The Denver Nuggets have some tough roster decisions to make in the coming months. The most crucial of which is whether or not to exceed the luxury tax line next season. This decision was made for the Nuggets last April when the team nearly made the NBA Finals. The Nuggets are oh so close to challenging the Lakers at the top of the Western Conference, and Nuggets players and fans deserve another shot at a championship. Nuggets management therefore must commit to spending more than $71 million if they wish to remain competitive against the rest of the West, especially as San Antonio and Portland rearm with the intention of knocking off the Nuggets next season.
The Nuggets are no longer a sleeper team. The Lakers know they can beat Denver, and the Spurs and Blazers enter the offseason with the Nuggets locked into their sights. San Antonio acquired Richard Jefferson’s young legs and inside-outside scoring abilities in order to match the Nuggets fast, aggressive style of play. Additionally, Portland looks to add height and experience (Hedo Turkoglu?) because they watched a longer, smarter Lakers team dominate the Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals.
The 2008-09 Denver Nuggets were a talented bunch. They made franchise history and deserve acclamation for their numerous victories, as well as their remarkable growth as a team. They were a pleasure to watch and a fun story to follow. That said, the Nuggets were not without their flaws. The team relied too heavily on JR Smith’s erratic yet strangely effective shooting touch to keep them in games, lacked offense in the post when Nene rested or played poorly, and were not long enough to beat the Lakers in a seven game series.
The front office must neutralize these flaws by re-signing the Nuggets’ key free agents and making at least one significant move to upgrade the roster. E. Stanley Kroenke must agree to spend some extra cash for the Nuggets if he wishes to see his team consistently contend against the ‘09-‘10 Spurs, Blazers, and Lakers, not to mention the Celtics, Cavaliers, and Magic.
Determining how to invest Kroenke’s cash is another question altogether. Drafting Ty Lawson was a solid move. Though I wanted to cry when Utah came away with Eric Maynor, Lawson is a smart, strong point guard, who gets to the basket, and has great range with his clutch jump shot. He also knows how to win and his game should flourish under Chauncey’s direction. With luck Lawson will assume the back-up point guard role by January. In the mean time, the Nuggets should retain Anthony Carter for the veteran’s minimum. I know, I know, AC is a turnover machine. I cringed every time he checked into a game during the playoffs. Yet, much to his credit, AC plays hard, fast basketball, changes the tempo of games, and is an above average perimeter defender. He will be an ideal (and cheap) third-string point guard once Lawson gets a feel for the NBA game and is capable of playing real minutes.
Re-signing Chris Andersen and Dahntay Jones are also important moves. Birdman’s passion and energy are palpable from the stands, and the team certainly gets an emotional boost when he checks into a game. Furthermore, his length, rebounding, and shot blocking are crucial to the Nuggets success. The Nuggets should be able to retain Birdman for a significant portion of their $5.8 million Mid-Level Exception. I believe Birdman is worth $3.5 to $4 million of the MLE, and that he would take a small pay cut to remain in Denver. He lives in Denver, loves the mountains, and the Nuggets took a chance on him last summer when no other team would. If the Nuggets can sign Birdman for $3.5 million, they should offer the remainder to the MLE to Dahntay Jones. His tough defense and freakish athleticism are certainly worth $2.3 million, and he could become a dangerous player (a la Bruce Bowen in his prime, Raja Bell/Boris Diaw for the Suns in ’07, or James Posey for the Celtics in ‘08) and a bargain for the Nuggets if he continues to develop his mid-range jump shot.
