By: Justin Lynch
How bright is the Nuggets' future? And what do they need to do to build a winner?
We all heard the rumors. Blake Griffin was going to Denver for Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Nikola Jokic, Will Barton, and maybe even a pick or two. Then, the Nuggets shot it down. They kept their assets and turned down the star. They refused to overpay for a guy who may or may not fit in today’s NBA. They kept one of the best contracts in the league in Will Barton, two home-grown bigs, and one of the final remnants of the Carmelo Anthony trade. They decided to wait it out.
In a league where every team that doesn’t have a star is in active pursuit of changing that, the Nuggets went the other way. But how much longer can they go without a star? The Nuggets traded Carmelo Anthony in the midst of a 50-win season, en route to their second, in a string of four, consecutive first round playoff defeats. And since George Karl left, the team has toiled in the the 30-win range. This season will likely be no different.
But this season is different. And it has nothing to do with win totals. The Denver Nuggets have quietly, almost stealthily, racked up as many assets as anyone and have started rebuilding around some intriguing players. Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris, and Nikola Jokic headline a team that has as bright a future as any. The Nuggets also have Portland and Houston’s first round pick (lottery protected) and a pick swap with the Knicks in this year’s draft. In 2016, they own the Grizzlies pick, only top-5 protected. The question is: what do the Nuggets do now?
Emmanuel Mudiay fell to the Nuggets in last year’s draft, and they have not been afraid to throw him into the fire this season. Starting 50+ games and playing big minutes has forced the young point guard to learn -- and learn quickly. For all intensive purposes, Mudiay has been pretty awful this season. He’s barely shooting 35% from the field, is but a shade over 30% from deep, and owns a sub-10 PER. But he has been playing virtually the entire season as the primary ball-handler for a Western Conference team...as a teenager. And despite his statistical horrors, he has shown some promise. There’s no question he can be your primary ball-handler, and guard the opposition’s best guard effectively every night. He’s quick enough to get by most guys and likes taking pull-ups and floaters from mid range. This season his touch has been off on those shots, but that will come with time. His 25% usage shows he isn’t afraid to create for himself, and ranks among many of the better players in the league in that category. His ultimate ceiling as a 3-point shooter is a key issue, but he is a smart passer and should be able to help his team’s spacing with his passing ability more so than his shooting.
The shooting will come instead from Gary Harris. A player in the mold of Danny Green, Harris is the type of two-guard you need with a playmaking point in Mudiay. Harris is growing every night as a defender, and the backcourt tandem of Harris and Mudiay has high potential on the defensive end. But what is most promising is Harris’ shooting. He’s shooting it at a 35% clip this season, but posted a mark as high as 42% in January. His 16% usage points to his likely sidekick role on a good team, and it allows him and Mudiay to grow knowing who’s Batman and who’s Robin.
Now we just need The Joker. Nikola Jokic, selected in last year’s second round, found himself starting with the injury to Jusuf Nurkic and the total incompetence of the since-departed J.J. Hickson. Jokic has separated himself from the Nuggets two other foreign bigs (Nurkic and Joffrey Lauvergne) and has shown that he can be the big man of the future. At just 21 years old, Jokic averages 17 and 11 per 36 minutes, and shoots 37% from deep. He’s also posting a 22.0 PER, 59% True Shooting, and a 5.0 box plus/minus, which is by far the best mark on the team. He’s also an excellent passer, posting the second highest assist rate on the team (after Mudiay). The biggest hole in his game is his rim protection, which ranks 36th out of 57 players who defend at least five shots/game at the bucket. His lack of athleticism and lateral quickness point to a lower ceiling in that department, but if he learns to be savvy around the basket and anticipate, he could become at least an average rim protector.
Jokic is also an ideal big to have around Mudiay. A pick-n-pop nightmare, Jokic can force opposing bigs to stay on the perimeter with him, opening up driving lanes for Mudiay. If the big ices the screen, a weak side guard will need to come over to help on Jokic popping to space, opening up skip passes to open shooters. A final note on Jokic: he’s locked up through 2019 at about $1.4 million/year.
After these three is where the decision-making begins. The Nuggets have Jusuf Nurkic, a strong rim protector and a rare bright spot in last year’s season, as well as Joffrey Lauvergne, already 24 in just his second season, to deal with. In a league that’s getting smaller and more athletic with every season, it doesn’t make sense to keep all three of Nurkic, Jokic, and Lauvergne. Lauvergne is the worst of the three, and the oldest, but Nurkic could likely see a bigger return from a trade. Darrell Arthur is in the mix as well, but will likely decline his player option and try to reap the benefits of being on the right side of 30 in a thin free agency period that will be swimming in money.
