ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Denver Nuggets

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Last season: The Nuggets finished the regular season with the best home record in the league, and a franchise best 57 wins, good for the three seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Then, they were bounced out of the first round by the Golden State Warriors in six games.

George Karl won Coach of the Year honors, then was fired when he pushed for a contract extension this summer. Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri won Executive of the Year, before leaving to join the Raptors organization.

Signature highlight from last season: There were a couple of freakishly athletic JaVale McGee plays we could have chosen, as well as some circus shots from Danilo Gallinari. But this game-winner at the buzzer from Ty Lawson over the Thunder fit more snugly, thanks to the way that victory summed up what last season’s Nuggets were all about.

Wilson Chandler did the damage offensively in that one, dropping in 35 points off the bench. Meanwhile, only one of Denver’s starters topped double digits in scoring. The Nuggets had multiple, sometimes random guys that would beat you on any given night, and that’s what made them such a challenge to deal with over the course of the season.

Key player changes: Denver didn’t do anything drastic to improve its roster this summr, but the team also didn;t make the mistake of overpaying its most high-profile free agent, either.

  • IN: Randy Foye was acquired from the Jazz as part of the three-team deal that sent Andre Iguodala to the Warriors in a sign-and-trade. Darrell Arthur was acquired via trade in exchange for Kosta Koufos. J.J. Hickson was signed to a multi-year deal in free agency, as was former Bulls spark plug Nate Robinson.
  • OUT: The aforementioned Iguodala and Koufos, along with Corey Brewer, who signed a free agent deal with the Timberwolves.

Keys to the Nuggets’ season:

1) The development of JaVale McGee: As scary as it may seem, the Nuggets actually have quite a bit riding on how quickly JaVale McGee can evolve into a more consistently productive player. The reason Kosta Koufos was traded for Darrell Arthur was not because Koufos wasn’t good, it’s that his reliable play made him the logical choice for minutes over the hit-or-miss (or worse) McGee.

The athleticism has always been there, but the basketball IQ has not. If new head coach Brian Shaw can reach and teach McGee, the Nuggets will have a valuable weapon that could change the complexion of the team’s defense.

2)Making the new pieces fit: The loss of Iguodala may not seem of dire importance, considering the amount of balance the Nuggets played with a season ago. He was tied for third on the team in points per game with Wilson Chandler, and Corey Brewer and Kenneth Faried weren’t that far behind.

But Iguodala was perhaps the team’s most versatile player, especially considering what he was able to do defensively on a nightly basis. His threat of scoring opened things up for his teammates, and while there are other guys on the team capable of picking up that slack, the overall team dynamic will be tested with the new faces on the roster being molded together by a new, first-time head coach in Brian Shaw.

3)The health of Danilo Gallinari: As much as Denver relied on a variety of players over the course of the season, it was proven as soon as the playoffs began just how much they needed Danilo Gallinari’s ability to get buckets.

Gallinari’s season was ended prematurely in April due to an ACL injury, and he’ll miss at least the first month of the season, if not a little bit more. As Denver is finding its way without him, it’ll be like starting over again once they add his scoring back into the lineup, and that process could set the team back initially, depending on how long it takes Gallo to get fully back up to speed.

Why you should watch: Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried, and JaVale McGee are all special talents at their position. Brian Shaw will be interesting as a first year head coach, and if there’s a substantial drop-off from last year’s success, the team is a prime candidate to implode given all of the changes made by the front office.

Prediction: 47-35. Playoffs, probably. But with the top six teams in the West all but locked in and with all of the changes in Denver, those last two spots are officially up for grabs.

PBT Extra: Does Larry Bird stepping down change Paul George question in Indiana?

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When the Woj bomb dropped that Larry Bird was stepping down as president of the Indiana Pacers, two questions came to mind. First was, “Is he healthy?” Reportedly he is, this was not a healthy-related decision. Which is great news.

Second, what does that mean for Paul George?

Is Indiana more likely to trade him now? Less?

