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Q&A: Jamal Crawford on Clipps, Sonics, Top Defenders

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Jamal Crawford of the L.A. Clippers was recently a guest on the Basketball Insiders Podcast. Alex Kennedy and Michael Scotto interviewed Jamal and the Q&A can be found below. To the listen to the podcast in its entirety, click the play button above.

Question: Let’s start off talking about this season. You and I, in the past, have talked about the continuity that this Clippers team has. Not many teams have a core that’s been together for so many years. Where is your guys’ chemistry level at now and how comfortable are you guys playing with each other this point after so many years?

Crawford: “I think we’re very comfortable. Obviously, with injuries, it’s part of the game and you hate to see it, but we just have to hold down the fort until everyone gets back. With the chemistry we have with our core guys, we’re very familiar with each other. We’ve been through all kinds of wars together, all kinds of battles together, we know where each other are supposed to be on the court, we know how to communicate with each other, and I think all of those things are important. The first part of the season, we started off great. We had everybody healthy. The last few weeks we’ve had some injuries, especially our two top guys, so we’re just trying to hold down the fort until they get back to keep that chemistry rolling.”

Question: When you guys are fully healthy, you have Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and yourself, and you have deeper bench now. When you put all of those components together and you look at the Western Conference with the Spurs and the Warriors’ star-studded quartet that everybody talks about, where do you feel you guys fit in that mix when you’re fully healthy?

Crawford: “When we’re fully healthy, I think we’re just as good as anybody. I really believe that. Obviously, the Spurs are the gold standard and have been for the last 15 years, Golden State has had a tremendous run the last few years, and other teams are on the rise as well. But, when we’re healthy and right and playing at our very best, I feel like we’re built to play against anybody. We believe that as well. We just have to continue to go out and prove it and prove it when it counts and, obviously, that’s the playoffs.”

Question: Obviously, you’ve been Sixth Man of the Year multiple times and everyone knows what you can do off the bench. Austin Rivers was brought back too. But you guys also made some additions such as Raymond Felton and Marreese Speights. How good is this bench now? In the past, Doc Rivers always wanted to stagger the starting players and it seemed like there were very few guys on that bench that he could trust, outside of yourself and Austin. Now, having so many guys that can contribute, how much easier is it for you and how good is this bench?

Crawford: “Well, the bench is as deep as it’s been, obviously, and I think you have guys who all have had success on some level in the NBA. Guys are very competitive and, to be honest, we have a lot of scorers in that group. We have myself, you have Austin, you have Raymond, you have Mo, and then you have Wesley [Johnson], Brandon Bass, those guys do a good job of filling whatever role is needed that particular night. But, the first four guys are much more offensive minded. I think that’s a plus because, for me, it’s not just about me being Sixth Man of the Year again or being the main focus. I think more so in the past, it was me attacking off the bench and that was pretty much it. Now, I’d say we’re attacking as a group, when fully healthy, and I think that that’s dangerous for teams to scout against.”

Question: You obviously know a thing or two about putting the ball in the hole. Just recently, you passed Jason Kidd for number 78 on the NBA’s all-time scoring list and I know that you’re a historian of the game. I’m going to take you away from the Clippers a little bit and just ask you more of an individual question. When you look at your career, how would you summarize your accomplishments to this point and has your career turned out better than you would have thought it would on your first day in the NBA?

Crawford: “When you first come into the NBA, you feel like you can conquer the world, so to speak. Everybody wants to be a star, everybody wants to go back to their neighborhood like, ‘You see what I’m doing out there?! I’m a star among stars,’ because, obviously, the NBA has the best players in the world. For me, I felt like, being a lottery pick going to a team, I thought I could play right away. To be honest, I just wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready physically, I wasn’t ready mentally, I had a lot of maturing to do. I didn’t play much my first year. Second year, going into that year, I was working out with Michael Jordan, tore my ACL, hurt my knee, so I basically missed that year. The third year I came back and we drafted Jay Williams from Duke and he had a lot of hype and was a really good player there, coming out as one of the top college players, so I had to wait my turn there. Then my fourth year was when I got steady, steady minutes, where I knew I was going to play a certain amount every single night, and my game started to grow. By my eighth or ninth year, I think the ninth year, I said, ‘Okay, I’m tired of losing, I’ll be a sixth-man.’ So, that’s not how I projected my career to go, but I think it’s turned out to be very unique, it’s been very cool and it’s obviously still going. It’s not what I thought it would be, but it’s been better in some ways as well. I think it’s been very, very unique. I think it’s been one of the most unique careers for sure.”

