Three Stars of the Night: The Nuggets are still very odd

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If you needed further confirmation that the Denver Nuggets are in fact very strange, tonight’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder provided some material.

Andre Iguodala, the All-Star swingman, the Gold Medalist, the highest paid player on the Nuggets, didn’t play in the fourth quarter and barely played in overtime.

JaVale McGee…did JaVale McGee things. He tried playing point-center on one possession and headed up a fast break that eventually, predictably, ended up in a turnover. A few possessions later, he ducked out of the way of a pass headed right for him.

Andre Miller, who shoots a flinging set shot (and 19 percent from 3), acted as the team’s crunch time shooting guard.

Put it all together, throw in some big buckets by one of our stars, and what do you get? A win over one of the best teams in the league. I don’t understand the Nuggets, and I’m not going to try to. Let’s get to the Three Stars from Sunday’s action:

Third Star: Russell Westbrook – (36 points, 8 rebounds, 9 assists, 2 blocked mascot shots)

Remember all the stories about how Michael Jordan used to look for perceived slights so he could have the motivation to go tear an opponent up? Russell Westbrook is like that, except he doesn’t have to manufacture the criticism. Seeing Westbrook sort of embrace the fact that he’ll never be the “true point guard” fans want has become one of my favorite things about this season. For all intents and purposes, he’s the NBA’s new super villain. He’s demonstrative, he robs fans of free queso, and you can tell he genuinely enjoys getting under everyone’s skin. Westbrook was in full-blown bad guy mode on Sunday against the Nuggets, driving to the rim with reckless abandon and throwing his body in defenders to get to the free throw line a whopping 17 times. Westbrook’s a momentum player, both in the sense that’s he unstoppable when he gets to full speed, and that once he gets a few shots to go down, he usually gets on a roll. The Nuggets survived a comeback spurred by Westbrook that included a huge deep 3-pointer, but if Westbrook is truly the villain he portrays, he won’t forget this game the next time these two teams meet up.

Second Star: Jose Calderon – (22 points and 9 assists in 30 minutes)

Was the Lakers defense deplorable? Of course. But a lot of credit also goes to Calderon, who really saw the floor brilliantly and probed in the pick-and-roll for the Raptors all night. Toronto shot a ridiculous 54 percent from the field against the Lakers, and Calderon’s 22 points magnified the big weaknesses of the Lakers’ defense. The Raptors were great in transition, but even when the game slowed down, Calderon moved the ball to the open man and always made the correct swing pass. If Calderon really is available come trade deadline time, some contender would be very lucky to have his decision making and shooting abilities added to their team.

First Star: Corey Brewer – (26 points, 6 rebounds, 15 points in the 4th quarter)

George Karl went with his gut, and Corey Brewer rewarded him in a serious way. When he wasn’t harassing Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook defensively, Brewer was spotting up in the corner and letting ’em rip from deep. For a team that has both struggled to shoot from the perimeter (29th in 3-point percentage) and put away games in clutch situations, every one of Brewer’s 15 points were like manna from heaven (the non-Darko Milicic variety) for Karl and the Nuggets down the stretch. Although Oklahoma City eventually caught them in regulation, Brewer’s hot shooting and aggressive nature kept Iguodala on the bench in overtime, which was probably a good thing on a night where he clearly didn’t have it. That’s the luxury Karl has with this deep roster, and although questions about their title chances remain, players like Brewer make the Nuggets a very tough out during the regular season.

Report: Spurs signing LaMarcus Aldridge to two-year, $50 million contract extension

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From troubled to extended, LaMarcus Aldridge‘s Spurs tenure has changed directions in a hurry.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Piecing this together, Aldridge is exercising a $22,347,015 player option for 2018-19. That means his extension is worth $50 million over two years will carry him through age 35. All in all, Aldridge is now under contract for four more seasons.

Aldridge is a borderline All-Star, and he raises San Antonio’s floor. His back-to-the-bask mid-range games remains reliable, and he’s a willing defender. Him signing this deal should end pining for greener pastures, but it certainly won’t force him into diligent acceptance of his role forever. Players can become discontent whenever they please.

This extension significantly limits the Spurs flexibility the next two summers and maybe even in 2020, depending on Aldridge’s guarantee in the second year of his extension. They seem fine with that, perhaps believing they already have enough to topple the Warriors if Kawhi Leonard is healthy.

With Aldridge, Pau Gasol and Patty Mills all under contract for the few years around Leonard, San Antonio should remain stably good. But will these deals for aging veterans limit the Spurs’ ceiling? That’s the risk for an organization that has built its identity on championships and already has a young, in-his-prime superstar who has proven capable of being the best player on a title team.

Hawks: Dennis Schroder will face discipline for physical altercation

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Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder was arrested on a misdemeanor battery charge a couple weeks ago.

Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk in a statement:

“There is an ongoing investigation into the details of the incident involving Dennis Schröder that occurred on Sept. 29th. During this process, we plan to support Dennis as we would any of our players working through a situation.

However, from our preliminary findings, we are aware that Dennis was involved in a physical altercation. That behavior is unacceptable, will not be tolerated by the Hawks organization, and will result in discipline for Dennis at the appropriate time once the matter has been more fully developed through the law enforcement process and otherwise.

Dennis has accepted responsibility for his actions. He looks forward to learning from this incident and focusing on the season.”

On one hand, it’s odd that the Hawks are both deferring to the process and pledging discipline. On the other hand, teams should more often make their own judgments on how to handle these issues than blindly rely on the legal system.

