The trade deadline is less than three weeks away and the rumors surrounding the Denver Nuggets have seemed to die down a little since the revelation that Denver scuttled a Linas Kleiza for David Lee deal with the Knickerbockers. While it may be a waste of time to make up trades and debate nonexistent deals it sure is fun.
There are two questions the front office will have to determine the answer to over the next seventeen days. What areas of the roster need to be upgraded? Is it worth paying the price for that upgrade?
Let’s start off looking at the roster. The Nuggets have two point guards (Chauncey Billups and Anthony Carter), three shooting guards (J.R. Smith, Dahntay Jones and Sonny Weems), three small forwards (Carmelo Anthony, Linas Kleiza and Renaldo Balkman), one true power forward (Kenyon Martin) and four centers (Nene, Chris Andersen, Johan Petro and Steven Hunter). Obviously there are players that can play multiple positions, but that is the general breakdown.
Before we start looking at what holes need to be plugged it is important to figure out what the Nuggets have to work with. The answer is, not much. As far as expiring contracts they possess a few small ones, but nothing of any size that could bring back a high quality player. Carter, Birdman and Jones all have expiring contracts while Kleiza and Petro will be restricted free agents, which could be used as expiring contracts should the team they are traded to decline to make a qualifying offer.
I think we can be pretty confident that the Nuggets will not trade Carter, Jones or Birdman as they are all key players and beloved by George Karl. Steven Hunter does not have an expiring contract, but it does expire after next season and it could be attractive to teams looking to unload a longer term contract.
From a draft pick standpoint Denver already traded their 2009 pick to Oklahoma City in the Petro deal, but they do have the future pick from Charlotte. The Bobcats are one of seven teams who are in the mix for the final playoff spot in the east. If they somehow make it (John Hollinger’s playoff odd rater has them at roughly a one in four chance to make it) that pick will go to Denver this season. Such an event would be disappointing as the Nuggets definitely made that trade expecting to get a top ten or higher pick out of the deal. Even so, that is a nice chip to be able to throw into a trade. In fact, Chris Sheridan ranked that pick the ninth best trade asset in the NBA this trading deadline. Would the Nuggets throw that pick into a deal? Maybe so, but I believe they would rather hold onto it.
Another thing to remember is the Nuggets have a couple of nice trade exceptions to play with as well. They have a big one with the nearly $10 million left from the Camby trade that was “refreshed” in the Billups deal and the $3 million plus exception from the Atkins trade. They could land a nice player with either of those and the Bobcats pick, but I doubt that would happen because it would push them back over the luxury tax limit they worked so hard to get under.
In my mind if the Nuggets do any shopping it will be for Hunter’s almost expiring contract and maybe with Sonny Weems tiny contract or Petro’s larger one thrown in for good measure. Those three amount to roughly $6.25 million and if Denver is willing to part with all three players they might be able to bring back something of use. However, for the purpose of this article we are going with the presumption that Denver will only be willing to trade Hunter and maybe Weems. That severely limits what is available to them.
So now that we know what we are shopping with where are the weaknesses on this team and what solutions may be out there?
Denver is set at the starting point guard spot with Chauncey. The backup point spot has been a source of consternation for many Denver fans. Anthony Carter is a solid backup point guard he is a willing and determined defender, but he is a terrible shooter and his turnover ratio has jumped by roughly a third from last year to this year going from a 12.1 to a 16.1. He can be effective running the break, but if Denver could acquire a decent defender with a better shot it would help. Maybe a player like Golden State Warriors rookie C.J. Miles would be a good fit. Miles is a solid shooter and a good ball handler, but is not the defender Denver would be looking for. He is also a little on the small side, but he is pretty much the opposite of Anthony Carter and that has appeal for Nugget fans who begin daydreaming about electrocution or their parachute not opening at 10,000 feet when Carter enters the game.
