Posts Tagged ‘Ty Lawson’

Morning Shootaround — Nov. 27


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Nov. 26

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Bulls GM won’t overhaul roster | Kupchack: No extension talks yet with Pau | Shaw gets creative to help Nuggets at FT line | Fitness focus paying off for Sixers

No. 1: Bulls GM won’t overhaul roster, vows no ‘rash decisions’– As the Chicago Bulls and their fans are still getting over losing star Derrick Rose for the season, General Manager Gar Forman is tasked with looking to what comes next and answering questions about the future of the team. In interviews with both ESPNChicago.com’s Melissa Isaacson and Bulls.com’s Sam Smith, Forman reveals that the Bulls won’t be making any hasty moves with the roster and further discusses Rose’s recovery process.

First, here is Forman talking with Issacson on his plans to keep the roster as-is:

 

Calling Derrick Rose’s torn medial meniscus in his right knee “a freak injury,” Chicago Bulls general manager Gar Forman said Tuesday the team is “positioned well” and has no immediate plans to make dramatic changes to the roster.

“With this type of injury, he should come back 100 percent,” Forman said by phone with ESPNChicago.com, a day after Rose had surgery that will sideline him the rest of the season. “With the previous [ACL] injury, that leg is strong and we saw the explosiveness and reactivity and speed, and then it was just [a matter of] getting into rhythm.

“Though this is a severe injury, it’s not as severe as the other. He’ll get over it and be able to get his career back to the highest level.”

Saying Rose is “really out” for the season, despite the Bulls’ potential postseason activity, Forman said it is premature to talk about potential trades or, as much as the team’s fan base and media have suggested, re-building.

“This just happened. It’s too early to start to go down that road,” Forman said. “From an organizational standpoint, our front office, not just this year but every year, we always evaluate our team, where we’re at, how we can get better. …

“We’re not going to make rash decisions. We feel we have a bright future ahead and we’re positioned well. We have good players in their 20s, Derrick is going to come back, we’re positioned well with draft picks into the future and we have some level of flexibility which we haven’t had under this new CBA.”

In an interview with Smith, Forman opens up more about the look of the roster, Rose’s recovery and other topics:

Question: How was Derrick’s surgery and why did he choose this option which will keep him out the entire 2013-14 NBA season?

Forman: This was the best procedure for Derrick’s long-term health. That is our primary concern. Whatever is best for Derrick in the long term as a 25-year-old athlete was our first thought. And what’s best for Derrick is best for the franchise. He’s still young, has a very long career ahead of him and there’s no reason after talking to the surgeons Derrick will not return 100 percent. This particular option gave him the best chance for long-term success.

Question: Couldn’t they have gone with the short-term option to bring him back sooner?

Forman: We are never going to be shortsighted when it comes to a player and his health. The decision had been made to repair it if possible. Once the surgeons saw how good the tissue looked, they stayed with that option. To do otherwise could have made the knee less stable and increase the risks down the road as we’ve seen with other NBA players. Given the circumstances, the procedure and outcome was as good as could be expected.

Question: Last year you never said when Derrick would return and there were updates that suggested it would be before the end of the season. And that was a more serious injury. Why now is he out for the entire season?

Forman: Last year we really didn’t know and Derrick didn’t, either. Remember, Jerry Reinsdorf always said last year we were going to be conservative and that Derrick would not be coming back until he was 100 percent ready. This time it’s clear that he won’t be able to return.

Question: What about this team? Where do you go from here knowing you probably can no longer win a championship this season without Derrick.

Forman: Look, I think Tom [Thibodeau] said it well Sunday. The core of this team has been through this before. And they’ve had a level of success pulling together. That’s what they’ve shown they’re about. It’s obviously tough for them, but that’s why we have so much faith in this team, because of the way these players have responded to adversity and always played at a high level. So we feel they’re the kind of people and players who will pull together again.

Question: But do they have enough to still be competitive?

Forman: There’s still a lot of talent on this team. There’s two guys who were All-Stars a year ago in Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, is a high level player who was among the leaders in double-doubles in the league last season, Jimmy Butler when he comes back and we saw last season what he can do, Taj [Gibson], who has had a very good start. There’s Kirk [Hinrich], whose proven to be one of the top defensive guards in the league, Mike Dunleavy, one of the best three-point shooters in basketball. And this will give Marquis Teague and Tony Snell an opportunity grow.

Question: But given you probably cannot win a title this season, why not make changes for the future?

Forman: It’s obviously too soon to go down that road. Derrick had surgery this morning. Look, we are always evaluating our team, just like everyone else does. We felt good about this season, but we were hardly perfect. So we always are looking to get better. Everything we do is geared toward winning a championship and we will continue to evaluate any moves that will help us in attaining that goal.

Question: Why didn’t you at least keep Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson?

Forman: In the summer of 2012, we were putting together a team to play without Derrick Rose. Though there was a possibility he could return, we approached that off season as though he may not. So we added players who would fill in for Derrick as no one can replace a Derrick Rose. But this season we expected to have Derrick. And we had Kirk Hinrich moving to a backup guard position and you’ve been able to see how well that was working with Kirk behind Derrick. Then we added Mike Dunleavy because his stretch the floor shooting fit the best with Derrick, and you can see what we saw in Mike and how well he shoots the ball from three-point range.

Question: OK, now you know Derrick is gone for this season. Why not trade some of your players for future possibilities, young players or draft picks and begin rebuilding?

Forman: It’s still too early in the process and we’re not going to make any rash decisions. We feel there is a bright future ahead and we believe we are positioned well. Look, we fully expect Derrick to come back 100 percent for next season. This basically was a freak injury. This was not due to the ACL or some fatigue of other factor. We have a young nucleus of veterans basically in their 20’s; we have multiple draft picks, including a pick from Charlotte in one of the next three drafts; we have the rights to Nikola Mirotic, who has been the best young payer in Europe the last two years. I know people get tired of hearing it sometimes, but we also have the possibility of flexibility in free agency this summer or next. So we feel we are in a good position, and we will be getting Derrick back.

Question: But can you trust Rose now after these injuries?

Forman: We see no reason not to. That’s what the best doctors in the world tell us. His left knee is strong, as everyone has seen, and his right knee will be strong as any doctor will tell you after this surgery. We’ve seen with many current All-Stars go through the same procedure.

***

No. 2: Kupchack: No extension talks yet with Gasol — On Monday, the Lakers showed they were committed to making star guard Kobe Bryant a Laker for life by agreeing to terms with him on a two-year, reported $48.5 million extension. The man who helped Bryant to his two post-Shaquille O’Neal titles, Pau Gasol, is a free agent this summer. So is Gasol in line for an extension as well? According to ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Dave McMenamin, both Gasol and GM Mitch Kupchack say they have yet to have discussions about that topic:

“We have not had any discussions with Pau,” Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said Tuesday on a conference call with a small group of reporters. “I’m sure I will and where that leads I’m not sure right now. A lot has to do with different variables. I’m not saying that something won’t be considered and I’m not saying that something will be. I’m just saying that it’s not something that came up and it wouldn’t have come up before (Monday) anyway. There was no reason for anything to take place until we signed Kobe. So, we’ll kind of roll with that and see where it leads.”

