Trey Lyles

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Instead of desired playoff appearance, Jazz might have found better prize in hotshot rookie Donovan Mitchell

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DETROIT – Donovan Mitchell inspires confidence.

Chris Paul watched him play at a spring camp and told Mitchell, who was leaning toward returning to Louisville for his junior season, to declare for the NBA draft. Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey threatened to fire anyone who revealed how good Mitchell looked in a pre-draft workout then traded up to pick the guard No. 13. After Gordon Hayward left Utah for the Celtics in free agency and early injuries set in, Jazz coach Quin Snyder made the rookie his go-to player. Fans flocked to Mitchell for his high-flying dunks, bold pull-up 3-pointers and monster scoring games.

Between his athleticism, smooth shooting stroke and 6-foot-10 wingspan on a 6-foot-3 body, Mitchell oozed promise. His future was undeniably bright.

But, in a distinction too few made, his present was underwhelming. Mitchell’s high-scoring nights were celebrated, but his too-frequent duds were ignored. He posted big point totals out of volume far more than efficiency. At Thanksgiving, his true shooting percentage was a dreadful 46.8, well below league average of 55.6.

Mitchell didn’t step back, though. In fact, he increased his offensive load. And he’s growing up right before our eyes. His true shooting percentage since Thanksgiving is 59.0, a sparkling mark considering his high usage.

“At the end of the day, I’m a rookie,” Mitchell said. “If I miss shots, it’s to be expected. None of this was supposed to happen.”

Not based on Mitchell’s reluctance to leave Louisville. Not based on his projection – mid-to-late first round – once he finally turned pro. Not based on where he actually got picked, No. 13.

But, by now, Mitchell has already established himself as a hyped player.

Most rookies who averaged 18 points per game won Rookie of the Year. Mitchell is averaging 19.1. He might not catch the 76ers’ Ben Simmons, who appeared to be running away with the award earlier in the season, but Mitchell’s candidacy should be taken seriously.

Not that Mitchell is giving it much thought.

“We’re trying to make the playoffs, make a playoff push,” Mitchell said. “I think if I focus on that one award, it’s kind of selfish on my part to be like, ‘Alright, this is why I’m playing.’ We have bigger things in mind.”

And that’s the rub.

Teams rarely win while relying so much on rookies. Sometimes, that’s because the only way to get a rookie worth giving the ball to so much is tankingg for a high pick. Regardless of that rookie’s talent, it can take years to build back up after stripping the roster to tank.

Utah sure didn’t do that, winning 51 games and a playoff series last season. The Jazz are still a veteran team, the NBA’s eighth-oldest weighted by playing time despite the 21-year-old Mitchell nearly leading them in minutes. They were built to win now with Hayward, and his departure threw the entire franchise for a loop.

Those are big shoes for Mitchell to fill, and he’s doing an admirable job – in context.

Mitchell shoots 16.1 times per game. The only team in the last 20 years to make the playoffs with a rookie taking at least 15 shots per game: Carmelo Anthony‘s Nuggets in 2004. Even at just 20-28, Utah has the best record of any team since with a 15-shot-per-game rookie:

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It’s especially hard to win when that go-to rookie is a guard. Putting the ball in a young player’s hands that often is just asking for trouble. The last team to make the playoffs with a guard shooting 15 times per game was Mitch Richmond’s Warriors in 1989. Restrict it to point guards, and the last team was Ernie DiGregorio’s Buffalo Braves in 1974.

Mitchell’s position is hazy.

He starts with Ricky Rubio, a clear point guard. But Mitchell spends so much time as the lead ball-handler, as he can use a variety of moves to create his own shot. The Jazz also try to get him going plenty off the ball by running him off screens. He’s dangerous as a spot-up shooter.

Mitchell is nearly peerless in the breadth and depth of his scoring.

Players who match Mitchell’s volume (9.9 attempts per game) and efficiency (49.3 effective field-goal percentage) on shots off multiple dribbles: LeBron James, Victor Oladipo, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Lou Williams, Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, D'Angelo Russell, C.J. McCollum, Kemba Walker, DeMar DeRozan.

