110409-wark_mediumThe Nuggets substantial trade exception – worth about $7.4 million – expired yesterday without so much as a whimper, so you can erase your hopes of a center like Marc Gasol or Jeff Foster wearing a Nuggets uniform anytime soon. Is this a good thing?

Two weeks ago, Nuggets vice president of basketball operations Mark Warkentien was quoted as saying “If we get stuck, Big Bertha’s coming out”, referring to the Nuggets $9.8 million trade exception that the team took back in the Allen Iverson-for-Chauncey Billups trade last November 3rd. At the time, I wrote that the chances of Warkentien using the trade exception to bring back a high-priced, talented big man was beyond slim given that the Nuggets clearly remain in “financial prudence” mode, and that appears to still be the case.

As great as the Nuggets are playing right now – and they are playing great, make no mistake about it – it’s indisputable that a legitimate center would help the cause in the long run. Four games into the young season, the Nuggets are a middle-of-the-pack rebounding team (not last in the NBA as Chris Marlowe erroneously reported during last night’s Altitude telecast) and the Nuggets power forward-turned-center Nene still struggles a bit against much bigger players, as we saw against a gigantic Stiff like Roy Hibbert last night.

But given how well the Nuggets are playing, I question if such a move is as necessary as I thought it was over the summer when I strongly advocated for the Nuggets to acquire Gasol, Foster or even Zydrunas Ilgauskas or Marcus Camby, and take on the additional luxury tax costs that come with those deals. Yes, that Marcus Camby.

Perhaps the story of this season will be written in praise of continuity over change, but only time will tell. Nuggets head coach George Karl had a great quote during the ESPN telecast of the Trail Blazers game last week when asked about the Nuggets making no big moves over the summer. Karl cleverly retorted that he actually had three new players on board entering the 2009-10 campaign; an MVP candidate in Carmelo Anthony, an All-Star center in Nene and an All-Star shooting guard in J.R. Smith. I loved that quote and there’s certainly something to be said about drastic changes that can go awry (see Cavaliers, Cleveland or Trail Blazers, Portland thus far). But it’s still a big gamble to assume Nene and J.R. will suddenly evolve into All-Stars and carry the Nuggets to the promised land of an NBA title.

As the season wears on and teams become more financially desperate, a can't-miss-deal could conceivably fall into the Nuggets lap.  Moreover, there's a big difference between paying a high-priced big man for an entire season versus a half season, and we can only hope that the Nuggets brass are amenable to pulling the trigger down the road if the opportunity presents itself. 

That said, the Nuggets remaining trade exceptions of about $3.2 million (thanks, Chucky Atkins) and $3.7 million (ditto, Steven Hunter) don’t give them the wiggle room required to steal Jeff Foster from what’s sure to be a cash-strapped Pacers franchise (I mean, did you see how empty that barn in Indiana was last night?…wow) unless two other players are thrown in to make the money work, like Renaldo Balkman and Malik Allen. Not exactly “Pacers material.” If only the Nuggets had a white guy getting paid about $3 million right now, a deal for Foster could be a slam dunk. And getting a guy like Gasol? Fuggedaboutit. Even though Memphis is guaranteed to be in dire straits financially, they’re still not giving away an 18/10 guy who’s paid just $3 million (still very cheap by NBA standards).

So as "Big Bertha" stays in the bag the reality of a season sans a legit center starts settling in.  But if Warkentien and the Nuggets brass can somehow swing a deal for a big man with one of those other two trade exceptions, Warkentien just might win a second straight executive of the year award.


Photo courtesy of AP: Jack Dempsey.