Gasol, 33, is averaging 14.3 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocks this season, but shooting just 42.1 percent from the field. His play has been on an uptick of late, as he put up consecutive 20-point, 10-rebound games after dealing with foot discomfort and a respiratory issue for much of the early portion of the season.

The 13-year veteran said that he did not know if Bryant’s deal means that the Lakers will also want to negotiate with him before the season ends.

“I try not to make that assumption,” Gasol said after shootaround Tuesday in advance of the Lakers game against the Washington Wizards. “If I am, I will. If I’m not . . . I’m just focusing on trying to play as well as I can and finish the season as good as I can so I’m in the best position as possible for next year. That’s just my mindset about it.”

Gasol said that he had not spoken to Bryant about the extension yet, noting that the Lakers’ star guard was sitting behind him on the team plane when they took their cross-country flight Monday.

“I think he was soundly asleep,” Gasol said. “I think he was peaceful . . . I’m sure he was happy.”

Is Gasol happy about Bryant taking up $23.5 million of the expected $62.9 million salary cap for next season on his own? Will that leave anything for him to sign for?

“I don’t really think about that,” Gasol said. “I thought it was a good extension for him. He’s the face of the Lakers, pretty much. So, I just think it caught a lot of people off guard unexpectedly without him being back playing and showing how well has he recovered from that injury. Other than that, it was a great extension for him.

“As far as me, or the team which is I’m most concerned about, how can you add other pieces around him and valuable pieces so we can win a title. But that’s the only concern. I’m not good with the mathematics and the numbers of the equation here, but that’s the only concern.”

***

No. 3: Shaw tries unique method to help Nuggets at line – Our own Jeff Caplan has a great story on Ty Lawson and how the lightning-quick point guard has thrived in new coach Brian Shaw‘s offense that is worth a read if you missed it. While Denver is finding its footing again as a solid team in the West, it continues to struggle with free throw shooting as the Nuggets shoot 69.9 percent from the stripe, third-worst in the NBA. According to Caplan, though, Shaw has tried to create an incentive for players to try and make more foul shots:

Frustrated by more bricks than he can stand from his team at the free throw line, an idea popped into the head of Nuggets coach Brian Shaw at the end of the team’s Monday morning shootaround in Dallas.

“What I did was I joked with the guys that the safest place in the building to stand when we’re at the free throw line is right underneath the net,” Shaw said. “So I gave everybody on the team basically a chance to shoot a free throw with myself standing under the net with my hands down, where if they made it the ball would hit me on top of the head.”

As a team the Nuggets are shooting an abysmal 69.9 percent from the stripe, 28th in the NBA. Four of the team’s starters shoot below 70 percent with J.J. Hickson below 60 percent.

Denver was coming off a 102-100 win against Dallas on Saturday in which they were 21-for-30 from the free throw line. A better showing at the line and the game might not have been such a nail-biter down the stretch.

“At this point I’m trying by any means necessary to get us shooting free throws better,” Shaw said. “The guys who hit me the most — well, Kenneth Faried actually got two hits on me — but the guys that haven’t really had an opportunity to play as much were the ones that were really, really aiming for me.”

***

No. 4: Sixers credit Brown for creating fitness focus – As of this morning, the Sixers are second in the Atlantic Division and are just a half-game behind Washington for the East’s No. 8 seed. We’re still a long way from clinching playoff berths in the NBA, but worth noting is that Philly is exceeding expectations and much of that is a credit to new coach Brett Brown and the team’s fastbreaking ways. The Sixers lead the NBA in both fast-break points per game (18.3) and pace (102.4 points per 100 possessions), a credit to the emphasis Brown placed on fitness in the offseason, writes Dei Lynam of CSNPhilly.com:

The ongoing theme with the Sixers when asked about their Maine-born coach with the thickest of New England accents is that Brett Brown speaks nonstop about “career-best fitness.”

While that phrase might have been annoying at first to Brown’s players, that is no longer the case. The Sixers are clearly reaping the benefits of the head coach’s hard stance on being in shape.

“First we had to do a conditioning test and then we had to drop weight,” said Evan Turner, who is down nine pounds and 2½ percent body fat. “He told us what weight he wanted us to be at. He was kind of nice about it, but he wasn’t if you didn’t hit that weight number. That was key.”

For a guy like Tony Wroten, who is in just his second NBA season, Brown’s approach is what the guard grew accustomed to in college at Washington.

“In college, you run around and do a lot of conditioning,” Wroten said. “When I first got here, not only did the coach e-mail me about it but also the strength and conditioning coaches, what summer was going to be like and this is what we are going to do.

“I knew they were serious. At the time, I was like what is this? This is like college, but Coach always says it is going to pay off in the long run and it has. We can run at the end of games. We are still pacing, so working on it in the summer helped a lot.”

Wroten isn’t just drawing on his own experiences out on the court. He has also witnessed the impact of the Sixers’ focus on fitness in his teammates.

“In film the other day, in the fourth quarter you see Mike [Carter-Williams] picking up full court,” said Wroten, who missed Saturday’s game with back spasms. “In the NBA, no one plays full court at all, but for him to be able to do that in the fourth when we only had seven, eight people and he had played a lot of minutes [was key]. It showed the little things.

“Sometimes teams will say to us, ‘Are you guys ever going to stop running?’ And they are serious, but at the end of the day we are going to keep running, keep running and keep running.”

Brown stresses that what the Sixers are doing with fitness is not groundbreaking. He says the NBA’s 29 other teams implement the same mentality but maybe not as strongly.

“It is all about recovery,” Brown said. “Playing 82 games, back-to-back games, how do you back it up? What do you do on a plane if you are flying? It is the people who take care of their bodies and are prideful with their diet, nutrition and hydration and massages and ice down.

“All the programs do it, so it isn’t like we found something tricky. We just want to be responsible with it and proactive with it.”

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Warriors forward Andre Iguodala will miss at least the team’s next three games … Nets coach Jason Kidd gets a fresh vote of confidence from GM Billy KingJermaine O’Neal apparently gave quite the inspiring speech during Golden State’s win last night

ICYMI Of The Night: Magic rookie Victor Oladipo lets loose with a vicious jam over a couple of Atlanta Hawks defenders …


VIDEO: Victor Oladipo gets up to dunk over both Al Horford and Paul Millsap

Back And Forth With Bones: Nuggets-Jazz

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – Back and Forth With Bones is an e-mail exchange between NBA.com’s John Schuhmann and NBA TV’s Brent Barry during a Monday night game. This week, they sat down (Schuhmann at home in New Jersey, Barry in the studio in Atlanta) to watch the 0-7 Utah Jazz try to get off the schneid, hosting the 1-4 Denver Nuggets on NBA TV.

Pre-game

Schuhmann: Hey Bones, tonight we have the Nuggets and Jazz, who are arguably the two worst teams in the league right now. There are better games on League Pass, but this one isn’t without some intrigue.

