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Nuggets agree to contract extension with coach Mike Malone

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Mike Malone was one of the names on the coaching hot seat lists this season. Not that his seat was warm just yet, a lot of pundits were high on his Nuggets (I predicted them to be fourth in the West), but after just missing the playoffs the past two years, if Denver got off to a slow start this season….

Cross Malone off your list, he just got a contract extension from the Nuggets.

This reportedly adds two years to his existing contract, so it now runs through 2021, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Expectations are high in Denver with a return to the playoffs the only acceptable outcome. The Nuggets have improved each season under Malone and won 46 games last season (that gets you in the dance most years). The Nuggets have a deep and impressive roster led by a top 20 NBA player in Nikola Jokic, a point guard in Jamal Murray who is poised to break out in his third season, plus quality rotation players such as Gary Harris and Paul Millsap.

Malone can earn that new contract — and get the team into the postseason — just by finally improving the Denver defense, which was 26th in the NBA last season. If they move up to the middle of the pack, with the Nuggets’ elite offense, they are in.

Whatever happens, Denver is a team to watch this season. And Malone isn’t going anywhere.

NBA Power Rankings: Warriors still on top

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The NBA season is back, and with it, so are the NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings, which are put together each week throughout the season.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (Last season 58-24). If a team is the two-time defending champs and made four straight Finals appearances, they start on top. The only question is how motivated the Warriors are during the regular season — which may be less of an issue this time around, listening to the buzz around the team. Keeping Golden State healthy and not letting it build a bunch of bad habits while waiting for the games to really matter again has to be Steve Kerr’s focus. Don’t expect to see DeMarcus Cousins until after you’ve opened your Christmas presents.

Celtics small icon 2. Celtics (55-27). Don’t read too much into the preseason struggles — that was exactly what coach Brad Stevens needed to get this team’s attention and get them focused on the process. It turns out bringing two superstar players — Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward — back into the fold is not simply a matter of plug-and-play, it’s going to take some work. Plus, Hayward is not all the way back yet. Still, with all this depth, the Celtics should own the East.

Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (65-17). Carmelo Anthony has blended fairly smoothly in the preseason, accepting his role coming off the bench and as more as a shooter working off the ball, now we will see if that continues when opposing defenses start to care. A lot of lineup shuffling in the preseason, which leads to a question: Who will close games for Houston? Chris Paul and James Harden for sure, but after that which two of Anthony, P.J. Tucker, Eric Gordon, James Ennis, and Clint Capela will sit?

Raptors small icon 4. Raptors (59-23). Understandably a lot of the preseason focus has been on Kawhi Leonard, but there is another big question for this team (both early and for the full season): What kind of difference does new coach Nick Nurse make? He’s a rookie coach and he’s doing things like talking about changing the starting five based on opponent, but the hope was he would bring a less predictable offense (especially for the postseason). Nurse said he is going to be “fluid” with rotations — read: experimenting — for the start of the season, but this is a deep team that had the best bench in the NBA last season, and it could be better this year.

Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (52-30). Replacing J.J. Redick with Markelle Fultz in the starting lineup to start the season is an interesting tactic by Brett Brown (the Sixers starting lineup with Redick was +21 points per 100 possessions last season), but it should do one thing for sure: The Sixers’ defense should be better. And it was top five last season. The question becomes floor spacing on the other end: Ben Simmons is not a jump shooter, Joel Embiid can hit threes but needs to be around the basket, and Fultz doesn’t have the jumper of an NBA two-guard yet (he attempted just five shots from three in the preseason). Defenses will pack the paint on Philly. Also, teams that make the China trip in preseason tend to start slowly the next season.

Jazz small icon 6. Jazz (48-34). There are a lot of people on the Jazz bandwagon, some even suggesting they are better than the Rockets. What Utah has going for it is an elite defense (if Rudy Gobert can stay healthy) and continuity from the team that was so good the second half of last season. But after Donovan Mitchell, who is the other shot creator? Ricky Rubio can set guys up, but is he a secondary go-to guy? The Jazz bet big on Dante Exum this summer, he is a guy to watch.

