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Denver Nuggets 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Denver Nuggets.

Basketball Insiders

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Expectations weren’t too high for the Denver Nuggets entering last season, as they were developing a young core and adjusting to a new head coach in Mike Malone. The team was clearly rebuilding, so it wasn’t a surprise to see them finish 33-49 (which ranked 11th in the Western Conference).

Because Denver has done a great job of stockpiling draft picks, they had three first-round selections in this year’s draft. They came away from the draft with an impressive haul of top-20 prospects including Jamal Murray (No. 7), Juan Hernangómezz (No. 15) and Malik Beasley (No. 19) – all of whom have a ton of potential and intriguing skill sets.

Aside from the incoming rookies, this year’s Nuggets squad will roll out largely the same roster as last season. That means they’re banking on internal development from their young core and better luck when it comes to injuries (key contributors like Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Emmanuel Mudiay, Kenneth Faried and Jusuf Nurkic all missed significant time due to various ailments last year). Making a huge leap in the West standings may be not be realistic in a very competitive conference, but Denver can definitely make progress if their core steps up and stays healthy.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Denver Nuggets.

FIVE GUYS THINK

After 10 consecutive trips to the playoffs, the Nuggets have missed the postseason in each of the past three years. However, head coach Mike Malone’s unit showed signs of improvement last season and looks to carry that momentum forward. The Nuggets invested heavily in their backcourt this summer, drafting Jamal Murray and Malik Beasley to play alongside second-year guard Emmanuel Mudiay. The club also has a solid group of veterans in Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Jameer Nelson, Kenneth Faried and Mike Miller among others to aid in the youth movement. There’s plenty to like in Denver, but these things take time before materializing into significant results.

5th Place – Northwest Division

– Lang Greene

In any other division, a predicted fifth-place finish for a team with this much young talent would look as ridiculous as Allen Iverson in a Nuggets uniform. But the Northwest is as frigid and harsh as the Colorado winter, which means even with an overwhelmingly talented core and a good head coach in Mike Malone, they’re going to have trouble making tracks in the standings. There’s star quality everywhere here, from the international big men in Jusuf Nurfic and Nikola Jokic to the young and athletic backcourt, which features Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris, Jamal Murray and Will Barton. Mix in a few vets like Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler and Jameer Nelson, and it’s easy to like where they’re headed. Unfortunately the rest of the division is a little farther along than the Nuggets are right now, keeping them at the back of the pack in the Northwest.

5th Place – Northwest Division

– Joel Brigham

Honestly, the Nuggets are likely to be the team I watch the least this coming season. They had a good thing going with Ty Lawson and George Karl, but that seems so, so long ago. There are a couple of nice pieces on the roster, but the franchise seems to be biding time until they either get lucky and draft a franchise cornerstone or manage to swing a trade for a stud player who wants a change of scenery (like, say, DeMarcus Cousins). Out in the Northwest, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers will duke it out for supremacy, while the Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves battle for the third and fourth spots (and perhaps a late playoff seed). Emmanuel Mudiay, Danilo Gallinari and Co. can’t do much to change that.

5th Place – Northwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

The Nuggets are a team that largely goes unnoticed in the Western Conference. The team peaked in the 2012-13 season when they won 57 regular season games, and they’ve failed win more than 36 games in a season since. However, when the Sacramento Kings made the mistake of firing their former head coach Mike Malone, it opened the door for the Nuggets to hire him. Entering his second season with Denver, Malone now has a nice mix of talented veterans like Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler and young players like Emmanuel Mudiay and Nikola Jokic. Overall, I like what they did in the draft, bringing in Jamal Murray, Juancho Hernangomez and Malik Beasley. Unfortunately, the West is still pretty deep and the Northwest Division has some hungry teams in the mix. While I like the mix of talent on this team and Malone at head coach, I think this year will ultimately be more about developing the young cornerstone players than making a playoff run.

5th Place – Northwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Nuggets have an interesting mix of veteran leaders and young prospects. I really like their young core, which consists of Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic, Jusuf Nurkic, Gary Harris, Juan Hernangomez and Malik Beasley among others. Veterans like Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, Jameer Nelson, Mike Miller and Darrell Arthur are in place to help the young players develop (and also serve as trade chips, as general manager Tim Connelly has done a good job of flipping significant contributors for draft picks). It’s hard to imagine the Nuggets finishing anywhere but fifth in the Northwest Division since Minnesota is expected to improve and the other three teams (Oklahoma City, Portland and Utah) seem poised to make the playoffs. Still, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for the Nuggets. It’s clear that the team is a few years away from seriously competing in the Western Conference, so they should just focus on developing their core. At this point, the top priority should be maximizing the full potential of their youngsters.

