First of all, we all need to give Tim Connelly, Arturas Karnisovas and the rest of the Denver Nuggets’ front office a round of applause for continuing their fantastic offseason. On Thursday evening they added Isaiah Thomas, a player who was in the MVP discussion during an incredible 2016-17 season, for the veteran’s minimum ($2 million) — the ultimate low-risk, high-reward deal.
Arguably a more impressive maneuver, the Nugs also got off of the hefty contracts of rarely used forwards Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur in a trade with the Nets. Similar to the recent trade to move Wilson Chandler, the Nuggets got little in return player-wise, but the team did have to give up a protected (picks 1-12) first-round pick to move the salaries. However, the move ensures the Nuggets gain an enormous amount of flexibility with what they can do to fill out their roster.
By shedding Faried and Arthur’s contracts, the Nuggets are no longer in salary cap hell. The trade offered a combined $43 million in salary and projected luxury tax savings, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks, and the Nuggets are now $8.7 million below the luxury tax. This all means they have unlocked most of their mid-level exception and full bi-annual exception. Unfortunately, because they already signed Torrey Craig using their taxpayer mid-level exception, they cannot convert his contract to work under the full mid-level exception, meaning they only have about $2.5 of the mini-MLE to spend. For more information about the financial implications of the transaction, check out this Early Bird Rights piece.
There’s only one spot remaining on the active roster, and the move to sign Thomas almost certainly cements Monte Morris as the third point guard and someone who will likely continue to play on his two-year, two-way contract. With the starting five almost certainly locked in, let’s take a look at what the moves mean for the rest of the teams’ reserve unit.
Nuggets Bench Mob
If Thomas can return to form under the guidance of his former coach Michael Malone, he has Sixth Man of the Year candidate written all over him. One would assume Malone plans for Thomas to play a big role off the bench, filling Will Barton’s former role of bench playmaker. The Nuggets may have indeed confronted one of their most sizable roster holes — a high-powered scorer with playmaking punch off the bench — and IT is a quick, gritty guard that can put up points and assists in a hurry. Coming off a serious hip injury last year, he still managed to put up 15.2 points, 4.8 assists and 2.1 rebounds through a combined 32 games last season.
While playing in Boston just two short seasons ago, the 5-foot-9 guard led the Celtics in scoring, dropping 28.9 points and dishing out 5.9 assists per game. Boston’s emotional leader and igniting force on the road to the Eastern Conference Finals eventually earned All-NBA Second Team honors but not before his postseason run was derailed by a hip injury that bothered IT well beyond the Kyrie Irving deal with Cleveland.
Denver will rely on Thomas to orchestrate the bench unit, using his ball handling skills to penetrate into the teeth of the defense and score or kick out to the open shooters that comprise the remainder of this roster. Let’s hope Thomas can regain his form and deliver on his potential as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate.
I’ll just discuss Morris briefly, but after showing out in Summer League, the Nuggets still opted for the incredible potential of Thomas playing with a chip on his shoulder. After pouring in 17.5 points on 50 percent from the floor while registering 6.3 assists and 3.3 rebounds in Vegas, Morris showed that he can be an ideal emergency option in case Thomas’ hip never heals or if the situation somehow implodes. In Vegas, Morris proved he’s a solid option as a true point guard who can likely run the team’s second unit.
The clock is ticking on Beasley’s time in Denver. He has failed to break into the rotation despite being an incredible athlete with solid instincts. I feel like he plays outside himself too frequently and doesn’t let the game come to him as often as he should and that was apparent at times during Summer League play.
I thought a player with as many minutes at the NBA level as Beasley would look a lot more comfortable in summer action. However, that did not appear to be the case. Over 29.3 minutes per game for three games, Beasley merely shot 39 percent on his way to 16.0 points, 4.3 rebound and 1.7 assists. He did, however, show off his impressive defensive prowess, nabbing 2.3 steals per game in Vegas. I’m afraid Beasley will be a fringe rotation player again this season, but his ability on the defensive end could earn him more time — and he’s debatably the sole backup shooting guard on the roster.
Earlier this month, the Nuggets elected to bring Craig back on a guaranteed deal. In 39 games last season, Craig put up 4.2 points and snagged 3.3 rebounds in just 16.1 minutes per game. Craig brings defensive effort and a frenetic energy every second he’s on the floor. Craig always seems to be in the right place at the right time, whether shuffling his feet on the defensive end on his way to a block or flying in for an offensive rebound.
While Craig has starred on the defensive end of the court, his game could use improvement on the offensive end of the floor. Craig shot just 29.3 percent from deep and 62.9 percent from the free-throw line with the Nuggets, but he runs the court well and has a penchant for put-back dunks. Adding a consistent jumper would be huge for TC and would likely ensure his status a significant contributor off the bench next season. Regardless, Craig’s role on the roster is sure to expand now that his spot on the roster is guaranteed.
Another low-risk, high-reward move, the Nuggets selection of the injured Porter Jr. could pay massive dividends for Denver this season. However, with the way the Nuggets brass is discussing Porter Jr.’s injury, I’m going to assume he either takes a redshirt year or eases back into the lineup once he’s absolutely returned to full health.
A healthy Porter Jr. might have been the number one pick in the most recent drafts — widely held as a rather deep draft. In fact, the Nuggets’ newly signed point guard feels MPJ is the best player in the draft. He’s a silky smooth 6-10 forward with a ridiculous shooting stroke and unbelievable upside. If Porter Jr. can play this season, I wouldn’t expect him to fill a massive role, but another player who can create his own shot off the bench would be a welcome addition.
