Gary Harris

NBA Power Rankings: Red-hot Boston climbs up into top spot

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Three weeks and around 10 games into the season, we are starting to figure out what is real and what is not — and how injuries are going to blow all that up. A lot of key players around the league are out now, but go ahead and blame Kawhi Leonard for sitting out and trying to avoid getting injured.

Celtics small icon 1. Celtics (8-1, Last week No. 6). Winners of eight in a row, making the timing of Gordon Hayward’s fractured hand feels like a punch to the gut. He was looking close to his vintage, All-Star self again averaging 18.9 points per game, shooting 43.3 percent from three, pulling down 7.1 rebounds and dishing out 4.1 assists. Hayward is in three of the Celtics’ four most-used lineups, and when paired with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown the Celtics are +27.2 points per 100 possessions. The silver lining is he is only out six weeks (at a point in the season it doesn’t crush them).

Lakers small icon 2. Lakers (8-2, LW 1). Did anyone really say LeBron James was washed? No doubt his game took a step back last season — his groin injury playing a big role in that — but washed? He was third-team All-NBA. LeBron apparently talked himself into using a straw man argument for motivation — and it worked. He is playing at an MVP level so far this season. He seems much more comfortable pushing the ball in transition this season and attacking the rim. When asked how he has held off Father Time, LeBron had a great answer: “Wine. It ages well.”

Bucks small icon 3. Bucks (7-3, LW 4). He may not have taken a step forward this season as hoped, but Khris Middleton was playing like his All-Star self of a season ago — 18.5 points per game, shooting 39.3 percent from three, finishing well at the rim, and the Bucks offense was 3.3 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court. Now they are without him for 3-4 weeks with a thigh bruise. The Bucks have won 4-of-6 in a road heavy portion of the schedule, and after being at home against the Bulls on Thursday it’s back out on the road for three more.

Clippers small icon 4. Clippers (7-3, LW 3). When Kawhi Leonard is on the court this season, Los Angeles is +24.3 points per 100 possessions better. That is exactly why he is getting load management nights now — to prevent and avoid injuries down the line, so he can be on the court in the games that matter. Starting Thursday he will be joined by Paul George, who is expected to make his debut on the road in New Orleans. Then we get to witness the fire power of this fully armed and operational Death Star.

Heat small icon 5. Heat (7-3, LW 7). Rookie Kendrick Nunn has come back to earth a little after his hot start, defenses started focusing on him and blitzing him a lot more. Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find a guy happier with his situation: “Everything is good — Miami, the organization, the culture, where I live… It’s a lot warmer (than where he grew up in Chicago), I don’t like the cold.” Nunn, however, likely will be back in Chicago in February — All-Star weekend, for the Rising Stars Game on Friday night with teams of rookies and second-year guys. “I’m looking forward to that for sure, just for a couple days though,” Nunn told NBC Sports.

Raptors small icon 6. Raptors (7-3, LW 8). Nick Nurse didn’t lean much on his bench until injuries to Kyle Lowry (thumb) and Serge Ibaka (ankle) forced him to, but he has been rewarded. Chris Boucher has been a defensive force, blocking shots by LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was hitting critical shots against the Lakers. The Raptors have started 2-1 on a five-game road trip, with the only loss being on the second night of a back-to-back against the Clippers (who had a rested Kawhi Leonard).

Jazz small icon 7. Jazz (8-3, LW 9). Utah’s offense has looked better the past couple of weeks (up 2.1 points per 100 possessions over their season average, via Cleaning the Glass), but it is still the Utah defense that has them winning games. Last week they won two big ones, at home against the best of the East in Philadelphia and them Milwaukee. Bojan Bogdanovic’s game-winner against the Bucks that will be one of the big shots of the season for the Jazz.

