Although chaos ruled last summer’s Nuggets offseason, this year it may be defined by calm.
Going into the 2014 offseason, the Nuggets have a roster likely to remain loaded up at or near the 15-player maximum. Of their current 15 contracted players, only two are expiring – Jan Vesely and Aaron Brooks. Another two, Darrell Arthur and Nate Robinson, have player options but have both expressed interest in staying with the Nuggets. And Denver will surely hang onto the only remaining player whose 2014-15 salary is not guaranteed. The coaching staff and front office have highly praised Quincy Miller’s progress this season, and will be looking to continue his development.
So if the Nuggets let Vesely and Brooks walk, they will be entering the offseason with only two open roster spots. And if they re-sign either of them (which some fans have been calling for, especially in Vesely’s case), they’ll have even fewer. As the Nuggets enter the draft and free agency period, this will not give general manager Tim Connelly much wiggle room to work with.
Compounding the stuffed roster situation is an array of salary issues. According to ShamSports.com (follow @MarkDeeksNBA), Denver will have over $65.5 million in salary on the books next season, assuming Arthur, Robinson and Miller are all still on board.
The NBA issued new projections for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 salary cap and luxury tax thresholds. The 2014-15 salary cap is now projected to be $63.2 million and the tax level is projected to be $77.0 million.
If the projections hold, this puts the Nuggets just over the cap, and eligible for the $5.3 million non-taxpayer mid-level exception. (They are ineligible for the bi-annual exception, having used it last season to sign Robinson). This points to a probability that with just two open roster spots, the Nuggets will fill one with their first round draft pick, and the other with whomever they sign using the MLE.
The twist, however, is the change in Kenneth Faried’s status since his late-season breakout. It wasn’t long ago when the (now laughable) notion of trading the Manimal for Iman Shumpert seemed at least marginally plausible. He had struggled for much of the season, and it didn’t seem he could be a good fit with Brian Shaw. But after his surge in March and April, there is little doubt that the Nuggets will keep him around, or that he’ll be seeking a contract extension paying around the Lawson/McGee/Gallinari ballpark of $10-12 million per year.
If the Nuggets do intend to keep Faried, and the players expected to return are still around as well, this basically renders it impossible to both extend the full MLE to a free agent and give the Manimal an extension without going over the luxury tax threshold. And if there’s one thing we know about Josh Kroenke and his father, it’s their extreme reluctance to pay the luxury tax.
Adding the $5.3 million MLE to the aforementioned $65.5 million payroll, the Nuggets would be at a bloated $70.8 million – just $6.2 million under the projected luxury limit – when it came time to offer an extension to Faried. And that doesn’t include the addition of their draft pick’s rookie scale contract, which will probably be in the $2 million range. So if they do intend to extend Faried, chances are that they will only use a fraction of the MLE on a small-time free agent, if at all. (Opting for a low cost re-signing of Vesely rather than using the MLE could well wind up being one of their better options in this scenario).
In addition to the MLE, the Nuggets will have three traded player exceptions at their disposal. The largest, worth around $9.9 million, came back in the Andre Iguodala trade and will expire on Jul. 10. Using it, however, raises the same dilemma as the MLE with respect to going over the luxury threshold if Denver extends Faried. The other two won’t expire until Feb. 20, 2015, as the Nuggets got one (worth about $1.7 million) in the Andre Miller trade, and the other (worth about $1.2 million) in the Jordan Hamilton trade prior to this year’s trade deadline. In all likelihood, if any of these are used this offseason, they will only be used to make the salaries work in a multiple player trade, and not as “credit” to acquire new players who will add salary to the payroll.
And of course, the possibility of player trades is the x-factor which could change everything. But here, too, lie problems.
Of that $65.5 in presumed payroll, about $50.5 million (or 77 percent) of it is tied up with Denver’s six highest paid players. It seems safe to assume that Lawson, Gallinari and Mozgov (on the strength of his improvement this season) will not be on the block unless a shockingly great offer is made for them. Of the other three, Wilson Chandler is probably the only one who may plausibly be tradeable, let alone fetch enough value back to make dealing him worthwhile.
JaVale McGee and J.J. Hickson, on the other hand, should prove to be extremely difficult to move. And even if the opportunity arose, given their injuries and the (probably accurate) perception that they’re overpaid, it’s highly unlikely that the Nuggets could get back assets of a high enough quality to make trading them advantageous.
Like Mozgov and Faried, Randy Foye is another player who appears unlikely to be put on the block, especially after his strong finish to the season. Evan Fournier seems to be in more of a gray area – the team seems upbeat about his progress, but it wasn’t exactly impressive enough to warrant passing up a solid trade opportunity. Anthony Randolph – in part due to Vesely’s surprisingly solid play – seems to be the only true odd man out. But good luck getting much back for him than a future second rounder and an open roster spot. Besides, both Fournier and Randolph are owed less than $2 million next season, hardly enough to put much of a dent in the big salary picture.
In a recent interview on ESPN Denver’s The Locker Room, Tim Connelly stated:
We’re all in this offseason. So trading [our first round draft] pick is on the table, trading the pick in addition to a player is on the table. We’re going to really push all the chips on the table and try to better our team. I think if you look at how our salaries are set up, and a lot of the guys, you know they’re young, but they’re in their prime. I think it would be unfair to the group of guys we have not to make a real strong play this summer to try to get back to an elite Western Conference level.
Taken at face value, it sounds like he intends for the Nuggets front office to take an aggressive approach this offseason. And who knows? Maybe he’ll pull off the seemingly unattainable good trade for Hickson or McGee, or otherwise find a way to make a move or two which will significantly improve the team.
But given the constraints he’ll have to operate within, it seems much more likely that the roster going into next season will remain mostly intact. The Nuggets will find improvement next season, but probably less through their offseason moves than from the return to health of their injured players, the ongoing development of their youth, and an accelerated learning curve for the players in understanding and executing Shaw’s system.
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