It’s never too early to start looking ahead.

This era of winning NBA basketball has been defined by the formula of identifying a homegrown star (Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, etc.) and setting the table to be in position to do whatever it takes to add additional star talent to the fold at the right moment in time. Tough decisions have to be made, and chances must be taken.

With that in mind, it’s paramount that Denver stays aggressive when they have the opportunity to improve, and the best time to improve on the NBA calendar is during the free agency period. Players can be drafted or acquired via trade, but rapid improvement generally comes from the addition of a free agent. The next free agency period is in July of 2019, and it so happens that Denver has the ability to create salary cap space. By declining Paul Millsap’s and Tyler Lydon’s team options, Denver could create $15 million in cap space immediately. Add in the trade of various pieces or the utilization of the stretch provision, and Denver could create enough cap space for a max contract if so desired.

So, it’s only fair to get to know the upcoming free agents this next summer.

Not all of these players should be targets for Denver come 2019, but they should all be “players to watch” this season.

The Flyers

  • Willie Cauley-Stein – Sacramento Kings
  • Nerlens Noel – Oklahoma City Thunder
  • Sindarius Thornwell – Los Angeles Clippers

The above three players fit into the idealized version of the Nuggets going forward, especially when you factor in their projected price tags. Willie Cauley-Stein has started many games for the Sacramento Kings but with Marvin Bagley, Skal Labissiere, and Harry Giles also on the roster (and cheaper), it wouldn’t surprise me if they let the Kentucky product walk. Cauley-Stein, for all his fault, is extremely mobile and long on the defensive end. The goal in bringing him in would be to capitalize on his skills as a backup to Nikola Jokic that can play alongside him in certain situations. His efficiency dropped this past year, but that was due to compromised spacing rather than his skills.

Nerlens Noel is a similar player type but more of a long shot, in part due to his reputation as a locker room distraction. He should excel in Oklahoma City this year in a hyper-focused bench role behind Steven Adams. If the Thunder can’t pay him what he’s due, then he’d be a solid fit in Denver to add more athleticism and defense to the bench unit.

I may be partial to Sindarius Thornwell since I’m a South Carolina guy but he’d be a great player to pick up on a cheap deal next year. The Clippers have Lou Williams, Avery Bradley, Jerome Robinson, Tobias Harris, and Wesley Johnson to play on the wings going forward. Thornwell provides a skill set that Denver could utilize, similarly to Torrey Craig but with a higher ceiling. He’s a smart player who plays great team defense, something Denver could always use.

Key Role Players

  • Danny Green – Toronto Raptors
  • Al-Farouq Aminu – Portland Trail Blazers
  • Jordan Bell – Golden State Warriors
  • Larry Nance Jr. – Cleveland Cavaliers
  • Malcolm Brogdon – Milwaukee Bucks
  • Spencer Dinwiddie – Brooklyn Nets
  • Reggie Bullock – Detroit Pistons

This group of players could be either a fifth starters or primary bench players going forward, so where better to start than two veterans in Danny Green and Al-Farouq Aminu? The name of the game is defense and low usage. Neither player is an excellent shooter anymore, but both would add some team defense to the equation, which Denver could definitely use. Aminu would be a cheaper alternative to Millsap, while Green would a solid short-term starter at small forward until Michael Porter Jr. or someone else was ready to take over.

Jordan Bell and Larry Nance Jr. would be young additions to Denver’s frontcourt, providing additional defense and versatility. Denver may be able to run a three man big rotation of Jokic, one of Trey Lyles, Juancho Hernangomez, Jarred Vanderbilt, or Tyler Lydon, and one of Bell or Nance Jr. long term. Michael Porter Jr. could slide up to power forward frequently in this situation, a position he may be best suited for in many situations. I don’t expect either Bell or Nance Jr. to be available, but if either Golden State or Cleveland cheap out on their young bigs, then Denver should be ready,

The Nuggets are more likely to add a cheaper replacement for Isaiah Thomas or an additional versatile wing. Brogdon, Dinwiddie, and Bullock fit the bill, and while two of the three are restricted and Dinwiddie will be in high demand, Denver should do their diligence on their situations. Brogdon fits as a combo guard who can space the floor and plays solid defense, Dinwiddie can handle the ball on bench units and defend shooting guards, and Bullock represents an elite shooter at 6’8 who can play small forward.

Quality Starters

  • Ricky Rubio – Utah Jazz
  • Darren Collison – Indiana Pacers
  • Julius Randle – New Orleans Pelicans
  • Tobias Harris – Los Angeles Clippers
  • Trevor Ariza – Phoenix Suns

This tier likely involves a replacement for a current starter. Depending on how Jamal Murray and Gary Harris respond to a playoff environment (if the Nuggets make the playoffs at all) Denver may be in a position where they need to replace one of those players and add a point guard. If the Jazz or Pacers look to acquire a point guard with a higher ceiling, Denver would be prudent to check on Rubio or Collison. Both are solid starters and would add a bit of facilitation to Denver’s offense if they were forced to trade one of Murray or Harris in a star deal. It’s only something watch out for in that situation. In all likelihood, Denver has their backcourt of the future.