Denver has obviously undergone a stylistic change under Brian Shaw. After attempting over 45 percent of their shots from the restricted area each of the last two seasons, they’ve attempted just 32 percent of their shots from there this year. They’re down to 10th and 20th in fast break points and offensive rebounding percentage respectively, after leading the league in both of those categories last year.

Their frontcourt rotation has been a mess without Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler (who is supposed to return tonight). I believe Shaw wants to work the offense through their bigs, but I don’t see any bigs on that roster that can function as a focal point offensively.

Meanwhile, I thought the Jazz would be better defensively after seeing their numbers with Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter on the floor last season, but they rank 27th on that end, unable to get boards or keep their opponents off the line. Offensively, Gordon Hayward has the goods, but this team can’t hit a shot from the outside.

So, questions for you:
1. Are you on board with what Shaw is trying to do? Is it just a matter of time (and health) before the Nuggets get on track, or do they need to get back to running and attacking the basket?
2. Do the Jazz have more ability to be a decent offensive team (maybe the shots will start falling at some point) or a decent defensive team (as the bigs develop)?


VIDEO: Jazz broadcaster David Locke discusses Utah’s tough season

Barry: The Jazz are absolutely horrible at getting ball to go through the hoop, important that you can do that — it is called scoring. Last in field goal percentage and 3-point percentage.

They’re getting exposed at point guard and can’t put pressure on opposing teams, most of which have pretty good ones, especially in the West.

It’s new territory for the team in terms of bearing heavy minutes, when and how to conserve legs and effort. Bigs worried about picking up scoring takes away rebounding focus. It will be interesting to see if they play confident or embarrassed to open up the game.

For the Nuggets, Shaw is still trying to find rotations that mesh with injuries to key players (Gallo, Kenneth Faried and now JaVale McGee). There’s no way Denver can play through bigs, so it will be interesting to see how Brian is managing the guard play.

Ty Lawson is playing a ton of minutes. Randy Foye next, but top three gunners are Ty (85 FGA), Nate Robinson (45), and Foye (44). They’re losing a bit of a defensive mentality/flexibility with Corey Brewer and Andre Iguodala gone.

Karl loved misfits, mismatches and mental games. It’s hard for new coach to get there without a better understanding, but even tougher when the old coach won a bunch too!

1st quarter

The Jazz got off to a strong start, scoring 26 points on a stretch of 16 possessions in the middle of the first quarter. The Nuggets shot just 8-for-21 in the period, but were only down six.

Schuhmann: The Nuggets are trying to post up Faried early on. I don’t get it.

Barry: And apparently are afraid to touch the paint on the defensive end. Some of the possessions are leaving them with bad floor balance and Jazz looking to run with purpose to score to start a game they really need to win.


VIDEO: Derrick Favors gets up to reject J.J. Hickson

They need a release from the winless start and a close game doesn’t do it.

Schuhmann: Turnovers have been an issue for the Jazz – 2nd highest rate in the league – and they don’t have any through 18 possessions. Favors looks more comfortable in the post than any of the Denver bigs.

Barry: Great patience vs. Mozgov. Fatigue moves the last two, but he responds with a block.

Barry: Good first quarter, but guys got a little tired for Jazz. Feels like Denver got away with one.

2nd quarter (UTA leads 26-20)

The Jazz scored on just three of their first 14 possessions and committed seven turnovers in the period after committing none in the first. The Nuggets had turnover issues of their own, but went on a 19-8 run late in the period to take a five point lead. Four points from Hayward made it a one-point game at the half.

Schuhmann: The Denver offense looks best when Lawson is attacking off the dribble. Not sure what else they can rely on.

Barry: They’ve just lost a lot of dynamic play on the wings with Brewer/Iggy gone and utility/tough matchups in Chandler/Gallo. You can see how they bog down.

Barry: But I do see signs of DHO (dribble hand-offs) and use of the pinch post in the Nuggets’ offense.


VIDEO: Andre Miller loses Jamaal Tinsley with a crafty crossover move

Schuhmann: That move by Andre Miller made my night.

Barry: And his.

Barry: Interesting for Utah to try to take advantage of Hayward in the post on Miller when doubles don’t result in anything good, because the Jazz can’t shoot it from distance.

Schuhmann: 10 combined turnovers in first six minutes of the second quarter. I’m starting to understand why these teams are a combined 1-11.


VIDEO: J.J. Hickson posterizes Jazz forward Marvin Williams

Halftime (DEN leads 46-45)


VIDEO: First half highlights from Nuggets-Jazz

Schuhmann: The Nuggets got things going in the second quarter when they – one – took care of the ball and – two – attacked the basket. 19 of their 26 points came in the paint or at the line.

Barry: And there lies the problem. Kanter and Favors will need to learn how to patrol and control the lower defensive box. Tonight, they are not having to deal with stretch bigs. It’s a technique/muscle game that they are struggling with.

Barry: Some worrisome numbers from PG for the Jazz. Lawson’s numbers at the half (eight points and six assists) might end up being more than the Lucas/Tinsley combo for the game. No playmaking to promote flow for the Jazz. All plays on one’s own to score.

3rd quarter

With the Jazz continuing to struggle offensively, the Nugget built a seven-point lead. But Favors scored seven straight points late in the period to keep it close.

Schuhmann: Lots of Favors in the post again. No double-teams = no ball movement. Denver willing to live with single coverage everywhere.

Schuhmann: Jazz had some pick-and-roll success in the third with a couple of nifty big-to-big passes between Favors and Gobert. Gets the defense moving more than straight post-ups.

Barry: When you can load up elbows and boxes the Jazz have very little room to find offense.

4th quarter (DEN leads 70-68)

The Jazz took a brief lead on an Alec Burks three-point play, but the Nuggets answered with a 10-1 run and scored 13 times in a 15-possession stretch to put the game away.

Barry: Penalty at 10:18 for the Jazz.


VIDEO: Nate Robinson lobs and Kenneth Faried finishes it off

Barry: Great dime by Nate. Pressure mounting on the Jazz, 0-7 and being down at home. Expect some roster change out of this timeout as Ty won’t want to put more pressure on guys to finish it out.

Barry: And there they are…

Barry: Offensive rebounds are crushing the Jazz.

Schuhmann: Yep. Pick-and-rolls are putting their bigs out of position.

Barry: But no reason to be extended that far. Strange injury to Manimal, if he doesn’t come back Utah will have a chance.

Barry: More Dre. Good call by B-Shaw.

Barry: Andre is fantastic… Great drive and shot before Gobert could get feet set to block. And Manimal is back. Not good for the Jazz.

Barry: Utah bigs just seem unaware of how far they are extending. They’re opening up drives and offensive rebounds for Denver. For the last three minutes, Ty can dictate tempo, whereas Utah has no point.