It has been widely reported that the Nuggets will extend the $2.7 million Qualifying Offer to Linas Kleiza. This would be a fairly solid move because it allows the Nuggets to cheaply secure an above average role player who has shown flashes of brilliance. Kleiza however has also exhibited debilitating inconsistencies on both ends of the court, and his penchant for partying is worrisome; most LoDo bar patrons have probably at some point witnessed Linas’s ability to throw them back, as well as his temper. Yet, I do like what Kleiza can bring to an NBA game on any given night. He runs the floor extremely well and is more than capable of knocking down multiple threes when he does not overthink his shot selection. On the whole, re-signing Kleiza at the QE is the right move because it is low risk and high reward at $2.7 million. It adds valuable depth and gives the Nuggets one more year to see if Kleiza develops into a consistent player. On the other hand, it will clear some cap space next offseason if Kleiza does not improve and the Nuggets do not offer him a long-term deal when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Also, Karl sees Kleiza as his personal project. For most of his tenure as coach, Karl has trusted Kleiza more than JR, so you know that Karl does not want to see the front office let the Lithuanian walk.
Now onto the ACQUISITION…
The Nuggets must invest wisely. Warkentein and Co. have put the Nuggets in an excellent position to not only contend now, but also several years down the line. Their efforts began with last summer’s salary dump and continued with the Ty Lawson trade. Chauncey’s window is slowly closing, but with luck and coaching Lawson will take up where our hometown hero leaves off. Since the Nuggets are already $12 million over the salary cap, they will not emerge as buyers in free agency. The Nuggets must instead engineer at least one sign and trade by using either the $9.8 million Traded Player Exception they hold from the Camby trade, the $3+ million TPE from the Chucky Atkins trade, or trading away the expiring contracts of current Nuggets players.
After drafting Lawson and assuming the team retains AC, there is no need to pursue a point guard. The Nuggets also have solid depth at both shooting guard and small forward with JR, Dahntay Jones, Carmelo Anthony, and Kleiza returning. The Nuggets therefore desperately need a long, offensively skilled power forward or center. I predict Birdman’s defensive game and rebounding abilities will expand next season, but the Nuggets will never be able to count on his offense to supplement Nene’s game.
The safest path for the Nuggets is pursuing unrestricted PF/C Rasheed Wallace through a sign and trade. The Nuggets could swap Renaldo Balkman and Steven Hunter—their contracts combine to $5.8 million and are attractive because they expire after the ’09-’10 season—for Wallace if he agreed to sign a 2-year deal somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 million. A potential Balkman/Hunter for Wallace deal became more attractive for the Pistons today when Carlos Boozer decided not to opt out of the final year of his contract. Boozer was the Pistons’ primary free agent target this summer. The Pistons will most likely attempt to sign Boozer or Chris Bosh next summer, which means they will look to acquire more expiring contracts over the next year in an attempt to clear additional cap space for ’10 free agency.
Though Wallace is 34 years old, his body is not breaking down and his numbers remain solid (12 pts 7.4 rebs 1.3 blks 1 stl 42% FG). Not to mention, Wallace probably would have had a more productive ’08-’09 campaign had the Pistons not traded away Chauncey and devolved into a dysfunctional team thereafter. At 6’11”, Wallace would add much needed length to the Denver lineup. A frontcourt consisting of Nene (6’11”), Wallace (6’11”), Birdman (6’10”), and Martin (6’9”) is as athletic as it is huge. Each of these players is extremely versatile, and having both Nene and Wallace on his bench would allow George Karl to run a variety of lineups without sacrificing offense in the frontcourt. Last season, Nene was Karl’s only consistent frontcourt scorer besides Anthony. The Western Conference Finals were over once the Lakers plugged the lane and equalized Nene. With marginal scoring from their big men, Denver lived and ultimately died by their inconsistent long-range jump shooting.
Acquiring Wallace would give the Nuggets another scoring big man, and his skill set would prevent teams from beating the Nuggets with the game plan the Lakers used this past April. His excellent three-point shooting (113 for 319 or 35 % last season) would significantly bolster the Nuggets’ half-court offense. Remember this, Nuggets fans? Opposing teams would have to respect the perimeter with Billups, Smith, and Wallace on the court, which would spread the floor and allow the Nuggets to penetrate more effectively against long teams. Additionally, Wallace’s height on the perimeter causes match up problems for opposing teams. He can shoot over any guard and few forwards his size are athletic enough to shadow him on the perimeter. The Lakers, for example, would have to send Gasol or Odom out to defend Wallace, freeing up room in the lane for Nene to post up, Birdman and Martin to swoop in for offensive rebounds and put backs, and for Anthony and Smith to put the ball on the floor and drive. Wallace would also contribute defensively. He is an effective shot blocker and has averaged a steal per game over his entire career.
