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Roundtable: free agency and where Denver stands moving forward

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Stiffs writers join together to discuss free agency and where the Nuggets stand in the Western Conference moving forward.

Phoenix Suns v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

What was your reaction to the Denver Nuggets not being able to re-sign Jerami Grant?

Brandon Ewing (@B_Skip1717): I was shocked when I first saw the alert. We had our final football game that night, so I wasn’t around for the free agency news. Checking my phone after the game was a definite surprise and I still don’t understand the move. Why Jerami Grant would want to go to a losing team like Detroit instead of playing for a team that just made the Western Conference Finals had me incredibly confused. It will be interesting to see how Grant does in Detroit, but the main issue in him jumping ship is it makes the Nuggets worse in the short-term and that’s a real bummer.

Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn): That the Nuggets ultimately became a worse playoff team in the short term by losing Grant’s positional flexibility. I was blown away by Jerami Grant’s reasoning behind moving to another team. It appears that Jerami Grant and Troy Weaver—lead executive for the Detroit Pistons who previous had a relationship with Grant in Oklahoma City and in Grant’s college days at Syracuse—view Grant differently than the rest of the NBA. Most see Grant as an excellent role player type who the Nuggets were willing to pay big money to retain, while Grant and Weaver apparently see Grant as a player who can develop into a star. I’m skeptical.

Gordon Gross (GMoneyNuggs): I was surprised that Denver seemed blind-sided, honestly. One of the problems with a no-leak front office is that the only way to really gauge their responses is by their actions, not their words, and Denver let other potential replacement pieces go to other teams while waiting for Jerami Grant which - along with their draft choices - made his departure seem entirely unexpected by management, not just fans.

When he made his choice I thought Denver recovered admirably by re-signing Paul Millsap and adding JaMychal Green, who should become a fan favorite pretty quickly. But neither of them fill the Jerami-Grant-sized hole in the roster perfectly, and they can’t patch it with any of their two-way or rookie players either. As Ryan said, Denver took a bit of a step back by losing Grant in a roster fit sense, but it’s the job of the front office to now recover, and they have trade chips and a new trade exception with which to do just that as the season goes on.

Gage Bridgford (@GbridgfordNFL): I was pretty taken aback. Grant was the main piece for this entire offseason. He was their answer to the big wings of the west. They recovered nicely with pieces like Green and bringing back Millsap, but it was still disheartening to see. As Ryan said, I think Denver took a step back in the ranks of playoff contenders. Instead of being a legitimate threat to the top two in the Western Conference, I think they’re now firmly in that 3-6 range.

Reid Howard: When I first found out he signed with Detroit, I assumed salary was the main motivator. When reports came out that the Nuggets actually offered the same 3/60 million dollar contract, I wasn’t sure how I felt initially.

Part of me was relieved, as I don’t think Jerami is worth that high of a salary. Another part of me was disappointed, as I thought Grant could have been a key part of at least one championship with Denver. The biggest question here is who fills Grant’s role? The Nuggets don’t currently have anyone on their roster that has proven they can effectively defend the taller wings of the NBA.

What grade would you give the Nuggets for their moves in free agency thus far?

Ewing: I usually try to be “Mr. Positivity” but I’m going to give the Nuggets a D. The departure of Grant is a major issue not just cause he’s a good player, but because he was the Nuggets plan A, B, and C going into free agency. Couple that with losing their best wing defender in Torrey Craig — I still have no idea why they rescinded his qualifying offer — and suddenly two big pieces are off the roster.

Denver is now going to be relying A LOT on the play of Nikola Jokic, Michael Porter Jr., and Jamal Murray next season. The Nuggets will probably be fine in the regular season and I predict them to be a playoff team, but losing guys like Grant and Craig are certainly going to hurt when the postseason rolls around.

Blackburn: C-minus. Maybe a D-plus. The time for having fun, winning some games, and flaming out in the playoffs is past. The Nuggets proved they have an excellent duo that should give the team a baseline performance every year to be a quality playoff squad and maybe reach the second round. Denver’s problem is moving from that tier to the next tier, and Denver lost a player that helps them do that without any foreseeable path to truly replace Grant’s utility. Had the Nuggets acquired Robert Covington or Aaron Gordon or Kelly Oubre or another playable wing/forward, I would be less harsh on their grade. They didn’t though, and I think the Nuggets are in line to regress next season because of it.

Gross: Free agency was a C. It’s a passing grade, because they added Green who can do a lot for this team and matches up better against some 4s than Grant did. Millsap back on a reasonable 1-year deal is also useful (as is Hartenstein on a minimum) and we’ll see what Denver’s new point guard Facundo Campazzo and forward Greg Whittington but it’s just holding the line. Other teams got better this free agency period. Denver struggled to keep its head above water in the build around their Big Three.

Bridgford: I’m going with a C-minus. The reason I can’t put them lower is they can only spend money that they have. If they truly offered Grant the money that they did, they offered what they had, but it was never about the money so much as the role Grant wanted. I liked the pivot they showed with the aforementioned players, and getting more depth on this roster was key. However, other team’s in the West got better while Denver got worse. If they don’t get a ton of internal development, regression is inbound.

Howard: I’ll be the optimist of the group here and go with a C+. The Nuggets will have more financially flexibility going forward by combining to pay Jamychal Green and Paul Millsap 3.5 million less than Jerami Grant would have commanded next year. Their decisions to add another point guard to an already crowded backcourt as well as sign three bigs instead of at least one known wing defender are, well, questionable. I do, however, expect the roster to be rebalanced via trade sometime before the deadline. The free agency moves will hopefully make more sense after that.