Otherwise, there are some interesting starters to consider, including Julius Randle. The big man signed a two year deal with a player option to play for New Orleans, and if he warrants a deal that the Pelicans can’t afford, Denver should consider bringing him in. New Orleans may have to choose between re-signing him or Nikola Mirotic, who’s also a free agent in 2019. If they choose to let Randle walk, or Randle wants to play somewhere else where he can start games, playing in Denver would be smart. His physicality and skill level inside pair well with Jokic’s finesse and skill level on the perimeter. Denver’s offense would improve even more by having him on the floor, and he’s just 23 years old.

Last in this tier are Tobias Harris and Trevor Ariza, drastically different forwards who would fill similar roles at different price points. Harris is looking for a big pay day in free agency, and while Denver can give him the max contract is searching for, they can free up $20+ million for him. Harris, a 37% three-point shooter at 6’9 over the last four years of his career, would be an elite role player bordering on All-Star status next to Jokic, Harris, and Murray. He can handle the ball on the wing, and his only below average offensive play types last season were in transition and on hand offs, numbers that would surely change with Jokic around. Next, Trevor Ariza would be far less costly, but he’d fill a similar 4th option role in Denver’s offense. Ariza excelled spacing the floor for James Harden and CP3 pick and rolls with Clint Capela last year, and things would be similar with Jokic running DHOs with Murray and Harris. Would he sign in Denver to fill that role after taking the money to play in Phoenix? I think he would after playing in Phoenix.


  • Kevin Durant – Golden State Warriors
  • Kawhi Leonard – Toronto Raptors
  • Jimmy Butler – Minnesota Timberwolves
  • Klay Thompson – Golden State Warriors
  • Khris Middleton – Milwaukee Bucks

Finally, the stars. If one of these players becomes available, Denver must move hell and high water to acquire them. Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard are obvious players to keep an eye on, and while neither is entirely likely to sign with the Nuggets, Denver must be ready to pitch those guys as soon as possible.

The primary player in this group to think about is Jimmy Butler. The 6’7 wing has been a top-15 player in the NBA for the last four years, and long has he been a fit for what Denver is trying to accomplish. As a player in the 87th percentile for scoring efficiency on handoffs and the 77th percentile on pick and rolls, Butler fits well as a ball handler next to Jokic, pushing Murray and Harris to primarily off-ball roles. In addition, the defensive talent he offers would significantly raise Denver’s ceiling. With Butler in tow, the Nuggets are a top 3 offense and a top 20 defense guaranteed, which is good enough for 50+ wins in the West and closing in on Golden State and Houston.

Oh, and he’s having internal issues in Minnesota, has connections to the city of Denver through his friendship with Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, and he’s friends with Isaiah Thomas already…the signs are there.

If none of those three are available though, then Klay Thompson and Khris Middleton should be considered. Thompson will likely accept whatever offer Golden State can give him but if he prefers a change of scenery, his player profile fits perfectly with Jokic, who can create for him and allow Thompson more command in a DHO setting. Middleton would be very similar as a wing with facilitation skills and an excellent jump shot. Jokic would be his best friend, as Middleton’s 6’8 frame would be easy to find on cuts, spot ups, and in dribble hand-off situations.

Again, in order for Denver to maximize their potential, they have to take some risks. As currently constructed, it’s hard to ever see Denver be a top 10 defense, a mark they’d most likely have to achieve in order to compete for a championship some day. Players like Cauley-Stein, Green, Ariza, and Butler would help them toward that goal, even at the price of some assets on the team. Some of those pieces may never realize their potential unless they change teams anyway, so it’s better for the Nuggets to capitalize on their opportunity while they still have it.

Championship windows come and go sooner than we realize. Young stars with potential may end up elsewhere. Current role players may decline. Internal growth may never occur. Denver has the rare opportunity of having a consensus top 20 player in their age-23 season next year on a five-year contract. That’s the window, and if Denver can’t make something happen before that window is up, they must be prepared for Jokic to leave. Many young stars do.

Because of that, Denver has to be aggressive. Eventually, they will be faced with some decisions that they’d rather not make. Harris may need to be traded. Porter may need to be traded before his potential is realized. Denver may have to sign a player to a larger contract than they would normally receive. If they choose to play it safe, they will likely lose. The right situation will come, and when it does, the Nuggets must be ready to take it.

One of the above 20 players may just be that guy in 2019.

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