Mason Plumlee

Kyrie Irving scores 27 points as Celtics edge Nuggets 111-110

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Kyrie Irving scored 10 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter, Jaylen Brown hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 34 seconds remaining and the struggling Boston Celtics edged the Denver Nuggets 111-110 on Monday night.

Denver had a chance to win in dramatic fashion at the end but Torrey Craig‘s tip-in of Will Barton‘s long attempt from 3-point range was too late.

Irving finished 11 of 17 from the field to lead the Celtics to just their second win in seven games. Jayson Tatum added 20 points and Marcus Morris had 14 off the bench.

Boston blew a 20-point lead and trailed heading into the final period. Then the Celtics couldn’t hold onto a six-point advantage in the final two minutes as the Nuggets tied the game at 108 with 43 seconds to go.

Nikola Jokic had a double-double by the first minute of the second half for Denver, finishing with 24 points and 11 rebounds. Barton scored 19, Gary Harris 15 and Jamal Murray 14.

Mason Plumlee had 16 points and eight rebounds before he left with a leg injury in the fourth.

The Celtics beat Denver for the second time this season, also prevailing 124-118 on Dec. 13.

Boston made 10 of its first 16 shots from beyond the perimeter to go up 51-31 in the second quarter and led 56-45 at halftime. Irving led the way with 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting.

The Nuggets climbed back on the strength of a 14-5 run to end the half and outscored Boston 37-24 in the third to go up 82-80.

 

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.

After losing seven straight, Stan Van Gundy calls out Andre Drummond, Pistons stars

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Just a few weeks ago, the Detroit Pistons were the No. 2 seed in the East and were one of the darlings of the early season. We thought the transformation would stick — Andre Drummond was hitting free throws, Tobias Harris had picked up his game, and Detroit was defending well. They looked like a top four seed in the East.

Since then, the Pistons have dropped 7 in a row.

The defense has remained decent, but the Pistons have the worst offense in the NBA in that time, scoring less than a point per possession and with a horrific team True Shooting Percentage of 49.6. After Tuesday’s loss to Denver where the Pistons scored just 85 points, a frustrated Stan Van Gundy called out his stars — Andre Drummond, Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, and Reggie Jackson.

Van Gundy is right to be frustrated with his stars. Harris didn’t have one made basket from the field against Denver Tuesday, and Andre Drummond got outplayed by Mason Plumlee. That can’t happen if Detroit expects to win. In the last seven games, Stanley Johnson is shooting 25 percent (which is why he was coming off the bench Tuesday, Bradley 33.7 percent, and Ish Smith 36.1 percent, which is to say the issues are more widespread than just the stars. But Van Gundy is right, it all starts with them.

To be fair, Detroit also was in a tough stretch of games during this losing streak — Denver is a solid team (albeit they are without Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap) and they may be the worst team Detroit faced — but if the Pistons are a playoff team they are going to find some wins in there somewhere.

It’s just a slump and Detroit has plenty of time to turn things around. They face the Hawks next, that is a game the Pistons should win. But in the East right now playoff slots 6-9 are all tied at 14-13, with the Pistons being one of those teams. They are in a fight to make the playoffs now and need to turn the ship around sooner rather than later.

Report: Josh Childress going from Big3 to Nuggets

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The Big3 is becoming an entertaining home for former NBA players.

Maybe also a proving ground for those players to return to the top pro league.

Former Hawks wing Josh Childress, who famously left the NBA in his prime for a lucrative contract in Greece, is joining the Nuggets.

Michael Scotto of Basketball Insiders:

The Denver Nuggets and Josh Childress have agreed to a one-year, non-guaranteed deal, a league source told Basketball Insiders.

The 34-year-old Childress hasn’t played in the NBA since 2013, and it’s been even longer since he was effective there.

Denver has 14 players on standard contracts, one shy of the regular-season limit, and they all have guaranteed salaries. Mason Plumlee also has an outstanding qualifying offer.

I’d be surprised if Childress sticks past the preseason, but this is at least an interesting flier.

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