Charting Nikola Jokic’s imminent rise to superstardom

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Clippers

 

December 15th, 2016.

This date appears bound to go down as one of the most important in Nuggets history – the date that Nikola Jokic was, once and for all, installed as Denver’s starting center, the pivotal date which changed everything not only for the current season, but likely for many years to come.

Nearly overnight, the Nuggets’ offense transformed into one of the league’s best, as Jokic essentially assumed the role of point center and the nexus through which everything flowed. Indeed, for much of the time since Dec. 15, Denver’s offensive rating was the NBA’s highest, and has only recently slipped to second at 133.8, with Golden State having moved ahead to first at 114.4. And it seems entirely likely that the Nuggets would have maintained that top spot had it not been for their recent rash of injuries taking out up to six players at a time, including more than half of their starters.

Much has rightfully been made of Big Honey’s exquisite playmaking, how dramatically better he makes his teammates when they share the floor with him, his improved 3-point shooting, and his hyper-efficient mid-range game – he currently has the ninth-best 2-point shooting percentage (.617) among qualified players while taking a full 48% of his shot attempts from 3 feet out to the 3-point arc.

But there are some who posit that Jokic may already have either hit or approached his ceiling, in large part due to his limited athleticism, his slow lateral speed, and the fact that he is not the type of center who powers the ball up to posterize his defenders, or to swat the ball into the second level on defense. And this concern (or criticism in some cases) is not without valid reasoning, as historically some of Jokic’s limitations have reliably served as red flags for low upside.

Considering this question of Jokic’s ceiling, it is worth exploring the trajectory of his development this season. Obviously, his outright production is up from the beginning of the season, as dramatically highlighted by his recent 40-point game and two triple-doubles. But then, that could just be in large part a product of the increased minutes that came with the starting job and his ability to reduce the foul trouble he was getting into in December.

So below we are going to take a look at his progress over the course of this season in three areas – rebounds, assists, and 3-point shooting. But first it is important to locate these within the context of usage. One legitimate criticism of the PER (Player Efficiency Rating) stat is that its usefulness decreases for players with limited minutes and usage rates. So while we might note that Jokic has improved from a PER of 21.5 his rookie season to 26.5 in this current campaign, the rookie value might not carry much weight considering he didn’t play too many minutes (21.7 per game), and his usage rate of 19.9, while not too low, was comparatively modest. As a more extreme example, Jarnell Stokes, who played just two games with the Nuggets this season, is third in the NBA in PER at 31.6, edging out Russell Westbrook (29.5), Kawhi Leonard (28.2), and James Harden (27.6).

To provide a sort of framework for understanding where Nikola Jokic fits into a broader historical context of NBA centers in their differentials in usage rate and PER from their rookie seasons to their sophomore seasons, I prepared the chart below.

nba-centers-diff-in-usg-pct-per-from-rook-to-soph-seasons

As you can see, Jokic – with significant increases in both usage rate and PER – is in some (mostly) elite company, residing in similar territory as Shaquille O’Neal and Anthony Davis.

It is critical to note here that this chart only shows each player’s individual improvement, and so players located near each other improved to a similar degree, but not necessarily with similar stats. So for example, while Andrew Bynum and DeMarcus Cousins are in similar territory in that they are among the centers whose PER increased the most from their first to second years, Bynum’s increased from 7.4 to 15.4, while Boogie’s increased from 14.6 to 21.7.  So we need to be cautious in our interpretations here.

In this case, however, Jokic’s improvement in PER from 21.5 to 26.5 really is quite close to that of Davis (from 21.7 to 26.5) and just slightly below that of Shaq (from 22.9 to 28.5). So with this particular set their close proximity on the chart is also reflected in their underlying numbers.

The more important takeaway here, however, is the larger trend, where centers who went on to have more successful careers in the NBA tend to be firmly in the upper-right quadrant, with positive correlations between increase in both usage rate and PER. (Marc Gasol and DeAndre Jordan, whose pace of early development was a bit slower, are two notable exceptions). At the same time, those centers who did not go on to become star players tend to lie outside that quadrant.

Basically this speaks to the players who delivered on their star potential actually being able to increase their efficiency while at the same time taking on a heavier workload. This tends to be what separates the cream of the crop from the multitude of serviceable, but average to below average backup bigs logging around 15 to 18 minutes a game on benches around the league.

Important to Jokic’s case, however, is that not only has he taken a leap from last season to his current campaign, he has been on a trajectory of continual improvement before our very eyes. Looking at the context of usage rate from a slightly different angle, we can see that Jokic’s usage has been (more or less) steadily on the rise.

201617-jokic-usage-rate

And again, the question here should be, as his minutes and usage have increased, has he been able to simultaneously improve on his efficiency as well?

The great news for the Denver Nuggets and their fans is that the answer here is a resounding “yes.”

