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Nuggets struck gold by drafting Nikola Jokic in second round. Now what?

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DETROIT – Asked whether he’s becoming a leader on the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic shook his head then turned to Gary Harris in the adjoining locker.

“Do you think I’m a leader?” Jokic asked.

“Who?” Harris responded.

“Me,” Jokic said.

“No,” Harris said.

“See,” Jokic said, turning back to me. “That’s what I’m talking about.”

It’s not entirely clear whether Jokic is serious or showing the self-deprecating humor of someone nicknamed The Joker.

Denver is trying to be patient with Jokic – a 22-year-old former second-round pick – but his production and contract status demand his ascent be expedited.

Jokic has arguably been the Nuggets’ best player every season of his three-year career. He definitely is now.

And that has caused Denver to adjust its plan on the fly – all for a player drafted No. 41 in 2014 and who entered the NBA in 2015.

Jusuf Nurkic was coming off a promising All-Rookie second-team season when the Nuggets signed Jokic. It was quickly clear there’d be complications with the two centers coexisting, but Nurkic’s injuries and second-year slump delayed adjudication. Finally, the Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Trail Blazers. Once Jokic became a starter in mid-December, Denver led the NBA in points per possession the rest of last season.

“His rapid development last year kind of changed how we view our organizational development,” Nuggets president Tim Connelly said. “His unique skill set is something we think we can build around.”

Jokic is a generationally good passer for a center, and he works in so many offensive sets. He posts up, screens on pick-and-rolls, spots up and cuts. He finishes well at the rim, and his range extends through the mid-range to beyond the arc, though he’s not quite a knockdown 3-point shooter. He’s a good rebounder on both ends of the floor.

But he’s not much a rim protector. His slow foot speed, especially laterally, hampers him in space defensively.

Power forwards who complement Jokic on both sides of the court are rare, but Denver found one in Paul Millsap, who can space the floor and cut strongly offensively and safeguard the interior and switch on the perimeter defensively. The Nuggets signed the 32-year-old to a contract worth $61 million over the first two years and with a $30.5 million team option for the third season – a clear win-now response to Jokic’s readiness to win.

On the other hand, Jokic’s youth presents a long window for success. Before the season, Denver also waived Jameer Nelson, a veteran point guard whom Nuggets coach Michael Malone often leaned on as a crutch when younger options were undependable. That forced Denver to rely on 20-year-old Jamal Murray and 21-year-old Emmanuel Mudiay at point guard. Murray has grown in his starting role and looks like a foundational piece with Jokic. Mudiay couldn’t hack it in the rotation and was replaced by Will Barton, who also plays wing. After all, the Nuggets (24-23, eighth in the Western Conference) are trying to win this season.

It’s a tough balancing act, and the next big question comes with Jokic’s team option next summer.

Jokic is due the minimum salary ($1,600,520) in 2018-19, and that’s obviously a huge bargain. But if Denver exercises the option, he’d become an unrestricted free agent in 2019. By declining Jokic’s option, the Nuggets could make him a restricted free agent this year.

As a restricted free agent, Jokic could probably draw a max offer sheet – which projects to be worth about $109 million over four years (about $27 million annually) – that Denver would surely match. In a direct offer, the Nuggets’ max projects to be about $146 million over five years (about $29 million annually).

Jokic is worth the investment at either price. There’s value in securing him for an extra season during his prime.

But the Nuggets hold leverage. They could condition declining his option on him pledging to accept a sub-max, but still large, contract. After all, that’d still be his quickest ticket to a life-altering payday. That route would require trust, but – Carlos Boozer and the Cavaliers potentially excepted – everyone usually follows through on those informal agreements.

Of course, if Denver offers too little, Jokic could wait until 2019 free agency. There’s even a case for delaying a new contract even with a max offer this summer. If he makes an All-NBA team in 2018-19, he’d be eligible for a super-max contract the following summer. That projects to be worth about $188 million over five years (about $38 million annually) – enough to offset a smaller salary, either the team-option amount or qualifying offer, next season.

To make this even more complex, the possibility of a super-max offer in 2019 could lead the Nuggets to exercise Jokic’s option. They could leverage his low salary next season then have potentially an even larger leg up financially over other suitors in 2019.

Keeping Jokic’s salary low next season is particular important, because Denver already has $110,169,322 committed to 12 players (Millsap, Gary Harris, Kenneth Faried, Mason Plumlee, Wilson Chandler, Darrell Arthur, Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray, Trey Lyles, Juan Hernangomez, Malik Beasley and Tyler Lydon). Maxing out Jokic could push the Nuggets so far into the luxury tax that trading either Faried or Plumlee alone wouldn’t be enough to avoid paying it. Chandler ($12,800,562) and/or Arthur ($7,464,912) opting out would provide relief, but moving Plumlee (due $12,917,808 and $14,041,096 the next two seasons) and/or Faried (due $13,764,045 next season) won’t be easy.

In simple terms, Denver has two choices:

  • Keep Jokic’s salary absurdly low next season, but risk he walks in 2019 unrestricted free agency
  • Pay Jokic big money beginning next season, but lose flexibility to spend on his supporting cast

Declining Jokic’s option then leveraging restricted free agency to re-sign him long-term is the safest path.

“I can say with complete certainty that Nikola is going to be here for a long, long time,” Connelly said. “We love him. I think he loves us.”

Whenever Jokic gets his massive raise, it’ll be overdue based on his production. He’s averaging 16.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. Denver plays like a 55-win team with him on the floor and a 27-win team without him, based on points scored and allowed.

He theoretically could have signed a shorter contract initially, proven himself then hit free agency sooner. But he expected to acclimate slowly from the Adriatic League to the NBA, and he appreciated the long-term security a four-year deal afforded.

There’s less slow-playing now, though.

The Nuggets are throwing more on his plate, and that starts defensively.

“Last year, I don’t think he played much defense at all,” Malone said.

