Paul Millsap

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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

Hawks commit more earnestly to rebuild, but enough?

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Hawks were pretty good without a clear path forward.

Now, they’re pretty bad without a clear path forward.

Luckily for them – and despite their best efforts – they might be bad enough.

Atlanta continued its descent from its 60-win peak two years ago by losing its two best players. The Hawks let Paul Millsap leave for the Nuggets and traded Dwight Howard to the Hornets in what could be described as a salary rearrangement more than a salary dump.

After multiple half-measures toward rebuilding – refusing to offer Al Horford the max, trading Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver for first-round picks – Atlanta finally committed.

Kind of.

The Hawks hedged against full-on tanking by signing Dewayne Dedmon and Ersan Ilyasova. Those two big men – Dedmon in his prime, Ilyasova close enough to it – supply enough hustle and basketball intelligence to sabotage a proper tank. Coach Mike Budenholzer, whose teams tend to exceed the sum of their parts, won’t help Atlanta bottom out.

I can see breaking up a team with a playoff chance to torpedo high into the lottery. The Hawks aren’t doing that – not purposefully, at least. It appears they’re trying to remain credibly competitive, which could only undermine their rebuild.

Atlanta is rebuilding around Dennis Schroder, John Collins, Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry. The Hawks also have all their own first-rounders plus protected first-rounders from the Rockets, Timberwolves, and Cavaliers. But the Houston pick is the only one of those extras that can ever land in the top 10, and that’s just top-three protected this season, a season in which the Rockets project to pick in the low 20s.

Simply, this is not an encouraging asset pool to begin a rebuild with. Atlanta would benefit greatly from a high 2018 pick.

The Hawks just don’t seem interested enough in securing one.

They also lost Tim Hardaway Jr. and Thabo Sefolosha in free agency. Like the 32-year-old Millsap, the 33-year-old Sefolosha had no place on a team mostly rebuilding. The 25-year-old Hardaway could have fit into the next era or even as a trade chip, but not on the four-year, $71 million offer sheet the Knicks signed him to. Though Atlanta wisely passed on matching, it’s a shame to lose an asset for nothing.

That’s really the story of the Hawks’ descent. Millsap, Horford, Sefolosha and DeMarre Carroll all walked in free agency. Atlanta was always reluctant to trade those players for value while it could.

I’m trying to grade only this offseason, not prior decisions. General manager Travis Schlenk took over this offseason, and he has the runway for a patient rebuild.

The Hawks wisely got a first-rounder for taking and buying out Jamal Crawford. Could they have found similar deals rather than signing Dedmon and Ilyasova? Could they have signed younger players instead?

The Hawks might hope they can trade Dedmon (two years, $12.3 million) and Ilyasova (one-year, $6 million) for even greater value, but that comes with complications. Dedmon has a $6.3 million player option for next season, so if his deal goes south, Atlanta is on the hook for another year. (If it goes well, Dedmon will become an unrestricted free agent and – fitting the theme – could just leave.) As a returning player on a one-year contract, Ilyasova can veto any trade.

If the Hawks had re-signed Millsap (and maybe Sefolosha, too), they could have made a decent case to return to the playoffs in the lowly Eastern Conference. Atlanta has the NBA’s second-longest active playoff streak, 10 seasons. That isn’t nothing, and continuing it would have been fine.

If the Hawks tried to return to the playoffs and failed, they would have ended up in a similar position to where they are now – somewhere in the lottery, but not necessarily high in it. They could have even traded Millsap – whose Denver deal guarantees him just $61 million over two years – for value.

If the future is murky either way, I’d rather be better in the interim.

Perhaps, Atlanta just tired of losing in the first or second round (though ownership and management has recently changed). That would have been the team’s likely ceiling if it re-signed Millsap.

But I just don’t see winning about 30 games as more pleasurable than reaching the playoffs, even with an early-round exit. A 30-win season doesn’t bring enough value in the draft to offset the difference.

Here’s the good news: The Hawks’ hedging probably didn’t go far enough. They might be downright terrible, anyway – positioning them to draft the elite young talent they badly need to galvanize their rebuild.