5th Place – Northwest Division

– Alex Kennedy

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Danilo Gallinari

Going forward, it’s possible that Mudiay or Murray could emerge as Denver’s go-to scorer. Both players are very talented and will have the ball in their hands quite a bit. However, for now, Gallinari is clearly the Nuggets’ best offensive player. The 28-year-old led Denver in points per game (19.5) and offensive rating (120) last season. It wasn’t particularly close either; the Nuggets’ second-highest scorer was Will Barton, who averaged 14.4 points off of the bench, and Mudiay rounded out the top three with 12.8 points per game. Gallinari has the ability to score the ball inside and out, and he’ll be asked to do a lot in Coach Malone’s offense this season. For now, it’s hard to make the case for any other Nugget here, at least until some of their other potential cornerstones are further along in their development.

Top Defensive Player: Jusuf Nurkic

Last season, Nurkic led the Nuggets in defensive rating (102) and, perhaps more importantly, provided the team with a contagious swagger on that end of the court. He didn’t back down from any challenge, trash talked to some of the league’s best offensive players (see DeMarcus Cousins) and took pride in being a defensive beast down low. That’s the kind of guy who becomes the heart and soul of a defense, and who motivates his peers to step up defensively as well. He averaged 1.4 blocks and .8 steals in just 17.1 minutes per game last year. In other words, he averaged four blocks and 2.2 steals per-100-possessions. Nurkic is still just 22 years old and is very raw, so his best defensive days are likely still ahead of him too. In a few years, when he’s playing more minutes and feels even more comfortable locking down his opposition, he could be a force to be reckoned with in the paint.

Top Playmaker: Emmanuel Mudiay

The Nuggets are hoping that Mudiay is the team’s floor general of the future. The 20-year-old still has a lot of growing to do, but he certainly showed glimpses of brilliance at times during his rookie campaign. Not only did Mudiay lead all Nuggets players in assists per game (5.5), he led all players in his rookie class. Also, his 1.71 assist-to-turnover ratio was second among all rookies. Mudiay must improve his shooting percentages, limit his turnovers and continue to get more comfortable running an NBA offense, but there’s no question that he is Denver’s best playmaker. The franchise is betting on him moving forward.

Top Clutch Player: Danilo Gallinari

Emmanuel Mudiay did hit a crazy three-pointer to beat the Philadelphia 76ers last season, but the play also showed why it makes more sense to put the ball in Gallinari’s veteran hands late in games. Prior to hitting the shot, Mudiay fumbled the ball and nearly lost it before barley getting up the attempt that won the game. Gallinari is the more experienced player, and he shoots much better from the field, from distance and from the charity stripe. Unless Mudiay, Murray or someone else emerges as a clutch threat, expect Gallinari to be the go-to option in crunch time in the near future.

The Unheralded Player: Juan Hernangomez

During the pre-draft process, I had the opportunity to attend a private workout that Hernangomez held in a crowded gym of NBA executives and scouts at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL. Entering the workout, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the forward who he was being projected as a late first-rounder. To be honest, it seemed more people were in the building to evaluate his workout partner, Skal Labissiere, than Hernangomez. Well, after watching Juan knock down long NBA threes with ease, display impressive athleticism that he I didn’t know he had and just flat out dominate the workout, I came away believing he could be the steal of this draft class. He has the skill set to be a perfect fit for today’s NBA and I think he was an excellent pick for the Nuggets at No. 15. Jamal Murray is going to get more hype, and understandably so since he was a top-seven selection and has more buzz surrounding him, but don’t sleep on Hernangomez. He may be unheralded now, but I’d be shocked if that lasts long.

Top New Addition: Jamal Murray

As much as I love Hernangomez, Murray deserves plenty of love too. Plenty of executives were drooling over his game during the pre-draft process because he has all of the talent and upside to eventually become a star. Mudiay and Murray could become a very scary backcourt one-two punch for years to come if both players can maximize their full potential. Murray is a score-first combo guard, so having a floor general like Mudiay alongside him could actually help as he transitions to the NBA. I’m excited to watch Murray develop throughout his career because he could be a special player. Years from now, people may look back on this draft class and ask, “How did Murray slip to No. 7?!”

– Alex Kennedy

WHO WE LIKE

1. Nikola Jokic

Entering last season, Jokic wasn’t receiving as much attention as he should have. This made some sense at the time; after all, he was the No. 41 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft and nobody was sure what to expect from him during his rookie season with Denver. Well, now we know that Jokic is a stud who shouldn’t be overlooked again. He averaged 10 points, seven rebounds, 2.4 assists and one steal in 21.7 minutes per game for the Nuggets. Jokic shot 51.2 percent from the field, 33.3 percent from three-point range and 81.1 percent from the free throw line. Jokic played so well (and efficiently) that he was moved into the starting lineup for 55 games. He finished his first NBA season with 16 double-doubles, which was third among all rookies behind only Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis. Oh, and he finished third in Rookie of the Year voting and was named to the NBA’s All-Rookie First Team. All signs point to Jokic being a cornerstone for the Nuggets moving forward.

