No offense to Steven Hunter, but we are going to start off our offseason analysis with him. Hunter is first up partly because his future as a contributor to the Denver Nuggets is tenuous at best and partly because I need to crank out a quick post.
Hunter was acquired in September of 2007 in the trade that ended the Ricky Sanchez era in Denver. Since that day he has played a total of 120 minutes in a Nugget uniform. In 2008-09 Cheikh Samb played 24 more minutes for the Nuggets than Hunter did and Samb only played 24 minutes as a Nugget.
Hunter had surgery on his right knee during the season and has struggled to return. In fact his playing days may be over. I always thought Hunter was a very serviceable big man, but even when he was healthy George Karl clearly had little faith in him.
The reality of the NBA is Hunter is now more valuable for his contract than his talents as a cager. Hunter has a player option for the last year of his contract at a salary of $3,696,000. It is not a large amount, but any expiring contract has value in the current economic state of the NBA. It is currently the only expiring contract the Nuggets have on the payroll for next season, but players like Anthony Carter, Dahntay Jones and Jason Hart are all candidates for one year deals and Linas Kleiza and to a lesser extent Johan Petro could provide sign and trade options that could be combined with Hunters’ expiring deal to bring back an important piece.
There is also a possibility that Hunter’s injury could lead to the Nuggets receiving an injured player exception up to half of his salary. I do not think that route would be very likely due to the fact that the Nuggets would not only be responsible for Hunter’s salary, but also the salary of the player they sign to replace him. However, if Hunter is unable to return it is possible that his salary could be removed from the Nuggets’ books as long as a league doctor verifies that he is physically unable to play.
Hopefully, Hunter can regain his health and return to action, but regardless of whether or not he can return to the court, he provides ever important salary cap flexibility. Healthy or not, do not expect to see Hunter on the court for Denver in 2009-10.