When Nikola Jokic exploded onto the scene in 2017, we knew it was only a matter of time until Denver would establish itself as one of the best teams in the league. After the 2018-2019 season concluded, we now know that the Nuggets’ time has arrived.
Last season, they won 54 games, the most wins they’ve had since 2013. They also won their first Northwest Division Title since 2010. It wasn’t all for nothing either, as they managed to go all the way to Game 7 of the Western Conference Semis, the furthest they’ve gone in the playoffs since 2009.
The difference between that Nuggets and their predecessors- It should only get better from here. Their best players are just scratching the surface of their potential. At just 24 years old, Nikola Jokic is already an MVP candidate. At 22 years old, Jamal Murray is one of the most promising scoring guards in the league. At 25 years old, Gary Harris is one of the better young two-way wings.
The Nuggets have built a great foundation that could lead to the most glorious era of basketball than they’ve ever had as a franchise. Time should be on their side for the next several years, but with as good as they are now, they have to ask how high their ceiling is. Seriously, if everything goes their way, this Nuggets team is a sleeper to win it all.
But how did they get this far this quickly? Basketball Insiders takes a look.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
Among the rest of the contenders, the Nuggets had the quietest offseason – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There weren’t many holes to fill on the second-best team in the Western Conference. Sometimes, doing nothing is doing the most. They did add Jerami Grant to the mix, which could be one of the most underrated moves of the summer. Yet, MVP candidate Nikola Jokic, two-way wing Gary Harris, dynamic guard Jamal Murray, energetic presence Will Barton and more just have another year under their belt. Paul Millsap’s going to be Paul Millsap until he calls it a career. Monte Morris isn’t going to be turning the ball over off the bench. They’re hoping Michael Porter Jr. can shake the injury bug at some point, which would only strengthen their roster. If Mike Malone finds time for him, Vlatko Cancar is another international rookie to watch out for. The tussle at the top of the Northwest (and the West in general) is going to be fun to see unfold.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Spencer Davies
The Nuggets surprised many last season by finishing with the second-best record in the Western Conference. There’s no reason to think they won’t build on that success this upcoming season. They have one of the best young cores in the league. They have one of the NBA’s best coaches in Mike Malone. And they have one of the most intriguing wild cards in Michael Porter Jr. Porter was held out of summer league as a precaution following a minor knee sprain. There was a time he was considered the overwhelming favorite for the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft. His addition and potential skill level can really vault this team to the next level. But expectations should be tempered, and even without him the Nuggets are a formidable threat. They’ve brought back every core player from last season with the great addition of Jerami Grant. Based on the other teams in the West, it’s a stretch to picture the Nuggets in the Finals, but they’ll continue to be a playoff threat and are good enough to give a few other teams a little scare.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– David Yapkowitz
The Nuggets had a strong offseason by default. They didn’t add much talent, but they were so good and young in 2018-19 that keeping their core together is a major success in-and-of-itself.
The Nuggets should be even better in 2019-20 considering their two best players – Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray – are 24 and 22 years old, respectively – and will only continue to improve. They were fortunate that Paul Millsap picked up his player option for 2019-20, although what they do with him beyond this year is up for debate. They also added Jerami Grant and return Michael Porter Jr., who missed his entire rookie season due to a back injury. They must shoot more three-pointers this season and do so more accurately – they were 16th in three-point attempts and 17th in three-point percentage. But accuracy and better shot attempts will come with experience.
The Nuggets will have fierce competition in the Northwest Division, but winning the division isn’t the end goal – winning a championship is. If the Nuggets are healthy come playoff time, the entire Western Conference will have another incredibly talented team to contend with.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Drew Maresca
The Denver Nuggets are L-O-A-D-E-D with talent, and they have another promising young star coming online in Michael Porter Jr, but if the Boston Celtics taught us anything last year it’s that banking on youth to sacrifice their own star status for the greater good is easier said than done, especially with expectations now coming down on the franchise. Last year the Nuggets were not the hunted, they were the hunters. This year they will have to do better than their 54 wins to call the season an improvement, and that will be a tough task even for a team with some much talent.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– Steve Kyler
The Denver Nuggets didn’t make any splashy moves to bolster the roster, but I do like the addition of Jerami Grant, who could have a bigger impact this upcoming season than most people expect. This team is already loaded and another year of collective development should serve Denver well. The X-factor may be Michael Porter Jr, an extremely talented young player who has been hampered with injuries early in his career. Porter Jr has the talent to be a star but it all comes down to health with him. This roster is just well balanced and anchored by Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, who are both still incredibly young and always improving. I do question why the Nuggets felt compelled to offer Murray a max-extension this offseason, which reduces some future cap flexibility they could have utilized. This isn’t a major issue and there is value in showing a franchise cornerstone how much you value him, but it didn’t seem like the most pragmatic move considering the possible benefits of waiting. The sky is the limit for this Nuggets team, but they have plenty of other legitimate title contenders to deal with in the West this upcoming season.
