- Ty Lawson ($11,595,506)
- JaVale McGee ($11,250,000)
- Danilo Gallinari ($10,854,850)
- Wilson Chandler ($6,757,913)
- J.J. Hickson ($5,381,750)
- Timofey Mozgov ($4,650,000)
- Randy Foye ($3,000,000)
- Kenneth Faried ($2,249,768)
- Anthony Randolph ($1,825,359)
- Evan Fournier ($1,483,920)
- Quincy Miller ($915,243; guaranteed for $150,000)*
Free Agents / Cap Holds
- (Rudy Fernandez $5,451,108)
- Jan Vesely ($4,236,287)**
- No. 11 pick ($1,898,300)
- Aaron Brooks ($915,243)
- (Wesley Person $915,243)
- 1st Round (11th overall)
- 2nd Round (41st overall)
- 2nd Round (56th overall)
- Guaranteed Salary: $59,049,066
- Options: $5,563,869
- Non-Guaranteed Salary: $765,243
- Cap Holds: $13,416,181
- Total: $78,794,359
Little has gone right for the Nuggets since Danilo Gallinari tore the ACL in his left knee two weeks before the start of the 2013 playoffs. Denver was cruising toward a 57-win finish in the regular season and a first-round matchup with the playoff neophyte Warriors. It’s difficult to say whether a healthy Gallinari would have swung that series, which Golden State won in upset fashion, but it’s clear that the Nuggets have been on a downward arc ever since. The team lost Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri, whose mastery with the Carmelo Anthony brought Gallinari and a host of others to Denver, and watched assistant GM Pete D’Alessandro spurn Denver for the Kings and their new ownership group. Nuggets president Josh Kroenke and company decided against bringing back Coach of the Year George Karl in a move that raised eyebrows, though they deserve credit for hiring well-respected Pacers assistant Brian Shaw to replace Karl. Kroenke is already turning away interest in Shaw from the Knicks, who’ve had eyes on the Phil Jackson protege.
The Nuggets also lost their prize from the summer before, as they agreed to participate in a three-way trade that sent Andre Iguodala to Golden State once it became clear the free agent wouldn’t re-sign in Denver. Receiving Randy Foye and a 2018 second-rounder was a pittance, but even that uneven exchange doesn’t fully explain Denver’s plummet down the standings. Season-ending injuries to JaVale McGee, Nate Robinson, J.J. Hickson together with a botched surgery that cost Gallinari all of 2013/14 fueled Denver’s nightmare. The failure to move up in this month’s draft lottery with two chances to do so was a fitting coda to a luckless year at the foot of the Rockies. The odds of so many injuries happening again are low, and there’s stability atop the organization with Shaw and GM Tim Connelly firmly entrenched. Still, there’s little opportunity for the Nuggets to climb to the heights from which they fell.
Robinson and Darrell Arthur intend to opt in for next season, so that means the Nuggets will have more than $64.6MM in commitments to start the summer, putting them over the projected $63.2MM salary cap. They’re nonetheless nowhere near the tax line, which is expected to rise to $77MM, so they’ll have the $5.305MM non-taxpayer’s mid-level exception at their disposal. That’s enough to add another complementary piece, and with the 11th pick in the draft, the Nuggets are primed to have a better roster this coming season. Kroenke and Connelly have both expressed confidence in a return to the playoffs, but even if the team is able to accomplish that feat, which is no given in the always-stacked Western Conference, there’s little to suggest the team will do any better than 2013′s first-round exit.
The most glaring need for the Nuggets is at starting shooting guard, the position at which the team was unable to replace Iguodala this past season. The free agent options available who’d be worthy of and willing to accept mid-level money range from the over-the-hill (Ray Allen, Vince Carter) to the pedestrian (Jodie Meeks) to the erratic (Nick Young). There are nonetheless a few intriguing choices, each fraught with the drawbacks inherent with anyone in the NBA’s middle class. Former No. 2 overall pick Evan Turner, who’s losing minutes in the playoffs to Rasual Butler, would be a buy-low candidate who provides versatility and above-average rebounding. Avery Bradley showed this season that he’s more than just a defensive stopper, but he’s a restricted free agent and he and the Celtics have mutual interest in a return, so it would probably take more than the mid-level to pry him from Boston. The Thunder have thrived for several years with Thabo Sefolosha starting at the two, but he’s never averaged as many as 30 minutes per game and rarely plays down the stretch. Plus, the Nuggets don’t have the likes of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant to make up for Sefolosha’s lack of offensive punch.