Players who match Mitchell’s volume (3.6 attempts per game) and efficiency (66.5 effective field-goal percentage) on catch-and-shoots: Clint Capela, Buddy Hield, Mirza Teletovic, DeAndre Jordan, LeBron James, Rudy Gobert, Kevin Durant, Reggie Bullock, Steven Adams, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Enes Kanter, Tyler Zeller, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Trey Lyles, Hassan Whiteside, Jamil Wilson, Kyle Korver, Mike Scott, Dwight Powell, Julius Randle.

If you notice, the only player on both lists is LeBron.

Like LeBron and many other players, Mitchell chose his jersey number to honor Michael Jordan. But Mitchell chose No. 45, not Jordan’s more famous No. 23. Jordan wore No. 45 during his stint in baseball, Mitchell’s favorite sport growing up, then briefly during his first comeback with the Bulls, which happened before Mitchell was even born. Why not pick No. 23 like everybody else honoring Jordan wears?

“Because that’s what everybody else does,” Mitchell said. “I try to be different. I’m not like everybody else.”

Mitchell isn’t blazing a completely new trail, though. His combination of usage percentage (28.7) and true shooting percentage (54.6) is amazing for a rookie, but one other first-year player already did it:

Jordan.

By putting himself in that elite company, Mitchell isn’t having his role reduced – no matter what growing pains the Jazz must endure.

“He’s our best offensive player,” Snyder said. “So, he’s going to get responsibility. From my standpoint, there’s not a timeline.”

Mitchell plays and talks like someone whose self-confidence matches the belief everyone else has in him. So, why was he leaning toward returning to Louisville for his junior – not even sophomore – season until Paul told him otherwise? As Mitchell explains, he was too shocked by the idea of competing against players like LeBron and Durant for his confidence even to set in.

So, when did shock wear off?

“It really hasn’t, to be honest,” Mitchell said. “It’s game by game. It’s kind of crazy to me, the entire thing.”

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.

Nuggets stop Warriors’ 11-game winning streak, 96-81

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Gary Harris scored 19 points to lead a balanced Denver offense and the Nuggets stopped the Warriors’ 11-game winning streak with a second impressive road victory in two nights, beating Golden State 96-81 on Saturday.

Nikola Jokic added 18 points and nine rebounds and Jamal Murray had 14 points, six rebounds and five assists for the Nuggets after their Friday win at Portland. They held the defending NBA champions to a season low for points.

Kevin Durant had 18 points and six rebounds in a particularly poor shooting performance for the typically efficient NBA Finals MVP. He was 6 for 17 and missed all five of his 3-point attempts as the Warriors shot 38.6 percent.

Draymond Green had 10 points, six assists and five rebounds in his second game back after missing five of six with soreness in his right shoulder. He took a sharp elbow to the face from Jokic with 7:27 remaining and went down hard.

Klay Thompson scored 15 for the Warriors. A night after posting his first career double-double with season bests of 20 points and 10 rebounds, Warriors rookie Jordan Bell contributed seven points and 10 rebounds.

Patrick McCaw‘s floater with 7:13 to go pulled Golden State to 82-71, but the Warriors couldn’t do much more to fight back.

The Warriors were sloppy, lacked a flow on offense, looked a step behind most of the night and never got rolling trying to play catch-up much of the evening. Fans headed for the exits with a few minutes left, a rare sight at Oracle Arena.

Golden State has regularly relied on big third quarters this season, and Saturday it couldn’t even muster a strong fourth after going into the final period down 73-62.

It was also the second night of a back-to-back for the Warriors, who beat the Lakers at home on Friday.

Golden State shot 39.5 percent in the first half – 1 of 11 on 3-pointers – while committing 10 turnovers to fall behind 53-41 at the break.

Harris had his second strong game after missing one contest with a bruised elbow.

The Nuggets had lost five straight on Golden State’s home floor dating to a 100-99 win at Oracle Arena on April 10, 2014.

It was an especially slow start for Golden State, which began 6 for 18 – with Durant going 1 for 5 and Thompson missing his initial four shots as the Warriors shot 7 for 21 in the opening quarter.

