ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 season preview: Denver Nuggets

2 Comments

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.

Doc Rivers: I told Steve Ballmer, if Kawhi Leonard signed with Lakers, Clippers moving to Seattle

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
1 Comment

We know what happened: The Clippers traded for Paul George, signed Kawhi Leonard and became championship favorite.

But at one point, Clippers coach Doc Rivers thought the George trade with the Thunder would fall through and Leonard could sign with the Lakers.

Rivers, via Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times:

“The day of the trade at 12 noon the deal was off,” Rivers said. “I was at home in Malibu and Lawrence called me and told me, ‘It looks like he’s either going to Toronto or the Lakers.’ The Lakers part just threw me over. I told him that can’t happen. … I remember I kept telling him, ‘We cannot allow that to happen!’

“I actually told Steve jokingly that if that happens, we’re moving the team to Seattle. It was a joke, but I was actually serious about it. I really believed that.”

Kawhi Leonard cost us the SuperSonics returning!

I don’t know how serious Rivers really was. Leonard joining LeBron James and Anthony Davis on their cross-arena rival would’ve been disastrous for the Clippers.

I’m convinced Ballmer will keep the franchise in Los Angeles. Ballmer’s ties to Seattle through Microsoft are well-established, and he previously tried to buy the Kings to move them to Seattle. But I can’t see him moving the Clippers from such a prime market, especially after going so far to get a new arena built in L.A. At every turn, he has maintained he’ll keep the team in Los Angeles.

Then again, Ballmer also phrased that guarantee as, “I will die owning the L.A. Clippers.” Now, he’s open to changing the nickname. Hmmm…

To be clearer than Rivers: That’s a joke I’m not actually serious about don’t really believe.

Stephen Curry responds to Kevin Durant: We all want to iso, but I’d rather win titles

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images
1 Comment

After the Warriors lost to the Jazz in December, Steve Kerr said his team didn’t move the ball enough. Kevin Durant said Golden State passed too much.

That public disagreement sure looks more significant now. Not only did Durant leave for the Warriors, he cited offensive style as a reason.

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“The motion offense we run in Golden State, it only works to a certain point,” he says. “We can totally rely on only our system for maybe the first two rounds. Then the next two rounds we’re going to have to mix in individual play. We’ve got to throw teams off, because they’re smarter in that round of playoffs. So now I had to dive into my bag, deep, to create stuff on my own, off the dribble, isos, pick-and-rolls, more so than let the offense create my points for me.” He wanted to go someplace where he’d be free to hone that sort of improvisational game throughout the regular season.

Stephen Curry clearly viewed things differently.

Curry, via ESPN:

“Well, I don’t really care what plays we ran,” Curry said. “We won two championships. And at the end of the day, we had a lotta talent and there was an expectation of us figuring out how to balance all that. And we talked a lot about it throughout the three-year run. It wasn’t always perfect, but I think in terms of, you know, the results and what we were able to do on the floor, that kinda speaks for itself. We all wanna play iso-ball at the end of the day in some way, shape or form. But I’d rather have some championships, too.”

There’s truth to what Durant said. Defenses tighten deep in the playoffs, both because good defensive teams are more likely to advance and scouting committed to a single opponent tends to favor the defense. At that level, elite isolation scorers like Durant are particularly valuable. They can render schemes moot.

The Warriors learned that the hard way in the 2016 NBA Finals. They lost to the Cavaliers, who turned up their defense that postseason. Golden State scored fewer points per possession in its series against Cleveland than the Pistons did in the first round against the Cavs.

Adding Durant made the Warriors’ offense nearly unstoppable in every round. They leaned on their movement-heavy system when possible then turned to Durant isolations in moments of need.

Assessing playoff output is tricky because of varying opponents. But in three years with Durant, Golden State faced nine teams that played multiple postseason series. Eight of those teams had their worst defensive series against the Warriors, each by at least 2.6 points per 100 possessions. Only the 2019 Trail Blazers fared worse defensively against another team. They allowed just 0.2 more points per 100 possessions against the Nuggets than against Golden State.

Of course, Durant missed last season’s Western Conference finals against Portland. His absence was a big reason the Warriors’ didn’t meet their usual offensive standards.

Still, Golden State’s base offense was elite. Infallible? No. But it won multiple big playoff series before Durant arrived. He just took the Warriors to an even higher level.

Though he sometimes chafed at how the Warriors played, Durant also did his part to fit with them. He played his part in running Kerr’s preferred style.

It just seems Durant no longer wanted that safety-valve role. He holds immense respect for individual scoring as a skill. He’ll have a better chance to spread his wings in Brooklyn.

Durant will have a harder time winning a title without the incredible supporting cast he left behind. Curry might have wanted to point that out.

But everyone did their part in Golden State the last few years. That’s why they won those championships.

76ers once again overhaul around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
1 Comment

NBC Sports’ 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

Can Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons coexist?

While I’ve wondered about that question, the 76ers have charged ahead with the pairing. Embiid and Simmons are the givens. The surrounding players change. In just two seasons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Markelle Fultz, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris have cycled through as starters.

The latest supporting starters: Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson.

This might be the last chance to find a trio that works.

Philadelphia has taken advantage of Embiid’s and Simmons’ low rookie-scale salaries, which was always a selling point of The Process. A roster loaded with cheap young players created a window to add more-expensive talent. Then, with everyone already in place, NBA rules generally allow teams to keep their own players.