And at this point I will sign off on this text portion of the post, since prefaced by everything above, the three remaining charts below pretty much speak for themselves.

But the bottom line is this: If Jokic actually does have a low ceiling or limited upside, someone forgot to tell him about it. Because he just keeps crashing through to higher levels of efficiency and production at a frankly mind-boggling pace.

And given that, and the fact that he is already legitimately playing elite-caliber basketball, even if we start to see things plateau fairly soon (as they inevitably will at some point), Jokic will already have become the Nuggets’ next superstar player.

Rebounds per game / rebounds per 36 minutes

2016-17-jokic-rebperg-rebper36

Assists per game / assists per 36 minutes

2016-17-jokic-astperg-astper36

3-point shooting percentage

201617-jokic-3-point-percentage

(All stats in this article from NBA.com/stats and Basketball-Reference.com.)

 

The Nuggets should explore trading Nurkic for Ibaka

ibaka

For the Denver Nuggets, the new dawn of the Nikola Jokic era – and the success and excitement it has brought the team – has meant that things are mostly looking up in ways they haven’t seen in years.

But not everybody is happy.

From pointed statements to despondent body language to lackadaisical play on the court, Jusuf Nurkic has made it abundantly clear that he will not be satisfied continuing to come off the bench in limited minutes as backup center to Jokic.

And although this dissatisfaction has not escalated to the point where it is disrupting locker room harmony, it does put a measure of pressure on Denver to look for trade options by the February 23 trade deadline. And indeed, although it’s unclear whether his “sources” come from within the Pepsi Center or from outside the Nuggets organization, ESPN’s Marc Stein reports:

Sources told ESPN that the Nuggets — having acknowledged that it’s difficult to accommodate both Nurkic and Nikola Jokic in the same frontcourt — have made Nurkic available and are searching out deals that would give him the Bosnian big man an opportunity to go elsewhere and start anew.

However, as a skilled young big man on a rookie contract, Nurkic remains one of Denver’s more valuable assets, and Tim Connelly’s front office is unlikely to let him go without asking for significant value back in return.

Enter the Orlando Magic, who are coming up on a big man dilemma of their own. According to Sean Deveney of Sporting News:

League sources told Sporting News that the Magic have picked up their attempts to move Ibaka ahead of next month’s trade deadline, eager to ensure that they come away with some return for a player who does not figure to be in Orlando long… And while the Magic want to save face on a deal for Ibaka, sources said the team has been aggressive in testing the trade market… Center Nikola Vucevic is also a potential trade target.

Yet Orlando appears to be struggling to find teams willing to pay the steep return they are asking for:

“They’re asking too much,” one front office executive said. “(The Magic) would probably like to make a few moves there, but Ibaka is the one they’re really pushing because he is going to leave. But they have had too high a price. They want a young player and a pick, two young players — you know, a package that can get them back some assets. They’re not going to get that. Not for three, maybe four months of Serge Ibaka.”

So with the possibility of the Magic moving Vucevic also on the table, would they consider Nurkic a sufficiently appealing asset in exchange for Ibaka? And just as importantly, would the Nuggets consider “three, maybe four months” of Ibaka – with the hope of re-signing him as a free agent this summer, but the risk of losing him for nothing – a gamble worth taking?

At the very least, it seems like a prospect worthy of exploration for both teams. Realistically, Orlando seems unlikely to land a trade package worth much more than Nurkic’s value would represent.

And for the Nuggets, the possibility of adding Ibaka as a player who can both back up and play alongside Jokic could be a high risk, high reward venture that might  pay off big dividends if they were able to retain Ibaka on a longer-term contract.

But how much would Denver have to dole out for such a contract?

According to Eric Pincus of Basketball Insiders, “The projected maximum salaries for 2017-18, based on a $102 million cap, would near $24 million for players with less than seven years of experience, $28.8 million with seven to nine and $33.5 million for those with 10 years or more.”

On Ibaka’s current four-year contract, he is making on average about 20 percent of the salary cap, which next year would be about $21.5 million. And as Ibaka will be entering his ninth season, a maximum contract for him would be nearly $29 million. So while he will certainly be looking for that maximum (and in the environment of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, he just might get it), it appears likely that his next contract will end up in the $22-29 million range.

Would the Nuggets, with extensions for Jokic, Jamal Murray, and other young rookie and sophomore prospects on the horizon, want to dish out that kind of dough for a player who will have just turned 28 before the start of next season?

At the very least, they’ll be much more likely to have the option of doing so if he has already played with the team and been a part of the organization for several months than if they just went after him cold in free agency.

As for this season, Ibaka’s current $12.25 million salary would also bring the Nuggets’ payroll up above the salary floor.

Another consideration is that Danilo Gallinari will most likely opt out this summer, and there is no guarantee he will re-sign with the Nuggets either. By landing Ibaka, it could increase their odds of at least retaining one or the other.

