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Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic: A predicament the Nuggets hope they face

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Nikola Jokic hurried out the locker room door.

Jusuf Nurkic leaned back comfortably in his chair.

Jokic was headed to Toronto to play in the Rising Stars Challenge, two days after his Nuggets beat the Pistons last month. Nurkic, who participated in the event for the top first- and second-year players as a rookie last year, wasn’t invited to return.

So, Nurkic – following a rare productive game this season – was left to answer questions in front of his locker following Denver’s win.

As Jokic is having the best rookie season outside the attention-grabbing Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, Nurkic has struggled with injury and poor play.

Nurkic looked like Denver’s center of the future last season. Jokic now fills that role.

If Nurkic gets back on track, the Nuggets could face a pleasant, challenging and franchise-shaping dilemma with their young bigs.

“They both have very bright futures, and they’re a big part of our organization going forward,” Denver coach Michael Malone said of Jokic and Nurkic.

But can they thrive together?

In Nurkic, Jokic, Emmanuel Mudiay and Gary Harris, the Nuggets are the only team with four players currently age 21 or younger who’ve played at least 1,000 minutes either this season or last. The Timberwolves – Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Towns – are the only other team with even three.

Minnesota’s young core, which features the reigning Rookie of the Year (Wiggins) and the presumptive Rookie of the Year (Towns), rightfully receives plenty of positive attention. But Denver’s probably deserves more than it gets.

The catch: Two of the Nuggets key players might not be able to coexist.

Jokic and Nurkic have played just four minutes together all season – three against the Grizzlies’ Zach RandolphMarc Gasol combo and one the Pistons’ Aron BaynesAndre Drummond combo. Needless to say, those types of matchups don’t come around often.

Denver picked both players in the 2014 draft – Nurkic at No. 16 with a pick acquired by trading down with the Bulls and Jokic at No. 41. Nurkic, who was playing in Croatia, jumped to the NBA immediately. Jokic stayed in Serbia another year.

After JaVale McGee got hurt and Timofey Mozgov got traded, Nurkic became the Nuggets’ starting center last season. The 7-foot, 280-pounder used his strength well on both ends. He bullied players in the post to create position then finished with a nice touch. He bumped opponents defensively, blocking plenty of shots but also collecting plenty of fouls. He also moved his feet well enough to defend the pick-and-roll and beat players for position on the other end. Nurkic first cracked the 20-minute mark on Dec. 30 of last season. From then on, he averaged 7.6 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, 1.3 steals and 3.4 fouls in 20.6 minutes per game.

Nurkic showed plenty of promise for a rookie, a young one at that. But he underwent surgery on his left knee in May and didn’t return until January.

By then, Jokic – who signed a four-year, $5,551,000 contract with a team option in July – showed why he deserved to start.

Jokic is a great passer for a 6-foot-10, 21-year-old. His shooting range extends beyond the 3-point arc, and he’s also dangerous in the mid-range and crafty in the post. Simply, Jokic – who has averaged 9.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.0 steals in 20.7 minutes per game – is outperforming the level Nurkic reached as a rookie. And everyone was pretty happy with Nurkic.

Meanwhile, Nurkic has been in and out of the lineup due to his struggles and more injury problems. To compensate for his reduced minutes, he has forced way too many shots when on the court. His usage percentage has soared from a slightly above-average 20.7 to 27.2 – which ranks ahead of Chris Paul, Kemba Walker and Brandon Knight. However, Nurkic’s shooting percentage has plummeted to 39.1.

Still, Nurkic made the All-Rookie second team last season. This might just be a lost year for him, his early-season injury preventing him from ever finding a rhythm. If that’s the case, he could pick up next season where he left off as a rookie.

Jokic should make the All-Rookie first team. It’d be shocking if he doesn’t make at least the second team.

That’d give the same team centers on an All-Rookie team in consecutive years for the first time since Shawn Bradley and Sharone Wright with the 1994 and 1995 76ers. Before that, it wasStanley Roberts and Shaquille O’Neal with the 1992 and 1993 Magic.

Neither pairing lasted long – or at all. Philadelphia traded Wright during his second season. Orlando dealt Roberts the same offseason it drafted Shaq.

