When Gary Harris signed his four-year, $84 million extension last night, not only did it signal that the shooting guard would be in a Denver Nuggets uniform for the next five years, but it also signaled two important concepts regarding the Nuggets franchise: that the front office not only believes in the current roster but that it is willing to pay to keep this roster intact as well.
Inherently, these two realizations are not bad at all. Outside of the Paul Millsap signing, organic growth has by far been Tim Connelly’s strong suit. The Nuggets have produced quality NBA players that have been hand selected by the front office, including a certain unnamed center that is no longer on the team. Nearly half the roster is composed of recent draft picks and all of these players are not only fun to watch but love the grind of basketball and have potential. It makes sense that the front office wants to see Harris, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Juancho Hernangomez and Emmanuel Mudiay succeed in Denver.
But adding Harris’s $21 million next year to an already full cap sheet after Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee signed deals earlier this summer puts Denver upwards of $113 million already on the books. Pile on the looming max extension for Nikola Jokic and there isn’t a lot of wiggle room. Of course, with some crafty maneuvering Denver can (and hopefully will) free up some space, but by and large the roster as we see it today will almost certainly be the same one for the next few years.
The model this current roster employs is not dissimilar to the one the Golden State Warriors took - add quality veterans to the roster while hoping that the younger players can largely outperform their first NBA contracts. The Warriors won two championships and made three Finals appearances and counting by building off of this idea, and it wasn’t until this past offseason that each team member (Stephen Curry) has been adequately paid. While Paul Millsap is in a Nuggets uniform for at least the next two seasons, Denver will hope that Jamal Murray, Juancho Hernangomez and others will produce more than they receive in the same manner.
For the Nuggets this can either be a blessing or a curse. If things gel on the court with this group and Denver has immediate playoff success, then in the future when the cap room really opens up again they will be in a position to attract other free agents and make a deeper run. Golden State made the second round in 2013 while Curry was on a rookie extension and Klay Thompson and Draymond Green on rookie deals, then parlayed that success into Andre Iguodala and a title in 2015. Who knows what kind of fortunes could await the Nuggets so long as they do their part now.
If for some unforeseen reason the Nuggets still aren’t competitive, they could find themselves confined in cap hell and it will be another long few years for Denver basketball.
On paper the Nuggets should be set but with the competitive landscape changing in the Western Conference nothing will be given to any team just because it had a good offseason. The fact that Denver is relying so much on a group of guys under 23 years old makes the on-court success more difficult - but not impossible. Michael Malone has the arduous task of not only meeting the team’s expectations of making the playoffs, but ensuring that there remains unity and growth. With the confidence of the front office backing these players, the growth should be realized. Winning the necessary games is not guaranteed.
The other takeaway from Harris’s contract is that the team is showing signs of being willing to pay to win. Denver hasn’t been in the luxury tax since 2008 but could very well hit that mark as early as next season should they so choose. The Nuggets made Paul Millsap the highest-paid Colorado athlete then re-signed Mason Plumlee to a 3-year, $41 million deal. Last night it was Gary Harris, but next summer it will be Nikola Jokic, then down the road Jamal Murray, Juancho Hernangomez, Emmanuel Mudiay and maybe even another high-profile free agent. Paying the luxury tax does not equate success, but to attract the talent to win it’s almost necessary. As long as Denver pays the right people, the tax can be a benefit and not a burden.
With Gary Harris locked up, the Nuggets are positioned to succeed now and in the future with the roster on hand. Let’s hope they can get it done on and off the court.