Posts Tagged ‘Masai Ujiri’

Ujiri The Ultimate Chemistry Teacher




VIDEO: DeMar DeRozan and the Raptors are on a roll right now, winners of four straight games

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Masai Ujiri‘s front office peers around the NBA should pay close attention to the way the Toronto Raptors’ star goes about his business. While some franchise architects like to work their so-called magic with the public watching intently, Ujiri has done a masterful job (first in Denver and now in Toronto) tweaking chemistry and getting results.

In fact, Ujiri has proven himself to be the ultimate chemistry teacher these days in terms of knowing how to tweak a roster just right. The reigning NBA Executive of the Year, an honor voted on by his peers, Ujiri is making a strong push for repeat honors with the way the Raptors are playing since the Rudy Gay trade went down.

They are 9-3 and winners of eight of their last 10 games since moving Gay to Sacramento Dec. 9. It was a move designed to give the Raptors long-term flexibility and not necessarily an immediate jolt that has helped them climb all the way up to the No. 4 spot in the Eastern Conference playoff chase.

But Ujiri has a way of studying a roster, figuring out what works and what doesn’t and then being fearless in his attempts to change things for the better. Since Gay was jettisoned, the Raptors have scored huge wins over the likes of Dallas and Chicago, and most recently in Oklahoma City (where they handed the West-best Thunder their first home loss of the season) and kicked off 2014 with an impressive home win over the East-best Indiana Pacers.

As much as this is about the fine work being done by Raptors coach Dwane Casey and his staff, and of course, the contributions of a roster full of grinders like DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross, Greivis Vasquez and others, this is about the man who put it all together.

Ujiri just happens to have the magic touch right now. And if you don’t believe it, just look at the hard times his former team has fallen upon in his absence. The Denver Nuggets have lost eight straight games, their longest such skid since the end of the 2002-03 season. Veteran point guard Andre Miller turned the heat up even more by ripping first-year coach Brian Shaw after Wednesday’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, making matters worse in Denver while Ujiri has his new team soaring.

A boss like Ujiri keeps those dustups contained, as best can be, or at least at a minimum and away from the public. You don’t have to worry about those sorts of altercations when working conditions are at a premium. And Ujiri has freed up virtually every key rotation player on the Raptors’ roster to do what he does best after the Gay trade.

DeRozan and Lowry in particular are allowed to play more to their natural strengths on the perimeter, while Valanciunas has become more of a focal point as well. Role players like Johnson, the ridiculously underrated Vasquez, who came over from Sacramento in the trade, and young journeyman forwards Tyler Hansbrough and Patrick Patterson have become critical pieces in the Raptors’ current run.

“No one on this team is selfish; everyone accepts their roles,” Patterson told reporters after the Raptors outslugged Paul George, Roy Hibbert and the Pacers to kick off the New Year. “No one wants to get more shots, no one wants to do more of this, no one is jealous of another player … we all understand what we have to do in order to make this machine keep rolling smoothly.”

The man responsible for making sure that machine runs without a hitch, of course, is Ujiri. He understands, as well or better than most right now, that team chemistry trumps just about everything else that goes on inside a team’s fabric in this day and age. Even the Miami Heat needed a year (and a Finals defeat at the hands of a Mavericks team that had off the charts chemistry) to figure that out.


VIDEO: The Raptors took it to the Pacers, kicking off 2014 in style before the home crowd

Break Up The Raptors? No, Really…


VIDEO: Kyle Lowry has a team-high 16 points as the Raptors beat the Bulls

CHICAGO – A funny thing is happening to the Toronto Raptors on their trudge to the basement in the Eastern Conference standings.

They walked through an unmarked door last week, assuming it was another flight of stairs to take them down, only to realize too late they’d stepped onto an elevator headed up.

Toronto’s decision to trade highly paid scoring forward Rudy Gay, as well as to shop point guard Kyle Lowry, sprang from general manager Masai Ujiri‘s newness to the situation this season and an eye to the future in terms of cap space and roster flexibility. But the present has perked up considerably, with today looking pretty good regardless of tomorrow.

The Raptors’ smackdown Saturday of a beleaguered Bulls team did more than demonstrate that too many unfamiliar faces is a better problem to have than too few healthy bodies. It left Toronto with a 3-1 mark since Gay played his last game for the team and, at 9-13, looking downright viable as an Atlantic Division contender and Eastern Conference playoff possibility.

