As the Denver Nuggets and the rest of the NBA approach Thursday’s NBA trade deadline, the rumors and reports are starting to pile up. The Los Angeles Clippers acquired Norman Powell and Robert Covington from the Portland Trail Blazers. The Cleveland Cavaliers acquired Caris LeVert from the Indiana Pacers. Teams across the league are evaluating their chances at a championship this season and making decisions accordingly. Buyers are talking about buying. Sellers are talking about selling. The Sacramento Kings are...well, they’re doing what the Kings usually do.
For the Nuggets, to be 29-24 at this stage of the season given the injuries they’ve faced is fairly impressive. Nikola Jokić has put together a historic season, independent of MVP narratives, and the work of Aaron Gordon, Will Barton, Monte Morris, and Jeff Green throughout various parts of the season has helped Denver keep above the play-in threshold in the Western Conference. The Minnesota Timberwolves are nipping at Denver’s heels a bit at 28-25, but the Nuggets are still in control of their own destiny. They’ve played well enough during the first 53 games to position themselves for a playoff run.
Whether that playoff run happens or not is certainly more dependent on the healthy returns of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. before the season. As was proved in the playoffs at the highest level last year, playing the Phoenix Suns without their star point guard put a firm ceiling on Denver’s capabilities. No player the Nuggets can add this year will change that reality. It’s why the Nuggets are so cautious with both Murray and Porter. They know how important those two are to the present and future of the organization.
Still, there are ways the Nuggets may look to improve while they still have an opportunity. Denver has an MVP candidate and an elite supporting cast when healthy. There are just a couple of pieces missing from a prospective championship run: a potent 3&D wing and a quality backup center. Every other position, in theory, is taken care of. The starting lineup is one of the best in the NBA (again, when healthy). The bench unit will be captained by Monte Morris when Murray returns. Either Porter or Uncle Jeff will slide to the second unit to provide another reliable forward, and Zeke Nnaji has played well enough to be trusted with some playoff minutes as well. That leaves a true wing off the bench and a true center.
Let’s discuss some of the names rumored to be available at the deadline for the right price that could potentially fill those roles for the Nuggets going forward:
Nerlens Noel — Center, New York Knicks
The New York Knicks are one of the biggest disappointments in the NBA this year. Their record hasn’t progressed the way they hoped, and their two biggest additions—Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker—have performed poorly for the majority of the year. In addition, Julius Randle has regressed, leaving the Knicks with major questions about the contention window of their team.
With that in mind, the Nuggets should target Nerlens Noel, perhaps the best rim rolling big man on the trade market. Noel’s usage rate has been fairly low in New York, but he’s still maintaining 59.6% true shooting, a 2.7% steal rate, and a 5.7% block rate, the only player in the NBA to do so. His defensive activity makes up for offensive deficiencies, and he’d be ideal to solidify the bench center minutes for any contender.
If the Nuggets could acquire that level of player for matching salary and the cost of a second round pick, they should absolutely make it happen.
Thomas Bryant — Center, Washington Wizards
The Washington Wizards have also been disappointing after roaring out to an incredible start. The defense has regressed in a big way, and the offense never got off the ground. Thomas Bryant can’t be blamed for the struggles either. He’s returning from a major injury and joining a center rotation also held by Daniel Gafford and Montrezl Harrell. The Wizards also have Kyle Kuzma, Deni Avdija, Davis Bertans, and Rui Hachimura in their prospective frontcourt. There are too many players and not enough wins.
Bryant has played just 10 games, and though he hasn’t been great, he’s generally a hyper efficient roll man with good touch and rebounding production. He’s not a good defender, but he would assist Denver’s bench offense in a major way.
Bryant is on an expiring contract and will be a free agent at the end of the season. The Wizards just paid Gafford and are already rumored to be looking for upgrades to keep Bradley Beal intrigued. The Nuggets have major connections to the Wizards staff with Tommy Shepherd, Wes Unseld Jr., Tim Connelly, and Michael Malone all interwoven. There’s probably a deal that can be had here to held the Nuggets out while perhaps facilitating a larger move for the Wizards.
