As free agency nears ever closer, the Denver Nuggets are hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.

Bruce Brown, the Nuggets sixth man and one of the catalysts of Denver’s championship run this past season, is a free agent this summer. His value far outstrips what the Nuggets can legally pay him, and yet Nuggets fans are hoping against hope for a return. Brown is among a group of seven free agents, primarily at the back end of the roster, that are set to all depart this off-season that includes veterans like Jeff Green and DeAndre Jordan as well as mid-season acquisitions like Reggie Jackson and Thomas Bryant. Brown is the most important of them all, but it seems likely that he will have an offer he can’t refuse to go elsewhere and get paid.

Heading into free agency, the Nuggets currently have 10 guaranteed contracts on their roster, including newest first round pick Julian Strawther. If the Nuggets decide to sign second round draft picks Jalen Pickett and Hunter Tyson to full-time contracts, that adds to a potential roster spot crunch. Perhaps one or both of those picks sign a two-way contract instead to alleviate the roster spot issue.

Whatever the case, the five Nuggets starters are all locked in for next season, as are young wings Christian Braun and Peyton Watson and veteran forwards Vlatko Čančar and Zeke Nnaji. While the makings of a complete rotation are in place, there’s still a need for a trusted ball handler and an additional trusted frontcourt option. Bruce Brown and Jeff Green filled those roles last season, and the Nuggets will do what they can to retain both.

The Nuggets are being realistic though, and they know that it’s possible Brown goes elsewhere. It’s one of the reasons why general manager Calvin Booth speaking about both Jalen Pickett and Collin Gillespie as point guards they can trust is a big deal. Even still, could the Nuggets look to replace Brown with a veteran outside of the organization? It’s possible.

With that in mind, let’s discuss various free agency options and trade targets the Nuggets have at their disposal to bolster their championship roster:

1. Bruce Brown – Guard/Wing, Denver Nuggets

Starting with the obvious: Brown is Denver’s top priority this off-season. If they can retain him, they certainly will. The problem is the contract. Because Brown signed what was effectively a one-year deal last year, the Nuggets have what’s called “Non-Bird Rights” on Brown’s next contract, meaning they’re only limited to offering Brown a maximum raise of 20% of his salary in 2022-23. That number was $6.479 million, meaning the most the Nuggets can offer Brown for the 2023-24 season is $7.775 million. Other teams can offer much more in the first year as well as guaranteed salary in the years after, a four-year, $53.5 million contract that the Nuggets are competing against for Brown’s services.

It’s pretty simple regarding Brown: the analog for keeping him is doing a similar deal to what Bobby Portis signed in Milwaukee. Portis initially signed in Milwaukee on a prove-it contract. The Bucks won the championship that year (2021) and Portis more than earned a big payday, but he signed for the 20% raise instead on another one-year deal. After that year (2022) Portis re-upped with Milwaukee for a four-year, $48.6 million extension that more accurately matched his value to the team.

It’s a big risk for Brown to do what Portis did, but it worked out for both parties as Portis has been a helpful contributor to the Bucks for the last three seasons. If Brown really wants to stick around in Denver, this is the best way to do it.

2. Alex Caruso – Guard, Chicago Bulls (trade)

Assuming Denver can’t figure out a deal with Brown, they will have to pivot to other options. The top option for Denver this off-season would be Alex Caruso, a dynamic defensive guard with some playmaking ability and smarts offensively. Among all 82 guards to play 1,500+ minutes last year, Caruso ranked first in steals per 100 possessions and second in blocks per 100 possessions, per Stathead.

Caruso is a unique case because he would have to be acquired via trade, and he just barely fits into Denver’s traded player exception acquired when the Nuggets sent Monte Morris to the Washington Wizards. The TPE covers up to $9.125 million in salary during the 2022-23 season, which is a good thing, because Caruso had a cap hit of $9.03 million. The cap logistics can get a bit complicated, but Caruso is worth the headache. He’s one of the best defensive guards year after year, and he would fit perfectly in Bruce Brown’s vacated backcourt spot.

It’s unlikely that the Bulls say yes to a trade for Caruso that might include just second round picks or perhaps Zeke Nnaji or Peyton Watson, but this is the rite of passage for any NBA champion: shoot for the moon and see what you can get.

