What the Nuggets should do when the lockout ends…

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This is the next installment of PBT’s series of “What your team should do when the lockout ends.” Today it’s the Denver Nuggets. You can also read up on the LakersTimberwolves and Mavericks as we start to work our way through all 30 NBA teams.

 

Last Season: Well that was no fun, then it was kind of fun, then it was not fun, again. The Nuggets finished 50-32 which is close to a freaking miracle considering everything they went through. The first half of the season was hijacked by the Melo trade drama, and the second half was spent trying to figure out an abundance of talent without a superstar. It finished with a disappointing loss to the Thunder in which Oklahoma City ran out to a big series lead and never really looked back. It was supposed to be a huge matchup, and instead it felt empty. But the Nuggets should be proud of what they accomplished, and how they stuck together despite all the distractions, and having to figure out what was essentially a whole new team after the trade.

Changes since we last saw the Nuggets: Well, half of them are in China now. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin, and Wilson Chandler all seem set to head to China without an NBA-out clause. All three are free agents, and their return to Denver was questionable-to-doubtful to begin with. But without them, there are some interesting shifts if they stay in China. Smith’s spot is actually the most expendable. Danilo Gallinari can play shooting guard for certain rotations, and Denver is almost certain to re-sign Aaron Afflalo, one of the most efficient shooters in the league, from restricted free agency. Chandler’s minutes will be soaked up by Galinari and Al Harrington if the Nuggets go big, and Harrington likewise would take the minutes of Kenyon Martin. Harrington was God-awful-to-hey-pretty-good last season (there was a lot of variation within the Nuggets season if you can’t tell). The Nuggets also tinkered a bit at the draft, trading Raymond Felton for Andre Miller and a pick which became Jordan Hamilton to go along with Kenneth Faried. The big question will be Nene who will be an unrestricted free agent. Will he return to Denver or go chase a ring? Will the Nuggets have enough room under the new cap? Will we continue to ask annoying theoretical rhetoricals?

When the lockout ends, the Nuggets need to: Spend a year evaluating. If they re-sign Nene, their window is decidedly smaller, and they need to shift accordingly. But next year’s team will be driven to discover if Ty Lawson is ready to become a star in this league, if Danilo Gallinari is ready for another step forward, if George Karl can pull a young team together and make it greater than the sum of its parts without a true superstar, and what Masai Ujiri will do with the flexibility and assets afforded him. They’re not a young team all over, they’re not a veteran team all over, but they are an exceedingly talented team all over. The future’s bright for the Nuggets, but they have to hit the ground running.

They’ve got depth, with Andre Miller backing up Lawson, Gallinari’s versatility at positions, Al Harrington as a bench scorer, rookies who can contribute immediately, and capable defenders like Chris Anderson (or at least guys that can foul). But if Nene doesn’t re-sign, everything changes. They will have a gaping hole at center they’ll have to address, and the drop-off will be significant. How they’ll hande that will determine whether next season is a rebuilding year for Denver or a continuation of trying to make lightning in a bottle come together for an unlikely championship run.

James Harden on shooting struggles: ‘Who cares?’

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A couple of years ago, could anyone have imagined James Harden not only saying he’s willing to give up scoring to do the little things to win but then actually doing it?

That’s exactly what Harden has done through five games against Golden State, and it’s why his Houston team is up 3-2.

Harden has struggled with his shot the past two games: He has shot 16-of-47 overall the past two games (34 percent) but also 3-of-23 from three. Yet he has done a good job setting up others. In Game 5, in particular, he did a better job getting into the middle of the paint, opening up passing lanes when the defense collapsed on him. He’s also worked hard on the defensive end, played Stephen Curry reasonably well, and been a solid team defender.

With his team one game from the Finals, he’s not concerned about his shot.

“Who cares?” Harden said to reporters after the game. “I’m just missing shots. But we’re winning, and I’m trying to compete on the defensive end and do other things to help my team win. But if we’ve got a guy like Eric Gordon making shots and being aggressive, who cares?”

A lot of players give that idea lip service, but in recent games Harden has backed it up.

“It’s just the shots [are] not falling, and a lot of it has to do with how hard everybody is playing,” Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Probably his legs aren’t the freshest things in the world. But he’s invaluable to the defense and offense.”

The Rockets are going to need more scoring from Harden to close this series out — Chris Paul is out for Game 6 with a strained hamstring, and it’s unlikely he plays if there is a Game 7. Eric Gordon will get the start and has lit it up the past couple of games (he led the Rockets with 24 points in Game 5), but more scoring and shot creation will fall on the Harden’s shoulders.

