Next steps for the Denver Nuggets

The Denver Nuggets are on track to join the NBA’s elite. The combination of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic took the Nuggets back to the Playoffs for the first time in seven years. Building their talent through the draft, the Nuggets now pack a potential All-NBA one – two punch that is under contract for the next four years. Only a missed shot or two away from making the conference finals last season, Nuggets management have chosen to run it back this year. While western conference rivals the Clippers and Lakers mortgaged their futures to bring in star talent, the Nuggets gave away a solitary first rounder this off-season.

Young Core

Locking Jamal Murray down to a five year contract was the first off-season priority. Murray’s excellent play in the postseason was a massive part of why the Nuggets were a bounce of the ball away from making the conference finals. Murray was only the 9th player in playoff history to post 20 points, four rebounds and four assists in their age 21 season or younger. Murray was one of the youngest players in his draft class, and in his age 22 season this year is ready to explode plus 20 points a game. At rim finishing and getting to the line are the next steps for a player that has all the tools to be a top guard in this league. After agreeing to sign a five year – 170 million maximum deal, Murray and Jokic are now under contract for six and four more years respectively.

Nikola Jokic is about to enter his fifth year in the league. Last year was a breakout year for the Serbian as he was selected for the All-NBA 1st team. Already proclaimed by some as the greatest passing big man in NBA history, Jokic took his play to another level in the recently concluded playoffs. At only 24 Jokic is just hitting his peak, his insane playoff stat line proof that he is still improving. 25 points 13 rebounds and eight assists was the mark. This has only been achieved once prior to Jokic, by the great Oscar Robertson way back in 1962. Jokic’s defense needs to continue to improve to raise the floor of this team. The narrative that Jokic is a bad defender is incorrect, but he needs to make better reads on that end as the leader of this team. While Jokic and Murray provide the star building blocks, its the role players who will define the Nuggets playoff success in the future.

Role players are the key

Second round pick Monte Morris surprised plenty last season with his efficient scoring and strong play-making. Per cleaning the glass, Morris was in the top 3% of mid range shooters in the league last year. Malik Beasley also took his first big step in a Nuggets uniform in the past year. The 19th pick in the 2016 draft, Beasley improved his points per game from three to eleven while knocking down 40% of his three point attempts. If Morris and Beasley continue to improve, the Nuggets offense will have shooting options up and down the roster.

In what was possibly the most underrated move of the summer, the Nuggets traded a first round pick to Oklahoma City Thunder for power forward Jerami Grant. With Paul Millsap only having one year left on his contract, Grant could be the long term replacement at the four. A legitimate stretch big on a contract of only nine million, he is a strong playoff piece for this team. Connecting on 40% of his three pointers last season, Grant is also an improved defender. As Millsap’s offensive game peters out, Grant may be the perfect replacement piece.

While talking about options at the four, Michael Porter Jr’s availability this year could be a boon for the Nuggets. Porter missed all of last season with a back injury but is said to be fit for this coming season. Though they have a plethora of options at the four when you consider Jarred Vanderbilt also, Porter gives them another young scorer on a cost controlled rookie contract.

2020 season

Last year Will Barton, Gary Harris and Paul Millsap all missed significant times with injuries. Considering this and that they still had the sixth best offense, there is no reason this team cant take another step forward. Figuring out who will play small forward full-time may be an important decision, but in this position-less NBA it may be of more importance to have the right pieces around Murray and Jokic.

This Nuggets team is one of the most exciting in the league, and with the average age being around 25 they also have one of the brightest futures. A 50 win season and second round of the playoffs should be the goal again for this team. If they are fit and healthy there is no reason they couldn’t upset one of the more fancied big market teams.

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Is it showtime yet?

photo credit – CBS Sports

The Los Angeles Lakers signed Lebron James a touch over 12 months ago now. After Magic Johnson promised it was showtime last year, Lebron got injured and they missed the playoffs. Fast forward to this June and they traded the young core that took years to build for Anthony Davis. Though NBA teams would make this trade 100 times out of 100, when they pulled the trigger on this trade the clock started ticking. Lebron has three years left on his deal, and potentially only two of these will be at the MVP level fans are used to. The Lakers need to start winning right away.

Laker fans have been waiting ten years for a team to win 50 games again. How quickly can Lebron and AD mesh and how does the rest of the roster fit with them?

