The two big stories in Nuggetsland this August have been the trade for Andre Iguodala and the personalized training that JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried are receiving under the tutelage of Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon. Recently however, my thoughts have turned to another player who will undoubtedly be of lower profile in Denver’s 2012-13 season, but in several ways will still be of great importance.
Most Nuggets fans very much enjoyed tracking the progression of last season’s team with the NBA TV produced documentary The Association: Denver Nuggets (and if you were living in a cave and somehow managed to miss it, please proceed to the Association page at NBA.com here, where all episodes can be watched for free). Going back through the series recently, I found the third episode to be particularly heartbreaking and inspirational.
Just as Denver was struggling through a bad stretch of injuries and losses late January and early February last season, Corey Brewer had to take a three game absence to mourn the passing of his father, who succumbed to a long battle with diabetes complications. Making an emotionally charged return on Feb. 11, he helped the Nuggets win a closely fought 113-109 road victory over the Indiana Pacers in one of his stronger performances of the season.
In The Association, Brewer says his of his father: “He didn’t ever let anything get him down, so I’m not going to let anything get me down.” And he wasn’t kidding. Seeming to draw inspiration from the memories of his father’s guidance, Brewer surged upon coming back from his brief hiatus. After averaging 8.8 points, 2.7 blocks and 0.9 steals in January, he increased his output to 13.4 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in February. This of course was partly on the strength of the increased minutes he received as a temporary starter following an injury to Danilo Gallinari. But for a true reserve player to step competently into that role while in the midst of a family tragedy was emblematic of Brewer’s professionalism and dedication to the game.
Earlier in the same episode, George Karl lavished praise: “Who’s the leader of ‘play hard’ on this team? …It’s very easy who the leader of ‘play hard’ is: Corey Brewer.” When it comes to what Karl expects of his players, hard work, energy and effort reign supreme. The fact that Brewer delivers on this front day in and day out has earned him status as a coach favorite.
But in two important ways, the Nuggets find themselves at a crossroads vis-à-vis the young journeyman. Firstly, as I argued in my previous post on the distribution of minutes in the upcoming season, being a “Karl guy” may keep him in the regular rotation. If this happens it will come at the expense of minutes for Jordan Hamilton and perhaps Anthony Randolph as well, if Wilson Chandler and Gallo play some power forward minutes alongside Brewer or Iguodala. Karl tends to favor the players he trusts, ostensibly to the end of winning more games in the short term. From the beginning of the season, this would appear to give Brewer a leg up.
But at this point in his career, Brewer is pretty much a known quantity who has most likely plateaued as the player he will always be. Hamilton and Randolph, on the other hand, still have the chance to develop towards their comparatively higher ceilings. Making such progress will be difficult, however, if they don’t see much daylight. And even if they do get some reasonable minutes here and there, they will have to play very hard on the defensive end to convince Karl their contributions supersede Brewer’s spark of energy off the bench enough to justify fixing them in the regular rotation.
Additionally, Denver has another looming decision revolving around Brewer, as he becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer. After Chandler signed a 4-year, $37 million deal with the Nuggets last spring, and considering that both Iguodala and Hamilton can (and probably will) spend some time at the small forward position, it’s hard to see where there will be space left for Brewer moving forward.
On top of this, as luxury tax penalties begin increasing from 2013-14 onward, expiring contracts will be at a premium in the upcoming season’s trade deadline dealings. The anticipated extensions of Iguodala and Ty Lawson will most likely result in their being the team’s two highest paid players.
It seems unlikely that Denver would retain Brewer for his current salary of about $3.2 million as the payroll becomes more bloated. Considering that he’s the type of player who can fit in easily on any organization in the league, and well-regarded as a team player, the chances are fairly high the Nuggets would lose him on the open market to a team that’s willing to pay more.
It wasn’t easy to see Arron Afflalo get traded. It’s hard to part ways with a player who works so hard and has such great character, and the same will be true if the Nuggets trade Corey Brewer. He is clearly well loved by many fans and all corners of the Nuggets organization.
But the combined value of his play, his energy, his character and his expiring contract may prove to have value as an appealing trade chip in the deadline market. And it’s entirely possible that players like Hamilton, Randolph and perhaps even Evan Fournier will show themselves to be more than capable of taking up the slack at the end of the rotation.
If both those factors hold true, Masai Ujiri’s most sensible option, at least in principle, may be to cash in on Brewer’s value with a trade before the Feb. 21 deadline. Of course, if part of his value is in his expiring contract, this implies that the Nuggets would be taking on salary. In this case, Brewer almost certainly would be combined with one or more players in a trade package for a player who Denver considered worthy of entering luxury tax territory for. Whether this would be practical in reality would depend entirely on who is available (many Nuggets fans have thrown Josh Smith’s name around) and whether any of those players would be worth the combined cost of his salary and the outgoing trade package.
Still, as we have seen with his handling of the Carmelo Anthony, Nene and Afflalo trades over the past two years, Ujiri has proven adept at retaining the value of Denver’s assets rather than losing them for nothing. So especially if Hamilton becomes a real contributor who earns Karl’s trust over the early months of the season, it should not be surprising if Ujiri finds a way to strengthen the roster before the deadline in a trade featuring Brewer as one component.