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NBA Saturday: Nuggets Finding Their Way Behind Nikola Jokic

The Denver Nuggets are getting back on track now that Nikola Jokic is starting at center.

Jesse Blancarte

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It’s generally not difficult to describe an NBA team in a sentence or two. The Houston Rockets are a top-notch offensive team that shoots three-pointers relentlessly, but is league average on defense. The Brooklyn Nets are a well-coached, scrappy team, but lacks overall talent. The Milwaukee Bucks have a ton of young, athletic talent, but lack shooting. However, it’s not so easy to break down or explain the Denver Nuggets, who have, for the most part, failed to establish a team identity so far this season.

On December 12, the Nuggets lost to the Dallas Mavericks by 20 points. The loss dropped the Nuggets to 9-16. At that point, the Nuggets had lost 9 out of eleven games and it seemed as though this would be another disappointing season for Denver. The team was struggling to balance a roster with a glut of big men, a mix of capable veterans and a core of young, developing talent. There’s a lot of enticing talent throughout the Nuggets’ roster, but the team suffered from awkward lineups, injuries, overlapping talent and poor defense.

After losing to the Mavericks, who until very recently has been one of the worst teams in the league this season, Nuggets coach Mike Malone made some changes. The biggest change he made was ending his experiment of playing Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic together. Both centers are young and have very promising futures, but it’s very difficult to play two centers together in today’s NBA and this pairing was no exception.

Since inserting Jokic as the starting center, dramatically reducing Nurkic’s minutes and getting guard Gary Harris back from injury, the Nuggets have won three of their last five games. Malone has gone with a starting lineup of Emmanuel Mudiay, Harris, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Jokic, which has improved the spacing on the court, opened up driving lanes and allowed Jokic to utilize his diverse skill set more effectively.

“I mean, it has good parts and it has bad parts,” Jokic told Basketball Insiders when asked about playing with Nurkic. “He’s a very good player and he’s a part of our Denver basketball.”

Jokic clearly wanted to be complimentary of Nurkic and didn’t want to say anything negative about his teammate. But when asked whether playing two centers together creates any issues, Jokic indirectly expressed that the pairing isn’t ideal.

“I don’t know, maybe, maybe not. I really don’t know,” Jokic told Basketball Insiders. “I think on the floor, there’s supposed to be good chemistry and that’s what we are doing. Who is playing [well]? He’s going to play, so that’s it.”

Too often Nurkic and Jokic occupied the same space on the court, allowing defenses to crowd the painted area. This often times forced Jokic to stay out on the perimeter since he is a much better shooter than Nurkic. The Nuggets did have an advantage in terms of crashing the offensive glass, but that was offset by awkward offensive possessions that usually led to contested jump shots, such as this one.

It’s understandable that Jokic wants to avoid criticizing a teammate, but the truth is that playing Nurkic and Jokic together was a disaster. Starting Jokic along with three capable shooters and an athlete like Mudiay has led to mostly positive results, at least on offense, over the last five games.

“I think we’re playing really good, we’re playing good basketball,” Jokic said after the Nuggets were outplayed by the Los Angeles Clippers. “Today was a tough loss, back-to-back against a really good team.”

With Jokic as the featured big man in the starting unit, he is much more involved in the offense. We now see Jokic engaging in pick-and-roll sets more frequently, which allows him to get to the rim where he is able to utilize his patience and touch.

Through their first 25 games, the Nuggets were ranked 20th in offensive rating and 24th in defensive rating. Through their last five games, the Nuggets are ranked third in offensive rating (115.3 points per 100 possessions). However, the defense has been problematic, giving up 117.2 points per 100 possessions.

The unfortunate truth is that the Nuggets’ personnel don’t really have the means to be a particularly good defensive team. However, the team was both a poor offensive and defensive team before Coach Malone switched his rotations around. At least with Jokic starting at center surrounded by shooters, the Nuggets can score with the best teams in the NBA and have a shot on any given night of simply outscoring their opponent.

Jokic’s ability to score from anywhere on the court has been a big part of Denver’s recent offensive surge. As previously mentioned, Jokic has a nice touch around the rim, which often was ignored with Nurkic occupying the painted area. The more often the Nuggets can get the ball to Jokic at or near the rim, the better off they will be.

