The Denver Nuggets, NBA Free Agency and You

With the 2009 NBA meat market known as free agency kicking off tonight at midnight eastern time we need to once again interrupt our individual player evaluations to look at what kind of options are out there for the Nuggets.

Before we get started, familiarize yourself with who is available with this team by team list of free agents.

A quick look at the Nuggets’ finances shows that they are already over the projected luxury tax limit of $70-71 million with the contracts of Kenyon Martin, Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Nene, J.R. Smith, Steven Hunter, Linas Kleiza, Renaldo Balkman, Sonny Weems, Ty Lawson and the $3.0 million they owe Antonio McDyess based on the buyout they agreed to last season (all totaling roughly $73 million). That is ten players and you must carry a minimum of 13 players on your roster.

Now add to that at least $4-5 million to resign Chris Andersen and another million plus for Anthony Carter and/or Dahntay Jones. Suddenly they only have one or two spots with which to upgrade the roster and probably not too much financial wiggle room to play with.

Priority number one has to be to resign Chris Andersen. The question is how much will it cost? If Denver has to come up with $7 or $8 million a year to bring Andersen back it will be very difficult for them to afford to beef up their roster. However, in order for Andersen to get a big offer like that a team who wants him would have to be far enough below the salary cap to offer that kind of cash. So are there any teams who fit that mold?

Atlanta, Detroit, Memphis, Oklahoma City, Portland and Sacramento are the only teams capable of making a significant offer to any free agent above the midlevel exception. I think we can scratch teams like Atlanta, Memphis, Portland and Sacramento off the list because of either a lack of interest from the team in question or from Birdman in playing there.

That leaves Detroit and Oklahoma City. I think Detroit has quite a few players on their list before they get down to Andersen and most likely they will spend their money elsewhere. To me the only team to really worry about is Oklahoma City. They need a shot blocker and rebounder as evidenced by the fact they acquired Tyson Chandler from New Orleans at the trade deadline before their doctor nixed the deal. The one thing Sam Presti has to worry about is the money he is going to have to shell out for Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook in two or three seasons.

Ultimately, I believe the Thunder will not offer Andersen a big contract and that will allow Denver to only have to deal with midlevel offers from other teams. In fact as we saw with J.R. Smith last season teams usually do not bother even offering the mid level exception when the know it will be matched. J.R. did not receive any offer sheets last season and I suspect Birdman should not expect any this summer either. Why waste your time signing a player to an offer sheet when you know the team will match it as soon as the offer sheet showed up on the fax machine.

I expect Denver will be able to resign Andersen with a three year $15 million deal with a starting salary in the $4.0 million range. Maybe Andersen leaves some money on the table, but he would still receive over a 400% raise and keeps him in Denver, where he wants to be. Not all athletes feel a sense of loyalty to a franchise, but Denver not only gave Birdman his first chance to play in the NBA, they also gave him his second chance at real playing time following his suspension.

Birdman deserves a lot of attention, but Andersen is only one of six free agents the Nuggets have to worry about. Do not expect Jason Hart to return. Johan Petro has been allowed to become an unrestricted free agent which does not bode well for his return, although there is a chance Denver could bring him back. As we discussed yesterday look for Anthony Carter to return for one more season in Denver.

The two great unknowns are Linas Kleiza and Dahntay Jones.

Denver is expected to extend the one year, $2,705,724 qualifying offer to Kleiza although as of yet there has been no official word that they have. Kleiza quickly became a favorite of George Karl as he improved quickly in his second and third seasons. I was of the opinion that he was overvalued by the Nuggets, as well as other teams around the league, because his rapid improvement convinced them that his ceiling was much higher than it actually is. In his fourth NBA season he appeared to have plateaued. His three point percentage dropped, his defense is still lacking, he passes only begrudgingly and still rarely goes to his left. The one thing Kleiza does well is rebound. His rebound rate was comparable to Kenyon Martin’s (10.4 to 10.9). Kleiza can run the floor very well, but he does not do it consistently game to game and Denver’s slightly slower pace impacted his ability to provide an impact on that area of the game.

