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NBA Trade Deadline primer: What to expect from the Denver Nuggets by Thursday

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Here’s where the Nuggets stand, what they have, what they need, and what I think they will do.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Golden State Warriors Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most frenetic weeks of the NBA calendar is upon us once again. The NBA Trade Deadline is officially here, and with it comes the promise of trade activity. Teams all but eliminated from the playoffs will look to the future, while teams still in the thick of things will look to acquire one more piece. Rumors are flying everywhere.

For players, this can be the most stressful time of the year, the point in time when they could be moved to a new city in the blink of an eye. For some, that’s a good thing. For others, saying goodbye to the friendships forged through the trials of NBA life can be difficult.

The Denver Nuggets are in a precarious position, one of the most interesting positions in the entire NBA due to several factors in and around the team. Nikola Jokic is ready to compete in the deepest levels of the playoffs, and the Nuggets extended point guard Jamal Murray with the hope he’d be ready to assist in that pursuit. Add in veteran power forward Paul Millsap and the Nuggets trading a first round pick in 2020 for Jerami Grant, and the framing of this season speaks to a team competing for a title. With many young veterans on the team, that’s the next step. If the Nuggets see themselves as legitimate contenders, they will do everything they can to go for it this season like a standard contender.

However, Michael Porter Jr. threw a wrench in those carefully made plans.

The 21-year-old forward who basically took two years off after multiple back surgeries returned and gave the Nuggets an injection of excitement, fun, and legitimate star power. His shotmaking is as advertised, with some incredibly complex jump shots for a 6’10 rookie. His combination of three-point prowess and touch around the rim have yielded a 60.9 True Shooting percentage, one of the best marks for the level of difficulty of his shots. Porter’s 27.6 points per 100 possessions lead all rookies this season.

What wasn’t widely known was his elite rebounding. At 15.2 rebounds per 100 possessions, Porter leads all rookies in rebounding productivity, despite playing a forward position for the majority of his minutes. The minutes aren’t as vast in some cases, but it’s productive all the same. He jumps into crowds and snags rebounds rookie forwards coming off back surgeries shouldn’t be able to grab.

The rookie has worked his way into consistent playing time, but with Porter playing minutes many didn’t expect him to play so soon, that leaves some challenging decisions in the rotation for head coach Michael Malone. Let’s talk about those decisions now:

Where the Nuggets rotation stands when fully healthy

At some point, the Nuggets are going to achieve full health as a team again. Injuries piled up in bunches during January, but Jamal Murray, Paul Millsap, and Mason Plumlee will eventually return, while Porter and Gary Harris are basically back.

At the beginning of this season, I expected Murray, Harris, and Millsap to anchor Denver’s rotation along with Jokic. Instead, Will Barton has stepped up in their absence and played very well and very consistently throughout the year. He has become a legitimate starter on the wing for Denver and will maintain that role for the rest of the year and into the playoffs. Murray will return to his point guard spot when he’s fully healthy as well. Those three (Jokic, Murray, and Barton) figure to be Denver’s most frequent shot takers in the playoffs, so getting them chemistry together again is important.

Where the questions begin are at Denver’s other wing position as well as power forward. Gary Harris and Paul Millsap are likely to return to those spots, seeing as the two vets helped Denver’s starting lineup get out to a sterling start. Denver’s initial starting unit has posted a high Net Rating. They are good together. Despite that, Harris has struggled individually all season, and really last season too. During the last two seasons combined, Harris has averaged just 12.0 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game while shooting 32.8% from three-point range. That’s just not good enough for a complementary player. The Nuggets need players around Murray, Barton, and Jokic that can space the floor, but so far this year Harris hasn’t been that guy.

Millsap is less of a concern than Harris, but consider his placement here an acknowledgement of the chemistry that Jerami Grant has formed with Jokic over the last several weeks. Those two have begun to figure each other out. In addition, Grant and Mason Plumlee have struggled to play together, so simply sending Grant back to a bench role may not be in the team’s best interest. Could Denver start Grant and bring Millsap off the bench? Time will tell.

As for the second unit, the only players that seem entrenched in their roles are Monte Morris, Porter Jr., and one of Grant/Millsap at power forward. When Plumlee returns, he likely fills the bulk of backup center minutes, despite Grant proving what Denver can be effective with spacing at center on the second unit. That’s nine players, and one of Torrey Craig or Malik Beasley for defensive or shooting purposes respectively, which fills out the rotation to capacity.

Players like P.J. Dozier, Juancho Hernangomez, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Vlatko Cancar are left on the outside looking in, and while Dozier or Hernangomez may serve as an injury replacement.

What can the Nuggets give up

With one of Beasley or Craig on the outside of the rotation, Beasley seems like a candidate to be a sweetener in any trade. He has immense talent but hasn’t figured out how to stay in Denver’s rotation. That may or may not be his own fault, but it is what it is. Juancho is another piece that feels ripe to move. He hasn’t had the opportunity he needs to develop, and he could definitely help a rebuilding team.

The Nuggets gave up their 2020 first round pick to acquire Jerami Grant, which means the next first round pick they can use to trade right now is in 2022. For some teams, that’s palatable. For others, they would prefer an earlier pick. Denver owes all of their second round picks until 2022 as well, so the next second rounder they can use in a trade is in 2023.

