From the outside looking in, every decision the Denver Nuggets will make from now on feels connected to the Jamal Murray maximum extension. With both Murray and Nikola Jokic signed to long term contracts, Denver will look to build around those two pieces in the way they see fit, the way they believe will maximize their chance of winning a championship within the next four years. That is the number of years remaining on Jokic’s contract, and the only time he will be obligated to spend with the Nuggets if he sees fit.
This is why every player, and every dollar, is so important for the Nuggets organization. They have boundaries within which they can work, from the salary cap, to the luxury tax, to the mandates of ownership and whether they can cross that threshold. During the first year of Murray’s extension, the Nuggets will have an estimated $58.7 million in salary tied to both Jokic and Murray, accounting for just over half of the projected salary cap in 2020-21. That leaves very little wiggle room for handing out contracts to players that don’t factor into the long term plans of the organization.
Which leads us to the extension deadline rapidly approaching for Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez. For first round picks selected in the 2016 draft, the rookie scale extension deadline is October 21st, 2019, the day before the start of the NBA season on October 22nd and roughly one month from today. Denver decided to offer a contract to Murray, another member of the 2016 draft class, the first possible chance they could earlier this summer. Deals haven’t occurred for Beasley or Hernangomez though, and it’s possible they never will.
Waiting to strike a deal is common though. Teams and players will negotiate up until the deadline in most cases. The only 2016 draftees to sign extensions thus far are Murray, Philadelphia 76ers point forward Ben Simmons, and Brooklyn Nets wing Caris LeVert. Murray and Simmons signed identical max deals, while LeVert agreed to a three year extension to give himself some security after injury issues. Most of the time, players that don’t receive max deals wait until the deadline to agree to a contract. For Nuggets fans that want to see Beasley and Hernangomez around long term, the fact that they haven’t signed yet shouldn’t discourage anyone. It’s common practice to wait.
And yet, I would be surprised if the Nuggets agreed to deals with either player.
Beasley spends most of his time at the backup shooting guard position behind Gary Harris. He has started at shooting guard on occasion, and he even plays some small forward in the regular rotation next to two of Murray, Harris, and Monte Morris. Unfortunately for Beasley, the Nuggets are seemingly committed to Harris as the starter at shooting guard, and when healthy, Harris’ presence limits the scope of impact Beasley can have. In the 2019 playoffs, Beasley averaged just 20.1 minutes per contest, putting him squarely in backup territory. With Harris averaging 36.9 minutes per contest in the playoffs, it’s difficult to envision the Nuggets seeing Beasley as a starting caliber player deserving starting caliber money while Harris remains a focal point of the roster.
Beasley sees himself as a starter in the NBA, and I believe he’s a starting caliber player at shooting guard right now. Only seven players shot over 40% from three last season on 400 attempts or more: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, Buddy Hield, Danny Green, Bryn Forbes, and Beasley. Only three players dunked the ball more times than Beasley and his 45 dunks last season: Jimmy Butler, Zach LaVine, and Bradley Beal. At just 22 years old, Beasley has so much more room to grow. Only 14 guards in the NBA shot as efficiently as Beasley did between 10 and 22 feet last season, showcasing some touch and skill in those areas he isn’t known for but can continue to develop. He clearly isn’t a finished product at this stage.
There are a number of teams, including playoff caliber squads (Milwaukee and Toronto) who could start Beasley due to his shooting and athleticism next to quality playmakers and defenders. He has work to do, but he’s 22. His skill set will always be needed, and his tools may lead teams to pay him in free agency. The Nuggets may want to keep him at an affordable price, but it’s unlikely they could match what a team like the Memphis Grizzlies could offer him—starter money and a matching position to complement the current Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson, and Brandon Clarke core.
Juancho Hernangomez is another story entirely. While Beasley showcased exactly what he can do when featured for an entire season, Juancho has struggled to formulate a full season for three straight years. His rookie year showed promise as a stretch forward. His second year was lost to mono early in the process. Last year, he started the season red hot, averaging roughly 10 points and six assists in 28 minutes per game across 33 games played, including 22 starts. He shot 43% from the three-point line, was the fifth member of Denver’s starting lineup and excelled as that option until the end of December. Then, once January hit, he dropped off the face of the earth following a core muscle injury, averaging just 1.9 points and shooting 19.6% from three in his next 37 contests.
Even though he could have played an important role in the playoffs spacing the floor for Jokic and Murray, he couldn’t stay healthy and never had a chance to prove himself. The Nuggets don’t have time to wait for him though. With championship aspirations, a roster chalk full of talent, and limited salary cap space going forward, Denver may not prioritize Juancho’s development as part of the nucleus going forward, despite a strong fit offensively.
Then, there’s the presence of Will Barton, Michael Porter Jr., Torrey Craig, and Jerami Grant. All four of those players are pieces the Nuggets will want to see develop this year, learning how they play next to around the construct of a Jokic, Murray, and Harris led team. Barton is under contract for an additional three years, while Porter was a major investment in the draft. Craig and Grant could walk away in free agency next year, and the Nuggets may decide they want to see how those guys look in the rotation over someone like Juancho before moving onto other options.
Juancho was at his best as a starter last year playing next to Jokic. Those two have great chemistry, and a strong argument can be made that Juancho’s dependency on Jokic is both helpful and hurtful for Denver. On one hand, starting Juancho this coming season and playing him next to Joker could lead to great regular season results. On the other hand, as teams dig into weaknesses in the playoffs, they will find a way to exploit Juancho. Teams like the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, and Houston Rockets would make life hell for Juancho and the Nuggets defensively, and they would have to bench him to limit the damage that matchup could do. Once he’s benched, he’s separated from Jokic and his effectiveness is reduced anyway.
For completely different reasons, it appears unlikely that the Nuggets will commit to either Beasley or Hernangomez before the season starts. Both players will want money that the Nuggets simply can’t afford to give them now that they committed to Murray, and that’s fine. It’s much more difficult to find a player like Murray than it is to find players to complement his strengths and weaknesses. While Beasley and Hernangomez are talented individually, they aren’t perfect fits in what the Nuggets are trying to construct based on the pieces they already have. With improved defensive capability and intensity from either guy, it’s possible that they could be in the long term plans, but that seems unlikely to have occurred in the span of a summer.
That doesn’t mean the Nuggets can’t do right by either guy if they get the chance. Teams are always looking for shooters. Heck, the Nuggets are looking for shooters and could have used the veteran versions of Beasley and Hernangomez in the playoffs last year. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have other needs for which they must keep money reserved. They will need to pay for a power forward, or multiple, next offseason. The small forward position still isn’t settled. Mason Plumlee’s contract is up at backup center, and Monte Morris will be due for a new contract the year after. Denver simply can’t afford to pay Beasley starter money to back up Gary Harris. If Juancho breaks out in his fourth season, Denver will happily pay him when he’s due, but not before given the presence of Porter and other more defensive options at both forward spots.
Stranger things have happened, but don’t expect the Nuggets to commit to either Beasley or Hernangomez before the season. Simply be happily surprised if they do so.