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Stat of the Week: Nuggets salary cap outlook

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With the offseason approaching, it’s time to look toward next season and examine Denver’s financial health.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

This edition of Stat of the Week will focus on the Denver Nuggets and the numbers that drive everything: actual money. Specifically, the salary cap. Here is Denver’s cap numbers for the upcoming 2017-18 season:

Player 2017-18 salary
Kenneth Faried $12,921,348
Wilson Chandler $12,016,854
Darrell Arthur $7,464,912
Jameer Nelson $4,736,050
Will Barton $3,533,333
Mike Miller Non-guaranteed: $3,500,000
Emmanuel Mudiay $3,381,480
Jamal Murray $3,355,320
Juancho Hernangomez $2,076,840
Gary Harris $2,550,055
Malik Beasley $1,700,640
Nikola Jokic $1,417,000
Danilo Gallinari Player Option
Mason Plumlee Restricted Free Agent
Roy Hibbert Unrestricted Free Agent
Total $58,636,978
Salary Cap Estimation $101,000,000
Maximum Salary Cap Space $45,863,022

The projected numbers do not include the cap holds for Danilo Gallinari and Mason Plumlee, which are $22,575,000 and $5,821,325 respectively. Mike Miller’s $3,500,000 in non-guaranteed salary is trimmed from the total. It also does not include the projected draft slot for the 13th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, where Denver currently resides. That number is $2,621,280.

Add those together, factor them into the maximum salary cap space, and the cap space drops down to $11,345,417 in cap space for Denver at the start of free agency. There are many ways to manipulate this cap sheet to allow Denver to sign the players they want to; here are five possible actions Denver could take this offseason.

Option 1 - Retain Danilo Gallinari and Mason Plumlee and change nothing

The Nuggets will have 12 roster spots filled before the NBA Draft occurs. If they choose to add the 13th pick in the draft (or a player at some other spot), then that number will go up to 13. One of the most logical scenarios is to re-sign Gallinari and Plumlee to reasonable contracts and go forward with the 15 players they have. That would yield a depth chart of:

PG SG SF PF C
Jamal Murray Gary Harris Danilo Gallinari Kenneth Faried Nikola Jokic
Jameer Nelson Will Barton Juancho Hernangomez Wilson Chandler Mason Plumlee
Emmanuel Mudiay Malik Beasley Mike Miller Darrell Arthur DRAFT PICK (any position)

This depth chart brings back the same cast of characters and assumes that Jamal Murray will take the reins of the starting point guard position, which I think is a strong possibility if nothing changes. He’s in line for a boost in playing time, and the Nuggets understand what they have invested in the former seventh overall selection.

In this scenario, the Nuggets are likely content with developing at their own pace, letting Murray, Nikola Jokic, and Gary Harris ease into larger roles while Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler, and Will Barton all provide support. I would expect this group to compete for in between 45-50 wins and a 7th or 8th seed in the playoffs next season.

Scenario 2 - Retain Mason Plumlee and let Danilo Gallinari go

If Denver plans on not re-signing Gallinari, then they will likely renounce his cap hold, creating $33,920,417 in cap space to utilize in signing players. Denver would have two roster spots to fill, and if they so chose, they could offer a max contract to a player like Gordon Hayward or Blake Griffin starting at $30.3 million. Those players have completed between seven and nine seasons in the NBA, meaning the maximum salary they can be offered is 30% of the salary cap, a number estimated at $101 million.

What Denver couldn’t do is offer a contract to a player with 10+ seasons in the NBA like Kyle Lowry. Lowry, if offered a max, would earn 35% of the salary cap, starting at $35.35 million. In order to do so, the Nuggets would have to create more space, $1,429,583 to be exact. This could be done in several ways, the easiest of which is to say goodbye to Mike Miller and his $3,500,000 salary. A more difficult scenario is making a trade, but a trade of Jameer Nelson and/or Will Barton would likely be made if a player like Lowry was to be signed.

If Denver were to sign Lowry and create space for him by cutting Mike Miller, the resulting depth chart would look like this:

PG SG SF PF C
Kyle Lowry Gary Harris Wilson Chandler Kenneth Faried Nikola Jokic
Jamal Murray Will Barton Juancho Hernangomez Darrell Arthur Mason Plumlee
Jameer Nelson Malik Beasley
Emmanuel Mudiay DRAFT PICK (any position) OPEN SLOT (any position)

The Nuggets would likely have to move Nelson, Barton, or even Emmanuel Mudiay if Lowry was signed in order to create some roster balance. The team would have some weakness at the forward positions, but Lowry and Harris quickly becomes an elite guard tandem, and Jokic is still a top 5 center in the NBA.

If Denver did not want to spend on Lowry, they could use that now $37.4 million on two or even three separate players to fortify the gaps on the team. They could offer $12 million annually to each of Patty Mills, Joe Ingles, and James Johnson if they wanted to, which would make for a very interesting assortment of players. With that being said, it wouldn’t be very wise to create another log jam, meaning that more players would be moved.

