ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Denver Nuggets

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Last season: The Nuggets finished the regular season with the best home record in the league, and a franchise best 57 wins, good for the three seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Then, they were bounced out of the first round by the Golden State Warriors in six games.

George Karl won Coach of the Year honors, then was fired when he pushed for a contract extension this summer. Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri won Executive of the Year, before leaving to join the Raptors organization.

Signature highlight from last season: There were a couple of freakishly athletic JaVale McGee plays we could have chosen, as well as some circus shots from Danilo Gallinari. But this game-winner at the buzzer from Ty Lawson over the Thunder fit more snugly, thanks to the way that victory summed up what last season’s Nuggets were all about.

Wilson Chandler did the damage offensively in that one, dropping in 35 points off the bench. Meanwhile, only one of Denver’s starters topped double digits in scoring. The Nuggets had multiple, sometimes random guys that would beat you on any given night, and that’s what made them such a challenge to deal with over the course of the season.

Key player changes: Denver didn’t do anything drastic to improve its roster this summr, but the team also didn;t make the mistake of overpaying its most high-profile free agent, either.

  • IN: Randy Foye was acquired from the Jazz as part of the three-team deal that sent Andre Iguodala to the Warriors in a sign-and-trade. Darrell Arthur was acquired via trade in exchange for Kosta Koufos. J.J. Hickson was signed to a multi-year deal in free agency, as was former Bulls spark plug Nate Robinson.
  • OUT: The aforementioned Iguodala and Koufos, along with Corey Brewer, who signed a free agent deal with the Timberwolves.

Keys to the Nuggets’ season:

1) The development of JaVale McGee: As scary as it may seem, the Nuggets actually have quite a bit riding on how quickly JaVale McGee can evolve into a more consistently productive player. The reason Kosta Koufos was traded for Darrell Arthur was not because Koufos wasn’t good, it’s that his reliable play made him the logical choice for minutes over the hit-or-miss (or worse) McGee.

The athleticism has always been there, but the basketball IQ has not. If new head coach Brian Shaw can reach and teach McGee, the Nuggets will have a valuable weapon that could change the complexion of the team’s defense.

2)Making the new pieces fit: The loss of Iguodala may not seem of dire importance, considering the amount of balance the Nuggets played with a season ago. He was tied for third on the team in points per game with Wilson Chandler, and Corey Brewer and Kenneth Faried weren’t that far behind.

But Iguodala was perhaps the team’s most versatile player, especially considering what he was able to do defensively on a nightly basis. His threat of scoring opened things up for his teammates, and while there are other guys on the team capable of picking up that slack, the overall team dynamic will be tested with the new faces on the roster being molded together by a new, first-time head coach in Brian Shaw.

3)The health of Danilo Gallinari: As much as Denver relied on a variety of players over the course of the season, it was proven as soon as the playoffs began just how much they needed Danilo Gallinari’s ability to get buckets.

Gallinari’s season was ended prematurely in April due to an ACL injury, and he’ll miss at least the first month of the season, if not a little bit more. As Denver is finding its way without him, it’ll be like starting over again once they add his scoring back into the lineup, and that process could set the team back initially, depending on how long it takes Gallo to get fully back up to speed.

Why you should watch: Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried, and JaVale McGee are all special talents at their position. Brian Shaw will be interesting as a first year head coach, and if there’s a substantial drop-off from last year’s success, the team is a prime candidate to implode given all of the changes made by the front office.

Prediction: 47-35. Playoffs, probably. But with the top six teams in the West all but locked in and with all of the changes in Denver, those last two spots are officially up for grabs.

LeBron James, Stephen Curry top NBA jersey sales again

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There are new names on and climbing the list: Joel Embiid is up to No. 5, Luka Doncic came in 13th as a rookie.

However, for the most part, the names on the list of the most sold jerseys in the NBA look very familiar.

With LeBron James jumping teams to the Los Angeles Lakers, it should be no surprise he tops the list of most-sold jerseys (based on NBAStore.com sales since the start of the season). Stephen Curry is second, and the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo climbed up to third.

Here are the top 15 in jersey sales this season.

1. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
2. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
4. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics
5. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
6. James Harden, Houston Rockets
7. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
8. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
9. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
10. Jimmy Butler, Philadelphia 76ers
11. Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat
12. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder
13. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
14. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
15. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Three Sixers made the list (Embiid, Simmons, Butler), the most of any team. Also, Wade went out in the top 15 after his Last Dance farewell tour.

Here are the top 10 franchises in team merchandise sales:

1. Los Angeles Lakers
2. Golden State Warriors
3. Boston Celtics
4. Philadelphia 76ers
5. Milwaukee Bucks
6. Chicago Bulls
7. Oklahoma City Thunder
8. Houston Rockets
9. Toronto Raptors
10. New York Knicks

Malcom Brogdon out for Bucks-Celtics Games 1 and 2

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Malcolm Brogdon suffered a foot injury that’d sideline him for the start of the playoffs.

The Bucks (vs. Pistons) and Celtics (vs. Pacers) won their first-round series too quickly.

