2020 Denver Nuggets Offseason Primer: Addressing roster needs

Denver Nuggets forward Jerami Grant (9) celebrates defeating the against the Detroit Pistons at the Pepsi Center.
Feb 25, 2020; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Jerami Grant (9) celebrates defeating the against the Detroit Pistons at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets are entering the offseason with the stakes as high as they have ever been.

After overcoming back-to-back 3-1 deficits against the Utah Jazz and the Los Angeles Clippers — the latter being a common choice amongst media to win the NBA title — to reach the Western Conference Finals, the Nuggets have solidified their place among the true title contenders in the National Basketball Association heading into the 2020-21 season.

But their work is far from finished.

Now Denver will have to find a way to ascend from from potential title contender to actually winning their first NBA championship in franchise history.

The Nuggets already have two young stars who have proven themselves on some of the biggest stages in Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, but two stars is not enough to win a title and Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly is well aware of that fact.

Plus, with five players entering either unrestricted or restricted free agency this offseason, the Nuggets have quite a few decisions to make in addition to finding what was missing during their 2019-20 postseason run.

Now that the Nuggets’ own free agents have been outlined in Part 1 of the 2020 Denver Nuggets offseason Primer, it is time to dive into which players the Nuggets could target in free agency to round out their roster. But before getting into all of those possible additions, it is important to know where the Nuggets roster stands.

For a more in-depth look at the Nuggets roster and their free against, read Part 1 here.

Guaranteed depth chart

The Denver Nuggets will be returning four of their five starters — Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton III, and Nikola Jokic — with their fifth starter — Paul Millsap — entering unrestricted free agency.

They are also going to have three other members of their regular rotation — Monte Morris, PJ Dozier, and Michael Porter Jr. — returning with three other reserves — Keita Bates-Diop, Valtko Cancar, and Bol Bol — also returning for the 2020-21 season.

For more on who’s contract is guaranteed next season and which members of the Nuggets will be free agents, check out Part 1 of the 2020 Denver Nuggets Offseason Primer.

Here is Denver’s depth chart featuring only players with contracts set to expire after next season:

That leaves Denver with 10 guaranteed players, one of which is on a two-way contract in Bol. Clearly, they have some holes to fill before the 2020 offseason ends.

So which gaps in the roster does Denver need to fill? Let’s dive in.

Roster needs

There are two very clear gaps in Denver’s roster; frontcourt depth and a lack of wings.

With Bol being on the second year of a two-way contract, it is hard to expect him to fill regular rotation minutes. Two-way contracts only allow the player to participate with the professional team for a total of 45 days making Bol a near non-factor unless his contract is reworked into a full-time NBA deal. That leaves Denver with only one power forward or center on their roster in Nikola Jokic.

On the surface it appears that they have more then enough wings, but neither of Keita Bates-Diop or Vlatko Cancar have proven they are capable of filling full-time rotation minutes for a contending team. Bates-Diop has shown he can be an impactful defender, smart off-ball cutter and a surprisingly effective playmaker on occasion, but his offensive game is still incredibly limited. Cancar has only played 45 minutes at the NBA level over his career. Additionally, Will Barton III, despite playing well as a small forward before his injury, is better suited as a shooting guard. Nuggets head coach Michael Malone could elect to start Barton at shooting guard instead of the struggling Gary Harris which would leave Denver with one wing who took part in the postseason; Michael Porter Jr., who just finished up a roller coaster of a rookie year.

Regardless of position, Denver could also use more three-point shooting, shot blocking, and wing defenders.

So how can Denver fill these spots on the roster? Could Denver run it back or will they look to the free agent market? Who on the free agent market could Denver look to sign?

Frontcourt depth

This is the most concerning aspect of the Nuggets roster as is. Having no power forward or backup center on the roster means finding frontcourt depth is paramount.

Really, Jokic is the only big on the roster at this point with Bol still signed as a two-way contract player.