Jokic’s athletic limitations will probably prevent him from ever being an elite defender. But his size and basketball intelligence give him a chance to hold his own as a positional defender – if he puts in the effort. Jokic has dedicated himself more this season, and as a result, Denver’s defense has gone from awful to middling.

The Nuggets also want Jokic to become a more aggressive scorer. He’s such a willing passer, and he’s always looking to make what the right play would be if all players were equal. But they’re not. Denver is 10-4 when Jokic attempts at least 15 shots and 14-19 otherwise.

“He takes greater satisfaction out of making his teammates better than he does scoring himself,” Malone said. “…He needs to be a guy that’s looking to score, regardless if he’s double-teamed or not.”

These are good problems to have. Teammates love the player who’s too unselfish, and so do executives.

“As a person, he embodies everything that we’re trying to be organizationally in terms of work ethic and team-first mentality,” Connelly said.

Those are great traits for a young second-round pick as he develops. But the best player on a team is inevitably turned to for leadership.

So, back to the original question: Is Jokic ready to lead?

“He has some natural leadership ability in terms of, he’s a connector,” Connelly said. “Everyone in the locker room really likes him on and off the court. But we also don’t want to force something prematurely. He’s still a kid.

“We don’t want to put too much weight on his shoulders.

“We’re going to let him grow up on his own timeline.”

There’s no blueprint here. If named an All-Star this year, Jokic – who turns 23 the day after the game – would be the youngest-ever All-Star drafted below No. 30. Heck, even if he doesn’t become an All-Star until next year, he’d still be the youngest All-Star picked below No. 30 in what anyone would consider the modern-draft era.

There’s plenty of time to wait for Jokic to come fully into his own.

But it also might already be Jokic’s time already.

NBA Power Rankings: Warriors locked on top, Timberwolves slowly climbing

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There’s a lot of stability at the top of the power rankings, with the Warriors and Celtics still in the top two slots. Minnesota keeps on winning, they are defending better, and they climb up to No. 4 — but will the heavy minutes load for the starters catch up to them?

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (33-8 Last Week No. 1). In the five games since his return from a sprained ankle, Stephen Curry has averaged 35.2 points per game, hit 53.2% of the 12 threes he has a game, and averaged a +13 — and with him back the Warriors have averaged 121.7 points per 100 possessions as a team (7 per 100 better than second-place in that span). Remember, Kevin Durant missed a couple of those games. That’s all just a reminder how crucial Curry is to the Warriors success.

 
Celtics small icon 2. Celtics (33-10, LW 2). Boston swept a five-game homestand that included beating the Rockets, Cavaliers, and Timberwolves — all because their defense is locking teams up. In their past six games, the Celtics have allowed just 91.7 points per 100 possessions. Only one game for the Celtics this week as they are in London (Thursday against the Sixers).

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (28-11, LW 3). This season, DeMar DeRozan is assisting on 23% of his teammates’ buckets when he is on the floor, a career high for him by a healthy margin. Combine that with his improved shooting profile — his midrange attempts are down, replaced with threes he confidently knocks down — and you have a guy playing the best ball of his career and leading his team to a five-game win streak (which ended vs. Miami Tuesday). The Raptors don’t get on national television enough (their Canadian audience doesn’t count in US television ratings) but they get a showcase against the Cavaliers Thursday on TNT.

 
4. Timberwolves (26-16, LW 5). Over the past 10 games, Minnesota has been the best team in the NBA statistically, outscoring its opponents by 11 points per 100 possessions — and most importantly their bad defense had been fifth best in the league during that stretch. Karl-Anthony Towns’ defense has improved, but Jimmy Butler is key for the Timberwolves on that end. I’d say they turned the corner, but then I see the minutes for their starters and worry things could fall apart.

 
Rockets small icon 5. Rockets (28-11, LW 4). With James Harden out for a few more weeks, it’s the Chris Paul show in Houston — when he is on the floor the Rockets are still dominating teams, when he sits the team’s defense falls apart (allowing more than 130 points per 100 possessions) and that gets them in trouble. Houston misses Luc Mbah a Moute a lot on defense, but need to find a way to get more consistent stops during the next few weeks until Harden returns.

 
Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (28-14, LW 6). Kawhi Leonard is out again after tweaking his shoulder, but this isn’t expected to keep the forward out for long. That’s good news for the Spurs — their defense is elite with him on the court this season (allowing less than a point per possession). The Spurs have gone 2-3 in a recent strung of road games that heads to Los Angeles (Lakers) on Thursday, then after a game at home against Denver Saturday the Spurs are back on the road for three more.

 
Wizards small icon 7. Wizards (23-17, LW 9). We always talk about John Wall or Bradley Beal, but the guy who doesn’t get enough credit on this team: Otto Porter. He is averaging 14.2 points and 6.5 rebounds a game, both career highs, and is shooting 44.8% from three. ESPN’s Real plus/minus is may not be a perfect stat, but the fact Porter is sixth in the NBA in it this season speaks to his importance as the glue guy in Washington that makes it work. The Wizards seem to have gotten the memo and showed up to play against the last few below .500 teams that they played.

 
Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (22-19 LW 8).. Andre Roberson is missed — if you wondered who the fifth player with the Thunder’s big four would be wonder no longer. In the five games Roberson has been out with a sore knee the OKC defense, once second in the league, has been 24th in the NBA allowing 111.5 points per 100. Consider this a boost for Roberson’s Defensive Player of the Year candidacy. Rookie Terrence Robinson got a few starts and looked like the future (he couldn’t miss in the second half against the Lakers and had 24), but it’s not the same. A fun matchup with the Timberwolves Wednesday, could well be a first-round playoff preview.

 
Cavaliers small icon 9. Cavaliers (26-14 LW 7). Call it an expected mid-season malaise if you want, the Cavaliers continue to look vulnerable to the other top teams in the East. They have lost 5-of-6 on the road recently, giving up 127 points in their last two games (including to Orlando), and now face the Raptors and Pacers in real tests. Then the Warriors next Monday. Kyle Korver has moved into fourth on the all-time three-pointers made list (he moved past Paul Pierce on Monday night).