Final: Nuggets 100, Jazz 81


VIDEO: Nuggets pick up road win in Utah

Lawson led Denver with 17 points and 10 assists. Faried added 15 points and 13 rebounds and Miller added another 15 points off the bench for the Nuggets, who had a 48-36 advantage in the paint, a 52-35 advantage on the glass, and a 23-16 edge at the free throw line. Favors finished with 21 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks, but the Jazz shot a brutal 3-for-17 from 3-point range and are shooting 23 percent from beyond the arc through eight games.

Schuhmann: It’s tough to score with no penetration and no shooting. We saw some decent post-ups from Favors, but the bigs don’t demand a double-team down there.

Denver looked good when they went to last year’s formula of dribble penetration from the point guards and crashing the glass, though with Brewer and Iguodala gone, they’ve lost a lot of their potency on the break. I’m not a fan of trying to work through Faried or Hickson in the post, but they went away from that in the second half. Of course, we can’t really evaluate their D from a game against the Jazz.

Barry: No, but the Horns set seemed to open up basic opportunities for Denver. They will look much different when they have a full complement of players.

But the Jazz have reasons for concern, as Trey Burke is not going to come in and take the Western Conference PG position by storm.

Nuggets Down RPMs and Bodies

 

HANG TIME WEST – For one thing, there’s the pace. Brian Shaw has replaced George Karl as coach and halfcourt has replaced fastbreak. Gears have been grinding for a month with the sudden downshift.

For another thing, there’s the Nuggets as a whole. Or rather, there aren’t the Nuggets. Wilson Chandler got a few minutes into the first practice, strained a hamstring, and hasn’t been back since. Kenneth Faried missed half the exhibition schedule because of a hamstring strain and played 15 minutes in the opener. Danilo Gallinari is recovering from a torn knee ligament and probably won’t return for months.

A team that would have been facing a tough enough transition anyway – Karl to Shaw, veteran coach to rookie, Andre Iguodala to Golden State – can’t get what they need most: time together. Shaw has been able to slow down a lot of things, but the calendar isn’t one of them, so there went the chance to use the exhibition schedule to sort through lineups.

“It’s tough,” Shaw said. “But at the same time, that’s why we have 15 players on the roster. We’ll mix and match until the time when we get one of those guys back.”

Chandler will be back much sooner than Gallinari, barring a setback. But, yes, mix and match as the regular season begins, initially with a 90-88 loss at Sacramento on Wednesday while using a three-guard alignment of Ty Lawson, Randy Foye and Andre Miller down the stretch and now into the home opener tonight against the Trail Blazers (9 p.m. ET, League Pass). The same starting lineup — Lawson, Foye, JaVale McGee, J.J. Hickson, Anthony Randolph – is expected, but what happens from there is more of a feeling-out process for the Nuggets than most teams.

That includes the pace.

“It’s a lot more half-court offenses,” Lawson said. “Brian Shaw is a mastermind of a lot of half-court offenses, so we’ve been running less this year than we did probably in the past.”

There’s no probably about it.

“I actually like it,” Lawson said. “I feel like I can play the whole game now. With George sometimes, I knew I needed a sub, at the two-minute mark or something like that, to get my wind back. But right now, I feel like I can play the whole game with that type of system. Slow down, run off pick-and-rolls. It’s nice to have the ball come back to me, not have to make the play and then shoot. I can become the playmaker too.”

In the obvious problem, telling Lawson to slow down is the Nuggets taking away what had been one of their advantages. Same with Faried, the athletic power forward who thrives in transition. Opponents will welcome the chance to play at altitude in Denver without having to also face a speed game.

One Team, One Stat: Nuggets Own The Restricted Area

From Media Day until opening night, NBA.com’s John Schuhmann will provide a key stat for each team in the league and show you, with film and analysis, why it matters. Up next are the Denver Nuggets, who are moving in a new direction after their best regular season in 37 years.

The basics
DEN Rank
W-L 57-25 4
Pace 97.8 2
OffRtg 107.6 5
DefRtg 102.0 11
NetRtg +5.6 5

The stat

1,412 - Points by which the Nuggets outscored their opponents in the restricted area last season.

The context

No other team in the league outscored their opponents in the restricted area by half that amount. Next on the list were the Houston Rockets, who outscored their opponents by 626 points in the restricted area. And since shot-location data was first charted in 1996, the only team that has come close to the Nuggets’ mark was the 1997-98 Lakers, who outscored their opponents by 1,128 points in the restricted area.

Offensively, the Nuggets relentlessly attacked the basket. It started with their transition game, of course. They were off and running once they got the ball off a turnover, a rebound, or even a made bucket. They led the league in fast break points by a wide margin, and 1,210 (*73 percent) of their 1,652 fast break points came in the restricted area.

*For comparison, league-wide, 57 percent of fast break points came in the restricted area.

When the break was stopped, point guards Ty Lawson and Andre Miller still looked to get into the paint and make plays. Among guards, they ranked eighth and 19th in restricted area field goal attempts. Almost 60 percent of their assists came in the restricted area, with Miller leading the league with 328 restricted-area assists and Lawson ranking seventh with 260.

And the Nuggets didn’t stop with their first attempt at the basket. They led the league in both offensive rebounding percentage and second-chance points, with 840 (*65 percent) of their 1,295 second-chance points coming in the restricted area.

* For comparison, league-wide, 53 percent of second-chance points came in the restricted area, which is probably less than you would guess.

Of course, the Nuggets *couldn’t shoot very well, so they had little choice but to attack the basket. But for a team that doesn’t shoot very well to rank in the top five in offensive efficiency is pretty amazing.

* They ranked 23rd in effective field goal percentage from outside the paint and famously didn’t hit a shot from outside the paint until the final minute of a December loss in Portland.

The Nuggets took 45.7 percent of their shots from the restricted area, by far the highest rate in the league. And they made 63.1 percent of those shots, a mark which ranked sixth. No other team ranked in the top 10 in both the percentage of shots taken from the restricted area and field goal percentage there.

Highest percentage of shots from the restricted area

Team FGM FGA FG% Rank %FGA
Denver 2,016 3,194 63.1% 6 45.7%
Detroit 1,565 2,670 58.6% 24 40.2%
Houston 1,617 2,628 61.5% 11 38.7%
Minnesota 1,421 2,406 59.1% 19 35.9%
Milwaukee 1,432 2,530 56.6% 27 35.2%

Denver wasn’t just strong in the restricted area offensively. To outscore your opponents by 1,412 points, you have to be doing something right on the other end of the floor as well.

The Nuggets didn’t really prevent shots at the basket, but they defended them well, allowing their opponents to shoot just 56.2 percent in the restricted area, the second best mark in the league.

The following are some highlights from a December game in which the Nuggets outscored the Pacers (who ranked No. 1 in restricted-area defense) 48-18 at the basket. Denver shot 24-for-30 in the restricted area, while Indiana shot just 9-for-17.


While the Nuggets’ defense was better overall with Kosta Koufos on the floor, JaVale McGee was the team’s best rim protector. In fact, he was one of the league’s best, with opponents shooting just 52.8 percent in the restricted area with him on the floor.

McGee is back and now starting at center, so Denver opponents will continue to have a tough time converting at the rim. But the Nuggets won’t be as strong there themselves.