Let’s just get the elephant in the room out of the way early. Yes, the Nuggets want Jerami Grant in Denver long term and they did not trade for him as a rental. His free agency is likely the first priority for the Nuggets front office without a close second or third. He is the obvious heir to the starting power forward role regardless of whether Millsap is back in Denver next season. Grant has emerged as an ideal frontcourt pairing with Jokic thanks to his incredibly unique combination of athleticism, defensive versatility, shot blocking, and three-point shooting. After his fantastic postseason run helping the Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals, he could command anywhere from $16-20 million per year and will likely be looking for a four-year deal to maximize his current value around the league. Denver inherited his bird rights when they traded for him so they will be able to sign him over the cap regardless of how much he commands, but Grant will not come cheap. He has earned the massive payday that is on its way.

If Denver chooses to retain Grant and they end up hypothetically paying him $18 million per year over four years, that would put the Nuggets nine million over the salary cap meaning a luxury tax bill is likely unavoidable as they fill out the rest of the roster. The luxury tax number that is being used for this exercise is $139 million. With Grant being signed at $18 million per season, Denver would only be about $21 million from eclipsing the luxury tax threshold with only 10 players on their full-time roster equaling to just over $118 million in roster salary.

If the Nuggets want to keep their 2019-20 roster together and run it back — as president of basketball operations Tim Connelly and general manager Clavin Booth have both indicated — they could also look to sign Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee to new deals in addition to signing Grant to a new contract. Both will be unrestricted free agents, but Denver will also have full bird rights for each of them which allows the Nuggets to sign both Plumlee and Millsap even if they are over the salary cap. Additionally, the free agency market for each of them is not looking promising. There will not be a large number of teams looking to sign a power forward even with Millsap’s track record of winning and his skill level. The market is even tougher for backup centers as more and more teams keep going away from the traditional center archetype. Because of those two facts, Denver might be able to retain both Plumlee and Millsap at a very team-friendly price if the market for either of them fails to materialize.

If Denver fails to retain one of Plumlee or Millsap (or both), they could also look to sign Noah Vonleh to a new contract. He did not play much after being acquired via trade, but he is able to play both power forward and center while also emerging potential as a three-point shooter. He also brings physicality and size while also already knowing the Nuggets team; something that could be more of an advantage that it appears at face value as teams struggle with he lack of in-person interviews with free agents due to COVID-19.

So if the Nuggets need to look outside their own players, who could be available on the free agency market?

The only true power forward who makes sense for Denver — especially if they fail to keep Millsap in the fold — is Derrick Favors, who spent this past season with the incredibly young New Orleans Pelicans. Favors is very similar to Millsap in terms of being able to be an impactful backline defender while adding a reliable post game to the bench unit. Plus, his advanced splits are very encouraging. When he was on the floor, the Pelicans offensive rating was 3.9 points better and their defensive rating was 4.5 points better. Overall, New Orleans was -4.2 net rating with him off the floor but a +4.2 when he was on it. That 8.4 points per 100 possessions swing is sizable and it is indicative of how he positively impacts the game when on the floor. The issue with Favors is that he might cost too much for the Nuggets, who may only have their mid-level exception (estimated to be valued at $9.258 million per year) or bi-annual exception (estimated to be valued at $3.623 million per year) to offer him depending on when they sign him.

Even if there is a lack of pure power forwards this upcoming free agency period, there are more than a few players who are more hybrid big men; playing both power forward and center.

