NBA

Mason Plumlee hoping to make Denver Nuggets his home

Jay Asser 1/07/2017
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Mile High: Mason Plumlee. Picture: Getty Images.

After playing for three different teams through his first five seasons in the NBA, Mason Plumlee hopes he’s found a more permanent home at his latest stop.

The 27-year-old centre hits restricted free agency today, but the 27 games he played with the Denver Nuggets in the second half of last season could be enough to give Plumlee a sense of belonging amidst a young, budding core that provides the franchise with a bright outlook.

It wasn’t a seamless transition. Mid-season trades rarely are.

Despite enjoying a career year with the Portland Trail Blazers, with whom he was averaging 11.1 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.0
assists, Plumlee was sent along with a second-round draft pick and cash to Denver for Jusuf Nurkic and a first-rounder in February near the trade deadline.

The trade somewhat blew up in the Nuggets’ face, with Nurkic enjoying a rejuvenation in the northwest. Plumlee, meanwhile, played nearly five minutes fewer per game with his new team and saw his role reduced.

It wasn’t the first time Plumlee experienced being shipped to a new city and forcibly started over. In the 2015 offseason, he was dealt from Brooklyn, who drafted him 22nd overall in 2013, to Portland.

The transition was a positive one for the big man as he appeared to find his place in an up-and-coming Trail Blazers squad, only to be on the move once again a season-and-a-half later.

Stability may certainly be a factor, but Plumlee’s eagerness to
remain in Denver stems from a desire to continue developing alongside Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and others.

“It was great. It was unexpected. It was the first time that I’ve experienced being traded in the season – when I went from Brooklyn to Portland it was in the summer – so it was very different,” Plumlee told Sport360° in Dubai earlier this week, while hosting a basketball camp in collaboration with Duplays and East Sports Management.

“But I enjoyed my time in Denver and even though we missed the playoffs, we were a better team after the trade. I enjoyed it and I look forward to growing there.

“There’s a lot of talent there, man. I think we can do some really special things if we keep the core together and grow.”

Plumlee, of course, doesn’t have the final say on where he ends up next season. As a restricted free agent, the Nuggets hold his rights and can match any offer sheet Plumlee signs with another team.

Considering how much the Nuggets parted with to acquire him, especially in hindsight, it’s reasonable to believe the sentiment of his return is mutual between Plumlee and the franchise. That shouldn’t stop him from at least exploring his options and testing the market to extract his first big contract since signing a four-year, $6.4 million (Dh23.5m) rookie deal.

For most 27-year-olds coming off the rookie salary scale, landing the most money would be a priority. Winning is great and all, but there’s still time later in a career to fill any championship void. For Plumlee, however, being part of a successful team is one of the most important factors in his decision-making.

“The biggest thing is winning and the people. It’s such a long season, the NBA is 82 games, and over half the year you’re spending with these people – whether it’s coaches, team-mates, front office – you want to like who you’re working with and feel you have a common goal. You’d think it would be easy to find that but it’s not,” he said. “So I look forward to playing with a team that is trying to win championships and competing for that.”

If Denver do bring Plumlee back, likely at a starting annual salary of at least $10m, they’ll continue to have two of the best passing centres in the league.

Jokic led all NBA centres with a 26.6 per cent assist percentage – a figure which was fractions behind the likes of stars Giannis Antetokounmpo of Milwaukee and Golden State’s Draymond Green – while Plumlee ranked sixth at the position at 18.7 per cent.

No player is more important to the Nuggets’ present or long-term prospects than Jokic and after playing alongside the versatile offensive engine, Plumlee is full of admiration for his team-mate’s unique abilities.

“He’s so ball-friendly,” Plumlee said. “When the ball is in his hands, he’s very comfortable whether that’s scoring, passing or handling. You aren’t going to make him unc-omfortable and he’s going to make good decisions for the most part.”

Passing has never been a question for Plumlee. His lack of rim protection and shooting though, are threatening to further diminish  his impact in a league which values floor spacing more than ever.