Scenario 3 - Retain Gallinari and let Plumlee go

This is possibly the least mentioned scenario, and it’s not one I recommend, but it should at least be considered. Plumlee is in line for a contract in the eight figure range. Depending on his market, the Nuggets could pay an annual amount between $10 million and $16 million a year for him. If they don’t want to play the high end of that, then they might renounce his cap rights and sign Gallinari instead. Assuming Gallo signs for about the amount of his cap hold an all other players are retained except Plumlee, Denver would have $17,166,742 to go get a backup center ready for rotation minutes. If the player they draft is the backup center, then they could use that money to fortify other positions.

If Blake Griffin suddenly wanted to come play for Denver, the Nuggets could create just enough space by cutting Mike Miller and trading Kenneth Faried for little to no salary in return. That would create this depth chart:

PG SG SF PF C
Jamal Murray Gary Harris Danilo Gallinari Blake Griffin Nikola Jokic
Jameer Nelson Will Barton Juancho Hernangomez Wilson Chandler DRAFT PICK
Emmanuel Mudiay Malik Beasley OPEN SLOT (any position) Darrell Arthur OPEN SLOT (any position)

That team would be very interesting. The need for a combo big man off the bench would be strong, but there is also a lot of fire power if the team remains healthy...which is a big if.

Scenario 4 - Let both of Gallinari and Plumlee go

This scenario creates the most roster flexibility by far, and it only makes sense to me if multiple high quality players want to play for the Nuggets. It could be Lowry and Griffin. It could be George Hill and Gordon Hayward teaming up again. It could be Patty Mills and Paul Millsap or Jrue Holiday and James Johnson. Whatever the case may be, the easiest way to create space is to renounce the cap holds of both Gallinari and Plumlee, which creates $42.3 million total cap space by itself.

Let’s say, for the sake of the argument, it’s Mills and Millsap. Patty Mills would likely be due a contract that starts in the $12 million range with 5% raises ever year, AKA four years, $51.7 million deal. That would leave $30.3 million in cap space for Millsap, but if Millsap wants a max, Denver must create more space. This could be done by trading Jameer Nelson for nothing in return and cutting Miller, leaving Denver with the following depth chart:

PG SG SF PF C
Patty Mills Gary Harris Wilson Chandler Paul Millsap Nikola Jokic
Jamal Murray Will Barton Juancho Hernangomez Kenneth Faried Paul Millsap
Emmanuel Mudiay Malik Beasley OPEN SLOT (any position) Darrell Arthur OPEN SLOT (any position)

Millsap would likely serve as the backup center for this team, reducing the need for an actual center on the second unit. In this scenario, development of young players takes a back seat to competing currently, but with a rotation featuring Mills, Harris, Chandler, Millsap, Jokic, Murray, Barton, Hernangomez, and Faried, it’s hard to believe such a roster would fall short of 50, maybe even 55 wins next year. There are long term ramifications of paying Mills and Millsap such a large amount of money on a roster that may not be ready to compete, but they are far outweighed by the prospect of truly competing.

Scenario 5 - Go all in

These are four scenarios that I believe to be in play for Denver this offseason. The players they target might be different, but the money they have to open up in each scenario is the same. Retaining both Gallinari and Plumlee prohibits flexibility unless trades are made. Keeping only one provides more spacing. Keeping neither provides the most space. It’s relatively easy for Denver to create the space necessary for a max contract, but it’s not necessary.

If the opportunity presented itself that two max contract type players wanted to play in Denver, it would be more difficult, but not impossible to create the needed cap space.They would have to renounce both Gallinari and Plumlee, cut Miller, attach the 13th pick to Faried’s salary, and trade Mudiay and Darrell Arthur in combination for little to no salary back. If they did though, it would create $72.25 million in cap space, more than enough to bring aboard two max guys.

If Chris Paul and Paul Millsap want to team up in Denver, now they can: offer both guys four year max contracts and watch the NBA world fall in love with the Nuggets:

PG SG SF PF C
Chris Paul Gary Harris Wilson Chandler Paul Millsap Nikola Jokic
Jameer Nelson Jamal Murray Will Barton Juancho Hernangomez
Malik Beasley

There are lots of open slots, but those would be filled by veteran minimum guys, second round picks, and maybe even a mid-level exception type. It wouldn’t even matter though, because that group would be a championship contender immediately. 60 wins, a 2nd or 3rd seed, and giving the Golden State Warriors a run for their money.


Whatever the Nuggets decide to do, they have a lot of options, even within each scenario. A variety of players could help the Nuggets immediately, and if the front office is gutsy enough, they could field a very competitive team next year with a couple of power moves. I don’t know which scenario is my favorite yet, but I know for sure the one that is the most exciting.

Poll

Which scenario is most appealing?

This poll is closed

  • 13%
    Scenario 1 - Stay the course
    (75 votes)
  • 24%
    Scenario 2 - Retain Plumlee, let Gallo walk
    (137 votes)
  • 8%
    Scenario 3 - Retain Gallo, let Plumlee walk
    (48 votes)
  • 13%
    Scenario 4 - Let both walk
    (78 votes)
  • 40%
    Scenario 5 - Go get two max contract guys
    (227 votes)
565 votes total Vote Now