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What the Denver Nuggets do in the trade market over the next six weeks will speak volumes

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If you want to know where this team is headed, pay attention to the next month and a half

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

As so much of NBA news often gets broken, Thursday night was no different. There it was on the twitter feed, The Vertical, citing Shams Charania, tweeted out that the Atlanta Hawks were finalizing a deal to send Kyle Korver to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Immediately, the Denver Nuggets writers and fans on social media became abuzz. From an outsider’s or even casual fan’s perspective this would seem odd, but to those who follow the team closely, this was the most tantalizing news all season. If the Hawks were sending Korver, a core piece of the team’s 60 win season just a few seasons ago, it likely signified the beginning of a rebuild and a fire sale of assets, one of which, Paul Millsap, had been linked to the Nuggets for months. Hawks beat writers seemed to be eschewing the idea that Millsap wasn’t on his way out soon, fans around the Denver metro area were firing up their trade machines and getting way too excited (including yours truly) and then, like so often has been the case with the Tim Connelly Nuggets, nothing happened.

Now reports surface that the Hawks have taken Millsap off the table, that Mike Dunleavy, a piece of the Korver deal that everyone expected the Hawks to either buyout or move, is super stoked about playing for Mike Budenholzer, that the Hawks are gearing up for a playoff run. Such a stark 180 from where they were just four days ago might be surprising to those who are new to NBA trades, but for those of us who have played the trade rumor game long enough in the NBA, we collectively rolled our eyes and went back about our business. Get back to us in February when the trade deadline is days or hours, not weeks, away. Meanwhile, Nuggets fans angered, they filled up those same social media sites with comments about how the Connelly never makes a move, that the Nuggets are all talk and no substance, that this team will never get a star, and in some ways, they have a point.

The Nuggets DON’T have a star player in his prime, they DON’T have a roster capable of consistently putting together winning records each year and they most certainly DON’T have the personnel to compete for a championship. They also are not nearly bad enough to compete with the likes of the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets or Miami Heat for a realistic chance at a top three pick, which likely leaves them on the outside looking in for a star in the draft as well. In fact, the Nuggets might not even land a top 10 pick this season given their collection of talent. In lieu of that high pick though the team could gain “valuable playoff experience”, if you think getting unceremoniously swept in the first round is valuable at least. Fans and writers are sure to argue which is the correct path, but more importantly is what do the Nuggets think, specifically what does Connelly think? While we don’t know that, it’s likely that Tim will have to reveal his hand over the next six weeks.

For all the bemoaning that the Nuggets never make a trade, or that they never try to improve the roster, it’s important to note two things: 1. They’ve made several trades during Connelly’s tenure and though they haven’t been major deals, for the most part they’ve been very good deals for the Nuggets and 2. Just because they haven’t made a big deal doesn’t mean they aren’t trying. I have spent enough time listening to what’s said both publicly and privately to know that Connelly has been working very hard on those phone lines during his tenure with the team but for one reason or another things didn’t fall into place with his trade talks. I also know he’s not giving up, certainly not right now. Undoubtedly Tim and his staff are making calls, trying to figure out what is the best deal to make for the team and making a trade for a relatively big name like Millsap could certainly be their thinking. However, as Matt Moore with CBS Sports indicated, Denver isn’t likely to sell the farm for a player who can opt out of his deal at the end of the season.

This is the first indication of where the Nuggets front office is at, and its a good one. Basically, they are not desperate. Had Denver ponied up a package to the effect of Kenneth Faried, Jusuf Nurkic and the Memphis 1st round pick I have no doubt Millsap would be in London right now, but the scars of Andre Iguodala are still felt and the Nuggets smartly aren’t going to to sell their future short for a playoff run this season, at least not yet. My gut feeling? There’s zero indication that Millsap would re-sign in Denver, maybe even an indication that he in fact is likely to NOT sign and therefore the Nuggets are going to take a pass on anything that isn’t centered around Danilo Gallinari, a player who is not assured to re-sign this offseason either. However, that doesn’t solve the problem the Nuggets have which is they are barreling towards their fourth straight losing season largely because their point guard of the future has looked anything but and they can’t defend Adam Mares’ rec league basketball team. Standing pat over the next six weeks is as bad as selling the farm for a rental, maybe even worse.

Denver likely has two realistic paths to take over the next month and half, some of which will depend on how the team performs in that time. If they continue to sputter and close out the month a dozen or more games below five hundred then any deal for Millsap is off the table, as is likely any sort of trade that involves part of the young core, save for maybe Nurkic. At that point expect to see the Nuggets focus on next season entirely. Gallinari likely would be moved for draft picks, Faried and Chandler could be as well if a good enough offer is there. Denver would buckle down, go young and continue to compile assets in hoping one of them turns into a star. It’s a prudent move if that’s where the team is at on February 23rd, though not one that will put butts in seats which is the other half of Denver’s decision process.

While Denver’s front office might not see the benefit of making the playoffs just to get swept, their owner certainly could. Beyond the fact that the playoffs are an additional revenue stream with a much higher profit margin than a regular season game, adding a guy like Millsap who lifts the team to post season contention will undoubtedly drum up excitement and possibly pull this team out of dead last in attendance. The idea of that alone might cause Denver to be more aggressive at the deadline, perhaps overpaying for a guy if they believe they have a shot at making it. It’s a win now approach, but also with their cap space and young talent it’s possible to be a win from now on approach as well.

If the Nuggets believe that Nikola Jokic is a superstar in the making, if they believe that Jamal Murray is headed that way too and if they believe that Gary Harris is a key role player on a championship team AND they are going to make a push to the playoffs then they could certainly think they can convince at star they trade for to re-sign with the team and be the last piece to their contention puzzle. Expect Nurkic’s name to get tossed around everywhere with the likes of Gallo, Chandler and Faried. You’ll hear everyone talk about how the Nuggets have not one but two first round picks in the upcoming draft which is widely considered to be very deep, and you’ll likely hear every name that’s not Jokic on the roster get put into around in one trade rumor or another.

The elephant in the room is what if the Nuggets do believe all those things about Jokic, Murray and Harris and what if they are still in contention for a playoff spot but they STILL stand pat at the deadline. That would be an indication that all is well in the Nuggets world, that they feel a core of Mudiay, Murray, Harris and Jokic will blossom into championship level talent. This is certainly not outside the realm of possibility, but I’d say its highly unlikely. Maybe if Mudiay had progressed more up to this point of the season, or maybe if Denver wasn’t CHASING an eighth seed that very well could take fewer than 40 wins to obtain or maybe if they weren’t currently giving up 120+ points a game. Fact of the matter is the team is nine games below five hundred and light years away from where current championship contenders like the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Cavaliers are. Believing this unit as currently constructed is capable of competing for the ultimate prize would be foolish.

Six weeks will reveal a lot about this team and the thinking of their front office. If they can right this ship, if they can play some defense, if they can be right around as many wins as losses come early to mid February then if they believe in the value of making the playoffs this season, even if it means a first round sweep and nightmares about Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant jumpers, then they’ll move some key pieces to improve the roster and make their run. However, if they don’t value making the playoffs this season, or if they don’t believe they can make the playoffs at all then it’s likely to be more trades for draft picks, more low level deals swapping end of the rotation players and more nights at the Pepsi Center with two thirds of the arena empty. Stay tuned.