51 Questions: Is Mike Malone the key to bringing Denver back?

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PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

Is Mike Malone the key to bringing Denver back?

One incident sums up how bad things had gotten in Denver under the Brian Shaw regime — breaking a fourth-quarter huddle in the final game of February, Nuggets players chanted “1-2-3-six weeks!”

The players didn’t like the coach, some of them didn’t like each other, and with six weeks and 24 games left in the season they had checked out. The young players (and some of the veterans) partied so much Shaw canceled shootarounds because guys couldn’t roll in for them in the morning. Shaw had lost the team long before when he’d tried to fit square pegs into the triangle holes of his offense, and it spiraled out of control from there. The culture in Denver was broken.

Mike Malone was brought in to repair that culture.

The Jeff Van Gundy disciple has shown he can do that before. Malone was starting to build something in Sacramento (they started last season 9-6 before DeMarcus Cousins got sick), where he was asked to repair a franchise culture that by the end of the Maloof era was something akin to the Lord of the Flies. Malone also turned out to be the one coach who had gotten through to Cousins. Even with his defensive mindset and Cousins in the paint, Malone had the Kings playing at the eighth-fastest pace in the league in pace, but the Kings’ owner wanted to play faster (and maybe didn’t want to miss out on the chance to hire George Karl), so Malone got sacked.

The question becomes, is Malone alone going to turn things around in Denver and bring them back to relevance?

Not alone, and not just in one season, but he will get them on the right track.

The first step to show management was behind Malone was the trading of Ty Lawson. No doubt when focused Lawson is a quality point guard (as Houston likely benefits from this season), but he was part of the problem in the end in Denver, to the point of picking up two DUIs in six months (he checked into a rehab facility after the second one). He had mentally checked out and his example was an issue the Nuggets needed to change.

That turns the keys for the offense over to rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, who impressed a lot of people at Summer League after bailing on SMU to play in China last season. But he’s still a rookie with a long way to go — as the 15 turnovers in his first two preseason games attest. Things that worked in China and Summer League don’t fly against an NBA defense.

With Mudiay at the point and a team that plays half its games at high altitude, Monroe wants to take advantage of that and get out and run. Expect the Nuggets to get back to their traditional up-tempo games, but with some things Malone loves to run (such as the Rick Adelman corner action).

But for Malone, all things — including good transition basketball — starts with defense. You have to get stops and steals to run well, and the Nuggets were 26th in the league in defensive rating last season (105.5 points allowed per 100 possessions). In the first two Nuggets preseason games, that was the Nuggets focus (with mixed results).

Malone’s challenge starts with getting Kenneth Faried to buy in and play as hard on defense as he does on offense — something Faried has never done. Faried has been a defensive minus since he entered the NBA and that becomes one of Malone’s first major projects (even if it’s just to boost Faried’s trade value). Faried, who clashed with Shaw over his role, has said he’s felt energized under Malone, now the coach just has to steer that energy to the defensive end of the court.

Malone will be searching for the right center to put next to Faried, and I expect that will mean a lot of Jusuf Nurkic (who is young and shows it at times). But also expect to see some small-ball lineups with Faried at the five. Something like Mudiay, Randy Foye, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, and Faried. A lineup with some athleticism and shooting that could put up points, but would they get any stops? If Gary Harris slots in for Foye, does that help the defense (Harris is guy Nuggets fans may see more and more of as the season goes on).

The roster is a work in progress, and if you were to bet on the Nuggets doing one thing this season, it should be making trades. Things are going to change.

There are nice pieces on the Nuggets, but not enough of them and with some real questions about how it all fits together. This is not a playoff team this season, not in the West.

But it’s a team that Malone could have playing a lot better late in the season than at the beginning, once some of those questions start to be answered, and the young players gain experience. That should be the goal in Denver. Begin to change the culture, get buy-in on the system, get guys playing hard again rather than dreaming of Cancun vacations by February. Change can be incremental, but Malone will start the change.

Then in a couple of years, you’ve got the team you want.

Well, so long as the Nuggets ownership doesn’t get impatient and decide it needs to change directions again.

