Welcome back to the Denver Stiffs mailbag! Thanks for submitting questions to all those that did. Thanks for reading to all those that are here. The Denver Nuggets are on a six-game losing streak, and fans are (rightfully) concerned that the season could spiral if things don’t turn around. Hopefully, the Nuggets will get back Nikola Jokić at some point, and then we will see what they can do with a healthier roster (kind of…not really).

Let’s get into the questions:

The disabled player exception is an infrequently used way for a team like the Denver Nuggets to add a new player to their roster. It only becomes a thing when a season ending injury occurs, and that season ending injury has to occur within a specific window early in the season to be deemed admissible. Put simply, the Nuggets are eligible to apply for a disabled player exception (DPE), and if the NBA grants it, they will have the opportunity to generate another roster spot.

The larger question is the price, and which player the Nuggets might use it upon.

If the Nuggets apply for a DPE to fill P.J. Dozier’s spot, they will likely be granted a total of just $955,000 to spend. That’s because the money allocated to the DPE is the LESSER of either the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (roughly $9.6 million) or 50% of the injured player’s salary. Since Dozier makes $1.91 million in the 2021-22 season, 50% of that is $955,000 and would be the maximum Denver could apply for.

Now, if the Nuggets apply for a DPE to fill Michael Porter Jr.’s spot, they would be set to claim just under $2.62 million based on Porter’s $5.625 million salary in 2021-22, the year before he jumps to a max contract. It’s not much more, but it’s a sizable chunk of change Denver could use to add someone in free agency prior to March 10th when the claim expires. Unfortunately, it would involve admitting that Porter would be out for the season and he wouldn’t be allowed to make his return. The claim could also be denied if the NBA thought that Porter would be healthy before the season ends.

Denver’s in a tough place with their injury situation, and the DPE makes things more complicated if they loop Porter into it. Denver can’t use Jamal Murray’s larger salary in their application either since he’s expected back before the end of the season. Unless the Nuggets identify somebody they’d like to sign in the next couple of weeks, I doubt they apply for it, seeing as the player they could acquire may not be worth it.

For what it’s worth, ESPN cap czar Bobby Marks agrees with me.

According to Mike Singer of the Denver Post, Porter has been in Florida seeking alternative opinions to the medical advice he and the Nuggets received sometime back. He hasn’t been on the bench lately, and he hasn’t been with teammates to my knowledge. The Nuggets have set aside his injury situation and are treating the current roster of playable guys as if those are the only options in the locker room at the moment. They know Murray will be coming back, but the picture surrounding Porter remains murky. He hasn’t practiced at all, and though he spent some time as “questionable” on the injury report, he never really was to my knowledge.

My belief is that the situation will come to a head over the next few days. The Nuggets are currently in Miami waiting to play the Heat on Monday night. They go to Orlando to face the Magic on Wednesday night. There will be a meeting, a discussion of sorts between all parties to assess the situation and go forward with whatever direction best serves Michael Porter Jr.’s long term health. If that’s a season-ending surgery, then so be it. The Nuggets players, coaching staff, front office, and especially Porter need to know how to proceed for the rest of the season and beyond.

To be perfectly clear: Zeke Nnaji has been a better player than JaMychal Green in the 2021-22 season. Nnaji has shot the ball better, been better defensively, and operated in the pick and roll with far more effectiveness. Nnaji as a scorer rolling/popping in the pick and roll is averaging 1.42 points per possession compared to JaMychal’s 0.76. Nnaji in spot ups is averaging 1.55 points per possession, the 99th percentile in the NBA, compared to JaMychal’s 1.00.

The offensive argument is pretty clearly favoring Nnaji already, and though the defensive argument is more convoluted, we know that the current defensive formula isn’t working. The Nuggets have a defensive rating of 113.9 with JaMychal on the floor, second worst to Facundo Campazzo at a ghastly 118.1. Denver has tried a variety of things around JaMychal at center, from playing him next to defensive guards to playing him next to multiple bigs to playing him next to no bigs at all. Whatever they’ve tried hasn’t worked. That is all that’s clear at the moment.

I don’t think Nnaji should outright take JaMychal’s spot. The more likely solution is that when Jokić returns, the two of them play together with Nnaji shouldering center duties. He should play whenever Jokić sits as well as staggering next to the big man occasionally. That might mean less minutes for JaMychal than he’d like, but the Nuggets simply haven’t produced while he’s out there on either end of the floor, and that needs to change.

The Nuggets being an awful team while Campazzo and JaMychal have been on the floor, especially together, has been debilitating for awhile. Denver can’t survive their injuries if the substitutes are hemorrhaging points in losing efforts.

I wish I had a better answer than you, but the truth is, I haven’t handled the new ball enough to give an honest take. Media aren’t allowed on the court, and the limited number of times I’ve touched the ball haven’t given me enough of a true takeaway.

It does seem like things are stabilizing a bit. The season started close to six weeks ago. Three weeks into the year, the 15th ranked offensive rating in the NBA at the time was 107.2 points per 100 possessions by the Washington Wizards. Today, the Indiana Pacers are ranked 15th in offense at 108.1 points per 100. Scoring seems to have come up, and it appears that fouls are up a bit too. Three-point percentage remains down though, with the Charlotte Hornets pacing the entire league at 37.7%, which coincidentally was Denver’s three-point percentage during the 2020-21 season.