 
Nuggets small icon 10. Nuggets (21-19, LW 10). Just a reminder: This team is without Paul Millsap, and have gone 12-12 with the star forward (injured wrist). The trade deadline question for Denver: what should it do with Kenneth Faried? Trade him? Play him? The energy bring that doesn’t bring what he once did has racked up 8 DNP-CDs in the last 10 games. Can’t blame coach Mike Malone for that, the Nuggets are 8.9 points per 100 possessions better when the Manimal is sitting this season. Faried isn’t going to bring much of anything on his own, if traded he’s in a package (with Emmanuel Mudiay?).

Bucks small icon 11. Bucks (21-18 LW 12). Toronto is a team that has adapted its game and is now moving the ball, swinging it from strong to weak, and in two recent games they exposed that the Bucks defense can still be ripped apart by teams that do that. The Raptors scored 131 (in OT) and 129 on Milwaukee in those games. The Bucks defense is 23rd in the NBA on the season (25th if you take out garbage time, 21st in the last 10 games) and it’s the end of the floor that will cost them in the playoffs if things don’t change.

 
Heat small icon 12. Heat (23-17, LW 13). Miami has won five straight – all by single digits. Still, a win is a win and as of right now the Heat are tied with the Wizards for the four seed in the East (meaning the first round of the playoffs would be at home). Is Miami poised for a run like the second half of last season? Don’t bet on it. Miami has the point differential of an 18-22 team (according to Cleaning the Glass), they have been the luckiest team in terms of wins in the NBA this season by those numbers.

 
Blazers small icon 13. Trail Blazers (22-18, LW 15). What would help a Portland offense that hasn’t been itself this season? How about some easy buckets in transition — Portland is 29th in the league in percentage of offensive plays that start in transition (11.3%, via Cleaning the Glass). Despite that the Blazers have won of 6 of their last 8, including going into Oklahoma City and getting a win Tuesday at the start of a rough four-game road trip (which includes Houston and Minnesota).

 
Sixers small icon 14. 76ers (19-19, LW 18). Winners of four in a row as they head to London to take on the Celtics. One reason for the win streak is they’ve slowed down the turnovers — on the season the Sixers have coughed the ball up on 17.2% of their possessions, but in the last five games that has dropped to 14.5 percent. Ben Simmons had a solid game against the Spurs, he needs more of those as Donovan Mitchell is closing in on him for Rookie of the Year.

 
Pelicans small icon 15. Pelicans (20-19, LW 14). When they needed a win to help solidify their playoff position, they went in and got it last Wednesday in Utah (thanks to one of their best defensive performances of the season). The Pelicans are the eighth seed in the West, 2.5 games up on the stumbling Clippers, and New Orleans has a soft schedule the next couple of weeks where it can create some cushion in the standings.

Pistons small icon 16. Pistons (21-18, LW 11). The win over the Rockets last week was one of the more inexplicable outcomes of the season — Detroit was without Andre Drummond and on the second night of a back-to-back, yet upset an elite team (the Piston’s only win in their last four). Drummond missed two games last week with a rib injury, he hadn’t missed two games all season in the past five years.

 
Pacers small icon 17. Pacers (21-19, LW 17). Victor Oladipo has been back for two games, and the Pacers are on a two-game winning streak. This is not a coincidence. On the season the Pacers are 13 points per 100 possessions better when Oladipo is on the floor, and in those two wins he was +38 combined (and also scored 38 points). Indiana faces the streaking Heat, Cleveland, then 6-of-7 on the road.

 
Clippers small icon 18. Clippers (18-21 LW 16). Los Angeles keeps lurking around the playoff picture at the bottom of the West and if they can just get healthy… but that’s not going well (Austin Rivers sprained his ankle, Blake Griffin got a concussion, and Millos Teodosic had to miss a few games). The Clippers are also tied for the second easiest schedule in the NBA so far this season (based on opponent records) and things are about to get tougher, starting with Golden State this week.

 
Knicks small icon 19. Knicks (19-21, LW 20). What does Kristaps Porzingis being “so tired” mean? In November, he shot 46.1% overall, so far in January that is down to 33.8%. In November he shot 42.4% on threes, in December that was down to 32.1%. The Knicks are just two games out of the last playoff slot in the East, but they need a lot more Porzingis — and to get Tim Hardaway Jr. back — to make a push.

 
Hornets small icon 20. Hornets (15-23, LW 24). Is Charlotte going to be a seller at the trade deadline? The next few weeks may have a say in that as the Hornets are 5 games out of the last playoffs but have 8-of-9 at home, this is their last chance to make a serious push. Kemba Walker continues to be fantastic but the Hornets need some secondary playmaking form somewhere, and it’s not Nicolas Batum’s nature.

 
Nets small icon 21. Nets (15-253, LW 25). Brooklyn loves to launch threes — they are third in the league in percentage of their shots from three (35.9%, excluding garbage time). The problem is they are hitting 35.8% of them, 28th in the league. The scrappy Nets are also playing their best defense of the season, which is why they were able to push the Celtics twice in recent games.

 
Bulls small icon 22. Bulls (14-27 LW 19).. The emergence of Lauri Markkanen — averaging 17.2 points per game and shooting 50% from three in his last five, continuing the trend of growth we have seen from him all season — makes Nikola Mitotic the guy most likely to be traded at the deadline. Utah and Detroit are the frontrunners, other teams may have interest (watch Portland), but will any give the Bulls the first round pick they want? (The bidding may come down to the protections on the pick.)

 
Jazz small icon 23. Jazz (16-24, LW 21). When Rudy Gobert went down the second time this season with a knee injury, the concern was Utah was heading into a brutal stretch of the schedule. That seems to have done their playoff dreams in — the Jazz are 2-9 during Gobert’s second injury, with their offense and defense in the bottom five in the league. On the bright side, Donovan Mitchell continues to tear it up and is knocking on Ben Simmons’ door in the Rookie of the Year race.

