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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.

Celtics top Cavaliers in Game 5, setting up Game 7 in Boston?

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LeBron James and a couple Cavaliers teammates left the court well before the Celtics dribbled out their 96-83 Game 5 win Wednesday.

The Cavs are already moving on.

Game 6 will be Friday in Cleveland, and the Cavaliers – down 3-2 in the Eastern Conference finals – must win to avoid elimination. The way Boston has played on the road, it’s even easy to look ahead to Game 7, which is scheduled for Sunday in Boston.

Still, the Celtics bought themselves leeway with their decisive win in Boston tonight. They led by double digits the final 20 minutes, breaking the Cavs’ momentum after two straight wins in Cleveland.

“It’s tough going on the road, playing against somebody else in their house with their crowd,” said Jayson Tatum, who had 24 points, seven rebounds, four assists, four steals and two blocks tonight. “So, we were just comfortable. We came back home and defended home-court like we have all playoffs.”

Boston is now 10-0 at home this postseason – but just 1-6 away. Fueled in part by that historic split, no game in this series has been close. All five have been decided by at least nine points, and the average margin of victory – 18 – is in the 97th percentile for largest ever in a 3-2 best-of-seven series.

So, just as two big Celtics wins in Games 1 and 2 didn’t deter the Cavaliers, this one likely won’t, either. The Cavs should be heavily favorited in Game 6.

Beyond, if it gets that far? That’s a much bigger tossup.

Teams up 3-2 in a best-of-seven series have won 85% of the time. But Boston is missing a key reason it secured home-court advantage, including a chance to break the 2-2 at home rather than on the road – Kyrie Irving. And LeBron James is downright scary in a Game 7, even on the road.

The Celtics at least took care of business tonight, showing a far greater sense of urgency than Cleveland. Brad Stevens changed his starting lineup, inserting Aron Baynes for Marcus Morris, and tightened his rotation to just seven players until garbage time. Boston ran the floor much harder than the Cavs, decisively outrebounded them and beat them to loose balls. Even in altercations, the Celtics had a man advantage.

LeBron (26 points, 10 rebounds five assists and six turnovers) never made his presence felt in the way usually necessary for the Cavaliers to win. Cleveland’s four other starters combined to score just 24 points, two fewer than LeBron did himself.

After Boston seized control early, the Cavaliers made few adjustments in strategy or effort – as if they’re saving those for later.

LeBron James says we don’t know full story of his upbringing, but he’ll reveal it after retirement

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LeBron James was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in high school – as a junior.

He has been in the spotlight ever since, somehow living up to the outsized expectations set while he was a teenager. His story has been told and retold – how he and his mom moved around Akron as she struggled to provide for him, how his athletic ability lifted himself and those around him.

But are we missing key details?

Upon passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for most shots made in the playoffs, LeBron reflected on his journey.

LeBron:

To know where I come from, you guys know a little bit of the story. But you guys don’t know the full story about where I come from and the struggle that I had. You guys know about the single-parent struggle, and y’all done heard that story. But there’s a lot more to it, which I’ll talk about when I’m done playing ball.

But to know where I come from, small city 35 miles south of here, and to hear I’m in the same category or talked about and jumping these greats in the playoffs — it’s like I was a kid and I watched the playoffs so much and I was like, I would love to be a part of that, that moment, that atmosphere. I think it’s pretty cool. You hear the scoring, the field goals made, and for a kid that really doesn’t care much about scoring.

Like with LeBron’s secret motivation a couple years ago, I’m totally intrigued. When LeBron decides to share, I’ll be all ears.

Larry Nance Jr., Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier exchange shoves after whistle (video)

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Marcus Morris fouled Larry Nance Jr. in Celtics-Cavaliers Game 5 tonight. Nance didn’t like that, got up and shoved Morris. Morris and Terry Rozier didn’t like that, and both shoved Morris.

All three received a technical foul, which seems fair.

Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala questionable for Game 5

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Andre Iguodala missed the Warriors’ Game 4 loss to the Rockets with a leg injury.

It’s not certain he – or Klay Thompson, who played through a knee injury suffered in Game 4 – will be available for Game 5 tomorrow.

NBC Sports Bay Area:

Klay Thompson, who suffered a left knee strain during the first half of Game 4, is listed as questionable, the team announced Wednesday afternoon.

Iguodala missed Game 4 with a left lateral leg contusion and is questionable for Game 5.

Anthony Slater of The Athletic:

Warriors coach Steve Kerr on Iguodala:

He’s feeling a little better today, and he’s out on the floor. Not doing a whole lot, but making progress.

Kerr on Thompson:

Klay is moving around really well. I think Klay is going to be fine.

That sounds better than “questionable” for Thompson.

The Warriors need one, maybe both, of those two on the court. Golden State’s depth, especially on the wing, is looking shaky.

In Game 4, Golden State outscored Houston by 20 in the 31 minutes Stephen Curry, Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green played together. In the in the 17 minutes they played without even one of those stars, the Warriors got outscored by 23. Nick Young, who received more playing time when Thompson left the court area due to his injury, looked particularly overwhelmed.

James Harden‘s defense is a huge bellwether in this series. The Warriors spend a lot of focus trying to exploit him, and if that fails, the shot clock gets low before they move into another action. If Thompson is even just slowed, that’d make it easier for Harden to keep up.