At 33-15, the Nuggets have outperformed general expectations to start the season. Currently sitting in second place in the Western Conference behind the Golden State Warriors, most national pundits are surprised by what Denver has accomplished, especially in the face of injuries to key members of the team.
So, why rock the boat?
In past seasons, the Nuggets have faced a variety of roster questions when February rolled around. In 2017, the Nuggets dealt Jusuf Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers, acquiring Mason Plumlee (and Monte Morris via draft pick) in a deal that looks far better in hindsight. In 2018, the Nuggets dealt Emmanuel Mudiay to the New York Knicks, acquiring Devin Harris to help solidify the point guard rotation.
Now, in 2019, the Nuggets face fewer questions than ever. Assuming the Opening Night starting lineup eventually plays together again at some point, the Nuggets will have all five starting spots covered. Nikola Jokic has played like an MVP candidate. Jamal Murray has stepped into the secondary scorer role. Paul Millsap has filled the role of anchor defensively. Gary Harris and Will Barton provide a combination of dynamic scoring, playmaking, and defense on the wing. On the bench, the aforementioned Morris and Plumlee have stepped into regular roles. Malik Beasley and Torrey Craig provide different looks on the wing. Juancho Hernangomez and Trey Lyles bolster Denver’s spacing in theory.
Still to come, the Nuggets hope, are Isaiah Thomas, Michael Porter Jr., and Jarred Vanderbilt, Denver’s three primary acquisitions during this past offseason. Three players with three drastically different skill sets that could bolster Denver’s rotation before season’s end. While there’s no guarantee that any of them could play a single minute for the Nuggets this year, any contribution would energize the rest of the roster.
So, what can the Nuggets even accomplish by making a move at the trade deadline? On the surface, not a lot.
Upgrade the bench forward position
Consistency is extremely important in the face of a playoff run, and the Nuggets have struggled to find that in their bench forwards this year. While Hernangomez started the year strong, he has tailed off and dealt with various bumps and bruises over the last few weeks. Lyles has played poorly for most of the season, barely cracking a 50.0 TS% efficiency, his most important trait from the previous year. Craig has spent most of his time in the starting lineup, but when Barton returns to his starting spot, what will Craig’s role look like on a bench unit that needs floor spacing in the worst way?
The Nuggets could use a player that they can play regularly with the bench unit and not have to worry about how that player will play on a consistent basis. This is probably the biggest hole in the regular rotation right now, and as Denver looks to improve their chances in the regular season and the playoffs, they must consider things look if/when they’re down 2-1 in a playoff series.
Five names to watch:
- Terrence Ross is nearly on the market
- Nemanja Bjelica could be acquired for relatively cheap
- Taurean Prince has been discussed
- Wayne Ellington is available and fits within Denver’s Traded Player Exceptions
- Stanley Johnson could be acquire for relatively cheap
Any one of the above five players would provide a needed dynamic on Denver’s bench. Ross would add spacing and change games with his marksmanship. Bjelica is basically doing everything Lyles was doing last season, only Bjelica is doing it as a starter. Oh, and he’s Serbian, so Nikola Jokic likely wouldn’t object. Prince is an elite catch-and-shoot player, canning 40.8 percent of those looks on high volume, while providing switch-ability defensively at 6’8 with length. Ellington would be another solid bench shooting option to play when the spacing bogs down. Johnson is one of the most versatile defensive wings in the NBA and would give Denver another option against star wings/forwards in the playoffs.
Trade Isaiah Thomas
Monte Morris has been a somewhat shocking development for the Nuggets this year. The hope for Denver was to utilize Thomas as the bench spark plug, but Morris has been everything the Nuggets have needed with Thomas out. Among backup point guards, Morris has been the single most efficient player, from his shooting efficiency to his adverse relationship with turnovers.
The Nuggets can’t bench Morris now, even when Thomas returns. The best solution for all parties may be to trade Thomas to a place where he can play when he returns. Whether that be for a rebuilding franchise or a competing franchise in need of backup point guard help, Thomas has to look out for his own self-interests. He has been a great teammate while in Denver, and the Nuggets organization should reward him for that. If he becomes healthy and the Nuggets can’t play him, they’d be doing him a disservice.
Potential destinations for Thomas could include:
Selling on Trey Lyles or Juancho Hernangomez
If the determination is made that the Nuggets only need one of the aforementioned forwards in the rotation going forward, then it may be wise to sell whichever one they don’t need going forward. Both players have had their moments during the past few years, but neither guy has truly stepped into the role Denver needs that guy to occupy when the playoffs roll around.
Hernangomez almost certainly has the higher value with an extra year on his rookie contract and simply performing at a higher level this season. I would look to keep Hernangomez personally though and move Lyles, but going the other way is understandable.
Potential destinations for Lyles or Hernangomez include:
Going after Otto Porter
The Washington Wizards forward has had some difficult months this season. After receiving much of the hate for Washington’s poor start, Porter sustained an injury and was out for several games. When he returned, his starting spot was and still is filled by recently acquired Trevor Ariza. Jeff Green has provided a lift in the starting unit as well. With Porter’s contract being so large, he has been subjected to trade discussions for awhile. He can do better than the treatment Washington has provided him, and while the numbers are slightly down this season, he’s rounding into form, averaging 15.8 points on 41.2% from three off the bench since his return from injury.
