The Denver Nuggets have a bevy of riches. In fact, they have too many riches. With the season bearing down Coach Michael Malone has been given the arduous task of trying to figure out how to carve out a 10 man rotation with approximately 12 players who deserve playing time...let alone any young players the team hopes to develop. Largely the bevy of talent surrounds the small forward position where Will Barton, Juancho Hernangomez, Torrey Craig and Michael Porter Jr. can all lay claim to playing time. However, it’s actually the shooting guard position where the Nuggets will feel the squeeze.
Gary Harris has long established himself as the starter at the position, a title he’s held since his sophomore year. However, for the first time since perhaps Gary’s anointing as the starter that idea is worth questioning. It’s not that Harris has done anything to not warrant consideration as a starter but he has been the unfortunate recipient of some bad injury luck which has left opportunity for others, primarily Malik Beasley. Unfortunately, The Nuggets face the question of whether or not to retain Beasley very rapidly as he is entering the final year of his rookie contract and coming off a breakout season. Beasley’s impending free agency, Harris’ health questions and Barton being more of a two than a three has left Denver in a conundrum: how do they keep three talented players at the same position who all need minutes and all need to be (or have been) paid?
The answer is simple: they can’t. This season Denver will push themselves right up against the luxury tax, currently sitting a mere $600k below the tax line, and that’s with an empty roster spot. While next season will offer some salary cap reprieve in the form of Mason Plumlee and Paul Millsap’s contracts expiring, Denver also will have Jamal Murray’s shiny new deal to pay for to the tune of $29 million per year. Add in the raises for Nikola Jokic, Harris and Barton and the Nuggets cap situation is pretty murky. Paying Beasley is a difficult proposition to say the least.
Therein lies the problem for the Nuggets. They have a week to come to terms with the Beasley on an extension. NBA rules state that the Nuggets must announce by October 21st whether they have come to terms on a new deal with Beasley. If they are unable to come to said terms then the deadline for extensions will pass and Beasley will become a restricted free agent following the season. Restricted free agency means that the Nuggets can match any offer Malik gets on the open market but that’s a tricky game to play. In order to dissuade Denver from matching any offer a team might give Beasley potential suitors may end up paying a premium for Malik’s services, a premium they hope the Nuggets themselves aren’t willing to pay. That’s going to force Denver to make a tough decision
It seems only a matter of time before the Nuggets either put Porter into their small forward position or are forced to find an outside alternative. Barton is a very good player, but at 6’6” he is undersized for the small forward position and one could argue that his skill set is best served as scoring threat off the bench. No matter how you split it, it’s hard to argue Barton is best suited to fill the starting small forward role on any team, he seems far better suited as a sixth man shooting guard. However, that means the Nuggets are forced to face the idea of having three two guards (Harris, Barton and Beasley) and only enough minutes for two.
The fact of the matter is there’s simply no way to assuage that issue without cutting one of those guys from the rotation. If Malik truly can earn a Gary type deal (around $19 million per) then paying him that would put the Nuggets right back into the luxury tax territory next season without even considering re-signing the likes of Millsap, Hernangomez, Plumlee or Craig. It’s just simple economics and the fact of life in the NBA, Denver can’t keep everyone.
There’s a large argument to keep Malik in the fold. He broke out last season shooting over 40% from three and proving capable of big minutes while Harris and Barton recovered from injuries. However, Gary is the established starter and Denver’s best perimeter defender Barton meanwhile is one of the best creators on the team with the ball in his hands and is a major veteran presence in the locker room.
So which way do they go? Harris, while established as a very good starter, might bring the most in a trade package. Barton is your veteran, steady and impactful (though not always in a positive way) and Beasley is the young gun filled with potential who has shown enough flashes to believe that he might just be able to become something special. However, he’s also the one not on a long term contract and the simplest to move on from (at least from an administrative standpoint). One way or another the Nuggets, and Tim Connelly, are going to have to make a tough decision about the future of their two guard position.