Last August, I wrote a piece on Allen Iverson titled: "The hardest man to trade in the NBA?" (Which, in hindsight should have been titled "The second hardest man to trade in the NBA?" as Kenyon Martin was and still is the hardest guy to get rid of.) In that column, I threw out three proposed trades for The Answer and, lo and behold, my third proposed trade came to fruition - even though I only gave the A.I. for Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess deal a 5% chance of happening.
With NBA free agency kicking off at 12:01am EST Wednesday and drumbeats from the media to the fans getting louder and louder for the Nuggets to make a big move for a big guy, I will present four possible acquisitions/trades that the Nuggets should seriously consider for this offseason. Could I actually call one of these right again?
Before jumping into this new round of proposed deals, let's do a quick recap of the Nuggets dreadful salary cap situation. As detailed a few weeks ago, nine players - including the broken down Steven Hunter and the non-Nugget Antonio McDyess - are already on the books for about $68.7 million. Just $2.8 million shy of the NBA's projected luxury tax threshold of about $71.5 million. And that doesn't account for re-signing Linas Kleiza for $2.7 million (it should be noted that the Nuggets have already made their qualifying offer to Kleiza, meaning they can match any offer from an opposing team), Chris Andersen for about $4 million and Ty Lawson for about $1.2 million. (Note this doesn't include re-signing Anthony Carter and/or Dahntay Jones.)
Add all that up, and for just 10 active players the Nuggets are staring at a $76.6 million payroll. And that's with no veteran backup point guard (like A.C.), no veteran defensive two-guard (like Dahntay) and, most importantly, no "big" man as the columnists, bloggers and fans universally believe the Nuggets have to get to keep up with the Lakers and Spurs. For the purposes of this exercise, let's conservatively estimate that the Nuggets add another $3.5 million in payroll to fill out a 14-man roster (three NBDL-type guys making about $750,000 apiece plus a re-signing of A.C. or Dahntay at around $1.3 million), and the Nuggets projected payroll, pre-tax, would be about $80 million, or $8.5 million over the tax line (meaning Kroenke would have to pay out an additional $8.5 million to the NBA). Note that the Nuggets get back $2.25 million from their record sale of the 34th overall pick which will lessen the pain somewhat from the tax payment, making Kroenke's total payroll costs for 2009-10 - for players only - could amount to $86.25 million. Yikes.
Even with A.C. and/or Dahntay (two key pieces to the Nuggets 2008-09 success whether you want to admit it or not), I have the Nuggets finishing third behind the Lakers and Spurs and tied with the Trail Blazers. Oh, and before we forget, thank you Yao Ming for possibly missing much of 2009-10 or the Nuggets might be fifth in the West.
Given this salary cap mess, how do the Nuggets get back into the conversation alongside the Lakers and the Spurs? Nuggets coach George Karl has already said that the Nuggets roster as-is can improve, implying that they can return to the conference finals or perhaps make their first ever NBA Finals with the roster as-is (assuming Birdman is re-signed). While in theory that's possible, I don't trust it will happen. I already brought up my concerns about the Nuggets - including coach Karl - performing with nothing to prove next season. This is precisely why I don't want Karl extended until after the postseason concludes next year. At least one member of the Nuggets has to have the incentive to prove that 2008-09 wasn't a fluke, and whether it's fair or not, that person should be Karl as the Nuggets are under no obligation to extend him now.
As for the players, questions abound. Will Carmelo Anthony play like he did in Games 1 and 2 of the conference finals for 82 games? Will J.R. Smith make the leap from inconsistent gunner to bona fide All-Star caliber shooting guard (after he gets out of jail, of course)? Will Kenyon Martin and Nene stay healthy for two straight seasons? Will a 33 year old Chauncey Billups have another 82-game, 33 minutes per night season in him plus playoffs? Will Birdman play with the same reckless abandon even though he has a fat contract? Will Ty Lawson supplant Anthony Carter as a credible backup point guard? And so on. If you ask me, those are too many questions for an organization to just sit on its hands this summer. If the Nuggets want to compete for a championship, they're going to have to make a big move and be willing to pay for it.
Before getting to these proposed deals, keep the following points in mind...
1) The Nuggets own a $9.8 million trade exception thanks to the A.I. deal. Meaning, they don't have to adhere to the "salaries have to be within 125% of each other" rule to make a deal. In other words, as long as Kroenke is willing to spend, the Nuggets can make almost any deal they want.
2) Any deal the Nuggets make will have to include Steven Hunter (pictured above in case you forgot who he is or what he looks like) and his expiring $3.7 million contract and/or Linas Kleiza, assuming the Nuggets keep him at $2.7 million for next season. Kroenke may be willing to greatly exceed the cap for a winner, but not on top of paying a non-factor like Hunter almost $4 million and Kleiza has to be thrown in because he offers inexpensive talent off the bench.
3) The Nuggets cannot include Nene, their most valuable trading asset not named Melo or J.R., in any deal. And before I'm accused of being "contradictory" for previously suggesting Nene be shipped out for someone like Andrew Bogut, note that I had the Nuggets staying within the tax threshold for any deals proposed in that column. If the Nuggets are to compete with the Lakers and Spurs, they'll need Nene plus a big man. (Unless of course you could turn Nene into Dwight Howard, which will never happen.)