When looking at Kleiza’s roster spot one of the players that the Nuggets have been rumored to be interested in is Grant Hill. Hill played for less than $2.0 million last season and I think he would be a very good fit in Denver. Hill is just as good of a shooter as Kleiza, if not better, but offers a creative playmaking ability that Kleiza will never be able to match.

Apart from Hill there are not many options who would be as cheap and as effective as Kleiza. Trevor Ariza is an intriguing option, but I doubt the Nuggets would be able to pry him away from the Lakers. Some people have mentioned Ron Artest as a potential option for the Nuggets. It would be a bold move, but a risky one too. He displayed his combustability again in the playoffs against the Lakers and he would not come cheap. If Denver wants to bring him in, they would most likely have to offer their full midlevel exception in August or September when all of Artest’s other options have been extinguished. With the health of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming in question, Houston may cling to Artest as their best healthy player or they may let him walk in order to restructure the team after the season.

It is certainly possible that Kleiza will not get any good offers and have to sign the qualifying offer. If that is the case, I would not be overly upset. However, if the Nuggets manage to sign Hill, I imagine they will pull the qualifying offer and Kleiza might be forced to play overseas in order to make any money.

The final question mark for Denver is Dahntay Jones. Jones is the player who is likely to increase his salary the most from 2008-09. Everyone saw him give Chris Paul fits in the playoffs. With his atrocious offensive game his price will not get too high, but if he makes much more than he did last season his salary will quickly exceed his usefulness. Rumors are that Boston is interested and I do not think the Nuggets will go too deep in the pocketbook to bring Jones back.

With J.R. and possibly Sonny Weems playing much of the minutes at shooting guard I am not sure Denver needs to spend much money on a third shooting guard. Plus a player like Hill could spend some time filling in at shooting guard as well. There are some other price efficient players that I think might be good additions to the Nuggets. Flip Murray was very good for Atlanta last season and he played for only $1.5 million. Plus he helped Denver by missing a game winning shot at the Pepsi Center last season so he clearly is pro Nuggets. Fred Jones had his moments with the Clippers at a bargain basement price and I think he is worth a look. My favorite option would be Shannon Brown. He is a restricted free agent and I doubt the Lakers would let him get away, but if they sign all their big salary free agents, it may decrease their motivation to pay him what it takes to bring him back.

If the Nuggets are not able to bring in Hill and/or Brown and they bring back Jones and Kleiza for bottom dollar, it will not be the worst thing in the world. What would be the worst thing in the world is if they combine to play 40 minutes a game again.

Whether Denver boosts their talent level at the swing positions or not, the one thing they must accomplish before next season is to add a quality fourth big man.

There are a couple of nice options available to the Nuggets. First and foremost in my mind is Rasheed Wallace who is an unrestricted free agent. Sheed saw most of his numbers fall off this past season, but I think a good portion of that was due to the fact he did not buy into the Pistons and their chances to succeed. Maybe the most startling thing about Wallace’s game was 89% of his shots were jumpers. However, Denver needs a big man who can shoot and Wallace is still a good post defender. I think pairing him back up with Chauncey on what I think would be a championship caliber team could squeeze another good season or two out of him.

The good news is Sheed might not cost an arm and a leg and Denver may be in a position where they do not necessarily need to be the high bidder to earn a player’s services. When the Nuggets made it to the Western Conference Finals I wrote that it would make Denver a legitimate destination for players who want to win a championship. With teams like San Antonio and Cleveland reportedly interested in Wallace, if the Nuggets want to go after him it will prove a good test of that theory.

Wallace is not the only free agent that would fit well in Denver. Wallace’s former teammate, Antonio McDyess (unrestricted) would be a good option, if he could be convinced not to hate the Nuggets so much. It would be interesting to have a player who Denver is paying twice. They owe him $3 million as part of the buyout they agreed to with him last season and then if they sign him he would have a current contract on the books as well. What is the old science fiction rule, two instances of the same matter cannot occupy the same space? Perhaps if Denver signs McDyess the universe would collapse upon itself.

I have heard some Nuggets fans hot for Paul Millsap (restricted) and with Carlos Boozer deciding not to opt out of his contract today Utah will be in a tough spot should someone give Millsap a big offer. However, he is not coming to Denver. The only way the Nuggets could bring him on board would be via sign and trade and Utah will put a hit on Millsap before they send him to the Nuggets.

