Heading into the season without Marcus Camby many Denver Nuggets fans were worried about the rotation at power forward and center. Nene and Kenyon Martin were considered health risks and it was impossible to know what we would see out of Chris Andersen. Juwan Howard was on the roster, but he was let go shortly after the season started.
Denver had big men Nick Fazekas and James Mays in training camp, but they were both waived prior to the start of the season. They did acquire Cheikh Samb in the Billups trade on November 3, 2008, but he was clearly not ready to contribute. As the season wore on and Nene, Kenyon and Birdman starting missing a couple of games here and there with bruised ribs or calf strains Denver realized they had to get another big man even for no other reason than an insurance policy against a serious injury.
Enter Johan Petro.
The Nuggets sent Chucky Atkins to Oklahoma City and swapped their first round pick for the Thunders’ second rounder in tomorrow’s draft to acquire Petro. The common analysis of the deal was if Petro cannot get on the floor for OKC how is he going to play for Denver?
Well, the plan never was for Petro to play much, just to hang out in a box with a hammer tied to it and that said “Break glass in case of emergency!” Petro came to Denver with 45 games left in the season and George Karl broke the glass on 27 occasions although Petro only played more than eight minutes on 12 occasions and those situations were comprised of either blowouts or a handful of games where Petro filled in due to injury or suspension.
Petro was as advertised on offense. He has little post game to speak of, he likes to take jumpers and it is difficult to discern why when you see the result and he is not what you would call a great finisher as the roll man off of ball screens. Most Nugget players would not even think about passing him the ball except for Carmelo Anthony. For some reason Melo fed Petro all the time. It may have been simply because he was open or it may have been because Melo just liked seeing how Petro would fumble the pass away. It could be through his hands, between his legs off his chest, the possibilities were numerous.
Fortunately for Petro offense is only half the game. Petro did prove to be a very good rebounder and he had his moments on defense as well. The highlight of Petro’s season as a Nugget had to be in Orlando when he did a solid job guarding Dwight Howard due to the Birdman sitting out with a bum wrist. Petro only played 15 minutes, but without him Denver would have had to go small and Howard would have just demolished them on the boards.
There may not be many true centers in the NBA anymore, especially ones that can dominate games on the block, but at some point you are going to need a seven footer like Petro to come in and prevent you from getting abused in the lane.
It may seem like Petro is expendable, but I believe the Nuggets have to have a player like him on the roster.
Denver seemed to get better at defensive rebounding as the season wore on, but there were nights where they were dominated on the boards. If you just look at total rebounds Denver appears right in the middle of the pack. However, if you judge them by their defensive rebound percentage, which adjusts for the number of shots that are hoisted up, the Nuggets were tied for 23rd in the league in defensive rebounding percentage.
Petro had the second best rebound rate on the team at 16.3, just behind Birdman’s 17.6 rate. For comparison Nene had a rebound rate of only 13.8 and Kenyon was even worse with a rate of 13.7. The Nuggets are going to need someone who can come off the bench or fill in when needed who can rebound and not kill them on defense. They also need that player to be relatively cheap. Petro is a restricted free agent and in order to maintain the right to match any offer he receives Denver will have to offer him a one year qualifying offer that is reportedly $2,849,703.
Petro is not worth nearly $3 million for a team who will surely be looking to cut corners where possible, but with the Nuggets desperate for a big man insurance policy it would be difficult to let Petro walk. Denver would love to sign a competent big man for the minimum, but there are no Chris Andersen’s out there in the free agent market this summer. There are a couple of intriguing free agent big men that can be had, but I am not sure they will be in Denver’s price range (we will get into that another day).
The Nuggets do have the option of playing a dangerous game with Johan. They can decline to present a qualifying offer, making Petro an unrestricted free agent, and try to sign him for much less than the $2.8 million he would be guaranteed under the qualifying offer. There is no way anyone offers Petro $2.8 million for next season and one of the ways teams get into salary cap hell is paying players above their market value (see the New York Knicks or Los Angeles Clippers).
The question then becomes would Petro as an unrestricted free agent sign with someone else just to spite Denver for not making the qualifying offer? Also, by making Petro an unrestricted free agent Denver would have to either sign him to a minimum deal or dip into their mid level exception money if they need to go above the minimum.
It is difficult to say this with Denver being so hard up for big man depth, but I think the Nuggets need to roll the dice and not extend the qualifying offer to Petro. There is still a chance they can retain Petro as Nene/Birdman insurance at a much lower price and it will also free them up to bring in a better big man that could fit into their budget. If Petro were to sign the qualifying offer it would further crimp the Nuggets cap and tax situation.
If the plan fails and Petro walks away for nothing at least the Nuggets have a $3.24 million trade exception left over from sending Atkins to Oklahoma City which would be a valuable tool to find someone else to fill Petro’s emergency role. After all, the Pistons just traded away Amir Johnson for cap relief. There will be more deals like that out there.