If likability counted for anything in the NBA, Joker and Jamal would rule pro basketball’s next great dynasty. Heck, Pepsi Center would have to be expanded to store all the Nuggets’ championship trophies.
But hugs won’t get you hardware.
To build a legit title contender, the Nuggets need to add another big piece. Maybe it’s New Orleans guard Jrue Holiday, who could fill a glaring hole in the backcourt. Or perhaps the focus should be on a rim-protector, to have Nikola Jokic’s back when the going gets rough and stop LeBron James’ mad-bull drives to the basket.
So the big question going forward: Will president of basketball operations Tim Connelly be willing and able to trade Gary Harris or Wil Barton to improve a Denver roster that was three victories shy of beating King James and the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals?
“We’re starting to be recognized as a team you want to be around,” Connelly said Friday, citing the Nuggets’ steady improvement and solid ownership. “I would say in the last year-plus, we’ve had a handful of calls from agents who’ve said, ‘Hey, my guy wouldn’t mind being there (in Denver). He’d like to be there.’ Four or five years ago, you’d get the call that said: ‘Whatever you do, don’t trade for my guy.’ As the team grows, our options grow.”
These Nuggets are easy on the eyes and good for the soul of anybody who loves hoops. As sweet (and slow) as molasses, Jokic paints his game in all of LeRoy Nieman’s vibrant colors. Jamal Murray turned heads by scoring 50 (twice!) in the playoffs, then won hearts by paying tribute to Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
The Nuggets are huggable. But that won’t win them a knockdown, drag-out fight for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
The core of this team is Jokic, Murray, Michael Porter Jr., backup point guard Monte Morris and emerging three-and-D standout Jerami Grant, whose impending free agency will force the Nuggets to at least double his salary to $18 million.
Whenever coronavirus allows next season to begin, the Nuggets will take the court with new-found confidence. No longer can Denver be content with a win-loss record that merely ensures home-court advantage for the first-round of the playoffs. Going forward, Joker and Jamal must shoot to have the best record in the brutally tough Western Conference.
Here’s my theory: Their miracle of the NBA bubble, when the Nuggets’ came roaring back from a 3-1 series deficit against Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers, doesn’t happen if Game 7 had been played in Los Angeles.
In order to make a deep playoff run again next season, general manager Calvin Booth said, the Nuggets probably have to be no worse than the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the West.
There has been a refreshing collegiate feel to the Denver locker room. They are young basketball brothers who have grown up together. But the Age of Innocence for the Nuggets is over. On the eve of the Western Conference Finals, Jokic mused how this team will never be the same again, like a 25-year-old who knows he must get on with the rest of his basketball life.
Adulthood is about tough choices, forced compromises and learning not to take the business too personally. Beyond Joker and Jamal, the starting five next season should have Grant and Porter at the forwards.
That’s obvious, right? Now for the tricky part:
After two years of laudable but unfulfilled patience, the Nuggets can no longer wait for the form on Harris’ jump shot to return. Best-suited to be a super sub, is Will Barton willing to accept that role? Or does his absence from the bubble while rehabilitating a mysterious knee injury also indicate the relationship between Thrill and the team also needs rehab?
While I might dream of Denver stealing the raw energy and sharp edge of power forward Montrezl Harrell from the Clippers in free agency, the pandemic has wreaked havoc with salary-cap projections and shopping plans for every team, the Nuggets included. Anybody who boasts that either the NBA or the country is rounding the corner to victory against the virus and full economic recovery, is telling you a big, fat fib.
“With so much economic uncertainty, there’s a lot of unknown,” said Connelly, not yet able to establish a budget for next season.
If I’m catching the hint, it sounds like the best hope for a significant talent upgrade to the Nuggets is through a trade, because it’s easier to do the salary math in uncertain times.
I’ll launch the discussion by presenting Holiday for your consideration. Why Holiday?
He’s capable of producing 20 points or 10 assists on any given night. There’s a competitive tenacity I know the Nuggets love. Holiday could form a versatile, mix-and-match, three-guard rotation with Murray and Morris that has been an NBA staple since the days of Detroit’s Bad Boys. At age 30, Holiday could bring to Denver not only the veteran savvy of Paul Millsap, but spring in the legs that had largely abandoned Millsap by the time he joined the Nuggets.
Would a future first-round draft choice, a young prospect with potential as big as Bol Bol and a proven veteran such as Harris or Barton be enough to engage New Orleans in serious trade negotiations?
The Nuggets like to believe the depth of talent on their roster is the envy of the league.
Let’s see if Denver can actually leverage that faith into a trade that makes this team a legit championship contender.