MHS Roundtable: Recapping the Denver Nuggets’ still in-progress offseason

Los Angeles Lakers guard Isaiah Thomas (3) and Denver Nuggets forward Will Barton (5) battle for the ball in the first half during an NBA basketball game at Staples Center. The Lakers defeated the Nuggets 112-103.
Mar 13, 2018; Los Angeles, CA, USA;Los Angeles Lakers guard Isaiah Thomas (3) and Denver Nuggets forward Will Barton (5) battle for the ball in the first half during an NBA basketball game at Staples Center. The Lakers defeated the Nuggets 112-103. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It has been a wild offseason in the Mile High City with the Denver Nuggets making a fleury of moves so the basketball scribes of Mile High Sports gathered together to discuss the signing of Isaiah Thomas, salary dump trades, and grades for the 2018 offseason for the Mile High Sports mega-free agency roundtable.

What type of impact do you think Isaiah Thomas will have with the Nuggets next season?

T.J. McBride: The one-year marriage between Isaiah Thomas and the Denver Nuggets is an ideal match for both parties. Thomas can come in and immediately begin to re-establish his value after tearing his labrum in his hip just over a year ago. In the meantime, Denver gets another high-level shot creator that they badly needed off of the bench.

On the court, Thomas gets to take control of a Nuggets bench unit while also adding more back court depth for Malone to toy with. Without Thomas on the roster, the only reserve back-court members were Monte Morris and Malik Beasley being that Will Barton is now tabbed as the opening day starter at small forward. Thomas can fill in at both the backup point guard and shooting guard role and play somewhere between 18-25 minutes a night with his minutes sprinkled between the starting unit and the bench.

Off the court, Denver’s signing of Thomas is such a great pairing because of Michael Malone’s affinity for Thomas after coaching him in Sacramento. Malone was one of the few coaches who was able to understand Thomas and empowered him to become the best version of himself. Their open communication and ability to have tough conversations will be a big reason why Thomas’ fit in Denver has such a high upside for both parties.

Dev Johnson: I fully expect Thomas to be a sixth man of the year candidate. Yes, Malone has his work cut out for him on the defensive end and how he will make it work on that end of the floor, but Thomas is a player that has a ton to prove. It would not be a bad bet to expect him to be his once-dominant self if he is fully healthy.

Brandon Ewing: Isaiah Thomas is going to have a major impact off the bench for the Nuggets and add another scoring punch to one of the best offenses in the NBA.

Before the Thomas signing, the Nuggets would have had to roll out Monte Morris as the back up point guard, who is going into his second year of a two-way contract. Morris has looked great in summer league, but with Thomas, the Nuggets get a player with something to prove while only costing the Nuggets $2 million next year.

Before the 2017-18 season, Thomas was at the peak of his career coming off an MVP-caliber season where he averaged 28.9 points per game in the regular season and 23.3 points in the playoffs with the Celtics. Thomas also has 25 games of playoff experience, which will be a welcomed sight to the Nuggets who could use more playoff experienced leaders in their push to end their five-year playoff drought. The Nuggets have also built an identity this offseason by adding guys with something to prove and Thomas is another player to add to that list.

Most backup point guards do not average 18.9 point per game over their careers, but the Nuggets now have that in Thomas. I expect Thomas to come into next season with a major chip on his shoulder to prove the doubters wrong, and in doing so, he will be a major piece in the Nuggets clinching their first postseason berth since 2012-2013.

What do you envision the Nuggets doing with their open roster spot after the trades of Chandler, Faried, and Arthur?

T.J. McBride: There are a couple different avenues that Denver can take.

First off, Denver could just elect to not fill the final roster slot and head into the 2018-19 season with a vacant roster spot. This allows Denver flexibility at the trade deadline if a deal piques their interest or they could sign a veteran buy-out player once the trade deadline passes. If neither of those situations comes to fruition, Denver would have the roster spot to convert Monte Morris from a two-way contract to a full NBA deal to keep a full-time third point guard on the roster.

If Denver would rather chase an immediate addition to the roster, they have just $2.5 million to play with. Players like David Nwaba, Michael Beasley, Rodney Hood, and even a veteran like Dwyane Wade could all be interesting options, but they could all be looking for more money than just slightly more than a veteran-minimum contract.

If nothing else, the Nuggets have multiple options to improve the roster thanks to the additional roster spot available.

Dev Johnson: The Nuggets stretching one of Faried or Arthur seemed inevitable, but to be able to trade both of them without taking back salary while only sending out a single protected first-round pick was a great deal. Every other move they made, including the acquisition of Thomas, was about doing everything in their power to avoid the luxury tax. To avoid having to stretch either of Faried or Arthur is incredible.