Sixers small icon 8. 76ers (7-3, LW 2). The Sixers are all about the close games. Four of Philadelphia’s seven wins have been by eight points or less. The Sixers struggled on a recent road trip going 1-3 — with all three losses by a combined 10 points — but came home and fattened up on Charlotte and Cleveland, before going back out on the road for three more. Those three losses, particularly the one in Denver, brought up the question we asked heading into the season: Who is the closer on this team? Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris combined for one bucket in the fourth quarter against Denver. They have to do better.

Rockets small icon 9. Rockets (7-3, LW 14). The Rockets have used the combination of a soft schedule (second easiest in the league so far this season) and a historically-hot James Harden to jump out to a fast start. While the Rockets defense has struggled, that has come from the bench, their preferred starting five — Russell Westbrook, Harden, Danuel House, P.J. Tucker, and Clint Capela — is allowing less than a point per possession when on the court together. Caplet’s off-season shoulder injury (suffered while playing for the Swiss national team) has slowed his offense.

Nuggets small icon 10. Nuggets (7-3, LW 11). Mike Malone is leaning on his starters — the combination of Paul Millsap, Will Barton, Gary Harris, Nikola Jokic, and in Jamal Murray has played the most minutes of any five-man lineup in the NBA so far this young season. Denver’s record looks better than their advanced stats because Jokic has quietly become as good a clutch shooter as we have in the league right now, and he hit two game-winners over the weekend to save the Nuggets.

Suns small icon 11. Suns (6-4, LW 5). It’s the question a lot of people keep asking: Are the Suns for real? It sure feels like they are (they played the Lakers tough until the end Tuesday night). For one thing, this is a top 10 offense and the defense is respectable (middle of the pack). Then there are games like Sunday, coming off a loss to Miami, where the Suns bounced back and trounced the Nets. Or, when Devin Booker scored 11 in a row in the fourth quarter recently to help beat Philly. The combination of Monty Williams as coach and Ricky Rubio at the point has Phoenix playing smart ball, the kind that is sustainable.

Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (7-4, LW 18). Malcolm Brogdon has the Pacers off to a quality start to the season, but they should be racking up wins now — all 11 of their games have been against teams currently below .500. That’s about to change with the Rockets and Bucks the next two teams up on the schedule. The Pacers sent Victor Oladipo down to the G-League for a day to get in practice, he’s still a ways away but it’s a good sign he’s getting in the work.

Mavericks small icon 13. Mavericks (6-4, LW 10). The boos are about to rain down on Kristaps Porzingis as he returns to Madison Square Garden Thursday to take on the Knicks (even though, when you look at the Knicks right now, do you blame him for wanting out?). Dallas lost to the New York at home last week despite another Luka Doncic triple-double. Porzingis has not played up to the level of his pre-injury self yet, but after nearly 20 months away from an NBA court that is to be expected. This was always going to take time.

14. Timberwolves (6-4, LW 13). It’s time to acknowledge this: Andrew Wiggins is playing the best basketball of his career. It’s not all puppy dogs and rainbows — he’s not defending all that well, he’s certainly not living up to his contract — but it’s better than we have seen him play. It remains a tail of halves: In the first half he shoots 30.3% from three and doesn’t really impact the game on either end; then in the second half he shoots 37.9% from three (50% in the fourth), he’s more engaged and attacks the rim, and he impacts games late. We’ll see if it keeps up, but so far his 21.1 PER is lightyears ahead of any other season he’s had and a sign of just how well he is going.

Spurs small icon 15. Spurs (5-5, LW 12). The San Antonio Spurs are averaging 25.2 free throw attempts per game, 11th most in the NBA. That doesn’t seem remarkable until you compare it to their history, the Spurs are not a team that draws fouls — they have been in the bottom 10 in the league in free throw attempts four of the past five years (and never were above 22 a game). San Antonio is attacking a little more, and just finding ways to win.

Nets small icon 16. Nets (4-6, LW 17). When Jarrett Allen is on the court, Brooklyn outscores opponents by 8.8 points per 100 possessions. When DeAndre Jordan is on the court, the Nets get outscored by 12.8. Allen is averaging 25.5 points per game, Jordan 22.4. Jordan is making $9.9 million a season in the first-year of a four-year contract. The lesson here? It’s good to have Kyrie and KD as your friends.

