Free agency is right around the corner, and with it comes somewhat of a watershed moment for the Denver Nuggets franchise. Two of their best starters are among the most desired free agents and the Nuggets want to keep both while being extremely careful with their salary cap. Masai Ujiri can try all he wants to accomplish all three of these goals, but the most likely solution means compromising on one or two of them. Most importantly, each and every one of these choices must fall in line with a plan that makes progress towards the ultimate goal of a championship. Do we know what that plan is yet?
This question takes me back to the debates we had immediately after the Melo trade last season. Under the circumstances Masai orchestrated one of the best deals imaginable, but ultimately trading Melo didn’t return another franchise player nor the means to acquire one. Much was made about the grab-bag of solid young talent the Nuggets amassed and the lack of a true star to tie it together. Many doubted the Nuggets ability to be successful with such a group.
In the following weeks the team proved every one of those doubters wrong. Not only were the Nuggets winning, they were fundamentally better in every way after the trade. Analytics ranked them higher than many of the powerhouse teams in the league. The deep rotation was hitting on all cylinders. It was overwhelming and unpredictable, with a different player stepping up big every game.
Those that followed our site last Spring knew how special the mood became, particularly for me. After months of analyzing lots of meaningless games in the face of the Melodrama, I had never been more excited to be writing about the Nuggets. It just felt like a special team, moreso than any other since the magical 2009 run to the cusp of the Finals. It’s really a shame we weren’t able to get more time with that squad.
Something so short and so sweet often can’t last. The Nuggets can definitely succeed with the no-superstar team we saw last year. Can they develop that model long-term and win a championship though? The salary cap and the cold hard facts of NBA business say no. What happened last year with the Nuggets’ plethora of cheap young talent wasn’t meant to last. You have to keep everyone happy, and that means eventually paying them and guaranteeing them the right roles to reach their potential in.
Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton actually worked in the Nuggets favor, at least when they weren’t facing the Thunder in the playoffs. When one of them played poorly the other often picked up the slack. When George Karl was able to resist playing them together, they individually shined. But Felton always yearned to start and no matter how many minutes he got, he wasn’t going to be happy here. When it worked, we saw the potential of how good the duo could be, but it simply wasn’t going to last and everyone knew it.
We continued to see the signs as JR, Wilson, and Kenyon all bolted for China this summer. It doesn’t matter how badly the Nuggets wanted any of these players back, because they clearly all had doubts about returning. There are no guarantees any of them can return to their old roles with the team, and quite frankly I think JR and Kenyon felt they were better off parting ways with the Nuggets.
So yes, you can win without a superstar – but it’s so rare for a reason. You need unselfish two-way players who are comfortable stepping into a different role every night. You need guys willing to roll with a deep rotation, sometimes sacrificing individual stats and minutes for the greater good. You need them all to be underpaid and happy to compete for finite playing time with other talented teammates.
It’s very difficult to realistically build a team like that. That is why so many teams go with superstars, and why the Nuggets probably need to go with one too. Superstars last. It makes it so much simpler by defining roles for other guys to fall into. Supporting players can be comfortable knowing how they fit into the bigger picture. It gives the organization a clear vision and a foundation of stability from which to build.
It’s my opinion the Nuggets have to develop such a player on their own. It’s the best way for the franchise to reach the next era of sustained success in the NBA. It won’t be easy, it won’t come without frustration and it could likely come down to pure luck. If patience prevails and it’s meant to be, it will have been worth all the trouble. And most importantly, it’ll last.
So, to end that rant lets’ have a look at the latest round of free agent news:
Denver Post – Al Thornton considering Nuggets
Benjamin Hochman reports Thornton is in town to meet with the Nuggets and attended a practice. If this continues momentum, we’ll have much more coverage on it later. My snap judgement: not a fan.
CBS Sports – Free Agency Buzz
Ken Berger reports Nuggets had “good conversation” with Thaddeus Young and more talks are planned. Thad is young (see what I did there), has tremendous upside, and can fill a multitude of different roles at different positions. This shows you the type of players Masai is looking at and Berger notes that the Nuggets may be preparing for Nene to take a big money offer to play elsewhere. Thaddeus is restricted and the Sixers can match any offer.
Hochman – Nene meeting set for tomorrow
Benjamin Hochman tweets that Nene will meet with both the Nuggets and Indiana Pacers GM Larry Bird on Tuesday
Sam Amick at Sports Illustrated
Inside this article Amick discusses the likely case that Chandler will play out the year in China and return to the NBA in March. Chandler’s agent says he’s been in constant contact with Masai and the Nuggets have strong interest in keeping Wilson long-term