The wings are really where the Nuggets need to take a hard look. Will Barton burst onto the scene this season, but has come back to earth after putting up 20.8 points/game in December. His 15 points and 6 boards/game is more than the Nuggets could have hoped for when they used a play right out of Neil Olshey’s playbook, and snagged Barton from Portland on a three year deal paying him under $4 million/season. Barton fits perfectly into the sixth man role, but when his contract expires, he will be looking for big money that the Nuggets will need to save for their soon-to-be restricted free agents. But now isn’t the time to worry about that.
Now is the time to worry about what to do with their three highest paid players. Danilo Gallinari is on the books for next season, but will likely opt out of the final year of his deal. Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler’s contracts expire in 2019, when Jokic and Mudiay will be restricted free agents. The Nuggets can either ride out these three contracts, hoping that a star becomes available before next year’s trade deadline, or dump the contracts for young players and draft picks.
Obviously, getting a star in return for a package resembling the one offered for Blake Griffin would be fun and all, but I’m not sure they should be in the market for one just yet. They are not the Celtics, who are seemingly one big-time player away from championship contention. This team is very out of the playoffs, and they do not currently have the pieces to win a lot of games even with the advent of a top-15 player.
Even if they are able to land a star with the pieces they currently have, there is no guarantee they will be able to keep him with the team long-term, especially considering the supporting cast likely won’t be where it needs to be for 2-3 more years. Denver should instead opt to trade Gallinari this offseason, and hope he doesn’t injure himself getting on the flight out of town. If Denver is unable to trade him, they will either try to resign him to the max, or they will lose him for nothing. I can’t imagine they want to pay him the max, considering he’s, at best, the 3rd best player on a contender, and he’s way off the timetable of their emerging core. But losing him for nothing doesn’t sound too appealing, either.
With this year’s weak draft class, and the Celtics and Raptors with likely top-10 picks, the Nuggets may be able to flip Gallinari for another top-10 pick (the Nuggets already have the right to swap firsts with the Knicks). We all know how aggressive the Celtics were at last year’s draft, and the reports of them freely using the Nets pick in trade discussions makes me think they don’t feel great about the draft after Simmons and Ingram. There were also reports that the Celtics were actively pursuing Gallo at the deadline, but the talks fell through. The Celtics may up the ante near draft day, as they did last year, and the Nuggets could end up with that coveted Nets pick.
The Raptors have less use for Gallinari, given their signing of Demarre Carroll last season (and assuming they bring back DeRozan), but they need to win now, and whoever they get with the pick (Denver’s pick, ironically, via the Knicks) will not be able to contribute right away. Gallinari can be their third option as a scorer, and play either forward position. Trotting out a lineup of Lowry-DeRozan-Gallinari-Carroll-Valanciunas, would be scary, and would allow them to really go for the title before Lowry starts to decline.
As for Faried and Chandler, the Nuggets should try to dump them, too, if for nothing more than opening up minutes for their developing players. Fortunately, this is the perfect time to trade these guys. With both under contract through 2019 at figures that will look great under the higher cap, the Nuggets could potentially get a real return for them. They definitely won’t get a Gallinari-type return, especially considering Chandler has been injured all season, but there will be teams in need of good role players who simply don’t have the cap room to throw $15-18 million at an Evan Turner-level player.
Moving one or two of Gallo, Faried, and Chandler will also force Denver to spend money this offseason, as over 50% of their guaranteed salaries for next season are tied up in those three. They will have to do some work just to meet the cap floor, and that could be good for Denver. Taking a chance on Harrison Barnes in hopes he can become the future centerpiece is worth it. Or maybe they throw enough money at Allen Crabbe that Portland refuses to match. Hassan Whiteside isn’t quite on the timetable, and may take away from Jokic, but he has few miles on his NBA tires, and there’s no reason not to bring that sort of a talent into the mix. All they need to do is make sure they don’t overpay for someone past their prime who won’t grow with the group, and creating a roster that allows for their young guys to play big minutes is ideal as well (just ask James Young).
Of course, Denver isn’t an ideal landing spot for many free agents, so draft picks are precious. This team could immediately become the best up-and-coming team outside of Minnesota if they get some lottery luck, or package their picks and move into the top two. But with all the young players they already have, the Nuggets can afford to take a chance or two in the draft as well. I’m a fan of Timothe Luwawu from France, or maybe Skal Labissiere will fall. Henry Ellenson is being projected to go anywhere from the top-7 to the mid-20’s. Maybe he is someone you take a look at also.
The Nuggets need to get a star, but getting one through a trade at this point seems premature, and picking up one in free agency is next to impossible for a team like Denver. I don’t see Mudiay, Jokic, or Harris ever becoming the guy on a contender, so the more shots they have in the draft, the better, because that is where they will need to look for their star.
This team is on the rise, and they have the assets to stockpile draft picks and pray they hit a homerun on one of them. And, if they want a star player, they’re going to have to. But the name of the game for Denver is patience, and their decision regarding Blake Griffin makes me think they have it.