Free agency is fast approaching, with today being the last day for teams and players to exercise options. Teams can officially come to verbal agreements with players beginning on July 1st with the signings becoming official July 6th. The Nuggets likely won’t have as many options as they did heading into last year’s free agency, but this year may be even more impactful.
Free Agents on Roster
Most of the Nuggets free agency puzzle has already started to come together as expected. Darrell Arthur opted into his roughly $7.5M contract. Then Wilson Chandler followed suit, opting into his $12.8M player option. Along with still holding onto Kenneth Faried’s $13M contract, the Nuggets have a tight salary sheet to work with this summer and going forward.
This summer the Nuggets also have reportedly declined Nikola Jokic’s team option allowing him to become a restricted free agent. This puts him on track for the largest contract in Denver Nuggets team history, a five year deal worth $146.5M. The Nuggets have also extended a qualifying offer to Torrey Craig which officially makes him a restricted free agent as well.
Whether Will Barton will be re-signed is perhaps the biggest mystery heading into the weekend. Tim Connelly made it known that the Nuggets set a priority to bring Barton back, but ultimately the market and Barton’s desire to stay in Denver as a sixth man will be at the heart of that decision. If Barton walks, the Nuggets will not only be left filling the hole left in his place, but will also have to decide if they are prepared to make Monte Morris the primary backup point guard in his second season off of a two-way contract.
State of the NBA Free Agency Market
Despite some of the big names on the market this summer, many teams are right up against the luxury tax, or even up into the luxury tax. Fortunately for teams and owners, the league has extended the debt limit by $75M probably in an attempt to allow teams to continue trying to compete with the Warriors. As it stands now, the soft cap and luxury tax lines have not moved much since last offseason. With a salary cap around $101M and a luxury tax line of $123M teams are beginning to seem stuck after the exorbitant spending of a couple seasons ago.
Teams over the luxury tax line are subject to higher tax bills based incrementally on just how much they are spending over the line up to $20M. A team being over the luxury tax does not prohibit them much in the sense of using their free agency exceptions, but they aren’t afforded the same benefits in trades. Teams over the apron, however, lose bi-annual, MLE, and sign-and-trade exceptions. The apron figures to be around $129M, a number that the Nuggets and several other teams will probably be over after this free agency cycle, pending any salary dumps.
If a team uses any of their exceptions before reaching the apron they are then subject to a hard cap at the apron. This would make any subsequent moves throughout the season much more difficult. With all of this being said, the free agency market this year is likely to be quite limited outside of the team’s that have specifically planned for max contract slots for this summer, which could fortunately lead to some bargain buys.
LeBron James Possibilities
As great of a fit as LeBron James would be in Denver, it doesn’t strike me as something that has drawn much consideration outside of twitter speculation. Aside from whether LeBron actually wants to play in Denver, which he should, there’s the problem of all that Denver would have to do to get him there; essentially making him the third max contract. Still, turning down a chance at getting LeBron James is essentially turning down a chance at immediate title contention.
LeBron to the Nuggets is literally as interesting as it gets. Murray and Bron would be exciting. Jokic and Bron would be unpredictable and Gary Harris would give LeBron such a cool breeze after have JR Smith as his shooting guard. Oh and Millsap would be fun with Bron as well.
— Rafael Torres 🇩🇴 (@RafaelTorresNBA) June 6, 2018
For any team, the logistics of bringing in LeBron depends on whether he opts in or out. From the Nuggets perspective, LeBron opting in is probably the best way to acquire him through a sign-and-trade. By combining the expiring contracts to match salary there are possibilities that could make this work. Regardless, it would then put the Nuggets just about as high above the luxury tax as could be without even figuring in the second round picks, Torrey Craig, and Will Barton. If LeBron opts out without sign-and-trade intentions, the possibility of Denver can essentially be forgotten if it is even considered in the first place.
(Update: According to multiple reports, LeBron has not exercised his player option and will become an unrestricted free agent.)
Nikola Jokic gets the Max
As soon as the Nuggets make Jokic’s signing official they will be over the apron until they either trade or stretch Kenneth Faried and/or Darrell Arthur. There’s not much to get into with Jokic as it was an inevitability that needed to be done. Although waiting on Jokic may have given the Nuggets more flexibility this season, there would not only be the risk of losing Jokic, but also a lack of flexibility in 2019 even with expiring contracts.
Had Nuggets exercised Nikola Jokic's $1.6M team option, he would’ve been an unrestricted free agent next summer. He also could’ve been eligible for a 4-5 year “5th Year, 30% Max” contract, starting between 25% and 30% of the 2019-20 salary cap, if he met the performance criteria.