This was a D+ effort that stumbled into a slightly more favorable position – i.e., a team that struggles more than it expects.

Offseason grade: C-

NBA schedule is out, here are 15 must-watch games

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I feel like Steve Martin yelling “the new phone books are here” — the NBA schedule for 2017-18 is out.

There is big news here — the NBA has built a lot more rest into the schedule in an attempt to limit DNP-rest games for stars in marquee games. What we learned with the schedule being released is there is not one four-games-in-five-nights stretch in the entire schedule for any team. In the 2014-15 season there were 70 of those, last season there were 20, but the league listened to the players — and their medical staffs — and cut those out. Which should help players be more rested and reduce the number of healthy DNP-Rest games.

There are a lot of quality games on the schedule — in a deep Western conference matchups like the Clippers vs. Nuggets or Trail Blazers vs. Pelicans could have playoff implications even early in the season. That’s why the NBA has given flex scheduling to all the networks, so they can put on games that matter more as we move through the season.

Factoring in returns, rivalries, and big days, here are our 15 games must-watch games this season, the ones you need to set the DVR for… if you still have a DVR. Otherwise, go over to your parents and set theirs, you know they still have one.

Opening night, Oct. 17: Houston Rockets at Golden State Warriors (TNT). This is the first of 40 — 40! — times the Warriors will appear on national television this season. That is almost half their games. Don’t tune into this one just to see the banner go up and JaVale McGee get a ring… actually, you do want to see McGee get a ring. More than that though, tune in to get a first look at the Houston Rockets with Chris Paul and James Harden.

Oct. 26: New Orleans Pelicans at Sacramento Kings (TNT). DeMarcus Cousins makes his first visit to Sacramento since he was traded last season to New Orleans. Kings fans were frustrated with Cousins while he was there, plenty turned on him, and he is going to hear it.

Oct. 27: Denver Nuggets at Atlanta Hawks. Atlanta starts the season with a five-game road trip, then returns home to find Paul Millsap wearing the powder blue of the Denver Nuggets to meet them. The Hawks moved on from Millsap more than he from them, but how will Atlanta fans respond.

Nov. 15: Philadelphia 76ers at Los Angeles Lakers (ESPN). The 76ers and No.1 pick last June Markelle Fultz take on the Lakers and No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball in the first meeting between these two point guards.

Dec. 13: Oklahoma City Thunder at Indiana Pacers (ESPN). Paul George makes his only visit to Indiana this season, the only place the four-time All-Star had played prior to being traded this summer.

Christmas Day, Dec. 25: Cleveland Cavaliers at Golden State Warriors (ABC). This is the first rematch of the last three NBA Finals during the new season. LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant… and who else will be on LeBron’s team at this point in the season? This is the best team in the West against the team likely to come out of the East — LeBron has been to seven straight Finals for a reason — and that is always worth watching.

Christmas Day, Dec. 25: Houston Rockets at Oklahoma City Thunder (ABC). With all due respect to LeBron and Curry, this is the best game on Christmas Day. James Harden and Chris Paul against Russell Westbrook and Paul George. We know the Rockets will be an impressive offensive team, but the Thunder should have one of the best defenses in the NBA this season. That makes this an interesting clash of styles.

Jan. 15: Cleveland Cavaliers at Golden State Warriors (TNT). The second and final meeting of the season between these two powerhouse teams is set to highlight the Martin Luther King Jr. Day slate of games.

Jan. 15: Houston Rockets at Los Angeles Clippers (TNT). Chris Paul comes back to Los Angeles to take on the other two parts of Lob City he left behind, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. You can bet DJ is not going to let CP3 just drive the basket without a little physicality.

Feb. 9: Minnesota Timberwolves at Chicago Bulls (ESPN). Jimmy Butler returns to the only city he had played for before being traded this past summer — and he brings with him an impressive team on the rise in Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves.

Feb. 10: San Antonio Spurs at Golden State Warriors (ABC). This is last year’s Western Conference Finals, and while San Antonio didn’t have a sexy offseason we know they have Kawhi Leonard, and we know they are going to be good. This could well again be the top two teams in the West.

