It’s been awhile since I’ve done one of these! Thanks for the questions. If you want this to be a regular thing I can certainly make that happen. With podcasts coming out on Tuesday and Friday, Wednesday feels like a good day for an interactive article like a mailbag.
Let’s get down to business:
Are we going to have enough game time with a full squad before playoffs come? I don’t understand how players can be banged up after having months off— Josh Tempany (@joshtemps) August 4, 2020
This is the ultimate question of the bubble for the Denver Nuggets so far, who have taken a lot of flak from fans publicly for Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Will Barton not being ready to play after a long off period.
I have a different view. One of the biggest concerns from players about a potential NBA restart was injury risk. Not just the coming together in an environment full of coronavirus in Florida or potentially neglecting a massively important social justice movement. Injuries were one of the top concerns of players when signing up for a return to play. These guys are machines, and they aren’t wired to ramp up and play playoff caliber basketball in August. That’s why the players requested an extended ramp-up period for conditioning and health purposes before actually playing some games.
And after all of that, Jonathan Isaac tore his ACL and Jaren Jackson Jr. tore his meniscus, sidelining both for the remainder of the bubble season and potentially all of next season as well. Isaac was in line for a possible contract extension with the Orlando Magic and was playing excellent basketball before sustaining another knee injury. Now, he’s going to lose a lot of money and may never be the same again.
Soft tissue injuries were the biggest concern for NBA players returning to the bubble, and when it comes to Murray, Harris, and Barton, Denver is suffering in that regard. They are taking the time with Murray, as hamstrings become a nagging injury that could seriously impact him in a playoff series. From what we’ve gathered, Harris and Barton are also dealing with some other serious things. It’s likely they will be ready when the playoffs begin in a couple of weeks, but if the injuries don’t heal in time...they don’t heal in time. Both have dealt with similar injuries in the past, so being cautious is the right approach no matter what.
How important is getting the 3rd seed vs seeds 4-6 for the Nuggets?— Greger Peterson (@GregerPeterson) August 4, 2020
I’ve gone back and forth on this. It’s a good question. It really comes down to how you feel about the Nuggets facing certain matchups in the first and second rounds of the playoffs. As the playoff picture currently stands, the Nuggets are at 3, the Rockets are at 4, the Jazz are at 5, and the Thunder are at 6. If that’s how the matchups happen in the playoffs, then keeping the 3 seed would be great. The Nuggets match up well with the Thunder, and no matter what happens, they have no answer for the best versions of Michael Porter Jr. and Nikola Jokic. If the Nuggets drop down to 4 or 5, a matchup with the Rockets becomes more dicey, while a matchup with the Jazz might be even easier than the Thunder.
The Nuggets will be challenged in any first round playoff series, but the biggest difference between being the 3 seed and being 4 or 5 would come in the second round. The Lakers will face the winner of the 4/5 matchup, and the Clippers will (most likely) face the winner of the 3/6 matchup. Take your pick on which team makes life tougher for the Nuggets. Both have great arguments.
But beyond a different second round matchup, the difference between the 3 seed and the 4 or 5 seed is negligible.
When they get healthy should MPJ still start? If so who moves to the bench?— *Jordan Scott (@jordandan53) August 4, 2020
I think so. Given the injury concerns that Denver’s starters on the wing have faced along with the trajectory of this Nuggets team, I think the right thing to do is to pencil in Michael Porter Jr. as a starter.
That decision may not sit right with a lot of people. Will Barton and Gary Harris have earned their positions over several years of dedication, hard work, and doing things the right way. Handing the job to a rookie after his first big game in a starting role seems disingenuous to the culture of the team.
But Michael Porter Jr. isn’t an ordinary rookie, as corny as that sounds. In a year where Zion Williamson and Ja Morant are putting up historic performances as rookies, Porter’s last game was the single highest point scoring performance for any rookie in the 2019-20 season in his third ever start. He’s developing faster than anyone thought he would, and cultivating that talent is the best thing the Nuggets can do for their championship dreams now and in the future.
Who does he replace? I’m not sure. That decision for Michael Malone may be even more agonizing. Both Harris and Barton have given their all to this team, and whoever starts may come down to who’s the most ready to contribute physically in a playoff environment. Malone loves to have a defensive guard out there to match up with elite perimeter talent, which would seem to favor Harris. Barton has been the better player this season though, and having dynamic options offensively makes the Nuggets vastly more difficult to guard in a playoff setting.