David Lee (restricted) is another player who has been linked to the Nuggets and rumor has it they had worked out a deal for him with the Knicks at the trade deadline but Karl did not want to give up Kleiza. Again, Denver would have to pull off a sign and trade, but with the Knicks looking to create as much cap space as possible for next summer they are not going to want to give Lee a big contract. Would a trade exception and a couple of first round picks get Lee to Denver?

Should the Nuggets fail to nab one of the high profile guys there are a couple of cheap options who could provide some assistance. You may laugh when you read this, but if Denver needs an emergency fill in on the cheap I believe Shelden Williams (unrestricted) would be a good option. He cannot shoot, but he is a big boy who can rebound and block shots. Channing Frye (unrestricted) is a big man who seems to play well with consistent minutes. He is a great midrange shooter and can rebound when he is asked to. One final player who may be of interest is Drew Gooden (unrestricted). He has become a very good rebounder even if he is still a bit rough around the edges.

If Denver does not bring in an exciting free agent all is not lost. They still have two big trade exceptions, $9.8 million (expires November 3, 2009) and $3.24 million (expires January 5, 2010), that they can use to basically buy a player or players from another team. If they cannot sign a free agent they want, they would certainly be able to acquire a player to help via trade.

The big question is will Denver spend what it takes to add to the roster? There has been some consternation that because they are already over the luxury tax limit and with the reduction in spending last summer that Stan Kroenke would not allow the front office to spend any additional money to augment the roster. Kroenke has paid the luxury tax before and I do not think he will say no now as long as doing so makes sense.

For anyone wondering how the world financial crisis is affecting Kroenke I think it is safe to assume he can spend as much money as he wants on the Nuggets. He seems to be taking advantage of the economic recession instead of hoarding his cash in mattresses. He spent over $60 million to increase his ownership in Arsenal of the English Premier League just three months ago. Does that sound like he is freaking out over his Walmart stock?

I think you can count on Denver boosting their talent level and spending the money necessary to do it. Sports Illustrated’s Scott Howard-Cooper seems to be convinced that the Nuggets are going to be aggressive in the free agent market. I expect the same thing. I am convinced Denver wants to make their playoff run a launching point for something better instead of a onetime high point.

Denver did a good job of targeting high energy, athletic and cheap free agents to build a team that can run and play solid team defense.  Hopefully the Nuggets will continue to build a roster of players who can play great team defense, can shoot and play to win and not just for themselves.

Other free agents who I like (are either really good or would be cheaper than they are worth), but are either not going to change teams or Denver would have no interest in:

  • Josh Childress (Restricted – Atlanta Hawks/Greece) – Multi talented
  • Andersen Varejao (Unrestricted – Cleveland Cavaliers) – Scrappy big, great team defender
  • Ersan Ilyasova (Restricted – Milwaukee Bucks/Turkey) – good rebounder and shooter
  • Chris Wilcox (Unrestricted – New York Knickerbockers) – Athletic and possibly cheap
  • Steve Novak (Unrestricted – Los Angeles Clippers) – Deadly shooter
  • C.J. Watson (Restricted – Golden State Warriors) – I like the way he plays
  • Lamar Odom (Unrestricted – Los Angeles Lakers) – No duh
  • Matt Barnes (Restricted – Phoenix Suns) – A more athletic version of LK
  • Hedo Turkoglu (Unrestricted – Orlando Magic) – Versatile, big shot maker
  • Ramon Sessions (Restricted – Milwaukee Bucks) – Can score and distribute

Jason Hart – Making Denver Nuggets History

Jason Hart will always hold a special place in my heart as the report that the Denver Nuggets were going to sign him was shared with the world by Nuggets bloggers. Due to the closing of the Rocky Mountain News Chris Tomasson had no place to report the story so he turned to Andrew at Denver Stiffs and myself to get the news out. It was the first, but hopefully not the last time Nuggets news broke over the blogosphere.

As exciting as his arrival was Hart made very little impact on the Nuggets. He only more than four minutes on two occasions and never played more than eight minutes.

I was a fan of Hart’s when he came out of Syracuse. I thought he could be a serviceable backup point guard in the NBA and he was a solid contributor for a couple of teams earlier in his career. When we found out he was going to be a Nugget I wondered if the plan was to have him take over as the backup point guard for Anthony Carter in the 2009-10 season.

