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Blogtable: Are you a believer in Nuggets this season?

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The Nuggets have scored some big wins lately. How far do you see Denver going this season? What has you believing (or not believing) in them?

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Steve Aschburner:  Here’s how much I like the Nuggets — if LeBron James had wanted first and foremost to win another championship ring, and do so quickly, I think Denver would have been a better summer destination for him than the Lakers. Coach Michael Malone is working with a great ensemble, in need mostly of that tent-pole guy and reliable closer. As is, I think the Nuggets can go as far as the Western Conference finals, particularly if they get marvelously skilled big man Nikola Jokic to consistently play more aggressively on offense.

Shaun Powell:  You must believe in Denver because as good as this team has looked lately, they’ve yet to reach the ceiling. What happens when Will Barton returns? Are you a believer in Isaiah Thomas, who’s also mending? Assuming these additions will only deepen and bolster the lineup, there’s no reason not to believe the Nuggets will be a top-three team when the playoffs approach. Their deep lineup, solid defense most nights and freakish center in Nikola Jokic spells trouble for others.

John Schuhmann:  It’s fair to believe that the Nuggets are the early favorite to be the team that loses to the Warriors in the Western Conference finals. They’re the only West team that ranks in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, having seen the league’s biggest improvement on defense (6.4 fewer points allowed per 100 possessions than last season). There’s reason to be a little leery of that, because their new system (like that of the Bucks under Jason Kidd) can give up layups and corner 3-pointers, and much of their success is about their opponent 3-point percentage (lowest in the league), a number which can be a little deceiving at this point in the season. But the players have bought in and they’ve played more games against top-10 offenses (nine) than they have against bottom-10 offenses (seven). Their bench has been very good (Trey Lyles can play), and should be better upon the return of Will Barton.

Sekou Smith:  The Nuggets came into this season on my teams-on-the-rise list and they’ve lived up to it so far. They’ve got the talent and depth to be a top-four team in the Western Conference playoff chase. They are that good. And yes, it’s easy to believe in a team when they are tied for the No. 1 spot in the West. But what we’re talking about is projecting where this Nuggets team is headed over the course of the next four-plus months. I’m not nervous at all about projecting the Nuggets as a part of that top-four mix. I am confident they won’t see a repeat of last season, when they played for a playoff spot on the final night of the regular season (and lost it to the Minnesota Timberwolves in overtime).

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Push for playoffs more than just talk for LeBron, Lakers

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“Stranger things have happened, but it would be weird to have the playoffs and not have him in the playoffs,” said Warriors guard Klay Thompson. “Like, weird.”

The LA Clippers, currently the No. 8 seed, have dwindling motivation and ability to make the playoffs. They traded their best player (Tobias Harris) earlier this month to create cap room for a summer free-agent run. If they make the playoffs, their No. 1 pick goes to the Celtics. If they fall into the lottery, they keep it.

More realistically, this is about the Lakers competing down the stretch against the energized and hungry Sacramento Kings. They haven’t made the playoffs in 13 seasons and don’t have a No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft. The Lakers are also fighting the proud San Antonio Spurs, who haven’t missed the playoffs since coach Gregg Popovich’s first season.

 

In the stretch run, several key storylines will stand out.

Following their Christmas Day win in Oakland, the Lakers were No. 4 in the West. But the season was thrown for a loop with LeBron’s groin injury-induced absence and other Lakers injuries and suspensions. The Lakers still aren’t at full strength until Lonzo Ball recovers from his ankle sprain. That should come soon, although he has yet to practice.

LeBron has made a habit of carrying lesser teams to the playoffs and beyond, although he did that in the East without missing many games. This is another, different hill to climb.

“I’m looking forward to the second half of the season, looking forward to seeing what we can do to get back into this playoff race,” James said after the All-Star Game. “That’s my mindset. That’s the only thing that’s going to happen in my mental space for these next two months, pretty much how I can get this team playing the type of level of basketball we were playing before my injury.”

Before the season went sideways, the Lakers were indeed intriguing. LeBron defied age once again and put up Kia MVP-like numbers, including a reliable touch on 3-pointers. JaVale McGee was a pleasantly surprising source of offense, Rajon Rondo was efficiently steady and the young core of Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma had their moments.

