There are numerous routes to building a competitive team and all require the same two ingredients: luck and the acquisition of star players. A cookie-cutter avenue to success does not exist. With three mechanisms to improve: the draft, trades and free agency, teams execute moves the best they can given their destination market appeal and the talent level on the roster when new leadership takes control. Small market franchises typically rely on the draft to acquire star talent, as they lack the destination appeal to be a free agency draw. And of course with the lottery system in place even having the worst record doesn’t guarantee the No. 1 overall pick, the surest bet to landing a star.
It’s possible to build a star core drafting outside the top-5, as the Indiana Pacers have showcased drafting Paul George, an elite two-way wing, at No. 10 overall and selecting burgeoning star and complimentary unicorn Myles Turner No. 11. But that case is more outlier than the norm. If leadership takes control of a franchise that already has star talent with the trench work laid, ala Bryan Colangelo in Philadelphia, that obviously expedites the timeline and frees up trade opportunities. If you aren’t drafting stars or acquiring the draft capital to flip for stars in the rare occasion one becomes available, you’re likely a destination franchise with a star to draw players. Those situations are few and far between.
The Denver Nuggets, under general manager Tim Connelly opted for the hybrid approach, building through the draft and via trades but not outright committing to “tanking”. Upon taking office, Connelly quickly showcased his international scouting prowess, selecting Rudy Gobert with the No. 27 pick and acquiring rotation big man Joffrey Lauvergne, one of the best picks No. 55 or lower in the draft in the last decade. Unfortunately, Connelly traded Gobert to the Utah Jazz where he’s now emerging as the league’s premier rim protector and a top-10 center.
When Connelly took over for Masai Ujiri after the latter relocated to Toronto, Connelly began with a roster largely consisting of the fallout from the Carmelo Anthony trade. Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Timofey Mozgov (a restricted free agent), key pieces in the Anthony deal, paired with Ty Lawson to create the core of the new regime’s roster. Andre Iguodala, the team’s best player at the time, was an unrestricted free agent. Connelly capitalized on Iguodala potentially leaving without any returning compensation by dealing him via sign-and-trade to the Golden State Warriors. In that deal Denver received Randy Foye via sign-and-trade, a future second round pick from the Warriors and a trade exception. After locking up Mozgov to an affordable deal and signing J.J. Hickson, a player the Cleveland Cavaliers once notably refused to part with to acquire Amar’e Stoudemire in his pseudo-prime, the Nuggets moved forward.
After sustaining a 36-46 season, 11th in the Western Conference and right in the dreaded middle of the league, the Nuggets landed in the 11th spot in the lottery. Connelly astutely drafted Doug McDermott as part of a draft day deal with the Chicago Bulls, trading back to acquire two picks from Chicago: another European big man Jusuf Nurkic and Michigan State wing Gary Harris, a deal that looks tremendous in hindsight. The Nuggets also selected perhaps their greatest pick to date, European standout big man Nikola Jokic at No. 41. After dealing Evan Fournier and the draft rights to 56th pick Devyn Marble, the Nuggets again pressed on into the season, this time without any significant offseason changes.
The 2014-15 season brought upon three major developments. The first was Kenneth Faried’s four-year, $50 million rookie scale extension. Faried, an energy big with a propensity to grab every rebound, immediately translated to the league with his motor. However, he was never a plus defender, didn’t have the positional versatility to swing to the 5 consistently with his lack of rim protection and wasn’t a shooting threat beyond the restricted area. Thus, Faried was essentially the anti-analytical big man for the modern game, and struck his new contract just in time.
The second was the Mozgov trade to a desperate Cleveland Cavaliers team in early January 2015 to appease LeBron James, netting two protected first round picks — a brilliant leverage play. Finally at the trade deadline, Connelly flipped Aaron Afflalo’s expiring contract for a lottery protected first round pick and Will Barton, one of the final expiring contract for first round pick trades we’ve seen, the pick which ended up conveying and Barton of whom ended up being the best player in the trade. Connelly also dealt JaVale McGee into the Philadelphia 76ers’ cap space, unloading the heavily protected Oklahoma City pick to do so, and signed Lauvergne to a very reasonable three-year contract.
Fast-forward to the 2015 draft after Denver finished 30-52, the 7th worst record in the league, the Nuggets selected lead guard Emmanuel Mudiay No. 7 overall, a celebrated move throughout the league (more on this later). Connelly buttressed that acquisition by locking up Nikola Jokic to a four-year Chandler Parsons contract with a team option after the third year, allowing the team to control right of first refusal in restricted free agency should they elect to. Will Barton was then signed to an incredibly agreeable three-year, $11 million deal, giving the Nuggets two of the best value contracts signed in free agency along with Jokic.
Instead of locking up free agents on long-term contracts, the Nuggets shrewdly utilized cap space to renegotiate and extend Wilson Chandler’s and Danilo Gallinari’s contracts, likely better players than what they could have acquired in the open market and with less long-term financial commitment. Lastly, unfortunate off-the-rails Ty Lawson due to alcohol abuse was dealt to the Houston Rockets for a lottery protected 2016 first round pick. Lawson would go on to be waived by Houston that season and signed by the Indiana Pacers to a minimum contract, rendering it a huge win for the Nuggets in retrospect.
