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NBA Preview: Denver Nuggets

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Last season: 53-29, tied them for the four seed in the West, but without George Karl on the sidelines (due to cancer treatments) they got bumped off in six games by a Mehmet Okur-less Jazz team.

Head Coach: George Karl is back after missing the second half of last season ad the playoffs battling throat cancer. There is nobody in the league we are all happier to see back and working than him.

Key Departures: Carmelo Anthony… wait not yet. Soon the court just Johan Petro and Joey Graham, which are not really that big a loss.

Off the court the changes were big — gone are Mark Warkentien and Rex Chapman, who were the decision makers. In their place comes Masai Ujiri. But the real power is Josh Kronke, the former Missouri basketball player and son of current owner Stan Kronke. Stan is buying the St. Louis Rams and has to sell the Nuggets, so Josh will get them. Josh worked his way up through the Nuggets front office and he (along with advisor Bret Bearup) should be the ultimate decision maker for this franchise.

Key Additions: Al Harrington, constant swirling trade rumors

Best case scenario: Carmelo Anthony is not traded, has a huge season, the Nuggets stay healthy and they return to the Western Conference finals, where they were a couple years ago. Karl has said the “final four” is the goal, and we’re going to assume he didn’t mean the Nuggets were being relegated to the NCAA.

For that to happen: Carmelo Anthony has to not only stay in Denver, it situation needs to stop being a distraction. Meaning he needs to sign the extension and get his teammates to rally around him for another big run.

If Anthony did that, Denver has the talent to be a force once they get Kenyon Martin back healthy later this season. This is a good, consistent roster. Karl can mold them. Harrington will be a boost up front, Billups may be getting up there but he still has plenty of game. There are good young players like Ty Lawson to add some energy. You can see how a run comes together with this unit…

Not going to happen. Never say never, but Anthony signing that extension and not being a distraction seems like a crazy long shot right now.

And if Anthony is not going to be back — how do you predict how good this team is? With him in house and focused the Nuggets are a team that wins in the low 50s in games, that is on that second tier in the West. Final four could happen. But is Anthony going to sign an extension for a maybe final four? Seems he is intent on pushing his way out.

The real question is how the Nuggets front office decides to go about a trade. The reports are now they are pushing in trade talks for players that will keep them in the playoffs now as well as picks and young players to rebuild with. Basically the best of both worlds – getting that is about as likely as Anthony signing his extension.

The smart move seems to be to trade Anthony for good young players and picks, then do the same with Chauncey Billups, Kenyon Martin and Nene. Rebuild from the ground up. If handled right there would be a stockpile of players and picks and the rebuilding would be off to a fast start.

You can’t rebuild on the fly, rebuild without a huge drop-off, unless you are a team willing to spend well over the luxury tax to do it. Denver is not that market.

More likely the Nuggets will: Be disappointing. To use the words of PBT’s own Rob Mahoney, one way or another it will likely be disappointing.

They probably trade Anthony, followed by a trade of Billups at least. They will get some players back — this is Anthony, he’s a big chip — but essentially the Nuggets will at some point this season decide they have to get something for Anthony so they don’t end up like Cleveland or Toronto.

Prediction: 41-41. But that is a wild guess. If the core stays together all season they win 50, if they trade Anthony before the season starts it could be more like 30 wins. Who knows? So we split the difference.

John Stockton working with Bucks point guards at training camp

SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 30:  John Stockton #12 of the Utah Jazz dribbles in Game five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Sacramento Kings during the 2003 NBA Playoffs at Arco Arena on April 30, 2003 in Sacramento, California.  The Kings won 111-91.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
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The Bucks are coached by one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, Jason Kidd. But Kidd invited another legend of the position to camp to work with his point guards. John Stockton, the NBA’s all-time leader in assists and steals, was at Bucks practice on Thursday working with Michael Carter-Williams, Matthew Dellavedova and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Not a bad person to learn from, especially since the Bucks have one of the weakest point-guard positions in the league.

Blake Griffin says he’s working on improving his three-point shot

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 21:  Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers shoots a jumper over Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during a 100-99 loss to the Thunder at Staples Center on December 21, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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2016-17 is going to be a big year for Blake Griffin. He missed much of last season with a quad injury and a broken hand stemming from a punching incident, and he has the ability to opt out of his contract next summer. When Griffin was healthy, he was his usual All-Star self for the Clippers, but he played just 35 games. He’s healthy now, at the start of training camp, and he says he wants to improve his three-point shot.

