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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-

 

Three Things to Know: Durant’s pending free agency looms over Green suspension

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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) Kevin Durant’s pending free agency looms over Draymond Green suspension. It has been the subtle — and, at times, not so subtle — subtext to the entire Golden State season, the cloud casting a shadow over everything:

What is Kevin Durant going to do as a free agent next summer?

That was the foundation of what Draymond Green used to go back at Durant after Green did not pass him the ball on the final play of regulation against the Clippers, with Green saying Durant was making the season about himself. It was the foundation of why GM Bob Myers and coach Steve Kerr came down so hard on Green with a one-game suspension (costing Green more than $120,000).

It shows the cracks in that Warriors foundation.

Maybe not big enough ones to keep them from winning the title this season. The players on the roster are too good and too professional for that. However, the cracks may well be big enough to break the team up next summer and send Durant elsewhere.

After the Warriors, without Green or the still-injured Stephen Curry, barely held off the Atlanta Hawks for a win Tuesday night, everyone around the team played down the incident.

It all came to a head when a frustrated Durant called out Green on the bench after the final play of regulation against the Clippers, which we all have seen — Green got the rebound and decided to go coast-to-coast and create himself, rather than defer to Durant, who was clapping his hands and calling for the ball.

Green is vocal, emotional, and will defend himself even when he knows he is wrong (and he was wrong not to give up the rock in that situation, other teammates called him out for it, too). Green, apparently showing off a built-up frustration (that, reportedly, is not just his own) came back hard at Durant calling him a “b****” and that is officially what got him suspended.

But Green also stomped into the space where all season the Warriors organization top-to-bottom has walked on eggshells — Durant’s looming free agency. Green reportedly said Durant has made it the season all about himself by very publicly keeping his options open (right out of the LeBron James playbook). Klay Thompson is a free agent next summer as well but has made it clear at every step he doesn’t want to leave the Warriors. Green is a 2020 free agent but has followed Thompson’s path. Durant has gone a different direction, and now all the Warriors have to answer media questions about KD’s future at every road stop.

Mentally, the Warriors players and organization are prepared for Durant to leave next summer. However, when Green threw Durant’s free agency out in the middle of the room and threw a light on it, the organization felt it had to signal to Durant it has his back. Ideally, the Warriors want to keep KD and the suspension — rather than a fine and handling it internally — was part of that. Green is given a lot of latitude by the Warriors for his emotional outbursts because he’s a unique player and that emotion is part of what makes him one of the top 15-20 players in the league. Management felt Green crossed a line this time, but it’s also a message to Durant that the Warriors will back him.

All of that still hangs in the air in the Warriors’ locker room. How Green responds to this long-term — how pissed will he be the franchise backed KD? — now hangs out there, too.

Don’t think that this will get in the way of the Warriors title run. The Warriors have had their spats before and gotten over it, at least enough to play and win together. These are adults and professionals, they can work together enough to get past it.

But next July when free agency hits, remember all of this.

2) Rockets win in Denver shows they have found their stride again. Maybe. Tuesday night up in the Rockies an interesting Xs and Os battle was going on.

In the first half Denver did what a growing number of teams have tried with Houston this season: Rather than switch when James Harden gets a high pick (allowing him to isolate on a big man or the victim of his choice), they double and trap Harden, taking the ball out of his hands. The idea is “make someone else beat us, not the MVP.”

Denver’s gambit worked in this sense: Harden didn’t get his first bucket until 5:22 was left in the second quarter, and he was officially 1-of-5 with three points in the first half. However, Denver’s strategy didn’t work in this sense: Chris Paul had 14 points in the half, P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon each had 9, the Rockets still put up 54 points with a 117 points per 100 possessions net rating. The other guys did step up and looked like they might beat Denver.

Sensing it was not working as well as hoped, and because the Rockets were adjusting and getting better looks, early in the second half Denver went back to switching. Harden predictably tore the Nuggets apart and finished with 22 points, and 11 assists and the Rockets pulled away late for the 109-99 win.

That’s not why the Rockets seem to be finding their stride again. Rather, for the last couple of games Houston’s defense has looked better — not great, but close to last season’s version than we have seen this season. If the Rockets start defending well then they will be a threat again.

3) Good news: Caris LeVert’s injury not nearly as severe as it looked. When you watched the video of Caris LeVert’s injury, you couldn’t help but flash back to Gordon Hayward and Paul George and some of the other more gruesome and terrible injuries we have seen in the NBA, and in sports, in recent years. It looked that bad for the young Nets star, so bad other players were crying on the sideline.

Fortunately, it out it was not that bad. LeVert’s diagnosis is a dislocated right foot, but without a fracture and with relatively minor ligament damage. No surgery is required and the Nets said he is expected to be back on the court this season.

That is amazing news.

Terse Kevin Durant says he has not yet spoken to Draymond Green

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Maybe it was Draymond Green calling him a “b****” (reportedly what got Green suspended for a night).

Maybe it was what Green said lobbing verbal grenades about Kevin Durant‘s impending free agency in July in the locker room later.

Whatever it was Green said, it clearly still ate at Durant postgame Tuesday after the Warriors knocked off the Hawks. In his postgame press conference, Durant was short with the media (not something completely out of character, but given the circumstances, something seemed to bother him).

Two quick takeaways here.

