The Seriousness of the Joker

Question: Which of the following draft picks would you most likely expect a teams franchise pillar to be selected at?

A. 22 in 2011
B. 20 in 2012
C. 28 in 2013
D. 16 in 2014
E. 19 in 2014
F. 41 in 2014
G. 7 in 2015
H. 7 in 2016
I. 15 in 2016
J. 19 in 2016

Those are the main draft selections used by the Denver Nuggets since 2011. Those players in order:

A. Kenneth Faried
B. Evan Fournier
C. Rudy Gobert (traded to Utah)
D. Jusuf Nurkic
E. Gary Harris
F. Nikola Jokic
G. Emmanuel Mudiay
H. Jamal Murray
I. Juan Hernangomez
J. Malik Beasley.

We would all be forgiven for thinking that the dual pick 7’s in 2015 and 2016 would form the backbone of any rebuild, and whilst there is still the potential for Emmanuel Mudiay and/or Jamal Murray becoming one of the top three players on the Nuggets’ roster, it is the pick 41 in 2014 which is the correct answer to our question. The story of Nikola Jokic might be well known enough by now that the above doesn’t come as a surprise, but nonetheless, it is still a unique one in the modern NBA.

This off-season will be a very interesting one for the Nuggets, and whilst it may not be decisive for their chances of ultimate future success, it may certainly help propel them from being ninth – where they finished in the 2016/17 season – to playoff participation in 2017/18. But make no mistake, it will all be about The Joker.

The State of the Nuggets

The biggest off-season move for the Nuggets is their response to the likely scenario of Danilo Gallinari opting out of his contract. With multiple teams in a position to make a splash on high level role players (especially those of the 6’10” high shooting capability persuasion) and an increased salary cap, Danilo Gallinari should get paid this off-season. However, even if he does opt-out, that does not erase Denver from the equation. They are definitely keen to keep him, and Gallo seems keen to stay.

If Gallinari does leave the Mile High City for greener pastures (money pun intended), it won’t be the end of the world for Denver with both Wilson Chandler and Will Barton on the books for next season. Plus (as discussed later), the Nuggets will have pick #13 in the upcoming draft – an asset to use or trade to help fill any void Gallinari creates.

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Gallinari Loves the Denver Fans

Should Gallo opt in or re-sign with Denver on a bigger pay packet, the Nuggets off-season goals remain largely unchanged, with GM Tim Connelly looking to add length and defence next to new franchise centrepiece Nikola Jokic.

The Nuggs currently have projected salary of a shade over $71 million for next season. Though that doesn’t take into account the $16 million player option that Danilo Gallinari has, nor the $3.5 million that is non-guaranteed for Mike Miller, (though the Nuggs seem to also want to retain him). Current projections of the NBA salary cap for 2017/18 is $101 million (with a luxury tax threshold of $121 million), and therefore, even with Gallinari opting in, the Nuggets will have some cap space to play with this off-season.

denver now

The biggest lack-of-quality issues are at small forward (especially if Gallinari leaves), point guard and power forward. The Nuggets have options at all positions certainly, but the quality in these positions is the separating factor between the Nuggets and those teams above them.

The other interesting wrinkle for the Nuggets this off-season is the fate of restricted free agent Mason Plumlee. The early signs are that Denver wish to re-sign him, but there will be teams out there that would be willing to pay a lot of money for an athletic, non-offensive demanding big like Plumlee, and as Xander wrote about in his look at the upcoming restricted free agency class, Plumlee’s suitors will also have the contract of his brother Miles as a starting point (an albatross like four year, $52 million deal). Mason has the chance to be a Plumdog Millionare just like his brother. The likelihood is that the Nuggets retain Plumlee; after all they gave up a first round pick and Jusuf Nurkic for his services.

Building Around The Joker

A common analogy about building a successful team in a sports environment is that of a racing car. The analogy goes that the most successful teams are a mix of high quality parts (players) that are efficiently interconnected (team structure / philosophy / game plan). Those teams that don’t have success are a mix of low quality parts that are disconnected; culminating in a Brooklyn Nets-like implosion (the Nets are still picking up the debris). If this analogy holds true, the Denver Nuggets replaced their entire engine about a quarter of the way through the 2016/17 season when they moved Jokic off the bench and into the starting line-up, establishing him as the pillar of their organisation in the process.

As David Nash recently wrote, the Denver Nuggets are off the treadmill by virtue of Jokic’s unicorn rise. But whilst it is one thing to find a franchise engine (pillar), it is quite another to find high quality parts and effectively connect it all together. This requires parts that can play to and magnify the engine’s strengths, but also who can compensate for their engine’s weaknesses.