If the Nuggets look for a big deal as well, watch out for Gary Harris.

What the Nuggets need

  1. A wing defender to guard LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and James Harden in a playoff series
  2. Shooting within the rotation
  3. An additional ball handler to trust in a playoff series
  4. Clarity of roles within the rotation
  5. A path to more minutes for Michael Porter Jr.

How can Denver make that happen?

Option 1: Consolidation for a star

The Nuggets have too many guys, and a few of those players will walk in free agency next July if the Nuggets aren’t proactive on the trade market. The following six players could walk away in free agency: Paul Millsap, Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee, Torrey Craig, Malik Beasley, and Juancho Hernangomez.

Denver’s rotation, as described above, is also full of playable talent. Despite that, the only players I feel confident about playing big minutes in a playoff series are Murray, Barton, Millsap, Jokic, Morris, Porter, and Grant. That’s seven guys. Figuring out who makes up the rest of the rotation is important. Gary Harris and Torrey Craig will likely be defensive options, but in a series where Denver needs to score and there isn’t an elite guard to defend, their roles may be less important.

Trading multiple players to acquire a singular option that can be impactful in the playoffs has always been an option on the table for Denver. It’s one of the reasons Tim Connelly and the front office stacked the roster to begin with. Young players like Jarred Vanderbilt and Bol Bol rarely play if ever, and Dozier has shown his potential as a rotation guard even while on a two-way contract. Consolidating some of the these players down to another legitimate playoff contributor may be wise for a team with several pieces in place to compete now.

Jrue Holiday has been mentioned in several places as an option for Denver that the Nuggets are asking about, including by The Athletic’s Shams Charania and ESPN’s Zach Lowe. Holiday would represent an upgrade to Denver’s overall talent level and can stay on the floor in almost any situation, given his defensive versatility.

Option 2: Clarity

Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez have been in and out of the rumor mill all season, with multiple teams inquiring about the price of both players, both of which are restricted free agents come this July. Beasley turned down an extension offer with Denver last offseason, and since then, Beasley has been in and out of Denver’s rotation. When everyone returns for the playoffs, it’s difficult to envision a sizable role for Beasley that he wants, and if the Nuggets aren’t going to use him going forward, then they have to do their due diligence on trading the young shooting guard. To my eye, there are several teams who would be great for Beasley: the Memphis Grizzlies, Atlanta Hawks, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, and Houston Rockets all come to mind.

Hernangomez is in a different position. His minutes have been entirely soaked up by Michael Porter Jr. at this point, and even when Juancho has played, he has been ineffective. If there are teams willing to send Denver reasonable assets for Hernangomez, then Denver may do right by Juancho and get him to a situation where he could find some playing time. Juancho would fit well in nearly every rebuilding situation, and teams like the New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks, Sacramento Kings, and Golden State Warriors should all have at least passing interest.

Option 3: Sensible upgrades

Right now, the Nuggets have a competitive playoff roster than can win a playoff series, but come up against the right matchup and the right personnel to match up with Denver, and the Nuggets may need another guy. Several names fall into this category of “this player is not a star but would definitely help.”

Robert Covington is the most sought after name on the trade market right now. Many teams want the versatile forward for his defensive impact and willingness to space the floor within the confines of his role. He would fit in excellently in Denver next to Murray, Barton, and Jokic, not needing the ball to be impactful in several lineup configurations in the playoffs.

Other names that could potentially be part of Denver’s playoff rotation with varying levels of availability: Davis Bertans, Bogdan Bogdanovic, JJ Redick, Jae Crowder, Andre Iguodala, and Marcus Morris. I doubt Denver seriously considers the last two for off-the-court reasons and financial difficulties, but any of the first four could be impactful in the right situation. Crowder is definitely a name to watch in my opinion as a versatile, physical forward.

What will actually happen

Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire, and there’s some serious smoke around Malik Beasley right now. It’s tough because Beasley has shown such great talent and poise in different situations, but there’s just not enough space for him right now when everyone gets healthy. In a playoff series, I expect Denver to go with their vets for the most part while Porter gets his allotted time. That leaves Beasley (and Hernangomez) on the outside looking in.

While there are situations in which Beasley and Hernangomez will make a tangible difference, they remain limited. The defensive concerns are real, and Denver can’t lose playoff games because their role players struggle to execute the minor things. Porter will already struggle himself, and putting too many young guys out there will make the situation more liable to fail.

I expect the Nuggets to go after Jrue Holiday while making calls about each of the above upgrade targets. It will be difficult to get New Orleans on board, and Denver will have a threshold they won’t cross when offering assets for Holiday. If the two teams can come to an agreement, it will be close to the buzzer on Thursday.

If that falls through, expect Denver to pivot to other smaller upgrades while keeping the lines open for Beasley and Hernangomez. Denver could go either direction there, and they would be justified in doing so.

Ultimately, the trade deadline is fluid, and players that were previously unavailable may become available just 24 hours before the buzzer sounds. Conversely, a player Denver expects to be available may be removed from the trade market at the most inopportune moment. How Tim Connelly and Co. decide to play it will determine just how serious the Nuggets are about competing this season as opposed to going forward. There are upgrades to be made. The question is: when will they happen? At the deadline, during the summer, or never?