NBA Season Preview: Denver Nuggets

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Last season: The Nuggets continue to out-perform expectations while never really accomplishing anything of note.

They battled through all the roster turnover from one year to the next and a slew of quietly really damaging injuries to land the sixth seed last season after a hot start. Danilo Gallinari suffered two significant injuries that severely limited his ability to make the kind of impact he did at the start of the season where he looked like the best player on the team.

Meanwhile, Kenneth Faried emerged as a huge part of their future, and helped justify dumping Nene’s $13 million per year deal to get rid of an injury-riddled veteran. They brought in JaVale McGee with all his nonsense and faults, and the results were mixed. He had some genuinely electric playoff moments, but was still JaVale McGee.

They ran up against the Lakers and dug a hole. It looked over and they would quietly exit the playoffs. Instead, they battled back relentlessly and forced a game 7 against a team they were out-matched against, but didn’t have enough to get over the hump on the road. The result was the same, and the same questions lingered for Denver.

Key Departures: Arron Afflalo was the Nuggets’ best offensive weapon over the past three years, and now he’s wearing a deeper blue in Orlando. Al Harrington was a versatile scorer who put in a suprising amount of work defensively last year, and he’s also gone.

Rudy Fernandez headed home after threatening it for a half-decade, and Birdman Andersen was amnestied to make way for the future.

Key Additions: Denver snuck into the Dwight Howard trade and used their assets to grab Andre Iguodala. Iguodala gives them a hyper versatile forward who can run, rebound, pass, score, and defend at an elite level. He should fit in really well with the athleticism of Denver, and will be relied upon as the primary defensive stopper for George Karl. It cost a lot to get him but made them an overall much superior team.

They drafted Frenchman Evan Fournier in the first round and instead of sticking him overseas, have brought him over. The Nuggets already have more wings than they know what to do with, so Fournier likely won’t get many minutes this season. They also brought in Quincy Miller, who’s in a similar situation. They just have too much depth on the wings.

Anthony Randolph gives them another athletic big man to run the floor with and his ability to stretch the floor is something George Karl should get mileage out of as well.

Three keys to the Nuggets season:

1) Does speed kill the defense?: Karl has talked in the preseason about not needing to get into the elite level in traditional categories, but getting the defense overall into the good territory so that their point differential increases. There’s no plan to slow down the offense, so the question is, can you run a fast-pace team who also defends well?

To try and get it done, Karl will focus on the team’s athleticism in an attempt to pressure the ball and get into passing lanes. There will be a reliance on Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee, Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mozgov as shot-blockers to “intimidate” defensivel, as Karl said on media day.

It’s never been a reliable method for improving defense. You usually have to grind the game down to give yourself time to set into your defensive positions and rotations, and an up and down game naturally opens the floor up for both teams. That will be the biggest challenge this season.

2.) Find shooters, or invent them. Danilo Gallinari has been snakebit the past two years. Whether it was injury, adjustment or bad luck, a normally reliable shooter tailed off the past two years. It came with an improvement in driving and drawing fouls, but the Nuggets still need him to stretch the floor.

They lack shooters, and their replacement options are unproven. Corey Brewer has historically been an awful perimeter shooter. Fournier is too green to see much court time. Ty Lawson can drill, but that would require someone else running the offense a majority of the time. He’ll get his, but they still need another option. Jordan Hamilton may be that fit. The second-year man out of Texas has great length and a reliable form. If the shooters don’t come around, the offense will still be good but not good enough.

3.) The Break’s Over, Here Comes The Takeover. Ty Lawson is going to have to take over the game at times. Andre Iguodala may be the most gifted player on the team, but Lawson has the ability to own the opponent with huge shots. That’s got be his role, and helping get Iguodala going will be a big part of it. At the same time, Lawson simply has to be the primary offensive threat and make himself into a household name. It’s a big step in front of him.

What Nuggets fans should fear: The defense can’t get a grip in the fast pace, Iguodala doesn’t make enough of an impact and no center emerges to protect the rim. McGee struggles as always and that contract becomes disastrous. There are no shooters and teams know to pack the paint and let the Nuggets shoot. Kenneth Faried hits his ceiling, none of the other players make jumps, and the team bobs along at the same level it has for two years.

How it likely works out: No reason to think Denver can’t challenge for the third seed. Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala, Kenneth Faried alone is a triumverate worthy of consideration in the West. When you factor their style, how well the roster is built, their depth, and the likelihood of at least a few players improving to the point of relevance, the Nuggets will once again be a fun team to watch who wins a bunch of games.

And yet still not title contenders.

Prediction: 51-31. Denver cracks 50 wins without a superstar, plays at a high level, thrills fans and league pass addicts, then loses in a tough second-round series. What is what what was is what shall be.

Report: Thunder signing Dakari Johnson two years after drafting him

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Two seasons ago, Dakari Johnson was the youngest player by more than two years on the D-League’s All-Rookie team. Last season, Johnson was the youngest player by more than a year on an All-D-League team – and he made the first of three teams.

Now, Johnson – who the Thunder drafted No. 48 in 2015 and whose rights they continued to hold – is finally moving up to the NBA.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Thunder have already used the full taxpayer mid-level exception, so presumably Johnson will get the minimum – $2,128,226 over two years. That, plus two years of meager D-League salary, will be Johnson’s return for granting Oklahoma City four years of his services.

He could have forced the Thunder’s hand either of the previous two years by signing the required tender – a one-year contract, surely unguaranteed at the minimum – a team must extend to retain a draft pick’s rights. Accepting the tender would have meant Johnson earning an NBA salary (and gaining a year of service) if Oklahoma City kept him past the preseason. Or, if they waived him, he would’ve been an unrestricted NBA free agent. He still could have developed with the Thunder’s D-League affiliate while available to any NBA team.

