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Is this the year the Nuggets finally make the leap?

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Los Angeles Clippers added Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The Utah Jazz now have Mike Conley, Ed Davis, and Bojan Bogdanovic. The Los Angeles Lakers filled out with their roster with Danny Green and Anthony Davis. The Houston Rockets traded for Russell Westbrook.

So what does that mean for the Denver Nuggets, a team that missed the Western Conference Finals last season by a quarter of gameplay? And what do several bolstered rivals mean for a team that has largely stayed the same?

For the past three seasons or so, Denver has been the team of the future in the West. It appeared they were on the cusp of challenging the Golden State Warriors last season when the Nuggets took home the second-best record in the conference and pushed the Portland Trail Blazers to seven games in the semi-finals.

But a miraculous performance by an injured Enes Kanter, coupled with big games from both Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, pushed the Nuggets out of contention for the final conference playoff series of the year. A dejected Nikola Jokic wants to make a deeper run this upcoming season, but with much of the same cast around him, it’s felt like the team of the future is now in the past.

While there are sexier candidates to choose as favorites out west this year, the Nuggets are moving forward with something its rivals in Portland had last season: consistency.

In an era where the only thing that matters is star power (particularly new star power) the Nuggets have the benefit of having played under the same system, with the same coach, with the same core for some time. That can’t be ruled out as an advantage, particularly as the season opens and as many of these new players adjust to their current teams.

Denver should be able to open the season by picking up right where it left off. Namely, by dismantling teams with its high-powered offense and passing acumen while newly-minted teammates get used to each other rotationally.

Meanwhile, as the shuffle of Denver’s regular cast looks much the same, it all still rides on Jokic. Once again, perhaps the best passing big man the NBA has ever seen will be a leading MVP candidate as the Nuggets try to take on a west that no longer has a uniformly dominant Warriors as its villain.

Still, you wouldn’t be alone if you felt that all this wasn’t enough to propel Denver above the rest of the Western Conference. Some folks are more gung-ho on the Lakers, others on Utah. The Clippers seem to be the odds-on favorite to win it all. After years of being a sexy selection, nobody wants to take the Nuggets to the ball anymore.

But, dear readers, there is some pause to be had out west. There’s no doubt that teams like the Lakers and Clippers have added serious talent. Other teams have strengthened themselves, and even the Blazers have tried to plug their fingers in a leaking dam with guys like Hassan Whiteside and Kent Bazmore. Yet none of these teams, outside of the Clippers at least, are so obviously dominant on paper that it necessitates taking the Nuggets out of the running.

Even the Clippers, with all its newfound wing might, isn’t going to be bashing everyone’s brains in. At least, not right away. George’s shoulders are still a question mark, and Leonard will be under minutes management for the entirety of the year. The Clippers were good enough to be eighth in the west last season thanks to their core of useful role players, and it will take a few months to make all of those pieces fit.

So this year is a little different for Denver. Nobody is ushering in the era of the Nuggets like they’ve been trying to do the past several seasons. But instead, there is consistency in the Mile High City. That could be enough to get an early jump on their competitors, and to solidify all of the issues that found them bounced early from the playoffs last year.

Penciling Denver in to have the second- or third-best record in the west and make it to the Western Conference Finals isn’t a guarantee. But with so much shift happening in the conference, Denver’s strength is its resiliency. Jokic is a legitimate MVP candidate, and that’s exactly what many of the Nuggets’ competitors are missing.

Denver is no longer a team of the future. But now they’ve arrived, and they’ve got as good a shot as anyone to take on the wild, wild west.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: If Bucks underperform whether to re-sign ‘becomes a lot more difficult’

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Around the league, the consensus among team executives is Giannis Antetokounmpo is almost a lock to sign a super-max contract extension with the Milwaukee Bucks next summer.

Almost.

Which is why other teams are keeping an eye on the situation, just in case.

The Bucks are a contending team and the only home Antetokounmpo has known in the United States — the only place he has ever been able to live comfortably and happily with his family — but he keeps leaving the door just a little open. He did that at the end of last season. He did it again over the summer speaking a Harvard University professor who was researching the Bucks turnaround and the challenges of a small market team in the NBA. Via the Journal Sentinel.

“I want the Bucks to build a winning culture,” Antetokounmpo is quoted as saying. “So far, we have been doing great, and, if this lasts, there’s no other place I want to be. But if we’re underperforming in the NBA next year, deciding whether to sign becomes a lot more difficult.”

Define “underperforming.” Do the Bucks need to make the NBA Finals? What if they lose in a close seven-game Eastern Conference Finals to Philadelphia? Anything short of the conference finals — barring a major injury, of course — would be a disappointment. Is this Antetokounmpo just keeping pressure on the organization to spend and put together a winner?