Blazers small icon 17. Trail Blazers (4-7, LW 19). Tuesday night’s loss sloppy loss to a Sacramento team without D’Aaron Fox set off even more alarm bells in Portland — this team is not right. The defense is struggling and the offense isn’t bailing them out Damian Lillard is carrying this team — he dropped 60 on Brooklyn and Portland still lost the game. CJ McCollum is struggling with his shot, Hassan Whiteside is Hassan Whiteside, and guys that might help such as Rodney Hood, Zach Collins, and Jusuf Nurkic are out injured. It all just puts more pressure on GM Neil Olshay to make a trade at the deadline.

Thunder small icon 18. Thunder (4-7, LW 15). While the record isn’t what OKC had hoped, this is a very competitive team that has four losses by five points or less. Filter out garbage time (as Ben Falk does at Cleaning the Glass) and the Thunder have a net rating of -0.7 — just a little under a .500 team. Catch a couple of bounces and this team has another win or two. That said, it’s going to be tough to rack up wins in the next four games against the 76ers, Clippers, and a home-and-home against the Lakers.

Bulls small icon 19. Bulls (4-7, LW 24). There are still a lot of things wrong in Chicago, but for a night rookie Coby White was able to cover them up by making seven three pointers in the fourth quarter to lead a win over the Knicks. Pulling away in the fourth is a nice change of pace for Bulls’ fans, who have had to watch their team blow four double-digit leads that became losses already this season.

Cavaliers small icon 20. Cavaliers (4-6, LW 25). Ten games into the season, we can now say: The Cleveland Cavaliers are not that bad. Which is a whole lot better than most of us expected (including Cavs fans). Take garbage time out of the equation (as stats at Cleaning the Glass do) and their net rating is -0.2, which is basically a .500 team. Collin Sexton and Darius Garland are showing some chemistry, veterans such as Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson are playing well (and upping their trade value), and the Cleveland offense has looked pretty good the past couple of weeks.

Hawks small icon 21. Hawks (4-6, LW 16). Trae Young has made the leap in his second season — he is playing like an All-Star. Young is making history right now — he is the first Hawks player ever to have three straight games with at least 30 points and 10 assists. Tuesday night he had 42 points, shot 8-of-11 from three (with some Stephen Curry-ranged makes), dished out 11 assists, and willed the Hawks to an impressive 125-121 win on the road in Denver.

Hornets small icon 22. Hornets (4-6, LW 20). Statistically, the Hornets may be 4-6 but they are playing over their head, with a -7.3 net rating that would suggest another loss or two. Or, look at it this way: Charlotte has trailed by at lest 10 points in every one of its games. The one bright spot has been Devonte' Graham, who is averaging 17.9 points per game and absolutely should be starting in place of Terry Rozier right now.

Magic small icon 23. Magic (3-7, LW 23). The rumors that Orlando is interested in DeMar DeRozan make sense: Orlando’s problem is on offense where they average less than a point per possession this season (second worst in the league), and DeRozan is a “just add water and instant offense” kind of player. Orlando has dropped 5-of-6 and on Wednesday night the 76ers come to town for what could be the Markelle Fultz revenge game.

Kings small icon 24. Kings (4-6, LW 27). The Kings feel snakebit. First Marvin Bagley III goes down injured. Then on Monday, De’Aaron Fox rolled his ankle near the end of the Kings’ practice and he will be out 3-4 weeks with what has been described as a grade 3 sprain. Fox was putting up 18.2 points and dishing out 7 assists a game this season as the focal point of the Kings’ offense. Look for more Cory Joseph and Yogi Farrell.

Pistons small icon 25. Pistons (4-8, LW 22). Blake Griffin has returned to the lineup and looked pretty good in his debut with 19 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists. Derrick Rose could return to the lineup this week as well from his strained hamstring, and the Pistons could use his playmaking skills off the bench as they are on the road for 3-of-4.