At this point I think the chances of that are unlikely. The only area Hart would provide an upgrade over Carter would be with his shooting ability, but that would be like trading your walkie-talkie for a vintage 1985 25 pound cell phone. Sure the cell phone is better, but not nearly as well as you need it to and good luck keeping up with the folks using BlackBerries and iPhones.

As with Sonny Weems, Hart has value simply due to his ability to fill a roster spot at a cheap price, but I do not expect to see him back with Denver next season.

Hart is a part of Nuggets history, but I bet he was hoping for being remembered for his play on the court instead of how the news of his signing broke.

Jason Hart and His Future With the Denver Nuggets

After the initial burst of excitement following the report by Chris Tomasson that the Denver Nuggets were going to sign Jason Hart after he was bought out by the Clippers everything was swept under the rug.  There was never any big news story in the Denver Post, or anywhere else, heralding Hart’s signing.  He has now appeared in a game for the Nuggets after playing garbage time last night against Portland so it is about time we talk about him.

The Nuggets’ front office likes to pick up players either at the trade deadline, or soon thereafter, who they think might have a future with the team.  It does not cost anything other than a prorated minimum contract and I think it makes good business sense. 

Two seasons ago it was Von Wafer and he has played well this season, just not for the Nuggets.  Last season it was Taurean Green who was acquired from Portland in exchange for Wafer.  Green ended up being one of the two nonguaranteed contracts that brought Renaldo Balkman to Denver.  He may not have been a success on the court, but Denver could not have acquired Balkman without him, or at least without his contract so that has to count for something.

This season the late pickup is Jason Hart and I think he has a brighter future in Denver than either Wafer or Green.  This is just a hunch, but I believe the Nuggets signed him now to be Anthony Carter’s replacement as the backup point guard next season. 

I have liked Hart’s game since he was at Syracuse.  He is not an explosive scorer, but he is just a sound player.  He has been a rotation player for quality teams like the Spurs and Jazz.  He knows how to play team defense and his midrange jumper is more consistent than Carter’s.  I doubt he will see much time this season, but I suspect they brought him onboard now to groom him for his role next season.  

Lineup Changes

Kenyon Martin and Anthony Carter are going to miss the game tonight against the Trail Blazers.  Karl has inserted J.R. Smith in place of Dahntay Jones and Johan Petro in place of Kenyon in the starting lineup.  

With J.R. starting I think that indicates he is not going to be playing back up point guard.  That role will be filled by newly signed Jason Hart.  The Nuggets may be able to get through tonight’s game alright, but by removing a starter and rotation player the increased minutes that will burden the rest of the players tonight is bad news considering Denver is kicking off a stretch of four games in five nights.

Breaking News: Nuggets to Sign Jason Hart

According to a report from Chris Tomasson the Nuggets are going to sign free agent point guard Jason Hart.  I guess that puts an end to the Sam Cassell talk and it makes me wonder if this is a sign the Nuggets are concerned about Anthony Carter’s play this season.

Here is the article from Chris Tomasson of the Rocky Mountain News.  He was unable to post the story on the website due to the closing of the paper.

By Chris Tomasson
Rocky Mountain News

The Nuggets next week will sign point guard Jason Hart, multiple sources told the Rocky Mountain News on Friday.

Hart has been bought by the Los Angeles Clippers for about $300,000.  After he clears waivers, expected to be on Tuesday, he will sign a prorated minimum deal with the Nuggets.

Hart, making $2.5 million before his buyout, will give the Nuggets the third point guard they are seeking.  Hart had to be waived by Sunday’s deadline to be eligible for the playoffs with the Nuggets.  Hart has played sparingly with the Clippers this season, averaging 2.3 points in 28 games. He played for Nuggets coach George Karl as a Milwaukee rookie in 2000-01.

The Nuggets had been looking Mateen Cleaves of the NBA Development League’s Bakersfield Jam as a possible roster addition. But then the Hart situation materialized.

The Nuggets are seeking a third point guard to take some of the burden off Chauncey Billups, 32, and Anthony Carter, 33.

Thaks to Chris for allowing me to post his article.