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Denver Nuggets offseason needs reflected in NBA Finals contenders

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Finding team success in a superstar driven league is difficult. Are the Denver Nuggets up to the task of either developing their own superstar or finding ways to win without one?

Emmanuel Mudiay of the Denver Nuggets dribbles during the season finale against the Portland Trailblazers.
Emmanuel Mudiay of the Denver Nuggets dribbles during the season finale against the Portland Trailblazers.
Cole Elsasser-USA TODAY Sports

So, it's Stephen Curry and LeBron James again, eh?

This shouldn't really surprise anyone though. Klay Thompson and Draymond Green flank Curry, along with underrated veteran contributors in Andrew Bogut, Andre Iguodala, and Harrison Barnes. James teams up with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, along with solid contributors in Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith, and Channing Frye.

To build a championship team is to not only have a top ten player (in this case top five), but to also surround that player with high caliber contributors and others who fill specific roles. Make no mistake about it, Curry and James are transcendent talents, and their teams probably both make the second round with minimal help. Getting over the top requires other quality talent though.

The Denver Nuggets don't have a Curry or James figure. They don't even have a player like Thompson, Green, Irving, or Love. What they do have are two players that are believed to have high ceilings, maybe even high enough to be like one of the six players listed.

What the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers have done so well is surround their key contributors with players that complement the strengths of the best players while minimizing their weaknesses. Take the Warriors for example: Iguodala is the perfect player to defend LeBron and Kevin Durant. He has the size and thickness to not be bullied in the post, but the speed and basketball IQ to seamlessly mirror their movements. He played 43 minutes of stellar defense in game 7, and while it doesn't show up in the box score, he forced Durant to take less shots than he normally would.

On the other side, Thompson is the best player to complement the stars in Cleveland. He will never be asked to create his own offense, but the shots he takes are high percentage on pick and rolls and offensive rebounds. On defense, he has the mobility to switch on to guards, and he can play the best big man, which helps to hide Love on defense. Also, it's not Curry or James who sports the best offensive rating in the entire NBA, but actually Tristan Thompson, according to Basketball Reference.

So, how does this apply to the Nuggets? If we truly believe in Emmanuel Mudiay and Nikola Jokic, then they must be surrounded by the right players from the youngest possible age so that they can grow together, highlight strengths, and hide weaknesses. Is it possible that the right players are already in place? Sure.

I have a personal way of determining this. It's a checklist of player traits of sorts, and while it's not going to be perfect for every NBA contender, it's a good barometer for where the Nuggets stand. I will list the roles along with who the Warriors and Cavaliers utilize to fill them. 14 roles in total, and I'm of the mind six or seven players should fill all 14.

Finally, I will add my thoughts on who the Nuggets should use to fill the role as well, and if they don't have that option in house, I will give my thoughts on how it can be acquired. Players can fill multiple roles, and the number of roles they fill will help determine how many minutes they play.

Player Role Golden State Warriors Cleveland Cavaliers Denver Nuggets
Superstar Stephen Curry LeBron James None
Secondary Star Klay Thompson Kyrie Irving Emmanuel Mudiay
Secondary Star Draymond Green Kevin Love Nikola Jokic
Outside Shooter 1 Stephen Curry J.R. Smith None
Outside Shooter 2 Klay Thompson Channing Frye Danilo Gallinari
Inside Scorer Stephen Curry LeBron James Nikola Jokic
Primary Facilitator Stephen Curry LeBron James Emmanuel Mudiay
Secondary Facilitator Draymond Green Kyrie Irving None
Bench Spark Plug Andre Iguodala Matthew Dellavedova Will Barton
Elite Rebounder Draymond Green Tristan Thompson Kenneth Faried
Rim Protector Andrew Bogut None Jusuf Nurkic
Perimeter Defender 1 Andre Iguodala LeBron James None
Perimeter Defender 2 Klay Thompson Matthew Dellavedova Gary Harris
Big Man Switch Defender Draymond Green Tristan Thompson None

One of the most interesting things about the current iteration of the Nuggets is that they have already filled a ton of these roles with potential talent in the future. Overall, just five players were listed on the Warriors to encompass all of their roles, showing just how much diversity and skill there is at the top of that team. For Cleveland, seven players fill the 14 listed roles, and interestingly, nobody claimed the role of rim protector (watch for that weakness in this series).

For our Nuggets, eight different players are listed, but no players are listed twice except for our young guys in Mudiay and Jokic. There are also many holes in the list. This speaks to the lack of quality talent in comparison to a team like the Warriors or the Cavs, but also proves that the Nuggets are starting out stronger than many other teams.

The holes listed are "superstar," "outside shooter 1," "secondary facilitator," "perimeter defender 1," and "big man switch defender." Now, to fill those holes:

Superstar - I don't believe that either of Mudiay or Jokic will develop into Curry or James, so in order to find success, a player like that may need to be acquired in some way. The draft is usually the best way to do this, as rumored trade candidates like Jimmy Butler, DeMarcus Cousins, and Kevin Love fall into the secondary star category anyway. In the draft, Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram seem to be the two superstar-ceiling players, so moving up into the top two should be a priority.

If we cannot acquire a top two selection to draft one of Simmons or Ingram, then the next best thing would be to add other high ceiling prospects who may not be superstar caliber, but still fill many hats. Jamal Murray is my favorite player to do this because I believe he has a ceiling nearly as high as Simmons or Ingram, but he could also fill other empty roles. The same can be said for Dragan Bender.

