The Denver Nuggets have opened the season with a 7-10 record through seventeen games. At the forefront of the season, most prognosticators probably would have pegged the team right around that number. They sit just a game and a half back of the Los Angeles Lakers who currently occupy the 8th seed in the Western Conference. While it may seem early to start thinking playoffs, the Nuggets depth has been paramount to them staying within striking distance of .500 as the season nears the one quarter complete mark and that has kept the possibility of the playoffs in the minds of everyone...or at least it should be. Yet now as the team closes in on a relative bill of clean health, they’re going to find themselves staring at another roster issue: a minutes crunch.
In addition to depth, the Nuggets have scraped their way to their 7-10 record through a combination of growing pains, poor closeouts and flashes of brilliance. In many ways, the beginning of the year has been beneficial for the team. They have experienced a rash of injuries that they would have rather done without, specifically the lengthy surgery recovery for Darrell Arthur and the groin and foot issues that have kept Gary Harris sidelined for a large portion of the season. However, these injuries also opened doors for Jamal Murray and Juancho Hernangomez to show that they are capable of playing minutes in the NBA. Murray in particular has shown that not only is he capable, but he has all the makings of a budding star if he can put it all together. Now, just as Arthur comes back, Danilo Gallinari and Hernangomez get dinged up.
For now the Nuggets have benefited from a roster that arguably features NBA capable players in slots one through thirteen as Malik Beasley and Mike Miller are the only two players who haven’t seen some sort of regular rotation minutes at one point or another in the early season. However should the team get healthy, GM Tim Connelly and coach Michael Malone will face difficult decisions. Even if you eliminate the minutes being occupied by Alonzo Gee, it’s a difficult task to manage a ten man rotation, let alone a twelve. The roster will be left with questions about whether Hernangomez should go back to the bench and how you find minutes for Harris, Murray and Will Barton in one game, especially when Murray has scored at least eighteen points in each of the Nuggets last four games, showing that he is deserving of every minute he’s getting (though to be honest, the back to back 35+ minute games is a bit much). Sliding Barton over to the small forward position presents a similar conundrum because Gallinari is still a vital part of the team and Wilson Chandler has been the best player wearing a Denver uniform so far this season.
The answer for Denver could very well have to come in the form of a trade. The difficulty in that approach though is the tremendous depth that has helped them so far this season also makes the number of deals worth the Nuggets while fairly few. Adding a rotational piece, adding really any player who is of similar skill level and as well rounded as Gallo might help push Denver into the playoffs, but it’s unlikely to make them anything more than a first round exit. The easy suggestion to make is to trade for a star player, yet while the line of thinking is simple, the execution of such a haul is difficult and exceedingly rare. Adding a Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins would be nice but there is nothing more than speculation surrounding those potential transactions. Nonetheless, Connelly has to find a way to combine talent into greater talent to free up what quickly will become a minutes crunch at three positions (shooting guard, power forward and the Jokic/Nurkic conundrum).
Perhaps the Nuggets best chance is not a single trade but a pair of trades. A pair of two for one deals that can upgrade multiple positions could propel the Nuggets to even the second round, and if one of their young guns develops as they hope, there’s potential that Denver could be a few key moves and a few years away from a Finals run. Perhaps even they will go “full anarchy” as our own Ryan Blackburn put it in a complex, yet fairly reasonable three trade suggestion.
Anybody up for a little anarchy this evening? pic.twitter.com/c1mCTDz1ZT— Ryan Blackburn (@RyanBlackburn9) November 27, 2016
Ryan’s suggestion still leaves a minutes crunch at the power forward position and also leaves Denver with only one true center (Pekovic is out for the season) but it’s the type of trade that would drastically alter the trajectory of the team while still keeping vital young talent like Jokic and Murray. Again, a Paul George trade is unlikely, maybe if the Indiana Pacers continue to struggle, just as the Sacramento Kings may decide that they should being in a new direction if Cousins is unable to bring them even close to the playoffs once again, but there’s just as good of chance that neither team has any interest this season in moving their star player.
The Nuggets essentially are caught in a situation that leaves them fairly helpless. They have needed their depth to carry them through early season injuries, but once healthy the roster will not have enough minutes to go around. They need to consolidate their talent into roster upgrades but they have so much solid talent that finding a particular upgrade for the team is going to be difficult to say the least. Compounding the situation is the fact that only Gallo will have the option to leave at the end of this season in free agency, and the Nuggets potentially will have two more first round draft picks to add to the roster plus two players currently in Europe developing (Nikola Radicevic and Petr Cornelie). The need to consolidate and make a move after about three years of preparation is at the Nuggets doorstep and Tim Connelly will have to make tenure defining decisions sooner rather than later. Until he does coach Malone will have to perform metaphorical rotation gymnastics. Stay tuned.