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NBA Daily: Four Former First-Rounders To Keep An Eye On

After having their team options recently declined, there are four young players worth keeping an eye through the trade deadline and into unrestricted free agency, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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In most cases, it can be unusual for a franchise to decline their team option before a rookie can reach the qualifying offer and restricted free agency stage of the journey. Yet, every year, there seem to be a few former first-round stragglers that get left behind in the process. Whether these players never quite broke out, struggled in reduced roles or failed to stay healthy, everybody in this piece recently had their team option declined. On one hand, these decisions mean that they’ll be unrestricted and free to sign with whomever they please this upcoming offseason. But on the other, it also means that a few of these young prospects can start building their resumes and show their respective teams that they may have made a mistake.

Last year alone, the doubly difficult-to-pin-down Jahlil Okafor and Mario Hezonja both had their options declined. But 12 months later, it’s hard to say the Philadelphia 76ers — who then traded Okafor to the Brooklyn Nets in December — and Orlando Magic, respectively, were all that wrong in their longterm line of thinking. Nevertheless, this current crop of potential-but-troubled prospects must not only look to prove themselves ahead of free agency but also audition for the other 29 teams as well.

With that in mind, there are four intriguing situations to monitor as the season hurdles toward the trade deadline, playoffs and eventual offseason.

Honorable Mentions: Malachi Richardson, Toronto Raptors; Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Oklahoma City Thunder; Tyler Lydon, Denver Nuggets; Henry Ellenson, Detroit Pistons

Rapid-Fire Recap: Richardson has played in 18 games for the nearly conference-leading Raptors but only at a paltry 5.1-minute clip — even before in Sacramento, the 6-foot-6 guard had struggled to jump-start his career. Luwawu-Cabarrot, who was included in the Justin Anderson for Mike Muscala swap in July, has labored similarly in Oklahoma City. Lydon, unfortunately, hasn’t forced the issue in two seasons amidst a strong Nuggets frontcourt either. Ellenson has averaged 17.9 points and 8.9 rebounds over 21 games for the Grand Rapids Drive this season, but he’s stuck behind All-Star Blake Griffin.

Justin Patton, Minnesota Timberwolves

To this point, there’s little indication that Justin Patton is an NBA-caliber player — but for many, that mysterious allure is what makes the 21-year-old an interesting case to watch. During his lone year at Creighton in 2016-17, Patton averaged 12.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game — somehow, it’s also the last time he’s really played basketball under the spotlight. After he was traded on draft night in the Jimmy Butler-to-the-Wolves deal, Patton promptly broke his foot during a workout, underwent surgery and was sidelined indefinitely. In 33 games with the Iowa Wolves last year, Patton put up numbers in-line with his collegiate marks — but breaking into head coach Tom Thibodeau’s notoriously tough veterans-first rotation was always going to be an uphill battle.

Before his sophomore season even began, Patton broke his other foot and required surgery too — hence the declined option. Of course, Patton was traded again with the aforementioned Butler in November, this time to Philadelphia. As of 2019, Patton isn’t close to a return — although he’s aiming to do so by the end of the season, ideally — but there’s a strong likelihood that he’ll enter UFA with less than ten games played over two seasons. Still, that inherent potential is still tantalizing, especially headed into a would-be third professional season at just the age of 22.

Even if Patton doesn’t play any role for the 76ers in 2018-19, he’ll be a hot-ticket item as a seven-footer that will hope to run the floor and protect the rim.

Furkan Korkmaz, Philadelphia 76ers

It’s been a mighty busy season so far for the Turkish sharpshooter, that’s for sure.

After beginning the year on the outside of the rotation, Korkmaz, understandably, desired a trade. With that declined team option, Korkmaz was eager to get on the court and prove that he still belonged. Perhaps more quickly than he could have imagined, Korkmaz got his extended shot. That acquisition of Butler also came with the departure of Dario Saric and Robert Covington, thus opening up space on the wing for their 21-year-old asset. And as Jessica Camerato pointed out earlier this month — it’s not always been easy, but Korkmaz is making the most of his newfound opportunities.

