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How will the Nuggets approach free agency?

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Tim Connelly recently spoke about the importance of continuity. How will that affect Denver’s offseason?

NBA: Boston Celtics at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The path forward into free agency for the Denver Nuggets is simple, yet complex until a few realities are accepted.

From the outside looking in, it sure seems less and less likely that the Nuggets will target a top free agent before and after June 30th hits the open market. The few star free agents that make sense for Denver are either injured, out of Denver’s price range, uninterested in the Nuggets, or don’t make Denver better. Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson? Injured for next year. Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, or Khris Middleton? Uninterested. Kemba Walker or Kyrie Irving? They don’t really make sense. Tobias Harris fits the profile but involves Paul Millsap likely departing, so that doesn’t make sense either.

So, the Nuggets are probably stuck. They have opportunities to better the team, but not with the top free agents in the NBA. Unless something drastic changes and one of Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, or Khris Middleton becomes greatly interested in the Nuggets, Denver will likely operate as an “over-the-cap” team. This means that Denver will be unable to use any cap space they create from declining Paul Millsap’s team option and re-negotiating a more team friendly deal, but they will have an opportunity to use the mid-level and bi-annual exception.

Denver Nuggets salary cap table
Jeff Siegel - Early Bird Rights

Even if the Nuggets declined Millsap’s team option and renounced all of their free agent cap holds, they would have just $16.7 million in cap space to sign a free agent, as Jeff Siegel of Early Bird Rights notes above. That means that the Nuggets would have to create additional space to sign a max free agent and trade away more players while receiving nothing in return. It doesn’t sound like Denver is interested in doing that though, and it wouldn’t be great asset management to do so for anyone other than Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant.

So, that leaves the mid-level and bi-annual exceptions, along with the traded player exceptions Denver created last offseason.

The current roster

Let’s assume that Paul Millsap is back with the Nuggets for at least the 2019-20 season. As Millsap and the Nuggets have both made clear, there is mutual interest in Millsap returning to reprise his complementary role next to Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Gary Harris.

Let’s also assume that Bol Bol signs a similar deal that Jarred Vanderbilt signed after the 2018 NBA Draft to be a guaranteed contract on the 15 man roster. A small three year deal that ends in restricted free agency in 2022.

That leaves the Nuggets with 13 players on the 15 man roster, two open roster spots, and one open two-way contract, assuming Thomas Welsh stays on as the other two-way. The Nuggets like Thomas Welsh, and I wager a guess that he will return in the same capacity. Denver could certainly bring back Isaiah Thomas, Trey Lyles, or Tyler Lydon in some capacity, but I don’t see either team or player being interested in coming back next year. There’s no avenue toward playing time for any of those players anymore.

So, three spots left to fill out the roster. How can the Nuggets strengthen the roster in the best way possible?

The Mid-Level Exception

The largest exception the Nuggets can utilize to sign free agents this year is the mid-level exception (MLE). The MLE during the 2019-20 season is set at $9.246 million, and because the maximum MLE length is four years with five percent raises in every subsequent year, the largest contract Denver can offer is roughly four years, $39.8 million. A number of other teams can offer the same contract or larger due to having legitimate cap space, so Denver will be competing for the chance to add these free agents.

Here are a list of players that could interest the Nuggets for part of or the entire mid-level exception:

Identifying the perfect target involves projecting the potential role one of the above players could play in Denver. From where I stand, Denver has all 10 potential rotation spots filled without some roster reshuffling:

Point Guard: Jamal Murray, Monte Morris

Shooting Guard: Gary Harris, Malik Beasley

Small Forward: Will Barton, Torrey Craig

Power Forward: Paul Millsap, Juancho Hernangomez

Center: Nikola Jokic, Mason Plumlee

This is without including Michael Porter Jr. or Jarred Vanderbilt, who will continue to push for time in the rotation this season and going forward. 12 rotation players is highly aggressive, and bringing in additional free agents to compete for playing time seems disingenuous to the players already in place.

So, without approaching free agency with a trade of current rotation players in mind, it’s difficult to project the Nuggets using the MLE. There’s simply little reason to do so. Adding Danny Green, one of my favorite targets, to start at small forward pushes Will Barton, Malik Beasley, Torrey Craig, AND Michael Porter Jr. to the bench. While the Nuggets would win a lot of games, the chemistry they had last season would be difficult to recreate in 2019-20. Beasley and Craig are competing for new contracts, as are Jamal Murray, Juancho Hernangomez, and Mason Plumlee at other positions. There’s only so long the Nuggets can justify stacking the roster with players who deserve to play before the situation becomes difficult to manage. If Porter and Vanderbilt are to develop with consistent minutes, that means somebody else deserving will be unhappy. Maybe multiple players.

While players like Green, Trevor Ariza, DeMarre Carroll, and others could be helpful, they would crowd the roster a lot. Barring a trade to consolidate the talent on the wing and at forward, I would project that the Nuggets don’t use the MLE this year.

The Bi-Annual Exception

The Bi-Annual Exception (BAE) is exactly what it means. Every two years, the Nuggets can offer free agents a larger amount of money than a minimum level contract if they are over the salary cap. The BAE this season is $3.619 million and extends for two years with a five percent raise, so the largest contract the Nuggets could offer a free agent using this exception is roughly two years, $7.4 million. That could entice a free agent to take more money even if they aren’t expected to play a major role in the regular rotation.

