After coming up one spot short of making the playoffs – again – the Denver Nuggets head into the offseason with some things in place and some to figure out. So what are the five things the Nuggets need to figure out this offseason? Here are my five keys:

1 ) Decide what to do with Nikola Jokic’s contract

The Nuggets can go one of two ways with Jokic. They can either decline the last year of his current rookie deal, thus making him a restricted free agent and keeping their right to match any offer while also offer the most money and years he can get (which should be 5 years and $148 million, if my math and understanding of the CBA is right). Whatever the final figure winds up at, it’s a vast sum of wealth that will set him and his family up for life, and for the lives of their children if managed correctly. Denver’s other option is to pay the last year on Jokic’s deal, make him play out a fourth year while making less money than Denver’s 2017 non-lottery pick Tyler Lydon, and let him become an unrestricted free agent after the 2018-19 season.

That second option would require a lot of trust from both parties. Jokic would need to stay healthy while looking for his big payday, which might make him reluctant to risk injury giving big minutes on both ends of the court. It would also require him to still choose Denver because they can pay him the most, even though they just stole 23+ million dollars out of his pocket. Allowing other teams to sweet-talk Jokic’s agent seems like a terrible idea, but there would be roster reasons to consider it (like the need to add another max player now). I would pay Jokic his max in a hot second this offseason without thinking twice, but this is an incredibly crucial decision with franchise-shaking repercussions if the Nuggets play it incorrectly.

2) Address the roster imbalance

Denver had five shooting guards on the roster to end the season and no true point guards. Devin Harris brought a bit of nice touch off the bench but the assists-per-100-possessions drop from 28 with Jokic on the floor to 23.4 without him. Jokic was off the court for 40% of Denver’s possessions this year (either resting or injured) – Denver cannot afford to have the offense tank the second he sits down. He played 38+ minutes in 6 of Denver’s final 8 games after doing it just once the rest of the season, because every minute he rested was a minute Denver lost ground. That can’t happen next year.

The Nuggets also have no true small forward (unless Wilson Chandler opts in, or they erroneously believe Juancho Hernangomez is one). Their swingman, Will Barton, is also a free agent. He played the most minutes for Denver this year. They do have a glut of power forwards, with Hernangomez, Kenneth Faried, Trey Lyles, Tyler Lydon, Darrell Arthur (who will almost certainly opt in) and even Mason Plumlee available for backup minutes behind Paul Millsap. Denver could have fixed that on draft day last year, or over the summer, or at the trade deadline, but instead they are reaching yet another offseason where the lineup is too thin at some positions and far too deep at others.

And since their best defender, Torrey Craig, is also now a free agent the Nuggets have some work to do not only to re-organize the roster but to add players who can shore up that weakness too.

3) Determine coach Michael Malone’s fate

Malone is a defensive-minded coach on an offensive-minded team, which makes the fit a bit of a problem. Denver’s best offensive performances happen when Malone does less, by his own admission. Denver’s defense has never been better than 24th during his tenure, and he’s missed the playoffs with a playoff-worthy squad each of the last two years. You’d think that might be reason enough for his dismissal.

But it’s hard to fire a coach whose job in player development has been terrific. Not every team is getting exponential growth every season from its drafted players, Emmanuel Mudiay aside. With Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris all looking like future All-Stars who can all play together, the credit has to go somewhere. Malone keeps improving his win totals, and this year’s would have been plenty to get into last year’s playoffs. Malone has flaws as a coach, but most of his likely replacements have similar ones. Do the Nuggets want to break in an assistant and hope he’s a faster learner? Will that assistant get along with the star players, or would it be a situation like David Fizdale with the Memphis Grizzlies?

Based on the available data, Denver has paid on the low side for both the head coach and the staff the last several years. It’s understandable, given that they were paying off the salaries for both the fired George Karl and Brian Shaw. But if Malone is retained for the final year of his contract or even extended then it would be nice to get him some well-paid assistants who can better help with both sides of the ball. And if he is not retained then Denver may have to spend more to get a better coach, because good ones aren’t just laying about. Whichever way they go, this is another huge decision point for the next few years of this franchise – and for the majority of Jokic’s guaranteed time with the Nuggets.

4) Try not to trade out of a future all-star in the draft in order to still miss out on a better team fit because your former GM outsmarted you

Just saying. That would be really helpful.

5) Pony up

I mentioned this before in the Malone section, but it bears repeating: the time has come for ownership to invest in this team. As Dan laid out when the Nuggets extended Gary Harris, Denver is about to be squeezed by the salary cap with Jokic’s max deal and another large one for Jamal Murray on the way. The Kroenkes will either need to be prepared to pay that, or to make tough choices about the roster. Hopefully they don’t pull an Oklahoma City Thunder and send away a future Hall of Famer because of a couple million bucks.

But it’s more than just a willingness to spend on player salary that will define not just this offseason but several seasons to come. The Nuggets need to get on an even playing field with the rest of the league. Several teams are either building or have built massive (and expensive) training facilities, while the Nuggets have announced nothing. The NBA is trying to get all 30 NBA teams to own their own G League team – Denver is one of four without one, and one of two without any announced plans to get one. The Warriors are paying assistant coaches approximately what Malone is getting, because they want to be the best. Other teams are spending big on analytics and shot doctors and real doctors. The Nuggets haven’t yet make those sorts of massive investments, instead waiting for the right moment.

Only the Kroenkes can say what they want Denver to be, but if they want them to compete with the best then it’s time to put the money where the mouth is. Denver has paid the salary tax before, and have paid a big-money coach before. There’s no reason to think they won’t do it again. But the Nuggets got lucky by finding their team centerpiece in the second round. They got lucky with Gary Harris and Jamal Murray falling lower than they should have. Luck is a great start, but turning luck into sustained success takes skill, and investment.

Denver needs both to succeed this offseason, and to carry that success into the playoffs next year.

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