Those things are relative, of course, and they could reverse direction overnight if Ujiri and Toronto ownership hews to the grander plan of prime lottery position for the Draft in June and greater cost savings or manageable contracts. That’s the backdrop against which Gay was dealt to Sacramento and Lowry possibly could be moved this week (in the NBA calendar’s sweet spot for trading summer acquisitions and repackaging returns). With a prize like Canada’s own Andrew Wiggins on the board in one of the deepest drafts in recent hyperbole, one more year of sub-.500 ball and missed playoffs conceivably could be a small price to pay.

That’s not the same thing as no price, though, any more than playing respectably and winning more now would bring no benefits. It might not be enough to keep Dwane Casey around – the Raptors head coach is in the last year of his deal, working for a boss who did not hire him – but it’s more in line with what DeMar DeRozan, the team’s default leader now, has in mind.

After the Bulls game, DeRozan talked about the bad habits and general depression that can set in with losing. Today’s players are the ones tomorrow’s stars wind up replacing, so projecting who and what and where Toronto might draft is of little interest to most of those inside the dressing room.

“No matter who’s on the court, we’ve still got to play to win,” DeRozan said earlier in the evening. “That’s our whole mindset, to go out there and play as well as we can. Put our hearts out there and play to win the game.

“I think everybody in this locker room is living game-to-game. Nobody looks too far ahead. We just take care of our job and do it every single day.”

The “we” is a little different now but then, so are the results. In the three games since Gay’s departure was made official, the Raptors have moved the ball for 23, 25 and 26 assists, uncorked from the forward’s ball-stopping ways. Toronto still ranks last in the league at 18.3 assists per game – but in a mere week’s time, it has boosted that average by a full assist.

Of the new guys, Chuck Hayes still is being held out, his past heart condition requiring more thorough cardiac testing before he’s physically cleared. But the other three – Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and John Salmons – have done well off the bench. In two games, they have combined to average 23 points on 16 of 34 shots (47.1 percent). Gay for the Raptors this season: 19.4 points on 38.8 percent shooting.

Swapping out his $17.9 million salary, with Quincy Acy ($800,000) and Aaron Gray ($2.7 million), was what drove the deal; Vasquez ($2.1 million), Patterson ($3.1 million), Salmons ($7.6 million) and Hayes ($5.7 million) bring way more bang for the bucks. Especially with what looks to be some fast-tracked transition time.

Casey said he expected another week or two might be needed to get them all clicking. But Vasquez seemed to play with the right pace and vision for Toronto and Patterson found his spot for repeated foul-line jumpers. The starters, with Lowry still around and running things deftly, were unruffled with 69 points Saturday. Terrence Ross is getting the sort of minutes he craved, Jonas Valanciunas (15 points, 11 rebounds) continues to develop, DeRozan seems more mature all of a sudden and D.J. Augustin was missing his shots for the Bulls this time, not the Raptors.

Wiggins? Jabari Parker? The lottery? That’s for Ujiri and the folks upstairs. But the Toronto players and Casey are on the ground level of something that feels refreshing, with no interest in cellar doors.

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 14


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Dec. 13

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Lakers again weigh Pau Gasol trade | Lowry talks continue | Shaw may change Nuggets’ lineup

No. 1: Lakers again weigh Pau Gasol trade — The Los Angeles Lakers want to see what they have now that Kobe Bryant is healthy and haven’t eliminated the possibility of re-signing Pau Gasol when he’s a free agent next summer, but if the big man is going to continue pouting about his role under Mike D’Antoni, they may have no choice but to see what they can get for him. Ramona Shelburne and Marc Stein of ESPN write that the time to take calls may be coming soon:

The Los Angeles Lakers prefer to keep struggling center Pau Gasol and believe he eventually will have success in coach Mike D’Antoni’s system, but his recent comments and subpar play have caused them to begin weighing whether to make him available before the NBA’s annual trade deadline in February, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.

The Lakers have yet to engage in any Gasol-related trade discussions with other teams, sources told ESPN.com. But Gasol’s recent comments about his frustrations with his role in the Lakers’ offense, his impending free agency, and his struggles offensively and particularly defensively have essentially forced the team to consider its options.

Gasol had something of a bounce-back game in Friday’s 122-97 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, and made a point of saying that “you always have to make yourself responsible” for your own play and that “when you start pointing fingers at other sides or other directions, you’re making a mistake.”

