ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported today that Anthony Davis offered the New Orleans Pelicans a list of teams where he would sign an extension with in the 2020 offseason. One of those teams: the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Milwaukee Bucks are one of the teams on Davis' new extended list, league sources tell ESPN. Milwaukee hasn't inquired about a Davis trade, sources say, and its roster composition does make the pathway to a trade extremely difficult.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) February 4, 2019
A team with a young, MVP caliber player in a small to mid market on the verge of competing for an NBA Finals appearance? Stop me if that sounds like a team or which you have rooting interest.
The Denver Nuggets have not been consistently mentioned in discussions for Davis thus far, which is unsurprising. The Nuggets are not a big market destination. They are also playing well enough to avoid considering a risky path. After all, they are 37-15 without Anthony Davis so far.
Soon after, The Athletic’s Shams Charania put together the teams on Davis’ “list” where he’s willing to sign long term:
Sources tell @TheAthleticNBA @WatchStadium it's four-team list for Davis -- with inclusion of the Clippers and Bucks along with previous teams (Lakers, Knicks). The Knicks are unlikely, however, after moving Kristaps Porzingis to Dallas. https://t.co/Vh3l4XJ51t— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) February 4, 2019
Obviously, the Nuggets are not there.
Still, the Nuggets have been briefly mentioned during this process. Over this past weekend, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst appeared as a guest on ESPN 710 L.A. radio to discuss the impending trade of Anthony Davis. Among the topics discussed were dark horse contenders to make a move for the star big man, just as the Oklahoma City Thunder and Toronto Raptors made surprise trades for Paul George and Kawhi Leonard respectively.
Windhorst listed two teams: the aforementioned Raptors and your Denver Nuggets.
After listing Denver, Windhorst elaborated:
“And Denver...Denver has a bunch of young assets. They have a mystery player in Michael Porter Jr. who, from all reports, is really recovering well from back surgery. Not to mention, they have some other good young players - Gary Harris, Jamal Murray. They could afford to give one or two of those players...Denver right now is a half game back of the [Golden State] Warriors in the standings, and I’m not necessarily saying that if they traded for Anthony Davis they could beat the Warriors, but my goodness would they be compelling.”
“The Nuggets have been dying to get a star player. They begged and begged to just get a meeting with LeBron [James]. This is the kind of thing that you build up your assets for.”
Let’s digest this.
Windhorst is one of the most plugged in media members to teams surrounding LeBron James, and by extension, Rich Paul and Klutch Sports, LeBron’s representation. Paul also happens to represent Anthony Davis, marking him as an impending acquisition for the Los Angeles Lakers. The rumors point toward Klutch (and LeBron by extension) drawing Davis toward L.A. to play with James for the duration of his contract.
Here, Windhorst offers an alternative: why not the Raptors or the Nuggets? A multi-faceted question that cannot be answered with any simplicity.
At 37-15, the Nuggets have wildly outperformed expectations this year. Tied for first place with the Warriors, Nikola Jokic has been the central figure in Denver’s winning ways. While injuries have removed Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, and Paul Millsap from the starting lineup for varying periods, sometimes at the same time, Jokic has been the constant. Averaging basically 20 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists per game, Jokic’s advanced metrics are off the charts.
Behind him, Murray has touched on his star ceiling at various moments this season, becoming more consistent as the year progresses. Harris and Barton have proven to be dynamic wings that add to the machine when healthy. Millsap provides the glue defensively and is maybe possibly starting to hit some more outside jumpers. Behind that starting five, Monte Morris and Malik Beasley have been essential filling in as reserves and spot starters. Mason Plumlee has earned his contract playing next to and behind Jokic, adding a layer of defense and athleticism. Torrey Craig, Juancho Hernangomez, and Trey Lyles have had their individual moments as well.
Hopefully still to come are reinforcements Isaiah Thomas, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Porter Jr. at varying points. Thomas’ self-proclaimed return date of February 9th against the Miami Heat is just five days away. Vanderbilt already made his return and is currently knocking off the rust in the G League. Porter, at least according to Windhorst, is making progress, though I’d still wager that his first NBA minutes come next season.
That’s a lot of players. Perhaps too many in the grand scheme of things. What Windhorst said above about collecting assets is true: “This is the kind of thing that you build up your assets for.”
The Nuggets know they have the assets to make a trade for Davis. The Lakers know it too. Most believe that Davis and Klutch Sports are pushing for the Lakers right now because it prevents the New Orleans Pelicans from dealing with the Boston Celtics. Perhaps aspects of their worries center around teams like Toronto and Denver.
Much like Oklahoma City before them, the Raptors and Nuggets are in position to give a star player an avenue to win in a comfortable situation. Both of those teams are far better than L.A. now and likely in the near future, just as Oklahoma City has been with Paul George and Russell Westbrook. It was assumed George would use OKC as a landing pad before bouncing for greener pastures. Turns out, the pastures of Oklahoma won him over in the year he spent there.
Who’s to say that Davis won’t operate in the same fashion?
There are a number of factors that affect a deal for Anthony Davis. The first and perhaps most interesting is the ownership side. Josh and Stan Kroenke, undoubtedly the last call before a trade is made, have a major incentive to bring Anthony Davis to Denver. On top of the obvious popularity boost bringing a superstar to Denver would offer, it would also prevent Davis from heading to L.A., at least immediately. In a market where the Lakers are king, the Kroenke family also owns the Los Angeles Rams, losers of yesterday’s Super Bowl. The football team is still well behind the Lakers in popularity in the L.A. market, and that will never change if the Lakers pair LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Bringing him to Denver makes it more likely Davis stays out of that market.
