With a night to reflect, how does Denver’s involvement in the four-team trade reported by nearly everyone last night look in the light of day? First, let’s assume there is no follow-up deal and the Nuggets did this trade for its own sake. What does this all of this do for Denver’s roster? 

First off, to recap: Denver will send out guard Malik Beasley, forward Juancho Hernangomez, and forward Jarred Vanderbilt while getting back small forward Keita Bates-Diop, forward/center Noah Vonleh, point guard Shabazz Napier, swingman Gerald Green and Houston’s first round pick. That’s a lot of parts and doesn’t include what’s happening with other teams. This trade has more pieces and teams involved than any trade in 20 years, but for Denver specifically it does a few things.

1) It sacrifices continuity. For a team that came into this year priding itself on being one of the few squads to stand pat in the offseason and trust internal growth and the cohesion of familiarity to carry them through the ups and downs of the season, they’ve now thrown that away with 30-ish games to go.

The new players will have to get used to playing with Nikola Jokic, something that every acquisition Denver has made since Jokic’s installation as a starter has proven takes time. It doesn’t matter if you’re an All Star or a bit player, Jokic Ball is like nothing else in the league and no one has walked in and figured it out in just a handful of games. Jerami Grant had an entire training camp to get adjusted and just figured it out halfway through the season. I am surprised that Denver made this big a personnel swap at the deadline for that reason alone, especially as injured as they are. It’s hard to press new players into immediate duty without any practice time.

2) It switches potential offense for potential defense. Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez were many things, but stout defenders wasn’t really on that list. By contract, Keita Bates-Diop and Noah Vonleh are the sorts of long, rangy defenders Denver hasn’t had a lot of. KBD and Vonleh both have 7’3+ wingspans and can defend multiple positions. With Bates-Diop as another wing defender and Vonleh able to cover the interior, Denver’s switchability increases, the potential rebounding improves and Denver is less reliant on one or two defenders to carry the load.

Unfortunately, Bates-Diop and Vonleh are not shooters. Even before the move Denver stretched the floor poorly, ranking 25th in three-point attempts and 17th in percentage. The Nuggets already have spacing problems when they play Torrey Craig, and that will only increase if Bates-Diop is on the floor at the same time. He’s willing to shoot the 3, but his low-30s conversion rate isn’t scaring anyone. This move puts a lot of weight on Michael Porter Jr. to be the main scoring threat off the bench, a 6th-man level scoring threat, and on Monte Morris to continue his improved shooting from deep as well. Malik Beasley wasn’t scoring consistently this year, but was always a threat to find that stroke. That threat is no longer there.

3) It swaps projects. Jarred Vanderbilt was a project who barely played in college (or the NBA) & doesn’t have much of a shot or touch around the rim. But he is an aggressive, impact-promising rebounder with passing instincts and athleticism. Denver cashed in that project for Bates-Diop, a potential 2-way player in the Wilson Chandler mold who also needs coaching up to reach his full potential. Vanderbilt’s defensive instincts were behind Keita’s and it looks like Denver liked the latter’s chances at getting rotation minutes better. It seems like the safer bet, and sets Denver up with two big wings who rebound well. The Nuggets are 24-5 on the year when they out-rebound their opponents, and this doubles down on that notion for this year and even into next year.

4) It swaps wing depth for front court. Porter is now the de facto scoring threat on the wing off the bench. The 2 / 3 depth looks like Gary Harris, Will Barton, MPJ and Torrey Craig, with the 2 looking more like a defensive position while the 3 is Denver’s added scoring punch with the Barton/MPJ mix. Vonleh can do what Juancho could not, which is to play the 4/5 on a team that is hurting there right now with Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee down. He isn’t tall at just 6’9 in shoes, but he might be versatile enough to get some defensive playoff minutes as a switchable 5. Mason Plumlee got played off the floor in similar scenarios in the playoffs last year, so consider this an experiment to alleviate that and provide a cushion in case of further front court injuries.

5) It gives Denver more assets – but not much more. The Nuggets can still move Shabazz Napier (or Monte Morris, though I still consider that unlikely) to a team in need of a backup PG in a minor move. They now have a first-round pick in the 2020 draft, though it currently is at #22 and might move even later. and Bates-Diop has an extra year on his deal that neither Beasley nor Hernangomez had. Green will likely be cut (first from TJ McBride at Mile High Sports) and his injury puts him on the shelf for the rest of the year anyway, so he has no bearing one way or another, but on the whole it’s moving 3 nickels for the hope of 2 dimes.


So was it worth it? After all that, is Denver better today than they were yesterday at this time? I don’t think they are, no. Beasley and Hernangomez knew their roles, and their teammates. It’s a shame not to see Juancho ever able to find the game he displayed for the Spanish National Team in a Nuggets uniform, or to see Beasley turn into the athletic sharp-shooter he showed flashes of. But it looks like Denver’s front office felt like they were out of time and made a deal to swap assets for other assets and change Denver’s makeup from an offense-oriented team with a defense-oriented coach to something that could play either way.

Swapping Malik and Juancho for Diop and Vonleh will almost certainly help Denver with length and switchability, as well as rebounding if they pull rotation minutes down the stretch. It also frees up minutes for MPJ as the primary scorer off the bench with no question on how to deploy his minutes. The uncomfortable nature of not playing guys in contract years with their first chance at a big contract goes away – but so does the team chemistry the Nuggets spend the offseason bragging on, and that has paid off through an injury-riddled January. Denver’s depth did exactly what it was supposed to do: keep their playoff seeding intact if a rash of injuries showed up.

Which is why it was surprising to me to see them ditch it at the last minute for a package that makes Denver a different team, but not an obviously better one. I hope Keita Bates-Diop thrives here as a more defensive 3 backing up MPJ and Barton, and that Vonleh can patch any front court rotational holes the rest of this year. But aside from getting back a first-round pick, it’s hard for me to say Denver is better now, and they certainly aren’t showing the same continuity and role familiarity.

The Nuggets are betting they can get more out of Bates-Diop, Vonleh and that first round pick than they could from Beasley, Juancho and Vando. They might be right. They might also lose more regular season games this year in the process of finding out. In some ways, it feels like a test of their offensive prowess centered around Jokic, Murray and Porter while they try to find the right defensive mix to hold up in the playoffs and satisfy coach Michael Malone’s craving for better defensive options.

I’m not sure what Denver actually accomplished with this trade, and I’m not certain that even if they got better that it was by enough to matter. That said, it is an interesting shuffle of inconsistent offensive options for defensive ones and keeps all the long-term pieces Denver is currently building with. I’ve said it before, but Denver will be trying to find the right mix of players around Jokic his whole career in a Nuggets uniform. He’s their Dirk, and when that’s the case you keep moving pieces until you find the ones that finally unlock the roster’s championship-level greatness. Denver doesn’t feel like they’re quite there yet, but if this is an experiment in testing what they need to get there then I hope it breeds great results.

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