Brad Stevens says it’s possible Rajon Rondo could play opening night, Rondo isn’t so sure

Reports from the Celtics practice today in Waltham:Brad Stevens says Rajon Rondo is progressing well and could begin contact drills as early as next week.— Boston Celtics (@celtics) October 20, 2014#Celtics coach Brad Stevens: a chance Rajon Rondo could be cleared for contact by end of week, opening night still possible.— Scott Souza (@scott_souza) October 20, 2014Rondo had a scan on his hand, opening night return still a possibility, per Stevens.— Jay King (@ByJayKing) October 20, 2014Rondo won’t put timetable on his status, but ran through today’s shooting drill without any impediments.— Mark Murphy (@Murf56) October 20, 2014Rajon Rondo on potential to play on opening night: ‘I don’t know… I don’t want to set goals; I just want to go as my hand heals.”— Chris Forsberg (@ESPNForsberg) October 20, 2014#Celtics captain Rajon Rondo: It ‘doesn’t bother me at all’ to catch, dribble ball with off hand right now.— Scott Souza (@scott_souza) October 20, 2014#…

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Can the 6’11″ Greek Freak Really Play Point Guard in the NBA?

CLEVELAND — With Milwaukee Bucks point guard Brandon Knight currently nursing a strained right groin, head coach Jason Kidd had a golden opportunity to experiment with an unlikely replacement on Tuesday night: 6’11″ guard/forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Kidd announced the move on Monday, the day before the Bucks were set to take on the Cleveland Cavaliers in a preseason game:

Milwaukee Bucks coach Jason Kidd said after Monday’s practice he plans to start the 6-foot-11 Antetokounmpo at point guard in Tuesday’s preseason game at Cleveland. Antetokounmpo played the entire fourth quarter at the point Saturday in the Bucks’ 91-85 loss to the Chicago Bulls.

Kidd said he will go with a big starting lineup including Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jabari Parker, Ersan Ilyasova and Zaza Pachulia when the Bucks face the Cavaliers.

While he possesses the height of most centers, Antetokounmpo is able to handle the ball due in large part to his gigantic hands, rumored to be 15″ in length. He’s a matchup nightmare waiting to happen at any position, but the learning curve at point guard differs from other NBA positions.

Still just 19 years old and entering into his sophomore season, there’s little reason to doubt the Greek Freak. But Tuesday’s first test left something to be desired, to be sure.

 

Comfort Level, Experience at Point Guard

Last season under Larry Drew, Antetokounmpo was used almost exclusively at small and power forward. The Bucks rarely used him as a facilitator, if ever.

Even with his athleticism, hands and length, Antetokounmpo averaged just 1.9 assists in his 24.6 minutes a game.

So when exactly did the idea of him playing point guard come up?

“Summer league,” Antetokounmpo told Bleacher Report before the Bucks tipped off their preseason game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. “Coaches came to me around the second game. I’m not sure what I did, but they told me I deserved a shot to play point guard.”

In four summer league games, Antetokounmpo averaged 17.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game. During the third game after coaches had approached him about running some point, Antetokounmpo registered five assists in a loss to the Utah Jazz.

Before that time, Antetokounmpo had never played the 1, at least, not in America.

“When I was younger, I played (point guard) growing up in Greece, but I’ve never played it here,” Antetokounmpo said.

Now that he’s had a few months to learn the tricks of the trade, Antetokounmpo said that his comfort level as a floor general was quickly growing. He didn’t know, however, how long his new position would last.

“Day by day, I’m getting more comfortable there. I’m just trying to do my best, and whatever coach asks me to do,” Antetokounmpo told Bleacher Report. “Whatever my coach says to do is what I’m going to do. (Smiling) If this is the last time I play the point guard position, then that’s OK. Whatever coach wants me to do.”

Antetokounmpo did note that given his 6’11″ height, he had a certain advantage both on offense and defense.

“It gives you an advantage. Being so tall, and with all the guys at that position being small, I can see who’s open and see all my teammates and where they are. I can also go in the post, too.”