3. Donte DiVincenzo – Guard/Wing, Golden State Warriors

Another unlikely option that would be an excellent fit in Denver. Donte DiVincenzo showed his ability to adapt to a role with a championship contender in Golden State this last yea. After the Warriors flamed out in the first round though, there’s a possibility that they pivot toward some of their younger players like Moses Moody or Jonathan Kuminga. DiVincenzo opted out of his $4.73 million player option in search for a more lucrative contract. DiVincenzo will likely find better money than in Denver, and he deserves a major pay raise. The Nuggets only have the Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception at their disposal, which is worth $5 million flat.

On the off chance that those deals fall through for DiVincenzo though, he would be a great fit with the Nuggets. The versatile wing averaged 9.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game with the Warriors and became a trusted option in their rotation. He shot 39.7% from three-point range on 5.3 threes per game. He’s a Villanova guard and simply knows how to play.

There’s no real reason that the Nuggets should be able to add DiVincenzo to their rotation…and yet…you have to make the call.

4. Delon Wright – Guard, Washington Wizards (trade)

According to Jake Fischer of Yahoo Sports, the Wizards are seeking draft compensation for both Delon Wright and Monte Morris. Seen as solid veteran backup point guard options across the league, the Nuggets are intimately familiar with Morris. Unfortunately, they cannot reacquire Morris with the TPE used to trade him away because it would be within the same league year. So, the Nuggets could pivot to Wright, who’s an intriguing guard to add to any playoff rotation. Wright has 37 playoff games under his belt and has played in a variety of roles around the NBA.

During this last season, Wright ranked fifth in defensive estimated plus-minus among point guards behind Dennis Smith Jr., Jrue Holiday, Marcus Smart, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. Wright’s steal numbers are incredible, and he has an impact as a perimeter defender that the Nuggets could certainly use. If he can run some pick and roll with the second unit effectively, then he’d be as strong of a (realistic) replacement for Bruce Brown as there is on the open market.

5. Jeff Green – Forward/Big, Denver Nuggets

Outside of the best possible Bruce Brown replacements, Denver’s next priority should be to bring back Jeff Green. The steady veteran has played two seasons with the Nuggets, and it appears that Green is ready to settle down in Denver for the rest of his career.

For the Nuggets, that would be a mutual partnership. Green’s contributions off the bench during this season were important, and his steadiness as a leader cannot be understated. Green’s good for one incredible dunk every two or free games and simply knows how to cut, space the floor, and defend during the moments in between. It’s not a sexy role to fill, but Green’s steadiness helped the Nuggets win a championship, making important plays throughout the run.

The Nuggets are unlikely to offer Green much more than a minimum contract going forward, but that could certainly be enough to retain the soon-to-be 37-year-old veteran.

6. Jae’Sean Tate – Wing/Forward, Houston Rockets (trade)

Here’s where the Nuggets can add some spice to their off-season.

The next two players are bench wings on the Houston Rockets, a team that just drafted Amen Thompson and Cam Whitmore and appears to be looking to make a big splash in free agency. Perhaps that involves adding a veteran wing like Dillon Brooks in which case, Jae’Sean Tate and K.J. Martin are a bit more expendable than they were before. Both guys want to play roles, and if they’re cannibalizing each other’s minutes, it would be in the Rockets’ best interest to make a roster move.

The Nuggets don’t have much to offer, but if Jae’Sean Tate could be acquired for cheap, he’d be a nice buy-low candidate for a Nuggets rotation that has several young wing options but few veterans. Tate has a flawed outside shot but is a solid defender, rebounder, and passer.

7. K.J. Martin – Wing/Forward, Houston Rockets (trade)

Ditto for K.J. Martin (Kenyon Martin Jr.) who would bring some more athleticism and transition ability to Denver’s rotation. Martin is a worse defender than Tate but a better offensive player and a cheaper contract. Martin’s outside shooting isn’t great either, but he’s a dunk threat on the wing similar to a Derrick Jones Jr. type and would bring a different dynamic to the Nuggets bench. Martin logged 173 dunks last year with Houston. That’s pretty fun.