Jokic also facilitates the offense with his underrated passing. He may not be Marc Gasol in terms of passing ability or vision, but Jokic does have a nice feel for the game, is a willing passer and clearly is always looking ahead to see where he may be able to find teammates for open looks.

Whether he just secured an offensive rebound, is operating out of the post or has the ball out at the three-point line, Jokic is always looking for an opportunity to find a teammate for an open look.

Jokic is arguably Denver’s best player already and is making a compelling case that, at the very least, the team’s offense should be built around him. Again, this team as currently constructed is not going to be a particularly good defensive team, but it has a diverse collection of offensive talent that could make them a top-level offensive team.

Jokic is only in his second NBA season, but is already proving to be one of the league’s best up-and-coming players. He isn’t quite as great as Karl-Anthony Towns, as unique as Kristaps Porzingis or an elite defensive center like Rudy Gobert, but he has patience, unselfishness and a feel for the game that is reminiscent of a center like Marc Gasol. However, don’t expect Jokic to make any comparisons of himself to other skilled big man or to pat himself on the back for already becoming one of the best young big men in the NBA.

“I really don’t know,” Jokic said when asked what his ceiling is. “I just want to go to the playoffs this season. That’s my goal and that’s the goal of the team, and we are going to try our best to do that.”

Some have compared Jokic’s offensive skill set to Pau Gasol’s in his prime, which is high praise. When asked who Jokic has modeled his game after, he again passed on the opportunity to talk about himself and instead talked about his team.

“No, no actually, no. I just want to be myself,” Jokic said. “I’m trying to do whatever needs to be done to help my team win the game.”

Jokic is very humble and clearly would rather talk about his teammates and trying to make the playoffs than himself or his development. When asked what he planned on working on moving forward, Jokic turned to his veteran teammate Jameer Nelson for his input.

“Jameer, what do I need to do more … jump higher?” Jokic asked with a smile on his face.

Nelson simply grinned and noted that Jokic is more comfortable talking about the team’s goals.

“He doesn’t like talking about himself,” Nelson said. “It’s a positive thing though. Not too many young guys are as humble and hold their self as accountable as he does.”

Since Jokic would rather talk about his team than himself, we asked him to explain what the identity of his team is.

“If someone is playing bad, we have a lot of good players on the bench and someone will step up,” Jokic said. That’s the good part of the team.”

Depth is certainly a strength of this Nuggets team. However, it’s likely that at some point in the very near future, any discussion of Denver’s identity or overall strengths will start with a mention of Nikola Jokic.

 

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

An inside look-in at the early frontrunners for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.

Dylan Thayer

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In this fresh edition for Basketball Insiders, there are a few players that should be finalists for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Of course, this prestigious award is given to the contributor who makes the biggest impact on the floor for their team on the defensive side of the ball. In two out of the last three seasons, the award has gone to Rudy Gobert, the rim-protecting center for the Utah Jazz. This past season, Giannis Antetokounmpo won both the DPotY award, as well as Most Valuable Player for a second straight year. Over the past few years, the trending group of finalists for the award has been consistent no matter what the order ends up being. 

Can anyone new break in this year?

Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis will always be in the conversation for this award as he has shown throughout his career that he is one of the league’s most ferocious game-changers. Despite never winning the award before, he has made four NBA All-Defensive teams as well as being the NBA’s leader in blocks on three occasions. Davis’s block numbers are a little lower than they usually are at 1.9 blocks per game this season – compared to 2.4 for his career, per Basketball-Reference. This could be due to the addition of Marc Gasol to the Lakers’ frontcourt, a move that has boosted the team’s rim protection. If Davis can raise his numbers again, he should be in consideration for the award purely based on his defensive presence on the court – but he should still finish among the top five in voting.

