After missing the playoffs by one game for the second consecutive season, the Denver Nuggets will have their work cut out for them as they search for avenues to improvement this offseason. The Nuggets have the 14th pick, and while that slot has the potential to find an All-Star caliber player, it’s not likely to yield a player capable of moving the needle for Denver, at least not right away. With a late lottery pick and limited cap space, how does Denver get better this summer?
We’re going arouuuuuuuuund the table to find out
With the 14th pick, should Denver be drafting to fill a need or should they add the most talented player left on the board?
Gordon Gross (@GMoneyNuggs): Most talented is usually the way to go. There are exceptions, like Philadelphia taking Jahlil Okafor while having Noel and Embiid on the roster - but then Okafor wasn’t the most talented player either. But Denver needs talent. They’ve already gummed up the roster structure with a glut of power forwards, but they also somehow don’t have a PF of the Future either. There are 3 core members of Denver’s future: Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray. No one is unseating Jokic at center, but if the Oklahoma City Thunder could take James Harden behind Russell Westbrook, then no one on the roster should be offended that their position got drafted. Grab the talent, then sort it out. I just hope the talent happens to be a 3-and-D wing somehow.
Daniel Lewis (@minutemandan): I think they should go for the most talented player that fills the largest need on their roster. They’re at a point right now where they could potentially have zero true small forwards on their roster next season. If you’ve watched the Western Conference Finals this season, the Rockets and Warriors will have four or five small forwards on the court at one time. If they don’t draft a small forward, they’re going to have to rely on free agency, where they have very limited funds to acquire one.
Brendan Vogt (@Bvogt422): The Nuggets are in desperate need of a back up ball handler and wing players, especially so if Will Barton plays elsewhere next season. Plus, they’ll have limited cap space and there’s a max extension for Nikola Jokic looming—it’s unlikely they add any real talent through free agency. You could argue that they need to hit on this pick to plug one of those holes, but ultimately you’d like to see a team add the most talented player available with a lottery pick. We saw what happened last year when Denver shied away from yet another guard in Don—he who shall not be named.
Sorry for bringing it up.
After last year’s draft day trade disaster, can Denver risk more ill will by trading back in this draft?
Vogt: I’m not sure how Denver is supposed to add talent this summer when it’s going to be hard enough to retain it. If trading back helps you add a quality player in a key role—ball handler, three-and-D wing—then it could be worth it. Just, maybe have a back up plan if the guy you want isn’t available when you trade back?
Gross: Last year is a sunk cost. If you buy a car, and the car is a lemon, you don’t revert to horse-drawn carriages. You do your research and you try to avoid the same mistakes that led you to this point. Moving back by itself wasn’t necessarily the issue. Denver has a lot of moves to make to clear the roster and stay out of the kind of cap hell that currently threatens the Trail Blazers, for instance. One of those moves may entail moving back, but again there are reasons to do so if Denver can get the right player (read: probably a wing defender) while moving back. There are interesting options - they just can’t miss on fit and upside again if the right option is there.
Lewis: Gordon articulated most of my thoughts already. One of their top priorities needs to be getting rid of some of the flotsam on the roster — if they trade back to add MORE players, that’s a mistake. Hopefully they can dump one of the big contracts they have on the roster to move back, and replace that player with a younger, more affordable option.
Since the 14th pick isn’t likely to do it alone, how does Denver get closer to contender status this offseason?
Lewis: They need Darrell Arthur and Wilson Chandler to not opt in, they need to get rid of Kenneth Faried in the draft (trade him to Atlanta with the No. 14 pick for No. 19), and they need to exercise the team option on Jokic for next season. If they add a 3&D small forward in the draft, then they can have the cap space to try to add someone like Marcus Smart and Rodney Hood in free agency. Then they can bring back Will Barton, and roll with this lineup:
PG: Jamal Murray, Marcus Smart, Monte Morris
SG: Gary Harris, Rodney Hood, Malik Beasley
SF: Will Barton, Melvin Frazier, Juancho Hernangomez
PF: Paul Millsap, Trey Lyles, Tyler Lydon
C: Nikola Jokic, Mason Plumlee
That’s a much better team — they can go offense with Lyles at the four and the rest of the starters, or go defense by swapping Smart for Murray, Plumlee for Jokic, and Frazier for Barton. That would pretty much be a perfect offseason in my opinion, and would make Denver one of the four best teams in the Western Conference.
Vogt: This might be a little Chris Webber of me, but I’m going to beat this drum one more time—I don’t know how they get better this summer. Denver won’t have the cap space to pursue other talent with that Jokic extension atop the priority list, and they’ve also got a tough decision to make in Will Barton. Even if Thrill does want back in, the Nuggets will more than likely have to pay a hefty luxury tax bill to make it happen. I’m not just a member of the ‘keep Will Barton’ camp, I’m passing out marshmallows, running head counts and telling ghost stories. Without Barton, the Nuggets could be in real trouble.
They’ll need to bank on another year of strong internal development and hope that one way or another, the asset that is pick 14 turns into a valuable basketball player. Next year probably isn’t the year we see a massive leap, but if Barton comes back and the roster stays healthy, a playoff appearance should still be expected.
Gross: First, they have to get out of this level of tax danger. They need to move assets and/or expirings while still adding a young player or two who can help keep costs down over the next 4 years. This probably won’t be the year to make a splash (unless they find and keep this year’s mid-first surprise) but getting the rotation talent condensed to the 8 or 9 guys Michael Malone is willing to use would be a good start. Ryan Blackburn has brought up the talent sitting in spots 10-14 that wasn’t used because there weren’t enough minutes to go around. The Nuggets need to clear the decks so they have the funds and the picks to add the right defensive players to complement their core in order to step closer to being that elusive playoff team, let alone contender.