Roster

DeMarcus Cousins may be the piece that gets the Lakers over the top. A recent photo of Cousins had the internet in a spin, showing him trim and taught. If Cousins get anywhere close to the player he was two years ago for the Pelicans, then the Lakers have their big three after all. Lebron and AD may be enough, but adding in a fit and motivated Boogie is a game changer.

Cousins if fit and back to his best, will enter next years Free Agency as the big fish. What better motivation is there than having a resurgent year so he can get the big payday that most of his all star peers have commanded? We know that AD and Boogie fit well together, the Pelicans had the leagues third best offense two years ago. They were also third in rebounding, and third in assists. How coach Frank Vogel chooses to use Boogie will play a major part in the success of the second unit. Maybe Vogel needs to stagger his minutes slightly so Boogie can destroy second units with shooters. Though Boogie wont have the elite shooting he did from last year, when he was alongside one of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant or Klay Thompson he was at his best.

Lineup data per 100 possessionsMPPTSā–¼
D. Cousins | S. Curry482:57+11
D. Cousins | K. Durant423:01+9.8
D. Cousins | K. Thompson612:59+7.6

Avery Bradley

The other exciting piece for the Lakers is Avery Bradley. Playing for the Boston Celtics he was an All-Defense selection in 2015/16, followed by a conference finals appearance the next year where he was a key piece. Recently he only played 109 games for three different teams, injuries and rebuilding teams hurt his stock and on court play.

The Lakers though, look like they have got a guy who is ready to get back to his best. Like new teammate Cousins, Bradley is back in shape and claims to have lost 40 pounds since he was with the Clippers. At his best he is one of the leagues premier perimeter defenders. Be it chasing shooters around screens or closing out on shooters, Bradley can be a lock-down defender when fit. Offensively he was a great finisher at the rim for the Celtics and is a career 36% shooter from three point range. He has the ceiling of a guy who is perfect for the playoffs.

Offense

Frank Vogel may decide to flick the switch and play fast this season. When the Pelicans were at their best with Anthony Davis, they were in the top three teams in the league for pace. Lebron is still a wrecking ball in transition also. The Lakers at their peak last year, were playing fast. This roster, though different to last year has lob threats as well as guys who can hit transition threes. It might not be showtime like the 1980s, but it will be effective.

Vogel has different options this year in terms of play style. Magic Johnson’s focus on ‘ play-makers ” last year had the team fall short of the postseason. Arguably they have more play-makers this year when you add in AD and Boogie. Big men who can play-make while stretching the floor are nightmare match-ups for opposition defenses. Last year, ball stoppers like Lance Stephenson hurt the strengths of the roster. This year they will look to move the ball to create mismatches for their ultra skilled bigs.

Defense

Last years Lakers team finished 21st in defense. Though at first glance they had the fourth best defense at the rim, they also allowed the fourth most attempts. The perimeter wasn’t much better, allowing a lot of threes and not defending them well either. Adding defensive player of the year candidate Anthony Davis is obviously a massive upgrade. Davis is one of the best when it comes to playing elite defense and not fouling. Per Cleaning the Glass, he is the only player in the league to finish in the top 6% in steal and block rate while fouling on less than 3% of possessions. Bringing back good defenders Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and JaVale McGee means the bench defense wont be lacking like last year. While Avery Bradley and Danny Green provide elite perimeter stopping without slowing down the offense.

Though the Western Conference is stacked again this year, the Lakers have two of the leagues top five players and what may be an elite defense. They will play fast and shoot a lot of threes, while their big men will get to the rim at will. The front office have gone all in this year, come October the rubber will hit the road and the world will see if showtime has really returned to LA.

Ja Morant – Draft Profile

Photo credit, Maddie Meyer – Getty Images

Ja Morant is a nineteen year old Point Guard and second year player out of Murray State. Morant is mocked on almost all Draft boards at number two, being selected by the Memphis Grizzlies. He has drawn comparisons to Russell Westbrook and Steve Francis with his speed and athletic play.

Morant has exploded in the last 24 months after only being lightly recruited when he left High School. In his first year at Murray State, Morant averaged 12 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists. In his second year Morant had one of the great point guard years of recent times, averaging 24 points 5 rebounds and 10 assists.

At 6’3 and 190 pounds Morant will be one of the lighter point guards in the NBA. His 6’7 wing span means he has a high ceiling defensively though. NBA conditioning will be important for Morant, he will need to get stronger to match up defensively against bigger players. He may be the most athletic player in this Draft. He is a great leaper and athletically will only get better with NBA coaching and strength training.