When asked about possibly struggling against smaller, quicker guards, Antetokounmpo said, “Guys in this league, are very strong, very good. It’s hard to guard them. I’ll try to use my length against them.”

Heading into his first true test at a new position, Antetokounmpo seemed very calm and relaxed. His big grin hid any potential fears that may have lingered heading into the game.

 

A Work in Progress

Antetokounmpo did indeed start against the Cavs, and looked very much like someone who hadn’t played point guard at the NBA level before.

Cleveland was without Kyrie Irving, and instead started second-year guard Matthew Dellavedova in his place. Dellevadova gave up seven inches, but was noticeably quicker than Antetokounmpo from the moment the ball was tipped.

The Bucks used Antetokounmpo very cautiously, allowing him to bring the ball up the floor before quickly passing off to a close teammate. Milwaukee would often follow an entry pass by running Antetokounmpo into the post, where he tried (unsuccessfully) to box out the 6’4″ Dellavedova.

Throughout the entire first half, Antetokounmpo seemed very uncomfortable, as if thinking too much before every pass, shot, or dribble.

He finished the first half with a combined zero points, rebounds and assists in 12:54 minutes of play. While Antetokounmpo did a nice job taking care of the ball (just one first half turnover), this was more attributed to the types of easy passes he was throwing.

Too often Antetokounmpo would stand waiting for a teammate to post up, then try squeezing the ball into whatever small window was available.

The offense, when run through Antetokounmpo, stalled mightily. After being replaced by Nate Wolters around the seven minute mark, Antetokounmpo watched the Bucks go on a 20-19 run.

The pace was quicker, and the offense flowed much more smoothly with Wolters running the show.

By the second half, Milwaukee had switched to Wolters as their starter at point guard, with Antetokounmpo moving back to his more comfortable position of small forward.

The result?

Antetokounmpo attacked the basket less than 20 seconds into the second half, earning a trip to the line and his first two points of the game.

Already, he seemed more at ease.

Antetokounmpo remained at shooting guard and small forward for the remainder of the game, registering four points, four rebounds and a blocked shot.

In his first game as a starting point guard, Antetokounmpo finished the game with zero assists and a single turnover.

Dellavedova, despite being seven inches shorter, seemingly won the first matchup at point guard.

He finished with just two points, but recorded nine assists and five rebounds in the Cavaliers’ win.

When talking to Dellavedova after the game, he seemed surprised when told of the exact amount of height he was sacrificing in the matchup.

“I just try to get around him and force him to catch it out when he tries to post me up. It’s very unique having a guy that size playing the point. He’s definitely improved from last year and I’m sure he’ll continue to improve.”

Dellavedova also said he wasn’t sure why Milwaukee pulled the plug on Antetokounmpo at point guard for the second half.

“I don’t know, you’ll have to ask the coach. It’s the preseason so everyone’s trying different things.”

If Kidd truly wants Antetokounmpo to play point guard this season, he’ll still require quite a bit of work.

On this night, Antetokounmpo looked uncomfortable and very out of place in his new position. The offense clearly flowed better with the ball in Wolters’ hands.

At 19, Antetokounmpo does possess the size, skill and time to develop into a quality floor general.

The question is, how long are the Bucks willing to wait?

 

Greg Swartz has covered the NBA for Bleacher Report since 2010. Connect with him on Twitter for more basketball news and conversation.

All stats provided by NBA.com.

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Why Ed Davis Needs to Play Major Role for Los Angeles Lakers

Ed Davis‘ time with the Los Angeles Lakers shouldn’t be anything like his stint with the Memphis Grizzlies or even the Toronto Raptors

They actually need him.

Inconsistent playing time has dogged Davis his entire career. If it wasn’t for his quirky beginnings, he wouldn’t even be in Los Angeles right now, playing for peanuts and pride.

His role was unclear while with the Raptors. Frontcourt minutes were hard to come by with the Grizzlies. The last four years have yielded more confusion than answers as Davis became something of a per-36-minute phenom who couldn’t secure a stable spot in the rotation.