Importantly, it could also be a worthwhile experiment purely in basketball terms. Ibaka does seem ideally suited to play alongside Jokic, with his ability to hit 3-pointers (at a .383 clip this season) and space the floor on offense, and protect the rim (2.4 blocks per game this season) on defense (via Basketball-Reference.com). Even if Ibaka didn’t stick around, if the chemistry experiment was a success it could be a valuable learning exercise in how to effectively build a team around Nikola Jokic.

And while this might further complicate the frontcourt logjam, it could also provide additional options for solving it this summer.

Beyond that, the Nuggets are clearly gunning for the playoffs at this point. Adding a player of Ibaka’s caliber and, presumably, fit with the team would only help to boost their chances of securing a postseason berth. With that, and the media attention and hype that would come with Ibaka’s arrival the excitement generated among the fan base would help refill the Pepsi Center, and Denver’s visible commitment to being competitive would hopefully make them a more attractive destination for free agents.

A Nurkic for Ibaka trade would not be a guaranteed ace in the hole for the Nuggets, but the potential upside carries enough appeal that this could be the right time for Denver to take a swing at the fences.

The Jamal Murray minutes dilemma

jamal-murray-dunks-on-david-lee-mp4_snapshot_00-18_2017-01-21_20-24-40

In recent weeks, Nikola Jokic has rightfully been all the rage, as he seems to raise his ceiling – and along with it, Nuggets fans’ hopes for the future – higher and higher every single time he sets foot on the court.

But it wasn’t too long ago that a different player had claimed the mantle as Denver’s most exciting player. After early season injuries temporarily sidelined both Gary Harris and Will Barton, Jamal Murray was thrust sooner than expected into a larger role, and erupted for a series of electrifying performances, in the process earning the NBA’s Western Conference Rookie of the Month honors for November, and quickly building a convincing case for legitimate star potential.

But the return of Harris and Barton spelled relegation to a deeper bench role for Murray, who despite being the only one of Denver’s three rookies to consistently crack the regular rotation, has seen his minutes drop from 24.1 per game in November to 18.9 in December, and 15.5 in January.

The question of how much playing time Murray should be getting is in many ways a microcosm of the broader debate over whether it would be best this season for the Nuggets to shoot for making the playoffs – where the realistic best case scenario is a likely four-and-out loss to the Warriors – or to remain in quasi-rebuilding mode for one more season, and prioritize youth development and obtaining a higher draft pick by trading or benching veterans over striving to be competitive in the short term.

I believe there are a lot of extremely valid arguments to be made on both sides of this dispute, and at any rate it is not my intention to relitigate it here. But suffice it to say that from Kroenke to Connelly to Malone and most of the players, the messaging out of the Pepsi Center has been consistent and clear: Whether or not it’s their ideal course of action, the Nuggets want to win games, and they want to meet their goal, oft-repeated since well before the start of the season, of making the playoffs.

In that context, Malone’s decision to scale back Murray’s minutes – which I’ve seen described on Twitter as insane, inexplicable, idiotic, and a host of other not-too-flattering adjective – can at the very least be said to have an objective logical justification:

Purely in terms of winning or losing games, the Nuggets have had more success when Murray has played fewer minutes.

In the 21 games in which Jamal Murray has played 18 or more minutes, the Nuggets have gone 7-14 (.333), compared to 10-9 (.526) when he played less than 18 minutes.

Now before you break out the tar and feathers, let me make it explicitly clear that I do not think Murry is the primary (or even secondary or tertiary) cause for this phenomenon, and I highly doubt Malone does, either. It has a lot, first and foremost, to do with Murray playing bigger minutes during the failed “Jurkic” Bosnian buddy ball experiment on the negative side, and on the positive how much Mudiay has benefited from his chemistry alongside Harris and Jokic in the starting lineup. There’s a lot more to it than that, of course, but the point is that much of it Murray should receive neither the blame or credit for.

What it really comes down to is the fact that over the last month, as Malone has finally unlocked the Nuggets offense by running it through Jokic as the sole center and primary facilitator, Murray has simply not been an integral part of the equation.

Should he be? Hell yes.

In time.

But as important as Murray’s development is, and as frustrating as it’s been for fans (and I count myself among them) who understandably want to see Murray be given more of a chance to shine, it is difficult, at least short term, to fault Malone for rolling with the approach that basically saved the entire season from skidding off the cliff.

Which is definitely not to say that Malone is beyond criticism, or that he hasn’t made mistakes, including some major ones. But I can empathize with the fact that he wants to win games, and he’s going with what has been working best so far.

But “so far” is only up to this point, and there is a lot of season left.

And going forward, while it may be understandable that developing Murray had to take a back seat to salvaging the season, one of Malone’s top priorities needs to be finding effective ways to create a larger role for Murray within the context of this newfound offense, and incorporate him more deeply into the fold.

