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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.

Kyrie Irving is going to business school classes at Harvard

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Boston Celtics star Kyrie Irving doesn’t believe that the Earth is round but that hasn’t stopped him from seeking out knowledge from one of the nation’s top universities.

Part of Irving’s offseason plans have apparently been to enroll in a business program at none other than Harvard. The program, aptly titled “Crossover Into Business” reportedly helps athletes prepare themselves to enter the business world after they end their active sporting careers.

According to Boston.com, the program also pairs athletes with mentors to, “develop their business acumen and empower them to make better business decisions.”

Other attending athletes are John Holland, Martellus Bennett, Spencer Dinwiddie, Zaza Pachulia, and Paul Millsap.

This is a prudent move given how Irving has risen in cultural standing within the NBA, not only as a star player but as the title character in the soda-ad-turned-Hollywood-movie “Uncle Drew”. Many of us have seen stories of NBA players going broke, and there have even been entire documentaries produced about the likelihood of professional athletes losing millions of dollars after their playing days have ended.

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.

Michael Porter Jr. says he is pain free after second back surgery, hopes to play early in season

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Concerns about Michael Porter Jr.‘s back — he only played five games at Missouri following a microdiscectomy, then needed another surgery this summer — was the primary reason a guy once seen as a top three player in this draft class slid down to the Nuggets at No. 14 last June.

Denver, with a deep team looking to make the playoffs this season, can be patient and gamble on the potential payoff down the line.

Porter, like all players, is just eager to get on the court. He says he is now pain-free after the second surgery and hopes to be on the court early in the season. He spoke with Chris Forsberg of ESPN at Sunday NBA annual rookie photo shoot:

“I finally feel, like, good,” and he is hoping to be ready for game action around the time the season tips in mid-October.

“I don’t have a date but I’m hoping to be back for the beginning of the year. Gotta heal up, but I feel great,” Porter said. “I’m able to get on the court a little bit right now, do some different things. But my rehab has definitely been very conservative. They’re really taking it easy with me, being patient with me.”

Players tend to be the worst predictors of when they will return to the court following injuries — they think of themselves and invincible and they are competitors who just want to play. Teams and team doctors tend to take a longer view.

Which is to say, expect it to be later than mid-October before we see Porter Jr. on the court. The Nuggets have not given a timeline.

Porter likely will be eased back in during the course of the season, but on a team hunting a playoff slot in the deep West, there are not going to be a lot of “we need to develop this guy slowly” minutes available. Porter can play the three or the four, but the Nuggets are pretty stacked along the front line (Paul Millsap and Trey Lyles likely get the bulk of the minutes at the four), however, at the three there could be minutes behind Will Barton and others. We’ll see how the Nuggets’ rotation shakes out once the season starts, and where Porter can fit into it.

It may be frustrating for Porter, but the Nuggets are going to bring him along slowly. This is a long play for them, not about getting him out there as fast as they can.

Kenneth Faried doesn’t want to be ‘salary dump’; wants to be in Nets rotation

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When Paul Millsap went down injured in Denver last season, Kenneth Faried saw his minutes jump. For a while. He started six games, played with energy and averaged nearly a double-double in those games going 27 minutes a night, and he played with his trademark hustle and grit. It didn’t work for coach Mike Malone and soon Faried was buried on the bench again, playing a career low in games and minutes.

When Faried was traded to the Nets this summer, it was a seen as a salary dump by Denver — and it was for them, they get off the $13.8 million he is owed this season.

But for Faried, this is a chance to prove he can still impact the game given a chance. Don’t use the past tense around Faried, as he noted in his introductory press conference in Brooklyn, via Brian Lewis of the New York Post.

“Hey, I never stopped being the player I am. There’s no ‘were,’ ” the 28-year-old Faried said Wednesday as he was introduced at the team’s Brooklyn training facility.

“The Nuggets wanted to go in a different direction. Brooklyn decided, ‘Hey, let’s pick up a still-able, still-capable player who can go out and produce and lead a team and do the things he’s done before.’ … They believed in me, took this chance to trade for me, and I’m excited to be here and produce.”

He can carve out a role with the Nets. Jarrett Allen and Ed Davis will split the bulk of the minutes at center, and at the four there will be Rondae Hollis-Jefferson starting and then Jared Dudley and Faried. The “Manimal” should be able to get some run and prove his worth in a contract year.

But both Faried and Dudley are also there to mentor young players. Faried said he is ready for that.

“The intangible things I do, I want to rub off on my teammates. My energy is contagious, so my energy when I was in the game doing the things I did [was] contagious around the whole team, the stadium. That’s why when you hear ‘We want Manimal!’ back when I was in Denver, or fans chanting ‘We Want Manimal,’ it’s for a reason: Because I bring that energy and that’s what I plan to do here.”

The Nets are still rebuilding, they are not going to be a powerhouse team by any stretch next season. But Brooklyn is going to be improved (and last season it were already better than expected). It’s a process, but the Nets are finally moving in the right direction under GM Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson, and Faried can be part of that transition.