The Denver Nuggets are in an interesting position entering the draft and free agency next week.
The 2021 NBA Draft is set to take place on Thursday, July 29th this year. The Nuggets have the 26th overall pick and no others. Four days later on Monday, August 2nd, the NBA free agency period opens up. The Nuggets currently have 10 players under contract and seven roster spots to fill, which was made clear after both wing Will Barton and stretch big JaMychal Green opted out of their player options during the last week.
Drafting at 26th overall will take that roster total to 11 players. Two of the players will be two-way contracts, so they don’t count against the salary cap. That means that the Nuggets are projected to have four open roster spots they can use to either sign their own free agents or target players outside of the organization. Standard procedure for the NBA today.
What makes things difficult is the salary cap and luxury tax restrictions.
Let me explain:
Utilizing the salary cap sheet above put together by your’s truly, the Denver Nuggets are projected to have just over $105.2 million in commitments to 11 players. The salary cap is projected to be at $112 million during the 2021-22 season (this hasn’t been confirmed) and if that’s the case, the Nuggets would be looking at just about $6.8 million in salary cap space. They can create more by waiving Vlatko Čančar and his roughly $1.8 million, which brings them to $8.6 million. That’s not a lot to really entice major free agents to be interested in the Nuggets, and given the players would be losing in the process due to the need to renounce salary cap holds (Barton, Green, Millsap, etc.) it probably isn’t worth it.
That means that the Nuggets will probably be operating as an “over the salary cap” team. This affords the Nuggets certain benefits. They can retain the cap holds on their own players and potentially bring those guys back. In addition, it grants the Nuggets access to the non-taxpayer mid-level exception, or the MLE, which is currently set at roughly $9.5 million in the first season. This is a tool that allows “over the cap” teams to sign players from outside their organization, offering them as much but not over $9.5 million in the first season with 5% raises in each subsequent year. That comes out to roughly a four-year, $41 million contract as the maximum dollar amount a team can offer.
Last year, the Nuggets used their MLE on two separate players: JaMychal Green and Bol Bol. Bringing in Green was the best the Nuggets could do in their situation last year because they were “over the cap.” They expected Jerami Grant to return. When he didn’t, the Nuggets couldn’t just offer another player the same contract, and it’s why the Nuggets were forced to pivot hard.
The MLE is available every season as a spending tool to teams. The BAE, or Bi-Annual Extension, is not. That is given to teams, you guessed it, every two years. The Nuggets used their BAE to bring over Facundo Campazzo last year, which means that they don’t have the exception available this time around.
So, given that the Nuggets have the MLE at their disposal (as long as they don’t go over the tax, meaning that it turns into the taxpayer MLE and is worth considerably less) they should have a realistic way to add to their roster. The problem: what if Will Barton pulls a Jerami Grant and leaves? What if JaMychal Green gets an offer he can’t pass up from another organization? The Nuggets would be left high and dry, and they would have limited resources to replace two important veterans, not to mention potentially losing Millsap, McGee, Austin Rivers, and others.
There’s one other avenue for the Nuggets to add a player(s): the traded player exception (TPE). Last offseason, a $9.5 million TPE was created when Jerami Grant went to the Detroit Pistons in a sign-and-trade. It generally lasts for one calendar year after the deal; however, because of the adjustments in the league calendar due to COVID-19, that trade exception is set to expire around August 6th, four days after free agency opens.
A TPE is a great avenue to add a new player because that player is under contract with another team, and the Nuggets wouldn’t need to send salary back in order to acquire said player. As long as they don’t go too high with their salary, they can use that TPE to their advantage. For a team like the Nuggets that is probably an “over the cap” team and only has one exception (the MLE) at their disposal, taking advantage of that TPE could be incredibly useful. It’s an opportunity to add to the depth of the roster in a year where the Nuggets could be losing several key pieces of depth. The Nuggets already used $4.2 million out of the $9.5 million to acquire JaVale McGee at the deadline. He would have been good injury insurance for the Nuggets had all of the backcourt injuries Denver sustained happened to the frontcourt instead.