Question: You’ve been one of the most successful sixth men in NBA history. I think a lot of guys that take on that bench role point to you and say, ‘I want to have that kind of impact.’ As you look around the league, who are some of the up-and-coming sixth men that people should have an eye on? Who are some guys who have stood out to you as being talented sixth men who may be able to take the torch from you whenever you’re done winning all of these awards?

Crawford: “I think some of the younger guys. I think Will Barton is a really good player. I think he’s up and coming for sure. I think Brandon Knight, I think he’s going through a transition with the role right now because, obviously, he’s been starting his whole career. I think he could be a really good sixth man. Obviously, Lou Williams has been a perennial great sixth man for years – he’s won Sixth Man of the Year. I think Eric Gordon, this year, has been phenomenal. I think they’re really featuring him when he comes off the bench, they’re really going to him. I feel like he is like I was in Atlanta my first year. Joe Johnson was our best player and he’s a perimeter player just like James Harden is for Houston, but [Gordon] is their second guy, he’s the second leading scorer. So I think there’s a lot of good sixth men out there and I think, right now, you see more people buying into that role. I think it’s kind of cool to be a sixth man now and that’s cool in itself, to have that kind of effect. Everybody wants to start, but I think it’s important to understand the bigger picture. Also, a lot of good sixth men can go somewhere else to start and now they’re closing games as well.”

Question: In years past we’ve seen guys like James Harden, when he was with OKC, get to the NBA Finals. Manu Ginobili was a guy who’s come off the bench and won a title. For you, if you were able to win a championship at some point during your tenure with the Clippers, coming off the bench, do you think that that’s something you really need on your resume, in a sense, to really justify that coming off the bench was the right way to go about trying to win a title?

Crawford: “I’m comfortable in my own skin from the standpoint that I don’t really need it to validate anything, but it would be really, really cool. That’s the pinnacle, winning a championship. That’s what you play for and I feel like, for me, that’s the most important thing and, really, the only thing left in my career to accomplish. The time of trying to be an All-Star, I think those years are in the past. I have a bigger goal now and that’s to try and win a championship. To win a championship, knowing that feeling, I won a championship in high school and that’s my best basketball memory. Knowing how that felt, I think winning one in the NBA would be 100 times as cool. That’s definitely what we’re playing for.”

Question: I’m curious about this so I want to ask you. Whenever the whole DeAndre Jordan saga was going on, there was a lot of talk about Chris Paul and his leadership. I think Chris is one of the best leaders in the NBA, he’s not afraid to bark at anyone, he holds guys accountable, he’ll grab your jersey, etc. But I think, during that period, there was some talk about Chris maybe being too intense and needing to change his leadership style for certain players. Have you seen any kind of change in Chris’ leadership? Does he approach certain players differently now and was that a learning experience for him? Or is he still the same Chris that we all know?

Crawford: “He’s the same Chris. I think, as you get further in the league, you evolve. For him, he’s definitely evolving, he’s trying to do whatever it takes to win every single night. But he knows that’s his style of leadership and we know and understand that and respect it, but he also has a certain patience with him as well about getting his message across. In the heat of the moment? Yeah, he may grab your jersey, he may yell at you, but it’s all coming from the same place of just trying to win. It’s not anything to embarrass you, it’s not anything to put you on front street or anything like that. It’s about him saying, ‘Look, we need to get this done.’ And he doesn’t mind if you do it to him either, so that makes it fair all the way around.”

Question: Jamal, who were some of the better leaders that you’ve had as a teammate over the course of your career and guys that helped make their teammates better?

