Happy Wednesday evening everyone! I have an exciting mailbag planned for today, after the NBA Draft and prior to free agency. There are a variety of topics to cover with the Denver Nuggets right now, from Nikola Jokic’s extension, to Will Barton’s free agency, to Denver’s draft picks, and so on. I received some great questions for this edition, primarily of the salary cap variety, and if you would like to add to the mailbag next week, respond to my prompt on Twitter (@NBABlackburn) or email me at [email protected] and I’d be more than happy to answer your questions.

Now, onto the mailbag.

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Two questions. I like it.

I don’t expect Michael Porter Jr. to rehabilitate the back and hip injuries throughout the entire season. After sitting for four months, having another long stretch to time to heal over the summer, and train to get back to full strength, I don’t expect him to need all the way through the 2018-19 season to fully heal. Now, the Nuggets may choose to hold him out and mitigate any re-injury risk; however, holding him out when he’s 110% ready would also be a questionable decision.

I like the idea of working him slowly into the rotation. If I were the Nuggets, I would play him exclusively with Nikola Jokic when he returns. The goal should make the transition as seamless as possible, and if there’s one thing Jokic knows how to do, it’s make offense easier for those around him. Helping him develop chemistry in a small role off the bench in Year 1 will make the transition to Year 2 that much easier, in which I expect him to be ready to start almost immediately.

Although, if he’s not ready to start at that point, there’s no sense in rushing him. Denver will have cap space in 2019 to make a free agency splash, and there are a number of players who could help them. If Denver has an opportunity to acquire one of those players and it keeps Porter off the bench…oh well, I guess?

As for your second question, I love what Jarred Vanderbilt brings to the table. On June 1st, in my second mailbag, I listed Vanderbilt as the top guy I would target in the second round (pats self on the back) dues to his intriguing skill set as a guy who can switch all five positions defensively and has some playmaking potential on offense. If he had a solid three-point stroke, he might in fact be the perfect power forward to play with Nikola Jokic long term. He should learn from Paul Millsap this season how to be a hard worker on both ends of the floor, and his ability to cover multiple positions on defense while being an elite rebounder and runner offensively should make Jokic a very happy player for a long time.

(The caveat for both of these guys is if they are healthy, of course.)

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Waiving and stretching either Kenneth Faried or Darrell Arthur would be an interesting idea for Denver if they are in need of a quick fix salary wise.

The stretch provision was put into the CBA to allow teams to pay the same amount of money out to a player in smaller chunks over multiple years. The idea was to multiply the number of remaining years of salary by two, and then add an extra year, dividing the total guaranteed money into equal chunks across that period of time.

For example, Faried’s salary of $13,764,045 for one season would be stretched over three seasons. (One year remaining times two) plus one equals three years. Then divide the $13,764,045 across three years. That means, instead of paying Faried an eight figure salary for 2018-19, Denver would pay $4,588,015 in each of 2018-19, 2019-20, and 2020-21.

Now, how does that affect Denver’s cap sheet? Right now, the Nuggets are slated to pay just over $133 million to 13 players, not including Barton, Vanderbilt, or Thomas Welsh. If they stretched Faried, they would cut that total salary closer to $124 million.

Here’s a table to show the allotted salaries if Denver stretched one of Faried, Arthur, or Mason Plumlee.

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If any of those players is stretched, the money total for that year would be put on the books for that amount of time. It’s why stretching Mason Plumlee would be a terrible idea. Reducing the money on the books by about $16 million over the next two years would be great, until one realizes that the added flexibility over the next five years would be greatly infringed upon by dead money.

All in all, stretching Faried or Arthur is a good idea if Denver cannot find a taker for their contracts that doesn’t involve giving up a first round pick. It’s quite possible that reducing the cap hit of Faried’s salary by $9 million could save the Nuggets over $25 million in luxury tax payment. If Denver is willing to trade future flexibility for quick cap relief, this is the best way to do it, as it doesn’t involve Denver giving up multiple assets along the way.

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Pairing together with the above question, I think that stretching Faried’s contract is a major possibility. The first few scenarios Denver will likely go through is to call teams with abundant cap space like the Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls, asking them what they want in exchange for taking on Faried, Arthur, or both contracts. Both of those teams will charge a premium, as many other teams will crave cap relief as well.

