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Nene is an elite player

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The Denver Nuggets’ post-Carmelo play has been one of the best stories of the second half of the season. The Nuggets had the highest offensive efficiency in basketball before trading Anthony, and they haven’t skipped a beat offensively since the trade. More importantly, the Nuggets have transformed themselves into one of the best defensive teams in the league since the trade. Having the league’s best offense with a great defense is a very good thing, and the Nuggets have been on an absolute tear since they made the trade.

The Nuggets’ post-Carmelo success has hardly been a secret, but here’s one question that hasn’t been asked enough in the wake of the Nuggets’ success: if Nene (nee Nene Hilario) can be the starting center for one of the best defensive teams in the league, why isn’t he one of the best centers in the league?

Consider the following:

– Nene’s “True Shooting” percentage is currently 66.5%, which is the second highest true shooting percentage in the league. Nene averages 14.8 points per game. That is an incredible combination of scoring volume and efficiency — only Charles Barkley, Artis Gilmore, Cedric Maxwell, and Darryl Dawkins have ever averaged more than 14.5 points on 66.5% or better True Shooting over the course of a full season.

– Nene is a skilled passer, and his turnover ratio is solid as well.

– Nene has a lower usage rate and a higher PER than Chris Bosh.

Basically, if you have any doubt that Nene is one of the best offensive centers in basketball, you haven’t been paying attention. Nene is a versatile offensive player who can do damage in post-up situations, is an absolute master of creating scoring opportunities for himself without the ball in his hands, is an excellent finisher around the basket who can run the floor, is a good free-throw shooter, and can even step out and make mid-range jumpers.

His statistical accomplishments are beyond reproach, and he has one of the best offensive +/- ratings on a team that has had the highest offensive efficiency in basketball for most of the season. (In case you’re wondering, the loss of Carmelo hasn’t impacted Nene’s offense in the slightest — he averaged 14.8 points per game on 60% shooting from the field in March.)

The question with Nene has always been his defense. The Nuggets had been a below-average defensive team for the last two years, and Nene looked like part of the problem. He has never been much of a shot-blocker, and he was prone to missing rotations and seemingly taking plays off on defense. Nobody questioned Nene’s offense, but there were some worries about whether or not Nene put a glass ceiling on a team’s defense.

With the way the Nuggets have been playing defense since Carmelo left, it appears that no glass ceiling exists. Playing alongside Chris Anderson and Kenyon Martin helps, but Nene has been buying in and using his athleticism to disrupt opposing offenses, and he definitely has been a valuable part of the Nuggets’ stifling new-look defense. Simply put, it’s time to give Nene his due as one of the best centers in basketball.

This is a good news/bad news situation for the Nuggets. On the bright side, their starting center is one of the best centers in the league, and will increase their chances of going far in the playoffs. On the other hand, Nene can opt out of his contract after this season, and will command serious money on the open market if the lockout doesn’t muck things up too badly and front offices have a lick of sense. Nene made 11.4 million dollars this season, and it will likely cost the Nuggets more than that to retain the 28-year old’s services.

Denver is being billed as a team that has succeeded without a superstar, but the truth is that Nene has been producing like a superstar this season, and will get paid like one next season. The only question is by whom.

Likely top-10 pick Dennis Smith Jr. of North Carolina State declares for draft

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This had long been expected, but now it is official.

North Carolina State freshman point guard Dennis Smith Jr. has declared for the NBA Draft. He made the announcement on ESPN saying playing in the NBA is his dream, reports the News & Observer.

“It was definitely an obtainable dream for me,” said in an interview on SportsCenter. “I knew I would chase it with all of my might.”

Smith is considered a top-10 pick (DraftExpress.com has him going seventh currently).

Smith had missed his senior year of high school ball with an ACL injury, but was named ACC Freshman of the Year after averaging 18.1 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. He had two triple-doubles as a freshman. He was also inconsistent. Smith had brilliant games and ones where he looked disinterested.

Smith is unquestionably explosive and athletic, and that makes him a threat both in the open court and getting to the rim off a pick-and-roll. He’s got good handles, he knows how to draw fouls, and you can see his potential to get buckets at the next level. His jump shot needs to be far more consistent to thrive at the next level, however. The questions about Smith are more about his ability to make good decisions and be a floor general. He knows how to survey the floor and create for himself, but can he figure out when to pass to set up teammates? Can he defend consistently? He needs smooth out the rough edges of his game, but the potential to be very good is there.

