With the Playoffs firmly underway and free agency right around the corner, it’s time to take a look at the most, and least, important tasks the Denver Nuggets must undertake in order to remain competitive in the Western Conference.
Priority No. 1: Re-sign Nene
To be honest, I had a little bit of a hard time making this the No. 1 priority this offseason after recent comments by Nene in which he revealed, “I’ve been here for nine years…If that doesn’t work how you want it, you need to sit down and evaluate everything and see what you can do.” According to Chris Dempsey of the Denver Post, “Nene said Monday he is strongly considering opting out.” Now before we totally jump to conclusions, there are a few things we need to consider.
First, just because Nene said he’s leaning towards opting out, that does not inevitably mean that he’s leaving. With so much uncertainty regarding the new Collective Bargaining Agreement and a potential lockout, it’s still anyone’s guess as to how much players will benefit from the new terms and conditions. Maybe players like Nene who have stayed with their respective teams for a long time will benefit even more lucrative Bird Right considerations, you never know. But at the same time, that’s exactly the problem: With $12 million sitting on the table entering one of the most precarious offseasons in NBA history, wouldn’t it be a no-brainer to take the money, especially considering the fact that David Stern has been extremely vocal in his desire to cut down on player salaries?
Unfortunately Nene’s comments, just like his game, are somewhat of an enigma. He’s clearly not happy with the Denver Nuggets organization but whether it be strictly contractual or on-the-court matters, we cannot definitively know at this time. One thing is for certain though: Re-signing Nene must be our top priority this offseason as he’s still somewhat young, in the dead heat of his prime and most importantly, a big man. In the NBA, athletic big men who can give you 14 and eight to go along with the highest field goal percentage in the entire league on a nightly basis, are extremely rare. I know we all get frustrated at times with Nene’s lack of assertiveness on the offensive side of the ball, but I’ll take a little hesitancy any day over not having Nene at all. More importantly, if we lose Nene, who are we going to replace him with? The most prominent unrestricted free-agent centers available are Tyson Chandler (whom the Mavericks will undoubtedly make an advantageous offer to), Yao Ming (can he even play?), Joel Pryzbilla and Samuel Dalembert, all of whom — except Chandler — Nene is currently better than. I’m not entirely frightened at the prospect of Mozgov starting at center next year — in fact I’d probably petition for it right now — but I am however frightened at the prospect of Mozgov and Koufos starting together.
Priority No. 2: Re-sign Arron Afflalo
The great thing about Afflalo is that he’s a restricted free agent. Any offer he receives from another team, we’ll surely match without even thinking twice. Afflalo must be a key part of our future and Nuggets’ GM — or should I say “executive vice president of basketball operations” — Masai Ujiri, knows this. The real question is: How much will our coveted young shooting guard fetch in the offseason? Under the current CBA, Afflalo would be the type of player most likely to reel in anywhere from $6-8 million per year, but with changes in player contracts on the horizon, it’s hard to imagine where his production value lies numerically. But no matter what happens with the new CBA, Nuggets fans can rest assured knowing Afflalo will be a satisfactory investment in every way imaginable.
Priority No. 3: Re-sign Wilson Chandler
This one might come as a bit of a shock, but it’s paramount for several reasons and here’s why:
First off, Wilson Chandler is a nice player. He’s extremely versatile, can play great defense and is young. Since coming into the league back in 2007 Chandler has improved every year in the points, rebounds and free-throw percentage categories while with the Knicks. Though the Nuggets already have Harrington and Gallinari there’s no doubt that Chandler is as good, or better than both of them in many ways. To many Nuggets fans, re-signing Chandler might be considered somewhat protocol considering all that’s mentioned above, but to others Chandler is seen as a valuable, yet expendable asset; the truth lies somewhere in-between.
Because Chandler is a restricted free agent, we have the right to match whatever he is offered by another team if we do not re-sign him on our own terms. Though it would be tempting to keep him, other clubs around the league will be salivating for his services more than the Nuggets, and in turn, would likely offer up a pretty substantial amount of assets — say for example, an unprotected draft pick in the already infamous 2012 NBA draft. Because we have Harrington and Gallinari — two extremely serviceable small forwards — locked down for years to come, Chandler then appears to become the odd man out. Some would say trade Harrington and keep Chandler, but the minute any NBA team takes a look at his contract, they’ll likely decline proceeding any further. So re-signing, then trading Chandler for another big man, draft pick, etc., would seem to be the road the Denver Nuggets would take in order to fully maximize the value of the Carmelo Anthony trade right? Not quite.
You see, restricted free agents cannot participate in sign-and-trade deals under the current CBA regulations. As of now, restricted free agents can only be (A) signed by another team, or (B) re-signed by their current team; they cannot however be re-signed by their current team then traded to a different team immediately following the deal. In fact, once a restricted free agent re-signs with his incumbent team, he cannot be traded for an entire year following the transaction. And though this is something that has the potential to change over the summer, we definitely shouldn’t bank on it.
So, the conclusion we reach with Chandler is this: either lose him in free agency or re-sign him, let him play for a year and figure out what we want to do with him after that. Seems like a pretty easy decision and a win-win for the Nuggets either way. For at least one year Chandler can continue to help the team win basketball games, and after that we can then gauge how happy he is coming off the bench. If he’s fine with his role and would like to continue his career with the Nuggets then we have another potential Sixth Man of the Year, and if not, then he offers up a great trade chip without the Nuggets taking a significant hit in production.