Nothing of the sort stands to complicate Davis’ tenure—however brief—with the Lakers. Playing time will have to be earned within a rotation that includes Carlos Boozer, Julius Randle and Jordan Hill, but Davis has on-court chops that fill gaping voids.

Marginalizing him—or burying him on the bench altogether—shouldn’t be an option.

 

Real, Live Defense

As currently constructed, the Lakers aren’t built to defend.

Nevermind that the defensively obsessed Byron Scott won’t ever say die. The Lakers ranked 28th in defensive efficiency last season, and the talent they’ve since added and retained doesn’t promise improvement, much to Scott’s displeasure.

“[We need to be] better on the defensive end,” he said, per the Los Angeles TimesEric Pincus. ”That’s the whole emphasis for this whole preseason, is just each game get better on that end of the floor, not make as many mistakes, do a better job of covering pick-and-roll. It’s just the little things that we need to continue to clean up.”

Improving—surviving, really—on the defensive end demands a number of different things happen. Though the Lakers are at a point where it’s difficult to get any worse, they’ll need to depend heavily on certain individuals to keep their defense from regressing further. 

On the perimeter that means running Wesley Johnson ragged and hoping Xavier Henry gets healthy soon.

Down low that means they find someone who can contest shots.

Rim protection was an issue for them last year. They finished 18th in point-blank prevention, allowing opponents to hit 53.2 percent of their shots at the iron.

Not one of this year’s primary frontcourt components can be considered an elite rim protector. Hill is athletic, but his focus is narrow. He’s not going to slide over off rotations and deter dribble penetration or hassle slashers; Randle isn’t an above-rim player, nor is he known for his defense; and Boozer is a sieve who is about as qualified to protect the rim as a career sheepherder is to conduct a Craniectomy.

Luckily for the Lakers, they have Davis. He’s quick and explosive, and while he isn’t a defensive linchpin, he’s someone who can exist within top-flight systems or help plug habitually and collectively running faucets.

Opposing big men combined to register a 14.3 player efficiency rating against him last season, noticeably below the league average of 15, per 82games.com. He also ranked 14th in opponent field-goal percentage among the 228 players who faced at least two shots around the basket and appeared in 25 or more games, according NBA.com. Hill finished 100th in that same category, while Boozer ended up placing 179th.

If the Lakers are going to protect the basket at all next season, they’re going to need Davis—who’s averaging 1.6 blocks per 36 minutes for his career—swatting shots at the rim. He is their best chance at finding an interior defensive anchor. The other alternatives are underwhelming, disastrous or Boozer.

 

Valuable Connections

Second-unit performance figures to be an issue for the Lakers, if only because the bench mob is, by default, going to be a huge part of their success or failure.

Who Scott starts at this point is almost irrelevant. Kobe Bryant figures to be on a minutes cap, Carlos Boozer is 32, Steve Nash remembers discovering fire and Hill has never averaged more than 20.8 minutes per game.

Assuming Scott wasn’t lying while talking shop with the Los Angeles Daily NewsMark Medina, that represents 80 percent of the Lakers’ starting lineup. Johnson will likely round that group out, and he’s only logged more than 25 minutes a night once in the last three years.

Ergo, the Lakers will have to be creative and generous with their minutes distribution across the board.

Good thing Jeremy Lin and Davis are ready to drop the offensive hammer. 

Of the many things the Lakers have seen go wrong during the preseason, the chemistry between Lin and Davis isn’t among them. The two have forged synergistic ties, looking particularly dangerous as pick-and-roll partners.

This comes as no surprise, given Lin’s claim to fame came within Mike D’Antoni’s pick-and-roll packed offense that included a then-super athletic Amar’e Stoudemire. Davis is Stoudemire incarnate in this scenario, only his post-up game and jumper need work, and he’ll play defense for more than two seconds at a time.

“Those probably will be two of the first guys off the bench,” Scott said of Lin and Davis, per Lakers.com. “With the way Ed played last night, (he) definitely played well. And Jeremy didn’t shoot the ball well—and we know he’s capable of making shots—but he did a good job of orchestrating the offense and making great passes.”