Myles Turner

The center for the Indiana Pacers – the former potential centerpiece of a Gordon Hayward trade with the Boston Celtics – has continued to show why the team would not package another one of its top players with him. Turner is the current league leader in blocks with 4.2 blocks per game, elevating his game beyond any doubt in 2020-21. He is one of the more underrated rim protectors in basketball, as he has only one top-five finish in the DPotY voting in his career. Turner has also improved his steals metrics this season by averaging 1.5 per game, thus providing a strong defensive presence alongside All-Star frontcourt mate, Domantas Sabonis. Turner should be the frontrunner for the award as things stand right now, but that could change as the season progresses, especially as his injury impacts proceedings.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

The reigning two-time MVP should always be in the conversation for the DPotY award as he revolutionizes the defensive side of the floor at an elite level. Currently, Antetokunmpo is averaging 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per game to go along with a 106.5 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. It goes without saying, but Antetokounmpo is a chase-down block artist, always there to contest shots around the rim with his long frame. The 6-foot-11 power forward is one of the league’s top five players due to his exceptional play on both sides of the ball and will always be considered for the DPotY award as long as he in the NBA.  

Kawhi Leonard

The Los Angeles Clippers’ superstar has been arguably the best defensive small forward in the game over the past few years. He first gained major recognition for his defense during the 2014 NBA Finals against the LeBron James-led Miami HEAT. Since then, Leonard has racked up six All-Defensive team nominations to go along with two Defensive Player of the Year awards. This season, Leonard remains an elite defender for the championship-hopeful Clippers with 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game – but his defensive rating is the highest of his ten-year career at 107.8. 

Andre Drummond

The current league leader in rebounds for the Cleveland Cavaliers is having a monster season thus far. In a contract year, Andre Drummond is currently putting up 19.3 points per game, 15.8 rebounds per game, 1.7 steals per game and 1.6 blocks per game. He also has a very stellar defensive rating of 105.0, a culmination of points allowed per 100 possessions. Drummond is not on a very good team, but that should not take away from the impact he makes when he is on the floor. As a pure rim protector and rebounding machine, he should finish higher up in the voting results than usual, even if his season doesn’t end with Cleveland. 

Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris

The Philadelphia 76ers have started the season on a very high note at 9-5, all despite loads of COVID health and safety protocols preventing their full team from taking the floor. Tobias Harris has played a major part in their early-season success leading the NBA in defensive win shares among starters who have played at least 10 games with 0.184, per NBA Advanced Stats. Along with that, Harris is also second in defensive rating among qualified starters at 99.6. The veteran forward has averaged 1.1 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. So if the 76ers want to remain at the top of the Eastern Conference, Harris’ overall play will be a huge reason for that success.

 As the old saying goes, defense wins championships – and these players are the type of players that can change the result of a game every night. Keep an eye on these players as the season moves along as they should garner consideration for both All-Defensive team nominations and the DPotY award.

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NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – Jan. 21

Basketball Insiders’ Tristan Tucker provides an update on some of the rookies around the league and which are truly in contention for the Rookie of the Year award.

Tristan Tucker

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Through the NBA’s first month, the rookie class has continued to show what they can do on the court. While some have faltered or succumbed to injuries as the games have piled up, others have shone bright and even cracked their team’s starting lineups as the race toward the Rookie of the Year award heats up.

With that in mind, let’s take a third look at Basketball Insiders’ Rookie of the Year ladder stands and see where they stand.

1. LaMelo Ball (Previous: 2)

Through the first month of play, Ball has been, undisputedly, the Rookie of the Year. With numbers that could rival some NBA veterans — 11.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game — Ball has found a way to impact winning for the Charlotte Hornets without starting a game thus far.

While much of the hoopla around Ball has come from his offensive, he’s been pretty solid on the defensive end as well; his 1.5 steals per game are good for 13th in the NBA, while his 21 total steals tie him for 10th.

On Jan. 9, Ball also made history as the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double. An eventual move to the starting lineup should only further promote his game.

He could stand to improve his efficiency, as Ball has shot just 40.3% from the field, 33.3% from three and 67.9% from the free throw line. That said, the sky’s the limit for the young rookie. With Ball at the helm, Charlotte and their fans should feel pretty confident about their group going forward.

2. Tyrese Haliburton (Previous: 1)

Haliburton’s late-lottery selection was a surprise, as the point guard that reportedly shot up draft boards late in the process had always played with a hardworking and winning mentality at Iowa State. Still, he hasn’t missed a beat with the Sacramento Kings and paced the Rookie of the Year race from the start.

His 11.1 points, 5.3 assists and 1.2 steals per game, along with his 51.6% mark from the field and 51% clip from three (on over four attempts a contest) are mightily impressive. Meanwhile, lineups that have featured Haliburton with the Kings’ usual starters have fared exceptionally well; when he’s replaced Marvin Bagley, the Kings are a plus-10.6 and play at a torrid pace.

