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.

Jusuf Nurkic’s agent says big man wants to stay in Portland this summer

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Last season, after his trade from frustrated backup big in Denver to new starter in Portland, there was a honeymoon — the Blazers went 14-6, their defense was better, and Nurkic was a big man setting big picks for quick guards in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.

This season the honeymoon is over, things have been up and down, but far from time to say the marriage should end, as he is a free agent next summer. Nurkic is the only real starting center on the roster (even if coach Terry Stotts left him on the bench in the fourth quarter in favor of Ed Davis a few games back). Nurkic is averaging 14.6 points and 7.2 rebounds a game, and the Blazers’ defense is 1.5 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court. However, his effort level has been up and down, and his shot is off, with a true shooting percentage of just 49.4, and he is shooting just 56.6 percent in the restricted area.

Nurkic wants to stay in Portland, his agent told Ben Golliver in a story at Sports Illustrated (that story is worth the read for the Nurkic origin story, which is amazing).

“I feel like the Blazers are very happy with Jusuf and Jusuf is very happy there,” Tesch, the agent, told The Crossover by telephone this week. “We had some [extension] talks but we decided to play it out this year and engage in talks again in July. He has already proven that he can help the team. There is a fit for Jusuf in Portland and he’s looking to stay there long-term.”

The two sides talked extension before the season, but Portland understandably wanted to make sure there was more to this relationship than just a honeymoon. It gave Nurkic a chance to drive up his asking price.

Portland and Nurkic likely will find a long-term deal next summer because it just makes sense for both sides. There are not a lot of teams with max free agent money next summer (4-6, I was told by an insider), or a lot of money to spend in general, and both DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus would be centers on the market who rank ahead of Nurkic. Portland will offer more than other free agent destinations, if not as much as Nurkic dreamed of, and they will find common ground.

But there is a lot of season to play out before then. The Blazers feel like a team that should be better than its record so far, and Nurkic is part of that untapped potential. If things change, that’s good for Nurkic — and the Blazers.

Celtics look to push win streak to 16 vs. Mavs

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DALLAS (AP) — The Boston Celtics aren’t yet halfway to the NBA record for consecutive victories, a mark the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers still hold, but at 15 in a row, they are in rare territory.

Since 1946-47, there have only been 35 instances of a 15-game win streak or longer. And of all the legendary Celtics teams, this squad already holds the franchise’s fifth-longest win streak. A victory Monday night against the Dallas Mavericks, who are an NBA-worst 3-14 overall and 2-8 at American Airlines Center, would tie the 1964-65 Boston team’s 16-game win streak.

If the Celtics (15-2) get the win, they would climb closer to the 1959-60 team’s 18-game win streak, and then comes the club mark of 19 in a row accomplished by the 2008-09 team.

This version of the Celtics has to be considered the most unexpected to string together so many wins. The team has a slew of new players, starting with guard Kyrie Irving, and Boston lost another prized newcomer, forward Gordon Hayward, in the season opener.

After starting 0-2, Boston hasn’t lost. Yet, it’s not exactly as if the Celtics are steamrolling the league. For the Mavericks, who are coming off snapping the Milwaukee Bucks’ four-game win streak Saturday, the fact that Boston has actually had to rally to get a handful of its wins must be seen as an opportunity to steal a decision.

In fact, four of the Celtics’ victories during the streak have come after Boston trailed by 16 points, including a 110-109 win against the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday.

“Most of us have never been on a winning streak like this,” Irving said following the win over Atlanta. “I don’t know if we even know how to pay attention to all the hoopla that goes on in terms of the excitement of it. I just think that every single game we take it as a challenge.”

Irving has been accepting that challenge with tremendous success after asking to be traded away from Cleveland, where he won one title with LeBron James and lost twice in the NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors.

He closed out those same Warriors last week, scoring 11 of the last 15 points in the final 4:21. The clutch play has Irving already being talked about as an MVP candidate.

