It has officially been over a week since the Denver Nuggets won a championship. Unfortunately, there’s no rest for the wicked.

The rest of the NBA world has moved on to next season, which is both a blessing and a curse of the NBA. For the other 29 teams, there’s disappointment, motivation to improve, and a desperation to get do what needs to get done. For the Nuggets – again, the winners of the 2022-23 NBA Finals – the motivations are naturally less strong. Players, coaches, and team personnel are still celebrating, and there likely won’t be a lot of hoopla surrounding the NBA Draft in Nuggetland.

That’s the blessing and the curse for Calvin Booth as well. He’s the self-proclaimed steward of the Nikola Jokić era in Denver and had a fantastic first year at the helm. Booth brought in Christian Braun and Peyton Watson during the draft, traded for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope soon after, and signed Bruce Brown and DeAndre Jordan (an important signing!) in the first days of free agency. His fingerprints are all over the Nuggets championship run, and while current Minnesota Timberwolves executive Tim Connelly certainly built the foundation, Booth closed the deal.

Now, it’s on Booth to repeat his process from last off-season, identifying needs and solidifying a championship roster. There are more pieces in place than last time, but there’s still a good opportunity to make the necessary improvements on the margins. That’s how championship teams stay on top of their game: never get worse, always get better.

Here’s how the Nuggets will go about doing that, in chronological order:

Bruce Brown’s player option

An integral member of the Nuggets rotation, Bruce Brown is the first domino to fall and clearly the most important of the Nuggets off-season. Brown averaged 12.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.1 steals per game in a sixth man role during the playoffs. His tenacity and aggressiveness on both ends of the floor brought the Nuggets a confidence and swagger that they’ve never had before. His versatility allowed the Nuggets to adapt to just about any situation throughout the four playoff rounds. If the Nuggets were to lose him, it would be significant.

On Wednesday, June 21st, Brown has a decision to make: opt into his $6.8 million player option for the 2023-24 season…or opt out and become an unrestricted free agent.

It’s all but assured that Brown will opt out in order to earn more money. The question is: how much money is enough to keep Brown happy in Denver? Due to a salary cap rule called “Bird Rights,” the maximum amount the Nuggets can offer Brown is a 20% raise on the $6.479 million he earned during the 2022-23 season. That means he could make at most $7.8 million from the Nuggets in 2023-24. Other teams can offer much more, beginning with the non-taxpayer mid-level exception that teams like the Sacramento Kings, Dallas Mavericks, or Memphis Grizzlies could have at their disposal. That MLE amount begins at $12.2 million and means that a team could offer over $50 million in guaranteed money to Brown across four years if that’s what he wanted.

That doesn’t even include the cap space teams like the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, or others that could throw a bag at Brown that exceeds even $50 million in guaranteed money.

So basically, if the Nuggets want to keep Brown, they have to sell him on winning. Brown could sign another one-year deal with an opt out, at which point the Nuggets could offer him that aforementioned four-year deal at mid-level exception money. Unfortunately, if Brown wants to capitalize on his current market, he likely won’t wait around a year for Denver to pay him. For what it’s worth though, Brown told the Denver Post following the championship celebration that money isn’t everything to him and that Denver is “a perfect fit” so maybe there’s a chance he takes less to stay in town.

Impending free agents

  • Bruce Brown (Player Option)
  • Jeff Green (Unrestricted Free Agent)
  • Ish Smith (Unrestricted Free Agent)
  • DeAndre Jordan (Unrestricted Free Agent)
  • Reggie Jackson (Unrestricted Free Agent)
  • Thomas Bryant (Unrestricted Free Agent)
  • Collin Gillespie (Two Way – RFA)
  • Jack White (Two Way – RFA)

Brown’s decision is the most important, but almost the entire back half of the Nuggets roster could turn over in the next couple of weeks. The trio of veterans (Green, Smith, and Jordan) are at an impasse. The Nuggets would likely be happy to have any of them back, especially Green and Jordan, who became the veteran leaders the team needed during the last season. Jackson and Bryant were trade deadline acquisitions that didn’t work out, but perhaps having a full off-season and training camp could make a big difference in their comfort levels next season. It seems unlikely that either player would be back, but there’s always a chance.