Wizards small icon 26. Wizards (2-6, LW 21). The good news is that with Bradley Beal and impressive rookie Rui Hachimura the Wizards have been getting buckets — they have the 11th ranked offense in the league. The bad news is with those two on the floor the Wizards give up more than 122 points per 100 possessions — Washington’s defense is a mess. Thomas Bryant is not a rim-protecting backstop, and the insertion of Isaiah Thomas into the starting lineup is not a boost on that end of the court. Thomas is averaging 10 points a game with a dreadful 47.1 true shooting percentage as a starter.

Pelicans small icon 27. Pelicans (2-8, LW 28). Brandon Ingram is averaging a career high 25.9 points per game. but how he’s getting those buckets has evolved since previous seasons. Ingram is getting to the rim less (just 21% of his shots, down fro 34% a season ago) but he’s not taking 30% of his shot attempts from beyond the arc and is hitting 46.9% of them. That shooting percentage is going to come down to earth some, but Ingram’s improved jumper speaks to the overall improvement in his game.

Grizzlies small icon 28. Grizzlies (3-7, LW 29). Ja Morant continues to put up numbers and look like a Rookie of the Year candidate, but what the Grizzlies really need is him and Jaren Jackson Jr. to find some chemistry, and that has yet to happen. When those two are on the court this season the Grizzlies score less than a point per possession and have a net rating of -11.8. Morant has 47 assists this season but only four have been to Jackson. It’s early, but the Grizzlies need this pairing to grow and work better.

Warriors small icon 29. Warriors (2-9, LW 26). Golden State rookie Eric Paschall is getting just about all he can eat in terms of touches on the shorthanded Warriors, and the result is him scoring 15.6 points per game. What’s most impressive is he is getting to the rim, with 43.5% of his shots coming in the restricted area, and he’s finishing a very good 66% of them. He’s one ray of hope for Warriors fans this season.

Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (2-9, LW 30). The Knicks signed Julius Randle this summer to bring his bully ball style in the paint to Madison Square Garden this season, but with other teams able to clog the paint because of a lack of shooting, Randle is shooting just 42.4% this season. His three-point percentage also is way off, down to 21.1% (he hit 34.4% a season ago). Things are so bad with the Knicks team president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry were forced to address the media (you know James Dolan demanded it), and it feels like David Fizdale may be the scapegoat. He’s no blameless, but you can resurrect John Wooden from the dead and he couldn’t get this roster to win, it’s unbalanced and never was going to fit well.

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Frustrated, ’embarrassed’ Mike Malone rips Nuggets: ‘We’re a great talk team’

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Before the season tipped off, the expectations in Denver were this Nuggets team was ready to be a contender. Even outside the Rockie Mountains, the sense was the Nuggets were a top-four seed with the potential to push the Clippers and Lakers in the postseason if things went right.

Thursday night, Denver fell to 3-2 on the young season and handed the Pelicans their first win, a 122-107 New Orleans win on a national TNT game.

After the game, a pissed off Nuggets coach Mike Malone ripped into his team for reading their own press clippings, via Andrew Lopez of ESPN.

“I’m embarrassed,” Malone said at his postgame news conference. “That was an embarrassing effort defensively. Gave up 37 fast-break points. You can give all the transition defense rules that you want. To me, transition defense boils down to one thing — effort. Get back. You can tell them. You can lead a horse to water, whatever analogy you want to use. We did not get back.”…

“We’re a great talk team. We can talk before the season starts about all the things we want to accomplish, and we want to be a contending team,” Malone said. “It’s all bulls—. Don’t tell me about it, show me. And right now we’ve got a lot of guys that aren’t showing me much.”

Malone specifically called out his starters — Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Torrey Craig, Paul Millsap, and Nikola Jokic — who were -9 in a little less than 14 minutes on the court together, struggling mostly on the defensive end as a group. That five-some has struggled all season on both ends of the floor (Craig was starting in place of Will Barton, who is out with toe inflammation). 

