The Golden State Warriors would not beat a Denver Nuggets team in a best of 7 series if that team had a starting lineup of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, LeBron James, Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic. No chance, no way. LeBron and an average level of talent is enough to compete with them, and if the Warriors are down one of Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry, LeBron and an above average level of talent can beat them. LeBron and one of the best young cores in all of basketball is a team that can beat the Warriors. If you believe that if the Philadelphia 76ers added LeBron they would be capable of winning a title then the same has to hold true for The King and the Nuggets. The only difference is the Nuggets don’t have a young star who plays the exact same role as LeBron like the Sixers have with Ben Simmons. Instead, the Nuggets have a gaping hole in the role James would fill both on the court and in the locker room, but have every other piece to go around him.
Throughout LeBron’s career he’s maximized the talents of his teammates. If Mo Williams can jump 5% in his three point shooting percentage and be an all star what would Murray do? If Zydrunas Ilgauskas can average over 15 points a game playing next to him what could Jokic average? What if instead of J.R. Smith it was Harris who got that rebound in game 1 of the NBA Finals? Across the board look at any Nuggets starter and you’ll find a poor man’s version of him somewhere in LeBron’s past that he made into a good player, might have even carried them to a ring or two (here’s looking at you Mario Chalmers, Matthew Dellavedova and Udonis Haslem). With Denver they already have all the supporting talent in all the right places and they need a vocal and proven leader to take them to the next step. LeBron solves every problem they have. Unquestioned top dog on the team? Check. Elite wing defender? Check. Play making point guard? Check. Playoff and championship experience? Check.
The Nuggets also appear to be putting in the work behind the scenes as well. Ever since Tim Connelly got here they’ve been trying to build a better reputation among NBA free agents. They’ve also coincidentally (or, speculating, not so coincidentally) gathered up a lot of people connected to LeBron. First they hired Michael Malone to be their coach. Malone is a former assistant coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers and coached LeBron during his first stint with the Cavs. Denver also had a highly publicized pursuit of Dwyane Wade two years ago and while Wade ultimately signed with the Chicago Bulls he publicly commented on what the Nuggets were building and how he was impressed. Denver also signed Mike Miller, a former teammate of LeBron’s in both Miami and Cleveland. This past season with Miller leaving they replaced him with Richard Jefferson, who played with LeBron just the previous season. In fact, the Nuggets went out of there way, to their detriment even, to get Jefferson on the team. They released Jameer Nelson, who very well may have been the best point guard on the team at the time, to make space for Jefferson (as well as other factors, but Nelson’s release was required to open a spot for Jefferson on the roster).
Anyone who believes that LeBron would never come to Denver is basing their opinion on conjecture. They are saying that he would never come to a city like Denver because he wants to play in a big market despite the fact that the biggest market LeBron has ever played in was Miami (200,000 less people than Denver) and even if he had, his fame transcends city size. People are saying that LeBron wouldn’t come to Denver because there are better options in terms of roster construction but then fail to come up with legitimate examples outside of the Houston Rockets who Chris Haynes of ESPN has said is “not a realistic option.“ Don’t get me wrong, Denver’s a long shot too but the idea they don‘t have a roster perfectly suited for LeBron is ludicrous. Finally, you have Los Angeles Lakers fans interpreting all 280 characters of any Jeanie Buss tweet as a guarantee that LeBron is coming, along with Paul George, to the Lakers despite the fact that their roster is incredibly unproven and, here‘s the real kicker, the fact that the Lakers haven‘t been able to woo a marquee free agent in 15 years. People who dismiss the idea of LeBron to Denver on it’s face are caught up in old falsehoods or their own personal bias or at best aren’t informed about how the Nuggets would actually go about acquiring him.
In those people’s defense, actually getting LeBron to Denver does have some wrinkles in it. The first wrinkle is he has a player option which he can decline to become an unrestricted free agent. This is not a good scenario for the Nuggets. In that case Denver would have to execute a sign and trade with Cleveland to secure LeBron’s services. The issue with that is if the Nuggets do a sign and trade then the luxury tax apron goes into effect. For those of you out there who aren’t Tim Francis, the luxury tax apron is effectively the NBA’s version of a hard cap. For the 2018/2019 season that figure is estimated to be at $129 million. Doing some quick math, even if the Nuggets were to get off the contracts of Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur and Wilson Chandler they’d still have to move off some smaller contracts just to get under the apron if they also plan on giving Jokic a max contract this Summer. It would be impossible to re-sign Will Barton and it would be impossible to add any other pieces via free agency. If either Arthur or Chandler opted in the Nuggets would be scrambling, and likely paying assets, to get off those contracts.
