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The X-Factors: Denver

Expectations for the Denver Nuggets were high entering the 2019-20 season, but Drew Maresca explores the most important X-Factors for a deep postseason run.

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With news breaking about new cases of COVID-19 in states like Florida – where the remainder of the NBA season is to be played – it shouldn’t be too surprising that a segment of the NBA population is reticent to return – including the likes of Carmelo Anthony.

As of Wednesday, the league and the NBPA are ironing out a plan that would allow players to skip the remainder of the season without facing consequences. That means that the outcomes of the returning NBA season will be greatly affected by who chooses to return – and who doesn’t. And as strange as the remaining games might be, one team will ultimately be crowned the 2019-20 champion.

Basketball Insiders has been reviewing the major X-Factors for teams that will return to action on Jul. 30. Our very own Matt John did a great job recapping which teams we’ve covered so far in his introduction to the HEAT’s X-Factors piece yesterday. Today, let’s review a team that is laser-focused on wearing that aforementioned crown – the Denver Nuggets.

Denver entered the 2019-20 season in excellent company as many felt that they were right behind the Lakers, Clippers and Bucks in terms of talent and potential. And they’ve mostly lived up to the hype. The Nuggets won 66.2 percent of games this season, which leaves them as the third-best team in the Western Conference when play resumes in July.

But the Nuggets have their share of question marks, too. They were only 5-5 over their last 10 games prior to play stoppage, with losses to the lowly Cavaliers and Warriors. Obviously, if a major rotation player chooses to opt-out of returning, that greatly changes their outlook. That aside, what other factors might contribute to a Nuggets postseason run – and maybe even a championship?

The first X-Factor is probably the most unreliable – and it’s Michael Porter Jr. The enigmatic athlete was a sure thing, top-three pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, but a back injury led to him falling to the Nuggets at No. 14. He sat out his entire rookie season but was worked back into action slowly in 2019-20.

Porter’s first few months of professional basketball were successful as he averaged 21.3 minutes, 12.3 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 48.0 percent on three-point attempts in 15 games in January. But an ankle injury late that month cost him all games between then and the All-Star break. When Porter. returned in late February, he came back to a different role and he struggled – either as a result of a lack of confidence or residual effects from the ankle injury. Either way, he had only two double-figure scoring nights in his next nine games.

But Porter has now claimed another three months to continue to bounce back and hone his craft. His length and skill were on full display in January, as was his ability to connect on tough shots. What he’s back to his old self? Will he have the opportunity to earn a significant role? He’s a wild card considering his age and experience, but Porter is a unique offensive talent given his size, length and skillset. He’s been a relative liability on defense; but, again, he’s long – which can help in guarding the bigger small forwards, for whom the Nuggets have few answers. While he could hurt the Nuggets chances at succeeding this postseason, he could also be the key to their big-picture success.

The next X-Factor the Nuggets must hope (but probably already know) will break their way. It’s the longest standing criticism of their best player – Nikola Jokic. He’s a franchise cornerstone seven-footer that can handle the ball, pass better than maybe any center ever and still connects on 43.3 percent of shots between 16 feet and the three-point line. So what’s the problem?

Jokic has been criticized for much of his career for being out of shape and/or not possessing an NBA body. But it’s important to remember that he entered the league as a doughy 253-pounds. He’s never been overly muscular and it’s fair to assume he weighs more now than he did then.

The X-Factor element asks: What if Jokic comes back in even better shape? A slimmed-down Jokic would likely add athleticism to an already-elite skillset. There’s really no comparison for what that could look like. If Jokic comes back in even slightly better shape, the rest of the Western Conference is in trouble.

The final X-Factor relates to the Nuggets’ youth. Ultimately, they’re young, so their lack of playoff success thus far should be categorized as learning opportunities. Last season represents this group’s first playoff experience and it ended on their home court.

Denver’s ascent has defied logic as they entered the season as one of the favorites in the Western Conference despite boasting the NBA’s 11th youngster roster at just 25.42 years old. Looking at it more closely, none of this should be surprising considering their 25-year-old star center (Jokic) is in only his fifth season and their fourth-year star guard Jamal Murray is still only 23. They’re actually the second youngest “contender” in the NBA, behind only the Boston Celtics (25.09 years old).

With that in mind, the Nuggets shouldn’t view this season as the end-all, be-all, right? Well, unfortunately, title windows can close quickly and for a number of reasons – including injuries, trades and coaching changes.

The Nuggets’ core came up short against the (widely-believed-to-be -lesser) Portland Trail Blazers in Game 7 of the 2019 Western Conference Semifinals. As a team, the Nuggets shot only 37 percent from the field in that game, connecting on a measly 10 percent of their three-point attempts. Can they collectively overcome their lack of experience, avoiding another potential elimination game failure? If they play to their best potential, the Nuggets might not have to look ahead any longer – this year could be their year.

