With the NBA Draft and the LeBron James signing fiasco behind us, Nuggets fans are getting justifiably anxious about their team's lack of wheeling-and-dealing this summer. While I only foresee one realistic move left for the Nuggets to make, it could vault them back into championship contention.
The Nuggets have to make a deal.
Last summer, the organization was able to get away with making small moves only (the acquisition of Arron Afflalo and Ty Lawson combined with the re-signing of Chris Andersen) as they had just come within two games of their first-ever NBA Finals appearance. But after a disappointing 2010 postseason, the Nuggets have to give season ticket holders a reason to justify re-upping for 2010-11. Ticket buyers don't want to spend our hard-earned money on a team that loses in the playoffs' first round for the seventh time in eight years. Moreover, last I checked there's still a recession going on out there.
Beyond delivering for the fans, the Nuggets are in a unique position to leapfrog back into being the Western Conference's second-best team slot (which, by winning 53 games last season, they weren't too far from to begin with). With the Lakers stealthily adding former Nugget point guard Steve Blake this summer, they've solidified their position as the West's best team. But with Phoenix and Utah taking a giant step backward after the losing Amare Stoudemire and Carlos Boozer (plus Kyle Korver and possibly Wesley Matthews), respectively, to free agency, the Nuggets might be in the catbird seat if they can jettison Kenyon Martin's onerous contract now.
Those who follow this site closely will find the following trade scenario familiar. But now that the NBA Draft has come and gone and the major free agents have landed in their new locales, many of the names I suggested two months ago are no longer available. For example, now that Golden State has traded Corey Maggette, Ronny Turiaf and Anthony Randolph away, won't they want to keep Andris Biedrins at center to play alongside newly acquired David Lee? And while acquiring Al Jefferson makes many Nuggets fans salivate, I'm suspect about his ability to co-exist with Nene as they're essentially the same player: offense-first power forwards forced to play center.
Therefore, the Nuggets need to make a deal for a true center, assuming the following...
...Carmelo Anthony re-signs for three years. This means the Nuggets have a three-year window with which to surround Melo with the best possible squad before we get LeBron'd in Denver. Should Melo not re-sign, the Nuggets are better off trading him now and building for the future rather than taking on veteran salaries.
...Kenyon Martin's "no timetable for return" means we'll be lucky to see K-Mart in uniform by the All-Star break and even then, I'm skeptical that his explosiveness will ever be seen again.
...all traded salaries are within 75% of each other as mandated by the NBA's trading rules.
...there will be a lockout effective July 1st, 2011. You'll see shortly why this assumption is important.
Taking the above into consideration, the only viable move I see for Denver that gives us a fighting chance to beat the Lakers next season is to trade Kenyon Martin to the Hornets for center Emeka Okafor and backup shooting guard / small forward James Posey.
This trade makes a lot of sense for a number of reasons.
First, the only way to part with K-Mart's contract (which pays him $16.5 million this season, the last of his contract) is to take on hefty salaries of players that go beyond 2010-11 that financially distraught teams no longer want to pay. Enter the New Orleans Hornets. They're one of, if not the, most destitute NBA franchises financially and they'd love to get out of paying Okafor's contract (which pays him $14.5 million in 2013-2014).
Second, while Okafor had a dreadful 2009-10 campaign, that doesn't change the fact that he's not yet 28 years old, is a legitimate big man center and, if properly coached, is good for at least 14 points, 10 rebounds and almost two blocks per game. Additionally, Okafor is happy to defer to a more offensive-minded player. By adding Okafor, the Nuggets could move Nene to power forward - his natural position - where I remain confident he'll thrive if given the opportunity to play the four-spot without having to tangle with opposing teams' centers. An Okafor-Nene-Melo front line could hold its own against Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Ron Artest.
Third, Posey - a la Robert Horry, Derek Fisher, Vinnie Johnson and other great champion role players - thrives in high-pressure, big-game situations and isn't afraid to mix it up physically with opposing players. Even though Posey is on the wrong side of 33 years old, by joining Okafor in Denver Posey would have that opportunity to play in meaningful basketball games one more time. Furthermore, while Posey is owed a painful $6.9 million next season - the last year of his contract - the looming lockout will likely cut the actual payout to Posey in half.
With Okafor and Posey on board, the Nuggets lineup would look as follows...
SF- Carmelo Anthony / PF - Nene / C - Emeka Okafor / PG - Chauncey Billups / SG - Arron Afflalo
Bench: J.R. Smith, James Posey, Ty Lawson, Chris Andersen, Renaldo Balkman
Including a lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, this trade would give the Nuggets a two-year window to take one more shot at an NBA title before Billups can no longer start on an NBA team, while also demonstrating to Melo that we're here to win in the postseason. Work will need to be done to pick up a backup power forward to spell Nene, but even championship teams don't have more than three decent bench players.
One more thought. With George Karl signing a one-year deal and his health far from a certainty, I have a hunch that this is the type of team he'd love to coach. As many readers have suggested, the Nuggets should also consider hiring a former head coach, like Mike Brown, to take some of the load off Karl and be available should Karl need to miss a few games next season. Brown in particular - a horrible offensive coach but a tremendous defensive coach - would be a great fit to get the Nuggets focused on defense.
The Nuggets options are very limited. The local media and the fanbase are begging for a big man, but it's much easier said than done and I haven't seen concrete suggestions rooted in reality (lest we forget that the other 29 NBA teams aren't here to serve our Nuggets' wishes). Picking up Okafor is admittedly a gamble. He had an awful season last year and has had back problems in the past. But if Melo commits for three more seasons - and the fans commit by packing the Pepsi Center again - the Nuggets organization should commit by putting a team on the floor that has a chance to do serious damage. Otherwise, we might as well blow the whole roster up and go with Jeff Bzdelik at coach again.
The window on the Nuggets Second Golden Era will close eventually. But as of today, it's open just enough to make noise in the Western Conference next season.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images: Chris Graythen