NBA Off-Season Preview: Which Path Will Denver Nuggets Mine?
While the NBA playoffs are still going, the 2017 off–season is rapidly approaching for many teams with massive decisions to make. CBA expert Danny Leroux breaks down the major challenges and opportunities for the Denver Nuggets in The Crossover’s NBA Summer Preview series.
After finishing nine games under .500 in 2015-16, the Nuggets competed for a playoff spot until the final week of the season. Nikola Jokic broke out and Denver became one of the league's best offenses after making him the only center in the starting five. Their uncommon depth for a young team allowed the Nuggets to withstand injuries to numerous key players but those contributors are getting closer to their inevitable pay raises. A combination of players on team-friendly rookie scale contracts and low-cost veterans puts Denver in the unusual position to add serious talent to an already capable team, making their summer one of the more compelling and impactful in the entire NBA.
Here are three key storylines to watch for the Nuggets this off-season:
Cap Space: With the news that Danilo Gallinari will decline his $16.1 million player option for next season, the Nuggets are looking at serious spending power this summer. They could either retain Gallinari using Bird rights or wield more than $37 million in space, enough to become a true force on the free agent market. They could concentrate that spending on a single player, spread it out for a few different contributors or spend responsibly this summer and use that flexibility at a later point. Considering how quickly things move in early July, the front office will have to establish a plan ahead of time while staying ready to adjust to changing circumstances.
Mason Plumlee's restricted free agency: The Nuggets did not trade Jusuf Nurkic and Memphis' first round pick for a rental. Plumlee is already 27 years old but has been a starter on successful teams in Portland and could draw interest as a capable center. Denver's ability to match and an oversaturated market for big men could drive down his price but it only takes one team to force a much tougher decision for the Nuggets' front office.
Gary Harris extension: The 22-year old shooting guard could end up being a calibrator for how the Nuggets are approaching their 2018 off-season because he has a low cap hold ($7.65 million), so agreeing to an extension now will presumably reduce Denver's 2018 cap space. That could be worth doing for the right terms or because they do not intend to be below the cap next summer. Also, an extension would solidify Harris' place in the Nuggets' core moving forward, which would be notable considering their investment at shooting guard with Will Barton, Malik Beasley and arguably Jamal Murray.
Potential Free Agents: Danilo Gallinari (Unrestricted – will decline $16.1m Player Option), Mason Plumlee (Restricted), Mike Miller (Non-Guaranteed) and Roy Hibbert (Unrestricted)
Likely Summer of 2017 Cap Space: $14.8 million
Realistic Maximum Summer of 2017 Cap Space (using $101M estimate): $43.2 million
2017 Draft Assets: Own first round pick (13th overall) plus second round selections from Memphis (#49) and Oklahoma City (#51).
Potential Targets: Paul Millsap would be an amazing near-term fit with Jokic but the 32-year old does not exactly mesh with Denver's young core from a timetable perspective. They could try to get in the mix for Gordon Hayward as well, though he has strong suitors in the Jazz and Celtics. Amazingly, the front office could even choose to simply push back all or most of their cap space for another year because they could have similar flexibility next summer and possibly even more if Wilson Chandler and/or Darrell Arthur decline their 2018-19 player options. They could also try to use some cap space this summer to secure eventual replacements for Chandler, Barton and Arthur now but there will not be many bargains for perimeter players given the limited supply.
Pressure Scale: 7. It is hard to put a single number for Denver because they have so many different paths to choose from. If they push for the near term by either bringing back Gallinari or adding a high-priced free agent, they need to nail their draft pick and ancillary moves to maximize this window. A more patient approach still requires thought-out, responsible moves but provides insulation in place of urgency. What makes the Nuggets' off-season important are the stakes. They have a young team with serious talent, so the decisions they make matter more than for franchises stuck in the mud. The last decade is filled with young teams that did not reach their potential due to front office mistakes for a reason: the best decisions for the future are often unpopular at the time and justified excitement can generate undue pressure. Denver's front office succeeded over the past few years when so many of their competitors failed but potential can be even more perilous than the rebuilding process.
State of the Franchise: Defining their identity. Last summer, the Jazz were the NBA's most intriguing young team that missed the playoffs and Denver has taken over that mantle. That said, their situation differs from Utah's because they have less elite talent at this stage but also possess more flexibility and time. The Nuggets can wait, as Murray, Mudiay and Hernangomez are not even extension eligible at this point. That means the front office should be ambitious with potential additions while also steeling themselves for the possibility of bringing back a largely similar roster next season and relying on internal improvement. At the same time, they need to figure out how veterans like Chandler, Arthur and Barton fit in, as each would net value in return considering what free agents will be looking for on the open market. While the Nuggets do not have to fully commit to their vision of their future this off-season, doing so would produce tangible benefits as soon as draft night if they decide to act immediately. Seeing how Denver identifies their core and chooses to build around it will be a consistent source of interest this summer.