One of the most compelling reasons for increasing Murray’s playing time is that, in contrast to the overall team performance which has been worse when Murray has played more, Jamal himself has played considerably better when given more burn:

murrays-minutes

As you can see, his scoring efficiency, outright scoring production, and on-court plus-minus all decline dramatically when he has played fewer minutes. Again, just as above it was important to caution that he not be blamed for the Nuggets losing more when he plays more minutes, the correlation between minutes and performance in the chart above does not necessarily point to a causal relationship. Murray could have just hit his freshman wall. Or he could thrive better in a more iso-oriented offensive mode which is inconsistent with the ball-sharing, ball-movement direction things have gone in with Jokic at the helm.

In other words, Murray may well have a hard time returning to his November magic even if the same kind of playing time comes his way.

But there are at least two reasons to be hopeful about all of this.

One is that Jamal Murray is a smart, adaptable player, and a student of the game. If Malone starts boosting his playing time and integrating him more thoroughly, I am confident he will be able to find ways be more effective and develop better chemistry in that context.

And the other is that Malone does appear to be genuinely concerned and excited about developing his young players, as evidenced by working to get Jokic on track, a process which included a very public admission of making a mistake in underestimating how adversely “Jurkic” would affect Jokic, and taking responsibility for it.

And so I think – and hope – what we will see as the season progresses, is now that the new offense is established, Malone will be looking for ways to increase opportunities for Murray, and to make his development a higher priority again even while keeping the focus on staying competitive.

My initial reaction to Rogue One – MAJOR SPOILERS!!!

rogue_one

My initial reaction to Rogue One – MAJOR SPOILERS!!!

Just in case you missed the all-caps warning in the title, please take note:

This post contains MAJOR SPOILERS to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

…so if you want to avoid them, stop reading and get the hell out of here!

Okay, you’ve been warned…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still here? Okay, well first off you may be wondering why I’m posting about Star Wars in my Denver Nuggets blog. Well, the answer to that is simply that I wanted to post them someplace and this is about the only place I’ve got to do it which (unlike, say, Facebook) allows me to include spoilers and give fair warning about it. That’s it.

Okay, so on to Rogue One… Where to begin?

I guess with the obvious, which is the bang-up job they did with Tarkin and Leia. As I myself was trying my best to avoid spoilers, and I just got done watching my first (but certainly not my only) viewing of the movie, I still don’t know the details of how they did it. Obviously, it was some combination of computer graphics, audio editing, live acting on the set, studio voice work, and probably other things. But all that is secondary to the fact that both characters were entirely convincing, and I think on future viewings after the initial surprise factor has worn off, will mesh seamlessly with their Episode IV original counterparts.

Sticking with visuals, that same seamless flow between this story and the next is really made possible by the exquisitely detailed work done on this picture to get the look of practically every visual element in absolutely perfect accordance with the original Star Wars. From the costume and ship design, to the look and feel of Yavin Base and the Death Star and Star Destroyer interiors, to the kinetic action of the X-Wing and TIE Fighter battles, to the Rebel pilot and Stormtrooper banter, they really nailed it, and clearly a ton of work went into making sure that they got just about everything along those lines just right. Throughout most of the movie, it did, for the most part, feel like that beloved Star Wars galaxy far, far away that the prequel trilogy largely failed to recapture.

For the most part, but not entirely. And the most outstanding reason for that was the glaring absence of a John Williams score. Now that is certainly not to knock the work done by Michael Giacchino, who obviously had Rancor-sized shoes to fill, and did as commendable a job as could be expected. Still, it just wasn’t the same atmospherically. Which isn’t his fault, as it is to be expected – and respected – that he wasn’t just knocking off Williams but instead worked to create his own original compositions. And the movie was intended to be at least in part a departure from The Saga in both storyline and tone, which is consistent with having a different musical environment as well. But in so many ways, John Williams’ music defines the texture and feel and emotional quality of what Star Wars is, and so the difference was palpable at times.

But man, it is hard to make too big a deal out of that when we were getting full-on balls-to-the-wall Star Wars action with blasters, Star Destroyers, AT-ATs, X-Wings (and I have to say the U-Wing is perhaps my favorite ship design of any of the post-OT movies), cool aliens and droids, new planets and worlds that looked lived in and worn… For nearly the whole movie, I felt like I was very much at home in the familiar Star Wars universe, just with a few tweaks here and there.

The story itself was solid and tight. I did have the benefit of reading Catalyst, the Rogue One pre-story novel, prior to seeing the movie, which definitely helped flesh out the details of the Erso family history and a subtext of motivations and psychological profiles of Galen Erso, Orson Krennic and Governor Tarkin. But even without that the movie did a good job of presenting them all in a way that made reading the book unnecessary, and the plot didn’t get bogged down with, say, trade negotiations or political disputes. The pace moved along quickly and the dots connected logically and neatly. I imagine some might consider it too neatly, but it worked for me.