The Nuggets have just been okay to start the season, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense, and a negative -1.3 net rating. After winning their first three games, the Nuggets have dropped two in a row and now travel to Orlando, before returning home to face red-hot Miami.

It’s not just one thing leading to the slow start, but at the heart of it is Jokic’s game is off. He is hitting just 21.4 percent from three and is down five points per game, he is fouling and turning the ball over more. Beyond all that, when he gets the ball he doesn’t move like the decisive man with a plan of years past, and that passivity quickly spreads through the offense. It’s not all the time, early on against the Pelicans he was calling for the ball and making plays, but it’s not consistent (as he was in previous seasons)

It’s far too early to read much into this (Denver is 3-2 still), it could be just a malaise to start the season (with Jokic coming off having played in FIBA’s World Cup in China). The Nuggets could use to play a little faster, get some easy buckets, and find a rhythm. They need to be a little more focused on the defensive end.

If not, there are more embarrassing nights coming.

 

NBCsports.com’s 50 best players in 5 years: Players 40-36

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What is the NBA going to look like in five years? Who will be the game’s best players? The All-Stars, the guys on the cover of 2K24, the guys with signature shoe deals?

As a fun summer project, the NBA team at NBCSports.com put our heads together, pulled out our crystal balls, and tried to project forward who would be the 50 best players in the NBA in five years — in the summer of 2024. We took into account a player’s age, his potential ceiling and how likely he is to reach it, injury history, and more. The team working on this included Dan Feldman, Tom Haberstroh, Rob Dauster, Tommy Beer, Steve Alexander, and Kurt Helin (and thanks to Tess Quinlan and Mia Zanzucchi for the design help).

There were plenty of disagreements (and we don’t expect you to agree with all of our list), but here it is.

Here are the links to players 50-46 and 45-41. These are players 40-36 on our list.

40. LeBron James

LeBron James wants to play in the NBA with his son, who’s set to graduate high school in 2023.

They have a chance to make that happen.

It starts with LeBron already remaining elite into his mid-30s. That gives him a lot of runway to decline and remain a viable NBA player.

Before LeBron this year, 16 players made an All-NBA team in their age-34 season. A whopping eight of them still played in the league five years later. That’s a huge number for that age demographic.

But we’re projecting LeBron to do more than just stick in the league for a couple of seasons with his son. We’re expecting him to remain quite good.

Picking a 39-year-old for a list like this is always dangerous. Injuries become more likely. Declines can be sharp. There’s a decent chance LeBron is completely finished well before 2024.

Only Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dirk Nowitzki (appointed by the commissioner this year) were All-Stars in their age-39 seasons or later. Karl Malone and John Stockton are the only other players to even near that level while so old.

LeBron might be the special player to join that group.

He’s an unprecedented athlete with his combination of size, strength, speed and coordination. There’s so much room for his athleticism to slip and remain good enough. Not that LeBron is idly letting himself deteriorate. He invests heavily in taking care of his body. Perhaps most importantly, in recent years, LeBron has carefully selected when to exert full effort.

LeBron also has the most basketball intelligence in the league. Even as his physical tools erode, here’s betting he finds ways to thrive.
—Dan Feldman

39. Marvin Bagley III

The biggest knock on Marvin Bagley III: He’s not Luka Doncic.

Bagley will likely never live down the Kings drafting him No. 2 last year ahead of Doncic, who ranks way higher on this list. But Bagley is the on track to make his own name in the NBA.

With quick hops and amazing elevation, Bagley finishes above the rim so effortlessly. It’s easy to see that translating to other areas of his game – primarily defense.

Bagley isn’t as overwhelmed defensively as it seemed he’d be entering the league. He has shown nice timing for blocking shots. Sure, he must improve his awareness and get stronger. But that’s true of nearly every young big.