Brandon Ewing: The Nuggets do not have many options with their open roster spot and they could hold onto it all the way past the trade deadline in February. If the Nuggets waited until after the trade deadline, they would also have the ability to test the buyout market and potentially add a veteran to the team roster prior to the final push for the playoffs.

With just $2.5 million of a mid-level exception remaining, it may be tough for the Nuggets to add another impact free agent this offseason. This is money the team could give to Morris if they wanted to give him a full NBA contract to make him playoff eligible. Doing that would allow Morris to stick with the Nuggets for most of the season and learn from both Jamal Murray and Thomas while giving Denver a third point guard option.

What grade would you give the Nuggets salary dump of Faried, Arthur, a protected first, and a future second round pick to the Brooklyn Nets?

T.J. McBride: The deal in a vacuum was an A+, but because of the timing of the deal in relation to other signings — Torrey Craig’s two-year deal and Jarred Vanderbilt’s rookie contract — that grade falls to a B-.

Denver could have opened up about $5.8 million of money to play with as well as the $3.9 million bi-annual exception if they had just waited to sign Craig and Vanderbilt after trading Faried and Arthur to Brooklyn, but because the Nuggets already signed Craig using the taxpayer mid-level exception, they are now stuck in their financial situation even after clearing just over $34 million in salary.

Yes, Denver was able to clear three big contracts while only giving up one protected first-round pick and two second-round picks. They did not have to give up on any of their young players in the process, which is why they get an above-average grade, but the minute of the deal is important and they should get docked for that.

Dev Johnson: The team gets an A+. For Denver to avoid the luxury tax and not have to give away a meaningful first-round pick speaks volumes to what Denver front office did this week. It only added to what was already a great offseason and sets up the Nuggets for the future. What is not to love about this trade?

Brandon Ewing: A+, and if I could give a higher grade, I would. What Tim Connelly and his staff did was masterful and cannot be praised enough. They essentially got rid of two large contracts and all they had to give up was a protected first round pick (1-12) and a 2020 second round pick. By doing so, it also saves the franchise a boatload of money in the luxury tax and opened the door for another potential free agent signing.

The trade also gives the team an identity going into next season. Getting rid of two veterans in Arthur and Faried gives a bode of confidence to the Nuggets young players that A.) the franchise has faith in you B.) Denver is all in for next season. This trade set up a win-now move in acquiring Isaiah Thomas, and removes the pressure from ownership to clear salary when the trade deadline begins to creep closer and closer. To top it all off, the first-round pick is protected 1-12 so, if for some reason the Nuggets struggle next season, they still have a strong likelihood of keeping the pick.

This salary dump was simply a work of art from Tim Connelly.

If you had to put a grade on the Nuggets offseason so far, what would you give it and why?

T.J. McBride: Not only did Denver get Michael Porter Jr — one of the top-three most talented players in the draft — with the 14th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, but they also got a lottery-caliber talent in Jarred Vanderbilt in the second round as well. That is a terrific high-upside draft class for a Nuggets’ team that is already stocked with good-to-great players.

Then the Nuggets opened up free agency by locking up Nikola Jokic to a five-year max contract with no player options and signing Will Barton for another four years. After that, Denver found a way to get Isaiah Thomas — who was the fifth-most voter in the MVP voting just two seasons ago — on a veteran-minimum deal while also retaining Torrey Craig on a team-friendly two-year contract worth just $4 million while also clearing the expiring contracts Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, and Darrell Arthur without giving up more than a protected first-round pick and two second-round picks.

That is terrific work by the Nuggets front office. For that, they get a grade of an A for their offseason.

Dev Johnson: B. The only reason that Denver does not get an A is because there are still questions regarding the health of their players. Both Michael Porter Jr. and Jarred Vanderbilt have long-term injury concerns and there is no answer to when they will be ready to play. Same goes for Thomas, who still has questions surrounding his health. If all players were able to play at the start of the season, those are all players that are beneficial to the team, but with the uncertainty of their availability it brings the ceiling of the team down.

Brandon Ewing: There were five big questions heading into the free agency period that Denver had to figure out.

  1. Will Denver be able to unload Faried, Arthur, and maybe even Chandler? Check.
  2. Will Denver be able to save the franchise from a huge luxury tax ball? Check.
  3. Will Denver be able to resign Barton and Jokic to long-term extensions? Check.
  4. Can Denver resign Torrey Craig? Check.
  5. Will Denver find a solid backup point guard next season? Isaiah Thomas, a career 18.9 point per game scorer, will now fill that role after Denver managed to sign him to a veteran minimum deal. Check.

For all of those accomplishments, Denver gets an A for their offseason.

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