Thunder small icon 7. Thunder (48-34).. Russell Westbrook is banged up to start the season (he had his knee scoped a month ago and will miss at least the opener), and Andre Roberson is out until December — that second part is a bigger blow than some fans realize. The injuries could lead to a slow start for the Thunder, which is dangerous in the very deep West. Can Terrance Ferguson step up on the wing and give them something?

Nuggets small icon 8. Nuggets (46-36).. Everyone is high on the Nikola Jokic/Jamal Murray/Gary Harris starting lineup, and with good reason, especially with Will Barton added to it. The Nuggets will have an elite offense. Two big questions loom for this team: Can their defense (bottom five last season) improve, even up to league average? And, with Isaiah Thomas out who will lead the bench unit? Can Trey Lyles step into that role and thrive?

Lakers small icon 9. Lakers (35-47). The Lakers are going to run this season (they likely will have one of the fastest paces in the league) and that combined with LeBron James distributing from the elbow should lead to an impressive offense, although the lack of true shooters could hold them back a little. The question is at the other end of the court, will the Lakers get enough stops to win? They were sloppy defensively in the preseason. Portland and Houston this week start off a brutal schedule to start the season.

Bucks small icon 10. Bucks (44-38 LW 18). This may be too low a ranking for a team I am high on. While we should take the preseason with a grain of salt, the Bucks looked like a modern offense under Mike Budenholzer, leaning on three pointers and getting to the rim, avoiding midrange jumpers — and they had an impressive offense because of it. Giannis Antetokounmpo was a flat out beast, showing more confidence in his jumper but also finding a lot more room to drive on a team with genuine floor spacing. We’ll see if it carries over, but the Bucks looked more like a threat to the 76ers/Raptors in the preseason.

Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (48-34). Preseason wasn’t kind to the new players who are expected to push this team forward, Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott, nor did the man with the new contract Myles Turner impress. We’re going to overlook all that for now, this is a team on the tier behind the big three in the East (some think they can push Philly/Toronto) and they should be a tough out every night. Interesting first week game Friday night in Milwaukee.

Pelicans small icon 12. Pelicans (48-34). I am high on this team coming into the season — I predicted Anthony Davis to win MVP — but the preseason defensive performance gave me pause. It’s just preseason, but Elfrid Payton is a turnstile (that’s not new) and they were getting torched in the paint to the tune of 65 points a game. We’ll see if that continues when the games matter, but a tough opener against Houston doesn’t help.

Blazers small icon 13. Trail Blazers (49-33). The entire NBA, and particularly the Blazers community, is mourning the passing of one of the best and classiest owners in the league in Paul Allen. Making the playoffs 23 times in 30 seasons, doing things the right way, he’s a model owner. The road forward will be interesting (the league would not allow this team to be moved, and the lease runs through 2025 anyway). The Trail Blazers open the season on national television Thursday night against LeBron James and the Lakers and can make a statement then.

Spurs small icon 14. Spurs (47-35). Injuries have decimated the guard rotation: Dejounte Murray out for the season with a torn ACL, his backup Derrick White tore his plantar fascia, and Lonnie Walker IV tore the meniscus in his right knee (the latter two are 6-8 weeks, maybe a little more. In a West with little margin for error, is that enough to keep the Spurs out of the playoffs for the first time since 1997? DeMar DeRozan is going to have to be the primary playmaker for this team now.

Wizards small icon 15. Wizards (43-39). Dwight Howard missed all of preseason (with an injured butt, insert your own joke here), but is now practicing with the team and could play in the opener, just in a more limited role. Once again we enter the season saying we like the Wizards players individually — John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter — but as a team how do they really take a step forward from good to great?

Heat small icon 16. Heat (44-38). The Jimmy Butler trade saga hangs over this team a little (nobody likes hearing their name in trade talks), but this is a solid team and it’s Dwyane Wade’s “One Last Dance” so its worth tuning in to watch him put on a show. Get wins against Orlando and Charlotte the first week of the season and it will be easier to tune out all the trade chatter (which has died down a little of late anyway).