The only other time a team put centers on an All-Rookie team in consecutive years was the Rockets’ grand Twin Towers experiment with the 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson and 7-foot Hakeem Olajuwon, who made All-Rookie teams in 1984 and 1985. Houston beat the Lakers in five games in the 1986 Western Conference Finals – dropping Los Angeles to 8-1 in conference finals in the 80s – and teams scrambled to match up with the Rockets’ giants.

But that was a different era.

Teams are more adept at spreading the floor and turning a big man, let alone two, into a liability. Jokic and Nurkic are collectively slow, and teams will run on them. Jokic isn’t a great defender, and while his offensive vision could eventually translate to the defensive end, putting him in space more often now is asking for a problem. Though Jokic can spot-up beyond the 3-point arc, Nurkic’s presence in the paint would limit Jokic’s space in the mid-range, where he’s effective as a shooter and a passer.

Complicating matters, the Nuggets have a few other bigs in Kenneth Faried, Joffrey Lauvergne and Darrell Arthur. Faried, a power forward without much shooting range, is in the first year of a four-year extension. Lauvergne is a solid rookie who is mobile enough to play power forward, but he might be better suited to play center himself. Arthur has turned himself into a helpful rotation player, and he has a player option for next season.

But if all goes right, Jokic and Nurkic will factor most prominently into Denver’s big-man considerations. They’re the youngest of the group, and they’ve reached higher levels than anyone else.

Malone admits it will be difficult to pair Jokic and Nurkic together often, and it’s not a problem yet. Jokic (20.7 minutes per game) and Nurkic (14.0) fall far short of combining for 48 minutes.

The hope, though, is Nurkic reverts to form. If he does and Jokic continues to get more comfortable with the NBA, they’ll each deserve more than 24 minutes a piece. That’ll mean playing together regularly, and Nurkic is optimistic.

“I think so, we can fit,” Nurkic said. “But we need to play. We need to play sometimes, to be together. But we young. We can learn a lot.”

The Nuggets could always explore trading one, though teams usually hang tightly onto rookies as good as Jokic. And it’s probably better to hold Nurkic until his value rebounds – which can probably happen only if he’s playing enough to where his minutes overlap with Jokic.

“No matter what’s going on, both of those guys need to get better,” Malone said. “We need Nurkic and Jokic to continue to get better – not just for themselves, but also to your point, to possibly be able to play together and play together effectively and efficiently.”

Harrison Barnes declining $25,102,512 player option with Kings

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Harrison Barnes‘ salary was so high, he became a talking point in the debate about WNBA salaries.

But he’s so confident enough he’ll a better deal, he’s leaving $25,102,512 on the table with the Kings.

James Ham of NBC Sports California:

If they renounce all their free agents, the Kings project to have about $60 million in cap space – likely more than they know what do with.

They could re-sign Barnes. By trading for him last year, they indicated they value him more than the rest of the league does.

Even if he settles for a lower salary next season than his player option called for, this could be the 27-year-old Barnes’ opportunity to secure a long-term deal. He’s a solid outside shooter and, even if he’s better at power forward, capable of playing small forward in a league thirsty for wings.

Sacramento could definitely use a player like him.

Can the Kings lure someone better, either this summer or – if they keep their books clean – a future year? Unless way overpaid, free agents have tended to avoid Sacramento. But the rapidly improving De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield are leading a turnaround.

Barnes’ free agency could be a good litmus test for the Kings’ reputation now. Can they convince him to continue his role on a rising team? Will they have to pay a premium to keep him? Or does he just want to leave?

Report: Anthony Davis intends to receive full trade bonus

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The Lakers are reportedly on track to trade for Anthony Davis on July 6 – the date an important distinction in determining the Lakers’ cap space.

The other key question: Will Davis take his full $4,063,953 trade bonus?

The Pelicans will pay the bonus. It will count against the Lakers’ cap.

Especially considering Davis requested a trade, New Orleans could have pressed him to waive the trade bonus in order to accommodate him. Likewise, the Lakers – his desired team – could have made the deal contingent on Davis waiving the trade bonus.

Ramona Shelburne on ESPN:

My understanding is he doesn’t intend to waive that. He’s due the four million dollars, and he’s going to keep it. But again, as you just noted in that monologue, things can change.