My biggest criticism with Rogue One is that the dialogue got a bit rough at times. Chirrut Imwe’s incessant Force incantations were laid on entirely too thick; the theme of HOPE was sappily reiterated to an almost eye-rolling degree; and Vader’s “Don’t choke on your own aspirations” line was way too corny and on the nose, undercutting the more potently dramatic effect that scene might otherwise have had. It wasn’t all bad, and sometimes the callbacks worked, as with the aforementioned classic banter (it was nice to hear the T-15 get a hat tip), and in parts of the movie the light, sarcastic back-and-forths were effective in capturing a Star Wars-ian feeling. But in a movie in which much was done very well, the dialogue does stand out as one area where it fell short.

The acting itself was fine. As with most Star Wars movies, it tilted toward the earnest side and nobody will be winning any Oscars, but the lead actors (especially Diego Luna) held up their end of the bargain well enough, although I don’t feel, at least on a first viewing, that any of them really hit it out of the park like Daisy Ridley did with Rey in The Force Awakens.

Finally I should mention all the references and call backs, of which I’m sure I missed many. Having Red 5 get shot down (thus, presumably opening up that slot for Luke) was a well thought-out detail. Dr. Evazan was the perfect side character for a call back, as he (including his voice) is so recognizable, and is the kind of character that does get around the galaxy (as we know since he has the death sentence on twelve systems). The brief display of Artoo and Threepio was mercifully understated. And the sole appearance of the lightsaber in what is arguably the most kick-ass outing of Darth Vader ever put on screen was just delightful. Like I said, I’m sure there are a ton more I didn’t catch, but they were mostly done tastefully and smartly, even space Jimmy Smits and Mon Mothma talking Obi-Wan and Leia without mentioning their names.

Additionally, very little about this movie dramatically altered our understanding of Original Trilogy events, which is a good thing. The only major exception (unless I missed others) is the insertion of the plot point that Galen Erso intentionally and secretly designed the Death Star’s ultimately fatal flaw into its architecture for the Rebels to exploit later. I’m still on the fence about this one. On the one hand, it feels like it takes something away from the original movie’s presentation of the Death Star defect, especially in light of Tarkin’s hubristic refusal to recognize it, as a symbol of the cracks of weakness which will always appear in the seemingly impenetrable armor of authoritarian systems, of their very unsustainability. But then again, even if the flaw was added subversively rather than it being an Imperial mistake, in either case the inability or unwillingness of the Empire to identify it or acknowledge its potentially destructive power is a critical oversight that leads to their own undoing, which would leave the fundamental dynamics less altered than they might appear.

But overall, I am satisfied with Rogue One – for what it is – and I don’t think that will change too much on subsequent viewings. I mainly had a blast watching it, and if there were a few slightly off-putting moments here or there, they were vastly out-shadowed by the pure, unbridled joy of what seemed like the imagination of a kid playing with his Star Wars toys projected onto the big IMAX screen in 3D (which, by the way, is definitely how the movie should be seen).

Quite honestly, I had lowered my expectations for Rogue One based partly on the trailers and partly on rumors (and confirmed stories) of production troubles, and as such, I was, again for the most part, happily surprised. Was it perfect? No, but it was a hell of a lot of fun, and for the 85-90% of it that they got right, I can forgive the few schlocky moments – none of which were even remotely as cringe-worthy as “Yippee!” or “Wizard!” or “I hate sand” or every single frame which Jar-Jar Binks was in.

My current rankings, which are always subject to change:

Star Wars

Empire

Return of the Jedi

The Force Awakens

Rogue One

Revenge of the Sith

Attack of the Clones

The Phantom Menace

Game Notes: #Heat at #Nuggets 11/30/2016

Game Notes: #Heat at #Nuggets 11/30/2016 – Denver is Diagnosable

nurkic

I missed this game live, and now it’s about six hours after it ended. But I have successfully avoided finding out the score, so what follows are my notes on the game as I simulate a live viewing of it after the fact. Here we go…

1st Quarter

10:37 Gallo back from injury. Was at the perimeter, about to go iso, wisely runs a P&R with Jameer instead, and Nelson drains the 3. Great to have Gallo back, but biggest concern is that it’ll mean the ball starts sticking. Good to see it didn’t there, something to watch going forward.

10:14 Dragic has Gallo switched to him at the perimeter, nice D by Danilo.

9:26 GREAT chase-down block by Faried leads to Denver ball and Mudiay sinks the open mid-range jumper.

8:58 Whiteside’s foot speed >>> Nurk’s footspeed. Puts nice post move on him for the layup & 1 (missed).

8:11 Mudiay drives past his man, SLAMS down the two-handed dunk. More finishes like that, please, Emmanuel.

6:53 Nurk not having the greatest game so far. Gets the ball taken away by McBob extending his dribble out pretty far on a post-up.

