Nikola Jokic

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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

If Kyrie Irving bidding reopens, Bucks have offer with Malcolm Brogdon, Khris Middleton

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Most likely the deal between the Cavaliers and Celtics for Kyrie Irving gets finalized today (Wednesday). The Cavaliers are already getting Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the highly-coveted Brooklyn first-round draft pick this year. The Cleveland doctors think that the healing timeline/re-injury risk with Thomas is longer than they thought and they want more compensation, and Boston likely throws in a second rounder.

If the trade falls apart, there are other teams hanging around wanting to get in on the Irving bidding, reports Zach Lowe at ESPN. But none of them have a deal near as good as the Celtics gave up.

The Milwaukee Bucks lurk on the fringes of the Irving bidding with an offer centered around Malcolm Brogdon, the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year, and Khris Middleton, sources say. The Bucks have not yet put a first-round pick on the table, sources say, but the bet here is that they would to get the deal done — or if Irving showed any interest in staying in Milwaukee long-term.

The problem is, that pick from the Bucks is middle of the draft at best, not nearly high enough to get a star the Cavs can count on. Middleton helps now, but while Brogdon won Rookie of the Year in a down season, he is not a blue-chip star player (like they likely land with the Brooklyn pick).

The Suns would have the kind of pick the Cavs want, but…

An unprotected pick from Phoenix would, but bad teams a half-decade away from relevance don’t deal picks for stars who make them slightly less bad before bolting in free agency. Other likely lottery teams — Sacramento, Atlanta, Indiana, Chicago — don’t appear to have made offers.

Denver’s name comes up from fans speculating on a deal.

Denver was the one team in the sweet spot to go all-in with an offer of Wilson Chandler, Jamal Murray (the blue-chipper), and at least one first-round pick. They are at little risk of coughing up a top-10 pick, with a need at point guard and a roster that generally fits Irving’s aging curve. Denver never ventured nearly that far. There are obvious reasons for their reluctance: Irving’s free agency in 2019, the Warriors, the challenge of building a defense book-ended by Irving and Nikola Jokic, the expense of an Irving-Jokic-Gary Harris core.

The big one there: Denver is building a team on a curve to be potentially very good in a few years, right when the juggernaut in Golden State starts to show cracks in the foundation (at least the rest of the league hopes so). Trade for Irving and they are full-on win now at the same time the Warriors’ powers are at their peak. Patience is a virtue.

Boston wants Irving — he’s younger than Thomas, may be better now but certainly will be better in three years — and they have a real chance to keep him in 2019 free agency. Cleveland wants that Brooklyn pick, and there are no options as good as the one on the table.

Which is why the already agreed to Cavaliers/Celtics swap will get done.

Warriors’ Zaza Pachulia may miss Eurobasket with ankle injury

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When the Golden State Warriors won the title last June, Zaza Pachulia walked around the court with the Georgian flag draped around his shoulders. He’s a man proud of his nation, and he was excited to represent them this summer in EuroBasket (after his government awarded him the Order of Honor after winning the title).

But it looks like you can add Pachulia to the insanely long list of guys out for the European championships. Pachulia has suffered an ankle injury, and while it’s not serious enough to slow him in Golden State’s training camp in a month, it could be keeping off the Georgian team for the tournament, according to his coach.

A final decision will come over the weekend.

Here’s a partial list of the players missing this EuroBasket: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert, Marc Gasol, Nikola Jokic, Danilo Gallinari, Enes Kanter, Marcin Gortat Ersan Ilyasova, Omar Asik, Andrea Bargnani, Nicolas Batum, Tony Parker, Serge Ibaka, Nikola Mirotic, and Sergio Llull. That is just the tip of the iceberg.

We’ll still be watching, but some of the drama has been sucked out of the event.

Rumor: Nuggets won’t trade Jamal Murray and Gary Harris for Kyrie Irving

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The Cavaliers and Nuggets seemingly share a mutual belief, accurate or not, that the Pacers backed out of a three-way trade that would have included Paul George and Kevin Love.

Could Cleveland (which is still bitter about the missed opportunity) and Denver (which should be thrilled it signed Paul Millsap outright rather than trading assets for Love) connect on a trade that actually happens?

The Nuggets are a logical destination for Kyrie Irving, who has requested a trade.

Denver’s primary playmaker is a center, Nikola Jokic. Irving, oft-criticized for lacking full point-guard skills, could fit well with him  offensively.

Plus, the Nuggets have plenty of other intriguing assets worthy of Irving. Jamal Murray and Gary Harris stand out. Wilson Chandler and Will Barton could help make salaries match and upgrade the Cavs’ wing depth. Denver also has all its first-round picks.

Terry Pluto of The Plain Dealer:

I hear Denver will not give up Murray and Harris in a deal.

Are the Nuggets refusing to trade Murray and Harris in a package – or is neither player available, even separately? Again, this is the type of detail that gets clouded as trade negotiations get leaked.

Both Murray and Harris would be a high price to pay for Irving, but Irving is more valuable than each individually. Even though Irving is unwilling to provide assurances beyond his current contract, which he can opt out of in two years, Denver is good enough to capitalize on his talent right now. The Nuggets can assess how much they value the present vs. the future, but with Millsap and Jokic, this is a team ready to make noise.

If Denver isn’t willing to trade Murray and Harris for Irving, OK. But if the Nuggets aren’t willing to trade Murray or Harris – and Jokic looks even more untouchable – for Irving, I don’t see how a deal gets done.

Anthony Davis says he hopes he and DeMarcus Cousins become like Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic

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Last year, then-Nets forward Anthony Bennett told Brooklyn fans, “Don’t watch us play this season.” That foreshadowed a 20-62 season.

Anthony Davis better hope his gaffe – one of being misguided, not misspeaking – isn’t as foretelling.

The Pelicans enter their first full season with Davis and fellow big man DeMarcus Cousins. They also hired assistant coach Chris Finch from the Nuggets, who started Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic last year.

Davis, via Scott Kushner for The New Orleans Advocate:

“I know they were saying we could be kind of like (Nikola) Jokic and (Jusuf) Nurkic and how they did stuff in Denver before,” Davis said. “They kind of ran their offensive package through those two big guys who were skilled. That’s what we are hoping he’s looking to do with me and DeMarcus.”

Jokic and Nurkic were terrible together. The Nuggets got outscored by 15.6 points per 100 possessions when the duo shared the court. In that time, they looked like the NBA’s worst offense and one of the league’s worst defenses.

Denver eventually benched Nurkic, and Jokic took off toward stardom. Nurkic sulked, and the Nuggets felt like they had to trade him. They sent him to the Trail Blazers in a horrible trade for Denver. Nurkic thrived in Portland, but only because he stopped playing with another center.

The Nuggets knew this predicament was coming and tried to prepare for using both centers together. It wasn’t enough. Succeeding with two centers sharing the court is tough in the modern NBA.

Davis and Cousins could work together. They both offer far more shooting range than Nurkic, and Davis is by far the most versatile defender of the four.

But if New Orleans’ bigs click, it’ll be because Finch learned what not to do from the Jokic-Nurkic pairing.