Sustaining this connection is paramount given how the Lakers offense will be structured. Bryant is already trading rim assaults for more turnaround, mid-range fadeaways, and Scott wants the team attempting between 10 and 15 three-pointers a night, per Pincus

Ignorant though that sounds, Scott doesn’t have a choice. Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes explains why:

Scott’s ideas are outdated, and they’re going to exacerbate the skill deficit L.A. will be up against in almost every game this year.

When you have less talent than the opponent, you should be looking for edges, gimmicks and statistical efficiencies to exploit. It’s the only way to compete.

But here’s the problem: The roster Scott will coach this year isn’t equipped to do any of those things. There is no magic fix-it-all style for this personnel group. Shooting 30 threes a game would be better than 30 long twos, but the Lakers will still struggle to score at an above-average rate if they fire off that many triples.

Pick-and-rolls—which Scott has always loved to run—will be key to the Lakers’ livelihood if they’re not going to space the floor and jack threes. They’ll still need to hit jumpers, but curbing the number of deep balls makes getting open looks at the rim necessary.

Davis put in 58.7 percent of his shots inside eight feet of the basket last year. He also hit 42 percent of his attempts between eight and 16 feet. The potential for him to be a pick-and-pop threat is there. He can thrive alongside Lin or Nash. Anyone who’s able and willing to find cutters he can complement.

And with the way the Lakers offense is shaping up—and given their inability to lean on defensive fortitude—they need that explosive slasher who can finish at the rim while hitting the occasional jump shot.

Five years ago, that may have been more Boozer. It’s never been Hill. 

It could be Davis.

 

Supersized Role

Coming up with reasons for Davis to play is easy. The list goes on and on, and anything we come up with forces us toward one conclusion: Davis deserves a chance.

“If Davis is a stopgap, that’s fine. That’s all he’s costing,” NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman wrote at the time of Davis’ signing. “But he might develop into more—and that’s why the Lakers come out ahead on this deal.”

Long-term potential is one of the huge gains Davis brought with him. The Lakers aren’t flush with young, able-bodied building blocks. He is a potential cornerstone. And if he’s not, he’s still someone who can produce.

Remember, Davis is averaging 11.9 points, 10.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks on 54.2 percent shooting per 36 minutes since entering the league in 2010. Only six other players—minimum 200 appearances—have matched his benchmarks during these last four years: Marcin Gortat, JaVale McGee, DeAndre Jordan, Kenneth Faried, Tyson Chandler and Dwight Howard.

(Clears throat.)

Wow.

Despite limited playing time and topsy-turvy circumstances, Davis has managed to produce wherever he goes. There’s no reason to believe his stay in Los Angeles will be any different; he’s already putting up numbers.

Through two preseason games, he’s logged 28 minutes. And in those 28 minutes, he’s scored 18 points, grabbed eight rebounds and blocked four shots. That’s the equivalent of 23.1 points, 10.3 rebounds and 5.1 blocks per 36 minutes.

Oh, and that’s all come on 81.8 percent shooting. 

Yes, it’s only preseason. And yes, playing well in short bursts helps pad per-36-minute touchstones. But the Lakers aren’t in position to ignore or in any way cage this type of potential.

“It’s more of a fresh start,” Davis said of playing in Los Angeles, per Medina. “It’s about getting an opportunity and being in the right situation. I’ll do whatever I can to help a team win.”

Wins will be difficult to come by as the Lakers try to withstand a Western Conference gauntlet inundated with teams more talented and healthier than themselves. This upcoming season will be rife with hardships. Finding a prominent place for Davis will be easy. 

Few of their players can make a positive impact on both sides of the floor. Davis is one of those few.

Whatever role they give him needs to be gargantuan.

He’s earned a fresh start and the supersized role it should come with.

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise cited.

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Thunder prepare to play without MVP Kevin Durant (Yahoo Sports)

DALLAS, TX - OCTOBER 10: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder handles the ball against the Dallas Mavericks on October 10, 2014 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images)

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — For the first time, the Oklahoma City Thunder will be forced to play without Kevin Durant for more than a handful of games.


