Offseason Outline: Denver Nuggets
As teams are eliminated from the playoffs, we'll look ahead to what might be in store for their offseasons. We've already surveyed the Bucks, and now we turn our attention to the Nuggets after they were ousted in Golden State on Thursday.
• What's the biggest priority for Denver this offseason?
Defense and perimeter shooting. If Denver's first-round series illustrated anything conclusive about this team, it's that the Nuggets are entirely too exploitable in coverage. Andre Iguodala is a world-class defender, but beyond him, Ty Lawson is too small to contest perimeter scorers, Andre Miller is a tad too slow, Corey Brewer is too slim to fight through screens, JaVale McGee is too unreliable on rotations and Kenneth Faried is too raw defensively. Denver simply can't count on many defenders to keep their marks in front of them and help out reliably.
It's tough to imagine this group making up the necessary ground to contend without some roster tweaks. Getting an underrated on-ball irritant in Danilo Gallinari back from knee surgery will help, but his return won't totally protect the Nuggets from the kinds of breakdowns they suffered against the Warriors this postseason.
What's worse: Iguodala, 29, could become a free agent if he opts out of his contract, putting the team's lone defensive pillar in jeopardy of leaving after one season in Denver.
The offensive end brings its own concerns, with the most pressing (and simplest) remedy being the addition of a steady perimeter shooter or two. Several wings (Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Evan Fournier) shot above average from three-point range this season, but Denver lacks the kind of pressing perimeter threat who draws added defensive attention. Far too many opponents are content to cheat off players such as Chandler and Iguodala, which can create a substantial spacing problem for a team that's incredibly dependent on earning points in the paint. Adding shooters or further developing Fournier or Jordan Hamilton in that role could create the space needed to expand the capabilities of the Nuggets' dribble-drives and hand-offs.
• How can the Nuggets improve? Through free agency? The draft? Trade?
Trade, mostly. (Denver owns the No. 27 pick in the first round.) The Nuggets are projected to be well over the salary cap if Iguodala decides to play out the final year of his contract, and depending on what they do with free agent Brewer, they may be too close to the luxury-tax "apron" to have full use of the mid-level exception. Things clear up a bit if Iguodala opts out of his $16.2 million contract for next season, a move he's "definitely" considering, but the Nuggets would likely attempt to re-sign him to a longer-term deal that saves them only a few million -- enough to clear the apron, perhaps, but not the cap -- in the first year.
But part of the genius of the Nuggets' roster construction is that it can be disassembled at essentially any time, as most every player can be dealt easily because of his reasonable contract and potential use as rotation player. Assuming that Lawson is set in Denver for now after signing a four-year, $48 million extension last October, Miller ($5 million owed in 2013-14), Chandler ($6.3 million), Kosta Koufos ($3 million) and Faried ($1.4 million) could all be traded if the situation called for it, and there would likely be a market for Gallinari ($10.1 million) and McGee ($10.8 million) despite their more lucrative deals. No salary albatross looms over the roster and kills Denver's flexibility. The situation is so flexible, in fact, that it's natural to wonder ...
• Is it time for Denver to move in a different direction?
General manager Masai Ujiri has done an exceptional job of building a balanced team that can adapt to moves as they come. But suppose Iguodala does indeed become a free agent and subsequently decides to sign with another team. That would leave Denver only a mid-level deal away from the projected salary cap (without accounting for Brewer) and with a much greater void to fill. At that point, Lawson, Faried, Gallinari, Chandler, McGee, Miller and Koufos would compose the core, with a few wing prospects who could fill out the back end of the rotation. There's some decent talent there, but Denver wouldn't have the cap space to make substantial free-agent additions or perhaps even to facilitate trades. Salary-cap exceptions and future draft choices would still be in play, but that roster likely would take a step back and the Nuggets wouldn't have the kind of long-game strategy to make them a future contender. That nucleus would have some room for improvement, but relying on such flawed big men and such shaky perimeter defense -- in addition to Denver's offensive limitations -- wouldn't make for a prudent course. If Denver is able to re-sign Iguodala, then his presence gives the Nuggets a realistic hope for maintaining a similar core while upgrading as they can. The possibility will remain for Ujiri to flip any individual piece for a better-fitting one down the line, or to package several rotation players for a more talented star. But Iguodala's potential departure should stand to change this team's outlook in a very significant way, and at the very least introduce the thought of shifting directions to account for both that specific loss and the more general deficiencies of a roster that would be near or over the cap.