The Denver Nuggets are sitting pretty right now. They have a roster bursting with young cheap talent and reasonably priced vets. There's no more room at the inn for anyone who isn't a star player, and Denver has plenty of funds to add such a player if the opportunity arises.
The owner himself, Josh Kroenke, recently gave an interesting interview to Mark Kiszla of the Denver Post stating how proud he was that Denver was ahead of the curve on salaries:
In the early days of October 2014, when many teams are focused on the X’s and O’s of training camp, Kroenke huddled with Connelly and decided they must reach a contract extension with forward Kenneth Faried, and get it done with great urgency. Why? Faried had recently won a gold medal with Team USA at the FIBA World Cup of Basketball. But, far more important, the Nuggets were keenly aware a new TV contract, a mega-deal destined to throw the league’s salary structure into chaos, was going to be announced within a matter of days.
"Hey, buddy," Kroenke told Connelly at the time, "the whole game’s about to change."
That early work before this cap jump was crucial for Denver's positioning. Faried (whose salary is now a bargain as of this offseason) is mentioned there, but the extensions to talented players like Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari were also savvy. If Denver could have had a healthy season and gotten into the playoffs last year they could have caught more attention around the league now have the money to sign a max free agent to continue the rise.
It didn't happen, but Denver is looking to make that impact for the 2017 season (again, in Kroenke's own words):
"I don’t want to go back to the playoffs until we have a team ready to advance in the playoffs," said Josh Kroenke, who offered his vision for making the Nuggets an elite team during two interviews last week with The Denver Post. "I don’t want a team that is one-and-done every year. I want to win."
And Denver is positioned to add highly-paid players over the next year to do just that. As more players sign it becomes ever more apparent how many bargains are on Denver's roster. Bradley Beal is going to sign for 5 years and $128 million. Gary Harris's sophomore year matches or exceeds the career Bradley Beal has had to this point - except Harris is healthier and several years younger on that growth path. Harris is on his rookie deal for 2 more years at a total of $4.2 million.
Timofey Mozgov will get 4 years and $64 million (and here in Stiffs land we're all thrilled for the big guy - one of the really good guys in the league). Nikola Jokic had more winshares as a rookie than Mozgov has ever had in a season, and is under contract for 3 more seasons at another $4.2 million.
Eric Gordon, the talented SG who hasn't played more than 64 games in a season since his rookie year in 2008-09, will get $13.25 million a year for 4 years. Will Barton, the talented SG who just posted a better season than Gordon has had in 6 years, is getting $3.8 million a season for the next 2 years.
While other teams are paying big bucks to battered or lower-tier free agents, Denver is keeping its powder dry and waiting for the right move. That's admirable... if it pays off. It just did for the Celtics, who signed AlHorford to a huge contract and with their stable of young talent and picks will be in the market for big names for years to come.
The biggest question in the rebuild is whether the Nuggets can close the deal on the sort of free agent who would make an impact here. Denver doesn't have that kind of name cache around the league, and certainly not the rabid fanbase at this point. The biggest name that has ever started his (NBA) Nuggets career as a free agent is Andre Miller. Feel free to check me on that, but Marcus Camby, Alex English, Nick Van Exel and the other names that come to mind were all traded here first. Players may stay once they get here, but getting them here in the first place is the issue.
Which is why it may still be the trade market that gets Denver its marquee name. Trades have brought many good, even great players to Denver. The Nuggets have the assets to make these things happen, and they have the salary structure in place to re-sign whichever rookies are deemed critical in a few years when they reach free agency. Of course, the last major piece the Nuggets added (Andre Iguodala) could not be convinced to hitch his wagon to ours and went off to win a championship in another uniform.
The rebuild has been smart. Denver has gotten good players without top-3 draftpicks and may already have a star or two amongst their rookie-deal players. But if those players hit a ceiling and can't break through to being superstars (the same ceiling that players like John Wall and Ricky Rubio are pressed against right now) Denver will need to go outside the organization to complete the build. If they want to be great by next season it's almost certainly they'll need outside help to make that timeframe.
The Wizards can't get anyone significant in to help Wall and had to pay Beal an absolute fortune in the hopes he will continue to grow. The Timberwolves are hoping their young and talented core will also grow into a juggernaut under Tom Thibodeau, but that's still a couple of years off. Rubio is not likely to be around for that, seeing as the Wolves just drafted his replacement.
The key to any rebuild is getting the right pieces together at the right time. The worst place to be in the NBA is in the middle: not bad enough to get the picks to improve, and not talented enough to challenge the teams at the top. The Nuggets have talent, and their talent is all incredibly priced (especially after the Nuggets re-signed Darrell Arthur for less than market rate). Players who get to Denver seem to like it here, but the key is getting them on the roster in the first place. The Nuggets have placed themselves in great position, and as Josh Kroenke says, they are poised to storm into the playoffs next year on a mission - if they can add the right players.
That leaves this year to make the right impression with free agents that Denver is a team on the verge of amazing things, in a city about to explode with love for its team. That's what the Golden State Warriors did when they dispatched the injured Nuggets in the playoffs and persuaded Andre Iguodala to join their collection of insanely talented young players. That piece got them a championship.
The Nuggets need to return the favor to some other team this year, or they'll have to pull the trigger on a blockbuster trade. They truly cannot afford to be stuck in the middle again.