Despite attempting just 15 3-pointers in total through five years, Plumlee, who also shoots free throws at a lacklustre 58.2 per cent clip for his career, will eventually have to extend his range.

Whether it’s with the Nuggets or another team, more triples should be on the way sooner than later.

“We’ll get some up this season,” Plumlee said of shots from beyond the arc. “Even more important for me is being able to go to the line and be 70 to 80 per cent from the free throw line. I think guys who you can depend on down the stretch in every facet of the game are very valuable and I embrace being on the court at the end of the game, so that’s something that’s going to have to happen if I want to continue being in that position.”

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NBA

NBA free agency could hinge on Gordon Hayward's decision

Jay Asser 1/07/2017
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Jazz hands: Gordon Hayward. Picture: Getty Images.

If the NBA offseason has already felt like a whirlwind of chaos less than three weeks in, it’s about to get a whole lot crazier as free agency begins today.

Two stars have already switched teams with Jimmy Butler and Chris Paul traded to Minnesota and Houston, respectively, and more seismic movement could be on the way.

The most coveted player that could realistically find a new home is All-Star Gordon Hayward, who is potentially the first domino in a chain reaction.

For the first time in his seven-year career, the 27-year-old swingman will be an unrestricted free agent with the power to choose his next team. He’s expected to decide between either remaining with Utah, where he’s spent his entire career since being drafted in 2010, or jumping to the Eastern Conference for Miami or Boston.

Hayward will first meet with the Heat today after free agency starts at midnight (UAE: 08:00), before visiting the Celtics tomorrow and the incumbent Jazz on Monday, according to reports.

While Utah can offer a five-year contract at an estimated $180 million (Dh661m) – compared to the maximum four-year deal for $127m (Dh466m) at Miami or Boston – their financial advantage isn’t as staggering as it appears.

Hayward could aim to ink for three years (or four with an opt-out after the third season), regardless of which team he signs with, in order to hit free agency again at the age of 30 when he would have 10 years of experience and be eligible for the largest max contract possible.

In that scenario, Utah’s advantage shrinks to around $3-5m over the next three years, making Hayward’s decision less financially-driven and more about preference.

Hayward’s blossoming with the Jazz has coincided with the team’s upward trajectory, with the franchise in promising position with a young core that also includes Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Rodney Hood and Dante Exum.

They won 51 games last season, field one of the league’s best defences and have an up-and-coming coach in Quin Snyder, meaning there are plenty of reasons for Hayward to stick around.

In Utah, however, Hayward is stuck competing in the same conference as Golden State’s budding dynasty, which knocked off the Jazz in the second round of the playoffs, while the Eastern Conference presents an easier path to contention.

That’s what Miami and Boston can provide, as well as their similarly strong organisational stability, two of the best coaches around and a history of winning.

Each team also has its own unique selling points, such as Miami boasting weather, nightlife and no state income tax, while Boston have Brad Stevens – Hayward’s college coach at Butler – rich tradition and a foundation that was already good enough to win 53 games, attain the East’s top seed and reach the conference finals.

The Celtics and general manager Danny Ainge could have an ace up their sleeve though, in the form of Paul George.

Boston are attempting to sign Hayward and then trade for the Indiana star swingman to form their own version of a ‘superteam’ to compete with Cleveland and the Warriors.

A trade likely hinges on Hayward’s commitment, both for salary cap ramifications – the Celtics need to maintain max cap space to bring in Hayward, but not George – and Ainge’s philosophical approach.

As Boston owner Wyc Grousbeck said back in February, the team is still “two significant guys away” from truly contending.

If Hayward does reunite with Stevens, the Celtics would have all the ammunition to acquire George, with any combination of their assets – young players and draft picks – unlikely to be trumped by any other team.

If Hayward stays in Utah or signs with Miami, Boston could pursue Blake Griffin as a back-up plan. The big man could be the next star to exit Los Angeles after the Clippers traded Paul.

Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, meanwhile, despite technically being the top free agents available on the market, are unsurprisingly expected to stay put in the Bay Area and re-sign with defending champions, the Warriors.