1st Place – Northwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Nuggets are all-in on the duo of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, paying Jokic the max last summer and giving Murray a five-year extension through 2024-25 in July. Denver is very close to the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax threshold which may limit their willingness to dip further into their Mid-Level ($8.4 million remaining) or Bi-Annual ($3.6 million) Exceptions. Using either (at least $2.6 million of the Mid-Level) will trigger a hard cap at $138.9 million.
Before November, the Nuggets need to decide on Michael Porter Jr.’s rookie-scale option. Juancho Hernangomez is eligible for an extension before the start of the season.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Nikola Jokic
When you lead your team in points, assists, rebounds aka the three most essential elements to a team’s offense, you earn the title of top dog in that department. In all honesty, were you really expecting someone else? There may not be a big in the league that has the all-around game offensively that the Joker has.
That’s not even a shot at the other players on the Nuggets’ roster. They’ve got some weapons next to their young phenom. His repertoire despite his doughy frame outshines them all badly. That’s what makes him so entertaining to watch. The guy does so much on the basketball court despite being arguably the least athletic one out there.
An even scarier thought is that the guy finished fifth in MVP voting last season, and his campaign for Most Valuable Player revolved around his dominance offensively despite only shooting a tick under 31 percent from distance. We’ve seen Nikola shoot consistently well from deep before, so if that comes back, then we’re all in trouble.
Top Defensive Player: Gary Harris
The NBA values players who are labeled as 3&D swingmen. Now that he’s entering the sixth season of his career at just 25 years old, Harris has made a name for himself as one of the better 3&D wings in the NBA.
The Nuggets won’t be messing around with anyone this season. They’re expected to be among the best of the best in their conference and the NBA. In their way will be the likes of Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, James Harden, and Damian Lillard. Expect their primary stopper to be Gary Harris.
In the playoffs, the Nuggets assigned Harris to their opponent’s top offensive players such as DeMar DeRozan, Damian Lillard, and CJ McCollum, and did a solid job of preventing them from getting into a good groove. His defensive assignments are going to be a lot harder this season with the new-look Clippers, Lakers, and Jazz to name a few. So far, he’s been up to the task. If Denver is for real, Harris’ efforts defense should be a vital reason why.
Top Playmaker: Nikola Jokic
Leading your team in assists (7.3) by a pretty fair margin when you’re the center is an impressive enough feat by itself. Leading all centers in that department – again, by a pretty fair margin – makes you look all the better. Averaging the ninth-highest assists per game when the only other bigs who come close to that average are the likes of Draymond Green and Giannis Antetokounmpo automatically vaults you to elite status.
If someone who didn’t watch the NBA asked you why Nikola Jokic is so much fun to watch, your answer would quickly refer to his passing ability without hesitation. There are plenty of bigs in the league who are terrific passers. Jokic though puts almost all of them to shame. He doesn’t just make passes that will make you get you out of your chair. He’ll make passes that make you think, “How did he even see that guy?”
Now that the NBA has more footage of the Serbian, he doesn’t make as many flashy passes as he did when he came into his own in 2017, but his vision is still something we’ve rarely been able to see from any center in the history of the NBA.
This early in his career, Jokic has already made his case as the best passing big of all time. If he’s going nowhere but up from here on out, then there may not be a debate when he hangs up his sneakers.
Top Clutch Player: Jamal Murray
Fun fact: Denver was excellent in games that were considered clutch last season. They went 31-15 in games that were considered to be in clutch situations, which gave them the best winning percentage in the entire league in that specific statistic.
Some of Denver’s best players had very positive net ratings in the clutch. Jokic, Murray, Monte Morris, Paul Millsap. Murray gets the nod here because now that he’s entering his prime, he should be relied on to the go-to guy on this roster. Better yet, we’ve seen that he can be unstoppable when the game is on the line. He wasn’t consistent in the postseason, but he did put the entire team on his back on multiple occasions.