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Bradley Beal’s Injury Paves Way for Paul Pierce to Play Featured Role Again

Featured roles aren’t a memento of Paul Pierce‘s past just yet.

If at any point he thought his time with the Washington Wizards would be a lesson in ancillary devices, Pierce was wrong. Bradley Beal‘s injury has, once again, thrust him to the forefront of his team’s battle ground.

The Wizards announced that Beal sustained a “non-displaced fracture of the scaphoid bone” in his left hand during the first quarter of their preseason loss to the Charlotte Hornets. Beal has since undergone successful surgery and will now begin his path back to Washington’s rotation—one NBA.com’s David Aldridge says will take a while:

Six to eight weeks is a long time. The worst end of that projection could have Beal sidelined through November, returning sometime in December, 15-plus games into the Wizards’ schedule.

Quite obviously, everyone will need to step up in his absence. Beal led the team in scoring during last year’s impressive postseason run, and he remains Washington’s deadliest shooter. One player isn’t going to replace everything he does. This is a replacement-by-committee situation.

Chief of that committee, though, must be Pierce. He’s been a featured fang of playoff-bound, championship-chasing animals many times before. This is the perfect opportunity for him to show his bite still rivals his bark.

 

Nowhere to Turn

Playing “next guy up” isn’t a realistic option for the Wizards. Their system is built around John Wall and Beal. Everyone else just sort of falls into place. The third option should, in theory, be someone different on any given night, whether it’s Pierce, Marcin Gortat, Nene or even Otto Porter.

But Beal‘s injury leaves a gaping hole in the pecking order. They don’t have an established contributor ready to step in at shooting guard, let alone function as Beal in terms of importance.

Martell Webster is still recovering from back surgery, and his return doesn’t appear imminent. Trevor Ariza is now catching passes for the Houston Rockets. Glen Rice Jr., Garrett Temple and even Otto Porter should all see time at the 2 slot. While any or all of them should hold the Wizards’ floor-spacing potential steady, not one of them is equipped to be second in command. 

Relying on Gortat or Nene to cart heavier offensive burdens isn’t the answer, either. The NBA is perimeter-focused these days. First and second options are rarely traditional big men. Inside-out scorers are both valued and utilized more.

And that’s how it was for the Wizards last season. Nene and Gortat were the No. 4 and No. 5 scorers, respectively. It’s unrealistic for either of them to be featured much more given the league’s perimeter obsession and the fact that both towers are on the wrong side of 30. They’ll be expected to do more, just not much more.

That leaves Pierce.

Standing at 6’7″ and fresh off a campaign that saw him spend 99 percent of his time at either forward spot, he isn’t going to replace Beal in the positional sense. That challenge will belong to Rice or Temple, or perhaps even Andre Miller for stretches. 

As a former superstar familiar with bearing sizable offensive crosses, though, Pierce is someone the Wizards can and will lean on to fill the conspicuous crater in their systematic ladder.

 

Requisite Skill Set

Although Pierce ceded star status while on the Brooklyn Nets, he’s not far removed from his days with the Boston Celtics, when he was their primary offensive option.

Pierce can serve as a point forward of sorts, someone who gives the Wizards the secondary playmaker they had in Beal. His assist totals plummeted in Brooklyn, but he handed out 4.8 dimes a night with the Celtics in 2012-13. Though Wall isn’t an off-ball guard—his shooting is still too stormy—having that second-tier passer allows the Wizards to utilize his speed within backdoor cuts off screens and slashes that slice through the hearts of opposing defenses.

Even more value is found in Pierce’s defense-stretching range.

Three-point accuracy was a huge part of the Wizards’ limited offense success last season. They ranked fourth in long-ball conversion rate, banging in 38 percent of their treys.

Drive-and-kick and catch-and-shoot opportunities were their bread and butter. They finished atop the league in spot-up three-point shooting, draining 41.2 percent of all their attempts, largely thanks to Beal, who put in 44.5 percent of his standstill bombs. Webster was also a significant helping hand, finding the net on 40.5 percent of his deep, standalone missiles.