James Harden says playing in every game should matter in MVP voting

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James Harden has played in every Houston Rocket game this season so far. Russell Westbrook has done the same thing for Oklahoma City.

When voters sit down in a few weeks to choose the league’s Most Valuable Player — in one of the most wide-open races in memory, with Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James making legitimate cases as well — Harden says they should take playing every game into account. It’s the latest part of the rest discussion going on around the league. Here’s what Harden told Calvin Watkins of ESPN.

“Yeah, because you’re not leaving your teammates out there to dry, ” Harden said Tuesday morning, before the Rockets’ game against the Warriors. “For me, I worry about always having my teammates’ back and always being out there….

“I’m going to have [my teammates’] back and they know that they have mine as well,” said Harden, who is second in the league in points and first in assists. “For the coaching staff and the fans, especially here in Houston, the front office, I’m here to play.”

Both LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard have had rest nights.

This injects Harden into the rest debate, where recently Harden’s teammate Patrick Beverley came out and said players are “disrespecting the game” when they rest. Gregg Popovich sees more nuance in the debate and certainly backs resting players. On the latest PBT Podcast, former Bull B.J. Armstrong told me that they didn’t have rest days back in his day, but players were kept out of games for things they could play through to get right for the playoffs, it was just listed differently. He added that the rest situation might have been different back in the day if the data about the increased chance of player injuries on the second night of a back-to-back (and it goes up from there with four games in five nights) had been available.

In this case, Harden lobbying for his case in the MVP voting. The thing is, his numbers make the case for him: Harden is averaging 29.4 points per game, leading the league with 11.3 assists a night, and he’s creating the most points per game 27.5 (buckets and direct assists. He has taken on the point guard duties in Mike D’Antoni’s offense and has taken on the largest load on offense he has in his career — and he has continued to do it efficiently.

However, one can make a strong statistical case for Westbrook (who carries a larger load for an OKC team that has less talent around its star than Houston), Leonard (best defender of the group), and LeBron (the Cavs recent struggles may doom his chances).

Little details are going to divide this group, and Harden is trying to get his point out there.

That said, the Rockets are almost certainly locked into the three seed in the West, and once it’s clear they are in that slot team management should discuss giving Harden a night off before the playoffs, to let his body rest. Whether he wants to or not.

Rajon Rondo is hilarious (photo)

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Is Rajon Rondo stubborn? Yes.

Is he petty? Yes.

Is he harsh? Yes.

But the Bulls point guard is also hilarious in his own way.

 

Sean Highkin of The Athletic:

Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek: “We can use some more defensive players”

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For all the flipping between the triangle and a more modern offense, despite ball stopping by Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony, the New York Knicks offense is 17th in the NBA for the season. Not good, but the middle of the pack, right around Oklahoma City, Miami, and Memphis — all playoff teams (or potential ones in Miami’s case).

The reason the Knicks season ends in seven games is their defense — 25th in the NBA. Put the triangle in (and get players who fit the system) or don’t, but that’s not the end of the court where the Knicks need to improve. And while system matters on defense, the fact of the matter the Knicks roster is loaded with poor and/or indifferent individual defenders.

Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek emphasized all this speaking to ESPN’s Ian Begley.

“I think if you look at our defense this year, we can use some more defensive players,” Hornacek said. “[Management] will look at that. [General manager] Steve [Mills] and [president] Phil [Jackson] and those guys will look at whatever can help us out. We know we need some help there.”

Admitting you have a problem is the first step. Now comes the time for action.

The Knicks are going to have a Top 10 draft pick (currently sixth) plus max-player money in free agency. Also, they are looking to move Anthony this summer (he has a no-trade clause so he will have to agree to it). All of which is to say they have a chance to reshape this roster into one that will have more of a defensive focus. Or any defensive focus for that matter.

It will be interesting to see if the Knicks target more defensive minded free agents this summer, ones who might fit the triangle offense such as Thabo Sefolosha, or to a lesser extent Tony Allen. It’s going to be a fascinating summer in New York.

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