Leaving Milwaukee would mean leaving a lot of money on the table — only the Bucks can re-sign Antetokounmpo to a five-year, $247 million supermax contract next summer. Bucks GM Jon Horst said Milwaukee will offer it (then got fined for saying they would offer it, even though it’s obvious). If Antetokounmpo doesn’t sign it, the Bucks will be forced to consider trading him (or lose him for nothing), or find a way to win him over before his contract ends in 2021.

Because of money, comfort level, and playing for a contender, most teams don’t think Antetokounmpo is going anywhere as a free agent next summer.

But they are watching. Just in case.

Jamal Crawford makes not-so-subtle pitch on Twitter for spot on Lakers roster

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The Lakers have made LeBron James their point guard this season, the shot creator with the ball in his hands.

That worked with limited success in a season-opening loss to the Clippers. LeBron tried to force-feed the ball to Anthony Davis much of the night (leading to five turnovers). The Clippers adjusted to defend LeBron/Davis actions as the game wore on — switching but having the big man stay back and daring LeBron to shoot or blow past the defender, neither of which he did well. When Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee was on the floor, the Lakers had no spacing, so the Clippers clogged the paint. In the end, LeBron and Davis combined to shoot 15-of-40 on the night, including 1-of-6 in the fourth quarter.

Laker coach Frank Vogel was stuck because he didn’t have another good playmaking option (his next best guys for that, Rajon Rondo and Kyle Kuzma, are both out injured).

Free agent Jamal Crawford has an idea and voiced it on Twitter.

Crawford is one of the best veteran free agents available

And no, this is not going to happen.

The Lakers have 14 guaranteed contracts already and the one non-guaranteed they are carrying is Howard (teams can only carry 15 players). If the Lakers waived Howard they would need to replace him with another center. The Lakers could eat the contract of Troy Daniels or Jared Dudley to create a roster spot for a free agent, but they are nowhere near making that kind of move yet. Even if they were, Crawford might not be the guy, he creates shots more for himself than others.

Crawford could help the right team, the man can still get buckets off the bench. He averaged 7.9 points per game last season and lit it up for the depleted Suns at the end of last year. There are downsides — Crawford is 39, has slowed in recent years, and his defense is not good — but in the right role he can help.

Just not the Lakers.

Good try, though.

Draymond Green opens up about, takes blame for last season’s rift with Kevin Durant

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At the time last November, some wondered if Draymond Green‘s on-court, over-the-top argument with Kevin Durant — which extended into the locker room, where Green reportedly called Durant a “b****” and questioned his commitment to the Warriors because of KD’s pending free agency — would doom the Warriors down the line in the playoffs.

Green was more worried about what it would do to his friendship with Durant.

That’s what Green said on The Woj Pod with Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, a  joint interview with Green and Warriors GM Bob Myers. Green also said the team suspending him for a game ultimately forced him to step back and think about the incident.

“I started to tell myself in my mind, ‘Wow, [Myers is] flipping on me,’ and it just felt like, ‘Wow, OK, is this not the guy I’ve known for all these years? Is he turning on me?’ And I started to tell myself all of these things, and then everybody’s like, ‘Oh my God, the Warriors sided with Kevin Durant.’…

“I just had to accept the fact that I was wrong. And once I was able to get over my stubbornness and accept the fact that I was wrong, I was able to move on. I lost [Durant’s] trust. How do I get that back? Not so we can win a championship or we can win some games … but I actually loved this guy, like that’s really my brother. And so not knowing what’s next in our relationship bothered me more.”

Green said he eventually apologized to Durant and he thought the relationship was repaired. However, Green added that Durant’s comments to the Wall Street Journal this summer that he never felt he fit in with the guys in Golden State really bothered him.

The Green and Durant incident ultimately did not cost the Warriors a title, worn-down ligaments and tendons that snapped did that (as well as an outstanding Raptors team).

Did what Green said push Durant out the door, ultimately to Brooklyn? Only Durant knows the answer to that, but it felt like KD was eyeing the door before Green got in his face.

As for their relationship, if Shaq and Kobe can get along now there’s no reason to worry about Durant and Green.

 

Pascal Siakam, Fred Van Vleet each go off for 34 points against Pelicans (VIDEO)

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Apparently lifting those insanely-large championship rings didn’t wear out Pascal Siakam‘s and Fred Van Vleet’s shooting arms.

Siakam looked like a guy ready to earn that new $130 million contract, and Van Vleet looked like the guy from the NBA Finals who just kept hitting shots and making plays. Each of them scored 34 points — Van Vleet did it on 12-of-18 shooting — helping left the Raptors to a 130-122 overtime win.

Check out the video of Siakam and Van Vleets buckets above.

We’ll see what the Raptors roster looks like after the trade deadline, but as assembled this is a pretty good team that’s going to win a lot of games in the East. Especially is Siakam can continue this level of play and take another step forward off of last season’s Most Improved Player campaign.