Shaun Livingston might be the most suitable target, particularly since the Nets only have the taxpayer’s mid-level of $3.278MM to lob at him. He’d fit the profile of the long, defensive-minded shooting guard that Chris Dempsey of The Denver Post pegs at the sort of player the team will likely target. His inspiring comeback from a gruesome injury probably gives him the sort of locker room presense Dempsey says the team will also be looking for. He’s more of a hybrid guard than a classic two-man, but the Nets thrived with Livingston and point guard Deron Williams together in the backcourt this year.
The draft offers plenty of shooting guard talent in the Nuggets’ range, too, and Denver has a decent chance to end up with its pick of Gary Harris, Nik Stauskas and James Young. Yet even if one of that trio winds up exceeding expectations in Denver, or if Livingston proves an even better fit next to Lawson than he was with Williams, it isn’t likely to vault the Nuggets into the Western Conference elite, much less give the club a legitimate shot at the championship. The most frequent criticism of Karl was that his clubs failed to advance past the first round of the playoffs, but a year removed from his tenure, it’s difficult to see how Shaw or anyone else could coach the Nuggets deep into the postseason anytime soon.
Connelly must prove as creative as Ujiri, if not more so, to move the franchise forward. Ujiri inherited his job amid the “Melo-drama” of Anthony’s impending exit for Denver, and the Anthony trade plus the team’s participation in the four-team Dwight Howard swap that brought Iguodala to Denver provided the foundation for the team’s 57 wins in 2012/13. Trades will most likely have to be the primary tools that shape the next successful Nuggets team. The deadline pickup of former No. 6 overall pick Jan Vesely didn’t work out, but it was a worthwhile venture in exchange for Andre Miller, whom the team wasn’t going to play, anyway. More such moves are required. The Nuggets already have more than $45MM on the books for 2015/16, so even if Denver were a popular free agent destination, which it is not, the team wouldn’t be in position to make a splash next summer, when a handful of stars can hit the open market. Those commitments don’t include a new deal for Kenneth Faried, with whom the team plans to talk extension this summer.
The team gauged the interest of other teams about trading for Faried at the beginning of the season, likely sparking a series of trade rumors leading up to the deadline, many of them involving Iman Shumpert and the Knicks. The Nuggets didn’t seem interested in New York’s offers, but concern that agent Thad Foucher would find a suitor willing to produce an eight-figure offer sheet in 2015 prompted Denver to make the initial trade inquiries, according to Grantland’s Zach Lowe. Faried made strides this season that have probably brought him closer to eight-figure territory, if not fully into it, but it’s unclear just how high Connelly and the Denver brass are willing to go at this point. As of February, the team was reportedly willing to draw a hard line in negotiations based on misgivings about Faried’s defense. Faried will turn 25 in November, so in spite of his improvement this past season, his ceiling probably isn’t much higher. Given the limited salary flexibility at play for the Nuggets and the restrictions that the Poison Pill Provision places on teams that attempt to trade players who’ve just received rookie scale extensions, Denver would be wise not to bend too far with Foucher and Faried.
The sort of superstar talent that’s generally required to win an NBA title rarely passes through Denver, unless it’s clothed in a road team’s uniform. Connelly possesses the unenviable task of building a contender without the benefit of high draft picks in a city that’s unappealing to most free agents. Still, such circumstances beget low expectations, and with that comes the necessary leeway for the sort of risky moves required to lift the franchise into the elite.
* — Miller’s salary becomes fully guaranteed if he’s not waived on or before opening night.
** — The cap hold for Vesely is equivalent to the greatest amount Denver can offer him for next season. Because the Wizards declined their fourth-year team option on Vesely prior to the season, before trading him to the Nuggets, Denver isn’t allowed to re-sign him for a 2014/15 salary that’s more than he would have earned on that option.