“He’s so good in those moments that you want to give him the appropriate amount of room,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens told the Boston Globe about Irving. “Maybe it’s finding a matchup. Maybe it’s creating a two-man game with Al (Horford).”

Irving will be a major test for Mavs rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr., who has displayed some tremendous flashes while also showing he is a green 19-year-old with one season of college ball under his belt.

Dallas, one of the league’s lowest-scoring offensive teams, is relying heavily on Smith and Harrison Barnes to carry the load. Dirk Nowitzki, 39, has dropped off significantly, averaging just 10.3 points a game, his lowest output since his rookie season in 1998-99.

Unlike the Celtics, Dallas has lost its share of games by being unable to close out games late. On Saturday, the Mavericks won a rare game going away, blitzing the Bucks with a franchise-tying 19 3-pointers. Guard Wesley Matthews said he thinks all the hard work is starting to pay off.

The history-chasing Celtics will put that claim to test.

“We can actually see everything that we’ve been trying to do come together, and hopefully that just carries the momentum into the off day where everybody’s feeling good,” Matthews said after Dallas’ victory. “We’ve got another tough battle Monday against Boston, who is the hottest team in the league right now, but it’s another opportunity for us.”

Nuggets’ coach Mike Malone suspended one game for confronting referee

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Denver coach Mike Malone decided if he was going to get tossed and fined/suspended, he was going to get his money’s worth.

During the second quarter of the Nuggets’ Sunday loss to the Lakers, Malone ran onto the court during play to argue a no-call on a play by Nikola Jokic around the basket. Malone furiously confronted referee Rodney Mott, who swiftly ejected the coach. As he should. Malone was suspended one game for “entering the court, halting play and making contact with a game official,” the league announced. Malone will serve his suspension tonight when the Nuggets face the Kings in Sacramento.

Mott also tossed Jokic when he entered the argument Sunday night, but the NBA rescinded the ejection saying Jokic earned a technical but should not have been thrown out. A lot of good that does the Nuggets now, who had to go more than half the game without their best player and lost (not that he changes the outcome of the game, but a comeback is less likely without him).

 

 

Kevin Garnett: Thon Maker “is going to be the MVP of the league one day. Mark it down.”

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Not to get to inside baseball on NBA journalism, but one fundamental truth is player trainers pump up their guys. There usually is some truth in what they say, but it is in their interest to spin the player the best way possible. On and off the record it happens. It’s like asking a political campaign manager about his candidate, you will only get the positive.

Kevin Garnett worked out and helped the Bucks’ Thon Maker this summer.

In just his second season, Thon Maker has been in and out of the starting lineup for the Bucks at center, and he’s struggled this season with a true shooting percentage of 48 getting him 4.5 points a game, and PER of 9.3. (Bucks fans are understandably disappointed, but this is a second-year player, some patience is required).

Garnett had Makers’ back in a Q&A with Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Abrams.

Thon Maker reminds me a lot of myself. He loves the game. He’s a young, exuberant athlete who has a lot of tools—he has touch; he has agility; he has really, good feet. He has a really good shot from three-point all the way up to 19 to 21 feet. He has very good bones, as we say.

Thon is going to be the MVP of the league one day. Mark it down. He has the bones. He has the appetite to be able to chase something like that.”

Garnett may have the wrong young-stud Buck with an MVP in his future.

Maker has gotten KG comparisons for years, he’s a very mobile and athletic but thin big who can shoot from the wing… but the physical similarities are not enough. Maker is no KG. Not yet. Maker showed promise against the Raptors last playoffs but has not taken a step forward off that progress this season, looking far more prone to fouling than defending. The effort is there, but the maturity of game has a long way to go to catch up.

Garnett is right that Maker has the tools, and he is just in his second NBA season so patience is required, but there were concerns around the league before the draft if he had the makeup to put it all together and become a quality NBA player. That question is still out there, let’s get past it before we heap on accolades.