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The Erick Green Conundrum

Josh Kroenke faces a difficult test in how to deal with Erick Green and Nick Johnson. There are also some very small messages sent in how he handles it.

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

14 roster spots appear set for the Denver Nuggets roster, only one remains open for contention; a battle between young guards Erick Green and Nick Johnson.  The spot up for grabs isn't necessarily an important one in terms of the on-court production and to be perfectly honest, in 3 months, most Nuggets fans won't even remember that there were two players battling for the right to sit on the end of the Nuggets bench.  Nonetheless, the battle in question could provide an interesting, albeit very, very small look into the thinking of the Denver Nuggets ownership and front office.

The Setup

Erick Green was selected by the Utah Jazz with the 46th pick in the 2013 NBA draft and later traded to the Denver Nuggets in a deal that helped the Utah Jazz land Rudy Gobert.  Green spent one season playing abroad in Italy before joining the Nuggets for the 2014-15 NBA season.  He has twice played for the Nuggets on their summer league roster and has been one of the most consistent fixtures at Pepsi Center over the summer, working out with the Nuggets training and coaching staff. His contract is not fully guaranteed and if the Nuggets let him go, it would only cost the organization $100,000.

Nick Johnson was selected by the Houston Rockets with the 42nd overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft and was traded to Denver as part of the deal that shipped Ty Lawson out of town.  Other than a late 1st round pick in the 2016 NBA draft, Johnson is the only remaining player on the Nugget roster from that trade.  Nick's contract is fully guaranteed for this season and next and if the Nuggets let him go, it would cost the organization roughly $1.8 million, assuming no team picks him up off of waivers (they won't).

The Conundrum

Earlier this week, Josh Kroenke went on Mile High Sports radio and had an interesting quote about valuing players that have been with the program.

"The guys that you draft you always hold a little closer to your heart."

He was referencing Ty Lawson when he made that quote, but it might provide an interesting glimpse into Josh's perspective on who he might want to keep and who he might want to let go.

In an interview with CBSsports.com's Matt Moore, Jameer Nelson also spoke about how impressed he has been with the team's honesty and loyalty.

"I'm a man of loyalty. [The Nuggets] were loyal to me. Everything has come true. We want you here, this is going to be your role. You're going to do this, you're going to do that, and everything has come true. Even things like 'We're going to change the locker room.' They're changing the locker room."

"That means a lot to the player, because along the way there's been a couple of people who have lied to me," Nelson continued. "So when you get back to someone telling you the truth, and when they first tell you, maybe you look at them sideways like, 'Maybe they're going to lie to me,' but the organization has been good to me. They're moving in the right direction."

The entire Nuggets offseason has been about re-establishing the team's identity and culture, not only with the players that they brought in for this season, but also a renewed focus from the front office and ownership about what kind of team they want to build going forward.  They traded Ty Lawson away for almost nothing and they've chosen against an outright tank and have instead brought in and/or re-signed a group of well-respected veterans to pair alongside a plethora of young talent.  Where in the past the organization has thrown flashy names and semi-high profile talent like Nate Robinson, JJ Hickson, and JaVale McGee, this offseason the Nuggets went for quieter signings like Mike Miller, Darrel Arthur, and Jameer Nelson.

That shift in perspective and loyalty brings us back to the issue of Green and Johnson.  The loyalty pick would be to reward Erick Green for his hard work throughout two offseasons and, despite the fact that he likely won't get much playing time, they might give him another season to see if he fits into the NBA. Keeping Johnson, on the other hand, might appear somewhat disloyal to Green and may even come off to some of the more die-hard fans as a cheap move to save money.

$1.7 million isn't a small amount of money, not even for a deep pocketed owner like the Kroenkes and expecting them to lose that much money for an end of bench guy is probably an unfair expectation for Nuggets fans.

But wouldn't keeping Green double down on the message that the Nuggets are trying to send to the rest of the league that the team is loyal, honest, and looks out for their players?  Wouldn't that message speak pretty loudly next summer when the team might be looking to add a max contract level player? Wouldn't that message speak louder than Lawson's message that the Kroenkes are bad owners?

In the end, the way a team handles the 15th spot on a roster probably doesn't impact the way that a team is viewed among superstars but it is probably something that Josh Kroenke is considering as he and GM Tim Connelly are looking at who to keep and who to let go.

There is also the chance that a team would bite on a deal for another of Denver's more redundant players like Randy Foye or JJ Hickson, clearing a spot to keep both Green and Johnson. Both of those veteran players are in the last year of fairly inexpensive deals and may be able to contribute in an 8th or 9th man type role on a championship contending team.