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No. 2: Knicks executives pushing owner Jim Dolan to do deal for Kyle Lowry — If the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets are both bidding for Kyle Lowry, that’s probably good news for Toronto Raptors GM Masai Ujiri, who got a nice haul for Carmelo Anthony when he pitted the same two teams against each other in 2011. Yahoo‘s Adrian Wojnarowski breaks down what’s on the table from both teams:

As New York Knicks executives work to convince owner Jim Dolan he should ignore public criticism and complete a deal for Kyle Lowry, the Brooklyn Nets are gaining traction as a possible destination for the Toronto Raptors point guard, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

The Knicks are desperate for a point guard, and their front office had a deal together that would’ve sent Raymond Felton, Metta World Peace and a 2018 first-round pick for Lowry.
The Knicks’ front office is determined to re-enter talks on Lowry, league sources said, but it is unclear how they will try to amend a trade package – or whether they’re willing to return the original offer to the table. Without the future first-round pick, there’s little chance of the Knicks landing Lowry, sources said.

The Golden State Warriors also have remained involved in talks with Toronto on Lowry, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Dolan became livid over the public disclosure of the deal terms and became aware over some segments of reaction that deemed the package a third straight debacle in dealing with Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, sources said.

Ujiri, the NBA’s Executive of the Year with the Denver Nuggets a year ago, negotiated deals that brought the Knicks Carmelo Anthony and Andrea Bargnani in recent years.

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No. 3: Could changes be coming to the Nuggets starting five?The Denver Nuggets play absolutely atrocious defense at the start of games, allowing 123 points per 100 possessions in the first six minutes of the first quarter. Their struggles continued on Friday, allowing the Jazz to score 18 points in the first 4:33. So yeah, as Chris Dempsey of the Denver Post writes, Brian Shaw is thinking about making a lineup change:

The Nuggets have a recurring problem: Bad starts. Slow starts, whatever you want to call it, they aren’t getting out of the gate with any kind of urgency much of the time. On Friday, Utah scored 33 points on 54 percent shooting (85 percent from the 3-point line) in the first quarter, the latest in a lengthening line of irritating starts.

So Shaw is now on to this: Considering a shakeup in the starting lineup.

Whether it actually happens remains to be seen, and maybe he cools down and rethinks the whole concept overnight after his team’s 103-93 loss to Utah on Friday. But switching out some starters is a card he’s as ready to play as he’s ever been.

“Continuing to give up those big quarters is not going to get it done for us,” Shaw said. “I don’t know if I have to shake it up or what I have to do with that starting lineup. But the chemistry, for whatever reason, is not there. And it’s putting too much pressure on our bench to have to come in, night after night and have to bail us out and have to expend so much energy getting back into the game. Then they get tired and then I try to put our starters back in to give them another opportunity – they push the lead up to 10 again. And that’s kind of been the theme and the way that things have been going. So, I have to kind of search and figure out what I’m going to have to do to remedy that.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Pelicans’ Tyreke Evans reinjured his left ankle in Friday’s win over the Grizzlies … Brook Lopez missed Friday’s loss in Detroit with another sprained ankle, but says he already feels betterTom Thibodeau played Jimmy Butler more than 36 minutes in his return from turf toe … and the Knicks are down another big man.

ICYMI: Rudy Gay made his debut for the Sacramento Kings on Friday…


VIDEO: Rudy Gay’s Kings Debut

New Coaches: Heat Is On Already

 

HANG TIME, Texas – It’s not very often that 13 different teams decide to change coaches during one offseason. It’s a sign of these impatient times in which we live, especially when six of those teams finished last season with winning records.

It used to be “what have you done for me lately?” Now it’s “what have you done in the last 10 minutes?”

Of course, not every new coaching situation is the same. No one expects a pair of newcomers like Brad Stevens in Boston and Brett Brown in Philly to perform water-into-wine miracles with stripped-down rosters.

Doc Rivers goes coast-to-coast to show a 56-win Clippers team how to take the next step while Mike Brown returns to Cleveland with a roster full of young talent ready to bloom.

However, not everybody gets to settle in comfortably. Here are the five new coaches who’ll find that seat warm from Day One:

Dave Joerger, Grizzlies – Sure, he’s paid his dues and learned his craft in the minor leagues and as an up-and-coming assistant coach in the NBA. All he’s got to do now is take over a club that is coming off the best season in franchise history, including a run to the Western Conference finals. While that means the Grizzlies have a contending core in Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley and a supporting cast to repeat their feat, it also means that every decision, every move that Joerger makes from the first day of training camp through the end of the playoffs will be judged against his predecessor Lionel Hollins, who evidently could do everything except make his stat-driven bosses appreciate him. In a Western Conference that just keeps getting stronger, it will be tough enough survive, let alone thrive with a ghost on his shoulder.