 
Suns small icon 24. Suns (16-26, LW 22). While the Suns are seeing growth — rookie Josh Jackson is looking more comfortable with his shot of late, for example — it’s not likely going to translate into wins as the Suns have the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA. There’s a push in Phoenix to get Devin Booker on the All-Star team, but his biggest obstacle is the conference is LOADED with good guards and it’s tough to crack that group.

 
Mavericks small icon 25. Mavericks (14-28 LW 23). Dallas has become a scrappy team — they pushed the Warriors to the end (and lost on a Curry three) and have been close late in most of their last 10 games. Their most dangerous lineup of late has been Dirk Nowitzki and the bench guys, which is +25.6 points per 100 possessions on the season.

 
Grizzlies small icon 26. Grizzlies (12-27, LW 26). It sounds like Memphis has no interest in moving Marc Gasol at the trade deadline, but what about Tyreke Evans? He is averaging 19.7 points per game and would be in the mix for Sixth Man of the Year if he were coming off the bench more (he’s started half the team’s games so far). In a depressed trading market the Grizzlies would not get a lot back, but maybe a young player or second-round pick who could be part of the future with the Grizzlies.

 
Lakers small icon 27. Lakers (13-27 LW 29). While Lonzo Ball has returned, that didn’t solve the team’s biggest issue o— a severe lack of effort. Especially on defense. What did solve it was playing worse teams (Sacramento and Atlanta, which is who Los Angeles beat on a two-game win streak. The Lakers need more of this play and less of the recent distractions from Lithuania. “We aren’t going to start feeling sorry for ourselves,” Walton said after the loss to the Thunder.

 
Kings small icon 28. Kings (13-27, LW 27). The biggest question for the Kings’ front office during the season should be: How are our young players developing? That’s been up and down, but on the bright side point guard De’Aaron Fox seems to be finding his shot — he shot 37.6% in December and 45.8% so far in January. Also this month his three-point shooting is up to 41.7%. Fox led the Kings’ 25-and-under starting lineup to a win over the Nuggets last Saturday, which is one of those positive signs.

 
Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (10-30, LW 28). Atlanta is reportedly putting Marco Belinelli, Ersan Ilyasova, and Kent Bazemore on the trade block coming up on the Fib. 8 trade deadline, and while there may be some interest, in a depressed trade market don’t expect much of a return despite the quality of players. The Hawks are 0-4 so far on a recent road swing (with Denver still to come on Wednesday), which for the season makes them 3-18 away from home.

 
Magic small icon 30. Magic (12-29, LW 30). Look for Orlando to try and be sellers at the trade deadline as they try to assemble a roster that fits together better. Detroit had interest in Evan Fournier — despite the fact he is owed $17 million a season for three beyond this one — which speaks to the need and value of shooting around the league. The Magic have lost 14-of-15 and have 6-of-8 coming up on the road.

NBA Power Rankings: Rockets move into top spot, Cavaliers into top 5

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Changes at the top this week, with Boston and Golden State each picking up a couple losses in the last seven days it was Houston that moves into the top spot. Meanwhile, Cleveland has moved up fast during its win streak and is now fourth and joining the league elites.

 
Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (16-4, Last Week No. 3). Chris Paul has been thriving since his return — he has at least 10 assists and two steals in five of the six games he played in Houston this season, and on the season has 65 assists to only 7 turnovers. The Rockets have won all five games since his return, having the best offense in the NBA and the second best defense in that stretch. They’ve also done this against a relatively soft schedule, but some better tests (Pacers, Blazers) are coming.

 
Celtics small icon 2. Celtics (18-4, LW 1). The win streak ended at 16 when a comeback against Miami fell short, then they dropped the first of a five-game homestand when they had no answer for Andre Drummond or Tobias Harris. The Celtics are 6-3 in games where they trailed by 10 points or more — impressive, but it’s not the way they want to live. Better bench play would keep things closer.

 
Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (15-6 LW 2). Kevin Durant has missed 4-of-5 games with a sprained ankle, and the Warriors offense suffered because of it. However, it didn’t really bite them until Stephen Curry had to sit out too and they fell to Sacramento. Both are questionable Wednesday against the Lakers, a game that starts a six-game road trip which includes the Heat, Pelicans, and Pistons.

 
Cavaliers small icon 4. Cavaliers (14-7 LW 9). Derrick Rose is away from the team contemplating his future, but the Cavaliers have won eight straight without him — the defense is a disaster when Rose has been on the court and overall the Cavaliers are 16.7 points per 100 better when he sits. LeBron continues to carry the offense, especially in the clutch. In the last five minutes of games within five points this season, LeBron has 60 points (second to Kyrie Irving), is shooting 62.2 percent overall, and is a +26.

 
Spurs small icon 5. Spurs (13-7, LW 4). Tony Parker is back, playing 14 minutes in his return and looking understandably a bit rusty, but he brings them even more depth. The better news is he said Kawhi Leonard could return in 2-3 weeks (a timeline Gregg Popovich shot down, but it sounds like Leonard is getting close to a comeback). After a rough start to the season without Leonard, the Spurs defense is back to it’s usual dominating self, allowing 100.3 points per 100 possessions in the last 10 games (third best in the NBA) and climbing up to 5th overall in the league.

 
Raptors small icon 6. Raptors (12-7, LW 5). They went 1-2 on a quick three-game road trip (crushing Atlanta for their one win). What has kept them afloat all season is fantastic bench play (a +12.1 per 100 net rating, best in the NBA) and the latest addition to that is Fred VanVleet, who is giving they quality guard minutes and allowing Dwane Casey to keep his regular rotations.

 
Pistons small icon 7. Pistons (13-6, LW 7). The win in Boston Monday night is as much of a statement win as a team can have in November (which is to say, not much of a statement but a good confidence booster). Andre Drummond was a force of nature, Tobias Harris had 31 points, and Avery Bradley hounded Kyrie Irving into a 6-of-16 shooting night. It’s very early, but that is a blueprint for how the Pistons could be a difficult playoff out.