Again, he’s unlikely to go, but Martin already made a trade request last year to find more playing time. Perhaps he’d be the one to seek out a trade, and the Nuggets could be an interested party.

8. Jevon Carter – Guard, Milwaukee Bucks

Jevon Carter opted out of his contract with the Bucks to become an unrestricted free agent. This past season, he played 81 games and started 39 for Milwaukee, primarily in place of Jrue Holiday. He’s a solid defender that works hard on the perimeter and hit 42% of his three-pointers. Carter struggled mightily in the playoffs though, and that could be a reason why the Bucks decide they’d rather go a different direction.

The Nuggets could use a defensive-minded backup point guard that’s capable of spacing the floor in an off-ball capacity. Other teams could use that too though, and it’s likely that Carter finds an offer worth more than what the Nuggets can pay him. Still, Carter fits the archetype of what the Nuggets need without Bruce Brown in the fold, and he would be a reasonable consolation prize.

9. Patrick Beverley – Guard, Chicago Bulls

The Bulls have plenty of questions to answer this off-season, and the first one of those was to extend Nikola Vucevic for $20 million a season. On top of paying significant contracts to Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan, the Bulls have another $20 million tied to Lonzo Ball, who’s unlikely to play again next season due to a knee issue he simply can’t shake. As a result, the Bulls don’t have a lot of money to throw around. They will likely bring back Ayo Dosunmu and Coby White, retain Patrick Williams and Andre Drummond, and add somebody on the MLE from outside the organization.

That doesn’t leave a lot of room for Beverley. The Bulls signed Beverley on the buyout market last year, and though he shot poorly during that brief stretch, he played impressive defense next to Alex Caruso. If the Nuggets can’t get Caruso, perhaps they could add Beverley, who has been a starter in the league for a long time but is about to turn 35 years old and in a different stage of his career. Perhaps he can be a veteran guard off Denver’s bench.

10. Eric Gordon – Guard/Wing, Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers decided not to guarantee the final season of Eric Gordon’s contract, and he will hit unrestricted free agency in a surprise move. Gordon has been a functional veteran wing shooter for a long time, making 1,878 threes in his NBA career. He’s played in a bunch of big games and can hold up defensively in those moments. It’s a surprise that the Clippers decided not to keep him around, and a lot of teams will be interested in Gordon’s services.

Gordon isn’t the athlete or level of defender that Brown is for Denver, but he’s a better shooter and a savvy player, knowing how to impact winning in a variety of ways. He won’t lead a bench unit as a pick and roll scorer, but he would be a solid player to have regardless. The Nuggets still have questions on the perimeter, and Gordon would help shore those up.

11. Cole Anthony – Guard, Orlando Magic (trade)

There’s a new logjam in Orlando. After selecting Anthony Black and Jett Howard in the draft last week, Cole Anthony is now in a tenuous position: good enough to compete for rotation minutes but not good enough to be a franchise building block. He’s a solid backup point guard though and plays with enough aggressiveness to lead a unit, even for a championship contender.

The Nuggets can help ease that logjam, even with their TPE or with Zeke Nnaji as a matching salary. Nnaji, a fellow member to Anthony of the 2020 NBA Draft class, has also struggled to find a role in Denver due to a logjam at forward. That doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon, but the Magic could certainly use another athletic, 6’9″ forward in the pipeline. This feels like a trade that makes sense for both sides, especially if Brown departs.

12. Jae Crowder – Forward, Milwaukee Bucks

Simply adding good players is important for Denver at this phase of contention, and Jae Crowder is a good player that appears to be gettable for a reasonable contract. Crowder’s stint with the Bucks did not go well, and with the Bucks forced into financial issues worrying about Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez, role players will slip through the cracks. Maybe Crowder slips through.

The Nuggets don’t “need” Crowder, but he would be a great veteran to have backing up Michael Porter Jr. this year. The Nuggets appear ready to hand off that responsibility to Peyton Watson, but there’s a strong possibility Watson just isn’t ready for that. Adding a veteran 3&D forward that’s malleable in different lineups would be a great option for any contender.