George speculation has ramped up around the league and — while no doubt new GM Kevin Pritchard will say he would love to keep PG13 when he speaks to the media — there is a sense Bird walking away could be a sign that the Pacers are moving into rebuilding mode. That said, Pritchard is known for driving a hard bargain, he’s not going DeMarcus Cousins trade here.

I talk about all of that and more in this latest PBT Extra.

Jazz center Rudy Gobert, back from injury, shutting down paint against Clippers

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Utah Jazz feared the worst when Rudy Gobert was carried off the court by teammates 17 seconds into the playoffs.

Two weeks later, the 7-foot-1 defensive player of the year candidate is a huge reason the Jazz have taken control of their first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers.

Gobert has been a force in the middle for the Jazz all season and since the Frenchman’s return to the lineup, Utah has won the rebound battle against Los Angeles and outscored the Clippers in the paint.

“I’ve just tried to do the same things I’ve done to try to help the team,” Gobert said. “Do what I’ve been doing all year. At the end of the day, it’s just basketball. There’s a level of focus that’s a little bit higher in the playoffs, but it’s the same.”

The Clippers have scored 94.9 points per 100 possessions with Gobert on the floor and 112.4 with him off in this series. They’ve attempted 19% of their shots in the restricted area when he plays and 34% when he’s off.

Gobert has averaged 13 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks in his two full playoff games.

“Rudy erases a lot of mistakes,” Jazz guard Rodney Hood said. “And he cleans up a lot of bad offensive possessions by rebounding the ball. It’s great just to have him back.

“He’s been making plays out of pick-and-roll, finding guys in the corner, finishing for himself or dunking and things like that. We’ve got to continue to find him because that’s a weapon for us.”

Gobert was diagnosed with and hyperextension and bone bruise in his left knee, but the MRI showed no structural damage and no danger of long-term repercussions. From that point on, Gobert knew he’d return.

The Jazz have won two in a row since he’s been back and Utah has outscored the Clippers in the paint in both games by a combined 92-64. The team that has scored the most points in the paint has won each game.

Utah also has won the rebounding battle in the two games since Gobert has returned by a combined 85-65 after the Clippers had an 80-60 advantage in the previous two games.

“His competitiveness and his presence on the defensive glass, as much as anything,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder about Gobert’s biggest impact. “He changes some things with his rim protection. But what he’s given us on the boards on both ends of the floor … he’s had a number of games this year where he’s had some big offensive rebounds late in the game. Can’t say enough about him on the glass.”

Clippers coach Doc Rivers has repeatedly said the presence of Gobert doesn’t impact his team’s offense. The absence of Blake Griffin, who’s out for the remainder of the postseason with a toe injury, has certainly made a difference in the Clippers’ offense. Combine that with Gobert’s return, and Los Angeles’ offensive production certainly has dropped.

The Clippers shot 52.4 percent and 54.7 percent in wins in Game 2 and 3. They shot 44.0 percent and 42.0 percent in losses in Game 3 and 4.

“Where Rudy really impacts the game is when we’re playing defense because of his ability to get behind a defense,” Rivers said. “So you have to be far more careful in your pick and roll coverage. What we do offensively, we’ve basically played the same way all year and we’re not going to change that for anyone.”

Gobert has downplayed the individual matchup between he and Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, but Snyder called it one of the marquee matchups of the playoffs. The two have seen plenty of each other this season, starting with the 2016 Olympic Games when Gobert represented France and Jordon was on Team USA. Jordan earned his first All-Star nod this year, something Gobert certainly wanted.

Jordan averaged 17.5 points and 14 rebounds and was dunking at will in Games 2 and 3. He averaged 13 points and 11 rebounds in Games 4 and 5. Gobert being able to play Jordan 1 on 1 helps the entire defense since there’s no need to send extra bodies to defend or box out.

The Jazz are hoping for that kind of effort again on Friday.

 

Report: Cavaliers GM David Griffin ‘the top candidate’ in Magic’s front-office search

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A week ago, David Griffin was just someone the Magic were researching to run their front office.

It seems the Cavaliers general manager has since moved up in the search.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

For now, Cleveland Cavaliers GM David Griffin remains the top candidate in the Magic’s search, but Orlando hasn’t yet asked for permission to speak with Griffin, largely because of the Cavaliers’ playoff status, sources said.