This statement is intentionally vague, and it gives the Hawks wide latitude in how to proceed. Eventually – likely dependent on legal outcomes – they’ll reveal Schroder’s punishment.

NBA season predictions: Who wins East? West? NBA Finals?

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Tuesday the NBA marathon begins, and it will run until June with 1,230 regular season games and what the league hopes are a more intense, contested playoffs than last season.

Which will probably all end with the Warriors and the Cavaliers in the Finals. Again. For the fourth year in a row.

We’ve already given you our awards predictions for the coming season, now here are the NBC Sports NBA staff’s picks for the NBA standings and playoffs.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Kurt Helin:
1. Cavaliers
2. Celtics
3. Wizards
4. Bucks
5. Raptors
6. Heat
7. Hornets
8. 76ers
Eastern Conference Finals: Cavaliers over Celtics

It is possible Boston (or even Washington, if their starting five stays healthy and you like longshots) outpace Cleveland in the regular season, but come the playoffs a healthy Cleveland team will be the clear best team. I think the Raptors take a step back due to lost depth (and the Bucks are improving). I have the Sixers slipping into the playoffs but if Reggie Jackson returns to form Detroit could nab that spot.

Dan Feldman:
1. Cavaliers
2. Celtics
3. Wizards
4. Raptors
5. Bucks
6. Hornets
7. Heat
8. 76ers
Eastern Conference Finals: Cavaliers over Celtics

The Cavaliers and Celtics are in one tier, Wizards and Raptors in another and Bucks, Hornets and Heat in a third. The 76ers share the fourth tier with the Pistons, and I’m predicting Joel Embiid will be just healthy enough to get Philadelphia into the playoffs — but that’s a huge unknown.

Dane Carbaugh:
1. Cavaliers
2. Celtics
3. Wizards
4. Raptors
5. Bucks
6. Heat
7. Pacers
8. Pistons
Eastern Conference Finals: Cavaliers over Wizards

Even though the Celtics added Irving to their roster they still have a lack of depth after trading both Crowder and Bradley. They will be relying on their young players to come through in playoff time, and it’s more reasonable to think that will happen in the coming seasons. The Cavaliers are still the team to beat and it doesn’t feel like the Wizards will have enough to get past them.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Kurt Helin:
1. Warriors
2. Rockets
3. Thunder
4. Spurs
5. Timberwolves
6. Nuggets
7. Clippers
8. Trail Blazers
Western Conference Finals: Warriors over Thunder

Is Golden State going to win more than 70 games? The Warriors are at the top, then you can put the Rockets/Thunder/Spurs in any order and I would buy it (although the Kawhi Leonard injury to start the season leads to San Antonio questions). The final three spots will come down to the Nuggets, Clippers, Trail Blazers, Grizzlies, and Jazz and the teams that get the slots will be the ones that stay healthy.

Dan Feldman:
1. Warriors
2. Rockets
3. Thunder
4. Spurs
5. Timberwolves
6. Nuggets
7. Jazz
8. Trail Blazers
Western Conference Finals: Warriors over Rockets

It’s obviously the Warriors then everyone else. The Rockets, Thunder, and Spurs are the most serious challengers. The Timberwolves and Nuggets are up-and-comers. The next tier — which also includes the Clippers and maybe Pelicans — could see an incredibly competitive race just to make the playoffs.

Dane Carbaugh:
1.Warriors
2. Rockets
3. Spurs
4. Thunder
5. Wolves
6. Clippers
7. Blazers
8. Jazz
Western Conference Finals: Warriors over Rockets

I think we all want this series to happen if only because it will give us an inclination of what it’s like to watch a Mike D’Antoni team adapt on offense to an opponent he has all year to scout. Still, the question for most teams out West will be whether they can match the Warriors on both sides of the ball. People somehow forget that Golden State is typically a Top 5 defensive team. I’m not sure anybody can really match that.

NBA FINALS

KURT: Warriors over Cavaliers
DAN: Warriors over Cavaliers
DANE: Warriors over Cavaliers

It’s boring, we know. All three of us — and most of the rest of the NBA universe — picking a fourth straight meeting between the Golden State and Cleveland. But how do you not? If they are both healthy this seems inevitable. No team in the NBA is on the Warriors level. Boston doesn’t have the defense, Washington doesn’t have the depth to challenge the Cavaliers in the East. Things happen, the NBA rarely follows the script, but it’s hard not to envision this outcome.

Report: Spurs, LaMarcus Aldridge discussing contract extension

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The Spurs have won 128 games and three playoff series and LaMarcus Aldridge has made an All-NBA third team and an All-Star team during his two years in San Antonio.

But neither side has seemed completely satisfied with their relationship.

Maybe the solution is more time?

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Though today is the deadline for rookie-scale contract extensions and extensions for veterans with multiple years remaining on their current contracts, it’s not a significant date for Aldridge. He’s under contract for $21,461,010 this season and holds a $22,347,015 player option for next season.

Today is the last day Aldridge sign an extension in conjunction with opting in, but if the Spurs and Aldridge want him to earn $22,347,015  in 2018-19, they could make that his salary in the first year of an extension signed in conjunction with him opting out. Effectively, any terms Aldridge and San Antonio could reach now, they could reach through June 30.

The largest allowable extension is four years, $115,374,390. It’s not a given the Spurs would offer the 32-year-old that much, but they clearly value veteran stability over flexibility.