There are a number of ways Denver could acquire Porter, but the one that makes the most sense for both teams centers around a deal involving Paul Millsap. The Wizards need to get out of salary cap hell, and Millsap’s team option for next season would allow the Wizards to clear their books a bit. The Nuggets desperately need to maintain their spacing around Nikola Jokic in the starting lineup, and Millsap has struggled to do that. Since returning from a toe injury, Millsap is shooting just 18.2% from three over 13 games. The defense has been down as well, with the big man averaging just 1.1 steals and 0.3 blocks during that span. Adding Porter to the starting lineup at the power forward position would provide a new dynamic offensively that the Nuggets have missed. If the Nuggets need Torrey Craig in the starting lineup to cover for the defensive weaknesses of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic, then this is the way to make that work.
In addition, Porter is just 25 years old and fits the prototype of what the Nuggets need from their forwards going forward: a capable offensive player with an elite three-point shot and versatility on both sides of the ball. Envisioning Porter succeeding in Denver for the next few years next to Nikola Jokic, one of the most gifted facilitators of this generation, isn’t difficult. Like Gary Harris, Porter is quite simply a player that fits really well within the offensive dynamic. His abilities would go a long way in helping Denver maintain their success this season and in future seasons.
Fast forward to next year when Michael Porter Jr. and Jarred Vanderbilt are ready to contribute, and Otto Porter makes even more sense. If one of those guys (or Juancho Hernangomez for that matter) could step into a starting role, nearly Denver’s entire rotation would be young, dynamic, and surrounding Nikola Jokic perfectly.
The proposed trade would be Paul Millsap and Malik Beasley for Otto Porter and Markieff Morris. Denver helps Washington save some money on their tax bill at the end of the year and adds two forwards with playoff experience, one of which has elite versatility. Giving up Beasley is tough, but Washington needs some motivation to make this deal beyond just clearing salary, and Beasley would be a great piece to add to their core. Will it happen? Almost certainly not, but it’s something, given Millsap’s age and recent struggles, that should be discussed honestly. Otto Porter is a top 40 player in this league and is under contract for the foreseeable future. Very few players like that become available so easily.
The Anthony Davis dilemma
According to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, Anthony Davis wants to move to a winning franchise as soon as possible.
Agent Rich Paul has notified the New Orleans Pelicans that All-NBA forward Anthony Davis has no intention of signing a contract extension if and when presented and that he has requested a trade, Paul told ESPN on Monday.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) January 28, 2019
As well as the Nuggets are playing right now, having Anthony Davis next to Nikola Jokic on the Nuggets roster would provide Denver with a championship level foundation. Two of the most dominant big men in the 21st century would fit extremely well together - Jokic as a playmaker, Davis as a finisher and defender - and offer the Nuggets a chance at something so talented that a title would immediately be on the table.
If you’re the Nuggets, and the Pelicans want a palatable amount of assets, you do the deal. It’s great that Denver has so many playable bodies when everyone is healthy, but when the playoffs come around, only the best seven or eight guys will play consistent minutes. Having Anthony Davis playing 40 minutes a night in the playoffs for the next several years elevates Denver’s ceiling massively, possibly to the threshold of the Warriors.
If Davis doesn’t guarantee he will re-sign, Denver can offer Paul Millsap and Gary Harris has the base of the package while using Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez, and draft picks as an additional incentive. The Pelicans stay competitive with this package and commit to a Jrue Holiday-Gary Harris backcourt as their foundation for awhile. This probably doesn’t excite the Pelicans though, so Denver will have to add some assets. It’s also a difficult proposition to match salaries, given that Davis makes just over $25 million and Harris and Millsap combine for just over $45 million.
Inserting Murray into the deal would be tough, but if Davis were to say he would re-sign, then it’s a no-brainer for Denver. Millsap would go out in the same deal, and then Denver has extra assets to swing New Orleans, from Michael Porter Jr. and Jarred Vanderbilt to Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez. In any case, there are very few two person player combinations opposing teams could offer New Orleans that would trump Denver offering Murray and Porter. Even the Boston Celtics would struggle to match that deal if they choose to include Jayson Tatum, which they may just avoid altogether.
Either way, the Nuggets should explore this avenue. Players like Davis are once-in-a-generation. Jokic is a similar talent. Pairing the two is something that very few teams in the NBA can truly comprehend. It’s just a matter of going for it.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone if the Nuggets stand pat during this deadline period. They deserve the opportunity to reap the benefits of starting the season well. However, the best teams in the NBA became the best because they were proactive. The Milwaukee Bucks took a chance on a lumbering center in Brook Lopez this offseason, turning him into a three-point sniper. The Toronto Raptors took a chance acquiring Kawhi Leonard this offseason, shipping out one of the best players the franchise has ever seen in DeMar DeRozan. It has certainly worked out for them. The Boston Celtics have continued to make proactive deals, including one last year to acquire Marcus Morris, who it turns out is really good.
It’s hard to say “you need to get better” to a 33-15 squad, but the Nuggets do have opportunities to shore up their playoff rotation and championship caliber core going forward. Will they rest on their laurels? Will they continue to search for players to help them be the best they can be?
February 7th is fast approaching.