With the conference finals in full swing, the NBA draft lottery finished and prospects ready for team visits, the Denver Nuggets can enjoy a brief moment to relax. Unfortunately though, no matter where President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly and General Manager Arturas Karnsovas go, there’s still going to be a giant elephant in the room: Nikola Jokic’s team option. The brain trust of the Nuggets must decide whether or not to allow Jokic to become a restricted free agent and in all likelihood offer him (or match) a max contract this summer, retaining Nikola’s services for just over $25 million in 2018-2019; or, they could accept his 1 year team option, pay him approximately $1.5 million and allow him to be free to sign with whomever he wants in 2019, right after the Nuggets stick it to him for a year. While neither option is necessarily ideal for the Nuggets, there’s really only one choice.
The first option, make Jokic an RFA this offseason and either offer him a max contract or match an offer another team makes, isn’t ideal for Denver not because Jokic doesn’t deserve a max deal, but because it puts the Nuggets in a tricky financial position. They are already on the hook for $85.6 million next season and that’s without considering the options for Jokic, Wilson Chandler and Darrell Arthur. Paying Jokic a max deal if Chandler and Arthur opt in pushes the Nuggets into the luxury tax even if they let impending free agent Will Barton walk. That being said, make no mistake Nikola Jokic is a max contract player. The trouble sometimes is the stigma that comes with the phrase “max contract.” It sounds like a cap crippling deal but what many don’t realize is that because Jokic is only in his third season the max he can get is 25% of the overall cap. What that means is even with a max deal Jokic still won’t be the highest player on the team as he’ll be about $5 million shy of Paul Millsap’s $30 million deal. Without a doubt, making that $25 million for Jokic fit in the cap is no small task, but that’s due to other poor value deals still lingering on the payroll and obviously those deals shouldn’t be held against Nikola.
There’s also the fact that Jokic deserves every dollar of that max deal from a production standpoint as well. Consider recent max contract recipients coming off of rookie deals. Otto Porter, Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond and C.J. McCollum all earned contracts similar to what a max deal would look like for the Nuggets and Jokic. When you compare each of their contract years with Nikola’s last season, it’s the Joker who generally comes out on top and while Davis is certainly a better player than the Joker right now, it’d be a hard argument to say any of the other three are a better building block for a team than Jokic even though each is a vital part of their team’s rotation.
With Jokic clearly deserving of a max deal, it would be extremely odd for the Nuggets to hardball him now. If for nothing else, that simply hasn’t been the front office’s MO and that’s been by design. The Nuggets have gone out of their way to take care of their players, even when they weren’t going to contribute to the team for long. ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported that when Denver waived Jameer Nelson at the beginning of the season they had an offer of a protected second rounder from a bad team, but elected to release Nelson instead so he could choose a more competitive team. Ironically, Nelson chose the New Orleans Pelicans who wound up trading him to the lottery bound Chicago Bulls anyways. In same article Lowe quotes Connelly as saying “these are good guys. To view them as just assets — that’s not something we ascribe to. Guys we’ve had here will speak highly of how we’ve treated them.” The Nuggets also used a similar approach with Danilo Gallinari. Two years ago, during a press conference to announce a partnership between the NBA and the Union of Italian Banks Gallo told the media there that despite strong interest from the Los Angeles Clippers and Boston Celtics, he refused a trade because ”it did not make any sense to leave at that time.” Gallo did not have a no trade clause in his contract but the Nuggets honored his wishes regardless. Ironically, a season and a half later he was an unrestricted free agent and signed with the Clippers anyways.