From Dan Woike of the Orange County Register:

“I want to be someone who shoots from there confidently, for sure,” Griffin said after Thursday’s practice at UC Irvine’s Bren Events Center. “A lot of us power forwards, our strength is inside or our versatility. You look at the best power forwards, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus (Aldridge), Draymond (Green) … they can all shoot but they can all put the ball on the floor and they can all score inside. I don’t necessarily think falling in love with the 3-point shot is a good idea, but shooting it confidently from there is great.”

Not only has Griffin not hit his threes in his career (his overall mark from beyond the arc is an awful 27.1 percent) but he doesn’t take very many of them. The most threes he’s ever shot in a season is 44 in 2013-14, and he hit 12 of them. Griffin is only 27, so he’s theoretically not done improving as a player, but it’s hard to imagine a dramatic jump this far along when that hasn’t been a part of his game at all to this point.

 

Steve Kerr endorses shorter preseason to limit back-to-backs

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors speaks to members of the media after being defeated by the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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There are too many preseason games. The NBA has its reasons for playing them — namely, to allow for games in non-NBA markets — and sometimes they can be valuable for teams to experiment with rotations. But most teams play seven or eight preseason games, which is unnecessary. Warriors coach Steve Kerr agrees, according to the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Connor Letourneau:

“I kind of like the idea that’s been tossed around the last couple summers to start the regular season a little earlier, maybe a week early,” Kerr said Thursday afternoon after Warriors practice. “Play five exhibition games instead of eight. I kind of like that, just so you have fewer back-to-backs in the regular season.”

The NBA has floated the idea in the past of cutting the number of preseason games in order to stretch out the regular season, thereby lessening the burden of travel and back-to-backs. The NBA has made an effort this season to cut down on back-to-backs, and this would be a logical way to do that.

Hornets’ Batum won’t let big contract affect how he plays

MIAMI, FL - APRIL 20: Nicolas Batum #5 of the Charlotte Hornets drives on Joe Johnson #2 of the Miami Heat  during game two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena on April 20, 2016 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Nicolas Batum said he isn’t planning to alter how he plays the game after signing a five-year, $120 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets.

And that’s just fine with coach Steve Clifford.

Clifford said Batum doesn’t need to put additional pressure on himself to score just because he’s now the highest-paid player in Hornets history. He told him to play how he plays.

“You don’t change the nature of how you play. I think guys get messed up with that,” Clifford said. “… I don’t think you try to reinvent yourself because the money changed. We gave him the money because he played so well. In my opinion he was an All-Star-caliber player last season when healthy.”

Batum was acquired in a trade with Portland before last season and turned out to be a gem for Charlotte, which won 48 games and tied for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. Batum averaged a career-high 14.9 points and 5.6 assists while becoming one of the team’s top three go-to options.

Batum said he’s learned from experience that it’s not worth putting pressure on himself just because he signed a big contract.

He did in that 2012 after inking a four-year, $46 million deal to remain with the Portland Trail Blazers. While he still played well, he said it was pointless.

“I was a young guy at the time and I didn’t know what to expect,” Batum said. “Now I know. I know what I have to go through right now. I know what the views of the media and the public will be. I know that, and I’m good with it.”

For Batum, pressure no longer enters the equation because the Hornets trust him and believe in him.

“It’s more relief than pressure,” Batum said.

The Hornets made re-signing him their No. 1 priority, offering the Frenchman a huge deal about an hour into the free-agency signing period. Batum also received several offers from other teams shortly after the deadline, which he called flattering.

The 6-foot-8, 200-pound Batum enters the season as Charlotte’s best all-around player and a favorite among teammates.

“Guys are so much more comfortable when he’s out there on the floor because he makes it so much easier at both ends,” forward Marvin Williams said.

Williams said there’s a naturalness to Batum’s game, and he’s incredibly unselfish – he’s always looking for the better shot option.

“He likes to make the assist, and he likes to get everyone involved,” Williams said. “I think that is why so many people like playing with him. It’s why I love playing with him.”

And why Clifford views him as irreplaceable.

When Batum went down in the second half of last season with an ankle injury, the Hornets struggled to find their rhythm.

“He’s not a numbers guy to me,” Clifford said. “People can say, `Well, he’s making this or he’s making that (much money),’ but if he plays at the level he played at last year when he was healthy, we have a chance to be a really good team.”

The Hornets continue to work on 5-on-5 scrimmages extensively during practice as Clifford gets a feel for his team.

But there were several key players missing on Thursday.

Point guard Kemba Walker (knee) and center Cody Zeller (knee) remained out of practice while rehabbing from injuries. Guard Jeremy Lamb did not practice after stepping on a basketball and twisting his ankle, while Brian Roberts was held out after injuring his hamstring when he slipped on some water on the court. Clifford said he hopes to have Lamb and Roberts back in a few days.