Larry Drew, Bucks — After spending three seasons in Atlanta, where he always had a winning record but could never get the Hawks past the second round of the playoffs, Drew moves to a Bucks franchise that overachieves if it climbs into the No. 8 seed to play the role of punching bag for the big boys in the Eastern Conference. Milwaukee has turned over its backcourt from an inconsistent pair of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis to a spotty trio of Brandon Knight, O.J. Mayo and Gary Neal. Rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo has size, athleticism and a bundle of talent. But he’s only 18 years old and the question is whether Drew will be given the opportunity to stick around long enough to watch him grow. The Bucks are one of two teams with plenty of space under the salary cap, but have no real intention of spending it except to get to the mandated league minimum. This is a Bucks franchise that doesn’t have a sense of direction and that hardly bodes well for a coach. It’s not even a lateral move for Drew and could make getting the next job that much harder.

Brian Shaw, Nuggets – After waiting so long to finally get his opportunity to become a head coach, Shaw steps into a situation that is almost the opposite of Joerger. The Nuggets let 2013 Coach of the Year George Karl walk along with Masai Ujiri, the general manager who built the team, and then blew a gaping hole in the side of the 57-win, No. 3 seed in the West roster by letting Andre Iguodala get away, too. Shaw still has Ty Lawson as the fire-starter in the backcourt, but one of these seasons 37-year-old Andre Miller has got to run out of gas. As if the rookie coach didn’t have enough to juggle with the mercurial JaVale McGee, now he’s got Nate Robinson coming off his playoff heroics in Chicago with that ego taller than the Rockies. It’s never a good time to be stepping into a new job when management seems to be pulling back.

Steve Clifford, Bobcats – He’s another one of the longtime assistant coaches that has paid his dues and was ready to slide down the bench into the boss’s spot. But Charlotte? That’s more like the ejector seat in James Bond’s old Aston Martin. The Bobcats have had six coaches in the seven years that the iconic Michael Jordan has been head of basketball operations and then majority owner. From bad drafting (Adam Morrison) to bad trades (Ben Gordon, Corey Maggette), through constant changes of philosophy and direction, the Bobcats simply go through coaches faster than sneakers. Now it’s general manager Rich Cho calling the shots, but that didn’t stop the firing of Mike Dunlap after just one season. Clifford gets veteran big man Al Jefferson to anchor the middle of the lineup, but he’d better have his seat belt fastened tight and watch out for those fingers on the ejector button.

Mike Malone, Kings — Not that anyone expects Malone to be under immediate pressure in terms of wins and losses. What the Kings need now that they have a future in Sacramento is to re-establish a foundation on the court. Of course, the multi-million-dollar question is whether that base will include the talented and petulant DeMarcus Cousins. Everybody knows that he’s physically got what it takes to be a dominant force in the league. But the jury is still out when you’ve played three years in the league and you’re still getting suspended for “unprofessional behavior and conduct detrimental to the team.” Paul Westphal and Keith Smart couldn’t get through to Cousins to make him somebody the Kings can rely on and were spat out. Now as the big man heads toward a summer where he could become a restricted free agent, the franchise needs to know if sinking big bucks in his future is an investment or a waste of time. That’s the intense heat on Malone and the clock will be ticking immediately.

New Breed Of GM Ushers In New Coaches

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HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – At NBA.com, the eight men who will make their NBA head coaching debuts next season are being profiled. Today’s feature is Boston Celtics youngblood Brad Stevens.

Eight rookie head coaches in one season is a notable development in a league known for recycling the position (depending on Philadelphia’s hire the number could reach nine).

Consider that last season’s Coach of the Year and 25-year bench boss, George Karl, is out of work, as is Lionel Hollins, who molded a 24-win team when he took over into a Western Conference finalist last season. In Denver, Brian Shaw has been awarded his first head-coaching gig and in Memphis, Hollins’ top assistant, Dave Joerger, is being given his first shot.

So why are teams suddenly investing in new blood? Is it simply cost-cutting? Is it a belief that new ideas, concepts and techniques are needed to sustain success in today’s game?

“For me, as a first-time GM, and where we are, we need to build something in Phoenix and I wanted to give a guy a chance who maybe hadn’t  been a head coach before,” said recently hired general manager Ryan McDonough, who chose Jeff Hornacek to lead the Suns. “I considered guys who had been coaches before, but the vast majority of candidates I interviewed had assistant coaching experience, but had never been NBA coaches before.”

The words to highlight: “…as a first-time GM…” This summer’s coaching evolution is due, in no small part, to a mounting front-office revolution. More franchises are handing the keys to bright, young minds to make decisions on player evaluation and acquisition.