Haliburton and Ball have comparable stats, with Ball being a better rebounder and Haliburton being a better shooter. But Sacramento’s 5-10 record has kept him out of the top spot for now, as leading his team to a positive record — and a potential playoff spot — will almost certainly work in Ball’s favor when voting commences at the end of the season.

3. James Wiseman (Previous: 3)

After taking a year away from competitive basketball, the fact that Wiseman has been able to contribute at such a high-level right away has come as a pleasant surprise for the Golden State Warriors. Wiseman’s 10.7 points per game place him fifth among rookies, while his 6 rebounds per game place him second.

Fresh off a career-high 20 points against the San Antonio Spurs, Wiseman has continued to learn more each day. Draymond Green’s role in Wiseman’s development could also pay some extreme dividends for the Warriors, as the young center might prove unstoppable were he to incorporate Green’s court vision and handle into his own game.

With numbers comparable to Kevin Garnett’s and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s age-19 seasons, Wiseman has helped put the Warriors in prime position to push for a playoff spot despite the loss of Klay Thompson prior to the season.

4. Tyrese Maxey (Previous: Not Ranked)

With a move into the starting lineup, Maxey has rapidly climbed the board as he’s earned more and more praise. He was always going to be an impressive piece for the Philadelphia 76ers — in fact, Maxey was seen as so crucial to Philadelphia’s future success that he was held out of any potential James Harden trade package — but his 39-point outburst against the Denver Nuggets has seemingly sparked more trust from the team in Maxey early on.

For the season, Maxey has averaged an impressive 11.4 points on 47.7% shooting from the field. But his numbers have spiked since he moved into the starting-five: in six starts, Maxey has averaged 16.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and assists and has shot 46.7% from the field.

If he can sustain that kind of productivity as the 76ers’ health improves, Maxey might be a lock for the All-Rookie First Team. Likewise, expect him to hold down a spot on this list for the foreseeable future.

5. Patrick Williams (Previous: 5)

Despite his late rise, many saw Patrick Williams’ selection by the Chicago Bulls as a reach. But, so far, Williams has proven the doubters completely wrong, as he’s started every game in which he’s made an appearance for the 6-8 Bulls.

That isn’t to say Williams hasn’t been perfect, as many of Chicago’s groups that feature the young forward are net negatives by a good margin. But, so far, Williams has already brought the confidence and energy that you want to see out a top pick. He hasn’t shied away from tough matchups, either, as Williams took to the task of guarding both LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard in the Bulls’ recent games against the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, valuable experience that should only further improve his game.

His 10.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 48.5% field goal and 87% free throw percentages are nothing to slouch at, either. So, while it may be a while before he reaches the height of some of his classmates, Williams has look of a special NBA talent.

6. Anthony Edwards (Previous: 4)

Edwards has put up some incredible scoring numbers off the bench for the Minnesota Timberwolves, as he’s averaged a rookie-leading 12.2 points in 25 minutes per game.

However, Edwards’ shooting splits have disappointed, while he hasn’t been able to do much to turn around the Minnesota Timberwolves 3-10 season in the absence of Karl-Anthony Towns.

Edwards’ placement on this ladder is contingent on how the Timberwolves both fare in Towns’ continued absence and how different they look upon his return; they showed plenty of promise when he was on the court and Edwards’s standing could improve drastically if the team can turn it around and win some games.

Each year, it would seem as if that the next group of young talent is more exciting than the last. And, with so many talented rookies in the fray, almost any of them could crash the Rookie of the Year party. Make sure to check back on our next update to see who might do just that.

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NBA Daily: The Memphis Grizzlies’ Young Core Rises

The Memphis Grizzlies have built one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA – and it won’t be long before they’re competing at the top of the Western Conference.

Zach Dupont

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Needless to say, the NBA is flush with some exciting young rosters. Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks, Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks and Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans are bursting at the seams with talent and, in short order, have sparked discussions as to which team might be basketball’s next big thing.

While each of those teams excites in their own, unique way, it’s the Memphis Grizzlies that stand out from the rest of the pack.