4) I'm not proposing any deals for centers making more than $10 million per season for two or more seasons. This eliminates names like Bogut or Amare Stoudamire or Emeke Okafor or Andris Biedrins or Tyson Chandler, etc. The only way the Nuggets could get a guy like Bogut or Okafor and not be in luxury tax hell would be to part with Nene, which doesn't make the Nuggets better than the Lakers or the Spurs. And no one is taking K-Mart's contract until 2010, unless he's packaged with Melo or Smith - neither of whom is getting traded.
5) All of these trades involve teams that are either cash strapped or have owners looking to shed payroll for one reason or another. For example, when writing this I tried to find a way for the Nuggets to acquire Joakim Noah from the Bulls as a fifth possible deal, but the Bulls don't have any contracts bad enough (plus Noah makes next to nothing and has become very valuable) nor are they hurting financially enough to save a few million on a Hunter-for-Noah deal.
With that, I present four possible deals for the Nuggets to consider, in no particular order of preference...
Hunter and Kleiza to the Grizzlies for Marc Gasol and Greg Buckner
Why Memphis Would Do This: By drafting Hasheem Thabeet, the Grizzlies are signaling that Gasol won't be their center of the future. Moreover, with Juan Carlos Navarro vacating Memphis as soon as he could, Ricky Rubio refusing to even workout for the Grizzlies and brother Pau purposely taking games off to get himself traded, it's clear that the Grizzlies organization has worn out its welcome with basketball playing Spaniards. Plus, the paella in Memphis stinks (ok, I made that up). The bottom line is don't be surprised if Marc wants out and wants out now. But while Gasol might be unhappy and/or be on the market as a result, Hunter and Kleiza won't be enough to get him, hence where former Nugget Greg Buckner comes into play.
Why Denver Would Do This: Bringing in Gasol is a no-brainer for the Nuggets for several reasons. First, Gasol would fit in perfectly with what the Nuggets really need right now: a low cost, young, tough low post presence. Second, and you'll read this repeatedly as you review the other trade proposals, Gasol's acquisition would allow Nene to focus on just being a power forward, his natural position. And third, Marc would relish going head-to-head against big brother Pau when the Nuggets face off against the Lakers. Reacquiring Buckner - beyond the need to do so for salary purposes - actually makes sense, too. Not only does Buckner know the Nuggets' "system", but his defensive presence would alleviate the need for the Nuggets to re-sign Dahntay. (I'm not assuming for a second that Buckner is the player that Dahntay has become, but there's no way the Nuggets would be able to pay both shooting guards.)
Why Memphis Wouldn't Do This: If you caught ESPN's Chad Ford on his recent appearance on "The B.S. Report with Bill Simmons," he said that Grizzlies "GM" Chris Wallace - as a result of getting fleeced in the Pau Gasol trade - won't make any deals unless it's deemed he is the clear winner. Therefore, Wallace might insist on throwing in salary cancer Marko "Hot Wife, Bad Contract" Jaric in any Marc Gasol trade, rather than Buckner. However, since Jaric's inexcusably high salary would be too rich for the Nuggets blood, I believe Wallace would be amenable to doing this deal with Buckner thrown in, and take back Kleiza to make the salaries match up.
Why Denver Wouldn't Do This: If the Nuggets had to take back Jaric to make it work, forget it. Also, while a Gasol/Buckner for Hunter/Kleiza deal is basically a wash financially in year one, the Nuggets would be on the hook to pay Gasol and Buckner almost $8 million combined in 2010-11, forcing them to move K-Mart before the final year of his contract or they'd really be in tax hell.
Hunter and Kleiza to the Cavaliers for Zydrunas Ilgauskas
Why Cleveland Would Do This: By acquiring Shaquille O'Neal, the Cavaliers have a $68.3 million cap number for 10 active players, three of whom are named Tarence Kinsey (who?), Darnell Jackson (who?) and Jawad Williams (who?). By jettisoning Ilgauskas' $11.5 million one-year salary and taking Kleiza in the deal, they'd have $5 million to play with plus an extra scorer in Kleiza, something they desperately need.
Why Denver Would Do This: Even though Ilgauskas isn't a banger inside, the Nuggets desperately need a legit seven-foot center to free Nene up to play his natural position of power forward. If Nene could play the four spot healthy for an entire season, he might become a top ten power forward. Moreover, Ilgauskas can reliably hit an open mid-range or even long-range jump shot, something none of the Nuggets current big men can. Having Ilgauskas on board would actually spread the floor, rather than clog up the middle.
Why Cleveland Wouldn't Do This: Shaquille O'Neal is old and injury prone, and the one-two punch of O'Neal plus Ilgauskas gives Cleveland a great insurance policy on O'Neal and the best center tandem in the NBA.
