Now that we’re 24 hours past the trade deadline, I’ve had some time to digest what this week’s flurry of moves means for the Nuggets, the Western Conference, and the NBA. My conclusion? Nuggets’ fans have a lot to be excited about.
Overall, the front office did what it could to improve a contending team. Keita Bates-Diop is an athletic player who adds wing depth and possibly a bit of shooting, and Jordan McRae gives the Nuggets a legitimate scoring option at guard after losing Malik Beasley. If other teams were demanding MPJ in order to play ball for a big name, then I’m just fine with the Nuggets making smaller moves, thank you very much.
And while none of the new players coming to altitude are going to make ESPN headlines, I learned a lot as I compulsively refreshed Twitter like a slots addict. Here are my five biggest takeaways from the week.
The path to the Finals is wide open
The Nuggets sit in third place in the Western Conference, just half a game behind the Clippers and three behind the Lakers. They are right in the the thick of contention going into the All-Star break. So it’s fair to look ahead at the teams the Nuggets will be competing with for a spot in the Finals. What did those teams do at the trade deadline to distance themselves from the pack?
- Memphis (26-25): Traded Andre Iguodala, who refused to play because he’s a chump, plus Jae Crowder, Solomon Hill, and Bruno Caboclo for Justise Winslow, Dion Waiters, Gorgui Dieng, and Jordan Bell. The Grizzlies are happy with these moves, but they still don’t have enough to make any real noise in the playoffs.
- Dallas (31-20): Nothing
- Oklahoma City (31-20): Nothing
- Utah (32-18): Nothing
- Houston (33-18): Traded the only two centers they had for Robert Covington, who, at 6’7, is now the tallest player in the rotation. They are all-in on a small-ball scheme we have never really seen before. The 6’5 P.J. Tucker will now be guarding Nikola Jokic in a hypothetical playoff matchup.
- Denver (36-16): Traded Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez, and Jarred Vanderbilt for Jordan McRae, Keita Bates-Diop, Noah Vonleh, and a first-round draft pick. (For analysis of this trade, read the rest of this article and the other great Stiffs’ content including comprehensive breakdowns here and here.)
- L.A. Clippers (36-15): Traded Moe Harkless, Jerome Robinson, and a first-round pick for Marcus Morris Sr. and Isaiah Thomas (who will be waived). By outbidding their crosstown rivals, the Clippers added a productive scorer and the league’s fifth-ranked 3-point shooter, per NBA.com, who is expected to start alongside Patrick Beverley, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Ivica Zubac.
- L.A. Lakers (38-12): Nothing. Suck it, Lakers. (Though they could still get Darren Collison)
So there it is. With the exception of a few buyout options that could be added by contenders in the coming days, the teams are pretty much set. And what jumps out at me is that the Western Conference is there for the taking.
The Nuggets are better than Memphis, Oklahoma City, and Dallas. Matchups with any team in the west could be competitive, but it’s hard to imagine this team losing to any of those bottom three teams in a seven-game series. The Nuggets have shown the ability to contain Donovan Mitchell and handle Utah on the road—even with only seven active players—so the advantage has to be with the Nuggets there. And starting at 3:00 p.m. mountain time on February 6, the Rockets had a matchup nightmare on their hands once they traded the only two players on their roster capable of guarding one Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets have struggled to contain Harden in the past, but who hasn’t? Advantage: Nuggets.
So that leaves us with the path to the Finals going through L.A. The Lakers are good. They’ve led the west all year, and LeBron and AD will be a load in the playoffs. But are they scary good? Do they seem like an unbeatable juggernaut a la the Warriors of the last few years, or even the Lakers or Spurs teams of the aughts? Not to me.
And the Clippers have their own issues. Adding Marcus Morris was a solid move, but Jokic will still be a big problem for a team lacking interior defense. Kawhi and PG are injury prone, and the team has struggled to be consistently great. The question is whether the Nuggets can get enough offense from their wings if they have to play Harris, Craig, and Grant for big minutes to keep pace with PG and Kawhi. It won’t be easy, but I give the Nuggets a puncher’s chance.
The front office believes in this team
The Nuggets’ reluctance to trade any of their core players (or even to entertain offers on MPJ) shows the confidence the front office has in this group. And why not? They’re three games out of first in the Western Conference. They’ve earned some trust.