 
Sixers small icon 8. 76ers (11-8, LW 13). Philly is 3-2 in the midst of a long homestand, but the two losses were to the Warriors and Cavaliers so they’re understandable. It’s time to trade Jahlil Okafor for the best offer, those options are not going to get better than the protected second round picks on the table now. It’s a blow to the ego to trade a No. 3 pick for that little, but it has to be done, it’s best for him and the team. #FreeJah

 
Blazers small icon 9. Trail Blazers (13-8, LW 10). When their big three of Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic are on the court together, the Trail Blazers outscore opens by a healthy 5.6 points per 100 possessions, with their offense clicking along with a 108 net rating (would be sixth in the NBA). Portland went an impressive 4-1 on a five-game road trip, knocking off the Wizards and Knicks among others. Now they are home for four games, then will spend much of the rest of December on the road.

 
Pacers small icon 10. Pacers (12-9, LW 14). Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis have had a fantastic chemistry this season, they read each other’s planned cuts and moves well, and are outscoring opponents by 12.9 points per 100 possessions when on the court together. But Sabonis and the just returned Myles Turner are not finding that same groove and are -6 per 100 (in a limited 66 minutes). Tough week ahead with Houston, Toronto, and New York.

 
Wizards small icon 11. Wizards (11-9, LW 6). John Wall is out for a couple of weeks with a knee injury, and the Wizards are 10.6 points per 100 possessions with him off the court. The Wizards are 1-1 without Wall, with the win courtesy a strong game from Otto Porter vs. Minnesota, and the Wizards will need more of that as they have 6-of-7 games on the road coming up.

 
12. Timberwolves (12-9, LW 8). Minnesota’s defense continues to be what holds the team back (the offense is sixth in the league in the last 10 games), and the main reasons is Minnesota is one of the worst transition defense teams in the league. They allow 17.6% of opponent possessions in transition (only the Clippers are worse) and teams score 127.4 points per 100 possessions on those, 25th in the league (Stats via Cleaning The Glass). Minnesota needs to take away easy buckets from the opposition.

 
Nuggets small icon 13. Nuggets (11-9, LW 11). Paul Millsap is going to be out for three months following wrist surgery, and that has moved Kenneth Faried into the starting lineup with Trey Lyles getting run behind him. Since Millsap went down the Nuggets are 2-2, but that’s a bit lucky as they are bottom 10 in the league in both offense and defense in those four. Starting Monday Denver has 7-of-8 on the road and needs to find wins in there to stay in a strong spot in the playoff race in the West.

 
Pelicans small icon 14. Pelicans (11-9, LW 15). New Orleans has won 3-of-4 as they move through a difficult part of the schedule, with the kind of games they need to win if they want to be a playoff team in the West (Minnesota, Utah, Portland, and Golden State are up this week). The Pelican defense, led by Anthony Davis, has looked better. With the Pelicans staying healthy (*knock on wood*) while teams around them in the West struggle, now is the time they can win some games and build a little cushion in that playoff race.

 
Bucks small icon 15. Bucks (10-9 LW 16). The Bucks are 6-3 since Eric Bledsoe came to town, and most impressively the team’s defensive rating since his arrival is 101.7 (seventh in the NBA in that stretch). But the defense hasn’t been consistent, there were losses to Utah and Dallas where they didn’t defend the arc well. Milwaukee is 2-1 midway through a stretch of 5-of-6 on the road.

 
Heat small icon 16. Heat (10-10, LW 17). They ended the Celtics 16-game win streak, but maybe more impressive was scoring just 7 points against Chicago in the first quarter and coming back to win that game last Sunday. Goran Dragic has led the offense of late, averaging 19.5 points and 4.3 assists per game, while hitting more than half his threes in their last four games.

 
Knicks small icon 17. Knicks (10-10, LW 12). The Knicks are 9-4 at home and 1-6 on the road, it is something they need to figure out in the next month because after Christmas they have 17-of-21 on the road after a home-heavy schedule to start the season. Joakim Noah was activated and played three minutes in one game, but the Knicks still have a glut of big men, which means they could look to be sellers at the trade deadline.

 
Thunder small icon 18. Thunder (8-11 LW 19).. The win over the Warriors was the best Russell Westbrook has looked all season, both taking charge of the offense and setting up teammates. Then after that win, the Thunder drop games to the Pistons and Mavericks (that’s losses in 4-of-5) and Westbrook hasn’t been as good in those games as the Thunder need him to be. Westbrook is too good not to figure it out, but he’s part of the problem early with the Thunder this season.

 
Jazz small icon 19. Jazz (10-11, LW 23). The Jazz have won three straight and are a surprisingly good 5-4 since Rudy Gobert’s injury. Utah has done it with an impressive offense, scoring 111.7 points per 100 possessions (that level is not sustainable), sparked in part by rookie Donovan Mitchell, who dropped 24 on the Bucks recently. Utah’s defense without Gobert hasn’t been as good, but it’s been middle of the pack, which is better than expected. Utah is the current eight seed in the West and is keeping itself in the playoff hunt without its star.

 
Hornets small icon 20. Hornets (8-11, LW 17). The Hornets seemed to be putting it together and won three in a row, with Dwight Howard playing like his old self (or as close to it as we can expect anymore), but then hit a tough part of the schedule and fell to the Cavaliers and Spurs. Bad news it doesn’t get any easier this week: At Toronto, At Miami, then after Orlando it’s the Warriors that come to town.

 
Clippers small icon 21. Clippers (8-11 LW 27). The Clippers had righted the ship against the dregs of the league (wins against the Kings, Lakers, and Hawks) but then came the news that Blake Griffin is going to be out a couple of months with a sprained MCL. The Clippers offense has been 8.6 points per 100 possessions worse when he sits and with him and Danilo Gallinari out, it’s hard to see where quality playmaking — or wins — are going to come from. The Clippers will struggle to stay in the playoff mix the next couple of months, and that could lead to bigger roster changes come the trade deadline.

