Hoops Rumors is breaking down the 2021 offseason for all 30 NBA teams, revisiting the summer’s free agent signings, trades, draft picks, departures, and more. We’ll evaluate each team’s offseason moves, examine what still needs to be done before opening night, and look ahead to what the 2021/22 season holds for all 30 franchises. Today, we’re focusing on the Denver Nuggets.
Free agent signings:
Note: Exhibit 10 deals aren’t included here.
- Will Barton: Two years, $30MM. Re-signed using Bird rights.
- JaMychal Green: Two years, $16.4MM. Includes second-year player option and unlikely incentives. Re-signed using Non-Bird rights.
- Jeff Green: Two years, $9MM. Includes second-year player option. Signed using mid-level exception.
- Austin Rivers: One year, minimum salary. Re-signed using minimum salary exception.
- Markus Howard: Two-way contract. Accepted two-way qualifying offer as restricted free agent.
- 1-26: Bones Hyland
- Signed to rookie scale contract (four years, $10,763,239).
- Petr Cornelie (No. 53 pick; 2016 draft)
- Signed to two-way contract.
- Michael Porter Jr.: Five years, maximum salary. Projected value of $172,500,000. Projected value can increase to $207,060,000 if Porter earns All-NBA honors in 2022. Includes partial guarantee ($12MM) in fifth year, with performance incentives that can make the fifth year fully guaranteed. Starts in 2022/23.
- Aaron Gordon: Four years, $86,640,001 (base value). Includes $4.8MM in incentives and a fourth-year player option. Starts in 2022/23.
Other offseason news:
- Jamal Murray continues to recover from an ACL tear and is unlikely to return until at least March.
- Lost lead assistant coach Wes Unseld Jr.; hired Popeye Jones as assistant.
- Established new NBA G League affiliate, the Grand Rapids Gold; Jason Terry will coach the team.
Salary cap situation:
- Remained over the cap and below the tax line.
- Carrying approximately $134.8MM in salary.
- $5,036,000 of non-taxpayer mid-level exception still available ($4.5MM used on Jeff Green).
- Two traded player exceptions available, including one worth $2.2MM.
Lingering preseason issues:
- Vlatko Cancar is eligible for a veteran contract extension all season.
The Nuggets’ offseason:
Injuries had a major effect on the Western Conference playoffs in 2021. Some teams, like the Lakers and Jazz, didn’t have key players at full strength when they were eliminated. Others, such as the Clippers, were missing a star altogether.
The Nuggets fell into the latter category, having played the postseason without Jamal Murray, who tore his ACL in April. An injury to Nikola Jokic would’ve been even more damaging to Denver’s hopes of making a deep playoff run, but the loss of Murray was massive — when the team made it to the Western Conference Finals in 2020, it was Murray, not Jokic, that led the team in points, assists, and threes, among other categories.
Without Murray available in the spring of 2021, Denver fell in the Western semifinals to Phoenix, the team that eventually represented the West in the NBA Finals. Would the Nuggets have made the Finals themselves with a healthy Murray in their lineup? Maybe, maybe not. But they certainly would’ve had a better chance.
The Nuggets’ approach to the 2021 offseason suggests they fully believe this team can be a title contender when it’s fully healthy. Rather than doing anything drastic, Denver essentially doubled down on its current core.
That meant re-signing free agents Will Barton and JaMychal Green, both of whom turned down player options in search of new contracts. The Nuggets gave Barton and Green modest raises and short-term deals, locking in two key pieces of their rotation for at least one year and possibly two (Green got a second-year player option).
While Murray’s absence was more significant, it’s worth noting that Barton had an injury of his own late last season that further compromised the Nuggets’ ability to put their best foot forward in the playoffs. Barton missed the last 13 games of the regular season and the first seven of the postseason with a hamstring issue. He didn’t look fully like himself until Denver’s very last game of 2020/21, when he poured in 25 points in Game 4 against the Suns — it wasn’t enough to help the team stave off elimination, but it was a reminder of Barton’s importance on the wing for the club.
As for Green, he’s a versatile big man capable of playing alongside Jokic or handling some minutes at center in smaller lineups. Re-signing him was a top priority for a Nuggets team that lost frontcourt depth when JaVale McGee and Paul Millsap departed in free agency. The price Denver paid for Green (more than $8MM per year) suggests he was the team’s top priority among those three players, since McGee and Millsap signed for considerably less in Phoenix and Brooklyn, respectively.
To help fill the hole in the frontcourt, Denver used a portion of its mid-level exception to sign Jeff Green, another versatile forward who can play multiple positions and handle a variety of defensive assignments. Investing in the two Greens rather than McGee and Millsap indicates the Nuggets are comfortable leaning into more switchable lineups and don’t necessarily feel the need to have a traditional center backing up Jokic.
The Nuggets’ other key addition this offseason was first-round pick Bones Hyland, who will look to carve out a role in the rotation as a rookie. Hyland is an intriguing prospect and has shown real upside in the preseason, but if the team decides he’s not ready for a regular role quite yet, it won’t be a setback — even without Murray, there’s enough depth in the backcourt that Denver can afford to be patient with Hyland, like it has been with other draftees Zeke Nnaji and Bol Bol. For what it’s worth though, I think Hyland has a better chance than those two of making an impact as a rookie.
The Nuggets’ belief that they have a championship-caliber core was also reflected by the contract extensions the team finalized in September. There had been a sense that the franchise might not be comfortable extending both Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon, but that clearly wasn’t the case — Porter signed a new maximum-salary deal that tacked five years onto his expiring contract, while Gordon received a four-year extension worth at least $86MM.
The commitments to Porter and Gordon – combined with the max contracts already on the books for Jokic and Murray – signal that the Nuggets are willing to be a taxpayer in the coming years, which hasn’t been the case since 2010. It’s a sign of how serious the team is about pushing for a championship within the next few years.
We can debate the wisdom of offering Porter a max deal, given the back problems that sidelined him as a rookie, but he’s coming off a season in which he averaged 19.0 PPG on .542/.445/.791 shooting at age 22 (23.5 PPG on .560/.489/.854 shooting following Murray’s injury). Barring a major step backwards in 2021/22, he was going to get a max offer somewhere next season. By putting that offer on the table ahead of his restricted free agency, the Nuggets managed to get a team-friendly partial guarantee in year five of that deal, with no trade kicker or player option.
Gordon’s value is harder to pin down, since he’s a better defensive player than he is a scorer. Still, his athleticism and cutting ability make him an intriguing complementary player on offense for the Nuggets, especially since being the third, fourth, or even fifth option should put him in position to score more efficiently than he did in Orlando, where he attracted more attention from opposing defenses.
The Nuggets’ upcoming season:
The Nuggets are in something of a holding pattern until Murray returns. Without him, the club is talented enough to make the playoffs in the West, but doesn’t have the pieces to seriously compete for a title.
If Murray can make it back in March or April, Denver could be a tantalizing postseason sleeper, but the team should be careful about expecting too much from the standout guard in 2021/22 — players coming off ACL tears often aren’t quite themselves until 18+ months after the injury, even if they make it back onto the court a year later.
A silver lining of Murray’s absence is that it should give some extra opportunities to players who have been further down the pecking order in Denver’s offensive game plan. Porter, in particular, is in position for a breakout year, while Monte Morris should get a chance to prove he can be a full-time starter.
If everything goes right, the Nuggets could make some noise in the 2022 playoffs, but I suspect – given the uncertainty surrounding Murray’s return – that management may be circling 2023 as the team’s best chance to push for a title.