Gillespie and White were the two-way contract guys last year, but the Nuggets like both of them. Gillespie suffered a broken leg last August and is just getting back into basketball shape, potentially ahead of this year’s Summer League team. He’s a competitive point guard and a player the Nuggets coaching staff and front office seem to believe in. White is a former NBL player who went to Duke. He never had an opportunity to shine this season, but his glue-guy skill set makes him a solid option to have available.

Jun 23, 2022; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Christian Braun (Kansas) shakes hands with NBA commissioner Adam Silver after being selected as the number twenty-one overall pick by the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the 2022 NBA Draft at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA Draft Approach

In a move that I didn’t really cover at all, the Nuggets made a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder during the Finals a couple weeks ago, trading a lightly protected 2029 first round pick for a 2024 first round pick, a 2024 second round pick, AND the 37th overall selection in today’s draft. Denver may feel the pain of that move in five to seven years, but right now, they got some assets to help bolster their championship run.

So now, the Nuggets have the 37th and 40th overall picks to utilize during the second round in a couple days. According to Singer again, the Nuggets are also exploring the idea of packaging that 2024 first rounder they acquired to trade up into the first round. That’s unsurprising given Booth’s success in drafting Christian Braun and Peyton Watson last year. Booth has a great eye for talent and sees things that many others in a similar position do not.

Booth’s preference in draft picks is mostly clear based on his first draft: long, athletic, physical players that are cerebral enough to play in a complicated motion and cutting offense. Braun and Watson fit the bill last year. There will be players that fit the bill this year, perhaps at the wing position or perhaps at guard or big man spots. Whether the Nuggets elect those players in the second round or find a way to trade into the first is unclear.

If Booth has a draft pick he likes though, it would be wise to trust him. Perhaps he covets a veteran player type like Jaime Jaquez Jr. of UCLA or Kris Murray of Iowa. Perhaps he covets a player with more upside like Duke’s Dariq Whitehead or UCONN’s Andre Jackson Jr.? We will see shortly.

Free Agency and Trade Approach

The last aspect of Denver’s off-season is perhaps the most important.

All five starters in Denver are under contract for next season. Nikola Jokić begins his supermax extension, of which there is no player in the NBA more deserving. Jamal Murray will likely receive a max contract extension this off-season to tack on an additional three years and match the length of Jokić’s contract. Michael Porter Jr. is in the second year of his rookie max extension. Aaron Gordon is in the second year of a four-year deal. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was given a contract extension and has one more year plus a player option next off-season now.

There are very few holes for the Nuggets to fill. The biggest question remains Bruce Brown, but if he departs for more money, Denver has Christian Braun and Peyton Watson waiting in the wings as versatile defenders. The Nuggets also have Vlatko Čančar and Zeke Nnaji under contract for next season just in case Jeff Green and/or DeAndre Jordan walk in free agency. If Brown returns, then the questions facing Denver’s rotation are minimal.

If Bruce Brown leaves in free agency, then the Nuggets will have a hole to fill in their backcourt. Denver can always use more shooting, but finding players that can stay on the floor defensively is perhaps more important. Jokić and Murray will anchor the offense, and Porter is continuing to develop on that front. In terms of actual free agents outside of Denver that make sense in Denver’s price range: Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Donte DiVincenzo, Alec Burks, Austin Rivers, and Jevon Carter stand out as defensive-minded options.

Finding an additional body or two in the frontcourt makes sense as well. Thomas Bryant hasn’t worked out so far, but he’s a big body that Denver could certainly utilize during the regular season. Perhaps Denver goes for a center like Dwight Powell, Bismack Biyombo, or Cody Zeller on a minimum? Perhaps Denver tries to stay more versatile and goes for a forward like JaMychal Green or Trey Lyles again? Maybe even more wing sized like Yuta Watanabe or Darius Bazley?

There are plenty of options. Denver likely has the $5 million taxpayer mid-level exception to offer to these players to become part of a championship rotation. Otherwise, the Nuggets are working with minimum contracts and trying to avoid the second tax apron set at $179.5 million.

The final wrinkle for Denver: a traded player exception created when the Nuggets sent Monte Morris to the Washington Wizards last year. That $9.125 million TPE is set to expire on July 6th. Within that time, the Nuggets could acquire a player in a trade making up to $9.125 million in salary during the 2023-24 season. Most TPEs expire, but if the Nuggets can find a trade involving a player and perhaps the 2024 first round pick acquired from OKC, then maybe that could be an avenue for a Bruce Brown replacement.

Just putting this out there: Delon Wright of the Washington Wizards is earning $8.2 million in the 2023-24 season.