Crawford: “I would say Chauncey Billups is great. I would say Malik Rose is great. I think Allan Houston was great. I’ve had so many great teammates, so I don’t want to forget anyone. I thought Rick Brunson was great, early in my career, Charles Oakley, all those guys. I don’t want to leave anybody out. There’s some great, great people. Grant Hill was unbelievable. Paul Pierce is great right now. I’ve had some great teammates, especially great veteran guys that had high levels of success and that won championships, leading the way over the years.”

Question: Now, you’re a guy who is known for scoring the basketball. As Michael mentioned, it seems like you can embarrass anyone and get to the basket. Who are some of the defenders that you’ve had the toughest time against? The guys that, when you’re matched up against, you’re like, ‘Damn, this is going to be a little bit more difficult.’ Are there certain defenders that stand out like that?

Crawford: “Oh yeah. I think Tony Allen is a great defensive player. I thought Doug Christie was a great defensive player. Bruce Bowen. Kawhi [Leonard] is obviously a great defensive player. I think Garrett Temple is an underrated defensive player. I just mentioned two guys we’re about to play against, but I’ve got to be honest. (Laughs) Avery Bradley’s a really good defensive player. There’s some really good defenders out there, but, especially now, with the rules, it’s more team defense. If guys can funnel you this way or shade you that way, they know the help is going to be there and the Spurs are one of the best teams at doing that.”

Question: Jamal, you’re also known as a guy who can handle the rock. I’m curious, from your perspective, being that you’ve been in the league for a while, who are some of the better ball handlers that you’ve seen, along with yourself, that could get a shout out from myself on ‘Crossover of the Night’ on Twitter?

Crawford: “Absolutely Kyrie Irving. You have Chris Paul, you have Steph Curry, you have Tyreke Evans. I think Isaiah Thomas has a mean handle. Deron Williams, over the years, has had some crazy handles. Kemba Walker is an underrated ball handler. There’s a lot.”

Question: Jamal, last question for you. We’ve talked a lot about this, how you want Seattle to have an NBA team. You’ve done a good job of bringing NBA players to your summer pro-am out in Seattle and I know this is something that’s important to you since you’re from Seattle. I know [Seattle Seahawks quarterback] Russell Wilson has gotten involved as well. How great would it be to see Seattle have a team before your career is over and, if that’s the case, could you see yourself possibly suiting up for Seattle as a way to end your career?

Crawford: “Well, I think getting a team back there is so important. When I was a kid, watching Gary Payton, watching Detlef Schrempf, watching Shawn Kemp, Vin Baker, they helped mold me and make my dreams a reality. I could go down to the stadium to watch those guys, and I could interact with them. Gary Payton was coming to my high school basketball games, so it made my dreams a reality, I could work out with him. I was like, ‘Oh, wow, I can work out with Gary Payton! When I go back to high school, I should dominate.’ It just gave me a level of confidence. Now, with these kids not having that, the closest they get a chance to see a Kevin Durant or a Blake Griffin or a Chris Paul or a Kyrie Irving is on TV or on NBA 2K. To see these guys in person is [huge]. That’s why I always ask the kids every year at my pro-am, who do you want to see? Then I try and go [get them to play]. I hate asking anybody for anything but, for these kids, I’ll ask any of these players to come. Most of the players have, honestly, volunteered and said, ‘I would love to come out there,’ so it makes it a lot easier. Kids come out every single weekend, and it’s a packed house. They’re seeing some of their favorite heroes right there in front of them and they’re interacting with them, they’re talking trash to them, giving them a smile, whatever it might be – that’s a moment that will stick with them forever and I know that because I was that kid when I was 15 or 16 years old and I still have those memories. That’s why we do it. Hopefully, the team gets back in Seattle. Right now, all I see is L.A. You never know how things work out, but I just hope I’m still playing by the time a team comes back there.”

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NBA Daily: Boston’s Potential Crisis

The Kyrie drama may finally be over in Boston, but some tough decisions could be on the horizon for the Celtics, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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It’s hard to get a read on what exactly the Boston Celtics are going to be this upcoming season.