Only LeBron James was a better finisher at the rim than Andre Iguodala last season, and Iguodala has taken his dunks and layups to the Bay Area. Maybe more importantly, the architect of the Nuggets’ furious style is gone. And with Brian Shaw replacing George Karl on the bench, we should see a more traditional offensive attack in Denver.

Denver has played at a quick pace in the preseason, but has attempted only 34 percent of their shots from the restricted area. Of course, they actually have have a couple of guys – Randy Foye and Nate Robinson – who can shoot threes pretty well. And that is just as important as getting shots at the basket.

So the Nuggets will likely have more balanced offense in terms of shot selection. And who knows when we’ll see another team outscore its opponents by so many points in the restricted area again.

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Are Jazz Primed For A Rare Stop In Western Conference’s Cellar?

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HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – The last time the Jazz finished last in the Western Conference was 1979-80, their first season in Salt Lake after the team packed up and left New Orleans. There’s been only a few close calls over the decades, most recently a 26-win, second-to-last finish in 2004-05.

But not dead last.

At 24-58, Utah finished the ’79-’80 campaign tied with Golden State at the bottom of the 11-team West and pulled up the rear in a Midwest Division that went Milwaukee, Kansas City, Denver, Chicago. The Jazz had a 32-year-old “Pistol” Pete Maravich, whose knees were so shot that he played in just 17 games and retired, and a 23-year-old Bernard King, who played in just 19 games and sought help for a drinking problem.

Future Hall of Famer Adrian Dantley, then 23, averaged 28.0 ppg and found a home in the NBA. Shooting guards Ron Boone (12.8 ppg) and Terry Furlow (16.0 ppg) provided the majority of the backcourt scoring. Duck Williams chipped in 6.6 ppg off the bench, ABA vet Mack Calvin averaged 6.4 ppg in 48 games and 24-year-old journeyman Brad Davis signed late and played 13 games before spending the next 12 seasons in Dallas, who retired his No. 15 jersey.

As this mostly unrecognizable and already banged-up 2013-14 team tumbles toward the starting gate, they could use any of those old guards — forget John Stockton — for a little backcourt help. With non-playoff teams like Minnesota, Portland, New Orleans and Dallas looking improved, and new coaches and philosophies in Phoenix (led by ex-Jazz assistant and legend Jeff Hornacek) and Sacramento, could re-booting Utah be in jeopardy of its first last-place finish in three-plus decades?

That might not be all that bad — or even, wink, wink, the plan — considering the anticipated bumper crop of the 2014 Draft. Even money is on the Jazz equaling the 24 wins of ’79-80 when Tom Nissalke‘s club averaged 102.2 ppg to also finish dead last in scoring in a much different 22-team NBA. Through five preseason games, Utah is averaging 87.0 ppg and 18.8 apg, both of which would have ranked last last season.

The Jazz certainly didn’t intend to lose top Draft pick and starting point guard Trey Burke to a busted right index finger in the preseason. He was averaging 7.0 ppg (on dreadful shooting) and 4.0 apg before undergoing surgery to repair the bone. He’ll miss 8-12 weeks, delaying his development. Plus, this team is not one built to endure injuries anywhere.

In the interim, the always game, if not so venerable, John Lucas III appears to be the Jazz’s starting point guard. The next game he starts will be his third entering a sixth season bouncing in and out of the league since 2005. He’ll pair in the backcourt with either Alec Burks or Gordon Hayward, who whether starting at shooting guard or small forward (Richard Jefferson has started three preseason games here), will have to be this team’s Dantley.

Backcourt depth isn’t inspiring. Brandon Rush has yet to play as he recovers from last season’s torn ACL. Undrafted rookie combo guard Ian Clark has managed just 11.8 mpg in four preseason games. Lester Hudson and Scott Machado are scrapping for minutes.

After Burke’s broken finger there were rumblings of interest in bringing back free agent Jamaal Tinsley. Considering the Jazz aren’t exactly worried about losing ground in November — this season’s writing is on the wall — they might be more inclined simply to ride out Burke’s injury.

Just don’t expect smooth sailing. The Jazz get something of a break in their first six games, likely missing Russell Westbrook in their Oct. 30 opener against Oklahoma City, Rajon Rondo at Boston on Nov. 6 and perhaps Deron Williams the night before in Brooklyn. In the other three games they’ll face Phoenix’s new tandem of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe on Nov. 1, Houston’s James Harden and Jeremy Lin on Nov. 2 and Chicago’s Derrick Rose on Nov. 8. Then comes this six-pack of opposing point guards: Ty Lawson, Jrue Holiday, Tony Parker, Steph Curry in a home-and-home series and Holiday again.

Ever-knowledgeable Jazz fans have shown a level of understanding as the franchise shifts directions and amasses Draft picks. Now comes the hard part — showing patience. They stand to witness more losses this season than since well before coach Jerry Sloan walked through that door.

West Guards Set Up For All-Star Snub

It could be harder for Steph Curry (left) or Ricky Rubio to get their a taste of the bright lights of All-Star selection.

It could be harder for Steph Curry (left) or Ricky Rubio to get a taste of the bright lights of All-Star selection.

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Remember when Steph Curry got the All-Star snub? Charles Barkley was darn well hacked off: “For them to leave Steph Curry off that team, it’s a joke; it’s a flat-out joke.”

Curry’s coach Mark Jackson also wasn’t amused by “them,” his Western Conference peers who pick the reserves, even with Golden State Warriors forward David Lee getting the nod:

“We know who the jurors are,” Jackson told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I think you have to question the process. I’m not going to go all Dr. King on us, but you’ve got to stand for what’s right, man. These guys have changed this whole organization. They have led. They have sacrificed. They have defended. They have competed.”

West coaches really might need to take cover this year. Barring injuries or unforeseen awful seasons, those 15 coaches will be locked in a no-win pickle to select the backup “backcourt” players.

Maybe this year Lee gets the snub, or some other “frontcourt” player like Zach Randolph or Tim Duncan (everyone thought he was done after his 2012 omission anyway, right?) to make room for an extra guard or two because there is going to be an absolutely outrageously long list of sure-fire or close-to-it All-Star guards.

The 2013 All-Star team featured five guards on the 12-man roster: Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant as the fan-voted starters, with Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook and first-timer James Harden as the coach-selected reserves.

Which one of those guys slides and doesn’t make the 2014 team? Kobe’s coming off Achilles surgery and his return date remains uncertain. Still, he’s expected back well before the All-Star Game and no matter how he fares it’s far-fetched to think fans won’t vote him in for a 16th consecutive start. Just go ahead and pencil in the L.A. boys as starters again.

Will Westbrook falter coming off his knee surgery? Doubtful. Could Parker, a five-time All-Star who has played his best ball over the last two seasons, slip? Possible, I suppose, if Spurs coach Gregg Popovich rests him from Christmas Day to MLK Day.

