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Stiffs Mailbag: Free Agency questions, biggest Nuggets targets

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Answering Twitter questions from Stiffs readers

New Orleans Pelicans v Denver Nuggets Photo by C. Morgan Engel/Getty Images

This is the 2021 Denver Stiffs free agency mailbag, filled with questions and answers about various free agents, trade possibilities, and other Denver Nuggets related scenarios. Some of these conversation points are hypothetical while others are legitimate answers. Please make sure to note the difference!

Let’s get into the questions at hand:


It’s probably important to establish who the big names are on the market this year in order to properly answer this question.

Kawhi Leonard just opted out of his contract with the Los Angeles Clippers and will reportedly listen to the free agency pitches of other teams before ultimately making a decision. He will certainly command max money, which starts at 35% of the salary cap for a player with his experience in the league. The Nuggets would have to clear over $39 million under the salary cap in order to sign Leonard. That means that the Nuggets would have to get rid of basically everyone on the roster outside of Nikola Jokić, Jamal Murray, and Michael Porter Jr. to legally consummate the trade. They couldn’t even keep Aaron Gordon or Monte Morris, and though that might not be an issue if you have Leonard, it would be insanely difficult to figure out. Let’s not worry about that proposition.

Some of the other top names are on the point guard market. Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, and Mike Conley are all potential movers, as well as Lonzo Ball and Spencer Dinwiddie. There’s no doubt that the Nuggets could figure out how to be successful with any of those players, but the same financial concerns would be out there. It would require (likely) sacrificing at least Morris and maybe Gordon instead, something I don’t think the Nuggets are interested in doing.

The final two names are playmaking wing DeMar DeRozan and versatile big man John Collins, who is restricted. I doubt the Nuggets are interested in DeRozan at the price DeRozan expects, and the fit of Collins on Denver’s roster is bad with Porter and Gordon already in tow.

In reality, the Nuggets just aren’t a great fit for any of the top free agents this year. They don’t have a major departure at a star position, and they have financial limitations because their core is already established and really good. I wouldn’t concern myself with the top names on the market if I were a Nuggets fan, Instead, focus on adding the right supporting pieces to make the team the best it can be with Jokić, Murray, and Porter at the helm.

So, the actual math for the Nuggets in trying to add Lonzo Ball depends on what the Nuggets are willing to forfeit in order to bring Ball onto the roster. It’s expected that Lonzo will receive offers north of $20 million per year, so the Nuggets would have to clear their books enough to get under the expected salary cap number. In order to do so, the Nuggets would have to do a number of things:

  • Renounce all seven free agent cap holds on the roster, including Will Barton, JaMychal Green, and others
  • Cut Vlatko Čančar to prevent his $1.8 million of 2021-22 salary from guaranteeing
  • Trade Monte Morris, P.J. Dozier, and Bol Bol and their combined roughly $13 million in salary
  • Sign Lonzo Ball to any salary up to roughly $21.5 million, meaning Denver could offer at maximum a projected four-year, $92.6 million contract

Doing all of this would leave Denver with a roster of Jokić, Murray, Porter, Gordon, Lonzo, Facundo Campazzo, Zeke Nnaji, and Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland. They would have access to the “Room” exception of roughly $4.9 million as well as their traded player exception (TPE) of roughly $5.3 million. After that, they would only have minimum contracts to fill out their roster. So, it can be done. Technically.

A mock salary cap sheet of what signing Lonzo Ball would entail.

If you’re the Nuggets, you have to weigh the collective value of Will Barton, JaMychal Green, and the rest of the free agent cap holds, as well as the value of players lost to facilitate the deal in Monte Morris, P.J. Dozier, Bol Bol, and Vlatko Čančar to see if acquiring Lonzo is truly worth it. I’d put the odds at the Nuggets weighing Lonzo that high of being...low, especially with Murray out for a significant period of time.

Oh, and Bobby Portis would be a fine fit in Denver, though I don’t recommend Denver using their MLE (the only avenue for outside improvement) on a backup big man.

The Nuggets defense is in line for an improvement this season if they can make the right adjustments. A full season of Aaron Gordon is a great start, and a full season of P.J. Dozier rather than an injury plagued year would go a long way as well. Gordon played in 25 of Denver’s 72 games while Dozier made it to 50 in a bench role. Those two could help Denver toward significant improvement on their own.

Beyond them though, it’s important to have other options throughout the season that Michael Malone and the Nuggets can trust. Adding an additional wing defender either via free agency or trade would help connect the Nuggets in both the starting and bench units. I’ve long thought players like Reggie Bullock, Josh Hart, and Kelly Oubre would be helpful in that regard.

In addition, figuring out a good defensive solution for when Nikola Jokić sits will continue to help Denver as well. The Nuggets were good defensively when Jokić was off the floor last year, and adding to that success would be very helpful in marginal improvements. Whether it’s JaMychal Green, JaVale McGee, Zeke Nnaji playing center, or something else, the Nuggets must find a tenable solution.

I’m not sure why the defense would be worse this year than in years prior. The Nuggets know that without Jamal Murray would a significant portion of next season, they will need to do more than just outscore teams but rather prevent the opposition from scoring, Gordon being integrated and Dozier being healthy will help things organically. Denver will need another one or two good individual and/or team defenders to add to the mix, and there’s no reason to think that they can’t figure it out.

Wes Unseld Jr. was a very good coach in Denver and was the one who was in charge of the defense among Denver’s assistants. He wasn’t the only one who knew how to coach defense though, and the Nuggets will find a way to replace him. They will add assistant Popeye Jones to the mix, and whether he or someone else is in charge of the defense, it’s mostly about getting players to play hard and play together. That’s the key.


