Denver Nuggets Offseason
The Denver Nuggets have some important decisions to make this offseason, many of which could drastically alter their chances of a championship during their window of contention.
A dramatic postseason has raised expectations for Mile High Basketball going forward, led by All-Star Nikola Jokic (who also finished top 10 in MVP voting) and the white-hot Jamal Murray, who averaged 26.5/6.6/4.8 on 45.3 3P%. Those two pieces have been locked down until at least the 2023 playoffs, and so the head-scratcher for the Nuggets is what pieces they can add in order to overcome the stacked Western Conference and win their first championship. As the 2020 Draft approaches and the new salary cap is announced, Denver GM Tim Connelly will have some difficult choices to make on who to keep, who to cut, and who to trust.
1- Jerami Grant and the Power Forward Position
For the longest time, Denver had 4-time All-Star and max-contract Paul Millsap as the backbone of their defense, providing veteran leadership and a steady hand that allowed the defensively questionable Jokic and Murray to express their talents on the offensive end of the court. This has changed, as Millsap is now 35 and is perhaps looking for a final payday, which he would certainly not find with a Denver team that wants to win now.
Luckily for the Nuggets, the Oklahoma City Thunder's trade escapades earlier in the season allowed for Denver to pick up power forward Jerami Grant for only one first-round pick, and he's been essential for the team throughout the regular season and the playoffs. Providing the extra length and athleticism in the frontcourt that Jokic sometimes lacks, Grant can guard the star forwards of the league while being highly serviceable as a 3pt shooter or an explosive cutter (a key role in Jokic's offense). Though Millsap started at the 4 for the majority of the season, Grant has taken that spot going into the postseason and has performed admirably, being a key contributor in the Nuggets' run to the Western Conference Finals.
Nuggets fans see Grant as the successor to Millsap in this team, but his contract expires this season. Having (smartly) declined his player option of only 9 million for the 2020-21 season, Grant will be looking to be paid what he deserves. The Nuggets will be hoping for Grant to remain in Denver for anywhere between 15-20 million, with most expecting a figure in the higher end of that range. Undoubtedly other teams will be courting a valuable role player for their rosters, but with most sources claiming that he is happy and preferring Denver as his future, the Nuggets will only be restrained by their wallet and the salary cap.
If Denver will be trying to re-sign Grant at all costs, then this leaves the question of Millsap's future with the team. Millsap still provided invaluable support in the playoffs, including his burst of energy in the third quarter of Game 5 against the Clippers, leading to the Nuggets' eventual comeback to win the series. Unless Millsap expresses a desire to remain on the team for a significantly lower salary as a veteran presence, Denver fans will be saying their farewells to perhaps their most high-profile free agent signing of all time.
2- Jokic's Backup
Mason Plumlee has been a reliable, defensive-oriented backup center that Malone could rely on for consistent minutes (as well as the occasional Twin Towers lineup), but with his contract expiration, his future on the team is highly questionable.
The Nuggets would take a heavy hit by paying a backup $14 million annually, yet Plumlee's role is important as a rim protector that can comfortably fit into the second unit to allow Jokic some valuable rest. However, his performance in the postseason was subpar, being a niche option that was unable to guard the best centers in the league much better than Nikola Jokic could (whose defense has improved greatly). One enduring memory for many Nuggets' fans will be Anthony Davis' buzzer beater in Game 2 of their series, where Mason Plumlee unsuccessfully attempted a rotation that led to an open, game-winning 3. His deficiencies also lie in his horrid free throw shooting, which has repeatedly been abused by fouling teams in crunch time.
It is highly unlikely that a capable player like Plumlee will opt to re-sign in Denver for less, and so other options must be explored for Jokic's backup, preferably a defensive-oriented, traditional big-man. Dream candidates include Nerlens Noel, Marc Gasol, Noah Vonleh (currently on the roster), Willie Cauley-Stein, Kyle O'Quinn, Serge Ibaka, or utilizing the aforementioned Jerami Grant at the 5 occasionally. One highly enticing idea is to sign Demarcus Cousins on a one-year contract (similar to the ones he signed on the Warriors and Lakers) in a high-risk high-reward scenario. When you consider that Cousins has a previous strong relationship with Nuggets' head coach Mike Malone, it is possible that the Denver Front Office will be exploring this option.