Here’s the thing: Even if one of those guys slide, the list of replacements is excessive, starting with the Warriors’ Curry, whose trajectory is just now starting to mirror that of the space shuttle upon liftoff. Seven of the West’s eight playoff teams from last season boast an All-Star-caliber point guard or shooting guard. Memphis point Mike Conley is gaining steam and it’s possible his 2012-13 numbers, a career-best of 14.6 pgg (and 2.2 spg, third overall) and 6.1 apg, could rise in a faster-paced offense under first-year coach Dave Joerger. Denver’s speed merchant Ty Lawson was a bubble guy in ’12, but he might be in for quite the transition with blow-it-out George Karl‘s departure probably ushering in more traditional sets under rookie coach Brian Shaw.

Still, the list rolls on…

Three West lottery teams offer undeniable candidates: Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio, who is poised for a breakout after last season’s tough return from ACL surgery; Portland’s Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard, who has reinforcements this year that should help him get even better; and West newcomer and Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday, who, oh yeah, was a first-time All-Star last season in that other conference with the 76ers.

Want more? Eric Bledsoe, stashed behind CP3 these last two seasons in Clipperland, is primed to bust out in the Valley of the Suns; Andre Iguodala, a 2012 All-Star, can’t be counted out with the Warriors, unless sharpshooter Klay Thompson beats him out; and Monta Ellis, an All-Star in his own mind even if he’s yet to wear the uniform, could be in for a big year in Dallas feeding off 11-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki (who just might want his “frontcourt” spot back).

Oh wait, did I mention that eight-time All-Star Steve Nash, who turns 40 a week before the All-Star Game, made the team in 2008, ’10 and ’12?

Obviously he’s due in ’14. Right?

Best of luck, coaches. And be prepared to duck.

Irving And Davis Make It Clear They’re The Future Of USA Basketball

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LAS VEGAS – Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis likely had spots on next year’s U.S. National Team roster locked up before Thursday night. And if there was any doubt, the two former No. 1 picks likely removed it after their performance in the USA Basketball Showcase, a 128-106 victory for Irving’s White Team.

Irving got out in transition and sliced through the blue defense to the tune of a game-high 23 points (on just eight shots) and seven assists. He was the best player on the floor and made it clear that he’s not only a future National Team member but a star to watch in the upcoming NBA season.

“It’s a pick-and-roll league,” Damian Lillard said afterward, “and he’s really good at breaking guys down one-on-one. So if he has a pick-and-roll, a lot of times he has a big man in front of him and can take advantage of situations. When he gets that screen and has that big man on an island, he’s going to get around him and he can finish at the rim. When you have that type of handle and you can finish at the rim, that’s deadly.”

“I wanted to separate myself, somehow, from this group,” Irving said, “and show what I can bring to the team for next year.”

Playing alongside some other talented bigs, Davis looked like more of a stretch four on Thursday, showing off his ability to step outside and knock down jump shots. That might not be the role he plays with the National Team going forward, but he led the Blue Team with 22 points and seven rebounds. And after earning a gold medal as the 12th man on last year’s Olympic Team, he looks ready to take on a larger role for USA Basketball.

“As good as he was last year,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game, “he’s just stepped it up another couple of levels. And that was exciting to see. He got better throughout the week and put on a heck of a performance tonight.”

This was not a great environment to evaluate anybody’s readiness for international basketball. The two teams played with the international 3-point line and with FIBA officials, but not in a hostile environment or against international defenses. The pace was ridiculously fast (more than 100 possessions each in 48 minutes), with no savvy international guards stopping the U.S. fast breaks with timely fouls. Playing Spain in Madrid for the World Cup gold medal next summer would be an entirely different experience.

So Krzyzewski and USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo won’t be putting extra emphasis on these 48 minutes when determining who will be in their pool of players for the next three years. In fact, what may be more important is what these young players learn from this week and bring to their NBA teams in the fall.

“This was just another day in the life of our group,” Colangelo said. “We’re going to have a lot of time to evaluate the entire week, the game included. And we’re going to be watching each and every one them during the course of the season, because we have a lot of time on our side before we go forward.”

Still, in addition to Irving and Davis, there were a few players who likely enhanced their stock on Thursday, most of them on the winning White Team. Kenneth Faried and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist used their endless energy to put up solid numbers in minimal minutes. Jrue Holiday filled the boxscore with 12 points, seven rebounds and five assists. And Mike Conley and Ty Lawson proved to be a cohesive point-guard combo on the White Team’s second unit.

For the Blue Team, Harrison Barnes showed that he’s got the skills to be a small-ball (or international) four man, while Greg Monroe was solid inside with an ability to play off talented ball-handlers.

All of the above will certainly get serious consideration when Colangelo and Krzyzewski create a new pool of 25-28 players in January. From that pool, teams for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics will be selected, though names can always be added or removed from the list. The pool will be made up of players that participated in this week’s camp, USA Basketball veterans, and a few other players who couldn’t participate this week.

“It’s a very fluid pool,” Colangelo said. “Guys are going to keep developing.”

The experience they gained this week will surely help them do that.

Young Stars Look To Make An Impression At USA Basketball Showcase

 

LAS VEGAS – Summer hoops continues Thursday on NBA TV (9 p.m. ET) with the USA Basketball Showcase, the culmination of a four-day mini-camp that brought 28 young players into the program that has won two straight Olympic gold medals and 50 straight games.

USA Basketball Showcase – Blue Team
No. Player Pos
46 Harrison Barnes SF
36 DeMarcus Cousins C
42 Anthony Davis PF
41 DeMar DeRozan SG
37 Derrick Favors PF
31 Gordon Hayward SG
22 Damian Lillard PG
62 Greg Monroe PF
34 Klay Thompson SG
51 Dion Waiters SG
26 Kemba Walker PG
50 John Wall PG

Twenty-four of the *28 players will take the floor at the Thomas & Mack Center on Thursday, split into two teams that will be coached by Men’s Senior National Team assistants Tom Thibodeau and Monty Williams.

* Not participating: College players Doug McDermott and Marcus Smart, as well as the Bucks’ Larry Sanders (who turned his ankle in a scrimmage on Tuesday) and the Wizards’ Bradley Beal (who is rehabbing a right fibula injury and has only participated in drills).

With only 40 minutes of game action, the average player will see less than 17 minutes of playing time, which might make it tough for some to make a strong impression on USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo and head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who will be watching courtside.

But Colangelo and Krzyzewski won’t be making any roster selections in the wake of this mini-camp. The next step in the process will be to create a pool of 25-35 players from which to select teams for the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain *and the 2016 Olympics in Rio. That won’t happen until next Spring at the earliest and they will be keeping tabs on the entire group during the course of the 2013-14 NBA season.

* If the U.S. wins gold in Spain next summer, they automatically qualify for the Olympics and won’t need to send a team to the 2015 FIBA Americas tournament. If they don’t win gold next summer, they’ll need to field a team in 2015 and finish in the top two at the FIBA Americas tournament to qualify for the Olympics.