Marcus Morris explains his change of plans from Spurs deal to Knicks

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Marcus Morris‘ move built up some hard feelings around the NBA. Players have verbally agreed to contracts with one team only to change their mind before, but in this case the Spurs had made roster moves — including trading Davis Bertans go to the Wizards — to clear out space for Morris, leaving San Antonio in a tough spot when Morris changed his mind and signed with the Knicks. The Spurs were pissed at the Knicks about this. Executives with other teams did not like the potential precedent the move set.

Morris offered his first explanation of what happened to Shams Charania of The Athletic.

It starts here: Morris’ agent at the time Rich Paul negotiated a three-year, $41 million offer from the Clippers at the start of free agency. Morris turned it down, and he admitted that was against Paul’s advice.

“All this stuff that (Paul) didn’t want me to go to the Clippers and didn’t want me to go against LeBron (James), that’s not true,” Morris said. “He never told me not to take the deal. For as long as I’ve known Rich — and that’s still someone I have love for and that’s still my guy — he has been great in terms of advice. He told me he wanted me to take the Clippers deal. He gave me his advice. It was my decision and I had to make the best decision for me and my family.”

Things moved very fast at the start of free agency (more than 50 contracts were agreed to in the first 24 hours) and that left Morris not wanting the music to stop without him having a chair. That’s when he accepted the two-year, $20 million offer from San Antonio. Morris said he didn’t expect another offer, but when the Knicks came through with one year, $15 million he wanted it and tried to be up front about the situation.

“I have a good relationship with those guys and I have so much respect for (head coach) Pop (Gregg Popovich), (general manager) RC (Buford) and (assistant GM) Brian Wright,” Morris told The Athletic. “The first thing that I did when I knew I would be going another direction, I called and made sure they knew. There was no shade. There’s no disrespect. I had great conversations afterward, and as long as I feel that I’m clear with them and gave them my truth, I feel good about moving forward.

“I was under the impression that I didn’t have anything left. I thought at the time that the Spurs deal was all that I had. The process wasn’t what I expected and it didn’t go the right way.”

Morris has split ways with Paul as an agent, reportedly over this incident.

Morris has now essentially bet on himself. The Knicks are not going to win a lot of games, but Morris is going to have a significant role and should get a lot of touches. Have a strong season and he will enter a much weaker free agent class next summer as one of the better players in it. That could lead to a bigger payday. Plus he makes more per year now.

 

 

Karl-Anthony Towns: “I’m planning to be in Minnesota for a long time”

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A few years back, Minnesota looked like a team on a fast rise in the West, mostly because Karl-Anthony Towns looked like a young dominant force starting to come of age in the league.

It hasn’t worked out that way, even though Minnesota finally made the playoffs back in 2018. Andrew Wiggins has not developed into a No. 2 options (even though he is getting paid like a No. 1 option), Towns has not consistently owned the defensive end, and under Tom Thibodeau there were a lot of chemistry issues highlighted by Jimmy Butler blowing up last training camp and essentially torpedoing the season before it started.

In today’s NBA news cycle, driven by rumors and speculation about player movement — and the player movement itself — all those issues in Minnesota has people looking at Towns. That despite the fact his five-year max extension just kicks in this season.

Towns isn’t looking to move. There’s a new coach (Ryan Saunders) who Towns has a good bond with, there’s a new head of basketball operations (Gersson Rosas) who is aggressive and who Towns likes, and the two-time All-Star center told Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic he is happy right now in Minnesota.

“The biggest thing when you have that conversation [about a star switching teams] is you say, ‘Is he happy here?’” Towns said. “I’m tremendously happy. I love my front office. I love my coaching staff. I think we’ve made great moves and great changes. I love the culture we have here. If you want to leave, you have to be miserable somewhere. I am not there. I’m planning to be in Minnesota for a long time.”

What makes Towns happy is he can see the plan now — and it’s finally to build around him. Towns is the top dog and this summer the Timberwolves made a push to land D'Angelo Russell to be his No. 2 (since it’s not Wiggins). That, however, fell short as Russell is in Golden State. (For now at least, if the fit with Stephen Curry is not right Russell could be on the move, and Minnesota would be interested.) Still, there was an organized plan of attack and a shuffling around of players to give Minnesota more flexibility. Towns says he is comfortable this is a franchise on the right path. Even if it’s going to take some time to get there.

In a deep West, Minnesota looks to be a team on the outside of the playoff chase that needs a lot of things to go right to get in it. They have some good players, but also a lot of youth and questions.