If you were watching Denver’s playoff run, you probably knew about the time Murray exploded for 21 points in the fourth quarter when the Nuggets toppled the Spurs to tie the series at one a piece in the first round, or when he had back-to-back 34-point outings, the latter of which included clutch free throws that tied the Western Conference Semis with the Blazers. For a first playoff outing, Murray’s performance could have been a lot worse.
Coming off a nice payday from Denver this summer, and with the prime of his career approaching, expect Murray to put up more of the same this season. If not better.
The Unheralded Player: Paul Millsap
It sounds weird because Millsap’s had a fantastic reputation in the league for what seems like an eternity now. It sounds even weirder since Denver chose to pick up his $30 million team option hence demonstrating how much the Nuggets value what he does on the floor.
So what makes him unheralded? Because of both his expected decline and the expected improvement from the Nuggets’ young guys. Paul’s numbers have gradually decreased since he came to Denver, which should surprise no one since he will be 35 by mid-season in 2020. As he ages for the worse much like anyone else would at that age, everyone around him should age for the better.
He’s still going to be a valuable piece to this Denver squad. Millsap may not be what he was during his Jazz/Hawks days, but he’s always reliable to play within the offense, keep it all together on defense, and be a good teammate. It’s not that he’s an unheralded player. It’s that he’s going to be.
Best New Addition: Jerami Grant
Denver didn’t really revamp its roster this summer for good reason. There’s no need to mess with what’s working unless you see that there are obvious limits to what your roster can do. However, that shouldn’t stop you from adding players who can improve certain areas if the price is right. Acquiring Jerami Grant for what will probably be a late first-round pick fits the profile.
After being nothing but a rotation player on a team that didn’t bother to try, Grant broke out as a premier 3&D ¾ tweener in Oklahoma City. Last season, he averaged 13.6 points on 50/39/71 splits while also proving himself to be one of the most versatile defenders on one of the league’s best defensive squads.
In Denver, he should add more versatility and depth to a team that already had plenty of it but was clearly more than open to having more. If Grant’s skillset wasn’t enough, take note that he has a player option after this season. If he really wants good money in what looks like a pretty barren offseason next summer, expect him to give the Nuggets his all.
WHO WE LIKE
1. Michael Porter Jr.’s potential
It’s a shame that we don’t have a lot of data to support Porter. All we have are his high school/McDonalds’s/AAU highlights and the few college games he played at Missouri to judge where he stands as an NBA player. With all that he’s gone through, all we can say about MPJ as a player is that he has potential.
Denver wisely kept him on the shelf after taking him with the last pick in the 2018 lottery. Both the talent and the injury rap sheet plus the team’s timeline afforded Denver the privilege of preserving him until they knew he had a clean bill of health. The Kings did the same thing with Harry Giles, and so far, it’s working out quite well for them.
Porter is expected to be ready for training camp. If healthy, the possibilities are endless for what he could do for the Nuggets. He gives them another scorer to put next to Jokic and Murray, and could give so many more lineup possibilities. But that’s all banking on that he’ll avoid the injury bug. This isn’t just high-risk/high-reward. This is a monumental risk/legendary-level reward.
No pressure though kid!
2. The other young guys
So much praise has been heaped on the likes of Jokic, Murray, and Harris that the other young talent on Denver’s roster definitely deserves a shoutout. They don’t have the same ceilings as the aforementioned players, but they played a role in Denver’s uprise last season
-Malik Beasley: When Denver traded the long-tenured Wilson Chandler, Will Barton was the starting small forward meaning the backup wing was up for grabs. Beasley took that role and ran with it, averaging 11.3 points on 47/40/84 splits. Establishing himself a rim-running three-point specialist, Beasley gave Denver an unexpected jolt.
-Monte Morris: Morris was another surprise contributor in Denver’s success. Isaiah Thomas was the designated back-up point guard for the Nuggets, but while he never found his groove, Morris established as the leader of the second unit. In 24 minutes a game, he averaged 10.4 points on 49/41/80 splits. Those stats didn’t continue in the postseason, but Morris proved he could be Denver’s Sixth Man of the future.
-Juancho Hernangomez: The 23-year-old did an excellent job filling in for the injured Will Barton as the starting small forward. He started 25 games for the Nuggets in that time where he averaged 11.2 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 42.5 percent from three. He didn’t exactly have an easy transition back to the bench when Barton returned, but there is a reason to be optimistic about him for the future.
3. Torrey Craig
This writer’s a sucker for underdog stories, and Torrey Craig’s story is no exception. He came into Denver as an NBL stand out, then a 27-year-old rookie on a two-way contract, then got a nice extension last summer.