Some players seem to shoot better with the new ball, but most seem to have been affected negatively by it. It’s incredibly hard to quantify because it’s not the only factor playing into the league wide offensive shortage right now. It does seem to be a factor though, at least for some players.

Let’s just look at the Nuggets schedule through December 31st. That’s probably the best way to evaluate this question. It involves 16 games and looks like hell:

  • Nov 29 @ Miami Heat (13-7)
  • Dec 1 @ Orlando Magic (4-17)
  • Dec 4 @ New York Knicks (11-9)
  • Dec 6 @ Chicago Bulls (13-8)
  • Dec 8 @ New Orleans Pelicans (5-17)
  • Dec 9 @ San Antonio Spurs (5-13)
  • Dec 11 @ San Antonio Spurs (5-13)
  • Dec 13 vs Washington Wizards (13-7)
  • Dec 15 vs Minnesota Timberwolves (10-10)
  • Dec 17 @ Atlanta Hawks (11-10)
  • Dec 19 @ Brooklyn Nets (14-6)
  • Dec 22 @ Oklahoma City Thunder (6-13)
  • Dec 23 vs Charlotte Hornets (13-9)
  • Dec 26 @ Los Angeles Clippers (11-9)
  • Dec 28 @ Golden State Warriors (18-2)
  • Dec 30 vs Golden State Warriors (18-2)

I mean, good lord.

Denver’s schedule doesn’t lighten up. If anything, it gets more difficult beginning with Monday’s game against the Miami Heat. Nikola Jokić remains questionable, and it seems like there’s no way we see Jamal Murray or Michael Porter Jr. returning during this timeframe. Jokić will have to shoulder the load upon return, and though he’s capable of it, the rest of the roster is what concerns me.

The next 16 games will put the Nuggets at 35 games played by the turn of the calendar to 2022, and I expect Denver to be right around .500 at this point. Jokić’s wrist injury was worse and kept him away longer than I anticipated, and Denver went 0-4 during that span and were only really in one close game. There are several winnable games on the above schedule, and Denver will steal a couple wins from teams that should probably beat them given the circumstances. That doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room though, and I’d expect Denver to be right around 17-18 or 18-17 when 2022 hits. That means they go 8-8 or 9-7 across the above 16 games.

Let’s revisit this when the time comes.

Michael Malone has a ton of respect for Paul Millsap. The Nuggets brought back the veteran on a one year deal, and he filled in as the starter until the Nuggets traded for Aaron Gordon. After that, the Nuggets went against conventional wisdom and played Millsap next to JaMychal green rather than a true center in JaVale McGee.

If Malone had to do it over again, I bet he would have played Isaiah Hartenstein and McGee more frequently. The two of them were fairly effective as bigs in the middle of Denver’s bench rotation, and the chemistry they had playing the pick and roll with Facu Campazzo, Monte Morris, and Jamal Murray probably should have been a bigger indicator than it was.

Because Tim Connelly gave Malone Hartenstein and McGee and Malone played neither of them, Connelly and co. decided to forgo a backup center option and target Jeff Green as a more versatile option instead. Now, the bench is bad again, and not having a seven footer to roll to the rim and protect the paint is one of the key reasons. Denver’s coaching staff and front office often seem in lockstep on the process of what each other wants and working to find a solution. This is definitely one of the times where both sides have err’ed.

It’s difficult not to be concerned about draft compensation going forward. The Nuggets have traded away several picks and are strapped for draft capital for a few years. Denver has traded first round picks in 2023 and 2025, as well as second round picks in 2022, 2023, and 2027. The Stepien Rule prevents them from trading the first round picks in 2022, 2024, and 2026 as well, given that they can’t trade picks in back-to-back years and 2023/2025 fall in between those drafts.

The next first rounder Denver can move is in 2027, and they probably will. Teams often sacrifice their available draft capital to trade and acquire the pieces they need right now. Does Denver need a backup center or a 2027 first round pick more? What about a replacement for P.J. Dozier or a 2027 first round pick? It will be difficult to find those deals, but if Denver still wants to go for it this year, they have some ability to do so.

Now, whether the best course of action is to go all-in or save their draft capital for next season or beyond? That’s a different question for a different mailbag.

Now, this is entirely hypothetical, because if Jamal Murray is ready to return in February or March, the Nuggets should bring him back in February whether they are in playoff contention or not. Getting Murray reps for the purpose of getting comfortable and back into the swing of things is how I’d personally go about it. The team (and Murray) may feel differently, and if they do, that’s fine. I’d still expect him back this year.

If for whatever reason he doesn’t return, joining Porter on the sidelines for the rest of the year, the Nuggets still have the ceiling of about a 45 to 48 win team. Jokić means that much to their group, and him being healthy gives the Nuggets a playoff caliber ceiling and a puncher’s chance in a first round series with just about anybody. There are teams who will be able to game plan for Denver and make life hell, like the Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns, and Utah Jazz; however, if the Nuggets face any other team in the playoffs, they have a real chance to win a series once again. The Los Angeles Lakers would be tough. The Dallas Mavericks would be difficult. The Portland Trail Blazers would be…well…you get the gist.

Don’t expect big things from the Nuggets if they’re without their second and third best players, but don’t expect them to outright tank either. Jokić is the best player in the world. He will have something to say about any team that decides it can’t win while he’s on the roster and healthy enough to play.