At the All-Star break, LeBron and Rondo had just returned, Ball was hurt, McGee was the No. 2 center (behind the now-departed Ivica Zubac), Ingram was an enigma and Kuzma was rising as a solid No. 2 scorer. And of course, the Davis drama weighed on the locker room.

“All I know,” Kuzma said, “is when we were healthy, we won. We were fine. The goal is to get back to that. Let’s get a healthy team and then we’ll see. I’m confident in what we can do.”

 

Which West teams could cause Golden State trouble in the playoffs?

This was always designated as an exploratory season for the Lakers with LeBron. Entering the season, they had young players without playoff experience. They had veterans on one-year contracts serving as bridge-gap players so the Lakers can keep their salary cap flexible for 2019. In a sense, there was never any false hopes by management of making the Warriors sweat.

But making the playoffs? That was expected.

> The West:  Who can contend with Warriors?

“It was our goal at the beginning of the season and still our goal,” LeBron said.

If they do, the Lakers might make it interesting in the first round if they see, for example, the inexperienced Denver Nuggets (or any other non-Warriors team).

If they don’t, then it’s an embarrassment for the Lakers and setback for LeBron. It will fuel the perception that he needs tons of help to win anything of significance in the more competitive West (although plenty of player movement this summer could shift the landscape drastically).

With the trade deadline passed and Davis still in New Orleans, LeBron must make do with what he has. And to hear him, he has plenty.

“I’m all about being uncomfortable,” James said. “I like being uncomfortable, I enjoy being counted out. Look, we gotta win games. … Go out there and do your job. Control what you can control and what you can’t control don’t worry about.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting. 



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Legends profile: Chet Walker | NBA.com

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Chet Walker always seemed to find himself in a behind-the-scenes role. As the “other guy” on an NBA champion Philadelphia 76ers team that starred Wilt Chamberlain and Hal Greer, Walker rarely, if ever, received top billing. But whether he was battling an opposing forward one-on-one or going head-to-head with show-business types, Walker more often than not came out on top

During his 13-year NBA career with the Sixers and the Chicago Bulls in the 1960s and ’70s, Walker amassed 18,831 points and earned seven All-Star Team selections. Only twice did his scoring average dip below 15 — a noteworthy achievement given that offensive opportunities in Philadelphia were rationed among future Hall of Famers Chamberlain, Greer and Billy Cunningham. And in Chicago, they were shared with the formidable Bob Love.

Chet “The Jet” was among the best open-court forwards of his day. He particularly enjoyed drawing fouls. Walker played tenacious defense and proved remarkably durable. He never missed more than six games in any season, and became one of the few players to appear in more than 1,000 games (1,032) for his career.

Walker’s teams made the playoffs every year, and he had identical career scoring averages of 18.2 points in both the regular season and the postseason. His impact was most evident in Chicago, where the Bulls reached the playoffs in each of Walker’s six seasons but not in the year before he arrived or the year after he left.

When he turned in his duffel bag for a briefcase in 1975, Walker discovered that he could have an impact in the entertainment business as well, even without the benefit of training. He went on to produce a number of television and feature films, and he even picked up an Emmy Award for his role in co-producing “A Mother’s Courage: The Mary Thomas Story,” a made-for-TV movie portraying the life and travails of Isiah Thomas’ mother.

Like Isiah Thomas, Walker grew up in poverty. Born in 1940, he and his family lived in a housing project in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Also like Thomas, Walker battled adversity and won a basketball scholarship. He went on to become an All-America forward at Bradley University in neighboring Illinois. In three varsity seasons, he averaged 24.4 points and 12.8 rebounds and shot .552 from the floor.

The NBA’s Syracuse Nationals, in desperate need of frontcourt scoring and rebounding support, made Walker the 12th overall pick in the 1962 NBA Draft. Walker averaged 12.3 points and 7.2 rebounds in 1962-63 and earned a berth on the NBA All-Rookie Team.

Prior to the 1963-64 season, the franchise moved to Philadelphia and became the 76ers. Walker began to emerge that year, averaging 17.3 points and a career-high 10.3 rebounds and making his first appearance in the NBA All-Star Game. The Sixers, however, struggled to a 34-46 record and an early exit from the playoffs.

