During his first season, 2009-10, with the Nuggets (his third in the NBA), Arron Afflalo built a nice role for himself with the team. He replaced Dahntay Jones (signed with the Pacers) in the starting lineup, showed a knack for knocking down three-pointers (from 43 the season before with the Pistons, to 108 with the Nuggets), and was the team's best perimeter defender. Last season, Afflalo's role with the team changed and now with his new $43 million contract - that role will change again.
Afflalo is hard worker, a likable and good teammate, and has improved his game in each of his four NBA seasons. What a player makes affects what the team can do in the future. Will Afflalo's game allow him to shine all the way to an All-Star appearance? Will he take this Nuggets team to the playoffs?
When I first saw the news of Afflalo's new contract, I thought the deal was 6-years for $43 million, "Wow, that's slightly more than $7 million per season ... Masai Ujiri has done it again, another great signing!" Just over $7 million per season seemed about right for the 26-year-old shooting guard who just came off his first season where he averaged double-digit scoring, at 12.6 points per game.
But the deal is 5-years for $43 million, including bonuses. The idea of $8.6 million, on average, per season is a little more difficult to swallow because the Nuggets are paying for promise and not production. The closer you get to $10 million per season - the more expectations rise. Looking around the league, Ray Allen will make $10 million this season with the Celtics, Monta Ellis - $11 million with the Warriors, and Jason Terry - $11.4 million with the Mavericks. Afflalo surely plays defense better than Allen, Ellis, and Terry, but his offensive firepower is not quite on par with them, yet. But Afflalo's game is improving and the Nuggets trust in that.
The Nuggets just invested roughly $110 million in Afflalo and Nene Hilario. The duo will account for roughly $18M-$21M of the team's salary cap this season and moving forward. The Nuggets are paying these two players as stars, not superstars - but stars. If they don't burn brightly on the court then the team wont have the flexibility down the road to bring in the proper talent, that's the gamble. Depending on where Afflalo's first year salary comes in, he will likely be the second or third highest paid player on this Nuggets team. Looking at the roster, Afflalo is part of this team's core.
The new core of this Nuggets team is as follows: Nene, Afflalo, Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov, and Rudy Fernandez. That is who the Nuggets will be building around and those are the pieces that I believe the Nuggets would be hesitant to trade. Rookies Kenneth Faried and Jordan Hamilton have their work cut out for them to become members of the core, but they were highly thought of as both were first-round draft picks.
So, what does this new contract mean for Afflalo?
- His numbers must continue to increase. In his first season in Denver he averaged 8.8 points in 27.2 minutes per game. He shot 46% from the field, 43% from beyond the arc, and 73% from the foul line to go along with 3.1 rebounds and 1.7 assists. He was a two way player who was trying to find his role on a new team.
Last season Afflalo averaged 12.6 points in 33.7 minutes per game. He shot 49.8% from the field, 42.3% from beyond the arc, 84.7% from the foul line (and double the makes and attempts) to go along with 3.7 rebounds and 2.4 assists.
Afflalo will need to bump his scoring average up a bit to 15+ ppg and figure out a way to get to the foul line more ... 2.4 attempts should be up to 4+ per night. He's being paid to be one of the top contributors on the team and with J.R. Smith out of the picture, Afflalo will be counted on to take a bigger role with the team. In his absence late last season you could see the team struggle and one could blame the first round playoff exit on Afflalo not being able to play.
- Leadership. This young team needs guys to step up and be accountable. Afflalo is the right player for this role. He knows the game, he has good composure on the court, and when he's talking to the refs - he knows how to speak English!
Although some may see the Nuggets as not really adding pieces in free agency this off-season, it must be noted that keeping two highly sought after players is a win for the franchise. With Carmelo Anthony leaving town and the Nuggets struggling to add free agents in the past, it's great to see guys wanting to stick around in Denver. And it's great to see the franchise trusting in their players enough to make them the stars ... not leaning on other team's guys or wanting to rebuild the entire team. Let us not forget, the core of this team took the Nuggets to the playoffs last season. Remember that incredible late-season run and the hype around challenging the Oklahoma City Thunder in the playoffs? Can you recall screaming at the TV after one of Nene's monster dunks? Or going crazy at the Pepsi Center after Afflalo's dagger shot to beat the Mavericks?
Keeping Nene and Afflalo shows that this team is pointed in the right direction. Had one or the other not been brought back, there would be some serious questions facing the franchise. Now that all anyone in Nuggets Nation is wanting to talk about is: How far can this team go?
For Afflalo, it's time to see how far his game can take him. There's no stopping him or us...
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