The Denver Nuggets have a great foundation in place. They also desperately need a superstar.
After watching the Atlanta Hawks, the league's 2nd best defense this season and 4th winning-est franchise over the last two seasons crumble and get swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers, it's become obvious once again that there is a ceiling on team's that lack a superstar. It's a lesson that NBA fans are reminded of almost every year. Nearly every year a team rises to the top of the regular season standings behind solid team play, consistent effort, and a flawless scheme only to be outgunned by a team loaded with superstar talent. That's not to say that every team needs a "big three." Let's not get greedy. The 2011 Mavericks showed how one star surrounded by the perfect collection of talent can reach the pinnacle. But every contending NBA team needs at least one star.
Stars also bring fans to the arena. Fans at the arena spend money. And NBA owners LOVE money. The Nuggets were never more popular than they were when the team acquired Allen Iverson. The combination of Iverson and Carmelo Anthony brought in new fans from around the globe, all enamored with the dynamic scoring duo of two of the league's premiere superstars. It wasn't the best Nuggets team ever. Heck, it wasn't even the best Nuggets team of the last decade, but it was certainly the most popular thanks to the star power of those two players.
It's not certain whether or not there is a superstar currently on the Nuggets roster. Emmanuel Mudiay, Nikola Jokic, and Jusuf Nurkic all have the potential to develop into superstars, but there is a much more likely scenario in which that core, along with Gary Harris and Will Barton, reaches a peak that looks something like the 2014-16 Atlanta Hawks. Or the 2013 Denver Nuggets. A good, entertaining team that pushes itself into the fringe of the championship discussion but isn't taken seriously as a true threat to bring home the title.
That's why the Nuggets need a star. And there might be a way to get one that satisfies both the team's desire to not mortgage the future while also bringing in a player with name recognition and game-changing skill. By drafting one with one of the top two overall picks in this year's NBA draft: Ben Simmons, or Brandon Ingram.
This plan is a simple and obvious one if, in one week from today, the basketball gods smile down on the Nuggets and award them a top two pick. After all, the Nuggets have a 14% chance at winning a top two pick on their own. However, that means they have a 86% chance of NOT landing a top two pick and a 78% chance of landing pick number seven or worse. It is in this very likely scenario that the Nuggets need to be ready to go all-in in an effort to trade for a top two pick.
Fortunately, there are a handful of teams who may actually be willing to listen to offers for the top two draft picks if their team is lucky enough to win the lottery. The Los Angeles Lakers have already let it leak that they'd be willing to part with the top overall pick if it meant bringing in a player or players that are ready to compete right away. Similarly, the Boston Celtics are a team that isn't very willing to wait two or three years for a 19-year-old to develop into an impact player. They made the playoffs this year and want to be a threat to win in the playoffs next year. New Orleans and Milwaukee may also be willing to move on from a top two pick if it helps push them back into the playoffs.
And if teams are willing to trade their pick, few teams have the combination of ready-now players and draft picks that the Nuggets have. For starters, there's Danilo Gallinari, a player that is coveted by many GM's around the league, including the Boston Celtics. Gallo will almost certainly be a better player than Simmons or Ingram over the next two seasons and is versatile enough to play multiple positions, styles, and schemes.
Then there is Kenneth Faried. The Manimal had a bounce-back season of sorts this year and had flashes of brilliance throughout the year. His contract is also one year shorter than it was at the start of last season and much more at market value now that the salary cap is taking a jump.
Will Barton might have the NBA's most team-friendly contract. He'd fit as instant offense off of the bench on almost every team in the league. Pairing him with Gallo or Faried would be a decent haul for any team that is looking to improve right now.
Jusuf Nurkic is another name that will likely garner attention. He's young, still has a ton of upside, and may even be a star himself. However, on the Nuggets he is currently just the second best young center and may be worth trading if it helps land a prospect with superstar potential at a spot on the floor that the Nuggets are missing.
Lastly, the Nuggets have a plethora of draft picks to help sweeten any deal. If they land the #3 pick in this year's draft, it may be doable to package along with picks #15 and #19 to move up one or two spots. The Nuggets also have the Grizzlies pick next season, a pick that might become more valuable now that their coaching situation is up in the air. The Nuggets also have their own 1st round pick next season, a pick that could be very valuable if the Nuggets lose Gallo and/or Faried in a trade.
Trading away assets and/or beloved players is never easy. But the chance to add a player of Simmons' or Ingram's caliber doesn't present itself very often. Adding either of them would give the Nuggets a player with superstar potential while maintaining much or all of their young core.
There has been talk among Nuggets fans about going after DeMarcus Cousins, or Jimmy Butler, or Kevin Love. All of those guys are great players and check many of the "superstar" boxes that would help bring fans back to the arena and make the Nuggets instantly better. However, in almost every instance, trading for those players would mean either parting with some of the Nuggets promising young core or foolishly attempting to accelerate the timeline. By going all-in for a young star in this draft, the Nuggets can get the box office draw they need while keeping a core that is right on schedule to make a leap every season for the foreseeable future.
***** Stiffs Night Out *****
Jakes Food and Spirits | 3800 Walnut Street, Denver CO | Tuesday, May 17th 5:30 PM
Come join fellow Nuggets fans for our annual Stiffs Night Out NBA draft lottery party. We'll be watching live as we find out if the Nuggets won a top pick in June's NBA draft. The lottery begins at 6pm so we'll be meeting a half hour before. Stay for the Eastern conference finals and to bask in the glory of winning the lottery (or sulk in the misery of another year without moving up). Jake's Food and Spirits will have food and drink deals and the Stiffs will have prizes and more. If you are a Nuggets fan, come on out and meet fellow Stiffs and Nuggets fans.