The team’s fortunes began to change in 1964-65 with the midseason acquisition of Chamberlain from the San Francisco Warriors. Chamberlain was no stranger to the City of Brotherly Love — he had been born there and had started his NBA career with the Warriors when they were based in Philadelphia.

After the arrival of Billy Cunningham in 1965, the 76ers boasted one of the greatest frontcourts ever assembled. In 1966-67, their second year of playing together, the trio of Chamberlain, Cunningham and Walker powered Philadelphia to a 68-13 record and the NBA title. Walker, although often yielding to his frontcourt ‘mates and Greer in the backcourt, posted his finest season with the organization, tallying 19.3 points and 8.1 rebounds. He also averaged 21.7 points in the playoffs. The team was considered by many to be the greatest in NBA history.

Walker put in two more solid seasons with the Sixers after that championship year, but Philadelphia didn’t return to the Finals. Prior to the 1969-70 campaign, Walker was traded to a sputtering Chicago Bulls club along with backup forward Shaler Halimon for Jim Washington and a player to be named later. The move was a jolt to the 29-year-old Walker, who had made a home for himself in Philadelphia. He even considered retirement. Luckily for the Bulls, he didn’t follow through on the notion.

Over the next six seasons with Chicago, Walker scored at least 19 points every year and played in four more All-Star Games. He helped carry a team that also included Bob Love, Norm Van Lier and Jerry Sloan to four straight 50-win campaigns. In a 1971-72 tilt against the Cincinnati Royals, Walker tallied a career-high 56 points. He finished that year with a career-best scoring average of 22.0 points.

Walker’s six-year honeymoon in Chicago ended in ’75 when management rejected his $200,000 salary demand. They also refused to trade or release him. So Walker went to court, suing the Bulls and the NBA for violation of federal antitrust laws. Walker lost the case. At age 35, coming off a season in which he averaged 19.2 points despite tendinitis-wracked knees, an embittered Walker was through. As for the Bulls, their win total plummeted by half in 1975-76, to 24 games.

Over the years, Walker had kept in touch with his buddy Zev Braun, a Beverly Hills movie producer. After losing his court case, Walker moved to Tinseltown, hooked up with Braun, and embarked on a new career. The transition was not easy, as he told HOOP Magazine in 1985: “The adjustment was very difficult. I’ve been out eight years and I’m just now beginning to relax in life. You have to learn there’s more to life than basketball.”

Working with Braun and other producers, Walker ushered through a number of projects. Among them were “Freedom Road,” a 1980 NBC miniseries starring Kris Kristofferson and Muhammad Ali; the 1983 film The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu, the late Peter Sellers’s final picture; “Holy Angels,” an NBC movie of the week and the 1995 film The Glass Shield.

It was “The Mary Thomas Story” in 1989, however, that gave Walker the most personal satisfaction. “I saw Isiah’s struggle growing up on the west side of Chicago. I found it very frustrating,” he told HOOP. “The story of Isiah’s mother is so similar to my own life.”

The film, shot on location in the Thomas family’s neighborhood, portrayed Mary Thomas’ struggles to raise her nine children without her husband, who had left home when Isiah was 3 years old. On one occasion, she warded off a gang of hoods with a shotgun. “There’s only one gang here, and I lead it,” she warned the youths, who had come looking for Isiah. “Get off my porch or I’ll blow you off it!”

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Reports: Bucks’ Nikola Mirotic hopes to play Wednesday vs. Celtics

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Newly acquired Bucks forward Nikola Mirotic, nursing a calf injury, could be making his Milwaukee debut Wednesday night vs. the Boston Celtics, according to Twitter reports.

The Bucks, currently the top team in the Eastern Conference, acquired Mirotic in a deal with the New Orleans Pelicans at the Feb. 7 trade deadline.  Milwaukee gave up Jason Smith and Stanley Johnson and four second-round picks.

Mirotic has played in 32 games this season for the Pelicans, and has been productive, averaging career highs in points (16.7) and rebounds (8.3) per game, and is close to his highs in steals and blocks. He’s missed four Bucks’ games since the trade, but appears ready to play now with an initial minutes restriction.

At 43-14 entering the All-Star break, the Bucks hold the best record in the Eastern Conference and the league.

A career 39.5 percent shooter from beyound the arc, Mirotic could help the Bucks stretch the floor, opening up driving lanes for Giannis Antetokounmpo.

 



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