It’s been a busy month for the Denver Nuggets. Between the draft, Summer League and free agency the Nuggets took on the long-delayed work of removing roster dead weight and increasing the upside and long-term viability of the team. Hopefully Tim Connelly and Arturas Karnisovas have some vacation time saved up to use soon – they’ve earned a small break. So now that the team’s plan has come into focus (while acknowledging they may still not be done) let’s recap the different pieces of this offseason.  

1) They swung hard at upside. With a lot of speculation out there that Denver would feel financially obligated to get out from under the financial weight of previous contracts and non-trades by dumping this year’s first rounder, the Nuggets instead took a chance on the biggest risk/reward player in the draft, Michael Porter Jr. A healthy Porter (or one that was allowed to go straight to the NBA from high school) might have been the #1 pick in either of the last 2 drafts – and those were regarded as pretty deep drafts. He is a risk (as is Jarred Vanderbilt, whose foot injury dropped him from potential late lottery into the second round) but Denver took the risky players with the high ceilings instead of the safe roleplayer types.

Most importantly, they didn’t give up on this draft, trusting they could still make the necessary deals later. There were bold options available and Denver snatched them up. And now with the Isaiah Thomas deal they added a former All Star with huge scoring punch in a tiny frame to help bolster a bench that is likely losing Will Barton to the starting lineup. If it works it could pay off massively, and if it doesn’t they didn’t give up anything to take that chance. The theme of this offseason is definitely upside.

2) They made the necessary deals later. Wilson Chandler and Darrell Arthur both picked up their players options for this year, and instead of panicking the Nuggets calmly moved them in July. They finally agreed to move a top-12 protected first rounder to get off of Faried’s salary but were able to lump Arthur in to allow for some more roster flexibility. The first rounder they gave up should be well outside the lottery if things go well, in a draft that is expected to be far less deep than this year’s. The pick might only be a few spots later, but keeping this year’s pick and moving the traded pick to next year could pay off big time.

Chandler went for some second-round draft pick accounting, and second-rounders are pretty available for the right price if Denver wants one back in the future. Staying out of the tax and saving approximately 90 million dollars this offseason is good for Denver’s bottom line (not really a fan’s main concern) but it’s also good for calling in ownership favors later when it’s time to pay to retain or upgrade this team in a key moment. If Denver fan are lucky, this is a Get Out Of Jail Free card for Tim Connelly’s back pocket, to be wisely used at a key moment in the next couple of seasons. It also gives them the necessary roster spots for all of their young players now, as well as access to large trade exceptions and $2.5 million of their Tax Mid-Level Exception (per Jeff Siegel’s legwork).

Denver could have waited. They have waited patiently for the deadline to come every year, and every year they have failed to find a deal that worked for them. Danilo Gallinari could not be traded, Wilson Chandler could not be traded, and Kenneth Faried could not be traded. Denver found deals that would clear the salary without costing them a fortune in players or picks and they took them. Taking the bird in the hand instead of beating the bush fruitlessly at yet another deadline is a good thing.

3) They locked up their culture. Denver handed Nikola Jokic and Will Barton contracts worth a combined $200 million this summer. They gave that money to the passing savant with a unicorn skillset and the hardest working guard they could find, who dragged himself from the 40th pick in the draft buried behind first round stars all the way to a presumed starting role on a playoff-caliber team. Barton’s self belief and work ethic are exactly the sort of things you want him to role model for Denver’s most recent picks to continue building that talent chain.

With Denver still not being any kind of free agent destination, internal replacements are the best option for long-term success. Jokic’s delight in passing the ball and setting up others is also contagious, a culture shift away from isolation tactics and toward the future. If Denver bet big on young talent with upside this year in the draft, they also bet big on showing those young players just what Mile High Basketball is supposed to look like – and showing them that you will get paid if you follow that lead.

4) They have backup plans for their backup plans. Denver currently has Trey Lyles and Juancho Hernangomez competing for stretch big minutes. They also showed in Summer League that Tyler Lydon and Vlatko Cancar are waiting in the wings for their shot. Monte Morris is still under contract if it doesn’t work out with Isaiah Thomas, or even if it does. Jamal Murray and Gary Harris can each play the other’s role with the team, and even in thin areas (wing defense, small forward minutes) there is youth just waiting to get healthy and take their shot at it.

There are still roster weaknesses. There is only one Jokic, for instance, and attempting a lesser version of his passing acumen with Plumlee has not worked to any degree. Not having a true veteran small forward on a roster still packed with power forward types (despite just trading three of them) is also a concern. But teams should hub around their stars, and there are few teams with no weaknesses. Denver has done what it can to shore up areas that hurt them last year and to retain important talent while allowing for internal growth. That’s not a bad checklist to cross off for one summer.

This Nuggets team is prepared now for a playoff appearance and to continue to grow and morph into something more as time goes by. Rotation spots can be shored up by players like Cancar and Morris in case of injury or trade. If the bets on the new draft picks pay off the team’s ceiling gets a huge boost in the long run, while a player like Isaiah Thomas could give them a one year boost in the meantime. And Denver has some core certainty now with Jokic, Harris and Barton all tied up long-term.

The front office had a lot of items to check off this summer and showed quite a bit of flexibility in addressing most of those items. So far it feels like a very successful summer. Unfortunately now we’ll have to wait for the fall to see the plan play out, but this team is making sure it’ll be worth the wait.

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