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Stiffs Mailbag: Vlatko Cančar, Monte Morris, and wrapping up NBA Free Agency

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Answering questions from Nuggets fans since before Hector was a Pup.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

We’re in the thick of Summer League now! Bracket play begins tonight, and Denver Nuggets summer squad has impressed with a 3-0 start. Monte Morris and Vlatko Cančar are the big stories on the team right now, and their performance has brought forth some intriguing questions.

There’s a lot to talk about this week, and I plan on discussing as much as I can. If you want to be a part of the conversation, make sure to either ask me on Twitter (@NBABlackburn) or email me your questions (rn.blckbrn@gmail.com). I love interacting with Nuggets fans. It’s extremely important to have a pulse on the franchise throughout each season, and at this point, it sounds like the Nuggets are doing reasonably well by fan standards.

Now, onto the questions.

Monte Morris has been awesome in Las Vegas thus far, doing everything the Nuggets have asked of him. In three games, he’s averaging 16.3 points, 6.0 assists, and 3.7 rebounds on 48.0% from the field while keeping the turnovers dow. Those are NBA caliber numbers for a backup point guard in today’s NBA.

That being said, Morris is on a two-way contract at the moment. He will be limited to (at max) 50-55 games played for the Nuggets if he stays on a two-way, given that the G League season ends some time in March.

I don’t think the Nuggets are done. Right now, they have 15 players on NBA deals and two (Morris and Thomas Welsh reportedly) two-way contract guys. Either the Nuggets utilize Morris on his two-way until they find another home for another player on the roster, or they move someone on the roster relatively soon, opening up space to sign Morris or another backup point guard option.

Right now, I expect them to free up two roster spots, one for Morris to upgrade to a guaranteed deal, and another for additional guard/wing depth.

Looking around the league at backup point guards, a few stand out as the cream of the crop. Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright are excellent for the Toronto Raptors. Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier are excellent backups for the Boston Celtics. I’m a fan of another few guys in various spots: J.J. Barea, Shabazz Napier, Tyus Jones, T.J. McConnell, and Cory Joseph are all unquestionably solid options as backup guards. After that, young players like Dante Exum and Frank Ntilikina are options for defense that, when surrounded by good shooting talent, become valuable.

After those 11 players, there’s a sizable drop off. Shaun Livingston, Tony Parker, Devin Harris, and Jameer Nelson aren’t quite the quality players that they once were. Jordan Clarkson can score, but at what cost for his own team? Raymond Felton and Shelvin Mack are whatever. Emmanuel Mudiay still does stuff sometimes.

If I’m projecting Monte Morris at this point, I think he can comfortably fit into this second tier of backups with potential to move into the first tier. He has shown the burst to get to the rim, the intelligence to understand when to facilitate versus create for himself, and just enough defense to make things work.

The only reason for the Nuggets to NOT make Monte their backup point guard at this point is if they have a candidate to sign or trade for, which leads me to...

Yes. 100% yes. In this scenario, Denver can still convert Morris to a fully guaranteed deal. They have to offer Smart the full non-taxpayer MLE in this scenario, which comes out to around four years, $37 million in a contract that the Celtics could absolutely match anyway.

Still, I think Denver has a real opportunity here to add a bench guard that will make their defense dramatically better when he’s on the floor. Smart is a solid facilitator on offense, and while he can’t really shoot, in Denver, he might not have to try that often. Defensive units that include Smart, Gary Harris, Torrey Craig, and Paul Millsap would be filthy though. Add Jokic to that quartet, and it makes for a nice rotation while Jamal Murray and Will Barton are getting a rest.

I’d be perfectly okay with this scenario, even if Denver had to give up a first round pick. Turning unproductive money into somebody that can help contribute will always come with a cost. Denver has a hole in their backup backcourt slots that could be filled by Smart. His versatility, ability to guard multiple positions, and intense defense would help the Nuggets win more games next year.

Imagine a rotation that includes the following:

Point Guard - Murray, Smart, Morris

Shooting Guard - Harris, Smart, Beasley

Small Forward - Barton, Smart, Craig, Hernangomez (Michael Porter Jr. if he’s healthy)

Power Forward - Millsap, Lyles, Hernangomez

Center - Jokic, Plumlee, Lyles

It’s hard seeing Denver not winning 50 games in that scenario.

If the Nuggets can free up a two-way spot, then I would give it to Vlatko Cančar. He has been so impressive during these first few games in Las Vegas, putting up 11.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 2.3 steals on 54% from the field in just 22 minutes per game. That level of efficiency combined with the way he moves out there defensively give me encouragement that he could fill in at small forward in a pinch.

With Devaugn Akoon-Purcell, I’m more concerned about whether his good shooting will translate. Right now, I see him as someone who COULD be Alonzo Gee in the NBA. An NBA player for sure, but more of an energy/burst guy. That’s why the Nuggets added Torrey Craig. He is that guy for Denver, and I doubt they need another one.

I truly am excited for Cančar. I think he’s going to be an NBA player sooner rather than later.

I’m intrigued by Rodney Hood. He’s a scorer through and through, but he lost confidence in Cleveland. He’s 25-years-old, so he’s a bit older than normal restricted free agents. That being said, the number that Denver would have to offer him that Cleveland WOULDN’T match would be a gross overpay. My guess is that Hood signs his qualifying offer, tries to recover his value as a focal point in Cleveland, and then hits unrestricted free agency in 2019.

At this point, Denver needs bodies at the 3, and a 6’8 guy in Hood would definitely be impactful. That being said, Smart fits into what Denver needs much better, and if they take a chance on a restricted free agent, I bet it’s him.

It has to be Jamal Murray, right? The jump from second year to third year for young guards is a big deal. Devin Booker improved his efficiency massively in his third season. Derrick Rose became an MVP candidate. James Harden went from intriguing prospect to Sixth Man of the Year.

I bet Murray makes a similar leap, maybe not to the degree of those guys, but to the point where he’s averaging right around 20 points per game on solid efficiency. His next step is turning his jump shot and dribble-drive game into something more lethal. If he can do that, in addition to making normal improvements to his passing, rebounding, and defense, he’s going become a borderline elite point guard in the range of a Kyle Lowry or a Kemba Walker.

Other candidates include Juancho Hernangomez or Malik Beasley, but I don’t think either of those two will get the requisite playing time to showcase improvements. If they do, then the Nuggets are either doing way better or way worse than expected. Outside shots include Trey Lyles and Gary Harris, but I don’t think either will have an expanded role, which makes it more difficult to show drastic improvement.


Thanks for all of the wonderful questions this week! If I didn’t get to your question, don’t worry. I have a few in mind for next week as well. Enjoy the Nuggets summer league game tonight!