McDonough, 33, represents the next-generation of NBA general managers — or perhaps more accurately, the now-generation. They’re salary-cap educated, savvy, motivated and highly invested in advanced metrics and new technologies sweeping the league. They don’t have on-court pedigrees like their predecessors, but they have tirelessly worked their way up through video rooms and scouting departments of NBA franchises. Evaluating a player’s skill, versatility and potential goes hand-in-hand with assessing his dollar value under today’s salary-cap, tax-heavy collective bargaining agreement.

McDonough hired assistant GM Pat Connelly, the younger brother of Tim Connelly, the recently hired 36-year-old executive vice president of basketball operations for the Denver Nuggets. Tim Connelly hired the first-timer Shaw, a tag-team that will learn the ropes together.

“I don’t think it will be a difficult transition,” said Tim Connelly, who replaced Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri, just 39 when the Nuggets promoted the former international scout to general manager in 2010. Ujiri now heads the Toronto Raptors’ front office. “There’s only 30 people with these jobs and we’re both [he and Shaw] fortunate to take over a team that’s had a lot of regular-season success.”

Of the eight rookie head coaches, three were hired by first-time general managers. In the case of Sacramento’s Mike Malone, he was hired by still-newbie owner Vivek Ranadive, who then hired first-time general manager Pete D’Allesandro, 45.

“When I was in Boston,” said McDonough, who worked under Celtics general manager Danny Ainge for a decade, “I kind of always had it in my mind that if I got a GM job I would give a first-time head coach a chance.”

In Memphis, CEO Jason Levien, 40, took control of personnel decisions last season. He parted ways with Hollins and promoted Joerger. Last summer, Orlando chose Rob Hennigan, 31, as GM to consummate a trade for Dwight Howard and reshape the team. Hennigan hired first-time coach Jacque Vaughn. Hennigan’s former boss is Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti, who was also 30 when he took charge of the then-Seattle SuperSonics. Presti hired first-time coach Scott Brooks to lead the Thunder.

In Dallas, owner Mark Cuban and president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson, the longtime Mavericks decision-makers, surprisingly hired Gerrson Rosas, 35, away from Daryl Morey‘s front office with the Houston Rockets to serve as general manager.

Major League Baseball first embraced the analytics movement so prevalent in today’s NBA, and also seems to have cracked the door for the NBA’s front-office youth movement. The Boston Red Sox made then-28-year-old Theo Epstein the youngest GM in baseball history. Epstein built a powerhouse that ended the infamous “Curse of the Bambino” with two World Series titles. The Texas Rangers soon hired Jon Daniels, who was also 28 when he took control. During his tenure, the Rangers made both of the franchise’s World Series appearances.

The old-school GM played the game and then moved “upstairs.” As precision dollar allotment continues to play a larger role in overall player evaluation, the position is trending toward sharp, young minds, students of the game who never actually played in the NBA, and were only learning how to read when Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak was in his prime.

Blogtable: Teams On The Downfall




Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


Surprise Teams | Teams Likely to Fall | Rookie Coaches


Which team is set up for the biggest fall next season?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: However many victories people expect the Denver Nuggets to cough back from their total of 57 last season, I think it will be more. Matching last year’s ensemble-driven performance was going to be tough enough with their core of Andre Iguodala on the court, George Karl on the bench and Masai Ujiri in the front office. That Musketeers stuff is hard in a star-driven league. Now, with a rookie head coach (Brian Shaw), a personnel dip defensively (losing Corey Brewer and Kosta Koufos), Danilo Gallinari‘s recovery and mercenary/journeyman summer additions (Nate Robinson, J.J. Hickson, Randy Foye), I think the Nuggets’ slide well into the lottery.

Rookie head coach Brian Shaw has a lot of work to do in Denver.