Like Kenyon Martin (seriously follow that link, it is awesome), Rasheed Wallace has a combustible personality. However, it is clear that Chauncey Billups has instilled a classy style of winning in Denver that mitigates selfish, team destructive attitudes (see the maturation of JR Smith and Carmelo). Chauncey was not always able to prevent Wallace from drawing technicals when they played together in Detroit, but he constantly kept Wallace focused on winning and playing team basketball. Wallace has made it clear that he just wants to win at this point in his career. This is why Kevin Garnett is begging Boston GM Danny Ainge to do whatever it takes to acquire Wallace. Chauncey and Carmelo need to push Warkentein to beat out Ainge. I am sure Pistons GM Joe Dumars would rather send Rasheed out West than to an Eastern rival, such as Boston or Cleveland. Just imagine all of the different lineups the Nuggets could play with next season by adding such a versatile player.
Ideally, the Nuggets would negotiate a 2-year contract with Wallace and then trade for him. This would significantly limit the risk of acquiring Wallace. It would give the current roster a 2-year window to win a championship and then Wallace, JR, and Martin would come off the books after the ’10-’11 season, giving the Nuggets roughly $28 million in cap room. The Nuggets will need this cap flexibility in order to re-sign Smith to a big-time contract and hopefully to rearm for the future around Ty Lawson and Carmelo.
Re-signing Birdman, Jones, AC, and Kleiza, acquiring Wallace, and rounding out the roster with one minimum salary player raises the Nuggets team salary to about $81 million dollars. Kroenke, as a result, would pay a significant luxury tax. But nowadays it takes a large investment to win in the NBA. The Lakers won last season with a $78.2 million roster. The Celtics fielded an $80.3 million roster in ’08-‘09 and won the championship two years ago with a $76 million payroll. The Cavaliers paid out $90.1 million in player salaries last season and look to spend more in the upcoming season in hopes of securing a title for LeBron James. Who says Carmelo stays in Denver down the line if he does not reach the NBA Finals with Chauncey? It is a question worth pondering.
Furthermore, this would not be the first time Kroenke displayed the patience and deep pockets to field an extremely expensive roster. He did it for two seasons following the Allen Iverson trade in ’06. After weathering the AI storm, I understand Kroenke’s reluctance to seriously surpass the luxury tax again. Those consecutive first round exits with AI were hard enough for me to watch on television, so I cannot imagine the anger Kroenke experienced sitting courtside. I bet the rage ran from his well-groomed mustache all the way down to the tips of his snakeskin cowboy boots. Yet, investing big dollars in next season’s roster would be different. Re-signing these players and obtaining Wallace is not a desperation move like the ’06 AI trade. These moves, like Warkentien always says, are chess moves. They are calculated responses to not only the weaknesses the Nuggets displayed in the Conference Finals, but also to the upgrades other elite NBA teams make this summer.
It would not be fair to the Nuggets faithful if the front office passes on talent this summer in the name of avoiding the luxury tax. Denver fans showed a tremendous amount of support for the Nuggets during last season’s incredible playoff run. Nuggets attendance records were set, tailgating at Pepsi Center was commonplace on game days, and it quickly became clear that Denver loves its NBA team…when the front office fields a competitive roster. Through several savvy moves, Warkentein and Co. gave Denver basketball fans a taste of meaningful victory. For several months, Nuggets fans understood how exciting it has been to be a Spurs, Lakers, or Mavericks fan for much of the past decade. Please Mr. Kroenke, do not turn such an historic season into an historic tease. Moves must be made immediately and for that dollars must be spent. But they can be spent wisely! Please give us fans another chance to feel the thrill of victory by ensuring history repeats itself next season.