For the Denver Nuggets, the 2022-2023 title or defeat season is officially ticking.
After losing in the first round to the current NBA champion Golden State Warriors, head coach Michael Malone, general manager and new chief decision maker Calvin Booth and governor Josh Kroenke each threw down the gauntlet in their own way. For Malone, the message was that Denver’s championship quest starts with defense: “I said how important this offseason was and how we need to be a much better defensive team.”
For Kroenke, the message was sent in the form of a financial commitment: “I don’t think this organization will falter when it comes to taxes or trying to attract talent.”
Messaging is simple. The Nuggets will be aggressive this offseason and they are already making moves. Reports surfaced last week that Jamichal Green would be traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder for the 30th pick in the 2022 NBA draft. The Nuggets currently have the 21st and 30th picks at their disposal ahead of Thursday’s celebration.
However, don’t expect the Nuggets to just pick two rookies.
The Nuggets currently have nine (technically eight, but likely nine) players under contract for the 2022–23 season. The four highest paid players – Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon – are unlikely to be sold. They are the foundation upon which the Nuggets build their championship vision, and their move will raise more questions than answers.
There are five other players left:
- Last season, Monte Morris was a good replacement for the injured Murray as the starting point guard. Today, Morris is considered one of the best reserve point guards in the NBA. He currently has two more years on an $18.9 million contract.
- Will Barton was a starting shooting guard last season and played eight seasons with the Nuggets. He is the three-point leader in Nuggets franchise history with 804 points. He currently has one more year on a $14.4 million contract.
- Jeff Green has reportedly just received his $4.5 million player option for the 2022-23 season. He filled in well for Michael Porter Jr last season but is expected to play a smaller role after Zeke Nnaji.
- Zeke Nnaji has two more seasons on his rookie contract and is expected to be part of Denver’s main rotation going forward.
- Bones Highland has three more seasons on his rookie contract after making the All-Rookie Second Team last year with dynamic scoring and playing skills.
It’s pretty easy to see what Malone, Booth, and Kroenke really mean when they say the Nuggets will need to be aggressive this offseason. Denver is actively looking for trades that will improve the roster, with a focus on perimeter defense. To get that, the Nuggets will have to give up something, and they don’t give up their best stuff.
So trading Morris, Barton, Green, Nnaji and Highland would be Denver’s best opportunity to acquire the right pieces to fight for the championship.
How aggressive the Nuggets are will determine the level of player they can realistically acquire. If the Nuggets are looking to trade Barton for his defensive counterpart at the starting shooting guard position, then Denver may not have to add too much extra value to make the deal easier. Think of players like Centavius Caldwell-Pope of the Washington Wizards or Josh Richardson of the San Antonio Spurs.
If the Nuggets hope for the best, they will have to send additional players and trade assets to make the deal go through. Many teams are pinning their hopes on Bones Highland as the sweetener given his impressive rookie year. The Nuggets probably don’t want to let go of Bones any more than Nuggets fans, so deals need to be more creative.
This is where the first round picks come into play. The Nuggets already had the 21st overall pick and moved a future 2027 opener to take the 30th pick this year. The Nuggets can move one of those drafts before Thursday, and they can trade both at the same time during that night’s draft.
But here’s the key: Denver’s trading flexibility is drastically reduced since the 2022 NBA draft. If the Nuggets select two rookies and plan to add these players to the roster, they will not be able to be traded until December 15, 2022. This will lock up Denver’s two most valuable trading assets and prevent the Nuggets from using those picks to facilitate other trades.
Stepien’s Rule prevents the Nuggets from trading first round picks for consecutive seasons, and the Nuggets have already rescheduled their 2023 first round and 2025 first round picks. Last Monday, the Nuggets also traded their first round of 2027. This means the Nuggets will have no other first-round trade option until 2029.
So the 21st and 30th picks in this year’s draft are even more important than they were a week ago. If the Nuggets dream of a true roster upgrade like the Indiana Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon or the Toronto Raptors’ OG Anunobi, Denver will almost certainly have to use one or both of the 21st and 30th picks to make it happen.
There are other ways to improve the squad that don’t involve changing hands in the first round. The Nuggets won a couple of second rounds against the Thunder last week in a Greens trade and also ruled out an $8.2 million player trade. This gives Denver some options beyond the mid-level taxpayer exemption, the only contract Denver has to offer potential free agents that is worth more than the minimum. Even that contract is roughly three years and $20 million, which means he still won’t get top free agents to move to Denver.
Understandably, the Nuggets’ options are severely limited, from the number of players they can use in deals to the amount of trading and free agency assets the Nuggets actually possess.
This puts the responsibility on Calvin Booth to maximize the 21st and 30th places overall on Thursday night. Whether the Nuggets are rookie draft picks or combining picks with contracts for a veteran upgrade, the 21st and 30th picks are by far the most important first-round draft picks the Nuggets will have over the next several years. On Thursday night, the Nuggets will have one last serious chance to make a major roster upgrade.
No pressure, Calvin.