Right now the NBA world is abuzz with the one of the most boring yet pressing issues: lockout. Discussing the lockout is like going to a physical. You'd really rather not do it at all, but deep down inside you know its important so you begrudgingly oblige. Well consider me tired of coughing.....
Like it or not, the Nuggets are more or less in some sort of rebuild right now, but they have positioned themselves well. They have one extra first round pick coming their way from the Knicks, most likely in 2014, no later than 2017. They also have a couple extra second rounders, they had 4 that will be scattered over the next 5 years, but they also traded a second round pick to Los Angeles, so really its a net gain of 3 second rounders. Denver can also swap first rounders with NY in 2016. The draft picks are nice, they can help sweeten the pot in a trade, but realistically its not like any of them are going to land us in the top 5 come lottery day, barring catastrophic Knick failure (admittedly that's possible) . The real key Denver has is cap space and can make some moves in free agency.
How Much Cap Space Do We Really Have?
With Nene opting out the current amount of salary on the books for the Nuggets is just under $29million. However, appearances, especially when dealing with the labyrinth that is the NBA salary cap, can be deceiving. At the time of writing, the Nuggets still own the bird rights to Nene, Kenyon Martin and JR Smith. So long as Denver wishes to keep those bird rights, they will be subject to cap holds on those three players, as well as their RFA's Arron Afflalo, Wilson Chandler and Gary Forbes. Let me break it down for you real quick.
First of all, if you ever want to know anything about how the cap works as it is currently constructed (soon to be completely redone mind you) then this is the place to find all the info. There is a rule that attempts to close a loophole in the bird exception (an exception which provides that a team can exceed the cap to retain its own free agents) making so that as long as a team wishes to maintain the bird rights of one of its free agents then said free agent will have a cap hold, or a certain amount of the cap which counts against a teams total salary until the player in question is either resigned, signs elsewhere or has his bird right renounced by his previous team. This way a team can't go out and load up on other free agents with all of its cap space and then come back and re-sign all of their own free agents once they are above the cap. It's a complicated rule, and the amount of a cap hold depends on the players previous contract and whether or not they have a Larry Bird exception, an Early Bird exception a Non Bird exception or none at all. With out going on forever about this, here are the cap holds the Nuggets are currently subject to*:
Kenyon Martin- $19.05 million
JR Smith-$10.2 million
Arron Afflalo- $5.87 million
Wilson Chandler-$6.39 million
Gary Forbes- $963,872
*(I have left Melvin Ely out, Denver will renounce his Bird Rights. I don't really think there is any debate to that. )
Add it up and that's $58.8 million in cap holds. Add that to our current salaries of $28.88 million and we are actually at a cap number of $87.67 million, $29.67 million over the current salary cap. What the hell happened?!
The key is Denver is not going to retain all the bird rights of their free agents. Kenyon Martin, for instance, will certainly not have his rights retained. It's doubtful that Nene or JR Smith will either. The reason is the Nuggets are at $28.88 million of hard salary (term I made up for salaries under contract for next season) which under the current cap leaves them with almost $30 million to spend. You could resign all three of K-mart, JR and Nene for that price. Their also highly unlikely to resign all three of those free agents, in fact I'd say they'll be lucky to keep one. So why bother eating up all the cap space on Bird Rights they are not likely to use.
Even with Denver trying to retain Nene it still makes sense to renounce his rights. They could easily resign Afflalo and Chandler and still have enough money resign Nene under the cap. The key will be to negotiate Nene before anyone else. Either get him signed and add his contract the the team's hard salary or let him go and realize the extra cap space that provides and start figuring out what the hell the long term and short term plan is at PF.
I see Denver dropping the rights to every one of the unrestricted free agents and by offering Qualifying Offers to all of their restricted free agents they have essentially already accepted to retain the rights of Arron Afflalo and Wilson Chandler as well as take on Gary Forbes' cap hold (Forbes is not eligible for Bird Rights because he has only been under contract for one year). So if we crunch the numbers one last time the actual amount of money the Nuggets will have available at the beginning of free agency under this scenario would be: $15.9 million. Keep in mind the cap number will change depending on what happens and when.
How Many Of Our Own Guys Can We Really Expect To Keep?
There is no need to bring up the stats on these guys. If you watch the Nuggets you know each of their capabilities. If you would like a good breakdown on each of our free agents I will refer you to Nate's article on that topic.
I can only offer theories about what will happen. I don't claim to be a GM in the NBA, nor do I frequently have power lunches with Masai Ujiri and Josh Kroenke (our people haven't got in touch yet) but I think some things are fairly obvious.
