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10 NBA Predictions for 2016

With the New Year upon us, Steve Kyler and Alex Kennedy make some NBA predictions for 2016.

Basketball Insiders

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With the New Year upon us, we thought it might be fun to look into the crystal ball and make some predictions on the more commonly asked questions about the NBA’s New Year.

With that in mind, I dragged in Alex Kennedy to play along and offer an alternate opinion on free agency, trades, coaching moves, award winners and much more. Here is what we came up with:

Which Big-Name Player is Traded?

While there is no doubting Joakim Noah’s value to the Chicago Bulls as a locker room leader and heart and soul guy, history has shown the Bulls have been quick to pull the trade trigger on guys they feel they may get priced out of in free agency. With Noah posting some of the worst numbers of his career and the Bulls struggling to adapt to a new system under head coach Fred Hoiberg, Noah may not only be one of the biggest names traded at the February 18 trade deadline, he may return the most value. With Noah’s free agent price tag expected to go up in July and with his free agency being unrestricted, there is a real risk of losing Noah for nothing in return and that risk – along with his potential to return real value – means Noah could be the odd man out.

– Steve Kyler

Dwight Howard has a $23,282,457 player option for next season, meaning he can become an unrestricted free agent this summer. For that reason alone, the Houston Rockets should be doing their due diligence and seeing what Howard can return in a trade. If the organization doesn’t feel that Howard will stay long-term, they should move him before the February trade deadline. I could see a one-piece-away team like the Atlanta Hawks or Toronto Raptors swinging for the fences by acquiring Howard and trying to make a deep run this season.

– Alex Kennedy

Where Will Tom Thibodeau Coach Next?

The Houston Rockets. Thibodeau passed on re-building situations after he was fired from Chicago, telling people close to him that he couldn’t stomach 30-loss seasons, so he opted to sit out and wait for a winning situation. Knowing that Thibodeau seeks a “win-now” team, Houston might be the best job open this summer. The Rockets know Thibodeau from his time on Jeff Van Gundy’s staff and his defensive-minded approach lines up with the way the Rockets see the world. The only question is will Daryl Morey and team owner Les Alexander open the check book and meet what could be a $6-7 million a year salary? If they will, Thibodeau could land in Houston.

– Steve Kyler

I just can’t see Thibodeau going to the Rockets due to their dysfunction and defensive issues, especially with Dwight Howard potentially becoming an unrestricted free agent in July. I think the Washington Wizards make a lot of sense for Thibs. This year, Washington has failed to live up to expectations, so it’s possible that Randy Wittman is shown the door. If that happens, the roster seems perfect for Thibodeau. He would have a number of young guys who can play a ton of minutes, and Washington is a good defensive team (they were the fifth-best defense in the NBA last season). Not to mention, the East is more wide open than the West. Yes, the Cleveland Cavaliers are in the East, but I’m not scared of the other teams in the conference, whereas the West has the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder among others. I’d love to watch a Thibodeau-coached Wizards team.

– Alex Kennedy

Which Team Lands the Top Overall Pick?

I’m going with the Brooklyn Nets. The NBA lottery has been a cruel bedfellow. Over the last 20 years, the team with the worst record has won the lottery just three times and just once in the last decade (last year to Minnesota). In that same 20-year span, the top pick has fallen all over the place, so why not Brooklyn? Here is why Brooklyn becomes interesting: they don’t own the pick. It was traded to the Boston Celtics as part of the deal that brought Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn. It would be poetic that they no longer have either player and then lose the top pick as well. That’s simply too good of theater not to entertain. Wouldn’t it also be poetic that the Celtics’ future Hall Famers that were traded so unceremoniously ultimately ended up producing a future franchise cornerstone? The lottery has been a cruel bedfellow, so why change now?

– Steve Kyler

The Philadelphia 76ers have to win it at some point, right? Throughout their tanking rebuild, they have yet to win a top-two pick. The highest they have gotten is No. 3, which is where they picked Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid. I think this is the year that changes and Philly wins the Ben Simmons sweepstakes. The interesting thing to watch is where the Los Angeles Lakers’ pick falls. If it’s outside of the top three, it belongs to Philadelphia, meaning the 76ers could have two of the first four picks (in addition to later first-round picks from the Miami HEAT and Oklahoma City Thunder). This is an extremely important year for Philadelphia’s rebuild.