Scouting

The first thing you notice when watching video of Morant is his handle. He has the best handle in this Draft class, when he makes the NBA he may be one of the best ball handlers in the league. His repertoire of dribbles moves are elite. With a quick first step and the ability to change speed and direction with his crossover, he is a nightmare to guard in the open court.

Passing

In the open court he pushes with purpose and uses his speed to make opportunities for others or himself. As a passer Morant has strong court vision, he can pass of either hand and has good accuracy on these passes. He can also pass out of double teams, whether hes getting trapped in a pick and roll or attracting extra attention on drives to the rim. While he could become an elite floor general in the NBA, Morant needs to balance the amount of great reads with the bad reads he makes. He sometimes make wild turnovers in the half court, being it an alley-oop pass or throwing over a cutter’s head. With potential NBA teammates having better anticipation and reactions, Morant will have more room for error. But NBA coaches wont put up with wild turnovers in the half court.

Offense

Offensively Morant has a well balanced game. He is an excellent finisher at the rim and uses superior body control to finish around opponents. His elite quickness and change of pace means he can get to the rim at will. This aggression was rewarded with 8.2 trips to the foul line per game this season. His slight body meant he sometimes went for more complex finishes around the rim rather than finishing through contact. If he packs on some extra muscle he has the tools to get multiple and-ones in game situations. He can finish with his right hand but prefers the left, he will need to work on his right to be elite at the next level.

As a shooter he has all the skills to be a great shot creator, he makes a lot of space for himself with speed and dribble moves. Though Morant is a confident shooter, his shooting form may be of concern for potential teams. He releases from his head and with the elbow sticking out. These mechanics mean he struggles to get his shot off when shooting off the dribble. Shooting 36.3% from three this season may be an outlier, but if he were to improve his mechanics he could be an above average shooter in the league.

Defense

Morant is an excellent man defender, with his long arms he can steal or tip the ball away from his opponent. He also blocks some shots with his leaping ability. He can move his feet well in either direction and has good instincts when defending one on one.

On the other hand, his off ball defense needs some work. Defending one on one he has good instincts, but he can get stuck ball watching when playing off the ball. He sometimes forgets to box out, and he often gets caught out of position. His elite quickness meant a lot of his gambles paid off, but at the next level he cant rely just on athleticism. Morant got a lot of rebounds by using his superior leaping ability rather than great technique. As he carried such a massive offensive load he can be forgiven for some of these mistakes. Though NBA coaching may iron a lot of these habits out, if he wants to be the engine of an NBA offense he will need to be a passable team defender.

Summary

Morant is the consensus number two pick in what is considered a weak Draft. Though he had an excellent year at Murray State he didnt come up against many elite teams at NCAA level. He will need to be tested at the highest level to see how much of his game translates well. With elite athleticism and speed he has the potential to be a perennial All-Star. If he works on his shooting and defense he could have a long career as a starter on a playoff team.

If the Grizzlies pick Ja Morant at number two they are getting a key cog to rebuild around. He will be an excellent fit next to Jaren Jackson Jr, these two could provide the core to put the Grizzlies back in playoff contention.

Bargain Basement Free Agents 2019 – Part two

In Part one, we focused on five free agents that teams over the cap could pick up cheaply and get value out of next season. Here’s the link to that article if you missed out.

https://steviecozens.com/2019/05/21/bargain-basement-free-agents-2019-part-one/

Seth Curry

Age – 28

Shooting Guard

Unrestricted Free Agent

2018/19 season – eight points, one rebound, one assist.

Seth Curry has come off an excellent year for the Portland Trail Blazers. Signed to a one year deal after missing all of last year due to injury, he played in the recently completed Conference Finals. Shooting an impressive 45% from three in the regular season, this ranked him in the 96th percentile for shooting guards. Though he only stands 6’2 he is a pesky defender who plays hard. He struggles against bigger players but his offense is strong enough to keep him on the court. Curry is also a career 50% shooter on corner threes.

While he isn’t a top level passer, he can hold his own in the pick and roll. He can also play some minutes at back up point guard if need be. In the Blazers series loss to the Warriors, Seth was very effective with an overall net rating of only -2. After a strong year at age 28, he looks to be past his injury issues. Three point shooting has good value in the market, so this may mean a deal of around the four – six million range. A three year deal in this range would represent strong value to potential suitors.

