With the lockout mercifully ended after 149 days, it’s only natural to look back at the excruciating journey and wonder what it was all for. After an effort led in large part by teams like the Denver Nuggets, the NBA finally has a revised labor deal it has so badly wanted for years.
In fact, I can’t think of a team more impacted by this labor impasse than the Nuggets. After all, it was the expiration of the prior CBA that ultimately spurred Carmelo Anthony’s demand for a trade, which he ended up getting after a year-long public soap opera last season. It was also the reason Denver elected to put their future on hold, balking at signing valuable free agents like Arron Afflalo and Nene to contract extensions they most likely deserved. Now it’s time to play ball and answer some of the tough questions about whether a new CBA can indeed help level the playing field for teams like the Denver Nuggets.
Masai Ujiri and Josh Kroenke will open for business with a blank canvas to paint. With the amnesty clause at their disposal the Nuggets could potentially have the most cap space of any team in the league. How do they take advantage of the new CBA as we enter the next era of Denver basketball? What do they start building with right now when free agency opens on December 9th?
Unfortunately the answers might not come as quickly as many fans want. The Nuggets were extremely careful to wipe the slate clean months and years ahead of the new collective bargaining agreement. They will have to be equally careful using that flexibility in order to be successful. For reasons I’ll describe later on, the details of the new CBA lead me to believe that patience is the only way for the Nuggets to capitalize on their position of strength as one of the least capped-out teams in the new NBA.
For now the most immediate and important issue on December 9th will be whether or not the heart of the team will return. I have to enter the most bizzare realm of ridiculousness to imagine a way the Nuggets manage to lose Arron Afflalo. With nearly $30 million in available cap space, the Nuggets make good on their promise to do right by their leader and longest tenured starter. I would have liked to see Afflalo get the extension he deserved years ago, but I’m confident he will score a lucrative contract he deserves and a career opportunity to become a marquee Denver Nugget of this NBA era.
The more pressing free agent issue on everyone’s mind is of course Nene. And I’m not just talking about the Nuggets here. In an extremely weak free agent class, Nene is either the No. 1 or No. 2 target on every team’s radar. He opted out of the final $11.6 million of his last deal with the Nuggets. He also turned down an extension offer in June, and according to ESPN was seeking a deal paying him over $13 million annually. It’s safe to assume whatever the Nuggets offered fell short of that.
There’s no doubt the biggest casualty of Denver’s salary cap purge is allowing Nene to hit the open market. I’m convinced Nene wants to remain a Nugget and is frustrated he did so much to earn an extension that management never seemed interested in giving him. It remained on the backburner for years until a last ditch effort produced only a modest offer at a time when all teams knew that change was on the horizon and a lockout was all but certain.
With the new amnesty clause usable only on contracts signed prior to this CBA, the decision not to extend Nene looks even worse. Even if it meant spending much more than they wanted to, the Nuggets could have had a “get out of jail free” card on Nene’s contract. Now, that magic bullet is gone and if the Nuggets want to compete in a bidding war on the open market, they’ll have absolutely no reprieve for needing to overspend.
This lack of foresight is only a small part of the problem that puts the Nuggets in an untenable position with Nene. The lack of a market for high-dollar free agents combined with a sudden influx of cap space for every team means Nene stands to get paid in a big way. As an unrestricted free agent, when his agent puts an offer for near max money in front of him why would there be any hesitation to sign it? There’s nothing the Nuggets can do to prevent it, and it’s already conceivable that Nene’s frustration will allow another savvy GM to woo him away.
As bad as the Nuggets want Nene back, and I’m sure they do – the decision is not in their hands to make. Even then it begs the question of whether or not the Nuggets can afford the price. It is my opinion that if it’s going to take near a max contract to retain Nene, the Nuggets are not in a position to say yes. As it stands, Masai Ujiri and Josh Kroenke do not know what they have. They have to prepare for the possibility that their young team will take years to develop and mature to legitimate contender status, and max money now for anyone but a bonafide super star cannot be afforded.
It’s the equivalent of placing a large bet in Poker without even knowing what’s in your hand. There is a stretch provision in the new CBA that would allow for some temporary relief in the case of a bad Nene contract down the line. That could be a factor in the decision on whether or not to outbid everybody else for Nene, but ultimately the cost of doing that is not one I believe the Nuggets can afford to swallow.
In that situation, the Nuggets would have no choice but to move forward with a long-term plan for rebuilding. They already have one of the youngest teams in the league, with plenty of solid pieces to build around and all of the tools to do it. The smart way to use all of that flexibility is to develop the talent they have and pounce on an opportunity to add whatever is missing. It could be years before the right opportunity comes along, and waiting could mean a lot less wins than we’ve all been accustomed to. I still believe patience is the best way to turn the Nugget’s barebones roster into a real contender.
Right now the biggest need for the Nuggets is a two-way swing player who can create his own shot. I’m confident George Karl will continue to develop a high-powered offense that has been so successful at altitude in the years past. A consistent scorer to pair with Lawson, Afflalo, and Gallo would go a long way towards opening up Denver’s multi-faceted running attack.
The second priority should be adding a defensive post presence. Kenneth Faired, Timofey Mozgov and Chris Andersen comprise a front-court rotation that will be sorely lacking in fundamental post play. They’ll need someone who can score and pass out of the low block effectively. Without Nene, the Nuggets are also going to have a severe problem with one-on-one defense against the stronger front courts in the league.
Unfortunately there’s just no clear answer in terms of plugging those holes right now. I can’t think of a single available free agent who is a home run in terms of what Denver is seeking. The amnesty provision opens up several interesting opportunities in terms of jettisoning Al Harrington and possibly acquiring a missing piece. We’ll discuss all the possibilities at Roundball as free agency draws closer.
In the likely case the Nuggets aren’t able to keep Nene, the best thing they can do is perhaps nothing. I believe the first order of business will be to bring back Afflalo and Gary Forbes, the underrated swingman who has been one of the offseason All-Stars in terms of charity games and international play. What the Nuggets need right now is time for their young players to mesh and develop an identity. Beyond that, I fear they need a transcendent special player to bring the whole thing together and those generally come from one place and one place alone – the NBA Draft.
There will come a time for the Nuggets to capitalize on their insane cap space and unheralded flexibility, the likes of which fans haven’t seen in nearly a decade. Unfortunately the 66-game lockout shortened season starting December 9th is not that time. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the next great Nuggets team won’t be either. Depending on what happens with Nene when free agency starts, it might be time for another massive overhaul we haven’t seen since the Melo trade. And if it works out anything like that one did, it might not be so bad either.
Stay tuned for a season preview and more free agency coverage from Roundball. As always, follow us on twitter: