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Part 2 of Ryan’s Nuggets offseason preview
Every NBA team seeing to contend, at some point or another, is always faced with one of the toughest questions to answer without any bias: are the top players good enough to win a championship?
Looking back on the last 15 years of NBA champions yields a comprehensive list of Hall of Fame caliber talent:
- The 2020 Los Angeles Lakers has LeBron James and Anthony Davis leading the way
- The 2017-19 Golden State Warriors had Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala
- The 2019 Toronto Raptors had Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol
- The 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers had LeBron, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love
- The San Antonio Spurs had a mix of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Kawhi Leonard over the course of 20 years
- The 2011-14 Miami Heat had LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh
- The 2008 Boston Celtics had Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen
Outside of maybe Siakam, that is a 100% Hall of Fame list in my eyes. Partially because of the title runs, but mostly because of the elite and extensive careers led by each of those players that peaked in title runs together. Finding the right mix of elite talent at the right time is incredibly difficult, and there are only so many truly elite players out there with the capability to lead a title chase, or at least act in tandem with someone else.
The Nuggets appear to have found their dynamic duo going forward.
The Nuggets and the rest of the world started to figure it out when Nikola Jokić was blossoming into a superstar in 2018-19, but the performance of Jamal Murray in the bubble was a true revelation throughout the NBA. Teams and fans believed Murray to be talented, but after the majority of four years in the NBA without reaching a certain threshold for stardom, many began to question Murray’s ceiling. That changed in the playoffs after Murray’s battle with Donovan Mitchell and decimation of playoff defenses as the 23-year-old averaged 26.5 points and 6.6 assists per game while shooting 50.5% from the field and 45.3% from three-point range.
The only players in NBA playoff history to exceed averages of 26 points, 6 assists, and 60% True Shooting in 500+ minutes are Murray, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Stephen Curry, and James Harden. Elite company to keep and justification to believe Murray can at the very least be the second piece of a dynamic duo with Jokić.
Questions start to accumulate beyond there with regard to the rest of Denver’s roster. While having an elite point guard and center is great, the NBA has long been dictated by elite wings and forwards. From Magic Johnson to Michael Jordan to Kobe Bryant to LeBron James, it’s rare for a championship caliber team to become so without an elite wing or forward.
That leads us into questions about the 2020 free agency and trade period:
1. Is Michael Porter Jr. really THAT dude?
The entire offseason pivots on the belief that Michael Porter Jr., fresh off his rookie season, is poised to take a leap toward stardom in the upcoming season. After a pre-COVID season filled with star flashes and a bubble performance that saw him actualize some of his raw potential, the word around the NBA is that Porter is now considered untouchable by the Nuggets. The front office received a litany of calls prior to last season’s trade deadline gauging Denver’s interest in a trade. The Nuggets rebuffed callers and appear to be poised to reap the benefits.
The question many have when it comes to Denver: are they willing to wait for Porter to realize his star potential and gamble on his fit in between Jokić and Murray? The Nuggets made the Western Conference Finals last season and were on the precipice of an NBA Finals run without Porter playing a starting role for the majority of their success. There are those around the league who believe the Nuggets would be best served by capitalizing on Porter’s blue chip prospect value to acquire a star available on the trade market. Jrue Holiday has come up in discussions, as has Bradley Beal.
The logic in capitalizing on Porter’s trade value now is the assumption around the league is that what Denver has right now isn’t good enough to challenge the best teams in the NBA. I happen to think that’s ludicrous given their Western Conference Finals appearance and challenging the Los Angeles Lakers the most of any team in the bubble. The Nuggets have so far been unwilling to put Porter on the market in discussions like those, and for good reason. He has star talent as a 6’10 scorer and shooter that, if actualized, looks a lot like Kevin Durant, Paul George, or Jayson Tatum for the duration of his prime.
On the other hand, if Porter does in fact live up to his star ceiling, there are questions about his willingness to be a third option going forward. The Nuggets will almost always default to pick and roll between Murray and Jokić, and for a star talent in Porter that will be capable of averaging 25+ points per game and even winning a scoring title if given the opportunity, it’s possible that he will want his own team and own legacy. One of the most lopsided and impactful trades in NBA history was James Harden being traded to the Houston Rockets away from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. There was a reason, more than the Oklahoma City Thunder just being boneheaded, for making that move: too many cooks in the kitchen.
If the Nuggets believe in the talent and fit of Porter as soon as next year, then this isn’t a difficult conversation to have. If they believe in his ability to impact winning, he will be a starter next season after being shown the ropes and undergoing several trials in the bubble that should prepare him for taking on a larger responsibility.
2. What does Jerami Grant’s new contract look like?
If it becomes clear that the Nuggets will look to build around Jokić, Murray, and Porter going forward, constructing a championship caliber team takes some very specific personnel to make the defense work. While Porter is naturally talented as a rebounder and potentially a weak side shot blocker, his on ball defense leaves much to be desired, and the Nuggets will need multiple players that can cover for his deficiencies. Murray and Jokić, for all of the improvements they have also made, could also use the help.
Enter Jerami Grant, who appears at first glance of the analytics to be a subpar defender. Digging in deeper, Grant’s specific skill set defensively as an on-ball forward defender allowed the Nuggets the opportunity to mix and match different lineups based on the opponent. Against the Utah Jazz, Denver’s best lineups were with Grant and Porter at the forward spots with Grant defending either Donovan Mitchell or Joe Ingles. Against the Los Angeles Lakers, it was next to Paul Millsap and Jokić with Grant defending LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
It’s that kind of defensive versatility that will help the Nuggets maximize Porter’s role with the Nuggets going forward. As the height of a power forward with the weight of a small forward but also carrying some back concerns, it’s important for the Nuggets to pair Porter with the most versatile defender they can possibly find.