Clippers small icon 17. Clippers (42-40). Their starting five has potential — Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley, Danilo Gallinari, Tobias Harris, and Marcin Gortat — if they can stay healthy. Off the bench is the Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, plus Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who impressed at Summer League and through the preseason. Healthy, this could be a playoff team, but the Clippers are littered with players prone to injury and not living up to their potential. Brutal first few weeks of the schedule for Los Angeles, including the Nuggets, Thunder, and Rockets this week.

Grizzlies small icon 18. Grizzlies (22-60). One of a few teams in the West (along with the Clippers and Mavericks) where I can envision a scenario where they make the playoffs, but everything has to go right for them. That means Marc Gasol and Mike Conley stay healthy, Jaren Jackson Jr. plays like a rookie of the year, and Chandler Parsons gives them something (he’s looked passable in the preseason). That’s a lot of “ifs” in a conference with no margin for error.

Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (39-43). They have been penciled in to the final playoff spot in the East by a lot of pundits (myself included) based on the potential of Blake Griffin, Reggie Jackson, and Andre Drummond together (especially with Dwane Casey as coach). It’s also a work in progress that didn’t look very smooth in the preseason. Depth questions also are out there for the Pistons. Still, if they can be solid defensively, they should make the postseason.

20. Timberwolves (47-35, LW 13). Is this too low a ranking, much of it based on the Jimmy Butler trade drama? Maybe. With Butler in the lineup last season the Timberwolves looked like a 3/4 seed kind of squad. On the flip side, chemistry matters in the NBA and good luck finding a team with a worse locker room right now. Also, Butler is going to get booed and it’s going to get ugly Friday night in Minnesota’s first home game (vs. Cleveland). Without Butler in the preseason the Timberwolves defense was a disaster, it’s just preseason but that’s not a good sign.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (36-46). What will new coach James Borego bring to the table? If was can read much into the preseason it’s more three point attempts (and less long twos) and better ball movement and tempo. Rookie Miles Bridges showed some preseason promise and could play his way into the starting lineup eventually. Relatively soft schedule the first month of the season, get off to a fast start and it will keep the “will they trade Kemba Walker?” questions at bay.

Mavericks small icon 22. Mavericks (24-58). Fun start to the season Wednesday: Rookie of the Year favorites Luka Doncic and Deandre Ayton face off (although the matchup to watch in that game is how Ayton handles the strength and athleticism of DeAndre Jordan). Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. started to show some chemistry in the preseason, but lets see what happens when the games matter and the defenses start to care.

Cavaliers small icon 23. Cavaliers (50-32). Kevin Love says he is ready to return to the role of a No. 1 option — and the Cavaliers are certainly paying him like one — but the game has evolved and Love has gotten older since he last time that burden fell on his shoulders. There is still potential on this roster in terms of good shooting, at least until Cavs management starts trading them for young players and picks. After opening in Toronto, pretty soft schedule to start the season.

Bulls small icon 24. Bulls (27-55).. No Lauri Markkanen to start the season (elbow, out at least a few weeks) but there is promise on this roster: Zach LaVine showed some athleticism and looked healthy and efficient in the preseason, and Wendell Carter Jr. continues to impress and is now the starting center for this team (although rough “welcome to the NBA” start in Game 1 against Joel Embiid). How will Jabari Parker look in a Sixth Man role?

Suns small icon 25. Suns (21-61). Firing GM Ryan McDonough nine days before the season started — after letting him make all the off-season moves for the team, including hiring the new coach — is a “the emperor has no clothes” moment for owner Robert Sarver. Deandre Ayton has put up numbers and impressed in the preseason, and Devin Booker will return from hand surgery and be ready for the opener. Jamal Crawford is not a point guard but may end up playing one anyway.

Nets small icon 26. Nets (28-54). Coach Kenny Atkinson has done in Brooklyn what the new coach across the bridge in Manhattan needs to do this season — develop a culture where the players go hard for him within the system. Now the question in Brooklyn is about the talent. How good is D’Angelo Russell really, is he worth a big new contract next summer (he’s a restricted free agent)? Where does Spencer Dinwiddie fit in that mix? Jarrett Allen is expected to make a leap at center, but will he. Where do Caris LeVert and Ronde Hollis-Jefferson fit in? Some potential there, but a lot of questions, too.

