The deadline for Will Barton’s decision on his player option was Saturday. Did you expect him to opt out?
Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn): After surveying the free agency landscape and understanding that many free agents would end up re-signing with their own teams, my expectation was for Barton to opt out of his player option and test the waters. This will allow Barton to retain some flexibility, forcing the Nuggets to either commit to a deal that he desires or allowing another franchise to pursue him. Barton is hoping for a long term contract, and this was the first step toward him accomplishing that goal.
Brandon Ewing (@B_Skip1717): A part of me thought Barton would pick up his player option just because $14.7 million is a large chunk of money to give up. This is more than likely going to be Barton’s last opportunity to get a somewhat big long-term deal in free agency, so with that in mind I wasn't surprised he declined his option and opted out.
Gordon Gross (@GMoneyNuggs): I expected him to opt out, yes. There is money out there this year and many of the expected top-tier free agents are no longer on the market. More money + limited options = a multi-year windfall for someone like Barton, even if his recent injury history is not great. It’s still better than Spencer Dinwiddie’s, another player looking for a payday that he will probably get. Will could have chosen to opt-in and showcase himself as a main option with Jamal Murray out, or he could get the security of what might be his last shot at a bigger deal, and he took the security. I don’t blame him at all.
The Nuggets were recently surprised by Jerami Grant’s departure. Would a Will Barton exit feel similar or different?
Blackburn: It would definitely hurt, but Grant and Barton are clearly at two different stages of their careers. Grant was someone I expected the Nuggets to commit to in the long term as an important supporting piece to the duo of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić. With Michael Porter Jr. also waiting in the wings, it was clear Grant didn’t want that and still had something left to prove, to himself or others. Barton seems to be far more comfortable in his role, and after over six years, nothing Barton does would be blindsiding. Given the addition of Aaron Gordon to the fold, the reasons that Barton might leave could be role or money related, and they might simply be something the Nuggets can’t avoid, unlike the Grant situation where they were dumbstruck.
Ewing: I don’t think anyone expected Jerami Grant to leave last offseason, but this time around there is some uncertainty around Barton’s future with the Nuggets. A potential exit from Barton would still be tough to swallow, but as Ryan mentioned the two are in different stages of their careers. Grant is still in his prime while Barton is on the back end of his career. Still, Barton is a really solid player you want to have on your basketball team and losing that would be tough.
Gross: The part that hurts most is that Denver traded Will Barton’s expected replacement, R.J. Hampton, in the Aaron Gordon trade. So they had a plan in place in case Barton opted out, then traded that plan, and then Barton did opt out. I don’t think this was unexpected, and I do expect the Nuggets to make a serious run at re-signing Barton, but with Grant the expectation was that he would re-sign and be a core piece for a number of years. Barton’s expected contributions as he exits his prime are not on the same level.
The Nuggets and Barton can still agree to another contract. Should the Nuggets bring Barton back on a multi-year deal?
Blackburn: I go back and forth. On one hand, there are very few, if any players that are as good as Will Barton that the Nuggets could realistically acquire. Barton has given his heart and soul to this team for a long time, and seeing him go would be difficult. On the other hand, the Nuggets must continue to prioritize their future, and this may be their only chance to add a role player that fits the roster better than Barton before potential extensions to Porter and Gordon kick in next year. If the Nuggets were to identify such a player and that player would be interested in Denver, it’s imperative for the Nuggets to act, even if it means losing Barton in the process. If that player doesn’t exist, then the Nuggets should work hard to retain their current starting shooting guard.
Ewing: It depends on what the Nuggets can accomplish on draft night. If they are able to draft a shooting guard like Chris Duarte, then I think you let Barton walk in free agency. Duarte will be much cheaper and could easily slide into the starting lineup considering he's one of oldest players in the draft at 24. If you can't find a good shooting guard in the draft then I would look at extending Barton to a team friendly deal.
Gross: It depends how cheap Denver is going to be. With Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray both on max-level contracts, and both MPJ’s extension and potentially Jokic’s even-pricier extension coming up, there will be a lot of money for Denver tied up in three players. If Denver is willing to pay tax penalties on Barton’s larger salary, he’s probably the best player Denver can get due to the price limitations on them adding a player from outside the organization rather than re-signing from within.
If they are not willing to do that, then Denver should move on - you don’t want to trade a James Harden because you committed too much money to Kendrick Perkins. In that case, Denver will just have to find a cheaper option that can do what they need and thank Barton for all the years in a Nuggets uniform. He really has been a key piece of getting this team from the Shaw era onto the cusp of title contention.
If Barton leaves, is there someone in free agency the Nuggets should add to replace him?
Blackburn: Four ambitious names that I will throw out there are Reggie Bullock, Josh Hart, Alex Caruso, and Kelly Oubre. All of them would be capable starters/sixth man types for different reasons, and they would all add an improved defensive component to the rotation. Bullock is a lethal shooter and solid defender, and pairing him with Porter adds another dimension to Denver’s offensive attack. Hart is currently held hostage in New Orleans by a difficult guard rotation to navigate, and though he’s a restricted free agent, the Pelicans may be looking ahead to Lonzo Ball, Kira Lewis, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker in their backcourt. Alex Caruso is beloved in Los Angeles, but if he’s looking for a raise the Lakers can’t offer, then he’d fit well in Denver. Finally, Kelly Oubre hasn’t worked out in Golden State, but adding a 6’7” scoring wing with defensive chops to the rotation would improve the talent level.
Ewing: Not sure he's in the Nuggets budget, but I would take a look at Tim Hardaway Jr.. He’s not going to help you out defensively much, but offensively he would really give the Nuggets a boost at shooting guard. Another name I like is Alec Burks, who is coming off a really solid year with the New York Knicks. The former University of Colorado player is going to come cheaper than most free agents and could be a great fit either in the starting lineup or off the bench.
Gross: If Barton leaves, they will need a replacement. They have PJ Dozier as a viable guard/wing but his scoring profile is lacking, and bringing some scoring punch to any lineup is what Barton is good at. Without Murray for much of the year, the Nuggets need another offensive option for the days that Michael Porter Jr. and Nikola Jokic can’t do it all. Gary Trent Jr. would fit very well, but I don’t see him getting out of Toronto as a Restricted Free Agent - and honestly Denver can’t really afford him. The Nuggets are hampered by the salary cap restrictions on what they can offer any non-Barton player (basically, the MLE of $9.5 million). If they don’t spend the whole MLE on one player, Denver is probably looking at picking between locker-room leader type like maybe Garrett Temple or offense-first on the cheap like potentially a Furkan Korkmaz.
The names Ryan and Brandon listed are all viable as well. We’ve named a bunch of different options on this list because there is no one player that would replace Barton, and also no consensus for who the best player for Denver would be that they can actually get. It’s gonna get weird if Barton is not back. The problem with getting your best players into their primes is that you’re paying for them - which makes adding the other pieces around the edges trickier.