In their current situation, nobody fits that role better than Jerami Grant. None of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Draymond Green, or Pascal Siakam are walking through that door, and Grant is one of the only players in the NBA who can realistically switch onto guards, wings, and bigs at a moment’s notice. That will give Denver’s defense a buffer going forward.
The question the Nuggets must ask themselves is what kind of price tag they are willing to put on that flexibility. Bobby Marks of ESPN recently put an estimated price tag on Grant’s services between $12 and $14 million annually. John Hollinger of The Athletic recently put a valuation of Grant’s services at roughly $7.6 million annually, citing poor plus-minus data as a reason to be fearful. I understand the concerns, but it wouldn’t change my opinion on Grant’s fit with Denver’s most important trio.
If the Nuggets were to sign Grant for $14 million annually, they would be excited to have him back. Anything north of that number would be considered a potential overpay, while anything under that number would be something the Nuggets would be over the moon about.
3. What are Denver’s most important needs after Porter and Grant?
If the Nuggets eventually come to the same conclusion that I did — that Porter and Grant are a great tandem to start next to Murray and Jokić next season — then the next step in the process is surrounding that quartet with the right complementary pieces to succeed.
In the playoffs, it became clear that the Nuggets needed a variety of player types next to those four pieces at any given time in order to match up with opposing teams, but the most important piece was a versatile backcourt defender who could stick on the floor offensively. When Gary Harris returned against the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the first round, he saved the Nuggets with his perimeter defense on Jordan Clarkson, Mike Conley, and Donovan Mitchell. He even gave great effort against the Los Angeles Clippers with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard who, while much larger than him, couldn’t buy a bucket in Game 7 and lost four total games in that series partially due to Denver’s improved defense.
However, when the Western Conference Finals arrived, Harris struggled to make an impact against the much larger forwards and bigs like LeBron James and Anthony Davis. He wasn’t an impactful defender, and the offense throughout that series was a low point for Harris’ playoff resume.
The Nuggets could have certainly used Will Barton to add some offensive firepower from that position, but with a knee injury that prevented him from playing in the bubble, the Nuggets don’t know for sure how Barton would have affected things. He’s a good option to have in theory, but that’s all the Nuggets have to go off of at the current moment.
The aforementioned Beal and Holiday have been connected to the Nuggets for this reason. While Beal is completely unavailable to the Nuggets if they decide that Porter is unavailable in trades, it’s possible that Holiday could be had for the right price. Holiday has long made sense for the Nuggets as a nice combination of the perimeter defense and mentality of Harris while also having the slashing and playmaking talent of Barton. Roll all of those traits into one player and you get a borderline All-Star. If the Nuggets could acquire that player without moving Porter, he seems like he could be this team’s version of Marc Gasol on the Toronto Raptors in their 2019 Finals run, an elite veteran who does the little things well and raises the ceiling from potential to legitimate contender.
Beyond a versatile wing, the Nuggets have other needs. They appear to be set at backup point guard with Monte Morris and PJ Dozier in tow, but the backup frontcourt is a major question mark. If Porter moves into the starting lineup, then that means the Nuggets will have potential problems with their entire bench unit. Paul Millsap, Mason Plumlee, and Torrey Craig are all set to be unrestricted free agents at the end of next week, and all three ranked in the top nine in minutes played in each of the last two seasons. They are important parts of Denver’s rotation and culture, and they aren’t so easily replaced by just anyone on the free agent market. While it appears that Porter, Grant, and maybe even Bol Bol are ready to assume larger roles, it’s not a guarantee. The Nuggets may look to bring that trio of free agents back, but ultimately, it’s not just their decision whether they want to return or not.
To sum up, it appears that Denver’s biggest needs are identifying the starting shooting guard, figuring out what that means for Harris and Barton, and retooling the bench frontcourt by either re-signing players slated for free agency or finding other pieces to contribute.
It’s very clear that Denver’s free agency and offseason period could go a number of different directions.
Draft night will be interesting. As I detailed in my Top 50 Nuggets Draft Big Board on Monday, the players that the Nuggets should be interested in trading up for are ones that make sense next to Murray, Jokić, and Porter long term. It may or may not be likely that Denver ends up with one of those players, but don’t be surprised if Denver explores all avenues and does something unexpected.
With the NBA coming to terms on an official salary cap and luxury tax projection, it also became clear that the Nuggets don’t have a lot of excess money to spend on free agents and big moves this year unless they are willing to go into the luxury tax. Given that luxury tax penalties are going to be reduced this year, it’s possible the Nuggets can stay aggressive and do what they need to do to be competitive as possible, but there are still constraints, and the Nuggets have always been a patient organization.
I don’t know what to expect from Denver this offseason, but it’s my belief that they will have already followed the logic I laid out above, If they came to a similar conclusion as I did — that Murray, Porter, Grant, and Jokić is a great starting point and there are ways to add to that — then the offseason flow chart seems pretty logical. They will explore trades for an upgrade at shooting guard and off the bench, look to retain free agents, and possibly get aggressive by adding a quality player using the mid-level exception.
Check back on Friday for a list of players I think will be targeted by the Nuggets over the next couple of weeks.