In response to his newfound job security, Craig did not disappoint in his second season as a Nugget. His offensive stats aren’t great, but Craig’s specialty is more of doing the little things aka bringing energy and playing tough-as-nails defense. When other Nuggets like Morris didn’t keep up their play for the postseason, they spent more time on the bench. Such was not the case with Craig. His defense came in handy for Denver when they needed it to be.
The acquisition of Jerami Grant may or may not eat into his time when the season approaches, but adversity is nothing new to Craig. Perhaps the new competition at the wing will further motivate him to improve his game more than it already has.
4. Mason Plumlee
When your name is in the running for the best backup center in the league, you deserve a shout out. On one hand, Mason Plumlee could be seen as the guy who Denver acquired for Jusuf Nurkic and a first-rounder. On the other, Plumlee can be seen as the guy who was a much better fit as the backup center for Denver.
Plumlee may very well be the most overqualified back-up big in the league. At first glance, his 7.8 rebounds, 6.4 rebounds, and three assists a game are merely acceptable. When you consider that his rebound percentage of 16.4 percent is 22nd among centers and second-highest among backups – behind only Domantas Sabonis – you can’t ask for much more than that. Even better, his assist percentage of 19.5 is fifth among centers. He’s been so good for Denver that they’ve actually played him and the Joker together.
We don’t see a lot of teams playing lineups with two pure centers at the same time for extended minutes anymore. Seeing Denver keep it alive with Jokic and Plumlee is as effective as it is nostalgic.
Can you say “League Pass frontrunner”? Because that’s what this Denver Nuggets team is. They are always a joy to watch. They play basketball in some of the most fun ways it can be played. It’s unselfish. It’s active. It’s pure basketball. At least on the offensive end, the Nuggets are a total viewing pleasure.
At the center of it is Nikola Jokic. Enough praise has been heaped at Nikola so there’s no need to repeat what he can do. Let’s put it like this. The man is the engine for one of the finest offenses in the league, and he’s still got plenty of career left.
That actually shouldn’t take away from their defense. Denver had the league’s tenth-best defensive rating, allowing 108.9 points per 100 possessions. That’s not as boastable of a strength, but it isn’t a weakness. A little added bonus is the versatility that they should have in their arsenal with Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr. could give them a lot more firepower than they already have.
The source of Denver’s sudden uprise last season may very well be what may hold them back when the postseason comes around – their youth. As talented as the Nuggets are, they haven’t been in this position in years. Keep in mind that they lost to Portland – who lost Jusuf Nurkic and replaced him with Enes Kanter on one functional shoulder – even though they were the second seed.
Now Portland barely won that series, but it shouldn’t have been that close. Denver was at full strength and had homecourt advantage. Portland’s victory can be attributed to both the roster continuity and experience. They’ had been in that atmosphere with most of those guys before. Only Millsap had that experience on Denver’s side, and we’ve already dived into why Denver won’t rely on him as much.
Not to fret though. This is just part of the growing process for a young and upcoming team. The Nuggets already impressed everyone with their success last season. They should see more coming their way. It just might not be as fast.
THE BURNING QUESTION
Are the Nuggets one piece away?
Denver should be one of the best teams in the league this season. Most of their best players are 25 years old or younger, so their chances of them individually improving on last season and in turn, the team itself, are pretty high.
They’ve still got their work cut out for them since they play in the brutal Western Conference. The core that they currently have right now will be good enough to put in a good fight against anyone. But, the phrase, “Putting in a good fight” is not synonymous with “The favorite to win”. With the team they have right now, reaching the NBA finals is possible, which is great all things considered, but they may sleep easier at night if they knew they had one more guy.
The real question is who would be that one piece? Is it an upgrade over one of their best players now or is it a player that adds another dimension to the team? Or both? Again, Denver should remain patient because time is on their side. If they want to show the NBA that they mean business, they may need to take care of this as soon as they can.
It’s sad because, had they just kept Donovan Mitchell’s draft rights in 2017, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Goga Bitadze and Pacers assistant coach Greg Foster got into a heated discussion.
Myles Turner and multiple other players got involved to attempt to break up the confrontation. pic.twitter.com/9Xr96HmJg8
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 6, 2021
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
Report: Mike D’Antoni ‘leader in the clubhouse’ to become the next Pacers head coach https://t.co/42Ik5nPTyU
— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) May 6, 2021
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.