The three-month hiatus from basketball opened up new possibilities for the NBA from a business standpoint, but they also provided opportunities for a number of teams who most felt were out of the championship discussion. Teams will return revitalized, both mentally and physically. Will Denver take advantage of that? There are lots of similar questions left to be answered beginning in late July. And we only have 50 days left before we begin getting answers.

Basketball Insiders contributor residing in the Bronx, New York.

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Grizzlies trade Jonas Valanciunas to Pelicans for Eric Bledsoe, Steven Adams

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Andrew Lopez, the New Orleans Pelicans are shipping guard Eric Bledsoe, center Steven Adams, the Nos. 10 and 40 picks of the 2021 NBA Draft, and two future first-round picks to the Memphis Grizzlies for center Jonas Valanciunas and the Nos. 17 and 51 picks of this week’s upcoming draft. So, the Pelicans are giving up the Lakers’ 2022 first-round pick. Valanciunas, the 29-year-old veteran center, averaged 17.1 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game in 62 games played throughout the 2020-21 season. He also shot 59 percent from the field. The seven-foot Lithuanian also ranks fourth overall in true shooting percentage (.616) among active players. On July 11, 2019, Valanciunas signed a three-year, $45 million contract with the Grizzlies. He is set to earn $4 million next season.

Additionally, in 71 games played last season, Bledsoe averaged 12.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. The six-foot-one guard also shot 42.1 percent from the field in the 2020-21 season. On November 23, 2020, as part of a four-team trade, Bledsoe and Adams were traded to the Pelicans from the Oklahoma City Thunder, along with two future first-round picks and the right to swap two additional first-round picks. Last season, in 71 games played, Bledsoe averaged 12.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. His field goal percentage was 42.1 percent as well. The 11-year veteran is set to earn $18,125,000 in the 2021-22 season. Before he was traded to New Orleans, on March 4, 2019, the guard signed a four-year, $70 million extension. He earned his first All-Defensive second-team selection in the 2019-20 season.

Moreover, in 58 games played last season, Adams averaged 7.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. The six-foot-eleven center ranks fifth among active players for effective field goal shooting percentage (.591). The eight-year veteran also ranks third in offensive rebounding percentage, with an active statistic of 14 percent. On November 23, 2020, the same day Adams was traded to the Pelicans, he signed a two-year, $35 million extension. For next season, he is projected to earn $17,073,171. To add to this trade news, the Grizzlies and Pelicans are swapping second-round picks in this year’s draft, too. Referencing NBA.com’s “Consensus Mock Draft” article, with the No. 10 pick of the draft, the Pelicans were originally expected to draft either Josh Giddey or Davion Mitchell at this number. However, plans have now changed.

From ESPN’s Bobby Marks, the trade will not be finalized until August 6th, and this is because of the annual salaries of these said players. Free agency will begin on August 2, 6:00 p.m. (EST). Furthermore, per Spotrac’s 2021-22 NBA salary cap table, next season’s luxury tax threshold is $136,606,000. The team’s current available luxury tax space is $22,555,195. The Pelicans and Grizzlies have a salary cap maximum of $112,414,000. Brandon Ingram, Bledsoe, and Adams had a combined cap percentage of 39.2 percent. Considering that Bledsoe and Adams are traded away, this will clear up $35,198,171 of dead cap space.

Yesterday, CBS Sports reported the news pertaining to Lonzo Ball’s desire to remain in New Orleans. With extra cap space, the team is expected to re-sign the 23-year-old guard. Likewise, for the Grizzlies, the teams has a luxury tax space of $37,019,952. Their current cap space is $8,321,229. As stated before, the transactions have not yet been finalized. The Grizzlies’ outgoing cap is now $14 million, but from the contracts of Adams and Bledsoe, they are bringing in $35,198,171.

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NBA Trade Rumors: Jazz considering trade offers for Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale, and No. 30 pick of the 2021 NBA Draft

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Per one interesting announcement from Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer, the Utah Jazz are open to trading forward Bojan Bogdanovic, forward-guard Joe Ingles, small forward Royce O’Neale, and the No. 30 pick of the 2021 NBA Draft. Fischer stated, “The Utah Jazz are known to be one of the few teams actually searching to move playoff-tested talent. Retaining Mike Conley is an offseason priority, sources said, and the Jazz have held numerous discussions with teams around the league about offloading salary to create for Conley in free agency.” Point guard Mike Conley is set to become a free agent this offseason. Though, general manager Justin Zanik will aim to re-sign the 33-year-old guard in the coming weeks. Conley earned $34.5 million in the 2020-21 season.

“League personnel most often mention Joe Ingles as the Jazz wing to watch, and Bojan Bogdanovic and Royce O’Neale are also considered available for trade as Utah narrows its focus towards building a contender around Donovan Mitchel. The Jazz are also open to discuss trading their No. 30 pick, sources said.” In the 2020-21 season, in 72 games played, Bogdanovic averaged 17 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. On May 1, 2021, in the team’s 106-102 victory over the Toronto Raptors, the six-foot-seven Croatian scored a season-high 34 points, shooting 12-for-22, and he finished his performance with four rebounds and four assists as well. On July 7, 2019, he signed a four-year, $73 million contract with the Jazz.

