30teams30days 2018

30 Teams in 30 Days: Denver Nuggets look to turn corner in Western Conference

Denver takes chances in Draft and free agency to turn the tide, end playoff drought

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

What offseason?

That’s a question many fans ask as the flurry of trades, free agent news and player movement seems to never stop during the summer. Since the Golden State Warriors claimed their third title in four years back on June 8, NBA teams have undergone a massive number of changes as they prepare for the season ahead.

With the opening of training camps just around the corner, NBA.com’s Shaun Powell will evaluate the state of each franchise as it sits today — from the team with the worst regular-season record in 2017-18 to the team with the best regular-season record — as we look at 30 teams in 30 days.

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Today’s team: Denver Nuggets

2017-18 Record: 46-36, did not qualify for playoffs

Who’s new: Michael Porter Jr. (Draft); Isaiah Thomas (free agency)

Who’s gone: Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur, Devin Harris

The lowdown: The Nuggets had to win their last seven games to reach the playoffs. They came up one short, losing on the final night of the season to the Minnesota Timberwolves in a heartbreaker that wasn’t totally crushing. Last season was designed to find and develop potential stars for the future and, in that regard, the Nuggets were successful.

Nikola Jokic was literally the center of their universe, leading the club in scoring, rebounding and assists as Denver ran its offense through the big man. Jamal Murray became a threat as well, improving across the board stats-wise from his rookie season while also emerging as a clutch scorer. Fellow guard Gary Harris made 39.6 percent of his 3-pointers and finished as the team’s No. 2 scorer. That trio, all 23 or younger, made the season worthwhile and gave the Nuggets some bounce as the offseason began.

As the talent-acquisition business gets tougher, finding impact players (for non-Warriors teams) usually means choosing high in the Draft, making a trade that works for you or finding luck in free agency. Another method is to find players who are suddenly devalued, get them on the cheap and hope their imperfections disappear. And on that note … welcome to the Nuggets’ summer of 2018.

They shouldn’t have been in position to take Porter Jr. in the Draft or sign Thomas, but here they are.

In a best-case scenario, these two players help elevate them into the Western Conference’s upper crust and to a first-round playoff series win. And the worst case? There isn’t any, since neither player came at a big cost. The risk-reward in both situations are in Denver’s favor.

Two years ago, Porter Jr. was among the best high school players in the country and Thomas finished fifth in Kia MVP voting. What were the odds the Nuggets would get both for the cost of a mid-first-round pick and some leftover salary cap space? Injuries set Porter Jr. and Thomas back and there’s no guarantee either will make a complete recovery or recapture their place in the game. But the Nuggets are hopeful.

Porter Jr. was the potential No. 1 overall pick several months before the Draft, but back woes essentially cost him his college career. Still, Porter was a strong top-10 pick candidate until the weeks prior to the Draft.

When he tumbled all the way to No. 14, it was an easy call for the Nuggets. Yes, it’s possible the 6-foot-10 forward may be restricted during training camp, if he participates at all. He had a second back surgery in July, which may disrupt or delay his rookie season. The Nuggets do know a healthy Porter Jr. could translate into the steal of the Draft, though. And even if it takes a while, remember, he’s just 19 years old.

Weeks after the Draft, the Nuggets grabbed another tarnished gem by inking Thomas to a reported one-year deal. Thomas is the victim of a basketball tragedy, someone who played his way into a big payday, only to suffer a cruel hip injury and watch his fortune go poof and career go sideways.

It can’t be understated how Thomas was once a fan favorite with the Boston Celtics, a little guy who enjoyed a dream season in 2016-17 and then had the misfortune of getting injured at the wrong time. That potential $25 million-a-year contract vanished, and two teams later, Thomas sat on the free-agent market, no doubt bitter and confused. He didn’t ask for any of this, or deserve it.

The Nuggets made it clear that Murray is the starting point guard and they won’t hamper his growth, and Thomas said he’s fine with that.

The rest of the summer was all about financial housekeeping. Rich extensions were given to Jokic (a reported five years, $146 million) and Will Barton (a reported four years, $54 million). Keeping Jokic was a no-brainer, as he’s just touching his prime and could soon become the best all-around center in the NBA. Barton was No. 9 in scoring off the bench last season while also improving his shot selection and 3-point accuracy over the past three seasons.

Those signings pushed the Nuggets into luxury-tax land. To relieve that burden, they basically gave away three players from last year’s rotation: Faried, Chandler and Arthur, and sacrificed a conditional 2019 first-round pick to make it happen. Since none of those players were in the future plans, the decision was easy.

The Nuggets enter the season with Jokic, Murray, Barton, Harris, Paul Millsap, Mason Plumlee and Trey Lyles in the rotation. If Thomas and Porter Jr. contribute, those solid additions might keep the playoff suspense from lasting until the midnight hour.

Coming Next: Minnesota Timberwolves

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Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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