“We all can’t rush in and think we’re going to win 75 games right now,” he said. “We have to take it day by day. We have to be patient with the process and accept the process and go through the cycles. I think we’re going to have a really good team and we have to go out there every single night and try to accomplish it. My job as a leader, I’ve got to get the best out of every single player.”

Marcus Smart, Thaddeus Young reportedly added to USA Basketball training camp roster

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Elite NBA players have not dropped out of playing for Team USA like this since 2004, when nobody wanted to play for Larry Brown and rumors of potential terrorism in Athens had the NBA’s best backing out.

For the 2019 World Cup in China, USA Basketball has watched James Harden, Anthony Davis, Tobias Harris, Bradley Beal, Eric Gordon, and CJ McCollum all back out, robbing the American team of a lot of star power. Zion Williamson, who was projected to be part of the “select team” of young stars Team USA goes against also dropped out.

The Americans were down to 14 players heading into training camp (12 will be chosen to travel to China), and they needed more players. Enter Boston’s Marcus Smart and Thaddeus Young, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Don’t be surprised if another veteran name or two is added before training camp opens.

Smart and Young are a couple of smart selections, elite defenders who can shut down the best wing players on other teams (and in FIBA competition only a couple of teams have more than one top-flight wing player to handle).

So who is on the USA roster now? Let’s break it out by position:

GUARDS:
Damian Lillard
Kemba Walker
Kyle Lowry (questionable coming off thumb surgery)
Marcus Smart

WINGS:
Khris Middleton
Donovan Mitchell
Jayson Tatum
Harrison Barnes
Kyle Kuzma
PJ Tucker
Thaddeus Young

BIGS:
Andre Drummond
Myles Turner
Brook Lopez
Kevin Love
Paul Millsap

(We could argue about whether Mitchell is a guard or a wing, if Tucker is a big or a wing, but you get the basic picture.)

After Lillard, that roster does lack star power.

But the USA talent pool is so deep that it will overwhelm all but a couple of teams in the tournament. Serbia — led by Nikola Jokic and Bogan Bogdanovic — is the biggest threat to the USA and has good depth. Spain is impressive as well, but older.

The USA is and should be the World Cup favorite, but an improved rest of the world and a depleted USA roster is going to make things a lot more interesting in China.

USA Basketball is scheduled to begin its pre-World Cup camp in Las Vegas Aug. 5, with an intrasquad exhibition game at the T-Mobile Arena on Aug. 9. Then the team heads to Southern California for more training followed by an exhibition against Spain on Aug. 16 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. Then the team heads overseas for the World Cup, which begins in China on Aug. 31.

Tim Duncan joins Gregg Popovich’s coaching staff with Spurs

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The Tim Duncan era in San Antonio is over quite yet.

The future Hall of Famer has been added full time to Gregg Popovich’s coaching staff with the Spurs, the team announced Monday.

“It is only fitting, that after I served loyally for 19 years as Tim Duncan’s assistant, that he returns the favor,” Popovich said.

Duncan was around the Spurs practice facility a lot last season, helping out informally. Now it is formal.

Expect more bank shots from the Spurs big men next season.

Duncan was at the heart of the Spurs historic NBA dynasty the past couple of decades. The future Hall of Famer is a five-time NBA champion and three-time Finals MVP, 15 time All-NBA teams, 15 times NBA All-Defensive teams, 15-time All-Star, and way back when the Rookie of the Year. However, his impact was greater than just that insane resume, he was the guy who set the tone and the work ethic for those Spurs teams. Duncan worked as hard as anyone, won as much as anyone, but did it without trying to draw attention to himself. If fact, he wanted to deflect it.

The Spurs will be competitive for a playoff spot in the deep West this season — they still have LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, plus Dejonte Murray gets healthy and returns — but are poised to start a rebuilding process in the coming years.

We will see if Duncan wants to be part of that, or if he is only around while Popovich remains the coach (somebody has to go to dinner with Pop). But he has earned the right to pretty much any role he wants.

The Spurs also announced that Will Hardy will be added to the bench as an assistant coach.

“Will Hardy is a talented, young basketball mind who has earned a great deal of respect from everyone in the organization thanks to his knowledge, spirit and personality,” Popovich said.