As the NBA Finals remain ongoing and the Denver Nuggets move further and further away from their last game of the season one month ago on June 13th, certain realities are beginning to set in.

For one, the Nuggets have watched the Phoenix Suns, the team that swept them in the second round, continue on and wreck havoc on the rest of the NBA. The Suns are two wins away from a championship. Despite being swept, the Nuggets were without Jamal Murray among others, and it’s clear they aren’t alone in combating the versatile attack the Suns have put together. There should be no shame in losing to an eventual NBA champion while missing an integral member of the team’s identity.

For another, it’s going to take a lot of effort to recreate the championship caliber environment that the Nuggets had going just a few months ago. Murray’s injury aside, every single team and roster is different from year to year. It’s important to have the right mix of talent, hard work, and camaraderie to work through the season, and the Nuggets will have an entirely different environment next year, even if the roster remains mostly the same.

That leads us to the biggest pivot point of the offseason for the Nuggets: Will Barton.

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With all of the attention paid to the Nuggets star players, it can be easy to lose track of Barton. Nikola Jokić just won the MVP award. Jamal Murray, injured as he might be, as put up incredible numbers on his way to becoming an All-Star caliber player (it’s only a matter of time on that front). Michael Porter Jr. has also received a significant amount of attention, rightfully so, given how talented and dynamic he is. Even Aaron Gordon was Denver’s big midseason acquisition and was seen as the final piece of the championship puzzle.

Like I said, easy to lose track of Barton, who played well as the starting shooting guard and had several important moments both before and after Murray went down. Barton’s scoring and playmaking has offered Denver some lineup and roster versatility for several years, and despite the injuries that have plagued him, he has been a starting caliber player for a long time.

Now, as the 2021 offseason begins in earnest, the first major decision will be Barton’s own.

On Saturday, July 17th, Barton’s deadline for a decision on his $14.6 million player option for the 2021-22 season will be up. Barton agreed to the contract back in 2018, and the Nuggets enticed Barton into the contract in part due to the player option. Now, the Nuggets and Barton are in an interesting position.

Mike Singer of the Denver Post caught up with Barton over the weekend, a short discussion that can be found here. Barton made it clear that he wouldn’t divulge anything about the player option, and it’s possible that he hasn’t decided how to proceed yet. From the article:

“Anything is possible,” he said. “I can’t rule out anything. Right situation presents itself, who knows? Just gotta do what’s best for me.”

From Barton’s perspective, it’s important to play things close to the vest, and he should absolutely do what’s best for himself. Even if he wants to return to Denver, the best course of action may not be to accept the player option. His goal may be long term security just as much as it might be money or role. Accepting the player option turns his deal into a one year contract, one that the Nuggets could decide to trade at any time. A multiyear contract could also be a safeguard against any future injuries.

From Denver’s perspective, they should absolutely want Barton back for a number of reasons. For one, he’s a good player familiar with Denver’s system, familiar with Jokić, Murray, and Porter. If the Nuggets lose Barton, they will need to replace him in some way, and that will take time to build back up the chemistry lost. For another, it will be difficult to replace Barton in general. Most players with the capability to fully replace Barton aren’t available at Denver’s price range.

The Nuggets have major financial concerns going forward. This next season won’t pose too many issues even if the Nuggets gave Barton a slight raise. Once Michael Porter Jr.’s impending max contract kicks in, the Nuggets will have significantly less flexibility. An estimated $94 million will be committed to Jokić, Murray, and Porter alone. Adding in Denver’s other current financial commitments to just Monte Morris, Zeke Nnaji, and their impending 2021 first round pick, and the Nuggets are already brushing against the salary cap. That doesn’t include any possible extension for Aaron Gordon, nor possible deals for P.J. Dozier, JaMychal Green, Facu Campazzo, or any other player the Nuggets add this offseason.

Long story short, the Nuggets have to be fully committed to Will Barton being their starting shooting guard, or at least playing a significant role going forward, in order to justify offering him another major contract. The Nuggets know they need to improve defensively around Jokić, Murray, and Porter if they are to become a championship team. While Barton isn’t bad defensively, he isn’t a major plus on that end either, and committing significant money to a player that doesn’t push Denver toward becoming a better defense may not be advisable for Denver’s long term plans.

And yet, the Nuggets may simply need someone to help survive Murray’s absence for the majority of the 2021-22 season while recovering from ACL surgery. Barton would help in that regard. He might be the best player for that job outside of making a significant consolidation trade in the backcourt. Barton has shown the ability to help create offense while next to Jokić and Porter in the past. There’s no reason to think he can’t do that again.

Barton has been an integral part of Denver’s journey from bottom-dweller to championship contender. Beginning as a piece of the Arron Afflalo trade back in 2015, Barton has been in Denver for over six years. He has over 12,000 minutes played in a Nuggets uniform and has gone from energy bench guy, to elite sixth man, to starting small forward, to starting shooting guard during that time. Moreover, he has helped change the culture in Denver right along with Michael Malone, Nikola Jokić, and the rest of the Nuggets, offering a confident, winning mentality at all times.

If it is in fact time to say goodbye to Will Barton, then it will be with a fan base that is thankful for his energy, fun skill set, and swagger. Barton would be a major loss for Denver on and off the court, which is just another reason why the Nuggets should want him back. If it’s not in the cards, then the Nuggets better have a great Plan B.

We should know a bit more by Saturday.