Brian Shaw will have a lot of work to do in Denver.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Oh, let’s take a 57-win team and blow it up.  Mission accomplished by Nuggets ownership. The expected slippage with the departure of Karl, Ujiri and Iguodala could turn into an avalanche of defeat and disappointment.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: The Grizzlies keep coming back to me as a team that could easily slip, a team that let go of the coach that built the program, a team that still hasn’t addressed its glaring need for shooting, although signing an injury-prone Mike Miller and being in talks with Mo Williams is progress. However, the team I can’t help believe will ride the biggest, most disappointing slide is the New York Knicks. The brains on the floor, Jason Kidd, is coaching in Brooklyn. Aging, injury-prone players abound. The No. 2 seed last season couldn’t get past Indiana in the second round and the Pacers, along with the Bulls and Nets (heck, maybe even Atlanta with a new coach and key personnel changes) will all be improved. At best the Knicks are a No. 5 seed in the top-heavy East and any championship talk that wafted through Madison Square Garden last season will likely heat up again just a short subway ride away.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Utah. As much as it pains me as a long-time Jazz proponent, this season could be a harder fall than a fall from playoff contention. They are much thinner than before and now need Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Trey Burke, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks to play big.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: Don’t be shocked if Denver goes from the 3 seed to the lottery. It’s difficult to predict exactly what they’ll do, because Shaw will be a very different coach than Karl, but their defense (which ranked 11th last season) will certainly take a big step backward with the departure of Iguodala. Kosta Koufos was more important to that team than most people realize, and they’ll miss Gallinari’s shooting as he recovers from ACL surgery.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The Philadelphia 76ers don’t even have a coach yet. They should be the runaway winners here, especially when you consider the fact that there isn’t a tougher crowd to deal with anywhere than Philadelphia sports fans. Most of the pessimists believe they are headed for an awfully tough season with this latest rebuilding adventure. It could be even worse that any of us imagined if they don’t find the right coach to lead this mismatched bunch. New general manager Sam Hinkie has stripped the roster down and is going full-blown rebuild without the one player (All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday, who was traded to New Orleans) who gave this crew a little spark last season. As my main man Bubba Sparxxx said years ago, this could get UGLY!

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogI think Denver could be in for a fall. They’ve lost the Coach of the Year in Karl, Iguodala made a play for the Bay, and they also traded away their starting center, Kosta Koufos. I know Shaw will be a good NBA coach for a long time, and Denver still has some pieces (Andre Miller, Ty Lawson), but they’re in that dangerous middle ground between being a contender and a pretender. And it doesn’t take much to slide back down that hill.

Nuggets Put The ‘Rocky’ In Mountain Way

 

The old baseball axiom about the best teams having strength up the middle, that’s the first image that comes to mind with the (ahem) new-look Denver Nuggets.

The second image has more to do with a fishing pier and a filet knife, and someone methodical de-boning a flounder.

In the span of a single month, the Nuggets essentially have had the backbone of their organization removed. Masai Ujiri, George Karl and Andre Iguodala weren’t merely the catcher, middle infielders and centerfielder of a Denver team that won an NBA-era franchise record 57 games and earned its 10th consecutive postseason appearance. They were, respectively, the NBA’s Executive of the Year, its Coach of the Year and one of the league’s very best two-way players.

All assets, all gone, with nothing in return.

Ujiri headed back to Toronto a month ago, rejoining the team with which he got his start as the Raptors’ replacement for Bryan Colangelo. Karl was fired days later in an alleged dispute with team president Josh Kroenke over JaVale McGee‘s playing time, Karl’s desire for a contract extension, both or neither.

And now, with free agent Iguodala’s imminent departure to Golden State for a four-year, $48 million deal reported Friday, what’s left in Denver is less an overachieving ensemble cast than a doughnut team with no one filling the hole.

Last season, the Nuggets turned the absence of All-Stars or MVP candidates into a positive, becoming one of those whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts success stories that happen occasionally in this star-driven league. But another first-round ouster, its ninth in 10 years and at the hands of the sixth-seeded Warriors, apparently devalued what Karl and the team did to an extent that they came to be seen as replaceable.

“Very stupid,” Karl called it, in Kroenke’s presence, on his way out the door.

The quest already has begun, with Tim Connelly as the Nuggets’ new general manager and former Indiana lead assistant Brian Shaw, after years in waiting, as their new head coach. Now they can search for ways to plug the holes left in their performance by Iguodala’s departure, which won’t be easy. Monta Ellis? Carl Landry? Andrei Kirilenko? Good luck with that.

Consider: Denver allowed 100.5 points per 100 possessions with Iguodala on the floor, usually hounding the opposition’s best scorer. That would have tied for seventh best, in terms of defensive efficiency. When Iguodala sat down? The other guys averaged 105.3 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com’s stats site. That  would have ranked 23rd.

So even if Iguodala frustrated some fans with his shooting (especially 31.7 percent from 3-point range), his effectiveness at the other end of the court frequently made up for it. And there was more, according to the Roundball Mining Company blog on ESPN’s True Hoop network:

What Iguodala did well was incredibly important for Denver as he finished a spectacular 76 percent of his 206 shots in the restricted area and finished third on the team in assist rate at 22.4, behind only Ty Lawson’s 30.2 and Andre Miller’s 32.2 marks.