 
Lakers small icon 22. Lakers (8-12 LW 22). The Lakers continue to have a top-10 NBA defense (seventh in the league right now), but that has slipped the last couple of weeks — the Lakers are giving up 5.2 points more per 100 possessions in their last six games (bottom 10 in the league). That defense is about to be put to the test in a brutal stretch of the schedule — 7-of-10 games on the road and only one team in those 10 is under .500.

 
Suns small icon 23. Suns (8-14, LW 24). Jay Triano is experimenting with who will start at the four. Marquese Chriss has been sent to the bench and Greg Monroe got the first shot, but him next to Chandler Parsons was a spacing disaster. Dragan Bender got the start vs. Chicago and that lineup was -5 in just more than 10 minutes of play (but the Suns got the win because Devin Booker went off for 33, plus the Bulls). With that win the Bulls have started 1-1 on a six-game road trip but the next four are brutal: Detroit, Boston, Philadelphia, and Toronto.

 
Nets small icon 24. Nets (7-13, LW 25). The Nets have won just one game in their last five, and when they beat the Grizzlies it helped lead to coach David Fizdale getting fired. Brooklyn has been a scrappy team this season and in their last five games have averaged 107.3 points per 100 on offense (ninth best in the NBA in that stretch). It’s especially impressive with both Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell out injured.

 
Magic small icon 25. Magic (8-13, LW 20). Losers of nine in a row (and it’s not likely to get easier with the next three games being the Thunder, Warriors, and at the Knicks). The offense hasn’t been good but the issue during the streak is the team’s defense — they have surrendered 116.4 points per 100, worst in the NBA in that stretch. Teams are killing the Magic both from three and on the offensive glass, plus Orlando does not force turnovers or get easy buckets. Notice all those upcoming games mentioned in the first graph are against good offensive teams.

 
Grizzlies small icon 26. Grizzlies (7-12, LW 21). Coach David Fizdale was fired, and any bounce they get from J.B. Bickerstaff at the helm will be short lived — one can only win so much without the talent to do so. This team was built around the idea that Mike Conley and Marc Gasol could be All-Star level players, and they have enough good role players around them to make it work. Conley is out with an Achilles issue, and with other injuries Gasol has struggled to carry the weight of the offense. Management said they made the change because they expect to make the playoffs, not even most Grizzlies fans thought that would happen if one of their stars missed significant time.

 
Mavericks small icon 27. Mavericks (5-16 LW 28). Dallas has won three of its last five and the reason is defense — they are giving up less than a point per possession in that stretch. On the other end, Dirk Nowitzki is back — he is a team-best +55 in the last five games, averaging 12.8 points per games, shooting 45 percent from three, plus grabbing 7.2 boards a game.

 
Kings small icon 28. Kings (6-15, LW 29). It’s strange to say this about a six-win team, but according to Cleaning the Glass they are also the luckiest team in the NBA with 2.8 more wins than their net rating would suggest (meaning they should be 3-18). They are 29th in offense and 30th in the league in defense this season. On the bright side, D’Aaron Fox has shown flashes (he, like most rookies, just needs to work on his jumper).

 
Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (4-16, LW 26). I like the fact that John Collins has gotten to start the last three games (Luke Babbit is injured), even if that means the Hawks defense suffers. At this point, play and develop the rookie. After Cleveland Thursday there are two home-and-homes where the Hawks could pick up a win or two, with Brooklyn and with slumping Orlando.

 
Bulls small icon 30. Bulls (3-16 LW 30). They have lost six in a row, Lauri Markkanen seems to have run into the rookie wall early, and Jerian Grant and Kris Dunn have been consistently inconsistent. Just to rub salt in all of this, Jordan Bell trolled the Bulls for trading him (well, his pick) for cash considerations, and now he is playing regular rotation minutes for the Warriors. It’s been a rough week in Chicago, but at least they got the 2020 All-Star Game.

NBA Power Rankings: Celtics, Warriors, Rockets solidify as top three

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The top three teams in the Association have separated themselves — Boston, Golden State, and Houston, and they remain atop these rankings (and may well for a while). However, after that, there is more East than West at the top, not something we expected to see before the season.

 
Celtics small icon 1. Celtics (16-2, Last Week No. 1). Welcome to the season of Al Horford appreciation. He’s a four-time All-Star who once made an All-NBA team (2011), but he still might be the most underappreciated star in the league. At least until this season. He’s not flashy, but he does everything well — there are no serious holes in his game. That is showing this season as he anchors the Celtics’ league-best defense plus gives them almost 15 points and 9 boards a night. He is at the heart of the reason the Celtics have won 16 in a row and beat the Warriors.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (13-4 LW 2). This season the Warriors are taking 31.4 percent of their shots at the rim, once you exclude garbage time (as is done by Ben Falk at Cleaning The Glass). Last season that was 36 percent. Last season the team free throw rate was 20.6 (FTA per 100), this season that is down to 19.6. The Warriors still have the best offense in the NBA, but to Charles Barkely’s dismay (if he paid attention to stats) they are even more of a jump shooting team.

 
Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (13-4, Last Week No. 3). Chris Paul has only been back two games, but he’s averaged 14 points and 8 assists, while shooting 6-of-11 from three in the two wins (against the Suns and injured Grizzlies). Houston is entering a soft part of the schedule, including having 11-of-14 at home, look for CP3 (and James Harden) to put up impressive numbers for a few weeks.

 
Spurs small icon 4. Spurs (11-6, LW 5). The 23-point comeback win against the Thunder shows the grit and resilience of a team still without Kyrie Irving (and who knows when he returns). Their five-man starting lineup — LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Kyle Anderson, Danny Green, and Patty Mills — outscores teams by 6.7 points per 100 minutes and is key to their success.

 
Raptors small icon 5. Raptors (11-5, LW 7). The Raptors have been flying under the radar to start the season, but their net rating is better than the Wizards’ team everyone thought could be the team that challenges Cleveland/Boston at the end of the season. Toronto has adapted well to its new move-the-ball offense (most of the time), and is scoring at a more efficient clip than a season ago already.

