The Denver Nuggets had a good, young team last year that showed growth at the end of the season. They could have easily kept their same mix and banked on internal improvement as they try to rise in the Western Conference.
But that's never been Denver general manager Masai Ujiri's M.O., so it should come as little surprise that they had another active offseason. Over the past few months, Ujiri has reshaped his roster with several creative moves that improved the squad on paper. Those same moves have also opened up an interesting question about where this franchise is heading in the long term.
We'll consider each move this summer first before discussing that larger question.
TRADED ARRON AFFLALO AND AL HARRINGTON FOR ANDRE IGUODALA
This was a brilliant masterstroke by Ujiri. He dealt two long-term contracts for an all-star player on a shorter deal that will maintain the Nuggets' strengths (driving, finishing at the rim) while addressing one of their key weaknesses (perimeter defense). How often does a team get the better player and save significant long-term money in the process? Not very often. It's especially significant because the Nuggets will need that long-term money to re-sign point guard Ty Lawson to a long-term deal. By dealing Afflalo and Harrington, Ujiri created some more wiggle room.
It'll also be nice to see Iguodala in a complementary role on a fast-paced team like the Nuggets. In recent weeks, he's made comments suggesting he got tired of playing for the Philadelphia 76ers, and while many will take these comments the wrong way, I can understand them. He was with the organization for eight years, which is an eternity in today's NBA, even for organizations more stable than Philadelphia's. His team's style of play changed several times, culminating with Doug Collins' extreme risk-averse, slowdown offense. In many ways, Collins was good for Iguodala, because he simplified his role and made him more of a facilitator. In many other ways, he was bad for Iguodala, because he stifled his full-court athleticism, was relentlessly critical of his weaknesses and didn't take advantage of his ability to slash to the hoop in spot-up situations. All in all, it was time for a change.
In theory, the Nuggets are a perfect fit for Iguodala's skill set. As Tom Ziller noted, the Nuggets were, far and away, the best team in the league at getting to the rim and converting from there. That's a skill Iguodala has that has been dormant recently with his conservative coaches. In the three years prior to the hirings of Eddie Jordan (a similarly risk-averse offensive coach) and Collins, Iguodala averaged nearly five shots at the rim per game. In the three years after Jordan's hire, that number dropped from 3.9 in 2009-10 to just 2.5 last year. I expect Iguodala's number this year to be more in line with where he was at prior to 2009. Defensively, the Nuggets' were woefully deficient on the perimeter last year, and Iguodala is arguably the league's best perimeter defender.
The key will be getting Iguodala to remember his strengths. Coaches often struggle with Iguodala because he's almost too versatile for his own good. If they use him one way, they go away from his other strengths. This was the dilemma Collins had, and he chose to heighten Iguodala's playmaking over his slashing. I suspect George Karl will lean the other way, letting Iguodala play off others and instructing him to attack no matter the ramifications. That'll be an adjustment for Iguodala and it'll require him to continue the progress he's made as a spot-up player. He shot a career-high 39 percent from three-point range last year; if he can replicate that success, it'll make him more of a threat off the catch and open up driving lanes against defenders closing out too hard. In the short term, though, Iguodala may have to unlearn some habits he developed under Collins.
All in all, Iguodala will prove to be a fantastic acquisition.
RE-SIGNED JAVALE MCGEE
It requires a big leap of faith to hand McGee a four-year, $44 million contract, but this was the logical extension of the Nene trade. Young big men like McGee are worth that much on the open market, no matter how frustrating they may be. The Nuggets have to hope that McGee continues the progress he showed at the end of last season. If he doesn't, they at least have a head coach that won't feel pressured to play him.
RE-SIGNED ANDRE MILLER
Miller showed his age a bit last year, but keeping him was a necessity. His ability to throw lob passes and set up big men for easy shots off pick and roll is especially important as the Nuggets try to get the most out of McGee. Karl was smart to play Miller and McGee together last year, and I suspect he'll do it again this season. The Nuggets also mitigated the risk of Miller declining heavily by guaranteeing only a small portion of his third-year salary.
DRAFTED EVAN FOURNIER AND QUINCY MILLER
Fournier impressed me in Summer League, and while he duplicates a lot of the Nuggets' strengths, I wouldn't be surprised if he finds his way into the rotation by the end of the year. At the very least, he fits the team's style much better than Rudy Fernandez ever did.
RE-SIGNED WILSON CHANDLER
This technically happened last season, but I'm including it here to illustrate a potential monkey wrench in the Nuggets' long-term plans. The issue with Ujiri's approach? It's expensive to keep together a core of several good pieces rather than a core of 1-2 superstars and a bunch of role players.
Chandler is the poster boy for this dilemma. When healthy, he's a solid wing player that provides one-on-one scoring ability and very good defense. The Nuggets' mantra is to keep good players, so they re-signed Chandler to a five-year, $32 million contract near the end of last year's regular season. The problem is that the Nuggets already have two other better players who play Chandler's position (Danilo Gallinari and Iguodala), and they also have Corey Brewer, who could fill Chandler's spot in the rotation at half the price. The Nuggets don't want to pay the luxury tax and will eventually want to give Lawson a big contract, so this duplication is an issue. If Lawson gets an extension as expected, the Nuggets could have six players making more than $5 million in 2013-14. That's a lot for a team without a superstar.
(Of note: by dealing Nene at the trade deadline, the Nuggets cleared some cap room last year that they filled by starting Chandler's deal in 2011-12 rather than 2012-13. Practically speaking, that makes Chandler's deal a four-year, $26 million one, with only $2 million guaranteed the final year. That doesn't change the larger point, though).
To date, the Nuggets' default strategy has been to trade players like Chandler the year after signing them. They did it with Nene last year, and they did it with Afflalo this summer. The Nuggets' logic: Nene and Afflalo are good players, and paying them a little more than they're worth at least allows them to turn them into an asset to get something in a trade. Chandler is certainly good enough for the Nuggets to execute a similar strategy.
But even if the Nuggets do eventually deal Chandler, there are some costs. Trading Nene gave the Nuggets an enigmatic center in McGee that they had to overpay the next summer in the hopes that he realizes his potential. Swapping out Afflalo got the Nuggets a better player in Iguodala, but will put them in a tricky spot when Iguodala becomes a free agent either next season or the year after, depending on if he exercises his early-termination option. If the Nuggets elect to find a new home for Chandler, they'll probably have to take on someone else's dilemma. It's as if they are kicking the can down the road.
Finally, it's also worth considering the possibility that Ujiri's propensity to trade players who just signed long-term contracts will turn off agents to the franchise. Nene, in particular, thought he would be in Denver for the duration of his contract, and he was shocked about being dealt so suddenly. Will agents start to recommend their clients not re-sign in Denver if the practice continues? That's a bit extreme, but you could easily see this becoming a bargaining chip during negotiations. If I'm Lawson's agent, I ask for more money for my client as a way to mitigate the risk of an immediate trade.
All these are reasons why the Nuggets may have to consider letting guys like Chandler go in the future. They may lose a good player for nothing, but they'll put themselves in a better position financially to keep their better players without having to pay a high luxury-tax bill. Chandler is a luxury, and the Nuggets don't have the kind of budget that can afford luxuries.
OVERALL GRADE: A-
The masterstroke of the Iguodala move accounts for this high grade for this summer, but the Chandler dilemma looms for Ujiri. His ability to improve his roster while mitigating the risk of long-term contracts will make or break the Nuggets' rise in the Western Conference. If he can pull it off well, the Nuggets will be contenders. If not, they may be doomed to a decade of middle-of-the-road finishes and first-round playoff exits.