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Monte Morris plays it safe – to Nuggets’ delight

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DETROIT – Monte Morris entered the NBA inauspiciously.

Despite looking like a borderline first-round pick after his junior year, Morris returned to Iowa State for his senior season. He pulled his quad during the pre-draft process in 2017, missing most of his scheduled workouts. He fell to the No. 51 pick. The Nuggets offered just a two-year, two-way contract.

“I was excited,” said Morris, a Flint, Mich., native. “Where I come from, if you get a chance to get to this level, everybody back home looks at you as the hero. So, I was just happy for my opportunity.”

Morris has seized it.

With Isaiah Thomas sidelined most of the season, Morris has emerged as a quality contributor in Denver. Morris deserves strong consideration for spots on Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player ballots. And this could be just the start.

The knock on Morris has long been his ceiling. The 6-foot-3, 175-pound point guard is neither big nor overly athletic. In four years at Iowa State, he developed a reputation for protecting the ball and taking what defenses gave him. Usually, future NBA point guards bend the game more at that level. They use their burst and/or shooting to dictate terms to the defense. Morris left many scouts believing he’d be a career backup in the NBA – at best.

Morris has improved his outside shooting, making 43.1% of his 3-pointers on 2.8 attempts per game this season. But he’s mostly playing the same style he always has, avoiding bad shots and turnovers. It has just translated far better than expected.

Morris’ 6.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio is on pace to be the best in NBA history. Here are the highest assist-to-turnover ratios since 1977-78, as far back as Basketball-Reference data goes (assists and turnovers per game in parentheses):

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Morris has gone 127 minutes since his last turnover.

“As a coach, that’s what you want in a point guard,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “He’s a throwback.”

Morris is averaging 10.8 points per game, and he competes defensively. Few reserves have produced like him this season.

Montrezl Harrell and Domantas Sabonis are pulling away from the field in the Sixth Man of the Year race. But the ballot runs three deep, and Morris ranks third among Sixth Man of the Year-eligible players in win shares:

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Not bad for someone who spent most of last season in the NBA’s minor league.

Morris played well there, and he has only continued to improve since. He impressed so much in summer league, Denver signed him to a standard contract a year before his two-way deal would have ended. That way, the Nuggets could use Morris more than the 45-day limit for two-way players within the season.

“He embodied who we want to be,” Malone said. “He embodied our culture. Self-motivated. And every time you gave Monte Morris a challenge, he met it head on.”

Judging Morris’ improvement can be tricky. He played just 25 minutes in three NBA games last season. I suspect he could have handled a bigger role, even as a rookie. But there’s a certain amount of guesswork there. (Not so for my Most Improved Player favorite, Kings point guard De'Aaron Fox, who was demonstrably bad last season then has become a near-star this season).

Undeniably, Morris’ impact this season is far greater than ever before.

Here are the biggest increases in win shares (middle) from a prior career high (left) to the current season (right):

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Everything is trending the right direction for Morris. He’s showing the fruits of his work ethic, and he’s just 23. Maybe we can finally view him as someone with upside. But even if this is his ceiling, it’s high enough. Morris is already a productive NBA rotation player.

Perhaps best of all for the Nuggets, Morris is on just a minimum contract.

Here are this season’s win-share leaders among minimum-contract players:*

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*Excluding players who were bought out or just waived in-season then signed elsewhere for the minimum. Excluding players on rookie-scale contracts who had their salaries increased to the minimum by the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Of the 15 minimum-salary players on that leaderboard, only two have contracts that won’t allow them to enter free agency and pursue raises this summer. Spencer Dinwiddie signed a three-year, $34,360,473 extension in December, which he deemed even better than hitting the open market. Morris has two (!) additional minimum-salary seasons on his deal.

By getting him onto a two-year, two-way deal initially, Denver gained immense leverage in negotiations last summer. Morris could have played out his two-way deal and become a restricted free agent next summer. Instead, he took the safe approach with a three-year contract that guaranteed two seasons at the NBA minimum and included a third unguaranteed minimum season.