2. Tim Connelly

As previously mentioned, Connelly has done a solid job building this squad. Not only has he made smart draft selections since taking over the organization (see Nikola Jokic above), he has traded off veterans at the right time in order to get back attractive assets like first-round picks and additional young players. Remember, he landed two first-round picks from the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for Timofey Mozgov. He obtained Will Barton, a first-round pick and cap flexibility from the Portland Trail Blazers for Arron Afflalo and Alonzo Gee. He sent Randy Foye to the Oklahoma City Thunder for two second-rounders and cap space. Knowing when to move on from veteran contributors can be tough, but he has returned quite a few assets in these deals and helped Denver’s rebuild as a result. Overall, Connelly deserves a lot of credit for the job he has done. Also, he has remained aggressive in trying to package some of his young talent and picks for a star-caliber player, so he’s certainly someone to keep an eye on should a disgruntled franchise player start making headlines.

3. Mike Malone

I was adamantly against the Sacramento Kings’ decision to part ways with Malone following a relatively impressive start to the 2014-15 season. However, this worked out for Denver since they were able to land one of the better up-and-coming coaches in the league. The 45-year-old sideline general is very well respected around the NBA and seems like the perfect coach to instill a winning culture in Denver once again. He’s smart and holds his players accountable, but he is also good at building relationships with his team. Turning things around with the Nuggets may take some time, especially with so many young guys on the roster, but I believe in Malone to get it done.

4. Wilson Chandler

Chandler failed to play in a single game last season as he recovered from surgery to repair a labral tear in his right hip. Now, the 29-year-old is hoping to return to 100 percent and the Nuggets can’t wait to have him back. Just before that injury occurred last November, Denver inked Chandler to a four-year, $46.5 million extension. With the rising salary cap, this deal now looks like an incredible bargain. The last time Chandler was healthy, he averaged 13.9 points and 6.1 rebounds. The Nuggets are looking forward to getting him back him to full strength so he can produce on the court and help the team continue to take steps forward throughout this rebuilding phase.

– Alex Kennedy

SALARY CAP 101

The Nuggets are still well below the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap, with about $74 million in guaranteed commitments. Teams are required to spend at least $84.7 million this season – any shortfall will be paid out to Denver’s rostered players at the end of the year.  With 14 guaranteed, the Nuggets have just one roster spot available for non-guaranteed players like JaKarr Sampson, Axel Toupane, D.J. Kennedy, Robbie Hummel, Jarnell Stokes and Nate Wolters.

Looking ahead to next summer, the Nuggets project to have roughly $37 million in spending power under a $102 million salary cap.  That figured presumes Danilo Gallinari opts out of the final year of his contract ($16.1 million). Mike Miller, who re-signed with the team for $7 million, has a non-guaranteed $3.5 million salary for 2017-18. Denver will undoubtedly pick up the rookie-scale options on Emmanuel Mudiay, Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris before November.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Malone wants him team getting up and down the court, as evidenced by their 13th-ranked pace for last season. The team certainly has the personnel to thrive in the open court, and adding guys like Murray, Hernangomez and Beasley to this aggressive core should only help since they provide scoring and spacing. Rebounding was another strength for Denver last season, as their 44.6 boards per game ranked eighth in the NBA and their 51.1 percent rebound rate finished ninth in the league. Malone’s coaching can be considered a strength as well, since he is very good at what he does and ensures that the Nuggets’ young players are in good hands as they mature.

– Alex Kennedy

WEAKNESSES

There were a lot of issues in Denver last year, but that’s to be expected of a young team that’s adjusting to a new coach and several rookies playing a large role. Defensively, the Nuggets struggled; they ranked 24th in the league in defense, allowing 106.4 points per 100 possessions. They also had the 20th-ranked offense in the league, scoring just 102.7 points per 100 possessions. Their true shooting percentage (53.1 percent) was 21st in the NBA. Becoming more efficient on both ends of the floor will be important for this squad going forward. They must also limit their turnovers (14.2 per game, 19th in the NBA) as well as their young mistakes, but time and experience should help them cut back in those costly areas.

– Alex Kennedy

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will the Nuggets trade away one of their veteran forwards?

Danilo Gallinari (who has a player option after this season), Wilson Chandler (who has a player option for the 2018-19 season) and Kenneth Faried have all been mentioned in trade rumors in recent years. And, as previously noted, general manager Tim Connelly likes to pull the trigger on deals when he still has leverage and the ability to receive something of value in return for his outgoing player. The Nuggets are obviously building around their young core, which makes one wonder if Connelly may decide to part ways with one (or more) of the team’s veterans in order to bring in some more youth or draft picks – or at least fill another hole. It remains to be seen if the Nuggets will make a deal. With that said, it’s worth noting that Denver has been aggressive at the last two trade deadlines and this one shouldn’t be any different.

– Alex Kennedy

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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