— Albert Nahmad (@AlbertNahmad) June 25, 2018
The performance criteria that Albert mentions is based on the designated player rule that was initially designated to keep superstars on the teams that drafted them. Essentially, Jokic would be eligible for up to a 30% max contract if he was on an All-NBA team, defensive player of the year, or MVP. Although Jokic may not accomplish these feats this season it does make sense for the Nuggets to get this contract on the books now. Then, in 2019, the Nuggets will already have Jokic locked up and be able to free up to $65M if they decline Paul Millsap’s team option, giving them some semblance of room under the luxury tax.
Torrey Craig’s Value Rising Across the League
Torrey Craig was the surprise of the summer last year with his breakout Summer League performance. When Craig secured a two-way contract there wasn’t much expectation for what minutes he would receive, but it wasn’t long before Craig started in his first game and even played roles in clutch defensive situations.
Craig’s performance got him noticed around the league this season. For that reason Craig may have to be re-signed for a value higher than originally expected. Almost any team could use a player like Craig who is versatile enough defensively to guard 1 through 4 and has enough feel to at least be a transition player on offense.
The Denver Nuggets have tendered a qualifying offer to Torrey Craig. He’s now a restricted free agent. The QO is for a second two-way contract, if Craig signs it. By tendering Craig, the Nuggets can now match any offer he gets as a free agent, if they choose.
— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) June 26, 2018
The Nuggets officially gave Craig a qualifying offer, which for two-way players is another two-way contract. Given that the Nuggets made two second round picks that they seem to want to keep, it’s hard to imagine Jarred Vanderbilt and Thomas Welsh not using up both the two-way slots. The Nuggets clearly don’t want, or expect, Craig to sign this qualifying offer. The only reason he might, would be if he was interested in leaving Denver as an unrestricted free agent next season. It seems the Nuggets plan to either offer Craig a multi-year deal or match any offer he receives from other teams, assuming they don’t get out priced.
Will Barton and Potential Replacement Options
Will Barton is easily the most polarizing figure on this Nuggets teams for fans. One moment he’s dribbling out the shot clock and taking a bad three, the next he’s hitting the game winning layup. As frustrating as Barton was for Nuggets fans at times this season, most can probably understand that he was asked to step in and play different roles by plugging every hole that arose because of injuries.
Even having to start as many games as he did in different roles that didn’t always allow him to be effective, Barton still finished fourth in 6th Man of the Year voting. Ideally, Barton is a spark plug off the bench who can score at will. For more on Barton, check out Coach Kannemeyer’s evaluation of comparison and the possible market for the guard.
ESPN Sources: With Indiana declining team option on Lance Stephenson, Tyreke Evans and Will Barton are expected to be two of its free-agent targets.
— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) June 25, 2018
Indiana is the only known competitor to this point. However, any team with some spending capabilities for a 6th man, or a team that could offer Barton a starting job is a threat to the Nuggets. I could see a team like Orlando, who is trying to build the All-NBA lanky team, being interested in testing Barton’s competence as a starting lead guard given their lack of point guards and the weakness of availability at that position in free agency.
The Nuggets reportedly already offered Barton a 4-year $40M extension at the start of this season, but he declined. Barton’s value appeared to rise from there as the season went on, but with developments like Indiana’s interest in Aaron Gordon and Thad Young opting in it appears the market for Barton is slimming. That’s good news for the Nuggets who will have to make moves to keep Barton anyway, perhaps with the Lakers.
If the Nuggets can find a way to secure Barton on the 4 for 40 deal it would set them up quite nicely. If, however, the Nuggets are unable to bring Barton back, plugging the holes that his role would fill could be difficult. Monte Morris is in line to become the backup point guard. While I think Morris will be a good fit, it would be nice to have a veteran like Barton who could fill in as a primary ball handler when necessary.
Barton’s scoring would also be sorely missed with the second unit. Especially if Denver runs it back with essentially the same team given Michael Porter Jr. redshirts the season. The Nuggets could look to add Trevor Ariza who fills a slightly different role, but would be valuable as a starting small forward nonetheless. The problem is that it’s hard to see Ariza signing for the mid-level exception in Denver. Could the Nuggets use the MLE instead on Tyreke Evans, Avery Bradley, KCP, or Rodney Hood? It’s hard to say if there’s mutual interest between the teams at the right price point.
The Nuggets could also look to address another team need: shooting specialist guards off the bench. It’s a bit of a small concern at this point, but acquiring a shooter would be a good step towards helping the Nuggets continue to compete. Could Malik Beasley step into this role? Possibly. Whether or not he will be on the team followed attempts at trading salary remains to be seen. The Nuggets would likely need to target someone in the veteran minimum range for this role. Marco Belinelli, Jamal Crawford, or Gerald Green would be good fits for that role.
With a lack of financial flexibility it’s hard to be very imaginative with who the Nuggets could actually be interested in for a value. Bringing Barton back is probably the best move for a Nuggets team that has it’s core and now just needs consistency and development to become a contender in the West.