6:04 Dragic pump fake has Nurkic looking like a statue. Malone really ought to sub in Jokic by now.

5:41 Hate to keep harping on Nurkic, but he TOTALLY fell asleep at the wheel and didn’t even try to get over and protect the rim when Dragic Iso’d on Mudiay, drove past him, and then had nothing but blue sky all the way to the hoop.

5:20 Nurkic lazy pass, turns it over. Seriously don’t know why Malone’s leaving him in there at this point. He clearly didn’t get enough sleep last night or something. Head totally not in the game.

5:14 Faried definitely should’ve been called for goaltending there. But that was some crazy-ass athleticism on that play.

2:54 Whiteside blocks Jokic, but the Joker gets it back and puts in his 2nd attempt. In fairness to Nurk, I should note that on Jokic’s first defensive possession against Whiteside, Hassan scored right over him pretty easily. So he’s giving both Denver Cs trouble.

1:30 Jokic with the really nice low post move for 2. Chandler kind of struggling out of the gates, has missed a couple shots. I don’t think Jameer has rested the entire 1st quarter. I know Malone is leaning heavy on him now, but at his age & injury history, I don’t think these kind of minutes are sustainable for him.

0:23 Murray ratchets up the aggression, drives in for the layup with contact and 1. Missed a 3 on the previous possession, wise of him to take it to the rim to get himself going.

0:00 Terrible end to the quarter, Jokic gets the ball stripped and stolen, Tyler Johnson takes it down the other way for a buzzer-beating dunk. What might have been a 32-26 lead is instead 30-28.

2nd Quarter

10:52 After a nice offensive possession where Chandler did some work to dribble into the lane and get himself a better shot for the 2, he gets TOTALLY robbed on the BS foul call on a clean block.

10:32 Then he gets into the paint for a runner again.

7:59 With perhaps the sole exception of Wilson Chandler, this 2nd Q has not gone well for Denver. Defensive lapses, turnovers leading to fast break points, discombobulated offense. 10-2 run Miami. Nuggets gotta regroup.

6:30 Another turnover (Mudiay), another fast break score for the Heat. This is getting ridiculous. Plus the Nuggets, like only they can, are turning Luke Babbitt into Kyle Korver. And Nuggets offense has completely flatlined. Miami’s run now 15-2.

5:42 Mudiay finally puts the brakes on the Heat run, taking it the length of the floor for an and-1 layup, but misses the FT.

3:50 Worst quarter by the Nuggets in … a while, including that 3rd quarter against the Suns, which was bad, but in some ways just failure to execute rather than this total collapse into ineptitude. Just sloppy as shit, no clue what they’re trying to do offensively, completely on their heels at the other end. They don’t turn this around fast, Miami could well put this one away early.

0:33 Nuggets showing signs of life, and doing the opposite of what they usually do by finishing the quarter strong. But after a great 3 in the flow of the offense, Jameer forces up another one, doing the thing where he starts trying to do too much after doing some good stuff. He really wants to be the hero, but he’s gotta restrain that crap, especially as the vet leader.

0:00 Nuggets down 5 at the half, but after how badly they shit the bed in that 2nd quarter, they’re lucky not to be down 10+. Hopefully they come out with more focus in the second half.

3rd Quarter

11:05 After a pretty bad first half in which he didn’t score a field goal, Nurkic gets his first one by battling down low after pulling down the offensive rebound of a Gallo miss. Let’s see him take it to Whiteside more – if he can.

7:48 Energy is everything for this team. A wild sequence with a big save from Faried that culminated in a Gallo dunk. When they play high energy, they thrive on it, when they play low key, everything withers on the vine.

6:20 Gallo misses 2 FTs, Heat secure the rebound. When overall they’re playing this badly, they can’t afford to be giving up easy points like that.

5:59 Couldn’t tell what Nurk got T’d up for (I’m sure that’s already well known by now), but whatever it was, he’s getting frustrated and pouting. Might not see him much more this game. Once he goes into Bad Jusuf mode, hard for him to shake it.

5:27 Gallo made a shot. Someone finally made a damn shot. I hate to advocate for this, because I normally am against it as standard operating procedure, but the Nuggets might need a little hero mode action from Gallo in this game since the team overall is playing like butt.

4:59 Mudiay drives down pretty much reeling out of control but manages to get it to Jokic in the nick of time for the layup. Now on: Mudiay-Jameer-Gallo-Wilson-Jokic. If any lineup can get the job done of getting the Nuggets’ lead back, this should be the one to do it.

4:26 Nuggets cut deficit to 3 on Jameer layup, Spo calls timeout, not liking the looks of Denver clawing their way back into this one.

2:34 Great sequence for Jokic. Stands his ground against Whiteside to contest his shot for the miss, then sinks a jumper from the paint on the other side. More like that, please. Tie game.

