The 2020-2021 NBA season will begin almost as abruptly as the 2019-2020 NBA season paused back in March. With six weeks left of a year the league, and the world, will be glad to put in their rearview mirror the NBA still finds itself managing the unknown of a season that will undoubtedly be drastically affected by the coronavirus. The delay to ending last season and the reality of the major revenue losses of not getting next season started before Christmas caused the NBA to greatly accelerate the offseason period. The NBA Draft is slated for Wednesday, free agency opens the day after and two weeks after that teams report for training camp.
The Denver Nuggets, coming off a trip to the Western Conference Finals, perhaps will be set up better than others to deal with the rapid transaction period. Their core is firmly in place with Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. They have elite role players in Will Barton, Monte Morris and Gary Harris already under contract and they have a handful of young players, highlighted by the 7’2” Bol Bol, who got various levels of in-house experience last season and look to step up into a rotation role this season. The Nuggets undoubtedly will bank on a lot of continuity to get them through what will be another peculiar and anomalous season. Still, even with the continuity, Denver’s guaranteed roster is just nine players deep as of today. With just one pick in the upcoming draft, the Nuggets will have to make moves with limited funds in free agency to get to a full seventeen players. Here’s a roadmap they could follow to filling out the roster in the market in the upcoming weeks.
Step 1: re-sign Jerami Grant
This is absolutely priority number one for the Nuggets. Denver surrendered a first round pick to acquire Grant via trade last offseason and he served as an excellent role player for them throughout the season. The 6’8”, 26 year old forward shot a hair under 39% from three for the Nuggets and culminated his year by proving to be an outstanding perimeter defender even when facing some of the league’s brightest stars in the biggest moments during the playoffs. Forwards that shoot near 40% from distance, are just entering their prime and are proven two-way threats do not grow on trees which means Grants services are in high demand. Working in the Nuggets favor is an uncertain financial landscape in the NBA and the fact that only a handful of teams have the outright cap space to sign Grant to the compensation he is seeking. However, teams like the Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons and Phoenix Suns are rumored to be interested in acquiring Grant’s services and have the requisite cap space (though the Suns recent acquisition of Chris Paul complicates that) to offer above the approximately $9 million that over the cap (but under the tax) teams have available to spend via the mid-level exception.
According to Mike Singer of the Denver Post, Grant could be seeking up to $16 million a year in compensation which feels steep, even given his stellar playoff performance. Perhaps in a year where the league wasn’t bleeding revenue due to a pandemic but not in 2020. Still, Nuggets fans should expect Grant to be back, if he re-signs, at somewhere in the $12 million to $14 million range. I expect the Nuggets to be aggressive and not let a few million dollars cost them the opportunity to bring Grant back so if a team like Atlanta wants to go as high as $16 million the Nuggets might be forced to pay more than they want, but it would be a major blow if they wind up losing him for nothing. My best guess? Denver re-signs Grant at around $14 million per season for three seasons.
Step 2: convert Bol Bol to a fully guaranteed deal
The Nuggets lone rookie last season was Bol Bol. Outside of a brief time in the G-League, Bol was relatively unused by the Nuggets until the season was re-started in Orlando. In the bubble Bol found playing time while the Nuggets struggled to field a full roster for the early scrimmages. Though he was clearly still very raw, the ability was plain to see and it looks as though the Nuggets could yet again cash in on taking a long approach with a prospect who fell in the draft. Bol is currently under a two-way contract with Nuggets and there is a well laid precedent in Denver to expect that he will receive a full deal for the upcoming season. Torrey Craig, Monte Morris and P.J. Dozier all found their way onto Denver’s 15 man guaranteed roster by playing in the G-League on a two-way deal before showing promise at the NBA level and getting converted to a fully guaranteed deal the next season. Bol should be no different in that respect and the only question is how much will his contract be. Despite the hype, he is still a two-way player coming off a rookie year after being drafted in the second round. My best guess is Denver converts Bol to a full NBA deal very much like Morris’ meaning Bol is somewhere in the 3 years (2 guaranteed, one non-guaranteed) $1.5 million per range.
