What do the Denver Nuggets need?

That’s a really tough question to answer. Some may say everything and others may say not much, and in one reality or another, they’re all probably right. That’s the difficulty in judging a team that’s full of upside and untapped potential; do you bank on the talent or do you prepare for disappointment?

The Nuggets do need a lot. So if we were to create a checklist of “needs,” what would Tim Connelly and Michael Malone be putting on that list?

  • A Star: This sounds cliche, but it couldn’t be more true. Ever since Carmelo Anthony left, even when the Nuggets were winning 57 games and playing some of the most exciting basketball in the NBA, all anyone could say is, “Well, they don’t have a star.” Until they get one, Denver will never be taken seriously.
  • A Shooter: The Nuggets were tied with Minnesota for the fifth-worst three-point shooting percentage in the NBA (.338), and in today’s NBA, that’s a near death sentence. The only player to shoot over 40 percent on the season was D.J. Augustin, who was at 40.5 percent. Denver needs a lock-down shooter who can space the floor and create driving lanes for Emmanuel Mudiay.
  • A Stretch Four: Sorry Kenneth Faried, but your time is coming to an end. The Nuggets need a guy who can, again, space the floor and allow Denver’s guards to get into the paint. Faried is a very good basketball player, and he could play a very important role off the bench (something he’d never do), but he simply does not work in the Nuggets’ starting lineup.
  • A Rim Protector: Denver allowed their opponents to shoot 59.2 percent from within 5 feet, 11th worst in the NBA. With Mudiay and Harris, along with Gallo and Arthur, the Nuggets have some solid perimeter defense (not great, but promising, at least), but they don’t have anybody in the paint whose presence alone is deterring would-be drivers.

Seems fair, right? Of course the Nuggets would like more shooting and a superstar — who wouldn’t? But here’s what the Nuggets need to figure out as they head into the draft and free agency: Is it possible that they already have some of these players, and if so, what do they need to be targeting this offseason?

When it comes to star players, I believe Connelly and the Nuggets organization can feel pretty confident that they’ve got one, if not two, coming down the pipeline, with or without a top-three pick in this year’s draft.

In my eyes, Nikola Jokic is everything you’d want in a modern center and then some. He’s the darling of the NBA community, and if you’ve never jumped out of your seat thanks to a no-look, behind-the-back, semi-inexplicable pass from Jokic, you clearly aren’t watching. Already, he’s putting up statistics, both advanced and standard, that only the greats can match, and he’s only going to get better.

Most impressive of all is the fact that Jokic, a second-round no-namer from Serbia, managed to completely outshine his rookie mate, Emmanuel Mudiay.

Mudiay, to many, had a disappointing season, but that’s not exactly a fair conclusion. As I’ve said before, we’re talking about a kid who essentially missed a year of development in China. Nobody should be surprised that he struggled out of the gate.

What’s important is that he improved, especially as a shooter, as the season wore on, upping his field-goal percentage by over five percent and his three-point percentage by nine percent after the All-Star break.

If just one of those guys can turn into a perennial All Star — not a lock by any means, but not out of the question, either — the Nuggets will have the foundation for a winning franchise, and it’ll be Connelly’s job to build around them; the quicker he can get started, the better.

In terms of those needs I listed above, I’m fairly confident that Gary Harris will continue to develop into one of the better shooters in the NBA, and a healthy Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari should help Denver’s shooting woes as well. If Mudiay can become a league-average three-point shooter, which he was down the stretch last season, the Nuggets should see a lot of natural growth in that area.

The rim protection is an interesting conundrum, though. Jokic, at center, can be a plus defender, if not a very good defender, but he’s never going to be a “shot blocker”; that’s Jusuf Nurkic, and with the way things are going, his role doesn’t seem to be getting any bigger.

Now, many will throw out the idea of the “Twin Tower” lineup, with Nurkic at center and Jokic at power forward, but I just don’t see it, and honestly, I don’t want to. Jokic may have the potential to be a very good power forward, but I believe he has the potential to be a great center. His ability to work under the basket, at the elbow and out to the three-point line is unmatched by the vast majority of big men in the NBA. Every square foot of real estate Nurkic takes up in the paint is one less square foot Jokic has to work his magic.

What would be great for the Nuggets, and what brings us back to our original question, is a power forward who can stretch the floor on offense and protect the rim on defense. That is what the Nuggets need to find this offseason.

Will they be able to find that in the draft? Possibly. If they move into the top three, Dragan Bender could be an option, but his defense is still a question mark; the same could be said Henry Ellenson or Marquese Chriss at pick seven/eight.

What about free agency? Al Horford would be awesome, but there’s about a zero percent chance he decides to leave Atlanta in favor of Denver, especially when he’ll be pursued by everyone with cap space — so … everybody. Ryan Anderson could provide the shooting, but he’s a sliding glass door on defense. There are several other options, but none of them really hit the mark.

So how about a trade? The Nuggets have had rumored interest in Kevin Love and Blake Griffin, but those aren’t the guys I’d be looking at. If I’m Connelly, the guy I’m looking at is Serge Ibaka — honestly, I can’t envision a better fit.

Yes, the Thunder are currently contending for a championship, so you might ask yourself, “Why, in God’s green earth, would they trade Ibaka?” but if you’ve watched any of OKC’s playoff run, it should make a good deal of sense. He’s been invisible! Ibaka, an All-Star caliber player, has been relegated to standing in the corner, hoping and praying Westbrook or Durant remember he’s on the team; Steven Adams and Deion Waiters get more love than he does!

The truth is, no matter how good Ibaka is, his talents will never be utilized to their fullest potential in OKC, and both sides know it. If the Thunder could turn him into two or three less-talented, but more-applicable assets, why wouldn’t they? Can’t you imagine Faried running the break with Westbrook, while Wilson Chandler finally fulfills the 3-and-D wing position the Thunder have so desperately been searching for?

In turn, Denver would get a player who can stretch the floor on offense and act as a ferocious rim defender on defense, allowing Mudiay and Jokic to do what they do best at all times.

Obviously, it would take a lot for something like that to happen, and it’s probably not very likely, but if I could envision the perfect offseason for the Denver Nuggets, it would involve stealing Ibaka away from the Oklahoma City Thunder or finding a player in the draft who has the potential to become something similar.