Free agency is officially upon the NBA at midnight tonight. Every team has their own game plan, including the Denver Nuggets, who have a variety of steps to take in the next month. From making Nikola Jokic’s extension official, to finding a way to cut down the tax bill they will incur, to improving the roster, July figures to be a busy month for the Denver front office.
Everyone has their opinion on how the Nuggets should proceed, and this is mine. Here are the 10 steps the Nuggets should take to guide themselves through the free agency process:
Step 1 - Call Nikola Jokic at 12:00 midnight on July 1st
This is self-explanatory. The Nuggets and their franchise player surely have an agreement in place to make him one of the most well-paid big men in NBA history. A 5-year, $146.5 million max contract is the only reasonable contract for a player of his skill level and importance. This should be a quick call.
Denver tells him, “Nikola, we are going to call LeBron James and Paul George. Let’s agree to our deal now, but we aren’t going to sign you until we talk to those guys first. We want to use your low cap hold to add an exceptional talent to the roster.”
If Jokic signs off on this, then:
Step 2 - Call LeBron James at 12:03 am
Again, this is self-explanatory. Denver should be placing a call to the best player in the NBA. His relationship with the Kroenke family is well-documented, Michael Malone was on Cleveland’s coaching staff for five years while James played there the first time. The Nuggets fit the on-court culture LeBron wants and needs. They can be a championship contender in Denver with a few quick steps.
James will likely rebuff them, but it’s worth a shot.
Step 3 - Call Paul George soon after
The same pitch can be made to George, who’s apparently wavering between Oklahoma City and Los Angeles right now. Unless the Lakers get LeBron and Kawhi Leonard, it’s possible that with George on the roster, Denver would be better than either of those squads next season. George would be a star in Denver and the face of the organization next to Nikola Jokic. The fit is great.
He will likely rebuff them as well, but it’s worth a call.
Step 4 - Call Will Barton and make him an offer
Barton is going to test free agency and see where he can get the best contract he can on the best fit possible, whether that be in Denver or with another team. Indiana has been rumored to want Barton. Memphis has ties to the former University of Memphis standout. There will be suitors for Barton, who might be the best wing on the market behind George and Trevor Ariza (LeBron is a point forward).
The best thing the Nuggets can do is set the bar with a solid offer for Barton, something that gives him good money that also protects the team. This would either mean cutting down the number of years on his contract or the annual salary. Denver needs Barton’s skill set next year, but they might not in future years, given the age curve of Jamal Murray and Gary Harris. I’d offer Barton a three year deal worth $36 million with the last year being a team option.
Step 5 - Call Trevor Ariza and offer him the full Mid-Level Exception
After putting an offer in place for Barton, the team should still consider signing other options, just in case Barton leaves. If Ariza wants a long term deal that the Rockets aren’t willing to give him, the Nuggets should definitely ask him if he wants to be the starting small forward next season. Michael Porter Jr. is unlikely to be ready to start immediately. It’s also possible he shouldn’t. Ariza is ready to contribute now, and while Denver can’t offer more than the full MLE, they can offer it as long as they get under the tax.
So the next call should be:
Step 6 - Call Atlanta and offer them compensation to take bad contracts
Every tax team will be doing this, so Denver will have some competition for Atlanta’s bad money. Still, it’s a call they need to make. Atlanta isn’t worried about being good next year. They need good veterans to guide Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, Taurean Prince, John Collins, and their other young players. Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, and Darrell Arthur fit that mold to varying degrees.
Denver should be willing to send a first round pick next year, as long as it’s lottery protected, to take on at least two of those contracts. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but Denver has enough young players that aren’t playing now. What they truly need is flexibility to add a piece (like Ariza or someone similar) who will assist them next season. If I were Denver, I’d offer Faried, Chandler, Beasley, and a second round pick for Kent Bazemore, who would assist Denver in being better for the next two seasons while saving them $10 million this year. There would be no future first rounder given up in this scenario, but that may be needed in order to get the deal done.
If that falls through:
Step 7 - Call Chicago, Sacramento, Phoenix, and the LA Lakers in that order to do the same thing
Self-explanatory. Each of these teams will also have space. Chicago and Sacramento each need a forward that can soak up minutes at the 3, so I’m sure they wouldn’t mind having Wilson Chandler. If the Lakers somehow need more assets in a Kawhi trade, then Denver can offer them assets in exchange for taking on salary.