Pushing forward without both of them puts the Wizards at risk of warping their already shaky attack. Their offense was middling at best last year, finishing in the bottom half of efficiency. The results were even worse when Beal was off the floor. They scored fewer points per 100 possessions, and their overall field-goal percentages trended in the wrong direction.

None of the team’s primary concerns have dissipated during the preseason to boot. Last year’s flawed model has looked even worse thus far. Removing Beal only puts them at a further disadvantage.

“Spacing the floor—which has already been a nightmare so far in the preseason—becomes infinitely tougher after removing the most threatening shooter on the roster,” wrote Bullets Forever’s Umair Khan. “This has been the underlying issue all throughout the offseason. Washington chose to bolster its frontcourt, but it came at the expense of balancing out the rest of the team.”

Pierce at least begins to replace Beal‘s distance shooting. He pumped in 37.3 percent of his threes last season, and he hasn’t shot under 37 percent from deep since 2005-06. He also drilled 39.7 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes for 2013-14.

For a team that relies so much on drive-and-kicks, Pierce’s climbing efficiency in a complementary role will help keep the offense flowing.

But he adds another dynamic as well.

This is a Wizards squad with a dearth of shot-creators. More than 60 percent of their made baskets came off assists last season, and they lack the self-sufficient firepower—especially without Beal—to balance that out any further.

Creating his own shots isn’t foreign practice for Pierce. Many of his made buckets came off assists last year, but no more than 57.1 percent of his baskets were the product of assists between 2007 and 2013. He instantly becomes the Wizards’ most dangerous scorer behind Wall until Beal returns.

Let us also not forget his performance at power forward last year. The Wizards’ aren’t going to start games small, but Kris Humphries‘ injury does increase the importance of one-in, four-out lineups. So, too, does Beal‘s absence, since it’s easier for the team to supplant his offense with two outside-oriented shooters.

It’s at power forward that Pierce registered a 20.7 player-efficiency rating and a 56.9 effective field-goal percentage—which takes into account two-pointers and three-pointers—per 82games.com. Both marks are above his career average.

Washington isn’t in position to ignore that versatility.

Not without Beal.

 

Old Dog, Old Tricks

In all likelihood, the Wizards aren’t going to thrive without Beal. But they can survive.

Locking Pierce up in free agency remains one of the most understated offseason moves any team made. They added production and fire on a beggar’s dime, the latter of which isn’t any less important than the former.

Especially now.

Confidence isn’t a virtue Pierce lacks, even at 37. He is the perfect teammate, in that he leads and fights through his actions and the spoken word. And in lieu of Beal‘s youth, athleticism and rising star, the Wizards need that profound direction. They need someone who is going to scrap and claw and believe. 

“So why not us?” Pierce said of the Wizards less than one month ago, per The Washington Post‘s Jorge Castillo. “And that’s what I try to bring to this ballclub and that’s what I try to tell them in the locker room. Why not us?”

That, in a nutshell, is Pierce. 

Brooklyn doesn’t navigate its series of injuries and severe underachieving without Pierce last year. It doesn’t piece a playoff crusade together without Pierce’s willingness and ability to adapt and push, then push some more. It didn’t matter if he was playing small forward, point forward or power forward. It didn’t matter that his playing time decreased and his role within the offense diminished, even at the most crucial times.

Whatever the Nets needed, Pierce provided. And what they needed was a glorified role player.

What the Wizards need is an emotional bellwether who, for now, can find that requisite medium between prominent role player and featured star. Lucky for them, they have Pierce—the best possible in-house solution to their Bradley Beal problem.

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise cited.


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Timofey Mozgov Is Ready for Role Denver Nuggets Are Asking Him to Play

When a team is as deep as the Denver Nuggets appear to be heading into the 2014-15 campaign, struggles for playing time are bound to occur. But while Randy Foye and Arron Afflalo are still fighting for minutes at shooting guard and the backups are working to cement their spots in the rotation, Timofey Mozgov is building upon last year’s late-season emergence and establishing himself as the clear-cut starting center. 

