The sweepstakes are over. The Nuggets lost. Or worse yet, perhaps they never tried.
Rasheed Wallace is set to a sign a new contract, but it will not make him a Denver Nugget. Wallace agreed to a 2-year deal worth the Mid-Level Exception with the Boston Celtics late last night. This is a bittersweet moment for Nuggets fans. Acquiring Wallace would have added invaluable size and scoring to the Nuggets’ roster. Furthermore, the Nuggets must counter the Lakers and Spurs’ aggressive offseason moves by adding a player of Wallace’s caliber. Wallace would have been a perfect fit in Denver. It is however a blessing that Wallace landed in Boston instead of San Antonio.
Though ‘Sheed is off the market, all is not lost here in Denver. The Nuggets are in the process of locking up the Birdman whose defense, rebounding, and sheer intensity are central to the Nuggets’ success. In the mean time, Nuggets fans must remain patient and trust the front office. Mark Warkentein and Rex Champman demonstrated last season that they are capable of making the right deal at the right time in order to keep the Nuggets competitive. While I am nervous that the Nuggets will offer the Birdman an excessive contract at 5-years $25 million, I believe Warkentein has something up his sleeve. The Nuggets will make a move at the proper time, won’t they? The reigning NBA Executive of the Year knows that last season’s roster will not measure up to the new, new Lakers and the rejuvenated Spurs, right? I sure hope so…
With Wallace off the table, the Nuggets must look elsewhere for three things: length in the post, efficient scoring, and defense. Birdman supplies length and excellent help-defense, but the Nuggets need to add scoring, as well as one more adequate big man to complete their four-man post rotation. Wallace was an all-in-one solution. Furthermore, he was the only all-in-one solution available this summer. The Nuggets now must take a “moneyball” approach to rounding out their roster. In other words, the Nuggets need to sign multiple players with different skill sets to solve the team’s offensive and defensive woes.
Re-signing Kleiza and Dahntay Jones would have been the right moves had the Nuggets acquired Wallace. Kleiza’s ability to get up and down the floor would have allowed the Nuggets to change the pace of a game by running when Wallace was not on the court. Additionally, Jones’s aggressive defense was crucial; his presence in the lineup mitigated Kleiza, Carmelo, and JR Smith’s defensive shortcomings. The Birdman strengthens the Nuggets’ defense, but he and Kenyon Martin still need more help. Birdman’s offensive game also leaves much to be desired. The Nuggets therefore should pursue unrestricted free agent SF Matt Barnes instead of re-signing Kleiza and Jones.
Barnes is a pesky defender who is capable of getting out on the wing and running in transition. Case and point: Steve Nash loved playing with him in Phoenix, and Barnes played very well for the run-and-gun Warriors when they knocked off the Mavs during the ’07-’08 playoffs.
He had a career year in 77 games for the Suns last season (10.2 pts and 5.5 rebs), and at 6’7” is a hybrid of Jones and Kleiza. He possesses Jones’s defensive prowess, as well as Kleiza’s shooting touch and mobility in transition. In fact, Barnes (34.3% on 341 3pt attempts) was a much more accurate and efficient 3-point shooter than Kleiza (32.6% on 267 attempts) this past season. With JR moving into the starting lineup, Barnes would be an ideal sixth-man for the Nuggets. He would add defensive intensity on the perimeter, run and gun on the wing, and knock down 3-pointers at an efficient rate.
The Nuggets could acquire Barnes (and his many imposing tattoos) via sign and trade. The Suns would likely accept Renaldo Balkman’s expiring contract and a 2011 draft pick for Barnes because they are already over the Luxury Tax and desperate for cap room. If the Nuggets could arrange to slightly backload Barnes’s new contract and pay him $2.7 million for his first season in Denver, the salaries would match in a Balkman-Barnes sign and trade. Furthermore, Barnes would be a bargain for the Nuggets, as adding him would be more cost effective than re-signing both Kleiza and Jones.
Barnes earned just under $800K last season. After posting career numbers, he would likely command around $3 million per year. This salary is well within the range of the $2.7 million Qualifying Offer the Nuggets are considering extending to Kleiza. Keep in mind that the Nuggets would also have to pay between $1.5 and $2 million to retain Jones. Spending $3 million on Barnes would look much better on the court and in Warkentein’s books than committing nearly $5 million to Kleiza and Jones.
Barnes’s skill set would more than compensate for letting Kleiza and Jones walk. Moreover, acquiring the 29-year-old Barnes at $3 million per season would be a significantly better move than adding 36-year-old F Grant Hill at the veteran’s minimum*.
There is no question that Matt Barnes would immediately add speed, offense, and defensive toughness to the Nuggets’ roster. Yet, his 6’7” frame lacks length. As a result, the Nuggets would still need to acquire a long, athletic PF/C to complement Nene, Martin, and Birdman in the post. Indiana’s 6’11” and 250-pound C Jeff Foster is the right man for the job. The Nuggets nearly acquired him at the trade deadline last February because Karl likes Foster’s size and physicality under the hoop; it was Foster who broke Martin’s thumb last season while fighting for a rebound.
Assuming the Nuggets trade Balkman for Barnes, the team could offer the Pacers a combination of Steven Hunter’s expiring contract, a portion of any of the Traded Player Exceptions the team holds, and/or draft picks in exchange for Foster, who makes $6 million in each of the two seasons remaining on his current contract. He is a physical rebounder and post-defender, and is capable of playing an energetic 15-18 minutes per game. Foster would significantly upgrade the Nuggets’ rebounding, and his presence on the bench would protect Nene, Martin, and Birdman from foul trouble. Adding Foster would give the Nuggets one of the most aggressive frontcourts in the entire league, as well as the length to contend against the Lakers.
Acquiring Barnes and Foster under the given scenarios would significantly upgrade the Nuggets’ roster. These two players would make the Nuggets a much more versatile team. Against longer teams the Nuggets could experiment with a large, defensive-minded lineup of Billups, Barnes, Carmelo, Birdman, and Nene without sacrificing vital offensive numbers. The Nuggets could also go small and explosive with Billups, JR, Barnes, Carmelo, and Nene. Think about it. There are so many offensively potent and defensively solid lineups with Barnes and Foster available coming off the bench.
If the Nuggets re-sign Birdman, ink Anthony Carter for the league subsidized veteran’s minimum, add Barnes and Foster, and fill out their roster with two more minimum contracts, the team’s payroll will rise to around $82 million. The Nuggets would pay the luxury tax, but as I’ve previously stated it would be worth it this time around. Furthermore, it is the only way the Nuggets will contend against the Lakers, Spurs, Celtics, and Cavaliers (all Luxury Tax teams) during the ’09-’10 season.
* Note: I understand that the league pays a significant portion of a veteran’s salary if he signs for the minimum. However, winning in the NBA costs money. Taking a slight cap hit for Barnes would be well worth it, especially considering the fact that any significant upgrade will put the Nuggets above the Luxury Tax.