Gosh I hope so. There aren’t that many true small forwards available. I mentioned Kelly Oubre, Reggie Bullock, and Tony Snell in the latest Pickaxe and Roll episode. Lesser names like Justise Winslow and Isaac Bonga were discussed as well. Troy Brown Jr. and Danuel House were discussed as options for the $5.3 million TPE.

There are definitely players out there that are worth it, and with how small the Nuggets are in the backcourt at this point, it’s important to have at least one option with versatile size at about 6’7” or so. Denver’s shorter options struggle to guard up a position, and Denver’s taller options struggle to guard down a position. It’s time for the Nuggets to balance out this roster a bit to cover all their bases.

I think it still depends on what happens with Barton. If Barton decides to take off, then the Nuggets are going to be left scrambling for a starting shooting guard unless they trust P.J. Dozier to shoulder that burden. If Barton leaves, then Denver’s guard rotation looks like Morris and Dozier as starters with Campazzo and Hyland as backups while Murray continues to recover. That’s probably not enough scoring from the backcourt, and Denver lose several games because their backcourt combines for under 30 points consistently.

I could see the Nuggets taking a look at Malik Monk if they lost out on Barton. He certainly doesn’t help the defense, but he’d be an older version of what the Nuggets are hoping Bones Hyland will soon become, and Monk would be ready and able to do it sooner, having averaged 11.7 points per game and shooting 40.1% from three on 5.0 attempts per game. Perhaps the Hornets would be willing to agree to a sign-and-trade so Denver can use their TPE rather than spending their MLE on Monk, saving their biggest tool for free agent additions for a two-way contributor instead.

It depends on what he wants. The Golden State Warriors just drafted two wings: Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody. They have Andrew Wiggins. They’re getting back Klay Thompson. They have players like Jordan Poole, Mychal Mulder, Damion Lee, and others. They may not need Oubre back on their roster, which means he’s looking at other options.

Would a cap space team use those resources on Oubre? The New York Knicks might, or they might not. Nobody really knows what the San Antonio Spurs are doing. The Dallas Mavericks and many other franchises are loading up for the point guard market instead. It’s possible that Oubre is a free agent that could be left out to dry.

The Nuggets would be able to give him a starting or sixth man role while playing next to Nikola Jokić a significant amount. He would be able to close several games, ad there would be shots available to him in Denver’s system. Would he be interested in signing for the MLE? That’s not a decision I can make for him; however, he could definitely benefit from a short term deal on a contender and then cashing out afterwards.

At this point, I think the right decision is to let Green go and have Zeke Nnaji take over his role.

The Nuggets are in a really interesting place financially. They’re not quite that expensive, but they’re about to be super expensive. Because of that, choices have to be made about where to best allocate resources. We just saw the Utah Jazz run into this problem with Derrick Favors, a solid big man who filled too niche of a role (9th man) for the salary he was being paid. Despite having two more years left on his contract, the Jazz salary dumped him to the Oklahoma City Thunder for a future first round pick.

If the Nuggets play their cards right with their rotation and the development of the young players, Green is about to be the 9th man on the roster behind five starters, Morris, Nnaji, and either Dozier or another addition on the wing. Paying Green to fill a 15 minute per game role when both Gordon and Porter can spend time at power forward in rotation feels like a misallocation of resources. I’d rather see the Nuggets devote that extra money to another wing (or the retaining of Dozier) and see what Nnaji can do than pay Green to play (at max) 20 minutes. Because even if it’s not Nnaji, it could be Vlatko Čančar, or Bol Bol, or maybe someone else that isn’t here yet.

Marcus Smart would be awesome. Adding him to a lineup featuring Murray, Porter, Gordon, and Jokić would be ideal for Denver’s chances of improving their defense to championship levels. The problem is, the Boston Celtics agree. They know how value Smart is, as he has been with the organization for seven years. Still, they’ve added Josh Richardson and Kris Dunn to their roster. They might still try to retain Evan Fournier as well. Perhaps Marcus Smart is actually gettable in a trade, though it would likely take Monte Morris and Zeke Nnaji in order for the Celtics to consider making a move.

Is that move a good one for Denver? Probably. Denver would struggle a bit offensively without Morris there, but if they re-signed Barton and started those two next to Porter, Gordon, and Jokić, Denver would still be really good until Murray got back. At that point, they might even be great. The positional size and switchability on defense would be fun to watch for sure.

It’s a fun idea to think about. I probably wouldn’t get my hopes up too high though, given that Smart is the longest tenured member of the Celtics. They won’t be trading him unless it makes the utmost sense to do so, and moving him for a package that probably makes them worse in the short term probably won’t sit well with the Celtics at all.

  1. Michael Porter Jr. five-year max extension
  2. Will Barton re-signs to a reasonable three-year deal
  3. Nuggets let JaMychal Green and Paul Millsap walk
  4. JaVale McGee re-signs to cheaper two-year deal
  5. Nuggets let Austin Rivers, Shaq Harrison, and Markus Howard walk
  6. Nuggets trade Bol Bol to Chicago Bulls for Troy Brown Jr. using their TPE
  7. Nuggets sign Nicolas Batum to three-year deal using their MLE
  8. Nuggets sign Willy Hernangomez to one year vet minimum
  9. Nuggets sign two-way at point guard and two-way at small forward

Mock Depth Chart

  • Guards: Murray, Morris, Campazzo, Bones, Two-Way
  • Wings: Barton, Dozier, Brown
  • Forwards: Porter, Gordon, Batum, Čančar, Two-Way
  • Bigs: Jokić, Nnaji, McGee, Hernangomez

That’s a championship caliber squad in my humble opinion.