For defensive purposes, there are a couple options to mention. Denver could look at Nerlens Noel, who spent last season in Oklahoma City and will need a new home to prove himself next season. Noel adds lots of vertical athleticism which makes him viable as a rim roller alongside Monte Morris and he also brings shot blocking which would allow him to play center or power forward with the starters or bench unit. In addition to those skills, he has the mobility to defend on the perimeter when locked in. Fellow Klutch client Tristan Thompson also makes sense in this regard. He can play power forward or center, is a very strong rebounder, knows how to play positionally-strong defense and also still possesses the physical ability to protect the rim. The last defensive big who can play power forward or center that could make some sense is Willie Cauley-Stein, who needs somewhere to resurrect his career. He had a brief stint with the Dallas Mavericks after playing 41 games with the Golden State Warriors. Similarly to Noel, Stein adds athleticism, shot blocking, rebounding, and a threat rolling to the rim.

There is one other player who can operate as both a power forward and center, but he is more of a floor spacing option than a helpful defender. Meyers Leonard spent his first eight years with the Portland Trail Blazers, but is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. His mixture of size, three-point shooting, and offensive skills makes him an enticing acquisition to come off the bench. There is still uncertainty surrounding what his market value could be, but if Denver manages to sign him as a backup big for cheap, he could provide an offensive lift they currently lack.

There are also a handful of pure centers who could be signed if Denver loses Plumlee or elects to move on from him.

Denver could look to sign Aron Baynes, who was with the Phoenix Suns this past season. Baynes is a decent positional defender who can stretch the floor as a center. He is smart and can add more offensive firepower to a bench unit that struggled scoring in the postseason. For more defensive purposes, the Nuggets could look at Bismack Biyombo, who would add quite a bit of toughness and rim protection to a Nuggets team that lacked both at moments throughout the season. One other incredibly interesting option is Marc Gasol, who is admittedly at the end of his career. He is still choosing between returning to Spain to conclude his career or stay in the NBA for another year. If he chooses the latter, Denver could be appealing. They are contending for a title and also have a superstar center that many compare to Gasol in Jokic. Having them on the same team could help Jokic’s defensive growth while also making it an enticing option for Gasol to return for one final season. Lastly, Denver could turn to Alex Len for backup center minutes. He is not much more than a traditional center — a role that is losing value by the minute — but he has the ability to soak up those non-Jokic minutes.

Beyond those frontcourt players, there is not many other names to discuss. Denver will have to choose between those names or retaining the players they have had on their roster.

Wing depth

On the surface, it appears Denver does not have an issue with their forward depth. They have four wings already on their roster so the thought of needing to add more seems strange, but when taking a closer look, the more realistic situation is that Denver might only have one true wing on their roster in Porter.

Barton started at small forward for the majority of the season and played very well, but it is no secret that he is better served as a shooting guard. Plus, with Harris’ struggles staying on the court and shooting the basketball, it might make more sense for Denver to start Barton at shooting guard which would remove one of their possible wings. Additionally, the final two forwards on the roster are Bates-Diop and Cancar; neither of which have much experience filling a full-time rotation spot for a contender.

So again, if Barton ends up sliding back to shooting guard, Denver only has one wing on their roster who was a member of the playoff rotation; Porter.

That means Denver needs to find more wings, but specifically more wings who can also add defensive impact or three-point shooting.

They already have one possible answer to their wing issue on their roster preparing for restricted free agency in Craig, who just finished up the final year of his first full-time NBA deal. Craig has the trust of Malone, the defensive chops to make an impact, has proven he can knock down 3-pointers on occasion, and is one of the most beloved teammates in the Nuggets locker room. Plus, sources told Mile High Sports that Craig originally took less money to stay in Denver after his two-way contract ended. Denver has his bird rights which will allow them to sign Craig over the salary cap to retain him if they choose to do so, but the decision will likely come down to what his market will look like and who else Denver could acquire if they chose to move on from Craig.

If Denver chooses to look elsewhere, there are more than a few options on the market.