In 67 games played last season, Ingles averaged 12.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game. The six-foot-eight forward is set to earn $14 million in the 2021-22 season. Plus, among the mentioned players, Royce O’Neale has contributed the least. In 71 games played last season, he averaged seven points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.5 assists. On January 19, 2020, the forward signed a four-year, $36 million extension with the team. He will earn $8.6 million next season. According to The Athletic, in the team’s seventh workout for draft prospects, they viewed Quentin Grimes, David Duke, Matt Mitchell, and a few other players. In the first round, if the team chooses not to draft any of the players they are holding workouts for, the organization will trade the No. 30 pick.

Just for a reminder, retrieved from Spotrac, the 2021-22 NBA luxury tax threshold is $136,606,000. Utah’s active roster cap is $133,284,695, the maximum cap is $112,414,000, and the current cap space is $72,990,215. Furthermore, center Rudy Gobert currently has the highest guaranteed contract on the team. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. Gobert is set to earn $35.3 million in the coming season, whereas Donovan Mitchell will earn $28.1 million. Gobert and Mitchell combined consume 47.6 percent of the team’s salary cap. For the upcoming 2021-22 season, the Jazz have a guaranteed total of $129,719,453. Based on the team’s future outlook, the Jazz will have to make a trade or two in order to retain their star players. This should go without saying.

NBA Analysis Network reported a few days ago that a potential Jazz-Knicks trade target is Bojan Bogdanovic. Greg Patuto proposed the Knicks receiving Bogdanovic, while the Jazz would receive Kevin Knox II, and the Nos. 19 and No. 32 picks of the 2021 NBA Draft. Now, this could still happen at some point during this draft week, but then again, sports bettors and fans alike understand that these news reports could be just rumors. The most intelligent, unforthcoming general managers know not to leave bread crumb trails for the media, especially leading into the offseason. They will do everything necessary to protect their foolproof plans.

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Raptors, Pacers, Timberwolves, Kings, and Cavaliers among teams showing interest in Ben Simmons

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According to Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report, five teams have shown interest in pursuing Ben Simmons from the Philadelphia 76ers. Fischer reported, “Cleveland, Indiana, Minnesota, Sacramento, and Toronto all showed interest in acquiring the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year.” Furthermore, the teams are wanting Simmons to change position from point guard to forward. “Multiple executives from those teams, when contacted by Bleacher Report, mentioned their excitement at incorporating Simmons as a play-making forward—not at the point guard position he’s played in Philadelphia.” The six-foot-eleven guard averaged 14.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 6.9 assists in the 2020-21 NBA season. This might sound fine for a young rookie, but as a five-year player, these aforementioned statistics were career lows.

However, the 25-year-old also earned his third NBA All-Star selection and second All-Defensive first-team selection last season. After a less than mediocre performance in his third postseason of his NBA career, the majority of 76ers’ fans would agree that it’s now time for Simmons to have a change in scenery. With a regular season record of 49-23 (.681), the No. 1 ranked 76ers in the Eastern Conference entered the conference semifinals as favorites over the Atlanta Hawks. Leading into this series, some NBA analysts were predicting Philadelphia to prevail four games to two. The 2016 first overall pick was expected to limit Trae Young in scoring and rally his team from point deficits, but none of this ever manifested.

Pertaining to postseason averages, Simmons had a playoff series-low of 9.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in the conference semifinals against the Hawks. This lackluster showing proved to be a more significant downfall for the superstar, considering Simmons had only five points, eight rebounds, and 13 assists in Game 7 versus the Hawks. In the 2019-20 season, he averaged 2.1 steals per game, leading all other players in the league. Moreover, Simmons currently ranks sixth in the NBA for active player triple-doubles (32). With a total of 32 career triple-doubles, he ranks 13th on the all-time list, tied with Clippers’ guard Rajon Rondo.

On July 16, 2019, Simmons signed a five-year, $169.65 million contract extension with the 76ers. He is set to earn $30.5 million in the 2021-22 season. Among these teams interested in Simmons, Cavs’ Kevin Love has the fourth largest contract guarantee of $91.4 million. Love is due to earn $31.3 million next season, and the 13-year veteran’s contract consumes 26 percent of the team’s salary cap. He could be traded this offseason. Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns has a contract guarantee of $130.8 million. The 25-year-old Wolves center will earn $31.6 million in the upcoming season.

Plus, Kings’ 2017 first-round pick De’Aaron Fox has a guaranteed contract of $171.1 million. Fox will earn $28.1 million next season. To add to that, Raptors’ Pascal Siakim has a contract guarantee of $131.4 million. Not to mention, reported by Yahoo Sports via trade rumors yesterday, the Golden State Warriors are a potential trade partner for Toronto. The Warriors could make a move on Siakim, clearing up space on the Raptors for Simmons. Per Spotrac, the 2021-22 season cap maximum is $112,414,000. In the coming weeks, one of these said five teams might make a substantial trade offer to the 76ers’ organization that they cannot refuse.

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