Offseason In Review: Denver Nuggets

Hoops Rumors is in the process of looking back at each team’s offseason, from the end of the playoffs in June right up until opening night. Trades, free agent signings, draft picks, contract extensions, option decisions, camp invitees, and more will be covered, as we examine the moves each franchise made over the last several months.

Signings

Extensions

Trades

  • Acquired 2014 pick No. 16, 2014 pick No. 19, and the less favorable of Chicago’s and Portland’s 2015 second-round picks from the Bulls in exchange for 2014 pick No. 11 and Anthony Randolph.
  • Acquired Arron Afflalo from the Magic in exchange for Evan Fournier and 2014 pick No. 56.

Waiver Claims

  • None

Draft Picks

  • Jusuf Nurkic (Round 1, 16th overall). Signed via rookie scale exception to rookie scale contract.
  • Gary Harris (Round 1, 19th overall). Signed via rookie scale exception to rookie scale contract.
  • Nikola Jokic (Round 2, 41st overall). Playing overseas.
  • Erick Green (2013, Round 2, 46th overall): Signed via mid-level exception for three years, $2.333MM. First year is partially guaranteed for $50K. Second and third years are non-guaranteed.

Camp Invitees

Departing Players

Rookie Contract Option Decisions

  • None

Perhaps the greatest additions the Nuggets made to their lineup this offseason were simply the healthy returns of several players who missed significant time with injuries last season. Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee, two would-be starters who accounted for nearly $20.9MM in payroll, appeared in a total of five games put together during 2013/14. J.J. Hickson and Nate Robinson, two key acquisitions from the summer of 2013, suffered torn ACLs. A roster that was largely unchanged from a 57-win squad in 2012/13 sunk to just 36 wins, 13 games out of the playoffs.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Denver NuggetsThe Nuggets entered the summer without the capacity to create cap room short of a trade and seemingly little motivation to make a substantive change, short of the availability of a superstar. They were reportedly involved in trade talk for Kevin Love, and at one point they were apparently Minnesota’s most favored trading partner outside of the Cavs and Warriors, but it never looked as though a deal was close. Denver had already acquired another team’s leading scorer by the time July began, bringing back Arron Afflalo from his two-year sojourn in Orlando, where he’d taken on much of the offensive load for a still-developing team. GM Tim Connelly used the sizable trade exception left over from the sign-and-trade deal that sent Andre Iguodala to Golden State the year before, and since it was Iguodala whom the Nuggets acquired to replace Afflalo back in 2012, this summer’s deal completed a circle.

The now 29-year-old Afflalo returns to Denver a more accomplished player than when he left, and one who showed a greater knack for making it to the free throw line even as he took a career-high 4.1 three-point attempts per game last year. Afflalo is also closer to the end of his contract, which pays him $7.5MM this year and would do the same in 2015/16, though he appears poised to opt out this summer. The cost to the Nuggets seemed low at the time of the trade, as Evan Fournier had yet to show why former GM Masai Ujiri spent the 20th overall pick of 2012 on him, but the Magic reportedly chose the shooting guard over other Afflalo trade packages that would have given them a future first-rounder. The wisdom of Ujiri and Magic GM Rob Hennigan is more readily apparent as Fournier has averaged 17.3 points per game to start the season in Orlando, nearly as many as Afflalo put up last season, though Fournier’s 50.9% three-point shooting suggests a regression is in order.

In any case, with a veteran to slot in at shooting guard, where Denver had been weak after the departure of Iguodala, Connelly and his staff decided two mid first-round rookies were better than one, trading the No. 11 overall pick in this year’s draft for Nos. 16 and 19. The presence of Afflalo, Randy Foye and a healthy Robinson will keep 19th pick Gary Harris from having a significant effect for a while, but 16th pick Jusuf Nurkic is already nudging his way into the rotation at center. Coach Brian Shaw has at times given Nurkic, McGee and Timofey Mozgov all meaningful minutes during games, a three-headed center rotation that worked for Shaw’s mentor, Phil Jackson, with the Bulls in the 1990s but is far from ideal. The Cavs showed consistent trade interest in Mozgov this past offseason, and while the Nuggets seemed just as consistent in turning them away, Nurkic’s development adds an intriguing subplot to Mozgov’s situation.

The Nuggets can also go three deep at power forward with Kenneth Faried, Hickson and Darrell Arthur, but that didn’t stop the team from investing heavily in Faried. The dreadlocked former 22nd overall pick made noticeable strides in his game last season and over the summer with Team USA. Connelly and company reportedly gauged the trade market for Faried about a year ago, but nothing came of early season rumors connecting him to the Knicks and Iman Shumpert, and the Nuggets reaped the benefits of Faried’s improvement.

Still, a report this week suggested that Denver isn’t as thrilled with his on-court performance as his four-year, $50MM extension would indicate, further asserting that the PR benefits of the deal played into the team’s thinking. Failing to extend Faried would have left some unanswered questions about the franchise’s future, but it also would have given the team a greater degree of flexibility. As it is, the Nuggets have about $58.2MM in commitments against a 2015/16 salary cap that’s likely to check in around $66-68MM. Some combination of Afflalo’s player option and non-guaranteed salary for Wilson Chandler and Foye could eat up whatever modest cap room Denver would otherwise be able to clear.

Perhaps leaving some questions unanswered and taking Faried to restricted free agency might have been the wisest move, particularly if Denver’s front office still has doubts about his game. The Nuggets have in the post-Carmelo Anthony era treaded the perilous waters of mediocrity, in true contention neither for the title nor the No. 1 overall pick. The team’s early season struggles have it lower in the standings than usual, but that’ll probably change once Denver’s coterie of players returning from injury get their legs back. It’s difficult to see just what the Nuggets are planning for the future even though they’ve invested in Faried as a major part of it.

Connelly’s ultimate aim appears to be packaging the team’s multitude of steady contributors in a trade for a star, as this summer’s talks involving Love suggest. Doing the Carmelo trade in reverse seemed to have been Ujiri’s end game, too, but as difficult as it can be to trade a superstar, it’s much harder to obtain one. For now, it’s a waiting game, and for Denver, it’s possible that over time Faried, Nurkic and maybe others will continue their development and become stars in their own right. It’s probably more likely that they fall short of that level, as most do. All of it leaves Denver in a position that’s not particularly appealing, one with which the Nuggets have become all too familiar.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images. The Basketball Insiders salary pages were used in the creation of this post.

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