The Nuggets future looks incredibly bright, however retaining it is about to get expensive.
Since December 15, 2016, the Nuggets have become the most potent offense in the NBA, signed an in prime All-Star to a team friendly deal and have established one of the best young cores in the league. Denver is also home to one of the most interesting offenses in the NBA. Whereas most teams build around scoring wings and guards, the Nuggets are doing things differently. They are constructing a beautiful offense around an elite playmaking frontcourt. From contracts to player development, here are five things that will have a major influence on the Nuggets’ future.
The Gary Harris Situation
Through his first three years in the NBA, Harris has improved dramatically. After a throwaway rookie year, he broke onto the scene in his second year and in his third, became one of the elite shooters in the NBA, shooting a blistering 42% from 3 last year.
He’s established himself as the best two-way guard on this team and an integral part of the offense. Throughout last season, he formed a nearly preternatural partnership with Nikola Jokic. However, he is now extension-eligible and looks like he’s about to get PAID. Young 3&D guards who consistently improve generally don’t stay on the market very long.
While it may seem like a no-brainer to pay a 23 year-old of Harris’ caliber whatever he wants, the case gets cloudier upon further examination. Even though there is consistent improvement, there is a chance his peak isn’t quite high enough. He is still an under-sized 2 with average physical tools and injury issues. Although there are players who fit that profile and have reached high levels of success (Avery Bradley and Bradley Beal). The list of simply average players is bountiful (Courtney Lee and Seth Curry to name a few).
Whether he can be the next Bradley Beal or the next Courtney Lee still remains to be seen. However, the Nuggets are counting on his improvement to make a significant leap in the West.
Nikola Jokic Remains the Most Unique Player in the NBA
I could easily write ~500 words about the unique skills of Nikola Jokic, however I want to focus more on the uniqueness of his contract situation. Being a mid-second round selection, his contract is arguably the best in the NBA relative to value. However, the Nuggets face one of the trickiest situations in the league next year.
Nikola Jokic has a team option for the 2018 season, which if picked up would send him to unrestricted free agency in 2019. However if the team declines, he will immediately hit restricted free agency in the 2018 offseason. There are rules in place to help teams retain homegrown stars, however they haven’t worked to their intention yet (see: Hayward, Gordon).
If the Nuggets decline the option and send him into restricted free agency, they have a better chance of keeping him. The Nuggets will match any offer immediately, as they should, but they could still run into serious issues. If they can find a way to reach an agreement with Gary, they will have 3 max or near-max players in 2019, severely limiting their flexibility. The outcome of this decision will be one that determines the fate of the Nuggets for the foreseeable future.
The importance of re-signing Jokic cannot be understated. Before his arrival, the team was floundering amidst a disappointing rookie campaign from Emmanuel Mudiay and the future was bleak. The loss of Jokic would unequivocally destroy the future of the Nuggets. It’s imperative that the Nuggets don’t pick up the team option in his contract. We’ve seen what happens when teams attempt to save money on young talent (see: Hayward, Gordon), and the Nuggets cannot afford to make that same mistake. While it’s a good idea in the short term, it can do potentially devastating damage in the long term.
What is the Ceiling of This Team?
The ceiling of this team in the West is perhaps the biggest reason that paying Jokic, Harris, and Millsap should worry Tim Connelly and Arturas Karnisovas. They can’t afford to let Jokic and Gary go, however it stands to question how good this team can really be. Signing both of them at what they will ask will cap this team out before the projected title window opens in 2019 (Warriors).
Assuming Gary will make a big enough leap to justify his contract is a risky proposition and Millsap is approaching his mid-30s. The team has also long had major defensive issues and they don’t seem to be shoring up soon. Even though the Cavs made the finals with an atrocious defense, they also had LeBron James.
This team has the potential to be substantially more successful in 2017, but the bill could eventually be too much for Denver to overcome before they reach their peak. The flexibility of the team will be severely hindered and the Nuggets better hope their investments pay off.