If the two-week, post-NBA Draft frenzy of free agency signings and soap-operatic drama made barely a blip on local fans’ radars, it’s probably because the Nuggets have mostly sat this one out.
No one expected the Nuggets to be big spenders in this annual game of hoopster roulette; no one ever expects that. If we can be encouraged by any recent development for this team, it’s that the front office finally seems to realize that the only way to build a successful NBA franchise in Denver, Colorado is via the draft, thoughtful player development, and savvy trades.
The Nuggets “accomplished” the first goal when point guard Emmanuel Mudiay fell into their lap on draft night. The kid has all the physical qualities a star needs, and so far he’s displaying the maturity and an all-business desire to win that might launch him into the superstar stratosphere.
Now it’s on the Nuggets to not screw it up. For a perfect summary of this situation, we can look to retired NBA great Chauncey Billups. The former Nugget and Denver native gave a radio interview last week that questioned why the team still hasn’t traded Ty Lawson. The answer probably is that they’re trying, but haven’t found any takers.
Despite management’s insistence that Lawson and Mudiay can play together, that seems like strategic posturing to keep Lawson’s trade value up. The problem is, the NBA is currently lousy with great PGs, and as talented and dynamic as Lawson can be, there are probably no more than five teams that would consider him to be an upgrade over whoever they currently have.
Billups’ point was that when you have a potential franchise player, you need to surround him with as many players as possible who will nurture his development. On this, Billups is an authority; his borderline hall of fame career owes as much to his mental toughness and follow-me tenacity as it does to his basketball skills.
Lawson’s recent off-court issues have been anything but leaderly, and the fact that he plays the same position as Mudiay means potential trading partners know they can dictate terms to the Nuggets. Getting rid of him might mean taking on a bad contract or two in addition to whatever useful pieces than can get.
They should do it anyway. As we’ve noted many times before, the Nuggets aren’t talented enough to make the playoffs in the loaded and improving Western Conference, but they’re currently too talented to tank their way to a top-3 pick.
That’s why their most noteworthy free agent move, signing Wilson Chandler to a four-year extension, was a little curious. Chandler provides a solid veteran presence that can help a team, but before the signing he was also one of the Nuggets’ most tradable assets, the kind of guy you could easily move on his own or package with Lawson to get a better deal.
Chandler’s new contract is still reasonable, but the signing itself makes you wonder what Nuggets GM Tim Connelly and president Josh Kroenke think they have. As bad as they were last year, given the offseason moves other Western teams have made so far, right now the Nuggets have a far better chance in 2015-16 of being the worst team in the conference than of being its number-8 seed.
There’s still a lot of summer left, and the Nuggets have several pieces that could attract other teams. Going young and cheap for a year or two won’t guarantee many wins, but it might be the quickest path to actual contention, rather than the imaginary kind.
Update 7/20/15: On July 19, the Nuggets traded Lawson to the Houston Rockets for several players whose contracts will likely be waived or re-traded, plus a first-round draft pick in 2016. Although that pick will almost certainly fall in the 20s, it gives the Nuggets flexibility on future deals and is probably the best haul they could have hoped for under the circumstances. More importantly, it signals the beginning of the Emmanuel Mudiay era and suggests the team’s front office finally realizes the need to start over.
Update 7/14/15: Ty Lawson’s trade value continues to plummet.
Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.