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Nuggets struck gold by drafting Nikola Jokic in second round. Now what?

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DETROIT – Asked whether he’s becoming a leader on the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic shook his head then turned to Gary Harris in the adjoining locker.

“Do you think I’m a leader?” Jokic asked.

“Who?” Harris responded.

“Me,” Jokic said.

“No,” Harris said.

“See,” Jokic said, turning back to me. “That’s what I’m talking about.”

It’s not entirely clear whether Jokic is serious or showing the self-deprecating humor of someone nicknamed The Joker.

Denver is trying to be patient with Jokic – a 22-year-old former second-round pick – but his production and contract status demand his ascent be expedited.

Jokic has arguably been the Nuggets’ best player every season of his three-year career. He definitely is now.

And that has caused Denver to adjust its plan on the fly – all for a player drafted No. 41 in 2014 and who entered the NBA in 2015.

Jusuf Nurkic was coming off a promising All-Rookie second-team season when the Nuggets signed Jokic. It was quickly clear there’d be complications with the two centers coexisting, but Nurkic’s injuries and second-year slump delayed adjudication. Finally, the Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Trail Blazers. Once Jokic became a starter in mid-December, Denver led the NBA in points per possession the rest of last season.

“His rapid development last year kind of changed how we view our organizational development,” Nuggets president Tim Connelly said. “His unique skill set is something we think we can build around.”

Jokic is a generationally good passer for a center, and he works in so many offensive sets. He posts up, screens on pick-and-rolls, spots up and cuts. He finishes well at the rim, and his range extends through the mid-range to beyond the arc, though he’s not quite a knockdown 3-point shooter. He’s a good rebounder on both ends of the floor.

But he’s not much a rim protector. His slow foot speed, especially laterally, hampers him in space defensively.

Power forwards who complement Jokic on both sides of the court are rare, but Denver found one in Paul Millsap, who can space the floor and cut strongly offensively and safeguard the interior and switch on the perimeter defensively. The Nuggets signed the 32-year-old to a contract worth $61 million over the first two years and with a $30.5 million team option for the third season – a clear win-now response to Jokic’s readiness to win.

On the other hand, Jokic’s youth presents a long window for success. Before the season, Denver also waived Jameer Nelson, a veteran point guard whom Nuggets coach Michael Malone often leaned on as a crutch when younger options were undependable. That forced Denver to rely on 20-year-old Jamal Murray and 21-year-old Emmanuel Mudiay at point guard. Murray has grown in his starting role and looks like a foundational piece with Jokic. Mudiay couldn’t hack it in the rotation and was replaced by Will Barton, who also plays wing. After all, the Nuggets (24-23, eighth in the Western Conference) are trying to win this season.

It’s a tough balancing act, and the next big question comes with Jokic’s team option next summer.

Jokic is due the minimum salary ($1,600,520) in 2018-19, and that’s obviously a huge bargain. But if Denver exercises the option, he’d become an unrestricted free agent in 2019. By declining Jokic’s option, the Nuggets could make him a restricted free agent this year.

As a restricted free agent, Jokic could probably draw a max offer sheet – which projects to be worth about $109 million over four years (about $27 million annually) – that Denver would surely match. In a direct offer, the Nuggets’ max projects to be about $146 million over five years (about $29 million annually).

Jokic is worth the investment at either price. There’s value in securing him for an extra season during his prime.

But the Nuggets hold leverage. They could condition declining his option on him pledging to accept a sub-max, but still large, contract. After all, that’d still be his quickest ticket to a life-altering payday. That route would require trust, but – Carlos Boozer and the Cavaliers potentially excepted – everyone usually follows through on those informal agreements.

Of course, if Denver offers too little, Jokic could wait until 2019 free agency. There’s even a case for delaying a new contract even with a max offer this summer. If he makes an All-NBA team in 2018-19, he’d be eligible for a super-max contract the following summer. That projects to be worth about $188 million over five years (about $38 million annually) – enough to offset a smaller salary, either the team-option amount or qualifying offer, next season.

To make this even more complex, the possibility of a super-max offer in 2019 could lead the Nuggets to exercise Jokic’s option. They could leverage his low salary next season then have potentially an even larger leg up financially over other suitors in 2019.

