The Los Angeles Lakers are loading up.
Despite showcasing the most extreme ineptitude of managing the process and looking like an absolute horror show, the Lakers somehow find themselves with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Three straight 2nd overall picks in 2015, 2016, and 2017 (and moving up in the lottery two of those years) helped the Lakers bolster their assets enough to trade for Davis a couple weeks ago, and there are rumblings that Kawhi Leonard might join them when free agency opens. They can do everything wrong, but somehow, everything seems to go right because they won some rings and they live by the beach and Hollywood.
Things change fast in #thisleague: With free agency a day and change away, it's the Lakers who have convinced Las Vegas -- and an increasing number of league insiders -- that they are LA's true threat to limiting Kawhi Leonard's Raptors career to a single season. Not the Clippers— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) June 29, 2019
Like the Lakers, the Los Angeles Clippers are flexing their big market muscles too, trying to recruit Kawhi to be the face of their franchise. In addition, the Clippers are on Kevin Durant’s list of teams he will meet with when free agency starts, as are the Golden State Warriors, New York Knicks, and Brooklyn Nets. Sheesh, it pays to be in a major market.
The Denver Nuggets, on the other hand, don’t have those competitive advantages. They go looking for meetings with stars in free agency, but they can’t offer the glitz and glamor of those markets. Nor can they offer a state-of-the-art practice facility (or a G League team, or a new arena, or an NBA 2k team, etc.). The Nuggets must work tooth and nail to develop their own players, work the margins of the business, find great deals, and simply hope they develop a top 5 player that can lead the team to a ring. Nikola Jokic should be an excellent selling point to free agents as an unselfish, up-and-coming superstar, but even then, Durant wants to play with...RJ Barrett and Kevin Knox in New York?
There are no shortcuts in Denver, which is why the Nuggets must take advantage of an opportunity when they can. They did so with Paul Millsap, and he helped Denver jump into the mid 50s for wins this year. But there’s a new opportunity to take advantage of a crowded free agent market, and the process starts and ends with Millsap.
Here’s why the Nuggets should go all in and sign Tobias Harris this offseason:
Short and Long Term Team Need
Millsap is currently in line to be Denver’s starting power forward and their most trusted forward overall. There are other options, but he’s the best one. The problem? Millsap will turn 35 in February of 2020. The best 35 year old in the NBA right now is probably J.J. Redick, which reflects the general age curve beginning to truly dip around this point. Even if Millsap is one of the best at his age next season, he’s highly unlikely to maintain his level of impact from past years. Denver already cut down his minutes in each of the last two seasons (30.1 per game in 2017-18, 27.1 in 2018-19) and would likely do so in 2019-20 and beyond.
Behind Millsap, there are only question marks when it comes to starting caliber power forwards. If Millsap were to sustain an injury and be out for a substantial period of time, Denver would currently rely on Juancho Hernangomez, Jarred Vanderbilt, Mason Plumlee, Michael Porter Jr., and Vlatko Cancar to fill in the gaps. That’s four players who have yet to prove themselves in the NBA and a center masquerading as a power forward.
This reflects in Denver’s ON-OFF statistics last year, as backup power forward was their biggest hole. When Millsap was on the court, the Nuggets posted a Plus-8.6 Net Rating during the 2018-19 regular season, the best on the team. When he went to the bench, that Net Rating dropped to Minus-0.3, the only negative Net Rating of any player on the roster, including Nikola Jokic. Given that Millsap is the lowest minute total on the team, it makes sense to bolster the power forward position even if Millsap stays. Denver can hope the young players develop, or they could simply guarantee it by finding a veteran solution.
A Consistent Second/Third Scorer
Too often this season (and in the playoffs) the Nuggets struggled to figure out a consistent third scorer behind Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Gary Harris averaged 17.5 points per game the year prior, but injuries and a role change greatly reduced his scoring impact. Will Barton never recovered his scoring acumen after coming back from a long injury for half the regular season. Again, Millsap took a step back with his role. Monte Morris and Malik Beasley weren’t quite ready.
