ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 season preview: Denver Nuggets

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Last season: Be warned, you could get injured just reading this paragraph. Coming off a 57-win season hopes were high but Danilo Gallinari never played a game, instead needing a second knee surgery to clean up the first one. JaVale McGee played in just five games after a stress fracture to his tibia. Wilson Chandler, Ty Lawson and Nate Robinson each missed at least 20 games due to injury. Those injuries meant fluctuating rotations, which on top of a new coach and new system under Brian Shaw created issues, particularly defensively. The result is a 36 win team that misses the playoffs.

Signature highlight from last season: In some ways this sums up the Nuggets halfcourt offense last season: Down two to the Clippers with time for one last shot the Nuggets don’t really have a go-to guy so they run a play — which more teams should do, but this play lacks urgency and execution, and so it falls to Randy Foye to take a deep three over Blake Griffin. Of course, in this case he drains it.

Key player changes: Frankly, the biggest change will just be getting Gallinari and McGee back in the lineup. Denver made one really nice free agent addition this summer, trading for Arron Afflalo who had an All-Star level year in Orlando (and giving up on the potential of Evan Fournier in the deal). Also added to the roster is a rookie showing a lot of potential in Gary Harris, plus Alonzo Gee, Erick Green, and another rookie in Jusuf Nurkic.

Gone from the roster besides Fournier are Aaron Brooks, Anthony Randolph, and Jan Vesely.

Keys to the Nuggets’ season:

The defense must get better. Last season, despite all the injuries, the Nuggets had a solid offense (middle of the NBA pack) but their bottom-10 defense was the big issue. With the return of Gallinari and the addition of Afflalo the Nuggets offense should be better than average, more than that it should be good. Maybe very good. But all of that doesn’t matter if they can’t get stops. The return of JaVale McGee to protect the paint is potentially a big step forward. However it’s going to take more than that — the Nuggets pick-and-roll defense last season was a weakness and it’s got to improve. It’s going to take Shaw putting in a consistent system, getting full buy in from the players, someone stepping up to be a good perimeter stopper, and guys like Kenneth Faried improving on the defensive end in a way he hasn’t before. The Nuggets fancy themselves a playoff team in the West, but if it’s going to happen it has to happen on this end of the floor.

Improvement in the halfcourt offense. What the Nuggets are built to do is run — Lawson is a fantastic scorer and creator in transition, Afflalo and Gallinari can space the floor and knock down shots, while bigs like Faried, McGee and J.J. Hickson are amazing rim runners. When the tempo is up the Nuggets are hard to beat. When the tempo slows… not so much. If the Nuggets want to make the playoffs they are going to need to score in the halfcourt more consistently. Again, Afflalo and Gallinari should help here, but Shaw has to put in a system and guys need to execute it, because good teams are going to try to slow the ball down vs. Denver. And the West is loaded with good teams.

A breakout season for Kenneth Faried. We saw the best of what Faried can do during the World Cup — energy is a skill (to quote David Thorpe, among others) and Faried brings that more than any other player in the league. That energy and effort can be a glue. Faried brings a ferociousness on the boards, and when the team gets out and runs he can bring points in transition. Faried was a glue for a Team USA roster that was already loaded with scorers and didn’t need his points (so defenses almost ignored him at first, allowing him to get points). The Nuggets have plenty of guys who can score but Faried is not going to be ignored in the same way, yet he needs to bring a new bounce to his step from that Spanish experience this summer and push this team to another level. Faried is not your first (or second) offensive option in a halfcourt set, he’s not a lockdown defender, but what he brings can lift the rest of the Nuggets up to a new level. He has to bring that every night for them to make the playoffs.

Why you should watch the Nuggets: They played at the third fastest pace in the NBA last season and Brian Shaw wants his team to run more — and when they run there are few teams more fun to watch. Ty Lawson is underrated both as a point guard and on the entertainment scale. Plus, they will have one of the best bench units in the league.

Prediction: 44-38, which will be about the 10 seed in the West and just outside the playoffs. This is going to be a bounce back year for the Nuggets in a lot of ways, they are going to be much better than last season just by being healthy again. Whether or not they make the playoffs really comes down to how well they defend, they will be better than the bad defensive team they were a year ago but I’m not sold it will change enough to make the playoffs in the loaded West. That said, if some of those good teams in the West suffer injuries or slip up more than expected, the Nuggets will be there ready to pounce and grab one of those playoff spots. It’s possible (especially with their depth and second unit) and should be their goal, I just can’t see them getting all the way there this year.

Three Things to Know: Don’t take Damian Lillard for granted, he explodes for 61 points

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Damian Lillard explodes for 61, reminds everyone he is elite. It’s not so much that Damian Lillard is forgotten by fans around the nation as much as just taken for granted. Because he plays in the Pacific Northwest and doesn’t end up on national television all that often, and because he’s been consistently so good for so long (but without the Trail Blazers being seen as a real threat to win a ring), fans sleep on him being one of the best and most entertaining guards in the NBA.

Not on Monday.

On Martin Luther King Day, Lillard reminded everyone just how special he can be scoring 61 points, knocking down 11 threes, and scoring seven in overtime to make sure Portland beat Golden State in a showcase TNT game.

The Warriors threw every defense they could find at Lillard: Double teams, a few triple teams, and most of the night Warriors players would pick him up full court. It didn’t matter. Lillard looked every bit the guy who finished top six in MVP voting the past two seasons, the All-NBA guard the last two seasons (and likely a third in a row this season), the guy who just can’t be stopped when he is on. Lillard scored 42 through the first three quarters, added a dozen more — including some clutch threes — in the fourth, then had seven more in OT. It was a virtuoso performance.

Lillard will likely get taken for granted again by fans this season, especially on a Portland team that is 19-26 and made a trade over the weekend — sending Kent Bazemore, Anthony Tolliver, and two second-round picks to Sacramento for Trevor Ariza, Wenyen Gabriel, and Caleb Swanigan — that was about cutting the team’s luxury tax bill in half. It also signaled to the league the Blazers would be sellers at the trade deadline, looking to get out of the tax entirely. (Expect for Portland to try and ship out Hassan Whiteside in a money-saving trade next.)

It’s a trade that largely waved the white flag on the season. Maybe things go right, Jusuf Nurkic comes back and Portland makes a push up to the final playoff slot in the West — and that’s a big maybe — but they are not a postseason threat this year.

Just don’t wave the white flag on Lillard, he’s still one of the game’s elite guards.

2) Kemba Walker owns LeBron James (at least once in the last 29 games, but he’ll take it). Kemba Walker, toiling away his career in Charlotte on teams where the dream was just making the playoffs, never seemed a threat to the LeBron James juggernauts in Miami and Cleveland. LeBron had beaten Walker 28 consecutive times.

Monday it was Walker’s turn.

Boston crushed the Lakers in a game that had fans flipping over to America’s Got Talent because there was more drama on that stage than the TD Garden. The Celtics took charge with a 12-1 run in the second, grabbed the offensive rebound on 41.7 percent of their missed shots for the game (led by Ennis Kanter), got 20 points from Walker and 27 from Jayson Tatum in a “don’t you dare leave me out of the All-Star Game” performance, and cruised to a 139-107 thumping of the Lakers. Boston led by 14 at half and the entire fourth quarter was basically garbage time.

Jaylen Brown dunking on LeBron pretty much sums up the night.

After that play, Brown stared down LeBron and got a technical — I hate that tech. Let the players show some emotion, let a little trash talk go down. If we wanted emotionless performances we’d put on a Keanu Reeves movie.

“I ain’t going to lie, that was pretty nice, pretty awesome,” Brown said after the game (via the AP). “LeBron, he’s gotten so many other guys. Just to be out there against one of the best players to ever play the game is an honor. I always like that matchup and it gives me a little extra boost.”

For the Lakers, this is a was a “flush it and move on” game that happens to every team over the course of a season. I’d be careful reading too much into this one game. Anthony Davis returned from his bruised tailbone but looked rusty. LeBron was just off, the Boston defense took Los Angeles out of their flow, and the Lakers stood around a lot and didn’t move off the ball. Marcus Smart had a good defensive game, Tatum’s length helped on that end, but mostly this was just an off night for the Lakers. There are questions about this Los Angeles roster, but one night in Boston didn’t tell us much about them.

3) Russell Westbrook now has a triple-double against every team in the NBA. Before MLK Day, only LeBron James had recorded a triple-double against every franchise in the NBA.

Russell Westbrook, welcome to that club. Monday he scored 32 points, 12 assists, and 11 rebounds against the one team still on his list — the Oklahoma City Thunder, for whom he had played up until this season.

Much like Lillard (mentioned above), we tend to take for granted just how impressive a player Westbrook is — triple-doubles are hard to come by and he just racks them up like they’re his birthright. We need to take a step back and admire what Westbrook does. we’re not going to see the likes of him for a while.

Westbrook’s play didn’t turn around Houston’s slump. The Rockets fell to the Thunder 112-107, that’s four losses in a row and 5-of-6 for the Rockets. In a tight West, these kinds of streaks can damage playoff seeding and Houston needs to right the ship quickly.