First, the Warriors suspension of Green was a signal to Durant the franchise has his back. Green is given a lot of latitude by the Warriors for his emotional outbursts because he’s a special player and that emotion is part of what makes him great. For the team to slap Green across the wrist like this means he crossed a line with something he said. But it’s also a message to Durant, as he considers free agency, that the Warriors will back him. It’s not going to be the biggest deciding factor for Durant this summer, but the franchise wants him to feel wanted and respected.

The other is that this will not get in the way of the Warriors title run. The Warriors have had their spats before and gotten over it, at least enough to play and win together.

Maybe it was Draymond Green calling him a “b****” (reportedly what got Green suspended for a night).

Maybe it was what Green said lobbing verbal grenades about Kevin Durant’s impending free agency in July in the locker room later.

Whatever it was Green said, it clearly still ate at Durant postgame Tuesday after the Warriors knocked off the Hawks. In his postgame press conference, Durant was short with the media (not something completely out of character, but given the circumstances, something seemed to bother him).

Two quick takeaways here.

First, the Warriors suspension of Green was a signal to Durant the franchise has his back. Green is given a lot of latitude by the Warriors for his emotional outbursts because he’s a special player and that emotion is part of what makes him great. For the team to slap Green across the wrist like this means he crossed a line with something he said. But it’s also a message to Durant, as he considers free agency, that the Warriors will back him. It’s not going to be the biggest deciding factor for Durant this summer, but the franchise wants him to feel wanted and respected.

The other is that this will not get in the way of the Warriors title run. The Warriors have had their spats before and gotten over it, at least enough to play and win together.

Jimmy Butler on Markelle Fultz: ‘I know how hard he works’ (VIDEO)

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Much discussion has taken place about the potential impact that new Philadelphia 76ers guard Jimmy Butler might have on the development of struggling young sophomore Markelle Fultz.

Fultz has had the yips for over a year, and Butler did not garner rave reviews from the young stars on his last team, the Minnesota Timberwolves.

There does seem to be some worry that Butler might not respect Fultz, or that Butler might push him even further into whatever psychological hole he’s currently in.

Butler joined the Sixers organization this week, and during his introductory press conference said that he knows that Futlz is a hard worker. It was the right thing to say, perhaps the first in many weeks after Butler went off the rails in Minnesota.

Via Twitter:

That’s promising at this moment. Fultz needs all the help he can get, and not having Butler going directly at him is additive in and of itself.

Sixers fans are hoping things work out with this new group in Philadelphia. Time will tell if Butler will be able to solve some of the issues they’ve had on offense to start the year.

Raptors players say emotions will run high when Dwane Casey returns

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TORONTO (AP) Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas spent a dozen years between them developing their games under coach Dwane Casey. Valanciunas had never played for any other NBA head coach before this season.

When they welcome Casey and his Detroit Pistons back to Toronto on Wednesday night, the two longest-serving current Raptors know emotions will be running high.

“It’s going to be different, but hey, I’m still going to try to take his head off, the team’s head off,” Lowry said with a laugh.

The Raptors will face Detroit for the first time since Casey was fired, just days after Toronto was ousted from the playoffs by Cleveland for the third consecutive season.

Lowry became a four-time NBA all-star under Casey’s watch, while Valanciunas has grown into a multi-skilled big man. Casey had kind words for both Raptors on the eve of his visit. Lowry got off to a rocky start with Casey when the Raptors acquired the temperamental guard in 2012, but he and Valanciunas returned the compliment.

“(Our relationship) changed a lot,” Lowry said. “It went from a guy who kind of wasn’t trusting in what I did, and me not trusting in what he wanted, and kind of us battling back and forth, to him being like, `Hey listen, I believe in what you can do, you show me what you can do,’ and me saying `All right, if you show me that and I’ve showed you what I can do, I’ll listen to you more and we’ll have a good relationship.”‘

“It turned into a great coach-player relationship. And him having young kids, and me having … they played soccer together, so we created a bond off the court also.”

Nick Nurse, who was promoted to head coach after Casey’s dismissal, insisted he was looking forward to seeing his former boss despite rumors the two were not close.

“My communication with whoever is between me and whoever I’m communicating with, whether it’s between Kyle and me and Kawhi (Leonard) and me or Case and me. . . or whoever,” Nurse told The Canadian Press. “I’ll keep that to myself. I am looking forward to seeing him.”

Nurse characterized his relationship with Casey as “good.”

“We have five years together and a lot of success. A lot of battles and a lot of long hours together, working hard,” Nurse said. “He took a team from relative obscurity or the hinterlands to relevance, and that may be the hardest thing to do in this league. I’m glad I was a part of it for five years. We had a lot of success and I learned a lot from the guy and have a lot of respect for the guy.”

The 51-year-old Nurse said the biggest lesson learned under Casey was professionalism and diligence.

“The seriousness of the day-to-day, the grind and probably most importantly is the work ethic,” Nurse said. “He used to say it to us a lot. He’d put his work ethic up against anybody in the league and he was right in that. The guy always had our staff prepared and our players prepared, he taught me all those things.”

After leading Toronto to a team-record 59 wins and the top seed in the East last year, Casey was also named the NBA’s Coach of the Year – after his firing.

The Raptors have a video tribute planned for the 61-year-old Casey early in the game.

“He did some really good things for the city, for the team. I think everybody respects him,” Valanciunas said. “(But) as a business we’ve got to move on and he (ended) up pretty well, so that is life. Sometimes we’re separating.”

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