Milwaukee-Boston will be the first series between teams coming off sweeps since Lakers-Suns in the 2010 Western Conference finals and first such second-round series since Pistons-Bulls in 2007. So, the Bucks-Celtics series will begin Sunday, the second-earliest of four possible dates.

Which means no Brogdon to begin the series.

Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Game 1 is Sunday, and Game 2 is Tuesday. That leaves open the possibility of Brogdon returning for Game 3 Friday, May 3.

Brogdon is a good shooting guard, but the Bucks were just fine without him in the first round. Sterling Brown and Pat Connaughton played well against Detroit, and Tony Snell could enter the rotation as he gets healthy.

But the Celtics are a far bigger challenge. Milwaukee won’t necessarily need Brogdon against Boston, but the Bucks’ chances are much higher if he returns to full strength.

Russell Westbrook to critics: ‘I don’t really care what people say’

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Russell Westbrook has faced a lot of criticism this season, a chorus that grew louder in the first round of the playoffs.

While he averaged a triple-double for the third straight season, his shooting degenerated and his efficiency dropped. This is Westbrook’s shot chart for the regular season.

Which was better than his playoff shot chart.

The results of his shooting woes were obvious in the playoffs. Portland big man Enes Kanter can be exposed as a pick-and-roll defender if pulled out on the perimeter to deal with a ball handler, but the Trail Blazers didn’t have to do that. Kanter would sag back, clog the paint, and dare Westbrook to take jumpers or drive past him. Even when Westbrook drove there were not clear lanes and he struggled to finish.

That swelled the volume of criticism of Westbrook. Not that he cares. Did anyone actually expect him to be bothered? Westbrook brushed off his critics speaking with the media after his exit interview on Thursday. Via Royce Young of ESPN.

“There used to be conversations if I was a ball hog, but now I lead the league in assists for the past three years or whatever it is, that’s getting squashed out,” he said. “So now the conversation is about shooting. Next year I’m going to become a better shooter. After that it’ll be probably, f—, my left foot is bigger than my right one. Who knows.

“So that’s why, back to your point, I don’t really care what people say, what they think about me, because it doesn’t really matter. I know what I’m able to do and know what I’m able to do at a high level every night, and nobody else can do what I can do on a night-in, night-out basis, and I truly believe that. If they could, I’m pretty sure they would. But I know for a fact that nobody can.”

Westbrook still impacts the game with his drives and athleticism, he is still an All-NBA level guard in this league, if not MVP level anymore. He is still one of the game’s elite players. However, as he was getting outplayed by Damian Lillard in the first round the questions came up again, “just how far can the Thunder go with Westbrook as their primary option?” After four surgeries in six years, can he still carry a team deep into the playoffs?

When Westbrook was on the floor without Paul George this season, the Thunder struggled. When it was George without Westbrook, they still played well. It’s become clear that not only must Westbrook improve his shooting — not to Curry levels, but closer to his MVP self that shot better from the midrange — but also Sam Presti and Thunder management need to find a way to get more shooting around Westbrook. A stretch-five, in particular, would help (Stephen Adams is good at a lot of things, but spacing the floor is not one of them). OKC needs shooters around Westbrook.

How the Thunder pull that off with a capped-out team — they have the second-highest payroll in the league this season and Westbrook and George are maxed out for years — is going to require some real creativity. But if the Thunder are going to be more than a first-round-exit team in the West, they need to find a way.

Rumor: Lakers want to make Kurt Rambis associate head coach

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When Magic Johnson resigned as Lakers president, Lakers owner Jeanie Buss had an opportunity to be bold. Instead of empowering cronies, she could find the best available executive to lead the front office.

Instead, she’s apparently again leaning on the comfort of friends.

As the Lakers’ conduct their coaching search, Kurt Rambis (Senior Basketball Advisor) and his wife Linda Rambis (Executive Director, Special Projects) are quite involved.

Bill Oram of The Athletic:

Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times:

The goal is seemingly to move Rambis to the bench as an associate head coach. But if that doesn’t work, he could become the assistant general manager.

Kurt Rambis interviewing Monty Williams makes sense. Kurt Rambis works in basketball operations, after all. Linda Rambis’ presence makes less sense given her official role within the organization, but she is close to Jeanie Buss.

It’d be something else entirely to install Kurt Rambis as an associate head coach, though. He did poorly as Timberwolves coach and, as New York’s interim coach a couple years ago, made the Knicks into an even bigger mess than they already were.

This shines new light on Magic Johnson reportedly admonishing Luke Walton for not having an experienced coaching staff. Walton had Brian Shaw, a former Nuggets head coach (and someone with his own problems relating to players). Shaw wasn’t enough?

Maybe there was a preference from above, not for any experienced assistant coach, but Kurt Rambis specifically.

This should scare any Lakers coaching candidates. Not getting to pick your own staff is a negative. Having the owner’s hand-picked choice forced upon you is a huge red flag. That means management will be confident in an internal replacement if it’s considering firing you.