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Nuggets sidestep backtrack with two big re-signings, two savvy additions

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NBCSports.com’s 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.

The Nuggets could pick two of three this offseason:

1. Secure their franchise player, Nikola Jokic, long-term

2. Maintain their complementary depth and assets

3. Dodge the luxury tax

Denver chose Nos. 1 and 3, which is both unsurprising and somewhat disappointing. Locking up Jokic is nice, but the Nuggets are on the edge of breaking a five-year postseason drought, and they have potential to make noise if they get in. A young team, Denver could build on this season for years to come. It would have been a good time to pay a small amount of luxury tax to preserve the full array of players and picks.

Instead, the Nuggets traded draft picks to dump at least potentially helpful players. It’s a knowing step back to save money.

Yet, in that context, Denver got everything it wanted and made a couple nice moves that mitigate the damage.

Start with the big moves that went by design: The Nuggets re-signed Jokic and Will Barton to big contracts.

Denver declined Jokic’s cheap team option to make him a restricted free agent, ensuring no risk of losing him and getting concessions in exchange for paying him sooner. Jokic’s five-year contract contains no player option, and his base salary is juuust sub-max (though incentives could push it higher). Some teams would have lavished their top player with max money and every contract term in his favor. The Nuggets did well to get – albeit, small – team-friendly aspects into Jokic’s deal.

On the other hand, Denver didn’t get a break with Barton, an unrestricted free agent. He’s a good player, and the Nuggets should be happy to keep the 27-year-old. But $53 million over four years certainly isn’t cheap.

That’s why the Nuggets traded a first-rounder, two second-rounders and second-round swap rights to dump Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur (on the Nets) and Wilson Chandler (on the 76ers).

Chandler was Denver’s starting small forward last year, though he appears to be slipping and Barton is capable of replacing him in the starting lineup. Faried and Arthur were mostly out of the rotation, but there would have been a chance Faried could still help.

The surrendered first-rounder is particularly painful, as it’s only top-12 protected. That means the Nuggets could narrowly miss the playoffs – as they did last season – and still convey the pick. That’d be a worst-case scenario, but it’s also near the middle of potential outcomes.

That was about it for Denver’s major charted moves. Uncharted moves are where the Nuggets really shined.

Michael Porter Jr. (No. 14 pick) and Isaiah Thomas (minimum contract) were great gambles considering their low costs. The injury and chemistry concerns are real, but so is the upside. Porter might have been the No. 1 pick if not for his back issues, and Thomas is just a year removed from finishing fifth in MVP voting. Neither looks like a great fit with a Jokic-Gary HarrisJamal Murray core, but who cares? Porter and Thomas were too valuable to pass up.

With Barton starting and Thomas’ health unproven, Denver needed another reserve point guard. So, the Nuggets signed two-way player Monte Morris to a three-year minimum contract with two years guaranteed. They also gave their other two-way player from last year, Torrey Craig, $4 million guaranteed over two years. Given the vast amount of power teams hold over their two-way players, those contracts are mighty generous.

Though those are small, indulgences like that – looking at Mason Plumlee – got Denver into this trouble where dumping draft picks and decent players became necessary. Barton’s contract could create complications down the road.

It’s a never-ending race between keeping costs manageable while maximizing talent. In a year it seemed they’d bear the cost of previous spending, they stayed ahead of the curve.

 

Offseason grade: B-

 

Blake Griffin inadvertently hits referee in face (video)

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Blake Griffin kept causing problems during the Pistons’ loss to the Bucks last night.

He and Giannis Antetokounmpo went face-to-face a couple times. At one point, Griffin bumped down and stepped over Antetokounmpo, prompting Khris Middleton to confront the Detroit star.

But Griffin saved his most devastating work for referee Scott Twardoski.

Griffin extended his arm and whacked Twardoski in the face, flooring the official. Play stopped for Twardoski to recover. The replay doesn’t do the contact justice. Twardoski was moving quickly up the floor when he ran straight into Griffin’s hand.

At least it wasn’t as bad as this legendary Carlos Boozer moment:

Out of game, shoeless LeBron James waves towel on court near play (video)

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LeBron James wasn’t about that NBA-rulebook life last night.