The next factor is Denver’s impending roster crunch.
With as many as 14 players deserving minutes this year with everyone healthy, it’s easy to see an opportunity to consolidate the rotation into 10 or 11 players when gearing up for a playoff run. Even if one doesn’t see the need to play Porter or Vanderbilt this year, that will change shortly. Forward Vlatko Cancar is also an underrated option to take minutes next year, as he’s currently playing well overseas.
In addition, with so many young players up for contract extensions in the near future, Denver must soon pick and choose which players they can retain. Murray will surely demand a max contract extension for his services during this offseason, while Beasley and Hernangomez may appreciate long term security as well, especially given the way Beasley has played in recent weeks. The simple fact is: Denver cannot keep all of their young talent. While they may choose to cut bait here or there, it’s very possible that, in two to three years, only two or three of Murray, Harris, Beasley, Morris, and Barton remain on the roster.
Denver’s best financial path may be to mitigate some of those costs and capitalize on that young talent by acquiring a star like Davis. Though he will cost a lot of money himself, paying a top 10 player what he’s worth is a fundamental and reasonable cost. It’s easy to understand Denver’s future if they commit to Jokic, Davis, and a couple of specific players (maybe Harris and Barton) in that way. Right now, it’s impossible to perfectly map Denver’s financial future with so many players up for restricted free agency in 2020.
Finally, Denver’s on-court implications of adding Davis are massively important. Adding Davis to the Nuggets means adding a second top 10 player to Denver’s roster. It’s fairly rare for that to happen, so here are the instances when it has occurred in the 21st century along with the results (both players must perform like top 10 players during this time):
- 2017 to 2019 - Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant: two championships and likely a third soon.
- 2018 - James Harden and Chris Paul: Western Conference Finals appearance. Took Golden State to seven games.
- 2009 to 2016 - Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook: NBA Finals appearance, multiple appearances in the Western Conference Finals.
- 2011 to 2014 - LeBron James and Dwyane Wade: two championships and NBA Finals appearances all four years.
- 2005 to 2006 - Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal: one championship and an Eastern Conference Finals appearance.
- 1999 to 2004 - Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant: three championships and an additional NBA Finals appearance.
It’s very rare to pair two such talented players, and generally when two such talented players come together, success seems to follow. Never in the 21st century has a tandem of such stardom missed the Conference Finals, and four of the six duos have achieved championships as well. Of course, it’s never a guarantee. Harden and Paul may never recapture the magic they had last season, while Durant and Westbrook could never learn to coexist enough to return to the Finals after losing when both players were very young.
With Jokic and Davis, the Nuggets would have the next tandem of top 10 players. It seems almost likely that Durant leaves Golden State in 2019 free agency, meaning that Denver would have a clear path to contention, possibly even becoming the favorite to win it all.
The three most likely paths for Denver based on the choice to pursue Anthony Davis are as follows:
- The Nuggets choose to avoid Davis, pursuing a championship by other means with the current group. This is the safest path, as the Nuggets know almost exactly what they have going forward, with some wildcards. It’s unlikely that Denver ever wins a championship unless they get something major out of Michael Porter Jr., Jarred Vanderbilt, or both. Still, committing to the players Tim Connelly and co. selected isn’t a bad thing. Eventually though, the Nuggets will have to make a choice and pick which of their young players to retain long term.
- The Nuggets choose to trade for Davis, and he bails after the 2019-20 season after a couple of playoff runs. This is the most depressing, as it implies that Denver didn’t have any true success with Davis on the roster. Davis would be gone in 2020, but the good news for Denver: they may not lose a ton in the grand scheme of things. In scenario 1, it’s unlikely that Denver can keep both Harris and Beasley around if they keep the entire group together. This way, they can keep both players if they so choose, given that they already sent some assets to New Orleans in the Davis trade. At that point, the Nuggets could look to reload in 2020 around Jokic and the remaining young players.
- The Nuggets choose to trade for Davis, and he signs a contract extension, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. Denver is establishing a culture of winning now, something that Davis said he desperately wants. He will be able to socialize with Denver’s coaching staff during the All-Star break, surely wondering if Denver may be as great for him long term as I think it could be. If Denver were to trade for him at that point and he would commit to re-signing, the Nuggets would continue to have two top 10 players on their roster for multiple years, and that should excite everyone involved. Given the examples of top 10 duos, Jokic and Davis would be likely to have some form of success together. There are some financial issues Denver would run into, but the foundation for a championship contender is undeniable.
So far, the Nuggets have played it safe with their rebuild, drafting well, improving methodically over time before breaking out this year. It’s undeniable that this process has worked, as the Nuggets have won over 70% of their games on the year. There’s a reason that teams consolidate assets though: the Nuggets have an opportunity if they so choose to add a player that the opposing coaching staff will stress about for hours in how to guard them properly, and that’s without factoring in how to guard Jokic.
If Denver were to risk their trade chips for anyone, Davis is the guy. There will never be another player as talented as Davis that fits so well with Jokic and Denver’s needs on both ends of the floor. The risk is high, but the reward is a better shot at something Denver has never experienced before: a championship.
So, should Denver take the plunge?