This could end a couple ways.

Here’s betting Griffin – who has LeBron James‘ endorsement – leverages the Orlando interest into a bigger offer from Cleveland. Griffin was just too integral to the Cavs’ first championship to discard him.

Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert has shown much more willingness to spend than The Devos Family, which owns the Magic. If this is a bidding war, I’ll take Cleveland. If it isn’t a bidding war, the Cavs have a far more attractive roster than Orlando.

Thunder’s Andre Roberson entering free agency after impactful playoff series

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The Rockets were starting to pull away from the Thunder in Game 5 of their first-round series, and the Houston crowd was looking for a reason to erupt. The Rockets provided one by intentionally fouling Roberson despite holding Oklahoma City without a basket for the previous five minutes. The Thunder wing stepped to the line in the loudening arena and, of course, missed both free throws.

But Roberson didn’t go down quietly.

On the ensuing defensive possession, he picked up James Harden in the backcourt and hounded the Rockets star on the perimeter. Harden passed to Nene, and Roberson doubled the center in the post and stole the ball. Roberson passed to Russell Westbrook then laid out Patrick Beverley with an open-court screen, freeing Westbrook to score.

Of course, that wasn’t enough. Oklahoma City fell in five games, Westbrook’s supporting cast unable to keep up enough with its MVP candidate.

“That’ll definitely be one thing that haunt me, Roberson said of his free-throw shooting against Houston, “and something I’ll work on extremely hard this summer.”

Roberson’s postseason confirmed everything we thought we knew about him: He’s a defensive dynamo, and he can’t shoot.

But understanding Roberson’s skill set is only a small step in evaluating him. Teams are better than ever at exposing perimeter players who can’t shoot, and that makes Roberson’s price point difficult to read as he enters restricted free agency. The Thunder delayed the decision – extending Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo last year while allowing Roberson to complete his rookie-scale contract without an extension – but time is practically up.

For better or worse, it was all there in the playoffs.

Roberson made just 3-of-21 free throws (14%), the worst percentage by anyone with so many attempts in a postseason series (since 1964, as far as Basketball-Reference go back). Here are the worst free-throw percentages in a series since 1964 (minimum: 100 attempts):

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This was hardly out of the norm for Roberson, who made just 42% of his free throws during the regular season.

His postseason 3-point percentage (41%) was way better than his regular-season baseline (25%), but he attempted just 17 3-pointers in 185 playoff minutes. Not only is that a small sample, it speaks to another problem. The Rockets typically left him open, and he was reluctant to shoot. That allowed Houston to defend 5-on-4 elsewhere with only minimal repercussions. Despite playing more than 90% of his minutes with Westbrook, the Thunder still scored worse with Roberson on the court.

So why did Roberson receive such a prominent role in the series?

He’s a defensive stud. Roberson ranks fourth among players who regularly defend opposing guards in defensive real plus-minus:

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Roberson shadowed Harden for too much of the series to gauge on-off splits, but adding regular-season Thunder-Rockets games reveals a clearer (though still limited) picture:

James Harden Roberson on Roberson off
Minutes 320 16
Points per 36 minutes 25.3 51.8
Turnovers per 36 minutes 6.0 0.0
Free-throw attempts per 36 minutes 10.9 22.5
2-point percentage 50.5% 60.0%
3-point percentage 21.1% 60.0%
Effective field-goal percentage 41.9% 75.0%

Harden, arguably the NBA’s best offensive player, was held in relative check with Roberson on the floor. When Roberson sat, Harden went wild.

There has to be a place for a defender like Roberson in this league.

Is it in Oklahoma City?

Roberson was effective in last year’s playoffs as a small-ball big. He cut and crashed the offensive glass. That got harder with two of Adams, Taj Gibson and Enes Kanter occupying the paint. The Thunder maximizing Roberson’s production might mean losing a big man or two. Gibson will be a free agent and said he wants to return. Adams and Kanter are locked into lucrative long-term deals.

When it comes to Roberson, it’s always complicated.