Korkmaz has hit two or more three-pointers in 10 of his 28 appearances and his minutes have been on a steep, albeit inconsistent, climb since November. It’s no secret that three-point shooting comes at a premium in today’s NBA, so Korkmaz should have no issue finding a new home — if he wants one — come the summertime. Of note, Korkmaz is another recent first-rounder to deal with a debilitating foot injury — in this case, a Lisfranc injury — but he appears to be well-past any lingering side effects on that front.

Once upon a time, Korkmaz looked like an exciting overseas prospect, but with a steadier ration of minutes coming his way, he’s started to supply those moments in bigger and bigger doses.

Marquese Chriss, Houston Rockets

Flipped to Houston in that De’Anthony Melton-Brandon Knight offseason trade, Maquese Chriss has found it tough sledding in Texas thus far. For starters, the Rockets both attempt and make more three-pointers than anybody else in the league, so Chriss’ 30 percent mark from deep already puts him at a severe disadvantage. Chriss has struggled with a sprained ankle this month, but the forward hasn’t cracked head coach Mike D’Antoni’s rigid rotation in any case. In fact, Chriss has played more than 10 minutes on just a single occasion this season, earning nearly 14 of them during a 31-point blowout victory against the San Antonio Spurs last month.

As the former No. 8 overall pick, Chriss’ professional outlook has been bleak, to say the least — but again, age remains a key factor. Chriss will turn 22 years-old just after he becomes eligible to sign a new deal this summer. In a new system — read: not Houston’s — and within an organization that has a better reputation for fostering young talent, there’s still plenty of hope left for the former Husky. After all, Chriss is just a couple years removed from starting 75 games as a rookie in 2016-17 and consistently reaching that 15-point plateau — all on solid efficiency rates to boot. Ultimately, there’s a chance that Chriss won’t even finish the year with Houston as the reigning conference runners-up will certainly look to bolster their bench down the stretch.

Dragan Bender, Phoenix Suns

Then there’s Dragan Bender, the other once brightly-shining asset in the Suns’ never-ending rebuild effort. In fact, Bender and Chriss even ended up in Phoenix together after the since-fired general manager Ryan McDonough emptied their pick chamber to pair the two prospects during the 2016 NBA Draft. That hindsight-powered perspective has taken on new life this week following the Bogdan Bogdanovic buzzer-beater — the Kings’ major takeaway from that deal, plus a few other additions — but, at the time, it seemed like a risk worth taking.

Although Chriss’ positional clash has been understandable, particularly so this season, Bender was supposed to naturally fill that three-point shooting role at power forward. At 7-foot-1, it was easy to see how Bender could usher in a new era for the Suns, even at the high-risk gamble of No. 4 overall. His rookie season was filled with ups and downs, including an arthroscopic procedure to remove a bone spur that knocked him out for almost two months, but he was afforded the world in year two. In 2017-18, Bender played all 82 games but averaged just 6.5 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.4 three-pointers over 25.2 minutes per contest.

To put the final nail(s) in the coffin, the Suns then subsequently drafted Deandre Ayton with the No. 1 overall pick last June, traded for Mikal Bridges and then added Ryan Anderson before the season. Just like that, Bender has fallen out of favor in Phoenix, and he’s featured in just 11 games so far at a miserable eight-minute allowance. A fresh start for Bender will be essential but time (and his NBA-ready skillset) are still on his side. Almost one year ago, Bender dropped 20 points, six rebounds, four assists and three blocks on 6-for-8 from three-point range. That performance alone — a perfect distillation of what he could offer a new suitor — will likely earn him another chance.

At the end of the day, the track record for team option-declined contracts has slid heavily in the franchise’s favor. The NBA is a business and when your high-money assets aren’t contributing, often times, it’s best to just cut bait. Still, the game of basketball loves a good revenge narrative and these youngsters could supply the entrancing arc. Between injuries, opportunity or fit, Patton, Korkmaz, Chriss and Bender will all be eager to turn the page sooner rather than later. Given their favorable age, athleticism and worthy skillsets, the foursome still has plenty of miles left in the tank. Whether the revenge tour starts now, in April or next year altogether, these talented prospects can still succeed in the NBA,  they just may need to find the right home to do so.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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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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