The middle of June is by far the most volatile, insane, chaotic, and unpredictable time of the National Basketball Associations’ calendar year. The NBA Finals have mercifully ended, free agency is still over a week away, and the 2018 NBA Draft is just around the corner. This is a rare slower period for the league, which means that the NBA has no choice but to implode on itself.
Suddenly, Kawhi Leonard wants out of San Antonio, LeBron James could be on his way out of Cleveland for a second time, and so many other major free agents will be available this summer. In addition to the upcoming free agent crop, seemingly each and every pick in the first round of the 2018 NBA Draft has been rumored to be available, including picks one through five.
Instead of explaining how the Nuggets can(not) get Leonard, James, or even move up in the draft, let’s take a look at all of the different assets that Denver has in its treasure chest to make a potentially franchise-altering type trade.
There is only one name that firmly belongs in the untouchable tier and that name is Nikola Jokic.
The Serbian Sensation not only gave the Nuggets a bonafide star player build around, but he gave them something that the Nuggets organization has not had since the drafting of Carmelo Anthony — a clear direction towards potential championship contention.
Jokic is the embodiment of Denver’s offensive identity and he is their hope that they can continue to rapidly evolve as the NBA does. While there are obvious deficiencies and issues within Jokic’s game, that does not take away from the fact that Denver’s 16-win improvement over the past three years is directly related to his emergence as the Nuggets’ best player and the focal point of everything they do.
Sure, there are clearly players that are better than Jokic in the NBA; that does not change his title as untouchable. Think of it this way: None of the top-15 players in the NBA are going to be traded to Denver for Jokic, and there are not any other assets on the market that are worth giving up on Jokic’s talents for. By definition, Jokic is the only untouchable player on the Nuggets’ roster.
Blockbuster trade or bust
This is where the ranking of tradable assets gets interesting. The blockbuster-trade-or-bust tier is exactly that; players that would only be dealt in a massive franchise-shifting trade. Obviously, every team that calls Denver will inquire as to what it would take to pry Jokic from the Nuggets, but when that conversation rapidly ends, the next two players that will come up in trade talks are Gary Harris and Jamal Murray, followed closely behind by Paul Millsap.
These are not players that the Nuggets would like to move on from in anyway, but if a star player or a top-seven pick becomes available, these will be the first players that other teams ask about after inquiring about Jokic. Murray and Harris are players that other teams likely covet and, if Denver really is trying to move up into the top five or six picks in the upcoming NBA Draft, as Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported, these are the players that other teams will ask about.
Murray is likely the most valuable trade asset on the Nuggets’ roster other than Jokic. Murray is heading into only the third year of his rookie contract and already put up 16.7 points on 45.1 percent shooting from the field and 37.8 percent shooting from three-point distance in 31.7 minutes per game as the Nuggets’ starting point guard in a brutal Western Conference last season. So, if any team willing to put together a blockbuster trade with the Nuggets, the first player they will likely ask about is Murray and for a plethora of different reasons. Teams that trade for Murray will have longer team control with him than with Harris. Murray also will cost less than Harris, who’s contract extension kicks in this offseason. Murray is also more than two years younger than Harris with an arguably higher potential ceiling. It is hard to find an argument where Murray is not the second-most valuable player on the Nuggets’ roster.
Harris is no slouch either. He will be the next player discussed during trade talks, and it is not hard to imagine why. Harris has arguably been the most consistent Nuggets player over the past three years thanks to his constant effort, insane work ethic, determination to continue adding to his game, and the fact that he may be the most low-maintenence player in the Association not named Klay Thompson. By the end of the 2017-18 season, Harris averaged a career-high 17.5 points and he did so while shooting 48.5 percent from the field and 39.6 percent from three-point distance while also gobbling up 1.8 steals per game. Harris may not have the extreme upside of a Jokic or Murray, but you can essentially plug him into any roster and he will make that team better.
The last player that could be moved in a franchise-alerting blockbuster trade is Nuggets’ $30 million man, Paul Millsap. The veteran power forward has the skills to help any team that he is on and his three-year, $90 million contract has a team option in the final year. Because of that, Millsap can be looked at as a player who could immediately help any team while also able to clear his contract at the end of the season as if he was an expiring contract. There are very few scenarios where the Nuggets would move Millsap, but that does not mean he is untouchable. If the right deal came around, Millsap being potietnally traded is not out of the question.
Trade package sweeteners
While one of Murray, Harris, or Millsap would have to be included in any block-buster deal, the Nuggets would likely have to sweeten the pot to actually make a league-altering trade.
