It was Summer 2013 and Tim Connelly had just got his first gig as a general manager in the NBA. First task on the job: The NBA draft. Oh, by the way, he had only two weeks to prepare. Denver had just one pick in the draft, 27th overall, but the Nuggets worked two deals that night.
The first was to trade the 27th pick to Utah. Utah told Denver to select Rudy Gobert with the pick and the Jazz would select Erick Green with the 46th pick and send him to the Nuggets in return (along with a big bucket of cash). The second trade sent Kostas Koufos to Memphis in exchange for Darrell Arthur and the 55th pick which turned out to be Joffrey Lauvergne. After the draft was complete, Connelly set out on free agency where J.J. Hickson was given a three year deal.
Those two trades and one signing played a major part in the conundrum Denver finds themselves in today: precariously thin at the center position. They started downsizing their stock of tall, athletic and/or strong centers for smaller more agile forwards. After last season’s trades that sent Timofey Mozgov and Javale McGee packing for only a net gain of one 1st round pick that won’t likely convey until 2017, the Nuggets are left with only one seven footer on the roster: Jusuf Nurkic. Nurkic is still rehabbing from knee surgery, something that certainly shouldn’t be rushed, especially with a big man. Without the Bosnian Beast to enforce the paint Denver is incredibly susceptible inside. Look no further than the home opener shellacking they took against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Karl-Anthony Towns had no problem scoring and rebounding inside because as skilled of big men as Lauvergne and Nikola Jokic are, rim protection and strength aren’t two of their skills.
To make matters worse, both Lauvergne and Jokic are suffering from back injuries which could possibly cause them to miss time. Suddenly, the Nuggets are in danger of being presented with the ogre’s choice: play Darrell Arthur or J.J. Hickson at center for extended minutes. Only three games into the season and the lack of depth at the five is hurting the team. Hopefully, Jokic and Lauvergne’s back injuries aren’t very serious and won’t linger, and hopefully Nurkic is able to work his way back into full playing shape quickly, but even if all of that were to come true, Nurkic still remains as the only true rim protector/intimidator in the paint on the entire roster.
Enes Kanter racked up a double double off the bench on the Nuggets in their two games against the Thunder this season (one preseason) which shows that even with Jusuf starting the Nuggets can be vulnerable. Additionally, if he gets into foul trouble, which was an issue last season, then Denver is back to relying on Jokic and Lauvergne, who even when playing solid defense are still both virtually rookies and are prone to make mistakes. With no Nurkic down low, athletic wings and quick guards will drive to the lane without fear as well.
This is an issue that can’t be solved with anyone on the current roster. Jokic has shown at times he can be a serviceable defender down low, but he’s unlikely to ever have the strength or athleticism to be anything more than just that. Lauvergne would have the better skill set to develop into a defensive presence, but that presence will always be limited by the fact that he’s generously listed at 6’11".
The Nuggets have one too many fours and one too few fives and only a trade can change that this season, but they are limited to Lauvergne, Jokic and Kenneth Faried as marketable fours who hold some sort of trade value (you’re not getting a serviceable backup 7 footer for Hickson or Arthur) and none of those guys would be easy to part with. That’s Tim Connelly’s conundrum, two years of dealing away seven footers and a couple of nagging injuries have left Coach Michael Malone with no one to protect the most important spot on the court.