Losing a talent with the rap sheet that Kyrie Irving has at only 27 years old would usually spell misery for any fanbase. Yet, after all that transpired this season, there may not be a fanbase happier to see an NBA superstar in his prime walk than Celtics Nation was when Irving bolted.

Besides, the sting of his departure was mitigated by the arrival of Kemba Walker. Kemba is a slight downgrade from Kyrie, but his consistent improvement, as well as his reputation as a team player, has some believing that he may be able to produce more effectively than Kyrie did as a Celtic.

The most damaging loss the Celtics suffered from the summer is Al Horford. Horford’s all-around game was the perfect fit in Brad Stevens’ system. His floor-spacing, vision, defense, and unselfishness benefitted the team in so many ways that it would be almost impossible to replace every dimension he brought to the Celtics by himself.

Instead of finding a replacement for Horford, the Celtics thought outside of the box by bringing in Enes Kanter. Kanter can’t do everything that Horford does – comparing those two defensively alone is downright laughable – but Kanter still commands double-teams, is one of the league’s best rebounders and is joining a team that ranked 22nd in rebounds per game. It’s definitely a downgrade, but Enes has proven he can be a solid contributor.

That’s not even factoring in the other unknowns facing the Celtics this season. Jayson Tatum in year three; Jaylen Brown in year four; Gordon Hayward being two years removed from his leg injury. After a down year so difficult that pretty much everyone involved took a step back, it’s hard to say where the bar should be set for this team.

Presently, Boston’s ceiling is drastically lower than it was at this exact time a year ago. But when you consider that they won 49 games, is it delusional to think they’ll be able to exceed that win total with a seemingly lesser roster?

That will depend on whether they can solve a possible crisis that their roster as constructed could produce.

In basketball, it’s common sense that if you want to win, you put your five best players on the court when things matter most. As long as those best players can actually play together on the court. That’s the Celtics’ problem right there.

Boston’s five best players are slated to be the following:

-Kemba Walker
-Jayson Tatum
-Gordon Hayward
-Jaylen Brown
-Marcus Smart

With Kanter designated as the starting center – this may change as the season progresses – one of these five is going to start the season coming off the bench, which Brad Stevens will figure out with due time. Hayward, Brown, and Smart have all played significant minutes with the second unit recently so it shouldn’t be much of an adjustment there.

The problem is, if all five of those players play to the best of their abilities, all of them are too good to be wasting away on the bench in crunch time. But if they all are on the court to close out games, who plays center? The only one out of the five who has any experience playing the five position is Hayward, which came last year and he only played one percent of his minutes there.

Brad Stevens has always been one to experiment. He’s never been hesitant to thrust players who aren’t usually the center type into the role of the small-ball five. From Brandon Bass to Jonas Jerebko to Semi Ojeleye, Stevens can really commit to the small in small-ball.

There’s just one problem. The Celtics’ top competitors for the crown this season sports some of the best centers in the league, which include Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, and Nikola Jokic among others. Should Boston try to use its projected best players in its crunchtime lineup, they won’t stand much of a chance. Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart are good defenders, but they’re not that good.

Boston right now isn’t really considered a contender by most people who follow the NBA but adding the 29-year-old Walker, who is now entering the prime of his career, signaled that they aim to be one. Say Boston tries the Walker-Smart-Brown-Tatum-Hayward lineup, and it does not pan out, they may have to trade one of them in order to balance out the roster and crunchtime lineup.

Who they would ship out is the real mystery. They’re definitely not trading Kemba after they just added him. Jayson Tatum’s trade availability expired the second Anthony Davis was traded to the Lakers. Many fans are clamoring for it after a not-so-stellar comeback, but Gordon Hayward is unlikely to be traded. His contract at this moment is an albatross, and when teams trade the star free agents they lured to them shortly after said luring, it’s not a good look for the franchise, especially after what Hayward has gone through.