CURRY UPDATE

Stephen Curry did extensive on-court work during pregame warmups and appeared to be moving well on his sprained right ankle, though the two-time MVP isn’t going to play Monday against Cleveland as coach Steve Kerr has said it wouldn’t be right to do so unless his superstar was at full strength.

“I watch him after practice and have been really encouraged by his workouts. He’s moving well. Looks like he is gaining confidence in that movement. As far as the first question, Bob (Myers), myself, the training staff and Steph – that’s who is involved in the decision,” Kerr said. “I can tell that if this were not the Christmas game versus Cleveland in two days, I don’t think any of you would even be asking me about it. He hasn’t even had a 3-on-3 game. If we weren’t playing Cleveland on Christmas and I told you Steph hasn’t even played in a 3-on-3 game, hasn’t had any contact at all and the game was 48 hours from now, you would say that `Steph’s not going to play,’ but because it’s the magnitude of the game and everybody wants to know, but we can’t let that affect our judgment. He can’t play. It would be completely irresponsible if he did.”

Curry has missed seven straight games.

TIP-INS

Nuggets: Denver capitalized on the Warriors’ mistakes, turning 19 turnovers into 21 points. … Trey Lyles had 15 points and six boards off the bench.

Warriors: Golden State’s 88 points in a 92-88 loss at Boston on Nov. 16 was its previous season low. … C Zaza Pachulia went through what he called a tough workout Saturday morning to test the soreness below his left shoulder and remained hopeful of playing Monday. “We’ll see,” Pachulia said. “I’m going to have another great workout tomorrow.” He missed his seventh consecutive game and eighth in nine. … Shaun Livingston sat out his fourth straight game with a sore right knee but got in a solid pregame workout and looked strong running. … Kerr stuck with his winning starting five from Friday after Golden State used eight different starting lineups over the previous nine games.

UP NEXT

Nuggets: Host the Utah Jazz on Tuesday.

Warriors: Host the Cavaliers on Christmas in a rematch of the last three NBA Finals.

More AP basketball: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

NBA ties record with five games decided by two or fewer points in one day

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Kobe Bryant getting his numbers retired was the main attraction in the NBA last night.

But don’t let it completely overshadow an awesome night of basketball.

Five games were decided by two points or fewer, matching a record hit seven times prior, most recently in 2006. The close finishes:

Warriors 116, Lakers 114

In Los Angeles, where Kobe was honored, Kevin Durant hit the game-winner with 6.4 seconds left in overtime:

Durant shot 10-for-29. How Kobe-esque.

Celtics 112, Pacers 111

Boston and Indiana combined to make six straight shots in a thrilling final minute, capped by Terry Rozier‘s steal and game-winning dunk:

Even Darren Collison‘s desperation heave hit a lot of rim.

Thunder 95, Nuggets 94

Denver flubbed the end.

In a tie game, Oklahoma City had the ball with about a five-second difference between game clock and shot clock. Nuggets coach Michael Malone wanted to use a foul to give and was clearly annoyed Jamal Murray didn’t do it sooner. But Malone kept calling for an intentional foul, which Trey Lyles finally committed with 14.8 seconds left. That reset the shot clock to 14 seconds, allowing the Thunder to use nearly the entire game clock before Russell Westbrook drew a foul with 2.8 seconds left. Westbrook made a free throw for his 38th point, and – short on time – the Nuggets rushed a miss:

Timberwolves 108, Trail Blazers 107

In the final 7:02: Jamal Crawford 11, Jimmy Butler 10, Portland 10. Butler, who scored 37 points, hit the game-winning free throws with 2.5 seconds left:

Bulls 117, 76ers 115

Dario Saric scored Philadelphia’s final 10 points, but he couldn’t keep up with Nikola Mirotic and Kris Dunn. The duo carried Chicago down the stretch, as the Bulls overcame an eight point deficit in the final four minutes and moved to 6-0 with Mirotic:

Trey Lyles dunks on Jayson Tatum then disrespects him far worse (video)

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Trey Lyles made a nice play in the Nuggets’ loss to the Celtics last night, driving by Jayson Tatum then dunking on him.

On the other hand, that swirl around Tatum’s head was not very nice at all.