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Nuggets stay put at the trade deadline but long-term questions remain

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Denver struck out once again in the trade market

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The much awaited trade deadline has come and gone but aside from swapping Jusuf Nurkic for Mason Plumlee well over a week ago, the Denver Nuggets found no suitors for the plethora of veteran players on the roster.

Instead, Denver’s lone move on Thursday was a second-round swap to the Milwaukee Bucks in exchange for the remains of former All-Star Roy Hibbert.

That isn’t to say Denver wasn’t active. ESPN’s Marc Stein reported that the Nuggets made a “monster” offer to Indiana in efforts to pry Paul George away from the Pacers, but that the talks gained no traction. Stein also reported that it was conveyed to Denver that George would be “highly unlikely” to commit with Denver long term, while his colleague Chris Haynes tweeted that George respects what GM Tim Connelly is doing but that there’s no path to the Finals in the West with teams like Golden State and San Antonio standing in the way.

So much for that.

Once again, the Nuggets came up short in the trade market despite their aggression. All the while, the problems that curtail the Nuggets remain the same.

Obviously this means the roster will remain as-is plus the addition of Hibbert at center, who will actually provide a big body and a defensive presence to the lineup. While it remains to be seen how much playing time Hibbert will get, with the addition of DeMarcus Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans and Nerlens Noel to the Dallas Mavericks, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have more depth at the center position as the Nuggets make their playoff push.

Denver has 26 games remaining on schedule starting with tonight’s date in Sacramento against the Boogie-less Kings. The Nuggets currently hold the eighth spot in the Western Conference and will be making their run led by Nikola Jokic and veterans Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Jameer Nelson. Is the current roster a playoff-caliber team? Yes, but it won’t be easy to even get there. Denver will have to outperform teams like New Orleans and Dallas that got significantly better this week, and they still have to overcome shortcomings from being the worst defensive team in the league.

Additionally, the Nuggets still have the huge problem of having a logjam roster. With everyone healthy there simply won’t be enough minutes for guys who deserve them, and Roy Hibbert doesn’t help much there. How much will Jamal Murray play with Emmanuel Mudiay back, Jameer Nelson firmly in the starting role and Will Barton still on the team? Who will see the majority of minutes at the four between Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur and Mason Plumlee? Will Juancho Hernangomez even see the floor again?

Not making any deals didn’t solve any problems for the Nuggets in this regard. It was easy to see the appeal in trading either Gallinari or Chandler, even if just for picks, as it would have opened more playing time for Juancho. It also could have provided a guaranteed return for Gallo, who will likely opt-out of his contract this summer and command near-max money in free agency. Whether the Nuggets will fork out the cash for him remains to be seen, and with Juancho waiting in the wings and Chandler still under contract these 26 games could very well be Gallo’s last in a Nuggets uniform.

While Tim Connelly swung and missed to no fault of his own in acquiring a star like George or Chicago’s Jimmy Butler, he also did Denver no long-term favors in keeping all of the movable veteran players on the roster. In addition to the aformentioned Gallinari and Chandler, Will Barton is on arguably the best contract in the league and could’ve also been shopped to free more playing time for Jamal Murray. Jameer Nelson is past his prime and is rightfully serving as a stop-gap until Mudiay or Murray feels comfortable enough to run the offense but the market for veteran point guards was still there for teams including the Cleveland Cavaliers. Even Darrell Arthur could provide value to a playoff team with his defense and three-point shooting.

It’s true that it takes two to tango in the trade market, but maintaining the status quo just makes things harder for the Nuggets this summer. Denver might be hard pressed to lure anyone significant during free agency, and bringing back Barton and Chandler on the last years of their respective contracts next year might not make much sense either. If Connelly is intent on building around Nikola Jokic, he’s going to have to pull the trigger on something eventually, preferably for anyone who can defend the perimeter, or else the Nuggets will remain a perennial eight seed contender and stuck in the NBA’s no man land for the next few years.

The good news is that for the Nuggets the patience game that has been Connelly’s staple throughout his tenure might just pay off on its own. Jokic has developed into a star sooner than expected and with the potential in Murray and Hernangomez alongside Mudiay, Gary Harris and Mason Plumlee, time and development alone could be the cure for Denver’s woes. The foundation for a very solid team is there, but it’s also a shot in the dark.

The bad news is the Nuggets aren’t any better today than they were yesterday. No upgrades on defense, no trimming of a woefully overcrowded roster. It will be exciting to see what this team can do for the next 26 games and hopefully in the first round of the playoffs, but for the Nuggets to truly take it to the next level a lot more work needs to be done and today didn’t cut it.