Juan Hernangomez

AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Nuggets hooked a big fish in Paul Millsap

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The Nuggets apparently didn’t see the exemplary move of their offseason coming.

They tried to trade Gary Harris and the No. 13 pick for Cavaliers power forward Kevin Love, but as Cleveland tells it, the Pacers backed out of the three-team trade. So, Denver traded down from No. 13 to No. 24, picking Tyler Lydon and acquiring Trey Lyles – two more power forwards to join a team that already had Juan Hernangomez, Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur.

Finally, the Nuggets signed Paul Millsap – an upgrade over every power forward already on the roster and a better fit than Love – without surrendering any assets beyond cap space. And it wasn’t as much cap space as feared. Despite talk of a max contract, Millsap settled for $90 million over three years with a team option of the final season.

That’s a quite reasonable price for a potential franchise-changer.

Millsap isn’t Denver’s franchise player. That’s Nikola Jokic. But Millsap immediately elevates the Nuggets into a likely playoff team, and they got the 32-year-old without committing long-term.

After making Jokic a full-time start in December, Denver had the NBA’s best offensive rating (113.3). Better than the Warriors. Better than the Rockets. Better than the Cavaliers. Better than everyone else.

In that span, Jokic averaged 19.2 points, 10.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game – marks hit over a full season by only Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Billy Cunningham and Kevin Garnett. That’s four Hall of Famers and a future Hall of Famer.

Still, the Nuggets finished just 40-42, a game out of playoff position. They had the NBA’s second-worst defense, and Jokic’s deficiencies were glaring. It’s just hard to hide a weak defensive center.

Millsap might do that, though. He’s one of the NBA’s best defensive forwards and even provides some rim protection. Importantly, he also spaces the floor on the other end, allowing Denver to still take full advantage of Jokic’s advanced offensive skills.

Typical development by a young core – which also includes Jamal Murray and Gary Harris – would have pushed the Nuggets forward. Millsap allows them to keep pace in a tough Western Conference that only loaded up this offseason.

Though well worth the complication, Millsap creates a crowd at power forward Denver has yet to address. At least there are plausible patches.

Faried can play center, though re-signing restricted free agent Mason Plumlee (whose $4,588,840 qualifying offer is outstanding) would reduce the playing time available there. Hernangomez can play small forward. Lydon might not be ready to play at all.

At some point, it’d be nice to get Hernangomez more minutes at his optimal position. He’s merely trying to tread water at small forward. As a stretch four who gets after rebounds, he could be a core piece.

For now, Millsap mans the power forward spot, and the Nuggets are better for it. Opening cap space for Millsap meant losing Danilo Gallinari in free agency, but Wilson Chandler and Will Barton are capable at small forward.

Denver’s sound drafting in recent years created a clean cap sheet, with several contributors locked into rookie-scale contracts – or, in Jokic’s case, an even smaller deal. The Nuggets could afford to splurge on a veteran who’d fast-track their ascension. Kudos to them for luring one – especially without a long-term guarantee.

Offseason grade: A

Report: Jazz trade up for Donovan Mitchell, send Trey Lyles to Nuggets

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
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Excluding the big injury question marks of O.G. Anunoby and Harry Giles, Donovan Mitchell was the top prospect available at No. 13 on my board.

The Jazz traded up with the Nuggets to ensure Mitchell didn’t slip further.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

Do the Jazz see Mitchell as a point guard or shooting guard? At point guard: George Hill will be a free agent this summer, but Dante Exum and Raul Neto are under contract. At shooting guard: Utah has Rodney Hood and Alec Burks. If Utah just liked Mitchell’s value and wants to give him a chance to develop and see where it goes, I could get behind that. Perhaps, this is a precursor to another move.

Trey Lyles is a 21-year-old stretch four who still has upside. He joins a group of Denver bigs – Nikola Jokic, Mason Plumlee, Kenneth Faried, Juan Hernangomez – that offer no clear well-meshing tandems.

Anthony Davis rattles rim with dunk on Juan Hernangomez (video)

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A sweet-shooting stretch four, Juan Hernangomez has a bright future in the NBA.

It’s not because of his rim protection.

If Joel Embiid wins Rookie of the Year, he’d demolish record for fewest games by major-award winner

AP Photo/Matt Slocum
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Patrick Ewing missed 32 games his rookie year, summing up the season by saying: ”It was disappointing in some areas. It was very hard to watch your teammates and not be able to play.”