Outside Shooter 1 - If we are looking in the draft, look no further than Jamal Murray or Buddy Hield. Both players can operate off the ball or with the ball in their hands, and they project to shoot the ball similarly to Klay Thompson. This role is especially helpful due to the presence of Mudiay, as he has limited outside shooting potential and operates best when given space. If there's anything Murray and Hield can do for the offense, it is space the floor.

As for free agency, Eric Gordon is an interesting shooter. He holds a career rate of 38.3 percent from distance, and while he's had his share of injuries, he will likely come on a cheap short term deal (by new NBA standards anyway). He's likely the only player the Nuggets can both afford and have use for as "outside shooter 1."

Secondary Facilitator - If the Nuggets are to hit their potential as a team, Mudiay will be the primary facilitator and be great at it. That being said, against teams that have a great perimeter defender (or two), a secondary facilitator to keep the defense guessing is necessary. Curry and James are the primary ball handlers, but that doesn't mean that the offense should struggle any more when Green and Irving begin to handle the ball. The Nuggets need to find the right guy in the draft or free agency.

In the draft, Jamal Murray again stands out as a perfect option. He doesn't need the ball in his hands to be effective, but when he does have it, he can (hopefully) still perform at an elite level. As far as secondary ball handlers go, there aren't many more shooting guards, small forwards, or even power forwards at the top of the draft who could handle that role quite like Murray. Ben Simmons is a candidate, but he might profile as more of a primary ball handler. Lower tier facilitators include Timothe Luwawu and Denzel Valentine.

In free agency, Nicolas Batum is the obvious candidate, but rumors popped up that he would return to Charlotte quickly so that he could play international ball this summer. Evan Turner is another candidate, but he will likely cost more than he is worth, and his lack of a three point shot would be debilitating next to Mudiay. It's Batum or bust in free agency on this one.

Perimeter Defender 1 - This will likely be the most difficult position to fill for the team. Mudiay may develop into the role, but not at the level players like Iguodala and James are when they are engaged. Gary Harris is fine as the second perimeter defender, but when it comes down to defending the best of the best, he's just not tall enough to defend many wing players.

In the draft, some of the highest projected perimeter defenders are Kris Dunn, Jaylen Brown, Timothe Luwawu, Wade Baldwin, and Taurean Prince. Some of these are projected based on body type, and some are based on previous results. Brown, Luwawu, and Prince certainly have the size to combat bigger wings, while Dunn and Baldwin have the height/wingspan combination to defend point guards and shooting guards alike, so it will be interesting to see how Tim Connelly plays this. I would personally try my luck with Luwawu, Prince, or Baldwin in that order, because I believe legitimate defenders can be found in the middle of the first round, not necessarily at the top where Dunn and Brown will go.

I also invite people to look at Prince's DraftExpress scouting videos. He's underrated and could be a great role player.

There are no capable first tier perimeter defenders entering free agency that the Nuggets can sign, so it's moot trying to find someone like that. The only players out there are Mike Conley and James, so the Nuggets shouldn't waste time.

Big Man Switch Defender - This player is representative of the changing times of the NBA, and with as much small ball and three point shooting there is, this player must be capable of guarding not only forwards or centers, but switching on to guards from time to time. Green is perfect for this role in Golden State due to his mobility and basketball IQ, while Thompson has assumed the role in Cleveland, showing his defensive chops during the last NBA Finals.

In the draft, only two players come to mind for this role: Bender and Deyonta Davis. Both have other skills, but mobility looks to be their calling card as big men. Bender would fill the role passably, but Davis would likely excel. Not only is he a sound rim protector, but he has great athleticism, quickness, and wing span to be able to respectably challenge any shot. In a playoff rotation, a player of Davis' versatility is essential.

In free agency, the best option by far is Marvin Williams. Not only does he possess all of the traits I just listed for Davis, but he has done it in the NBA for 11 seasons. He's still only 29 years old, but he possesses a three point shot as well. I neglected to put Darrell Arthur on the initial list, but I can also see him being a contributor. That being said, I would still prefer to draft Davis and hope he not only assumes this role, but the rebounding role from Faried and even the rim protection role from Nurkic. He's that versatile.

***

Putting together a winning formula is very difficult. It involves putting trust in a lot of players, placing heavy burdens on the best, and hoping to see results. Asking Mudiay and Jokic to be the two best players on a team is likely not a good idea. That being said, if a superstar (or at least another secondary star) can be found, and the various roles can be filled on the roster, then I believe that the Nuggets could absolutely be successful with their current cast of players.

I am much higher on this draft than many of my piers, but I see multiple contributors that the Nuggets could fit into their plans. Beyond the obvious ones of Simmons, Ingram, Bender, Murray, and Hield, I believe there are some high quality pieces that can be added. My ideal draft is to take Murray at 7, Davis at 15, and Luwawu at 19 if he's there (if not, then Prince). If we can't add all of those guys, or players who fill similar roles, then we must explore free agency with the mindset of filling in those gaps and questions with viable answers.

To take a quote from Moneyball, one of my favorite movies, "We can't replace [not having a superstar], but we can recreate him." It takes a village to win a championship, even if Curry or James get all the credit.