If the price is too rich for Denver, they will probably explore buyout scenarios with both players, which would reduce the cap number to whatever is agreed upon in the buyout. Dwyane Wade and the Bulls did this last offseason. They agreed to a buyout of $15.55 million out of the previous agreement of $23.8 million for Wade to leave Chicago. Wade left roughly 33% of his money on the table, so if Denver and Faried agreed to a buyout that paid the power forward 33% less money, the new number would equal roughly $9.2 million, saving Denver about $4.6 million. It’s not a lot of savings though, so that’s not a great option either.

The stretch provision is the third option, for either Faried or Arthur.

If none of the three options look great for Denver, the Nuggets might go into the season over the tax by a large amount of money. They may make some trades to clear some salary during the season or go about a similar process with the larger contracts. Either way, Denver’s in a tough spot, and how they navigate it will be pivotal to their franchise health long term.

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Given Denver’s need to clear space, it would be really interesting if Torrey Craig accepted his qualifying offer. The QO for a former two-way contract is another two-way contract, which costs $50,000 for the season once again. I don’t expect him to accept the QO, but if the market isn’t there for his services, he might do just that to stay in the NBA.

What’s more interesting in my opinion is what happens to Denver’s second round draft picks if Craig opts in. Denver can only have two two-way contracts at one time, meaning (I believe) that Denver CAN’T sign both Jarred Vanderbilt and Thomas Welsh to those deals. They already extended the QO to Craig, so they can’t legally sign Vanderbilt and Welsh to two-ways while that QO still stands.

Denver will probably want to retain both guys during the season. Do they sign one of them to a two-way and simply not sign the other (likely Welsh)? Do they just sign one and offer the other a guaranteed deal (likely Vanderbilt)? Do they try and get Craig signed before signing their second rounders to two-way contracts?

There are lots of logistical things to worry about here. If Denver signs both Vanderbilt and Welsh to two-way deals, I believe they have to rescind Craig’s qualifying offer, which means the entire conversation may be moot. Either way, it’s an interesting factor I hadn’t considered before.

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I believe Denver can approach a top 20 defense through simple development; however, top 10-15 will be harder to accomplish, give the deficiencies of the roster.

In my opinion, Denver needs to add size, length, and athleticism everywhere on the roster. Adding Michael Porter Jr. and Jarred Vanderbilt was a great place to start. MPJ may not project as a good defender at the next level, but he’s highly athletic at his healthy ceiling and can alter shots at the rim and on the perimeter when engaged. Vanderbilt is an excellent guy to add to a defense and a great candidate to switch onto ball handlers late in the shot clock. Denver doesn’t have a player that can do this competently except for Paul Millsap, and even he’s aging a bit.

After that, there are two things I think Denver can do that will help defensively: alter pick and roll coverages with Jokic and add more length and defensive IQ via the draft and free agency. The San Antonio Spurs started Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge for over 60 games together, lost an elite defensive player in Kawhi Leonard for all but nine games, and were still a top 3 defense. Why? They had Dejounte Murray, Danny Green, and Kyle Anderson hounding opposing ball handlers for most of the game, trusted their team defense concepts, and committed to being a great defensive team through attitude and effort.

Right now, the Nuggets are starting Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Wilson Chandler on the perimeter. None of those three possess a ton of defensive upside. Chandler is aging and Murray/Harris don’t have the length to compete with certain players or prevent certain passes from being made. Jokic will look much better defensively when certain passes are taken away by excellent perimeter defense. Denver will almost certainly upgrade over Chandler in the coming years, but the Nuggets must be willing to make tough decisions with Murray and/or Harris in the future if the defense never improves. Jokic is the guy offensively. Denver can’t go away from him.

Upgrading the backcourt defense may be the final step to solidifying the team as a top 10-15 unit. The question? How much does taking one of Murray or Harris away affect the offense long term?

That’s it for this edition of the Stiffs Mailbag. Thank you to everyone who sent in questions. If you want to contribute a question in the coming weeks, reach out to me on Twitter or via email at the top of the article. The new Mailbag date will be on Wednesday every week, so look for my prompts starting first thing on Monday. Next week, there will be a TON to cover in free agency!