For the Denver Nuggets, the clock is officially ticking on the 2022-23 “title or bust” season.
After a first round loss to the now NBA champion Golden State Warriors, head coach Michael Malone, general manager and new lead decision maker Calvin Booth, and governor Josh Kroenke have each laid down the gauntlet in their own ways. For Malone, the message was wrapped up in Denver’s championship aspirations begin on the defensive end: “I said how important this off-season was and how we have to be a much better defensive team.”
For Kroenke, the message was sent in the form of a financial commitment: “I don’t think that this organization is going to be hesitant when it comes to the tax or trying to acquire talent.”
The messaging is simple. The Nuggets are going to be aggressive this off-season, and they’re already making moves. Last week, reports came out that JaMychal Green will be traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder for the 30th pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. The Nuggets currently have the 21st and 30th picks at their disposal ahead of Thursday’s festivities.
However, don’t expect the Nuggets to simply draft two rookies.
At this current point in time, the Nuggets have nine (technically eight but it’s probably nine) players under contract for the 2022-23 season. The four highest paid players — Nikola Jokić, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., and Aaron Gordon — are unlikely to be traded. They are the foundational upon which the Nuggets are building their championship vision, and moving them would create more questions than answers.
That leaves five other players:
- Monte Morris filled in pretty well at starting point guard for the injured Murray last season. Morris is widely considered one of the best backup point guards in the NBA today. He currently has two more years on his contract worth $18.9 million.
- Will Barton was the starter at shooting guard last season and has played eight seasons with the Nuggets. He’s the three-point leader in Nuggets franchise history with 804 made threes. He currently has one more year on his deal worth $14.4 million.
- Jeff Green reportedly just picked up his $4.5 million player option for the 2022-23 season. He filled in well last season for Michael Porter Jr. but is expected to take a lesser role behind Zeke Nnaji.
- Zeke Nnaji has two more seasons on his rookie contract and is expected to be part of Denver’s primary rotation going forward.
- Bones Hyland has three more seasons on his rookie contract after he made second team All-Rookie last year, showcasing some dynamic scoring and playmaking skills along the way.
It’s pretty easy to discern what Malone, Booth, and Kroenke truly mean when they say the Nuggets will need to be aggressive this off-season. Denver is actively searching for trades that will improve the roster, focusing especially on the perimeter defense. In order to acquire that, the Nuggets will have to give something up, and they’re not giving up their best pieces.
That makes trading some combination of Morris, Barton, Green, Nnaji, and Hyland will be Denver’s best opportunity to acquire the right pieces to contend for a championship.
Just how aggressive the Nuggets are willing to be will determine the level of player they can realistically acquire. If the Nuggets are hoping to exchange Barton for his defensive equivalent at the starting shooting guard position, then Denver may not need to add too much more value to facilitate a deal. Think players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope of the Washington Wizards or Josh Richardson of the San Antonio Spurs.
If the Nuggets are hoping for better, they will have to send out additional players and trade assets to make a deal work. Many teams will hold out hope for Bones Hyland as a sweetener given his impressive rookie year. The Nuggets likely don’t want to let go of Bones anymore than Nuggets fans though, so deals will have to be more creative than that.
That’s where the first round picks come into play. The Nuggets already had the 21st overall pick, and they moved a future 2027 first rounder in order to acquire the 30th pick this year. The Nuggets can move one of those draft picks before Thursday, and they can trade both at the same time during the draft that night.
But here’s the key factor: after the 2022 NBA Draft, Denver’s trade flexibility decreases dramatically. If the Nuggets draft two rookies and plan to add those players to the roster, then they can’t be traded until December 15th, 2022. That would lock away two of Denver’s most valuable trade assets and prevent the Nuggets from using those picks to facilitate a different trade.
The Stepien Rule prevents the Nuggets from trading first round picks in back-to-back seasons, and the Nuggets have already moved their 2023 first rounder and 2025 first rounders. Last Monday, the Nuggets traded their 2027 first rounder too. That means the Nuggets do not have another first round pick to use in a trade until 2029.
So, the 21st and 30th overall picks in this year’s draft are even more important than they were a week ago. If the Nuggets have dreams of acquiring a true upgrade to their roster like Malcolm Brogdon of the Indiana Pacers or OG Anunoby of the Toronto Raptors, Denver will almost certainly have to use one or both of the 21st and 30th selections to make it happen.
There are other ways to improve the roster that don’t involve first round picks changing hands. The Nuggets picked up a couple of second rounders from the Thunder last week in the Green trade, as well as an $8.2 million traded player exception. That gives Denver some options beyond just the taxpayer mid-level exception, the only contract Denver can offer prospective free agents that’s worth more than the minimum. Even that contract is worth roughly three years, $20 million, which means it won’t sway top free agents to come to Denver anyway.
It’s clear that the Nuggets options are severely limited, from the number of players they can utilize in trades to the number of trade and free agency assets the Nuggets actually have.
That puts the onus on Calvin Booth to maximize the 21st and 30th overall selections on Thursday night. Whether the Nuggets draft rookies or combine the picks with contracts to acquire a veteran upgrade, the 21st and 30th picks are clearly the most important first round draft picks the Nuggets will have for the next several years. Thursday night will be the last serious chance the Nuggets have to tangibly upgrade the roster.
No pressure, Calvin.