Keeping Jokic’s salary low next season is particular important, because Denver already has $110,169,322 committed to 12 players (Millsap, Gary Harris, Kenneth Faried, Mason Plumlee, Wilson Chandler, Darrell Arthur, Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray, Trey Lyles, Juan Hernangomez, Malik Beasley and Tyler Lydon). Maxing out Jokic could push the Nuggets so far into the luxury tax that trading either Faried or Plumlee alone wouldn’t be enough to avoid paying it. Chandler ($12,800,562) and/or Arthur ($7,464,912) opting out would provide relief, but moving Plumlee (due $12,917,808 and $14,041,096 the next two seasons) and/or Faried (due $13,764,045 next season) won’t be easy.

In simple terms, Denver has two choices:

  • Keep Jokic’s salary absurdly low next season, but risk he walks in 2019 unrestricted free agency
  • Pay Jokic big money beginning next season, but lose flexibility to spend on his supporting cast

Declining Jokic’s option then leveraging restricted free agency to re-sign him long-term is the safest path.

“I can say with complete certainty that Nikola is going to be here for a long, long time,” Connelly said. “We love him. I think he loves us.”

Whenever Jokic gets his massive raise, it’ll be overdue based on his production. He’s averaging 16.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. Denver plays like a 55-win team with him on the floor and a 27-win team without him, based on points scored and allowed.

He theoretically could have signed a shorter contract initially, proven himself then hit free agency sooner. But he expected to acclimate slowly from the Adriatic League to the NBA, and he appreciated the long-term security a four-year deal afforded.

There’s less slow-playing now, though.

The Nuggets are throwing more on his plate, and that starts defensively.

“Last year, I don’t think he played much defense at all,” Malone said.

Jokic’s athletic limitations will probably prevent him from ever being an elite defender. But his size and basketball intelligence give him a chance to hold his own as a positional defender – if he puts in the effort. Jokic has dedicated himself more this season, and as a result, Denver’s defense has gone from awful to middling.

The Nuggets also want Jokic to become a more aggressive scorer. He’s such a willing passer, and he’s always looking to make what the right play would be if all players were equal. But they’re not. Denver is 10-4 when Jokic attempts at least 15 shots and 14-19 otherwise.

“He takes greater satisfaction out of making his teammates better than he does scoring himself,” Malone said. “…He needs to be a guy that’s looking to score, regardless if he’s double-teamed or not.”

These are good problems to have. Teammates love the player who’s too unselfish, and so do executives.

“As a person, he embodies everything that we’re trying to be organizationally in terms of work ethic and team-first mentality,” Connelly said.

Those are great traits for a young second-round pick as he develops. But the best player on a team is inevitably turned to for leadership.

So, back to the original question: Is Jokic ready to lead?

“He has some natural leadership ability in terms of, he’s a connector,” Connelly said. “Everyone in the locker room really likes him on and off the court. But we also don’t want to force something prematurely. He’s still a kid.

“We don’t want to put too much weight on his shoulders.

“We’re going to let him grow up on his own timeline.”

There’s no blueprint here. If named an All-Star this year, Jokic – who turns 23 the day after the game – would be the youngest-ever All-Star drafted below No. 30. Heck, even if he doesn’t become an All-Star until next year, he’d still be the youngest All-Star picked below No. 30 in what anyone would consider the modern-draft era.

There’s plenty of time to wait for Jokic to come fully into his own.

But it also might already be Jokic’s time already.

Report: 76ers happy with GM Elton Brand, who’s drawing Knicks interest

76ers owner Josh Harris and general manager Elton Brand
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The Knicks are reportedly interested in hiring 76ers general manager Elton Brand.

In New York, Brand would work under new Knicks president Leon Rose. Brand holds the top position in Philadelphia’s front office. So, Brand would likely go to New York only if fired by the 76ers.

Paul Hudrick of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

A team source on Wednesday confirmed Brand is under contract beyond this season and said the organization is very happy with his work since being named GM in 2018. The source cited Brand’s leadership and strong working relationships with players, agents, and executives around the league.

The 76ers are so pleased with Brand… someone said so without under the cloak of anonymity. If he wants to back Brand, 76ers owner Josh Harris can do so publicly. Otherwise, this is so weak.

Teams generally express support toward employees while the employees are still working for the team – whether or not the employees actually hold approval. A key way to tell whether the support is genuine? Check the source. Harris doesn’t want to look like a hypocrite. If he endorses Brand now then fires him soon, Harris would look silly. With this sourcing, nobody would get egg on his or her face if Brand gets ousted, because we don’t know the source.

I bet Brand does have good relationships with everyone. He has long connected well with others.

But his roster-building has fallen flat.

Inertia will probably keep him in his job. Philadelphia overachieving in the playoffs (whatever form they take) – certainly possible – would make that an easier call. It’s just difficult to build an affirmative case for Brand as a team’s lead executive.