It’s incredible value for the Nuggets… and delays Morris getting a payday commensurate with his production. But he’s maintaining the same steady approach he shows on the court.

“It’s cool,” Morris said. “I’ve just got to keep being Monte, keep being on-time, keep being a good person, and everything will take care of itself.”

Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic tips in game-winner vs. Kings (video)

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Isaiah Thomas led two of his previous previous three teams in usage percentage, and he was close to LeBron James with the Cavaliers between carrying major loads for the Celtics and Lakers. But Thomas returned with a Nuggets team that won’t have to depend on him.

Because Nikola Jokic has established himself as top option.

The All-Star center had 20 points, 18 rebounds, 11 assists and the game-winning tip-in with 0.8 seconds left in Denver’s 120-118 win over the Kings on Wednesday.

Thomas scored eight points with two assists in 13 minutes in his first game of the season.

Isaiah Thomas reportedly will make Nuggets debut Wednesday

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Officially, Isaiah Thomas is questionable for Wednesday night’s Denver game against Sacramento.

That is an upgrade over where he has been all season as he recovered from hip surgery 11 months ago, and Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported the day before he could play Wednesday night.

Asked about it after shootaround on Wednesday, Thomas said it would be a game-time decision.

However, Wojnarowski reports it’s done, Thomas is playing.

Believe Wojnarowski’s report here. Players usually play it safe and provide themselves an out when talking to the media, then turn around and tell the team/their agent what they are really thinking.

Thomas would bring another playmaking guard off the bench in Denver, although it could be tough to get IT a lot of minutes because Monte Morris has filled that same role for the Nuggets so well he gets mentioned as a most improved player candidate. Coach Mike Malone has a deep roster and is going to have to massage some egos and keep guys happy as another player steps in to divide up the minutes.

Thomas was a fan favorite in Boston, playing through pain — both physical and emotional — and pulling that team into the playoffs while being fifth in the MVP voting just a couple of years ago. Then his hip injury caught up with him. He tried to recover without surgery playing for the Cavaliers and Lakers last season, but that never really worked like he hoped. He had the surgery and signed a one-year deal with the Nuggets.

Thomas is another guy playing for his next NBA contract, but he also could provide a scoring boost to Denver if he is anywhere close to his old self.

Celtics loom large as Anthony Davis sweepstakes head to offseason

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The Cavaliers traded Kyrie Irving 0 games after his trade request. The Spurs traded Kawhi Leonard 0 games after his trade request. The Timberwolves traded Jimmy Butler 13 (nearly unbearable) games after his trade request.

The Pelicans will keep Anthony Davis at least 32 games after his trade request.

By holding Davis past today’s trade deadline, New Orleans set the stage for an unprecedented firestorm. One of the NBA’s biggest stars is caught in limbo. Opposing teams – Celtics now at the front of the line – will continue to jockey for him. Rumors will fly.

And it can’t be resolved for months.

The Pelicans didn’t create this chaos alone. Unlike Irving, Leonard and Butler, Davis requested his trade during the season. Cleveland and San Antonio spent a while soliciting and evaluating trades in the seclusion of the offseason. (Minnesota had the same option but stubbornly chose not to.) The Collective Bargaining Agreement effectively prevented Boston from trading for Davis now. Many circumstances contributed to this holding pattern.

Yet, we’re in it now primarily because of one factor – the Celtics.

Interest in the elite center won’t diminish. His desire to leave the Pelicans likely won’t change. But the Celtics are powerful enough to shift the landscape significantly.

Boston couldn’t realistically trade for Davis now, because both he and Kyrie Irving are designated rookie scale players, and teams can acquire only one via trade. But Irving’s contract status will change this offseason, allowing a trade for Davis then.