Luckily, the Nuggets have quite a few young players with strong upside in Malik Beasley, Tyler Lydon, Juancho Hernangomez, and Trey Lyles to throw into a deal. None of those players have been given enough time to develop and, at some point, capitalizing on the younger players that Tim Connelly has acquired has to be considered.
Trey Lyles has proven that he is more athletic than previously advertised, can stretch the floor beyond the three-point line, take slower defenders off the dribble, and even rebounded better than originally thought this past season. Malik Beasley is a freakishly athletic combo guard who has the foundation of a strong three-point shot and the ability to defend either backcourt position. Juancho Hernangomez has the potential to be a lethal shooter as a combo forward and has a very strong basketball IQ being that he has played professionally in Spain from a young age. In the G-League, Tyler Lydon has shown that he has solid timing blocking shots, a silky-smooth three-point shot, and sneaky athletic ability. Any of these players could potentially help complete a big trade.
On top of that, Denver owns the 14th, 43rd, and 58th picks in the 2018 NBA Draft as well as all of their future first-round picks. If Denver does find a deal that could drastically alter the course of the franchise, they will likely need to combine one of Murray, Harris, or Millsap with some conglomeration of draft picks and young players to actually entice a team to bite on a trade.
Tradable contracts to open cap space
The players in the ‘tradable contracts to open cap space’ tier are players that if other teams called about trading for, the Nuggets would listen to the inquiry. This smaller group includes just Mason Plumlee and Wilson Chandler — who could still opt-out of the final year of his contract sometime prior to July 1st. Neither of Chandler or Plumlee are out-right negatives, but that does not make them absolutely necessary either.
Chandler, if he opts into the final year of his contract, will make $12.8 million next year. Being that the Nuggets are expected to be over $9 million into the luxury tax after Jokic’s max and if Chandler opts-in, that makes Chandler expendable based on finances alone. He is also an expiring contract, which can be appealing to other teams. This is not to say that Chandler isn’t valuable either. Players who can defend three or more positions, hit threes, and even handle the ball a little bit are very valuable even if Chandler is not as good as he once was. Denver needs to trade away some salary, but of the three tradable players who could clear salary — Chandler, Kenneth Faried, and Darrell Arthur — Chandler is by far the most impactful player of the group so it will likely take more than just a salary dump type of a trade to convince Denver to move on from him. He could be an immediate contributor for another team if a trade was to materialize.
Mason Plumlee is a bit of a different discussion than Chandler. On one hand, there are few centers in the NBA who can back up Jokic and also continue playmaking from the high post like Jokic does. The only issue is that there are very few minutes for backup centers; especially when the best player on the team happens to play the same position. Plumlee signed a three-year contract worth a surprisingly high $41 million. If Plumlee was elsewhere and playing 30+ minutes a night as a starter, that contract would be fine. On the Nuggets? That deal is quite constricting. If a team called and was interested in trading for Plumlee, Denver would have to at least listen for the opportunity to clear long-term money being that the market for centers is at an all-time low point.
When discussing players that are negative assets, it is important to remember that this is from a trade persecutive. Neither of Arthur or Faried hurt the Nuggets last year, but to trade either of them the Nuggets will likely have to attach another asset to them. That is the definition of a ‘negative asset’.
Denver worked diligently to move Faried prior to the 2017-18 trade deadline, but could not find a deal that made sense for both sides. Ever since then, Faried has fallen completely out of Michael Malone’s rotation which poisoned and killed off any value that the hyper-athletic power forward could have had. So, if Denver wants to move off of Faried’s contract, they will have to attach another asset to him.
Arthur is slightly different. While he was never a constant fixture in Malone’s rotation, he brought veteran leadership and also acted as a bridge between the players and the coaching staff. All in all, Arthur was actually a positive for the Nuggets, but as Denver creeps closer and closer to free agency, the fact that he opted into his final year of his contract makes him a negative tradable asset. Arthur has chronic knee issues that will keep him from playing even consistent backup minutes so, for his skills as a player, it is hard to imagine a team willing to trade for Arthur. The only way to move on from Arthur — outside of using the stretch provision — is to attach another asset to him which makes him a negative asset himself.
While the possibility of Denver somehow sneaking up into the top-six draft selections is slim, the odds of them trading for either of LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard is even more minuscule, but if they are going to make a move of that magnitude, these are the assets Denver has to offer.
No one has any idea of what to expect from the 2018 NBA Draft, but one thing is assured: the Nuggets front office will be on the phones looking to improve the roster in anyway they can.