For better or worse, Gordon Hayward is remaining a Boston Celtic. That leaves Smart and Brown. This is where this hypothetical crisis gets interesting. If Danny Ainge’s hand is forced to choose between the two, who does he trade?

If Ainge wants to keep the one with the highest ceiling, it’s Brown. Jaylen did not have the easiest start last season. He was so bad in fact that they benched him for Smart. Over time, Brown found his game again off the bench. As good as he was, a man of Brown’s talents should not be relegated to the bench.

If that’s not enough, remember that just the year prior, Brown was one of the most vital contributors on a team that was within inches of the NBA Finals. Eighteen points on 46/39/64 splits in 18 of what had to be the most important games of his life as a 21-year-old cemented Brown’s status as a high-upside, possible star player.

Between Brown and Smart, Brown has a higher ceiling.

If Ainge wants to keep the one who solidifies the team culture, it’s Smart. Smart may never have the scoring prowess or the reliable jumper that Brown has, but ask anyone who sets the tone for the game more, and it’s Smart.

Ever since he first walked on the court, Smart’s been one of the most intense, high-energy players in the league. His playmaking and defense inspire the Celtics to play at their best. When the Celtics’ 2018 playoff run comes up, people talk about how impressive the youngsters were, but they forget that their fortunes may not have turned out so well if Smart had not come back in time from injury.

It’s true that his love for the game puts his flaws on display, but Marcus Smart is what helped catapult the Brad Stevens era and establish a successful culture in Boston. His efforts probably won’t lead to any All-Star appearance, but they solidify him as an impact player for a championship team.

Between Brown and Smart, Smart brings more of a winning culture.

Some other components at play – Brown is in a contract year, and he should have suitors next offseason, while Smart is currently being paid $12 million (salary that could be used in a possible trade for a star player).

Now there’s the chance that none of this happens. The Celtics may go forward with the core they have right now, and maybe they have something up their sleeve that nobody knows about. There’s also the chance they may trade both Smart and Brown for an upgrade or trade someone else.

There’s obviously no way to tell what will happen at this point. However, these are the pertinent questions that the Celtics need to ask themselves as we approach the upcoming season.

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High-Performance Mindfulness: Incorporating The Mental Health Resource Into The NBA

Jake Rauchbach outlines best practices and working parameters for integrating a mental health/Mental Performance resource into the coaching staff. 

Jake Rauchbach

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As NBA teams begin to integrate mental health resources into the overall working structure of their organizations, several key points should be taken into consideration so that practitioners can be most effective when working with players.

Before we dive in, it is important to note that, within the mental health spectrum, there are generally two avenues.

There is the clinical side, which focuses on diagnosing and treating behavioral disorders like depression, substance abuse and learning disabilities. There is also the applied/performance-related side, where the end goal is to improve on-court performance through techniques such as High-Performance Mindfulness.

Let’s jump in and break down some of the best practices and key considerations for successfully installing this resource within your staff:

Best Practices & Key Considerations

Player Buy-In

Player buy-in should be the number one priority. All other considerations should directly feed into facilitating and supporting this. With any sort of coaching, trust and rapport with the player are vital. The same thing holds for mental health resources/High-Performance Mindfulness coaches. Credibility and strong rapport with the player must be built.

This responsibility lies on the shoulders of the interpersonal skill-sets of the High-Performance Coach. However, much more of this responsibility resides with the decision-makers, who define the working parameters for the resource. If players do not like, trust or see value in the resource and the services offered, it is going to be very tough to make much headway. Before any substantial progress, this foundation must be in place first.

Staff Buy-In (Cooperation)

If a player senses that staff members, especially decision-makers, surrounding that player do not support or are sending mixed messages regarding the value, effectiveness, and acceptance of the mental health work, it can derail or block the initiative. When leaders within the organization outwardly support the role of the practitioner and initiative, it makes it that much easier to effectively serve the player.

In a perfect world, all levels of the organization are sending the same message to the player(s) regarding the role, value and implementation of the mental health practitioner. More realistically, outward support and clear definition of the practitioner’s role goes a long way.