If they choose to look for more shooting, there is one option that is almost salivating. Former Denver Nuggets forward Danilo Gallinari will be an unrestricted free agent and is the ideal sixth man for the Nuggets as they pursue their first NBA championship. Not only would adding him bring an additional creator and incredibly gifted shot maker to the second unit —  a group that lacked offensive firepower in the playoffs — but he would also be the ideal safeguard for Michael Porter Jr. if he either gets hurt or goes through a period of struggles which is almost expected as teams spend more time scouting him and learning how to slow him on the offensive end. Gallinari possesses many of the same skills that Porter does and also plays a similar style which makes the Nuggets that much more of a cohesive unit regardless of who is on the floor. He would also allow Denver to seamlessly blend their bench unit with heir starting group as opposed to the hockey shifts that would sometimes be necessary. He also should provide Denver with more flexibility when it comes to playing big or small. In addition to all of those positives, Gallinari is an underrated positional defender and is yet another jumbo wing for the Nuggets to utilize in a playoff atmosphere. Oh, and Gallinari loves the city of Denver which means he might be one of the few established free agents who wants to spend his free time in the Mile High City. It is hard to ignore this option as a true win-now move. Bringing back Grant and signing Gallinari would make the Nuggets serious contenders going into the 2020-21 season.

Four other shooters who could help, but are less likely additions, are Bogdan Bogdanovic, the Morris twins — Markieff and Marcus — as well as Davis Bertans.

Let’s start with Bertans, who is in pursuit of a big payday after shooting 42.4% from three-point range on 8.7 attempts per game this past season for the Washington Wizards. He makes a lot of sense in theory for the Nuggets as a lights out shooter off the bench — or in the starting lineup if Denver loses Jerami Grant in free agency — but will Denver have the money to sign such a specialist who struggles so much on defense? That seems like an unlikely conclusion; especially if Grant is in Denver which seems like the likely outcome being that Grant and the Nuggets have mutual interest in a new deal as originally reported by Mike Singer of The Denver Post. If Grant is retained, there is almost no chance Bertans will see Denver as an enticing landing spot because he will be relegated to be bench spot behind Grant and Jokic. It also makes little sense for the Nuggets to pay a backup power forward somewhere around $15 million per year. Still, if Denver ends up losing Grant and Bertans has yet to sign a new deal, Denver could look to go all-in on offense and add Bertans’ incredible shooting to their starting lineup alongside Jokic’s seemingly impossible passing ability.

Bogdanovic is a different story. He is not as threatening of a shooter as Bertans and is smaller than any of the other shooting-oriented wings Denver could purse in free agency which limits his defensive capabilities, but his offensive skill set should shine alongside Jokic. Bogdanovic is able to shoot off the dribble or off the catch, is an underrated creator with he ball in his hands, and is a devestating off-ball threat either cutting to the rim or finding the open spaces beyond the three-point arc. He could compete for the starting shooting guard position or become Denver’s offensive spark off the bench. Also, his value in this current financial climate is extremely volatile. If Denver strikes out on Gallinari and they want a dynamic scorer off the bench, Bogdanovic might end up being able to be signed at a bargain as teams look elsewhere leaving Bogdanovic without many teams interested in his services. In addition to all of those reasons, Jokic and Bogdanovic have a history together paying on the Serbian National Team making his fit on the Nuggets roster that much more seamless.

Lastly, the Morris twins. While both of them provide grit and three-point shooting, their style of play is counter-productive to the Nuggets system. While both seem to make sense on paper, it seems unlikely either will be in a Nuggets uniform to kick off the 2020-21 season.

If Denver spends most of their money elsewhere and are looking for someone who can fill out their roster while still adding shooting from the wing position, they could also look at Solomon Hill, who shot 36.8% on threes during his time with both the Miami Heat and the Memphis Grizzlies last season. Hill is not a glamour signing, but he knows his role and has played it well for years. Denver could rely on him to give them strong minutes as a veteran who knows how to help a team win games.

When looking for more defensive-minded wings, there are a handful who make sense for the Nuggets.

