The Denver Nuggets’ Secret Advantage
The Denver Nuggets were a revelation last season, continuing to win games after the lengthy Carmelo Anthony saga ended in a blockbuster trade with the New York Knicks.
Incoming players Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, Wilson Chandler and Timofey Mozgov all found ways to contribute. Gallinari showed signs of being an NBA star in his own right. Would the Nuggets be a better team with a well-balanced attack . . . or would they miss the powerful but individualistic scoring from Anthony?
When Denver kept winning, it looked like the team concept was more potent but then the Nuggets lacked punch in their first-round loss in five games to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Then again, as great as Carmelo was for the Nuggets through the years, his team only got out of the first round once in seven tries.
Now Denver may be one of the few teams in the league well positioned for both present day and the foreseeable future. Still, a lot rides on the choices they make this summer.
The lockout has halted any progress but assuming the season isn’t cancelled, the Nuggets have a clear priority ahead of them . . . resign Brazilian center Nene. One of the more underrated big men in the league, Nene is an efficient, dependable low-post scorer. Without him Denver becomes almost exclusively a perimeter team until they find another to man the middle.
HOOPSWORLD’s Yannis Koutroupis attacked the issue recently, noting “keeping starting center Nene is a must for the Nuggets.”
It’s really that simple.
The only free agent even remotely close to Nene is Marc Gasol, and he’s a restricted free agent. The Memphis Grizzlies have every intention to bring back Gasol. Unless the rules change significantly, Denver simply won’t be able to outbid. A number of teams will court Nene, including the Miami HEAT, but the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) . . . the one that doesn’t exist yet . . . will likely give the Nuggets the financial advantage. Another answer might be Tyson Chandler but he’s more of a defensive-minded role player and the Nuggets truly need a guy they can dump the ball to in the post.
Nene need to up his aggressiveness and consistency. Foul trouble often takes him out of games and at times he has difficulty earning calls for himself. Still, Nene’s strengths far outweigh his flaws. Given the available options, he’s truly the best choice. It then becomes a matter of how high the team is willing to go and how open Nene is to stay in Denver.
If he sticks, this is a team already with enough talent to avoid the dreaded rebuilding phase.
If not, the Nuggets will struggle with their lack of size.
Of course if Nene does leave, Denver stands to be significantly under the cap once the offseason eventually begins in earnest.
Re-sign Arron Afflalo
The Nuggets have another move to make if they want to remain competitive. Guard Arron Afflalo is a hard-working, younger player already with veteran experience. He defends well and can hit the three. He’s not the kind of shooting guard who will carry your team a la Kobe Bryant but Arron is a championship-level role player.
The good news for the Nuggets is that Afflalo is a restricted free agent so they should have little difficulty keeping him beyond this season (and possibly for multiple years).
With point guards Ty Lawson and Andre Miller, Afflalo, Gallinari and Nene, Denver has a nice core to work with in the Western Conference. The San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers each have aging stars. The Nuggets, with Nene, will be climbing as the others begin to fall.
The Nuggets are finally done with the gigantic contract the New Jersey Nets gave Kenyon Martin. He might have been worth retaining at a reasonable dollar but he’s off to China with no opt-out.
Al Harrington can play either forward spot, but is probably better as a reserve at this point in his career. Twenty-second pick Keith Faried is an intriguing prospect but still needs to prove himself as a rookie.
Harrington, Faried and Mozgov might be enough for the Nuggets for the coming season but it’s not even close if they don’t retain Nene.
Free agent options might include West, Andrei Kirilenko, Carl Landry, Glen Davis or Kris Humphries. Jeff Green is restricted with the Boston Celtics and probably not enough of a power player for Denver’s need. The Nuggets will have to invest somewhere at the four, even if it’s just to fill the spot while Faried develops.
Keeping Nene at five makes power forward less of an emergency but still something that needs addressing.
Harrington has a lengthy four-year deal but it’s worth noting that only half the salary for his final two years is guaranteed. At some point in the future, that might make him an attractive trade piece.
Rebuild Bench . . . Replace Wilson Chandler and J.R. Smith
The Nuggets have lost two key reserves to the lockout with both Chandler and Smith choosing to sign in China (without opt-out) clauses rather than wait for what could be a cancelled season. The team does have Gary Forbes and picked up Jordan Hamilton in the draft (26th via trade with the Dallas Mavericks) as potential backups to Gallinari at the three but is either ready for a major role?
As noted below, the Nuggets have two starting-caliber point guards in Ty Lawson and Andre Miller. Coach George Karl may opt to play both simultaneously in stretches of rotation. If Afflalo somehow departs, Miller would be the closest thing to a shooting guard on the roster.
Regardless, the Nuggets need another swingman. Jamal Crawford might be worth a look with his ability to pour in points off the bench but he may be cost prohibitive. Other veterans worth a look might include Jason Richardson, Caron Butler, Tayshaun Prince and Shane Battier . . . each depending on price, potential role and length of contract.
With a commitment to the Gallinari/Afflalo tandem, whoever else Denver brings in would need to accept a bench position. Additionally, Smith, Martin and/or Chandler could be possible postseason additions for the Nuggets once the season ends in China.
Who Starts at the Point?
On a less significant note, the Nuggets need to choose a starting point guard between Miller (acquired for the departed Felton) and young, upstart Lawson. Miller has essentially started his entire career, but Lawson is one of the brighter young points in the league. Ty started over Felton last year, is he willing to go back to being a reserve?
Given Miller has a one left on his contract and Lawson is potentially a long-term piece, it may be time for Dre to join Lamar Odom among the ranks of veteran sixth man.
From a personnel standpoint if the year is lost, Denver has only three fully guaranteed players in 2012 (Harrington, Andersen and Lawson). Timofey Mozgov has a partial guarantee but could be trimmed if the Nuggets needed a little more salary cap space. Gallinari will probably be a restricted free agent in 2012 but even with his cap hold, the Nuggets may have a massive amount of spending power in a year when stars Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Deron Williams and a host of others are expected to be free agents.
Wilson Chandler as a restricted free agent would remain restricted next summer for the Nuggets (assuming the CBA doesn’t change the rules on that front).
Of course that spending power may reduce significantly if the team retains Nene and Afflalo. Additionally the depth to replace Chandler, Smith and Martin may not come on one-year deals.
This is a key moment for the Nuggets to decide their fate as far as the summer of 2012. Do they want to be in the mix as a team with cap room? There’s a lot to be said for trying to put the best team possible together today instead of waiting for a possible maybe a year from now. If the cap room is gone, trading is always an option although the league may do away with the sign and trade in the new CBA.
Regardless, the Nuggets have enough to stay competitive if they decide to keep Nene and invest in their developing core.
Even without the star-power of Carmelo Anthony, Denver may be able to put together a squad that goes deep into the playoffs year after year.