That means that the Nuggets have $5.3 million left to spend before the opportunity expires just days into free agency. There’s an art to figuring out who could be available to acquire for such a small TPE though.
Those levels of contracts aren’t usually preventing teams from accomplishing their roster building goals, with some exceptions. If teams are looking for that last bit of cap space to acquire a big name free agent, they might be willing to part with the 11th man in their rotation to add a starting caliber player. If teams are deep into the luxury tax and hoping to shed some costs, they might be willing to part with a player that isn’t in their immediate plans. If a team is looking to free up playing time for a young player and the veteran at their position is just going to make things awkward, then maybe a change of scenery is best for everyone.
So, who could the Nuggets realistically add with their measly $5.3 million TPE? There are actually some interesting names.
Troy Brown Jr. — Chicago Bulls, $5.2 million
Troy Brown Jr. will turn 22 years old on July 28th. He’s an athletic, lanky 6’6” wing player who has already had stops in Washington and Chicago in his first three years. Entering the last year of his rookie deal, it’s unclear what role Brown has in Chicago after playing just 13 games following a midseason trade, averaging 5.5 points and 3.4 rebounds in 18.2 minutes per game.
The Bulls have desires for a major splash in free agency, according to friend of the program Matt Moore at The Action Network. They’re looking to upgrade at point guard around Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic, and though they have ways to clear cap space with non-guaranteed salary, an easier way might be to send someone like Brown to a team willing to take on his salary.
The Nuggets and Bulls seem like a match made in heaven. On top of former Nuggets general manager Arturas Karnisovas currently residing over basketball operations in Chicago, the Nuggets actually have a need for a wing like Brown and the means to make it happen. Brown still has so much potential as a 3-and-D wing with good defensive instincts, and he would be excellent insurance just in case the Nuggets can’t come to terms with Will Barton. The Nuggets currently have only P.J. Dozier under contract on the wing, and they could certainly use more optionality.
Danuel House — Houston Rockets, $3.9 million
A lot of the conversation about Brown can be applied to Houston wing Danuel House. He’s also listed at 6’6” and has good 3-and-D skills. He’s more safe than Brown but also potentially more pricy. So, why would the Rockets be willing to give up on him? Well, the Rockets are reportedly heavily interested in drafting wing player Jalen Green second overall this coming Thursday night, and opening up immediate playing time for him and other young guys in Kevin Porter Jr. and JaeSean Tate on the wings makes a lot of sense. In addition, Tillman Fertitta, the Rockets owner, doesn’t strike me as a guy willing to pay a bunch of money for a rebuilding team.
If the Rockets are looking to do right by House and send him to a contending team, the Nuggets should definitely be interested for the same reasons as they’d be interested in Brown. House is 28 years old and profiles as a backup wing on a playoff team, something the Nuggets could have certainly utilized in guarding Devin Booker in their last playoff series. House has averaged 9.2 points and 3.8 rebounds in 26.1 minutes per game while shooting 36.4% from three during his career so far. He’d be helpful.
Grayson Allen — Memphis Grizzlies, $4.1 million
Grayson Allen is more of an offensive, floor spacing threat than the previous two names, but he’s in an interesting position in Memphis despite starting over half of last season. The Grizzlies are one of the only teams in the NBA with significant cap space if they let go of Justise Winslow. They could be looking for a significant upgrade, and if they moved Allen on top of that, they could open up around $30 million in cap space. It’s unclear who they’d spend it on, though DeMar DeRozan, John Collins, and Lonzo Ball all make a degree of sense for them. The Grizzlies might be more willing to give up Allen than a forward on their roster in order to free up space given the depth Memphis has at the guard spots (Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, De’Anthony Melton, Desmond Bane, Tyus Jones).
