The second round of the playoffs is underway and with only eight teams remaining, it means another eight have been eliminated from title contention. The offseason is the time for these teams to retool to prepare for deeper runs next season. The Denver Nuggets finished the year with a franchise-best 57-25 record and were the third seed in the Western Conference. Boasting a 38-3 home record, many felt they would advance to the second round simply by winning all of their home games. But Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors sent them home for good after just six games.
With this year’s Coach of the Year recipient, George Karl, the Nuggets started off the season among the middle of the pack in the West, while teams like the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder separated themselves.
After the All-Star break, Denver played some of the best basketball in all of the NBA. They couldn’t match the Miami Heat’s epic 27-game winning streak, but were able to put together a 15-game streak of their own, including wins over the Bulls, Knicks, Clippers and the Thunder twice. They did miss star forward Danilo Gallinari, who suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the year.
The Nuggets showed that a collection of high-quality players could perform just as well, if not better, than a team that relies upon one or two stars. With their season now over, it will be interesting to see if they continue with their collaborative effort philosophy or try and make a splash to bring a big name back to the Mile High City.
For the remainder of the post, I will assume the role of Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri. I will give my suggestions and analysis on who the Nuggets should keep, who they should lose, and players to target in free agency and the draft.
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KEEP: Corey Brewer, Andre Iguodala (ETO)
Denver doesn’t have many free agents, but there are two pieces they absolutely need to bring back. The first is Corey Brewer. The ultra-athletic wing has finally found himself after six seasons in the NBA. Brewer was a very vital piece for the Nuggets. He was part of the team’s deep and talented second unit and is one of Denver’s best wing defenders. Brewer also fits perfectly in the Nuggets uptempo system.
Andre Iguodala may or may not become a free agent this offseason. He has an early termination option in his contract and can enter free agency. But I can think of $16 million reasons why Iguodala probably won’t opt out of the contract. Still, it’s a possibility and if Iguodala hits the open market, the Nuggets MUST bring him back. Denver didn’t give away much (Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington in the trade for Iguodala), yet I don’t think they made the move just to get a one-year rental of him. Bringing Iguodala back will keep the Nuggets among the top teams in the Western Conference.
LOSE: Julyan Stone, Timofey Mozgov
These are the other two free agents on the Nuggets roster. Julyan Stone is a 6-6 point guard out of UTEP that Denver picked up as an undrafted free agent in 2011. While Stone is talented enough to have kept his spot on the Nuggets roster for two years, he hasn’t been used much in George Karl’s rotation. With Ty Lawson and Andre Miller ahead of him, the chances of Stone gaining more playing time is hard to see happening.
Timofey Mozgov is the final free agent. Mozgov was Denver’s starting center for parts of this season and averaged 2.6 points, along with 2.6 rebounds, in 8.9 minutes per game. When the playoffs came around, Mozgov’s minutes were reduced to nothing. Big man JaVale McGee earned the trust of the coaching staff (along with Kosta Koufos) and soon received the lion’s share of the minutes at center, even starting two playoff games. Mozgov is a big body and in today’s NBA, there aren’t many seven-footers just roaming around. However, instead of overpaying to retain Mozgov, Denver could find a cheaper veteran to bring into the fold next season.
FREE AGENT TARGETS: Chase Budinger, Ryan Hollins
With just about the entire roster returning to the Mile High City, the Nuggets won’t have much money to spend this summer. The key is to find cheap and suitable players that the Nuggets can sign. The first option is former Houston Rockets and Minnesota Timberwolves swingman Chase Budinger. Denver’s uptempo and fast pace style of play is the perfect fit for Budinger. Budinger has proved he can knock down the outside shot — 35.8 percent for his career — and he put his athleticism on display in the 2012 Slam Dunk Contest. However, injuries have derailed Budinger from reaching his full potential during his tenure in the NBA. He only played in 23 games this season. With the way Denver plays, the Nuggets could be the perfect place for Budinger to get a fresh start.
Ryan Hollins is one of the few athletic seven-footers that are around in today’s NBA. As a member of the Los Angeles Clippers this season, Hollins was very good in spot minutes behind DeAndre Jordan. With the Nuggets, he would be filling the same role behind JaVale McGee. Both the Clippers and Nuggets were eliminated in the first round and the Clippers aren’t going to have much money to spend either — their main goal is bringing Chris Paul back. It isn’t necessarily a lock that Hollins will be back in LA LA Land next season. The Nuggets should definitely make a run at him as an alternate to Timofey Mozgov.
DRAFT TARGETS: Allen Crabbe, Lucas Nogueira and Giannis Adetokunbo
Allen Crabbe was the Pac-12’s leading scorer last season, averaging 18.4 points per game for the University of California Bears. Crabbe is a very fluid scorer and has some similarities to another former Pac-12 scorer, Washington State alumni Klay Thompson. Now that doesn’t mean that Crabbe will be scoring 34 points against the Spurs in the second round of the playoffs after two seasons, but the potential is definitely there for Crabbe. The loss of Gallinari showed that the Nuggets lack another player that is capable of creating their own shot, something Crabbe had plenty of experience doing at Cal.
Lucas Nogueira is still a relative unknown at this point. What is known about him is that he’s a legitimate seven-footer with an astounding 7-9 wingspan. Nogueira is a Brazilian prospect that has been playing with Asefa Estudiantes of the ACB. Denver isn’t a team that has any immediate holes that need to be filled and Nogueira can be a draft-and-stash prospect who, in maybe a season or two, could come over to the States and have an impact in the league.
Giannis Adetokunbo is a name that has been getting a lot of publicity of late. At 6-10, Adetokunbo has the skills and ability to play the point forward role. Playing in the second division in the Greek league hasn’t subjected him to the best talent Europe has to offer, but Adetokunbo is just oozing with talent. Similar to Nogueira, Adetokunbo is best suited to be a draft-and-stash prospect. At only 18 years old, there is still a lot of time left for Adetokunbo to improve on his game. Denver is in the perfect position to select someone like him. Imagine a much more developed Adetokunbo entering the league in a few seasons ready and prepared to face the immense talent that he would face night in and night out as an NBA player.
HONORABLE MENTION: Reggie Bullock, Deshaun Thomas
What should the Nuggets do this summer?
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