Step 8 - Explore the trade market for a short term upgrade on the wing
I have no idea what the Clippers are doing. After extending Lou Williams, are they trying to win? Are they REALLY trying to win if they let DeAndre Jordan walk? They drafted Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson, traded for Marcin Gortat, and have just done a bunch of things that really make no sense. Would they be willing to part with Tobias Harris for Wilson Chandler and a first round pick? Is he really a part of the future?
What about the Brooklyn Nets? DeMarre Carroll is surely available at the right price. What if Denver sent them a prospect and matching salary? They just selected Džanan Musa and will surely play their young guns as much as they can. Why not add to the talent pool?
How about the Atlanta Hawks with Kent Bazemore? The Orlando Magic with Evan Fournier? The Phoenix Suns with T.J. Warren? The Portland Trail Blazers with Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless?
There are lots of options like that who could probably start at small forward next year for Denver until Michael Porter is ready to take over. It Denver doesn’t want to spend the MLE or can’t recruit free agents to come, the trade market is Denver’s best bet for a short term upgrade.
Step 9 - Figure out backup point guard
Backup point guard has been a revolving door in Denver for years. From Andre Miller, to Nate Robinson, to Jameer Nelson, to D.J. Augustin, back to Jameer Nelson, to Emmanuel Mudiay, to Devin Harris, the Nuggets need to find some consistency there.
It may be Monte Morris, but Denver still needs a third point guard on the roster even if that’s the case. Either Denver can go for a bigger name like Fred VanVleet or Marcus Smart, or they can go for a cheaper option like Seth Curry. Either way, something needs to be done.
Step 10 - Identify other free agents to pay MLE if Ariza says no
There are some players that might be interested in taking money to play with Nikola Jokic, especially in the short term. He makes the players around him better, and generating spot up shooting opportunities for veterans like Tyreke Evans, Wayne Ellington, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Luc Mbah a Moute might intrigue those guys on a one or two year basis.
Step 11 - Decide on Torrey Craig’s restricted free agency
Craig, after playing on a two-way contract this season, is a restricted free agent. Denver has the opportunity to match whatever offer he’s extended by another team. If Denver does match, that money will be added to the looming tax bill. Denver’s surely hoping to keep those costs down if possible, so if Craig’s offered more than $4 or $5 million annually, I expect the Nuggets to let him walk. If not, Denver will either match an offer or negotiate with him themselves.
Step 12 - Identify players to fill out the roster
At this current moment, Denver has 14 players under contract, including Nikola Jokic and Monte Morris, whose contract situations will be altered. If Denver tries to shed two contracts, they will be down to 12 players. If Denver brings back Will Barton and Torrey Craig, that’s 14 on the roster. Denver has two other second round picks, Jarred Vanderbilt and Thomas Welsh, who I expect will be signed to two-way contracts this year. That’s 16.
If LeBron or George were to say, “I want to go to Denver”, that final roster count likely wouldn’t stand; however, if Denver simply added Ariza, Evans, Ellington, a point guard or someone similar, Denver would be right back to 17 players. That’s where I expect them to finish.
Another interesting option on a minimal amount of salary: Tyler Ulis.
As Phoenix continues to load up on salary cap space, Suns are waiving point guard Tyler Ulis, league sources tell ESPN. Ulis, 22, will join the free agent market upon clearing waivers.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 30, 2018
Ulis is a good player. He hasn’t figured it out yet, but reuniting with Jamal Murray in Denver might help. Having him compete with Morris for the backup spot would be a cheap and potentially lucrative option for the Nuggets. He wouldn’t help with the defense, but Denver can’t have their offense drop off a cliff when Nikola Jokic leaves the floor. Taking a chance on Ulis isn’t a bad idea.
If they want to open up a roster spot though:
Step 13 - Decide whether to Stretch Faried or Arthur
This is one of the last steps of the process, depending on who’s traded, who’s signed, and where Denver’s cap sheet falls at the end of the first 11 steps. If it’s deep into the tax, and Faried or Arthur is still on the roster, I expect Denver to either agree to a buyout or use the stretch provision on either guy. Assuming they can’t come to terms on a buyout, the stretch provision makes sense because it saves $5 million this season if it’s Arthur and $9 million this season if it’s Faried, which could greatly influence tax payments.
I expect this to be the general thought process of the front office going into tomorrow. They will try and take a couple of big swings at some free agents, and if they miss, they will regroup, make Jokic’s signing official, and see if they can get creative in improving the roster while shedding some bad money.
July will be an exciting month for Nuggets fans. If Tim Connelly can make some magic happen, the Nuggets will be in a great position to improve enough to be quality playoff team. After a five-year hiatus, it’s time to get back. Denver’s taking the steps they can to make it happen, and now, it’s time to follow through with those promises.