Allen would give the Nuggets a floor spacing option they desperately need while Jamal Murray is recovering from ACL surgery. He averaged 10.6 points per game and shot 39.1% from three-point range while attempting 5.5 threes per game. Whether Allen starts or comes off the bench, he would certainly alleviate some pressure on Nikola Jokić, Michael Porter Jr., Monte Morris, and others for the time being.
Kris Dunn — Atlanta Hawks, $5.0 million
Things haven’t worked out for Kris Dunn in Atlanta given injury issues last season. The signings of him and Rajon Rondo behind Trae Young were both questionable at the time, and the Hawks decided to pivot midway through the year and add Lou Williams instead. Now, if the Hawks plan on keeping Williams, keeping John Collins on what projects to be a massive contract, if they are looking to add anyone else through the draft or free agency, it might not be a bad idea to pivot away from Dunn, who played just four total games last season.
For the Nuggets, they could use the perimeter defense that Dunn provides in excess when healthy. At 6’4” with a long wingspan and averaging an absurd 1.8 steals per game across his previous three seasons in Chicago (that ranks 6th in the NBA during that span behind Paul George, Victor Oladipo, Jimmy Butler, James Harden, and Robert Covington, with Kawhi Leonard ranking 7th), Dunn would certainly bring more backcourt defense if healthy. The Nuggets could of course use as many long-armed athletes around Jokić as possible, and Dunn fits the bill.
Josh Jackson — Detroit Pistons, $5.0 million
The Detroit Pistons are going to draft Cade Cunningham, which of course changes everything about their organization. The Pistons are hoping Cunningham can lift up the entire franchise from top to bottom, and he has the capability to do it. In order to make it happen though, he can’t be worried about offending Josh Jackson if he’s holding onto the ball for too long. Jackson has turned himself into a serviceable player after a disastrous start in Phoenix, and the Nuggets might look into whether the Pistons are interested in him long term. They have commitments to Cunningham most likely, their three draft picks last year Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey, and Isaiah Stewart, as well as Jerami Grant. In addition, the Pistons could create some cap space if they so desired.
For the Nuggets, Jackson would once again fill in that backup wing role, offering some more size than the other two options at 6’8”. Though the shooting efficiency is a concern, if the Nuggets are interested in finding some switch-ability on defense going forward, Jackson still has some development left to go and would certainly benefit from a playmaker like Nikola Jokić. It’s a thought.
Jake Layman — Minnesota Timberwolves, $3.9 million
The names are just getting downright sexy now. Jake Layman signed a three-year, $11.3 million deal with the T’Wolves back in 2018 free agency. They probably didn’t predict that they would be in a position where Layman is probably the difference between them being in the luxury tax or not heading into next season. The T’Wolves have designs on getting better next year, perhaps with a trade or signings of some sort. Layman is just one of several underperforming wings on their roster who dealt with some injury issues but may have some better performances in there somewhere. It’s unlikely that he ever has a role in Minnesota again based on where they are heading.
At 6’8”, Layman would provide a different option at backup forward than one of Vlatko Čančar or Bol Bol. While the aforementioned forwards are more power forwards being pigeonholed into a smaller position, Layman has the frame, athleticism, shooting, and handling capable to at least give Denver a better regular season option. The Nuggets should be all about trying to balance out the roster the best they can, and adding more players in the 6’5” to 6’8” range that can shoot makes sense. Layman is only really a shooter in theory, but he’s a great slasher and cutter from the wing. Those traits could be helpful to the Nuggets.
Dorian Finney-Smith — Dallas Mavericks, $4.0 million
This one is a bit of a pipe dream, but Dorian Finney-Smith would be a great fit for the Nuggets. He’s 6’7”, athletic, and spends most of his time guarding players like LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard when the Mavericks face other teams with great wings. He’s valuable to them; however, if they’re looking to free up cap space for free agents, he’s one of the salaries they might be willing to give up in the right circumstance, especially if they can’t free up money in other ways.
