After barely missing the playoffs, can the Denver Nuggets improve in the short-term while simultaneously building towards a brighter future?
The Denver Nuggets narrowly missed the playoffs after losing an overtime thriller to the Wolves on the final day of the regular season. In similar fashion to 2016-2017, the Nuggets got by on their offensive prowess for most of the year. They delivered another top-ten finish in offensive rating, while bordering on a bottom-five level in defensive efficiency.
Denver’s failure to improve defensively was disappointing, but the team won 46 games despite missing defensive stalwart Paul Millsap for more than half of the season. Had he been healthy, a playoff berth would have been all but certain. The fact that Millsap, who turns 34 next February, is the sturdiest defender on this team is alarming though. The roster has significant holes, the most notable of which are defense and depth on the wing. Denver is in a tricky luxury tax situation, so finding long-term solutions to those issues this summer is unrealistic.
As matters currently stand, the Nuggets are one of the more interesting teams in the NBA from a financial perspective. The franchise has mishmash of young pieces on rookie contracts and recent extensions, and veterans on less than friendly deals. Of course Denver also has the inexplicable Mason Plumlee contract, which deserves a category of its own! With a number of ugly contracts on the salary sheet and some big decisions to make regarding Nikola Jokic and Will Barton (more on them later), the Nuggets could be facing a hefty tax bill this coming season. The price of a potential luxury tax bill will likely dictate how management approaches this coming offseason; the Nuggets have never shown much of a willingness to pay the tax before.
Most of the bad salary clogging up Denver’s books will expire in the summer of 2019 though. And the Nuggets can decline Paul Millsap’s enormous $30.5 million team option that same summer, opening up max cap space. Given those facts, Denver should proceed with caution this offseason. They don’t have to tools to add another key piece to the Jokic-Murray-Harris core this summer. The front office should thus have a few clear goals heading into July. First, locking up Jokic on a five-year deal should be the chief priority. He’s the franchise guy and they have an opportunity to keep him long-term.
Then the Nuggets should focus on mitigating the value of their tax bill by looking to shed the salaries of Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler and Darrell Arthur via trade if possible. They could also use the stretch provision, but then those deals would stay on their books for three more years at lower figures. And as far as free agency goes, Denver should pursue team friendly, short deals that won’t substantially hinder their cap space in July of 2019. I doubt that they’ll look to use the full mid-level exception, but they could dip into the MLE to get some help on the wing.
Cutting costs and filling in needs with stopgaps is not the recipe for an exciting summer. But that’s probably the most prudent strategy the Nuggets can follow right now. With good health, Denver should be a solid playoff contender. If the franchise’s top objective in 2018-2019 is to make the playoffs, some additions on the margins could really help. Here are a few guys that the Nuggets should pursue this offseason.