Friends reach out offering help after disturbing video of Delonte West surfaces

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Delonte West battled bipolar disorder during his eight NBA seasons, a career that was cut short in part by a series of actions likely tied to his condition.

He’s been out of the league since 2012, but his challenges have not changed. Over the weekend, a disturbing video of West being attacked and beaten on a Washington D.C. street surfaced. It was followed by a second video showing West handcuffed and apparently talking to the police (or waiting to talk to them), where West used graphic and disturbing language to accuse another man of pulling a gun on him.

In the wake of that, West’s former St. Joseph’s teammate Jameer Nelson posted this on Twitter:

West’s former coach at St. Joseph’s Phil Martelli followed that us, as did others on social media.

Others who knew West also chimed in:

Let’s hope West gets the help he needs.

Kemba Walker stops personal losing streak to LeBron James at 28, Celtics top Lakers

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BOSTON (AP) — Kemba Walker finally beat LeBron James, and he did it by helping the Boston Celtics send the Los Angeles Lakers to their biggest loss of the season.

Walker ended a career-long losing streak against James, scoring 20 points to beat him for the first time in 29 tries and lead the Celtics past the rival Lakers 139-107 on Monday night.

“I’m happy I got one at least, before he goes,” Walker said with a laugh after the Celtics snapped their three-game losing streak. “Who knows how long he can play, because he’s just incredible. But you know, it’s only one. One and 28.”

Jaylen Brown scored 20 points, drawing a taunting technical after dunking over James, and Enes Kanter had 18 points and 11 rebounds for Boston.

“I ain’t going to lie, that was pretty nice, pretty awesome,” Brown said. “LeBron, he’s gotten so many other guys. Just to be out there against one of the best players to ever play the game is an honor. I always like that matchup and it gives me a little extra boost.”

James said there was no shame in getting beaten — this time.

“Why would I take it personally? It’s part of basketball,” he said. “It’s not the first time I got dunked on. It might not be the last time I get dunked on. But Jaylen’s been playing exceptionally well this year. It was a good play.”

The Celtics gave up the first eight points of the game but turned things around when Anthony Davis, playing for the first time in almost two weeks, went to the bench with a pair of fouls 49 seconds apart early in the first quarter.

“The less he plays, the better for everybody else,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.

James had 15 points and 13 assists for the Lakers, who had won 10 of their previous 11 games. But the Celtics made 13 of their first 22 3-point attempts to open a 103-75 lead in the third quarter — the biggest against Los Angeles all season until Boston made it a 34-point game in the fourth.

“We were fortunate to put the ball in the basket quite a bit,” said Stevens, whose team shot 56% overall. “The ball going in masks some things.”

Walker’s 28 games without a win against James was second in NBA history only to Sherman Douglas’ 0-30 head-to-head record against Michael Jordan.

“If anybody: him. The guy I couldn’t beat, it’d be him. He’s such a great player, he’s done so much in this league,” said Walker, who spent the first eight years of his career in Charlotte. “He’s beaten a lot of guys. I bet you there’s a lot of people who don’t have a winning record against LeBron James.”

 

Lakers, 76ers reportedly interested in trade for Derrick Rose

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Derrick Rose‘s renaissance has come to the point this season he is in the running for Sixth Man of the Year, averaging 18.3 points, 5.9 assists, and 2.4 rebounds per game (before Monday’s game against the Wizards).

The Pistons are in the mix for a playoff spot in the East — three games back of the eighth-seed Nets, who are finally getting healthy — but with Blake Griffin out for the season they are expected to be sellers at the deadline. That means Rose, a guy who could help a number of contending teams.

The Lakers and 76ers are among those interested, according to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

The Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers and multiple teams with championship aspirations have expressed interest in trading for Detroit Pistons guard Derrick Rose, league sources told Yahoo Sports…

The Lakers and Sixers are in search of point guard assistance for the stretch run, sources said.

The Lakers need a second playmaker as their offense falls by 9.8 points per 100 possessions when LeBron James is off the court. To make the deal work, the Lakers would have to dangle Kyle Kuzma plus someone to fill the salary (Avery Bradley would work but that would cost Los Angeles another starter; DeMarcus Cousins and Quinn Cook works, too, but why would the Pistons want them?). The Lakers are limited in picks they can send out after the haul they sent to New Orleans in the Anthony Davis deal.

The 76ers need a playmaking point guard to go next to Ben Simmons at points, ideally one who can stretch the floor (Rose is shooting just 31.8 percent from three). The Sixers would likely dangle Zhaire Smith and maybe Mike Scott to make the salaries work.

Expect the Pistons to listen to offers up to the deadline, playing teams off each other to get the best possible deal. But Rose may well be on the move before Feb. 6.