Report: No chance of traditional NBA playoffs this season

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The NBA playoffs have a familiar format – four rounds, best-of-seven series, games in front of fans at home arenas.

But the coronavirus, which has forced the NBA into an indefinite stoppage and disrupted life around the world, makes that untenable. Don’t expect the league to wait until that’s workable, either.

Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated:

At this point, several team and league officials told SI.com, any chance of a traditional postseason is out.

A shortened playoffs in Las Vegas is gaining momentum. It’d allow the NBA, hemorrhaging money, to draw revenue sooner. A reduced postseason would also minimize disruption to future seasons.

But even that comes with major complications, especially containing coronavirus from undermining the entire operation. It could be a long time until its safe to hold games, even in a centralized location without fans.

It could be so long… a traditional playoffs could be back on the table. Though I find that unlikely, I’m still not convince people have a proper understanding of how lengthy this hiatus could be.

Everyone wants to finish the season. The playoffs are the NBA’s most lucrative time, and it feels right to crown a champion.

So, it’s good the focus is on alternative formats. It’d be naïve to expect business as usual when the NBA resumes.

Who should be drafted No. 1? Podcast talking NBC Sports mock NBA Draft.

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Should Anthony Edwards be the No. 1 pick?

Or James Wiseman? How would Obi Toppin fit with the Warriors?

More importantly, how is anyone preparing for a draft when nobody knows when it will take place?

Rob Dauster of NBC Sports — who just completed his mock draft — joins me to discuss what they know and don’t know about the 2020 NBA Draft, starting with having no idea when it will take place. We discuss Obi Toppin, Lonzo Ball, sleepers to watch, and everything in between in a draft preview podcast.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Bucks hoping to complete title pursuit after coronavirus stoppage

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — The NBA-leading Milwaukee Bucks remain confident the coronavirus pandemic won’t put a permanent halt to the season and that they’ll get to resume chasing their first league title in nearly half a century.

The Bucks had a league-best 53-12 record when play was suspended three weeks ago. With Giannis Antetokounmpo having a potential second straight MVP season, the Bucks seemed poised to make a run at the title that has eluded this franchise since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led them to an NBA championship in 1971.

Bucks general manager Jon Horst thinks they will get that opportunity.

“We believe that we’re going to play,” Horst said Wednesday in a conference call. “Everything that we’re doing every day in our communications, in our preparations, everything we talk about is being prepared to play at some point, finish out the season and have a resumption.”

That’s why Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer has spent part of this hiatus making sure the Bucks don’t lose their edge whenever they do get back on the floor.

He’s been studying the Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets — the Bucks’ two most likely first-round playoff foes — as well as other Eastern Conference teams Milwaukee could see later in the postseason. He’s tried to learn from his experiences as a San Antonio Spurs assistant coach during the NBA’s most recent work stoppages.

“One of my reference points with the coaching staff has been lockouts,” Budenholzer said. “Sometimes when you come out of a lockout, things have been kind of slow, you haven’t been able to maybe do your normal routines and preparation, and things happen really fast. Whether it’s three games in three nights, or playoff series are shorter or the time between the end of the regular season to the first playoff game, everything can be shorter or can happen quicker.”

His instructions to his players have focused on conditioning while understanding they might not have as much time to spend working on their basketball skills.

“I think that we feel that there are things they can continue to do as far as continuing to stay strong, continuing to maintain a conditioning level and really just put a lot of time and effort and energy into their bodies,” Budenholzer said.

After blowing a 2-0 lead to the eventual league champion Toronto Raptors in last season’s Eastern Conference finals, Milwaukee appeared to have all the elements in place to make a serious championship run this year before the pandemic struck.

The Bucks had just returned from a winless three-game trip west when the hiatus occurred, but that was the first time they had lost as many as two straight contests all season.

Despite their optimism and their confidence that league officials will do what’s best for the safety of everyone, the Bucks realize that play might not resume. However, Budenholzer said they aren’t thinking about what impact canceling the season might have.

“If for some reason this season is not played or there’s nothing to look forward to or to complete, I’ll process it then,” Budenholzer said. “I would add that I don’t think it’s being totally head-in-the-sand. I think hopefully watching news, listening to the commissioner, listening to whether it be Tony Fauci or Dr. (Deborah) Birx or whoever it is, it does feel like there is I think some realistic hope and belief that we will get through this.

“I know that there are some negatives, some less optimistic modeling, but literally all we think about is we are going to play and we want to be the best team when we do play so how do we prepare for that, how do we get better? It’s a great way to get through this.”