March 11: Cleveland Cavaliers at Los Angeles Lakers (ESPN). LeBron has called Los Angeles home and Tweeted out his love to Magic Johnson, by the time the Cavaliers come to L.A. the “LeBron will be a Laker” rumors will be at a fever pitch. Expect Lakers fans to let him know how much they love him.

March 28: Boston Celtics at Utah Jazz (ESPN). Gordon Hayward is going to get booed as he returns to Utah and the Vivint Smart Home Arena wearing Celtics green after choosing the Celtics over the Jazz last summer.

April 1: Houston Rockets at San Antonio Spurs. These are the two teams in the West with their sights set on knocking off the Warriors, but first they are going to have to get past each other in the playoffs. This could have seeding, or at least statement, implications. Plus, watching Kawhi Leonard guard Harden and Paul is going to be fun.

April 3: Golden State Warriors at Oklahoma City Thunder. At this point in the season, teams like these two who plan to make a deep playoff run are shaking off the long-season duldrums and focusing on a strong finish. Especially if this is a potential playoff matchup (second round) there may be teams looking to make a statement.

April 10: Boston Celtics at Washington Wizards. In the final week of the NBA season, two teams looking to climb the ladder and establish themselves near or at the top of the Eastern Conference face off. Plus, John Wall vs. Isaiah Thomas is always a show.

Looking ahead: Who will make Eastern All-Star Team?

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This summer saw an almost unprecedented shift of All-Star level player talent in the NBA — and a lot of it went from the East to the West. Three All-Stars from a year ago — Paul George, Paul Millsap, and Jimmy Butler — all moved from the Eastern Conference to a now stacked Western Conference.

It led to the question: What will the All-Star teams look like?

Here is my best guess, starting with the Eastern Conference (we will get to the West tomorrow).

ALL-STAR STARTERS (two guards, three frontcourt players):

Isaiah Thomas (Boston Celtics)
Kyrie Irving (Cleveland Cavaliers)
LeBron James (Cleveland Cavaliers)
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)
Gordon Hayward (Boston Celtics)

Comment: These are voted on by a combination of fan, media, and player votes. Irving may not be in the East come the time for All-Star voting as he has asked for a trade, however, as of this writing, he is still a Cavalier, so he will be treated as a member of the East. Three of these starters are the same as a year ago, with Hayward replacing Butler, and I have Thomas beating out one of the Raptors guards to start thanks to a push from Boston fans.

ALL-STAR RESERVES (two guards, three frontcourt players, two wild cards):

John Wall (Washington Wizards)
DeMar DeRozan (Toronto Raptors)
Kristaps Porzingis (New York Knicks)
Kevin Love (Cleveland Cavaliers)
Andre Drummond (Detroit Pistons)
Bradley Beal (Washington Wizards)
Joel Embiid (Philadelphia 76ers)

Comment: These are selected by a vote of the coaches, and this is where players who have strong first halves will be rewarded. Wall and DeRozan could be starters, they will be close with votes, something also true for the Knicks’ Porzingis. I do not have Carmelo Anthony on this list not because he could be traded to the West, but because as his game fades with age other players will pass him. Putting Embiid on the team implies he’s healthy enough to play at least 40 of the 50ish games played up to that point, which may be more wish than hope from me (and Sixers fans), but I’ll bet it happens. I think we’ll see Drummond take a step forward this season, so I have him making it. There are a host of other guards who could bump Beal or others off this list with strong first halves — Kemba Walker, Kyle Lowry, to name a couple — last year’s East lineup was guard heavy for that reason.

Head Coach: Tyronn Lue (Cleveland Cavaliers). Remember, Boston’s Brad Stevens coached in 2017, so he is ineligible this time around, and even if Irving is traded I’m not sure any team is higher in the standings than the Cavaliers. It is possible Scott Brooks in Washington could slide in here if his team comes together and Cleveland stumbles, same with Dwane Casey in Toronto, but the bet here is Lue gets the call again.

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.