By Scott Howard-Cooper
June 29, 2009

Second week of June, the rest of the NBA bunkering down for the draft, and Mark Warkentien, the Nuggets vice president of basketball operations, is at a Harvard Law seminar on negotiating. That's all anybody needs to know about how important the Denver big bosses consider this free-agent summer.

Even if the internal decision was to stay quiet and say little, or nothing in this case, before July 1 about the market strategy, Warkentien's unusual travel schedule was a blaring statement. This is a huge moment for the organization, one of the biggest offseasons in Nuggets history, and executives need to strike with precision in a series of contract talks that will determine whether they will remain in the lead pack in the Western Conference with the Lakers and Spurs or fall back.

All at once, Chris Andersen is unrestricted, Dahntay Jones is unrestricted and Linas Kleiza is restricted. That's merely the starting shooting guard (Jones) and two critical reserves. Based on conversations with league sources, the Nuggets are expected to push to re-sign all three and keep the core of a conference finalist intact. Reserve point guard Anthony Carter is another unrestricted free agent, but his chances of returning were dealt a blow with the draft-night trade that landed fleet point guard Ty Lawson with the 18th pick.

It gets better. Really stepping out on the financial tightrope, more high risk than ever in such an unforgiving economy, it appears the Nuggets are prepared to offer major raises to their own three players and aggressively try to attract outside free agents.

Ron Artest will almost certainly get a phone call. He's a natural small forward, just like someone named Carmelo Anthony, but the Nuggets spent enough time chasing Artest in trade proposals that it's impossible to imagine that they'll get shy now. Besides, if Denver does get out-bid for Jones, whose stock is at a career high after a 2008-09 of major contributions, it can pursue Ron-Ron for shooting guard.

Grant Hill will get a call. The Nuggets openly beamed last season about the arrival of Chauncey Billups changing the locker-room culture from dysfunctional to focused through his leadership, his championship experience and his citizenship, beyond the tangible impact of Billups the point guard. They want more good-guy influence. That means Hill.

Michael Finley will get a call, if he opts out. Same reason.

Hill will be the interesting case. His consistent message last season was a desire to re-sign with the Suns for a final push with Steve Nash, Shaquille O'Neal and Amar'e Stoudemire under new coach Alvin Gentry, except that these obviously aren't those Suns anymore. There is no final push. The Nuggets, and other title hopefuls that will approach for the same reason in a great compliment to Hill's standing in the league, can pitch the certainty of playoff money Phoenix cannot, plus the chance to have a meaningful voice behind the scenes.

Further enticing, Hill shot 52.3 percent in '08-09, averaged 12 points and 4.9 rebounds at small forward, and logged 29.8 minutes per game while playing all 82 and starting 68 at age 36. The Nuggets aren't interested in a potted plant to just look pretty in the corner.

That owner Stan Kroenke is willing to pay the luxury tax is nothing new -- Denver began last season on course for the dollar-for-dollar hit, and those Nuggets were careening toward irrelevance. A series of moves eventually got them away from the financial hit, most notably the same acquisition of Billups and Antonio McDyess for Allen Iverson that changed the direction of the team on the court, but he appears ready to spend big after the joy ride of '08-09.

Desire and deep pockets won't ward off competition, though.

Teams will come at Andersen the hardest. He is a very active big man willing to play a role, a reserve power forward who resurrected a career once derailed by substance abuse. The first full season back in the league after the suspension, playing in Denver for the minimum, the Birdman finished second in the NBA in blocked shots in just 20.6 minutes per game.

No way the Nuggets lose him. Signing Anderson last offseason, with the drug issue at the forefront, was a tough call and done only after a lot of conversation. He's their investment. Not merely an integral part of a 54-win club, not just a great teammate, not simply an energy burst few front-court substitutes in the entire league can match; keeping Anderson is practically personal to Denver.

Kleiza is restricted, and so the Nuggets have an obvious advantage to retain him, as well.

Jones is the greatest uncertainty among the three Denver will fight hardest to keep. His physical defense at shooting guard earned praise, is coming off the second-best showing from the field (45.8 percent) in six seasons in the NBA, and is just 28 years old. After pinballing around this league and the D-League, the summer of '09 is Jones' money moment. At the same time, the Nuggets have J.R. Smith as a safety net if Jones goes, and Smith averaged 27.7 minutes a game primarily as a reserve compared to the 18.1 of Jones while mostly in the opening lineup.

Keeping all three is possible and probably even the hope. If it isn't to be, Hill is an intriguing and realistic alternative, Finley as well. Artest, while a long shot, is ever-present because he and the Nuggets have a history. Turns out the Denver thrill ride didn't end in the West finals after all.

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