As Christopher Dempsey wrote for The Denver Post after the big man’s second impressive preseason showing, the center affectionately known throughout the Denver fanbase and organization as either “T-Mo” or “Mozzy” has a firm grasp on a spot in the opening lineup: 

Timofey Mozgov has picked up right where he left off from his breakout campaign last season. His camp has been good, and during games he continues to separate himself in the question as to who starts at center for the Nuggets this season. As it stands now, there isn’t a question; Mozzy’s the guy until the job is taken from him.

Other players on the Nuggets certainly get more attention. 

Ty Lawson is the most realistic All-Star candidate from the Mile High City, using his blazing speed to impress everyone who watches him play. He’ll most likely lead the team in scoring, as he told me he expects to do during the team’s media day. 

Then there’s Kenneth Faried, fresh off inking a four-year, $50 million deal that ensures his energy will delight fans at the Pepsi Center for at least a few more years. And we can’t forget about Afflalo, returning to Denver after a two-year stint with the Orlando Magic, or the players coming back from season-ending injuries—Danilo Gallinari, Nate Robinson, J.J. Hickson and JaVale McGee. 

Mozgov isn’t at the center of attention, but he has to be at the center of Denver’s plans, especially if this squad hopes to displace one of last year’s eight playoff teams and stave off the other strong candidates to burst into the postseason field. 

 

Huge Need for a Consistent Center

It’s easier to get away without a true center in the Eastern Conference, as you’re left contending with a few up-and-coming players and a limited number of established studs at the position. But in the West, teams are forced to square off against Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, Tim Duncan, Andrew Bogut, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan, Robin Lopez and Nikola Pekovic. 

A failure to use a big man, not an undersized power forward who’s shifting over to play the 5 in a small-ball lineup, is often a recipe for doom. 

The Nuggets have had trouble finding a center they can count on for a while now, relying on Hickson to play out of position, Mozgov to handle more minutes than he’s previously been capable of managing and McGee to become a consistent contributor.

But it hasn’t worked, and 82games.com shows that center was one of the positions on the 2013-14 squad with negative net production. Of course, last year was a strange one, filled with unexpected injuries and a first-year head coach. Even in 2012-13, though, the center position finished dead last for net production, even if it was still an overall positive for the team. 

Now, more than ever, the Nuggets desperately need for Mozgov to evolve.

Hickson still isn’t healthy enough to suit up in the preseason, is set to serve a suspension at the beginning of the year and should be forming a rotation with Faried at power forward rather than attempting to bang around with bigger players at the 5. Jusuf Nurkic, one of the team’s first-round picks this offseason, is an incredibly raw big man who has yet to show great control of his torso and limbs, recording plenty of rebounds during the preseason but failing to show any defensive discipline or shooting touch on the other end.

But most problematic of all is McGee.

Despite his massive contract, he has yet to pan out for the Nuggets. He missed all but five games last season after suffering a stress fracture in his left tibia, and he’s still not fully recovered, as Denver head coach Brian Shaw explained to Dempsey:

What he’s going through right now is when he has practiced and he has done physical work out there on the floor, he’s the only one that’s shown some soreness the next day. But from our medical staff they say that’s pretty natural, he’s going to be sore and then he’ll take a day (off) and the soreness will go away and then he’ll do a little bit more the next time.

McGee’s rim-protecting skills are still quite valuable to the Denver cause, especially because no other frontcourt player excels at blocking shots and truly anchoring the interior of a defense. But it’s clear the Nuggets can’t plan things around him, given the uncertainty of his health. 

And so, Mozgov is even more important. Fortunately, he’s proven up for the task for a while now. 

 

Success Carrying Over

If you totally missed Mozgov emerging as a quality starting center at the end of the 2013-14 campaign, I can’t blame you. There were plenty of interesting stories going on throughout the league, and the Nuggets, who had been all-but-mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, didn’t need to be a top priority for basketball fans without a Denver-related rooting interest. 

But just as trees falling in the woods make sound, so too did Mozgov shine despite a glaring lack of attention from the media. 

The Russian 7-footer moved into the starting lineup on a permanent basis for a Feb. 25 contest against the Portland Trail Blazers, and he made the most of his opportunity. During the final 27 games of the season, he averaged 11.1 points, 7.7 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 1.3 blocks per game, shooting 52.1 percent from the field. 