 
Wizards small icon 6. Wizards (10-7, LW 8). The Wizards lost to the Raptors but beat the Bucks in the first two games of one of the toughest stretches of the schedule this season — 8-of-10 on the road, much of it against good teams (over .500). Remove garbage time from the stats and the Wizards are top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating (8th in both), often a sign of a potential contender (Warriors, Rockets the only other teams to do that so far).

Pistons small icon 7. Pistons (11-6, LW 4). They have lost three-of-four and were absolutely demolished at home by LeBron James and the Cavaliers this week. In the one win in the last week, they had to come from 11 down against the Timberwolves. Detroit’s starting five — Reggie Jackson, Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Stanley Johnson, and Andre Drummond — is getting outscored by 12.3 points per 100 possessions, Stan Van Gundy can’t stick with it much longer.

 
8. Timberwolves (10-7, LW 6). Quietly, the Timberwolves have finally started to play good defense — in their last five games they have allowed 101.6 points per 100, ninth best in the NBA for that stretch (they were 28th in the league overall a couple weeks back). Still, they have lost two in a row to beatable teams (Charlotte and Detroit) heading into a four-game homestand.

 
Cavaliers small icon 9. Cavaliers (10-7 LW 18). Winners of five in a row, and what matters most is in those five games their defense is 8.6 points per 100 better than their season average (and eighth in the league). LeBron James is putting up MVP numbers this season, 28.3 points, 8.5 assists, and 7.4 rebounds a game. All in his 15th season, about to turn 33 years old. Insane. Derrick Rose is out for more than a week still with his sprained ankle, and now Iman Shumpert is out with water on the knee, putting even more on LeBron’s plate.

 
Blazers small icon 10. Trail Blazers (10-7, LW 14). Portland fans and players feel they should have done better, but their record to start the season isn’t bad (it’s about where I pictured them), especially in a West where a lot of potential playoff teams are stumbling and/or battling injury. However, the Blazers have had a heavy home schedule so far and Monday’s win in Memphis was the first of five straight games on the road as they will be racking up the frequent flyer miles through the end of the year.

 
Nuggets small icon 11. Nuggets (10-7, LW 10). Paul Millsap is out for a few months (surgery to repair a ligament in his wrist) and he has been key to Denver’s improved defense. As a team they are 4.5 points per 100 possessions better when he plays, both Trey Lyles and Kenneth Faried need to help make that up. The Nuggets are 2-2 to start their stretch of 11-of-15 on the road, they have started to play better but the Millsap injury is a setback.

 
Knicks small icon 12. Knicks (9-7, LW 11). In his last five games, Kristaps Porzingis is shooting just 38.3 percent (although he still is hitting 44 percent of the five threes a game he puts up. It’s just a little efficiency slump. Joakim Noah is eligible to return from his PED suspension, but has yet to suit up for the Knicks as Jeff Hornacek rightfully likes his big man rotation right now (just a reminder Noah is making $17.8 million this season and has two-years, $37.8 million left on the deal after this season… thanks again Phil).

 
Sixers small icon 13. 76ers (9-7, LW 12). When Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are on the court together the Sixers outscore opponents by 12.6 points per 100 possessions, and defensively the team allows less than a point scored per possession. Enmbiid by himself is a force, with the Sixers 19.2 points per 100 better than when he sits. Brett Brown must think Embiid is all the way back because he’s played him more than 30 minutes a game regularly recently. Also, #FreeJah

 
Pacers small icon 14. Pacers (10-8, LW 22). Indiana has won four games in a row, and 5-of-6 (the lone loss is Houston), knocking off some other potential East playoff teams in the process (Detroit, Miami, Orlando). They’ve been better on both ends during the streak, but it is the improved defense that has mattered more. That and Lance Stephenson going off for 13 in the fourth against Detroit. Pacers are in a home-heavy stretch and need to pad their record now.

 
Pelicans small icon 15. Pelicans (9-8 LW 9). DeMarcus Cousins is having a monster year averaging 26.6 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game, but when he got tossed for an elbow to Russell Westbrook’s head (whether Russ sold that or not), it was Anthony Davis who took on the scoring load with 36 and got the win. The Pelicans needed that W, had lost their previous two and have a rough stretch ahead — 4-of-6 on the road with the Spurs, Warriors, Timberwolves, and Trail Blazers in the mix.

Bucks small icon 16. Bucks (8-8 LW 16). Malcolm Brogdon has struggled adjusting to his bench role, shooting 34.1% (down from 46%) with his assists dropping almost in half in his last five games. After winning four in a row with the arrival of Eric Bledsoe, thanks in large part to an improved defense, they have slipped back and dropped two straight — and as of Saturday the Bucks head out for 5-of-6 on the road.

 
Hornets small icon 17. Hornets (7-9, LW 20). They stopped an ugly six-game losing streak with wins at home over the stumbling clippers, then with Dwight Howard going off for 25 points and 20 rebounds against Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves. Maybe the Hornets can find some consistency now that their healthy, but the next four games are no help — Wizards, Cavaliers, Spurs and Raptors.

 
Heat small icon 18. Heat (7-9, LW 17). Miami is being held back by an offense that doesn’t move the ball (25th in percentage of buckets with an assist), 29th in turnover percentage, and 27th in the league in free throw rate. We’re not going to run the video of Dion Waiters going 0-of-10 from the floor against the Pacers, but it wasn’t pretty.

 
Thunder small icon 19. Thunder (7-9 LW 19).. The fourth quarter woes for this team are real — in six of their nine, losses, the Thunder have blown a double-digit lead in the game, the latest being a 19-point lead to the Pelicans (without DeMarcus Cousins). The Thunder’s fourth quarter defense is 10.6 points per 100 possessions worse than the rest of the game (when it is top five in the league). Big showdown with Kevin Durant and the Warriors Wednesday night.