And that is why re-signing Chandler is so crucial.
Priority No. 4: Sign key role players
This, I feel, is often times one of the most underrated aspects in all of basketball. When you look around the league, especially in this year’s playoffs, role players can have a monumental impact on a team’s success. Take the Grizzlies for instance, who just pulled off one of the more difficult tasks in all of sports by defeating a No. 1 seed in the first round. Guys like Tony Allen, Shane Battier and Darrell Arthur — though not the most prolific names on the team — can make all the difference in the world. These are the types of guys that generally fetch anywhere from $1-5 million, but have an affect that suggests they make much more. The Denver Nuggets in particular are an interesting prospect because of how deep and talented our bench is currently constructed, but we will likely lose a few key pieces this summer and it would be in our best interest to peruse some of the following standout free agents (starting at point guard and moving up to power forward — the best centers have already been covered): Jose Juan Barea, T.J. Ford, Leandro Barbosa, Delonte West, Anthony Parker, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Shannon Brown, Kelenna Azubuike, Shane Battier, Grant Hill, Luc Mbah a Moute, Josh McRoberts, Reggie “The Joker” Evans (strictly for rebounding purposes), Jeff Foster, Chuck Hays, Chris Humphries, Glen Davis and Carl Landry.
Priority No. 5: Trade Raymond Felton
Unlike Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton (whom one of my friends recently stated, “looks like a turtle without a shell”) is a free agent asset that the Denver Nuggets can afford to lose right now. I know it sounds harsh, especially given how well Felton played in a Nuggets uniform this season, but this is a situation in which not only would the Nuggets benefit greatly, but Felton as well.
Ty Lawson is the future of this franchise. I know that’s a bold statement, but there’s no other player on this team at the moment who has greater upside than Lawson. Some might argue Gallinari fits this bill, but because of the position Lawson plays he has more of an overall affect on the game than Gallo. Lawson is ready to be THAT guy right now, and there’s simply not enough space to employ a timeshare with another player. He’s is young, extremely athletic and has displayed this year that he’s beyond ready to assume full-time duties at his position. As far as I can tell, there’s just no point in cutting down on both Felton and Lawson’s minutes to allow for them to share the same court. These are young, starting caliber point guards in the NBA and the Nuggets would be doing a disservice to both by continue to try and squeeze them together. Furthermore, Felton is in a contract year and we all know what that means: He’s going to want to play the best basketball of his career to ensure that come free agency in 2012, he has put on a clear display of his talents that will allow teams to offer him the appropriate amount of money he deserves.
The one caveat with dealing Felton this summer (and this is why he’s ranked No. 5 in the Priority List), is that because he only has one year left on his contract we likely wouldn’t receive an equal amount of value in return for what he represents as a player. To avoid trading him for pennies on the dollar, it might be in the Nuggets best interest to wait until the new CBA is reached, sign Felton to a multi-year deal and then trade him sometime next season — if there is a “next season.” This would ensure that whatever team lands Felton would have him for the foreseeable future, resulting in a more willing approach to part with their own precious assets than if they only were guaranteed his services for a year. Again, this is very similar to the Chandler scenario in that we could potentially sign a player, wait until he can be traded under the rules laid forth by the CBA and then evaluate what the best course of action would be from that point on.
Priority No. 6: Re-sign both J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin
Of all the Denver Nuggets, these two are probably highest up on the “Least Likely to Re-sign List.” Though both have stated somewhat recently that they’d like to continue their careers in Denver, this most recent (oh I hate saying that) first-round playoff exit might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Smith was once again made the scapegoat for Karl’s ineptitude and since then has remained skeptical about giving even more valuable years of his career to a coach that does not respect him or treat him fairly. With Afflalo’s emergence and Ujiri’s emphasis on making him a large part of the Nuggets future plans, you have to wonder if Smith’s days in Denver are now only a part of the past.
Martin on the other hand is a bit more of a question mark. He’s dropped little hints here and there about his desire to win even if it means coming off the bench, which you’d think would be an indication that he’d be willing to play for a title contender, but then recently expressed strong interest in remaining in Denver. I fully admit that even though I’m a huge “J.R. guy” I’d chose K-Mart over him if I had to, as his presence means way more to the Nuggets success than Smith’s. Martin should be higher on this list, but because the Nuggets have so many imperative priorities as well as the more youthful Mozgov, he finds himself at this lowly position. Still, re-signing Kenyon should be as cardinal of a priority as any the Nuggets take on this summer.
Priority No. 7: Consider replacing Karl
If it was up to me, this might be at the top of the list, but because Karl recently signed a three-year extension it’s hard to imagine the Nuggets following through with this “priority.” Some options that are currently available: Bill Laimbeer (my target for quite some time), Jeff Van Gundy, Mike Fratello, Rick Adelman, Mike Brown, Lawrence Frank (Boston Celtics defensive assistant), Patrick Ewing (might be worth the shot) as well as countless others. Bottom line: There are a plethora of suitors out there that would likely do a better job with this team come playoff time, and I don’t think it’s too outlandish to suggest we take a look even if it means Stan will have to pay a few million extra per season, because I honestly don’t know how many more heartbreaking first-round exits I can endure at this juncture.