He still won Rookie of the Year.

Nobody has ever won a major individual award — Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Most Improved Player and Sixth Man of the Year — while playing such a low percentage of his team’s games. But Ewing’s record, playing just 50 of the Knicks’ 82 games in 1985-86, could fall this year.

Joel Embiid, who played only 31 games before the 76ers ruled him out for the rest of the season, could still win Rookie of the Year.

If not Embiid, who else?

Embiid was incredibly successful while on the court, nearly singlehandedly transforming Philadelphia. He almost became just the third rookie All-Star this millennium (Blake Griffin and Yao Ming).

Meanwhile, the 2016 draft class his been dismal. No. 1 pick Ben Simmons is missing the entire season himself. No. 2 pick Brandon Ingram and No. 3 pick Jaylen Brown have increasingly flashed talent, but they’ve too often struggled adjusting to the NBA. Going further down the lottery produces similar results — at best.

Bucks guard Malcolm Brogodn, the No. 36 pick, has been the second-best rookie behind Embiid. Beyond Brogdon, the only other two rookies with more win shares than Embiid are the Heat’s Rodney McGruder (undrafted in 2013) and Knicks’ Willy Hernangomez (No. 35 pick in 2015).

Considering Embiid is done, the Spurs’ Davis Bertans (No. 42 in 2011), Thunder’s Alex Abrines (No. 32 in 2013) and Grizzlies’ Andrew Harrison (No. 44 in 2015) could soon pass Embiid, too. And we’re obviously not talking about eye-catching talent.

The Nuggets’ Juan Hernangomez (No. 15) and Raptors’ Pascal Siakam (No. 27) are highest among 2016 first-rounders in win shares — and they’re still just tied for eighth with the Mavericks’ Dorian Finney-Smith (undrafted). The highest-ranking 2016 lottery pick is Marquese Chriss, who places a meager 12th.

There’s also a strong case win shares undervalue excellent per-minute performance relative to playing time. Embiid has probably made more of a difference in his 786 minutes than Brogdon has in nearly twice as many, and that might remain true even as Brogdon continues contributing down the stretch.

All this leaves Embiid a viable choice for Rookie of the Year.

Want to reward the rookie who has reached the highest level? That’s Embiid.

Want to reward the rookie who added the most value to his team this season? That could come down to a tossup between Embiid and Brogdon (and maybe another challenger, if someone finishes strong).

Want to reward a super-talented rookie who sustained solid production over a reasonable number of games? Um… There just isn’t anyone this year, though some voters will surely talk themselves into Ingram or Brown.

It’s too early to say Embiid deserves Rookie of the Year. Brogdon and everyone else still has time to build their cases.

But I predict Embiid will win the award. Enough voters will include him on their ballots, including some who pick him first, and a lack of a clear second choice will have other competitors splitting votes.

If Embiid wins, he’d demolish Ewing’s record for games missed by a major-award winner.

Here’s every major-award winner who played fewer than 70 games adjusted to an 82-game schedule (seasons with fewer games are noted in parentheses):

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In fact, just a few players have received even a single vote for a major award while playing a lower percentage of their team’s games than Embiid:

Andrew Bogut (2012 Most Improved Player): 12 games

Bogut received single first-place vote. Even in a lockout-shorted 66-game season, the then-Bucks center barely played due to injury. How did he get an MIP vote? Accounting firm Ernst & Young screwed up a vote than should have gone to Andrew Bynum.

Michael Jordan (1995 Most Valuable Player): 17 games

Jordan came back from his baseball retirement and played 17 games in 1995. Some voters probably figured he’s still Michael freaking Jordan and picked based on his ability, not his contributions that season.

John Williams (1990 Sixth Man of the Year): 18 games

Williams came off the bench in 81 games the year prior, and then he averaged 18.2 points per game for the Washington Bullets in 1989-90. One problem: Williams started all 18 of his games in 1989-90. Still, two people voted for him.

Sean Elliott (2000 Most Improved Player): 19 games

Elliott missed most the season due to a kidney transplant. When he returned late in the year, many wanted to rally around him. One person decided an MIP vote was the appropriate way to do so.

I didn’t have Rookie of the Year voting before 1977, so there could be a few other little-playing players who received award votes. But these situations have often involved strange errors or extremely irregular circumstances.

By comparison, Embiid’s situation is pretty standard. He played extremely well then got hurt. Other rookies have mostly struggled.