Instead, Johnson repeatedly rejected the tender, allowing Oklahoma City to maintain exclusive negotiating rights.

At least the Thunder helped develop him. A strong 7-footer, Johnson has improved his mobility and skill level. He’s still an old-school center in a league moving away from that style, but he’s now more equipped to keep up.

Whether he’s ready enough is another question. Johnson will fall behind Steven Adams and Enes Kanter on the depth chart. At just 21, Johnson is still a decent developmental prospect.

Johnson gives the Thunder 16 players on standard contracts, one more than the regular-season maximum. They could waive Semaj Christon, whose salary is unguaranteed, but I’d be leery of having only Raymond Felton behind Russell Westbrook at point guard. Nick Collison at least provides insurance at center.

So, there’s no guarantee Johnson sticks into the regular season. One thing working in his favor: His salary will be luxury-taxed at the rookie minimum, because the Thunder drafted him. Christon or any other player acquired through free agency would be taxed at the second-year minimum.

No matter how it shakes out, Johnson is at least finally getting significant money in his pocket.

Raptors coach Dwane Casey: DeMar DeRozan to play some point guard

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The Raptors gave away backup point guard Cory Joseph to save money. So, who will play behind Kyle Lowry?

Presumably, Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet will each slide up a spot on the depth chart. The third-year Wright looks ready to join the rotation, and he deserves at least the opportunity.

But Toronto also has another – unexpected – option at point guard: DeMar DeRozan.

Raptors coach Dwane Casey, via Bryan Meler of Sportsnet:

“DeMar DeRozan, have him handle the ball a bit more as a point guard, a facilitator, a passer. Kyle Lowry moving the ball a bit more, spacing up. We don’t want to give our whole ‘what we’re going to try to do next year’ away, but again it comes down to passing the basketball and better spacing more so, than we know, one-on-one play.”

“Everyone and their brother knows we want better ball movement,” said Casey.

DeRozan didn’t play point guard at all last season.* So, this is a pretty big shift.

*Defined as playing without Lowry, Joseph, Wright or VanVleet.

Known as an isolation player, DeRozan has quietly improved as a distributor. I don’t think his ability to run an offense is at a point-guard level, but I’m also not sure that’s the point.

The Raptors are trying to change their style and promote more ball movement. This could help in the long run.

I supported the Timberwolves playing Zach LaVine at point guard as a rookie even though it was clear he should be a shooting guard. Playing point guard was a crash course that helped him develop skills useful at shooting guard, skills he couldn’t have as easily developed while playing off the ball.

The same could be true with DeRozan. Some rocky minutes at point guard could better equip him to play with Lowry in better-passing units come playoff time.

It was more conventional to play a 19-year-old on a bad team out of position to focus on skill development than it is for a 28-year-old on a good team. But he we are.

The Raptors have achieved enough success in the regular season and not enough in the playoffs. Experimenting during the long regular season is a good plan.

Lakers meet with Derrick Rose, Ian Clark about backup point guard slot

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At a press conference this week introducing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Magic Johnson said that the Lakers wanted to find a backup point guard in the next week or so.

Thursday the Lakers took a couple of steps down that road, meeting with both Derrick Rose and Ian Clark.

Both men would serve as the backup to, and potential mentor for, Lonzo Ball. The questions come down to which man better fits that role, and of course money.

Rose put up solid numbers last season in New York — 18 points per game, a PER of 17 — and statistically appeared to be an average NBA point guard. However, he’s still a defensive liability, cannot space the floor as a shooter (21.7 percent from three last season), and he’s not versatile offensively.

Rose is thought to be choosing between the Lakers and Cavaliers, both teams offering one-year contracts (Chicago has been mentioned is a highly unlikely reunion). Cleveland can offer the chance to chase a ring and play with LeBron James, but only a veteran minimum contract of $2.1 million. The Lakers can offer the same minimum contract or the room exception of $4.3 million (it’s not known if the Lakers put that larger offer on the table, but it seems plausible to likely). Rose has to choose what he wants, what he prioritizes, in neither case is he going to start or be part of the long-term plans — this is a one-year choice.

Clark played for Luke Walton in Golden State, is younger and more athletic than Rose, shot 37.4 percent from three last season, and is coming off his best season playing almost 15 minutes a game and winning a ring with the Warriors. He’s not as good as running the offense as Rose, but last season he cut down on his turnovers and improved his defense, taking steps forward with both. If things work out, he could stick with the Lakers beyond this season, but they will only offer a one-year contract for now.

Los Angeles has other options out there on the point guard market — Brandon Jennings, Ty Lawson, Deron Williams — but the Lakers seem to have narrowed their choice down to Rose or Clark. Once they land the backup point guard, the roster will

Shaq calls his absurd light-up shoes the real Big Baller Brand

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Because 7’1″, 350-pound Shaquille O’Neal needed an impossible-to-ignore pair of light up shoes to call attention to himself…

Shaq posted a video of himself on Instagram wearing some outrageous light-up shoes — then in the comments decided to take another dig at Big Baller Brand.

Boy was shining wasn't he #whatarethose #shineonem #feetwork #shaqshoestherealbigballerbrand

A post shared by DR. SHAQUILLE O'NEAL Ed.D. (@shaq) on

So how much do those shoes cost? More or less than ZO2?

One of the things I enjoyed about Summer League was that as Lonzo Ball played better and better, the spotlight shifted more to his play and more away from his father. Think what you will of LaVar Ball — marketing genius or loud-mouthed dad — personally I’m just weary of him. I like Lonzo’s play, I don’t need the rest.

However, between Shaq and Charles Barkley, I think there’s going to be a lot of LaVar/Big Baller Brand talk on Inside the NBA next season. Those two can’t help themselves.