JR Smith's Exit: It's really hard to see JR returning to Denver but it can't be entirely ruled out. I'd say its about 75% chance he goes. The reason is simple: George Karl. JR and George don't mesh well. I won't say that they don't like each other or one holds another back because I simply do not know if that would be true or false, but George and JR seem to have different ideas about whats the right brand of basketball to play. I think those different ideas have festered long enough that a split is the most likely outcome.
The PF Conundrum: There is a definite need to retain either Nene or K-mart and a definite possibility that both end up somewhere else. Neither player has exactly been gushing about wanting to return to Denver. Nene even took a substantial financial risk to become a free agent. Still, Denver needs to try hard to resign one of these guys. Mozgov should get a go at starting at center, and with Chris Andersen and Kostas Koufos the Nuggets have a decent rotation at the 5. However, the PF position will be left deadly thin if both Nene and K-mart leave. If that were to happen then either Stiffs favorite Al Harrington, or an untested late first round draft pick is going to be starting, neither of those options is appetizing. I don't like thrusting Kenneth Faried into the starting position because I think it will hamper his development and a starting front court of Faried and Mozgov is offensively handicapped as well as very inexperienced. If Denver can't retain Nene or Kenyon then they may have to look to free agency to fill the starting role.
Tough Decisions On Afflalo and Chandler: Denver certainly can afford to bring back Arron or Wilson or both and if Denver wants them back then they can match any offer either player gets in free agency. The question is how much is too much? It's entirely possible that another team could swoop in and offer a terrible, heavy front loaded contract to either one of these guys that would take a lot of cap space to match. A team in our own division(Portland Trailblazers) has done it to another team in our division (Utah Jazz) for two years in a row.
Gary Forbes: I could be wrong, but I don't see a lot of teams clamoring to sign Forbes. I would be surprised to see him get any offer over $2 million and if he does then he is getting overpaid. Either Gary will not be getting an offer from another team at all and will end up playing for his qualifying offer, or his offer won't be substantial enough to justify the Nuggets not matching it.
In the end Masai will have done a great job if he can manage to land Nene, Afflalo, Forbes and Chandler. If the cards fell right Denver could pull it off and even still have around $4-5 million under the cap to sign another key role player. Realistically though Nene could very likely walk and Denver could lose Chandler or Afflalo to another GM's ridiculous offer. My mind goes back and forth on this but right now it's my belief that only Arron Afflalo and Gary Forbes will be retained. Hopefully Nene will be back, or at least Denver can work out some sort of sign and trade to get some value in return.
Who Is Out There?
Luckily for the Nuggets they have pretty solid players and depth at the two most important positions in basketball: point guard and center. However, in the likelihood that the Nuggets lose at least two wing players from last years roster they will need to address their depth through the market. No matter what combination of Afflalo, Chandler and Smith ends up leaving the Nuggets will lose some scoring punch. Granted they landed Jordan Hamilton in the draft, but just like I don't like the idea of rushing Faried into starting, I don't like the idea of depending on Hamilton to be the sixth man right off the bat. Thje Nuggets will also likely be losing some leadership and experience in the likely event of Kenyon Martinn's departure Denver will probably look to Andre Miller for scoring off the bench and leadership, and it's likely that Miller will see time playing both point guard and shooting guard. Still, Miller doesn't exactly offer the range that Chandler or Afflalo has, and JR Smith's range is pretty much unparalleled. If Ujiri is smart, the Nuggets will target a savvy veterans, one who can play on the wings and spread the floor and one who can offer some scoring in the post (unless Nene is retained, then I 'd say Denver is pretty solid with their frontcourt)
Wings (Not the Barbeque Kind):
- Pros- Battier is a tenacious defender on the wings, he's made a career of it. He's very much of the Bruce Bowen mold, though slightly less inept on offense. While Battier loves the corner three as much as Bowen, he can still actually hit another type of shot. Battier also offers the veteran experience and leadership Denver could use.
- Cons- He's getting up there in age as he will turn 33 this year. Battier is also not exactly a huge threat on offense nor is he a particularly good rebounder.
- Pros- Jamal certainly would replace the scoring punch off the bench if JR Smith leaves. Crawford is just two years removed from winning the 6th man of the year award. He can put up points in bunches and much like JR, if he's hot he's damn near unstoppable.
- Cons- Crawford is a volume shooter, he's a career 41%FG and 35% 3FG. He's not especially strong on defense. I also expect him to get overpaid and he will certainly be pricier than some of the other options.