Michael Porter Jr is the best player in the draft!!! No question about it… Pass on him if you want too
— Isaiah Thomas (@isaiahthomas) June 14, 2018
After signing Thomas, MPJ offered words of encouragement as well. It’s great to see two of the newest Nuggets getting along already.
Let’s gooooo brodie! Time to get to it 🙏🏼 @isaiahthomas
— Michael Porter Jr (@MPJr) July 13, 2018
After falling ill with mononucleosis early last season, Hernangomez lost the majority of the year to the illness. His averages fell from 4.9 to 3.3 points, 3.0 to 2.2 rebounds and his true shooting percentage dipped from .592 to .511 as he shot just 28 percent from deep after splashing over 40 percent of his treys during his rookie campaign.
The Spanish forward can stretch the floor effectively and is great at making quick decisions, ensuring the ball stays “poppin’” as Adam Mares likes to say. He’s a good catch-and-shoot option but needs to work on his explosiveness to drive past defenders offense and stay in front of opponents on defense. Despite not being the best defender, I’m still high on Juancho and think he will push for minutes at both forward positions in 2018-19.
Following an impressive stint in the wake of Paul Millsap’s wrist injury, Lyles emerged as a solid option off of the Nuggets’ bench. Playing the most minutes of his career, Lyles averaged a career-high in points (9.9), rebounds (4.8), assists (1.2), blocks (0.5) and field goal percentage (.491). His vital contributions kept the team afloat in Millsap’s absence as Malone turned to Lyles for minutes over the aforementioned Faried and Arthur.
Lyles needs to be a solid contributor off the bench once again this season, and I hope he can do so. But in last season’s heartbreaking loss in the finale, Lyles earned a DNP-CD from Malone. Outside of Hernangomez, the reserve power forwards on Denver’s roster don’t inspire a ton of confidence as they are unproven NBA commodities, and with the way the roster is shaping up, Lyles will likely play a vital reserve role this season, stretching the floor from the forward position. As if he needed extra incentive to play well, Lyles is set to become a restricted free agent at the end of the season, so he will want to ball out this year in order to secure the bag next offseason.
Another bench candidate I’ll gloss over as I don’t expect him to log significant minutes in 2018-19 is Lydon. Another great crisis option should combo forwards Hernangomez or Lyles injure themselves or fall ill, Lydon is also a long, tall, sweet-shooting option at the forward spot. He averaged 7.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists during Summer League play in Vegas and showed off a silky smooth stroke, but he did struggle to make a sizable impact for the summer squad.
Vanderbilt is an enticing prospect, but he isn’t someone I expect to log important NBA minutes this upcoming season. Vanderbilt’s foot injury likely prevented him from becoming a first-round pick in the draft, but he excelled as a rebounder at Kentucky and his defensive versatility intrigues me. The fact that Denver gave Vanderbilt a guaranteed deal ensures he will spend this season working with the training staff to get back to full strength. Vanderbilt has massive upside, and while I think he will be a contributor one day, I’m afraid that day might not be until next season.
The “Plumdog Millionaire” remains one of Denver’s most polarizing reserves. His substantial three-year, $41-million contract is fine in a vacuum for a starting-caliber center, but with Nikola Jokić on the roster, he’s forced to play such a small role that he struggles to contribute in a way that allows him to prove adequate value.
Plumlee does, however, bring a toughness and attitude on the defensive end that the Nuggets sorely lack. Plumlee’s game-saving block against OKC was one of the highlights coming down the stretch last season, and he routinely served as the team’s sole rim protector off the bench. Plumlee should anchor the reserve unit on the defensive end, and his playmaking ability from the elbow makes him a worthy replacement center in the Jokić-ball offense, but I wouldn’t expect Plumlee to log many more than the 19.4 minutes per game he racked up in 2017-18.
After signing a two-way deal earlier this month, Welsh underwhelmed at Summer League as he put up a meager 6.0 points on 42 percent shooting while grabbing 4.0 rebounds and dishing 1.0 assist in just two games of action. Another player I don’t expect to add a lot this season, the 7-foot Welsh excels at baseline jumpers, and during his senior season at UCLA, he extended his shooting range out to the three-point line. He flashed a bit of playmaking potential out of DHO looks in Vegas as well, but if either Jokić or Plumlee goes down for any extended period of time, I’d turn to a small-ball look before relying too heavily on Welsh.
As of now, it appears that this is the unit Denver is heading into the season with, and Malone has some options when it comes to his bench unit. He can try to cover some of Thomas’ inefficiencies on defense with a wing combo of Beasley and Craig with Plumlee protecting the rim or he can eschew defense in favor of more shootouts at the OK corral and roll out a lineup featuring Thomas, either Craig or Beasley, Hernangomez, Lyles and Plumlee.
Malone could opt to go small, using Hernangomez at the four and Lyles at the five to effectively spread the floor with great shooting. He could also play a big lineup featuring Plumlee with Hernangomez and Lyles at the forward spots. And none of these options consider the possibility of using the new-found cap space to sign free agent X or the return of Porter Jr. or Vanderbilt from injury.
The moves Denver’s front office made on Thursday night could put the team in position to contend for a playoff position and the division title right away. If the Thomas signing works out for both parties, the Nuggets will undoubtedly end their five-season playoff drought. And a large part of that revival will be the bench unit’s ability to keep the Nuggets afloat while their Serbian superstar and starting unit takes a rest.
The new-look Nuggets bench should offer the right balance of defensive ability (Beasley, Craig and Plumlee) and offensive firepower (Thomas, Hernangomez and Lyles) to counter the majority of what other reserve units around the league could throw their way. The flexibility unlocked in the wake of Thursday’s transactions could prove to be the reason the Nuggets finally get over the hump and taste the postseason for the first time since the George Karl era.