  • Defined Role: Clearly defining the role, will properly position the resource. It will also put players and staff members on notice regarding working parameters.
  • Embed Resource in Coaching Staff: The highest probability for success is by having the resource sit on the bench during the game, ideally right between the player rotation. This is ultra-effective in improving performance and halting performance issues straight away as they arise during the game.
  • Direct Line of Communication: A direct line of communication from the mental health resource/performance coach to the decision-makers within the organization is vital. The mental and emotional responses of athletes are illogical and often unpredictable. So is the performance improvement of the player. It is very rarely a straight line up. A clean and clear feedback loop from the mental health expert to the decision-makers make this job much easier.
    • Expert feedback presented consistently is a must, ideally in weekly or bi-weekly meetings. Confidentiality is always a major consideration. However, performance results and projective performance trajectories of a player are different than confidential information. When it comes to player performance, results, trajectories and player progression can be shared and must be put into context.

Measurable Success

In High-Performance Mindfulness, there should be measurables, or metrics, showing the improvement for the player. Performance coaches should be judged by the tangible production they can facilitate for a player or set of players. In a results-based business such as professional basketball, showing the value add via statistical improvement is important. This is especially true in a growth space such as Mental Performance.

Finding a way to do this so that it does not infringe upon the domains of other coaching staff members is also a consideration. However, not acknowledging that Mental Performance has the potential for improving statistical on-court performance would be missing the point.

Time

There is a gestation period that exists in High-Performance Mindfulness Coaching. Just like any other type of coaching, there is a period between the implementation of the work and the actual production improvement results. Understanding this will provide clarity and context.

There are just some of the best practices for helping jump-start your mental health and High-Performance Mindfulness initiatives at the NBA and professional basketball level.

The application of the mental health and High-Performance Mindfulness resources within the NBA and professional basketball is a little like the wild west right now. Through trial and error, organizations will see what works and what doesn’t within the context of their given situation.

One thing is for sure, though: This space is growing and growing fast, and decision-makers better have foundational understanding for how to give this initiative the best probability for success.

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NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Denver Nuggets

James Blancarte continues Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series by examining the Denver Nuggets’ deep roster.

James Blancarte

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James Blancarte continues Basketball Insiders’ “Grading the Offseason” series analyzing the Denver Nuggets.

Throughout the offseason, Basketball Insiders has been taking a look at each respective franchise’s roster after the draft, offseason signings and trades. In doing so, we look to analyze and determine how each team did as they prepare for next season and beyond.

There are numerous strategies teams can take when it comes to the future. Some teams look to acquire various assets in exchange for taking on players with undesirable contracts. Having cleared up cap space, other teams use the offseason targeting free agents with the hope of making a big leap going forward. This offseason was one for the ages with a few teams willing to take huge risks and spend a treasure trove of assets to build an instant contender. Successful teams oftentimes resist the urge to make any major additions or subtractions and take a bet on internal growth and continuity.

And that leads us to the Denver Nuggets. Denver is fresh off a playoff run that nearly saw the franchise return to the Western Conference Finals. Some teams in big markets seem to come away with the biggest free agents. This offseason, Denver mostly did not come up with any top-tier acquisitions. However, with the talent and youth of their key players, the Nuggets shouldn’t be concerned. A year older, more mature and with the benefit of continuity, the Nuggets again enters the upcoming season as a Western Conference contender.

Overview

Last year, the Nuggets jumped up to second place in the west after finishing in ninth the prior two seasons. With that jump, Denver finally returned to the postseason, ending a five-season playoff drought. Jumping up seven seeds is an impressive season-to-season jump not often seen in the NBA. However, many Nuggets followers would argue that the team had been better than their prior results and the jump shouldn’t come across as a major surprise.

Credit the Nuggets’ investment and patience in their core players for last year’s results. The team has allowed their franchise star Nikola Jokic to fully explore his talents as his minutes, effectiveness and usage have increased year-to-year. Alongside Jokic, the team has seen significant development and improve play from Gary Harris and Jamal Murray.

