Basketball’s northwest is scattered with promising teams, all in different stages of the rebuilding process that follows a star’s departure. Portland surprised everyone by making the playoffs after LaMarcus Aldridge left town, and went all-in this summer, investing heavily to build around the backcourt tandem of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Utah has finished reaping the rewards of the Deron Williams trade, and appear ready to make their leap this season. It took Minnesota nearly a decade to finally nail some draft picks, but their core’s collective potential has the entire league’s attention. As for OKC, they might have to start the cycle over once again if Russell Westbrook decides he wants to leave town.
That leaves Denver, a promising blend of youth, veteran assets, and cap space. They traded away Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups five seasons ago, and never went into a full-on rebuild. Instead, then-GM Masai Ujiri deftly acquired immediate contributors along with future picks from New York.
Ujiri leveraged the Nets’ interest in Anthony perfectly, and was able to recoup Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, Timofey Mozgov, Kosta Koufos, an unprotected first rounder and a pick swap as a return for his expiring superstar. Ujiri kept Denver a passable contender following the Anthony trade, and hedged even further towards winning now when he nabbed Andre Iguodala on the fringes of the Dwight Howard blockbuster.
Winning 57 games in 2013 was huge for the franchise, even considering their first-round exit in the playoffs. Denver cast aside aspersions that having a true ‘star’ was a prerequisite for contention, running teams ragged with their geographic home-court advantage en route to a top-five net rating in the league.
The Nuggets’ depth was slashed the following summer. Iguodala jumped to Golden State, and an ACL tear that Gallinari suffered in the regular season would keep him out all of 2013-2014. Masai went north of the border to rebuild Toronto, leaving the front office in a state of upheaval. A week after Ujiri’s departure, incumbent coach George Karl was fired.
Amidst roster overhaul and a coaching change, Denver suddenly found themselves in an unfamiliar state -- rebuild. They responded by making wry moves on the edges, and following the Spurs-ian mantra of “no bad contracts.” While it's easy to look at the Nuggets’ current roster and fawn over their asset collection, just getting here was an arduous process. There was no Nets’ trade to fill the coffers with unprotected firsts, and the Carmelo deal surrendered its last goodie this summer.
Denver dug themselves a hole to begin their rebuild. Finding value like Rudy Gobert at 27 can alter the trajectory of a franchise, but the Nuggets jettisoned the massive Frenchman to Utah for the no. 46 pick and cash. The next summer, they traded Evan Fournier for Arron Afflalo on draft night in a bizarre attempt to improve in the short-term.
Those missteps should not cloud the full picture, such as their ingenious swap of pick no. 11 for picks no. 16 & 19 on 2014 draft night (the same night as the Fournier trade). They nailed Gary Harris at 19, and got perhaps the best player in the draft with the 41st pick, Nikola Jokic. Every asset was swapped for something better. Koufos was traded for Darrell Arthur and Joffrey Lauvergne. Mozgov yielded two first-round picks. Afflalo was rerouted to Portland, who sent back Will Barton and their 2016 first-rounder. Ty Lawson, a poisonous locker-room presence that Denver would have paid to get rid of, netted an unprotected first from Houston.
Now their payroll is spotless, with every contract serving as a positive asset should a trade offer come by -- and they will. Denver can go any number of ways from here. If they want to win now, they have youth to spare, and have the assets go toe-to-toe with Boston and Philadelphia for any star that hits the trade block. Conversely, they could pivot toward the future and trade their established players for prospects and picks that fit a more distant timeline.
Notes: Mike Miller's second year is fully non-guarenteed, Danilo Gallinari's 2017-2018 is a player option, Darrell Arthur's 2018-2019 is a player option.
Denver’s front office seems to be leaning that way, electing to make all three first round picks this year and virtually sitting out of free agency. Jamal Murray was one of my personal favorites in the draft, and him falling to 7th was an unexpected boon for the Nuggets. But it requires more than making the obvious pick to build a team, and Denver certainly did that.
Juancho Hernangomez is beloved by statistical translations -- the same system that pegged Jokic as a top-five player in the 2014 draft. Skilled power forwards who can rebound as well as Hernangomez rarely come around, and he could prove the steal of the draft if he ups his assist rate. Malik Beasley is not favored as strongly by projection systems, though he had dazzling efficiency numbers for a freshman guard in a major conference.
The draft was Denver’s main event this summer, and it’s hard to penalize them for that. The league’s suppressed 2018 cap will punish teams who overspent this summer, and the Nuggets are better off having avoided locking in any long-term deals. They flirted with Dwyane Wade and brought in Miller on essentially a one-year deal. Retaining Arthur is a nice move and his declining salary makes the deal even more tradeable, should it ever come to that.
People can whine about Denver ending the summer below the salary floor, but that’s little more than senseless noise. The Nuggets understand the timeline they’re on, and smartly kept the books clean past 2018, when the extension clocks will start to wind down for their promising core.
They are also primed to make a run at 2017 free agents with precious little competition. Between the teams who capped themselves out this summer (think Milwaukee, Portland, Orlando) and teams replete with expiring rookie contracts (Utah, Oklahoma City, Detroit), few teams can maneuver their way into more cap space come 2017.
If the Nuggets really want to go the free-agency route, they can trade Danilo ahead of his expiration date and shed his mammoth cap hold ($23.25 million), which would get them to over $40 million in room (assuming they rescind Miller’s second year). Faried and Chandler could also be shipped out, especially if the former bristles at a sixth man role. Neither will fetch a bounty in return, but could be moved for prospects or in conjunction for a larger piece.
Here is where Denver may be at crossroads -- should they deal their veterans for future assets, or try to package them together (along with some youngsters/picks) and deal for a star? That really depends on a couple things, primarily whether GM Tim Connelly and CEO Josh Kroenke want to stomach an extra season of losing. Trading those three will thrust their youth in larger roles, hastening the Nuggets’ path to the bottom of the league, and consequently the top of the draft.
But it will hurt them as a free agency destination in 2017, which has to factor into Denver’s calculus. What good is clearing room if no one wants to sign? Though cap space will be more of an asset next summer than it was this year, you still need the core in place to sell free agents on it. Which brings us back to their team.
Denver’s youth movement has gone absolutely gangbusters, and their player development staff should be lauded. Beyond Jokic’s emergence as a budding star, Barton, Harris, and Lauvergne all made huge strides last season. Barton might have the best contract of any non-rookie in the NBA, and counts for just $3.53 million against the cap each of the next two seasons. He filled Chandler’s void on the wing perfectly, turning into a unlikely, if solid three-point shooter at age 25.
Harris and Barton both compete for minutes in a clogged backcourt, a product of Denver’s raw asset collection. There are diminishing returns when developing first-round picks on teams already rich with youth -- a lesson James Young has been taught the hard way. Throwing Murray and Beasley alongside Mudiay, Barton and Harris could stunt one’s development, a reality any rebuilding team has to face.
Ideally, the Nuggets continue to develop their core and find takers for Faried and Chandler. Time is on their side here -- Jokic’s deal is eternal by second-round pick standards, running through 2018-2019 at just $1.4 million AAV. Mudiay is also under contract through 2019, and Harris expires just one year earlier. Assuming Connelly doesn’t pull a Larry Bird, the trio of Murray/Hernangomez/Beasley are locked up through 2020. There’s no rush in Denver.
This team won’t win a ton next season, and their rebuild is far from finished. Just ask Boston whether assets necessarily equal a star. They still need to figure out what they have in Mudiay, and work out the kinks when it comes to their center rotation. But it’s hard to deny what so many fans are beginning to notice -- this group might be special, and should not be overlooked.