Offensively, Bagley has also shown more skill than expected. His shooting range and ball-handling are trending in the right direction.

Bagley will probably never catch Doncic. Bagley might not surpass No. 4 pick Jaren Jackson Jr. or No. 5 pick Trae Young, either.

But Bagley is a highly intriguing young player. That ought to be appreciated.
—Dan Feldman

38. Gary Harris

In 2017-18, Gary Harris posted 5.5 win shares. Here’s a complete list of other shooting guards who are younger than 25 and have had such a productive season:

At 24, Harris is a rare combination of young and established at the NBA’s most talent-scarce position.

The base of his game is 3-point shooting and defense – the highly coveted skills that allow him to fit into any situation. But he also has enough all-around ability that a 3-and-D label sells him short.

After continuously rising his first four years in the NBA, Harris backslid while playing through injury last season. He just wasn’t nearly as sharp on either end of the floor. That got largely overlooked because the Nuggets had their best season in several years. Harris provided enough.

He should be healthier and better going forward. If he picks up where he left off a year ago – not guaranteed, but definitely possible – he could even develop into an All-Star.
—Dan Feldman

37. James Wiseman

Wiseman has a chance to be really good. He stands 7-foot. He has the kind of length, mobility and athleticism that should allow him to thrive at the five in the modern NBA. He is a capable defender with the potential to be very, very good with some added strength and a bit of motivation. And he is skilled enough where he has the potential of one day doing all four things modern fives are asked to do – protect the rim, switch ball-screens, space the floor to the three-point line, be a lob target as a roll-man in ball-screens.

The biggest question with Wiseman is what he expects out of himself. In the words of one NBA draftnik, “he thinks he’s Giannis when in reality he’s a lot closer to Myles Turner.” There is nothing wrong with being Myles Turner. Turner just turned 23 years old and he is coming off of a season where he averaged 13.3 points, 7.2 boards and an NBA-best 2.7 blocks while shooting 38.8 percent from three. He’s really good. You are going to see him in this top 50.

But Turner knows what he is and what he isn’t, and he isn’t Giannis. If Wiseman embraces the fact that he can be a top five center in the NBA doing the four things I listed above at an elite level, then he’ll make himself a lot of money while making some NBA GM very, very happy.
—Rob Dauster

36. Aaron Gordon

Because he plays in Orlando with a franchise that seems to be in a constant state of rebuilding, because his game improves incrementally every year rather than by the massive leaps we see from him on the court, fans tend to overlook Aaron Gordon. He’s just the Dunk Contest guy to many.

We shouldn’t — Gordon is a damn good player. Not just a phenomenal athlete, although he is that, too, but Gordon is a player. He averaged 16 points and 7 rebounds a game last season, shot a career-best 34.9 percent from three, saw his assist numbers improve again (16.6% assist percentage), has the handles to create his own shot, has the versatility to play the three or the four, and he’s a quality defender on the perimeter or in the post. All that and he will turn just 24 right before training camp opens, he will be in his prime at age 28 in 2024. He’s a guy who fits the direction the NBA is headed: A versatile 6’9” player who is skilled and can help a team a lot of ways.

The question remains: Can Gordon take the next step and be a trusted go-to scorer in the crunch time of games? Can he get there with his incremental improvement, or will it take a big leap?

Gordon puts in the work. We’ll see if he can reach that level, and we’ll see if Orlando management can put a team around him that would better complement and showcase what Gordon can do. If that comes together, we should have an All-Star level player in Gordon in 2024. A guy who is a top two (or maybe three, depending on the roster) player on a very good team. We’ll just have to see if he (and the Magic, or eventually another team) can get there.
—Kurt Helin

Report: Thunder trading Jerami Grant to Nuggets for first-rounder

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Raise the alert level on the Thunder trading Russell Westbrook.

This doesn’t prove anything about Westbrook. It doesn’t match the significance of Oklahoma City shipping Paul George to the Clippers.