13. Taurean Prince – Forward, Minnesota Timberwolves (trade)

Basically everything that was said for Crowder applies to Taurean Prince. He’s slightly more consistent shooter and can do a bit more offensively, but Prince isn’t the same versatile defender. The T’Wolves had to make a cost cutting move and waive Prince. Perhaps the Nuggets could benefit from that, offering their Taxpayer MLE.

14. Yuta Watanabe – Forward, Brooklyn Nets

Yuta Watanabe is an under-the-radar free agent who provides great size as a 6’9″ forward. He tailed off last season after the Nets traded Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, being replaced by players like Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, and Dorian Finney-Smith in the rotation. Watanabe is good though. Pre All-Star break, Watanabe shot 48% from three-point range on low volume and made a ton of hustle plays.

Watanabe is the exact kind of player that Denver might add and not be considered a sexy signing but would bolster Denver’s rotation throughout the year. Watanabe wouldn’t have to play every night, but there’s more to his game to be unlocked by Nikola Jokić and the Nuggets. I see him making a case for a playoff rotation spot on this roster.

15. Cedi Osman – Wing/Forward, Cleveland Cavaliers (trade)

The Cleveland Cavaliers may not be financially desperate enough to just give Cedi Osman away, but it’s clear that they’re working within constraints to try and upgrade their roster. The Cavaliers have the non-taxpayer MLE at their disposal, but only if they don’t cross the luxury tax apron. With some big contracts on the roster and possibly trying to re-sign Caris LeVert AND add someone else, Osman appears a bit superfluous in their group.

Enter the Nuggets, who don’t quite “need” what Osman brings but would be better for it. He’s a wing shooter who can run pick and roll and do so efficiently. Playing with the Nuggets, he’d be in line to have his best “situation” offensively next to Nikola Jokić. Perhaps the Nuggets can squeeze out an elite shooting season from Osman in a contract year by acquiring him with their TPE and a second round pick or two.

16. Seth Curry – Guard, Brooklyn Nets

Another shooter, but this time purely a guard shooter. Seth Curry is a career 43.5% three-point shooter and has had success running DHOs with Joel Embiid in Philadelphia. He brings a completely different dimension to a Nuggets guard rotation that isn’t stocked full of lethal shooters, and Curry can get to his three-pointer in different ways. Yes, Curry’s defense brings question marks, but the Nuggets don’t even need Curry to be average on that end…just not abhorrent.

Other teams will value his three-point shooting as well, but perhaps Curry sees Jokić and the Nuggets as a great opportunity. In other places, teams would sit on Curry’s three-point shooting and be unwilling to give him open shots. In Denver, Curry might play in lineups with Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokić, Michael Porter Jr. out there. Good luck picking which shooter to leave open.

17. Willy Hernangomez – Big, New Orleans Pelicans (trade)

I will always try to get the Nuggets to trade for Willy Hernangomez. It’s unclear if he’s even available, but he has a low contract number and deserves a better opportunity than New Orleans. There are too many players on that roster that need playing time. In Denver, Hernangomez would have the inside track to be the backup center behind Jokić. Yes, it’s a thankless job, but the Nuggets need a center in the regular season. They can’t leave Aaron Gordon to deal with that assignment or else risk injury.

A second round pick for Hernangomez feels fair, especially if the big man doesn’t fit into the Pelicans’ long term plans.

18. Reggie Jackson – Guard, Denver Nuggets

Another Nugget! Reggie Jackson probably shouldn’t be Denver’s biggest priority at backup point guard. He’s not the right fit for Denver’s playoff rotation as it currently stands; however, he’s already familiar with the Nuggets system and expectations. He was a good veteran in the locker room. The play on the court was bad during the regular season, but perhaps an off-season and training camp to get fully acclimated would help.

Jackson has the experience and cadre to carry the backup point guard title into the season, but he’s definitely one of the players most likely on a hot seat if the bench struggles during the season again.

19. Dennis Smith Jr. – Guard, Charlotte Hornets

A strong defender and a better decision maker than he gets credit for, Dennis Smith Jr. had a bit of a revival in Charlotte last season. The expectations were low, but Smith got back to his roots of hounding opposing guards on the ball and making an impact on the less glamorous end. He put together a 3.18 assist:turnover ratio as well. Outside shooting was of course an issue (21.6% from three) but he’s been a better shooter than that in his career.