Enter Tobias Harris.
Let’s start with the basics. Harris is really good, and a very unique scorer at the forward position, averaging 20.9 points and 7.9 rebounds per game while shooting 39.7% from three-point range. Among all qualified forwards in NBA history, only Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Dirk Nowitzki, and Antawn Jamison have hit those averages. So, Harris puts up efficient scoring combined with some volume and did so on a good team.
The versatile forward solves a number of problems the Nuggets had in the regular season and playoffs by simply standing on the perimeter. With a high volume 39.7% mark on his three-pointers this year, Harris helps offenses flow with increased spacing at small forward and power forward. At 6’9, Harris has the capability to shoot over almost anybody on the catch. He’s also skilled at shooting pull-up threes off the dribble, hitting 41.3% of his pull-up threes this season, though on lesser volume. The Nuggets struggled to hit their outside jumpers in the playoffs this year, especially when they had to add an additional perimeter defender in Torrey Craig to cover for Jamal Murray defensively. Inserting Tobias Harris at power forward solves some of those issues.
But Harris isn’t just a shooter. He grades really well in a variety of scoring play types.
These were Harris’ primary scoring avenues during the 2018-19 season, and the results were very good. As a pick and roll ball handler especially, Harris showed in Los Angeles that he could operate as a secondary playmaker out of the pick and roll, and having a 6’9 forward capable of scoring out of the pick and roll is invaluable in today’s NBA for versatility’s sake. In addition, Harris is a smart cutter and graded out efficiently these as well, so his synergy with Nikola Jokic would develop quickly.
But the consistency is what the Nuggets should crave. On a team full of big dreams and high aspirations, Harris has been an efficient scorer for the last five seasons. He really started to put it together last year, and at 26, he’s just entering his prime for the length of a new four year deal.
As the Nuggets have experienced themselves, injuries tend to happen. Most Nuggets players often deal with nicks and bruises throughout the year, and some players are forced to sit out for an extended period of time.
Tobias Harris though? He’s as consistent as they come. Over the last four seasons, Harris has missed a combined six games, averaging over 33 minutes per game in all but one of those seasons and being a consistently durable player. In a league where rest and load management have become the norm to prevent long term problems, the most valuable ability is availability, and Harris is consistently on the floor every night.
But going deeper, injuries happen to other teams as well, more specifically the Golden State Warriors. The Nuggets have an opportunity to go to the NBA Finals this year, because for the first time in the last five years (by the looks of things) the Warriors won’t be representing the Western Conference. If the Lakers pull off another big move then they will probably be the favorites, but as we saw with Golden State this year, injuries can happen at any time. A favorite can go to an underdog real quick, and the Lakers are prime candidates to suffer a star injury with LeBron turning 35 soon and Davis having a lengthy injury history.
Getting Younger and More Versatile
Adding Harris means more than just adding a talented piece. It means committing to the long game with this current core. Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Nikola Jokic are locked in long term with the Nuggets (Murray soon, maybe this offseason) and putting the 26 (soon to be 27) Harris on the same roster means all of Denver’s core members are within six years of each other age wise. They can grow together, and there should be no expectation for a drop off in performance from any of them. As long as those four stay reasonably healthy, the Nuggets can lock in at 50+ wins every single season.
But what’s more intriguing about this move is Denver’s ability to surround those four with varied and competent pieces for years to come. Denver may not be able to keep all five of Morris, Beasley, Michael Porter Jr., Jarred Vanderbilt, and Juancho Hernangomez long term, but they could add a handful of those guys to the above quartet, insert Torrey Craig, Bol Bol, or other role players when needed, and let that group grow together for years to come.
Of course, replacing Millsap would be difficult, and the Nuggets would have some things to figure out. The defense would probably slip, but to be honest, defense shouldn’t be a major factor in the minds of NBA teams anymore. The occasional elite defensive team will emerge, but the top five regular season teams in Offensive Rating were the Warriors, Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers, Milwaukee Bucks, and Toronto Raptors. Four of those teams made the Conference Finals. The fifth was Houston, who nearly made it there and probably would have over Portland in that matchup.