2:18 Gallo sinks FT on Whiteside tech, Jokic sinks both FTs on the regular Whiteside foul (pushed him out of bounds), Nuggets go up 74-71 to reclaim lead for the first time since, I believe, early in the 2nd quarter. Hassan to bench, let’s see if Denver can use this to build some momentum and extend that lead.

2:12 Defensive 3-second violation on Nuggets this time. If I’m not mistaken, Miami has already had two themselves. Then Ellington misses the FT. Then Reed w/ the loose ball foul and Gallo hits both FTs to bump the lead up to 5.

1:34 Dragic was totally NOT set but the refs call Murray for the charge after his great steal and drive. Bullshit call that should have put Jamal on the line. Dragic misses the 3 at the other end. Ball don’t lie.

1:04 Jameer to Chandler for the bigtime dunk. Could the Nuggets be any more Jekyll and Hyde? This team is clinically diagnosable.

0:00 And of course immediately after the above comment the Nuggets fail to make two defensive stops and Miami cuts the lead back down to 3, but Chandler bails them out with a buzzer-beating offensive rebound and putback. Up 5 going into the…

4th Quarter

11:22 This to me is the Nuggets’ best offensive play of the game so far, and it exemplifies when their teamwork is at its best. Mudiay has the ball at the top of the arc with Jokic down at the low post. Murray runs baseline and curls around the Jokic screen up to the elbow, where he receives the pass from Mudiay. Jokic then comes up to the elbow where he gets the ball room Murray, who clears out. Jokic and Mudiay then run a pick and roll, with Mudiay moving up to the elbow, and Jokic cutting into the lane where he gets it back from Mudiay, who splits the defenders with a bounce pass, and float up the runner for 2. Just a perfectly executed set play.

10:09 Yet another Nuggets turnover, yet another Heat score off the fast break. Miami cuts the lead back down to one, Malone calls time out.

7:32 More turnovers, more crappy defense, once again losing sight off how they want to run their offense, and all of a sudden the Heat are back up 5.

7:04 Once again, Heat just playing with more energy, Nuggets just look lethargic and listless. If they don’t match or exceed that intensity and hustle, they’re cooked in this one for sure.

5:30 Missed 3 after missed 3 for Denver. Meanwhile, the Nuggets making Wayne Ellington look like an All-Star and now Miami’s lead is 8.

4:57 Stop. The. Presses. The Nuggets actually made a shot. Gallo for 3.

4:23 But of course the Nuggets can buy a stop to save their lives. Whiteside scores easily over Faried.

3:44 Whiteside scores easily over Faried.

3:13 The Heat drank coffee before this game. The Nuggets smoked weed.

2:09 Murray with the corner 3. Help us Jamal, you’re our only hope.

1:57 Whiteside dunk. Miami is basically the big brother bullying the little brother at this point, grabbing the Nuggets arm and whacking them repeatedly, “Why are you hitting yourself? Why are you hitting yourself?”

1:44 Of course Jameer misses his first FT. In this game, that’s just how the Nuggets roll.

1:21 Murray for 3. Maybe is really is our only hope…?

0:42 Then Murray drives straight in to the guy who blocks all the shots. Much to learn he has.

0:00 Nuggets blow another winnable game. But what else is new? One thing’s for certain: If they play as unfocused and lackadaisically as they did tonight against the Rockets, they’re gonna get trounced.

New Twitter handle: @NuggetsDenJoel

This is just an F.Y.I. in case any of you were wondering why my longstanding Twitter handle “@denbutsu” suddenly changed to “@NuggetsDenJoel” – and the simple explanation is just that I changed it.

Why? Mainly because I wanted it to include my actual name (though nearly every permutation of it was already taken). “Denbutsu” was kind of a relic, a remnant from when I first started posting on Nuggets and Broncos message boards over a decade ago. It was a combination of “Denver” and the “daibutsu,” which is a statue of the Great Buddha in Kamakura, not far from where I live. Its only significance was purely geographical: a bit from Colorado, where I’m from, and a bit from Japan, where I live.

But by now it has long outlived its original inception, and the time for me to bring my Twitter username into alignment with my real name is long overdue. And so, it is done. If you’re following me already (which, if you’re here reading this, you almost certainly are), then nothing should change other than the appearance of my handle, but my apologies if this caused you any confusion. For what it’s worth, I did reclaim “@denbutsu” just so nobody else could nab it, but it is now just a placeholder that redirects traffic back to “@NuggetsDenJoel,” which will hereafter remain unchanged.

 

My two bits of highly unqualified advice for aspiring sports writers

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Let me start by saying I am not a professional writer of any kind, let alone a professional sports journalist, so I am truly unqualified to be giving any advice on this matter whatsoever. So tons of grains of salt and all that.

That said, I have worked with and observed enough talented young writers make the transition from “just a blogger” to paid, working-professional writer to have at least gotten a peripheral sense of the dynamics of how the process tends to work, at least in some cases.