Tim Connelly said as much on Altitude Sports Radio today (comments begin at 38:49, but the whole interview is worth a listen):
Connelly noted earlier in the interview that he believes Jokic is “the best player in basketball right now,” citing the impact he has on winning basketball games, not just his stats.
It’s hard to argue that Jokic hasn’t been playing MVP-caliber basketball the last month and a half. It’s getting equally hard to argue that the Nuggets don’t have what it takes this year to make a run through the Western Conference, Sir Charles’ doubts notwithstanding.
The Nuggets have ridiculous depth
From my cursory glance around Timberwolves Twitter, it seems likely that Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez will be starting for their new team this season. This means that the Nuggets had two guys who couldn’t crack a 10-man rotation consistently who were good enough to be starting in the NBA. It’s likely that Jerami Grant, Monte Morris, and MPJ would all be starters, too, if they found themselves on a less-talented team.
That depth has proven invaluable the last few weeks as the Nuggets have successfully staved off an injury epidemic to beat other contenders, including on the road at the Bucks, who have been dominant all year. The moves the Nuggets made this week allowed them to rework their roster a bit without sacrificing that depth. And that’s because ...
Tim Connelly has mastered the art of small moves
Nuggets GM Tim Connelly didn’t pull off the splashy, all-in move that many Nuggets fans were hoping for (me included). What he did, though, was show how to build a long-term contender with smart, marginal moves.
It’s safe to assume that Michael Porter Jr. was going to be required for the Nuggets to obtain an All-Star caliber player. A few weeks ago, I may have been on board with a deal that included MPJ (*ducks*) if it meant going for a championship this year and next.
I have since changed my tune. MPJ is untradeable—the upside is too great to consider any offer this side of Luka Doncic. Because Connelly is good at his job, he reportedly removed MPJ from trade negotiations at the start of the process. However, this severely limited the types of deals the Nuggets could realistically make. So instead of giving up depth and a decade of draft picks, Connelly made marginal improvements that don’t interfere with a core that this team very much believes in.
The Nuggets essentially swapped Malik Beasley, who was gone in a few months, for Jordan McRae — a comparable player — and got a first-round pick and two interesting, athletic big men for Juancho and Vanderbilt. It’s not the type of move that will make headlines. But similar to the sneaky Jerami Grant trade in the offseason, or the 2nd-round theft of Bol Bol last year, or finding Barton rotting away on the bench in Portland, Tim Connelly has proven that he knows how to continually add meaningful talent without sacrificing the future.
We need the old Garris back
It’s not all good news for the Nuggets. Rumors surfaced over the last few days that Gary Harris was available on the open market. Indeed, Harris’ sizable contract made moving him necessary if the Nuggets were looking to bring in a player on a high-dollar contract. Stars like Jrue Holiday and Chris Paul, for instance, make between $25-40 million per year, so the only way the Nuggets would’ve been able to match would have been with a combination of Gary Harris and Mason Plumlee’s expiring contract or Paul Millsap’s expiring $30 million figure.
How far the Nuggets went in potential trade talks for a big name is unknown, but it doesn’t take an NBA insider to figure out that the Nuggets probably couldn’t find a team willing to take on the last 2.5 years of Harris’ sizable contract, given his injury history and the lack of offensive production the past two seasons.
While so many of the Nuggets’ young players have improved each year, Harris remains a glaring exception. In his last six games, he’s averaging just 5.3 PPG on 23 percent shooting in 27 minutes. He hit rock bottom offensively against Utah on Wednesday, going 0-13 in a game where the Nuggets desperately needed production from every one of the 6.5 warm bodies they had. For the season now, Harris is barely averaging 10 PPG and shooting under 30 percent from three and under 40% from the field overall in 32 MPG. This was a guy who just two years ago shot 40% from three and looked to be the perfect 3-and-D guard to complement Jokic and Murray. Where have you gone, Garris?
I don’t know. I doubt he or the Nuggets know either. But they need his offense. He’s played great defense at times this year despite the offensive woes, and that shouldn’t be lost on Nuggets fans. But Denver needs more offensively from a guard getting over 30 minutes every night. If he can get back to being the competent outside shooter and effective off-ball slasher that he was just two short years ago, then the Nuggets will have essentially added a borderline All-Star without giving up a thing.
The Nuggets have a shot at making the Finals this year if things break right for them. When was the last time Nuggets’ fans could say that?