 
Magic small icon 20. Magic (8-9, LW 13). The wheels have come off after a strong start in Orlando — they have dropped five games in a row, with a bottom four offense and defense in that stretch. And that is with point guards Elfrid Payton and D.J. Augustin now healthy. It doesn’t get easier now with four straight and 6-of-8 on the road against some quality teams (Celtics, 76ers, Pacers, Thunder, Warriors).

 
Grizzlies small icon 21. Grizzlies (7-9, LW 15). Memphis has lost five in a row, the last three without Mike Conley who will remain out for a couple more weeks to rest his Achilles. It doesn’t get any easier, because in a week the Grizzlies start a brutal stretch of the schedule with a home-and-home against the Spurs — Memphis has to find a way to keep its head above water in this stretch to keep the playoffs within sight.

 
Lakers small icon 22. Lakers (8-10 LW 21). If the playoffs started today (Wednesday, Nov. 22), the Lakers would be the eighth seed in the West. While the NBA world watches Lonzo Ball’s jumpers go astray (and that is an issue), the Lakers have the No. 4 defense in the NBA, which considering they were dead last a year ago is a big step. That keeps them in games, then they get enough offense in flurries to pull out wins. The defense will likely regress some, but the offense should improve as the season wears on, and the Lakers staying within striking distance (or in) the playoffs is not so far-fetched right now.

 
Jazz small icon 23. Jazz (7-11, LW 24). Utah has gone 2-4 since Rudy Gobert went down. With their offense floundering and already 24th in the league, Utah has turned over more playmaking duties to rookie Donovan Mitchell — he started the last seven games and he’s done fairly well, for a rookie. He has averaged 13.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 5.5 assists, and in the last six games the Jazz have a top-10 NBA offense. However, without Gobert as an anchor in the middle the Utah defense has fallen off to bottom 10 in the league, and the offense may not be able to cover that up for long.

 
Suns small icon 24. Suns (7-11, LW 26). Giving up 90 points in a half to the Rockets on national television was ugly, but there are some good things happening in the desert. The ball is moving better on offense and their assists are up, for example, and that has helped Dragan Bender and Troy Daniels to shoot better. Josh Jackson’s offense still has a long way to go, however. Starting Sunday, Phoenix heads out on a tough six-game road trip through the Midwest and East that includes the Celtics, 76ers, and Raptors.

 
Nets small icon 25. Nets (6-10, LW 25). No D’Angelo Russell for at least a month after he had his knee scoped, which is a tough break for a guy playing to impress his bosses and get a new contract. With him and Jeremy Lin out injured, point guard duties have fallen to Spencer Dinwiddie, who has done well and led scrappy performances against the Celtics and Warriors recently (both still losses, of course). Allen Crabbe is finding a groove.

 
Hawks small icon 26. Hawks (3-14, LW 29). They have been playing better than their record suggests of late, it just hasn’t translated into wins. The brightest spot for the team this season is just how well rookie John Collins has played, averaging 11.6 points on 56.9 percent shooting, with 7.4 rebounds a game. The Hawks are 1-2 at the start of a home-heavy stretch of the schedule (5-of-6).

 
Clippers small icon 27. Clippers (5-11 LW 23). The Clippers went into this season with a re-signed Blake Griffin and looking to stay in the playoff mix in the West, then build from there. However, after dropping 9 in a row — in the last 10 games Griffin is shooting just 38.2% — the question becomes at what point do they consider other options? Specifically, looking at trade options for DeAndre Jordan — in the last year of his contract — for players/picks to help a rebuild. The Clippers will deny this, however, if they continue to lose, it’s a question that will come up around the trade deadline. The other question is how hot Doc Rivers’ seat is getting.

 
Mavericks small icon 28. Mavericks (3-15 LW 30). They have lost 5-of-6, but have shown some spark by beating the Bucks and pushing the Celtics to overtime in their last two games (this deep in the rankings that’s enough to move a team up). One thing not moving up in Dallas is Nerlens Noel on the depth chart — undrafted rookie Maxi Kleber is starting a little and is ahead of Noel now.

 
Kings small icon 29. Kings (4-13, LW 27). This ranking may be too high for the Kings. Seriously. They have the worst net rating in the NBA and just got blown out by 46 points by the Hawks (another of the NBA’s worst). One thing to look forward to: Wednesday night Lonzo Ball and De’Aaron Fox will go head-to-head against each other for the first time since Kentucky’s Fox owned UCLA’s Ball in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament last year.

 
Bulls small icon 30. Bulls (3-12 LW 28). With rookie Lauri Markannen leading the way, the Bulls are taking 9.4 more threes per game this season than they did last season. They are hitting 33.5 percent of them, which is about the same as last year, but it has opened up the offense. The Bulls have started 0-2 on a four-game road trip.

Report: Nuggets Paul Millsap out three months due to wrist surgery

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There were big sighs of relief in Denver when Paul Millsaps’ X-rays on his injured wrist came back negative. There were fears of a fracture suffered against the Lakers last weekend, but word from the team is it was just a sprain. He sat out the game against the Kings, but the timeline for his return was not expected to be long.

Except it has turned out to be a little more than a simple sprain. From Sham Charania of Yahoo and Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Millsap — who signed a three-year, $90 million contract with Denver over the summer, after spending seven seasons with the Jazz and Hawks — is averaging 15.3 points and 6.2 rebounds a game. More importantly, he has been key to Denver’s defense going from one of the NBA’s worst to the middle of the pack this season. He’s started the season getting a handful fewer shots a game then he did in Atlanta last season, and Millsap was slightly less efficient, but like the team as a whole he seemed to be finding a groove and looked better during the recent streak when Denver won 4-of-5. He and the Nuggets were figuring out how to play together.

The Nuggets have been 4.5 points per 100 possessions better when Millsap has been on the court this season, and that will not be easy to replace.

While Kenneth Faried got the start with Millsap out last game, it was Trey Lyles who stepped up — and who Denver needs to step up with Millsap out. Others will have to step up with some defense while he is out.