For a team that has gone out of their way and even to their detriment to honor player’s wishes, it would be extremely odd to suddenly do an about face with Jokic. Especially considering locking him down long term is certainly not to the Nuggets detriment and letting him become an unrestricted free agent almost certainly is. The simple fact of the matter is the Nuggets don’t have the perks to overcome an appearance of being a hardball negotiator with their own free agents, let alone others. The Philadelphia 76ers training facilities are a prime example of what the Nuggets are up against. The Sixers facility includes a complex entirely separate from their arena with two full sized courts and a full service restaurant among several other eye popping amenities. Denver’s not bringing that kind of perk to the bargaining table so to also be perceived as a team who nickels and dimes its own stars would be extremely detrimental to their efforts. The Nuggets have worked hard in the past offseasons to develop a reputation as an up and coming destination in the NBA. First they courted Dwyane Wade in 2016 and while Wade ultimately signed with the Bulls, he was very complimentary of Denver and what they are building. Last season the team made on of the biggest free agent acquisitions in franchise history with Paul Millsap. After working so hard to finally gain some momentum in changing the narrative that Denver is a fly over city with a forgotten basketball team, damaging that now while also taking the risk of losing their own homegrown star seems incredibly foolish.
Yet, as we sit here heading towards the back half of May with just under six weeks until the opening of free agency, Jokic’s team option remains in limbo. Connelly has stated that the Nuggets would like to get the deal done “sooner rather than later” but for whatever reason they have yet to put that in motion by declining Jokic’s team options. Theoretically, one option the Nuggets may be exploring is signing Jokic to less than the max. It’s also possible that they want to know what Chandler and Arthur intend to do with their player options before making any decisions on Nikola. However, if either of those things are true, they’d be nothing more than weak excuses. Whether or not the Nuggets believe they can get Jokic to agree to less than a max deal, that doesn’t change the fact that they are better to find that out this offseason rather than next. This offseason they can still gamble and lose and have Jokic on the roster, that’s not true if he’s an unrestricted free agent next year. Would Denver really let Jokic walk if they wanted to only pay him say $22 million a season and he refused? The idea is absurd just to think of. Likewise, in the event that Chandler and Arthur opt in to their player options (a very real possibility) are the Nuggets really going to force Jokic to play yet another season as the most underpaid player in the NBA just to dodge the luxury tax? Such a shortsighted approach would be laughable for a team who is by all accounts at the very least a few more seasons from being even remotely considered a title contender.
The Nuggets simply don’t have the luxury of entertaining any approach that doesn’t involve making 100% sure that Jokic is happy and wants to be here. The fact of the matter is that even with praise from Wade and even with signing Millsap, the Nuggets still aren’t a team with premier free agents lining up to play for them. At the 2017 trade deadline Marc Stein (then of ESPN) and Chris Haynes (still of ESPN) reported the Nuggets made a “monster offer” to the Indiana Pacers for Paul George, but ultimately couldn’t get the deal done because George indicated he would not re-sign with Denver after his deal runs out this summer. Despite the efforts of the front office, the fly over city stigma still clings to this franchise when it comes to wooing star players. Likewise, the Nuggets appear to be wholly opposed to the idea of tanking and with Jokic’s rise coming from such an unorthodox place the Nuggets already have worked through their rebuild phase without ever completely bottoming out. What that means is the chances of them landing a top three pick are, well, about 1.5%. While stars can certainly come later in the draft, the probability of it happening gets slimmer and slimmer with each successive selection. Unless the Nuggets are ready to hit the reset button and clear all their talent for assets (another foolishly short sighted approach) then they can’t afford to get cute with Jokic’s contract because they aren’t likely going to get another player of his caliber in a Nuggets uniform very easily.
There’s a number of reasons to point to but they all point to the same thing: pay the man. Nikola’s production alone is deserving. He doesn’t just play at a level similar to other guys getting max deals, he surpasses them and the rules of the collective bargaining agreement will still prevent him from being the highest paid player on the team even though he’s clearly the best. Making your best player play for less than he’s worth will be a complete 180 from the efforts the Nuggets have made to keep their reputation among players in the league as one of a franchise who takes care of its guys, even if its not in the best interest of the team. Finally, without the cachet to attract stars on reputation alone, and without a roster capable of bottoming out, the Nuggets aren’t likely to have someone better than Jokic walk through those doors anytime soon. So again, it’s very simple. The Denver Nuggets have one option when it comes to Nikola Jokic. Pay. The. Man.