him.

“I bring the energy. I bring a spark,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “It’s knocking down shots, playing defense, getting out in transition. Just trying to be a spark.”

The Pelicans bench has also been a huge factor all season long. Their depth took a major hit early in the season with the injury to Solomon Hill. Hill has since returned to the lineup, but his absence paved the way for other players such as Darius Miller to step up.

This is Miller’s second stint with the Pelicans after spending two years overseas. Drafted 46th overall in 2012, he didn’t play much his first three years in the NBA. In 2014, he was cut by the Pelicans only about a month into the season. This year was different, he was thrown into the rotation from the get-go.

“This is a huge opportunity,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I just come in and try to work every day, try to get better every day. My teammates have done a great job of putting me in situations where I can be successful.”

Miller has given the Pelicans a capable stretch four in the second unit who can slide over to small forward if need be. He’s averaging a career-best 7.8 points per game, the most out of any of New Orleans’ reserves. He’s their best three-point shooter off the bench, connecting on 41.1 percent of his long-range attempts.

While he acknowledges that he’s enjoying his best season yet as an NBA player, he’s quick to praise his teammates for allowing him to flourish.

“I just try to bring a spark off the bench. I come in and try to knock some shots down,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “My teammates do a great job of finding me when I’m open, I just try and knock down shots and compete.”

Sometimes time away from the NBA helps players grow and mature. The NBA game is fast paced and it can take awhile to get used to it. While some players have begun to use the G-League as a means of preparing for the league, Miller took an alternate route of heading to Germany.

For him, it’s a big reason why he’s been able to make an easier transition back to the NBA. His contract for next season is non-guaranteed, but he’s probably done enough to warrant the Pelicans keeping him around. He’s a much different and much-improved player. If not, he’s sure to draw interest from other teams.

“It was a lot to learn for me personally,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I had to learn a lot of different things like how to take care of my body, how to manage my time, a whole bunch of stuff like that. The time overseas really helped me to mature and grow up and learn a few things.”

These Pelicans have most certainly turned quite a few heads since the playoffs began. We shouldn’t deal too much with hypotheticals, but it’s interesting to wonder what this team’s ceiling would’ve been had DeMarcus Cousins not been lost for the season due to injury.

This is a confident bunch, however. They’ve beaten both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets during the regular season. They’ve already shattered a lot of expert predictions with their performance in the first-round. The Pelicans feel like they can hang with anyone out West.

“As far as we want to go,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like we’ve competed with all the best teams in the league this whole season. We just got to come out, stay focused and do what we do.”

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Is LeBron Enough For Cavs To Get Through The East?

Cleveland’s offense has struggled through the first two games of the playoffs. Can the four-time MVP consistently bail them out? Spencer Davies writes.

Spencer Davies

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After a less-than-encouraging series opener versus the Indiana Pacers, LeBron James responded emphatically and led the Cleveland Cavaliers to a bounce back 100-97 victory to even things up at one game apiece.

Scoring the first 13 points of the game itself, The King was a one-man wrecking crew out of the gate and carried that momentum throughout all four quarters of Game 2. His 46 points were James’ second-highest scoring mark between the regular season and the playoffs. In addition, he shot above 70 percent from the field for the sixth time this year.

The four-time MVP pulled down 12 rebounds total, and but all but one of those boards were defensive—the most he’s had since Saint Patrick’s Day in Chicago a month ago.

What James did was another classic instance where LeBron reminds us that through all the injuries, drama, and on-court issues, whatever team he’s on always has a chance to go all the way. But having said all of that—can the Cavaliers realistically depend on that kind of spectacular effort for the rest of the postseason? It’s a fair question.

Kevin Love is a solid secondary go-to guy, but he’s struggled to find his rhythm in the first two games. He’s done a solid job defensively between both, but he’s getting banged up and is dealing with knocked knees and a reported torn thumb ligament in the same hand he broke earlier in the season.

Love has admitted that he’d like more post touches instead of strictly hanging out on the perimeter, but it’s on him to demand the ball more and he knows it. But finding that flow can be challenging when James has it going and is in all-out attack mode.

Kyle Korver came to the rescue for Cleveland as the only shooter that consistently converted on open looks. Outside of those three, and maybe J.R. Smith, really, there hasn’t been a tangible threat that’s a part of the offense during this series.

We all pondered whether or not the “new guys” would be able to step up when their respective numbers were called. So far, that hasn’t been the case for the most part.

Jordan Clarkson looks rushed with tunnel vision. Rodney Hood has had good body language out there, but seems reluctant to shoot off dribble hand-offs and is second-guessing what he wants to do. The hustle and effort from Larry Nance Jr. is obvious, but he’s also a good bet to get into foul trouble. Plus, he’s had some struggles on an island against Pacer guards.

As for George Hill, the good news is the impact on the floor just based on his mere presence on both ends (game-high +16 on Wednesday), but he hasn’t really done any scoring and fouled out of Game 2.

Maybe these things change on the road, who knows. But those four, the rest of the rotation, absolutely have to step up in order for the Cavaliers to win this series and fend off this hungry Indiana group, which brings us to another point.

Let’s not forget, the offensive issues aren’t simply because of themselves. After all, the Cavs were a team that had little trouble scoring the basketball in the regular season, so give a ton of credit to the Pacers’ scheme and McMillan’s teachings to play hard-nosed.

Unlike many teams in the league, the strategy for them is to pressure the ball and avoid switches as much as possible on screens. The more they go over the pick and stick on their assignments, the better chance they have of forcing a bad shot or a turnover. That’s what happened in Game 1 and in the majority of the second half of Game 2.

Cleveland has also somewhat surprisingly brought the fight on defense as well. In the first two contests of the series, they’ve allowed under 100 points. Lue’s said multiple times that they’re willing to give up the interior buckets in order to secure the outside, and it’s worked. It doesn’t seem smart when there’s a yellow-colored layup line going on at times, but it certainly paid off by only allowing 34 percent of Indiana’s threes to go down.

Still, looking ahead to what the Cavaliers can do in the playoffs as a whole, it doesn’t bode well. They’re not only locked in a tug-of-war with Indiana, but if they get past them, they could have a Toronto Raptors group chomping at the bit for revenge.

If they’re having this much trouble in the first round, what should make us believe they can barrel through the Eastern Conference as they’ve done in the past?

It’s not quite as obvious or as bad as Cleveland’s 2007 version of James and the rest, but it feels eerily similar for as much as he’s put the team on his back so far. The organization better hope improvement comes fast from his supporting cast, or else it could be a longer summer than they’d hoped for.

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