At shooting guard they have an explosive scorer and budding playmaker, J.R. Smith, the “defensive stopper” and offensive liability in Dahntay Jones and the young prospect in Sonny Weems. A player who combines the defensive abilities of Dahntay Jones and the offensive abilities of someone not quite as talented as J.R. Smith would be Deshawn Stevenson of the Washington Wizards. Stevenson has horrible shooting percentages this season, but from 2004-05 through 2007-08 Stevenson shot 38.2%. I am not scared off by his 27.1% this season because he is only 27 and is playing for a terrible team. I think the added motivation of playing for a solid team would be exactly what he needs. Stevenson is no slouch on the defensive end as he actually did a good enough job, at least in his own mind, of defending LeBron James that he decided to call LeBron overrated. Of course, that ended up backfiring, but he is a capable defender.
Moving on to small forward the Nuggets are pretty well set. Carmelo Anthony accounts for 35 minutes a night at the small forward spot and is backed up by Linas Kleiza who can be a scoring machine (stress the can). Denver also has the defensive oriented Renaldo Balkman. As with shooting guard they have the issue where none of the players are truly two way players. Ideally Melo becomes a defensive beast and the Nuggets could merge the talents of Kleiza and Balkman and play Renalas Balza, but that is probably not going to happen and even if they could somehow pull it off, I bet it is against the Collective Bargaining Agreement. It is difficult to find a player who would come cheap enough for the Nuggets to acquire that I would prefer to play ahead of either Kleiza or Balkman.
As I pointed out above, the Nuggets really only have one true power forward on the roster, Kenyon, but there are a handful of players who can fill time there. Many people consider Nene a power forward, including Nene himself, but in today’s NBA he is a center who can play power forward. The bottom line is the Nuggets certainly could use another power forward. We already mentioned the David Lee for Linas Kleiza deal, but we can put that one to bed as George Karl has shot down any deal involving Kleiza such as the Ron Artest deal from last season. Surely the Knicks will need more than Hunter to do the deal and it is questionable if Denver would throw in the Charlotte pick to close the deal (personally I would). The only players I can think of that would come cheap would be Joe Smith from the Oklahoma City Thunder, Hakim Warrick from Memphis or Minnesota Timberwolf Craig Smith. Even someone like Joe Smith, who has an expiring contract, may be out of the Nuggets price range though.
The Nuggets are pretty well set at center with Nene and Birdman soaking up most of the minutes and Kenyon able to play in the pivot against small centers (he even played some center against Yao Ming to predictable results). Denver already brought in their insurance policy with Johan Petro and Hunter himself sounds like he may be able to play in March. I do not see the need or motivation to make a move to bring in another center.
Going through position by position it certainly seems like the Nuggets have a pretty solid roster. In my mind apart from worrying about strengthening a specific position one thing which would make the Nuggets a better team would be to add another scorer they could bring off the bench. That may sound silly with LK and J.R. on the team, but the reason J.R. Smith does not start is because George Karl does not want to have the entire bench scoring load fall on Kleiza. If LK is having an off night, Denver will have to rely completely on the starters for offense. If Denver could add another scorer to come off the bench Karl could comfortably move Smith into the starting lineup.
Who could fill that role? Honestly, there was no one that I think was cheap, available and capable that I did not already mention so I will throw it to you all. Who do you think Denver could acquire for very little, is available, makes less (probably much less) than $6.25 million and could provide some punch off the bench? I did come up with Lenardo Barbosa, but his defense is just too poor for my taste.
In conclusion, I believe that this is a pretty solid roster and the proof is in the fact that many pundits think the Nuggets have a great shot at earning the second seed in the west. On the other hand this team is clearly not on the level of the Lakers and I would not like my chances against the Hornets or Spurs in a playoff series either. They do need an upgrade at some point to be a true contender.
Building a championship team is a process. Even in Boston, where Danny Ainge seemed to concoct a championship team out of thin air, it took a few years to coddle together the assets that he used to acquire Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen all while keeping a competent enough cast around them to win.
That is what makes the 2009 trading deadline so difficult for the Nuggets’ front office. Denver is closer to being a title contender than they have been in over 20 years, but if you pull the trigger on the wrong deal in an attempt to push them over the top you might have disrupted the building process that may have resulted in putting together a championship roster in another season or two.
All salary information was from Storyteller’s NBA Contracts