NBA 2022 Offseason: Denver Nuggets
After finishing their 2021 season without high scoring guard Jamal Murray, the Denver Nuggets planned to do enough to stay there or thereabouts for a top four seed in the West, before reintegrating Murray as they made a deep playoff run. Simple, right?
As the old saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
In Denver’s case, those plans went off the rails right from the get go, as Michael Porter Jr – fresh of signing a $150 million extension that only kicks in this season – started the season looking like a shell of himself before getting shut down for the year with yet another back injury.
With Murray back and Porter reportedly healthy, the Nuggets might be primed for a tilt at a championship. How can they improve their lot and provide some insurance against further absences?
When healthy, the Nuggets roster is stacked with talent, led by two time reigning MVP Nikola Jokic.
The giant Serbian is arguably the most enjoyable player in the NBA to watch; a deep treasure chest of nimble footwork, feathery touch, ridiculous game intelligence and a passing vision and flamboyance that the league has never seen from a human being so large and frankly hasn’t seen from any player since prime Jason Williams.
As the clear lone hand in Mile High City this season, Jokic poured in a career high 27.1 points (on 58/33/81 shooting), 13.8 boards, 7.9 assists, 1.5 steals an just under a block – ridiculous stats. Jokic ranked inside the NBA’s top 10 in points, rebounds assists and field goal percentage. He led his team in those as well as steals and blocks. By any measure, an incredible season from the Joker.
Assuming good health (yeah, you don’t have to say it) for Porter and Murray, Denver have a legitimately awesome trio to build around. All are aged between 23 and 27, with both Porter and Murray signed long term. Jokic’s deal runs out at the end of next season, though he’s widely expected to ink a supermax contract.
Backing those three is a deep and versatile suporting cast. Will Barton is ageing and does have his critics, but as your 5th starter he’s an excellent option. Likewise, Aaron Gordon, who never quite assumed stardom in Orlando, is perfectly cast as an elite two-way role player in a healthy Nuggets outfit. He’s also tied to the team long term, recently signing an extension through to 2025, with a player option for a further year.
Monte Morris and Bones Hyland are complimentary reserve options in the backcourt. Morris is a steady hand on offense and a demon defensively. Hyland showed off his outstanding shot creation skills as a rookie. He’ll have less opportunities with Murray and Porter on the floor, but those chances will be so much more open. Facundo Campazzo – who must be a pain to play against – is a free agent but may be retained.
Veterans Jeff and JaMychal Green, as well as youngster Zeke Nnaji back up the big man positions.
Denver does need to invest in another wing player or two both as a back up to Porter and security should he suffer another injury relapse.
This could be a really short section, couldn’t it?
Realistically, if the Nuggets stars are healthy then they would likely consider themselves a championship contender. It’s that simple. The team could do to make some measured improvements around the edges, though.
Denver are worryingly thin on the wing. Gordon is a full time power forward these days and Austin Rivers – an unrestricted free agent – is a guard masquerading at small forward. Should Porter miss time (you can bet your last dime that the team will be ultra cautious with him) then there really isn’t an option currently on the team to step up.
The club could also stand to upgrade its reserve big men. Jeff Green is still capable of doing a job but is 35 years old. That means he’s running out of time to complete his life mission on playing for each and every NBA franchise (for those keeping score, he’s currently on 12). JaMychal Green really failed to impress this season and is likely a lesser priority than Uncle Jeff. Nnaji hasn’t shown much in his short career, but is still just 21 years old and worth persisting with.
The Cap Sheet
The Nuggets currently have nine players contracted for next season, with Jeff Green expected to opt in to his player option and make it 10. That will take the Nuggets salary commitments to $159 million with draft picks, possible resigned free agents and cap exception signings to come.
It seems a lot for a 1st round exit, right? It’s worth remembering that the Nuggets expect to be a contender when healthy. In that context, the Nuggets – owned by the notoriously parsimonious Stan Kroenke – should be prepared to spend. (An aside, Kroenke also owns Stanley Cup favourites the Colorado Avalanche. For all his negative reputation as an owner, he is proving that he will spend money on a winning product)
Denver are spending serious coin – $123 million – on Jokic, Murray, Porter, Gordon and Barton. That’s a fine starting five and certainly worth the investment, but it leaves precious little resources for the team to improve around the edges. That means that the team has to be judicious with their additions.
The team can re-sign Campazzo using his Bird rights, though Austin Rivers can only take a minimum. He has his detractors, but Doc’s son is worth more than that. He’s not worth Denver’s tax payer mid-level exception of $6.4 million, however.
With effectively no cap room to speak of, don’t expect the Nuggets to be players in the free agency stakes.
Denver do owe future picks to Oklahoma City and Orlando, though their pick this year – 21st overall – remains in house.
The team desperately need a small forward or bigger wing capable of playing spot minutes at the four.
Nikola Jovic is very much in play here. He and that other Nikola bloke would have a whale of a time pinging passes to each other. He would be a dream pick, though is unlikely to be there for Denver at pick 21.
Instead, look for the Nuggets to focus on players like Kendall Brown, EJ Liddell or Jake LaRavia – three very different prospects who play the same position.
Brown is as raw as they come, but has incredible upside. He’s an explosive athlete who’s evasive skills when already in midair remind this writer of Stacey Augmon. He’s a canny cutter who could eat playing off of Jokic.
Liddell is a slab of a man who is ready to play right off the bat. Like Gordon, he’s a versatile defender who can switch onto multiple players in a given possession. His deep shooting improved exponentially as a junior. If that shooting is real, he could be an instant asset to the Nuggets.
Likewise, Jake LaRavia is ready to play straight away. He’s probably a slight reach at pick 21, to be honest. For those that are unfamiliar with LaRavia, think Georges Niang or former Nugget Linas Kleiza. If the Nuggets want a player that is heady and hardworking with a skillset (stout defense and dead-eye shooting) that can contribute right away, they could do a whole lot worse.