A pertinent example is the Orlando Magic when they made the NBA Finals on the back of Dwight Howard in 2009. Howard’s strengths were his elite physical attributes; his power and his athleticism. His weakness was essentially any offensive requirements outside the paint. The Magic’s starting line-up sans Howard – Rafer Alston, Courtney Lee, Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis with Mikeal Pietrus, JJ Reddick and Jameer Nelson off the bench – were all built around both protecting Howard and playing to his strengths by spacing the floor with shooters and anchoring him down-low, or give him room to roll after setting an on-ball screen.

The Joker is very unlike Dwight Howard, with very different strengths (play making) and weaknesses (defense and mobility). This was glaringly obvious in the first quarter of last season, when Coach Mike Malone experimented with Jokic and former first round pick Jusuf Nurkic on the court together. It just didn’t work, as attested by a net rating (point differential per 100 possessions) of -15.6 (via NBA.com). When Malone decided to bench Nurkic in favour of Jokic, the countdown of the Bosnian Beast being shipped out began, culminating in the swap for Mason Plumlee.

The move made sense for Denver. The uniqueness of Jokic as Denver’s engine requires a uniqueness of the parts that surround him. They gained a more athletic and talented passing big who doesn’t demand touches offensively; a unique part undoubtedly. The duo seems to have been effective – albeit not mindbogglingly so – with a small but positive net rating of 0.9 when they shared the court (via NBA.com).

The Nuggets will have to play all future moves towards the same end, finding those unique parts that ensure that the team’s engine purrs at optimum levels.

Moving Mudiay?

Whilst the Nuggets have little control on Gallinari’s future, they certainly do on the other major decision; the future of Emmanuel Mudiay as their long term franchise point guard. Mudiay has shown ability with some big games over his two seasons in Denver (like his 30 point game against the Celtics), but he has also shown significant liabilities: turning the ball over at an alarming rate, a terrible field goal percentage with an extremely poor pull up jump shot, and is not a great on-ball defender. All are massive red flags for a point guard in the modern game. Thankfully, Jameer Nelson was the steadying influence for Denver’s back court for most of the 2016/17 season, and so the call on Mudiay never reached a point of urgency. But Nelson will turn 36 in February next year and this off-season will have plenty of supply for point guard talent in both the incoming draft class and availability in the free agency market. Mudiay’s future is no doubt back on the front office’s agenda.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Denver Nuggets

The case to not give up on Mudiay, at least not yet, is fairly sound. His biggest strengths are his size and physique for a point guard, which allows him to get past his first defender and finish at the rim. Where he has struggled in the past is when defenses are able to collapse on him earlier, forcing him to take a pull up jumper, a definitive weakness. However, theoretically, playing through The Joker, the Nuggets will space the floor better. If there are sufficient shooters on the floor, it may open up the lane more and minimize opponents’ help defense at the same time.

Despite this, the Nuggets will surely be tempted with the slew of quality point guards coming out of contract this off-season. But any addition to the point guard depth will likely make one of Jamal Murray or Mudiay surplus to requirements, with the latter most likely on the chopping block. Mudiay may be on the block regardless, with GM Connelly recently stating that if he knew Denver would have missed the playoffs, he would have been more aggressive at the trade deadline. That may mean that the Nuggets will be a hive of activity this off-season as compensation; with Mudiay sure to be a name floated.

One player who may raise the eye of Denver’s front office would be Australian and current San Antonio Spur Patty Mills. Mills is an unrestricted free agent this off-season, and his ability to play the point in both the traditional manner (i.e. bringing up the ball, initiating offence and being subjected to a lot of on-ball screen action) as well as more off the ball shooter, which he does on countless occasions. Mills would be an ideal fit for the Nuggets from an experience standpoint (bringing that Popovich polish) as well as filling a need at the point – whether that be as a starter or off the bench. Another key drawing card for Denver is Mills’ pest-like defense, which would help improve one of the biggest collective weakness of the Nuggets. All of this is on top of the fact that Mills would likely come relatively cheap, giving the Nuggets more flexibility in future years.

Mills, or many other veteran free agent point guard, make a lot of sense for the Nuggets and any such move towards a new point guard will likely see Mudiay’s end in Denver.

Other Free Agency Targets

Denver made a huge run at Dwyane Wade last off-season as a free agent, and they may do so again. But with a solid core of wing players which include Wilson Chandler, Will Barton, Emmanuel Mudiay (should they keep him), Jamal Murray, Malik Beasley, and Gary Harris – all of whom see (or should see) minutes – Wade is not the highest of priorities. That may be – along with point guard help – another veteran power forward who can act as a foil to The Joker, especially with so many high quality options available. Names such as Paul Millsap, Blake Griffin, Greg Monroe, Taj Gibson and Zach Randolph will be tantalizing free agent targets for Denver, and maybe none more so than Serge Ibaka.