And even if Denver does slip up defensively, it shows how dependent they were on Millsap to make everything work. Millsap won’t be around forever though, and removing him as a safety net will help Denver’s young core figure out either how to defend or whether the core is actually good enough long term to compete for a ring.
On the other end, the versatility Harris adds offensively to Denver’s offense would make it nearly unguardable. Need a defensive stopper? Add Torrey Craig at the 3 and continue spacing the floor with Harris at the 4. Need another floor spacer? Malik Beasley or Michael Porter Jr. or Juancho Hernangomez would probably do. Need a bigger defender and rim runner in training? Insert Jarred Vanderbilt, who needs time and reps to develop, and slide Harris to small forward.
If Nuggets fans are worried about whether Harris would stunt the growth of Michael Porter Jr. I would put an end to that by saying: the Nuggets will find minutes for Porter no matter what. They want to see what they have with him. If Harris is the floor spacing versatile scoring forward with the starting unit, Porter can fill that same role with the bench and overlap as needed. And besides, what’s better than having one awesome versatile scoring forward at 6’9 or taller? Two of them. Denver’s offense featuring Two of Murray, Morris, Gary Harris, and/or Beasley combined with Tobias at one forward, Porter at the other, and Jokic at center would be unbelievable.
Always try to get better
This is more of a personal belief than a requirement, but I don’t think the Nuggets should rest on their laurels of a second round exit at the hands of an injured Portland Trail Blazers squad after being taken to seven games by a flawed San Antonio Spurs team. The Nuggets are not as good of a normal “a few bounces away from the Conference Finals” team. There’s a strong argument that they were the 4th or 5th best team in the West last year behind the Warriors, Rockets, Blazers, and Utah Jazz.
Even though the Warriors are wounded, the rest of the West is looking to reload and go for a championship. Of course the Lakers and Clippers stand out, but the Rockets are in the mix for Jimmy Butler. The Jazz already upgraded with Mike Conley and could look to do more. The Blazers will be on the trade market and might go after Kevin Love.
The Nuggets have the contract situations to be patient with everyone, but that doesn’t mean they should be. There were identifiable problems last year with this Nuggets team that, if unsolved, will prevent them from winning a ring. Two-way ability at the forward position is priority number one, and while Harris isn’t a plus defender, he can certainly guard Rodney Hood.
Would the Nuggets take a step back with their big man defense without Millsap? Of course. His steadiness and value in doing the dirty work on the court helped Denver win a lot of games. But Harris was a better player last year and will be a better player for years to come. He has the skill set Denver is looking for offensively and could return the team to the days of Danilo Gallinari-Wilson Chandler-Nikola Jokic lineups that absolutely smoked teams offensively. And the team has better role players today to surround Harris with the defenders necessary to compete on the other end.
There’s a case for simply adding talent where and when you can. The Nuggets won’t have the same opportunities to add free agents in subsequent years, especially if Murray signs an extension this offseason. Locking Jokic, Harris and Murray (and Morris, Beasley, Juancho, Craig, and others) into long term contracts by 2020 means it will be that much more difficult to find the right free agent to elevate the roster. The Nuggets have done a great job of funneling draft talent into the roster pipeline, but it always takes awhile for young players to figure it out. The Nuggets can’t perpetually wait for 19, 20, and 21 year olds while Jokic continues to age and lose valuable time on his prime (and his contract). He’s ready to win now, and so is Tobias Harris.
A strong but crudely executed plan can sometimes be better than waiting for the perfect time to strike. The Raptors learned this first hand. They identified a guy they should take a chance on and won a championship as a result. Paul George wasn’t an MVP candidate when Oklahoma City traded for him, but he figured it out and they turned a tough situation into an entertaining product as a result.
The Nuggets have the roster depth to take chances. Harris would be a chance, especially at his impending salary number, but it could be one that pays off in a big way.
So, count me in for hoping the Nuggets are more active than advertised tomorrow.