– Alex Kennedy

Where Will Kevin Durant Land in Free Agency?

Oklahoma City. As much as no one wants to hear this, I think Durant is staying right where he is. What is often dismissed is how much Durant genuinely likes living and playing in Oklahoma City. Wisely, the Thunder opted to part ways with long-time head coach Scott Brooks last summer and brought in a new coach in Billy Donovan, who has not only reached Durant on a personal level but also figured out a way for both Durant and Russell Westbrook to play at a MVP-level at the same time. The Thunder’s message this summer will be that OKC offers the best chance at winning a title and, barring some kind of epic collapse down the stretch, the Thunder should in a position to put results behind their pledge.  Durant has signed some mega endorsement deals over the last two years so he will genuinely enter the process with money not being a factor in his decision. Durant likely shops, as every free agent should, but ultimately I think he stays in OKC for the rest of his career.

– Steve Kyler

It’s very possible that Durant will stay with Oklahoma City since he’s comfortable there and has a strong supporting cast. Also, he doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who desperately wants to play in a big market – the fact that he already leads the NBA in endorsement dollars shows he doesn’t need be in New York or Los Angeles to build his brand. I think the only way he leaves Oklahoma City is to go home to the Washington Wizards. John Wall is good friends with Durant; in October, Wall told me: “When the opportunity is right to go ahead and throw a [free agency] pitch at him, I’m going to get the opportunity to do it.” I think Washington’s young core is appealing, the idea of going home is tempting and playing in the East is attractive as well. I’m starting to realize that this article is becoming a dream scenario for the Wizards, with Durant and Thibodeau coming to town. We’ll see what happens.

– Alex Kennedy

Can The 76ers Land a Significant Free Agent?

Yes. As much grief as the 76ers franchise has gotten for their blatant “tank and rebuild” program, they are well positioned for this summer. They will have a roster loaded with interesting rookie-scale players like Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel and what could be more than $65 million in cap space with new Chairman of Basketball Jerry Colangelo speed dialing Team USA players. The 76ers won’t be landing a Kevin Durant or a Mike Conley, but when you talk about the team that will set the price on more veteran type guys, look for the 76ers to be that team even if it costs them a few million more than someone is worth. They are ready for that kind of move.

– Steve Kyler

I’m going to say yes. I don’t think they’ll land a “major” free agent – as in one of the top players on the market – but I do think it’s safe to say that they’ll have a shot at a “significant” free agent. For quite some time, I’ve said that next year is the season I expect to see the 76ers winning more games. Their young guys will have some experience, they’ll add a couple more first-round talents to the team, Dario Saric and Joel Embiid may make their debuts and the front office should bring in some free agents. This team could look very different next season and I think Philly is definitely a team to watch in free agency, especially with Jerry Colangelo there.

– Alex Kennedy

Who Will Win the 2015-16 MVP?

Can you bet against Steph Curry as a back-to-back MVP? If you are willing to do that, which I am not sure I am, I would offer up another candidate: Kawhi Leonard. Now before we go nuts on this, Curry is the prohibited favorite and considering the media votes for this award, he may win his second MVP by a pretty tidy margin. But while Curry runs toward another award, Leonard has emerged as not only one of the NBA’s best lockdown defenders, he has evolved into a borderline elite level offensive player. Leonard rarely gets the credit or exposure he deserves, which may prevent him from getting serious MVP consideration. But if it’s not going to be Curry for a second time, why not Leonard?

– Steve Kyler

Look, I love Kawhi Leonard. He’s a great dude and an amazing defender, but you and I both know he’s not winning the MVP award. If Steph Curry doesn’t win it, the award would go to someone like Paul George, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant before it goes to Leonard. But that argument doesn’t matter because Curry is the MVP. Last year, Curry had four times as many votes as anyone else in the MVP race, and now he’s playing even better and simply not losing games. It also helps his case that the Warriors looked terrible last night when he wasn’t on the floor. Nobody is taking the award from Curry this year.

– Alex Kennedy

Who Is the Dark Horse Playoff Team?

The Miami HEAT. On paper Miami should be a lot better than their current record. On paper, the HEAT have a tremendous amount of fire power and depth. The problem with the HEAT is Goran Dragic has been a shell of himself, they have had some quirky injuries and while Dwyane Wade has been more than expected, the HEAT have yet to put together a long stretch of games where it all fits as it should. If Miami can figure that out come playoff time, they could be very scary. The problem with banking on Miami is all the “ifs” have to line up and there are a lot of “ifs” to consider.