But the Thunder are moving ahead in a teardown by trading Jerami Grant to the Nuggets for a draft pick.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Grant (due $9,346,153 next season and holding a player option for the same salary the following year) was too expensive for Oklahoma City’s liking. It’s impossible to evaluate the trade fully without knowing the protections, but getting a first-rounder looks nice for the Thunder given where they are in team-building.

Considering Oklahoma City must replace Grant on the roster and projecting that to be with a minimum-salary free agent, this trade puts the Thunder in line to save $29,710,941 in salary and luxury tax next season. The tax isn’t assessed until the final day of the regular season, so there’s plenty of time for that number to change.

The Thunder are now just $3,695,790 into the tax (counting that minimum-salary free agent), and they face the repeater rate. I’d be shocked if they don’t avoid the tax entirely.

Oklahoma City’s spending limitations are Denver’s gains.

Grant can play all three frontcourt positions. He gives the Nuggets someone capable of defending bigger wings now and maybe replacing Paul Millsap as starting power forward down the road. Both are important as Denver looks to continue its ascension around Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris.

The 25-year-old Grant has been up-and-down 3-point shooter in his career, but he has generally trended in the right direction. He made a career-high 39% of his 3s last season. If he maintains that, this will be an excellent addition. If not, the Nuggets will still welcome his defensive versatility and overall activity.

Denver has sat on the mid-level exception despite having the ability to use it in full and remain out of the tax. The Nuggets will use a trade exception to acquire Grant, leaving the mid-level exception available. But using it now would push Denver into the tax. Would ownership greenlight that?

The Nuggets are one of several teams that should believe they have a chance to win a title next season. Star talent is dispersed. This should be the time to spend, though the market for free agents worth the mid-level exception is shrinking fast.

One team no longer in the championship chase: Oklahoma City. The Thunder can can remain competitive with Westbrook, Danilo Gallinari (who’ll take Grant’s spot at starting power forward), Steven Adams, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Andre Roberson (if healthy). But if immediate competitiveness were the goal, the Thunder wouldn’t have traded Grant for a draft pick. They clearly have other aims.

Reports: Denver picks up $30 million option for Paul Millsap

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After surveying the free agency landscape, the Denver Nuggets decided to bank on internal improvement — Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray will be a year older, they add Michael Porter Jr. to the mix, get Gary Harris healthy — and keeping financial flexibility next season and beyond.

The Nuggets are picking up the $30 million option on Paul Millsap‘s contract, something first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The Denver Nuggets have exercised a $30 million option on forward Paul Millsap’s contract for next season, bringing back a key player for the franchise’s pursuit of a Western Conference title, league sources told ESPN on Saturday.

Denver can keep Millsap, hold onto its $9.2M mid-level exception and still stay out of the luxury tax next season.

The move has been confirmed by Michael Singer of the Denver Post.

The Nuggets had talked to Millsap’s representatives about not picking up his option then re-signing him to a longer-term deal that would have paid less money per year but more money over multiple years. That never came together in a deal that worked for all sides.

Nuggets fans saw their team as the No. 2 seed and an up-and-coming team in the West and those fans wanted the Nuggets to make a big splash in free agency (especially with the Lakers and others doing just that). Specifically to go after Tobias Harris. This move by Nuggets management was a recognition, after looking at the market with sober eyes, that the smart move was to count on internal improvement, fill a need with the mid-level exception (and in a summer with more than 200 free agents there will be value at that number), and be ready to make big moves in the future.

Millsap is also critical to what the Nuggets do. He averaged 12.6 points and 7 rebounds a game, shot 36.5 percent from three, but more importantly was the Nuggets defense was 2.7 points per 100 possessions better when Millsap was on the court. In the playoffs, the Nuggets were +10.5 per 100 when Millsap was on the court, he is the glue that makes it all work.

Whatever the West looks like next season, the Nuggets are going to be a threat. Millsap is a big part of that.

In other Nuggets news, they will keep their options open with Trey Lyles.