Last year saw the two-man game between Jokic and Murray take off to a new level. Their intuitive and fluid two-man game created a foundation on offense that the team thrived on. Throw in a full season of Paul Millsap and the team became that much more dangerous. The year prior, the Nuggets acquired the multi-skilled Millsap but an injury kept him out much of the year and prevented the team from gelling fast enough to get back into the playoff picture. With a full season of Millsap in addition to the team’s young core, the Nuggets were able to hit another level.

The Nuggets should be lauded for their ability to draft, acquire and develop young talent. This past season saw second-year guard Monte Morris join the rotation and establish himself as another key contributor. Malik Beasley, a first-round pick for Denver in 2016, also had his best year so far and started in 18 games. Longtime mainstay Will Barton did struggle with injury last season. With his explosiveness somewhat limited, Barton didn’t have the same overall impact he has had in year’s past.

The Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers matchup in the semifinals produced fireworks. Denver came out of the wrong end of an unbelievable quadruple-overtime game. Losing that marathon game could have easily been the kind of loss that a team doesn’t recover from in a close matchup. Instead, the Nuggets came back and even led the series 3-2. Despite going toe-to-toe, the Nuggets came up just short in the final quarter of game seven.

Offseason

Unlike a few other teams this year, there is no splashy star acquisition and that is just fine. Having come so close to making the Conference Finals and having already seen year-to-year growth from multiple key contributors, slow and steady may still win the race for the Nuggets. Jokic is arguably a top-10 player and is a realistic MVP candidate entering this upcoming season. Also, Jamal Murray was signed to a five-year, $170 million extension. Murray is an emerging talent and has the skill to be a dynamic offensive force in the future.

Just because the Nuggets didn’t sign or trade for a top-tier free agent doesn’t mean they would never consider it. There have been murmurs at times about whether Denver would or should pull the trigger and use their wealth of young talent to acquire a potentially available star like Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal. That speculation never seemed to amount to much and the team opted for a few smaller transactions.

On June 29, Denver exercised their team option to keep Millsap for $30 million for the 2019-20 season. Again, Millsap played well last season and helps make the Nuggets more versatile on both ends of the floor.

The Nuggets also acquired forward Jerami Grant by jumping into the Thunder fire sale of assets that started with the Paul George trade. In exchange for a 2020 first-round pick, the Nuggets picked up a versatile and capable defensive forward to help round out their deep roster.

There are a few other minor transactions to take note of. The Nuggets closed the book on Trey Lyles, who has been in the team’s big man rotation for the past few years. In spot play, he contributed at times but didn’t make an overall impact sufficient to justify the continued investment.

Denver has a deep roster and will need to stay flexible and figure out their best rotations next season. Barton will be looking to re-establish himself. Juan Hernangómez, who can play on the wing or as a small-ball four, will again be trying to find a permanent place in the rotation. Center Mason Plumlee formed a towering two-man front-court tandem that allowed Jokic to play from the perimeter, in addition to his backup center minutes. Plumlee may be wary of Jerami Grant, who could usurp some of those frontcourt minutes alongside Jokic.

PLAYERS IN: Jerami Grant, P.J. Dozier, Tyler Cook, Vlatko Cancar

PLAYERS OUT: Isaiah Thomas, Trey Lyles, Tyler Lydon, Brandon Goodwin, Thomas Welsh

What’s Next

Finishing second in the west, being a quarter away from the Conference Finals and bringing back the same squad of up and coming players should make the Nuggets a near lock to be a top-shelf team again. Continued development from many of their young players and an MVP season from Jokic could easily place them in the top-tier of the Conference again.

Unfortunately, the Nuggets will have to contend with newly minted contenders in the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers. Add a stellar offseason for the Utah Jazz and the possibility that the James Harden-Russell Westbrook experiment could succeed and there are at least four other realistic contenders for the top two spots in the west.

Simply holding the two spot will be quite the challenge. However, the Nuggets have the benefit of youth, player development and continuity. Few teams can tout continuity as a major asset the way Denver can. This upcoming season will be an interesting test to see how important continuity is in an always-improving Western Conference.

Offseason Grade: B+

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