Denver Nuggets shuffle bench, add future assets while remaining in contention for first title
When the rumors about potential trades of Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangómez and Jarred Vanderbilt started to emerge, following the Nuggets’ impressive win over the Trail Blazers Wednesday, several questions arose.
Why trade Beasley and Hernangómez, two key members of the current rotation, now? Did Denver get better from these transactions? Is a star player next on the way to the Mile High City?
After what appeared to be a whirlwind 48 hours leading up to Thursday’s 1 p.m. MT trade deadline, the official details came and painted a picture of what President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly and his front office’s aims were. Fortify the team ahead of what could be a fruitful run in the postseason and create assets that help in upgrading the roster when the offseason comes around.
“When you’re looking at the trade market, you have dream scenarios, likely scenarios and you have fallback scenarios. We were involved in all three.” Connelly explained to Altitude SR on Friday. “Ultimately, we felt like we did a pretty good job of bringing some quality depth in. We lost really good guys, really good players in Malik, Juancho and Jarred. They are going to be sorely missed both on the court and off the court, but when you’re able to get a first-round pick, it allows some future flexibility.”
He added, “It’s a piece that stays in play this offseason and we feel confident in the play of our guys and we feel confident that we have enough in our locker room to make a real run.”
In acquiring Jordan McRae, Keita Bates-Diop and Noah Vonleh, the Nuggets gain three players who should be able to make an immediate impact and give head coach Michael Malone added versatility for matchups.
With Will Barton III and Mason Plumlee still on the mend with various ailments, the additions of Vonleh and Bates-Diop will allow the Nuggets to not have to rush their veterans’ recovery. Vonleh and Bates-Diop come from vastly different pedigrees, with the former being a lottery selection in 2014 and the latter a second rounder in 2018.
“We thought we needed some additional bodies up front. “We’ve been through a ton of injuries,” Connelly said of adding Vonleh and Bates-Diop.
Both men have a lot to prove.
Vonleh appeared to finally be delivering on the potential that made him the ninth overall selection in the 2014 NBA draft last season in New York but struggled to find a fit in a crowded frontcourt in Minnesota. If Vonleh can get back to where he was with the Knicks during the 2018-19 campaign, Denver might have gotten a steal. In New York, the 6-foot-10 forward-center averaged 8.4 points, 7.8 rebounds on 47 percent shooting, including a respectable 33 percent on three-pointers.
“Vonleh is a big, athletic kid,” Connelly said. “I think he’ll surprise people with his defensive versatility. He can play above the rim and knock down shots when his feet are set. Physical, athletic and a guard who can guard a lot of positions.”
Bates-Diop’s arrival gives the Nuggets a solid tweener at forward who can cut well, a key component when playing with Nikola Jokić, and has potential to become a positive presence on both ends of the court.
“Bates-Diop is a former Big 10 Player of the Year,” Connelly said. “Excellent nose for scoring the ball, can make shots and a very good corner three point shooter. [He’s] long, active, very good cutter with size and length and a high IQ player.”
Connelly made it clear the Nuggets didn’t have to trade Beasley, but the shooting guard’s long-term future in Denver became doubtful after both sides couldn’t agree on an extension. Connelly sought to add long term value in a first-round pick without sacrificing depth. The team accomplished both with the additions of Houston’s 2020 first-round pick and McRae.
“[McRae] is a guy who can really get a bucket. He killed us this year when we lost in D.C. We lost a guy that has done a great job off the bench [in] scoring in Malik. So we thought in terms of roster balance, to get a long two-guard, a guy who can get to the rim and make a shot,” Connelly explained. “I think he’ll add a lot. At times, we struggled to score the ball [this season] and he’s a guy that certainly doesn’t struggle in putting the ball in the basket.”
McRae and Beasley play the same position, but that’s where the similarities end. Beasley is a more athletic player who relies on three-point shooting for most of his scoring production, with 53.4 percent of his field goal attempts coming from downtown. McRae, alternatively, is a versatile player who can play positions point guard, shooting guard and small forward and attacks the basket more. At the rim, McRae converts at 67.8 percent.
More importantly, the additions enhance a core group that has found its footing since the start of 2020. Connelly likely wouldn’t have made the moves he had without the emergence of highly touted rookie Michael Porter Jr., who averaged 12.3 points and 6.9 rebounds in January while knocking down a sizzling 48 percent on threes. It also didn’t hurt that PJ Dozier came into his own as a reliable third option at point guard for the Nuggets, putting 6.7 points and 2.1 assists on 45.5 percent shooting in January. By adding McRae, Vonleh and Bates-Diop, the Nuggets feel they have a trio who will help their chances of reaching their aforementioned goals of contending for a title.
“If we don’t believe, how can we make a real run,” Connelly asked. “I think we have the best record [in the NBA] against teams with a winning record. So if I answer no [we can’t make a run to the title], it would be a slap in the face of all that that team has accomplished. Hopefully, we’re just scratching the surface.”