- Pros- Green is an excellent glue guy. One of those types of players who doesn't do anything especially well but is decent at almost everything. He's still young as well, only turning 25 next month.
- Cons- Green struggled after being traded to Boston mid season and may have already reached the top of his potential. He's not a very good 3pt shooter so he really doesn't help open up the floor which could spell trouble if he spends a lot of time on the floor with Miller (who also is a poor 3pt shooter). Green is also only a restricted free agent.
- Pros- Good weak side defender. Solid shot blocker. A decent shooter if his shot is set up for him.
- Cons- Kirilenko's game is based off his athleticism. After 10 years in the league that skill has diminished and has made him less effective. He's starting to show signs of developing a more consistent 3pt shot, but still is not a reliable option to space the floor.
- Pros- Richardson is a scorer and could be an excellent sixth man and replacement for JR Smith. He's a solid 3pt shooter. A decent athlete as well, Richardson can get to the hoop and create for himself in limited situations
- Cons- He's you're typical diva type player. Doesn't really put forth the effort on defense and rebounding, makes poor decisions and takes bad shots. He's 30 years old so his athleticism is starting to diminish. Probably will end up getting overpaid.
- Pros- Young is a solid small forward to have come off your bench. He's going to get you around 14 pts and 5 rebs in that role. He's a very efficient shooter inside the 3pt line. He has the athleticism, quickness and wingspan to become a good defender. Young is also, well...young. Only 23 years old.
- Cons- He is not a solid three point shooter, but last season he started to realize it and stayed away from the deep ball. He's not as strong as you'd like for a guy who has all the other skills required to attack the basket at will. Restricted free agent.
- Pros- Landry is a decent offensive threat in the post. He's probably going to come in around 14 pts a game.
- Cons- Landry is not a good basketball player. He is a terrible rebounder for someone of his strength(his career high avg for one team is 6.5 per game). He has consistently shot a worse percentage since his rookie year.
- Pros- West is a very reliable scorer. He is a good fit in Denver's system and would be a good compliment to Timofey Mozgov. He's an excellent pick and roll player. Also would offer veteran experience to the young roster.
- Cons- West is a mediocre rebounder, especially for his size and strength. He's not a very good defender either. West is 30 years of age, though his style of play does age well. He's also going to be looking to cash in one last big contract in his career and won't come cheap.
- Pros- Humphries has the potential to become a double double machine. He averaged 10 pts and 10reb last season. In February, amidst a fierce attempt to see my fantasy team make the playoffs, Humphries put up 14 pts and almost 15 rebs a game before losing the rest of the season to an ankle injury and suffering the crushing defeat of barely missing the post season...fantasy post season that is. Did I mention if we sign him we get Kim Kardashian court side?
- Cons- Humphries may very well have over achieved last season in his contract year. He seems to have that just waiting to cash in feel about him. Also, we have already seen first hand how mettlesome "celebrity" girlfriends can be in Denver.
- .....just kidding.
A Humble Man's Opinion
I've never been a fan of spending for the simple fact that you have the cap space to do so. I don't see a single difference maker out there in free agency this year. I think getting a good veteran wing on a 2 or 3 year contract for less than $5 mil per season would be a good move but to be honest I'm not sold on even that. I'd actually rather see Denver continue to go young and if they do end up losing Wilson Chandler in addition to JR Smith then a guy like Thaddeus Young would be a nice pick up. Above all what I don't want to see is Denver shelling out bucks for a player who is clearly in decline(we already have Al Harrington).
As for the power forward situation. I can not emphasize enough the importance of re-signing Nene, there is simply no appetizing prospect in free agency for this hole, but don't over do it. Three years, thirty two million and no more than that. Same type of scenario if they were to go after West if Denver ends up losing both Nene and K-mart. Realistically Humphries is probably the best guy in the bunch because of his age and upside, though like I said he could have just over achieved last season so its a gamble.
Looking at it long term, Denver should spend little this off-season. Hold out for the much more talented free agent class of 2012. Having Al Harrington as a starting 4 would be painful, but not painful enough to justify paying tons of money on an aging forward who doesn't rebound well (again we already have big Al for that role). So if worse comes to worse and you can't get Humphries nor retain Nene or K-mart then roll with the punches take your licks and hope for a nice pick in the stacked 2012 draft because lets be realistic here....for once...Denver is not winning the title next season, they will probably struggle to get in the post season and even if they do, most likely they will be bounced in the first round....again. I say think long term, start thinking about the moves that can make us a true championship contender in 5 years.