Why Denver Wouldn't Do This: Bringing in Ilgauskas would cost Kroenke an additional $5 million, or $10 million total including the luxury tax payment that would come with this deal. Also, Ilgauskas isn't the interior rebounder the Nuggets badly need and you just know Ilgauskas - who's had a long stretch of healthy seasons - is due for an injury-riddled campaign.
Hunter and/or Kleiza to the Clippers for Marcus Camby
Why the Clippers Would Do This: This should be pretty obvious. Camby never fit into the Clippers' "system" and the Clippers are committed to Chris Kaman, thanks to his audacious contract, whether they like it or not. Plus, a Camby-for-Hunter straight up deal would save the Clippers almost $4 million. If Kleiza was thrown in, the Clippers would save only $1.25 million, but they would have more depth.
Why Denver Would Do This: Don't do a double take because, yes, I'm suggesting the Nuggets consider bringing back Marcus Camby. Just think about the positives. First, being in the final year of his contract, you know Camby is going play in almost every game and play hard for one more contract to close out his career. And keep in mind that with reduced minutes, nagging injuries and a bad situation Camby still put up 10.3 ppg, 11.1 rpg and 2.1 bpg last season. Second, he already knows the Nuggets' "system" and intimately knows all the players. Camby even played with Chauncey in Toronto in 1998. Third, as you'll see with all these proposed deals, Camby's presence frees up Nene to play power forward exclusively. Fourth, with Birdman coming back, Camby and Birdman could split the center position with 20-plus minutes apiece, guaranteeing good energy from each when they're on the floor. Fifth, even Camby naysayers have to admit that we were robbed of the Camby-K-Mart-Nene-Melo front line combination that could have done some serious damage in the West had they been given the opportunity to play together consistently, which never happened due to injuries.
Why the Clippers Wouldn't Do This: Kaman has been injury plagued and given that Camby will be miraculously healthy this season, why trade a solid backup center?
Why the Nuggets Wouldn't Do This: We heard rumblings on Camby's way out of Denver that he wasn't the selfless, team-first, defensive stopper that he was purported to be. At first I thought this was Nuggets management's way of spinning the trade, but I later heard from reliable sources that Camby allegedly cared more about his stats and his shots than what was best for the team. And the proof that the Nuggets were a better team without Camby was right in front of us all season long in 2008-09, both offensively and defensively. Plus, if Kleiza isn't included Camby would cost the Nuggets $4 million more than Hunter, forcing Kroenke to shell out $8 million to bring him back.
Hunter and/or Kleiza to the Pacers for Jeff Foster
Why Indiana Would Do This: To shed even more payroll in advance of the 2010 free agent class becoming available. Foster is owed $6.1 million this season and $6.7 million in 2010-2011. If Kleiza was thrown in, Indiana wouldn't save anything except their reputation for having at least six white players on their team at all times.
Why Denver Would Do This: Foster isn't your average, every day Stiff. He's actually pretty tough (just ask Melo's hand), can finish around the rim and, like Ilgauskas and Camby, his arrival would free up Nene to play power forward the entire game. Foster certainly wouldn't be afraid to mix it up inside with Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, Tim Duncan and so on and use his six fouls to their fullest extent. Plus, for next season anyway, Foster makes just $2.3 million more than Hunter.
Why Indiana Wouldn't Do This: I don't see why Indiana wouldn't do this, actually. They're not making the playoffs next year no matter what (unless they get in a time machine and send themselves back to the 1950s...alright, enough with the white guy jokes) and Hunter comes off the books next year whereas Foster is on the books through 2011.
Why Denver Wouldn't Do This: Foster wouldn't be the "big time" acquisition the Nuggets are trying to make, plus that $6.7 million owed to him in 2010-2011 - to go along with big raises due to Chauncey, Melo, K-Mart, Nene and J.R. - would further cripple the Nuggets future cap flexibility. Like the proposed Marc Gasol trade above, acquiring Foster would force the Nuggets to move K-Mart before his final contract year kicks off.
Of the four trades proposed, my absolute favorite would be to acquire Gasol and Buckner for Hunter and Kleiza. If the Nuggets started a front line of Gasol, Nene and Melo to go along with Chauncey and J.R. in the back court with K-Mart, Birdman, Balkman and Lawson (plus Buckner) coming off the bench, you're looking at a championship caliber team and one of the biggest and best rebounding teams in the NBA. The only weakness there - and I don't make light of this - would be three-point shooting. But maybe there will be a Jon Barry-type gunner available for a minimum contract somewhere.
Although each comes with its own salary cap ramifications, all of the above scenarios are good for one simple reason: they enable Nene to move to power forward. While Nene did an admirable job filling in at center for all of 2008-09, he was perpetually in foul trouble, had trouble getting his own shots and the position clearly wore him down as the season went on. If Karl wants the players he already has to improve, moving Nene to the four spot would be a great start.
No matter what, whether it's Gasol, Ilgauskas, Camby or Foster, or an unrestricted free agent like Wallace, Wilcox or Channing Frye (a threesome we'll get to next) the Nuggets need to get bigger if they're to compete for the Western Conference crown in 2010.
They know this. The question is: how much are they willing to pay for it?