USA Basketball Showcase – White Team
No. Player Pos
24 Ryan Anderson PF
20 Mike Conley PG
25 Andre Drummond C
33 Kenneth Faried PF
29 Paul George SF
27 Jrue Holiday PG
23 Kyrie Irving PG
35 DeAndre Jordan C
32 Michael Kidd-Gilchrist SF
21 Ty Lawson PG
39 Chandler Parsons SF
28 Tyler Zeller C

That pool of 25-35 will be made up of USA Basketball veterans, players from this group and a few others that weren’t able to participate this week because of injuries. On Wednesday, Kevin Durant and Kevin Love — who each played in 2010 and 2012 — committed to playing next summer in Spain. And there will likely be other vets that join them.

So there are precious few roster spots available for the players at this camp. Many of them — though they’re stars with their NBA squads — will never play for the National Team. It’s a numbers game and Colangelo and Krzyzewski just have too much talent to choose from.

Of the 24 players who will see action on Thursday, three have the inside track to roster spots next summer. Paul George and Kyrie Irving are simply the best players in camp, while Anthony Davis has USA Basketball experience (at last year’s Olympics) and the skill set needed from U.S. bigs.

Seven of the 24, including Irving, are point guards, who could all be competing with Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Deron Williams for roster spots down the line. Though point guards also play shooting guard in this system, the wings and bigs we see on Thursday certainly have a better shot of making it to Spain or Rio.

This is still a tremendous opportunity for everyone involved, including fans who want to see some high-quality, competitive hoops in the middle of the summer. There’s no better basketball being played in July and even if they aren’t eventually selected for the National Team, these players are making the most of their week in Vegas.

“You just try to take as much advantage of it as you possibly can,” Chandler Parsons said, “learn from it, take it back to your city and try to have a good season next year.”

Point Guards Aplenty In USA Camp

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LAS VEGAS – There are 28 players in USA Basketball’s mini-camp this week, eight of which are point guards. And with shooting guard Bradley Beal not participating in scrimmages (because he’s still rehabbing a right fibula injury), those point guards will be spending time on the floor with one another.

In one scrimmage on the first day of camp, we saw Mike Conley and John Wall team up against Ty Lawson and Damian Lillard. Kemba Walker and Jrue Holiday played on the same team.

In speaking with NBA TV over the weekend, coach Mike Krzyzewski said that one of the things they’ll be looking at is how all the point guards mesh on the court and “adapt to a few different roles.”

Two-point-guard lineups aren’t just a necessity because of the numbers here in Vegas or even the lack of star shooting guards in the NBA. It’s a big part of the identity Krzyzewski and managing director Jerry Colangelo have developed with USA Basketball over the years. They stress speed and athleticism and that starts on defense, where the guards are asked to put pressure on opposing ball handlers. So we’ve seen Chris Paul and Deron Williams share the floor in the Olympics and Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook play together in the 2010 World Championship.

“We’ve all watched the Olympics,” Walker said Monday. “We’ve seen those guys play, so when we get out here, we know what time it is already.”

For some, playing alongside another point guard is no big deal. Lawson has played almost 2,000 minutes alongside Andre Miller with the Nuggets over the last two seasons. Pushing the ball at every opportunity is all he’s known playing under former Denver coach George Karl. Having played FIBA rules in Lithuania during the lockout, Lawson also knows the importance of on-ball defense.

“In the European game, it’s huge for pressure to be on the ball,” he said. “If not, they have a bunch of shooters, so they just come off and knock it down. Pressure’s huge. I’m not really used to it like this, but I’m getting used to it.”

For some of the others here, there’s an adjustment to not being the only point guard on the floor.

“Last season was my first time really doing it,” Conley said. “With Jerryd Bayless, Tony Wroten and those guys, I got to play off the ball a little bit. So I’m starting to get used to it. I’m still not all the way there, but it’s not my first time.

“The toughest part is being able to play without the ball. You got to learn where you get the ball, where you need to be, roll and replacing, getting spacing right and getting to the corners instead of always wanting the ball and needing the ball in your hands.”

Still, Conley knows what he’s doing when his fellow point guards kick the ball out to him on the perimeter.

“When I’m playing that off-guard, I’m thinking shoot first and pass second,” he said. “It puts me in a different mode, more of a scoring mode.”

And for Conley, the USA Basketball identity is a fun change of pace from the way he plays with the grit-and-grind Memphis Grizzlies.

“I love it,” he said. “Who knows? The Grizzlies might turn into that one day.”

More quotes from Monday…

  • Walker on playing with Holiday: “I’ve been around Jrue for a long time, since high school. I enjoyed it. It was cool to not be the only one having to make the plays.”
  • Conley on playing with Wall: “We’re pretty unselfish guys. We let whoever has the ball take it and the other person runs. We both like to get up and down, so it was fun to play alongside him.”
  • Lawson on Lillard: “He was killing today. You can see he’s been working on his games. His shot’s smooth. He’s a great player. I like playing with him.”
  • Lawson on the advice he’s received from the coaching staff: “Throughout practice, they were like, ‘Just play your game,’ because they saw me try to run plays and I guess they wanted to see what I can really do. So the last two games we played, I just started pushing it and felt a lot better. That’s what they wanted to see.”

Projecting The West Playoff Order



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HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Adding Dwight Howard to a Los Angeles Lakers team that was one of the top teams in the Western Conference was supposed to vault the Lakers into the championship elite last summer.

It never happened. Howard and Steve Nash failed to move the needle for the Lakers, who had to claw their way to a seventh seed in the playoff chase, only to be swept by the San Antonio Spurs.

So please forgive me for not crowning the Houston Rockets prematurely. They’ve got Howard in the fold now, adding the best big man in basketball to an explosive core that includes All-Star James Harden and a solid supporting cast.

Legitimate playoff outfit?

Absolutely.

But contenders … not so fast my friends.

They should be in the mix. And as coach Kevin McHale told NBA.com’s Fran Blinebury, they should be able to “play with anybody.” Playing with the best and beating the best come playoff time, however, are two very different things. Just ask the Los Angeles Clippers, who thought they had arrived last season and were disposed of in the first round of the playoffs.

We’ve already delivered our projections, based on what we know now, for the Eastern Conference playoff-chasers for the 2013-14 season. These are the projections for the Western Conference:

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

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Any suggestions that the Thunder would be better off without Russell Westbrook at the controls were answered in the playoffs. The Inside The NBA crew (above) knows as well as the rest of the NBA-watching masses. OKC was a shell of its regular-season selves without the All-Star point guard, who suffered a knee injury in their first-round series against Houston. Kevin Durant is a behemoth, the second best player in the league behind LeBron James, but no one superstar is going to climb the Western Conference mountain on his own. The Thunder are in a precarious position because all of their competitors seem to be making power moves to catch and surpass them. Without sufficient cap space to deal themselves, they have to rely on a rock-solid core group maintaining their respective positions. That means Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins have to show better than they did in the playoffs. Reggie Jackson has to play a more prominent role this season and appears to be ready for that. And Jeremy Lamb has to move into a regular spot in the rotation as well. Rookie Steven Adams, the 12th pick in the Draft, is more of a project right now. But the Thunder don’t need him to be an impact player. Not if everyone stays healthy and Westbrook returns to form.