However, he was even better at the very end of the campaign, as Shaw gave him a bit more offensive freedom, even letting him take the occasional three-pointer. He’d make only three of his 12 attempts from beyond the arc during the final nine games of the season, but the rest of his output was undeniably stellar: 

Clearly, he handled the additional workload rather well, especially when he recorded 23 points and 29 rebounds against the Golden State Warriors on April 10. 

No one is expecting Mozgov to average 16 and nine during the 2014-15 season, especially not with so many major pieces returning from injuries. But he’s proven that he’s capable of playing a large part in the offensive stylings of these Nuggets, and that’s quite the luxury to have. 

Plus, he’s been even better during the preseason. 

The most glamorous play he’s submitted thus far came in his second game, a home contest against the Oklahoma City Thunder. As one of his three help-defense blocks, he rolled over and flat-out stuffed Kevin Durant, denying him a dunk, sending the reigning MVP to his fanny and then running down the court to finish the play with a slam of his own: 

But that’s not even what’s impressed me the most. 

Mozgov is playing better defense because he’s more disciplined and has clearly upped his basketball IQ. He’s not getting caught in the air as often, and he’s making the proper rotations almost without fail, though the perimeter defense of the Nuggets has left him exposed in two-on-one situations too often. He’ll never have the athletic ability of McGee, but Denver has thrived with him on the floor because he’s serving as a decent anchor in the paint. 

Through two games—and yes, small-sample-size warnings abound—the Denver center is averaging 16.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 1.5 blocks while shooting a scorching 81.2 percent from the field, via RealGM.com. That’s bolstered by his 20-point outing against the Thunder, one in which he didn’t miss any of his eight shots from the field or four attempts at the charity stripe. 

His player efficiency rating after those contests? A mind-boggling 35.45. 

No longer is he lurking and waiting for easy opportunities, but he’s playing aggressive offensive basketball. He’s seeking out putback opportunities, forcing his involvement by asking for the ball and working with his back to the basket and generally putting himself in the right positions. 

Mozgov doesn’t even resemble last year’s version of himself. More so than ever before, he’s showing touch and aggressiveness, two traits that have often eluded him in the past. 

“It’s nothing new, I try to give energy for the team,” he told Dempsey after torching OKC. “I try to run and rebound, and (in) scoring guys give me the ball. They trust me. I just try to score.”

But that trust is new.

The Nuggets were giving him opportunities last go-round, but they only did so after the season was over for all intents and purposes. Now, he’s being featured as a primary part of the offense, and it makes a deep team with widespread talent all the more dangerous. 

Denver has upped his role, and Mozgov has been more than up to the challenge thus far. 

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Paul Pierce Wants Son To Play Baseball Because MLB Has ‘Better Union’

Paul Pierce’s infant son has a long way to go before he chooses a career, but the former Boston Celtic doesn’t want his 1-year-old Prince to follow his footsteps. Instead, he has another sport in mind. “I want him to be a baseball player,” Pierce told David Aldridge of NBA.com. “They’ve got a better union.” A stronger union means bigger dollars in the Washington Wizards forward’s eyes. As a father, he is clearly looking out for the financial well-being of the little Pierce. The NBA has stringent salary cap rules that prevent stars from earning more than a specific maximum. In baseball, there is no salary cap, which means players get the big bucks. However, with new NBA television deals coming into effect soon, things could change over the next two decades. Until then, the elder Pierce is likely on his way to buy his one-year-old a bat and glove. Photo via Mike Dinovo/USA TODAY Sports ImagesFiled under: Andre Khatchaturian, NBA, Top Stories

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LeBron doesn’t play much in Cavs preseason opener

James had 12 points in limited minutes in the preseason opener

      
 

 

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Vols’ Woodson gets waiver to play this season

Vols forward and Memphis transfer Dominic Woodson gets waiver allowing him to play this season

      
 

 

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Iowa State ready to come together, play roles

Will the deep, talented Cyclones be able to share one ball?

      
 

 

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