The Celtics are loaded with assets to send New Orleans. The big prize: Jayson Tatum. Boston has reportedly refused to directly dangle him while still making clear anyone besides Irving will be discussable. Will the Celtics actually include Tatum in an offer for Davis? They surely explained their intent to the Pelicans by now. It was on New Orleans to judge Boston’s specific words and tone. Any promise would be non-binding, anyway. The Celtics can’t officially trade for Davis until July 6.

In the meantime, everyone must handle this waiting period.

The Pelicans must determine how to manage Davis. They made him a healthy scratch the last couple games and are reportedly considering shutting him down the rest of the season. The five games New Orleans has already played after Davis’ trade request have been filled with awkwardness. But he reportedly wants to play, and it could get contentious. Sitting Davis the rest of the season would be a huge shame. He’s in the midst of an excellent season. I understand protecting an asset and tanking for a higher pick, but keeping such a talented player off the court that long would be a black eye for the NBA.

The Lakers must regroup in their playoff push. Trade rumors have seemingly disrupted chemistry, but this team is still capable of a deep run. LeBron James is that good, even without his desired co-star.

Boston must try to win over Davis. The timing of his trade request, when the Celtics effectively couldn’t deal for him, was a transparent attempt to avoid them. Davis’ camp furthered the push by leaking he was concerned about Kyrie Irving leaving Boston. The coup de grace: Davis’ father saying he’d never want his son on the Celtics after how they treated Isaiah Thomas.

Davis must convey what he wants. He won’t sign an extension anywhere, which means his team must ride it out into 2020 unrestricted free agency with him. That gives Davis leverage. He can say where he would and wouldn’t re-sign, incentivizing and de-incentivizing certain teams to trade for him. Anyone can still make New Orleans the best offer, but that’s extremely risky without Davis on board.

Once the season ends, everyone will be off to the races.

A wildcard team could try to trade for Davis, a la the Thunder with Paul George and Raptors with Kawhi Leonard. But Davis’ value is diminished by no longer being available for the 2019 playoffs.

A team will win the lottery and could use the No. 1 pick and right to draft Zion Williamson as trade bait for Davis. It’d have to be the right team winning the lottery, but that’s a head-turning asset.

The Knicks will chase Kevin Durant and Irving and then could try to trade for Davis. Or New York could just try to trade for Davis without having superstars already in place.

The Lakers could push again for Davis, but their offer wasn’t good enough now. How will it improve in the summer? With LeBron’s prime years dwindling, they might not be able to afford to wait for Davis’ free agency after yet another season. They’ll likely prioritize pursuing other stars.

And the Celtics will make their offer clear. No more hedging about what they might do. It’ll be time to put their cards on the table.

That’s when we’ll finally see real action.

Report: Pelicans made aware of ‘handful’ of teams Anthony Davis would re-sign with

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Anthony Davis reportedly put out word he’d re-sign with only the Lakers.

But maybe his list is growing.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The Pelicans are incentivized to leak this. They want everyone to believe they have numerous suitors for Davis. Teams that would get Davis to re-sign would obviously be more interested in trading for him. And competition breeds better offer for New Orleans.

Whether Davis would actually pledge to re-sign with several different teams is another matter.

The Pelicans’ biggest threat to teams trying to trade for Davis now was the possibility of a huge Celtics offer next summer. But Davis is reportedly concerned about Kyrie Irving bolting Boston, and Irving sure didn’t squelch rumors about leaving. Davis’ father also said he didn’t want his son to join the Celtics after how they treated Isaiah Thomas.

Simply, there is less concern Boston will push all its top assets into a trade for Davis next offseason. Which hurts the Pelicans’ negotiating position. So, maybe they’re trying to improve their leverage through this leak.

Davis could pour cold water on this by communicating his intent to interested teams. But it’s not viable for him to sign a contract extension. Whichever team has him after the 2020 trade deadline will no choice but to enter free agency that year with his Bird Rights and hope for the best. So, there will inevitably be some uncertainty.

Maybe New Orleans is trying to exploit that to get better offers.