Cory Joseph

Age – 27

Combo Guard

Unrestricted Free Agent – Indiana Pacers have his early bid rights

2018/19 Season – six points, two rebounds, two assists

Cory Joseph had an up and down year for the Indiana Pacers. Struggling with his offense, his inconsistent shooting gave him the lowest field goal percentage since his rookie year. On the less glamorous end of the court he played the best defense of his career. Registering career highs in rebounds, assists and steals he helped Indiana to another Playoff appearance. They were a better team with him on the court, as evidenced by his +5.0 on / off rating. He also had a career high in offensive fouls drawn at 24, this was second only to Thaddeus Young on the Pacers team.

Per Cleaning the Glass he ranked in the 87th percentile for Combo Guards when it came to Steals this season. If prospective teams see his bad shooting year as a one off, then he can be a good acquisition as a backup guard. He wont drop 30 or 40 points a game but he matches up well against smaller guards and is a strong help defender. Its likely he will be in the 4 – 7 million range this season, At 27 a three to four year deal may suit both him and potential teams.

Wayne Ellington

Age – 31

Shooting Guard

Unrestricted Free Agent

2018/19 Season – ten points, two rebounds, one assist, one steal

Wayne Ellington finished the season on the Detroit Pistons, after first being traded by the Miami Heat and then waived by the Phoenix Suns. One of the most consistent three point shooters in the league, Ellington struggled to get playing time for the Heat due to fit and injury issues. He was back to his best when he hit the floor for the Pistons though. His on / off rating showing they were +5.0 points a game when he was on the floor. A career 38% shooter from three point range, he also hoisted at least 6.4 attempts a game the last three seasons.

High volume floor spacing is at a premium in the NBA these days, and as Ellington can hold his own on defense he will continue to get paydays in this league. He can defend without fouling and as a help defender he also jumps passing lanes to get steals. Paid 6.2 million the last two years on the Heat, he can expect a similar pay day this summer. He may get a two or three year deal at less money if he wants a bit more job security. With the wing class being weak this summer, maybe his price goes a little higher if a few teams want him

Joakim Noah

Age – 34

Center

Unrestricted Free Agent

2018/19 season – seven points, five rebounds and two assists

Joakim Noah is an intriguing entry on the list of Free Agents this summer. After securing a buyout from a nightmare situation in New York, he reappeared the Memphis Grizzlies. He seemed re-energized on a Grizzlies team that made multiple trades throughout his tenure. They were an average +5.7 points better per game in the 42 games he was on the floor. He finished at the rim at a career high of 62%, while throwing down 42 dunks as well. His foul drawing and rebounding were also close to career highs, showing the effort he was putting in on a tanking team.

While it may be a different story on a winning team, Noah is a former defensive player of the year who has strong playoff experience. If his injury and drug issues are behind him, he could be a good addition to a rebuilding or playoff team. Noah will have earned over 140 million when his stretched deal with the Knicks concludes. This will probably mean he would be happy to be on a roster at the veteran minimum.

How the Indiana Pacers are thriving in the Playoff race

The Indiana Pacers are in the Eastern Conference playoff race for the second straight year. After losing four straight games when All-Star Victor Oladipo went down for the season, they have gone on a massive eleven and six run since. Lacking another star in Oladipo’s absence hasn’t stopped them from rising to the third seed in the East.

League best defence

Myles Turner has driven this Indiana team to have the best defence in the league. He also leads the league in blocks, is third in defensive rating and third in defensive box plus minus. Turner’s 2.8 blocks a game ranks as one of the best shot blocking seasons in the last twenty years.

Veteran power forward Thaddeus Young has been another big part of Indiana’s success this season. Young’s excellent defence has him ranking in the top twenty in the league in steals, defensive rating and defensive win shares.

The key to Indiana’s league best defence has been forcing turnovers while allowing less shots at the rim. An excellent defensive rebounding team, they have allowed the third least two pointers in the league also.

Career highs all round

On the offensive end Indiana has seen Bojan Bogdanovic take a massive leap this year. Averaging a career high 14.3 points per game last year, Bogdanovic has broken out to the of tune of 18 points per game this year. Remarkably he has also reached career bests in field goal percentage, three-point percentage, rebounds, assists, and steals.

Domantas Sabonis has also taken the next step in his young NBA career. In his second year in Indiana, Sabonis is a legitimate candidate for Sixth Man of the year. On only 24 minutes a night Sabonis is averaging fourteen points, nine rebounds and three assists.

As the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers struggle for chemistry on the court, Indiana are playing an established system where everyone is buying in. Come the playoffs, teams with strong defence usually end up going further. If they can keep this level of play up, they will be a nightmare for anyone in the Eastern Conference.