There is a way to avoid this scenario though and that is to do a similar deal to the one that brought Chris Paul to the Rockets last season. Essentially, LeBron would opt in to the final year of his deal with the understanding that he’s being traded to Denver. This would allow the Nuggets to avoid being held to the tax apron and could exceed it for as much as they want to swallow (they would lose both the MLE and BAE in this scenario though). There’s a couple of ways to get this done, none of them perfect. First, the easiest way to do it is to trade Millsap for LeBron. Denver would take on about an extra $7 million in salary but it’s within the rules for them to do a straight up swap of Millsap and LeBron. That would still give Denver their potential three expiring contracts (Faried, Arthur and Chandler) to dump and if they do that they’d have a fairly clean cap sheet. That might be a tough sell to LeBron though. While the Nuggets have a plethora of young, proven talent, one has to imagine James wouldn’t like the idea of losing the one other all-star caliber player with significant playoff experience on the team.
The second and third options in an opt-in and trade scenario would test Josh Kroenke’s aversion to paying huge (and I do mean yuuuuge) tax bills and Tim Connely and Arturas Karnisovas’ ability to make a deal. The second option is to use those three expirings that Denver has, which total about $34 million, and send that to Cleveland in exchange for LeBron. This is a pretty raw deal for Cleveland though and despite them having zero leverage it’s tough seeing them wanting to help LeBron with that little of a return. Again, a sign and trade scenario is incredibly hard for the Nuggets to pull off so the Cavs do have some leverage in the fact that if they didn’t facilitate this trade the Nuggets likely can’t get LeBron. Easiest way to appease them is probably to also give them Denver’s #14 pick in the draft. With the #8 and #14 picks Cleveland would have something going. They could either use both picks to add young talent and go full on into rebuild mode, or they could try to package them for a quality player and try to keep competing with their current roster. Perhaps they could work a three team deal with Denver and the San Antonio Spurs to bring Kawhi Leonard back to Cleveland if he truly is set on leaving San Antonio (one has to believe if the Spurs can’t mend the fences with Kawhi then they’re pitch to LeBron becomes much more difficult). The toughest part of this scenario is convincing Chandler to opt in to his player option to go play with a potentially awful Cavs team. Arthur probably isn’t likely to get anything above a vet minimum (if that) so no matter where he plays his player option is his best bet, but Chandler would definitely garner some interest on the free agent market, not $12 million a year interest, but he could go play for a team of his choosing and chase rings or whatever he wants and still probably get around $8 million a season.
The other issue with the second option is Denver pretty much uses up all of it’s ability to clear up cap space. By giving up all their expirings for LeBron they would be staring a massive tax bill in the face, especially if they elected to retain Barton which they could do because they own his bird rights and don’t need an exception to re-sign him. The third option is the most difficult, but also the best. Denver could trade Faried, Mason Plumlee, the #14 pick, Trey Lyles and one of their young but unused trio (Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez and Tyler Lydon) to bring back LeBron. This would leave them with Arthur and Chandler’s contracts to shed to avoid paying a ridiculous amount of tax (the Nuggets effectively would have until the trade deadline to find a deal since luxury tax isn’t calculated until the end of the season). The tough part in this is clearly selling the Cavs on Plumlee. Cleveland is already paying out a massive amount of money to Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson to man the center position. It’s hard to imagine them wanting to take on Plumlee’s contract as well. Likely the Nuggets would need a third team to partner with on the deal and would pay them the #14 pick to take Plumlee off their hands.
Nonetheless, there‘s a multitude of combinations the Nuggets can use to get LeBron in the opt-in and trade scenario. There‘s one other major hurdle though. Conelly, Karnisovas, Kroenke or anyone associated with the Nuggets front office in any way can‘t talk to LeBron until after he‘s opted out of his deal and free agency has started. Paul was able to get the Rockets deal done because he was recruited directly by James Harden. Only players can recruit other players prior to the open of free agency which means the Nuggets are going to need Jefferson to use his relationship with LeBron and lead their recruiting charge. How much does LeBron’s respect Jefferson’s opinion? I have no idea but there’s a connection there so its not impossible and really Jefferson just has to get the conversation started, it would be Millsap, Jokic, Murray and Garris who would have to seal the deal. After all, those are the guys LeBron would be counting on to not forget the score at the end of a Finals game. The other risk to this scenario is its only a one year deal. Just like CP3, after one season with his new team LeBron would become an unrestricted free agent free to sign wherever he pleases. The Nuggets would get his bird rights in the trade so they’d be able to exceed the cap to sign him and could offer him more money than anyone else, but certainly there’s a risk there and even more so if they flame out in the playoffs.
Still, at the end of the day if there’s an opportunity to sign LeBron James you do it and deal with the risks later. Of course, whether or not the Nuggets will even get a chance to make a pitch to LeBron is very much in question. The crowd saying no chance could very well be right with their guess. However, as I said to a colleague of mine yesterday, “if you think there’s a 40% chance that LeBron is coming to Denver you’re nuts, but if you think there’s 0% chance he’s coming here then you’re nuts as well.”