The Grizzlies are led by Ja Morant, their sophomore star point guard out of Murray State. As a rookie, Morant proved he was one of the NBA’s brightest up-and-comers, but he’s taken it to another level this season. While he missed time with an ankle injury, Morant has averaged 22.6 points and 7.0 assists per game on 53.2 percent shooting. Morant is also first in the NBA in fast-break points per game, averaging 5.8 per game.

The bright hooper hasn’t had the hype that someone like Young did early on in the season, but there’s a case to be made that Morant is just as promising as the Hawks’ star guard. Per 48 minutes, Morant is averaging 37.1 points and 11.5 assists versus Young at 33.6 points and 13.1 assists per game. While not a perfect comparison given the former’s smaller sample size in 2020-21, it does show that Morant is absolutely in the discussion for the best young guard in the league.

The Grizzlies already have their cornerstone of the future, but what separates them from the rest of the NBA’s fascinating teams is the organization’s ability to acquire talented role players. Five of the Grizzlies’ top seven scorers are players the Grizzlies drafted in the last four seasons; better, four of them were players selected in the previous two.

Memphis only has two players older than 30, Gorgui Dieng and Tim Frazier, the latter of which has played just 33 minutes this season. That number jumps to three with players 28-years-and-older by adding Jonas Valanciunas to the list.

Lead amongst those role players is the Grizzlies’ second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks, the 45th overall selection for Memphis in 2017. Brooks is putting up 15.2 points per game in his fourth season in the NBA despite not shooting the ball well, just 36.9 percent from the field and 30.5 percent from three-point range. Brooks has never shot below 35 percent from three or 40 percent from the field in his career, so it stands to reason his percentages will increase by the end of the year and, with it, his entire scoring output.

Elsewhere, Brandon Clarke, a second-year forward out of Gonzaga, is one of Memphis’ five players averaging over 10 points per game this year, putting up 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. While his scoring numbers are substantial, Clarke’s value comes on the defensive end – much like the two Grizzlies’ rookies, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman.

Bane and Tillman were picked between 30-35th overall, and through a handful of games, both have well exceeded their draft slots. Bane is averaging 8.6 points per game on crazy efficient shooting percentages of 47.1/48.9/77.8. Beyond that, Tillman has shown his worth on both ends of the ball too, averaging 8.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the Grizzlies’ talented young core which includes two ultra-talented youngsters who have yet to play this season.

Jaren Jackson Jr. may be the Grizzlies’ second-best player behind Morant; last year, he averaged 17.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 46.9/39.4/74.7 shooting splits. Winslow hasn’t played since early on in the 2019-20 season with the Miami HEAT, before being traded to Memphis at the deadline for Andre Iguodala. During his last full season, Winslow averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on 43.3/37.5/62.8 shooting splits, making him a valuable wing player that the Grizzlies have just waiting on the bench.

Of course, Memphis is one of the youngest teams in the NBA with an average age of 24.3, second-youngest in the league, and have dealt with significant injury problems early on this season. Despite this, the Grizzlies are one of the best defensive units in the league, holding a defensive rating of 106.66, second-best league-wide. The Memphis offense has struggled so far this year, but a major reason why is because of Morant’s injury.

When Morant plays, the Grizzlies’ offensive numbers are much improved. With Morant on the floor, they’ve got an offensive rating of 115.4, which would be the sixth-best mark in the NBA. Without him on the floor, their offensive rating drops to 103.8, good for second-worst. Given that Morant has missed more than half the Grizzlies’ games this year, it’s no wonder their offensive rating is a 105.66 on the season.

Ultimately, this has left the Grizzlies with a record of 7-6, putting them at the eighth seed in the Western Conference and right in the hunt for the playoffs.

The scary thing is that the Grizzlies are only going to get better. Morant and Jackson Jr. are both 21-years-old, Tillman and Bane are 22 and Brooks, Winslow and Clarke are 24. The entirety of the core is young, while their two best players are hardly old enough to buy alcohol. Even though the Grizzlies are young, they’ve already shown themselves to be one of the league’s best defenses and possess the tools to improve their offense in-house.

Come the end of the season, the Grizzlies will be a real playoff contender – and with such a young roster, it’s only a matter of time before Memphis is competing for more than just the backend of the playoffs.

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