SAN ANTONIO SPURS

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When training camp begins, the Spurs will probably still be answering questions about the championship they let slip away. Two 30-second intervals during Games 6 and 7 of The Finals got away from them and cost Tim Duncan title No. 5 and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili title No. 4. And make no mistake, that trio, and Duncan in particular, is the key to the Spurs getting back to that stage again. If Duncan can crank out another fountain-of-youth, All-NBA-type performance like he did this season, the Spurs have a shot to rule the Western Conference again. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green emerged during the playoffs as more than just young prospects. Leonard could be a legitimate All-Star candidate himself if he picks up where he left off in The Finals. The Spurs always find a way to mine the Draft and free agency for young talent to incorporate into their system. But they won’t need as much assistance with both Ginobili and Tiago Splitter sticking around in free agency. Keeping their biggest stars healthy and rested, something coach Gregg Popovich paid for dearly last season, is of the utmost importance. As long as they do that, a top-four spot in the playoff chase should be a given.

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

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With all apologies to Howard and even Chris Paul, the biggest fish of the free-agent summer of 2013 was coach Doc Rivers — not one of the players projected to be the big prize. The fact that Rivers was under contract for three more years in Boston when the summer began makes what the Clippers did even more remarkable. Not only do the Clippers get one of the best coaches in the game, they got a senior vice president of basketball operations who paid immediate dividends by keeping Paul in free agency and helped them add J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley in trades. They had to move backup Eric Bledsoe and veteran swingman Caron Butler to make it happen, but they replaced him with Darren Collison. And they still have the key component from that explosive bench crew in Jamal Crawford, whose role could increase dramatically without Butler, Chauncey Billups or retired veteran Grant Hill in the mix. The one glaring issue they have is their frontcourt tandem of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. They weren’t up to the challenge against the Grizzlies and it cost the Clippers in a first-round defeat. Are they willing to accept the challenge Doc will pose to them? He won’t allow them to be outworked on defense and will demand they show the toughness that has eluded them in the past.

HOUSTON ROCKETS

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Welcome to paradise Jeremy Lin. Now you can officially put Linsanity behind you and play the role of facilitator. The real superstars are on the roster now, as both Harden and Howard will be the opposition’s focus every night. Lin, Patrick Beverly and Chandler Parsons have clearly defined roles on this team before they ever hit the floor together in an official capacity. Howard makes life easier on all of the Rockets’ specialists and role players, not to mention his fellow starters. Guys like Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Greg Smith and even Omer Asik, should he stick around and back off his trade demand, will find out just how different life can be with a healthy, happy and motivated Howard operating in the middle. Despite two straight down seasons (by his own lofty standards), he still led the league in rebounding and looked like he had shaken off the ill effects of his back surgery. McHale has to pull this all together quickly to ensure these young Rockets don’t get swallowed up by the expectations sure to come with their newfound celebrity.

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

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Adding Andre Iguodala essentially at the expense of Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack, two key veterans who gave the Warriors superior bench production and quality locker room leadership, might not seem like a steep price to pay for some. But when you already have Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes on the roster … let’s just say that is a luxury most teams wouldn’t indulge this early in the process of trying to build a contender. The Warriors showed us some serious flashes of being a big-time player in the Western Conference for years to come with the work they did in the playoffs. They had the Spurs plenty nervous in the conference semifinals. But their shortcomings came back to bite them in the end. And they didn’t solve those issues in the Draft or free agency. Andrew Bogut and David Lee will have loads of work to do this season, provided they both make it to training camp. Both of their names surfaced in trade rumors leading up to the Draft and through the first week of free agency. Lee is an All-Star and, when healthy, an absolute force. But Bogut, due to injuries, has only shown glimpses of what he’s capable of. And at this stage of his career, a $14 million spot starter is certainly not a luxury the Warriors can afford.

MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

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How important was Lionel Hollins to the Grizzlies during their run to the Western Conference finals? We’re going to find out this season. Because for all of the promise Dave Joerger brings to the position, there is no denying the impact Hollins made on Zach Randolph and reigning Kia Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol. And even Hollins couldn’t get them in a comfortable groove against the Spurs. The Thunder proved that nothing is guaranteed from one season to the next, not with injuries and the race for the top spot being as competitive as it has ever been in the rugged Western Conference. Bringing this group — Mike Conley, Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince, too — back intact might not be sufficient for returning to the Larry O’Brien final four tournament. The Grizzlies didn’t have the flexibility to tinker with the roster in free agency. The one change they could have made that could shake things up was to replace Hollins. By doing so with a guy who is familiar with this roster gives them some advantage that a completely fresh face would not have recognized. It won’t take long to see if Joerger has a handle on those intangibles. And if he does, the Grizzlies will climb this list.

DENVER NUGGETS

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The Nuggets will survive a tumultuous offseason that struck three significant blows to a team that seemed to be on the rise before yet another first-round playoff exit. The NBA’s Executive of the Year, Masai Ujiri, bolted for Toronto. The league’s Coach of the Year, George Karl, was relieved of his duties. And Iguodala is set to be signed and traded after agreeing to terms on that deal with the Warriors. That would normally be enough to knock a top team all the way back down to the lottery. The best move they’ve made so far this summer was hiring Brian Shaw to replace Karl. He’ll bring a steady hand to what was a shaky situation. The Nuggets will have an active and talented frontocurt rotation to work with in Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee, Darrell Arthur and free-agent pickup J.J. Hickson. Wilson Chandler will step in for Danilo Gallinari, who continues his recovery from knee surgery, and Evan Fournier, Corey Brewer and Randy Foye will provide depth on the wing. Ty Lawson and Andre Miller combined to form one of the league’s best 1-2 punches at point guard and they should be allowed plenty of freedom to operate in the system Shaw will employ. The Nuggets will continue to play at a tempo that suits their talent and home environment. They shouldn’t lose anything defensively either. Shaw isn’t the wild card that some of these other new coaches (Jason Kidd, Brad Stevens) could be in other situations. So don’t expect the Nuggets to crumble just because they’ve lost a few familiar faces.

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

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No team endured more maddening injury issues this season than the Timberwolves. A healthy Kevin Love, however, changes their playoff outlook dramatically for the 2013-14 season. With their talent and dept, a legitimate run for the final playoff spot is not as far-fetched as it might seem. Ricky Rubio should be full healthy this season and the Timberwolves retained Chase Budinger, added Kevin Martin and have to do whatever it takes to keep restricted free agent Nikola Pekovic in the fold. Sure, it’s been a professional sports eternity since the Timberwolves last breathed playoff air (Kevin Garnett was still wearing the uniform in 2004). But coach Rick Adelman finally has the horses to make some serious noise. The franchise’s new head man, Flip Saunders, was the coach of that 2004 team that made the Western Conference finals, so he knows exactly what it takes for a Minnesota crew to cash in on its promise. It starts with Love and Rubio, their two biggest stars, staying healthy and playing up to their immense potential, both individually and as a dynamic duo.

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