Which player on the Nuggets roster is going to have to step up after the loss of Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee, and Torrey Craig to free agency?

Ewing: Michael Porter Jr. is the only answer to this question. Jokic and Murray will certainly have to play at a high level, but Porter could ultimately have the final say in how successful the Nuggets are next season. Porter is 100 percent going to have to buy in to the defensive end of the floor, but even if he struggles on defense the Nuggets now have no one on the roster to replace him with. That is both good and bad cause now Porter will always be on the floor (good) but if he’s struggling on defense (bad) the Nuggets will be forced to ride it out.

I believe Porter will be up for the challenge defensively and am looking forward to seeing if his offense takes the next step. Porter could easily average just under 20 points per game next season, but it’ll be important for him to at least give the Nuggets something on the defensive end of the floor as well.

Blackburn: Michael Porter Jr. is about to be tested to the extreme. Losing Grant is one thing, but Denver also lost Torrey Craig, meaning that the only player long and athletic enough to check opposing playmaking forwards is Porter. The now second year player asked for this pressure, almost demanded it, and now he will get it. The season is about to be one of the most telling for Denver’s championship odds with the current core. If Porter figures things out on both sides of the floor, the Nuggets are a contender. If Porter struggles and/or flames out, the Nuggets have a ton of work to do. It really is that simple.

Gross: It’s Porter. Denver doesn’t have the personnel now to pull him if he can’t defend on the perimeter, which is both a good and bad thing. He has to grow during the season, while getting what should be a lot of minutes. The Nuggets have lots of point guards now, and several big men all along the age spectrum. Porter is on an island as a tall small forward who is an offensive force, but he’ll have to find ways to not be the weakest link on defense for Denver to reach its ultimate goals.

Bridgford: I wanted to be different, but I can’t. It’s Porter. He is the future. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray are great players, and Porter needs to enter that conversation. He’s shown flashes, but he’s too inconsistent. He also needs to develop on the defensive end. I’m not expecting him to come out and be a stopper on that end of the floor, but I need him to not just be an easy target when he gets out there. Throughout the playoffs, every team would isolate him and force him to cover a player one-on-one, but that’s not where he’s at. If he can’t step up, the loss of Grant is going to become a lot more apparent.

Howard: Obviously Porter’s development is paramount, but that was true before Grant and Torrey left. Bol Bol and PJ Dozier are two players that I think will have increased roles with these departures. If they can show they are already legitimate role players in the NBA this season, Nuggets fans should start getting more excited about this team again. If they struggle, however, Denver is likely to take a minor step-back next season.

It also seems as though the Nuggets may let Isaiah Hartenstein and Zeke Nnaji compete for the backup center job. The other option is to go small-ball and let either Millsap or Green fill in when Jokic needs a breather. We will likely see both strategies deployed but when those young centers are on the floor they can’t be a liability. Neither has done anything of note in NBA and although it would be a minor role, every rotation player is vital to the success of the entire team. The Nuggets simply can’t contend if their backup center is consistently outplayed.

Where do you rank the Nuggets in the Western Conference almost one week following the draft and free agency begun?

Ewing: I still think Denver is going to be one of the best regular season teams in the Western Conference, my only concern is once the playoffs hit. The Nuggets will likely secure a top-4 seed and at least get home court in the first round of the playoffs, but what they do after that is the real question. The regular season will tell us a lot about this Nuggets team and it’s always possible Denver could swing a big trade at the deadline. Until then it’s going to be a wait and see approach, but I’d still put the Nuggets as a top-5 team in the Western Conference as things currently stand.

Blackburn: Denver will still be a team that most likely claims home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs by way of a top 4 seed, but given the moves Denver made versus the moves other teams made, the Nuggets are far more vulnerable to a first round exit than a healthy version of the team would have been last year. In addition, the Nuggets simply didn’t gain ground on the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers. They may have even lost ground on the Dallas Mavericks. I’d keep Denver around the third spot in the West, but they probably aren’t in the top two anymore.

Gross: It depends how tired Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray are. After a short offseason, Denver may need to give them the kind of load management (read: rest) that teams like the San Antonio Spurs were famous for in the Tim Duncan era. If they need a lot of rest then Denver could fall out of home-court for the playoffs. The West is tight, and most teams added players specifically suited to making trouble for the Jokic/Murray led Nuggets. I’d say Denver is 4th or 5th in the Western Conference out of the gate, but with Jokic they always seem to over-perform expectations during the regular season. He just makes them better. If he has to sit more during the season, then Denver’s expected win total will be justifiably lower. That doesn’t bother me; Denver’s goal should be less about home court and more about getting everyone to the playoffs healthy and in sync.

Bridgford: I’m putting them in the 3&4 conversation. I’m a little higher on the additions that Dallas made this offseason, and their only issue has been health. Denver’s stars and starters can carry them. Will Barton needs to bounce back after the injury ushered him out of their playoff run. As Gordon said, how tired are Jokic and Murray? If they’re as exhausted as they likely are after that deep run where they played heavy minutes, you shouldn’t be surprised if they’re resting early in the year. I don’t think the Utah Jazz or any other team has done enough to pass them, but I think the Mavericks are definitely in that conversation as things stand right now.

Howard: Based on the current roster, I think we’re all on just about the same page in terms of where the Nuggets stand in the west. The way I see it, the theme of the Nuggets offseason so far was to bet on upside. This makes them much more unpredictable. If everything works out, there’s enough potential on the roster for them to be the #1 seed. At the same time, the west has so many formidable teams that it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the Nuggets could finish between 5th and 8th in the conference.