Knicks small icon 27. Knicks (29-53, LW 22). For new coach David Fizdale, this is a season about building the culture and getting players who will play his way and play hard. Rookie Kevin Knox needs to be part of that and will be thrown into the deep end to sink or swim for the Knicks. Frank Ntilikina has yet to impress me, but then again Emmanuel Mudiay does not look like the answer at the point guard spot either. Just my guess, we see Kristaps Porzingis return this season for the last dozen games or so, not to make a playoff push (the Knicks won’t be that good) but to hit the ground running for his summer work, and to show free agents he will be ready to go next season.

Magic small icon 28. Magic (25-57). As discussed on the PBT Podcast on teams to watch, I think Orlando will be an interesting team this season — not good, but worth watching. Specifically, when the big and athletic front line of Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, and rookie Mo Bamba are paired. Can those three play together and make it work (it pushes Gordon to the three when he is better as a four)? The Orlando defense should be pretty good this season, the question is where the points are going to come from?

Kings small icon 29. Kings (27-55). Harry Giles impressed in both Summer League and preseason and could be a sneaky candidate to make All-Rookie teams at the end of the season. Marvin Bagley III showed the potential to go get buckets during the preseason, and I like using Buddy Hield more as a floor-spacing three (at least on offense, nothing worked for the Kings on defense). Rough way to start the season: Jazz, Pelicans, Thunder.

Hawks small icon 30. Hawks (24-58). It’s going to be all Trae Young all the time in Atlanta as they let him be the man and take all the shots — and that worked for a game winner against the Spurs in the preseason. It’s also going to mean some growing pains when the real games begin. Rough to have John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon out to start the season with injuries.

Check out highlights from LeBron James’ first game in a Lakers’ uniform

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LeBron James looked like a boxer in the first round, throwing a few jabs but mostly just trying to get a feel for the flow of things. The Los Angeles Lakers looked like a team that had been largely thrown together this summer and were trying to figure out the dance steps with a new partner. There were good moments, and there were sloppy ones, particularly on defense.

Which is bad news against a Denver team that has a lot of continuity and makes even the good teams look bad sometimes with their elite offense.

The result was LeBron having 9 points on 2-of-6 shooting, plus three assists and rebounds each, and the Lakers falling to Denver in their preseason opener, 124-107. Above you can catch highlights of LeBron’s work for the night, but it did all seem a bit surreal. Including the chalk toss (or, at least a version of it).

You know it’s the preseason when JaVale McGee led the Lakers in scoring with 17 points (although he’s going to have a nice season just finishing around the rim with all the attention the other Lakers will get). Brandon Ingram looked good with 16 points.

Juancho Hernangomez led the Nuggets with 19 points off the bench, while Jamal Murray had 18.

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-

 

Isaiah Thomas says Nuggets are making playoffs this year

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Last year the Denver Nuggets won 46 games and finished one game out of the playoffs, and that was with Paul Millsap missing most of the season due to injury.

This summer, the Nuggets locked up star center Nikola Jokic and added some bench depth in Isaiah Thomas. Thomas said all of that is going to get Denver to the playoffs this season.

I think he’s right.

Adding a (hopefully) healthy Thomas to the mix, getting Millsap back for a full season, a year of maturity for Jamal Murray at the point, moving Will Barton into the starting lineup, and watch out for Trey Lyles to have a good year off the bench, all will help boost Denver.

However, Millsap is the key — he had the best defensive rating on the team and when he was on the court the Nuggets were 2.4 points per 100 possessions better. That’s the end of the court that matters, the Nuggets were 26th in the NBA in defense last season and that held back their elite offense. When Millsap was on the court the Nuggets were middle of the pack defensively — not great, but not terrible like when he sat. If Denver’s defense can just be average, with their elite offense they could push 50 wins this season.

The problem is, the Nuggets play in the unforgiving West, where one can make a case for 12 teams to win at least 46 games and make the playoffs. The margins for error are almost nonexistent. Injuries, a slow start or a mid-season slump, and how teams will handle the nightly pressure of playing good teams in the conference all will factor into who makes the playoffs and who just misses out. Denver could win 50 games, or it could struggle and implode. I expect the wins, but nothing is out of the question.