The Denver Nuggets want to keep Nikola Jokic so badly they have no interest in paying his $1.6 million team option for 2018-19. Instead, the club will opt to make the star center a restricted free agent before signing him to a five-year, $146.5 million maximum contract instead.
It’s a move that will keep Jokic from leaving town in 2019 and beyond. The former second-round pick would have been an unrestricted free agent next summer if he had played out the bargain basement final year of his rookie contract. Instead, he’ll be locked in with the Nuggets while receiving a substantial raise in a free agency win for both sides.
Why was this a smart deal for the Nuggets?
Denver cost itself a boatload of money for 2018-19 after declining one of the most team-friendly deals in basketball. The Nuggets would have paid its game-changing center just $1.6m — a pittance in NBA dollars — as they continued their rebuild. While the team hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2013 (or won a playoff series since 2009), last year’s 46-36 record was proof the core of Jokic, Gary Harris, Paul Millsap, and Jamal Murray was worth building around.
No player in that group was more valuable than Jokic, who has led the team in win shares in each of his three seasons as a pro and averaged 18.5 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 6.1 assists last winter. Jokic even added a reliable three-point shot to his arsenal in 2017-18, draining 39.6% of his attempts from long range and establishing himself as one of the most versatile big men in the NBA.
The Nuggets understood that, and also understood a max contract was coming one way or another. Declining Jokic’s option made him a restricted free agent, meaning the club would have the opportunity to match any deal a competing deal slid his way and effectively ensuring he’d remain in Colorado. Fortunately for the franchise, the two sides came to an agreement early in the offseason, eliminating any outside drama and keeping Jokic in the fold for the foreseeable future.
Why could this deal haunt Denver?
There are downsides to the deal, too. Jokic’s new deal snuffs out any hopes of cap room in Denver, who would have had approximately $12 million to play with while figuring out whether or not to re-sign rangy scorer Will Barton. Barton is still an option — the team can go over the cap to keep him in the fold — but any support in free agency will have to come from either the $8.5m carved out in the mid-level exception or the $3.3m in the bi-annual exception.
Another issue with Jokic’s deal is that it moves up his next free agent deal by a year. Denver will always have the hometown advantage of being able to offer the big center an extra year and all the guaranteed cash that comes with it, but Monday’s deal means the Nuggets will have to pull that trigger in 2023 instead of 2024. If Jokic is unhappy and the two sides can’t come to an agreement, that’s an extra year of team control that could have been lost.
Still, those are minor concerns compared to the goodwill bought by extending Jokic early. This max contract was a logical next step for both sides, and it erases any concern of the big Serbian leaving town thanks to free agency and reaching his peak somewhere else. Monday’s deal cements Jokic’s status as a foundational piece of the Nuggets. The question now is whether his supporting cast is ready to make the leap from good to great.