– Steve Kyler

I think it has to be the Miami HEAT. This team can be extremely good when they’re at full strength, and they’re an experienced group that knows what it takes to make a deep playoff run. They may not be near the top of the Eastern Conference standings right now, but they’re going to be the team nobody wants to face in the playoffs.

– Alex Kennedy

Who Will be the 2015-16 Rookie of The Year?

Karl Anthony-Towns is the easy answer. He has been stellar in almost every phase of the game and his fit next to Andrew Wiggins in Minnesota is nearly perfect. That said, Rookie of the Year is a media voted award and while KAT is playing really well, Kristaps Porzingis might have captured the attention on a much bigger stage. If Porzingis has a strong finish to the season, he might make the race a lot tighter than maybe it should be. That’s what happens when a budding star shows up in a major market.

– Steve Kyler

The fact that Kristaps Porzingis plays in New York will help him, because his accomplishments have received a ton of attention and he’s been a feel-good story with the way he has exceeded expectations. Jahlil Okafor will receive consideration as well, especially if his numbers improve now that Philadelphia is playing some competent point guards like Ish Smith and Kendall Marshall. With that said, I think Karl-Anthony Towns is the frontrunner right now. I really didn’t expect him to be this good, this fast. However, he has been fantastic on both ends of the floor and I think it’s his award to lose at this point.

– Alex Kennedy

Will The Knicks Trade Carmelo Anthony?

As much as the Knicks may want to dream about life without Carmelo Anthony, the truth is they are stuck with him until he decides he wants a change and that may never happen during the course of his current contract. At the time Anthony opted for his current deal, there was talk around his situation that turning away the extra millions from the Knicks was too much guaranteed money to pass on and that he could always demand a trade later if it did not work. If that’s genuinely the case, then maybe there is room for that this summer if the Knicks again fail to make the postseason. There are some around the situation who point to legacy as the next important part of Anthony’s career and if it’s not going to happen in New York, would he genuinely consider a trade scenario this summer? The likely answer is no, but there are some who believe he might be open to it if things don’t look to be trending upward at season’s end.

– Steve Kyler

No. They’ll hold onto him and continue to pursue free agents this summer. The only way I can see a Carmelo trade happening is if he becomes disgruntled and demands it, or if the team is clearly going young and he just doesn’t fit their long-term plan anymore. However, I don’t think that would happen for quite some time so I don’t expect an Anthony trade in 2016 or the near future.

– Alex Kennedy

Will The Lakers Land a Major Free Agent?

The short answer is no. As much as Lakers fans would love to hear Kevin Durant is coming, the truth is that’s not very likely. What is likely is the Lakers have their pick of the next tier of guys that fit their rebuild better and give them the flexibility to be active in the trade market. There are a few small exceptions – the Lakers may be the team that sets the price on Miami’s Hassan Whiteside and they could also be the team that gets after proven veterans looking for bigger deals than their home teams would consider. That puts the Lakers in the mix for a guy like Joakim Noah. The Lakers are well positioned for a strong summer, they may just have to choose from the next tier of guys rather than the bigger names.

– Steve Kyler

The player I think is most interesting for Los Angeles is Hassan Whiteside, who will be an unrestricted free agent. I think the Lakers should only pursue young free agents, that way they will fit with their core of Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell, Larry Nance Jr., etc. Whiteside is only 26 years old and he would greatly improve the Lakers’ defense while also complementing Randle well. I think he’s the guy L.A. should pursue the hardest. Another interesting name for the Lakers to consider is Harrison Barnes. He’s only 23 years old and could be interested in taking on a bigger role in a huge market rather than being a role player behind Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. The only problem is that he’s a restricted free agent, so the Lakers would likely have to throw a front-loaded max contract his way if they want to have any shot at landing him (and Golden State may still match). But imagine if the Lakers were to land Whiteside and Barnes this summer? It’s a long shot, but life after Kobe Bryant suddenly wouldn’t be so bad.

– Alex Kennedy

We hope this piece was as fun for you as it was for us. We hope you have a safe and happy New Year and we’ll see you in 2016!

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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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