Not only did he get away with a comically blatant travel, he – ostensibly out of the game – later wandered onto the court during play. He got pretty close to the action, waving his towel in celebration of consecutive Kyle Kuzma blocks.

And LeBron was wearing only socks on his feet. He had already given his shoes away to young fans – with 4:20 left! Sure, the Lakers were up 19 on the Jazz, but that’s a lot of time remaining. What a kind and totally disrespectful gesture, a real do-it-all move.

Restless-late-in-a-blowout LeBron is the best LeBron.

Three Things to Know: Lakers make defensive statement in back-to-back road wins

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Lakers make a defensive statement in back-to-back road wins in Denver, Utah. After winning 10 games in a row against the softest part of their schedule, the calendar flipping to December was supposed to start a real test for the Lakers. No more playing hard for 24 minutes and getting a victory, no more sloppy quarters leading to a comeback win — the Dallas Mavericks made that clear on Sunday.

Los Angeles answered that with back-to-back road wins where their defense — led by Anthony Davis — shut down the Nuggets and Jazz. Through the two games, the Lakers allowed less than a point per possession (96.5 defensive net rating total), including holding Donovan Mitchell and Utah to 96 points (and a 97 net rating) on the second night of a back-to-back. The Jazz shot just 41 percent as a team for the game.

Mitchell, who has played at an All-Star level this season, scored 29 but on 11-of-24 shooting — the Laker defense made him work for his buckets. (Bojan Bogdanovic had another strong game for the Jazz with six threes, he has been the Utah summer signing that has worked out well.)

Los Angeles led struggling Utah by 18 at the half and cruised to a 121-96 win. In what looked like a scheduled loss before the season — the second night of a back-to-back at altitude against a good team — never felt in doubt as Davis had 26 points and LeBron James 20 and 12 assists.

The only drama was that LeBron got away with a blatant and hilarious travel and double dribble in the first quarter, one the officials somehow missed.

After the game LeBron owned it, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“It was the worst thing, probably one of the worst things I’ve ever done in my career,” James said after the game… “I didn’t realize I did it until halftime. One of my coaches showed me.”

Coming into the season there were questions about how good the Lakers’ defense was going to be, with coach Frank Vogel wanting to play two bigs and more of a drop-back style of defense. That’s the style Vogel used with success back in Indiana (with peak Roy Hibbert protecting the paint) and has become in vogue again in the NBA. That includes in Utah, where Rudy Gobert has won back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards because he owns the paint but also because of his length and mobility tp contest and cause problems out on the perimeter.

Davis has done exactly that for the Lakers this season.

It was most evident late in the game against Denver Tuesday. On one fourth quarter play big man Nikola Jokic tried to back down Davis, put on a move and score in the post and AD just stuff blocked him. A couple of possessions later, Davis got switched onto quick guard Jamal Murray on consecutive plays and forced him into a couple of bad shots that missed.

Stretches like that are the reason the Lakers’ have the fourth-ranked defense in the NBA this season — and it is their defense that has them looking like legit title contenders. Davis is at the heart of it, although both Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee have used their mobility to be surprisingly good defenders who can contest at the arc and get back to protect the rim.

Davis’ performance has the Lakers already campaigning for him to win Defensive Player of the Year (and some in the Lakers’ media core seem eager to promote that idea). We’re just a quarter of the way into the season, and this award is one that has to be earned over a much longer stretch of ground. There are no actual frontrunners yet, and players like Gobert, the Bucks’ Greek Freak, and Boston’s Marcus Smart — among others — will be in the middle of any conversation down the line.

But make no mistake, the Lakers defense and Davis are for real. They made a statement about that the past couple of nights — and showed why their defense could carry them to a parade in June.

2) Blake Griffin steps over Giannis Antetokounmpo and tempers flare. There wasn’t much drama in the game itself between the Bucks and Pistons on Wednesday — Milwaukee blew the doors off Detroit and never looked back.

Any drama came in the third quarter when Antetokounmpo tried to back down Griffin on the left block, Detroits Bruce Brown came over to double and fouled the Greek Freak, who fell to the floor. Then Griffin stepped over him.