The combination just sets up the possibility for history: Embiid playing only 31 games and winning a major award.

Jamal Murray starts to find his footing in NBA, just in time to help lift Nuggets

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Consistency. Defensive game plan discipline. Physicality.

That is what Denver Nuggets coach Mike Malone is preaching to his young stars coming out of the All-Star break. He and the team are making no bones about it, they want the eighth seed in the playoffs (the Nuggets currently hold that spot, with Portland and others three games back). Denver wants to get invited to the dance.

“(Getting the eighth seed) is talked about a lot, that’s our main goal right now, just stay consistent and make the playoffs,” Nuggets rookie Jamal Murray told NBCSports All-Star weekend while signing Panini trading cards. “We’re just trying to play consistent right now and it’s tough, there are a lot of good teams in the West.”

Murray is a big part of that push — Malone is giving him more and more responsibility on the court as Emmanuel Mudiay’s role fades. So far, Murray has been up to everything asked of him, which is why his name is coming up in the Rookie of the Year discussion. (With Joel Embiid playing just 31 games, Murray and the Bucks Malcolm Brogdon have emerged as the primary alternatives.)

“I enjoy playing the point, I enjoy running the team, reading the play, leading the team, I just try to make sure coach trusts me and can go to me down the stretch,” Murray said. “I do everything at the point. I like to score, but I like to get assists, I like when my team does good and plays for each other.”

It’s a lot asked of him, which is why All-Star weekend was a break in what has been a whirlwind rookie season for Murray. Although that weekend in New Orleans was a bit of a whirlwind in and of itself.

Murray was the MVP of the All-Star weekend Rising Stars Challenge on Friday night dropping 36, plus he spent the weekend connecting with fans and being at things such as a Panini trading card signing. Murray is just one of a select handful of rookies Panini is working with, and he was signing cards his new cards just about to hit the market, and helping promote the soon-to-be launched Panini Instant mobile app, which will feature mobile e-cards for fans.

“It’s a chance to connect with the fans, put on a show at the gae, and I had a lot of fun with fans all weekend,” Murray said.

Murray is at ease in these settings, comfortable with the fanfare that comes with being a rising NBA star.

The adjustment to the NBA was not that simple.

Murray — who set a record at Kentucky for most made threes in a season — started his career 0-of-17 from the floor for the Nuggets. He didn’t knock down his first field goal until Nov. 5. When asked who he leaned on through a rough start in the NBA, he points to his father, standing about 12 feet away.

“Once I made my first shot it was all fine,” Murray said. “It was a struggle to make that first one, just thinking too much, and your confidence goes down when you’re not making them and you’re expected to score…

“Everyone was just telling me shoot the ball, it will fall. They knew I was going to make shots at some point so (my teammates and coaches) weren’t mad about it or anything.”

A lot of players struggle to adjust at first to the speed and athleticism of the NBA game, and Murray has been no exception. He continues to have his ups and downs.

“Just getting used to the physicality, guys are more athletic and stronger and they’re grown men,” Murray said. “You’ve just got to adjust to it and work on your body, get used to everything.”

Murray’s dad, Roger Murray, agreed that getting his son stronger to handle the contact and the punishment that comes with driving the lane in the league needs to be at the heart of his off-season program. Roger is a father, mentor, and coach who set his son on this path long ago. For the Murrays it was always about basketball — even when Roger signed Jamal up for martial arts classes as a kid he said it was about hoops.

“I was thinking basketball. I wanted him to put everything together, the mental and the physical, I knew it would help him,” Roger said.

That path has landed Jamal in a good NBA place — Denver has a quality young core with Murray, Gary Harris, Juan Hernangomez, and the emerging star that is Nikola Jokic (who has had back-to-back triple-doubles since the All-Star break).

“He’s so unselfish, and he doesn’t just find one person, he finds everybody, and he picks his spots (to score),” Murray said of Jokic.

As a team, the young Nuggets are focused right now on making the playoffs. That will start with playing better team defense, which Murray said is really about them staying focused on the game plan and knowing their opponents better — which guys do you go under the pick on, which guys get iced off the pick-and-roll, just a lot of decisions that require the kind of focus young players often struggle to do consistently.

Beyond that, Murray has dreams of playing in the Tokyo Olympics for Canada.

“That’s one of my big goals, to play in the Olympics and make some noise there as well, but whatever opportunity is given me I will take,” Murray said.

But for now the focus for Murray is on the court — it’s always about basketball.