Step 3: re-sign Torrey Craig
Craig is probably not high on a lot of people’s radar in terms of things to do for Denver in the offseason but he should be. There are some realities to Craig and Denver’s offseason situation that just make sense to re-sign him. First and foremost, the Nuggets like Torrey. He fills a needed role and they don’t have a ton of depth behind him. Denver just doesn’t have a bunch in the way of wing defenders on their roster. Perhaps Keita Bates-Diop or Vlatko Cancar can help fill that role but those guys are too big to put on a premier perimeter guard like the Nuggets often do with Craig. The second reality is Craig will be cheap. Of Denver’s four rotation players who are free agents, Craig is probably the only one they can think about bringing back at a price point that’s under $5 million a season. They own his early bird rights so there’s no issues exceeding the cap to sign him which gives the Nuggets flexibility to use their exception dollars elsewhere. Though Denver doesn’t need to use it to sign Craig, my best guess is they give him a two year deal somewhere around the value of the bi-annual exception.
Step 4: use the MLE to get a backup big, ideally Derrick Favors
If Denver does steps one through three, they will have the non-tax payer mid level exception ($9.25 million) and the bi-annual exception ($3.62 million) as tools to add players via free agency. Assuming they keep and sign the 22nd overall pick in the Draft to an NBA deal, that would leave them about a little over $11 million under the tax apron and two guaranteed roster spots open. It’s also a roster completely bereft of anything resembling a center outside of Nikola Jokic and Bol. While the Nuggets certainly hope Bol can be a part of the rotation next year, they need to have a plan in place if he doesn’t make that leap, is used in a trade or just isn’t who they wanting banging around down low for the 15 minutes Jokic is on the bench. Bol also won’t solve the problem Denver ran into against the Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs last season and has run into against other teams in previous seasons: dealing with two strong, athletic bigs on the court at the same time.
When the Lakers deploy Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard, or in years past when the Utah Jazz deployed Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, Denver struggled because their best player was handicapped. Having a Howard or a Favors to play next to a Davis or Gobert allows teams to contain Denver’s star big while leaving their own unchecked. When Denver is on offense Jokic is facing a difficult physical matchup one on one while a second opposing big is free to roam as a rim protector and eliminate the cutting lanes that make Jokic so deadly as a passer. When the Nuggets are on defense Jokic is left to battle the same difficult physical matchup and keep that player off the glass while the opposition’s most talented big is free to take an undersized Paul Millsap or Jerami Grant to task.
There were a few brief moments where Michael Malone tried to assuage the issue by playing Mason Plumlee next to Jokic but Plumlee simply is too limited offensively to make a difference. With Plumlee’s contract expiring the Nuggets have a chance to go out and get a big who fits playing next to Jokic better while also still filling those backup center minutes. Favors himself is available and while the MLE may not be enough to get him, he’s an ideal type of player to snag if Denver can. Other names the Nuggets might consider are Tristan Thompson, Nerlens Noel or Jakob Poeltl (restricted free agent). Those type of guys won’t leave much money left, if any, in the MLE which would leave the Nuggets the BAE or veteran minimums to fill the 15th and final roster spot, or they could do what they did last year and simply leave it unfilled. My best guess? The Nuggets end up missing on some of the nicer backup big targets and sign someone like an Alex Len or Harry Giles at around $5million per season and they leave the 15th roster spot unfilled.
Step 5: find some guys you like for your two ways and roll
I can’t even begin to guess who the Nuggets might add to the roster via two way deal. Tyler Cook is a potential candidate, seeing as how he finished last season with Denver on that type of deal. History tells us the Nuggets will look to fill those spots one of two ways. Either they go the Monte Morris/Bol Bol route and target a guy in the second round, buy a pick and sign him to a two-way deal, or they’ll find a younger guy they like that has bounced around professional basketball a la Torrey Craig/P.J. Dozier. If Denver is following my free agency roadmap then I expect them to use those two-ways on players they like as prospects rather than as emergency depth. Denver would have three pint guards on the roster in Jamal Murray, Morris and Dozier and also three centers in Jokic, Bol and their MLE signing. Because the remainder of the roster is so stocked with versatile players who can play multiple positions the Nuggets would be able to mix and match lineups as needed or required by health without having to have emergency depth players eating up their two-way contracts.
Final thought: a consolidation trade makes things tricky
This roadmap avoids the elephant in the room that is the Nuggets trading for an upgrade like Jrue Holiday. In a scenario like that Denver is going to have to package multiple players to get one in return which convolutes the issue of minimal room under the luxury tax and multiple roster spots to fill. Should the Nuggets find themselves surrendering two, three or even four players to get a player like Holiday in return don’t be surprised if they look to the trade route again to help fill out the roster. The Nuggets have two trade exceptions available that will allow them to absorb a player of minimal salary (no more than a few million) without sending any players in return. That few million dollars could be the difference for another team in having the cap space to sign a free agent or not. The Nuggets can be a prime target for teams looking to unload a back end of the roster player to make a larger transaction happen.