Khris Middleton ran over to get in Griffin’s face about the disrespect and then… well, a lot of words were exchanged. Nothing else. The officials reviewed the play, and both Brown and Middleton ended up getting technical fouls.

That’s the most drama there was in Detroit Wednesday. Antetokounmpo scored 35 points and the Bucks won by 24, extending their win streak to 13.

3) Houston “leaning toward” protesting loss to Spurs over missed James Harden dunk call. That will fail, too. Let’s start with the obvious: The referees missed the call on James Harden’s fourth-quarter dunk against the Spurs Tuesday night. The basket should have counted, and after the game the officials admitted they missed the call.

The league’s response to this has been the same as when it says officials missed a call in the Last Two-Minute reports: be transparent about it but nothing changes. Missed calls are part of the game.

The Rockets are now leaning toward filing a protest of the game, according to multiple reports. We’ll see if they actually go through with it (this could be a lot of noise to make their star happy). If the Rockets do file a protest, it probably fails, too, but from the Rockets’ perspective it at least forces the league to rule on the issue.

First things first: The idea put forward that the league would step in and overturn the game outcome and just hand the Rockets a win was — to use the word of some around the league (not directly involved in the case) — “absurd.” The league would never do that. Let us never speak of that idiocy again.

The Rockets’ protest — if they actually file it — is a longshot. The bar is incredibly high. A successful protest requires proof of a  misapplication of a rule that seriously inhibited Houston’s chance to win a game. Meaning, just saying the crew got the call wrong is not enough. Houston’s protest would hinge on the idea that coach Mike D’Antoni wasn’t given a fair chance to protest the call because of how the referee crew handled the situation. The lead official said after the game D’Antoni didn’t call for a coach’s challenge within 30 seconds, as the rule demands, so there could be no challenge to the call.

The Rockets have a point here. We can be honest and say the referee crew should have handled this better.

However, remember the bar for a protest is the misapplication of a rule that seriously inhibited Houston’s chance to win a game. Back in 2008, the league ordered the Hawks and Heat to replay the final 51.9 seconds of a game because the scorer’s table incorrectly said Shaq had fouled out of the game and forced him to sit when in reality he had just five fouls. That scorers’ table error could have changed the end of a game. In the Rockets case, the referees missed a call but proving the referees misapplied the challenge rule and that’s why the Rockets lost (in a game with nearly 8 minutes left) is a tough sell.

We’ll see if Houston goes through and files this, or if all the bluster is just a PR move to keep an angry Harden happy and show they have his back.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scores 35, Bucks’ winning streak reaches 13 with rout of Pistons

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DETROIT (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 35 points to lift the Milwaukee Bucks to their 13th consecutive victory, 127-103 over the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday night.

The last time the Bucks had a longer winning streak than this was when they won 16 in a row spanning the end of the 1972-73 season and the beginning of 1973-74. They also had a 13-game run shortly after that 16-game streak ended.

Milwaukee had won its previous two games by 41 and 44 points, and the Pistons had won their previous two by 34 and 33. This one wasn’t close either. The Bucks have dominated Detroit of late.

Milwaukee won all eight matchups with the Pistons last season – four in the regular season and four in the first round of the playoffs. The Bucks also beat Detroit last month in their first meeting of 2019-20.

The Bucks went on a 13-2 run late in the second quarter to lead 57-39, and although Detroit closed within 11 at the half, the Pistons never made a major run during the final two quarters. Antetokounmpo scored 12 points in the third quarter, and Milwaukee led 92-72 after three.

Andre Drummond had 23 points and 14 rebounds for Detroit. That included a monster dunk over the Greek Freak.

Khris Middleton had 17 points for the Bucks.

There were six technical fouls in the game, and there were words exchanged during a couple mild altercations. The first involved Antetokounmpo and Detroit’s Blake Griffin after those two collided around midcourt in the second quarter.

In the third quarter, Antetokounmpo fell to the ground after being fouled, and then Griffin stepped over him. Middleton came over to confront Griffin. Three technicals were assessed after that.