January 23, 2020, 1:36 am
The Denver Nuggets remain a slight cut below the NBA’s truly elite teams, but they are most certainly a group that’s on the rise in its development arc. They are in the enviable position of being good enough to expect a deep playoff run without feeling the pressure to sacrifice any significant future parts to make it happen right now.
The window is definitely open, however, which could make them one of the most fascinating teams to keep tabs on as the February 6 trade deadline approaches.
The Nuggets may not have the clout that some of the Western Conference’s other contenders do, but they also feel like a team that’s going through the regular season as a tune-up exercise. After Denver was able to produce elite offense last year, they’ve instead shifted their focus to the defensive end of the floor so far in 2019-20.
It remains to be seen if this is a fundamental retooling of the team’s identity or merely a case of extreme attention to a weak spot from last season, with the ability to pump out blistering offensive numbers still in their collective back pocket (or so they hope).
At the moment, the Nuggets are dealing with a glut of injuries that will put their depth to the test. With Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Paul Millsap, Mason Plumlee all ailing, Denver’s reserves are going to be asked to deliver much as they did last season – it was a similar situation that showed the Nuggets how good their bench players could be, and although the team can feel relatively confident about weathering the present storm, it points to an interesting decision upcoming.
If the Nuggets do decide to make moves, it will almost certainly be more than tweaking the fringes of the roster.
It’s what makes the team’s mention in earlier Kevin Love rumors noteworthy. For one thing, assuming it’s true and the Nuggets at least inquired about Love, it shows that they aren’t prepared to rest on their laurels and will consider adding a significant offensive upgrade.
For another, if the Nuggets were to pursue a player of Love’s stature or impact, it would require a serious face lift given their cap sheet.
In order to add in a significant salary, the Nuggets would likely have to deal away a rotation stalwart. They’re unlike a lot of other teams in that there’s no one obvious candidate to trade away for salary-matching purposes, and a move for Love’s $30 million, for example, would require far more than the appealing low-cost youngsters that are stuck in bench roles. If the Nuggets want a major player, it will involve some of the group of Millsap (expiring, $30.5 million), Plumlee (expiring, $14 million), Jerami Grant ($9.3 million), Harris ($21 million) or Will Barton ($13.25 million).
Trading each of those players comes with significant risk, however. Millsap and Plumlee are Denver’s defensive anchors, and the Nuggets are likely loath to mess with that formula. Grant is Millsap’s heir apparent and just cost the team its first round pick this past summer. Harris is a key two-way presence and one of the longest-tenured Nuggets, while Barton, who may end up being the most expendable of the bunch, is a key source of scoring punch that’s in the midst of a nice bounce-back season after last year was derailed by an early core injury. If he keeps it up that salary will be more than palatable, too.
Further down the roster, impending RFAs Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez have been mentioned as players that other teams are targeting, but taking their salaries off the books won’t ease Denver’s cap issues if they’re going to reel in a big fish.
Ultimately, the question is this – would a big trade, in terms of either size or salary, make the Nuggets obviously better, considering what it’s likely to cost?
The idea would be to consolidate, trimming down a roster that has 12 rotation-caliber players, except the names most likely to be moved in that scenario won’t accommodate a notable addition. If Denver does decide to tinker, then the biggest win might come in the form of a more defined rotation that allows for role players to find better rhythm.
There’s a varying degree of irreplaceability there, certainly, but if the Nuggets want to push their chips in right now then it will lead to a bold maneuver. Perhaps the recent multi-week injury to Plumlee persuades Denver to make a more minor move and shore up the center depth.
The recent emergence of Michael Porter Jr. also gives the Nuggets something to ponder. The talented sophomore shouldn’t be counted on to assume a sizable role just yet, but his stints in the rotation have been incredibly promising. When Porter and Nikola Jokic share the floor, the team is posting an absurd net rating of plus-10.4 in 152 minutes. That definitely merits a longer look.
If Porter can move from secret weapon to certified threat, the Nuggets are suddenly dealing from a more advantageous position. As opposed to their current “already advantageous” position, of course.
It’s not as though a move must be made in the next couple of weeks. Between their relative youth, upcoming cap space and the possibility that this season could be a valuable fact-finding venture about how the Lakers, Clippers, Rockets, Jazz, et al might be vulnerable over the course of a seven-game series, the Nuggets could choose to wait until the summer to make a splash.
In all likelihood, the Nuggets place too much value in what they’ve built to jeopardize what is expected to be a big season. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, however, and if Denver chooses to cash in some of its elite depth to get in the arms race in the current star-heavy ecosystem, they could be the talk of the deadline.