TOP FREE AGENTS

1. Kevin Durant, unrestricted

Another offseason, another summer where Durant is on the open market. This time, of course, he’s not going anywhere, other than back to the team he just helped lift the Larry O’Brien trophy.

2. Stephen Curry, unrestricted

This is actually an important free agency period for Curry, not because he has a decision to make as to where he’ll play, but because he’ll finally get a big pay day after being arguably the NBA’s best valued (i.e. cheap) contract.

3. Gordon Hayward, unrestricted

The closer we’ve gotten to free agency, the more it feels like Hayward will leave Utah, which may have everything to do with avoiding the West. If Boston can sell him on also getting Paul George, it could be a done deal.

4. Blake Griffin, unrestricted

There’s no denying his talent and skill, but Griffin is an injury concern and as such, could take a shorter deal than the five years Los Angeles can offer. Wherever he goes, he should be more free to act as a playmaker.

5. Kyle Lowry, unrestricted

At 31, this is likely to be Lowry’s last big payday, but it could depend on the point guard market, which seems oversaturated. He’ll still have options and it’s a case where the team (Toronto) needs the player more than vice versa.

6. Paul Millsap, unrestricted

It would appear shortsighted if Atlanta don’t do everything possible to bring Millsap back, considering they took him off the trade market near the deadline. But he’s also 32 and while still very good, could soon be on the decline.

7. Serge Ibaka, unrestricted

Toronto could watch Ibaka leave after being nothing more than a one-year rental, or they could overpay to retain him. He’s still useful, but his inconsistencies on both ends mean he’s not a max player.

8. Otto Porter Jr, restricted

The swingman took a significant step forward in his development this past season and at 24, is already a good two-way player. His shooting has continually improved and his length makes him suitable for the modern game.

9. JJ Redick, unrestricted

The 33-year-old sharpshooter is just as efficient as ever, meaning he could be a perfect role player for a contender or put up more inflated stats on a middling squad.

10. George Hill

Hill isn’t good enough to be a top point guard, but is overqualified as a role player. Teams with a need at the position could do a whole lot worse than the veteran. A Spurs reunion would make sense.

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Jackson failed to connect with the Knicks on any level

Jay Asser 29/06/2017
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Phil Jackson

New York’s long-standing nightmare is finally over. One of the most storied franchises in the NBA is no longer held hostage by someone who managed to improbably char what was already a tender reputation to a full crisp.

While irreparable harm has already been done, Knicks owner James Dolan, who apparently found time in between his band’s gigs, made one of the few sensible moves in his tenure by getting rid of team president Phil Jackson before he could further damage the team’s prospects, as well as the Hall of Fame coach’s own legacy.

How’s it goink? Not great, Phil. Not great. Franchise prestige alone no longer buys as much as it used to, at least in terms of luring stars.

Before Jackson joined in 2014, the Knicks were already struggling to get meetings with star players. Fast forward three years and the team is now the punchline of the league, with players reportedly avoiding it like the plague. And no one was more responsible for the mess than Jackson.

Whether it was his insistence on strictly running an out-of-date offence in the triangle, or his inability to get along with the two most important members of the franchise, Jackson botched his time in charge.

No one is saying he should have turned the Knicks into title contenders. As much of a winner as Jackson is, and his 11 rings as coach serve plenty of evidence, the expectations were never at the level of a championship.

The wins and playoff appearances weren’t there either, but it’s the way Jackson went about his reign that really incensed the fan base. Everything had to be done his way and if it wasn’t, he had no problem wielding his power to prove a point – as he did by dangling phenom Kristaps Porzingis in trades just because the 21-year-old Latvian skipped his exit meeting.

Ironically, Jackson’s inability to connect with his players is maybe the funniest part of this whole saga. It’s impossible to coach teams to 11 titles without having some Xs and Os knowledge, but having dealt with complex, larger-than-life personalities in Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, Jackson received more credit for people management and ego-stroking.

Yet he couldn’t get Carmelo Anthony or Porzingis on his side and that, in the end, cost him. Maybe the Zen Master was never cut out for any of it, or maybe he’s lost touch. Whatever the case, fortunately for New York, it’s no longer their headache.

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