Nuggets, Bucks go against NBA’s guard-heavy grain

NBA.com Global on Nov 02, 2017 07:58 AM
Nuggets, Bucks go against NBA’s guard-heavy grain
Antetokounmpo photo by Charles Krupa (AP), Jokic photo by David Zalubowski (AP)

By Shaun Powell, NBA.com

They’ve become the must-have accessory in the NBA (just ahead of designer headphones and hoodie warmups), the one player no team can do without, the one player that no team seems to lack.

Yes, quality point guards are a dime-a-dozen group now in the NBA. They’re populating the league in such abundance that the Phoenix Suns didn’t flinch when they told disgruntled starter Eric Bledsoe to stay home or the hair salon -- whichever he preferred. It’s hard to find a serious playoff contender that doesn’t have one (and some have two).

And then there are the Denver Nuggets and Milwaukee Bucks, who arguably have none. Partly by necessity and partly by choice, both teams are running their offenses through gifted big men and getting reasonably decent results. These two teams are building for a big run while also going against the NBA’s trend … and, by no coincidence, are the two most logical landing spots for Bledsoe in a trade.

Pump the brakes, though. Neither seems to be in a rush because they’re weighing the merits of using young, non-traditional point guards as compliments to the centerpieces: Giannis Antetokoumnpo with the Bucks and Nikola Jokic with the Nuggets. Both are solid passers and act as triggers while their point guards orbit around them, defer to them and pick spots to command the ball.

But when, if ever, will either team get cold feet and fall in line with the rest of the NBA?

The Suns would like to know, but it could be a long wait if the Bucks get the right results from reigning Kia Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon and the Nuggets likewise from Jamal Murray. Their teams are taking a wait-and-see approach with their development while leaning heavily on Antetokounmpo and Jokic’s respective playmaking.

Their coaches are saying all the right things:

Jason Kidd of the Bucks: “Malcolm knows how to play the right way. He’s getting better. We’re lucky to have him.”

Michael Malone of the Nuggets: “I believe in him and [Murray] has to believe in himself.”

Yet both coaches are acutely aware that Murray and Brogdon, because of their size, can also play off the ball. Murray, for one, might be better suited as a game-finisher anyway. Both teams are in play for Bledsoe or perhaps a veteran addition either at the trade deadline or in free agency next summer.

Brogdon surprised the NBA in winning Rookie of the Year while Ben Simmons missed last season and Joel Embiid played only 31 games. Still, that doesn’t diminish what Brogdon delivered last season and his value to the Bucks now.

He’s wiser than most NBA sophomores because he stayed all four years in college and, as a second-round pick, his sense of urgency and hunger was greater than that of lottery picks. Brogdon is a self-made grinder, a consistent player who rarely screws up and is already one of the Bucks’ better defenders. The Bucks know what they’re getting from him on a nightly basis.

“I’m a lot more confident,” Brogdon said. “When you have a year of experience and also the experience of playing in the playoffs, it just makes a world of difference. I know what my role is. I feel I’ve found my niche with this team.”

Yet, Brogdon’s four assists per game (in 32.1 minutes per game) ranks 38th among starting point guards mainly because of Antetokoumnpo, who handles the ball and runs the offense much like LeBron James does. Brogdon’s ability and willingness to blend with Antetokounmpo is helpful to a system that plays off the young superstar’s multiple skills. Giannis is off to an MVP-like start and the last thing the Bucks want to do is slow his roll. But Kidd also wants Brogdon to sharpen his point guard instincts as well.

“We talked about it last year, understanding when it’s time to score, being able to play-make, understanding how to get a teammate a shot, just being consistent when learning how to run the show,” Kidd said. “He’s been able to run the offense and be a leader.

“And really, it’s all about that, and understanding who hasn’t touched the ball. That’s what makes a point guard special in this league. Figure out how to get the ball to the right people at the right time. That’s the next step for Malcolm.”

The Nuggets waited until the eve of the season to name their starter at point guard, although it was clear last year that Murray had pole position. He assumed the role late in the season from Emmanuel Mudiay (who started 55 games) and Jameer Nelson (40 starts) and kept the ball, starting seven games.

That wasn’t the plan when the Nuggets took him No. 7 overall in the 2016 Draft. Mudiay was their point guard of the future and Murray, who didn’t play the position in college at Kentucky, was projected as a scoring guard. But Mudiay’s erratic shooting, limited range and inconsistent playmaking opened up the job, which Murray won almost by default after the Nuggets waived Nelson.

Malone admitted that Muray’s edge on Mudiay, a superior athlete, was shooting. Malone wanted someone with deeper range next to Gary Harris to space the floor for Jokic and newcomer Paul Millsap. Problem is, Murray’s shooting (37.1 percent) has been Mudiay-like here in the early season. From Oct. 21-27, he missed 16 straight three-pointers and is making just 18.2 percent of his three-pointers (after shooting 33.4 percent in 2016-17). His defense remains an issue at times (100.6 Defensive Rating this season) and part of the Nuggets’ slow start could be pinpointed to Murray’s growing pains.

“I think they drafted me for a reason,” Murray said. “I just go out there and play basketball. I’m not worried about missing. I just got to be thinking about the next shot.”

Malone and the Nuggets are taking the long view and realize Murray, 20, is trying to master NBA point guard play on the fly. But if they’re anxious to make a significant move in the tough West this season, the Nuggets’ point guard position might need an upgrade at starter or backup.

“He showed me he’s not afraid of the moment,” Malone said, who added that part of the learning experience for players such as Murray means to deal with the not-so-good days and “let them play through it.”

The Nuggets and Bucks are hesitant to include Murray or Brogdon in trade talks for good reason: Both are on cheap rookie deals and are big parts of each team’s future. Teams rarely move players this quickly unless there’s a serious issue (think Chris Webber after his rookie season in Golden State) or a deal is too good to skip. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Nuggets are trying instead to unload Mudiay in a package to Phoenix and the Bucks are selling some combination of John Henson and Matthew Dellavedova.

There’s risk, too, in acquiring Bledsoe himself. He went rogue with the Suns and teams usually shy away from players with flapping red flags. If he came to Milwaukee or Denver and didn’t mesh with Giannis or Jokic, it would be a disaster.

Until further notice, the Bucks and Nuggets are good to go with the status quo. Teams can gawk all they want at their lack of a true point guard … and then deal with the sight of a 6’11” Antetokounmpo reaching the rim in three steps, or with the sight of 6’10” Jokic throwing Bill Walton-like backdoor passes from the key.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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