The next highest mark for a player who played significant minutes was Danilo Gallinari’s 11.2 mark, followed by Wilson Chandler’s 8.3. The mark of Evan Fournier, someone now expected to see a dramatic increase in minutes, was a bit better at 15.5 but still fell well short of Iggy’s.

So now Denver must find someone to replace not only Iguodala’s finishing at the rim (for comparison Kenneth Faried, who many will probably point to, finished just 62 percent of his shots there), but also his passing.

Finally Denver will have to find a way to replace 2779 minutes, a number that led the team by 266 minutes over Lawson and ranked just outside of the top 20 in the league. Fournier will pick up some of those minutes but Iguodala also played a lot at small forward where Gallinari now will moss most of the season.

Yes Andre Iguodala did some things that hurt the Nuggets but his loss is a big one.

No one’s loss is big, particularly in the past 24-48 hours, compared to the headlines and wailing generated by Dwight Howard‘s defection from the Los Angeles to Houston. But one of the West’s most exciting teams from 2012-13 has gone through (and partly put itself through) a wringer. And the accompanying soundtrack this season could end up sounding like this.

The Western Conference Gets Tougher At Top, But Is It Really A Power Shift?

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HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Dwight to Houston and Iggy to Golden State. What a day. So, how much did Friday’s free-agent action shift the balance of power in the Western Conference? Perhaps the biggest shift will be the return of a healthy Russ in Oklahoma City come November.

The West certainly got more top-heavy and more intriguing on a wild day that finally delivered Dwight Howard‘s decision, however awkwardly. The big man is leaving the domineering Kobe Bryant and his rapidly aging Los Angeles Lakers to join The Beard, James Harden, and his young-and-gunning Houston Rockets.

While Howard spent Friday in Aspen, Colo., surely studying the California state tax hit on the $30 million more the incumbent Lakers could pay him, the Golden State Warriors’ aggressive front office was busy selling off expiring contracts to create the cap room needed to reach a rather stunning agreement with Denver free agent Andre Iguodala. It positioned the Warriors perfectly to craft a deal if the desperate Lakers bellied-up seeking a sign-and-trade for Howard while simultaneously strengthening their club for next season if not.

Still, did Dwight to Houston and Iggy to Golden State boost either team to the level of the West champion San Antonio Spurs, to OKC with Russell Westbrook returning or even to the Doc Rivers-coached and Chris Paul-led Los Angeles Clippers?

The West is so stout at the top that while Houston and Golden State began to emerge last season with Harden coming to the Rockets and Steph Curry rising to star status in the playoffs (and both teams will co-chair the NBA’s committee for must-watch teams next season) they might find themselves battling it out for homecourt advantage in the first round. And that’s having not even mentioned the post-Lionel Hollins Memphis Grizzlies now under rookie coach David Joerger returning as a top-five team.

But back to Iguodala and his one-year stopover in Denver. If there is a power shift in the West it’s the potential for a Nuggets avalanche down the standings to open a spot in the top four. Denver finished the season as the No. 3 seed, but since Danilo Gallinari tore his ACL in early April it’s been a steady stream of body blows. Denver lost to Golden State in the first round. Coach of the Year George Karl was fired and executive of the year Masai Ujiri left to run the Toronto Raptors. Now Iguodala is gone and Denver might be on the playoff bubble.

As for the Lakers, it’s disingenuous to talk about the loss of Howard as creating a major power shift within the conference. L.A. hasn’t escaped the second round in three years and with Howard last season it squeaked into the playoffs in the final days of the season as the seventh seed. Kobe Bryant hopes to be back for the start of the 2013-14 season, but there’s no guarantee as he recovers from a torn Achilles tendon.

With a roster badly in need of patching all over, might the Lakers, who — ready for this? — apparently chose a future with Mike D’Antoni over the 27-year-old Howard, be the most likely candidate to fall out of the top eight and open a playoff path for a lottery team such as the loaded — and presumably healthy — Minnesota Timberwolves?

Huh, the Timberwolves passing over the Lakers? Now that would be a power shift.

Knicks Deal For Raptors’ Bargnani

Andrea Bargnani

Andrea Bargnani played in just 35 games last season for the Raptors.


HANG TIME NEW JERSEY –
The Toronto Raptors have found a taker for Andrea Bargnani, further evidence that no contract is untradeable.