The majority of big men franchise pillars (and soon-to-be franchise pillars) in the NBA are of the uber-athletic type, able to out-athletic opponents offensively, and dominate around the rim defensively. This fits the mold of players like Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Kristaps Porzingas. In contrast, Jokic’s biggest strength is his offensive nous and skill set; showing a guard-like ability to connect from range and pass to cutters from the high-post / perimeter. His biggest weakness lies in his lack of athleticism (Coach Malone called him a ‘below the rim player’), which has a direct impact on his defensive capabilities; especially at 6’10, generally seen as undersized for the modern NBA center.

Therefore, any power forward that Denver look to bring in to play Harley Quinn to Jokic’s Joker (sticking with the Batman link) must be able to space the floor to allow room for cutters when Jokic has the ball at the high post or perimeter, but also must be defensively capable of staying with quicker small ball forwards and able to protect the rim. Serge Ibaka from the free agency crop best fills those needs.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Toronto Raptors

The Nuggets may also (or instead of) choose to make a run at one of the talented small-forwards that are free agents this off-season (that includes Gallinari). However, it is unlikely that they will be able to coax Kevin Durant, Andre Igoudala (back again) or Gordon Hayward to the Mile High City, and no one else is really worth replacing Gallinari, and thus the Nuggets may view the draft as best suited to cater for their small forward need and free agency their need for quality at the four.

NBA Draft

The Nuggets hold the 13th pick in the upcoming NBA draft; which in a deep draft is a handy trade asset type pick to have. If they keep it, I’d expect the Nuggets to target one of their three positional weaknesses (PG, SF, PF), as Sam discussed in his most recent lottery mock draft.

There is the possibility that one of the top projected point guards falls to the Nuggets at 13 – the most likely is Frank Ntilinka or Malik Monk (the latter isn’t really a point guard but more of a kinda-if-we-really-desperately-need-a-fill-in type point guard) – but all should be gone by the time Denver are on the clock. Those that may be around wouldn’t force Denver to discard the Emmanuel Mudiay experiment (I do think Ntilinka will be a star however).

Sam has the Nuggets targeting OG Anunoby, who would almost be the perfect fit as a combo forward replacement, and a guy that still has so much potential, even coming off an ACL injury and missing most of his sophomore year at Indiana.

Anunoby could revel playing with Jokic, using his elite athletic profile to create scoring opportunities through off the ball movement when The Joker has the ball at the high post/ perimeter, as opposed to using a high skill set – which he currently lacks – to create buckets for himself. Anunoby is also athletic enough to be a great defender at the next level – a potential 3-and-D guy that can defend positions 1 through 4 – another tick for the Nuggets who gave up over 111 points a game in 2016/17, only better than the Phoenix Suns, Brooklyn Nets and LA Lakers.

The Nuggets could also have a long hard look at North Carolina’s Justin Jackson, who while more polished offensively, may not have the ceiling that Anunoby has. He has shown cability in scoring in a variety of NBA type scenarios (best exemplified in his 34 point game against Kentucky), but Anunoby’s positional versatility and defensive potential should see him get the nod.

If Denver wish to go the big-man route, players like Zach Collins, Jarrett Allen, TJ Leaf and John Collins will all be around the mark at 13. However, none of them on face value would be a great long-term pairing with The Joker, and none have the defensive attributes to provide short term relief on that end of the floor.

If Gallinari cashes out, and Denver bring in a new back court leader, the Nuggets may have a chance to move up and target one of Jayson Tatum or Jonathan Isaac who could fill that spot. A team such as Sacramento with two top 10 picks may be happy to give up one for a pick 13 + Mudiay combo. Allowing the Nuggets to fill a need with a long term future franchise player with less question marks than OG Anunoby.

 

My Proposed 2017/18 Nuggets…

… if I was their GM and had everything go my way as per the above, the Nuggets are better defensively, and more in-tune with Nikola Jokic’s strengths offensively with a line up as follows:

denver could be

That’s a stacked roster with a heap of potential, and it may well force out players like Jameer Nelson (again, aged 36), Darrell Arthur, Malik Beasley and Will Barton, but it would ensure high quality unique parts that can be connected to Jokic’s engine, and set up the Nuggets for long term success.

It’s time for the Nuggets to get serious behind The Joker.


All stats courtesy of NBA.com, basketball-reference.com and sports-reference.com/cbb  
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Featured image courtesy of ESPN.com

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