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Nikola Jokić is 28 years old. Jamal Murray is 26. Michael Porter Jr. will be 25 later this week. Aaron Gordon will be 28 around the start of next season’s training camp.
Because of the collective youth that makes up their core group, the Denver Nuggets are in a unique position to try to put together a long championship window. The hard work is done after winning a title earlier this month, showering himself with champagne and earning the banner that will be raised to the Ball Arena rafters on ring night in October. But now comes the harder part: Staying on top of the mountain while a series of challengers aim to knock them down from a high perch.
On the field, these matches will be played in the autumn. But off the court, those battles started last week during the NBA Draft and will continue for the next month as we head into free agency.
What the Nuggets have going for them, compared to past champions, is a core group of players in their prime or just entering it. What they have going against them, compared to former champions, is a brand new collective bargaining agreement designed to discourage teams from financially backing the Brinks truck. This will not be a repeat of the Golden State Warriors dynasty. You simply cannot spend as they did.
As such, general manager Calvin Booth and the Nuggets front office will have to get creative on the sidelines. They will have to spend wisely. They will have to draw well. And they’ll potentially have to replace the valued veteran leadership at the end of the bench with guys who are just as good in the locker room. That part – the often unsaid part – won’t be easy.
“Our primary goal is to make sure we do everything we can to ensure sustainability,” Booth said Athletics in a phone interview on June 25. “Our best players, we believe their best years are ahead of them. We have young guys on the bench that we believe are ready for an opportunity. And in a perfect world, we bring Bruce Brown back in free agency.”
The Nuggets were busy during last week’s draft selecting three players, two of whom may actually have a path to rotation minutes if things go right for them. In Julian Stawther, the Nuggets took a first-round flyer at No. 29 overall on the very archetype that went a long way toward winning them a title: a two-way wing out of Gonzaga who defends, shoots it well and does a little bit of everything offensively .
At No. 32 with Jalen Pickett, the Nuggets traded for the draft rights to a big, crafty and cerebral point guard with a high basketball IQ, the ability to lead a team and the ability to defend. Despite winning a title, Booth said Denver missed Monte Morris, who he had to include in last summer’s trade that brought Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to the Nuggets. Finding someone like Pickett who has many of Morris’ qualities was a priority. They snagged the former Penn State star early in the pre-draft process and luckily found a way to snag him on draft night. Expect the Nuggets to sign Pickett to a multi-year contract, with guaranteed years and money included in the deal.
At No. 37, the Nuggets also traded for Hunter Tyson, the former Clemson star and one of the better shooters in the draft. He endeared himself to the Nuggets with a great pre-draft workout. He’s someone who can stretch the floor, which is what you want around Jokić to deter opponents from double teams.
The Nuggets are starting to take steps to try to stay on top of the NBA championship mountain
What Denver is doing is trying to marry the two timelines in an effort to keep their title window open while adding talent to the roster through the draft, especially since there’s a decent chance they’ll be tapped financially in free agency agency. There are constants with the three new guys. They are all older and more mature freshmen, a trait shared with incoming second-year player Christian Braun. They are all good shooters. They all have positional size, length and versatility at multiple positions.
This is something the Golden State Warriors are trying to do, with mixed results. They were able to develop Jordan Poole to the point where he was a major contributor to a title team. But they drafted James Wiseman No. 2, and he has since been traded to the Detroit Pistons. They took Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody in the top half of the first round, but neither has really taken off yet. And now, trading Poole represents a bit of a shift in philosophy for Chris Paul.
So the Nuggets are trying to strike that balance. They have age on their side, as their core isn’t nearly as much of an old guard as Golden State’s. But what the Warriors have been through shows that the philosophy and practice is not easy. That’s a big reason why Booth has developed maturity and experience. He wants guys who are as ready to play as possible.
“Jalen is a unique player,” Booth said. “He had a lot of success in college. He has legit size and the ability to switch to a point guard. He’s a very good defender. I love the way Julian played this year. He played for a great program at Gonzaga. He has also very good positional size and the ability to make shots from all over the floor. Hunter plays with an incredible motor. He has legitimate size for a wing.”
As free agency looms, the Nuggets have a significant question to answer with Brown, who was their sixth man and so valuable to their title run. Booth told Athletics that Denver will do everything in its power to bring Brown back next season. But the Nuggets are limited without Brown’s Bird rights in what they can offer him. If another team beats the projected $7.8 million first-year salary that Denver can put on the table, it could be difficult to retain him.
Still, the Nuggets should look much the same next season as Booth looks to bring back some of the veterans that made the championship a possibility. Denver also expects bigger things from Braun next season as he became an integral part of Michael Malone’s rotation by the end of the playoffs. The Nuggets are also counting on an uptick in Peyton Watson, who will be in his second season and has shown some traits defensively and athletically that are hard to teach. Collin Gillespie also factors into Denver’s plans as the Nuggets try to bolster the guard with enough young talent to create an assembly line of sorts for the top of the guard.
It’s definitely a balancing act. But the timelines are actually closer together than some previous champions. And as Jokić and Murray enter the primes of their careers, the front office is doing everything it can to make sure they have enough talent around them to stay atop the mountain they finally reached.
(Photo by Calvin Booth: Ron Chenoy / USA Today)
(Top photo: Ron Chenoy-USA Today Sports)