Nuggets sidestep backtrack with two big re-signings, two savvy additions
NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.
The Nuggets could pick two of three this offseason:
1. Secure their franchise player, Nikola Jokic, long-term
2. Maintain their complementary depth and assets
3. Dodge the luxury tax
Denver chose Nos. 1 and 3, which is both unsurprising and somewhat disappointing. Locking up Jokic is nice, but the Nuggets are on the edge of breaking a five-year postseason drought, and they have potential to make noise if they get in. A young team, Denver could build on this season for years to come. It would have been a good time to pay a small amount of luxury tax to preserve the full array of players and picks.
Instead, the Nuggets traded draft picks to dump at least potentially helpful players. It’s a knowing step back to save money.
Yet, in that context, Denver got everything it wanted and made a couple nice moves that mitigate the damage.
Start with the big moves that went by design: The Nuggets re-signed Jokic and Will Barton to big contracts.
Denver declined Jokic’s cheap team option to make him a restricted free agent, ensuring no risk of losing him and getting concessions in exchange for paying him sooner. Jokic’s five-year contract contains no player option, and his base salary is juuust sub-max (though incentives could push it higher). Some teams would have lavished their top player with max money and every contract term in his favor. The Nuggets did well to get – albeit, small – team-friendly aspects into Jokic’s deal.
On the other hand, Denver didn’t get a break with Barton, an unrestricted free agent. He’s a good player, and the Nuggets should be happy to keep the 27-year-old. But $53 million over four years certainly isn’t cheap.
That’s why the Nuggets traded a first-rounder, two second-rounders and second-round swap rights to dump Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur (on the Nets) and Wilson Chandler (on the 76ers).
Chandler was Denver’s starting small forward last year, though he appears to be slipping and Barton is capable of replacing him in the starting lineup. Faried and Arthur were mostly out of the rotation, but there would have been a chance Faried could still help.
The surrendered first-rounder is particularly painful, as it’s only top-12 protected. That means the Nuggets could narrowly miss the playoffs – as they did last season – and still convey the pick. That’d be a worst-case scenario, but it’s also near the middle of potential outcomes.
That was about it for Denver’s major charted moves. Uncharted moves are where the Nuggets really shined.
Michael Porter Jr. (No. 14 pick) and Isaiah Thomas (minimum contract) were great gambles considering their low costs. The injury and chemistry concerns are real, but so is the upside. Porter might have been the No. 1 pick if not for his back issues, and Thomas is just a year removed from finishing fifth in MVP voting. Neither looks like a great fit with a Jokic-Gary Harris-Jamal Murray core, but who cares? Porter and Thomas were too valuable to pass up.
With Barton starting and Thomas’ health unproven, Denver needed another reserve point guard. So, the Nuggets signed two-way player Monte Morris to a three-year minimum contract with two years guaranteed. They also gave their other two-way player from last year, Torrey Craig, $4 million guaranteed over two years. Given the vast amount of power teams hold over their two-way players, those contracts are mighty generous.
Though those are small, indulgences like that – looking at Mason Plumlee – got Denver into this trouble where dumping draft picks and decent players became necessary. Barton’s contract could create complications down the road.
It’s a never-ending race between keeping costs manageable while maximizing talent. In a year it seemed they’d bear the cost of previous spending, they stayed ahead of the curve.
Offseason grade: B-