The first player is also the same forward who dashed Denver’s playoff hopes just about 18 months ago when the Nuggets lost to the Portland Trail Blazers in seven games in the second round of the playoffs. Maurice “Moe” Harkless has proven time and time again that his defensive versatility is helpful for any team and he has fully accepted being a role player. He is willing to do the dirty work, can battle down low with big men, can switch onto the perimeter to defend guards — as Jamal Murray remembers fondly — and also happens to be a great locker room presence by all accounts. If the Nuggets lose Torrey Craig in free agency, Harkless would be a fantastic addition to fill his spot on the roster.

One other underrated defender entering the free agency market is Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who can play as a small forward and has even logged time as a small-ball center going back to his time in Brooklyn. That ability to guard on the perimeter as well as down low makes him another good fit for Denver’s needs while coming at a likely team-friendly deal because, once again, the financial uncertainty surrounding the National Basketball Association could mean his value ends up lower than his production dictates.

Lastly, for a cheaper option, Denver could look to bring back a forward who they coveted during his pre-draft process. Kenrich Williams is a coaches dream, one of the smarter options on the free agent market, is a high-level rebounder and a smart offensive player with or without the ball in his hands. He is not a floor spacer and has injury concerns going back to his college days, but Williams could be a great add at a cheaper cost to fill out the roster if he lacks suitors.

But what if Denver does not want to compromise? What if they want to sign wings who can not only be offensive additions, but also not hurt their defense? There are not many names available on the market this year, but there are a few.

The first and most obvious option is Jae Crowder, who had a strong showing in the Orlando bubble. He helped the Miami Heat reach the Finals while playing scrapping defense and getting hot from three-point range from time to time. His offense is streaky at best and inefficient at worst, but he constantly works to provide advantages to help his team win. So while his career three-point shooting percentage of 34% is nothing amazing, he is able to knock down those shots on occasion. He might end up searching for more money than Denver can pay him, but if his market bottoms out, Denver could do worse adding another wing to their roster.

Denver could also look to bring in Millsap’s friend and veteran forward Kent Bazemore. While his defense has been slightly overrated over the years, there is no denying that he can help with Denver’s perimeter defense which can become porous at times. He also is offensively capable from most spots on the floor including from three-point range where he is a career 35% shooter. Bazemore could be looking for more money than Denver is willing to offer, but like many other free agents this coming off season, the market could fall out beneath them which would put Denver in a strong position to sign them.

The last option may actually be the best option for the Nuggets in free agency. Justin Holiday — brother of Jrue Holiday — has emerged as one of the most underrated ‘three-and-D’ players in the Association. He shot 40.5% from three-point range this season on 4.5 attempts per game with his efficiency being a career-best mark. He also is is six-foot-six with a seven-foot wingspan. He is a willing and dedicated defender who plays his role well. If the Nuggets find a way to add him without breaking the bank, it could go a long way to shoring up their wing depth.

If Denver is willing to spend, they could have their choice of role players to fill out their roster, but if they try to avoid the luxury tax, their momentum could be lost

Hopefully it is clear after all of the words above that the market value for most role players will be minimized due to COVID-19 and the financial uncertainty surrounding the NBA.

While that is an issue on one hand, it could also be a benefit the Nuggets if they are willing to open up their checkbook and begin spending into the luxury tax.

With so many teams potentially averse to spending large sums of money during arguably the most chaotic offseason in recent memory, Denver could appear as the exception. They have both their mid-level exception, bi-annual exception, about $9 million in cap space and the advantage of contending for a title. If players are looking for a home during a tough free agent market and also want to contend — as almost all free agents will be — Denver makes more sense than the majority of teams.

But it will require Nuggets’ ownership to open up their pockets and pay into the luxury tax for just the fourth time in franchise history. If they continue their history of avoiding the luxury tax, they could lose all of the momentum they have built, but if they choose to go all-in on winning an NBA title next season, they have the ability to do so. But more on that in Part 3 of the 2020 Denver Nuggets Offseason Primer which is coming soon.

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