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For the Denver Nuggets, the pressure is now on

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After some big swings and misses, Denver has some work to do to make sense of this roster.

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NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Denver Nuggets Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves made the big deal happen last night. Jimmy Butler is now in the Northwest division, and the Denver Nuggets are left holding the pieces.

It’s pretty clear, based on the reports last night, that the Nuggets were looking to swing a big deal for Butler and/or point guard Eric Bledsoe. I have a theory that the Nuggets were trying to acquire both in the same deal, and the final push was held up due to the Phoenix Suns’ desire to see if Josh Jackson would be taken by the Boston Celtics. Regardless, the Chicago Bulls moved on, made a deal with the Wolves, and pushed the Nuggets down to the bottom of the Northwest division totem pole.

Because of this initial failure and the way the draft board played out, the Nuggets traded down from 13 to 24, acquiring Utah Jazz power forward Trey Lyles in the process. In a vacuum, this is a great trade. Lyles is just 21 years old, and he’s an extremely skilled power forward who needs to be coached up on shot selection and defense. The Nuggets can help with the first one. The second one? We will see. The hope is for Lyles’ athleticism to translate into defensive production. His offense should take several steps forward in a new situation with Nikola Jokic to make things easier.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

This is when things got really weird though. Sitting at home, I was counting down the teams left on the board in front of Denver, now sitting at 24th overall. OG Anunoby, while it hasn’t been publicized yet, had to have been high on Denver’s list of targets at that point based on his defensive ceiling and Denver’s defensive need. Seeing him go 23rd to the Toronto Raptors had to have hurt on multiple levels (thanks Masai Ujiri).

Because of this (or maybe not), the Nuggets took Tyler Lydon at 24. Had the Raptors taken anyone else at 23, my guess is Anunoby at 24 was the guy. Had the Nuggets grabbed him, most fans would have seen the vision to move down from 13 and commended Connelly and co. for their excellent maneuvering and asset acquisition. As it happens, the Nuggets were stuck with Lydon. As it was with the Trey Lyles acquisition, in a vacuum, this draft selection is fine, actually reasonable value for a player that could excel next to Nikola Jokic.

The point of the matter though: decisions made on draft night cannot be graded within a vacuum. As Gordon Gross pointed out in his excellent piece yesterday, the team’s need for a vision was huge in this draft. Most assumed going into the draft that the goal would be consolidation of assets. The Nuggets finished draft night with waaaaaaaay too many power forwards on the roster. Most assumed that the goal was to get a star player, and the Nuggets couldn’t get it done, left at the altar once again for the cute friend instead. Most wanted to see the Nuggets add defense in this draft, and there’s an argument to be made that Denver somehow got worse.

Whether or not Tim Connelly, Arturas Karnisovas, and the rest of the front office deserve the moniker of “can’t get the big deal done” is justified or not: the fact is, they haven’t. They would be the first to tell the public, and they have. The Nuggets are absolutely disappointed with how this draft went. While they see Trey Lyles and Tyler Lydon (and to a lesser extent Monte Morris and Vlatko Cancar) as potential contributors, that’s not what they wanted. Connelly and Karnisovas wanted to make a splash. They lost this battle, but they haven’t lost the war.

Free agency is about to be upon us. July 1st at midnight is when the first transactions can be made. Here’s where the Nuggets currently stand with regard to roster construction:

Honestly, the small forward section should look less crowded and the power forward much more so. Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, and Juancho Hernangomez ALL have a case to be better as power forwards in today’s NBA than they are small forwards. The center position is currently set with Nikola Jokic and Mason Plumlee, as is shooting guard with Gary Harris, Will Barton, and Malik Beasley, barring any future transactions. Point guard will be very tricky, and there’s a case to be made for starting Jamal Murray and developing him as the next great player in Denver. There’s also a case to trade for a player like Bledsoe. The Nuggets seemed to see it that way last night.

Either way, there are a lot of ways that the Nuggets could go during the rest of free agency. They could re-sign Plumlee and let Gallinari leave, while signing a new third center to replace Roy Hibbert. That would put Denver at 17 players, potentially using Monte Morris and Tyler Lydon as the two “swing contracts” allowed in the new CBA. Most, if not all of Denver, would consider such an inactive offseason a failure of cataclysmic proportions though.

The smart money is on Denver making a trade, maybe two, to consolidate the roster. It may be a simple “one player for future picks” type of deal, or it may be something slightly larger. That won’t move the needle though either.

After the draft performance the Nuggets front office had, they are going to want to make a splash in free agency. It doesn’t have to be signing a star free agent though. It could be the shrewd, value signing, or orchestrating a sign-and-trade for a restricted free agent (Otto Porter or Andre Roberson anyone?), or it could be the major trade everyone has been waiting for.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Whatever it is, it will be big. If it’s not big enough, then it may set the franchise back considerably. Jokic is a star, while Harris and Murray are great pieces, but without tying it all together, there will be no way for the Nuggets to take “the next leap” as a team, something the fanbase has desperately craved since the 2008-09 season.

Because if the Nuggets don’t at least try to take the leap, then there will be many more questions to come.