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NBA Sunday: Ascent of the Denver Nuggets

Moke Hamilton goes one-on-one with Will Barton, who discusses the Nuggets playoff pursuit.

Moke Hamilton

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When the New York Knicks decided to pay a king’s ransom for the right to acquire Carmelo Anthony from the Denver Nuggets back in 2011, they did so with the expectation that Anthony would form a dynamic duo with Amar’e Stoudemire and lead the franchise to glory.

Five years later, though, it is the Nuggets that have more to show for it. Especially this season, as the club finds itself sitting in the eighth seed in the Western Conference, battling for a playoff berth. That’s something the Knicks can’t boast.

If you’re surprised, Will Barton has a simple message for you: Don’t be.

“We’re not surprised,” Barton told Basketball Insiders when asked if he thought the Nuggets would be jousting for a playoff spot this season. “We actually think we should be better than what we are as far as our record. We really feel like we let a couple games get by that we should have won.”

Fair or not, the Knicks and Nuggets will be forever linked. The Anthony trade was disruptive to the culture that Mike D’Antoni and president and general manager Donnie Walsh were building and disruptive to a team that had relied on Stoudemire and a strength in numbers approach to open up the gate surprisingly well to begin the 2010-11 season.

Now, since then, all the Knicks have to show for emptying their cupboard to acquire Anthony is one division title and one playoff series victory. Since the trade, the Nuggets have a higher winning percentage (.500 to .444), have had fewer coaches (four to five) and much fewer players (54 to 80). Cumulatively, that indicates more stability.

What the Nuggets represent today is the idea that a team can enjoy some success without a typical “superstar” as they have six players averaging double figures and another three average between eight and nine points per game.

The question this all begs is whether or not sacrificing so much for a player that is considered a superstar is truly in the long-term interest of the franchise. The best answer to that question is that it might be. For the Los Angeles Clippers, with Chris Paul, it has certainly worked out.

But as the Nuggets appear to be on the uptick while the Knicks regress, it doesn’t appear that the same can’t be said for New York.

After six years, it is the Nuggets who improbably find themselves on course to qualify for the postseason.

* * * * * *

“We had a lot of injuries, we feel like we should be better than what we are, so we’re not surprised as a team,” Barton said. “This is something we talked about since last year, going into this year, going into training camp, we feel like we still can get even better.”

For this team, including Barton, getting better has been a recurring theme. Selected with the 40th overall pick in the 2012 draft by the Portland Trail Blazers, Barton spent the first three years of his career mostly as a bystander. It wasn’t until he was traded to the Nuggets in a deal featuring Arron Afflalo that things began to change for him. Now, he’s helped to turn the club around, improving his all-around game and emerging as an impact player. He just happens to be one of many contributors for head coach Mike Malone’s team, though.

“We’re deep and we’re talented,” Barton said of the Nuggets. “When you got a lot of guys that can do a lot of different things, a lot of our guys that’s on our team could have bigger roles on other teams, but we’re trying to fit together and move to make this special.”

One of Barton’s teammates, Mike Miller, knows a thing or two about special teams. It seems that only yesterday, Miller entered the league. Now 36 years old, the sage is in his 17th NBA season. The 2001 Rookie of the Year Award winner has played for seven NBA teams and has seen and experienced all there is in the NBA. That, of course, includes his helping the Miami HEAT win back-to-back championships in 2012 and 2013.

“We just got better from last year,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I think what people have a hard time understanding is that last year you had a lot of new pieces basketball wise, but then a whole new coaching staff. It’s no secret the most successful teams are the ones that keep your core group together for the longest period of time.”

Being no stranger to change, Miller knows how important continuity is, especially considering the fact that the HEAT wasn’t able to win another championship after Miller parted ways with the franchise. Miller is now in his second season with the Nuggets and has seen evidence of things turning around.

“Building a winning culture,” Miller said when asked how things can change for a floundering franchise. “We’re starting to do [that] here … just taking care of home court. Last year, we weren’t great at home, which historically, Denver’s been a great home court advantage. We’ve done that a lot better this year,” he said.

“Where we get ourselves in trouble this year is defensively. When we’re good defensively and we don’t turn the ball over, we’re scoring at the highest clip in the league since December. So scoring is not a problem, but championship culture teams, playoff culture teams, do it at home and do it on the defensive end, so that’s the things we could get better at.”

Having won just 33 games last season, the Nuggets enter play on February 12 only nine wins short of that total. Though the team is just 24-30, they have shown evidence of progression, and that’s enough to have people wondering what they can ultimately amount to. While some would argue that merely hanging around as an eighth seed isn’t worth celebrating, in the Western Conference, something should be said for even qualifying for the playoffs. The Utah Jazz were in this very situation in prior years but have put it all together en route to being a dominant team.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Portland Trail Blazers—Barton’s former team—have failed miserably in attempting to live up to the expectations that the truckloads of money spent this past offseason and advancing to the second round of last year’s playoffs have yielded.

“With Portland, it’s kind of surprising because they had such a great year last year,” Barton said, seemingly speaking for the entire NBA-watching public. “Getting to the second round, and turning that whole team, knowing [Damian Lillard] and [C.J. McCollum], they’re great players, great leaders. It is surprising,” Barton said.

Recognizing that the Blazers are one of the teams nipping at their heels—the Nuggets lead them by just one game in the standings—Barton reminds everyone that’s it’s still early and that there’s a long way to go.

“There’s a lot of games left, one thing the young guys got to understand is that a lot of things will happen the last two weeks of the season, so our job now is to stockpile as many wins as possible and put ourselves in position to compete the last two weeks of the season,” Miller said, echoing his teammate’s sentiments.

But if what has transpired over the first 50 games of the season is any indication, we may be hearing more from the Nuggets—and soon.

“Our goal is just to get in,” Barton said of the chase for the playoffs. “We haven’t been in the playoffs in a couple of years, so right now our focus is just to get in. We’re not too worried about where we fall.”

Indeed, they may not be worried. But the top seeds out West, perhaps, should be. It’s difficult to prepare for and stop a team with so many weapons.

There’s strength in numbers—it’s a commonly used mantra. Occasionally, though, it’s appropriate. And in this case, with the Denver Nuggets, it certainly is.

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NBA Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise

The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.

Moke Hamilton

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He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.

He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.

Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.

The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.

“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.

“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.

So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.

As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.

In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.

But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.

So is Porzingis.

Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.

In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.

Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.

And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.

“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.

“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”

Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.

Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.

The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.

So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.

Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.

If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.

So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.

Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.

To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.

When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.

He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.

And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.

With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word. 

It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.

For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.

In this town, that’s more than half the battle.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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