The Denver Nuggets Have Some Big Decisions to Make

Tim Connelly’s turning down an offer to rebuild his hometown Washington Wizards is a win for the Denver Nuggets. The president of basketball operations, Connelly has helped build something promising in Denver.

But while he’s just made a decision on one career crossroads, another is coming up soon.

“Loyalty and patience is such a rarity in professional sports and that’s here in spades. So those things matter to me,” Connelly said after deciding to stay in Denver.

Patience is an easy sell after earning the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference with such a young core. The Nuggets’ top three scorers are all 24 years old or younger, but windows aren’t propped open by age alone.

Nikola Jokic, 23, is a bonafide MVP candidate. He’s ready to win right freaking now. Jamal Murray, the team’s anointed second star at 22 years old, seems to be on the same trajectory though he isn’t nearly as far along.

This is an important time for a team in its adolescence.

As we’ve seen in Philadelphia, championship windows can lead front offices to make brash, short-sighted decisions. But as we’ve seen in Oklahoma City, championship windows are also finite, and teams should take advantage when they can. Connelly must determine whether or not Jokic and Murray together can deliver a championship, and that determination often must come sooner than anyone thinks.

Offensively, Jokic and Murray have a great two-man game. Their pick-and-roll dance is jazzy and effective.

Jokic can screen for Murray and vice versa. Because he’s such a respected shooter, Murray doesn’t need the ball to make an impact, which allows the Nuggets to lean all the way into Jokic’s exceptional playmaking skills.

On defense, however, they have natural limits. 

Jan 10, 2019; Denver, CO, USA; Los Angeles Clippers forward Montrezl Harrell (5) controls the ball as Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) and forward Juancho Hernangomez (41) and guard Jamal Murray (27) defend in the fourth quarter at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Nuggets made massive improvements on that end last season, going from the league’s 23rd-ranked defense in 2017-18 to 10th last season (with a defensive rating of 108). However, that dipped back to 111.1 in the playoffs, when teams could scout and exploit them over the course of a series.

Denver’s improvement is admirable, but it could be a flash in the pan rather than an upshot trend. A team can only be so good defensively when its two best players have very clear ceilings as on-ball defenders.

Having Jokic show on screens rather than drop in pick-and-roll coverage was a nice tweak by head coach Michael Malone, but it won’t solve everything. Jokic probably won’t ever be someone who can switch onto and guard ball handlers one-on-one.

He’s not a rim protector, either—and it doesn’t seem to be his temperament even if he had the ups for it. Of all 7-footers to play at least 28 minutes per game last season, only Lauri Markkanen averaged fewer blocks than Jokic’s 0.7.

Murray, meanwhile, has his own limitations. Physically, he’s big for a guard at 6-foot-5, but his 6-foot-6 wingspan is just average. He doesn’t have great lateral quickness and struggles to stay in front of fast-twitch ball handlers, or even just tricky ones.

It’s also not entirely clear that he cares to (yet).

Both are young and will develop better fundamentals (we’re seeing big leaps already from Jokic), but because of their physical limitations, neither will ever be better than average.

The Nuggets need both Jokic and Murray on the court to be at their offensive best, but that means giving up a lot defensively.

Portland has the same issue with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum—something that’s continued to be a postseason snag for the Blazers. One minus defender is easy to hide, two is much more difficult. You can win a lot of regular season games with those sort of players, but it eliminates almost all margin for error in a playoff setting.

So what do you do with Murray? It’s probably too early to think about anyone else because, through his first two seasons, he’s done nothing but develop into a future All-Star and go-to scorer in crunch time.

He’s going to be really good.

But understanding the nature of championship windows and his defensive limitations, would Connelly consider trading him to a rebuilding team for someone at Jokic’s level?

What else would Washington demand, if anything, in exchange for Bradley Beal? Would the New Orleans Pelicans entertain a Jrue Holiday-for-Murray swap to pair Zion Williamson with a shooter in his age range?

Still, the timing just isn’t right for these questions.

Not only would trading Murray now send the wrong message to a team and coaching staff that has preached patience and just won 54 games, but there’s also no pressing reason to speed up the clock. The top of the Western Conference could look very different next season, and the Nuggets should measure themselves against whatever that new reality may be before making any franchise-altering judgment call.

Jan 3, 2019; Sacramento, CA, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) celebrates with guard Malik Beasley (25) and center Nikola Jokic (15) during the fourth quarter against the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Jokic can also fix all of this: Who’s to say there isn’t a chiseled bronze god underneath all the marshmallow fluff?

Denver’s defensive numbers are already better when he’s on the court. He’s smart, and his developmental curve is unlike anything we’ve seen. If he gets in shape, maybe he gains the lateral quickness he needs, becomes a plus defender and eliminates the concern even if he’ll still always need some type of shot-blocking backup.

On the other hand, that’s a Big If, with capitals.

The patient approach would mean making improvements on the margins. First, Connelly must decide what to do with Paul Millsap, who is at the mercy of a $30 million team option this summer (but who does provide Jokic with plenty of defensive chops). Turning down the option would still put Denver right at the salary cap without much wiggle room.

Connelly openly wants Millsap back, so he can either pick up the contract and let it expire next season—when they are set to have more than $46 million in room—or restructure it now and eat into that future cap space.

The team also has a glut of perimeter talent: Monte Morris, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Malik Beasley and Torrey Craig. Not to mention Michael Porter Jr., who Denver hopes to get something out of next season. Connelly could conceivably package a few of them together and consolidate a third star next to Murray and Jokic. (Millsap would have been that guy a few years ago, but his Utah and Atlanta days aren’t realistic at age 34.)

That said, throwing an offer into the Anthony Davis sweepstakes seems like the exact kind of move this organization wouldn’t do. The chances of Davis re-signing in Denver are slim, the fit next to Jokic isn’t a slam dunk, and there’s no reason to do anything that radical at the expense of future assets right now.

The Nuggets could use another shooter and, depending on what happens with Millsap, a power forward.

May 7, 2019; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Paul Millsap (4) reacts following a basket and foul in the third quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers in game five of the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The thing is, the players surrounding Murray and Jokic are all plus defenders, and Harris has especially shown plenty of upside everywhere. Swap out a stalwart defender like Millsap for a more offensively-inclined power forward, or a 3-point specialist instead for a plus defender like Harris or Craig, and you risk opening up more holes without enough plugs.

In a perfect world, Connelly would get someone who can do both, but Paul George-type trades are available only so often, and the Nuggets don’t have the cap room for Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler.

Khris Middleton and Klay Thompson also probably get the max this summer, putting them outside Denver’s orbit.

Tobias Harris makes a lot of sense but would require working out a sign-and-trade with Philadelphia. Could the Nuggets entice with one season of Millsap for the win-now Sixers? Would some two-player combination of Barton, Harris and Mason Plumlee do the trick? And even if it could, is that an upgrade for Denver?

Connelly has his work cut out for him, but there’s a strong foundation to build on as well as an opportunity on the horizon. More than likely, the Nuggets will rely on internal development, make some marginal enhancements and practice the patience they preach, kicking the can down the road one more season on those questions.

Eventually, they’ll have to answer once they have even a modicum of additional insight on the Jokic-Murray pairing’s two-way potential.

Because one can (rarely) have too much patience in a league where it’s often in short supply.

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