Lastly, and perhaps most excitingly, we must consider the 7'2'', 20 year-old prospect known as Bol Bol. Though some might consider him the obvious replacement for the backup C, Bol Bol is not a polished or developed player, and his overall abilities on the defensive end of the court are highly suspect at best, and terribly unproven at worst. Bol is not in a position where he can inherit meaningful starting minutes at a blistering pace immediately, and Malone generally drip-feeds newer players into the starting lineup very slowly, as Michael Porter Jr. learned this season. If Bol does eventually get minutes this season in any capacity, expect it to be in the latter half of the season. Denver needs someone to cover for Jokic in the beginning of the season especially given Jokic's historically slow starts, and so signing a proven, steady backup will be a priority.
3. Potential Trades
Jrue Holiday: A fringe all-star calibre player that provides immense defensive depth and size, alongside a reliable 3pt shot, Holiday feels, looks, and plays like a player that Denver could immediately incorporate into their starting lineup. The biggest roadblock in this trade is Holiday's expensive price tag, which would undoubtedly take at least Gary Harris, Will Barton, draft picks, and perhaps one of Bol/Morris/Dozier. If MPJ is off the table (as he should be), then the Nuggets will have trouble contending with other packages (including one from Miami that reportedly includes hotshot rookie Tyler Herro).
EDIT: The Milwaukee Bucks have swooped in to win the Jrue Holiday sweepstakes, trading away Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, 3 First Round Picks, and 2 Pick Swaps. According to Mike Singer, a beat writer for the Denver Post, the Nuggets were shocked at what the Pelicans managed to haul. It seems like the Pelicans really toyed with the Bucks' fear of losing Giannis next offseason, and traded everything for Holiday's services. Denver could never offer anything in that range, especially considering our lack of draft picks and likely refusal to use Michael Porter Jr. as a part of trade negotiations. This one is off the books.
A Top-10 Draft Pick: Tim Connelly is known for dabbling in the draft market even when not expected to (see: the acquisition of Bol Bol in 2019), so perhaps the Nuggets will be looking to ship some expensive players (Will Barton as the primary suspect) for a rookie to clear up cap space. Connelly perhaps sees something in this draft class that many are undervaluing due to the COVID-19 pandemic stopping college basketball, and restricting the extent to which NBA Front Offices have been able to scout college players. The Nuggets will be looking for a 3pt sharpshooter or a defensive stalwart, which perhaps might take the form of Issac Okoro, Devin Vassell, or, optimistically, Onyeka Okongwu.
Bradley Beal: It's felt like his departure from the Wizards has been brewing for several years now, but it's unlikely that the Nuggets (or any team) will be able to acquire him. He has expressed repeated desire to remain in Washington, and has signed that two-year, 72-million extension. The only way Denver gets Beal is if a) Beal has a sudden change of heart, and b) they're willing to part ways with MPJ.
Any of the Indiana Pacers: Oladipo, Turner, and Sabonis are all enticing options, and all equally unrealistic. All three have expressed a desire to either stay in Indiana or move to other franchises, and so it seems unlikely that any of the Pacers will be joining Denver.
Aaron Gordon: Stuck on a team with no real direction, Gordon would likely not entirely balk at the idea of moving to a contending franchise. Trading Monte Morris (an underpaid backup PG) and Gary Harris (plus some picks) might do the trick, and Denver would immediately gain some size, some shooting, and a player that can carry a second unit and defend capably against guards and forwards. The West is stacked with offensive talent in the backcourt, so giving Grant a partner might be an interesting option should Denver offload some of their smaller guards.
No Trade: The Nuggets don't really need to take a chance on a new player, given that their current squad was only 3 games away from reaching the NBA finals. Most reports and fans actually expect Denver to mostly run it back with a very similar squad, as the culture and team morale is at an all-time high. Mixing in new players and trading away much of the locker room might be a dangerous and risky strategy, one that GM Tim Connelly has expressed concern over.
How would I approach this offseason if I were the Denver Nuggets' FO? Quite simply, any decisions start and end with ensuring that Jerami Grant stays on the team. If that means paying the man 20 million, then you do that and build the rest of your strategy around that. Grant is immeasurably important to what the Nuggets need, and so keeping the young 3 and D wing will trump all other decisions. After that, signing a Mid Level Exception center and letting Plumlee/Millsap walk would be likely, as it would be impossible to get both players the contracts they deserve.
After that, trying to sign Jrue Holiday (who I believe will be too expensive for the Nuggets) using Monte Morris, Gary Harris, Bol Bol, and Will Barton as bait would be a side project while you also try to retain P.J. Dozier, Torrey Craig, Noah Vonleh, and Troy Daniels, in that order.
The window has just opened for the Nuggets. This offseason will cement their future contending lineup for the next five years, and ultimately determine whether or not they will be able to get that elusive, first championship.
Class of 2023