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Stiffs Roundtable: grading the offseason and identifying the core

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The Stiffs go around to the table to discuss Denver’s offseason and identify the core going forward

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The big names have found new homes, Summer League has come and gone, and the Denver Nuggets are more than likely finished with any significant moves they’ll make this summer. Ladies and gentlemen, we have entered the doldrums of the offseason.

To keep you entertained, the Stiffs have gathered round the digital table once again. In this edition of the roundtable, the squad slaps a grade on Denver’s offseason, lays out what Michael Malone must do to earn an extension, and attempts to identify the members of Denver’s core now that the dust has settled.

Get pumped!

The Nuggets are more than likely done with any big moves this summer, so let’s slap a letter grade on this sucker. How would you grade Denver’s offseason?

Brendan Vogt (@Bvogt422): I’ll go with an A-. Denver went for it all on draft night. The front office took not one, but two high risk, high reward gambles with Michael Porter Jr. and Jarred Vanderbilt. The Nuggets also had a serious problem at the backup point guard position. But they added Isaiah Thomas on the veteran’s minimum and signed Monte Morris to a full-time contract. Denver would not have been able to do that without a serious shakeup to their roster, but they cleared up some spots and escaped the luxury tax by dumping salary at a reasonable price. Job well done.

Adam Mares (@Adam_Mares): I’d give it an A based largely on what I expected to happen this summer. Denver was able to add a potentially great player in Isaiah Thomas and two potentially great prospects in Jarred Vanderbilt and Michael Porter Jr. and only lost four players, all of whom were ready to move on. The irony is that every one of Denver’s moves has the potential to turn into a disaster but I think the upside of IT, MPJ, and JV are all more than worth the risk that it took to add them.

Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn): It’s an A- or an A for me, with the only potential being Denver’s lack of growth on the defensive end. While adding someone like Luc Mbah a Moute would have turned this offseason into an A+ for me, the reason the grade is still so high is because the team didn’t grow shortsighted with the majority of their decision making. Isaiah Thomas was a short term move, but the majority of backup point guards are. Michael Porter Jr. and Jarred Vanderbilt, at their ceilings, are high impact players. Nikola Jokic was locked in for five years. Will Barton was locked in for his prime. Denver is set up well to be a playoff team now while continuing to grow for many seasons. It’s a good offseason. 100%.

Gordon Gross (@GMoneyNuggs): I’ve graded it an A- before, and I’m sticking to that. It would have been nice if Denver could have added more wing defense (or even PG defense) and losing assistants every year makes things a bit less than perfect. But it’s really hard to argue with what they’ve done, even if it doesn’t all work out perfectly. They get huge marks for process - now we’ll see whether they get rewarded with similarly huge marks in outcome.

Michael Malone is coaching on the final year of his contract. What must he do to earn an extension?

Vogt: The team has improved each and every year under Malone, so it’s hard to imagine a coaching change if he’s able to make the playoffs this season. It’s also the first year in which exclusively Tim Connelly guys comprise the locker room. The players that Malone seemingly failed to connect with are gone, and in theory, this Nuggets team should be all in on their shared goal. If Denver gets in then I think he sticks around.

Mares: I’m not sure what it will take for Malone to earn a huge extension but I feel fairly confident predicting that he will NOT be the coach of the Denver Nuggets in 2019-20 if the Nuggets fail to make the playoffs next season. The most important thing for Malone is for the team to show improvement in the win/loss column, refine the team’s identity, and improve their defensive efficiency. The first two of those things should happen somewhat naturally. The last one will be a tough task.

Blackburn: The biggest advice I would give him is to not lose sight of the team’s identity. Denver’s first priority this season has to be becoming the best offensive team in the NBA. Their second priority has to be finding ways to play defense around that. Natural talent offensively isn’t enough to be the best offensive team. There needs to be a focus on putting Denver’s starters and bench in the best situation to score a ton. When Jokic comes off the floor, Denver must continue to be awesome. If Malone can maintain an elite offense for 48 minutes and focus on the defense after, I will be convinced that he should be around for subsequent seasons. If he detracts from the offense by putting out defensive lineups in which Denver still can’t stop anyone, he will likely be gone before the 2019-20 season.

Gross: Put up a fight in the playoffs. This is an untested group with very little playoff experience, but it’s hard to sell Malone if they either miss the playoffs, or just squeak in and then subsequently get blown out. This should be the best team in Denver since George Karl was here, and needs to show the fight to not only get through the Western Conference gauntlet during the regular season but to throw some haymakers in the playoffs as well. Even if they go down swinging, that should be enough for Malone to build on. If not, then ownership will have no shortage of suitors looking to get in with a team that has this much young potential to make a name with.

With Barton returning and the addition of MPJ, what players now comprise Denver’s core?

Vogt: Murray, Harris and Jokic are obviously in. This core now looks to consist of four players in my eyes. MPJ has to touch the floor first and Paul Millsap could be gone after this season, so it’s hard to include them. I will, however, throw in the recently re-signed Will Barton. He’s the beating heart in that locker room, and a glue guy on the floor. He’s all in on Denver, and Denver’s all in on him. Barton is as much a part of this core as anyone.

Mares: There is the core right now which is made up of (in order) Jokic, Murray, Harris, Barton, and Millsap. But what makes this question interesting is how much “the core” could change over the next season or two. Jokic will almost certainly be the centerpiece of the team for the next five years and Murray is going to be given every opportunity to become the 2nd main piece of the equation. Harris and Barton are similar enough that either one could be viewed as expendable if the Nuggets want to move in a different direction and both Michael Porter Jr. and Jarred Vanderbilt can break into the conversation in the coming years. One thing I keep telling Nuggets fans is - enjoy this team while it’s at this phase. At some point in the future, one or more of these guys will be gone.

Blackburn: Right now, I think the core consists of Jokic, Harris, Murray, and Millsap. Barton and Porter are oh-so-close, but the foundation of the team still consists of the aforementioned quartet. During the 414 minutes that quartet took the floor last season, Denver outscored teams by 107 points, good for a +12.7 Net Rating. That was the essence on which Denver hoped to play last season. Denver hopes to continue that advantage with Barton as the fifth starter, but it could also easily be Porter Jr. by the end of the year. It’s clear that Denver wants Barton and/or Porter Jr. around for the foreseeable future, but until either of them proves their mettle in the starting lineup at the 3, it’s hard to give them that status. Barton is really close though, and he could make me look dumb 10 games into the season.

Gross: I’m with Brendan - for me the core is Jokic, Murray, Harris, and Barton. Does that mean someone can’t be swapped out, like Golden State did with Harrison Barnes? Nope, that is definitely still on the table. Barton and Harris feel like potential a 2-to-make-1 situation down the road in some ways, especially if Porter Jr. works out and takes a large chunk of minutes at the 3 from Barton. But with every one of those players under team control for multiple years (and the ability to pay whatever they need to in order to lock up Murray long-term) that feels like the core of this team and its offensive identity to me.