Early Tuesday, when Kevin Garnett re-upped with the Minnesota Timberwolves, it left three NBA teams that had yet to sign any player to a new contract since the opening of free agency: The Charlotte Hornets, the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Denver Nuggets.
That there are only three teams that have yet to sign anyone is noteworthy, but not quite as noteworthy as the company that the Nuggets are keeping. These are rebuilding teams – an experiment in Philadelphia, a mess in Charlotte, but teams unmistakably in the beginning stages of starting over. Though many still refuse to believe it, so too, are the Nuggets.
When Josh Kroenke and Tim Connelly made their media rounds following the hiring of head coach Michael Malone, they vowed that this would be an active offseason for Denver. The pledge, stated both implicitly and explicitly, was that the roster that walked off of Pepsi Center’s court in the spring of 2015 would scarcely resemble the one that will take it in the fall of this same year. Perhaps that’s why some fans expected a flurry of activity in free agency.
But the Nuggets have work to do on their own roster to remain under the salary cap for next season as it is, and even if the team had money in hand, who exactly could they realistically target that would make them anything more than a fringe playoff team in 2016?
So if free agent signings aren’t in the cards for Denver, where did Kroenke and Connelly get their refrain of an active offseason?
Emmanuel Mudiay, the newly drafted point guard tasked with leading the team on their long climb, has not even spoken to the team’s current starting point guard Ty Lawson. One of the two players that Mudiay did mention talking to is not currently a member of the team: backup point guard Jameer Nelson.
The reality is, this Nuggets roster is probably gearing up for another lottery pick in 2016. Lawson will be traded, along with a good chunk of the current roster. That’s where the Nuggets’ active offseason comes in. As soon as the final free agents fly off the shelves, it’ll be time for the Nuggets to shop Lawson and others on the block to see if they look like a discount in the eyes of any executives.
The players who remain on the roster will be young and inexperienced. Mudiay will likely lead a group that includes second year players Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris, plus incoming Serbian prospect Nikola Jokic. Why waste money during a record-setting spending spree in NBA free agency when all it’s likely to accomplish is handicapping your franchise a few years down the road?
In passing on overbidding for a borderline difference-maker or a role player disguised as a star in a favorable system, the Nuggets spared us a few cheap thrills that would have come at the expense of long-term building for sustained success.
The longer road to success may frustrate fans used to the regular season success of the 2000s. In the wake of so many high-profile players shunning the large markets in Los Angeles and New York, it seems a shame that Denver, the original star-less upstart team would be missing out now that that style of building is beginning show favor.
Unfortunately, the team has no choice but to grit their teeth, rebuild, and hope they’ve put the right people in charge of the process. But the process can’t start until a team acknowledges where it’s at. By sitting out free agency, the Nuggets did just that.
Let the rebuilding begin.