The rest of the 2015-16 season played out in less dynamic fashion transaction wise and was quiet outside of a deadline deal that netted Denver two second round picks and D.J. Augustin, with Randy Foye’s expiring contract going to Oklahoma City. Denver’s best two players, Gallinari and Chandler, missed 29 games and the entire season respectively, leading to a 33-49 finish, good for seventh in the draft lottery.
We know how the rest of the events unfolded. The Nuggets selected Kentucky sharp-shooter Jamal Murray No. 7 overall, and both the Houston and Portland picks conveyed, resulting in the selections of international forward Juan Hernangomez at No. 15 and Florida State wing Malik Beasley at No. 19. After dealing Lauvergne to the Thunder, due to a positional roster crunch at the 5 spot, for two conditional second rounders and re-signing Darrell Arthur, the Nuggets entered this season largely the same.
Why was that trip through recent transactional history necessary? Because it paints the reality of the small market franchise dilemma perfectly, and sheds light on just how difficult building a sustainable successful team is. Tracing Connelly’s steps, you’d be hard-pressed to find a true pivot point where the team missed on a legitimate opportunity to draft a star or acquire one. The four best arguments are: keeping Gobert in 2013, capitalizing on Faried’s trade value while it was at its highest, trading Gallinari with two years left on his contract prior to the trade deadline last year, or drafting Devin Booker, Justise Winslow or Myles Turner instead of Mudiay in 2015.
As for the first, Gobert isn’t a star, and it’s arguable whether or not he is an upgrade over Jokic especially when you consider Jokic’s rare playmaking at the position. Addressing the second, we don’t know what Faried’s trade value was and how much the league overcorrected for his trade value in the modern game. As for the third, we again don’t know what Gallinari’s trade value was last year, especially given his injury concerns. He’s a top-35 player when healthy, and subjectively from an outsider’s vantage point it’s unlikely the Nuggets would have received fair value at last year’s deadline. The fourth argument looks like the strongest thus far, as Mudiay has largely been an inefficient unmitigated disaster as a pro, but it’s still early enough that you can’t fully condemn that pick.
If you operate from the dreaded middle as a small market team you not only can’t miss, but even if you don’t miss there’s no guarantee that you’ll ascend. Denver took the Daryl Morey approach: acquire assets and lie in the weeds until an opportunity to acquire a star presents itself. The only problem is the opportunities to acquire stars are rare, and there is no concrete way to anticipate such an event. So where does that leave Denver now and looking toward the future?
The Nuggets look to be on a collision course for a mid-to-low level lottery pick again this year, as their leaky defense, currently 23rd in the league in defensive efficiency, doesn’t look to be playoff caliber, and again they wont be egregiously bad enough to net significant ping-pong ball odds. Some teams struggle to find eight or nine legitimate rotation players to feel comfortable with on a nightly basis. The Nuggets are a rarity in having a surplus of quality rotation guys. Everyone on their roster outside of veteran presence Mike Miller and recently signed Alonzo Gee has shown to possess some rotation value. The phrase “too much of any good thing” applies in full here.
The issue starts at the center position. Both Jokic and Nurkic are quality starting 5s in the league, with the former demonstrating last year he might be a top-10 positional talent there. Unfortunately, neither have the athleticism to play the 4, rendering Jokic miscast over the eight games he started at the 4 to begin the season. The “Jurkic” lineup had a net rating of -15.4 in 103 minutes this year, per NBA.com, and it really hurt Jokic’s game specifically. Jokic is one of the most skilled 5s in the league, possessing an outlier passing, handling and shooting combination. The skill advantage he has over most traditional big men with his insane perimeter skills is considerable. That advantage is lessened versus more agile 4s. On the other side of the ball, Jokic doesn’t have the foot speed to track stretch bigs on the perimeter, and his defense has taken a hit as a result.
Nurkic brings value to the 5 spot in his own right. He’s a 280-pound bull with dancing bear quick feet, allowing him quiet mobility and range to defend pick-and-roll successfully at the 5 position. He’s nowhere near the offensive player that Jokic is, and he doesn’t protect the rim as well, but he’s skilled enough and is an albatross on the offensive glass to the point he could end up being a two-way player.
The other positional logjams are at the wing and 4 spots, where the Nuggets are trying to open up minutes for Harris, Gallinari, Faried, Chandler, Barton, Murray, and Hernangomez. Injuries to Harris and Barton to start the year have made Nuggets head coach Michael Malone’s job easier, but juggling 12 guys is no small task. Murray can kick over to backup lead guard behind Mudiay, and Chandler plays the 4 a lot, but that eats into Nelson’s and Faried’s minutes respectively, not to mention Arthur’s.
