Inside the Nuggets team-building philosophy with Assistant GM Tommy Balcetis

Matt Brooks
Writer & Digital Content Specialist

It was a quiet trade deadline for the Denver Nuggets. The team did not swing any trades, big or small, and has not signed any free agents off the buyout market up to this point. In fact, to do so, they’d need to open up a roster spot. All 18 slots are filled at the time of this writing. 

If you’ve been paying attention, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Head coach Michael Malone hinted during press conferences that he didn’t expect the franchise to make a ton of outgoing trade calls to other teams. They’d listen, of course, but it’d take an enticing offer for the Nuggets to feel emboldened about shaking up the roster. 

“The key going into the deadline was continuity and trying to keep pushing with the team that we have. You always have to be open. You have to field calls and maybe make a few calls here and there,” Assistant General Manager, Tommy Balcetis, told Nuggets.com. “At the same time, if the team is gelling well, which I think we are, there's no real impetus to do anything.” 

Continuity played a major role in this decision. After all, the team boasts what many inside and outside of the organization view as the best starting lineup the sport has to offer. Plus, they’ve slowly worked in a slew of younger players who have spent their formative years in Denver’s system.  

“We're very happy with the team. The team is good. There’s a lot of continuity from last year, the championship team,” Balcetis explained. “We lost a few very good players (in free agency), but at the same time, we kept our starting unit intact. And some of the guys off the bench, they're stepping into these new roles.” 

Denver had a very different approach a year ago. They traded for center Thomas Bryant and acquired Reggie Jackson as a buyout signing after he was waived by the Charlotte Hornets. Neither player received a ton of playing time in the 2023 postseason. 

Jackson mentioned on Media Day that getting acclimated to Denver’s system in just 16 games of the 2022-23 regular season was a challenge. The Nuggets aren’t like many other top offenses; they’re at the bottom of the league in pick-and-roll and isolation frequency and atop the NBA in post-ups, off-ball screens, cuts away from the ball, and handoffs. It’s a uniquely democratic and selfless ecosystem.  

“There are so many good players out there, I don't think playing in a new system would be as much of an issue,” Balcetis noted. “But Reggie is a perfect example. I mean, he came in late last year and wasn't able to show what he could do. This year, as we all can see, Reggie’s doing a great job for us. So, it does matter when one gets to spend the training camp with the team to be able to really contribute. For our deadline moves, it was certainly one of the considerations - not rocking the boat too much and letting these guys do what they do best.” 

Of course, looming over the deadline was the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, or the CBA, which was signed last summer by the NBA Players Association (NBAPA) and the NBA itself. The new CBA established many new rules, but the ones that most closely applied to the trade deadline related to the luxury tax. More specifically, the two newly established “aprons.” 

Franchises spending more than $7 million over the luxury tax now qualify as “first apron” teams. Spending $17.7 over the luxury tax places a team in the “second apron” bracket. The Nuggets are below the second apron as of today. 

Being an apron team can affect spending power in a variety of ways. The Nuggets wouldn’t have access to certain exceptions that would help augment roster-building strategies. Salaries of multiple players cannot be aggregated, or put together, in trades as a second apron team, if the Nuggets get there. 

But the one that’s most applicable to Denver’s current situation is the rules regarding buyout signings. Teams over either apron cannot sign players making over $12.2 million in a season before being waived. So, a player like Kyle Lowry, for example, was not eligible to be signed by the Nuggets after his February buyout with the Charlotte Hornets. 

The NBA put these rule changes in place to disperse talent more widely. This could affect the longevity of “super teams,” or teams with multiple high-salaried stars. Take the Phoenix Suns, for example, who are shelling out more than $120 million of combined salary to their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, and Bradley Beal this season. That’s a super team that could get very expensive to keep in place going forward.  

“The new CBA ensures a more proportional talent distribution around the NBA,” explained Balcetis. “It does make it more challenging to keep teams together going forward. Certainly, super teams will be a very, very difficult proposition, not to mention expensive. At the end of the day, the NBA is doing a good job ensuring parity and generating excitement around the league.” 

Teams need to get creative to stay under the new CBA’s punitive tax lines. Things like drafting and scouting well are even more important than before. Younger players tend to be on the friendliest deals for teams, so finding players who can produce at a young age is a premium. For a team like the Nuggets, that’s a great challenge. After all, they used the draft to unearth three pillars of the organization: Nikola Jokić, Jamal Murray, and Michael Porter Jr. In recent years, they selected Peyton Watson and Christian Braun, who currently round out their rotation as key fixtures. 

“In terms of us, it is more challenging because we can certainly feel the effects of the new restrictions. So, we have to make sure that we continue scouting well. We have to make sure that the players that we sign are on team-friendly deals,” Balcetis said. “The youth movement has to be put to the forefront a little more because young players on team-friendly contracts will have to perform, and not just for us, but for many teams around the league. So, it's exciting and challenging at the same time, but those are the rules that we all play by.” 

Heightening the importance of the youth movement is not a novel idea for the franchise. Before the season, General Manager Calvin Booth laid out a clear vision going forward: The Nuggets wanted to prioritize development while contending for championships. It would be a tough balance to strike and one that required precise scouting and patient development. 