For some reason, the New York Knicks are willing to take on the remaining two years and $22 million left on Bargnani’s deal. The trade, first reported by Howard Beck of the New York Times, was not approved by the league Sunday night. So the original swap — which had Marcus Camby, Steve Novak and the Knicks’ 2016 first-round pick going to Toronto — will have to be tweaked, and nothing can become official until the free-agency moratorium period ends on July 10.

Because Bargnani’s salary goes up on July 1, while both Camby’s and Novak’s salaries go down, more salary will need to go in Toronto’s direction. That can happen if New York works out a sign-and-trade deal with Earl Barron, Kenyon Martin, Quentin Richardson or Pablo Prigioni. Barron and Richardson are the most likely candidates.

As long as the deal goes through, it’s new Raptors GM Masai Ujiri working his magic once again, getting something in return for Bargnani’s burdensome contract. In fact, you have to wonder how the Draft pick isn’t going in the other direction.

Not only do the Raps get a pick and get rid of Bargnani, but Novak is a useful piece for a team that ranked 26th in 3-point percentage last season and has two starting wings — DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay — that don’t shoot particularly well.

Bargnani has shot well at certain points in his career, but has really struggled over the last two seasons, shooting 42 percent from the field and 30 percent from 3-point range. He has tunnel vision when he gets the ball, unable to make plays for others. And even if he finds his shot at Madison Square Garden, he’s a serious defensive liability.

Really, you have to wonder why the Knicks want Bargnani. Though they struggled against the Pacers’ top-ranked defense in the conference semifinals, they ranked third offensively in the regular season, scoring a potent 108.6 points per 100 possessions. More than anything, they need help on defense, where they ranked 16th. You need to be ranked in the top 10 defensively if you have dreams of making The Finals, and Bargnani isn’t going to help them get there.

One of the Knicks’ biggest issues over the last few seasons has been their lack of two-way players. They’ve had some great offensive players and a few good defenders, but not enough guys who can get the job done on both ends of the floor. And Bargnani obviously isn’t that. Could you imagine how awful New York’s defense would be with Bargnani and Amar’e Stoudemire on the floor together?

Furthermore, the Knicks will now have four guys — Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, Bargnani and Stoudemire — making more than $10 million a year. Three of the four play power forward or center full-time, and the fourth (Anthony) is at his best playing the four.

Capped out, a trade is the only way the Knicks can really upgrade their roster. And though they’re not really giving up much value, this just doesn’t seem like the trade to do it.

Report: Nuggets Hire Brian Shaw



HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Cross Brian Shaw‘s name off the list of available coaches on the market this summer. The Denver Nuggets have reportedly tabbed the Indiana Pacers’ assistant as the man to replace NBA Coach of the Year George Karl on the bench in Denver, according to The Denver Post.

Shaw has been rumored as a candidate for basically every opening that has popped up this season. But he finally settled on the opportunity that awaits with the Nuggets:

“I can’t express my appreciation enough,” Shaw told The Denver Post by phone Monday evening. “It’s been a grind to say the least, but I’m just very appreciative of the opportunity to lead this team. … It’s been years, 11-12 interviews I’ve gone through. And I’ve felt I’ve been prepared by the best of the best. You know, everything that’s worth something, a lot of times you have to wait for it. I feel like I’ve waited and paid my dues.

“I feel honored and privileged that (Nuggets executives) Josh (Kroenke) and Tim (Connelly) have put faith in me that I’m the guy they want to grow with going forward.”

Shaw, 47, spent the past two seasons as the associate head coach under Frank Vogel with the Pacers. He spent six season as an assistant to Phil Jackson with the Los Angeles Lakers. Jackson discussed Shaw on Episode 122 of the Hang Time Podcast last week and suggested that it was only a matter of time before Shaw found the right spot.

Shaw takes over a Nuggets team that won 57 games and was 38-3 at home last season and boasted not only Karl as coach of the Year, but Masai Ujiri as the league’s Executive of the Year. Ujiri left for the Toronto Raptors after the Nuggets’ were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Golden State Warriors. Karl was fired earlier this month.

Perhaps most interesting with Shaw’s hiring is what sort of system he will employ with a roster built for an up-tempo attack and his background with the triangle that the Lakers used to win five titles under Jackson. He made it clear to The Post that whatever system he runs will be all his own:

“Although I played in the triangle and coached the triangle, I also played in a lot of systems, so that’s not something I’m looking to bring to the Nuggets and try to implement,” Shaw said.”I’m going to look at a lot of film of things the team did well, running was one of them. And I’ll continue to build on things they did well and get more of a feel for the personnel and what I think will be conducive to everybody’s ability.”