There are a variety of candidates for the BAE this year, and I’d expect the Nuggets to pursue a third point guard using the BAE when July hits:

  • Raymond Felton - Guard, Oklahoma City Thunder
  • Devin Harris - Guard, Dallas Mavericks
  • Jose Calderon - Guard, Detroit Pistons
  • Shelvin Mack - Guard, Charlotte Hornets
  • Jerian Grant - Guard, Orlando Magic
  • Brad Wanamaker - Guard, Boston Celtics
  • Jeremy Lin - Guard, Toronto Raptors
  • David Nwaba - Guard, Chicago Bulls
  • Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot - Wing, Chicago Bulls
  • Furkan Korkmaz - Wing, Philadelphia 76ers
  • Thabo Sefolosha - Forward, Utah Jazz
  • Stanley Johnson - Forward, New Orleans Pelicans
  • Wesley Iwundu - Forward, Orlando Magic
  • James Ennis - Forward, Philadelphia 76ers
  • Rondae Hollis-Jefferson - Forward, Brooklyn Nets
  • Dragan Bender - Big, Phoenix Suns

The first factor in all of these signings is that none of the players would be signed with the expectation they would be playing regular minutes in a rotation. Some players would definitely be opposed to that. The veteran point guards may look at Monte Morris and not want to be stuck behind him every game, and the wings and forwards may balk at Denver’s current roster situation; however, not everybody will be signed right away, while others may be left out to dry by the free agent market. Denver has the opportunity to add a solid contributor in case of injury or take a chance on a player that has solid potential.

The three names I would circle on this list are Devin Harris, Brad Wanamaker, and Wesley Iwundu. Harris was the backup point guard in Denver during the second half of the 2017-18 season. He has relationships in the locker room already and could find a home in Denver if Dallas goes another direction. Wanamaker was a European point guard that had reported interest from Denver two off-seasons ago, and now the Celtics may let him walk in favor of figuring out whatever the hell they need to figure out. Iwundu played a sizable role in Orlando last year off the bench, but they just drafted forward Chuma Okeke, a near carbon copy of Iwundu at this point. If they let Iwundu walk, the Nuggets should be there to offer a contract to the 6’8 wing that shot 36.7% from three last season, simply out of principle.

The Nuggets must identify a third point guard this offseason and sign or trade for that player, preferably a player in the mold of Monte Morris just in case Morris goes down with an injury. His importance to the second unit cannot be overstated as the primary decision maker and table setter for Malik Beasley, Mason Plumlee, Torrey Craig, and possibly Michael Porter Jr. and Jarred Vanderbilt. Denver can survive an injury to anybody save for Nikola Jokic (and they proved it last season) but they haven’t been tested with a Morris injury yet. That would be a sneaky killer to some regular season wins when the time comes.

The Traded Player Exceptions

The Nuggets own three traded player exceptions (TPEs) from their transactions at the beginning of the 2018 offseason involving Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur, and Wilson Chandler. Because the Nuggets received limited or no salary back, the exceptions are relatively large in salary amount, according to Siegel and Early Bird Rights once again.

The Nuggets have a limited amount of time to make use of these TPEs, as they only last for a year’s length from the time of the trade that created them. That means that Denver has until July 6th this year to utilize the $12.8 million TPE created from the Chandler transaction and July 12th to utilize the $13.7 and $7.4 million TPEs from the Faried and Arthur transactions.

TPEs are used so that the Nuggets don’t have to send out salary in order to receive a player from another team. Whatever salary the Nuggets receive must fit within the money value of the TPE, and the TPEs cannot be combined. They are separate entities.

It’s unlikely that the Nuggets will use their TPEs before they expire, but it’s an additional avenue to acquiring a player if the Nuggets need to make a trade to acquire a player or draft asset. For example, the Oklahoma City Thunder are shopping Steven Adams, Dennis Schroder, and Andre Roberson with the hope of reducing their tax bill for the upcoming season. Denver couldn’t trade for Adams or Schroder using one of the above TPEs, but Roberson’s $10.7 million expiring contract fits within the Chandler or Faried TPE. The Nuggets could request that the Thunder send Denver either a player on a quality deal (Terrence Ferguson, Hamidou Diallo, etc.) or a future draft pick to absorb Roberson’s money and make the transaction.

I wouldn’t expect the Nuggets to use the TPEs for two reasons. First, they put the Nuggets closer to the luxury tax by adding salary without sending anything out. Second, the TPEs expire shortly after free agency starts. The Nuggets would have to have circled a team and a specific player to acquire early in the process, and I think they’d prefer to figure out the direction to take the roster in the first few days.


Early roster prediction:

At this current moment, I expect the Nuggets to add only one surprise addition to the roster. Devin Harris as the third point guard for the team makes a degree of sense because of his familiarity with the players and the organization. Going into his age-36 season, Harris isn’t a sexy name, but he could really help the Nuggets if they ever sustain an injury to their point guards.

As for the rest of the roster, Vlatko Cancar is currently in town, and I expect it to remain that way. He will provide an option behind Juancho Hernangomez as a forward who can play minutes at the 3 or the 4. I wouldn’t expect him to be high on the depth chart, but injuries and midseason slumps could change that. Bol Bol will be signed to a 15-man roster contract. Welsh will retain one two-way contract slot, and I expect Summer League addition Terrence Davis to fill the other two-way slot as a backup guard.

There could of course be trades and unexpected signings, but the general vibe I get from the Nuggets right now is their willingness to slow play free agency and trades. There will be no rash decision making. The Nuggets have stayed the course for so long that making a consolidation trade would be breaking character. In addition, it’s nice to have a large amount of depth at nearly every position. Most teams are scrambling to be in Denver’s position.

In the end though, the Nuggets have a job to do, and that’s to win a championship during Nikola Jokic’s contract and give him the ultimate reason to stay. They have four years to make that happen, and the clock is ticking. Can Denver wait it out much longer and hope that the correct pieces are already on their roster? Or should they be aggressive in finding great players they know will fit well?

Time will tell. I hope they make the right decision.

What do you think the Nuggets should do? Comment down below with your favorite roster additions the Nuggets could make this summer.