Either way, this may be the most difficult decision Malone has ever had to make, and it’s one of many reasons I have a lot of respect for him. This has major ramifications now and in the future. I’m just talking about basketball.
National media talks as if it is a surety that Grant will opt out. Given the expected decrease in the salary cap due to COVID-19 is it really a sure thing? He's been ok this season but its hardly been star turn for him.— Take that L on the way out (@WarandMayhem) August 4, 2020
Jerami Grant previously stated on Yahoo Sports’ Posted Up Podcast with Chris Haynes that he was considering his player option in the offseason. Here’s a direct quote from Grant on his upcoming free agency:
“Being a potential free agent this upcoming summer, like you said, just playing to the level I’ve been playing at, surprising a lot of people and things like that, I definitely [think about where] I’m going to next season, whether it’s [coming] back or not.”
Grant isn’t locked into Denver. He wants to (rightfully) cash in his next paycheck, and he wants to be a starter. Grant served as Denver’s sixth man this season and is quite capable of performing at starter level going forward, analytics too heavily focused on individual rebounding be damned. As a 26-year-old heading into the prime of his career, Grant will be courted by several teams this offseason even if the salary cap goes down. He’s a versatile weapon with very few players like him, and he’s going to levy that.
If the cap goes down too far, there’s always a chance he opts back in and earns a guaranteed $9.3 million next season; however, it’s a risky proposition. He will want whatever long term security he can get, and opting out of the player option is the best way to find that.
Are the players treating the playoffs like the NBA Championship this year will have an asterisk?— Arlo Panexflax (@Therealejason) August 4, 2020
The competitive nature of the games in the bubble is probably the most pleasant surprise of the entire event. Every game has had a degree of intensity, save for the real blowouts, and kicking out the worst teams in the league has made the rest of the field that much more of an upper class. Bubble teams like the Phoenix Suns and Portland Trail Blazers are performing at a higher level than some playoff teams, including the Nuggets so far. Their stars, Devin Booker and Damian Lillard, are treating the games like life or death. That has raised the collective level of everyone around them.
As for the asterisk talk, the players don’t believe in that, especially the stars. Giannis Antetokounmpo called the 2020 NBA title the “toughest championship you could ever win.” To me, he’s right. The bubble has created new challenges for teams, but they are the same challenges every team has to face. The asterisk discussion won’t come into play until later if something wild happens. If the Los Angeles Lakers or Los Angeles Clippers win the championship, you best believe the national media will give credit to the winner.
Unless the bubble is seriously impacted by coronavirus or something else that changes the entire game, this title will be treated like a true competitive accomplishment.
If we extract only those minutes when Nikola is putting the team on his back by creating havoc in the paint, who is a better player than that?— *Miroslav Ćuk (@mcukmf) August 4, 2020
Every superstar has that next gear when they elevate their entire team when it needs it the most. For most stars, the perimeter is where they find their mark. Creating shots from three-point range or the midrange is something that the majority of stars excel in. Jokic, as you allude to, does much of his work on the interior.
Let’s start with the entire floor though. According to Basketball Reference, there were 84 players to attempt at least 50 shots with less than five minutes to go in the fourth quarter and/or overtime. Jokic ranks 13th in that group in field goal attempts, 17th in field goal percentage, and 29th in effective field goal percentage. In clutch time, Jokic has really struggled with his three-ball this year, shooting just 29.6% which ranks 57th out of 84 players (Kawhi Leonard ranks 56th, James Harden ranks 58th, and Bradley Beal ranks 59th in three-point percentage though, so Jokic isn’t alone).
Boiling things down to two-point range, Jokic ranks fifth in the NBA in total clutch two-point attempts this season, behind only DeMar DeRozan, Trae Young, Zach LaVine, and Donovan Mitchell. Jokic’s two-point percentage of 55.8% is the best of all of those guys, and among all qualified players (min. 50 total field goal attempts) Jokic’s 2P% ranks 24th.
Basically, the players with the best combination of efficiency and volume in the clutch from two-point range are De’Aaron Fox, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Ja Morant, Spencer Dinwiddie, Andrew Wiggins (!!!) and Jokic. Joker is the only big man on that list, though Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns would be on there. Surprisingly, Anthony Davis is not. His two-point percentage of 41.8% ranks 68th out of 84 qualified players, not something you’d expect from a First Team All-NBA “center.”