While the roster push is real, the single biggest issue with the Nuggets right now is Emmanuel Mudiay’s lack of progression. Malone has voiced his frustration with Mudiay this year, insisting he needs to make better decisions and make plays for others. He continues to be a dreadful shooter and an inexplicably bad finisher, which makes him a non-threat from all three levels offensively. To pair with that, his turnover rate has actually increased over last year, and his assist percentage has dropped from 29 to 20.5, per Basketball-Reference. While Jokic has looked like Denver’s best prospect since last year, Mudiay was the swing guy in Denver’s ascension. They needed and need him to be a star, and thus far, he’s been the polar opposite.
All is not lost however, as Jamal Murray looks like the shooter and scorer he was built up to be. After starting 0-18 from field to begin the year, Murray is up to 43.3 percent from 3. His off-screen shooting has been tremendous as expected, where he’s finished 33 possessions on a 1.30 points per possession clip, good for the 86th percentile. To have true star impact however, Murray will likely have to be a starting lead guard, for his impact has a lower ceiling as an off-ball player because he’s a bad bet to defend even adequately. While showcasing some lead handler skill thus far, mostly in a reserve role, Murray has been very inefficient as a pick-and-roll finisher, sporting a mere .45 points per possession mark on 47 finishing possessions, good for the 5th percentile. Murray is still just 19, and he’s actually been able to fill a role early on in the season, which is impressive for a rookie. He can really fill it up when he has it going, and looks like a dynamite sixth man at his floor.
Overall, Denver has a lengthy and multifaceted aggregation of B-level assets. Gallinari, the team’s best player in a vacuum, provides go-to shot-creation and the elite ability to draw fouls. He’s still just 28 and with his scoring prowess and ability to kick to the four spot he has allure for a contender, even on a de-facto expiring deal. Chandler, the team’s best player this year, provides some slashing and conceptual 3-and-D appeal (though he’s not really proficient at either), with a similar ability to provide heavy minutes at the four. Faried and Arthur both have value as energy bigs off the bench, and Faried’s remaining two-years at high-end rotation money is much more palatable as a trade chip after the cap spike. Barton also provides legitimate rotation appeal as a cost-controlled piece to teams who like to push the pace as a transition dynamo.
Outside of proven veterans and the aforementioned young players, the Nuggets also have recent first round picks Harris, Hernangomez, and Beasley. Harris has the cleanest fit as a 3-and-D wing with some ball-skills if he stays healthy, and could be a two-way secondary handler. Hernangomez is a bouncy combo-forward who is a ball magnet on the glass and has flashed both range potential as a shooter and the ability to defend in space. Beasley is more of a one-skill shooter at this juncture but conceptually could be a 3-and-D wing with his frame.
Denver also has all of their own first round picks in the future with no Stepien tie-ups, as well as Memphis’ 2017 first rounder on the way, which is likely to be conveyed being only top 5 protected. Right now Denver’s pick projects to land No. 9 overall while Memphis’ would be at No. 24, per Tankathon.com. Thus, while valuable chips, neither are game-changers.
Luckily for Denver, they’ve positioned themselves to be one of the first teams that other teams call should a star become available, with the Boston Celtics and Phoenix Suns really their main asset rivals. The Celtics likely have the upper hand with the Brooklyn Nets plummeting play of late, having the rights to swap picks in 2017. But Denver will likely at least get a shot at the table. The question persists on what star player that will be, and your guess is as good as mine.
DeMarcus Cousins is perhaps the likeliest top 15 player to get traded due to the Sacramento Kings’ cultural issues and his status as an unrestricted free agent in two years. The clock is ticking, but Cousins plays the same position as the Nuggets’ best prospect and their deepest position. Unless there is a renegotiation and extension element to the trade, of which the Nuggets do have cap room to execute, the risk is probably too great to take on. That leaves other reported stars like LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Love potentially available, but both are in good situations, and the Cavaliers especially won’t likely risk any cultural interference to a title team.
John Wall’s situation is definitely one to monitor should the wheels fall off in Washington. Wall has two years remaining on his contract after this season, which gives Denver extra incentive to pay more for him with more time to construct a winning product around him to retain him long-term. A foreseeable package of Mudiay, Nurkic, and both young fillers & matching contracts along with two 2017 first round picks for Wall and matching salary (there are many options here) could be worked out. But the Wizards are already capped out next the two offseasons if they re-sign Otto Porter Jr. as expected, and their situation doesn’t scream reload. On a lesser scale, there are players like Eric Bledsoe and Derrick Favors potentially available on the market, and while both are very good players neither is a star who moves the needle.
The Nuggets already have 12 contracts guaranteed for next season, with Gallinari their only core player potentially not locked up if he chooses to opt out. They can also create around $44 million in cap space depending on Gallinari’s decision. Denver really doesn’t need anymore non-elite draft pick capital, and are a good bet not to keep both first rounders. If they could package multiple pieces to move up in the draft for a high pick, assuming they don’t luck out in the lottery, they would probably do so, but those trades to get into the top 5 are almost deal-breakers for non-immediate stars.
The Nuggets will continue to play the waiting game and hope for lottery luck while banking on Jokic, Murray or Mudiay becoming a star. Such is life for the dreaded middle.