Today Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne updated the NBA world on the Kawhi Leonard situation. While the main content relating to Leonard was that he is considering attending the Team USA Mini-Camp, the part that became interesting to Nuggets fans was that Denver was one of nine teams that have reportedly talked to San Antonio about a trade.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 17, 2018
This isn’t the first news this week that sparked trade rumors involving the Nuggets. Demaryius Thomas gave us a glimpse into his “recruiting” of Timberwolves’ wing Jimmy Butler via Instagram during the duo’s trip to Greece.
Should the Nuggets consider trading for either of these players? Are either a good fit with Denver? These are questions that fans and Nuggets front office personnel alike are undoubtedly asking. I would argue towards the direction of continuity over making a trade for what could be a one-year rental. Regardless, if a player of these guys’ caliber legitimately becomes available you have to consider what it would take to put them in your team’s uniform.
The Kawhi Leonard situation in San Antonio has been one of the most painful things to watch (but is Tony Parker leaving in free agency 100 times worse for Spurs fans?). Leonard’s quad injury and disdain for the Spurs has been the background story of the year, but now that free agency is starting to come to a close the impending Leonard trade is taking the forefront.
It’s primarily been assumed that Leonard will eventually end up in Los Angeles (with the Lakers or Clippers, mainly the Lakers), but Philadelphia and Boston remain intriguing possibilities because of the assets that they can send back to San Antonio. What was relatively unknown until today was that Phoenix, Portland, Toronto, Washington, and even Denver have been involved with the Spurs.
Theoretically, Leonard could step in alongside Gary Harris and Paul Millsap to form quite the defensive trio on an otherwise defensively challenged team. Offensively Leonard has proven that he has the skills to be a go to scorer who could take some of the pressure off Gary Harris and allow him to continue to play an off-ball role. Leonard would also be awarded the luxury to play more off-ball offense himself, working off Nikola Jokic in a familiar system for him predicated on ball movement.
Prior to last season, Leonard had two consecutive seasons as a 20+ points per game scorer, even reaching 25.1 per in 2016-17. Leonard also shot above 38 percent from three in those seasons, including nearly 45 percent in 2015-16. Leonard’s defensive rating has been absolutely off the charts as he has only ever had a defensive rating above 100 twice in his career. The last Nuggets player to play more than 15 minutes and record a defensive rating under 100 was Chris “Birdman” Andersen in the 2011-12 season. Despite defensive rating being somewhat dependent on teammates, Leonard would contribute greatly towards improving Denver’s overall defense.
For a team that has previously needed a small forward, particularly one who could contribute defensively, Leonard was always a player I thought the Nuggets should target. That feeling has changed over the last six months however, not really because of Kawhi’s injury, but mainly because it finally seems like Denver is going in a very productive direction that shouldn’t be interrupted by disrupting a piece of the core in a trade.
After drafting Michael Porter Jr., as well as signing Torrey Craig and Will Barton, the Nuggets have seemingly locked up the key components of their small forward position for years to come. Porter himself has even said that although he is able to play multiple positions that he is most comfortable at small forward.
Sure, Kawhi is probably an All-NBA player even after his injury, but at what cost do you have to pay to get him. Especially considering the Spurs are hoping teams will bid each other up, it doesn’t seem like Leonard will be attained for the best value.
Wojnarowski mentioned that Portland will not include Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum. The 76ers will not include Embiid, Simmons, or Fultz while the Celtics are withholding Tatum, Brown, Irving, Hayward, and Horford. With that said, it’s possible that the package price becomes so low that Denver wouldn’t have to include Jokic, Murray, Harris, or Porter. If that was the case Denver’s best offer still probably doesn’t have the same ammunition as far as draft picks compared to some of the other teams making the whole trade scenario seem far fetched for them at this point.
So, if a Kawhi Leonard trade won’t work, how would a Jimmy Butler deal go down. Fortunately, there are a few helpful factors that could contribute to the Nuggets landing Butler for a much more affordable price than Leonard.
For one, the Demaryius Thomas connection is huge. Having Broncos players help recruit free agents has recently become a commonality for the Nuggets. It was a factor in Paul Millsap’s meeting with the Nuggets when Brandon Marshall attended and pitched the city to the former Denver kid. A connected sports market and city is a big deal and Denver is finally starting to embrace a connectivity that there hasn’t been in the past. Regardless if Butler and Thomas have only joked about playing together in Denver as friends, it doesn’t mean that Butler would be opposed to it happening.
This is huge for the Nuggets because it would mean that they could trade for Butler and feel pretty good about him committing to the team long-term. Something he is unwilling to do at this time with Minnesota.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) July 13, 2018
Of course, Butler will be eligible for more money with the Timberwolves next summer, so the move makes financial sense for him. This hasn’t been the first rumbling of discontent with the Timberwolves organization, though.
Whether it’s Butler being upset with the “nonchalant” attitude of the young Timberwolves or liking Instagram comments about him joining the Spurs, there’s no shortage of speculation regarding his departure from Minnesota.
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— Bleacher Report NBA (@BR_NBA) July 10, 2018
The other difference between Jimmy and Kawhi is that Butler would likely come at a more reasonable price where the Nuggets could either start with a Millsap package, or more likely one including multiple young assets and a player like Mason Plumlee to match salary.
The problem with either of those trades would be the lack of depth at center and consistent talent at power forward in the immediate. It seems clear that the Nuggets have their long-term plans in place for those positions with Welsh set to become the eventual backup center along with a lot of confidence in players like Trey Lyels and Jarred Vanderbilt to fill the power forward slots.
It could also make more sense for the Nuggets to consider trading Gary Harris, for either, player from a rotation standpoint. Especially in trading for Butler, being able to play Porter at the 3 and Butler at the 2 would be more ideal. The question is if giving up on Harris’ advantage of youth and chemistry already developed with this team is worthwhile. If Harris isn’t a part of the trade, MPJ is slotted into the 4 position again for the future giving the Nuggets no shortage of firepower, but still questions about new roles.
Ignoring the trade possibilities to acquire Butler, the Nuggets could gamble and shed Paul Millsap after the season by declining his team option. That move combined with trading Mason Plumlee could theoretically open up cap space to sign Butler outright if he were to decline his player option. There’s a lot of risk there and as we’ve seen with Paul George and the Lakers, it’s sometimes best to act while mutual interest outweighs the player’s current situation. Whether there is interest from the Nuggets, however, remains to be seen.
Butler is coming off of four straight all-star seasons in which he has produced at a high level offensively and defensively. He’s scored more than 20 points per game each of the last four seasons while also never having a defensive rating above 110, something only three Nuggets accomplished last season (Jokic, Millsap, and Plumlee). Butler would certainly contribute what the Nuggets are looking for, but it could also end up being more of a lateral move.
Acquiring either player would be a welcome defensive improvement, and getting one of the stars in their prime is nothing to think of lightly. Would a move like this work out like the Warriors signing Kevin Durant or would it be the ultimate doing too much move that disrupts and sets the Nuggets back? As interesting at the moves could be, my gut tells me that inorganically breaking up a team built on continuity, before it even gets started, seems like the wrong direction.