If the Rockets are going to close this series out, Harden is going to have to look every bit the presumptive MVP. The little things are great, but Houston needs him to get buckets now.

Suns GM: ‘Overwhelming likelihood’ team keeps No. 1 pick

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It takes a rare kind of courage, an extraordinary level of organizational backing, and a special kind of draft to do what Danny Ainge did a year ago trading the No. 1 pick. While a consensus had formed around Markelle Fultz as the best player in the draft, Ainge was a Jayson Tatum guy. Doubts about the top pick are common, but that alone is far from enough to trade that pick away — most GMs don’t have the job security to know if they miss on moving the pick and sliding down they will not be let go. Ainge had that, and he had his confidence in his scouting, so he made the move to trade the No. 1 pick to Philadelphia. (While it looks good now for Ainge, it’s too early to judge how that pick plays out — Fultz has barely played, we don’t know what extra pick the Celtics will get out of this, it takes time to fully judge these kinds of moves.)

This year is different. DeAndre Ayton is more of a clear No. 1, a guy with franchise changing potential. Plus Suns’ GM Ryan McDonough may not be standing on the kind of bedrock that allows for the trade of a No. 1 pick.

Recently McDonough said he’d listen to trade offers for the pick. That’s very different from trading it, as Scott Bordow of the Arizona Republic had the GM saying Friday.

Because they should do their due diligence, the Suns will look at Luka Doncic (who does have a relationship with new coach Igor Kokoskov) and Marvin Bagley III, among others. Rumors may leak, spun by agents or other teams. However, at the end of the day, good luck finding anyone around the league who thinks Phoenix will not take Ayton — who attended college in Arizona — to be the inside to Devin Booker‘s outside. It’s the smart play.

Kokoskov and the Suns have a lot of work to do to build a foundation for success with this franchise. However, that almost never starts by trading away the top pick in the draft.

Rumor: Paul George’s agent telling people client will re-sign with Thunder

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That rumor Paul George will leave the Thunder?

How about the exact opposite?

Dean Blevins of News 9:

Allegedly, apparently, Paul George plans to stay with the Thunder. I know. It’s not what people believe. But in separate conversations, I’m told P.G.’s agent has told people associated with the NBA that P.G. believes the injury loss of Andre Roberson was huge and he’s staying. Disclaimer, though: Believing everything that agents allegedly say can be dangerous to your health.

This, by Blevins’ own admission, isn’t the staunchest reporting. Nonetheless, I appreciate him sharing and contextualizing it. We can evaluate it for what it’s worth.

George is known to share his plans – though the previous example was him planning to sign with the Lakers. And he might have really believed it at the time, when he was still with the Pacers.

But throughout the season, George seemingly went out of his way to profess his affection for Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and the Thunder. That only raised expectations in Oklahoma City of George staying, and if he leaves after doing that, he’d be inviting even more backlash. I think he’s smart enough to understand that, which is why I thought he made those especially strong pro-Thunder comments only after deciding he’d likely stay.

On the other hand, even if my assessment was correct, conditions change. The Jazz brutally exposed Oklahoma City’s flaws, and if George re-signs and Anthony opts in, the Thunder will have minimal cap flexibility to upgrade the roster. In fact, they might take a step back with the supporting cast to keep the luxury-tax bill manageable. George could see free agency as his chance to escape that mess.

Roberson was a huge loss, and if George is focused on that, that would bode well for Oklahoma City. Though Roberson was just a role player, he was pivotal to the Thunder’s defense. And his teammates had learned how to play around his offensive shortcomings. Oklahoma City didn’t have any good replacements for him on the roster. Roberson getting healthy is the clearest way for the Thunder to improve next season.

Of course, that’s predicated on George returning, too. Will he?

One last note of caution: People often believe what they want to hear. It’s easy to see someone in Oklahoma City hearing George bemoan the loss of Roberson and elevate that to George planning to re-sign, even George wasn’t going that far.

Draymond Green guarantees Warriors will beat Rockets in Western Conference finals

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Warriors coach Steve Kerr is confident despite his team trailing the Rockets 3-2 in the Western Conference finals.

Golden State forward Draymond Green goes further.

Green, via Marcus Thompson II of The Athletic:

“We still winning this,” Draymond Green said. “Book it.”

Of course, Green is confident. He’d never say he expects his team to lose.

But he didn’t need to frame it this way. He could’ve said he was just focused on the next game rather than make such a bold proclamation.

He’s taking pressure upon himself and putting his reputation on the line. If Golden State loses, especially in Game 6 at home with Chris Paul out, Green will be widely mocked.

If he and the Warriors pull through, he’ll probably deserve praise for setting a tone that helped them advance.