Alex Len — Center, Sacramento Kings
Alex Len is a classic trade candidate as a backup center playing for a bad Sacramento Kings team. The Kings are in 13th in the West, already have a starting center in Richaun Holmes, and they have some younger bigs in Neemias Queta, Damian Jones, and Chimezie Metu that should absolutely play down the stretch. Len is better than those guys, but he hasn’t moved the needle, leaving him as a clear trade option.
The Nuggets have seen a big bodied player in DeMarcus Cousins succeed for their second unit despite not putting up good individual shooting numbers, which is proof of concept that another big body might help out too. There’s no doubt that Len, who’s averaging a career high assist rate, could be better in a change of scenery. Even if he isn’t, he gives the Nuggets another option for the rest of the regular season as a cheap backup.
Jalen Smith — Center, Phoenix Suns
According to Matt Moore of the Action Network, the Suns continue to receive calls for second year big man Jalen Smith, including from the Denver Nuggets. Smith has had difficult injury luck since entering the league as the 10th overall pick of the 2020 draft, and it’s been made more difficult by the fact that the Suns are so damn good. With Deandre Ayton, JaVale McGee, and now Bismack freaking Biyombo playing well at the center spots, the Suns haven’t had legitimate time to develop Smith and seem comfortable utilizing him as a trade chip to get better. It’s more likely the Suns put together a package of players that includes Smith to acquire a rotation upgrade rather than just moving him for a draft pick though.
And yet! Teams are still calling, and for good reason. Smith is a talented prospect, with shooting talent, athleticism, physicality, and good coordination of movement for a player his size. He’s still 21 years old, and if he finds the right situation, he will flourish. The Nuggets may or may not be that situation, but they’ve made their interest clear, both at the 2020 draft and during this trade deadline. There’s definitely a question of whether the Nuggets would be willing to part with something the Suns are actually interested in, but don’t be surprised to see Smith moved at the deadline. If the Nuggets want to be the buyer, they will have to pony up, given the interest surrounding Stix.
Robin Lopez — Center, Orlando Magic
Robin Lopez is the prototypical backup center. He’s a big body, smart, protects the paint reasonably well, and rebounds his position. He can make hook shots in the paint at Jokić levels, and that’s a foundational offensive skill that could be very helpful for a second unit.
Lopez hasn’t been playing a ton of minutes with the Orlando Magic due to the presence of Wendell Carter Jr., Mo Bamba, and Moritz Wagner. The Magic are really bad, and they seem willing to trade veterans at the deadline, Lopez may not be the player he was with the Chicago Bulls, but his game has aged well, and he’s passing the ball better than ever before. The Nuggets might decide they’d prefer to wait for the buyout market for Robin, but it might be worth the wait.
Garrett Temple — Wing, New Orleans Pelicans
Transitioning away from centers, the New Orleans Pelicans seem to be more interested in becoming buyers now that they’re playing well again. They’ve been a rumored destination for CJ McCollum, and while trading away Temple seems incongruent with the idea of acquiring more veterans for a playoff run, Temple has had a massively negative effect of the Pelicans plus-minus this year. For whatever reason, it hasn’t worked for Temple in New Orleans. Perhaps it would work better in Denver?
Temple might be perhaps the least sexy trade deadline addition the Nuggets could make, but there’s a strong possibility that he could make a defensive impact on the wing for the Nuggets at some point or another. He’s 6’5” and often matches up with other star perimeter players. He has plenty of playoff experience, and he might simply be a good addition to the Nuggets bench that doesn’t play all the time. Between Bryn Forbes, Austin Rivers, and Garrett Temple, the Nuggets would have a veteran bench wing for just about any situation.
It’s not a “wow” move, but if it helps the team become more viable against playoff opponents, then it’s worth considering.
Justin Holiday — Wing, Indiana Pacers
Perhaps no player on the trade market makes more logical sense for the Nuggets as a deadline addition than Justin Holiday. The Pacers are selling the farm and have already traded Caris LeVert. Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner could be next. Holiday is a piece that would make any contender happy because he fills a niche role that is so valuable in every playoff series: 3&D bench wing. Holiday is shooting 37.8% from three-point range this season, and for the past two seasons, he has often been tasked with stopping the opposing team’s best perimeter player. The Pacers weren’t able to make it work, but Holiday certainly wasn’t the issue.
