Here we are again: training camp has started and Nuggets nation is going crazy figuring out how Denver can possibly get time for all of its good players. The Nuggets passed on consolidation this summer, choosing instead to swap a first round pick for Jerami Grant as the heir apparent to Paul Millsap. From a value perspective it was a great move: add a 25 year old starting-caliber forward on the same age timeline as the core of the team who can defend the perimeter and fit extremely well next to Nikola Jokic for the price of just a first-rounder.
But it leaves Denver with the same over-stuffed roster and the same conundrum they’ve faced for years. Will the Nuggets be able to solve the problem this year and get back value for its players that either do not fit or cannot be afforded in future years, or will another trade deadline pass without Denver pulling the trigger? It happened with Danilo Gallinari, who left in free agency, and with Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried who had to have picks included to move off their contracts.
The Nuggets will not have to pay to move contracts this year. They have expirings in Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee, while Juancho Hernangomez, Malik Beasley, and Torrey Craig will all be Restricted Free Agents. With Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray tying up nearly 59 million dollars of next year’s cap money, Denver will have to be judicious about how they spend the rest. Can the Nuggets keep Juancho, or Malik? Sure, they can make that work. Can they keep both? That’s where it gets dicey.
The odds are against them keeping either, really, but retaining both is certainly a stretch both monetarily and with regards to roster construction. The Nuggets have both Harris and Barton playing shooting guard, where Malik Beasley needs minutes. He could play as a short small forward in a pinch but Barton, Michael Porter Jr, Torrey Craig and even Juancho will be looking for minutes there. Craig is more defensively viable but all have their strong points.
Juancho might have to play the three because power forward will have Jerami Grant, Paul Millsap, Vlatko Cancar and Jarred Vanderbilt aiming for minutes, to say nothing of the occasion Big Lineup that puts Jokic or Plumlee there. Coach Michael Malone has already said that there will be a competition at small forward to begin the year as a starter, something that was likely hastened by Will Barton’s current injury that is limiting him to non-contact minutes.
Face it, the Nuggets are stuffed at shooting guard, small forward and power forward - and even Plumlee may struggle to get minutes at backup center. Injuries can always clear the depth chart up but they are set up for an immediate trade, not just a midseason one. They could trade two or three players and still have a quality 10 man rotation. The problem remains pulling the trigger. How do you make a trade when Barton is injured, knowing that his backup may get time to start the season and you might be trading his backup? Sure, the Nuggets could trade for a defender in Andre Iguodala, but the package would have to be either Barton or Plumlee for salary purposes to go along with Beasley or Hernangomez as someone the Grizzlies would want to re-up as an RFA after the season. Is one year of an aging defender worth two players who already know how to play with Jokic? It took both Milsap and Plumlee at least half a season to figure out how to do that.
Is it worth it to try for a bird in the bush when you have so many in hand already? The Nuggets already know that Beasley can fill in admirably for either Harris or Barton. They know that the Juancho who won a gold medal with Spain this summer in the FIBA championships is worth more to them as a shooter and rebounder than most of the players he could get in return. Denver has a shot at a championship this year, if they can stay healthy and get their player mix right. Should they rock the boat just because they have too many players for the available rotation spots?
It’s hard to keep players happy when they are good enough to deserve minutes but can’t get into games. This is doubly hard when those players are about to hit the open market for their first big NBA paydays, or for potentially their last big contracts. Sometimes you have to trade players because they will not keep the team chemistry due to these concerns. It happened with Jusuf Nurkic, and Denver got the worse end of that deal once their hand was forced.
So is it better to make the deal and take the risk now, before any hands are forced or bad blood develops? The Nuggets pride themselves on culture now, and the early days of training camp are filled with the sort of confident swagger that a great young team should come with. The Nuggets have championship aspirations, and the swell of talent that can bring those to fruition. They have more than enough pieces to swing a trade tomorrow, or next week, or at the trade deadline.
But pulling the trigger is harder than talking about it. Pulling the trigger requires faith in the health of players who were not healthy last year. It is a leap of faith that what you have is enough, and the extra piece you need can be had for the right price. I’m not sure the Nuggets have that faith, or the belief that what they can get back is better than what they have.
The Denver Nuggets have too much depth. They have an overabundance of young players and they cannot keep all of them. The ones with the most value are also the ones who are about to have options on the market, whether open or restricted. Normally this would be a no-brainer.
But Denver’s young stockpile of talent keeps growing, while Tim Connelly and Arturas Karnisovas sit atop it like dragons on a hoard of gold, unwilling to part with any of the tremendous pieces. A hoard of treasure in the NBA has to be used, however, and it cannot simply be stored. These players are too good, and they deserve court time for their talents and their futures. That pressure will continue to mount.
It’s up to the Nuggets to decide whether they can handle that roster pressure - or whether something has to give. And they need to decide that before something breaks.
If the Nuggets can only bring back one of these players next year, which should it be?
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