In the first year of this plan, Denver selected Braun and Watson in the 2022 NBA Draft. The next year, they took Julian Strawther, Jalen Pickett, and Hunter Tyson in the 2023 Draft. Four of those five draft picks played three or more collegiate seasons, with Watson being the sole “one-and-done" selection. Experience and maturity are valuable traits as the franchise looks to put the finishing touches on its dynastic roster. It’s all about finding players that accentuate the championship-caliber starting five of Jokić, Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Aaron Gordon, and Porter Jr. The new CBA and its punitive salary cap restrictions only added to the importance of hitting on draft picks. 

“It’s a combination, for sure,” Balcetis said when asked if the new CBA played a role in Denver’s team-building process. “Just because they happen to be a little older, but they also possess a lot of things that we value as an organization. Their emotional maturity, first and foremost, is what we value, but at the same time, having the game, having the strength, having the toughness to step into a good team and actually produce the way Christian and Peyton this year are producing. We value that a lot. 

Now, the players who possess those values tend to be a little older, but it's not like we were sitting in the room saying, ‘We're gonna get old guys and that's it.’ We’re always open to everybody, but we do tend to believe that physical and emotional maturity and having some sort of winning experience under your belt certainly helps when you join an NBA organization. That's why over the last couple of years, the guys that we've taken in the draft have mostly been winning type of players that are not afraid of the moment.” 

It’s rare to see a title contender boast this many first- and second-year players. Every draft pick from the Booth era is signed to a long-term deal. Many times, teams with championship aspirations will round their roster out with older veterans on cheaper deals. Take the Miami HEAT during the LeBron James years, for example, who signed players like Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Chris Anderson, and Rashard Lewis as depth pieces to bolster their chances in the postseason. Those veterans were in their twilight years but signed with Miami for a chance at a championship to complete their careers. 

We’ve seen many great championship teams go this route, including the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers, but Balcetis pushed back on the notion that championship experience automatically correlates with age.  

“You can think about it as biological age. I mean, an NBA veteran will be more experienced. But at the same time, we look at experience from a variety of different angles. Experience can be winning an NCAA championship like Christian Braun did. And then it becomes levels. Winning an NCAA title is not the same as winning an NBA title, but if you've been around pressure and if you've been around a tough environment trying to persevere, you can do that as a younger player as well.  

“You don’t always need to have a 31-year-old or 32-year-old on your roster to actually achieve that. I understand the view that veterans have been around longer, therefore, they're more trustworthy. But if you have mentally tough young players who can give a little more from an athletic point of view, you could potentially bridge the gap that way. We value experience and we value maturity, but you can get that with younger players too.” 

The franchise is pleased with how their homegrown talent has progressed this season. Watson has been a revelation for the Nuggets, already establishing himself as one of the best defenders in the association. Balcetis gave kudos to Booth for his foresight in the Watson selection.  

“It's a major win for Calvin, specifically,” Balcetis said about Watson. “He had a vision for Peyton while he was still in school, and it's not an easy one to foresee. He had a very modest year at UCLA. He had some decent games here and there, but overall, he kind of struggled a little bit, especially from a productivity perspective. But all credit to Cal for believing in what 'P-Wat' could become. We're seeing it now in front of our eyes. He's blossomed into the player that Cal foresaw. He's getting into the mode of being a two-way player in the league and a very successful one at that. He's a very important piece for us this year and going forward.” 

They’ve been equally pleased with Braun, who played a major role in Denver’s championship run as a rookie. Braun’s seen his counting statistics rise across the board in his sophomore season, but his efficiency has taken a slight dip. However, he’s on the heels of one of his finest performances of the season: a 12-point and career-high 10-rebound outing against the Washington Wizards for his first-ever double-double. 

“He's finding his identity as a consistent NBA player,” Balcetis told Nuggets.com “He's playing with energy on both ends of the floor. He's having a recalibration season right now, and we have no doubt in our mind that he's going to find his scoring touch and he's going to rediscover his impact very, very quickly because he's a mentally tough kid and he knows how to play the game, he’s a winner.” 

As for their rookies, Strawther has had some big games for the Nuggets off the bench. Pickett and Tyson have spent most of the season with the team’s G-League affiliate, the Grand Rapids Gold. Reports from Grand Rapids are positive about Tyson and Pickett. Balcetis gave credit to Grand Rapids’ General Manager Ben Tenzer, Owner Steve Jbara, and Head Coach Andre Miller for their diligent work running the Gold.  

“We're very happy with them,” Balcetis said about Tyson and Pickett. “When you join a good team, especially with a bunch of young talent outside of the starting unit, it's not always easy to just come in and start playing immediately. So, we've been utilizing Grand Rapids very well for those guys. The Grand Rapids organization has been tremendous for us. Ben, Steve, and Andre have done an awesome job. We've been very happy with what they've been able to show at that level. We have no doubt that those guys are NBA players. It's just a little more difficult for them to come in and show it here. But even when they're here in small-sided games and during practice, those guys are coming into their own and showing confidence.” 

Now, with just over a quarter of the season remaining and the playoffs looming large, Denver’s plan will be put to the test. Can the Nuggets make history and go back-to-back as champions? Can they thread the needle of developing young players while competing for titles? The franchise certainly remains optimistic about their chances. The trade deadline only confirmed that.