If you’re reading this, then you probably know I was quite active writing for Roundball Mining Company several years back, and then “retired” for a couple years, only to recently resurface at BSN Denver’s Nuggets pages (you can read my latest piece over there here, if you’re into that sort of thing). But that’s about it. So my personal sports writing experience is fairly limited, and in practical terms, beyond personal joy and satisfaction of creating stuff I like about the team I like, the best thing it has brought for me is sharpening my writing chops prior to entering grad school – and that honestly did really help, even though topically it was entirely unrelated. But I digress.

I really only have two points to make here (you can find more thorough, and certainly better advice elsewhere anyhow), so I’ll be brief, and without further ado…

Two bits of advice for aspiring sports writers

  • 1. Vacuums fill quickly, so be relentless and avoid taking too much time off

When I first started Nuggets writing, Roundball Mining Company and the Denver Stiffs (then still FireGeorgeKarl.com) were (as far as I am aware) pretty much the only blog games in town, and still somewhat relegated status-wise to the cute kids at the children’s table in comparison to the well-established, towering behemoth, longstanding newspaper credibility of the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News. And podcasts didn’t even really exist yet. In the intervening time, we have seen the unfortunate folding of the Rocky Mountain News, Denver’s biggest victim in the larger decline of the news print industry, reveal a silver lining in creating journalistic space for motivated, entrepreneurial writers to carve out their own niche in the sportswriting world. Around the same time, the swinging open of this door was largely accelerated by Hardwood Paroxysm and ESPN’s TrueHoop blog network, both of which helped to raise the profile and legitimacy of “mere” sports blogging to professional-caliber (if not always actually professional) sports journalism.

So as an aspiring writer, the good news for you is that you, like anyone and everyone, can try your hand at it, and maybe have a legit shot at making something of it. But that’s also the bad news, as there are thousands of other aspiring writers with exactly the same hopes and goals as you. And this is where the importance of being relentless comes in. Again, if you’re reading this, you’re probably familiar with the many ebbs and flows in Nuggets coverage over the last ten years, with the occasional fall (most notably Rocky Mountain News) and rise (most famously Denver Stiffs) of various news organizations, organization-affiliated blogs, individually-created blogs and youtube channels (hello), and the like. The key point here is that the one consistent overarching reality throughout this whole process is that whenever one entity starts to wane, there are immediately two or three more ready to jump in and fill the vacuum that creates. So staying in the game, staying relevant, building a continual body of work and a reputation as a hard-working, diligent writer, is of the utmost importance.

I fell off the map by my own design, but then I wasn’t trying to go pro with my writing. If I had been, I’d have lost many opportunities during my writing hiatus for possibly moving on to more prominent organizations, making my way into podcasting or other more modern forms of journalism, and building relationships and connections with people which might have led me in unexpected directions. So if you’re serious about this, take the sage advice always given by Mama Hahn on her Green Hat Boat Tour, and “Don’t be lazy!”

  • 2. Work locally

This one can be neatly summed up by one simple truth: When I first started writing about the Nuggets, “lowly” bloggers didn’t get press passes at the Pepsi Center, but now the range of individuals and organizations being granted access has diversified. The fractionalization of the news industry mentioned above has resulted in professional sports organizations opening their doors to journalistic coverage from sources they would not previously have had to consider. This means that access itself is more accessible – but only if you’re there.

As a dude living in Japan and writing about the Nuggets, this never would have been possible for me. And therefore, if I had been truly serious about becoming a professional writer, it would have been much more of a viable path to paid work had I, for example, started rigorously doing English-language coverage of the Yokohama Bay Stars baseball team, their farm team Shonan Sea Rex, the local Kanto Gakuin University rugby team, or something along those lines, despite not being a fan of either rugby or baseball. Because reporters do interviews. Reporters report from on the ground. Which isn’t to say that you can’t do analysis from afar, and that may be a path to work for some, but it’s a hell of a lot easier to get your foot in the door if you’re actually at the door.

So say you’re a huge Nuggets fans who wants to write about the Nuggets, but you just happen to live in Cheyenne, Wyoming or Omaha, Nebraska. Well by all means, you should write about the Nuggets to your heart’s content. But you should also start covering the local high school and college sports programs where you can actually go to the games, meet the players and coaches and interview them, maybe raise your profile enough as a diligent local sports reporter to ultimately land a job somewhere. But unless you have some special kind of experience or genius, you’re probably not going to get paid for writing about the Nuggets, at least not until further on down the line when you’re better established. Statisticians with exceptional number-crunching abilities can (and do) get hired from afar due to their mad analytics skills. But if you’re looking to get into more traditional sports writing and coverage, it’s probably better to write about what you can gain access to, even if that’s not your favorite team or sport.

And that’s all I have to say about that.