The Denver Nuggets returned to the postseason after a five-year absence. The Nuggets posted the second-best record in the Western Conference and secured the No. 2 seed one year after they missed the playoffs by one game after losing to the Minnesota Timberwolves in what was a rare play-in game. Denver ultimately beat San Antonio in seven games in the first round before falling in seven games to Portland in the second round. The Nuggets' plan of building around youth, supplemented by veteran additions worked. Now, it’s about seeing if they have staying power.
With 11 players signed to standard NBA contracts for the 19-20 season, the Nuggets' roster is likely to look pretty similar to the one that ended last season. They’ve got key starters Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris under team control for at least the next three years. Swingman Will Barton is signed for three more seasons as well. Other contributors like Torrey Craig, Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez are all under team control also.
With Denver having say in the future of so many of their players, it’s easy to see why it looks like they aren’t going away anytime soon in the years to come. But in order to take the next step and be a title contender, it’s going to take a combination of internal improvement from their youth, and for the front office to continue to make smart moves on the trade and free agency front.
In that respect, it was huge for the Nuggets that they were able to retain their top basketball executive in Tim Connelly. The Washington Wizards made a hard push for Connelly to run their basketball operations, but Connelly chose to stay with Denver. That stability at the top of the organization is key for the Nuggets as they build on last season’s solid foundation.
The big decision for Connelly this summer is how to handle Paul Millsap. After an injury-plagued first season in Denver, Millsap was very good for the Nuggets in Year 2. Not only is he productive on the court, his veteran presence in the locker room can’t be overstated either. Denver holds a team option for Millsap for next season for just over $30 million. While he’s a solid player and someone the Nuggets want, that number may be too big to swallow.
The best bet is that Denver declines Millsap’s option and tries to bring him back on a deal that adds years, but lowers his average annual salary. Something along the lines of three years and $45 million to $50 million makes sense for both parties. If the Nuggets can frontload that contract, so much the better.
Part of the reason to frontload Millsap’s deal is that Denver is poised to get really expensive over the next year or two. Murray is due for a contract extension as soon as this summer that would kick in with the 20-21 season, and he’s going to be a max player or very close to it. They already have Jokic on a max contract and Harris and Barton combine to make $68 million through the 2022 season. By getting Millsap to take more money up front, the Nuggets can lower the cap hit over the next two years, as salaries rise for their core players.
Beyond Millsap, there isn’t a whole lot for Denver to do. They didn’t have a first round pick this year as they gave it up when they dumped salary on the Brooklyn Nets last summer to avoid paying the luxury tax. The Nuggets other key free agents are power forward Trey Lyles and point guard Isaiah Thomas. Lyles took a step back this past season and was out of the rotation for most of the year. Thomas was clearly still in recovery mode from hip surgery and never made much of an impact in Denver. It’s unlikely that either will be back this coming season.
That leaves Connelly with a couple of roster spots to fill out for this season, while also planning for the future. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Nuggets move one or two of the players out of the group of Beasley, Craig and Hernangomez. All are due for new contracts next season and with already having to pay Murray, there is no way Denver can afford all of these players. Expect them to be aggressive with trying to turn those players into someone who can help the team on the floor this coming season.
After that, all eyes will be on the development of Michael Porter Jr. Porter fell to Denver in the 2018 draft because of concerns about his back. He underwent subsequent procedures on his back and 2019 was treated like a red shirt season for Porter. He’s reportedly fully healthy and ready to go. If so, the Nuggets may have a lottery-level talent on their hands. Porter can play either forward spot, and his ability to run the floor and score will be a nice addition with the rest of the young Nuggets.
Denver also has a project on their hands this year in Bol Bol, who fell further in the 2019 draft than anyone could have possibly expected. The Nuggets took a low-risk flyer on acquiring his draft rights and will see what they have with the 7’2’’ big man. If he works out, Denver will have a talented player on a cheap contract for the next few years. If not, the investment to acquire Bol’s draft rights was minimal.
It should be a quiet summer for Denver. They’ll add some pieces to back up their young players and to help set things up for the future. But quiet is okay for a franchise that has as many good things already in pace as any in the NBA.
Guaranteed Contracts (12): Will Barton, Malik Beasley, Torrey Craig, Gary Harris, Juancho Hernangomez, Nikola Jokic, Monte Morris, Jamal Murray, Mason Plumlee, Michael Porter Jr., Jarred Vanderbilt, Thomas Welsh (Two-Way)
Partial/Non-Guaranteed Contracts (0): None
Potential Free Agents (5): Brandon Goodwin (RFA – Two-Way), Tyler Lydon (UFA), Trey Lyles (RFA), Paul Millsap (UFA – Team Option), Isaiah Thomas (UFA)
“Dead” Money on Cap ($0): None
First Round Draft Pick(s): None
Maximum Cap Space: $16.9 million
Projected Cap Space: $16.9 million