Fo the Nuggets, Finney-Smith would immediately be their best wing defender, even over Aaron Gordon. Adding him to a rotation that already includes Gordon and P.J. Dozier gives Denver significant potential for switch-ability on defense. They could also go big or small around their primary scoring options, adding to the versatility of the roster in a major way. In addition, Finney-Smith shot 39.4% from three last year. He’d be great.
Willlie Cauley-Stein — Dallas Mavericks, $4.1 million
Another more realistic salary of the Dallas Mavericks comes from Willie Cauley-Stein, an athletic, rim running center who would be a good option for a Nuggets team potentially trying to replace members of their backup frontcourt. The Mavericks have plenty of big man options, including re-signing Boban Marjanovic, that might be more appealing to them than Cauley-Stein.
The Nuggets could certainly use a more stable backup center option this year. Jokić averaged the most minutes per game (34.6) of his career last year, and the Nuggets could stand to find a center who helps them a bit more than Isaiah Hartenstein or JaVale McGee did last year. It remains to be seen if Cauley-Stein could be that guy, but he’s a decent option, especially if McGee isn’t interested in returning.
Marc Gasol — Los Angeles Lakers, $2.7 million
It doesn’t appear that the season of Marc Gasol with the Lakers went super smoothly last year. They signed Montrezl Harrell to be his primary backup, brought in Andre Drummond during the middle of the year, and ultimately knew that Anthony Davis would slide to center in the most important moments. Now, Gasol is set to be paid another $2.7 million, but it remains to be seen if the Lakers are going to target someone new at center or retain him to be their guy. In addition, the Lakers have significant luxury tax concerns, and they probably aren’t going to pay the bill for the sake of paying it. Perhaps if Gasol isn’t in their plans, they might decide to move him anyway.
Like with Cauley-Stein above, the Nuggets could use a stable backup center. Gasol would provide a drastically different skill set than most backups, but he would actually be a great stylistic fit for what the Nuggets like to do with Jokić for most of the game. Gasol would offer a great facsimile of Jokić, potentially even teaching the MVP some things defensively, and his presence might be a boost to Jokić for a number of reasons. A 15 minute per game backup role for Gasol would be a great way for the Nuggets to use this TPE.
Kevon Looney — Golden State Warriors, $5.2 million
The Golden State Warriors are staring at another gargantuan tax bill. They are already up over $160 million in committed salary, and at that level in the repeater tax, they are going to spend BANK just to field their roster. Kevon Looney, their other starting center option beyond second overall pick James Wiseman, is set to make $5.2 million. Don’t ask me to tell you what that equates to in luxury tax money because I might not be able to count that high. Looney is a good player, but if Wiseman takes a step forward and Draymond Green still slides to backup center, the need for him may be lessened going forward.
The Nuggets could certainly use a defensive center like Looney, who is a very good positional playmaker and defender. He’s probably better than McGee, and he would give the Nuggets another good defender to add to their rotation to improve the overall defense as much as possible going forward. He’s also only 25 years old, meaning there’s probably still some development left to go.
Hopefully, these trade targets give Nuggets fans some perspective on how they could potentially add to their team in creative ways that don’t include just signing free agents or drafting at 26th overall this year.
The Nuggets currently have just under $31.4 million in projected space below the luxury tax that they could look to divvy between several players. If they re-sign Barton and Green to contracts that start at $12 million and $7 million respectively, that means the Nuggets would have roughly $12.4 million to spend below the luxury tax between their $9.5 million MLE and this $5.3 million TPE. There are ways they can get creative in adding to their roster, and if the Nuggets came out of this free agency period having done, for example, re-signing Barton and Green, adding Reggie Bullock on the MLE, and acquiring Gasol on the TPE, that would be pretty impressive and offer plenty of confidence that the Nuggets can compete for a title next year.
Or, the Nuggets could let the TPE expire on August 6th, and this 3,200 word article written on a Friday night would be just for funsies. Such is life projecting the NBA offseason.