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The Nuggets are back on the patience trail

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Whether that’s by design or accident is anyone’s guess

It’s obviously a goat.
https://thefinchandpea.com/2012/06/02/pictionary/

The last three weeks have felt very much like a game of Pictionary for me as I try to decipher the Denver Nuggets' offseason plans. "Is it a a parachute? Some bubblegum. No... a goat? A diseased goat? A goat with leprosy?" The answer, apparently, is patience, but that's as hard to sell to a fanbase as it is to draw.

The Nuggets look to be done with free agency. Perhaps there's still a Brad Wanamaker deal out there, or a Thabo Sefolosha contract to be handed out after some long-fabled roster consolidation, but the main work is done. The crucial summer for Denver has turned into a swap of Paul Millsap for Danilo Gallinari for all intents and purposes. Millsap is a better roster fit in the front court and a better two-way player, but he doesn't increase Denver's overall projection much in an even-tougher Western Conference.

Right now the Nuggets look to be targeting the 7th or 8th seed in the West, along with a half-dozen other teams. I said this last year, but to repeat myself: I dislike goals that barely edge the team over the line. If anything goes wrong with the plan you've wasted trade assets (Danilo Gallinari for example, who netted only a 2019 2nd rounder after the season) and worsened your draft position - like getting the 13th pick in a deep draft that you then squander.

Could the Nuggets still make moves via trade rather than free agency? Absolutely. Connelly said multiple times last night during the Summer League broadcast that the roster is unbalanced and there's some work to do there.

But when asked whether Paul Millsap speeds up the timeline, Connelly replied that he does not, and that the Nuggets do not want to skip steps. They would like to be "competitive" but feel good about where they are. Considering Denver is just a few weeks removed from a botched draft day trade, I don't know whether that's spin or the real goal.

The basketball gods just air-dropped a 22-year old Dirk Nowitzki type with point guard skills onto the roster, and the Nuggets are preaching patience with the timeline. If they'd landed Jimmy Butler on draft night, or Kevin Love, that this would still be their mantra? The Nuggets have a ton of young players on their roster that they obviously love, but young upside has a very finite shelf life. Once it expires, players turn into castoffs in short order. Emmanuel Mudiay is riding that line right now. The trade valuation between Jamal Murray as a future superstar and Jamal Murray as a bench roleplayer is about one season of struggle.

Denver has been unwilling to part with either Murray or Gary Harris, which might eventually be wise - but having three untradable young pieces makes it hard to improve via trade. The Timber Wolves cashed in their third young player in Zach LaVine for Butler, and it's vaulted them from also-ran to playoff-projected. Holding Harris and Murray as key pieces next to Jokic means those bets need to pay off, otherwise Denver won't have the trade cache to add that younger star.

It isn't safer to play the long game. The Nuggets cannot tank in the future even if they wanted to with Jokic on the roster, and their unwillingness to part with veteran roster pieces while also over-stuffing the roster led to player disenchantment even last season. Wilson Chandler vocally complained about his uncertain role last year, and has already re-tweeted some trade rumors involving himself this offseason. He should be the starting small forward this year, but the Nuggets have made it hard to go away from him should something go awry. Two of their three possible small forwards (Chandler and Will Barton) can be free agents after this year, and Denver can likely not afford to re-sign either.

Getting past the Golden State juggernaut is certainly not going to be easy, and attempting it with Millsap and a bunch of 23-and-unders is a long shot. Connelly also spoke of the need for more veteran leadership in the wake of Gallo's departure, and Millsap should fill that role admirably while he creates a formidable front court with Jokic. Still, Denver had a chance to compete for home court but instead seems content with that back-of-the-playoff positioning. If the bet on Denver's guards pays off and the Nuggets can balance the rest of the roster, maybe the long road turns out to be paved with gold.

But that plan to build around Jokic can't be as haphazard as it's looked the last three weeks. The Nuggets were chasing some trades, struck out on every big free agent but one, and have settled now on incremental improvements. That’s fine as a placeholder, but "hold all our assets and pray" isn't a long-term plan, unless you're Danny Ainge and the Brooklyn Nets traded their entire organization to you in a card game. Ask the Utah Jazz how the incremental, steady approach worked out with Gordon Hayward. The Warriors pulled it off, but somehow people have gotten the impression that turning a bunch of consecutive non-top-5 picks, including second rounders, into All-Stars and future Hall of Famers is the sane, easy route to go.

Tim Connelly, and by proxy the entire Denver organization is still preaching patience as they "stay flexible" but that flexibility is going to expire when Denver has to extend Gary Harris and Nikola Jokic. At that point the Nuggets are going to be locked in around certain roster pieces. If the patience has a point, is directed and focused on a tangible goal that works with the deadlines imposed by Denver’s roster construction, that’s fine.

Just as long as that patience doesn't turn out to be a diseased goat after all.