If he takes the full bonus, Davis’ salary next season will increase from $27,093,018 to $31,156,971. And good for him. He earned the trade kicker in his contract.

This also supports agent Rich Paul’s contention that he puts Davis’ interests first while representing Davis, not catering to fellow client LeBron James. Because while the extra money is nice for Davis, this hurts LeBron’s Lakers.

The Lakers now project to have just $24 million in cap room. They can still get a helpful player or two, but $28 million would have gone further.

I wonder whether the Pelicans prefer to pay Davis’ bonus. Though a $4,063,953 check is nothing to sneeze at, tying up the Lakers’ cap space has value with New Orleans getting so many future draft picks from Los Angeles. Maybe the Pelicans have already made Davis getting his full bonus an essential aspect of this trade.

If not, the Lakers have a week before the Davis trade can become official to pitch free agents. Perhaps, if they line up certain free agents and show him the spending power of that extra money, Davis would waive all or some of his trade bonus.

But I wouldn’t blame him if he wants his money and puts the onus on the Lakers to build a strong team, anyway. That’d sounds a lot like another Paul client.

Kawhi Leonard leaving NBA-champion Raptors would be unlike anything we’ve ever seen

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Many Raptors fans hoped Kawhi Leonard would use yesterday’s championship parade to declare his plan to re-sign with Toronto.

They got a laugh and not much else.

But they can be heartened – or maybe eventually heartbroken –a by this: Stars almost never switched teams immediately following a title.

Before this year, there have been…

  • 49 Finals MVPs who won a championship. None switched teams that offseason.
  • 147 All-Stars who won a championship. None switched teams that offseason.
  • 124 All-NBA players who won a championship. Only one switched teams that offseason.

In 1998, Scottie Pippen got signed-and-traded from the Bulls to the Rockets. He was neither an All-Star nor Finals MVP that year, but he made the All-NBA third team. After leaving Chicago, he never achieved any of those accolades.

Leonard checked all three boxes this season – Finals MVP, All-NBA, All-Star. He looks poised to take over as the NBA’s best player for the next few several years.

It’d be unprecedented for someone like him to bolt.

The most productive player to leave a championship team immediately after winning a title? It might be Tyson Chandler, who posted 9.4 win shares for the 2011 Mavericks then got signed-and-traded to the Knicks.

Even while missing 22 games amid load management and minor injury, Leonard posted 9.5 win shares last season.

Here’s how Leonard compares to the players with the most win shares in a title-winning season who began play elsewhere the following year:

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Of course, Leonard isn’t bound by history. He’ll make his own decision. If he wants to leave the Raptors for the Clippers, Knicks or anyone else, he can.

But players just usually stick with a champion. LeBron James said he might have re-signed with the Heat if they won the 2014 title. Kyrie Irving was unhappy after the Cavaliers’ 2016 championship but didn’t request a trade until they lost in the 2017 NBA Finals. Shaq and Kobe coexisted peacefully enough until the Lakers stopped winning titles.

It’s just hard to leave a team that has proven its ability to win a championship, and Leonard would have that in Toronto.

Report: Al Horford opting out with Celtics

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Celtics president Danny Ainge called restructuring Al Horford‘s contract status – which would involve the center declining his $30,123,015 player option then re-signing for a lower starting salary but more total compensation in a multi-year deal – a priority.

This is either a step toward that or a step toward Boston, with Kyrie Irving seemingly exiting, losing multiple stars this summer.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

If they renounce all their free agents, the Celtics would project to have about $32 million in cap space. That’d be about enough for a max player with fewer than 10 years experience, and Boston would get the room exception (projected to be about $5 million)

Or the Celtics could use Bird Rights to re-sign Horford, Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris. That route would come with a mid-level exception, either the non-taxpayer (projected to be about $9 million) or taxpayer (projected to be about $6 million).

Horford could determine Boston’s path. If the 33-year-old wants to re-sign, that’d probably consume most of the Celtics’ cap space. If he sees Irving leaving and wants to chase a title elsewhere, Boston could reset around Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and three first-round picks in Thursday’s draft.

The Celtics could bring back Rozier, who’ll be a restricted free agent, in either scenario. But if Horford departs, that’d at least open the door to pursue an outside point guard – like D'Angelo Russell or Malcolm Brogdon – to replace Irving.