But Embiid is already on his max contract extension, and Simmons just signed a max contract extension that will take effect next year. The flexibility is vanishing.

One last time, the 76ers made the most of it. They signed-and-traded Butler for Richardson and let Redick walk in free agency. That left enough cap space to sign Al Horford (four years, $109 million with $97 million guaranteed) and use Bird Rights to re-sign Tobias Harris (five years, $180 million).

That’s a lot of deliberate disruption for a team that was already good and rising.

The big question: Did it make Philadelphia better?

I just don’t know.

As fond as I am of Butler, I understand all the reasons to be wary of offering the 30-year-old a huge contract. But moving on from him to give a huge deal to a 33-year-old Horford? That’s curious. Then again, Philadelphia also added Richardson – a solid replacement for Butler on the wing – in the process.

The 76ers will miss Butler’s shot creation. He often took over their offense in the clutch during the playoffs. Harris can pick up some of the slack, but that still looks like a hole.

At just 27, Harris is young for a player who has already been in the league so long. That’s a big reason it was worth Philadelphia signing him to a sizable long-term contract.

Horford’s deal could age poorly, but he’s a winner still playing quality all-around basketball. If nothing else, the 76ers removed Embiid’s best defender from the rival Celtics.

Philadelphia filled its bench with several value signings – Mike Scott (room exception), James Ennis (minimum), Kyle O'Quinn (minimum), Furkan Korkmaz (minimum), Raul Neto (minimum) and Trey Burke (partially guaranteed minimum). However, sometimes teams need production more than cost-effectiveness. The 76ers’ bench struggled last season, and they devoted minimal resources to upgrading.

In the draft, Philadelphia traded the Nos. 24 and 33 picks for No. 20 pick Matisse Thybulle. That’s a costly move up, especially for a player I rated No. 34. Worse, it seemingly happened because Boston snuffed out the 76ers’ interest in Thybulle then leveraged them. That’s small potatoes, though.

Simmons (No. 9 on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years) and Embiid (No. 11 on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years) will likely define this era for Philadelphia. Embiid is on his way to becoming one of the NBA’s very best players. Simmons is so good, giving him a max extension was a no-brainer.

But they were already in place.

Harris, Horford and Richardson will define this offseason. I just can’t tell whether they made the 76ers’ promising future even brighter or slightly dimmer.

Offseason grade: C

Michelle Roberts says if you don’t like player movement blame owners, too

Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images
2 Comments

Last summer was one of the wildest offseasons in NBA history, maybe the wildest, and the headline was player empowerment. Anthony Davis pushed his way to the Lakers, Paul George forced his way out of Oklahoma City to go to the Clippers and join Kawhi Leonard, which soon had Russell Westbrook joining his old teammate James Harden in Houston. It led to frustration by some owners and changes in how the NBA will handle tampering.

Except, by choice is not how most players change teams. While AD or George has the leverage to make a power play — because of their exceptional talent — most of the time players are traded because the owner/team has all the power and can uproot players for whatever reason (basketball reasons sometimes, saving money other times). The stars have free agent options, rotation players much less so in that system.

Michelle Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players’ Association, wants you to remember that it’s not just player power that has led to the increase in player movement, as she told Mark Spears of The Undefeated.

Michele Roberts, told The Undefeated that she believes there is a “double standard” between how stars are viewed when they decide to move on compared with when franchises choose to make a major transaction, adding that team owners “continue to view players as property.”

“If you want to be critical of one, be critical of both,” Roberts said from the NBPA’s offices in Manhattan. “Those of us who made decisions to move, it’s really astounding to even consider what it feels like to be told in the middle of your life you are going to have to move. But that’s the business we’re in. …

“No one seems to spend a lot of time thinking about what it’s like to make those kinds of moves completely involuntarily. You volunteer to play or not play. But, yeah, if it’s still the case that if you think you’ve got to suck it up, player, then, hell, you’ve got to suck it up, team.”

She’s right. From Chris Paul to Blake Griffin, plenty of big stars have been moved against their will. The door swings both ways, but in those cases most fans tended to see why and like what the teams did. Those fans like it less when players do the same thing.

There’s also a classic labor vs. management angle to all this, which has political overtones.

For my money, how one views player movement tends to be part generational and part where you live.

Older fans remember days — or, at least think they remember days — when players stayed with teams for much or all of their career. It’s understandable, fans form a bond with players and want them to stay… while they’re still good and useful, after that fans beg ownership to get the “dead weight off the books.” Players before the late 1980s stayed with teams because they didn’t have a choice — for Bill Russell in the 60s or Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the 1980s, free agency was not an option. And for every Kobe Bryant that did stay with a team, there were a lot more Wilts and Shaqs, who were traded several times and played with multiple teams.

Younger fans (generally, nothing is universal) are okay with the player movement, sometimes are more fans of a player than a team, and like the action and buzz of all the trades.

Location matters because if you’re in Oklahoma City there’s reason to not like what George did and the era of player empowerment. New Orleans fans can feel the same way (although part of that case is the “supermax” contract that owners wanted but really forced up the timeline on teams and players to make a decision on paying stars). But fans in Los Angeles or wherever players ultimately choose to go will feel differently. Fans want what’s best for their team, but there is no way in the star culture of the NBA to wash away the lure of big markets or of teaming up with another elite player.

The NBA dynamic is different from the NFL’s (for now), but it’s not changing. LeBron James helped usher in an era of player empowerment and it’s the new reality for the NBA, one the best franchises will adapt to rather than fight.