For the Nuggets, one of the stipulations for Michael Malone in trades is to continue to be forward thinking, and Holiday makes plenty of sense for the Nuggets because he’s under contract for both this year and next year at around $6 million per season. Even if Murray and Porter aren’t back to full strength by the end of the season, Holiday is a plug-and-play piece for next season at about 20 minutes per game off the bench, perhaps more.
Holiday would cost more than any of the centers in all likelihood, but he’s a player that will earn that price tag with his versatility, shooting, and defensive acumen. If the Nuggets want to have any chance to advance deep into the playoffs this year, considering Holiday is a must.
Torrey Craig — Wing, Indiana Pacers
If plans fall through for Holiday, then his teammate, former Nugget Torrey Craig, would be a strong consolation prize. Craig also makes his money by playing strong defense, and his more physical brand of 1-on-1 guarding can inhibit some of the best in the NBA at times. He’s a worse shooter than Holiday (34.1% from 3 this year, 33.3% for his career) but he’s capable enough from distance to make multiple in a playoff game.
There’s no doubt that Malone and co. would love to have Torrey back in the fold, and if the price is right, the Nuggets could stand to add another perimeter defender.
Kenrich Williams — Wing, Oklahoma City Thunder
It’s no secret that the Oklahoma City Thunder are okay losing as many games as they possibly can. They’ve built an armada of draft picks, and they have an opportunity to snag one of the top prospects in the 2022 draft in a few months.
Screwing that up is Kenrich Williams, who’s a really good player facilitating passable basketball in OKC. His plus-minus on the season is +36 in 44 games in 933 minutes. When he’s off the floor? The Thunder are -368 in 1,573 total minutes. This is a team that has Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Luguentz Dort as starting guards.
Williams is everything great about nerd basketball. He shoots 36.9% from three, moves well off ball by cutting and spacing for others, makes great decisions with the ball in his hands, gets his hands in passing lanes, and defends point guards AND centers from game to game. He’s fantastic, and the Thunder know that. They’re going to want a pretty penny for him, one that the Nuggets just don’t have the ability to offer. Still, the Nuggets should make the call. He’s an obvious candidate to contribute to a playoff team on a cheap contract.
Derrick White — Guard, San Antonio Spurs
There’s only one splashy name on this list, because there’s only one splashy position for the Nuggets to fill: starting shooting guard next to Jamal Murray long term. Will Barton was signed to a two-year contract last offseason, and it’s clear the Nuggets believe in him as the fifth starter of their best five-man unit. Still, there are some major defensive concerns for the Nuggets as Murray and Porter return. Both will be coming off of long term absences, and it’s rare for players to be impactful defensively in those circumstances. Denver needs defense to come from somewhere, and it’s already coming from Aaron Gordon. Nikola Jokić is legitimately better but not a perimeter defender. Murray and Porter are going to struggle. That leaves one position.
It’s rare for a 27-year-old two-way guard to come available on the trade market, but it appears that the Spurs are willing to consider their options with White, given the presence of Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, Lonnie Walker IV, and rookie Joshua Primo in the Spurs perimeter rotation. They already moved Bryn Forbes to Denver for the purpose of opening up more playing time, and it’s possible they’re willing to go even further than that. To be clear, there have been no firm rumors on the willingness of the Spurs to make a deal, but teams are definitely calling to ask.
If there is in fact interest reciprocated, then the Nuggets should go all-in on Derrick White. White’s defensive abilities are wide ranging, from his on-ball work to his efforts in passing lanes to his rotations as a weak side shot blocker. He’s a strong enough offensive player that he can function on and off ball as well, which works well with Jamal Murray and in Denver’s offense with Nikola Jokić. The three-point shooting has dropped this year, but he’s a career 34.4% three-point shooter and should improve in a better offense.
White would be a pricy option for a trade, and he’s going to be paid roughly $17.5 million per season over the next three years. Denver would have to restructure their books and potentially reallocate some salary, parting with some players they would prefer to hold onto. Still, I believe White to be worth the trouble, a B version of the Jrue Holiday trade the Milwaukee Bucks made before winning a title last season.
Fortune favors the bold.