If the Nuggets are looking for a guard to run some pick and roll and play legit defense, they could do worse than Smith. He might have other offers, but he’s at least an interesting candidate.

20. Killian Hayes – Guard, Detroit Pistons (trade)

Ditto the Dennis Smith Jr. talk for Killian Hayes, except Hayes is more expensive. He’s in the final year of his rookie contract with the Detroit Pistons and appears unlikely to be a long term fit there with all three of Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey, and Ausar Thomspon needing minutes. Like Smith though, Hayes is a solid defender and passer. He simply can’t make a basket, shooting 37.7% from the field and 28.0% from three last year.

The Pistons have had notoriously bad spacing for a long time. Hayes contributes to that, but he’s not the only problem. Maybe in his Age-22 season (he was so young when he entered the league) Hayes sees some growth. The Nuggets don’t have a ton of time to wait around though, making this a bit of a dangerous bet.

21. Joe Ingles – Forward, Milwaukee Bucks

Joe Ingles came back from a torn ACL in December and almost immediately returned to form as a solid playmaking forward. Ingles shot 40.7% from three-point range, averaged 3.3 assists in 22.7 minutes per game, and was a critical member of the Bucks rotation in the back half of the season. Obviously, Milwaukee’s season ended abruptly, but that doesn’t change how impressive Ingles was. He’s going to turn 36 before the next season, but there’s no reason to believe he wouldn’t be a solid bench player again.

Could he do for the Nuggets what he did for the Bucks? The Nuggets could certainly use the bench playmaking if Brown leaves. Ingles and Jokić together would also be absolutely hilarious.

22. Kris Dunn – Guard, Utah Jazz

Kris Dunn is a name many haven’t heard for awhile, but you may be surprised to know that Dunn averaged 13.2 points, 5.6 assists, and 4.5 rebounds last season for the Utah Jazz. It was a brief stint for a tanking team, but Dunn might actually be a player. The elite jump shot likely isn’t real, but the defense, playmaking, and rebounding at the guard position likely are. The Nuggets could probably do worse than Dunn.

Dunn is currently on a non-guaranteed contract with Utah for the upcoming season, but that might change. Talen Horton-Tucker just opted into his deal, and the Jazz have too many players and probably still want some cap space. Perhaps Dunn gets waived in the next few hours and becomes an interesting buy-low free agent option.

23. DeAndre Jordan – Big, Denver Nuggets

This one is pretty simple: DeAndre Jordan would be great to have back in Denver as a veteran presence. His minimum contract last year was immediately met with resistance from the fan base, but Jordan earned his keep as a veteran leader and occasional backup center. The Nuggets valued that, and he could potentially fill a similar role in Denver this season.

Expecting Jordan to play consistent minutes is probably a bridge too far. The Nuggets will need another backup center option even if they commit to Jordan.

24. Shake Milton – Guard, Philadelphia 76ers

The Philadelphia 76ers are currently facing a salary crunch and a standoff with James Harden. They don’t want to give him all of the money and the years he wants, but in a player’s league, Harden will probably get what he wants. That leaves the Sixers to figure out the edges of their roster with limited funds, and Shake Milton feels like a reasonable casualty, given that he was out of the Sixers playoff rotation.

The Nuggets could use some of Milton’s scoring and playmaking. He averaged solid numbers off of Philly’s bench, and there’s a possibility that Milton needed the ball in his hands on a team that had other mouths to feed. He wouldn’t have that problem in Denver and could flourish in such a system. The defense will need to improve though.

25. Mike Muscala – Big, Boston Celtics (trade)

Finally, the most important name of them all: Mike Muscala is a good bench big man shooter who got lost in the shuffle in Boston. Muscala was traded to the Washington Wizards for Kristaps Porzingis where he’s unlikely to be a needed piece in a tank. There’s little need for Muscala on the Wizards roster at this point, but that doesn’t make him a bad option for Denver.

The Nuggets could use a stretch five. Muscala has hit nearly 38% of the threes he’s attempted in his career. Why not go for him with a TPE and a second round pick to fill the regular season minutes at backup center?